What the Hell am I doing here?

It is the end of 1992. I am sitting in a hallway in Santa Clara University, waiting for the door to the examination room to open. I have been sitting there since 7:00 a.m. It is now 8:25 and the test is due to begin in five minutes. My eyes are fighting hard to close, but I don’t let them. If I drift into sleep right now, I’ll be too groggy and unable to think during the test. I’m preparing myself for it. The results will determine whether or not I can be considered for the UCSD’s doctorate program in Philosophy and Cognitive Sciences. If they are too low, all my previous work will come to nothing.

It has been almost eight years since I left my country, where I was doing my first year of college and volunteering to help the children of the war refugees in San Jose de la Montaña learn to read and write. Eight years ago, I was saying goodbye to my friends, and the group I had formed to study Magick, mysticism, and spiritual discipline. I was saying goodbye to my sacred tools and my books, the ones buried under a palm tree in the house we lost––buried so they wouldn’t be found and burnt by the authorities. Goodbye to the UCA, the Jesuit university where I dreamt with graduating and maybe teaching in later years. Goodbye to the job as assistant journalist for ECCA, a periodical dealing with analysis of the social, economic, and political realities of Central America. There, I was in charge of reading the newspapers and radio transcripts of the five countries that form Central America for all items referring to the economy of the region, and then summarizing the most important points for our main editor. I had gotten this job even though I was just a first year student, by impressing Professor Beneke, my philosophy teacher, with the way in which I could synthesize and regurgitate the main points in her class. She set up an interview with the German editor in charge of the publication. He told me his command of German was not as good as his command of spanish, because German was the language his parents spoke when they didn’t want the children to understand. He pulled out a huge volume of a doctoral disseratation and gave me two hours to summarize. I couldn’t read it all in time, so I went through the main body and skimmed to the beginning and end of chapters, paying more attention to summaries and conclusions. He said it was good, that I had missed some key elements but that he could work with me and I’d only get better.

Eight years before, I said goodbye to the volcano and my grandmother, to my sister and the girl who took my thoughts in the day and returned them in sleepless nights. I said goodbye to all the people, but only said “hasta luego” to the revolution and the mystical path that had uplifted my spirit and focused my moral compass. After all, I did not want to leave for ever. “Six months in the United States, tops,” I told myself. Six months to get away from the imminent threat in my country. Six months to hide from the death squads. Six months, that was the deal I made with my older brother, Atilio, the one who had become an impressive warrior and guerrilla commander. But work, life, and necessity intervened, and the 6 months stretched to 8 years to accommodate a family, a daughter, a college career, a life.

Eight years before siting in this cold hallway, hungry and sleepy, watching the rich students in this excellent Jesuit university walking down the hallway with warm stomachs and full rest, complaining about all the things they have to do and how early their class is. I was their age eight years ago. It had taken me this long to finally graduate from college. Things didn’t go as planned. I didn’t graduate in four years, didn’t get a post-graduate scholarship to a socialist country, didn’t teach philosophy, and didn’t contribute further to the revolution. My esoteric group never heard from me again, and many other friends wondered if I had disappeared in the trunk of a Cherokee Suburban, if I lied anonymously in an unmarked grave, or if by any luck I had taken arms and went to war against the oppressor. I didn’t stay here for only six months.

Eight years ago I was getting the visa from the American Embassy, and booked my flight where I had my first screwdriver––my first 8 screwdrivers. Where I saw my mom and dad and little brothers again, after a couple of years in exile themselves. Where my mom got sad because, even though I dressed up in a suit to show respect for the airplane crew and the people of this country when I arrived, I looked emaciated to her, with my meager 120 lbs. inside a light blue suit. I arrived with a few clothes, one book of yoga Mario had given me, and a wooden box.

“Do you want to see my treasure?” I asked Carlitos, my little brother who followed me into the room where we would sleep now in my aunt’s house in Echo Park. He smiled widely, and his sweet honeyed eyes opened more when I pulled out the box. Of all the things I left behind, I chose this one to bring with me. It was the tarot deck my father had given me when I entered high school. “I will never learn this, but I think you will,” he told me. I was so happy to open this mystery, and to unveil it in my hands all night long, seeing the strangely familiar figures tell me tales of initiatic import, the story of my soul through this life.

I would get a job a week after that. All the things I had done meant noting now. No education, research, or ability other than the uttering or meaningless phrases in a difficult language. I learned to take care of the elderly, to wash them, feed them, change them, and help the nurses. I got two full time jobs doing this, and a part time for the weekends. I worked hard to learn the language, always dreaming with finishing my philosophy degree, but dreaming harder with going back to my country.

I moved up to Daly City with my friend Juan. There, I attempted to go to a community college to get back to my studies. I also kept working at a convalescent hospital. The battle with depression and alienation continued, and I dropped out, unable to keep up with work and study in a foreign land. I was hard on myself, I didn’t know about depression and PTSD, about the unfairness of demanding the same level of performance now that I was out of my element. I moved many times, got married, had a beautiful daughter, and worked hard to be able to work at a school as a teacher’s aide. I also attempted to get into college many times, and dropped out of community colleges each time, unable to understand why. All of this before my 22nd birthday. Finally, when I was 24, I heard that I could apply directly to Santa Clara University without having to finish a community college program. “But I couldn’t afford a private university,” I told the young recruiter that had come to Canada College. “There are many scholarships for the right student,” he said. Something turned on in me. I didn’t occur to me to ask what the right student was. I knew this was for me to do. Shortly after the decision was made, the army of El Salvador, under the cover of doing battle with an insurrection erupting in the capital city, where many good and dear friends died, had entered the UCA and assassinated its director, Ignacio Ellacuria, four other priests who taught there, their cook, and her 15 year old daughter. These had been my teachers, and I had long ago hoped they’d be, one day, my colleagues. On a whim, I borrowed a hand-held recorder and conducted an interview with the Salvadoran consul, and with the director of Santa Clara University, because the Jesuits had been his colleagues and friends. I published an article with these interviews in the local paper, and somehow this made me promise to myself that I would finish what I had started back in El Salvador.

I enrolled, then, in Santa Clara. It felt good to be back with Jesuits. I felt among friends again, even if I couldn’t make many friends among the student population. The distance was vast. They were busy fighting for the traditions of a “Greek life” and complaining about the service of their cafeteria, about the classes being too early and the curriculum too hard. I was loving the curriculum, and would have loved the cafeteria food if I could afford a meal plan. I begun to realize the reason I kept dropping out of community colleges was that it was too boring. I needed the intellectual challenge. They allowed me to enroll in seminar classes, usually reserved for juniors and seniors.  I was promptly invited to the honors program, and a few honors societies. Just the week before today, I had been accepted in the Phi Betta Kappa society, which they tell me is very prestigious, but I have no idea why, or what to do with that. Last month, I finished a paper on artificial intelligence for the National Endowment for the Humanities, for which they gave me a grant of $5000. I know exactly why that is important, and what to do with that money.

It hadn’t been easy, of course. This morning, I drove from work, slapping myself to stay awake and driving while hallucinating after an all-night shift. I haven’t been able to eat since noon yesterday, because I was too tired to get up 20 minutes earlier to eat before going to work. This was the routine almost every morning for the past three years. I managed to keep a job as a security guard; in the graveyard shift, so I could read my text-books and write my papers between perimeter rounds. I managed to support my wife and little Xochitl, my cacarica. I learned so much, and I discovered I had a writing voice. I managed to graduate with a straight A, 4.0 GPA, even if every single professor questioned whether I should be taking their class the first day of every higher level class, because, perhaps because my accent, I didn’t seem like the type of person that could manage to comprehend the material. “Maybe you should consider an introductory class first,” they would say. “You can take my seminar, but don’t expect to maintain your GPA,” they would warn in their most friendly and compassionate voice. That was okay. It gave me a chuckle, each time. And each time I reminded myself to sit in the front, to raise my hands, to challenge myself and the teacher, to write more, read more, think more… much more than was expected of me. This was my life, and I loved it.

I didn’t complain; not about hunger, not about difficulties, not about expectations. I was grateful to be here on this cold hard floor, with the echoes of young students walking to way too early classes. I was a little hungry, but not as much now that I just had a cup of coffee I could buy in the cafeteria, and I have just finished a delicious banana that Julia, the Guatemalan cafeteria worker had slipped into my bag without been seen. Julia often gave me a piece of fruit or a muffin whenever I came to the cafeteria, I think happy and proud to see a Central American brother there, one of her own, making it in the midst of privilege. We never talked about anything other than family and weather, but she knew, I know she knew, what it was like to be in this country just to survive. She was a silent angel who blessed me with potassium because there was nothing else she could give.

Because of Julia, my family, my past and the Jesuit order, I am here now, siting in this cold, hard, and lonely hallway. My stomach not so empty, and my heart full. I am awaiting the moment the doors will open and I will take the exam that will decide if I go to graduate school or not. Either way, I have already accomplished much. I take the last bite of Julia’s stolen banana and sip the last of my coffee. I fold the banana peel, knowing that, in five minutes, I’ll be able to demonstrate to people I don’t know that I have the mettle to make it in grad school. I begin to close the lid of the styrofoam cup with the banana peel inside, when a group of young people stand next to me, looking at the list on the wall. It is the list of the people scheduled to take the exam. There are empty lines under the list, for people who wish to take the test but didn’t apply in time. If someone didn’t make it, they would be called into the room. They write their name in, complaining that the sheet is full. There is three of them, two males and one female, all young, all white, all rich. They hope they can make it. They hope they didn’t walk all the way here from their dorms, this early, in vain. They are about to leave, and one of them takes a closer look at the sign-in sheet on the wall. They look at the name on the list, he reads it out loud: “Ricardo Flores…” They start to walk away, they don’t seem to see me, or do a good job of ignoring me. “What the hell is a Ricardo Flores doing in a place like this?”, he asks. The others nod, understanding.

What the Hell, indeed?

Throughout the test, I kept hearing those mocking words. I kept getting flashes of the last 8 years. I kept telling myself to let go of all that, to concentrate on the test. I was too exhausted to fully succeed. I still scored well enough to be invited to UCSD’s Ph.D. program. I scored better than 81% of all other graduate students taking the test that year. “Not enough for Berkeley, but maybe it’ll be good enough for UCSD,” said my thesis advisor. Obviously, all the hard work done before that test prevailed, and I made it through. And making it through is, like any marathon, a very good success indeed.

During the test, I couldn’t take that mocking question out of my mind. “What the Hell is a Ricardo Flores doing here?” It carried in essence what this new land demanded of me.

Twenty-five years later, the sting of that memory has faded away to the background, and what stand out are the eyes of Julia as she slides a stolen banana inside my bag.

3 thoughts on “What the Hell am I doing here?

    1. Yes, Luanne! There so many people doing extraordinary things dressed in ordinary garb. A thoughtless comment can destroy so much, but a thoughtful gesture can be a healing balm for deep wounds.

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