The Autochthonous Spiderman
My mind awakened the day that we moved out of our little earthquake champa. It was the end of October, 1968, and I had just turned three. I recall the smell of rotted cardboard, rusted steel, damp earth; and a sort of metallic taste in my mouth. My ears were full of clanging and yelling—more than the usual din of the barrio—as my father and brothers took apart the corrugated steel panels of our shack, the láminas that were already oxidized and old. It was very nice to think that we were going somewhere. There was light in my memory for the first time, the day we moved to the new place. That was the day my mind opened up.
Early that Sunday morning, about six o’clock, they gave me a bucket and assigned me to pick up every little thing from the dirt around our shack. I remember how it was to be a small girl picking things up, right down to the last bent nail. My sister Ondina was very pregnant, and they put me in charge of her emaciated cat. These were my responsibilities: to take care of the cat and to collect, in an old bucket, every scrap that had been used to construct our hovel. We took every last thing that could possibly be used—even some chunks of concrete that could be of service someplace else. Everything was taken down and loaded onto a big truck to begin a new life. I remember the battered old truck, and the family loading all our household goods onto it. Looking back, I’m surprised to realize the poverty in which we lived.
But this was a new adventure, something different. When we were about to leave, they tossed me up into the cab of the truck together with Mamá. At that moment I didn’t know where we were heading. I only knew that our tiny galvanized steel home had been broken down, and that we had packed up all the pieces. That simple shack had been our family’s shelter for the previous three years—my whole life!
Being so little, at the time I didn’t understand the reasons why we moved. Later I realized that Bernardo, my eldest brother, had begun to have more and more problems with our father. For example, if my brother bought new pants, Diego would take them and sell them. He sold our socks, he sold our clothes—whatever he could get hold of. He would leave these things at a cantina in exchange for a bottle of liquor. Offenses like this caused the problems to get bigger and bigger.
Mamá was always in the middle, and tried to tell my brother that it was a sin to oppose his papá: that he shouldn’t make Diego angry. But Bernardo had become a much bigger man than our father. At times, perhaps in order to knock some reason into him, my brother would grab Diego by the shoulders and shake him. Diego reacted and flicked open the switchblade he kept in his pants. Someone would end up bleeding from a part of his body. It was ugly for us children; we had to get out of the house at these times and not watch how it ended. We’d come back when the yelling stopped and everything had finished, and then we’d see what had happened.
Maybe it’s not good, but Bernardo essentially became our father. He was nineteen years older than me, and he took on all the attributes of a father. Diego put all the responsibility on him. I never blamed my brother for the situations that he had to deal with.
Bernardo always dreamed of being a success. He worked long hours as a shoemaker, from seven o’clock in the morning until seven at night. In those days, one person made the pattern of the shoe and the leather upper, and another person put on the sole. This was my brother’s job: he was called a montador. They paid him for each pair of shoes that he soled.
During this period, just after the Soccer War of 1969, the country enjoyed a lot of freedom. You could go out at ten or eleven at night and nothing would happen to you. And so, after working a twelve-hour day, Bernardo went out to night school, trying to get ahead. After studying he joined some friends and sang in a trio when there were fiestas. He arrived home at two or three in the morning and he didn’t care that he would have to get up early. For this, yes, I can praise my brother. He always wanted us to be different, because he himself wanted to be different.
Bernardo was always busy; the truth was that he wanted to bring a bit of money into the house. At the end of the week he would put six colones into the hand of Mamá. On Sunday morning, he would send one of us out for a liter of milk and a small sack of coffee. He said that we all had the right to drink a little milk. This was the only thing that he achieved, but even today I admire my brother. Of course, there were other things that were not good, and not justified. But Bernardo had no obligation to stay with us, or to support us.
Above all, Bernardo defended Tomasa. My oldest sister had been glad to get back to the city after the earthquake. At fourteen she already wanted to leave the family and go off with her boyfriend, Rey. The truth, I think, is that when you don’t have security in your home, you want to get out. Sadly, we make decisions that later are going to be very detrimental to us. And as Tomasa tried to escape the problems at home, she ran into even worse problems with other people.
During my childhood I never heard of anyone who wanted to go to the university. It was a privilege reserved for upper-middle class people. Everybody in our community thought about working. It didn’t matter what your age—six, seven, eight years old—everyone was anxious to get out of their family’s house and find another way to live. But in the case of women, they were looking for a boyfriend.
Boyfriends are very different in my country. Traditionally, a boyfriend is someone who comes to your house and asks your mother’s permission to visit, and from time to time to give a kiss to his girlfriend—but always under the supervision of the family. And if one day you go out with him, even just to the market to go shopping, you always bring your younger brother as a chaperón because it is not wise for a young couple to be alone.
Tomasa wanted a boyfriend, but not of that kind. She wanted a boyfriend who would offer her the security of someday going away with him. Sadly, my mother and father, due to the way in which they had both been raised, gave her neither the support nor the security that she wanted. When they realized she had a boyfriend they beat her and beat her.
Bernardo was the one who supported Tomasa. He was the one who got involved when she narrowly escaped being killed by the beatings—that were administered mostly by Mamá. He tried to mete out justice within the house, but unfortunately he had to leave for work very early.
One day, when our parents least suspected, Tomasa was revealed to be pregnant. She had to get out of the house, which was something very dicey: although we were poor, other people were even worse off. Her boyfriend, Rey, didn’t like to work. He liked to loaf in the street, watching the women walk by. Tomasa was fifteen, and he was twenty-five. From the moment she got pregnant and left, there began the suffering that she chose for herself. Even today she’s still with him, and says that she’s happy. I hope she really is happy, although the facts say differently. Each of us carves out our own destiny.
My father was very happy outside the house, the friend of the whole neighborhood. Diego acted so nice with all the people outside the family, that any one of them would have said he was a sweet person. Only the next-door neighbors knew the truth: that he was a monster who abused the whole family, including his mother, his siblings, Mamá, and ourselves.
My father’s family was Pipil, and Diego himself was small, delicately made—the classic aborigine of those lands. He looked good, with a strong nose, a small mouth. He had small, almond-shaped eyes, and his eyebrows were very well shaped. His black hair was quite straight, always freshly cut. His skin was dark like mine—not black, but yes, quite dark. Although Diego ate a lot he was always rather thin, perhaps because of the kind of work he did. He was very short of stature, and to look at him you couldn’t tell that he was so strong.
Diego's personality was also very powerful. He was serious in every way. I never saw him talk with anyone in my family, or in the families of my brothers and sisters. He was a very stingy man, and in our house he was always in a bad mood; he only smiled when he was drinking. He could be distinguished by the look in his eye, a look that would have upset me anywhere. It was a look that made everyone uncomfortable.
They called my father the Spiderman because in no time he could weave the most intricate blankets on the big floor loom, the pattern all in his head, his hands and feet flying. For a few years he had a loom in the house, and our one-room metal shack shuddered from morning till night. Diego got up at five o’clock in the morning. At 5:30 he was seated at the rustic wooden loom, making such a racket that all of us had to get up. He got angry if we slept until six in the morning. During the day he stopped work at noon and ate lunch, which took just half an hour. He’d sit at the table, eat what food there was, drink a huacal of fresh water, and then go back to work.
I liked to see how he perched on the long wooden plank, and pushed some little foot pedals that were similar to the ones that cars have—but he had seven, or maybe ten such pedals. I liked to watch the play of his feet and his hands. You could see that it was an art, the way he passed the shuttle from one side to the other between the threads, making whatever blanket that he himself had designed and sketched out. He had tremendous patience to weave all these threads with his own hands. My father could do such complicated things, to me he was a very intelligent man.
Diego stopped his routine at 5:00 in the afternoon. By then he had made ten or twelve blankets—a record among all the weavers. He’d leave a few inches of unwoven threads between one blanket and the next, and with his knife he’d cut them apart freehand—puro pulso. I don’t know how he managed to keep his hand from trembling, and make the cut so straight between the two tightly-stretched blankets. He cut them and folded them, and that’s when our own work began.
We children had to tie off all the strings along the edges so that the blanket wouldn’t unravel. We called this mayar. We had to tie off all twelve blankets he had made that day. Each one of us was responsible for three or four blankets every afternoon, and we worked from 5:30 until 7:00 or 8:00. We couldn’t go to bed without finishing the job.
During the periods when he was drinking, Diego would finish work and pour water over his head, then put on his zoot suit. He was a pachuco—a snappy dresser. He liked to dress in light colored pants that were very tight at the waist and had pleats at the front. He wore long-sleeved red shirts with a little pocket, and a big jacket with huge shoulders that made him look even smaller. He always had to go out looking good, and since he had only one change of clothes, Mamá was obliged to iron this outfit for him.
He worked in some old shoes, and to go out of the house he changed into shiny black patent leather ones. He’d cinch his tight black belt, comb back his hair full of Vaseline, and off he’d go into the street. He’d head for the center of the villa to be with his friends, to chat and to dance with his women. Mamá said that when she met him he would do a type of dance called danzón. That was his habit every day.
He had to walk very far, because it was a long way to go out to the places where he danced. But this was his life, and thus he was happy. When he came back to the house, around 11:00 or 12:00 at night, there would be no happiness. He was a vicious drunk, and called Mamá vile names as he beat her. He called her puta, whore.
Diego never had time for us, and never asked us how we were. When he was younger, they say that he tried to stop drinking three or four times. He was explosive when he was detoxifying. He might be off liquor for three months or six months, but during this time he was the angriest man in the world. Eventually he started drinking and drinking, and didn’t try to stop again.
Whenever one of my brothers approached thirteen or fourteen years of age, Diego would bully him and harass him until he drove the boy out of the house, to make his way in the world alone. This had happened with Walter and then Santiago and then Zaquéo. Zaquéo had fallen into drug addiction, and by now was the friend of all the thieves in downtown San Salvador.
One day Alfredo, the brother next older than me, said to him, “Papá, I want you to tell me why you don’t love us." He was ten years old, and I was only seven.
Alfredo said it openly: “Why don’t you love us? What have we, your children, done to you? Every time one of us grows up, you hate us. You beat us until you drive us out of this house. Now my turn is coming. Why do you treat me this way?”
And this was my own question as well.
It was shocking to see my father begin to cry as he started telling us about his life. No, his life had not been easy. I understood, and my brother understood—because we lived a life that was pretty much as desperate as his own had been. But when he finished his tale, the answer to my brother’s question was very clear.
Our father told us the sad story of his mother—a single woman, young, a widow with five children—thrown out into the street. She and her children had to sleep on street corners or wherever night found them. They were completely abandoned to misery and scorned by everyone—after they had been the proud owners of a large workshop in the town. Now even the people they had employed looked down on them. They were reduced to eating little birds that they killed on the road, or wild animals. The oldest child was only eleven years old, and the last was barely two. It was an extremely cruel life, but only one turn of life’s wheel.
My abuela told the story as well, when I would visit her as a child. She’d sit on an old bench in a little mesón whose adobe walls were shared with the walls of the neighbors’ houses. She’d sit there and relate her sorrows, the story of how her life had changed.
My father was born in 1921, I believe, so this happened around 1925. The family lived in San Marcos and later in Santo Tomas, very close to the capital. Of course, at that time it seemed far away because people had to travel on foot or on horseback. But relatively speaking, it was not far.
Diego was one of the youngest of five brothers. His mamá and papá were indigenous Pipiles of the place, and they lived very well. They had everything, but everything, that they needed to be happy. In San Marcos they were the owners of a very large workshop where they wove blankets. They owned a dozen looms, and employed twenty-four men to weave on them, in two shifts. There were also three or four men who prepared the thread, and three servants in the household. Thus my grandparents employed about thirty people. My abuelo Juan dedicated himself to the business and traveled a lot, exporting blankets to Guatemala. My abuela was the one who stayed and ran the workshop. We never knew exactly what the grandmother’s real name was. Some called her Celestina, others called her Valentina. In any case, when I was a child we called her Mama Tina. She was the lady of the house.
My grandparents had gotten together when they were very young, only thirteen or fourteen years old. They had converted to evangelical Christianity; around 1899 their parents had been founders of la Misión Centroamericana in El Salvador, which still exists. The pair had fallen in love, an eternal romance—because after my father there came yet another baby. This couple ended up with five sons: my uncles Otoniel, Oséas, Rutilio, then my papá, and then uncle José. And they lived in a time of relative tranquility.
Their enormous house in the town of San Marcos had a fine portal and a big patio in front. They had everything that an upper-middle class child could want. They had a mother who was there with them twenty-four hours a day, and above all a very loving father—a father who brought back something new for each of his children after every visit. When he was in town, Juan took them to church. They had everything, but everything, and wanted for nothing.
But one day, no one knows why, everything changed. Juan had returned from a trip to Guatemala, and during the trip something had gone wrong. Or perhaps everything had always been wrong, but they didn’t know it. They were little children—Diego was barely five years old.
That day, a strange gypsy woman came to town. She didn’t dress like the people of the place, but wore lots of chains and necklaces around her neck, and a headscarf with little silver crosses hanging down from threads all across her forehead. She had a colorful blouse that she wore hanging down over one shoulder, and a very full skirt with a bright shawl tied around her hips. There were gold-colored chains with little bells on them hanging down from her belt.
This woman entered the family’s house—she came boldly right into the patio and called my grandfather by his name. In her strange dialect of Spanish she called out, “Juan de Leon! I come to tell you your future. I’m telling you so that you will be prepared for this.”
And how did the woman know what his name was?
My abuelo got very angry, because his Christian beliefs did not permit him to listen to this type of woman. And so he said, “Get out of here. I’m not going to listen to what you say. Go away.” And he began to push the woman, to throw her out of his property.
They say that the woman wouldn’t leave. She stood outside at the entrance of the big house and said, “You know that I can curse you. I’m going to curse you and you will die. And as for all of the evil that your life has provoked—your children will see it all!” She said a lot of things that my father, Diego, who was only five years old, couldn’t understand.
That Sunday afternoon abuelo Juan went to take a vitamin that was very foul, something that everybody took at that time, called cod liver oil. I took a spoonful once as a girl, and the taste was horrible. So that Sunday my abuelo said, “Diego, it’s time to take the vitamin.” And they walked over to a big window. It was perhaps five o’clock in the afternoon on a sweltering day, when my grandfather stood in the window and sat Diego on the windowsill. Since in that time they did not have panes of glass or anything, it was just a window that opened with two shutters. My papá sat there as my grandfather took out the spoonful of oil to give him.
But abuelo Juan had a coughing attack. He began to cough and cough, and the strange thing is that he coughed up phosphorus. It was as though he had eaten the red phosphorous heads of many matchsticks, and this is what he coughed up. The red clots were splashed on the floor, on the clay tile. He was very surprised and said, “This—what’s this?” He called to his wife, “Celestina, come here!”
Mama Tina came out. She was young, perhaps twenty-five years old at that time. She said, “What has happened here? What’s this?”
They pushed at the red clots with a stick and Juan said, “How is it that I had phosphorus inside me?” Looking back, I can see now that it must have been coagulated blood.
According to the beliefs in our country, when you spit something strange out of your body, you need to pick it up and throw it into the fire. You have to burn it. Celestina and Juan believed that witchcraft existed. And at that time there was a lot of evil; people were often jealous of their neighbors and wanted to cause an infection. So if someone spat up worms or other ugly things, they had to burn these things to put an end to the evil. This is a belief, and that’s what they did.
Strangely, the next day Juan did not want to go out. He seemed to fall into a depression. Along with the depression, strange things begin to happen that the abuelo would never, never talk about. We don’t understand even today because he never explained, neither to his wife nor to his children. But he began to feel sick, and from then on he did nothing at all. Maybe he had tuberculosis. Mama Tina had been dependent on her husband for everything. She was tremendously surprised that he no longer traveled.
One day, about a month into Juan's illness, the worst thing happened, and the wife and children were very anguished and surprised. A man came and told them that abuelo Juan had sold the house. He had come for the house, and the family had to get out immediately. The man didn’t give them time; he said they had to get out right now.
Mama Tina and the children said, “How could he have sold the house if we know nothing about this?”
“Sorry,” said the man, “but here’s the document. He sold the house about a year ago, and just asked for some time to move out. Well, he hasn’t moved. We want the house and all of you need to vacate.”
What’s so strange is that Juan didn’t talk. He cried. He didn’t say anything, he just cried and cried. And so Mama Tina said, “Where will we go?”
At first the family thought that they would live in the weaving workshop, because with the dozen looms it was very big; the largest workshops in the vicinity had only six or eight looms. But not even one month had passed when other people came and said that the workshop had been sold, too, along with everything that was inside.
Out of nowhere people began to come and take away the looms. Some of them took two, some took three. They would say, “Señor Juan has sold us these looms.” And the abuelo didn’t say anything. The people just took the looms and went off with them. They also took los tornos, the spinning wheels. Mama Tina was very worried. When she tried to sell the raw materials that they would make the blankets from, it turned out that Juan had already sold that, too. Now that I am old, I have started to think that perhaps abuelo Juan had borrowed money, using his equipment as collateral. This is what I believe now, looking back.
It was the biggest surprise in Mama Tina’s life—a life filled with everything—that from one day to the next she had nothing. She asked a thousand questions of her husband, questions that were never answered. At the end she saw that they were left with nothing—because all of the contents had been sold, the buildings along with everything that was inside. What had he left to his children? Nothing.
And the other question remained, of course: What had he done with the money? She never, never knew.
The company that had bought the land from the finca had cut down every single one of the trees. As a result there was grass, but not a single place where you could shelter from the sun; all day we had to bear its intensity. There was nothing at all near Bernardo’s place—no place to wash, no water to drink, absolutely nothing at all! To go to the bathroom, we would run off to the lots farther away and do our business.
But we kids didn’t care. We were free! The tractors had scraped and terraced the land somewhat, but there still weren’t many neighbors. We had complete freedom to run and jump and play in the uninhabited areas. Sometimes we went along with adults to wash things in the springs before they emptied into the dirty river. There wasn’t much crime at that time, so we played till nightfall with some other children we met.
Perhaps it wasn’t very pretty, but you feel different living out in nature rather than in a barrio where you feel hemmed in all the time. Something in nature helps us. Out here we had the liberty to run and play, and come back at mealtime hoping for food—although in our house there might be nothing.
Thus they found themselves ruined, fallen into poverty. Mama Tina said, “Let’s go to my cousin Natalio.” He was a fisherman in a little village called Asino, on the beach at Lago de Ilopango. And so they headed for the casería where Mama Tina had grown up.
There must have been a little money left because they filled three two-wheeled carts with their personal goods, and hitched up the oxen to pull them. They had to haul abuelo Juan in one of the carts because he couldn’t even move anymore. It took them about six weeks to journey from San Marcos to Asino. They could only travel about three hours a day because there was only Mama Tina to manage the animals and care for her deathly ill husband plus the four small children and the baby. They sold things along the way, in order to live. And by the time they reached the shores of Lago de Ilopango they had only a single cart hauled by the two oldest boys. Mama Tina had sold everything, and she was left with only two dresses.
They made their way to the rustic little cabin of Natalio. This cousin had grown up with Mama Tina and they were almost of the same age. Natalio had as wife a lady who was called Martina. All of them had known each other since they were children—Juan, Celestina, Natalio, and Martina. And they were all cousins.
Natalio welcomed them and gave them a place to live. He even helped take care of Juan, who was very, very sick.
Mama Tina tried and tried to get Juan to tell her what he had done with the money. Had he bought another place, or what? But her husband never said. He just turned toward the wall and wept from the guilt of leaving his children with nothing. At the end his body was so thin that his eyes couldn’t even close. This is why I think he had tuberculosis.
They say that Juan only lasted for two or three months. The money ran out, and then all their provisions ran out. Mama Tina said that there were days when she was so angry with her husband that she would scream, “Where is our money? Tell me where you put it, because you cannot leave me helpless with five children! Where is the money?” But abuelo Juan just cried.
A moment came when the abuelo said to her, “Celestina, I free you from your marriage vow.” This is what my grandfather said when he was dying. “I free you from the marriage promise because you have to support our children. You may even need to prostitute yourself to support my children, because I don’t have anything to leave to you.” He did not say this meanly, simply recognizing the facts.
The reaction of Mama Tina—they say that Pedro was reduced to a skeleton, but she jumped on top of him and slapped his face. She said to him, “What did you do with our money? Juan, what did you do? You have left me here in the middle of nowhere, and what will I do if I don’t have anything to give my children to eat?” The situation was very ugly.
The son of Tío Natalio wanted to make a coffin for Juan, the coffin in which he would be buried. Juan wanted to see the coffin before he died. But Tío Natalio said to him, “How can we make you something nice if we don’t have any money?” And so they cut down a pine tree to get the wood. They finished the coffin at night, and the abuelo died in the morning.
They said—and I don’t know if these are beliefs, or what they are. There are mysteries that only God can reveal in the human mind. I will just tell you what my father told me, what the uncles said.
They said that when the grandfather died there was no wake for him. Rather, at the moment he died they had to bury him. Only the people from the community where there, at the most fifteen people. And because he was so skinny and the cemetery was rather close by, a man said, “I will carry el maistro Juan myself.”
The man put the coffin up on his shoulders and he carried it. And so they went to bury the abuelo, with a single person carrying him over his shoulders. They walked through many neighboring roads, but there were moments when the coffin suddenly became very heavy and the man fell.
How was it that initially this man could lift up the coffin with maistro Juan in it, and then later it became very heavy and he fell? The coffin became heavy, and the man fell. And when they tried to help him get up, even three or four people couldn’t lift the coffin. How was this possible, when it wasn’t heavy when they started out? It’s a strange point. Take it as you wish.
They say that the grandmother came over and grabbed a belt and cried, “Juan, why did you go away?” And she walloped the coffin with the belt. She turned around and she said, “Why did you go away and leave us in this misery? And now you don’t want to leave? What’s going on with you?” And she walloped the coffin again. They say that she did this twice, and then the coffin became light again, like it didn’t weigh anything. The man lifted it up once again onto his back.
As a girl I said to myself, How is it possible that the coffin became heavy and then light again? But this is what they all said, and this is what I confide to you. It was bad enough that the grandfather died, but there were so many unanswered questions about his death, so many questions in the grandmother’s mind.
Mama Tina never realized that Martina, the wife of her cousin, was also the lover of her husband, Juan. It turned out that he had many lovers. Sometimes Juan would not actually go on a trip; he would just go to be with Tía Martina, who was his cousin, too. Martina would only tell her husband that she was going in to San Salvador. They were going to be together, but my grandmother didn’t know, and Tío Natalio didn’t know. They were all relatives—it was a sordid situation.
In any case, three days after Señor Juan died, the strangest things in the world began to happen in Tío Natalio’s house. It was a little cabin made of old wood and who knows what. People nail the boards together when they’re green, and then the wood dries and shrinks. For this reason there are gaps in the walls between the boards. Everyone was in the house that night when suddenly a kind of fog crept in between the boards. Suddenly the fog became my abuelo! A couple of days passed, and Tía Marina and Tío Natalio could see him, sometimes in the light of day or sometimes at night. But his wife didn’t see him, nor did the little children who were present.
And so Tío Natalio said to the ghost, “Juan, what are you doing here? You died, and we went and buried you! What are you doing?”
Abuelo Juan was there in the house, and Natalio said, “Celestina, here is Juan, right over there!” And he told my abuela that she should come and look and see him. He said that Juan's spirit was crying, and that even though she didn’t see him, he was listening to the reproaches that she had made against him.
Early that Sund
But the most terrible thing happened during the night. Tío Natalio was a fisherman, and he had to go fishing at night, until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. Mama Tina slept in one bed with her five children. Tía Martina didn’t have children, she slept alone in her old bed. They said that sometimes Mama Tina would wake up because there was a lot of noise in Martina’s old bed.
One night Tía Martina was lying there as though she were dead, and Mama Tina said, “What is that noise?” She lit the candle and said, “Martina, what’s going on?”
Martina was terrified. She said, “Juan is underneath my bed and he won’t leave me in peace. He’s beating and beating my bed. He wants to sleep with me.” She said to Mama Tina, “Please send over one of those little bichos.”
So Mama Tina sent one of her little sons over to Martina’s bed, and then Juan didn’t bother her. When my father or one of his brothers was sleeping with the tía, there was no problem.
But one terrible night Mama Tina was half awake, half asleep, and she started to cry. What would she do with her life? Suddenly she felt very cold and she said, “What is this terrible cold that has come upon me?” She was sleeping in the midst of all her sons, and they say that she turned over and there was abuelo Juan! There he was standing up next to the bed, the spirit of her dead husband looking at her! Mama Tina was shocked.
Juan said to her, “Celestina, I just wanted to look at my children.”
And she felt so upset to see this specter that she said, “Go away, in the name of God! Go away!”
"I will always take care of you,” said the spirit of Juan.
But Mama Tina said, “How can you possibly take care of me?”
Eventually Martina confessed to her that Juan was coming because he had been her lover. After learning about this evil the abuela remained there only two more days, and then she fled with her children. This was something that my papá cried about to remember.
My father said how sad it was to arrive in a neighboring town and start sleeping in doorways. The family began to look dirty and ragged, and Mama Tina kept looking for a place where she could work. She finally found a place where they were making tortillas. It was in the entryway of a big house belonging to some rich people. There was a huge portal that protected them from the rain.
The family passed about two months sleeping in that place, but with the harsh weather, the work, and the way that they were living, Mama Tina developed a big hump on her back. And with that big growth there came a terrible fever. Now she couldn’t work and they didn’t have anything to eat.
My grandmother became very thin, and she cried because the two older boys had already gone away. They left to see if they could find some work. One had been taken in by a bakery, and the other got work on a finca, but they didn’t give him permission to leave. It was very hard because there she was alone with little Rutilio, my father Diego, and the baby that was only two years old.
My father cried when he talked about seeing his mamá contorted with the terrible fever. Finally someone encouraged him to go to Tío Natalio. The tío gave Diego some shamanic medicine. He had to go and kill a black dog and use the lard of the dog. They made it into a special soup to get rid of the enormous hump on my grandmother’s back.
One day the people who owned the big house came out and saw Diego crying because his mother was sick. There were two young women, a young man, and the old people. They came out to see about this little boy who was crying, expecting to get rid of him. But when they saw the situation they were silenced by compassion. At that time there was not so much poverty in those places, and so the people took them in. They gave Mama Tina and her children a servant’s room and they themselves took care of her. They provided food for her and for the children as well, because they had lots of money. Soon Mama Tina wanted to go away, but they told her no: here they had a roof, and the children didn’t have to go out into the streets. They lived for a time very comfortably there.
Mama Tina began to feel good. She was very pretty and had a nice figure. They used to say that my grandmother was a mulata. She was muy negrita, so maybe she was part African. They called her mulatía, perhaps because she was very short, like ourselves. I remember that my grandmother was very thin. She had no belly and no hips. Her body was very well formed. She had long black hair, with almost no gray—and I knew her when she was about eighty years old. And so when she was young, she was very good to look at. Mama Tina became the servant of those people, and the family had three meals a day.
One day her older sons appeared, saying, “Mamá, now they are paying us as apprentices.” And here he was, Otoniel, the older one from the finca. He came, he brought fruit, rice, beans, and then went back to work. And the other son, Oséas, was an apprentice in a bakery. He came by every morning, bringing the burnt bread for their breakfast. So this was a time when they could recuperate a little bit from the bad times.
However, Mama Tina made a mistake. The son of the family liked her, and had a love affair with her. It was a very nasty situation, because when the young man came to sleep with her, Mama Tina hid her children under the bed. Her sons were angry because she wanted to have sexual relations with the man, and they had to sleep on the ground. The boys were on the floor, and she was in the bed with the man. She put the baby on the floor, too.
The young man was a student at that time. Every night he stole the best food from his family’s kitchen to bring to Mama Tina and her children, because he didn’t have a job. But the children were upset at the preference she showed for him. As for my father, anger and hatred against his mother grew in him because she did this, so that she could stay with the man.
Before long Mama Tina realized that she was pregnant, and so she left the place. She never told anyone, neither my papá nor his brother Rutilio. And so they left. They went to rent a little room and Mama Tina continued to work, making tortillas, making food—whatever there was. Her belly was growing, but since she wore an apron no one noticed.
The surprise came one night—Boom! Mama Tina had her baby. Neither of the two older sons, who were twelve and thirteen years old, had realized that she was pregnant. So in the morning, when young Oséas came to bring the bread, there was his mother with the new baby.
“And whose baby is this, Mamá?” he asked. “Who is this child?”
“Ah, Oséas, It’s mine!”
“It’s yours, Mamá? Usted anda de picara? Have you been doing things you shouldn’t have been doing?”
“Oh, my son…”
"Okay, Mamá,” he said. “You can manage with my brothers. You can have relationships with whomever you like. But now you can stay alone.” And the two older boys cut off the help they had given her. They never returned to see her, until many years later.
From then on, the younger boys had to take care of the baby while their mother made tortillas to sell. Very soon the tortilla stand closed, and then Mama Tina didn’t know where she could go to work.
At this point a certain woman came to see her—Macaria. She was the bruja of the town, a witch of the evil arts. She was not an indigenous witch, nor a Christian witch. In our country, when you talk about a witch you’re talking about someone who does evil things. There are some people we call curanderos blancos, like white healers or white witches, but that’s not these people. These are brujas. When I talk to you about a bruja, it’s because they do evil things.
People had told Mama Tina that Macaria was bad, but the woman said, “Celestina, I can give you work.” She came and she said that the abuela should come away with her. The work was at night, and it was related to witchcraft—not things she should have been doing. The bruja told her, “You’re just going to prepare herbs. You’re going to do what I tell you, and I will do everything else.”
So my abuela went away with her because she needed money. Mama Tina learned how to do things that are not good. In fact, my mamá knew about the rituals that the grandmother sometimes did. I will tell you a couple of the rituals that impressed my mother.
When he was a child, Bernardo had a little dog, Bambi. One day Bambi disappeared. After three days had passed, Mama Tina told him, “Go and buy me un jarrito—a new clay pot—and we will call back the dog.”
So Bernardo went out and bought the jarrito, and he watched how the abuela began. Mama Tina brought the pot to each corner of the room, and then she concentrated all the energy in the middle. Calling into the pot, she called the dog. She did this at noon, because this ritual must be done at noon. And then, she smashed the pot.
At three o’clock that afternoon, Bambi arrived. But here’s the strangest thing of all: It seems that a car had hit the dog, and crushed his hind legs. When Bambi arrived he was dragging himself along with just his front two legs. He arrived just in time to die on the threshold of the house.
The abuela said to Bernardo, “I called your dog home.”
And Mamá said, “How can this be? This is impossible!”
I’ll tell you one more ritual. Years later, Mamá did not want to have more children. She already had nine, so she went to the abuela for help.
The abuela told her, “Alma, say the Our Father!”
While Mamá prayed, the grandmother prepared some avocado pits pierced with wires in the form of a cross, and marked them with the initial A for Alma. She put in some other things as well, but Mamá never told me what they were. Finally the grandmother put the avocado pits into a clay pot and said, go and bury this in a certain place. (I don’t remember where.)
So Alma went and buried it. After that, time went by and my mother did not get pregnant again—not until that plot of land was disturbed. Alfredo, my next older brother, is three years older than me—there’s a big difference in our ages. And that’s because the charm worked. But then one day someone was constructing something in that place. The earth and the pot were moved, and the avocado pits fell out. And so—out I came, too!
After leaving the witch, Mama Tina had a whole succession of men. One was a butcher. Diego learned from him how to kill cows. You cut the jugular and drink the hot blood from the animal. My father said this gives you a lot of energy. Then there was a man who beat Diego with a whip, and taught him construction. As soon as he was able, Diego left his mother to go to a weaving workshop like the one his father had owned; you could sleep under the loom. In our country there were two principal places for weavers—San Salvador and San Vicente. Eventually Diego separated himself from his mamá and arrived in San Salvador. But all of this is why my father was so angry and had very bad memories of his mother.
In later years the family of the abuela continued to be plagued by monstrous problems. Among other vices, the children of my uncles were incestuous with their sisters, with their mothers.
The strange thing is that Alma, my mother, loved and respected Mama Tina. She cared for her mother-in-law, carried water for her, and cleaned her house so that my cousins, the children of Tío José, could wash. She didn’t do these things for us. But in the end, Mama Tina, my abuela, didn’t love us—because we were children of Diego.
And so my father told this long, sad tale to Alfredo and me. After hearing all this about Diego's life, my brother asked, “But we, your children, why do we have to pay for what happened to you? We are not to blame for what you suffered!”
My father had nothing to answer, and, as was his habit, swore at us and left the house.
I think a person’s environment influences what they become in the future. And so, when I try to understand what can affect people so powerfully that they become as unfeeling as Diego, I try to understand his surroundings and all that happened to him in his childhood. I realize that he had an infernal childhood, full of suffering and sadness, marked by the early death of his father. But sadly, we all saw that he worked out every ounce of his frustration on us.
Many times, from a young age, I told my father that we weren’t to blame for what had happened to him, his past suffering. I told him that we were not his past, but rather his present and his future. I told him that he should try to throw off this obvious resentment.
But all that talk went through him like water through the bottom of a torn sack. From the eldest of my siblings on down to myself, the youngest, we never could get him to understand.
They had set out from San Marcos in three carts with their furniture and belongings, but Mama Tina had sold it all. Now she said, “Where will we go? We have to get out of here because I don’t want to be here, where Juan is. And Juan lives in this house.”
Diego said that when they went along those old roads where only one or maybe two people can pass, his mother went in the front carrying the baby, Tío José. The older brothers, Oséas and Otoniel, followed behind. Mama Tina went ahead carrying her baby, thinking, “What am I going to do?” They walked for days, hunting whatever little animals came across the road. Now there were no carts or anything else. They were practically destitute. All they had were little bundles of clothing.
And so on that bright Sunday, the day when my mind first opened up, I rode along with Mamá high up in the truck. The two of us bounced along those rutted roads full of dust. We came to a place where a bulldozer had recently scraped out a new road, pushing up thick walls of earth about ten feet high on either side of the roadway. This area was still unsettled, and very overgrown. The road cut across a huge old finca of coffee and fruit trees. We skirted some strange abysses and then began to drop down, until finally we reached the skimpy lot that my brother had bought.
We arrived in the Calle las Mulas—Mule Street—at about eight o’clock in the morning. It was called this due to its inaccessibility: only pack animals could pass through that place. It was much further out than the place where we had always lived. Before, we had been very close to the school; we’d been close to everything. Here there were very few houses, and we seemed to be very far away from civilization.
Perhaps I was very stupid, but once I saw the place I couldn’t understand what was going on with my brother. Whether from excitement or from lack of money or experience, Bernardo had chosen a peculiar little plot right at the base of an enormous cliff. The cliff was so tall that I thought it could fall down upon us. But Bernardo said no, it was safe. I don’t know if he believed this from ignorance or from happiness. But this new colonia was very big, and the majority of the lots were still for sale. Why didn’t he choose a lot that was flat? But this was the one he liked, and this is where we came to live. In the coming years the overhanging cliff would cause a lot of problems.
That day I watched Diego, my uncles Otoniel and Oséas, and my brothers and their friends as they cobbled together—in a matter of hours—a very large champa made with sheets of corrugated steel both new and old, scrap wood, and pieces of cardboard. By nightfall it was completed and we had a place where we could sleep. Meanwhile, Mamá made a temporary kitchen out of four bricks and some pieces of wood, and prepared to make soup. But there was no water, nor anything else, close by. We children had to go out and find these things.
Everything was a new discovery. We headed down a dusty path that meandered through the middle of the other lots, to explore the area. Whenever we ran into somebody, we’d ask where we could find some wells or springs that would have water. We had to go and explore very far to find drinking water.
That day we came to know the Río Acelhuate. It was the first time that I saw a river. The banks looked so pretty that we began to run down to them. It would have been a beautiful place, if it had been clean. The river was wide, but sadly, it was completely polluted. This was where all the big factories in San Salvador discharged their chemical waste. Well-to-do residential neighborhoods were perched on the hills that we could just barely see in the distance, and all of their waste water ended up in the river as well.
We children liked the little coves where we could play down by the Río Acelhuate. You couldn’t drink the water of the river itself, nor bathe in it. The earth was white, damp. Strangely, whenever we walked out there we ended up with boots of white mud or dust that came all the way up to our knees. However, there were little wells of fresh water along the hillsides. Spring water came out of the hill and we could drink and bathe in these places. It was exhausting to scramble down the slope to get to the springs where the water was still clean, and later to climb up again with a jug of water on your head. It wasn’t child’s play, but at least it was something new.
Thus time passed, and each day my growing brothers and sisters found it more and more difficult to deal with the machismo of Diego. Eventually the situation became completely insupportable.
Bernardo needed to make his own life, to have a home of his own. He decided to buy a bit of land. Unfortunately, when he tried to buy a tiny plot on the furthest outskirts of the city, he didn’t have all the money and had to come back to Mamá. So Alma had to go once again to her father and ask him to please give her part of her inheritance. Old Joel put up a lot of obstacles, as we say, but in the end he did it. He ended up giving her a hundred colones: about twelve dollars. That was all he would give.
When Mamá came back she sold everything, down to the very last of the little plants she cultivated on the patio. What with necessity and poverty, everything that was in that house was put up for sale to make the down payment on the little plot that Bernardo bought. Thus Bernardo’s dream began to come true. And since my mother loved him very much, she would follow him to the ends of the earth.
Unfortunately, when we moved, Diego the parasite came along, too.