I want to dedicate a few moments to the memory of my childhood friend Rubén. It was very painful for me when I heard about his death at age forty-five. Sadly, I remembered his childhood with me and our friend Lúcio, who is still alive. I’d like to take us back to that time, a time that was at once beautiful and painful—for this was the reality of my childhood.
Our dear neighbors Vicente and Salma and their family were an important part of my life from the time I was four years old. Niña Salma went to the market every day and brought back a basket full of food: food that was very desirable to me. Okay, I was a little girl; I knew when they ate dinner and when they fed their workers. Sometimes, when their heads were turned, I managed to be present at mealtime, too.
They had six children, two of whom were my friends. Wiliam, my age, was a very tall boy who looked a lot like his father. He was one of the last kids, just before Rubén came along. Their sisters lived quietly there, doing housework and helping to feed the weavers in their father’s workshop. Only years later did Wiliam tell me that their older brother, Ignacio the Toad, was abusing him as well as his sisters.
Their father, Don Vicente, was a very tall Ladino man who had been my mother’s companion during their childhood. Like Mamá, he was the child of Spaniards and grew up outside the town of San Sebastián. Unfortunately, in our country some very ugly problems arise, problems that people think they can only resolve with violence. In 1932 Vicente was only six or seven years old when his own cousins came and massacred the whole family in front of him—his mother, father, grandparents and all—to get their inheritance. They were Spaniards, españoles, and they took possession of all the lands. Vicente, hidden, watched his whole family being exterminated. This was not an uncommon occurrence; people could get away with it because of the pervasive corruption. In 1932 there also occurred the Matanza, the great massacre of indigenous peasants in El Salvador—but I think the timing was a coincidence.
The boy Vicente fled his home with nothing but the clothes on his back. He became a servant in great haciendas, and lived in barns. He took care of cows and ate in the stables until he grew up. Like Alma, he emigrated to the capital when he was very young, to escape the violence and struggle to make a future for himself. Vicente learned the business of weaving. He borrowed some money and with his own efforts established a workshop to weave artisanal blankets. He had four looms, and so he needed eight weavers to keep them going for two shifts a day. He also needed workers to carry water and make dyes for the blankets.
Amid the twists and turns of life, Don Vicente ran into my mother again in the city. By then she had already become a woman with children, living with my father. Vicente asked her, “Alma, you had so many suitors in your youth out there in the valley! What did you see in the Cur?” (That was one of my father’s nicknames.) This made Diego angry, because he knew that Alma’s life in our wretched champa was very different from the way she had grown up.
Vicente had married—well, okay, they did get married—he had gotten together with an indigenous woman from the Barrio Paleca in San Sebastián, a woman who was not pretty. He always said the same thing: If you don’t want problems you should get yourself an ugly woman; nobody will try to take her from you. Salma, his wife, looked very severe but inside she was a very good person. She had six children, and my mother had ten. They respected each other a lot as ladies.
Don Vicente was a good person, too. Unfortunately, his problem was that all the women liked him. Vicente was a talented flirt, with a bit of mischief in his eyes—very charming. I think there were only three ladies in the neighborhood that he didn’t sleep with—one of whom was my mamá! He wasn’t bad to look at. He was white, very tall and robust—muscular like a big American. He had a tidy mustache and a head of wavy black hair that he treated with lime juice, so he never went gray. Each afternoon he’d head downhill to the market and hand off his load of blankets to the vendors. In the evening he’d climb back up the hill with sacks full of wonderful things that he bought. He always brought home panquecitos—a special kind of sweet pastry—for his children.
All the women waited for Don Vicente to come back, too. Like Señor Inez, the husband of Tía Marta, he was generous to his lovers with gifts and little bits of money. We called him un picaflor—a hummingbird—because he’d get a little honey here, a little there… Afterward, he’d drop by our house and tell my papá all about his conquests, with Mamá there listening.
Our families were enmeshed in other ways, too. My brother Santiago started going with Rubén’s sister Amanda when I was five and they were twelve years old. We knew even then that Ignacio had abused her; she became wild, and stopped bathing.
One day when Bernardo, my oldest brother, was around, Amanda went out and climbed into the guava tree to pick the ripe fruit. She flirted with Bernardo as she climbed from one branch to another, letting him see everything beneath her loose skirt. Bernardo, who was about twenty-three at the time, liked girls with big breasts, and Amanda had them. There was obvious sexual attraction.
Later, Santiago and I went to the rickety outhouse and found Bernardo and the girl having sex. Santiago was very upset, and he tried to get Amanda to stay with him. But he was just a boy, and he couldn’t rival Bernardo.
The girl was always available for sex, and Bernardo was always ready. By age thirteen Amanda was pregnant and gave birth to a son, Bernardo Antonio. She never went beyond third grade, preferring to remain ignorant. Her mother had brought her up poorly; she was accustomed to heavy manual labor but soon became una haragana—a lazy lunk. She couldn't even sweep properly. There's an art to sweeping a dirt floor, and she would just take big random swipes, pushing the dust around so the floor ended up even worse than when she began. The only thing she was good for was carrying water. And she was very good at sex. My hardheaded brother kept trying to educate or improve her, but nothing could interest her less. He put her on a pedestal, and they have been together for almost fifty years now.
Vicente and Salma’s youngest child, Rubén, became my closest friend. Sadly, he was born with half of his body dead. In his lower back he had a bola, a growth as big as a softball. Because of this he was dead from the waist down. When I think of him the first thing that comes to mind is his struggle to walk, as a child. He never succeeded.
Ever since we were very small I began to go out with Rubén down to the corner of the passageway where we lived. From there we would walk. Okay, I walked, he crawled alongside me for two or three blocks. He dragged himself along the ground stark naked and looked funny to a lot of people. His skinny little legs were frozen, bent at the knees, with his useless feet waving in the air like those of a marionette. He became a common sight on our block.
In my country, we say that if you are looking for cruelty you will find it in the words of children. Watching him drag himself along, kids would call him “dog” and worse things, down to the most vile of nicknames. This really upset me. To make things worse, my friend peed on himself and always smelled very bad. Poop would come out of his body without him realizing it, so people laughed. Rubén had a big, strong voice and when they insulted him he would insult them right back: “Shut up, you sons of whores!” And if they continued to insult him he’d pick up the poop and fling it at them. His character was strong and he wanted to be respected. He’d say, “I’m just as good as those fuckers!" Unfortunately, although he learned to use foul language from his mother, he couldn’t even curse properly. He had a lisp, and couldn’t pronounce the letter R. Still, I admired his courage. He never quit, and his character didn’t break. But he didn’t like to go out.
Rubén was completely different with his friends. With me he was never mean, and never called me bad names. Even as a little child I felt, I don’t know, such sadness or compassion to see his condition. I would have liked to have done something for him. Unfortunately I was almost the only one to pay attention to him. His family never gave him any of the care that he should have had, and even as a small child he always went around a little bitter, a little sad.
Rubén’s family did not send him to school because of his disability. Sometimes as a joke Don Vicente would tell me that I could teach him to read and write. I took it seriously, and this brought us together much more. Although I tried to help him, what Rubén really wanted was to play and play, and to learn as much as he could about walking.
Rubén was an expert at making origami airplanes. The ones he made could fly much further than anyone else’s. He was also good at shooting marbles and spinning a top—he’d rise up on his knees and fling it onto the ground. The rest of us kids would go running around everywhere, and I was surprised by Rubén’s courage. He wanted to run along with us, and he pretty much succeeded, gateando—scrambling across the rough terrain like a clumsy cat! He pushed himself along on his hands and somehow levered himself off his knees. He couldn’t feel the rocks and glass or metal fragments that embedded themselves into his flesh; ignoring the blood, he would just dig them out and toss them away.
Rubén especially loved to fly kites, which we call piscuchas. He’d gallop along with one hand on the ground, one hand holding the spindle of string, thrusting himself forward with his knees. “This shit gets in my way,” he’d grumble—because he used vulgar language all the time—but all the time! And we’d say, “Do it, Rubén, do it harder!” Never did we tell him that he couldn’t. We’d just say, “Do it! Do it more!”
Out of concern for her son’s well-being, Niña Salma would call out, “Son of a whore, if you fuck yourself up you’d better not come crying to me—I’ll give you such a whipping, you little asshole!” I never heard a word of maternal love fall from the lips of Salma. She used very foul language, and that’s what her children learned. However, she never called me bad names, out of respect for my mother.
Before the murder of the bakery delivery boys, people in the barrio normally went to bed at midnight. Our metal champas were roasting hot, and it was impossible to sleep until they cooled down. Many people worked late. One of my sisters left her job downtown at nine o’clock and arrived home at ten. She’d eat dinner, wash clothes, bathe. Similarly, I remember the first religious services I went to alone, when I was six or seven years old. The service began at seven o’clock at night and ended at nine. I’d get home around nine-twenty, and even at that hour Mamá sent me out to carry water.
But the street was happy, and time seemed to stretch out longer. In the street you’d see all kinds of things: the families outside, neighbors gossiping, going for a walk. There was the din of music blaring from radios, and the community was full of animation, everything going on. Nobody was afraid in those days because none of us suspected the time of violence that was approaching.
Of course, our own domestic uproar continued. There came a stage when life in my house was terrible. My father was always drinking, doing big—but really big—bad things at night. He’d follow my mother around, trying to stab her, and my brothers and sisters would be trying to prevent it. Often he’d slash Mamá's fingers as she tried to fend him off. When he couldn’t find the knife, he’d strangle her. Neighbors, and later my brothers, had to stop him.
Something inside me needed to block this out. I would creep outside to the corner of the house and there I sat down. Rubén’s champa and our own were cheek by jowl, there was no division between them. I could have taken off running and been at his door in moments. But I was only four or five years old, and at night I was frightened because out behind the houses there was only the black, weedy undergrowth. I’d say to myself, “Ay, if they’re not awake, how am I going to enter somebody else’s house after midnight?” And so I thought I’d better go out on the street corner. I knew someone would come by.
Often at one or two in the morning I’d hear someone dragging himself along. It was Rubén. There weren’t problems in his house, but he heard the commotion going on in our house and he knew that I needed to get away. He’d keep me company outside for two or three hours. Sometimes his mamá would stick her head out and screech, “Rubén! Come to bed!” And he’d yell, “You go to bed, I’m staying up.”
Across from my corner there was another passageway leading to houses a block or two away. Sometimes at night another skinny figure would slip out. It was our friend Lúcio. By then we were about eight years old. Lúcio lived in pretty much the same conditions as me. There was no peace in his house, and they said that his mamá was a witch. He had a stepfather who would beat them, and some older step-brothers who started to beat the stepfather. We’d be sitting on the corner listening to the fights going on in my house, and sometimes Lúcio’s stepfather would come fleeing down the little passageway, trying to escape from his sons. Lúcio had little half-brothers as well, who would start crying when their father was taking a beating. Soon Lúcio’s older brothers started dealing drugs. And as if it wasn’t enough to have these vile things happening in his own family, there were two neighbor boys near his house who went around looking for little boys to rape. It was all very ugly, a circus. So Lúcio fled as well.
In the daytime Lúcio also liked to be with us because sometimes he could make ten or fifteen centavos doing errands for Don Vicente. In addition, Rubén’s mother kept her dooryard very tidy and the three of us would play cards there. Rubén and Lúcio taught me all kinds of games. Occasionally we played for bits of candy, because we never had any money. But most often we played for punches. The winner got to punch the loser in the shoulder—you’d have to lift up your shirt sleeve to bare your skin. Rubén and Lúcio enjoyed giving each other peladillas—whacking each other hard with two fingers—but they only gave me token smacks. Nonetheless, we all went around with bruises and they hurt a lot.
At night we were lucky to have each other for company on our lonely and dark street corner. We passed many hours watching, talking in the middle of the night.
“Look at this guy coming. What do you think is going to happen?”
“I don’t know!”
“That guy thinks he’s the king of the world!”
Sometimes we’d see my sister Carlotta pass by with her girlfriends. They had taken advantage of this terrible time in our house to do things that they ought not to have done. Or sometimes we’d be on our corner in the middle of the night, and on the opposite side of the street there would be as many as twenty men (including some of my brothers) smoking marijuana. They would recite the Marijuana Creed: I believe in LSD and in opium as my only savior… That’s why the Mission District of San Francisco doesn’t shock me today.
Rubén and Lúcio and I saw that many people can’t stand poverty and get angry with the world, then try to abuse everyone around them. Thanks be to God, we looked for something other than the awful life around us. But there we were every night, the three of us little kids, waiting in the dark for my father to exhaust himself so we could go back to our homes and sleep.
All of this made me decide in my heart, very young, that I never wanted to have children. The reality of our existence was just too hard. Because of machismo in our country, it’s hard for women to put up with men. Maybe they want to sleep with a man, or maybe they want the little money the man might provide. But how can a drunk take care of a family? He just beats the woman and maybe the kids, too, while they are small. Then, when the children are older, they won’t accept the man beating their mother. Fortunately, all my siblings were children of Diego—we would have suffered even more had some of us been the children of other men. And as for me, God has been merciful. Today my own children have a good father.
Throughout our childhood Rubén and Lúcio and I were the three musketeers. When we were little we went along with Salma, out to the field where Rubén’s family grew crops. There were entire weeks when the wind was blowing, and so we went to cut the harvest of bananas or guavas or other fruit that they had. Rubén liked to climb high up into the big guava trees, because he had a lot of strength in his upper body.
Unfortunately, getting to the place was horrible. We had to navigate a very steep slope, and getting down there was very difficult even for Lúcio and me! We climbed down carefully but sometimes I would scrape my butt and nearly break my neck. Since Rubén couldn’t walk, he might grab a coconut palm frond and use that to slide down. Or sometimes if there wasn’t a big leaf around, he used a technique that was very depressing. He’d just fling himself over the crest of the hill and roll down the slope—but by gosh he was going to get there! He rolled down willy-nilly and when he arrived he’d say, “Good thing I didn’t end up in the river! If I kept rolling I’d have crashed into the abyss! But here I am—what’ll we do now?” Rubén just wasn’t one of those people who think they can’t do things!
When we were finished picking the fruit, on the last trip we always liked to stand up and recite poetry. At the end of every school year we had to learn by heart one of the poems of Alfredo Espino, the great Salvadoran poet whom all the kids study. One year it was “The Eyes of the Oxen,” a very sad poem:
I have seen them so sad, that I am forced to think
Though they be so sad, they never can cry!
Then there was “The October Winds,” which is also very sad:
… Haven’t you realized
That the October winds are blowing,
That the kite is flying, and that storm clouds
No longer cover the hill?
We’d declaim these poems with dramatic gestures, because that’s what the teacher wanted. Rubén’s brother Wiliam loved to join us. Wiliam was very effeminate, and as for me—I always loved to be expressive. We’d recite the poems of Alfredo Espino, with Rubén watching. And then Rubén would take his turn, reciting his piece. He couldn’t read or write, so he learned by listening to us.
As we grew older the three of us went off to another lovely place, a little mountain covered with trees and flowers. There we cast our thoughts to the wind. We recited poetry—sometimes the works of Espino or other writers, and sometimes poems that we made up on our own. In this way we managed to forget ourselves, as though the wind would carry away our pain and sadness, our frustration as children.
For me, it was my frustration at home, my hunger for food and for knowledge. I wished that someone would read to me and explain why some children drank milk and we ourselves drank only coffee and misery. We were souls thirsting for parental love, for someone to listen to our dream that we could be different from other people. We needed parents to believe in us, but the only thing we managed to attain was more frustration.
Rubén and Lúcio were very important throughout my childhood. I needed affection—but not of a morbid kind, not making out with my friends or anything like that. Years later, when we moved away, I realized that the other neighbors, the adults, were keeping tabs on us. My neighbors knew I was not promiscuous and they respected me and even loved me. They’d say, “That Milagros has always been very serious. That Milagros, we never saw her doing foolish things.” When I’d come back for a visit now and then they all treated me in a very friendly way. They’d say, “Good for you! You’re the winner! Your sisters were crazy—but you, when we met your boyfriend we saw that the two of you were very formal. We never saw you naked, like your sisters. You were formal, and you won the respect of us adults.” Yes, the gossips were always there, watching and listening to us children in the night—but all we had was solitude.