miércoles, 7 de septiembre de 2011

Fire and More Fire

Sometimes we do a dinamica to help cultivate the kids’ creativity.  We have one of them tell a story that includes actions, and as the kid is telling, the rest of us have to perform the actions as they come up.  When it was Oscar’s turn he had us walking to the corner store to buy some queso fresco, chips and a two liter of Coka.  Then Naomy took us staggering and gasping through the desert with no water to get to the United States. 
With Jonathan, we were just minding our own business, walking down the street outside the parish, when suddenly the soldiers rounded the corner, grabbed us and threw us up against the wall of the nearest house, shouted obscenities at us, kicked out our legs, hit us with the butts of their guns, and then searched us.  They didn’t find anything but they thought we were gang members, so they kept us there, all of us, the 40 year old third grade teacher Deysi, our 17 year old drawing instructor Bryan, myself, and a smattering of 15 or so boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 13.  We were left kneeling down on the mildly clean beige tiling of the Open School, sweating, our hands crossed on top of our heads, acting out the blows in the back, our faces embodying the submission, the humiliation, but stifling our laughter too.  And Jonathan was there smiling intently, loving the sinister control he had, framed by posters of non-violence and pastel artwork on the walls, the fans whirring oh-so-slowly overhead. 
The dinamica is also a great way to see what is going on inside the kids’ heads.   The only one being very creative was Naomy since she had only heard about life-threatening immigration from her aunt.   Oscar is kind of chubby and probably goes to the corner store pretty frequently.    Jonathan hasn’t actually been abused like that before, but he’s seen it happen plenty of times.  His mom is an ambulatory bread vendor, and at 12, much of his unsupervised time is spent in the street where he’s become enamored with the gangster aura.   Even if he stays out of the pandilla,  he’ll just have to hit puberty to start receiving that treatment in the flesh.         
Juan Carlos has been there for a while as a 15 year old.  He’s totally tranquilo and humble but carries himself, especially in the shoulders, like he thinks he’s hot stuff.   One night a couple months ago around 9:30pm, he went out to buy something from the store that he probably could’ve easily waited until the morning to get, but he went anyway,  and sure enough the soldiers suddenly rounded the corner.   He got slammed against the wall, searched and hit in the side by what he thought was some type of club or maybe the M-16 butt.  His bruise the next day was big enough to have been either.   

Luckily, perhaps, his uncle Pedro helps to run a pupuseria stand right down the street, and when Pedro saw what was going down, he told the soldiers to lay off the kid, that it was his nephew and he was clean.  The commanding soldier told Pedro to eat excrement, called him an ass bandit and threatened to give him worse treatment than Juan Carlos was getting.  Pedro, as a short fuse,  quickly invited the soldier to put down his gun and they would see who the bigger man was.  The other ladies at the pupuseria started chiming in without much diplomacy, and the soldiers ordered them to shut up.  Martita reminded them it was supposedly a free country now, and she wouldn’t shut up for anyone, least of all a mess of cowardly dogs.  Suddenly the soldiers had their guns pointed at Pedro, Martita and the rest of the women and children at the pupuseria accusing them of being a front for gang extortions.   At this point, Josue (Pedro’s son) and Angelita, 11 and 8 respectively, made a break for it and ran away.  Vanessa who is 6, just started to cry.  The civilian population continued the heated argument with the armed forces who had their weapons aimed at the people they were supposed to protect.   And this is 2011. 
Our little corner of San Salvador, the 28 communities of la Chacra, is a “red zone”.   People are poor, it's overcrowded, and it's essentially controlled by gangs, as opposed to the state, or the police or overarching principles of civic responsibility.    It was September of 2009, when President Funes  first decided to deploy the military into these red zones of El Salvador to try to combat violence and gang activity.  At the beginning, lots of people in La Chacra were mildly content with the decision.  “Better to have a soldier on the corner than a gang-member,” they would say.   Human rights advocates and violence prevention organizations condemned  the measure as alarmingly reminiscent of the civil war, contrary to the Peace Accords and a reactionary extension of the Iron Fist policies of previous ARENA governments.   Nevertheless, people felt safer initially.  But now, it’s been two years and people are fed up.  
It has become a crime to live in these communities.   Punishment is doled out by the seemingly permanent presence of patrols of anywhere between 3 to 8 soldiers, M-16’s in their hands and scowls on their faces, scouring the alleyways to “secure the peace”.  If you’re a young male you’re treated like Juan Carlos.  If you’re an adult and don’t keep your mouth shut you’re treated like Pedro and Martita.  If you’re a child like Vanesa or Josue, we can’t yet conceive the scars you will bear. 
The day after this incident, Pedro told me:  “The soldiers still have the same mentality they had during the war- they haven’t changed.  The sons of bitches think they are better than the people, that we’re stupid and need to be protected from ourselves, like we’re less than human. But I won’t take their crap.  If Josue even thinks about joining a gang I’ll kill him myself, so I don’t need their help, thanks anyway.  I don’t want those dogs around, and I’ll keep telling it to their faces. 
And this is supposed to be part of the solution to the violence: that entire geographic zones be black-listed and militarized; that overwhelmingly good and honest people there be treated like criminals and thereby come closer to embodying the rage and violence of that criminalization; that the artisans of institutional violence (the soldiers) combat capitalism’s superfluous youth organized into networks of peripheral violence (the gangs).   Funes has acquiesced to the perverse logic of an inhuman system that convinces us that the only way to fight fire is with more fire.  
And so now we’re ablaze.   Because it’s not the least bit arbitrary that La Chacra and other places have been marked by the security forces.  Violence perpetrated by other actors is just as normal, and often times more brutal.   
Last Thursday August 25th, we woke up to a veritable siege of yellow tape, soldiers, police officers, and even one of the few forensic investigators in El Salvador.   When you see yellow tape you know there’s been a killing.  When you see a forensic investigation truck, you know the attorney general thinks they might actually be able to solve the homicide in question.   
We had a body in the river.  Word is that the kids from one gang had spent the night torturing and chopping up a kid from the other gang with machetes, smashed in his face with rocks and then came into La Chacra and left him by the bridge going over the river .  The idea was that he would get washed away down the Acelhuate and up into Lake Suchitlan and then over into the Lempa River, and by the time he was down to the ocean, it was just another missing joven.  But the kid got caught in the shallows, and so he became the most pressing issue on everyone’s minds and lips for at least a few days.        
On that day, I watched the story about the muerto on the news at 1:30pm and then walked up to the Open School for the afternoon jornada, dejected.  As usual, Daniela and Grisel were waiting to jump on my back and grab my arms and tell me all kinds of random things as we walked towards the Open School.  But today the first words out of Grisel’s mouth were,  “Boorrich! Did you see the dead guy? They cut off his hands and everything!”
And then Daniela: “They cut off his head too didn’t they?”
Grisel responded, “No they just smashed it, but he was all chopped up.  They killed him though didn’t they Boorrich?”
I paused and said haltingly, “Yeah it looks like that’s what happened…”  How was I talking to two 11 year old girls about this?! I didn’t know what else to say tell them.  Should I tell them it hadn’t actually happened? Tell them to not talk about it?  To forget about it and concentrate on the abundant beauty  and wonder in their lives?

Oscar, Grisel and Daniela
In the formational part of the Open School, we decided to contrast the killing to the culture of peace that we try to foment with them, but all the kids wanted to do was compare gossip about the event; what time the body had appeared, if it had happened in La Chacra or if people from somewhere else had only brought the body to dump it here.  To be sure, it was the day that Jonathan most participated in the discussion.  Deysi and Bryan and I told them peace starts inside each of them, and that it would be their job to build a world where they didn’t have to wake up to mutilated bodies floating in the shallows of the river that runs a one minute walk from their houses.   It was injustice pues: the injustice of the world that we adults have created for our children.

Military occupation and violent repression of marginal populations (the police have also been responsible for extra-judicial beat downs, shoot-outs and unwarranted arrests in La Chacra and elsewhere) has not abated the violence in El Salvador.  Homicides have only remained constant at 12 a day since 2009.  The period from January to August of 2011 has been the most violent of the past three years, and August the most violent month of 2011.  Militarization of red zones has also caused criminal networks to expand their activity and violence to previously calm rural and suburban areas. 
This certainly isn’t all Funes’ fault though.  The phenomenon of generalized violence extends far beyond his presidency, and constitutes both a tool and a result of global capitalism.  But Funes made plenty of campaign promises about concentrating on violence prevention as opposed to repression of supposed criminals, and he should fulfill them.   The closest he has come, and only in discourse, is a proposal to incorporate “at-risk” youth into “military-like” training that, although provided by the military, would not include weapons instruction, but rather a focus on civil protection activities.  The formal proposal has not been presented, and there are many serious questions around how this could actually be implemented.  One way or another, the idea that potentially violent kids should be trained by the one institution that is completely dedicated to practicing violence, doesn’t seem too preventative let alone logical, especially when they’ll just be returning to their same violent communities after their six month training period. 
During recreation time that Thursday of the muerto, the kids were playing in the little parish park when two soldiers suddenly entered the park itself.  I was sitting by the soccer court adjacent to the park, and could only see the sun shining off their black guns and boots as their camouflage blended in seamlessly with the plants and trees in the quebrada behind the swing-sets.  Grisel went running after Jonathan right past them as if they were just another obstacle in their tag-like game of Agarra la Ayuda.  I was shocked and enraged at the soldiers’ presence and almost went to tell them to get the hell out of the play area, couldn’t they see that there were kids there?! Didn’t they think the kids had had enough trauma for one day?!  But the kids didn’t seem to even notice the soldiers.  This is what they’re growing up with.  Maybe I was the only one being traumatized.  And the truth is that I was a little scared of what they might say or do back to me.  I was pretty sure they wouldn’t dare to physically abuse me, but well, it was a tense day, so I just continued sitting there.  
I watched Jonathan taunting Grisel in the context of the game, laughing about it and using words that he shouldn’t have.  I remembered a few weeks back when we had suspended him from the Open School for a week because he just wouldn’t stop provoking the other kids, threatening to beat them up, and actually trying to do so when he felt it warranted.    He had been devastated by the suspension.  He really does like the Open School, especially learning to play the little drums we’ve got.   Perhaps he had taken Deysi’s advice to treat his suspension as an opportunity to really start thinking about putting into practice the ideals of healthy self esteem, respect for others, cooperation with them, and the pursuit of his dreams. 

Because now he’s back, and he I think he is behaving slightly better.  But he’s still very much “at-risk”.   So will he get recruited into military service?  How will they do it?  Will his mom let him go, or will she cry hysterically as the soldiers rip him out of her arms?  Or will she be out selling pan and not even notice he’s gone until hours later?  Or will he have already gotten closer to the pandilla as an aspiring postero?  Will he already be brincado into their ranks? Will he already have been beat down by a solider or a police officer ? Will he wind up in the river? Or will he still be playing the drums three times a week in the Open School with me and Bryan and some of the other kids with rhythm in their blood?  Will he finally be thinking about his dreams and what he’s got to do to achieve them?
What kind of dreams come from an imagination completely penetrated by violence?
I jolted back to the park.  Jonathan and Grisel and the rest of the kids were now up in the guayaba tree picking ones that weren’t ripe and throwing them at each other.   The soldiers had disappeared.  Maybe they had heard me.  

miércoles, 27 de abril de 2011

One of a Million

Day by day, we have more hope, as she comes to grips with how it will be.  She is able to sit up now and survey the rest of the ward, stand even sometimes.  Her big brown, longing eyes are more alert, and her sharply-cut face less gaunt, although she’ll never get rid of the discolored scars from wounds on her neck and chest.  Her feet are no longer swollen like sponges but the deep stretch marks are still evident.    Hundreds of pills have wreaked havoc on her bulging stomach, which looks like the ones you see on the African children on the commercials trying to sell charity to the rich.  But her tiny, frail frame is less hunched, and she gets less fevers.  She is no longer on the verge of dying, but the problem at this point is that she can only get so much better.  
About two weeks ago they took x-rays of her lungs again and when I asked her how they had come out, she stopped suddenly and choked, and began to cry, and haltingly told me through her green-rimmed Darth Vader oxygen mask that they were going to have her on oxygen permanently.   I dropped too.   I hadn’t wanted to think that could even be a possibility.  The doctor showed us the x-rays, but it certainly didn’t take a doctor to understand them.  About half of each of her small sunken lungs was consumed by what looked like thick opaque spider webs, which meant that they had hardened through fibrosis. Those portions of the lung were dead, could no longer take in oxygen, and the damage was permanent.  
Suddenly all I could think about was my Grandma, Sheshe, who died from lung cancer three years ago, and about the days I would go to her house after grade school with my mom and I would eat junk food and watch cartoons over the incessant and oppressive whirring of the oxygen machine.   I imagined my mom and Sheshe being together, sitting, trying to make conversation, but not too much, because talking can be agonizing for people on oxygen.  These apparatuses gave Sheshe a subjugated, immobile life for about 10 years, but one that she was willing to live to be with those she loved.    
I jolted back to the present and put my arm around Lisseth.  I felt her quivering lightly through the tiny sobs as the tears streamed down her face and I swallowed back by own.  I started reciting my litany of weary encouragements that it will be okay, and you’re going to be fine, just trust in God, you’re going to get better, and this time I added, “They’re probably wrong anyways that permanent oxygen means forever.”    I mean they had messed up everything else. 
But this isn’t a fairy tale- permanent does mean forever, even here.   Now we have to decide whether to buy the oxygen machine or just rent it.  I was set to ask Dr. Joe to buy it for her, but it was the Hospital social worker who mentioned the cold, heartless point of whether or not she’s going to live long enough to make buying the machine worth it.  We’ve got about a week to decide, which is when she’ll be let out after finishing the 50 days of the first phase of the tuberculosis treatment. 
Sheshe had smoked from the time she was 18 and got lung cancer when she was in her mid 60’s.  By the time Lisseth was 18, she was in charge of three children (one little sister and two of her own kids) sold candy on the busses around the Terminal de Oriente on the edge of San Salvador to support them, and had already unknowingly been laden with a rare form of tuberculosis for a year.  All she knew was that she was always tired, in pain, had trouble breathing, and that huge pus-seeping sores would suddenly and frequently appear on her chest and throat.  But she had never had a proper diagnosis, let alone any treatment.  There’s no time to be sick for a single mother surviving day to day as a street  vendor.   
Now she’s 19, and if it hadn’t been for Dr. Joe from Kansas City who saw her here at Maria Madre during Health Week, and paid for her to get initial treatment and all the appropriate tests in October of last year (and continues to cover her living expenses through the Social Assistance program at Maria Madre), she probably would’ve died by November.  If it hadn’t been for Dr. Coello here in San Salvador who made sure she got admitted into the Hospital Zacamil in December for intensive care, she would’ve died by January.  If she hadn’t gotten transferred to Hospital Rosales at the end of January because they weren’t applying the treatment correctly at Zacamil, she would’ve died by February.  And then at the beginning of March, they let her out of Rosales too early and she almost died in the small, cell-like room that she rents for sixty dollars a month.   On March 16th, she barely managed to get back to Rosales in time- doubled over, almost paralyzed from the pain, scarcely able to walk, let alone breathe, almost surrendering to the curable bacteria that was eating away not only at her lungs at this point, but at her stomach, her lymph nodes, her liver, and her heart.  
So now her life is Hospital Rosales, and she hates it.  The heat is unbearable, and she hasn’t seen her kids in well over a month.  Once she began to grip the fact that she would need the oxygen for the rest of the life, she started trying to convince me, either disingenuously or in delusional desperation, that the doctors would let her go back home if we could just get her the oxygen machine, even though the doctors had told us both numerous times that wasn’t the case.  Sometimes the doctors seem exasperated with her, like she is just a child.  I mean she is, and she just wants to get out of her prison.  But they just want to make sure she actually survives once she gets out.    
The bed next to her, about four feet away, is the one where the nurses put other patients when they’re about to die, it seems.   She’s had about four or five, she can’t remember exactly, die next to her in the five weeks that she’s been there.   Right now there is a 30 year old lady next to her dying from a “virus in her brain”.   Her glazed eyes are permanently fixed on something beyond the ceiling, and Lisseth says she never closes them.  The lady’s mom was saying that they were going to de-tube her, that it’s not real life if she’s just living off a tube.  And she asked me if I was a family member of Lisseth.  I stuttered noises for a second and then said I’m her brother, her adopted brother, and we all kind of smiled and fidgeted knowingly.   
Lisseth no longer knows any of her biological family except for her two kids and her 9 year old sister Priscilla.   She is from el Paisnal, north of San Salvador, and when she was 12 her mother brought her and Priscilla (then three) into San Martin, just east of San Salvador.  She told them she was going to go buy tortillas and she never came back.  Lisseth began caring for Priscilla on her own, and eventually stopped waiting for her mom to reappear.  They made their way into San Salvador to the Terminal de Oriente, which is where Lisseth met Flor, a dwarfish, fat older woman who dyes her hair blond, puts on too much makeup and too revealing of clothes.  She helps run a mezon in La Peralta, a marginal neighborhood close to the Terminal, and worked it out to let Lisseth a room there, which is where she has lived ever since.  At 14 she got pregnant with Marjory, the cutest, sweetest little girl you can imagine, and then at 17 she got pregnant with Eduardo, who has the runniest nose and largest penchant for hitting others that you can imagine.  The fathers aren’t in the picture.   

She first told me this story, after considerable coaxing on my part, one day as we were seated in the Parque Roble waiting for the appointment with Dr. Coello.  Priscilla and Marjory had come with us and were running around the park having the time of their lives.  They had never seen a place like this.  Their eyes were glowing, their faces in wonder- there was so much space, so much grass, so many swing sets.  They ran and got in the metal box swings, and I went over and pushed them for a bit, as Lisseth sat gingerly on the root of a nearby tree, with her arm hanging awkwardly at her side not allowing it to touch her torso, which was very tender at the time.  When the girls got bored of the swings they went running all over the park, barefoot, and laughing, and I sat back down with Lisseth. 
She continued, “I’ve always taken care of Priscilla, always.  And now Marjory and Eduardo too.  I love them so much and I just want them to have good lives.”  The girls got tired and came to where we were.   Marjory started fingering the grass, savoring its soft feel.  She laid down in it and began to make angels, like she were in the snow.  She got up smiling with twigs and dead leaves in her hair.  Lisseth forced a smile too: “I need to be alive for them.”
And somehow in that moment, I felt the need to reiterate the bitter foundational lesson that her own mother had tainted her life with, and said to her: “That’s right, a mom can never leave her kids.” 
“Of course not,” she replied… like I had thought it would have been on her accord. 
I show up to Rosales every other day, with the little green card that is restricted for immediate family members, and the vigilante lets me through.  I walk down the open air aisles passing by the decrepit and dying elderly, the youth with stricken faces and bundles of sheets and tubes wrapped around their midsection, alternately skinny and bloated women - some with faces of determination others of resignation, men with bandages over their eyes and nose, the stub of an arm, a malformed leg.  But it’s always the smells that get us at hospitals, and in the aisles of Rosales you only catch faint wafts, but once you enter a ward it is a suffocating cloud of bad cafeteria food, rubbing alcohol, and decay.  It lacks doctors, but overflows with people-students, visitors, and of course more patients than could possibly be attended to.   In the new emergency room financed by Japan, there are anywhere between 70 and 100 people lying on the floor at any given time, moaning, waiting to be attended if they’re lucky, and if they’re not, they get sent back home because their injury or illness isn’t serious enough to be seen here.   And for all the public health and national budget issues at hand, Lisseth’s biggest complaint is that they don’t put salt in the food.  
I feel noble coming to visit, but in the back of my mind I don’t want to- there’s so much suffering, it’s time out of my busy schedule, it’s so hard to give the motivational spiels- to tell someone to keep fighting even though the best they will get is to go home and to be chained to an oxygen tank, although now at least she can take off the mask for a couple minutes at a time.   But it’s Flor who comes every day.  It’s Flor who takes care of Priscilla, Marjory and Eduardo back at the mezon.   She is the only real semblance of family that Lisseth has.   She’s the one that Eduardo calls Papi.  But it’s also Flor that I don’t trust.  From the first interactions that I had with Lisseth, often times Flor would be in the background, and I was never sure about her.  She runs a mezon in La Peralta for God’s sake, but she has always helped Lisseth. 
La Peralta is out of my territory, out of the parish’s territory, but right across the Bulevar Venezuela.  It’s still held by the same 18 gang, but a different click- homies who I don’t know, and who don’t know me.  When people in La Chacra would find out that I facilitated Dr. Joe’s helping Lisseth, and that she lives there, they would tell me to never go, and I would casually omit that I already had a number of times.  I don’t go anymore though.   The first time I went to her mezon it was after church and I somewhat jokingly asked my buddy Ronald if he wanted to come with me.   He somewhat jokingly did the sign of the cross on me, and said may God bless you.  He’s not really religious, but he comes to mass to people-watch.  
So I went by myself, and Lisseth met me out on the street and led me towards the building.  As I walked in, I realized a mezon was like the sick, twisted, extreme-Salvadoran-poverty version of an apartment complex, or perhaps a dormitory floor at college.  It was a square building with tiny, poorly-lit, one-room cubes around the outside where the people live, and a communal bathroom area and store in the middle.  There was bubbly, used- liquid substances flowing down the narrow corridor that linked the rooms to the common area, and as we walked in, everyone stuck there heads out of their doors to see who had shown up.  Suddenly, I almost ran into someone coming out of the shower area- a tall, lanky subject with a towel wrapped around his middle, and his light skin punctuated with flowing 18 tattoos all over his torso, neck and face- the kind of tattoo job that indicates an old school gangster, someone who got tatted before tats in public meant automatic prison.  When I got over that initial shock I realized he was staring me down as he sauntered by, perhaps slightly shocked at my presence too, I hoped.  
Eduardo, Marjory and Priscilla were all inside the room, excited to have a visitor.  I picked up Marjorie and she gave me a good kiss on the cheek, as she always does, none of the brushing the face stuff, good lip to scruff contact.   I looked around and the walls were all stained with 18 manchas, and it reeked of urine.  Lisseth eventually mentioned that she had the kids pee in a mica inside the room because she didn’t think it was safe for them to go to the communal bathroom, even with her.  Their world is that room, the CAPI day care center at Maria Madre, and the concrete in between.    I now understood why the Parque Roble had been such a paradise for them.

Flor is the one who runs the store inside the mezon, the one who collects people’s rent money.   And so what is her relationship to the pandilla here, to our tall tattooed buddy?  She has to have one.  And what is Lisseth’s relationship to them?  Because she has to have one too.  I had to initially be suspicious as to where the money from Dr. Joe to support Lisseth was really going.  But we have all the proof that the money is being administered properly.  Still, we have to leave a lot up to God, and trust in Him, and trust in Flor too. 
Yesterday, Flor and I showed up late to visit Lisseth and she was crying when we finally got  into the ward.  We were supposed to have gotten there right at noon to talk to her doctor, but she thought that we had just decided to abandon her.  We tried to tell her that we never will, and that the busses were running late.   But her whole life has only been abandonment and she has never been able to trust anyone.   I remembered that when this all first started, I didn’t want to allow myself to feel Lisseth’s pain- it would have been too heavy, so I just treated the help she needed as another job.  But now I am blessed to have an adopted sister who is beating tuberculosis, who makes me more human, and more punctual. 
I have told Lisseth’s story to a number of close friends, and one of them expressed what was in the back of my mind, but what used to always be in the very forefront of my mind: “Lisseth is just one of a million. Think of how many girls, women, Salvadorans, people all over the world, are suffering similarly infuriating and tragic situations because of lack of access to health care, because of poverty, because of structural injustice?  Just think about it, and Lisseth is just one of them.” 
There have been times in my life when I found it hard to care about just one.  It’s all the result of the structure anyways, I would say.  But the structure is only made up of individuals and every one of us makes a difference.   
l still don’t know how Lisseth and her kids will end up.  She is a testament to faith, hope and strength, but once she goes home to her kids and an oxygen machine, what will she do? It will only be the beginning of a new struggle, and one where she won’t be able to sell candy on busses anymore.  But no matter what, her being alive and being able to struggle for a better life for her kids is a triumph against a global structure that condemns the poor to death.    
I was at a session with Sister Peggy and a delegation recently, and she asked us to go around and present ourselves with our name, and a recent “rebirth” that we’ve had- a wonderful way for her to get to know us, and for us to get to know ourselves.  I thought about it hard, and I ended up saying something  safe and generic about living in El Salvador, but I knew in my heart, my rebirth was Lisseth’s rebirth.  That she had been so close to death, and that now she is going to live.    

lunes, 20 de diciembre de 2010

The Little Cicada

I hesitated in writing this.  It feels like I don’t have the right to it.  It is too fresh, it is an open gaping wound with only the first curacion applied.  But I think it’s important to name Daniel Castillo, to not give him a pseudonym.  I mean, nothing can happen to him at this point. 
I spent at least an hour yesterday talking to Luis, Daniel’s best friend.  Both of us straddled the little drainage ditch on the side of the linea while people noticed us talking about something important, and I tried to figure out what I could say about Daniel.  Luis told me the story of how it all went down, how he just felt something was going to happen to Daniel.  He pointed out the wall and the door that Daniel had possessively insisted on painting to make a few extra dollars.  And finally, Luis told me to concentrate on the good stuff, although no one is all virtue, obviously.  We all got complexities, defects, and Daniel had an awful lot.  He was the one who forged his own destiny.  And yet, somehow people loved him, Daniel let himself be loved.  That was his gift. 
I think it was when he got out of prison that we first started chilling and became friends.  And I only say that after reflecting for a number of days.  Amigo isn’t a word lightly thrown around in El Salvador.  I remember so clearly a day in November ‘09 getting off the bus at the Castilleja and turning down the linea towards the parish.   I could see a familiar figure down the line in the near distance, with his shirt off scratching madly at his sides.  I got closer and saw that it was Daniel, el chicharrita, the little Cicada.  Daniel’s older brother was the mero Chicharra, very well known in the area.  He got the name because when he was younger he would take a whiz absolutely wherever he felt like it, apparently just like a cicada.  And so Daniel was the little brother, the little cicada.  I got closer and saw that he had a horrible red rash all over his body that was pussing at various spots.    
“Hey what’s up Daniel!?”
Que ondas Daniel?”
“You finally got out man!  It’s great to see you.  How you doing?”
Puya glad to be out, reformed man, you understand? But I got this itch inside too.” As he told me a little more about having been preso, I could tell he was reformed.  When young kids go to jail in El Salvador, the vast majority come out worse, with new contacts, new ideas, a masters degree in crime as they say.  But Daniel looked genuinely scared, desperate, and not just for the rash, but that he had lived things that he never wanted to repeat.   And this from a kid who was always hard, who made an effort to keep you from wanting to mess with him.
“Damn man, I had thought you moved out of here or something, but then they told me that they took you.  It’s great that you’re back.  Don’t scratch that thing man, you’ll just spread it.”
“Naw don’t worry, the Nina Concha is going to give me a spice bath, I’ll be fine.  Hey I need a job though dog, we should see if you can give me a chance there at the Open School with the kids teaching drawing.”
“Alright yeah, we’ll see,” I told him.  We exchanged some more words and I sighed to myself as I walked away, doubting that we could put an ex-convict in the mix to teach art to kids in a violence prevention project that was just finally getting off the ground.   
I would see Daniel just about every day.  His house was right along my route going into the parish.  We’d greet, chat, chill a little bit, maybe buy some fruit from Hilda who had her little stand  right where the passageway led down to the parish.  And sometimes he would show up in the afternoon to the parish soccer court while the Open School kids had their recreation.  Every now and again, I tried to ask him why he had got sent to jail. He finally told me that he had taken the fall for a girl he liked who just happened to be carrying extortion money.  Other people said it was for robbery, but Daniel assured me he had kicked that bad habit.  And he would ask me about the States, and about the sports we play (he was one of the few basketball fans in la Chacra), about the girls there, about the buildings, the people who are artists for a living.   He was curious, smart, raw, one of the youth that I most talked with.  He would tell me all sorts of stories with so much trust, but I didn’t always trust it all.    
But one thing that was not debatable was his talent.  He was an amazing artist.  I first met him when I was still new in El Salvador, running delegations with SHARE.  We would take the tour around the parish and often times he would be in the Centro de Dia, with the old folks and the Maestra Milagro, using the sewing machine, or helping to draw and paint the sheets that were used for the backdrop during masses.  He would make tie dyed shirts and sell them to the delegations that showed up, always with a smile and a joke.   He was a charmer, happy to be alive, someone who gravitated towards you and you towards him.   
One day as I was walking down the linea towards him he darted into his house and came out with something in his hand.  As soon as I was in arms reach he plopped a super-stylish gray mesh-back Texaco baseball cap onto my head.  “Hey, I’m sick of you showing up with that shaggy hair all wind-blown all over the place.  Looks like you haven’t showered in days.”  The ladies who were gathered around the fruit stand giggled and politely said I looked good in it. 
“Hey thanks man, I’ll give it back when I head out today.”
N’ombre, it’s yours…if you’re going to actually wear it that is.  If you really don’t want it, you give it back, cause I’ll rock it.” 
“Alright” I said.   “I’ll take it then, and I’ll get you a hat to replace this one, from Cincinnati, we got some good ones.”
“Sounds good,” he responded. 
Around mid-June of this year, Xiomara finally convinced me to let Daniel come give the drawing and painting workshops in the Open School.  Aside from sometimes showing up late, or not at all, he did an excellent job.  He taught the kids how to do landscapes with different layers of distance, how to shade using colored pencils, how to use pastels to make fruit, flowers and clowns just like Sister Patty had taught him.  One day when he was trying to think of what to teach them, he suddenly said “ah I got it”, and went running out of the Open School.  Xiomara and I passed about ten exasperated minutes trying to entertain the kids and inwardly complaining about Daniel’s unreliability.  But then he showed up panting, with an arm full of flat dirty rocks that he had gotten from the banks of the river.  “Alright kids, grab a rock and wash it off in the pila.”  Within the hour the kids all had beautiful mountainous landscapes painted onto their personalized rocks which would have wet the mouth of any artesania fan. 

But after a few months, some folks around the parish started murmuring about how Daniel wasn’t the one who should be helping out in the Open School, setting the example for our young impressionable kids.  He was too loose with his words, with his behavior in the community, he was just trying to take advantage of the parish and he had already been given so many chances.  As much as I tried sticking up for him, saying that no one could give better art classes, I couldn’t refute the behavior argument.  So when we started up the Open School again this November, it fell to me to let him know we wouldn’t need his services anymore.    As soon as I started a pretty classic Salvadoran beat-around-the-bush and let-him-down-easy talk, he said “ah, I already get it.  And who was it?”
“Who was what?” I asked.
“Who is it that doesn’t want me around?” he said with only a mildly threatening tone. 
“Well, it was lots of people.  They say you don’t set a good example.”
“And how am I supposed to set a good example if I can’t be around?” Very clever, but somehow not convincing enough.  He didn’t wait for an answer though, and split.   
Despite our decision, during the past month or so he would randomly show up to the Open School space for the recreation hour, when I am normally up with kids at the soccer court.  And he would listen to music with kids, teach them some modern dance moves.  When I would come in and see him there, I wouldn’t talk to him.  He probably thought he was going about setting a good example, but showing up when we had told him not to wasn’t a good start.  I could feel him wanting to talk sometimes, but didn’t he realize I would have to say to him: “damn man, what are you doing here?” So I delayed the conversation, I looked the other way.  I remember the now-wretched feeling of the last day I saw him, walking out of the door of the Open School as I turned away from him to pick up a candy wrapper off the floor.  
I never really wore the Texaco hat much.  I didn’t like repping a big destructive gas company no matter how stylish and comfy the hat was.  Just the other week, I finally decided to give it back to Daniel, so he could switch up with his black Reds hat and sleek gelled mohawk.  I thought it might even be a good way for me to bridge the silent treatment gap that I had created between us.   So I brought it to the Open School and put it on top of the cabinet where we store all of our materials to wait for him to show up.  But he didn’t show up.  I should’ve known that you don’t give back gifts. 
On the morning of Thursday Dec. Dec. 9th, I found myself in the cocina with Nina Estela there within the parish.  She said she would tell me some gossip, that Daniel had gone missing, since Monday, and that some people were saying that he was dead. His family had put in the denuncia the previous day.  I was shook up, but blew it off. “Yeah he’s like that, he just goes off on his own sometimes, he’ll turn up… but I hope he’s alright.”  
 Just a couple hours later, the information was suddenly flying around the parish.  It was true.  Medicina Legal had called the family to let them know that it was indeed  Daniel who had been found near the Cornucopia in el Centro, with cuts on his face and numerous bullet wounds in his chest.    
Apparently it had been for the same girl that he had gone to jail for.  Maybe he really loved her.  He had gone to her house to take her out on the town with the money from painting Luis’s wall.  The problem is that Daniel lives in La Chacra, one of the most notorious 18 territories in all of San Salvador, and she  lives in La 22 de Abril, a couple neighborhoods over, one of the most notorious MS-13 territories in all of San Salvador.  Word is she might have been a marero’s girlfriend too.  So he shouldn’t have gone, he broke the rules.  He knew he was risking his life, especially given who his brother is, but it’s not like that justifies it.       
I’m currently listening to regueton and thinking of how much Daniel loved to dance and thinking he would probably be wanting us to dance and party in his honor.  So I try not to be sad, but it still doesn’t seem real.  It’s more like maybe he just disappeared for a while again, or maybe he got sent to jail again.  I mean I need to reconcile with him still, tell him I’m sorry for not talking to him, tell him how much I appreciate him, tell him I can’t wait until he’s a famous Salvadoran painter.   And now I can’t, and I’m torn up.
But my regret and sadness is nothing compared to the pain of his family and those who loved him.  They cry and mourn, and invite their distant relatives in to town to cry with them, and they walk up and down the linea asking for a few cents from the inhabitants of each shack to help pay for the wake.  Luis talks about him like he’s still just right there down the linea and will probably show up any minute to look for something to paint.  He even looks in the direction of Daniel’s house with his eyes extra squinted against the sun and the memories.   But he laughs at how many dolares Daniel hoodwinked him about of over the years, and smiles at how there haven’t been that many people at someone’s wake in a long time. 
Everyone is pulling out our mechanisms to deal with never again seeing someone who you used to see every day.  Everyone says it’s a shame, it’s so sad, he was so young, 23, just a kid.  And some people go on saying he was a bad piece, he was involved in shady things, no one is exempt from anything in this country.  He went into the 22 de Abril for God’s sake, and people cope, because they have no other choice.  The pain that they carry in their heart is often times not visible, but we all share it, we all know it’s there.
This past week in the Open School, our last week of the year, we were working on the topic of hope with the kids.  One day they had to express personal answers to a number of questions in front of the whole group. One of the questions was what do you hope for in your life.  I was stunned at how many of the kids expressed that they hoped that they and their families would stay alive, that they would continue living.  Some laughed as they said it, some were stone grim, but I knew it because of Daniel.  Violence and death are always on the tip of everyone’s tongue, shivering down everyone’s spine,  constant variables.  But I knew this was probably the first time for a lot of kids that someone they had known closely, someone they had danced with, learned how to paint with, maybe learned a dirty joke with, had been killed.  And they just didn’t want it to happen to them.  It’s the bare bones of hope.  Your deepest, most profound, most heartfelt hope is just to keep living, and sometimes it’s hard to grasp that type of hope, let alone get happy about it.  But it makes life more beautiful, it makes you appreciate life more, and especially appreciate those who will only live on in our hearts. 
Que descanses en paz Chicharrita…

domingo, 21 de noviembre de 2010

Starting a Story

There’s different ways to connect with the different kids.  What I used with Jose the other day was to let him know that he had a big twig plastered on his forehead by his freshly applied hair gel.   He became suddenly self-conscious and wiped frantically at his face.  He was also very surprised that I had said something to him I think, as we hadn’t talked in like two weeks, and his group of guys was in the process of trying to strong-arm the Open School kids off the soccer court.  But he managed to get out “gracias Burrich”, something I don’t think I had ever heard from him… the gracias part that is. 
Jose used to come to the Open School (our violence prevention program at Maria Madre de los Pobres in La Chacra, San Salvador) all the time, but in the days when you could get away with screwing around, not paying attention, disrespecting the coordinators and then still go play soccer at the end of the day.  He had always been one of the kids who I really wanted to come.  Since I ever remember seeing him, he had the gang member plante: the arrogant look, the baggy clothes, the go-to-hell attitude to match the go-to-hell vocabulary, and no plans for the future beyond the next bag of chips.  I used to see him playing soccer with some of the other street-tough kids in the alleyway next to the parish entrance, and I would try to strike up a conversation that might lead to inviting him to come to the Open School.  He would mainly ignore me or kick the soccer ball at me if I was getting in the way too much.  His uncle is the number two gang member in our local click, and Jose, at 13, was seemingly sprinting down the same path.    
So I felt like it was a miracle when he started showing up to the Open School with his cousin Delia, an equally street-wise 13 year old girl who got in the alarming habit of jabbing a pen in my side like she was robbing me when she wanted a new piece of paper or a drink of water.   They would invariably show up late, eating some type of drippy or crumby snack, and would make a disruptive scene of getting their plastic chairs and finding a place in the circle.
Jose is brilliant, but he was always too cool to answer any question or participate in any discussions.  He preferred to spend his time throwing small objects at people, trying to flirt with girls by hitting them, talking back to the coordinators, and making vulgar gestures to the shocked amusement of the other kids.  But he loved to make crafts with his hands.  He made the best popsicle stick vases and nylon bracelets out of all the kids. 
But it wasn’t enough to keep him around.  Even before we overhauled the Open School to crack down on bad behavior through stricter rules and an even busier schedule of activities, Jose was coming less and less.  One day in September he got expelled from 6th grade at the local Catholic school because he told one of the nuns to eat bodily waste (apparently that was the last straw).  I think that’s when he started to feel convinced that he was malo, and that in the long run, no one was going to care what he did.  And in that type of mindset, crafts, small group discussions about cooperation, soccer, and lots of other cool activities just aren’t enough to keep a kid from thinking that being a gang member might be his best option.    
Now, it’s not like Jose has been brincado  (initiated into the gang) yet… far from it, but he’s on the fringes, he’s a postero.  He walks the walk and talks the talk, and chills on the corners looking out for the soldiers so that he can make the most subtle of gestures to let the actual gang members know to go and hide.  You can see him being groomed by his uncle, and by the others close to the head gangster.  He’s already just waiting for the call to the big leagues, and the call might not come for years. 
To be sure, there’s more little kids that will one day want in the gang than the pandilla could ever accept.   I would say that in La Chacra, it’s a myth that gangs “recruit”  little kids.  It’s the poverty, the family disintegration, the lack of a support structure, the lack of education, the lack of opportunities, the lack of somebody to care, the lack of love that recruits little kids.  It’s the fact that the gang members are the coolest and most powerful people in the neighborhood.  They take you in and accept you, they protect you, and they get you money.  So kids want in, but they don’t understand the implications.  I recently heard a teacher lamenting that these days in El Salvador, there aren’t any young people who are willing to dedicate their lives to their convictions.  But the truth is that the kids in the gangs sacrifice everything and live everyday willing to kill and die and go to jail for their convictions.  But I don’t think that’s what the teacher was referring to. 

Looking back, it was on one of Jose’s last days at the Open School that I got closest to him.  We had commandeered a laptop so that we could show the kids a movie.  While we were waiting for the projector to arrive, I showed a couple of the kids the wonders of Microsoft Word.  I could see Jose’s fascination as he noticed that I could type almost as fast as they could tell me what to write.  And so I told Jose to tell me a story and I would type it out for him.  “I don’t know any stories,” he said.  
“Sure you do”, I told him, “you know your own, tell me your story.”
 “Nombre, I don’t have a story.”
“ When was your birthday”  I asked him. 
“September  11.”
 “De veras?” I said.  “And you know what happened on the date?”
 “Simon, they took down the twin towers.”
“ Yeah,” I told him.  “your birthday is a big day.   That day changed the course of history, and not because of the twin towers.”
We went on and managed to determine that he had a huge dysfunctional family, he had always been great at soccer, and that he wanted  to be an architect when he grew up.   He was astounded that he was looking at an entire paragraph all about himself.  Then the projector showed up and we had to start putting the movie together.  “Hey we’ll finish this tomorrow though man.  Your story isn’t over.”
“Va,” he nodded. 
But he didn’t come the next day, or the one after that, and well, I didn’t get to finish typing out his story.  He’s still writing it though, and it’s far from over.  We have no idea how it will end, and I have no concrete idea of what we at the Open School and the parish could do to help him.  I mean, we have to reach out to him, we have to embrace him somehow, show him some compassion, but how? We haven’t invited him to start coming to the  Open School again, and I don’t think we will.  We know he still loves bitching out adults and bothering other kids, especially girls.  And would we be willing to risk other kids getting into the fringes of the gang by trying to have him around?  Our guideline is to work with kids who are not yet involved in gangs, so does the fringe count? At this point it’s not like Jose would come anyway.   He’s too busy dreaming and posturing for the day when everyone in the barrio respects him, whether out of love or fear.  But he still needs some attention.  He needs our attention, and to know that we haven’t given up on him.  That’s all that any of these kids need.  
Lots of people find the gang situation in El Salvador, and other issues of senseless violence and desperation to be completely irrational and incomprehensible.  How can such perversity exist? How can a kid like Jose be so close to throwing his life away at 13 years old? But what is more incomprehensible and perverse: Jose’s situation, or a system which produces millions of Joses all over the world?    
Jose’s crisis is all of ours.  Our future rests on our ability to help kids like Jose write different endings to their stories.  In my personal case, embracing kids like him has been one of the greatest challenges of my life; a challenge that brings so much frustration that just helping them with twigs on their forehead and to hear them say gracias, is a great joy.      
Jose certainly isn’t his real name by the way.   I would’ve loved to have had a picture of him too, but he doesn’t take kindly to cameras.  
One day soon, I’ll put up the other “first blog-entry” I had going.