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.