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.