The woman, in her fifties, had draped a black, webbed veil over her head. Her dress might have been from Sears, bought at a thrift store, but the scarf around her neck was from a thousand years of Nahuatl stitching. Her skin was Oaxacan-brown, with the native folds in her cheeks. She clenched her hands in front of her chest, looked up the hill of Tepeyac, dragged her knees over Zumaraga Avenue, and left two thin stains of blood on the asphalt behind her.
She wasn’t alone. Behind her, hundreds of indigenous women, men, and their children stooped over, touched the ground with their fingertips, kneeled on the street and scooted toward the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Behind them, hundreds more. And behind those hundreds, thousands. It was December 12, 1982. The entire nation of Mexico had dropped to its knees.
I stood and watched with gringo eyes. I was twenty. My mother and Uncle Paco were at a decrepit food wagon pulled by a mule. They bought tightly-knotted plastic bags of fruit juices. Uncle Paco handed me one and told me how to drink it. In Spanish. It was a long string of words, it lasted forever. My mother translated, “Just bite the plastic. Drink it through the teeth holes.”
I stood there and suckled the bag like a drunk baby at the breast. I was mad; I knew that Uncle Paco’s instructions on how to pierce a refresco bag was also laced with a diatribe about language, loss of culture, loss of the self, and that new Mexican word he’d gone out of the way to teach me: pocho. Definition: a piece of rotting fruit; and a Latino who knows nothing about his culture.
I had met him for the first time the night before the national holiday of Guadalupe. My parents and I had flown in to spend the Christmas holidays with our extended family in Mexico City. Uncle Paco was in his late sixties, but he carried himself as though twenty years younger. He was a thin man and an average height, more ladino than native; but there was nothing average about him. When we got off the plane, he kissed my mother, shook my father’s hand with great vigor then turned to me and said. . .something. A long string of something. Then he saw it in my eyes, that certain, painful confusion of a Latino man who doesn’t know he’s Latino but then, of course he does and thus, in the moment of having to deal with Latino kin, feels shame.
He saw the shame. And he couldn’t have cared less. He said, “¿Y qué, vos sos guanaco y no te conocés?” My mother translated for me, What, you’re Salvadoran and you don’t know yourself? Guanaco, a slang term for Salvadoran.
This uncle of mine was a royal ass-pain. The man never let up. He tormented me about my bloodline and the fact that I knew only half of it. He dragged me all over Mexico City and beyond. Tepeyac was just the first stop. He drove us out to Teotihuacan, twenty miles outside the capital. We walked down the broad, dusty Avenue of the Dead, between rows of thousand-year-old, architecturally-perfect temples. Uncle Paco lectured about the days before Columbus showed up and, as he coined it, unleashed the slaughter of Native Americans; that the Spaniards had raped our land of its gold and silver, now displayed in some of the finest museums of Europe, especially in the Vatican, a place he pronounced with a sneer.
Paco pissed me off to no end, knew he did, and kept on going, like a man on a mission. He was a man with a history of missions. As a teenager, he fought alongside the poor in the Salvadoran uprising of 1932. The dictator sent his military into the villages with machine guns, and slaughtered twenty-five thousand campesinos within two months. Paco escaped and went into exile in Mexico, where he set up a book shop and settled.
But Paco never settled, not when it came to the home country. He had a Salvadoran national flag, one so big it covered a whole wall of his living room. He sent money to the FMLN, the guerrilla group that was, in 1982, fighting the corrupt military-backed, death-squad government. He quoted works by the revolutionary Salvadoran poet, Roque Dalton. And he partied. Before we left Teotihuacan, he pulled an ice box out of his trunk, handed us plastic glasses, poured tequila into each, raised his glass to the pyramids and blessed them with godless, revolutionary zealotry. He pulled out cheese and toasted tortillas, a picnic blanket and a radio. We ate under some trees. I drank as much as I could.
By the time we got to his bookstore, I’d had enough of him. He and Mom were talking near the cash register. I wandered around. This was a bookstore, one of those safe places in my life, surrounded by tomes. But, all these were in Spanish. I wandered like a blind man, then saw a name I recognized: García Márquez. He had just won the Nobel Prize that year. I pulled the book out and mouthed the title, Cien años de soledad. I’d said it loud enough for both of them to hear. Paco turned to me, looked at the novel in my hand, but didn’t go into a long predication; he just laughed. It was more of a snort. Then he spoke and Mom, worn out from all the translating, sighed, “He said that you don’t speak a word of Spanish, and you’re going to read that book?”
I’ve had enough of you, you old sack of shit and I stormed them, raised the book and shook it at him while saying to my mother, “You tell him that I’m going to read this book, and someday I’m going to understand it!”
I have no idea why that came flying out of my mouth. It was, at the time, an empty promise; I was about to re-shelve it before the ass-wipe chortled. And he knew what I was saying, or had the gist of it, before Mom translated. He looked at me, surprised, then pleased; the anger pleased him. He smiled, said, “Vaya pues,” and charged me ten pesos.
I’d put the old man in his place, or so I thought. He didn’t preach at me anymore. He spoke more softly; he placed his hand on my shoulder to turn me, gently, toward the doors of El Museo de Antropología, and this time, paid for my ticket. He didn’t drag me to each artifact and give me a lecture, but left me on my own. I wandered through the stone history of Middle America, through exhibits of Mayan jade jewelry, huge stone jaguar heads, one with its mouth so open, it could swallow the world in a yawn. I didn’t want to leave. Something had changed. Tepeyac, Teotihuacan, mariachis playing in the plaza, men laughing on park benches, drunks that could see the gringo in me under all the black hair and brown eyes and, out of their liquor stupor, made a bee-line my way and breathed their guaro-soaked Spanish onto my face. Children, so many children. The bookstore—the novel and the anger, a rage that is specifically Salvadoran; a revolutionary ire.
But it was exhausting. In the museum, I stood before The Sun Stone, known also as the Aztec Calendar. Twelve feet across, three feet thick, twenty-four tons. Hundreds of years ago, the people of Mexica had cut a world and a cosmos into the rock. A huge face, angry, wild with power, filled the center, and from it shot sharp rays of stone sunlight. Circles were cut within circles, with the carvings of jaguars, crocodiles, lizards. And symbols. On its edge, hieroglyphics formed a pattern of what I, years later, learned were the numbers and letters of a vast Mexican universe.
There was no more anger, just fatigue. Paco had made a crack in my pocho-ness. Two years after he dragged me through Mexico, I moved to Central America. Since 1984, I have lived mostly in Latino worlds, both south of Tijuana and in the U.S. I moved to Los Angeles, where I am at home, surrounded by the culture that keeps me alive.
In 1992, I wrote to Uncle Paco, told him the story, and thanked him for kicking my pocho ass. In Spanish. He wrote back, impressed by my pen, and said that he knew all along the guanaco was in me, all it needed was someone to coax it out. He was proud of me for the work I’d done in Nicaragua during the Sandinista-Contra civil war (and oh how he praised the Nicaraguan revolution against the dictator Somoza!), and the grassroots work with the Mayan Q’eqchi’ of Guatemala. Two weeks later he died, the same week of the Salvadoran peace accords.
We are Salvadoran, not Mexican. But Mexico was the place where it happened, where I found myself. Uncle Paco used the country as the classroom for the education of my Latino-ness. He loved the country; it had protected him, had given him a place where he could continue doing rebel work from outside of El Salvador, raising money for the guerrillas, helping other Salvadorans fleeing from the violence as they passed through the D.F.
This week, Mexico shook; the murderous innocence of fault lines under the capital rubbed and cracked and took too, too many lives. As I write, they’re still finding people under collapsed buildings. They mourn; they fall to bloody knees.
Then the Mexican people rise. The rubble shifts, as though a giant under it, beaten and bloodied, knocks the broken walls off its shoulders. Mexico stands, large, intimidating. Powerful. I know its power, the beauty of its culture, one that dug out of me my own.