My great Uncle Paco was a pain in the ass. He had been all his life. In the 1930’s, he had joined with the Communist movement in El Salvador, during the rise of a dictator they called El Brujo, the Warlock. They had planned for an uprising of the poor against the corrupt and bloody government. The poor had their machetes to fight with. El Brujo had machine guns. In 1932 he massacred, in the first six weeks of that year, over twenty-five thousand poor Salvadoran men, women and children.
Uncle Paco had to go into exile. He slipped through Guatemala, headed to Mexico City, started a book shop and could never return to El Salvador. But El Salvador never left him.
When we met, in 1981, I was in college. We were visiting his family for the winter holidays. He sized me up quickly, and when he heard no Spanish coming out of my mouth, said, Y ¿qué, sos Salvadoreño y no te conocés? My mother translated, “You’re Salvadoran and you don’t know yourself?”
I didn’t want to have a thing to do with him. I was busy. I had a new girlfriend back in the States. I was writing my first novel. It wasn’t the best of times to go searching for my Latino roots. But really, I was ashamed.
He didn’t care. Uncle Paco berated me for not knowing El Salvador, its history, its writers, poets, artists, revolutionaries. While he, grandmother and Mamá talked near the cash register of his bookstore, I wandered around. But, these books were all in Spanish. Still, they were books. I found an author whose name was familiar, Gabriel García Márquez, he had just won the Nobel for literature. I pulled it out of the shelf, Cien años de soledad. “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Paco looked my way, saw the book, and laughed his ass off. My grandmother chuckled. And my mother, while translating, couldn’t help but join in their fun, “He says you can’t speak Spanish, and you plan to read that?”
The goddamn arrogant son of a—I stomped across the room, shook the novel in his face, turned to Mamá and said, “You tell him that I’m going to read this book, and someday, I’m gonna understand it!”
They all shut up, but still grinned like cats. He said, “Vaya pues,” then charged me
twelve pesos. Which, pissed me off even more. I was his nephew. He should’ve given it to me.
I took it home, read it, and didn’t understand one word. I read it with a dictionary by my side, wrote up and down the margins, and read the entire book out loud. The more I read, the Spanish, at first coarse, started to take on my mother’s tone. I memorized the vocabulary. The story was opening up to me.
Today I teach the novel, in Spanish. I’ve probably read it eight times. I’ve got Uncle Paco to thank—he taught me that, along with studying a grammar book and visiting or living in Latin American countries, reading is a way to get to the roots of a language and its culture. It was also, I saw, a way of getting to the roots of the self, the Salvadoran who was always inside this body, waiting.
The Writing Bull Podcast launches next Monday, February 12.