Surviving Madness, Salvadoran-Style

Uncle Paco
Uncle Paco

Last week I wrote about my Uncle Paco, who had played a big role in me finding my Salvadoran roots. He helped me see that I was a guanaco (the nickname for Salvadorans), and in doing so–though he didn’t know this–he helped keep me alive.

Three years after meeting him, Michelle and I, newly-married, moved to Central America. We lived a few years in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador. In late 1991, after returning to the States, I wrote Uncle Paco a letter, in Spanish, thanking him for kicking my ass into my Salvadoran culture.

He wrote back. He complimented me on my Spanish. He had heard that I was writing a novel set in El Salvador, which had pleased him to no end. He hoped to read it someday. He could tell, he said, from my letter, that I had plunged into our Salvadoran culture. He was particularly happy that Michelle and I had worked with the poor and oppressed in Nicaragua, a country that he believed, due to its revolution against a bloody dictatorship, was a beacon of hope for the rest of the Central Americas.

I had heard that he was not doing well. He had the family illness, the mania, the depression, and the constant cycle between the two. Looking back on our time together in Mexico, I remember his enthusiasm, his elation, as he taught me Mexican and Salvadoran culture, how Mexicans and Salvies didn’t get along, which, he thought, was ironic, considering the two nations were kin, tied together by Nahuatl blood.

There was an effervescence in his spirit. We weren’t around long enough to see the other pole of the illness. I hope he didn’t suffer that too much, that he, like I, lived mostly in the manic, which is the mood that gets things done, that finds meaning, purpose; that makes a boy barely out of his teens plough through a Spanish novel a dozen times to stitch the story to his bones. It’s the part of the madness that I relish.

But I know the drop, and the soul-ripping depression. I hate to think he was going through that. But the war in El Salvador, which was supposed to end within its first six months, lasted eleven years. The United States had kept it going, sending over a million dollars a day to the Salvadoran military that had thrown the country into a bloodbath. It wore on him, watching how the most powerful nation in the world had set out to crush his own.

His letter arrived in early January of 1992. He died a week later. A week after that, they signed the peace accords in El Salvador. The war was over.

The man saved me. Had I not met him, his mad love for his home country would not have infected me. I would be walking around this planet, knowing only half of myself. I would be a weak, weak man; for I have found most of my strength, my convictions, and my soul, in my Salvadoran blood. I wouldn’t be alive without knowing it; the haunts from my childhood, pockmarked with trauma, would have ended me.

Had I not plunged into the Salvadoran world, I would have ended this life long ago. But I learned that, in the Salvadoran psyche, even when dark forces beat us into the ground, there’s this little imp of a fellow, a cipitillo, that makes us lift our heads and, not only survive, but laugh. It is tough, the Salvadoran soul. It’s subversive, it uses guerrilla tactics, it’s a born organizer. It pulses with defiance. And it’s been inside me, keeping me alive, all along.





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