Authors: Demetria Martinez
The first thing Mom had me do when we got back was develop my film—she had me take photos of the picture of Dad. She has seemed very peaceful since we got back last week, which is good because I was worried sick that our experience would set her way back. We still don’t know what the hell happened to Dad. But she seems to have a lot of energy. She’s even gotten involved over at the Justice Center. She told me that at a meeting last night she volunteered to organize a letter-writing campaign—there’s a push now to get a team of forensic experts to Salvador to analyze what’s in the mass graves, to document just how bad things were during the war. This morning she dragged me to
mass at San Rafael, and afterwards we stopped by the frame shop. When we got home, she had me put a nail in the wall above her bedroom altar and we hung the poster—she calls it an icon—of the Mother of the Disappeared. Then, she got a photograph of herself when she was seven and the photo of the picture of Dad and she stuck them in the bottom corners of the frame. She lit a candle and sat quietly for a long, long time. She didn’t say a word about why she hung the poster, which is weird because she’s always running around trying to analyze things, to put things in words. It drives me crazy. But finally I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I asked her what she was thinking. She smiled and said that the Mother of the Disappeared is forever remembering, forever waiting for everyone to return. “Mijo, I can get on with my life now,” she said.
I just finished a long conversation with my son. It’s happening so quickly; in the shadow of his
lush and amber waves of English are tufts of Spanish, hardy and smelling of pupusas and taquitos and salsa verde he says he eats at least once a week at a restaurant in Spanish Harlem. No te preocupes, mamá, José Luis tells me, don’t worry about me. I’m getting enough sleep, yes, I’m very careful when I walk across campus at night.… Of all my child’s phases—jazz and photography, skiing competitions, and, last semester, Latin American novels—this is the one to fear and revere. A new language is a tincture, a drop of which forever changes the chemistry of the person who is learning it. He still talks about saving the planet—but now he seems to have found a point of departure—he tells me he will be volunteering next summer with a soil conservation project in El Salvador. It will be our first summer apart.
I remember the moment during our trip to El Salvador when he took his life in his hands and made something new out of it, although at the time I had no clue this was happening. After our day in the human rights office we were
scheduled to visit Ciudad Grande, one of the settlements of repatriated refugees. I couldn’t even think of it, I was so exhausted. I told José Luis I preferred to sit in the cathedral and pray and think and that he should do likewise, he should rest up before our trip home. Rest up. One of those lame, motherly admonitions that, more often than not, backfire. I could tell he was feeling guilty about not wanting to stay with me. And like a fool I let my need to control tick away a few seconds too long, and he saw through me and blew up. He said, I didn’t come all this way to see my father’s face—and not his world.
When he returned a day and a half later with Sister Margarita, he was in good spirits. Ma, hey, you’ll never believe it. I met a family that’s doing restoration work with traditional farming techniques. Can you believe they had their land seized by the army in the 1970s.… He spoke with the infinite passion of a young man who imagines he has discovered something new; of course, for him it was new, the story of El Salvador.
Later, on the flight home, I noticed my son’s face had changed, had traded in its hard edges for a more porous expression, something bordering on wonder. It was as if after having seen so many people who looked like him, he no longer had to bear the burden of his heritage by himself. He became free to explore new selves, new expressions. Now he tells me that he has been exchanging letters with the Salvadoran family’s oldest daughter, Angela. She is his age. I don’t know what this might mean, if anything. He is not one to admit, even to himself, that life has taken off in a new direction until long after the fact. And now all he can talk about is how much he enjoys writing Angela in Spanish and how much he looks forward to next summer. And I ache to think that we will be apart, I envy his ability to up and go at will, and I am bursting with pride at all he has become, strong and beautiful as a flowering cactus in the desert.
My baby, my son, beloved stranger, disappearing into a new language and landscape,
leaving me to look inside myself for the magic I love in you. I am forty years old. I have melted down sadness and joy into a single blade with which to carve out a life. And I am just beginning to discern the shape that was there all along, just beginning to become me.
I am sending this card to Soledad’s address with a prayer that it finds its way to you. Yes, I went back. And then into hiding for a very long time. Only recently has it been safe enough for me to live in the light of day. I heard through my contacts that you and a young man came looking for me. If only I
could have known. Even though my reasons for returning to my country were right, the act of leaving you was never right. At the present time I am visiting the Toronto Center for War Survivors with the San Salvador archbishop. We are talking with the directors and looking for ways we can help refugees return home when they are ready. Remember that collection of poems I started? Well, I finished them. And I hope you will approve of my English translations. I have so many stories to tell you, María. I pray you have not forgotten me
Your friend para siempre,
José Luis Alegría Cruz (y Romero)
To the memory of the disappeared
Demetria Martínez lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she works as a columnist for the
National Catholic Reporter
. She was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and received a B.A. from Princeton University.
In 1987 Martínez was indicted on charges related to smuggling Central American refugees into the United States. A jury later acquitted her on First Amendment grounds.
She is also the author of a collection of poetry, “Turning,” included in the book
Three Times a Woman