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Authors: Demetria Martinez

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BOOK: Mother Tongue
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Sometimes we made love in my Old Town house, the mud house that the sun baked and cracked. The thick sheets of plastic I taped over my windows for winter insulation were down and the lace tablecloth I had pinned to a curtain rod could not thwart the gaze of tourists who occasionally mistook my house for a shop. So before we made love, I took a length of golden
cloth that was seared with red Farsi characters and tacked it to the wood frame above the window. I don’t know what the characters meant. A man who sold lamp parts at the flea market had it among his wares; he couldn’t say where it came from, but he swore it was the color of luck. The forked letters were beautiful. The sunlight that strained through them dyed my bedroom a golden yellow; I felt I was moving through flames. In the heat and light we made love like the last two animals on earth. We struck at each other with our tongues like cobras. We twisted around one another and vowed never to let go. The fear that he would one day leave me jetted through my arteries. Fear was my yoga—it loosened my limbs and elongated my breath. It opened my third eye to the myriad possibilities of misshapen mattresses on nineteenth-century floorboards.

The silence of the golden room with its blue walls and white door frames was astonishing. At most, we whispered to one another. To try to keep the room cool, we kept the door leading
outside open. A sarong from Bali, the color of apricot skin and just as thin, hung over the screen; it was all that separated us from the din of tourists. Keeping quiet, we read the braille of one another’s bodies. Keeping quiet, he moved on top of me, found his way in. Afterwards, he whispered, I love you. I love you, I said. I remember how those words moved up and down my thighs, how, over time, they evoked not happiness but a thrill. You see, after a certain point nothing resembling peace filled me in that room except perhaps, for the smoky, gold light. No, it was all a thrill, exactly as one might feel after parachuting from a plane, joy dependent upon fear. José Luis’s body unclenched, he kissed my eyelids, my nose. He would have been happy, I’m sure, to rest. But I roused myself, roused him, and we had at it again. To this day, I’m not sure what aroused me more, sex itself or sex the symbol—emblem of a bond all the more magnificent because it would be torn asunder. I prayed he would stay but assumed he would not,
assumed he would leave me for his war or for another woman. My mother’s cells had fought one another, a civil war that took her from me. When I was three, a woman lured my father from home. This story is not about them, but it would be dishonest to disregard the role their ghosts played in my life, maybe still are playing; I had to make something beautiful out of abandonment. Long before José Luis left me, I was using sex to weld our bodies together into a bronze statue so magnificent I knew even if it shattered, each remnant could stand alone.

I remember how the room used to spin after we made love. It was always the same—to staunch the strange feelings of panic I got up, got dressed, turned on the classical station, and then took down the cloth with the Farsi words. What might have been a pleasant ritual turned into a series of regimented acts. I took down that beautiful cloth and folded it like a flag. I guess it was a way to make the room stop spinning, although I never would have admitted to myself that
making love with José Luis was churning up something like chaos in me. Chaos that creates or destroys worlds, whichever comes first.

You see, real love is quiet as snow, without chaos, hard to write about. Perhaps that is why I haven’t mentioned the man I have been seeing for a year, or maybe our love is just too new to have accrued meanings beyond pleasure. Our idea of a good time is a bed and breakfast in Northern New Mexico where he works for the state weatherproofing houses of the low-income and elderly. When he visits here every other weekend our time together is joyful, blessedly nondescript. His parents were survivors of the Holocaust. He loves life in a way peculiar to those free of reverence for authority, who can see through its claims, its need to order and crush life. When he comes over he tells stories of how he defies the state bureaucracy, weatherproofing in ways beyond those detailed in the code book, using whatever materials are at hand. In their Zen simplicity, his stories exorcise the inner authorities that say
quiet, don’t tell
, that keep
women like me from speaking the truth about their lives.

Photograph of my bedroom altar, Old Town: Santo Niño de Atocha, a Christ child on a throne who wears out his shoes as he wanders around each night doing good deeds; miniature Taos Pueblo incense burner; painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe from Nogales; African fertility doll, her coal-black head shaped like pita bread; mouthwash bottle filled with holy water Soledad had a priest bless; a film canister full of healing earth from the sanctuary at Chimayó. I liked it that José Luis and I made love in the presence of my santos. I knew they had blessed my love for him, however imperfect it was, however mad. They were not like the white God I’d had to kill, that women like me must kill if we are to have any hope of ever finding God. Nothing replaced Him for a long time. But looking back now I can see that the growing chaos inside blazed away dead growth, clearing a space, however violently, for God to be reborn.


There were so many moments I would rather not talk about but in this dark night of remembering, they are blooming like night flowers. I remember waiting for his phone call as I sat in the kitchen counting the tablecloth’s red and white checkerboard squares. A volunteer who had taken him to meet with his lawyer had also invited him out for dinner. She was one of those women who knew everything there was to know about El Salvador, who ate and drank and slept El Salvador, who wanted to give birth to another Salvadoran. At least this is the lie that I told myself to justify my envy and fear. When no phone call came, I curled up like a shrimp until midnight cast its nets and hauled me to sleep. Another time I held my finger above the flame of my Guadalupe candle and held it there to see how long I could take the heat. When he didn’t call, my world shriveled. Fetal position. Blistered finger pad. Or when he called and didn’t say, I love you, I shattered, then mistook a piece of me for the whole, a mistake that disfigures women’s lives time and again. But I lacked the nerve to tell
him how I was feeling. When his phone calls finally came, our conversations usually went something like this: María, I would have called earlier but I ended up helping some friends translate Urgent Action Alerts after the meeting. A literacy worker in El Salvador found red crosses, the death squads’ signature, painted on her walls. We started a telephone tree. Everyone is calling two friends and asking them to send telegrams to the embassy.… Don’t apologize, José Luis. It’s not that late, I was just sitting here reading the horoscopes.


Following is a summary of KEY EVENTS in El Salvador for the month of AUGUST.
8/5 Guerrillas enter Belén north of the city and hold public meetings.
8/6 Twenty-six families occupy the abandoned Aragón hacienda in San Vicente.
8/8 Archbishop José Grande denounces destruction of crops by the Mixtec Battalion (trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, Fort Benning, Ga.).
8/13 Catholic Church officials announce that the military budget for El Salvador is likely to increase four percent next year.
The amount used to pay the foreign debt will increase by 400 percent.
8/20 Third anniversary of the Santa Ana massacre.
8/25 Sixty families in villages north of San Vicente denounce army bombardment of their area.
8/30 Archbishop Grande announces findings of his human rights commission. Interviews with surviving witnesses indicate El Cordero was the site of an army massacre. No estimates yet
on numbers of dead but could be close to 200. U.S. State Department officials question commission’s findings and criticize American reporters who travel to the site. U.S.-trained Mixtec Battalion believed to be involved.


Write politely worded letters to President Alfredo Amérigo (registered mail, address on page two) asking for the release of catechist Margarita Bautista, who has been detained by Treasury police for over a month after speaking at a peace rally outside the Cathedral in San Salvador.
Send copies to the White House and your representatives. See other side for updated list of disappeared and extrajudicial executions.

September 1982

1. Boil lavender in water and steam face (lavender to harmonize body and soul)

2. Make a list of job-hunting tasks

3. Do a 20-minute

4. Go visit the sick or elderly or join a cause

5. Get out of yourself.

He hasn’t called, so I’m making a list. I’m making a list so I won’t fall apart. I won’t fall apart if I follow through on the list. If I follow through, I’ll forget about him and therefore set up the karmic conditions that will allow him to call.

Now I remember why, in junior high, I used to write letters to myself (“Dear Mary”) when I was feeling really good. I sealed them away in envelopes and opened them whenever I sank into sadness and paralysis. They always included pep talks, reminders of fun
times, and to-do lists. I always said to myself, “I promise this won’t last forever” and I signed them, “the real you.”

Now, as I write this, I can’t remember the real me. It’s terrifying, that you can love someone so much that you lose your own self in the uproar. I can’t remember the me who loves September, who loves to walk or read. It’s incredible outside. I can hear the hooves of horses pulling carriages around the plaza, San Rafael’s bells, the daily “shoot-out” for the tourists in front of Wild West Saloon. I know in my mind that I would feel better if I got out. But my body can’t follow through.

At times like this I wish I had hobbies or political causes. My mother used to tell me, “develop your inner resources.” I should have listened. That’s how she survived Dad’s leaving her. That’s how she survived her death. She read bestsellers, she went on retreats at
the Franciscan House, she recorded Soledad’s memories of coming up from Mexico, she even took up folk dancing and said, without any bitterness, that if she’d taken it up earlier she wouldn’t have gotten cancer, but at least she knows this for the next life. Thank God I’ve at least got this notebook. As long as I can keep moving my hand across the page I know I won’t die of depression.

Here is a photograph of me and José Luis sitting on the adobe banco in front of San Rafael Church, frozen in mid-laugh. Behind us roses are growing wild around the rectory’s arches. With his Tibetan eyelids and Mayan cheekbones, José Luis looks like a god, an obsidian idol native people buried beneath Catholic shrines and revered under the noses of priests. He had slipped a rose behind my ear, a bud opening like the mouth of a hungry infant. I have on a purple T-shirt that I’d cut the collar out of to make it cooler. It’s slipping to the right; there’s a whisper
of a black bra strap. My long hair is black with red highlights, my face olive. When a tourist snapped this photograph with my camera, my face had already taken on the full, fleeting beauty of young women the summer before something happens to make them ripen, the summer before the first fragile harvest of wisdom. The kind of beauty that returns much later in life if one can surrender all acquired wisdom and begin again.

I see now, looking at José Luis, that his face had grown too old too quickly. His face is wise but in the way that sometimes prefigures death. The lines, like those in a palm, seem to have been put there by fate, not by choice. The wonder is that his eyes, which had seen too much, are filled with laughter and forgetting. We must have just made love. The photo is proof: I could take the war out of him for a few hours, I had some power. But back then I knew nothing about the healing arts. Nobody warned me that the war left his body by way of mine, that currents of his memories were moving through me at dangerously high voltages. Look, even in
this happy photograph, my eyes are hard as arrowheads. But I can’t lie, can’t say no one warned me. Soledad tried. I listened but refused to hear. What she said is lost on me to this day.

September 16

Maybe María is the one. Maybe my María is to be my wife. We could have children. I could begin again. We could get married in a Quaker ceremony. I could live with that. María has a problem with the Church not ordaining women, and I’m sure God agrees with her. We could raise our children as Quakers, get a place near the Meeting House in the Valley. My God, I’m starting to sound just like her. Claiming to be practical (to prevent my deportation), she weaves these fantasies. And it’s getting harder and harder not to be seduced by them.

Why am I fighting her? María may abhor reality but that doesn’t mean truth is not on her side. Marrying her
would solve many problems. My fate would not depend entirely on a political asylum application. So far, the volunteers have worked hard to gather my documentation, sometimes even smuggling into the country taped testimony of what happened to me. But the U.S. is turning down most applications of Guatemalans and Salvadorans.

Still, the idea of marrying aside, the process of applying could buy me some time, three years maybe. With luck the authorities might misplace my file for a few more years; it has been known to happen. Meanwhile, I would have a work permit, and I could live in the light of day again. I wouldn’t have to be afraid all the time. As it is, I look in the mirror and see a map of El Salvador. María’s Harvard T-shirts can’t cover up my skin color.

But what if in the end I apply and the U.S. turns down my application?
The government will deport me. If I try then to go underground, the authorities would have my face and fingerprints on record. To make matters worse, there are rumors that immigration routinely sends information about political asylum candidates back to El Salvador, which means if I were ever deported, it would be the end. Applying to Canada is an option, but I hear they may be tightening up their immigration policies. In truth, Canada might be as dangerous as Salvador. The loneliness, not to mention the cold, could kill me. At least here I am functioning like a human being.

So why then do I not go along with María’s dreams and schemes? Am I afraid that even if we were to marry, the pull might be too great? That one night I might wake up, hear the call, and go back to El Salvador? I’m not ready to commit to another country, much less a
woman. But this limbo is not doing me any good either. I know it is my destiny to go back, that it is the will of God for every Salvadoran to go back home. But right now evil is more powerful than all of us. The land problem and the civil war could easily continue for another decade. I must not assume the way will open for me to return. It is not possible to assume anything, this is the problem, this is what it means to be a refugee. Sometimes I forget I’m a refugee.


BOOK: Mother Tongue
9.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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