*Selected by Paul Theroux as a notable essay in The Best American Travel Writing 2014
In those first months living in El Salvador, had I walked down a village street and seen young men leaning against gaping doorframes, their eyes steady upon me, I would have read the wrong story. Then, I could barely speak, let alone interpret what signs I might have seen: a flash of black ink on skin; aerosol piss scrawled across cinder block walls. I might have misremembered that those men catcalled, that they hissed. I would have seen cliché, not clique; the awkward beat of sex lost in translation, not the tick-tock of a multinational time bomb.
My tenth grade students were no help. They spoke abstractly of comunistas, and, more concretely, of the kidnappers who lay in nebulous wait for them, should they venture beyond their opulent sphere of bodyguards and bulletproof BMWs. They—bilingual and bicultural, if not tri-, or more—understood far better than I how meanings shift according to association.
“Miss, what does your tattoo mean?” they asked about the blue moon at my nape. They never mentioned—and I relied on them for information—that body art is probable cause in El Salvador, that it came with a twelve-year prison sentence. In fact, they never spoke of maras, of mareros, of gangs and gangsters. Maybe they couldn’t see either, although I doubt that. I think they thought the maras unspeakable.
I moved to El Salvador in the aftermath of 9/11, with a single suitcase and a visa that had circumvented the anthrax diplomacy bottleneck. My departure had been hasty and I returned home to the States at Christmas to wrap up unfinished business. One night, sitting on a barstool in an all-but abandoned Ithaca bar, I listened with not a small amount of incredulity to a slim girl with limp, mousy curls. As she spoke, her voice turned low and urgent, as if we were sitting in some dark back room in El Salvador, not an Ivy League watering hole done up in dark wood. She whispered to me about her friend who rehabilitated gang members in San Salvador, or tried to anyway. He ran a sort of men’s club, a gym that offered an alternative to street life, the problem being that one gang had laid claim to it.
“Talk to him,” she said, close to my ear. Then, as if late for another clandestine appointment, she stood up from a full glass, scrawled a name and email address on a strip of paper she tore from a notebook, and rushed out into the snowy night.
I had thought that violence was on the wane in El Salvador, that the war was over, barring a few brief intervals like aftershocks, like tremor mortis. This wasn’t quite as naïve as it sounds. I knew there was instability, poverty, uncertainty, a murder rate second only to Haiti in the Western Hemisphere, but I had dipped tentative toes in the murk of the developing world before, albeit nowhere quite so traumatized. What I hadn’t known was that there was institutionalized violence, factions and patterns and intent. And I wasn’t alone; in 2001, the War on Terror had yet to bring international notoriety and press to the gangs that were still coming of age, still tying the net, string by string, like the fishermen do in La Libertad.
Perhaps to remind myself of what I hadn’t known, I carried that strip of paper into the New York night, onto a southbound plane, and throughout the years I lived in El Salvador.
In San Salvador, there were more conspicuous and immediate threats to occupy one’s attention: the kamikaze traffic and ostensibly unaffiliated street crime; adolescents who pull sharp objects out of dirty clothing, point at a woman’s neck, and ask for wallet and watch; and the breathtaking prevalence of guns. Nowhere does “riding shotgun” have quite the same meaning as it does in downtown San Salvador where gun muzzles rest like wet dog noses on the edges of cracked-open passenger windows. These were largely anonymous, localized threats, not the concatenation or collision of histories. They were the residue of war, the result of hunger and want, not the rising action of a new story.
I never contacted the community center, but knowing that it existed recalibrated my vision. Now, I could see them, and they were everywhere. They were the writing on the wall: MS 13. Salvatrucha. 118th Street. Devil horns. A child’s pair of shoes dangling above an intersection. Tag. Turf. Clique. They were the writing in skin.
The maras were a new story, one that ran parallel to the world upon whose surface I drifted. Learning to read this story in El Salvador was a little like learning to see trout swimming in a stream, to spot the flash and quiver between the ripples and the mottled rock. And it was amazing to me, this slow revelation of an underworld within an underworld.
Later, as it sank in that the intersections hung with shoes were the intersections of my regular routes, that the tagged walls were the walls I entered freely and imagined myself safe within, I realized that I ought to feel fear as well as pity. But for a long time, fear and pity would change places in my perception—depending on where I was and how removed I felt from the heat.
We were supposed to stay within the walls wrapped round with razor wire. We were supposed to avoid public events, public beaches, public transportation, and, implicitly, the public at large. We were supposed to roll up our car windows at intersections, we were supposed to try not to stop at all at intersections after dark, we were supposed to travel with armed guards when we did travel out of our bounds. Maybe we lived in El Salvador, or in the midst of El Salvador, anyway, but there was an epistemological rift between our experiences and the experience had by most Salvadorans.
Write what you know, the adage goes, but my job was to teach my students to write like American students so that they could go to American colleges and think American thoughts. Meanwhile, I was trying to accomplish this same sort of cross-cultural auto-ventriloquism in the other direction. Smart enough to see the futility in all of this, many of my students cut out themselves as middlemen and resorted to plagiarism. Seeking to entice them to think for themselves, I developed the idea of an issue-fiction assignment that required them to write a short story that conveyed an argument about some social issue taking place in El Salvador. From where we sat, white or politically implicated or just too scared of what was out there beyond the barricades, there was just no other way to write El Salvador other than through the imaginary, but overall the assignment produced more honest writing than I’d yet seen.
When I tried my assignment out for myself, I encountered not a menace, but a boy. Not a real boy, not a boy I would have met or could have talked to, but a vision boy, a teenaged Virgil with a black thatch of hair, a gap between his teeth, kicking a rock across cracked concrete. He spoke not in prose, and not quite poetry either. Not English and not Spanish, or Caliche, or Nahuatl, or anything verifiable as truth. And from the start I loved him.
My father’s house—se fue, they say. It’s gone.
Mi padre y mi patria too.
I find the yellow clippings in a smuggled keepsake box with my milk teeth: UN CUERPO MUTILADO, a mutilated body under my mother’s bed in our L.A. barrio.
Empathy and imagination are the twined tools of the traveler, I reasoned as I pasted together the pieces of my diorama, just as they are the tools of the writer. Tools for ventriloquism or weak verisimilitude or, at lucky best, emotional veracity conveyed in fiction. Invariably, the writer and the traveler fail to transliterate a living world, because how can one explain the sort of fear that tastes like diesel exhaust, that smells like rot and burning plastic, to someone who has not known that particular sort of fear? At best, a façade holds true and continuous enough that an audience can see what that world might look like from a single, two-dimensional, time-bound, culturally filtered perspective: a postcard.
13 seconds—brass knuckles, steeltoedboots, chain, bone, rock, spittoothblood,
earth—and I am in, gracias a Dios. The home of my mother protected. I am—
guerrillero, guerilla, an army of ants devouring—a man.
Of course, I required my students to conduct background research, to compile knowable facts: Two million Salvadorans fled that country’s fratricidal war in the 1980s. Many of them settled in L.A.—some with asylum, others undocumented—and before long, to protect their community from the established Mexican gangs, from poverty, racism, and disenfranchisement, the Salvadoran diaspora grew its own gangs. The Salvadoran gangs, maras, get their name from the word marabunta, a type of ant that devours everything in its path. Marabunta is a Caliche word, a hybrid Central American street-slang Spanish that uses Uto-Aztecan constructions—the Nahuatl compound word. Salvatrucha: Salvadoran + trucha, which means trout in Spanish, but in Caliche connotes being alert or on the lookout.
Members of Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13 for short, have a thing for ink, mostly brandishing the gang’s name and pledging their troth: primero nosotros, us first, tattooed in Old English across a man’s throat. For hand signs, Mara Salvatruchas throw devil horns that invert to the letter M. For their initiation, would-be gang members are throttled for thirteen seconds by their soon-to-be compatriots; should they survive—some don’t—they’ll throttle in their turn. These days, Salvatruchas are linked to drug trafficking, arms trafficking, and human trafficking, as well as drive-by shootings, auto theft, murder, and general mayhem.
1992: Salvador promises peace at Chapultepec, but the streets of L.A. burn—
I run into the fire, a fish slithering upstream amid debris, detritus, against history.
My father fought for his tierra in the Red Zone of Morazán.
My turf se llama the War Zone and it ain’t no Hollywood movie
Many of the mareros possessed no living memory of El Salvador prior to their first deportation “home,” making them refugees from pre-memory, from some land before their time. Without their patria, their fatherland, they forged impromptu family, a tribe, that paints MS-13 on walls, if they are Mara Salvatrucha, or 118 in a circle if they are the 118th Street gang (referring to 118th Street in Los Angeles). They stole cars, tagged gravestones. They left signs of themselves so that others would know they existed.
I etch on one shoulder an Angel, on the other, El Salvador del Mundo.
Riding in a black Mercedes past neighborhoods buried in mud from the recent double quakes, I heard my first stories about the maras from an actual Salvadoran.
“We are organizing a rodeo and cockfights—so people have something to do,” the woman driving explained to me. She wasn’t glittery like most of the high-class Salvadoran women whose children attended the American school. She was small and neat but I thought she was ferocious. If there was a gun in the glove box in front of my knees, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised. And I had no doubt that a woman of her stature who drove that car around that country, sure as hell knew how to use it. But then again, real power is being someone no one would shoot.
“Their families come to us and ask for help. They are afraid of them.”
There was no named antecedent to “them.”
“We already have a mentor program, to help them adjust to living in the community.”
I nodded and looked out the tinted window at the dry-season landscape. At corn stalks and dust. Deported from L.A., mareros have nowhere to go, but to an aunt who sells mangoes and Diana potato chips in Izalco, a cousin with a little sundries tienda in La Union, a grandfather who pushes a popsicle cart through the Saturday beach traffic in La Libertad. The aunt, the cousin, the grandfather—they are afraid; they don’t have enough for themselves and those who already depend upon them; they don’t know what to say or do with this strange fish speaking angry American Spanish, even if he or she is family.
This left the police, in the bigger towns anyway (in the really rural areas there are no police), and the best the police can do in an era of preemptive war is arrest anyone with tattoos. I didn’t know it then, but the legal system was in the process of drafting a law that would be called the Super Mano Dura. The law would permit, among other things, that twelve-year sentence for association with a crime (including belonging to the gang that committed that crime, a determination usually based on body ink).
9 months in her belly, 9 months on her back, through the selva, over the sands, across el Río, my mother carried me.
¿Para que? she asks but turns away. Her face divided
by a long scar—straight as a machete blade.
Here and There. Allá y Aquí. Then and Now.
Oftentimes, my American friends and I would compare notes, in English over home-cooked food and imported wine, and sometimes we would take one another along to see the side of Salvador we had each accessed. My friend Maria, a girl from Minnesota who dealt in rebar and metal roofs for an NGO building houses after the 2001 double quakes, got out of the city more than I did. So sometimes I went with her, to see El Salvador from her vantage point. I went with her even after the threats began, and this is when I saw the story for myself.
We are going to do something to the gringa: the rumor Maria heard second, third, maybe fourth-hand seemed almost ridiculous—a playground threat—except it wasn’t. Even the family for whom she was building a badly needed house told her to stay away.
“I wish they’d be a little more specific,” Maria complained. Something was so nondescript. Something was difficult to plan around.
Or maybe it wasn’t; it was about this time that Maria broke with the drummer she’d been dating and took up with a colleague of mine, a history teacher. She moved in next door to me and our kitchen windows winked at one another over a gardenia hedge. She drove to her build sites—sometimes hours away—in rented cars, only in daylight.
Between 1996 and the time Maria and I were living next door to one another on the flanks of Volcán San Salvador, US immigration authorities logged more than 50,000 deportations of immigrants with criminal records to Central America.
I do Time. Then catch the Wednesday flight with the INS.
Just taking out trash. Refugees, refuse.
A stranger at the carcel door hands me a shirt with sleeves.
I cover my Angel, my Savior, but not the tears—two down one cheek, blueblack.
What set off this flood of deportations, not yet four years into El Salvador’s peace, and the very same year neighboring Guatemala would finally sign off on its own thirty-six-year struggle, was the signing of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. This Clinton-era law allowed for the deportation of both legal residents and undocumented immigrants who commit an aggravated felony. While straightforward enough on the surface, a side-effect of IIRAIRA was formally transforming the street wars of East L.A. into a transnational criminal network with cells scattered from Long Island to Bogotá. Poor nations emerging from war lacked the resources for managing criminal deportees, but they had plenty of guns. At a loss, El Salvador resorted to old methods, among them, resuscitating La Sombra Negra, the Black Shadow, a vigilante death squad in days past.
The violence that the INS transplanted on that skinny, disorderly isthmus fertile with leftover weapons, where Maria and I happened to live, was spreading like an invasive weed.
As old as my father ever was, I find his campo santo,
kick over his cross and carry it with me.
If it looks like a duck, it must die—
but the new presidente tags us terroristas
now that comunistas don’t bring USD.
One Saturday, Maria took me with her to the build outside Santa Ana, and we took a few of our men-friends too. At the site, I used a chunk of brick to rub hardened dribbles of mortar off concrete-block walls. I had worked on Maria’s sites before, sifting gravel, hauling concrete blocks, and packing sand in foundation trenches with a tool we called an elephant foot: a coffee can of hard concrete stuck on the end of a broom handle. That morning, I lacked heart, gave up after about an hour, and went to vomit in an airless outhouse built by the last NGO volunteer crew to pass through.
My body, I recognized, was infested. Amoebas, ascarids, your standard dysentery, or, worse, typhus or malaria or dengue or cholera. Some knowledge is visceral: a population had overcome my defenses and did not wish me well. El Salvador cannot contain what travels in the air and water any better than it can contain L.A.’s gang problem.
Other knowledge is quantifiable: The house I was not helping to build would have four rooms, ten feet by eight feet. It would have four gray concrete block walls and one poured concrete floor. It would have one metal roof. There would be no plumbing, so no sink and no toilet (the NGO-built outhouse was brick-and-mortar permanent).
Still other knowledge is speculation: One day, the house might have hand-stitched curtains or even glass in its windows.
And then there are assumptions, faith that makes it possible to lay block upon block in the tropical heat: this family would be glad to have the house.
The most authentic knowledge, however, albeit fleeting or filtered or otherwise flawed, is experiential. At the end of the workday I walked up the hill with Maria and the others. Our blue jeans were dirty, from mixing mortar or in my case lying on the ground, and our t-shirts were ringed with sweat, be it from fever or exertion. I felt shivery and raw as we walked. Still I noticed the golden late-afternoon light through the banana trees. And I noticed the shoes above us on the single wire that dipped its way down the hill. Then I noticed the shadows of figures watching from the low doorways of concrete-block houses that had no doors. A few of these shadows came out and stood in those doorframes, young men in bright white undershirts, slouching in half-light. Men who had not been at work or in a field. Men who had not come to lend a hand building their neighbor’s house. Men who made their gazes felt the way the presence of a gun is felt, at the back of the neck, at the body’s root.
I swim with other fish upriver and down,
past anthills strewn with trash, past vultures still fat from body dumps, my father’s eyes.
I teach new broderos—that’s hood for brothers, homies—how to hunt.
The old guerrilleros, viejos in the shade, shake their heads—ask what our war is for.
Did I feel pity as I retched again on the side of that overgrown road with those men watching me from their dark doorways? Or was that fear that prickled my blonde hairs on my blanched white skin? Did I think of little boys feeling out of place and grieving fathers lost in a war in some other world? Or did I think about threat, about rape, guns, and blood running down that cobbled slope, pooling with my spilt bile, seeping into earth already too familiar with the gruesome, leaky tendencies of the human body?
If I did feel pity, maybe I also felt anger. Maybe I blamed, however unjustly, Bill Clinton and his ill-conceived IIRAIRA, or Ronald Reagan with his School of the Americas, or Jimmy Carter, who’d engaged the U.S. in El Salvador and whose houses Maria and I built, or Pope John Paul II, who dismissed as blasphemous radicals the liberation theologists calling for a preferential option for the poor, the destitute, the dying. Maybe I blamed my prep school self with a cute new blue moon tattoo practicing her Spanish with a sexy coke dealer in Connecticut. Maybe I blamed L.A., racism, the Chapultepec peace accords, scorched earth dirty-warfare, the communists and the anticommunists, Rodney King, the police, the humanitarian aid workers, the death squads, the activists, Archbishop Romero, Henry Kissinger. Maybe I blamed Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma, too.
When one is afraid, there is little logic, and even less fairness. I certainly knew, because El Salvador had taught me, that if it came down to it, I would do whatever it took to save what was mine—my body, my life—the rest be damned.
But I don’t remember being afraid of this very real, if brief, encounter. I don’t remember feeling pity for these hard men, either, or even anger at the greater forces at play on that grassy cobblestone road. I only remember that as we walked we did not speak. Not in English or Spanish, not with our lowered eyes. We did not speak until we had piled back into our cars, left parked at a house behind a locked gate. Maybe not until we were back on a road with pavement. I can’t remember, but when I got back to my walled-in world, I kept writing: my little boy was all grown up and I knew just what he looked like.
I swim close to the surface slick with viscera, sleek as a gun MADE IN THE U.S.A. and donated to a dirty war that we RETURN TO SENDER packed with Medellín diesel, white as grace.
We jump rivals and their girls.
We jump borders as coyotes with Toyotas from the suburbs.
We run Guate, Sula, Salvador, all the border towns in Mexico. We own California.
We are kings in Old English—not campesinos, migrantes, illegals. Not your janitor,
your jardinero, your hard-up no-dinero, sí señor—ya. Enough.
But as I visualized my imagined marero as a grown man, I saw the problem I had made for him. That is, I realized that I imagined a story with no turning point, not for him, anyway. As a teacher, I thought, I ought to know better; I ought to give every child, no matter how troubled or troubling, the benefit of the doubt. He can change his situation; he can change himself, his future and with it the future of his people. As a writer, I should steer clear of types, stereo- and otherwise, particularly when I write across the bounds. As an American, I should have granted my character autonomy from history, an individual destiny. I should at least have left open the opportunity for redemption. But here my imagination failed me. I had never been to the men’s club or gym or whatever it was that offered rehabilitation, or even written to the name on the slip of paper I carried with me. I simply couldn’t see a phoenix and I couldn’t see Christ rising. In this story, I saw only inevitability, the descending trajectory of tragedy.
So, when I read about the prisons—68 dead in “gang riots” at El Porvenir prison in La Ceiba, 104 in a fire in the MS-13-only wing of the prison in San Pedro Sula—I knew how “Fire Ants” would end.
Swept up in a net full of truchas, I wait. I wait until there is fire, then cool lead spray through molten bars.
I wait, as the City of Angels and El Salvador del Mundo slide together down these dissolving arms. Two tears burn.
And I knew also how, without radical empathy and extreme imagination, it might never end.
Then, through the roar of fire, I hear ten thousand ants rush to carry my machete.