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Fiction. Latino/a Studies. Translated from the Spanish by Susan Giersbach Rascon. Showing both the heartbreak and the humor of life in a strange culture, award-winning author Mario Benecastro creates a caring portrait of Calixto as he seeks not only work, but safety from unjust persecution in his homeland. The even-tempered prose of this quietly resolute political novel gives voice to a generation of Central American immigrants...The novel's dramatic tension emerges through a series of interpolated flashbacks. ...
Fiction. Latino/a Studies. Translated from the Spanish by Susan Giersbach Rascon. Showing both the heartbreak and the humor of life in a strange culture, award-winning author Mario Benecastro creates a caring portrait of Calixto as he seeks not only work, but safety from unjust persecution in his homeland. The even-tempered prose of this quietly resolute political novel gives voice to a generation of Central American immigrants...The novel's dramatic tension emerges through a series of interpolated flashbacks. Through an artful collage of the conversations between [the hero] Calixto and his friends, news reports, courtroom transcripts, love letters, and anecdotes, Bencastro documents the hardships Calixto suffers...Unpretentious and reportorial, Benecastro's tone is welcomingly understated — and his message is more powerful for it — Publishers Weekly.
"It's going to be a beautiful day here in Washington!" exclaimed the voice on the radio. "Clear blue skies, seventy degrees, sunny with no threat of rain. A perfect spring day!"
Two policemen were making their rounds in the Adams Morgan district, the windows of their patrol car open to receive the cool breeze which caressed the groves of trees in Rock Creek Park, carrying the perfume of the multicolored flowers outlined against the delicate blue sky.
The metallic voice coming over the transmitter from headquarters shook them out of their deep thoughts, ordering them to proceed immediately to a building on Harvard Street, across from the zoo, just a few minutes away.
When they arrived on the scene, they had to fight their way through the crowd of residents who had come running in response to the desperate shouts of a woman.
They ordered the people to move aside and then they saw the cause of the commotion: a smashed body stuck to the hot cement. The cranium was demolished. The facial features were disfigured by a grimace of pain. The eyes were still open, with an enigmatic gaze. The arms and legs were arranged incoherently, not at all in the normal symmetry of the human body. One leg was bent with the foot up by the neck. One shoulder was completely separated from the body, as if it had been chopped off.
"Spiderman!" someone exclaimed.
One of the policemen approached the man who had shouted and said to him, "Hey, show some respect; this is no joke!"
The man turned around and walked away, hanging his head. But as soon as he was out of the officer's reach, he turned around and screamed, "Spiderman! Spiderman!" and took off running toward the zoo, where he hid among some bushes.
The policeman started to chase him, but settled for insulting the man silently, biting his lip to keep the words from escaping.
"Is there anyone here who knows the victim?" asked the other officer, scrutinizing the group of curious onlookers with an indecisive expression.
No one dared to say a word.
"You?" he asked a brown-skinned man. "Do you know him?"
"I don't speak English," the man answered fearfully.
"¿Tú, conocer, muerto?" insisted the officer, stammering in thickly accented Spanish.
"I don't speak Spanish either," said the man in broken English. "I'm from Afghanistan."
The policeman appeared utterly disconcerted at the people's silence. The loud sound of a lion's roar came from the zoo.
Finally, a woman approached the men in uniform and, in an anxious voice, stated, "l was coming home from the store and when I was climbing the stairs to go into the building I heard a scream ... Then I saw the shape of a man in the sky ... With his arms stretched out like he was flying ... But he came crashing down headfirst on the cement ... He was just a ball of flesh and blood ... He didn't move anymore ..."
The people listened openmouthed as the terrified woman described what had happened. One of the officers took down all the details in a small notebook. A reporter took countless photographs per second, as if unable to satisfy his camera.
The shouts of "Spiderman! Spiderman!" were heard again, but this time they were completely ignored.
Calixto was among the spectators, stunned, terrified, and livid, unable to say a word about the tragedy, incapable of testifying that as they were washing the windows outside the eighth floor, the rope tied around his companion's waist broke. Calixto feared they would blame him for the death and he would end up in jail, if not deported for being undocumented. "And then," he thought, "who would support my family?"
The superintendent of the building was observing the scene from the lobby. He was not willing to talk either. He feared he would lose his job for permitting windows at that height to be washed without proper equipment for such a dangerous task. It would come out that he employed undocumented workers and paid them only a third of what cleaning companies usually charged.
The ambulance siren sounded in the neighborhood with such shrillness that it frightened the animals in the zoo. The lion roared as if protesting all the commotion.
The paramedics made their way through the crowd and laid a stretcher on the ground near the body. After a brief examination, one of them said dryly, "He's dead," confirming what everyone already knew.
"Who is he?" one of the paramedics asked the police. "What's his name?"
"No one knows," responded the officer. "Nobody seems to recognize him."
"He looks Hispanic," stated the other paramedic, observing the body closely.
"Maybe he's from Central America," said a woman, clutching her purse to her chest. "A lot of them live in this neighborhood ... You know, they come here fleeing the wars in their countries ..."
"If he's not from El Salvador, he must be from Guatemala," agreed one of the paramedics. "Although now they're coming from all over: Bolivia, Peru, Colombia. We used to be the ones who invaded their countries; now they invade ours. Soon Washington will look like Latin America."
"Poor devils," said the other paramedic. "They die far from home, like strangers."
Meanwhile, in the zoo, the lion's loud roar was answered by that of the lioness. The pair of felines, oblivious to the conflicts going on around them, were consummating the reproduction of their species, part of the ancient rites of spring.
The paramedics put the body into the ambulance. The policemen left. The crowd dispersed. A strange red stain remained on the cement.
Calixto entered the zoo and began to walk absent-mindedly among the cages, thinking about his co-worker who just half an hour ago had been telling him that he had already bought his ticket to return to his country, where he planned to open a grocery store with the money he had saved from five years of hard work in the United States.
Suddenly Calixto realized that in a matter of minutes he had become unemployed. Despair seized him as he remembered that it had taken him a month and a half of constant searching to get the window washing job.
He spent the entire day at the zoo and, as he agonized over whether to return to his country or stay in Washington, he walked from one end of the zoo to the other several times. When they closed the park, he began to walk down long streets with strange names, until finally night fell and he had no choice but to return to the place where he lived, a tiny one-bedroom apartment occupied by twenty people.
"At least I'm alive," he said to himself. "That's good enough for me."
Calixto got up early and, without eating breakfast, left the apartment to look for work. He stopped at several businesses along Columbia Road where, according to the comments he had heard at the apartment, Spanish was spoken. But they gave him no hope of a job because he did not have a Social Security card or a green card. Nevertheless, he did not give up; he knew he would find something. "Even if it's cleaning bathrooms, it doesn't matter; in this country people aren't ashamed to do anything."
To alleviate his desperation a little, he paused in front of the window of a clothing store. His gaze fell on the tiny alligator that adorned one of the shirts, and the price of the shirt startled him. He remembered that in his country they made clothing like that. In his neighborhood, in fact, everyone went around with that little figure on their chests. It made no difference that the crocodile faded with the first washing, came loose with the second, and that after the third washing nothing was left of the reptile but a hole in the shirt. Calixto realized it was pointless to dream about new things when he did not even have a job, and he continued walking along Columbia Road. When he reached the corner of 18th Street, he decided to go into McDonald's. A fellow countryman from Intipuca whom Calixto had met at the apartment had heard that there were job opportunities there. He noticed a dark-skinned man who looked Latin American picking up papers from the floor and wiping off tables. He approached him, and asked in Spanish, "Do you know if they're hiring here?"
The man responded with a smile and strange gestures.
"Work," repeated Calixto. "Washing dishes or anything."
But the man did not understand him because he was Indian and did not speak Spanish.
"Go to Hell!" said Calixto, frustrated because the man did nothing but smile at him.
He left McDonald's in despair and stood for a moment on the corner, unable to decide whether to walk down 18th Street or continue on Columbia Road. The memory of his home in El Salvador suddenly flooded his mind, the memory of the life of hunger and misery he led there, and he realized that little or nothing had changed for him. He was suffering in this country too; and he wasn't sure if it was better to be here or there. What he did know was that he was out of work, and that he did not even have enough money in his pocket to buy a beer to drown the sorrow of feeling lonely and abandoned in a strange land.
He continued wandering down Columbia Road, then took Connecticut Avenue and walked to Dupont Circle Park. He sat down on a bench to watch the transients and elderly people who were sitting in the sun and throwing bread crumbs to the pigeons. He noticed several beggars dragging large bundles which apparently represented their belongings but to him looked like garbage. They reminded him of Old Rag, one of the many beggars in his neighborhood, who also dragged big bags of garbage through the streets, and Calixto concluded that misery was everywhere. He consoled himself with the thought that at least he was healthy and had a family, even though they were now far away.
He returned to the apartment after dark and was pleasantly surprised to find his cousin Juancho there.
"Tomorrow I'm starting work in a hotel," said Juancho. "Come with me. I've been told they need a lot of people because a few days ago the migra raided the place and arrested a lot of the employees."
"Well let's go!" said Calixto. "Maybe I'll get a job too."
"I'll meet you tomorrow at the corner of 18th and Columbia Road, at 8 a.m. sharp," said Juancho.
"I'll be there," said Calixto. "For sure."
He said goodbye to his cousin and went to bed with his stomach empty but his soul full of hope.
The next day when they went to the hotel, a manager told them they did need people urgently, and they could start work that very moment.
"The misfortune of some is the good fortune of others," Calixto said to himself.
They immediately put on their uniforms and went into the kitchen.
"We look like nurses," said Calixto. "I've never dressed in white before."
"Never say never," laughed Juancho. "In this country the strangest things happen."
Used to surviving in difficult situations, Calixto was an extremely optimistic person. This had given him the courage necessary to leave his homeland and come to a strange country. As they said back home, he "didn't turn up his nose at anything," because Calixto was a capable man.
(In the kitchen of a hotel restaurant. Calixto, Caremacho and Juancho chat while they wash dishes.)
I came to the United States because the situation in El Salvador got too dangerous.
Me too. And things were so difficult that it was impossible to find work.
Caremacho, do you remember what happened in our neighborhood?
(Calixto appears quite intrigued.) What happened?
Well, after Quique, a friend of ours, was killed, the situation got real dangerous, and everyone was afraid.
But, what happened?
One morning Quique's body was found. He had been tortured.
They say that he had already been arrested once before.
He was blacklisted.
Because he had been fingered by someone.
Part of the problem was alcohol. He was more drunk than rum itself.
That's for sure. And that time, as usual, Quique had gone to the Three Skulls bar to have a few drinks.
And he left there practically crawling.
He lost control of himself. And later, in Doña Chica's diner, he began to talk too much.
A slip of the tongue. And, like they say, "The walls have ears," and someone reported him.
What a fool.
They say that when he saw the police he tried to escape. He fled like a bat out of Hell.
But he didn't make it. They got him anyway.
But Quique was brave.
That's for sure. Brave, stubborn and brash.
And at the moment of truth he pulled a knife.
And in the end he fought them off with punches, kicks and even bites.
But even so, he wasn't able to save himself.
And he died right there.
From then on all of us were very careful.
Yeah. I said to myself, "That's the last straw; I'm getting out of here before the same thing happens to me!"
And you, why?
Because Quique and I were good friends. They might think I was involved in the same things he was.
I didn't come to the United States out of fear, but because I was tired of going hungry, of constantly looking and never finding even one damn job. So I borrowed some money for the trip and came to try my luck.
I did the same thing. And look, here I am.
And you, Calixto, why are you here?
One of these days I'll tell you my story. The important thing is we' re all here now.
We aren't starving to death anymore.
And we aren't in danger of being put in jail because of political problems.
Although things aren't perfect here either.
You're right, Calixto.
When several men arrived at the family's room looking for Calixto, Lina, his wife, was at her friend Hortensia's apartment, at the other end of the building. A neighbor came running to tell them.
"They're looking for Don Calixto to arrest him!"
"Arrest him for what?" asked Lina, in startled disbelief.
"They say he's an enemy of the government!"
"Don't go back to your apartment!" interrupted Hortensia.
"Sweet Name of Jesus!" screamed Lina, terrified. "What are we going to do?"
"The first thing is to warn Calixto! Leave the children here and run to where he's working!"
Lina left immediately, wishing she were a bird, able to fly to Calixto before they surprised him there. In her distress she ignored the burning sun which baked her temples and she hurried even faster, knowing that her husband's very life depended on her. Her children had remained behind, frightened and crying, but she was thankful they were in good hands. Hortensia was the godmother of all three of them. The children had all been baptized together in the church in their slum, a ramshackle shelter on a vacant lot, surrounded by garbage, dust, flies, and stray dogs. There, on an improvised altar, a priest who was very popular in that neighborhood used to celebrate Sunday Mass, the same cheerful priest whose tortured body was found later under the church's canopy.
Sweating profusely beneath the intense sun, Lina finally arrived at the place where Calixto worked. Seeing his wife's terrified expression, he knew immediately that something was wrong, and he ran to meet her.
"They're looking for your!" she said, her cry muffled by distress and exhaustion. "Someone reported you as an enemy of the government!"
"It can't be! I'm not involved in politics, you know that!"
"You have to get out of here and hide, before they find you!"
"But it must be a mistake!" insisted Calixto. "Or someone's slandering me. One or the other."
"It doesn't matter; you've been reported!"
"Yes, but ..."
He could not finish what he was going to say because the shout of "Calixto, someone's looking for you!" frightened him to the point of stealing his words.
"Go!" his wife begged him.
"To Lencho's house!"
Quick as a cat, Calixto jumped into the bushes and disappeared. Lina left too, the way she had come, back down the road she used to travel every day at noon to bring Calixto his lunch, in a pewter lunch pail that held their everyday food: rice, beans, tortillas and a piece of fresh cheese. She used to sit with him while he ate hastily, both of them seated on a piece of wood, among machines, bags of cement and piles of sand, at the construction site of one of the many new buildings that were going up at that time in the capital. He would eat silently, hungry and tired, worried about the job, which was hard, poorly paid, and in a few weeks would end. Her worry was the children she had left playing in the yard in Hortensia's care.
"Thank the Lord they didn't catch him," she thought as she returned home. Then she remembered the anguished expressions on her children's faces when she left them, and she hurried until she was running, but stopped close to the building before proceeding cautiously to Hortensia's apartment. She heard her friend's voice consoling the children, who were crying. She breathed a sigh of relief, went in and embraced them as gently as she could. They stopped crying, feeling safe and secure again in their mother's arms.
The fear of being captured pushed Calixto to hurry through the city without tiring. He finally arrived in the neighborhood he was looking for, but desperation had clouded his memory and he could not remember how to get to his friend's home. Lencho was an old friend of Calixto's. Together they had left the remote village where they had lived in huts made of straw and adobe and cultivated small plots of mountainous terrain, to seek a better life in the capital. A short time later, their village was completely destroyed in a bloody battle between the army and rebel forces.
When he finally recognized the building where Lencho lived, Calixto found his apartment locked.
"Don Lencho won't be long," said a neighbor. "Wait here if you like."
Calixto sat down on a wooden stool and only then did he realize how exhausted he was and that his entire body was bathed in sweat. "I'm sweating like a horse," he thought, as he observed the tenants coming and going and listened to the jumbled sounds of music from many radios mixed with the residents' voices.
Old Lencho appeared at the gate and ambled across the yard in his usual slow way. When he saw Calixto, he was surprised at the worry on his face. "As if he'd seen the devil," he thought as he opened the door.
"Hi, Calixto," said Lencho. "What a surprise to see you here!"
He invited Calixto to sit down on a folding canvas chair and served him a glass of cool water from an earthen jug. Although Calixto had not said a word, the old man sensed that his friend was in trouble.
"Tell me," he said to him. "How can I help you?"
Between long drinks of water, Calixto told him the whole story.
"You've been lucky, my friend," said the old man. "Lucky they didn't get you; if they had, who knows what would have become of you by now ..."
"That's for sure," said Calixto, convinced. "How lucky I was! Thank God!"
"Don't worry about anything else; you can stay here as long as necessary. And if you want, bring Lina and the children too."
"Thank you so much, Lencho; you don't know how much I appreciate this."
"No reason to thank me. Today for you, tomorrow for me, as the saying goes."
Calixto breathed a sigh of relief. Now the only thing that oppressed his spirit was not knowing how his wife and children were. But he firmly believed that Lina somehow would find a way to protect them. "There's no one like my Lina," he said to himself with pride, and thought about how his wife, hardworking, faithful and resolute, was one of the few blessings life had bestowed upon him. These thoughts comforted him somewhat on this day when, because of a simple mistake, or perhaps slander, his destiny had taken an abrupt and unexpected turn, which endangered his existence and that of his loved ones. And now what? What was he going to do?
"For right now, nothing," said Old Lencho. "Stay here and lay low for a few days. Don't even stick your nose out. We'll see what we can do to straighten this out."
Posted December 15, 2008
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