When I wonder about the distance I still have to travel in life I get really apprehensive. Really, very, apprehensive, apprehensive to the point of anxiety. I've tried to explain it to people before, not my fear of the future, but rather the anxiety that comes with imagining me in five, ten, fifteen years. I suppose it's because I feel like I've lived many, many lives already and the prospect that I still have a long life ahead of me is daunting.
I feel like I'm thirty one going on eighty one.
I don't have a really good memory about things in my past. I remember some of them, some things I would rather forget obviously, but what I'm lacking is a continuum. I don't feel like I can give specificity regarding events and people in my life because a lot of my life has just turned into one big messy ball of happenings and circumstances.
My psychiatrist once told me, maybe in passing or maybe to reassure me, that the fact that I don't feel like I have a concrete timeline for the events in my life is not surprising, given the trauma I've experienced. Even if that's not true, it feels true. I guess in many ways my body is rejecting those memories. I often visualise that all these negative painful memories are locked deep inside my brain in tiny little prison cells. Not only the memories mind you, unfortunately a part of me is there locked inside these cells in my brain too, just waiting to be let out.
If my first memory is a fuzzy one of my father trying to beat down the door of my room when I was a child then the others aren't any more concrete. I know that I don't remember a lot but I know that when we moved out of Santo Tomas I wouldn't have been any older than three, two and a half years old at least. My parents, my brother and I all moved to the capital San Salvador. It could have been because my younger sister was about to be born or she had already joined the clan. I just know that there is a photo of her as a newborn taken by my father of us sitting in a rocking chair upstairs of our little townhouse in San Salvador.
The clan? It feels like that sometimes, actually more like a tribe, and sometimes it's too nice a gloss to put on it. My Father, Ydes, my mum, Giovanni my brother and Mariella (Mazz) my sister.
Due to circumstances that I still don't fully understand. my mum had been in a previous relationship before meeting my dad so Giovanni is technically my half-brother, as he is only my mother's son. Since I have grown up with him from birth he's never been anything but my brother.
Giovanni is ten years older than me, that's how I remember his age. I remember his birthdate because he was born on the day of the dead, the second of November. The day of the dead is a big celebration in Central America, although not as colourful and vivid as it is in Mexico. My brother's birthday celebrations were punctuated with visits to the cemetery to pay our collective respects to our relatives, albeit only the dead ones.
I don't feel like I get along with my brother. I guess all siblings feel that way but I don't think the age difference helped at all. I was just a baby and he was already ten years old. He's always been quite protective, definitely to a fault. I put this down to the fact that his own father wasn't around, or didn't stick around. My dad wasn't the best dad in the world by a long shot so I think that in part he felt that he needed to play a protective role in the family.
Someone had to.
That's not the reason why I don't get along with him, it's just that I don't think we have a lot in common. We share a mother, and that's probably it. He's a great guy and definitely means well and certainly has a heart of gold but we just don't seem to connect. Even today when I have to spend time with him during family dinners or get togethers I always look for an out of the conversation lest it turn to both of us looking at the floor awkwardly.
Because Giovanni played the protecting, big brother role out of necessity and also out of duty it was his task to ensure that on the regular occasion when I would soil myself at kindergarten he had to collect me. My kindergarten, a tiny outfit by the name of Xotchil, was run with an iron fist by a teacher called Mrs Blanca. Xotchil, which is Nahuatl for flower, was not far from our house and my brother would be called to collect me when I had let out a brown call for help. If you know what I mean. He had to walk me up the steep hill that we lived on top of, my pants heavy and him embarrassed. He repeats this story ad nauseam. Partly because he still thinks it's hilarious and partly because I think that that was last time we bonded like that. That's how much we don't get along.
When you're three I suppose you remember cataclysmic things, life changing things, of which there are so many at age three. If you've only been alive for three years then everything is new because there isn't a big bank of things to compare your experiences with. There's only three years' worth of context, compared to the three decades I have today.
I remember my parents once taking my sister and me to a circus with animals. That was the first time I saw a lion, or at least the first time I remember seeing a lion. I was fascinated by the lion tamer to the point that when we got home I made my sister jump on our couch and pretend she was a lion. I would then proceed to "tame" her by whipping her with one of my dad's belts and make her jump from couch to couch. She probably didn't appreciate it as much as I did.
I remember when I was five I fell up the stairs and I managed to knock out my two front teeth. All I remember is that my mum, for whatever reason, was angry and upset at me for something and she went to grab her house keys presumably so she could go somewhere, maybe work but I thought that she was going to hit me with them so I ran. I ran so fast up the stairs i lost my footing and landed teeth first They both just flew out of their sockets. I remember the pain was incredible and there was blood everywhere.
I had cause to fear my mum and dad, not be petrified of them mind you, just scared. I remember they would hit us with whatever they could find. It sounds horrific and in a way it was but it's just how it was done, it's how they were raised. I'm not making excuses for them either. I would never, ever, ever, hit my children. Let alone hit them and tell them that it was for their own good and education. Those two things never made sense to me as a child and they still don't. Parents that hit children are doing so because they themselves have lost control not because the child has.
I remember the 1986 Salvadoran earthquake vividly.
Due to unbelievable bad luck or incredible coincidence the earthquake struck right underneath the city of San Salvador. As earthquakes go it wasn't very powerful, measuring only 5.7 on the Mw scale. What the earthquake was lacking in power it made up handsomely by striking only 7 kilometres under San Salvador and also by striking at 11:49am.
Sure, I was only three years old but when the very earth itself is shaking, you do not forget. How can you? We had this three piece lounge room set. The long sofa was placed close enough to an armchair for my tiny arm span to reach them both as the earth began moving.
I was returning from the kitchen where I had asked our nanny (calling her a maid sounds so belittling, but essentially that's what she was. We weren't particularly drowning in money but labour is not expensive in a poor country) for a drink. I remember her telling me that she would bring it over soon, she may have been washing dishes or making lunch. Then the earthquake struck.
It's not exactly a misnomer to say that the earth moved, but it also doesn't do it justice. Everything moved, not just the ground but everything, absolutely everything. The walls, decorations flew from walls and shelves, the ceiling, absolutely everything shook violently, yet not for very long. It was all over in a matter of seconds. The Seismological Society of America later went on to say that it only lasted between 3 and 5 seconds. Fives seconds is still an eternity when there is absolutely no safe space.
San Salvador has been severely damaged by earthquakes about nine times since the 1700s; while earthquakes are never easy, everyone has a concept of what needs to be done when one hits, this time was no exception. I remember our nanny rushed upstairs to collect little Mazz who would have been about a year and a half and was sleeping soundly in her cot, she managed to scoop me up as she ran upstairs, then downstairs, then with both of us in tow running outside where the scene was repeating itself all throughout the street.
I remember our nanny talking to the nanny of the three girls who lived next door, what was said who knows? Maybe some nervous exchange about what had happened, they probably don't even remember themselves. A quick spot check was made of our neighbours, making sure that they were all ok. Not neighbours themselves, but their respective nannies caring for their respective small children, as I said, labour is cheap in El Salvador. I think our house was number 11 so we were near the start of the street an we could easily see up and down both ends.
I remember a lot of fuss was being made of a neighbour's retaining wall which had severely warped in the quake. It looked in danger of collapse, the middle was bulging out as if it had indulged too much at Christmas. It didn't collapse and it was never repaired, well not as long as we lived there. I wouldn't be surprised if that wall was still there as it was, a reminder that 1986 was not a good year for the capital of a country in the middle of a civil war.
My mother called us via landline as mobile phones did not exist then, and then eventually made it back home, I'm sure my father did too but I don't remember him playing any discernible part in my memory of the earthquake. The news coverage that night was devoted to the earthquake, as you can expect. There was rolling footage of the statue of Jesus Christ that was normally atop a globe (as any depiction of the Holy Saviour of the world should be I guess) being taken away on a stretcher. The great big pedestal the statue rested on was there, the globe at the top of the pedestal still intact, but Jesus was in ruins on the floor.
You can't underplay the significance of this statue and the pain it gave San Salvadorans in seeing it damaged. The statue is a landmark and representations of it appeared on the currency and later on car number plates. It's official name is the Monumento Al Divino Salvador Del Mundo (The Monument to the Divine Saviour of the World) a big deal in a country named after Jesus himself (El Salvador means the Saviour, San Salvador means the Holy Saviour). The fallen statue came to symbolise the pain of the earthquake, the loss of lives and the near quarter of a million people left homeless after five seconds of turmoil.
The after-shocks continued for a week.
I don't remember the civil war in any great detail. I remember that obviously it was a time of great turmoil. Governments were changing, people were demanding all sorts of agrarian reforms and land rights and unions everywhere were striking. The government military police as well as the US sponsored death squads were hard at work "disappearing" people. The guerrillas in the mountain ranges were busy radicalising and training their own with the grand plan to have a people led red revolution across the country. Across all of Latin America in fact.
If this sounds familiar iit's because it happened across Latin America and in many other places. The Salvadoran Civil War was the hot manifestation of the cold war between the USA and the USSR. Convenient for them really, they didn't have to fight a war on their own turf because there were other countries where lives were cheaper that could do the fighting for them.
Countries like El Salvador.
They probably didn't run television ads in Washington DC or in Moscow warning people not to stray off clearly defined paths when travelling out in the bush because of the danger of land mines. They did run those in El Salvador. I remember the ad showed a young girl who goes out for a wander in a paddock, cut away to an explosion, and the ad finished with her missing both legs. Lucky they didn't do any of the fighting in their own country, how lucky you were USA.
This is why, some many, many years later I would struggle to connect with the September 11 tragedy in New York. A tragedy it certainly was, but there was something that smacked of irony in the fact that the United States had sponsored and trained the government's death squads and militias that annihilated thousands of my countrymen. We felt the war, not only in our bodies but on our streets and not a single fuck was given by Ronald Reagan. When the war came home to them though, that's when they were alerted to the surge of state sponsored terrorism.
During Easter, and actually, as often as I could I would go back to stay over at my grandmother's house in Santo Tomas. Mama Tencha as we all called her had this big sprawling house in Santo Tomas near the centre of town. She was a feisty, entrepreneurial woman and she had had many job titles. During the war she was a butcher. I don't remember her doing any of the butchering itself, at least I don't think I do. The only one time I saw a cow slaughtered she wasn't the one doing the slaughtering. She may have done at other times with other beasts. Who knows.
Her house was big enough that the slaughtering would happen in a basement downstairs. I remember this gorgeous beast being led in by a man that had tied it by the horns and then secured it to a post on the floor, then without any passion whatsoever he inserted a sharp machete into its neck. How it bleed, and how vivid in colour! I don't think that I have ever seen red that red before. I could exhaust a thesaurus trying to describe it and it still wouldn't do it justice. I wasn't allowed to watch the butchering for too long however, I was quickly ushered back into the house proper where my grandmother let me play a game with the many lassos that she had lying around for cattle killing purposes. I would tie ropes all over her courtyard in a game I liked to call nudos (knots). There was no aim to the game, or a winner, it was as if the whole courtyard and the lassoes were my very own giant Lego set. All the lassoes, in fact the whole basement was thick with the smell of beef fat.
During my many sleepovers at her house I remember my eldest half-sister Lupe, my cousin Yvonne and me were playing in the street and dark was setting in. My grandma ushered us back in with a real sense of urgency. No one with any good reason was allowed to be outside after dark. A lot of people who were outside after dark during the war would usually not be found by daybreak or if they were they had a hole in the head. Before it could get dark the windows were shuttered, the doors were locked and everyone ordered to bed. Later I knew that this condition had a name: martial law.
With the war came shortages of everything, food in some areas, electricity in most places and water everywhere. Due partly to terrible infrastructure and also to belligerence there would be regular blackouts and water interruptions. Once the water service truck came to our street to deliver water because we hadn't had any for a while. It was always an absolute free for all when the water service truck came to the neighbourhood. Every single vessel that could hold water was being carried out to the truck by every member of the household with the opposable thumbs to carry water. As a kid I found this scramble absolutely thrilling and I still have a sense of nostalgia for the throng of the masses, the sweaty bodies all piling in to get their water; I'm sure the adults in the audience did not feel the same way.
There were enormous demonstrations throughout the capital, I remember seeing a news report of a strike of workers, possibly teachers, demanding better rights and conditions. As a child is sure to do, I thought that because I could see it on our TV set it clearly meant that I could crane my head out the window and the demonstrations would be happening up and down my street. There was an incredible pang of disappointment that when I looked out I saw nothing but the hot afternoon sun.
It was because of one of these demonstrations that either directly or indirectly saw us depart for Australia. One of my uncles on my mother's side, the youngest of ten children, was somehow involved in some sort of demonstration or protest. I'm sure he was studying journalism and he may have been covering a student protest or he may have been protesting, i'm not clear on the details. What I do know is that he was arrested by government forces and taken somewhere. That was the main issue, we didn't know where. That was an incredibly stressful time for my family, my mother in particular.
Her side of the family lived out in a fishing community in the Eastern end of the country and she was the only one amongst them that lived in the capital so it was up to her to find her brother. She searched everywhere. The Military Police and the national guard were not cooperating, why would they? The police in El Salvador at the time were not civilian police officers, their loyalty wasn't even to the state but to the army, which in turn was loyal to the repressive executive government. To the police my uncle and his ilk were revolutionaries or at the very least revolutionary sympathisers and deserved nothing but contempt.
I don't think he was tortured, he may have been, but I don't think so. He was missing for a while and so was my mother in trying to look for him. My mum doesn't talk about this at all and in all fairness I've never asked her. I do know that when my uncle was released or bribed out he came to stay at our place. He didn't appear to be there very long and we were under no circumstances whatsoever allowed to disclose to anyone that was living with us. One day he vanished suddenly with his young family, this time it wasn't in handcuffs but with a refugee claim to Canada where he still lives.
It was my uncle's arrest that either directly or indirectly put us in some sort of firing line. My parents made a decision to leave the country and sought ways of doing so, given that we had been involved in my uncle's freedom from arrest gave us a good case. First, I think my parents applied to the USA, then to Canada but neither would take us. Mum would tell us that the rejection came quickly from the USA and reasonably quickly from Canada, and largely because my dad couldn't articulate how we could be political targets following my uncle's arrest. When it came time to apply to live in Australia, my mum says that she was the one most able to articulate what had happened and how we came to be targets of the Salvadoran regime. Through equal parts luck, chance and hard work we were accepted by Australia as bona fide refugees and it was our time to go.
I was only five years old when all of this was happening, and as a child I didn't have to worry about the logistics of the exercise. I just knew we were about to embark on an adventure! I didn't have to think about passports, or visas, or money, or air tickets, I just had to sit and wait and be told we were ready to go. I can't remember my parents ever breaking the news to me, I also can't remember my parents telling me that not only Mazz, Giovanni, and me would be coming along but my older sister Lupe too.
Lupe is my father's daughter, he too had a previous relationship before he met my mum. Lupe lived with my grandmother but for reasons that are still not clear to me she came with us. Like Giovanni, I've grown up with Lupe so she is nothing but a sister to me, to call her a half-sister would be to insult our relationship.
It all gathered pace from there. There was a great big sale of all our possessions, furniture, clothes, I gave away some of my toys to my cousins; slowly but surely all our worldly possessions were withered down to whatever we could carry in our suitcases. The last night in the old country was fast approaching.
It could have all gone horribly wrong though, if it wasn't for a small stroke of luck we could have ended up living elsewhere, or not leaving at all. For whatever reason my maternal grandmother, Maria Valeria, commonly known as Mama Yeya, and my uncle Angel were travelling back to San Salvador from their fishing village in the East. My brother was cradling me, my grandmother sat next to him and my uncle behind us. There we were crammed in a bus that once upon a time used to herd American children to and from school but now was going to be instrumental in our fate in a dusty road in the middle of war torn El Salvador.
The bus was pulled over by soldiers, if they were guerrilla or government forces I don't know, but they stopped our bus nonetheless. Before they boarded the bus my uncle gave me a very, very stern warning. He told me something to the effect of 'whatever happens, under no circumstances open your eyes, pretend you're asleep.' He also told my grandmother to pretend she was travelling alone.
The soldiers boarded the bus looking for anything that would be of value to them, if it wasn't money then it was young men they could forcefully recruit and train to fight for their side. My brother was fifteen years old, or quite possibly only fourteen and there I was pretending with all my might to be asleep. As I had my eyes closed I didn't see anything, but there was a fair bit of commotion. I remember thinking that I had to act asleep, not act as if I was acting asleep so I tried to look as naturally asleep as possible, I may have even opened my mouth and drooled.
The soldiers asked my brother whose child I was, he replied that I was his son or maybe just his brother, I'm sure he said I was his son. He also made a point to say that he was travelling alone. I guess the fighters stopping the bus didn't want to recruit a lanky 14 year old with a 5 year old in tow, what good would I be to them?
Next thing I recall was that the bus was in motion, even once it had picked up speed I didn't open my eyes until instructed. When I did open my eyes I noticed that the young man who had been travelling with his mother and was sitting near us was no longer on the bus.
Not a word was said until we got to our destination.