EXCERPT From the Trenches - Back at Ron's

“Do you like music, Teodulo?” Ron asked. He pulled out a cassette and pushed play on the stereo system. Silvio Rodriguez’ ‘Dias Y Flores’ began to play. Teodulo was struck that Ron listened to music in Spanish. And Teodulo had never up until that moment registered another soft-voiced man fill the room at a hush with unabashed revolutionary longing.

            “Almost like a lullaby, right?” Ron sighed and smiled an earnestly sweet idiot’s smile that made Teodulo cover his mouth as he chuckled quietly.  Ron seemed so clownish to him.

            This was the second night in Los Angeles. Magda called Ron first thing in the morning to ask him for another housing alternative to the Church. Both she and Teodulo took turns staying up to keep watch over Ana and Panchito, both of whom slept like the dead. The nearly anarchic conditions of the church sanctuary were also home turf for much of the shopping cart-pushing homeless that live in the Skid Row district during the day. Occupying the same space with middle-aged grizzled white men who smelt drunk or talked to themselves proved to be too much for the young family to bear.

            Ron picked the family up around three-thirty and took them out to eat pupusas at the El Salvador Café, one of the first Salvadoran restaurants in Los Angeles located near on the Santee discount shopping alleys on San Julian Avenue. Even the name of the street where the eatery was located conjured a particular Salvadoran-ness that Magda found untrustworthy.

            “It’s really hard not to come here,” Ron said between slurps of chicken soup. “But there aren’t many Salvadoran restaurants in Los Angeles and the food is just too good. They’re not quite Arenistas here, but being apolitical lends itself to that, I think.”

ARENA was the right wing, conservative party in El Salvador. Upon arrival and waiting to be seated Magda had stealthily checked the windows of the café, along with the faces of the workers and clientele trying to discern the political atmosphere. She knew an Alfredo Cristiani supporter when she saw one. But the walls were plastered with old travel posters boasting black beaches, soccer matches, volcanoes and happy indigenous children picking coffee beans. The lack of any consciousness about the war was tiny solace for Magda. The absence of dogma, for once, allowed her to enjoy her pan con pavo, a dish she hadn’t delighted in for almost ten years.

            The late afternoon sunlight had filled the large living room by the time the five compañeros entered Ron’s one-bedroom apartment. He lived in a neighborhood called Los Feliz, except everyone in Los Angeles always stressed the wrong syllable in the word that meant happy in Spanish.

The first 48 hours in Los Angeles had finally caught up to Magda, who was grateful to have a moment alone in Ron’s austere bathroom. She closed the door behind her and leaned against it, closing her eyes and feeling their burning with exhaustion. She clutched the waistline of her pants—she had to make sure to find a safe secret place in Ron’s apartment and without alarming him, too. The bathroom was too sparse a space to have any viable hiding options. She looked at the heating vent above the toilet. She stepped on the commode to see if the metal grate was maneuverable. It wasn’t. She stepped off the rickety toilet seat lid making more noise than she intended. Magda looked at herself in the mirror and furrowed her brow. You are crazy, Magda. She joked to herself that she could have easily smuggled her children in the bags under her eyes. She went to bed as soon as the sun went down even though it was only seven in the evening. Ana and Panchito, both made shy and distressed by Ron’s unfamiliar way of being, laid by their mother’s side on the fold-out sofa bed.

Teodulo, however, was suddenly struck by brazen curiosity. It helped that Magda had fallen asleep, as she would have surely shamed his desire to learn more about Ron’s personal effects. He stood in front of one of the four overloaded bookshelves in the space. The bookcase, crammed with photograph books, records, cassettes, framed photos of Ron standing next to Guatemalan school children and Sandinista-inspired murals in Esteli, Nicaragua. There were biographical tomes and popular education manuals. All of it called to Teodulo. He had not seen the names Freire, Boal, Cienfuegos, Rodriguez, Martí, Milanés, Parra, Jara, Castro, Sosa and Guevara since the young family left their own home in Apopa for the mountains. Of course, Teodulo’s parents kept these materials well hidden inside the wall of their home. Dagoberto and Magda were ardent readers, often holding study groups and other gatherings in their home, throwing out quotes and stanzas back and forth like a game of ping-pong. This was before Ana was born and Teodulo played with the Hot Wheels up and down the steps of the apartment’s staircase. The little cars with racing numbers and flames painted on the side were a birthday gift from his uncle Rogelio, who was, then, still in Virginia and whose monstrosity unknown to the family.

The apartment walls were covered in framed colorful posters depicting the Wobblies united around the world on the same picket line and Uncle Sam as an insatiable hog bathing in a bath filled with U.S. currency. Yet the majority of them contained variations on the Cuban flag, Venceremos, and images of Farabundo Martí, Augusto Sandino and Che Guevara, the holy trinity of Latin American social movements.

There was one poster, however, that when he laid his eyes upon it made Teodulo audibly gasp. He sees the black chalk rendering of a young soldier, his face contorted with righteous anger and his arm blacker and proportionally larger than his body and rifle, struck in a victory salute, his Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity patch up front and visible on his military shirt. The soldier in the poster looked imposing. Impressive. That soldier provoked pride and a deep awareness of his Guatemalan people’s love for him and that made Teodulo ache with rancor. He wrapped his arm around his body, feeling the bruises fade.

“You and your family have done so much for your people, compañero,” Ron was a broken record.

“It was not a choice. They put a gun in my hand when I was eleven,” Teodulo said quickly, not registering the depth of his honesty. Ron let the boy’s words go down gently before he spoke.

“You’re the bravest young man I have ever met from El Salvador,” Ron said quietly, not wanting to wake his travel-weary guests. “But remember these are sacrifices and everyone has made many sacrifices. You can read. You never starved. You have seen the real face of justice because you fought for it. You lived. And here you are.” Ron looks Teodulo squarely in the eye as he purses his lips solemnly.

Teodulo’s face darkened. He felt his stomach fill with resentful acid, similar to what he felt inside the Church’s men’s room. However, it was an emotional acid, not the kind that coated his mouth in semen.

He cleared his throat to chase off the irritation he felt with the funny looking white man with the high-pitched voice. After all, Ron was right—every Salvadoran had made some concession, either willfully or by force, to the war. But Ron was also the adult that had never seen actual combat. He, unlike Teodulo, has never killed another man or seen the images of loved ones obliterated, those memories seared into his heart and mind forever. The old, white guy will never know nor will he ever have parents to put him in that situation. Teodulo makes his own compromise to that frustratingly fucked up fact while smiling politely at his family’s host.

“Listen, I am sure you must be hungry again. I know a growing boy when I see one,” Ron said, noticing Teodulo’s disquieting rumination. “Come with me to the kitchen. Let me fix you a ham sandwich.”

As if on cue, Teodulo’s stomach rumbles loud enough for Ron to hear. The man and the boy laugh nervously.

Teodulo follows Ron into the small, yellow kitchen and sits in the breakfast nook watching the older man fish out a half-eaten loaf of Wonder bread out of his cupboard and jars of mayonnaise, mustard, a tomato, a handful of deli ham and an individual plastic-wrapped slice of cheese. The last item struck Teodulo as particularly American as he had never seen slices of cheese wrapped in plastic before. That is a lot of trouble to go to for cheese, he thought.

Ron hummed a song to himself as he put together Teodulo’s sandwich. He set the plate in front of the hungry boy and sat down across from him. Teodulo looked at the sandwich, then to Ron, then back at the sandwich. Ron proceeded to ask Teodulo a series of questions about his school history and his English profiency. Teodulo answered as he wolfed down the sandwich in four bites.

 “I learn fast,” Teodulo said swallowing the last of his sandwich. “To pass the time in the mountain, I would teach the others that wanted to learn, how to read. They were already grown but I was their teacher. Ana reads really well, I taught her, too.”

Ron was impressed that Teodulo knew who Bertolt Brecht was, that he knew some of Das Kapital in its original German and had a secondary school mastery of world history. 

There are men who struggle for a day and they are good.

 There are men who struggle for a year and they are better.  

There are men who struggle many years, and they are better still.  

But there are those who struggle all their lives:

These are the indispensable ones,” Teodulo recited from memory. “This poem is very, very, very well-known. And it was a lullaby. My parents would play the same Silvio Rodriguez record when I was very small. I never forgot it and was happy to listen to it again today.” It was Teodulo’s turn at solemnity. Ron was so visibly moved by Teodulo’s admission that he pushed his closed fist into his mouth, suppressing his want to cry. Teódulo cocked his head in incredulity. Who is this weird little white man, Teodulo thought and would I let him fuck me? Teódulo kept his composure long enough to smile politely.

“Do you know that that is my favorite poem of all time?” Ron was practically shrieking. “I can’t wait for the other students to know you, compañero. We’re going to work really hard to get raise your English profiency, too. I have someone I would like you to meet at La Señal. She teaches a very good ESL class. Do you know La Señal?”

Teodulo shook his head no even though he knew La Señal was founded by the United Popular Front (UPF), or at least the ones who had evaded the death squads long enough to make it to Los Angeles. Teodulo was reasonably knowledgeable about the architects of the revolution, but felt that playing dumb might serve him better especially now that he was in exile. He knew that the UPF were the ERP’s counterparts in Morazán, in the northeast part of El Salvador that bordered Honduras. Teodulo also knew that Dagoberto and Rogelio resented how the guerrilla groups in Morazán were considered the intellectual vanguard that took up arms, while the guerrillas in Chalatenango had the humbler rag-tag peasant distinction. That was a particularly bitter pill for the commander and his brother to swallow considering their urban pedigrees and intellectual pursuits. Magda, however, in a moment of alienation, told Teodulo that his father and uncle were jealous of Santiago, the Venezuelan expatriate who commandeered the airwaves and was celebrated for being both a revolutionary spirit-lifter as well as notoriously handsome. Two things, she joked, that the people desperately needed.

“You will like La Señal. They are fighters. In Pico-Union. Geneva Cienfuegos-Ferguson is her name. You will like this compañera. She has a good soul. You should start high school by next year. When do you turn 16?”

“October,” Teodulo said plainly.

“October? Wait. We are still in October,” Ron said, momentarily disoriented. “Did you just have a birthday?”

“It was two days ago. When we left El Salvador,” Teodulo said, now feeling the heat of embarrassment.

“Oh, Teodulo! Happy birthday! Do you like tres leches cake?” Ron raised his eyebrows waiting for Teodulo to answer.

Teodulo shrugged his shoulders. And then he nodded in the affirmative.