Translated by Marvin Najarro
The alarm rings insistently, Cheyo turns and look askance at it, tired, he wants to keep sleeping, it has been just three hours since he got home; he has worked all day, he wants to sleep, nothing more, it has been many year since he does not sleep more than four hours, and not because he does not want to, but because he cannot; the pace of work does not allow him that.
The back pains have taken their toll on him, and the toothache torments his head, he can barely chew and every time that he tries to load a bulk on his back he feels as if a needle was inserted in his molars. He has many black holes because they are decayed, Jerónima, the girl who works in an eatery making tortillas, told him. Like him, she is also a migrant in Guatemala City; she came from Quetzaltenango when she was 13 years old to work as a housekeeper, and he at 11 to work as a shoeshine boy, but for the last five years he has been carrying bulks, and although he is doing better, making more money, his back suffers, and the pain in his right ankle makes him limp quite often.
Cheyo was born in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, Guatemala; he is the eldest of 9 siblings, his father works as a day laborer, sowing peanut seeds and picking anonas during the harvest season, he also grows corn, beans and pumpkins in a plot of land that he rents annually and for which he pays with half of his corn yield. His mother sells tamalitos de frijol and atole in the market of Rabinal, she also washes other people’s cloth and when she can, she weaves perrajes, which she sells to tourist for half their price after so much haggling with them, she always says that is better than nothing, as she is the one in need.
One of his uncles, his mother’s brother, who lived in the capital and worked as private security guard, took him to the capital so he could work and help his parents to raise his siblings, just as they did with their younger siblings, “it is your turn now, as older siblings it is our obligation,” his uncle told him. The trip to the capital was a bumpy one, he vomited several times because the bus smoke was so different from the smell of vegetation where he grew up; he had never boarded a bus or traveled so far. Wrapped in a perraje, his mother gave him some tamalitos de frijol, and into an empty cooking oil jar she poured atol de tres cocimientos, she also gave him a used bottle of Agua Florida to rub on his head in case he had a headache, or if he felt cold at night to apply it on his feet and chest. Sobbing, she hugged and blessed him; his father just shook his hand and said to him that it was time for him to become a man as his financial help was so much needed at home.
When he arrived in the capital, in the room his uncle rented near La Terminal market, he found four more man sleeping on petates, all of them from the countryside, and his uncle’s coworkers. On a pine table he found an electric stove with four burners, a frying pan, a kettle, a bottle with scant cooking oil, and a jar of coffee. On the floor, in one of the corners and over a cement block, there were four saucers and four cups, the same number of cutlery pieces and a piece of tablecloth. Hanging from a ceiling beam there was a plastic bag containing toilet paper rolls, and newspaper pieces. From the wall was hanging a calendar with the picture of woman in swimsuit.
His uncle introduced him to the others who gave him a warm welcome, and then shared his petate with him; the next day he introduced him to a group of kids who shined shoes in the area; one of the persons who repairs shoes around the repollera, sold him the shoe shine kit. Tha was how Cheyo got to know the capital; the smoke from buses and the noise that started at 2 am, when the first trucks from every corner of the country arrived to deliver and buy goods.
He never heard his parents talk about the genocide; it was his uncle who told him that half the village’s population had been disappeared, and that people from other villages had been massacred when he and his mother were still children, he warned him not to truth the people from the capital because they were different, and that they were there not because they wanted so, but out of necessity. He told him not to try to be like them, and that under no circumstance forget his natural language, because it was his grandparents’ legacy. He also told him that he had to attend classes in a night school so he can continue with his education, and Cheyo did that with joy, there he met many friends who also had come from different parts of the country and who spoke languages he did not know about, they struggled to speak Spanish among them so as not to lag behind in their classes. Among shoeshiners, bearers, tortilla makers, kooks, shoemakers’ assistants, private security guards, bricklayers, bakers and sex workers from the red-light district, Cheyo found affection in the big city that was totally indifferent to his feelings and needs.
The only mean people were those who got there to buy goods and yelled at him as if they were chasing a dog away when they wanted him to shine their shoes, he would tell his friend Jerónima. Once in a while, he and Jerónima used to go to the central park, walk around the plaza and enjoy an ice cream; together they discovered that that place was the meeting point for people like them, who had come from the countryside; they were also indigenous, and like them could not feel right in the capital where they were treated with disdain by the mestizos, in their jobs or in the street.
One of his friends encouraged him to stop shining shoes and instead start to carrying bulks, like he did; he only needed to made a cart out wood planks, get a strong rope, a pair of sacks or a piece of wool fabric to put on his back, he would not need to invest much money, he was young and strong, besides that, the costumers would look for his services some with a whistle, others with a shout, either way they would approach him asking for his help; he told him that in order to charge his costumes he had to consider the distance and the weight of the load he had to transport; that’s how Cheyo stopped shining shoes and started carrying bulks.
He shined shoes for 6 years, at 17 he begun to carry loads, he is 22 and had spent half his life in the capital; every two weeks he sends an envelope with money to his parents with the bus drivers who make trips to his home town. He is enrolled in a high school program in the night school; he sees in Jerónima the beauty of anise and chamomile plants, every time he approaches her, he feels his heart is in his mouth. Jerónima has the soul of the wilderness birds where she spent her childhood; free. And Cheyo wants to know what freedom is.
Jerónima has taken the decision to go to El Norte, because she has two children to provide for. She was sexually abused at the age of 12, by one of the churchgoers who impregnated her with twins, her parents sent her to the capital so she could work and help to raise the children who would be under they care, they still attend the same church and have forgiven the congregation member who told them he did not know what happened to him, that it was the devil who made him do that, her parents thought she was partly to blame because her early puberty distracted the members of the congregation.
Unlike Cheyo, Jerónima only dreams of reaching the United States, and being able to save money to bring her children; Cheyo wants to know what it would be like to live in a different way, without carrying loads, without being yelled at, without being despised, and mocked when he speaks Spanish; he wants to know what it would be like to have money to buy a piece of cake or a pair of shoes; what it would be like to send dollars so his parents could build a house and his siblings can attend college, have a refrigerator to store food, and living room furniture so they can rest, he would love to send them money to buy beds and stop sleeping in hammocks. He would love to have money to fix those decayed molars so they stop tormenting him.
It’s 3 am, and the alarm clock rings; in one of the many hostels around the railway, Jerónima is waiting for him, they together with a group of friends will leave for El Norte, without a coyote because they don’t have money to pay one, they also don’t know the route, but they are no afraid, because if as children were able to survive the disaffection in the capital city of their country, as adults they know they will be able to survive anywhere in the world.
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Ilka Oliva-Corado @ilkaolivacorado