Translated by Katrina Hassan
Cecilio prepares a cup of coffee while his bean tamales are warming up in the microwave. He takes out a little tub of vaseline from his backpack and rubs it on his fingertips. They are cracked and bleeding because he cuts cherries all day long for a living. He buys pain relieving balms in the Mexican supermarket near his house. Cecilio makes six dollars per tub of cherries. When the tubs are full they weigh fifteen pounds. He hangs one tub around his neck and one around his waist so he can make twelve dollars in one go. In the supermarkets, they charge ten dollars a pound. Cecilio thinks it is a great injustice that the pickers make so little. This is the poor person’s life. He shares with his co-workers the stories of when he picked pineapples at the foot of a volcano in Guatemala. The landowners kept the majority of the profit every season.
Cecilio is originally from a place called San Miguel Los Lotes, Esquintla. Before he could even walk, his dad seeing he was a muscular kid, took him to pick coffee at the foot of the volcano. By the time he was a teenager, he knew his way around the sugar plantations. He also knew his way around the asparagus, mango, papaya, pineapple and jocote marañon fields too. Cecilio went all around Retalhuleu and worked in the rubber, coffee and macadamia farms. He knew how to prepare the land for sowing, harvesting and the post harvest. This includes the drying, classification and packaging all the coffee products.
If you mention a Jack of all trades, you might as well name Cecilio. He worked in the deforestation of the forests of Petén. The land owner wanted to grow African palms. He worked with only an ax, a sledgehammer, a wedge and his strength in order to transform hundreds of trees into smaller pieces. The pieces where then transported away in trucks, heading for the capital. In his days of being a labourer in Guatemala, Cecicilo remembers the hunger, the cold of the dens where he slept. He also remembers the humiliations. The people in charge of humiliations were just as illiterate as himself but were given higher posts by the bosses. How could a man that grew up in poverty become the worse enemy of the labourer? Cecilio could never comprehend this.
When Cecilio got married, his little house soon filled with kids. This is when he decided to emigrate. What he made working the farms in the south of the country was not enough to bring up seven kids. His wife Micaela helped with the bills. She sold tamales but didn’t make much money out of them. He borrowed money from a loan shark that charged him a thirty percent monthly fee and left to the US. He promised to send money to build a block house, to buy a pickup truck, and for a family business. Cecilio and his wife did not want their kids to become labourers like themselves. They would be the first out of all the family to go to university. They promised this to each other.
Cecilio pours himself coffee and unwraps the bean tamales out their husks. He lights a candle to the Señor de Esquipulas and he stares off into space. He remembers June 3rd 2018, when his cousin from the capital called to tell him that his town had been razed by volcano lava. There were hundreds of missing people. Cecilio threw off the cherry buckets and called his family. Nobody answered. They found the burnt body parts of some of his family, and others were never found.
A year after he emigrated, the volcano erupted and took everything in its path. The town of San Miguel Los Lotes was left buried under rivers of lava. Out of the 2,900 people that were buried under the lava only 430 bodies were recovered. The government left the families to fend for themselves. The firefighters, neighbouring town and people from other parts of Guatemala were the ones that helped the rescue efforts. Cecilio was told that they sent a few soldiers, but only for the photo opportunity. This made the international news.
Cecilio lost thirty four members of his family. This included his parents, brothers, uncles, cousins and his wife and kids. The family they managed to find was buried in the nearby towns’ cemeteries. When Cecilio’s coworkers found out, they all pooled their money to help. They even lined up to hand him the money. Even if they gave one dollar, they felt his pain as their own. They had also had a family member die and couldn’t leave the field all thanks to being undocumented. The other half of the burial money he got from the loan shark’s wife, whose husband also died in the lava. She said she felt his pain but still charged him the 30 percent fee. She told him she couldn’t do it any cheaper.
Ever since that day, Cecilio drinks night and day. He used to work just to pay his travel debt and now he has that and the debt for the burial of his family. He rents a space in an apartment, sharing a room with 6 more people, all undocumented. They are from Mexico and Central America. They cook and leave food in the fridge for him for when he comes home from work. Cecilio has gone without a day off for 4 years. Every anniversary of the tragedy he drinks himself to oblivion. His roommates hide all the liquor bottles but he swings by the liquor store every day to buy the cheapest firewater. It is the only stuff he can afford. He has even drank the rubbing alcohol that is kept in the apartment for emergencies. This is the only way he manages to sleep a few hours so he can go to work the next day. He believes that if he was sober, he wouldn’t be able to manage the pain.
The town where he grew up so happily is now an empty plot of land. Only very few people live there now. For the victims’ families, this is a pilgrimage destination and a sort of cemetery. Cecilio can never return, he has the loan shark’s debts for his journey north and the burial of his family to pay. He has to stay in the USA, where his pain and desolation deepen.
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Ilka Oliva-Corado @ilkaolivacorado