jueves, 25 de octubre de 2012

My El Paso Meltdown


[Para la versión en español, haz click aquí]

I think it all started in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Well, it really could have started even before, when the Caravan for Peace crossed the border between Tijuana and San Diego, or when thousands of people gathered in Mexico City's Zócalo -several times- to demand a definite end to the growing narco bloodshed, or even back when seven dead bodies were found inside a car in Temixco, Morelos...

I somehow got bit on the right foot by an insect. It could have been a wasp, a bee, or a scorpion, but I paid little attention to it because I didn't even feel the sting. Besides, I was too invested in being an interpreter for the Caravan, in trying to get the Caravan's message across to as many people as possible, in narrating the agonizing stories of those whose loved ones were killed, tortured or disappeared by force... Because, it seems, cartels and sicarios do as they please in my country. So by the time we arrived in Santa Fe, my foot was in really bad shape: it had swollen three or four times its normal size. It itched, it burned, and I was in pain. But, having been raised not to give problems nor to be a nuisance, I just put up with it all. How could I dare compare my pain -mere physical pain- with that of the victims in the Caravan?, I thought to myself.

My dear friends Sam and Jessica thought otherwise. My foot really looked ugly and I must have looked miserable, so Jessica suggested going to her friend Karen's for some medicinal clay rather than going to the closest ER. I couldn't agree more, being as averse to prescription drugs as I am, and so we did. Karen turned out to be not just a real healer, but a superb hostess as well and she warmly welcomed Sam and I to spend the night there: we were indeed "bedless" caravaneros. So we had the luxury of a nice bed and a hot shower after little more than one week of extremely hard work, after sleeping on the floors of churches and having to make long lines to be under the water for a short, sometimes cold, shower. Those two days at Karen's -and at Santa Fe- were amazing: great conversation and food, lots of fun, heartfelt solidarity and full-on activism which replenished my energy and strengthened my certainty that I was just where I belonged. Karen's treatment worked: my foot, less swollen and in far better shape than before, stopped bothering me... for a while. At least it seemed that no nasty alien-like creature would suddenly burst out of my then slightly puffed ankle, a far fetched sci-fi scenario Jessica and I had joked about.

After enjoying the Land of Enchantment, the Caravan for Peace headed for El Paso, Texas. The incredible welcome made me forget about my wretched foot: that warm summer night, La Placita de los Lagartos received us with candles, chanting, and a sea of caring, committed people holding U.S. and Mexican flags that fluttered together in the wind. There was music -Mexican rock 'n roll, yeah!- and we danced, letting go of the pain we all carried on our shoulders (and I particularly started carrying, once more, on my foot). In spite of sleeping very little that same night and of locking myself out in a fire escape ladder (quite an embarrassing situation from which Iván rescued me after almost having a heart attack by my creepy knocking on his window: that's what happens when you ignore the nun's warning about not going out through that door and you think nothing will happen if you sneak out for a smoke in the wee hours of the night...), I was ready for another full-throttle Caravan day. But that day started on the wrong side of the bed when I couldn't get my right foot inside a shoe. It may even be some kind of radical fashion statement to wear a shoe and a flip-flop, why not, I told myself while heading down the creaking, wooden staircase at Loretto Academy to catch our ride to El Paso City Hall.

The day continued to go from bad to worse: while entering City Hall my flip-flop broke, and I ended up shoeless with a foot on the verge of exploding, not an ideal circumstance for a first-timer, like me, in such a serious civic event. I dragged my ever-growing foot upstairs to attend the City Council meeting in which the Caravan for Peace, together with El Paso activists, was presenting a Code of Conduct for gun sales. Several people spoke in favor of signing it, but several others, well, were less than pleased with the idea. "If corruption and impunity are a Mexican problem, why should we do something about it?", was a Texan's argument against signing the Code. "If you can't make your own government and law enforcement efficient in the war on drugs and accountable for their actions, that's none of our business", said a particularly outspoken woman. While several direct victims of that very war took the stand to pour their hearts out, to make it evident that U.S. guns were killing Mexican people (and still are), Marcela asked me to interpret an interview with that very woman who was dead set on refusing the Code's suggestions about gun control. 

I introduced myself as her interpreter and the first thing Lisa said upon seeing my unmissable gigantic red foot was: "oh my God, you require some medical assistance there. Need something? I can fetch some ice for you". I was taken aback: this woman, who had just said U.S. citizens were not responsible for countless deaths and disappearances in Mexico, who indirectly had just blamed my people for their own pain, was having the most humane gesture one can have by addressing my foot's condition and my overall well-being. And the second thing Lisa said hit me even harder: "how do I know that what you say in Spanish will be what I say in English if you're with them?". Because yes, I had turned my back on her, such as all caravaneros did during certain interventions in the City Council meeting, clear civil disobedience actions; yes, I had chosen to be rude as a means of getting our point across... "I found that really offensive", said Lisa.

"No need to worry, I'm OK", I managed to say regarding her offering (a downright lie). "Since I'm a professional (kind of not so truthful because by then I had been an interpreter for just one week...) and I do appreciate your wanting to help me, I can assure you that whatever you say in English will be said in Spanish, word by word (an utter truth, at least I really meant it)", I told Lisa. A professional under stress and pain, under some sort of strange shame, needs to be always poised, I thought to myself, while feeling my throat getting tighter and tighter, my foot growing redder and bigger. How do you treat with dignity someone who believes you have disrespected her most profound beliefs? Lisa's interview has been, by far, my worst interpretation: I couldn't concentrate at all, I was about to cry -or kind of unsuccessfully tried to sob in silence- during the whole thing and I really thought I was not making any sense at all as the words blurted out of my mouth and into the microphone. I sucked big time and did fail Lisa (as well as Marcela...), but not for the reason she had feared.

When the interview was over, I stayed with Lisa to have an off-the-record chat. I did it mainly because I felt like a complete idiot and wanted to redeem myself: I knew my interpreting had not been near decent and I also wanted to try and get the Caravan's message across. After all, I figured, I am an activist, as well as an interpreter. I needed to regain my composure and my ability to articulate ideas: none of us were against the Second Amendment, I told Lisa, we hadn't crossed the border to impose our will on that touchy subject, or on any other for that matter, we were just trying to raise awareness about the rampant and senseless drug related violence in Mexico that had claimed thousands of lives in the past six years... Can't you see, woman, that your right to bear arms is crushing someone else's right to live? Just then, half barefoot and aching (it was my foot, yes, but the swelling pain had also carved its way into my heart), it dawned on me how very likely it was to hit someone's raw nerves when my own had been shattered. 

Lisa listened to what I had to say -little indeed, given my distressing circumstance- and then calmly told me her story: having lived as an openly gay man in Texas, she began, a gun always came in handy. Back then, Lisa learned the hard way to defend herself, her chosen way of life, her friends and lovers: it took guts to do so. After her gender reassignment surgery, Lisa confirmed that America was (and I'm sure it still is for her) the land of the free and the home of the brave: her own life story was a living testament to that. Given who she had been, owning a gun was not just a right, but a potential tool to safeguard all her hard earned liberties, a way to eventually fight for her identity, even for her life. I couldn't hold back the tears anymore and started crying. Will there ever be a fair way out for such a paradox, for everyone's rights to be equally backed up, even when someone's  freedom seems to be at odds with someone else's?, I wondered... Lisa ended up saying that she was truly sorry for the murdered and the disappeared, that she deeply felt for the families' grief, but that there was nothing she could actually do about it. Having no more left to say, I brushed my tears away and thanked Lisa for opening up as honestly as she did.

As the testimonies about the horrors in Mexico continued to flow in the City Council, I made my way back to the meeting room and sat as quietly as I could. Minutes later, Lisa entered the room and approached me: "There you go", she said, as she handed me a small plastic bag, covered in paper towels, full of ice. And that totally broke me down: I started sobbing in such an uncontrollable way that my whole body trembled. I really couldn't help it. It was as if an immense pain had taken over me; as if a deep, violent sorrow had grabbed me by the heart and was shaking me from the inside. Lisa's ice bag -such a small thing but, to me, such a powerful gesture- triggered my El Paso meltdown. As I sat there, hands on my face, crying my eyes out, Lisa's ice bag resting on my pounding foot, a police officer leaned over and asked if I needed an ambulance, to which I said no, stood up and tried to leave the room. On my way out, Marco saw the state I was in and just grabbed me and hugged me tight and hard. From a small gap between my own arms around Marco's neck I remember catching a glimpse of Sam's worried face, while some other caravaneros came my way. I could feel their empathy, their wordless support: real, true, soothing love. I don't know how long did I cling to Marco, nor how long did my body take to finally stop shaking. But when it happened, I was hopelessly numb.

I neither know how I got there (I don't quite remember now), but I found myself outside El Paso City Hall before the Council meeting was over. Upon being on the street, I took off my red interpretation vest and threw it to the ground. "I quit!", I said, "and I need a hospital now!". Yes, I had had it, at least for the day. I desperately needed some time off because I couldn't take it anymore: my foot was really killing me, there was no more denying it, and my heart was killing me as well. Everything was just to raw, too overwhelming to bear. I knew interpreting was going to be tough and intense, dealing with such a strong subject matter as we did every time we were at work. But what I hadn't foreseen up to that point was the incredible emotional turmoil that a small generous act could mean when in physical pain: how the realization of someone's humanity, in spite of ideological discrepancies, could simply make my entire self crumble down to pieces. Fortunately for me, Kayla was there: she saw I was a great big whiny mess with an elephant sized right foot that was turning purple and had no shoe on and offered right away to take me to a hospital.

After helping Kayla run some errands that included buying myself some slippers, she took me to a Health Center somewhere in El Paso. I lost consciousness there due to a shot of what I now believe was Vicodin. The doctor was shocked with the extent of the swelling and with the absence of traces of any actual sting; she even ordered an X-ray to discard broken bones. Finally, she said she thought I had been the unsuspecting victim of an allergic reaction gone really wrong -until then, I was under the impression I had no allergies, save perhaps artichoke- so I was prescribed six different medications: anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, and painkillers that meant even more Vicodin (down the drain went years of sustained efforts not to take any prescription drugs). Kayla took me back to Loretto Academy: the sisters were a bit alarmed by my emergency and thought it best to give me supper and send me to bed. I quickly fell asleep, chock-full of drugs, the pain lessening and both my foot and my heart going back to their regular, every day size.

The next day I learned that El Paso City Council endorsed the Code of Conduct: the resolution was passed with seven votes in favor and one abstention. The pain, mine in particular, started to be worth it, I thought to myself.

lunes, 1 de octubre de 2012

Back, but... / De regreso, pero...

Back, but not quite yet... Everything is just where I left it. Even those things I ran away from. The same old white walls, the same piles of books. The same sounds coming in from the busy street below. The same good old closet in my room, packed with clothes and memories. The same three cats. The same broken, bloody country. The same pain. The same affronts, reproduced to the point of nausea. I'm back, but somehow there's a piece of me that was left somewhere in the US. Sitting at a bench beneath a tree in Atlanta, waiting. At a porch in Austin, Chicago or Washington. Running behind a bus in the Mojave Desert. Praying under the Texas night sky. Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. I do feel the lack of something. Something fell off me and I wouldn't want to admit it's lost. Naivete? Sense of awe? It seems I'll need to go back and fetch it. I do feel I'm not the same, although everything around me strangely still is.


De regreso, pero aún no... Todo esta justo donde lo dejé. Incluso aquello de lo cual huí. Las mismas viejas paredes blancas, las mismas pilas de libros. Los mismos sonidos que suben desde la calle apurada. El mismo y viejo closet en mi cuarto, atascado de ropa y recuerdos. Los tres mismos gatos. El mismo país, roto y ensangrentado. El mismo dolor. Los mismos agravios, replicados hasta la náusea. Estoy de regreso, pero de alguna forma una parte mía se quedó en algún lugar de los EUA. Sentada en una banca, bajo un árbol en Atlanta, esperando. En un porche en Austin, Chicago o Washington. Corriendo tras un camión en el desierto de Mojave. Orando bajo el cielo nocturno de Texas. Cruzando el puente de Brooklyn. Siento la falta de algo. Algo se me cayó y no quisiera darlo por perdido. ¿La ingenuidad? ¿La capacidad de asombro? Parece que tendré que regresar para traerlo. Siento no ser la misma, aunque todo a mi alrededor, extrañamente, todavía sea igual.