Everyday life in Latin America proves that reality is full of the most extraordinary things.
— Gabriel García Márquez
Dogs on roofs. I noticed them the first time I visited my girlfriend in Chiquimula, a large town in the dry, eastern part of Guatemala: Small black dogs, beady-eyed and yappy. Collies with lion-like manes. German shepherds with enormous tails. They peered over the roof edges, growling, barking, or silent and majestic against the blue sky. They were guarding the houses, I supposed, or were there as adornos, symbols of their owners’ virility and wealth. They seemed like griffins, descended from a dimming sky to warn, chastise, haunt.
I’d read Gabriel García Márquez and other Latin American authors before coming to Guatemala as a Peace Corps volunteer in November of 1990. But until I saw those dogs on rooftops, I’d thought “magical realism” was a mere literary invention, a fresh conceit to use when writing fiction. I hadn’t known how close it was to the truth.
Later, I was sitting on a bus in Cobán when a man with gold stars on his front teeth climbed on and held up a tube of toothpaste. The stars, I realized, were fillings. He spoke of the toothpaste’s salutary effects: how its ingredients came from distant places and were the best that nature’s forests and science’s laboratories had to offer; how it made your teeth as white as clouds. He spoke like a preacher, with reverence and conviction. He was, I thought, giving a fabulous pitch. But who would buy toothpaste from a man with four fillings in his front teeth? It would be like buying diet pills from a fat man.
The bus driver turned the key in the ignition. The engine grumbled and kicked on loudly. The gold-toothed man quickly ended his speech: “Who would like a tube of this magnificent toothpaste?”
Hands shot up. He made a dozen quick sales and, grinning, jumped off the moving bus.
Another afternoon I was walking through cornfields after having helped to build a silo in Pambach, a village high in the mountains. Looking for the road back to town, I asked directions of two indígena girls who couldn’t have been older than seven. They were beautiful in their white blouses and dark blue skirts. I inquired in Spanish, but they replied in Pokomchí, the local language, which I didn’t know. It was growing dark, and I was worried I wouldn’t find my way back before nightfall. I imagined spending the night in a cornfield. Panic began to grow in me.
The girls pointed down a path. Grateful, I followed it for a hundred yards or so, but the path forked. I cursed. My panic was returning. Then I heard giggles behind me. I turned and saw the girls. They pointed left. I took the left path. After another hundred yards, I again reached a fork. Again I heard giggles and saw the girls, who pointed to the right. Twice more I reached forks in the path, and twice more they were behind me, giggling and pointing the way.
Finally I reached the road to town. I turned around to thank the girls, but they had vanished.
When García Márquez was a young boy, his grandmother would tell him stories about the ghosts who roamed the house they lived in. Her tales both fascinated and terrified him. “That was our relationship,” he said, “a kind of invisible thread keeping us both in touch with the world of the supernatural.”
Soon after I came to Guatemala, I began to view myself, romantically, as a guest in a house of magic and sorrow. I was welcomed in Santa Cruz Verapaz, the town of four thousand where I lived, but I knew my stay was limited and that I would never feel entirely at home there. Rather than rue my foreignness, I appreciated the liberty it offered me. As a privileged visitor, I saw up close the joy and, more often, the pain my friends and neighbors experienced. But I never had to acknowledge their joy and pain as my own. I’d worked as a journalist before joining the Peace Corps, and something about the role of disinterested reporter still appealed to me.
I’d been in Santa Cruz Verapaz for several months, but I hadn’t made many friends in town. Hector, an agronomist I worked with on nearby farms, might have become a friend, but he was suspicious about my true mission in his country and half certain I was a CIA agent.
I’d tried to befriend the children next door, but they seemed wary of me. There were eleven of them, from three families. In the mornings, as I stepped outside to begin my workday, at least two children would be stationed at the pair of large windows in the front room of their house, staring at me with wide eyes.
One day when I was leaving to teach English at the junior high, I found nine-year-old Elvira sitting at the bottom of my steps. Elvira was thinner than her sisters, with a narrow face and long, dark hair. She wanted to know what time it was. When I told her, she asked to see my watch. “Pretty,” she said before fleeing back to her house.
My mother had sent me a dozen children’s books in Spanish — including Where the Wild Things Are and The Cat in the Hat — in part to share with children, and in part to help me learn the language. The next time I saw Elvira on my stoop, I brought her a book. “Borrow it,” I said.
When I returned home from teaching that afternoon, Elvira was on my stoop again, and the other children were leaning out of the windows, their faces stacked like the ones on totem poles. She handed me the book I’d given her earlier. “Do you have others?” she asked.
I invited her into my house while I went to get the books. When I stepped out of my bedroom, Elvira was standing in the courtyard, touching a rose on a bush growing against the wall. Seeing me, she drew back her hand and prepared to run. But I smiled, and this seemed to reassure her. I put three books in her arms.
“Thank you,” she said. Before sprinting out of my house, she added, “Your rose is very beautiful.”
One afternoon, I was sitting in my dining room with Pablo, one of my students, when I heard my toilet explode. I ran to the bathroom as four neighbor children exited, screaming. Water was shooting from the toilet tank and cascading into my bedroom. I grabbed the flexible pipe the children had pulled loose and tried to reattach it. Water raced up my arm and sprayed my face. Pablo offered vague advice with a broad grin. Elvira, the oldest child on the scene, said, “It’s Elda’s fault.”
I asked Pablo to fetch Freddy, the handyman who lived up the street, and after Freddy had repaired the toilet, I gathered the three children who remained: Elda, the one Elvira said had done the damage, had gone home. I scolded them for fooling around in the bathroom. “A toilet,” I said, “is not a toy.” The three listened with heads bowed. When I dismissed them, Elvira stayed.
“Elda wanted to get rid of her caca,” she said.
“Of course,” I said, “but you don’t flush a toilet by pulling off the top and —” I stopped. “Wait a minute. Do you know how to use a toilet?”
I told Elvira to bring over her siblings and cousins, so I could show them how the toilet worked. Elvira returned with everyone save Elda, who’d been traumatized by the exploding water.
The children crowded into the bathroom, some squeezing into the shower stall, and watched as I explained: “When you finish, use this —” I pointed to the flush lever — “to say adios to your caca.” The children laughed and took turns flushing the toilet, marveling at how the water curled around the bowl.
Elda didn’t come to my house for several days, but when she did, Elvira took her to the bathroom and gave her a flushing lesson. Standing outside the door, I heard Elda’s cry of delight at the swirling water.
Don Augusto had a broad, pockmarked face and a small nose. He might have been ugly if it hadn’t been for his smile, which was large and generous. He always smiled when he saw me, and he always greeted me by name.
I worked with Don Augusto on the health committee at the local Centro de Salud, the health center. The committee met every Monday night, and he would come with his wife, Doña Beatriz, and sit in the back of the room and say nothing until it came time to volunteer for some task. Then Don Augusto was always the first to raise his hand. His willingness to volunteer became a source of good-natured humor: when his hand shot up, everyone laughed.
During the committee’s annual fundraising drive, Don Augusto and his wife collected more money for the health center than any other committee pair, including me and the visiting social worker, who were assigned to petition a wealthy ex-Mormon who operated a dairy farm nearby. Don Augusto managed to outraise us all simply because of his persistence. Whereas we were content to let people give whatever they wanted, Don Augusto, after receiving a donation, would smile his generous smile and say, “The center is for you; could you give a little more?”
At the next meeting, after counting all the money, we debated what to do with it. Ana Dora said we should paint the center. It hadn’t had a paint job in four or five years. The building itself, she said, needed to project a sense of health in order for people to believe they might become healthy inside it.
For the first time since I’d been a member of the committee, Don Augusto spoke. He said we should use the money to buy new medical equipment, because most of what the center had was outdated or broken. After he’d raised so much money, I thought Don Augusto’s suggestion would carry some weight, but only his wife and I voted with him to buy medical equipment.
Despite his defeat, Don Augusto volunteered to paint the center. On my bike rides in the morning, I would see him standing on a ladder, brushing on bright yellow paint. When I saw the finished product, I understood Ana Dora’s argument. It did look like a place where people would want to come when they were ill.
A month or two after the building had been painted, Don Augusto began vomiting. He told his wife that it was nothing, probably something he ate. But his vomiting persisted, and half an hour before dawn, he fainted. He was barely conscious when Doña Beatriz and her neighbors rushed him to the Centro de Salud, where they learned that Santa Cruz was experiencing an outbreak of cholera.
The two doctors who were doing their internship in Santa Cruz had gone on an excursion to El Salto, a village five hours south of town, and weren’t expected back until the next day. The nurse put Don Augusto to bed and tried to make him drink fluids. There was nothing else she could do; the center had no intravenous equipment. Don Augusto died before sundown.
Whenever my girlfriend, Grace, visited me, María Chinchilla, the sixteen-year-old who lived across the street, would come over to ask her questions about women in the United States, particularly about what women do with their boyfriends. I would be in the kitchen, making dinner, while María and Grace talked in whispers in my dining room. Every so often, I’d hear María’s laugh, a high and prolonged sound, rich with delight. I had been guilty of making up stories just to win a laugh from María. I wondered whether any of Grace’s stories were invented for the same purpose.
Over the course of several visits, Grace told María her entire romantic history, beginning with her first kiss — bestowed on Johnny Stuttabo, a seventeen-year-old Harley-Davidson owner, when Grace was thirteen — and ending with me. When I tried to sit in on one of their conversations, Grace chided me and told me it was “women’s business.” Sometimes, however, I couldn’t help but overhear.
Grace: Rick liked to kiss me on the earlobe.
María: Are you serious?
Grace: He said it tasted like a banana peel.
Grace: In the summers, when it was very hot, Stephen and I would swim in a lake near his house.
María: How refreshing.
Grace: One time he’d been drinking too much, and he almost drowned.
Grace: I had to pull him out by his hair. He’s alive, but he’s bald.
Grace: James played guitar in a rock-and-roll band. He even wrote a song for me. It was called “Saying Grace.”
María: Sing it.
Grace: But the words are in English.
María: That’s all right. Sing it.
Grace [singing]: I never thought I’d know this face, / Never thought I’d find my place, / Never thought I’d win this race, / Never thought I’d be saying Grace, / Grace, Grace, Grace.
María [singing]: Grace, Grace, Grace.
[María and Grace both laugh.]
I’d never asked Grace about her ex-boyfriends, and she’d volunteered nothing. It didn’t matter. In Guatemala, our histories receded. We could reinvent them or ignore them entirely. Besides, compared to what our Guatemalan friends and neighbors had experienced, our lives, however infringed upon by divorce and heartache, seemed the stuff of fairy tales. The lives of most Guatemalans we met were hard and sad, with early death a common theme.
Despite the prevalence of pain and tragedy, the Guatemalans I knew had a wonderful sense of humor. Sometimes I’d sit on my stoop with boys in my neighborhood and listen to them trade jokes for an hour or more. Even more notable than their skill at joke telling was their ability to be lighthearted when relating their own sad tales. This was something Grace and I never got used to. In our mouths, the same stories would have been filled with bitterness or pathos.
María had such a story.
She was eight and her family was living in Ipala, near the Honduran border. During the town carnival, María’s Uncle Jorge decided to try his luck at the bullfights. Jorge was a poet, guitarist, and unsuccessful suitor. (He had been spurned even by Doña Aura, a middle-aged widow who paid boys to visit her at night and rub her feet.) He’d never fought a bull in his life, but half an hour before dusk, Jorge wandered into the arena and paid the matador to sit out the next fight.
When Jorge stepped into the bullring, he held the cape above his head like a flag and twirled it around. Sitting in the stands, María and her parents and grandmother gasped in surprise.
“The bull was the largest of the day,” María said. “He was gray, like a cloud, and long, like a truck.”
Jorge waved the cape, and the bull stormed toward him. At the last second, Jorge pulled the cape away, and the bull flew by. The crowd applauded thunderously. He smiled, his silver teeth shining in the expiring sunlight. The bull made another pass, and again Jorge pulled aside the cape, and the bull tore past. The crowd roared.
At that moment, Jorge caught sight of a young woman in the crowd: the carnival princess. She wore a gold crown, and she waved to him and shouted encouragement. As the bull charged once more, Jorge stood motionless in the center of the ring, his eyes fixed on the princess. He recovered, but too late: the bull drove a horn through Jorge’s stomach.
It took a few seconds for the crowd to realize what had happened. The cheers turned into appalled silence.
The bull was corralled and taken away, but Jorge continued to stand in the center of the ring, unbowed as yet by the blow. María’s family came down from the stands. Sobbing, her grandmother held Jorge, but he didn’t seem to be in pain. “You can see right through me,” he said, as if he’d performed a magic trick.
“It was true,” María told us. “Daylight came through his stomach.”
“What happened to him?” Grace and I asked.
“He might have lived,” María said, “except a few weeks later, he went drinking, and he drank too much. Liquor ran out of him like a fountain. So did blood.”
Grace and I shook our heads.
“But,” María added, “he’s famous. An artist painted his picture on the side of the arena. It’s two stories tall. Women are always standing beneath the portrait, saying how handsome he is. . . . Now, you see, he has girlfriends.”
Any reaction Grace and I might have had was lost in María’s laughter. It rose from giggles, climbing past loss or invention — who knew what to believe? — into a kind of delight.
Juan Cal, a farmer I worked with in the village of Chilocom, always wore a broad, frayed straw hat. He spoke a little Spanish, but he enjoyed it when I tried to speak Pokomchí, and he would tease me by launching into long monologues in his native tongue. He would frequently offer me some of his harvest. Over the course of a growing season, I took home corn, beans, radishes, cabbage, and even broccoli, which he’d hoped to export to the United States.
The best part of Juan’s field was his pineapple patch. The government agricultural agency had planted pineapples on Juan’s land years before, to see if they would grow in the region. The experiment was a failure, but every so often a pineapple would appear on the slope behind Juan’s cornfield, and after we’d finished work, Juan would take his machete and cut open the fresh pineapple: a delicious end to the day.
One morning I showed up at Juan’s parcel of land and found Hector, the agronomist from Santa Cruz, sitting under an avocado tree, drinking from a plastic bottle. Hector was one of the few Guatemalans I knew who wore a beard. It made him look sinister. He offered me the bottle.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Boh,” he said. Boh was the local moonshine.
“No thanks,” I said. I asked where Juan was.
“He got drunk,” Hector said. “Now he’s passed out.”
That morning, he explained, Juan had received a telegram from the army informing him that his son was dead. His son had been impressed into the army six months before, taken while planting corn in the same field where Hector and I were now sitting. He was seventeen years old.
“That’s terrible,” I said.
“Yes, it is,” Hector acknowledged. “But at least the army’s giving Juan two thousand quetzals.”
It seemed like a paltry sum: less than four hundred U.S. dollars.
“I could do a lot with two thousand quetzals,” Hector said, and he rattled off a list: buy a used motorcycle, or a new television; add another room to his house; pay someone to guide him illegally into the United States. “To a campesino like Juan,” Hector said, “two thousand quetzals is a fortune. He can buy enough boh to stay drunk for years.”
“Will it be enough to help him forget?” I asked cynically.
Hector must have thought I was serious, because he paused a long time before answering: “I don’t know. The boy was Juan’s only son.”
After I’d been in Santa Cruz for six months, I was drafted to coach the girls’ junior-high basketball team. On the first day of practice, I realized none of my players was particularly skilled. If they’d ever been coached, it had been by good-intentioned but ill-prepared men who’d grown up playing soccer.
María Chinchilla, my neighbor from across the street, was on the team. She wasn’t the tallest or the quickest player. She wasn’t the best shooter or the best dribbler. She didn’t play the best defense. But what she lacked in skill, she more than made up for in enthusiasm, audacity, and nerve.
The other girls on the team didn’t dislike María, but they didn’t exactly like her, either. I couldn’t tell why. I suspected skin color — Guatemalans, I discovered, are as prejudiced as anyone else — but one of the most popular girls had skin darker than María’s. María was loud in a way that people dislike, her voice cutting through conversations, and I supposed the girls didn’t appreciate this. I also damaged her popularity by encouraging her to shoot.
Although María wasn’t a great shooter, she wasn’t bad. Chiqui, who wasn’t afraid to hoist shots from anywhere on the court, wasn’t nearly as good as María, but her teammates tolerated her poor performance because her father was rich and she was pretty, with shell-shaped eyes and small red lips. Ingrid, on the other hand, had a good shot but was reluctant to use it. Like a temperamental artist, she waited for the perfect moment of inspiration. She made half of her shots, but shot no more than twice a game, no matter how much I urged.
“María,” I said, pulling her aside before the start of my third game as coach. “Shoot, understand?”
She smiled. “I understand.”
With four minutes left in the game, we were losing by ten points. María had missed seven shots in a row. I called a timeout. Ingrid threw up her hands. “I’m not playing if María keeps shooting,” she huffed. She sat on the bench and dropped her chin into her palms.
“I’m with Ingrid,” said Chiqui.
“Come on,” I said. “María’s doing the best she can.”
Ingrid looked at me as if I’d cursed her.
Trying to prevent a mutiny, I said, “All right, let Chiqui have a few shots.”
They jogged onto the court. I grabbed María by the shoulder. “It doesn’t matter what they say,” I said. “Shoot, understand?”
She made three of her next four shots, but we still lost by eight points.
Before our next game, against San Juan Chamelcoco, a town to the north, Ingrid said, “If María shoots, I’m quitting.” The other players nodded in agreement. Ingrid turned to María. “Don’t shoot, all right?”
María bowed her head.
The referee blew the whistle, and the teams took the court. “María!” I hissed. María raced back. “Shoot,” I whispered.
María scored the first three baskets of the game, but then hit a dry spell, missing her next five shots. San Juan Chamelco tied the game before halftime.
“Tell María not to shoot,” Ingrid instructed me, although without much conviction: María had generated all our scoring. Chiqui had missed a few shots, and Ingrid, too, had missed the only shot she’d taken.
Early in the second half, María scored twice more, but San Juan Chamelco ran off six unanswered points. Ingrid flipped in a jump shot; then María fired in another to tie the game. With thirty seconds left, San Juan Chamelco pulled ahead by a basket. I called a timeout.
With my players gathered around me, I designed a play for María. Ingrid protested only slightly. The other players said nothing.
After our team inbounded the ball, Chiqui dribbled up court, then passed to Ingrid on the right side. María cut across the foul line, caught the pass, turned, and shot.
The ball rolled around the rim before sliding off. The game was over.
“Oh, María!” cried Ingrid. “We can’t trust her.” She stomped off the court.
María stood beside me.
“Next time,” I said, “you’ll make it.”
María smiled. “I know.”
María would often come to my house to borrow my basketball. “You’ll return it tonight, won’t you?” I’d say, and she’d nod, but she’d never return it until I’d asked her at least three times. When she did bring it back, it was always caked with dirt. I hated playing with a dirty ball, so I’d have to wash it in my sink, scrubbing it with a brush to get the dirt from between the raised bumps, then put it in the sun to dry. When she failed yet again to return it promptly, I vowed that this would be the last time I lent María my ball.
Unable to sleep one night, I went for a walk. The streets were quiet; even the dogs seemed to have gone home. When I passed in front of María’s house, I heard a faint thump, thump. Walking up to the house, I looked through a crack in the wallboards and saw María, alone in her room, dribbling my basketball on the dirt floor. She was looking into a small mirror nailed to the wall. She caught the ball, faked left, jumped, and shot at the ceiling.
In our four-team tournament, we won the semifinal game by two points, thanks to Ingrid, who’d decided to shoot more than twice and had made seven baskets. Cobán, the team we would play in the championship game, promised to be a much tougher opponent, however. Two of the girls on the Cobán team, someone told me, also played in a men’s league. They were nearly six feet tall. We were sure to lose, even on our home court.
Before the game, I gathered my players and said, “OK, let’s give the ball to Ingrid. You won’t be shy about shooting, will you?”
Ingrid shook her head.
“Good,” I said. “Ingrid will shoot.”
But when my players ran onto the floor, María doubled back as if I’d called her. She patted me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll do the shooting.”
I was too surprised to say anything.
María made her first four shots, missed one, then made three more. By halftime, she’d scored twenty-two points and was our only scorer. At the start of the second half, she hit three more shots. We were winning by so much — in a championship game, no less — that I put in the substitutes.
I thought María’s performance would earn her teammates’ approval, if not their outright adulation, but after the game they walked off without her, going to celebrate with Coca-Colas and jalapeño chips. María waited behind for me.
“I knew you could do it,” I lied, feeling guilty for having lost confidence in her.
María merely held out her hands. I was about to ask what she wanted, but then I understood. When I dropped the ball into her arms, I didn’t say, “You’ll return it tonight, won’t you?” I left that up to her.
“Did you hear?” María asked me. She’d come knocking on my door at seven o’clock on a Monday morning. I’d been awake only a few minutes.
“Hear what?” I asked.
She pointed to the house next door. Tacked above the door was a black ribbon.
“What happened?” I asked.
María explained: The previous afternoon, my neighbor Herlinda and her daughter Elda — the little girl who hadn’t known how to use my toilet — had taken the bus to the market. The bus driver was drunk and hit a truck parked on the side of the road. The right side of the bus caved in on Herlinda and Elda, who were taken by ambulance to a hospital in Cobán.
Elda had been sitting on her mother’s lap and suffered only a broken leg. Herlinda died on the operating table after her own legs had been amputated. Elda was now, María said, a “real orphan.” (Her father had died five years earlier on his way to the United States.)
Until that moment, I had managed to hold on to the comforting fallacy of my role as dispassionate observer. When María told me what had happened, I retreated to my courtyard, where the rosebush, as always, was blooming. I knelt on the concrete terrace and cried like I hadn’t cried since I was fourteen and my parents told me they were getting a divorce. After resisting for so long, I had accepted my neighbors’ pain as my own.
When I went to visit Elda, she was lying in a bed at the back of the house, surrounded by cousins, her leg wrapped in a bright white cast. “My mother’s dead!” Elda told me. She was only six years old. I didn’t know how much she understood.
A few minutes later, however, she was crying furious, angry tears. An older cousin lifted the end of her skirt to wipe Elda’s face.
In the afternoon, I sent a telegram to Grace, telling her what had happened, and she came to Santa Cruz that Thursday. She brought a stuffed bear for Elda, and as she sat on Elda’s bed, the little girl played both with the bear and with Grace’s long, reddish-brown hair.
Elda’s cousins asked Grace if the bear was also an orphan, and when Grace said yes, Elda smiled and pressed the bear to her chest. She asked Grace to tell her how the bear had lost its parents.
Grace looked to me for help. I shrugged and said, in English, “Do the best you can.”
Grace said to Elda, “The bear family was living in the forest, and they were happy, but they didn’t have much food, so the father bear went to look for food. While he was looking, he fell into the river.”
“And bears can’t swim,” Elda said.
“Not this bear,” Grace said. She continued: “And one day, when the mother bear and the daughter bear were walking in the forest, a tree fell on top of the mother.”
Grace looked up at me as if to ask whether she was doing all right. I nodded, although I had no idea. I’d never known a six-year-old who had lost both parents.
“Was there a lot of blood?” Elda asked.
I wondered if Grace was going to cry. She looked at Elda and wrapped her arms around her. “A little,” she said.
“Did the mother bear say anything to the daughter bear?” Elda asked.
“She said, ‘I love you.’ ”
“My mother didn’t say anything to me,” Elda said, and she began to sob.
Two days after Grace left, I visited Elda again. She was able to walk with crutches, and I praised how well she could get around. Then she said she had a secret to tell me.
“What is it?” I asked.
Her cousins were in the room, coloring in books I’d given them after the accident. Elda motioned for me to come closer, and I dipped my ear to her mouth.
Loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, Elda said, “My mother came last night.”
I didn’t know how to respond.
“She came to the window.” Elda pointed to the window above her bed. “She wanted to see me.” She gestured toward her cousins. “They’re afraid of her.”
They looked up at me from their coloring and nodded.
“They’re afraid of her,” Elda repeated. “But I’m not.”
The bus Elda’s mother had been on was towed to Santa Cruz and left in front of the town hall. It was still there two weeks later when Elda, walking on crutches, returned to school. She had to walk by it every day, and her cousins told me she alternately cried and showed it off to whoever was nearby, saying, “That’s the bus where my mother died.”
I tried to see the mayor of Santa Cruz about removing the bus, but he’d gone on a trip to the coast. When he returned two weeks later, I told him how hurtful it must be for Elda to see the bus. He said he would have the bus moved immediately.
But the bus stayed. It stayed after Elda’s cast had been removed. It stayed after the school year ended. Over time, its tires were stolen, its windows were broken, and most of its seats were removed. I doubted it had an engine.
It became a rusted skeleton, and Elda grew up walking past it, every day.