There are two types of people in this country. The disappeared and the forgotten.
Salomón Ibarra Campos was found in the jungle twenty miles from his home, bound at the wrists and genuflect, his arms stretched aloft in final supplication to the masters of this world, if not entreaty to those of the next. His face bore testament to methodical humiliation, his cheeks and temples blackened and empurpled like congregating storm clouds, his right socket slackened with broken bone, his mouth stuffed with the sex severed from his loins. A bullet fired from close range at his temple had ended his thirteen years of life and released him from the rabid madness of his final hours.
Across from the prostrate son the headless corpse of his father Servando was tied to a tree, where one’s imagination could surmise the prying fingers that forced him to bear witness to the brutalizing of his progeny until he too was separated from his worldly concerns. His head was found fifty miles downriver by a fisherman who read a note describing the fate of pigs and lovers of the guerilla and, without ever having laid eyes upon or shared a salutation with Servando Ibarra Obrador, at once understood his life and misfortune.
It was raining in the jungle when Soledad Ana Maria Campos Paz came upon the remains of her husband and eldest son, six days after they had disappeared. They had stumbled upon the site as if interrupting some secret play. The jungle had never seemed so alive than at that moment. Over the retching of the German from the human rights organization she perceived the subtle hums and calls of the forest, its pulse, its life beat, shrill and cavernous and defiant. The brush was thick and wild with fungus and fern fronds, flowers retained dignity even though they had been trampled by boots and all terrain quads, a scene so lush that the perverse diorama—the vestiges of manhood and youth that remain after death—seemed distant, an elaborate deception dressed as a primal ritual of reclamation and renewal in a buzzing and festering display of decay and assimilation.
As the man from the sierra explained the rights she would be entitled to as a victim of political violence, she nodded wordlessly as she remembered the words of the police captain when she reported them gone.
“Many people leave, many come back. Men always come and go. Maybe they will return with a surprise or a job in a city. I have heard of cases like this and people always think it is something political but at worst it is just a man with a second family who is afraid to make a confession or perhaps a debt that he cannot repay so he leaves without a word so that the creditors won’t bother his family.”
The police captain was dismissive and comforting and, even though his words made no sense, she had begun to feel doubt in that office, somehow filled with a subterranean chill though they were practically in the heart of the jungle and it was never cold, not even in rainy season, and when she saw his lack of concern amidst the empty beer bottles and wafting cigar smoke and the middle aged paunch just barely peeking out from under his uniform shirt like a re-emergent infancy or a recumbent Eastern Idol or some fairy tale caterpillar, it seemed like her words were out of place like pieces from a different puzzle or quote from the wrong telenovela and so she returned home without having opened an official investigation and waited for her husband and son to return. When she returned to her senses and visited the next day to reiterate her concern, the captain was less sympathetic.
“Maybe they left for the guerillas or narcos or some other kind of subversion or maybe they were tired of all your damn questions.”
She left the police station and, though she was back in the stifling suffocation of the jungle, the shivering cold of the concrete seemed to settle at the base of her spine while her forehead was slick with hair plastering sweat like early onset menopause and she, too young for a feminine autumn, too scared to return home, and even more fearful of going out into the jungle and of what she might find there, paid fifty pesos to use a cell phone and called the number of the human rights organization that had told them it was safe to return to their land and their homes because they had the right to take them back under this government.
Six days later in the jungle she found her husband and son, among the calls of birds and the hooting of monkeys, mocking, pitiful, and indifferent to her and what she found there. She was entitled to a cell phone and a stipend from the state. They relocated her. Soledad was a name and a curse, a saga and litany, the story of young love and big dreams and abrupt ends. She was displaced again.
Of the six remaining children of Soledad and Servando, only the youngest cried when they packed up their modest belongings and drove in an armored white van to a shelter in the capital. Her claim was filed into a nebulous intersection of ministries and departments, each competing with stunning vigor to foist the case load of two million Soledads on each other because the budget was tight and the laws unclear and the bureaucrats burned out. She spoke to a reporter and the serreño called a colleague in the North America who wrote a sympathetic senator who badgered the State Department until the ambassador reminded the government of the Republic that aid came with obligations and a responsibility to respond to damaging headlines. They scheduled a meeting at the embassy and the Ministry of the Displaced agreed to relocate her family to the other coast under assumed names with new identity cards.
Soledad did not get on well in El Olvido. It was a river town buried deep in a backwards province that made its way through plants she didn’t know how to grow and a trickle of commerce along the highway to the coastal cities. Work was hard to come by, worse still for a zamba who came with a clutch of hungry broodlings and a Western accent arriving suddenly in town like so much unwelcome trash floating down the river, here to take jobs and to steal livestock, to squat and push out the residents who had purchase on the dust choked streets through a history of sweat upon which she would never have claim. She tried to ignore the spitting of women as she begged for work or re-sold some household goods, if she had been lucky through someone else’s pity.
Servando had wanted to be a farmer. Not she. He claimed it was in his blood. His people, stolen from savagery, were meant to break this land. No white man could do it. Certainly not on the land that his father and his father before him had held, stretching back with the family long into the annals of an irrelevant footnote to history, an anonymous cimarron who’d set a stake in the palenque.
She begged that he forget. On the occasion when they were first forced out by soldiers who pacified the land in the name of law and on behalf a palm oil planter looking to increase his estate, she suggested there was safety, if not dignity, in the itinerant work of the city. Forget the laws that gave him title. Forget the dreams of freedom held by his fathers. The world was small now. Jungles could no longer obscure humble hopes from power and privilege.
Servando was proud. Servando was stubborn. He took irregular work. He kept his head low and did not fritter away pesos at the bodega on Águilas with the unhappy borrachos who had come in from the countryside rather than face the bayonets of paras and revolution. And when the Land Restitution Law was signed into force by the president of the Republic, he did not forget his claim. He did not forget his rights.
Was it optimism that brought them back? Opportunity? Naiveté that reflected back in the stupefaction that greeted them on the faces of his cousins as he brought a wife and seven children back into his native backwater? Soledad called out into the streets—detergent, rags, gloves to cover your hands. Mule drawn carts and motorbikes were sluggish in the beating sun. Her youngest attached at a clutched skirt, puffed eyes hollowed out by a sea of tears, unanswered whys, and the ineffable fear of so alien a place. The women clucked their disapproval.
Hungry days followed them on the river to the forsaken heat of El Olvido. The account provided by the government for the stipend did not contain any money. She called a man in the Ministry for the Displaced who promised a transfer within the week. Hunger came first. Without Servando or Salomón there was no one aside from Soledad who could work. So she begged. In the face of scowls and humiliations, she lowered her eyes and extended her hands. They remained empty more often than not.
Nos don’t fill empty bellies. She found work when she could. Took charity when she had to. Traded her honor as a last resort.
Money from the government did not arrive their first week in El Olvido. Or the next. Or the third or fourth after that.
Promises from the capital didn’t feed her children either, so she went back out into the street again. Day in, day out: please sir my child is hungry, is there something I can help you with lady, can you find it in your heart, patrón?
It was not all hard faces and disdain. The church provided a dinner on Sunday. A neighbor woman named Esmeralda sometime snuck scraps from her own house to the children, kept an eye on them when Soledad was out in the streets. Eventually, one of the shop keepers allowed her to buy domestic goods on credit so that she could hawk them in the street. She offered little of her own accord—pitifulness and convenience being her only advantages—but it was better than the hopeless shuffle from door to door seeking the innate goodness of others.
Servando was not content to merely toil upon the earth, to accept that some things on paper naturally differed from the waking, breathing life of the world. It was not enough to work the land of his fathers. Ownership, possession, the control of his destiny—these were too near to his heart. His mouth too disposed to his pride. He would not sell to the agents of the planter who demanded half price for his work. He would not vote for their party or allow them to encroach on his property. No, he was not a trouble maker, sirs, but he was his own man and would do as he pleased. He had a deed. He had rights.
A call came on his mobile during the apex of the sun and heat of a long siesta. A man had heard from his cousin that he was looking for a second mule. It was an old nag on a profitable farm and its owner was happy to be rid of it for a reasonable price. Servando and Salomón rode out on the family’s donkey, provisioned with light blankets and a modest dinner. They would return with the new animal before the next day’s breakfast.
A woman from the NGO that helped her meet the reporter called Soledad to let her know that there was grant money to pay for travel to the capital to meet the Ministry of the Displaced in order to resolve her case. She would lose at least a week of selling her soaps and sponges. There was not enough money to bring along the children.
Esmeralda promised to keep an eye on them. The priest arranged a special little collection to cover some meals while she was away. Quiet Fidencia, now her oldest at ten, promised to look after her brothers and sisters, to make sure the little one did not cry too much and to ask the man who ran the shop to buy cleaning goods on her mother’s credit to sell in the streets while Soledad was gone.
In the capital a North American met her at the bus station, flanked by the woman from the NGO and a shaggy looking lawyer she had never met before. Together they took a private cab to the Ministry’s headquarters, where they met with a deputy of the minster. The North American explained her case in a Castilian accent, using formal sounding words that Soledad was not familiar with. The lawyer affirmed her rights and standing. The deputy was polite. While the gringo was there, she explained that first a person was on vacation and so the wire was not approved. Then the paperwork was lost. Soledad’s caseworker left the Ministry for a position with the Justice Department. It was all very complicated and improbable that her case should have fallen through the cracks. Yes, they were making up new paperwork. Right now as we speak. It will be ready soon. Very soon. They should come back tomorrow to finish the process.
Soledad was in the capital for two and a half weeks.
Salomón was a happy boy. He alone of her womb was born on the land of his fathers, before the soldiers came to evict them. In the city he was serious, but found ways to smile. When Fidencia came, he watched her like a hawk while his parents worked. Only her older brother could tease her from her shyness, coax laughter from her tears. It was the same with the next five who came. Other boys ran with hoodlums and pretended to be toughs. Not Salomón. He was a good boy.
There was never a question of school. He was happy enough to be away from books, more content to play football with friends or just watch his kid brothers and sisters. Of course, he had dreams like anyone else. He wanted to be a football star. Millonarios, of course. Maybe an action star like he saw sometime on posters for gringo movies. Or even a soldier or police officer, so he could protect people, like they did. Lately, before he took the donkey with his father to buy the nag mule, he talked seriously about growing a small plot of the family’s land as his own, so he too could work the soil as his fathers had before him.
Gabo en el cielo, su pais te necessita. ¿Quien escribe nuestras historias? ¿Quien sueña nuestra paz? El coronel tenía una vida para esperar a su pensión. ¿Cuánto tiempo hasta mis hijos comen?
Dry season settles into the roads with suffocating insistence. On either side of the road, pastel colored houses seem to fade into indeterminate haze with every dust cloud kicked up by a footfall, a mule drawn cart, or the motor bikes that traverse its ruts. From inside a bar, a chorus of hoots erupts over an offsides call. The account provided by the government for the stipend does not contain any money. Money from the government does not arrive their first week in El Olvido. Or the next. Or the third or fourth after that. Quiet Fidencia has a cough that won’t go away. A doctor is needed. Nos don’t fill empty bellies. Promises from the capital aren’t worth the air they’re made with. Soledad calls out into the streets—detergent, rags, gloves to cover your hands.