by Virgil Suarez
In the beginning was the hook like instrument
used to cut grass & sugar cane, made from the wood
of the guava tree. Depending on the creativity
of the devotee, it was painted or adorned with beads
& cowries. Ritual instrument of Elegba, Holy Child
of Atocha, whose domain is the Crossroads.
In Los Angeles, at the public schools, I drew
Chinese characters, or what I thought were
Chinese characters). Sometimes I copied
them down from the backs of Chinese fortune
cookies, to keep the bullies who beat on me
at bay. I told them I knew different forms
of martial arts, mainly Kung Fu & Karate. They believed
me at first, then grew skeptical over time & cornered
me outside in the hallways. I stood dumbfounded
& overwhelmed by the fact that I was about to get
my ass kicked. Id pray to Elegba & all the Orishas
that I wouldn't get my ass kicked--as I did on many
occasions. The elementals didn't work. My mis-
fortune cookies always came through: You will
make no friends. You will always be an outsider.
Not knowing the price, you will pay much dues.
Nothing has helped heal the mental blows, except
for this poem now & for all who kicked my ass
because I didn't speak English right or dressed
with the wrong clothes, or didn't comb my hair right,
I say this: this poem is my garabato. Con Safos.
We stood across on the other side of the street
in Havana the day they came to take Lolo away.
Two men brought him out of the house. Wild-eyed,
he looked across at us. Red marks etched on his chest
and stomach, blood dried on his face. This was the last
time any of us saw him in the neighbohood. Our
parents helped spread the rumors: Lolo died later
at the hands of the rufian policemen, hung from his
cell. Or maybe he was taken to Masorra, the insane
asylum not too far from the barrio. Or tortured
at El Morro Prison. Who knew the truth?
A year earlier his wife and daughter packed and left.
Lolo spent the rest of his days drunk inside the house.
Us kids did nothing but challenge him to come out.
We threw rocks at the roof the corrugated tin shack
in his backyard. We dared each other to break in
and steal his tools, what was left of them. On stormy
afternoons we flung pebbles at his windows, broke
a pane or two, but he wouldn't come out. We knew
he was there because of the screaming we heard
especially when the blackouts started in our street.
We stood across the street and howled back,
we started to howl the day the police came to take
him away. We howled and ran like a pack of dogs
behind the jeep, the dust going into our eyes and mouths.
A year after they took him and he didn't come back,
lightning hit the house and set it on fire, a terrible
sign, our parents said. We all learned to read these signs.
We dropped to our knees, bent, put our ears
to the charred earth and listened for instructions
on how not to become ghosts in our own lives.
LAZARITO & THE HABANERO CHILIS
He was not all there, meaning he had been born
"with problems." That's what our parents said.
His father all he ever said was, "No Lazaro, No
Lazaro, No Lazaro." But Lazaro was always
getting himself into trouble. He liked to run
out to the streets naked, then he would aim
his peepee out at the cars and urinate in big arcs.
His father would come running out after him,
screaming, "Lazaro, Lazaro, me vas a volver loco."
Then there was the time Lazaro snapped all the
Habanero chilis off the plants that grew in his father's
garden, and he stuffed them in his mouth. Ah, the screams.
His parents had to call the ambulance and when none
arrived, they asked Talo, our next door neighbour
for a ride to the hospital. After the chili incident
we never heard from or saw Lazaro again, and his
parents came and went out of the house
as if they had been childless and content all their lives.
owner of the kiosk in Arroyo Naranjo.
She tended her shop & made her living
& introduced me to sweets: mercocha,
boniatillo, dulce de coco, guarapo.
When my father gathered with his friends
at the corner kiosk, they often spoke
among themselves about things
better-left unspoken, anti-revolution
talk, the kind that got you killed
if someone heard & snitched.
So Leo, outspoken & brave,
braver than all those men who drank
her cafecitos, never opted for silence,
so she spoke her mind on things
& spoke out loud. Wasn't afraid.
& the men liked her because like them,
she was gusano & like them she liked women
& like most of them, her fate became
imprisonment, & later, not too much later,
death. The kiosk was boarded up &
left to rot & so for the children
of Arroyo Naranjo, there would never
be any more sweets & for the men
a place to gather & talk & plot
some essentials that kept so many
going back to Leo's kiosk.