Among the Maya, four gods
of the winds and of the directions
who hold up the four corners of the world.
1. Little Estefania wiggles her butt into place on a bench in the open-air cafeteria, empty of children for this hour, wiggles into place in this wide room where the wind rushes through carrying the dust-laden scent of garbage released from the Guatemala City dump. It’s a putrid, living scent, one that everyone knows. It is enemy and livelihood. It wafts through the room, making its presence felt.
I kneel at Estafania’s feet, untie the shoes of this birthday girl whose hair is long and dark and braided neatly, but whose face is sparrow worried—only to discover the string looping through the eyes of her shoes is a long piece of pot holder yarn, tied and knotted, tied and knotted, and looped three times for the bow. We take a long time, both of us watching my old fingers seek the frayed loops as they tug the knot apart, loosen this makeshift, soiled, stretched out, reconnected string. Is it, as they say, stronger in the broken places? I tell you, it does its job, keeping her shoes, nearly worn through, on her small feet. Someone has been clever, resourceful; someone has held up her corner of the world. Her mama perhaps; yes, this niña pequiña has a mama. Estefania watches as I work the knots free at last, pull off the shoes. Her toes wiggle in dirty pink socks with holes at the heels. We unsnap and pull down her jeans. She hangs on to her underpants.
Nearby, three other adults help children dress and undress, going through the same process as gently as possible. So that the children may have new clothes. The man who donated the new clothes from his store looks on, expertly sizing each child who has a birthday in February, the month of Dia del Cariño—Valentines. We have come from el Norte, from the land of snow to her land of sun. To Guatemala City, to the school on the edge of the dump, to Camino Segura, Safe Passage. We are untying the shoes of small children, helping them remove pants, pull off shirts. The man who has brought the tiny pants and shirts chooses from his stock a new pair of jeans and a pretty ruffled shirt for the girls, canvas pants and a sturdy tee for the boys. Everything is in the open, and I can’t help but think what an uproar this process would cause in the states. Here, it is merely quiet, integrous work.
Estefania and I struggle to pull up and zip her pants. She stands up, staring down, studying these new clothes seriously. I check the waist, and ask haltingly, también apretado? Too tight? She’s five but understands my broken attempt, offers her little sparrow nod—they fit. The little ruffled shirt too. She meets my eyes, then looks to the sky—as if this is all too much. Maybe it is.
She will carry these new clothes home, carry them into the smoky corrugated metal and cinder block rooms that lean into the slopes above the dump, the dump where her mama sorts garbage all day, trying to find what can be recycled, reused. Sold. Estefania will take the clothes home to the one or two rooms crowded with her siblings, sometimes cousins, sometimes the garbage they are trying to sell. The older ones may already be sorting garbage with the adults. There is not always a father. He may have died from the dump sicknesses; he may be walking el norte. If so, he did not want to leave, not his home village in the mountains, nor even this place of dust-filled winds where he first brought them so he could find work; certainly, he did not want to leave his family, not even his beautiful, troubled country. But few here blame him. Maybe he will get across the border. Maybe the U.S. will let him in. It’s been months. The families wait for news. For money to buy tortillas. Money for clothes, for laundry, for… life. But mostly, for him to come back to his own. The children will grow up with the wind of the dump touching their faces instead.
Estefania’s pants fit; she fingers the sweet ruffle of her shirt, savoring its soft new feel. We tug the new pants back down over her feet, redress her in her old clothes, scented with wood smoke and diesel. Once Estefania’s old pants and shirt are on and zipped, I pick up her shoes, and begin again to work them on to her small feet. She’s nearly grown out of them, so it’s a struggle but at least she has shoes and socks. And she’s here, in the Safe Passage school for children of the dump while her parents work in the dump. She gets two healthy if simple meals a day, usually beans and some vegetables. She washes her hands and brushes her teeth. She is given a toothbrush.
I loop and retie the too-long yarn ties in her shoes. As I am bending to the ties, Estefania leans forward from the bench, and touches my hair, my short strands gone kinky in the heat and dust. She pats her small hands onto my highlighted supercut, a touch like a bird’s wing, the flutter of a southern sparrow touching northern wind. I tell you she begins to weave, to loop her fingers into my hair, and at last they rest there, making a small nest. I tell you I heard a cry like something small taking flight. Laughter? I tell you, I bend to her small feet to hide my shame, to bear abundance so great I can dye my hair a color foreign to her and pay for it easily. I tell you, I retie her shoes and let her play with my hair, fluffing and nesting. I tie her shoes, knotting the frayed yarn, pulling the strand so she will not trip, never fall. It will not be enough, this tying, never enough, but the shoes are on and the new pants and shirt are folded into a sack with balloons and bright hearts scattered over the plastic. When I am done, and lift my head, she looks into my eyes, raises her hands from my hair, and holds them wide as if she has done something wonderful.
2. Another February birthday child. Estevan has the look of a startled fawn. He is small and when he sees what is happening, his eyes flicker with confusion. His eyes say I’m sorry I’m sorry. Adrianna, the program coordinator, says quietly to my husband, David, who has been sweeping with the custodians, Will you take him to the banyo to change. David nods, the question in his eyes. She sighs. He’s embarrassed. He has no underwear. My quiet David approaches Estevan, touches his shoulder, leads him across the sunny room to the grimy bathroom. David leaves the door ajar. He lets the toilet seat down so the boy can stand there, but the boy seems afraid to stand on the seat, seems unfamiliar with a toilet that has a seat cover and instead, plunks himself on that floor. David wants to pick him up, take him to the shower, take him to a big bathtub filled with hot soapy water, but there, on the dirty bathroom floor, the boy is comfortable. David kneels on the floor, helps ease off the old pants, stands the boy up, pulls the new pants up over his naked bottom, makes sure there is room to grow, please let him grow. He slips the new shirt over the rounded shoulders. Everything fits. Estevan won’t meet his eyes. When at last David completes this small dressing and undressing and redressing, he leads the boy back to the table where the coordinator sets the new pants and shirt in front of Estevan. The donor would like a picture. I wince when they ask him to smile for the camera. He tries. In this picture, his eyes are too large, eyes the size of dark worlds, eyes the size of God’s sorrow, eyes as deep as the dump a hundred feet away with its mile-long gorge running like a scar through the city, through the earth, sometimes catching fire deep inside. But there is little fire in Estevan’s eyes, only the scar from a god’s dry wind of fate.
When he has returned to his classroom, carrying his new change of clothing, we learn from Adrianna that Estevan and his two siblings live with an aunt who also has three children of her own in the same age range. So, six kids in two rooms on the edge of the dump. His aunt works in the dump with the other pickers. And I ask, His mother? Adrianna’s voice is quiet: on the streets, succumbing to whatever she must do for drugs. When I ask how this happened, she shrugs, says simply, it was too hard. The dealers targeted her. I want to ask what could be too hard for this beautiful boy, but I know, I know—a thousand things could be too hard. Who knows what any of us would do? I breathe the acidic wind of the dump, the dust and acrid haze for a handful of days each year. I know nothing. Of their lives, their terrors and sorrows.
I know only this small slice of his courage.
Adrianna walks to the edge of the open-air cafeteria, looks into the air that hovers over the dump, says quietly that sometimes Estevan sees his mama on the corners, and sometimes his face gives way to his look in the photo—trauma. The word is the same in both our languages. Estevan has breathed that methane-laced wind of garbage and trauma, and thus this expression between flickering light and dead loss. And somehow this small boy holds up his corner of the world, he comes to school even without his underwear.
3. Learning to blow. Not what you’re thinking. Tiny dark-eyed children, preschoolers, some still toddling, each given a cup with soapy water. Each given a straw. The lesson, not to suck, which is intuitive, but to blow. It is slow, the process of learning to blow. First, their teacher demonstrates with her lips pursed as though for a kiss, the tiny hole through which the air must be pushed. Some niños pequeños understand quickly, some can only emulate the shape of the mouth, not push breath forth. For them, she lifts their palms to her face, and offers to their small palms her own breath, a warm sweet wind.
One child, Isabel, tries to catch it, closing her hand on the invisible, as though reaching for one of the hundred or so Mayan gods that drift on these winds around the dump. The teacher shows Isabel how her own tummy collapses as she blows. She lets Isabel touch her tummy. She lets any of them touch her mouth to feel the breath. They practice until they can all blow. Then she transfers this gesture to the straw, shows them how to do this blowing with a straw into a cup of soapy water. They hold their cups carefully—it is a hard task. They press their small lips around the plastic tube. Do not suck. Blow. She blows. Their small breath lets go, releases from the lungs, through the mouth, through the lips. Then, the surprise. Gurgling. Clear polyhydric mounds rise, bubble mountains, from their cups. Giggles like a song. Giggles like birds. Isabel holds her cup to us as though it were gold. It is. She is proud. They have performed a miracle.
Their teacher shows us how to help. She goes to each child, to each mound, and with her hands collapses the bubbles. The bubbles collapse, disappear back into the cup. The children watch, tipping their heads. Where did their miracle go? Two children look alarmed, one cries. Then she shows them how to bring it back. She blows again. The bubbles return. See, they can make the bubbles rise again. They have the power of wind. Blow, she commands. They blow their winds into the soap until their bubbles resurrect. And it becomes a game.
We place our hands on the bubbles. Disappear them. And they become the god-winds that blow the brightness back into our worlds. Their teacher gives them the power to bring something back, unlike ancestors who have been disappeared by thirty years of war, unlike the los abuelos who died in the forced labor of the fincas—the corporate farms that took the land, erased their indigenous fields, and squelched their lifestyle. Thus, these tiny uprisings of air are alive with breath and rebellion, different from the air shifting like a dark angel off the dump.
I turn to Isabel. Each time I collapse the bubbles, she turns sorrowful. Until she brings them back. Then the sweetest breeze touches her face and it dries. All the while the teacher is speaking slowly to them, explaining bubbles, explaining what it means to blow. I think it is a lesson in opposites, in all the dualities they must learn: blow and suck, rise and fall, big and small, appear and disappear, but when I ask, she shakes her head. Those dualities exist in the lesson only by inference. The real point. To help them use the muscles in their faces. To strengthen the lips, tongue, tendons of the cheek, to prepare their mouths to learn the language of their nation—so maybe they will stay and find a way.
When I ask, the teacher sighs, the reasons dificil y imperfect, difficult and imperfect, she says, looking out to the mountains. Most of these children have been born into families that speak only indigenous languages—one of over two dozen in Guatemala. But because of the circumstances of the dump, the city, the gangs, the work, these smallest ones sometimes feel safer if they remain without words, if they do not to speak at all, if they learn only the language of silence.
So, it is a rupture in two ways—not only don’t they speak the language of their people, they often don’t speak much at all. So now they must be taught by hand, with straws and effervescence, to break silence. They must find stronger voices. They must be taught to mouth the winds of the new gods in order to tell the story of the old. To the degree silence can be broken, it will begin with blowing bubbles. This is how they will come, perhaps, to convertir (to translate)—the teacher is careful, aware of the complexities of this word—their stories. I watch them blow their bubbles into shapes like volcanoes, large as the breath of a hundred gods, the rainbow of their lost languages. I watch Isabel make a pillar of bubbles, a corner of the world pinned in her breath.
4. We ask Adrianna where to take the kids we sponsor for lunch. We sponsor two children with Safe Passage; it’s not like those organizations where you never know if the pictures you are sent are real. Sponsors are encouraged to meet the children with whom they are paired. She tells us a place, she says, that will break the ice. Which is how, at Chuck-E-Cheese in Guatemala City, a chain I have never patronized, even in the states, I learn to play an arcade game with twelve-year old Shirlen who I know, sort of, because twice a year I get a four-sentence letter from her and one from her brother, Oliver. And though we often see them while at Safe Passage, sometime during those days when we work for them, David and I ask permission for a lunch—and Suny, their mama, says yes. The children have also never been to Chuck-E-Cheese either, so we are all on the same footing when we enter this place of electronic sound and tacky prizes and a thousand strange competitions.
I choose the blue gun, because pretty Shirlen wants the red. She’s slim as a nail, but there is a confidence in her, some spine that rises up through her shyness, her cautious politeness. So, here’s the game screen, populated with half human, half robot thugs, and a round of thirty silver bullets, shining and perfect, plenty I think, to finish off any gladiator. For a minute, I consider that I am using a gun, albeit a toy one, but Shirlen taps her feet, shoulders twitching, a half sideways smile. Challenging me?
Shirlen has the bone structure of the Ladina—a Guatemalan descended from the Spanish, not Maya, and a smile that will someday send someone to the ends of the earth for her. But she does not yet seem aware of that. Instead she is quiet, a little sly and watchful. At lunch, as we stand in line, she watches. She reads the overhead menu carefully. She watches her brother order. She asks twice. Yes, in broken response, Si, la orden lo que tu querer (Yes, order whatever you want). She doesn’t hesitate, orders a family platter of chicken wings, eats only a quarter, and asks for the box to take them home, just too full—already looking out, providing a supper, a variation from rice and beans, and protein for the little ones—and so we slide our extra tortillas and all the little sauces, also just too full—into her box.
Still, she sucks her free soda with relish, filling her Chuck-E cup three times. And so, sugar-high, she slides that smile my way and stands before the shooting range, one of a hundred games. I mock-stare her down and she laughs out loud, the first time I have heard that sound, a mountain stream. Then I turn to face my monster, aim, pull the trigger. The monster does not fall, keeps thudding toward me, bootfalls shaking the screen. She smiles, turns to her own screen. I fire again. Miss. Again. I pull my trigger—how courteous, the game-makers have removed safety latches, have made aggression… so easy. But monsters keep rising, weapons raised. They fire back. I return fire, fast and careless, until I’m out of every silver bullet allotted me, about to be dead meat.
Just then, triumph blazes out of the screen. Trumpets and fireworks. Shirlen has won her round. I turn to see this twelve-year-old girl who lives on the brink of the city dump with her mother and five siblings, this girl who will tonight—with that family—gather round an open fire and on an iron griddle will warm the chicken wings just at dark and the air will fill with oily smoke and off-the-mountain-of-trash wind. She, Shirlen of the watchful eyes and boxed wings, will feed her family.
But just now she has risen to this pixelated fight, killing off monster after monster right through the heart, killing armored brutes as though she kills monsters every day, kills them with a rigged toy, with only the pixilated image of thirty silver bullets. All those theatrical bits fall like ash down the screen. And I see how it works, that her monsters rise, do what they are programmed to do, reassemble in brilliant threat and metal, resurrect each time as the seconds count off, the bullets count down. But this girl aims, shoots, strikes the heart, and expects, yes, esperar, these monsters to rise again—she knows this is what the game is, and if life is also killing off the monsters, sorting garbage and making sure people are fed, helping moms and siblings work the dump, facing the darker elements that must be faced, again and again, this will be her power: she sees the monsters, takes them on as they come—until at last—and not to put too fine a point on it, she notices me standing on the side without any silver bullets remaining, exposed, and so, out of compassion (or showing off?) she twists her gun sideways, smiles, explodes my monster in a perfect strike, and with a smirk returns to killing off her own.
There in the midst of canyons of arcade games whipped with garish colors and sparkling heroes, a place of cheap tokens and sweet soda and dark capitalism, the four winds rise from the dust of the stained carpet. They swirl and do not placate. The living is complicated in this country, in this place where the dump may trap families, where the children may learn to speak, albeit perhaps not in the language they were born to. But they are not lost, nor downtrodden, but resourceful and resilient. I have seen some of their power in Shirlen. I have met Estefania, Estevan, Isabel who somehow, imperfectly and with difficulty will, if the winds are kind to even the smallest degree, hold in place the four corners of their world.
Holding up the four corners is such a powerful image, Anne-Marie. I feel under a kind of shelter, ironically as I imagine the four children each holding high their own corners of this expertly woven story. Congratulations!
This is beautiful, AMO. No wonder it won.
Thank you Veronica for such kind and insightful words. I wish I could show everyone this school. It’s a place of hope.
What a powerful story. Not just the wonderful writing, but the passage it grants us through this troubled territory with cultural parallels and contrasts that invite examination. At the end we are left with an image of the children’s resilience—and yet can’t escape the deeper inquiry this non-fiction invites. Congratulations, Anne-Marie Oomen!