“How are you?” “How’s El Salvador?”
These are the seemingly straightforward questions that I was posed by the dear friends, family, and mentors I was lucky enough to reconnect with over the past two weeks in the US. Each of my responses felt inadequate at best, insincere at worst. I’d think quickly, “If I search for some semblance of the truth, I’ll still hardly scratch the surface, and I’ll again be the cynical, Debbie Downer of the day,” …. “If I whitewash the truth with dull generalizations, I’m doing a disservice to the lives I’ve encountered, many of whose tragic destinies are wrapped up in ages of deadly dosages of silence and small talk.” At times, I would try to plunge into the complexity, and in some cases, the horror, of these past few months, and I would find myself sounding like an emotionless recording. Or I’d use humor to bridge the gap between intractable darkness and something, anything, more relatable.
They are the most accurate image I can come up with to explain “How are you?” “How is El Salvador?” If only I could will everyone who asked to be transported to the emergency waiting room and to gaze down into Moises’s eyes, there wouldn’t be a need to say much more.
Five days before visiting the US, my dearest friend here received news that landed us in the public hospital emergency waiting room for several days, while he waited for a hospital bed to open up. As we waited, and waited, and waited, people kept piling in, waiting for bed space. Strangers quickly became neighbors and sympathizers with one another’s pain, in a place filled with crisis and dysfunction. Mothers exchanged updates on their children’s progress as well as that of most patients within earshot, as they commiserated and strategized about how to get the best care possible in a hospital operating for the most part without any medicine.
After waiting for 9 hours or so, my dazed state was disrupted by a flurry of activity when a patient was rolled in by seven Green Cross volunteers and 5 police officers. He couldn’t have been more than 15 years old, and his slender body wriggled in pain as he winced and whimpered. He was covered in blood, which was flowing from his left leg just above his ankle where his bone was protruding out of his skin. The volunteers tied his feet together with a t-shirt as they talked amongst themselves. No one spoke to the boy; he might as well have been invisible. After nearly half an hour, one of the police officers walked over to him and told him to “grow a pair and suck it up,” as another, just out of his earshot, boastfully relayed to his peers that they’d managed to shoot and kill the boy’s friend, whose body now lay lifeless in a nearby hospital.
Though there is a waiting room for cases of “maximum urgency,” the boy was not wheeled off to this room, nor given pain medication. Alas, he was accompanied by police officers, so he was fair game for scorn and presumption of all sorts. He was to be seen through the eyes of fear and blame, by those conditioned by the daily news to hate the scapegoats, to see the small picture, and to stifle curiosity, structural analysis, and compassion.
As last, the Green Cross volunteers left and the police officers disappeared for long enough for me to walk over to this whimpering child whose solitude in the midst of his unimaginable pain was breaking me apart. I stroked his forehead and wiped his tears as he winced up at me and told me the story that is at once unique to his own lived experience, as well as the carbon copy of the stories shared by so many youth across this country who are criminalized and killed in droves day in and day out.
“I was sitting with my friend, and the cops showed up so we ran, because every time they see us, they beat us. As I ran they open fired on us and I lost track of my friend. I jumped from a 10-foot wall to escape the bullets and heard my bone crack, but I kept running. When I couldn’t take the pain, I collapsed, and the cops caught up to me. They beat me like a dirty rag, though my bone was sticking out of my leg. They wanted to kill me, but people started coming out of their houses and there would have been too many witnesses.” I asked if he knew how his friend was, wondering if he knew he’d never see him again, and he said he didn’t know where he was. I swallowed hard, deciding to spare him the pain of this news for the meantime, hating the fact that for this squirming, wincing child, the worst was yet to come.
“What’s your name?” I asked him. “Moises,” he answered, as he looked up at me and squinted one searching, glossy, brown eye open. In a strained voice he said, “Thank you.” I’m not sure what he was thanking me for. Perhaps for being the only person in this awful trajectory to recognize his fear and pain. Whatever it was, it felt cripplingly inadequate. As he moaned in pain I told him to breathe deeply, and as I did so, I was overwhelmed by the ludicrous nature of this request, thinking, “Your bone is sticking out of your ankle, you are in a hospital without medicine, you’re seen as dispensable, the cops nearly killed you, they killed your friend and you don’t know it yet, and I am asking you to breathe deeply.” I wanted to be a surgeon and to be able to heal him, though I knew the roots of his pain must reach much deeper than his ankle. I asked what he was feeling, and he groaned out between whimpers that he would never walk again. That he wouldn’t be able to go back to 7th grade. That he would have to be locked up for 7 days because the cops had found weed in his pocket (this explained the police’s lingering presence). I looked again into his pained, squinted eyes with tears flowing down onto his stained hospital sheet, and I thought of each boy I work with in prison and of each of their scars. How many times had this been each of them? How much pain could they keep enduring?
His persistent groans brought me back to the present and I did my best to reassure him, though I knew I was lying through my teeth. “Tranquilo mi amor, respire. They’ll give you anesthesia and they’ll fix your leg. You won’t feel anything during the surgery and you’ll have to use crutches for several months, but then you’ll walk again. You can keep studying, your friends will help you with your books.” Wishful thinking at best, given the circumstances. A more truthful prediction would have been something like, “This hospital has no medicine, your leg won’t heal properly. The cops will be hell bent on killing you, since you got away. If you report the abuse to authorities, they’ll kill you even faster...”
I continued, “Do your parents know you’re here?” “Do you have siblings?” No. It’s just me. They don’t know… and the look on his face told me there was much more to this story. Suddenly, a woman tapped my shoulder and said, “Your patient!” and I turned around to find that my friend had fainted while they injected him. I followed, numb and shaken, as they wheeled him into urgent care, talking about heart arrhythmias and checking his chart only after they had injected him. “You can’t go into urgent care,” I was told by a doctor who looked to be in high school.
Standing in the hallway, overwhelmed with impotence and uncertainty, I called a dear friend and mentor. “Remember that the doctors work 30 hour shifts and have 300 patients each,” he reminded me, “The police are tired too, and they’re scared.” I hung up the phone, reminded of the complexities of structural violence but no less discouraged. Feeling light-headed with anxiety and uncertainty, I walked back to be with Moises. As I rubbed his forehead and mumbled reassuring lies, a man approached me and asked to talk with Moises. He told me he was his father.
As soon as Moises saw him, his demeanor changed entirely. His body stiffened, his whimpering stopped, and in a sarcastic tone he uttered, “Oh, I’m fine, they’ll just have to chop off my leg.” I stepped away to give his father space, and shortly thereafter his mother appeared, head covered by a white laced cloth, with a giant bible in tote. I watched from a distance as she leaned over him with a scolding posture. She didn’t touch him, she just talked and talked, and he silently stared into the curtain that divided him from the 50 or so other patients in the waiting area. I imagined her in a street-corner church with blaring speakers and 7 churchgoers, day in and day out, praying to a God in the clouds to come down and fix her only child, while he wandered the streets. In their company, his loneliness loomed larger.
I approached him once more, and a nurse asked me disapprovingly, “Which patient are you here with?” As I backed away, the police officers reappeared. My visit with Moises was over. Within the hour, he was wheeled off to surgery, and as he left the waiting area, he spotted a motionless boy in another stretcher who had fallen from a pick-up truck. He strained his torso to see the boy’s face, undoubtedly searching for his friend, not knowing that his friend lay dead for the crime of being young, impoverished, and guilty of anything and everything until proven innocent.
Days later I found myself in the US, surrounded by the company of dear friends, wondering how these parallel realities can exist simultaneously. I was reminded of the simple advice Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez gave me years ago, when I was struggling to comprehend the loss of a young child in Uganda. “You have to stay close,” he’d told me. Close to the margins, close to the wisdom of those who have no choice but to learn to survive within (and in spite of) the systems that serve to oppress them.
I soaked up the time with loved ones and came back to stay close. At the airport, I was greeted by the rainy season, by my neighbors, and by my sweet godson Santiago, who waved at me above the crowd of people eagerly waiting at the arrivals gate. One wet pick-up ride later, we were home.