Playing soccer was Kiko's dream, and while growing up in the shanty town, among barefoot children, he spent hours kicking a rag ball. Then, at night, he'd dream of being a big soccer star and making a lot of money to buy a better house for his parents.
But those memories were in the past now. Virginia was sitting on a corner of the old sofa where her son had been lying for two weeks, unable to walk, his legs rigid as heavy logs, his eyes fixed in the bookcase where his aunt Clara had put his first trophy.
The family had tried everything from ice pads to hot baths, creams and herbs, the entire stock from the "botánica" in the barrio, while friends and relatives brought religious icons, and the room was lit with candles of different colors; but nothing helped. The boy sat motionless like and Indian statue, the soccer ball by his pillow, his eyes closed most of the time, immersed in this dark, deep hole where life had thrown him out.
A doctor was out of question for the new illegal immigrants, living in constant fear to go out on the open, packed like sardines in the back room of a dilapidated apartment, sharing everything from clothes to food, hopes and dismay. One evening when Kiko's father, found his wife crying, in a silent explosion of tears repressed by countless hours of pain and frustration, he exclaimed: "It's a spell. It has to be the malignant work of that witch who told you we'll have a big tragedy at the end of the trip, and wanted me to buy a magical charm to protect us; I'm afraid we'll never see the end of the tunnel"
Virginia didn't believe in witches or black magic, but kept praying for a miracle, telling her son that everything was in his head, the result of the stress and horror of the last part of their trip; an episode they had promised to erase from their son's mind, so he wouldn't have to carry on the stigma of that ominous night, he'd spend in a hidden box in the back of a truck, under rolls of heavy fabric, no talking or even whispering, in order to cross the border; while the helicopters combed every inch of land looking for illegal immigrants. But how can you exorcise bad memories?
Time kept shedding off calendar leaves until that Saturday morning, when Cousin Clara decided she couldn't take it any more, and remain idle while Kiko lay in a cramped room, deprived even from sunlight. Then, she remembered a lady she'd met at the beauty parlor. Her name was Rita, and wanted to practice her Spanish; so while Clara colored her hair, Rita talked about her trips to some Latin American countries, and a children's cook book titled "The corn Book" she was writing. Rita also told Clara that in the mean time, she was staying at the nearby Franciscan mission.
Clara had the impression that Rita was a special human being and that's why she'd made a lot of friends in the barrio; but even while Clara drove on the winding road to the mission, she couldn't explain her impulse to get Rita's help for her nephew, as a last resort, despite the fact that Saturdays were the best days at her beauty parlor.
Clara arrived to the Mission very early in the morning prepared to wait all day long if necessary to talk to Rita, and when she saw the old Toyota at the parking lot, she felt a sense of relief. It took some time for the old nun Anunzia to emerge from her prayer book's and return to reality by opening a small window to check out visitors or intruders.
When Rita came to the door dressed in her black dress and a huge bag over her shoulders Clara was dismayed; but she was determined to help Kiko, and nobody, not even fear of looking inconsiderate to others, was going to stop her. She told Rita her nephew's story in an elaborate Spanglish, like a torrent flowing wildly downhill, without any regard for the time or circumstances of her listener.
"I'm coming with you" Rita said when the other woman paced for breathing, putting one of her arms around Clara to console her. Then she headed to the car.
"I'll take you to meet Kiko", said Clara.
Clara didn't know Rita's last name; she didn't know either that this lady, who'd traveled all around the world writing children's stories and sharing her life with all kinds of people, never took "no" for an answer.
When they arrived at the house Rita already had a plan. She'd learned enough by listening to Clara's desperate cascade of words, but was unprepared for the scene of this twelve year old boy, lying in the midst of icons and candles, his eyes blurred by thoughts of sadness and despondency, his hand placed on the anchor of his soccer ball.
"Any pain?" Rita asked. The mother nodded, but stated in desperation: "His legs are paralyzed". That's all Rita wanted to know.
"We need an ambulance, and I know where to get it. Have him ready for the doctor" she said and drove directly to the border's zone.
She'd met the police patrol chief the same day she came to San Miguel. His name was Tony Gaícía and he offered to take her to the Mission that day.
She had encountered him again at some local restaurants and at the post office, and by some trivial chats she got the impression that behind his physical toughness he had a tender heart. "But I might be wrong" she thought; however, there wasn't time now for a further reflection. She had to save Kiko's life.
The Chief was on the phone sipping coffee. After the formal greetings he offered her a chair, but instead, without any hesitation, Rita begged:
"I need an ambulance to move a sick child to the hospital." As soon as she saw the police ambulance Virginia's terrors began to creep into her body because her son didn't have any legal papers to stay in the United States. "What's going to happen to him?"
Rita tried to calm her down and promised she'll be back with Kiko, as good as new, in a few days. Clara came with them to the hospital, only one hour from San Miguel, but a world apart from the new immigrants' life.
Hospitals were not Rita's favorite places, but this one, run by a few Mother Teresa's nuns had a humane face. The paramedics put Kiko on a wheel chair, asked them to wait on line and gave Clara the registration form where she wrote Kiko's name and the little information she could provide about the boy.
Doctor Ramírez, a young man doing his residence in Orthopedics was fluent in Spanish and very good with children. When he learned the boy didn't have any accidents and he wasn't in pain, he dismissed the urgency of taking X-rays. His intuition told him Kiko might be suffering from an emotional trauma, a common incident among children who arrived from a foreign country leaving family, friends and language behind.
There was an instant rapport between Rita and Doctor Ramírez, but the young patient didn't smile at him, and gave only yes or no answers to his questions, while he sat with his lifeless legs on the wheel chair like a wilted sunflower on a desert.
Doctor Ramírez told the women Kiko had to stay at the hospital for a few days to find out the cause of his paralysis; and even if the boy felt afraid, he didn't show it, nor he did dare to cry at the thought of being away from his family in a new environment. After all, he'd learned from his father that "men never cry."
Rita returned with Kiko's family the next day and brought him a few of her books. He was moving his legs thanks to the physical therapy, but he still couldn't stand up, nor did he want to participate in any activities meant to cheer up young patients.
"It's like breaking into a marble block" Dr. Ramírez told Rita after the first week. "We have to give him time to open his soul to us," he added, trying to comfort the family. Kiko seemed to like Rita's books, translated into Spanish by one of the nurses, but refused to write a paragraph when the psychologist in charge of the case brought him paper and pencil. He'd scribble lines, dots, and balls for a few minutes, and then he'd return to his passivity, isolated in his stout shell of silence, until his parents in San Miguel became resigned to the idea that they had a handicapped son and they would have to make do with the results of a black magic spell, or God's will. The last hurricane had destroyed their house and their animals, killed relatives and friends in his remote country. "It's God's will" they thought, with that simplistic and humble philosophy of their ancestors, but at least they were alive! So they started to plan the last leg of their trip to Los Angeles. After all, they had nothing to lose now.
Rita visited with them one night and was mad as hell at everybody: the family, the system, the whole crazy world with all its lies and contradictions. She was a fighter; thus she had to ignore Kiko's parent's attitude and keep looking for help; for abandoning the boy in his condition to his sordid fate, was unthinkable for her.
"We had tried everything", sister Magnolia apologized as Rita entered the waiting room, crowded with parents and children, next Sunday, when she came to see the boy; Kiko was almost in the same position she'd left him a week before, as mute as a deaf bell, as quiet as a dead leaf; and when Rita tried to capture his attention, she could almost touch his broken dreams while searching for a ray of light in his eyes, amidst the abyss of his interior turmoil.
Suddenly, a flash sparkled deep down in Rita's heart.
"Had you tried soccer?" she asked the nun, stunned to hear her own voice and see Sister Magnolia's reaction. But before the nun could answer Rita was already sailing through the parking lot, pushing Kiko's chair.
"I'm going to take him for a ride" she explained, and asked one of the nurses to help her place the boy on the passenger's seat.
"Don't you need the chair?"
Rita didn't hear the question, or bothered to look back or to explain something to Kiko; she put the seat belt on, and sped off to the main road.
It was a glorious Sunday day with people pouring out of their houses to chat with neighbors, Mexican music bursting through the windows and a constant stream of tourists heading to the market to buy ponchos and hats. She put on some classical music to calm down her nerves and appease Kiko's, and took a short cut to San Miguel.
And there it was! The barren soccer field she'd seen in her way to the hospital, packed with a group of local youths concentrated in their favorite sport.
Some of the boys helped her with Kiko and sat him down on a cushion, the soccer ball in his hands, close enough to the field to oversee the game. Nobody uttered a word. "That's all. Let's see what's going to happen now" she thought. At least she didn't have any witnesses to confront her if she failed.
Rita, in the mean time, legs crossed on the dirty field, took a book and tried to concentrate in its pages; but her heart beats were those of a horse racing to the end, and as time passed her anxiety grew, and she had to make a conscious effort to stay still.
"A bell is not a bell until you ring it,
"A song is not a song until you sing it"
"And love in your heart is not there to stay…", she was reading over and over again from a post card, like a broken record, as if repeating one of the old lullabies her mother used to sing for her at night. And that's what she was doing when she was suddenly awaken by a long, screeching GOAL scream bursting into space; and she saw Kiko jumping in the air, chanting with his newly found voice to join the happy echo of the other players. Now she was the one who couldn't move or jump into the air, because she was speechless, in shock, and her aching legs took time to untangle, until she saw Kiko flying toward her with his open arms and his sunny, beautiful face, glowing with an overflowing stream of joy.
Kiko continued to collect Rita's books even after he was a big soccer star; and if somebody asked him who the author was, he answered with an enigmatic look:
"She is an angel who opens impossible doors".
The legend began many years ago
among the Chibcha Indians, a group of people who lived in the center of
Colombia, South America, many years ago, before our ancestors hadn't
learned to farm or tame animals. Their existence was a simple one: they
lived in straw houses or "chozas", and covered their bodies with animal
skins. They ate fruits and vegetables, fished or hunted using
rudimentary weapons like arrows, or stone-knives.
The head of one of those families was a man called Piraca, and he lived undisturbed with his wife and two small children, a girl and a boy.
The mountains and the transparent rivers of their countryside were rich in gold, and the children competed among themselves looking for the golden beads. On top of that, the father made long trips to get salt and some astonishing, green stones found inside a secret cave, in a distant cordillera, not knowing that someday those stones will become the Muzo Emeralds, some of the most famous in the whole world.
But suddenly, the gods turned their backs on the Chibcha tribe and the rain escaped to the ocean, riding on back of the wind. The earth became so dry that the trees couldn't bear any fruit and the wild beasts came over the grassland killing the small animals in their desperate search for food.
Until finally, one day, Piraca's family had nothing to eat or furs to cover their bodies, and even the soft colorful vegetal fibers the mother used to weave baskets and hats, were difficult to find.
Indian children were told not to cry. Thus, they never complained regardless of hunger's torment. However, brother and sister began to look like wilted flowers and they didn't have any energy to play in the forest or swim in the nearby lagoon.
One morning, while the couple found refuge near the fire where they were boiling some roots, their daughter woke up with a placid look and said:
"I dreamed I was walking through a blue prairie covered with stars."
"Who cares about stars, sister" answered her brother. "All I want now is some fruit to eat."
"You know there aren't any fruits left because the animals ate them all. The poor beasts are as hungry as we are" his sister responded.
"I went hunting in the forest yesterday, but I couldn't even find a rabbit", said the father.
"Look, Piraca, our children are shivering because the only blankets we have are full of holes" the mother cried.
"The gods have abandoned us. Since the rain went away not even the rainbow shines here, and the rivers and the lagoon are dying from thirst".
"Later on I'll go fishing with the children. May be this time we'll have better luck", said the mother, trying to cheer them up.
But despite the fact that they got some small fish and a few vegetables that day, the next day found them still starving.
That's when Piraca and his wife decided in a moment of desperation to unearth the clay pot where they kept their most precious treasure, the gold and the emeralds gathered for a long time.
"I hope that at least I'll be able to trade them for salt, a few blankets and maybe some dry fish", said the father while he scattered the beautiful beads on an animal skin. I will depart tomorrow to visit one of the villages on the valley.
"Bring me a nice blanket…, a necklace… and some bracelets…", begged the girl next day when Piraca was ready to leave.
"Stop day dreaming girl. All we need now is some food", said the mother embracing her.
"Beware of wild animals. Remember that they are also hungry" added the son before his father said goodbye.
The sun was beginning to rise over the dry earth when Piraca took off. He had the clay pot in one of his hands, and a backpack with bow and arrows to protect him from the wild beasts.
It was a long, long trip, through the savanna first, and the steep trails across the mountains later. His bare feet hurt a lot. After he had walked for several days he felt so tired, that when he found a small valley he decided to rest under a tree and he fell asleep.
While Piraca was sleeping two small rabbits that were crossing the countryside looking for food came to the same spot. When they saw the man, the oldest one who loved adventure said, " look! A sleeping man. Maybe he is carrying some food".
"Please, don't move, he is armed", advised Shy Rabbit.
But there was no way to stop Curious Rabbit who went directly to the clay pot. And when he found the gold and the emerald beads, he said taking one on his hands, "they look like stones".
Piraca in the meantime was beginning to move, so the rabbits threw away the clay pot with its contents and ran away.
It was late in the day when Piraca awoke. The first thing he did was to put on his backpack and look for the clay-pot. And when he didn't find it near him he panicked and the most terrible anguish took hold of him.
"My gold and my emeralds!, somebody stole them. I'm a dead man. What am I going to do?" he cried.
He began pacing the earth back and forth around him, until suddenly he had a gut feeling and knelt down to touch the grass. There, hidden among some dried leaves he found a golden bead and a step further a green one, then another gold bead, and so on ... Until the sun's last rays shone over the earth and he saw like small stars gleaming everywhere. And there it was… his empty clay pot.
Tears, which he had not shed since he was a frightened child, started to flow from his eyes while he was kneeling down, lost in his sorrow in the midst of the dying day.
"I have to recover my gold and my emeralds before the sun sets over the mountains", he thought gathering his last strength. "But I doubt I'll be able to find all of them". He was peering through the grass while trying to cover every piece of land with his hands, inch by inch.
Suddenly, the sky opened above him and a magnificent double rainbow shone on top of the mountains. Piraca's whole body fell into a magic spell and his worries disappeared. Just then, he heard a gentle voice calling him by his name.
"Piraca, stop! Don't pick up the gold and the emeralds".
Piraca turned around and he saw an old man with a silver beard, dressed in a long white tunic.
"Who do you think you are to give me orders?"
"I'm Bochica, your ancestors'God. The one who saved your tribe from the flooding. Don't you remember the story?"
"Yes sir, but the gold and the emeralds are all my treasure and without them my family will perish", said Piraca still kneeling down.
"Listen to me Piraca! This is my promise: Plant each one of the beads in a hole and cover it with soil to protect them from the wind and the animals. Leave them alone and come back after four moons. I promise you that then you'll find a treasure more precious than the gold and the emeralds, and your people won't ever suffer from hunger again".
Bochica disappeared, but the rainbow stayed for awhile until night came over the earth. Piraca slept like a baby and next day he felt happier than he had ever been before. He planted the gold and the emeralds the way Bochica told him, and as soon as he finished the planting the rain started to come down. Its sound was so great that Piraca didn't mind walking under the fat raindrops all the way back home.
Piraca's wife didn't believe god Bochica's story, but Indian women were not supposed to argue with their husbands. The earth was alive again with the rain blessing, and even the tropical birds were coming back to the forest to serenade the children with their melodious songs. Piraca in the mean time counted the moon's cycles with dents made on a tree.
When the day finally came the whole family began their journey very early walking through the savanna's paths and the mountain trails, until they came to the valley where Piraca had planted the gold and the emeralds.
"I don't see any treasure", cried the mother disheartened.
"Are you sure this is the place father?" asked the boy.
"Yes, I marked with a few stones the place were Bochica appeared", Piraca said while he looked everywhere trying to find the promised treasure.
"See? That's the tree! Let's go there".
"Look", called the girl, who had gone ahead of them. "There is a new crop on the other side of the valley. Those are some funny plants unlike anything I have seen before".
Everybody ran there to see and touch the beautiful, elegant plants dancing in the wind. They had long, velvet, emerald leaves and a strange fruit crowned by silky silver strands, like the God Bochica's beard.
"Let's pick up the fruit" suggested Piraca and they all helped out.
And when they took the outside husks off, they found a cone like fruit with golden grains, just like their gold beads.
"We'll call it MAIZ (corn), the God's present, made from gold and emeralds", suggested Piraca.
The legend adds that the God Bochica came back for awhile to live among the Chibcha Indians and to teach them how to farm and use the new crop. And the Chibchas were never hungry again.
Thousands of years have gone by. The new crop spread rapidly throughout The Americas, and in many countries corn became the basic food, one which saved Indian people from starving on many occasions.
And even in our modern world, when we have such an abundance of food, the once humble crop has become the king. And we use it almost every day in different forms: empanadas, arepas, tortillas, tamales, tacos, enchiladas, corn bread, burritos and of course, popcorn, everybody's favorite.
That's why we can proclaim as the Chibcha Indians did, that corn is really a God sent present.
America! America! He couldn't believe his luck. Now all his
suffering: hunger, thirst, terror and despair, his scorched naked body
while he lay adrift on that small raft, had paid off. He was finally a
free man, and, most important, he had his boots on: those old military
boots where he'd hidden his grandmother's jewelry and the three hundred
dollars his mother had saved over the years, from selling rag dolls to
"José Muñoz, Portorican". That's how he'd registered at the hotel in upper Manhattan, holding his breath for fear the receptionist might be from Puerto Rico, and she'd begin asking him questions about the island. Thank God she was from Pakistan and the only thing she was interested in was the money: two hundred dollars up front for two weeks. Then, she began reciting her litany, in a monotonous tone: no drugs, or alcohol, or guns or women. No cooking on the premises either. However, there was a good cafeteria around the corner, and a Laundromat. Laundromats were a very important part of American life his cousin Gabriel had told him in one of his letters. There, in Cuba, where you had only two pairs of pants, two shirts, a few socks and one towel, laundry wasn't a big concern. But here, in the United States, where time was limited and people bought clothes like there was no tomorrow, you could have a pile of dirty clothes in no time at all.
The first day in America! He looked at the old clock on the dresser: 7:30. The first boat to The Statue of Liberty will depart at 9:30. It was in the book. All he knew about New York was written in the yellowing pages of his old book, "New York for Lovers". It had been his favorite reading for the last eighteen months, since his father finally agreed to let him go, and helped him to carry out his secret plan.
"Freedom? Baloney." He remarked sarcastically, each time José started daydreaming about The States.
"Freedom can never go further than one's money! Freedom is a dream, a fool's dream," he kept hammering until the last moment.
"So, you say you're going to "America," parroting the word like people in The United States do. Wake up José. They are not the only Americans in the world. We live in the Caribbean, and last time a checked the map we were still part of the American Continent. So we have the same right to call ourselves Americans. Don't you ever forget that!"
"I have to rush," he said in English in front of the broken moon of the mirror in the tiny bathroom, savoring his words, amazed of how well he sounded. After all, his father had been an English teacher in Miami, many years ago, one of the few who came back to Cuba island, disillusioned with the American system.
"I'd wish you'd open your eyes before you go," he insisted. But Jose didn't want to listen. Freedom for him was as important as air. After all, his father was aging and all he wanted from life were his books and the tropical breeze circulating through his veins. One pair of shoes a year, some rice and beans were more than enough for him, for he was a dreamer…and a vegetarian.
8:30. He had to take the subway to Battery Park. He closed the dirty door and ran down the stairs to the street, to discover it was littered with cracked glass, scattered filthy clothes and newspapers. "This neighborhood has gone to the dogs," he said to himself, remembering one of his favorite English idioms. And then, conciliatory: "Maybe Sunday is garbage day in New York" he reasoned, his eyes flickering over the debris. As soon as he'd found a job he'd get a room in a nicer barrio.
There, on the island, he had the biggest collection of Statues of Liberty: golden, silver, copper, wood, plastic, cardboard statues. On plates, towels, shirts, coins, you name it. Each time somebody came to The States he begged them to bring him a replica of The Statue of Liberty. He even had one baked from marzipan. It was his girlfriend Maricela's gift. She didn't approve of his trip.
"Freedom? don't give me that; you are a pig, just like the others, wanting only material things: a car, a closet packed with clothes, a stereo, the biggest money could buy, no matter if they have to sell their souls to the "gringos" and loose their dignity. And then, after awhile, they'll become a number, "living by themselves like the eagles," she said that last night on the beach, tears streaming down her cheeks, her black, shiny hair wrapped in a red bandana and her golden ear loops dancing in an angry, desperate gesture.
"It's just like those women cursing the revolution because they don't have nail polish. I'd wish they'd choke on nail polish." Las Malditas!"
Maricela! If he could have her now sharing the wonderful smell of freedom, the spotless sky of New York, in this, his first day in America... Maybe some day!
"This has to be the place," he said when he arrived at the park running toward the water. There, across the bay, he could see The Statue of Liberty gleaming against the silky sky. José wanted to sing, to dance, to tell everybody this was the moment he'd been dreaming of for years, but he was speechless. Besides, the place was almost deserted, except for a few seagulls and pigeons. Maybe his watch was wrong. He sat on a bench, his heart still pounding with exhilaration, and decided to take his boots off, for the side pocket with the jewelry and the money was pressing against his ankle and hurting him.
. Suddenly, out of nowhere, came a tall, dark figure. He grabbed José's boots and ran away accompanied by two other youngsters, while the newcomer, just a small, frail, terrorized boy, tried to follow them screaming his lungs out: "Police! Police! Help, help ..." After a few moments one of the attackers stopped and facing José fired a gunshot which broke the heavy calm of the park.
The subway's huge mouth near by had begun to throw up masses of anonymous people, but most of them looked the other way or didn't know what to do. There was panic and disbelief while the boy fell to the ground praying:
"God! Virgencita de la Caridad del Cobre, help! He ...help!" And then:
"This can't be true, I have to be dreaming."
His face had turned reddish purple, his mouth wide open, and his wounded chest heaved with effort. He was hallucinating and began to whisper:
"Hi Maricela ... you look sooo beautiful!"
Maricela was wearing a white translucent robe and The Statue of Liberty's crown on her head. She held the torch on her hand, and was waving her long, long, long arm in a frantic movement to direct the traffic, so the ambulance could come closer.
In a final, futile and excruciating effort José raised his hands and mumbled:
"Let me touch The Statue, let me touch The Statue, let me ... let...meee." A deadly silence trapped the morning air. José's first day in America, the land of freedom, was over.
New York, January l3, l990