Bam. I opened one eye to peer out from the newspapers that were my blanket for
the night. Click click wham! Two purple high heels were swinging in front of my
face as I lay under the table in the deserted market. It was late at night, and
I had burrowed under this market table to sleep for the night. Discarded
newspapers were wrapped tightly around me, forming a mummy-like cocoon. I
wanted to sleep, and whoever was sitting on top of my table would soon be sorry
for waking me up. With a deft hand I took one purple heel and flung it across
the deserted street in front of the market. I heard a scream of fear, and then
a questioning voice called out, "Who's under that table?"
|Dark streets of Oaxaca City.|
I poked my head out and her look of fear turned soft in a second. What are you doing under there, she wanted to know. I shrugged, knowing if I told her I was lost that she would turn me in. The policia were the last people I wanted to see. "Are you hungry?" My grumbling belly betrayed me and she took my hand. I didn't know her, only knew that she was going to get food for me. Since I had been rudely deposited on the streets of Oaxaca, food had been a rare commodity. I hung around the markets and pilfered the remains of food sitting on people's plates. Not much goes to waste in Mexico, so you had to be quicker than lightning when taking the food. As we walked down the dim street, her face flashed garishly in each streetlight we passed under. Heavy make-up adorned her face. It made her look older than her twenty-some years.
We reached the street corner where a lone taco stand was still serving. Steaming corn tortillas filled with finely chopped steak, cilantro, and onions filled my belly. She looked at me and said she would need to work for awhile now. I walked with her up and down the street. A man came up to her and soon they were walking to where she lived. She went with a series of men in and out of her bedroom. She told me to sit on the stoop and wait for her. "If anyone asks you who you are, just tell them you're my brother," she said. I sat on the steps and heard sounds coming from inside that I simply didn't understand. Prostitute wasn't in my vocabulary as a six year old, but little eyes sometimes see things they shouldn't. Things that become seared into the sub-conscience.
As the men would leave, they would pat me on the head and throw me a few pesos. Around 2 a.m. she finally laid down to sleep with me curled up on the floor beside her bed. I awoke abruptly to the sound of arguing. I heard a loud male voice asking heatedly why a little boy was sleeping by her bed. He was her pimp, I later found out. He didn't like me.
But she was the kindest person to me in the whole three years I was lost. I stayed with her sporadically for weeks, with her customers coming and going. She had many friends, all sharing the same occupation. These women of the street became my family. They fed me, took me to the movies, and made me feel loved. I still didn't know where home was, and why the train had brought me to this city. I must have had an innate sense of how to survive, because I soon became accustomed to the sights and sounds this lush city of Oaxaca provided. The arguments, though, between the woman and her pimp became more and more heated. He didn't want her spending any more money on me. One morning, while she was still sleeping, I simply left. I didn't want her to get into trouble. Leaving became a part of my life.
|Lots of vendors on the street corners.|
Looking back, it's horrifying to think of a 6 year old being lost on the streets of a big city. Crying on the corner and invoking sympathy from people became easy as breathing. As scary and awful as it was, beautiful memories still wash up on the shores of my mind. Adventures that I relive are vivid, yet faded – almost like watching an old 8mm movie reel. It plays raggedly and makes my chest tighten to see the images flash by in my mind. I was 7, and had been lost almost a year. I had survived by sleeping underneath, in and around tight spaces where no one could find me. I probably looked like the dirtiest street urchin, yet made sure I washed my face and combed my hair each day. Pride in my appearance, seemed to me, the best way to fit in somewhere. To find someone that would eventually help me. I gravitated towards the nicest hotels in the city. I would linger on the edges of the outdoor restaurants, hoping to catch the eye of a fancy tourist who would give me money or food. I tried to remain inconspicuous, yet learned to use my charm to wile my way into their good graces. To me, this meant eating the rich, sumptuous food that was prepared for those who could afford it. I sometimes found myself sitting at a fancy table eating leftover bagels, jam, and cream cheese. I began to make it an adventure, a place in time that consisted only of me and what I could do to make myself happy. I didn't look at it as surviving – I was living it. As I was trying not to remember the family I had been torn from.
Faces file slowly through my mind's eye of everyone who had a role in helping me. There were, in fact, several different families who took me in over these three years. How I came to live with them, I don't remember. Their faces all blend together after all these years. One family that stands out in my mind was a family of four. The mom and dad were kind to me. They let me sleep in the house, but in exchange I had to work to be able to eat. The sister was particularly mean to me. As soon as the mom would leave the house, she always made me do her share of the work so she could spend time with her boyfriend. I resented this and after awhile I left. While living with another family, this first family found me and produced so-called "court papers" that said I belonged to them. While the two families were fighting over me, I slipped out the door never to return. My restlessness was untamed.
Though there were often tears in the night, during the day I ruled the streets. I had made friends with some of the local kids, and hung out with some whose parents owned market and taco stands. We would run through the stalls of the market and out into the streets. In my mind, I was the hero saving the damsel in distress. I had packs of dogs that roamed the streets, and I made them into my own little band. I would herd them all around, making an incredible nuisance of myself.
Back in early '70s Mexico, there were still stories being told on the radio. Everyday around 3 p.m., they would broadcast an episode of Kaliman. My friends and I would sit outside the radio station where they would air the episodes over speakers. I would raptly listen to every brave thing Kaliman did to save someone. We would re-enact these episodes, lost in a world only children can get lost in. Kaliman had a saying that went like this, "Quien domina la mente, domina todo…" - If you can dominate your mind, you can dominate anything. This saying pulsated through my brain and to this day, I believe helped me through times when I wanted to give up.
|Kaliman was someone George looked up to as a child.|
As these carefree days would draw to an end, my friends headed home to their families and a warm bed. I would curl up under my table, and wrap the newspapers around me. I thought about my mom. The image of her face was slowly fading from my head, and try as I might I couldn't conjure up her image. At times, I let my mind be awash in fantasy. I imagined my mom coming to find me in a huge helicopter. She would land in the middle of the street and hop out with her arms wide open to me. "Mijo! Where have you been? I've been looking for you…" I would run to her and bury my head in her chest.
My mom had been looking for me, but it wasn't as simple as you might think. My stepfather didn't let her look for me as he should have. He didn't care whether I was lost or found. She was able to post pictures on walls, and they had even gotten as far as Oaxaca. Relatives from there had known I was missing, but were not sure of what I looked like anymore. My brother Chucho, whose proper name is Jesus, missed me with an unparalleled fierceness. He blamed himself for my disappearance. My stepfather would tell him to shut up - Tono is not coming home. There is a legend in Mexico called "La Llorona." Simply translated, she's called the White Lady Who Cries. The legend goes that she drowned her two children in a stream, and was doomed to walk the earth for the rest of her days looking for her children. They say in Mexico if you see La Llorona walking in the darkness at night, do not look at her. Her face is beautiful at first glance, but turns to a terrifyingly twisted ugliness. She also imitates the voices of people. One night, my brother was sleeping in the white house we lived in by the river. He awoke with a fright. "Mom, wake up! Tono is outside! I can hear him crying!" My mom woke up, along with my stepfather, and they went to the door to peer out. Whether you believe their story or not, what they saw caused the hair on their necks to stand up. Standing at the edge of the river was a lady, swathed in robes of white. Her voice was a broken cry that for all the world sounded like mine. She started to turn her head, but before they could see her face my parents slammed the door. Chucho cried unceasingly, because for the rest of the night all they could hear was my voice crying outside the door.
|La Llorona (Crying woman)|
Legends are deep and well-rooted in lush, beautiful Mexico. As for me, I never gave up my faith. By 1976, I was 9 years old and I felt my family was lost to me. Each day I would make my way to one of the lovely old churches and drop a coin in the plate. I made a deal with God that if I gave him all I had, that please could I just go home? God never left me. He held me in his arms each night, and walked with me each step I took on those dusty streets of Oaxaca. He marked each tear that traveled down my little face and carried what I could not carry myself.
I didn't know that I had aunts and cousins that lived there on the outskirts of the town. One of them stopped in front of the picture tacked on a post and stared at it intently. Very unsure, and yet slightly intrigued by it, she decided to write my mom that she had possibly seen her son. He might be here in Oaxaca. On a late dusky afternoon, I had just parked myself on the street corner to begin my crying game. People always stopped and gave me a peso or two. This was a night like every other night, and I had my head in my hands pretending to cry. I looked out from underneath my arms and saw a woman walking towards me. A shiver went up my spine, as she looked vaguely familiar. I kept watching her come closer and closer, and when she was almost upon me I knew. I took my hands from my eyes and stood up slowly. It was my mom. I flew into her arms and the tears came silently down both of our faces.
I was going home - a word that I hadn't uttered in three years. She had barely recognized me, she said. My hair was long and I was older, but in the end it was my eyes. She had known the minute she looked into them. The train wound itself through the lushness of Oaxaca and made its way into the town of San Juan, Teotihuacan. The town I had taken off from three long years ago. I still didn't realize how far away I had been. As we neared the house, I became excited, yet nervous at the same time. Chucho raced out of the house and hugged me – the pain and suffering there to see in his eyes. There was a new baby sister to meet, and another brother on the way. I was so glad to be there in that square white adobe house. Out of the corner of my eye, though, I saw a stern figure make its way towards me. I knew it was my stepfather. All the joy drained from my face as the first words he said to me were these, "I thought you were dead."