The Shoebox

When I was a kid I would watch my relatives go to El Salvador and leave my mother and I behind. She and I would write letters to our family and my aunt and cousin would take them to the rest of our family. Usually I didn’t know what to say. In many cases I only knew who I was addressing through my mother’s stories because I couldn’t remember the sound of anyone’s voice. I couldn’t tell my relatives apart in pictures without my mother’s help.

My relatives would come back and I’d get a letter too. It was like having pen pals that are related to you except that I was still just as clueless about who I was writing to, and their descriptions of life in El Salvador didn’t remind me of “home.” These letters were a painful reminder that I had this “other family” in El Salvador living a life I’d never know and making memories I’d never get to be a part of.

My mother would often remind me that El Salvador was a dangerous place. The people writing these letters are real. They are your family.

I constructed a world in my head where I would imagine us all together, but the news always ended that fantasy by reminding me that anyone in that playfully constructed world could be taken from us unexpectedly. The police could bother and unjustifiably shoot them for wearing the wrong color, a thief could attack them, or one of the members of my “other family” could die suddenly just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Any chain of events could suddenly turn this imaginary world upside down.

This didn’t help the pain that would arise whenever death came: when my cousin Marco Antonio was hit by a bus and I was unable to attend his funeral when I was 9, whenever an earthquake or hurricane would strike El Salvador and we would panic and pray hoping for the best, when the Civil War ended and the aftermath of the death squads made it difficult to know what would come next, and when my other cousin, Salvador, was shot to death.

Anything catastrophic could happen in this tiny country with earthquakes and hurricanes, fire and ash. No mental gymnastics or preparation was any help.

Mostly I became numb as I would see my little world collapse. I would read the letters in order to salvage memories I faked in my head before they could be taken. I had someone’s world in my hand and that was it. I had someone’s word.

Now that I’m an adult there’s still nothing I can do when the world decides to burn one day or when the angel of death decides to violently visit my family, when our “advocates” who talk about us immigrants as if we’re mere numbers that decorate their paychecks, or when they choose to ignore the psychological fingerprints left in our hearts as we try to deal with our collective trauma.

Those letters from my family are still around somewhere in a shoebox in my parents’ house in Mississippi. They’re a reminder of a time when borders were big scary things I wasn’t allowed to cross. The letters still speak and tell me there is no corner of the world where one can run and hide their sadness. We just carry the memories that traumatized us and pass them down to the next generation, hoping to spare them from these unfortunate events.

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