Not So Poor as Them

             “A long time ago, in a little mill town on a mountain side,” my mother began, “your grandparents and their five children survived many years awash in the muted pigments of poor. Everything they owned was indelibly stained with a relentless poor that blurred your grandmother’s vision and left a bitter taste in her mouth.”

             “They were much poorer than us,” my mother insisted, lest I think this was a cautionary tale. “Poor as black dirt, or red Georgia clay, or scorched earth on that North Carolina mountainside.”

             My mother leaned in to whisper these dark secrets, despite our living all alone. Even as a child, I knew that poor colored everything it touched in dreadful shades of contempt and could leak out of buckets as slowly as spoilt molasses, swallowing up whatever was in its path like unbaked gingerbread with a craving for flesh: “Nibble, nibble, little mouse, who is nibbling at my house?”

             “All those years ago,” my mother continued, “your grandmother became exasperated with her half-empty glass of poor and your grandfather’s perpetually empty aluminum cans of cheap beer. She held up her glass and looked through the putrid contents at the bed she had made but tired of lying in. Your grandmother laid out a trail of moldy breadcrumbs and accused her husband of beastly behavior.”

             My mother recited in barely audible tones, causing me to lean in uncomfortably as I perched precariously on the arm of a too small chair. Her breath had been hot on my face, reeking of onion and mayonnaise sandwiches. It was the smell I knew as poor, but not so poor as them.

             “Your grandfather was locked up in a prison cage. The family then had to survive on the dregs of welfare, whose poor offerings were never enough to last the whole month so that your grandmother found no relief from poor despite her escape from a shabby marriage. She longed to be free from the little piece of bottom land where they sweltered in the summer sun and froze in the cold air of winter. She was tired of breadcrumbs.”

             “As the September sun was bearing down,” my mother said, “on the small, muddy creek of bullfrogs, the children stood on the porch of the tiny house and waved as their mother left to buy groceries. And while poor was a happy enough color to mix with muddied creeks and splash into children’s half-full glasses, poor made the woman’s half-empty glass ugly and bitter.” She sped away from the ache of poor in a cloud of dust and never looked back.

             Her abandoned children survived two weeks alone by luring a neighbor’s chicken into their yard. Chickens were not easy to catch, especially not after they’d been beheaded on the old stump. “The headless chicken leapt up in a dead sprint and left a bloody trail across the dirt yard and under the cinder-blocked house where it hid. Your father had to drag it out and hang it upside-down from the clothesline to finish dying,” my mother covered me in emphatic spittle as her tale progressed. I felt queasy from the moldy breadcrumbs, raw onion, and headless chicken.

             “They were much poorer than us,” my mother repeated quietly. It certainly seemed like a cautionary tale; we had survived many years awash in the muted pigments of poor with stolen corn, gifted onions, and wild blackberries to supplement the welfare bread. But I was not sent off into the woods to forage cake from other’s roofs all alone. My mother went too because we were not so poor as them.

The Post-Marbella Trauma

             Only meters from their red-brick, tin-roof, one-story home, a stone skipped across the river as if late for a funeral in Medellín. The tire marks outside their door mostly traced the wheels of Julián’s father’s red 1976 Renault. The dirt road out front didn’t get much foot traffic, though sometimes Julián would spot the girl from the house with the cabbage patch across the way chase the gray bunny she kept as a pet. She always caught it, and he’d always wish it’d run away, hop through their barbed wire fence, and come play with him, his sister Catalina, and dog Marbella.

             The hills that surrounded them were fortified with vast green pastures and a wall of torpid trees, leaving them isolated in a solitude of false peace that provided a shelter from the shuffling traffic. Only a few hundred yards east, the arteries washed away sleep-deprived costeño truck drivers from Santa Marta searching for more upbeat coastal radio stations, cycling-obsessed taxistas with Virgin Mary paraphernalia on their dashboards, and hormone-drenched teenagers hiding their erections with their backpacks on buses that made their way deeper into the Aburrá: the valley that birthed Julián.

             Sometimes paradise is simply being able to walk outside and not have to worry about traffickers kidnapping your younger sister or your neighbor throwing the carcass of your German Shepherd into a river without your consent. Though fear of his own death solidified with newspaper headlines and evening noticieros, his mortality first became real when Julián saw a bus run over his Marbella while he ate an orange popsicle. He was nearing four and Catalina was a newborn, but he remembers those years in the Andes mountains of Colombia as vividly as the birthmark on his left forearm—the shape of an intermountain U.S. state he had yet to learn existed: Colorado … the Spanish word for colored.

             Those early memories are branded, probably because it was then he realized life was brief and he was simply an accessory.


             The morning after his birth, the front page of The New York Times did not greet his immigrant, Paisa parents as it normally would have if they had remained in Queens. The newspaper would have showcased a photo of the Pope kissing the foreheads of African children, another photo of Atlanta residents mourning the killings of their own boys and girls, and a lead article about how the Soviet Defense Minister said the West was trying to reopen the Cold War.

             Instead, Colombian newspapers hailed the newlyweds with headlines in Medellín that recounted hunger strikes and plastered photographs that would prove how some now-forgotten dissident was tortured. If Julián was born literate and read those front pages, he would not have had high hopes for his brown-skinned life.

             Julián didn’t know it then, but he was born into an armed conflict spanning centuries, whose roots are still entangled in the colonial mindset and situations Colombians inherited after liberation from Spain. Though Spanish rule ended, control of land, resources, and peoples remained in the hands of the élite. The numerous civil wars Colombians have experienced are simply different manifestations of the same root causes.

             As it turns out, humans are always one second from drowning, and in Medellín that possibility seemed more probable for Julián during the 1980s. By the summer of 1989, his immediate family decided it was time to leave Colombia, departing some mere weeks before the assassination of three presidential candidates, then returning to Medellín for a long 6-month visit only after Pablo Escobar’s murder. Julián spent these five years away from his natal land, from 3rd to 7th grade, in Nashua, New Hampshire: a place he would not have imagined existed had he not lived there.

             It’s sad that to a child born into a world of violence, chaos, and distrust, it is not Hollywood that appears fantastical. The quiet, mundane, day-to-day blandness of peace is what resembles a dream. What is surreal can be a very subjective experience.

             One 1980s Colombian news report he’ll never forget was of how babies were killed, their organs removed, and their cavities refilled with cocaine pellets. Narco-traffickers would then use the babies as mules to smuggle drugs into the United States. News channels showed the babies’ faces on television. They appeared to be sleeping. This was his normal, and he grew to accept this as reality. To this day, when Julián sees a sleeping baby, he’s not convinced it’s alive until it opens its eyes.


             Julián’s culture shock as an eight-year-old in New Hampshire was not so much the cold weather or that most people were white and only spoke English, but that older siblings and adults would not pay attention to their young ones.

             They don’t seem to care about kidnappings or hit-and-runs!

             He thought them boneheaded pendejos. Careless.

             In Colombia, there’s a common expression that literally translates to don’t give papaya, which means don’t draw attention to yourself in such a way that you knowingly become a target by setting yourself up for exploitation, failure, or death; by creating an opening for victimization. It’s a form of victim-blaming. This cultural disposition has been so ingrained in him that Julián can’t responsibly attest to its origin. Yet, he often wonders if he would be as hyper-vigilant and disturbed about his mortality if not for growing up in such a surreal society—one that forces us to celebrate life today because we may not literally be here tomorrow (giving papaya), while also holding on to the machete at one’s side because anyone and anything could be trying to take advantage of you at any moment (not giving papaya).

             Such is the conflict of Julián’s being—simultaneously wanting to give out papaya, while doing everything he can to keep it to himself.

             Before turning 18, he spent his early years nurtured in a violent environment, and the latter half confused as to why, in his mind, New Hampshirites were reluctant to lock their doors and keep their kids safe from runaway buses or the hands of potential kidnappers. They did, however, keep their dogs on leashes, and for that he was thankful. He didn’t want to see one of Marbella’s distant relatives also experience the same fate as she.

             For better or worse, the spectrum of these experiences has informed his spirit.


             After immigrating to the U.S., Papi drove them down Amherst Street in Nashua, New Hampshire, and they passed a cemetery littered with gravestones from the 17th century across Leda Lanes bowling alley. As he looked out the window, Julián confessed his sadness over not being able to bury Marbella to better honor her life.

             Papi told him animals and humans went to different heavens.

             “This is why pets and people are never buried in the same cemeteries. You’ve never seen a dog and its master together at a grave site before, have you?” Papi said, turning his head to catch Julián’s eyes in the rearview of their Toyota Corolla, as if to ensure he didn’t get any bright ideas.

             “No, I guess not,” Julián responded, even though he’d never had the freedom nor the reason to go to cemeteries, let alone conduct experiments there to conclude, or at least induce, whether or not what his father said was true. Julián turned his head toward the cemetery and wished he had glasses with a prescription strong enough to read the blurry words on the gravestones from the car while they were stopped at the red light, hoping to prove his father wrong.

             “Well, now you know why. And if they ever do inter them together, both will go to hell, instead,” Papi coughed, but it could have been him trying to hold back a chuckle. Julián couldn’t tell. Papi’s beard covered his smile lines.

             That may not have been word for word, but it was the gist of the conversation. It was on that day, as a 5th grader, that Julián disenchanted himself from thinking he would ever reunite with Marbella again.

             Poor pup. She died twice within the span of a decade: once under the wheel of a bus, then, again, in Julián’s broken hopes for a future play date with her and plastic Disney figurines.

             For a while, though, Julián did entertain the idea of going to hell over heaven just so he and Marbella could be brought together again; but alas, since their neighbor threw her limp, bloody carcass into the river, there’s no way they’d ever have their bodies buried at the same graveyard.

             Unless, that is, I died in a river, also? Julián wondered.


             By July 2009, as a 28-year-old, Julián decided to face two of his biggest fears. He was in the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle bordering Colombia near the spot where the Andean diplomatic crisis began 16 months earlier. He was working as a political science researcher doing field work with an international team looking at the negative impacts of petroleum production on the environment and on the health of the local communities.

             When it rained, the water on the trails would shine, as it was oily. He saw companies dump dirty oil water right into the river. It made sense why some locals offered what they called Toxi-Tours of the area. The sand along the ponds and rivers was black, stained by petroleum. It’s the only place Julián had ever been where he would have advised against eating the free-range chicken. And yet, it was at this very location where he decided to face his fear of dying in the jungle, potentially a river, stuck in the middle of an armed conflict.

             Fortunately, he did not become collateral damage and was able to conduct his work in relative peace. No headline, that day. But the perceived fear of another military attack hovered above, like a storm cloud. After all, the bombing that sparked the Andean diplomatic crisis came from the skies.

             Before he left the jungle, Julián decided to finally face his fear of being attacked by an anaconda or piranha in a river. He learned how to swim a few years after he almost drowned in a pool in Medellín as a child, and he felt strong enough and disillusioned enough that he would be able to fight off the giant snake. It’d been two decades, and his arms were no longer boney as branches. He’d been working out ever since he nearly drowned, and by 2009 he was as sturdy and solid as the trunk of a ceiba tree.

             His local guide told his group that it was at the very spot where they stood that only a week earlier fishermen with nets caught a baby anaconda, which usually meant the mother was nearby.

             Julián had always wanted to swim in the Amazon, and this was probably going to be his only opportunity. He took it. It was very uncharacteristic of him, as he doesn’t like to gamble with life and is averse to danger. He stepped into the water, and after he didn’t feel anything bite or swim by, he took a second step, then a third. The ground began to slant and sink until he was finally submerged inside the abyss he feared as a child; like that day at the piscina.

             In Ecuador, an audience watched him. He wondered if something did happen to him, if anyone would do anything to save him or if they would stand there with blank stares on their faces, like that day at the pool in Medellín. Julián asked his colleague to film the event, and before he dunked his head beneath the surface, he told her to continue, even if he was attacked. He didn’t know why he said that. For some reason, he wanted his death captured … a kind of headline that brought him peace.

             Death may be easier to accept if you know you will be remembered, he concluded.

             Julián swam over to a rope that hung from a branch, maybe 10 yards from shore, and climbed it. He figured if there was a rope, it could only mean two things: people would use it to swing into the water and play, or it existed as a last-resort escape option if some predator was after them in the water. He decided to choose the first narrative. When he reached the top of the rope, he stayed for a while, overseeing his surroundings as a lookout on a ship searching for icebergs, or in a light tower scanning the waters for incoming vessels during a Nor’easter blizzard. As he took in the sights, emotions overwhelmed him. He didn’t know if when he slid down the rope there wouldn’t be hungry river monsters waiting for him, but he tried to not show fear. The camera was pointed straight at him.

             Papi once told Julián that he almost died while lost at sea in the Caribbean when he tried to swim between islands as a teenager.

             “I literally saw my life flash before my eyes, as they claim in the movies,” Papi said.

             This didn’t happen to Julián dangling on that rope, hovering above the Amazon River. Instead, what he thought about was Marbella, and he searched the river wondering if maybe he’d find her doggie paddling upstream toward him.

             Even 25 years later, Julián still hoped for a reunion.

             He survived his Amazon River excursion back to shore, yet the experience was probably more traumatizing than the day he almost drowned as a child. Though he didn’t have to fight off an anaconda in real life, for months he had nightmares that rewound the event over and over again, but this time with the worst-case scenario playing out. He’d awaken daily just as he was about to be swallowed whole, strangled to death by the snake’s strong torso, or eaten alive by scores of hungry piranhas. A death by one or a million bites, but a death, nonetheless.

             During his morning shower, he’d wonder if Marbella had been swallowed by an anaconda those many years before.

             It’s been 12 years since the daring river dip, and Julián still wakes up surprised he’s alive.


             When Julián was three, his family lived in Guarne, some 30 kilometers from Medellín, in a red-brick, tin-roof, one-story home, a few meters from the river. His tío was over for the weekend, but it was time for him to return to the City of Eternal Spring. He was to take Julián with him to visit with his abuelos. As they walked to the bus stop, Marbella got loose and ran toward them into the traffic of a busy four-lane street.

             Maybe she’s coming to apologize for chewing off Donald Duck’s head? he thought.

             And just as Julián caught her loving eyes one last time, the bus tripped on Marbella’s back.

             Julián may have been too harsh on Marbella that day. He shouldn’t have thrown Donald’s head at her.

             She didn’t know better. Who was I to blame my beautiful German Shepherd?

             Sadly, they weren’t given time for a public mourning, nor a private one. She didn’t even have an obituary in El Colombiano after her death. Julián knows because for weeks he searched for her photo. This was his first glimpse into how adults thought. They saw their lives as more valuable than those of other animals. There were humans—who had obituaries and could be buried in their own segregated cemeteries—then there were animals, who could be thrown into rivers after a hit-and-run without emotional recourse by neighbors. They had no funeral. There is no gravestone to mark her passing; just the memory of a boy who misses his first best friend.

             As Julián watched Marbella float downstream, something inside him changed.

             First, he hoped she’d find an opening into the sea: a heaven of sorts. In Spanish, Marbella means sea beauty, and he desperately wanted her to return to what at the time he thought was her home. He didn’t know much about rivers, tributaries, and oceans, as water was water, and it was very possible to him at that age that all water was connected somehow, like a spider web.

             Second, the newspaper headlines of homicides, torture, cartels, death squads, guerrillas, and extrajudicial executions by state forces; of the poor and disenfranchised; of the Cold War became real. The more Julián searched for Marbella’s obituary, the more he learned from the other newspaper pages that human lives were also being discarded, dismissed, and justified as collateral damage. He couldn’t read, but he saw the images of others who looked like him and his family and would ask adults to explain. Some humans were treated as dogs, and Julián could not accept that, either.

             If my Marbella has value, then so should they!

             Julián lost his innocence early on. Life, he learned, is not permanent, nor is it fair. It is fleeting, and exploitation and death are always one crossed street away from snatching any of us into its overcrowded club.

             As the years passed and Julián observed more of the world around him, the silent, shadowy footsteps of paralyzing questions followed him home.

             Was I causally responsible for harm I could have prevented?

             Is there a difference between killing and letting die? How can we be morally responsible for one and not the other?

             What sort of society would be most conducive to human and dog thriving?

             Julián didn’t know it then, but from the age of three he was slowly turning into what many influenced by Cold War propaganda would have designated as a budding socialist simply because he emphasized the value of all beings—a disposition he continues to hold and that can find its heritable link to, and was hastened by, his Post-Marbella Trauma.


             Maybe Marbella didn’t go to hell after all? he contemplated, years later in New Hampshire, since they didn’t bury her in a human cemetery, like his father pointed out.

             As they drove by Leda Lanes bowling alley, from the back seat behind the driver, Julián squinted to look closer into his father’s eyes as they reflected off the rearview mirror. Papi’s beard covered the birthmark on his cheek, which also partly hid his lips. Julián couldn’t tell if Papi was smiling.

             Julián had his doubts, rubbed the Colorado rectangle on his left arm, and turned his glance away from both the cemetery gravestones and Papi’s eyes so he would no longer be confused with giving too much papaya.


             Before Julián and his research team left the jungle, they took a walk to the equator. Latitude 00.00.00.

             The spot was marked by a small four-foot yellow monument. It’s four sides faced east, west, north, and south, and on top was the world globe. It was blue with a very distinct stripe across its belly: the equatorial line. He didn’t have an egg with him to see if it would be perfectly balanced and could stand on its own right smack on the equator, as he’d seen done on YouTube videos. Instead, he decided to test what he’d overheard in the village: that the water in a toilet flushes in different directions depending on which hemisphere you’re in, Northern or Southern. He didn’t have toilets nearby, so he used his water bottle to simulate it. Sure enough, the experiment was a success.

             The whirlpool created went left to right or right to left depending on which side of the latitude border Julián stood. He then wondered what would happen if he stepped right on latitude 00.00.00.

             In which direction would the water flow?

             He was surprised to find it didn’t create a whirlpool at all! Gravity simply sucked the water right down the middle, as if an anaconda had its lips around it and took several hearty gulps.

             After posing for some photos, Julián looked closer at the monument. At its foot, he saw something strange: a dead snake. Decomposed. What remained were some of the skin and its skeleton, which was about seven feet long. It had wrapped itself around the yellow column that propped up the world, like that Titan Atlas of Greek lore, condemned to hold up the sky for eternity.

             Julián measured the snake. Its center was on the exact equatorial line. Latitude 00.00.00.

             It died, balanced.

             At this moment Julián thought of that almost mythical philosopher who concerned himself so much with mortality.

             “Some die too young, some die too old,” Nietzsche wrote, “the precept sounds strange, but die at the right age.”

             This snake embodied what Nietzsche meant, Julián thought to himself. It chose when and where to die. It controlled its life until the very end. Julián had forever feared the river snake, but this was the first time in his life he found himself envying it.

             Julián bent down, took one of its ribs from the middle of the snake’s body, and put it in his pocket: a reminder to die at the right time.

NOVUS Literary and Arts Journal
Lebanon, TN