GRIFFIN MORIMOTO, ANA MARIA
Ana Maria Griffin Morimoto
Age: 18, Grade: 11
School Name: Special Music School, New York, NY
Educator: Sarah Anderson
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
My mother’s name was Cielo, which means “heaven.” She and I were just outside the Carulla, a fancy supermarket on the north side of Bogotá. We lived in the southside, where there were no Carullas. We were here to make a little money and maybe, if we were lucky, like we were last Christmas, somebody would give us a broiled chicken, the kind that came in the pretty container, curlicue flowers embedded in the plastic—the kind they cooked in lots of butter. Cielo and I had eaten that one with our hands.
We’d spent the day going through the rich people’s trashcans. Usually we’d find many beer bottles and soda cans that we’d trade for pesos at the junkyard. The man at the junkyard was very fat, and very nice, and I felt bad cheating him. He paid us by the kilo, and Cielo and I put pebbles in the cans to make them heavier. We usually brought him large garbage bags filled with these cans, and we were careful to crush the cans with the pebbles inside them, so they did not rattle around. That day though, we did not find many cans. So now I had to sing.
I was not quite six years old. I took off my street found hat, a ski cap with a rather sad pompom—sad because much of its yarn had fallen out. I set the hat at my feet, though people usually put the money in my mother’s hand. I sang,
Que canten los niños
Que alcen la voz
Que hagan al mundo escuchar Que unan sus voces y lleguen Al sol
Porque en ellos esta la verdad
Let the children sing
Let them raise their voices
Let them make the world listen
Let their voices be one and reach
Because they are the truth
It was night already, and I was cold, but not for long. The vibrations in my throat, the song warmed me. My nervousness went away when a woman in a silky blue coat gave money to Cielo and told her I had a beautiful voice. She watched me and smiled. She waited until I finished the song, and she clapped, and she was not the only one. A few people shamed each other into giving Cielo pesos.
When I was singing, I forgot where I was. The song took me to the sunlight. I closed my eyes, and it was daytime again.
Daytime out behind where we lived, where the city tipped upward into the mountains. This one time, my mother filled the tub we washed our clothes in. The sunlight flickered from the water. This was my pool. The water was cold, but I liked it that way. I was so happy in that sunlit water.
I open my eyes, and it’s night again.
After half an hour of my singing the same song over and over, we had enough money for three slices of pizza.
Jairo, my father, met us outside the pizza joint. He was pissed because he did not make much money that day. He parked cars for tips. He didn’t actually get inside the cars. He didn’t know how to drive. He limped around the lot, hunting for empty parking spaces. When he found an empty spot he would try to flag down a driver and wave her into it. The empty spaces were plainly visible, but sometimes the drivers felt sorry for him and gave him money. Most times they pretended not to see him.
He limped because he had been shot, he said. Sometimes though, his limp was slight, and I thought he was faking. Like now, he was excited about the pizza, hopping from foot to foot as if his feet were burning instead of his tongue. The señora who ran the pizza place said the only way to cook it was fast and hot, five hundred degrees.
Jairo ate the pizza quickly, blowing steam from his greasy mouth. With his cheeks full, he told me he needed me to do something for him. The cops were watching him, he said. He needed me to go pick up the drugs.
Cielo looked away.
Jairo told her to get back to working the trashcans.
My father walked me to the bus stop, and we waited without words passing
between us. He paced, strung out. Then he couldn’t stop talking. He complained that the bus was always late, until it came a few moments later. He stuck a bag of cheap chocolate candies in my hand, put me on the bus and left the bus stop without waving goodbye. It was late, and the riders stared at me. I gave them angry eyes. I did not want them to talk to me, to tell me that at my age, this was no time to be riding a bus without a protector. I wanted to tell them to fuck off. Instead I just sat and swayed each time the bus stopped short. The ride was long, almost two hours to the southside. I ate all the candy and saved every wrapper. My job was to peel the foil from the wax paper, which Jairo and Cielo would use to make the marijuana cigarillos.
The alley was crowded with people buying drugs and sex. I pushed through them, past the gambling parlor where, by the window, the men played roulette. More men sat outside the liquor store and drank. At the end of the alley I came to the house where my father got the drugs. Usually he made me wait outside.
The door was open.
My classmate from first grade was just inside. I almost never went to school, but the girl was memorable for her lighter skin and reddish hair. She was southside rich, which was to say her family had a donkey. The rest of us carried our loads ourselves, in garbage bags we never threw away. I said hi but the TV captivated her. “I’m here to pick something up,” I said.
She looked at me then back to the TV. I sat beside her and watched cartoons.
A man came into the room. Maybe he was my classmate’s father. “Do you want juice?” He held up a bottle of Hit.
I realized I hadn’t drunk much the whole day, some soda from a bottle left at a curb that afternoon. The man watched me gulp the juice. He kept running his hand through his hair, pulling it.
Almost immediately I felt tired. I started to fall forward, off the couch. The man said, “Go down the hall. There’s a bedroom. Sleep. Jairo will be here soon.”
“Jairo?” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“Just go to the bed and rest.”
I was sure the man was wrong. Jairo was hiding out from the cops. And if he really was coming, wouldn’t he have taken the bus with me?
I was too tired to wonder anymore. I sank into the bed. The pillowcases had yellowed. The sheets were blue flowers, and I imagined I smelled baking sugar. *
When I woke up, Jairo, as promised, was there. He was taking off my clothes, to put on my pajamas, he said, but he didn’t put them on. This had happened before. I was too frightened to move. Jairo smelled like Nectar, a cheap anise-flavored aguardiente. I sobbed as he tied me to the bed, first by my hands. He opened my legs and tied them to the corner posts. Then the door opened, and the men came in, the demons.*
I have told the story of that night many times, to the different psychologists and
psychiatrists I was made to see over the years. Sometimes they looked at me as if they didn’t believe me. How could a girl not even six years old remember details like blue flowers on the sheets? How could I, a young child, have survived a gang rape? Why couldn’t I remember how I got my clothes back on? Clearly I had been drugged by the man who gave me juice. Maybe I was too out of my mind to remember correctly, one doctor suggested.
I have questions too. Why did Jairo do this to me? He had raped me before, but why did he let the others rape me? Was he selling me to these men? Why had he made me take the bus by myself? He often made me take the bus alone, but maybe that time he didn’t want to make Cielo suspicious by riding with me, even though he was heading to the same place he was sending me, right behind me probably, on the next bus. What was he thinking as he rode through Bogotá, knowing that soon I would be raped? Did he feel any guilt or shame? Did he feel anything?
I know this much for certain: what was and is and always will be in my mind was their laughing. They were so loud.
After it was over and I was dressed, Jairo shoved me down the hallway. My friend from school was gone, but the TV was still on, high-pitched manga. Jairo pushed me out the front door and into the street. He was so angry with me. “Go home,” he said. “If you tell Cielo, I’ll kill you both.”
Walking was agony. I burned everywhere, between my legs, my ankles where I had been tied to the bed. The walk was uphill. We lived in the mountains. There were few streetlights, orange with bug cake, and my shadow was little and dim. A man across the street called to me, “Do you need help?”
He was staring at my legs. My stockings were bloody.
I cried. I was on fire. I ran or tried to, with my legs wide. I was scared. When I got to the house, the gate was locked. Our landlord locked it after midnight. I went to the place where I had dug a hole under the fence and wiggled through. Inside, the house was a single room, a table, a TV, one bed, one window. The walls were corrugated metal, the floor dirt. We had no bathroom, no running water. We carried it in. The washbasin, my pool, still had the water in it from the last time I washed the clothes, and the water was not very dirty.
Lucky for me, Cielo was not home yet. I forced myself to take off my clothes. I had to wash them, but first I had to wash Cielo’s and Jairo’s uniforms. Sometimes they got work clearing the aqueducts, hacking away at the weeds that overgrew the drains and tunnels. Their uniforms were sky blue and became filthy quite easily. My job was to prepare their uniforms the night before they had to work, because their jefe was a ball- breaker, Jairo said. I had forgotten to do this, and now I had little time. I started to wash the uniforms but I was so sick and dizzy, I had to lie down, and I fell asleep before I could wash the blood from my stockings.*
Cielo shook me awake. She was hungover and angry because I hadn’t cleaned her uniform well enough. She must have just gotten in from the night before, because the bed was as it was when I fell asleep. The blanket was undisturbed except for where I had balled up on top of it. Cielo grabbed my wrist, and I screamed. The rope burn was deep. Cielo inspected the injury, then she examined the rest of me, and I screamed when she opened my legs. When she saw the blood she too screamed and pulled me in tight and told me to tell her what happened. I told her I couldn’t, because Jairo would kill us if I talked. That was all Cielo needed to know.
She grabbed her machete from her belt. The aqueduct cleaners wore their machete holsters low on their hips to keep from accidentally cutting themselves at the armpit. She ran out of the room and I followed her to the courtyard in front of the house. The owner of the house kept his donkey there. The donkey trotted away from my mother. She was so loud, calling Jairo names I can’t quite remember, but things like Satan and dirt maybe. He was in his grimy, damp uniform too, and it was so strange that they were wearing this beautiful if not muted color of the sky on a clear day while they were so sick from drinking the night before, and so sick from living this way. They were gray inside, and I wondered if I would be that way too, when I was their age. What would I have to do to keep the sky blue inside me?
Cielo threatened Jairo with her machete, and he punched her in the face. They both had their machetes out. I got between them, Cielo on her knees, and I hugged my mother. I doubted Jairo would kill Cielo, but I couldn’t take the risk. He definitely wouldn’t cut through me to get to her. But then when I looked into his eyes, I remembered he was the same man who only hours ago rented me out in a gang rape. Now I wasn’t sure at all that he wouldn’t murder me. Vomit burned my throat.
Jairo cursed me and kicked me and swung the machete just over my head. Then he slapped the back of my neck with the flat side of the machete. He threw the machete and stormed off. He raged and screamed to let the neighbors know that Cielo and I were “a pair of fucking cunts.”
My mother examined my neck. It was red from the slap of the machete, but he had not cut me.
We cried for a long time. I don’t remember what happened after that, if Cielo stayed with me and held me and told me we would be all right, or if she had to go to work in the aqueducts.