EVENT: Tania Pleitez Vela and Claudia Castro Luna join us at the Bookshop on Thursday 1 June to launch Vanishing Points, a new showcase of writing from El Salvador. Book tickets here. Read on for an extract from Claudia Castro Luna’s contribution to the anthology, ‘Ex Libris’.
Twenty something books packed into a cardboard box and four small suitcases were the sole possessions we carried the January morning we left El Salvador.
I’ve lived with these books since 1981. I have lugged them from West Palm Beach; to Los Angeles; to Bochum, Germany; back to California; and finally to Seattle, Washington. All these years, I’ve waited for the right time to read them, waited for the moment when I’d need them. At low points and during my many moves, I’ve wanted nothing more than to get rid of them.
Why hold on to yellowing volumes filled with academic Spanish, mathematical formulas, treatises on historical materialism?
Why was I the one responsible for their care and safety?
Why not pretend they got lost?
Answers never materialize. Something unformed, caught at the back of my throat, steals any and all effort at responding.
One summer while on break from my teaching job I unfolded the attic’s aluminum ladder and climbed into the sweltering heat. Years before, in a fit of bravery I’d ripped the cover off a math book. I meant to keep it as a memento and throw away the rest, only to have regret settle firmly in the space where the pages had been. I steeled myself this time. My idea was to pile them in a box and let the city’s recycling truck do the rest.
The books from Papá’s library in El Salvador had three fates. The first group escaped with their spines intact inside the cardboard box we took with us. The second set was scattered in the homes of friends and relatives. But the third group suffered the worst fate.
The military government considered some books dangerous, akin to hoarding a cache of explosives. Admittance to a clandestine jail, disappearance or death was the price to be paid for getting caught with these tomes. Papá owned his share of these “flagged” books written by Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, and the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton. In a country not known for its bookstores, Papá had built a sizeable library with great effort and care. Then came a single knock at our door on a quiet afternoon in 1980.
I opened the door and Reina, our live-in housekeeper and nanny, positioned herself behind me. On the front step, two men dressed in outfits similar to my father’s workday attire offered polite afternoon greetings.
“Buenas tardes,” they said in unison. The shorter man asked, “¿Dispense, aquí vive la señora Irma de Castro?” That was indeed my mother’s name.
“Sí. Aquí vive,” I blurted out and went on talking without looking at Reina. “But she is not here right now. She’s at work…not at work, she…she is at the sewing school.” The men looked at each other.
“But… she does teach at Amalia Viuda de Menéndez, no?” the taller one inquired. I could feel Reina’s bristling exasperation behind me.
“Sí. Allí trabaja, de ocho de la mañana a una de la tarde,” I said with a degree of pride.
Upon hearing the hours she worked at the school the men thanked us and took their leave. I waved them good-bye. The door had barely clicked into the frame when Reina launched into me.
“Do you know what you just did?” she asked and before I could edge in a single word, answered: “You just told them…told them…everything!” she hissed, her voice injected with anger.