a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
Manuel’s neck fried under the cruel Texas sun. His favorite long-brimmed Toquilla hat would have protected him. Instead, a baseball cap was a scant substitute. Carlos, his boss, demanded, “Look like you belong here. Not a lawn monkey.”
Manuel picked up a heavy saw and climbed the first of five large oak trees. His usual partner had called in sick. The two were the only Ecuadorians on the landscape crew.
Hours later, Manuel’s t-shirts and pants dripped with sweat. The saw frequently slipped from his grip. I am going to finish cutting the last branch and come down for a short siesta, thought Manuel. He was perched on a thick tree limb when it snapped. For an instant, Manuel felt the cool breeze on his wet skin as his small body plummeted to the ground. The bliss was snatched away by the agony of the saw landing on him. The world around the boy faded black.
It is so hot. I am thirsty. Everything hurts, thought Manuel when he came out of his shock. He dragged himself along a deserted street. How did I get here? His eyes spotted an old woman sitting on her porch. She was tiny, with black hair like his grandmother’s.
“Abuela! Ayúdame. Por favor,” he groaned. Manuel stumbled towards the neat white cottage.
“No! Stay away! Police!” The woman rushed into the house, slamming the door behind her.
Not Abuela. Abuela would have cradled me and used our family’s healing fifty-cent coin to make my pain go away. In a daze, he hobbled to the back of the woman’s property. A garden shed with its open door welcomed him. Manuel walked in and collapsed. A sticky drop rolled down his forehead. He raised his right arm to wipe it off. Searing pain shot through his shoulder. The arm was broken and useless. I can never play ecuabol again. An Ecuadorian-style volleyball was the favorite pastime in his village. With his left arm, he smeared the viscous fluid across his forehead and down the side of his face. The hand came away covered in blood. Manuel needed to go to the hospital.
“Get caught, ICE kicks you out.” Carlos’s stern warning echoed in his dazed brain.
He would need more than Abuela’s magic coin to cure his injuries. He concentrated on his predicament. When did my life begin to crumble? Was it when my father was taken?
“Papi, do you have to go? It’s not even our village. Military police will be there again. Uncle and many others were hurt at the last protest,” Manuel had pleaded with his father in their small house, as rain hammered on the rusted corrugated roof.
“We must defend our ancestral land, hijo. President Correa promised to protect our Amazon, but the government is selling the territories to the gold and copper mining companies. Soon, we’ll have no home.”
Papi did not come home that night or the next. His body was found floating in the river on the fifth day. Dark clouds still loomed over the Shuar village of El Tink when Manuel walked to school to tell his six-grade teacher that he was not coming back. He had to find a job to help his Mama.
Five years later, the indigenous Shuar people still fought for their land. They were losing the battle one village at a time. The mining company wanted El Tink. The military was sent in to scare the proud Shuar away, but the villagers resisted.
“Manuel, do you have to go?” his mother begged. “There will be violence.”
“Mama, you always said that I was a Shuar of the Jivaroan peoples. We have never been conquered. Not by Incas. Not by Spaniards. We will not be overcome by the greedy mining companies.” Manuel put on his father’s Toquilla hat and walked out.
The sun shone, and the endless blue sky spread over the village. Manuel strode towards the bridge that Shuar men guarded.
“We’re lucky the bridge’s the only access road to El Tink. The military will never get through to us,” remarked Juan, one of Manuel’s friends.
“Si, but we can’t go out to buy food. Are your meals getting smaller? Let’s go hunting for guinea pigs to roast after our shift’s done,” Manuel offered.
At that moment several projectiles came flying. The air choked with poisonous gas. Manuel couldn’t see anything, but he heard the rumble of heavy trucks. Tears streamed down his face, and he ducked closer to the ground to avoid the noxious fumes. The boy crawled towards the river and crouched in the tall grass for the remainder of the day, listening to the chaos coming from his village.
Next morning Manuel saw his friends lying face down on the ground with their hands tied behind them. He snuck into his house, and Abuela urged him to leave. Tears rolled down her wrinkled cheeks when she said goodbye. Mama stuffed some food and pesos into his backpack. A tearful farewell was better than a funeral. Three weeks ago he had crossed the US border.
Manuel sat in a stranger's shed; his mind back at El Tink with Mama and Abuela. His tongue was too big for his mouth. A bowl of Abuela’s chicha de yuca would ease the thirst. Manuel could almost taste the sour fermented yucca beverage. Abuela’s dry hands on his forehead would wipe away blood.
The police cruiser with the blue and red lights silently pulled in front of the house. Manuel’s English was very limited, but he heard the agitation in the old woman’s voice. He peered through the door. She gesticulated wildly as though describing a monster.
He was not a monster, just a boy covered in blood. Manuel pulled himself up, but his legs betrayed him. Darkness covered his field of vision once again.
“Abuela, soy Manuel. No un monstruo,” he whispered into the coming night. “No un monstruo.”
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.