Remembering H.G. Carrillo, and His Marvelous Recounting of Cuban History

Manuel Muñoz Introduces the Late Author's Novel, Loosing My Espanish

Escuchen señores—hombres jóvenes; all of you who have sat in these seats over the past several years; mensajeros del futuro; mis iluminadores, mis casas, mis escuelas, mis corazones, mis playas; mi sentido común; mis yucas locos—I forget all the names that I have had for you—Shiny Distant Shores. Even yesterday’s too long ago, a fever-dream broken into floes of hunger and want and then more want, it is so far away now.

Óiganme. You have no idea, given how ill-disposed I am to looking at myself in mirrors, how surprised I am to find myself—in the rear- and side-views of my car, in the glass awards cases that line the halls on the first floor—like now, still talking to you. Sometimes to years of you long gone. And surprised to find that what’s being said about me these days—that I have begun to occasionally mutter to myself—may be true.

But it is strange how something that I have always done—rehearsed my lectures, made lists, figured out what comes next—is now an act of self-consciousness, that now what’s in the past has made me appear to be something other than what I am.

I’ve only thirty-four more of these opportunities, and I’m finding time comes flying back on me whether I want it to or not. All of a sudden, I find myself mouthing years of attendance rolls, record books of grades, notes for lectures that now will probably never be given. My muttering. Muttering, they say, as though I have not always been trying to make these corrections; as though I haven’t been always thinking them as loudly as I could these things that they say that I now mutter; things I believe they believe I say as if I have no idea what’s coming out of my mouth anymore.

Ay but in all fairness, I’ve done very little to be understood.

So thirty-four more times—if we take out the days we’re off for Easter—there are, mis hijos. Only thirty-four more opportunities to prepare these lectures and stand in front of you in classrooms that have become all too familiar, so much like home, mis chicos queridos. And I finally have some answers to some of the questions that you have asked me, now.

Traveling past the nurse’s office to the principal’s office, Father Rodríguez’s and Father McMillan’s offices, I wave, tousle the heads of a couple of passersby, congratulate a victor on the field for his recent win, answer quick questions about assignments due, agree to meet about an essay, a letter of recommendation. He’s very affable; Likable . . . all of them like him . . . they all seem to learn from him, everyone says so; a mí me gusto mucho; Been so good to all of mis hijos, I’ve overheard mothers say when they were certain that I was within earshot. More than once has someone’s father come to me after a soccer game to say that he’d never thought that he’d see the day that his son could take charge; take the ball down the field that way; once it was described as if in an afternoon a son had shed all of his boyhood, run it off down the field and appeared a new and different person. Wonderful pedagogical skills, highly organized, very demanding although his students all seem to love him, Father Rodríguez has copied each year from the first of my annual assessments as if nothing could or would ever change; or as if the only possible change that could occur is that eventually I would sit in his place copying the same words into the annual assessment of someone who had once been my student.

Each morning as I pass the portico into these hallways on these last days, these final days, I wonder how I haven’t noticed the din that pours out from the cafetería: a howling—like caged animals—the murmuring grunts, the flung cereal boxes; the clatter of cutlery. Or the smell that is not all that different from the locker rooms as I pass under the cupola by the large stained-glass window that looks out over the bell tower, the green, the parking lot and the play fields.

There have been many times over the years that I have been tempted to simply sit in the window niche on the second-floor landing under the cupola, and rather than going on, just watch the dust particles ride the sunlight, watch students cross below me scurrying, already as busy as the men that they will grow up to be, taking on the roles that will one day make them feel important, satisfied, safe, trusted.

It could be that it is this building. That despite its disrepair—the cracks and leaks, the peeling everywhere, the broken lockers for which there is no money; there will be no money coming in; nada, nada; nada—the something grand, the something particularly ambitious that made the immigrants who came to this area nearly two hundred years ago to look back to a medieval France, and an ancient England, a Renaissance Italy with hope enough that they pooled pennies earned at factory jobs and the domestic chores of others a little at a time in collection baskets still lives here. Years ago, when Julio and Román arrived from Cuba by way of Miami with las doñas Cristina y Liliana, Amá thought it important to see to it that the boys were acclimated to their new home: she took them to the lake, made sure they had new uniforms, showed them how to take the bus in the rain instead of the route that she laid out for us. The first opportunity that I had to show them something on my own I took them to the cupola—the same way anyone who has gotten to be a boy here and shown someone else—stood them on the opposite side from me and showed them all I had to do was whisper the words comemierdas and putos for them to hear. The three of us spent more than a half hour their first day on the cracked mosaic of the Sacred Heart calling each other moco, estúpido, chica, until Román or Julio let go with a belch that resounded the dome and peeled us off running in fits of secret laughter; as if we had gotten away with something that no one else either knew about or could recapture again.

And I want to tell them, the boys, to hold on to it, this moment, it goes away as if it were never there at all, but I never do.

Sometimes it may just be enough to watch, boyhood, I often want to tell my colleagues as we’ve whined about test scores, curriculum, textbook choices and the like into the fretted muck that we like to call faculty meetings. And although I have never bothered to do it yet, lately I’ve come dangerously close to asking them, if like so many things that thrive on their own, do the boys really need us the way we think they do, the way our egos tell us they do, forcing them to do the things that we demand of them as if we know any better? It has been a long time that I have wanted to take each of them, one at a time, by the hand to this window and simply say, Mira. And then watch them, my colleagues, see everything that they had hoped for, everything that they had dreamed was already realized right before them. Even boys have their seasons, I’d say: in the winter, they leave their houses bundled for the cold, and halfway, something switches them on high and they’re sweaty and shoving at each other, coats open, gloves lost. I’ve a cardboard box filled with scarves under my desk that no one will claim; as soon as the weather starts to get warm, they fill up with a harmless venom, boys do, that sets them on a fidget that either makes them want to tell you an elaborate lie, smash something or build something out of nothing. And I want to tell them, the boys, to hold on to it, this moment, it goes away as if it were never there at all, but I never do. Never say it to either my colleagues or the boys.

Instead, for years I’ve left the echo of the cupola with all its dust and smell of oil soap, rounded the gritty terrazzo steps and headed toward the end of the hall on the third floor, the furthest from the stairs, where all the new teachers, younger teachers have been assigned since I’ve known of this place.

I suppose all I had to look forward to was moving to a lower floor in the succeeding years; closer and closer to the vestibule a little at a time had I not been shown a quicker way out.

And—not unlike the first time that I came to this school, and Amá handed me my lunch, straightened my tie, used her saliva and finger to rub away at the corners of my mouth while she told me that this was one of the moments in her life of which she was most proud in spite of herself because she always wanted me to know that my successes as well as my failures would always be my own—I cross myself, kiss my knuckle, inhale deeply, push down the battle in the pit of my stomach y . . .

Escuchen señores. Óiganme todos, as you have all heard at this morning’s assembly, this school will no longer exist as it has during the past hundred and three years and I will no longer be a fixture here. We are the last school in the diocese to go coeducational because of the lack of funding, they say, and you now know that I am not listed among the teachers who will be returning next year to meet the challenge.

Challenge, Father Rodríguez has told me. That was the word he used, challenge.

Ay, what challenge, señores?

But I suppose that many of you already knew this. You’ve heard the rumors. And I suppose that this kind of education—boys being taught to be men separately from girls being taught to be women—has been arcane for a while, a thing of the past, and it’s time for some of us to move on. Some of you will graduate, others will move on to your senior year though none of you will be able to nudge your little brothers and say, Take Delossantos’ class.

I’ve heard you say it. I’ve heard so many of you say it.

I know an entire generation of you have been telling each other, He’s an easy A, a pushover.

And I suppose it’s true. But someone should be easy on you; someone should clear a path for you. After all it is an awfully indifferent world, a dangerous world, a strange world that we send you out into with little more training than an infant would have to take the helm of an inflatable life raft.

And of course, there are those of you who I have let leave—years of you have passed through here—with me biting my tongue.

Well, no more.

You are my last. Not that I had had any plans of abandoning my position, no. But still, you are my last.

I’ve heard the chisme—like old ladies, you are—in the cafetería, on the playground, in the hallways for weeks now all I’ve heard is that so-and-so’s mother told someone’s uncle’s cousin that Delossantos was getting sacked; he must have murdered someone, or embezzled from school funds.

And it is true, that it was no coincidence that I accompanied my mother to the insurance office during this morning’s special assembly. I suppose the good Father Rodríguez wanted me to save face in some way or another. Though my absence had nothing to do with the freshly inscribed message above the third urinal in the third-floor boys’ room, which as a result of poor grammar leaves me somewhat befuddled. In the event that the author is in this room, stand corrected that were I to have a predilection for canines I could joder perros; or might have jodido perros; or were it the beginning of a poetic assertion, the rather flowery Mr. Delossantos, que jode perros, may have made a rather lyric opening to an ode or ballad on the theme that could have easily wound its way down the line of sinks and back behind the last stall where you all hang out of the window to sneak cigarettes even though you think the faculty doesn’t know about it. As it stands—Mr. Delossantos era joden los perros—it is not only untrue, but may be an indication that I have failed those of you who have come to me seeking help with your Spanish grammar.

Señores—los hombres apacibles jóvenes que van a heredar la tierra un día as the world’s bankers and accountants and businessmen and garbagemen and husbands and lovers and doctors and lawyers—every morning for the past twenty-two years, I’ve cleaned my glasses, knotted my tie and after toast and coffee and a cigarette, stood in front of rooms full of you tracing the generosity of a Spanish queen through to the Declaration of Independence; the launch of the Americas; and the trajectory of the greedy fists of the English, Spanish and Portuguese slave traders as they were hurled over centuries into the faces of the unsuspecting of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who knew nothing about baseball and apple pie, or American History.

As freshmen most of you had me for World History; American Government when you were sophomores; some of you have been in my homeroom. I have helped coach the soccer team, and I have tutored many of you through Spanish and English exams. I have waited for this moment. This class—Histories of Latin America: From Colonialism Through the 1960s—is an elective; so all this semester, I have assumed either you want to be here or could fit nothing else in during fourth period and need the credit to graduate.

When Román, Julio and I were boys, by flashlight we’d read to each other in hushed whispers tales of marauding pirates and invincible sea monsters, and ghost ships that flew through the night.

And so far this semester, we have established the dollar amount fixed into Cristóbal Colón’s hand and computed its value in today’s market, the cost of the ships included. We’ve speculated on what acts of love, what promises of romance, were exchanged between the queen of Spain and the Italian.

Even though after examining the Delacroix portrait of the dashing Colombo and his son at La Rábida, as well as pictures of the Randolph Rogers alto-relief bronze doors at the Rotunda in the District of Columbia—an entire district he gets—and pictures of the paintings of Colombo at the museum in the Vila Baleira of Porto Santo, none of us has any idea if the Genoese Discoverer was really “tall of stature” or possessed “an aquiline nose” or “blue eyes” or had a light complexion, or had white hair by the time he was thirty though blonde as a child, because none of the images we have of him were created during his lifetime as is written in history books. And what do we know about Isabella and the rather homely Ferdinand? We speculated on the beautiful Spanish woman in The Assumption of the Virgin and wonder if she is the patroness of northern European artists of her time like Miguel Zittoz y Juan de Flandes, who were renowned for their infinite attention to detail, yet really know nothing of her beauty.

However, once we’ve conceded a romance we’ve also committed ourselves to a mustard field near El Cerro de Cabeza de Toro.

¿Por qué no?

A mustard field in full bloom, where under the watchful eye of La Virgen de Trujillo, the Genoese Discoverer chases his beautiful, regal mistress, his patroness. There are those who would say that she was girlish in her coquetry, hardly what one would expect of the sovereign of Iberia. There are those who would say that her hair was raven-colored.

Does it matter if there were mustard fields in bloom in Trujillo that spring before the Genoese set out? No, I’m not even sure if mustard grows in Trujillo.

Pretend, imagínenselo.

Imaginen.

When Román, Julio and I were boys, by flashlight we’d read to each other in hushed whispers tales of marauding pirates and invincible sea monsters, and ghost ships that flew through the night. And for each unearthly soul that flung itself out from the sea to take revenge, to right an injustice, to yowl its indignation, Julio would stop us to ask if it was true; if it really happened. Did the captain dance the mizzenmast, sword in hand, as flames engulfed the deck; could a galleon really hold the wealth of an entire small kingdom? It would seem silly now, I would be hesitant to ask either of them now if they remembered the dark, remembered the slightest sway of wave that we could set down the densest, darkest of tributaries into the roughest of waters out to an open blank. In fog, we read, ships called out every two minutes with the clanging of a brass bell to hush the roar of that eerie silver-gray light of possible oncoming danger: a head-on collision that would slice the more vulnerable of the two between stem and stern, send hundreds scattering like grains of rice against a polished black floor.

¿Verdad? Julio would stop us and ask. A desperately incredulous ¿Verdad? for each maiden and maidenhead, and ¿Verdad? for every moment that caught him wide-eyed and openmouthed, thinking, Who knows this, who saw this, who lived to tell?

And if tomorrow I were to show up downtown at the actuarial firm where he works with its long floors of men in shirts and ties sitting in cubicles and was able to tell Román apart from anyone else so as to ask about Julio’s doubt and his own anxiousness to Go on, Go on, Vamos—It’s about the story, he’d bark back across the dark of the little bedroom we shared in Amá’s house as boys—I wonder, señores, if he’d say the same thing now in response to where your textbook reads that that year—the year the Genoese sailed—the mustard came up purple; and add, fields and fields of purple causing a luster in the queen’s eyes that allowed the Genoese to know what she was thinking before she ever said it.

It’s a romance we speculate, history, a fiction.

__________________________________

From Loosing My Espanish, a novel by H.G. Carrillo. Copyright © 2004 by Herman G. Carrillo.  Published by Anchor Books in paperback and originally in hardcover by Pantheon Books.  Reprinted by permission of Stuart Bernstein Representation for Artists.  All rights reserved.

H.G. Carrillo
H.G. Carrillo
H. G. Carrillo’s work has appeared in The Kenyon Review and Glimmer Train, among other journals and magazines.





More Story
My Grandfather Participated in One of America's Deadliest Racial Conflicts Across the sweeping canvas of American history, two markers, inherited and ineluctable, from the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919...