José García Escobar
Art by Regina José Galindo
Jorge Horn was Lita’s youngest brother. He was the first in the family to get into college, and he died during the Revolución de Octubre, on the morning of October 20, 1944.
“I have a picture of him here, somewhere,” my mother said.
I had heard stories about my other great aunt and uncles from Quetzaltenango. There was Ernesto, an electrician, Roberto, the family’s most disciplined borracho. And finally, there was tía Valeria, the seamstress, whom I met once, right after my grandmother died in 2002. But I never knew Lita had another brother, let alone that he was a revolucionario.
“He was about your age when he died,” my mother said, going through the wooden trunk she had by her bed.
Inside the trunk, my mother had some books, letters, a toy doll from when she was a kid, a pair of my sister’s baby shoes, an old Blaupunkt radio, dozens of hairpins spread around like dead ants, and our family photos. She flipped through the albums while I sat on top of her bed and waited. She had pictures of my piñatas, of my sister’s quinceaños party, of our trip to Miami.“Look how pretty I was,” she said, showing me a picture of her dancing with my father. They looked happy like I hadn’t seen them before. “And skinny too.” She laughed.
A small leather notebook fell out of one the meaty albums. It was a world within a world, a world where white had softly faded into yellow, black into maroon, and the paper had begun to curl like old tobacco leaves.
My mother flipped carefully through the plastic pages like she was afraid of breaking the pictures.
My mother had small and dry leathery hands from her years as a pharmaceutical chemist. She spent most of her adult life working with chemicals and wearing irritating plastic gloves. One time she made soap for everyone in the house. Rose-based for Lita, pine tree for Lito, vanilla for my sister, my father, and me. However, after a day of use, Lita got a rash around her neck. My mother apologized in tears and called her office to stop the production—
“There he is,” she said, holding a small pocket-size photograph. “The one on the right.”
I stared at the photo silently. My great uncle Jorge was standing proudly with his arm around another man. Jorge had a long face. His nose was wide, square, and angular. He had an abundant forehead. His black hair was greased up like a rooster’s crest. He had a pair of sunglasses on. A devilish smile shaped his white face; I could almost see him wink behind the shades. He was like a young Clint Eastwood: handsome, elegant, confident, and undoubtedly arrogant. I’ll never be as cool as he was, I thought.
“Who’s he?” I said, pointing at the man next to my tío.
“One of his friends. El Loco, or something like that.”
“Why am I only hearing about this now?” I looked into my mother’s eyes. “Does my sister know?”
“Maybe,” she smiled. “You were too little when tío Roberto passed away. All the Horns got together for the funeral, and someone talked about Jorge. Tía Valeria had a picture with the five of them. She gave this one to your abuelita.”
My mother looked at the picture like it was too painful for her to look away. Maybe she wasn’t even thinking about Jorge, maybe she was thinking of my grandmother. When Lita passed away, my mother became very reclusive. She refused to leave her bedroom for days and wept uncontrollably. Even now, fifteen years after her passing, whenever she talks about Lita she’s profoundly affected by a gut-wrenching nostalgia. I was sure she imagined Lita as a kid, next to tío Jorge. Maybe Lita took that picture, I thought. Was she a photographer?
“Guapo,” I said, to wake her from her stupor. “How did he die?”
She looked at me, or rather, past me. She had her eyes fixed on the wall, as though seeing the ghost of tío Jorge.
My mother told me that what she had heard was that Jorge and El Loco were students at the time of the Revolución and that they joined the protests in late June, más o menos. Lita, Jorge, and their mother lived in Avenida Elena, a few blocks away from the Palacio Nacional, so they’d often hear the gunshots and bombs of Ubico’s army fighting back the rebels. Tío Jorge was just one of the many revolucionarios that died on the streets. I asked my mother how, but her memory was a pendulum. It came and went. Her eyes moved around trancelike as if conjuring ancient spirits that could help her finish the story.
“The army killed him,” my mother said, triumphantly. “Yes,” her eyes big and white like hard-boiled eggs. “They burned him alive.”
I looked back at the picture and imagined the scene. I could almost see the flames, the red fire wrapping Jorge’s thin body, breaking his luscious hair, and boiling his white arms. I saw the wounds, the blisters. I saw Jorge’s flaking skin. I pursed my mouth into a tiny, almost unnoticeable, protuberance. I imagined the fire going down Jorge’s throat as he gasped for air one last time.
I asked where it had happened, but she didn’t know. “No me acuerdo,” she said.
“Near the house?”
“In the streets?”
“Maybe. No. I don’t know—Lita knew the story well.”
“What else do you remember?”
“Not much, I—“
“Maybe he wasn’t even burned alive.”
“Oh, he was.” She looked at me daringly, as if I had insulted her.
“Are you sure?”
“That I remember,” she said. “Your grandmother had to identify the body.”
I received tío Jorge’s story as a sort of inheritance, an asset I was supposed to preserve and diffuse. I felt like he was a dying tongue and I the only native speaker of some millennial civilization where heroes like Jorge used to thrive.
I scanned the photo and carried it with me. I also read about the revolución. What I knew of recent Guatemalan history was what I had learned from school—ni mierda—so I had to pick up a few books and binge watch some documentaries. I learned about Ubico’s ruthlessness and cowardice, and the civil uprising that sparked the revolution. My tío was one of the heroes who marched against the totalitarian regime of a murderous desgraciado.
I told Jorge’s story with pride and excitement. I talked about Jorge’s feats and adventures as if I had been there, next to him and all the other rebels. I also talked about his death explicitly, with the gruesome details of a horror flick. I mentioned the gasoline and the fire, the terrible fire.
“Are you going to write about him?” a friend asked me once.
“No,” I said arrogantly, stubbornly. “I’m not going to write about Guatemala. I don’t want to write about Guatemala.” Or perhaps I didn’t know how to write about Jorge or my family, and therefore I didn’t know how to write about Guatemala.
At one point I asked my parents if someone in our family had been active during the Civil War, either as military or guerilla, but both said no. I felt like an intruder writing about something that didn’t affect us, so I declared I wouldn’t write about la guerra, and I disavowed any political reference in my writing. But this was different, right?
Jorge was not just a story to me. With every telling, his eyes got wider, and his arms got bigger; he became a real man, with flesh and bones.
He had the potency of a boxer, the grace of a trapeze artist. In my mind, Jorge walked with fluidity: his sepia legs did pirouettes, his white arms carried the wounded, and his charming baritone voice ricocheted in my head as if trying to get out. Suddenly the telling became vulgar to me. I had the unbearable urge to know more.
I googled his name: zero hits.
There had to be more. It was my job to find him. I was infected by a type of curiosity I hadn’t felt during my eight years as a journalist.
I was a month away from leaving Guatemala to go to New York to do my master’s. I had quit my job in Revista Q, so I had the time and the money to look for Jorge. It’ll be quick, I thought. I’ll sit by his grave and introduce myself. I will wipe the grime off his tombstone and place a fresh bouquet of blue bougainvillea and walk away.
I went directly to the Cementerio General, in zona 3. I knew my grandmother’s family had gone through hard times, and since the General—built in 1880—is still the largest public cemetery in Guatemala City, I figured it was obvious that Jorge had been buried there.
It was early morning, and the air was damp.
I parked my car inside and walked towards the information house. Inside the General, there were people selling flowers. A sweet sugary smell of fresh chrysanthemums, roses, lilies, and wet dirt filled the air.
I filled out the forms proudly. Name: Jorge Horn. Date of birth: desconocida. Date of death: 20 de octubre de 1944 and I smiled.
A weary-eyed lady took the paper from my hand and clicked on her old computer. Behind her, there were dozens of file boxes piled up all the way to the roof.
“Rejected,” the lady said and furiously stamped my yellow form.
“Rejected?” I said.
“I need the full name to find the deceased.”
“Can’t you just look with the one I—”
“There are millions of Jorges in this cemetery,” she said without looking at me.
“I’m sure, but not a lot of Horns. I imagine there’s only one Jorge Horn. That’s a German last name.” Here she looked at me.
“You don’t look German.”
“I’m not. Mi tatarabuelo was.”
The lady sighed, turned to face her old, yellowed computer and clicked with precision.
I imagined she was a reckless, indomitable, and bureaucratic pendeja by nature. Surely old-fashioned bank tellers or tax collectors had trained her until she could carelessly dismiss any sentimentality. But then, after years of working in the Cementerio General’s office, her roboticness had softened into a much more humanoid disposition. I imagined that dealing with people trying to find their loved ones had warmed her cold, cold heart.
After a while, the lady frowned, pushed her glasses back to the top of her nose, typed again, and clicked again, and again. “Not here,” she said.
“There’s no record of a Jorge Horn, or Horns, ever registered in this cementerio.”
“I–can you check again?”
The lady grunted and offered me the chair across her desk. The ceiling fan was twiddling the hot August air inside the equally hot office. She moved the computer so I could see the screen. She typed my tío’s name carefully, but with scorn, she hit the keys as if they were bugs she was trying to kill.
“Can you check that this is the name of your dead,” she said, like that, your dead, su muerto, and stared uninterestedly at me. I nodded. She clicked “buscar” with her long crimson nail.
“Sin resultados” appeared on the screen, no results. It wasn’t like in the movies where the computer shuffles dozens of names adding tension to the moment. No, it came almost instantly. I didn’t even have the time to imagine the pixels aligning triumphantly to form Jorge’s name and location.
“Could this be a mistake?” I said.
“No,” the lady said and explained to me the digitalization process the cemetery went through in the late-nineties. “Every card was entered manually into the program, thousands of them.”
“Maybe they misspelled his name.”
“We had people checking that too,” she said.
“They couldn't have buried him somewhere else,” I said, out loud, but mostly to myself.
“Well, he’s not here, mi amor.” Her face had softened as though affected by the warmness inside, surely not by concern.
Did they take him to back Quetzaltenango? I thought.
I put Jorge’s yellow form inside a book and walked away.
Every time I wrote “Jorge Horn” the name looked inert and undead. I wanted to see my tío’s name in print, written with ink, carved in stone, or his face on a wall—like the mural with the hundreds of the Civil War desaparecidos on 14th Avenue.
Is there a monument? A tribute? Is his name lost among millions of folders at the public registration? Unlikely. The revolución is remembered as a joyous occasion. People march down 6th Avenue to the Palacio Nacional carrying signs and singing songs every year. People talk about Arbenz and Arévalo. October 20th is a national holiday, a day to celebrate the country’s courage, not to remember the dead.
Before Jorge, the revolución was almost fictitious to me.
As a kid, I heard about Ubico and Arbenz, but knew nothing about their governments. History class for me—like many other middle-class Guatemalans—was mostly about su majestad Christopher Columbus. I grew up oblivious of my country’s history. I knew nothing about Ubico’s dictatorship and his ties with Hitler. I knew nothing about the United Fruit Company and the power the US had in local trade. No one told me about Arbenz’s agrarian reform and how Harry S. Truman labeled him a communist for it. Or how the CIA, under Eisenhower’s orders, toppled Arbenz. Thanks a lot, Ike. Pendejo.
Six years later the Civil War started.
In 1996, when I was six years old, and after thirty-six years of conflict, the war ended. But it wasn’t until I was out of high school and began my career as a journalist that I learned about the censorship, the persecution, the taking of lands, and the massacres. Colleagues told me about the guerillas, and the death squads, and the massacres, and the genocide, Ríos Montt’s genocide, and how Ronald Reagan supported and vouched for Ríos Montt. Thanks a lot, Ronnie.
I thought about the origins of that misinformation and distortion of reality and history. What caused it initially? Was it fear, tradition, negligence, carelessness, or something more sinister? Thanks to Jorge I got past that blind malnourishment I had had as a student. The least I could do was acknowledge him and those who were with him.
A few days later my family and I went to Quetzaltenango to take part in tío Noé’s 90th birthday.
Noé is Lito’s youngest brother, the youngest of five. At the time there were still three left alive, Lito, Noé and Vivian, all healthy for their age. Tío Noé and Lito even had an unspoken competition over who would outlive the other; my grandfather had the slight disadvantage of being ninety-seven “and one-half,” as he said it.
“Ya estás viejo, hombre,” one would say.
“Viejos los caminos,” the other would respond and share their long list of ailments: sore back, bad hearing, hip problems, and recurring nightmares.
Since Lita and her siblings had also been Quetzaltecos, I figured I could search for Jorge during my time there. I made a list of all the local public cemeteries where he could’ve been buried: Cementerio Las Acacias, Cementerio General de Quetzaltenango, and Cementerio Los Rosales.
I thought about asking my mother if Jorge had been buried in his hometown, and exactly where. But I knew it would only trigger an emotional response from her, and I would have to include her in my search, a search I was convinced I had to do on my own.
I hadn’t been to Quetzaltenango for over a year and hadn’t seen most of my tíos and primos for a while too. As a kid I liked going there, walking the fields, chasing the cows, eating fresh apples straight off the ground. But since the early 2000’s the city had been growing into the fully formed metropolis that it is today, much alike Guatemala City.
“I’m glad you’re here, Jacobo,” tío Noé greeted me.
“Me too,” I lied. I didn’t want to spend my last few days in Guatemala with family, other than Jorge that is.
“Ya vino el gringo,” tío Noé proclaimed with his still 89-year-old loud voice.
Tío Noé’s house was a beautiful casa of the 1950s located on the outskirts of San Juan Ostuncalco. A wide corridor circles the three-story edifice. In the patio, he has bushes, flower pots, coffee trees, and a small greenhouse where he grows carrots. Out in the backyard, he has rabbits and three guacamayas. One of the house’s exterior rooms serves as a secondary branch of my tío’s shoe store franchise, El Elegante. The house had all the looks and sounds of a retired narco’s hideout. Noé Escobar had been Quetzaltenango’s mayor in the early 70s. He saved half of his salary for two years and managed to buy the house with one single payment.
“When do you leave?” tío Noé said.
“On the 19th,” I said and nodded at Aunt Vivian, who was plucking a chicken with hot water in the patio.
“That’s soon.” His eyebrows were like two fat black caterpillars. “Now I can give you a really nice pair of boots for the winter.”
“You’re the main attraction today,” my sister whispered to me as she walked past me with my parents. My grandfather hit me in the back, yanked me from tío Noé’s hands, and hugged him. The murmur of the dozens of relatives inside Noé’s house buzzed like a traveling beehive.
“You heard? This guy’s going to los Estados Unidos, to New York City,” my grandfather said close to tío Noé’s face.
“We were just talking about that,” tío Noé said.
Lito and Noé were like twins. Both were thin and elegant. Both smelled like ointments, old clothes; like old people. They even dressed alike: black shoes, square shirts, leather berets, and wool sweaters—even during the summer. The only noticeable difference was their posture. Lito was hunched, so he had a small swelling sticking out of his neck. Noé’s body, however, leaned backward. He often had his hands on his belly as if to hold himself in. Side by side, they looked like two sagging palm trees.
“Now that you’re going there, I’m going to have to ask you for a few things,” Noé said, reaching for his wallet and sitting down on one of the living room couches. “There’s this old hat store on 31st and 5th Avenue, the owner’s name is Robert Shapiro,” he said with that fluent agility elders have while reminiscing about a decades-old memory.
“You’ve been to New York?” I said.
“Oh yes, I—”
“Too late, Noé,” Lito interrupted. “I already asked him for a radio clock, remember?” Lito looked at me. “A loud radio clock,” he said. “I can barely hear the one I have—”
“He can get you your clock—“
“Yes, your radio clock and my hat,” Noé said.
Both began pulling my arms like two kids fighting over a rag doll. I was starting to get restless. I thought about leaving the two there, arguing with each other.
Aunt Vivian came over to say hi. “You look just like your grandfather.”
I had heard that throughout my life but I never really saw it. I tried to imagine Lito’s old, wrinkled face restored by youth, his face moist and rejuvenated, but still I couldn’t see our resemblance. I thought I had traces of other relatives: my mother’s pointy chin, Lita’s abundant and fractured nose, my father’s bulky cheekbones and fat lip. The only thing I knew Lito and I shared was a dark complexion.
“Nah, this one’s too ugly, Jaco es más guapo,” tío Noé said. “Like me.”
Before I could say a thing, Aunt Vivian took out a couple of family photo albums from one of the nearby shelves. She showed me pictures I had never seen. There was one of Lito hugging Lita, playfully. There was one of Lito holding hands with my mother. One more of him, welding gun in hand, at the top of the Panama Canal.
I still couldn’t see our similarity. I simply saw a fresher, taller, and more muscular version of my grandfather.
“Ah, look at this one,” Aunt Vivian said, giving me an old, yellowing picture.
There I was, in that photo. Or rather, there he was. There we were, he and I posing with the same face, the same body, and even the same haircut. I was my grandfather. He had my protruding ears, my big forehead; he had the wide cheekbones I always attributed to my father. He had my face. Or I had his? It was as if I had a little mirror in my hands.
“¿Ya vio? Igualitos.”
Once I got over the shock of seeing my grandfather as a young man, and of seeing my face in that sepia photograph, I was surprised to see Lito in a military uniform. In that small photo, dated July 1944, Lito had a tight black jacket with golden clips on and a black beret that spilled over his head. All that refinement could’ve gone unnoticed if it weren’t for the bullet belt across his chest.
“Lito,” I said and showed him the picture. “Were you a soldier?”
“Just for that photo,” tío Noé laughed.
“Oh no, m’ijo, he was, he was,” Aunt Vivian smiled; she rearranged her denture inside her mouth. “Look at you, Elías, all dressed up. You could’ve been a great colonel.”
“General,” Lito said. “General’s the highest rank. And yes, I was, I did my time. From June 1943 to December 1945. A little over two years, when it was mandatory.”
He didn’t look proud, or ashamed either.
Lito had been many things over his lifetime: driver, coffee collector, baker, carpenter, mechanic, and welder. And those were the ones I knew about, the ones he had mentioned openly. It wasn’t like he had kept things from us; there were just too many titles and occupations on his resume to mention them all. From time to time he would lean his head back and say something like: “Did I tell you about the time I was a milkman?” or “You know, I learned how to castrate pigs.” Not until recently did he disclose to my mother and I that he had smuggled Mexicans into the country on a small raft through the Usumacinta River when he was fifteen years old. “I didn’t know how to swim,” he said. “But the money was good.”
“Este huevón never signed up,” Lito said, looking at tío Noé.
“And what did you do?” I said. According to the photo, and his distant memory, he was active during the revolución.
“Ah, many things,” he smiled. He was always proud to admit he had been a busy man throughout his life. “I cleaned boots, I cooked, I was a driver, I carried ammunition, I taught young cadets to shoot. I even learned to ride a horse.”
“So you had a rifle?” He leaned closer to my mouth. “¿Tuvo fusil?” I repeated.
“Sí,” he said with the severity of an officer, perhaps with the same gravity he had to show during his time as a member of the Fuerzas Armadas de Guatemala.
I stared at my grandfather in one of tío Noé’s mirrors. I looked at his decaying figure, at his sad eyes that fell on his cheeks like two fat raindrops, at his bony hands, at his receding hairline, at his wrinkled brown face that someday would my own.
“I was about your age,” he said. His words fell like heavy coconuts.
“Ever since my mother told me about Jorge, I envisioned him as an adventurer, a liberator, a martyr. But perhaps the life of Jorge Horn had been everything but eventful. Maybe there was no braveness, no audacity, no intellectual and social calling. Yes, he had been burned, but not from facing Ponce Vaides’s guards, or from challenging Ubico’s military junta, and certainly not from joining the revolucionarios. Maybe Jorge Horn was burned alive by a group of campesinos that had risen up to overthrow their vicious ruler. I thought of my uncle as malicious, and his equally malicious spirit had been laying traps in front of me.”
After the birthday lunch, the cake, and the mariachis, I took a cab and went downtown. I bought some atol de elote served in a foam cup and asked directions for the three cemeteries on my list.
First, Las Acacias.
Unlike the cemeteries in la capital, those in Quetzaltenango are flamboyant and colorful—modesty seems to be a vanishing commodity for mourning Quetzaltecos. There were only a few white and gray gravestones. Most were either meticulously decorated with small kites and paper rehiletes, or painted in bright oranges, stylish purples, or blinding yellows.
Las Acacias’s forms looked much alike those at the General.
Name: Jorge Horn. Date of birth: desconocida. Date of death: 20 de octubre de 1944.
In the Cementerio Las Acacias, there were 0 Horns, and 0 Jorge Horns.
I went to the Cementerio General de Quetzaltenango next.
Name: Jorge Horn. Date of birth: –––––. Date of death: 20 de octubre, 1944.
“I need the date of birth,” the secretary said.
“I don’t have it.”
“Then why do you need it?”
Name: Jorge Horn. Date of birth: 28 de marzo de 1924. Date of death: 20 de octubre, 1944.
Cementerio General de Quetzaltenango had 0 Horns, and 0 Jorge Horns. They gave me a print out version of the report, por si acaso.
“In case of what?” I said, and the secretary shrugged.
I arrived at Cementerio Rosales exactly at 4:45, roughly 15 minutes before closing time. I knew in my heart that I was wasting my time at this point, but part of me had to exhaust all the possibilities. Maybe my interest had devolved into a sickening mission, but the sheer act of having people read his name out loud breathed new life into tío Jorge. If all else fails, I’ll scratch his initials into my arm.
Name: Jorge Horn. Date of birth: desconocida. Date of death: 20 de octubre de 1944. There was one more question on the Cementerio Rosales’ form: Relation with the deceased: sobrino.
“How do you pronounce this?” the man said.
“Jorn,” I said, as if in Spanish. “It’s a German last name.”
“You don’t look German,” he said. I sighed.
“I’m not, my great-great-grandfather—“
“¿20 de octubre?” the man said. “1944? Is this information correct?” I nodded. “Did he—” I nodded again. The man smiled distinctively, as though slightly impressed, and walked back to his computer. I thought that his reaction would cheer me up, but it didn’t.
Cementerio Rosales had 0 Horns, 0 Jorns, 0 Jorge Horns, and 0 Jorge Jorns.
“Why did you search Horn with a J? Jorn?” I aimed my stiffest frown at him.
“Someone could’ve filed him phonetically. Especially since his name is Jorge. You know, two J-O’s. It could’ve happened.”
I sighed and walked back to the Parque Central, to catch a cab back to tío Noé’s house.
I imagined going back to every cemetery I had been. “Remember me?” and filling the forms again, Jorge Jorn this time. But I thought it was a lost cause. Maybe he didn’t even have a gravesite. Maybe the flames had consumed Jorge’s body until only a warm mound of black ash was left. Maybe my mother got it all wrong.
Could he be in Germany instead?
Google Flights. Guatemala – Leipzig: $2,027, round trip. New York – Leipzig: $1,370, round trip. Guatemala – Berlin: $927, round trip. New York – Berlin: $557 round trip. Google. Berlin bus to Leipzig: €19.80, round trip. Google. Hotels in Leipzig: $75. Google. Dollar to Quetzal. 1=7.52. Euro to Quetzal 1=7.94.
I thought then, on my way back to San Juan, that I had gone too far. I realized that my curiousness had spiraled down into lunacy. Jorge himself was keeping me from finding him.
Ever since my mother told me about Jorge, I envisioned him as an adventurer, a liberator, a martyr. But perhaps the life of Jorge Horn had been everything but eventful. Maybe there was no braveness, no audacity, no intellectual and social calling. Yes, he had been burned, but not from facing Ponce Vaides’s guards, or from challenging Ubico’s military junta, and certainly not from joining the revolucionarios. Maybe Jorge Horn was burned alive by a group of campesinos that had risen up to overthrow their vicious ruler. I thought of my uncle as malicious, and his equally malicious spirit had been laying traps in front of me. I imagined that his thin hands, black as old carrots, had been leading me to a dead-end river.
I spent the next few days packing my bags, taking books out of my apartment and back into my parents’ house, visiting friends, and dealing with that never-ending paperwork that comes with getting a scholarship.
Within days of leaving the dangerous and over-crowed Guatemala City my life had become a metronome that swung between jubilee and nostalgia.
Friends I hadn’t seen in years argued for a get-together. I got emails from old editors congratulating me on the scholarship. My mother gave me a box with gifts from the Basílica of Esquipulas. Inside there was a bracelet, a silver necklace with a small crucifix at the end, and a scapular with the image of Saint Christopher, “the patron saint of the travelers,” she smiled. Even Aunt Vivian sent me a check for 500 Quetzales to help me with my expenses. I was exhausted. I thought that the departure ceremony would never end.
The weekend before my flight my father insisted on having a(nother) final farewell dinner at La Pâtisserie—a French restaurant we used to go to when my sister and I were kids that had reopened recently, adding American dishes, Italian dishes, and the Sábados de Bossa.
“Where are the frijoles con crema?” my father said, skimming the menu.
A waiter came with a basket of breadsticks and iced water for everyone.
I asked for a cheese crepe, so did my sister. My father settled for lasagna. “Uh, lasagna,” my mother said. After a long questionnaire regarding the consistency, size, and greasiness of the dish, she ordered spaghetti. “And chicken breast for him,” she signaled my grandfather who was already dozing off in his wooden seat.
“At what time do you get there?” my mother said to me.
“12 pm. I have a three-hour layover in Miami.”
New York for me came as triumphantly as an exile. I had been working as a journalist for over seven years and had grown tired of the rhythm and lifestyle of a reporter—six journals in seven years. In that time I had covered elections, protests, hurricanes, volcano eruptions, corruption scandals, murders. All that tragedy and hopelessness had drained me. At the end of the fourth year, I moved into cultural journalism. However, the minuscule and repetitive post-war artistic scene disappointed me quickly too.
Fortunately, someone saw my experience as a sign of passion and consistency and gave me a student visa and a generous scholarship. More than personal growth I guess I was fleeing a static and suffocating—yet secure—life. If all else fails I’ll be a lit teacher, I thought. In a country where mediocrity is a national standard, American diplomas are easily traded for tenure.
“Imagine all the things you’re going to see.” My mother took a whiff of her hot spaghetti. “The Statue of Liberty, the Central Park, where the towers were. You have to travel—”
“You have to be careful,” my father said, eerily.
“He’s going to be fine,” my mother said with a raspy voice, and half smiled at my father.
It had been a long time since I’d seen my parents happy. They talked to each other only if absolutely necessary. He was a reclusive hard worker, she, adventurous. While my father spent hours in his room reading or writing, my mother would be away with her comadres out in Lake Atitlán, or Río Dulce, or climbing the Tikal ruins. I hoped for my father’s discipline and my mother’s spontaneity.
“I’m going to give you Bertha’s number, you remember your tía Bertha, right?” She took out her phone. I nodded. “She lives in Manhattan. If there’s anything you need, you call her. And there’s your tío Omar, too. Papa?” she touched Lito’s shoulder. “Papa, you remember Omar?”
“Yes,” he smiled and widened his eyes. “Jacobo,” he looked at me, “your uncle Omar, he lives in New York.”
“That’s what I was saying,” my mother said. My sister laughed mischievously.
“But remember.” My father softly landed his closed fist on the table. “You have to work hard. Work hard and write. And read a lot. Read and write. Imagine, one book and you’re all set.”
“Your grandmother would be very proud,” my mother smiled.
“I think I’m going to go see her tomorrow,” I said.
“You better, because you know.” My mother rolled her fork on her plate, she tangled the spaghetti into a marvelous, red, doughy dreadlock. “She’s played her part in all this, your career, the places you’ve worked, the scholarship.” She stuffed the greasy knot into her mouth. “Hey,” she pointed the fork at me. “While you’re there you can go see Jorge’s grave.”
“Jorge, Lita’s brother.”
“No. Yes, I know who Jorge is, but—“
“You were so interested in him, I think you should go to his—“
“He’s not buried with Lita.” I imagined standing in front of the family mausoleum, the García-Escobar mausoleum where my grandmother and tío Canche were. A mausoleum I had visited many times, a piece of cement I knew by heart.
“No, not with Lita. Jorge’s buried next to your great-grandmother, close to the cemetery’s chapel,” my mother spoke from one side of her mouth.
Name: Jorge Horn. Date of birth: desconocida. Date of death: 20 de octubre de 1944.
“Can you give me a printout?” I said. The secretary nodded and walked to her computer.
As the secretary looked for my tío, I wondered how he had been buried. Was he in a casket? Were his ashes in a vase?
Los Cipreses had three Horns, and one Jorge Horn. Location: Lote 2, Calle 5.
I had been to Los Cipreses countless times after Lita passed away with my family and by myself. Despite the death and its severity, the cemetery was equally soothing for me.
Pine trees, cypress trees, oak trees, and bougainvillea trees dress the outline of the cemetery elegantly. Nature invades that human-made sculpture furtively. Roses break through the concrete; weeds divide the cement, flowers spill over the pots, moss appears like a thick, green beard over the graves. The grass is the womanly mane that warms the dead. Los Cipreses looks like a silent ground turtle, green and asleep; the gravestones and mausoleums are part of the sculpture of its majestic shell.
I walked by the cemetery’s main avenue and looked at the end of the valley, almost as if saying, “I’ll be back,” to my grandmother, and made a right turn, to Calle 5.
I imagined Jorge’s singed body and his frail bones. I imagined his frightened stiff face, with his mouth open as they put him in the casket. Were his petrified hands in mid-air as they closed the box? Was he dressed? Did El Loco attend the burial or did he go to celebrate the revolution? Did Lita push his brother’s casket inside the mausoleum?
Then, again, I imagined the fire.
But then I forced myself out of that paranoia; I might have even pinched my arm as if trying to exorcise the scenes that had played so vividly before my eyes.
Then, rewinding my head, I simply thought: what if Jorge had survived?
He would’ve told me about the revolución, about El Loco, the rebels, and Arbenz. No. I imagined him telling me how beautiful Lita had been, “and still is,” he would’ve said secretly, silently, close to my ear. “But don’t tell her I said that,” and nothing more.
Lote 2, Calle 5. The fractured light flickered on the Horns.
There he was, Jorge Hans Horn Gramajo. Qué Dios te tenga en Su gloria read his eulogy. It was a white gravestone. Not marble white, but whitewashed, worn-down white, creamy white, almond white. There he was, Jorge Horn, 19 de julio de 1949.
I didn’t understand.
I read his name once, twice, three times. Then I read the date, 19 de julio de 1949. I scratched the gravestone; maybe there was some dirt on it. But no, that was it. Like a blind man, I traced the marble, July of ’49, not October of ’44. Not 20 de octubre de 1944. Had my mother made up Jorge’s story?
I was confused, as though in an emotional void. There was no victory or completion, no resolution, no spiritual epiphany, no end. There was my tío, el revolucionario, and nothing more. Or was he a revolucionario? He was dead, and he died young, and he was about my age too, but things didn’t match. Maybe he had had a much more mundane story, entirely uneventful. Or perhaps it was darker that I could imagine. Maybe he wasn’t a revolucionario. Maybe tío Jorge was, in fact, an Ubiquista, a fascist, and a racist too.
I thought about Jorge and me, and how our encounter was nothing more than a coincidence, and that his untimely death was also a coincidence. I thought of how things could’ve turned out, not just if he had survived but all the dark possibilities of my family.
I imagined my great-great-grandfather, the German, smiting his workers, killing a few with the undeniable impunity Europeans landowners had, and still have, in Guatemala. I imagined Lita as young and beautiful, enjoying the many advantages a white girl had in Guatemala in the early 1900s. I could almost see Lito up on his horse chasing the rebels, killing guerrilla members, and torturing peasants. I saw Lito getting promoted, then directing massacres as a radiant general. I imagined him next to Ríos Montt. Then, I imagined my father writing the revolutionary novels he always dreamed about but was too afraid to write. I saw the mauled and tortured body of my father, helpless at the hands of dozens of soldiers who had been sent to kill him, soldiers Lito had sent. I pictured Lita, boasting about her husband’s doings. And my mother, as the daughter of a retired general, boasting about her father’s doings. I imagined myself with a military uniform, proudly marching against Ríos Montt’s genocide trials. “No hubo genocidio,” I would’ve said. “There was no genocide,” and I would’ve ripped down the paper of the desaparecidos’ murals, like the one near my house, on 14th Avenue. “My grandfather is a hero,” I would’ve said, and ripped down the photo of one Gregorio García who could’ve been, but never got to be, my father.
I looked at the grave beside Jorge’s. Graciela Gramajo de Horn, 6 de febrero 1949. Mi bisabuela. I touched her grave instead and walked away.
Twenty-four hours later I walked into the pungent summer’s heat of New York City.