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Broken Promise

In El Salvador, a young researcher meets a street child who is smart, charming, determined—and doomed.

Greg Spalenka

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I am sitting in the entrance to the cemetery, watching children play on the soccer field that lies right outside. There is a little boy running around barefoot, dragging a kite. This is not a store-bought affair with easy 1-2-3 instructions and a machine-stitched nylon tail. It is much more beautiful, thin scraps of colored plastic wrap pieced together with Scotch tape. This kite was made for the wisps of breeze that flutter across the evening sky. It dips, rises, dips and finally soars. But it won’t stay up there forever.

I wrote of these kites once before, on the day I met Noe Moises Lovos Ayala in a bare Pentecostal shelter run by a handful of recovering addicts from the town of Quetzaltepeque. I had come to El Salvador to conduct ethnographic research with street children and gangs, and had visited the shelter several times in years past.

“Forever tenuous, improbably sturdy,” I commented with respect to both kite and child. Projecting 10 years into the future, Noe had told me he wanted to open a kite factory. And the imagery of those fragile creations—filled with a child’s determined, impossible hope—captured my poetic optimism.

A 10-year-old who looked about 7, Noe opened our first conversation with, “Do you want to know my vices? I used marijuana. I used piedra. Do you know what piedra is?” I did know. Crack. He showed me the scars where he had injected himself with drugs. “I drank, too, cerveza [beer], guaro [alcohol].” His 32-year-old brother taught him, he said, back when he was only 9. “Thank God I don’t do that anymore.”

It took me less than 20 minutes to fall in love with this little figure who told me that, when he was younger, he used to throw grenades made by other kids in the gang. Like many of the street children I came to know, Noe had associated with gangs since he ventured onto the streets as a tiny boy. The gang provided him the illusion of protection and, more important, a sense of belonging.

“You put in the powder. You find a small rock to fit in the hole,” he explained. “You wait two minutes, throw the grenade, it explodes.” He pointed to a thick scar on his leg. A grenade had exploded right next to him. It didn’t hurt; it just felt hot, he said. It only hurt while it healed. “I’ve been lucky,” he added. “Thank God nothing has happened to me.” As I left, Noe stopped me. “I have a favor to ask,” he said. “I want you to teach me how to read.”

Dark and thin, with a high, sweet and surprisingly loud voice and a captivating smile, Noe told me that drugs and violence were the story of his past, now that he’d found God. And even though he had been brought to the shelter for drug addicts and gang members against his will, even though he’d been there less than a week and was sometimes chained to a concrete post so he wouldn’t run away, I wanted to believe Noe in his poignant dream about the kite factory. The little boy and his fighting spirit overcoming the odds, rising high on a gossamer breeze one could hardly feel—the metaphor was so beautiful, I thought it had to be true.

And now, 11 months later, I sit and wait for a coffin that would be too small for most 11-year-old bodies. I feel a cold knot of silence buried somewhere in my spirit, and I realize something: my poet’s optimism is dead.

There will never be an excuse for what they did to Noe last Wednesday, plugging him with three shotgun shots, then throwing his body into a well on top of that of his 19-year-old friend, Oscar David Orellena (“El Curso,” they called him).

The tragedy is not that the fish gnawed on Noe’s feet all night before his body was discovered—he couldn’t feel it, after all, and El Curso’s body was much worse off, having been submerged completely in the well. No, that is not the tragedy—although it is what Noe’s father repeats over and over. It is the detail that makes the horror real, extracting little Noe’s face from all those statistics. The detail that makes you realize how terrified he must have felt when they shot El Curso for stealing corn from their field, then turned their guns toward Noe, the only witness to the murder.

There is no excuse—this much is agreed upon by the local adults with whom I have spoken. There is no excuse, but there are plenty of explanations.

“They were stealing,” 18-year-old Sandra says with a shrug, and this brutally factual assessment is echoed by youths throughout the Quetzaltepeque bus terminal. These young men and women, addicted to drugs, like Noe, sleeping in the streets, like Noe, have internalized the same notion of justice as the vigilantes who killed Noe. They understand his death in the logic of the fair fight—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a piece of corn. Just as they often seem to blame themselves for their troubles rather than blame their parents, their community or their local drug dealer (much less their government, their world economic structure, their church or their God), so they blame Noe.

Less understandably, or maybe less forgivably, Noe’s father offers the same explanation: “They say he was the most thieving of all of them.”

But most people react simply by shaking their heads, murmuring “pobrecito” (poor little thing) or “pobre bichito” (poor little creature) and then commenting to those around that it is not acceptable to kill a small child. However, no one, myself included, seems totally shocked. I do not feel the stabs of pain of someone taken by surprise. Rather, I feel the silent, helpless anger of someone who knew all along.

Here are his parents now, in a white pickup truck carrying the paper-covered coffin. I follow them into the cemetery, through land saturated with gaudily painted tombs and headstones that say “a perpetuidad.” Forever. Gravesites cost money, so Noe is being buried in earth that holds an ancestor and—as the gravediggers joke with his father—will soon enough hold another. There is a brief debate over whether the freshly dug hole will be long enough to hold Noe. But the coffin fits neatly into the grave, so the four men present lower it down with ropes, discussing the larger tombs around them.

Only seven people attend Noe’s burial. Of the four men, one works at the cemetery, one is a neighbor, one is an uncle and one is Noe’s father. There are two women besides me: Noe’s stepmother and a latecomer. This is not because no one cared—many people wanted to watch over the body in the traditional vela the night before. But the coroner had said there could be no vela. By the time the family came to remove the body from the morgue, it required immediate burial.

There are no prayers said as the dirt is shoveled back in, hiding Noe from us forever. No one clears his or her throat to offer a blessing or a word of commemoration as flowers are laid on top of the dirt mound. The old cross, bearing someone else’s name, is propped back up, for the meantime. The neighbor mentions that he saw Noe at a dance the week before with a woman who dealt crack near his home. “I never imagined I would be laying him to rest a week later,” the man says. “He did like to go to dances,” says his stepmother, Elena. And with these few words, we turn to leave.

“This one didn’t want to live much,” Noe’s father says to me, as if by explanation. “He always said to me, ‘What do I want to live for? My mother is already dead.’ ” I don’t have the words for an answer.

Noe's Mother died when he was a toddler, 1 or 2 years old. According to his grandfather, by the age of 5, Noe was already spending most of the time on the street. When I speak with the grandfather a day or two before the funeral, he is angry. “His father and Elena killed him. They ran him out of the house with their alcoholism. They didn’t give him food. They hit him. His father always said, ‘Let them kill him.... I’ll kill him myself.’ They are ingratos. If it were not for them, this little boy would not have died yet. Today he would still be with life.” Noe’s grandmother, who has said she wants to denounce the parents in court, agrees. “The two of them,” continues his grandfather, “have jail wide-open waiting for them.”

When a child who has been hurt by so many people dies, it is difficult not to assign blame. Indeed, Noe’s father and stepmother are commonly known to be alcoholics. Some people allege that they were not permitted to take Noe’s body out of the morgue early enough to have the vela because they were drunk when they arrived.

Clearly, he grew up in adverse conditions, but the Noe I knew was not a child who wanted to die. From the day I met him in that overcrowded adult shelter, Noe was talking about changing, talking about faith, talking about the future. Soon after, his father came and took him out of the shelter, took him home. And soon after that, Noe was back on the street, begging money, smoking crack and singing on the buses.

One day, he and his best friend, Omar, decided to take me along on a bus to hear Noe sing. Omar sat next to me, and Noe made his way to the front of the bus. He cleared his throat. Then he seemed to think of something and made his way back toward us. He leaned over to me. “I am going to sing about God,” he said, “and talk about the shelter.” I gave a slight nod, unwilling to moralize. Noe sang, in his high, earnest voice, and collected four colones (about 46 cents).

A month and a half later, several kids informed me that police had taken Noe to the government home for minors. “Don’t worry,” they all laughed. “He’ll find a way to escape.” I tried to figure out which home Noe was in and what his full name was, in order to go visit him. I gave up too easily, however, and didn’t see him for five months. Then, one day, I spotted him, grinning as he marched down the street to purchase drugs with two older friends. From then on, whenever he saw me, he made me a promise that was also an ultimatum. “As soon as you put up a children’s shelter here, I will leave all this and go live there.” Those, in fact, were his final words to me.

Oh, Noe, he wanted to live. He was full of life even as he was full of shadows. The last time I saw him, we didn’t say a word to each other. I simply touched his back as he boarded another bus to start singing the praises of a shelter that didn’t exist and a God that couldn’t save him. Feeling my hand, he started and pulled away in instinctual self-defense. When he saw that it was just me, offering a small gesture of affection, he gave me a hug and got on the bus.

I leave the cemetery without saying a word. Tears well up in my eyes, but they don’t spill over the way they sometimes do in movies, or books, or other people’s stories. The children are still playing on the soccer field. I am drawn toward them. I notice they are spinning a wooden reel wound with kite string, but I look around and do not see any kites.

Finally, up near the clouds, I spot two diamonds, one pink and one blue. They are dancing back and forth, improbably high. The children are laughing.

Jocelyn Wiener, ’99, is a student in the graduate school of journalism at Columbia University.

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