by Carolina Rivera–
When I was in fourth grade, I learned in my social studies class that the Spanish founded El Salvador.
The phrase “the Spanish civilized the Indians” jumps into my memory like a frog into mud and called to mind my youngest brother’s godmother. She was from Spain (and we were very proud of him because he was the only one who had a godmother different from the rest of the us).
My mom calls her “la Españolita, la señorita fina,” because of her fragile complexion.
La Españolita, Mom used to say, “is a good and beautiful person. She has given construction work to your dad.”
My dad used to fix things at her house.
As I walked home from school, I wondered why we did not look like la Españolita with her fine, beautiful, fair skin. I wanted to know whether my grandparents or great-grandparents were from Spain, and whether they spoke like la Españolita.
I arrived home at almost 1:00 p.m. Mom was standing at the wood-burning stove, feeding pieces of wood into it, causing the pomegranate-colored embers to flame into a hotter fire. As she peeled layers off a small white onion I said, “Good afternoon, Mom.” She turned around, looking like a watermelon on two legs, heavy and tired.
“Good afternoon, daughter, where are your sister and brothers?” She continued cooking.
I had forgotten all about my sister and brothers, but realized they would come soon. I came closer to the stove and pushed the embers with my yellow pencil.
“Stop! You will burn yourself,” my mom warned.
“Mom, where do we come from?” I asked. “Where did my grandparents and great-grandparents come from? Why don’t we look like the Españolita?”
“Little girl, where have you come up with all those questions? Here, chop this onion for the rice.” She handed me a small pale onion.
“I don’t want to cook,” I protested. “I want to know where we come from.”
Mom took the onion and chopped it up, then threw into the pan as the lard melted.
“I am busy right now,” she said.
“The teacher said today that a man named Pedro de Alvarado led the Spaniards to civilize the Indians from Cuzcatlan.” I explained. “Am I civilized? Are we Indians, Mom? Why don’t we look like la Españolita?”
“Daughter, I do not have time to answer your questions right now. I have to go to drop off lunch to your dad at work. When I come back this evening, I will tell you a story that your grandma told me about the Indians.”
Evening came, and as she promised, Mom told the story seated by the light of several skinny ten-cent candles melted directly to the surface of the big rectangular red Formica table la Españolita had sold her in several payments. She sipped from her cup of hot chocolate, as she kept eye on my brothers at play on the floor.
“Before the Spanish came, our people spoke only Nahuat,” Mom began. “The poinsettias in the whole country were white. Indians used to gather and celebrate the birth of new poinsettias.”
“Why are they red now, Mom?”
“The Spaniards killed so many Indians their blood turned the poinsettias red.”
“Why did the Spanish kill the Indians?”
“Not all of them, since you are my little Indian,” Mom explained. “There are many out there who do not want to be Indians, and neither do they want to be called such.”
As Mom finished the story, she blew out the candles. My brothers and sister were already nesting like kittens in their bed.
The Españolita used to visit us almost every Sunday. She brought us packages of Diana cookies, blond in color, soft and milky in the middle, layered cookies, nothing special.
I think Mom felt a little pressured to ask her to be my baby brother’s godmother. It is the biggest honor you can give someone, as the godparent becomes your family. Mom had a lot of children to give as a goddaughters or godsons.
One Sunday when the Españolita was coming to visit us, my sister, brothers, and I prepared spears and slingshots, like the Apache Indians we have seen on TV in El Chele William’s, my littler brother’s friend, house as we do not have a TV.
I have also seen pictures of Indians in my older brothers’ history books. We even plucked several feathers from the hens to put them on our heads, like the picture in the book. We painted our faces with soot from the ashes under the comal on the stove.
When la Españolita arrived at the door, we surrounded her, chanting songs like the Apache Indians and brandishing our weapons. My brother shot her and got her on her delicately long giraffe neck with his slingshot. She screamed for help.
“Girls, boys, stop!” shouted la Españolita. “What is wrong with all of you?”
Mom came running out of the kitchen with a stick in her hand. “Sorry comadre, ah, these children are playing at being Indians today.”
The godmother sat down on the first chair she saw, rubbing her neck with her right hand. Mom took me by the hand and swatted me with the stick on my legs.
“You are the inventor of this problem. Your brothers and sister could have killed her with those slingshots.” She whacked me one more time on my legs; it stung like habanero chiles in the mouth.
I pursed my lips and, pulled out the hen’s feather from my hair, and softly told Mom, “But she and her people killed the Indians from Cuzcatlán, from here, Mom.”
“Daughter, that happened more than 500 years ago, and she was not that one who killed them.”
I felt like our dog Sultan, hiding his tail, and bending his head low when he is caught eating food that does not belong to him. I stayed in my bed all day wondering whether the Españolita would ever bring us Diana cookies again.