Winners, by Robert Joe Stout
The La Eucaristía primary school was an armed camp. Carlos García’s sister was afraid to go near it even though she’d taught there for seven years. She told Carlos she’d seen porros who were patrolling the entrances grab another of the teachers, rip his school pack off his shoulder and throw him against the fence causing blood to smear his forehead. Carlos reasoned that she was a woman, they wouldn’t do that to her and she snapped back, ”No, they’d rape me instead.”
Olga was no nonsense, opinionated and difficult to contradict. Eleven years older than he, she’d been left with her grandparents when Carlos’ mother had carted five-year-old Carlos with her to California. Olga had taken him in when he returned, alone, to Oaxaca. Cholo, high school dropout, overweight and non-athletic, he’d found her acerbic humor and nuts and bolts practicality easier to live with than his parents’ neglectful and arbitrary sentimentality. He even participated with her in marches and demonstrations against the state governor, a corrupt pimp of a politician who’d opposed the teachers’ demands for better salaries and working conditions and set police and paramilitaries against them.
Never while in California had he cared what happened to his parents—nor they, as far as he could tell, what happened to him. Olga was different; she was a friend more than a sister. He wished he could be more like her but knew that he couldn’t. Her thoughts were pistol shots; his mind was a bog of mud puddles. Nothing he tried to reason to conclusion ever seemed to arrive.
They’d rape me instead… He could picture three or four of them yanking at her clothing, throwing her down, forcing her legs open, shoving each other off as soon as each was through so another could take his place. He’d glimpsed it in the East Bay; he was naïve but not about gangs, ghetto warfare, racial conflicts. It wasn’t a question of morals, or understanding, one simply saw and accepted. Or accepted because one had to.
For a moment, scuffing to a stop beside a cluster of kiosks at the approach to the La Eucaristía’s one highway intersection, he imagined himself shielding Olga against attackers, angrily confronting…but he knew he wouldn’t. Couldn’t. He’d have to have help—somebody with a gun, campesinos with machetes, police…
No, not police. He didn’t trust police. Criminals in uniform the cholos in the East Bay called them. They were no better here, in Oaxaca, all they did was collect quotas, play dominos. Maybe a contingent of hangers on from El Villorrio? He shook his head and squinted at clouds dumplinged over the hills that enclosed La Eucaristía, then headed towards the little tienda that served as a hangout for various ni-nis, car washers, bus route monitors and part-time laborers, reminding himself that Olga wasn’t being raped and the hangers on were mostly bullshitters who wouldn’t do more than to turn tail and run.
A mere closet tucked between a larger tienda and the thick walls and iron grating of private dwelling, El Villorrio was a clutter of boxes, half-filled sacks, bread trays and plastic bags hung from nails and filled with sponges, soap, Maruchan noodles and knickknacks. Before he could cross the rutted once-paved street that ran between it and a decaying condominium he heard Huerta’s “’E güey!” and waved an acknowledgement. Huerta fisted hair away from his thick glasses and slapped Carlos’ palm. “Qué onda, chingón?”
Carlos shrugged and exchanged the ritualistic slap and knocking of fists with Huerta’s audience of one, a teenager, husky, clean cut, wearing a local preparatoria jacket. Huerta lit a cigarette, took a hit and handed it to Carlos.
“So? Chinga tú madre and you walked off? That’s it, Aparicio? No insults? No Molotov cocktails?”
“Chíngales. They’re not worth it.”
“You lose. They win.”
“What do I lose? It’s not a school! Teachers picketing. Sub-director disappeared—probably dead. Pinche bunch of no-nothings pretending to give classes. Mierde! El hijo de puta trying to teach physics can’t even read! A pinche surveyor! But he belongs to the right political party. Kiss ass buddy of the president municipal.”
“Bazukas, machetes, Molotov cocktails. Wake them up,” Huerta teased.
“And wind up with RoboCops, tear gas, handcuffs!”
“Victims. You, the teachers, Cholo here…” Huerta gestured for the cigarette and Carlos handed it to him.
“…victims, all of us. Unless we turn things around. Make them the victims. And we become the oppressors.” He spit a burst of mocking laughter and reached for his glasses but didn’t take them off. “Have a beer. Or a joint. Or a piquetin of cocaine. Sink into the slime with everybody else.”
“It’s a shitty situation.” Huerta had spent a year or two at the state technical university but came from a poor rural family and hadn’t been able to keep up with the expenses. He waved as another Villorrio hanger-on approached, “Mierde, totally shitty. Teachers get less that drug cartel recruits, the politicos pocket the money and turn people against the teachers and they fight each other instead of the caciques. Right, Carrera?”
The newcomer tossed his chest pack against one of the planters and slapped hands with Carlos and the others. Short, husky, with a strained squint that gave his features a pinched look, he shoved Huerta aside to make room on the wobbly bench beside him.
“Who’d you beat the shit out of today?”
“Pinches teachers, they’re stupid. Doing what the sindicato tells them.”
“Y los padres that took over the schools?”
“Doing what Carrillo tells them.”
“You know, the trophy hunter. Takes the Big Shots out for javelina, deer, jaguars. Buddy-buddy with the governor, runs the politics, municipal president kisses his ass.”
“And…you the rest of the porros?”
“Chinga tú madre!” Carrera waved to fat Evangelina who ran the tienda, slapped Huerta’s shoulder with the back of his hand and with forefinger and thumb gestured money, money, money. Swiping the foam off the caguamon that fat Evangelina handed him he laughed and winked at Aparicio and Carlos. “If the pinches maestros pay us more we beat up the pinches padres who took over the schools.”
He shoved the caguamon at Huerta who took a couple of long swallows and passed it to Carlos. As he sipped from the liter-sized bottle Carlos imagined relaying what he’d just heard to Olga. The porros were being paid; nobody gave a shit about education. Except her. And she wasn’t teaching. She was picketing. And cursing those who were cursing her. It didn’t make sense.
But neither did anything else.
“Oke,” Olga explained, “here’s the shot. They close the gates and guard them so only the students of the parents who took over the school can get in. We go full force and block the gates from the outside so nobody can leave. Two busloads of sindicatos from around the Valley will be here to support us. We’ve got food, provisions; we’ll camp if necessary. However long it takes.”
Carlos rubbed sleep out of his eyes and nodded.
“You want to come?”
He nodded again.
“Good. I wouldn’t want you to miss it.”
”No, right on top of theirs!” voices shouted as one of the striking teachers wrapped a heavy chain around the school’s entrance gate and padlocked it.
“Throw it away?” he jested, waving the key above his head.
Cries of approval, laughter. Olga darted away to greet new arrivals, leaving Carlos amid a cluster of parents and the children who accompanied them. Two of the women nearest him bemoaned trying to explain to their nine- and ten-year-olds why their children’s friends still were going to the school while they and the teachers were holding classes in a park. Someone bleated Charge! on a trumpet and a cyclist pumped out raucous honks on his bike horn. More shouts of approval and laughter but also anxious peering up and down the blockaded street as though some of those present were expecting a surprise attack.
Aroused by the hullaballoo several people emerged from the motel-like classrooms inside the compound. One of them, an older man with hunched shoulders and a close-cropped grayish beard, jammed a cell phone against his ear as he approached the gate.
“Chinga tú puta madre!”
A meter or two inside the gate he stopped, nodding at whatever was being relayed over the phone and craning his neck to evaluate the size of the striking teachers’ contingent.
“What in the puta madre do you think you’re doing?”
“You want out? Get out and stay out!”
Other parents and takeover teachers sifted towards the confrontation. Several mothers tried to herd the children back inside, then towards the soccer and basketball goals in the playground behind the classroom buildings. Both sides now were shouting at each other, a verbal brouhaha that reminded Carlos of African American-cholo confrontations he’d seen in the East Bay.
Olga grabbed his sleeve and waved her free hand towards four puzzled and somewhat frightened youngsters, “Take them somewhere. In back. Amuse them.”
“Yeah, pues, sure,” Carlos shrugged compliance but called after her, “Anything you say, mamá,” intending to ruffle Olga’s feathers. But she ignored the remark or didn’t hear it as she bustled back towards those who’d pushed closer to the fence, shouting and gesturing at those inside.
As he’d often done in California with his younger brother and sister he tried to devise some sort of diversion. But hide-and-seek wasn’t appropriate, there were no slides or swings and no store nearby where he could buy pepitos or candy. He headed towards several boys—fourth- or fifth-graders—bunched beneath an old pochote that shaded part of the vacant lot next to the school. Six or seven girls, closer to the fence, were chatting with former classmates inside the schoolyard. Shouts from a makeshift soccer game inside the fence timpanied the louder, angrier expostulations of the adults closer to the entrance gate.
As his four young charges sluffed towards the two groups Carlos heard a whoop! An errant kick had sent a soccer ball over the fence. One of the older boys grabbed it and held it aloft, a trophy; those inside the fence screeched for its return but the little contingent of older boys, imitating their parents, shouted, “You’ll never see your pinche balón again!”
“Stab a hole in it! Puncture it!”
“No, no! Let’s play with it!”
As insults escalated the soccer ball, punched from one to another of those outside the fence, skittered towards Carlos. He scooped it up before anyone else could grab it. For a moment, holding it, he hesitated, then shouted, “Volleyball!” and fisted it upwards.
It didn’t clear the fence. One of the girls caught it and started to heave it back to the boys around Carlos but “Yah! Yah! Volleyball!” she heard shouted and, pumping twice, popped the ball back onto the playground.
Instinctively an older boy yanked it away from two younger girls and whirled to run with it but “Volleyball” Volleyball!” shouts brought him around.
“Hit it back! Hit it back!”
Enthusiasm now instead of bedraggled expressions. Clusters of students on each side pounding, pumping, slapping. Laughter, shouts, jumping up and down, shrieks of “oh no!” and teasing insults. As the ball hit the ground one of the boys inside the fence shouted, “Our score! Point for us!”
“Out of bounds!”
“Chinga! What bounds?”
Girls tittering at the macho boys’ leadership—and second- and third-graders bumping into each other, confused but obedient as they were shoved this way and that—the two sides marked off boundaries, arguing but reaching accords on more or less equal dimensions. Vested with self-authorized authority, leaders on both sides dictated who should play where and interrupted play to debate “in!” “out, it was out!” and “no! no! the little ones have to serve!” Two of the older girls solicited Carlos as arbiter; those inside the fence dragged a protesting young mother bouncing a three- or four-month-old baby in a harness over her breasts to serve the same purpose inside the fence.
“Pendejo! You didn’t rotate! La Tortóla should have been at the net!”
“Then her substitute!”
“We don’t have substitutes!”
“Estafoso! Then whoever’s next! Carlos, tell them!”
What? He knew nothing about volleyball except that it had been a PE game in his East Bay highschool, one that he usually was left out of.
“Oke! Oke! Chinga, we’ll play it over.”
Trying not to feel inept Carlos shrugged and idly clapped his hands as the game continued.
“Ay caray! That’s only fifteen!”
“Fraude! Come tus padres!”
“Chíngate! Como tuyos!”
“Callenses! ‘Sta bien!”
“Sixteen-fourteen,” and play resumed.
Peripherally aware that Olga’s group had pulled away from the fence and several teacher-parents were approaching the contestants inside the fence, Carlos edged forward and gestured ineffectively, a half-aborted lifting of his hands as if to plead don’t interfere. Inside the fence several mothers clustered around an imperious looking broad-shouldered type picking at the necktie he’d pulled loose and tried to tuck into his shirt front.
“Twenty-one! We won! We won!”
The contestants inside the fence whacked each other’s hands and hugged each other. “Another game! Play another!” Carlos heard as one of the winners whacked the ball into the air. It caromed towards the man picking at his necktie.
“We’re going to win too,” he announced imperiously, intending the pronouncement for Olga and her companions.
Before they could retort one of the older girls whirled towards him.
“Really? Really? You’re going to play volleyball too?”
The ball slid from his fingers as he huffed some inaudible retort. Behind him Carlos heard Olga bark a single syllable of laughter.
“We should,” she growled, “that’s really what the fuck we should do.”
Robert Joe Stout’s nonfiction and fiction about Oaxaca and Mexico has appeared in The American Scholar, America, Interim, Southern Humanities Review and many other publications. He is the author of Miss Sally, Why Immigrants Come to America and The Blood of the Serpent Mexican Lives. He lives in Oaxaca, Mexico.
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