I need to tell you about someone whose name I can’t speak. The lack of a name is inconvenient, but it’s not the most important thing about him; he gave it up so long ago. Everything important that I can tell you has been a fight against time and language, and I’m still only halfway there.
Halfway. We were half-grown when we met: eleven years old. Some concerned adult had determined that he was at risk. We all are, but in his case there were metrics. He had immigrated from Mexico. He lived with too many siblings; there was a rotating cast of uncles and cousins in his life. This seemed dangerous — we lived in San Jose before it became a booming city, when it was still threaded with apricot orchards and poverty. Some of his uncles and cousins had joined La Nuestra Familia, the Norteños, the gangs that offer protection to Chicanos and Mexicans who lived in Northern California. Joining the gang meant that they had joined a violent feud, with the Sureños from Southern California and also with the Salvadoran gangs — La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
I should have asked him questions about this. The truth is that I failed to find the language to do so. The first reason for this failure is that I was impressed with the ornate speech used by so many of these uncles and cousins. They never spoke about gangs or violence or illegal anything. Instead they had a seductive patois of slang and simple commands and complex phrases about their respect for tradition, their commitment to duties as men. To my eleven-year-old ears these were ancient, powerful words; it sounded like the language of legend. Warriors and glory.
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