Caille Millner | Michigan Quarterly Review | Winter 2016 | 16 minutes (4,329 words)

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 11-year-old ears these were ancient, powerful words; it sounded like the language of legend. Warriors and glory.

I could only speak about homework and grades. Such words could not compete with theirs even in my own imagination. How could I use them to convince someone else?

When I was near all of them I couldn’t even say what it was that captivated me about the drudgery I was supposed to be championing. When I was alone it became all too clear: That drudgery was my way to be special. What I really liked was the approval I received from those concerned adults for caring. The kind of regard that allowed me to be chosen as a positive influence in another 11-year-old’s life was intoxicating.

Looking back, of course, I made sense as a translator of this other life. I was going places even then. My family was steady and ambitious. They were teaching me the language of the higher classes, but more importantly, they were teaching me their timelines. I understood that for many years my life would be a slowly unfolding landscape of education and that in the distant future I would have nothing to do with boys like him.

Not that this mattered in our moment. I fell hopelessly and immediately in love with him. He was smaller than I was: a thin body, all angles like an arrow tip. His was a face of beveled edges rather than common features — the only curve on him was a radiant smile. As soon as I met him I wanted to see more of it, and I hung around for as long as I could.

To even speak about it now is to risk embarrassment, for this was eleven-year-old love: a love that bloomed over secondhand video game consoles and dimly lit strip malls. We gawked at passing teenagers; we pooled our quarters to split Orange Juliuses and McDonald’s French fries. It was the love of one child — puffy, awkward, patiently hoping to bloom into beauty — for another child who was beautiful and lean and waiting only for others to be overcome by his charm. He never had to wait long. Where I was aloof and serious, he was open and easy.

He knew how to be eleven years old. He took joy in the moment — in the good slice of pizza, the trip to the arcade, the tickle fight. As part of a big family he was happy to be in company with lots of people. To his relatives I must have seemed like the strange one: quiet, introverted, demanding of difficult pleasures that were a long time in coming. I never talked to him, or to them, about love.

The next year he joined the feud.

We lost him, one of those concerned adults told me.

I found the judgment unfair. Even today I can tell you in which prison his body may be found.

He is doing time. Yet I wonder if he sees time in the way that I do, in the way that all of those concerned adults do. We cling to years because our imagination does not extend to the language of duty and obligation. We hoard our years because they belong to us alone, not to the ages.

At 11 years old it is easy to believe in the ages; I was enthralled by them myself. And in many ways, his transformation happened much faster than mine did. At 12 years old he had a new name, new clothes, new friends, a new body. New constraints and intimacies. He had a duty now, and it stood as an immutable fact of life, something beyond individuality. When it was clear to me that I should abandon him so that I could continue on my own slow line of time I did so without regret, and for many years I stopped trying to find words to talk about him. I spent much time on my education and my goals. I busied myself with the intricacies of language and the books of long-dead men.

They never spoke about gangs or violence. 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.

Then as our paths diverged my own line of time sped up. The years that are ticking slowly for him, in his cell, are moving much faster on the outside. Time has become a relentless crush for skill and for money, at least in the land of his feud. San Jose has changed. Like me, it became educated and upper-middle-class. The orchards were paved over for expensive housing; the immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador moved to cheaper cities further south. The crime rates dropped, the feud grew quiet.

Things were different now, I thought. The wounds from the feud would heal. There would be no need for these battles that seemed to have no purpose. Too many were gone but at least it would slow down.

* * *

Years passed. I moved to San Francisco. I chose to live in a neighborhood that seemed to have the familiarity of my birth neighborhood and none of its problems. My neighbors came from Mexico and Panama and El Salvador and Nicaragua and Brazil. It was a neighborhood of modest and miraculous prosperity. Everyone worked as often as they could. Their children played on the sidewalks day and night and they were full of memories of the children they had left behind in the old countries. Their lives ran on the rhythms of phone cards and remittance payments and scratch-off lottery tickets.

When I moved in I asked many of them about the feud. We had similar worries about it, and similar feelings of denial. It was close but we believed that it was far enough away. Two gangs — one linked to MS-13, the other linked to the Norteños — operated on the blocks that bounded us. But because there had been no violence in our small bubble for years we thought that they would always remain there.

Around 8 pm on June 16, 2007, a 15-year-old named Edivaldo Sanchez was standing with a friend outside of his family’s apartment on 24th Street. Eddie, as we called him, often stood outside of that apartment in the evenings. It was a practical choice. He had five siblings and a rotating cast of relatives in his life. He needed space, like any teenager.

Eddie was a student at Horace Mann Middle School. He was a recent immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, a city whose important industries include maquiladoras and drug trafficking.  After her husband died, Eddie’s mother had brought the family to San Francisco. She thought that the move would give her children the peaceful years they needed for an education and a more prosperous future.

What is there to say about him. Eddie made friends in the neighborhood fast. His personality was gentle. He was crazy about soccer and music, eager to help fellow students fix their old electronics or put together a pick-up game. He smiled easily and often. I remember thinking how delightful it was to see that. He was at the age for boys when smiling tends to stop.

We had a nodding acquaintance when we passed each other on the street. He was shy, and being a recent immigrant he was also tentative about the way he sounded. I didn’t want to make him feel nervous by speaking too often. It was another one of my failures of language.

Two men in a stolen Honda pulled up beside the boys that night. We will never know what they said, or if they said anything at all. In the neighborhood, we decided that the men asked who they claimed. We decided that because we knew that the boys claimed no gang associations, and because it was the only question we knew that fit with what happened next.

The passenger in the car pulled out a gun. The boys ran for their lives and he shot at their backs.

Eddie’s friend escaped.

Eddie was hit. He staggered for half a block, collapsed, and bled out in front of a taqueria on 24th Street at the corner of Balmy. He was dead before the emergency response team arrived.

Eddie died near a mural painted with folk spirits, one of whom is giving birth to the world. It’s the first mural at the entrance to Balmy, a short block that’s also a gallery for more than 60 murals. These bright, splashy scenes stretch from the roof to the foundation of almost every building. The murals were begun by a collective of artists known as La Mujeres Muralistas, whose desire to add more peaceful, domestic images to the macho mural art scene in San Francisco during the 1970s grew into a massive visual celebration of Latin American myth and history. Eddie died among a kaleidoscope of life from all around the Americas, the red of his blood joining an explosion of yellows and blues and purples and greens. While he died he was watched over by Archbishop Oscar Romero, by Frida Kahlo, by Diego Rivera, by La Virgencita of Guadalupe, by children escaping war and poverty, and above all by weeping women, women who are weeping for Mexico and for El Salvador and for the innocents massacred in those countries and in this one.

Eddie died near a mural painted with folk spirits, one of whom is giving birth to the world.

When I stepped out of my house the next morning the altar for Eddie had already been assembled. The sun was bright but the red candles were blazing. Most of them filled tall glass cases to the brim and were plastered with a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Every corner store on 24th Street sold these candles, but that day they handed them out for free.

Within a few hours it was impossible to walk down that strip of sidewalk. The mourners spread a blanket of flowers and candles and homemade signs that crowded out all of the space in front of the taqueria. Eddie’s family members hung small cardboard signs to rest his soul in peace on the lampposts nearby. The schoolgirls he had helped at Horace taped up pictures of him.

For a few weeks, I passed by him every day. We all looked up when we saw him. I think the memory of seeing him on the same corner, alive and wiry, kept us from cleaning up his memorial in the normal frame of time. We left Eddie’s altar up until it had fully disintegrated. As the days and then weeks passed it underwent a metamorphosis. Bunches of flowers shrank and died. They stained the sidewalk with the violet colors of exploded petals and the yellow powder of broken stamens. The cathedral of candles melted onto the sidewalk, spreading out into red gooey puddles. The goo hardened into something brittle, geological. If I squinted, the sidewalk in front of the taqueria looked like a mural on Balmy.

And above the mess floated Eddie’s face — thin, a little pimpled, forever smiling.

* * *

After Eddie’s time stopped and I was yanked back into an age of ruined myths and false legends I began to look for the language that would help me speak about it. Though I’ve read many pieces about MS-13 and the Norteños, most of them are disappointing. I’m not looking for lurid chronicles or patronizing analysis of the young men who join what is, for them, a ritual battle that exists not just in our time but in all of the ages before us.

Where I’ve found the language to express this has been a matter of accident: like the 1978 novel Broken April. I picked up this book because I was curious about its author, the great Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare. I wondered how a learned, upper-class man (his author photos show him reclining in his Parisian apartment, clad in cashmere sweaters) had found the words to chronicle the martial traditions of his tiny, impoverished country. Kadare’s work is awash in blood and violence — war, feuds, sieges, occupation, brutality — and he writes it all with the calm candor of a professional and the deep passion of a lover.

So I picked up Broken April and I discovered that, for Kadare, it’s partly a matter of translation. The novel is all about making clear the circumstances of the blood feuds that still take place in Albania today, feuds that seem strange to outsiders yet indispensable to those who act them out. As usual, Kadare doesn’t shy away from the horrible toll: Broken April opens with the premeditated murder of an innocent man.

On an early spring day in Albania’s High Plateau region, Gjorg of the Berisha has been perched behind a ridge overlooking the highway since daybreak. As the hours drag on, he’s startled over and over by passerby. He pulls out his rifle at each disturbance.

He’s waiting for a man named Zef Kryeqyqe. Zef Kryeqyqe and Gjorg of the Berisha barely know each other and have no personal animosity, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is what happened the previous year, when one of Zef Kryeqyqe’s relatives killed Gjorg of the Berisha’s elder brother, Mehill. In keeping with the blood feud that their families have been engaged in for generations, it’s now Gjorg’s duty to kill Zef.

The fated man doesn’t appear until dusk. He wasn’t expecting to meet Gjorg near the highway. When Gjorg appears before him, rifle cocked, Kryeqyqe fumbles uselessly for a defense.

Gjorg shoots him. He falls. Gjorg steps out of hiding onto a deserted road and stares at the fallen body.

The crucial act of violence takes place over the first ten pages. By swiftly dispensing with the murder, Kadare can expand at length on the real subject of Broken April: the culture that surrounds and maintains the blood feud. It is a culture that, above all, depends on a strange sense of time. Its rituals are measured in moments and days but its sense of value and consequence stretches over centuries. We learn that the Berishas are villagers in a part of the country that has seen little social change since the Dark Ages. The economy is subsistence agriculture; the residents abide by a medieval code of conduct known as the Kanun. The Kanun regulates manners, marriages, and above all the blood feud in which the Berishas have found themselves.

After Gjorg kills Zef, Kadare flashes back to the weeks after Mehill’s death. Abiding by the age-old custom, the Berisha matriarch hangs her dead son’s bloody shirt up on the family clothesline. She leaves this shirt on the line so that the neighborhood, and Gjorg, can see it. They need the sight of the bloodstain to torment Gjorg until he avenges his brother.

It works. Gjorg has an extended, Hamlet-like season of agonized inaction, but when the winter ends he leaves his family and goes to the highway. In killing Zef Kryeqyqe, Gjorg knows that he is launching his final cycle in the feud. After a month’s truce, he will no longer be the killer but the prey.

Still, when Gjorg walks back into the village he can walk with pride. He has returned honor to his family and banished humiliation, its dark twin. For a long, slow moment in his short life, he is envied and feared and powerful. The villagers spread the word that he has “taken back his brother’s blood.” His mother pulls the stained shirt down from the clothesline and washes it. His father can look at the neighbors with satisfaction. A brief expansiveness opens his family’s existence even as Gjorg feels the looming constriction of certain death.

Zef Kryeqyqe’s death launches another series of actions set forth by the Kanun. The two families fulfill their roles solemnly, without emotion, as though what were at stake was not a murder but a legal transaction. Everything is prescribed and organized, including the fine, or blood tax, that Gjorg of the Berisha’s family must pay. They must pay this tax not to the Kryeqyqe family but to the prince. So, after the men of the village have negotiated the 30-day truce, Gjorg of the Berishas embarks on a long walk across the Plateau to present this payment.

Gjorg’s only possibility for escaping death would be to hide in one of the 74 Towers of Refuge. These towers dot the bleak landscape that we travel through with him. With their comfortless cells and desperate inhabitants, they resemble prisons: “scattered, dark forbidding, with their black loopholes and their heavy doors.” The values of the Plateau villagers assure that their purpose is to function as places of incarceration as well. There’s a special shame for the men inside, one that is visited on their families. Deprived of their prideful place in the community for as long as they have unredeemed blood, these families do not farm: “Whole clans allowed their fields to go uncultivated and themselves to suffer hunger so that the blood might be redeemed….Each man chose between corn and vengeance.” Despite the business-like aspects of the feud, the concepts of comfort and profit are foreign to its priorities of duty and pride. Comfort and profit are concepts for another time, another moment, outside of the feud.

I’m not looking for lurid chronicles or patronizing analysis of the young men who join a ritual battle that exists not just in our time but in all of the ages before us.

Eventually, we make it to the castle and to one of the most loathsome characters in the book: Mark Ukacierra, the prince’s first cousin. Ukacierra is the “steward of the blood,” the man who is responsible for keeping accounts of all blood feuds on the High Plateau. His archives, which stretch back for centuries, detail every feud that has gone settled or unsettled, and every murder that has maintained it. Ukacierra loves the feud with a possessive madness, fears for its survival, and looks upon the incursions of the contemporary world with hatred. An educated man, he reads contemporary books and journals from the capital city, Tirana, and stokes the flames of his hatred with their interpretations of the blood feud. In the opinion of these learned authors, the feud has been “changing gradually into an inhuman machine, to the point of being reduced at last, according to the author of the article, to a capitalist enterprise carried on for the sake of profit.” The idea that the ancient feud can be reduced to something so shallow, so contemporary, as capitalism — that, to Ukacierra, is outrageous.

Thanks to the impertinence of these outsiders, as well as a general worry that the men of Albania have grown soft and do not take the feud as seriously as they used to, Ukacierra looks on the pale, shaking Gjorg with the closest approximation to love that we see in Broken April. To him, Gjorg is the future of an age, an actor in a long tradition that he adores. Meanwhile, the writers of the contemporary books live in a “weakening” time “without honor.”

The time that Ukacierra lives in is expansive and everlasting. Meanwhile, Gjorg’s time is growing precarious and short. Once he has paid his fee and began the trek back to his village, he has already used up many precious days of his truce. While he walks, Zef Kryqeqye’s family is watching the calendar and making their preparations. Should they miss their son, they may visit his murnanë — a small stone altar that passerby built to mark the place where the dead man fell.

* * *

In the seventh year after Eddie’s death I requested the public documents for a murder case that had started just a few blocks away from where he was murdered. The U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco released these documents in October 2014, after the three young defendants were each sentenced to 27 years in federal prison on charges related to the murder of Alexander Temaj-Castanon.

It was a strange moment to see a case like this one. I still thought about Eddie, though seven years on it was clear to that he would never get any justice. No arrests were ever made in his case. No murderer was ever found. His family had moved back to Mexico, torn by their grief, to face their uncertain future in a more familiar country.

There were few people left in the neighborhood who remembered Eddie, or had any knowledge of what the feud was.

Time had transformed another place. Many of my neighbors were long gone. They left for a less tragic reason than Eddie’s family had: they simply could not afford to live there anymore. The new residents were upper-middle-class and educated. They needed things that would help them thrive on a faster line of time ─ coffee shops, express workouts, places that sold the latest technology. The neighborhood sped up to reflect their needs.

Yet for all that time was speeding up something was still happening in a slower and more ancient era.

On the night of June 21, 2010, Davie Jimmy Mejia-Sensente, aka “Crazy,” or “Loco,” Carlos Mejia-Quintanilla, aka “Sleepy,” or “Dormido,” and Luis Amilar-Zanas, aka “Trucha,” or “Yomo,” were on a 14-Muni bus, traveling on Mission Street from San Francisco to Daly City. The three young men were members of the transnational gang known as La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.

A 26-year-old man named Alexander Temaj-Castanon boarded the bus after leaving his job as a cook at a San Francisco barbeque restaurant. Mejia-Sensente, Mejia-Quintanilla, and Amilar-Zanas watched Temaj-Castanon and decided that he was a member of La Nuestra Familia, or the Norteños. They based this decision on their observations of Temaj-Castanon’s tattooed body and his general bearing.

When Temaj-Castanon stepped off the bus on a quiet stretch of Mission Street in Daly City, Meijia-Sensente and Mejia-Quintanilla collected a backpack from Amilar-Zanas and followed him. Amilar-Zanas had placed a gun in the backpack.

The night was dark, the hour was late, and the street was deserted. They crept up behind him. Mejia-Quintanilla pulled the gun from the backpack and shot Temaj-Castanon once. Mejia-Sensente took the gun and shot the dying man again. They watched the body fall. Then they ran.

Temaj-Castanon was not a member of the Norteños or any other gang.

None of these facts were in dispute, not even by the defendants. This was a senseless murder, executed for no other reason than that the defendants believed it was their duty and obligation to eliminate a rival in a blood feud that has persisted for decades. But that duty and obligation, though so compelling as to bring these three young men to assassinate an innocent man, is nowhere to be found in the public documents. The U.S. Attorney’s office dismisses it in the same way that enraged the steward of the blood: “MS-13,” reads the sentencing memorandum for the case, “constitutes an ongoing organization whose members function as a continuing unit for a common purpose of achieving the objectives of the enterprise.” In this rendering, murder has been reduced to a business enterprise that must be done on a schedule according to the time demands of a corporate entity.

I can understand this sense of time. I live in it, I fought for it, and I will do all that’s in my power to remain within it.

But in looking through the public docket for this case I located one time factor that the U.S. Attorney’s office may have overlooked.

In 2002, when he was jumped into MS-13, Mejia-Quintanilla was a 12-year-old named Wilfredo Oliva-Castro who lived with his family in El Salvador.

In 1996, when he was jumped into MS-13, Mejia-Sensente was a 12-year-old, name unknown, who lived with his family in El Salvador.

In 1991, when he was jumped into MS-13, Amilar-Zanas was a 12-year-old named Luis Sana who lived with his family in El Salvador.

We will never live in their time but they will always live in ours.

There is one more important notation in the paperwork for this case. Though they’re not publicly available, the docket shows that each defendant requested a translator during the course of the legal proceedings. Presumably the three defendants, all native Spanish speakers, wanted to be certain that they could follow the language of the prosecutors, the defense attorneys, and the judge as these people presided over the direction of the rest of their lives. The case files note that the translators all came to assist the defendants.

I am so glad that they came. But how I wish, oh how I wish, that these translators had spoken sooner.

* * *

This essay first appeared in the Winer 2016 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review. It was also named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2017. Our thanks to Caille Millner and the MQR staff for allowing us to reprint this essay.