I’ve never gotten over my cousin’s death. His murder. October 2, 1998. A giant shadow since then. This, my attempt to let go. But in order to let go, I must go in.
I’ve always been stunned that you could lose someone and be unaware. Something about that never settled right in my bones. That the world would deceive you, and not offer a clue. A hint. That your world exploded, and you, oblivious to it. No, flicker of the lights, or alarm bell, or shrill whistle to grab your attention. Just life as it is. This bit about how life works, like Halloween mask terrified me. It would take years for me to understand this is the patterned design of nature.
He was thirty-three and I was twenty-one. Separated by two continents, North America and South America. The Atlantic Ocean in between. News of his murder reached us early the next morning. The phone wailed, much like a siren. I sat on the edge of my bed. Papi screamed, como va ser. His words echoed throughout the apartment. I gripped the bottom corner of the mattress until my fingers felt raw. Silence. Then. Mami and Papi wept in the kitchen.
Francisco was Papi’s nephew. Mami’s nephew through marriage. But their pain was equal. Mami knew Francisco since he was a toddler, and favored him the most. Unmothered himself, their bond was great. I dared not disturb them in their grief. I remained alone. Unaware that my pain needed permission to be felt. As the details of his death came in I stared out the window of my bedroom, transfixed. Behind the glass, early signs of fall. A rabbit hole of memories dragged me to Colombia. Grief, no faster vessel for memories to sail.
For someone who did not know how to swim and feared the ocean, Mami loved the beach. Every trip to Colombia was marked by excursions to Santa Marta, El Rodadero. An hour drive from Barranquilla. As a child, Francisco was my cool older male cousin. The one I idolized. So, great was my love for him, at five I hoped to marry him.
On one particular beach day in El Rodadero Joann and I screamed as our feet touched the sand. Hot coals were cooler. My primo sprung to action. He grabbed Joann up in his arms, and ran her to the shoreline. I watched, and worried Francisco would not be able to do the same for me. Though two and a half years younger, I outweighed Joann by a good thirty pounds most of my childhood. She was the thin one. I was la gordita. Once back, Francisco reached out for me. I hesitated.
“No la levantes,” Mami warned, she was next to me. “She weighs too much,” she pulled at my hand to walk.
“Yo puedo Tia,” Francisco grabbed me and swooped me in his arms.
My legs dangled over his arms. My head tilted back, blinded by the sun.
“Your not heavy at all,” my cousin huffed. Gordito himself, this beach workout made him breathless.
I wrapped my arms tighter around his neck. Safe in his arms. I beamed.
Once placed down in the damp sand. He ran to the water. His t-shirt tossed on the sand without a care. I watched him submerge into the ocean for what seemed a long time. Panic rose and I stepped closer to the water afraid he was swallowed by the waves. But his head bobbed up, and his arms struck up in the air. The ocean was no match for Francisco. And there, my superhero was born.
As I faded in and out of memories, I listened to Mami and Papi on the phone to Colombia. Facts of his death came from my cousin Clara. Mami and Papi spoke them out loud to each other, as if only a loud did they make sense. That was how I came to know what transpired minutes leading to his death. I sat in my bedroom and pieced it all together.
He was on the corner. Around the bend from Abuelo’s house. It was in the afternoon. Daylight and witnesses did not deter murderers in Colombia, sicarios. He was shot point-blank range in the chest. The impact of the gunfire knocked him to the ground. His friends watched in horror. Adrenaline and badassness forced him to his knees. Then up. He stumbled towards his murderer. Unable to fight. He was shot again. This time the gun aimed in the direction of his head. As the shot rang out his assailant ran towards a motorcycle, and sped away.
Mayhem followed. As if some force pressed the play button, the thumb off pause. Motion. Men cursed and pounded their fists. Some even began to hatch revenge plans. Women screamed. Babies wailed. My cousin Clara ran out of the house. She knew Francisco always hung out in that corner. Circled by a group of friends.
Unconscious. Blood pooled around him, a faint pulse was detected. Afraid to wait for medical help, Clara took action. She dragged his body, his friends helped, and another friend’s yellow Renault served as the makeshift ambulance. They drove him to the hospital. Pronounced dead minutes after his arrival. Nothing to be done. Only arrangements to be made.
His murder was not investigated. Not guerilla related. Not a victim from a secuestro gone wrong. Not a political leader targeted. Not a corrupt policia caught in a crossfire. Francisco, now a statistic of Colombia’s violence. Violence, part of Colombia’s setting as much as the palm trees, starry nights, and arepa stands.
Witnesses disappeared or denied any knowledge of the details of his death. Afraid to cause trouble and bring more harm. The focus became his burial. The repose of his soul. Masses were said in his honor, a month of daily rosaries prayed in his name.
Closure evaded. The mystery of his death became wrapped tight with the grief itself. It lingered. Questions and what ifs flooded my mind the days, weeks, and months after his death. Still do.
- Why did he get up? If he had not gotten up, would he not have been shot again. Was that the fatal blow?
- Why did his friends not try to stop it? Warn him? Did they know?
- Why was he killed? Did we know all the pieces of the puzzle?
- Was he set up? Did he have a sense that someone wanted him dead?
These questions have plagued me for over nineteen years since his death. Murder. But a few weeks ago I added another question to the list. Something I had not thought about. Tucked away like so many things. I kept it to the side. But an image on the smart board in my classroom, and a student’s question dragged me to remember.
At the start of our new unit on immigration my students studied the image of immigrants on top of a freight train from Central America and Mexico. Then a turn and talk with their partners, followed by a quick write, based on what they noticed and wondered.
One of my students who makes up the new gentrified Brooklyn, said “I didn’t know people had to do that.” His eyes filled with compassion beyond his years.
I nodded my head.
He shook his head back and forth, “did you ever know anyone that tried to come into America like that?” The purple thick stripe in his hair bounced with his every move.
The class turned towards me.
“Yeah, of course. My friend Lesslie crossed the Mexican border when she was four. There was my friend from highschool. He flew from Peru to Mexico and then crossed the border.” I recounted.
“Did any members of your family?” He pressed.
“Yes,” I answered. “My cousin. But he was caught.” And right there I was pulled into another time. Details recounted through phone calls to and from Colombia. Lost in a memory. I stood silent in front of my students.
A few years before he was killed Francisco had flown from Barranquilla to Curacao. Once in Curacao he flew to Atlanta Georgia. A city and state not known for high traffic of immigrants it was a safe bet to travel from there to the North East. But it was not to be. He was flagged. And under further investigation his paper work did not check out. Falsified. He was denied access into America. Francisco spent two weeks in a detention center in Atlanta. Sent back to Barranquilla, he arrived exhausted and hopeless. His dream to join his family in the United States squashed.
“Ms. Meza?” My student called out.
“Yes,” absent-minded I answered.
“So, what happened to your cousin?” He stared.
“What happened to him? Did he try to come back?”
“No,” I said. My throat thick. I swallowed.
“He’s still in Colombia?”
“No, he’s dead,” I looked away. My eyes on the picture of the men as they scrambled towards the freight train. “Maybe… if he had made it…” I trailed off unable to finish the sentence.
Silence followed. My students followed my gaze and stared at the picture with me. And I waited for the wave of pain to subside.
Last week as we laid beside each other in the dark, I whispered to my husband.
The question I kept close to my chest since that day in my classroom stumbled out of my mouth. “Do you think if Francisco had not been detained, that time he tried to come to America, he would still be alive?” I held my breath.
He reached for my hand. His fingers interlaced mine. This was our custom for as long as we’ve been married. I’d ask about my cousin. He’d answer. They grew up together. Neighbors at first, friendly, later close friends. “Yes, he would be alive,” sadness crept into his voice.
“Tell me, why do you think they killed him?” I turned to my side. The sheet under my chin. I licked the tears that spilled down my face and into the corner of my mouth.
“Pacho was a good guy.” He called him by his nickname. The one everyone called him.
Mami, Papi, Joann and I, we called him Franciscito.
“He was friends with everyone.” He turned on his side too. “But in Colombia you can’t be friends with everyone…”
I didn’t press and insist. The rules of Colombia were ones that I did not understand. Not in full. Resignation to hardship, violence, and pain was the rule in which Francisco’s murder fell under. And in order to resign oneself, you didn’t wallow in the past. And for the longest time I followed suit with everyone else. But, Francisco would creep into my thoughts when I least expected it. Like the way we would sneak into the kitchen and eat the fried torticas de arena, my Tia Delia made for dinner. As soon as her back was turned we would grab the oily flour cakes. Our mouths full, we smiled at our food burglar ways. I can’t help but think that Francisco nudged me now. Nudges me. Not to grab the torticas, but to grab the stories of my family. My story. His story. Our stories.
My eyes heavy with sleep I spoke into the night air. “Do you think he’s happy we are together?” I asked. He was his friend and I was his baby cousin. We both carried an altar in our hearts. For him. When we found out our second child was a boy. We knew his middle name would be Francisco, his first name would have to work around it.
“Yes, he’s happy.”
And I thought about how I arrived to Colombia eight months after his death. Twenty days after my college graduation. Both of us, my husband and I, cloaked by our grief. Broken hearted. Me, rocked by the breakup of first love. Him, left alone without the mother of his first child. Never to meet his son. And Francisco’s death wound tight over our pain.
This August I will be forty. I will enter the decade my primo never got to enter. And I know two things to be true. My cousin would love to read my stories now. He’d be proud of me, his primita. And that in order to get over his death. His murder. I must tell his story too.