There used to be a village named for the future. It straddled la frontera like the saddles of the vaqueros who once lived there, whose bones are now particles of the Texas dust they farmed and irrigated a century ago. Before it went up in flames, the village sat on the banks of the Rio Grande, sprinkled by a dozen or so families, most of them Tejanos with last names like Flores and Hernández. Of the hundred-some bodies that populated this community, fifteen of them—all morenos—all unarmed—were whittled by bullets and left to water the cracked desert earth with their blood on January 28th, 1918. That morning, before sunlight swept away the dark, members of the Texas Rangers, Company B, ripped the villagers outta bed and rounded up those suspected of being thieves or criminals or bandits. With rifles loaded, they marched the vatos to a hill, shattered their existence, and turned the village of Porvenir into smoke. A future made a ghost.
Pops never broke the law, obeyed it to the letter, wouldn’t even cross a street unless signs or signals permitted it. Growing up, his padres drilled it into his skull—belted it onto the brown of his skin—that there was no room for illegality in this family. Abuelo was in the military then, working as a mechanic at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Pops once told me that when he thinks of his father in those days, he can’t picture the vato without his uniform. No matter where homeboy went or what he did, Abuelo dressed all spotless like a bootcamp cadet ready for inspection. He wore that getup to the movies, to pick his ’ijos up from school, to vote—especially to vote. ’Cus on election days, local to presidential, Abuelo donned his dress blues, all lapeled and brass-buttoned, tie bisecting his chest, ridged cap turning his head into a shark fin. Pops once showed me a framed and yellowed clipping from San Antonio’s bilingual paper, which featured a photo of his father’s rigid profile, standing at attention, waiting in line to cast a ballot for Lyndon B. Johnson. The attached headline read, “Votando con Orgullo: Massive Hispanic turnout for LBJ, Texas native.” But the body of the article wasn’t included in the frame, as if we were supposed to write the words ourselves, tell a story with Abuelo at the center, imagine a past with the knowledge of its future.
The shots sounded like balloon pops, like firecrackers without rhythm, like door-slam after door-slam after door-slam. Bodies dropped under tables, sunk over cash registers, shielded each other from slaughter, all constellating a map of shredded lives around the El Paso Walmart. The statements of the Texan that fired these bullets blipped onto the internet minutes before a trigger was pulled. They painted a bullseye around the Hispanic community, washed it in acidic language, declared it full of instigators and invaders and illegals. Armed with these beliefs and a semi-automatic, the Texan drove over five-hundred miles to this border town and proceeded to cut the strings holding twenty-three individuals to this world. Two carried the name Hernández, another Flores, all of them vessels filled with stories and histories. The Texan took less than an hour to destroy generations, and after he surrendered, a squadron of Texas Rangers guided his head into a car that delivered him to a cell. Where he still lives. Where he awaits his future.
When I was eight, Pops slapped me in the face. It happened after he found The Matrix themed sunglasses I’d stolen; the ones he refused to get me while we were back-to-school shopping. He confronted me, had me take a seat on the couch before revealing the cheap wire frames. The vato didn’t bother asking me why, just if I knew that I’d broken the law. I couldn’t answer, paralyzed by the unfamiliar bass in his voice. He asked me again: did I know that this was wrong, that I was wrong for doing it. Don’t you get it, m’ijo? I remained mute, trembling in the thunder of his words. But the questions kept crashing against my brain, banged and banged till Pops’s palm cracked over my jaw, smearing a timeless dolor across my skin.
Here’s what I wished I’d told him: A gabacho named Patrick had shown up to the first day of class sporting the same pair of shades, and everyone said it was the coolest shit they’d ever seen. He looks just like Neo! I’d never seen the movies, but I begged along with the other boys to try on his sunglasses, convinced that with my eyes looking through them, I could see beyond this world, our matrix, and discover an actual, truthful reality. We clamored over each other’s bodies, offering anything and everything: lunch money, trading cards, homework answers. I chose to sacrifice what I’d been looking forward to all day, a plastic bag of biscochitos Abuelita had baked me to celebrate the start of another school year. Patrick grimaced at the cinnamon-dusted cookies and asked what they were. Upon hearing their Spanish name, he snickered and explained with every stare on us that I could never be Neo. Because you’re a Mexican! All the kids erupted, pointing and laughing at the stupid-ass beaner. All I could do was sit there, cheeks on fire, eyes misty, and pray that someday this would all be behind me.
But I ask myself now, what would telling this story have done? Would it have stopped Pops’ hand? Reminded him of his childhood? Of the Texans in his life? His father’s life? What would he have recognized on my face?
I’m still not sure where history ends and my future begins, but I walk a splintered line between the two, tracing every step, breathing every breath.
Born and mostly raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, A.J. resides in Eugene, Oregon, where he is an MFA candidate at the University of Oregon. He is the winner of Gival Press‘s 2019 Short Story Award and Fractured Lit‘s Anthology Prize. His work has also placed as a finalist in Epiphany Magazine’s 2016 Spring Fiction Contest, New Ohio Review‘s 2021 Fiction Contest, and CRAFT‘s 2021 Short Fiction Prize.
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