It’s 1:05 A.M., January 1, 2011. I write this from a room in the home of Gramma Vicki, whose real name I finally learned after three years of knowing her.
The streets of La Carpio feel so different from where I live, only a 30 minute drive away by car. So many differences. So much to learn, so quickly. I am in the same country, of the same city, but it is like I’ve moved a world away. It really is, like a world apart.
Tonight, everyone is estrenando to the T. To “estrenar”, they explain to me, is to bust out your new clothes during Christmas, New Year’s, or on your birthday. People roaming the streets are very well dressed. Kids are wearing custom-made outfits to match, including their little sandals. Everyone is premiering their best clothes.
As I lay in this humble home propped up by shambles of wood and covered with a patchwork of rusted corrogated steel, I think back over the past year and somehow muster up the arrogance to demand from God an explanation. What, exactly, was the genius plan last year? There were a lot of deaths that year, more than I can count on one hand. These were not random, depersonalized deaths – they were felt deaths, felt by myself or people close to me whom I care for and love. An anguishing kick-off with the horrendous tragic earthquake in Haiti, followed by several sleepless nights and difficult months, and a renewed sense of powerlessness. Juan died in May, which was extremely hard on the family I lived with, and they lost another close friend a few months later. In August my gramma passed away, and just a a few weeks before writing this La Carpio lost a 16-year-old, Junior, from a home a few houses down the street. Quite frankly, I’m a little sick of it all. I realize sadly that in a laundry list of deaths up to this point in my life, my Gramma is the first person I’ve known to die of old age, of a natural cause, not of violence, freak accident, or sickness. God, I would like for this next year to bode better. No more people dying. It is sad, painful, exhausting, and quite disruptive. We’ve had a rough year, God. Many hard, heavy experiences. I’ve not let up. Neither have you.
Out in the street tonight I was privy to an interesting New Year’s tradition that will remain burned in my memory forever. A neighbor constructed a life-sized stuffed dummy, filled it with firecrackers, and doused it with gasoline. Similar life-sized dummies were stuffed up and hung on poles throughout the barrio. At midnight, amidst cheers, screeching fireworks, and explosions of light in the sky, they ignite the big dummies to celebrate the death of the old year. I watched in fascination as the life-sized, creepily human-looking stuffed dummy wilted, wheezed, and popped as it slumped slowly into a pile of smoldering embers. Kids screamed excitedly and leaped over flickering pile of flames, while the neighborhood looked on cheering and taking photos of the symbolic burning of the old year. Amidst an overwhelming sense of thrill and curiosity, I also felt a strong sense of finality, and closure. The good times and the bad times of the previous year go up in a blazing flame, leaving us nothing but smoldering ashes of memories and stories to leave behind as we transition into the new year, 2011, when many more tears and cheers await us.
The bizarre ritual feels appropriate as I record my thoughts tonight. The previous year can lie smoldering, popping, hissing, and wheezing on the ground, along with all the pain and suffering that accompanied it. New things are in store for 2011.