The Waters of Zanjón
Dedicated to Olga Marín, with loving gratitude.
ACT ONE. The Archeology of Poverty.
And if I were to say that I saw the first light of the world in the Waters of Zanjón, who would care? To whom would it matter? Except to those who confuse the name with that of a Spanish romance novel. Still less to those who don’t know, nor will ever know, what this arid plot of Chilean poverty was, surely peerless among the occupied lands, encampments, and fractious neighborhoods in the surroundings of what is now Greater Santiago. But the Zanjón, more than a legend of population sociology, was an alley skirting the foreboding canal of the same name. The banks of a swamp where, towards the end of the forties, they cleared some land, added pasteboard and tar paper, and all of a sudden there were houses. As if by magic, shoddy homesteads appeared in every corner, like the mushrooms that miraculously burst forth after the rain, blooming amidst the trash, the precarious shacks known as toadstools for springing up in the nooks and crannies of the lackluster bogs of the land.
And of course the idea of a living has always attracted the dispossessed as an adventurous excursion, even more so in that time, when entire families would emigrate from the north and south of the country into the capital in search of wider horizons, trying to find a piece of ground where they could plant their borrowed flags. But this was not the case for my family, which had always lived in Santiago, bartering its hide for a room in a boarding house or in the grey neighborhoods that surrounded the old downtown. But one day like any other the eviction came, and the cops threw the four wretches into the street, along with the kerosene stove, the wobbly table, the bed frame with its little feet, and a few boxes that held my family inheritance. Perhaps someone told us of the Zanjón, and, not wanting to sleep outdoors, we arrived at that sunken beach where the children chase rats together with the dogs. And the whole thing was so easy, so quick, that for a few pesos they sold us a wall, not even a meter of land, just a slab of adobe bought by my grandmother in this place. And beginning with this solid mud we built the hodgepodge of a nest that sheltered my childhood through each winter and spread its eaves over my tiny family. Beginning with that wall, which like the backdrop of a film become the facade of my first home, my grandmother put up an aluminum roof and a stick frame that confected the meager architecture of my childhood palace. Unlike our neighbors, the entombed front of our house at least had the looks of a house, at least when viewed from the alley, with its window and its door that, upon opening, revealed a clearing, for really there were no rooms, just the dirt floor and open back where the cold dawn winds came and went without knocking.
In evoking those days, it would seem that that these shivering mornings of childhood have tattooed themselves onto the skin of my memories like dry ice. Still, beneath the awnings of the proletariat soul, maternal harmony wraps me in its warm lullaby. Amidst this jumble of rotten stenches and sawdust clouds, “I learned what was good and heard what was bad.” I learned the pride of humble hands, and painted my first tale with the colors of the mud and milky sediment that eddied in those Zanjón waters.
ACT TWO. My First Ectopic Pregnancy.
There’s a slogan that says, “Poor, but clean,” and it’s true in certain cases where the materials of basic hygiene are available. But in the Zanjón the water to drink, cook, or wash yourself all had to be brought from a distance, where an open pit provided the entire toadstool population with its water supply. Once used, the water would drain into a foul-smelling gully, where the women also tossed the putrid broth of chamber pots, the sewage and the water running together alongside the settlement. In contrast to that filthy quagmire, the dawny flutter of the sheets and nappies, blindingly white from the boiling chlorine, affirmed the scrubbed passion of maternal hands, always pale, blued, submerged in the soapy buckets of wash water. And maybe that whitened utopia was the only way the Zanjón mothers could symbolically detach from the sludge and, kids dangling from their sides like bunches of grapes, they pretend to catch clouds with the snowy brightness of their dishcloths, diaphanously unraveling, like ceasefire flags in that survival-stained war.
My childhood in the Zanjón fluttered amidst the swarms of flies that my mother continuously shooed away until that first glance away when, harried, she lost sight of me for a minute, and I crawled beyond the settlement to the edge of that gulley, where I dipped in my little hands, wetting my face and sipping the sludge in my childhood impulse to know a medium through its taste. And so it went that within a day my stomach began to swell as if I’d been impregnated by the bumblebee prince. As the days wore on, the stomach pain and rat-a-tat-tat of constant diarrhea became an unceasing cry. My mother didn’t know what to do, rubbing my belly blown up like a balloon and spooning me concoctions of cinnamon, herbal teas, and burnt sugar. Back then it wasn’t as simple as picking up the phone and calling the family doctor, especially if you had to get up at five in the morning and leave the house with the wee one clinging to your neck in order to be given a number in the overflowing polyclinic. That’s how I was delivered into the hands of a doctor with fishbowl lenses, who looked at my poor paunch and thought of the very typical malnutrition of African children. But as she pressed the taut kettledrum of skin and rested her cold stethoscope against it, a muffled beat startled her. She drew back, frightened. It’s not possible, she said to my mother as she nervously scribbled a prescription for a noxious purgative. That same night, the deliverance: after receiving this abortive medicine, my insides stripped themselves in a spasm of diarrhea as florid as marsh water. And there, in the black mirror of that glimmering bedpan, floated the minuscule corpse of a pollywog frozen in metamorphosis. It was barely a head and a tail, but two little green feet also stuck out, which the tadpole had managed to grow inside my gut since I had swallowed the larva in the microcosm of life that, despite everything, elbows into the brief space of its gestation.
ACT THREE. Memories of Rancid Flesh.
Zanjón de la Aguada wasn’t just a place of extreme poverty, absorbing sweat and social backwardness. No, in the fifties, this fleapit also inked the newspaper pages with local crimes and sightings of the hoodlums who took refuge under its corrugated tin. Members of this pilfering mafia were “bareheads,” or that was their nickname back then, surely for the crop snipped in chunks from their head at Investigations, making them known to good society and provoking, through this new look, the punishment of rejection. But the shaved head aesthetic caused little discrimination in the Zanjón, where it was normal to see flea-ridden kids shaved to zero to stem the plagues of lice. Besides, in the case of the bareheads, it was only natural to see them get out from behind bars looking like bone-skinny jews, bearded and bald, liberated from extermination. A certain familiarity with crime allowed for healthy cohabitation: leeches they may have been, but, as in all ecosystems, the bareheads still followed certain codes of conduct. It was a kind of moral catechism to never, under any circumstances, mug a local resident. What’s more, they were obligated to act in solidarity during the natural disasters that blew tin roofs off houses in the night. During the floods they bailed black water out of inundated shanties, and in the huge fire that consumed a full half of the Zanjón, lacking for firefighters, the bareheads were our angels of salvation, lugging basins from the far-away well and rescuing babies charred by the flames.
In these social trenches, whose huts curled around the edges of the miserable fence of Santiago, a delinquent zoology emerged, each identified according to criminal specialty. The pickpockets, whose velvet fingers skimmed wallets out of purses or slit through them like rockets. The shop women of downtown, like Snout-Nosed María, a varmity vampiress who dressed up like a grand señora and devastated the luxury shops with her double-bottomed purse. The clan of burglars, who specialized in plundering the houses of wealthy neighborhoods. Sometimes even a pair of international gloves would come visit on a return trip from Europe, where they exported the Chilean art of the stylish steal. Like Chute the Turd, for example, a svelte dandy who returned to town smoking cuban cigars, sporting a white suit and a hat to match. The whole neighborhood welcomed him with a party and a mafioso bender that lasted three days. Happiest of all were the little boys, clenching fistfuls of the coins that Chute the Turd threw at them like a godfather in church. But there were also others, more sinister, like Rancid Flesh, as dark and twisted as a jackal’s pupil. He was a wizard at sacking the trucks that passed through Santa Rosa. Rancid Flesh was a single dad, Kramer vs. Kramer style, and had dreamed up a trick to trip up the trucks that, well aware of the zone’s risks, drove lickety-split through the streets. Well, whenever he spied a vehicle loaded with goods, Rancid Flesh would throw his seven-year-old onto the highway and the truck would come screeching to a halt, a moment of confusion that allowed him to jump into the back and lighten the truck’s load. And there might have been a time when the vehicle didn’t manage to stop, and the wheels crushed the boy, his nose still wet with mucous. But this was the daily bread of the Zanjón, as many kids died as stray dogs, run over in the neighborhood or killed in police raids, in the middle of the night or at dawn, by bullets that whistled clean through the shacks. The following day the neighbors would rehash the Homicide Brigade’s round-up: The Whistler fell last night, they gave it good to Crapjack, Snout-Nosed María escaped by a hair, they took el Tirifa, Shorty, and Glum-Face away in handcuffs, they shot Miss Eaves in the foot but she crawled onto the roof, the thieving cops took a ton of stuff and claimed they were recouping losses. And after these sweeps came weeks of vigilance, in which the entire Zanjón slept fitfully, fearful that the shots would return with their unscrupulous fire. Eventually the bareheads disappeared like smoke, though some of them emigrated to Legua or Victoria, where they continued to delicately perfect the lawless arts of their trade.
EPILOGUE. Nostalgia for provincial dignity.
Nowadays, when mayors campaign on the promise of new policing methods to prevent robberies and crime. In these times, when delinquency has lost its romantic appeal of stealing from the rich to give to the poorest, like Robin Hood or Jesse James, because the protagonists of the social steal are just snot-nosed kids who grab pensions as the elderly leave the bank. They seem more like thieving rats, lifting bicycles from kids and backpacks from students, not even like the bad kids of yesteryear, the subtle vultures who wrote themselves into novels by transgressing the brutal economic inequality of the Zanjón and revealing sans color the human x-ray of that malnourished landscape.
Now, when poverty disguised in American clothing no longer calls itself “pueblo” ands hides instead under the global term “gente,” more plural, more depoliticized for those surveys that divide up welfare based on the number of appliances in a home. And everything is like that. For a better life, there are lines of credit that allow dreams in color, flipping through the catalogue, a wellbeing paid in installments. To better pass the time, to better auction off neurons to the television screen by watching the jet-setting fleas fan themselves with money, having a swell time, chewing an olive in a show of fashionable leisure, sticking their tongues out to the bleary and crass TV audience who set a casserole dish on top of the television set to catch the drip falling from the broken roof, which sounds like coins, which in their recurring plink might be mistaken for the pealing of jewels worn by the creme-de-la-creme, which sound out through the screen.
But after turning off the set, the drip of poverty continues to echo in an empty pot. To better survive the frosty indifference of these times, fall asleep dreaming that the Third World was mistaken for a little slipper wrecked in the currents of the Zanjón de la Aguada, where a polliwog boy never became a princess who never told the story of her interrupted croak.
Translated by Gwendolyn Harper
Original text published with the authorization of the family of Pedro Lemebel, represented by Valentín Segura. LALT does not hold the copyright for this text.
Pedro Lemebel (1952-2015) was a Chilean chronicler, essayist, and novelist who famously critiqued the realities of Chile during and after the Pinochet dictatorship. He offered his critiques from an urban, queer perspective, focusing on the lives and experiences of the most marginalized members of Santiago society as they experienced love, violence, and the horrors of the AIDS epidemic. Latin American Literature Today No. 2 features a dossier of his work.
Gwendolyn Harper has translated work by Chilean writers Pedro Lemebel, Lina Meruane, and Nelly Richard, as well as the Spanish author Emilia Pardo Bazán. Her translations and essays have appeared in D21 Editions, JoLT, and The Caravan. She will be starting an MFA in fiction at Brown University this fall