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Commentary : When You See His Footprints You Will Know He Passed This Way

<i> Fran Reed is a teacher and free-lance writer in Costa Mesa. </i>

I stand on the beach watching the reassuring continuity of the white waves break on the sand, my face an expressionless stone to a faraway observer, but the tiny tears on the shore of my cheeks belie that impression. Inside I’m screaming, “It’s not fair!”

He came into my college writing class with a request that was more of a demand: “I need a translator, the best. I write poems in Spanish, and I want everyone here to read them.” I volunteered, answering him with equal bravado, that my translation would be a match for his poems. And so began a friendship of work and sharing. Our minds meshed like the parts of a fine-tuned watch, as we debated and discussed the meaning he intended, as I struggled for just the right English words to convey his ideas.

His scope is endless. He writes of Indians in his Central American home, of their blood running in his veins, their search for space as the Spaniards invaded their land--a search paralleled in his own life.

It was time to depart, to leave this land,

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To gather the pieces of our past and carry them with us,

In our speech, in our blood, in our arms.

We will leave our footprints in the wind.

That was the title of the self-published book that marked our beginnings, “Footprints.” It told, not only of the Indians, but of the present-day revolutions and counterrevolutions. For Jose has lived with death near the door always, in his first country. At age 4, there was a student rebellion outside the house that forced his mother to push him and his sister under the bed to hide.

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The tone was set for his future--looking for a safe place to be. When the earthquake destroyed the capital, the family fled to the countryside. Then, as the revolution grew stronger, his mother wanted him to leave the country, to protect him from being forced to fight. My friend wanted to stay, to experience life to the fullest, even if that meant a short, violent life. Only at the last minute did he leave, for his mother’s peace.

But soon after the triumphant march of victory of the Sandinistas in ’79, he was back. This time, he was looking for his role in the new government. They had a place for him, in the mountain villages teaching the poorest of families to read. Raised in an educated family and private schools, this world was new, but he took it as his own, teaching with patience the lines and curves that formed words. The people protested, “God made us poor and illiterate, so He must mean for us to be this way.” He explained the fallacy of that philosophy. Hope commenced.

From that service, he sought new heights. The government had plans to send him to Cuba for education. He had his own plans--the land of Marilyn Monroe and dreams spurred on by movies and magazines. At 17 he came here alone, washing dishes to pay for a room and finishing high school.

And so began the steps upward, frying fast-food chicken and learning English in college, and always, always--new poems. They flow from his mind as naturally as rain falls, waking him at night to be written, covering his lunch sack at work.

Then he would call me: “What do you think of this? Can you come over and translate right away?” I could. We were brother and sister, mother and son, father and daughter. If I needed a ride to the airport or help changing apartments, I could call on him.

Word of the poetry traveled. People wanted to hear it. We gave bilingual readings around the county, complete with Nicaraguan music and slides. With words he brought his country closer.

His hands of steel are testimonies to years of

Planting corn. . . .

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Perhaps centuries.

They can barely hold something as delicate as a pencil,

But his fingers are desperately trying. . . .

Patiently, I teach Manuel, 45, father of 10,

How to read and write.

It’s a battle for both of us,

But neither regret the effort.

Eventually he knew enough English to write directly in it. We’d meet for tea and interchange of thoughts. Then deadlines lengthened the time between meetings, until one recent night. His voice was urgent. “I must talk with you in person.”

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In the tea shop I chattered lightly about my new special friend, my new article. He responded with interest, but waiting, waiting for the time of quiet. I gave it. He began in stages. “Fran, I’m gay.” It made sense; the pieces fit that hadn’t before.

Then without waiting for me to digest the news, he added, “I have ARC--the Aids Related Complex.” It couldn’t be! The statistics that had blared from the radio and television that day, “Every 14 minutes someone else in the U.S. has AIDS or ARC,” was now incarnated in this one, dearer person. In silence, we hugged.

Then he wanted to talk, to say what had been held back so long. Life had a different meaning now. He was going to quit school and concentrate on his writing, volunteer work and job. Medicines, frequent blood tests, acupuncture, new experiments, a positive attitude--his fears and worries were out now, imprinting themselves on my mind, forcing belief.

It must be double pain to have such a serious disease and to feel a need to keep it secret from almost everyone, the way cancer was kept secret years ago. One needs a network of caring to help face the unknown.

But we could not stay on just that--for he is not just a sick man; he is also a living, growing man, so we talked of photographing migrant farm workers, revising our book and meeting in our favorite jazz restaurant. I left inspired, as I always do, but with an anguish in my body and soul, and I sought the sea. I see young men his age drunk on the beach, loud and rowdy. Why? Why him--someone who gives so much to life and the world?

As I stand here, I hear his words,

Rebellious spirit, we will fight forever.

Untiring is death,

But so am I--invincible.

Our permanent footprints.


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