It was Christmas Eve, San Salvador, 1974. Sofia and Mateo Cáceres, along with their children, Ramón and Diego, respectively 7 and 4, had just poured out of their Corolla for a quick visit to the nativity scene of the metropolitan cathedral before heading to their night-long Christmas party. Many thought it was a stratagem from the clergy for increasing funds for the construction remaining, but It was a big rumor that the clay figures of the nativity scene were inexplicably redistributed every morning, that Mary, Joseph and Jesus would move whenever they shone under their own light and that one would feel a random touch on the shoulder by nobody while watching. Curiosity-seekers called it an unequivocal sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence. People arrived in hordes.

Crowding the gates of the cathedral was the usual group of beggars, violently trashed by post-holocaust poverty, and surviving their last effort to beat the bishop with their pawn. Sofia and Mateo spread their spare change among them, quickly and indifferently, but in a festive mood, and the beggars thanked them with a papal blessing. As the Cáceres family climbed the stairs of the entrance, something grew inside little Diego. He turned to his mother and disguised a deep intrigue as a wisecrack loaded with shock value: “Mom, why do poor people stink like bad firecrackers?” Sofia, contrary to what Diego expected, replied with words of a good shepherd: “Poor souls, they sleep on the streets, have nowhere to shower and have no clean clothes. Besides, what you are smelling is of firecrackers.” The comment would have earned older Ramón the back of his father’s hand. But not for Diego, since his parents thought he was naturally “in orbit” and still at an age of an inferior state of mind. Annoyed by the misfire of the wisecrack, he took a step further: “Does that mean no Christmas for them?” Sofia looked at him and muttered matter-of-factly: “No Christmas for them, baby. That’s why we have to thank God for all the good things we have in life”. No more was said, but the echo of a thought reverberated in Diego’s mind: “Boy, here I thought I was playing stupid!”

Diego Cáceres graduated from Colegio Externado de San José and became a medicine student at Universidad Salvadoreña Alberto Masferrer and a volunteer worker at Hospital Rosales in San Salvador. He died fighting in the guerrilla front the evening of November 11, 1989, when the city exploded with the ultimate and bloodiest battle of the civil war. That afternoon, Diego left a note that a nurse found beneath the pillow case of a patient he was quite fond of, a destitute joker of an old man with no family who had been hit by a bus. In this short letter he said good-bye to everyone at the hospital and particularly to the old man. The last sentence was addressed to him and made him laugh with a cackle that resounded through the hospital like hundreds of marbles scattered on the floor. It read: “This Christmas, Manolo, we will all party even after all the firecrackers are gone!”

Roberto Serpas, Calgary 2010.

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