I told people I was Mexican because it was easier. They’d never heard of El Salvador, and there was no way of explaining what it meant to be from the smallest country in Central America, the small thumb of the region. A country the size of Massachusetts did not seem worth explaining to the friends who thought Mexico was the only relevant nation south of the border. So, I talked about La Virgen de Guadalupe instead of Archbishop Oscar Romero and of the Aztec people instead of the Pipil and Lenca.
I dodged the gangs, running faster than they could in the Nikes my father bought me with the money he’d gotten from painting houses without a contractor’s license. I sidestepped la Mara Salvatrucha, and skipped past 18th Street. I jumped straight into the classroom, in full Stand and Deliver fashion, making it to college with my poor-boy-from-the-barrio brand.
In college, I started writing love poems for the gangs I never joined and for the brothers I never had. I waxed poetic about the way the letter S curves so sensually on brown skin, and the way others felt like home. My poems centered on my love for criminals, for outcasts, for illegals. I wrote about how my Nikes, my Levis, Disneyland, and Star Wars felt like romance. I wrote shitty poems on napkins and in bathroom stalls.
One day, I bought a pair of Nike Cortez instead of a pair of Adidas Superstars. The decisions shocked my friends and angered an uncle who lived in East L.A. in the 1980s. No one understands that I need them to survive and to jump higher than I’ve ever jumped before.
My Nikes will help me jump so high that I’ll forget El Salvador, a speck when I’m high in the atmosphere. From way up there, I won’t see the pairs of Nikes hanging from telephone wires. No matter how tall they grow, I won’t see the coffee bushes or the indigo plants and I won’t see when the Americans pluck at their branches. From the places my Nikes will take me, the northward paths that migrant workers walk will become invisible. If I jump high enough, El Salvador might disappear, from the map and from me.
Ruben Reyes Jr. is a senior at Harvard University. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Florida Review Online, La Horchata Zine, and Homology Lit.