M y mom got her first job in the U.S. at a centro de llamadas. Mi tía Alba’s husband has a sister who has connections there. Despite the connections and being Salvi as well, they still underpaid my mother, but we were thankful I guess. We didn’t have a car at first so we’d have to walk three miles or so back and forth. I remember I’d get tired sometimes so she’d carry me on her shoulders for part of the trek. I would be on the lookout the entire time for loose change.
I would always run and check the fantasía jewelry/electronics display cases at the start of “our” shift to see if the Gameboy Color was still there. I grew tired of playing Snake on the Nokia 5110 that we let customers test out. Each day I was closer to being able to afford it. I remember I would spend part of the shift flipping through the cd racks looking at the cover art. Some had people in fancy clothes holding instruments on them. My favorites though were the ones with tropical landscapes and birds. My mom would tell me stories about the places pictured if she wasn’t busy helping a customer.
My mom told me not to browse the compilation CD section. I didn’t find out years later why, she just said they were inappropriate for kids to look at. I liked to ask questions and so I’d keep asking why and she’d give me a dollar and tell me to go next door to the bodega run by la niña Betty and get some plantain chips. Some knew her as la hermana Betty depending on how evangelicx you were. Anyway, It was her way of changing the subject and not explaining to me that on those particular cds were chele Salvadoreñas in swimsuits. Eventually I stopped caring and would just bug her about it anyway cuz I knew I’d get plantain chips.
Across from the CD racks were las cabinas telefónicas that were booths built next to each other. Each with an almost comfy chair and a telephone that can call any country you want. I only ever heard people call El Salvador and sometimes Honduras or Guatemala though. There was a booth that didn’t have anything in it and so I decided this is where I was gonna put my Legos and coloring books. The walls were super thin and I would sometimes be meque and listen in to the booth next to me.
I’ll tell you whom I can remember. The opulent Doña who came in always wearing lots of jingly jewelry on her wrists. I never really could hear what she would say on the phone, I just heard her jewelry shaking out musical accompaniment. There was the mother who always left crying after her daughter who was a marxist revolutionary during the Civil War would tell her she refuses to come live in the U.S and that she believed El Salvador would get better now.
There was this mother who flipped through her bible saying nervous prayers to her son as she heard that he was about to cross the third border. She told my mom crying afterwards about how he was all the family she had left. The others taken too soon in El Calabozo massacre and how her heart would stop if he didn’t make it to New York safely as planned. How she sent him a postcard of the New York City skyline a month before. She kept repeating that last part over and over. My mom then sent me to the Salvi restaurant next door to get her some water. A week or so later I saw her sitting in the Salvi restaurant sitting across a young man that had her same colocho hair and her same gratitude to God.
I remember a man in a sombrero which he told me was older than I was, who would always ask if his kids got any taller at the start of each call and say when his envio de dinero would be sent at the end of each call. He would always test my handshake and each time I felt the campo fields in them. There was the twenty-something who talked to his lover who was also a man on the phone. They had a habit of going to see films by themselves at theatres and then calling each other and discussing them. I talked to him about the new Star Wars movie and the next time he came in he gave me a small booklet of Star Wars stickers. Someone said he was gay once and I asked my mom what “Gay” meant. She just me gave me another dollar.
There was a family who would all individually take turns in the almost comfy chair to talk to an abuela. The younger kids would not say much and just pass the phone to each other like a game of hot potato. A mom who told their family members that her baby said their first word and was so excited but when the baby had the phone up to their face I guess they got stage fright. They eventually put a phone in the booth I was in so I had to go be meque somewhere else.
Óscar Díaz is a Salvadoran genderfluid artist/curator/writer living in Brooklyn, NYC. Upcoming exhibitions include The 4th Boston Biennial and a solo project at the Museum of Contemporary Art & Design, Costa Rica. You can find more at their website and their instagram @cihuanaba.