Only the Streets Know

This post is a poem written by Javier Zamora. It previously appeared in Meridian Literary Magazine here.


My uncle, Israel, and his fiancée, María, were among the first victims of the war in my hometown. Renato Quintanilla, the high-school teacher’s brother, force-injected my uncle with a mixture of unidentified drugs. A few days later, María was raped and murdered by four soldiers under the command of Sargento Cachaca. My mother, then nine years old, found María in the public latrines. Israel became one of the town’s locos before, a few months later, he completely disappeared. Mi familia still does not know where he is. This was one of many occasions during our lives spent in El Salvador when we came to understand the exact mechanism of terror.


I wasn’t born when all this happened. I’ve learned
To lower lashes so blood looks like dirt. In dreams—

A desire to see my uncle float from my kitchen
Past the chicken-coop where there’s shade. From the corner,

A dog’s chained to a mangrove and a ring marries the sky
To the eclipse. The space modules he threw from trees say

If he’d been an astronaut, he would’ve been Israel Armstrong,
And I can’t remember his voice—leaves brown. Yesterday,

He wore a fish-tank to school. When I wake, my toes pinch
And my shirt shortens and the moon says this is a sign.

For the longest time, my father believed Israel was
Rained on by bombs, shadow in rivers, ditch in the dark.

Precisely, radio reporters started countdowns
Backwards. But from my uncle’s nose, we think, shrapnel

Never burst. My father still carries unopened water bottles
In case he finds him.


It was known he wasn’t a Zamora: a loudmouth, a drunk,
A dumbfuck, a thief, or a good-for-nothing like the rest of us.

He was first to finish dictionaries, first to approach gringos
And speak inglish. By then, La Herradura already sung his name.

He looked like Bruce Lee, taught himself kung fu and nunchaku
From mail-order catalogs. When he spoke, walls hushed

And teachers took notes. Out of seventeen siblings, every evening,
Only he cut beauty and put it in a plastic cup. These bouquets

His mother misses most. After school, he shut the library doors.
He is La Herradura’s only poet. As he walked, his steps wrote the ground.

She was not from this world. This was when he learned to steal
Flowers for a woman other than his mother. María loved his smile,

The way he hid the cotton of his teeth, dreaming candy.
When he gave her flowers, air gasped. Today walls repeat

Mi carita de ángel, aquí tenés las flores más lindas.


Curfews María walked toward him whispering
When the owl hoots three times, amor, resin hardens.

Israel knocked on all doors
Weightless but heaviest at the chest the day her mouth was muffled by sheets,

A lamp turned off. He knew there would be no trace
Of the soldiers’ last names.

May this be yesterday when he choked with her voice,
Not the day his first word was nada.

He saw the sky fragged by stars the morning he began naming the emptiness—
Hushed oceans, soldiers digging, skin, scars, first blue bruises,

Her breath, that sweet mango scent, her body, whitened from bed sheets
Tightened around her neck, her hair, coiled nets dragged ashore—

They pinned her limbs to cobblestone. No ropes. People said
She was a guerrillera, that she was the one

Who came back to this town, that Israel did steal,
That she did tie red scarves at La Nacional,

That he was the first to disarm guards. Resin.
Flies buzz in a jar.


Years later, I, too
Would tie wrists

To bedframe
And let my tongue bite

Till my teeth would lick

This and walk out my
Lover’s room.


Some say you still pace some street
Somewhere. Only the streets know.

We’re tired of stranger’s left feet
To see if the big toe and the two next to that are missing.

Uncle, your brothers took all your shoes and socks from your mother
And gave her the key

To the steel chain tied to your right foot,
The good one. Around her neck, the key still waits for you.

This was after you kneeled by María and held till bells burned dusk,
After Las Fuerzas splintered María’s door,

After her mother was a thud silenced by rifles, after the four times
You convinced enough patients to make a ladder

For you to break from the psych ward, after
Your brothers tied you to the mangrove trunk,

After you escaped to visit María’s cross
And after you got into a blue pick-up truck.

Word was you’d been the last to see the saucepan in the sky.
Word was you beat the shit out of soldiers again,

Those hijueputas, who lit a firecracker in your foot,
At gunpoint of course, and laughed you insane.


Uncle, I swing years on the hammock you slept on,
I’ve never heard so many roosters. Because of your birth-mark,

This is what you’ve come to: the darker-shade-of-brown
Rooster crest you could never point to in your right bicep,

And after you left, we remembered the beak we erase
With the fist of each of your lost birthdays. Please know,

We weren’t allowed to speak of María. Her family left town
And we never heard of them again. On the 20th year from that day—

There was salt on my father’s cheeks and he said sand is his skin
you know that right mijo? Uncle, that day, I learned

Mosquito nets can’t hold back the loudest stroke of a beak
That hides in the dark. I want you to see the gold chain

Tied around my neck with both of your names engraved.
I’m sorry. Assure me, your names aren’t that sacred.

Assure me, when the beach is your face, waves are cotton
Of your teeth hiding goldfish. Our little “astro-nut”

Jumping off the pier with your head in a fish-tank. What we do
Is stare at the beach for you. We wait for spume to touch

Our cheeks. This is what we do sometimes when we can’t sleep.
No. This is what we don’t do some times. In the water

We carry scintillas of salt and the smoke of your left foot,
In case we find you.

for María de los Ángeles and Israel Zamora

Javier Zamora was born in La Herradura, La Paz, in 1990. In 1991, his father fled months before the peace accords were signed. Javier’s mother followed in 1994 because peace still didn’t bring enough money. By 1999, they gathered enough money to pay for a coyote. In America, Javier graduated from UC Berkley with a History BA., an MFA from New York University, and currently works as the O’Connor Fellow in Creative Writing at Colgate University. He has had poems published and was recently awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Creative Writing.

He writes the following about this poem:

This poem is very much part of who I am, and part of that “success.” By that I mean the terrible legacy all Salvadorans inherit after the war. It was Roque Dalton that said “Salvadorans are born half-dead after 1932.” What about 1992? What about now? Where are we now if we still can’t talk about los desparecidos? The Our Parents’ Bones Campaign is a crucial part of this memory. Of the justice that is still lacking in El Salvador.