An uphill view of a street with houses on the right and a tall fence above a gutter on the left.

I’m kneeling in my bedroom, inside our small concrete house in Verdellano, a neighborhood in the mountain town of Tabonuco, Puerto Rico. It’s 1995, I’m thirteen years old and there is a shootout between two gangs just outside my window. My mother yells, “Al piso!” but I take a moment to pray before crawling under my daybed. “Diosito please make it stop, todo poderoso.” My hands touch the cold concrete wall and then slide down to the floor and I clamp a dusty Rainbow Brite doll to my chest. I try not to cry, I try not to worry about my Mom, Dad and little brother Diego in the other room. I try not to worry about Eric, a boy I really like who may or may not be part of the shooting. I’d pray for him at church and tell God that he was a street saint just trying to survive.

It will take me 30 years to fully remember this. Only sounds at first: supersonic booms, eardrum-splitting cries, gangsters shouting. The rest came later in little bursts of agony. My young brain could not make sense of the event or quantify the scale of the shooting, but whatever feeling of warmth and safety I had before had fractured, like our walls during a hurricane.

Outside, there are screams and cars chillando goma. Meanwhile, reporters boastfully say that the governor’s war on drugs is working, that things will get better. But not in my Verdellano. Not in my little rundown neighborhood where houses share walls and people gossip through rusted chain link fences that one gang is seeking revenge and the other has better metralletas and maps with shooting and getaway routes. We hide in our homes after sunset. The streets do not belong to us.

//

Tiroteos, shootouts, were common those days in Verdellano. The violent local gangs were merciless, sparing neither their targets or anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the crossfire. They turned the neighborhood streets into a battle zone, hiding behind parked cars, in our backyards, knocking on doors for shelter if they’d been shot. They belonged to gangs from the projects, caseríos, or other poor communities just like Verdellano, where there were several puntos or hotspots—they sold their stuff right there by the basketball court, by the swings, by their own mother’s fence. I imagined them going to Foot Locker to buy the latest Air Jordans with the cash they made. Pictured them getting together for lunch, saying a little prayer, looking around and feeling like they belonged to a family. They were like us, I remember thinking. Like me. They’d say buenos días and buy groceries for the poor lady on their street, just like I did. I’d turn around and go home to play with my little brother—they’d turn around and shoot at each other in the middle of the day, in the middle of the street. I dreamed of belonging to a family outside of my home and would sit by the window to track these drug dealers and their movements.

My father always feared I would someday run away with one of them, with a bichote. He brought me to the Jehovah Witnesses Kingdom Hall in Tabonuco every Sunday to pray my curious eyes would never look their way. He gave me church-based instructions on how to live, like never celebrating a birthday and never accepting gifts for Christmas. Most painful of all, never congratulating mami on Mother’s Day. The end of “the system of things,” as the elders at church called it, was near and my father wanted us all to be resurrected after Armageddon, after the destruction of all earthly things. We would then live in a Godly paradise. “Those lost boys will try to talk to you, do not reply,” he’d say. “Do not acknowledge they exist.” And he’d continue praying. His words humiliated me, imprisoned me. I’d pray to get away from him and that church. Maybe I wanted to be a lost girl. I sure didn’t want to believe the elders or my father—I wanted to believe in something else. My mother could tell I was uneasy and reminded me every Sunday that Jehova loved all people and I’d imagine the lost boys surviving Armageddon and living in paradise with us. Maybe Jehovah would give me permission to love a lost boy, to love Eric.

Eric was a year or two older than me and already selling on my street. I remember him peeling off his white t-shirt and hanging it over the fence, revealing his tanned skin and sweaty chest.

He’d listen to his buyers talk about a girl or an enemy or a teacher they all hated and he’d say, “Ay cabrón, lo dices y no lo sabes.” He’d sing the latest from Wiso G, right there by my house. Sometimes I’d be in the backyard, filling a snap-set pool with my little brother, or walking on the acera by the house, writing silly nothings in my diary. 

Eric would look my way sometimes and smile. I pretended I didn’t see him, but I did: He had a small mole up and to the left  of his rosy lips; it made him beautiful. His hair was wavy, and he wore the volleyball shorts with the tropical, flowery print, the ones worn by every handsome boy in town. I fell hard. He made me want to have my own getaway route, to escape my world and live in his. Then I could celebrate my life and not be lectured on the end of times. If he’d asked me to run away with him and his street family, I’d have done it.

A few days before the shooting, Eric came over to my house with a girl about my age. I was playing hide and seek in the backyard with my friends Laura and Carlitos. “Esta es la nena that I told you about,” he said to her, pointing at me. “Play with her, I need to work or you’re not eating later.” Laura talked to her first. “¿Cómo te llamas?” Laura asked. “Yahaira,” the girl said. “Wanna play al escondite?” I said. Yahaira nodded yes. “Eric, want to play with us?” I asked. 

“I don’t know how to play hide and seek, I’m not a kid.”

My heart sank, but I covered it up. “No me impolta como quiera nene, I don’t care,” I said in anger. Eric gave me a quiet smile. “I’ll count! Uno, dos, tres, cuatro…” I said. He took his shirt off and tugged it in the back of his pants, winked once at me, and started to work the street.

After Eric was done for the day, he came back to get his sister. We were playing with a hose and eating esquimalitos by the lemon tree in my backyard. Our neighbor Julia, who goes to the same church, talked in aggressive voices about how a maliante, son of Satanás, was hanging out with a church kid, meaning me. I glanced at Eric, now standing close to me and I knew he could hear everything. “I wish I could cut her tongue with a knife, por bochinchera,” I said to him. “You would do that for me?” he asked. I didn’t answer, but offered him a cherry esquimalito and he sat with us under the lemon tree to eat it.

I wanted him to pick me, like I had picked him. I wished I could ask him to run away together, but instead I just stared at his rough hands, his nervous hands, and I felt his eyes on me. He touched my knee and said something to himself. I got shivers all over my body and lost my breath. I wanted him to stay there, I didn’t want to play hide and seek anymore. As I tried to breathe again, he quickly stood up and walked away with his sister. I was left with things to say.

//

I’m thinking about his hands—still—tucking his shirt into his pants, slightly damp with sweat from the heat of the afternoon sun as the bullet shower starts to dry a little. “Hay uno muerto aquí al frente,” my father says. “Just a kid.” I look out the window to see a body by my front neighbor’s house, blood covering the pavement under and around, framing him. “He looks like a santo, papi,” I say, because to me these men are holy warriors trying to survive a residential hell. “Please don’t say they’re saints,” my father says. “Son maliantes and Jehovah is watching what they’re doing. They will not be saved, they will not get to paradise, like us.”

A few more gunshots come from a few streets over. I don’t know which gang members are shooting at each other. I wonder if it’s Chicko or Trigueño this time, they are always nice to me and my brother Diego. Or maybe it’s my friend Genni’s brother. Or Manuel, my next door neighbor? Or Eric? Members of my neighborhood’s gang have been killed so frequently, we don’t know which youngsters are being recruited and sent to the streets to fight.

I feel anxious and remember that during shootings, the lost boys look for places to hide. Maybe they need me? I feel grown enough to go outside and guide them away from the bullets. I’m almost fourteen. Maybe they will thank me and let me join their family? Eric could fall in love with me if I help. I’ll tell him I think Jehovah loves him and all of us kids will be okay, lost or not. I get close to our door and start to turn the knob. “What are you doing!,” my mom yells. “I’m just going to look!,” I say. “The hell you’re not, come here!” she says. My mom ducks under a table as more gunshots echo through Verdellano. I turn the knob and open the door, but my Dad grabs me by the back of my shirt and drags me back in off the porch.

“Let me go, I’m not a kid anymore!” I say. “You know what, Dad? Jehovah loves them, too!” Now standing in the living room with my mother and father panicking, I start to cry. “What’s wrong with you?,” my father asks and I collapse to the floor. “It’s Armageddon,” I say.

The police arrive after the shooting ends. They always get here late. I once heard my neighbor Julia say they are being paid by the bichote to stay away and the lady who sells limbel ice said the police are afraid of the gangs because they have better guns than they do.

Outside, the blood remains after the body’s taken away. The Verdellano kids start to congregate and stare. I see a little chunk of flesh on the sidewalk. Laura and Carlitos say they know the dead man. 

“He’s a friend of my brother’s,” says Carlitos. “He was a good guy en malos pasos.” 

I’d never heard the saying before. “En malos pasos, what is that?”

That his family is very poor, he tells me, and he joined the gang to buy them food. That what he did was wrong, but he had to do it.

“You knew him,” says Laura. 

“Yo?” I say, surprised. 

Yahaira’s brother, she says and the world fades a little. 

I feel like running to Mami to tell her about how the boy I loved was dead, but I can’t. I didn’t know him when he was alive, not really, and he was a lost boy, a maliante.

I grab my bike and pedal around Verdellano alone, to cry far from home. I don’t know much about him, only that he sold drugs and had a sister and the nicest smile. Only that he noticed me and if we’d had more time, he would’ve picked me like I picked him. Maybe I would’ve been his girlfriend and then I would be able to tell someone that he is dead. But that didn’t happen. He is not my anything. He is just a lost boy and I’m still just the kid who plays hide and seek. 

I bike for an hour or so, going back to the murder scene several times, making sure my parents can’t see me. I recreate in my head Eric’s last moments. If I’d known this would happen, I would’ve fought harder with my Dad to let Eric in the backyard. I would’ve told him to hide inside the huge cat palm tree my father planted when we first moved here eight years ago—that’s where I hide when I play with Laura, and she can never find me. I can squeeze myself between the palm leaflets, hiding my face behind the bunches of buggy red fruit.

The neighbor starts hosing down the blood. She looks my way several times, annoyed at how close I am. But she doesn’t know that I am not afraid of Eric’s blood. I keep cycling closer, asking myself if this is worth all her angry looks. 

“Why are you cleaning this?” I could say. “Nobody asked you to clean it.” 

But instead, I keep going, tracing circles around her and the blood, which, washing away and spreading, now covers the width of the street. Bright and red, it splashes and runs down la cuneta, flooding a patch of grass between the neighbor’s house and ours. The air is rusty with Eric’s blood and she made it so.

She keeps spraying the street, I keep going in circles to make her stop. “You’re making it worse,” I finally say. “You’re erasing him.” She changes the hose’s setting to a stronger spray and the pink water reaches my legs. His blood is on my skin and I don’t wipe it off. I let it stain my socks. I want to remember.


Photo by MunicipioPinas, used and adapted under CC.