My mother and I met them when they were five, at the intersection of John F. Kennedy
and Abraham Lincoln. Every time a car stopped at the red light, they washed the front
window for a few pesos. Over the years, in broken Spanish, they gave us a small piece of
their past — they had crossed the border for work, came from the Artibonite Valley, lived
in a tin house, never had shoes. And one day in broken Creole they told us: The first
person we met here asked us to show both our hands. We showed neither. Asked us to
show our sadness. We showed our white teeth. Asked us to disturb our memory. We
showed him how to catch a fog mid-afternoon to understand what remains unknown.
Asked us if we left a donkey alone on the road, or if the coconut keepers in our country
left coco juice in the mouth of saints. We placed water on our lips. That was the last time
they mentioned the other side of the island. They became known to us as Gordito y
Flaquito. Everytime I saw them drinking water from a Campbell soup can, I wondered if
they’d end up in jail, ever find their father’s house, or a different way to translate the
streets. Wondered what makes a life better? And then I think of the last thing they told
me that day: Maybe misery speaks every language, but no one seems to recognize our
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Nathalie Handal has lived in Europe, Latin America, the United States and the Arab world. She is the author of numerous books, most recently the critically acclaimed Poet in Andalucía, which Alice Walker lauds as “poems of depth and weight and the sorrowing song of longing and resolve,” and Love and Strange Horses, winner of the Gold Medal Independent Publisher Book Award, which The New York Times says is “a book that trembles with belonging (and longing).” Handal is a Lannan Foundation Fellow, winner of the Alejo Zuloaga Order in Literature, and Honored Finalist for the Gift of Freedom Award, among other honors. She writes the literary travel column The City and the Writer for Words without Borders. Her new collection The Republics is forthcoming Spring 2015.