Willy McKey is a terrific writer whose work is featured, among other places, in Prodavinci, one of Venezuela’s best online magazines. This article about the Caracazo first appeared in Spanish a few weeks ago, and someone kindly sent me a translation. I dug it when I read it, and I dig it now that it’s in English. Take it away, Willy:
Something more than noise
It was the first time I saw someone die.
I was almost nine years old and we had just moved from the ninth floor of letter L from block 36 of 23 de Enero to the Tamarindo building, one of the buildings that the Simon Bolivar Center lifted on Catia’s Bulevar España to distract from the avenue’s disappearance in benefit of the subway, the future and solutions for Caracas.
Each time I move, I go over the idea that hope is like an empty apartment, its shelves and rooms, those spaces that don’t require furniture to have a name: living room, dining room, the shared room with my brother… the new life.
With boxes still packed, my folks fell more in love with each other and with the possible goal of their own house. The grocery stock was just right: half a pack of corn flour, some cans of deviled ham and some others of a cheap and terrible fish mixture only I liked.
Having run short on money because of the tiles that came to replace the gray linoleum wasn’t a problem. February’s brevity assured the soon and fortunate coming of a paycheck that my dad had filled with extra duty and night shift bonuses.
Like so many others, the noise took us by surprise.
I try to remember images but I can only hear them.
A rattle rising from the Market, taking shape in the furtherance. Tragedy making noise and becoming an atmosphere. That is what I remember with more fright. That noise. That noise becoming a word I had never heard before: looting. It was cried out a thousand times. A fierce mantra where nothing could be seen. They believed in it. It was a spell.
– They’re looting, Chela…
The telephone was family, urgent and common property. With every busted storefront gate, with every store they broke open, with every wounded we were acquainted to, the phone rang and my grandmother traced a county map of this invisible war for my dad. Three blocks stood between us, but that distance meant overcoming the appetite of the looters at Eduardo furniture store and La Popular shop on Colombia street, Las Torres shop and Peru drugstore on Mexico street, and LaFatima convenience store right on Aguadilla street, in the corner of the diagonal corridor that ran up to the popular market Los 70, reaching Lotoganga and La Pantera cold store on Mexico street again.
Looting, looting, looting.
That word that is name and verb at the same time. Present perfect and nomenclature. Pirate menace and bark of Fuenteovejuna.
— If it started in Guarenas, imagine how the rest of Caracas must be for it to have gotten to Catia…
My grandfather, ace reporter and holder of family sense, answered from his house in Anzoategui and traced the political map of this foreseeable war for my mom.
The whole city of Caracas in flames, the furtherance of the people in Caucagüita, and the silence that Clarines and Puerto Píritu had become stood between us, in addition to another strange word I asked about just before the National Guard frustrated the attempt of busting open the storefront gate from Eduardo furniture store, which we could see from the untiled kitchen wall: outburst.
The problem of contemporary history is that it names itself. And that’s how it was called before it was called Caracazo: looting and outburst. At least until it started stealing the names of others:
— What do you mean they killed him?
The death of someone with a name, an address and a voice. The voice of the first person Yaya talked about on the phone. That death. That was the death that made my dad believe the noise we could hear was more than an accident.
The half carcasses we saw crossing the hallway of the eighth floor of the block seized to be hallucinations and became news. My brother’s cry from the deafening shooting was something we all wanted to do but only he could.
— They called the guy from Lotoganga from Guarenas, in the middle of the night…
The whole deal of the excess allowed the owners of the largest shop to own no man’s land, in the best Charles Bronson film manner.
Warned of the possible riot, the owners held an express casting on the block which handed them all the appropriate crooks and enough weapons to protect their store by just standing at their advantageous ridge.
Sitting on the cornice, the crooks challenged the world swinging their feet over the void. On the walls of the huge shop, they wrote “Don’t touch Lotoganga”. They became judges of an area cops preferred to leave to chance and human behavior.
We found out about this during our improvised lunch. Eating, drinking and keeping shelter became a family and logistic matter. The idea that it was better to stay together during the day and only go home when the sun went down came after a conversation between such dissimilar talents as a cousin who was a cop or my race-horse trainer uncle. For every two cousins who arrived with food, one arrived with news that repeated the same thing:
— …and then they killed him.
— What do you mean they killed him?
On one occasion, my aunt Nora interrupted the routine crying out “The tanks are coming!” making my mom run to the window. To that day, for my family, armors had only been mythological animals on TV on parade day. It took me some time to look up what it was that caused my mom such terror and I am still not sure of the repertoire which caused her panic: Cockerill Mk.3M-A1 90mm; anti-aircraft M-60; M-240 machine guns; Dragoon 300.
All that was what my mother saw turning against one of the superblocks of Carlos Raul Villanueva before an enormous blow turned everything into a long monotonous whistle. Floor 1, letter O. We were close enough to the street and the jabillos for that sound to reach nothing but cries. Out of fear, my mom took her kids and decided to run three blocks down, to where my dad was with his uniform and his safe-conduct, trying to buy the food that hadn’t been looted. Cross fire. By that time, shots were a matter the block dealt with.
We are an allegory. My brother in my mother’s arms, the huge crossed purse, I –the oldest- held by her left hand. We were one. A tremulous trinity. The voice of an acquaintance screaming: “Chela, if you’re gonna go, go. I’m watching”. Two nine millimeter detonations. “Go!” Crossing the parking lot and the avenue we call E Zone was an exposure we overcame up to Mexico street. Distance. Mom hiding us in a corner that has a garbage container on one side and a spiritualist store to the other. The voice of a cop screaming: “Lady, if you’re gonna go, go. I’m watching.” Two revolver detonations. “Go!” Running to Colombia street, passing by a beauty parlor that was the only untouched store on the street. Distance. Ten jammed soldiers fearing each other at the doors of Peru drugstore. The voice of a soldier screams: “Girl, if you’re gonna go, go. I’m watching.” Two long-range rifle detonations. “Go!” On that path, exactly on Aguadilla Street, the only one I can’t remember how we crossed, my eyes saw their first corpse. A falling mass that almost made me let go of my mother’s hand and go back I don’t know where. It was small. I recognize the faces of some of the corpses and they don’t seem real. They weren’t there. They aren’t. We are. Go! It was the first time I saw someone die.
In 1989, the uniform of a subway worker was that of a superhero. With distinct calm, my dad hid his despair behind the knot of his tie and kept it together while waiting in line to buy whatever he could find.
He never eats breakfast. And he didn’t on that February 28. He had to manage.
No one knows how to be alone amid despair. Jose Luis, father of two daughters, the youngest as in love with melted cheese as I, kept him company.
From the corner of La Popular, they both watched how Las Torres was bust open thanks to the help of Metropolitan Police agents who had great aim for locks. The cops went ahead and gave corsair license as they screamed out the maxim “the looting will be orderly”. And it was true so that the routine of the second day of looting went by flawlessly: after a careful space of time that allowed for some to take their part of the bounty, the Army came.
– How stupid were the ones who stayed inside…
Said my dad getting back in line. The shooting had become a rarity, in the face of small machetes and beatings. But it was inevitable to turn around upon hearing a soldier ask “What’s up, old lady? Are you scared?” and a voice answer “Yes, sir. Very”.
The next voice my dad heard was Jose Luis’:
– Isn’t that your mom, Alfredo?
The soldier was aiming at her with his FAL.
We had no friends or food at the Tamarindo, but we had a strategic place where the neighbors could look over to their houses after arriving by subway to Perez Bonalde. And as gunshots flew by, that is what they did. Many parts of this memory can only be measured in caliber and in the absurd order in the voice of my dad, during each shooting:
– To the ground!
Facing the ground, my old man tallied his beloved calling out for each one of us. When he called out my name, I tried to raise my voice over the glass of my school, which to this day still stands behind that building, behind my house. That house where close friends saw their windows shot down or where they heard on the phone that someone in their family had been wounded or imprisoned. Or that they had died.
More than a balcony, the great window of the Tamarindo became a real-time screen where family and close friends watched history at just the right distance to feel safe from the bullets.
But nothing kept us safe from the facts. Neither do the screens today. The mistakes of memory grow just as they take distance. And a way to stay away from them is to let them become something else, a mirage, an agreement, a trick.
The distance that separates us now from February 1989 is not that of three blocks but of twenty four years. I don’t think anthems and yelling and military music will suffice. The sensible thing to do is to remember. Reminiscing is an individual exercise, and it is indispensable for History to make sense.
Perhaps that is what needs to be done today: to reminisce.
To do something more than making noise.