REED, the oldest literary magazine west of the Mississippi,
was a fitting placement for "The Drunken Fog of Ernesto
Cruz," the story of a man who found himself in California,
without friends or family or connections, like so many
immigrant and refugee men who have ventured out since
the 1800s, seeking a better life. "The Drunken Fog"
appeared in Reed's issue #67.
14- The Drunken Fog of Ernesto Cruz
Somebody called the police. A Latino male, possibly drunk, had wandered into a laundromat, picked up a two year old girl, and was heading for the street. The shocked mother of the child gasped and began babbling frantically in a language nobody understood. An old woman grabbed the man by the sleeve and yelled out to be heard over the din of the dryers, “Call 911!” and the little girl, upset by the commotion, started howling. She was still crying when the San Francisco police arrived four minutes later to arrest Ernesto Cruz, a 30 year old Hispanic male, for drinking in public and lifting and carrying a child.
“Lifting and carrying a child?” The public defender must have heard the disbelief in my voice. He’d phoned to see if I could go to the county jail to evaluate his client. Evidently, when you don’t know the child and don’t have permission, it’s against the law to pick up a child, and the question here was one of motive—whether this was step one in a bungled kidnapping, or the innocent mistake of guy who was drunk and didn’t know what he was doing.
“Alcoholic?” I asked, thinking he probably had DUI records from here to Sunday, and a psychological evaluation would be superfluous, another professional opinion to add to a stack of police reports. If they charged him with kidnap, the lawyer was probably looking for a defense of diminished capacity: a criminal too drunk to be responsible for his behavior. Not my cup of tea. My specialty was human rights cases: torture survivors, victims of hate crimes, ordinary people oppressed by extraordinary circumstances. Not drunks. Or criminals. Everybody is entitled to a day in court and an adequate defense, but this was an evaluation any mental health worker could perform. Why me?
“It’s a first offense,” the lawyer said. “The Public Defender over in Oakland says you know a lot about Central America, and my client is Salvadoran.”
Ah, I thought, a little closer to my alley. Still, I didn’t like interviewing people in jail. I knew the drill: present your i.d. and letter of approval, surrender your personal possessions, take off your shoes and pass through the security arc; put on a Visitor badge and clutch an alarm gizmo while you follow a beefy guard to a tiny room where he tells you to sit down and wait till they bring the prisoner. You’re in jail. You try to get comfortable on the molded plastic chair, and you look at the one-way mirror, wondering what the spook on the other side is thinking as he watches you. But at least you’ve got a contact visit. The lawyers aren’t allowed contact; they have to talk to their clients through bulletproof glass, using a telephone. I have the privilege of touching the prisoner, shaking hands, detecting whether he’s cold, or sweating, or shaky. It’s a bit awkward, of course, when his hands are chained to his ankles and he’s limited in how much he can move. Sometimes the warden will allow a hobble long enough for cuffed hands to do the paper-and-pencil exercises I need for my work, and some prisoners get clever with contortions and are able to bend a knee and raise a leg to the height of the table, so they can write. Mr. Cruz had already been in jail for six months, and the staff knew him as a cooperative inmate. They brought him in without shackles.
“Well, I’m pleased to meet you,” I say in Spanish, smiling at the lean brown-eyed man in the ill-fitting yellow jumpsuit. He smiles back, and I can tell he’s happy to be talking with someone who speaks his language. Since coming to this country two years ago he’s been trying to learn English, he says, but he’s only picked up enough to get by.
“And what brought you to the United States?” I ask. I knew he was not escaping political repression like his countrymen who’d fled El Salvador during the 1980s and ’90s. The peace accords that put a formal end to the war had been signed a dozen years before, and the FMLN, the revolutionary party, now had legitimacy in civil society. Though street crime and old grudges continued to make life dangerous, even these were on the wane: where we’d once seen throngs of civilians running for their lives, we now saw small bands of stragglers who could probably have survived at home. The jail’s mental health department had diagnosed Mr. Cruz with PTSD, but I had no details on that, and thought perhaps he was traumatized by the mugging his lawyer had told me about, that took place outside a donut shop on Mission Street, and that put him in the hospital for two weeks while his jaw was wired up and reconstructed. The scar on his face has healed nicely, I notice.
Mr. Cruz’s recent arrival to the country led me to think he might be an adventurer, or an opportunist, or possibly a member of one of the notorious Salvadoran gangs that had formed in the barrios of Los Angeles and proliferated in El Salvador when the gangsters were deported back to their country. He probably was not one of the rich bourgeois businessmen who travel back and forth for the sweatshops of the multinational corporations; those guys would not need the services of a public defender. Neither was he a tourist on vacation: the civil war had come to an end but its root causes—structural injustice and huge disparities in wealth—had not. Salvadorans don’t have enough money to fill their bellies, let alone take vacations. Who was he, then, and why was he picking up little girls in laundromats?
“I needed to make money for my family,” he said, in answer to my question about his motive for coming north. We all need to make money for our families, I thought, but most of us don’t wind up in jail.
I decided to try another tack, to see if I could locate him in the context of his native land. During that terrible civil war that killed more than 100,000 people there was scarcely a person in all El Salvador, except for the small number of fabulously wealthy members of the ruling oligarchy, who was not in some way exposed to the carnage. I asked Ernesto Cruz the question I’d been asking Salvadorans for fifteen years, as a way to bring them closer, slowly, to the traumatizing events that destroyed their mental health. Gently, in a tone of voice that said I really regretted to have to ask this, I said to this man in the yellow jumpsuit, “Tell me about the first time you saw a dead body by the side of the road.”
Mr. Cruz gazed down at the tablet I was using to take notes. “I was eight years old,” he said, speaking softly, “that’s when the mutilated corpses started appearing in the countryside. My father was already dead, the army killed him the year before.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, nodding my understanding. He paused for a moment, his hands side by side on the table, wrists red from the chafing of the steel cuffs. When he saw I was willing to listen, he went on: “We were four kids, I was the oldest. My mother took us to her mother in San Vicente, to be safer. By the time they signed the peace accords I’d seen so many dead bodies I couldn’t count them.”
“And the worst experience?” I asked.
“The army, when I was nine,” he said. “They had twenty-two men and boys lined up with their hands behind their backs, their thumbs tied together. Twenty-two men and boys, all crying, pleading to be let go. The soldiers took their machetes and struck every one of them on one side of the head.”
His voice trailed off, and his hands rose to touch his face, near the scar on his right jaw. I don’t think he was aware of having done that. Slowly, he continued:
“Then they took out their guns and came back, and shot them. They shot them on the other side of their heads, and when they fell… when they fell to the ground the soldiers put away their guns and pulled out the machetes again. They stepped over the bodies and cut off fingers and ears as souvenirs. There were no men left in the village to bury the victims. Women worked for four days digging graves.”
“How terrible,” I said. “How terrible. And you were just a child.”
“Hiding behind a bush. I saw the whole thing. But it didn’t affect me. For two months, it was like it never happened. I played, I did my chores in the fields, I watered the animals and helped my grandmother. And then, two months after, my mother had to take me to the clinic. They said I was trastornado, mentally disturbed.”
From his description I could tell it was a delayed-onset Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. We don’t know why the disorder sometimes takes a long time to show itself, but we do know that the reprieve doesn’t blunt the effects when the symptoms appear. Ernesto’s extreme fear and uncontrollable trembling, so severe that he had to be hospitalized, did not attenuate with the passage of time. The hospitalization may have even exacerbated the symptoms, for although his mother stayed with him during his five days at the rural health post, it was a place run by the government. The army brought its wounded soldiers there to die.
“The doctors here at the jail say you still have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” I remarked. He nodded an agreement, and I asked if he thought there could be some connection between the PTSD and the charges that got him arrested.
“You mean that I lifted up a little girl?”
“Yes, I’m wondering why you did that.” I didn’t add that I could see no possible relationship between that condition and what he’d done with the little girl. For the public drunkenness charge there was plenty to forge a connection. People with PTSD are famous for drinking to dull the pain.
“They say I wanted to hurt her.”
“They say that, but I don’t remember picking her up.”
People with PTSD sometimes cannot recall details surrounding the traumatic event they suffered, but there’s no diffuse memory loss. Mr. Cruz looked puzzled. “I was drunk, I don’t remember it.”
I asked if he drank a lot. “Only that day,” he said. “A lot of beer. And I hadn’t been eating. For almost a week, nothing.”
“You felt bad?”
“Very bad,” he said, lowering his eyes with a look of dismay. His chained hands dropped to his lap.
“Tell me what was going on,” I said.
Now he explained that he didn’t know why, but he’d been having bad thoughts. He kept thinking about bodies and gunshot blasts. He’d been trembling and his heart was beating so hard he couldn’t go to work. His limbs ached, and he was feeling scared of everything. He felt so bad, he even thought of killing himself. His birthday was coming in a few days, and always on his birthday he thought about his life, and what he’d been doing over the year, and what he’d be doing for the following year. A great feeling of sadness had washed over him. He missed his family. When he left his country, he said, his wife was pregnant, he’d never seen his baby daughter. And only once had he been able to talk to his wife on the phone. There were no phones out where they lived. His wife couldn’t write to him; she’d never gone to school and didn’t know how to write. He’d never gone to school, either, but his mother had known how to read and write, and she’d taught him. Far away in El Salvador his wife was living on their 4-acre plot of land with the chickens they raised for market and the beans and corn they raised for food. And with the baby daughter he’d never seen. “They’re living with so little,” he said. “I came here to work, to earn money so we could take good care of our child and send her to school when she’s big enough.”
Just then an iron jail door clanged near by, and Mr. Cruz sprang upright in his chair. A deputy passed by in the hallway, his shaved white head visible through the little window in our cell door. Exaggerated startle response, I wrote in my tablet.
Cruz had been working before he came to jail, as a roofer in a business owned by a relative. Now there was no money to send home, because he’d been arrested.
“Your lawyer tells me this is your first arrest,” I remark, expecting him to tell me about the lousy food and the boring days spent alone or with people who don’t speak Spanish, and to complain about the brutes in charge of the place. What I heard instead was something quite different.
“My first arrest,” he said, “but not my first detention.”
When he was thirteen years old the soldiers had come around in a big open truck. They’d lassoed him with a long rope, and put him in handcuffs and tied him to the rails of the truck with the other boys in the area. The Salvadoran draft. By law, they could only recruit boys over sixteen, but they picked up kids as young as twelve, and if the children tried to run away, they were shot. At the army base they were beaten into submission. Ernesto was held for five days of beatings, and then released because he was underage. Two more times they recruited him by force, and each time they let him go after a few days because he was too young. In his second and third detentions he wasn’t beaten, but he was so frightened he couldn’t eat or sleep. Screams of prisoners being tortured on the other side of the yard tormented him night and day. The mere sight of a military uniform would set him to trembling and shoot hot pains through his arms and legs. For him, traumatized at age nine, the days of detention were almost unbearable.
For three hours I sat in the little concrete cell with Ernesto Cruz and learned about his life of grinding poverty and chronic Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, a life that for more than twenty years had been disturbed by intrusive images of bloody corpses and sounds of screaming men, yet contained no history of aggressive or violent behavior. The projective psychological tests I administered corroborated his narrative account: no antisocial impulses. Despite the many posttraumatic symptoms that kept him in a constant state of arousal, mind re-running scenes of past atrocities and body aching and trembling with fear, he had maintained his loving feelings and preserved his human values. He hadn’t succumbed to the militarization of the mind that leads children in war-torn societies to see violence as the only way for people to resolve their differences.
Ernesto Cruz had married and fathered a child, and had risked a treacherous trip on foot through the Sonora desert to get work in California, nailing plywood on other people’s rooftops so he could keep a roof over his young family. For two years, kneeling on sponge kneepads and hammering with an aching arm, he put in ten-hour days without complaining, then watched TV in the two room apartment he shared with a couple from Mexico. Then, one day, very near his thirtieth birthday but very far from the family on which he’d staked his bets for a normal future, he was so depressed and lonely, and so tired and beset by intrusive, uncontrollable images of the hell he’d lived through in Central America, he couldn’t eat, couldn’t work, wasn’t sure if he could go on. He bought a couple of six-packs and started drinking, and drank himself into a stupor.
He had never seen his little daughter, hadn’t been there when she was born or took her first steps. He’d never seen her smile or held her in his arms. Only in his imagination did he know the feel of her hair, the sound of her voice. In a drunken fog he stumbled down a San Francisco street, swilling beer from a Tecate can in a paper bag, oblivious to his surroundings. And through the window of a laundromat he saw a little girl…