Who’s Afraid Of Guatemala?
I carry a toothbrush. I’m seventeen, on my way to the draft lottery. If I get a black ball, I’ll be exempt from doing military service. If I get a white one, I serve for a year.
I want the back ball, of course.
“Dear God,” I pray, “if You save me from the draft, I will worship You every day until I die.”
Under duress, I become very religious.
But no divinity answers. Only the voice of my country responds.
“Fernando,” Mexico says, “why do you forsake me?”
“No sane human being wants to be drafted into the Mexican Army,” I explain. “That place is a horror of Joseph Conrad proportions.”
“But aren’t you proud of being a Mexican?” Mexico asks.
“Do you have any idea what they do to you in the military?” I say. “They force you to clean latrines with a toothbrush. And if no toothbrush is available, you clean them with your tongue, which is why, incidentally, I’m carrying this toothbrush.”
Being the son of German immigrants, I believe in being prepared.
“That’s an exaggeration,” Mexico says.
“No way,” I say. “Serving is a nightmare.”
“Serving is a sacred obligation to your nation,” Mexico says. “In the Army you will be forced into a system of irrational indoctrination and blind obedience. This is a momentous step in the life of any young man.”
“But why do we need an Army? To fight the United States? Didn’t we already lose that war? Or are we so afraid of Guatemala?”
“Hey, hey, slow down, funny boy!” Mexico says. “Our nation is forever at risk. Remember what President Porfirio Díaz said: So far from God, so close to the United States. We always need to protect our sovereignty.”
“Sovereign? Tell that to the oligarchs running our economy.”
“We will never sign NAFTA,” Mexico says. “You’ll see.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Destiny usually has the last word.”
I walk into the town hall. Hundreds assemble there, nervous, irritated, pushing, ready to fight one another. The building is a modern structure from the eighties. It’s the early nineties and it already looks like a wreck, windows cracked, dirty, steel doors falling apart.
The draft lottery is in progress. Names are announced, one by one, through a loudspeaker.
“MÁRQUEZ, ALBERTO,” blasts the speaker. “BLACK BALL!”
“Oh, thank God,” proclaims a voice from the crowd, most certainly that of Alberto Márquez.
“MÁRQUEZ, INOCENCIO,” calls the loudspeaker. “BLACK BALL!”
“I’M BLESSED!” another voice exclaims. “I’M BLESSED, I’M BLESSED!”
“MARTÍNEZ, APARICIO. WHITE BALL!”
“OH, DAMN!” cries the voice of Aparicio Martínez. “NIETZSCHE WAS RIGHT: GOD IS DEAD! THE VIRGIN OF GUADALUPE WOULD NOT HAVE DONE THIS TO ME! I SHOULD HAVE PRAYED TO HER!”
“MARTÍNEZ, ALFONSO,” announces the loudspeaker. “BLACK BALL!”
“Thank you, Lord. Much obliged.”
MARTÍNEZ, MANUEL: BLACK BALL! MARTÍNEZ, RODOLFO: BLACK BALL!
The alphabetic flow continues.
I pray even harder.
“MEISENHALTER, FERNANDO,” the loudspeaker proclaims. “WHITE BALL!”
This can’t be.
Time freezes, as if someone pressed the pause button of the universe. Modern physics forbids this, but right now all temporal displacement has ceased. There is no sense, no logic, no reason; just an unreal silence deafening my ears.
Such is the power of a white ball.
I only hear the voice of Mexico.
“Don’t worry, Fernando. You’ll be okay. You’ll see.”
There is compassion in that voice.
Time flows once more, as if someone pressed the pause button again.
“You will learn to love your nation,” Mexico says. “Trust me. The Army is not such a bad place.”
“But the Cold War is over,” I say. “The eminent internationalist Francis Fukuyama even said history has ended. Doesn’t anyone read the papers?”
“At least you brought your toothbrush,” Mexico says.
His voice dissolves into the ether, leaving me alone.
I follow the rest of the ill-fated draftees into a large patio like cattle marching into a slaughterhouse.
Everyone is pushing. Fights break out everywhere: Gómez against García, Martínez against Márquez, Salazar against Suárez. I wonder if war has already started. Why am I always the last to find out about everything?
“OKAY!” a guy in uniform yells. “LISTEN UP, CABRONCITOS!”
He silences everyone; he even stops the brawls.
Such is the power of the uniform.
“OKAY, YOU INÚTILES, YOU GOOD-FOR-NOTHING SHITS!” he says. “ALL OF YOU RETARDS WHO DON’T WANT TO SERVE, LINE UP ON THIS SIDE!” he orders. “HAVE YOUR FIVE HUNDRED-PESOS AT THE READY! AND I MEAN NOW!”
What? I can get out to this merengue, this pickle with just five-hundred devaluated pesos, the equivalent of three weeks of minimum wage? I can’t believe my luck. It turns out the endemic corruption of my nation has come to my rescue.
Also, my Teutonic preparedness has made me carry just such a banknote. I pull out five hundred pesos, and rush to the line. Now I’m proud of being a Mexican, proud of the straightforward manner in which my nation demands its bribes.
There’s balance in the universe after all, a promise of justice, however dishonest.
More fights unfold, but I remain calm. Such is the power of five hundred pesos. Above, in the sky, there’s a blue opening, a rare occurrence in polluted Mexico City. I regard it as a sign, guiding me through strange and capricious circumstances. This is no war, I remind myself, it’s only fate and money, and both are neutral, hollow, dead and real.
“MEISENHALTER, FERNANDO!” the guy in the uniform yells.
“Yes, sir,” I reply, and take a step forward.