Who would have imagined that young Emiliana, a business student in El Salvador, would one day be working as a gym teacher in California, and would decide at age fifty to write her memoirs —in English? Her memoir-writing group meets in a handsome wood-paneled room on the fourth floor of the Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco, reached by a spectacular spiral staircase that snakes through the landmark building.This afternoon, as her fingers scan the curved banister and her feet make their way up the marble steps, her mind contemplates this week’s writing prompt: “Change.” How much can change in thirty years’ time! The country you live in, the friends you tell your secrets to, the language your children speak, the kind of work you do...And the things that don’t change? She was contemplating them, too, as she climbed the steps: the things impervious to change, that don’t grow or shrink, or fade, or wither; that remain indestructibly faithful to themselves. There were things reappearing in their exactitude on a looping filmstrip in her head, held in their track by a perverse memory guard. What about those things? A voice, for instance: an intonation, a spoken phrase; a recurring dream that for thirty years plays and replays a single moment in time—the moment after the colonel ordered her husband out of the car. She was walking through the university parking lot, toward Miguel, who was waiting for her in their old Toyota. A man in uniform approached the car and ordered Miguel out of the car. He got out and stood by the driver’s door. Then the colonel pointed at him and barked an order: “You: Step this way, I want to show you something.”Miguel stepped over. The colonel pointed his pistol at Miguel’s forehead and the brains of Emiliana’s beloved husband went shooting through the air like exploded melons. His brains. Like when they killed the Jesuits that same year. The war of the terrorist government was a war against thinking.Over and over in an endless loop, for thirty years she has been re-living the terror, those exact sounds, that precise moment. Her memoir, she hoped, would preserve the truth of her immutable point in time, to embed it securely in the historical record, never to be lost in the great wash of change that threatens to rewrite realities.At the lower end of the staircase Emiliana feels as though she’s inside a snail. The bright dome up at the top could be an eyeball. From time to time as she glances at it while making her ascent, it seems to be glancing back.On the fourth floor she’ll look over the banister at the coiled steps that wind down the steep grade to a landing far below. The drop is so great, a pendulum could swing in it while the earth rotates, proving as the saying goes that what goes around comes around.The pages she wrote for today are about her life in El Salvador. Her fellow writers already know she went to college in the States, did some graduate work, got a credential, and started teaching when her daughter was big enough for pre-school. They know that her choice of physical education as a major had to do with a love for the martial arts, and the Chinese-immersion pre-school for Katy had to do with her marriage to Ben, an immigrant from Shanghai who she met in an ESL class. School, family, life as a refugee: she’d written about those things. Today her fellow writers would hear for the first time about El Salvador—the fear and the sorrow, her brother’s detention and torture, her mother’s violent death. They would hear about Emiliana’s first eight months of widowhood, spent in hiding after the murder of her husband Miguel. She wrote a whole page on the indelible filmstrip in her head. “You! Step this way…” After thirty years of being unable to talk about it, she was writing her testimonio.Clutching the pages torn from her heart, she climbed the spiral staircase, looking up now and then at the eyeball that stares down at the interior of the long white cylinder. From the fourth floor she will be able to look straight down into the void, to the inconspicuous piece of marble flooring at street level. She often thinks of how much her dearest Miguel would have loved the drama of that staircase. He was a student of architecture. Emiliana used the restroom on the fourth floor landing. When she came out, a stocky man in a leather jacket was chatting in Spanish with a woman on her way in to clean the facilities. Emiliana stepped over to the rail to enjoy her favorite view again, the vertiginous drop to the lobby. She overheard the cleaning woman congratulating the man for his nephew’s award in a chess tournament. She heard him say he hopes the boy will choose a career in the military when he grows up. “Like me,” he bragged, “Atlacatl Battalion, trained at the School of the Americas. Been here since ’90. Special-entry visa.” He laughed.Emiliana froze, too stunned to move. She couldn’t see the man’s face. But she knew the voice. She had been hearing that voice, trembling to it, for thirty years.The cleaning woman wheeled her cart into the restroom. Emiliana stood at the iron rail that separated the winding steps from the long, treacherous drop. Such a long drop…Never mind that the eye above was watching; she took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. Emiliana the gym teacher flexed her strong muscles. There were thirty years of tension wound up in those muscles. She braced herself at the rail of the precipice. Her throat felt like she’d swallowed rust. But she was able to speak, she knew exactly what she needed to say.From the rail, she pointed at the man. “You!” she barked, “Step this way. I want to show you something.”
*; *; *; WINNER 2017 SUNSHOT BOOK PRIZE FOR NONFICTION *; *; *;A gift of truth for a generation of Dreamers, a vault of memories for their parents, and a record of shame, pride, sorrow, humor, and forgotten fact for a nation of immigrants.One comes away from Human Rights and Wrongs knowing more about motivation, fear, risk-taking, and problem solving than when one began. But more than that, one knows more about the conditions of oppression that force people from all overCentral America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, North Africato flee their countries, and the conditions of human support and solidarity that help them rebuild shattered lives.A broken immigration system that leaves a child in Arizona without parents and a man in El Salvador without children may make one cry. But there's much to celebrate, too, like positive outcomes in asylum hearings, the beauty of volunteer efforts that ransom a student out of immigration detention, the helicopter rescue of a writer lost in the woods.Dr. Aron's book is both instructive and uplifting, and a fierce rebuke to anti-immigrant voices booming across our spacious skies.