Valerio had to have a camera, a
Polaroid camera. So my friend Mary Grace got him one. Valerio lived in a mud hut on a mountain-side overlooking
Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Valerio could not read or write. His hut had no water, no toilet, no heat, no phone, no power, no windows or doors, only spaces for windows and doors. The roof was corrugated tin; rain sounded like thugs jumping on your skull.
Maybe Valerio wanted a camera because he was happy. What was happy? Mary Grace said
Lake Atitlan was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. When Valerio wasn’t weaving
pulseras, the rainbow wristbands called friendship bracelets (tie one on, make a wish, wear until it falls off, your wish comes true), he was helping build the house of his future neighbor, a millionaire farmer from the Mainland whose dream was glass and terra-cotta and lava rock, a huge courtyard carved from the cliff, volcanoes from any vista. One hundred seventy-three flagstone steps led down from Valerio’s hut to the rich man’s place. Soon as the mansion was done, Valerio would be its caretaker; he’d never have to worry about finding work again.
Maybe Valerio wanted a camera because he knew what wealth was. What was wealth? The whitewashed walls of Valerio’s hut were bare, save for a photo of a bride and groom, in color. I did not know Valerio. I thought it was his wedding. I thought he was married to the young girl who greeted us sweetly at the gate by the dirt road where we parked our rented car.
We had come to Valerio’s that day — was it August, or October? — not by Mary Grace’s usual route driving directly through the riverbed. That was impossible during rainy season. We had seen a pickup truck with a gringa, her baby, its governess, and a wailing laborer almost swallowed by floodtide, only to be towed out safely at the last instant. We could, Mary Grace pointed, use that log set up to walk across the roiling, rocky waters. That log! Light-headed from the unaccustomed 5,000-ft. altitude, I didn’t trust my balance, but I hated to say no in this new country. Already, I felt like I had flunked Wilderness Training, where if you don’t survive, it’s your choice, your responsibility, your fault.
The detour, which Mary Grace finally remembered after suggesting we ditch the car and hike the three hours it would take by foot to Valerio’s, meant finding a bridge that looked like it came from an Erector set, then negotiating one tricky curve after the next on roads which were barely conceptual, going from cobblestones to dirt to swampy ruts.
Already, Mary Grace had carried Valerio’s camera from Philadelphia, where a mayor had once bombed his own citizens … to Guatemala City where there was a pygmy
replica of the Eiffel Tower downtown because some general or politician or dictator went to Paris and wanted what he saw … to
Panajachel, the picture postcard-perfect paradise of a mountain lake village, where there had been no electricity for three days so you had to worry that the food you couldn’t eat anyway would be spoiled and more dangerous … to this late afternoon of lengthening shadows as I fervently wished I was not trespassing what seemed like an intimacy.
Valerio spoke his native Indian dialect, some Spanish, and no English. Mary Grace spoke Spanish but couldn’t use a camera. I spoke no Spanish but knew how to use a camera; indeed, I had brought along my own, a nifty yet obsolete $15.95 Keystone automatic flash model with built-in telephoto lens. I do not want to romanticize his dignity, but that is the right word for Valerio’s demeanor. Despite his months of waiting, he did not grab eagerly for the Polaroid box which had traveled a thousand miles. Yet my mind focuses on his intense yearning for the thing, his absorption; he paid no attention to the feast-day firecrackers which constantly went off in the distance like gunfire.
Why would Valerio want a camera? And what would he
photograph? Valerio works for hours to weave a single bracelet which he sells for the equivalent of two cents each. Would Valerio take pictures of his dog, the rib-skinny tan bitch that stopped nursing its clutch of pups long enough to nip Mary Grace in the leg when she stared too hard? Would he take pictures of the rich man’s house with its odd furniture shipped from strange ports and its empty modern pottery no village woman would ever fill with water from the river and bear on her
Would he take pictures of Don Pedro the
textile merchant who can’t forget when Affluent Angelique took his picture with her old Insta-Matic and he found her so comely he gave her a dress? Would he take pictures of the German and French and Japanese and American buyers who strip the Indian
marketplaces — the famous Gringo Trail — like locusts, plundering
Chichicastenango, Xela, San Jorge, even Santiago where even a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew did not keep guerrillas from killing his people, or the military, which was killing his people?
The army wore camouflage, rode in jeeps, and flashed long rifles with bayonets. The Death Squad rode in plain cars and dresses in blue. The guerrillas were village boys who congregate in secret at night with their guns and their hopes and their gripes. In another country, they might be a bowling team.
Would Valerio take their pictures? Would he take pictures of the political signs painted on boulders along nearly every road — “MAS” in red, for “more,” outlined in blood; roosters, stars, mysterious initials, promises, threats? Would Valerio paint his own signs? Would he make trouble with his pictures?
Valerio’s mother walks into the room to watch. She’s probably younger than I am. She wears many shiny golden necklaces, not metal but the tiny blown glass globes of Christmas ornaments. What she sees is me reading to Mary Grace, Mary Grace talking to Valerio, Valerio gesturing to me. The camera instructions have become a passion play. We take a picture of Valerio and the girl. Stand closer, I urge them, thinking they are shy newlyweds.
They are not. They are not married, Mary Grace tells me later. The girl is his cousin, just his cousin, Valerio informs Mary Grace. Valerio’s cousin goes to fix
tortillas over a fire, in another room, open to the lake. She gives us each a tortilla. It is the best I’ve ever had. I take a picture of her, with my own camera. As for the wedding photo on the wall, it’s a picture postcard, no one Valerio knows. Something Valerio had admired, and kept; a gringo couple, tuxedo, white gown, milky grins, the works.
How do you explain to someone who cannot read or write or understand your language or you his that this button will make the picture lighter; or, if he is dissatisfied with how one turns out, he can make the next better? That perhaps with the right adjustment he can cure Guatemala itself — the puppet presidents, the politicians strung out on drugs, the murders, the corruption, the incompetence, the poverty, the disease, the hunger, the pollution, the garbage, the hypocrisy?
A cure for Clara Arco’s blonde bitterness bred by her diplomat father’s crazy feuds. A cure for Alejo’s sinister bike trips fueled by the moon. For Wheelchair Warren’s capitalist paraplegia. For Patio Paul’s ennui and perpetual gastric pain. For Junkie Perfecto’s misplaced mercenary zeal. For Giggling Estrella’s inane art of grinning cactus cut from plywood. For Swiss Veronique the Black Market Moneychanger’s serial swindles by savage lawyers. For Santa Fe Sam’s fears of feds finding his stash of antique jade and slingshots. For Ponytail Pete’s heartbreak when Shiatsu Sue split to Disneyland with Tipica Tony the lunky souvenir manufacturer who once had the only fax machine in town. For English Warren’s lame disco where the longhaired blonde guys with faux smiles can’t dance real Salsa to save their souls.
For the 67 distinctly different shades of green on the terraced hills with their exquisite geometry of growing corn, beans, and wheat. For the Indian women pounding their laundry on the stones of creeks and streams. For the stray dogs of Panajachel annually poisoned to make the streets more palatable for tourists. For my friend Mary Grace and her young son Jake, may they be safe living in the house she had built for them at lakeside. For all of them. And for me, silly and shallow and sentimental, convinced I would die there of bad water or bad politics or bad driving or bad flying or bad thoughts.
For all of us, Valerio, please take our pictures. Please make it better, Valerio. Transform our reality into something true, something beautiful we can stop and hold and own, something we can share. Something rare we can see always, Valerio, something we can have, Valerio, when we don’t have it any more.