Shape Does Not Define Me

Diana Arriaga

Copyright 2020 by Diana Arriaga

Photo of an alter with candles.

My hands are stained with despair and calloused with regret, a tattered map of who I am. When I look down, I am standing on sin and dreams. I am living, but my shadow is not. It is my grave, but not my death. This is the beginning.

Eight years old I am surrounded by hushed conversations and angry murmurs; a culture of implication built on euphemisms dictated by the fear of suffering a similar fate. The neighborhood's park is colorless, gray cement and rusty metal goals without nets on brown grass. Municipal elections come, and someone from our neighborhood is elected; worry lurks in my house and plagues the news, but the violence overshadows any chance of protest. The workers come shortly after; they pave the streets anew, they pick up the trash often, they transform the park. Swings and slides, goals with nets and freshly cut grass. I play often, but never without supervision. I know this is corruption even before I comprehend the word; there is no other explanation.

Ten years old I know what happens throughout the country. Although my mother tries to hide gruesome headlines, the ink taints my innocence and removes my blindfold. The pain and the names; blur together; they are the only thing I know. Kidnappings, torture, murder; I want to do something, but I am told to focus on my education. The juggernaut of terror consumes city after city. Like dominoes, the states fall. I am a pawn in a game with no rules and no prize; I play for the ending. Doors are locked from sundown to sunrise, and only "hawks" stay out to report police activity to drug lords. Every conversation includes tragedy, except that of Christmas dinner when my aunt arrives at four in the morning after working to prosecute perpetrators of the shooting, and we discuss anecdotes to dispel the fear in the air. There exists a small semblance of normality until the sun rises and the newspaper hits the door; it sounds like Death's knocking. Elections have another winner, not from my street, and the park is overtaken by a gang; the swings are torn, as are the goals' nets. The first time I see a gun is outside the hospital - a tool of death near a place that preserves life. The police hold two men against a car; shouts I cannot decipher mingle with frenetic traffic that comes to a standstill. My mother and I run to the building; the city is a ghost town the rest of the day and has been ever since.

Twelve years old I am not sure what destroys more, hope or haunting memories. My mother shrivels like a raisin when her phone rings and money is demanded by the caller, with the safety of my sister at stake. My mother does not breathe, my mother does not cry; my mother is the image of terror, desperation growing in her eyes heavier than gravity with every passing second it takes my sister to answer. The five rings of the phone feel like the heavy chimes of bell towers; they toll to announce an imaginary funeral that is dispelled when she answers my call, prompting my mother to hang up and listen to her daughter's voice. Neither of us sleep that night, although I pretend I do for her sake; her nightmares have never completely gone away, and I have stopped dreaming altogether. I flinch at the ringtone of that call, the one my mother has since disabled and I avoided; when it emanates from a cell phone, I taste bile and dread combined. My lungs burn with trepidation when foreign numbers flash across my phone screen. When I think I have forgotten, my body remembers; fear has become a sinew of mine, uniting instinct and hope.

Fourteen years old I no longer play outside. The gang symbol of the rooster in bleeding red spray paint follows me; I miss flying high on the swings, although it was never enough to escape. The stabbing in front of the school is a harrowing memory; the hands of violence are a constricting shadow around my neck, and each breath is a struggle. The former municipal winner is back in his house, but he is a dead man walking, guilty of money laundering and theft. The park houses despot criminals; the grass is stained with invisible blood. On a rare trip to the movies, two gang members pass carrying something; in the safety of the car, my sister murmurs, "It's a lion cub." We don't say it's wrong, we don't report it; what's the use? I learn to distinguish fireworks from gunshots, but I flinch beneath the vivid colors of New Year celebrations, wishing for the fear to end.

Sixteen years old my great-aunt has been kidnapped, my cousin murdered. My city is the 'safest' in the state. Every time a bus blocks a street during a U-turn, my heart beats ice in the possibility that it is a blockade. What will my mom think when she sees I'm not home but I'm on the news? My eyes race to look for escape routes; my muscles tense to flee because the alternative is futile. When the tires turn and the street clears, I live, but I am not alive. I cannot honk at cars without license plates or stare at others questioningly in restaurants for a simple reason: so I do not die. Telling the bad guys from the good ones is difficult due to constant shootings, but does it matter anymore? Fear unites and separates the country; I am considered insane for living here.

Eighteen years old I learned of corruption on the playground, reading the intentions of others before playing with them. The country runs on empty promises and people starved for justice; I am one of them. I cherish the Day of the Dead, understanding missing people equal permanent absences; I hope the fight for truth never ends because remembering the dead keeps them alive. I devise I Spy and Alphabet games during long car rides, inspiring laughter to deflect the constant apprehension of an assault. I learn to hope against hope, knowing the truth with an unbearable heaviness but choosing to be the one that keeps the family moving forward. The light in my bones shines, and I read the shadows it draws to never be blinded.

The ground speaks with the blood of thousands; it yearns for peace. The specters among the graves have followed me since my childhood; they weep for us. In fighting my way out, I find pieces of family members, and I put them back together when the weight of reality shatters them. I grew up too fast and too soon to understand what was happening around me, and before I knew it, I was shaped.

I was born and raised in Mexico, but I have studied in the United States since elementary. I am deeply interested in linguistics and languages, and I hope to study them in the future. I do not have experience publishing work, only reading it at small school-club gatherings.

I have just graduated high school in the middle of the pandemic. As much as I enjoy writing, most of my pieces are deeply personal; they are as complex as I am, and many people never know what to expect or say after I read them. I am a bilingual speaker, and I have grown up evidencing the clash and merging of cultures. 

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