Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Los 5 José
   by Lauren Fitzgerald (Panama 2003–05)
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IN THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR there were five men, all named José Concepción. The first time I visited them, they offered me a pink plastic chairPrinter friendly version and took turns shaking my hand and introducing themselves. I expected them to tell me their apodos, their nicknames, how one might differentiate among them, but they never did. They left me to figure that out on my own. Their mother Rufina and sister Yaurisbeth were of little help, only referring to them as mi esposo, mijo, mi papá, or mi hermano. If I asked which son, or which brother, they said el grande or el chiquito or “the one who helped you kill the snake.” So I learned their apodos from the guys who came hollering from the road, on bicycles, or in packs, or stumbling drunk on a Sunday. They would call out a name I didn’t recognize, and I would scramble to my doorway and watch to see which one emerged. I recorded their nicknames on a page in my journal, but I hardly ever used them. I wasn’t sure if I was meant to.

The father was called Chengo. I went to see him with his sister-in-law, Sara, because she told me he had a house to rent, and I needed a place to live. (Although Sara was assigned by the Peace Corps to be my community guide, she only introduced me to members of her family.) We walked next door and took a look around the wood and clay house; there were droppings and spider webs, and it was empty and very dark except for one naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling. I said I would like to rent it. After a long, tedious wait, during which Sara nagged Chengo to answer and Chengo stared catatonically at his own hands, he offered me the house for twenty dollars a month, plus thirty to fix it up initially. When I moved in, there was a table for my stove, a table to eat at, and three more tables to stack like shelves. There was a bookshelf with the word biblioteca written on it in black magic marker, and there was a well-crafted bed. There were also decorations on the wall for me. Graduation photos of one of their cousins, a string of pink plastic rosary beads hanging on a nail, and four paper maché cherries with letters spelling out L-O-V-E.
For over a year, I shared the water tap, latrine, and bathing area with the 5 Josés and Yaurisbeth and Rufina (whom I learned to call Yody and Rufa.) I borrowed their broom and mop instead of buying my own, and used their slab of wood and brush for washing my clothes. I gave my rent money to Chengo for the first few months, but his silence and refusal to look me in the eye in those moments made me decide to simply leave it in an envelope on top of their refrigerator.
The first time I tried to call Chengo by his nickname, I said chango, which, from everyone’s reactions, I gathered was some kind of orangutan who liked to play tricks on people. I apologized, and just called him José from then on. He was well known in surrounding communities, and everyone said he was buena gente. He was the president of the Fisherman’s Club, and also of the Club de Hornato, which was responsible for cutting the grass on the soccer field. For work, he dug drainage ditches on a sugarcane plantation. He left every morning on his bicycle just as the sun was rising, with the lonche that Rufa had made for him at 5 AM swinging from the handlebars in a round orange cooler.

The eldest son went by Alvenis, which was his middle name. He was 22 when I met him, quiet, serious, and single — and on crutches. In all the time that I lived there, we had only one conversation, and I knew of only two things that happened to him.
     I learned of the first thing during that one conversation that occurred one evening sitting at my table, during my first week in the community, when I was tired and my Spanish was still más o menos. He sat with me in silence, probably, I thought, sent by his father to keep me company, as Chengo tended to either send one of his children or come over himself every evening after dinner. After much hand wringing and focusing on various points around the room to avoid looking at me, he suddenly launched into a long and excited tale about the legendary Coibita soccer team. I concentrated as hard as I could and understood that the team was undefeated for several seasons, and that he was an integral part of its success. Every time he related a happy memory, his voice rose and then fell as he patted his wrapped leg and said, “Not anymore.” He told of traveling all around the province for games, and of taking home trophies, and of beer drinking and fighting in cantinas with rival teams. He spoke very fast, and without looking at me, so when I started to glaze over, my capacity for Spanish comprehension exhausted for the day, he failed to notice, and continued his story for what had to be more than an hour before abruptly saying, “Hasta mañana,” and walking out.

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