No hablo mucho español = I do not speak much Spanish
Vamos = We are going
Comer = to eat
Si = yes
Muy = very
Importante = important
Un momento = one moment
Norteamericanos = North Americans (remember, Central Americans are Americans too, so when you’re in El Salvador or another Latin American country, you’re not just an American–you’re a Norteamericano)
Estupido = stupid
“I’m feeling great!” exclaimed Guy.
“Why?” I asked him. “This is hard work!”
It was Friday, our second full day of work. He and I were kneeling on pieces of cardboard. We were on the shady side of a large cement-block building, scraping the blocks clean of cement spatters from the guys who’d laid the sidewalk several days before.
“Because,” Guy answered, “someday soon this will be a school for the orphans, and we’ll have helped to build it!”
Loud voices came from inside the building. “Those are the workers from town who needed a job, right?” I asked Guy.
Guy said, “What if they try to rob us? They were giving us dirty looks yesterday.”
“As long as we stick together, we’re supposed to be OK,” I answered reassuringly. “It can’t be that big of a deal.”
Guy lowered his voice. “Do you think that ex-stuntman, Mr. Denton, noticed those guys’ dirty looks?”
“Aren’t you getting a little paranoid?” I asked.
“Wake up and look around, Mark!” exclaimed Guy. “You didn’t see the mean looks the Spanish guys were giving Denton yesterday?”
I stared at him. “What do you suggest is going on?”
He shivered. “I wish I knew.”
“I’m hungry,” I said suddenly. “What time is it?”
“Is Mr. Denton going to make us work till 1:00 again?”
“Probably,” he said.
Around the corner came three Salvadoran workers, muttering to each other. As they drew closer, one of them stared at me, and finally said something in Spanish.
I smiled and shrugged. “No hablo mucho español.”
He stared at me for a moment, and repeated himself, very slowly. “Vamos . . . a . . . comer.” The rest of the men nodded solemnly.
“This is important,” said Guy to me softly.
“Si.” One of the men caught his words. “Muy importante.”
I fumbled in my back pocket for my notebook, unclipped my Flexgrip pen from my shirt, and handed both to him. “Por favor,” I said. “La pluma.”
He held them in his hands with a look of perplexity on his face. Somebody else spoke rapidly to him, and then he nodded. Carefully he printed “Vamos a comer.”
“What does it mean?” Guy asked.
I was already fumbling in Dad’s little pocket dictionary. “Comer . . . aha. Here it is. Comer: `to eat, dine.'”
“So they’re telling us to go eat?”
“Or that they are going to eat.” I looked at the men with another helpless smile, and nodded. “Comer . . . si.” I made what I hoped were eating motions.
The men nodded vigorously, but still did not smile. “Vamos a comer,” their spokesman repeated, pointing to himself and the others. “Usted,” and he pointed to Guy and me, “comer.”
“Mark,” Guy said in a trembly voice. “They want us to go eat with them.”
“No, it’s not quite that,” I said. “They’re angry about something.” I smiled and shrugged again.
And suddenly the men broke out into loud, angry shouts, hurling Spanish not so much at us, but into the air, and at the building behind us. Around the corner hurried Al Denton, the former stuntman.
“What’s going on?” he inquired sharply. “Slow down, slow down; you know I can’t talk your language.” He rolled his eyes to the sky. “Why did I ever let myself get talked into heading up the paint crew?” he moaned. “Yesterday these guys were acting like this too. What are we going to do?”
“Look,” Guy suddenly said. “There’s Bundo over on that road.”
“Wait a minute, Mr. Denton,” I said, and then turned to the Salvadorans. “Un momento, por favor.” I dashed across the corner of a field and finally drew up beside Bundo, who had heard my footsteps and turned.
“Bundo,” I gasped.
His lip was curled contemptuously.
“Please, could you come and talk to some men?” I requested. “They are angry, and we don’t know why.”
He sighed deeply, and I’m sure I heard him whisper “Norteamericanos estupidos” under his breath. But he came with me, and when we reached the side of the building we found the Salvadorans and Mr. Denton staring at each other with obvious hostility.
Bundo spoke softly and politely to the men, but they spoke back with great feeling. As they talked, Bundo’s face became stiff and hard. He turned to Mr. Denton.
“It is time to eat,” he said.
Mr. Denton exploded. “Well, tell them to go ahead and eat!”
“They do not want to eat while the Norteamericanos are working.”
Bundo’s voice now had a dangerous edge to it. “If the Norteamericanos work when the Salvadorans do not, that means that the Norteamericanos are saying that the Salvadorans are lazy.”
“We’re not saying that,” sputtered Mr. Denton.
“Yes,” said Bundo, “you are.”
“So that means that when your workers want to stop, we have to stop too?” he asked with an edge of irritation to his voice.
Mr. Denton shook his head. “I don’t see why.”
“Because,” said Bundo in a level voice, “now you are in El Salvador, not Chicago or Los Angeles.”
When we’re down here to work for God on a great project like a school for orphans, I wondered, why does there have to be a problem? I guess “someone else” doesn’t want an orphanage to be built.
After a moment Mr. Denton said, “OK. Tell them we’ll stop. But I’m going to get Chuck’s opinion on this.” He turned on his heel and disappeared.
Dad, Guy, and I were at a table by ourselves at supper, and after we’d eaten I told him the whole story. He was polishing the lens of his Pentax, which he’d removed from his neck during supper. He set the camera on the table and glanced thoughtfully across the room at Mr. Denton.
“H’mmmm,” he said. “He must have offended them. Chuck Kinney tells me that most Salvadoran people are extremely kind and polite. I can’t cut in directly, because it’s none of my business.”
“He said he was going to talk to Mr. Kinney.”
“I’d better have a word with Chuck.” Dad got to his feet and strolled away, but then turned back for a moment. “Mark, could you take my camera back to the room? I’m not going to need it this evening.”
“OK. I’ll put it here in my backpack.”
Right then Mrs. Zeigler drifted by and stopped beside our table. Dangling from her hand was her huge backpack with its lots of compartments. She set it on the table beside my tray.
“You’ve got a sunburn,” she observed thoughtfully.
“Do you have any sunscreen?” She unzipped one of the compartments and started fumbling through it. “I’ve got an extra bottle if you want to use it.”
“Thanks,” I told her, “but Dad’s got some in his room.”
At that instant Mr. Denton’s loud voice could be heard. “The bats!” he shouted. “The bats!”