Written By: Stephany H. Mata
I lived on Liberty Avenue where on good days, national presidential candidates paraded around like peacocks. Windmill-shaped palm trees lined the streets. Merengue music drifted from the corner stores, car washes, and bars that sandwiched our houses into cozy corners. The music never stopped playing, except perhaps, during funeral processions.
On the occasion of a funeral, the hearse carriages always dragged a deafening silence onto the avenue. Families walked to the cemetery with offerings of flowers and rum to ease their lost loved ones journeys into the hereafter.
The Vargases and the Garcias lived next to us. These were the kinds of neighbors who pressed their ears to the walls to hear whether or not Don Ramon’s visa to the “States” has been approved or if Sandra’s husband had cheated on her with the girl from the bank once again. Full of unsolicited advice, they would arrive uninvited to tell us how we just had to “go get a maid” or “send that child back to her mother—she’s trouble.”
Regardless, on Christmas Eve, plates of empanadas, arepas, and flan from their tables would appear at our door. With these came an invitation to join Luz Maria’s midnight firework celebration, which was illegal. But Luz Maria was a judge, and she was well known en El Cibao, so she would assure us that the law simply didn’t apply to her.
Carlos, the neighborhood uncle, manned the fireworks station. He manipulated the colors, which would merge in the sky in competition with the stars. The fireworks lit the night with blooms of red, purple, white, and yellow sparks. We, the children, played on the sidewalks, lighting up firecrackers and tree branches while adults watched in amusement.
Our backyard was often filled with men and children. The men played dominoes and traded roosters for cockfights back in the campo. Women gathered in the kitchen, stirring soups and rice, chitchatting away, clutching small children on their hips while bragging about them. Let’s not forget:
“When will Libertad finally get married?”
“Well, yes, she’s almost twenty-six.”
“She’s finishing her medical degree.”
“Yes, yes, but what about a husband?”
Those days, at dusk, the sun would turn into an orange-red spot on the horizon. We dined by candlelight with family and friends, not by choice, but to save electricity—yet it added to the ambience. I loved to watch the stars make their appearance and listen to the elders’ tales.
On bad days, however, Liberty Avenue teemed with policemen. The children of Liberty Avenue hid at home where the tear gas didn’t threaten to burst our eyeballs and the bullets couldn’t reach us. However, the smoke filtering into the houses clouded our eyes and powdered the hems of our skirts with dust.
The gunfire would cease, to let families mourn their dead. Those processions, unlike on good days, came accompanied by battle cries and rocks of revenge in the calloused and tired hands of the powerless.
Despite our parents’ protests, we sang old revolutionary songs taught to us by our grandparents to ease the frustration of confinement. Our favorite song was an eighteenth-century folk song, a historical inheritance in Latin America. We would march in circles, dressed in our overalls and school uniforms, singing, “Mambru has gone to war, how painful, que dolor, how shameful! Mambru se fue a la guerra, and we don’t know when he’ll come back; Mambru se ha muerto ya!”
Liberty Avenue was a world of its own, and Uncle Carlos was its king. Short, built but somehow managing to look bony, Uncle Carlos had swagger in his stride: one-step forward, hip sway, one-step forward, sway. Uncle Carlos danced bachata with every step he made. Carlos’s friends called him Robin Hood. Our parents called him un tigre and warned us that bad things happened to children who became tigres. Nevertheless, Carlos was our king, and even our parents greeted him with military salutes whenever he marched down the street.
We would run to him, all seven of us, drawn to the allure of his bike and his spider tattoos. We lifted our arms for a hug, maybe a short ride on his bike, and we examined the intricate drawings on his limbs. The spiders seemed to be crawling up his forearm. The deep colors and the flexing of muscles under the skin gave the impression of movement. He would bring us shoes, books, and toys, making us promise to study.
“All of you have a purpose,” he often told us, repeating the words over and over again. “All of you a purpose.”
Uncle Carlos loved carnival day more than Christmas. Our beloved uncle would jump into his devil costume, a long-sleeved jumpsuit-looking outfit. It had tiny metal bells sewn onto the sunny yellow fabric, and its head resembled a mix between a dragon and a tiger. The mask had white fangs protruding from its snout, and two long, thorny horns on its head. The thorns had been dipped in yellow and green paint, one after the other.
Uncle Carlos would then quietly hide behind doors and corners. In turn, we pretended not to notice and tiptoed around him, giggling and waiting for the shrieking roar before the chase. Uncle Carlos’s bells rattled when he ran. Shaking his head from side to side, he made the animal-looking mask come alive. Not too long would go by before the first child would let him “catch” him or her and then be lifted up toward the sky.
“I’m eating this chicken,” Uncle Carlos would announce, and we would flail our arms and cackle in our best imitation of a bird. He cradled us, nestling each of us into the warmth of his chest, and carried us a few yards away only to lose interest. “You’re too skinny,” he would say and then return to the chase.
On the day of Uncle Carlos’s last carnival, he balanced the mask on his motorcycle and leaned against it before lighting up a cigarette. We ran around the lawn with our arms stretched to the sides, pretending to be airplanes and squealing all the while.
Carlos was beaming before the men in uniform came looking for him. The car cruised up to the curb, a big animal on the prowl and preparing to pounce. The sunlight on the car’s bumper fell on Uncle Carlos, and he brought his hand up to cover his eyes. We, the children, halted our game, dropped our arms and lost our smiles.
The plastic shields of the men’s military helmets hid their features. Their rifles stuck out of the open car windows. No one breathed or moved; we only watched as the monster came closer, untamable, a storm looming on the horizon.
“El tigre,” someone yelled, and the words echoed in the air. The cigarette wedged between Uncle Carlos’s lips fell to his feet.
Our parents ran out of the house and grabbed us. Our fragile bodies seemed rooted to the ground, but the adults herded us inside where we huddled and sat in the dark. We looked up at our parents with watery eyes.
The youngest in the group, a six-year-old, began to sing the old song of war. The little girl’s whispery voice rose up. “Mambru has gone to war! How painful, how painful, how shameful! Mambru has gone to war, and he will not come back – Mambru se ha muerto ya!”
Clicking noises filled the air, followed by a deafening bang. The sound left an eerie tone behind. Away from danger, we stood up from our seats, grabbed each other’s hands and marched around in circles, singing the old song. “Mambru has gone to war, how painful, how painful, que pena!”
On the lawn, the grass under Uncle Carlos’s feet turned red, and his tiger-looking mask fell on the crimson grass before him. The helmeted men pulled back their guns and rolled up their windows. Uncle Carlos had joined the revolution, and he had been un tigre. “Mambru se fue, and he will not come back. Mambru se ha muerto ya.”
Two days later, we stood side by side once again, studying the ice bucket under Uncle Carlos’s coffin. We didn’t approach the casket in fear that it was made out of glass. “The casket was made of crystal, how shameful, how painful, how shameful.”
Mournful music accompanied our walk, a slow song coming from a violin. But the deafening silence that was always dragged by funeral processions onto Liberty Avenue was inside everyone. It was inside us children, and it was loud.
No Uncle Carlos was here in his devilish costume to chase us around the yard. We has had no more tigre, no more colorful fireworks, and no more free shoes or books. Uncle Carlos’s bike had lost its allure without him. On that day, we drew squiggly spiders on our tiny arms. Our parents observed us with grim faces, but they didn’t say a word. One by one, we held onto one another’s hands, finally understanding the meaning of the song.
“Uncle Carlos’s Liberty Avenue” was not based on political history, but on a very fictional reading of fragmented memories of my childhood in the Dominican Republic. Luckily, I never witnessed a murder. Nonetheless, people often disappeared, which led to protestors taking over the main street, Liberty Avenue. The police would get involved, but the adults trusted the police even less than the protestors. I remember the songs we sang to fill up the time spent hidden in dark rooms. These songs always seemed eerily political and violent. I also remember the feeling of tear gas burning my eyes.