Image credit: Sufyan Jalal, from Withering Exhibition

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The Faith of the Rats

I saw some rats

drowned in the flooded streets

of my city.

 

They were floating

belly-up

like gumballs.

 

There was no current,

the water was stagnant,

and they floated.

 

They were flirting

with the ripples made

by cars and bicycles.

They swayed lazily.

Even though it doesn't rain much,

the streets are always flooded,

drowning the rats.

 

It's said

that white rats

are their natural enemies.

 

I saved a little of the money

my father gives me on Sundays

and bought a white rat

at the market.

 

My mother offered me a cage

she'd used for canaries

 

until they got gobbled up

by the rats.

My friends and I put the white rat there.

 

I don't remember when I lost her.

Later I was convinced

that she'd fallen down the drain.

 

The rats started to come out.

They were spotted gray and white.

Startled, I saw mine

running through the courtyard

I grabbed her by the neck

and she bit me.

 

How it hurts to be bitten by someone you love.

The consequences for me

were fourteen shots in the stomach.

My parents suspected the rat

had rabies.

 

Rats that disappeared down the drain.

Rats that fell in love.

Rabid rats.

I sigh when I remember my rats.

 

 

The Fifth Faith of the Rats

The cardboard boxes

with ripped scraps of paper

smell like a rats’ nest.

 

My brother and I

smelled them,

we discovered them

while cleaning the back room

of our father’s perfume shop.

 

With joy

we carefully wrapped

a piece of red flannel around them.

 

This was our encounter

with a straight path

toward a life that would smile on us.

 

Like the dusty

amber-colored bottles

that stood there,

filled with all those scents,

those soothing essences.

 

There were lots of little rats

We counted fifteen

But then the cat came and devoured them

indifferently, right before our eyes.

 

That was our first encounter

With actions

that turn out to be futile.

 

 

The Sixth Faith of the Rats 

Scraps of old newspapers

Formed a nest for the rats.

 

Newborn rats

are not ugly

Their skin

is pink, smooth and delicate.

 

They’re curious.

You could love them

 

the moment you hold them

in the palm of your hand.

 

 

The Last Faith of the Rats

All the toys of the barrio

ended up

in the storm sewer

at the end

of our old street.

 

Colored marbles,

plastic soldiers

toy cars and so many

memories and joys.

 

So that on the day

when the rat comes back

to our house

she won’t be lonely.

 

So that she’ll sigh

just as I surely will

one day…

 

Seeing

so many things

half-buried

in the black mud

whenever she wants.

 

So she'll remember

the life

we lived

 

in our fantasies

from up here

at ground level.



Original ↓

Fe de ratas

Vi a unas ratas

ahogadas en las calles

anegadas de mi ciudad.

 

Flotaban infladas

como bombas de chicle,

panza arriba.

 

No había corriente,

el agua estaba estancada,

solo flotaban.

 

Coqueteaban

con las olas que producían

los autos y las bicicletas.

Se mecían parsimoniosamente.

Aunque no llueva fuerte

las calles siempre están

anegadas, ahogando ratas.

 

Se decía que

las ratas blancas son sus enemigos

naturales.

 

Junté un poco del dinero que mi padre

me da los domingos

y compré una

rata blanca en el mercado.

 

Mi mamá me regaló una jaula

que ocupaba para sus canarios,

 

hasta que estos fueron devorados

por las ratas.

Allá la llevaba con los amigos.

 

 No recuerdo cuando la perdí.

 Después tuve la certeza que

se había ido por el drenaje.

 

Las ratas comenzaban a salir.

Pintas, gris y blanco.

Estuve alerta y vi a la mía

corriendo por el patio.

La sujeté del pescuezo…

¡Me mordió!

 

Como duele la mordida de alguien que quieres.

Las consecuencias fueron

catorce inyecciones en el ombligo.

 Mis padres sospechaban que la rata

tenía rabia.

 

Ratas que se van por el drenaje.

Ratas que se enamoran.

Ratas rabiosas.

Suspiro y recuerdo a mis ratas.

 

 

La quinta fe de ratas  

Las cajas de cartón

con viruta de papel,

huelen a nido de ratas.

 

Mi hermano y yo

las olimos,

las descubrimos

limpiando la trastienda

de la perfumería de papá.

 

Con alegría

las acomodamos con cuidado

en una franela roja.

 

Fue nuestro encuentro

con un camino

de frente a una vida que nos sonríe.

 

Como los empolvados

envases color ámbar

que estaban allí.

Llenos de todos esos aromas,

emolientes y esencias.

 

Eran muchas ratitas.

Contamos quince.

Pero llegó eI gato y simplemente las devoró

frente a nosotros.

 

Fue nuestro primer encuentro

con los hechos que no tienen

remedio.

 

 

La sexta fe de ratas  

Viruta de papel periódico,

era un nido de ratas.

 

Las recién nacidas

no son feas,

son de piel

rosada, suave y delicada.

 

Son curiosas.

Podrías amarlas.

 

Al tiempo que las tienes

en la palma de la mano.

 

 

La última fe de ratas

En la coladera

que está al final

del camino de la casa vieja,

quedaron depositados

todos los juguetes.

 

Canicas de colores,

soldados de plástico,

carritos y muchos

recuerdos y alegrías.

 

Para que llegado el día,

cuando la rata esté de regreso

en casa,

no viva triste.

 

Para que suspire como

seguramente

yo lo haré...

 

Viendo

tantas cosas

semi sepultadas

entre eI cieno negro,

cada vez que ella quiera.

 

Y que recuerde

la vida que

vivimos

 

 En las fantasías

de aquí arriba

al ras del suelo.

Translator's Note

I first met Jesús Maya while living in Toronto in 2010. As a student of Spanish and Latin American literature at University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature, I felt that I could not effectively or ethically claim to study a culture without familiarizing myself with people from that culture and immersing myself in the local community. On the invitation of a Nicaraguan-Canadian friend I’d met in my Master’s program, I began attending Latinx cultural events around Toronto: concerts and lectures at a community center called Casa Maíz, dances and May Day celebrations at a steelworkers’ union hall, and Sunday morning poetry readings at a Caribbean café. Much to my surprise and delight, the people I met in these community spaces welcomed me even though I was a non-Latinx “canadiense”...and to my even greater delight (or should I say relief?) they continued to accept me even when they found out that I was actually not a canadiense at all, but a bona fide Buffalo, New York-born gringa. Soon I was reading my own poetry at these events, helping to organize a cultural festival focused on bringing poets and political activists together, and translating work by various local Spanish-speaking writers, then reading it alongside them at public events.

 

It was through this community involvement that I encountered Maya. A recent immigrant to Canada, he was working by day as a painter of home interiors and by night organizing cultural events. The first time I heard him perform his poetry, he was accompanied on electric guitar by his younger brother Emanuel; they called their duo Los Santos Inocentes (The Holy Innocents). In the cadence of a song, Maya spoke of the harsh realities of growing up in poverty, the pain of living with addiction, the hope of a new life as an immigrant, and the stark reality when learning that a new life brings with it new challenges. While some of these themes may seem familiar, Maya brings a freshness to them that comes from looking through the lens of childhood and youth. Though the themes of his poetry are intense, he approaches them with humor, playfulness and heart. It was with great joy that I attended the launch of his first book, La Tolvanera, in 2012. Drawing a crowd of around two hundred people and accompanied by live music, it remains one of the most joyous literary events I’ve ever attended. 

 

I decided to translate Maya’s work soon after the event. Over a period of about five years, with many pauses in between, I translated the book with guidance from Maya’s friends Matlactli Kiahuitl, a writer, and Paloma Villegas, a sociologist who focuses on migration studies. Both the subject matter – which describes intense experiences quite different from my own – and the conversational tone of these poems posed a challenge for me. I spent many hours talking with Maya, listening to his stories the life experiences that led him to write these poems and watching films that he enjoyed as a child, in particularly the classic Pepe el Toro trilogy from the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. At a later stage in the translation process, I shared the manuscript with Ben Johnson, a writer and catholic worker in Dubuque, Iowa who provides support for men experiencing homelessness, to see how these poems would be received by a monolingual English reader who has lived in much closer proximity than I to the realities that Maya describes. Receiving his feedback helped me further to strike a conversational tone that would convey these poems’ message and mood to English-speaking readers.

 

Rats are the bane of any city dweller’s existence. Years ago, when my friend adopted two white rats as pets to keep her company in her Manhattan apartment, she would regularly tell her neighbors that they were gerbils, since the idea of someone keeping rats as a pet is enough to strike primal fear into any New Yorker (and according to her, most people don’t know what gerbils actually are). Maya is also a lifelong city dweller, but for the child narrator of these poems, rats are loving companions, beings who deserve tenderness and care. Though they sometimes turn against the humans whose habitat they share, (“It hurts to be bitten by someone you love”) they are a source of comfort, laughter, and friendship.

 

In recent years in the US, we have been bombarded by gut-wrenching stories and images of immigrants seeking refuge within our borders. Primarily from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala as well as Mexico, these people are fleeing poverty, environmental destruction, and the violence of organized crime, which is itself a result of our country’s long-standing War on Drugs. These asylum seekers endure harrowing conditions on the journey north, and unfortunately, some do not make it alive. If they are able to enter the US, they regularly endure economic hardship, social isolation, the fear of an uncertain future, and discrimination in their new home. However, as Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has warned in her acclaimed TED talk on “The Danger of a Single Story,” it is necessary to avoid the temptation to only hear one incomplete narrative of a person or group of people. Having lived and worked for several years with Central American and Mexican immigrants in my current home of Dubuque, Iowa, I know that their stories are complex, nuanced, and unique to each individual’s experience. The gentle humor and tenderness of Maya’s work serve as a call to resist the temptation to categorize and stereotype people, to remember that each person, no matter where they come from, has a singular story to tell, and thus to affirm the dignity of all.


Jeannine M. Pitas

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