In our column One Word, writers expound on their favorite words.
My uncle Henry has killed a lot of people.
In spite of his dark past, and because of it, he’s my favorite American uncle. Since I cherish bilingually, in English and in Spanish, I cherish my uncles and my tíos separately. The border separates us, cleaving family from familia.
My favorite tío was Alvaro. Unlike Henry, he wasn’t a genius. He never killed anybody, though he was known to get rough with English. His favorite T-shirt was a little too tight and its stenciled letters declared LIFE’S A BEACH!
To visit Alvaro, I travel thousands of miles, to a cemetery in Guadalajara. To see Henry, I need only walk a mile from my apartment to a skilled nursing facility beside a hipster barbershop and an Irish pub.
Henry no longer speaks about the people he killed as an artillery officer, but decades ago, he often rambled about them to my father, his little brother. He shared specifics. He described GIs slicing free enemy ears, threading them together, crafting leis of shriveled lobes. He told about exploded water buffalo dripping from trees, pink rain. He talked about calling in an air strike and obliterating everyone and everything in a village, all life wiped out except for a single baby.
When Henry returned to California from Vietnam, the baby followed him. He continued to hear it crying. He looked for that baby everywhere, including underneath his mother’s house.
He couldn’t find it. Read More