“If I am not me, then who the hell am I?” – Douglas Quaid, Total Recall
Your real name isn’t Jedi. It’s Geraldo “Jedda” Muñez. Don’t ever forget who you are.
Jedi is the name I gave you when I was ten. This was when the new Star Wars trilogy, the prequels where George Lucas shit his brains out, played in theaters. For a kid like me it never mattered. It was Star Wars.
But this story isn’t about Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader or Chewbacca or even Yoda. This is about Order 66. Betrayal.
This story is about you, my favorite cousin in the whole wide world.
You grew up in Washington Heights, the way so many Dominicans do, and made your way through high school. You did okay and got into college in upstate New York. It’s the path of many Dominicans. The path sociologists tell us we follow by nature and the path the media expects us to follow and the path the patriotic citizens of America want us to follow. It is our path. Yours, mine. Whether you choose to follow it, to give in, is the choice of those other people. The academics and the media. It’s the decision made by “intellectuals” and “journalists” and “true American citizens.” Free will is a joke. Whoever thinks otherwise is a fool.
The only way I got out was by playing the apple. Colored on the outside, white on the inside. When you think like what you’re not, you cheat the system. And yourself, I later realized. I always wondered why, when Darth Vader cut off Luke Skywalker’s hand and asked his son to join him, Luke didn’t say, “Sure Dad, no sweat!” and then destroy the empire from the inside. The thing is this: if you follow the set path, whether it’s working through the inner ranks or on the cusp of the establishment, you lose your identity anyway. Being a subjugated people means you always lose.
That’s what happened to you. By staying true to your path, you didn’t stay true to yourself.
I was visiting your campus when the recruiter made his rounds.
“Serve your country,” he said.
He was tall and muscular but not domineering. He didn’t cast a shadow or look down at you. He looked you eye to eye. Like the guy you’d want to drink with at the local bar.
You looked back at him and nodded absently. He slipped a brochure into your hand. In wide, formal type, type which screamed that it knew what it was doing and assured you it understood what was best for you, it read: HOMELAND SECURITY. You shrugged and slipped it into your pocket, but letters kept coming and more recruiters and more emails. What else could you do in life? Paint houses? Mow lawns? Fix toilets? Run a decrepit auto-shop in Washington Heights?
Here the path split. You could go that way. You could also try your prospects at a federal job that really meant something.
But either way you lose. Either way you’re screwed.
You don’t decide your future. They do.
When you signed up for the Homeland Security job they gave you a gun and a shiny holster and a whole new desk to yourself. Of course your work was mostly desk work, but that was the deal. They give you the weapon, you feel the heft of its weight – the idea of its power – and, with this simple gesture, you’re welcomed into their ranks. You become one of them. End of story.
They placed you at an office in upstate New York, far from family and Washington Heights. You left the desk once a month to visit detention centers and talk with illegals. Their holding cells, gray cribs of concrete, stunk of cold piss. You’d go there, cell by cell, and make your rounds. Order of business.
“Jorge Rodriguez…” You paused. “Dominican.”
The man looked at you, jaw clenched. His muscles tensed beneath his orange clothes. For a moment he looked like an angry clown.
“Sí,” he said.
The illegal looked again at you with his whirling, brown eyes and reached for your clipboard and pen.
“Sign here.” You pointed. “You are under federal law to speak the truth and nothing but the truth.”
The illegal began to sign. The pen ripped the paper, a gentle shriek of tearing filaments and scratching, like a cat clawing at a door. You made him sign again, and he handed back the pad and pen. He was wasting your goddamn time. You clicked the pen once, twice.
“When did you arrive in the United States?”
He breathed. “Ochenta y seis.”
His voice was like nata, the layer of hardened milk that settles over coffee. You know that beneath the nata is flowing milk, boiling liquid that can spill or evaporate or swirl or tremble. Beneath is the chaos of hot fluid. You know the truth about this from all the times Abuelita served us café con leche when we visited her apartment. You know Dominicans love their coffee so hot it scalds our tongues. It keeps us alive.
You remember, don’t you?
Your voice was cold as ice. “English, Mr. Rodriguez. English.”
For the third time his fiery, dark eyes met yours.
“Why did you come here?”
His eyes swiveled toward the window, where light tumbled through the viscous magma of air saturating the holding cell. This light was a constant light, the light of day, and it did not flicker or shift. It was calm but unsettling, like lightning without thunder.
“Dinero,” the illegal said, then corrected himself. “Money. Oppor-tu-ni-ty. Mi familia.” He struggled with the English, but it was more than that.
His eyes settled on the window. He didn’t want to look at you.
“El Jefe,” he whispered, and you heard him curse under his breath. He crossed his shaking index fingers. “The Dictator. Trujio,” he murmured to himself. “Veinte años y el espíritu del Diablo nunca se murió.”
“English, Mr. Rodriguez. English.”
Your friends at work said Arizona was hell. Not that they’d ever been.
“Goddamn Mexicans everywhere,” one of them told you. “The sons of bitches.”
The other guy nodded. “Yeah. It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or some shit like that. You can’t get away from them. Scares the crap out of you.”
Veinte años y el espíritu del Diablo nunca se murió.
Twenty years and the spirit of the Devil never dies.
Once I was at your place and we were in your room with a few other cousins and your buddies. You and the older boys were playing Resident Evil.
“Hermano,” your brother Pedro said. “Cool it.”
“You’re on fire.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
On screen your character was slaying zombies like mad. One hand wielded a mighty blue sword that decapitated beasts by the dozens. The other brandished a giant machine gun that fired ten rounds a second. Each bullet passed through the chests of two zombies in a row, at least. Usually it was three.
You finally sliced the last zombie in half, holstered your gun, and thrust your sword into its sheath. Now it got interesting. You jogged to the side of the field of dead undead and retrieved a blue, pocket-sized machine from your belt. You pressed a button and tossed the device into the center of the vanquished zombies. It hit the ground, igniting into a frosty, yellow mist. Minutes passed. The zombie bodies began to shift. Arms pulled heads to severed necks at the speed water would turn to ice if you pissed into the freezing air of that snow planet, Hoth, in Stars Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back.
“Shit no!” a friend of yours whined. “No fair.” His screen had been the first to fill with dripping red.
“Asshole.” Pedro punched you in the shoulder.
Now the zombies stood before you, an unending field of conquered peoples: ZOMBIES UNDER YOUR COMMAND.
At this point, my mother popped in to see what all the cussing and yelling was about, and when she saw me doing the dog-gape like the rest, she said to you, “Geraldo Muñez, you get here ahora. What the hell is this?” She reached over, snared you in a death-grip, and flung you from the room. She pried me from the spot where I’d glued myself to the bed and held me like a mother grizzly bear protects her young.
“Geraldo, you playing these violent games with a ten-year-old around?” she demanded of you. She shook her head and began to mutter to herself. “Coño, niño. Hijo de gran puta!”
I tagged along, unsure of what was wrong.
“Tía…” You made your eyes big. “I didn’t see him.”
“You saw him. You did! Don’t lie to me.”
“But—” You sighed. “It’s just a game. It’s not real.”
My mother pinched you in the arm. You flinched.
“Who are you to say what’s real and what’s not? Eh?”
You stood there holding your arm as my mother walked toward her bag.
My mother pulled two lightsabers from her bag, put the first in your hand, and wrapped your stiff fingers around its warm hilt. She handed the second to me. My face lit, and I squeezed the lightsaber. She didn’t have to force me to hold this, oh no she didn’t. I moved into position, beckoning with my free hand.
You shook your head. “Oh, hell no, Tía. Hell no. I’m not gonna do some kiddie crap—”
My mother gave you the look. The one every mother’s got, the one that burns through your soul and squeezes jugo de naranja from your brains. The one you know you don’t want to shit around with.
I turned from her to you to her to you.
“Let’s fight!” I exclaimed, not knowing what to do. “Duel!” I extended my plastic lightsaber. It was the green one. My favorite.
You made your eyes bigger and faced my mother, but she wouldn’t give.
“You play with your cousin like you ought to, Geraldo. You hear me?”
You shrunk and entered Spanish mode. “Si, Tía. Lo que tú quieres, Tía. Entiendo, Tía.”
“The hell you do,” my mother shot back. She stalked out.
Behind you I could see Pedro and the other boys peeking through your bedroom door, which you’d left ajar.
You turned once – this would be the only time you would face them again that day – and hissed, “Shut the fuck up!” You faced me. “Alright. So how does this work?”
You fumbled your plastic blade out. It was purple, like Mace Windu’s. I always thought Mace Windu was hip since he was the only black Jedi, one step from Latino. He was also the first important good guy Darth Vader helped kill, but that’s a matter you’ve got to take up with George Lucas, and George Lucas has got the whole clone army, remember? You don’t mess with him.
I waved my lightsaber about and you followed. I waited for your eyes to spin a little too far to the side, then swung my weapon into your crotch. I giggled.
“Jeez, Miguel.” You put a hand between your legs. “Don’t play rough.”
I jabbed my lightsaber at your bedroom door.
“You did.” I smiled. Innocent, honest.
You rolled your eyes, dark suns arching over pale skies. Nevertheless, they were soon glowing moons that reflected the brilliant white light around them. In the space of an instant you’d changed, forgotten your brother Pedro and the rest.
“Shut your mouth,” you said, grinning. “You hit me in the nuts one more time, I’m telling Tía.”
I flung the tip of my lightsaber toward yours.
“She won’t believe you,” I teased.
You shrugged it off, and we sparred.
“You’re good,” I concluded. “You’re like a—” I paused, realizing the sheer gravity of what I was about to say. “You’re like a Jedi.”
It was Fourth of July weekend and the entire family was over for a barbecue at Orchard Beach. We hung around a rough wood table planted in the hot, white sand, just out of the shade of the boardwalk. I was maybe fifteen. You were in your twenties, still working for Homeland Security. I don’t think half of us ever thought much about it.
After I’d stuffed myself with enough junk food, I walked off to play with one of our younger cousins, kicking a soccer ball back and forth. The hot sun beat on us from above, and the sand scorched our bare feet. I imagined Tatooine, home of Luke Skywalker, that searing desert planet George Lucas stole from Frank Herbert’s Dune. The ocean attacked the shoreline in violent, green-brown cascades of foaming liquid and drifting seaweed. We called it La Playa de Los Mojones. The Beach of Shit.
The ball skittered into the surf. As I plunged a foot into the freezing ocean, I heard Uncle Enrique’s voice, belligerent as the crashing waves, and on occasion Tío Héctor’s quiet, accented English. The words themselves were impossible to make out at this distance. The air was thick and unforgiving to the hot turbulence of sound.
“Your fucking culture!” Uncle Enrique was screaming. He sounded drunk. “Your goddamn fucking culture and your goddamn fucking language! You come here and think you can fuck this country to hell.”
I stopped and looked. Uncle Enrique was looming over Tío Héctor. I’d never seen Uncle Enrique like this. He was a quarter Cuban, a quarter English, another quarter white American. Related by marriage. Maybe he hadn’t always seemed, you know, Latino, but he was my uncle always and you love your people like they’re your people because, well, because they’re your people. I guess they’d been talking politics, and Uncle Enrique had probably drunk a little too much.
Tío Héctor, on the other hand, usually didn’t say much at all. Today, though, he had to say something back. He had to, short as it was. Even that turned into a bad idea.
“Enrique, you’re ignorant.” Tío Héctor’s voice was cool and contained on its surface but hot and whirling beneath, like nata and Dominican coffee.
“No!” Uncle Enrique’s mouth was wide as a dog’s, breathing alcohol and hate and fear. “No no no no no. You’re the fucking ignorant one, you bastard. You think you belong here. You don’t. You belong in the Dominican fucking Republic. You’re infesting this country.”
Tío Héctor’s eyes weren’t narrow or wide. They were simply focused, blazing, on his furious brother-in-law’s face. He didn’t say a word. He knew words would do no good. This is one of those moments in life when words don’t do shit for you, and you have to act. Silence, that’s action. Sometimes that’s the best action there is.
Uncle Enrique stomped off drunkenly, dragging his wife with him. He did his best to make noise in the sand. However, sand doesn’t boom. It isn’t drums, sticks, or percussion. Sand whispers, sand molds, sand burns, but sand does not harden.
As family gathered around Tío Héctor, Uncle Enrique reached his car and sped out. The black pavement shrieked at us. I gaped. So did you.
You sat to the side, unmoved from your spot on the rough wood table, no longer sipping your Coke. You had run out. You’d placed your badge on the table and set your eyes on the warm grains of sand churning in the wind, which had turned hot.
The entire scene rotated about an indeterminate axis, as if we sat in a boiling cup of café con leche and someone had stuck in a sugar spoon and spun. There was the family moving hurriedly about, the incoherent banshee-wail of Uncle Enrique’s car, his cracked Budweiser spinning slowly but steadily along the pavement. Even you, who sat so still, seemed to catapult through time. I could see your pupils unmoving one moment and flickering the next.
“Miguel, let’s play,” our little cousin was saying to me. He held the soccer ball in his hands. He’d picked it out of the surf.
I breathed for a minute and eventually nodded. He tossed the ball. We kicked to each other along a short distance, as if afraid we’d lose one another across the depth of space. Somehow he understood that something was wrong. Like the Force, a powerful connection between all things living and dead.
The party broke off soon enough, and as I walked to my parents’ car I saw your badge there on the table, melting in the silence and in the flaming sun.
I understood then that I was wrong. I lived life without any Dominicans but you guys. I believed, like many do, that I was toughing it through the heart of privileged American suburbia. Meanwhile, you lived scavenging off the Latinos your friends rounded up like cattle.
In both cases, we got soul-fucked. No other way to put it.
I watched our family cluster around Tío Héctor as he left, shaking their heads, murmuring, praying. They were praying for Uncle Enrique also. I realized our family is strong. We’re boiling. We’re hot. We burn your tongue and scorch the roof off your mouth. We will always have our Obi-Wan Kenobis and Han Solos. Perhaps we can decide our future, so long as we remember the taste of nata and the numbness of a scorched tongue.
A reading of Jedi Night by The Wire actor Reg E. Cathey can be found here
Jedi Night was originally published in The Best Teen Writing of 2011. It has been reprinted with the permission of the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers.
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