When you are covered with dust, you are less than human, Alejandro taught me.
And taught me that the rich people stole our money.
He taught me how to get back.
We were thieves.
In our neighborhood, nobody owned a house, we all lived on the sidewalks. When it got so cold, we sew old rags and covered ourselves with them. Alejandro would always hug me to make me feel warmer. In Sunday evenings, we lit up some fire gathering around Gabriel who played his guitar and sang old country songs. He was a thief too, but always worked on cars. One Sunday he didn’t come. When I asked Alejandro he told me that a car had hit him and that the police hadn’t investigated because Gabriel was not important enough. I cried so hard I felt my eyes were going to come out of their places. When Alejandro saw me like that he pushed me to the ground. “Crying is for kids,” he said.
Christmas was one day away; our busiest day in the year; all the wallets were stacked with money. Every year, we tried a new place. All of them were around our neighborhood and the people were not so rich.
This time though, they were.
The second we entered, I saw fathers and mothers buying kids my age pretty, clean clothes. For the first time, I felt ashamed of the dirt deeply buried beneath my fingernails and of the torn clothes I wore. I felt ashamed of my skin, of my hair, of myself. I felt I was cheap as dust. Alejandro saw me and his jaw tightened. He clutched my hand and said, looking ahead, “Come.”
When we entered the shop all the eyes darted towards us; they totally stripped me of everything and I stood before them naked and felt them scrutinizing my nudity then thanked God I was not their child. I saw them moving their kids away wherever we passed like we were dirt. Alejandro approached a blue sweater with Santa on. He asked a man who wore a uniform, “How much is that?”
He replied, “Nothing you can afford.”
“I said, how much is that”
“And I said if you don’t get out of here I’ll have to call the police”
“Do they capture people who enter shops these days?”
“If these people are like you.”
I saw his hands tightening and the veins looked like they were about to burst.
“Alejandro, let’s get out of here.”
He stood for a second then towed me to the door slamming it behind him. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the man’s nose wrinkling in disgust.
I hid my eyes with my sleeves and let my bitter shame translate itself into tears. Abruptly, Alejandro let go of my hand and shouted, “Didn’t I tell you never to cry?”
I removed the sleeves and shrieked, “You are a liar, I saw you crying when our mother and father died.”
The face he always wore seemed to crumple down showing his true age, which was ten years younger than what people thought. In his head, he searched for words but could find none. His lips opened and closed on nothing then his face hardened again and he started walking away.
I felt a soft hand on my back and turned to see an old lady.
“Here,” she said, giving me a bag.
I found the sweater in it.
For a second it was mine. Its texture would cover my bones. I’d walk in it and all kids in the neighborhood would be jealous. I’d visit rich streets and no one would be disgusted from me.
Alejandro snatched the sweater out of my hands, and with it, all my dreams.
He threw it on the ground and said to the old lady, “We don’t need anything from you.”
We walked to the sidewalk. Not a word passed between us. But I learnt how Alejandro never cried.
The muscles of his face were all flexed, I heard them screaming, “We own nothing but dignity and tears are humiliation.”
That day, my face changed forever, losing its softness and finally becoming like my brother's.