Coming of Age in El Refugio

Our son Luís turned twelve on January 30th. For the past few months I’ve noticed a deepening in his voice. He’s grown taller than his mother. When we go to church in our old neighborhood, he passes the hour outside on the street corner with much older boys and young men–listening rather than participating in their conversations. He’s been given hygiene instructions by his 6th grade teacher (along with his male classmates) regarding deodorant and body lotion use. He’s taken to taking a pre-school shower as well as another one after-lunch. (Schools here have morning and afternoon sessions to accommodate the high student-to-classroom ratio.) Our shower and toilet facilities are some 40 or 50 feet from the house proper with a garden in between. It’s ideal for privacy.

It’s been 66 years since my own puberty arose with that surprisingly wonderful yet frightening experience of wet dreams. Wonderful in enjoying my first inexplicable orgasms and frightening when I felt I had to conceal the strange sticky stuff that I encountered in my pajama bottoms. I didn’t want to know how my mother would react when she found it while doing the wash. From my earliest memories, shame was continually drummed into my conscience regarding bathroom functions being private and “doctor” was never to be played–especially with girls.

I grew up in a small rural community. How small was it? Our two-room school comfortably contained k-2 grades in one room and 3-5 in the other. Boys and girls never played together during recess or lunch. Physical education mandated mixing the genders in order to have enough players for team sports. Fifth grade was the first awareness my male contemporaries had of breasts. We referred to those curious buddings as tits. You never said “tits” in front of your mother. If you said it in front of a girl, she’d tell the teacher and you’d be in trouble–even if you didn’t know why. No one would explain this Victorian concept to you. We heard the word f**k from older boys but hadn’t a clue as to what it meant. It was just another “cool” word. Until my father bought a brand new blue serge suit and put it on for us to see. My mom and sister must have has some nice complements for him. They asked 9 or 10-year old me what I thought. With a big smile on my face I eagerly replied, “You look like a f**k!” Again, no one explained why I received a smack on the face for what I thought was a statement of great approval. I was questioned as to where I learned that word and replied that all the boys use it on the playground. While the sting on my cheek was fading I was told never to use it again. That’s where I was during my early grammar school years.

Sex was a secret kept from children. No one ever answered honestly the question, “Where did I come from?” Boys and girls went shirtless during the summer and we didn’t know there was any difference beneath our underpants. Truly an age of innocence! There were moments of curiosity. I once saw Ruthie Dotson squat to pee in the middle of School Street. We were aware that girls wouldn’t join us in swimming from time to time giving a vague or incomprehensible explanation for their non-participation. Then Alvin Petty introduced us to the “f**k book”. Alvin must have been 18 or 19. He’d come to the playground and talk to us little kids. Then he’d break out a small cartoon book and share it with us. The popularity of Disney characters increased as we watched Donald and Daisy Duck getting it on and read those forbidden words describing the action and the organs used.

In our early and mid-teens, while hanging out at night by the highway to watch the latest cars go by and offer our comments to one another along with wishes to be old enough to drive, Alvin Petty would park across the road in a darkened parking lot with Priscilla Frary, a young lady of questionable repute. One night we dared cross the highway to see what they were doing. They were in the back seat, Alvin on top of Priscilla. We couldn’t see much in the dark but it was our first vicarious experience in live pornography. By then none of us had ever seen a girl our age nude. I wasn’t exactly sure why I would get an erection walking down the hall of our middle school. I would try to walk in a way that my pants front wouldn’t bulge, maybe hold my books in front of it while changing classes, or wear long shirts not tucked in. In those days I’m sure we all masturbated and wondered what it would be like with a girl other than Mary Palm and her five daughters.

Back to son Luís and the source of this essay. I normally use a lap top on my desk. But we also have a personal computer that my kids use for research, games, and watching Shakira videos. I use it to read free books a few chapters at a time when I’m in the mood for adventure in the old west. Yesterday I opened the P.C. to Favorites. I clicked History to find the last page I had read on Monday. In the list of pages sought I found porn sites. I remembered that on Monday morning the kids were in school, Margarita and I went shopping in Ahucahapán, and almost 21-year old son Juan was at home. In the afternoon we were all in the house and I would have noticed either Luís or his 9-year old sister Adriana watching porn on their computer to my right five feet away. Since I’m not happy with Margarita’s adult son sponging off my pension and straining my good will with Salvadoran culture’s concept of family, I called my dear wife and showed her about eight porn site addresses on the calendar. I explained my theory and told her I would have to put the computer under a password. I mean, here’s a young adult who works sporadically, can’t keep a girlfriend because he can’t support one, and must have urges despite his social impotency.

Mother had to defend her older son and inquired of Luís if he had knowledge of any of this. With a little prodding and the realization that he was trapped, he offered that one of the older boys he hangs out with on the above mentioned street corner had taken him to the cyber café and introduced him to porn. He either wrote down the addresses of their favorite sites or he learned how to Google “pornogrofía“. I checked the calendar further back and found that he had been enjoying the video delights for at least the past three weeks.

I am a stranger in a strange land. I have often mentioned in these blogs how cultural differences go much further than language, music, and food. I have also criticized what I call a lack of logical reasoning among the locals and attributed their way of thinking to some primeval cultural adaptation that has carried forth like a human appendix, omnipresent but useless. Gender-specific body parts and natural functions do not have the same moral and emotional attributes as they do in U.S. culture. There are not code words for urination, defecation, genitalia, and sexual practices to keep children from using “dirty” words or learning too much too soon. Here, soon enough is when the organism becomes aware of a change in himself or herself and has the capacity to act upon it. Hence, coming of age is not determined by a religious rite or a legislative act. It is determined by nature itself. This concept is diametrically opposed to my own upbringing and has led to frustrations, neuroses, and legal problems among my  elders, contemporaries, and youngers.

Upon gaining all this information about Luís’ discovery of sexual intrigue, I added it to such changed behaviors as taking more and longer showers or time in the bathroom, a desire to stay at home when the rest of us go out, and an increasing pattern of extra time in bed. The North American dad in me said something needed to be done. But what? And why? Was he doing anything different from what I would have done had the technology been available to me at his age? Did I not discover a book in my parents’ chifferobe with drawings and prints of naked adult male and female and more than once review them with fascination? But then I considered the prevailing culture. Once again there was a stark conflict between the teachings (or lack thereof) of my youth and those of my Salvadoran son. Further, I recalled visiting a family in Mexico and arriving a bit early. The mother was in bed with her boyfriend and the youngest daughter, about nine, was next to her mom. That struck me as horrendous. I doubted that the child was unaware of their coital activities or what they represented. In time I learned that I was correct in my assessment of the situation and that it was normal, not taboo, not something not to be talked about.

American me put a password on the P.C. so that only I can open it. It will be available to Adriana upon request for whatever purpose. Luís may use it for study purposes for three weeks but not to play games or watch Shakira videos. Salvadoran me won’t bring the subject up again to our son. As usual, Margarita handled it well and according to her culture by pointing out that porn is immoral and can lead to unfortunate consequences. That’s good enough for me. But in the past few weeks we have bought pecheras, training bras, for Adriana who is budding and insisted that she wears more than her bikini panties in the house. I guess I’ve become somewhat of a prude in my old age. I’m certainly going to try to protect my daughter from any misadventures while she’s under my roof and still my responsibility. I hope Luís will grow up respecting his sister and all girls as well. Womanizing is unfortunately part of this culture. I can’t change that but maybe I can help our son to respect women and respect himself.

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