It’s not often that I have the opportunity to reflect on Salvadoran-American fiction. In fact, this is actually the very first time. The only other instance in which I’ve cited the work of a contemporary Salvadoran-American author is in a brief note on Juan José Martínez D’aubuisson’s Ver, oír y callar (2016), a nonfiction book on the infamous wars between El Salvador’s two rival barrios. Now, Randy Jurado Ertll’s El Cipitío (2016) has changed that. As a disclosure, I met Randy Ertll last summer at a Central-American festival in Los Angeles, where I purchased a copy of his book.
The story of El Cipitío actually precedes Ertll’s book, going back to a Salvadoran legend about an orphaned boy spawning from an ‘extramarital’ affair between his mother, Siguanaba, and the Morning Star, otherwise known as Lucifer. In Nahuatl, or the Aztec language, Siguanaba means ‘beautiful woman’, which is what Cipitío’s mother is considered before his birth. By contrast, Sihuehuet means ‘ugly woman’, which is what Cipitío’s mother is considered in the wake of her ‘illegitimate’ child. Furthermore, in Nahuatl, Cipit is a word for youth, and today, almost any Salvadoran you can find will commonly refer to youth as ‘cipotes.’ If this has you wondering about how a North American or “Mexican” indigenous tribe’s language made its way into Central America, it’s because of the Aztec culture’s span into Central America at least half-a-century before the Spanish arrived to the American continent.
In other words, Cipitío’s dance through the imagination goes back so long that probably no living person today could trace its exact timeline. Moreover, the story has changed throughout the ages to reflect the views of different generations in different contexts and environments. With this in mind, J.T.’s review will tell readers why Randy Ertll’s Cipitío (2016) gives voice to a quintessentially modern version of Salvadoran-American male youth culture across Central and North America, fulfilling a dire need for the representation of this culture in contemporary American literature.
As an advisory, when I picked up the book, I had a choice between an English and Spanish version, choosing to go with the latter in an effort to improve my fluency. In turn, the following quotes will all be in Español, while my analyses will remain in English. A truly modern Latinx style of review.
To begin with, Ertll informs readers early that his Cipitío will be a far more complicated character than what those familiar with the legend may be used to:
“La traumatizada criatura, con apariencia de niño, casi siempre estaba enfadada por nunca haber pasado de los 10 años de edad y quedarse solo midiendo tres pies de altura. El demonio le había hecho así y le impuso el deseo obsesivo de vengarse de todo el mundo.”
By introducing el Cipitío as a brown-faced boy of extraordinarily short stature–who nevertheless has hidden superpowers while being ‘cursed’ indefinitely to being ten years old–Ertll honors the essence of the legendary character’s features. But by referring to him as a ‘traumatized creature’ made by the ‘devil’, he describes a more modern and relatable figure to the ‘racial subconscious’; for one, Cipitío’s brown skin and short stature reflect the features of many real Latin-Americans, whose physical bodies, like our protagonist’s, occupy space in a world where tall, strident white figures symbolize the dominant order. For another, because even Cipitío’s own mother is a source of rancor for him, reminding him only of loss and separation, there is little to no chance for the youth to understand the layers of his story beyond that of the pain it invokes, a recurring theme for many Latino families as they tell the stories of their migration across lands.
Ertll’s Cipitío is thus complicated from the beginning, setting him apart from the more simplistic youth in the legend who’s a generally happy character only occasionally suffering loss and chagrin. At the same time, for any reader who’s even slightly familiar with Latin-American displacement over the last three decades of U.S. policy, it’s clear that Ertll’s character is speaking to the historical periods preceding his contemporary one.
Even if readers are not familiar with this history though, as good fiction does, Ertll’s writing offers a glimpse into the historic Latin-American diaspora through the details ‘fleshing out’ el Cipitío, which are ‘facts’ that specifically many Salvadoran-Americans know well today: officially, from 1980 – 1992 there was a war in El Salvador between the U.S. backed Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) government and the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN). This war cost tens of thousands of lives, and displaced tens of thousands more; in that process, according to Ertll, even Cipitío’s twin brother, named el Duende (Nahuatl for ‘malign’), whom Cipitio was also separated from at birth, is taken as a youth to fight as a member of ARENA’s national military. Duende eventually leaves the national military and El Salvador altogether for the U.S., however, where he vanishes almost entirely:
“Dentro de las guerillas, no existía ningún progreso para el Duende; así que el decidió inmigrar a los Estados Unidos. Y nunca le dijo a nadie dónde vivía; su direccion la mantenía en secreto. Por eso, algunos decían que el residía en Washington, D.C.; otros señalaban que en Virginia o Maryland. El caso es que un día el Duende vino a ser visto vagando por áreas boscosas, escalando árboles como un mono, puesto que el encantaba tomar siestas dentro de los árboles frondosos.”
By naming Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C. as states where Cipitío’s twin brother possibly disappeared to, Ertll calls attention to the handful of places in the U.S. other than Los Angeles and New York where thousands of Salvadoran migrants took refuge during the eighties and early nineties. Once again, this is what makes the protagonist’s story highly relatable: the trajectory of Duende’s journey honors those of countless Central Americans displaced as a result of U.S. intervention in Latin America during 1970s and 1980s’ Cold War policy.
At the same time, Duende’s steadfast refusal to let any of his countrymen know his whereabouts after the war acknowledges the theme of many central-American stories of migration to the U.S. post 1980, in which the ‘old country’ stirs only memories of pain, corrupt government officials, and broken family units, leading many to sever ties with their native land to ‘start over’ with the new one. Before letting readers into what life in the new country looks like, however, Ertll looks to the trails walked by so many Central Americans en route to the U.S. for refuge:
“El Cipitío camino hasta México y vio cómo los centroamericanos eran brutalmente golpeados, violados y asesinados. Eso le trajo viejos recuerdos de lo que hacía el batallón Díaz Arce en su país natal. Las guerillas y los escuadrónes de la muerte cruzaban México, y en verdad eran bestias contra su propia gente. Aprendieron de sus maestros españoles durante la colonización a odiar a las mujeres y a golpear a sus esposas, madres, hijas y novias.”
Although Ertll’s Cipitío maintains supernatural powers through his journey, he nevertheless experiences human emotions, especially as a ten year old witnessing the plight of fellow Salvadorans making the trek through dangerous trails upwards through Mexico. What’s more, Ertll’s telling of how Salvadoran death squads embarked on those routes as well, whose members sometimes beat their own wives, mothers, and daughters in the process, forces readers to confront those same dirt trails in their own imaginations: a necessary process if they’re to acquire an understanding of the way these stories inform el Cipitío, and by extension, much of Salvadoran-American culture today. Ertll’s subsequent reflection that these men must have inherited hatred for their own people from Spanish colonizers captures the enduring legacy of colonialism for much of Latin-America, including for his protagonist, whose name literally comes from a word meaning ‘the youth.’ Youth are the group most impacted by government policies throughout Ertll’s novel, but it’s the way the author ties this phenomenon into the actual Salvadoran-American experience in Los Angeles that resonates most for J.T:
“Se matriculó en Le Conte Middle School y era el chico más pequeño de su clase…Empezó a vestirse como los otros niños de la escuela y dejo que su pelo le creciera largo. En ocasiones se ponía ropa negra para representar su lado satánico, y por ello fue invitado a unirse a los locos de heavy metal.”
Since at least the early 1980s, in the East Hollywood area Le Conte Middle School has been one of the only public middle schools–the other being Thomas Starr King–where a myriad of Salvadoran, Guatemalan and other central American families have sent their children to be educated. By sprinkling these small, communal sites of Los Angeles into the new Cipitío’s story, then, Ertll’s character speaks with authenticity to the lived experiences of many Salvadoran-American youth over the last forty years in settings like L.A. This is significant because Ertll understands that like Cipitío, many young Salvadoran-Americans in the U.S. can claim ties to far away, magical places in Central-America and beyond, but often view the ‘old country’ which their families once called home–like the neglected streets many of them live on, and like the frequently understaffed schools they attend–as anything but extraordinary. Thus, the new Cipitío puts these tiny ‘barrios’ on the map, or historicizes East Hollywood, Le Conte Middle School and more.
In the same vein, Cipitío’s adoption of the heavy metal look speaks to another historic reality through L.A.’s middle and high schools during the 1980s: the influence of American heavy metal or ‘satanic’ music on a generation of ‘misfit’ youth, who as a result of their skin, language–and don’t forget, stature–not only didn’t fit in with the dominant White culture, but also failed to gain acceptance from the more visible and historic Mexican youth at the time. Ertll’s Cipitío thus marks another specter following the contemporary Salvadoran-American experience: the story of the overly popularized MS-13 gang, which was founded in Los Angeles by Salvadoran youth in neighborhoods like East Hollywood’s, where after-school programs and other resources for their successful integration into the U.S. were lacking, to say the least; Ertll understands that the formation of the truchas was a matter of self-acceptance–a chosen family, so to speak, especially for orphaned children like Cipitío–and protection against Mexican gangs, which at the time refused to treat Central-Americans as equals in typically racialized U.S. relations. Our protagonist thus moves in this fashion through L.A.’s schools, until it leads him to ponder the city’s class structure as a whole:
“El Cipitío recorrió las calles y exploró la historia de Los Ángeles, su arquitectura y logros de ingeniería. Vio las divisiones entre los ricos y los pobres. Los ricos vivían cómodamente en el Lado Oeste y otras áreas, mientras que los pobres tomaron los barrios bajos.”
Throughout the 1980s, as the central American diaspora made its way into Los Angeles, the city grew increasingly segregated. This was due to a range of political developments preceding the Salvadoran war, including the defunding of L.A.’s public schools, the successful efforts to stop desegregation at those same schools, the rise of drug addiction, gang violence, the AIDS crisis, and more. As Laura Pulido and Josh Kun describe in Black and Brown in Los Angeles (2013):
“…in the 1980s we begin to see such things as the rise of the prison-industrial complex as the preferred means to deal with surplus labor and social problems…the almost complete abandonment of the public school system by white and the middle class of all colors; the suburbanization of both the Black and Brown middle class as people of color moved farther away from the woes of the central city and in search of affordable housing; and the emergence of Los Angeles as the capital of the working poor.”
For these reasons, when by a magical turn of events Cipitío becomes mayor of our famed city–his heavy metal style notwithstanding, and as surely many youth like him have imagined themselves to be at some point, even if only playfully–our protagonist uses both his secret and official powers to transform L.A. with a radical idea: a free college education for all of the city’s Black, Brown and Asian youth from places like East Hollywood, South Central, East Los Angeles and more:
“Su fundación asi ofrecía becas completas para cada estudiante de secundaria, y pagaba todos los gastos universitarios. Los estudiantes no podían creerlo, sobre todo los estudiantes pobres, cuyos padres eran costureras, conserjes, guardias de seguridad y maestros suplentes. Cuando los estudiantes se graduaban en colegios y universidades, regresaban a sus comunidades pobres ya convertidos en médicos, abogados, arquitectos, y ponían manos a la obra para ayudar a revitalizar la zona.”
Here, by going on to play mayor in his story, Cipitío makes the cut from a struggle which many ‘first’ or ‘second’ generation American youth find themselves grappling with at some point in their lives: the prospect of transcending poverty to move into the ‘middle-class’, despite being raised by parents laboring daily as garment factory workers, security guards, custodians, and in other jobs tied indefinitely to minimum wages.
As Mayor Cipitío’s beca awardees return to Los Angeles, then, the pages create a striking image for readers to envision–though not a new one by any means–of hundreds of thousands of students in Los Angeles going to college every year and returning as doctors, lawyers, architects, and more to uplift the neighborhoods they come from. By last official count, LAUSD’s students are nearly 75% Latino, 10% Black, and 5% Asian, respectively, but more than two-thirds of graduates are not prepared for college after high school. Once again, then, Ertll’s writing pays tribute to the lived experiences of people like Cipitío all across the modern ‘world city.’
Following his successful tenure at City Hall, our protagonist aspires for an even higher office: the presidency of the United States itself. Cipitío’s ambition highlights the prevalence of the U.S’s popularity contest in the minds of many Salvadoran-Americans like himself, and plays to the reader’s delight: after all, who wouldn’t want to see a little brown-faced ten year old in the role of U.S. president for a change?
This brings into focus the very reason that literature exists: to (re)imagine our world by other means. By this point in the novel, Cipitío’s growing aspirations are allowed to flourish in the ‘safe space’ of the literature, where something so ‘absurd’ as a Central-American directly challenging the confines of the ‘real world’ and claiming victory can take place (Spoiler Alert: Cipitío goes on to win the election for president by a landslide); a sequence of events that little Black and Brown children just like him all throughout Los Angeles and the world can benefit from seeing for a change.
Even so, despite Cipitío’s unlikely success at the highest echelons of power, he continues to be haunted by the gorge of his memory, which navigates him back to a primordial need, for something even greater than the presidency: the need for a love that only a mother could provide to her son.
“El alcalde Cipitío tenía sueños donde era abrazado y aceptado por su madre, que ella nunca lo ahogó, que lo nutría y cuidaba de él. Se imaginaba que ella lo llevaba en sus brazos, acariciando su cabello, dándole leche de su pecho voluptuoso.”
Cipitío’s longing for his mother through the high end of his journey is what makes his story, once more, something local. It is also a showcase in how memory makes human life a mixture of memories, dreams, and what might still yet be. In the case of the youth, the memory of a violent separation from his mother persists in reducing his world:
Pero cuando despertaba, la realidad lo golpeaba con el peso de una tonelada de ladrillos; y se ponía enojado, furioso, enfurecido.
Dreams can be nightmares, just as memories can take us back to some of our worst experiences of dehumanization, an appropriate reminder considering the recent incarceration of Central American children apprehended at the U.S. border by the U.S.’s latest ‘zero tolerance’ policy.
Like Cipitío, these children, who have also been separated from their mothers and guardians–and who have even been tried in U.S. courts despite their age–just may be gifted with superpowers, especially if surviving the perilous trek to the U.S. has anything to say about it. Like Cipitío, they can also be mayors, presidents, and otherwise people who can change the world if only we’d let them; if only we’d meet them with the love that all ‘creatures’ like them need.
It’s for these reasons and more that Ertll’s novel is a timely read for any ‘global citizen’ today, and one that has full approval from The L.A. Storyteller. To get your copy, check out Ertll’s website HERE.
And the next time you see el Cipitío or a youth like him in a city like Los Angeles, please be sure to show them a lot of respect! (Spoiler Alert: they all have superpowers.)