Photos and text By Beth Kephart | The earth in Anapra has long since given up on green. It’s the color of old rope, the color of the tips of worn-down gloves. Cacti sprout from within the wells of abandoned tires. Mules stand in the shade of pallet houses, nuzzling a cardboard box, a dented pail. Walking the streets in the high heat of morning, you’ll find the scythe of a horse’s teeth, the arthritic gnarl of tumbleweed, the criss-cross of borrowed electrical lines, the studs of broken pipes. But we had come to Anapra, a colonia on the Mexican side of the great divide between El Paso and Juarez, not for the artifacts, but for the people. We had come (35 of us had come) from our comfortable, running-water homes in the suburbs of Philadelphia on one rather quixotic missionto build a bathroom for this community of squatters, and to spend a week in the company of its children.
While the construction project got under way, six of us went up and down the dust-encrusted streets in search of the kids we’d been told were everywhere. Fleetingly, we’d see themstanding near the splinter of a broken door, wavering behind the frame of an unglazed window, staring back from the opposite side of a fence made up of mattresses and wire. In compromised Spanish, those of us who dared speak Spanish called. Our answer, for the longest time, was silence.
“Games,” we persisted, pointing to the humble church at the top of the hill, where we’d improvised a temporary community center. “Soccer. Music. Art. Seeds. 11 o’clock.” Talking toward the general vicinity of them, if not directly to them, and making promises we planned to keep, if only we could somehow earn their dark-eyed trust.
“Games?” they began at last to say. Tentatively, from behind a mother’s hip, from the far side of an abandoned car.
“Yes,” we told them.
“Soccer?” From a depression in the road where three cats were in a tangle.
“We’ve got three balls.”
They were intent on scratching a picture into the road with a stick. They looked questioningly to their fathers. They slid into shadow. It was impossible to know if we’d convinced them.
After we’d walked six blocks down and four blocks deep, after we’d called out and propagated promises, we climbed the long hill back up to the improvised community center, a pack of dogs behind us now at an unnerving distance, the sun so much hotter than it had been. We waited, then, for whatever might happen next. We asked each other, How many will come, if any will come? And are we prepared for when they get here?
You go far away to see things you’ve never seen before. You stand in the baking heat in a forsaken-seeming place in entirely unglamorous clothes because a part of you is in need of some nameless transformation. I am telling you about Anapra just now because of this: In the bright mid-morning of that day, out of houses built of smoke and dark, in a part of the world I hadI confess itbeen wary of traveling to, the children miraculously did come. Girls in dresses of exorbitant pinks and greens. Boys with gargantuan baseball caps. Two dark-skinned brothers with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. A five-year-old in a sister’s dress. A handful of them. Three dozen. More. Up the hill, in that heat. Up the hill, out of shadow. Up the hill, walking and then, at a certain place where the road got steep, they all began to run.
I was standing on the crest of the hill looking down at streets that had been no color, at children I hadn’t fully believed we’d find. It was like butterflies all of a sudden loose with wings, or like flowers blown off their stalks, or like something out of Matisse. And what I knew then, and what I ache when remembering now, is that there is no slowing time once children start off at that speed. There is no not opening your arms up wide, your heart even that much wider.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of five books, most recently Ghosts in the Garden. She is a 2005 recipient of the Pew Fellowship in the Arts award and the winner of the Speakeasy poetry prize.
©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette