They came in all names and sizes. About 17 boys and 9 girls.
Collectively, we were called "El Frac". A neighborhood of 18 homes inhabited by the people I shared my growing up with. The mess we call our childhood won't go into history books, but part of it is written here.
Let us start this tale with a simple fact: life, unfortunately, isn't fair. While some people grow up without a family at all, me and the El Frac group grew up in a home with a nuclear family, surrounded by 17 other homes that formed a second family. This is my attempt to shed some light into the great importance of social groups and families, particularly in the early stages of life, for a healthy development of a person both as an individual and as a member of the collective organisms we call societies.
This is the story of my childhood...
The games were vast and strange. One of our favorites went as follows: Coyo (the redhead, of course) would chase us on his skates holding a hockey stick tied to a rope at the end. The rest of us would ride around the park on our bicycles. Coyo's goal was to throw the hockey stick so that it would go through the wheels in our bikes and force it to stop. It hurt to lose, literally, because you would fly off your bike and hit the pavement--grass if you were lucky. No helmets, no knee or elbow pads, no protection but our raw skin. Never mind the damage to the bike. We all thought it was one of our best inventions. Our parents didn't see the genius. For good measure, don't attempt it at home.
Another game consisted of us digging up small holes in the park and covering them up with weeds and grass. You then went and gracefully invited one of your friends to chase you. By “gracefully” I mean you punched them, usually not on the face though, we were civilized. As you ran from your why-so-angry friend the aim was to pass right over the covered hole so that the chaser would fall in the trap. It was considerably more fun for those who knew they were playing. The unfortunate soul who did not know he was playing received a punch and fell in a hole. Good times.
Our hometown, Ciudad Juarez, is located in a sad desert. To be fair, I think all deserts are sad. For vegetation, even grass to grow you had to water it all day long, use all sorts of chemicals, pray to the gods, do a rain dance, and sacrifice your oldest child. We had 7 trees in our park. That's 7 sacrificed children, but that shade though... totally worth it. The smallest tree was what we kids in the neighborhood called "home". We were not supposed to climb it, so we did. We lacked the materials, skills and support from grown-ups to build a tree-house, so we simply climbed and each picked a comfortable spot on the branches. Mine was the best. Next to the point of access to the tree, low enough to get down easily, and comfortable enough to take a nap. When we were up there the plan was to talk and stay there for a while. But gravity's plans sometimes were different. We fell and got injured. We always came back though. We revered that tree and should have given it a real name.
There were some of us who had more toys than others. I was not toy-full. Alan and Edu were, and that was enough for the rest of us. Alan's house was the VIP grounds. If you have ever been VIP, it was probably nothing compared to Alan’s house. His parents would only allow those who behaved to enter, plus he would only invite those who he liked. Those were high standards, and they were also arbitrary and changed from day to day it seemed. You also had to be there early. One day you were in, the next you were out. If you snoozed on a Saturday and got there after 2 or 3 others had gotten there, you were out for the rest of the day! I'm no scientist but I'm sure one once said that time is relative. He was definitely talking about those days when you were out of Alan's house. But, when you made it inside and the air was fresh, the house was clean, and the toys were abundant, it was all worth it. Video games, action figures, you name it, he had it. Legend has it that he got one new toy each week. We probably broke 1 a day. The math doesn't add up, but trust me, he had a shit ton of toys. Alan was also not allowed to go outside before 5-6 PM, as the sun was pretty brutal and his parents didn't want him to be friends with the brutal sun. So you had to be strategic to get some face-time with Alan. The cynic in me thinks those were actually just tactics to create high demand for Alan and his house. Chapter one in the VIP books. Chapter three in the conspiracy theories books.
A Wild Ramiro Appears
El Frac means "the neighborhood", or gated community to be more precise (short for El Fraccionamiento in Spanish). That meant adults were never observing us. They let us be. We had a security guard at the gate. One during the day, one at nights. Except for Thursdays. There was no one to work the gates or guard the place that day. We learned an obvious lesson: adults are okay with kids roaming around unsupervised and unconstrained, as long as it's limited to Thursdays.
When they brought a new night guard, Ramiro, we hated him. We wanted to break rules and break things, but part of his job was kids not breaking rules or things. I think that was the issue. From all of us, Ramiro disliked me the most, so I reciprocated. In one occasion, the light at a street light pole went off and I had a cast over my broken hand at the time. Still, Ramiro was convinced that I had climbed a 20-feet tall pole with one hand and broken the light. He told that to the adults. Thankfully the adults didn't hate me, at least not always, and their unclouded judgement knew I didn't do it.
Then some of my friends betrayed me and became friends with Ramiro. Those kids were weak. I was strong (read: ornery). But after breaking many rules and many things, Ramiro and I somehow became good friends. For those scientists out there, does anybody know how many broken things does it take for a friendship to unfold? Every evening I'd go to the gate and sit there talking to him. We watched shitty TV on his shitty 10-inch TV. All 4 channels.
We still played pranks on him though. One time we threw a stinky bomb into the little house by the gate and blocked all the windows and doors so he could not get out. We laughed. He also did... or maybe he was coughing from the gas and smell. He would pull pranks on us as well of course. The fact that we were some privileged kids getting along with a not-so-privileged adult did not register in our radar. For us Ramiro was just another friend to play with. A bigger and stronger friend, so it really took like 3 or 4 of us to take him down. That was impressive, considering Ramiro's right arm had its elbow "flipped" around. Meaning it bent the wrong way. He had injured it as a kid and the incompetent doctor in his town put a cast without ever straightening it. After a while you stopped being disgusted by the look of that elbow and found it funny instead. I don't know which reaction bothered Ramiro more.
Adults did register that we were a bunch of kids hanging out with an adult they didn't really know. They were concerned he was doing inappropriate things to us. Fair enough to be concerned. They tried prohibiting us from hanging out with him. Not fair enough any more. My parents simply asked if Ramiro was doing weird things and I said no. They trusted me and in this one particular occasion they were right. I haven't seen Ramiro in years. I'm sure he is still being hated-then-loved by other kids who live there now. I'm sure his elbow is still a great conversation starter.
We didn't have any fighting roosters or dogs. So we improvised. We would "train" the younger kids and make them fight each other. My boy was Edu. He was short so he had character to compensate for height. He was nimble and strong. By the way, in retrospective this was all very wrong, but it was fun at the time. We did it for the lols, as the youths would now say. We did, however, stop the fights when they started to get ugly, so it wasn’t that bad (you can tell I'm trying to justify that we did this). Our boy Edu lost so many fights that he became a perpetual underdog. That made things more interesting. We put our hearts into training him (like we knew how to fight). One summer day, Edu won a fight. I think we retired him right then. Leave while at the top, they say.
There were friendlier fights. But to get to that, let's first understand the kid-adult dynamic at El Fracc. Our parents had a bag full of fucks to give out. You got permission when they couldn’t give a fuck. Every day we would have requests that varied from "can Diego and Luis come over to play at the house?" to "can I invite ten people to stay the night?". As time went by, parents would get these requests from us, reach into their bag of fucks and distribute them. "You want to invite your friends? Not today, maybe next time. Here’s one fuck". As these were given out, if the bags weren't replenished with enough drinking and rest, the fucks started to run out. You would think it’s the other way around, that the more relaxed and rested they were the easier it was for them to say “yes”. But they didn’t say yes because they approved, they said yes because they were too tired to say no. When parents were running low and had almost no fucks to give, we would bring the big guns: bring four friends over to ask your parents for permission. Peer pressure and guilt-tripping were the name of the game. That's a parent's worst nightmare, reaching into the bag to realize it's empty. No fucks to give and 5 kids looking at you with big wishful eyes. Permission granted.
Now, back to the friendlier fights. The ultimate win in the game of asking permission was a sleepover. Ten kids staying the night and wanting to break the rules and break things. That was the stage for the friendlier fights. We separated into two teams. Team 1 at one end of the room, Team 2 at the other end. The bigger the room the better. Each would have a certain amount of prep time to build a fortress and prepare weapons. Fortresses were built out of pillows, furniture, stuffed animals, or people if it got to that point. Weapons were anything you could throw. The unspoken rule was that weapons had to be reasonably soft (no hard solid toys). Once prep time was over, the battle of the fortresses began. Like ancient castles, each team would throw weapons at the other team to try and destroy it. We should have been pleased with simply destroying each other fortresses’, but true happiness is not that superficial, it’s more carnal: you weren’t satisfied until you heard someone getting hit.
Each person had many roles: thrower, builder, human-shield, collector and sacrifice. What the last two have in common is that they required someone to leave the fortress, along with its protection, and venture into the open terrain. Collectors would recover weapons that were left in the middle. The rest of us would cover him or her by throwing as many weapons and as fast as possible to the other fortress. We were proud of this team work. What we were not so proud of was the sacrifice role. An unfortunate soul would be released into the open terrain for the sole purpose of being shot at by the other team, thus buying time to re-build the fortress and recover from damage. I'd like to say that choosing the sacrifice was a democratic process. I'd like to say the younger more delicate members of the team were shielded from this role. Truth is, this role was almost solely reserved for them, and there was nothing they could do about it. If it is true that humans learn morality mainly by playing and interacting with other kids, all of us at El Frac would run totalitarian governments if given the chance.
We were all men of honor though, so the battles were savage but civilized. There was one exception: sooner or later but always, there was one kid, the rebel, the anarchist who would throw a hard and solid toy. The reaction to this event varied. It was especially drastic and overblown when someone got hit on the face. At the bear minimum the fortress of the other team would be kicked to the ground by a hurting kid splashed with rage.
I don’t know if any of us would have become friends by choice. We were all very different. But we didn’t have a choice, we wanted to play and there were these dumb kids outside who also wanted to play. So we played. And it wasn’t just us kids. The adults played as well. And just like us, they were all very different. Some liked to party a lot. Others were more quiet and reserved. Some were conservative, others were more liberal. Didn’t matter. They would all gather and play volleyball, before age taught their knees how gravity and anatomy can disagree. Around the time we started to transition from playing with action figures to playing video games and sports, adults transitioned to just doing barbecues, without the moving and jumping.
With all that many people around, it was impossible to feel lonely. If you wanted to play, someone was outside playing. If you needed something and your parents weren’t home, you had 17 other parents to go to (we felt like it was only 16 though, as the house farthest back didn’t have any kids, so none of us had ever been inside… we didn’t trust it). We were proud so we didn’t ask for help, but it was there if shit hit the fan.
I’ve had full insomnia one night of my life. The kind that you spend 5 hours trying to fall asleep and by 4am you say “screw this”. I was desperate and didn’t know what to do. I went downstairs and heard someone talking outside. A kid. So I went out and saw Ramiro and Coyo talking in the park. It felt like a solution to all my problems. Coyo was probably looking for something to destroy or burn. Ramiro was just watering some plants. I joined hoping to learn about fire and water. Even at 4am you had something to do and something to learn.
The emotional security that such a tight and vast social group creates is underrated these days. It was also the closest I’ve seen to life before civilization. We had our tiny village of 18 houses. We gathered in the center to make a fire and tell stories. We made weapons and hunted cats. We never successfully got any cats. And we protected ourselves from each other and from outsiders. It was a strong emotional social bond that I can see in each of us to this day: we all turned out alright. And a big part of that is because we all felt taken care of, without realizing we did.
All the bullying, injustices, and grudges were forgiven by the next day. We were all a little much, but no one was too much of anything. It stroke a circus-like balance. We learned about authority and hierarchies, imposed by the bigger kids upon the littler ones. We learned how to overthrow the oppressing class. We learned how to re-grow a civilization. We learned how to kill a tree, by accident, and then were forced to learn how to grow one back (yes, another sacrificed child). We learned how to hurt and be hurt by humans and nature alike, so we learned to cherish, respect and be nice to both. We fell from bikes, so we became masters at riding them. Adults let us be, so we learned to learn. Some had more than others, so we learned to share. Ubuntu was our unspoken mantra. Life wasn’t easy, but it was simple. Then we grew up and we learned that what we had was so rare and so special that we truly were lucky.
La Gorda, Valeria, Rebeca, Pame, Cintia, Vero, Polin, Marce, Coyo, Diego, Forzan, Edu, Salva, Jenru, Roy, Memo, Alex, Juan, Alan, Rodri, Titi, Tati, Joanqui, Santi, Gori, Andi, (notice the "i" suffix trend here).