Mario Gonzales

The Education of Ernesto Salazar

Ernesto didn’t know the answers to the exam, not one.

It was more or less the same, no matter what kind of test: the lack of understanding that made his head numb, his insides weary.

He wanted to go back home, lie in his bedclothes and listen to his grandmother make tortillas and complain about the snakes stealing eggs out of the chicken coop.

He could guess. The individual words on the exam he understood and could piece some of it together. That way he’d get a few right. Thinking he wouldn’t feel so stupid if he could answer some questions.

Ernesto tried. Even though many believed he didn’t try at all---he really did. But there were so many questions, so many words, one after another they came. The words had all the power, he had none. There must be a trick to it all, he thought. If only he knew that trick, that secret to understanding, to becoming smart.

What he knew was football and videogames. And after-school plans to smoke a cigarette with his older cousin JJ in the arroyo; then sneak into the movies to see an R-rated gory flick and finally go home, eat pollo y arroz and fall asleep to the sound of his grandparents snoring in grey light of TV land.

When he tried to concentrate at school, going deep in his head, he found something about his mother being sick and gone. She was gone a lot. Needed to find Carlos, Ernesto’s father she told her parents. Take care of Ernesto and I’ll be back she said.

She sometimes returned, often battered and always incoherent. Seeing this taught Ernesto fear. Real fear that never went away; never left his mind, lived in his heart and sometimes he thought he had no heart at all, only that fear.

It was not the stuff he needed to know for school.

The other kids could learn okay. A few did it really well. They rarely missed a question. They always wanted to show off what they knew. They always raised their hand once the teacher asked for answers.

He had no answers, only questions. Or really just one question: Why am I so stupid?

Ernesto had no answers to that question. And no answers to anything the teachers wanted to know. He could make the other kids laugh. He could make them wet their pants with laughter. He felt proud doing this, a master at giving some happiness to others. Kids liked him for it. The teachers didn’t. They said he was wasting everyone’s time. “Why do you have to distract those who want to be here,” they said.

There was always something stuck to their voice when speaking to Ernesto; a kind of terrible joy that comes from making someone you dislike feel unloved and unwanted.

When he was at home it was different, it was better. His grandmother showed him how to hypnotize ranch animals; and which roots could cure grippe; and not to leave his shoes outside at night because pingos would use them to enter the shed, climb the shelves and steal jars of honey and choke cherry preserves. His grandfather taught him that a ring around the moon meant rain will come in three days. He taught him how to sharpen a blade, plant corn and why the Devil won’t take you if you smell clean like ocote, are kind and keep your promises to the living and the dead.

Recently, he was given a note from the school psychologist saying he had a learning disability. It was addressed to his mother but she was maybe in jail or in some filthy hotel room. No one quite knew where she was now. If she were at home she would have read the note and said, “What kind of trouble you got yourself into this time.”

Her name is Sonrisa. It means smile in Spanish.

His grandfather couldn’t read English and his grandmother had very bad eyesight. Both were afraid of his notes from school. Thinking they meant their grandson was not learning. They asked him if he was learning things like math and English and he said yes he was. And his grandparents thought him very smart and both said he would go to college and be educated. He would be an educated man, wear a suit and tie. He would not be man who works outside, grows dark, sweats in the sun and is looked down upon.

He would have respect amongst the gringos, gabachos, Americanos.

His grandmother took him to school conferences, wearing her best dress and best shoes when she went. Entering the school reminded her of being in government buildings in Mexico where men stamped documents telling her what she could and couldn’t do. In the meetings, teachers showed her numbers and letters explaining that her grandson needed help. He had behavioral problems they said. She looked at her grandson and didn’t see anything wrong with him. She didn’t quite understand what they meant but she shook her head yes thinking if she didn’t they would suspect her of behavioral problems, too.

In four months Ernesto will turn thirteen. It will be summer and he won’t have to take any tests that measure his knowledge or intelligence or ability to get along with others. His grandmother will make him a pastel: tres leches, with plenty of cream. His grandfather has promised him to go hunt conejos together. Maybe give him the .22. The same rifle his grandfather was given as a boy. JJ says they’ll go to Calexico, work in the melons and make enough to buy a dirt bike. They plan to ride that thing till it breaks.

Ernesto thinks about this always. Tear down the days till then, he thinks. Make things bleed. Go faster. Faster than this world lets stupid people move. Go crazy. Go wild. That’s the only way to survive.


Mario J. Gonzales was raised in Parlier, CA. A self-taught writer and swimmer, he is a cultural anthropologist with a doctorate from Washington State University. His work has appeared in the Rio Grande Review, The Bacon Review, The Santa Fe Reporter, and Red Ochre lit. Recently, he was awarded the Hispanic Writers' scholarship for the 2012 Taos Summer Writer's Conference. He currently lives and works in Santa Fe, NM.

previous poem | next poem