This is the music of Gregorio Martinez: Spanish guitar and song, African rhythm: the sound of a desert washed by cool currents, the stink of plankton, where skies are gray though it rains rarely. This is Afro-Peru, where romantic ballad fused with beat of cajon, jawbone of burro, rattles from casings of spider eggs, the stomping of West African dance. Gregorio’s music, the sound of a mixed race, of Indians, Creoles and the Africans who were brought as slaves to the coast of the New World.
Zambo they called him in a newspaper story about Gregorio, a fiction writer and journalist. Zambo, they called him, and I thought, Good, Gregorio is an outsider here too, and I set out to meet him, to translate his work. It was a magical time. In a Callao bar, Gregorio talked about returning a mi tierra, he’d say, to the dusty town where he grew up and to the farmers and fishermen who live in the valley of the Lurin.
Beer bottles filled our table while he told me about the huaqueros, the grave robbers who live in a world where even Gregorio is an outsider. I’ve made them trust me, he said, and his tales opened the door wide enough to glimpse the magic of men who must sell cheap the precious objects they salvage from ancient graves, yet retain something from them, dig from the past the strength to live in a world where they have no place. Later, Gregorio would use that ancient power himself and bring the huaquero’s spirit to America.
The huaqueros rob desert tombs of pottery, textiles and gold, tombs where great civilizations laid their dead under temples that later crumbed into sand that hauqueros themselves were raised on. They unearth the relics, then sell to middlemen for foreign buyers. Huaqueros live beside mud walls like Gregorio’s brothers and uncles, who raise pigs and farm the dusty valley where Gregorio tells them he will return. But huaqueros are independent, possess a spirit like Gregorio’s, supple, watchful, poised to move at any time not farmers the huaqueros work at night.
So, through long afternoons Gregorio would wait with them, drinking, napping in the shade, collecting stories he world sell to middle men, and then they would walk under moonlight through rock and sand to rubble walls near the seafood ocean, where they unearthed treasures and their leader Vicente told the stories Gregorio mined for his novel and later told me.
So I listened for hours, and then, his eyebrows raised, Gregorio would turn to me “Y tu, que piensas? he’d ask but eager, I could tell, to keep talking about the Valley of the Lurin, as if binding himself there with his words.
They weren’t strong enough to hold him, though, because Gregorio followed romance to the U.S. instead of returning to his homeland, and almost ten years later he turned up in my town, where our story began again, only this time Gregorio became the hero of the tale, only this time I was there to provide the golden plums, plums magic like huaqueros, golden plums that gave him a shaman’s power in the suburb of Beaverton.
In Portland, Gregorio spent most of his days in the basement of the split-level home his lover had received in divorce from a husband abandoned after a trip to Peru, where she and Gregorio had met.
Tillie, she called herself, though her name was Mathilda. He said the dialect that she had learned from her mother, passed down from Jews banished from Spain in the 15th century, that archaic form of Spanish was just like the language used by old folks in his tierra on the coast. That’s what brought them together, a language from the grave, dialect of the huaqueros, the speech of outsiders.
And Tillie had the heart of a pariah. She encouraged Gregorio to subvert America, to become a brujo in Beaverton. Because Mathilda also prospered by appearing to be a person she was not, who, like the huaqueros, was only passing through. But she was burdened by a mother she had abandoned thus forcing Gregorio to step in, to become el brujo de Beaverton.
Here’s how it began: She’s been refusing to eat, Gregorio told me, until her daughter pays more attention to her. Tillie had brought her aged mother to Portland and put her in the Robison Jewish Home, where doctors were threatening to insert a feeding tube. But Tillie stayed away. So every morning, Gregorio dressed in a dark sport coat and slacks with leather shoes, and rode the bus to the suburb of Beaverton, where the staff thought he was a European specialist brought in to treat her.
His genius was he did not talk to them. Gregorio didn’t speak much English, though he understood; he refused to speak a broken tongue, too proud to use a language he could not turn to magic. Too clever to let the prejudice of others define him.
So he didn’t talk to the staff. But Gregorio never had to ask questions — he learned by observing. He didn’t talk with the staff, he just figured things out.
They think I’m a shaman, he said, un brujo. He smiled, laughed a short laugh. His cure consisted of talking with the quarrelsome old lady in that archaic dialect they shared, and feeding her sweet golden plums from my tree. It was mid-summer, the plums were just coming ripe, and in his hands they became magical objects, doled out to the rhythm of a subversive tongue. Translucent, full of light, the plums were secrets passed between them.
To the staff, their conversation sounded like incantation, not easily identifiable as Spanish, and how could they have imagined that a wealthy Jewish lady would share a language with a Peruvian who was not a doctor at all, no different, for them, than the campesinos who did the yard work?
And because he succeeded, they did not guess he was a poor Peruvian who mined his people’s past for tales to sell.
Until finally they did, and one night Gregorio came home announcing Now they know I am not a doctor. He didn’t explain, and it didn’t matter, because Tillie returned, they were suddenly leaving town and taking the old lady with them. The plums were exhausted.
Just passing through, so I never saw Gregorio again. But I have a photo of us together, shoulder to shoulder in short-sleeved shirts, where Gregorio appears to be hovering between brujo and uneasy visitor, and I am happy because we appear to be friends.
There’s his round head and thick face, the proud angle of his shoulders. Though he joked often, he had a serious life as a Peruvian man of letters, at work on his next novel, A Chronicle of Devils and Musicians, a surreal history told through a family of musicians, tricksters like him, a novel I could never manage to read because so full of words that couldn’t be found in dictionaries, of sentences that went on for pages, syntax as twisting as the route of grave robbers, so full of magical deeds that I was hopelessly lost, a confusion that revealed how fragile the bridge we’d built, and how little he needed to cross it.
Oh, I provided the plums, but his world was sufficient: the novel took him to the dusty coast of Peru, to the myth of his people, the source of his power. The stories he told me kept him anchored to the huaqueros, to jawbones and rattles, guitars and sad ballads, cajon and the dances of the desert coast, where grave robbers scatter bones and textiles that rot once exposed to sunlight and salt air, like Gregorio’s magic, brief and compelling, then quickly shifting sands. What’s left is a tale that keeps possibility alive.
Que importa que el destino, ahora nos separa? One of his songs asks. What does it matter that fate has separated us for now? it goes, and I finish with my own words . Because magic clings even after golden tales have passed between us .Yes you can summon what you’ve discovered in the past, and for a moment, it will cloak you with power.