El Ultimo Pirata: A Story About a Boy and His DogFelipe Coronel I Society & Culture I Commentary I July 9th, 2014
When I was still barely more than an infant, my family lived in a neighborhood of Lima, Peru called San Martin de Porres. It was named after a humble and giving Black Saint from the Dominican order. Born in the 1500s, his image survived the massive white washing of what is commonly recognized as "La Reconquista." Officially, it was known as the reconquering of Muslim Spain by Christian forces over the course several centuries. It was one of the many crusades that took place in Europe and not the Middle East. Even for those historians who don't see history as a reflection of present day politics, one cannot deny its severe racial, religious and cultural implications. The effects of these events arguably contributed to laying the groundwork for modern day racism in Latin America, and everywhere else in the world, where slavery reached.
When the combined Christian Armies overtook Grenada (in early 1492) they began the expelling of all Moors, and went about white washing the early African figures within the Church. After all, what sense did it make to worship Saints and church figures who resembled the people whom they had recently defeated and would now subjugate? Pope Nicholas V, himself, had sanctioned the slave trade earlier that century. And so after the fall of Grenada, Spain also set forth the infamous Alhambra decree.
Its despicable purpose was forcibly ejecting or converting all Jewish people in Spain under penalty of 'confiscation of person or property. When you study history you find that in order to conquer a people, any people, they must first be dehumanized. Their achievements must be minimized; they must become dependent on the conqueror. They must rely on their oppressor for the interpretation of their own history, as if they had no standing achievements of their own. The inquisition was now in full swing.
For some reason, San Martin de Porres was the example they left behind. Perhaps because his story was of utmost humility in the South American world. He was so dedicated to the Church, as to be willing to sell himself into bondage to keep his monastery from closing. He is the patron saint of mixed race people, and was beatified (1837) and then canonized (1962) because of his ability to, levitate, bilocate, heal the sick, and even the said ability to communicate with animals. However, perhaps his greatest miracle is to have survived the violent gentrification of history that erased and re-assigned nearly every scientific discovery and religious contribution by people of color.
I only learned these footnotes of history later in life. When I was new to this world, it was just the name of the place we lived. Lima, in the late 70s and early 80s, was a poverty stricken war-zone. The streets were littered with the broken dreams of children that had melted into trash and dirty glass bottles. A repressive government that was close to Martial law, ruled with a curfew and a growing discontent in the countryside was beginning to develop into a violent rebellion. You would imagine that a poor place like that would have a rat epidemic, but ironically the elders tell of wild cats and dogs that plagued the streets.
These were not house cats or lick your face dogs though. They did not have a collar or a master. These feral animals, running through the ghettos of the old city, only belonged to the night. They were dangerous creatures; whose bite and claw could leave an adult severely injured and in rare cases even kill elders and small children. They were probably themselves, once as innocent as I was. Lost without a home, they wandered like reckless young soldiers after their Army was disbanded, trying to make a living however they could. My grandmother, who raised 10 children practically on her own, was not squeamish with them at all though.
If she caught a feral cat sneaking into the house, or anywhere near myself or my other cousins, it was immediately swept away with a broom. On the odd chance that they tried to attack us, my father told me how she once grabbed a big aggressive feline, who jumped onto the kitchen table, by the neck. As he tried to claw at her eyes, she swung her attacker around like a baton until he hung on her arm resembling a wet towel. This must seem extreme to people who never imagined a world outside the safe one that they live in, but these stray (sometimes rabid) cats would often steal family dinners, eat smaller pets and severally claw or bite the young. These conditions, and a string of burglaries, prompted my family to adopt two big dogs into our home.
I don't really know if one of them was a dog though, he looked more like a horse. His name was Milou and he was a big white, spotted Great Dane - a monster of an animal. And although he looked very imposing, his disposition was almost always happy and oblivious. Milou was the sort of dog that needed to be pushed to violence. The other dog was nothing of the sort. He was only a dog in the sense of his physical characteristics, but inside he was like the ghost of an old Roman praetorian guard. He was a mix of a Rottweiler & Doberman Pincher, and he didn't seem to like anyone when my uncle first adopted him. And yet the day he came to us, as others sized him up nervously, I ran forward and grabbed his nose. I hugged him and I hung on his ear. I remember faintly, that he had this sad look on his face, like he was a person I knew from the future trapped inside a dog's body screaming about what the world would become someday. Strange though, that to this day no one remembers what his name was when we first got him.
They all, however, remembered the Doberman/Rottweiler and his negative reactions to anyone that wasn't family. He would growl, snap and bark loudly at anyone he didn't know. I've seen people hurt, they often tend to lash out at others in anger. Their pain overtakes them, and though they seem furious, they are really bleeding inside. Even human beings who have the ability to express so many emotions act this way. So how could I look at any of these animals and their behavior without factoring in the sometimes terrible conditions that created their lives. I can only imagine what sort of horrors he survived before he came to us. But we fed him, kept him warm at night; and so he became as protective of us, as he was distrustful of outsiders.
This must have been a foreign concept to me though, because as a toddler they say that I would play with him every day. I would grab his nose. He would pull his nose away and I would follow him and grab his nose again. He would respond by moving farther and farther away. They say I would hang on his neck and he would sleep next to my window and lick my face when he thought no one was looking. I think there is even an old picture where my cousins put me on his back like a horse.
Milou, the Great Dane, was so big that he could jump out of the second story window the way we hop out of a cab. And though our other dog was smaller in comparison, this Doberman/Rottweiler was actually larger than a big German shepherd. Because of his distaste for strangers, my uncle would only walk him late night or very early in the morning when there were very few people out on the street.
One night though, while walking our Doberman/Rottweiler, my uncle was attacked by a small pack of street dogs. Cornered in an alley, his survival instincts kicked in and he picked up a stick, releasing the dog's leash. In his later years he only remembers bits and pieces of that summer night, like a blur.
He says the dog fought as if he were on the edge of a cliff and any manner of retreat would push him over to his death. He told us as the others growled, prying for a weak spot, our dog ran for the largest of them and buried his face into their alpha's neck, tearing out his throat immediately.
As the pack of street dogs all pounced him, my uncle beat back the ones he could with his stick and the warrior mutt kept on going right for the jugular. With rocks and sticks my uncle drove the remainder of the small pack away. When it was all said and done, there were 3 lifeless dogs on the ground of the alley, their eyes staring off into nothing; one of their heads was nearly torn off the shoulders to the bone. And our dog… Our dog was barely standing, and collapsed near a pile of trash.
My uncle, seeing that our dog could barely walk, picked him up over his shoulder and carried him home. He had cuts and bites on his legs and sides, and one of his eyes had been ripped out of its socket and crushed. My grandmother immediately hugged him close. As she and my family cleaned his wounds, she found a place to cut his hanging eye. Without hesitation, she held the crumpled eyeball and snipped the cord.
The howl echoed throughout the house, but I wasn't allowed downstairs. She then poured whiskey onto the wound and began to sew his eye up with a needle and thread. Our soldier dog cried quietly and struggled a little as she held him, but he never bit or clawed her. When she was done, she prayed the rosary over him and he just laid his head on her lap and cried until he fell asleep.
The next morning, as he hobbled to his feet, grandma made him a black-eye patch to cover his empty sewn up socket, and tied it around his head. He didn't shake his face to try and take it off. Instead, he wore it like a crown. And from that day on, he became known to us as "Pirata" which is Spanish for Pirate. And if you thought he was mean before, he became a nightmare to strangers, no one wanted any sort of issues with our dog. However to me, Pirata was just as playful as ever, and to him I was just a pup, who he treated with the overprotective nature of a mother bear. When I started talking, my parents said that I would talk to him. I guess you could say he was the first friend I ever really had.
One night, early in the dawn of winter, we heard a commotion outside. Since we lived in a big family house, we had a gate locked in front of our home and then a small yard where we raised ducks and chickens. My father and my uncle woke after they heard a muffled scream and then a crash. They got dressed and gathered the family together to make sure we were safe before they went to investigate. What they found was a broken lock on the front gate, the hinge bent to the side and blood everywhere. The crimson splashes were on the door, on the handle and all over the wall.
Then, out of a dark corner next to the gate, Pirata stepped forward. Sitting calming before my Father and uncle, his face and mouth covered with the signs of a bloody struggle, he nudged an object forward. As my father neared, he realized what it was. Pirata had ripped off 4 fingers and half of the hand of whoever tried to break into our home. Outside the gate they found a small lock-pick and several different footprints. Yet their number meant nothing to him, the fearless dog we adopted had held them at bay, like an old Colonel that refused orders to pull back until all his men were out safely.
We celebrated him saving us from this band of thieves, and beating back their attempt to hurt our family. In those days, it was common for a group of people who committed robberies, to do as they wished with the people they held captive. And without fear or question, Pirata rose to the challenge. He stood very still that day, like an old legend made out of stone that had come to life to fight for his people one last time. We were so poor that we couldn't afford dog food; the dogs just devoured whatever leftovers we had in the house. But that night, my grandmother made him a juicy steak and we all danced and sang with the neighbors, who by the way, insisted on remaining inside the house while he roamed the yard like a werewolf.
About a month later, someone broke into our home again. They didn't try to steal anything this time. They simply pried the door open with a crowbar and waited for Pirata came to the door. Then, whoever it was took a .38 caliber pistol and shot my dog at point blank range in the head. My father later told me that in his mind, the only explanation was that had to be the same people, or person, who had tried to break into our house earlier.
These robbers came to our house on a vendetta, as if Pirata had singled them out personally. As if the dog had started with you. No, you started with us when your gang tried to break into our house before dawn and hurt our family. Our dog didn't know you from Adam. They murdered my friend.
I can't remember them explaining his death to me. Maybe I was too young or maybe I blocked it out. My mother said I didn't cry, but I became very sad and quiet for a while. To this day, I have never owned another dog. I am drawn to them though. They and cats have always shown me favor. People always say to me, "My dog usually hates people" or "I never knew that cat liked anyone else". I have a lot of love for animals and yet I always feel a low frequency sadness around them. Strange enough, I grew up in Harlem in the 80's - full of dogs off the leash that mauled people in my neighborhood, and yet when it came to me, it was almost as if they sensed Pirata's fury lingering around my soul.
I have owned a few cats though, but then again I am not a dog or a cat person. I relate well to all animals. And just like they said of San Martin de Porres, sometimes, when I was young I would pretend that they could hear my thoughts and see through my sadness when they looked at me. Maybe one day, I will find my old friends again. Perhaps they shall return to tell me stories about where they have been through the look in their eyes. I would like to see them free, laughing and playing with my future children. Open skies with fresh air to breathe. For as the elders in Aotearoa told me, "Young Warrior, the natural habitat of a human being is not a block of metal and concrete." Facts.
Truthfully, I used have a little bit of contempt for animal activists, the large majority of them were not poor at all and rarely looked like me or anyone in my neighborhood. I was a bit impetuous when I was younger. I saw their favoritism of animals as a slap in the face to people around the world who are starving and dying. As if to say that animals should be a higher priority than human life. However, I now know, through my experience working with several animal rights organizations, that their work is very important too. This world is dying, and we see the evidence of that reflected in nature. And I have never met an animal activist who would turn their back on starving children or people in need. These activists' lives were just touched by an animal that did what a person could not do; show them undying, unconditional love.
After all my encounters with animals and nature, I have seen the effect of the lies we tell ourselves. The lies like, "animals have no feelings", "they don't communicate with each other the way we do", "they are used to this sort of life." Sometimes, animals act more like humans to other humans than people do to each other. I recently saw a homeless person that people were walking over every day. He was crying and my friend's dog stopped and stared and him. Then, the dog went over and stood near him. While he didn't get too familiar, his presence resonated an unspoken empathy, something that I could not explain in my ironically primitive human capacity.
They have feelings. They talk to each other and to us. In my experience, when I see people exploit them, because they can… I know the sort of people that will do this to animals, won't stop there. They will do it to you and your children as well. You learn a lot about a person's sense of maturity and kindness with how they interact with animals. We have factory farm systems of food, and we have even genetically modified the animals we eat now. Yet somehow, we are still surprised when we see human beings abused the way these animals have been. Almost 30% of the planet's natural resources have been used up in the past 100 years. This is not a sustainable system.
I'd like to think that Pirata lives on somewhere, in either the present or the past. His spirit trapped in a Killer Whale off the coast of the Atlantic hunting sharks. Maybe he's a Grizzly bear roaming the woods or a feathered serpent that lived in the times before men, flying high above the skies. I think at this moment, how much clearer it must be to those animals what is happening to the world they're living in. Whereas we make a concerted effort to block out any idea of what's going on.
I'm sorry I got on my soapbox at the end; this is just a story about a boy and his dog.
El Ultimo Pirata… From San Martin de Porres.