Introduction to My Redemption
I always accompany my aunt when she makes her weekly visits to the folk saint, Niño Compadrito(1). Her right knee is stiff and swollen from arthritis, so it is difficult for her to walk up the steep hill to his chapel in Cusco. Aunt Julia also is overweight, which makes the uphill climb even more strenuous. I have to grip her arm and her waist while she places her weight on her left foot and drags her other leg.
These trips are not my favorite pastime, even in the best of weather. I resent every moment of them. I would rather be with my friends, but she is my aunt, the sister of my mother. Her husband died years ago. Her children are adults and live in Lima. It is my duty to help my aunt; I am the eldest son in my family.
On this rainy November day, our trip seems more onerous. The slippery steps that line either side of the street, wide enough for only one car to descend, are difficult to negotiate. The rain soaks our clothes even though we are huddled beneath a large black umbrella. It lashes our faces as we stop for breath.
When we arrive at the entrance door on the street level, I ring the bell. The owners of the chapel and Niño Compadrito, a man and his wife, let us in. Then aunt huffs and puffs her way up the steep stairs, one step at a time, me holding her firmly. At the head of the stairs, she buys candles, white for health and purple for a miracle. We turn left and open the door to the small box-like chapel with its nondescript exterior.
In the chapel, Niño Compadrito stands in a glass case trimmed with silver. He is a tiny brown skull dressed in a rich robe and wearing a gilded crown. There is a rumor that his skull rests in the opening of an urn concealed by his robe. To tell the truth, I think he looks gruesome with his long, dark brown corkscrew curls, which hang down over the shoulders of his robe, his teeth and his blue glass eyes. His faithful followers added these bizarre details upon receiving instructions from him in dreams. In front of the altar are vases of flowers and two tables with burning candles. At the left side of the altar are cases filled with toys donated by his believers.
There are different stories about his origin. No one knows which is correct. I heard that the person died in an accident, and the skull fell into a ditch. Another version is that it is the entire skeleton of a child with only its face showing. Several authorities have declared it is the skull of a monkey.
I also learned about an account concerning Mario, the son of a vicious viceroy during the Spanish Conquest. Men who wanted to avenge his father kidnapped Mario and took him to the jungle. There they rubbed his skin with herbs to reduce the size of his body while he was still alive. He experienced a long, painful death. At some point, the skeleton was discovered, handed down from generation to generation and became known as Niño Compadrito(2).
I refuse to pay attention to the stories. They’re ridiculous. It’s only a skull. I have no interest in praying to a skull, although many people have faith in him and claim he grants their wishes through dreams. In fact, I avoid praying to anyone, and ignore attending Church. Prayer and going to mass are activities for the uneducated. I make fun of people who seek the spiritual. After all, I soon will be a university student. I know so much about the world.
I sit on one of the wooden benches that line the back wall while my aunt stands and prays in front of Niño Compadrito. Watching the people in the chapel relieves the boredom of doing nothing. A few kneel before him; some remain on their feet. Others sit on the benches deep in prayer or meditation. Everyone lights candles and places them on the wooden tables between the altar and the benches. Of course it is beneath me to light a candle since I mock Niño Compadrito to my friends. “He’s just a skull that someone once found. He looks like a monkey. Perhaps you’re related to him, Juan.”
There is always one woman who straightens the bent candles so that their flames will keep burning. How silly, I think, to devote one’s time to monitoring the position of the candles.
During the time we are there, my mind is active. Why do people pray to him? How ugly he looks. The next soccer game with my friends. When will I see my girlfriend? How will we spend our time together? How am I doing at the academy where I began a six-month course, preparing to take the entrance examination for a university in Cusco? Will my score on the exam be high enough so that the university will accept me for one of its coveted openings in the program in medicine?
Eventually, my aunt heaves herself over to the bench to rest beside me and pray some more. Finally, she clutches my arm, and I give a silent sigh of relief. It is time to raise her from the bench and depart.
After innumerable visits, my aunt confides, “I always ask for a healing for my knee. I’m sure Niño Compadrito will grant it to me in a dream.” I have my doubts. A miracle from a skull? In a dream no less? I suppress my laughter at her absurd expectation. I remain silent, because I am a Peruvian. I respect my elders and my family.
One day just after New Year’s she greets me with, “Ulises, look my knee is cured. Niño Compadrito is responsible. See for yourself. And he removed the grudge that for many years I had against my neighbor who had spread a rumor that I hated her.”
I examine her knee. It is normal. She now can walk alone to the chapel, a fact that relieves me, for I am tired of escorting her on those once a week treks. There will be no more exhausting sessions with Niño Compadrito.
“Did it happen in a dream?”
“Did you actually see him in the dream?”
“Of course, how else would I know that he cured me? In fact, his voice was loud and clear. And I could see his face.”
“Curls and all?” I ask, covering my skepticism with a joke. Aunt Julia sniffs. I let the matter rest.
When I leave her, she is smiling and humming a tune at her sudden good fortune. I am confused about this healing. Thoughts whirl in my head. Did the knee heal itself? My aunt doesn’t lie. How was it suddenly healed? Last week when I went with her to the chapel, her knee was still swollen and stiff.
The entrance examination to the university will be in three months. I am uncertain whether I have been studying hard enough. Even though I score well on the weekly practice exams, I am worried, because one of the teachers resents me. He always marks up my papers and gives me low grades. He challenges me in class whenever I ask or answer a question. He makes me feel like a fool. As a result, I seize every opportunity to criticize him to my friends.
Although I doubt my aunt’s story, I find myself constantly thinking about it. It intrigues me. For the first time I can remember I am faced with a mystery. I am unable to find an explanation. What if Niño Compadrito did cure her knee? What if I petition him to be accepted into the program for medicine at the university? For several days, I mull over the pros and cons. Can a skull grant a miracle? Will Niño Compadrito respond? Or will my contempt for him work against me?
I decide praying to him won’t hurt my chances of getting into the university. It might even help. It’s important, though, to keep the plan a secret from my friends. They will torment me unmercifully if they discover that I am requesting support from the folk saint I ridicule.
I will visit the chapel on days when I know my aunt is at home. I want to avoid her questioning my motives. She can sense that I scoff at those who trust Niño Compadrito to answer their prayers, although she never chides me for my attitude.
During my first trip alone to Niño Compadrito, I linger over the candles, trying to decide which color to buy. I read the sign, describing what the colors of the candles symbolize, posted on the wall. Will it be rose for victory or blue for studies? What about purple for a miracle? I settle on purple candles and pay for three.
Two women are sitting on a bench outside the chapel carving initials into the bottoms of black candles. Black candles! I don’t recall seeing them!
From my position in front of Niño Compadrito, I watch the women out of the corner of my eye as they enter and kneel before him. After praying, they light their candles and place them in a special tray to burn, away from the colored or white candles. I beckon to them. After they approach, I whisper, “What are the black candles for? Why do you carve initials on their bottoms?
One of the women murmurs, “For justice. You carve the initials of the person you want justice for.”
I am self-conscious as I light my candles. My hands tremble. One candle tips over after I have placed it in the tray. I pick it up between my thumb and forefinger to reset it in the melted wax. Ouch! Heads turn in my direction at my startled cry. Blowing on my burned fingers, I make a speedy exit.
After learning about the black candles, I begin to change my mind about what to ask. A different plan takes shape, to light black candles for justice against my teacher and ask Niño Compadrito to get rid of the teacher’s grudge. My rationale is that the teacher can continue to make my life miserable by saying something derogatory about me to the university. His rancor has so invaded my life that I fear his invisible presence will haunt me the day of the exam.
What if he accepts bribes from the students to put in a good word about them with the examiners? I know some of the teachers receive money under the table. I’ve seen students slip them a handful of folded bills. My family can’t afford to do that.
The more I consider the idea, the more I like it. It is simple. Eliminate the grudge, and I will be a medical student. What I am unable to acknowledge is how desperate I have become. Instead, I disguise my hopelessness with what seems to me to be reasonable arguments.
On my second, third and fourth visits during subsequent weeks, everything goes smoothly. I buy three black candles, take a seat on the bench outside the chapel and cut the professor’s initials in the bottom of each one. Then I go inside the chapel, pray to Niño Compadrito, light the candles and set them with the black candles. I watch them burn down and then leave, expecting nothing from Niño Compadrito. But I feel better. I am taking an active step on my behalf.
After the third week of lighting black candles, Niño Compadrito appears to me in a dream. The only thing I see is his skull, teeth, blue eyes and curls. A light is focused on him making his blue eyes glitter with intelligence. His soft words are unmistakable. “I will remove your teacher’s grudge.” The dream fades, and I awake rubbing my eyes. My heart is pounding. Those are the words I yearned to hear. Was it really him?
Of course, it was him. I can still see the vivid dream in my mind’s eye, hear his words stating exactly what I asked for. My thoughts turn to my aunt. I remember her dream and subsequent healing. Her experience reinforces my conviction that Niño Compadrito granted my wish.
I hurry to my aunt’s house to tell her about the dream. My mood is carefree. I am confident everything will turn out for the best.
I confess, “One of my teachers dislikes me. I’ve been visiting Niño Compadrito and asking him to remove the teacher’s grudge so that I can pass my exam. Last night I received a dream from Niño Compadrito. He promised to get rid of the grudge. I’ll succeed with the exam and gain a place in the university.”
She looks thoughtful. “What color candles did you light?”
“Black ones for justice. Three black ones, once a week for three weeks. And I carved his initials in the bottoms.” My aunt stares at me. “What’s the matter?” I ask.
“Time will tell,” she responds.
The exam is only two months away. I continue to study diligently. Several weeks before the scheduled date, I attend the class taught by my enemy, along with his other students. He is absent. We wait for what seems a long time. Joking and boisterous, we have no idea what is in store for us. Suddenly, the director appears. He solemnly announces. “Your teacher had a heart attack. He is in a private hospital.” At least, I won’t have to face him in class, I think. But what about the grudge? Niño Compadrito assured me he’d get rid of it.
On the following day, news spreads among us that the teacher died. At first, I am grateful that the teacher’s ill will towards me departed with his death. I remember to honor Niño Compadrito. “Bless you for making your dream come true.” A heavy weight lifts from me.
I stop on the way home from the university to see my aunt. “I feel sure that without the teacher I’ll begin the medical program,” I inform her. She doesn’t say a word. She just folds her arms across her chest. I turn my head so that she is unable to see how her lack of enthusiasm annoys me.
On my way home, a feeling of uneasiness begins to undermine my confidence. Did I play a part in the teacher’s death? I keep ignoring the question, hoping it will go away. It persists. I push it away; it returns. Denial wins. I override my distress by persuading myself that it is Niño Compadrito who is responsible for his death.
The fateful morning arrives. I am calm as I open the door to the examination hall and select a seat near the back. Blocking the smell of fear emanating from the student on my right, I answer question after question with no pauses, no furrowed brow. When I exit, I breathe deeply. I know I’ve passed.
I am shocked when the academy posts the results the week after the exam. I almost cry when I read my score, but pride prevents me from breaking into tears in front of my friends. Instead, I make light of the outcome. I go for a long walk around the streets surrounding the academy, asking myself what went wrong. How could I have failed?
The fresh air, the lightly falling rain and the people silently passing quiet my turbulent emotions. On the way home, I stop at my aunt’s house to give her my sad news. “Aunt Julia, what went wrong? Niño Compadrito cured your knee and your grudge disappeared. He told me he would remove my teacher’s grudge. It was the only thing standing in the way of my success.”
“You don’t understand Niño Compadrito. For every prayer that he grants, he takes away something: an idea, a wish, a possession, a person that you hold dear. In my case, he healed my knee, but eliminated the cherished grudge that I held against my neighbor.
“My friend Valentina who trained as a teacher but was unable to find work in Cusco prayed for a job. Niño Compadrito granted her wish in a dream. But the job was in Puno, far from Cusco. She had to leave the home of her beloved family and move to a city where she had neither family nor friends, where the way of life was different. My poor friend, how she struggled to adjust!
“You lit black candles. I never lit them. You were misled. They are for retribution, not justice. Niño Compadrito did just what he told you in the dream, but in a way you didn’t anticipate. Your teacher’s death was an act of revenge. At the same time Niño Compadrito took away the prized entrance to the university that you worked so hard to achieve. Didn’t you wonder why the black candles were burned separately from the other candles?”
“Because they represent the power of darkness.”
My head throbs, and my face turns red. Without warning I am overcome by the shame of my arrogance. A storm of shaking and crying convulses me. Through my petitions to Niño Compadrito, the teacher lost his life. My affairs are in shambles. My hope of being a physician has been crushed. “How could I have been so stupid?” I ask myself. “So thoughtless? So cold-hearted? How could I have succumbed to such temptation?” I shake off her hand on my shoulder and ignore her comforting words. I stumble out of her house in anguish.
Outside, I sob bitter tears, not only at my failure to pass the exam but at my inability to recognize how I was enticed by darkness. I weep for the dishonor I brought to my family. I promise myself I will attend daily mass at the Cathedral and never return to Niño Compadrito. God and my family will take precedence over soccer games and my girlfriend.
By the time I reach home, I have composed myself long enough to tell my family that I failed the exam.
“No! How could you fail?” they ask in stunned voices.
I avoid their bewildered exclamations and laments by going to my room and closing the door. The tears again stream down my cheeks as I throw myself on the bed and bury my head in the pillow to muffle the sounds of my grief.
I keep my intentions. I find solace in the Church. God answers my requests to show me a path that will bring happiness to my family and to me. A fortuitous friendship with a priest changes my life. His support proves invaluable. He encourages me to retake the entrance examination after a period of reflection and prayer. “Only this time apply for the program in social studies,” he counsels. A year after I failed the exam, I pass it and begin my studies.
I accept the priest’s advice and become an archeologist. With his wisdom and deep insight into my character, he points out, “Excavating what lies beneath the surface of the earth will parallel your excavations into your interior motives and drives.”
It has been a long, slow and painful process to examine my past and to understand how the dark forces that were buried within my innermost being shaped my personality. At last, I have arrived at a stage in my life where I am grateful for having been able to recognize those shadowy aspects of myself – the low self-esteem, the negativity, the anger – all of which I had masked by self-importance and scorn toward others. I am more compassionate now than I used to be, more humble, and more aware of the consequences of my thoughts and my actions.
In a few weeks, two decades after my experience with Niño Compadrito, my autobiography, The Redemption, will be published.
I dedicate this book with love and gratitude…
To my mother and father, brothers and sisters, my aunt, my wife and children, all of whom have championed my efforts to find a place in the world…
To the priest who wishes to remain anonymous…
To Peru and to its sacred sites that I have played a small part in discovering and uncovering. They have provided me with an awareness of ancient cultures, which has allowed me to place my presence here on earth in perspective…
And lastly, to all of those who knowingly or unknowingly helped form a man out of a callous youth.
June 1, 2011
(1)Niño Compadrito: niño means child or boy; compadrito means little godfather or little protecto benefactor.
(2) Cited by http://gonzalorojas.wordpress.com/2009/01/15/el-nino-compadrito/