The Future of Cities: In the aftermath of the most recent attacks in Paris, the writer considers a city wavering between gravity and light.
What remained of the blood stains and candle wax on the sidewalk streamed away, propelled by the curtain of water blasting from the worker’s hose. A small crowd—tourists, well-wishers and the curious—gathered at the corner of Rues Alibert and Bichat. They leapt out of the way of the splashing water as young, cigarette-smoking Maghrebis in jeans and tennis shoes looked on from the doorway of their apartment, some with amusement, others with what seemed like fear or disdain. Red and white rose petals, green leaves, plastic packaging, remnants of candles, handwritten tributes, and deflated mylar balloons floated in the puddles left behind, alongside the flecks of blood coursing—like so much other blood over the centuries—toward oblivion, down into the ancient sewers of Paris.
The sound of the hose was enough to make me feel heavy and off balance. I’d come to the city to report on the crisis facing climate refugees, a topic world leaders decided, at the last possible minute, not to discuss. Left without a subject, I planned to go to Place de la Republique square to report on the students who were violating President Francois Hollande’s ban on protesting after the attacks of November 13. Two weeks had passed since the attacks, and all over Paris felt uncomfortably like post—9-11 New York. But what really made my innards twist and tighten on that overcast, on-and-off-rainy Friday was the smell. Real or imagined, it smelled like someone cooking raw, perhaps rotting, meat. There might have been a butcher shop nearby. My panic might have concocted the smell. Or maybe it was the smell of death, lingering over the scene. Regardless of the source, I felt my intestines swell intensely. My khakis felt several sizes too small. The tightness in my jaw and neck were also certifiably real.
I tried to get a grip on the situation: this experience contained trace elements of my visit to El Salvador three months before. My parents’ homeland had become the most violent place on earth, and I’d traveled there to witness and write about it. I was also researching the thousands of individual and mass graves, holes in the volcanic ground that had been left uninvestigated and underreported but remained sites of terror and trauma throughout the tiny country, since the war of the 1980s. I breathed in a lot of formaldehyde, rotting flesh, and dirt doused with death. Visits to forensics labs, morgues, and mass graves exposed me to chemical mixtures that made my stomach swell then, too. Several weeks later in Paris, the alchemy of death was probably still at work—would have been, perhaps, even without this residue of recent carnage.
But standing in front of Le Petit Cambodge, the Cambodian restaurant that was one of several sites of the November attacks that left 129 people dead, the facts on the wet sidewalk were undeniable. Paris, the city that helped me to love the lightness of life inherent in the word légèreté, had come under the grip of gravity. I’d first come to the city as a ten-year-old boy who wanted to rise up into the sky, like the boy in the magnificent French movie The Red Balloon, which I’d seen in Mr. Mathis’s fourth-grade class. The story of a child who encounters a balloon with its own personality, befriending it as they walk, skip, and run through the rough, working-class neighborhood of Belleville-Ménilmontant, spoke to me. The poetic power of the red balloon made me, a lonely kid who grew up around the 26th Street projects in San Francisco’s Mission District, long for one of my own—so much so that I pestered my parents to let me fly to Paris on a kid’s pilgrimage to see the land of balloons and levitating children.
Since then, I’d visited Paris on numerous occasions: on vacations, to see a former lover, to do research on immigrants involved in the French Revolution. Things took a turn for the surreal when, visiting just after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, I saw French soldiers in the Louvre, looking artsy in their red berets, clutching their sleek, black grenade-launching semi-automatic weapons as they strolled hallways filled with delicate and monumental masterpieces. But never before in this place, not even then, did I feel the gut-wrenching gravité as I did now.
* * *
The age of levity began in earnest on Sunday, November 21, 1783. At 1:54 in the afternoon, two Parisian mortals—Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, a physicist, and François Laurent, Marquis d’Arlandes, a military officer—rose above the grounds of the Château de la Muette in the first hot air balloon ever to be untethered from the earth. That balloon, called the Montgolfier, had just literally and figuratively elevated humanity to breathtaking new heights.
Named for Jacques-Étienne and Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, the two heirs of a growing global empire of luxury wallpaper, the royal-blue hot air balloon rising into the air that day bore the symbols of the king’s earthly power: golden flourishes, fleurs-de-lis, zodiac suns. It had been designed by Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, a manufacturer of fine wallpaper hired by the Montgolfiers after they brought their invention from the countryside to his beautiful home and factory in the gritty Paris suburb of Saint-Antoine.
With the launch, a legacy of untested ideas and failed experiments was transformed into a physical, even bodily, success. D’Arlandes said he felt like he was “being lifted by the armpits” as the balloon floated heavenward. The crowd of thousands beneath the two men grew smaller even as the earth and skies grew larger and more awesome.
“This time we are rising!” d’Arlandes exclaimed to Rozier, who was himself astonished and quite frightened after having cut all cords tethering him to the ground. Both men’s stomachs twitched with the natural tightness of the fear that accompanies first flight. But as they took in deep breaths, the men calmed and started enjoying the ethereal rise of the Montgolfier.
At over 5,000 feet above bustling Paris, the two men could see all that no one else had seen previously: the division of the city into a mostly wealthy right bank and a mostly poor left bank; the three cathedrals, forty monasteries, and over 100 convents of the city’s largest landowner; and the hulking towers of Bastille Saint-Antoine, the prison symbolizing royal authority, which was a short walk from the Réveillon factory. But what most struck d’Arlandes was the uncanny silence: the silence above as well as that of the crowd gazing up from below.
As their chariot glided toward the southwestern part of the city, Rozier and d’Arlandes looked down. There at their feet was the city’s highest and most hallowed structure, Notre Dame. Clergy, Crown, and commoner crowded on the roof looking up, looking like tiny black dots. The aeronauts’ steady rise cast a long shadow over Christendom that day.
* * *
“Guess where we’re going?” my mother asked, collapsing onto the beat-up red and yellow sofa bed in our living room. Resting there for a few minutes was all there was between another long day of cleaning rich people’s rooms at the hotel and starting to cook dinner for me, my siblings, and cousins, all of us living in the apartment on Folsom Street in San Francisco’s Mission district. “We’re going to Paris!”
It was 1973, and I was ten years old; my mother knew her announcement would make me, her youngest, fly. I jumped around our apartment’s long hallways, and danced around the living room. I looked out the rickety window facing the projects on 26th Street like I was Captain Nemo preparing the Nautilus to search for Atlantis. I shouted with excitement. The anticipation of travel always lifted my spirits, but the idea of traveling to Paris—the setting of The Red Balloon!—was especially intense. My mother’s news filled me with visions of submarine voyages, exotic train rides, and wondrous balloon rides during which I disappeared into the air like the boy did at the end of his film, or like Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days—both the movie and the Saturday-morning cartoon.
By the time I was ten, I had already traveled far beyond the Mission. Thanks to my Salvadoran immigrant parents—my mother, Maria Elena, a maid at a five-star hotel, and my father, Ramón, whose job as a janitor at United Airlines got us free or discounted airline tickets—I got to see the world at an early age, with what Shakespeare called “rich eyes and poor hands.” I’d return to the Mission with stories of the Colosseum in Rome, the bullfights of Madrid, and the pyramids of Mexico. In a neighborhood where the pull of our poverty had limited many of my friends’ lives to a sixty-mile radius, I got to fly far beyond the illusion of these borders. My own red balloon turned out to be a United Boeing 747.
Most often, we flew to El Salvador, which made it feel less like an adventure and more like a second home. My parents’ homeland was where most of our extended family lived, the only country we, my three siblings and both parents, visited all together. We spent most of our time in San Salvador, with my father’s poor relatives, and in San Vicente, the more picturesque, semi-rural town where my mom’s impoverished family lived beneath the green grandeur of the Chinchontepec volcano.
In the 1970s, El Salvador was a high-octane rocket. It gave me unlimited access to crates of firecrackers and the biggest, baddest barrel bombs in my explosive, expanding universe. It was also the place where I first heard men in dark green military uniforms loaded with medals utter the words terrorismo and terrorista on television and in radio broadcasts. We kids cracked up watching my Tía Esperanza pop out her eyes, purse her lips, and march around her crowded living room as she mocked El Salvador’s president, General Armando Molina, during the broadcasts. On streets paved with poverty, politics, and poetry, filled with graffiti advocating revolución and indicting the fascista government, I played soccer and escondelero, hide and seek, with my friends, some of whom didn’t have shoes.
Not long before we left for Paris, still floating on the clouds of our imminent departure, I was crossing the street to buy a popsicle at Henry’s liquor store, close to our apartment, when I saw a lady in a yellow dress walking very quickly down the street. A man came running behind her. When he caught up to her, they started yelling. They screamed back and forth at each other for a while, until the guy said, Fuck you bitch, and pulled something out of his waistband. The woman screamed No! just before he started hacking at her stomach. To my ten-year-old ears, the knife jabs sounded like he was slicing her skin with a potato peeler: scht-scht-scht. The woman cried out, each jab evoking Noooooo! Help me! as blood poured onto her hands and spilled onto the sidewalk. It looked to me like running red water. Her screams alarmed others nearby, some rushed into their homes as if to escape while others yelled for the police. The man ran off. The woman stood there bleeding, staggering off to lean against a garage door before falling to the ground, where she lay twitching, like when our dog Timber got poisoned by an angry neighbor. I rushed home to tell my mom.
My mother sat me on the sofa and rubbed my stomach as if I was the one who had been stabbed. I felt unnerved every time I walked by Henry’s store, long after the blood spilled on 25th Street that day had dried. Though I wouldn’t have put it this way at the time, that spot felt like a baptism in terror. I thought about it often, wherever I traveled over the years. I thought about how streets, and the cities they form, have all seen blood.
In the wake of the stabbing, going to Paris was all the more uplifting—one of the greatest releases I’d known. The delight of visiting historic sights—the Eiffel Tower, the Pantheon, Napoleon’s Tomb, Notre Dame—balanced the tedium of time spent looking for cheap souvenir scarves to give to every maid, domestic worker, and working woman from San Francisco to San Vicente. We didn’t even try to find the Belleville-Ménilmontant area where The Red Balloon took place. But that didn’t matter. The stairways around Montmarte allowed my imagination to take flight as if I was, in fact, strolling on sidewalks along the hills where the boy and his balloon played.
Coming back to San Francisco felt like coming back to earth.
* * *
After the Montgolfier took flight, newspapers reported weeping crowds, people raising their hands skyward in a kind of religious ecstasy. Some who saw the balloons flying in rural areas thought they were moons signaling that the Apocalypse was imminent.
Their silence and awe reflected the wonder and dread that characterized medieval experiences of God. With the advent of the age of levity, the alchemy of linguistic and social change in Paris turned terreur into an aspect of the “sublime” as described by Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, and other French philosophes.
Words informed the légèreté of the French moment. Led by the early-eighteenth-century poet, literary critic, and translator Nicolas Boileau, Parisians were at the center of a ferment about the revolutionary possibilities of the sublime. Boileau, a powdered-wig-wearing printer known for challenging poets and priests, started a literary revolution with his translation and publication of Longinus’s On the Sublime, a medieval treatise about speaking and writing in ways that elevated the emotions of an audience. He led Burke, Kant, and the others of the era in defining the sublime as a key element in the elevation of the human race, an elevation ballonomania spread across the Atlantic world.
Balloons became the symbol of the air du temps, one of many objects of increasingly heated discussions and debates raging throughout Paris. Men and women, many sporting powdered wigs, engaged in spirited but tense conversations about science and society in salons, academies, coffeehouses, and masonic lodges that were the fashionable centers of polite conversation. Factory owners and merchants, some of whom financed balloon launches, started quietly questioning their allegiance to the Crown, while workers in factories grew impatient, cursing in more impolite conversations about their wages and working conditions. Amid the ferment, the words Parisians were using started behaving like shape-shifting atoms, solid melting into liquid turning into gas. Nouns became verbs; verbs became nouns.
Increasingly, words and concepts used in the academies to describe movements of matter were being applied to society. The most important of these was the word that, for many, came to mean an irresistible force making the body of the prince equal to that of the pauper: revolution. In common usage, other words, like “liberté,” “nation,” “souveraineté,” and “citoyen,” were lifting up what it meant to be human in a world where one’s place was typically predetermined (and, therefore, limited) by social position. In Traité du sublime, his translation of Longinus, Boileau also drew on the language of physical sciences, describing the sublime power behind the linguistic and social revolution as la petitesse energique des paroles (the energetic smallness of words).
Not everyone shared the French faith in légèreté and the thrill of the balloon launches. English philosopher and statesman Sir Edmund Burke saw French levity as a negative force. Reading newspapers and looking across the English Channel from his seat in Parliament, the arch-conservative Burke grew impatient with the “frivolity and effeminacy” of the French “national character.” He preferred to remain “standing on the firm ground of the British constitution,” he said, “rather than attempt to follow in their desperate flights the aeronauts of France.” (Unknown: Whether Burke’s feeling about the French experiments in flying were influenced by his having had his watch stolen by someone in the crowd at a balloon launch.)
As an Anglican with a Catholic mother, Burke subscribed to ideas about the sublime that were steeped in gravity, declaring, in his classic A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, that “terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently the ruling principle of the sublime.” Burke considered feelings of terror crucial to keeping order in the body politic, which he saw as “a great primeval contract of eternal society…which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.” His ideas about terror distinguished between less desirable fear and the more positive “salutary fear” that kept peasants and other commoners in “proud submission” or “dignified obedience.” He was profoundly disturbed by the “strange chaos of levity and ferocity” among the Parisians he would later describe in his reflections on the revolution in France.
But the students of the sublime in Paris brought particular passion to their work. Born into a peasant home and best known for his prodigious writings—essays, pamphlets, and, especially, futuristic and salacious novels—Restif de la Bretonne developed early on the fever to name the new. He introduced the term pornographe (pornography) in his book about the need to legalize and reform prostitution. Searching for a way to describe his sexual pleasure and desire for women’s feet, he invented the word fétiche (fetish). And in his novel Le pied de Fanchette, in a chapter about a character with a foot fetish, is found the first documented public use of a term inspiring radical revolutionaries like Gracchus Babeuf and others in Paris: communism.
Nicknamed Rousseau du ruisseau (Rousseau of the gutter) for his saucier writing, Restif was also one of the few writers to take nighttime strolls through the many Paris neighborhoods that were actually filled with gutters, and to write about the people living there. The dirty, smelly, narrow streets of Saint-Antoine were lined with the crowded homes of workers. The Réveillon factory, which was also located in Saint-Antoine, along with its owner’s luxurious home, is where the first manned Montgolfier hot air balloons were manufactured. The factory’s garden served as the launch site for the Montgolfier brothers’ first tethered hot air balloon tests in Paris, prior to the November launch of Rozier and d’Arlandes’s historic balloon.
So the sublime invention literally rose out of the gutter, and Restif was one of the few who understood the dangerous and growing distance between the heights reached by the private, royal interests financing the balloon and the hot, humid ditches where workers actually built the flying machine.
* * *
After my mother and I got back from Paris, things heated up in our apartment. My father, who we called Papa Mon, came home one day talking about “esa compañía de mierda” (that shit of a company) doing something or other to him and the other workers: janitors, baggage handlers, ramp workers, cargo and cabin service crews. Shortly after, workers and guys in windbreakers bearing the logo of a black hand shaking a white hand—the words “AFL” & “CIO” written on the wrists—would come to our house to drink and talk about work problems.
My dad was something called a “shop steward,” two words I understood only as something my dad did in his job. The workers, who loved my dad, were talking about “going on strike,” and that phrase I came to associate with fun. I learned it from going into the street in front of the hotel where my mother worked, yelling slogans I didn’t understand and marching while banging pots and pans with wooden spoons. After Papa Mon and the workers and union guys in the windbreakers had their talks, I learned that “strike” also meant stopping the flight of United 747s. Later on, I learned that French workers also stopped hot air balloons from flying.
The 300 workers at Folie Titon, the Réveillon wallpaper factory—the rag sorters, those wielding the mallets, the vat man, the couchers, the seamstresses, the loftsman, and many other journeymen workers belonging to the guilds despised by the Montgolfiers—were paid competitively, but still received little for their efforts. Toiling six days a week in a toxic factory for long hours at the rate of thirty-five to fifty sous per day, barely making enough to buy bread and subsist, the workers found their bodies, minds, and even their tongues subjected to new discipline. A work manual developed by the Montgolfier brothers barred the workers from “quarreling nor swearing at all nor saying obscene words,” adding that “if anyone has contracted the habit [of vulgar speech]…we might be obliged to dismiss him.”
On April 29, 1789, the noxious air in the Folie Titon factory in Saint-Antoine caught fire. Shortly before, rumors began circulating in Paris that Jean-Baptiste Réveillon had written an essay in which he advocated for lowering the price of bread. Many readers mistakenly thought he was calling for lowering wages and manufacturing prices as a means to that end. Though Réveillon was considered a fair and decent-paying employer, upon hearing (and misinterpreting) his statements, some 3,000 workers from across the city organized peaceful protests at his factory, and at the house where he was hiding. Sent to protect the factory, the Garde Française fired several rounds, killing 100, as other workers burned down the Réveillon factory in what became the dress rehearsal for the French Revolution.
One revolutionary was an early admirer of balloons. As a medical student, Jean Paul Marat wrote a paper on physics. Titled “Mémoires académiques, ou nouvelles découvertes sur la lumière” (“Academic Memoirs, or New Discoveries on Light”), Marat’s paper, which studied the effects of light on soap bubbles, was rejected by the prestigious Académie française. It was then criticized by Jacques Charles, the physicist who launched the first hydrogen balloon in December 1783, shortly after the Montgolfier balloon launch. On hearing about the criticism, Marat, who also wrote a pamphlet on ballooning, rushed to Charles’s office, drew his sword, and challenged him to a duel (police intervened before the situation became more violent). Later, Marat joined forces with a young lawyer who shared his interest in science, politics, and ballooning: Maximilien Robespierre. The two men united with other revolutionaries in working to abolish the learned academies like the one that rejected Marat. They also reformed workers’ rights, outlawing their attempts to organize and forbidding protest. Robespierre, Marat, and their followers cast aside Restif and Babeuf’s idealistic ideas about workers and communism in favor of gravity—what came to be known as le nationalisme.
Still, the légèreté that created and popularized the balloon was enlisted to advance Robespierre and Marat’s ideas about nation, state, and revolution. The first military mail was delivered by air balloon in 1793. And though they had abolished most of the academies generating innovative scientific and other thought, the revolutionaries established the École aérostatique in 1794. The Ecole went on to realize the dream that first motivated Etienne Montgolfier’s discovery of the hot air balloon: enabling rulers to drop bombs from the skies.
Together with enemies foreign and domestic, Robespierre, Marat, and the members of the Tribunal révolutionnaire and French government altered the meaning of and then linked two words that would define the modern era they were entering: “state” and “terror.” Declaring “terror is the order of the day,” Robespierre let out the dirty secret held by most rulers with respect to using violence or the threat of violence: keep order. In the aftermath of the Terror and the demise of the Tribunal Revolutionnaire, the 1798 edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française added the term terrorisme. It also added the term terroriste.
* * *
I was eager to hear what my friend, Cherif, who lives in the Canal Saint-Martin area of Paris, had to say about the November attacks. He and I first met two years before, at the Tunisian and Maghrebi immigrant rights organization he volunteers at in nearby Belleville—the immigrant neighborhood that is my favorite part of one of my favorite cities.
A bookish-looking retired management consultant with a calm, fatherly demeanour gazed at me from behind large glasses. At the start of our friendship, Cherif made a point of telling me, “I was born in Tunisia, but my family and I are French. We are French.” As we stood in front of Le Petit Cambodge, he spoke, in a soft voice cracking with anger, about the charged state that had followed the attacks, the “raids, arrests, and shooting of innocent people.” Like the students protesting in Republique Square, Cherif was unhappy about what he deemed “repressive” measures that silenced criticism of acts he and others in his community found disturbing. He and his neighbors were, he said, unable to protest arrests that were happening without cause, police shootings in areas where bullets almost hit sleeping children, incidents where government security forces broke down the doors on the apartments of innocent families—all reported and documented at the community center. The events following the November attacks stirred memories among some of the elders at the center about the massacre of hundreds of Algerians by Paris police and security forces in October 1961. Cherif felt divided in his Frenchness.
Cherif and his family had called Belleville home since before the arrival of the bobos, the bourgeois bohemians. Armies of French hipsters who could afford higher rents pushed many of Cherif’s African, Muslim, Chinese, and other immigrant friends out of their two- and three-bedroom apartments. In 2015, la belle France was in even less of a mood to hear about the plight of poor Maghrebis, blaming groups of people in much the same way some in the US blamed, and attacked, Arab-Americans and South Asians after and since 9-11. The November attacks worsened the deep-seated racism against North Africans, racism that had already intensified after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, rendering the members of an entire community perpetual subjects of police raids, continued displacement, and the vagaries of an unpredictable force troubling many French, along with Cherif and others in his immigrant rights office: nationalisme.
Until November, the far right National Front party of Jean-Marie Le Penn and his daughter Marine had encouraged flag-waving to little avail, even after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. But as Cherif and I visited the sites of the November attacks, the flag was hanging on apartment balconies above Le Carillon and Le Petit Cambodge and throughout Paris. Polls measuring French voter opinion on the eve of the upcoming parliamentary election said that the National Front was on the verge of “unprecedented victories.”
Walking back across the wet sidewalk of Rue Alibert, we stopped to look at the small mountain of well-wishing in front of Le Petit Cambodge: the red and tricolor aluminum balloons, the plants and flowers, the handmade posters. The messages were in French, English, Arabic, and many other languages. The sliding metal doors of the restaurant were locked.
We walked on, across the Rue Alibert, to look at the gray wall of l’Hopital Saint-Louis. “Look,” Cherif said. On a large black poster, oversized letters spelled out VIVE LA REPUBLIQUE VIVE MA FRANCE (Long Live the Republic, Long Live My France). The word MA stood out in even bigger yellow letters, for emphasis. Small letters below indicated that an organization called SOS-RACISME had produced the poster as part of a campaign to fight racism in France. When I looked at their website later, slick videos showed the faces of several light-skinned French people saying, Je suis de la couleur de ceux qu’on persecute (I am the color of those being persecuted).
“Whose France do you think they’re talking about?” Cherif asked, his eyes wide, his question rhetorical. “Not mine.” We walked back to Le Petit Cambodge.
Chatib Akrouh, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, and Brahim Abdeslam—the three young men who attacked Le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon—were French and Belgian citizens who worked for or ran businesses, liked hip-hop, and were described by some of their neighbors as “very nice.” As such, they didn’t fit the stereotypical image of the bearded terrorist. But it had also been poor, brown young men who were liked by some of their neighbors who told me, during my most recent trip to El Salvador, that they’d killed their fellow citizens. Most but not all of their victims had been affiliated with gangs. Both the young Maghrebis and the young Salvadorans bore the weight of a dehumanizing, destructive anger rooted in marginality, nihilistic rage that found a friend in the instruments of death. Though separated by thousands of miles, these men all used AK-47s left over from wars in the Balkans and Central America. Those same guns, which can fire up to thirty bullets in three seconds, were the preferred weapon of the Salvadoran guerrillas who fought the US-backed government in the 1980s. Cheap, durable, and easy to use, the ubiquitous AK is a source of terror for some and liberation for others.
Looking at the bullet holes in the windows of Le Carillon, the hotel and bar where twelve people were killed, I thought about the anger, disaffection, poverty, and absurd ideas that led El Salvador’s gangs to kill 900 people in one month—August of the same year the Charlie Hebdo and November attacks left a total of 147 people dead in Paris. I wondered at the irony in the fact that some of the young gang members I had interviewed (many of whom were not ruthless murderers, unlike some of their peers) were labeled terroristas by the former guerrilla leaders now heading the government. I’d spoken to some of these same guerrilla leaders when they were themselves called terroristas by US-backed military and civilian leaders of the wartime governments—which were also labeled “state terrorists” by opposition and international human rights groups in the 1980s. The red and blue mylar balloons left by well-wishers brought me no relief.
* * *
During my visit to Paris, my father did his usual: he called me several times a day to make sure I was okay. I didn’t mind. I knew the calls were probably the product of the same anxiety that drove him to drink heavily for most of his adult life. In 1932, my father had witnessed the slaughter known as La Matanza, the massacre of tens of thousands of Indians and poor peasants in El Salvador killed on the orders of a dictator, one of the worst in Latin American history. I was the one in the family who discovered what he had remained quiet about for some seventy-five years, since he was a ten-year-old boy in his hometown of Ahuachapán, poor and often hungry. While teaching and doing research in the Central American studies program at Cal State Northridge, I came across reports that Papa Mon’s hometown had been one of the epicenters of the massacre. I did the math and realized that my father had likely been living there when La Matanza began in January 1932.
When I asked him about it, he hesitated before nervously acknowledging for the first time what he had borne in silence for most of his life. He cried, and so did I, finally understanding the gravity behind his drinking, which he later brought a stop to—and along with it the force of my mother’s commitment, the force that first flew me to Paris, though our family of workers couldn’t really afford it (even with the discounts).
“Things are fine here, Papa,” I reassured him. “It’s nothing like El Salvador, or even the US.” I reminded him of both my safe visits to the dangerous parts of the motherland just a few months before, and of the spate of mass killings in the US in 2015, only one of which was called a “terrorist attack.”
I was telling the truth, but the whole time I was in Paris, there were memories I couldn’t shake, memories of things I didn’t tell Papa Mon about until long after they’d occured. In 1990, when I was working with refugee and displaced communities in El Salvador, Salvadoran death squads tried to capture and shove me into an unmarked van. In Los Angeles in 1992, members of the Salvadoran independence front and the Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez anti-communist brigade death squad—named for the dictator who perpetrated La Matanza witnessed by my father—threatened and harassed many of us who were working with refugees and denouncing human rights violations.
I left Le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon and started heading toward the center of the city. As I crossed one of the small metal bridges over Canal Saint-Martin, I stopped to breathe in the poetic atmosphere: trees, gardens, bistros, and people walking and reading along a calm green river. My beatific moment was interrupted when I noticed that the VIVE LA REPUBLIQUE VIVE MA FRANCE posters were covering the walls on the side of the small bridge. I wondered what the migrants walking along the river thought about these posters.
When I arrived at my apartment on a hill in Belleville, I was tired from a long afternoon of walking. I poured myself a glass of wine and drank it standing by the window, facing one of the very same concrete staircases that the boy in The Red Balloon rises up from, floating higher and higher before disappearing into the sky.
Looking out on the sublime gifts of Paris, I thought about my own inclination toward levity. Like my father, some in Paris after the attacks will live silently with terror, looking up and away for fear that the recent past will destroy them. Others, like my mother, will rise again and again, refusing to recognize the limits of terror’s design, lifting those around them from the borders imposed from above, never getting weighed down. My view of the world is a product of both propensities, perhaps best embodied by that word légèreté, which means lightness but makes room for gravity.