He smiles at me every time I glance at him, but I try not to look too often. I avoid pointing my camera at him. The idea seems uncivil. I am not here to photograph his arm that he clutches toward him or his hand that dangles at the wrist, the wheelchair that he leans against or his tongue that pops out every now and again.
So I smile back.
I try to look through my lens at other things: the bright church, the other vendors, the child that plays with a flip flop beneath a wheelbarrow 20 feet ahead.
“He wants you to talk to him,” Chantal says. She is looking at the man.
“His binder. It says he can’t talk to you, but he can listen. He wants you to talk to him,” she repeats.
I follow her eyes. He has propped up a binder with words typed on the front. They are in Spanish. I glance at him and he is smiling. I take a breath. I am generally not good at these things. I follow my feet to him and say hello—“hola,” that is.
His smile widens and he flips the binder on the ground, opens it and flips to a page with miscellaneous words on it. His hand, unable to spread fully, touches the word “hola.”
“Yo soy Chantal,” she says.
“And I’m Katie,” I say. “Yo soy Katia.”
His grin triples in size and he makes a noise. He flips the page to a spread of the alphabet. He could have just touched a pre-printed word, maybe just spelled out his name, but he touches every letter with determination: “M-e-l-l-a-m-o-J-o-r-g-e-L-u-i-s.” My name is Jorge Luis.
“It’s nice to meet you, Jorge. How old are you? ¿Cuantos años tienes?”
He flips the page eagerly: the numbers page. 28. He points at us.
“I have 20 years,” Chantal says.
“And I have 21.”
He nods. The smile almost looks like a grimace, except for his accompanying grunt. Months are listed on the page across from the numbers. “5-Julio-1988”
“Sus cumpleaños?” asks Chantal. “That’s your birthday?”
The letters page again. “S-i.”
“Sí,” I say, “y mi cumpleanos es venti de Octubre.”
He turns to the numbers and months page and points it all out. 2-0-Octubre. His eyes question me. “1995,” I say. He points. 1-9-9-5.
The process is tedious, but every time we nod and say “sí,” his head tips back and makes the smile sound.
A couple of ladies walk up and begin asking Chantal questions. She answers and volleys a few back. A conversation develops that I can’t understand. What I can understand are the words written out in front of me.
“Los Estados Unidos,” I say.
He gradually flips to the back of the binder and points on a page full of flags. His finger finds an image of the United States flag.
“Sí,” I say. “¿Y tú?”
On a map of Guatemala, he points to the larges region: Petén. Then he flips back to the maps.
“¿Alemania? ¿Tú quieres ir? You want to go to Germany?”
The conversation circles for a bit. I don’t know enough Spanish to converse well, and I have trouble understanding as he points to the letters. Pointing lacks spaces between words. I lack a vocabulary. The combination frustrates us both. A few people have flocked nearby, and they stand watching as I kneel by Jorge, trying and failing to read pointed Spanish. A man attempts to explain to me. I catch a word or two, and thank him.
We return again to birthdays, and go through the entire process again.
“Yes, and mine is October 20th.”
He tries to spell something else, and I cannot understand. He tries to write it, but his pen won’t work. I pull out my pen and notebook, trying to write as he spells. His pointing loses its accuracy, hand drifting between a Q and an R, not settling on either, and I am lost. M-A-Z-A-R-I-G-E… Jorge gestures for the pen. I hand it to him, with the notebook, and he scrawls the letters over mine, correcting me. He doesn’t have enough space for them all. I cannot read what he has written.
I begin to feel his frustration. I wish I understood more, I wish I was better at this. “Lo siento, lo siento,” I keep saying. “No entiendo.” I don’t understand.
He hands the pen and paper back to me. He stretches to reach a bag on his wheelchair. I want to help, but I don’t know how, so I wait. He pulls out a little booklet: his passport. Jorge Luis Mazaviegos. He was trying to tell me his last name.
Before we go, he shows Chantal and me an envelope of photos. One I presume is his family. We find him in a group photo. Chantal’s favorite shows Jorge half submerged in the water at the beach, beaming at the camera. “I love this,” she tells him.
He wants her to keep it. “No,” she says. “I can’t. I can’t.” He insists. “Here,” she says, and takes a picture of the picture. Jorge appears satisfied.
The festival is starting. Chantal helps me to say goodbye to Jorge.
I think, “I hope he goes to Germany.”