It had become almost
ritual for Roberto (Roby) Soto. After lunch with his
family, he returned to his shoe store only to watch
the second hand of the large wall clock advance spastically,
recording the passage of time in apparent slow motion.
At precisely four o'clock, he smiled nervously as
he turned his store over to his cousin. The waiting
Thunderbird, polished once a week at a local garage,
used to be a source of great pride, a symbol of his
social and economic arrival after climbing out of
the gutter in a small village in central Mexico and
attending school with pesos scrimped and saved from
menial jobs. After several more years of employment,
sometimes maintaining several jobs simultaneously,
he moved north with his young wife and used his savings
to open a small business.
His mind drifted as he drove down
the crowded streets of Encinada, a small fishing village
on the west coast of Mexico. Quaint Spanish-style
buildings mixed awkwardly with glass-faced discount
stores and supermarkets. Music blared from busy twenty-four-hour
bars. Old school buses, belching black clouds, carried
residents through the town filled with tourists from
the United States. Negotiating through the traffic,
Roby's soft eyes registered a fatigue which did not
come from hard work. The joy of living had been compromised.
Though he tried to maintain his traditional focus
on family and business, he found himself increasingly
consumed by what he had once anticipated would be
a beautiful, natural and easy experience.
Maneuvering the final stretch of
heavy traffic, Roby envisioned the last daily mail
delivery from the "States." For nine consecutive
working days, he had come to the post office in search
of a package. He parked his car in front of a donkey
painted like a zebra with black and white stripes.
The car behind the animal contained a family of smiling
tourists who posed for a color Polaroid portrait.
A uniformed postal employee waved and called to Roberto
Soto when he entered the building. The package had
He waited until he sat alone in his
car before stripping off the wrapping paper. His eyes
filled with tears. There had been so many unfulfilled
promises, so many painful deadends. From a psychiatric
research center in Houston where they had last taken
their son for help, a young graduate student, remembering
the Sotos, forwarded an article to Roby which had
appeared in People magazine. It detailed the story
of a young family that had successfully developed
a unique program for their special child, who had
similarly been discarded by the professional community
as incurably ill. Hope or another false start? Having
the article translated into Spanish, Roby and his
wife, Francisca, read and reread the piece. A notation
about a book written by the father led him to further
research. Another month passed until a friend had
acquired the book for him in the United States.
Roby opened the package with great
care. A little boy's porcelain-like face filled the
cover of the book. His dark penetrating eyes mirrored
these of Roby's own son. Large, bold type and various
quotations filled the front and back cover. He cursed
his inability to read English as he threw his car
into gear. His heart pounded. Tiny beads of sweat
gathered at his hairline. He drove slightly South
of the city to reach the house of Maestro Jaime Ankrom,
a teacher and translator.
Senora Ankrom invited him into the
entrance hall and offered him a cool drink. Roby shook
his head. Within minutes, Jaime Ankrom appeared, greeting
Roby with great formality and respect. He had grown
to care for the Sotos and their strange little boy.
On many occasions, he had translated papers and articles
for them. The magnitude of this project considerably
escalated his involvement. Jaime nodded his head,
reaffirming his commitment to translate the book within
six weeks as agreed. Six weeks, Roby thought to himself,
six weeks is another lifetime. Propriety squelched
his inclination to request faster delivery. But Jaime
understood Roby's sense of urgency and canceled some
of his own students in order to translate the book
within three weeks.
The neatly typed pages contained
a story and message radically different from everything
else they had read and been told. Instead of pushing
and pulling the child to conform to appropriate behaviors
designated by some doctor or text, the couple from
New York entered their son's world; joined him in
his so-called bizarre behaviors with a loving and
accepting attitude which defied any previous notions
about dealing with such a situation.
As Roby and Francisca read the translated
manuscript, they took a roller-coaster ride through
someone else's life. They felt inspired and enriched
for the first time in three years. Their own plight
had taken them first to Mexico City, then to hospitals
and universities in several American cities, including
Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. Their son, Robertito,
had participated in three programs which ultimately
yielded no results.
Though labeled alternately as brain-damaged
and retarded, the diagnosis most frequently suggested
was infantile autism. Many of these children, the
Sotos discovered, spend their lifetimes drugged on
Thorazine as they rock back and forth in their own
feces, alone and forgotten on the cold floor of some
nameless institution. The prognosis for Robertito
conformed to that dismal picture.
Yet the Sotos kept looking, kept
trying. Though confused by the regimen and disapproval
techniques of behavior modification, they entered
Robertito in such a program after numerous professional
recommendations. The year of involvement yielded no
visible or lasting results. They tried "patterning,"
a method of sensory conditioning which attempts to
have a child relive all the developmental stages in
the hope he might regain some lost step. They watched
with discomfort as doctors wrapped their young son,
then three years old, in a rug, pulling it back and
forth across a room. They viewed Robertito being forced
to crawl like an infant, his screams ignored by a
staff dedicated to executing a textbook treatment
for autistic and brain-damaged children. Again, no
differences could be detected with the exception of
a noticeable increase of anger and unhappiness. The
Sotos also tried orthomolecular medicine (mega-vitamins)
Francisca and Roby decided to try
to contact the people in New York, determined to fully
understand and, perhaps, institute what appeared to
them as a very special and unusual alternative.
Jaime sent a telegram on their behalf.
Weeks passed with no answer. Another telegram also
yielded no response. They followed up the wires with
two letters. Finally, they resorted to the telephone,
uncomfortable about so directly invading someone else's
privacy. A house-sitter answered. She acknowledged
receipt of the telegrams and letters, but explained
that the family had never received them since they
were out of the country. She assured the Sotos an
eventual response when they returned at the end of
the month, though she cautioned them about expecting
a fast answer in view of the rapid accumulation of
mail from around the world which also awaited a reading
and a response. At the beginning of the following
month, they received a response from New York offering
Huddled around the phone, these two
eager parents sputtered in Spanish while Jaime translated
everything into English for their long-distance recipient.
"He says," Jaime told Roby and Francisca,
"the attitude is the most important consideration.
He wants you to know they will do what they can to
share with you and teach you whatever you want to
learn, but ... and the emphasis is strong on this
point ... there can be no promise of miracles, no
assurance there will he any changes whatsoever. The
child is the unknown which we all must respect."
Francisca held her hand over her
mouth, wanting to shout her response. She had always
felt so isolated in her love and affection for the
little boy most others regarded with disdain.
"Yes, yes, they understand you
exactly," Jaime declared, as he continued to
talk loudly into the receiver.
Elaborate preparations were made
for the New York journey. Roby hired Jaime to accompany
them as their translator. The maestro shifted his
teaching schedules, making himself readily available.
Roby then arranged for his cousin to handle the store
in his absence. Francisca bought little Robertito
new clothes, anxious to do everything possible to
ensure her son would be liked and accepted.
They drove to San Diego for a direct
flight to the East Coast. Staring eyes, pointing fingers
and hissing whispers marred their short delay in the
airport terminal building.
Robertito's dazzlingly large dark
brown eyes rolled from side to side like marbles in
their almond-shaped sockets, finally resting to stare
absentmindedly at his own hands flapping like a bird
beside his head. High cheekbones accented the width
of his face. All his features seemed sculptured to
perfection; the strong chiseled nose, the delicately
arching lips, the copper-colored skin; even the straight
black hair neatly trimmed in bangs formed an expertly
styled bowl shape around his face. Robertito could
have been an exquisite picture postcard for his native
Mexico, a beautiful four-year old boy with a startlingly
handsome and haunting presence.
Yet all this beauty, all this physical
perfection cast a very different shadow after only
a few minutes of contact. Sitting in the chair beside
his parents in the San Diego airport, Robertito Soto
never once looked at anyone in the room. Robertito
Soto never once moved his lips to speak; never once
stopped flapping his hands beside his head. When his
mother tried to adjust his four-button vest, he shrank
away from her touch, seemingly lost behind vacant
eyes. From time to time, he made loud, peculiar, infantile
sounds like a ventriloquist, hardly moving his lips
or altering his fixed facial expression.
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