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 finally arrived.
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) without success.
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 assistance.
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.Chapter 1 Continued