Carlos Santos Cardona
Carlos Santos Cardona had been incarcerated here at Refugio for 28 years when he was taken from us. He called cell 517 his home for the last 26 of those 28 years. We seldom saw him as he did not mingle with the general population much. Trustees usually delivered his meals to him and he seldom availed himself of his time allotted in the yard. His health was not very good you see. No visitors ever came and asked for him. He had nothing to look forward to. He was comfortable though, sitting in his cell watching the river through the bars and weaving his ribbon. Occasionally when we would get a new warden or jefe de la guardia he would have to sit in the workshops where, he could be watched by the guards for a time, but these forays would never last. Within 4-6 weeks he would always be back in his cell working away as before. He was not more productive in the workshop nor was he less productive. His daily output was always constant regardless of where he worked. He simply preferred to work by the window, looking out between the bars of his cell. No one objected. He was never disruptive, and he never caused trouble. He was a peaceful man.
Everyone at Refugio has a job. Everyone must contribute. Most of us work in the fields. Our crops rotate to insure the most productive soil. Primarily we grow cotton but, we intersperse corn, alfalfa, and sorghum to reduce the incidence of the pathogens that affect the cotton crops.
When I came here, Cardona was already the ribbon maker. The only one here to create cloth from the threads made with the cotton we grew down by the river. Whether he got that job through chance, seniority, or blackmail I will never know. I am certain that he was the only one left who would remember something like that. It never crossed my mind that he would tell either. I know that, like me, he was a political prisoner. The exact nature of his “crime” was unknown. The length of his sentence was unknown, probably never having been defined in the first place – locked up for an indeterminate amount to time. But Cardona knew acceptance. He knew patience and he had come to the realization that making ribbon at Refugio was to be his lot in life. He may have even convinced himself that he had chosen this position, this… vocation. He was at peace with his place in the world. Cardona never got angry or raised his voice at anyone, or anything. Courtesy, that was how he controlled his world. He was courteous and polite to all. Though he seldom smiled, he never frowned – his expression was ever one of acceptance if not contentment.
Through the years I watched him change. I watched his hair grow from a thick rich ebony mane to a thin wavy brush of silver. I watched his growing reliance on the reading glasses that perpetually perched on the end of his nose. I saw these signs in him but missed them in myself. I saw how he treated each day as a gift, and I learned from him how our daily activities are important. How they help to keep the world turning on its axis day in and day out. How they keep things stable. He understood this and, over time, I grew to understand it as well.
It was exactly ten years ago today that Carlos Santos Cardona was shot in the back seventeen times by the guardia as he walked slowly away from the walls of Refugio. He was not running away. He was walking peacefully to somewhere else. In fact he had even excused himself prior to his departure. It was during one of those times, the new warden was trying to establish his authority and Cardona was in the workshop. “Perdóneme,” he said quietly as he pushed his straight back chair away from the table where he was working. He stood and walked out of the building towards the river, crossed the river where it was shallow and then was gunned down before he took another two steps. They left him lying there for three days before they let us bring him back and put him in the ground. The birds took his eyes but the old guardia at least kept the coyotes at bay.
Cell 517 has been unoccupied since that day. Each year on the anniversary of his death a mural appears at the window of what had been his cell. I do not know who paints it there. It will remain for a day or two, until the warden notices it and we are ordered to paint it over. Then it will reappear exactly one year later.
Carlos Santos Cardona still lives here at Refugio. Or at least his memory does and, I suspect this will be the case as long as there is at least one of us here who knew him then.
(Photo by Cheri Lucas Rowlands)
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