- The Shadow
Joshua Leon felt his body tense in his uniform as the plane jangled to the drop point, and the rest of his unit held onto their seats. The flurry of the aircraft carrier was behind them, and now they were concentrating for the mission, the blue waters of the Caribbean turning over below them. There were a few of them so hopped on drugs right before they left that they thought they were being sent to Vietnam, not the Dominican Republic, even though the United States wasn’t sending that many people to Vietnam yet. Joshua Leon did not bother correcting them. They were jumping onto an island that looked too much like their own. They’d be protecting American citizens, they’d been told. It was only to evacuate Americans while the countercoup tried to reinstate the democratically elected president, Juan Bosch. But there were strange whisperings around base. The Americans were on the side of the military junta, not the president, who was soft on commies, and they were told to be on the ready. Joshua knew what he couldn’t know yet, that they were going to war.
He was one of those people who could always see what his life could have been like but wasn’t, a shadow self following him even in his happiest moments. He sensed it even as a boy, his shadow looming large in his first memories. In the earliest one he could remember, his father and his uncle were going off to war, having been drafted into World War II. They were standing in the same square that had been the site of the Ponce massacre ten years before, although at the time he was too young to know that, and the music swelled loudly, the ballad called “La Despedida,” street musicians who had been hired for the job playing the song slow and mournful.
Joshua, then four years old, remembers only this: waving a tiny American flag, given to him by a soldier who was walking through the crowd handing them out to all the children, his father and uncle bathed with a golden light that slipped across their faces with the clouds. His mother was crying, and he was holding onto his wooden stick. The new Puerto [End Page 170] Rican draftees saluted the family they were leaving behind, then turned to board the buses to Fort Brooke Base, where they would be given their assignments. His mother had pulled the flag out of his hand and thrown it on the floor as soon as his father turned away. When he looked down, he saw that his shadow was long on the square, and that the flag was drowned in his shadow. As his mother pulled him down the street, he felt chased like in his dreams, and every time he turned around, his shadow was there, longer than it should have been.
Afterward, when his father and his uncle had returned, changed, he would learn what had happened to them during those years. They were put in the 65th, the segregated all–Puerto Rican unit, and both shipped to guard the Panama Canal, where they would never see combat. When his mother got the letter, she praised God that they would be safe from the battles in Europe and in the Pacific. Really, the Americans didn’t trust Latinos, much less Puerto Ricans, to fight alongside them. His father and his father’s brother looked like many Puerto Ricans, a mix of native, black, and Spanish, and were racially ambiguous enough to pass as either mixed or white, but in those days, categorization was paramount, so the recruitment officers had split the difference, calling his father white, with his more Spanish nose, and the other brother colored, which would turn out to make all the difference. His father’s brother was selected as a test subject for mustard gas. His father came back unscathed from the war, but his uncle came back blind, scars on his face that made it look like the surface of the moon.
Finally they were nearing the drop zone. The jump leader waved them all up. They...