When the irrigation pump began, he would jump in his truck and drive beside the water until he left it far behind. Then, he would jump out of the truck and climb into the irrigation ditch in time to hold his hands wide open before him as he stood, legs spread, waiting for the oncoming wave.
When the rush of the water arrived, he would plunge his open hands and arms into it, letting the cold and the flow rush up his arms, enjoying the smell of the newly wet dirt. When the water hit him just right, he would laugh with abandon—as if he never before had truly felt such wild and openhearted happiness. Then he would stop, look about the seemingly open and abandoned fields, and contemplate the fading dawn. It was only then that he would realize that other workers in distant fields had probably heard him.
All the workers started early then. They would arrive—families from all parts of the county—and line up beside the field and prepare to work. They would drink their coffee out of clear-glass jars, eat their taquitos, and talk among themselves —and always notice that the field was empty of human footsteps. Then, almost as if responding to some invisible signal, they would wade into the field, sometimes up to their waist or their outspread arms—depending on the crop—and begin their work. As they worked, they would talk to each other while they walked, letting the energy of their voices carry across the distance. They would wait for their voices to carry and responses to return before saying anything else—as if speaking across a wide, flowing river.
At one time or another they had all heard El Romantico’s loud and fantastic yells. When they did, they would stop to listen for a second. Everyone knew who had yelled and how the loud outburst had occurred. After pausing for a second they would quietly and smilingly return to work.
When he had first arrived among them, they had called him “El Loco,” “The Crazy One.” But with time—after watching the concentration of his work and the focus of his life, they changed it to “El Romantico,” “The Romantic One,” and assumed that his insanity came from his romantic slant and his yearning for true love.
The women had started it, some of them even mentioning that he was a very attractive man, though he stayed to himself.
“Isn’t that the way that all men who can love are,” asked the women, “screaming into the emptiness of space, their hearts torn apart with heartache?”
Although they romanticized his life, they never got to know much about him beyond his given name. He stayed to himself, wearing white t-shirts and jeans, slim and alone. He came and went in a truck that belonged to the landowner, and he hardly spoke with anyone. In fact, it took them almost a year to realize that El Romantico was completely deaf. And then they only learned about it when the children came and told them in the fields that the farmer had written out a note for El Romantico, then showed him where to go by making primitive signals with his hands.
Even when he was near them, El Romantico sometimes laughed aloud to himself; sometimes he even seemed to mutter a few words. Little by little people began to believe that he was speaking with someone closer to the inner workings of his heart, someone who kept him company. After several months, the other workers concluded that the loneliness of not being loved and of living in a silent world had finally gotten to him. Still, out of pity, they never reverted to his old name of “El Loco,” but instead kept calling him “El Romantico.”
On the day that El Romantico disappeared from the farm, young Maria Jimenez had just discovered that her boyfriend Ramiro had gotten her pregnant. He had talked of marriage many times, so much so that she felt confident that before anyone could find out about her condition, Ramiro would have walked down the aisle. Maria’s mother, however, was a very astute woman. She found out almost at the same time Maria did, and consulted with her husband about how to deal with the situation. They both confronted Maria at their small cabin on the edge of the camp. When Maria realized she was cornered, she didn’t think. In her fear, Maria concluded that Ramiro should be protected at all costs—and instead found it easier to tell them that the father was El Romantico, that he had found her drinking water by the well, that he had forced himself on her and that was that. She was not to blame.
Her father was a rational man and wasn’t prone to violence. He also knew the uncertainty of troubled youth, having eight children himself, and he knew that El Romantico had been among the families in the labor camp for years without such an incident. So, instead of rushing angrily to El Romantico’s home, he called a few rational men together. Together they approached the farmer with the information. And then they all went to confront El Romantico in the fields.
When he saw the small caravan of pickups and an old car coming toward him through the dirt road, he looked at them curiously, but didn’t run. That alone reassured Mr. Jimenez and the others that perhaps El Romantico knew nothing about Maria’s condition, or of the accusations themselves.
El Romantico was wet when they arrived. He had been standing there, one leg in the irrigation ditch and one on the edge, feeling the water pass over his leg, almost knocking him off balance. In his right hand was an irrigation pipe—a slender aluminum arch, which he held more as a toy to play with the rushing water than as a weapon. As they neared, they noticed that the force of the water was gushing strongly enough for El Romantico to easily drink from the upper end of the pipe, much like a makeshift water fountain. He looked at them curiously because of the dusty parade, but smiled as they approached. Many of them would later say that his calm demeanor and his chosen work made them feel that he was a man at peace with himself—and not a violator of women.
Both the farmer and Mr. Jimenez spoke with him. El Romantico stood quietly, making out the words by looking at their lips. When they were through talking, he turned away for a second. In that brief moment, the men would later say, he looked at the expanse of the fields as if for one last time. He then bent forward and drank from the irrigation ditch the same way he had before—using the irrigation pipe to quickly draw out the water. Then he nodded to Mr. Jimenez and the farmer, acknowledging that he understood the accusation. But with a facial expression and a shrug of his shoulders he let them know that he didn’t know anything about it.
He then looked down at the ground for a second. According to the men who saw him standing in the irrigation ditch, his pant legs wet from the running water and from hours of work, when he looked up again he had the look of a man who had just lost a home or a family. Later, when they told the story in labor camps around the country, each of them would say that in that very second they knew that El Romantico’s yells would never be heard again across the fields, and that they would never see him wildly playing in the distance. Years later as they spread the story from camp to camp around outdoor fires and late night bars, they would always say that they could tell that something had been broken. For a second, they would explain, each of them was ashamed of himself for having ruined a man’s life—though he had taken it quietly. And then they would always add that they knew that there was no way to truly express to him how they felt.
For Maria Jimenez and Ramiro Lopez, who confessed to being the father when he found out where all the men had gone, the incident brought a sense of despair into their own lives. Their child was born into a community that no longer wanted to even look at them. They were treated as the cause of El Romantico’s final dejection and separation. None of the women in the camp spoke to Maria after the incident; all of them were afraid that one day or another she would falsely accuse their own men of some other violation.
For El Romantico, life could have continued much the same, except that in their efforts to punish Maria and her family for the false accusation, everyone forgot to return to tell El Romantico that he had been cleared. But even years afterward, many of them felt it wouldn’t have mattered: He had been accused and would always feel separate from the rest of them.
They never really knew how close their sentiments came to his own. The night that the men had visited him, El Romantico felt that everything had changed. More than ever, he felt different from the rest. More so than any other night, he slept alone in his world of silence.
For the first time in his life, El Romantico slept badly under his own stars, and the running water brought him no comfort. Sometime around midnight, he sat on the edge of the irrigation ditch, letting the fast-flowing water run over his bare feet, hoping the running stream would bring him thoughts from elsewhere, from other places and other times. But nothing came except thoughts of pickups and a car raising dust across the empty road toward where he stood that afternoon. When he finally lay down again on the bed of the farmer’s truck and tried to fall asleep, all he could hear was the rumbling of cars and the questions that the men had asked him. All he could think about was the feeling that overcame him after he looked away from them, ashamed that anyone would think that of him.
Several times that night he sat up in the back of the truck and looked toward the distant camp to see if anyone was coming back. He wondered what had happened after the conversation, but no one came. About three in the morning, when he was sure that the whole world was sleeping soundly, he got up and sat on the driver’s side of the pickup and drove off, leaving a trail of dust behind him. He left the windows down and as he drove he inhaled the dampness of the cotton fields and the wet earth until it disappeared behind him. And when he was far enough away from the fields that his yells had once blessed, he pulled the pickup over and allowed the surge of emotion to overwhelm him. He couldn’t speak and that impeded his crying. The yells by the side of the road—had anyone passed by or heard them from a nearby farm—were much more muffled than they had been in the open fields. And when he was spent, he wiped his face with his workshirt sleeve, drove back onto the road, and went further west. All the while he wondered why he felt so much like he was leaving home one more time.
For years they spoke of him, each tale adding and asking just how broken-hearted he must have been to move away just as he was becoming part of the group—even though few ever spoke to him. Everyone who lived at the farm that summer regretted that no one had bothered to return to let him know that they knew the truth. Everyone knew that harm had been done to El Romantico, and that he would never be the same again. And everyone knew that the yells that they had heard—the loud, wild yawps of a man happy to have water flow over his hands and all over his body— would never be heard again in that camp—or any other.
Mr. Jimenez never looked at his daughter or her children the same after that and eventually moved his family elsewhere.
Even the farmer was affected. He aged, many of the workers said. And he began to feel the burden of all the changes that took place among the families who had worked his West Texas farm the summer of 1968—the changes that took place across the country and the changes that took place within him. Somehow, the burden of it all became relevant and connected.
For years after that, until the clock caught up with him, he would tell locals that it didn’t matter that El Romantico had taken the truck, that he never wanted to even see the truck again. According to him, it was the least he could do for having participated in destroying El Romantico’s freedom and happiness and for having quieted his happy yelling across the open fields.
He started drinking. Sometimes he would go by the workers late at night, stand around the 55-gallon drum fires they would sometimes build, sipping out of a small whiskey bottle.
It was those times in particular that he would lament the changes that had come about—the loss of happiness and innocence—and would share what he felt about the loss of El Romantico.
Then the farmer would add one more lament before the workers walked him back to his house: that his farm would never be the same without him.
Ruperto Garcia practices law in San Antonio. He is working on a book of short stories.