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Remembering Antonia

This week I've been thinking about Antonia Martinez, killed on March 4, 1970, during a student strike at the University of Puerto Rico. Many years later on a trip to that campus, my friend Rafael told me about Antonia. While he talked, we looked across the street to the balcony where she was shot. The image of the balcony and the story of her heroism stayed with me, and eventually it inspired a short short story. This story isn't specifically about Antonia's life and death, but it honors her. It was published in The Drum, in 2010 and is reprinted below:

"Watching Her."

Most of our battalion had rotated through guard duty at the palace. We knew her as a rosy girl who escaped her abuela and marched with us, two giant pink steps to each of ours, her thin arms swinging in perfect timing. Under our watchful eyes, she grew into a young woman, enchanting in her fierce concentration.

Those days, the troubles slashed families. Many of us had cousins, brothers even, with the rebels. We had kin who crossed the street to avoid us as we marched two by two on our rounds, wild sunlight flashing off our polished boots. Most of us had daughters or granddaughters her age; we hugged them often those last weeks, as the rebels’ numbers grew and their victories mounted.

One night last month she slipped down the moonlit path to the university, her slippers dancing to the coqui chorus of tree frogs. We suspected a young man and followed her, capturing our smiles behind our hands. She lost us in the narrow streets bordering campus, but by the next morning our informants gave up his name.

We warned her father, through the appropriate channels, of course. We should have known that girl wouldn’t back down at her father’s command or her mother’s weeping. Generations of breeding culminated in her staunch person. When she dragged her suitcase down the hill and joined her lover’s cell, she twisted the bloodlines of her family to bear arms against itself.

Still, we never dreamed it would go this far. We underestimated her zeal and her father’s too. When our orders came, we verified them with our commander, then shook our heads. Our assignment was simple, but we carefully planned every detail. That last evening we assembled in our places at the edge of campus facing the building where the rebels hid.

She and her young man stepped out together onto the crumbling third floor balcony. She came forward alone to the iron railing. The crowd packed the streets below, screaming her father’s name and burning his likeness. When she raised her fist, the crowd quieted. A coqui sang in the moment of stillness, in chorus with the clicks as we released the safeties. As she started speaking, her hair caught the scarlet of sunset.

We never considered how history would judge us. Still, at the last moment, those of us not carrying rifles closed our eyes.

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