Nobody has “wise-old-man energy” like my grandfather, Mauricio Rosales-Rivera, who was born in the small Latin American country of El Salvador in 1936, the youngest sibling with three older sisters, to a wealthy family only a few generations removed from Spain. In my youth, I saw him most frequently when he picked me up at my public Vermont middle school to go to hockey practice, as both of my parents worked full-time. He drove a Mercedes, which I remember him getting when I was a small child. In his old age, he maintains a tan complexion and healthy physique, and he always wears a polo shirt or button-down. The remaining gray hairs on his head (about seven) he consistently combs back. What was most striking about him in my youth, though, was he always held the face of a man thinking deeply, projecting the image of someone you’d climb to a secluded mountaintop home to ask for advice.
Unfortunately, even though his life piqued my curiosity, I could never access the right questions to prompt him to share his experience. He spoke English with a thick Latin American accent, and, while able to speak with perfect formal English grammar, he could never grasp my American schoolboy vernacular. Although his son, my father, was born in El Salvador, he spoke English with me growing up, and my mom is a white girl from Massachusetts, so I didn’t speak Spanish.
Emblematic of my inability to speak Spanish or even attempt it at a young age is the name I’ve called my grandfather by my whole life: “Ito,” my toddler’s shorthand for the word “Abuelito,” which I can only imagine had my head spinning in circles at that age. In retrospect, I’m smugly impressed with young David’s aptitude to find the right word that suited my grandpa well but also didn’t strain my grasp of language. Because of this language gap, our conversations consistently revolved around mundane topics.
“Davieed”—he could never really pronounce my name right—“Your team did a good job … how do you say—” He started to make a shooting motion with his hands. “Pa pa pa.”
“Scoring? Yeah we scored a lot of goals today.”
Yet, when out to dinner or in a room with other adults, he held an unspoken respect about him. Aside from my sister and me, nobody called him anything other than Mauricio or Mr. Rosales, even my mom. He sat in the antique chair at the center of the living room, almost always with both his feet and arms crossed, leaning back. Whatever was happening in the room, he let it come to him, as his eyes constantly gave a reflexive squint a few times a minute. (They did this even when he drove.)
I knew what he did for a living, as my dad recited to me: “He was El Salvador’s ambassador to the United Nations, serving in the United States, then the UK, then Canada,” which explained why my dad’s younger sister occasionally slipped into a British accent, and maybe why he could afford a Mercedes, but not much else. I’d seen the photos in his library of him shaking President Gerald Ford’s hand, and another one of some British royalty. (And yes, he’s the kind of man who dedicates a room in his house to a library, and this explains how I inherited my bibliophilia, since my dad is a math-brained engineer and my mom a nurse.)
Ito would tag along with my dad and me to hockey tournaments throughout New England. On these long drives, my dad would suddenly become a man with a different tongue, and my grandfather’s animated hands now paired with a string of passionate words, although I didn’t know what they meant.
As my childhood slipped into young adulthood, my inability to speak Spanish remained one of my biggest insecurities. Fortunately, there was some hope. When I was in eighth grade, my family hosted an exchange student from Barcelona, Spain, named Álvaro. He was two years older than me, and he invited me to come stay with his family in Spain for as long as I wanted. The summer after I graduated high school, I finally took their offer. Before the trip, I was excited to see Álvaro and motivated by the prospect of new adventures in a foreign place, but I also saw it as likely my last chance to learn Spanish. If I couldn’t learn while immersed with Álvaro and his parents (who didn’t speak English), then there would be no hope for me.
I left Vermont in July 2017 with high-school level Spanish, and came back one month later with a new tongue. I was speaking, reading, and dreaming in Spanish. (How I learned a language in roughly four weeks is a story for another day). Leading up to my vacation, I don’t think anybody was as interested in my travels as Ito. When I got back, I made a point to go out to brunch with Ito and Ita, my grandmother. When I saw them, I acted like we’d always spoken Spanish together, forgetting I knew how to speak English (and as any bilingual person will understand, when you travel and come back, those first few days your brain has to readjust).
While their Latino accents, which I could now comprehend as vastly different from Spanish accents, jarred me at first, the Ito who once didn’t know the word for score now came to life as the well-spoken, thought-provoking person I’d guessed he really was.
When I returned from Spain, my gap-year activities, including working as a personal trainer and playing junior (the term for all twenty-and-under leagues) were in full swing. Between that, I made a point to go to Ito and Ita’s condo across town weekly for dinner, to practice Spanish, to talk to them, to enjoy Salvadoran food. Ito asked me how my job was going, how hockey was going, what I thought our chances of winning the league title were, what I thought about current events. He was always asking questions to create the space for me to practice speaking, occasionally interrupting with a correction to my grammar or word choice.
Early the following year, in 2018, I wanted to be in a place where I could speak Spanish once again, but this time, I decided to go to El Salvador. Ito owned an apartment in the hills of San Salvador (of course he did), with a view overlooking the whole city.
So there I was, just Ito and me in his three-bedroom apartment in the equivalent of the Upper East Side (except with armed doormen, because of El Salvador’s fragile political environment). For four weeks, we lived together, and I finally understood his job more. I asked him what it was about law and politics that excited him.1
“Well my dad was a lawyer. He helped write El Salvador’s constitution back when we fully broke from Spain. I was always surrounded by books and politics. In those days you did what your parents did.” It turns out, my great grandfather and namesake, David Rosales, is the John Hancock of El Salvador.
While I did a decent job making my own friends, during the days, I would allow Ito to take me where he pleased, to show me around San Salvador. This often involved meeting Ito’s lawyer and politician friends. I remember going to his friend Arturo’s house, in San Salvador’s equivalent of the West Village.
“He’s a chess player, David, un ajedrecista.” Arturo wears gold-framed glasses, has a thick graying beard, chain smokes, and had a lot to ask me about my thoughts of the Catalan independence movement, as Arturo used to be El Salvador’s ambassador to Spain, over games of chess in his outdoor patio underneath an avocado tree.
Ito brought me to fancy lunches on the slopes of active volcanoes with his whole friend group. In his home country, and perhaps away from his wife, he was not a reserved ultra-respectful diplomat, but just one of the guys. He bought way too much junk food for himself; Ita kept sweets out of their house in Vermont.
One Saturday night I was slated to go out with friends, and Ito offered to drive me so I didn’t have to Uber around. He dropped me off at a friend’s house along with his friend Jose Luis, and then he said, “We’re going to another bar, call me when you’re done.”
“Are you sure? I can Uber home. I was planning on being out late.”
“Nosotros también, us too.”
At 2:00 a.m. I called him after wrapping up a game of beer pong at an outdoor house and he said, “Okay, we need to wait to sober up a bit.”
Eventually, we made it back to his apartment together, and the next day was, as expected, a slow one. I stammered out of bed at 10:00 a.m. and walked into the kitchen, where I saw Ito pouring Coke. Really Ito? Soda at 10:00 a.m.? Ita would be so mad right now. Then I saw him grab the vodka, add it to the Coke, take a sip, and breathe a sigh of refreshment.
Who let this guy near the president?
El Salvador has this one food that no other place has: pupusas. They’re flat tortillas stuffed with whatever you want, like beans, cheese, and meat. The night before our flight, we ordered a delivery of 30 pupusas, and put them in the freezer. The next day I woke up to him carefully packing his suitcase in a manner that wouldn’t make the TSA think there was anything fishy going on. We made it back to Vermont with all thirty, and periodically enjoyed them in our weekly dinners.
Aside from these moments where Ito shows me he’s as weird as the rest of us, the conversations I most enjoy with him revolve around the state of the world. When he worked at the United Nations, he had to negotiate with Cuba during the heart of the Cold War, with Guatemala while the U.S. plotted to overthrow their government, with Nicaragua during a dictatorship. “Negotiation is all about maintaining positive relationships with everybody.” He continued, “You want to find deals where everybody is happy, because that helps you with the next deal.”
“There are new slants to today’s problems,” he told me this week, ”but as they say, history has this sort of rhyme.” He continued, “One of the problems with the United States is the inequality the system is set up for. Think about El Salvador. The wealthy live like kings (eating on volcanoes), but the majority are very poor. The U.S. system, which El Salvador is modeled after, is not much different. Other nations have healthcare and higher education as a right.
“I got to travel a lot for my work, of course, and those countries with a bigger societal safety net are happier. But everybody in the U.S. is afraid of the word ‘socialism’ because of its connotations, when they don’t really understand what it is.”
He’s one of the first people I go to when I’m torn on a political struggle, as few people still alive in the world have had a front row seat to global political turmoil like he has. He sees our problems with a historical and international lens.
“These days I still think a lot about inequality, and I think your generation, David, is getting closer than any before. But there are problems I didn’t have to deal with as a diplomat. There’s the climate crisis and the unprecedented questions of technology. In that sense history is looking different, but I see hope in your generation, at least in the United States. But I fear every day for the people in El Salvador.”