‘Salvador Late or Early’ is a short story in Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, a 1991 collection of short stories by the American writer Sandra Cisneros (born 1954). The story – which lacks a conventional plot and is more of a character study – briefly describes the life of a young boy named Salvador, who spends his mornings looking after his younger brothers and making sure they get to school.
The themes of ‘Salvador Late or Early’ include family, childhood, and self-sacrifice. Before we offer an analysis of the story’s meaning and discuss its themes in more detail, here’s a brief summary of the story.
‘Salvador Late or Early’: plot summary
The third-person narrator describes a young boy named Salvador. He has ‘crooked’ hair and teeth, and the teacher can never remember his name. He has no friends. He lives in a poor area where the homes are all drab and grey-looking, like the grey cloudy skies when the weather is bad.
In the mornings, Salvador is the one who looks after his younger brothers Cecilio and Arturito, waking them up and making them breakfast before they head off to school. He does this because their mother is busy with her baby, the youngest of Salvador’s siblings. As he walks his brothers to school, Salvador has to tidy up after them, and pick up the colour crayons his brother Arturito has dropped all over the ground.
The final paragraph of the story depicts Salvador as a quiet boy who seems to apologise every time he clears his throat to speak. He is quiet and unassuming. His body is scarred and he has been hurt by events in his past. The story ends with him grabbing his brothers’ hands and guiding them through the school gate and into the schoolyard, and then beyond, into the school, but at the end of the story, the narrator describes Salvador himself as growing smaller and smaller before finally disappearing into the bright horizon, as if he has vanished into thin air.
‘Salvador Late or Early’: analysis
‘Salvador Late or Early’ comprises just three paragraphs, each of them beginning with Salvador’s name. The boy’s name means ‘saviour’ in Spanish, in honour of Jesus Christ (in Christianity, of course, the saviour of all humankind), and in a sense Salvador is the saviour of his family. He performs a role more suited to a parent than an older brother, feeding and clothing his brothers and even combing their hair. He is the one who makes sure they get to school safely.
The imagery and symbolism of ‘Salvador Late or Early’ are among the story’s most distinctive and memorable features. At the end of the story, in a magical realist touch, Salvador seems to ‘dissolve’ into the air and become one with the sky above the school. This image is obviously not meant to be taken literally, so what does it mean?
Cisneros is suggesting that Salvador lives for others and has no ‘self’ of his own, or at least no identity which is allowed to assert itself. If his name summons Christ the ‘saviour’, then it also reminds us of the story of Jesus’ sacrifice, giving his own life so that others – namely, all of humankind – might live and be freed from sin. Cisneros appears to be playing on these connotations of her protagonist’s name: although he has not literally sacrificed his own life for his siblings, he has given up his ‘life’, his own interests and his own fulfilment, in order to help out his mother and look after his younger brothers, who are dependent on him.
This act of self-sacrifice appears to reach a crescendo at the end of ‘Salvador Late or Early’, with Salvador evaporating altogether. We mentioned that Salvador acts in the role of a parent to his younger brothers, and specifically, of course, the missing member of the family unit is the father, who is not mentioned by Cisneros’ narrator.
We are therefore left to assume that Salvador’s father is absent, either dead or having abandoned the family. The father’s absence has made it imperative that Salvador, as the oldest child, take on the role of ‘father’ to his younger brothers, while their mother is busy looking after the baby.
Cisneros provides us with several suggestive details about Salvador’s life. Although he has to look after his siblings, he has not had to give up his own education in order to go to work and provide financially for the family: he is still going to school with his brothers, although the fact that the teacher cannot remember his name implies either that he is sometimes forced to be absent (to work part-time for money for the family) or that he is falling behind on his own schoolwork and has thus failed to make an impression on the teacher.
Alternatively, of course, this detail may simply be part of the general invisibility of Salvador. He is ‘selfless’ in a double sense: both because he is the opposite of selfish, looking out for his brothers, but also because he literally lacks a self. He is struggling to develop an identity and assert himself among his peers. This detail is confirmed by the fact that he is, the narrator tells us, nobody’s friend: he is so busy keeping track of his brothers that he has not had the time or opportunity to develop his own friendships among children his own age.