by Patricia R. Bazán
Editors’ Note: The original Spanish version of “Silencio” appeared in the anthology Nébulas peruanas, published by Grupo Editorial Caja Negra in Lima, Peru, in October of this year.
Despite the fact that her days were all the same, the sleeping pills helped her stay in the clouds, avoiding the shock of an undesirable reality. Alfonso had no choice but to take their daughters to the United States, where he would process their paperwork required to apply for permanent resident status. Nevertheless, she sometimes wondered if leaving her behind in Lima was a punishment for failing to obtain a tourist visa. She was still relishing her farewell at the airport with masochistic bitterness. For the love of her offspring, Gracia knew her tiny body had to find enough life to endure a great sacrifice. Her husband was clear: she had to cross the border if she ever wanted to lay eyes on them again.
The pills gave her a truce because they lengthened her life of an automaton. “Work like a bear, do something to kill time,” she repeated to herself. She didn’t even know how she was getting home: “See you tomorrow, mates”; the Metropolitan bus; walk three blocks and enter without being seen; go straight to your room; throw yourself on the bed surrounded by stuffed animals; fall into the void; a pill to fall asleep, then another, one more, a last one before finally passing out. The unexpected call broke her reverie; she felt compelled to answer, and a hopeful smile emerged from her lips: “Don’t worry, Gracie. I already spoke with Cristian and we have arranged that I will pick you up in Colorado.” Gracia. Full of grace. The grace of God.
She carefully observed the room of her future pollero, the man who would guide her throughout the journey: The Peruvian flag of monumental proportions clumsily hung on the wall, a squalid coffee table artfully decorated and holding three pre-Inca huacos with gloomy faces; a colonial-style mirror with wooden borders on the opposite wall. The old furniture fought against the plastic laminate to free itself, a decoration that pointed to a life in transit, ready to flee at any moment. Just as she was beginning to nod-off, Cristian entered, greeted her, and went straight to the point: The journey would be arduous, long, and dangerous, but with a good chance of success. The future leader of the expedition was part of a silent and efficient network of experts in the border geography between Mexico and the United States. First, she would travel alone to Nicaragua, where she would meet her contact, who in turn would pick up future walkers from Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. The rest of the trip would be made by foot, boat, or in multiple vehicles through Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, until they reached their final destination: Phoenix.
Cristian stressed that, with the help of Providence, everything would be done in a sacred and inviolable silence. A sigh overtook her. She had kept silent all her life, and she didn’t mind continuing to do so, as long as she could see her daughters. Her mother was forced to remarry after her father abandoned them, an experience reflected in the dullness of her graceful eyes. Yet, she never said anything. She had mastered the art of remaining quiet with her head down, and perhaps at long last her silence would serve a purpose.
Her suitcase was almost empty to pretend like she was used to traveling. As planned, a Nicaraguan man, one of her many connections on the trip, was waiting outside, as was Cristian, the leader of her expedition. After a courteous greeting, they asked her to step aside in order to spot two other travelers. Gracia thought it would be the beginning of a ruthless journey, a journey her battered body would have to endure. Onward.
She considered that, apart from the vicissitudes life had thrown at her, she had had a happy childhood. On one occasion, she was sent to summer school to retake a math class, an excuse that justified a trip to the beach. She told her mother that classes were cancelled, but a classmate gave her away. She actually remembered very few details, as this episode had become somewhat nebulous over time. All it had left was the burning sensation associated with the slap’s imprints. A severe man, her stepfather administered harsh punishments, no matter how light the offense: strappings, slaps, kicking, and being made to eat with the dog on the floor. Her mother watched in cautious terror, as any attempt to protect her daughter would bring dire consequences for her and her youngest. Such long nights were also reserved for the wife, who would face the same repertoire of atonements for having failed to properly raise her daughters, with the added variation that he would make love to her on her reddened maternal body.
After a long wait, all twelve left the airport and boarded a minibus, traveling inland until they reached Chinandega, a city whose colonial value they did not have the opportunity to appreciate. That is because they arrived at the most impoverished part; dilapidated wooden houses, unpaved streets, and an intense dust that would welcome all foreigners. They spent the night in a one-room den, something that would become a constant. The next day two more arrived, then three, until the group was complete. There were eighteen: eight Peruvians, five Colombians, two Bolivians, and three Ecuadorians. Sixteen men, one of them lame, and two women. The eldest was sixty years old, and the youngest eighteen. The only other woman in the group was twenty-three years of age, married and childless. She was traveling with her father and her brother; she had left her husband back home in Peru and was excited about the idea of a reunion in El Norte. The Dirty Eighteen.
They remained there for a month. In the morning they would wash their clothes and the women cooked for the group, and when there was fried fish, it tasted like heaven. In the afternoon they would either go to the market or to the beach, play soccer, and eat only once a day to stretch the little money they had on them, as if to keep themselves slim. At night they rested on the ground on rickety mats, covered in stained sheets that had seen better days, being careful not to be stung by snakes or scorpions. By now, everyone had mastered the art of communication without uttering a single word. The septic tank was a lair of huge flying cockroaches that would land at night on the visitors’ bodies, only to be plucked during the day from their heads, the palms of their hands, and from in-between their legs. The worst affected were always the unfortunate who slept with gaping mouths. During the time that she remained in this little town abandoned by God and immigration, Gracia could not sleep, not just because she missed her pills, but because the constant effort to protect herself from the formidable brigade of winged insects was eating at her state of mind. The kindness and smiles of the townspeople, however, inspired an inexplicable tranquility.
To pass the time away, they would sometimes gather and play cards, making bets on the soap. That was how Gracia came to learn about the lives of the other travelers, fictional lives they had invented to protect themselves from the unknown. Eighteen fabrications, all interwoven by silence and despair. One boasted of having been a sailor who had traveled to Japan where, according to him, he had left several girlfriends; another made up the story of having killed his wife’s lover for being unfaithful, leaving him no choice but to escape from Ecuador; Gracia recounted that her husband had taken away her two daughters for contracting AIDS in one of her many illicit love affairs, a lie that would prevent her from being raped; a certain Ángel told he had a talent for soccer and swore that one day he would be part of the El Norte national team; one named Sebastián, stocky, with straight hair, dark-skinned and who wore glasses, nicknamed El Feo, and with good reason, said that he would meet his girlfriend in Seattle and get married as soon as he arrived in order to conceive children who wouldn’t be as ugly as he. Each story was part of a transparent and sinister tapestry of eighteen intertwined pieces with a sole objective: in El Norte they would be reborn from the ashes of a merciless desert, and its ruthlessly effective police.
Cristian distributed the group in such a way that Sebastián would always stay close to Gracia and protect her. She had deteriorated to the point of looking scrawny, ailing, and unthreatening in appearance as a shield against the harsh and inhospitable reality that awaited her. El Feo became her guardian angel; all the others slept in the same fetal position, night after night, like mummies, with the strange premonition of having embarked on an endless journey.
At the end of the month, Cristian announced that they would soon leave for the port of La Unión in El Salvador, but not before demanding that they accept their invisibility from then on. They got up early, carefully folded their mats and donned their life jackets before boarding the speedboat where they traveled at a very velocity for two hours, dodging immigration boats. Suddenly, one of the Bolivians unintentionally undid the rope to which he was tied and flew away while the others witnessed his involuntary release, stunned by his unexpected wet death. Gracia would never forget Cristian’s face when the unhappy traveler disappeared; in a matter of seconds, he had lost five-thousand dollars. Once at their destination, the travelers jumped off the boat and dragged themselves to the shore with their backpacks. They did not know if the moisture on their faces was due to the sorrow of having lost a traveling partner or the freshness of the sea water. They arrived at eleven in the morning and began an endless walk. Invisible. Illegal. Silent. Now they were seventeen, doomed.
They walked to the border of the mountains where they moved in a single row, becoming one with the soil when the helicopters descended in search of inopportune travelers. It was difficult to distinguish if the fear came from the threatening noise of the propellers or from the supernatural mosquitoes that slipped through their clothes stealthily, without offering them the opportunity to defend themselves, daring them to remain immobile. It was six in the evening when they arrived at a cottage in an abandoned town where they would stay for forty-eight hours. Wet and sandy, the rancher smeared them with horse dung as protection against the flying monsters, holding their breath to avoid contact with the fetid smell. Life was not offering them a truce, but they were closer to El Norte.
Gracia had cuts and bites on her legs and feet, and her private parts were scalded from the endless journey in wet clothes. She only had ten dollars, but she was wearing a silver bracelet and earrings, a gift Alfonso had given her for their marriage. The owner asked for them in exchange for clean water and ointments for the wounds on her feet as the nearest pharmacy and well were ten hours away. She spent the night as best she could with four others in the same bed with their feet dangling. A few hours later, two vehicles arrived and they were placed, one on top of the other like a sack of potatoes, covered with a tarpaulin, so they would not arouse suspicion:
“If the women want, they can get in the front to be more comfortable…”
They formed a human wall, and the men in the group refused to hand Gracia and their traveling companions over to the predatory hyenas. They would rather endure the body heat and the dust than be separated from the group; the collective silence had taught them to distinguish individual breaths, one more method of protection, they thought. When they arrived at a mechanic’s workshop, they were put in two rooms filled with newspapers that served as beds. Those who had money sent for food and shared it with the others, and that’s how they spent three days in a village where even the souls had vanished. At dawn, a laconic one-armed man came and gave a simple command:
He was the driver who would transport them to the border with Mexico. They got into the truck and huddled together as usual. He dropped them off at the border and they walked all night. They crossed mountains, agricultural fields, and farms; they kneaded the cow dung and felt a merciless cold inside their veins. They were invisible, even to animals. They slept outdoors, one next to the other, with their backpacks, and the only change of clothes they had. One for all, all for one.
Around ten in the morning, a truck pulled up, and they proceeded to get in, one by one, where they would sit, regimented, and squashed together to make room for the next partner. They rested despite the numbness caused by the other bodies’ proximity. They did not know when they crossed the great city of Guatemala, but when they saw the small room of their seedy hotel, they knew that they had reached their next destination. They ended up three in a bed, had three meals a day and bathed in hot water. Such luxuries came at a high price: Cristian asked them to burn their passports. Now there was no longer any doubt about their invisibility. To protect the two women, the leader of the expedition took the fifteen men to different brothels and in groups of three. He woke them all up at the crack of dawn because they had to be prepared in case they were arrested. They would imitate the intonation, become familiar with a few customs, and learn a national anthem that mattered very little to them, just to pass as Guatemalan.
They made the journey to Mexico in a public bus, but not before hearing a recommendation from the guide: if they were captured, they would return to their country, but they would do so alone, without implicating their partners. They stopped in front of a security booth, then Gracia had a panic attack, leaving her with no other recourse than to hold on to the Mexican man next to her. Without saying a single word, the stranger understood, nodded, and took her hand. She was relieved. The seventeen passed immigration control without a problem, and when they got off, they shared a mutual smile: they were in Mexico. They would meet their driver in Chiapas once they took a good bath and had something to eat. Before leaving, Cristian gave Gracia three-thousand dollars in a paper bag to bribe the immigration agents in case they were detained, and addressed the group:
“From now on you will meet several polleros. No matter what, don’t accept any packages, and much less cell phones, because they may contain drugs or a trap to reveal your location. Even though we will cross several Mexican highways during off-peak hours, silence will save your life and will continue to be your best friend. As soon as I give the signal, you throw your backpack first through the barbed fence and quickly run across the road. If you don’t want to be caught, you have to be quick.”
They set off on the journey, and after a couple of hours, one by one began to jump out of the Ford, bouncing like beach-balls and at the risk of breaking their bones. Weak as she was, Gracia didn’t land safely, and fell into a dung-filled puddle, becoming covered with mud. Since she didn’t have another set of clothes, she moved on, having to deal with her fellow travelers’ faces of revulsion. Once on the other side of the road, they waited for the car that would pick them up after a signal. Her life was at stake, and speed was of the essence. Gracia and five others ended up in a VW Beetle; rotten in filth as she was, she sat on a fellow traveler’s lap. The trip to the outskirts of the Federal District seemed like an eternity, until they finally spotted a large house on the horizon. The pollero offered her clean clothes and allowed the women to bathe first. Their faces were calm; not so much because they were closer to El Norte, but because they couldn’t stand Gracia’s stench. To the surprise of the other seventeen, that night more than fifty other travelers joined the group. Gracia observed the new arrivals with sadness: pregnant women, some with babies in their arms, elderly, nearly blind men, orphaned children, and adolescents. For the first time in her life, the man with a limp didn’t feel out of place. Everyone was crying, everyone except Gracia. At a tender age she had learned that tears were not to be wasted and should be reserved for special occasions. They scattered the next morning.
Upon arriving in Mexico City, the pollero informed them that they would take the subway to Guadalajara. They ended up in the home of a woman in a wheelchair ho rented rooms on the third floor to smugglers in transit. They couldn’t go out; they cooked at the house and shared two rooms; one for the women, and one for the men. The house was large, and the widow lived with her daughter, a pretty fifteen-year-old girl quite precocious for her age, who immediately fell in love with one of the boy travelers. Desperate to escape her fate, she reserved herself for someone who wanted to take her, and she flirted with anyone who would pay attention. Noticing the concupiscent eyes of her young traveling partner, Gracia asked him to feel sorry for the conditions in which the owner of the house lived; after all, she was helping them. “If it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t be able to cross; no matter how much the girl insinuates herself, respect her,” she advocated. In the end, the boy chose to cross the border rather than to become involved with the girl.
The terror of being reported was a key factor: if the owner found out that her daughter had been touched, they would all end up in jail and one step away from deportation. When they went to sleep, Gracia discovered that the boys had jokingly entered her room. Wasting no time, she grabbed one of her trucker boots: they couldn’t yell or ask for help because they would end up at the police station:
“Hey asshole, what’s wrong with you?!!! I don’t like you being in my bed. Moron! Don’t you know that I have AIDS and that I can infect you?” she said while hitting him on the head.
“Don’t hit me like that, my head hurts!” said the scoundrel, as he fled to the adjacent room, where his minions were waiting for him.
They left them alone and apologized as soon as they got up: “That was a close shave,” Gracia murmured in relief. At dawn they began a longer stretch than the usual and crossed Guadalajara until they stopped at Villa Hermosa, a shantytown on the outskirts of the city. A seedy camp awaited them, with only one toilet, no water, where everyone defecated and left their shining fresh lumps of excrement, scenting the outdoor shower. Six boys slept on a couple of bunks, while Sebastián laid on the ground next to Gracia. They slept like this until it was time to cross. Of Cristian’s group, El Feo was the first to disappear and Gracia the first to notice his absence; she felt helpless without him. The next day six more left. The destination was Piedra Lisa in New Mexico; there, Cristian would contact some relatives to release a few, slowly but surely, once the debt was paid off. Gracia went out with eight men and the other woman in the group to take a bus. Suddenly they were stopped by an immigration officer. Cristian had warned them that all of Mexico was swarming with police officers due to pressure from the United States. They pretended to be asleep, and with deep sadness, they witnessed their own arrest. “Fifteen-thousand dollars lost,” Gracia muttered. Moving on. The wandering seventeen.
Once at the police station, she began to cry out of powerlessness and then remembered the three-thousand dollars Cristian had given her to bribe the immigration officers. The fear that the agents inspired in her was so great that she saw them as towering, ferocious, and ignominious. She gathered herself and thought clearly. They separated her from her companions and a female officer took her to a cold and dark room where she had to undress; The officer’s jaw dropped: Gracia’s belly was protruding, and she looked pregnant. Years later she would remember how her abdomen, the product of so many Peruvian potatoes and rice, would save her life.
“Do you bring something in your private parts? Are you clear? You don’t have anything? Where are you going?” the agent asked.
“I’m on vacation with my husband. I don’t bring much, I’ve been told that Mexico is a dangerous place so I’m travelling lightly, but I have my money. Once we visit our relatives, we return to Guatemala,” Gracia replied, imitating the Guatemalan intonation.
“You better. This is no place for illegals here. There are too many and we don’t want you either!” concluded the officer.
They released them and sent them back penniless to Villa Hermosa where they found out that some of their traveling companions had been deported. At least something good came out of Cristian’s three thousand dollars. It was at this precise moment that she understood that her silence was a gift rather than a curse. When they left, Cristian took them to a clean and safe house where they stayed until January first. They sent for a roasted turkey, and for the first time, they drank tequila, delicacies that anticipated the most dangerous part of the trip: crossing the desert on the outskirts of Phoenix, a savannah that required black clothing for camouflaging in order to become one with the desert. They left their last lodging in Mexico at night for a bus stop that would leave them at a precise point to cross the border into Arizona.
The trip lasted six hours in total silence, dressed in black, in the darkness. The mist was thick, and on the horizon, there was a piercing light that guided them on the abandoned road they were traveling. Suddenly, the vehicle stopped and, one by one, they began to fly off in whichever direction they could. When it was her turn, Gracia, confused, didn’t know where to run. She froze and after a few seconds she realized that truck had moved on; she was in the middle of nowhere, alone with her terror. She was left facing the gray density and unable to scream because her silence had eaten her words before leaving. At that moment, an energy transformed into matter invaded her, seized her hand vigorously, and forced her to follow it. She was frightened to death: convinced that she had penetrated the unknown, she resigned herself. In the midst of this nebulous episode, she remembered Alfonso’s premonitory words: “Gracie, honey; I don’t want to scare you, but if there comes a time when they are going to rape you, leave it alone, cooperate, the more you resist, the more damage they will do to you.” She let herself be swept away by the guiding hand, felt a wooden bridge under her feet, scrambled over huge boulders, thinking she was going to an inescapable end. She continued. Once the mist cleared, Gracia realized that she was safe: the hand released hers and left. She noticed a field with many stones, typical desert stones. Her loneliness was immeasurable.
Little by little she began to distinguish a myriad of men, women, adolescents, children, and elderly people sprouting from the stones. Human rocks. She leaned back on something hard and immediately felt a warmth: the rock took off its mask, revealing a familiar smile. Both the man with a limp and Gracia greeted the dawn with pouring rain, and it was then that they understood the reason for the term mojado, a word invented by the rain itself as a symbol of solidarity with those who cross the desert. She felt calmer and settled in with the group, hugging the black garbage bag that Cristian had given to each of them before leaving. The sixteen pilgrims became forty-six; they were Indians, Brazilians, Europeans, Africans, and Chinese: they had crossed the border. Gracia felt an unknown tear invading her face, only this time it was not caused by a humiliating slap on the face, but by the joy of being alive. Upon resuming the trip, Gracia faced the immensity of the desert, knowing that she would remain stagnant since her aching body would not cooperate. She was stumping through mud, stumbling, physically and emotionally exhausted. She gave up twice because the cramps had taken hold of her legs until she heard the pronouncement of the main pollero:
“If this woman can’t keep up with us, we have to leave her behind.”
Her partners refused: “She is going to continue walking.” The water ran out due to the number of travelers; they resisted until the last moment to carefully drink it and savor it to the last molecule. At nightfall they threw themselves into the arms of the vast sheet of arid land and Gracia felt sick again. She had chills, a headache, and her wet blankets did not provide her any relief. She still had a long way to go, and six specialized smugglers had arrived to cross the desert as the group had grown. They had to move. In a curt and insensitive way, one of the polleros stated:
“We have to continue to the other side of those mountains. We walk during the day and sleep at night in the desert.”
Cristian and two other polleros led the group while the remaining four carried huge backpacks containing thick blankets, pallets, telephones, and” supplies, and withdrawing from the group at night. The polleros slept comfortably and the mojados with their garbage bags. The women had the option of sleeping in their camp, but the men begged them to stay. They protected themselves in silence. When the smugglers sensed the flight of a helicopter or a small plane, they immediately shouted: “Pretend to be a ball and don’t move.” In the distance they looked like stones, and the darkness protected them. They were stones day and night. They walked like this for three days, sensing that the desert was their magnanimous mother. Gracia began to vomit and between the pain she became delirious, “I want to continue. Give me a drug or something, give it to me because I want to continue, I have to see my daughters.” Someone gave her a Coca-Cola and her traveling partners donated their ration of bread to force it onto her, thus giving her energy. Her bleeding feet were about to burst from the blisters, but her will was stronger. Through Cristian, Gracia found out that Sebastián had been captured on an interstate in Phoenix and was going back to Mexico; she had no one. She was completely sickly and when he saw her, the lame man was the first to offer to carry her on his back: “No, you are not going to stay here!” and so they moved on; everyone took turns carrying her, and at the end of the day they would put her on a blanket to rest. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the last hill and Gracia gave up; they decided to leave her.
Cristian asked that they take him and Gracia to the first ranch they found, “I don’t want this woman’s death on me here,” he said. Six carried her, making sure they were not seen when the house’s sixty-two guard dogs came out to greet them, and they all fled to hide behind a broken truck. Once the mojados left, Cristian cried for help: they gave themselves up. An hour later, a blonde, blue-eyed agent came in a truck; he examined her, she had a fever and was crying, “Please I need to see a doctor.” Cristian declared: “I am her friend, and I could not leave her alone.” In flawless Spanish, the immigration officer asked if she was pregnant. “I need to take a shower,” she replied as she removed the blood-soaked washcloth. He took her information and brought them to the border near Nuevo Laredo so she could see a doctor. They went to a nearby pharmacy where they gave her medicine for pneumonia. “Don’t try to cross the border into the United States, please,” the blonde officer advised them and politely said goodbye.
They arrived at a hotel, she bathed, took her medicines, and slept like a log. “I’m not going to last, I can’t walk. I’m going back to Peru, Cristian. Thanks for everything.”
“Your husband is willing to pay, I can’t keep losing any more money. Besides, I like you,” the guide answered while he dialed a number. They went to a house where she slept on the floor: there she found Sebastián, now recovering from a heat stroke. Through his contacts, Cristian obtained false documents to enter the United States and taught him a little Mexican Spanish. Two days later, he introduced her to a pollera who had three young daughters and made Gracia their aunt. “So long as they don’t ask you, don’t say anything,” the mother advised. They got into the Mercedes Benz and Gracia caressed the girls as if they were her own. Arriving at the checkpoint, the woman explained in perfect English: “I am going to McDonald’s with my family.” The sounds of the English language sounded like a heavenly hymn to Gracia. They passed and, after eating, the woman left her at a young couple’s home. The next day, she was sent to Colorado, where Alfonso was waiting for her.
Gracia never saw Sebastián again, but she found out from Cristian that he, the lame man, the self-confident man who threw himself into her bed, and the Peruvian woman who was traveling with her brother and father had crossed with thirty-six other travelers. They were now gringos and they paid true homage to the phoenix: they had been reborn. It was the last trip that Cristian carried out before retiring and marrying Lauren, his girlfriend of ten years. Later on, Gracia read in the newspapers that two of the polleros ended up in Mexican jails, one for raping and the other for using illegal immigrants as mules. The travelers opted for oblivion and the experience died with them, aware of having been marked for life.
Thirty years after that inconceivable test, Gracia still remembered the protagonists of the nébula that had defined her existence forever. From the window of her house in Forest Hills, and before taking a sip of tea, she whispered: “Thank you, Silencio.”
Patricia R. Bazan was born in Lima, Peru. She arrived in the United States at the age of twenty-one and has been residing there for over forty years. She is a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey, specializing in Spanish and Latin American literature, as well as multicultural, interdisciplinary, and Latino studies.
Despite having a successful academic career, her true vocation lies in writing. For the past few years, Bazan has been writing semi-autobiographical fiction. With this purpose in mind, she published Cinco nébulas de obsesión. Estelas de vida y muerte (2019) and Lazarillo en Londres (2022).
In the fall of this year, Nébulas peruanas, Bazan’s second collection of short stories, will be released. The themes of reincarnation, the Spanish conquest, social inequality in Latin America, the presence of the United States in Peru, and tales of the undocumented permeate the entire narrative.
Inglés sin Barreras”
by Lázaro Gutiérrez
It’s a late evening in May, the sun is setting at the Heritage Trace Apartment Homes. The spring air is crisp in Newport News, Virginia, much cooler than the humid air of Cuba. The air conditioner, the soft carpet on my toes, and the smell of Gain laundry detergent are new to me and equally as pleasant. My parents and I have been in the United States of America for a few months now and we are learning the way things function here. My parents are working at a factory farm. I’m completing the third grade at B.C. Charles Elementary School, though things are not going well and soon I’ll be pulled into a conference comprised of my parents and teachers where we will be told that I’ll need to repeat the third grade. My mother will cry because in Cuba I was a star student, but here I know nothing. The language is not sticking for me and my new teachers believe that if I repeat the third grade I will learn much quicker.
Looking back, I don’t know if it really made much of a difference. It’s not that I didn’t know the subject matter, I just didn’t know the language.
* * *
On the television screen, a woman from the nineties, with big dark curls and a suit with wide shoulder pads is teaching a class of people different phrases in English. My parents are both watching and taking notes. They do this often after work—when they have the time. On other nights they sit on the balcony of our apartment and play music, and drink beer. Life is better now and even though it feels as though we are toddlers in this big new country, we are full of hope.
Life is now a perpetual translation coupled with the repetition of signing documents. At school some kids guide me around on my first few days until I understand how things work. School here is much different than it is in Cuba. I’m fascinated by all the different food options. In Cuba, I remember having chicken at school once, and it was a special day for certain, here in the U.S., it happens often and served in many different ways.
I am particularly enthralled by corn dogs. It’s a hot dog on a stick covered in some sort of fried dough and it’s delicious, especially when dipped in ketchup. And don’t get me started on the breakfast ones, it’s a weird type of meat (which in time I learned was called country sausage) wrapped in a blueberry pancake batter and you eat it by dipping it in a sugary liquid (which I later learned was called maple syrup).
Our teacher is kind, she falls asleep at her desk sometimes but she gives us powdered donuts in the morning and later she sits me down in front of this blue translucent computer that is unlike anything I have seen before. I sit there and play games all day. I am the new kid. I am mostly voiceless, and I feel out of place—but I am happier than I have ever been.
Upon our arrival in this new country my parents became fixated on learning English as quickly as possible. Like most immigrants they yearned to assimilate into the country they were now slowly becoming a part of in order to become the best versions of themselves. Learning this complex language was one of the requirements. My parents were in their thirties when we moved here. My mother had studied English in Cuba and knew quite a bit. She helped me learn my first few words and phrases. I remember the nights of frustration as we sat together practicing and learning with flash cards. That was the foundation of my learning.
One day my parents bought this second-hand language course from some of their work colleagues. It was valued at over a thousand dollars—or so their “friends” said. It was called “Inglés sin Barreras” (English Without Barriers.)
“Inglés sin Barreras…para los que no tienen tiempo a aprender inglés” was one of their slogans. English Without Barrier, for those who do not have the time to learn English.
The commercials would come on at all times of the day, sometimes during Sabado Gigante (Giant Saturday—an entertainment show that aired on Saturday nights and was hosted by the iconic Don Francisco). When the commercials came on you’d hear this music that evoked a feeling of hope. My parents both worked low-paying, hard-labor jobs but this course strengthened their faith. It gave them hope that the future would not be so challenging, that if they just worked hard enough one day they would have no barriers. At the time both of my parents were working at a factory farm called Smithfield. My father would sleep at the factory farm sometimes to get extra hours of overtime pay. I stayed by myself a lot of the times but in being lonely I learned to love literature and fantasy, and soon I made friends of my own if only in the pages of books. Harry, Ron and Hermione became my English tutors when I was alone.
* * *
“Inglés sin Barreras” was a set of video cassettes, CDs, and booklets that promised a system for Spanish speakers to learn English like they did when they learned Spanish as kids. It had this blue cover with a graphic of a city skyline, a big yellow sun was shining behind a skyscraper and a multitude of lights were turned on as the evening turned to night. I see the skyline as the buildings my parents wanted to work at. The buildings they surely would have worked at had they moved to the U.S. at a younger age. Office buildings, suits, and comfortability. I picture my parents as successful business people. My father who didn’t finish middle school was born with the natural brain of a businessman and even with a language barrier he was determined to achieve all of his goals.
My parents completed the entire course, but they didn’t become fluent. My mother’s grammar was excellent. But the weight of the language became a barrier for her because she was imprisoned by the thought of people judging her accent. In retrospect, I had a taste of that feeling when I was first enrolled in school here in the U.S., I was given a test in English and failed it, but when they gave me the same test in Spanish I passed it without a struggle. I was dumb in English, but I was intelligent and promising in Spanish.
Even now my mother’s insecurities over the English language still resonate with me as I still feel inferior to those whose native language is English. Although I dominate the language I often still wonder if I could have done more with my life if everything would have remained in Spanish or if I would have been born in the U.S. instead of Cuba. The truth is that I likely wouldn’t, where I come from opportunities are as scarce as everything else. But I’ll be honest and confess that I often feel like the dumbest person in a room of native English speakers. Why? How? I minored in English in college and still I tell myself that I am the worst writer I know. And on the other hand even though Spanish is my first language, I still feel as though I never unlocked its full potential. And even though English is my dominant language now, I still feel like I am learning it every day.
My mind witnesses on the daily this strange dichotomy between the person I am in English and the person I am in Spanish. As though I am two completely different people in each language—because I am. There are parts of me in Spanish that can only be loosely translated into English and vise-versa.
When I was in college I found myself lost when we read old English. The works of Shakespeare were confusing and often time I had to read the spark notes and interpretations of others to decipher what seemed as though was written in some code my immigrant brain could not comprehend. This forced me to always give the best I could, double and triple checking my work to ensure that I hadn’t made a single careless mistake. These are the remnants of the classmates who thought it was fun to taunt me when I was first beginning to learn this very intricate language. Meanwhile in Spanish, though it’s my mother tongue and the language I grew up speaking I sometimes feel that I don’t know enough of it. And when I hold a conversation with someone whose only language is Spanish I feel that I can’t express myself as well as I would want to. And the feelings of shame and embarrassment creep in.
* * *
One of my mother’s first jobs in the U.S. was as a housekeeper. During the weekends I’d help her clean the vacation homes of rich people. Sometimes she’d let me sit down on the couch while she cleaned and I’d watch television—something on Univision usually. Some sort of children’s program completely in Spanish. These are the last memories I have of being fully immersed in my native language. It wasn’t until the later years of my life that I rediscovered my passion for Latin-American music. It was a combination of yearning for my culture and an inherent need to go back to my roots in order to understand my composition. To this day I still find myself in a constant state of fluctuation between assimilation and the preservation of my culture and language. But something about listening to the songs I heard growing up takes me back home if only for the duration of the music. Ricardo Arjona, Marc Anthony, Marco Antonio Solis, and of course Celia Cruz, are some of the Latin artists my parents frequently listened to. These are the artists that now offer me a comfort zone when I have spent too much time immersed in anglo culture.
Recently, I took my parents to see living legend Ricardo Arjona during his stop in Raleigh, North Carolina for his Blanco y Negro: Volver tour. Known sometimes as just “Arjona,” the Guatemalan musician is often described as the Bob Dylan of Latin America. With his complex lyrics on society, sex, religion, and Latin American culture and life, Arjona has cemented his name as an iconic figure in Spanish speaking countries and all over the world.
We were in an arena surrounded by people from all over Latin America who all gathered there with the same purpose—to watch Ricardo Arjona belt his hits to all of us. When Ricardo sang my favorite song of his, Si El Norte Fuera El Sur, (If the North Were The South) a song that sheds light on the stark differences between the United States and Latin America, you could hear the excitement in the audience, the energy of every Latino feeling empowered as Arjona sang his powerful lyrics juxtaposing two cultures. Flags from all over Latin America were being waved in the air as he sang his poignant lyrics. I felt myself singing with the passion of someone who despite not growing up in his home country still feels extremely proud of his origins and culture. I felt empowered, I felt Latino enough, Cuban enough. And when Arjona decided to remix one of his biggest hits, Historia de Taxi, with a salsa influence, my mother and I joined to share a salsa dance, and in that moment Cuba became me.
* * *
I always feel Cuban, I am Cuban enough—especially when I drink our strong black coffee which for me is tradition but for others it’s like drinking motor oil. That sweet “cafecito” fuels me for hours. I feel Cuban when I listen to salsa music, or when I curse under my breath in that very creative way we Cubans do. These bits and pieces in my structure will never be destroyed. I have tailored myself to fit the American brand, to be the best dressed form of the American dream and demonstrate to those that didn’t have to fight for freedom that I am in fact worthy of being here. That I am able to become what they need me to be. Except, I no longer yearn to assimilate. I want to be what I am—Cuban. As Cuban as Celia and rum.
* * *
I have the entire knowledge of the world in my hands and yet I am not a millionaire. Artificial intelligence, the voices of books reading to me without the use of my eyes and yet—I’m still not a millionaire. What worth was my parent’s sacrifice if I am not the best goddamn thing to come from this family? If I don’t elevate this last name so high that the next generations tremble at the very thought of competing against my accomplishments? If I am being honest, it feels as though I have accomplished nothing. Smelling poverty’s breath left its rancid taste in my mouth and now I am on an endless search for the best toothpaste that eliminates the stain of my teeth forever. So that everyone in my lineage may have white teeth too.
I seldom allow myself to gravitate towards the dark thoughts that tell me I won’t become nothing more than what I already am but when I do it comes over me and sinks me to my greatest fears. Sure, I went to college, but I am no doctor, I am no lawyer, certainly no engineer. I learned a couple of things and wrote a couple of papers. I was praised here and there—but at the end of the day I still feel defeated. I still feel voiceless in a room full of powerful echoes.
I have the job my parents dreamed of when they moved here. I have the comfort of working from home, sitting down in an air-conditioned room where I can get up whenever I want and grab a bite, use the restroom on my own time, and even on the most frustrating of days, I can still just walk away for a few and catch a breather. So why do I feel this way? Why do I feel…hopeless? My parents were full of hope working at the factory farms and cleaning hotels, and living in those old apartment buildings—so why do I feel so hopeless in all of this privilege when I broke the barrier of language?
* * *
I compare myself to the children of other immigrants and wonder how they did it. How did they become so much more than me? How can I be more like them? I think my mother elevated my intelligence beyond my own understanding, but that’s what mothers do, isn’t it? The truth is I don’t think I am as smart as they think I am. I always wonder how it is that my parents gathered the strength to leave all they knew behind to start all over. And here I am complaining about wasting my life away at this nine to five. I shouldn’t complain, right? I should be grateful. But surely there is validity in these emotions. I do not wish to be a prisoner to this endless cycle of selling my time for man-made value and recognition. My pain is no comparison to the sacrifice of my parents. And although I do not wish to wait until I am nearly dead to enjoy this life and it isn’t fair for me like it wasn’t fair for them, I recognize the ease in my life, that which theirs did not have. And that is what keeps me going on my saddest days, that is what keeps me going on the bluest of Mondays.
But I am an immigrant too. I often forget that even though I was young—I was an immigrant too. And I disregard the credit I deserve for being the first person in my family to finish college, for putting myself in the rooms I wasn’t invited to. For bringing my own chair to the committee that did not want to let me in.
Even with the limitations of a language barrier my parents built a life in America that many native speakers haven’t—and I say that proudly not to boast in any way. Their sacrifice birthed a business that provided for all of us, for most of our family to also be here in freedom. And I learned an ultimate lesson: that sacrifice and hard work is the key to success. That we can build our own destiny with grit and determination.
I watched my mother study each and every night, practicing the questions to pass the U.S. naturalization exam. I went with her the day she took the test, I was with her the day she became an American citizen. And she went with me the day that I (thanks to her) also became a naturalized citizen. Only I—the one who speaks perfect English—didn’t have to take the test to prove I was worthy, because I was under eighteen and that meant that if she passed all I had tondo was pay and it was just handed to me thanks to my mother’s hard work and sleepless nights. Because of this I feel indebted to my parents even more.
My father would become a citizen years later. He would fail the test the first time but pass it the second time around. What an achievement for a man that didn’t finish middle school. What an achievement for two people who were held back by a language but refused to give up. Those are the examples I grew up seeing. Two fearless people taking what is rightfully theirs without letting limitations stop them.
So, what do I do with my near-perfect English? What do I do when I have no barriers but the limited thinking I allow myself to dwell in?
I fight and I strive, and I put the entirety of my soul into my dreams to bring their fruit to this reality and savor the taste of success. For my family, for my parents, for the generations to come—for me.
Today, when I wake up feeling like a failure, staring at myself in the mirror, bloated from last night’s drinking to stop feeling like a failure, I pray for health for my family, happiness for my lady, happiness for our son, happiness—for all of us. I tell the universe that things will get better. That in no time my worries will become whispers of the past, like the memories of hardship in Cuba. I breath, take a sip of coffee, and remind myself that my parent’s sacrifice was worth it if only I am happy. And I am happy.
In this very moment, I remember the theme music of the “Inglés sin Barreras” infomercial, that song that gave my family hope that in taking action we would destroy the limitations blocking the way before us. And we did, we broke them all.
The voiceover plays in my head taking me back in time to that apartment in Newport News, Virginia. Putting me in that same living room in our first home in the United States. Back when everything seemed simple and easy—but it wasn’t. My parents were just really good at maintaining their hope and they chose to see opportunities instead of limitations.
I am choosing to do the same.
“Llame al 1-800-780-8000, las operadoras están esperando su llamada (call 1-800-780-8000,
the operators are waiting on your call).
Active in literary ventures, he contributed to The Crusader, the college newspaper, and Agora!, the literary magazine. Lázaro's exceptional achievements earned him recognition as the Outstanding Educational Studies Graduate and earned him accolades from various honor societies.
His writings beautifully encompass personal experiences, nature, immigration, fatherhood, love, and the complexities of the human condition. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Of Earth & Sky, You Might Need To Hear This, Hey Young Writer, Tint Journal, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing, Vermilion, The Gobstich Penn, Papers Publishing, and Latino Literatures. Follow him on Instagram to find more of his writings: @lazaro_gutierrez_writer
Spring Valley Elementary School, circa 1950
Photo credit: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY
by Gloria Delgado
Author's Note: All names but mine have been changed.
I was 21, had earned my BA in Spanish at the San Francisco College for Women (aka Lone Mountain College), and was now working through my student teaching requirements with the goal of earning an elementary credential. Adding to the normal pressures and challenges involved, I was also overwhelmingly aware that, if successful, I would supposedly be the first Mexican student from Lone Mountain to earn a teaching credential. This made me a role model for some of my Latina lower classmates, who constantly questioned me about the realities of student teaching. They were trusting in me, relying on me to help them through the same experience.
I was also engaged, and planning a late December wedding.
Lone Mountain’s education department, although well-intentioned and nurturing in many ways, was still mired in the outmoded attitudes and mores of the 1940’s and false façades of the 1950’s. Our professors sometimes put more emphasis on proper appearance and demeanor, what we students called their “tea, hat and white gloves syndrome,” than they did in preparing us to deal with the actual education system. Student teachers had no written code of rights or duties, only unclear and nebulous obligations. One huge failing was that we had to complete our student teaching, one or more years at best, before even stepping into a classroom. Our entire education system was completely unprepared for the changing times and upcoming social turmoil of the 1960’s.
The first half of my student teaching had been a delight. I loved being part of that third-grade classroom of students from Grover Cleveland Grammar School. My master teacher, a warm-hearted and generous woman, had encouraged and advised me, giving me many opportunities to work with individuals or with the entire class, a chance to develop a rapport with the children. I was even assigned a special project, working with a young Chinese boy who refused to speak in school. At the end of my time this master teacher and other reviewers gave me an excellent evaluation, and she and the students said their goodbyes with embraces and best wishes for the future.
Enthused with how my experience had gone so far, I was eagerly looking forward to my second half of student teaching, this time in the middle of San Francisco’s Nob Hill and Chinatown neighborhoods. My next assignment would be Spring Valley Grammar School's fifth-grade classroom, and my new master teacher, Mrs. Butler.
Spring Valley School had a long and troubled history. The oldest existing public school in San Francisco, first established around 1852, then relocated and rebuilt at its current address after the 1906 earthquake, during its early years was reserved for whites only. When in 1885 a young Chinese girl, Maggie Tape, won a California Supreme Court suit for the right to attend Spring Valley, the San Francisco School Board simply kept her name at the bottom of a never-ending wait list, and built another public school to accommodate “other” races. The Tape family finally moved across the bay to Berkeley so Maggie could attend school there.
I knew something of the school’s history, but this was now 1962, and I was comfortable with the assignment and with the area. It was the neighborhood where my paternal grandparents had lived, met and married in 1904, and the narrow, steep streets and crowded neighborhood were familiar to me. Getting to the site involved a long commute, two buses plus cable car, then a stiff walk up and down hills all while wearing skirts and heels, as required by Lone Mountain’s strict dress code, which forbid the wearing of jeans or slacks and required high heeled dress shoes. Anything else would have been considered inappropriate or unprofessional attire.
Situated in the middle of the block, surrounded by old wood houses and stucco apartments, Spring Valley Grammar School was a several-storied brick and cement building with large windows and stone half-columns at the front entrance. Around the structure were narrow asphalt play areas barely big enough to hold all the students at recess or lunchtime. I don’t remember a cafeteria. Half a block up from the school on one corner was a small Chinese restaurant; at lunchtime both students and staff formed long lines outside, waiting to buy a plate of rice or noodles, vegetables and meat. For two dollars, one order provided enough lunch for several to share.
At this time the school population was about 98% Chinese; the principal, teachers, yard supervisors, secretaries were all white females. The only adult male at the school was the janitor, also white.
I signed the log-in book before meeting with the principal, Mrs. Mitchell. She welcomed me with a warm smile, escorted me to the fifth-grade classroom, introduced me to Mrs. Butler, my new master teacher, then left. Upon the principal’s departure, Mrs. Butler appeared somewhat imposed upon by this unwelcome intrusion, this interruption of her routine. She coolly, slowly looked me up and down with what seemed barely disguised contempt, then introduced me to her students. “Class, this is Miss—What did you say your name was?—Of course. Miss Colville, Miss Cavi—How do you pronounce that again? Oh. Yes. Miss Cal-vee-yuh, who will be with us for a few weeks. She wants to learn how to be a teacher.” Then, in an undertone, I was dismissed: “Go to the back of the classroom, take a seat, and just watch what I do.”
“Just watch what I do.” And that’s all I did, three half-days a week, for what seemed unending hours; I watched her do whatever she did—but without taking a seat. There was no chair, no stool, no extra desk for me to use, and none was ever provided all the months that followed. I was not allowed to speak with or interact with any of the students when Mrs. Butler was present. Banished to “the back of the bus,” as it were, I stood in uncomfortable high heels in a corner by one of the two doors to the cloakroom or leaned against the middle of the wall. These initial long hours of standing and watching did prove valuable. By moving casually from one side of the classroom to the other, I managed to get glimpses of the students’ faces, and in three days came to know them all by name and personality.
This was the era when the Asian school population, still labeled “the model minority” by 1950’s society, had names like Alexander, Lily, or William; none used a Chinese given name in school. All the fifth graders at Spring Valley School were attentive, polite, clean, neatly dressed, healthy, and apparently happy; that is, all except for one—Marcella, the only white girl in the class, the only white girl in the entire school.
Mrs. Butler was a slightly stout, imposing woman in her late 50’s with meticulously waved short dyed blonde hair, icy blue eyes, and perfect makeup. Not one for riding buses and cable cars, she rode to and from campus in a Yellow Cab, arriving and departing always on schedule. Impeccably, even modishly attired, she would sit unmoving behind her desk for long periods of time, on occasion rising majestically from her chair to write on the chalkboard or to lecture. Everything about her was carefully controlled—her appearance, her demeanor, her voice, her movements. Mrs. Butler never rushed, never raised her voice in excitement, joy, or anger; everything she did was dignified, reserved, calculated. Her teaching style, lectures, even her occasional compliments to the students acknowledging good work or a successful grade, were muted.
The fifth-grade classroom was attractive, a large turn-of-the-century style square high-ceilinged room filled with rows of wooden desks lined up in orderly fashion. On the left side of the room light streamed through several huge waist-to-ceiling stacked wood windows that had to be opened or closed against the changing weather with a long wooden pole, an iron hook on one end. Leafy green plants, cared for by the students, sat on the wide windowsills. On the opposite wall were two doors with transom windows. Black chalkboards covered the remaining space. A dark upright piano, apparently never touched, stood in one corner of the front wall. At the rear of the classroom was the cloakroom, a door at each end. Maps, globes, flags, some bookcases, a black clock hung high filled the space. The large oak desk presiding at center front was topped with neatly stacked books, notes, daily lesson plans. A slender vase by the handbell occasionally held flowers Mrs. Butler or a student would bring, pastel blossoms, a white camellia, or a sprig of the dainty pink sweet-fragranced Cécile Brünner roses that once flourished throughout all old San Francisco neighborhoods.
But the most notable article on Mrs. Butler’s otherwise nondescript desk, the only object reflective of Chinese culture in the classroom, was the reclining figure of a jovial Chinese god with a bald head and fat round belly. This large carved wooden figure was obviously valuable. Placed to the far-left front edge of the oak desk with his back to Mrs. Butler, the laughing god faced the rows of student desks.
“Who is this? Is this Buddha?” I seized the opportunity to ask the class one day when Mrs. Butler was called out for a moment.
“Why, he’s not Buddha, he’s the Laughing God, Budai,” the children, now surrounding me, eagerly explained, “the god who brings good fortune. His big bag holds everything we need for everyday life. He’s the happy god who protects all his children. Rub his belly,” they insisted, “it brings you good luck!” And so, I rubbed Budai’s belly daily, asking for protection and good fortune for the children; and for me, the strength to get through another day watching Mrs. Butler.
Later one afternoon Mrs. Butler and I were alone in the classroom when she asked, with no preamble: “Where were your parents born, Miss Cal-villee-yuh?” Knowing this was code for …what are you, I can’t figure you out, and not knowing really bothers me… and offended, not by the question, but by her manner, I deliberately and literally answered the question she asked, and not the question she wanted to ask.
“My father was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, and my mother on Ewa Plantation, Oahu, Hawai’i.
“Oh, so you’re Hawaiian! No wonder you look so exotic!”
“My mother is not Hawaiian, she is Puerto Rican, born in Hawai’i because that is where her parents were living at the time; that makes me Mexican and Puerto Rican.” Then, still feeling the sting of her irritating use of the word exotic, in a not very subtle attempt to redirect the conversation I asked her about the figure on her desk, not revealing that the students had already introduced us.
“It was a ‘welcome to our school’ gift given to me by the Chinese parents when I first started teaching at Spring Valley.” Her bland, rote monotone response to my question lacked warmth, a sense of gratitude, enthusiasm, or sensitivity to what Budai obviously meant to her students and their families. They had given her part of themselves, part of their culture. Did she see Budai as more than just a block of wood, did she understand, did she even care? No. She had referred to Budai as it, not as he. Then she said: “You know, dear, you really should smile more; you would be so much more attractive.” I was put firmly back in my place. Mrs. Butler turned and sat down at her desk; the children returned from recess; lessons resumed.
Reflecting later on our exchange, I had the strong overwhelming intuition that Miss Butler intensely disliked the figure of Budai, finding him too exotic, too foreign—like me. But the figure was something she could not easily dispose of, not if she wanted to keep her job and the approval of the parents. Budai and I both might be thorns in her side. One thought followed another. Did she dislike her job? Had society changed too quickly for her, made her feel trapped at Spring Valley, helpless, unwilling, unable to adapt or cope? Did she even like her students? I already knew, even after a few days, that she intensely disliked, possibly even hated me. Did she, deep inside, dislike her students? But why? For being unworthy of her talents? For being different, exotic, Asian? These unwelcome intuitions of mine were sickening and ugly; and I tried to suppress them. Still stunned by their impact, stomach churning, thoughts and speculations reeling, I took up my usual post standing at the back of the class.
Some of the other teachers would occasionally talk with me when I spent time in the faculty lounge; for the most part I was ignored. “Oh, so you’re the new student teacher” was the comment I heard most frequently that first week. “Hmm… You know, of course, that she didn’t want another student teacher. You were forced on her, just like the previous one, that young black woman. She didn’t last long either, poor thing.” And when Mrs. Butler walked into the lounge the conversation instantly shifted, and I became invisible.
With time enough to reflect on what had been said, I realized that Mrs. Mitchell’s accompanying me herself to Mrs. Butler’s classroom, and her introduction of me to Mrs. Butler in the presence of the class, was not the generous, friendly gesture I had initially taken it to be, but was the outcome of a clash of wills between the two women. And Mrs. Mitchell, as principal, had won that particular battle. Mrs. Butler could not easily dispose of me if she wanted to keep her job and the goodwill of her employer.
On my way home one afternoon that same first week I was headed to the front entrance when the janitor, still carrying the mop and bucket he had just used to clean the floors, called out to me. “Miss! Say, Miss! You the new student teacher?” he asked, turning his head back and forth, apparently checking the hall to see if anyone else was around to hear. I nodded, uneasy, unsure where this was going. “Watch out for her, that damn bitch, she’ll try to do something to you, she’ll try to hurt you.”
“Who will?” But I already knew the answer.
“Butler, of course, who else!” He smirked, looking me up and down, appraising me almost as coolly as Mrs. Butler had done that first day. This one won’t make it, either… Shaken, but attempting to conceal it, I only nodded, gave him an icy “Thank you,” knowing that a new student teacher shouldn’t be seen alone in conversation with a janitor. I left for home, thinking: I know she dislikes me, but what could she possibly do to me, and why should she bother? I’m nothing but a very small temporary thorn in her side.
At first, in an attempt to bring down the barriers between us, I tried to engage Mrs. Butler in conversation during the breaks in the teachers’ lounge. I assured her of my willingness to tutor students needing assistance with math problems or reading, to help with anything, anything at all. But the days went by; nothing worked, nothing changed. She terminated any thought or suggestion of mine with the same admonition: “No. Just watch me and see how it’s done.”
Two weeks into the semester, while in the office signing the attendance book, I was surprised to see a familiar face. Mary Henley and I had been through grammar and high school together. “I’m the fourth-grade teacher now,” she told me, and after learning I was the new student teacher, she whispered: “I’ve got to leave now, I don’t want to be late, goodbye,” then abruptly turned and went off down the hall to join her class. What was that all about? Although we were not friends, we had always been on friendly terms, and there was still plenty of time remaining before the first bell. Mary was a shy and quiet person, but to witness this timid, even fearful behavior of hers was unsettling. Was it the mention of Mrs. Butler as my master teacher? I never spoke with Mary again, and only caught occasional glimpses of her across the auditorium during school assemblies. Mary never joined the others in the teachers’ lounge, never lined up for lunch at the corner, never seemed to leave her classroom. I wondered what, or who, she was avoiding besides me. It would have been nice to have someone to talk with, to see a friendly face, to have an ally. It was all so strange; Mary too had almost disappeared, become invisible. Was Mary afraid of Mrs. Butler? I would never know. Something was very wrong here; was it the school, was it Mrs. Butler, or just me?
“Just watch what I do.” And so, I continued. Standing, I watched her for days, then weeks on end, gradually learning that something was indeed wrong, but it was difficult to describe at first, difficult to put into words. Yes, something was wrong, and it seemed to begin here, in this classroom. I watched and learned. Mrs. Butler did nothing overt, nothing that would ever leave her open to criticism. Her interactions with the students were to the casual outside observer always pleasant, mellow, full of compliments. She was not one to lose her temper. She was always so subtle in her methods, in her cruelty. Mrs. Butler’s particular type of cruelty was new to me, and difficult to describe. It was not what she said or did, but how she said or did things, with an ease far beyond my experience. Most of the wounds she inflicted were quick tiny jabs, like mosquito stings, almost invisible on the surface, but nevertheless capable of leaving behind deep and festering infections.
Mrs. Butler pretended not to notice the effect her hints and insinuations had on the students; but I noticed; I watched. She always said and did things deliberately, never carelessly, or half-way, or by accident. Her techniques were not as effective on the boys who, at this still mostly innocent age of nine or ten, more easily managed to ignore them or shrug them off. Anyway, Mrs. Butler seemed to prefer to manipulate the girls.
This morning, Louise was her focus, her tool. “Look, everyone, Louise is so pretty today in her new dress! Louise always looks so nice, her clothes are always so beautiful!”
All eyes turned as one to gaze at Louise, who, head down, hands clasped together in her lap, smiled modestly, basking in the compliments. Subtly made conscious that Louise had …something… that they lacked, the other girls’ eyes, glazed and clouded, went blank for long silent seconds. The girls were still too open-hearted to actively dislike Louise, or Celia, or Sara, whoever was singled out to be complimented for the wrong reasons, whoever happened to be Mrs. Butler’s chosen focus, her tool, the target around whom she created and fomented negative feelings within the group. They didn’t actually dislike each other, not yet; but I could sense dislike and jealousy and hubris building and growing, little by little, created, cultivated and maneuvered by Mrs. Butler.
Louise in particular didn’t need to hear such frequent compliments. The treasured daughter of a comfortable family, Louise was a nice girl, a beautiful child who always arrived at school wearing expensive new dresses, her long straight gleaming black hair carefully arranged and tied back in bright ribbons. Excessive praise, and being singled out for her attractive appearance day after day could only do her harm—but could this really be Mrs. Butler’s goal, to cause harm to Louise, to the children? I was stunned, ashamed of my suspicions. They filled me, nevertheless, and couldn’t be ignored.
Marcella, the only white child remaining in the ever-shifting class, was Mrs. Butler’s most frequent target, the daily recipient of twisted compliments. Mrs. Butler hardly bothered to disguise the scorn and contempt she felt for the girl. Perhaps she considered Marcella to be too simple, too easy a target, and unworthy of her subtlety? The daughter of a poor family, this clumsy, gangly girl was never complimented on her dresses, never came to school wearing ribbons. With her blonde hair chopped off just below her ears, ends carelessly pulled back in a rubber band, she was always dressed in clean but threadbare old clothes. She spoke, when pressed, with a soft southern country drawl. Apparently still in the awkward stages of early puberty, a full head taller than her classmates, Marcella lacked the easy grace and charming manners of her quicker, more coordinated, more sophisticated classmates.
Mrs. Butler began: “Look, everyone, Marcella has finally managed to—finish her work on time—make only three mistakes on her test—skip rope for one minute before tripping—get a C—catch the ball and only drop it once…” Every day brought fresh opportunities to single out Marcella in this negative way. Today it was a class game of basketball. “Look, class, Marcella finally threw the ball into the basket! She found the basket! Let’s everyone clap for her. Yeah, Marcella!”
“Yeah, Marcella!” the class parroted Mrs. Butler, clapping in unison, in bored, orchestrated applause lasting only a few seconds. The unfortunate girl, hair coming loose from the rubber band, strands flying out in all directions after her strenuous efforts, and horribly embarrassed at this additional reminder of her general ineptitude, looked down at the ground, her body writhing, her mouth twisted into a caricature of a smile, the toe of one worn shoe grinding into the ground, as if digging an imaginary hole in which to hide.
The bell rang, the children gathered to return to the classroom. Marcella paused, hanging behind, waiting to take her usual place at the very end of the line. Angry thoughts filled my mind: Marcella will bloom at her own time, but this woman just won’t let her alone. Why does Mrs. Butler hate her? Does Marcella remind her of herself at that age? Is it because she is the only white girl in the school, and Mrs. Butler is ashamed of the girl’s poverty, of her shabbiness? Could it simply be that Marcella’s hair is naturally blonde? It was cruel of her to constantly single out Marcella this way, and exceedingly painful to watch it being done. I could do little about it but gently touch the girl’s shoulder, smiling at her after everyone else had turned away. “You did very well today, Marcella,” I whispered. She lifted her head and looked straight into my eyes. My reward was one of her genuine, sweet smiles.
My time at Lone Mountain was becoming more and more stressful. I felt tremendous pressure, receiving little help and even less guidance from an unsympathetic and clueless education staff. When I tried to describe the poisonous atmosphere at Spring Valley to my supervisors, they thought it was mere complaining. They didn’t even hear me. After all, Mrs. Butler hadn’t done anything wrong, not really. No one had done anything to me, not really. “We’re sure things are fine, dear. She’s your master teacher after all, she must be happy with you; if she weren’t we would have heard. There’s still plenty of time left for your evaluation. Don’t worry so much. Just be patient, cooperate, do your best.”
Platitudes, empty platitudes, with no insight, no empathy, no understanding. I was sick of it. During my two days a week back at college, the younger Latinas questioned me relentlessly. They wanted to hear the truth, not platitudes, not empty phrases. They needed to know exactly what I was experiencing. It was all up to me to tell them this truth, that it wouldn’t be easy, that many people were out to block us in any way possible. My goal, my future, my classmates’ futures and hopes were at stake; and everything was slipping away. I was their symbol, their apparent leader, and I was about to fail.
Tired of watching Mrs. Butler, suddenly one day something within me snapped; it all became too much to bear. No more! I’ve had enough, now it’s my turn, you will start watching me! I did nothing overt, nothing disrespectful that would leave me open to criticism, but I would not give up, crawl away or hide. Too much was at stake. I would not become her focus, her target, another Mary Henley. Now, my father’s favorite saying again came to mind, and I took up the challenge, followed his imperative. “Jalisco, no te rajes! Jalisco, never give in!” Now, I crossed from one side of the room to another, moving only when Mrs. Butler’s attention was elsewhere. It was petty and childish, but I did it anyway just to annoy her. Before, I had always entered the classroom by creeping in the back door like an intruder, rubbing Budai’s belly only when there were no witnesses. No more. Now, entering by the front door, I deliberately crossed the classroom directly in front of her desk, now I wished her a cheerful “Good morning,” now I greeted Budai with a quick rub of his belly before taking my usual place in the back. The students may or may not have noticed, but she certainly did.
Ignoring her glares, subtly daring her to admonish me, I started greeting and addressing the students by name when we lined up for recess, gathered in the playground, or made trips to the assembly hall. In spite of knowing she would ignore me, nevertheless several times a week I would politely ask the same questions: “When will I be allowed to teach a lesson, to help the students? And my evaluation, when will it be scheduled?” I began writing in a small notebook while Mrs. Butler lectured, jotting down nonsense things, random thoughts, anything to keep from going insane, to keep the classroom walls from closing in on me. That little notebook would become my refuge, a safety net. My stomach would hurt once in a while, but I ignored it.
One morning, in an excess of boredom, I grew careless. Standing at my usual place beside the back wall, I was writing some nonsense in my notebook, eyes focused on the paper, when Mrs. Butler suddenly appeared in front of me. It was dizzying and disorienting to see her any place other than the front of the room, as though the earth’s axis had tilted. “What do you keep writing in that book of yours? What do you have in there that’s so important?” she demanded. Yes! Finally, I had gotten to her!
“Oh, nothing really important,” I coolly, glibly lied, “just random thoughts that occur to me. I note down good methods or techniques you use to teach, ideas for lesson plans, things you do that are effective, stuff like that. Would you like to see?” I offered her the open notebook, certain she would refuse it. Mollified, she shook her head no, returned to her proper place in front of the classroom. Oh my God, I knew it! She believed me! She won’t ask about the notebook again.
But maybe I was watching and learning too well. The idea of beating her at her own game for a moment had felt strangely challenging and appealing to the ego. Hubris? And what about my classmates who were depending on me? Being in the same room with Mrs. Butler was changing me into another person, into a liar, a sneak, someone I didn’t much like. It was making me sick, emotionally and physically. That ball of discomfort in the pit of my stomach kept growing larger.
So, I jumped at the chance when Mrs. Butler unexpectedly asked me for a favor. The aide who usually supervised the playground at lunchtime was out on sick leave and would be missing for about one week. Would I be willing to take her place? “Of course, I’d be happy to help!” From then I spent every lunch period in the schoolyard. It was a relief to be outside interacting with students, removing wood splinters from little fingers, mending petty squabbles, wiping away tears. I could breathe again. The only problem was missing lunch; there was no time for me to eat.
Two weeks went by, then three. I asked, but was told: “No, the aide is still out.” And like a fool I believed it, until one afternoon I happened to see the supposedly ill aide chatting comfortably in the lounge. I don’t remember who told me that the aide was still getting paid for the work I was doing; but by this time playground supervision had become my regular responsibility on the three half-days a week I spent at Spring Valley. I wondered if the aide and Mrs. Butler had colluded to get me to take her place for free? The principal must have known about this, must have approved this. What would Mrs. Butler get out of using me? Power? Revenge? Secret satisfaction?
One morning around December 7th, Mrs. Butler’s stone façade seemed to crumble. Having just finished a regular lesson on the significance of the date, the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, she remained seated, uncharacteristically still. The silence continued for long moments, disturbed only by the ticking of the large black clock on the wall. Out of the silence she burst out: “I hate the Japanese! I hate them! They killed my brother!” The class sat stunned, mouths open, eyes darting back and forth. I looked on anxiously, feeling another huge lump forming in my stomach. Her body shaking, hands trembling, face ashen, Mrs. Butler then graphically recreated the bombing of the battleship Arizona, ending with a detailed description of the 1,100 bodies remaining behind entombed within the ship, among them her brother.
Her account finished, Mrs. Butler slowly rose from her chair and walked out the door—just as the bell rang for lunch. I forced myself to move to the front of the class and dismiss the children, who had remained frozen in their seats, shocked into uncustomary stillness. What should I do? Should I report this episode to the principal? Report what? It was horribly wrong for a teacher to expose young pupils to such strong personal emotion. It was a terrible abuse of her position! What was my own responsibility here? Confused, sick with anxiety, already late for yard duty yet truly concerned for her well-being, I quickly checked the halls, lounge, and restrooms, but Mrs. Butler was nowhere to be found. I gave up the search and went outside to the playground.
After lunch Mrs. Butler was back in the classroom as usual, her composure and demeanor normal, showing no sign of emotional trauma. I approached her, told her how sorry I was for the death of her brother. She ignored me, making me invisible again. I walked back to my customary place and position at the rear of the room, just like Marcella always at the end of the line of students.
Once again watching Mrs. Butler, with time enough to reflect on what had transpired, the intuition struck me that this whole episode was a cold, calculated performance--but to what end, to what purpose? What kind of sick, twisted person would use her brother’s death this way? …and it was twenty years after the fact …and her exit had been so perfectly timed… Did her brother really die at Pearl Harbor? Did she even have a brother? Did she do this every December 7th? Was the performance, if indeed it had been a performance, solely for my benefit, to see what I would do about it, to see if I would report her? She could easily deny the whole episode, turning me into this suspicious, libelous student teacher trying to draw attention to herself. Or was I becoming cruel, mean-spirited and evil, daring to suspect the worst of a severely traumatized, unfortunate woman? Or was I being manipulated, like Marcella, like Louise? Were the children being manipulated and victimized out of her sadistic need to inflict cruelty and pain? But why? Because she hated me? Because she hated them? Because they, like the Japanese, were Asian, and easy targets? Nothing made sense. I tried to suppress my suspicions and my intuitions but failed. I didn’t want to have such thoughts about anybody, not even about Mrs. Butler, but they existed, and couldn’t be ignored. I didn't know what to do.
After hours of inner turmoil and confusion, still unsure and uncertain, I decided to wait, to keep quiet about the whole event in case I was being manipulated. Again, my stomach hurt.
Shortly after my assignment to Spring Valley I had informed Principal Mitchell that I would be getting married during the Christmas break and would like to take off one extra week in January for a honeymoon. She had agreed, as long as I fulfilled my hours. It was settled; after my return I would be at school three whole days a week until the end of my school term and would continue with yard duty, more than fulfilling the number of hours of my obligation. No mention was made of pay.
It was now mid-December, time for Christmas vacation. The children showered me with gifts, boxes of candy, brightly colored tins of tea, and cards. When I reminded Mrs. Butler that I was getting married soon, she coldly told me to announce it to the children myself. For the first time in all those weeks at Spring Valley School, I was allowed to stand in front of the class. Telling the students that they were all invited to my wedding at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Broadway Avenue, just a few blocks away, I jotted down the address, date and time of the ceremony on the blackboard. When I glanced at Mrs. Butler out of the corner of my eye, she was frowning. Once again I had gone too far, had overstepped a boundary. But it didn’t matter, I didn’t care, I was getting married, and getting a welcome break from watching Mrs. Butler. With a rub of Budai’s belly, I asked him to watch her and to protect his children.
They remembered. They came to our wedding! It gladdened my heart to see a group of fifth graders sitting quietly together in the rear pews. Unaccompanied by any parent, confident, dressed in their best, the children had come to the church together, and had patiently sat through the whole Mass and ceremony, in spite of it being celebrated in Latin and Spanish! When my new husband and I stepped outside after the recessional, we saw more fifth graders gathered together across the street from the church, jumping up and down in excitement, waving and calling out “Miss Calvillo! Miss Calvillo!” We waved back, honored by their presence.
When I returned to Spring Valley it was the middle of January. I had the same lengthy commute—two buses, a cable car, a long walk—but now my first bus ride started in Berkeley, our new home, and took even longer. The children seemed glad to see me again, and I realized how much I had missed them. “We saw Miss Calvillo getting married,” I overheard several students whisper to their friends the day I returned. Mrs. Butler now addressed me as Mrs. Delgado and seemed to have no difficulty pronouncing my new name. Otherwise, things continued as before, but now I had entire days, three whole days a week to watch Mrs. Butler. She had not changed. She continued to evade the issue of my evaluation and kept me to my usual place standing at the rear of the room, still without a chair. That ball of pain at the pit of my stomach came back larger than ever.
The following weeks seemed interminable, a blur of quickly passing memories; only one small incident stands out. Mrs. Butler announced: “I want to share some good news with you, class. I just found out that we will all be together again next year. I’m going to be your sixth-grade teacher! Isn’t that wonderful?” There was a long, long pause while the children took in her message. “Yeessss… Mrs. Butler,” slowly came the ragged, unenthusiastic, not quite in unison response. My heart sank. One more year of this, of her? I would be free shortly, but the poor children…
It was mid-afternoon, almost time for the music lesson, when Mrs. Butler beckoned me up to the front of the class. “I need to go to the restroom, Mrs. Delgado; I’ll be back shortly.” Mystified, I stood there watching the children as they talked quietly among themselves. Was she sick? She didn’t look sick. What is going on, what is she up to now? With a tremendous jolt to my stomach, I understood: My God, this has to be my evaluation! And with no advance notice, no chance for preparation! She was about to prove me to be this incompetent, unreliable and unstable student teacher, the one she had said all along couldn't handle the pressure, poor thing, the one who fell apart at her evaluation.
Moments passed. Wearing a wide, triumphant smile, Mrs. Butler grandly entered the classroom, trailed closely by Principal Mitchell and two unfamiliar women. Too stunned to hear their names, I managed somehow to smile as we all shook hands and introduced ourselves, but I never heard a word beyond “We are here for your evaluation.” My thoughts reeling, stomach churning, I tried to formulate a lesson plan, any plan, out of nothing.
Then Budai, the protector of children, the bringer of good luck, smiled on me. I needed a lesson plan. Laughing, he opened his sack, the bag that holds everything his people need for everyday life, pulled out a lesson plan, and placed it, complete, into my hands.
Ignoring the evaluation team and walking directly to the piano in the corner, I focused all my attention on the children: “Class, most of you know something about baseball, and know that San Francisco has a baseball team called the Giants. Well, the Giants are in the playoffs to find the best team, to win the championship. There’s a new song about the Giants called “Bye-Bye Baby,” you may have heard it on the radio. Who knows what “bye-bye baby” means?” The children hesitated, unsure of what to do; this was not their usual music lesson.
Franklin timidly half-raised a hand. “It means to hit a baseball so hard that the ball goes over the wall, and the other team can’t catch it, and your team scores.”
“Yes!” Thank God for Franklin.
“Now, imagine we’re all at a baseball game together, this whole fifth grade class is sitting together in a huge stadium full of people. It’s a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon, somewhere there’s an organ playing. We’ve got hot dogs for lunch, peanuts for a snack. We’re wearing black baseball caps with orange initials ‘SF’ in front, we’re cheering for our team, and our singing is going to help the Giants hit those baseballs over the wall!” I lifted the piano lid, and standing, played the tune. “Listen to the melody, remember how it sounds, and we’ll sing it together. It’s easy!”
When the Giants come to town, it’s bye, bye baby! Line by line, I played and then together we sang those simple verses, haltingly at first, then confidently, then with real team spirit. Every time the chips are down, it’s bye, bye baby! I called out: “Now the boys!” They sang. “Girls only.” History’s in the making at Candlestick Park! Cheer for the batter, and light the spark! I pointed to one row, then another. “Row 5… row 3… Odd rows only… even rows only…. Now, I’m going to trick you.” I switched rows back and forth, in the middle of a line, in the middle of a word. If you’re a fan of Giants baseball, sing bye, bye baby! All eyes were attentive, sparkling, eager, and glued to me; we were on a roll! “Boys again.... Girls now... Handsome boys only....” That stopped them—but just for a second. Laughing, the boys sang the next line together. If you want to be in first place, call bye, bye baby! The girls waited eagerly, giggling in anticipation. “Pretty girls only!” More giggles; all the girls sang. “Smart students only…” But they were ready for anything now; they all sang out. “Dumb stu… ah no,” I pretended to stop myself, “I’m sorry, I forgot, there are no dumb students in this fifth grade!” And the whole class cheered! Listen to the broadcast on KSFO, Turn up the volume, and hear them go! “Children with black hair!” I called. All but one sang. “Children with blond hair!” I held my breath, but yeah, Marcella! Her sweet, clear voice rang out. I felt so proud of her. “Girls with two ears… Boys with three ears… what, no boy here has three ears? You’re sure?” More laughter. “Everyone together now!” With the San Francisco Giants, it’s bye, bye baby!
Loud, soft, and in between, the children’s voices answered my raised or lowered hand as if following a conductor. A quick glance at the clock showed just enough time to close the music class with a rousing version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” our voices at full power, our song rattling the walls, windows and cobwebs of old Spring Valley School. We were the Kingston Trio, we were the Shirelles, we were Peter, Paul and Mary! With perfect timing, our song ended just as the bell rang; the children spontaneously clapped and cheered. “Class dismissed.” Cries of “That was fun… That was really great…” floated in the air as the children filed out, still laughing. I felt wonderful, elated, the pain in my stomach gone.
Only then did I remember the evaluation team at the back of the room. Words of praise came pouring out from Mrs. Mitchell and the two other evaluators. “That was excellent! That was so well done. You did a wonderful job, congratulations!” The three shook my hand, then departed, following the children down the hall. I closed the piano lid. But where was Mrs. Butler? Had she slipped out, unnoticed, had they left her behind? I glanced around the room; Mrs. Butler, her back to me, was at her desk, gathering her things, preparing to go home.
It all comes down to this... I focused on her, my glance turning into a stare, my stare into a contest of wills. You lost, you failed. Now you're going to look at me, I’m going to make you look at me, you're going to look me in the eyes. Mrs. Butler turned to face me with that same icy, stone-cold look of contempt as the day we first met. We silently stared at each other for what seemed interminable seconds, her look of contempt turning into one of pure hatred. I almost laughed aloud. I’m visible, we’re all visible now, deal with it, deal with us. I can look at you forever, I’ve had practice, you lost, you failed, you’re nothing but a bigger, older, meaner, playground bully. Mrs. Butler dropped her eyes, turned, and left the classroom without a word. She never spoke to me again, never looked at me again.
Just before the end of my last day at school Mrs. Mitchell called me into her office. Once more she congratulated me on my presentation, and on my outstanding evaluation. “I would like very much for you to work here at Spring Valley. I’m sure you would do an excellent job for us.” She paused. “I’m offering you a job, Mrs. Delgado.”
At that moment time stopped, something within me shattered, split in multiple pieces. Thoughts, memories, decisions, conversations—all recurred simultaneously in my head.
Part of me remembered the feeling of being poisoned, the gnawing ball of pain in my stomach growing larger daily, all the unrecompensed extra hours I had spent in playground duty, being used, lied to, gossiped about, going hungry for lack of time to eat. All were minor issues, really, in comparison to the multitude of random wrongs and injustices suffered by so many teachers, and students, who deserved better.
Part of me wanted to boast, to brag to Mrs. Mitchell that the entire presentation had been spontaneous, unplanned. It was extremely gratifying to imagine Mrs. Butler, in spite of all her efforts at sabotage, squirming when reminded of my success. But that lesson plan had not come from me, it was a gift from Budai. To claim otherwise would have been hubris, and another lie. But who would understand these reactions, who could I have spoken with? Immediately I knew the answer to my own question; my peers, my companions, the other Latina underclassmen, they would listen, they would understand.
Another part of me had come to a surprise spontaneous decision about the job. From a far-off place I heard my myself answer: “Thank you so much, Mrs. Mitchell, it’s an honor to be offered a job at Spring Valley. I’ve enjoyed being with the children and have come to love them. But I’m sorry, I can’t accept your offer, it wouldn’t be good or healthy for me to work here. But I appreciate it very much; your offer means so much to me.”
Platitudes, all platitudes. I didn’t trust her, didn't want to work there, and wasn’t about to tell her the truth—except for loving the children—that was true. Then I waited, whole again, no longer in pieces, curious to hear what she would reply; but after all these years, I no longer remember the rest of our conversation.
When I returned to the classroom, it was empty; the school day was over, Mrs. Butler and the students had gone, my chance to say goodbye to the children was gone. I suddenly felt unsteady, emotionally drained, hollow. Something important, something of great value had ended, gone out of my life forever. Looking around the classroom for the last time, I gathered my things for home.
But the room wasn’t empty; there sat Budai, still on duty. Rubbing his belly, I bid him goodbye, asked him to continue to protect the fifth graders…. No! That wasn’t good enough, he deserved much more. I tried again. Palms pressed together, respectfully bowing my head, I formally thanked Budai for the lesson plan, gave him credit for my success, and told him that now, with my credential secured, I would look for a job elsewhere.
Then I just stood there, waiting for …something… I didn’t know what.
Out of a long silence broken only by the steady ticking of the classroom clock, once again I heard Mrs. Butler’s words: “It was a ‘welcome to our school’ gift given to me by the Chinese parents when I first started teaching at Spring Valley.”
Budai was smiling ...our school.... Oh, I’m so slow sometimes, it can take me ages to figure things out. Clever, clever people, those parents. And subtle. They had known exactly what they were doing. Budai, disguised as a gift that could not easily be disposed of, would be a welcome resident in the classroom of a loving teacher, a thorn in the side of any other. Welcome or unwelcome, he would be there, doing his job.
Budai was laughing. Again, I heard the class tell me: “He’s the Laughing God who protects all his children and gives them what they need.” …All his children… In my narrow mindedness I had been thinking only of the young students in the class; but hadn’t I, for a short while, been part of this fifth grade? He had always been there helping me. For I too was Budai’s child. … but then, so was Mrs. Butler. Budai, the Master Teacher, had provided us all with what we needed.
Gloria (Calvillo) Delgado, born and raised in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, is the daughter of a Mexican father and a Hawaii-born Puerto Rican mother. She and her late husband David lived for many years in Albany, California, where they raised their family. One of her stories, “Savanna,” was included in the Berkeley Community Memoir Project's recently published collection, “A Wiggle and a Prayer.” She has had four stories printed in Somos en escrito, including “El Parbulito,” a first-place winner in Somos en escrito’s 2019 Extra Fiction Contest and included in El Porvenir, ¡Ya! - Citlalzazanilli Mexicatl - Chicano Science Fiction Anthology. Recently widowed, she now resides with family in a rural community outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she has resumed writing.
The Red Beast
by Carmen Baca
A careless human act gave birth to the monster. Like any good creators of a living, breathing thing, the people responsible for the debacle came up with a procedure backed by science for success. But sometimes plans go awry; any monster from literature, the arts, or folklore and legends is proof. Plans made far in advance were now outdated, weather predictions ignored. Obeying the command to proceed without weighing the potential outcomes, the crew lost control of the creature before they realized.
It flickered to life and licked the dry grass around it, lapping up sustenance to appease its hunger. It grew, spreading its extremities to gather more water-starved vegetation into its maw. The brown, parched weeds whetted the beast’s appetite, and it turned on its creators. The nameless group gave the outcry as they escaped, the alarm echoing from one hill to the next. The flora recoiled and the fauna fled in terrified retreat. The red beast grew and spread and devoured all in its path. It had no plan. Mindless consumption drove it forth. It created new fronts and doubled in size in a matter of minutes. It reached for more food to fuel its advance.
The winds blew it farther, in all directions, often shifting from one to the other, morning to afternoon and far into the night. As hours turned into days, it covered more ground. Alarm amongst us rural residents in its way grew as our vecinos, people closer to it, watched it draw near. Surely, the crews fighting it would stop it soon. But the beast created its own weather. Powerful, relentless winds pushed it over more arid earth, growing in acreage, sometimes by the hundreds and later, by the thousands in a matter of hours, as reported by those who sought to bring it under control. Wrapping itself around living organisms and taking the life from them in an instant, the menace spread across the landscape, covering all in black and red.
Days later it doubled in size. The 50-70 mile an hour winds sent it forth with ferocity. It created Pyrocumulus clouds which rose over 30 thousand feet, obscuring the blue and roaring over the land with renewed power. TV news reporters stood with tall plumes behind them, signaling the route of the red beast. Their cameramen’s lenses showed us the destruction from several locations, different angles, and points of view from authorities, from the fighters in the battle zone, and from people potentially in its path if it proved unstoppable, waiting for instructions and preparing just in case. Our hearts grew heavy. The beast occupied all our thoughts and so many of our nightmares.
It fed voraciously on the forestlands beneath and those surrounding Hermits Peak. Those in command of the fire fight announced the coming days would be catastrophic; the area consumed would grow exponentially with the propulsion of the winds. Those fighting from the skies were forced to abandon their pursuit while those battling on the ground retreated more than they advanced. The intensity of the monster’s hot, fiery breath would have incinerated them otherwise. The morning and evening reports about the swift growth of the red terror struck those of us closest to the path of the enemy. We learned how to navigate several fire maps online, our fear weighing us down and our anxiety burning in our guts as we saw the burned area growing larger by the hour.
When it reached the community of Pendaries Village, it swooped down over the pine-covered mountains on either side, enveloping them in its fiery, destructive embrace. The plumes rose in billows of black; then they turned white, and finally brown as they covered the sky. The velocity of the winds gave breath to the fire-head on that day. As though a giant blew out a candle, the flames exploded before they whooshed between the mountains on both sides. Out of control, the inferno fed on the ancient pines and spruces, the fir, conifer, and the wild oak. All disappeared into towers of flames, entire mountain tops of trees glowing red, inspiring terror in all who saw them. Those woodland creatures which could escape fled. The sun glared in a fiery orange ball behind the yellow-brown haze, day after day, enveloping everything in a smothering, poisonous fog. Ash fell and embers glowed. Day turned to night for those closest to the danger.
And the now enormous enemy continued to fill its belly with everything in its path, devouring one house here and leaving the neighbor’s over there untouched. The monster didn’t choose its food; its wind-driven route determined which structure it ate and how many of them fed its hunger. The people from the hamlets, the villages, and the rural communities obeyed the orders to evacuate: San Ignacio, Las Dispensas, and Las Tusas first, followed by Rociada and Gascón, our closest vecinos in Tierra Monte several miles away, and us.
Only a handful of us remained in Cañoncito de las Manuelitas. We looked the red beast right in the face that day, and we knew we had misjudged. The dense, smothering smoke swooped down over us, forcing us to wear our Covid masks again. As dusk turned into midnight black, we fled in a caravan, surprised to see other residents down the road a few miles had also waited until they no longer could. We joined vehicles merging onto the highway, our line of headlights snaking down Nine Mile Hill to the nearest town, Las Vegas. Those beacons just ahead and closest behind guided us as we crept down the road. Even the red crowns of the tallest trees disappeared into the black of April 22, 2022.
A week later, the neighborhoods on the far west side of Las Vegas received the alert to evacuate. The beast had followed us, about four thousand evacuees in total, and now threatened close to thirteen thousand more New Mexican residents. Two colleges in the vicinity evacuated, and the town shuddered in fear that night. Days later, the erratic winds blew the gargantuan southwest toward San Geronimo and northeast toward the communities of Sapello and La Tewa. After another few days, more communities fled. Social media flooded with all manner of posts from photos to videos of flames people shot from their front yards. Glimpses of the red beast from many locations made the national newspapers.
As the now enormous monster terrorized so many communities, TV news reporters interviewed those who lost everything, and from their helicopters, cameras panned out to show the world how our landscape went from pastoral meadows and verdant mountain forestlands to miles of blackened, limbless trees standing like tall arrows pointed at the skies, the ground beneath a mix of gray ash and black soot. Homes, barns, and outbuildings which had been in families for decades turned into piles of rubble, many topped with the bent and curled-up tin which had been their roofs.
The red beast played a game of Russian roulette with the land, ingesting one section of forest and leaving another over the next hill alive, devouring an entire rural community while bypassing the one beside it. Like Death, the beast was indiscriminate. It felt no empathy for those whose lives it afflicted, feeding itself with their priceless treasures, heirlooms, and family inheritances. It bore no sympathy for the flora or the fauna it consumed.
Close to 80 days passed as the monster fed itself, terrorizing the people and the animals in its path. In early June, with over 341 thousand acres of destruction in its wake, it slowed in consumption. Some days it held in containment; other days it grew by several hundred acres. We hoped the end of the nightmare was close.
But we also knew it could revive in any location where hot spots remained, those smoldering trunks or burning utility poles, dense material not easily extinguished. The beast, even in pieces, could threaten us once more. It wasn’t likely to return over the already destroyed areas since it sought fuel to reanimate. Our forestlands were burned or badly singed, but our Cañoncito, the valley between the mountains, remained mostly intact the night the fire head swooped over us and left our vecinos in Tierra Monte with nothing. A shift of the winds could bring the flames back upon us. We prayed for the beast to become more subdued by the day until we could draw deep breaths and let the anxiety fall off our bodies. We longed for blue skies and days without rising plumes.
For the spirits of our dead, our Antepasados, the devastation proved too much. They, like their descendants, us Norteños, had maintained their faith that the army with its pumper trucks and bulldozers, hot shot crews and smoke jumpers on the ground, and the air tankers, scoopers, and choppers in the air would kill the beast and end its terror. Our dead heard our heartbreak over our inheritance—the ancestral lands and the cherished adobe houses they left us. They heard our combined prayers and succumbed to our despair. Our forefathers cried in the heavens, and the rains fell upon the red beast which had wreaked terror in the four directions and became the largest disaster in the Land of Enchantment.
The scientific theory meteorologists offered was that the monsoons came early in June of 2022. We Norteños know the truth. We, the victims of the ravenous monster, touched the hearts of our forefathers with our prayers and our tears of helplessness. We had done nothing to bring the beast down upon us. Nothing.
The same people who gave life to the monstrosity known forever more as the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon Fire now warned us we needed to steel ourselves for the next disaster: floods from the burn scars left in the wake of the beast. As though trying one last weapon to assault us, the beast did as predicted. The monsoons fell gentle and steady at first, not in downpours or cloudbursts. The Ancianos in the heavens cried with a quiet sympathy for us, their progeny, and our plight. The tears brought refreshment to the parched earth with a gentle touch.
Then the rains turned more fierce and the almost daily flooding ensued, and we knew our Antepasados’ hearts had broken. Their sorrows combined with ours as we watched what had survived the fires now succumbed to the destruction from the flood waters. The red beast had been vanquished after 144 days, but it took out its revenge long after it had breathed its first breath.
“This is the forest where my stories take place. The green growth is something we’ve never had before. The ground is gray from the ash, soot, and flood water debris.”
Photo and caption by Carmen Baca.
Carmen Baca taught high school and college for thirty-six years before retiring in 2014. Her 2017 debut novel, El Hermano was a New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards Finalist in 2018. Her third book, Cuentos del Cañón, received first place for short story fiction anthology from the same program in 2020. Her latest novel, Bella Collector of Cuentos, was published by Somos en escrito Literary Foundation Press in November 2022 (order a copy here). She has published five books and over fifty short works in online literary magazines and anthologies. She and her husband live a quiet country life in the mountains near Las Vegas, New Mexico, caring for their animals and any stray cat that happens to come by.
by Linda Zamora Lucero
Papa’s funeral, spring 2009. In the tiny chapel are my sister Ellie and her clan from Phoenix, my brother Tito, both of Tito’s ex-wives, and Papa’s best buddies—Montez leaning on his cane, Garcia in his wheelchair, reeking of cigar—both retired welders from Hunters Point shipyard. Papa radiated so much love even my newly ex-boyfriend Julián shows his face to pay final respects. Only Mama is missing. When Tito went to pick her up, she insisted she was too distraught to come. Great, I think, although I don’t believe it for a second. Sure enough, just as the service begins, she materializes in the middle of “Gracias a la vida” in a red coat and yellow hat with feathers.
“I don’t need help to sit down!” Mama says, slapping the usher’s hand away.
“You’re late,” I whisper, grudgingly making room for her in the pew. Dressed up for Papa, I’m wearing a fitted black dress with tiny hand-sewn turquoise flowers, a Oaxacan shawl, large hammered gold hoops, black hair pinned up.
“Hello, Raquel,” Mama says pleasantly, sitting on the fringe of my shawl. “Such beautiful music.” And she commences to hum along with the vocalist. Yanking the shawl loose, I close my eyes and pretend she isn’t there.
After the service, our family gathers at Tito’s house, where we wolf down plates of homemade chile verde, throw back shots of Herradura and recount the same cherished stories we always do whenever we get together. A favorite is how one Thanksgiving—this was before Mama abandoned us—we children were squabbling over the drumsticks—and Papa asked if he could just this once have some peace around the table. Seven-year-old Tito, thinking he was being real hilarious, smugly handed Papa the bowl of peas, whereupon Papa angrily slammed his fork on the table. We watched in horror as the fork slowly became airborne and cracked the kitchen window. We ate in chilly silence until the pumpkin pie with whipped cream made us boisterously happy again.
Tito says, “’Member?” We laugh at the timeworn anecdotes, fall silent with grief. At the ripe age of thirty-nine, Ellie gets up to dance, leading us in a raucous chorus of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Missing Papa’s delighted belly laugh at his youngest daughter’s antics, I suppress a shuddering sob. Ellie’s kids bickering over a toy feels like the saddest thing in the world. Tito brings Mama a cup of té manzanilla and fusses over her. She eyes the proceedings from a corner armchair, the feathered hat like some ridiculous canary atop her head. She’s on her best behavior.
Of course, it doesn’t last. Barely three weeks pass before the director of the Thirtieth Street Senior Center calls me at Galería Libertad, the community art center I direct, asking to meet with Mama’s family, meaning Tito and me, since Ellie is safely back in Phoenix. Thirtieth Street is where Mama eats lunch on weekdays, takes piano classes, and is an active member of Mr. Topper’s Mission Tappers, no tapper under seventy-five. Before he died, Papa spent his Saturdays playing poker at Thirtieth Street.
“I realize this is a difficult time, so I do apologize,” Mrs. Whitmark says, her lipstick pomegranate pink. She pauses, looks up through bifocals, and an all too familiar despair washes over me. To most people, Mama is an eccentric elder with a mind of her own. Some of us know otherwise. “Mrs. Flores is accusing people of stealing from her purse. Everyone is suspect—the other seniors, the janitors, the cooks, even myself. It’s quite upsetting. Your father helped calm her whenever she got this way, and now we need her family to step in.”
“Of course,” Tito says, nodding. “We’ll talk with her.” Tito is a machinist for the transit system. He’s completely overbearing, but somehow women find him fascinating. He’s been married twice with no children, while I can’t seem to find my match, romantically-speaking. Tito has no idea what I do at Galería Libertad. He teases me by introducing me to his friends as “my sister, the starving artist,” and he’s not far wrong. But in the Mission arts community, I have found friendship, love, sustenance. My home.
“Losing Dad hasn’t been easy for Mom,” Tito continues. I love my brother, but when it comes to Mama, he ticks me off.
“She’s crazy,” I say flatly, brushing a strand of hair from my eye. After Papa’s funeral I’d shorn my long hair into an asymmetrical what-I-hoped-was-stylish cut.
Tito shoots me a foul look. But crazy explained my mother who, one ordinary morning after Papa had gone to work, made us children breakfast and sent us off to school, then took a train back to her hometown in New Mexico. To stay.
Tito was ten; Ellie, six. I was twelve.
In the chaos that followed we all pitched in to help Papa with shopping, cooking and housekeeping. That was the easy part. After Mama left, Ellie suffered from debilitating headaches and Tito was suspended from school every other week for one thing or another. Papa began drinking heavily. There was no one to turn to. My parents had grown up in New Mexico, but we were born and raised in San Francisco in four rooms on Shotwell Street, miles away from kinfolk who gossiped about the neighbors, shushed children at weddings and offered solace when worlds shattered. I was raw with anger at Mama, praying that she’d return to us, declaring that she wouldn’t dare.
“Maybe,” my best friend Anna said, “she ran off with a lover.” Prone to dramatic flights of fancy, Anna with her black cat’s-eye glasses concocted wildly romantic stories about our favorite middle school teachers. Now she had one for my mother.
Maybe you can just shut up,” I said. A weak response, but heartfelt.
Crazy explained Mama’s sudden reappearance in San Francisco five years later. That was the first time a social worker told us Mama was “mentally and emotionally unstable.” But I knew he meant crazy, and for that I was grateful. It explained her crying jags, her periodic paranoia, her denials that she needed help, her refusal to take prescribed medication. Crazy summed it up.
In Mrs. Whitmark’s office, Tito loudly clears his throat and promises that he will get Mama to take her meds.
“Good luck,” I say, grabbing my daypack.
Tito is uncharacteristically silent as we leave Thirtieth Street, his broad, good-natured face splotchy. As soon as we reach my beat-up Toyota, he lets loose. “You were out of line, Rocky, calling Mom crazy! She’s our mother!”
Tito and Mama wrote each other regularly after she left. She worked in a café near Taos, and, as we found out later, had reconnected with a high school flame. I was horrified. Tito and Ellie visited her summers, but I refused. When Mama returned, my siblings were elated, being younger and obviously needier than I was. In the five years she’d been gone, I had become 100% Papa’s girl, Athena sprung from Zeus’s head, full grown and battle-ready. Papa never dissed her, but I held her responsible for his alcoholism, his melancholy, for all of us having had to answer endless questions from teachers, busybody neighbors, and shitty strangers who felt sorry for us. Because what’s more pitiful than motherless children in a strange land?
So when Tito says, “She’s our mother,” I say, “You’re entitled to your opinion, Tito. I have to go. We have an exhibit of Cuban posters opening in a week.”
“Weird haircut,” he snorts. He gets into his car and peels out, as if he were sixteen instead of forty-one. I burst out laughing as his Midnight Blue Chevy leaves fat skid marks on the asphalt.
The next time I see Tito, I’ll ask about his prize roses. We Flores don’t say Sorry, even when it’s called for, or a straight-out up-front I love you, even though we do. After an argument, when one of us asks about the weather, it means I’m over it. Dancing salsa after a backyard barbeque means I love my family, or I love the whole fucking world and everything in it. Things go unsaid for days, even years, the love, anger or sorrow pent up inside like a great accumulation of molten lava below surface, wanting release. It’s the Flores way.
Friday evening, I’m at home on the computer, writing wall text for the exhibit, half listening to Jeopardy. The category is “Shakespeare,” the answer is “Doubtful Dane.” My cell buzzes—Ellie in Phoenix. I ignore it. We used to watch Jeopardy, Papa and me. He admired Alex Trebek. Debonaire, brainy and not above showing it.
A contestant hits her buzzer and shouts “Who is Hamlet?”
On Ellie’s third call, I answer, muting the TV.
“Mom’s not answering her phone,” my sister says.
“I wasn’t answering my phone either,” I chuckle.
Ellie ignores me. “Mom was perfectly fine yesterday—Tito says she’s taking her meds, but now I’m worried.” Usually, Ellie asks about what’s happening at the Galería, or about my mostly pathetic, sometimes hilarious dating forays in the six months since I broke up with Julián. Not this time. “Have you seen Mom since the funeral?”
On television, Alex Trebek’s lips announce Final Jeopardy, inspiring looks of consternation in the contestants. The category is “San Antonio, Texas.”
“Remember the Alamo?” I ask Ellie, wishing she didn’t live so far away. I miss our sisterly heart-to-hearts over her homemade biscochitos and wine.
“Come on, Rocky, would you just get over there and check on how she’s doing? Tito’s in L.A. this week.”
I sigh loudly, meaning yes.
“Great! Love you!” she says, and hangs up. And the burden shifts to me.
Mama lives in the same paint-peeling, rent-controlled Edwardian flat we were raised in, located in the heart of the Mission—what the realtors gleefully call “a neighborhood in transition.” No doubt. Since 1492.
The door cracks open.
“Hi.” I slide my foot inside before Mama can decide whether or not she wants a visitor. “It's me, your daughter.”
“I know.” Hazel eyes peer up at me through huge red eyeglass frames. Mama is queen of her private little planet. She’s wearing a crimson apron with gold rickrack trim over a blue sweater shot with silver on top of a fuchsia dress. Purple leggings, lambswool slippers and a silver “Hottie” pendant complete the look.
We are nothing alike. Born in the history-rich Abiquiú, New Mexico, Mama grew up speaking Spanish but she looks like a gringa with pale skin, auburn hair, light eyes like a wary cat. I’m dark like Papa, and proud of it. His first language was also Spanish, but his maternal grandparents were Taos Pueblo. I dress in black: turtleneck, jeans, boots. I do rock the earrings, however; the showier, the better. Today’s earrings are humongous crimson Lucite hearts, a gift from a Oaxacan artist.
“What happened to your hair?” Mama says.
“Why don’t you answer your phone?” I counter.
The flat smells of Papa’s Tiger Balm and tobacco. I have to stop and catch my breath.
“What’s wrong with you, fighting with me already?” Mama looks down the street before closing the door. “I thought you were someone else.” Her tone sweetens. “How are you, anyway, Raquel?”
An ordinary question in an affectionately maternal voice, perfectly calculated to derail me. She does this every so often, and when she does, my heart flips like a kite in high wind, and I wonder what it would be like to have a real mother. Would we go to museums together? Would we shop for shoes, get our nails done? What do regular mothers and daughters do? The question slams into me whenever I run into girlfriends with moms, enjoying themselves. Mama hadn’t been there to help me buy my first bra or see me win first prize in a high school art contest. There was more I’d missed, things more profound. I just didn’t know what.
The hallway is piled with boxes.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“I called Goodwill, but they’ve gotten choosy…your father kept everything: clothes, magazines, rusty tools.”
A wave of fear hits me. “Goodwill? Where’s his brown suitcase?” Blood thunders in my ears. I catch a glimpse of myself in the hallway mirror. I look exactly the way I feel, bug-eyed and off-kilter.
“There’s more in the garage. Not interested in old junk. Old junk, old men, old ideas.” Mama laughs, apparently delighted with herself.
Old junk? “Please, please, don’t give anything away! I’ll get Tito to bring his pickup next weekend and we’ll take it all.”
She disappears into the front room where the furniture—sofa, coffee table, Papa’s La-Z-Boy—has been moved against the walls. She pulls aside the lace curtains on the bay windows and looks out to the quiet street. “The piano should be here by now.”
“Piano?” She doesn’t need a piano. Tito gave her an electric keyboard on one of her birthdays. It’s programmable, so that she can play tango, classical or her pop favorites. Papa would read his detective novels in his recliner, foot tapping while she plinked out Beatles tunes note by note.
I never understood why he took her back.
“Respect your mama,” Papa admonished me when I gave her attitude. “No matter what, she is your mother.” Respecting Papa, I shrugged. I was seventeen when she returned to Shotwell Street, my eyes were already focused on college and the wider world.
Turning from the window, Mama says, “Can I borrow ten dollars until Friday?”
I dig into my bag and hand her a ten and a twenty. “Just keep it.” I feel vaguely virtuous, giving her something without begrudging it.
“I said borrow, Raquel, and only ten until Friday when my social security arrives.” The folded bill disappears into her apron pocket.
“Whatever. I’ll have some water and then I’m out of here.” Running the faucet in the kitchen, I check for signs to report to Ellie. Cereal bowl in sink, oatmeal encrusted. Golden moth orchids I’d bought for Papa at the Alemany Farmer’s Market, shriveled and fallen onto the windowsill like exploded firecrackers. Portrait of the recently-elected President Obama. Wall calendar from La Palma Mexicatessen, inked Xs marking the days. Today is April 6. No X as yet.
Mama is right on my tail. “I pay my debts. I’m not like that Julián of yours. He still owes me money.”
Here we go.
“Jeeze. It was change for a parking meter.” I feel my temperature rise. “I’ll repay you! And you can forget Julián because Julián and I are not together!”
Papa’s eyes got cloudy as he aged, but not Mama’s. Her eyes are like new-minted dimes, bright with gotcha. “I don’t forget. Julián shouldn’t be borrowing from old ladies. I’m glad you’re rid of him. It’s better to be alone, Raquel. You’re smart, like me. The smartest of my children.”
I’m floored. Mama has never expressed the slightest interest in my life or anyone else’s for that matter. Although mortified by the comparison, I can’t help being flattered that she considers me the smartest.
“So,” I say, softening. “You’re renting a piano?”
Her arms fold defensively. “It was on sale.”
“You bought a piano?” Baffled, I pull out a chair and sit at the kitchen table.
“For my music lessons, Raquel.” Still standing, she bristles with nervous energy, her pendant flipped so that it reads “eittoH”.
“What about the keyboard Tito got you?”
“I need a real piano. Besides, Tito steals from me.”
Yup. Genial to eccentric to crazy at maximum velocity. The woman who brought me into this world is fundamentally incapable of being the mother I long for. I know this in my heart, in my brain, in my gut, in my very pores, and yet she gets me every time. I rise to tighten the dripping faucet, then turn to face her.
“Look, Tito’s here every weekend, and when he can’t, he calls to see how you’re doing,” I say, defending my brother. “Why do you give him such a hard time?” A better question is why am I trying to reason with her?
“You know damned well I can’t trust him.”
I take slow, deep yoga breaths. Do not engage. Do not engage. Mantra for Mama.
Outside, a vehicle rumbles to a stop. “It’s here!” she says. I follow as she rushes down to the sidewalk, patting her hair in the mirror on her way out. A deliveryman in a maroon jumpsuit strolls toward us from a double-parked delivery truck.
“Piano?” he asks me. He has sleepy eyes, a pencil-thin mustache, a clipboard.
“You’re late!” Mama says.
“Sorry, ma’am.” He tips his cap back. “I’m Jesse and that’s Murphy.” Murphy is pulling a ramp from the back of the vehicle. Mama ignores Jesse’s proffered hand.
“Where does it go?” he asks me.
I blink, smiling. “I’m just an innocent bystander.”
“Up here,” Mama interjects, leading us up the steps and into the living room.
“You ordered a Yamaha grand?” Jesse is finally addressing questions to the right person. “Ma'am, we get a nine-footer in here and you won’t have room to sit down and play.”
“There must be a mistake,” I say.
“I don’t need much room,” Mama says, shooting me a dark look. “Move, Raquel, you’re in the way.”
So be it, I think. I’ve always been in your way, we all have, Papa, Ellie, Tito. You could have continued therapy, taken the pills, and avoided the crises that your family—not that you recognize us as family—have had to rescue you from over the years. Selfish, selfish, selfish. I back myself against the hallway wall as the movers expertly rotate the piano to make the tight turns. Well, I’ve done my duty. My report to Ellie: Mama is alive. Mama is well. Mama is impossible.
“I’m coming back this weekend for Papa’s stuff,” I say, “and will you please answer your telephone? Because Ellie and Tito worry about you.”
As I take off, I hear Mama telling the deliverymen, “There’s ten dollars for you when you’re done.”
On Sunday Tito is wearing his annoying “I’m just a regular vato from the barrio” get-up—Ben Davis work pants and his “Stay Brown” t-shirt from the San Jose Flea Market. We’re both wearing Giants caps. The sun is out, there’s a game this afternoon. I’m anxious to get back to the Galería where volunteers are painting the walls.
“We’re here for Papa’s things,” I say, when Mama comes to the door. She is channeling Cher today: red tunic, shaggy vest, ankle boots. Gray wisps escape a blue-sequined beret the size of a small pizza. “God, open a window! Aren’t you hot?”
“Leave me be, Raquel. You know I’m always freezing,” she says. “I'll make coffee now that you're here, Tito.”
My brother is definitely her favorite child. There are times I believe he is the only person in the world who can get through to Mama, but when I really think about it, I shake my head, No. Because after his visits she accuses him of stealing and she cries. Always.
“Momskh!” Tito says, draping his beefy arm around her shoulder, “Where’s the pianoskh?”
Mama’s eyes light up. Tito has invented this Russian-esque language just for her.
“Who told youskh?” she giggles, leading us to the living room.
Tito halts theatrically in the doorway, throws his hands up in wide-eyed astonishment, “Whoa! That’s some piano!”
The piano is impressive, gleaming ebony, padded leather bench tucked underneath, filling the room like one of those clipper ships crammed inside a tiny glass bottle.
“What do you think?” Mama is giddy.
“What do I think?” Tito bellows. “What do I think? Takes up a lot of space!”
Somehow this is the right answer. Mama practically squeals with pleasure. If there were room she’d be pirouetting around the piano.
“It's ridiculous,” I say, addressing Tito. “If she needs a so-called ‘real’ piano, which I doubt, a used upright makes more sense.” Tito’s look tells me to can it. “This is a piano for professionals,” I emphasize, unable to help myself. I’m the director of a community arts center. I believe that everyone has the capacity to make art, to enjoy a creative life. This is my work, yet I can’t manage to extend this value to Mama. I feel like a miserable imposter.
“I love it,” Mama says, defiantly.
“Play us something, Mom!” Tito doesn’t have to ask twice. Mama climbs onto the bench and sorts through dog-eared sheet music. She begins playing “De Colores” and Tito, leaning over her shoulder to read the lyrics, sings with her. Both are seriously off-key.
I escape, taking the kitchen stairs down to the backyard where weeds are suffocating Papa’s tomato plants, and enter the garage from the side door. Underneath the floorboards, the caterwauling is mercifully muted. Papa sold his car awhile back, so the garage is now storage space. I wade through boxes and furniture before I find what I’m looking for: Papa’s brown leather suitcase. Wrenching it free, I wipe the cobwebs with an old t-shirt and sit cross-legged on a box, my heart at peace. The tarnished metal fasteners make a satisfying pop.
Lifting the lid, the faintest scent of tobacco in the yellow silk lining sweeps me back to another time. It must have been fall. The living room windows were dripping condensation. Mama had been gone a year. I was still crying myself to sleep.
Papa set the suitcase on the coffee table. “Let’s see what we have here,” he said, a cigarette in one hand, a can of beer nearby. His hair was still coal-black, but he was starting to get a paunch. He’d drag out the suitcase now and then, often during the holidays, to show us his treasures—a jumble of photographs and souvenirs—a pretext for his stories of back home.
That day it was only me sitting by his side on the worn sofa. I reached for a sepia-tone studio portrait of an elegant native woman in a 1940s fur coat. “Who’s this?” I knew the story by heart, but I never tired of his stories of wicked uncles and chain-smoking grandmas, homesteads and adobes, farmers and dressmakers, sheepherders and coal miners, pueblos and penitentes, trains, abductions, adoptions, fires: tales of love, tragedy and survival reaching back across generations to New Mexico Territory and beyond.
“My first cousin Josie, on my mother’s side. She had a tailoring shop in Santa Fe. She was a sharp cookie, married and widowed three times, the last husband a Navajo. She liked them young but it didn’t matter. They still died on her.” We chuckled.
I pulled up an unfamiliar snapshot of a couple picnicking on a blanket at Ocean Beach, the Cliff House in the hazy distance. “And this one?”
A shadow crossed Papa’s face. With a sinking heart I recognized my youthful parents in a happier time. Silence flooded the room. Papa’s thoughts seemed to alight on something not in the picture, the ashes on his cigarette trembled. Finally, he smiled, seemingly chagrined by his thoughts.
I switched the photo for one of Papa as a boy and his older sister posing in front of a Ferris wheel.
“I wished I’d known Auntie Rose,” I said. Papa never returned to New Mexico after he and Mama moved to San Francisco—his immediate relatives had moved away or died by then. If there were other reasons, he never shared them.
“You remind me of Rose, mi’ja,” he said. “Sparky as hell.”
Besides photos, there is a ledger of the early 1900s written in Spanish and English, discharge papers, faded postcards from distant relations we children never knew, yellowed newspaper obits, a ruby ring won in a poker game, a ring neither ruby nor gold.
This is what I came to rescue from Goodwill. My father’s life in a suitcase—all we have left of him besides his stories etched into our memories, tales that kept our family tethered to our history, to this land, to each other.
I secure the suitcase, one snap at a time, and haul it up the back stairs to the living room where Tito and Mama are hammering out “That’s Amore.”
Tito insists on getting burritos and a six-pack for lunch. We dine on the kitchen table of our childhood, while Tito tells us about his new lady friend, a teacher. Mama tracks his every word, the better to throw in his face one day. Tito is oblivious.
Someone in the building has the game on, radio turned full blast. “The bases are loaded with two men out! Herrrrrre’s the pitch!” When we were kids, listening to the Giants with Papa was the best. Halting in the midst of whatever we were doing—peeling potatoes or washing the car—to visualize the players at the ballpark, we held our breaths, waiting to hear Jon Miller yell, “The ball is up, up…it’s out of here!” My spirits lift remembering how we’d yell and high five each other. Then the heaviness in my chest returns.
I claim the suitcase when it’s time to go. The rest of Papa’s things will go into Tito’s garage until Ellie can come out to help sort it all. On the sidewalk, Tito stretches and grins. “Mom’s doing okay,” he says. “We’ll just have to check in on her more often.”
“Do you know what a piano like that costs?”
Tito’s smile vanishes. “Don’t worry about it, Rocky, I got it covered.”
“She can’t wait to get rid of his stuff.”
“You can’t know how anybody feels except for your own damn self.” Tito’s voice is hard. “Mom does the best she can. You’re past forty. Is this who you want to be? We grew up with her too. And what’s with that haircut?”
Glaring at my brother, I slam the trunk lid closed and get into my car. Wiping away tears, I turn onto Valencia Street, glad to be heading to the Galería. Three signal lights later, I realize I’ve forgotten my Giants cap and make a U-turn in the middle of the street. On Bartlett I drive by two little girls playing hopscotch on the chalked sidewalk like Ellie and I used to do, and pull up in front of the Lermas’ building that has a For Sale sign. Sal is sitting on the stoop, drinking beer and listening to oldies on KPOO.
“Hey Rocky. Sorry about your father,” Sal says, as I exit the car. “We lost a good man.”
“Thank you.” I’ve known the Lermas since forever and wonder whether they’ve found a place to move to. Before I can ask, I’m distracted by the faint sound of music coming from Mama’s flat. I climb her stairs and peer through the open bay window, past the lace curtains, where she sits half-hidden behind the big, lacquered instrument. Her fingers strike the keys as she squints through her enormous, red-framed glasses at the sheet music, her voice tentative.
“Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you…”
The playing is measured and precise. The voice not so much, even as it picks up tempo and exuberance.
“Sweet dreams that leave all worries far behind you…”
I take a breath as my heart unexpectedly catches on a surging memory of Mama sitting on my bed when I was a girl, singing me to sleep. Cozy in pajamas, bed covers pulled up to my chin, lulled by her voice, drowsy. Back when she was still my Mama.
“And in your dreams, whatever they be…” Mama warbles with joyful enthusiasm.
The afternoon’s heat has eased. Rising above the ambient sounds of the street—a plane overhead, a skateboarder rolling past—is my mother’s voice falling in and out of tune like a kid learning to ride a two-wheeler. Mama in her blue-sequined beret is swaying, creased fingers moving over the black and white keys of the piano, focused on the task, determined like all of us to catch beauty in this precarious life. The sound of the music awakens a raw tenderness in me, if only for the moment. Brushing unexpected tears from my eyes, I sink onto Mama’s front steps to listen.
Linda Zamora Lucero is writing a collection of short stories set in San Francisco’s multicultural Mission District where she was born and raised. She identifies as Chicana, and attended Mission High School, City College of San Francisco and SFSU. Her published short stories are: “ZigZag,” LatineLit Magazine, 2022; “Speak to Me of Love,” first prize winner, DeMarinis Short Story Contest, Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, 2021; “When It Rains,” Yellow Medicine Review, 2020 Pushcart nominee; “Mexican Hat,” Puro Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century 2020 Anthology; “Balmy Alley Forever,” Yellow Medicine Review, 2016; and “Take the Money and Run–1968,” Bilingual Review, 2015. Lucero's day job is directing the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, an admission-free outdoor performing arts series in San Francisco.
Mrs. Reed’s Christmas Tree
by José Antonio López
In addition to sharing our early Texas history with others through my Rio Grande Guardian online newspaper articles, I also wrote about growing up in El Barrio Azteca in Laredo, TX, such as the example below, first published on December 24, 2013. It describes the time when I first learned of the special Gift of Giving during the Christmas season, and whose message still applies today. Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas (Feliz Navidad) 2022.
For most people, childhood Christmas memories serve as imaginary gold nuggets treasured for a lifetime.
One of these gems is also my earliest recollection of when I first learned the true meaning of Christmas giving.
It was 1953; I was about nine years old and in Third Grade at Central School in Laredo, Texas. Mrs. Reed was my teacher. Authoritative, yet warm and friendly, Mrs. Reed was a classic elementary school teacher. Effective and practical in her no-nonsense approach to teaching, she constantly challenged us to learn. In her classroom, “Eyes and ears on the teacher” was the rule.
A few days before the Christmas holidays vacation, she would purchase a small Christmas tree and placed it in the middle of one of the classroom work tables. She also bought the tinsel and garland. Then, each student in class was asked to donate one ornament. They could either make it in class or bring one from home. Trimming the tree was an extra treat for us students. As a reward for good behavior, she allowed us to help her adorn the tree, which was done a little each day. By the time we had our class Christmas Party on the last day of school, the tree was finished. Not all teachers went the extra mile. So, after lunch on that special Friday, teachers formed a line outside our classroom and brought their students to view and admire our creation.
Barrio El Azteca was mostly poor blue-collar. Most of our neighbors were hard-working day-labor folks and migrants. They arose before day-break and returned home at nightfall; dead tired after their day at a building site in town or working at one of the area’s ranches and farms. The next day, they did it all over again. Their pay was dismal; and employment for day laborers was erratic. Knowing that Christmas trees were a luxury in some children’s homes, Mrs. Reed responded with her own style of kindness. During the last day of school, she put all our names in a bag. She then asked a fellow teacher to pick a name from the bag. The student whose name was drawn won the Christmas tree.
More than anything that particular Christmas, I prayed that I would be the lucky winner. Having overheard my parents a few days earlier, I knew money was tight in our monthly budget. It seemed that they might not be able to buy a Christmas tree for us that year. That’s not to say that our house wouldn’t be decorated for the season. Mother always did a great job decorating our home with very limited resources. Too, the center point inside the house was a small Nativity set in the living room. Yet, the spot reserved for the tree was empty.
So, it was with great anticipation that I welcomed the last day of school before our Christmas break. The Christmas Party was well underway that afternoon, when all of a sudden, I heard my name called. I couldn’t believe it. I had won the prize. When the dismissal bell rang, I asked Bernardo, a classmate, to assist me in carrying it home. He agreed.
Mrs. Reed helped us remove some of the breakable ornaments and she put them in a small box. As soon as we reached the outside of the school building, every step of the way became difficult. First, we had to maneuver a steep stairway in front of the school entry. In one arm, Bernardo carried our notebooks and in the other, the small box with the ornaments. I carried the tree still sporting the tinsel and garland. Second, balancing the tree upright in front of me, my view was very limited. Walking on the unpaved, gravel, street was tricky. So I walked on level ground, avoiding any large rocks that might make me fall. A slight wind was blowing and small bits of tinsel were dropping off the tree, marking our way. We were a sight to behold!
Our house was about six blocks from Central School. Bernardo’s house was half-way to mine. So, before we knew it, we had already walked the three blocks to his home. I placed the tree on the ground and waited for him to drop off his school books and tell his mom he was helping me get home. After a moment, his mother walked out to admire the tree and went back inside. It was then that I realized Bernardo’s home didn’t have a Christmas tree.
Suddenly, a hard-to-explain powerful feeling overcame me. I asked Bernardo to open his front door. Before he had a chance to ask why, I carried the tree inside and placed it by the front window. Hearing the commotion, his mother walked out of the kitchen and I asked her if she would like to keep the tree. She was stunned, and began to weep. She gave me a big hug, nodded “yes”, and thanked me. Then, I helped Bernardo put the ornaments back on the tree. It immediately brightened up the room. As I left, the two of them were quietly standing admiring their beautiful Christmas tree.
When I got home, other kids had told my mother of my winning Mrs. Reed’s Christmas tree. As soon as I entered our home, Mother asked me where it was. When I told her what had happened on my way home, she began to cry just like Bernardo’s mom. Mother gave me my second big hug of the day. She then called Dad at work and told him what I had done. My father, a stern man of few words, but possessing a big heart himself, approved of my charity. That evening, he returned from work with a Christmas tree strapped to the top of his car.
In summary, I tell this story to focus on the plight of today’s needy. Having lived the experience, I am in a position to say that poor people don’t enjoy being poor. Nor are they lazy. That is why they don’t deserve the unkind treatment they receive almost daily from politicians and some news commentators. The fact is the poor are in a never-ending struggle to improve their quality of life. They only ask for a compassionate helping hand to grab onto the next rung in the ladder of success. This Christmas let’s all be part of the solution by helping them do it.
José “Joe” Antonio López was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and is a US Air Force veteran. He now lives in Universal City, Texas. Joe is the author of several books. His latest is Preserving Early Texas History (Essays of an Eighth-Generation South Texan), Volume 2. Lopez is also the founder of the Tejano Learning Center, LLC, and www.tejanosunidos.org, a website dedicated to Spanish Mexican people and events in U.S. history that are mostly overlooked in mainstream history books.
An excerpt from Latina/o Social Ethics