Artie Finds The Right One—For Someone Else by Tommy Villalobos
I was sitting in my favorite easy chair, rocking back and forth to some firme rolas, thinking about the Dodgers, my next meal and the llantas my ’64 Chevy Impala needed. I looked over to Tío Juan who was sitting on the hardest chair in the house and in the same room, which is our sala. I share it with the old bato who helps pay la renta. I knew he saved a lot of money, only spending a lot of feria for books. In fact, he was reading one, lost in some thought from some writer who lived back before gente had TV, laptops and iPhones. Half the people now living would go crazy if they had to live only with those three toys. Me? I’m Old School. As long as I have my ranfla, the Dodgers on radio, Oldies, and decent menudo now and then, I’m happier than any one of them.
Tío Juan’s iPhone let out a few notes of classical music by some guy wearing a wig wrote before anyone could stop him. Tío Juan made a face because he was being taken away from his book just when he was going to make a juicy mental note, it looked like. When he said “Hello,” a voice roared from the tiny box that told me it was my Tía Rosa who talked as if she was trying to summon her dead marido, the first one, del otro lado. The viejo jumped like some malvado lit a cuete under his silla. His book flew out of his wrinkled copper-colored manos like a spooked gallina. The libro, a thick one, landed at my feet making a loud noise.
“It’s your Tía Rosa,” he said all serious as he walked over to hand me his phone and retrieved his fat book.
“Hello Tía,” I said, sounding all happy. She promised to leave me her ‘39 Packard. She hadn’t driven it since her viejo Richard died, the Indio from Washington State with the genio of a wart hog. The carrucha had under 40,000 miles. No dents or scratches. The clock even worked.
“You sound triste,” she shot back and I moved my ear the standard six inches when talking to the Mejicana bullhorn.
I had to think since I wanted to make her feel happy so she would call me her favorite sobrino y gordito.
“No, no, I feel happy like it’s your birthday.”
“Gordo, I want you to do something for me.”
There was a pause. I thought she would then follow through like always with her rapid fire of words like so many balas.
“Well?” the tía vieja then said. I guess she wanted some kind of reaction from me.
“Uh, what is it?” As much as I wanted to be there for her and live up to her expectations, her idea of favors tested my ‘tude.
“You don’t sound too enthusiastic for someone in line to inherit my rancho in El Monte and my 1939 Packard.”
“I’m trying to hold my ganas so I can talk.”
“I’ll do the talking. My brother Fulgencio’s son Candelario from El Paso is crazy over some muchacha. He is lavishing her with money he doesn’t have, buying her this and that. He’s up to his usual tonterías.”
“I say leave well enough alone in El Paso. They take care of their gente, we take care of ours in East Los.”
“Listen fat head. That other fat head, the flaco, isn’t in El Paso.”
“That, too, is your brother’s problem. Did he run down to Mexico?”
“I should disown you and then put out a contract on you, that’s what I should do. No, if you would listen, maybe you too can put your life together. That other sobrino without any common sense is in L.A.”
“Why?” My stomach began to churn the enchiladas Tío Juan made for dinner. He is the best cook in our familia although not officially a member but an honorary hanger-on. Showed up one day looking for yard work and sort of grew on me like a grano. But that’s for another story.
“For love. Or what his distorted thinking calls love. He fell for some muchacha in El Paso and proposed to her.”
“Yes, he collects these females like others collect botes.”
“It seems like he falls in love once a month. Like a novia-of-the-month club.”
“So now you can see why your Tío Fulgencio is concerned about his only hijo. Candy will spend all kinds of dough on her only to see it broken off by him and/or her.”
Candy was the family name for Candelario. I never thought it fit him since even as a chamaco, he had a sour look on his face like he was weaned on a pickle. I guess he eventually rearranged his face in order so he could hit on all these girls.
“Someone should remind him of all the other females he has gone through,” I said.
“His father did.”
“What did the loco say?”
“This is the one.”
“He said that with the first one, what’s her name?”
“Christina. She turned out to be married and went crying back to her husband from whom she was separated from for over two years.”
“Candy has that effect on women,” I said.
“So, I want you to track him down there in L.A. and pal around with him. Make him see he has no business chasing a woman in show biz.”
“Yes, she has aspirations of getting onto the stage or movies. I hear she is a looker.”
“I don’t see how I can help?”
“I do!” she said with a slam of the phone, a Chicana force unequaled by man or beast. I stood there, wondering what her next move would be.
“Did your Tía slam the phone on you again?” said Tío Juan from his silla.
“How can you tell?”
“The agitated look on your face, chubby cheeks and all. Did she say she was charging over like a mama bear after a biologist innocently swatting at butterfly specimens near her cub?”
“She didn’t get into that much detail. But that is usually her modus operandi. She’ll be rudely rushing into the house without a hello and a lot of do-this-and-do-that’s.”
“You better pull up the drawbridge because she can walk through walls by knocking them down if she is agüitada.”
“You can tell her that you have a bad muela that is dark, rotten and painful.”
“Even then, she will make my life very dark, very rotten and very painful.”
“What is she asking of you?”
“Part of my life.”
“She needs a transplant? One of your kidneys?”
“I’d take that over what she is demanding. She don’t ask. She wants me to babysit her nephew Candelario who, I hate to say, is also my primo.”
“Doesn’t he pass the time away in El Paso proposing to every other muchacha?”
“That was my reaction, a logical one. But you know Tía Rosa.”
“Like the bottom of my chanclas. How many names did she call you before she explained?”
“Just a few choice ones. She seemed in a hurry. Candelario is in L.A. chasing some loquita who thinks she is the next Eva Longoria. And, of course, he wants to marry her.”
“Why does your aunt care whom he marries. She don’t seem to care whom you marry, her favorite punching bag.”
“She says I got no worries. Women don’t like gordos who sit around listening to the radio, eating nonstop and letting out smelly pedos.”
“Your aunt is direct with you, isn’t she?”
“Yeah, but she wants me to be thin, happily casado.”
“Those are two demands for the ages.”
“Here’s the problem Tío Juan. I can’t stand being around the bato.”
“I knew you’d ask that.”
“For every action, there is a reason.”
“Yeah, you read all those books.”
“Actually, I got that from a fortune cookie at the Eternal Garden Chinese place on Soto near First. They went out of business soon after. No one cried. With good reason, like that cookie said. Their food was bound to kill their business if they didn’t kill a customer first.”
“I don’t like the way Candelario chews food, talks about himself and his love life nonstop, and sings those songs he claims he writes. Well, he can’t sing and he can’t write songs. And he always has something to say about the way I live, how much I eat and how much time I waste riding around and hopping my ranfla.”
“And he has the short list. Your Tía could give him the official list.”
“How come you’re always giving me patadas? You should be telling me stuff from all those books you always have your nose in. You know, how Aristotle, Casanova and them handled cosas.”
“I apply them and other minds I have absorbed in libraries and cantinas to your daily gripes. I guess you weren’t aware of that.”
“What do you say about the payaso Candelario?”
“An interesting case study.”
There was a pause. I was heaving as I inhaled and exhaled.
“Well, what should I do?” I said. “Should me and some homies jump him and FedEx him back to Tejas?”
“I take it you are trying hard at a chiste.”
“Your Tía Rosa would disown you, not to mention your other tías. They work as a team during a crisis. Like a herd of elefantes protecting a valuable water hole during a draught in the Serengeti.”
“Then tell me the way.”
“That is for another counseling. I will make a suggestion regarding your current pickle after I have my Té de Canela.”
“Yeah, get that egghead of yours on the problem.”
I went outside to sit in my ranfla. I knew Tío Juan would think of something with that oblong head of his once he had his canela. He has saved me from all kinds of trouble, including girls, money, bills, stomach aches, headaches, plumbing, neighbors, and, of course, my tías who can be pushy.
I went back inside like I needed to get something important. I walked past him and he didn’t stop his musing, ignoring me like I was a passing mosca on a hustle.
I went back to my Impala to play some firme rollas, the background music to my vida. The first rolla that came on was “You’re No Good” by Betty Everett. I took it personally. Felt like she was singing to me and no one else. I could see her dedo touching my nose, making me cross-eyed right there in my driveway.
I was in that pickle Tío Juan talked about. I saw no way out. My Tía Rosa had heard my standard excuses, several times. I had used a dolor in every part of my body. And every part of my ranfla. I was lucky to be living with a man like Tío Juan who had the mind of a master criminal. He always found a way to cheat fate. I’d bet Candelario’s right leg he would find a way.
I fell asleep. Then I heard a knock on the window as “Workin’ On A Groovy Thing” by Patti Drew was playing. Tío Juan was signaling me with his arms flailing sideways. Someday I have to tell him the signal for lowering a car window is down.
I rolled down the window but then he again waved his hands in that sideway motion. I guess he now wanted me to lower the music. I also have to tell him that he has to point to the music with one hand and make a downward motion con la otra.
When I shut off the music, he cleared his garganta with a lot of noise I didn’t think could come out of the human cuerpo. He didn’t say anything so I gave him my So? mirada.
“I thought of something. Actually, it’s multiple choice with all the answers being right.”
Then came another pause. I gave him another So? mirada, this time punctuated with my hands raised to face level and to both sides of my head, palms up. He studied my gesture for a few moments, like he found the gesture amusing. I guess that’s what happens when your only entertainment is libros.
“Here’s the deal. Listen up.”
I waited this time, poker faced. He studied my face for a bit then spoke.
“You can introduce him to someone more feasible.”
“He would find any jaina feasible.”
“Not a problem. Your aunt is also his aunt and would probably find any girl too good for him.”
“You’re right. Tía Rosa is funny.”
“Hilarious. Okay, the second option is to introduce him to a decoy.”
“Like a pato?”
“No, too risky. He is not beyond proposing to a duck, wooden or otherwise. I mean, a real good looking female with even odds and ends of intelligence who he would propose to on first sight.”
“Heck with him. I’d keep her for myself.”
“That’s the problem I see here. You have as many character defects as Candelario and any other bato with hanging tongue in the 7.47 square miles that is East Los. And there are over 125,000 folks trotting around those square miles. A whole bunch of those guys like you and Candelario, guys getting wide-eyed and tongue dripping at the sight of any beauty who smiles momentarily at you, even by accident.”
I calculated that 125,000 was two fair-sized Dodger crowds. Tío Juan had slipped silently away and back into the house while I was calculating.
The following morning, Tía Rosa was at the foot of my bed as I opened my eyes. She was like a fantasma lleno do corajes. Before I could say, “What The Fudge!” she started to evaluate my life.
“You’re going to sleep right through your existence.”
I looked at the clock on the rickety nightstand near my pillow. It said quarter to six.
“Who let you in?” I said.
“That skinny viejo.”
Tío Juan rarely slept past 5 a.m. He had his morning tea and one scrambled egg burrito, chewing serenely at the kitchen table.
“Oh, yeah,” I said.
“I have a plan. Join me in the sala when you get dressed and brush your teeth. You know I don’t like bad breath.”
She left with a slam of my bedroom door. Where is the privacy in East L.A., I said to himself. I dressed quickly and brushed my teeth even quicker, knowing my Tía to have no patience when anyone made her wait. I guess she always had to feel like the most important person in a room.
I headed for the kitchen in search of coffee, but like a mama grizzly annoyed by a mocking visitor to Yellowstone, she growled then waved a paw toward a chair opposite where she was holding court. I responded submissively by sitting right away where she had pointed to.
She stared at me as if I was a chunk of questionable pancita de res she was going to toss into a pot of menudo.
“Candelario is a tonto. The only thing that keeps him fed is his good looks. His family doesn’t have the money to sponsor his viajes of tonterías. But they are proud and want us to lasso him and send him back to El Paso. When he first texted his family, they were happy. He said he finally met a girl they would love, too. He followed that with more texts. The last one said that she was going to be a movie star and was dancing to support herself. He knew that they would understand.
“Well, they didn’t. They called me and told me they were sure she was a stripper in some barrio who knows where. Do they have strippers around here, Gordo?”
“I heard they might,” I said, trying to sound like I didn’t know.
She looked at me as if to say, Mentiroso.
“I’ll bet Tío Juan knows a few,” she said.
“Only if they have an exceptional reading room,” Tío Juan said as he had silently appeared, as usual, like a gato sneaking up on a ratón. He sat in a corner, stirring his tea, observing me since Tía Rosa had her back to him. She kept talking to me like he had been Hip-Hop coming from a passing car.
“From what the familia put together from his jumbled text, much like his mumbled speech, is that the girl’s name is Latina Destiny. At least her stage name. They’ve yet to hear her Tejas name. According to Candelario, she does something called a Banana Split on a pole. What that name means, I don’t want to know. He went on in his text to say that she had them all loco at Mr. Zapp’s. Who she or Señor Zapp is I never want to find out.”
For a person who knows everything, I found it hard to believe she didn’t want to know those things, too.
“It’s messed up, huh?” I said.
“More than that, payaso. He would be the shame of all the familia, both sides of the frontera.”
“Every family has one of those. We just have to take hold of our chones and still walk proud.”
“No seas ridículo, Arturo.”
“Tía, I remember hearing that Tío Fulgencio met his wife Claudia in Nogales, Mexico. He was stationed across the border at an Army base. She was a singer in a nightclub. So Candelario might have his father’s DNA and is attracted to women on stage. He can’t help it. His father grabbed his and took her home to El Paso. The familia worked on her and she became a domesticated Mejicana stirring frijoles on the stove. You could never tell she sang and moved her hips for a living. Mejicanas go with the flow since that one who whispered in Cortez’ ear and helped him jump our people.”
“What are you driveling about, Gordo?”
“Our history according to Tío Juan. He knows all that stuff about our gente going way back.”
“Well, right now we’re talking current affairs. And you are part of it. So, open up those oversized ears of yours. You will come to the aid of your primo.”
“It may be a family disorder or whatever it’s called. Maybe his chavalos in the future will be chasing and marrying ruckas like this Latina Destiny. We shouldn’t try to stop it.”
“The only disorder I see, Artie, is in your thinking. Wiggling around on stage while yodeling doesn’t make a good match for a man. Do I need to whack you on your chaveta to bring you back to the problem facing the family? This is a family crisis and you’re going to find Candelario and steer him to what is right.”
“Why do you even ask? You are too difficult, Arturo. What about familia? Your sangre. You are too flojo to accomplish something meaningful en esta vida. You should jump for joy to help stop Candelario from bringing shame on the family for generations to come. You will find your primo. Besides, you used to be pals when growing up. You are the only one on both sides of the family who has nothing to do but ride around in that jalopy and hang around with cholos on Whittier Boulevard.”
“My car is not a jalopy. It’s a classic bomba. And my friends are not cholos. Not full time, anyway. And I listen to the Dodgers on the radio. Good, clean fun.”
“My point. You’re just sitting around that radio, getting fat eating and doing nothing else. Besides, I’m asking you to do this as a favor from a person that can determine your future way down the line.”
I know she was telling me that if I didn’t go along peacefully, she would show me what a malvada she could be by messing up my life forever. Her eyes focused on me like a spider she was about to swat with a wave of her chancla. She reminded me of La Llorona on a bad day.
“So you will jump on this right away, right, Artie?”
I thought quickly.
Tía Rosa left like a drill sergeant, confident her orders would be followed. I almost saluted the rucka.
I looked over to Tío Juan who had his nose in a book like always.
“Tío Juan, we have to find Candelario and tell him what’s what.”
“Might have to slap him around some,” he said while slowly turning a page.
“I will text him and tell him to meet me on the corner of Sunset and Vine, like in the movies.”
L.A. can be confusing and if some bato gives you an address, even with GPS, it ain’t easy. And I didn’t have GPS.
I did receive his address in a text on Tío Juan’s phone from Tía Rosa. It was a bungalow on a residential street on the edge of Hollywood. I rang the doorbell, knocked on the door and pleaded with Candelario to open the door because I wanted to save his life. He didn’t come to the door and it sounded like no one ever would.
It was a letdown. I was in a strange part of L.A. and Candelario was nowhere to nail. Walking around, away from my ranfla, I couldn’t think smoothly. My Impala and me are a team, like a charro and his horse. I didn’t know where to go. I started to walk around and something told me to go to the front bungalow. There a sign said Manager, Knock First and I guess the same thing in a list of words below that in four other languages. I rang the doorbell not once but four times. Out of habit, I thought I’d see a Chicano brown face and had to step back when the pinkest dude I had ever seen opened the door. He was also one of the skinniest dudes I’d ever seen. He was tall and looked down on me as if I was an abandoned perro.
He grunted something. I said, “Huh?” He cleared his throat and said, “What you need?” in some accent from somewhere. I told him and he brought me up to date regarding my person of interest, Candelario.
He laid out Candelario’s schedule as if he had planned it himself. He said Candelario was like a trained something—I couldn’t make out the word—and did everything at the same time every day. It was a long schedule the bony bato had memorized. I remembered that he got home at six, stayed for an hour then went out. After that, he said he got back to his bungalow at all hours, sometimes after midnight.
The streets around here were full of fast cars and people walking like they were going to meet someone with lots of money. The buses were packed with Raza going to work in Westside restaurants and homes, working from morning till night.
I felt a strange new respect for My Gente as they travelled from East Los, Maywood, Downey, and other lugares miles away to provide for their familias. I couldn’t wait to get back to Tío Juan to see what his take was on all this. He always has something to say about everything I see and do.
Then something hit me like an electrical shock I once got when I plugged in a lámpara while I was desnudo and wet. I felt like Dios himself was smiling down on me and everything around me. Why? Because I was safely miles away from Tía Rosa, the big mandona.
Back to Candelario. Reminds me like when you’re looking for something and you start getting mad at everything and everybody but yourself. It’s like Tío Juan looking for his iPhone, he doesn’t find it until someone calls him. Could be days. I was hoping for something quicker in my search. Seeing the fine jainas walking and driving around, I didn’t care if I ever found Candelario, but then I saw the bato walking in front of me at a red light.
I honked but he kept walking and bouncing as if he heard music no one else did. And he did. He had ear buds on. I pulled over in a red zone, the only spot nearby that was open and saw him bouncing down the boulevard like he was rengo since, like I said, he couldn’t dance. I then saw him go into an office. It took me about ten minutes to find parking a block away. I half walked and half ran toward that office.
I tried the door but it was locked. I called out his name. The name on the door said Alphonso Bolinso, Agent For New Talent. From the other side of the puerta, I heard all kinds of voices, some in Spanish, some in English and one in some language that I never heard in the barrio.
I pounded on the door. Appearing in a small window was a face I didn’t like but had to look at. It was Candelario. My suerte was kicking in, the good kind for a change.
He unlocked the door after several turns, the last one sounding like an industrial strength bolt lock. “Artie, what do you want? How’d you get here? Did you make a wrong turn and finally make it out of East L.A.?”
“I went to where you lived and the manager and all those other things gave me your schedule. I didn’t remember most of it and I didn’t expect to see you hustling across a street.”
“I gave him that schedule but I really don’t have one.”
“Well, people around here are all nosey and want to know what you’re up to. Like they’re ready to call the cops. You feel like you’re being watched all the time from behind windows and from rooftops. And I have more reasons, ese. I might tell you later. No, I’ll tell you now, Artie. I fell for a girl. It was like Canelo hit me with his left hook. She is the finest jaina in any barrio you can name.”
The loquito looked at me like a bato who has just lost his mind, a hideous smile on his face, waiting for me to give him un abrazo. I had to tell him all he was telling me was already family chisme flying around Texas, and that I was sent by our Tía Rosa to slap him back to his senses.
So, I didn’t hug him or anything, but just gave him the standard Órale.
“Thanks, you’re true Raza from way back,” he said. “I may be jumping the gun, pero I think it will turn out right. Come in. I’ll give you all the happy details.”
“What are you doing here? It looks like a dump.”
“It’s part of the deal. Let me tell you how it is.”
He opened the door and I followed. There were people packed into the room like when you go to a firme party in the Hood. But these people didn’t look like they knew how to have any fun. They talked all serious. They were talking and talking, not even paying attention that I was watching them, like they were all high on a new droga going around.
Candelario saw my face, probably looking all confused so he gave me some details.
“Performers of all kinds,” he said, “waiting to see Alphonso Bolinso. It’s summer so clubs need people with even a little talent to sell drinks and demand a big cover charge. Summer is Christmas to club entertainers. All over this city, as June sets in, standups stand up, blood gushes in the veins of dancers, and hypnotists make their eyes big to make people believe they are dogs barking in a junkyard. It’s time to book your act and people are paying tribute to the legendary Bolinso.”
“What’s all this have to do with you, a flojo from El Paso?”
“Plenty. If you see a skinny bato who looks homeless come from that office, jump him because that will be Alphonso. The more money he makes, the more he dresses like he don’t have any. Years ago, they said he was mugged because of his flashy dress. If you do corner Alphonso, he might not remember me.”
“You said you’d tell me about some deal that brought you here.”
“Okay, man, I got into—”
Suddenly, Candelario’s eyes opened as if he just saw a twenty waving at him. He jumped and sprang at this frumpy-looking dude with hair shooting here and there. Candelario got to him before the others even turned their heads. The singers, dancers, standup comics, piano players and comedy teams had the look of defeat as they saw Candelario get into the face of Alphonso Bolinso as if he wanted to kiss him. Alphonso turned and Candelario followed closely as they walked by me.
Mr. Bolinso lit a cigar, sat then looked at us like he wanted to throw us back into the streets. “Let me tell you something Candel” he said. “And listen.” Candelario sat, then put a fist under his chin as if to signal he was hanging on every syllable. Mr. Bolinso studied Candelario for a few seconds then shot an imaginary basketball at an imaginary hoop.
“Let me tell you,” he then spoke again. “I saw you do your act as I promised La Destiny. You got a hint of talent here and there. You got a long way to go but you are on the road. I can get you into a club if you accept seventy-five per cent. I don’t have to offer you even that but the young lady kept texting me. It’s yours for the taking. Do I hear a ‘sure I’ll take it’?”
“You sure do, I accept,” he said in the deepest voice I ever hear come out of the bato.
Outside on the sidewalk, Candelario laughed all crazy and waved a hand for a high-five. I waved a hand sin ganas.
“Oh, yeah. I was saying when Alphonso came out that L.D.’s mother used to be in entertainment. She was from back in the old days but I think I heard of her somewhere from somebody. She sang but also danced. Muy sexy. I met her and I could see she must have been fine when she was young. But she says I don’t sing and then added that it doesn’t look like I do anything. She told Destiny that I didn’t look like I could support her for a week. Said no to our joining hands like she meant business.
“You remember how great I sing and write songs, so Destiny got hold of the sloppy viejo Bolinso and got him to say he would spare me a few of his precious moments and put me somewhere if I showed him. She can make him listen. He then said he would get back to me. Well, today, I made him get back to me. You heard him. I get to keep seventy-five per cent of what I make and he will find a place for me to sing.”
“He’s taking a lot,” I said, “but that’s better than the IRS if you win the Lotto.”
I felt weak at the knees. I could see Tía Rosa’s cara when she heard Fulgencio’s hijo was not only still chasing the loose woman but also was going to get on stage, too. Tía Rosa felt nothing came before familia, not even someone’s happiness, including mine. She’s always telling me that our family tree goes way back on both sides of the border and that we had all kinds of history that had important people doing all kinds of things everywhere. She tells me in detail but she talks so fast that I can’t remember everything. She tells me when I do something to make her agüitada so that’s why she says the family stuff so fast. What she would say when she heard this breaking news, I don’t even want to think about.
“Let’s go back to East Los, Candelario,” I said. “Tío Juan can fix us some comida to make you think right. I could eat a dozen of his tacos right now. And hold on while I call somebody.” I walked a few feet away.
I knew at the start that Tía Rosa shouldn’t have picked me to get this tonto away from someone he wanted to marry. I needed backup. I thought of Tía Rosa herself but that was like asking for problemas on top of all the current ones. I thought things out and thought I would text Candelario’s father and tell him he needed to show up as fast as he could.
“Who were you texting?” asked Candelario when we got to my car.
“Just Tío Juan to find out what he was preparing for cena,” I said. ֍ On the following Tuesday, Candelario appeared at a Mexican restaurant in Pasadena that had singing on a stage right next to where people ate, which was risky for the restaurant. He had practiced in his bathroom with a neighbor banging the wall after two hours. I drove around with the ventanas all the way up so he could let out his lungs. I was encouraging him, which encouraged me since he sounded worse with every mile. I wanted his first gig to be such a relaje that he would never again try to inflict his singing on anyone; and that would end his chances of being Latina Destiny’s marido. So, I stepped to one side.
But the bato was determined. On Saturday and Sunday, we almost lived in my Impala as I drove around while he sang all kinds of songs, all out of tune. He had a special CD with just the background music of songs I never heard of. The bato never got tired. It was like he would die if he stopped singing.
Candelario makes a strange noise with his tongue, then a stranger noise with his garganta and starts:
“There’s a streetcar at the corner.” CANDELARIO with a deep voice: “Why?” CANDELARIO in a high voice: “To take me to my destiny.” CANDELARIO with the deep voice: “To your destiny?" CANDELARIO with the high voice (staying with his goal): “To take me to my destiny.” CANDELARIO with the deep voice (not believing him): “No kidding?” CANDELARIO with the high voice: “I’m from the stars.” CANDELARIO with the deep voice: “I’m from Eagle Pass.”
He repeated those words over and over. I told him ya trucha, I’m going to drop you off on the corner. But the bato said this is what performers do, even in opera. This would get him Destiny. I said he needed all the getting he could get. And then the bato said to me, “So you have my back, ese!” And he sang on.
He then switched to some song about lovebirds. He told me that that was a song Destiny sang at a Hollywood club. It was like he was telling me a miracle performed by a saint.
No lie, but the restaurant expected Candelario to be there in time to start crooning at 12 noon for the lunch crowd. I said they had to be delusional since he was still snoring at that hour, but Candelario said if he was to eat while in L.A. he had to be there. I was nodding like what he said really made sense, until he made it plain that I was supposed to be there with him. I had expected just to go to his bungalow at night to see him all sad because he had bombed. But I never let a homie down. So, I had to drop plans to go to a Mexican restaurant I found on Cesar Chavez Avenue that has better corn tortillas than even Tío Juan’s. I followed Candelario, instead. They were playing soft instrumental Rancheras over an intercom for atmosphere, I guess. I sat down. It wasn’t much of a lunch crowd that ate in the atmosphere, which seemed to trigger yawns from one table to the next. I didn’t know if it was the bland décor, the food or the music. I was just going to order a taco till Candelario came on. I joined the yawns of some guy who looked like he’d rather be eating a hot dog with plenty of mustard as he forced an enchilada into his boca and down his throat. It was then that I noticed an hermosa for the ages sitting at the next table.
Órale. I don’t like lying. When I came in, I saw an hermosa sitting at a table, so I went a de volada to the one next to it. I began to check her out like I was shopping for hydros to put in my Impala. I wanted the lugar to have better lights so I could appreciate her curves and finish. She was small, with big Chicana eyes and the reddest lips I have ever seen. It was a wasted work of art that was sitting in the dark.
Then the lighting got better, and the speaker system began to blast a tune which sounded like I’d heard many times before, which I had. Then Candelario came out in a maroon coat down to his knees, pegged black pantalones tucked into high-top calcos, his chaveta topped by a burgundy Fedora hat with a white feather that nearly reached the ceiling or so it seemed to me. He bumped into a chair on stage, turned maroon himself and began to sing that destiny song.
It was messed up. The pobre loquito got scared that his voice came and went. Mostly went. He sounded like a bad cell phone connection going in and out.
I got relaxed. I saw that he was not going to be around that Destiny girl after today. I felt bad for the pobre, but it now looked like things were looking up. Nobody’s gonna pay good money or any money to see Candelario drive customers into the streets. This would be “one night only” appearance. He would have to sell chicle in the street. The vieja would say, “Lárgate and don’t think about my hija ever again.” And if things go like they’re supposed to, I could see me pushing Candelario into a Greyhound bus with the destination “El Paso Express” then getting an abrazo from Tía Rosa and then the keys to her ’39 Packard. Then I saw myself cruisin’ down Whittier Boulevard with all eyes wide, and fine jainas wanting a ride.
He finished his song sin ganas and dragged himself away with deafening silence, como dicen. I was hoping to see him sneak over to me, but he stepped onto the stage again.
I think I heard a gasp from a few people eating and that was with comida in their bocas. He started singing. I expected beer bottles and salsa to start flying. It was a normal song about walking under stars with a rucka by some river with a name that wasn’t the L.A. River, with some other words, pero Candelario sang it like it was about somebody dying and soon, leaving an esposa and all kinds of chavalos. Halfway through the song, I wanted to jump on the stage and hug the skinny tonto. It was like everything was messed up and nobody could do anything about it.
He got to a romantic part, then it got weird. The girl at the next table got up from her chair, stepped back, spreading her arms and began to join him. I say, “joined him,” but it really didn’t go down like that because as soon as she started Candelario stopped as if he was clotheslined.
I never felt so let down since I was born. I wanted to raise the collar of my Pendleton and lowride on my silla. It felt like everyone was checking me out.
All embarrassed and hunched in my chair, I saw Candelario. He looked different. He was standing there with an attitude. The chavala was singing pretty good, and it seemed to make Candelario stand straighter with a serious look. When she got to some words, he jumped in, and they sang the song like Johnnie and Joe. He left the stage like he was popular. The few people around told him to come back, and only quit when they piped in some girl singer like Arianna Grande or Lady Gaga.
I looked over to the girl but she had disappeared from my life like other girls. I sat up and made the walk toward Candelario behind a curtain. He was sitting on crate full of beer, looking like he just saw the Virgen.
“Isn’t she special, Artie,” he said like he was talking about the Virgen. “I didn’t think she’d be around. She has to dance this week somewhere in Montebello, so I think she will get there barely in time for her afternoon performance. She risked it all just to come and see me. She’s my special angel, Artie. My savior. If she wasn’t here, it would have been a disaster. I got rattled, I couldn’t think. I will make it through the next show easy.”
I was happy I had texted his father. He would come in handy. I was losing my grip on things. ֍ The following semana, I saw Candelario and got to meet the chavala. I also shook hands with her mother, a mean looking Mejicana of the old school. She had a real chingona look. She made sure I knew her name was “Mrs. Sanlego.” Then Candelario’s father rode into town. My Tío Fulgencio is the classiest old bato in the familia. He doesn’t have Tía Rosa’s tongue but neither does anyone else. Still, since I was a chamaco, Tío Fulgencio made me feel I was taking in too much oxygen that could better be used by moscas. He doesn’t mess with me like Tía Rosa, especially since he lives in Tejas and has his hands full with Candelario. The way they bother me is different. Tía Rosa blames all problems in the barrio and surrounding calles on me, while Tío Fulgencio just likes to blame me for being me.
I know for sure Tío Fulgencio sang Rancheras here and there years ago. He likes the stage himself. He couldn’t sing. So, it’s in Candelario’s blood to be on stage without a reason.
Tío Fulgencio is one bossy dude, always telling people to go here, do that and don’t do that. Even other people’s kids, which causes him problems in public. But he looks like a boss of something, no matter where he goes. At Walmart, they always mistake him for the manager even when he’s loading cerveza onto his cart. Still, like I said, I heard he was singing Rancheras and Norteño/Conjunto years ago in bars. They say he played the accordion sometimes but not good.
I can imagine a lot of things but I can’t see Tío Fulgencio singing anything in any bar.
I prepped for a long abrazo but he backed off as if I was the Diablo wanting his soul.
“What are you up to, Arturo? Why did you text me like someone was dying?”
“It’s complicated,” I said, “and goes on and on. Con permiso, I’ll tell you in slow, easy parts like a telenovela. Let me take you on a quick trip to a club in Montebello.”
The muchacha Latina Destiny was going on her second week at The Flyers club in Montebello. She was that good. And she just sang three songs while she danced around. And by dance, I mean she got a big workout matched by the men’s eyes and lungs. Her outfits and music selection were both thin. Tío Fulgencio just stared like he was watching a magic show up to the moment she dashed off the stage to whistles and howls.
“Han pasado muchos años desde que canté con mi grupo.”
That’s all he said even though he continued to stare at the stage as if he were watching himself in some kind of spooky flashback. The pariente was making me nervous.
Some dude then came out and asked everyone to give Latina Destiny a big applause, which they did along with the whistles and howls.
“What do you think, Tío?” I said.
He just went on staring.
“Muchos años. Did you say something, Arturo?”
“You saw her. Tell me what you think of her.”
“Who? Oh, the Destiny girl.”
“Yes. The muchacha your muchacho is engaged to marry.”
He looked away like he had to take in the news slowly, wearing a serious face. Like always.
The muchacha came out for more whistles and howls and she heard them with a big smile. The men wanted her to shake some more. Finally, she wiggled off stage and I looked at Tío Fulgencio again.
“What do you think?” I said.
“She can sing. And dance, although I don’t like the way she dances but she has the moves.”
“Okay, Tío, let me take you a few miles from here on the other side of East Los.”
I drove him in my ranfla to the restaurant where Candelario was going to get me in good with Tía Rosa after I got him back to El Paso. I could already see the `39 Convertible Coup Packard in my driveway. As soon as we sat down at a table, the bato came out.
“Next to solve your problem,” I said, “Candelario.”
I didn’t know what the uncle from El Paso was going to do, but what he did confused me—he just sat there, not saying anything. He sat there like a stuffed tío staring at Candelario as he went on about love and all its confusion. I was feeling for the old bato because it had to be a jolt shot through his cuerpo to see his only hijo in a red shirt and purple pants, but it was best he got the details of the problem with his own eyes. I didn’t want to explain to him what was happening to his son’s life and with just words and without living proof. With just words, he would just think that Candelario was marrying someone somewhere for whatever reason.
When Candelario shuffled out I couldn’t believe my ears. Candelario was sounding better. He found a singing voice from somewhere and was showing it off like a fine woman. It was like when he went to Garfield High and was wailing, “Let’s take a trip down Whittier Boulevard” over and over on top of the Garfield High School sign. How he got up there and back down is an East Los mystery to this día. He was using the same fuerza now.
After Candelario left the stage, my Tío sat squeezed into his seat like he was sitting between two fat borrachos. He then looked at me with narrow eyes like I was trying to trick him.
“¿Qué está pasando, Arturo?”
He said it in a low voice like juicy chisme, but it sounded like a threat of cachetadas if I didn’t give him the right answer.
“He got into show biz,” I said in a low voice, “porque, he wants to do what her mother wants him to do. He can’t marry her unless he does something on stage. Maybe you could talk to the woman. She’s old school with an attitude to match. She is more reason why you should crash this whole party. After you talk to him, I can lowride back to the Hood and let you take further action.
The Mother and daughter were living in a part of West L.A. in an apartment building that looked expensive but once you get to their little space in that building, you see it would be just survival space in East L.A. and with minimal rent. Here, they were paying way more than minimal anything. The madre answered the door and seeing me, she let us in, my Tío hidden behind my wide body. We only saw her back as she pointed to two wooden chairs in the middle of the room.
“Nice to meet up with you again, Mrs. Sanlego,” I said all convinced I was nearing the end of my journey. She turned at last and I heard a choking racket from behind me, like my Tío had a chicken bone atorado in his throat.
“¡Carmelita!” Tío Fulgencio said, then making a sound like air being let out of a llanta. He leaned on me like he was drowning.
The Sanlego woman stared at him, then she squealed and her arms went up like Fourth of July Fireworks.
“¡Fulgencio! You are Fulgencio, aren’t you?” she said as if she might be wrong.
But Tío Fulgencio himself looked like he was almost ready to cry. They hugged like they were never going to part again.
I need some kind of legal notice to deal with stuff like this. The look on Tío’s face made me feel like I was seeing him in some kind of altered state like you see in movies. The horror kind. He didn’t look like the all-knowing Tío Fulgencio who never said anything funny, never laughed. He was smiling and acting like a bato on a first date. I don’t mean no disrespect, but the old bato was riendo, like, for no reason. The Señora Sanlego, who always looked like she was ready to pull greñas, was now acting like a chavalita on Christmas morning.
“¡Querido Fulgencio! I never thought I would see you again!”
“I thought you never left El Paso for anything.”
I didn’t know what was going on, but I felt left out of something.
“My Tío wants to tell you something, Señora Sanlego.”
“I knew it was you right away, Carmelita!”
“Ya hace muchos años since I was around you, hombre, and you look the same.”
“¡Hay, Carmelita! ¡Soy un viejo!”
“¿Why are you way over here? I guess”—Señora Sanlego’s smile disappeared—“¿tu esposa está contigo?”
“She died years ago, Carmelita.”
Señora Sanlego looked at the suelo. “You should have stuck to your own kind, Fulgencio. I don’t want to talk about the pobre who is dead, you know her name, I forget it, pero it would have been better if you had gone after a singer. I still remember you made muchachas cry when you let out a grito then sang, ‘Me cansé de rogarle, que yo sin ella de pena muero...’”
“Qué guapa te veías Carmelita vestida, como una charra,” Tío said like he was choking again. “Do you remember the zapateados you did on the stage? I used to say that you did the sexiest zapateados in all of Tejas.”
“I wouldn’t even try now. Dios mío, Fulgencio, you knocked them out when you were on stage, even the bien borrachos,” said Señora Sanlego in the saddest voice I ever heard in a Mejicana, since my abuelita’s on Arizona Avenue who was always saying that the world was pitiful and was ending, which she repeated daily.
“Te acuerdas Carmelita how we let them have it at the feria in Luling? The Watermelon Thump Festival? I had to sing most of the songs in English, making up lyrics to keep people’s attention. I think even Mejicanos there didn’t speak Spanish too good.”
“We were happy.”
“Tell me Carmelita, how come you left Tejas?”
“I wanted to watch over my mija Dolores, make sure she is safe. But I shouldn’t worry. She is a strong girl. I heard through the chisme network that your son ran off chasing a girl. Then I heard through more chisme that my girl Dolores ran off to L.A. to act. Then I heard through even more chisme that you followed your son here because he was in L.A. I lied when I asked about your wife. I knew you were single. I had hoped you would look me up but when that never happened, I saw my chance to run into you here.”
Tío Fulgencio was looking at her as if he was looking at someone he had never seen before. The viejo still looks pretty good. I could see the dude when he was younger would have made jainas of his time lick their chops, grab their chones and check their hair. I saw uglier batos with good looking chavalas. I figured they had the feria to do that. Tío has that wavy gray hair, trimmed mustache, just as gray, and the right wrinkles to make him look distinguished, like women say they like. And maybe with a few bucks in his pockets they can feel for.
“You mean you had the hots for me, like I did for you?” he said.
“Por supuesto. Why do you think I let you sing most of the Ranchera and Norteño tunes? I was always around the stage even when I wasn’t doing any dancing or singing just to be near you. ¿Recuerdas how I often had a bag of pan dulce for you after a show? And I always bought extra puerquitos because I found out they were your favoritos.”
“And remember when I gave you my half of a burrito at the San Antonio Fair when we only had enough money for one. We performed there but they didn’t pay us right away.”
“And don’t forget the Tlayudas I made you from my family recipe from Oaxaca. Do you think I just did that because you looked hungry? I was working on your estómago until that hip-shaking chavala took you from right under my clay comal. That’s why I wouldn’t let Dolores marry a joven called Candelario, till he went on stage somewhere, anywhere. She’s a rising star—”
“Estoy en acuerdo, Carmelita. She has what it takes.”
“You mean, you saw her somewhere?”
“At the place in Montebello. Gordo there (pointing to me like a witness identifying the alleged criminal), I mean Arturo, drove me there. But if he loves her, Carmelita, you should let him love her. He is singing now just for her.”
“Mija tells me he sings at a restaurant that’s not very good with just a few people clapping for him.”
“We went through that, Carmelita, remember? We sang at a bar with only two pool players who never looked up from their game then there was pedo between them and they both got tossed. After that, we had no audience. So, don’t make Candelario feel like a pestoso. I can understand you feeling like your mija is going to marry an obstacle—”
“How come you want this Candelario sinvergüenza, to go after Dolores?”
“He’s my hijo.”
“¿No?” she said, sounding like a gato someone was choking.
“Así es, Carmelita. I just heard him sing. ¡Carmelita, me dio mucho gusto! He has what it takes. It was meant to be. He’s my son and could one day be singing the old Rancheras. He’s been a cabrón up to now. I really worked hard, almost breaking my back on some jobs. I did it so I had money to invest in him, so he could become something. I wanted to be an example to him. The hours were long and the sudor was constant. I had to eat right, cut out the cerveza, or at least drink less of it, and I was afraid to lose it on a job and be laid up for good. I did it for him so he would work hard, seeing how good we lived, but I, myself, really wanted to be singing on stages everywhere. That’s where I belonged.”
Señora Carmelita, not a spring chicken, leaped at him and fell into his arms like he had just won the lotería.
“Let’s get back together, like it’s supposed to be!” she whimpered. “Your esposa is buried and gone, your hijo might have some talent. Dolores’s father left one day and never came back. Return to me! Too many years have been wasted, so I am ready to jump back on stages donde sea. I still want to be with you like before as if no time has gone by. Like we’re still young and reckless. We belong singing and bailando together till we reach our sunsets.”
Tío Fulgencio made a weird noise with his throat or nose, I couldn’t tell which one, then stared at her.
He whispered something that wasn’t her name but something in Spanish that sounded like a pet name.
“Estás aquí, muchacho,” said the rucka like a girl. “You returned to me after all these years!...You are here. I’m not going to let you wander off this time!”
He fell forward and they fell into another major abrazo. I’m not sure if he was ready to faint or he just lunged at her because he got all worked up. “Ay, Carmelita, mi Carmelita, sweet Carmelita! Squeeze me tight. Tighter. Let me watch over you from now on.”
I moved slowly toward the door and snuck out. I felt funny. I can deal with a lot of things, but this was different. It was at another level. I walked like a buzzed bato to my ranfla.
Candelario called me at home while I was eating Tío Juan’s specialty, Pozole de Guajolote. Candelario sounded like he was now Number One on the Billboard’s Hot 10.
“Artie,” he said, “I’m going to be a big star.”
“We all feel that way, sometimes,” I said, and looked at a text message that had arrived ten minutes before from Tía Rosa. I had been reading it then re-reading it since it arrived.
“Destiny and me got to her apartment tonight. Guess who we found there? Apá! He was holding hands with Señora Sanlego.”
“Simón. They were sitting close.”
“He is going to marry her.”
“I’m going to marry Destiny.”
“No surprise there either.”
“Artie, foo, I feel like un hombre reborn. The fates are working overtime. Apá is twenty years older than her. He and Señora Sanlego want to get back together to sing and dance like they used to, even going all over Texas again with their act.”
I stopped chewing.
“Candy, ese,” I swallowed then said, “lemme think. I need my space. I think my brain is shorting.”
“Sorry, man. So, you are now going to lowride into the sunset?”
I looked down at Tía Rosa’s text.
He hung up and I read the text again.
“What have you done? I should go see you.” And she added a skull emoji that made me sit up, all three-hundred pounds of me.
I grabbed a Squeeze Ball in the shape of an aguacate Tío Juan bought me on his last trip to Tijuana, knowing I hate aguacates because I can’t eat them. They give me chorro. I then texted back. I didn’t know what I was going to say but the words came. Maybe that has happened to you, I don’t know. “No,” I texted, “don’t move. Everyone here is singing their cabezas off.”
Tommy Villalobos was born in East L.A. and also raised there. He thinks of the lugar daily and love the memories while remembering the tragedies of his neighbors and of his madre. Tommy’s mother had a great sense of humor and he inherited about ten per cent of it. She had a quick wit and response to all verbal attacks, whether to herself personally or to her Catholic religion that she loved. Tommy dedicates all his works to her, knowing she had him when she had no idea how she was going to feed him and his four siblings. She was a single mom until the day she died. He lives in a boring suburb now, outside of Sacramento, but his heart and soul will always be in East Los Angeles where his mother was always by his side to protect me.
Stylized photo of zoot suit styles of 1940s and 1950s, from the Internet
Joaquín Murrieta is Free!
By Alberto Ramirez
The broadcasting xylophone chimes of KHJ-FM sounded over the Philco, table-top radio in the Leyva family parlor and brought Señora Leyva from the kitchen with soup ladle in hand. She fiddled with the radio station dial, tuned out the static, and turned up the volume. The announcer, in a booming, chipper, sing-song cadence, welcomed his listeners. “Greetings, Angelenos! Soon, The Adventures of Arnie Guff, Master of Disguises, but first the news—brought to you by Spielman’s Appliances, proudly serving Los Angeles since 1902, located on the corner of State and First Street, in the heart of Boyle Heights. Sailors and young zoot suiters clashed again last night, this time outside of the Aragon Ballroom in Venice Beach. Ten Mexican youths, all armed with crude weapons, were routed and stripped of their garish suits by Uncle Sam’s fighting men, then promptly arrested by police and hauled off to the Los Angeles Hall of Justice. These latest arrests come after service men declared war on zoot-suit gangs who have been preying on innocent citizens on the East Side of the city. According to authorities the street battles represent an increasingly serious State-wide juvenile delinquency problem. The L.A. City Council has proposed a resolution that would ban the wearing of zoot suits in public. In other news . . .” “¿Oíste Turi?” said Señora Leyva. “Dijo el señor que es peligroso salir esta noche.” Arturo “Turi” Leyva—tall, dark and dimpled faced—stood proudly in front of the parlor mirror, combing a gob of Pomade into his thick, black, handsome head of curly hair. “It’s fine amá,” he said. “No te preocupes. I’m just taking Rosie up to the Orpheum to catch a show. We won’t be out too late.” “¡Ay Turi! Tú aquí y tu hermano Martín en la guerra. ¡Ya no puedo!” “The war is the war, amá ,” he said. “I’m sure Martín’s ok. He said so in his last letter home.” Turi brushed lint from the broad shoulders of his brand new, pin-striped drape jacket, ran a hand the length of his pleated, balloon-legged trousers and wolf whistled long and low. “¡Firme!” he said. Señora Leyva—diminutive, yet physically overbearing in her matriarchal serge smock—pushed up on Turi’s heels and whispered omens in his ear. “Dijo el señor que tu traje es ilegal.” Turi ran the plastic comb from the crown of his feathery, jet black pompadour to the tip of his perfectly tapered duck-tail. “I worked hard for the money to buy this suit,” he said. “I look good in it. That ain’t illegal.” He always wanted a suit like this, ever since he saw Prince Edward, the Duke of Windsor himself, wearing a fancy long coat in Life Magazine, shaking Adolf Hitler’s hand a few years before the War began. Never mind the war-time rationing of fabric and the accusations of being Un-American. Was he to blame for the German invasion of Poland? Was it his fault that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor? Did the Allied victory really hang in the balance of a few extra yards of worsted wool? He deserved a suit like that and so he worked overtime at the Pan-Pacific Fisheries, the tuna cannery on Terminal Island, for piece-work pay, saved his money for six months and paid Tiburcio the Tailor of East L.A. $20 cash for a first-rate, bespoke Zoot Suit. And what a suit it was! It made him feel like a real American. “Cámbiate, mijo,” his mother pleaded. “I’m not changing, amá,” he said, defiantly. “This is me.” Señora Leyva circled around and stood in front of Turi, blocked the mirror to get his undivided attention, and looked him square in the eyes. “Bueno,” she said lovingly, “tú sabrás. Te vez muy guapo. Pero por el amor de Dios ten cuidado mijo.” “I’ll be careful,” he promised. She saw him off on the porch, made the sign of the cross over him—as if she were sending a second son off to war—kissed him on the cheek, and watched over him as he strolled up Orme Avenue into the night. Back inside, in the family parlor, Señora Leyva tuned the radio to her favorite program—Everything for the Boys—to hear the latest news about the War and the American servicemen stationed overseas. Weeping softly into a plush red scarf, she lit a rose-scented, Virgen de Guadalupe votive candle for her two sons, for the one here on the home front in Boyle Heights and for the other across the Atlantic Ocean, on the front lines in Germany. She prayed the rosary: “Padre nuestro, que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre...” Turi caught a Yellow Car—the P-Line going downtown—on the corner of Whittier Boulevard. The conductor welcomed him aboard, tipped his cap, rang the bell and put the streetcar into motion. It lurched forward, gliding along smoothly on steel wheels, the cool, jasmine fragranced night air blowing in through the open windows. The coach was empty, the long, cylindrical tube with its silver and green interior shining by a row of flying saucer lights. Turi made his way to the back and slumped down in a seat by the rear exit door. He sat there thinking of nothing in particular and everything all at once, as one does while sitting alone in the back of a streetcar: the people all abuzz on the boulevard going out on this warm, springtime night, to the jazz clubs and the Mexican restaurants, to the cafés and the cinema to see Casablanca, A Guy Named Joe and Destination Tokyo. His best girl Rosie. A bonafide bombshell, as fine as any pin-up girl. Plump, ruby lips, high cheekbones, button-nose, sparkling brown eyes and perfectly done-up platinum blond Victory Rolls. What a doll! His big brother Marty the fighting GI. And the War. When would it be over? When would the god damn Axis call it quits? When would they let Martín take the big boat home? The Yellow Car came to a screeching halt on South Boyle Avenue to let on a passenger, a skinny Mexican-American kid who dropped the fare into the slot and came sidling coolly down the aisle. “¿Qué te pasa, calabaza?” said the kid, making his way to the rear. “¡Nada nada, pinche Chavala!” said Turi. Baby-faced Jimmy Lara, a kid two years Turi’s junior at Roosevelt High School, strolled into the light, combing his princely, Teddy boy hair. “¿Y tu mamá ?” said Jimmy. “She actually let you out of the house? ¿Y eso? Ain’t it passed your bedtime mija?” Turi socked him playfully on the arm. “Don't flinch, don't foul, hit the line hard!” “Ok,” said Jimmy, plopping down on a seat. “Ya, Rough Rider!” “Pues no mames güey!” Jimmy looked Turi up and down, admiring his brand new suit. “Nice drapes carnal,” he said. “Where’ya steal ’em?” “Bucho’s in East Los.” “I’m gonna buy me a traje like that someday.” “Pues stop flubbing the dub and get a job, Jimbo.” Jimmy gawped wistfully at the zoot suit, at the beautiful stitch work, the perfectly tapered trousers, hemmed just so, and the fine, double-breasted jacket that looked like it belonged to a well-to-do Anglo-American, to someone famous, a movie star, Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart. Looking down at his own plain white, button-down shirt and his old, brown corduroy pants, he turned abruptly and spat out the trolley window. “Entonces que, Jimbo,” said Turi. “¿Qué onda?” “Oh what? You didn’t hear?” “Hear what?” Jimmy made a sound like a car getting a flat tire. “Pues Uncle Sammy’s Sailors, that’s what. Están bien encabronados. They’re turning up like pinche fire ants from the Naval Reserve Armory over in Chavez Ravine, cruising into the barrio, looking for a fight. It’s war.” “I heard it on the radio.” “¿Si ya sabes, pa qué te digo? Anyways, I’m going downtown, see if I can’t get into a bronca, have myself some fun. ¿Y tu?” “I’m meeting Rosie at the Orpheum. Going to see a show.” The streetcar conductor glanced in the rear-view mirror. “You boys really shouldn’t be out tonight,” he said. “It’s going to get hot out there. Those sailors ain’t messing around. I saw them beat a Mexican kid on Central Avenue last night. Poor kid was busted up pretty bad.” “¡Chale!” said Jimmy. “Those pinche gringos ain’t even from around here. El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles is my town!” “Damn right,” said Turi. “¡No, hombre! Next thing you know they’ll be locking us up in el bote, too, like they did my neighbor Kenji y su pobre familia.” “¿A poco?” said Turi, agasp. “Yup. Took him right out of 2nd period math class, then went down to his house on Soto Street to round up the other Okamuras.” “¿Así nomás?” “Así nomás. No crimes committed, no trials, no convictions, no nada. Straight to Owens Valley.” Jimmy whistled chirpily and made a fluttery gesture to show how quickly they’d been taken and that they likely wouldn’t be coming home. “¿Oye, y el Johnny Schmitz?” “¡No, hombre! ¡Ese pinche, blue-eyed güero! ¿Que tú crees? They left him sitting muy tranquillo at his desk in Mr. White’s 4th period mechanical engineering class. Hasta le dieron milk y cookies al güey.” “¡Chinga su madre!” “Y sus antepasados también.” They sat quietly, thoughtfully looking out at the city lights as the Yellow Car chugged across the Los Angeles River over the Sixth Street Bridge. It was a lovely city, especially at night, despite the news of the day. As they passed the steel arch mid-section of the bridge Turi pointed out the window, gawking slack-jawed as if he’d seen La Llorona on the riverbank. “Look!” he said. Jimmy turned in time to see—painted on a broad steel girder in big, white letters—a declaration of independence. Joaquín Murrieta is Free! Neither had a clue as to what it meant, but both felt their spirts suddenly lifted. An inexplicable rush of joy like captive eagles sprung from cages. Pachucos with wings soaring over the sacred City of Los Angeles, high above the madness and the mortal fray and thoughts of incarcerated neighbors. “Next stop South Broadway!” called the conductor, ringing the bell. The Yellow Car coasted to a gradual stop and Turi and Jimmy came down reluctantly from that other place beyond the clouds, the stars and the dream of freedom. “Is this your stop?” asked Turi. “Nah,” said Jimmy. “I’m getting off at the Orpheum.” “Pues órale.” The streetcar turned south and proceeded along Broadway for three city blocks until the Orpheum Theater appeared along the streetscape through the row of trolley windows—a red and green neon beacon in the night. A Beaux Arts palace shining by a row of swiveling Hollywood searchlights. The marquee was all aglow, the black letters boasting the act for the evening.
Count Basie and His Famous Orchestra! Shows at 7:30pm and 10:30pm
“You boys be careful out there,” said the conductor. “Órale Steve-O!” said Jimmy, giving him a friendly pat on the back. They got off the Yellow Car and stood curbside, watching the streetcar glide smoothly into the heart of the Broadway Theater District, clanging its bell, kicking up a crumpled, day-old newspaper into the air. There was a long line in front of the Orpheum Theater that trailed off around the block, mostly white kids from the suburbs and a few servicemen. Turi spotted Rosie right away. She was standing at the front of the line by the theater entrance, wearing the dress he’d bought for her with his overtime earnings—a mustard yellow Grable tea dress—and a matching pillbox hat. Sticking his fingers into his mouth he whistled to Rosie. A love bird’s call. Her face lit up at the sight of her man. She waved, blew fat kisses. “Güacha,” said Jimmy, pointing out a couple of sailors in line. “Me vale madre,” said Turi, going to Rosie. “You coming or what?” “Nah,” said Jimmy. “I’m going to Dino’s for a coke.” But he stayed put, jittery despite his youthful show of bravado on the streetcar. He was watching Turi strut bravely towards Rosie and the sailors. Turi moved in time to the rhythm of the Boogie Woogie Blues. It’d been playing on a loop in his head since he caught the Yellow Car in Boyle Heights. “What’s cooking baby doll?” he said. “Just waiting on my fella,” said Rosie. “Have ya’ seen ’em?” “Don’t know? What’s he look like?” “He’s a big cheese. A real dreamboat. Looks a little like you, but taller.” “Nope, haven’t seen ‘em. Oh wait—” They laughed. Rosie fell affectionately into his arms and Turi peppered her cheek with kisses. And the sailors in line—a couple of oafish Iowa farmers’ sons in dress blues—suddenly took notice. “Get a load of this clown in those god damn duds,” said the first seaman. “Looks like Barnum & Bailey is back in town.” “Say, did that greaser just cut the line?” said the second seaman. “God damn right he did, Henry boy!” “Don’t blow a fuse,” said Rosie, holding on tight to Turi. “Sure thing baby doll,” he said. “It’s just a couple of sauced up squidies, is all. It don’t bother me none.” “And look at the scrag he’s got with ’em,” said the first seaman. “She looks like a Ti-ju-ana moll.” “Get lost!” said Turi, spinning around. “Get lost, he says,” said the second seaman. “Well, doesn’t that beat all? This uppity Mexican’s telling us to shove off! Let’s teach this spic a lesson.” “Now you’re talking, Henry boy!” The people in line between Turi and the sailors looked up, startled and panic-stricken in a moment of immobility. Nobody moved or said anything. A Yellow Car approached, clanging its bell, and someone on the passing streetcar shouted: “Kill that good-for-nothing zoot suiter!” “No!” screamed Rosie. “Run, Turi!” The sailors got a hold of Turi before he could put up a fight. A crowd quickly formed to watch the spectacle. The first seaman pinned Turi’s arms behind his back, while the second seaman punched him repeatedly in his handsome, dimpled-face. Blood poured out of his busted nose and mouth onto the sidewalk, the sight of which only stirred the sailors’ fervor. The frenzied, white crowd chanted and whooped, pushing Rosie backwards, drowning out her cries for help. “That ought to shut ’em up,” said the first seaman, letting go of Turi. He collapsed onto the sidewalk, lay dazed and twisted where he fell. “Had enough? Huh?” said the second seaman. “Let ‘em have it!” someone shouted, spurring the sailors on. “You heard ’em, Henry boy,” said the first seaman. They started back in on Turi, stomping and kicking him in the gut, in the ribs and squarely in the head until he coughed up blood and spit out teeth. It went on like this for a while, until the sailors grew tired and stopped to catch their breath. In between the beatings Turi lay gazing dumbly up at the sky, looking passed the hateful, grim-faced sailors and the angry mob staring down at him with rage and curiosity and the dizzying, fire-bright, Hollywood searchlights crisscrossing the nighttime sky. Close by, Turi could hear the faintest murmur of Rosie’s soft weeping, gradually being washed over by a seething tide of savage laughter, sweet Swing-time music and the high, cold wailing of police sirens as squad cars quickly approached the scene of the commotion. “Don’t cry, Rosie,” Turi mumbled. “Go on home. I’ll be ok.” The crowd was riled up now and wanted to see more blood. “Hey, that one’s with him!” shouted a young white woman. She was pointing at a bystander—young Jimmy Lara standing curbside. “I saw him get off the Yellow Car with this one here,” she said. Seeing the mob turning on him, Jimmy held up his hands in submission and backed up. “Wait a second,” he said. “I’ve never seen that guy before in my life.” “He’s lying!” said the young white woman. “They’re pals.” “Please, no,” he insisted. “He’s the zoot suiter, not me.” Jimmy turned and ran up Broadway, disappeared down an alley. “Let’s pluck this chicken,” said the second seaman, looking down at Turi writhing on the sidewalk. The sailors yanked Turi up forcibly by the lapels of his jacket and, with the help of a couple of all-too-willing bystanders, began to strip him naked. First they tore the fine, pin-striped, double-breasted drape jacket right off his back and flung it into the jeering crowd who proceeded to rip it into rags. His white Oxford dress shirt was tattered and blood-sopped and came undone with a few light tugs. They unbuckled his belt, pulled down his trousers and tossed them into the street, leaving him broken in his bare skivvies on the concrete. Winded and victorious, the sailors hooted and shook self-clasping handshakes above their Dixie cup hats. The crowd cheered wildly. It was the last thing that Turi heard before blacking out from the beating and the shame of it all. When Turi Leyva came to he was lying on a cold, metal bunk in a two-man jail cell, cloaked in an itchy, wool blanket—property of the Lincoln Heights Jail. His cell-mate—an old, barefooted, Mexican man in a filthy, second-hand serge suit and a ratty, felt hat—was breathing down on him. A heavy, tequila haze burned in Turi’s nostrils. He stirred, went to vomit and spat up blood. “¡El Muerto vive!” said the old man. “¡Que milagro!” “Where am I?” asked Turi. “Aquí con Papá Chencho en el pinche bote. ¡Oye, te rompieron la madre!” Turi touched his cut and swollen face and winced. “Los marineros,” he said. “¿Oye, y por qué andas en calzón? ¿Te violaron o qué? The very question was emasculating. He ignored it, stared silently at the rusty bars of the cell-door, listening for the sound of the jailer. “Leyva!” The voice echoed in the rafters of the cavernous cell block. A big, gruff cop appeared at the cell-door. “Ar-tu-ro...Arthur Leyva,” said the cop. “Bail’s been set at $20. If you can’t make bail, make yourself at home. Judge’ll see you Monday morning.” “But, what’s the charge?” “Disturbing the peace.” “I disturbed the peace?” said Turi, staring dumbly at the cop. “Yes. There were witnesses.” He said it with such authority that Turi was nearly convinced that he was guilty of the crime. The cop turned and walked back. Papá Chencho sucked at his teeth and spat in the corner. “Maldito carcelero,” he said. Turi rolled onto his side. He thought of his poor, doting mother at home, probably pacing the family parlor floorboards thin with worry. And his girl Rosie, how she must be suffering, not knowing if he was alright. Jimmy was probably sound asleep and dreaming in his bed right about now. Turi didn’t blame the kid for running. He might have done the same thing if it was him. It sure would be nice to go home. “Joaquín Murrieta is free,” he said, remembering the words painted on the steel girder on the Sixth Street Bridge. “What do you know about Joaquín Murrieta?” said Papá Chencho, out of nowhere, in broken English. Turi sat up, looked up at Papá Chencho and listened. “They do not teach you about him in those American history books at that pinche school of yours, do they? No, they do not. He was a peaceful, hardworking, God loving Californio who was wronged by the Anglos.” “What did they do to him?” “They accused him of stealing a horse, beat him, stole his land, his possessions, and raped and murdered his fine young wife.” “And what did he do?” “He swore revenge, became the famous Robin Hood of the West.” “And then?” “The state of California put a bounty on his head, $5000 dead or alive.” “But he outsmarted them, didn’t he?” “Yes, for a time. But they finally caught up with him.” “But he got away, right?” “No, the Anglos set him free.” “¿A poco?” “Yes, they cut off his head, put it in a big jar of whiskey and charged people two bits to see it.” “But you said they let him go—” Papá Chencho took off his felt hat, examined it at arm’s length, licked his thumb and rubbed the grimy brim. “Joaquín Murrieta está libre,” he said. “Libre de este mundo. Libre de la Ley y de la pinche injusticia. Por fin—”
Alberto Ramirez, a Los Angeles based writer and UCLA graduate, had short stories published in Westwind Journal of the Arts, Angel City Review, Drabblez Magazine, LossLit Magazine UK and Adelaide Literary Magazine (forthcoming). His novel, Everything That Could Not Happen Will Happen Now (Floricanto and Berkeley Presses 2016), was selected by Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club summer reading list 2017. This short story is set in Los Angeles circa June 1943 during the “Zoot Suit Riots,” so called even though U.S. military men attacked young Mexican Americans wearing the suit style shown above.
From my place in line, I could see my brothers and sisters acting silly in the back of our station wagon, La Blanca. I could also see my amá. She was sitting in the front seat staring straight ahead. She was probably praying. She always prayed until she knew, for sure, we had the job that would get us through the rest of the year. Seeing me looking at her, she waved and smiled. I didn’t act silly anymore, but to make her feel better, I hid behind my apá and then peeked at her before hiding again. As I kept hiding and peeking, her smile got bigger and bigger. We were playing Peek-a-Boo. I’d played the game with her ever since I was a baby, and to make her happy, since the first year I’d waited in line. I was eight then, thirteen now, about to be fourteen. I guess we were having fun, but before she could take her turn, my apá asked me to go and get the letter from the American Government showing he had permission to work in El Norte. He’d forgotten it in the glovebox. Running up to my amá, I explained what had happened. She found the letter right away and as she handed it to me, she said, “Standing in line, Junior, you look like a big boy.” Hearing her, my brothers and sisters made funny faces at me behind her back. It didn’t bother me because they still acted like babies, and I was becoming a man, like my apá. Walking back, I think some of the campesinos thought I was cutting in line because they started looking at me kind of funny. To remind some, and to show others, that I’d already been in line, when I got closer, I waved the letter, yelling, “¡Apá, apá, encontré la carta!” Some stopped staring, but others kept looking at me until they saw me hand the letter to my apá, and then take my place in line behind him. It took close to thirty minutes for me and my apá to reach the front of the line, and when we did, my apá gave the letter to the foreman. The foreman looked it over, asking, “You, Emilio Rodriguez, Sr.?” Knowing the foreman was always in a hurry, my apá answered his questions as fast as he could. “Yes,” my apá answered. “From Piedras Negras, Mexico?” “Yes.” “Speak-ah la English?” “Yes.” “How many to work?” “Seven.” “That includes you and your wife, right?” “Yes, and our children.” “How old are they?” “Junior’s thirteen, Lala’s twelve, Juan Daniel’s….” “I don’t need their names, damn it, just their ages. How old are they?” “Thirteen, twelve, eleven, nine and eight.” “The eight-year-old? Is that a boy or a girl?” “A girl.” “This her first time?” “Yes, sir.” “You think she’s ready? We got us a big crop this year. We’re gonna need everybody workin’ every minute of every hour of every day. We don’t need her slowing you or your wife down, ¿comprende?” “No, señor, she will do a good job; all of them will do a good job. Four of them were here last year.” Leaning forward on his desk, and his eyes getting mean, the foreman said, “She better, or you’ll find yourselves out of a job quicker than you can say Speedy Gonzales.”
“Sí, cómo no.” The foreman wrote my apá’s name in the red book with the blue lines. Next to his name, in the place for men, he wrote a one. In the place for women, he wrote a one, and in the place for children, he wrote a five, then he told my apá how much we were getting paid. Since I’d waited in line, the most my apá had ever made was a dollar fifty an hour, my amá one dollar and me and my brothers and sister, fifty cents. So, when the foreman told my apá he’d be making three dollars an hour, my amá two dollars, me and my older brother and sister a dollar, and the two youngest fifty cents, my apá turned and looked at me. I could tell he was wondering if I had heard the same thing. I had. I was thinking the foreman had gone loco, and I knew my apá was thinking the same thing, too. The foreman wrote how much we were getting paid on a yellow card that looked the same as the one he gave us every year, then he asked if we wanted to rent a camp house. “Yes,” my apá answered. The farmers we worked for rented us campesinos, these little houses, what we called, casitas, and they called camp houses. The cost to rent a casita changed from year to year. If you were paid a lot, a casita cost a lot, and if you were paid a little, a casita still cost a lot, but not as much as if you were making a lot of money. If you wanted, you could rent a place in town, but it cost more than a casita, and you had to drive to work every morning, so most campesinos rented a casita. Most of the time casitas were rented to families, but on my first trip I saw at least fifteen men staying in one casita. When I asked my apá why, he said that, “Sometimes, a man had to do, what a man had to do.” “It’ll cost you thirty-five dollars a week,” the foreman said. “You still want it?” “Yes,” my apá answered. “Please.” We worked close to ten hours a day, so I knew there’d be no problem paying the rent. The foreman wrote the number C-11 on the yellow card. The letter C stood for the camp and the number 11 for the casita we’d be renting. There were eight camps in all and each camp had fifteen casitas. So far, I’d stayed in H-2, E-4, B-7, and in C-8, two times. The foreman handed my apá the yellow card, saying, “We'll expect you all ready by six tomorrow morning and since we have a bumper crop, we’ll be working seven days a week, ¿comprende?” “Seven days?” my apá asked. “Seven days,” the foreman said, “you gotta problem with that, there’s the door.” “No, señor,” my apá said, “no problem.” Finished with us, the foreman yelled, “Next!” My apá thanked him and as we walked out of the office and past the other campesinos in line my apá’s walk was tall and proud, and mine, mine was almost the same. When we reached La Blanca, my apá handed the yellow card to my amá. As she read it, her eyes got big. “Is this for real, Emilio, three dollars?” Shaking his head up and down, my apá said, “And you, you and the children, did you see how much you make?” “Yes,” she said. “I did. I did.” My amá smiled really big, held the card against her heart and closed her eyes. She prayed and when she finished, crossed herself. I knew my apá had more to say because he hadn’t started La Blanca. “We’ll be working seven days a week.” “Seven days?” my amá asked. “Seven days,” my apá echoed, quietly. I didn’t know if my apá or amá had ever worked seven days a week, but I knew me and my brothers and sisters never had. Working six days a week was hard, and I knew seven was going to be harder, especially for my little sister. “What about church,” my amá asked, “and going to the store? What are we going to do?” Starting La Blanca, my apá said with a smile, “Don’t worry, we’ll find a way. We always do.” My brothers and sisters didn’t hear what they were saying because they were too busy talking about whether or not we were stopping at Pete’s and then the park. We didn’t go to Pete’s, and the park across the street from Pete’s, every year. We only went when our parents knew we’d make enough money to help us through the rest of the year. Since I’d made my first trip to El Norte, five years ago, I’d been to Pete’s, and then the park, two times, so when my apá said we were going to Pete’s and then to the park, my brothers and sisters went crazy, but nobody went crazier than my little sister, Esmeralda. She let out a grito. I’d gone to Pete’s and the park my first year, too, so I understood why she was so happy. In the years before, she, like me and my brothers and sister, had stayed with our amá’s parents, Abuelito Louis and Abuelita Cruz, until we were old enough to work. In the two times I’d been to Pete’s, we always got our own cheeseburger and Coke, but all of us, even my apá and amá, shared french fries, but this time, we all listened as apá ordered cheeseburgers, Cokes, and an order of french fries for each of us! Hearing this, my brothers and sisters really went crazy. My amá told them to behave, and most of the time they did, but this time they didn’t listen, not until amá said there’d be no going to the park unless they settled down. No’mbre, they turned into little angels until we got to the park and they finished eating. After that, you couldn’t stop them. They were ready for some fun, and to be honest, I was too, because I knew that after today there’d be nothing but seven days a week of hard work. My apá and amá always played with us right after we ate, but this time they told us to go ahead, that they’d join us after they were done talking. From the top of the slide, I could see them sitting on the blanket where we ate. I wondered what they were talking about and the words they used, and, as I wondered if I’d ever fall in love, get married and have children, they smiled at each other, and my apá put his hand on my amá’s cheek and kissed her. Amá always gave him a quick kiss when they were outside or me and my brothers and sisters could see them, but this time, I think she forgot they were outside and we were around, because she kissed him for a long time. When they finished kissing, they came and played with us. They rode and pushed us on the swings, went down the slide, and played freeze tag. They played Duck-Duck, Red-Rover, Red-Rover, and hide-and-seek. Everyone had such a good time that it was hard for me to tell who was having more fun, my apá and amá, or my brothers and sisters. When the sun started going down and the mosquitoes got to be too much, we drove to El Gallo to pick up things like bologna, flour, eggs, milk, coffee, ice, and toilet paper. My apá and amá were the only ones who ever went into the store. Being the oldest, it was my job to take care of my brothers and sisters. I never liked babysitting them because I never knew if they were going to listen to me or not, but this time, I got lucky because my littlest brother and sister fell asleep and my brother, Juan Daniel, read a book, while my sister, Lala, worked on a word search puzzle. By the time my apá and amá were done at El Gallo, and we got to Camp C, the other campesinos and their families were already having their dinner. Most ate burritos they made before leaving home. We were no different. It made the first night at the camp easy on everybody, especially mothers. Inside, las casitas were the same. You walked into a big room. Part of it served as a living room and the other part a kitchen. The only door inside went to the restroom. We only had cold water and the floors were made of cement. The living room had a small table, two chairs, a coffee table, and a small bed. My sisters slept in the bed and the rest of us on the floor. The kitchen had a small refrigerator, a small stove, and a sink. A cabinet hung above the sink. Inside there were different colored plates, glasses, and bowls made from metal and under the sink were some pots, pans and a box of forks and spoons—big and small—for eating and cooking. My amá never used any of those things, she brought her own. The restroom had a toilet, a small shower and one hook to hang towels. Our amá made us take a shower every day after work. I didn’t mind because I was the oldest, which meant I got to go first, after my amá and apá. There were only two windows: One beside the front door and a smaller one in the restroom. From the restroom window I could see the cotton fields and the clothes lines where we hung our wet towels and our amá the clothes she washed every Wednesday and Sunday. I liked looking out the restroom window. I’d think about those who’d worked the fields before us, and then, I’d whisper a prayer for them, a prayer that all their dreams would come true. After praying, I used my pocket knife to scratch a small cross under the window. To see it, someone would have to be looking for it. I thought of it as a gift, un regalo, for anyone special enough to find it. The next morning, and every morning after that, we woke up at five. We ate a bowl of atole with a slice of butter on top, and while we got dressed, our amá made our lunch. Walking outside she gave each of us a sack and a gallon of water. Inside each sack were two bologna sandwiches, a small bag of Fritos, an apple, and in each gallon of water, there were always a few pieces of ice. We thanked our amá and as we waited for the truck to take us to work, our apá told us not to eat until the foreman gave us permission, and to drink our water slowly, or we’d get sick. Then, he’d tell us to make him and our amá proud. My brothers and sisters knew this meant the time for acting silly was over. The mornings were cold, and when the sun came up, the day was hot. We wore gloves and bandages on our fingers, but they still bled. We filled burlap sacks with cotton, and when they were full emptied them into a trailer. You had to work fast and keep going, no matter what. When I was eight, and I picked cotton for the first time, I cried and told my apá and amá I didn’t want to work, that it was too hard. They asked me to stop crying; to stop before the foreman heard me. They told me I was doing a good job and then took cotton from my sack and put it in theirs, and when they saw it wasn’t enough to make me stop crying, they told me to pray to la Virgen de Guadalupe for strength. I did, and when I finished praying, my apá said, “Aguántate, mijo, aguántate.” I’d never heard the word aguántate before, so I asked my apá what the word meant. He told me that it could mean a lot of things, but to him and my amá, it meant to use what life gives you to make you stronger. Some men, women, and children, like me and my older brothers and sisters, understood what the word meant, but others did not. They were the ones, as our apá and amá taught us, who complained about the hot sun, the low pay, the foreman’s watchful eye, or ran away in the middle of the night before all the cotton was picked. I did as my apá and amá taught me, and as I grew up, I never told anyone about being hot, thirsty, or hungry, but that was me. I wish it could’ve been that way for my little sister, Esmeralda, too, because on the first day of work, she started crying, and even after our parents talked to her, she couldn’t stop, and the harder she tried, the harder it became for her to work. Our apá and amá tried and tried to get her to stop, but she wouldn’t. When the foreman saw and heard how she was acting, he pulled his horse around. As he rode closer, my amá told me and my brothers and sister to keep working. Riding up to my apá and Esmeralda, the foreman yelled, “What’s going on?!” “No,” my apá said, as he got up and stood between Esmeralda and the foreman. “She’s okay. She’s okay.” “She’s yours!?” the foreman yelled. “Sí, señor,” my apá said. “Well, if she’s yours,” the foreman yelled, “you better get her back to work before I have to do it for you! You understand me, boy?” “Sí, señor,” my apá said—said as he quickly turned around, and, in a voice I’d never heard coming out of his mouth, yelled, “Esmeralda get to work and stop crying, stop crying, now!” My little sister had never heard him talk that way, too. It scared her—scared her so much that she stopped crying and went to work, right away. “What’d I tell you, Paco,” the foreman yelled at my apá, “your kids keep you from working and you’ll find yourselves out of a job faster than you can say Speedy Gonzales!” Thinking my apá needed help, I cried out in a voice—a voice just loud enough so the foreman wouldn’t think I was being disrespectful, “I’ll help her!” “Junior!” my apá yelled. Riding his horse right up to me, the foreman asked, “What did you say?” “I said, I can help her.” “Help her?” the foreman asked. “Help her what?” “Work,” I said, as my apá called to me again, “Junior!” “You think,” the foreman yelled, as he got off his horse, walked up and put his face right in front of mine, “that we’re paying you a dollar, a goddamn dollar an hour, to help someone else do their fuckin’ job?!” I didn’t know... didn’t know what to say. The foreman leaned his face closer to mine, yelling, “I asked you a question, boy!” I looked at my apá, and he looked at me. There was a distance, a distance between us—a distance where a boy—a boy suddenly found himself becoming a man—a man who could no longer turn to his apá to correct a mistake he’d made on his way to growing up. But, there was also the look in a father’s eyes, a look that said, “No, no, my son, my little boy, I am not yet ready to let you carry the load of this world on your shoulders.” My apá pulled off the strap to his burlap sack and ran as fast as he could to me and the foreman. In the same voice he used with Esmeralda, he yelled, “Get to work, Junior, now!” I did as he ordered, and then he started talking to the foreman in a voice loud enough for only the foreman to hear. Seeing this, my amá told me and my brothers and sisters to work faster. She said it in a shaky voice I’d never heard coming out of her mouth. The sound of it scared me, and as I looked around at my brothers and sisters, I could tell it scared them, too. All of us started working as fast as we could, and when I peeked at my apá, I saw the foreman staring at him with a look in his eyes that I understood right away to mean that the work and the money that would see us through the rest of the year were in his hands. In his, and no one else's. With a final word and a small bow, my apá ran back and got to work. Behind me, I could feel the foreman staring down at us from the top of his horse. He wanted us to slow down; for Esmeralda to make a sound; for me to open my mouth; for my apá or amá to check on how we were doing—anything, so he could yell at us again or tell us, as I’d heard him tell others, “What did you wetbacks think this was gonna be, a mother fuckin’ siesta?!” I was afraid, so afraid that I wanted to cry out to my apá and amá to keep me safe, and if I felt this way, I wondered how Esmeralda must feel, and how my apá and amá must feel, too. I’m not sure how long the foreman watched over me and my family. I only know it was long enough that I forgot about him and of being afraid. For the rest of the day I didn’t talk to my apá and amá, and they never talked to me. But after work, when we were riding in the back of the truck, going to the camp, I apologized to my apá for what I’d done. He didn’t say anything for a long time, and I knew it was because he couldn’t find the words to tell me how much I’d almost cost my family, but when he finally spoke, he said one word, and one word only, the Spanish word for look. “Mira,” he said, as he lifted a finger and pointed at our family. My amá held Esmeralda in her arms. They were both asleep and my brothers and sister rode on the other side of them with their heads between their raised knees. I couldn’t tell if they were asleep or just resting. As the truck drove on, I lowered my head between my raised knees, too. I thought about what I’d done; of what my apá must’ve said to the foreman to keep him from firing us; of Esmeralda crying; of my father yelling; of the fear in my amá’s voice; of the look in the foreman’s eyes; of my apá bowing and running back to his burlap sack; his getting back to work as fast as he could, and when it all became too much, I said a prayer to La Virgen de Guadalupe, and when I remembered that there’d be no going to church until we got back home, I began to cry, to cry quietly to myself. The next day, and for all the days after that, it didn’t matter if the foreman was watching me or not, I worked harder than everybody else. I never said a word to my apá or amá unless they spoke to me first, and, I said a prayer to La Virgen de Guadalupe every night as we drove back to camp. Doing all of this made me feel better, but when Sundays came I couldn’t keep myself from thinking about what I’d done and feeling sad about not being able to go to church. I missed our Sundays off from work; missed the smell of my amá’s tortillas and the chorizo burritos she made for breakfast; us dressing in the clothes our amá ironed the night before, and then driving to church, where Father Felipe waited to say, “Buenos días.” I also missed the men talking by themselves after Mass. I watched them from La Blanca, wondering what they talked about, and when I’d be old enough to join them. Yes, I missed all of that, but most of all I missed getting to do whatever we wanted when we got back to the camp and changed out of our Sunday Best. Sundays were the only days everyone got to do what they wanted. The youngest ran through clothes hanging on the line, played chase, or freeze tag. Those a bit older flew kites, played marbles, or pitched pennies. The oldest, those of us who, like our fathers and mothers, had grown up playing all the games that came before, now played baseball or kick ball. All the while our fathers and mothers sat around campfires talking to each other; the men in one group, the women in another, and when the day was done, families said their good nights and then drifted inside their casitas. My amá would make tortillas and cook us a special dinner. On some Sundays enchiladas, on others burritos y tacos, and still others carne asada, and always, always with a side of arroz, frijoles, chile verde, and to drink, a glass full of ice and orange Hi-C. After we were done eating, we’d listen to Spanish music on the radio. My apá and amá played cards and dominos, while the rest of us spent time doing whatever we wanted; the only rule—the only unspoken rule—was that whatever we did, we had to do it quietly, and not because our apá and amá needed a break from all the noise, but out of respect for the suffering Christ had endured on the cross for our sins. The next morning, the men, women and children, who the night before had been the best of friends, treated each other like strangers. It’s funny, but that’s the way our world worked: There was a time to play and a time to work. For the rest of the time that we were there all of us worked hard, and by the time we were finished picking all the cotton, Esmeralda not only worked harder than me, her pay went from twenty-five cents back to fifty cents an hour. She never said anything bad about anything and when lunch time came she never opened her sack until the foreman said we could, but on the last day, as all the campesinos and their families waited for the foreman to show up so we could get paid, I was reminded that Esmeralda was a little girl when she cried saying adios to her new best friend, Manuelita. By the time the foreman arrived, the men, and only the men, were already standing in a line in front of Casita #1. It was there where the foreman always set up his table to get everyone paid. This time was no different. The foreman parked his shiny Ford truck in front of Casita #2. The first two men in line helped him set up his table and chair, while the foreman took the metal box with all the money inside and sat down at the table.
Sitting in La Blanca, I watched as the foreman handed the men an envelope with all the money they were owed, and if they had a family, the money owed to them too. No one counted their money. You were paid what you were paid. If you didn’t like it, don’t come back. As they were paid, and they turned away from the foreman, their walk was tall and proud, and their smiles grew bigger and bigger until they hugged their wives and handed them the envelopes with enough money inside to see them through the rest of the year. Watching my apá move up in line, I wondered what he was thinking and if he’d truly forgiven me for what I’d done, but above all, I wondered when I’d be able to stand in the line with him. With his pay in hand, my father turned away from the foreman. His walk was also tall and proud, and his smile grew bigger and bigger until he sat in La Blanca and handed our amá the envelope. My amá gave him a quick kiss and a hug and then led us in a prayer of thanks. After that, the both of them thanked me and my brothers and sisters for our hard work. It’s funny, but I never once wondered why they got to keep all the money we’d earned. Thinking back on it now, I know it was because my apá and amá didn’t raise me to think that way. No, I always prayed and gave thanks for my family, and when I thought about how much I had almost cost them I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. I didn’t because I knew a man would never do such a thing. As always, I fell asleep on the way home, and as always, since my first year of making the trip to El Norte, I did nothing but dream of picking cotton. Sometimes, I dreamed about a row of cotton that never ended or about a bag of cotton so full I couldn’t move it no matter how hard I tried, but this time I dreamed that the foreman was seated on top of his horse yelling at me, while Esmeralda cried behind me. His eyes glowed brighter and brighter and just when he was about to destroy our world with his eyes, my apá and amá ran and stood in front of me and Esmeralda, and the foreman, seeing his power lost, turned his horse around and quickly rode him away. I had these dreams for the longest time, and it always seemed that just when I started dreaming about something else, the time to go back had arrived. This time was no different. Summer was almost here and with it my dreams about cotton were coming to an end. I was fourteen now, about to be fifteen. I was eager, not only to go and work, but to show my apá that I had learned my lesson from the year before. Yes, I was ready, but this time something happened, something I did not expect. When we got home from church, my apá and amá called me and my brothers and sisters into the living room. I didn’t know what they wanted, but I knew it must be important, because it was the only time they ever talked to all of us at once. Me and my brothers and sisters stood quietly until my apá finally spoke. “When we were little, me and your amá, we had to work the cotton fields with our families every summer. Not one time did we ever get to stay in school or have a summer to do nothing but run and play. “It has always been our dream for our children to stay in school, and when it ended, have the whole summer to do nothing but run and play. “Our mothers and fathers shared the same dream, but for them the dream never came true, but thanks to the money we earned as a family last year, it is a dream that has come true for me and your amá. “This year, I will be the only one going to El Norte. All of you will stay in school and when school is over, you will have nothing to do all summer but run and play.” Hearing this, my brothers and sisters went crazy, and Esmeralda kissed our apá and amá on the cheeks and said, "¡Gracias, apá! ¡Gracias, amá!" and then she and the rest of my brothers and sisters ran outside to play. But me? I stayed inside. I didn’t move or say anything. My amá asked if I was okay, and when I didn’t answer, my apá said if I had something to say, to say it. I didn’t say anything right away, but when I did, I said I didn’t want to stay home, that I wanted to go and work, that I needed to work for our family. “I want to be a man, apá, a man like you and the other campesinos.” Finished talking, I didn’t cry, feel sad, or act silly, because I knew a man wouldn’t act that way. When the evening before our trip arrived, I washed La Blanca and the next morning me and my apá loaded what we needed for the trip before the sun came up. We gave amá a kiss goodbye and then we got into La Blanca. A sack full of burritos rode between us and at my feet were two gallons of water with pieces of ice floating inside. My apá said a prayer for our safe travels, and as we drove away, he slowed down, and looking into the rearview mirror, said, “Mira.” I turned and looked. My amá stood at the screen door and my brothers and sisters were outside waving goodbye. They had grown a year older, but as I turned and faced forward, I prayed, prayed that they’d remain children for as long as they could. It took me and my apá less than six hours to drive to the office where campesinos were hired. We stopped once to use the restroom, so the line was short—as short as I’d ever seen it. Standing behind my apá, I pretended my amá was sitting in La Blanca and that we were playing Peek-a-Boo. I took a turn, and she took a turn and when we were finished, I stared straight ahead, like my apá. When our turn came, my apá handed the foreman the letter showing he had permission to work in El Norte. After looking it over, and writing down my apá’s name, the foreman asked, “Speak-ah la English?” As my apá said, yes, that yes, he spoke English, I wondered if the foreman ever remembered any of the campesinos he saw year after year, or even those who’d grown from boys to men right in front of his eyes, and as the foreman asked, “How many to work?” I smiled, as my apá said, “Two, only two.” Hearing him, and with his eyes getting bigger, the foreman looked at me, not my apá, and asked, “Did he say two?” “Yes,” I said. “Yes, sir, two.” Looking like he’d just woke up from a dream, a bad dream, about cotton, the foreman stood up and looked down the line. He leaned to one side and then the other, and then he looked out the window to where the cars and trucks were parked. There were no wives or children to be seen. He lifted his cowboy hat, scratched his head, put his hat back on, and as he sat back down, he said, “What is it with you lazy Mescans, you make some good money one year and the next don't one of you show up to work.” Me and my apá listened, but we didn’t say anything. “One dollar and seventy-five cents,” the foreman said, as in the red book with the blue lines, he wrote the number two next to my apá’s name under the place for men. “A camp house is twenty dollars a week. You want one?” “Yes,” my apá answered. There’d be no stopping at Pete’s and the park, but I didn’t let it bother me, because I knew a man never spent money he didn’t have. The foreman wrote G-8 on the yellow card, and as he handed it to my apá, he said, “We'll expect both of you ready by six in the morning. We’ll be working Monday through Saturday. Sunday’s off. Next!” I’d never stayed in Camp G before, but I knew it didn’t matter, because the restroom had a window—a window where I’d be able to look out on the clothes lines and the cotton fields and say a prayer of thanks for having Sundays off and for my parent’s dream coming true, and when I was finished, scratch my mark of the cross under the window. As me and my apá walked out of the office, and past the other campesinos in line, his walk was tall and proud, and now, so was mine. I wanted to ask him if he’d seen where the foreman had written the number two, but I didn’t, because I knew a man didn’t need anyone telling him—or showing him that he was a man. He knew he was a man and that was it, the end of the story. Once inside La Blanca, my apá didn’t start her up right away. I knew—knew then, that he had something to say, but instead of talking, he looked away from me, and then, he made a sound, a sound I had never heard coming from him before. He started crying—crying like a man, then a young man, then a teenager, then a boy, then a baby. I didn’t say anything, because I knew it was what a man would do. Instead, I did what I knew a son would do. I held my apá, closed my eyes, and listened, listened to time floating by. I thought about him, my amá, my brothers and my sisters, then I prayed that one day I’d be able to give them all their summers off, so they could do nothing more than run and play.
Photo by Natalio Alvarado
Rodolfo Alvarado is a native of Lubbock, Texas, now living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This story is based on experiences gained while working the cotton fields of West Texas as a boy with his family. His fiction and non-fiction have been published by Arte Público Press, the University of Michigan Press, Texas AandM University Press, El Central, El Editor, and Alpha Books of New York. Noted publications include,Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in Michigan for Michigan State University Press and The Untold Story of Joe Hernandez: The Voice of Santa Anita. This biography won the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award and was a finalist for an International Latino Book Award. He holds a Fine Arts PhD from Texas Tech University and has taught at the University of Michigan, Ave Maria University, and Eastern Michigan University, where he was a Parks/King/Chavez Fellow and a University Fellow. This is his first story for Somos en escrito.
The next morning, Good Friday, found me in bed with a high fever. The chill that permeated my body had increased during the night, but anxious to join the Hermanos at the morada, I struggled to rise, only to fall back weakly against my pillow. My grandmother, who was drinking coffee with my mother in the kitchen, came to the doorway. Silhouetted in the rays of the sun in the window behind her, she seemed enveloped in a cloak of white. My fears of the night were dispelled, there was no bandage, no limp to her walk; and in the light of day I chided myself for my foolishness, convinced that my fever had caused such disturbing thoughts.
That my abuela was here was no accident, no inexplicable coincidence to agitate my imaginings. For she knew that I had become a novicio the night before, and as médica, she had come to see how I fared. She moved to my side with a jar of her remedio, turned me to my side to rub the romerillo, or silver sage, on my back, and then tucked the quilts around me once again without a word.
My mother placed a mug of warm broth in my hands, brushing a gentle hand over my cheek and pulling a chair by my bed for my gramma before she left for the church with my aunt. A few of the women would give the capilla a light cleaning before covering the saints with cloaks of black this morning to symbolize the dark day of Christ’s death. They would remain concealed until Easter morning, the day of His resurrection.
Settling herself comfortably, gramma took from her apron pocket a small kerchief with a trailing thread and proceeded to continue her embroidery on its edge, the needle whipping in and out of the intricate design with a delicate, almost birdlike fluttering of her hands. I sipped the warm soup watching her, waiting for her to speak. I knew I had inherited my physical appearance from her, the small, thin stature, the nose, and her humor. Had I also inherited a mental power I didn’t understand, or want, from my beloved grandmother?
Before I could ponder the question further, before I could think of a way to phrase my question without hurting the feelings of the tiny woman seated beside me, she spoke.
“You have a gift.”
Her words revived my concerns that the warm broth had begun to dispel.
She looked up from her embroidery. Although this was one time I wished I could turn away, I forced myself to look into her eyes. Bright with tears, hers held a mixture of sadness and regret. When she blinked the drops away and smiled softly at me, there was also pleasure and expectation in their depths.
“The gift of sight,” she began, “is strong in our family though inherited by some, not all, through the generations. And,” she added, “while some seemed only to possess a strong sense of intuition, there were others who had the power to know other’s thoughts, especially of people with whom they were close.
“I will tell you a story, hijo, a cuento of a young girl you know well.” Putting her embroidery aside, she settled back into the pillow at her back and continued.
“When this girl was very young, she began to have disturbing dreams, dreams which frightened her because in the days that followed, they would almost always come true. More and more often as she grew, the dreams plagued her. And her abuelito, the only one who believed her, died before he could explain the gift she had inherited from him. She learned to keep the dreams secret because whenever she told anyone, they looked at her as if she were loca. And people, ignorant and afraid, had started to think she was either crazy or a witch.
Years passed, until one night she saw her father in her dream and knew what real fear was. In her vision her father was being dragged by horses in the field he was plowing, his leg entangled in the reins behind the arado.”
She paused, taking her sack of punche from her pocket to roll a cigarette.
I squirmed restlessly on the bed. From past experience, I knew that it was an effort in futility to urge her on, for if prodded to finish a cuento before she decided she wanted to, she was known to teach me a longer lesson in patience, sometimes making me wait for days, or until I had even forgotten the beginnings of a story and her teasing reminder would set me off, begging for the end.
I had to hand it to my abuelita; she knew how to build up the suspense in her stories like no one else. I was forced to wait as she took a laboriously long time rolling her smoke, her eyes twinkling with mirth at my discomfort.
“Where was I?” she asked, striking a wooden match on the sole of her shoe.
“Oh, yes, the dream.” Puffing a small stream of smoke, she continued, “The next morning, much to her dismay, the girl’s father had already begun to plow the fields when she awoke. Without breakfast, the girl ran out of the house, straight to the field.”
When she paused to puff her cigarette again, I could have screamed from the suspense; it was killing me. “Now, the neighbors had honey bees,” she reminisced, “and the hives were just across the river. For some reason, I never knew why, they swarmed—and the girl’s father with his horses were right in their path. It was a good thing the girl got there when she did, for her father, strong though he was, was already struggling to keep the horses from running away with the plow. When she looked down, the girl saw that the end of one of the reins had tangled around her father’s leg, just like in her dream. And just as the panicked horses took off, shaking the bees from their heads, she jumped forward, unwrapping the rein just in the nick of time to save her father from a very bad injury—perhaps even death.”
Gramma puffed at her cigarette a moment before she added, “That was the day the girl finally realized that her dreams were not the curse she had thought they were all along, for years having been afraid that perhaps she was a witch and that she had dark powers from the devil. They were forewarnings, a gift from God, and she had learned to read their meaning to help others.”
Putting her cigarette out, she looked at me closely, searching my eyes for understanding. “Sí,” she said quietly, “I have been called bruja many times, hijo, but only by the ignorant or the envious, God help them. They do not know that what I have is a gift from God and that I have learned to use my gift to avisar or to give consejo to those I see in my dreams.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that no matter what happened in the future, I would never suspect my abuelita of being a witch again. And I understood that my father possessed a different gift, a power to read my thoughts and to respond in the voice of my conscience to guide me in the journey of life. But at the same time, I was troubled. Hadn’t I also inherited such a gift, a power to see or hear things others didn’t?
I knew she picked up the apprehension in my eyes, for my gramma said softly, “No te preocupes. Do not be worried, hijo mío. Instead, thank the Lord that you have something not many people do and learn to use your gift to help yourself and to help others if you’re able. And if your friends question your intuition, you do what your conciencia tells you. If they are real amigos, they will look to you for consejo. Advise them well. If they are not, then you will have to live with their suspicions and their accusations just as I have. And though it will be hard, you will have to learn to leave them to their own consciences.”
I nodded, and we sat in companionable silence for a while. My gramma took up her embroidery again as my mind digested the importance of her story, her counsel. I knew that I would have to find within myself the strength to overcome my disquiet, to listen and watch for any avisos in the future, to use my gift of intuition wisely.
Suddenly remembering what I had seen the night before, I asked, “Do you believe there really are witches?”
“¿Por qué?” she asked, looking at me quizzically.
I described our encounter with the ball of fire and what Berto had done as it had fled.
She nodded, “There are many, including myself, who have seen them. And since there is no explanation for the balls of fire, there are many who believe that they are witches. No one knows for sure. But it has been a long time that any have been seen around here.”
“What do you believe?” I asked, a little uneasy about her answer.
“I believe that there is a power of good, which is God. But the Bible tells us that there is also a power of evil. Just as Dios gives His children gifts which help them to live as good Cristianos, then so could el Diablo guide those he chooses with the powers of darkness.”
She crossed herself before she looked at me for a moment. “That you saw one during la Cuaresma disturbs me. This is one of the most sacred seasons of the year. If it was a bruja or some other work of el Diablo, then they seem to have no fear that this is Lent, and today is Viernes Santo, the day our Savior died.”
“What could it mean?” I whispered.
The heavy silence of our thoughts spoke volumes, for we both knew that this afternoon La Procesión de Sangre de Cristo, the procession of the Blood of Christ, in which a chosen Hermano would carry the crucifix from the morada on his back, would be enacted. And even though the Penitente would not be crucified, the re-enactment of the most sorrowful day in the life of our Savior would take its toll on the Brother who played the crucial role. I wondered if it would be the Hermano who had portrayed Christ the night before in la Procesión de la Santa Cruz.
Procesión de la Semana Santa. José on the left, carrying la bandera; Miguel's house in the background.
Before either of us could speak, my mother rushed into the house, bringing with her a bit of news that brought an unwelcome confirmation and a bit of relief to our uneasy thoughts. A neighbor found the Lunática sprawled unconscious and bleeding from her head outside her house. He had summoned her hired hand to transport her to the doctor in Las Vegas.
“What do you think happened to her?” my mother asked, looking from my grandmother to me and back at her again.
My abuela’s face mirrored my thoughts: a bruja! Could the one who had protested the most loudly that she was surrounded by witches and lunatics in fact be a witch herself? Could Berto’s rock have met its mark on the floating ball of fire, leaving in its stead a wound in a witch that would cause her death?
I knew that neither my abuela nor I wished the woman harm, yet I saw in her eyes the question I felt in my heart. If the woman died, then would the significance of the ball of fire we suspected be dispelled by her own death?
Unable to rest and unable to sleep, I rose when Berto appeared at my door about noon, sent to see if I was well enough to go to the morada before the procession began. At first my mother protested, having heard of my induction from my father earlier that morning. But rising unsteadily, I assured her that I felt better and that if los Hermanos had sent for me, surely I was needed at the morada. Physically, it was the truth, for my chills had subsided and I was no longer dizzy, but my mind whirled with questions and an impending sense of doom.
Concerned about how Berto would react if he heard of what had happened to the Lunática from someone else, I broke the news to him gently. Though I tried to convince him that we didn’t know whether the woman was only an innocent recluse who had fallen, perhaps even attacked by a thief (which was unheard of in our community), I heard the doubt in my own voice and saw the disbelief in his eyes. Berto remained convinced that the woman was a witch and that she had been injured by his hand, the hand which had cast the stone.
He ran his fingers through his shock of hair again and again, upset about her probable revenge. I, too, worried for Filiberto, remembering my grandmother’s words.
When we arrived at the morada, the Hermanos were resting beneath the shady cottonwoods outside. I went from one to the other exchanging greetings, touched by their concern. My father beckoned to me, moving a little away from the others so we could speak in private. He asked if I was up to the long hours ahead.
After I assured him I felt fine, he told me what had been decided during the morning in my absence.
When he told me who would be the Cristo in the procession of the afternoon, I frowned. My Tío Daniel who had been chosen for the honored role the night before had asked for and received permission to again portray Christ in the reenactment of His walk to Monte Calvario. I needed to tell my father about the premonition of impending death I sensed, but there was no way to explain without beginning with the ball of fire the boys and I had encountered the night before. So I took a deep breath, plunged in, watching his eyes widen when I told him what Abuela and I had discussed, and finished with the account of the neighbor woman’s mysterious injury. I breathlessly waited for his reaction.
He took it all in, quiet with thought before he spoke. “I am glad that your abuela explained about what it is to be a gifted member of this familia,” he said, “for from now on you will listen more closely to your intuition to guide you on the right path in life.”
“But that’s just it,” I blurted, “I have a queer feeling about what gramma said about someone dying. As much as I don’t like that lady for how she treated gramma, I don’t wish her dead, but if she does die, at least that might mean Tío Daniel won’t.”
“Perhaps Mamá is right,” he said. “I trust her judgment,” he added, laying a hand on my shoulder, “as I also trust yours.”
He stood, and I felt a surge of pride that he spoke to me as one man to another.
I waited for him to say that the procession to follow would be canceled or that he would put it to a vote of all the Hermanos, but when he spoke I knew that it wasn’t something he had the power to do. The rites and rituals of the Penitente Brotherhood were clear, and the reenactment I dreaded would proceed as usual.
“We will do what we must,” he said with determination, “and we will pray that Daniel will not be the one who has to die with Cristo tonight.”
We walked together back into the morada where the rest of los Hermanos were in prayer. The window, covered with a dark cloth, let no welcome warmth or light into the room. In the chill of the thick adobe walls there were only the flickering flames of candles to shed a wavering glow on the altar and the men kneeling before it. As we joined them, I took the crucifix I had finished carving, painted black the day before, and placed it among those of my Brothers and the small covered santo Pedro had carved.
Kneeling, I waited for the peace I always felt when I prayed there. I longed for the solace I would have received if I were able to look into the face of the Savior. But every retablo, every santo, was covered in shrouds of black. I felt a sense of loss, of foreboding—until I closed my eyes. From the dark recesses of my mind the face of Christ emerged, filling me with strength to face whatever might occur.
It was a little before two o’clock when we emerged from the morada, blinking our eyes in the welcome light of the sun, warming our stiff bodies in its rays as we were surrounded by the friends and relatives who had come to join our procession. Women bustled into the cocina with pots of food while others entered the prayer room for a moment of contemplation before we began.
I greeted my mother and grandmother with a hug, reluctant to let either of them go, for in their arms I felt the comforting reassurance of my youth. I found myself close to tears, realizing that the innocence of my childhood was lost to me, only to be remembered in their embrace with the bittersweet knowledge that I had willingly forsaken the child within me and let the man in me emerge when I took the vows of a novicio.
Collecting myself as best I could with the tumultuous emotions and frightening premonition looming over my thoughts, I made my way over to the boys who were resting beneath the trees, knowing if anyone could take my mind off my worries, it would be the gang. Horacio was speaking as I joined them.
“My gramma told me a cuento once,” he said quietly. “She thinks it’s only a legend though, ’cause she never really heard of it happening in her lifetime.
Her own abuela told it to her when she was a girl. Do you wanna hear?”
Berto nodded. “Anything, if it’ll stop me from thinking about the bruja.”
We all looked at Berto sympathetically, wishing we could relieve him of the burden of his fears and knowing there was nothing we could do except keep his mind off them.
Horacio began, “Well, you know how Tío Daniel is going to play the Cristo and carry the cross on his shoulders in a while?”
“Don’t remind me,” I waved a hand at Horacio to continue when the boys’ confused looks turned on me. I was thinking of my uncle’s nightmares about the war and wondering if this was his penance for some unimaginable act.
“Anyway,” Horacio continued after looking at me askance, “my gramma told me that one of the descansos up there,” he pointed his chin to the mountains beyond the church, “is supposed to be a real grave, the grave of an Hermano who died while he was acting the part of Christ.”
We gasped. Pedro added, much to my discomfort, “It could be true, you know. I heard my papá and my grampo talking once, and they said that in the old days the one who played Cristo was really crucified on Viernes Santo, only instead of nails, they used ropes to tie him to the cross.”
I was unable to shake off the chills that rose up my spine. Though I noticed the others squirming as well, I knew my distress for my uncle was greater than theirs because they had no knowledge of my conversation with my grandmother.
“All I know is what gramma told me,” Horacio finished, leaning toward us. “She said that if it was true, then the Hermano who died would go straight to heaven. In those days, no one was allowed to witness the procession, but what was stranger was that the dead man’s shoes were left on his doorstep so that the family would know how he had died, and for a whole year no one but the Penitentes knew where they had buried him.”
We all took this bit of news in silence. I pictured the scene Horacio described and thanked the Lord silently that we didn’t do things the old way anymore, and then Pedro spoke up as if reading my mind.
“I’m glad we don’t do it that way anymore.”
We all agreed. However, as we rose to join the men already getting into formation, I saw the black crucifix carried on the shoulders of two Hermanos who emerged from the morada. The moment for which I had longed for so many years—and only today had come to dread—arrived. For the first time, I would take part in the procession of Penitentes, but the pride I felt was overshadowed by the knowledge that my uncle, whom I loved like an older brother, would be in the lead carrying the heavy cross. I knew my eyes would be upon him all the way. Coupled with my foreboding that someone would be dead before morning, my first procession became a penitence indeed.
I sighed heavily, lining up with Pedro at the rear of the group. As everyone who gathered to join the procesión took their places behind us, I was surprised to see Primo Victoriano, leaning heavily on his bordón, directly behind me with his wife, Prima Juanita. I noticed Berto and the others positioned behind him, ready in case he needed assistance.
I turned and offered the elderly man my hand. “If you get tired, everyone will understand if you have to stop,” I told him in a whisper.
“I will,” he promised. “I just had to come one last time, you understand?”
The longing in his withered face was enough to tell me that this might be the last Lent he would see in his lifetime, that this might be the last chance he had to join his Brothers before age or ill health took its toll.
I nodded in understanding, but I saw the weariness of his eyes, in the way he leaned on his cane, in the way his breath emerged from his mouth in short, tired gasps. “Don’t overtire yourself, primo,” I warned, but he only waved my concern away with a hand.
The procession began when my father’s voice rose to announce that this was the reenactment of the Passion of Christ. My Tío Daniel, the massive black cross on his shoulders, moved forward, setting the pace for us to follow.
“Oh—ohhh, imagen de Jesús doloroso para ejercitarse en el santo sacrificio de la misa como memoria que es de tan sacrosanta pasión,” my father intoned, telling us to imagine our dolorous Savior fulfilling His destiny in such a sacred sacrifice in our reenactment of the memory of such a sacrosanct passion.
I read along as the rest of the Hermanos joined in, my voice blending with the varied pitches of the men, rising and falling with each line. The music emerged as if from our very souls to waver and float around us as we spoke to our Savior in a somber hymn rather than with mere words. The very tone of our combined voices and the reverence with which we sang spoke volumes as our words conveyed how much we believed in the passion of our Savior.
My father’s words conveyed that Jesus had revealed many times to his faithful servants what was to follow. And though no one actually did the things to my uncle that my father told us, he paused with each recitation, and the weight of the words he spoke with such tremulous emotion made us feel that just by describing the terrible things done to Christ he felt them in his heart as he carried the symbolic cross.
Then the first time he stopped, Tío Daniel spoke loud enough for all to hear the words that indeed seemed to be the words of our Savior: “Primeramente me levantaron del suelo por la cuerda y por los cabellos viente y tres veses.” My uncle revealed, “First they lifted me from the floor by rope and from my hair twentythree times.”
As he resumed the pace for the procession to follow, my uncle paused twenty-one more times. His pace slowing with each pause, Daniel fought the trembling of his legs. I saw his shoulders bend under the cumbersome cross, symbolically weighing heavily in our hearts each time he staggered under its massive bulk. Even from where I stood, with twelve men before me, I heard his breath come more heavily, his voice emerged more tremulously, the words quaver as he described the countless terrors suffered by Christ in His passion.
“They gave me six thousand, six hundred, sixty-six lashings of the whip when they tied me to the column …. I fell on the earth seven times … before I fell five times on the road to Mount Calvary …. I lost one thousand twentyfive drops of blood.”
By the time we were halfway to the church, many of the women were sniffling, wiping their eyes with their kerchiefs. But the worst was yet to come as my uncle continued, weakened but undeterred in fulfilling his role.
“They gave me twenty punches to my face …. I had nineteen mortal injuries … they hit me in the chest and the head twenty-eight times …. I had seventy-two major wounds over the rest.”
By this time some of the women were weeping openly, and the smaller children, frightened beyond belief—I knew because I was at their age—began to sob quietly at their mothers’ distress. Primo Victoriano stumbled behind me, and I stepped back to grasp one elbow as Berto took the other. The determination in his face to reach the capilla, to finish the procesión as an Hermano one last time, was heart-wrenching. And as I took some of the weight off his feet with my support, I felt tears gather in my eyes.
“I had a thousand pricks from the crown of thorns on my head because I fell, and they replaced the crown many times,” my uncle’s weakened voice continued.
“I sighed one hundred nine times … they spat on me seventy-three times.”
The tears flowed down my face. I heard Primo Victoriano’s labored breaths at my side. I thanked God the procession had come to an end, for the words were too painful to bear, humbling our Christian souls to the core of our being.
“Those who followed me from the pueblo were two hundred thirty,” my uncle finished, “only three helped me …. I was thrown and dragged through barbs seventy-eight times.”
As we reached the capilla, my uncle was barely moving, his feet shuffling wearily in the dirt, his breathing labored. When he leaned precariously forward, the cross threatening to smash him into the earth, several women cried out in alarm. Leaping quickly to his aid, my father and Primo Esteban each grabbed an end of the beam lying on his shoulders, relieving him of his burden just as his knees buckled beneath him and my uncle fell to the ground on hands and knees.
When I saw him fall, his face grimaced in pain, my heart throbbed in fear that he could be gravely hurt, that my premonition of an impending death would come true. I would have rushed to his side but for Primo Victoriano, whose arm clutched mine tightly, his shoulder leaning heavily against me. If I left him, he too would fall.
All the women were now sobbing as they looked at my uncle, trying in vain to stifle their uncontrollable cries because of the children, who, too young to understand what we did, cried with distress and sympathy for their mothers’ tears. A few of los Hermanos rushed to help my uncle to his feet, supporting him as they took him into the church. Though he was exhausted, my tío appeared to be unhurt, and a collective sigh of relief shivered over us. The women calmed themselves and mothers or older sisters hushed children’s cries into soft whimpers.
Primo Victoriano continued to shake against me, his legs quaking with his effort to remain standing, his breathing heavy. Beginning to falter under his weight, Berto motioned for Pedro to help us, knowing that my scrawny frame wouldn’t be enough help to get the elderly man into the church. Relieving me quickly, they placed our primo’s arms over their shoulders, supporting his weight between them as they moved slowly into the capilla with his wife at their side. Following with Horacio and Tino, I heard Primo Victoriano mumble disappointedly at himself that he had no strength left to light the fire or the candles inside. Exchanging glances and nods, we hurried inside, so that when our Primo reached the door, I was busily feeding the flames of the kindling I had lit in the stove and
Horacio and Tino were moving from candle to candle quickly. Turning as he entered, I smiled, glad that we were able to relieve him in his duty now that he needed us. Primo Victoriano only nodded, but the gratitude in his eyes said it all before he allowed the boys to settle him comfortably in the pew nearest the stove.
When the Estaciones ended that evening, there was a silence unsurpassed by any service we had yet attended. I knew that for those who prayed with los Hermanos it was in part because of the anguish of witnessing la Procesión de Sangre de Cristo and the terrible sorrow of las Tinieblas that was to come back at the morada afterward. For Pedro and me, it was something more. We knelt with los Hermanos as novicios in the center aisle of the capilla as we made our slow and somber revolution of prayers and alabados around the retablos of the Stations of the Cross. I found my place in my faith, and it affected me as nothing before had done. It was awesome to contemplate.
When my father signaled that it was time for our return to the morada, I retrieved my black crucifix from the altar. I blew out a candle with a fervent prayer for my uncle’s health and took another taper with me to the door of the now darkened church. Spotting Primo Victoriano, supported between his wife and Berto’s mother, I went to say good night. Someone had gone for a wagon to take the elderly man home, Prima Cleofes explained, for he felt tired.
Prima Juanita clucked her tongue at her stubborn husband, but he didn’t need to say a word. The soft smile that lit his face told me that he had done what he had set out to do. He was content that he had accompanied his Brothers one last time, and he would toll the bell also for the last time that night before he would allow himself to be taken home.
When I saw los Hermanos taking their places in the center of the road, I bade him good night, telling him to rest and not to worry, I would be there to help him on Easter Sunday as well. In the soft glow of the lanterns and candles, his eyes grew moist.
Blinking back his tears, Primo Victoriano looked at me gravely. He said, “I will be here on Sunday, hermanito, and you will light the candles for me, but I will not see their light. I will not feel the warmth of the fire you will make.”
Confused by his cryptic message, I searched his eyes. From the quiet contentment and resoluteness of his gaze, a silent tear that rolled down his withered cheek and touched my heart. My respect and admiration for the elderly Hermano who had fulfilled his desire engulfed me. On impulse, I hugged him close for the first, and for what would also be the last, time in my life.
Carmen Bacataught a variety of English and history courses, mostly at the high school and college levels in northern New Mexico where she lives, over the course of 36 years before retiring in 2014. She published her first novel in May 2017, El Hermano, a historical fiction based on herfather’s induction into the Penitente society and rise to El Hermano Mayor. The book is available from online booksellers. She has also published eight short pieces in online literary magazines and women’s blogs.
Capilla de Santa Rita, Penitente chapel near Chimayo, New Mexico Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA) Negative number: HP.2007.20.562
El Hermano: A living link to a way of spiritual survival
Review by Scott Duncan-Fernandez El Hermano, a first novel by Carmen Baca, brings to life through the story of a young boy in late 1920s New Mexico, the wonder of Los Penitentes, who have been painted by rumor and misconstrued in fiction as backwards and brutal, as cult rather than a humble brotherhood of Catholic men. El Hermano could have been the story of my own great-grandfather, a Penitente brother who died a few years before I was born and thus I know as little of him as the brotherhood to which he belonged. Both the shed on the family ranch and the chapel he built down the road where perhaps he carried out some brotherhood rites still stand and have been objects for reflection on his life and Los Penitentes for me for many years.
The valleys and mountains where northern nuevomexicanos or hispanos live can be out of the way, sparsely populated areas. Due to this remoteness the Penitente Brotherhood arose out of necessity. When Mexico gained independence in 1821, the priests were recalled to Spain, and communities like this farthest colony of New Mexico were faced with a long journey to seek absolution of sin. There were already traditions of lay brotherhoods dedicated to saints (and it is said some of them in the New Mexican colony were covers for Crypto-Judaism).
Men of the community took it upon themselves to absolve their own sins, so that they could address the sins of the community as well. Their activities included praying, procession, scourging and, at one time, electing a member to be crucified.
Los Penitentes have been a secretive and humble brotherhood. The secretiveness and perhaps lurid nature of the scourging and crucifixion had gained interest in the U.S. in the turn of the 20th century. Penitente practices were portrayed in Brave New World, and I recall as a teenager my Anglo classmates mocking the rituals. I chose not to mention to my classmates that my great-grandfather belonged to the brotherhood. Books on American cults, placed next to Ripley’s Believe It Not!, misconstrued the practices of the brotherhood and showed turn of the century anthropological photos of the crucifixion ritual that was no longer practiced.
One such book even had a “Fernandez Brother” chapter that depicted the “ghastly” activities of some of my relatives that took place more than a hundred years ago. While I have spoken to a Penitente brother and a santero, an artist who carves or paints traditional religious figures, who repaired their moradas, the small churches where the brotherhood worships, their responses rather than “secretive” seemed topics “too personal to discuss.” The brotherhood remains a practice that I have known little about.
There has been a need for humanizing countering the negativeportrayals of the brotherhood, which is a living tradition. And the novel El Hermano doesn’t indulge in the lurid portrayal of flagellation or crucifixion by the Penitentes and does an excellent job in portraying members of brotherhood as a religious people concerned for their community and their spiritual needs.
In the 1920s, the young boy, Jose, and his friends in between going to school and doing chores, wonder what the brotherhood is up to behind the walls of the moradas. They grow anxious as the time nears to join the brotherhood if they prove themselves worthy. Their spying gains the attention of Santa Sebastiana, the New Mexican version of La Muerte (or Santa Muerte), who warns them not to spy upon the brothers.
The boys in their nightly attempts to spy, see other apparitions, and a ball of flame that could be a witch. Their elders counsel them and tell them stories to help them dispel their fear of Santa Sebastiana (fear life and its chance to commit sin, they say) and their approaching adulthood and the spiritual responsibilities of being a part of Los Hermanos begin to take shape.
Earlier on, Jose also worries about the looks of his indigenous nose. He wonders if it is ugly though eventually he accepts it as many people in his family also possess the nose. Not only is it common for teenagers from everywhere to worry about their looks, mestizos worrying about their indigenous features often comes up in U.S. literature and in the journey to accept themselves.
My sister and I, very young and not realizing what we were doing, would accuse each other of having a nose more like mom’s and run to the mirror and push our hawkish flared native noses down to no avail. The nose moment is a good example that El Hermano is a serious book about serious issues—how to be good, whether to defy elders, how to live in the face of death, and faith—it may serve as a Young Adult book but isn’t limited to that genre.
El Hermano is also a historical book—set in the late 20s just before the Great Depression. (Jose says he and his family were already too poor to notice). Eventually, the story follows Jose into the war effort of World War II and to the 1970s. As one of the last hermanos in the valley, he must watch and endure as the order ends.
The rural New Mexican setting and the coming of age of a young boy might bring to mind Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima, but El Hermano is set farther north and is at least 10 years before the confusing times of young soldiers returning home from war and allows focus on the Penitentes. The boys are also different: unlike Antonio, Jose doesn’t question his Catholic faith and is overeager for his acceptance into the brotherhood.
Though characters in El Hermano do not challenge traditions overmuch or get involved in deadly conflicts, they have the conflict of concern for their souls and leading a good life. Though El Hermano searches for answers (and may have a witch), it concentrates more on day to day rural life rather than the many questions of survival and witches at odds with curanderas, as in Bless Me Ultima. The focus is on Los Hermanos and Jose’s eagerness to join them, which makes for a different though not less enjoyable story.
The writing of El Hermano is excellent, not overly ornate, but smooth and easy to read. The story is compelling, the tension of what the boys may find, what the vision of La Muerte means, keeps one reading. The acceleration of the story to tell the whole tale of the main character’s life outside the focus of events is done well, and Jose’s testimonial at the end as an older man wraps the story up nicely.
In the afterward, the author lifts the veil. After her father’s passing, as he was the last brother, she inherited her father’s trunk that contained everything used by the brotherhood for their rituals. It was a revelation for her and seemingly an impetus to share this story. Though the father’s local sect died out, the author has enabled us to see the brotherhood in a new, more honest light rather than as sideshow cultists and moreover honors and sets as examples her hispano forebears. One need not be hispano, Chicano, or Latino to appreciate this book, but for me as a nuevomexicano on the periphery of the Penitente Brotherhood, author Carmen Baca has revealed insights to traditions and a living link to those men who created a way of life for spiritual survival and provided a better understanding of a great-grandfather I have never met.
Scott Russell Duncan, a.k.a. Scott Duncan-Fernandez, recently completed The Ramona Diary of SRD, a memoir of growing up Chicano-Anglo and a fantastical tour reclaiming the myths of Spanish California. Scott’s fiction involves the mythic, the surreal, the abstract, in other words, the weird. Scott received his MFA from Mills College in Oakland, California, where he now lives and writes. He is an assistant editor at Somos en escrito. See more about his work and publications on Scott’s website scottrussellduncan.com.
After two full days of driving, I can finally see the sign.
BIENVENIDOS A EL NIDO, GTO
As we drive into my dad’s hometown, I’m actually surprised at how normal it looks. I had been listening to my dad go on and on about growing up in Mexico my whole life, and this was not the dying, poverty-struck place he told me about. The cobblestone roads and tall palm trees are like something off the front of a postcard. The churches are tall and accented with large bell towers. All of the houses we pass are either made from brick or adobe, and the adobe houses are painted crazy colors like yellow or pink or orange. This place isn't dying out. It's colorful, like something out of my old books from kindergarten. I’m just about to tell dad this, but then he pulls the van over by a little orange house that looks like it’s made out of clay. “We’re here,” he says shortly. I actually have to hold in a cringe. My dad never talks in short, simple sentences like that unless something’s up. If this were a normal day, I’d get a goofy, “All right, m’ija, the bus is letting off now.” or something cheesy about how he and his brothers built this house “with our bare hands.” But this is not a normal day. This is the day before my grandma’s funeral, and my dad is understandably off. The entire drive from Texas, I think he said ten words to me in total. “Hey, you want to take the next rest stop, or no?” Part of me gets that he just lost his mom, but the other part just really wants my normal dad back. I was trying to feel sad about what was going on, I really was. I just didn’t have it in me. I never got to meet Abuela. While she was alive, she never even sent so much as a birthday card or anything, so to me, she wasn’t really more than a wallet-sized photo hanging on our refrigerator. It’s kind of hard to grieve a picture. I hop out of the van and help unload our stuff from the back while Dad sort of stands and stares at the house. Then I realize he hasn’t been back here in over 15 years. I try and imagine how it would feel if I left our town in Texas, and came back 15 years later. Would it even feel like home anymore? The front door of the house opens and a petite, dark-skinned lady steps out, sees us, then walks over and hugs my dad. They look enough alike that I can tell this is my aunt, Tía Paulina. She and my dad talk for a minute, then she comes my way. “Anna-Rosa,” she smiles. “Mi sobrina nueva.” My new niece. Then she breaks into rapid Spanish I can’t catch. I look at dad for help. “She says you’re tall and beautiful, like your mom was,” he translates, locking the trunk of the van. “Oh,” I say. “Um…gracias.” “Pásenle,” she says, pointing towards the front door. And I know that’s an invite to come in, because my dad says it to everybody who comes over to our house. “Pásenle, pásenle…” I head into the house, suitcase in hand, and it’s a lot roomier than it looks from the outside. From the front door, we walk right into the kitchen, the floor covered with large, green tiles. A hallway leads to four bedrooms. I know they’re all bedrooms, because they have no doors, just open arches covered with blankets. A girl walks out of one of them, says something in Spanish to my dad, then they hug. “Anna-Rosa,” dad says. “This is your cousin Lupita. She just turned 16, like you.” “Hallo,” Lupita says, flashing a pretty smile. Then she stutters through accented English. “I’m so happy to finally put a face on the mysterious American cousin.” “Hey, that’s pretty good! Did you take English in school or something?” “Oh, yes. Around here, we start English lessons in laprimaria.” “That’s elementary school,” dad says. A few minutes later, Lupita shows me her room, and tells me to leave my stuff there. Since she has a bunkbed, I’ll be staying with her the next two weeks. Then she shows me around the rest of the house. “This is my parent’s room,” she says. “And this one is my brother Mario’s room, but he’s not home. He works in Mexico City. You meet him at the funeral.” “Is the bathroom over by the family room or something?” I ask, realizing that I haven’t seen one anywhere in the house. Lupita grins and points out a window that looks out into the backyard. “You see that little thing out there that looks like a tool shed?” “Um…yea?” “That is the bathroom.” “Oh.” “Any more questions?” “Yea,” I point to the empty bedroom at the end of the hall. “Whose room is that?” Lupita’s face falls as she suddenly gets really interested in a spot on the tile floor. “That was Abuela’s room,” she says. She looks so sad, I feel like I should apologize and say something like “Sorry for your loss”, but that wouldn’t make any sense. I’m just as much Abuela’s granddaughter as she is. Technically, it’s my loss, too. But when I try to match Lupita’s grief, I come up empty. The next few seconds are long and silent, until they’re interrupted by yelling from the kitchen. It’s my dad and Tía Paulina screaming at full volume in rapid Spanish. I haven’t heard dad like that since the time Bryan from across the street pushed me off the monkey bars in second grade. Lupita’s eyes go big as two grapefruits before she grabs hold of my arm.
“Vamonos. Let’s go out the back.” And in one swift move, she rushes us out of the house. “Hey, what’s going on?” I ask once we’re outside. “What are my dad and your mom arguing about?” She throws me a confused look. “You dun’t know? They be arguing on the phone like that for two weeks. Ever since Abuela got sick.” I think back and it hits me how lately dad’s been hanging up the phone just as I walk into the room. “Whatever it is, my dad must be hiding it from me. What’s the problem?” “Your father forgot us, that’s what’s the problem,” Lupita says. “He bought that ticket to America and never looked back. Not even when his own mother was on her death bed.” “Now hold on just a minute. We wanted to come back sooner, but my dad has a job. If we had come down while Abuela was sick and stayed for the funeral, that would have come out to a month away from work, and we couldn’t afford that! Plus, I had finals at school. We do have lives up there in Texas, you know.” “Well, I understand,” Lupita says. “But my mother migh' need to be a little more convince before she forgives your father for missing his last chance to say goodbye to Abuela.” I’ve barely met Tía Paulina, and already she was already rubbing me the wrong way. What did she expect? For us to just drop everything and− “May I ask one question?” Lupita asks suddenly. “What?” “Texas really isn’t so far away. How come you and your father never come to visit?” “And what about you guys down here?” I ask. “The phone works both ways. You guys don’t exactly call us up every Christmas. You guys never write. My mom’s mom calls me on my birthday every single year. I never got so much as a birthday card from Abuela!” I regret that last part as soon as I say it. My dad’s voice rings through my head. “Anna-Rosa, you should never speak ill of the dead.” “Birthday cards?” Lupita asks. She thinks for a long minute then says: “Wait right here.” She ducks back into the house, and as I stand there by myself I think--Great. Dad and I haven’t even unpacked our bags yet and we’ve already pissed off two family members. But when Lupita comes back, she doesn’t look mad. Just…tired. She walks out of the house holding a stack of envelopes, all different sizes and colors. “Here,” she says, putting them in my hand. “For you.” “What are these?” “Birthday cards. Abuela went down to the market and bought you one every year.” I open the top envelope and out comes a glittery little card that says: HAPPY FIRST BIRTHDAY, 2002. My heart drops into my stomach. “She would go all the way to San Miguel de Allende,”Lupita goes on. “Just to find you cards in English. That’s a one-hour trip, you know.” “But I don’t get it. If she went through all that trouble, why did she never send any of these?” “Because,” Lupita says. “Every year, your father would call, saying he was bringing you to meet the family, but every year something would come up. Abuela was waiting. She was waiting to give you these cards in person.”
Sofia Resendiz is an English student at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California. Two of her short stories, “A Term of Respect” and “Tick Tock,” were selected for publication in the college’s literary magazine, Artifact Nouveau. Upon completing her studies, she plans to continue writing as well as teach literature at the middle or high school levels. She lives in the Stockton, California, area.