Prologue: Saturday, October 4, 2003; Tucson, Arizona, very late at night.
I’ve just returned from my very first visit to Magdalena de Kino, Sonora, México where I attended the most spectacular birthday celebration for the miraculous San Francisco, the town’s patron saint. Magdalena was the town where both my mother Dolores and my grandmother Conchita had been born and raised. And in this same town in 1923, my Nana Conchita busted my grandfather’s antique black clock with a hammer, divorced him and with just my ten-year-old mother and a mochila, came to Nogales, Sonora where my grandmother’s two sisters, Carmela and Dolores, lived. After a short stay, my Nana Conchita found work as a laundress in Arizona and she and my mother ended up in Barrio Anita, one of Tucson, Arizona’s poorest barrios, and that’s where my four older sisters and I were born.
I sincerely believe that if you’re very lucky, in your life there is someone whose words you will never forget, and for me, it was my Nana Conchita. She may have never told me that she loved me, and I may have never told her that I loved her, but in both of our corazones, in our hearts, without these words, we knew. So, right here I have to declare that I truly love and remember everything that my grandmother told me and I will never forget her words. I no longer have her in my life, and I do not remember exactly when she gave me this advice, but here it is: She said that when a very esteemed person in your life leaves this earth and you can no longer see them, their spirit, their essence, will continue to visit you in your dreams, your memories, and they will even walk right next to you even though you will probably never actually see them; but if you’re really lucky and have faith, sometimes you can feel their presence.
And if you find yourself all alone in a desperate, dangerous situation and in need of guidance and help, that’s when you will hear and maybe even see them because they will always come to help you. When she said this, I almost wanted to ask her if she would be by my side and come to help me if I ever needed it, but I thought it would be disrespectful so I didn’t say anything. She did not say anything either, but she looked intently at my face and the next thing she did was smile and pat my shoulder, the very same shoulder that she always used to hoist herself from any sitting position.
I thought that with my crazy imagination I would surely see spirits like Lola, my mother, sees Dusty, her best friend long gone, but I never saw any until tonight. And it could very well just be a myth, but like I read somewhere what a folklorist wrote about myths: If you believe that they’re true, then they’re true. So, for me, this is true: I believe that my grandmother will always be by my side forever, and she will come to help me if I need her just as she did tonight when she appeared and helped me save that little girl at the dry riverbed in Magdalena, Sonora, Mexico.
And tonight, right before I go to bed, I am remembering very clearly my grandmother’s precise description of the fiesta that she told me about over fifty years ago when she was around sixty years old; I was around twelve, newly-arrived from Salinas, California where I had lived the last four years speaking only English. But even so, my grandmother and I had many long conversations because she understood my English perfectly and I, slowly, eventually, learned her Spanish. In my saved-memories, very vividly I can picture my Nana dressed in a faded flannel nightgown and robe and praying the rosary every single night before she went to bed. She would slowly kneel next to her dresser where she had an improvised altar with her eight favorite saints. In between the rosary’s misterios, she would abruptly stop her praying and with her soft, sleepy voice and in great detail, she would describe Magdalena’s wondrous fiesta and the authentic Sonoran culinary delights that no other state in Mexico or Tucson restaurant could ever hope to duplicate or beat.
These two were her fondest memories and she never stopped telling me this. “¡Pos sí, Quinta, créyemelo o no, pero de veritas, anque hiziya un pinchi calor de la tiznada—y esto anque juera o no juera ya en el mes de octubre—no cave duda que la fiesta del milagroso San Francisco en mi pueblito de Magdalena de Kino, Sonora, era la fiesta más grandiosa de todo el mundo y con la mejor comida en todo México!”
Yes, these were my grandmother’s exact words in her very own distinctive and unique “imperfect” Spanish which included a truly impressive range of misuse, mispronunciations y las muchas malas palabras that I surely hope won’t offend anyone. And guess what? I now have to totally agree with my grandmother: The fiesta for San Francisco is the grandest celebration in the whole world and with the most delicious dishes in all of Mexico, especially the pozole de gallina pinta which is made with beef, pinto beans and hominy, and it is absolutely not a painted chicken! ¡Pero, híjole, Chihuahua, it was just like she’d said, for it being the month of October, it sure was tiznada HOT!!!
Chapter 1: My main delusions of grandeur and my pocho-mocho Spanish.
What you will never ever imagine when you see me standing anywhere looking toda rascuachita, chamagosa, y cochambruda, holding onto my notepad, my beat-up and battered famous quotations book, thesaurus, and Spanish and English dictionaries in my hands, is that I have the audacity to call myself a writer; but honestly, I do!!! I do!!! I mostly write about my good, bad, joyful and sad memories; lots of descriptions of my days, music that I love, my crazy relatives, my typing clients and all of our inane nonsense and shenanigans. I started writing the day that I got my book of famous quotations and my English and Spanish dictionaries sometime before my twelfth birthday. I remember when I told my Grandmother Conchita that I wanted to be a writer, she told me with her usual enigmatic words whenever I came up with an impossible, quixotic goal: “Ay, Quinta cabrona, ¿pos cuantas veces te voy a dijir que ‘del dicho al hecho hay muncho trecho,’ eh?” Which crazily translates to something like this: From the saying/statement to the action/deed there is a very long distance/space.
My Nana always felt that my writing (grouped along with my reading, daydreaming and my obsessive counting) was nothing but another one of my “puras bavosadas y pendejadas despilfarradas,” saliva-drooling nonsense that would make me waste and fritter away an entire day doing absolutely nothing. But anyway that didn’t stop me. First chance I’d get I would sneak away somewhere to write, but without fail my grandmother would find me, then she’d sigh, sniff and snicker, and—THUNK!—right there’s when she’d smack me on the head with her shoe or with the end of the broom or with whatever else was in her hands.
Well, believe it or not, in spite of the literal and figurative chingazos that life and my grandmother gave me, I still continued to write every chance I got because I wanted and needed to make some sense of my life that was filled with empty blank areas and horrific nightmares and of course this has turned out to be a super-long and difficult endeavor without a final resolution in sight.
Well, besides claiming to be a writer, I have another delusion of grandeur: I could’ve become a photographer like the woman who went around 14 La Quinta Soledad taking pictures of very sad and very poor people during the Great Depression. I forget her name—but it’ll come to me when I least expect it—anyway, just like her, I would have plenty of these gloomy subjects around here, except that I would prefer to take photographs of smiling people if I could find any.
And I would’ve been a good photographer because I have a tendency to view life like as if I was holding my hands out in front of me, my two thumbs together making a square, but missing the top line, and I am always checking out the lights and shadows and colors. For dramatic and most gripping effect, I especially like either the stark blacks and whites like in negatives, or a kaleidoscope of the latest-invented eighty-four Crayola rainbow colors to place over people’s heads.
With the camera in my mind I can very expertly create the most riveting dramatic images and scenes to either photograph plainly or to film with plenty of freezes, slow and fast motion speeds, super-impositions, compressed times with rolling white meringue clouds, deliberately out-of-order flash-backs to the past, flash-forwards to the future, intentional blurs for dramatic effect, and instant replays for the dumb ones who missed it the first time.
And because I like to write, I can even write the piquant and racy dialogue and deep-voiced narrative voice-overs, or else the people can talk sentences with just their eyes or with their words in bubbles over their heads like in the comic books. Or in contrast, I can even imagine the most tranquil inky-dark absolute silence like in a black bottomless abyss where a giant octopus awaits with its eight lazy floating tentacles.
Plus, not only that, but to accompany these scenes or images, I always then select the background music that will perfectly fit the mood, themes, or even the wild pacing of my photographs or films like from the most soporiferous sleep-inducing gringo classics like from Brahms’ “Waltz in A Flat Major, Op. 39, No. 5,” to any of the raunchiest and liveliest Mexican corridos norteños like from Los Alegres de Terán, or even the beer-drinkers’ favorite anthem: “Volver, Volver,” sung loudly by just about any drunk chorus of borrachentos desentonados right before the serious fistfights begin.
Needless to say, if you’re going to have delusions, you might as well go to the very top pinnacle, like up to Mount Everest, and that’s precisely why, in all of my daydreams and fantasies, I myself could’ve become a famous photographer just like Dorothea Lange—somewhere in my memory bank I found the answer that I needed: Dorothea Lange was the Depression photographer’s name and the name of the woman in her most famous photograph was Florence Thompson.
Or, you know, I could’ve even become a movie director like Alfred Hitchcock and I would give myself lots of cameo roles, and then I’d unobtrusively stroll in and out of all the different murder scenes, like maybe I could be a detective taking copious notes in a red spiral notebook, and plus I would get to mingle with the real actors and eat the fabulous catered meals under a rented tent.
At present time, I am a typist for my relatives, friends, felons, juvenile delinquents and a few law-abiding citizens, and I like to introduce myself as a “writer” to them. Although to be sure you could rightly say that calling myself a “writer” is quite a hyperbolic exaggeration because I truly believe that my command of both the English or Spanish languages is almost non-existent due to the fact that I have a very wonky manner of speaking and writing in a very mixed-up hodgepodge manner with improper bad English, pocho-mocho Spanish, Spanglish and code-switching.
But before you know it, like an uninvited intrusive comadre mitotera butting into the conversation, my Past always inserts itself into my Present every chance it finds, and then I can’t find margins or seams to separate the two. At these times I even think that I could be like Joanne Woodward in the movie “Three Faces of Eve,” where she had multiple personalities because when she was a little girl she was forced to touch her dead grandmother. But I know for a fact that I never touched my Nana Conchita to give me this kind of trauma because I never even went up to her coffin. And besides, to be honest, sometimes I think that I don’t even have one personality, much less three!!!
And added to that is the bad habit that I have of always hesitating before answering anything because I have to first, calmadamente, translate the words in my mind, Spanish to English, or English to Spanish, until I form a mental picture of them like as if I was going to take a photograph of them for my favorite Graphic Arts class at Tucson High way back in 1955 to 1956 when I was almost sixteen years old, in the ninth grade, and right before I dropped out of school for the first time.
Because of my high vocabulary score on my last exam when I ended the eighth grade at John Spring Junior High in 1955, I was mistakenly placed in Miss Benvenuto’s Advanced Reading and Writing English Class at Tucson High School where I surely had no business being there. In Miss Benvenuto’s class I had to read novels and short stories, write essays, and learn grammar and punctuation. Of these, what I did learn to enjoy the most was the reading of the assigned short stories and novels and then writing what I thought about them.
But learning the punctuation and the grammar gave me the worst headache that not even my Nana’s sliced raw potatoes on my forehead could take away. Las desgraciadas commas, I just tended to willy-nilly insert them like as if they were raisins in the oatmeal cookies, and I walked out of the class before I learned what a semicolon or a colon was really good for. But I do love the dashes that interrupt whenever and wherever they want—just like I do—and the parentheses that I stick in anywhere and anytime always remind me of those know-it-all viejas chismoleras that you can always count on to give you that extra, sometimes trivial, information. As for the exclamation marks, Miss Benvenuto insisted that only one was needed, but sometimes if something’s exciting, frightening or terribly important, I use three!!!
So without any nalgas huangas excuses or apologies, in April, 1956, I walked out of Miss Benvenuto’s class and dropped out of school before I even finished the ninth grade. In September, 1956, I did start the ninth grade all over again at Belmont High in Los Angeles, but I only lasted almost two months and around the end of October I dropped out for good this time and I returned to Tucson. And to be honest, I can sincerely say that in both of those ninth-grades, except for maybe the Typing and Gregg’s Shorthand classes, I didn’t learn anything even remotely worthwhile.
But now, in my writing, like as if it was a fence separating any of the feuding barrio neighbors, I just stick a semicolon in wherever I want; and the colon I use like as if it was a trumpet announcing a list or something important, or else it’s right before a famous quotation. To this date I still forever use the sacred punctuation marks without respect or boundaries or even omit them completely, but, really, put simply, what almost anyone really needs is two things: a question mark that wants an answer and a period that stops everything in its tracks, like this: period.
There’s lots of things that I’ve forgotten, thrown away or left out intentionally, and there’s still many more things that I’ve confabulated, obfuscated, sugar-coated and glossed over and which surely proves or confirms why Miss Benvenuto called me an unreliable narrator who had no form or structure!!!
And sorry, here I’m not “copping a ‘tude,” an expression that my juvenile delinquent clients always use, but I don’t even give a tiny rat’s pizzle about my sentences that tend to run-on untethered like cucarachas when you turn on the kitchen light with a can of Raid in your hand, and I ignore all of the rest of that boring English chicken-cuacha which included all the pendejadas like predicates, split infinities, dependent and independent clauses, sentence fragments; past, present and future tenses, transitions, points of views, diction, active and passive verbs and all the other chingaderas that never agreed and that I either violated, abused, mis-used, mis-placed, or like as if they were limp huevos boludos, I just simply left them somewhere dangling.
Right off, no matter how much I try to learn what Form and Structure means in writing, I obviously have no grasp of whatever that is. So, I do have to admit that I am just like as if I was a chapulín hopping around with all the other grasshoppers in a green alfalfa field. I have a tendency to either over-write or under-write and I do repeat a lot of senseless things or jump forward and backwards with the subject, point of view, time, place, mood, transitions and dates all out of order. I also create a very confusing syntax where the arrangement of my words inevitably either leads to muddled confusion or to scornful disdain. I don’t know how or why, but I even somehow manage to turn my statements into questions. Like this, you see?
But anyway, who cares what I violated to my heart’s content and even though I may not have learned the perfect punctuation and grammar before I walked out of Miss Benvenuto’s class, for sure what I learned was how to take very good notes because to this day I sagely and diligently follow the advice of an Italian man named Dante Alighieri who in my battered book of famous quotations wrote: “He listens well who takes notes.”
I have a perfect photographic memory (eidetic is the exact word in my English dictionary and in the newspaper’s crossword puzzle). So, with my notes I can recall anything with the most exquisite details in either English or Spanish, and I can describe, almost word for word, the things that I see, hear, touch, smell, taste, or feel. And of course, inevitably, to spice things up, I add my own music, imagery and dialogue. Well, sometimes I do forget the names of famous people or movies or words to a song, and I mix up a few places on the map, and some dates and even some years. But when I really need or want to remember something, it just comes to me, and conversely or reversely, when I don’t want to remember something, it doesn’t.
To be honest, with any one of my stolen pens or pencils that I have an overwhelming compulsion to steal, I can fill up pages and pages with my writing. When I am finished, I put them in a folder and label them as “Chapter” and I add a number and a few descriptive words to help me find something without going through all the pages. Some of these “chapters” are long, some are short, and most are choppy and wacky! Then I stuff them into my Salinas suitcase along with the stash of pens and pencils that I bundle into groups of hundreds.
On my “feeling good” days, I take out some of what I’ve written and I try to bring things up to date or to provide more information. I label it with capital letters: “UPDATE” and add descriptive words like I do on the “Chapters.” I think it’s like when you write postscripts in letters or film flash-backs and flash-forwards in movies. Some of these are brief and some are long with more details, but still not counting as a chapter.
This, of course, wreaks havoc with my past and present tenses, and in some of the dizzying transitions where I jump from there to here or from here to there, and get my dates mixed up, but I believe that’s exactly how people talk, so why not in writing? Anyhow, in my defense, all I can say is that when I’m not purposely avoiding something or else leaving out important information, I try my very best to stay truthful and really, aside from the lies in the letters and forms that I have to type for my quasi-law-abiding or my truly-felonious clients on another one of my client’s stolen electric typewriter—and these surely don’t count because I only type what they tell Mack or me—I never knowingly tell a lie, and so, on this you can trust me completely and implicitly.
But not to brag, I really think that if anyone will give me a word and its meaning, I can easily write a sentence with twelve or more words and it will be perfectly coherent and intelligent-sounding even if I can’t pronounce the word itself, and which is why I never could appear on “Jeopardy,” and that’s irregardless—yes, I do know that’s not a word—of how much I adore the handsome Alex Trebeck, but there really wouldn’t be one solitary interesting thing about me that we could discuss when he comes back after the break to chat with the contestants.
And although I’ve probably been speaking English all my life, I still speak it with an accent, and this I only know because when I was a student at Belmont High in Los Angeles, I applied for some kind of student/worker telephone operator job, and after the woman extolled my high test scores, she told me I couldn’t be hired because I had an accent! Well, I don’t know where the accent came from, but I suspect that it is in the genes before we are even born. So, yes, it’s an example of bitter irony at its best because when have you understood what any foreign telephone operator in New Delhi tells you nowadays? And sometimes, can you believe this, I’ve even been asked by some jackass what country I’m from?!!!
Well, if my English is horrid, you can bet for sure that my gobbledygook Spanish comes close to jack-shit, and I always like to make jokes about it because I surely cannot explain all that baloney about the assimilation and acculturation process; I just know that I am a product of a school system where speaking Spanish was forbidden, Treaty of Guadalupe or not.
So, anyway, pues, here’s where I think that I started to speak Spanish. In July, 1952, at age eleven and seven months, I came back from Salinas, California to Tucson, Arizona to help take care of my grandmother at 937 North Contzen in Tucson’s Barrio Anita. My Nana Conchita had just had an operation on her hips, and she had a cast on her left side from her waist to the beginning of her thigh, and on the right side, the cast went from her waist to her knee. Since she couldn’t move up from her bed for around six weeks, I was there to attend to her needs which were quite extensive, but the main one was to keep her entertained with lively conversations so she wouldn’t get into a bad mood or all sad and melancholy about the Mexico she’d left behind in 1923.
I don’t remember what language I spoke the first eight years of my life here in Tucson, 1940 to 1948, because those years are a total blank, but for the next four years, I had lived in Salinas, California from 1948 to 1952, where no one would be caught dead speaking Spanish for fear of being mistaken for a piojoso bracero field-worker from Mexico. In turn, my Nana Conchita was from Mexico and in the United States since 1923, but she wouldn’t be caught dead speaking English and be mistaken for an officious social worker from the welfare department even if it meant being called a guacha, or one who still wore guarachis on their feet and the cotton calzones de manta underwear, like as if she was a peasant soldadera in the revolution with Pancho Villa.
At first my Nana’s Spanish, even before her sleeping or pain pills started to work, had sounded like plain gibberish to me, but it seemed as though since my arrival that hot and windy afternoon, by pure force, but most likely because I had spoken Spanish in the first eight years of my life when I had lived before in Tucson, already I was re-learning Spanish by the minute, and by constantly interrupting and asking questions and forming mental images with the answers, I could instantly translate to English the gist of what my Nana was saying in Spanish, and somehow she always understood what I said in English.
To me, young as I was, some things that my Nana said made sense, others didn’t, and some I may have invented as the years went by because my memories always tend to jump around like pork chicharrones on the hot grill. In some strange way, I managed to memorize most of what she told me, and that’s why even now I try to write her words exactly as I heard them, and I don’t care who objects to them or who dares to correct me. And for sure, I really don’t care if someone tells me that they are “imperfect,” or that they don’t know what they mean because like I always like to say: that’s precisely why dictionaries were invented. (Hint. Hint.)
Anyway, I could talk to her and jabber away as much as I wanted to in English and she would answer me in Spanish, and if ever I had become a movie screenwriter and had written the dialogue for the scenes with my Nana Conchita, the actor portraying her would only speak Spanish and my grandmother’s words would be shown in English subtitles at the bottom of the screen, like in those foreign movies where you have to read really fast so you won’t miss seeing the actors’ dramatic facial expressions or subtle movements, and her bad words would be like this: @#%$^&*%# like in cartoons where someone smashes their fingers with a hammer!!!
I never really wanted to speak any Spanish, but not understanding my Nana when she told me that when I’d gone to California I’d left Guatemala for Guatepeor, made me resolve to pay more attention to the Spanish because, who knew, maybe, unlike the people in Salinas, California, here in Tucson, Arizona they were so backwards that that’s all the people spoke. But still, my Spanish must’ve been good enough because anyone in Barrio Anita that was allowed to be my friend spoke the same “improper and rascuacho” Spanish that I did, and so without going into details, that should tell you enough.
So, in less than a month after arriving in Tucson, I start to speak Spanish effortlessly—well, almost effortlessly—and soon I could easily switch from English to Spanish and from Spanish to English. Maybe it was like I remember René Martínez, the dishwasher in Salinas who started to speak English from one day to the next like as if he always had the English stored in his brain without his even knowing it; or maybe it was because I must’ve spoken Spanish earlier in my life; or maybe it was just because I was surrounded by it, here in this Tucson Barrio Anita.
That same summer when it was raining so hard that I could not go outside, not even to feed the chickens, and I only had the “Confidencias” magazines that my Nana Conchita’s two sisters sent to her from Nogales, Sonora for reading, so I taught myself to read in Spanish, slowly and by mouthing the words. In these “Confidencias” magazines, my Nana detested the monthly horoscopes that she called “puras brujerías fraudulentas,” but which I avidly devoured. Eventually, though, I believed these horoscopes had to be the most stupidest things I’d ever read, because even if the “Confidencias” had been up-to-date, and even when I cheated and tried three different Zodiac months, the actual December, and then November and January, none of the horoscopes even came close to fruition for me.
These magazines consisted mostly of what my Nana called las vaquetonadas y sinvergüenzadas indecentes, but which really just described nicely and circumspectly the latest escapades of the beautiful movie star María Felix and the results of the latest crooked political elections and what the newly-elected officials were already planning to steal next after they dedicated a new dam for the applauding campesinos. The two things that my grandmother really liked to read were the maudlin and soppy advice for the lovelorn, but only if she agreed with it and if it didn’t call for any of the forgiving “mierdero,” and the recipes that didn’t require strange ingredients like plantains and alcaparras and habichuelas, ingredients that were unknown to the Chino grocers, so she never made any of these dishes.
Well, I did manage to learn Spanish, as the saying goes, something like this: “de el trote y al moche,” and today I can brag that I can speak, read and write Spanish, albeit very badly—so, go ahead and call it an “improper and rascuacho” Spanish. And even so, by stretching the definition somewhat, you could say that I’m bilingual, which supposedly is a good thing to put down on any employment application, especially here in Arizona where probably over half the population speaks Spanish, or at least until some tapados get it outlawed.
The national book launch of La Quinta Soledad, sponsored by Borderlands Theater and Los Descendientes del Presidio de Tucson, will take place on Saturday, December 10, 2-4 p.m., at El Pueblo Center, 101 W. Irvington Rd., Tucson, Arizona.
A native of Tucson, Arizona, Silviana Wood received her M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Arizona and has been involved in the local theater community since the 1970s. She is known for her bilingual comedies and dramas as well as for being a professional storyteller, actor, director, and teacher of literature and Chicano theater. Silviana has twice won the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize from the University of California, Irvine: once for short story, and once for drama. She has also received playwriting fellowships and done several residencies at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas. She has been a member of TENAZ (El Teatro Nacional de Aztlán), Teatro del Pueblo, Teatro Libertad, and Teatro Chicano and is a founding member of Mujeres Que Escriben, a Latina writers’ group that was formed in 1991 and is comprised of professional women whose poetry and fiction have been published in various anthologies. In 2016, Barrio Dreams: Selected Plays by Silviana Wood was published by the University of Arizona Press.
Excerpt from The Nope Game and Other Stories by Javier Loustaunau
As all my fans should know, my biography came out last week, chronicling my early days as a line cook all the way up to owning a small chain of restaurants before the TV show and all the cookbooks. Still this book is incomplete without me leaking this unpublished chapter against the wishes of my editor and my publicist. They refused to let me put it in the book, as it would ‘harm my credibility’ and ‘ruin my image’ but I swear this story is true, it is the last thing I think about when going to bed and often the first thing that comes to mind when I sip my coffee in the morning.
It is the reason I became vegan, the reason I eventually opened a vegan restaurant, and the reason I am an ambassador for veganism as both as a lifestyle and as a political statement. This is a story about the last time I ate meat, and some of you will see it as a metaphor, a lark, a publicity stunt, or a strange flight of fancy. Some of you will think it is some punk rock burst of creativity, brought to you by the guy who created the ‘smoked vegan brisket’. On brand with my weird TV show and my weird sense of humor. “I wonder what he was on when he dreamed this up?”. However, you choose to view this, know that I believe it is the literal truth.For context, this takes place in the mid 90’s, when I was a fresh graduate from the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and every day I was applying to and being rejected by some of the hottest or most prestigious restaurants in New York. Intellectually I was interested in French Cuisine, but my heart was not really into it, I honestly did not know what I wanted to do with my life beyond cooking. To make ends meet I took a job at a Mexican place, not a mom-and-pop burrito shop but an actual honest attempt at fine dining before anyone really knew what Mexican food was except for Rick Bayless and Diane Kennedy.
Shit, I had no idea what to expect. I only applied because I figured it would involve opening cans of beans and stirring big batches of chili con carne. I’m not embarrassed to say I did not take the cuisine seriously because back then nobody did. The place was actually very popular, and the Chef went on to have some success of his own. I will refer to him as El Patron for the remainder of this chapter. I know in a book full of name-dropping it is odd that I do not mention who he is; but he does not want to be associated with this story. It is the reason he fired me and has not spoken to me in years.
He did hire me for my first professional job though, to help out in his restaurant. After a month of washing dishes and performing menial tasks like carrying boxes and cleaning up, he said I was ready to do prep work. This involved showing up at the crack of dawn and breaking down and cleaning all our meats, peeling and chopping all our vegetables and getting several stations set up for the day. I had no idea how to make Mole or Pipian or any of the sauces that made this place popular, for now my job was just to slice and dice and clean.
One morning I nearly had a heart attack when I opened the walk-in freezer. Hanging from a chain in the middle of the tiny, refrigerated room there was a skinless goat, staring at me with two big round eyes. It was horrifying for some reason. I had gutted and cleaned endless fish, shucked oysters, broken down chickens and butchered sections of pigs but… God damn that goat game me a fright and it did not go away either. I looked away from it as I reached half my body into the freezer grabbing for a large crate of vegetables. I heard the chain creak softly and when I looked next to me the whole goat had rotated slightly, meeting my eyes with it’s own dead eyes again.
I shut the walk in and just felt sick and panicked. The adrenaline from being startled was not wearing off, it was instead intensifying, into a full-blown panic attack. My heart was racing, and I had to repeat to myself “it is just meat” in order to stop being paralyzed and start moving about the kitchen again. I had been successful in retrieving my first case of veggies so I started to prep them, trying not to cut my trembling hands in the process. Every few seconds I would get a flash of that goat’s skinless face in my head, with it’s deep dark eyes staring right at me. It had a ghastly smile, probably the result of being all muscle without lips or skin. The whole thing just haunted me.As I finished dicing up the last of the carrots, a certain dread overtook me… I realized I had to go back into that walk in. I laughed a little, it was silly how scared I was of the damn thing, and then I realized El Patron might be expecting me to break it down. I felt a sudden chill go through my body… there was no way I was butchering that thing. I reached into the walk in for another crate of veggies, barely seeing anything through my squinted eyes. My arm touched the cold flesh of the goat and I recoiled, then panicking I snatched the veggie crate and shut the door spilling several zucchinis and onions inside the walk in and on the floor of the kitchen.
As I sliced up onions, I felt my whole-body jerk in reaction to a loud thump in the walk in, surely a vegetable I had left behind rolling off the shelf and onto the floor. There were a few more loud thumps over the next minute, and then a loud CLANK of something hard hitting metal. CLANK! And I was startled again, almost cutting myself. It was unsettling, but I just really did not want to open the walk in unless I had to. A few more clanks interrupted my work, and I was finally ready to move onto cleaning chicken and trimming steak so I worked up the courage to open the walk in freezer again.
It took a couple of tries to actually move my arm, to actually turn that handle and get it open… and when I did there where vegetables strewn about the floor and a couple of sauce containers were on their side and leaking… but the goat was completely gone. Only the chain was left behind, swinging gently, reminding me that I really had seen what I had seen earlier. I just crumpled, sitting on the floor dumbstruck, staring into that walk in unable to do anything. A million explanations raced through my mind: it is a prank, I have lost my mind, my drink last night was spiked, somebody moved it while my back was turned, I am not alone here…
CLAK CLACK CLACK CLACK. I heard hooves on tile, somewhere near the restrooms or the front of the restaurant. I hid behind my prep station, with a knife in each hand. In my head, I was mocking myself for being so afraid of something so implausible, so surreal. The clickety clack would come and go, appearing and disappearing in different parts of the restaurant, but never in the kitchen. I steeled myself, and slowly peered from the side of my station.
My gaze was met by two deep black eyes, staring back at me from a skinless face. Its tongue hung limply from one side of its mouth, and it was perfectly able to stand on its four skinless legs. I freaked the fuck out; my knives went flying and by the time I heard them clang onto the ground I was already taking shelter inside the cramped walk-in freezer. This situation was not much better though, it was pungent with leaking chili sauce and cold and cramped and dark and I knew I could not last long in here. The smell made my eyes well up with tears and those tears felt cold, like they could turn to little icicles. When I heard the beast slowly clickety clack away into the seating area and I sighed relief.
I left the walk in slowly, surveying my messy surroundings but I saw no sign of the goat. Once again, I retrieved my knives and prepared myself to escape out of the back of the restaurant. My feet would slip and slide as I left footprints of chili sauce like dark drying blood. I was moving as slowly as I could, all the while clutching my knives and listening for any movement. I made it past the sinks and was almost out the back door, but I looked, and the goat was in the corner across from me. I screamed “What the fuck are you?!” at it. It made a grunt that turned into a sort of loud screech and it came at me, full force.
I held my blades before me, eyes closed, trying to swing at the beast. It must have leapt because I felt a strong punch right in the gut, and it sent me backwards falling and knocking over a trash can. It’s face was inches from my face, and I distinctly heard it say in a low growling voice “Yo soy el Nagual” before everything faded to black.
I would awaken at the hospital that evening, panicking until a couple of nurses held me down and one came running with a syringe. “No, stop, I’m OK now, I’m OK” I yelled and they backed off, giving me some space to breathe. Fragments of what happened that morning came rushing back to me, at least what I could remember, whatever I was able to jot down later would eventually turn into what you are reading now. At that moment, I was just experiencing an intense euphoria, of knowing I was safe. As you might imagine they said I had experienced some sort of psychological event, likely a nervous breakdown from stress and lack of sleep. I had been partying a lot, and I had been broke, but honestly stress never really factored in, at that age I felt invincible.Then El Patron came in and stared at me in silence for a minute as he composed something in his head. Finally, he said: “I’m glad you are OK, I really was worried. I also hope you understand that you can’t come back to my restaurant, I could forgive you but the doñas who actually make the sauces and tortillas would never feel safe again with some crazy person or drug addict around. I just pay the bills, the doñas really run things and they are scared of you. But I did bring you something, because hospital food sucks. It is birria.”
He poured some warm broth and meat out of an insulated container into one of the bowls we use at the restaurant and from a second container he added some diced onions, oregano and a couple of lime wedges. When chefs are concerned but do not know what to say, they communicate with food. I am the same way, even now. I slurped some broth and it was amazing, I instantly realized I had not eaten since the previous day. I devoured the food almost crying in gratitude and relief and sopped up the remaining chili tinted red grease with a tortilla. “This is possibly the best thing I’ve eaten, what is it?” I asked. “Birria is goat stew, with chilies and clove” he replied. Just like that, I felt it coming back up, and for a second time that day I humiliated myself before el Patron by making a mess. That really was the last time we ever spoke to each other, even though we would often get booked by the same shows filming back to back episodes. I developed a revulsion and full on phobia to meat, and that fear and disgust fueled my desire to innovate in the space of vegan cuisine. It is why you have never seen me as a judge on shows; I tell them I have too many food allergies to be a judge. It is why I was able to ignore the bad reviews and bad press while I built up my career, those things never scared me. Bankruptcy never scared me. Scandal never scared me. The only thing that ever scares me anymore are the memories of having to take animals apart, and thinking of El Nagual.
Javier Loustaunau was born in Los Mochis, Sinaloa where he lived until his 21st birthday. Shortly after 9/11 he decided to move to the US to work for a while, taking a break in his studies as a biochemical engineer. Instead he worked his way up from restaurants to banking, from banking to operations and is now a data analyst in the HRIS and Insurance field. He is a published author of poetry and prose, specializing in short scary fiction. You can find his work on the NoSleep podcast and in the anthology Monsters We Forgot. Purchase The Nope Game and Other Stories.
An excerpt of Manuel Ramos' latest detective novel, Angels in the Wind: A Mile High Noir
Felon turned private eye Gus Corral isn’t doing too well after getting whacked in the head with a baseball bat following his last big case. He was unconscious for a couple of days and still can’t see right. Plagued by headaches, there are days he can’t think straight. Tired, sore and disoriented, he takes his sister’s advice to get out of Denver and help their cousins in Eastern Colorado.
George Montoya’s son, Matías or Mat, has run off again. The seventeen-year-old has run away before, but he always came back. This time, his dad and Aunt Essie know there’s something wrong. As Gus begins to talk to the boy’s family and friends, a picture emerges of a smart kid with strong opinions who fought a lot with his dad.
Did he run away because of his father? Or did he leave because his girlfriend broke up with him? Her father, the town doctor, definitely didn’t want his daughter dating a Mexican. But when Gus tracks the missing boy to a shelter for runaways in Pueblo, the ailing investigator discovers something much more sinister. The boy was helping victims of human trafficking. Could the criminals have caught on to him? All too soon, men with guns are threatening Gus, warning him to get out of town, or else!
Click below to read the first chapter of Angels in the Wind.
Manuel Ramos is the recipient of several literary awards and the author of numerous books, including The Golden Havana Dream: A Sherlock Homie Mystery (Arte Público Press, 2018), My Bad: A Mile High Noir (Arte Público Press, 2016), Desperado: A Mile High Noir (Arte Público Press, 2013), The Skull of Pancho Villa and Other Stories (Arte Público Press, 2015), Brown-on-Brown: A Luis Móntez Mystery (University of New Mexico Press, 2003) and The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz (St. Martin’s Press, 1993; Northwestern University Press, 2004), an Edgar Award finalist. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.
Maceo Montoya is an author, artist, and educator who has published books in a variety of genres, including four works of fiction: The Scoundrel and the Optimist, The Deportation of Wopper Barraza,You Must Fight Them: A Novella and Stories, and Preparatory Notes for Future Masterpieces. Montoya has also published two works of nonfiction: Letters to the Poet from His Brother, a hybrid book combining images, prose poems, and essays, and Chicano Movement for Beginners, which he both wrote and illustrated. Montoya’s paintings, drawings, and prints have been featured in exhibitions and publications throughout the country as well as internationally. He has collaborated with other writers on visual-textual projects, including Laurie Ann Guerrero’s A Crown for Gumecindo, Arturo Mantecon’s translation of Mexican poet Mario Santiago Papasquiaro’s Poetry Comes Out of My Mouth, and most recently, David Campos’s American Quasars. Montoya is an associate professor in the Chicana/o Studies Department at UC Davis where he teaches courses on Chicanx culture and literature.
FlowerSong Press in McAllen, Texas, recently published Sonia Gutiérrez's novel, Dreaming with Mariposas, winner of the Tomás Rivera Book Award 2021. Read an excerpt below. Order a copy from FlowerSong Press.
Our Doctor Who Lived in Another Country
Whenever Paloma, Crucito, and I got so sick Mom couldn’t heal us with her herb-filled cabinets, an egg, or Vaporú, we had to wait for the week to hurry up, so Dad could take us on a trip to visit our doctor who lived in another country. We crossed the border to a familiar place called Tijuana, Baja California, México. Estados Unidos Mexicanos—the United Mexican States—said the large shiny Mexican pesos in Spanish. With her miracle stethoscope, our doctor’s Superwoman eyes and Jesus hands always found where the illness hid.
As our father drove into Tijuana, the city looked like an expensive box of crayons. Fuchsia and lime green colors hugged buildings. Dad parked our shiny Monte Carlo the color of caramelo on the third floor of a yellow parking facility, and we walked down a cement staircase and crossed onto Avenida Niños Héroes. Then, we went up peach marble stairs and entered our doctor’s waiting room.
On the weekends, patients from faraway cities like Los Ángeles and San Bernardino came to see La Doctora. Judging from the looks of some of the patients’ faces, they were there to see the doctor’s husband, who was a dentist. They made the perfect couple—the doctor and the dentist—for both their Mexican and American patients. The doctor, a tall woman with smoky eye shadow, looked directly into her patients’ eyes when she spoke. Not like some American doctors in the U.S. who didn’t look at Mom because she only spoke Spanish.
On one of those doctor visits, I heard the dentist, a tall, burly man with a mustache that looked like a broom, speak English on the telephone with a patient. “John, you need to come in, so I can take a look at your tooth.”
Another time I saw an elderly gringo, waiting for his wife, seeking the dentist’s services. That’s when I realized the other side was expensive for them too.
When we were done at the doctor’s office, our next stop was El Mercadito on the other side of the block on Calle Benito Juárez. Churros sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon in metal washtubs rested on the shoulders of vendors. Fruit cocktail and corn carts were closer to the sidelines of streets, so passersby could make full stops and buy their favorite pleasure bombs to the taste buds.
During summer visits to Tijuana, Paloma ate as much mango as she wanted because fruit was affordable in México. My weakness was corn. And even if I felt sick, I always looked forward to eating a cup of corn topped with butter, grated cheese, lemon, chili powder, and salt. Mexican corn didn’t taste like the sweet corn kernels from a tin can—Mexican corn tasted like elote.
Approaching El Mercadito, dazed bees were everywhere. Mother warned us about not harassing bees. Because according to Mom, bees were like us—like butterflies. “Without bees, our world would not be as beautiful and delicious. Bees are sacred, and without them, we wouldn’t exist. Paloma and Chofi, please don’t ever hurt bees,” Mom said as we walked by our fuzzy relatives and nodded in agreement.
The smell of camote, cilacayote, cajeta, and cocadas added to the blend of enticing smells at the open market, where we roamed with buzzing bees peacefully. Colorful star piñatas and piñata dolls of El Chavo, La Chilindrina, and Spiderman hung along the tall ceiling, and the familiar smell of queso seco filled the air heavy with delight. Wooden spoons, cazos made of copper, molcajetes, loterias, pinto beans, Peruvian beans, and tamarindo provided such a wide selection of merchandise vendors didn’t have to fight over customers. Politely, they asked, “What can I give you?” or “How much can I give you?” as we walked by.
In Tijuana, street vendors sold homemade remedies for just about anything imaginable. “This cream here will alleviate the itch that doesn’t let your feet rest,” and “For a urine infection, drink this tea,” vendors hollered. And then there were the funny concoctions, for which even I, a girl my age, didn’t believe their miracle powers: “For the loss of hair, use this cream that comes all the way from the Amazon Islands.”
Hand in hand with our familia, Paloma and I walked the streets of Tijuana with our sandwich bag full of pennies and nickels. We gave our change to children who extended their little palms up in the air. Mom would take a bag full of clothing and find someone to give it to, which I never understood, because most people on the streets dressed just like us, from the pharmacists to children wearing school uniforms.
Once, when we were walking in Tijuana, Paloma and I saw a man with no legs riding what looked like a man-made skateboard instead of a wheelchair. Our eyes agreed; the man needed the rest of our change.
Besides the rumors about Tijuana being a dangerous place, nothing ever happened to our car or Mom’s purse. In Tijuana, doctors had saved Crucito’s life because my parents knew, if they took Crucito to a hospital in the U.S., he might not come out alive because American doctors wouldn’t try hard enough for a little brown baby like my little brother. In Tijuana, our parents spoiled us with goodies and haircuts at the beauty salon. And I felt bad for Americans who couldn’t afford a doctor and didn’t have a good doctor or a dentist like ours in El Otro Lado—on the Mexican side. Pobrecitos gringos.
“. . . Girls--to do the dishes Girls--to clean up my room Girls--to do the laundry Girls--and in the bathroom . . .” —The Beastie Boys, “Girls”
Because we couldn’t afford a fancy steam iron, Mom was very practical. Instead of using a plastic spray bottle, she sprayed Dad’s dress shirts, including other garments with her mouth. She gracefully spat on each garment lying on el burro.
Ironing was always an all-nighter that seemed endless and agonizing. I hated ironing Dad’s Sunday dress shirts—or anything, requiring special care and Mom’s supervisory instructions.
There were two chores I hated most about being a girl: ironing and washing someone else’s clothes.
The piles and piles of Dad and Mom’s dress clothes on top of our clothes seemed endless. (Thank God Father worked in construction or else long sleeve dress shirts would have added more to the pile). As soon as Mom started setting up el burro—the ironing board—in what should have been half a dining room, but instead we used as a bedroom, I began my whining.
“Mom, but why do Paloma and I have to iron Dad’s clothes?”
“¡Ay Sofia! You’re so lazy!”
“It’s just that I don’t understand. I don’t wear Dad’s clothes. Why us?”
“Sofia, are you going to start? That mouth! ¡No seas tan preguntona! You always ask too many questions! You always talk back! That tongue of yours. Where did you learn those ways‽”
When I nagged, my mother’s facial gestures expressed her disappointment, and she turned her face away from me. What had she done to deserve such a lazy daughter like myself? With a cold bitter laugh, Mom responded, “Because he’s your father,” which I never understood.
Having to live in apartments also meant we needed to fight over laundromat visitation rights. If anybody left their clothing unattended and the dryer or washer cycle ended, Paloma had to spy to check if anyone was coming, and I’d quickly take out the clothing and place it on a folding table. I’d throw our clothes inside the washer or dryer, and then we’d run to our apartment; otherwise, we’d be washing and drying all day.
When we moved from Vista to San Marcos, that’s when I noticed chores strategically favored the man in our family. For instance, we girls never carried out the trash like Dad—just heavy laundry baskets mounted with dirty clothes. To me, mowing the lawn didn’t look difficult at all. It looked super easy and fun.
How to Mow the Long Green Grass By Chofi Martinez 1) Check the lawn for Crucito’s toys, Dad’s nails, and any other sharp objects, including rocks. 2) Add gasoline. 3) Turn the lawn mower’s switch ON. 4) Press on the red jelly like button several times. 5) Pull the starter a couple of times. 6) Push the lawn mower with all your human strength.
If I could mow the lawn like a boy, at least I could be outside and listen to the singsong of finches, watch white butterflies flutter through the garden, greet and wave at neighbors passing by, and stare at the endless blue sky. But instead of Paloma and me mowing the lawn, Dad dropped us off at the laundromat on Mission Avenue next to the dairy to wash and fold everything from heavy king-sized Korean blankets to Dad’s dirty and not so white underwear. Bras and underwear were the most embarrassing garments to dry, especially when red stained or not so new underwear fell to the ground, while we checked the clothes in the dryer. If an undergarment accidentally fell, it’s not like we could ignore it and just leave it there when it was clear we were watching each other. For us, if someone looked at our bra or underwear, it was as if they were looking at our naked bodies. It was equivalent to watching feminine hygiene commercials in front of boys or even worse—Dad. Oh my God! ¡Trágame tierra!
Sometimes, when we barely had enough quarters and single dollar bills to spare in our imitation Ziploc bag, I’d window shop at the vending machine with its snacks and cigarettes then stare and admire the package labels with the bright oranges and mustardy yellows.
While we waited for the washer to end, we sat on the orange laundromat chairs (bolted to the ground in case anyone tried to steal them, I figured). My eyes wandered—at the graffiti, the announcements, the tile floor that needed a broom and a mop, the Spanish newspapers with the sexy ladies with their back to the readers wearing a two piece—a thong and high heels and the constant drop off and pick up of wives and daughters.
Swinging my feet back and forth out of boredom, I stared at the dryer’s circular-glass door with the thick-black trim, where garments would slowly go round and round and round and round, painting a picture of a vanilla and chocolate ice cream swirl, which was like meditating in front of a TV screen. Another dryer gave form to a motley of colors from the palette of Matisse’s bright yellows, blacks, oranges and greens Ms. Watson, my art teacher, had lectured on. And then, the dryer came to a full stop, and the colors—the burgundy red and thorny pink roses and the stoic lion—on heavy blankets took their true forms in need of folding.
Our Dream Home
Mom and Dad were always working for our dream house. In his early twenties, dressed in slacks and a tie, José Armando, our real estate agent, came to our apartment and talked to my parents about becoming homeowners. He sat patiently for what felt like hours translating endless paperwork. José Armando, Tijuana born with Sinaloa roots, grew up in Carlsbad, “Carlos Malos.” He smelled like a professional, and the heaviness of his cologne and starchy clothes filled our small kitchen and living room long after he was gone. Our real estate agent felt like familia.
“Helena and Francisco, the contract states that if you complete all the renovations within a year, the bank will approve the loan. You can move in now, but the house is not in living conditions.”
“But Jose Armando, I’m sure you’ve heard stories--what if the gringo doesn’t keep his promise?” Mom asked our real estate agent.
“Helena, please trust me. Mr. Stoddard is a good man and will not back out of the deal because he signed the contract,” José Armando assured Mom the owner would follow through. “You know Francisco more than I do. Your husband is going to make the house look like a palace—like your dream home. Helena, the property even has a water well. You can add the roses, calla lilies, and fruit trees you’re looking for in a property. And, most importantly, you won’t have to commute from Vista to San Marcos anymore.”
Where Dad and Mom came from, waiting periods to build a house didn’t exist; people didn’t need permits to build a home made from adobe or blocks. In the U.S., however, my parents had to settle for a fixer-upper Dad could mend in no time with the help of family and friends.
When José Armando finally struck a deal with the owner, it took Dad a whole year to claim the house on 368 West San Marcos Boulevard as our own. After Dad came home from working construction all day, he’d work at home. Mom must have had sleepless nights when Father agreed to buy our first house. That’s because Mother didn’t see what Father saw. We would have a street number to ourselves, 368.
The first days at 368, Mom refused to eat in the kitchen, and how could she eat in there? How could her children eat in that thing Dad called kitchen? Yes, the house included a small stove, but cockroaches were baking their own feasts in the oven. Dad imagined a swing set for Crucito in the backyard’s green lawn. But Mother had heard the neighbors walking by say the backyard turned into a swamp during the rainy seasons. Dad imagined a one-foot swallow lined with miniature plants that would keep the water moving to the large apartment complex next door. But Mom saw the swamp at our feet. Dad imagined the pantry and mom’s new wooden cupboards. But Mom saw mice and cockroaches. Lots of cockroaches. Mom saw the faded dilapidated and peeling mint green paint. Dad saw a new wooden exterior and a fresh coat of paint.
Our new but old kitchen was infested with silky brown cockroaches—the thin kind that matched the plywood. Underneath the crawl space lived the critters, and at night, big roaches squeezed and welcomed themselves in through both the front and back door to drink water and eat crumbs. Paloma and I, in our superhero capes, made from black trash bags, became Las Cucaracha Warriors de la Noche and ran after the cucaracha bandits. We routinely turned off the lights, and then at about ten o’clockish, Mom turned on the kitchen lights, and Paloma and I charged at them. While they scattered everywhere, we all took our turns killing the horde of nightly visitors. The pest problem at 368 went away with endless nights of Raid attacks and hot water splashing. Paloma and I even conquered our cockroach phobia and squished cockroaches with our very own index fingers.
The master bedroom had seven layers of dusty carpets pancaked on top of each other. The wooden floor in our living room held itself together miraculously—we were always careful to wear shoes to prevent any splinters from pricking our bare feet.
When we finally settled into our new home, one Saturday morning Paloma and I still in our pajamas were arguing over who would have to sweep and mop before our parents got home from work when suddenly we found ourselves shoving and wrestling each other. And then with a big push, the unexpected happened. I flew through the wall.
“Oh my God, Chofi! Look what you did!”
“Look what I did? You pushed me, Mensa!”
Paloma and I had to reconcile immediately to cover up the crime scene.
When Dad got home later that afternoon and walked through the hallway to inspect our chores, he demanded an explanation, “¿Y este pinche sofá? ¿Qué está haciendo aquí?” Chanfles, we thought as our eyes placed the blame on each other. Dad gave us the mean Martinez Castillo stare with the white of his eyes showing that always worked, shook his head, and stormed out of the house because Dad knew he had to replace all the house’s old plywood with new drywall.
Our idea of placing a love seat in front of the hole to cover it up didn’t work. Our fear for our father’s punishment turned into giggles and then uncontrollable laughter. Poking at each other’s ribs and yelling at each other, “It’s your fault!” and “No, it’s your fault!” we almost peed our underwear. We laughed at the hole in the wall, the sofa that barely fit in the hallway that must have looked ridiculously out of place in our father’s eyes, and at our new but old house facing the boulevard.
Strangers driving by honked or waved and gave Dad a thumbs up when he worked on our house on the weekends. We were living in Father’s dream home, and we were happy. José Armando, our real estate agent, was right—Dad fixed our house, and Mother created her garden of dreams, where Dad and Mom planted hierbas santas. Orange, avocado, peach, cherimoya, guava, and purple fig trees. And native yellow-orange, deep-purple, and rose-colored milkweeds for our butterfly relatives who passed by and travelled south to Michoacán, our parents’ homeland. One day we would follow them if Mom and Dad worked hard and saved enough money. One day.
The Guayaba Tree
In San Marcos, our backyard smelled like Idaho. The familiar smell of manure from the Hollandia Dairy on Mission Avenue lingered in our backyard. Months before the guava tree joined us at San Marcos Boulevard, Mom took free manure from the dairy for our garden and prepared the earth with water. Even if we already had a few trees, Dad and Mom talked about the trees and plants with special powers that would join our family. Next to the guayaba tree’s new home, the apricot tree had already joined us, and now it was the guava tree’s turn to step out of its black plastic container and to spread its roots and branches. At the end of the week with their Friday paycheck, Mom and Dad’s eyes were set on an árbol de guayaba.
Right after work Dad drove us to the northside of San Marcos on the winding road to Los Arboleros, the tree growers’ ranch on East Twin Oaks Valley Road, to buy the perfect tree for our backyard. As we approached a dirt road leading to the Santiago property, Don José in his sombrero and red and yellow Mexican bandana tied around his neck waved at us. At his side, two large Mexican wolfdogs with imposing orange eyes barked at us as we approached the nursery next to their house.
“Paloma and Chofi, be careful with Don Jose’s dogs.”
“Okay Ma,” we answered in unison.
“Buenas tardes, Francisco and Helena. Don’t worry, Señora Helena. My calupohs don’t bite unless they smell evil. They scare off the coyotes that want to get into the chicken coop. Last week a red-shouldered hawk snatched one of my María’s chickens in broad daylight.” Don José’s dogs, Yolotl and Yolotzin, sniffed our stiff bodies while I prayed to San Jorge Bendito: “San Jorge Bendito, amarra tus animalitos . . . .” Yolonzin sniffed and licked my hand. Thankfully, Don José’s calupohs remembered us; we were in the clear. “If you need anything, holler at me. I’m going to water the foxtail palm trees on the other side.”
At Don José and Doña María de la Luz Santiago’s small ranch, Paloma and I were careful not to step on rattlesnakes. We walked through the rows of small trees in 15″ containers and played with sticks next to a large flat boulder with smooth holes. I filled the holes with dead leaves and dirt and mixed it with a stick. “Paloma, let’s ask Don Jose about the holes on this large boulder. How do you think these holes got here?” Paloma shrugged her shoulders and signaled with her head to get back. With the calupohs following us, we found Mom and Dad still deciding on a tree and a crimson red climbing rose bush.
“But Pancho, look how green the leaves look on this one!”
“Yes, Helena, but look at this one. It has a strong tree trunk.”
“Pancho, this one has ripe fruit! Smell it, Pancho. With time, this one will be strong too.”
“You’re right, Helena. We can take the one you want. Let’s pay Don Jose and get going before it gets too dark, so we can plant our tree today.”
“Yes, Pancho, it’s a full moon!”
“Paloma and Chofi, I’m glad you’re both back. Go look for Don Jose, and tell him we’re ready to pay.”
Paloma and I ran to look for Don José. On our way to find him, I remembered we needed to ask him about the holes on the boulder.
“Hola Don Jose. My mom and dad are ready to pay.”
“Let’s go then.”
“Don Jose, we have a question for you. We saw a big flat rock on your property, and we’re wondering how the holes got there.”
Don José cleaned his sweat with his bandana and gave us a pensive look.
“Those holes. Well, Chofi, as you may know, this land you see here from Oceanside all the way to Palomar Mountain and beyond was inhabited by Native people. Women sat and pounded acorns on metates like the one you saw and made soup and other foods. You can only imagine how many years it took for those indentations to leave their mark and to withstand time. Those women, Chofi and Paloma, left their mark.”
“Oh, wow, Don Jose. That’s why the road is called Twin Oaks Valley Road? It’s a reference to Native people’s trees, who lived in this area?”
“Yes, Chofi and Paloma. Native people still live on these lands—in Escondido, San Marcos, Valley Center, Fallbrook, Pala, and Pauma Valley and beyond. Ask your U.S. history teacher about the people who inhabited these lands. I’m sure they can tell you more.”
“Thank you, Don Jose. I’ll ask.”
Dad and Mom paid Don José, and off we went to plant our guayaba tree. With our guava tree sticking out of the window in the Monte Carlo and lying on Paloma, Crucito, and me in the back seat, Mom was all smiles and kept glancing back.
“Pancho, please drive slowly and turn on your emergency lights. Children, hold onto our tree carefully.”
“Don’t worry Helena. Two more stop lights, and we’re almost home.”
Dad agreed to Mom’s pick because he knew she loved guayabas—all kinds. This time they chose the one with the two guayabas with pink insides, which wasn’t too sweet and just about my height. I preferred the bigger trees at Los Arboleros. Why couldn’t we get bigger trees? Mom and Dad always chose the smaller trees because those were the ones we could afford, and plus we didn’t have a truck like our neighbor Don Cipriano’s, but maybe we could borrow it next time.
As soon as we arrived home, Dad cut the container down the middle with a switchblade, and Mom pushed the shovel down with her right foot and split the earth.
“¡Ay, ay! ¡Ay Pancho! Be careful with the tree’s roots. Here, grab the shovel. Let me hold onto the arbolito.”
Dad dug the hole, exposing the dark brown of the earth as two pink worms shied away from the light.
“Dad, can Crucito and me get the worms, pleaseee?”
“Hurry up Chofi and Cruz. Go ahead. Your mom and I want to plant the tree today.”
While I carefully took the worms from their home, Mom held the guava tree as if she held a wounded soldier and whispered to the tree, “Arbolito, don’t worry. You’re going to be safe here. I’m going to water you when you get thirsty and take care of you—we all will.”
“Pancho, one day we’re going to make agua de guayaba.”
“Sí, Helena, we’re going to make guayabate like the one my mom used to make. It was so good!”
“I bet it was, Pancho. To prevent a bad cough, my mom used to give us guava tea to fight off the flu.”
“Helena, did you know guava leaves are also good for hangovers?”
“Ay Pancho. ¿Qué cosas dices? Let’s get this tree planted.”
From the dried-up manure pile, Dad mixed the native soil and compost and pulled the weeds. As Mom placed the rootball above the hole, they both looked for the guava tree’s face and centered the tree on top of the hole. With the shovel, Dad poured the dirt around the tree. Mom took the shovel from Dad and pounded softly on the dirt surrounding the guava tree, making sure they left the edge below the surface.
Next to the apricot tree with a woody surface, the small guava tree with tough dark green leaves would be heavy with fruit one day for our family, our neighbors, and friends. Dad went looking for a canopy for the young guava tree to protect her from winter’s threatening frostbite, and mom stood in the garden, admiring our new family member.
It was time to return the worms to the earth; they were so tender but so strong. I made a little hole with my hand, placed the worms inside, said thank you to the worms, and covered them with dirt. The guayaba tree would make a perfect home.
Sonia Gutiérrez is the author of Spider Woman / La Mujer Araña (Olmeca Press, 2013) and the co-editor for The Writer’s Response (Cengage Learning, 2016). She teaches critical thinking and writing, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. FlowerSong Press in McAllen, Texas, recently published her novel, Dreaming with Mariposas, winner of the Tomás Rivera Book Award 2021. Her bilingual poetry collection, Paper Birds / Pájaros de papel, is forthcoming in 2022. Presently, she is returning to her manuscript, Sana Sana Colita de Rana, working on her first picture book, The Adventures of a Burrito Flying Saucer, moderating Facebook’s Poets Responding, and teaching in cyberland.
A chapter from the upcoming book Three Batos And One Chavala by Tommy Villalobos
Somos en escrito welcomes back Tommy Villalobos, one of the first budding novelists drawn to our cyberpages. After a long hiatus in a hideout in the High Sierra, he reappears with this chapter excerpted from a coming novel, full of broad swaths of barrio life and inimitable characters. Here's a quick glimpse, introduced in the writer's own words: “I’d like to give you a quick background of my story. It’s a novel, or novella, called Three Batos And One Chavala. It’s about a train trip from L.A. to San Francisco set in the 1930’s. I did research for that time period, including trains, terminology, dress, music, locations and geography. Three guys (los batos) compete for one Chicana beauty (the chavala) on the train ride. The story starts out in the East L.A. of that period and ends up in San Fran and Watsonville, with side trips back to L.A.. There’s a dominant tía involved, protectress of the girl, Samuela, who tries to trip up all suitors of her sobrina.”
Sandra made a twisted face because the encounter had ruffled her feathers and caused her great distraction, an interference of her concentration required to speak about meters and penta-meters in contemporary poetry. She sat down to review her lecture notes. The door opened yet again and Alicia popped in again.
“Señora, llegó otro.”
“This is outrageous!” wailed Sandra. “Hope you told him to go find another house.”
“No, también lo tire en la sala.”
“Is he a poetry critic from a magazine?”
“Not even close, Señora. He has shiny shoes, suit, tie and slick-back hair. He says his name is Alberto Pistillo.”
“Yes. He showed me something with his name, I guess, but I couldn’t read it since I left my lentes in the kitchen where I was cleaning the frijoles.”
Sandra walked to the door with the ugliest face she could imagine making, stopping at a wall mirror to look at herself. Satisfied, she continued on. Like she had just announced, this was outrageous to her. She recalled this apestoso, Alberto Pistillo. He was the hijo of Fred Pistillo, the one who was helping Joe Milago in trying to snag her little house overlooking the Pacific. He lived somewhere around here. This unwelcome visit could only have one purpose and that would be to talk about her house. She headed toward the living room determined to stomp out the Pistillo familia from her life once and for all.
Alberto Pistillo was skinny, appearing hungry for both food and love. He had dark, beady eyes and a pug nose, giving him the appearance of a desperate Pug Dog. In fact, he looked more like a Pug Dog than a Pug Dog did. He shocked diners in restaurants when he sat eating spaghetti and cream carrots. It seemed to them that he would prefer a small steak bone chased with a dog biscuit.
“Buenas días, Señora Westo.”
“Sit,” she said, keeping with the Pug theme.
Alberto sat even though he looked as if he would rather be petted. His beady eyes scanned the room, a wry smile on his mug, if I can use that word given his canine appearance.
“Señora, I need to talk with you alone.”
“You are talking to me,” said Sandra, waving around the room. “And as you can see, we are alone.”
“Where do I start?”
“I’ll tell you. No. The answer is No.”
Alberto shook visibly.
“Then you know?”
“That is all I know since I ran into Mr. Milago. He can talk about nothing but my humble casita. Your father talks about nothing else. And now,” Sandra raised the volume several decibels, “you show up to hammer my head some more. One more time, nothing doing. There isn’t enough money in circulation to let someone live in my home by the sea.”
“Then you don’t know why I am here?”
“You didn’t come to talk about my casita by el mar?”
“No, I didn’t come about that.”
“¿Entonces, por que diantre estás aquí?”
Alberto shifted his feet nervously. He moved his body as if were trying to get out of it.
“I like to mind my own business.”
“Really?” she said, to get him started again.
“I don’t carry chismes with just anyone.”
“I don’t make…”
Sandra was never a patient person. Or poet.
“Just let us accept all your character traits, and let us take it from there,” she said bluntly. “I am dead sure there are all kinds of things you don’t do. Let’s talk about what you can do about where you are now. What do you want to talk about, if I can make such a shocking demand upon you?”
“Your niece’s marriage.”
“My sobrina is not married.”
“No, but she is going to be. At The Little Chapel of Hope in Gardena.”
“I’m not happy either,” said Alberto. “I’ll tell you, and speaking for myself, I’m in love with her, too.”
“Nonsense as far as you’re concerned. But who is this other drip?”
“Felt that way for years. I’m one of those silent types, hiding in the shadows, liking a woman but never telling her or showing her my feelings…”
“Who is the snake who has ambushed my sobrina?”
“I have always been a man to…”
“Mr. Pistillo! Let’s also assume you have some good qualities. Tell you what, let’s not even talk about you anymore. You barge in here with a crazy story…”
“Not crazy. Facts. I heard it from a primo, who heard it from a prima, who heard it from an abuela, who heard it…”
“Will you tell me who the alley cat is who has tricked my niece or do I choke it out of you?”
“I agree that she is muddled, alright,” said Alberto, jumping at the opportunity to be agreeable, “and I think she should be marrying me. She is a fine catch. We practically grew up together and I loved her then and love her now. I’m sure she knows. But things sometimes don’t go the way you want them to. I saw a chance last summer but I lost my nerve. I am not a smooth and flashy man with a great line. I can’t…”
“Stop now!” said Sandra. “Hold your self-analysis for friends and family who would be somewhat interested. I want to hear the name of the worm my niece is NOT going to marry.”
“I thought I told you,” said Alberto, surprised. “Extraño. Guess I haven’t! Funny how you feel you’ve said something and haven’t. People know me as…”
“Whatever is the fool’s name?”
“Milago? Trimino Milago? The wild-haired son of Joe Milago I met at your father’s casa?”
“You have it. What a guess. You should stop it before it happens.” “Watch me.”
Tommy Villalobos, in his own words: “I am living a contemplative life in suburbia, which itself is something of a feat. Talk about an oxymoron. I am writing my silly novels and short stories about my working gente (and some who kinda work), and their sometimes entertaining attempts at love and living in our bicultural experience going way back before La Llorona, El Cucuy and them. I hope to make friends so I can steal more historias and chismes for my stories. I was born and raised in East Los, but I have wandered aimlessly since. I presently live near Sacramento in an undisclosed location known only to who knows who.”
A novel by Carmen Baca Somewhere in the void of nothingness where la Llorona had been keeping herself in secluded oblivion for the past decade, there was a spark of something. Almost as if the small ember beneath the kindling set to light the morning fire came to life with the breath of a breeze, something in the old ghost’s mind ignited and came alive once again. She couldn’t quite grasp what it was that sparked her to consciousness, but she knew it could only be one thing: Rosita or someone she loved was approaching the boundaries which kept her restrained to the southwest.
As the Tapias had made their home so far away from anything they ever knew and tried consciously not to think of the ghost who was the cause of their move, she lay dormant. Not moving, barely existing, but thinking, always thinking of her revenge and plotting different means to accomplish it when the time was right. She relied on the patience she'd developed over the 148 years of her eternal life.
From time to time, her own son came into her mind and had she been able to cry tears, she would have flooded her location with years of sobs. Instead, she tried minute after minute, hour after hour, and day upon day to reach the Tapia family with her thoughts. Searching everywhere for the boy who escaped her clutches and whom she longed to capture and never release, she did not give up her quest, even though she knew her boundaries limited her reach. In Rosita's old neighborhood, there was a house which held promise. There lived a young woman about the same age as Christino, and like clockwork every Sunday evening she sensed a connection between this girl and the young man though she could also tell there was some distance between the two. She felt that using this girl would enable her to get closer to her goal, and she bided her time until this something or someone crossed the southwest boundaries and fell into her hands. That's how relentless she was and how ruthless.
So, while one part of her mind acted like the ever-undulating snakes sprouting from the head of Medusa constantly using their forked tongues to feel for her prey, she used another part to entertain herself with the memories of contented times to pass her period of isolation. Of course, her chief enjoyment was recollecting all the instances she had encountered humans.
She recalled an occasion where she had just bitten into a succulent wild strawberry she found in an orchard when she spotted a trio of adolescent boys walking past. Sure they were up to no good—apple stealing, most likely—she moved to stand before them when they paused under the first large tree with fruit-laden branches which almost touched the ground.
Before they could move, she blew a strawberry-scented breath into their faces, first left to right and then back again, watching as their eyes opened wide and their mouths too in preparation to speak.
"Did you feel that—" "Oh, Shi—"
Thoughts did not quite make the exclamations complete so quickly did they take steps back. Each turned in all directions to figure out what it was.
"There's no wind," reasoned one.
Another, who began shuffling a foot through the fallen leaves and underbrush and looking at the growth, chimed in, "I don't see a single strawberry."
Then the last said what they had all been hoping none would voice: "La Llorona—it had to be!"
As if to prove him right, an apple fell from the tree they stood beneath and hovered before them in the air as though suspended from invisible string. María had it from the stem and allowed it to swing toward the boy who had said her ill-gotten name. Then the ghost let it loose where it struck him smack in the center of his chest. She didn't throw it hard; it barely hit with a small thump, but he fell back in a faint.
"Oh, my God! He's dead!"
"Quick, grab his arm!"
The other two took an arm and dragged the boy backward as fast as they could get away with tree limbs and shrubs in their path. No matter—though the boy's head got stuck in a large weed once and bumped into a small log on their way out of the arbolera, the three kept going until she could see them no longer.
The memory triggered more, and María retained her position where she lay, knowing the end to her self-imposed banishment was near. She need not waste what time she had to remain dormant in guessing what was to come.
# So, as the two travelers made their way down the Alaskan coast toward Washington, still far from their destination, the evil phantasm the older one wanted to avoid and the younger one knew nothing about kept her senses aware. With each mile that passed, she kept her patient vigil. The days of travel passed routinely for Thomas and Tino; as the number of miles beneath the car's tires grew, so did Tino's impatience to get to their final destination. The earthquake of 1964—ten years before—when he'd been five-years-old, bothered him. Sometimes, when any significant alteration of his daily routine occurred, he became so anxious that Rosita had to teach him how to ward off panic attacks and accept what he couldn't change. Marisol's leaving was an especially trying time for the boy, but the weekly phone calls and letters between the two kept him from experiencing too much anxiety. Rosita hoped the intervening years between Marisol's departure and Tino's reaching his eighteenth year would make him more amenable to change, and she worried about his leaving to college at all if he weren't able to adapt. But then Marisol's mysterious illness arose, and the defect in his character seemed to disappear from the moment he heard her mother's tearful voice say, "Oh, hito, I think our Mari's dying." Concern for the love of his life had done what nothing else, not even subsequent earthquakes brought by Mother Nature herself, could have made him do in all his formative years—accept change and move forward with it, rather than pretend it wasn't happening or worry himself sick over it. He had a quest at last, and a journey ahead that would prove his mettle. Like Odysseus, Tino would face dangers he didn't expect. Unlike the epic hero though, Tino had no idea. So Thomas and Tino traveled through Washington, the top right corner of Oregon, and the bottom left corner of Idaho without incident and made good time. Thomas gave the wheel over to Tino on the long, flat stretches of highway so he could rest his eyes to make the best time of the almost twenty-three-hour trip. Thomas needed no sleep, no resting of any body part, but he had to convince others he was human. And so he did human things he remembered but had no need for any longer. When they reached Utah, something happened which made Thomas well-aware they had reached the southwest. As he drove down the highway, Thomas began getting the feeling he always did when he sensed danger. He glanced at his passenger and saw Tino was awake, so he asked him to keep an eye out. "For?" "I don't know, but something feels off, like maybe a thunderstorm is coming." "I don't see—" Tino began, and left his statement unfinished when he saw it. A sudden dust devil appeared to their right off in the distance, which was strange because Utah isn't known for tornados. Tino called attention to it, but Thomas had already seen it and was debating either accelerating or decelerating to avoid it since it looked to be coming right for the road they were on. "What the heck—" Tino began when it shifted course and seemed to head right at them. It seemed Mother Nature wasn't finished teaching Tino lessons. "Hang on!" Thomas did speed up then, the car shaking and rattling as it shot over eighty miles per hour and the dust devil spun itself into a full-blown tornado. Rocks, gravel, brush, small branches, tumbleweeds, and who knew what else slammed into the vehicle on all sides as Thomas fought with the steering wheel which was shaking so badly Tino feared it would fly right out of his friend's fists. And just as fast as the twister hit, it blew itself out with a giant puff of dirt and dust behind them. Thomas looked at Tino; Tino looked right back. "Did you see that? What was that? Why did—" Thomas held up a hand as he began slowing the car to its normal pace but kept going. "I'm not sure why it happened just as we passed, but that twister must've caught a nice updraft to form as fast as it did," he offered a half-educated opinion and hoped he'd halted Tino's questions. He knew the young man was ignorant about his mother's plight with la Llorona, and he didn't think it was his place to set him straight. And though he didn't like not being truthful with Tino, he didn't know what else to do. Surely, he needed to have a conversation with Doña Sebastiana after all. After another period of travel, they reached a small town. Here was as good as anywhere, Thomas thought, to have supper and a short rest before continuing on. So the two stopped at a quaint diner with '50s memorabilia, and Thomas waited for the inevitable questions Tino was bound to have. The younger man surprised him, however, and spent the time waiting for their order by strolling along the walls featuring old black and white photographs of '50s stars and plugging quarters into the jukebox. When their food arrived, they ate as though they hadn't eaten in days and sat back when they finished, sated and lazy with the fullness of their stomachs. They didn't waste time, both anxious to get going again and left shortly thereafter. Before long, they crossed into the southwest corner of Colorado, and again, Thomas listened to his inner voice warning him of impending danger. Again, he asked Tino to keep vigilant. "Not again," he groaned, sitting up in his seat and sweeping his gaze from one end of the windshield to the other. Turning in his seat to look behind, he saw nothing amiss in any direction. He should've looked up. Everything happened simultaneously—just as they were passing an especially high cliff to their left with a precipitous drop to a canyon on the right, Thomas' acute intuition kicked in, and both he and Tino heard a rumbling from above. The older man floored the accelerator at the same time a boulder larger than the car crashed onto the highway behind them. Slamming on the brakes, Thomas jumped out of the car on his side, and Tino did the same on the other. "Did you know that was going to happen?" He looked wide-eyed at his mentor. Then he accused, "You knew that was going to happen. How, why—" "I heard the rumble before you did, I guess," Thomas interrupted. "I've always had exceptional hearing," he added as both looked back at the cars that were lining up one behind the other due to the obstacle in their way. "At least we're not trapped on the wrong side of that rock." He got back into the car, and Tino followed suit. When Thomas offered no more explanation, Tino remained quiet, vigilant eyes looking in all directions. As he drove, Thomas' thoughts took him back to the twister in Utah and the landslide in Colorado. He had a feeling in his gut the incidents had been orchestrated, not accidental. There was something more at play here, and he wondered if he should let Doña Sebastiana know. Then again, the ancient one knew almost everything, so he determined to be extra alert and keep his concern at bay unless more happened to cause concern.
Finally crossing the state line into the uppermost corner of New Mexico, the travelers were anxious to arrive. Thomas knew, though, that here was the most danger—and now he realized that the boundaries which held María in this land of enchantment were more of her own making than that of a higher power. Thomas had read up on the state, which he now entered. This land held so much more than beautiful vistas. It was home to a melting pot of peoples: several Native American tribes, Hispanics whose ancestors settled here from mainly Mexico and Spain, and many others of varied and many nationalities, races, and cultures who sought the peace and serenity of the diverse landscapes the state provided. From mountain ranges in the north and south-central portions, to desert like sections in the southwest, central and south eastern parts, with gorges and rock formations, cliff dwellings and caverns, the state had much to offer its residents and tourists alike. So many who ventured into the enchanted part of the southwestern United States fell in love with the varied landscapes and left their homes elsewhere for the fresh air and mystic mystery of the place. It was no wonder la Llorona and so many others of her ilk refused to leave it even when they passed. Haunting their favorite places, from hotels to individual houses, cemeteries, and churches, bars and brothels alike, like Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner, an unknown woman in white by the highway around Santa Rosa, and even a little boy haunting the Kimo Theatre in Albuquerque. New Mexico has always been a safe haven for ghosts. And they were spotted regularly enough that everyone believed in all of them.
The legend of la Llorona was, by far, the most widely known, however. She was the only one who had been spotted through the recent centuries in all of the south west states. Others, like el serpiente, were seen in specific locations. There were still others who were spotted in many places, but they seemed to be ghosts of different people. It was la Llorona, the Weeping Woman, who was spotted throughout the decades searching for her lost children as she wandered along both lush and nearly barren river banks from Utah, to California, to Mexico and the states between.
Just as Thomas approached the border at the top corner of the state, his intuition kicked in, stronger than at any time since his demise on the train collision. It was a punch to his mid-section that left him bent in pain as the hand not on the wheel pressed hard against his stomach. He inhaled with the intensity of the blow and sat up straight so fast his spine gave a crack.
And it was gone.
The moment the car flew past the state line dividing Colorado from New Mexico, he felt exhilarated—still concerned, wary, but not fearful—gee, had it been fear—he wondered, interrupting his own thoughts.
He shook his head and rubbed his eyes, alert like a watchdog to danger he senses in each bristle of hair on his spine, but not yet having caught the scent sufficiently to know what or where it was. Thomas opened his mouth to tell Tino once again to watch out for something, but there was a whoosh to his right—a blast of light from the window next to Tino as though something like a fireball had been flung from the sky into the forest with great strength.
"Ahhh!" The two pitches of baritone from older and younger man simultaneously would’ve been funny, especially when they turned to look into each other’s wide eyes before turning again to the woods. But what they saw was far from humorous.
Thomas floored the gas pedal for the third time and caused Tino to clutch what he could find to hold on. The trees caught fire, and within seconds the flames raced toward them.
Tongues of red, orange, yellow, and even white flames fluttered and reached for them. When the car shot forward, so did the fire. It was as though a giant had blown a big breath toward them right from the spot of the initial explosion. The danger was immediate; Thomas felt the heat of the flames as they shot over the roof of the car before it accelerated. When Tino, crouching still in the passenger seat, looked into the door mirror, he could swear the flames formed a giant face—the face of a woman who seemed to be crying fire. He rubbed his eyes with both fists, blinked several times, and looked again. The flames were gone; there was no fire. Only a plume of black smoke rose into the sky like a finger pointing ever upward. And as it rose higher, the black turned gray, then white, and then dissipated into the air into nothing. The forest was intact, the trees as green as they always were.
"I did not imagine that." Tino’s voice started with a quaver and finished with certainty. "What innocent explanation are you going to try to cover this disaster up with? At least with the avalanche you didn’t even try to explain, but with that tornado—when you tried to make light of it—nuh huh, no, no way. I need the truth, Thomas. Don’t try to pacify me anymore. There’s something up—something that’s been going on for a while, I can tell. I just don’t know what it is or why it seems to target us. This has to do with my parents' refusal to come back to New Mexico, doesn't it?"
Within a few hours, Thomas knew they’d reach their destination. He hadn’t changed his mind. He was not the one to tell the boy the truth.
"You need to go to sleep, son." "Whaaa—" "Hear me out." The hand he held up caused Tino to shut his mouth. "Because of what you’ve witnessed on this trip, you should trust what I’m about to tell you will work, and do as I say. The answers you seek will come to you in sleep. Only in a deep, genuine sleep. So force yourself to relax with the sound of the road beneath the tires and the silence of the air around you. Sleep."
He said no more, and Tino didn’t ask for more. Just as he had stopped asking questions about the matter through the years because his parents always refused to answer, he knew he had to stop now and do as his older friend said. He gave himself a shake, loosening his limbs from tense to relaxed, leaned back against his seat, and crossed his arms over his chest. With a deep sigh, he closed his eyes and gave sleep his best effort. For a few miles, nothing happened. His mind swirled with questions and answers he guessed at, and he didn’t think he could stand a moment longer trying to quiet his thoughts. And that was when sleep came and drove his consciousness down into blackness, nothingness, and left his mind open and malleable to the entrance of the ancient ghost’s thoughts.
Carmen Baca taught a variety of English and history courses from grades six through twelve and college levels over the course of thirty-six years before retiring in 2014. Her command of both English and Spanish enables her to write with true story-telling talent. Her debut novel, El Hermano, published in April of 2017 and became a NM-AZ Book Award Finalist. She has since published three more books and twenty-three short pieces in online literary magazines, women’s blogs, and anthologies. She and her husband enjoy a quiet life in the country, caring for the land and for their animals.
Un extracto de 9 Cuentos de inmigrantes en los Estados Unidos, una colección de cuentos por Eduardo Cabrera
Ernesto había nacido en un pequeño pueblo del estado de Illinois, donde su familia era la única de origen latinoamericano. Él y sus hermanos se habían adaptado muy bien a la cultura dominante, quizás porque durante su infancia eran inconscientes de las diferencias sociales, económicas, raciales o de separaciones que hacen los seres humanos desde que existen sobre la faz de la tierra. Los anglosajones constituían el 99% de la población de ese pueblo, mientras que el resto estaba conformado por negros, a excepción de algunos provenientes de la India que trabajaban para Caterpillar y ADM, las dos corporaciones más grandes de esa región. La familia de Ernesto no estaba incluida en ninguna estadística, pues nunca había participado del censo de la población. De manera que para las autoridades ellos no existían o más bien permanecían invisibles. Ernesto había nacido con oído absoluto, una cualidad musical que le posibilitaba reproducir sonidos sin haber tenido ningún tipo de entrenamiento. Para sorpresa de sus padres, había logrado desarrollar muy sólidas habilidades como músico, llegando a tocar piano, violín y saxofón. Sin embargo, en la escuela nunca le habían dado la oportunidad de tocar en ninguna banda ni en la orquesta. La directora de la orquesta les había explicado muy claramente a los padres de Ernesto que no era conveniente exponer a su hijo al ridículo, pues carecía de la compostura y de la circunspección necesarias y requeridas para representar a la escuela, en caso de que fuera seleccionado para competir contra otras instituciones, y ni pensarlo para viajar a otros estados. Como los padres no tenían ninguna experiencia en cuestiones relacionadas con bandas, orquestas, y mucho menos competencias intercolegiales, tomaron la evaluación de la directora como una apreciación sincera. Lejos estaban ellos de intentar cuestionar a ninguna autoridad. Un día cualquiera en la rutinaria vida de la familia de Ernesto, su padre llegó a casa con una novedad que les cayó a todos como un balde de agua helada: tenían que mudarse a otro estado. Debido a la gran crisis económica por la que atravesaba el país, a Máximo, el padre de Ernesto, le habían ordenado trasladarse a Los Ángeles. Las grandes empresas estaban eliminando muchas posiciones, cerrando filiales, y trasladando la mayoría de sus trabajos a México y a otras ciudades de los Estados Unidos. Se trataba de corporaciones a las que no les interesaba la pérdida de fuentes de trabajo para el país ni los efectos negativos en la sociedad. Su único objetivo era incrementar sus ganancias económicas. Ernesto y su familia vivieron la mudanza a Los Ángeles con una mezcla de fuertes sentimientos positivos y negativos. Por un lado, lo más importante era que Máximo había logrado mantener su trabajo, lo cual era, dadas las circunstancias, por demás significativo. Muchos de sus compañeros habían perdido sus trabajos y habían quedado literalmente en la calle. Pero por otra parte la mudanza significaba la pérdida de algunas amistades y tener que adaptarse al ritmo de vida de una gran ciudad y de la región del sur de California. Sin embargo, para Ernesto y sus dos hermanos el cambio de ciudad era un rotundo motivo de celebración. Sus padres no comprendieron la reacción tan positiva, pues pensaban que estarían más apegados a sus compañeros de escuela y a sus amigos del barrio. Ernesto, el mayor de los hijos, les aclaró a sus padres que el motivo principal de tanta alegría era el hecho de que pensaba que en Los Ángeles tendrían muchas más posibilidades de desarrollarse como músicos. Luis y Felipe habían seguido los pasos de su hermano mayor en cuanto a la dedicación a la música. Además, tal vez en la nueva escuela les darían la oportunidad de formar parte de una banda o de una orquesta. La mudanza se llevó a cabo durante las vacaciones de verano. Los muchachos estaban ansiosos por comenzar el ciclo escolar y conocer a sus nuevos compañeros. Entre ellos habían estado comentando lo bueno que sería asistir a una escuela con muchos estudiantes latinos como ellos. Ya no serían los “raros” de la escuela, sino que serían como la mayoría. ¡Qué alegría tan grande estar rodeado de chicos como ellos! Para las vacaciones Máximo planeó una serie de actividades destinadas a posibilitar la mejor adaptación de su familia al nuevo lugar en que les había tocado vivir. Como la familia de Ernesto practicaba la religión católica, Máximo decidió averiguar cuál era la iglesia más cercana a su nueva casa. La suerte estaba de su parte, pues encontró una iglesia a solo 3 cuadras. Ya frente a la iglesia Máximo trató de calmar los nervios que le producía la nueva situación, respiró profundamente, y se encaminó a la puerta principal. Para su sorpresa, la puerta estaba cerrada con llave, algo que no se acostumbraba a hacer en su pueblo. No podía irse de ahí sin ninguna información, pues deseaba contarle a Gertrudis, su esposa, algo que pudiera alegrarla. Máximo se sentía culpable por la repentina mudanza, y quería hacer todo lo posible para complacer a su familia. El bienestar y la felicidad de todos dependían de él. Luego de pensar durante algunos minutos que le parecieron eternos, Máximo decidió golpear la enorme e imponente puerta de la iglesia. Una mujer de unos sesenta años abrió toscamente la puerta y, con cara de pocos amigos, lo recibió con un monosílabo: “¿Si?” Máximo sintió que todo el cuerpo se le había congelado. Fue como si le hubieran echado encima un balde de agua fría. Con voz temblorosa le explicó a la poco amable señora que él y su familia se acababan de mudar, y que lo primero que hizo fue buscar una iglesia. -La iglesia está cerrada –contestó la mujer al mismo tiempo que cerraba la puerta apresuradamente. Una inmensa tristeza invadió el alma del pobre hombre. Inmediatamente pensó que no podía decirles a su esposa e hijos lo que acababa de suceder. No quería causarles semejante desilusión. Decidió entonces averiguar el horario de la misa dominical de alguna otra iglesia católica. El encargado de la casa que alquilaba le informó a Máximo que había una misa el domingo a las once de la mañana en una iglesia que quedaba a una milla de ahí. Inmediatamente compartió las buenas noticias con su familia; todos estuvieron de acuerdo en asistir a misa el primer domingo en su nueva ciudad. Sería una gran oportunidad para comenzar a establecerse en la nueva comunidad y de hacer nuevos amigos. Ernesto y sus hermanos no estaban muy entusiasmados con la idea de practicar una religión, pero había una compensación: la posibilidad de tocar algún instrumento durante la misa en la banda musical de la iglesia. Por fin llegó aquel domingo tan especial. Para esa primera misa en Los Ángeles, Ernesto se puso un hermoso smoking que su madre le había comprado en una tienda de objetos de segunda. Sus hermanos fueron prolijamente vestidos con saco azul y corbata. La misa fue completamente en español; Máximo y su esposa no tuvieron ninguna dificultad en comprender la palabra sagrada ni el sermón del sacerdote. Pero sus hijos, que no estaban acostumbrados a escuchar hablar en español durante tanto tiempo, no entendieron casi nada. El coro de la iglesia cantaba de forma bastante entonada; pero la banda de músicos, a juicio de Ernesto, desafinaba de una manera atroz. A pesar de lo mucho que tuvo que sufrir al escuchar a tan malos músicos, Ernesto sintió un dejo de esperanza, pues aumentaban las posibilidades de que él y sus hermanos fueran aceptados en la banda. Al finalizar la misa, Gertrudis, la orgullosa madre, saludó al sacerdote y apresuradamente se acercó al director de la banda musical. Luego de felicitarlo, le habló sobre los antecedentes musicales de sus hijos y le preguntó sobre la posibilidad de que ellos integraran su banda. Mr. Pérez, director de la banda, le dijo que los dos menores eran demasiado chicos, y que a Ernesto podría darle la oportunidad si estuviera dispuesto a asistir a todos los ensayos que se realizaban a diario a partir de las 8 de la noche. Gertrudis le respondió que tendría que consultarlo con su esposo, y que le respondería la semana próxima. La discusión en que todos los miembros de la familia participaron giró en torno a la participación de Ernesto en la banda musical de la iglesia. A la tristeza de Luis y Felipe por no poder participar, se sumaba la negativa de Máximo a que Ernesto formara parte de la banda. Según el padre, ensayar durante todas las noches afectaría el rendimiento académico de Ernesto. Además, consideraba que era demasiado exigente, y exagerado, pretender que se ensaye todos los días para una banda musical de una iglesia. Gertrudis luchó con todas las armas disponibles en defensa de Ernesto, hablando de sus sueños como músico, su futuro, y su gran dedicación durante tantos años. Y no dudó en echarle en cara a Máximo su responsabilidad y hasta su culpa por haberse mudado. El pobre hombre, agobiado por tantos ataques de parte de todos los miembros de su familia, no tuvo más remedio que acceder a ese pedido, aunque lo consideraba absurdo. La segunda misa dominical a la que la familia de Ernesto asistió, les pareció eterna, no ya por la dificultad del idioma sino por la ansiedad por volver a hablar con el director de la banda. Gertrudis y Ernesto se movieron lentamente a través de la iglesia, dando tiempo a que los músicos de la banda guardaran sus instrumentos y comenzaran a abandonar el lugar. Ya frente a Mr. Pérez, Gertrudis le presentó a Ernesto y le transmitió la decisión positiva de la familia. El director, manifiestamente perturbado, le respondió: -Su hijo no asistió a ningún ensayo durante toda la semana. Gertrudis, muy sorprendida, le recordó que el domingo anterior habían acordado que ella hablaría con su esposo y que recién entonces le diría la decisión de permitirle o no a Ernesto formar parte de la banda. Mr. Pérez, de manera condescendiente, reconoció tal acuerdo, y le dijo que tendría que hablar a solas con Ernesto. Gertrudis los dejó conversando y esperó con el resto de su familia afuera de la iglesia. Habría pasado escasamente unos quince minutos, cuando Mr. Pérez y Ernesto se encaminaron rápidamente hacia la salida y se reencontraron con Gertrudis. El serio director, ignorando a los otros miembros de la familia, se dirigió a la ansiosa madre con unas escasas pero rotundas palabras: -Hay un problemita con su hijo, señora. Su español no es muy bueno. Acá todos los miembros de la banda, además de tocar un instrumento, cantan. Y su hijo tiene un acento demasiado fuerte. Gertrudis, al borde del llanto, trató de contrarrestar esos argumentos que consideraba ridículos. Pensó en recordarle los estudios musicales de Ernesto, su oído absoluto, su experiencia, y hasta pensó en hablarle de racismo y discriminación. Pero se sintió mareada, creyó que su garganta se le cerraba, y que estaba a punto de desmayarse. Cuando estuvo a punto de iniciar la batalla, el director la frenó con un duro ademán y agregó: -Lo siento mucho. Queremos incorporar nuevos músicos, pero tienen que estar preparados y disponibles para los ensayos. Si todavía le interesa, vuelva a hablarme el año que viene. Máximo, que se había mantenido todo ese tiempo callado, alzó su voz: -Un momento. Quiero hablar con usted sobre esta situación. -Lo siento –dijo Mr. Pérez - se me ha hecho tarde y mi esposa me está esperando para almorzar. Los últimos días de vacaciones transcurrieron sin mayores novedades, simplemente tratando de conocer el nuevo barrio y su gente. Los muchachos pasaban las mañanas viendo televisión, y durante las tardes jugaban a la pelota en el jardín de su casa. El primer día de clase pasó más lentamente para los padres que para los muchachos, pues aquellos estaban ansiosos por saber cómo había sido la experiencia de cada uno de sus hijos. El primero en contar cómo le había ido fue Felipe, el menor. Con llantos en los ojos dijo que, si bien había entendido todo el material estudiado en sus clases, no le había ido tan bien en los recreos. -¿Cómo en los recreos? –Se apuró en preguntar Máximo. -Primero, nadie quiso sentarse a almorzar conmigo durante la hora del lunch. Y luego, en los recreos, nadie quiso conversar ni jugar conmigo. Ni siquiera se me acercaban. Gertrudis quiso minimizar la engorrosa situación que había experimentado su hijo: -Bueno, Felipe, seguramente tus compañeros se conocen desde años anteriores. Tienes que tener paciencia. Ustedes son nuevos en esa escuela. Ya verás cómo poco a poco te van a ir hablando y muchos van a querer jugar contigo. Luis, que estaba ansioso por hacer su propio reporte, interrumpió a su madre: -A mí no me gusta esta escuela. Quiero que nos volvamos a Illinois. Máximo lo miró con una expresión adusta, como exigiendo más explicación. Luis comprendió el mensaje y agregó: -¡Un chico me llamó Mexican! Y por más que le repetí mil veces que yo no soy mexicano, que yo nací en Illinois, me seguía diciendo Mexican, Mexican. Gertrudis volvió a intervenir pidiéndoles que se calmaran, que mañana todo iría mucho mejor. Y que no quería volver a escuchar que nadie se quiere regresar a Illinois. Que ya eran suficientemente grandes como para comprender que tenían que vivir donde su padre tuviera trabajo. Que hay momentos en la vida que uno debe tomar decisiones que, aunque no le gusten, son necesarias para el bienestar de la familia. -Entonces –se apresuró a decir Luis- mañana quiero llevar mi partida de nacimiento. Tengo que demostrarles a mis compañeros que no soy mexicano, que yo nací en Illinois. Máximo le dijo que no habría ningún problema con eso, e inmediatamente le pidió a Ernesto que cuente su experiencia. El hijo mayor, supuestamente, podría establecer un tono más maduro en la conversación familiar. Sin embargo, Ernesto también había tenido su propio problema: durante los recreos todos sus compañeros hablaban en español; él no hablaba tan fluidamente en esa lengua y, por lo tanto, no se sentía tan confiado en su poder de comunicación. Incluso un compañero se burló de su marcado acento. Nuevamente Gertrudis fue la encargada de minimizar la situación: -De ahora en más todos vamos a ver programas de televisión en español. En ese momento la queja se volvió generalizada entre los tres hijos. Ya no solo tendrían que sufrir en la escuela sino también en su propia casa. ------------------------------------------------------------------------ Era un día tan soleado, como nunca antes Ernesto había visto en su vida. Tal vez por eso tuvo la sensación de que algo extraño habría de pasar. Fue precisamente ese día que una nueva estudiante llegó a la escuela. Su nombre era Leticia; acababa de llegar de Texas. La maestra les había anticipado el día anterior que llegaría una alumna nueva, y que todos tenían que darle la bienvenida y hacerla sentir bien. Ernesto fue el primero en hablarle. Como no sabía si debía hablarle en inglés o en español, sin pensarlo, mezcló los dos idiomas de tal manera que él mismo se sorprendió: -Welcome to tu nueva escuela –le dijo nerviosamente. La muchacha, sorprendida, le agradeció la bienvenida y le correspondió el gesto con una generosa sonrisa que resaltaba sus grandes ojos verdes. No intercambiaron muchas más palabras, sin embargo pasaron toda la jornada escolar juntos. Con el correr del tiempo Ernesto comprendería que aquella construcción lingüística que había emitido de manera completamente accidental, constituiría el elemento con el cual Leticia se había identificado; los latinos del pueblo texano del que ella provenía, hablaban en espanglish, tanto a nivel privado como también en público. Ernesto nunca se había imaginado que tal forma de comunicación sería legitimada por la sociedad. Sus padres siempre le habían dicho que debía hablar correctamente, lo cual implicaba hacerlo en español o en inglés, pero nunca mezclando las dos lenguas. En casa, la comunicación entre los miembros de la familia se vio dificultada al tratar de aplicar la regla de que el idioma de uso en el espacio común debía ser solo el español. A pesar de las continuadas quejas de los tres muchachos, no tuvieron más remedio que adaptarse a la cultura impuesta por los padres. Sin embargo, a Ernesto se lo podía ver siempre con buen humor, algo que les llamó la atención a todos en su hogar. Una de las cosas más llamativas era que, cuando estaban los tres hermanos juntos, Ernesto ya no hablaba solo en inglés como lo hacía en el pasado. Paulatinamente fue incorporando un léxico no solo más amplio en la lengua de sus padres sino también mucho más sofisticado. Incluso durante las prácticas musicales que los muchachos hacían en la casa, lo cual a veces creaba algunos problemas de comunicación debido a lo complicado que era aplicar un vocabulario más bien técnico en los ensayos. Pero ni Luis ni Felipe intentaron preguntarle a su hermano mayor sobre el motivo de un cambio tan radical en su actitud pues, además de respetarlo mucho, estaban verdaderamente confundidos. No solo a Ernesto se lo veía más contento, sino que se mostraba mucho más seguro, como si hubiera madurado de golpe; hasta su postura corporal había cambiado, llegando a ser mucho más erguida. Al siguiente domingo, Ernesto fue el primero en levantarse. Preparó el desayuno para toda la familia, y apuró a sus hermanos para que no llegaran tarde a la iglesia. El primogénito sintió que la misa había durado un santiamén. Al salir del templo, Máximo advirtió que Ernesto se había quedado atrás. Gertrudis regresó en búsqueda de su hijo y lo encontró conversando con el sacerdote. No se animó a interrumpirlos, y volvió a reunirse con el resto de su familia. Ya de regreso en la casa, Máximo le preguntó a Ernesto cuál había sido el motivo de su charla con el cura. El muchacho se aseguró de que todos escucharan de qué se trataba: se había quejado por la decisión del director de la banda musical de no querer incorporarlo. En esa seria conversación le habló de su preparación como músico y también le dijo que se había sentido discriminado por su forma de hablar. Y le reconoció que tiene un fuerte acento: -¿Acaso no todos tienen un acento? En inglés o en español, cada ser humano tiene un acento. No importa la lengua que se use, una persona de California habla en forma muy diferente a una de Nueva York u otra de Kentucky. ¿No es verdad, padre? E incluso el vocabulario es diferente. ¿No es cierto? El sacerdote se había quedado atónito frente a tanta seguridad en un adolescente. -Pero es que tú mezclas las palabras, hijo –le recriminó el cura. De repente, Ernesto sintió que una fuerza interior le llenaba el espíritu. -¿Usted estuvo alguna vez en otro estado, padre? -¿En otro estado? ¿Por qué? -¿Sabe cómo habla la gente en otro estado? -Tengo parientes en Minnesota. Muchos familiares. -¿Y ellos no hablan en forma distinta que la gente de California? -Es verdad, pero todos hablan en inglés. Es cierto que usan un vocabulario distinto, pero siempre dentro del inglés. -Pero el vocabulario, en cualquier lengua, va evolucionando con el tiempo. ¿No es así? Y esa evolución muchas veces tiene que ver con los movimientos migratorios. ¿No es así, padre? El viejo sacerdote limpió con un pañuelo el sudor de su frente. No podía creer lo que estaba viviendo. Hacía unas pocas horas nomás había estado preparando un sermón con el máximo cuidado posible; había basado sus conceptos en años de estudio y de experiencia. Y ahora un jovencito le estaba tratando de dar una lección… Sin pensarlo, le dijo a Ernesto con voz temblorosa: -Hoy mismo voy a hablar con el director de la banda. Ernesto sintió una gran emoción; él mismo no podía creer lo que había logrado. Sus hermanos estaban orgullosos. Su madre también, aunque preocupada por la posible reacción negativa de su esposo. Máximo, tan confundido como el sacerdote, prefirió no emitir ningún juicio de valor. Le dijo a Gertrudis que se sentía mal y que tenía que acostarse un rato. Al día siguiente Ernesto fue a la escuela cargado de nueva energía. Durante todo el camino pensó en Leticia. Ahora era él quien estaba en deuda con su nueva compañera, pues su corta relación le había hecho entender no solamente cosas importantes de la vida sino también de él mismo. El reencuentro con la hermosa muchacha fue tan natural que Ernesto sintió que era como si se conocieran desde hacía muchísimo tiempo. Ahora prestó más atención a cada uno de los detalles de su amiga: su largo cabello rubio, su estrecha cintura, sus delgadas piernas, su forma de hablar y su caminar cadencioso, y sus hermosos ojos verdes que le transmitían paz, confianza y un afecto que nunca antes había sentido en su vida. Nuevamente pasaron juntos toda la jornada escolar. Hablaron largamente sobre sus familias, y cómo se diferenciaban las costumbres de Texas e Illinois. Y también se entretuvieron charlando sobre las distintas formas de hablar en esos estados. De repente, a Leticia se le ocurrió una idea que podría ser interesante para ambos: -¿Qué te parece si tomamos una clase de español? -¿Español? –reaccionó sorprendido Ernesto. -Por supuesto. Podríamos mejorar nuestra forma de escribir y de hablar. -Tienes razón. No se me había ocurrido… -Necesitamos obtener información. -Hoy mismo voy a hablar con la profesora Méndez –agregó Ernesto, con entusiasmo. Efectivamente esa misma tarde Ernesto habló con esa docente quien no solo le dio información sino que lo motivó a tomar una clase de literatura con ella. -¿Literatura en español? Yo no estoy preparado para eso. Es una clase demasiado avanzada –le dijo, preocupado, a la profesora. Sin embargo, ella le dijo que su nivel de español era lo suficientemente bueno como para tomar esa clase. Al regresar a la casa, Ernesto les dio la buena noticia a sus padres. Gertrudis se manifestó orgullosa de su hijo. Y Máximo, sin salir de su sorpresa por los grandes cambios que estaba viendo en la actitud de su hijo hacia diversos aspectos de la vida, le preguntó si sabía algo sobre el contenido de una clase de literatura en español. Ernesto les contó que la profesora Méndez le había dado bastante información al respecto, y que no solo iban a estudiar sobre la literatura y la cultura de varios países latinoamericanos sino también de la de los latinos en los Estados Unidos. Por fin iba a poder estudiar sobre temas con los que se podría identificar. -¿Y son obras literarias escritas en español o en inglés? –le preguntó su padre intrigado. La respuesta de Ernesto los dejó a todos pasmados: -Estudiaremos obras en inglés, en español y… -¿Y…? -¡Y en espanglish! –agregó Ernesto casi gritando. -¿Qué…? ¿Estás bromeando, no? –preguntó incrédulo Máximo. Toda la tarde tuvo que pasar Ernesto explicándoles a sus padres la nueva realidad lingüística de un grupo importante de latinos que viven en los Estados Unidos, incluyendo la realidad de sus propios hijos. Ese domingo Ernesto decidió ir a la iglesia un rato antes de la misa, para poder conversar con el sacerdote. El cura lo recibió muy amablemente y lo hizo pasar a una pequeña biblioteca sobriamente decorada con objetos religiosos, pero evidentemente poco utilizada. El joven le preguntó si ya le había hablado al director de la banda musical sobre su posible incorporación. -Hijo: hay veces en la vida en que no todo sale como uno se lo propone –señaló el cura a manera de consuelo. Ernesto lo interrumpió y con una muestra de fuerte personalidad y seguras convicciones le dijo hablando rápidamente: -¡Gracias, padre! Estaba seguro de que usted lo iba a poder convencer. Yo sabía que finalmente iban a valorar mi sólida preparación musical, mi dedicación y entusiasmo. Y yo sabía que usted no iba a permitir que se me discrimine por mi cultura diferente. ¿Cuándo puedo empezar a ensayar, padre? El sacerdote, sin poder salir de su aturdimiento, le dijo, tartamudeando: -Vamos, vamos a hablar con Mr. Pérez. Ambos salieron apresuradamente al encuentro del director. El cura, tratando de imitar la energía y seguridad de Ernesto, le dijo a Mr. Pérez que a partir de ese momento el joven era un nuevo integrante de la banda musical de la iglesia. Y le ordenó que le diera los datos sobre el horario y el lugar de los ensayos. ------------------------------------------------------------- Pasaron varios años desde aquella extraña conversación. Hoy, Ernesto es el director de la banda de la iglesia, y sus hermanos son los dos violinistas principales. La directora del coro es una hermosa rubia de ojos verdes. Los feligreses están contentos con los músicos, y sobre todo se complacen en cantar una nueva canción escrita por el director… en espanglish.-
Cabrera has a Ph.D in Spanish with a specialization in Latin American Theatre at the University of California, Irvine. At Millikin University, he was named John C. Griswold Distinguished Professorship for Modern Language (2016-2018). He has published a number of articles about literature, theatre, culture and politics in professional journals in Europe, Latin America and the U.S. and also has five books on theatre, several of his own plays, and two collections of short stories. 9 Cuentos de inmigrantes en los Estados Unidos won First Place in the 2018 International Latino Book Awards, as Best Latino Focused Fiction Book - Spanish.
“She is like Julia in every way.” Excerpt from The Book of Archives and Other Stories from the Mora Valley, New Mexicoby
A. Gabriel Melendez
OPENING TO A PREVIOUS LIFE
¿Qué somos en esta vida? Just what are we in this life? Un costal lleno de huesos, A sack full of bones. Y una cosa corrompida, And rotten stuffing. ¡Ay, ay, cuán amarga es la muerte Oh how bitter is death Y qué dulce fue la vida! And oh how sweet was life! —Miguel Casías, San Juan, New Mexico, July 7, 1989
Every day in Mora two or three new graves were dug to accommodate the victims of the previous day’s scourge. So many people had died in such a short time that in some precincts the people tired of opening new graves and they began to bury the dead one on top of the other. Enriqueta Vásquez fell sick with the illness on a cold January day. She had buried her husband and seen her father-in-law, an older sister, two uncles, an aunt, and three of her cousins buried in the span of the month and a half that the influenza had raged in the mountain valley. Enriqueta was Julia Pacheco de Steiner’s granddaughter, and people often talked about the striking resemblance she bore to her grandmother. Enriqueta was a young bride about whom people said, “She is like Julia in every way.” Later, when people tried to make sense of her death, they said that the reason Enriqueta had fallen so quickly was because she had been weakened by the birth of her second daughter. “She had not yet rested the forty days a new mother should before she was out burying her kin,” they said. Enriqueta’s second daughter was born in the first days of the influenza, and her birth brought hope and joy. Cándida had the blue eyes of her German great-grandfather and the soft dark skin of her mestiza great-grandmother. Enriqueta cradled the child in her arms and nursed her with the sweet milk of her breast in the amber light of the oil lamps that lit the rooms of her home. One Saturday afternoon, Enriqueta felt soreness in her shoulders and she retired to her bedroom even before the sun had gone down. She laid Cándida beside her in the bed and picked up her missal and prayed the Divine Praises in preparation for hearing Mass the next morning. She could not keep her eyes open and left off reading at the epistle for the first Sunday after Epiphany at the verses “Be patient in turbulence and persevering in prayer.” She slept until Cándida’s cries woke her. So deep was her sleep that at first she thought she had only napped, but her breasts were heavy with the night’s milk and she thought, “I must nurse Cándida.” At midmorning, Enriqueta began to shiver with chills and she complained of drafts through the house. Corina Lucero, the médica that attended her, did not let her up from bed, and Enriqueta slept soundly for several more hours. She awoke drenched in a copious sweat that had formed an outline of her delicate body on the sheets of her bed. On Sunday afternoon, Cándida began to show the first signs of having contracted her mother’s illness, and Corina Lucero had her crib moved to an adjoining room where she could better watch over the child. Cándida’s eyes had lost their natural brilliance and had dulled to the color of gray river rock. She cried and dozed in fits and spurts. The silver sliver of a waning moon hung over La Jicarita, and Cándida’s shrill cries threatened to rend the ice-blue sky of that January evening. At a quarter to seven on the morning of the second day, Enriqueta spoke, but her words confounded those around her. She looked at Corina and said, “Are you the devil?” and pointing at the darkened corners of the room, she continued, “And are they your consorts?” She rubbed her fist against her left eye and shouted, “This horrid smoke, it burns my eyes! Open the dampers on the stoves!” Then she fell into a deep coma and did not regain consciousness. The fever continued to consume mother and daughter, but try as Corina might, nothing she did quelled its progress. Neither the sponge baths, nor the paper-thin slices of potatoes to cool the forehead, nor the herb tea, nor the prayers to San Ramón broke the fever’s grip. At nine o’clock on Tuesday morning, Enriqueta’s breathing sounded like sand running through a sieve. Corina strained to hear a heartbeat. It was distant, like thunder in a snowstorm. The old woman advised the family: “Call the padre, Enriqueta is at the very edge of this life.” The Dutch priest, Padre Munnecom, was presiding over a funeral at Chacón in the upper valley and did not arrive till midafternoon. After giving Enriqueta the last rites, he said, “She is dead. Bury her quickly.” Before leaving, he inquired about the child’s health. Corina looked down at the floor and answered, “Gravely ill, she is very weak, Padre.” A delegation of penitentes came to bury Enriqueta. After praying over her, those hermanos who had known her grandmother as a young woman asked each other, “How can it be that one person can be reborn into life as another?” They did as the family asked and buried Enriqueta next to her grandmother, Julia Pacheco de Steiner. They lowered the simple wooden casket into the darkness of a fresh grave at the upper campo santo on the road to the village of El Oro. Enriqueta’s sister, Lourdes Paiz, her eyes swollen and red from days of mourning, had reached her wit’s end with worry and fatigue. That evening as the family gathered to console themselves and fortify their weary bodies with sweet breads and strong coffee, Lourdes lost her composure when the old woman Corina said in resignation, “It must be God’s will.” “Shut up, you old witch,” cried Lourdes, “if we didn’t have to depend on your foolish remedies and your useless hand-wringing, Enriqueta would be alive now! Look at the Americans,” she said, “their doctors keep them from such misery.” ’Mana Corina responded, “Child, the American doctors have their understanding of things and I have mine. But it seems that compassion is not a part of their science of things. Have you ever seen an Americano doctor cross the threshold of one of our homes? It is what we have, mi hija, foolish remedies, cure patches, and tea baths like those that cooled your old man Romaldo’s body when his skin peeled back from his flesh after the boiler exploded at Don Tito’s sawmill in Chacón.” When Lourdes was calm again, she said, “Forgive me, Corina. It’s just that these blows that life has dealt us have been so fierce. I did not mean to blame you. You have done what you could. When Cándida’s fever breaks, send her to me.” Lourdes continued, “I will raise her and she will not want for anything nor will she know what it is to be an orphan.” Cándida’s crying subsided, drifting into quiet sobs, then stopped altogether, but the fever would not break. Like her mother, she fell into a coma and her life grew fainter and fainter as the hours of the night pushed toward the new day. At seven the next morning, her tiny body wrenched in violent spasms and she coughed up a wad of mucus and coagulated blood. An hour later she was cold and her arms stiffened like the limbs of a doll. Her eyes were open, but she was dead. Cándida was dressed in a white gown. Corina placed a pair of brown shoes on her feet and on her head an ornate crown fashioned from an old piece of tin. Then she placed a branch of piñón wrapped with faded crepe paper and adorned with gourds for a staff at the child’s side. She was presented to her mourning family as an angelita, a little angel, because she had died without knowing either the stain of evil or the false joy of this world. All during Mass and during her Rosary, the villagers imagined Cándida’s soul winging its way to heaven along the shafts of sunlight that pierced the rolling winter clouds above them. ’Mana Cortina refused to follow the cortege to the cemetery and she turned back at the first stop. “This sickness be damned,” she cried as she touched Cándida, lying in the black cardboard casket, one last time. “Little messenger,” she whispered, “tell Almighty God in his Glory that his people suffer much upon this earth. Tell him, my child, in case He has forgotten us.” Lourdes Paiz asked that as a proper and fitting thing the infant Cándida be interred with her mother. Again the penitente brothers opened the grave they had closed only a day earlier. The wet earth sliced open like clay on a potter’s wheel until their shovels sounded hollow drumbeats upon Enriqueta’s pine coffin. The men heaved, grasping at the edges to pry back the coffin’s lid and deposit the infant daughter. In the dark pit they drew back the white shroud, their lanterns swinging high over Enriqueta’s face until they could see it clearly. “Ay, Dios,” came up the gasps of the men who were waist deep in the shallow grave. Enriqueta’s eyes were open and her face was contorted, her mouth agape as though locked in a silent scream. Her hands were not clasped upon her chest in peaceful repose, but were tangled in the long strands of Enriqueta’s raven black hair. Her fists were full of the tufts of hair she had torn from her head. “Ay, Dios mío,” those at the graveside shouted in horror as they stepped back, “Enriqueta was buried alive!”
Winter Burial at Los Hueros, 2014 John Warm Day Coming http://www.jonathanwarmday.com/
POR LA RENDIJA DE UNA VIDA PREVIA ¿Qué somos en esta vida? Un costal lleno de huesos, Y una cosa corrompida,
¡Ay, ay, cuán amarga es la muerte Y qué dulce fue la vida!
—Miguel Casías, San Juan, Nuevo México, 7 de julio de 1989
Cada día en Mora se sacaban dos o tres sepulcros más para acomodar las víctimas de la plaga del día antes. Tanta gente había muerto en tan poco tiempo que en algunos precintos los vivos se cansaron de abrir nuevos sepulcros y comenzaron a enterrar a los difuntos unos sobre otros. Enriqueta Vásquez se puso mala en un día frío de enero. Ella había enterrado a su esposo y había visto morir a su suegro, una hermana mayor, dos tíos, una tía y tres de sus primos hermanos en lo que iba del mes en el que la influenza había arrasado con los pueblerinos del valle. Enriqueta era la nieta de Julia Pacheco de Steiner, y la gente solía comentar el parecido asombroso que guardaba con su abuela. De Enriqueta, recién casada, decían, “Es la dijunta Julia en todo y por todo”. Más tarde cuando la gente se puso a averiguar la causa de su muerte, se aseguraba que se había enfermado tan repentinamente por la débil condición en que se hallaba tras el parto de su segunda hija: “No había descansado los cuarenta días del parto cuando ya andaba enterrando a sus parientes”. La segunda niña de Enriqueta había nacido en los primeros días de la influenza, y su llegada trajo esperanza y júbilo. Cándida tenía los ojos azules de su bisabuelo alemán y la tez blanda y morena de su bisabuela mestiza. A las tres semanas de nacida, Enriqueta la apechaba en brazos y la amamantaba con la dulce leche de su seno en la pálida luz de las lámparas de aceite que alumbraban las salas de la casa. Un sábado por la tarde, Enriqueta sintió un dolor en los hombros y se retiró a su cuarto a descansar antes de que el sol de aquella tarde cayera. Acostó a Cándida a su lado en el lecho de su cama y agarró su libro de oraciones y rezó las Divinas Alabanzas para prepararse para asistir a la Misa del día siguiente. No pudo resistir el sueño y dejó de leer la epístola del primer domingo después de la Epifanía a lo alto de los versos, “Tened paciencia en la turbulencia y preservad en la oración”. Durmió hasta que los lloriqueos de la niña la despertaron al alba. Tan rendida estaba al sueño que quiso creer que sólo había dormitado, pero sus pechos llenos con la leche de la noche la desmintieron. Pensó, “Tengo que amamantar a Cándida”. Unas horas después, Enriqueta sintió escalofríos y se quejó de las corrientes de aire que atravesaban la casa. Corina Lucero, la médica que la atendía, no quiso que se levantara para salir a Misa, y Enriqueta se volvió a acostar y durmió unas horas más. Cuando despertó, estaba empapada en un copioso sudor que había dejado perfilado su delicado cuerpo en las sábanas de su camalta. El domingo por la tarde, Cándida comenzó a dar indicios de que se había contagiado de la enfermedad de la mamá. Corina Lucero hizo que trasladaran la cuna de la niña a su cuarto para poder mejor ver de ella. Los ojos de Cándida perdieron su fulgor natural y se volvieron gris como las piedras boludas en el lecho del río. Cándida comenzó a llorar y a dar sobresaltos y estallidos. La astilla de una luna menguante colgaba sobre la cumbre de la Jicarita, y los chillidos de la niña amenazaban con rasgar la bóveda helada del cielo azul de aquella tarde de enero. A las siete menos cuarto de la mañana, Enriqueta habló, pero sus palabras trastornaron el pensamiento de los que la rodeaban. Miró a ’mana Corina y dijo, “¿Eres el diablo?”, y señalando con el dedo las sombras en las esquinas del cuarto, siguió maldiciendo, “Y aquellas son tus consortes?”. Se alisó el ojo izquierdo con su mano derecha y gritó, “¡Ay, qué feo humo! ¡Me arden los ojos! ¡Abran los apagadores de los fogones!”. Después se desmayó y no volvió en sí de nuevo. La calentura seguía consumiendo tanto a la madre como a la hija, y por más que Corina Lucero lo intentara, no pudo abatir su progreso. Ni los remojos, ni las rabanadas de papas que colocó en la frente de Julia, ni el té de estafiate, ni las oraciones a San Ramón pudieron contra aquella fiebre. A las nueve de la mañana el martes, el aliento raspaba como arena que cae por un cedazo. Corina quiso pulsar el latir de su corazón, pero se oía distante como truenos apagados por el peso de una gran nevada. La médica les dijo a los familiares, “Llamen al padre, Enriqueta vacila entre la vida y la muerte”. El párroco holandés, el Padre Munnecom, asistía a un funeral en Chacón, en el valle de arriba, y no llegó hasta después de mediodía. Después de darle los últimos auxilios a Enriqueta, les dijo a los presentes, “Está muerta. Entiérrenla”. Antes de irse preguntó por la niña. ’Mana Corina no alzaba la mirada del piso y respondió, “Malita, grave. Ella tampoco da de sí, Padre”. Una comisión de la hermandad de penitentes se encargó de abrir la sepultura de Enriqueta. Después de rezarle la encomendación del alma, aquellos que habían conocido a la abuela de Enriqueta en su mocedad se preguntaron unos a otros, “¿Cómo puede ser que una persona renazca en otra?”. Hicieron lo que la familia les había pedido y enterraron a Enri- queta a un lado de su abuela. Bajaron el ataúd de madera con cuidado, depositándolo en una sepultura recién cavada en el camposanto de arriba en el camino que sube al pueblo de El Oro. Lourdes Paiz, la hermana de Enriqueta, sus ojos hinchados y rojizos tras días enteras de congojas y duelo, estaba loca del dolor. Aquella tarde cuando se reunió la familia para conformarse y for- talecer sus cuerpos con tazas de espeso café y empanadas dulces, Lourdes perdió su compostura cuando oyó a ’mana Corina decir con resignación, “Será la voluntad de Dios”. “Se me calla, vieja bruja”, le gritó Lourdes Paiz, “si no tuviéramos que depender en tus inútiles remedios y el esdrujar de tus manos, Enriqueta estuviera buena y sana ’hora mismo.” “¿Que no ve a los americanos”, dijo, “sus dotores los apartan de esta miseria?”. ’Mana Corina le respondió, “Mira, hija, los americanos tienen su cono- cimiento y yo tengo el mío. Pero parece que tendremos que esperar hasta que la compasión entre en su ciencia de las cosas. ¿A caso, has visto que pase un dotor americano por el umbral de una de nuestras casas? Esto es lo que tenemos, mi hija, remedios, parches y baños de té como los que entibiaron el cuerpo de tu viejo, Romaldo, cuando se le despellejaba la piel de la carne cuando explotó la vaporizador de la máquina de rajar de don Tito en Chacón”. Cuando Lourdes se repuso, le dijo, “Discúlpame, Corina. Pero es que estos golpes han sido tan brutales. No quise echarte la culpar. Sé que has hecho lo posible. Cuando se le pase la calentura a Cándida, mándamela a casa. Yo tendré cargo de que no le falte nada y la criaré y no sabrá lo que es ser huérfana”. Los lloriqueos de Cándida se fueron apagando y se tornaron en pucheros, pero no se le quitaba la calentura. Igual que su madre, se desmayó y su vida se hizo cada vez más tenue a medida que las horas de la noche avanzaban hacia el nuevo día. A las siete de la mañana, su pequeño cuerpo se acalambró y la niña vomitó una bola viscosa de sangre coagulada. Una hora más tarde su cuerpo estaba frío y sus bracitos se entumecieron como los de una muñeca. Sus ojos siguieron abiertos, pero estaba muerta. A Cándida se le vistió en una bata blanca. ’Mana Corina le calzó los pies con unos zapatitos marrones y le colocó una corona hecha de un pedazo de estaño en la cabeza. Luego puso a un lado de la niña la rama de un árbol de piñón envuelta en papel barato y adornada de guajes amarillos para que le sirviera de bastón. Se le presentó a la familia como una angelita porque había muerto sin conocer la mancha de maldad, ni había entrado en el retozo falso de este mundo. Durante la Misa y durante el Rosario, los aldeanos se imaginaban que el alma de Cándida volaba al cielo, subiendo por los rayos de luz que perforaban las nubes revueltas que pasaban por encima. ’Mana Corina no quiso acompañar el cortejo al camposanto y se volvió en el primer descanso. “Malahaya esta enfermedá”, sollozaba al tocar por vez última el diminutivo cuerpo de Cándida que yacía en un ataúd hecho de cartón negro. “Linda angelita, mandataria nuestra”, dijo, “dile a mi Tata Dios que en su reino ’stá, dile que su gente sufre demasiadas penas sobre la tierra. Díselo, niña, por si se ha olvidado de nosotros” Lourdes Paiz pidió que como justo y propio se enterrara a la niña Cándida con su madre en la misma sepultura. Otra vez los hermanos penitentes abrieron el sepulcro que acababan de cerrar la tarde antes. La tierra húmeda se rebanaba como barro en las manos del alfarero hasta que sus palas vinieron a sonar huecos golpecitos sobre el cajón de pino abeto de Enriqueta. Los hombres se esforzaban asiéndose de las orillas para levantar la tapadera y para depositar a la hija infanta. Corrieron a un lado el sudario blanco, columpiando sus faroles en alto sobre la fosa oscura hasta que el rostro de Enriqueta se dejó ver por completo. “Ay, Dios mío”, se oyeron los quejidos de los hombres que estaban parados a media rodilla en el pozo. Los ojos de Enriqueta estaban abiertos y su cara estaba torcida, su boca estaba abierta, asida en un alarido sigiloso. Las manos de la difunta no yacían sobre su pecho en actitud de paz y reposo, sino que estaban enmarañados en los bucles de su lindo y negro cabello. Tenía los puños llenos de los mechones de pelo que se había arrancado de la cabeza. “¡Ay, Dios mío”, dijeron los que rodeaban la fosa, al tambolearse hacia atrás, “Enriqueta fue enterrada viva!”.
San Juan Bautista de Los Hueros Chapel in Mora County
Sit and Listen a review by Scott Duncan-Fernandez
The last few years have been good for books on the Northern New Mexican region. In 2015 out came Farolito, a poetry chapbook on elder abuse set in Mora by Karen S. Cordova. Last year, 2017, came the wonderful book about penitentes, El Hermano by Carmen Baca (featured on Somos en escrito along with her latest book set similarly,Las Mujeres Misteriosas) and The Book of Archives by Gabriel Melendez, a finalist for the International Latino Award.
The Book of Archives is a novella of vignettes based around oral history of the hispano people of Mora, New Mexico. It is a dual language book, the novella first in English, then in Spanish, New Mexican Spanish that is, known for retaining some archaic usages.
Dr. Melendez has already written books on persevering New Mexican literature and culture—check out his book The Writings of Eusebio Chacón, a literary figure part of a literary renaissance in Las Vegas, New Mexico in the 1880s, something almost lost to history.
The Book of Archives takes on quite a lot—to create a book of oral tales and histories of Mora county metaphorically through the fictional book of archives, even more metaphorically destroyed by the US bombardment of Mora for its part in the Taos Revolt. What was that, the Taos Revolt? You mean the US bombed the town of Mora and burned all its ranches? If you ask these questions, it exemplifies one of the needs for a book such as The Book of Archives. Quickly, as the motif of the book of archives relates, the Taos revolt arose from New Mexicans interested in resisting the US invasion as, deceived by a paid off Mexican governor, they found themselves already occupied and offered no resistance. The likes of Kit Carson marched on to California, where he burned native villages and Californio ranches. Pueblos and hispanos attacked Americans in the New Mexican colony and then the soldiers upon their return. The US army took revenge and bombed Mora and burned everyone’s house and ranch. And here we get to the fictional book of archives. The book which recorded our history and tales was hit by an American cannonball, sending pages to the wind. The Book of Archives attempts to recreate a record of the things the US has decimated—our history, our memory, our stories.
My grandfather’s side, Fernandezes, as well as Pachecos and Arguellos, are from Mora. Many of the families talked about in The Book of Archives would be my distant and not too distant relatives. Some of the tales are familiar and some are rather pan-hispano, Juan Tonto or Stupid John for pochos such as myself. Mora is a place of high altitude, around 7,000 feet, enough for a coastal person like myself (cowabunga) to draw an extra breath while walking the family ranch. I remember going to Mora for family reunions and visits since 1977 (I can remember being quite young). Sparsely populated, many ranches and sheep, which have now given way to those Alpaca-monsters. The Mora accent is singsong. I joke it sounds like singsong Mexican with movie Apache. Men of my grandfather’s generation spoke rather curt, but when I think of Mora I think of some of the kindest people who love jokes and throwing parties (hey, I’ve always been a visiting relative, your mileage may vary). And you always have to eat. While Mora is an out of the way place, it and its inhabitants have figured in Chicano literature. Fray Chavez, often called the godfather of Chicano literature, grew up in Mora and became an important historian and genealogist of New Mexico. Some of his stories display some of the not so great aspects of the hispano character, but more on that later, as it comes up wonderfully in The Book of Archives. Mora is a beautiful place. It’s full of traditional houses and churches, wooded mountains, grassy hills and antelope, as well. The Book of Archives gives a good sense of place and the earliest histories of Mora being a stopover place and how native people and hispanos in the early 1800s finally made something more permanent there. Comancheros, villains in such books as Lonesome Dove, have never been more than impoverished New Mexicans who sought out Comanches to trade for their buffalo hides, booty from their raids, and unfortunately captives--slaves. Though out of the way, trade routes to New Mexico have always been important and fictionalized (take a look at the bandoliered Jawas as they trade robot-captives on la frontera of Tatooine).
Mora is still a rural place, though I recall in the 1970s, you could only see the ranch house and the original shack my great great grandfather built on Rancho Fernandez. Now that house burned down and they built a new one for my great aunt Maclovia before she passed away along with another house on the ranch and several neighbors. Rural existence is tough, you can’t pay your land tax in sheep, so many people go far to look for work. There are many land issues and displacements going on today as gringos having finally considered the land there valuable enough to buy up and have put the community described in The Book of Archives at risk of dissolution.
Melendez seems to have gleaned many documents and spoken to many people for the history of Mora. Perforce many Chicano books are postmodern (thanks to Dr. Melendez for spelling it out), Old Testament-like mixes of legends, myths, letters and histories.
The Book of Archives is even more so as it includes notes from tax documents, land titles, military reports, as well as the aforementioned myths and histories, including those within recent memory of family history (the adopted Quintana who was raised by Carmen and Mama Clarita comes to mind).
Many pieces contain some sadness, some can be even terrible—hispanos of the area survived the US invasion, hunger, influenza and poverty. While The Books of Archivesis mostly realistic, like Cien años de soledad, what is fantastic moves further away as the stories approach the modern era, save for some potential Santo Niño sightings and speaking on the Niño de Atocha, and the Blue Nun towards the end. Witches become spoken of less as everyone thinks they must have left the valley until on old man gets accused in the newspaper of hecheria.
Several story lines and characters repeat, though most stories are not too connected, but all are set in the town of Mora, the area, and the mountain of Jicarita. The beautiful Maria appears in several tales, along with the sad tale of her granddaughter. Old Man Vilmas and the Black Poet Garcia, two New Mexican folk tale figures, who seem to be preternaturally old, appear in tales and perform the traditional entertainment of arguing until the radio causes people to forget all about them.
The length varies from vignette to vignette, which seems another very Chicano form,House on Mango Street and Drink Cultura come to mind. Perhaps a people who suffer with the dangers of erasement and lack of representation exist in fragments and authors pick these pieces up and shine them up to present to us readers to draw a wholeness from. Moving from the long to the short to the shorter and the long makes for an engaging read—as well as the variance of people and topics. It’s a collection of flash fiction and short stories that make a novel, or create the sense of a novel.
Many things written on Northern New Mexico seem either to decry our insistence for Spanishness or go through many tangles and hoops to support it. Denise Chavez speaks of it on her father’s side in her memoir, A Taco Testimony. Fray Angelico Chavez came from Mora. His characters go through long, tortuous explanations on how they are Spanish. For some reason, native blood and mestizoness gets disowned. The movement didn’t miss Mora, but aside from self-hate, the US invasion caused many a hispano in Tejas, Colorado, California, and even indios, to declare themselves hispanos puros so they could own land and not be hunted, as our Indian brothers and sisters were literally. I also see it as something cultural…out on the frontier, you were on the one side culturally or the other, though these things got knotted and tangled, as someone with the last name of Duncan can tell you. Melendez addresses this Spanish issue and is probably one of the best you’ll find in Chicano or Latin American literature dealing with it (this kind of thing isn’t limited to Northern New Mexico). A man whose grandmother was a Comanche captive goes about declaring his pure Spanish blood and looks the fool (he even tells the beautiful Maria that he will overlook her imperfect blood in light of her beauty).
Dr. Melendez has done the amazing, he has made a wonderful book that amasses functions and stories like stone hedge gathers ley lines: He has created a book of archives, giving this place in northern New Mexico a history, and validates our existence, our tales, records family histories, and keeps the memories, and moreover acknowledges and helps preserve the New Mexican brand of Spanish. This is a book for anyone who likes stories, but for Latinos it functions as an elder who remembers and will tell you all, if you would just sit and listen.
Jonathan Warm Day, a native of Taos Pueblo, learned painting from his mother, Eva Mirabal, an artist herself who had been a student at the Santa Fe Indian School during its artistic renaissance under the direction of Dorothy Dunn. After graduating from Taos High School, Warm Day attended Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, then studied art at the University of New Mexico. His paintings are included in several important collections and have been exhibited in various galleries. Warm Day lives in Taos with his two daughters, Carly and Jade, both high school athletes. He makes his living as an artist and storyteller. Visit his website at http://www.jonathanwarmday.com/
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 https://scottrussellduncan.com/
They were married on the Day of the Dead, el Día de los Muertos, which no one gave much thought to in all the months of planning, until the bride’s deceased father-in-law showed up in the car following the ceremony. He manifested behind the wheel, then stretched his arm over the back of the passenger’s seat as he turned to face Martin and Isabel. “Beautiful ceremony, mijo,” he said. The couple’s smiles froze. It seemed to take an eternity for either of them to speak, and when they did, they had little more than mumbles. Her whole life, Isabel had heard stories about spirits who spent this one day of the year with family. As a child she had built altars for her great-grandparents, vibrant tributes made out of open shoe boxes adorned with paper flowers and pictures of religious figures that looked a lot like the dioramas she created in grade school. In her teens, her family congregated around her great-aunt’s grave to clean it; one year, her mother even brought a battery-operated vacuum for the stone. “Today we remember our dead,” her mother always said.“We honor them.” Martin’s father looked more frazzled than dead, as if he was running late because he had been caught in traffic. Isabel looked to her new husband for guidance and was shocked to realize he seemed annoyed. Not afraid, because honestly her father-in-law looked harmless, just like in the few pictures she had seen of him. No, Martin looked like he had simply bitten into a pepper that was hotter than anticipated. “Did you know this would happen?” she said. “No, but it’s typical of him. Typical. Only someone so shameless would show up to a wedding uninvited.” “Martin, please!” She hadn’t expected him to be so rude. She hadn’t expected any of this at all, but her instincts to remain polite and respect her elders were deeply engrained—even more than her assumptions about life and death, apparently—and so her efforts to understand the situation were quickly overridden by her desire to make everybody feel comfortable. It was the first time she had met her father-in-law. She smoothed her white dress, which was bulging into every inch of the seat, and straightened her veil over her shoulders. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?” The old man sat quietly, waiting. “I’m not talking to him,” Martin said. “Martin, you can’t be serious.” At this, her father-in-law smiled and leaned toward her, through the small space that separated the front and back of the white Rolls-Royce they had rented. “He is, I promise you. That kind of stubbornness runs deep in our blood. Isabel, I’m Omar. Though I hope they at least told you my name?” “Of course. Encantada,” she said. In ordinary circumstances, she would have leaned in to kiss him, hug him even, but these were not ordinary circumstances. She didn’t know what laws governed the dead. Could they touch? Feel? Hold? Omar seemed as if he might shift the car out of park any moment now. Instead he placed his hand over hers, and she felt not a solid touch but a vibrant warmth, like gentle electricity. Her eyes lit up, but Martin scoffed and turned away. “Omar,” she said, letting his name empty her lungs. “Will you be joining us for the reception?” What a foolish thing to say. “You’re very kind to ask, Isabel. Thank you.” He stepped out of the still-open door of the car and began walking toward the church gardens. Neither Isabel nor Martin attempted to follow. She didn’t know how, but she knew she wouldn’t see him as she and Martin shared their first dance or cut their wedding cake. The whole evening, she didn’t have to glance over her shoulder to see if her father-in-law had arrived. And because the last thing she wanted to do was upset her new husband, she acted like it’d never happened.
She couldn’t fall asleep on their wedding night. The newlyweds made love distractedly, as if the act were nothing new, and of course for them it wasn’t. They were not, by the Church’s standards, good Catholics. Before today neither had been to mass in years, and they had slept together on their third-and-a-half date and had used condoms and contraceptives and spermicide, sometimes all at once. If not new, though, she had imagined their wedding sex would feel different. Husband and wife, joining their bodies, and for the first time it wouldn’t matter if someone heard them or walked in on them or if the condom broke in eight places. They were married now. They were together for life. Martin struggled with the perfectly round buttons that climbed, one impossibly close to the next, all the way up her spine. Isabel hadn’t realized until her dress was undone how the corset had constricted her all evening. She had to take a moment to catch her breath, and the indentations that the boning left on her skin, now exposed, itched. She had wanted to make love to him in new ways, she really had, but more than that Isabel wanted to lie next to him, close her eyes, and open them to find Martin still there the next day, and the next, and the next after that. When it was over, and they untangled their bodies, the newlyweds stared at the ceiling. She sighed. “That was wonderful,”she had meant to say, but the words that came out instead were, “What’s wrong?” Martin brought his hand to his forehead. “I didn’t know he was dead.”
Born in Lima, Peru, Natalia Sylvester came to the US at age four and grew up in Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. She earned her BA in creative writing from the University of Miami, is a faculty member of the low-residency MFA program at Regis University, and works as a freelance writer in Austin. Her work has appeared in Bustle, Catapult, Electric Literature, Latina magazine, and the Austin American-Statesman. Natalia’s first novel, Chasing the Sun, was named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad. Her latest novel,Everyone Knows You Go Home, has been named a Best Book of 2018 by Real Simple magazine and is a finalist for the International Latino Book Awards.