A Cuban Soap Opera Remake
by Matias Travieso-Diaz and Eloy Gonzalez-Argüelles
[I want to speak, I want to speak, tell everyone Albertico Limonta is my grandson,
the child of my oldest daughter Maria Elena.]
Don Rafael del Junco’s silent litany in El Derecho de Nacer by Felix B. Caignet
In mid-2047, the Instituto Cubano de Radio y Televisión (Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, or CIRT), received a proposal for a revival of the 1948 radio soap opera El Derecho de Nacer (The Right to be Born) by the Cuban radio writer Félix Benjamín Caignet Salomón. At the time, El Derecho, as it was called, swept Cuba by storm, and then spread to all of Latin America in a run that lasted over fifty years. It was regarded as one of the most influential soap operas of all time, and had been the subject of numerous radio, television and movie adaptations. The revival (in the form of a TV series to be aired in Cubavision) was to start in April 2048 to coincide with the centenary of the original radio broadcast.
José (“Pepe”) Cubero, a brilliant movie and TV producer and director, was the proponent and strongest defender of the project. He acknowledged that the 1948 soap opera would have to be modified a bit to make it consistent with the culture and politics of twenty-first century Cuba, but felt the changes would be small and well within his creative abilities.
The proposal met opposition from some of the most orthodox members of the Communist Party. They claimed that the original story was rife with the type of bourgeois, capitalistic ideology that had been eradicated after almost ninety years of Socialist rule. Other opponents, more practical, pointed to the chronic economic crisis that bedeviled the island with words like these:
“Anything we broadcast must encourage the Cuban people to work harder, make sacrifices, concentrate on rebuilding the economy in the face of the heartless Yankee blockade. El Derecho is a frivolous, escapist diversion that would get us sidetracked from our mission. And it will run for many months, compounding the damage.”
The matter was kicked upward to land on the lap of Miguel Diaz-Canel, who had been President and First Secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party for almost thirty years. He was in his mid-eighties and getting ready to step down, so he was in no mood to mediate in ideological disputes. He ruled:
“Let Pepe Cubero come up with a proposed screenplay and give it to the President of the CIRT and the Minister of Culture. Let those guys decide what changes to the screenplay are required to render it acceptable, make those changes, and run with it. Don’t bother me with this shit again.”
The Minister of Culture, Haydée Alonso, who had studied in Paris, quoted Sartre, and prided herself on being open-minded and liberal (within the ideological bounds of the Party), was enchanted with the idea of a revival of El Derecho, so she was inclined to give Cubero a relatively free hand. This was good news to Cubero, although no one else liked Haydée. No one forgave her for her unpatriotic preference for smelly Gauloise cigarettes that stunk up the studio, and that she did so “in the land where the best tobacco in the world used to be grown.”
The CIRT President, Danylo López, was an old, dried-up bureaucrat concerned mainly with toeing the Party line and avoiding controversies, and was not amenable to letting Cubero get away with much. Torn between polar extremes, development of the new version of the soap opera proceeded in painful fits and starts.
The first bone of contention was the character of Don Rafael del Junco, the villain of the story. Everyone agreed that Don Rafael, a haughty unscrupulous landowner, was a proper embodiment of the pre-Revolutionary capitalistic class. However, at the end of the original 314 episodes, Don Rafael reconciled with his daughter and grandson, and ended up being presented in a somewhat favorable light. “We have to change the ending” argued Danylo. “There can be no redemption for the enemies of the people.” Cubero reluctantly agreed to modify the end of the series so that Don Rafael got his comeuppance. He was hoping against hope that by the time the last episodes were filmed Danylo would have changed his mind.
Then there was María Elena, the daughter of Don Rafael and mother of the hero of the series. Again, everyone agreed that she showed courage in refusing to have a late term abortion and insisting on giving birth to her illegitimate child. However, in the original series she sought shelter for her grief in a convent, where the nuns and other members of the community treated her with compassion and understanding. Danylo was loath to include any episodes that praised religious people. “Religion is the opium of the masses, and the State must not condone it in any manner.”
Cubero had to change the script to have María Elena become a sort of hermit, seeking solace from the apparent loss of her child on a deserted shore. That in itself was problematic, since Cuba had implemented an internal passport system that was rigidly enforced. In the new Cuba, there was nowhere to hide. At the end, this discrepancy was allowed as poetic license, hoping it would not be noticed by anyone who had the power to object.
In the original El Derecho María Elena leaves her newborn baby boy in the care of her once wet nurse, the black María Dolores, who saves the infant from being slain on orders from Don Rafael, manages to give Don Rafael the false impression that she and the baby are dead, and escapes with the infant to a remote village. There, she raises the boy as her own child, naming him Alberto (“Albertico”) Limonta.
One salient and recurring problem was the relationship between “son” and “mother,” due to the fact that María Dolores claimed he was her son, even after his infancy. Yet, the actor chosen by Cubero to play Albertico, Ontario (“Guapito”) Ledesma, was white. Very white. Blondish. On the other hand, the lady portraying María Dolores was black, as stipulated by Caignet in the original soap opera. Coal black. No one seemed to find the discrepancy odd except for Haydée, who said that the role of María Dolores seemed taken out of Gone with the Wind. Her remark was met with a deadpan silence, for nobody in Cuba remembered or cared about old Yankee movies.
The racial disparity problem did not fully surface at first, because the boy who played Albertico as a child had a darker complexion that made his relationship with María Dolores more credible. But later on in the show, when Ontario assumed the role of 25-year-old Albertico, María Dolores’ claim that he was her son began ringing hollow. Different suggestions were considered: darkening Ontario’s skin with blackface make-up like Laurence Olivier in Othello, other things of that nature. Haydée opposed them all, because, she said, it was not impossible that Albertico could still be María Dolores’ biological son. So, things were left unchanged. There was one scene, however, when the script called for older Albertico to run up to his mother and say, “Mamá, I love you so” as he hugged the black woman. The scene had to be redone many times because the crew in the studio—and later on, even Albertico and María Dolores—could not control their laughter. In the end, the scene was filmed as it was and prompted sarcastic comments among the viewers once aired.
Much was done in the original series to highlight the discrimination and ill treatment that both María Dolores and Albertico endured on account of her race. Danylo liked that and wanted to accentuate the criticism of the racist society that existed in the country before the Revolution, but was opposed by Haydée, who warned not to overdo that aspect of the plot. “Remember, Danylo,” she said, “there are still people left in this country who believe blacks are inferior, although they won’t openly admit to it. There is no point in rubbing their noses on our commitment to equality among the races.” At the end, Danylo carried the day. Albertico, who was white, would be repeatedly abused and discriminated against for having a black mother and being a mulatto.
In one scene intended to bring more “realism” to the story, a classmate of Albertico has a fight with him and calls him an “hijo de puta” (a bastard), not an uncommon insult in Spanish. Danylo objected to the use of such foul language, as it was not in keeping with Socialist morality. Haydée replied that this choice of words was used by ordinary people and prude sentiments to the contrary were a bourgeois atavism. A heated debate ensued and, at the end, Haydée seemed to say that the language in the series should not be controlled by a “partido de hijos de puta,” which many people took to refer to the Communist Party. Haydée, however, swore that she had not said “Partido” but “partida,” meaning “bunch” or “group,” without any political connotation. Since no one could produce a definitive argument, the matter was dropped, along with the entire scene.
Many episodes later, thanks to María Dolores’ innumerable sacrifices, Albertico manages to make it through the university and becomes a famous doctor. In the original version, Albertico gets to be rich and lives in comfort with his aging “mother.” Both Danylo and Haydée objected to this turn of events. Cubero was required to rewrite that part of the story to have Albertico live modestly, see indigent patients for free, and travel to Haiti to help treat the victims of a devastating earthquake. In the rewrite, Albertico returns to Cuba with a newfound social conscience, alert to the inequities of the capitalist society and committed to fighting them.
Later in the series, Albertico is doing night duty at a public hospital’s emergency room when several injured people are brought in after a traffic accident. One of them is an old man who is bleeding to death. The victim’s blood type is AB negative, the rarest type, which is unavailable at the ill-equipped public hospitals of pre-Revolutionary times. Albertico, AB negative himself, gives a transfusion that saves the man’s life. The victim, who is no other than Don Rafael del Junco, recovers and as he convalesces, he invites his savior to come to dinner and meet his family. There Albertico meets Isabel Cristina, daughter of María Elena’s sister Matilde, and a budding romance blooms between the couple, unaware that they are cousins. Danylo was not in favor of retaining potential incest as part of the plot, and Cubero had to add another twist at the end of the story where it is revealed that Isabel Cristina is not the natural daughter of Matilde, but only an adopted one, eliminating another potential offense to Socialist morality.
Don Rafael, now fully recovered, is one day taking a stroll near an outside market, when he spots an old black woman that he immediately recognizes as María Dolores, who he had written off as dead many years before. He follows the woman, overtakes her, and confronts her. María Dolores acknowledges that she and Albertico are alive and well, and rebukes Don Rafael for his cruelty. Cubero is asked to add language to the confrontation scene wherein María Dolores lists once again all the aristocrat’s misdeeds and concludes with a stirring pronouncement: “Beware, for your days are numbered. The people soon will hold you accountable for all the crimes you have committed against your family and against society.”
Staggered by these revelations, Don Rafael returns home, where he promptly suffers a stroke (“derrame cerebral”) (a common mishap in soap operas) and falls into a coma. In the original version, Don Rafael stays in a coma for many months, burning with desire to impart the crucial news of the existence of his missing grandson to his wife and daughter, but is paralyzed and unable to speak. Here, however, science rather than politics interferes with the progress of the story. By 2047, a process had existed for years by which an artificial intelligence (AI) could accurately decode words and sentences from brain activity. Using only a few seconds of brain activity data, the AI can guess what a person is trying to say and translates it into a voice recording. The AI was commonly used throughout the world, including Cuba, to help people unable to communicate their thoughts through speech, typing or gestures.
The existence of the AI technology rendered a crucial portion of the original version of El Derecho vulnerable to ridicule by the viewing public. There was no way Don Rafael could linger, speechless, for several months. Cubero and his creative team struggled with the problem for weeks and finally had to come up with a lame solution: Don Rafael suffers a “derrame cerebral,” but recovers almost immediately and, instead of bringing the existence of his grandson to the attention of everyone, has a change of heart and continues to cover up his earlier nefarious crimes by accusing María Dolores of theft and charging Albertico with complicity in the black woman’s schemes.
Isabel Cristina, whose love for Albertico has not been diminished by Don Rafael’s accusations, alerts her boyfriend before the police can seize him, and Albertico escapes to a bitter exile in Tampa, where his mulatto identity subjects him to additional discrimination and mistreatment at the hands of the American imperialists. Meanwhile, María Dolores lingers in jail and ultimately dies of sorrow.
From that point on, the plot of the revival diverges entirely from the original radio show. Albertico becomes a revolutionary hero and travels back to Cuba to take up arms in the mountains against the corrupt government. He alerts Isabel Cristina of his whereabouts and she joins him to continue, together, their fight for justice. Through one of his comrades, who knew Isabel Cristina’s parents, it is revealed that Isabel Cristina and Albertico are unrelated, whereupon the couple is chastely married in a civil ceremony conducted by a rebel leader. They are enjoying a brief honeymoon when they learn that Don Rafael has been killed in a terrorist attack against the Presidential Palace, where he was attending a reception. Albertico and Isabel Cristina kiss and hug each other, relieved at the evildoer’s death, and the series ends.
As the first six episodes were filmed, José Cubero had increasing misgivings about the product he was going to set before the public. Technically, the series was as good as he was capable of putting together: photography, score (instrumental renderings of Cuban ballads going back to the 1800s), sound effects, customs, editing, were all first class. He had assembled a cast of experienced actors and actresses, with a famous Spanish TV personality in the role of Don Rafael. Much of the series was shot in locations selected for their beauty or historic interest.
Artistically, though, Cubero felt he was doing a disservice to—actually, betraying—Caignet’s original work and regretted all the compromises he had been forced to make to get the project approved. As a way to hide his guilt, he made sure of the destruction of all copies existing in Cuba of the audio, TV and movie versions of the series, be they from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Venezuela or Mexico. Cuban censorship saw to it that no written materials describing the 1948 series were available to the public.
Since there was nobody alive who had listened to the original broadcast, Cubero felt confident that he would not be confronted by critics of the savaging he had been forced to perform on the original. Still, he went to bed the night of Tuesday, March 31, 2048 with a heavy heart, in anticipation of the premiere of the series the following evening. He tossed and turned in bed all night and, in the few minutes of actual sleep, was accosted by the image of a dapper slim man sporting a trim moustache and a mane of black pomaded hair, who appeared and disappeared before him making menacing gestures and repeating incessantly a single word: “Why!!?”
The first episode of the new rendering of El Derecho de Nacer was shown on Cubavision at 9 p.m. on April 1, 2048. The show ran, Monday through Saturday, for 310 episodes, the last one playing in the spring of 2049. While initially garnering much public attention, interest in the series wore off quickly, so that the last episodes were seen by almost nobody. Many concluded that much of what was shown and said in the series was predictable and no different, except for its excessive duration, from other political indoctrination efforts by the government.
José Cubero finished producing the last package of ten episodes and sought and was granted permission to take a short vacation abroad to recover from his massive effort. He was last spotted taking an Iberia plane bound for Madrid on April 15, 2049.
He was never seen again.
Matias Travieso-Diaz was born in Cuba and migrated to the United States as a young man. He became an engineer and lawyer and practiced for nearly fifty years. He retired and turned his attention to creative writing. Seventy of his stories have been published or accepted for publication in paying short story anthologies, magazines, blogs, audio books and podcasts. Some of his unpublished stories have also received “honorable mentions” from a number of publications. A collection of some of his short stories, The Satchel and Other Terrors, is scheduled for publication in February 2023.
Eloy González Argüelles was born in La Habana, Cuba, and came to the United States in 1961. His studies culminated in a PhD in Romance Languages at the Ohio State University. He taught at Wheaton College (Norton, Massachusetts) and the University of Massachusetts (Harbour Campus) before moving to Washington State University (WSU), where he taught Spanish literature and literary criticism for 38 years. For ten of his last twelve years before retirement he was Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Cultures at WSU. His output includes a novel, a book on the chivalric novel, and articles in scholarly journals and conference presentations. Upon retirement he became an Emeritus Professor at WSU.
Matchmaking and Taxes
by Russ López
“Watch out,” my sister Elena warned me, “Abuelita Marisol has decided you are too old to be single. She’s hired Señora Alba to fix you up with a suitable young man.”
Grandmother wasn’t the only one who thought I needed a partner. My mother gently told me last month, “I keep looking for a saint we could ask to help you find a novio.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the chances of the Catholic Church creating a patron saint of queer relationships was infinitesimally small.
It didn’t matter who or what you were, my family thought no one should be single. My Aunt Davida kept pushing me to go out and meet guys. “Sleep around until you meet one you like,” was her advice. “That’s the best way to find true love.” This from a woman who married my uncle when she was sixteen and was still blissfully with him nearly fifty years later.
One cousin suggested I should sign up for a dating service, not knowing all the apps I had on my phone, and another told me it was time for me to think about children. “You aren’t getting any younger,” he admonished. They preferred I meet a nice Mexican man, of course, or at least someone Latino. But that wasn’t necessary. Everyone just wanted me to be with someone.
I had four siblings, all of whom had at least embarked on a long-term relationship even if they didn’t last. It was my turn, if only to give everyone something to gossip about. “I’m sure there is someone wonderful out there for you,” Elena promised me. “And we will all talk behind your back about why he puts up with your annoying habits.”
I was twenty-six, out of school, and living on my own. I had graduated with a business degree and was an independent adult gainfully employed. On paper at least, it was time I acted like an adult. While my family was otherwise proud of me, Mom still had a picture of my league champion soccer team from my high school up in the hallway, they thought that being single made me incomplete.
On the other hand, I felt like I was just starting out in life. Despite the low-cost education I received from the California State University system and living at home my first two years, I graduated with huge student loans I can barely make the payments on. I drive an old car that embarrasses me and live in a studio apartment my brother Mike calls the smallest in Silicon Valley. I have far too much Indian blood in me to pass for anything but Mexican so if that isn’t a guy’s taste, I am out of luck. An accountant for a real estate company, my only luxury is my gym membership. Now that I think about it, maybe I was too dull to be marriage material.
If you want to hire a matchmaker, Señora Alba is a great choice. Not only is she a well-respected bruja, she also dabbles as a curandera, and during tax season prepares returns for half the neighborhood. Thus, she knows everyone: the good, the bad, the broke, and the single. In my family alone, she found Uncle Rodrigo his second wife, cured my cousin Manuela of hiccups by brewing a special herbal tea, and helped Elena straighten out her 401(k) roll over. “You weren’t too proud to go running to Alba to have your taxes done,” Elena taunted me. “What makes matchmaking so different?” Still, the idea of Alba assessing my physical, emotional, and financial strengths and weaknesses disturbed me. And though Alba has excellent taste in men, her love life is legendary, I was put off by her meddling. Angry that they thought I was a pathetic loser at romance, I vowed to Elena, “I am going to reject anyone that Alba picks out for me.” Childish, but they had hurt my feelings.
The next evening at the gym, I found out my humiliation had gone public when Mike and his buddy Alejandro teased about the matchmaking going on all around me. “No ring yet,” Michael reported to Alejandro as he held my hand up. “I’ve heard Alba has interviewed over a hundred men in three languages and none have agreed to woo my hermanito.”
“It’s his baby face,” Alejandro suggested as he pinched my cheek. “He’s cute in that muchacho next door kind of way but dating him would be like going out with a puppy dog. That’s not everyone’s taste.” Michael and Alejandro laughed while I turned red. They were best friends, having met when they started working at Mayfair High School where Mike taught Drama and Alejandro ran the ESL program. Though Alejandro was handsome and gay, I never paid much attention to him because he never expressed any interest in me. However, he had the key as to why Abuelita had made my love life her priority.
“Last Saturday, your grandmother was at Pancho González and Julian Chávez ‘s wedding. You should have been there, it was spectacular,” he explained. “They wore matching tuxedos and arrived in separate coaches drawn by white horses. There was a sit-down dinner at eight prepared by a chef from Oaxaca, and a midnight buffet that featured sushi and a taco bar. They had a band inside rocking the best norteño music I’ve ever heard, and a DJ blasting party tunes out on the patio. Your grandmother danced for hours. Everyone did. Sometime after her third glass of champagne, Abuelita told me you were her only chance to have an over-the-top gay wedding in the family.” I was doomed.
Over the next several days, I kept my eyes out for a setup, but nothing happened until Friday when Abuelita asked for a favor. “I bought a new television online and didn’t want it stolen off my porch, you know how bad the crime is on my street. So I had them deliver it at Santiago’s Market where I need you to pick it up for me. When you get there, see Tony, Santiago’s son. He’ll help you get the TV into your car and then come over with you to bring it up the stairs to my apartment. I arranged it all.” This was so obvious that I had a hard time not laughing. Still, if Abuelita asks me to do something, I do it.
Again, my humiliation was public and there was a crowd at the market when I got there including my mother, two aunts, my brother, and Alejandro. It was as if someone had sold tickets. “This is too entertaining to pass up,” Alejandro said, smiling.
To punish him and to thwart Alba’s machinations, I asked Alejandro to help me with the television. I admit I was tempted by Tony. He was mad handsome and still as built as he had been during his high school wrestling days when I had drooled over him. But I was determined not to let Grandmother run my love life and refused Tony’s offer to help. Abuelita must have been surprised when Alejandro and I carried her television into her apartment, but she didn’t say anything. I had won the first round in this war, but I didn’t gloat.
Afterwards, Alejandro and I went out for burgers to dissect the setup. “You know Alba would lead with a Dominican, she loves their music,” he teased. “Let’s face it, your family could use some outside blood.” That was true. Just about everyone in the family had married someone from Coahuila. Abuela had married a second cousin from her little village while Mom and Dad had lived across the street from each other growing up. My family never went too far afield to find our mates.
“Nothing against Tony, I’d have a roll in bed with him anytime.” I wondered why we had never hooked up. Maybe I was too timid to act on my crushes. “But he has no ambition beyond running his father’s store. I want someone who wishes he could go to Mars, even though he knows it will never happen,” I told Alejandro. “I want a guy who lives in his dreams. Tony is too literal.”
“Dang, you are tough,” he replied. “I’m lucky that Alba isn’t pushing me on you.” We both laughed.
Thanks to Alba, I started getting all sorts of strange requests. A guy I barely knew wanted me to be his date at his sister’s quinceañera party, a one-night trick from two years ago suddenly resurfaced to ask me to dinner, and a man at the gym invited me to go home with him. “You’re hot as hell, bro,” he said as he stood next to me in front of one of the wall mirrors by the free weights. “I want it right now.” Fortunately, Mike and Alejandro didn’t see us leave together. Gym guy was not one of Alba’s setups, however. Though I had a good time, it turned out he had a boyfriend.
The hits kept coming. A guy on Grindr texted me that he was “Grandmother approved” while a bartender asked me how the matchmaking was going as he slipped me his phone number. “I am exhausted from all this,” I complained to Alejandro the next evening at the gym.
“Cheer up,” he said as he hugged me. “Now you know everyone wants your hot body.” His arm around my shoulder felt good.
The next Thursday, everyone went to see Mike’s students perform Romeo and Juliet. With a party of thirty in an open seating auditorium, it was chaos with people trying to figure out where to sit. At the very last second, Alba ordered Kyle Moon, a gym coach, to take the seat next to me. This may have been innocent, but with Alba in action, I suspected everything. As far as I knew, Kyle was straight and I was pretty sure that Abuelita would prefer me to date a Latinx guy, but under the circumstances, I was annoyed by this blatant setup. To make matters worse, Alejandro was sitting on the other side of Kyle, rather than next to me, and by this point, I was convinced that he should be the one I go out with. But of course, he wasn’t anyone’s idea of a proper boyfriend for me. Keeping my anger hot, Abuela and Alba sat behind me, and before the play started, they loudly assessed the romantic potential of every young man in the audience. I seethed.
The family had found out I was gay ten years ago when I stupidly left a Valentine’s Day card from a classmate on the kitchen counter. Billy Martínez was a dream and had worked for a week to create a giant card that opened up into a three-dimensional football stadium with our names in a pink heart at the fifty-yard line. My parents were cool, though I was mortified when they put the card up on the mantle to show off. Elena helped me through that time. “Be grateful,” she told me. “Mom is trying to tell you the family loves you more than anything.”
Not everyone was nice about my being gay. Aunt Julia’s boyfriend is always making crude jokes, and a cousin pointedly told me that I was never allowed to be near her kids. There were guys at my high school who threatened to kill me, and a group of girls nicknamed me mariposa rosa and painted pink butterflies and obscene drawings on my locker. I was happy to get out of there alive.
Watching the doomed romance unfold on stage, I kept wondering why I was single and ultimately decided I was too shy. There were several men that in hindsight would have loved to become involved with me, but nothing ever happened because I was too scared to initiate a relationship. When this matchmaking ended, I vowed, I would go out there and act on my feelings. Then I decided not to wait. I abruptly asked Alejandro to go on a date as we walked out of the auditorium.
“Sure, if you want,” was his response. I didn’t find that reassuring.
Regretting my spontaneity and fearing more public humiliation, I said, “Please don’t tell anyone about this. You know how everyone is watching me.” He agreed to keep it quiet.
Alejandro is so handsome, he makes me nervous. He is two inches taller than me with a perfectly proportioned body, well-muscled arms, and a widow’s peak that draws attention to his big sparkling eyes. We are about the same dark shade of brown and he has a way of talking with his hands that I find irresistible. Three years older than me, he was much more grounded than I could ever be. Though he likes to laugh and is always full of jokes, he is serious while I am all giggles. Thus, I didn’t have high hopes for us going forward. I figured he was only going out with me out of pity.
It turned out to be the best date I had ever been on. We were blissfully happy and totally in sync with each other. At one point I was suppressing the urge to laugh and tell him I was having a great time because I didn’t want him to think I was a gushy romantic when Alejandro leaned back, laughed, and said, “This dinner with you is so wonderful, I don’t want it to end.” I was hooked.
He spoke a lot about his family. “As the youngest, I am the only one with status; everyone else stays in the shadows so they don’t get picked up. From the start, I had to interpret for them and represent them when we faced the outside world.”
I felt all of my privilege for being born in the US, but I also knew the pushes and pulls he had experienced. “We all have to work together to protect the most vulnerable of us,” I told him. “A lot of folks are here without documents. We live intertwined together, we share our lives. If we lost any one of them, we all would suffer,” I felt helpless as I always do when the topic is immigration.
“I teach ESL to help the kids who are like me when I was young,” Alejandro told me. “There is so much pressure to get ahead, yet at the same time, their families so depend on them that they can’t keep up.” Mike had told me how Alejandro’s students adore him and how he is always helping them navigate the bureaucratic mess that ensnares non-citizens.
“I know how our families frame our lives,” I said. “My father wouldn’t let me become a social worker or a community organizer. No. I had to major in something practical like business. ‘We gave up your brother to teaching to help our people. You have to look for other ways to make something of yourself,’ he told me. You’ve met my father. I couldn’t ever go against his wishes.”
“I understand. We are all still trying to figure out our way between our families and the world,” Alejandro nodded. He still lived at home, though Mike told me he wanted to move out. “I’m always second guessing myself. I wonder if teaching is the right way to go. Sometimes I think I should run for office to change things. My father thinks that I am crazy when I talk about that, but I like to aim high.” I just stared into Alejandro’s eyes, lost in their possibilities.
After a brief silence, Alejandro said, “When you give me that cute puppy dog look, I have to ask if your apartment is really as small as your brother says it is.”
“It is pretty cramped,” I answered. “When I have a guy over, we have to be on top of each other all night long.” I let that sink in as I explained, “I moved out of my parents’ place when my sister and her three kids came to live with us. I was too old to sleep on a couch every night.” Then I took another bold step. “Want to come back with me?”
When Alejandro looked around my tiny apartment, he smiled and said wistfully, “You are so lucky. I wish I had a place like this.” Then he pushed me down on the bed.
Within a week Alejandro was spending every night with me. By the end of the month, he had moved in. We alternated Sunday dinners, one with his family, one with mine, and we did everything together: the gym, soccer, and knocking on doors to get our candidate elected to the city council. Still, as far as I knew no one had a clue we were seeing each other, and I was happy I had outsmarted Alba. I wanted to keep things quiet but the news of our relationship began to leak out. Elena saw Alejandro’s car parked in front of my apartment early one morning, and Mike caught us sharing a drunk sloppy kiss after our soccer team went out to celebrate a big win. He confronted us when he saw me wearing Alejandro’s beat up Mayfair High tee shirt at the gym. “Listen up, lovebirds. Either you go public, or I am going to tell everyone. I can’t keep a secret.”
It is hard to overstate the status of Mexican grandmothers. Fathers may love us to pieces, but they always have unreasonable expectations. We have to have perfect in every way. My father even had an opinion on what car I should drive. “Get a dark sedan. Cops always pull over a Mexican driving a red SUV.” Daughters have it even worse. Mexican fathers’ primary role in life is to make their daughters miserable by being overprotective. They hate every boy who even glances at their virginal little girls.
Mexican mothers are similarly ambiguous. They will fight to the death to protect us, but they also feel it is their duty to wheedle, threaten, prompt, and cajole their sons to do what they think is right. It drove my mom to madness if I left the house in a wrinkled shirt, for example. “If the teachers see you disheveled, they will blame me,” she said, tears running down her cheeks at the thought of the humiliation. Again, Mexican daughters have it worse because their mothers try extremely hard to prevent them from making the same mistakes they did. Daughters are too much like their mothers to get along.
Grandmothers, however, are the warm source of unconditional love. There are never any fights, never an argument or raised voice, and they never hurt our feelings. Abuelita would slip me cookies when my parents weren’t looking, and she let me stay up late to watch spooky movies when she babysat me. I admit to being annoyed when she made me say the rosary with her, and I grew bored the hundredth time she told me how bad things were in Mexico before she left. But those were minor quibbles.
Abuelita was the tough matriarch of our family. Denied the opportunity to go to school, she had taught herself how to read and write Spanish and after she moved to California, learned it all over again in English. She organized everyone to come to the United States, and when the window to citizenship opened up in the eighties, she had everyone apply. She and Abuelito raised seven children, and thanks to their force of will, none of their children or grandchildren succumbed to gangs or drugs. After a lifetime of hard work cleaning hotel rooms, Abuelita was at last retired, but only because her children demanded she rest. We all did whatever we could to please her.
Imagine my fright that I was going to confront her, perhaps the first time since the time of the fifth sun—the Aztec creation myth says we are in the fifth world—a grandson was going to directly contradict his grandmother. But I owed it to her. I couldn’t let her keep spending her money finding me a match.
My opportunity came while we were at Tía Agueda’s house. Alejandro was out back teaching Mike’s four-year-old and the other kids how to merengue; by now he had spent so much time with my family that if I showed up someplace without him, everyone asked where he was. My parents and their siblings were playing cards around the dining table while arguing over who was responsible for the latest defeat of the Mexican National Soccer Team. Abuelita and I were cleaning up in the kitchen. She is a tiny woman; I could easily lift her up over my head. Her short hair had turned gray before I was born; now it was mostly white, which made her dark skin glow. While she talked about her volunteer work at the parish, I kept looking at her to assess her mood. But she is as undecipherable as a marble statue. No one knows what Abuelita is thinking, but we always know what she wants. And here I was about to go against her wishes.
Surprisingly, it went very well. “Alejandro is a good boy. His family is very proud of him.” That is the greatest complement Abuelita has for anyone. “Es muy guapo,” she added. “Though both of you need to put on some weight.”
“No hard feelings?” I asked. “I am so sorry you were worried about me. I apologized for making you go through all this.” It was heartfelt.
“Pues, it was worth a try. I only wanted to help,” she said with a smile. I offered to reimburse her for Alba’s fee, but she refused. “This is a business transaction between the Bruja and me. Don’t go poking into it.” I backed off and put it out of my mind because I was excited that I was in a full blown, open, happy relationship with Alejandro. And I was with him on my own, without anyone pushing us together.
My sister finally told me what happened. “You really are a fool,” Elena rolled her eyes at my innocence. “No one can outsmart a bruja. It’s impossible to stop an abuela when she sets her mind to do something. Everyone knows that Alba planned to set you up with Alejandro from the beginning.”
Russ López is the author of six nonfiction books as well as book reviews and journal articles. After an extensive career of community organizing and social justice advocacy, he is the editor of LatineLit, a magazine that publishes fiction by and about Latinx people. “Matchmaking and Taxes” is part of a planned collection of short stories tentatively titled, The Lesser Saints of Silicon Valley. Originally from California, López has degrees from Stanford, Harvard, and Boston University. He currently divides his time between Boston and Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Giggles y Yo
by Tommy Villalobos
Giggles walked like she was dancing to Oldies But Goodies, Volume One. But she also looked sad all the time. It was like she wanted to be sad. Her friends already had a Sad Girl so they called her Giggles.
People called me Gordo. I wasn’t fat. Maybe just a little.
But let me get back to Giggles. She was the finest one in the Projects, 1950’s.
One day, Lil’ Chango, skinny with a face that not even a madre could love, tried talking to her. He was barking like a seal up the wrong playa. I looked at her face when she was listening to the bato. Her lips were twisted. Like he was making funny noises with his nariz.
He walked away with his head looking down, like he didn’t care if a carucha hit him. She looked at me and I made a serious face. Inside, I was laughing like when I saw that cartoon where the coyote gets hit by a giant rock when he’s chasing the pájaro loco.
Giggles started walking again with that special wiggle. I wanted to tell her something like a priest. I walked fast.
“Hija, you can tell me,” I said.
She turned to look at me like I was a cucaracha walking around her sopa.
“I don’t know you.”
“I want you to.”
“I like someone.”
“Never saw you with someone. Never saw you with anyone.”
She looked at me like I was another cucaracha but this time in her sopa.
“Are you following me around?”
“Even when I sleep.” I was trying to sound romantic like in a song.
“All girls like being looked at.”
“We’re meant to be.”
“Uh-uh.” She walked quickly away. Almost ran.
People could ask me why I didn’t give up. You know, chase other girls who liked gordos.
I would tell them that girls act in different modos. They can hate you but then you say or do something they really like, they grab you and put your arms around them. You feel like an octopus wearing a Pendleton.
“Where have you been, Felipe?” said my mother as soon as I walked in the door.
“Getting fresh air.”
“There isn’t any.”
I wanted to tell her about Giggles but she might not like her walk.
“Áma, I like this girl and—”
“She won’t be the last.”
“This one is the first and only. She is special.”
“She lives in Beverly Hills?”
“Take out the garbage.”
I took the garbage outside. A chavalo called Freddie saw me.
“Hey, Phillip,” he yelled. He was the only one who called me by my name.
“What?” I said to the mocoso.
“You want to play baseball?”
He didn’t see that I was grown up. Baseball was for chavalos. Girls were more fun now.
“Freddie, I like girls now,” I said like I was confessing to a priest.
Freddie was stunned, making a cara like I said I liked wearing dresses now.
“One day, you’ll throw your baseball to your sister because you won’t be able not to.”
I really thought of saying that because his sister Lydia was a better baseball player than him and she was only seven.
“You’re talking crazy, Phillip. Go get your mitt, let’s play.”
“Maybe later,” I said, knowing “later” really meant never.
He turned and walked away. He turned back to look at me as if he wasn’t sure who I was. Then he disappeared into the Projects. I felt kind of sad. Like my childhood was disappearing with him.
Then I thought again about Giggles and I wanted to kick Freddie and my childhood further into the Projects. God made something more fun than baseball.
Then my friend since I forget how long, Jimmy, saw me. We were the same age. He was more serious than me. Of course, my mother would say everyone was more serious than me.
Jimmy loved math and collecting baseball trading cards. His cards took up most of his life.
And the girls all looked at him like he was Elvis. It didn’t seem to matter to him. He spent his time with his math books and cards. Everything else was for other guys.
“Gordo, why are you standing there?” he said.
“Not sure. Where are you going walking all fast?”
“My mom needs butter.”
“You still run mandadas?”
“Sure. You don’t?”
I nodded slowly.
“Jimmy, oh, Jimmy!” said a high voice belonging to a running flaca with flying pelo.
It was Lorna Ritas. She was in a race for Jimmy with Sally Lomenez, Linda Mistasosa and Maria Lobermie. They had a better chance with the real Elvis. Jimmy barely said “Hi” to them but each time they took it like he wanted to make out with them at Belvedere Park.
Like that song, Jimmy only had eyes for Rachel Apenuz.
Rachel Apenuz had no personality I could see. Jimmy saw something the rest of the world didn’t, like in those spooky movies.
Compared to Rachel, Giggles was a shiny pair of spit-shined calcos. Rachel was like my sister’s paper dolls she used to play with. She was like cardboard. Her hair looked tired. In fact, she looked tired.
But I was glad Jimmy didn’t see Giggles. Then I panicked, my mouth turned dry. Maybe he hadn’t seen her glide like a lowered carucha down Brooklyn and Mednik.
“So, are any new girls waving at you?” I said, my mouth even drier now.
He looked at me like I said something in Chinese real fast.
“Yeah, like hot off the comal?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Is Rachel still your, you know…?”
He nodded with a strange smile.
“I still like Rachel.”
I could breathe normal, again.
Jimmy’s sister whistled for him from away off. She had the loudest whistle in the Projects.
Jimmy ran off. I went back inside.
I played “Earth Angel” by the Penguins on my sister’s record player. I played it over and over. The title said what I wanted to sing to Giggles. Then I fell asleep on my sister’s cama. The record player needle was stuck on the end of the record.
“What are you doing?” my sister screamed, making me jump. My heart wanted to leave my chest and jump out the window to find somewhere better to live.
“Man,” I screamed back, “you nearly gave me a heart attack.”
“And I hate to fail. Now I’m really mad.” She got good grades in school. I think that’s why she said that. But she also had a big mouth my mother was always trying to slam shut.
Hearing my sister’s big mouth, my mother came running like my sister was on fire.
“¿Qué está pasando?” she screamed louder than even my sister.
“I have to wash everything,” my sister said, looking around the room like I spread pulgas all over.
“Don’t exaggerate,” my mother said.
“He’s a pestoso,” she screamed in her chavala voice so all the Projects could hear. I think all the people in the Projects were smelling the air.
My mother was quiet as if my sister said something like the president.
“I was only playing a record,” I said, explaining things to the judge, my mother.
Like a bailiff, my mother escorted me out of the room. My hermana had a crooked smile. The door slammed behind us. I would aim pedos into her room next time she wasn’t home.
To feel better, I went back outside. In the Projects you always ran into someone who either made you laugh or was madder than you.
Right now, it was Pete. He never made you laugh or mad. But he always had a problem to share. I tried telling him that was why he had a mother. That’s how they got gray hair.
But today, I think I caught him at a moment when people feel like unloading a problem on the first person they catch.
“Gordo,” he said, “I have a problem.”
“You’re the last bato I would guess had one.”
“I met the finest weesa ever made.”
“When you see her walk, it’s like seeing the ocean at Long Beach.”
“Go write a poem.” I said. It sounded like he was talking about Giggles and I didn’t want to hear.
“I have to win her heart first.”
Pete wasn’t a bad looking guy like some of the truly ugly ones around, but right now he looked like the ugliest feo of all time.
“I love Giggles,” he continued and I wanted to give him a Popeye-sized cachetada.
“Who is ‘Giggles’?” I said with a shaky voice. I was a nervous liar.
“She is a walking angel, like in the song, ‘Earth Angel’.” He said this with a stupid, faraway look.
“You okay?” he then said.
I felt mad then sick then mad again.
“Are you sure-sure?”
“My problem is that she is related to Jimmy and likes Loco.”
I sat on the sidewalk. I saw Loco’s crooked right eye. I think he hated the world and everyone in it because of that eye. He was born that way. God wanted him to look loco so he took the hint and became one.
“You look weird, man.”
“Why Loco?” I croaked.
“That’s what I want you to tell me. He is one ugly bato with an even uglier way with people.”
“And she is Jimmy’s cousin?”
He nodded weakly.
“How do you know that?”
“Oh, yeah. Your sister Rosie talks with everyone about everyone. The Queen of Maravilla Chisme.”
“Hey, that’s my hermana.”
“Everyone knows Rosie, Pete.”
“Yeah, but you’re wise.”
All those times talking to Pete, I was mostly trying to get rid of him.
“So, what do you think?” he said. He wasn’t going nowhere till he got an answer.
“Loco has that name for a reason. Jimmy is probably thinking of a way to stop his prima from getting hooked up with him.”
I said that for myself.
“What do you mean?”
“He wants to stop him.”
“Oh.” I always liked hearing Pete say “Oh.” It meant he was accepting what I said and would go away. Not today.
“You know, Jimmy invited Loco to the show with Giggles?”
I lost my words and thinking.
Pete batted for me. “I saw them walking back to the Projects after they got off the Kern bus. Loco was laughing like a hyena.”
My mother said life has surprises. One just kicked me in the head.
“Should we jump him?” said Pete.
“He would wrap you around me like a pretzel.”
“So, what are you going to do?” he said.
What I wanted to do was pluck Loco’s good eye out and do a pachuco hop on it.
“It’s up to you.”
“Then what should I do?”
I felt like I was running his life when he should be running his own.
“Find another one.”
“There ain’t no other around,” said Pete, looking around as if to prove it.
“All good times don’t lead to Giggles.”
At this point, I think I was again giving advice to myself.
“Yes they do.”
“What if she hates you? And your family? And your dog.”
“She don’t know me. Or my family. And this is the Projects, we can’t have a dog.”
“Maybe she has a drinking problem. She’ll start making ojitos at other batos.”
“How do you know she has a drinking problem?”
“Just looking at all angles.”
“She could wet her bed, chew food with her boca wide open, have a voice like Jimmy Durante, and I would still like her.”
“What if she has a record?”
“Even if she was serving life at juvie, I would still visit her every day.”
He was almost as crazy over her as I was.
“Don’t you have a girl you liked? What about Edith?”
“Edith was in the second grade. Her family moved out of the Projects when I was nine.”
He looked at me real let down. He walked away.
I went and sat on my porch. I saw a girl coming toward me on the sidewalk. She was walking like a wave at Long Beach, like Pete said.
It was Giggles.
“Hello,” I said, trying to sound like some actor I heard in a movie.
She kept walking like I had been a squawking perico.
I was hoping for a “Hello” back or at least her head to turn up all conceited. But she kept walking.
But then for a little bit, she turned her head toward me. Not mad or happy.
Jimmy would make everything right. He would talk to his cousin and tell her that he and I were closer than gum under a zapato and she should grab me, crying.
Jimmy said that they were cousins when he came to the door.
“So, she just likes him like a cousin?” I said.
“She and Loco are closer than gum in your hair,” said Jimmy.
“So she likes him like a favorite cousin?”
“She likes him like she likes to kiss him.”
“He kisses her back.”
“You know Loco. You know what he’s like.”
“Since we were babies.”
I swallowed hard. Then I swallowed hard again. Then a third time and maybe a fourth.
“You look like you swallowed a moco,” he said.
“Why do you even know him?”
“He’s my step brother.” Jimmy didn’t even say that like he was sorry.
“I don’t make the rules. Loco’s dad married my mom years ago. My mom had kids. He had one, Loco.”
“So he can’t love Giggles?” I said.
“Why can’t he?”
“She is my cousin but she is nothing to Loco. Well, that could change, but that doesn’t keep them from liking, maybe loving each other and making a whole bunch of kids to spread around Maravilla.”
“That shouldn’t be allowed.”
I walked away, stomping on the ground like it was Loco’s ugly ojo.
I went to Pete’s house to report.
He opened his door then smiled like if I was going to say that Giggles loved him.
I broke the news over his head. But it was my own cabeza that hurt.
Tommy Villalobos was born in East L.A. and also raised there. He thinks of the lugar daily and love the memories while remembering the tragedies of his neighbors and of his madre. Tommy’s mother had a great sense of humor and he inherited about ten per cent of it. She had a quick wit and response to all verbal attacks, whether to herself personally or to her Catholic religion that she loved. Tommy dedicates all his works to her, knowing she had him when she had no idea how she was going to feed him and his four siblings. She was a single mom until the day she died. He lives in a boring suburb now, outside of Sacramento, but his heart and soul will always be in East Los Angeles where his mother was always by his side to protect him.
Artie Finds The Right One—For Someone Else
Tommy Villalobos, who lives near Sacramento, California, has several e-books in virtual print, Lipstick con Chorizo, the story we first serialized ala Carlos Dickens in Somos en escrito a few years ago, Love Thy Neighbor, Oro and Elo were Buddies, and Unos Marranos Plus Una Vibora Equals Romance. His droll Chicanesque world is filled with larger than life barrio dwellers, as in this first part of a new serial thriller in the making.
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