Excerpt from La Quinceañera, latest book from Carmen Baca
La Corona (The Crown)
“I love it!” Conchita cried when she placed la corona on her head. “I feel like royalty. Someday, Marguerite, someday, I’ll wear a real one with genuine diamonds, and everyone will wait on me hand and foot,” she added, turning from the mirror to hug her prima Marguerite on the day before she joined the convent. She secretly wanted to jump for joy. She had coveted that crown the entire night her cousin had worn it. She loved Marguerite genuinely, and she would never have asked for the prized jewels herself, but she was ecstatic when her cousin decided to give it to her.
“You know what they say,” Marguerite replied, quiet and serious in her demeanor. “Be careful what you wish for. You might just get your heart’s desire, but it will come with a price. If you don’t believe that, think of me and what my vanity brought. It will serve as a reminder to keep you humble.”
“Oh, Marguerite,” Conchita cried. “Don’t think like that, you—”
Marguerite shushed her prima, adding, “Hey, let’s not part arguing. If I know you, you’ll make your wish come true and wear a crown of real jewels one day if that’s what you want. And you’ll get it through pure determination.”
After her cousin left, Conchita turned to the mirror to admire her new possession. The jewels were fake, of course, but that didn’t matter. The paste diamonds still shone as brightly as any real ones, especially in the light. The tiara was small enough that it didn’t look pretentious but beautiful enough that she could wear it to dances and other events as an accessory without feeling self-conscious. Too bad she couldn’t wear it to work, she thought. It would make what she did more enjoyable at least.
Employed by a wealthy businessman’s wife as housekeeper, Conchita was forced to wear a uniform which included a cap on her head. At work, she kept her hair in a neat bun at the nape of her neck. But she hated having to confine her waist-long wavy brown hair which was her pride and joy, and she wore it down when she wasn’t at work.
She could tell her boss, la Señora Benson, was envious of her hair and of her young, lithe body. Hell, the woman coveted her youth, period, Conchita thought. She was twenty-one, just beginning to live, saving every penny she didn’t spend on clothes so she could move to the big city when she turned twenty-five. That was her plan, anyway. Either Albuquerque or Denver, maybe even El Paso, she didn’t know yet. All she knew was she had to get out of the small town of Pajarillo, or she’d die an old maid here, alone and stifled. She spent her weekend evenings out with Sally and Patricia and the rest of the gang. She used to go out with Marguerite and Viola, but the first was already committed to the cloister and the latter was so smitten with her new boyfriend, Allen, she rarely went out with them unless he came, too. Though Conchita was in no hurry to become involved, she would’ve liked to have more variety of male companions and escorts to go out with on real dates.
The problem with Conchita was her taste, which ran to men who could eventually become husband material. Her choices were limited in the places she frequented. The guys at the area’s night spots were either laborers or college students. She had no desire to become involved with a laborer; she wanted a man who would keep her in the riches and luxury she didn’t have. The college boys were no better, still sowing their oats and wanting female companions for partying and a good time, not potential sweethearts and wives. So even though she went out on weekends with the gang, it was more for the purpose of having a great time with her buddies and to show off her beautiful hair and clothes. She knew she wouldn’t find a man until she moved away. # “Un peso por tus pensamientos,” Diego almost shouted, tapping her temple twice with his forefinger. The music at El Cantinero was so loud they could barely hear each other speak though they were seated across the dance floor from the band.
“Ha,” Enrique scoffed. “You don’t have a dollar to your name, fool. How are you going pay her for her thoughts?”
“I do too have a dollar, more than a dollar. Today was payday at the ice plant.”
“Oh, good, you can pay for the next round then,” Enrique proposed, motioning to the waitress from the booth where the three sat.
“I’m thinking that if I didn’t come out on the weekends with the two of you and the others sometimes, I’d have no fun in my life at all.”
“That’s true,ˮ Enrique laughed. “Sad, but true.”
She punched him and Diego did the same on the other side. “I can’t wait until I move away from here, you know? I feel like I’m just existing from day to day, not living. I want to live!”
“Well, come on then! Let us live!” Enrique pulled her out and up onto the dance floor and swung her every which way to the beat of the salsa number until she was dizzy. She ended up accepting dance offers from a number of young men after that, and the night turned into a fun one once Conchita quit allowing herself to think depressing thoughts.
She chastised herself for her selfishness and remembered the fun-loving Gloria. Life was too short to spend on “what if” or “I wish” thinking. She crossed herself and blessed Gloria, and that night she made a pact with herself to think only positive thoughts, even at work. She began to imagine that the three story house was her own, and she began to take pride in each task. She couldn’t wait to have a home like her employer’s for herself, but she could use it as practice for how she would keep her own sparkling and clean and make her future husband proud.
Living in a five room casita on the wrong side of the tracks with her parents, Rubel and Josie Paiz, and her four siblings, Conchita was tired of her older sister’s and her friends’ hand-me-downs and tired, too, of scrounging for everything. Making seventy-five cents an hour and giving almost half of her earnings weekly to her mother for groceries, Conchita knew moving out wasn’t in her immediate future. But as long as she kept up her positivity, she also knew the opportunity would be hers for the taking before too long.
“Don’t forget to scrub the oven today, Conchita,” Mrs. Benson started with the list of what she wanted done while she was out at her morning charity meeting, luncheon with the library association, and afternoon tennis lesson and cocktails at the club afterward. Between washing the downstairs windows inside and out, polishing the silver, and about seven other chores the woman had already gone over with her, Conchita knew she wouldn’t have a moment to spare, earning her daily pay with chafed hands and sore muscles. Tomorrow she’d have another lengthy list to complete, and the day after that, and… She stopped herself and entered her world of pretend where everything in the house belonged to her and she took pride in keeping it spotless.
Before, she had felt like a Hispanic Cenicienta, the Cinderella from the fairy tale. But for her there was no fairy godmother to take her away from it all. She had only herself to rely on to make enough dinero and get the heck out of town as soon as she was able. So she cleaned and kept up her daydreams, the hours passed, and before Conchita knew it, the lady of the house returned and brought reality with her.
She went over every inch of what Conchita had done. The windows were spotless, the silverware gleamed, the linens and carpets smelled fresh and new—every detail of every job she performed that day she did to the best of her ability. Mrs. Benson took note as she usually did and nodded her approval as she handed over her payment for the day.
The singular concession the woman made to Conchita when she hired her was that she pay cash at the end of the day; Conchita had insisted just in case the día came when she had enough. When she had first taken the job, she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to contain herself with her servile employment or her employer. She expected the occasion would arise when she would tell the woman to stuff her hoity toity attitude up her very long narizota since she held it up in the air so high. Conchita was five, two, but the older middle-aged woman was five, seven, so when Conchita had to stand before her for her instructions or for her wages, the dark, elongated nostrils were about the only thing she saw from her vantage point. But the woman wasn’t that bad, after all. Yes, she considered herself above Conchita and people she considered servants, but she was fair and kind. And she always paid what she promised.
For the next few months after Marguerite had given Conchita the crown, she wore it the moment she got home and visualized a future where she would have a real one and be waited on by others. One morning as she got ready, she put her tiara on as she did her make-up and talked herself into wearing it at work. She tucked it into her purse and caught a ride with her father to the rich part of town where her employer lived. After Mrs. Benson left for the day, Conchita donned her crown and set off to do the laundry.
She remembered the first time her employer had taken her to the mudroom and shown her the bright, white washer. Conchita had never used one before and studied the knobs on top and looked inside with both awe and confusion. Mrs. Benson explained how to use it, and now Conchita looked forward to laundry days since all she had to do was hang the clothes outside in the back yard when the machine had finished the heavy work. She had told her mamá about the wondrous machine, and Josie began saving two dollars a week to get one of her own. The wringer washer on the back porch lost its reputation as a modern convenience the day she heard about the new appliance at the casa of la ricacha, the rich one.
Conchita was scrubbing the downstairs wood floors when the back door opened and her employer walked in. “Hi, there, Conchita. The city council meeting ended early, and I didn’t have any plans, so I thought I’d…”
Conchita had sat back on her haunches and looked up at the woman in surprise. Too late, she realized she was wearing the crown. She yanked it off and tried to hide it beneath her hands and felt her face reddening with embarrassment.
“May I see it?”
Conchita handed it over without saying anything. What could she say? I’m over twenty but I still play pretend? Working for you makes me feel like Cinderella? She waited with her eyes focused on the hangnail she was trying to yank off. Knowing the soapy water would sting when she continued her scrubbing, she figured it was a small penance she deserved for trying to be something she was not.
Mrs. Benson handed the tiara back. “It’s lovely, I remember I had one similar when I was about your age.”
Yeah, but yours was probably real, Conchita thought but said nothing.
“I remember I was so happy when my mother presented it to me,” the woman added. “But I found out a few days later it was fake when she yanked it from my head and threw it out my upstairs bedroom window. I saved the shattered pieces in my jewelry box for years to remind myself of…of certain things,” she finished with a small smile. “Go ahead, put it back on. Lord knows it looks so much lovelier on you than mine ever did on me. I’m going up to my room. Would you let me know when you’ve finished the floors?”
She left and Conchita tried to tuck the tiara into the pocket of her apron, but it didnʼt fit. She ended up putting the thing back on for expediency and continued her work, wondering why the beautiful, rich Mrs. Benson had said her own tiara hadn’t looked good on her. She began to think there was something more about her employer she didn’t know, something which made her sad sometimes even with all she had.
Conchita knocked on Mrs. Benson’s door when she had finished for the day. The woman answered and went downstairs to check on Conchita’s work, approving everything before pulling the dollar bills from her slacks pocket and bidding her good afternoon.
The following morning when Conchita arrived, Mrs. Benson told her she had something she needed help with in the attic. She led the way and pointed to a corner. “There are many outfits in these three trunks over here,” she continued, “designer clothes, all the accessories—hats, gloves, shoes, and even jewelry, I believe. I will not kid myself any longer. I will never be a petite again, and I refuse to allow such beautiful garments to mold away when someone could be enjoying them. I want you to go through each one and take whatever you want from these trunks. Perhaps you’ll find some for your mother and sister, too.”
For a moment—just a tiny second of a moment—Conchita felt a twinge of anger. She had never accepted charity (her friends’ contributions to her wardrobe didn’t count) and didn’t know how to feel about the rich woman’s proposition. But she looked into la señora’s eyes and saw a sincerity there. “I was so vain in my youth, Conchita,” she admitted. “I thought I would be young forever and my good looks would also last forever. Do you know that’s the reason I never had children? I never wanted to lose my tiny waistline, isn’t that just stupid?”
Conchita saw tears forming in the woman’s eyes, and she sprang to action on impulse. She went to the closest trunk and pulled out a lovely silk scarf and a handbag of the same shade of lavender. “There are many things in here you can still use or wear, Señora.” And she brazenly but gently wrapped the scarf around the woman’s neck. “See?” This sets off your complexion beautifully. We should see what there is you can still wear before I take anything. If you’re anything like me, I know what’s in these trunks were probably some of your favorites.”
There was a hint of wistfulness in Mrs. Benson’s expression, and so Conchita pulled up a stool, wiped the dust from it, and settled the woman down. Pulling out one garment after another, she struck up outlandish poses and crossed her eyes or stuck her tongue out the side of her mouth. Conchita had Mrs. Benson laughing so hard a few times she almost fell from the small stool. Conchita found a bureau mirror against one wall and pulled it forward so they could see themselves as they donned more outfits over their clothes.
“Look at this lace wrap, Mrs. B,” Conchita gushed over the shiny gossamer material that glowed in golden shades. She placed it on her employer’s shoulders and turned her to the mirror. “It’s perfect on you.”
“I think you’re right, Conchita,” the woman smiled at her in the mirror. “Mrs. B, huh?” “Oh, forgive me for being forward…”
“No, don’t apologize, I rather like it.” She adjusted the wrap and turned left and right as she kept talking. “No one has ever had a nickname for me—ever, not even as a child. My mother always called me Elizabeth, never Liz, never Beth or Betty or Betsy, always Elizabeth, so formal. And when she was angry, which was often, she called me Elizabeth Monique Davinia Jones, as if I needed to be reminded who I was. The woman had no love for me, I don’t think.”
Conchita turned introspective. She thought of her relationship with her own mother. By the time Conchita was born, her mother had been in her thirties. They had more of a formal relationship than one of friend or confidant though there was love between them, and her mother didn’t treat her coldly as Mrs. B’s had seemed to. However, there were just some things she could never talk about with her mother.
Take her menstrual cycle. Her mother had tried to talk to her about it before the event came, but she stumbled over words and faltered in details so much she called Conchita’s older sister, Lourdes, to explain. So, on the night when Auntie Flo came visiting, Lourdes was the one who told their father to run to the store and bring home some feminine napkins.
“¡Qué ’stas pendeja o qué, napkins a la fregada!” Señor Paiz had protested. His grumbling over Lourdes being stupid enough to think he would go and buy such a product made her laugh all the way to the bathroom where she’d left Conchita stranded. Their mamá had to accompany him, never mind that she left the ropa in the washer waiting for the wringer just to be the one to buy the feminine products her father wouldn’t. When Conchita got her first French kiss and panicked it would make her pregnant, Lourdes was again the one she ran to, confessing tearfully and fearing her parents would throw her out of the house. Lourdes had laughed even louder and longer about that and educated Conchita about the truth of male-female relationships.
On a hunch, she told Mrs. B about these memories, and they shared a good laugh and shared even more. A camaraderie was created between the two that day, one which saved Conchita’s life in the years to come. The two women spent the entire morning up in that attic, trying on each garment they pulled from the three trunks and separating them into piles while they shared more cuentos from their pasts.
“Oh my heavens,” Mrs. Benson cried when the clock downstairs announced that it was noon. “We’ve spent the entire morning up here, girl! What say we go make some sandwiches. You can use that luggage over there by the back wall to pack the clothes you liked, and I’ll give you a ride home. We shall declare today a personal holiday. Tomorrow is soon enough for you to do what I wanted done today.”
And so they did. Conchita felt like royalty indeed in the woman’s shiny, new sedan. Again, a twinge of shame hit her in the chest when they passed the main street and entered the poor side of town. But when she pointed out her modest house to the wealthy woman, she raised her head defiantly and realized that indeed she was proud of their little adobe casita. Her father had repaired the plaster and made them paint it each year, and he taught her brothers to fix the picket fence. Her mother guided them all in planting fresh flowers each spring. The windows gleamed, and the entire façade presented comfort. Theirs might not be a mansion, but it was a home, one which they all worked toward presenting a welcoming exterior so people would see there was love on the inside.
“Would you like to come in?” Conchita asked. “Meet my mother?”
Mrs. Benson looked at the house for a long minute, taking in every detail, Conchita was certain. But she wasn’t sure what the woman thought or whether she’d accept her invitation.
“Of course,” the tall, refined señora replied with a smile. “I’d love to meet your mother.”
They pulled two large valises from the trunk and struggled to carry them through the little gate. By the time Conchita opened the front door, they were laughing at their awkwardness in carrying such heavy luggage and banging their shins with each step they took.
They found Conchita’s mother Josie in the living room where she had been ironing in front of the TV tuned to a daytime soap opera she had become addicted to. The look of horror she gave her daughter showed Conchita her mother was mortified. To have been discovered doing a household chore in the living room was bad enough, but to be caught with her braid falling down with her exertion and to be seen sweating in an old housedress was sacrilege.
Too late, Conchita realized she should have called ahead. Rather than watch her mother suffer, she plunged on in with both feet. She was already going to be told off anyway, might as well go full hog. “Mom, this is my employer, Mrs. Benson. Mrs. B, this is my mother, Josie Paiz. I am so sorry I didn’t warn my mother we were coming. The woman cleans twenty-four hours a day. The house can be spotless, but she always finds something to do.” She knew she was scrambling to say something, anything to make her mother feel at ease and vice versa.
For a moment the two women looked at one another in awkward silence. But then Josie spoke up after wiping her brow on her apron and wiping her hands as well. “Welcome to our home, Señora,” she said, putting her hand out to shake Mrs. Benson’s. With seriousness, she added, “I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to watch TV or do the ironing, so I chose to do both to save time. I’m glad you didn’t stop by yesterday when I was doing the dishes on the coffee table.”
The moment of silence passed when the two women burst into laughter at the same time, and Conchita sighed in satisfaction. She should’ve known her mother would save her own day. No longer embarrassed, she motioned for Mrs. Benson to take a seat on the sofa and bade Conchita to go bring them some glasses of tea. By the time she got back, Mrs. Benson had opened the suitcases, and the two women were pulling out all the dresses so Josie could put them up to her chest to “try them on.” She oohed and aahed over the jewelry and then kicked off her house shoes to try on a pair of red dressy heels, posing her legs one way and then the other while the señora whistled her approval.
By the time Mrs. Benson left, Josie had agreed to accompany her to her charity luncheon the following day so she could introduce her to her closest friends. “Wear that blue dress, Josie,” she pointed at the frock lying on the arm of the couch. “That will look so great with your black hair. I’ll pick you up at eleven. Conchita, come walk me to my car.” When they reached the sidewalk, the woman turned and caught Conchita up in a hug so abruptly she almost didn’t hug back. “Wear your crown proudly, my young friend,” she whispered into Conchita’s hair. “In fact, I insist you wear it at work every day to remind yourself what a priceless gift you are to me.” She stepped back, gave Conchita’s arms a last squeeze, climbed into her car and left.
Closing her mouth when a fly hit her cheek head on caused Conchita to register the words that had left her employer's mouth and into her ears…“wear your crown proudly…a priceless gift you are...” She brushed away the tears with the heels of her hands and went back to the house. Her mother stood over the mess of clothing and accessories everywhere as though a whirlwind had just come into the living room and thrown beautiful garments willy-nilly and left without damaging a thing. Conchita waited for the telling off that never came.
“She’s something else, your boss.”
“Yes, she is.”
“I thought I was going to die of embarrassment when she walked in, but she’s alright. Down to earth, that one.”
“I didn’t see that side of her till today.” And so Conchita proceeded to tell her mother how Mrs. B and she had spent the morning as they grabbed hangers for the dresses and gathered everything else to find places to put it all.
The next day Josie and her new friend attended the charity luncheon, and Conchita went back to work, but instead of being dissatisfied with her lot, she felt a new pride in her duties. She caught a glimpse of herself in her crown in the hall mirror and laughed out loud with a new happiness, a new self-satisfaction she’d never felt before. She embraced a new desire to do her best for the woman who had given her a job when she could find no other, the woman who had befriended her mother moments after they met.
The months flew since the relationship between the wealthy señora and Conchita had changed. The woman even began calling Conchita the daughter she never had, the sister she always dreamed of, the confidant she wanted for so much of her lonely life. Conchita, her mother, and Mrs. B even began shopping together so each could try on outfits, make up, and all the accessories their new clothes needed to get the others’ opinions on the spot. Life was good, and the three were happy with their newfound friendship.
For the first time in her adult life, Conchita was content with what she had even though she still wanted better for her future. From time to time as she worked, she thought of Marguerite and all that she gave up to become a nun. Invariably, Nicola and Gloria came into her thoughts, too, and Conchita offered a prayer for her primita and her friend and reminded herself what had happened to them. This never failed to keep her humble and thankful for the life she did have. This was what she was thinking of that afternoon when she was walking from the rich side of town to the poor, a forty-five minute walk through the heat of summer and the cold of winter and every type of weather that came with the seasons.
She had forgotten to take off her tiara and strolled content and happy with the day’s work and with her new relationship with her employer and her mother. It was still warm on this spring afternoon, the sun beginning to go down. It was that hour of the day when anyone driving toward the sunlight was blinded if they didn’t raise an arm or lower a visor to shade their eyes. So when the noise came up behind her, she was knocked forward so violently she had no idea what hit her. She felt pain so severe that after a moment her body numbed with the intensity. The last thing she saw was her shiny tiara flying in front of her and rolling like a wheel down the side of the street. It disappeared into a storm drain, and that was all she remembered until she awoke in the hospital weeks afterward.
The hit-and-run driver still had not been identified, much less apprehended, by the time Conchita came to and was told what had happened to her. Considering it had happened on a main residential avenue with at least twelve side streets branching off of it, no one had seen a thing. The loud commotion sent people to their windows and screen doors, and several had reported seeing a dark vehicle speeding off on one of the side streets. But no one caught any clear details, not a description of the driver and not a single number off the license plate, nada.
Another few weeks and more sad news greeted her when she awoke from a mid-morning nap. The doctors didn’t think she would ever walk again. The tears shed by family, friends, and even Mrs. Benson could have washed the entire town of Pajarillo clean, they fell for so long and so hard from the eyes of everyone who loved her. But they were nothing compared to the crying she did for herself in the state of self-pity into which she plunged after that last announcement. There would be no moving away for her, no attracting any future husband, no large house or beautiful clothes, no social occasions or children later in her life—the life she had come to live gratefully was over. Replaced by a crude and unwelcome wheelchair, the indignities of being handicapped, the pitying looks from strangers—that was the life she now had to look forward to.
She was released from the hospital and welcomed by the entire neighborhood when she arrived home. Her father and brothers had made ramps to accommodate her, and her mother and sister were prepared to take care of her for the rest of her life. Once her oldest brother positioned her chair in the living room, her mother presented her with a new tiara, this one more elaborate and more bejeweled than the last. For her part, Conchita tried to be cheerful when she was with others, sinking into the depths of her despair when she was alone. Everyone was careful not to leave her to herself for long, but the late hours of the night and the early ones in the mornings drained her of life little by little as she focused on the bleak future ahead. She lost her appetite, lost her will to fight with her family and friends when they tried either sympathy or anger to get her out of her doldrums, lost her love of life. They feared she wouldn’t last much longer, and no one could figure out how to change what they knew would come true. Señora Benson came to the rescue shortly after Conchita’s family tried and failed to get her to want to continue. After an evening of consultation with her parents, the señora came for Conchita the next morning in her car, accompanied by a driver this time. Her mother and sister had bathed Conchita, styled her hair, applied her make-up, and practically forced her into a presentable dress before sitting her back into her chair and then placing her new crown on her head. Conchita gazed at her reflection in the mirror and smiled faintly. Like the corona of the Virgin Mother, she thought, that’s what it looks like. She prayed a “Hail Mary” for the Mother to take her to eternal sleep soon. She prayed to Gloria, too, asking if she had any influence in heaven to use it, please. She did not want to go on anymore, not without a future to look forward to.
When the señora arrived, she said she had a surprise, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer, but they were going for a ride. When the sedan left the town behind, the sound of the tires on the pavement lulled Conchita into a deep sleep, and she remained asleep for the almost three hours it took to get to their destination.
She awoke when the vehicle began slowing and looked up to see a small airplane right in front of them. “Good morning, sleepyhead,” Mrs. B smiled. “Let’s go for a ride, hmmm?”
“Would I be so cruel?”
Conchita knew the answer and did what she could to assist the driver in putting her into her wheelchair. Then he drove it up the ramp, unloaded her gently, and then fastened her into a seat in the aircraft. The plane taxied and took off with Conchita clutching the arms of the seat but with her nose pasted to the small round window. She watched as the earth receded beneath and behind her, the houses and cars getting smaller, the people turning into the size of insects from her vantage point, until moments later they were in the sky with clouds beneath them.
Oh, the ironies of life, Conchita thought. She had envisioned marrying a wealthy man who would fly her to exotic places, yet here she was, flying to…to…
“Where are we going?” she blurted to her companion.
Mrs. B laughed. “I was waiting for your curiosity to be too much for you.” And she talked for the next half hour, filling Conchita in about her plans for her future, with or without her consent. “So you see, sweetheart, everything’s been taken care of. All you have to do is will yourself to make this work. You and your powerful crown will make you a queen after all, mark my words.” A year later… The tiara Conchita wore on her wedding day glittered in the candle lights of the cathedral in Santa Fe where her fiancé had brought her back to make her his bride. Dr. Richard Stewart had been her doctor for the year since her benefactor, Mrs. Benson, had taken her on her first flight. He was her nephew, a specialist in spinal injuries. He had taken Conchita as his patient at his very own clinic in New York City, vowing to do everything he could to make her see that she could still have a quality-filled life even from a wheelchair. The physical therapy combined with medication, psychiatric support and life skills instruction. They worked in tandem until Conchita accepted her condition and learned to live with it. Dr. Richard didn't intend to fall in love with the tiara-wearing beauty, and Conchita never in her wildest dreams saw herself as a bride to the man who had saved her from herself. Indeed, she had to travel across the country to find her Prince Charming. And so here they were, him standing at the altar beaming with pride. And her, holding her bouquet, being guided to meet him by her father on one side and her mother on the other. He smiled and everyone assembled could see the love in his eyes he never took off her as she came closer. And Conchita, with her own eyes locked on his, lifted her head proudly, her crown catching the light and sparkling with all the colors of a prism. Her dream had come true. She felt like royalty and she would be waited on just as she would wait upon the man who had captured her heart.
Carmen Bacataught a variety of English and history courses, mostly at the high school and college levels in northern New Mexico where she lives, over the course of 36 years before retiring in 2014. She published her first novel in May 2017, El Hermano, a historical fiction based on herfather’s induction into the Penitente society and rise to El Hermano Mayor. The book is available from online booksellers. She has also published eight short pieces in online literary magazines and women’s blogs.
"La Muñeca" was a runner up in the 2018 Extra Fiction Contest See here to read the first, second, and third winning entries and stay tuned for this year's upcoming Extra Fiction Contest.
The redness of the flames stood out vividly against the blackness of the night. They rose from the open windows of the façade of the building front like multi-colored streamers from the Día de los Muertos celebrations in their varied hues of red, orange, yellow, even green and blue closer to the source of the fire. As if the Devil and his armies were celebrating some spectacular event in the old, formerly grand hotel, the sporadic flashes from within announced with small explosions that something else had just been consumed by the hungry beast. The roar was like nothing before heard in the town center, only on the outskirts if one stood close to the rail line when the Big Chief passenger train rushed through without stopping. If Hades could be imagined by humans, perhaps then this came close. Sudden flares rose through the roof and burst into flying embers and sparks rivaling the best Fourth of July fireworks display.
Flames rose so high in the sky that night that people who lived in the hilly area south of the town could see, and many a head of the household left their comfy casitas to rush to the rescue while others simply went to have first-hand reports to tell anyone who would listen in the days to come. That is the way of human nature: some true altruists rush into the fray without stopping to consider their own safety while others seek their fifteen minutes of fame by being the center of attention when news, mitote (gossip,) or innuendo of any kind presents itself. It wasn’t until these two kinds of people reached the town plaza that they discovered the majestic and historic Casa Encantada was so engulfed in flames that they didn’t think even one wall would survive.
Earlier, three permanent inhabitants of the hotel began their day in their normal fashion: conversation, introspection, and reflection. They wandered through the halls and rooms of the building without constraint and only caused small gasps or shivers in the people they encountered occasionally. The younger of the trio loved yerba buena which she found growing in the patio and enjoyed blowing a breath of mint-scented air in the faces of the people she passed in the hall just for fun to watch their eyes widen, their mouths fall open, and their bodies shake themselves like a dog after taking a swim. Aside from curling up in the window alcove with a good book, that was one of the ways she entertained herself since going to school or anywhere else was out of the question. When darkness began to replace the dusk of the late afternoon, the girl’s two adult companions sat in the parlor of the suite they inhabited. The lady’s laughter trickling from the second floor was so lovely it sounded like crystal chimes in a light breeze to the young man walking below the open window. When he glanced up, she moved back into the room. “Not again,” she giggled. “Reminds me of how I almost gave myself away when you caused Nicola to stumble upon the staircase the day of the quinceañera. I was afraid she was going to fall and hurt herself—all because you wanted a better vantage point.”
“That was a close one,” her husband, Señor Theodoro Barela, agreed. “I tried to push against her with my arm so she wouldn’t fall forward. I was trying to get out of the woman’s view, but she still caught my image in her camera.” “You are not the only one in the photographs,” Señora Romulda Barela added with sudden solemnity. “The photo of the three of us must have caused much consternation among Nicola’s people.”
The young subject of their discourse walked into the room, carrying her rag doll in one arm as she usually did. Had she lived with her parents, it was unlikely she’d still be attached to the special symbol of what she’d left behind. She sat on the settee, the very same one where she’d been pretending to sleep when the couple appeared before her and asked if she was ready to join them that night several years before. “That’s the one action I still have difficulty feeling good about,” Nicola sighed. “That I caused my mother such pain by leaving with you that night.”
The couple exchanged a concerned glance.
Nicola looked out the window down at the plaza and the townspeople of Mariposa. “But I’m sure the pain she would’ve felt seeing me get sicker every day with an incurable illness would’ve been worse. I’m content to be here with you and to catch an occasional glimpse of her when she comes to the plaza.”
The three sat in pensive silence as they watched the people of the town come and go in the early coolness of the evening. They were unable to leave the confines of the hotel, but they spent much of their days by the windows looking at people doing simple activities like walking, window shopping, visiting with others on the park benches, or playing with their children and pets on the green lawns in the summers or in the pristine snow of the winters. The couple had inhabited the hotel for over a hundred years while the girl had only been there for five. They were ghosts of the people they once were, but they existed just as sure as any of the humans they observed. Theirs was a quiet afterlife, and they were as content as they could be, given their circumstances.
But the trio didn’t know their happy ethereal existence in the historic hotel was about to come to an end. Left unattended for but a few minutes, hot grease in a skillet bubbled up and splattered on a dish towel someone had carelessly left by the stove. The chef and his two assistants were in the stockroom nearby taking inventory and preparing a grocery list. None knew a grease fire was searching for oxygen in the kitchen. By the time one of the men smelled the burning oil and they scrambled back into the cocina to tackle the flames, some had already begun to consume the nearby window curtains. The busboy opening the swinging door to the dining area created just the right amount of air flow to fan the hungry beast. With a sudden whoosh, the starving fire flashed into an explosion and before anyone could take action, the blaze engulfed the entire room.
The conflagration found more air through the open door to the dining area and the sparks jumped like lively, devilish creatures from furniture to carpet. Freed from any constraints, the embers soon followed, rolling along the wood floor and leaving more sparks to ignite. The employees at and around the reservation desk heard the roar of the hungry monster. Just as their attention flew in the direction of the wide entrance to the dining room, they felt the heat and saw the rising swirls of black smoke coming toward them at the same time the tongues of searing flames burst through. Cries of alarm rose in crescendo like the fire truck would only a few minutes later. Everyone rushed to the bar behind the reservation desk and ran through the exit to raise the cry of “Fire!”
The fire department was just down the block, but by the time the small engine got into place, the entire first floor was rapidly being devoured by the hungry conflagration. The guests and employees in the upper four stories evacuated quickly through the exterior fire escapes, so not a soul was lost that they knew of. Most of the back of the building suffered most of the damage when all was over. But the water damage and the blows of the bomberos’ axes made the building uninhabitable. The Casa Encantada closed its doors that day, leaving the three spiritual inhabitants alone.
Afterward, it stood abandoned but fenced in to prevent hoboes from attempting to live there and to deter any of the neighborhood adolescents from daring one another to explore, to vandalize, and most importantly, to become hurt by the fragility of the frame. Of the former classic and sophisticated building, only the front remained, like a painted façade of a movie set with nothing much behind to hold it up. The rear was reduced to a skeleton; in some areas only the basic framework of the exterior walls still stood. The wood was blackened, charred so badly in some places one had only to give a slight push and it cracked, splintered, and fell. During the night sometimes in the slightest breeze, neighbors heard the crash of another piece of lumber and shook their heads in dismay that the city leaders didn’t just tear it all down before someone was hurt.
Several months later Señor and Señora Barela and their young charge, Nicola, sat in the small space left relatively untouched by the fire, the parlor where they’d been conversing when the blaze began.
“Are we to reside here in this one cramped room for the rest of eternity?” Nicola asked, plopping down on her favorite window seat with her doll in her lap.
“Since we can’t leave this building, I don’t see any alternative, mi hita,” the elder man replied. “You know we have tried to go beyond our limited confines and what happens when we do.”
The lady sighed and shook her head. “Esposo querido, I cannot stay here, not like this.” She stood and waved her hand to the charred and water-damaged walls. “I am sure this frame will fall before long or will be torn down by the town fathers. It is time to leave this earth and welcome what awaits us in the next phase of our existence. Please, join me in this, mi amor.” Sadness came to his face and made its home in the dying sparkle of his eyes, the downward turn of his lips, and in the resigned shrug of his shoulders as he finally nodded in acquiescence. “You are right. I know you are. We’ve spent too much time here already and have been of assistance to only a few others from this place.”
He recalled the custodian whom they’d saved over seventy years ago and who had already made his way to his own afterlife. There was also the hobo who’d come into the patio nearly fifty years before and also left his earthly existence for what came after only ten years later. There were several others, but nowhere as many had they been in a larger city and been able to leave the confines of the hotel. So much time had passed, neither he nor his wife could even remember why they were restricted to the walls of the previously large and comfortable building they called home for over a century.
“When would you like to go?” “Well, we’ve made up our minds. What’s wrong with tomorrow? Let us enjoy our last night here, for we don’t know whether we will be together after we leave.” “I guess I’m ready too,” Nicola sighed. Her face was a reflection of the man’s, her eyes sad and her mouth trembling from the cries which gathered in the back of her throat.
The older couple comforted her as best they could, trying to be optimistic about their future together even though neither knew what was ahead. They’d lived good lives on earth when they were alive and expected that surely what they’d done as spiritual beings would count for something. They never knew why they had been unable to move forward previously, only existing to help those whom they could without question. The burning pyre which had consumed their home and their inability to move elsewhere on earth left them no choice but to move on.
The three spent the rest of the night in more conversation, reminiscing about their pasts with equal parts of laughter and sorrow until the fingers of the dawn began to part the curtains of darkness and sunrise was imminent. They enjoyed one last group hug, holding one another tightly and then moving to the first floor to stand before the front doors with clasped hands. “Ready, my loves?” Señor Barela asked. “I am.” “Me too.”
With Señor Barela on the left and his wife between them, Nicola clutched her precious muñeca in one arm, wondering if somehow, some way, the doll would accompany her to her next destination. Not wanting to let either of his companions’ hands go, the Señor touched the tip of his boot to each door to get them to open. They stepped outside into the welcome warmth of the sun and lifted their faces to the rays which enfolded the three for the first time since each had died. For only a moment they stood still, waiting for something to happen. When nothing did, they took a few steps more, and a few more until they reached the center of the park. They were allowed to feel the sunlight on their faces and arms, to take deep breaths of the freshness of the air, and to enjoy one last time the feel of the grass beneath their feet, their sight of the green foliage and trees and the bountiful and beautiful hues and scents of the flowers—and they were gone. No fanfare of angels’ trumpets, no clap of thunder, no opening in the clouds revealed the stairway to heaven. But the gated doors opened wide, and the saints were there to welcome the couple as they passed.
Nicola was not so lucky. Perhaps the powers which govern life, death, and the afterlife decided it was not her time. Perhaps she had unfulfilled duties on earth. But when the señor and his señora ascended through the gates to meet their Maker and to receive answers to all their questions, she was not with them.
The neighborhood kids, Anselmo, Gabriel, and Guillermo, decided on a dare several weeks later to pass through a loose board in the fence which enclosed the remains of the hotel.
They were joined by the only girl they considered a friend, Carlotta, whom they called Charlie. Truthfully, she blackmailed them into letting her accompany them or they most likely would’ve left her behind. But there they were, the four of them, sneaking through the opening and prowling amongst the ruins for any treasures they might find. Of course, there wasn’t much on the ground. And everything was soot-covered, so touching anything left them with black fingers. When Guillermo was the first to wipe his hand on his pants, it was Charlie who reminded him to “wash” the hollín off with dirt instead. Otherwise, their parents would all know where they’d been, and they wouldn’t be able to get away with coming back.
Other than a few coins, a couple of candle holders only partially melted, and a little metal box, they didn’t find much of value. Charlie went in one direction and the boys went opposite. She came upon a fallen chest of drawers, opening first one drawer after the other until she came to the last. A raggedy doll with only a touch of smoke damage looked up at her from the folds of a baby blanket in which it had been wrapped. She joined the boys shortly after.
“Look what I found,” she announced and held the doll up so they could see. The boys were unimpressed, hoping she had found something of value they could pawn. “Let’s use it for target practice,” Anselmo made to grab it with one hand while holding up his slingshot with the other. “No!” Charlie yanked the doll to her chest to keep it safe. “I’m gonna give it to myhermanita.” And with that, she left the boys behind, taking the callejones behind the houses all the way home so no one would see her carrying a doll. She had her reputation to maintain.
Her little sister, Augusta, was only four. But she rarely spoke. She wasn’t mute, according to the doctors, nor was she simple-minded. She simply chose not to communicate with words when her actions could convey what she wanted. She had no friends since to be a friend requires some kind of communication, but she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, she preferred her own company to that of others, except Charlie, and even then, only periodically, like when Charlie read to her at night or taught her to play jacks or some other game.
So when Charlie got home, she slipped quietly into the bathroom, washed the grime from the rag doll, and hung it to dry in her closet until the following day. That morning after breakfast, she found Augusta in her room quietly playing with her Susie Q doll. She presented the homely but somewhat homey muñeca to the little girl and told her the doll was special. She told Augusta she could tell the doll her secrets and the muñeca would keep them. Thinking that perhaps the doll could help to get the little one to talk more and perhaps be a conduit to communicating with other little girls, she made up a detail which she’d come to regret years later. She told Augusta the doll was magical and would help her learn to speak better.
From that day, the muñeca became Augusta’s constant companion. Charlie’s plan had backfired. Augusta didn’t want any human company once the doll came into her possession. She named it Esther, and when anyone asked how she came upon such an unusual choice, she always replied that the doll told her. After a month her parents thought perhaps the way she cared for, spoke to, and carried the thing everywhere was unhealthy. Truly, it appeared the doll communicated in some way as the child would whisper to it and incline her head as if listening to a quiet reply.
If the adults tried to take Esther away, Augusta’s cries were so forlorn they ended up giving it back before too long. Thinking they were making too much out of it, her parents convinced themselves she’d outgrow the muñeca with time or it would eventually fall apart. After all, it was a rag doll.
Another year passed and still Augusta and her Esther doll were constant companions.
Though her parents were dismayed that their daughter was still too attached to the thing and that said cosa had grown no more tattered or ragged than it was when she got it, they welcomed the opportunity which arose that would allow them to separate the two. The little girl started school, and her parents insisted she leave her doll behind. Between them, Charlie, and other well-meaning family members supplying various reasons why Nicola couldn’t accompany her to school, Augusta finally relented. But she explained in as little words as possible the reason why, and it had nothing to do with any of theirs: “Esther says it’s okay.”
While she was away at escuela, her mother, Guadalupita, Pita for short, did what many mothers did in the fifties— cleaned, cooked, and enjoyed her hobbies: sewing, gardening, and crocheting. Her life was fairly uneventful, and she enjoyed it that way. Her adolescent and early adult years had had traumatic events, so she was content to have nothing of importance to contend with—nothing with life or death issues. Would that she had been able to see the future. Oftentimes, life’s lessons come in hindsight, and sometimes we don’t pay enough attention to our instinct, our own intuition to heed those little hairs that rise on the back of our necks or on our arms when we get that feeling people call “someone passing over our graves.”
So when a few days after Augusta started school and the strange phenomenon began, she tried to shake off any concern. Pita, leaving the room Augusta shared with Charlie, caught in the corner of her eye something moving. The act happened so quickly that when she turned, it had stopped. There was no window where she looked, nothing like a fluttering curtain to have captured her attention. Blinking her eyes and attributing it to exhaustion or imagination, she forgot about it.
Until the next time a week later. And the time after that. And... She noted that every single time, the Esther doll was the object of her attention. There were instances where she’d leave the doll in one place only to discover it had moved. Telling herself she only forgot she’d left the thing there and instead had left it somewhere else, she tried to convince herself the muñeca had no powers.
But then she stopped a few weeks later to reflect about that: powers. Powers? She knew from the first she’d sensed in the doll something so mesmerizing her own daughter clung to it like a drug. Never far from the Esther doll, Augusta always kept it in her sight, perhaps afraid they’d try to sneak it away from her. When she held it, her little girl seemed to be at peace.
When she whispered to her doll, she inclined her head to place her ear close to its mouth as though listening closely to whatever she imagined (and surely it had to come from her imagination). And she wore such an expression of contentment that one would’ve thought the angels of the Lord were speaking to her. That was the moment of revelation for Guadalupita.
The doll wasn’t cursed; it was blessed. She didn’t know how or why, but if the doll insisted it was Esther and had such a positive influence on her daughter as to cause her to wear that look of bliss on her face, who was she to say otherwise? The muñeca hadn’t done anything, had not endangered Augusta or any of them. She’d merely satisfied some need in her daughter that human interaction or contact didn’t.
That very day she entered the girls’ bedroom and picked Esther up. Staring into her cross-stitched eyes, Pita was surprised to see a sort of compassion and when she held the doll close, it actually felt as if Esther’s little arms moved, as if she wanted to embrace the woman back. But instead of fear, a sudden and overwhelming feeling of absolute contentment came over her, as if the doll extended her sympathy for Pita’s past traumas and tried to offer empathy for what was and for what would come.
She tried and failed to explain to her husband later and resorted to leading him by the hand to the girls’ room, pushing him to sit on Charlie’s bed and placing Esther in his arms. She left him alone. It wasn’t long before he joined her in the kitchen where he put the beer back in the fridge and instead opted for a glass of cold water. The look on his face told her what she needed to know.
Since the girls were still at school, they rushed the doll to their parish priest and had him bless Esther for their own peace of mind. Father Carlos didn’t feel any kind of trepidation when he held it, and nothing happened at the church to any of them. Any concerns they had dissipated, and they were instead convinced they’d been right. They never spoke of what they did to their girls; they never mentioned it to anyone.
So the first two years of Augusta’s education passed without incident. She found school delightful and indeed made a few friends. Esther was still an important confidante, and both Charlie and Pita laughed between themselves that soon Augusta would confide in her doll about which boy she should return attention to of the upcoming suitors she’d be sure to attract.
That was not to be, however.
On the very anniversary of the day Señor and Señora Barela had entered their heavenly home, Augusta disappeared from her swing under the large apple tree in her family’s backyard. She was gone without a trace. Investigations from every jurisdiction in the city came together; searches yielded nothing. The parents, clearly heartbroken, were cleared. So were her sister, friends, neighbors, and even acquaintances. No suspects came to light, no leads developed—there was no closure, as they say. The entire town wanted to know what happened, especially in light of the disappearance of the little girl for that ill-fated quinceañera of five years before.
When Nicola’s parents heard about Augusta, they paid the De La Cruz parents a visit.
Nicola’s mother, Hortencia, disclosed that Esther was Nicola’s third name, her confirmation name. Her full name as recorded in her birth certificate was Nicola Frances Esther De La Cruz.
As for the muñeca, it was the one given to Nicola by the quinceañera herself, Marguerite Quintanilla, her own cousin. They proved it with a photograph from the event. Pita nearly fainted at the confirmation. Hortencia saw how deeply she had been affected and gave her one of three similar photos as a gesture of comfort.
However, no amount of rationalization on anyone’s parts could satisfy everyone with a plausible explanation—not the two sets of parents, not the authorities, nor the priest or the bishop when contacted. Sometimes those of us who live by our faith in a higher power have to accept that there are certain aspects of life, death, or the beyond which we do not have the capacity to understand. This was one of those times. No one could confirm what happened with Nicola or Augusta, or even with Esther, the muñeca, who had disappeared with her owner. The town fathers brought in their heavy equipment and their city employees and cleared out the remains of the hotel, sifting through every little pile to satisfy everyone that the girls and the doll were not somehow there. Though no rational explanation of why anyone thought they might was provided, it was something everyone wanted done.
There were only two mothers who shared a secret the next day after construction on the rebuilding of Casa Encantada began, which was the day after they had exchanged a special photograph. Before bed that night, Pita had sat with the photo in her hand. After a moment she felt a weight lift from her shoulders, and her headache, which had arrived with a vengeance the day her little girl went missing, also went away.
She felt at peace and went immediately to bed. In her dreams Augusta came to explain that the muñeca had held the spirit of the little girl who vanished before she did. She made her mother understand that Nicola would have spent her short life in the agony of a fatal illness, and that angels had offered her a way to escape into heaven to avoid not only her own pain, but that of her mother and father.
They would have been helpless to help her, which would have hurt them in so many ways. And she was afraid they’d experience hopelessness and lose their faith. Departing as she did allowed her to leave her parents with their faith that what happened would be part of God’s plan and accept it.
Nicola’s spirit had remained in the muñeca to offer the same help to the next little girl who was fated to meet her. Nicola confirmed that Augusta was soon to have become ill; she would’ve died before the end of the year. Nicola had done what she needed to leave this plane and emerge whole and healthy in the next; she saved another as she had been saved. As for the muñeca, let’s just add a little warning here if we may. If you come across a raggedy-looking doll with cross-stitch eyes in the newly constructed Casa Encantada, you might think twice before picking her up.
Carmen Bacataught a variety of English and history courses, mostly at the high school and college levels in northern New Mexico where she lives, over the course of 36 years before retiring in 2014. She published her first novel in May 2017, El Hermano, a historical fiction based on herfather’s induction into the Penitente society and rise to El Hermano Mayor. The book is available from online booksellers. She has also published eight short pieces in online literary magazines and women’s blogs.
Excerpt from Five to the Future: All New Novelettes of Tomorrow and Beyond By Ernest Hogan With a review by Scott Duncan-Fernandez
I didn’t have any real idea when I started. I thought the quote from Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs would make a good title. Then Donald Trump started running for president. It’s fun to take things that people say they want and make a sci-fi future out of it. But then, remember that your utopia is someone else’s dystopia and vice versa.—Ernest Hogan
“Testing, testing. . . Is this thing on? UNO! . . . DOS! ONE-TWO! TRES! CUATRO!”
Low-flying F-16s rattled windows and loosened fillings as they rumbled their way to and from Luke Air Force Base, as they did every day since the new president stepped up the war.
A camera perched on the security fence near Central Avenue in Phoenix, undergoing repair after a hole was blown in it, partially destroying the face of the new president that was painted there as part of the ongoing mural project. It swiveled, looking for action and finding it on the street below. A flash of light disturbed a chain gang of young brown and black women wearing striped jumpsuits. A hologram appeared: a figure in a spacesuit tricked out in intricate, colorful decorations like Mayan embroidery or a charro’s best suit. The helmet had DayGlo hot rod flames and an engine’s air intake sticking out of the top. The face was not human, but a papier-mâché skeleton painted for Día de los Muertos. It screamed like a rooster from Hell. “UNO! … DOS! ONE-TWO! TRES! CUATRO!” The chain gang panicked and tried to run, tripping on their shackles. An officer fired her gun, triggering a hail of gunfire from passersby and vehicles trapped in the perpetual traffic clog near the fence. People screamed. More shots were fired. Sirens wailed. Drones large enough to be armed buzzed in.
The hologram admired the mayhem. Its mask stretched and cracked into a grin. Something flew over the fence, landing near the hologram. The object exploded into a cloud of red smoke. When the smoke cleared there was a flash-painted portrait of the skull-faced hologram on the fence next to the hole. The hologram laughed like an over-amplified mariachi and disappeared. Two F-16s thundered low overhead, heading for Luke Air Force Base.
Later, back at the now partially repaired hole in the fence, bullet holes in what was left of the new president’s face had been patched with a white spray-on plaster. The portrait of the skull- faced hologram had been painted over. A young woman wearing a hijab and matching fuchsia designer combat fatigues posed where the hologram had appeared. She smiled like a pro. The high-resolution fairy drone flew a smooth path to the young woman’s dark brown face, remaining focused on her green eyes. “Hiya, hiya, hiya, babes of the world! Don’t adjust your devices! It’s me, Cha-Cha Chavez. I’m in disguised as Muslim for my latest Gonzomedia assignment—a daring investigation into the dangerous West Side of the Metro Phoenix area!” An F-16 roared overhead. “And, as you’ve probably noticed, I’ve had a melanin enhancement, too! My advance research crew advised me that a darker skin tone would be advisable in this Unsecure Zone. With no offense meant to the melanin-rich inhabitants of the Zone. Frankly, I think I look great! Makes feel more in touch with the Afro side of my Afrolatinidad! I just may keep it. What do you think, babes of the world?” The fairy zoomed up for a bird’s-eye shot. “Anyway, I’m here at this complicated tangle of streets where Phoenix intersects with Indian School Road near one of the main checkpoints that has been shut down after the recent guerrilla art bombing.” “Wait a minute there, Ms. Chavez, it was more like an act of domestic terrorism. I don’t see anything resembling art.” The fairy zoomed down to focus on Cha-Cha and a group of uniformed people. “As you can now see, it’s not just me and one of Gonzomedia’s state-of-the-art fairy drones facing the ragged edge of Phoenix’s Unsecure Zone—I’m accompanied by a team of Maricopa County’s new sheriff’s deputies, led by Deputy Billy Gomez.” “That’s Deputy Sheriff Public Relations Specialist First Class Billy Gomez.” The deputy tried to look humble. “And we’re proud to be here to serve you, Cha-Cha. We only wish that you’d let us go with you into the Zone.” “I’m sure exploring the Zone with you and these attractive men and women would be fun, but as a journalist I’ve undergone martial arts and combat training, and I have a licensed concealed-carry weapon.” “She’s armed!” All the deputies drew their weapons and aimed at Cha-Cha, who smirked as she raised her hands. “I’m afraid that you’re going to have let us see your weapon. Get it out, nice and slow,” said Gomez. “Your Muslim getup has gone some of my people here kinda nervous.” “Are you profiling me?” Cha-Cha got down on one knee in a graceful, ballet-like move. “No, ma’am, it’s just as members of one of the sheriff’s Elite Special Posse we’ve some bad experiences with Muslims.” Cha-Cha pulled up a pant leg, revealing a holster strapped to her leg just above the top of her boot. “Now get it out, real slow. Keep your fingers away from the trigger.” Using only two fingers, Cha-Cha lifted out an ornate, gold-plated .45 automatic. One of the deputies whistled. Cha-Cha winked. “Got it from a confidential source while doing a story about drug gangs in Mexico.” A pickup truck flying a full-sized American flag pulled up. A window rolled down. A white man in an AMERICA IS GREAT AGAIN! baseball cap leaned out. “Need any help, officers? I got a .44 Magnum here . . .” “No. We have the situation under control.” “Are you sure?’ “Yes.” “Damn. I never get to have any fun.” The pickup flowed back into traffic. “Put the weapon down on the sidewalk, ma’am,” said Gomez. “I have a permit.” “Let’s see it.” Cha-Cha pulled it out. The deputy scanned it. “I guess it’s all legit, but we still wish you would let us accompany and protect you.” “Sorry, but you’d totally ruin my doc. Nobody would want to talk to me. Like the way this fence doesn’t really do anything but slow down traffic since it’s never been completed. Some people have told me that’s all just a scam designed to bring in more federal tax money.” “We’re just trying to keep things secure.” “Security is overrated. Besides I’m going to meet someone who will watch over me and guide me through the Zone as an insider.” “And who would that be?” “None other than the famous lowrider, Xolo Garcia.” All the deputies groaned and grumbled.
“An infamous lowrider,” said Gomez. “He’s a very suspicious individual. Involved in all kinds of questionable activities. And he’s suspected of being involved with gangs, graffiti, guerrilla theater, and other things that are tracked by the NSA and the president’s new Department on National Unsecurity.” “And here he comes now!” The thrum-thrum-thrum on the base of a powerful sound system pulsed through the air, and the ground. El Xolomobile, a huge vehicle, Frankenkustomized beyond any hope of recognizing any factory make or model, cruised through the gap where the streets cut through the fence. The vehicle rode low to the ground, had a complicated array of chrome exhaust pipes, and was painted in a designed loosely based on the Aztec Calendar Stone and underground cybertoons. A pale young woman broke through the police barricades and dashed into traffic, causing horn honks and tire screeching. She was dressed in a fuchsia outfit similar to Cha-Cha’s, but without the hijab; instead, a frizzled mass of fuchsia hair bounced to her every movement. “Cha-Cha! Cha-Cha! Don’t do it! Everything west of Central is the ghetto! And it’s infested with illegals and immigrants! You could get shot! And I’m your biggest fan!” The deputies blocked her way and then grabbed her. “By the way”—Fuchsia-hair hardly seemed to notice the interference—“I love the new skintone! It really sets off your eyes. I’m saving up to get it, too!” Cha-Cha struck a superhero pose. “Sorry, but this story is too important. The social fabric of Phoenix, the United States of America, and the entire planet depends on people being able to figure out what the hell is going on, and I’m determined to help them.” The Xolomobile’s passenger door opened with a hiss. Cha-Cha leaped in, her fairy following after taking a wide-angle establishing shot. “For God’s sake! Don’t let them convert you to Islam!” Fuchsia-hair burst into tears and collapsed. The deputies consoled her.
The interior of the vehicle glowed with Huicholesque beadwork and light coming from the fringe of electric puffballs that dangled from the edge of the ceiling. The driver wore a python- skin cowboy hat, a bullfighter’s jacket, charro pants, vaquero boots, and a T-shirt that said something in colorful, ornate lettering “Xolo Garcia?” “My too-weird-to-live/too-rare-to-die self. And you must be the out-of-this-world-famous Cha- Cha Chavez! Glad to meet you! Welcome to El Xolomobile!” He held out a hand with a pachuco cross tattoo. The fairy zoomed in to capture the handshake. “Moi aussi,” said Cha-Cha. “So this is the infamous Xolomobile. Are you trying to be some kind of superhero?”
“My dad always said we should all be our own superheroes.” “That would Popocatepetl Garcia, the cult hero/performance artist/political activist who is presumed dead after disappearing under mysterious circumstances a few years ago?” “Some of us don’t think it was so pinche mysterioso. And we prefer to use the word assassinated.” Cha-Cha giggled. “It’s hard to read in this light. What does your T-shirt say?”“Legalize Bullfighting Now!” “Wow! That’s controversial!” “Bullfighting is the mother of all artforms—life, death, and art all at once! After watching a good one, you feel you can take on anything that comes your way, and after a great one it’s like anything is possible! A culture that bans it is doomed. Besides, there’s something about it— especially when performed by a beautiful woman—that really gets to me.” “So, is there any truth to the rumors that you are romantically connected to the woman bullfighter Cihuachichi?” “Romantically is to put it lightly. What we have is more like afición beyond mad, existential passion.” Cha-Cha beamed at the fairy camera. “So you heard it here, folks! Xolo and Cihuachichi are an item!” “What we have is also real,” said Xolo. “Not media masturbation material.” A phone video appeared as a head-up display on the windshield. It was a tight close up of a beautiful dark-skinned woman with the features of an Aztec warrior princess—Cihuachichi. Her black-painted lips sent kisses to the lens. She wore skull earrings and her black hair was buzzed down the nub except for a long, braid that was wound from the back of her head around her neck and tucked into her cleavage. She didn’t seem to be wearing any clothes. She rubbed a bullfighter’s sword against her cheek. “Xolo, mi amor, have fun on your interview with this Cha-Cha chiki-chiki, but if you”—she licked and sucked on the tip of the sword—“use your sword on her I may have use this one on the both of you.” She jabbed the lipstick-smeared sword at the lens. Xolo and Cha-Cha realized that they were leaning on each other, their hands touching, and jerked apart. “Wow!” said Cha-Cha, “She’s hot!” “Don’t I know it!” “And you are also as passionate about legalizing bullfighting?” “Yeah, I know, some of the gente say we should be moderate, start out with decriminalizing cockfighting, then after a few generations legalizing bullfighting. Guess I inherited Papa Popo’s attitude. I want to see bullfights at the Glendale International Sports Arena—hopefully performed by Cihuachichi—in my lifetime.” “Which hopefully will be longer than your father’s,” “Pinche right, cabróna!” The fairy took a 360 of the vehicle’s spacious interior, then did a zoom out the rear window, catching the murals on the west side of the fence. “The art on this side certainly looks different,” said Cha-Cha. “Rougher, in an out-of-control gangster graffiti-style. No doubt indicating a cultural divide.” “The murals on the East Side are a publicly-sponsored project,” said Xolo. “Those on the West Side are spontaneous graffiti. Sometimes they’re done by the same artists. Like me.” “You’re an artist as well as a lowrider!” “Look around, El Xolomobile is a work of art, as is my life. Sometimes I have to do stuff for money.” “Would this stuff include illegal activities?” “What’s illegal today can be legal tomorrow. Besides, I’m not going to say anything that may incriminate me. As my sister, Xuana, who’s a lawyer, advised me.” “Aw, come on, how are we going to make this an interesting doc?” Xolo pointed to some of the many screens on the dashboard. “Right now there are seven drones following us. And a helicopter trying to be discreet by flying high. El Xolomobile has detected—and blocked—several attempts to hack into our conversation.” The fairy buzzed around, catching glimpses of the drones and helicopters. An F-16 blasted by. “My Gonzomedia techs assured me that my link with my fairy drone was secure.” “This is an Unsecure Zone, Cha-Cha. Always assume that everything you say and do can and will be used against you in a court of law.” Cha-Cha pointed. “Is that a mosque over there?” The fairy focused on it. “Yeah. We have them here. And churches of all kinds. I’ll cruise by the NeoAztecan temple later.” “Would you say this was a multicultural area?” A group of girls in colorful hijabs crossed the street on skateboards. “The whole world is multicultural, if you haven’t noticed. This is more like a recombocultural witches’ brew, cooking up the civilizations of the future. Like my dad said, ‘Utopias are do-it-yourself projects—dystopias are too.’” “But a lot of people are afraid of it,” said Cha-Cha. “Like the fan who warned me that this was the ghetto.” Xolo shrugged. “A victim of postpostmodern times. She probably spent her entire life in a suburban environment where all problems are instantly solved by dialing 911. Her coming here to warn you is probably the climax of her life. She’s probably rushing back home now to install herself in her mind-dissolving entertainment system and vegetate happily ever after.” “Most people prefer security.” “Police states claim to be secure.” “You can’t possibly claim this is a police state.” A siren blasted. Red and blue lights flashed. “Chinga!” Xolo pulled over. “GET OUT OF THE VEHICLE. PUT YOUR HANDS OVER YOUR HEADS!” Xolo rolled his eyes, and tapped a key near the ornate steering wheel, “WHAT IS THIS DEEP-FRIED PINCHE CACA, BILLY? YOU KNOW THEY SAID THEY DON’T WANT ANY MORE UNLAWFUL HARASSMENT SUITS!” The doors of the cruiser popped open. “THAT’S DEPUTY GOMEZ IN THIS SITUATION, XOLO.” The other deputies hopped out. “I THINK I’LL CALL MY SISTER XUANA. SHE HAS AN APP WHERE SHE CAN SUE ONLINE.” The deputies drew their weapons. Cha-Cha put her hand on her own gun. Xolo glanced at her, then back at the officers. “AND WE’RE RECORDING IN HERE! I COULD MAKE THIS A LIVE WORLDWIDE FEED.” Deputy Gomez frowned. “HOLSTER UP, PEOPLE.” The other deputies obeyed. “THE NEW SHERIFF HAS SPECIFICALLY TOLD ME TO WATCH THE PUBLICITY ANGLE, SO I’M GONNA LET YOU OFF WITH A WARNING THIS TIME, XOLO, BUT LET ME WARN YOU: IF SO MUCH AS ONE COLORFUL HAIR ON MS. CHAVEZ’S HEAD IS HARMED WHILE YOU’RE ON HER WATCH, I’M PERSONALLY GONNA MAKE YOUR LIFE A LIVING HELL.” Deputy Gomez crossed his arms and looked mad, holding the pose for all the cameras. El Xolomobile lurched into the flow of traffic. Xolo smirked. “Looks like our deputy friend has a bit of a soft spot for you, eh, Cha-Cha?” Cha-Cha mimed putting her finger down her throat. “Definitely not my type, and besides, he’s got to be almost thirty. I bet he’s just doing this to improve the sheriff’s department’s image with my target demographic.” “He’d like to target me, but can’t seem to come up with any charges that will stick.” “So you know Deputy Gomez?” “We got history, go way back. We’re from the same neighborhood.” “Interesting.” The fairy focused on the houses along the street. “Are those shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe?” said Cha-Cha. “Yes, we have a lot of them around here. Them and Mexican food joints.” “It does looks kind of like Mexico around here.” “Aztlán. I prefer it to the corporate franchise decor of the East Side.” An ice cream truck playing “La Cucaracha” cruised by. The fairy locked on for a tracking shot. “A lot of people don’t know that ‘La Cucaracha’ is about a marijuana smoker,” said Xolo. Cha-Cha didn’t bat an eyelash. “Are you a marijuana smoker?” “Since Arizona is one of that states that stubbornly keeps mota illegal despite the new president’s strong-arm tactics, I am going to have to evoke the grand American tradition of declining to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate me.” “Xolo, you disappoint me.” “Hey, keeping my ass out of jail is top priority.” “But you can trust me. I’m Cha-Cha! And we aren’t sending this live/online like amateurs. I’m recording raw feed that I’m later going to edit into a professional, artistic documentary that will be accessible through Gonzomedia with a worldwide promotional campaign.” He laughed. “A lot of people get arrested and deported because of raw feeds. Especially since the new president got elected.” “Still, Xolo, we need as many raw feeds as we can to create an awesome final product.” “Who’s to say that we aren’t that final product, Cha-Cha?” “Now, you’re sounding like your father.” “What can I say, Papa Popo raised me.” “And what about your mother?” “Along with the fabulosa Cihuachichi, mi madre, Doña Juana Colón, is a guiding light of my life.” “She’s very interesting. I tried to schedule an interview, but she refused.” “She’s old-fashioned, likes her privacy.” “You’d think a Latina involved in technical and business activities the way she is would be concerned with communicating with world at large.” Xolo frowned. “She’s very busy.” “Doing what?” “I am not permitted to say.” “I’ve heard some interesting rumors about inventions, strange vehicles being sighted on roads, and even on the sky.” “Like that?” The fairy focused on a drone glittering in the sun. Cha-Cha tickled a handheld device. Xolo barely glanced at it. “According to El Xolomobile’s brains, it’s been following us for a while.” “It’s not alone,” said Cha-Cha. The fairy did a sweep, and spotted two more drones of different designs. “Actually, Cha-Cha, this is normal when I go cruising around here.” “Does it bother you, Xolo?” “You can’t take a ride like El Xolomobile out without attracting attention. Why have style if you can’t show it off?” “Doesn’t being watched cramp this style of yours? He grinned. “Watch this!” Xolo gripped the wheel and stomped the accelerator. El Xolomobile sped down the street, making a few sudden, screeching turns. The drones scrambled, trying to keep up, and avoid each other. There were some collisions, and dogfights over ideal tracking positions. Onboard weapons were deployed and fired. Some drones fell to earth in pieces. Children rushed out of houses to fight over the pieces. And an F-16 made a low, loud pass. The fairy caught it all.
Ernest Hogan is a six-foot tall Aztec leprechaun who was born in East LA back in the Atomic Age. His mother’s name was Garcia, and his parents weren’t aware of Ernest Hogan, the Father of Ragtime. He grew up in West Covina, considered to be one of the most boring places in California. Monster movies, comic books, and science fiction saved his life. Because he is the author of High Aztech, Smoking Mirror Blues, and Cortez on Jupiter, he is considered to be the Father of Chicano Science Fiction, though there hasn’t been any kind of DNA test. His short fiction has appeared in Amazing Stories, Analog, Science Fiction Age, and many other publications, His story “The Frankenstein Penis,” has been made into student films. He is also an artist and cartoonist. He has been recently discovered by academia, which may bring about the end of Western Civilization, his “Chicanonautica Manifesto” appeared in Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies. He is married to the writer Emily Devenport. They live in Arizona, and enjoy exploring the Wild West. He blogs at mondoernesto.com and labloga.blogspot.com. Currently, he’s trying to finish several novels, but keeps getting distracted by all kinds of weirdness.
THE REVIEW Let's Not Be L7!By Scott Duncan-Fernandez
“Uno! Dos! One-Two! Tres! Cuatro!” is a cruise into the heart of the near future barrio. A place the author, Ernest Hogan, has taken us before, but this barrio—West Phoenix, Arizona—seems a future much nearer than before. So much so that it could be the barrio of the now. And it can be a confusing, violent, much watched place with a cacophony of voices and ideas on what to do, who to be.
Hogan is the father of Chicano sci-fi and much of his work has to do with media, underground-outlier representation, and of course, the crossroads of Chicanismo. He’s fond of aliens, AI, and Chicano style and rascuache know-how. Much of his work has a cyberpunk feel to it. That cityspeak talking detective with a limp, Eduardo Gaff, wouldn’t be too lost in Hogan’s novels,Cortez on Jupiter, High Aztech, or Smoking Mirror Blues. The latter was written about at length last year in the collection of critical essays on Latino speculative fiction, Altermundos.
Hogan’s barrios reflect the future and the present, and perhaps none more so than “Uno! Dos! One-Two! Tres! Cuatro!” In the story, we initially view the new president’s damaged state sponsored murals and see prison garbed brown bodies at work under tight surveillance. It is his program that walls off the barrios. Chicanos, Arabs, Muslims, Neo-Aztecans, and so-called “illegals” gather in the barrio, the receptacle for the fears of the mainstream the president feeds upon. What the president says later in the story shows his Trumpian repressive attitude:
“This all just goes to show that the Unsecure Zone program is the right thing to do…the people who live in them are a threat to the American Way of Life!...We need to finish and enforce all the Unsecure Zones and start building the Elimination Camps—I mean Centers!”
The text of “Uno! Dos! One-Two! Tres! Cuatro!” as read is actually the script of an underground video—we’ll get to that later—of the “mondo-journalist” Cha-Cha Chavez entering the Unsecure Zone of West Phoenix. She intends to find out “what the hell is going on” for her viewers. Cha-Cha is a mainstream celebrity journalist and dons a hijab and skin darkener to “fit in” to the west side. She seems like a pocha, a coconut, as her last name is Hispanic, yet she has a stereotyped view of Chicanos, or rather the many cultured people living in the barrio and the life of the pejorative other. She and her video, the text of the story, become a conduit—between mainstream America, the reader, and the scary modes of being and living in the maligned area, i.e. the Chicano experience. She takes the reader into what is the other as she herself learns…and eventually she chooses sides.
The story is dubbed a novellete. I might say “flash novella,” as it fits the quick, bursting style. It’s vivid and lurid with electric vaquero outfits, lady bullfighters (no hotels), and an interview with a gangster over messy tacos. There’s word play, jokes, even with the characters names, Cha-Cha Chavez, Cihuachichi. The innuendo, quick pace, obsession with media and eventual meta-fictional ending smacks of 80s New Narrative to me as well as the setting and topic. It could be that present day America smacks of the 80s with the nuclear threat, the (un)reality television actor president, anti-immigrant, and anti-Latino sentiments. After all, didn’t Blade Runner just come out like it’s 1982?
Hogan is taking the present right-wing rhetoric to the future conclusion of more walls and more suppression. And he is seeking answers, the answer is the look into the barrio, opening of minds and knowing the Chicano experience linked to our ancient culture(s).
Cha-Cha the mondo journalist has a guide to the barrio, Xolo Garcia. He is a quasi-wanted social minded self-declared superhero who rolls in a techo-lowrider—El Xolomobile—his scientist mom made him, much like a Chicano Batman (not the band). Batman, incidentally, is based off Zorro who is based off figures in Californio history. Xolo is a Batman returning to his roots with a techno update.
The barrio Xolo patrols is multicultural and enterprising—a place of loud expression. It’s a cacophony of voices—vato locos, revolucionistas, LGBTQ, and Aztlaners—all with a plan and demands. The mix of demands and plans with police lead to violence which leads Xolo to take Cha-Cha out to the desert.
Xolo himself is connected to his famous performance artist-scientist parents. Ultimately, after meeting his famous mother, inventor of the flying Xolomobile and Chicano Space Program, they connect with his father, who has been on a UFO. He contacted the aliens by taking peyote and opening his mind and hearing the world. This point of view brings time and space together and creates new possibilities to many ideas the ancients had as well.
The world and ancient cultures are recombined and this solution of altered consciousness of course brings the police and the military. The video shuts off and a message warns that you have watched outlawed material and that security forces are on the way to you. Within the context of the world of “Uno! Dos! One-Two! Tres! Cuatro!” whoever you are, you have this forbidden knowledge of the Chicano experience and possibilty. You, the reader, are now a character in this world, a part of the resistance (if you want or not, “they” the government is coming for you). Likewise, in the real world (whatever that may be for you reading the novelette) you are armed with the underground knowledge having read this story, have witnessed a new possibility, the mezcla of what being Chicano is.
I love this meta-ending, using the connection of knowledge and reader, fantasy and reality coming together, much like within the story. Xolo’s father might say that is how you process reality. Whether you want it or not, having read this you are in the know, are down, are cool, are no longer “L7.” And we should remember, though it has been overturned, that our real world government has banned Chicano culture very recently. In Hogan’s story—reality slips in and out of the page. For me, this connection to mind altering drugs and “new consciousness” of possibilities of Xolo’s father alludes to the new consciousness that the civil rights movement brought in the 60s. The Chicano solution to the barrio’s, the USA’s, and the world’s problems, as Cha-Cha puts it, is empowerment and new points of view that include our ancient “alien” and “native” cultures.
The title, which is the opening of “Woolly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, comes into play a bit. It’s Xolo’s parents’ song. Hogan said he was just inspired by it, but I might say the counting off Spanish and English is an expression of Mexican Americanness. Not to go too much into it, but Sam the Sham, who is Mexican American, said he wanted to count off in “Tex-mex.” “Woolly Bully,” of course, has sexual innuendo and seems to be about accepting and dancing with something unknown. A good fit for a story about seeking out the other in a low and slow future.
Scott Russell Duncan, a.k.a. Scott Duncan-Fernandez, recently completed The Ramona Diary of SRD, a memoir of growing up Chicano-Anglo and a fantastical tour reclaiming the myths of Spanish California. Scott’s fiction involves the mythic, the surreal, the abstract, in other words, the weird. Scott received his MFA from Mills College in Oakland, California where he now lives and writes. He is an assistant editor at Somos en escrito. See more about his work and publications on Scott’s website scottrussellduncan.com