Prologue: Saturday, October 4, 2003; Tucson, Arizona, very late at night.
I’ve just returned from my very first visit to Magdalena de Kino, Sonora, México where I attended the most spectacular birthday celebration for the miraculous San Francisco, the town’s patron saint. Magdalena was the town where both my mother Dolores and my grandmother Conchita had been born and raised. And in this same town in 1923, my Nana Conchita busted my grandfather’s antique black clock with a hammer, divorced him and with just my ten-year-old mother and a mochila, came to Nogales, Sonora where my grandmother’s two sisters, Carmela and Dolores, lived. After a short stay, my Nana Conchita found work as a laundress in Arizona and she and my mother ended up in Barrio Anita, one of Tucson, Arizona’s poorest barrios, and that’s where my four older sisters and I were born.
I sincerely believe that if you’re very lucky, in your life there is someone whose words you will never forget, and for me, it was my Nana Conchita. She may have never told me that she loved me, and I may have never told her that I loved her, but in both of our corazones, in our hearts, without these words, we knew. So, right here I have to declare that I truly love and remember everything that my grandmother told me and I will never forget her words. I no longer have her in my life, and I do not remember exactly when she gave me this advice, but here it is: She said that when a very esteemed person in your life leaves this earth and you can no longer see them, their spirit, their essence, will continue to visit you in your dreams, your memories, and they will even walk right next to you even though you will probably never actually see them; but if you’re really lucky and have faith, sometimes you can feel their presence.
And if you find yourself all alone in a desperate, dangerous situation and in need of guidance and help, that’s when you will hear and maybe even see them because they will always come to help you. When she said this, I almost wanted to ask her if she would be by my side and come to help me if I ever needed it, but I thought it would be disrespectful so I didn’t say anything. She did not say anything either, but she looked intently at my face and the next thing she did was smile and pat my shoulder, the very same shoulder that she always used to hoist herself from any sitting position.
I thought that with my crazy imagination I would surely see spirits like Lola, my mother, sees Dusty, her best friend long gone, but I never saw any until tonight. And it could very well just be a myth, but like I read somewhere what a folklorist wrote about myths: If you believe that they’re true, then they’re true. So, for me, this is true: I believe that my grandmother will always be by my side forever, and she will come to help me if I need her just as she did tonight when she appeared and helped me save that little girl at the dry riverbed in Magdalena, Sonora, Mexico.
And tonight, right before I go to bed, I am remembering very clearly my grandmother’s precise description of the fiesta that she told me about over fifty years ago when she was around sixty years old; I was around twelve, newly-arrived from Salinas, California where I had lived the last four years speaking only English. But even so, my grandmother and I had many long conversations because she understood my English perfectly and I, slowly, eventually, learned her Spanish. In my saved-memories, very vividly I can picture my Nana dressed in a faded flannel nightgown and robe and praying the rosary every single night before she went to bed. She would slowly kneel next to her dresser where she had an improvised altar with her eight favorite saints. In between the rosary’s misterios, she would abruptly stop her praying and with her soft, sleepy voice and in great detail, she would describe Magdalena’s wondrous fiesta and the authentic Sonoran culinary delights that no other state in Mexico or Tucson restaurant could ever hope to duplicate or beat.
These two were her fondest memories and she never stopped telling me this. “¡Pos sí, Quinta, créyemelo o no, pero de veritas, anque hiziya un pinchi calor de la tiznada—y esto anque juera o no juera ya en el mes de octubre—no cave duda que la fiesta del milagroso San Francisco en mi pueblito de Magdalena de Kino, Sonora, era la fiesta más grandiosa de todo el mundo y con la mejor comida en todo México!”
Yes, these were my grandmother’s exact words in her very own distinctive and unique “imperfect” Spanish which included a truly impressive range of misuse, mispronunciations y las muchas malas palabras that I surely hope won’t offend anyone. And guess what? I now have to totally agree with my grandmother: The fiesta for San Francisco is the grandest celebration in the whole world and with the most delicious dishes in all of Mexico, especially the pozole de gallina pinta which is made with beef, pinto beans and hominy, and it is absolutely not a painted chicken! ¡Pero, híjole, Chihuahua, it was just like she’d said, for it being the month of October, it sure was tiznada HOT!!!
Chapter 1: My main delusions of grandeur and my pocho-mocho Spanish.
What you will never ever imagine when you see me standing anywhere looking toda rascuachita, chamagosa, y cochambruda, holding onto my notepad, my beat-up and battered famous quotations book, thesaurus, and Spanish and English dictionaries in my hands, is that I have the audacity to call myself a writer; but honestly, I do!!! I do!!! I mostly write about my good, bad, joyful and sad memories; lots of descriptions of my days, music that I love, my crazy relatives, my typing clients and all of our inane nonsense and shenanigans. I started writing the day that I got my book of famous quotations and my English and Spanish dictionaries sometime before my twelfth birthday. I remember when I told my Grandmother Conchita that I wanted to be a writer, she told me with her usual enigmatic words whenever I came up with an impossible, quixotic goal: “Ay, Quinta cabrona, ¿pos cuantas veces te voy a dijir que ‘del dicho al hecho hay muncho trecho,’ eh?” Which crazily translates to something like this: From the saying/statement to the action/deed there is a very long distance/space.
My Nana always felt that my writing (grouped along with my reading, daydreaming and my obsessive counting) was nothing but another one of my “puras bavosadas y pendejadas despilfarradas,” saliva-drooling nonsense that would make me waste and fritter away an entire day doing absolutely nothing. But anyway that didn’t stop me. First chance I’d get I would sneak away somewhere to write, but without fail my grandmother would find me, then she’d sigh, sniff and snicker, and—THUNK!—right there’s when she’d smack me on the head with her shoe or with the end of the broom or with whatever else was in her hands.
Well, believe it or not, in spite of the literal and figurative chingazos that life and my grandmother gave me, I still continued to write every chance I got because I wanted and needed to make some sense of my life that was filled with empty blank areas and horrific nightmares and of course this has turned out to be a super-long and difficult endeavor without a final resolution in sight.
Well, besides claiming to be a writer, I have another delusion of grandeur: I could’ve become a photographer like the woman who went around 14 La Quinta Soledad taking pictures of very sad and very poor people during the Great Depression. I forget her name—but it’ll come to me when I least expect it—anyway, just like her, I would have plenty of these gloomy subjects around here, except that I would prefer to take photographs of smiling people if I could find any.
And I would’ve been a good photographer because I have a tendency to view life like as if I was holding my hands out in front of me, my two thumbs together making a square, but missing the top line, and I am always checking out the lights and shadows and colors. For dramatic and most gripping effect, I especially like either the stark blacks and whites like in negatives, or a kaleidoscope of the latest-invented eighty-four Crayola rainbow colors to place over people’s heads.
With the camera in my mind I can very expertly create the most riveting dramatic images and scenes to either photograph plainly or to film with plenty of freezes, slow and fast motion speeds, super-impositions, compressed times with rolling white meringue clouds, deliberately out-of-order flash-backs to the past, flash-forwards to the future, intentional blurs for dramatic effect, and instant replays for the dumb ones who missed it the first time.
And because I like to write, I can even write the piquant and racy dialogue and deep-voiced narrative voice-overs, or else the people can talk sentences with just their eyes or with their words in bubbles over their heads like in the comic books. Or in contrast, I can even imagine the most tranquil inky-dark absolute silence like in a black bottomless abyss where a giant octopus awaits with its eight lazy floating tentacles.
Plus, not only that, but to accompany these scenes or images, I always then select the background music that will perfectly fit the mood, themes, or even the wild pacing of my photographs or films like from the most soporiferous sleep-inducing gringo classics like from Brahms’ “Waltz in A Flat Major, Op. 39, No. 5,” to any of the raunchiest and liveliest Mexican corridos norteños like from Los Alegres de Terán, or even the beer-drinkers’ favorite anthem: “Volver, Volver,” sung loudly by just about any drunk chorus of borrachentos desentonados right before the serious fistfights begin.
Needless to say, if you’re going to have delusions, you might as well go to the very top pinnacle, like up to Mount Everest, and that’s precisely why, in all of my daydreams and fantasies, I myself could’ve become a famous photographer just like Dorothea Lange—somewhere in my memory bank I found the answer that I needed: Dorothea Lange was the Depression photographer’s name and the name of the woman in her most famous photograph was Florence Thompson.
Or, you know, I could’ve even become a movie director like Alfred Hitchcock and I would give myself lots of cameo roles, and then I’d unobtrusively stroll in and out of all the different murder scenes, like maybe I could be a detective taking copious notes in a red spiral notebook, and plus I would get to mingle with the real actors and eat the fabulous catered meals under a rented tent.
At present time, I am a typist for my relatives, friends, felons, juvenile delinquents and a few law-abiding citizens, and I like to introduce myself as a “writer” to them. Although to be sure you could rightly say that calling myself a “writer” is quite a hyperbolic exaggeration because I truly believe that my command of both the English or Spanish languages is almost non-existent due to the fact that I have a very wonky manner of speaking and writing in a very mixed-up hodgepodge manner with improper bad English, pocho-mocho Spanish, Spanglish and code-switching.
But before you know it, like an uninvited intrusive comadre mitotera butting into the conversation, my Past always inserts itself into my Present every chance it finds, and then I can’t find margins or seams to separate the two. At these times I even think that I could be like Joanne Woodward in the movie “Three Faces of Eve,” where she had multiple personalities because when she was a little girl she was forced to touch her dead grandmother. But I know for a fact that I never touched my Nana Conchita to give me this kind of trauma because I never even went up to her coffin. And besides, to be honest, sometimes I think that I don’t even have one personality, much less three!!!
And added to that is the bad habit that I have of always hesitating before answering anything because I have to first, calmadamente, translate the words in my mind, Spanish to English, or English to Spanish, until I form a mental picture of them like as if I was going to take a photograph of them for my favorite Graphic Arts class at Tucson High way back in 1955 to 1956 when I was almost sixteen years old, in the ninth grade, and right before I dropped out of school for the first time.
Because of my high vocabulary score on my last exam when I ended the eighth grade at John Spring Junior High in 1955, I was mistakenly placed in Miss Benvenuto’s Advanced Reading and Writing English Class at Tucson High School where I surely had no business being there. In Miss Benvenuto’s class I had to read novels and short stories, write essays, and learn grammar and punctuation. Of these, what I did learn to enjoy the most was the reading of the assigned short stories and novels and then writing what I thought about them.
But learning the punctuation and the grammar gave me the worst headache that not even my Nana’s sliced raw potatoes on my forehead could take away. Las desgraciadas commas, I just tended to willy-nilly insert them like as if they were raisins in the oatmeal cookies, and I walked out of the class before I learned what a semicolon or a colon was really good for. But I do love the dashes that interrupt whenever and wherever they want—just like I do—and the parentheses that I stick in anywhere and anytime always remind me of those know-it-all viejas chismoleras that you can always count on to give you that extra, sometimes trivial, information. As for the exclamation marks, Miss Benvenuto insisted that only one was needed, but sometimes if something’s exciting, frightening or terribly important, I use three!!!
So without any nalgas huangas excuses or apologies, in April, 1956, I walked out of Miss Benvenuto’s class and dropped out of school before I even finished the ninth grade. In September, 1956, I did start the ninth grade all over again at Belmont High in Los Angeles, but I only lasted almost two months and around the end of October I dropped out for good this time and I returned to Tucson. And to be honest, I can sincerely say that in both of those ninth-grades, except for maybe the Typing and Gregg’s Shorthand classes, I didn’t learn anything even remotely worthwhile.
But now, in my writing, like as if it was a fence separating any of the feuding barrio neighbors, I just stick a semicolon in wherever I want; and the colon I use like as if it was a trumpet announcing a list or something important, or else it’s right before a famous quotation. To this date I still forever use the sacred punctuation marks without respect or boundaries or even omit them completely, but, really, put simply, what almost anyone really needs is two things: a question mark that wants an answer and a period that stops everything in its tracks, like this: period.
There’s lots of things that I’ve forgotten, thrown away or left out intentionally, and there’s still many more things that I’ve confabulated, obfuscated, sugar-coated and glossed over and which surely proves or confirms why Miss Benvenuto called me an unreliable narrator who had no form or structure!!!
And sorry, here I’m not “copping a ‘tude,” an expression that my juvenile delinquent clients always use, but I don’t even give a tiny rat’s pizzle about my sentences that tend to run-on untethered like cucarachas when you turn on the kitchen light with a can of Raid in your hand, and I ignore all of the rest of that boring English chicken-cuacha which included all the pendejadas like predicates, split infinities, dependent and independent clauses, sentence fragments; past, present and future tenses, transitions, points of views, diction, active and passive verbs and all the other chingaderas that never agreed and that I either violated, abused, mis-used, mis-placed, or like as if they were limp huevos boludos, I just simply left them somewhere dangling.
Right off, no matter how much I try to learn what Form and Structure means in writing, I obviously have no grasp of whatever that is. So, I do have to admit that I am just like as if I was a chapulín hopping around with all the other grasshoppers in a green alfalfa field. I have a tendency to either over-write or under-write and I do repeat a lot of senseless things or jump forward and backwards with the subject, point of view, time, place, mood, transitions and dates all out of order. I also create a very confusing syntax where the arrangement of my words inevitably either leads to muddled confusion or to scornful disdain. I don’t know how or why, but I even somehow manage to turn my statements into questions. Like this, you see?
But anyway, who cares what I violated to my heart’s content and even though I may not have learned the perfect punctuation and grammar before I walked out of Miss Benvenuto’s class, for sure what I learned was how to take very good notes because to this day I sagely and diligently follow the advice of an Italian man named Dante Alighieri who in my battered book of famous quotations wrote: “He listens well who takes notes.”
I have a perfect photographic memory (eidetic is the exact word in my English dictionary and in the newspaper’s crossword puzzle). So, with my notes I can recall anything with the most exquisite details in either English or Spanish, and I can describe, almost word for word, the things that I see, hear, touch, smell, taste, or feel. And of course, inevitably, to spice things up, I add my own music, imagery and dialogue. Well, sometimes I do forget the names of famous people or movies or words to a song, and I mix up a few places on the map, and some dates and even some years. But when I really need or want to remember something, it just comes to me, and conversely or reversely, when I don’t want to remember something, it doesn’t.
To be honest, with any one of my stolen pens or pencils that I have an overwhelming compulsion to steal, I can fill up pages and pages with my writing. When I am finished, I put them in a folder and label them as “Chapter” and I add a number and a few descriptive words to help me find something without going through all the pages. Some of these “chapters” are long, some are short, and most are choppy and wacky! Then I stuff them into my Salinas suitcase along with the stash of pens and pencils that I bundle into groups of hundreds.
On my “feeling good” days, I take out some of what I’ve written and I try to bring things up to date or to provide more information. I label it with capital letters: “UPDATE” and add descriptive words like I do on the “Chapters.” I think it’s like when you write postscripts in letters or film flash-backs and flash-forwards in movies. Some of these are brief and some are long with more details, but still not counting as a chapter.
This, of course, wreaks havoc with my past and present tenses, and in some of the dizzying transitions where I jump from there to here or from here to there, and get my dates mixed up, but I believe that’s exactly how people talk, so why not in writing? Anyhow, in my defense, all I can say is that when I’m not purposely avoiding something or else leaving out important information, I try my very best to stay truthful and really, aside from the lies in the letters and forms that I have to type for my quasi-law-abiding or my truly-felonious clients on another one of my client’s stolen electric typewriter—and these surely don’t count because I only type what they tell Mack or me—I never knowingly tell a lie, and so, on this you can trust me completely and implicitly.
But not to brag, I really think that if anyone will give me a word and its meaning, I can easily write a sentence with twelve or more words and it will be perfectly coherent and intelligent-sounding even if I can’t pronounce the word itself, and which is why I never could appear on “Jeopardy,” and that’s irregardless—yes, I do know that’s not a word—of how much I adore the handsome Alex Trebeck, but there really wouldn’t be one solitary interesting thing about me that we could discuss when he comes back after the break to chat with the contestants.
And although I’ve probably been speaking English all my life, I still speak it with an accent, and this I only know because when I was a student at Belmont High in Los Angeles, I applied for some kind of student/worker telephone operator job, and after the woman extolled my high test scores, she told me I couldn’t be hired because I had an accent! Well, I don’t know where the accent came from, but I suspect that it is in the genes before we are even born. So, yes, it’s an example of bitter irony at its best because when have you understood what any foreign telephone operator in New Delhi tells you nowadays? And sometimes, can you believe this, I’ve even been asked by some jackass what country I’m from?!!!
Well, if my English is horrid, you can bet for sure that my gobbledygook Spanish comes close to jack-shit, and I always like to make jokes about it because I surely cannot explain all that baloney about the assimilation and acculturation process; I just know that I am a product of a school system where speaking Spanish was forbidden, Treaty of Guadalupe or not.
So, anyway, pues, here’s where I think that I started to speak Spanish. In July, 1952, at age eleven and seven months, I came back from Salinas, California to Tucson, Arizona to help take care of my grandmother at 937 North Contzen in Tucson’s Barrio Anita. My Nana Conchita had just had an operation on her hips, and she had a cast on her left side from her waist to the beginning of her thigh, and on the right side, the cast went from her waist to her knee. Since she couldn’t move up from her bed for around six weeks, I was there to attend to her needs which were quite extensive, but the main one was to keep her entertained with lively conversations so she wouldn’t get into a bad mood or all sad and melancholy about the Mexico she’d left behind in 1923.
I don’t remember what language I spoke the first eight years of my life here in Tucson, 1940 to 1948, because those years are a total blank, but for the next four years, I had lived in Salinas, California from 1948 to 1952, where no one would be caught dead speaking Spanish for fear of being mistaken for a piojoso bracero field-worker from Mexico. In turn, my Nana Conchita was from Mexico and in the United States since 1923, but she wouldn’t be caught dead speaking English and be mistaken for an officious social worker from the welfare department even if it meant being called a guacha, or one who still wore guarachis on their feet and the cotton calzones de manta underwear, like as if she was a peasant soldadera in the revolution with Pancho Villa.
At first my Nana’s Spanish, even before her sleeping or pain pills started to work, had sounded like plain gibberish to me, but it seemed as though since my arrival that hot and windy afternoon, by pure force, but most likely because I had spoken Spanish in the first eight years of my life when I had lived before in Tucson, already I was re-learning Spanish by the minute, and by constantly interrupting and asking questions and forming mental images with the answers, I could instantly translate to English the gist of what my Nana was saying in Spanish, and somehow she always understood what I said in English.
To me, young as I was, some things that my Nana said made sense, others didn’t, and some I may have invented as the years went by because my memories always tend to jump around like pork chicharrones on the hot grill. In some strange way, I managed to memorize most of what she told me, and that’s why even now I try to write her words exactly as I heard them, and I don’t care who objects to them or who dares to correct me. And for sure, I really don’t care if someone tells me that they are “imperfect,” or that they don’t know what they mean because like I always like to say: that’s precisely why dictionaries were invented. (Hint. Hint.)
Anyway, I could talk to her and jabber away as much as I wanted to in English and she would answer me in Spanish, and if ever I had become a movie screenwriter and had written the dialogue for the scenes with my Nana Conchita, the actor portraying her would only speak Spanish and my grandmother’s words would be shown in English subtitles at the bottom of the screen, like in those foreign movies where you have to read really fast so you won’t miss seeing the actors’ dramatic facial expressions or subtle movements, and her bad words would be like this: @#%$^&*%# like in cartoons where someone smashes their fingers with a hammer!!!
I never really wanted to speak any Spanish, but not understanding my Nana when she told me that when I’d gone to California I’d left Guatemala for Guatepeor, made me resolve to pay more attention to the Spanish because, who knew, maybe, unlike the people in Salinas, California, here in Tucson, Arizona they were so backwards that that’s all the people spoke. But still, my Spanish must’ve been good enough because anyone in Barrio Anita that was allowed to be my friend spoke the same “improper and rascuacho” Spanish that I did, and so without going into details, that should tell you enough.
So, in less than a month after arriving in Tucson, I start to speak Spanish effortlessly—well, almost effortlessly—and soon I could easily switch from English to Spanish and from Spanish to English. Maybe it was like I remember René Martínez, the dishwasher in Salinas who started to speak English from one day to the next like as if he always had the English stored in his brain without his even knowing it; or maybe it was because I must’ve spoken Spanish earlier in my life; or maybe it was just because I was surrounded by it, here in this Tucson Barrio Anita.
That same summer when it was raining so hard that I could not go outside, not even to feed the chickens, and I only had the “Confidencias” magazines that my Nana Conchita’s two sisters sent to her from Nogales, Sonora for reading, so I taught myself to read in Spanish, slowly and by mouthing the words. In these “Confidencias” magazines, my Nana detested the monthly horoscopes that she called “puras brujerías fraudulentas,” but which I avidly devoured. Eventually, though, I believed these horoscopes had to be the most stupidest things I’d ever read, because even if the “Confidencias” had been up-to-date, and even when I cheated and tried three different Zodiac months, the actual December, and then November and January, none of the horoscopes even came close to fruition for me.
These magazines consisted mostly of what my Nana called las vaquetonadas y sinvergüenzadas indecentes, but which really just described nicely and circumspectly the latest escapades of the beautiful movie star María Felix and the results of the latest crooked political elections and what the newly-elected officials were already planning to steal next after they dedicated a new dam for the applauding campesinos. The two things that my grandmother really liked to read were the maudlin and soppy advice for the lovelorn, but only if she agreed with it and if it didn’t call for any of the forgiving “mierdero,” and the recipes that didn’t require strange ingredients like plantains and alcaparras and habichuelas, ingredients that were unknown to the Chino grocers, so she never made any of these dishes.
Well, I did manage to learn Spanish, as the saying goes, something like this: “de el trote y al moche,” and today I can brag that I can speak, read and write Spanish, albeit very badly—so, go ahead and call it an “improper and rascuacho” Spanish. And even so, by stretching the definition somewhat, you could say that I’m bilingual, which supposedly is a good thing to put down on any employment application, especially here in Arizona where probably over half the population speaks Spanish, or at least until some tapados get it outlawed.
The national book launch of La Quinta Soledad, sponsored by Borderlands Theater and Los Descendientes del Presidio de Tucson, will take place on Saturday, December 10, 2-4 p.m., at El Pueblo Center, 101 W. Irvington Rd., Tucson, Arizona.
A native of Tucson, Arizona, Silviana Wood received her M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Arizona and has been involved in the local theater community since the 1970s. She is known for her bilingual comedies and dramas as well as for being a professional storyteller, actor, director, and teacher of literature and Chicano theater. Silviana has twice won the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize from the University of California, Irvine: once for short story, and once for drama. She has also received playwriting fellowships and done several residencies at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas. She has been a member of TENAZ (El Teatro Nacional de Aztlán), Teatro del Pueblo, Teatro Libertad, and Teatro Chicano and is a founding member of Mujeres Que Escriben, a Latina writers’ group that was formed in 1991 and is comprised of professional women whose poetry and fiction have been published in various anthologies. In 2016, Barrio Dreams: Selected Plays by Silviana Wood was published by the University of Arizona Press.