Golondrina, why did you leave me?: A Novel 9780292793668

The golondrina is a small and undistinguished swallow. But in Spanish, the word has evoked a thousand poems and songs de

201 18 1MB

English Pages 256 Year 2010

Report DMCA / Copyright


Recommend Papers

Golondrina, why did you leave me?: A Novel

  • 0 0 0
  • Like this paper and download? You can publish your own PDF file online for free in a few minutes! Sign Up
File loading please wait...
Citation preview

Golondrina, why did you leave me?


Chicana Matters Series Deena J. González and Antonia Castañeda series editors

Chicana Matters Series focuses on one of the largest population groups in the United States today, documenting the lives, values, philosophies, and artistry of contemporary Chicanas. Books in this series may be richly diverse, reflecting the experiences of Chicanas themselves, and incorporating a broad spectrum of topics and fields of inquiry. Cumulatively, the books represent the leading knowledge and scholarship in a significant and growing field of research and, along with the literary works, art, and activism of Chicanas, underscore their significance in the history and culture of the United States.

ii  Acknowledgments

Golondrina, why did you leave me? a novel

3 Bár b a r a R e nau d G o nz á l e z 4

University of Texas Press, Austin

Acknowledgments  iii

Copyright © 2009 by Bárbara Renaud González All rights reserved Printed in the United States of America First edition, 2009 Requests for permission to reproduce material from this work should be sent to: Permissions University of Texas Press P.O. Box 7819 Austin, TX 78713-7819 www.utexas.edu/utpress/about/bpermission.html ∞ The paper used in this book meets the minimum requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (R1997) (Permanence of Paper). Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data González, Bárbara Renaud, 1953– Golondrina, why did you leave me? : a novel / by Bárbara Renaud González. — 1st ed. p. cm. — (Chicana matters series) ISBN 978-0-292-71918-7 (alk. paper) — ISBN 978-0-292-71958-3 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Women—Mexico—Fiction. 2. Mexicans—Texas— Fiction. 3. Motherhood—Fiction. 4. MexicanAmerican Border Region—Fiction. 5. Domestic fiction. I. Title. II. Series. PS3607.O556G65  2009 813ˇ.6—dc22  2008047829

iv  Acknowledgments

3 Dedicación 4 To my mother,

Marina Hernández Renaud b. 18 julio 1929 d. 9 octubre 2000 Mami. That’s what I call her. Not mamá or Mommy but Mami, the baby sound we make with breast milk still bubbling from our boquitas, a fine powder of a word, tasting of yummy nalguitas when she changes my diaper, hungry as the crying into her apron. For an oatmeal cookie, a doll with nothing to wear, a paper and pencil. Mami, a word made of Mexican songs enveloping her like a cloud of sighs in a bean-soup kitchen smelling of kisses she gave and gave and never received. Mami was the first word I learned in Spanish.



3 Contents 4 Author’s Note, viii The Legend of the Golondrina, ix Acknowledgments, xi Introduction, 1

Part one Where are you going, my beloved swallow? 9 Part two What home are you seeking with your untiring wings? 47 Part three To reach it safely, what wind will you follow? 83 Part four Your wings have endured such storms and you are so far from home. 197 Part five Come to me, sweet feathered pilgrimed stranger. 225 Epilogue, 239

Acknowledgments  vii

3 author’s

note 4

This book is a fictionalized telling of my family’s story. The events are completely real to Texas, however, a story so cruel and sublime that if I wrote the truth you wouldn’t believe it. Bárbara Renaud González San Antonio, Texas Christmas Day 2006

viii  Acknowledgments


legend of the golondrina 4

At the beginning of time, God offered a prize to the one who could travel the world and tell the story best of what he or she saw. Many wanted to leave but were afraid of the dangers of an unknown journey. Crow left first, but got interrupted with some carrion and returned without seeing hardly anything. Then Swallow left. Swallow took many months in returning, and when everyone thought Swallow had died, the bird appeared one day telling an infinity of things that had been seen on the whole trip there and back. As a prize, God gave the swallow the gift of changing countries. —from Argentina

Acknowledgments  ix


3 acknowledgments 4 Eliberto González, aka Chabuya, who tells the best stories, including the one about when we were married. María Teresa G. Pedroche, pintora de las primeras, who gave me her art. Diana Flores, activista who should be president. Lupita Beltran, borlotista who deserves someone to write a novel about her. Conté de Loyo, flamenca who taught me what it is to dance. Terry Ybañez de Santiago, artista who painted my rooms and said, “Don’t be afraid, girlfriend.” Raquel Ruiz, la colombiana apasionada who makes coconut rice better than Gabo’s novelas. Graciela Sánchez, la rebelde who offered me work. Gloria Ramirez, who taught me how to dance a mera-mera polka. Norma E. Cantú, maestra and editor, who with Elvia Niebla gave me space in their Charcotown condo and time with la Booboo, the parmesan cat. Annie Treviño, la doctora. Mary Ozuna, who took me to the river and told me her story of San Antonio. Joan Frederick, the photographer who gives presents on her birthday. Geraldo Mitchell, capitalista. To el poeta Pablo Martínez, who graciously read and edited some terrible drafts of this book and tenderly tore it apart — just what I needed. Gracias to the gran santa of mestiza writers who taught me to wield words as if each day is the last one on earth: the one and only Sandra Cisneros. Muchas gracias for the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral award, named in honor of her father, that allowed me to buy the computer to write this book. And special acknowledgments: If I had not been able to live in San Antonio, there’s no way I could’ve written the river that flows through this book. Gracias to Graciela Sánchez and the buena gente of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center for bringing me back home — and then setting Acknowledgments  xi

me free. And to Josie Méndez-Negrete and Jorge Negrete, true Tex-Mex royalty, for letting me stay in their Gaudi Tower à la San Anto, along with impassioned late-night pláticas, pretty good wine, and the best chilaquiles in San Anto. And to the women who guided my clumsy hands: my late tía Lupe Galer, a true Parisian artist working as a seamstress in Oklahoma City, who spent a whole summer teaching me how to iron silk, and to my sister Leticia, who recorded my parents telling their stories because she knew my job was to write them down. Para mi papá, Robert Renaud: This story is the only land that matters.

xii  Acknowledgments

Golondrina, why did you leave me?

Acknowledgments  xiii


3 introduction 4 How my mother crossed the border Mami’s got the radio on as usual, it’s Selena with her Como la flor, and I turn it up. Como la flor . . . all the love that you gave me has died and how it hurts how it hurts . . . And then we’re dancing round and round the kitchen table, como la flor, we’re like two flowers no one has ever seen bloom in our two-step, and the kitchen’s spinning with the polka’s shoo-shoo-bopping love songs, no matter that there is something about love dying like the way that carnations die / asupacito carcacha nodejestambaliar aunque  tenga carcacha no importa peep-peep! SelenaSelenaSelena’s singing, her voice a smooth crema in harmony with the sax and the trumpets pumping the beat and the band is rockin the polkas so that Mami and I two-step two-step, dancing the pain away together. The beat is swaying right back, tingling tentando, we can dance shoo-bop shoowa all night, we are not afraid, we are not afraid, we won’t give up, even if it’s not returned because that’s all there is. Because we are women, we are roses, and love is the rain, the sky, and the land we seek. Mami wants love and I want her to find it. “What do you mean?” Mami’s reminiscing again about Mexico and like always the story stops when I ask her how she crossed the border. Now the radio and Selena are surrounding us with that terriblebeautiful love story that begins with a man’s hands sliding up the wrist to dance and Selena’s song takes me and Mami to that moment forever and I know she wants it to begin again even when it has ended and I know it must have hurt so much and yet. Sometimes I think love is just the beginning we want even when we already

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  

know what the ending is going to be. Love forbidden they murmur in the streets because we’re from different societies. Mami’s making gorditas for me and my brothers. Only she doesn’t fry them, because that’s not the real mexicana way. My mother, hair blacker than the comal where the gorditas are cooking, doesn’t look up. Watches the corny fatsos swelling. Turns them over. At sixty-plus years, her hair has only one thick streak of white, like the two-finger Crisco slick she’s lacing the griddle with. “¿Cómo cruzaste, Mami?” “What do you think, the way everybody did in those days. Over the bridge. Didn’t jump in the river, if that’s what you mean. Can’t swim.” Shrugging as she talks, her voice a shrug too. “I mean, how did you make it across?” Mami’s my miniature, or I’m her giant version, depending on how you look at it, she’s not even five feet, with hands and feet half my size. But we both know she is the taller one. “Well, it was the forties and it must have been strange for a woman, a divorced woman like you to come across by yourself, were you alone?” More gorditas are cooking on the cast-iron griddle. To me, they’re maize clouds, the mangos of bread. Others are tempted by sweets, but my weakness is corn. Her tortillas are my downfall as I watch her open the package of Quaker Masa, wipe the plastic bowl clean, scoop a white glob of her indispensable manteca, shake a centavo’s worth of salt on her cupped hand, add just enough warm water, hand-mixing it into soft dough, rolling it into a ball, pat-patty cakes, tás-tás back and forth between her fingertips and palms until it’s nice and round in her hands for the cast-iron comal. She doesn’t need the tortilla press like I do, and her tortillas always puff up like your heart when you see someone you love walking toward you.

  bárbara renaud gonzález

“What questions you ask.” “You say you left your toad-husband, and you were just eighteen. And that you were real pretty.” Tease her, leering at her doughy curves, up and down. “At least, you say you were pretty.” Try to wolf-whistle, wheeeeetwhuuuuuy. Mami’s over sixty years, but her vanity is timeless, though she admits sometimes after a few beers that the train has come and gone, and run her over. Still, she stopped claiming me long ago because las comadres start adding it up. She’s now younger than my baby brother who’s twenty-five. “I still am. Más de cuatro. Chiiiit.” More than four women would like to look as good, she means. Her spatula stabs at me with a hot gordita on it, but too far away to do anything. She slices it open with a knife, sets it aside, then another. Now she’s frying onions for the beans, next, the ground meat. I want to say there are always four unfortunate souls uglier than our worst days, but she clings to her youthful tiempo, and I’m hoping to take this conversation beyond the beauty competition she’s still having with her four older sisters. “Did you take the bus at night? Weren’t you afraid? To be alone?” “I took the train. No, I was determined.” My mother’s looking at me from the stove, but she is really staring at the past, and for the first time I realize how there must have been a before-me, as there will be an after-her. “I had a sister living in Oklahoma, remember.” But for someone who loves to talk about Mexico and recapitular el divorcio from the beginning to the tortured finish with Daddy, she is silent as fireworks that you can see from across the river in San Antonio. Her eyes close, open, tissue-wrapping to the mystery inside, and I can tell she’s sorry that I’m just like her. I’m an exile just like she’s been all her life, only from a different side of the river. So I keep going.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  

“Mami, but you never got farther than the border. You stayed and met Daddy. Why won’t you tell me . . .” She interrupts. “Look, that sapo!” My mother points the spatula again at me, and wátchate, a temper tantrum, because she knows where I’m going with this — and she never, ever calls her first husband by anything but The Toad. She turns again to the stove, her refuge, and I can feel her nightmares crossing into mine. “Wasn’t a good husband, believe me, he was just rich. That’s all. Wanted to leave him, but he threatened me.” Stirs the onions, the beans. “What do you mean, he threatened you? You were married, what could he do to you?” Mami sighs, a hot breeze on a summer day with no relief. “He could keep my little girl. Me podía echar a la calle. He — he could call me an unfit mother by calling me a woman of the street.” She says this as she bangs the garlic on the counter. Begins to peel and grind the cloves in the molcajete. But it’s her pestle that’s on fire. “Chiiiit. Thought that he was going to take advantage of me, yo! A young girl who he bragged was nothing next to him. Mister Omnipotente!” She’s grinding the words into the volcanic stone. “I showed him.” “Don’t understand.” “Look mijita, por favor.” She breathes the words as if she’s just finished running a block. Mami’s getting angry with this conversation, preferring a thousand other juicy chismes and family ’scándalos, anything but this. Now she’s stripping the boiled tomatoes for the red salsa, a warning to me to be more delicate with her heart. She’s slicing more onions, garlic, massaging, then cutting, wedges from limes.

  bárbara renaud gonzález

Finally, she arranges a bowl of lemons and oranges and one soft peach for a centerpiece. But all this is her fault, she trained me well. “What do you mean he wasn’t a good husband?” “Look. He was an old man when I met him.” She’s giving up a little, fiddling with the pots now as if she was still that short-order cook making batches of chicken-fried steak for my friends after school. I catch a glimpse of a scared young girl in her eyes in the glance she sends me. And I see the fortyyear-old daughter reflected back at me. It’s like we’re traveling together somewhere and the years between us are crossing and circling each other. Her eyes are brown shimmering, like the way the golondrinas she likes fill up the sky with their purple-tipped wings, so that brown is the sign of spring. Finally, finally, she says, “Twenty years older than me, and I was just fifteen. I didn’t know anything, anything, still playing with dolls at night.” She rinses the cutting board, and I notice how her fingernails are the color of old egg yolks. “Blame your grandmother for all of this. She never told me anything. Nada. NA-DA!” She starts shredding cabbage for stuffing the gorditas. “The night before my wedding, you know what advice she gave me?” Her shoulders harden. “Told me that my duty was to aguantar. That I was going to become a woman, that I should obey. Had no idea what she was talking about. Chiiiiit.” Cucumbers are whizzing from her sharp knife. Aguantar, the word slices from her mouth too. Aguantar. Put-up-with, take it, shut-up-and-don’t-open-your-mouth. A woman’s lot. A woman’s duty, the Bible says, the Church says . . . “¡Pues no! Chiiit!” Now I’ve done it. “Here I was, a girl, excited to be a princess for the day, my mother inviting everyone in the neighborhood to come and ad-

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  

mire my French-cut gown, my bridal diadem, the bouquet I could hardly carry — yes — he let me have the reception I wanted, and I remember it like yesterday. Avocado vichisuichi, shrimp tamales and a seafood banquete, merengues italianos and a chocolate mousse cake — do you know how expensive that is? I haven’t tasted any of that again since my wedding. Fine arracadas, dangling like golden bird nests from my little Red Riding Hood’s stupid ears. For me, this was my quinceañera. That’s what I thought the wedding was, a fifteen-year-old’s debut, because there was no money, don’t you see, by the time I was born we were in miseria and I wanted my party, regardless. And I got it. Even though my family had nada!” She’s hissing and making her a-poco-no, watchmestopmeifyoucan sounds under her breath. “I showed them. Your grandmother the fanatical, la señora most proper, the ultimate católica, the last true virgen residing in San Luis Minas del Potosí, a woman destined for sainthood of the hypocrites and cowards of this world, baptized at the Templo del Carmen, whose caca smells like roses, simply hated me for leaving her house. How dare I, chiiit, me, her money machine, la chaparrita, though she could never tell me to my face that I was the one she needed most!” Mami shakes her head, a broom sweeping never done inside her head, and I wonder what happened to those earrings. “She didn’t love me, my mother didn’t love me, don’t look at me like that! It’s true! I was an accident, she never wanted to have me. Not as beautiful, not as intelligent, not white like the other sisters — y para acabar de chingar — the shortest, I was never desired, understand? She told me so plenty of times.” Then that smile of sheer rebellion, if only for a moment. “So my wedding-quinceañera was a triumph! ¡Un triunfo!” Mami’s lips soften like the sautéed onions before adding the tomatoes for the red salsa, low heat. “Your grandmother was forced to accept him, though she

  bárbara renaud gonzález

didn’t like the idea he was my papá’s age. How could I deny the pleasure of revenge?” Her voice is a slow simmer. “He took me out to dinner. Yo, I had never been to a nice restaurant before, much less stood outside one. He brought me not roses, but orchids, perfume. El Aire del Tiempo, Nina Ricci. I felt like I was Verónica Castro in Rosa Salvaje! Now you understand?” Wild Rose was the soap opera I started watching after Mami’s fevered recommendations, with the main character, la Verónica, lying naked in a rose-filled bathtub, the petals just covering the ones we women have. “He brought me three serenatas. Not one serenade, not two, three! Hallucinated me with his attentions!” Turns on another burner, takes a discount-store generic cigarette from her pack on top of the refrigerator and lights it from the stove. Boils water for coffee, and sits down to talk to me. “He had money, you see.” I reach across the table to give my mother the ashtray. “I was going to be free of her.” She inhales. “I was going to have parties, and be free for once.” Exhales. “Was that so bad?” She looks at the ashes falling from her cigarette. Mami taught me the best story sometimes takes a lifetime to tell, that’s why you have to tell it over and over until you get it right. The best story, like a quilt, she said, is made from scrap pieces of cloth, old buttons, leftover thread, and don’t forget the wornouts and manteles, “¿verdad, mijita?” That’s where the real story is, she said, just look for it in the cabinet where everything’s stored away and forgotten. And that’s how I’m telling you this story, finding the hand-carved jewelry box I brought her once from Hawaii, to the Avon lotions inside the medicine cabinet

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  

to the yellow suitcase where she kept all her children’s report cards, and the corner of a kitchen drawer where she saved a little plastic bag of stuffed-bunny keychains, Christmas presents for me and my sisters from the dollar store. Here’s the tomatostained recipes mixed with coupons for shampoo and the church donation envelopes, and under the bed, the grammar and poetry books she brought from Mexico to teach me español when I was in the second grade and had mastered the English alphabet. But most of all, this story comes from what she didn’t say, it’s the way she looked out the window washing dishes on Saturday night when she burned inside to go dancing. How she touched her face in the mirror that night after a comadre told her I was going to be beautiful. It’s the way she sang to herself, and the birthday cakes she baked, toasted coconut and triple-pink icing just for me, because she never got one present as a girl. Mami’s the one who gave me a diary for my tenth birthday, telling me to write down my secrets. From what she didn’t say, she told me her story, you understand?

  bárbara renaud gonzález

3 part

one 4

Where are you going, my beloved swallow?

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  


34 I see the five-year-old niñita running barefoot all the way to the plaza, holding tight to a precious basket of pan dulce, her voice a pink aria sweeter than the precious bread she carries. At the Plaza of the Embraces, Amada’s voice chimes right after the morning church bells and before the taxis arrive at the plaza followed by the Coca-Cola trucks, the honking buses, and the unchaining, metal door-rising of a hundred stores. Some people say the morning can’t begin without the angel pastries delivered by this little girl singing a verse for each sticky campechana, dancing a dance for every half dozen empanadas. Sometimes, the plaza’s best and youngest saleswoman offers boxes of Chiclets rattling like marbles, or homemade dresses rinsed with a squeeze of lemon, steaming with starch on her desperate arms. She wants to play, but she can’t, she can’t. Her family is starving, it’s the years after the Mexican Revolution, and her own mother is sewing, embroidering, crocheting, baking, doll-making, ingenious in the way that only poverty can make you create something out of nothing. But there is never any money, no matter how hard Amada works. La gente buys from her, circling her, so that she can barely see the mountains and cathedrals circling them. Ay, how she makes people laugh and spend, but more than anything she wants to go to school, quiere ir a la escuela, but there is no money. And then at thirteen and barely in the fifth grade, they take her out of school, when her mother finds her with a book and her legs wide open, innocent about what her miniskirt is showing. She cries for weeks, then, forever. Two years later, Amada marries the first man who asks her. She’s fifteen, and he’s more than twice her age. She calls him “Sapo.”

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  11

34 The toad-man, Sapo, keeps her in a three-story rosa mexicana– colored house with the mosaico floors in Tequisquiapan, and now the plaza’s best salesgirl has servants to clean her bloodstained panties if she asks, but she doesn’t know how to give orders, only how to obey them. Behind the stone walls of her mansion, Amada passes her days trying to be the good wife. She likes mopping the turquoise-tiled floors with the purple and yellow Moorish suns fading into another language, she enjoys washing the linen sheets by hand in the stone-ridged sink, then rinsing and soaking them on the terrace in hot blue foam, hanging them on the clothesline below that blue-starch sky that she imagines must be the color of pure freedom. Yes, blue must be the color of love too, like the boleros, those songs promising a new world and something else, something that she aches for, but she doesn’t know what it is, only that it’s the color blue. All day the boleros accompany her on the radio while the Sapo’s away at work. And it’s that omnipresent wanting for blue, crying for blue, the bluest kisses and flowers, the dancing under the blue stars, and something more, the red hiding under that blue, the color of hunger grabbing her hand, pulling her away from him, imagining leaving him in the middle of the night, sneaking away while he’s toad-snoring, crawling out from under him, abandoning her daughter in the crib, writing a note of goodbye pinned to her pink crocheted blanket. But for now, she just embroiders Te quiero, mijita, flowery words and clouds on the satin border.

12  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 The Sapo rapes her on their wedding night. Amada is a virgin of course, and she feels like a whole jalapeño has slammed into her mouth, bursting inside without her biting it, except it happens down there, in that mouth, so the jalapeño burns and cuts, squeezing itself into every corner and closet she has. She cries and he doesn’t care, boasts that she’s his, that he owns her. Then he makes her champagne-filled boca ache too with his jalapeño, big and fat and greasy with his toad juice. Swallow it! She’s choking. And he laughs. It spills from her mouth, though he pushes her lips together, and it tastes like runny, poisoned milk. Urine. ¡Puta! he wheezes. What a whore you are! He pushes her here and there, sucking her nipples so hard they drip blood from his sapo-feeding, forces her head facedown on the bed, grabbing, pressing, thumbing her body like masa for tortillas. She squeals with his thrusting, and he just laughs more. Her flesh is his masa, his gordita, and he’s grunting like a pig when he turns her over again, ordering her to open her legs wide, wider, flattening her with his frogself. And she opens her legs until she breaks into pieces. Wider. Más. ¡Más! Hija de puta. He calls her a whore, and that’s worse than all the rest he’s doing to her. You like it, I know you want it. You’re like all the others, daughter of a good-for-nothing whore. Then he does it again. ¡Puta-madre! He yells, his jalapeño exploding for the last time that night. Whore-mother-daughter-of-a-whore are his last words before he snores himself to sleep. She can’t walk for days. That was the first night.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  13

34 So many pretty horses. “Huerco chingado, ¿quién chingaos te dio permiso?” The horsewhip Lázaro’s father holds in his farmer’s hand will be the last time, the very last time. Lázaro thinks of horses, how he always wanted one, it helps to think of them, to not think of pain, of burning, of lightning, but to hear the thunder, to witness the magic of them. Tordillos, light grays. Lázaro is twenty-one, and tomorrow he’s going on a train to the Army, to fight in World War II. He’s from Texas, and never been anywhere except this farm a few miles across the Mexican border, all that his family has left after the U.S.-Mexican War. Moros oscuros, dark grays. They have a few hundred acres, blood-acres his father says, and as the oldest son it’s up to him to save the farm after all that’s happened. There are ten children in the family, but the other brother is still too young, and the rest are girls. It’s up to Lázaro. Moros claros, blue grays. Tordillos dorados, dappled grays. Lázaro always wanted a horse, but his father hates them. They remind him of death. Tordillos manchados, flea-bitten grays. Escarchados, frostbitten grays. Canelos, rosillos, sabinos. Cinnamons, rose reds, straw­berrys. The last time. Lázaro’s father went to town to try and get Lázaro released from the Army, he was needed on the farm. No, they tell him, there’s a war going on. Besides, your son is six feet tall, all sinew and muscle. Uncle Sam wants him. Chino, curly horse. Caballo romo, roman-nosed, ram-headed. Pretty horses. That night, before he leaves for the Army at dawn, his father grabs him, after Lázaro’s packed, showered and shaved, and tells him about the horses. But it’s too late.

14  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 After Sapo falls asleep snoring like a bear that’s just eaten a whole season of hunters, Amada goes dancing. The trumpets are the first to call her, ándale, vente, pulling her hand out from the crowd, courting her especially, unstitching her skin from the bones so that she becomes the woman only she knows and no one else. And then she’s dancing, dancing, dancing, dancing alone in a ballroom, which becomes the zócalo, the salty-air one in Veracruz where the people gather to dance in the plaza, and then she’s gliding like water on stone, a butterfly on the wave of a breeze. She’s the guitar on two perfect legs, her ankle-strapped high heels keeping time, and the whole orchestra follows her, like the stars follow the moon. But it’s just a dream, and there’s a man too, and together they walk to get an ice cream on Hidalgo Street, hands entwined strolling through the Plaza de Armas. At the nevería, they take a long time to choose. Cajeta? Tres leches? Piñón? Pineapple? Strawberry? Tamarindo? Cinderella’s Kiss, maybe? Bit of Moon? Or should they go crazy and have ice cream with mole? Cactus? Avocado? Tequila? Persimmon? In this dream, it’s always Sunday evening and the plaza’s a merry-go-round of pretty girls promenading ’round the square with their boyfriends. No one as guapo as her smoke-man, Jorge, because that’s the name she gives him. From the open-air nevería, they hear the city’s sinfónica, the violins’ operatic wings bursting the cobalt sky open, rippling through the summer’s breeze, the notes mingling with the yodeling of the red-bandanna-wearing huapangueros and their canesyrup baritones singing about a brown woman left behind at the rancho. Amada and Jorge decide to have a bowl of pico de gallo ice cream made of jícama, papaya, orange, and a sprinkle of chile. At the plaza, the food stands offer fried potatoes, churros, sweet bread, atole with fresh anise, a basket of tamales steamed in baGolondrina, why did you leave me?  15

nana leaves, piles of fried tacos with squash flower on the makeshift griddles, clay bowls of hot pozole, steaming red enchiladas with minced potatoes, goat cheese and green salsa. Amada and Jorge decide on the peanuts instead of the almonds and pecans. Salted, sweetened, spiced, which kind? The symphony’s trumpet follows Amada, like a silky ice cream on the tongue with the sharp bite of red piquín, as the two stroll to the Aranzazú Convent to see the sunset. On the way, they stop to admire the fresh ears of roasted corn with the accompanying queso blanco, sour cream, pale yellow butter and dried chile powder. For the older men, there is pulque made from fermented potatoes and another kind from pineapple. They even have a sip of that, which makes Amada stumble and laugh. The music follows them, embracing, caressing, there under the palm trees lining the next plaza where the orange flamboyán trees encircle the fountain and the bougainvillea drops its pink petals on the gazebo as the cymbals echo the last song, accented by the hide-and-seek of children and the tang of Sunday’s lime colognes and lemon-rinsed hair, everything and everyone shining in the transparent air, each person a perfect note. Some are the violin’s sonnet string, and others the trumpet cry of longing, while Amada is the purest, muted French horn, dreaming she and Jorge are going to be happy ever after. The fountain water mists them as they walk through the Alley of the Palm toward the convent. The light here is amethyst, draping the chunks of dried and sweetened pumpkin, squash, and apricot for sale in hand-woven baskets, and there, in the shadows of the convent’s arches where so many young women entered and never left, Amada and Jorge hold each other as its walls turn blue sapphire in the dusk, and he takes her tiny palm to his mouth. Amada hears the plaza’s trumpets from far away, their song swirling through the convent’s arches as a soft golden wind reaches the ancient stone, breaking through stained glass, landing on the mahogany stairs, tinkling candelabra, alighting on

16  bárbara renaud gonzález

the saints, a velvety murmur that asks, touches, confesses, burns through skin, consuming the pages of the Holy Bible, one by one, ending at that place where words begin. When Amada wakes up, her lips are swollen with cigar and tequila, but her fingertips smell of lavender.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  17

34 Amada’s job is to make sure his meals are on time, take care of their baby daughter, and look pretty at night. But her real job is to open her legs. To say nothing when he reminds her that she was a good-for-nothing urchin, that he alone rescued her, a whore, from a life of the streets. That her family is nothing, that she owes him everything. That she’s ugly, worthless, stupid. Then he begins to beat her. Because she doesn’t obey. Not with her eyes. And there’s no one for her to talk to. Sapo forbids it. Little by little she begins to realize that her secret is the secret all women seem to carry in their purses and on their faces. It’s in the too-red lipstick and unwalkable stilettos. It’s connected to wanting and then the sorry that comes from wanting, why their shoulders hunch a little more for every year of married life. The men threaten the women from telling it. The women are enslaved, only they don’t call it that. And the men, she realizes one day, are slaves too, that’s why they have to be masters of the women. Because of what happened to their own mothers and the mothers before them for hundreds of years, maybe forever, she knows her history. And the men, being men, take vengeance for their mothers by repeating the past, because that’s all they know. But she’s just sixteen. And sometimes when the Toad spits into both her mouths, and she gets up after he’s asleep to wash out his stink, she tries to fall asleep pretending that she’s in one of those tropical clubs where Toñia la negra sings about men who want bad women. Mentira, Salomé me quiere a mí / Ay Salomé / Dice que me quiere a mí. Amada knows how Toñia la negra’s distilled-rum voice makes the breeze sizzle, how the congas and palm trees and sweaty men 18  bárbara renaud gonzález

and trumpets and maracas sway in unison, expecting something she can’t name, and in the brillantine flash of faces she watches how men desire a bad woman like Salomé, how they believe she loves only them. And she dreams she’s just like Salomé, and sometimes she dreams she’s holding hands with a man who’s not a toad. He’s tall and ranch-hardened, nothing like the big belly Sapo’s proud of, no, this man is like those handsome men in the fotonovelas she likes to read. He’s a real caballero, inviting her to the Cine Azteca on Sunday afternoons at the plaza. And in the dark of that theater, his fingers make a soft circle there in the middle of her palm, slow, quiet, then a smaller circle with his middle finger, smaller yet, finally pressing into the center, there, and she closes her eyes and trembles when he whispers that he loves her, forever and ever.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  19

34 When Salomé first tastes her milk, Amada’s surprised at the way it tingles all the way down to her thighs, like the trumpets. Salomé, her muñeca, her little daughter, gulps at her breasts, caresses them, not at all in the delicate doll-way she imagined it would be. The leche squirts all over her baby’s face, and Salomé doesn’t notice, that’s how hungry she is. Amada didn’t know she could love her daughter, how she prayed and prayed the little girl would die in her womb, fearing she would be ugly like Sapo. It makes her wonder what her mother dreamed when she was pregnant with her. Is that why she named her Beloved? Because she didn’t love her, thinking her ugly, or did she hope someone would love her because she couldn’t? Salomé’s first bath. First sleep. First smile. Her cry makes Amada cry too because little Salomé hurts and she doesn’t want her baby to know what it’s like to be hungry. The little girl grasps Amada’s fingers, Salomé’s big sapo-eyes follow her every step, such an innocent aching, and how ashamed Amada is to have the same want, marveling that her baby’s body vibrates when she walks into the room. Salomé’s first caca, like sweet guacamole. Amada doesn’t know that a baby needs to be changed twelve times a day. First time she sits up, crawls. First time that Amada twirls Salomé’s baby hair, tapes one tiny pink plastic bow on her head. First googoo. Salomé throws the bottle away from her crib, stands up, howls for real food at six months. First delightful spoon of soupy mashed frijoles. Amada falls in love for the first time, glimpsing how love comes after and despite hate, proof that love is the stronger of the two. Salomé will have everything, she vows. It will be different for her. My daughter will be loved.

20  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 Of course it was him. Jorge. The Sapo’s favorite cousin. He’s, oh, maybe twenty-five, and when introduced to Amada, he holds her hand a half second longer. A breath-second, really. Just as handsome and tall as that other, the shadow-man Jorge. This one is a slim prince, unlike Sapo with his crumpled and sweating white shirt, his bellybutton hairs sticking out. And Jorge always teases Sapo out of any bad mood, especially one directed at Amada. “Primo,” he says in his rusty voice, full of crackling and satiny jokes. “Tie up your balls! Or I’m going to break one!” An insult delivered with tenderness between cousins raised as brothers. Sapo just croaketycroaks, and the desire to smash Amada’s pretty face is over. “Another tequila, primo?” “¡A las mujeres!” Chink! The heavy sound of glass in a man’s hand. Through the thick blue copita, Jorge toasts what will be between him and Amada. “¡Salud!” He’s close to her age, and understands her in the way that people of the same generation have their own language. His green eyes claim her like spring claims the flowers. His lime cologne follows her for days afterward. He’s married too. One day, when he comes over to celebrate her daughter’s second birthday, her brown eyes answer. Yes.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  21

34 It was so simple to run away. When Jorge mentions that he’s going on a business trip north to Monterrey, Amada asks, “Will you take me?” The words fall out of her mouth, like birds hiding there a long time. “I’m not going to live a lie,” she explains, noticing how he rubs his thighs when he looks at her body, once Sapo is out of the room. “I want to be free, I have relatives in Texas.” Now, that is a lie, but not the part about wanting to be free, about wanting Jorge, about wanting to be herself, to discover the woman under her skin, the one who’s been waiting a long time to fly if given a chance. “Por favor. Llévame contigo.” It was agreed she would meet him at the train station, a whole day’s trip from San Luis, so that no one would see them together. From there it would be another day’s drive to the border, but nothing was said about when they would get there, only that she would get there. Amada was almost eighteen by then, and it was not safe for a young woman to travel alone. I wish to have much valor for what lies ahead, she writes in her journal that night. I am going to el norte.

22  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 “¡Amada!” Full of pride, he grasps her hand, extends his other long arm to the water, so that it feels like he’s presentándola to the greatgrandmother. Then Lázaro begins to run toward the water, letting Amada go so suddenly she almost falls, his arms and legs fading in the mist of the purple-green Gulf, ebullient, like he’s unfurling the raggedy coast himself. As if he’s the one who arrived on a wave, or created the ocean, Amada smiles to herself. “Twenty thousand acres!” Amada first met Lázaro in his sister’s cantina, marrying him three weeks after crossing the border. She’s never seen such a tall mexicano, swaggering with so much inglés, wearing real cowboy boots with a matching voice of crunching rocks eating up all those English palabras. And old enough, ten whole years older, to not care about her past, laughing at her spicy jokes, his sleepyslinky eyes admiring how the rancheras on the jukebox make her hips dance, staying to watch the afternoon’s shadows trace her clavicle, angling to a cintura cinched by God only and legs curved by the Devil himself. Most of all, Lázaro admires the way she admires him, the americano who speaks good Spanish. And it’s time for him, hell, he’s an old man of twenty-eight, and she’s an eighteen-year-old girl, divorced and alone in a new country, who believes in love because he’s told her she’s so pretty, and she’s so young, believing that a fairy tale is the same thing as freedom. “That’s where it begins, from that corner where the Rio Grande kisses the Gulf,” Lázaro says, pointing to the south. “Brazos Island, but we named it for us!” Lázaro takes back Amada’s hand as they start walking along the gentlest of waves. “Sí, our family land begins donde ’staba el Port of Bagdad, nothing there now but grass flats, lagoons, and the yuccas holdGolondrina, why did you leave me?  23

ing on to the sand. And the breeze, even the air changes when it crosses the border, es verdad! It’s different. Wilder. Then north to this land, here, that the pistolero King took from us,” Lázaro gestures with his free hand. He tells her about the King Ranch, la kineña, where he was born, and the million acres of bragging rights, how it became the largest ranch in the world, and how it was Mr. King who stole every single acre from families like his own. “Salt is what my family must have breathed when we first arrived,” he continues, taking Amada back to his family’s crossing into Texas, tightening his big hand over Amada’s childlike one. “Lágrimas. My ancestors were mean. Malos. Had to be, Amada. That’s the only way you could make it here, the land is meaner still. But if you can tame it, ¡aaaaaay! Like a woman!” Laughs like a man in love, and looks at her that way too, making her happy. The waves rise and fall, washing their bare feet. “Of course we arrived before even then, but . . .” Takes a deep breath of air. Shakes his head, kicking the water foaming at their feet. “My mother’s people, but this, this!” Breaks away from her, jogging through the foam and moonlight reflected in the soft waves, shouting “This is ours, ours!” But Lázaro’s words are taken out by the waves to the sea. He starts running back to her with the pink of dawn behind him. “Mine! You think anyone can ever take it away?” Lázaro is a man who looks like someone’s found and sculpted a cast-off log of mesquite, breathing some life into it. His hands are thick cactus paddles, his skin armadillo, and barbed wire is the fence he’s wrapped around his heart. El hijo de Isidro, that’s what the townspeople called him, and his father they addressed as Don Nicho, because the old man was a man of respeto, raising his son with a stern hand to work the land. A couple hundred acres was all they had left, but the sun-baked señor struggled all his life to take back the rest from those who’d taken it from him. 24  bárbara renaud gonzález

Acre by acre, year by year, he claimed the land with his sweat and spirit, and it was his son’s turn to finish what he started. This is why Lázaro’s arms became shovels finding rocks, breaking them to make a clean row for the tractor when he was just six years old. By the age of ten, his boy’s fingers had sifted the earth, knew how much stirring it needed for the crops. Iron, potassium, magnesium, calcium. At twelve, his eyes darkened just like the ocher seeds in the burlap sacks he picked up at the bodega, waiting for the spring’s first watering. At fourteen, he cracked the seeds between his fingernails, smelling for pine oil, a green bead of licorice. Before school, after school, all day Saturday and Sunday, after mass. There was good soil because of the Rio Grande, and the seasons plowed one into the other. What did the families in the Valley want? Lázaro’s father planted it: cantaloupes, onions, milo, sugarcane, watermelons, tomatoes, sorghum, cabbages, oranges, tomatoes, cucumbers. A little cotton, too. Milk the cows, clean the chicken coop. Give the hogs some water, ¡Apúrale, huerco! Work, la labor was his father’s favorite word, meaning the land is all we have left, remember! The only respite was the little red tractor, because Lázaro’s father preferred the oxen. There was the jack, oil cans, the toolbox, and the S-wrenches to repair it. Gasoline too. Fencing wire, nails, shovels, a hoe, and an axe in the back of the pickup. A .2020, loaded, just in case. By the time his father pulled him out of high school at sixteen to help support his younger sisters and brothers, Lázaro’s heart was a crisp Spanish onion that would never, ever, be unpeeled, so dried out from too much sun. He had no time for a girlfriend. Instead, there were chickens, cows, an ox, a mule, some horses, and a pet rooster named Gallito. A hog or a goat to slaughter for the fiesta when his three brothers and six sisters finished high school, one by one. Because he could not, and they must. Sacrifice, his father said. It was right after the Depression. That’s just how it was. This is why he never Golondrina, why did you leave me?  25

learned to dance. But with his hands, he orchestrated a masterpiece of tomatoes, so plump-sweet and fire-red you’d swear they couldn’t be real. It’s my heart, he’d say, I put my heart in them. “You think one little war can take it away from us? For a hundred years, maybe. Two hundred. But we’ll get it back.” Lázaro smiles at Amada, and his smile seems to add light to the coming morning. “It’s ours, you’ll see.” He picks up a sand dollar from the oatmeal-colored sand. They both stop to watch the mud peeps with their mustardy legs fly-walk in the dawn’s charcoal dunes. Kree-eet, kree-kree, the birds make rough anvil-scraping songs, sand-songs made of ground quartz and shells. “Most of it was gone before I was born.” He tells her how the old man King’s first name was crooked. That his real name was King, that the people consider him bien nombrado, the King of Stealing. “El chueco King himself came around three times to warn my great-great-grandmother Amparo, asking for her daughter Camelia’s hand in marriage, dicen. There were thousands of acres at stake then, you understand. Camelia was the oldest, the only daughter, la consentida. Camelia refused to even look at him or the blue-eyed son he was proposing for her. Any other woman would have jumped at the chance.” Amada senses Lázaro’s proud smile. “But what can I say?” There is a strange admiration in his voice. “Why are some women different?” Looks at Amada but really doesn’t. “The crooked King, furioso. Promised to buy the land from Camelia, swearing she would be a widow sure enough if she didn’t marry his son, how dare she? Maybe it was the Irishred hair in her genes, quién sabe. Camelia, dicen, was stubborn. Raised like a man, to think like a man. Dangerous, proud of be-

26  bárbara renaud gonzález

ing smart, dicen. Didn’t hide it. There are women like that in the world, but not many.” They keep walking, splashing. Lázaro picks up a black-brown concha, caresses its smoothness and ridges. Gives it to Amada to hold. “See, Camelia was a rebel. And she paid for that, our whole family has paid. That’s why we’re so mean, have I told you, my father and his two brothers were an ornery bunch, running around with a .30-30 and a pistol leather-strapped to their hips. They had horses then. Nobody crossed them. Nobody! Story is, that my oldest uncle, Gualberto, killed los hermanos Russell, caught them trying to steal some game from the King Ranch. Just like that. Tío Gualberto was a fence-rider, you see, and he guarded the boundary lines. Damn good at it. Siempre traía carabina y pistola.” Parrrrrrrishshuuuu. Kildir, kildir. A flock of sandpipers and harlequin-faced killdeer rises from the water, crossing the tissuelight moon in the horizon. “Well, the story is that some women heard the shots one morning, how can you miss that on a rancho when the only sound you hear is the rattlesnake scratching its back? Anyway, the next thing you know these women see my uncle Wale, that’s what we called Gualberto, riding across the property, high and mighty proud as always. On his way to the cowboys’ chuckwagon. The next day, two bodies were found where my uncle was seen riding. Qué coincidencia, ¿eh? Nobody dared say anything, that’s how afraid everyone was of him.” Lázaro throws the delicate, flower-pocked sand dollar out to the sea. There are thousands more of these coinlike disks all over the beach. “Tío Wale. He was one mean sonofabitch. Don’t tell anyone, and then there’s the story of how Camelia became a puta, but don’t tell anyone that either. Five kids she had, my grandfather the oldest son, and the others came from other men after she was widowed. Se encuentra atrás de la puerta. Mamá said Camelia

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  27

was, chula, chula. Even in her mature years, she had a wild look about her, and I saw this even as a boy. She’s the one who named me, and told me stories, whispering everything, sometimes I hear her in the strangest places, like if she was still alive, ¿sabes? I guess that my own papá andaba de caliente también, because he jumped the fence too when I was grown up already and he was an old man. With the next-door neighbor, a married woman named Luna. I remember she had two beauty moles, one on each side of her mouth, like some movie star, don’t know what happened to her or the baby she had some months later. I was already in the Phillipines, but the real world war broke out at home when my mother found out. ¡Dios mío! My sisters dicen que Mamá went to get the rifle. My tiny mother, who couldn’t write a “Z,” who was thirteen when she married, tried to kill him in front of her own children! Can you imagine getting a letter like that in a foxhole?” Lázaro laughs with admiration for his mother this once. “How my parents wrestled, dicen que my mother fought like a soldier at Normandy, hand-to-hand combat I’m telling you!” He turns to face Amada, mimicking the fight, the rising sun infusing a rose-tinted aura on his movements. “Too late, Mamá got the rifle before he could stop her, and it was loaded and POW! It went off, my mother barely missed his head, shattering the door, she was kicking and cussing in frustration, hissing, aiming the rifle again, but he was moving too much, and she was crying because she had to reload! Papá crawls out from behind the table and chairs, bobbing and weaving as she slams bullets, swearing, in the cartridge, Papá begging in front of all my brothers and sisters! ¡Por amor de Dios! But Mamá lifts the rifle. ¡Hijo de puta! She misses — she never was a good shot — so she begins to beat him with it, throwing all six feet of him to the ground — es lo que dicen — pushing him around with the barrel, shoving him outside — it was raining, and she was screaming like those Japanese did that hara-kiri yell, only with the rifle instead of a sword, ordering him to sleep out there like the pig he is. Slams what was left of the door on him, and Papá embarrassed in front of the fa28  bárbara renaud gonzález

milia, but he never hits her back! ¡Soy hombre! That’s all he kept saying, dicen. ¡Soy hombre! I’m a man! Over and over, from outside the house. Of course he came back covered with mud the next morning, and everybody was laughing but hiding it, so he wouldn’t hear.” He coughs with the memory of it, and Amada shakes her head, laughing along with him, even the waves are laughing, “¡Ay no, Lázaro, mientes!” But she knows it doesn’t matter if it really happened or not, that Lázaro is telling her he doesn’t approve of the kind of man his father was. “Like I said, the woman named Moon? Don’t know what happened to the baby. She had a boy, dicen.” Amada thinks of her Salomé when he says that, thinking how the moon watches over her daughter, blesses her one more time. And she remembers the moon that first night in Monterrey after she’d left her little girl behind, and how different Jorge is from Lázaro. Jorge kissed her when she arrived at the train station, kissing her like there were a thousand monarcas in the sky, one butterfly after another alighting on her lips, a thousand wings of gold and black, sun and darkest night, taking her far away, where a kiss between a man and a woman is an impossible fruit. A great blue heron, fluffing its long neck in the wind, launches its capelike wings toward the sun. Amada and Lázaro walk hand in hand again, their toes playing with the patterns of the waves, as the moon evaporates in the incandescent pink-and-orange fire of morning. Lázaro keeps on talking, never asks Amada about her life. Maybe he doesn’t want to know, she thinks. Anyway, she’s dreaming how she will love him so much that he’s bound to forget the land he lost. She will be his land, and their children a country brimming with love, a land no one can take from them, isn’t that what a family is about?

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  29

34 Tomorrow I leave this fucking land. On this last, perfect day, Amada takes Salomé everywhere in her stroller, so she will remember. Dresses her in lilac and pink, with matching ruffled panties, a crocheted hat, lacy socks, and even a little straw purse that she hangs off her little girl’s shoulder with a bright yellow satin ribbon. What a beautiful baby she is! She walks down Carranza so everyone can admire her baby girl, the baby’s skin glowing like a dark pearl, if they only knew. She sees the children chasing the pigeons under the fountain of the Plaza de Armas. Why are they are always running after them, even though they can never catch one? And the balloons! Emerald tigers, purple-blue lions, tangerine snakes, red sharks, turquoise-and-gold-striped globos, will Sapo bring her to look at them? And the fat clowns with their baby clowns that make her little girl laugh? Will he? Will my daughter remember me, or will she forget me? Mami, mira. Mami, I want . . . Mami, mami mami mami mami mami. ¡Mami! The plaza’s children ask for balloons, candy, puppets, they want to catch the bubbles from the soap-water bottle that the old man blows their way. The big bubbles are the size of Salomé’s face, and her eyes laugh at the blue of the sky, delighted at seeing all of this world suspended in a few drops of water. How the little girl laughs! Screams with happiness! Amada buys an ice cream cone of chocolate and macademia nuts for them to share. Ay, how Salomé tries scooping it with her little spoon, smearing her dress and hands with la nieve. But Amada doesn’t care. Seño, ayúdame. The beggars. The man with the forty mockingbird calls whistles his songs for her daughter, and mijita’s chubby hands clap-clap when she hears his piccolo music, one song after the other. She gives him all her change, every centavo, and he

30  bárbara renaud gonzález

responds after seeing what she leaves in his upturned sombrero. “God will take care of you, help you, and favor you.” Seño, ayúdame. There was an old woman hunched over with a bundle of wooden toys on her back, her rebozo jaspeado tying everything together in that expert way they know how, on Morelos. There was a campesino with baskets roped to his waist and back, and a paraplegic shuffling through the street using only his arms. Seño. And there was a crazy man, filthy rags and blanket covering him even in the heat of the day. Seño. And the retarded girl at the Alameda thanks her too, drooling with gracias. She gives them all her pesos, just to hear them say, “May God grant all your wishes.” Amada needs their blessings for what she is about to do.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  31

34 She would be at the border by spring. Amada planned to work night and day in the north, live on tortillas and chile if she had to, whatever it took to return with fistfuls of dólares and buy her daughter back from Sapo, who would divorce her the minute she left, that she knew. She was not afraid of him anymore, she would show him, all of them, what this stupid good-fornothing — whore — was capable of. Sapo believed he was rich because he deserved it, always laughing at her pobrezas. To him she was nothing more than a slave, a servant, a prostitute. That’s what a wife is, she realized. Well, never again. The gringos hate us Mexicans, she heard Sapo say a million times. But Sapo hated her in the same way. His rich friends hated her too. The light-skinned mexicanos hated her, even her own mother hated her because she was born with that telltale blotch of purple on the sole of her left foot, the Indian stain, proof she was from those people who refused to die, those people almost everyone came from but wanted to forget, and couldn’t because their mothers were Indians too. Mexico seemed to be full of hating. Maybe that’s why we have so many lovesongs, and the men are drinking all the time, she thinks. Except for her father, who loved her mother for being india and was despised in return for that. Her papá loved her so much he let her marry Sapo, and Amada hated him for loving her enough to let her go. It’s all that hating that makes us poorer, maybe that’s the problem with Mexico, she thinks. If we loved each other more, we would be richer, this is our punishment. I want, I want love, her heart beat its fists under her skin, let me go, let me go! What must it be like to have amor, every day? How much more hate could there possibly be in the north that she hadn’t felt already? In school she learned that everyone in the United States was equal, that’s what their constitution said. Even if they’d stolen 32  bárbara renaud gonzález

Texas, well, maybe Mexico deserved it for what they did to the people with the purple stain. Our constitution says many good things too, she thought. But men seem to have a hard time living according to what they write down on paper. Quizás. Her dreams keep her up at night, waking her with even more questions. Maybe the Jorge from her dreams was waiting for her over there, quizás. Maybe he wouldn’t care that she was divorced and had a child and he would help her return for Salomé, loving her that much and her daughter too, loving her despite her poor education and humble background and Indian-face, because she really was a decent woman with hardworking hands. Come so that they can tell you a little of your luck, something of importance . . . come here, seño, don’t you want them to tell you something of your business, trips, luck, love? The birds of fortune divine everything, they know everything, they will pull out your secrets: one, two, how many do you have, and for only a few pesos . . . Amada writes all this in her journal that night, she has to explain what is happening to her, even if she doesn’t know herself. The man dressed as a jarocho in his white cotton shirt and pants with the traditional bandanna tied around his neck invited Amada to come see his canaries ring the little bell outside their wooden cage, to place a tiny sombrero on a tinier doll, and to pluck colored papers folded into one-inch squares that tell a person’s fortune. Ándale, Cuchifleta. The jarocho takes some seed out between his thumb and forefinger, and the butter-yellow canary walks out. After the bird picks four squares, the merchant places them in her hand very carefully, giving Amada a tinfoil-wrapped one that Cuchifleta has pulled out, and tells her to read them at home with much attention, consideration, and then she must burn them so that her wishes will all come true. Golondrina, why did you leave me?  33

Amada writes in the early-morning hours after Sapo is asleep and she’s tucked her daughter in bed alongside her favorite cloth doll, listing all her wishes in the journal before she burns the canary’s papers, then burns everything she has written. Wish that Salomé grows up to be a better woman than me. Wish that Salomé finds the love that I don’t have. I want to give her that chance. With the few pesos she takes from Sapo’s pockets, Amada fills her brassiere, along with the other pesos she’s been saving from grocery money for months, locks shut the one leather suitcase she’s stealing from him, slips off her gold wedding band, sets it on the kitchen table, where it dissolves in the dark, a sun without light. Wish that my father stops drinking. Wish that my mother doesn’t have to work so hard, so that she smiles again. Wish that my sisters forgive me. Please. Wish that I wasn’t married. Well, I’m not after tonight. Wish that I wasn’t poor, and with God’s help, I won’t be. Wish that I stay healthy, so that I can work hard, day and night, whatever it takes, and make money and when I return Wish that Salomé doesn’t forget me Wish that my family loves me more And forgives me Because I love them I Love, I love I love you, Salomé I will give you all the love you deserve Even if you don’t love me That’s how much I love you.

34  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 On the train toward Saltillo, Amada tries to sleep, waking to anxiety, then a wild, somersaulting, electric joy at her runningaway freedom, then a fierce trepidation if she’s caught, soothed only by the womblike tunnel of the Sierra Madre mountain range. She prays for her daughter, assuring herself that her daughter will soon be with Sapo’s family, and she’s intensely jealous of their custody, her maternal pride at odds with fire-hot defiance of all they represent, because they have money but she, Amada, has something far more important. She has intelligence, courage, and beauty on her side, ¿verdad? Then her hunger for Jorge, romance, the delight of finally biting all those forbidden apples helps her forget the previous tumult, as the mountain’s rock walls reflect the colors of her deepest desires — indigo, burnt umber, sienna, coral red, goldenrod, carmine — as her long night finally becomes day. “Un café, por favor.” The waitress comes into the first-class seats in the early morning. Peñasco, Pinto, Boca, Enamorada. The train stops at every village, and that particular feeling of not knowing what’s going to happen, that not-belonging to anyone or anywhere, gives her spine-tingling pleasure. Moctezuma, Venado, Los Charcos. She looks at her map in vain to locate the towns the train is passing, not seeing them, wanting to leave something of herself behind, to capture this surreal journey forever. Laguna Seca, Berrendo, La Maroma, Wadley, Catorce, Poblazón, Vangas, La Trueba. Are there other young girls like me wanting to escape, Amada wonders, they must be everywhere, she can’t be the first one, though she feels like she’s creating a never-written letter of the alphabet. San Viento, El Salado, Lulú, San Salvador, La Ventura. Together, the cities make a poem written by women who are running away. Santa Elena, Gómez Farías, Oro, Careros, Encantada.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  35

Amada closes her eyes, finally, dreaming how she will tell Salomé everything when she’s a grown woman, and both are sitting around the kitchen table, laughing at their happy ending. God is a lie, Amada whispers in Saltillo that night. The divine truth is the heart speaking, and she listens because she knows it must be the only way to be free. God is in Jorge’s fingers, following the silver hoops in her ears, wrapping a strand of her long black hair, pulling it and her to his lips. God exists in the way Jorge’s hands trace the hem of her dress like a blind man reading Braille. God is the hunger between them, an infinite, boundless, predestined, savage, shared history, a war waged in order to surrender to another. Did he carry her to the bed? When did they take a bath together? She doesn’t remember in the after-trance, only that now she knows how the roses bloom after a storm, what it is to glisten, how petals sip the first drops of rain, how they drink and drink and still want more, their petals and awestruck stems transformed into beings of velvet grace, their thorns into soft chocolate kisses. After Saltillo, two more nights in Monterrey with Jorge. Amada’s head aches, her body feels inside out, tender, a blood-red orchid. She lives in a kind of faint, drugged by the smell of anise, clove, pepper, and lime, a shipwrecked sailor who’s discovered a new world. But it’s going to cost, Amada tells herself in her fresh wisdom. She’s different now, and there’s no going back, no rewards that you can see for her kind of bravery. No medals, no promises, loneliness, no happy ending. It’s all right, she consoles herself after Jorge leaves for his business meetings. It’s all right, love is what I want, and I’m not afraid to stop searching for it now. Jorge’s promised to take her to the famous Horsetail waterfalls, after his business is finished. He’s told her there aren’t any mountains al norte, a few hours north of here. No mountains? How is that possible? She doesn’t believe him. On the last night

36  bárbara renaud gonzález

with him, she dreams she’s giving birth. When she reaches for her newborn slipping from between her legs, the baby girl becomes a bird, pecking at the cord tying them together, sprouting wings, purple-tipped, and flies away.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  37

34 If only she were a mariposa, so that she could find Lázaro. Amada walks alongside the river, another Sunday afternoon, in the shadows of the mission town of Goliad where Lázaro brought her to live after the honeymoon, escaping his sisters, finding another man’s land to work. He’s the kind of man who works, and that’s all, Amada’s learned in their first years of marriage. They live alone, their two-room cottage miles away from the mission, and she doesn’t know how to drive. Lázaro refuses to teach her, tells her she’s too short to reach the steering wheel anyway. “What if something happened?” He forgets that the other day she killed a rattlesnake curled up in the casita, a baby rattler. Amada calmly slipped her panties back on and went to get the shotgun, making jokes about it later. She’s alone again. Lázaro drives away in the truck to play baseball, his only day off, not returning till midnight. He never invites her. And now he’s getting tired of waiting, no children. What’s wrong with her? They aren’t getting any younger, he’s thirty-three, he keeps reminding her. “I’m a man, where are my sons?” They never talk about that other child — better to pretend she doesn’t exist — but in whose name Amada dedicates all the butterflies that Lázaro knows but doesn’t see. Sleepy orange. Yellowblack gingham. Rosa porcelain. Painted Princess. A rare Yellow Salomé with black lace borders and inkdrops. Walking, Amada names the butterflies. Some are familiar, some silver-fringed, like the sunflowers and bull nettles growing along the river while the bald cypress shades her from the sun, each leaf wide and thick as her husband’s always-calloused hands. The river’s edge sparkles with blue and lavender lantana fluttering like party dresses on the verge of jumping into the murky green river. Such prettiness of wildflowers, she thinks, 38  bárbara renaud gonzález

deserving a dance and no one to see them. Lázaro doesn’t like to dance, she reminds herself, as the shadows of willow trees feather sunlight into dark butterflies on her twenty-three-yearold face. Green water, green breeze, this is why the Spaniards settled here, Amada muses. Fifty miles from the Gulf of Mexico and four hours north of the border, the gray sandstone missions were the first thing she wanted to see when Lázaro brought her here five years ago, especially after he told her that more gringos had been massacred by the mexicanos here than even at the Alamo. He thought such knowledge would shame her somehow, would keep her quiet when she started talking back to him. He doesn’t like her asking so many questions, hungry to know, a seesaw of too much happy or sad. But Amada clings to the Presidio de la Bahía de Goliad, as it’s called by those descendants who welcomed her to their home. They haven’t given up hope, and they lost their land too, like Lázaro. The few women she’s befriended, Amparo, Mercedes, Belpré, offer their own herbal recipes for starting children. They’ve given her potions, soups, teas, broths, and secret womanly words to be whispered the next time she’s with Lázaro. When that doesn’t work as the years slip by, then it’s a limpia, menstrual blood, and twilight. Then rattlesnake skins at dawn. Then longer hair, shorter hair, more liver, chicken-bone marrow and wild spinach, solstice stones and rock hearts for an altar on her little porch. And no, Lázaro has no time for picnics inside the stone walls of the fortress, much less praying in its chapel, holding hands, or gazing at the moon looming like a ghost over their lives, a ghost that only comes out at night wanting some food. He never kisses me, Amada tells the river. Like el otro in Monterrey, as if it was yesterday. His back isn’t like Jorge’s, and he doesn’t let me wash it, or run my fingers between his thighs. But he’s a good man, taller, she says to the grass, its soft swishing cool against her skin. His arms can carry Golondrina, why did you leave me?  39

me from the tractor to the house without missing a step, but I still want a kiss. I want his hands to caress mine, just once, to savor me, to glory in my womanness, to search for me on my untouched wrist, to thumb the pulse of my veins from their source to the beginning of that child waiting to be born. She keeps walking, rubbing her arms, burning from the shackles that she’s let him put on her. What have I done for a little love, I thought it would be so different. At night sometimes we’re just two parts in his toolbox, she sighs, but she wants to sob. We’re like metal and gray fierros, greasy and dirty. And he takes a bath right after. Not like Jorge that time in Monterrey. Not like Jorge licking my blood with his tongue, saying he liked the taste of gunpowder, the smell of buried treasure, relishing the crimson stains on his white shirt and sheets. In his arms, I was a silk scarf to be unveiled, and with Lázaro I’m just a rag to wipe off his sweat. The river sleeps in the heat of the afternoon, while the cottonwood and sycamore trees give shade as she sits down, wondering why these men are so different, why she is so afraid to not be loved by one of them. When Amada tells Lázaro late that night she’s pregnant, he throws his working-man’s cap at the moon outside their house in celebration. He wants a son.

40  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 Tomorrow, Jorge will take Amada to the border, to Matamoros. Amada walks all day in the steamy, too-heavy suffocating coat of this strange March weather, so different from the cool-stone air of San Luis. De tin marín De do pingüé, Cúcara mácara, Títere fue. Yo no fui, fue teté, pégale, pégale que ella fue. A children’s song chimes in her head, like a silver bracelet tinkling with too many charms. En el agua clara, que brota en fuente, un lindo pescadito, sale de repente. Why does the little fish want to escape? Why do people not want to let you go? Lindo pescadito, no quiere salir, a jugar con mi aro, vamos al jardín. She’s the little fish that wants to jump out of the fountain. Lindo pescadito, mi mamá me ha dicho no salgas de aquí, porque si te sales, te vas a morir. But what’s it really like outside the fountain? Will the little fish really die if it goes? No. This is what it feels like to be free, this is why the prison we call society keeps us inside, safe. No. This is what it feels like, what I’ve been waiting for. I will be alone, once I cross the border. Who will marry me now? Who will love me? What will happen to me? Can a fish learn to walk? Monterrey, a mountain city of lechuguilla, cenizo, mesquite, and retama, a cathedral, a palacio, a teatro, a beer factory, a horse’s watery tail, a museo, invites her to dance, prancing and preening

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  41

with the mariachi music of her gran plazas. But it’s the child’s song about fish, the one she liked singing to Salomé in the mornings, that she sings all day long, on that last day in Monterrey.

42  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 Amada! So it was true what the women said, it was a sighing, a music of wind and water, a jasmine-note of a voice echoing her name with such tenderness that no man could have held her unless she wanted him. Your song is so tender, you make me weep. But you have wings to fly. That’s all. She hadn’t wanted to believe, but it was true! There it was, the holy ahuehuete, rising above the olmos, its trunk wider than the dozen women trying to encircle it, hidden in the thicket of pecan and mesquite where the watery twigs of the Guadalupe and San Marcos Rivers embrace on their way to the Gulf, a mother’s daughters coming home at last. Amada’s comadres have told her about the tree’s powers many times, but she’s stubborn and keeps believing in Lázaro. Until he starts working on other ranchos far away, leaving her alone for days with their two young daughters, five-year-old Lucero and Justicia, who’s barely two. Lázaro complains he’s not a man because where are his sons? Why does he have only girls who will run away with the first pelado who proposes? Amada says no, no, mis hijitas are going to be different, promises that the next child will carry his name. Felicia, Purita, María Inocencia, they’ve all been to the tree. United in their husband troubles, they tell Amada about writing their petitions on slips of paper, tying them to the tree with colored yarn, so that the tree’s teary branchlets and needle points seem to be crying red and blue and purple tears. The seventeenyear-old Milagro had even wrapped her firstborn’s umbilical cord with a yellow ribbon and tied it to the tree, giving thanks for his fat cheeks and legs, everything in its place thanks be to God. Lázaro warns her it’s not possible, that the Mexican cypress, as he calls it, just doesn’t grow this far north. But what does he Golondrina, why did you leave me?  43

know. Something is happening to Amada, she can’t stay quiet anymore — and it makes Lázaro so angry he finds more work at other ranchos — and how can she be silent once he returns when her whole life is her two little daughters, no car, no telephone, and just the radio for company? Lázaro strides in the house with briars and white paint speckling his curly hair, goat-smelling, his big hands a stigmata of cuts, sometimes his eyes blinking hard from the welding torch’s flame, or spitting out powdery webs and bits of old tacos caught in his straight white teeth. Famished, but not for her, never for her. Tells stories about the fencing or roofing or painting jobs he’s taken at the neighboring ranchos now that the harvest is over. Another bad year, they need the money. And now, another baby coming. One of the older women, the hazel-eyed midwife, Antonietta, takes her and the babies to visit the tree right after Lázaro drives away one Saturday in la colorada, his red pickup. Amada doesn’t want to believe the tree, but something in her tells her not to believe Lázaro’s reasons for being gone all the time, even if he brings evidence and a few dollars back with him each time. And she’s afraid too, what if the tree tells her the truth, then what will she do? If she closes her eyes and forgets the bad things Lázaro says to her, she remembers how brutally hard he works and how his joking and long-legged masculinity make her want to dance with him. Maybe there’s hope for them, maybe one day soon . . . “Does Lázaro love me?” Amada approaches the tree’s convoluted trunk, rubbing her hands over one of its many knobby knees that extend in knobby ripples to the stream where some of the women are bathing. “Put your ear on the trunk, ándale, ’Madita!” Chencha yells from the other side of the tree, where she’s holding Amada’s daughters, she’s been here many times. “¡Escucha!” Felicia explains the tree’s powers come from La Virgen de Guadalupe, that this is a holy tree like the one in Mexico, and 44  bárbara renaud gonzález

“pos, wasn’t the tree discovered where two of the river-saints meet?” Amada is skeptical at first, but las comadres have told her about wishes granted and miracles, just listen with an open heart, they say. A mother cured from lung cancer. A baby saved after meningitis. A son returned from the war, another from prison. A husband confesses an affair, begs forgiveness. A new baby brings them together again. It was said the poultice from the boiled leaves healed wounds, leaving no scars. So Amada prays alongside her comadres to the spirit in the tree, a goddess, Felicia says. But to Amada, the tree has a spirit that takes her to the place of dreams, that place men don’t understand, a place more powerful than a new truck or the dollars in their back pocket. Later, as she splashes in the river, laughing at la loca Artemisa, she admires the way the gleaming Indian-red leaves adorn her friend’s unbuttoned white blouse and unbraided thick hair, a kind of autumnal crown that her niñas brush through with their little fingers. On the ride home, Amada is finally dreaming with her eyes open. It’s been a long time. She heard the answer from the ahuehuete, and her wings are beating, telling her it’s time to fly.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  45


3 part

two 4

What home are you seeking with your untiring wings?

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  47


34 “¡Apúrale, vieja!” Daddy yells at Mami. “Two days and one night,” he says. He stands outside with me, Lucero, five years old and wide awake beside him, the weather clean and blue as jeans hanging on the clothesline. Everything’s packed, we’re leaving behind the washing machine, the refrigerator, the stove, no room in the back of the colorada. No room. We’re goin’ pa’ California! “¡Acuérdate del sacrifice!” Daddy booms out to me and my sister Justicia, all those pinche loans he made to get them for the family, but he’s strong-strong, whistling Dixie anyway, saying, “Wait, van a ver, huercas, the air on the frontera where we’re going es tan puro that not even the devil can catch me today.” More whistling, and for sure me and Justicia know he’s happy, ’cause he’s pretending to be Johnny Cash, heeeey, good-lookin’, what’s about cookin’ something up for me. “Lázaro!” Mami yells. “And the sofa?” Now he’s lifting the mattresses, chairs, and kitchen table all by himself, roping them in the pickup with Mami’s homemade quilts, pushing, stacking boxes filled with the coffeepot, the white Corning Ware dishes with the blue cornflowers Mami bought one by one, the big comal for tortillas, the molcajete for salsa, Daddy’s tools, a can of nails, the iron bedposts, shoes, clothes, tablecloths, towels, sheets, one favorite toy. “¡Nomás lo importante!” Mami yells. The crib, because the stork is coming, and gotta be ready. But there’s no room. Where? More cussing from Daddy. Coats and cooler in the space behind the front seat. Daddy’s rifles hanging on the window like always. Just in case! Last night, Mami stayed up cooking dozens of bean and chicken tacos, wrapping them still warm in foil to eat on the way. Oatmeal cookies, too. My two-year-old sister, Justicia, is on Mami’s lap, and me in between Daddy and them as usual because I’m a

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  49

big girl. We’re all cozy inside the colorada, tuned up, waxed and shining like a red stoplight. Only we’re going. Everyone is real quiet from so much rushing the days before getting ready and now it’s finally happening. “California or Bust!” Daddy says, honking the horn as we leave. Don’t know where that is, only that Mami says when you see the mountains it’s like breathing eternity, but what does that mean. Heading for a town called Fresno, where everyone is going, all of Daddy’s friends there already, waiting for us. We started leaving ever since the holy tree spoke to Mami, something I’m not supposed to tell Daddy. Mami started crying again after another long weekend he was working away, and then saying “no more, no more, ya no aguanto” over and over when she saw him coming late as she was washing the dishes. And him telling her that the bossman didn’t pay him, promising that next time, can’t you see times are tight, vieja, and when he called her old woman — because that’s what men call their wives — this time Mami didn’t like it, and that’s when the corajes began. First she tried to slap him for insulting her, but he grabbed her wrist right before and that’s when she started punching him on the chest and calling him names I’d never heard, then while she tried to break away from him, kicking him, she fell, or tripped, I don’t know. Mami yelling on the way down to the floor that she’s leaving, leaving, “Ya se acabó esto, Lázaro,” saying she’s taking me and Justicia: “Te voy a dejar solo, te lo juro,” no matter there’s a baby on the way. A lightning storm of screaming and roaring from deep in her tripas so she just can’t stand up, tears and sticky mocos running down her lips and neck. “Lázaro, deja el rancho, vámonos al pueblo, por el amor de Dios.” Daddy just clapping, announcing to me and Justicia watching real quiet from the living room, “And the winner of the Oscar for Best Dramatic Performance, goes to none other than,” and then he looks down to Mami, his hand up in the air like he’s holding that television trophy, “The winner for this year’s Oscar goes to Amada de Mierda, verdad, mijitas?” 50  bárbara renaud gonzález

Then he tries to walk away with Mami still holding on to his legs, him rolling his eyes, stepping over her anyway, dragging her until she lets go, leaving her facedown on the floor with her dress bunched up so that her white maternity chones are showing with the stretch top all stretched out, her belly button popping out and Daddy making jokes, trying to be funny from the other side of the kitchen, serving himself a cup of coffee and saying he’s a man of the country and there’s “no way in hell, me, live in town? And do whaaat? And keep God out of this, the last thing I need is that potato-head and his Church.” That’s what Daddy calls the Pope because his name means potato en inglés. “He’s nothing but a pinche potato-head, qué me crees, vieja?” Daddy isn’t really Catholic, and makes fun of the saints and confessions. That’s why Mami could never tell him about the tree, because he was always saying the Catholic Church was one big mentira, but we kept going to mass every Sunday with the comadres, and though he’s always complaining about having to go when he’s in town, he sure scoops up the enchiladas and peach cobbler at the comidas after. The day after Mami’s coraje Daddy announces we’re going to California. Whoooee! San Antonio is the first big city and the most important Daddy says we’re going to cross in a few hours. We’re traveling the old Camino Real pretty much, he says. “The old Indian trail that the Spaniards took, ¡fíjate nomás!” “Pajarito Creek!” Daddy’s whistling little swallow songs as we pass it because that’s how the creek got its name. “Those little birds como las viejas,” he adds, glancing at Mami, “flying around and chismoliando all day.” Mami gives him a look. We stop at Calaveras Creek to eat our morning tacos. Mami says the gringos probably named it skeletons after what happened at the Alamo. “’Tás loca!” such a crazy woman, Daddy says, “Quit making a ’scándalo out of everything, they just like the word, vieja, and how do you know the mexicanos didn’t name Golondrina, why did you leave me?  51

it, you people love to name places after immaculate conceptions and devils and ghosts, for the love of God!” Anyway, he says that here in Texas, you scratch a gringo hard enough, there’s a Mexican woman whose language he can’t forget, even if he never understood what the hell she was saying. Because Daddy’s happy and it’s still morning, Mami makes Daddy detour at the limestone caves between San Antonio and San Marcos where we get to walk down, down rocky steps to the underground caves of giant ice needles, everything dripping with cold, our hands slippery from the wet stone walls, like we’ve just crash-landed on a planet. Everything is the color of raw, and there’s a pool with a rope around it, and it’s getting darker and darker as we keep going down and around and that’s when my little sister starts chillando, so Daddy yells out “¡Vámonos, huercas cabronas!” Texas used to be underwater, he starts explaining in the car, and Mami convinces him to stop at the Guadalupe River so we can see something called the rapids, where the river is a train made of water and waves rushing past us, over and around big rocks called boulders, not smooth and quiet like it is by the time it becomes our river back home. Daddy complains “This is no vacation trip, vieja,” that we have to get to Del Rio by the evening where there are friends to stay the night. But first we have to get through San Antonio, and Mami’s real excited, looking for Radio Jalapeño on the radio. “¡Oye, Valerio!” His accordion is her favorito, and to me it sounds like Daddy when he’s saying something in Spanish but she can’t understand, parrrrrrrripipipi? Or when Mami tries words in inglés, and it comes out like parrrri umph parrrip poom? I think the accordion must be trying to say something too, only the words are so new, like my little sister Justicia with her soft parrrrriuuuu pa-pa that we don’t understand the steam coming out of the accordion’s mouth or why it’s crying or why sometimes it sounds like somebody’s been yelling at it, saying that you’re nothing, but somehow the accordion is trying to say that it is. Over and over and over. “¡Qué ciudad tan bonita!” Daddy and Mami are both point52  bárbara renaud gonzález

ing this way and that as we’re getting closer to the city, so many cars and trucks going fast on the highway, the biggest city ever. Daddy points to where the Alamo is, though we can’t see it because we’re on the highway and going to turn west soon he says, and Mami saying how important people here have streets named after them and how everyone speaks español here. Even the gringos. “They have a street named for all the pecans, Nogalitos! You know the kinds?” Daddy’s excited about driving by Fort Sam Houston, where he trained in World War II. “Híjole, I had the best pecan pie here, que saben ustedes? Best pecans in the world! Caddo, Cheyenne, Choctaw, aver, Kiowa, Shawnee, natives!” “Just like us!” Mami’s smiling, and Daddy quickly gives her his own kind of look. Tanto talento local le llevamos el mensaje en forma muy especial, yeaaaa! Parrripipí, cantamos nuestras canciones con bastante corazón . . . parrripipipáaaarrri, jea! Even though Justicia’s almost two, she still acts like a baby, playing with her doll on Mami’s lap and sleeping, so I’m listening for both of us. Mami starts telling me about the missions here, how the Alamo was the first one, because of the river. Daddy says that’s why the military bases are here too, because of the Alamo. “But the Mexicans were here first, Lázaro.” The accordion parrrrripíing and boompabooming all the way on the road curving round the hills of San Antonio west to Del Rio, and it’s a sunshiney day because the cold fronts never make it this far, Daddy says, “All that frío from Alaska? By the time it gets here, nomás un gust.” In between translating the árboles into English for Mami, “¿Encino? ¿Cómo que no sabes todavía, vieja? Es un live oak.” Daddy says that the white-tailed deer and wild turkeys where he comes from love them. “¿Huisache? Acacia. So many kinds, ese es catclaw because of the thorns, they’re all over, different flowers depending and that’s why the cattle like it, and the bees too. Seen the javelinas eat the fruit como frijolitos rojos in the chapGolondrina, why did you leave me?  53

arral.” And Mami’s asking him why people don’t know in these towns their streets are named for Mexican flowers like altamisa, margarita, reina? Flowers embroidered by her mother on pillowcases for a good dream, she says. A whole day’s work. “Look, Veracruz!” she points to the street sign as we go through the downtown streets of Uvalde. She starts talking about the danzón. “How I wish you could see it, Lázaro, and how I wish las niñas could see the way the people come together to dance in the plaza, there beside the sound of the waves.” And Daddy says what could be better than living right here where there are so many rivers, vieja! “A quién chingaos le importa ese mentao dancing in all that poverty? ¡Por favor! This is Texas! Fifteen rivers! Nueces! Leona! Sabinal! Frio! Devil! Pecos! Now give me the map!” Daddy grabs the thick folds from Mami’s hands. “What’s the name of the other one?” The wrinkling paper competes with his reciting. “Seco Frio! That’s it! ‘Dry Cold,’ what a name, huh? The only dancing we aim to do here’s when we get our nalgas picadas by thorns and chased down by rattlesnakes, por favor!” “¡No exageres, Lázaro!” Mami knows he’s telling tall tales, but it makes her laugh. Daddy reminds Mami she has to learn “¡inglés, mujer, inglés!” in his own made-up language that’s like so many rivers of words flowing into each other. Mami says it’s sure not español, yet she’s told her comadres he speaks it real well for someone who wasn’t born in Mexico — thanks to her, of course. The next day in the morning after we’ve said good-bye to the preacher and his wife, hermanos of the Goliad Primera Baptist Church that Mami wanted to go to but Daddy said never, she makes him stop at the San Felipe Springs, where the water from the caves in San Marcos comes from so far away, sparkling still, as Daddy keeps lecturing. Maybe it’s because me and Justicia are splashing our bare feet in the cold water, and Mami’s smiling at something he said, because we’re laughing and because, I don’t know, Daddy doesn’t have to go to work today and we’re the only ones at the park this 54  bárbara renaud gonzález

early in the morning. And the sky is like the blue inside one of Mami’s porch roses, so soft it seems like we’re dreaming, a real good dream, even though Daddy’s here and he yells a lot, but it’s so good to have him around, today anyway. That’s when he gets the idea to take the long way to El Paso, following the river, through the Big Bend country! “Ya es tiempo, vieja, vamos pa’ California y qué nos cuesta unas horas mas? Look at my mijas playing! OK, everybody in the truck,” he says, slapping la colorada’s roof, “we’re about to see some real live mountains!” And sure enough, the rocks start to get higher, like giant pieces of gray-streaked marbles from the inside out. “Dinosaurs walked right here,” he says as we go over the bridge of the Pecos River, then the canyon where he says there are rocks with Indian paintings and we want to go see them but he says there’s no time. “But where did the Indians go?” “To Mexico,” Daddy says. “They went to build the pyramids over there.” “Lázaro!” Mami’s turn to roll her eyes. “Tell the girls la verdad!” The road is that letter S Mami’s taught me, one after another, and la colorada is like riding a red star in a blue sky where brown mountains rise like old bread split open to be shared from the earth all the way to the egg-white clouds, and I know that on the next curve, for sure I can touch one, my fingers tingling to touch just one, but it’s like chasing fireflies. We see funnylooking cactus, different with pink and orange and white flowers, stumpy, not big like the nopales we know, and strawberry pink. Pitaya, Mami recognizes it from the one in Mexico, sighing and wishing. “Why should we go there?” Daddy jokes. “God lives in Texas, remember!” When it’s my turn to sit on Mami’s lap and Justicia gets the middle between Mami and Daddy, I reach my arms out the window to touch the mountains, sure that they’re on fire without Golondrina, why did you leave me?  55

burning, and the truck is turning bluer and bluer from the sun leaving the mountains on its way to California too, Daddy says, and the only white is the diaper that Mami uses to wipe the windshield clean from all the sand outside. Then Daddy says that Indians came right through here long ago and if you squint you can see them in the haze of the day, and Mami says that up there is where the rainbows live, waiting for God to tell them where to go when it’s raining.

56  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 “Mira. Look at this fucking land, ’Madita.” Jorge’s green eyes frown at the barren landscape, a brown that’s lost its red, or purple, or the blue that gives it life. Amada and Jorge are on their way from Monterrey to the border, and the land is flat, as if ironed by the sun, the trees smaller, gnarling into the earth for moisture, stubborn and prickly. Amada is shocked, they look familiar, like poor depressed relatives of the lush pines and elms of her home. She wonders why they’re so much rougher and jaundiced than the ones in San Luis. Only the cottonwood, el álamo, seems strong enough to be here, its leaves resilient, taking the green from the others as if commanding them, keeping up appearances amid the poverty of so much brown. “There’s nothing here.” Jorge scorns the early summer heat of March, which he knows is typical of this land. “If you think this is bad, wait till you see what’s on the other side.” “It can’t be worse than what I’ve already seen.” Amada refuses to give up, senses that Jorge wants her to break down, to admit to something, when she knows he wants her to cross the border because he can’t. Though he wants to. Jorge changes the subject. You can thank our sonofaputa presidente Santa Anna for this border you have to cross today, ’Madita, and for those mexicanos on the other side.” Jorge’s swearing a streak, and Amada likes its music, somehow befitting the landscape, giving it much-needed passion, and besides, she doesn’t think Jorge can speak without swearing. “Those tejanos hijos de puta think they’re better than us, because they speak the fucking inglés. May the fucked woman take me! The gringos took their land anyway, por pendejos. That’s what they deserved for trusting them, Amada.” Both of his hands are now on the steering wheel, but his head Golondrina, why did you leave me?  57

turns for a moment to warn her. “Be careful, eh?” Then he returns to laser-focusing on the two-lane road notorious for its potholes since leaving Monterrey, visibly disgusted at the pueblos, jacales, and naked children playing in the dust, clay figures living under Coca-Cola signs tilting at crazy angles, and Jorge swears some more at the Mexican moonscape. Soon they’ll be near Reynosa, across the border from Hidalgo, Jorge explains, a town ten miles from a larger city, Ma-ca-lan. But they’re veering south from there to the boot-toe tip of Texas, following the curling border east to Matamoros, where a bridge separates that northernmost Mexican city from Brownsville. For the first time in three days, there is silence between them, and Amada thinks it’s the kind of quiet that means they’ve reached a land where more words will divide them, as surely as the border divides two countries.

58  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 Daddy starts telling stories about how big Texas is, how the javelinas cross the street in Kingsville where they have a special traffic light just for them, and he says that in South Texas where we come from, the floods have names like Vengeance and Destiny, and how come we don’t know that? And did we notice the hawks circling the Pecos Canyon watching for old cowboys who don’t know the way home, and didn’t you hear the ghost-thunder in the Chisos Mountains? And then he tells us about how he’s been way way up north, all the way to the Oklahoma border and over there he says the wind goes on for weeks in a town called Cactus, and the killer hailstorms like to surprise a hot afternoon in Sudan, and in the winter the blizzards of Floydada are white flakes of Ivory soap you can take a bath in, and he says he’s worked in cottonfields full of diamondback rattlers in Dumas where you better wear boots up to your big ears, that’s how high they can jump and oh yeah, nobody can ever forget the devil-howling coyotes of Pampa. And on the way back south if you look in your rearview mirror going through Wichita Falls, you might catch sight of the tornadoes like champion yo-yos, and out west he’s also run into the jackalopes playing football in Odessa where there’s nothing but oilfields, and he’s been in races and lost with the roadrunners of Fort Stockton, and he’s seen so many things, like the soaptree yucca standing tall in the middle of that town called Orla, and God Almighty, those pronghorns of Alpine, and he promises to take us one day to see the medicine mounds in the town named for the great Comanche chief Quanah, but first he promises to take us to meet the horny toad sealed in a cornerstone that was found alive and kicking fifty-two years later when the courthouse was torn down in Seminole. . . . “¡Lázaro, por favor!” But Mami’s laughing too. And Daddy lets go of the gas, la colorada letter-S-ing down from the mountains. Golondrina, why did you leave me?  59

“¡Híjo’elapatada!” And then Mami starts talking about her sueños, her voice full of the bubbly springs from Del Rio and happy endings, about how nomás que we get to California she’s taking us to the ocean, “dicen que the waves are strong and stormy and cold, not like the bathwater we have in the golfo, ¡imagínate, Lázaro! And there’s a zoo in San Diego and el Miqui in Disneyland and las estrellas de Haliwud! Imagine all that the girls will see! The movie stars, and los aguacates grandes.” Daddy interrupts her, saying something real soft in Spanish about how he’s going to show her some avocados, making Mami say something even softer back, their voices like a song you can’t understand but you like the music. And Daddy laughing so hard he takes his sunglasses off to wipe the tears, swearing under his breath, and Mami teasing, “¡Shshshshsh, Lázaro, las niñas! But she doesn’t mean it because her voice isn’t hurting like usual. On the highway from Van Horn where we can see the jaggedy black shadow of the Guadalupe Mountains now close close to the big city El Paso where we’ll leave Texas por fin, Mami sighs real deep, and the minutes are ticking even slower, slower, as we drive into the city of El Paso saying good-bye, Mami whispering adiós to Texas, and I’m looking for the sign to California. But Daddy says we still have a long way to go, and we’ve come so far already, me and Justicia are hungry for one of Mami’s chicken tacos that she’s saved for us. The city lights are a television set turned up good and bright and it’s like we’re in this show, and watching it from the darkness of the living room outside it too at the same time, the waiting for California keeping us awake even though we can barely see the mountains in the night’s blue-black, though we try, and Mami’s singing real soft one of her accordion songs, but this time it’s not fast at all, but slow, fading into the lights we’re leaving behind, and her song is a sad one, the only sound we hear on this night that is so dark the mountains must be lonely too. And I guess we should’ve known something was gonna hap60  bárbara renaud gonzález

pen because Daddy had been real quiet since the badlands, not saying anything, not ordering me and Justicia to cállate our singing and pinching and fighting like in the morning. Right before the Welcome to New Mexico, Land of Enchantment sign, Daddy stops the car on the side of the road and tells Mami he thinks it’s a flat tire. He jumps out and walks around, looking. Then at the night’s black sky and takes out a cigarette. Mami opens her door and joins him for a smoke. I can hear them talking because I open the window just a little bit, even though Daddy signals me to close it, huerca! The cars are whizzing by, and I see Daddy opening his wallet, and then their voices start whizzing too in between the cars. I can’t see the mountains because it’s so dark, just the light of their cigarettes. “Now don’t get dramatic . . .” “I can call my sister in Oklahoma, she’ll wire us some money . . .” “There is no way I’m going to ask her for money again, soy un hombre! No me entiendes, vieja.” But Mami’s moving around so much, it’s hard to say if she’s listening. Her hands are touching her forehead, wiping her eyes, trying to touch Daddy, but he’s moving too, just enough to stay away from her reaching hands. “I have a job, you know, there’s a man waiting for me. All I have to do is call.” Points back with his cigarette hand to where we came from. “And do what?” Mami is saying no lo creo over and over. “Why are you like this, Lázaro?” “Are you listening to me? We only have ten dollars left. Two days of travel, what do you think, que chingaos.” Amada looks hard at Lázaro’s eyes, and sees the cars passing by and going to California without them. While her husband is nothing more than a deer blinded by the light.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  61

Lázaro can’t see her in the shadows of the parked car, but he can smell her. Oregano and basil left out in the sun, through the garlicky sputtering of her voice. And that’s the problem. If he doesn’t smell the pink of just-born calves and the round new emerald of tomatoes from the earth, then something in him will die. How can he tell her that all he wants is to be a good father and husband, but he doesn’t know anything except the green and blue and pink and yellow that come from the earth. She interrupts him. “I won’t, Lázaro.” She’s walking in circles. Turns around to him. “You can’t do this to me, Lázaro!” Her cigarette aims like a sword. No, a gun. The deer is blinded, but maybe he sees something in the dark. “¡Cállate! What do you know?” “You’re afraid, aren’t you? That’s what it is.” She’s crying now but her gun is steady, steady. “Lá-za-ro.” Amada can’t believe that her dream is over, how did it happen so fast, why have all her dreams not come true. No, no, no! She won’t let this happen. “I’m not afraid, entiende, vieja, we don’t have any money! Where are we going to get to con los pinches diez dollars we have left? Lázaro’s not looking at her, but beyond her, at the stars, bright, sparkling, promising. “We have two more days’ drive with the girls, and then what?” His big man’s voice is giving-up soft as the smoke from his cigarette curls into the darkness. “I’ll call my sister!” She pleads, whispering, trying to blink the tears away at the same time. “She’ll wire some money.” He turns from gazing at the stars to her. “Always your sister, do you think I like that?” Amada wishes with all her heart, pounding like some prisoner inches away from the keys that could unlock her cell, a prisoner 62  bárbara renaud gonzález

unjustly sentenced, how she wishes she could leave him, right now. She looks at the cars going by, considers taking the girls and getting a ride. Where could she go? She’s pregnant. She should be braver, but she’s just as afraid as Lázaro. Just a housewife and mother, and how did this happen. How. Dios mío. Doesn’t Lázaro understand what she’s done to be here at this moment with him? Her hands are on the car’s hood now, almost as if she alone can push it forward. “Think of it, Lázaro, a new life, we’ll be able to buy a house for the children, they’ll grow up in a different world than we did, think of it, California, all those palm trees, they won’t know what it is to suffer, they will never know . . . .” “I am thinking! You never do!” Lázaro’s voice is his military one, interrupting, running his fingers through his Army flattop. Won’t look at her. God, he hates Amada, everything about her. What did he ever see in her? This is what he gets for getting involved with this woman, when he could have had any other . . . He feels pity and worse, disgust at her trembling and babbling, you’d think it was the end of the world or something. What more can he do, he works day and night and it’s not enough for her, apparently. What does she know of how it is with men. The work is enough, but to her, never. Always talking, wanting the impossible, always dreaming. Doesn’t she know, doesn’t she know! Looks back at her for a minute. A dream is for children not meant for them anymore. Well, yes, there are dreams, but that’s all they are. Shakes his head as if to shake off the headlights rushing by. “You must’ve lost your brain in those clouds, should’ve left you back there you like it so much I tell you — there is no way we’re going to get to California on this money.” Swearing a trail of words, like the smoke. “Lázaro, how much do we need?” Amada reaches out to him again, but he backs away.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  63

And now I remember that I’ve heard this before, coming from their bedroom late at night, or maybe all this is a dream, and we’re still in Goliad and I will wake up soon and get my oatmeal with cinnamon and brown sugar in the morning. “I don’t need to eat, and with some milk and tortillas for the girls, just for a few days . . .” Amada finds his arm this time, and she doesn’t let go. “You must be crazy!” Tries to shake off her clinging. God! How he hates that about her! Always begging for love. “What kind of man do you think I am, que yo — punching his chest — would let my family starve, vieja?” Turns away from her again to the mountains he can feel but not see, out there somewhere in the dark. Amada’s voice is like a star losing its place in the sky, a trail of silver falling, and one good wish will stop it. She holds her breath, so he does care. But it’s not enough for her. And she’s ashamed that she wants so much, but she can’t help it, her wishing could fill up the sky with even more stars than are up there tonight. “The kind of man who wants more for his family, that’s what, we’re no different than all the other families who’ve traveled through here, who knows how many of them are passing us right now, you think they have money? Let’s get back in the truck and go, Lázaro, please!” Her silvery voice is burning up on its way to the earth. For a long time it’s as if Lázaro hasn’t heard her. Or maybe it’s just that her voice is joining that infernal chorus, the one with his father, his uncles, and the men they worked for always yelling at him, insulting him, judging him, telling him in so many ways ¿por qué eres tan estúpido, hijo? so loud and so furious that he can’t think. Worse, he can’t hear his own voice, and now Amada’s voice has joined theirs.

64  bárbara renaud gonzález

There has to be a reason that he doesn’t have anything, it’s true isn’t it, he didn’t finish high school, his sisters sure did, yeah he’s gotten some medals, but he has no land, no land, and what else can he do, porque eres tan estúpido. Everybody knows he doesn’t have anything and he has to admit that maybe the gringos are right, it’s true, they are better than the mexicanos, they have the land, don’t they? And he must be a stupid man in a stupider world where he has no say in who wins and who loses, and he’s tried to make everybody believe he isn’t so estúpido, part of him sometimes tells him he isn’t, but how can he tell them how lemon-pure the air seems in the minutes right before dawn, it was like God wanted to show him not to give up, that he was giving him the sky, el cielo, because he sweated under it all day and God was watching everything and so he gave him this peachsky regalo he gets to taste at dawn. And that sky is good to him, giving him gold-silk light he can wrap around himself, buttery as that leather jacket he’s always wanted. And at dawn he’s the patrón walking to another day’s work, and in that precise moment the land is his, his, and sometimes he can see his father rushing ahead of him and he is that little boy running to keep up with him again, the brown heat of speckled chicken eggs in his hands, and how green the salamanders are on the wooden fencepost, frozen still from the dogs barking and the cats arching on the barn’s roof and the grackles chismoliando like they do about everything, and he’s running running to keep up with his father and how much he wants to help and make him proud and how the sun slides up easy into the sky like a newborn calf dropping into the golden hay, that’s how the earth smelled then, easy as one of his brown eggs sliding from his mother’s hands to the skillet. And how he knew that all the other kids were getting ready for school but he’s a man, a man as good as his father, nailing, pliering, painting, pulling, twisting rope into knots and wire into fences, chopping, brushing, scrubbing, stacking, lifting sacks of seed over his back, cleaning out the barn with buckets and then

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  65

washing down the tanks with more buckets and then filling the troughs for the cows and chasing the goats and sweeping the chicken coop and listening for the bees zzzzzzing by so that he can climb to get their panela and the humming of animals in all their sloshing and feathering and grunting, rustling. Then his father beckons him, and both of them kneel before the first glimmers of a cornstalk, the first teardrop of cucumber, the first fist of cantaloupe. How happy he was then. Yes, the world said he was a stupid man, but there was a thread of something green shooting from his heart, and it wanted to flower but it couldn’t because of the stupidness in him. And now her. ¡Imbécil! Amada finally says it, her whole body exploding, it’s been a long time coming, whole nights of rain, just waiting for the chance to storm, to tell him this. How dare he stop now. All her dreams explode too in that one word, imbécil, over and over, the words firecracking in her tormenta, all the Spanish words bursting in all their colors, ¡Idiota! ¡Cobarde! ¡Bruto! ¡Bestia! Dear God, how could he do this to me, I’ve tried so hard to be the perfect wife, the best cook a man could want, I’m clean and neat I still have my figure and I bring him his coffee with two teaspoons of sugar just how he likes it, I’m intelligent, my daughters will go to college and make us proud, and the floors are always shining with wax and what more does he want. There is another child inside me and this one is a boy I know it, My God we have daughters together can’t he see that we’re supposed to keep going? I thought that men were supposed to be the brave ones the ones who conquistaban and nothing stopped them they’re the ones with muscles and oh God and now, a little money is turning my husband into the estúpido I always knew he was, and now, finally, Amada is breaking down from the crashing of dreams, el sacrificio, the word stretching out eternally like the Rio Grande they’ve been 66  bárbara renaud gonzález

following. Ay Dios, my little daughter, Salomé, the scandal of what I’ve done to come here, the last nights with Jorge, nothing like Lázaro. Dear God, how I long for a kiss, a ravishing, vanquishing, aloe-vera-smearing kiss. Is that it? Is that why I deserve all this, this desert of disappointment? Amada convulses with guilt, hating herself, and rebelling despite it all. Is it my fault? She hugs herself hard. Is it so wrong what I did to cross the border? No, a voice soft as stardust answers deep inside her, you had no choice. Bueno, so I’ve broken more commandments than Lázaro, but isn’t that what he liked about me in the first place? Is it possible that I’m married to a man who is less than me? Her hands slip down her shoulders to her elbows and wrists in one long shaking. That I am more than him because I have more courage? Her fingers claw into her forearms. Is it possible? Amada’s knees are wobbly too, like when you try to stand after swimming a long time, and she begins to cry like that time in Goliad, when the rain was so hard the river almost reached the house. Amada’s a vergüenza of water crying from the inside out, and he’s ashamed of her for letting him see it. Daddy has verguenza too, only he hides his, though it’s always there in the way he walks and laughs and even sleeps. All crooked and jangly. Like he’s dying a little from it, like he’s waiting for his own life to begin, so he tries to be more man because he doesn’t want us to know, but we do. We do. And he’s ashamed que sabemos. And that night, all the shames turned us back to Texas. I guess that’s all we knew.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  67

34 “What did you expect, mi reina, the Statue of Liberty?” Jorge toasts Amada with a shot of good tequila as Prince Charming gets good and drunk. It’s early afternoon, the siesta’s hottest hours in Matamoros, and a perspiring Amada and Jorge order tacos al pastor at Café Marina on Calle Abasolo. From here, they can see it, a couple of blocks away to the north, how ordinary, just a simple wooden bridge overlooking a less-thanordinary green river pretending to separate two countries. And the air here isn’t blue like San Luis, Amada thinks, but taffy-sticky, smelling of burned peanuts, day-old pork, vinegary shrimp from the nearby coast, and the sweet-sour farts from the cars honking in line to cross the bridge. No grand plazas here, or grand hotel balconies overlooking a regal fountain where children are splashing and chasing pigeons in the city’s center. Nothing grand here at all. Amada is surprised at the sandy earth and Jorge says it’s because of the proximity to el golfo, not like San Luis cradled by its mountains. Dios mío, Amada thinks in desperation, this country isn’t real, it’s made of old breadcrumbs, thickened with water into a cornpaste, molded into churches, patios, people, even barking dogs. Every farmacia at the corner, every vendor selling buttery corn dripping from its cob, the revolutionary murals and the blue-tiled storefronts, colonial streetlamps, and familiar balconies with a hot-pink bougainvillea hanging from it, this can’t be real, this is a city inspired by some drunken ceramicist with dried-out paint and some chipped pottery. And what a name, a city named for a moorkilling saint, bad luck, Amada wants to weep. “¿Qué quiere decir Bronz-vil?” Jorge answers that the city on the other side, the city she’s been dreaming of so long? Its name means the villa of brown, the color brown. Amada says nothing after that. Maybe because it’s Monday, the bridge isn’t as crowd-

68  bárbara renaud gonzález

ed as usual with people, crossing back and forth. Maybe there is more to this border than she sees at first glance, maybe. “What did you want, my beautiful refugee, the Statue of Liberty? For a mexicana, you think those gringos are going to have a statue waiting for you?” Jorge asks again, his eyes turning amber behind the tequila glass he’s holding in his hand.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  69

34 Daddy’s been driving all night, and Mami’s saying nothing, nothing, like all the stars have died in her mouth, turning the sky into the black that surrounds us. Where are we? But she knows better than to ask out loud. Daddy says to no one that the cold front has come in and that over here on the way to the Oklahoma border it even snows sometimes, and that just wait there’s a rancho mas allá that needs a man like me, vas a ver, you’ll see how good he’ll treat me. Then Justicia’s crying and crying and Mami says “La niña needs milk, Lázaro,” holding her like always even though she’s not a baby, and my sister’s sucking on Mami’s thumb, too old for the chiche, and anyway, Mami says she doesn’t have any because the baby inside her panza won’t let her give it away just yet. “But the stores are closed, vieja, it’s Thanksgiving, not even daylight, son las cinco de la mañana.” Doesn’t even glance at her. Justicia cries like someone’s hitting her on the head, but no one ever hits her, of course. “Lázaro, la niña.” “¡Chingao, vieja, me lleva el tren!” Daddy’s pounding on the steering wheel. Now the sun is coming up, squirting icy lemonade into the sky, washing away the dark night and maybe the worst memories, so we can pretend that nothing bad happened. In the distance, Mami sees it first, a farmhouse not too far from the road, surrounded by cattle and horses tossing their manes free of white powder, and Daddy says it’s snow, and it’s covering everything, sparkling like jewels, diamonds, but it’s soft, white, like the flour Mami uses to make tortillas. I want to touch it real bad, but I know not to ask Daddy. “¡Lázaro, mira allá!” Daddy doesn’t want to ask, but Mami in-

70  bárbara renaud gonzález

sists that Justicia has to have milk, no tacos left, and “please, they won’t say no to a child, even if they are gringos.” Then la colorada begins to bounce funny, and damnhijuelapatada! “No swearing in front of the girls, Lázaro!” Daddy stops the truck on the side of the road, goes to look at the front. “Well I’ll be . . . “ Throws his cap on the ground. “Flat tire, vieja!” This time he turns to look behind him at the farmhouse, like he’s measuring something. The family’s name is MacKenzie, and the señora comes to the door right away, gives Mami a glass of warm milk for Justicia, saying how pretty, what a pretty girl you have. I have a squishy snowball in my hand, but Mami makes me put it in the lady’s sink once we’re inside. Daddy and that man MacKenzie talk, and before you know it, they shake hands after he helps him with the flat tire. By the next day, Daddy’s working for him and we have a house bigger than the one in Goliad, but we’re not in California, for sure, Mami says, because there’s nothing around us except dirty snow and dirtier sky. There are no trees here at all, and Daddy says we’re fifteen miles from town, but it feels like we’re on another planet, that’s how far away we are from yesterday. When Daddy goes to work, Mami connects the stove all by herself, and there’s hot comida ready for him when he comes back at midnight, “So much work, vieja.” He stares at the plate of food, and I can tell his whole body is even hungrier than his eyes. “How could a vieja figure out the stove?” Mami says she’s just watched him before, and used his tools and besides, it’s so cold we could get sick and she just can, that’s all. Daddy’s impressed for once. The nights are getting colder and there’re no animals around to keep us warm with their wagging and purring, and I miss sleeping with my cat, Floofie, that Mami gave away when we

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  71

moved. She reminds Daddy that the baby’s coming soon, that she’s gonna need a doctor. Daddy starts looking and asking, and when the doctor comes to visit, he tells Mami he can’t do it himself, that he’s too old. Mami and Daddy fight again, she tells him the doctor doesn’t want to help her because he doesn’t like Mexicans. “Ay vieja, siempre, you always think it’s about that.” And the fighting goes another round. Mami doesn’t tell him she’s met a nurse at the grocery store who lives down the road, who was in the military. Her name is la señora Kamala, and when she comes over to see Mami the next day, she says the baby is due very soon. And she’s right. The next night, Mami wakes me and Justicia cuddled up in her bed, says the baby’s coming, and Daddy’s far away working in the fields, so we right away jump out of her warm bed into our cold one, just like she taught us, pulling the curtain around our bed, and don’t peek out, even a little. And though Justicia as usual starts crying a little with all the funny sounds Mami’s making, I let her stick on me real tight, almost suffocating me, and then like a miracle la señora Kamala knocks on the door. She doesn’t speak Spanish, and Mami doesn’t speak English, but a little while after that, my brother Jorge is born. When Daddy comes home at dawn, Mami has breakfast ready for him. “Black caca!” Daddy’s scared, looking down at Jorge’s nalguitas covered in gooey mud while Mami changes him. “The boy is gonna die!” “It’s what’s in the stomach, his first caca,” Mami explains it’s normal, says he’s the most beautiful boy in the whole world, and that his name is Jorge. Daddy says he likes the name, doesn’t ask why she doesn’t name him Lázaro like she promised. When la señora Kamala comes to check on her and sees Mami at the clothesline, she takes the basket away from her, washing, drying, and folding everything herself. 72  bárbara renaud gonzález

“The snow hasn’t melted, Amada,” she scolds, and she also says she can’t believe what she’s seeing. And even though we don’t understand her words, Mami understands everything because she says women have their own language. “Where is your husband?” Mami doesn’tell her that Daddy hasn’t even carried the baby yet. But that night, when Daddy comes home, he tells her we’re moving again. He’s found a better job, this time, you’ll see, you’ll see. “Every gringo from miles around wants me, you’ll see.” That’s how we left that town called Muleshoe and moved to that new town called Hart.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  73

34 ¡Con los calcetines! Whishwhishwhiishswooooshsliiiiiiiiiide! This time, we get a house with so many rooms that me and Justicia use the floors for slipping, sliding, gliding, skating, only Mami gets mad sometimes because we use Daddy’s clean white socks, but it’s no fun otherwise. Then she gets the idea to make slides from the cardboard boxes, so we pull each other round and round, and when we get tired of that Mami teaches us how to play botica with more cardboard boxes, empty cans and peanut butter jars. Justicia has to buy groceries from me, and that’s how Mami teaches me to print my numbers on a piece of paper, uno, dos, tres all the way to diez with the cero, she says. Mami says the house was the bossman’s, and that it’s even bigger than the house she had in Mexico. It has porches all the way around and picture windows everywhere, but there’s nothing to see, so we look for Daddy, and it’s easy because there’s no trees here either. Daddy never comes home, he’s working, cotton and maize fields and sometimes we can hear the tractor’s big roar, but from here it sounds like a cartoon lion snoring, then the lion stops, sneezes, gargles, starts again real slow and then roars again for a little while. We can even see him sometimes through the living-room window, just a speck, so far away he looks like a fly on top of a red elephant with the trunk in the back instead of the front, but it’s him, Mami says. It’s him and there’s nothing between us and him to keep us from looking. Then Jorge gets so sick, it makes us sick just looking at him. Mami says he’s hot, burning up, she says, and he’s not orinando. Mami starts crying because Jorge’s crying for something she can’t give him, not the kind of crying for a song on the radio like she sometimes does and her crying makes Justicia start up, and Mami’s got Jorge in her arms, and he’s screaming now and Justicia’s holding on to her skirt screaming too and there’s mocos running down her nose to Mami’s dress. Mami tells me to go look for 74  bárbara renaud gonzález

Daddy, and I run outside without a coat and no, I don’t see him not even a little bit, when I get back I tell her that the boss’s truck is right over there, but he’s not in it. Mami’s voice is getting quiet like when Daddy puts bullets in the rifle, scary, like she’s trying to hide the fact that she wants to cry and she says she’s gonna kill Daddy because we don’t have a telephone and no car and if Jorge dies she’s gonna leave him for sure this time, and we don’t even have a way to get to town because Daddy’s taken la colorada and won’t let Mami drive it anyway. Then Mami says she’s gonna take the boss’s truck, and she puts on her coat and scarf with Jorge’s blankets all loose because she says he’s too hot and a few minutes later I hear the truck start real loud, she’s putting on the gas even though Daddy says never to do that to the engine. When Daddy gets home with the bossman that night, Justicia’s asleep on one of our cardboard slides after crying all afternoon, and I’m looking after her just like Mami told me. When I tell him what happened, Daddy says “I’m sorry” to the bossman who starts cussing him out, talking the way that Daddy sometimes talks to Mami. Then Emiliano, Daddy’s new friend, drives up in the boss’s truck, jumps out and walks real quick to the door and says that Jorge has the fever, and that he and Mami took him to the hospital all the way to Lubbock, and how he translated because Mami doesn’t speak good inglés. He says the doctor told Mami if she waited any longer, Jorge would’ve died for sure. Daddy says again “I’m sorry” to the boss, who’s still mad and when he leaves Daddy says wake up Justicia, we’re all going to the hospital right now and we go so fast that Daddy’s still shaking the dry mud off him, stomping his boots when we get to where Mami is at the hospital and I can tell he’s embarrassed he’s so dirty, but it’s more like Mami’s the dirt he wants to brush off him. “How could you, vieja?” Daddy’s so mad at Mami, especially when she tells him how she borrowed money from Emiliano for the doctor. Mami’s lookGolondrina, why did you leave me?  75

ing at him like she can see all the way through his mud, and doesn’t care what he says or who hears him tell her she’s a bad wife and that she’s ruining his life. She stands beside Jorge in his hospital crib, with his big cow-eyes closed real tight so that his long, curly lashes make him look like an angel sleeping in the manger with the Christmas tree lights blinking outside the hospital window, and Jorge has all these little tubes in him, rheumatic fever the doctor says when we go in. He’s so little, and after the doctor leaves, Daddy starts yelling at her in a whisper because it’s a hospital. He blames everything on her, and this time he brings up what happened in El Paso, says she stole his boss’s car too, and he even blames her about what’s gonna happen tomorrow, because she doesn’t know any English or worse, she doesn’t care that she doesn’t. He always says that, which I know isn’t true, he just won’t help her learn it. But Mami isn’t listening to anything he says, not even a minute, she’s looking at Jorge in the crib, and when Daddy stops yelling she yells back too. And the whole time she’s yelling she’s stroking Jorge’s hair, and then she sees me holding on to Daddy’s shirt and Justicia grabbing my hand and sucking her thumb with the other, and she gets real, real quiet. And all we can hear is the drip-drip of the tubes going into Jorge and the shush-shush of people walking outside and somewhere a telephone rings like they know what’s going on. But she doesn’t say anything, just looks at Jorge and then me and then at Justicia, and her eyes are wet, but she wipes them with the hand that’s not holding on to the crib, her eyes not saying she’s sorry, no way. And as soon as Jorge gets better, we move to another town, and it’s called Tulia. And what about baby Jorge’s baptism? Amada writes her oldest sister, Lilia, in Oklahoma City who wants to be his godmother. Lilia, a single woman, has a good life, completely different from hers, and Amada knows that if Lilia sees what’s happening, she’ll demand that Amada move to Oklahoma with the kids immedi-

76  bárbara renaud gonzález

ately. Her sister is a tailoress in the finest women’s store in the city, and supports herself and sends money to Amada’s mother, and is always there when she’s needed. Lilia looks like a Chanel ad you see in magazines, and she’s the one who taught Amada all about the danzón in Veracruz. Even in the middle of all this snow around her, Amada can see Lilia standing in front of her sewing machine demonstrating the steps to the danzón, telling her what it’s like to dance with the right man under the stars, and how a woman is divinely beautiful with the sweat and salt of Veracruz’s waves crashing a block away from the plaza. Lilia is always watching how a woman moves with her charcoal eyes. The way she walks, she says, should be like ink flowing on the page. A woman is being sketched all her life, Lilia pronounces. “El danzón lets you show off the line, ’Madita, the pride in your neck, the crucifix dangling between your breasts, the proportion of waist to hips, the muscles in your thighs and calves in those stocking with that black seam snapped in that you don’t really need. Lilia says that the danzón is a rebellious waltz, one foot square, and that anything is possible inside it. “Now, right foot back. Slow, quick-quick. Think of a box and how you’re dancing at the edge of its corners. Cheek-to-cheek, but no more!” “It’s about mystery,” she says. Lilia left to the United States the year before Amada married El Sapo. “Slow, quick-quick. And since you only have so much space, you better learn the steps right, or you’ll mess it up. It’s much more than it seems, you don’t jump into it, no, no.” Before she lift, Lilia had promised to make a dress just for Amada to dance the danzón when she got older. “Here is where your partner uses the pañuelo you monogrammed for him, to wipe the perspiration off his brow, eh? Maybe you’ll help him.”

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  77

Then Viajera would start, Lilia’s favorite song about a traveling woman, and there were more stories about the elegant salones de baile where she went dancing. “Then you reach for the fan at your waist, flick your wrist once, spread your fingers. Slow quick-quick. The music starts again. Do your turns on the quick-quick. You always start slow. When you finish, you clap for the orchestra, smile con gracia, then to each other. Maybe take a bow.” It’s too late, Lilia. Amada wants to dance right now, she wants to go to Veracruz, she wants to take her daughters there, to show off her baby Jorge, she wants her daughters to meet their sister Salomé, she wants to dance, she wants to go to Oklahoma, she wants to cry, what have I done, I have a family now, a family, I am a married woman. She doesn’t mail the letter to her sister. Amada wants to believe that next time, Lázaro, Lázaro, will dance with her.

78  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 The sheets are falling around her as she pulls them from the clothesline, folding them into a snow-white crispness, a kind of last stand against the hesitation before spring that’s in the February breeze, a sighing for warmth that Amada feels despite the cold patches of winter. Then, she hears first, then sees, the bossman’s cowboy boots cracking the thin plates of ice on the muddy path in front of their new house, which isn’t new at all, but an abandoned ranch house that chickens enjoyed before they moved in. It took a whole week to clean this house, and Lázaro’s new bossman doesn’t seem to understand that rotting linoleum, cobweb-filled closets, rickety doors and broken windowpanes matter much, much more than preparing the land for spring planting day and night. The bags of fruit and nuts Mr. Jones gave the squealing children at Christmastime, after she’d told them Santa didn’t come out this far, desperately sewing stuffed bears from old quilts while they slept, couldn’t begin to compensate for the sacrifice Mr. Bossman was asking of her children. Uuuuuuf, the little town of Tulia isn’t even a town, but a blink-of-an-eye place with one sad store and a post office flanked by a cotton gin and empty trailers, such a disappointment the first time she saw it. The nearest church and school is another twelve miles away, never mind a chance at making new friends, though she’s taken the children there in Lázaro’s truck now that she taught herself to drive. Amada’s given Lázaro and his boss a whole year to fix things, and still nothing. She runs inside the house, leaving the basket of sheets outside, and one half hanging, so that when she returns, Mr. Jones doesn’t see her until it’s too late, and a white sheet is all that separates him from the barrel of Lázaro’s shotgun. “No mis-ter! Lázaro no work! Sonday! No eslave ju!” And no, she refuses to wake up Lázaro. She delivers that refusal in her best English aiming squarely Golondrina, why did you leave me?  79

between the boss’s blue-chip eyes. When Lázaro hears what Amada has done in thirty-degree cold while he’s sleeping after working round the clock with no days off, he goes directly, his workgloves in hand, to apologize. Fired again. Now what? Amada and the children are huddled around the gas stove, trying to stay warm with the pot’s steam heat, it’s the only burner that works, when he returns late that night. “A whole year, Lázaro! There’s no heat in this place, there’s no hot water for the children, there’s no telephone, there’s no . . .” “¡Cállate! ¿Cómo te atreves? Él tiene el derecho.” “¿Derecho? To make you work like a burro?” He flinches when she says that. “¿Qué sabes tú? ¡Eres una mujer!” “¡Sí! I’m just a woman. Amada stands up with Jorge in her arms, the left side of her face and arms red from the steam. And we have three children to take care of! Three!” She holds up her fingers with the red hand. “And Lucero has to start school this fall, and the girls need to play with other children. We live like primitives here, like savages, and I don’t understand you, that gringo makes you work day and night for months with promises . . .” “I know what I’m doing!” She doesn’t let him interrupt her this time. “. . . promises to give you a bonus and where is it? We owe everyone, remember?” “How can I forget?” He whips off his cap, watches it land on the new washing machine that Amada made him buy for the children. “You took the boss’s truck to that hospital last time, you went to town last week and signed my name for that pinche washing machine,” he points with derision to the corner where it gleams. “And you take my truck — my truck,” he throws his keys on the kitchen table for emphasis or disgust or both, “when I’m not looking. Don’t think I don’t know plenty of what you’re doing,” all this he says as he’s muttering, unbuttoning his heavy wool 80  bárbara renaud gonzález

jacket, pulling off his workgloves with the pebbles on the palm side real hard, and sits down even harder, scraping the floor on purpose. He’s hungry, but too proud to ask. “Now you’ve done it, vieja, you aimed the .20-20 at my boss while I was sleeping, and you’re lucky, you’re just real lucky he hasn’t put you in jail . . . ” Lázaro wants to scare Amada, but his own eyes are the ones blazing with fear. “Where’s the bonus, Lázaro?” Amada isn’t going to serve him, who does he think he is? Instead, she picks up the wooden palote for rolling tortillas from the table, with the baby in the crook of her other arm, and Lázaro realizes he’s dealing with an insane woman, but not that crazy because she knows he will not hit a woman. Though he’s thought about it. He gets up real fast when he sees it coming. Amada screams, brandishing the rolling pin as a weapon, something she’s never done before, making Jorge’s cry following hers a secondary note. She knows that Lucero and Justicia are probably hiding under the bed, and she thinks, good, let them see what kind of father they have. “So I’m at fault, eh? That gringo-cabrón boss of yours last time had the huevos to complain about the butane we used, Lázaro, remember? He said we should pay for it, that’s how Jorge got sick and almost died, ¿no entiendes? This one thinks we’re only as good as chickens — no, the chickens are better because you built them their own barn! While your children live like animals!” Aaaaahhhhhhhhheeeeeeeyyyyyyy!!!!! She throws the palote at Lázaro, but he jumps away just in time, palo! and the wooden rolling pin arcs toward the TV, knocking the antenna down from the console, godknowsifshebrokeit. That’s it, he doesn’t even get that, all because of her, that’s all he needs. He rubs his curly head as he watches the palote keep rolling away, wishing he had the guts to pick it up and . . . chingao, Amada keeps talking, lamenting, accusing, while his hands are itching to choke her, to show her he’s the boss of her, and how Golondrina, why did you leave me?  81

did this happen, how did this woman who’s a foot shorter and seventy pounds lighter take over his own damn house? That’s how we ended up on another farm with a house that doesn’t have anything broken or smelly where Daddy told Mami as soon as we got there that he doesn’t love her anymore. Then the colorada broke down, and Daddy got himself a brand-new truck. And so the next day Mami takes that truck while he’s in the fields and gets herself a blender and a new iron and a pressure cooker with the S&H Green Stamps she was saving for something special. And a driver’s license. Right outside a town called Earth, this is where this all happened, where Daddy got another job at another farm, another house, and another truck. And this time, we moved in como la gente, Mami said, like real people.

82  bárbara renaud gonzález


three 4

To reach it safely, what wind will you follow?

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  83


34 “This time,” Daddy promises Mami, “the boss’s giving us a real house and it’s getting repainted just for us, pink for the girls, and Mr. Carson says there’s even a swingset for the kids! ¡Fíjate nomás! Can’t you just see la flaca?” That’s what he calls Justicia, who’s so skinny a breeze knocks her down and then she cries and Daddy has to go pick her up, like a baby. “La flaca will love that swing because la caballona,” I’m the girl-horse according to Daddy, “will push her high into the sky, y así se pasarán el día! Like rich girls!” So Mami can rest, he means, because she’s going to have another baby and Daddy sure hopes this one’s another boy because there’s already two girls, and just Jorge, and he says it’s time to even the score. “And you better not swing her too high and tell her to jump,” Daddy warns me, and that’s exactly what I do, but that’s later when she falls and her nails rip out because she didn’t let go of the chain like I told her. Justicia’s such a scaredy. Daddy says we’re in the flat head of Texas, a thousand miles north of the border where he and Mami met so long ago, far away from where the big toe dips into the salty golfo, he says. And we’re still in Texas, that’s how big it is, he brags. “Remember, Texas was Mexico once.” Mami’s sí — a poco stops him every time with her hands starchy from ironing my new clothes she’s making from the flour sacks we buy to make tortillas. For my first day of school, my dress is filled with wildflowers, blue-starched shiny as the new crunchy petticoat that goes under. Daddy and me play a game naming all the flowers on my dresses, flor de San Juan, bluebonnets, Indian blankets, orangered paintbrush, giant sunflowers, purple majesty mountain laurels, and the rest I make up because Daddy says the flowers belong to us anyway and I have as much right to name them as anybody: corny dandelions, he-loves-me daisies, lipstick pinkies, Golondrina, why did you leave me?  85

church-wine iris, porky-pig petunia, and there’s even a blackeyed María. My hair is one long trenza with a blue ribbon pulled so tight it makes my ears hurt. Red string hoops for earrings because later, when the harvest comes in, my mother will get me the gold ones, she promises. On my feet, boring Mary Jane shoes ’cause it’s proper, Bible-white socks, smelling like the Baptist church we have to go to on Sundays. On my first day, my abuelita’s pan dulce that looks like pink and green and yellow seashell-bread, sweet because it’s made of love she says, to go with my café con leche. My grandmother’s visiting from a town called Paradise, a surprise visit when Mami didn’t expect it from her sister Lilia. Abuelita is from Mexico where the Spaniards brought the truth, gracias a Dios. She says this all the time, teaching me to crochet cotton hilo into one long, crooked chain for a tablecloth when I grow up and get married, only I’m not very good at it and she wonders what I’m good for. Mami puts an egg beaten in hot milk into my coffee to make it bubble up, like the foam of the sea in Tampico, Abuelita says, but I’ve never seen the ocean even if Mami talks about it all the time. Down there, I have panties with lace from the front of my grandmother’s brown dress that she can’t wear anymore because she’s a widow, so everything she wears is black and boring. Only I don’t know how to say “Please, where is the bathroom?” in English, so I pee in class on the first day of school. I try and try to tell my teacher and when I stand up it’s too late. My father’s waiting for me at the bus after my first day, and I’m wearing some blue jeans the school nurse gave me, my new dress and petticoat rolled up in a towel. He doesn’t say anything, like he understands. Daddy has a new sweater for me, red like the tractor he lets me ride later with him, me always sitting on his lap, holding on to the steering wheel so I can drive and change gears too. Nobody can plow a field like my father. The big tires carve out row after row on the land, leaving zigzaggy tracks, my autograph! Daddy leaves wavy lines on the earth just

86  bárbara renaud gonzález

like Mami’s back-and-forth mopping on Saturdays, perfect rows, and she stitches his name on the pocket of his workshirts like the seeds falling from Daddy’s hands, one by one, only his go into the earth for the spring planting. It’s a story he’s planting, he says, making sure the well water gushes good and cold from the irrigation pipes, right into the dirt-letters my father writes on the land with his tractor. My mother’s name is Amada, which means loved and much more, though I don’t know how to say it in English yet. Now what kind of name is that, the other kids make fun of Mami even though they don’t know her, laughing at my flour-sack dress with the Tinker Bell sleeves, pulling the bow in the back, pointing at my red-string earrings. I don’t know all their words and that matters more than all my pretty flowers, that’s what I’m learning in school. Mami likes to hear a woman singing named Lydia Mendoza, and what she calls her guitarra raspada, with the early morning’s tortillas. I don’t listen to the accordion, but my mother needs the radio on day and night. So much sobbing and wheezing, sad as my shame from school because of my español. My heart wants to punch out of my eyes and make tears, but I don’t let it, and then I can’t hold it anymore and gulp and squeak like the urracas. They’re the black birds that mess up the white cotton sheets on the clothesline that my mother just special-made for my bed, with my name embroidered in pink flowers at the corners. She made me a bedspread too of her favorite colors, lilac and lavender, with curtains and pillowcases to match, thanks to the new sewing machine that Daddy was able to get at the Finance so that Mami could make our school clothes. Only she makes clothes for other people too, buying us regalitos with the extra money, like high heels and stockings for my doll that’s not a Barbie but I like her just fine in the evening dresses Mami’s designing just for her.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  87

When I help Mami take the sheets off the clothesline, they’re blowing and sighing back and forth, turning, twisting, hitting me in the face, just like the accordion. Notes high and low, up and down, sideways, they slide by so fast, they remind me of all the Spanish words that have left me, so I can hardly breathe.

88  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 Any day now, if everything goes according to plan, Amada’s great-aunt will receive this letter, and by that time, Amada will be far away. 16 de febrero de 1948 Sra. Ma. Ifigenia Vidaurri Vda. de Quiñones Rancho del Paraíso Río Verde, San Luis Potosí México Querida Tía Chema, I am writing to you in hopes that you are in good health, thanks be to God. You know that you are my favorite aunt, and I know you understand a little of my situation, and so what I am about to tell you is because I love you so much and trust in your compassion and faith in my dreams and for the future of my little daughter. I am absolutely desperate, and need all your understanding and mercy for my situation. I have decided to leave my husband. Have asked him for a divorce, but he won’t give it to me. At the same time, he has threatened to take my daughter away, to embarrass me in front of the whole city, though I know it is his reputation he is worried about. Ay, Tía, one day I’ll relate to you the absolute nightmare of this marriage and his many accusations and falsehoods against me. There is so much I have to tell you. Know you will say that a divorce is against everything the Church believes, and that Mamá will never forgive me, but is it not a bigger sin for him to do what he does to me? I know you are wise, and know what is happening to me, because, forgive me, but I have heard the whispers about Golondrina, why did you leave me?  89

what happened to you when you were young, please forgive me for speaking of this, but now that I’m a woman I understand, Tía Chema, I understand a little of how you’ve suffered in your life. Well, I can’t live like this, I won’t, it is not a life for me and my daughter, he doesn’t have a right to treat me like this. I cannot go on Tía, I’ve lost weight, you should see the dark circles under my eyes, I don’t want to go anywhere, I’m going crazy, and if I don’t do something, who knows what will happen. But this I am sure of: I am capable of killing him. Yes. I will do it. I am telling all this to no one but you, and begging you with all of my heart, for all the love and tenderness you have blessed me with and with all the respect I have for you, to tell my husband when he visits you as he surely will that I was visiting with you for several days, that you tried to talk me out of leaving him, but that I was determined, because I am, and that’s true. Tell him that it was only after those days visiting you that I left for el norte. My husband, and I know him well, won’t like what you say, but he won’t doubt what you tell him. He knows that you are the only person I would go to, not to my mother or father, but to you, a respectable widow living alone at the family’s rancho where I was born. And how I wish my father had not lost the land, you know how he drinks and the revolution and everything, who knows? Maybe all this would not have happened and I would be happy there with you. What is my destiny, Tía Chema? I swear to you that it is not the hell I am living now. By the time you read this, I will be on my way to la frontera. It’s all arranged, a nice gringo couple from Texas has offered me a job caring for their two children. I am leaving Salomé with my husband for now, there is no other way, and it’s tearing my heart in half to do that. [It was not true

90  bárbara renaud gonzález

about the job in Texas, but Amada didn’t want her aunt to worry.] I will return for Salomé as soon as he grants me a divorce, as I am sure he will. He’s so afraid for his reputation that he will say anything to make me look bad. So be it, but he’ll be forced to give me Salomé when I return just so I don’t tell people the truth about him. My dearest aunt, you know how very much I love you, and please give me your blessing, for I am really all alone in the world right now, and I must leave for now, and I pray and believe in Our Father’s love and forgiveness. Surely this chance to go to el norte is a good sign, La Virgen has answered my prayers, and I beg you and all the saints above to forgive me, because I know deep in my heart that God will forgive me for leaving my husband, because He knows, as you do, what it is to suffer like this. Aunt, I do not want my daughter to live what I have gone through. Or what my grandmother, and you, suffered, which was even worse, of that I am sure. I can’t bear that it happens to my little daughter when she grows up. Please help me. I hope you will give me your blessing. Will return soon after I make enough money, and all these problems between my husband and me will be a bad memory, I swear. Soon, we will be visiting El Gogorrón, like we always wanted, do you remember? Enjoying the luxury of the thermal baths, tasting the delicious garambullos they sell, and the tunas cardonas too, and Salomé will be so happy walking, holding our hands, just us three. I close my eyes and I know this joyful day is closer than ever, that we deserve a chance at happiness. Love. I send you the biggest abrazo in the world, wish you much good health, and as always, with much respect, and faith that we will see each other soon, with God’s help.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  91

Please, please, keep me in your prayers as you always are in mine. Your niece who never forgets you, Cariñosamente, Amada P.S. I will write you with my new address once I am settled.

92  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 “Algo tiene la niña,” Amada says to Lázaro when he comes home late at night after another burning day of work. It’s nothing at all like she dreamed of. Amada never sleeps anymore, there is no time since she keeps an immaculate house with six children, hoping that Lázaro will notice and compliment her. And how smart the children are getting, how many ribbons they’re getting, especially Lucero, though she worries most about her and the loneliness she brings home from school. Amada’s proud that she’s always wearing a dress, no housecoats for her, her children never run around in diapers and runny noses like other people’s. Lázaro won’t have it, and this is the one thing they agree on, that it can’t be helped they’re poor but they are not dirty. How fast the time goes. Soon, I will tell Lucero about the older sister she has in Mexico, the daughter I left behind. How will I explain Salomé? Bueno, I’ll just tell her the truth, and let my life be the example of all she should not become, look at how I’ve paid . . . I will tell her how I am not a mother who abandons her children, how I’ve searched for her, and no one knows what happened to her. There is so much Amada wants to confide in Lucero, but once her Texas-born daughter entered this English-speaking school, she refuses to talk to her. But how can I tell Mami? Look at her, surrounded by babies, even twins now, her body sprinkled with white flour like baby powder, her panza a puffed-up tortilla ballooning with yet another baby. Too many. I want biscuits and gravy and Trix-are-for-kids, I want to take a box lunch with my sandwiches wrapped in plastic. But we can’t afford it. I want my mother to come to the PTA, but she’s scared ’cause she doesn’t know el inglés. I translate for her all the time now, at the store, at the bank, in school when she comes to talk to the principal about my brother’s good grades, and “Can he please be promoted now to the next grade, please Mister PrinGolondrina, why did you leave me?  93

cipal?” Orders me to say that her children are going to college. And I don’t want to, but I do say it to the principal because she pushes me or else. She’s not ashamed, and I wish I wasn’t. And though I’m talking now in English and my father is proud of me, I’m not saying very much because somewhere between the first and fifth grade I lost some words, and I don’t know where they went. The words are from Mami, and it hurts to try and find them. And I’m afraid that I’ll never see them again, and then what? El horno, agregándolo, integrándola, agua de azahar, so many words to make a birthday cake. How am I supposed to know her directions mean “oven,” “add,” “integrate,” “orange-blossom water,” what does she think? And then later, she serves me a warm slice, and it’s like tasting the words in Spanish that are only for special occasions. “How do you say ‘save me’?” “¡Socorro!” Mami answers, frustrated, like everybody should know this. And I’m trying to ask for help, but all that comes out is “help me” in a hiccup. Nobody hears me because I don’t even know the words for asking. I’m drowning in words, don’t know how to swim, but remember that I used to. Worst of all, don’t know how to say the word for “hate” in Spanish. So how can I tell her about the names they call me? Frijole-eater, greaser, dirty, stupid, gobacktoMexico spic. How do I say they call me these names because of you, Mami! Or the way my classmates laugh at my clothes and skin and even my hair, as if I was some monster, uglier than Frankenstein. The way they circle me, avoid me on the bus, push me out of line at the cafeteria. Never say excuse me, please, thank you, open the door for me, only to each other. They just stab me with their eyes and make faces when they have to sit next to me. Every day they look at me as if I don’t belong here, as if I don’t deserve to be in school with them, as if they want to break me into little pieces like my Spanish words already are. They’ve already broken the other Mexican kids, some of them pretend they don’t speak Spanish anymore, and the oth94  bárbara renaud gonzález

ers who won’t learn English are failing, just like they want us to. And though I’m polite and wash my hands before eating, just like Mami’s taught me, they still hate me, still call me those names. I’m not dumb like they say, either. Mami promised that things would get better once I showed them how smart I am, and now I’m at the top of the class, but they hate me even more for that. And the really stupid part is I want them to like me even though I really don’t like them. If only one of them would be my friend, it would change everything. I can tell that a few of the girls, like JoEllen and Marianne, feel sorry for me, but they won’t defend me when the rest start calling me names. There are days, weeks, when nobody talks to me, smiles at me, not even Rebecca, the preacher’s daughter. Nobody says I’m sorry. I know she’s scared of liking me. Maybe they’re right. About my being Mexican. The other mexicanos are always fighting with the gringos and making fun of them behind their back. They speak Spanish anyway, even though it means a trip to the principal’s office for a spanking or getting expelled. They don’t want to belong like I do, they have no chance, but at least they belong to each other. They tell me I’m the stupid one, for pretending to be a gringa, and now the mexicanos are beginning to hate me too. The crazy thing is I’m beginning to hate them back, they just don’t know it’s the gringos I hate even more for making me hate them. “What did you expect, mi reina?” Amada hears Jorge’s voice while her children are sleeping and she’s ironing, drinking black coffee in the kitchen to keep her awake. Under the iron’s hot steam and prodding, a little girl’s sleeve rises like a polka-dotted biscuit. Amada finds a twig, a bottlecap in a boy’s overall pocket, a worn eraser in another’s. Jorge needs another notebook. Justicia, an angel costume for the play. Lucero, a band uniform with brass buttons, and she sprained an ankle from basketball and needs to go to the doctor. Gabriel plays with the puppies all day long, impatient for his older brother Jorge to come home from Golondrina, why did you leave me?  95

school, while his retarded twin brother, Miguelito, wrestles with baby Zacarías in his crib. And though the doctor told her she shouldn’t, she’s pregnant again. She can’t believe it, doesn’t want anymore, feels guilty that she doesn’t, anyway, she has no way to prevent it. Prays for a daughter this time, worries what will happen with so many older brothers. Lázaro has already told her that if it’s a boy, he’ll name him after that general Macarthur. She swears back that his name will be Valentino. I’m a mother, she repeats, what I always wanted to be. To have a family, healthy, who will have a chance to be somebody, not like me, she tells the iron and ironing board, pulling another boy’s shirt out of the basket she’s kept damp all afternoon, ready for the hot iron and spray-starching. And it’s coming true, all the sacrificios, my children aren’t like me at all. They’re better than me, they speak inglés, they don’t understand me, and, she tells the ironing board, they are forgetting me, as if in order to succeed they have to forget me. She stands up the iron, buttons the shirt on a wire hanger. Now Lucero, she knows, will be a famous journalist and travel the world. She’s so smart, all those good grades and I want her to tell our side of things, I know she listens and when she grows up she will defend los mexicanos because she listens to my stories and, besides, I can see the pain in her eyes. She places another shirt on the ironing board, wets her finger to feel for the iron’s steam. Ay, Justicia. That little girl is too pretty, too delicate. She will be a veterinarian, with all the cats she brings to her bed. Even now she runs with her doctor’s kit whenever her brothers tell her about some puppy . . . Jorge. My handsome boy. Amada irons the collar first, then flattens out the button’s lining before she presses down. Jorge will be president, or an astronaut, or a doctor, what else? He’s the smartest boy in the school, everyone knows that, even though Lázaro doesn’t seem to understand what it means, not everyone is supposed to work in the fields, no, my son is supposed to be a leader of men, that’s it. And he will need someone to protect him from the gringos who hate him 96  bárbara renaud gonzález

already because he’s so special. That’s why Gabriel, my hazeleyed boy, has to be a lawyer. She starts ironing the shirt’s front all the way to the collar in one smooth motion, and then slides the shirt around to the back. There are so many children, we need someone to fight back, to make us laugh at our troubles, someone who’s fearless, and who better than Gabriel who loves to box, who jumped off the truck the other day when we were going to town, and who just waved when we saw him walking down the road in our rearview mirror? And he’s only seven. I can see him now, she shakes her head, smiling. Irons the cuffs. Zacarías, my curly-haired baby? I think a teacher would be good for this family, someone to help all those children who don’t have a chance in the world, whose mothers don’t care, don’t understand like I do. She sighs. Admires her boys’ shirts now hanging so exquisitely as she talks to them. And besides, if Gabriel becomes a lawyer, and Jorge becomes a doctor, and Justicia a veterinarian, they can take good care of my pobrecito Miguelito and help Lázaro with his cows and horses and maranos he loves more than me . . . when I’m not here anymore. Amada caresses her pregnant belly. If you’re a boy, then, Valentino, you must be a musician — entertain us when everyone grows up and we come together as one big, happy family. You have the genes, your father can sing, and your grandmother, I’m told, played a harmonica that made the birds jealous. And if you’re a girl? Valentina? You will be a great dancer and perform all over the world. Salomé will go see you when you’re in Mexico, and she will know who you are because you will look just like me, and you’ll be the one to bring us all together as one family. Amada primps and pulls at the boys’ shirts on the hangers, surprised at this wish. Selects a pillowcase, one of a half dozen that she has to iron, it never ends. Lázaro doesn’t help at all, he doesn’t want to hear about how his children are doing in school, what kind of a father is he, so much time working and for what. She looks at the waiting iron, a Golondrina, why did you leave me?  97

kind of reassurance, back and forth, back and forth in time with her thoughts. I’m alone, alone, surrounded by six children, she realizes. And I’m alone. I exist to love them, to give them all of me, and there is no one to love me like that. That’s when she always hears his voice, “What did you expect, mi reina,” when she wets her index finger on her tongue again before the sssst of the iron, refilling it with some water for more steam. Sometimes she hears that voice, unmistakable, with just enough wrinkles in its smooth cotton bragging kind of voice, the richest cotton, his voice, when she helps herself to another cup of black coffee. Her children need her. “What did you expect, mi reina,” Jorge admonishes her again, and she imagines her children as doctors and lawyers and teachers, even on television, you’ll see, she whispers to Lázaro, to her mother, to Sapo, to everyone who’s called her stupid in her life, you’ll see what my children will become, straightening the tiniest fold, unbunching every collar corner, buttoning every button, zipping every zipper, arranging shirts and dresses and pants on hangers, a masterpiece of ironing, until dawn. “What did you expect, mi reina,” she hears his voice, remembering the first time she saw the nothing-bridge at the border in Matamoros, and her lover Jorge knew, he knew it was not what she imagined. And Lázaro, well, he does compliment her in a way, “Your mother makes tortillas so light they fly!” He said this to the boys the other day at breakfast, pitching one to Gabriel over the kitchen table. He’d never said that before, never. It’s at this hour she always hears his voice, like discovering the finest pebbles in the boys’ shoes worn down to powder, or the crunch of grains in the soft kernels of roasted corn, or rusty pennies in their pockets when she turns them inside out, his voice a pebble that won’t fall out of her heart, lodged so deeply in its cushions and pillows of blood. “What did you expect, mi reina? The Statue of Liberty?”

98  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 My Oklahoma aunts, since they have American dollars and no kids, visit Mexico every year loaded down with clothes and presents for my citified cousins. Mami has the most kids of anyone, and she can’t go anywhere, not even Mexico, because we’re so poor. “That’s what happens when you marry a tejano,” my aunts whisper with their eyes, meaning that’s what happens when you don’t marry someone who’s not a rich gringo or even a macho but romántico Mexican, oh no, Amadita had to marry someone lost in the translation — though my tías from Mexico think we’re rich because we live on this side of the border. Anyway, because our house is between Oklahoma and Mexico, they all come here once a year, and so for one week our whole casa becomes a beauty parlor, a twenty-four-hour kitchen, a beauty pageant, a pajama party, and a nightclub — all at once. Daddy gets cranky from not sleeping because of the noise, coughing up the hair sprays, cussing at the panties hanging in the bathroom, stepping over sleeping women with fat pink, blue and yellow curlers and most of all the laberinto. “No te mortifiques,” Mami aims her spatula at him, when her sisters are still asleep. “It will be over soon, Lázaro.” The parties begin at medianoche in the living room when the husbands are snoring. Each aunt has her specialty. Tía Toñia’s man-eating rumbas. Cuca la flaca with her pine-cone chichis and shriveled hips triple-stepping to the cha-cha-chá. Tía Paquita’s rico mambo scaring the baby and making the dogs howl. My mother’s fired-up polkas to get back at my father who doesn’t dance. And the best for last, Lilia’s danzón, which is a French waltz mixed with their slaves’ revolting, she says, and look how much better it got! A cinco beat, smooth as a good lipstick, like Hollywood Red by Revlon, the one you want to wear to make a Golondrina, why did you leave me?  99

man want you, no matter what your old-fashioned mother says, she says, winking. The youngest aunt, Tía Paquita with the castille-soap skin, says that the mambo was made just for her. “Muévete,” she teaches me how to make my chest jiggle and duck-walk at the same time, only on her it looks like a swan about to fly. Tells me all about Pérez Prado and how he made the mambo famous after leaving Cuba where they didn’t appreciate him because he’s un negro and then the scandals in Mexico and the tremors he caused in New York with his music. “He’s a god because he knows that to dance is to be free.” “Aaaaaaaaaaaaugh! Mambo número cinco! Ocho! The trumpets are like savages and the drums are growling, it’s beyond words, his music!” The mambo was forbidden for girls like her, she tells me. “It’s all those drums, mija, the way those congueros talk about the wanting, the aching of being human, ¿sabes? Hear the way they let the congas speak from the heart? And what is wrong with that,” she says, responding to my wide-eyed silence. “Why can’t I find a man who knows how to talk to me in bed like that, hmmm,” winking much longer than Tía Lilia. “Ay, that Pérez Prado knew how to turn everything into a mambo!” Tía Paquita wanted to sing on the stage, and finally, when she won a big contest, Abuelita wouldn’t let her go away because “No! This is not a career for decent girls.” That’s why she came to Oklahoma-land and married a gringo fireman and has a brick house and he just bought her a new Singer sewing machine. Uncle Glenn takes her to Mexico once a year to visit the relatives, and he loves her very much, she tells me. I am mamboing for Paquita, but look like one of my chickens when I surprise them in their coop at night. Tía says I show promise anyway. “You’ll understand the mambo when you get older,” she sighs. “Right now just learn the steps. One day you’ll have to run away, and the mambo will be there waiting for you, now slice some

100  bárbara renaud gonzález

sugarcane with your body! Where do you think the dances come from?” My aunt’s voice sounds like a tiger wanting to jump out of its cage. “Every conguero in the mambo has its own verse, mija, did you know that? Listen.” She leaves me for a minute to look out the window, making sure that my uncle is outside. “They’re all talking at the same time like a typical family, it’s a passionate story, you better understand that. That’s the only way to live. And to die. Especially when it’s about love, mija.” Paquita has decided to give me a permanent, and she’s talking while the music is good and loud. My scalp is burning, but her stories are worth the pain. “Now listen to the rumba, which is about the joke that love plays on us, listen to the gardenias gossiping from the balcony with the bougainvilleas when one night the husband, Román, the shameless husband drinking endlessly at the Incendio cantina on the other side of the plaza, climbs up his own balcony at four in the morning, smashing all the flowerpots, proving he’s still a man in front of the other compadres. Hear the whistles in the song?” Tía Paquita is sectioning my long hair, convinced it’s time I looked more glamourous, and her beauty trays of rollers and clips and brushes are laid out on the kitchen table while I’m praying she’s right. “You hear it?” With a comb in her mouth, she motions to the record player, to the chirping, trilling beats of the music, “It’s the pitirre and reinita, those Caribbean birds flying into the kitchen window all day long, giving us their two centavos about this soap opera. Everybody in the song gets to say their piece, ¿ves? even making it up if they want. But the rumba is also about how Victoria seduced Román in the first place.” All afternoon, with my tía’s lotions biting my scalp and the music saturating my skin, her stories continue. “The cha-cha-chá is funny and sad and wise too. Like the one about the black trumpeter Martín, who seduces Graciela, the white daughter of the rich patrón, and how could this have hap-

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  101

pened? What did we do wrong, say the parents. The scandal, the scandal!” Tía laughs loud over the music, wrapping a section of my hair in a pink roller. “Now Lilia’s danzón is for people who still believe we love only once in our lives. ¡Ja!” She stretches my parted hair out so hard I gasp. “Ay, perdóname, mija, and when it happens,” she pats my head, examining her tiny rolls of curlers all over my head, as the chemical solution is burning its way down my ears, “your tía Lilia, poet that she is, imagines we are destined to die with the memory of that one afternoon when we were dancing with a man strong as a ceiba tree, his eyes alight with the sparkles of flamboyán that shower the streets like orange confetti on the way to the port in Veracruz. That’s her mistake. Too romantic for her own good.” We have a cup of café con leche while we wait for my new curls to dry. Yes, the danzón is like the Malecón where all the couples go to fall in love to the compás of the ocean so that they can begin the journey of the broken heart. And it’s at the edge of the water the next morning where you wave good-bye to a lover who will get on a ship to leave you, promising to return, and you will wait. And wait. Like your tía Lilia’s still waiting. Until one day you realize your dream came true after all, you had your one romance, only nobody told you it’s not supposed to be forever. But at least you have something to remember on the very last moment of your life.” She starts pulling out the rods, weighing each newly curled section on her fingers. When Amada hears from her sisters that her girls are beauties, she feels ashamed that she’s not happy about it. Because it must mean that she isn’t, not anymore. Let’s see, her Salomé must be seventeen by now. Her sisters tell her they’ve heard she’s just married, that she’s fine, that she’s educated, moved to la capital, yet no one will give them an address. 102  bárbara renaud gonzález

It happened so fast, she wonders, examining the scars crisscrossing her pregnant abdomen as she sits on the toilet after all the children are asleep, finally alone in the bathroom at night. Look what they did to me, and Dios mío, my face is crinkling, my nalgas are pickling, the children don’t let me sleep, always crying, fighting, or dirty. She stands up, picks up one breast, her once-perfect 32A now a discounted mango, as she turns to view her profile. How did this happen? Sighing, she turns to the other side, now standing on tiptoe as she tries to get a full view of herself in the cabinet’s mirror. I’m not fat, she confirms to herself, still a slender woman despite all the babies, could be worse. Compares herself to the comadres who carry a couple of spare tires for a tractor. For a moment, Mami imagines what she would look like, a pair of ruby earrings dangling from her ears, like the ones that her sister Lilia has. Even without jewelry, men look at me, she consoles herself. Still, what would it be like to have a velvet-lined music box like her sister’s, a diamond wedding ring like Paquita’s, French perfume, silk pyjamas . . . Stop it, she tells the woman in the mirror, whose once-traffic-stopping cascade of velvet-black hair has been butchered into a matron’s wash-’n-go. She looks but doesn’t hear how the woman in the mirror is trying to tell her something, it hurts too much to listen.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  103

34 I was almost named after the woman who didn’t think Daddy was good enough to marry. His sister Teresa told me the story when she came through on her way to Michigan, where she works making cars. “¡Mentiras! Daddy denies a girlfriend with that name, but his eyes are laughing, like the time the baby bull chased my sister round and round until Daddy had to jump the fence to save her. Daddy shakes his head nononono, his curly hair buzzed so it looks like Morse code on his head, “No, no, where did you hear that?” “My fruitcake sisters again? Those chismoleras have nothing better to do, ¿verdad? I had no girlfriends, always working, working.” “But you met Mami. You married her.” “What say?” Daddy can’t hear too well, World War II injury he says. Swears he got married without knowing how it happened. Well, in a way, that’s true. My parents married three weeks after they first saw each other. “Your mother sure had pretty legs, wheet-wheuuuu.” A train’s distant warning. “¡Pues no! ¡Él no tiene nada!” Mami jokes about Daddy’s insect legs, his hairless Chihuahua chest, no behind at all! “¡Mira!” Bunching the fingers of her right hand, fingers and thumb pressed together to show me the little meat he has from behind. “Grasshopper!” Just two long sticks hanging off his spine, no nalgas in between. Makes a triangle with her palms pressed together and her arms opening and closing, opening. “Bowlegged too!” Says I look like him. Cussing for days when I tell her about the girlfriend who Aunt Teresa said threw him away like a bad fish. Dadddy tried to give me her name, or something close, anyway,

104  bárbara renaud gonzález

until Mami got suspicious. “I wanted to name you for a saint, he wanted to name you Marilyn, ¿te imaginas?” Instead of some puta she means. Not like those chichiflapping, loose-butt wangas she imagines chasing Daddy when he was young. The kind of women he let catch him, hmmmm, until he met her, of course. “¡Hijo de biscuite!” she puffs. “¡Sinvergüenza! Guess I have the name my parents made peace with, because nobody else has my name, Lucero, which means light, but more than that, more like a necessary light in darkness, Mami says. The gringos just call me Luci. I think my name means more, something I can’t translate, like the hope my parents had, once upon a time between them, when I was born. “What say?” Daddy points to his World War II injury, the deaf shell of his right ear, or the left one, sometimes he gets them mixed up, when Mami son-of-a-biscuites him about my name again. “¿Qué dices? No oigo.” People say my father looks like Clark Gable, only much browner and taller. He’s not handsome, but he’s worth looking at when he swings that long-walking, match-skinny body like a Gumby doll when he’s talking. “If you tie his hands behind his back,” people say, “he can’t talk, because he talks with his body!” They admire his negro’s gospel voice, a storm-is-coming kind of growl from all his worries, rough-wrinkly like his big hands, booming with enough notes to fill up the church on Sunday night if he wants. But he doesn’t. “Too bad,” people say. “A preacher-calling kind of voice.” But Daddy, please don’t tell anybody, though most people suspect it anyway, so what the hell, the truth is I don’t think he believes in God. Though he won’t admit it. “Lástima, would have made a good preacher, comadre.” What a shame, they say, with those vowels melting out of him

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  105

in Spanish or Howdy Doody joking in English, depending on who he’s got hanging on the end of his stories. Daddy brags he’s the life of the party, always in demand, isn’t that right, huerca? Even though it’s Mami who makes people slap the table, pee in their chones, fall off the chair even if they’re not drinking nothing but Kool-Aid, kicking like locos on the way down, banging their head on the floor with her stories until their panzas hurt and they beg for mercy. Ghosts, scandals, and sex are her specialties. But not in that order. “Now, is that a proper thing for a married woman? A mother of six, God Almighty! And pregnant? To do at a party? With her almost-teenage niñas hanging on every word? ¡Indecente!” Daddy’s spitting, embarrassed she did it again in front of his compadres. Mami makes them cry from laughing so hard, and I think he’s a little jealous too, ’cause she’s what people remember first the very next day. When they wake up hurting from all the laughing, I mean. ¡Indecente! “She’s not too smart, you see.” Mami’s smoky-staggering round the kitchen with her cigarette in front of the comadres and their husbands, another Saturday night. Telling the story that Daddy will yell at her about tomorrow. “¿Y qué, Lázaro?” Mami loves the crowd. Too late for him to stop her, she’s onstage with her show of stupid married men looking for women who only want their money and get it by making them think they’re the only man in the world. There’s only one problem as she tells it: This puta can’t count. “She’s tired, comadre, a long, loooong night. Likes to drink, have a good time,” Mami explains to the audience gathered in the kitchen watching, “and in the morning the puta’s tiiiiired, a thousand men she made reaaaaal happy.” Mami acts out the part, standing by the counter like some kind of woman who can outdrink any man most nights, and you don’t even notice her panza, she’s that good. Kicks off her shoes, runs her fingers through her hair, sighs good and hard, the comadres 106  bárbara renaud gonzález

and compadres hanging on every word and breath, while me and Justicia watch from the hallway where Daddy can’t see us, we think. “It’s haaard work for the money, but she’s proud of all the money she’s made, ¿sabes? Mami opens her imaginary purse, takes out the crinkled pesos to count them, smelling them, twitching her nose. “Look, Rosa!” Mami waves her pesos at the imaginary comadre, who’s also on her way home and in the same line of work. “Fíjate nomás, pero casi no puedo caminar . . .” “That’s all?” Mami’s now playing Rosario, with her hands on her hips looking at the night of money waving in her face. How can you be so tired after just one man?” “What do you mean, one man?? The puta-Mami isn’t so drunk anymore. There’s a thousand pesos here, comadre . . . you said . . .” “¡Idiota!” Rosario raises both her hands in disbelief at Mami-the-puta. “I said a thousand pesos, not a thousand men for one pinche peso!” “¡Híiiijole!” Mami takes a step back. She’s not drunk anymore. “¡Me lleva el tren!” hits her head with her open palm, glazed eyes wide open, knees trembling from the bargain she’s given her thousand clients. The cigarette falls from her hands, and you can see how even the cigarette is suffering too from the impact of the bargain. “But you said a thousand, ¿verdad?” Mami’s voice laughs with pain the way only she can do it, and the crowd answers her with a few laughs and shivery gasps from the story, encouraging her on. Then she stops. Mami takes a deep, jaggedy breath, stands up almost straight. “You mean . . . ?” Now she gets it, she’s kinda slow. Her hands talk in the air, point at herself, then she shakes her head trying to get sober, eyes blinking real fast, her voice speeding like a runaway train putting on the emergency brakes too late. “I was supposed to charge, was supposed to charge, supposed Golondrina, why did you leave me?  107

to, a thousand pesos, not a thousand, not a thousand, not a thousand . . . men?” She says the last part over and over, scolds herself for the bad math and cheap men under her breath. This is when Daddy really gets mad. But the audience can’t hear him, they like the story too much, they’re screaming by now. Another slow, different breath from Mami-the-puta, who just stands looking at nothing, something way beyond the audience. “Life goes on, doesn’t it? Another cigarette from her bosom. “A thousand pesos, a thousand men.” She says this with more disgust at the men than at herself. “It’s all the same, ¿verdad?” Burps, scratches her behind, grimaces, picks up one of her high heels, notices that it’s broken, doesn’t let go of the cigarette in her hand, puts her shoes back on, then, unbalanced, starts walking, fixing her brassiere at the same time. Watching her, you can feel that her red slip is showing, how her wavy black hair is sticky, stiff from too much hair spray; you can taste her lipstick flaking, see her fingernails all raggedy, the Paris-red nail polish chipped, her whole body crumpled and crinkly as those thousand pesos she worked so hard for. Mami makes you see her remembering the chilly dawns of Mexico, too much tequila and lime juice, the dried-out slick of men’s pomade and the stink of dying roses when the roots smell like bathroom. A thousand, a thousand, a thousand! No wonder she’s so tired. See, I still remember it. But you should’ve heard my mother tell it. The party was never complete without Mami telling that joke. Daddy’s too proper for all that. “No señor.” His stories are pure truth, just family secrets spilling like pennies from the coffee can with days to go before his paycheck: “There’s the story of my brother-in-law married to one sister, who then divorced her to marry the other one when she got pregnant by him, ¡qué bonito, eh? Caught all three of them in bed together! Went to get the rifle.”

108  bárbara renaud gonzález

¡Sinvergüenzas! Daddy doesn’t act it out like Mami does, but it’s still pretty good to imagine. “My other sister, Tina, her real name, Domitila, got panzona by some árabe who came through town, and just like a pretty woman, snared the first gringo soldier she met, him so innocent he was still pink around the ears, and six months later tried to convince the gringo, what a surprise! ¡Mira nomás! A nine-month, eight-pound baby with hair like the Koran, all squiggly with a purple ink spot on his back.” Daddy leans back in his chair, satisfied with his sister’s punishment. “The blond-eyelash fellow divorced her real quick. Never saw him again.” Daddy tells us his own mother warned him not to be talking about other people because what if somebody told our stories? That’s why it’s OK to talk about your own family ¡entre nosotros! But not everything! “Now don’t tell, Lázaro, this is a secret,” Grandmother would say. “Por favor, mijito. Te ruego por Dios.” So of course Daddy knew it was a good story and had to be told one day. To the family. “The best stories are the ones that start with Don’t and end with secret.” As the eldest son, entrusted with top-secret for-your-eyesonly family stories, says he has to give them to me, the firstborn daughter. “Now don’t tell. Promise me, mijita, that you won’t tell what I’m about to tell you. You’ll embarrass the family. They’ll never speak to me again. Don’t care that most of them, well, okay, all of these people are long dead. This is family, FA-MI-LY, we’re talkin’ about. And you have to remember everything I’m gonna tell you, and then forget it! Understand? You could get us all in trouble.”

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  109

34 “Algo tiene Lucero,” my mother’s worried about me again when Daddy comes home late as usual from the last watering of the fields. “She’s fine, vieja.” Lucky for me Daddy’s too tired from the harvesting and all the hoping for the price of cotton. “Make her speak to me in Spanish!” Mami complains. “Es tu culpa,” she says this because once I started first grade, Daddy only speaks English to me, and we gang up on her sometimes. “Por favor, vieja, leave her in peace! What do you know?” It’s all her fault. It’s the food we eat, her singing those rancheras, those sappy love songs between Mexican men and women crying for the ranches they lost or never had to begin with. Who cares about the stupid Mexican Revolution? Look how short she is, how lost she looks at the store because she doesn’t know el inglés. How she doesn’t even know she should be ashamed. Por favor. Then somebody at school steals the necklace she gave me for my twelfth birthday, the one that cost her so many nights of crocheting bridal and quinceañera dresses for the dolls that need ballroom dresses to match the wedding party, the necklace that she had made specially for me, from the only jewelry she has, that I know for sure. “It’s the tradition,” she says, fingering the gold chain she’s ordered at the jewelry shop for the present she’s gonna give me, and it costs her a whole set of bridesmaid dolls in pink with red bows. Stays up all night and drinks coffee. I’ve never seen anything like this before, where did she get it? She won’t tell me, only that it’s time I have it. Says this necklace was a special present someone gave her when she crossed the border, to protect her on her journey north. “Mira, mijita, it’s old and valuable,” unwrapping it, her eyes all droopy when she opens the scrap of faded red silk. 110  bárbara renaud gonzález

It’s not a crucifix or a locket or anything like that, it’s not from a store I can tell, but it’s better anyway. It’s wood, handmade, antiquey-looking, and you can tell it used to be rough but now it’s dark-smooth. It’s not jewelry, but it is, it’s a medallion, a map of Texas, chiseled and whittled down to the size of a half-dollar. A thick chunk of Texas, with bumps for mountains and lines for rivers, so it’s like holding the state in your hands, and writing on the back that has dissolved, like footprints, into the earth. Mami holds it in her hand for a second. She knows I’ve never seen anything like it, and that if Daddy saw it, he’d never let it out of his sight. She turns it over, goes to the window and holds it up to the light. “See the inscription on the back, mija? Some woman must have given it to a man she loved, ¡cállate! What do you know?” when I roll my eyes. “This woman must’ve received this from a man who loved her very much, so she wouldn’t forget him, you see? How do I know? Look, a C, maybe Concepción, Carmen, Candelaria, fíjate bien. And another letter with it, but it’s too worn down. The date’s almost invisible, but I think it says eighteen hundreds, ¿ves?” I’m too scared to touch it, afraid of losing it. And now it’s mine. “This necklace will bring you good luck,” she says as she loops the gold chain through the hole at the flat top of Texas, about where we live. Explains that in Mexico this isn’t anything like what mothers give their daughters on their fifteenth birthday, but she’s different and she wants me to have this now. Why? Don’t ask, because I can tell she just wants to give it to me, and there’s no stopping her when she’s decided on something. Daddy says she’s too romantic for her own good. Doesn’t believe in this good-luck-superstition business! No necklaces from him for Mami, that’s for sure. He’s too tired all the time. But someone must’ve envied my necklace, taken it when I wore it in basketball and the coach said take it off. Looked everywhere, but it’s gone and don’t know how I’m going to tell Mami. Golondrina, why did you leave me?  111

My hands are on fire from the wishing I could hold it again and look at it one more time. Now what’s gonna happen to my life? Mami had made the jeweler put some Spanish words on the back of Texas, and I could tell he didn’t want to. He didn’t think she deserved that necklace, offered her money for it, but she wouldn’t sell it. When I tell Mami, she doesn’t cry or yell like I was afraid, just gets real quiet for a long time, and then sighs and says it’s a sign. But what does that mean? And why did she give it to me in the first place, when she loved it so much?

112  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 Once, we had land.” Daddy’s cigarette is a lone red star in the night as we make a circle around him on the cement porch, leaning against each other for support. He’s the only one standing as we wait for his story, while he looks out to the sky, waiting for the rain that doesn’t want to come. “Comes from my father’s side, my great-great-great-grandmother Gertrudis, born here in Texas in the late 1700s. The story is that Gertrudis should’ve been born on the Mexican side, but esa cabrona had a temper from the beginning, you know how women are,” glances at my mother, who stares right back, “and so she decided to be born on this side of the Río Bravo, two weeks late. But right on time, I guess. Mamá Gertrudis, what a legend in our family! I remember her in a way, sabes, can’t explain it, it’s like she’s beside me sometimes, so many stories about her. Died long before I was born. But she’s the family tree that bore fruit in Texas, remember that.” He turns from the starlight to look at all of us listening to him. “Everything comes from her.” We’re all silent, even little Zacarías, who’s almost three, seems to be listening to the music of my father’s voice, humming along with his beat. “Gertrudis was a mestiza. Mixed blood. Spanish skin but Indian in the places you can’t see. She was the firstborn of those Spanish-Mexicans who came to Texas for the land grants, who weren’t rich enough to belong to the right country clubs in Spain and who thought they could make it in Mexico. Our people.” His cigarette flickers to one side. “Our people wanted land. And where were they supposed to go? That’s what we come from, best I can tell. You know what we are, ¿entienden, huercos?”

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  113

Stops to listen to a coyote howling, and there’s a smile in his voice, like the coyote’s answering his question. “Our people were nothing more than the hungry pack who came after the Spanish conquistadores, wanting to conquer Texas, ’cause there was nothing else left, which makes us descended, I reckon, from the rejects of Spain and the nobodies of Mexico and maybe a few, maybe unos cuantos de gente decente who were running away from something, and a little crazy too. So I guess we come from France, a little Ireland, and Moctezuma and all the bastards in between, I reckon.” “That’s a dirty word, Daddy!” Jorge and my younger brothers giggle, don’t understand a word he’s saying, but they always get the bad words. “Lázaro.” Mami knows it’s too late to stop Daddy now, but she has to pretend she and Daddy don’t cuss, when I know they do. “Aaaay vieja.” Daddy ignores her, bends down to stub out his cigarette on the porch, sits down at one corner by himself, stretches out his legs, one after the other, carefully, rubs his knees, and leans back on his arms. “Our people weren’t rich, but not starving either. Just the right kind of hungry — smart enough and mean enough to do almost anything to get plenty of land. Not white enough, and worse, didn’t care that we weren’t. The Mexican government made us a deal, they were kind of desperate back then, sabes, needing people to homestead el norte, which included Texas, aquí. Needed to fill it up before the gringos took it, which they did anyway. You can say a lot of things about gringos, but nobody steals better than them.” Daddy shifts his long legs so they hang over the edge of the porch, and he stretches them again, brushing specks of dirt off his pants, even though Mami just washed them this morning and he just put them on.

114  bárbara renaud gonzález

He’s got our complete attention, what with the bastard word and the stealing, but he takes his time. “The deal was,” he continues, looking at his legs, “the deal was that if we wanted to live among coyotes and rattlesnakes, wild Indians and runaway slaves, we could have all the land we wanted.” Turns to face us. “Nobody wanted it back then, you see. Now everybody wants it.” His voice sounds scratchy like a bad record with the smoking or something else, I can’t tell. Looks out to the fields he can’t see, that he worries over so much. The same land he loves more than us, I know, much more. “Well, the Indians who were here must have wanted it too, ¿verdad?” Looks real hard at us. “But they don’t count, they never have.” Shrugs, pulls out another cigarette. “You don’t see any of them around here, do you?” A star falls from the sky right behind his right ear. I make a wish that Daddy’s wish comes true. “You don’t see any more Indians around here, right?” Looks around at all of us. We know it’s not a real question, so everyone stays quiet. He’s asked this question before. I think about how people always ask me when we go to Oklahoma what tribe I belong to. Wish I knew. Daddy’s still talking. “So Texas was like a woman that any man could possess, ¿quieres decir?” I know that word, poseer, because my mother uses those words all the time, but I don’t think my brothers understand it. Mami’s voice is like the whole Milky Way: her words could fill up a whole galaxy, while Daddy’s are like the land, plain and rough.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  115

As usual, Daddy doesn’t answer her. “Lucky my great-great-great grandfather the red-haired Irishman came to Texas right after the gringos beat the hell out of Mexico. When land was cheap. Story is that he made a small fortune selling information to both sides during the U.S.-Mexican War. Married Mamá Gertrudis, who was a good-looking widow because of that same godforsaken war they call the Texas Revolution. Gertrudis’s first husband died with the pendejo mexicanos who trusted Bowie and Austin, our great Texas heroes, you know about them, ¿verdad? Wouldn’t give a dime for that pack of thieves. What you don’t know is that our ancestors helped settle those damn gringos in Texas — and look what happened to us in return. My grandmother told me that our whole family was broken up by the war — those who wanted to fight against Mexico, and those who didn’t, returned to that other side.” Looks at Mami for emphasis. “Never heard from them again. Don’t know where they are.” A red star is sparkling in his hand. “Hummph. Probably begging on the streets on some dusty street in Mexico. Wishing they were here.” Mami gives him another look in the dark, and I notice she’s rubbing her left hand with her right. Mami’s told me Daddy never gave her a wedding ring, even though they’re married. “Lázaro.” That’s all she says. But the way she says it means so much more. “In those days,” Daddy continues, getting wound up in his story like he always does, pretending Mami isn’t there, that the story isn’t about her, it’s between us and him only, “all you needed was a gun and the will to use it to have a little land. After the war, if you could find a Mexican woman with land it made things that much easier. Not just any woman, but a fair-skinned woman who belonged to gente decente, good society. These were the mexicanas who were the kind the gringos accepted, it wasn’t like they were prejudiced against all of us, you see. That’s how 116  bárbara renaud gonzález

they got their real estate. Fair and square. Legal, married into it, see? Then their children stay gringos who can brag about their Mexican mothers since they’re really white, you understand? They have it both ways, ¿ves? Some of my first cousins got that red hair and green eyes, right? And sure enough, Grandmother Gertrudis and that Irishman had a daughter, Amparo, and lemme tell you, there’s nothing prettier than a woman with streaks of red and brown hair mixed up with with gold-green eyes. Whooeee, they say she was pretty. Only wouldn’t you know it, the girl married a tejano, and that’s what started all the problems ’cause she could’ve married up with a gringo, instead she went down the ladder with that chaparro.” Daddy likes bragging about the green-eyed abuela, proof we’re more than the gringos think we are. “Amparo’s oldest daughter, María de la Camelia, didn’t look like either of her parents. She had skin the color of good tequila, with just enough yellow to make you dizzy,” he says looking at Justicia who has auburn hair and brown eyes with flecks of gold in them. “And I knew her as a young boy, my abuelita Camelia, your great-great-grandmother, and she had the blackest hair. I mean it was shiny, and I remember when she brushed it at night, it was a sight, let me tell you, that hair was fine silver then, long and heavy, no question, Mamá Camelia was a beauty. Yessiree.” He sighs, shifts his body a little. “Too bad for Mamá Gertrudis, que Dios la tenga en su gloria, that our land was on the border between Texas and Mexico. Because of Camelia, that is.” Daddy makes the sign of the cross, but this is the only time that he does it, not when we go by a church, like other people. Says he doesn’t believe, that the last place to find God is in the Church. “Lázaro.” Mami isn’t very Catholic either, but she says this is profane. Daddy continues like he hasn’t heard her and keeps going. “. . . something like 20,000-plus acres that Camelia was due to Golondrina, why did you leave me?  117

inherit. She had a pack of sinvergüenza brothers, all younger than her, always fighting and drinking and gambling, and, well, that’s another story. Then the king of the King Ranch made a personal visit with gifts and a horse, wanting to marry her to his young son. Why not? She was the most beautiful woman in the region. And Camelia told him to go to hell.” Daddy laughs out loud, you can tell he loves this part of the story. “Maybe it was the red hair in her genes, ¿quién sabe? Camelia, they say, was stubborn as a mule. The oldest child, the responsible one, pero la consentida too. She was raised to be independent, being the oldest and all. Beautiful, and smarter than most men, and she knew it, a dangerous combination for a woman. And the Kings wanted that in the family, I reckon, though they’d never admit it.” “Híjole, what a scandal! You just didn’t say no to the Kings, y pa’ acabar la chingggg . . . ,” Daddy snaps his wrist, stopping the cussword before it completely leaves his mouth, though we know it’s bad, “Mamá Gertrudis defended her grandaughter.” He waits a long, long minute to tell us the rest, knows it’s better for the story. Pos, those Kings didn’t get those million acres for being nice people, and sure enough. See, el chueco King wanted Camelia but he wanted the land more, she was the gravy for the steak. When she said no, peor, hell no, the old man King came to visit the family himself, and swore to buy the land once Camelia was a widow. Said all this in Spanish, because all the gringos spoke it then. “Me vendes la tierra, o se la compro a la viuda.” Daddy scratches his head, like he’s trying to figure something out. “See, Mamá Camelia was a rebel, married for love. Now that was a revolution in those days.” He smiles big and wide at the next part of this story. “Mira, when a mexicana like Camelia can choose between a man from gente decente or a King Ranch gringo, why ruin your-

118  bárbara renaud gonzález

self with some negro from Louisiana?” Daddy slaps his thighs in admiration. “So what if the negro speaks español, so does the gringo. Ay, pero Mamá Camelia told me that when her husband was courting her, it was one long poem; she said his words were piloncillo, that my great-grandfather made her want to lick the words right from his fingers, ¿te imaginas?” Daddy runs his fingers through his hair, smiles. And now that he’s getting gray curls, he gives us a nickel each if we can pull one out, but we can’t. “Where is he from? And his family? Nobody knew.” Daddy crosses his legs, looks for a cigarette in his shirt pocket. “The chisme was, he was a bastard mulatto from a rich family escaping New Orleans after serving in the Confederacy, and that he was on the run.” “¡Lá-za-ro!” Mami reminds him about that word. Daddy rolls his eyes, looks away. Counts the cigarette stubs lined up beside him. Looks up at us. “Or was he really born in a chateau surrounded by servants as he claimed? Could he really be the runaway son of a French marquis and his mother the black maid? Ha! No, no, la gente decía he couldn’t be that, he was nothing more than a freedman, a former slave. Pero . . .” Daddy smooths the empty pack of cigarettes flat on his thigh. “He had some reading and writing in him, maybe, hmmmm.” Fiddles with the pack, folds it once, twice, puts it back in his pocket. “No, he must’ve escaped from some plantation.” Daddy twirls the one cigarette left over and over in his hand. “That was it, how many times had he tried before, because he sure was something, ¿verdad?” Puts the cigarette in his mouth, sucks on it. “Yeaaaah, maybe he stole the master’s silver, maybe that’s why he ran, maybe, maybe he’d stolen more than that . . . hummmmmmm.” Lights the cigarette with a match, talking as it catches. “Maybe he killed somebody!” Blows smoke, laughing so the frogs join him in his rumbling. “Well, mijitos,” Daddy turns to us for just a second before

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  119

looking at his smoke disappearing into the night, “even if he was the royal prince of the Bayou himself, in Texas, if you look like he did, you’re just a negro, no way out about it.” Turns to us, and issues one of his orders. “And I better not ever hear any of you use any bad words to describe los negros, you hear me? We don’t talk like that in this family.” Nobody says a word, except the frogs, and they quiet down too. “Doesn’t matter where he came from anyway.” Daddy continues, swinging his legs back on the porch, shifting a little to straighten his hunched back. “Everyone who came to Texas in those days was born again when they crossed those rivers, and whatever they did in the past seems to have been forgotten if not forgiven.” Coughs a little from the smoking. “Anyway, this man who was to be my great-grandfather was considered less than a mexicano, which was less than the españoles who were less than the gringos, and of course the indios were at the bottom of everything. But the negros were the lowest of the totem pole. That’s just the way it was. Nobody fought it. But love doesn’t know any better, I guess,” Daddy tries to catch the disappearing smoke, “it just has a way of showing us how stupid all this is. The truth is that one spring day in the 1860s this handsome Honoré, his real name, arrives on a steamboat at the Matamoros port of Baghdad from New Orleans, and the first thing he sees is Camelia washing clothes in the Rio Grande River, the tip of her black braids just flicking the water, as she bends down in the river. Mamá Camelia told me something told her to look up, and that’s when she knew he was her destino.” My brothers don’t deserve this story, because they’re elbowing each other behind me, snickering at this part like when I fell playing baseball that Sunday and everyone saw my white panties under my church dress. How I wish they’d shut up now, but Daddy’s never told this part of the story and if I complain, he’ll get mad at them and give up and who knows when I’ll know the ending. 120  bárbara renaud gonzález

“That’s the woman I’m going to marry,” he swore to everyone around him that day, people from Louisiana are like that, I guess. Honoré decided right then and there. Redbone, the other black men called him, because his skin was like ours, but sunburned, a roasted-peanut color. ¿De dónde, dices, Louisiana? Mamá Amparo did not approve. La gente decente, you know. Didn’t matter that he was a hardworking man. What will people say, ¿sabes? Got to be good people, decent people, even if it kills you, that’s how our people are. Well, Mamá Gertrudis and Amparo let Camelia do whatever she wanted. That’s why your mother and I don’t want you to be decent for other people, just yourself, you hear?” We nod yes, the boys punching each other when Daddy’s not looking, and the little ones falling asleep on top of each other, kittens with tennis shoes. Honoré was taller than most mexicanos, that’s for sure. Reckon I have his height and good build.” Daddy straightens up, posing like he’s getting his picture taken, which he never lets anyone do. Daddy really thinks being taller and leaner makes him better, and Mami hates it when he talks like this, but she likes the way he looks, I can tell. “And he could sing, play a meeeean guitar, have I told you that? After he sang her some love songs, Mamá Camelia just had to marry him, easy.” He laughs, notices the drooling from Zacarías as he sleeps on her lap, touching her pregnant panza. “I heard these things from her when she was an old, old lady, and I swear it was like watching a young girl again, all fresh eyes and blushing. But what would you know about that, hummm?” Daddy twists his body to face us, extending one long leg to us, the other still dangling over the porch, touching the ground. His back has become part of the night sky, his cigarette a comet pointing directly at all of us. His hands are moving along with his story, the cigarette leading the way. “She trusted me with her story, even though I was just a boy, just like I’m trusting you.” He takes a deep breath, and I breathe right behind him. Golondrina, why did you leave me?  121

“Mamá Camelia, when I knew her, was a poor, old woman, but she didn’t smell of church or lace the way some people do, no sir. She glowed even then with something, and you could feel a whole matchbox inside her, so you know she must’ve broken many hearts when she was young and in her carne, and they say that Honorio had eyes deep in his face like raw bits of malachite, dicen. That he smelled of green too, like romero after the rain, the kind of man who stays handsome even if he’s got dirt under his fingernails you can’t wash out, good dirt. They fell in love.” I know what Daddy means, though he’s not saying it, and it makes me happy and confused too, saying that Camelia was considered white, even though Daddy’s admitting she wasn’t really, and that my great-great-grandfather Honorio was negro, even though he was the same color as lots of the mexicanos. “You see, my great-grandfather Honorio, that’s his name in Spanish, when he came here, was a very brave man.” The cigarette agrees. “To the gringos he was just another black man. Understand, one black man has to have more courage locked up in the wrinkles of an elbow than ten gringos fighting at the Alamo trying to get out. And you know what happened to those pendejos. Remember, los gringos are different. They didn’t take our land outright. No, they figured out a million different ways to do it legally after the Mexican War. Hell, they owned the law.” More agreeing from the cigarette. “And when that didn’t work, they took it with barbed-wire fences and marriages. Same thing. Over time, the taxes got so high that nobody could afford to keep the land, unless you had thousands of acres, and that was only good if your family stuck together, not fighting or cheating each other without thinking of the good of the whole family. Our family, unfortunately, wasn’t that united. And we didn’t speak English then, only Spanish, when it got to be important to speak and read el inglés. And where were we gonna learn that? The poorer families in the ranchitos

122  bárbara renaud gonzález

could barely read Spanish, much less inglés. In those days, reading the land is what put bread in your children’s mouth.” Daddy stands up to look at the sky again. The stars are so bright, and the rest of the sky is so dark, and I wonder if God can see us. “Where were we supposed to learn inglés?” Daddy studies the sky, extends one hand out, feeling how the wind has come in, a good rain sign. “Few people went to school, and it wasn’t like the Mexicans and the gringos went to school together, because they didn’t. Not allowed. Not like today. Very few of the mexicanos knew how to speak English after the war that made them American citizens overnight. Spanish was the language, of the church and the stars too,” he says, putting his cigarette hand up to his forehead, like his mind is hurting, or he’s trying to understand the sky, I don’t know. Looks at us, but doesn’t see us. “Next year they say that the stars are going to fall from the sky. Happens only once in a hundred and fifty years. You’ll see, the stars will fall all night long. Like the sky’s exploding.” He turns back to the stars as if waiting for them to rain down on us. “I think we would have lost the land anyway, sooner or later. He says this slowly, very quietly. “The gringos spoke Spanish then, and it sure didn’t hurt them any.” But it’s good to speak English.” Daddy’s proud that people who’ve never seen him think he’s a gringo by the way he speaks. Until they see him, of course. Silence. So why can’t we speak Spanish now? The question is in the sky and the stars, and the answer is so loud Mami doesn’t have to say anything at all. It’s about making sure we know we’ve lost. “My family didn’t have a chance in court.” Daddy’s cigarette reaches out to some star. “Pobrecita, Mamá Camelia didn’t realize her papers were only as good as the people who respected

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  123

what the words said.” He sighs like when he’s taken a long drag of his cigarette. “We should have known better,” Daddy laughs, but the laugh’s a thirsty one, like when you need a glass of cold water in the middle of summer, when you’ve been hoeing cotton since dawn and nothing else will do, only water. “It’s always about land.” He’s spitting stars from his mouth, so many inside him, like cusswords almost. “We just lost, that’s all. And they won.” It’s getting late, and the crickets and frogs have gone to sleep too, here and there a little criiiick, rrrrurp. Except for one big bullfrog, there’s always one, isn’t there, who has to be the boss. “Great-grandmother Camelia named me, did you know that?” Yes, we know, but that’s all. He stretches his arms back, yawning, twists around to look at us, but I’m the only one awake, even Mami’s asleep sitting down, snoring. “Lázaro. From Lazarus, who was resurrected, and he who returns from the dead. You know why?” And we go to bed, and I want to dream about Camelia and Honorio, and that moment when he saw her at the river, but nothing comes, only an explosion of stars in the sky falling down like rain.

124  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 Tía Cuca, who’s sewing in the dining room, puts her hand on the sewing machine wheel, stopping the wheel on a dime. She’s making a new maternity dress for Mami during this year’s aunt reunion. Between my mother and her, they have a whole dozen kids, but now that Mami’s gorda again, guess who’s ahead? Golden thread is suspended for a second from the wheel to the needle, then snipped. “Let me teach you to cha-cha-chá, mija.” Cuca’s the skeleton of the family. Looks like a stick of beef jerky, the aunts joke, working as a seamstress in Mexico where it’s so hard to make a living, sacrificing herself so that my six cousins can go to private schools and then to college. Cuca’s husband, my tío Alfredo, is a borracho, like that picture in the lotería cards, and she’s accepted her cards, the tías say. “Don’t you know,” my aunts begin late at night when they think she’s asleep, and they’re still scissoring everybody at dawn over their Nescafé, “that the cha-cha-chá is what got her in trouble in the first place?” They make jokes about how my oldest cousin, Javier, was born six months after Cuca’s marriage to Alfredo. My aunts tell me the story in their own way all at once. “Your grandmother believes that Alfredito exploded his palomitas while she was just, ummmmm, kissing him, tú sabes, and who-knows-how, but she ended up sitting on his lap!” Tía Lilia starts the story but my mother interrupts. “Pueeees, just to be comfortable, you know, that’s how those bad little doves flew out from his calzoncillos and somehow, became homing pigeons who found their way through his khaki pants, a freak accident, sabes, a fenómeno, a miracle!” “The pigeons,” now Tía Toñia interrupts Mami. “Flew straight to her cotton panties she embroidered so sweetly with “Saturday,” and the little devils sneaked under the letters somehow to get to the nest . . .” Golondrina, why did you leave me?  125

“¡Cállate! Tía Lilia realizes that both Justicia and me are wide awake, sneaking into the kitchen to hear. “Don’t you see the girls are listening?” But it’s too late. “Sshshshshshshshsh!” They’re already falling on each other cackling, squackling, making funny sounds, laughing and crying, crashing into each other’s versions of the story like four wild birds finally let loose from a cage. “Stop laughing!” Cuca comes into the kitchen in her slip, but she’s smiling too. She’s used to this, it’s been going on for fifteen years, she tells me later. “And you made Mamá swear to the priest this is how it happened!” “Mamá a devoted, no, a DEVOTED Catholic! And you got it, the white dress and the church wedding too!” “As if Cuca was the immaculate conception!” “Look how you’ve suffered, all because of him. Was it worth it?” Cuca just shakes her head, takes her cup of coffee to the sewing machine the next day, as if she wasn’t their running joke for the last fifteen years. It’s Sunday afternoon, and she leaves her sewing for a moment when everyone is napping after church and the chicken tacos, to teach me to dance. Uno, dos, tres. Uno, dos, tres. Makes a dainty square on the floor. Cuca is the best costurera in the city, worth more than any man-made machine, say the aunts. Her dance steps are like her dress seams, no visible knots, straight inside and out. With her sewing, she’s paying for all her six children’s private schooling, even if it means she has to work around the clock. “Uno, dos, tres.” The rich women know to bring her their daughters so that Cuca can make their party dresses. While we dance, Tía tells me a story about Tito Rodríguez and his famous song Tú a mí me perteneces. “Oh, Alfredo belongs to her, she got him all right.” The aunts are always like a Greek chorus singing in Spanish

126  bárbara renaud gonzález

who won’t leave her alone. They just woke up, watching us from the sidelines. “Uno, dos, tres.” Cuca beckons. “Step back. Onetwothree. Other foot, forward. You belong to me. Pivot. Onetwothree. Other foot. Onetwothree. Forward. Onetwothree. Now to the side, underarm turn. Onetwothree. The good thing about the cha-cha-chá is that it’s related to the mambo, style not savagery, more complicated. Do you understand? Love is complicated.” Tía talks and dances with pins in her mouth. “She’s a martyr.” Mami tells me later that she’s weak. “She gives and gives and where has her self gone?” Mami thinks she’s better than her sister because she would never put up with a drunken no-good husband, but we don’t have Abuelita living with us like Cuca does because Daddy won’t accept the in-laws, especially the Mexican ones, and there are too many kids here already. Mami’s told me how Tía Cuca cried and cried, swearing that nothing had happened even when she couldn’t hide her pregnancy anymore, just kissing while she sat on his lap, she said, and that’s all she would admit to the family. Nothing happened. Everything happened! “Y ¿para qué? Look how she lives, en la miseria.” Mami looks down on her sister, but Cuca only smiles at her younger sister and finishes the maternity dress, a cobalt-blue two-piece outfit with gold-satin trimming that makes Daddy whistle and Mami cry when she hears it.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  127

34 It’s the middle of the night and Lázaro darts by the girls’ bedroom, one shoulder rising, the other falling, a twisted wire hanger of a man in his Fruit of the Loom underwear. No, more like a telephone post, according to Amada. In the night, he trips, trying so hard not to be seen. Then he yells at the kids to be quiet, and of course everyone, even Amada’s sisters, see him. He stumbles again, recedes into the dark like some animal, returning to the night where animals like him belong. Lázaro’s always tired, with his beat-the-devil days and nights infinite as the land around him. Works like a black man, Amada says, which is no compliment the way she says it, meaning he’s a slave to the land. That’s true, but no one is its master either, not really. He knows that Amada’s lost respect for him because he worships the land that scorns him, but how can he explain that it’s the men who’ve stolen it that she should scorn? Like a puppet, he strings himself together before dawn, it’s time to move the irrigation pipes again. Desperate, he’s playing these months before harvest like a game of poker against God, half praying for a little rain. When Lázaro sings in the fields, you can hear the echoes of other voices and see the men even leaner than him, their bass voices stinging like a hoe’s blade, salted jerky from the trail years, jingling harmony with their spurs, then one or two, then three voices whooping into yells. ¡Uuyuyuy! ¡Ahjajay! ¡Danos chansa! Like Lázaro’s father sang it, and his father before him, with the great-grandfather’s voice, a chain-rattling voice rising from the depths of a ship, claiming more words than the cattle that filled the plains, more land than the eye could see, a new language gutburning as pulque, husky with canto and a little cognac, hypnotic with its cascading and spiraling voweling, snatching poems and verses and scriptures and chants from everywhere, roping them 128  bárbara renaud gonzález

into something holy and sacred, bluer than sky, the delicious Spanish words melting in the mouth like homemade ice cream in July, first-love kisses never tasted. Where are they now, the immensity of them, like the buffalo, like the wild bison, the mustangs, and the longhorn cattle? Without those words, how can you hear the voice of God?

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  129

34 Mami says that Daddy won’t tell the story about crying when his little brother died of leukemia. “Well now, you want a story or do you want the truth? I’ve never cried in my life.” Daddy brags that he comes from a family so mean the rattlesnakes ran away rather than wait to be bitten by one of them. “Not like your mother who finds tears in her apron to juice up a story. Esa mujer llora buckets just to get attention, why she’s cried every day of her life, I reckon she’ll cry if the beans burn, you see how she cries for half an hour after she has to do some spanking on the kids.” Daddy’s proud he tells the truth and nothing but. “N’ombre, I don’t make up mentiras about some mil-pesos prostitute who doesn’t know the difference between a thousand men and a thousand pesos, ssshhht.” Reaches for another of her tortillas on the table. Daddy says he didn’t cry when he got the letter informing him his father died of a brain tumor while he was in the Philippines fighting, the letter delivered when he was in a foxhole. Swears he didn’t flinch when that woman who I was supposed to be named after rejected his proposal, even though he was a war veteran, and he was a helluva catch. “Marilyn sure didn’t think so,” Mami mutters from the kitchen sink just loud enough so I can hear. Daddy’s sister Teresa told me his gringa girlfriend wanted a man who’d finished high school, and who didn’t have to support his widowed mother and spoiled sisters, everyone depending on him, and how the worst part was he didn’t have anything, not even land. So how was he going to support a gringa? “We should learn from the gringas, ¿verdad? Mami says after Daddy leaves the table, still mad about the thousand-pesos joke

130  bárbara renaud gonzález

she’s told again. “The gringas are the boss at home, where it matters, see how lucky I was to get your father?” Mami frowns, she’s making Kool-Aid popsicles, and she really means she wasn’t, catching Daddy and everything else, she means. My father’s proud he’s a tall mexicano, a whole foot taller than her, taller than most gringos even, where the air is warmer he says, close to the clouds where you can breathe. And he speaks the English she barely understands, doesn’t care to learn, though she wants her children to learn it as long as they don’t forget how Spanish is a Superior Language. What’s most important to Mami is that Daddy was born on this side of the river, which means papers, though she told such a whopper at the county courthouse that the people there believed it and gave her a brand-new American birth certificate. You have to remember, Mami tells her audiences on Saturday nights when she’s the star, that in her time of cruzando, it was no big deal to cross the bridge, all you had to do was walk over the bridge looking good and not look back. The gringos didn’t care, because the only ones crossing were the braceros working in the fields or for the railroads, like that. The gringos needed people to work, they didn’t imagine the mexicanos would have children here and stay. “Por Dios, I swear that I, Amada García Mistral, was born on this side, right before my parents took me back home to Mexico. Now give me my American birth certificate, por favor.” With his right hand on the Bible, and the other behind his back, fingers crossed, Daddy imitates what Mami’s capable of. But Mami’s proud, warns everyone at the Saturday-night card games not to tell, that she’ll be deported, and where will her stories go? Everyone laughs but Daddy, ’cause he’s the only one born here I guess, and Mami says he doesn’t dare call the migra on her ’cause he’ll be left with all of us kids and then what? While the honeymoon lasted, and it didn’t last very long, Mami says that Daddy was her Jorge Negrete, the handsome

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  131

Mexican movie star with the same kind of mustache, only that Daddy wore blue jeans instead of a black-and-silver mariachi suit, and his protection was a .20-20 behind the driver’s seat of his hand-polished, polished red, almost-new jewel of a pickup. He likes horses too, so the pickup is his horse, she explains. And can he ever sing, Mami closes her eyes, tu papá can do it all, ballads and corridos, Frank Sinatra, the real stuff. “A real man doesn’t do serenades, are you kidding?” Daddy frowns at Mami when she talks to me about his singing. “And you believe the story she told to get her papers?” Daddy’s still mad at Mami over her entertaining the Saturday-night crowd, but it hasn’t stopped him from eating the pork chops and french fries she special-cooks just for him, calming him down just enough on the Sunday afternoons after. “Lies are the truth the enemy tells, Lázaro,” Mami looks up from her dishwashing. Daddy’s unfazed, dripping ketchup from the bottle on his french fries, which he says you can’t beat as the best food in the world. “Some people lie so well they’ve forgotten how to tell the truth.” He has to finish all the fighting between them, because he’s the man, and Mami doesn’t like it, so she just tells a better story. Daddy does have one really good story la gente always talks about. “That’s because the truth is always bigger and better than any lies your mother tells, like the truth hidden in Mami’s closet, eh?” Wink. The thing is, Daddy doesn’t want to tell it, but says he has to — he’s the chosen one. On account of his being the oldest male in the family, and the fact is that when he walks into a room, people stare and then comes the listening, like that wind that seems to push him around so he can’t be still. Daddy says his story happened to almost everyone we know, but nobody talks about it, ’cause it’s not a funny story, and the ghosts in it are real, though

132  bárbara renaud gonzález

he doesn’t believe in ghosts, mind you. Daddy says la gente want to forget this story, but they can’t, that’s why he keeps telling it, ’cause he’s the chosen one to tell a story the people are trying to forget but they can’t until he tells it from beginning to end. He says the story’s like a dirty shirt you’ve been wearing because that’s all you have, and the telling of it’s like blue starch, plenty of Tide to get good suds, two rinses and then a wringing, twisting it real hard, hanging it under a good sun till it dries nice and fresh, ¿sabes? Some secrets must be told, he says, it’s just that Mami’s always picking the wrong ones to wash. Then he doesn’t tell me the story, says he has to go to work. “So how did Abuelita go blind?” Mami’s promised me the story of my grandmother’s eyes. I know it has something to do with her and Daddy, and part of me doesn’t really want to hear it, it’s just that her stories don’t leave me alone, even when I wish they’d go back into the cupboard where Mami picks them out along with her spices. “Don’t rush me.” Mami’s stirring and spooning and salting. “Get up from the chair and help me, ándale.” She never forces me to help her cook, considering my grade is a big F in the kitchen. But I’m good for cleaning and listening, that’s why she has some hope that I’ll turn out for something better than basketball, which she doesn’t understand. Mami wants me to have a career, and she wants me smart in the kitchen too, I just haven’t figured out how to do both yet. On the radio, Lola’s singing to a swallow asking why did he leave her and with all the begging in it you know he’s left to another country and never coming back. The one guitar Lola sings with is even sadder, and her voice has a whole month’s worth of black coffee grounds in her cup. My swallow, why did he go? I was alone and he was sad, I hurt him. Ay, ay, if you see him, dear God, I implore you. That you bring him home, because he’s wounded . . .

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  133

“Why is the man so wounded?” Mami shakes her head at my stupid question, or at my dishdrying, I don’t know which. “Anyway, Papá liked to break the rules, that’s how you win, ¿que no? That’s how men think, anyway, why they break as many rules as possible. Bottles of tequila too, after he lost the land in the Revolution. Not that he cared, it wasn’t his to begin with, decía. All he ever wanted was my mother, la señorita Eulogia. Papá is the kind of man who cries, you see, great for a father, but for a husband? Ni lo mande Dios.” Mami’s beginning her story, but she’s forgotten Chapter 1. “Daddy never cries,” I remind her. She opens her eyes real big, meaning her father cried too much and Daddy needs to cry a little. She sits down to sort the beans for supper. “But Mamá didn’t want a man without his land.” Sips her Folgers, fifth cup of the day, I’m sure. “La señora Eulogia has needles with duende, the people said. Your abuela made clouds, not linens, that floated on tables. Once, she made an ivory bedspread called precioso for a rich client’s wedding.” “Is this how Abuelita went blind?” “A wedding present like this,” she ignores my question so that I know she’s answering me on her own time, passing me a plastic bowl to help her, “a wedding like this required six months of embroidering melon roses with De Lirio thread after a long day of making sweet bread and satin-bowed dresses.” Her fingers trace the checkered oil-cloth mantel we use because she says it’s simple to clean with so many kids. “Another time, little brown cherubs playing in a fountain for a doctor’s waiting room. Knitted blankets, baby bonnets with just a whisper of color de rosa. Matching socks with lace edging for a new daughter.” She looks at me from behind the mountain of beans in front of her. “Mamá, tu abuela, could do everything, not like me.” Amada shrugs, blaming herself for not being good enough.

134  bárbara renaud gonzález

Considers the pots on the stove as if she’s apologizing for not being the gourmet cook that another sister is. “I have no talents. Except for rebellion.” Amada remembers when Jorge asked her where did she learn to kiss a man like that. “I tell you, my mother’s handiwork was more impresionante than anything I’ve seen in those artbooks you bring home from school.” Amada rises from her chair to rinse the good beans in a colander. “White, delicate, crocheted individuales, pure as the Virgen. Table runners, portavasos for those blue-tinted heavy water glasses, the vases filled with orchids, so common in Mexico.” Amada’s fingers shape the air into flowers, trace the table when she sits back down to slice potatoes, carving slices of cool watermelon for dessert later. I can’t even cook, she thinks. Don’t have an education like my daughter is getting, and I’m certainly not any good at marriage, so what is it exactly that I’m good for? Mami tells me to rinse the corncobs and rub the cornsilk out, starts telling me about the organza apron my grandmother once made with the rose-petal ties, better than holding pearls in your hands, she says. And then there was a “Te Amo” embroidered on the linen pillowcases for the nightclub singer whose heart was always broken, and that’s not all, she embroidered delicate white collars for proper ladies’ church dresses, purple velvet altar cloths for Good Friday, cross-stitched dishcloths with casitas, a miniature family too, initialed damask towels for the anniversary, and hand-rolled batiste handkerchiefs with a husband’s three initials in the corner. Mami folds the invisible linens as she talks, then lights a cigarette with the stub of another in the ashtray. “And, of course, for the family banquets, las servilletas washed and rinsed in the sun, smoking with starch, ironed with the swanlike grace that women make with their hands because this is our

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  135

art, you understand? In Mexico, a bride receives the traditional set of a dozen napkins for the celebrations, with one square in the corner matching the tablecloth. A year’s work.” Not any good until the patriarch’s first drop of grease, impossible to remove, permanent as blood, she explains. “If they’re not stained, they’re no good, you see.” Presses her left arm with her cigarette hand as she talks, explaining some more that a tablecloth has to be used, touched, not saved for a special day because every day should be special. Se deben tocar. She means the kind of touching like when Daddy admires the ripe peaches on the table, like those doctors in Time magazine when they pull out a baby after a long night, or when the minister reads from his big Bible and finds just the right verse, wets his finger with his tongue and marks it as his. “It was after my parents lost their land that the tablecloth became my inheritance, since I’m the one born with the socalled fortune at the end of the Revolution,” Mami says, sifting through Daddy’s work shirts piled in the laundry basket, examing the torn pockets, lost buttons. “So, did Abuelita lose her sight because of sadness?” “Por favor, who’s telling this story, you or me?” Mami pushes away the shirts for another day, gets up to make tortillas, Daddy doesn’t like day-old ones. “A molino de viento, it’s called, like Don Quixote’s windmill,” her hands fan out to show me from the counter with her favorite mixing bowl in front of her. She likes it because it looks like gray marble, cool and hard, but it’s plastic, and easy to clean. “It seems so simple, the tablecloth, but like all exquisite things, it isn’t.” Like Jorge’s kisses, she remembers. Brings the flour, salt and baking powder to the table. “You can’t imagine all that’s involved, mijita — arches, windmills, bridges, one after another, surrounded by a border of las hojitas de flor.” Mami’s drawing all this out on the tablecloth

136  bárbara renaud gonzález

with a knife in her floured hand, the other one stirring the flour and baking powder and salt in the bowl, then picks up her cigarette from the ashtray with her knife hand, still mixing, this time adding water to the dough. She smokes right over the bowl, and sometimes a few ashes fall in there, she doesn’t seem to notice and I don’t say anything. “You have to be a master for the intricacy of those borders, each leaf a sole thread suspended back and forth, back and forth,” her cigarette’s swinging back and forth too, the red-tipped end a conductor of a symphony I call tortillas. Her tablecloths were made of cold mornings and the cobwebs of dreams, Amada thinks, but she doesn’t say this to her daughter, who won’t understand. That’s why the tablecloth feels like angels’ wings when you hold it, constructed of sighs and wind and memories, what would my daughter know about it? “But she never finished it, beginning it during the Revolution. Fifty years later your grandmother picked it up again after making hundreds of them for other people, feeding us with them, paying the doctor, the private schools when she could, then helping Cuca and her grandchildren suffering from their borracho father, and their even more borracho grandfather, Papá. Mami looks at me from the bowl of flour she’s turned into dough she’s patting and folding and turning over, patting it down one last time. “The first mantel she started, the one meant for me, was the last one too, and I know it’s the one that took her sight.” She sits down to work on Daddy’s shirts again. “The threads have to connect into a perfectly round tablecloth, and if a thread ever breaks, the mantel is almost impossible to repair.” “I don’t understand.” “That’s because you’re a pumpkin head.” Mami blows smoke over the now-rounded ball of dough and the work shirts. “Why did she go blind?”

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  137

“Because of the mantel, haven’t you been listening?” “When can we have a peach pie again?” Mami’s been saving the ripe peaches for jam, but this year it’s coming out like peach syrup, though I’m translating the recipe for her from the magazines, and I must be messing up the words, though the recipe isn’t complicated, so it must be one word that’s making all the difference. Amada looks at the peaches on the table, the soft flame of them, thinks of how they taste like first kisses. She remembers mangos, papayas, chirimoyas, melocotones. Her daughter’s never tasted anything, she realizes, watching her hungrily eying the peaches. This is all she knows. More smoke, another cup of coffee, button-sewing, tableclothtracing. “Mamá married Papá for the land he inherited, you see. But when the rebels took it, the tablecloth of windmills was the only thing she got to keep. They had to leave the rancho right away, pure luck they didn’t get killed, and at first they fled to San Luis, where I grew up, and when the money ran out they went to the golfo from where my very uppity mother must’ve imagined she could return to Spain. As if she knew anything about that place, ¡qué locura, eh? Thought she was Spanish because she married the son of a Spaniard, por favor,” Mami almost spits out her coffee, “as if my father cared a pinto about that. He was mexicano, but that didn’t stop her. This I know, because she always reminded us of our Spanish blood, that sangre española, even though we are pure, all right, pure patas rajadas.” Raises her feet from under the table to show me her tiny duck feet. She’s proud that her feet are half my size, making mine look like giant duck feet. “When we were born, Mamá dreaded to find the indio mark on our nalgas, how she hated that. Hated me for having it. For my broad Indian feet, my thick lips, and — she looks over at the ripe, browning peaches — my nipples of this color.” She discards

138  bárbara renaud gonzález

a pinkish bean from the sorted pile of brown pintos. “Papá always said I was the prettiest, but he was white after all, and he always wanted to look toasted and healthy,” she laughs. My mother was morena, and didn’t have that luxury.” “I don’t understand.” Mami stands up, opens the cupboards. Cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg. The jar for the brown sugar. She’s decided to make a peach pie after all. “It’s bad to be Indian in Mexico, because we give them all the tribute for our great cultura, but we wish they weren’t so — Indian. Like the gringos are with us, the way they like our enchiladas but not us.” This time she’s talking with a big spoon in the air, conducting again, her voice rising too, a crescendo. She keeps rummaging in the cupboards. “It’s like the way the gringos like to name the streets with Spanish words they don’t even know, how they devour — they don’t know how to savor — how we linger over our black bean soup, it’s how they dance la salsa, and I know the men have a superiority complex when they imagine how las señoritas want them — ¡ja! but they don’t respect us. You understand now?” Mami looks hard at me from the stove, spices in her hands. I do understand. Not the words, but the feelings. “Your grandmother had her fantasies, Mamá never forgave los campesinos for the Revolution much less the indios for wanting their land back. They were all the same nobodies to her, how dare they?” Amada’s cutting up peaches, the chunks of surplus butter, spoons out the brown sugar, nothing like the piloncillo of Mexico. Jorge’s kisses. This must be why women eat so much, she thinks. Instead of kisses, sugar. Turns to her daughter from the counter. “The land was supposed to make her a lady. How could the dreams of the poor and the indios take precedence over hers? Without land, in that time and place, you were nobody without it. That’s just how it was.”

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  139

Rinses out the molcajete with vinegar. Brings the stone mortar and pestle over to the table for her daughter to grind the spices for dinner. Cumin, oregano, peppercorns. “She comes from another time, your abuelita, when you were either very rich or very poor.” Amada’s face glistens from checking the beans on the stove as she turns to her daughter, who’s put away the half-mended clothes, cleaned the table, stacked the dishes, laid out the forks and napkins for supper. She wants her daughter to love her grandmother, can she help her see that love is complicated? “You will have to forgive her.” Amada remembers the day she got that letter, eleven years after she’d left Mexico, eleven short years, long struggling years, a letter from her mother telling her she wanted to visit, that Lilia wanted to bring her to meet her grandchildren, and how at first Amada wanted to say no. How she wanted to see her mother after so long, but she was so ashamed of her poverty, then ashamed at how angry she was about the past, and finally, how ashamed she was that she still loved her mother, despite everything. When her mother finally arrived, she confessed to Amada how she’d been forced to sell Amada’s mantel after saving it so many years, the one from the beginning of the Revolution, the one destined for Lucero, now in someone else’s family for a few pesos. “Do you think God punished her? Is that why she’s gone blind?” Amada doesn’t answer. She just finishes her third cigarette, her last cup of afternoon coffee, punches the tortilla dough one more time, and starts rolling. The beans and peach spices in the kitchen are all she has to give her daughter, and she hopes it’s enough.

140  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 On their last night, Amada sips the blue from his veins. Biting down on his shoulder, drawing blood, she smears it onto her lips, imitating what he’s doing to her down there when he finds her first-day’s blood. So they won’t forget each other, he says. Don’t go, don’t go, please don’t go. She hears him whisper por favor when he’s in that moment losing control, in those few seconds, on that border of por favor between lies and truth, when a man spills his seed and sometimes his soul, and they’re crossing to the truth, aaaaay even if they run right back to their lies after it’s all over. In these seconds Amada swears sí, mi rey, eres mi todo, whispering that she’s taking his testicles with her to el norte, un recuerdo. Her personal memento, she says, and he answers that she can take them, soy tuyo, aaaay, mamacita, he’s all hers. His whole body gushes sweat, from his forehead it rivulets down to his eyes, his nose, his mouth, drips onto her eyelids, so she can’t see anymore, they’re yours, he says, over and over, grabs her hand, take them, they’re yours, keep them for me. My grandfather’s balls, huevos castellanos, and now yours, the spoils of conquest. Amada’s finished ironing all the pillowcases and sheets too, not wanting to remember, but once the memory begins, it’s like watching the sad ending to a love story, but she can’t help herself, it’s so beautiful, and how she wants to see it again, folding the fine starched cotton, sprinkling Lilia’s gift of rose water over the silken crispness of the laundry. Why does she do this, it’s not like Lázaro will compliment her, she shakes her head at her stacks of linen, notices how her hands are beginning to look like the laundry before the ironing. Touches her white pyramid of towels, sheets, placemats, everything double- and triple-folded the way Lázaro likes it, the lace borders just visible, everything embroidered with their initials, such crazy dreams she had when Golondrina, why did you leave me?  141

she worked so hard on all those flourishes. So many years ago, Amada caresses the purity of white-on-white, and it happens again. She feels Jorge’s skin, the smooth new-wet of pillows and sheets, the lopsided pillows, the steam of words, the chaos of white, and how she and Jorge tumbled out of them like the contents of a long-awaited envelope, like expensive flower-scented sheets you don’t want to wash out. It’s been eighteen years, and Amada bites her lips, tastes guarapo, that rainwater sugar, how she misses it, as she puts her fingers to her mouth.

142  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 I just got promoted to eighth grade, and finally, finally, I get to work in the fields, like I’ve been hoping for so long. The fields mean a paycheck, which means makeup, miniskirts, hamburgers on Saturday! And then the boys will look at me, and the girls will get jealous. Daddy explains my money’s to buy schoolclothes for my brothers and sisters too, remember how bad the harvest was last year. I can do it too, if I work ten weeks straight, six days a week, twelve hours a day, I’m gonna have my own money, and Mami will take me shopping, Plainview or Lubbock, for sure. Daddy takes me to the shed to find my very first hoe. Picks a hoe not too tall, not too heavy. Sharpens the blade with his metal file, zzzzzin, zzzzzin. “On the diagonal, pay attention!” Zzzin, zzin. Zzzzin. He sits me down with the hoe across my thighs. “The blade always away from you,” he says. “Down, not up.” Tests the blade with his fingers gently skimming the edge. “Treat it with respect.” Wets his forefinger with saliva and shows me again. “Otherwise it won’t bite.” We go outside to look for weeds I never noticed before. “The hoe will tell you where the balance is, don’t fight it.” We find quelite, johnsongrass, milkweed. Daddy explains how they grow, each one has its quirks. Some are sneaky, stubborn even if they look delicate. “You must get the root, or it will come back before you blink.” He’s maneuvering the handle like my mother’s spatula, turning it sideways like he’s getting ready to flip a pancake. “If you learn how to angle it, you’ll be able to cut the weeds with one stroke, because you can go deeper, ¿sabes?” Demonstrates, his hands like bear claws playing a concert piano. “Now you try it, ándale.” I’m clumsy and almost slice into my big toe, which makes Daddy laugh and he shakes his head in warning. Golondrina, why did you leave me?  143

“Be careful! Just don’t mistake the cotton plants for weeds, mija. They look about the same right now.” The first Monday of summer, put on my old jeans, my father’s most faded work shirt, button it to the top. It’s the one with the grease stains from repairing the combine my father let me drive after the spring plowing. That’s how he caught on fire that time. He was underneath with his wrenches, and suddenly Daddy slides out, running fast, his whole back a lightning bug in the middle of winter. The bossman chased after him, pushing him on the snow. Daddy was in the hospital for two whole weeks. Shows me the scars on his back, and they look just like the piecrust for the apple pie Mami makes for him when he finally comes home. Says it didn’t hurt at all. Now for the boots. I get the chewed-up-by-the-dirt brown work botas that some compadre gave to my mother for my first summer in the fields. A sombrero, dented and smelling of muddy chicken feathers and smoked sausage. And thick cotton gloves with the pebbled palms so I can grip the hoe just right. Daddy takes me to the shed to give me my very own hoe. So many kinds there, like geometry class where you have to know the equations to figure out the difference between the rectangles, only these are real metal, watch-it, sharp-blade edges, dangling like bad memories on the nails my father has organized. In the early summer, the weeds are fragile, delicate ferns and a golf-club swissssh with the hoe does it. It’s easy to just walk the whole day, swinging the asadón in time with the latest Motown as I shimmy round the cotton, my hoe a guitar. As the summer heats up, the weeds that were plowed under have come back, and they brush against my thighs, that’s how tall they are now, so I pretend I’m Zorro, jab-thrust-stab! Leave my letter Z as a warning sign around the cotton plants. All summer I work in mile-long fields of cotton, soybean, maize. Always holding the hoe horizontal to my waist as I walk

144  bárbara renaud gonzález

down the rows. And the weeds keep getting bigger anyway, and it’s like chopping down a pine tree sometimes, but it feels good to do this, I can help my family.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  145

34 Daddy can’t go out to work tonight, no moon, it’s vanished behind the clouds, the sky dusty like my sister’s clothes after playing in a trailer full of cotton. Mami’s one peach tree through the kitchen window looks like it’s been dipped in magenta ink. Daddy scrubs his face over the sink, looks out, leaving a trail of dustmilk wherever he goes, and his grassy smell that reminds me of apple-cider vinegar “Once, we had land.” Because we live out in the country, the night is a silent black until the frogs, then the crickets, erupt into a million tiny cellos and violins ready to perform. It’s a good night for a story, so all nine of us, seven kids including the new baby, Valentino, spread out leaning against each other and on laps, here on the cement slab we call a porch. Here in the open, the sky seems like a black page shimmering with an alphabet that only Daddy can read. Suddenly, a thread of pine scent breezes through, and I wonder if it’s going to rain late this summer like Daddy hopes. “Venus is the prettiest of them all, did you catch her at sunset?” Daddy’s admiring the three thousand stars that are up there, and we look up in unison as the clouds seem to move away so we can see. “There’s Mercury, Mars is la colorada, and by golly there’s Jupiter! Saturn has rings, but you can’t see them without a telescope, I know ’cause I saw it once, in the army.” But we’re not looking at the stars, we’re looking at Daddy, then the stars at the same time, he knows so much and nothing else matters. Not the acres of packed dirt all around that’s our playground, not the rattlesnakes waiting under the one tree we like to climb on, not the scrawny pine trees behind the house, the only way to find our little house five miles from the town that has no movies or park, just a roller-skating rink that Mami forces 146  bárbara renaud gonzález

Daddy to take us to even though he complains. We have nothing, but we have Daddy, and he has his fields of sorghum, cotton, soybean, maize, corn, his masterpiece colcha, Mami says, the quilty squares of green and gold and white, and she hates it, but she’s listening to Daddy tonight too, awed at the glistening stars without the diapers of clouds rolling away, as the stars rain down on us, Christmas in July. Daddy stands up, makes a prediction that it will be a good harvest after all, just wait, while the Milky Way twinkles in a cape above his shoulders and above his head is the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer, he says, turning to point out Capella, its brightest star. “But they’ll really shine in the fall. See the seven sisters, the Pleiades, safe from Orion?” My dumb brothers interrupt, “Where’s the North Star, the Big Dipper?” It’s right there in front of their stupid faces, but Daddy doesn’t get mad tonight, he’s more interested in studying the stars the way Mami opens her poetry books and reads to me sometimes in Spanish. “See how the handle’s in the Big Bear’s tail, the bowl in the back? The Little Dipper?” Then he sits down, still looking up at the sky and the darkness between the stars, as if expecting they could light his way somewhere. Takes out a pack of cigarettes from his work shirt, sighs real soft, but it sounds loud as the clouds return and the stars go back to hiding. The next day, a sandstorm. Mami hates them, and we’d just cleaned the house extra special for Daddy ’cause he’s been working so hard, and it’s Saturday and it makes him happy. One moment the day is quiet-quiet, like the middle of the afternoon when even the insects are snoring. Then, out of nowhere, a rustling, and then the hot blue sky crumples like a dirty sheet falling from the wind. Mami starts ordering the kids inside, the cats scramble under the bed, and the rabbits huddle in their cages as she runs Golondrina, why did you leave me?  147

outside to close the chicken coop, while I shut the windows and doors, and she rolls towels underneath, but it’s not gonna help, and we know it. Already there it is, the twigs and stickers and brush are flying by, a tornado without a tornado. We’re like Dorothy in Kansas, only the house isn’t moving, just one huge mass of whirl on the land, the tumbleweeds arrive like a plague, leaving a brown trail on my tongue and in the tears that come trying to wash out the sand. It’s an eclipse of brown night, brown air, the birds a brown popcorn huddled together on the telephone lines, the heat is brown insects and tarantulas crawling, scurrying, or trying to run away, I don’t know. The only sound is the barn door opening, swinging, slamming, a fury of sand-wind trying to slash the barn’s hinges in half. Then, the next quiet, leaving a brown grit between my legs, brown burrs between my toes, brown-sugar sand in my hair. It’s over. Now we have to clean the house before Daddy gets back. This is why I forgive Daddy for hitting us when the house isn’t clean enough, or when Gabriel accidently spills his glass of milk on the table. Just ten or sometimes twenty good ones with the Mexican horsewhip that Mami’s father, Abuelito, gave him a long time ago for Christmas. But we don’t have any horses. Jorge gets it twice as bad because he’s a boy, and it’s even worse for Miguelito, who’s retarded and still in diapers even though he’s five. Pobrecito, he pushes himself away, scoot-scoot on his skinny rump as fast as he can, but La Ley, that’s what Daddy calls the whip, always catches him. And we have to watch and be quiet when he doesn’t know enough to just take it, howling like those coyotes do at night, trying to scoot-scoot away in his diaper and nothing else, smelling like Ivory Soap and bruised bananas. After Mami bathes him, she lets him have his favorite strawberry KoolAid from a straw, and we love him so much even though he needs to be spoon-fed and dressed, so we stand him up in the mornings, stretching out his little legs, and we know that soon he’ll be walking, Mami says so, and he’s so beautiful with his black 148  bárbara renaud gonzález

hair and black eyes with long lashes and everybody says he is the most precious because he will be innocent forever. But there’s no place for him to hide from Daddy and he can’t see anyway with all his tears and mocos-muck escaping from his nose, and I’m so afraid it will be worse for him if I get in the way, and I hate myself so much because I’m a coward when it really matters. But one night when he comes home so tired he can barely stand up, I tell Daddy to please stop it, and he doesn’t listen. Please, Daddy. He ignores me, concentrating on Miguelito’s trapped yowling. Daddy. And La Ley gushes with its leather ribbons at the end. At Miguel, and then, finally, me. While M’ito is a stuffed bunny rabbit with strawberry Kool-Aid manchas all over his fur. But somehow I don’t feel the whishing whistling, this time I get in front of La Ley and then Mami is there with me too, in between all of us and tells Daddy he will just have to hit her too. “Ya no, Lázaro.” She threatens to leave him and take all of us with her and he will never see any of us again. She swears. “Now be a man and hit me, Lázaro!” But of course he never does, because he’s afraid of her. A man of honor, he doesn’t hit women, he says. Miguelito has Mami’s thick hair and her dark eyes and he’s her angel-child with his marshmallow skin, and Mami never complains about soaking all of his diapers in bleach and how she’ll have to take care of him all of her life. “When I die,” she tells us later when Daddy has gone back to the fields to lay more irrigation pipes until midnight. We’re sitting around the kitchen table, and she’s made us our favorite oatmeal cookies as a treat. “When I die, all of you will have to take care of him. He is your brother, remember. And he isn’t going to any institution to be put away, like he’s something to be ashamed of.” She makes us promise. Pobrecito, Miguelito can’t run away like my other brothers who make it hard because Daddy has to catch them first and he gets tired chasing them and sometimes laughs at their hiding places, inside the chicken coop and in the combine or the one climbing tree we have. Miguelito never does anything bad like me and Golondrina, why did you leave me?  149

Jorge, who like to hide under the bed and play let’s kidnap and grab feet and ankles when someone walks by or trip them with the broom. . . . We deserve it, and start planning the next episode right after our ten licks each. That way, when La Ley comes, it will be for something for real. Daddy only hits us when he’s mad anyway because, I don’t know, Mami just says he’s had a bad day. To leave him alone, que descanse. That we should be quiet, and we try. We really do. But we’re just kids. “Son niños, Lázaro,” my mother begs when he gets home gleaming with rage, like some Abominable Dustman with cotton fleece inside his pockets instead of money. Angry words are sweating from his mouth, his brown belt zzzzzzipping out of his jeans, folded once, stretched once, hard, wooooshsh, folded once, then a slap across his thigh, boots slushing the linoleum floor with cotton-mud, my brothers Gabriel and Zacarías scattering like our baby rabbits, the littlest ones wheeling away on their tricycles leaving tiny cars behind, leaving Miguelito and his shadow, Zacarías, alone with him. The older ones, like me, gulping back our sobs, waiting for our turn on the bed, facedown. Even Justicia gets a couple, and she never does anything but play with her dolls. Be brave, Daddy says. Be a good example as La Ley brands us like a family of jellyfish. Except for the baby, Valentino, who’s his favorite, not to be touched, we are squealing pigs, flying chicks and one baby turtle without a shell. The Law makes the bed quake, our nalgas burn, maps our thighs into crimson mountains; La Ley leaves roads, ripening our skin bursting with little-bitty tomatoes, going somewhere far away. Maybe to the White House, for the president himself, because Daddy’s been working so hard, and he’s so proud of his crops.

150  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 The next day, Amada cups her hands under the stream of cold well water from the kitchen faucet, splashes it on her face, grateful for the only respite she gets with the children begging for something every single minute, the crackling words between her and Lázaro electrifying their need of her. As the water trickles down her neck to her breasts, she suddenly hears him right behind her, teasing, and she stops, half turns to that familiar caramel voice, realizes that Jorge’s not there. He’s at the bridge, on the Matamoros side where she left him as she walked across to come here, to Texas, to Lázaro, to this. At the café in Matamoros, Amada’s mute, her heart beating faster than the clock’s ticking, and time has stopped because of it, and all her life is in this ticking, tic, tic, tic, tic, how loud it is, the way the seconds, tic-tic, are colored ribbons pulling her forward, even as other ribbons bind her here, closer to the past, while still others drag her to the bridge and all that is tomorrow, so that she is over there and here in every tic, tic, tic. Jorge’s making jokes about the story he’ll spin to Sapo about his Monterrey business trip, while his favorite cousin threatens to kill Amada and the desgraciado hijo de puta she ran away with. Pride glints his eyes, turning them greener. “He’ll want to hang you, behead you, stone you, you know that,” Amada reaches across the table to touch his arm. “May he drink all the tequila in Mexico, mi reina, may he polish all his pistolas until he can see his ugly face shining back at him, and may he describe the thousand tortures he will perform on you once he finds you, but he will never, ever suspect that the perfect crime was committed right under his ojos de sapo!” Jorge, always the egotist, is cocksure the toad-eyed Sapo, trusting him completely, will ask for help in tracking her down, and of course he’ll sign on to the search, and guess what? He won’t be Golondrina, why did you leave me?  151

able to find her. Who knew this little woman Amada was so evil? Jorge orders another shot of tequila, his green eyes hardening into bloodshot emeralds. He’s proud of what he’s done, and to hell with the pain. His eyes gesture to the bridge at the end of the block. “They don’t want us over there, sabes — we’re not los pinche pilgrems. Now those were illegal. You may not have papers, mi reina, but you have history on your side. A whole book, ¿verdad?” He sees Amada’s brown eyes pearling, and changes the subject. She’s asked him to write her, impossible. “Now where would I write you, my little snub-nose? You don’t even know where you’ll be sleeping tonight.” Be calm, he thinks, but he isn’t, despite the tequila. “Unfortunately, it won’t be with me.” Takes her hand and kisses it gallantly, a way to hide his confusion. Jorge’s in love with her, but he’s already married, and how can he be in love with a married woman who’s surrendered herself like Amada? That’s not the way love is supposed to happen, so he reveals his heart and confusion in another way. “Do you need money, my love?” Amada does, but she isn’t going to ask, my God, no letter! So she’ll never see him again, that she can live with. But a letter, Amada wants a letter to hold in her hand, to read and reread, proof she didn’t imagine him, proof that love exists, as pen and paper are its witnesses. To Amada, each word is more permanent than a kiss, black ink its lipstick, the pen does not, cannot, lie. Love is confessed, if not in the words, then in the swirling, embracing letters of her name on the tissue of envelope, the A of her name darker than the rest, statuesque, bold, a woman’s graceful walk reflected with each stroke of the alphabet’s legs from the pressure of his fingers remembering, when he first called out her name in prayer. A white scrap of paper floats outside her kitchen window, but no, it’s just a feather from a mourning dove’s wing falling from its journey, a souvenir from a fellow traveler. It makes Amada 152  bárbara renaud gonzález

think of how a letter arrives, the delicious unveiling of it, a shirt’s sweet unbuttoning after a long night of tequila. And the envelope then must be Jorge’s arms around her, sealing the night into day, promising that yes, he will send her a letter, and when she receives it, she’ll know they are both the envelope and the letter inside it, how the words are the music they are dancing to. A letter is the soul speaking, but Jorge is saying no. No. “Bueeeno puees.” The words of moving on but wanting to stay put, of nothing, and everything. Jorge’s jaw twitches, trying to extinguish the fires in his green eyes. He combs the ringlets on his forehead with his hands, making Amada wish that she could twirl them around her own fingers. How she wants to say something important right now, something memorable, significant to the occasion, but only stupid things want to come out of her, like how she couldn’t sleep after the first time she met him, and that Sapo ripped her down there on their first night to claim even her dreams. She wants to tell him how she cried picking up Jorge’s ashtray on their morning after, how she sifted the ashes with her fingers, finding his smell, rubbing the ashes on her cheeks and lips when the maid wasn’t looking, how she slept all that day with a fever of wanting and a fever of miedo colliding in her at the same time, incapacitating her, so innocent about passion, and too knowing about the brutality of men. Amada consoles herself, acuérdate, Mexican men don’t cry, too much conquistado in them, they drink instead, and Jorge’s on his fourth tequila already. The minutes tic-tic-tic, along with the boleros crying from the jukebox, the crystalline ballads contrasting with the shouts, hammering and honking outside the restaurant, bringing her back to the Clorox-wiped tables and the grease drops on the mesera’s pink apron, the coffee’s steam and the cigarette’s black-pepper smoke. Even the wall calendar picturing the white-sand playas of Cancún, the pages of its beaches skipping back and forth with the ceiling fan’s whirring that seems to encircle her and Jorge in the tic-tic-ticking. Everything conGolondrina, why did you leave me?  153

spires in their pain, and she feels how he too is immobilized by the crooning and swaying jukebox, the tic-tic-tic of a bomb about to explode, a few seconds left, making both of them absolutely, impossibly, deaf to its warning.

154  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 “Don’t go out with white boys,” Daddy warns. He catches Billy Ray pulled over in his pickup talking to me after school. Can date anybody I want because I’m sixteen now, Daddy says, except them. “They don’t respect girls like you because you’re Mexican. Just want to use you. They just want to use you,” he repeats. “Remember that Elvis Presley movie we watched on television, what was it, Fun in Acapulco?” Daddy says this after he says hello and good-bye to Billy Ray. “What did that Elvis do? He had a choice between a lady bullfighter, an ofrecida . . . ,” he says in Spanish so that I will really understand she’s a woman who offers herself. “And the blonde Ursula Andress who played the innocent one even though she wore nothing but a bikini through the whole movie — she’s the one who ought to be ashamed of herself. Descarada. And who did he fall in love with? You see how gringos are? He will never marry you.” But I like Billy Ray, and I think he likes me too. He’s nineteen, already graduated from high school where he was a big football star. Catch him looking at me on Sunday when I’m at the Frontier drive-in buying an ice cream cone for my baby brother, my parents sending me away while they visit their compadres in town. Leaves his pickup to walk over to me. Would I go out with him sometime, maybe? Already his face is crinkling like he’s a grown man, been out on the farm all day, he says, and I feel his eyes touching me, hot as the blue sky at noon. Reminds me of those summer days when I can’t see anymore because I’ve been working since sunup and the sky’s blinding me with its blue heat. Billy Ray has eyes just like that, so that his blue pushes all the other colors aside. “I’m just a cowboy,” he says in his twangy English, neither proud nor shy. Something else, a voice before a sandstorm, full of dust and quiet. “Tell your father, pleeeeeease.” Golondrina, why did you leave me?  155

And I want to go out with him, even though there’s no good reason I should, and wonder some more what Billy Ray would think of our lemon-colored farmhouse and the turquoise curtains. We don’t have a dining room, only a fake-mahogany table with eight chairs and the matching cabinet Mami bought at the Sears in Lubbock that caused a lot of fights between her and Daddy, but now he likes it when we oil-polish it every Saturday, ordering us to wash the silver-stamped glasses with a curly G that my aunt Lilia gave us in the cabinet display. Our last name isn’t G, but we take what we can get. On the dining-room table, a red Christmas tablecloth covered by another plastic one that’s sticky from so many greedy little brothers eating birthday cake with their puppy-dog fingers. We don’t have anything important, like carpet, rugs, lamps or chandelier. We’re poor, Daddy says, but we’re clean, and every Saturday morning everything is scrubbed, washed, bleached, starched, ironed, folded, and inspected at lunchtime, or else. “¡Levántense, flojos! When I was your age, the house was shining before we even had breakfast, and the tortillas were puffyhot-off-the-comal when we walked in from the fields.” He checks the baseboards, the closets, and says the bathroom has to be the cleanest room in the house. That’s why our house smells like a fresh page in my diary when I unlock it on Saturday night. Daddy says we run a tight ship, just like the army. What would Billy Ray think of me, nothing new except the dining room, and too many people knocking down the bathroom door in the morning, brothers and sisters chasing each other, the dogs chasing the cats, the cats chasing the roaches, the salamanders on the windowsill chasing the ants, and the roosters chasing everybody back. And what about the dented bicycles and hand-me-down baseball gloves piled up in the shed, while the scent of fresh beans and tortillas trail through the house like greasy fingerprints? If Billy Ray walks into the kitchen and hears me speak Spanish to my mother, will he understand the family behind a plate of his favorite enchiladas? 156  bárbara renaud gonzález

Daddy’s talking like the blues all the time, waiting for the harvest. “’Everything agin me, no matter how I struggle and strive, never git out of this world alive,’ he’s a white man, that Hank Williams,” Daddy sings when we’re alone, “but he knows about the lonesome blues, and moanin’ the blues.” My father doesn’t hate the gringos when he sings, it makes him happy to sing the blues. His voice is better than Nat King Cole’s, looks like him too, a little. Especially when he croons Piel canela or Perfidia, songs about cinnamon skin and the perfidy of women. But in Spanish, because the songs are about a life before English. At night, Daddy takes the hoe from the porch, twirls it with the blade turned away from his head, swinging it like Sinatra when he thinks Mami’s asleep. Tells me about his old girlfriends, but not about trying to name me after the one who took off with someone else because he didn’t have any money after the war. “Don’t tell your mother!” His hoe is a microphone, and his voice fills up the sky on the porch when everybody’s asleep. I like Patsy Cline best, so when it’s my turn, I sing crazy for thinking that my love could hold you. Daddy adjusts my mike for sound, though we both know it’s my singing that’s the problem. I’m crazy for tryin’, crazy for cryin’, crazy for lovin’ you. Crazy . . . Yes, that’s what I am. Craaaazy, Daddy yodels into the microphone after me, only from him it sounds like a word I’ve never heard before, a whole song in a note. He says I need to practice. “You don’t know how to put the Spanish inside the English yet.” So instead I take a deep breath, thinking I’ve never gone out with any boy before, and what would happen if Daddy knew how much I want to, with Billy Ray, but I’m afraid of both of them. How can Billy Ray possibly like me if he doesn’t know anything about me? Like how I’ve never bought new clothes from a store, only used ones that my mother gets from the church that the white women donate for people like us. I know how poor we are, Golondrina, why did you leave me?  157

and don’t mind most of the time, but what I wear seems to matter so much to everybody else. I wear pretty things, like my Grace Kelly cashmere from the second-hand where the rich girls leave the clothes they don’t want, so I don’t look cheap, but in a way it’s worse because the gringos know I’m pretending to be them. Maybe I’ve even worn his sister’s clothes. Wish it didn’t matter, that he would like me no matter what I wear, and then I’m the one who’s ashamed because it matters too much to me. What if Billy Ray knew that Daddy won’t ask for the free lunches at school, and so I pretend to only want a Coke and chips even when I’m really hungry, would he feel sorry for me, or would he think I’m not brave like him? And then Mami makes me promise not to tell Daddy about the gringo who liked her nalgas when she was bending over at the five-and-dime looking at hair ribbons, and that I cracked the words, translating what he was saying to Mami all the way to her Spanish, because I was nervous, and I think Mami knew. That’s the trouble with Billy Ray. Don’t know how to tell him all this, and that’s the reason I can’t go out with him even if I dream about him all the time. Want to talk to him about these things, but don’t have the words to make him understand. Though I have my good English, what I have to tell him is in Spanish, and how everything begins with that. And would he like me, I mean really like me, if he knew that I think in Spanish, when nobody’s looking, that I am a lie dressed up in second-hand English. Spanish makes me feel kind of like when I think of Billy Ray, all gooey and sentimental. Like the juicy opening of a just-sliced watermelon, the wild sugar of la sandía’s pink-red heart, the warm after of Mami’s peach jam smearing my lips. A kiss must be like that, yes, Spanish must taste like Billy Ray’s kiss, filled with vainilla, though I don’t know all about that yet, I imagine. Spanish is the big hands of my father, talking and flowing with words as he moves the pipes carrying water all summer, ayúdame, mijita. And it’s also my mother’s sewing machine, her one gift from my father, installment plan, making me all the pretty sunflower 158  bárbara renaud gonzález

dresses she never had, her Spanish purring with the pedal, quick as her fingers seaming the edges together, her muy bien, mijita complimenting me on how I look in the mirror. Spanish is the hunger for all the words slipping from my hands like fireflies, so that my hands hurt with wanting what is gone forever. Spanish is that Hershey’s besito I crave, words made of chocolate and caramel and coconut and serrano chile the gringo teachers say you must not, but I can’t stop the wanting. Hambre is the word for hunger, but it means something more, like the land Daddy wants to taste, my heart is that hungry. Only I’ve forgotten the words to tell Billy Ray how much, and without those, there’s no hope until I find them again. Because I’m nothing without those words, and now they’re gone, the gringos like him have taken them from me. How can I tell Billy Ray that when I listen to Patsy singing Leavin’ on Your Mind, I pretend I’m dancing with him, want to say No me dejes, corazoncito. Most of all, I want to say Te quiero. Te quiero. So you think you love me? Then prove it, let me take you to the fields where I work. Take off my sombrero. Kiss me. All this wants to come out in Spanish, so I tell him Daddy won’t let me and he says next year when I’m older. But next year Billy Ray has another girlfriend, and her name is nothing like mine. Crazy.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  159

34 Every summer we hope for rain. I’ve gotten real good at helping Daddy lay the irrigation pipes and anyway, I’m the oldest, he says I’m strong for a girl. We use gloves to hold the steel pipes because they burn from the red-hot sun. The next day, we move the pipes again, to another field that’s dry. Daddy looks at the sky, and I can see the clouds floating in his eyes, and he begins to tell a cowboy-and-Indian story to make up for the heat and lifting of heavy pipes that I could tunnel through if I wanted, pipes long enough to take me somewhere, far away if only I knew how to get there. “Then there were the Comanches, who lived just outside the settlements. They were ferocious, Abuelo said, more feared than even the Apaches, sabes. They had to kill, because their women and children had been slit open like pigs.” Daddy doesn’t know it was even worse than that, how I’ve read in books about the white men who carried the women’s panochas on their belts, like it was a season of hunting women instead of quail. It’s all in the back room of the library, the ones about Quanah Parker under lock and key, where the librarian gave me a look when I asked, and then showed me more books. That’s how I learned about the babies drowning in their mother’s blood, so when Daddy finishes with “no room for anyone but the gringos when they walked on this here land,” I just roll the pipe where he tells me to. “Tu papá es un cobarde.” Mami makes faces at Daddy when I tell her about the long day. “Jes-ser. No-ser.” She mimics his head bowing, his broad shoulders slumping. “Cobarde.” She spits out the words with her black coffee. When the patrón comes around, your father sure is a different man.”

160  bárbara renaud gonzález

Mami tells Daddy all the time to stand up to the patrón, to ask for more money. “We have seven children now, Lázaro, think of them. Trabajas como un animal, but you don’t have to get paid like one.” He just ignores her and tells her she doesn’t understand anything, that she’s from Mexico, what do you expect. Then he takes off his cap to go see the patrón about a raise. But the raise never comes. When I see my father and the bossman together, don’t understand why the meek will inherit the earth. Why is God so mean? My father’s younger, he has muscles, he’s taller and more handsome, while the bossman has to run to catch up with his walking. And yet Daddy has nothing, nothing, while the bossman has everything, the big house, the telephone, the trips to New York. While Daddy stays up late into the night with Mami talking about the next visit to the bank or layaway plan. “Para los niños, Lázaro, por favor,” she whispers to him at night, while they think I’m asleep. Band instruments, Girl Scouts, field trips, a bicycle. “It never ends,” Daddy complains. But he promises to get another loan. “So that the children do well in school, Lázaro. Para los niños.” And when the encyclopedia man comes around, Daddy’s chest swells up, signing the contract for a brand-new edition, shinier than the bossman’s new car, with the leather-grained covers, gold-plated letters on the title, and brand-new pages. Real elegant pages filled with words, lots and lots of them. “Instead of a vacation to Carlsbad Caverns or the zoo or the beach, we can’t afford that, remember, huercos cabrones. But this, you better read all of it!” Daddy gives the marching orders when he opens the first box and my brother Jorge picks up the one that says Jefferson–Latin on the cover. “This is Christmas for the next five years!” Daddy

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  161

warns again as we descend into the thick boxes like seven locusts, breathing in the new-book smell, tearing them open with our hands, rubbing the pebbly covers, weighing each book, tracing the letters, sniffing, jostling, pushing and fighting. Valentino, the baby in diapers, tries to taste a book before we take it away from him. Daddy laughs with his whoooeee! Impressed when tenyear-old Gabriel finally chooses Cathedral–Cowboys and starts reading out loud and doesn’t stop until he gets to Zylophone.

162  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 I’m the oldest, so it’s up to me to help Daddy with the tractoring, the combining, the livestock, the watering, the feeding, the hammering, the wrenching, the greasing and the fencing. Daddy makes jokes about it, but his eyes are ashamed when he tells me he has to keep my paycheck again at the end of the week. He apologizes, “We have a lot of préstamos, mijita.” There’s the sewing machine for Mami, Christmas around the corner for the babies. And my flute. But I don’t mind, really, just don’t want to work another whole Saturday, but Daddy explains it’s getting to be harvesttime soon. And besides, I’m a hard worker. Sometimes he forgets and introduces me as his son, jaws to his compadres about how good I am at sports. “My boy runs fast, faster than any of the gringos,” Daddy slapshoulders the compadres. “That’s pretty fast, eh?” The thing is, his friends already know we can run faster, but they like to hear it again, even if it’s not gonna change anything. And so I win for them, in every way possible. Get up earlier for practice, stay long after everyone has left during school, never smart-mouth the coach, don’t get into fights of any kind, even when someone says something nasty to me. I say YesSir, NoMa’am, Please, ThankYou, ThankYouKindly, pretend that I won the Big Game for them, but I didn’t, I won it for us. For Daddy, his friends, for my family. Especially for Mami and for all the times the gringos call her names, like those men who reached out to touch her nalgas when they thought I wasn’t looking. I just have to run faster than the gringos, that’s all, have to beat them in class, beat them on the court, beat them in the way I speak English, eat right with a fork, answer every question, never ask my own. Beat them. Beat Them. Win. Show them. And I do. My homework’s always done, my clothes starched and ironed. Good manners. Napkin on my lap, prayer first, spooning my soup away from me all proper, no slurping. Jamás ask for secGolondrina, why did you leave me?  163

onds. Wash my hands with soap in the bathroom. Mami teaches me these things, but for a different reason than Daddy. “Never forget you’re a mexicana, she says. With every breath you take, show them we’re equal to them in every way. They think they’re better, but we’re all just the same, though your father believes their superiority ideas he’s heard all his life. They think we’re savages, so show them. Show them, mijita.” And I do try, but they still don’t like me. Think sometimes they hate me even more for showing them. When I beat them, all I’ve proved is they’re even more superior because it isn’t possible, it just isn’t, for someone who looks like me to beat them, and so they hate me even more because they know they were born to be better, and so this can’t be happening. How dare I? The only way to get them to congratulate me is to treat them as if they really are superior, and then they’ll let me be the exception, which means that I pretend to be the only one who’s almost equal to them. But Mami won’t let me, she says not to forget who I am, only I don’t know who that is anymore.

164  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 Quelite’s my favorite weed to cut down in the summer, ’cause it has a trunk that you can get out in one golf swing, not very deep. Johnsongrass weed’s the worst, a spaghetti-like thing with these little root-balls underneath, looks easy, but they cling to each other like possums in their mama’s pocket. Then there’s milkweed, sour not sweet, an ice-blue thistle with sticky espinas, better watch out, a good pull does it, but if you miss, there’s hell to pay, ’cause it’s hooked down there like an anchor, clawed in the earth, so vale más that you take it out right the first time, ’cause it’s coming back, tougher than ever. It’s the last week of summer, and the weeds that survived my hoe are now taller than me. It’s hand-to-hand combat now, guerrilla warfare, the enemy digging in, so I’m using all my fuerza to knock them down, and it takes a whole day to do one row sometimes, and I still can’t dig out the roots like concrete, and sometimes they outpunch me with their refusal to die. Good thing Daddy has taught me about sleeping under the shade the weeds make, me snuggling there after lunch for a nap, my hoe beside me, handle facing down. I make a pillow of chopped weeds, smell their minty breath, they’re good for something after all. My father says weeds are plants that don’t belong. “Then why are they here?” I ask him. Always listening for the rattlesnakes. So scared sometimes I just freeze and it’s Jorge who comes running, chopping their heads off because all I can do is vomit. He buries them right away, collecting the pieces from the dirt like leftover stew. Sometimes I see my classmates riding by, their blond hair waving in the breeze on their motorcycles. They don’t recognize me working on the king-size weeds by the ditch on the side of the road. Wonder if they wonder, or am I just another Mexican working in the fields for their fathers? Do they know their good-tan sun is Golondrina, why did you leave me?  165

the same sun punishing me now? Do they know it’s my Daddy’s cotton that got them those motorcycles? I’m going to college, I’ll show them, even though they’ll just hate me more than ever. But even though I hate them back, I hate myself more for wanting to be just like them, wanting to be a cheerleader, how stupid. “Who do you think you are, Miss America?” Daddy and Mami tease me about even thinking that a mexicana could ever be a beauty queen, which must mean that I’m too ugly, too brown, too smart. Mami says I’m too slow in the fields, that I spend too much time listening to the radio. She doesn’t understand how good the music is for me, what does she know about Diana singing Ain’t No Mountain High Enough? How many heartaches must I stand? Baby, baby, baby. Smokey, Marvin, Diana. The Four Tops. They know how it is. Baby. Baby. Baby. Reach out for me. I can tell by the way you hang your head, now, you’re afraid. I know what you’re thinking. I’ll be there to always see you through. C’mon girl, reach out for me. Just look over your shoulder. I’ll be there... But I’m alone. Alone. Hate the cotton, Daddy’s whole life is about the crops, doesn’t sleep, spends more time with them than with us. Watering, irrigating, he says. Before that he fertilizes, moves dirt, then there’s plowing, repairing fences, plowing again, cussing and sometimes he takes off his cap and starts praying to the air. Nobody else seems to ask why, except me. Like in Why Me, God? It’s not fair, why. The rows are so long, we’re never going to finish, and I have to work on Saturday and Sunday sometimes, why. WhywhyWhywhywhywhyWhywhy! Why is there no answer to why? So tired at the end of the day, even though Daddy says I’m the laziest since I’m not like the other migrant workers who come here every summer. And that I’m going to finish high school, going to college, and all this is temporary. Reminds me when he comes to pick me up, and there are people still working in other fields till sunset. And no, don’t feel guilty getting in the back of the pickup, just sad. At home, the pine-sharp166  bárbara renaud gonzález

smelling soap and cold shower is like the first water rushing from the noria into the ditch, the one Jorge and I call Niagara Falls, our favorite ditch for swimming at the beginning of summer. On that day, Daddy even throws in some new cotton buds, making the well water greener than Christmas. God, I wish it was Christmas now, or that it rains tomorrow, so I can sleep, please God. After supper, we go outside to sit on the porch with Daddy to look at the stars, and he explains how they were different during World War II, three long years. It’s easy to see the stars in the country, there’s only blackness or sometimes blueness when the moon is out, but tonight it’s just the stars and us and the porch. He was coming home, he says, to work the land he thought was his, found it was sold by his sisters, desperate while he was gone. That’s why he came here, his arms reach out to the darkness, where people don’t know him, to start over, work hard, and once the harvest comes in, you’ll see.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  167

34 My mother’s teaching me to dance tropical while she’s in the kitchen making a chocolate and coconut cake for my seventeenth birthday, says it’s time to learn, muchacha! Tells me about all her tiempos, far away in San Luis, when all the men were chasing her. Men are like drums, she says. Because they’re always pleading and moaning and whispering porfavorporfavorporfavor, wanting you to succumb. “That’s why you have to learn to dance, because it’s the only time you can say yes!” Mami dances all the time at home, in the living room, the bedroom, on the porch, especially in the kitchen. Tries dancing at first with my little brothers, but they’re clumsy, and so she grabs my arm, pulling me into her steamy arms. “Don’t let a man get too close, she warns. Not till you’re married. The first rule of dancing is to listen to the beat. Hear it? Let the drums go inside you, but nothing else.” Licks her palms full of wet sugar. “I can taste the music in this cake,” she says, her right arm grabs my waist, and her chocolatey fingernails grip my left hand so I can’t slip away. “You can begin anywhere in the music,” she says, “as long as you follow the beat. Listen to it with your down there,” laughing at my blush when she cups herself to show me. “No matter what anyone tells you, you are only free when you dance, understand? For all that the gringos have, they don’t dance like us, do they?” “Second rule,” she pants, letting me go. “Shake it, like this,” her feet start a shuffle to the side, “1-2-3, the first count is the strongest, side-to-side, now go faster. Roll your hips, like the circle you make when you wash platos, remember?”

168  bárbara renaud gonzález

She lets me go. “Pretend you’re swinging a heavy chain. Hear the chain? Go ’round.” Turns toward me, pulling me close to her. “Don’t stop. Now I’ll spin you around. Not so fast. Watch me. Again. Follow me! It’s about feeling. It’s a box, but it’s sliding and you have to keep up. Now we pulse. Together. Remember, mijita, life is in threes, just like the beat. But we pretend it’s in twos.” I’m following her as best I can, step on her toes, but she laughs like she was expecting it. “Last rule. Anything is possible, because you should dance like you mean it. Most people are afraid to dance, I don’t know why! Because everyone wants to dance. Trust me.” Dancing is my big secret. Now that I hardly speak Spanish anymore, it’s my way of talking without words, and nobody can take this from me, nobody can stop me from dancing with my mother. When I dance, my words are in my shoulders, my arms, waist, hips, feet, and especially in my eyes when I feel people are looking at me, and I’m not ashamed. My mother’s four sisters, my tías, dance all the time, even though their husbands don’t. Tía Lilia is my favorite, wish sometimes she was my mother, she’s so elegant, and something else. She’s not madeup elegant, she pays attention to how the plastic flowers look on the table, how the pictures hang on the wall, the color of the plates drying in the sink. Mami’s told me how Tía Lilia left Mexico when she was very young to work as a maid and help out the family, and within a dozen years she was the chief seamstress at the women’s store for all those rich oilmen’s wives in Oklahoma City. That’s when she brought the teenage Paquita to live with her. But Paquita didn’t want that career, and found a gringo right away to spoil her all because she was afraid of being by herself, Tía Lilia says. Now Lilia has her own shop and a gringo husband too, my uncle John, who she married when she was forty after she thought it was too late — that the train had forgotten to stop for her. My other aunts, Toñia and Cuca, live in Tampico, which is

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  169

on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, and fight all the time. They consider it a betrayal that the others left, though they like getting the gifts and money my Oklahoma aunts send them. They accuse Mami of turning me into a gringa because my Spanish is too rough, tosca, they say. Mami’s the rebel, Lilia says. She’s the one who broke all the rules they wish they had, breaking them like the plates she throws around fighting with Daddy. Mami’s the one who marched out of Mexico, Lilia says, when she divorced her toad-faced husband, and Abuelita herself who taught Porfirio Díaz, Mexico’s dictator, all he knew about tyranny. “In the mambo, mijita,” Tía Paquita says, “I can see the parrots scratching each other over a slice of plátano, and smell the hurricane coming to surprise you with the perfect day that comes after.” With the plastic spiky comb in one hand, and my long hair draping over the other with all the new curls she insists on giving me, Paquita talks in a way that I can half hear what her singing voice used to be like, now just a dusty crystal glass, cracked because someone shoved it in the corner of the cabinet and never used it. The story is she wanted to be a singer on the stage, but my grandmother prohibited it, saying that life was just for putas. And no daughter of hers, ever. So Paquita asked Lilia to take her away and she did, and now she doesn’t sing anymore. “Our songs are the story about the place we come from. In the mambo, it’s about our jungle, and you can hear all the sounds we used to know even if you think we haven’t heard them before. If you could only hear one song for the rest of your life, what would it be?” “Cállate, Paquita.” My mother always tells her to shut up when she talks like this, and I know she’s jealous because Paquita has a brick house and a husband who takes her to Mexico every year, and she doesn’t appreciate what she has. But I also know that’s

170  bárbara renaud gonzález

not what Paquita wants. I know lots of things that Mami doesn’t dream I know, like how she met my father at a bar right after you cross the border. I’ve also figured out why they got married, how they were searching for something and running away at the same time, how disappointed they are they found each other instead.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  171

34 You ever hear the story of Jacinto Treviño?” Me and Daddy are eating taquitos under the shade of his red pickup with the ice-cold Cokes he brought from town as a treat, working seven days in a row now. These weeks have to be extra hard ’cause I’m going to college this fall, and Daddy says yessir, the harvest is gonna come, it’s gonna come just in time. “He’s the man who stood up to the pinches rinches, ran off to Matamoros where they say he waits for them still, ¿sabes?” Daddy always gets excited telling this story, pretends to shoot at the sky with his Coke bottle. “With a rifle on his lap, waiting, doesn’t care that the gringos are looking for him, what they’re gonna do to him if they catch him, Jacinto just sits there. Waiting. With the rifle across his lap.” The Coke bottle’s still pointing at someone who’s not there. “Now that’s courage.” Daddy puts the bottle on the truck’s roof, plucks an accordion from the clouds. Cocks his ear, like he’s the last musician playing the last song on the last night of the year. Beats the ground uno-dos-tres-four! Cornstalk fingers fly over the buttons, while his right arm pulls and jams the accordion down, releases, his feet jumping the time, until I hear its howls, groans, meooows, swinging into one death-defying song. Daddy’s voice is full of callouses, his fingers silky, flying over the accordion’s buttons, finding all the notes for courage. And Mami’s wrong, my father does cry. En la cantina de Bekar se agarraron a balazos por dondequiera volaban botellas hechas pedazos. Onetwothreefour. Bootstepbootstep 172  bárbara renaud gonzález

Esa cantina de Bekar al momento quedó sola; nomás Jacinto Treviño de carabina y pistola. Aquíaquíaquía! Scratchscratchscratchhhhh. Spit music, Daddy calls it. The cloud in his hands disappears, and we’re left with miles of cottonfields surrounding us, the fire of another sunset, and the Coke bottles are empty of bullets.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  173

34 Amada hates the priests, doesn’t believe that God speaks through the pope, and though she got her dream wedding at the catedral, she only goes there to please Sapo and her mother’s vale más. But on the evening before she leaves Mexico, Amada visits El Templo del Carmen, the one with the mosaic dome named after a saint or a whore, depending on which story you favor. Even though she’s never seen anything else, Amada just knows her city of San Luis has too many churches, so many she can’t find God because of it, dazed before each rococo masterpiece of massive wooden doors, each caoba reclinatorio for the arch­bishop to sit on and pray. Each church the very same: altars made of gilded gold, bronze, onyx, and marble, depending, the handpainted stone tiles, the carvings! Here are the allegories, look! Jesus in the orchard. Jesus and the Last Supper. Jesus tempted by Magdalene, and Amada wants to blurt What about the fetuses buried in the church’s camposanto? The priests are fucking all the nuns, ¿a poco que no? At the Templo, Amada buys a white candle in a fat glass jar of painted roses, walks in with a black veil covering her hair, passes the sixteen stations and the women in mourning, their black rebozos reminding her of crow wings bowed to the rain. There are men with sombreros in their hands, elderly women chanting in their idiomas, creating a featherlight symphony of native tongues and Spanish. She walks all the way to the main altar, turns to her left, walks a few steps to the burning candles on a long wooden table. How tristes the candles look in the dark cathedral, she counts more than fifty candles all at once, still not enough for all the suffering she hears in this church. Amada crosses herself four times, takes a deep breath, kneels in the pew beside the candle-sadness to make sure God knows she’s serious about what she’s got to tell Him. Makes the sign of the cross again, forehead, left, right, heart, lips. She sits down. Bends her head, takes a deep breath. 174  bárbara renaud gonzález

Bueno, Jesucristo. Tú lo eres todo, dicen. Tú eres el Creador de todas las cosas, tú el que conservas todo el universo, y yo no soy . . . nada. What does she have to lose? The voice inside her tells her — say it. She opens her eyes. “Bueno, Jesús. I am nothing, you, the Creator, she repeats. They say.” She pauses when she hears herself saying she’s nothing without believing it. Then the voice inside her takes over again, tells her to keep going. You are everything, the one who oversees the universe. Like a patrón, that voice inside her echoes. Her heart begins to pound with what she wants to, has to, tell Him. Get it over with. She addresses Jesus directly, no Son of God, no Lord, just Jesus, why not? Jesús, You were once a child; protect mine. Fruit not of love, but fruit that I love beyond anything else, fountain of my happiness, hope of my life. Amada realizes she’s the only one in this church dedicated to Carmen who’s not praying to her, who barely believes in her. It’s her son she has to talk to. Jesús. Amada looks at her hands, forces her fingers to unlock their prayer grip, places her hands on the pew in front of her as she kneels. You who knows everything, knows I’m not a bad mother, and that I’m not, I’m not, a bad woman. Amada closes her eyes because she wants to cry, but she won’t. I leave my hijita Salomé in your hands because I love her so much, I must leave her to find a better life for her. She closes her eyes, bends her head down, her fingers seeking the grain of dark wood, finds the carved roughness of the letter A. She takes it as a sign. Better than I had, anyway. Takes a deep breath. You had a mother too. Amada breathes in the chamomile flowers around her, their Golondrina, why did you leave me?  175

melon-honey incense a prelude to Easter, countering the musk floating through the church from the centuries of prayers, from the expensive tea-rose perfumes, bitter orange peels, and spruce colognes of the devoted and supplicant visitors, alongside the wintergreen of gum and smoke of yesterday’s copal. Wouldn’t your mother have done the same thing if she were me? ¿Verdad que sí? She feels the heat of candles on her face for the first time. She was your mother! Don’t you know how much it hurt her to let you go? Amada looks at her hands, wavering, weighing, maybe she’s going crazy, what is she doing? The voice says No, you must fly away. This is not in your hands. And one day, Salomé will follow you. When she looks up again, the candles are reflected in her eyes, as if her prayer alone requires all the light she can possibly hold in her slim, innocent body. Please forgive me. Amada rises, walks to the Virgen’s altar at the front of the church, shuffles the others around so her candle is in the middle, the newest and brightest star. She has to make someone listen. She crosses herself three times again just in case. Jesucristo, remember what I told you! Don’t let me down! Amada walks out, doesn’t look back. She strides past the plaza, past the vendors selling relicarios, prayer cards, and statues of the saints that she thinks get in the way of God. She hurries past Calle Othon, past the ancient catedral where she married a lifetime ago. Her good sandals slap the cobblestone hard, rushing home for the last time to Salomé. But first there are more churches, iglesias, parroquias, ex-seminarios, ex-conventos, claustros, she counts all the places honoring a God who never listened to her before. So why should he now, she thinks.

176  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 Sabes que our family had a little house at La Kineña, where my grandfather Lázaro was born, the one I’m named for. As a cowboy, he was respected, hell he worked harder than any man, and everyone knows he made the boss rich. Just so you know how things turn out, the grandson of the man who took our land begged Papá to stay on the land that was his to begin with, well, by that time, one of the boss’s sons was related to us by sangre, you know what I mean, there sure are pretty women in the family, entiendes, mija?” Daddy jumps up to the back of the truck to put away the tools I hand to him, he’s very particular, doesn’t like for us to get the truckbed muddy from our boots. “Anyway,” he says on our way home in the purple-blue shadow of another sunset we saw but couldn’t stop to watch, my last Saturday of cleaning up the cattle trough and mucking and welding tractor parts, “La Kineña is where all of us were born, donde I was born too, where Papá was a cowboy, like Abuelo before him, on the land that used to be ours, until my father Nicho finally saved enough to buy some of it back, a scrap they didn’t want anymore. His plan was to buy even more back, me and him working, working, he knew we could do it, but you’ve heard that story, World War II. Papá was a great cowboy but a farmer, híjole, lemme tell you those two hundred acres he earned with his blood. The war was nothing compared to working for him.” “And what about us, aren’t we worth more than the land?” My mother throws up her hands when I tell her Daddy’s story. “Those Indian women are the ones he should be telling you about, they were here before any of these so-called hombres. Who do you think birthed him, eh?” Tying her apron on the way to the kitchen, Mami finishes the story Daddy starts but never ends, how his grandfather walked off one day as an old, limping cowboy, one shoulder higher than Golondrina, why did you leave me?  177

the other, jeans starched and loose on his prickly frame, announcing he was going back to the same land they took from his father, Honorio, that he wasn’t going to take any more orders, condescending jokes, or slaps on the back. And the old man walked away with a pistol at his side, warmed up, just in case. Into the sunset, just like that. Then she stops, looks at me for a second, organizes the bowls in front of her like she has no recipe for what she wants to tell me, but all she says is that Daddy’s sisters have told her the whole story. “They shot your great-grandfather, Lázaro, in the back.” “Let’s put it this way. It was either that, or we’d be on that King Ranch where mexicanos are slaves, only they’re not called that. No-sir-ee. What do you call men who don’t have any land? Well? Even the colored got their forty acres, but we didn’t get that. And we’re not slaves?” Daddy’s laugh sounds like a cranky gear on the tractor that’s stopped when I repeat what Mami’s told me about his grandfather Lázaro getting killed in cold blood. He just slaps his thighs through his jeans, changes the subject. “Mamá was an Indian, yes, that simple. Her name’s like nothing I’ve ever heard, Sanapia. Sanapia. Ignorant, couldn’t read or write. Never knew where she came from or who. Only that she was from Texas, nowhere else. Never met her family, que Dios la bendiga.” Daddy searches the horizon for rain, but all we see are the white clouds of cotton above us and knee-high below, so that the blue sky turns us into a painting where we’re like a mistake, two brown spots in the way of perfect blue and white. “She’s an Indian, that’s all there is to say, pobrecita Mamá, short, thick-calved and potato-faced. If she does know where she came from, she never said, ashamed, I guess. She had a stepfather, never knew her real father, brothers and sisters scattered to the four corners, as she used to say. Never met her family. She had a funny way of talking Spanish, though, remember her calling a guarache a waraatsi, qué curioso, ¿eh? And a camote a

178  bárbara renaud gonzález

kamúuta, something like that, strange. Don’t know where that comes from.” How long can you pretend that your story is the only one? The truth has to come out,” Mami says to me late one night, after Daddy’s gone off to work and the moon hangs from the sky like a pressed-down ball of cotton. “If you don’t face all the story, it makes you sick or mean, cripples you. Eats you from the inside out like worms.” Mami looks at the sky too, but doesn’t know the names of all the stars like Daddy, she says the moon’s for romance even when Daddy makes fun of her. But she doesn’t care and starts singing one of her love songs anyway. Mami comes to sit beside me when I’m almost asleep. Strokes my hair, my forehead, tells me I’m growing up real pretty. “Your father’s grandfather, Lázaro, was found the morning after he walked away. Died exactly on the spot where he was born. Six bullets they say. That’s how many it took to bring the old man, who was not that old, down.” “Your father’s lost two harvests already,” Mami sighs, after the part about the six bullets because I’m falling asleep, tucked in the cotton sheets we ironed and folded that morning, the sheets smelling of lemon, blue sky, and Mami’s stories of how it will be when Daddy’s harvest comes in.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  179

34 Amada and Jorge don’t sleep at all on their last night together, no promises, no vows, no words of love at all. No crying. Adiós, their hands and mouths say, we leave it to God, because this, this is a new country they’ve discovered, a country few dare to visit, a land of scorching thirst under a silken rain, with a required departure on the day after arrival. These are the precious mornings, Jorge serenades her at dawn in a full-blown mariachi of one, humming the traditional birthday song on her eighteenth birthday, telling himself he’s not falling in love with her until tomorrow, and by then, she’ll be gone. The birthday song is about King David’s blessing, it’s morning time, wake up, wake up, birthday girl, ending with the moon has gone home. Amada sits up in bed, laughs at Jorge pretending to be the Jorge Negrete, Mexico’s reigning hearthrob, imagines the silver march of buttons along the seams of tight black pants and bolero jacket, the silvery cords braiding around his black sombrero. But this Jorge can’t sing! Jorge’s pale face reddens with Amada’s burla, finds a way to save his dignity. “Where are my pinche boots! ¿Dónde chingaos están? Por eso no puedo cantar!” He jumps off the bed, searches for his just-bought vaquero boots to wear naked, of course, the ones made of rattlesnake leather, tickles Amada, searching under the mayhem of blankets, sheets, and pillows, stripping the bed bare in his comic frenzy, tossing everything back at her on the bed, “¿Dónde ’stan mis botas?” hitting her with the pillows, slapping her behind when she tries to kick him. “Jorge!” Amada laughs when he discover his boots under the bed and puts them on. Nooooo! “Sí!” He stands up, naked, pretend pistols blazing, orders her to open her legs or else. 180  bárbara renaud gonzález

“No, ’stas loco!” Amada slides, glides under the remaining sheets, going for cover, her glossy, waist-long black hair preventing her from moving fast enough. “Now we’ll see who can sing.” He starts singing the birthday song again, loudly, obscenely, as he fights his way on top of her. Amada squeals, punches, bites, and they roll around in the sheet, hair flowing, boots in the way, and it is she who ends up on top. “Jorge, es mi cumpleaños, yo mando aquí,” Amada commands, biting his lips, moving her thighs just enough to tease him, as Jorge fights back by humming her birthday song in an even raunchier key, “Estas son las mañanitas que can-ta-ba el Rey Daviddddd, and you know what you deseeeeerve, because it is your biiirtth-daaaaay.” He pushes himself back on top of her. His crackling bass smooths out as he sings more gently, and the birthday song turns into a ballad, a little haunted, mixed up with all the other ballads of Jorge and Amada. Little star of a faraway sky that sees my pain, what do you know of my suffering . . . The first song from Jorge is a necklace of diamonds tingling Amada’s neck. My Brown Woman becomes a topaz-tear clinging to her wet, left nipple. Only One Time is a ruby-star cabochon nestling in the soft spot under an ear, while Never is a golden sapphire hiding in her navel as a Little Ray of Sun becomes a bracelet of river pearls gracing her ankles, and Sad Eyes is a pair of silver Tarascan earrings in between her chubby toes, so that she’s covered in songs, a woman dressed in her own naked brilliance. Blood of my soul, think of me when you cry, when you feel like taking my life, I don’t want it, what good is it without you, think of me. Tear out my heart. Think of me.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  181

34 Daddy says his great-grandfather Honorio must’ve heard them coming from far away, and I can hear the horses too, poómpurrupoómpoóm, poómpurrupoómpoóm. It’s harvesttime, the trailer’s full of cotton, so much cotton we almost drown in it, stomp it down, as more whiteness spills from the chute, it’s my last year in high school, and Daddy says we have to keep working as long as it takes. Then he jumps down from the trailer to drive again, the engine grumbles too, and I’ve got the heavy pitchfork, spread the cotton blizzarding on the trailer’s bed. Stomp, stumble, get up. Shovel. Spread it around, hurry, hurry. Pitch it high, this way, that way, easy, stomp it. “Apúrale, muchacha,” Daddy yells from the window, looking back at me. Even though they were far away, Honorio and Camelia could hear the jizzing percussion of spurs, the grunting of anticipation and the hot hate of leather saddles. The horses were panther black, toffee shiny, streaked with charcoal, russet-maned. Daddy says Mamá Camelia told him it was like hearing thunder and lightning without rain, that she could never ride a horse again after that night. Poómpurrupoómpoóm. Poompurrumpoóm. Closer. Poómpurrupoómpoóm. His great-grandfather Honorio loved horses, Daddy says when he takes a break to help me stomp and pitchfork some more. “Now, Mamá Camelia told me,” his pitchfork swinging cotton all over the trailer bed quickly, making me stomp-dance on the cotton, “she told me Honorio was like a mesteño, a mustang,” he repeats in case I don’t know that word, “running free across the land.” Daddy’s breathing hard from the exertion, but he likes seeing the twelve-foot-high white cotton packed down, his cotton. 182  bárbara renaud gonzález

“You know how many kinds of horses there are? Retinto, brown. Retinto quemado, burnt brown. Prieto quemado, burnt black. Prieto, jet black. Alasán, sorrel or chestnut. Pretty horses.” Stomp. Stomp. “It was maybe a dozen this time, and Camelia knew it was trouble. Caballo alasán tostado muere antes que ser cansado, the toasted chestnut dies before he gets tired,” Daddy repeats the old cowboy saying. They smelled of evil, me dijo Mamá Camelia.” He looks at me for a second, cotton rhinestones in my hair, cotton snowing on my shoulders, hears my coughing from the cotton-sprinkled air. And he knows I’ll never work in cotton again after today. “You know what that’s like?”

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  183

34 “If a man can’t dance, he can’t make love to a woman.” That’s Tía Toñia when the aunts come to visit us for New Year’s, and she ought to know. Toñia has no problem in that department, and it has nothing to do with looks either, because Toñia caught men before and after she became a living piñata, my mother criticizes. Make that three piñatas for each of her stomachs, rolling her eyes in disgust. No matter Mami’s protests, the vote among the tías is that Toñia was the real belleza of the family. “A monarca butterfly, a mermaid, a brown witch, my father whispers. Beautiful women get fat,” he shrugs. “Fat has nothing to do with it!” Toñia shakes her stuffing at me, and her husband, my tío Romeo, blows her a kiss. Sometimes my aunts get tired because she’s always saying how rich she is, and in my family that’s not a good thing, though we all wish we were. Toñia especially takes advantage of Tía Cuca’s martyrdom, expecting her to make my cousin Yvette’s society dresses at a discount, just because she’s Toñia’s daughter and they are familia after all. Even though my cousin has more dresses than any Hollywood princess, ever. Toñia’s always showing off. Now she gets up to teach me the rumba, and I like dancing with her even though I’m a little afraid of her. “Pay attention! This is how you seduce a man.” Toñia’s swishing her insurance, as she calls it, around, her hips like two round pans of flan. Used to have a Coca-Cola figure, they say, until Uncle Romeo shook his maracas at her. “So then we fell in love, and got happy and fat eating chocolates in bed, so what?” Toñia says her flesh is delicious as a whole box of golosinas. “¿Y qué?” “La rumba no se acaba.” I try to imagine my aunt when she was young, before the legend she thinks she is. They say that one 184  bárbara renaud gonzález

of Toñia’s lovers from Xalapa was the oldest son of movie queen Dolores del Río’s double during the golden cinema, that’s how beautiful Toñia was. “¡Fíjate nomás!” My aunt is figure-eighting with her feet. She calls out the percussion like it was something to eat: “Claves. Así. Tumba. Ajá. Maracas. Eso. Timbales. Agua. El Con­gó. Bueno. Hear the beat?” Toñia sits down, she’s breathing too hard. Now the advice. “The man is asking the woman to follow him. It’s an old story. She says no, then yes. Don’t give in. Make them. Work.” She gets up again to show me. “I’m old, but not dead.” She swears. Winks at me. “Pay attention to how the man tastes the trumpet like he would a woman, how he plays it from his guts. See how he gives himself to it? Watch how he devours the saxophone. Like a man embracing you from behind. And the piano, can you feel his fingers listen to you as he searches for the right note?” Toñia’s dancing and whispering in my ear at the same time. “The music. Never. Lies. That’s the truth. But men. Always do.” My aunts say Toñia’s the bad one, because she’s the one who drinks tequila, she’s the one with so many boyfriends she can’t remember who’s the father of my oldest cousin, Emiliano. But the biggest scandal is her marriage to my uncle Romeo, who they call that negro when she’s not around. We’re not supposed to talk about it. He’s Italian, my aunts say in front of her, because his last name is Pezzimenti. But he looks just like a black man, only he speaks Spanish, with those zingy curls that give it away, not the soft baby curls like my father’s, and we’re not supposed to talk about that either. Toñia and Romeo have been married a long time, making their fortune together in business. Smuggling, my mother corrects. “Toñia would sell Mamá if she thought she could make a profit.” Golondrina, why did you leave me?  185

No matter, Toñia wants me to know everything about catching a man. “So that he’ll worship at your feet,” she says. “You know what it is? What will make him stay with you?” I hold my breath. “The kitchen. It’s all there in the huevos rancheros, mole poblano, chiles rellenos, pozole, albóndigas de pescado . . . Toñia’s the best cook, spending most of her time in the kitchen, getting fatter, bragging about her vegetables as if they were old boyfriends. Today, she’s making black bean soup. “Don’t forget to sauté the onions first. Every tomate, every chile, has its personality, don’t forget to try them all. There’s a reason we have so many kinds. Her eyebrows arch as she holds the knife, enjoying the array of fresh vegetables Daddy picked just for her. She inhales the garlic and declares it better than jasmine. Dusts crumbled goat cheese she brought specially in her suitcase for the quesadillas, and it’s like she’s now powdering herself too. “Breakfast, dinner, soup and postre,” she says, “lo esencial.” Teaches me that a homemade sazón reminds a man of his mother, and that your own spice is absorbed into their veins even when their heart says No Trespassing, Keep Out. “If you want to be a good cook, you’ll have to practice until you find your own recipe. Be original! How can they resist the real you, but you have to practice first.” She starts taking out almost every bowl and pot we have while her music is just as loud. “When I make those sopes you like so much, it’s like touching a man for the first time.” She’s mixing boiled potatoes and cornmeal, baking powder, and a pinch of salt in Mami’s big yellow bowl. “Isn’t that what we’re made of after all? ¿Sí o no? Look how I’m kneading this dough with my hands, the fingering and palming, the velvet-making of masa? It’s like sculpting a lover and giving birth to him at the same time.”

186  bárbara renaud gonzález

Holds up her unrefined hands to show me how the dough clings like bits of placenta on her fingers, something Mami has showed me in books. “I can’t explain it,” Toñia continues as she works the dough, “but it happens every time we women sprinkle warm water on the masa and shape it into a ball. And it’s my power, mío. And because it’s mine, it’s yours too. Look, mija, the gringos think we’re poor, but at least we know how delicious hunger is. Mi casa es su casa, they think we’re fools when we say that.” Toñia is searching for more pots and pans while she talks politics, so that the pots are in time with the drums of the rumba she’s playing. “’Our house is your house’ means we have an eternal table, umjum, an empire of tamales and tequila!” Tía laughs, admiring her mountain of ingredients and pots on the table. She dances a little to the rumba, and sneaks a shot of tequila she’s hidden in one of Mami’s cabinets. “Remember this. One day those gringos will surrender to us for a plate of this, made with a teaspoon of tears, and we will share because we don’t want to be like them. No!” She takes another quick swig of tequila, “Ahhhh.” Offers me some. “But I was giving you advice about men,” she says, smiling her witchy smile as I take a sip. “Look,” she says, waving her rolling pin with authority because she’s heated up the frying pan to make buñuelos, a sugared tortilla speckled with cinnamon powder on top that we always make for New Year’s. “A woman must be this good in the kitchen but better in bed. And if you give a man both,” she kisses the palote. “He will do what you ask.” Winks. “Anything.” “Ya, Toncha, shut up!” My aunts walk into the kitchen. “Do you believe what she’s telling your daughter?”

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  187

34 Cuando salimos de Kiansas con la fuerte novillada ay que trabajo pasamos por aquella gran llanada Daddy’s half crooning, half whistling that song again while we pick up all the irrigation pipes from one side of the mile-long field to the other, the pipes wide enough for me to hide in and then some, nothing around us but an everlasting whiteness, nothing else to see, nothing else to hear, but the purest white on this very last field on my very last day in the fields before I go far away to college. Somehow Daddy’s cowboy song about the winter’s blizzard turns the clouds into snow, and I know it’s weird, but I can almost see winter waiting for summer to burn itself out. “Lázaro, my grandfather, remember? The one I was named after, well, he was one of those vaqueros driving cattle all the way to Kansas City when he was still a boy.” The concrete pipes are heavy, heavy, but I keep up with Daddy, seems like I’ve been dragging pipes around all summer like musical chairs, figuring out angles, connecting, reconnecting, watching the water flow, how much, too little, start over, and the only thing that keeps me going is that this is the very last time. “Took them from the early spring to the summer, ten miles a day if they were lucky. Then back. I know you’ve seen a lot of movies about cowboys, and you think it was romantic, but it wasn’t. Damned hard work.” We put down that pipe in a pile of others, pick up a much heavier one I can barely lift, and start walking in a clumsy fourstep. Funny, his cowboy songs are like a crying, though Daddy says he doesn’t, not even when his father didn’t say good-bye at the train station when he was going to World War II to defend our country. Daddy says his father barely looked at him, in a big 188  bárbara renaud gonzález

hurry to get back to his fields, to work, to wait for rain, to get the money to buy some more acres. Already dead when Daddy returned from the war three years later. Doesn’t matter, Daddy shrugs with his voice when I ask him about it. Lonely, that’s what the song is too. I can tell it’s meant to be sung alone, where your voice echoes in the plainness of the land, the way it was here before, when there was buffalo grass before the cotton, before there were ranchos that became ranches, and there were Indians waiting to ambush you, because this wasn’t our land no matter what Daddy says. “What the movies don’t tell you is that the mexicanos were much better and braver cowboys than the gringos, the vaqueros didn’t have land, you see. Careful!” Daddy yells as I trip between the cotton plants. There were five hundred steers, all brave and quick bulls, and twenty American cowboys couldn’t stop them. “Orgulloso.” Mami always says Daddy’s too proud, of nothing. “Of speaking good English. Of being tall. Of his French name, Mistral. Proud of nothing! Nada.” But this song is proud in the right way, I think. Can’t we be proud of working hard, of riding a horse in the freezing snow, wrestling the tumbleweeds of summer, of not giving up, of never crying except in a song? The cold well water rushes out as we kneel, drinking from it to celebrate all the cotton we’ve watered and pipes we’ve carried, and the water tastes like ripe orange rinds and rosemary. The mother of a vaquero asked the overseer: Can you tell me anything about my son? I have not seen him arrive. Golondrina, why did you leave me?  189

“They got tough as rope, knotting themselves inside the way a man should be, during those vaquero winters on the trail,” Daddy says with the water streaming down his face. “Barely sleeping a few hours a night, because you’ll freeze if you stop too long, ice crusting the snow underneath your heavy boots, because up there in Kansas the winter doesn’t melt for days once it comes. If you fall from your horse, you’ve lost your job, because you’ve broken your arm or leg. And if you lose your horse in a fall, you don’t go home again to your wife and children because you’re ashamed.” Then his song gets jagged, like a chip of ice in your mouth. Señora, si le dijera, triste se pondría a llorar su hijo lo ha matado un toro en las trancas de un corral. “That’s why they became cowboys, had no choice, what else could they do? Didn’t pay anything. But at least they were outside, alone, and they could be men away from the ranchers, from the ranchos they used to own.” He stands up, looks at the waist-high cotton surrounding us, so white on the outside, but dark on the inside, not soft, like my mother’s tortillas, or clean, like the sheets on the clothesline. It’s a white that isn’t, a white icing that isn’t sugar, a white that doesn’t let us breathe or laugh, a white with green stalks that makes money for everyone but the ones like my father who waters it so that it stands up straight and tall and perfect. Don’t know why God has done this to us. To me and most of all to Daddy. He picks up a leftover pipe that he heaves over his shoulders, motions for me to hurry and follow him to the pickup, a mile away in the sunset. “A man is nothing without a job, ves, without a way to take care of his family, or his mother. Better for him to die.”

190  bárbara renaud gonzález

He takes a long breath, and it’s hard to tell if he’s tired, or waiting to say something and figuring out how to say it. “Didn’t matter how good a cowboy Papá was, that’s why he left it soon’s he could get some land. Death is just a snowfall away or a bull’s trampling when you’re not looking, mijita. That’s why they drank so much, they spent their whole lives crossing from one side to another, going nowhere.” He starts singing again, slow, and he ends it with a whisper that isn’t sad or happy, just true. I have no more to sing to you and so I say farewell here ends the corrido of the five hundred steers “When the rains did come,” Daddy starts up again, taking the long way back from where we started, checking the cotton with each step, “when it came for the vaqueros, it was never the distilledwater rain you and me know. Papá said it fell like razor-rain, something the wind had sent from far away, from the past, coppery rain that would blind you, make you almost deaf with its force. Alone in the middle of these plains, months from home, he said the once-in-a-lifetime rain would bring back what you thought you’d forgotten, a song from school, the grito of an uncle watching you hit that home run with a chapote branch, telling you old stories later about your father as a little boy, stories about a wild mesteño that couldn’t be tamed, and sometimes you could even hear your mother’s lullaby in the rain, decía.” Daddy shifts the pipe around on his shoulders a little bit, grimaces, but keeps going. We hear a rustling in the cotton and get real quiet. A snake, and soon we see it slink and zoom past us like it’s trying to fly, like a scrap of gray wind. “Abuelo told him he wouldn’t wish those rains on anybody, how it would start with a white day like this, with the blue veins

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  191

getting darker, like revenge, then a breeze from nowhere, fresco, like from an ocean far away, then all of a sudden, here it comes, a hailstorm. And the cattle breaking out from the pack like balls in a good pool shot, the hail coming down, bruising the vaqueros worse than a fistfight, only they didn’t feel it until later, working so hard to round up the cattle, only later counting the ones that didn’t make it, that didn’t survive the machucada of the stampede. Abuelo said he wouldn’t wish those rains on anybody.” Daddy’s eyes, like mine, are dripping with sweat, and I see the scared rabbit in his, it runs by for just a second, hiding in the sunset’s blue fire, and I don’t know why God doesn’t listen to mexicanos out here, don’t think God likes cotton very much, even if Daddy worships it.

192  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 In the summer before I left for college, Tía Lilia came to make me a present. “I can turn a girl into a woman with a dress,” she says, her eyes gleaming, “in fuchsia, the color of passion, mijita.” There were dozens of measurements, from the slope of my shoulders to my underarms, up and down my body, across my breasts. “Don’t worry,” she says, when there’s not much to measure there. “Not all men like the big ones, you don’t want those anyway.” Then, “You have legs, mijita, that’s even better, they won’t sag.” She wraps the tape around my waist, stretching it up the length of my arms. “Now bend your elbows, the dress has to give in all the right places, so you look good from all angles. No bulges. You have the line,” she says, “but a dress has to compensate for your flaws, which we all have, they make us interesting. Every smart woman knows that. The art is in the deception. And to show off what God gave us, otherwise why did he give it to us? No, I’m not going to make it as tight as you want. It will be a dress with some mystery, spaghetti straps, and a scooped neckline with black lace that will show more by what it hides.” Then she measures my back, “Ummm, crisscross straps across the back to show off those athlete’s muscles. Now let’s see if you know how to iron correctly, mijita.” I watch her outline my dress from scratch with her tailor’s chalk. Zas, zas, the chalk was a piece of flint, a brush in her hand drawing my spine on a sheet of brown paper, zas, my neck, zas, my clavicle, zas, my ribs, zas, zas, she’s a Picasso of tissue, patterns, and steam. It has to be silk of course, and Tía unpacks the samples from her suitcase bulging with fabric, buttons, zippers, fashion magazines. She covers the dining room table with silk triangles, running her French-manicured hands over each one. “This is georgette, malelassé, noil, peau de soie, pongee, orGolondrina, why did you leave me?  193

ganza, or what about tulle?” A puff from her cigarette, extracting yet another packet of folded and pinned samples from the opened suitcase, pushing aside my brothers’ toy cars, then arranging them so they’re on display too. “Linen, knit, jacquard, they each have their woman, but silk is the strongest fiber.” Tía smokes from the same Bugler packet Mami uses, the ones where you have to roll your own cigarette from the pouch, using the wafer-thin squares of paper for wrapping. She looks up at me, holding up the delicate sample, examining its translucence. “For you, mijita, silk shantung.” She says this after a long time, crosses her legs, “It will outlast even cotton. The thread’s so long it can be knotted and twisted, making it endure even as it gets more delicate over time. Like a woman, if she takes care of herself, hmmm?” Tía’s very proud that she still has her looks, and Daddy’s always saying he should’ve married her, though Mami says there’s no way, absolutely no way Tía would ever have gotten in his truck. Besides, he can’t dance. Tía uncrosses her legs, holds up the silk samples by my face, and thinks. “You have the body for this dress, and when you wear it, we women know your beauty is ours too. Other mujeres were made for starched jeans or push-up bras. Not you. You are for silk, a fire that burns the hands.” Lilia finally cuts the pattern from newspapers, after all that measuring. Explains how she’ll sew it together, using extrafine pins so they don’t tear into the web and weft, she says in English, the heart and soul, she translates, because silk is like skin, she says, tracing the ironed newspaper with her fingertips, so that it stays smooth. Explains that it will take her all summer, but she’ll return just in time before I leave. “I want it to fall just right, mijita. It has to make your body whisper, like a breeze he’s only imagined. Make him chase, and he’ll want you even more.” 194  bárbara renaud gonzález

“You take too long! ¡Obsesionada!” Mami complains that Lilia is a perfectionist. Tía ignores her, ¡soy una artista! but gladly accepts Mami’s offering of flour tortillas and carne guisada, my aunt’s favorite. Everyone knows Tía can’t cook anything at all while she’s sewing, talking about sewing, or dreaming about it. Tía Lilia explains that if the garment is constructed with care, it will never tear, and that she hates cheap buttons and hems that fall apart. “Basting, stacking, matching stripes, ironing right, and handsewing on the lining, this is what makes shadows you can’t see but feel when a woman walks,” Tía instructs between bites of Mami’s tacos, admiring her newspaper pattern. “Makes all the difference. You touch it, and it dissolves in your hands, but it’s still there, isn’t it? He will want you even more for all that.” When Tía sees that Mami’s left the kitchen, my aunt whispers, “I wouldn’t let your mother near this, she would ruin it with her instant life. This dress is for those who know what it means to be a woman, and I don’t mean just the body. It’s not for the ordinary.” She glances toward the door to make sure Mami can’t hear. “The silk seduces, hypnotizes, poeticizes. You can catch the man you want with the right dress, the trick is knowing if the dress is right for you.” She sips her coffee. “Sometimes it takes a whole life to discover what dress that is.” Since my aunt was the oldest of the five sisters, Mami says she was supposed to sacrifice herself and not marry to help support the family, to be the example of virtue and devotion. And she did, but she fell in love with a married man in Oklahoma, a scandal, who ripped her heart out like a cheap button, and then she married so late she couldn’t have any children, Mami says, in awe that she still laughs and drinks like nothing bad ever happened to her. Golondrina, why did you leave me?  195

Though Lilia isn’t drinking during this visit. She’s working, she tells me. And she passes the time telling me about her dancing times. “You don’t have to drink more than water to dance the danzón well. . . . Just take a sip, to make it last. That’s how good it is. The danzón is like a copita of cognac, not for gulping down, like that cheap beer your mother drinks. Mijita, I’m going to help you find passion with this dress, romance.” She looks around to see that no one can hear. “But, like all of us, you’re really searching for love, and one day you’ll find it. Ay, sí. And how it will hurt.” Her dark eyes glisten, making me wish I knew all her secrets. “Then life will begin, but it won’t be what you dreamed of. Because you will have woken up, eh?” She takes another sip of coffee, fingers the cigarette she’s rolled from the Bugler pack, pushes away the plate of leftovers, examining the blue floral pattern of the plate before she collects the newspaper pattern and carefully folds the pieces one at a time in one of her flat stocking boxes, the ones with a black seam in the back. Closing the lid, she turns to me again. “If you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself with this dress, and that takes a heart torn into rags. But made of silk. Oh, did I tell you, invisible thread for the hem? No matter how lovely you are on the outside, mijita, no importa, if you’re not stitched together well from the inside.”

196  bárbara renaud gonzález

3 Part

four 4

Your wings have endured such storms and you are so far from home.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  197


34 If you want a boyfriend, you have to know the polkita. His name is Seledonio, but everybody calls him Sol. Like the sun. When he talks, every sentence has a bad word. But on him they sound like summer, like the beginning of the world, like he’s a messenger sent to teach me a new language, finding roses in the trash. I met him at a street dance in front of my college which they call Taco Tech, ten miles from the border and everybody’s Mexican, which is a good word here. The gringos here want to be Mexican too, and the five black guys from Detroit who play on the basketball team think they’ve landed in another country. Well, they have. Everybody speaks Spanish here, and they don’t believe me when I tell them how much I needed to hear it. They take it for granted, like flour tortillas with beans that are a foot wide for ninety-nine cents, Friday special. Mr. Graham, my senior counselor in the Panhandle, eight hundred miles north of here, did not approve, said this was a bad college. Bottom ranking, high dropout rate, weak scores, you’ll get bored, he said. I can get you into the University of Texas, but why would I go there? I told him this was the perfect place for me. They have moonlight fiestas outside my dorm here, and I go late, ’cause I’ve been studying hard, and somehow end up standing beside the kind of boy I’ve written about in my Dear Diary with the key pinned to my bra. He’s a charro, wearing all black, who says he’s a surfer, born just across Padre Island. Smells like a man, all soap and starving eyes. And he asks me to dance. Together, we try the polkita. Sweepthefloor,shshshshsweepsweepsweep. Round and round we go, countercircle, shuffling and ruffling with our feet. He doesn’t force me to get close to him like other guys, just asks me Golondrina, why did you leave me?  199

my name and where I’m from. Doesn’t hold my hand too soft or hard, but extends it to the sky. We whirligig around so we’re a blur inside the sweaty tornado of couples going round and round and after a while it seems like we’re dancing with everyone too, everyone close to each other, and I can feel his black turtleneck get even darker. It’s like our bodies have become the accordion. We’re stepping together, pleats of flesh and muscle folding and stretching, sewn together by somebody’s hands. Don’t ask me how, but I know he’s my fate, and that dancing is supposed to be like this. We keep going. You are the queen of my heart. Tu eres la reina de mi vidaaaaaaaa. Sin ti yo no puedo vivir, yo no puedo exister, por lo tanto que te quieroooooooo. PumPa. PumPa. Sweepsweepsweepsweep. I hear conjunto music all night, which means joined together. Some people think our polkita looks simple, but it isn’t. Not about the steps at all. A polka’s for dancing in unison, when friend or foe, past and future relatives, pass you on the wooden floor. Reminds you you’re not alone, no matter what. Conjunto has everything in it, tropical, especially cumbias, rock-and-roll, country, mariachi, rancheras, even jazz. And always with accordion and a bajo sexto, the guitar with twelve strings. Sweeplifelovesweep. Sweepheartsweepme.

200  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 Jorge no miente, there are no mountains in the world north of Monterrey. Amada stares at the flattened land, beaten into submission by a hammering sun, shocked that the cottonwood trees seem to have white claws instead of flowers, fighting for a little taste of spring. It’s as if someone has taken all the colors out of her daughter’s box, leaving one antique brown crayon, a muddy green, and a canary yellow for the wildflowers. “There is nothing here, my precious.” Jorge teases her, it’s all he can do, he’s sad and he didn’t expect this. “Only mexicanos with hearts harder than mesquites and words more brutal than those fire ants live over there.” He smiles at his wit, squints, adjusts the car’s mirror. “Dicen que old gringos who come to die in Mexico are reincarnated as mexicanos born in Texas, that’s what they deserve.” Amada doesn’t understand, but it’s too late now. She wants to cry, to sleep, to breathe in her daughter’s stuffed bear, pull on her big toes, taste the day in her little girl’s navel. “But what is there to see? No pyramids, no rivers, no canyons, no gorges, no mountains, no hills, no flowers.” “I warned you!” Jorge laughs with some compassion. Nada, nada, na-da! The people here were too stupid to build pyramids, but smart enough to live where our Spanish ancestors couldn’t fuck their women.” “I don’t see any indígenas.” “¿Qué? The gringos caught them a loooong time ago. Don’t you remember what happened to that Gerónimo? Hijos de puta.” Jorge says this and more under his breath. “But we killed Indians too. Tenochtitlan . . .” “¡Por favor! We are a fucking Indian nation,” Jorge glances at her, incredulous, swearing some more about being proud and mexicano. Golondrina, why did you leave me?  201

“So the Spaniards married some of us, what does that mean?” “We love brown women, ¿no entiendes?” Jorge winks. “Marriage is a kind of slavery.” “¡Si! You women know how to enslave a man, don’t you?” He reaches over to her, fondles her thigh. “Jorge!” “¡Es verdad! I am your slave, didn’t I kiss your feet last night? Ummmmmm.” “Jorge!” Amada doesn’t agree, realizes he’s a macho like all the rest. Still, she’s captivated by him and his silly banter, imagines how he talked his mother out of spanking him. “¡Vi-va la conquista! Sons of a fucking mother! The Spaniards think they won, but the brown women like you have them by the balls!” He swerves to miss a dead possum on the road. “Jorge!” “You are my queen! Beauty, intelligence, a woman apasionada! You’re going to conquer Los Ju-nay-ted Es-ta-tes! You’ll see!” His eyes flash a green so pure, they’re an untouched garden of green for a millisecond, and Amada shivers, because in that split second she knows he doesn’t trust her, and that he loves her despite. “Just promise me you won’t marry the first gringo who asks you, eh? Jorge changes the subject. Jalo! Jauarchú? Jorge repeats the English words for Amada’s sake, remembering little from his private school years, impressing her since she doesn’t know one simple word in English. They both read the signs for Ciudad Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas. Highway #2 will take them south again before zigzagging north to their destination, Matamoros, and the bridge she’ll walk across to Brownsville, Texas, the southern tip of that whole state. It’s the same bridge her older sister traveled on her way to the United States. Ya mero. “Bronz-vil, cómo?” 202  bárbara renaud gonzález

“It means town brown,” Jorge shakes his head at the coffee grounds of English in his mouth. “There are lots of mexicanos living there, you’ll see. You’ll find a good husband in no time, my princess.” He winks at Amada again, and his whole body stings when he says that. “Husband? You must be joking!” A voice inside Amada protests, telling her that Jorge’s the man for her. But she must not deserve him, that’s why nothing more is going to happen between them, and her mind orders her heart to remember she’s not good enough, just like her mother always said. Amada swears to God that she will become the perfect wife if she meets a good man on the other side, to please give her another chance. Amada continues studying the funny map of Texas with only one coastline while Jorge tells her more stories of gringos, their idiocy and their genius, “Who understands them?” While he’s complaining, Amada traces Texas on the map, feels Salomé’s little hands under her own, but the moment dissipates in the heat. She sees Salomé playing with her paper dolls, the ones Amada cut and painted for her as a good-bye gift, a mother and daughter with matching paper dresses, holding hands. Amada’s heart beats a solo worthy of Chano Pozo, its wild rhythm seeming to propel the car forward. Forward to the land of the yanquis, she thinks, and the victors of all wars and their God without saints she doesn’t really believe in anyway. Forward to the country where everyone is equal, even if the rest of the world isn’t, she grimaces. Forward to another chance, forward to the country of Frank Sinatra, hamburgers, and the empire that wants Mexico’s petroleum, this much she knows even if she didn’t go to school. Forward to the language of Shakespeare and their descendants who don’t know Cervantes, according to Jorge. Forward. Forward. Forward. She bends over with the rhythm almost bursting her heart wide open.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  203

34 Yes, this is the dance for me and Sol. I love his Tex-Mex, don’t care what Mami says when she meets him and tries to correct him. How can you be ashamed of how you speak, he demands? Walks with his chest out, a bull entering the stadium, sits on every chair like it’s his throne. Seledonio talks all the time, flaps his arms like the wings of a rooster, has a convulsion with a good chiste, his head back, his voice an ambulance of laughing. And yes, he admits he resembles the conquest of Spain, with his nose a jagged piece of Alhambra tile, his eyes the oilfields of the Persian Gulf. Sol’s hair is blacker than his favorite turtleneck, his espalda wide, dangerous as a circling shark. He’s saltwater breezy with the lightest brown-sugar skin, unrefined, ’cause he’s from the coast. Sol was born on that isla named for a Spanish queen. But he’s no español, no way. He’s not ashamed to claim the Africa of Spain, it makes him tall. He likes me because I’m rotisserie, I glow in the dark he says, good enough to eat. Especially there. He plays with my wavy hair down there, delicate, not like his Arabic whorls. So this is what an Indian princess looks like, he marvels. Morena, he exults. Brown is the most de-lec-ta-ble color of all, how could it not be. He opens my legs. America, here I come! I never tire looking at him. Thank Othello, he says, because his people made me, they drowned the ugly ones, he jokes at my compliments. My girlfriends are jealous, they don’t think I’m pretty enough for him. You’re too dark, they hint, flirting with him in front of me. How dare he prefer coffee to cream? It’s just that I like it together, he jokes. My mother swears she herself would take him away from me if she was younger. She’s just lonely, because Daddy left after the last harvest. “I would give up land for you!” Seledonio kneels before me when I tell him my story. You are worth more than everything my family has lost to them, yes you 204  bárbara renaud gonzález

are! You’re the reward for all that happened to us, gold made from blood! His hands go under my dress. “Now bless me, my queen!” When Sol talks, it’s like conjunto. “Open me the door, you want to go with nojotros for a bironga? Let’s go chancliar on Saturday. Puro party, toda la night. No te preocoops, babydoll, por qué no me trust? Put your picture on my pader. Eres mi ruca, ¿verdad? Swear que sí, otherwise no puedo concentrate the rest of the week in school.” Sweepmyheartplease . . . sweepsweepsweepsweeeeeeep. Sol walks around like he’s the lord of everything, commanding words, making me laugh porque le gusta chock me. He can say whatever he wants because he lifts weights and no one dares pick a fight with him, even a gringo. He went to a high school right across the bridge from Mexico, he says, so that everything is upside down, meaning the gringos are in the minority, so it’s really right side up the way he looks at it. “I mean the raza beats up gringos where I come from, chale. Uranus is my favorite planet in the solar system, Sol tells the pack of guys who follow him because they know he always wins the fights. Ur-Anus. Get it? But nothing against los jotos. Whatever turns you on, ése, my primo’s one, and a man’s not about who he fucks, but how good he fucks, ¿tiendes mendes?” Orders the rest of the machos to pick on the real enemies, not the one who wears lipstick to class. “¡Órale! Just stop grabbing my muscles, OK?” Black men really like him, “anyway, to be Mexican’s to be closer to black than white, for real,” he says. “It’s just that our brains been washed out with too many Clorox commercials and too many Barbie dolls, that’s how my mother looked, and I’m really not interested in sleeping with her.” But he doesn’t hate anybody, doesn’t like to fight just because and didn’t join the Marines to prove he’s a man. Golondrina, why did you leave me?  205

“No más no chingen conmigo.” I like Sol so much, stumble with the way he makes words twist and somersault and land with one foot in two countries. He has no rules, because look who made up the rules anyway, he says. “Pure fucking pharts. Puro PP.” This is what he says because he fell asleep in British Lit, got an F for the semester, and who cares about fucking Chaucer anyway? “Isn’t lit-er-a-ture all about love anyway? Those professors sure don’t know anything about that. Don’t they read? Aren’t the stories about how we’re all human? All they know is that pinche Chaucer.” “Hijos de su puta madre.” Sol blames everything on somebody’s fucking mother. “The way the college treats us es un desmadre. Broken-down mothers. Those neocon professors son un bunch de flechas frías. Cool arrows. Don’t know who they’re shooting at, I know where to put those cool arrows. Culeros, get it?” He’s the first guy I’ve met who defends himself with the words he collects like the money he keeps finding on the sidewalk. So far, he’s taught me all about LaVerga and LaPicha. “Yeah, they do sound like the names of saints, you can bow down to mine if you want. Yeah, it’s worth praying to.” He grabs his dick to show me how to use mámame in combination with the other words so that the order to suck has maximum effect. It all depends on how you say it, there’s the suck-itmother-fucker, his movements are rough as it becomes a weapon, and then there’s the suck-it-now-pleeease. A double-fudge popsicle on the hottest day of the year. Here’s a new one. El cogimiento. “There is fucking and there is serious fucking,” Seledonio says. “If you think coger is bad, cojimiento’s a revelation, and I’m not talking the one in the Bible. That’s why you should do it with me, so you can see what Shakespeare meant to say, but couldn’t.” He says I’m paranoid about los gringos. “They’re like anybody else, just remind the stupid ones they were born no más porque their mothers couldn’t get an abortion. 206  bárbara renaud gonzález

We keep ours, toasted tortillas, broom-hair babies and all. Now you see why they’re so angry at everyone, dontcha?” Híjole. He says this word’s about the sons whose mothers loved them even though their fathers raped the mothers, making them suck it. Where do you think bad words come from anyway?

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  207

34 Lucero, star on the forehead.” Retinto, retinto quemado, prieto quemado, prieto, alasán, grullo, crane-colored with a black line down the back. Moros, iron-gray. My great-grandfather Honorio loved looking at them, Daddy says on the porch the night before I leave for college. The full moon beams down on us like something magical, and I wonder if I’ll ever see another one like this. Daddy says he has something to tell me. He takes out a cigarette, lights it with a match. “Hats, the gringos never went anywhere without their cowboy hats. You know them,” he stuffs the matches deep in his pocket. “Hard straw for work, smoothed-down, prettified felt for church. Never took them off, except in there.” White, gray, tan, black, stampede string. “Hats were bosses.” And I think of how I’ve seen plenty of men holding, thumbing, caressing them. “They were the law, an army.” Sweat lining their velvety inside, smelling like roasted meat, kerosene, excrement, dry mud blackening the label. “That’s why I quit wearing them.” Daddy interrupts my imagining. “They took something good we had and made it bad, like the horses, and the boots . . .” But I’ve stopped listening. I can see them now, with soles nailed in so hard it’s like rocks scraping stone, a hammer striking anvil. Daddy doesn’t wear cowboy boots, can’t afford them. He says that later they inscribed the boots with their names, our botas turned into weapons against us. “They say that when you finally face your time, you’re not afraid anymore.” Daddy takes a long drawl on his cigarette, and the smoke seems to linger in the clear night, like a story that dissolves into the moonlight. Great-grandfather Honorio heard the beat of drums, warning him, surrounding him, a hurricane of words pounding outside 208  bárbara renaud gonzález

his wooden door. There were voices like breaking glass, climbing up and rippling down like sour notes on his guitar, a skunking of wind when they rushed in, and the drums got louder still. OPEN UP YOU Dirty MESKIN Nigger-MEXICAN — No Good-for-Nothin’ MONGREL Meskin NIGGERDog! “It happened so fast, no time to run. And where could he go anyway? The next rancho was five miles away. They would catch him, take his wife.” Virgencita, he prayed in the moment before they come in. A prayer before the exploding of shells and drums and guitar all become one. He doesn’t want to die. But the drums are beating, telling him he’s almost home, only he doesn’t know where that is. Mamá. Mijito. Honorio suddenly hears a woman’s voice beside him, a sugar-milk voice, my little boy, she beckons, come home, mijito. Mijito, aquí ’stoy. The drums call him toward her, surround him, pushing him to her outstretched hands. He’s a dark, broad-shouldered man standing tall, ready. Fais do do, fais do do, dans les bras de ta chère maman, his mother is stretching out her hands to him. All the angels are watching you. Mamá is the last thing he says, an umbilical cord he didn’t know he still had unrolling inside him, dragging him across his land to the trees outside, to that mesquite where he asked Camelia to marry him. He tries to bring it back, loses the tug of war. The rifle he’s holding in his hands so steady, falls. And then he’s covering his face, curling up like a baby ready to be born soon, soon. “Mamá Camelia told me how big the moon was the night it happened, she said it was harvesttime, like now, and the moon was that Navajo white she liked looking at, but that night was the last time she ever wanted to see it again. It was like an earthquake she said, the earth trembled with the sounds of horses, it was a Golondrina, why did you leave me?  209

plague of men, a plague from hell, it was Armageddon and it was not true what the Bible says about the good and the evil, because she learned that night how the good always loses.” Daddy pauses, checks his shirt pocket for his cigarette pack, reassures himself it’s there, but doesn’t pull out another. “Mamá Camelia saw everything in her dreams much later, that’s how she knows all that happened that night the King Ranch men came for great-grandfather Honorio. The men took turns slapping her around like some child’s game of round-robin. She didn’t speak English, and they called her names, bad names, Papá Honorio too. She didn’t know until then what hate really was, how white men can be so black inside.” Somewhere a kingbird has left his family sleeping on a barbedwire fence to fly away. I hear its whit-whit, see the flicker of ironcolored wings testing the wind to Mexico, wishing I could follow it, even though I’ve never been there. “Mamá Camelia told me when I was a very little boy that the rinches came and dragged him from their cabin in the middle of the night. Cowboy hats. Stinking drunk. Apestosos. Mamá Camelia knew them. Knew their voices, their y’all and yahoo. Their laugh. Their envidia. They got the rope and hung him. Greatgrandfather Honorio was twenty-five years old. In those days, the neighbors were miles away. After the first hanging, the rinches, whooping and hollering in the way they do, shot their guns in the air. Mamá Camelia saw Honorio’s neck trembling, jerking, this way and that in the noose as the men held her, and she was fighting with him, for him. The gringos were cursing, the air thick with man-smell, she said, groin-pestilence, Mamá called it. Then they tied his skinny broken neck, arms dangling, to a horse, yippeeing all the way to Alamitos Creek.” Camelia didn’t know a man could take so much kicking and punching, the ribs cracking like branches, a tree-man falling, timber crashing down under those brass-toe boots, the mushing of skull, the uncoiling intestines, the swelling of hands and thighs 210  bárbara renaud gonzález

and jaw, the pounding of rifles and broken rocks, and still Honorio struggled. And then she was running, stumbling toward him, her feet muddy with sangre and urine and caca and gunpowder mixing in one oozing stream under her feet, a yellow, red, brown, black river. Her ripped skirt left a bloody trail as she ran and fell to him, so that all those footprints that night became one sad geography, one map of forgetting, another of remembering, of telling the story over and over and over, so that her children and their children would hear it when everyone else pretended this night never happened.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  211

34 Adiós, Amada,” Jorge carries her to the bridge, and Amada wants to see his eyes, to tell him, but can’t with his dark sunglasses. “Jorge.” “Sssshhhh.” He shakes his head, stopping her. Te tengo un recuerdo. Takes a red silk square wrapped around something from his pant’s pocket, places the small gift in the clutch of her hand holding one of the suitcases, closes it with his own. “For later. Don’t open it now,” he says, seeing that Amada has dropped the luggage, how she’s trying not to cry. “Don’t know why, but I felt it belonged to you the moment I saw it.” He hesitates, surprised at the hammering inside him, takes a step back to shake it off, reaches to touch her face in spite of it, his fingers burning to touch that deceptive doll-face, never known a woman who doesn’t know how beautiful she is. His fingertips are blackening from the firestorm inside him, and he prays the scorching will bring relief to his heart and then Amada says something and he can’t believe it, but it makes him happy, finally, to know it. Those words cradle him, there is no other way to say it, he feels safe and blanketed and right with the world, and in one slow, mumbling, clumsy motion, he enfolds Amada into him, the luggage separating their bodies from more closeness. Jorge’s breath is hot, spicy, smoky, his fingers slip under the black divinity of her long hair, and surely they’re the only ones on earth at this very moment trying to stop it from spinning, their memories whirling, crashing, suspended, like all the rides at a carnival at once, and then they’re rocking each other, grieving for the past present and future, wishing, wishing, wishing away the bridge between them.

212  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 And the rains finally came that last time when the world smelled of pickles, corn relish, stewed tomatoes, tripe soup and baby kittens, fresh pig-lard and dried blood — everything together. The algodón from the cotton trailers was seeded, baled, burlapped, sacked, and weighed at the cotton gin. And Daddy was chosen to be the king of the Barbeque Roundup, since he brought in the most cotton of all. Daddy went to see Mr. Broyles, the bossman, for his percent, just like he’d been promised. After all the waiting and working, plowing and watering, tending and fixing and hoeing and praying and cussing to the clouds for ten long years. And now the sky was shining lapiz lazuli, the blue that comes after a good rain. La cosecha. La cosecha, Mami says over and over again as the kids ask for a basketball, a Boy Scout uniform, a quinceañera, and Gabriel cries for a new trumpet. La cosecha, and she’s so happy she goes to the store in town and buys real bananas for banana cake even though it’s nobody’s birthday — with chocolate icing so we can celebrate when Daddy comes back. All seven of us and Mami sit around the table for Daddy to come home for supper. It’s la cosecha, finally! We wait. We wait. The blue sky turns blue-black. Then Mami starts throwing dishes into the sink, using too much detergent, but she doesn’t care, says she’s going to divorce him this time for sure, orders us to go to sleep in her spanking voice. Ahorita. Everyone except me, because I’m going to college, and I’ve gotten a scholarship with my good grades. The cake with real slices of bananas waits in the middle of the table, and nobody dares to ask for a slice or even a taste. Mami smokes alone in the kitchen, falls asleep, her head drops on the table, her face wrinkled with tears, a used-up lemon squeezed out, forgotten in the kitchen’s dark shadows. Daddy’s real quiet so he won’t wake us when he gets home at dawn. Golondrina, why did you leave me?  213

“We’re leaving. It’s finished. ¿Me entiendes? Se acabó.” He says this soft, but his voice is dark and filled with purple, explains how the bossman took all his money, every single centavo, how he complained, and how the bossman fired him. He says all this as new lightning breaks the sky open with white light, and that’s how I see their faces in the kitchen, Mami sitting at the table smoking and Daddy standing, looking out the window like he always does, but when they look at each other and the lightning comes, I know, I know, there’s no putting them together after this. The storm is that bad, the rain’s pouring outside and inside all of us, inside me, the wind’s howling like a spirit coming after us, not through with us yet. The rain’s washing away everything, like we’re too dirty, like we’ve sinned and we’re paying for it, even though I’m not sure what we did that’s so wrong and all the work we do isn’t enough, and this is what we get, no money, no house, no nothing left. We don’t even have each other, the rain is taking that too. “Don’t tell the children what happened,” Daddy whispers, “I don’t want them to know.”

214  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 Write this down, use your best English,” my mother dictates from the kitchen table. She wants me to write a letter now that she’s left Daddy and taken the kids and returned to South Texas, to Goliad, where I was born, where she says we shouldn’t have left in the first place, and I visit her during my college breaks. She wants me to write a letter to the bossman who broke his promise to my father and his decade of working his fields. He’s too orgulloso to do it himself, she says. “So much pride, for what?” She washes the dishes so hard she almost breaks them, “The first good harvest after ten long years of nothing.” Por favor, please, write, my mother begs. “Tell the bossman how hard your father worked for him. Tell him how much we’re suffering, tell him we have nothing because of him, that Lázaro and I have children to support, he must understand what it is to be a family. Tell him Lázaro can’t find another job, that we live in this broken-down house, how there will be no Christmas this year for us, that we barely have enough to eat. Tell him we forgive him, that maybe he needed the money for his own family, that we will keep him in our prayers, that we just want what is ours.” Tell him, por favor. Tell him.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  215

34 Welcome to the United States! Only Amada can’t read English yet, and she remembers how she walked toward that sign with those words she didn’t understand waiting for her at the end of the old wooden bridge, the sloosh of green Rio Grande flowing under the click-clicking of her high heels, how she didn’t hear it or see it. Nor did she hear the men’s piropos aimed at her figure as she walked, barely felt the curious stare of the older women on shopping errands wondering why she’s alone, though they guessed at the truth. She saw and heard nothing, certainly not the whistles or even the limosneros’ sad poetry of begging, not even the elderly blind woman with her hands and glass jar open for some coins. All Amada sees is the happiness of returning home, how the houses in San Luis will open in welcome, like bright fruit paletas ready to be unwrapped, and she smiles at the pink-flamed buganvillas spilling from her hometown balconies, the children tripping after pigeons, the pigeons in a frenesí chasing leftover seeds of sticky ajonjolí at the plaza, and she tastes the crunchiness of those sunflower-seed pralines, smells the pink of watermelon and red chile on the children’s lips, their sweat mixing with the sweet-candy mush of chilecayote. And the sky in San Luis is so blue it rains clear blue air, and the guitars at the plaza are angels from heaven, it’s Sunday when the whole city sings, and everywhere you walk the perfume of Easter’s chamomile flowers follow you in the streets, like the hope of children dressed up in their creamy communion lace, their violin-squeal voices pointing to the animal balloons, the rooster crowing from the roof where a family’s white laundry is hanging, and the man with the forty mockingbird calls is surrounded by children on the street below. By dusk, drowsy with jarocho melodies, the night’s dented trumpets play Vivaldi, the last notes hanging like tassels from the ends of the roasted corn in the blue smoke of summer, and Amada is home, home. The gringo border guard 216  bárbara renaud gonzález

takes one look at her as she reaches the American turnstile, tries not to stare as he stares at what he’s always assumed was lesser, his eyes and skin burning at the sight of her waves and curves, the glistening of her brown and black and goldenness, the familiarity and newness of her, to him, anyway. He trembles a little as he lets her go by without even looking at her false papers.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  217

34 Por favor, please, write this letter, Amada orders Lucero when she comes home to visit from New York City. Tell the bossman how hard your father worked. Amada and Lázaro have been divorced for a dozen years now, but Amada is sure that one day el bossman will find his conciencia. What Amada wants to say somehow doesn’t make it to the pages that Lucero writes for her, in her very perfect English. Every time Amada starts dictating to her daughter, she feels cheated, because she can’t say what she wants in words. She wants to tell the bossman so many things, a letter for every day since the last harvest. She knows for sure, that if the bossman was in her shoes, if he knew what her life was really like, he could never stand it. But how can any man understand it, much less a man like him who has everything? Listen, Mr. Bossman, could you withstand the seven pregnancies and the withered placenta, the child removed from my womb as a shriveled shrimp the doctor threw in a plastic bag to study later? What about the varicose veins from the ironing all night, the coffeepot brewing all day to stay awake, the sheets of oatmeal cookies when the children come home from school and the bowls of chicken caldo when they get sick, the scouring of burned bits of Saturday’s pancakes, fried chicken on Sundays because that’s what they want? Have you too been overwhelmed by the tantrums, their first running to school with fresh paper in their satchels and even purer faces, don’t you know they left me behind to wonder, to cry, to make deals with God that they become what I could not, could never, be? Bossman, don’t you know what it’s like to carry the weight of twins, to sleep in a chair at night with the heaviness, the fear for my family and these babies when they’re born in the middle of

218  bárbara renaud gonzález

nowhere with nobody around to help? Can’t you see that without me, yes me, that mexicana you ignored because you thought I was a nothing except when Lázaro wasn’t looking, right? Well, without me, Lázaro wouldn’t have been able to make you so rich. Why do you get to have so much power over me? Do you think it’s right and Christian when I’m the one who gave birth to Miguelito, el retardado, diapering him for six long years, not giving him away like the doctor recommended, not abandoning him to an institution? What makes you, Mr. Bossman, more deserving than my child? What would you do once you felt the spring budding inside, like I did bending down in your cottonfields with a hoe that summer, dreaming that my seventh child, my last, would never ever know the misery of his mother’s life, praying that he never live with the fever to read a book, to be slapped down because someone like you says he’s not smart enough, not good enough, because you want him to become just like Lázaro, only good enough to work for someone like you? Dear Mr. Bossman, she writes in her head, as she’s written a thousand times before, do you think I’m going to tell my children that a man like you stole their father’s harvest? Land cannot be stolen, Mr. Bossman, because it’s not yours to take, it’s ours, but I have told my children there are many men like you who steal dreams, as if God only listens to yours. But you are not the only thief, Mr. Bossman. My husband, Lázaro, is worse than you. He let you take our dreams day by day, year by year, believing you were the sole owner of dreams, believing that he could buy his own dreams back from you with one harvest. He can’t even walk straight anymore, that’s what he’s done to himself and you have finished with him, and what a woman wants most in the world is a man who knows what he’s worth. It’s not about about the land, not at all, Mr. Bossman. Neither you nor Lázaro knows what it is to have a child and my children’s dreams are not for sale at any price, they have bigger dreams than the King Ranch, even if

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  219

Lázaro was afraid of all the glorious potential in their eyes, I am not. You hear me, Mr. Bossman? Neither you, nor Lázaro, has anything I want. Amada wonders out loud what took her so long, and she says over and over that she was afraid of nothing.

220  bárbara renaud gonzález

34 “At the beginning of World War I, my uncle, your great-uncle Fabricio, brincó el río. Story is he wasn’t going to fight in any war for a country that took our land, ¿sabes? He stayed in Mexico for a while, and when he came back, they put him right away in the penitentiary, though none of his sons, my cousins, I mean nobody, knows anything about it. After prison he returned to the Valley and became an upstanding citizen, dicen. And don’t you dare tell anyone this story.” Daddy sometimes worries about getting old so far out in the country, but he says no, no way can he live in the city. What could he do there, anyway, lookie here, he says, pointing to his one acre that the new bossman lets him have in return for his supervising the poultry farm. Lookie here, he takes me to see thousands of chickens pecking and flapping in the three sheds that Daddy watches day and night, shows me the switches he pulls, the conveyer belts for the pellets and medicine, makes me watch how the chickens scramble in one big clucking wave toward the automatized trough of running water. He lives in a dilapidated house next to the sheds where the windows are sticky with chicken feathers and fluff, offers me a sticky-bun in its plastic wrapping, its icing a little stale, he says, but it’s good anyway. The town, Flatonia, is nine miles away. But he’s got a good truck, and he keeps it clean as a whistle, like always. “Mamá Camelia signed the papers the next morning,” Daddy says, enjoying his Folger’s coffee in a cracked and stained cup that he refuses to throw away. There are packages of donuts, cookies and candy stacked on his kitchen table. He says he has a sweet tooth, and he still misses my mother’s flour tortillas. I want to clean the kitchen, but it will take me days, and it doesn’t matter because Daddy doesn’t care anymore. “Only those of us who’ve suffered can show them the way, and Golondrina, why did you leave me?  221

who knows the way out, Mamá Camelia told me, but those who have lived it and tell the story.” Daddy gets up to pour himself another cup of coffee. One of the five dogs he’s rescued, Lucky, the scrappy mutt, barks at the door to be let in. When he opens the screen door, I see the male tabby, Kung Fu, jump to the ground from the toolshed, his thick lion’s-mane-self apparently released from Lucky’s surveillance. “They’re our brothers, after all, and we’re supposed to forgive them,” Daddy continues talking, with Lucky on his lap. “Mamá Camelia said that she began to hate them more for making her hate herself, for believing all those words they called her that night, and that was worse than all the rest they did to her.” Lucky gets a little bit of stale donut. “You know, mijita, the only thing we have left is the family cemetery, and that’s where I’m going when all this is over, but I wish I could’ve given you that medallita.” Daddy puts Lucky on the floor, and she immediately returns to his lap and curls in. “When Mamá Camelia married Honorio, she gave him a gift that had been in the family since the very beginning, it was just a little bit of mesquite, with the Rio Grande and in the shape of Texas, nothin’ fancy, something a man carries in his pocket, but she turned it into a necklace, ¿sabes?” He makes a small circle with his thumb and forefinger. “Well, Mamá Camelia gave it to Papá Honorio with her initials and their wedding date on the back, she says, and he always wore it around his neck, like a relicario, ¿sabes? Daddy pets Lucky some more, fiddles with the package of donuts, reaches for his thick prescription glasses from the table. “I don’t have anything to give you mijita, nothing, wish I had that medallita for you.” Before I leave, we walk around the property, and Daddy shows me his patch of sandías, streaked with that wild yellow he likes, tells me about the many greens and reds of watermelons, the difference between the fat ones and how to get them honey-sweet, and the days and the rain it takes to get them just so, the many kinds of rain, how to plant from watching the froth and feathers 222  bárbara renaud gonzález

in clouds, reminds me that animals feel pain, be good to them always he says, shows me his collection of barbed wire, like the six-point star, remembers how they used to cook pork tamales outdoors in the big caserolas, how he wants to see the Alamo before he dies, the missions he’s never seen and only read about, the way that tomatoes need sun and how the city’s no place to grow them right, why rattlesnakes don’t like fresh-cut grass, no place to hide, he says. Daddy tells me another story as we’re standing outside admiring the land, the pond, the pecan trees, and I praise his squash vines and just-mowed grass while the dogs bark at things we can’t see or smell, and the sunset turns us into one golden shimmering whole. “My father and his two brothers were an ornery bunch alright, running round with a .30-30 and a pistol strapped to their hips on the King Ranch. They had horses then. Nobody crossed them. Story is, and don’t tell anyone I’m warning you, that my oldest uncle, Gualberto, killed los hermanos Russell trying to steal some game from the rancho. Uncle Gualberto was a fence-rider you see, guarded the boundary lines, damn good at it. Siempre traía carabina y pistola. Well, the story is that some women heard the shots one morning, how can you miss that on a rancho when the only sound you hear sometimes is a rattlesnake scratching its back? Anyway, next thing you know, these women see my uncle Wale riding ’cross the property, high-’n’-mighty proud as always, on his way to the cowboys’ chuckwagon. The next day, two bodies, mira no más, found along that path where my uncle’s seen riding. ¡Qué coincidencia, eh? Nobody dared say anything, that’s how afraid everyone was of my tío Wale. The gringos called him Wally, Gualberto. Shooot, in English or Spanish, he was one mean sumbitch. Don’t tell anyone.” “Did you love Mami?” I finally ask him, tapping the watermelon in my arms he gives me as a good-bye present, listening for the soft echo, the ripe sound of a heart. “Nope, guess I never did.” Golondrina, why did you leave me?  223

Daddy never talks about Mami, though he’s got plenty of stories about his white chickens, the way the full moon seems to punch right through the night sky, God’s watching out for me, he says. Even when the nights are cold and long and dark in the winter, and there’s no one around for twenty miles, he’s not afraid. He’s not afraid of the dark, no sir.

224  bárbara renaud gonzález


five 4

Come to me, sweet feathered pilgrimed stranger.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  225


34 Amada likes to wash dishes, it helps her forget, better than drinking those cold beers at night that only bring nightmares. The steam mixes with her sweat, and she takes care to hand-wash the plates and cups and forks and bowls so they gleam in their white porcelainness. What rare beauty, she thinks, at this time of day after the noon rush when she’s alone in the greasy kitchen, surrounded by the pans and jars and phooosh-phooosh of fans and static of her favorite norteña station. Here at Lulu’s Café, where Amada works the weekday rush, she takes the sealed envelope from her cook’s apron, looks at it again, turns it over, examines the address one more time, returns it to her apron. Then she pours bleach in the restaurant’s double sink to disinfect it. The letter in her apron’s pocket is in one of those almost-translucent envelopes, the way that letters come from Mexico, only this one’s different. She’s never seen this handwriting before, but she recognized it as soon as she saw it. Later, at night when she gets home from cleaning the animal clinic after the restaurant, she’ll open it. No, she won’t. She takes it out again, the desire to open it a young bird’s first-beating wings, something frantic and holy, and she remembers the first time she gave birth, how it made her come alive, how it scared her with ecstasy and then, hope. But she doesn’t open it, afraid that Salomé will say I hate you. The children’s song chimes in her head again like church bells, like a silver bracelet tinkling with too many charms. En el agua clara, que brota en fuente, un lindo pescadito, sale de repente. Why does the little fish want to escape? Why is it so hard for a man to love a woman, why are they such cowards? Amada asks herself the next day, Tuesday, standing in front of the blue-plate special, spooning cream gravy on the chicken-fried steaks, proud of her cook’s reputation, her way with Texas-sized fries and stuffed jalapeños. Everyone loves Amada, the Mexican lady with so many Golondrina, why did you leave me?  227

children who finished college. What an example she is, look how hard she works. If they only knew. Lindo pescadito, no quiere salir, a jugar con mi aro, vamos al jardín. Love isn’t like in the movies, Amada sighs before the basin of dishes and bubbles after the bridal shower party has left, more overtime for her. She’s been working since six this morning in the smoke and blaze of the restaurant’s kitchen, and despite the commercial-size refrigerators, it’s always twenty degrees hotter in here than the hottest day of summer. Today she started the morning with three-egg omelets for the truck drivers and a homemade batch of beer biscuits, plus her famous chile-pecan pie for the lunch crowd. Amada herself doesn’t like to eat hamburgers or fries, just one of her flour-tortilla tacos with beans and eggs, with a generous heap of canned jalapeños from the restaurant, followed by some Bugler’s or the discount cigarettes at the store, coffee, and that’s enough for her to get through the day, sometimes another taco of carne guisada. After the last celebrating bridesmaid leaves, Amada scours the kitchen burners with Ajax, the bathroom with ammonia, mops the kitchen floor with Pine-Sol. Then she rushes to hose down and disinfect the cages at Dr. Fred’s Pet Hospital, keeping her busy till seven in the evening, getting home just in time to feed Miguelito, now a six-footer who’s devoted to sitcoms, and she’s proud he learned to read despite the fact the doctors said never. Then she has to feed Dr. Fred’s thank-you pets, her black terrier puppy, Beto, and the aqua-eyed siamese, Pinky. She named the dog after the banker Beto Reyes, who helped her buy this new brick house using Lázaro’s veteran status, que me sirva pa’ algo, she thanked him. The cat Pinky was named in honor of the councilman who paid for the funeral when her son, Zacarías, the football star everyone called Zak, died in that car crash at seventeen, drinking when she couldn’t control him anymore, and Lucero still in graduate school and couldn’t help with anything. In this little town of Goliad where Amada’s returned, las comadres welcomed her as if she’d never left twenty-five years before, celebrating with her 228  bárbara renaud gonzález

every time one of her children graduated from college, equally jubilant when Jorge went to that medical school up north and when Miguelito got a job at the workshop shelter folding towels for $5.00 a day. And they’ve never judged her, either, like when Gabriel went to prison for the second time, comforting her that yes, children just are, you never know, she must have faith, he’s suffering so much, it’s not your fault, it’s not because of el divorcio. But Amada knows everything is her fault, it has to be her fault that a son died, that another’s in prison, she knows this because she married Lázaro. God punished her because she was afraid of being alone. And that other man, Jorge, why was she so afraid of loving him? People call the wrong things a sin, como es la vida, she remembers late at night alone in her twin bed, in her own house with the palm tree she planted herself in the front yard and the puppy chasing his tail outside in the yard, happily digging up all her new rosebushes. Finally, she has her own house, thanks to her children and the banker. Jorge wasn’t a sin, Lázaro was the sin, and he’s the one she married. How life is. She tries to understand God’s ways, not understanding, it’s just not what the Bible teaches. Help me God, she prays, in the minutes before she falls asleep. Ayúdame. My hijitos deserve better, watch over all of them, I’m sorry, perdóname, from now on I will not be afraid of anything, I don’t want to be like Lázaro. But she doesn’t open the letter, tomorrow for sure.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  229

34 The Rio Grande River was not much of a river on the day she crossed it, just a bottle-green ordinariness of water and turtles underneath the wooden bridge, lime prickly pear, greenbriar, and tall stalks of sunflower rising from its banks, a few miles from the Gulf of Texas. Ay dios, it’s nothing like Amada expected. But she has faith, she’s come this far. Everything about el norte has to taste better, verdad, they eat enchiladas potosinas on golden plates there, everybody says so. Por cierto, the sky over there won’t have the cobalt blue of Mexico, or the flying roaches of this border town, but surely más al norte it has to be a magic carpet azul, where the cities gleam with the colors of the gringo’s rainbow, gold, silver, orange, hyacinth, the colors of morning mist and jeweled snow, yes, and the wind is sweet like ripe yellow plátanos, and the beans are delectable oysters. Even the cats speak English on that side, the parrots too, imagínate, people say, and over there everyone moves faster, so much to see no one has time to take a siesta. There are trees taller than the skyscrapers in Mexico City, the people say. Then the mountains must be twice as high, por cierto, and she has to see that, and people dicen that when it rains everyone dances, sabes, it comes down in George Washington’s green dollars. But most of all, she’s going to the land of love, it has to be, it has to be better than where she’s been, and Amada is just eighteen, and now her dreams are coming true, “Welcome,” the sign says, and she doesn’t know that word, but she feels it, and she walks tall with her one suitcase and long hair shining right under that sign, “to the United States.” Amada opens the letter in the blue light of early morning, burns her tongue with coffee remembering the day she crossed the border al norte. She remembers how Jorge didn’t even count the pesos for the waiter at the café, how the pastel-colored parakeets tweeted in their cage, and how the frontera’s steamy March 230  bárbara renaud gonzález

weather surprised her, making her feel old and tired. Amada holds the coffee cup in one hand, the letter from Mexico in the other, remembers how she almost begged Jorge to follow her, and how she heard her little daughter’s voice, maaaami, maaaami, on the bridge and how she kept on walking.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  231

34 Mami, te quiero. Salomé was coming to see her after all these years, bringing her three teenage children with her, she wrote. She had discovered the letters her father hid from her after his recent death, and she was coming, even if she had to cross the river, it didn’t matter. It was not too late, she wrote, even though she was a woman past forty now, a little gorda, but people said she was still attractive, that she resembled her mother who’d been a beauty her relatives said, and now, she, Salomé was just a poor woman, no tengo recursos, no way to get a tourist visa, not for herself and the children, not in these times of terror. And since she’d finally, finally, left her professional husband after he beat her for the last time, she wasn’t going to ask him for a peso. And the money from Sapo? Her father had spent it all on women, drink, and a half dozen other children, leaving nothing to the child of that puta Amada. I understand now why you left me. Salomé writes that she is a nurse, but that doesn’t pay anything in Mexico, and she desperately wants her children to go to college, to learn English. And she doesn’t want to brag, but she herself is very smart, muy lista, and knows how to work hard, she will do anything, clean toilets, it doesn’t matter, she has dreams for her three children, and they ask about their abuelita and uncles and aunts en el norte, they swear they’re not afraid of the river, they can swim, they’re going to hold on to each other and she knows it’s the only way. I should have crossed a long time ago, before the border became the wall of Berlin, but that’s in the past, it’s not too late, Salomé knows someone who will bring her, a trusted coyote, and she and the children will arrive by next Sunday, there is just no esperanza for her in Mexico, she longs to see her mother, to introduce her 232  bárbara renaud gonzález

children to a better life, there is no turning back, and will she welcome her? Can you wait for me at the river? Do you know this place? Give me your blessing, Mami, tu hija que te quiere mucho, Salomé. At night, alone in the dark, Amada is startled by a little girl’s voice, so familiar, gurgling bubble-words, little fingers caressing her face, the first tickling of a concert pianist, this little girl knows all the right notes, mammmmmmm, mmmmmmmaaaaammmmaa, her first word a fresh, gushing water after a lifetime of thirst, a word that haunts her still, a word she’s heard every single night of her life, but on this night, she cries until morning.

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  233

34 As Amada drives her dented cherry-red Honda to the river, a gift from her children last Mother’s Day, it starts to sprinkle. A good thing for la cruzada at dawn, Amada thinks, qué bueno, the river’s so polluted these days, not anything like when she crossed. Now it’s an ugly metallic green saved by the perfume of primroses and the rough grace of the flowering mesquite, despite the poison from the maquiladoras up the river. How to explain it, but Amada knows, as a mother just does, where to find her daughter, based on the sketchy directions from her letter. It’s not far from the bridge that Amada crossed forty years ago, near the city where her daughter finished college, just a bend in the river alongside a colonia, where the people say the fence doesn’t exist, or if it does, the mexicanos can make it disappear, sometimes, on a good night, and on a night like this the migra doesn’t want to get wet. Amada’s an American citizen, and she never dreamed it would be like this, that her own daughter would have to swim, her grandchildren too, pobrecitos. Amada’s so excited to see her daughter, forgetting that Salomé is now a woman in her forties, and so she doesn’t feel the rain getting harder, washing away the years of drought, and she imagines a second chance to be waiting at home when Salomé returns from school, imagines how she’s going to make dresses for her dolls, that she’ll bake cookies or gorditas, watch her devour that first chocolate birthday cake, help her write that first letter to Santa Claus, applaud her school prizes, rejoicing at every gold medal and cheapest ribbon, let it rain, she thinks, it’s over, it’s over. I’m going to tell her how I’ve missed her every single day, how none of my gringo children replaced her in my heart, that I tried every single minute of my life to find her, how no one knew where Sapo was hiding her, not my sisters, not my mother, no one knew what happened to her, and how Sapo threatened to kill her before he sent her to me

234  bárbara renaud gonzález

when I finally found him, begging him a thousand times, a million times. The rain is getting harder and faster, a percussion solo, cymbals and pouring rhythm. It comforts Amada, even though she can barely see the road, grateful that the lluvia keeps la migra inside, playing poker or watching movies or talking about football, whatever it is that men do when they’re alone. No more men for her, she thinks, though she wishes sometimes for the company of a good one, shakes her head, reminds herself he doesn’t exist. She parks her car under the one thicket of sycamores and cottonwoods, a few dozen yards away from the river’s edge of dripping thornscrub and prickly pears, just as the moon becomes a blur in the whirring of rain, leaving speckles of white on the dark river. In the distance, Amada sees a few houses, but their light is blurry with the rain, and she feels safe because no one is out on a night like this. She undoes her seatbelt, adjusts the car seat, takes the pillow under her bottom to use as a real pillow, searches for a radio station, only finds static-tinged disco, and takes out a pack of cigarettes from her purse. She loves the rain. As a child she danced barefoot in it, remembers all those times she walked by the river when she was still married to Lázaro, the romantic promises of a young woman who believed she could change a man by loving him enough, and then the years of loneliness because she didn’t listen to the river’s answers. Amada lights her cigarette, coughs from her smoking, fiddles with the radio some more and finds a conjunto station, counts the fifty dollars in her purse, unzips the blue Samsonite suitcase on the passenger seat with clean clothes for her daughter and the teenage grandchildren she’s never met, just in case. She waits, looks at herself in the car’s mirror, impossible to see, but she knows the years haven’t been good to her, who’s she fooling, she was beautiful once, but that was long ago, fervently hopes that her daughter won’t be disillusioned when she sees her. The irony of it, she tells the rain outside, I was supposed to bring her

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  235

in my arms, smelling of freedom and American dólares, and here I am, a poor restaurant cook who wears Avon. She loses the radio again, hears the faintest wooohooo of her children’s generation, remembers how they overwhelmed her with their hungers, each one of them so different, some fidgety, some quiet, others todavía a mystery. So tired that at times she didn’t remember who she’d kissed that day and who she’d spanked or why. I haven’t been a very good mother, I’m so sorry she tells her children in the rain, forgive me. But I did it for you. I did it for Salomé. Salomé. Then she sees herself with Jorge on their last afternoon, the fever of their good-byes warming her even now, wonders if he’s still alive, does he ever think of her, will she ever forget, she doesn’t want to, she says all this to herself as the rain slickens, muddies the hierbas on the river’s edge, turning the banks of the river into an inky green sludge of tree limbs, trash, palm fronds, tennis shoes, aluminum cans, and dirty diapers. It took Amada more than four hours to drive here after a long day of cleaning and cooking and getting ready for the welcome, and she falls sound asleep, and then she hears it. Mami. When she opens her eyes, a white-winged dove flashes by in the pause between the smooth steadiness of a rain thrumming its last, a rain waking her to a film of blue, and she knows that voice. It’s almost dawn. She opens the car’s door and runs to the river. The Rio Grande is a placid river, and there are places where you can walk a hundred yards or less with water to your waist, and there are places where it’s barely a trickle, a stream, a creek, a gully, a shallow ditch in the sand. And while it’s not deep, it churns underneath, and its bottom is more than slippery, it’s also rocky, reedy, trashy, slimy, not a grand river, but a grand illusion. Amada stumbles in her sensible Wal-Mart shoes sloshing with soquete in the river’s goo, half-blind with her bifocals, as she tries to see through the veil of rain and tears, rushing to the little girl calling for her mother. It’s springtime, and the old river’s grasses and lilac lantana, Amada’s favorite color, are lush and thick, but Amada doesn’t 236  bárbara renaud gonzález

stop, she wades right in, her ankles sinking into the dirty-cold washing-machine turbulence of the river, doesn’t feel the thorns and bull nettles, either, sticking to her yellow pantsuit, the Mother’s Day gift from her children last year, fine clothes from a tienda elegante that she wears to church every Sunday. And she doesn’t hear the rain’s rousing thrumthrúmthrumthrúm encore, either. Amada reaches that little girl’s voice in the rain’s final, delicate thrum, thrum, thruuum, and she can’t see anything because she’s lost her glasses, but she extends her arms as far as she can, embracing a little girl’s body for the briefest, slippery second, cradling her, mijita, she says, as she slips with the weight, sinking, falling into the river’s mud, and then she feels legs and arms and voices holding her, but Amada can’t swim, and she can’t stand, they’re all entangled in the weeds, fighting to breathe, mijita, but Amada’s mouth fills with sour water and mush, and when she spits it out, she hears the chachalacas announcing the morning. Mijita, she hears other voices, no more radio static, and once again feels her daughter kick inside her, that first kicking, how can she forget, then she tries to push away a tree limb, but the river’s brush rips at her thighs, it was a ferocious rain, and the branches in the water are keeping her down, and once again she lifts her head up for air, before she goes down again, and that’s when she feels the press of bodies using her as a bridge to push themselves up, to the bank, and then there are hands and feet trying to pull her with them. Amada hears songs swirling around her, and the stickiness in her mouth tastes strangely like the melted piloncillo from her father’s old rancho, and this time when she makes it to the surface of the water, she wheezes mud and slips again, smelling the anise in her mother’s pan dulce, and once again she hears the whole plaza’s clapping for her little-girl rhymes, and then she’s dancing, her legs moving fast below her, and she sees Jorge, it’s him, at that plaza in Veracruz she always wanted to see, where the Gulf Coast crashes in time with the orchestra, and the trumpets, guitars, violins are pulling silver threads from the stars, windGolondrina, why did you leave me?  237

ing them together in one seamless motion, and it’s beginning to rain and Jorge’s green eyes are promising to take her to the Rio Grande, and she’s at the bridge trying to say good-bye, and it’s a thunderstorm, but this time she’s not afraid. Then Amada opens her mouth to the rain drenching her at the bridge, feels the hands calling her, scratching for her, kicks some more, and she’s at the plaza again, her little-girl arms so heavy with the basket of pink-and-white-iced morning bread. ¡Amada! ¡Amada! She hears Jorge’s voice, his saxophone moan at dawn, and her girlish songs are stars falling from her mouth, and the sunrise smells of vanilla and figs, lemongrass, verbena, and she’s tasting the first peach from that tree of life where Lucero was born, and she’s walking across the bridge with her high heels, and her son Jorge is waiting for her over there, and she sees all her children, impatient, waiting to be born, crying for her, mami, mami, glimpses her Zacarías with his lost-tooth smile playing catch with his bronzed brothers, and then she hears Salomé’s baby screams, on the other side smells the red streaming from her body when she was born, mamá, mamá, why did you leave me? Dame fuerza, Dios, I have to walk across. Una chansa no más, just give me this chance, por el amor. As she closes her eyes she hears them, the whish-whooshing in the sky, the purple-tipped majesty of golondrinas soaring toward el norte in their diamond-shaped bravura, knows they’re going to accompany her. Amada opens her mouth one more time to greet them, her arms spread wide in welcome, a yellow banner of hope, as the river swallows her last words, and those words are in a language of women who have learned how to fly. The end. And the beginning, too.

238  bárbara renaud gonzález

3Epilogue 4

Golondrina, why did you leave me?  239


34 Here on the west side of the river, the devil shakes her cola when the accordion opens up like a story that has no ending. Joe is jammin’, Sonny’s glowin’, and el parche is squeezing that box, burning those buttons all the way into Tex-Mex purgatory, and if that’s where I get to dance like this then all I have to say is take me there right now. Then someone is putting me in jail, slowly but surely, all suavecito and stuff, and I’m a puppet on a string a magical brown woman like oye como va, color my world baby and then I’m dancing sin los high heels and my french perfume is smokin’ the room and I haven’t twisted and shouted like this in years. I’m not ever leaving this bar again, La Golondrina, here I’m staying con la electrified guitar, the bustin’-out saxophone, down with bajo sexto, spinning with the accordion on fire and the songs are bleeding straight into my tripas like good tequila. Dangerous music, ecstatic but triste underneath the melody, strumming from one hand to the snappin’ other, one finger exploding into a whole body of gritos, a wild ride of gusto and crazy, loco la-vidano-vale-nada funkiness down, down until my toes tell my huesos I’m taking this one to the floor. As if the music was the river we swam in when we were children, green water running like sangre the way it is between my legs. As if my body was the land, my heart a tornado untwisting itself to the two-step of barbacoa blues. It begins here, doesn’t it? Now I see Daddy and Mami dancing for the first time, look, over there, shadows pareciendo from older-stone corners, been waiting for this moment, watching over me and my hermanitos cumbia-shuffling, like trails of smoke from my parent’s favorite Lucky Strikes, round and round we go. Dale shine, the abuelos and abuelas are shaking off the gunpowder from the Alamo, the francés is bragging that his town is where they make cognac, offering his hand to that woman wearing a Golondrina, why did you leave me?  241

Mexican huipil, impressed by las doñas and their black-shawled sevillana. Listen, the bearded man says his name’s Osama, which means the lion and he’s from Denia, that other Gibraltar where the Moors took all the women. Y allá, the Nefertiti-looking woman with a lunar on her cheek, she’s from the African coast where they took her as she was trying to save her baby. And round and round we go, dancing, dancing, and the abuelos forgiving us for not remembering because they’ve been waiting to dance a good polkita with all the familia, and even sip a couple of frías. Now I understand. This is home, ¿por qué me fuí? My name is Lucero, and it means bright star, guiding you back from so far away.

242  bárbara renaud gonzález