a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
I know you will not want to forgive me for pulling you away from these resplendent moments of your life, but please hear me out. I have lived with this secret too long. While seeing you suffer last night over the loss of a Homecoming crown disappoints me, I know there are deeper losses. I know you want more in this world. I want you to strive for your place in it, but I also see through false glories. Maybe I just overworked myself, preparing for the Homecoming weekend and all that the festival involved, but maybe your beauty, so pure and dazzling, was some kind of bomb that exploded inside me. Now there is no time to waste.
I was edgy when I went to the store for those last few pounds of lettuce I needed for our food stand at the Sugar City Festival. I also needed your special cleansing cream or else your regimen would not have been complete. At the P&X Market the cosmetics aisle dizzied me. Qué chintolas! Girls your age needed too many lotions and washes. A toothbrush had been a luxury on el rancho where I was from. I was ten when the village pharmacist in Zapotiltic finally gave me one. Before that we chewed fennel stalks to freshen our breath and bathed in the river near the cane fields.
I pulled Chente along, hoping he might help me spot the creams you wanted but he said, “Mami, I’m gonna look at the toys.”
I couldn’t have him taking off when there was so much at stake that afternoon. Opening time for the festival was just hours away, and as always your father pressured me to have everything just right. The earnings from our tostada stand would hold us through Christmas.
“Chente, get back here, you need to find this.”
I knew the name was something like Nocera o Neutrina, a cream in a royal blue jar with a sky blue cap, but Chente had a better eye for things.
“Just pick the exact same one as before,” Chente hollered.
The colors failed me with this gran variedad. I reached for a medium fat jar, two kinds of blues, an óvalo in the middle, comenzaba con N. There were two that started with N, and another with the same shape…I was confused trying to find your cream.
I fumbled for the jar in my purse, knowing how precious the time was. Where was that stupid thing? Keys, a coin purse, a yo-yo, a jar. I pulled it out to compare if it was the same one you bought before. There was some metiche sales clerk who kept looking my way.
“Ma’am, can I help you with something?”
I told him, no thank you. I grabbed the jar with the two blues.
He then said, “Excuse me Ma’am, Can you come this way please?”
“No, I have to go, thank you.” ¿Qué quería este cabrón? He wasn’t going to care that I had to come home to help you get ready, that people would be waiting for my stand to open.
Chente came back with a Hot Wheel in his hand. “Mami, will you?”
“I have to call the authorities,” the clerk said.
You can imagine my humiliation, with Chente asking, “What’s wrong, Mami?”
I gave the clerk the jar. “Check, it’s empty,” I told him.
He told me that was a clever ruse, like I was some vieja tramposa. He said I was trying to pocket myself a new one.
“Come on back and bring your little boy,” the clerk said.
He was older than me, maybe a manager, bien güero el señor, like most of the men in this town.
Increíble. I had shopped at the P&X for three years and had never seen this cabrón before. I held Chente’s hand and checked the distance between the doorway and the exit. If we ran the chota would be there in no time. They were going to have to believe me. So I took a seat and pulled Chente close onto my lap as the clerk reached for the phone.
With so few hours remaining before the festival I couldn’t even call Olin. He would be loading the ice chests and propane tanks.
The clerk asked me for identification. I reached for my wallet and felt my hands start to shake. The room spun a little. Olin had warned me about people asking for papeles. Chente’s eyes, clavados en mí, waited for an answer.
Every time someone asks me for identification, I feel I’m handing over a lie. My driver’s license has my married name, Clementina Winslow. I did not choose to be this person or to take his name.
The clerk spewed smoke into the air between us. The acrid, sour stink of it etched an ache into my temples. A trickle of sweat wet the bodice of my dress. His voice asking me if I would like to call someone mingled with another man’s voice in my head, the first time I ever heard a word of English and at once I heard the valley of my youth crowd my ears. No one warned me about the dull clop of an unshod horse following at a leisurely gait, a gait so slow its rider could spot a girl through high cane and tall grasses. Corralled in that office, the clerk reminded me of other men who must’ve thought me deaf.
Just then a knock on the glass partition of the office interrupted us and horror de horrores, it was someone we know: Mr. Aurelio, with his over-sized fisherman’s hat, leader of Boy Scout Troup 151.
He came to pick up produce, eight boxes of corn. He also had a food stand, raising money for the Boy Scouts at the festival.
I reached over to clap a hand over Chente’s mouth, but he was too quick with a greeting.
“Hello, Chente! And Mrs. Winslow, good afternoon.” I had hoped he wouldn’t even have looked at us.
“Nice to see you,” I said, half in my world, half in that sad little office.
“I guess you’re a last minute shopper like me,” he said.
“Is he your friend, Mr. Aurelio?” asked Chente.
“You mean old Leonard? Of course, he’s my friend.”
“Well, can you tell him that Mommy didn’t steal anything?”
Mr. Aurelio laughed. Then his smile fell, bien serio.
The manager said, “This woman has put some cosmetics in her purse.”
“Leonard, you got one of Crockett’s finest here. Mrs. Winslow and her husband are solid people. Her man is working on the stand next to mine as we speak.”
The manager tapped a pencil near the phone then reached for a package of cigarettes.
“I know what I saw, Hank,” he said.
“Leonard, I can vouch for her and she’s got a daughter up for Queen tonight.”
El mentado Leonard stared back at him like he was losing a big fish. Chente looked at me, mystified that I remained quiet.
It occurred to me that I could show this man el maldito permiso, the business permit for the festival.
He inhaled that cigarette as if were savoring our capture.
I unfolded the paper from the billfold of my wallet and handed it to him. He scrutinized the document and the seal from the county.
“Who’s your daughter’s escort Mrs. Winslow?” asked Mr. Aurelio
A blurry Americano face came to mind of the joven who came over for a swath of blue satin. I know you liked that boy so much, and you were pleased he wanted to match your dress.
“Eric, he’s a quarterback,” says Chente.
“Eric Tate?” says Mr. Aurelio.
Leonard pushed away the phone.
“My apologies. Let’s forget this.”
I thanked them and Chente pulled me out the door and away from that stagnant room. This accusation was the first of things to go wrong, to put me on this path, but I knew there was work to be done and Gracia, you were waiting for us.
During half-time the rush slowed. Most everyone had left the festival for the football field to see who would be coronated Sugar City Queen. Though the next day we would have the parade, I should’ve been consoled with a hope to see you then. That’s when the crowds would come out to see the Queen and the princesses on their floats.
Margarita asked, “You doing okay? Only three hours to go.”
She unpacked the flats of Cragmont cans and refilled the ice chests.
“Mom, I really want to see the game,” said Chente.
Chente sat on a lettuce crate and pouted.
“He’s beginning to hate it here.”
“He wanted to see the action,” said Margarita.
Chente’s eyes filled with the lights of the rides and the prizes. What’s worse was that his head filled, too, with ideas of kings, crowns and quarterbacks, of Mustangs and Camaros and all this Americano muscle power. ¡Qué ostentosos, tan jóvenes!
Margarita put her hand over mine and stopped my frenzied chopping of cilantro.
“You didn’t get to see her as she left did you?”
I nodded without looking up.
“You go, if you like. I can take over.”
I refused since I didn’t want your father to know I’d left the stand.
“I saw enough. Her dress was the same blue, azul sagrado, just like la Virgen wears in her cloak in every painting. At least that’s what I thought when we first picked the color.” I told her what you said when I pointed out to you, it was the same shade of blue.
Margarita smiled with her funny gapped tooth.
She wasn’t shocked by your, Cool, Ma. That’ll match my eyeshadow.
“Ay que juventud! Thank God you have such a beautiful family. We’ve got all boys. Nunca tendré una reina.”
She grinned with a reverie and then went on to tell me how strict her mother was with her. You see, I’m not the only one.
“¡Cómo nos cuidaban nuestras madres!”
Margarita’s false lashes defined playful eyes and her jet black curls framed her face. She made me feel washed out. I could feel the hollows under my own eyes. We hadn’t talked much about our girlhoods, only our lives and husbands now and even that was limited.
My girlhood cut short inspired no nostalgia. I was a highland girl from Jalisco, a place just beyond Tuxpan on a former ejido called Llanitos where I led the goats to pasture, where I crossed rivers, always in fear of the great culebras that could spring from the river rocks. My late mother hadn’t warned me enough. There were other kinds of culebras that could follow you with lightning speed. One day it just came to pass. And he appeared. Sometimes it seemed the more I focused in on the memory, the more Olin hovered around me and checked on what I was doing.
“Buenas, señoras. How’s business?”
“Las tostadas se están volando!”
“I knew it!” He slapped the top of his knee.
“Sí, pero la chinga me la llevo yo. Five weeks of prep and Gracia no longer helps.”
“I tell you, we need to put up a real restaurant,” he said as he reached for the cash box.
“Where you going with that?”
“I’m going to save it. Not safe for you to have all this.”
“Maybe you should take Chente to see the game.”
“Yes, Papi. Llévame.”
“No, mijo. Too many vagos over there and Hell’s Angels, too.”
“Come on, he’s bored.”
“No, olvídate.” He widens his eyes and whispers, “Huele a marijuana allá.”
He boxed Chente lightly on the shoulder saying, “Stay here and watch for pretty girls.”
“What about Papi?” asked Margarita. “He’s not chequeando las guapetonas?”
I turned to greet a couple dressed in square dance clothes. The bulging crowds signaled the end of half time. As much as I could do without the formalidad, without seeing you on display, draped in blue satin to match the neon refinery logo, quería saber. Did you win?
I glanced over my shoulder. Olin had just tucked his wallet in his back pocket. I glanced at Margarita. “Ya me lo estoy catalogueando,” she said with a wink.
“He took it all, didn’t he?” she insisted.
I sprinkled the tostadas with queso seco and pretended not to care.
“Where’s he going with all that?” asked Margarita.
“The Tiki Room. Tienen hi-boles y viejas borrachas allí.”
“And we’re the only ones here at the food stand? Tell him you want to go to the Tiki room, too.”
I shook my head no. The last place I wanted to go is the Tiki Room, with all the loose women and dog death cigar stinking men. Plus, someone there might’ve heard of my problem with Mr. Tate, how he accused me of being a ladrona. Yet your father took from our best night’s earnings, burning through our money like a plain struck for slashing. If only someone would steal from him.
“I am missing the game and Papi’s left me stuck here!” Chente wailed.
“Here, you take this to the man in that booth and tell him you want twenty tickets.”
“You’re just trying to pay me off like those chuecos at the school.”
“What are you talking about? What chuecos?”
“I heard Gracia talking to Rocio on the phone. Carrie Hanlon’s daddy is buying the crown.”
“You can’t spy on your sister, mijo. I’m sure the school wouldn’t let that happen.”
I handed Chente five dollars and his face shone like it was Christmas and his was the biggest box under the tree.
I wasn’t worried about who would steal the crown. It burned me that Olin couldn’t bother to take Chente to win a gold fish or ride the bumper cars. He had no true attention for your brother.
Margarita hustled, prepping sides of pickled carrots and cilantro sprigs.
“You wanna bet he doesn’t come back?”
“Don´t even say that.”
“If that happens, you leave him. A man like that te hace la vida un infierno.”
Two in the morning and two were yet to come home. El fanfarrón de tu padre, and you, my seventeen year-old having been accompanied by that Eric Tate. This lateness did not make for very queenly behavior. I worry about you turning out to be a callejera like your father.
I couldn’t get Margarita’s words out of my head. A man like that will make your life hell. How could I tell my friend I did not believe in the future of hell? I was already living it. Though, even through this hell I love you, my children. For weeks la friega ha sido mía, stocking the back freezer for this festival and him encouraging me, saying if we take in a killing at the festival we can spend Christmas in el pueblo. We can even go see your people, he said.
He lived in a fantasy. I had no gente left to visit. No one answered the letters you wrote for me. I couldn’t even tell Margarita about my secret. Even though she was my best friend, I don’t think her husband gave her the same kind of problems.
How had my first night with him turned into eighteen years? Maybe it was the gun he kept tucked in his boot cuff. Surely, his steps onto the northbound Mexicali train fell heavier because of this. In our first year, he kept his revolver on our nightstand and when he reached for my gown, me hice árbol, wood-like, ancient, as stoic as a tree. Bark covered with a tiny spirit trapped inside, I straightened my toes towards the edge of the bed, tautening my pelvis and I was a plank of caoba again. Some women complimented me, said he was a man worth having, a norteamericano, a property owner and bien parecido. I only saw his age, his craggy skin and the bow-legged stance from his early years of ranching.
Escape was something I dreamed of for years. I thought it could only happen after I explained to you and Chente, why I live so aplastada, crushed with a weight I cannot name. To tell you of who I was and how I came to be with your father is something I thought I could never do. It is a story I’ve pieced together slowly in those rare quiet moments between the cooking and the housework, the endless pick-ups back and forth from school. Every day I’ve braced myself for how you will react.
In Llanitos, runs the Río Tuxpan. If you followed the river from where it passed behind the temple to where the jacarandas grew you could walk along its edge and make your way to town, where I needed to deliver a basket of cajeta to my Tía Herminia. Socorro Villalba lived on our road and kept a small cajeta shop in the back of her home. She took orders from all the surrounding villages and sometimes Socorro would ask me to do deliveries. She would pay me in cajeta and unos centavitos. What more could a girl want?
I was almost fourteen. I wanted to be free, ride horses, swim in the river, chase lizards, to take long walks with a caramel candy promise at the end. It was a real prize, you know. Our parents never bought us candy. They could barely add meat to our meals of calabazas with chile. I had taken this walk twice a week for a year.
Sometimes it was very tempting to travel with a basket full of cajeta. What would Tía Herminia care if I showed up with one less round of the delectable confection? I knew I’d get my own when I came home, but the waiting was unbearable. Me saboreaba esa cajeta.
This was my world: rabbits, caramel, trees of lavender flowers. I hadn’t even gotten my regla yet. I counted trees and the bends in the river, where the stones got whiter and shone under the sun with tinges of light green and pearly pink. How are pink and green the same color in a stone? In cantera rock they are. Tía Herminia told me there were entire catedrales made of cantera in the southern state of Oaxaca, but I had never traveled outside of our municipio. I had only been to places I could walk to. There were days where it felt like the sky would break into storm, but it just threatened with a hot-heavy film. We, inlanders would say, está lloviendo en la costa. The fishermen’s children and sons of cocoteros came back smelling of salt and they were dark as real veracruzanos. Their walk was different−dancier, like the waves infused their spirit. I longed to visit the ocean.
Sometimes I wondered if it was my fault. If I was so caught up in my little world of skinny rabbits and imagined paydays that I just didn’t listen closely enough. Later some would say that I had led them to the riverbank, that I knew the path well.
Indeed, I knew it well. What I did not know was the depth of the rio that snaked its course alongside the path I walked. I stayed far enough away for the giant culebras that would strike if you smelled like milk. We were in the highlands where the foliage is dense and wild. I had herded goats in these valleys. I had checked on cows that had birthed new calves, hours away from our home. I knew the clearings and the hoof worn trails. What I did not know is that strangers eyed me in my tasks. I did not hear the rustling through river reeds of three men just behind me.
Maybe only the horses sensed my fear. One of them whinnied and I looked over my shoulder, to see the animal’s flanks, its muscles moving through the green. I could not know that one of its riders, a short and scraggy man would jump off his horse and hurl himself at me so that we both fell into the riverbed. As we rolled I feared the rio’s depth, that I would drown with this man pulling me down. Instead of sinking, my face and knees hit a mud bank and I tasted stones, my front teeth breaking on the river rocks. My mouth filled with blood, and the rain-fed waters. This was the taste of green: the giant monte de oca leaves, green light at dusk, and high grasses of the cañaveral.
I could barely see as my face bulged up like a niñote, those gargantuan paper maché puppets that parade through the city just before la Cuaresma. I heard the others dismount and yell, “¿La atrapaste?” as if I had been a deer they hunted.
Tía Herminia once told me of the fabric vendor’s daughter. La violaron because she put on airs and was not modest, but I was a girl, I tell you, with chunky unruly hair and coffee-colored freckles, bien pecosita. No one should’ve wanted me. I did not know the details of what it meant, de ser violada. I had never seen a man’s naked body but now there were three men with their hands on me and they tied my feet and wrists to a makeshift plank made of caña and twine. The scent of new sugar mixed with salty blood and I would never crave sugar again.
I have waited for you to come home. This may be your greatest night, the dream of a true California girl. Tomorrow you will flaunt yourself down Valona Avenue, poised on the back seat of someone’s convertible Mustang, honored to be a Sugar City Queen. For you the cane fields are a pastoral landscape, the backdrop to an antique postcard.
Margarita keeps a sugar cube tin in her kitchen containing postcards from her family. They come from pretty places like Taxco, Guanajuato and Puebla. No one writes postcards to us. We are not a family to visit. What I keep in a sugar tin is the extra cash Olin forgets. He loses evenings, sometimes whole weekends parandeando. Naturally, he might lose track of the price of masa harina and pork chops. I keep the numbers as clear as the colors, lila de jacarandas, blanco de catarinas, orange terregal of the roads back home.
One number, in particular looms in my mind of late. Nineteen appears on my residency papers. What lies they recorded to get me here! I know full well I’d been counting how much I might earn until the year of my quinceañera, not the kind with merengue puff dresses, but the kind where the village attends misa and the women roast birria en el campo.
I’ve seen enough talk shows, Phil Donahue and Barbara Walters, to know that child brides are illegal. What I need is my real acta de nacimiento. Though I shouldn’t depend on the records my parroquia keeps since what they keep best are secrets. Maybe Margarita would know about finding the documents. She was tougher than me, wiser than me and she has said the three words that counted, you leave him.
Slow footsteps approached on the stairs, signaling that you had ditched your heels. No soportaste tu elegancia. You with a panic, fearing the worst at the sight of your fresh tears.
“¿Ahora que te pasó?”
“Sorry, Mami. I know I’m in trouble.”
Whatever it is I have to let the truth come from you and I still had to tell you mine. You found me there always, in what you believed was our home. Every night that I’m here I feel what it was like to wake up in a shabby house without glass windows, only wrought iron bars hinged rudely into the adobe walls. It reeked of clay floors and freshly slaughtered pigs. Ragged chickens pecked at me on the petate. A hand wiped my face with warm water and sávila. My clothes cracked as the mud and sweat caked the light manta to my skin.
“Van a venir a verte,” the man said. He looked like an old goat with small, mean eyes and sunburnt skin. He was the one on the horse who knocked me into the riverbed.
I thought maybe he’d contacted my family and if my father were not home, then an uncle would come.
“Viene tu Tío Ernesto.” My heart quieted with the idea of home. Who was this man cleaning my face and neck?
It was morning when Tío Ernesto came. He did not knock on the door. He shot his rifle out in the street. The captor hitched on his belt and holster and headed for the door. He opened it wide and I remember the rays of light, spears on my eyes.
“You want her? Nobody will take her. Overripe fruit bruises easily,” the captor said.
With all his bravado, Tio Ernesto burst into tears. I didn’t understand.
“You know word will get around.” The captor taunted him, “No vale nada esta niña.”
I broke for the door but then Tío Ernesto stepped forward and said, “Es tu destino.” I felt the earthen house cave in all around me and the world I knew collapsed, so that mountain trails no longer switched through the highlands, nor did bells toll in their towers, nor could I see the light plume of smoke from Colima’s active volcano, raging for its twin el Nevado. The figures of these men disappeared and left only a faint blending of colors, the brown of the earth, the beige light outside and a hazy blue of sky to come.
I screamed out the door, “No me dejes.”
“Ya todo el mundo ha visto que te revolcaste conmigo,” said the man. “You’re mine.”
Was it that easy? Someone throws you in a river and tramples you with their lust. I did not believe he knew me, that he’d touched my body through the soiled cloth. He only wiped my face and neck. There were dark voids in my memory.
It was decided. Tía Herminia and my oldest sister came days later and they told me he’d paid a sum as reparations to the family and that I would have a good life in el norte. The ranchers he worked with, his contacts who recruited the braceros from our region who were sent up north kept me locked up for three months before a priest came. I learned they called your father Orlando and he had a long history with that family. I told Padre Wilfredo I wanted to die. He told me that quitarse la vida era un pecado contra Dios. My life had already been taken.
This is how a year later I came to Napa, California and then Crockett, a fourteen-year old bride to my captor. Bandidos were not just men that raged through town in the time of the Cristeros. Bandidos ran free even in the sixties – men who showed up with money, who had distant ties to someone in town and because of their norteño wealth they claimed who and what they wanted.
You waver towards me clutching your heels and a trinket tiara on a pink velvet pillow. You crumble into me, the child that you are, the heels in hand and rhinestone points digging into my stomach as you hug me.
“I didn’t win. Some people, even teachers said it was rigged.”
“Someone wrote extra ballots. The girl who won stole the crown.”
“I’m glad it’s over, mija.”
“What are you saying? They cheated! I want to fight this!”
I let you cry and shake through your tears. I unpin your fallen up-do, smooth your hair and hold you closely. I hope you understand that someone once stole from me, too. You are an ally, a blue-clad warrior. You are iron-willed in heart and conviction, yet I worry that the telling threatens to wrangle something away from you. I’ll be a ladrona again. I untie a card secured with a ribbon to the pillow on which you were served your tiara. I run my finger over the letters of your name. If I could just set up a house away from here, feed you and your brother for a time in the land where I was born, then the thieving would be worth it.
I kiss your forehead and say, “I know you’re upset, mija, but get some sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day.” I will find a way to get tickets quickly. In the excitement after the parade you may be convinced of anything. Maybe Olin will still be parandeando. I will tell you that my people back home want to see you, that they want to meet the Sugar City Queen.
Leticia Del Toro is a poet and short story writer with roots in Jalisco, Mexico. Her work has appeared in Huizache, Zyzzyva, and Mutha Magazine, among others. Her chapbook, Café Colima, was selected by Edwidge Danticat for the Kore Press Short Fiction Prize and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Leticia is a recipient of a Hedgebrook Residency for Women Authoring Change, a Rona Jaffe Scholarship for Bread Loaf and a fellowship from the New York State Summer Writers Institute. Leticia is also a VONA Voices fellow and a Macondista. She holds an MA in English from the University of California, Davis. She considers herself both a montagnarde and a costeñita, often hitting the mountains and coastal waters with her family in tow.