I was six years old, flying to Mexico – that country that my father always whistfully spoke about - to meet my father’s family for the first time.
Memories of that trip come in bursts: arriving at the airport, the chaos of a Mexican airport drowning out the sound of my father’s voice, staying close to them, fearing getting lost in the crowd.
In the plane, my dad sat between my older sister and I as my mom sat with my baby sister in another row. I remember her being nervous while my father acted calm but I could feel that he too was nervous, wondering how he could protect his family 30,000 feet in the air.
When we landed in Chihuahua, we walked outside, lugging our luggage, only to find that the last bus to Villa Coronado had already left. We waited in the dark street with the smell of fried dough emanating form the street vendors. My father was able to coach a taxi driver into making the five hour trip through the backroads of the desert.
We had brought a lot of luggage, at least two of which contained clothing, home goods, and other gifts for our relatives, so much that they didn’t fit in the trunk where the taxi driver kept his spare tire. “La dejamos!” My father shook his head, rejected leaving it behind in case we got a flat and would end up stuck in the cold night out in the middle of nowhere.
So he offered to carry it with one arm hanging out the car window. The driver looked at him incredeously, “Apoco la puede cargar?”. “Used no se preocupe, yo la cargo.”
So we all piled in. My mother and sisters quickly fell asleep and though I could feel my eyelids growing heavier and heavier, I wouldn’t allow myself to doze off. I had to stay awake and help mi papi in case anything happened. I was convinced that if I stayed awake, nothing would happen. The night was cold, with the wind blowing up a steady wall of dust into the car as my father gripped on to that spare tire.
It was dark as the black of my eyes, the headlights illuminated only about a foot and a half of the road ahead. The crunching of the plants below the tires were accompanied by unidentifiable birds, the hiss of a snake, the howling of coyotes. A chorus under the blanket of the most gorgeous sky I had ever laid eyes on. I got lost in the stars, the longer I looked, the more I saw, deeper and deeper into an encompassing beauty that hipnotized me. I grew up in LA, the most stars I had seen in my life were three at once, with a high likelihood that one was probably a small airplane.
The sound of the conversation between the driver and my dad was a source of comfort. The elongated vowels, the ssh of the “s”, the drawl of each ending word in a sentence; this form of Spanish was new to my ear and I liked it.
We finally arrived at the wee hours of the morning to this sleepy town charmingly frozen 50 years in the past.
Unrecognizeable in our dusty state, our hosts - our family in Chihuahua – slammed the door on my father’s face in greeting to his thunderous knocking.
Granted, when a hushed voice inquired as to who stood at the door at this ungodly hour, “Quien Es?!”, he cheekily responded with a booming interrogation, “Aqui vive Jose Benavides?!” He asked for himself, he the son who had not stepped foot on that door in at least 20 years and who had left in the cover of darkness for reasons better left unexplained in print.
He knocked again, this time with a gentler touch on the door, a languid caress of leathery hand to wood not touched since he was 19. The door opened again slowly and he smiled into the dim crack of light and asked his sister, “No me reconoces Ricarda?” I heard the snap of her inhale and yelp of emotion before she stepped back and swung the door open to reveal an ample stocky frame of a woman smiling up at him with tears in her eyes. She let out a loud shriek of joy and grabbed him and then smacked him for scaring her.
I looked around and I saw two girls around my age, brown-skinned like me, dark hair, almond-shaped eyes still heavy with sleep but shining with curiosity. I saw adults all around me hugging and shoving, crying and laughing, kissing me, hugging me. I went along with it all, so much so that my sister asked if I knew who they were. “No, I have never seen them before.” She stared at me with feigned annoyance until she too became part of this rotating human touching machine.
I crouched down and crept away, searching for air and a respite from all of the affection from strangers. And I saw him. Mi abuelito. He was a giant, with graying hair below his cowboy hat, a face so full with wrinkles that they seemed to form the Chihuahua sierras across his broad forehead and hatchet sharp cheekbones. I stood dumbfounded before him, my greatest love affair about to begin with a man who will always hold a reigning place in my heart. He looked down at me and as I gulped I could feel the saliva slowly trickling down my throat and the shivers covering every inch of my arms.
”Tu eres Susy?” His low but booming voice asked me. I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh, so I stood there silent and immobile.
I felt the gentle but firm shoving of my father’s hand on my back and it broke my stupid-like trance. I walked to him shyly. He held out his large hand and when I took it, it felt as if it has been molded to hold my own. His rough farmer hands gripped mine and I stood there silently next to him knowing that I belonged to him.
Before long the commotion died down to a whisper and became a chorus of grunted and hummed affirmations. I looked around at my cousins, four in all, and noticed my youngest cousin eyeing my hand that was held by my Abuelito with suspicious jealousy. I stepped possessively closer to him.
My tia Ricarda corralled all the kids into two bedrooms and I slept with that young cousin in one bed as my sister slept with my other cousin on another bed a couple of feet away. We didn’t talk. A soon as I felt the embroidered pillow cover scratch my cheek, the exhaustion of the day’s travel hit my body and knocked me out until the next morning.
When I opened my eyes again it was still dark, but I heard hushed voices and followed them into the kitchen.
My father sat with my Abuelito, my tia Ricarda, and her husband, all chattering in a quiet sing song way over tin mugs of coffee and homemade flour tortillas as fat as pancakes.
They looked up at me and my tia quickly got up to pull out a chair for me, spread a thin layer of fried beans on my tortilla and gave me a tin cup full of leche, creamy on top with nata, freshly milked from the mooing cow outside.
My days were spent in this way, observing, nodding, smiling, and staying close to my Abuelito. Soon the house came alive with the song of morning as kids rise from bed: banging and clanging and howling, as they get dressed for the day’s chores. I picked up a broom and started sweeping and fell into the rhythm of this new and old country.
Soon my primas were our best friends, we, their shadow from El Norte, magnets for friendly waves and questions about Los Angeles. We followed them to the tortilleria to pick up the fresh corn tortillas milled for the town, to the Carniceria for the day’s fresh cuts of meat, to the Papeleria, for the day’s supply of paper goods for the small store my tia kept at the front of the house.
Everywhere I was welcome with, “Eres hija de Pepe?” Like a proud little hen I pumped up my chest and broadly smiled as I answered, “Si!”
As Christmas approached, the wind pierced your body as if with an ice pick, sharp pain that drilled down into your bones. But every night I ignored the cold and continued to sit by the frosted window and waited in anticipation. Would Santa Clos come here to Mexico? Did he know I was here?
On Christmas Eve, after Mass, we gathered around the living room as the adults toasted and warmed the room with their mirth. I don’t remember what we ate, I might have been too nervous for the following morning or I might have just been avoiding my tia’s awful cooking. The house was packed, with our other sets of primas and primos joining us for this night, crowding the house with love.
As the day grew late and night took over, the adults began to shuttle us to bed. I clearly remember being tucked in and feeling perfectly warm and happy with my newfound extended family. I fell asleep with the sweetness of affectionate hands caressing my hair and a smile lingering on my lips.
Before dawn I was awake and slightly uncomfortable, something cold and hard was pushing up against my face. I got up and looked down to find a baby’s lifeless face staring at me. The plastic limbs were lightly colored to match my skin; the doll’s body was full of water which made it feel like a real baby’s delicate body in my arms. I looked around and my mouth hung open as I realized that we all had toys by our pillows and slowly, like a leaky faucet, the thought trickled down from my brain to my mouth and I yelped out, “Santa Clos! Santa Clos vino!!!!”
All of my cousins quickly leaped up from their sleep as if I had pressed an on button and the sound of packaging tearing and cooing of motherly girls cradling their bebes filled the two rooms. We ran from primo to prima, comparing what we had received from the dear Santa Clos who apparently also traveled to Mexico after all. I looked out the window and smiled thinking, what a clever fellow to make me doubt him and then embrace him even more after he found me in this town with oil lamps, unpaved roads, and one phone for the entire community, what a wonderful clever and loving fellow indeed.