Giggles that chase
for a look
and they’re off
sun streaked hair
Riding high on laughter
Eyes full of wonder
twinkling on the water’s surface
as they jump in
of carefree happiness
in the glow
of California desert nights
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.
When I see your face, your uninterrupted innocence, and feel the silkiness of your cheek when you rub it against mine in affection I am mesmerized. I am awestruck and grateful for the simplicity in your joy and outlook in life; by your dreams full of cotton candy clouds, rainbows bursting through the sky, pink princesses leading the world; and your mommy loved above it all.
You hold my hand, tilt your head to the side, giving me one of your crooked half smiles that can’t contain itself and I am filled with a radiating warmth that makes the world around me livelier.
I work hard instilling a joy for life, an appreciation for everything around us; whether it is observing the morning dew glittering on a blade of lime green grass or sitting quietly taking in the fiery and purple hues of our LA sunsets. I pray, in my own way, that you take what happiness you can from each moment in life and that these moments become a permanent state of happiness for you.
Each time I threw a penny in a wishing pond, each time an eyelash fell and we pressed it against our fingers, every birthday cake wish since I’ve had you two, I have fervently wished that you grow to be Happy and Kind – wonderful women.
Along the way of finding ways to improve your chances of a better tomorrow, I have found bits and pieces of happiness myself. As I looked for a better education for the two of you, I found a way to use my skills to volunteer and received a higher sense of fulfillment. As I pushed you into the arts, I became immersed in a colorful world of music, acting and dance.
We have grown happier together. We have grown stronger together.
Today you are seven years old.
I was 21 and a mother of two with a growing sense of dread and an urgent need to raise you on my own before you were marred with witnessing what I did as a child.
No one knew what went on nor do they need to know. I set out with the two of you and we carried on as three. It is the hardest decision I have ever made. Not because of what I needed but for fear that I was being weak by not putting up with a bad situation so you could have your father.
In many ways I have never been a child but more of a half adult. I experienced life’s travails and physical exigencies while still trapped in a child’s body. Like a Matryoshka doll, I forced forward the strength of an adult to appease the need of others when inside I was physically and deep down, emotionally, still a child.
But since the first moment I laid eyes on you, I Loved you. You were my renewed link to life in many ways, my dear. With time, I have found my own place, independent of you two, I discovered self-love. But what remains unchanged are the tears that threaten to spill from my eyes, the ache in my chest, in my soul, when I think of you and the love I have for you.
I say all this in tribute to you; to the strength that you have as a seven year old, to have lived through the many low’s that life dealt us in the past but retaining only the good.
You take heart in the beauty of dying embers even when the fire burned.
Your eyes, full of honest and raw adoration looked up at me and thanked me for a weekend that reminded you of how special you are. I will never forget what you told me that night. I share it in hope that it inspires the formerly unloved to focus on the care and love of their own children instead on love that was not received.
The night was bitingly cold but we happily lingered in the moment as we walked back from your birthday dinner. I took your small fingers in my hand and caressed them with the magic that hung, suspended in the air.
You stopped and looked up at me, your eyes shining with tenderness, and asked me,
“Mommy, you know how you can happy cry?”
“When you read me your card, you made me happy cry.”
—The contents of said birthday card will remain private because I whispered those words, meant only for you, into your ear—
“Iza, you’re making me happy cry now.”
“Thank you Mommy.” And you hugged me tightly.
That in a life continuously assaulted with the love for Things, with the need of bigger, better, brighter!, you chose to focus on and appreciate the love that I show you, made my wish come true.
This is hard to share because there’s a certain shame and stigma to going through this in a first world country, but it’s important to know that it happens, here in our country, and that it is more pervasive that we like to admit.
When I had you Bella, it was so hard to leave you. You were such a little thing, born a bit early; you weighed 5 lbs. and 8oz. When you would curl up your tiny limbs up to your chest, you could easily fit inside a shoe box. How could I leave you? I only had six weeks with you before it was time for me to go back to work and when I went back that first day I couldn’t help it; the tears kept streaming down my cheeks and it hurt so bad to be away from you. I had taken one of your undershirts with me to work so I could smell your scent while I was away but it only made my emotions come tumbling down and the sobs rise in me uncontrollably.
I didn’t have to be away from you for long.
That week I went to a doctor’s appointment and they told me, “Congratulations, you are pregnant.” The doctor didn’t see you on the floor in your car seat and when he saw my shocked face and his eyes fell upon you, he understood. He was very kind and recounted a personal story of not being able to have children with his wife and how I would see how very lucky I was to have you both down the line. What a wise man indeed.
I gave my notice at work the following day and decided to stay home with you because the health insurance would be more affordable if I didn’t work and we only had one income in the family.
But times were lean.
When Iza came smiling into the world, I couldn’t imagine a life without the two of you. My two little joys, my two angels. No love had ever felt truer, clearer, or everlasting. What startling beauty I found in your little faces.
But times were lean and nobody knows how difficult times were back then.
We lived in a tiny converted basement that was damp all of the time and made Iza chronically sick. We would make weekly visits to the emergency room during her first months of life because her asthma and symptoms were so severe. I couldn’t sleep; I was so paranoid that I would collapse in exhaustion and not hear the awful purring sound coming from her chest. I slept with you, Bella, next to me and Iza on my chest so I could help her breathing fall into my own rhythm.
It was hard. But we found beauty in everything we rested our gaze on. When I took the two of you for long walks around the city, I pointed to the flowers and taught you the name to each one, I showed you my favorite buildings downtown, and hours later when we made our way back home, you were in a peaceful sleep and I comforted myself with the fact that you knew no better.
But the walks back were torture for me. Before I climbed up the steep hill, pushing and pulling the double stroller you and Iza lay in, we would stop by at the corner grocer’s market. I would pull out my change which I had previously exactly accounted $4.25. And I would make it stretch; measuring out exactly the amount of chicken, potatoes, tortillas, and a carrot or two that I would be making the following few meals with.
The grocer would “forget” to charge me for an item or two and try to give me change back. I would object but he would plead me to accept it with his eyes, and it was easier to relent than to look into his face full of sadness for me.
Once we were at the top of the hill, I would carry you on my left hip, pick up Iza and hoist her on my right hip, lean far back to balance the two of you without waking you, and fold the stroller with my right arm and leg, and carefully walk down the steps to our home. When I would lay you on our bed, I would stand there and look at the two of you and take in your perfect features, your smooth foreheads free of worry and the aches in my bones and pain in my heart would dissipate.
When dinner was done, I would serve the two of you and make sure I rationed and set aside the following meals in the fridge. Bella, you were so independent at such a young age that you would feed yourself in your high chair at just shy of a year old. You were such a neat lovely little eater. Such a good little loving companion.
And soon our home would fill with stillness; he would sit and eat his dinner without a word. His sadness was deeper than mine; I could never touch it. I would hold his handsome face in my hand and turn it up towards me, caress the stubble on his strong jaw and run my thumb lightly on his lips. But his eyes were so full of pain and defeat that I could never reach him.
The days got leaner and soon enough our daily fried potato tacos with cheese would become boiled potatoes and tortillas, with the vegetables saved for the two of you. And that’s when we would start to go for long walks that always seemed to end at grandma’s house right around dinner time. To keep her from realizing what was going on, I would feign that I was full. While you two ate with my parents and siblings, I avoided looking at the food and chatted excitedly with everyone, trying hard to keep my mind focused elsewhere. We would say our goodbyes and most of the time they would insist we stop by the following day if we were free and a weight on my chest would be released as I secured your meals for another day.
I can’t shake that empty feeling in my stomach, that gnawing hunger that clawed at my insides. Or the shame that I wish I could unhinge from my chest and lay it to rest. The two of you never went hungry; I always made sure the two of you were never acquainted with hunger.
We are at such a better place now; the three of us, but I can’t shake it, a sense of failure permeates my thoughts when I remember what now feels like a past life.
I will always make sure that the two of you never know hunger; whether it is for nourishment, affection, or love. I pinky promise, and we never break those.
We went out to the Geffen MOCA and dinner with AM and her boys on Thursday evening. As we settled down with our sushi and rambunctious kiddos, we started talking shop, as AM fondly refers to it.
A year had passed since I changed careers, a career that she so generously recommended me for and positioned me perfectly for. In a year I had learned that this was the perfect vehicle for my ambition, hard worth ethic, and all around personality of a control freak. I had just received a promotion and she wondered how I came to possess the professionalism, poise, and ability to navigate and distinguish myself while working at a high-powered law firm and coming from Boyle Heights with my highest education being at Roosevelt HS no less (a school whose distinction includes being featured in the documentary Waiting for Superman as an educational fail factory).
As far as my work ethic, that’s easy I told her, I get it from my mother. She taught me that you can reach whatever you want as long as you are willing to work hard enough for it. And she certainly lead by example, always holding two jobs when we were growing up so she could achieve her dream of being a homeowner.
But as far as poise and the “intuitive knowledge required in marketing” that she kindly stated I possessed, in a way that came from my mother as well…
When I was a kid I had a neighbor who for lack of a nicer term was a bona fide pocha. Her ancestors were of Latino descent but the Spanish, customs, and any semblance of pride or relatable qualities to them had long ago been stomped out. She had learned a strong dislike towards anyone with an accent, anyone who ate carne asada and tortillas, anyone who spent summers in Mexico, anyone like me.
A combination of niceness, ability to forgive, and low self-esteem kept making me forgive her and be subject to her constant pranks.
My parents would not allow us to play outside of the chain link fence that surrounded the perimeter of our home so we would play with our Barbies through the holes of this wall that separated us. Joanna would excuse herself and go off to get her Barbie Malibu car and I would keep combing the hair on my dolls. Then a shreeking siren with a piercing pitch would fill my eyes with terror and send me sprinting to the backyard. I would deftly pull all of the dirty linen from the laundry bin and jump inside, pulling the musty smelling sheets on top of me. I would lay there huddled in a fetal position immobilized with fear until it dawned on me that she had done it again. I would break out in a cold sweat as relief and anger would hit me and spread throughout my body in a glistening sheen, the anxiety oozing out of my pores.
I would take a deep breath and walk back to my side of the fence where the cackle of Joanna’s laughter would be ringing in my ears long after it had died down. I would pick up my toys without a word and stand up to walk away. “You’re not mad are you? I was just joking, you should have seen how scared you were!!! Hahahaha!” I couldn’t utter a word or the tears welling in my eyes would come crashing down stripping me of any dignity that I had left.
My mother was smuggled into the U.S. as a child using someone else’s identity. She remembers these poignant events in her mind as if they were yesterday. She still laments having to cut her beautiful waist length hair up to her ears so she could match the passport’s picture of the girl she was usurping. And when she recalls working in the factories that were the constant target of immigration raids in the 70′s, her eyes glaze over and I have to shake her to bring her back and out of her painful past.
She was 14 and worked at a curtain manufacturing factory as a seamstress’ assistant in downtown Los Angeles. She would work two shifts, from five in the morning to nine or ten in the evening.
The terrible sound of the siren broke through the monotony of their work and the constant humming of the sowing machines and hissing of the steamer were replaced with frantic cries of “La Migra!!”
Chaos everywhere as people ran into each other, running up and down the stairs, crawling out the windows, but bodies everywhere being slammed against the wall my ICE, the immigration
agents thugs that swept throughout the halls with snarling excited dogs ready to attack.
Someone pushed her into an armoire and piled curtains on top of her and she lay there immobile, waiting for the wails to die down into a whimper and the silence that followed. Her heart thumping sounded so loud and ominous that she thought there were heavy footsteps heading towards her. Her heart stopped and absolute silence filled her body as she heard the dog barking at the door, clawing to get in and claim its prize. The doors were swung open and light fell on her face as she stared right into a snapping dog, the breath sour in her face. As sudden as it was there it was gone and the ICE agent looked straight into her eyes, deep down into her soul, and he must have seen a skinny bony kid who stood at 4’11″ terrified out of her mind. She heard someone call out “All Clear?!” and she closed her eyes, ready to be yanked out with the hundred others that were detained outside. But she was enclosed in darkness instead and thought, Am I dead? She lay there for what seemed like hours before her bones and limbs ached so badly that she had to move before she would be unable to.
She walked out, through the eerily quiet hallways and out into the evening light where everyone went about their business as usual. Somehow she found herself home and surrounded by her siblings and worried parents. They had been calling around the neighborhood, fearing her in Tijuana, MX, wandering along with the other lost living ghosts that walk up and down the border.
My mother had many stories like these, and I took them on as warning to never trust the siren, to fear it, for it meant that it would break me away from my loved ones and turn me into the walking dead along the border.
When I was old enough to realize that this siren could no longer harm me (my parents eventually became U.S. residents through the Bush administration’s amnesty), I realized that the simple fact that I had been born in U.S. soil exempted me from this fear of being flicked away from this country. By then I had learned to adapt so that I would appear to belong. I spent hours memorizing the pages of the dictionary, practicing the sentences, trying to decipher the pronunciation, so that no one could identify me as not belonging to U.S. soil.
As I became a teenager, I learned that the more I assimilated, both in posture and confidence, the easier it was to camouflage my brown skin and blend into the background. What AM thought was intuitive poise and the confidence to succeed was pure survival skills bourne from the need to adapt and go unnoticed.
I can’t help but feel the tightness in my chest as I see your little faces scrunched up with worry as you start school again. You cling to me and I have no plans to let you go. I want to hold the both of you like this, close to me, with my arms wrapped tightly around those two sets of shoulders that I never want to carry the weight of worries and fear.
At times, I regret my selfish motives in bringing you into this world. Did I do you wrong?
But that is an equally selfish and stupid thought to have. When I look into your little shiny eyes, I can see how much happiness you will bring into this world, many times over what you already bring to me and those that are lucky enough to know you.
You possess kindness, sweet dispositions, tender hearts that ache at other’s suffering, and a joyous ringing giggle that can bring a smile to anyone who hears its music.
I am incredibly happy and blessed to have you as my own, to lay claim to having had some say in how wonderfully you are turning out. No matter what other great things I accomplish in this life, the two of you will always overshadow them with your perfection of sweet little human beings that you are.
I am biased, no doubt, but I could care less about what others may think is an exaggeration; they have not met you. They have not felt the velvet warmth that fills my soul when you hold me tightly as I tuck you into bed. Nor you’re refusal to let go of my neck when I kiss you goodnight. That love that carries through when we look at each other, smile at one another, and cuddle up with each other is unparalleled.
When the quiet reaches me, I sit here contemplating if it will always be like this, if it would best be left like this.
After the fogginess of morning, waking up to a new day, rousing from the few hours of fitful sleep, I make my way to clarity with a cup of coffee. I stare off into emptiness as my senses return about me and I get to the business of the new day.
Under the pressure of the shower water my muscles grow taught and my eyes alert and I step out feeling refreshed, renewed even.
The monkeys slowly make their way back to this world from their peaceful sleep and the house is filled with giggles and with equal measure of squeals of delight and complaint. It’s a new day and none better than today.
Breakfast is made; clothing is tossed in the hamper, clean ones thrown on. Pacing back and forth looking for a shoe, a hair tie, the comb, the minutes tick on by until it’s time to rush out the door.
At school, at work, it’s all the same to you and me. Our hours pass on by filled with new memories, work, dreams, and the steady gaze towards the clock as it nears our reunion.
Off to pick you up and as soon as I step in the door my body absorbs the thud of two little monkeys running into me with exclamation of love. How happy I am in these moments of unguarded affection.
At home, we stretch, we clean, and we cook and eat. We work and do homework, we find ourselves unwinding. As you two shower, I get a snack ready for you, a midnight snack you call it, so it can be waiting for your eager shiny eyes when you come back to me. Then the room goes quieter once your bellies have been satisfied, your round cheeks filled with kisses and caresses and you slowly wander back to your sweet dreams.
And I am here, sitting by the window typing away when I should be sleeping, enjoying the cool breeze immensely, and thinking of tomorrow and what it may and should/shouldn’t bring.
It grows quiet outside and inside the words and thoughts push out. They ask and beg to be heard. And I listen. I am blessed. When it is just us three and life around us, I know how blessed I am, how beautiful life can be. The illness of worry and self-doubt only appear when I listen to others.
But at the moment, I sit here and listen. And try to discern my desires, worries, thoughts, and plans; allowing them all to flow freely hoping to see them converge. I know that one day the two of you will walk on to your own path, and there will no longer be just the three of us, and I hope for nothing less. My proudest moment will be when I see you grow to be happy, independent, and beautiful women, inside and out. And that gives me a glimmer of hope that I may hope for the same.