I sit next to my dying mother and I see her old, tired, soft face free of suffering and pain. I have so many thoughts and none of them makes sense. I am confused. I see my mother enjoying peace for the first time and I am not able to share that peace with her. I ask myself, "Will Amá really be happy now?"
We are all near her bedside in the hospital. One of my sisters is lying by Amá's side. Another one is throwing herself across Amá's body. The third is wailing and sobbing. My brother is stroking her hand. The demons of the past, like bats in a cave, have sat dormant in me for years, waiting to escape. But there I am, full of anger and bitterness, and, at the same time, numb. I wonder, "Am I so selfish and unforgiving that I can't feel the emotions my brother and sisters display?"
Why is it so hard for me to understand my mother, when she was so clear about who she was? Maybe it's because Amá talked in riddles. Many times I did not understand her. I spent most of my growing years mad at her and wanting her to change to fit in with the rest of the world. I thought of Amá as stubborn and narrow-minded. As we were growing up, my sisters and I tried to get her to change her way of dressing—always in conservative colors of navy blue, black, gray, and white, and always covering her soft and wavy hair. Her answer never varied: "You think that my clothes are going to change who I am inside?" When we wanted her to come and visit our friends' mothers, she would say, "Why do people need to know other peoples' lives?" And looking back, I wonder if she was really saying, "I don't want them to know our business." There was so much to hide. . . .
This is her story and, as it turns out, my own.
As a young couple, Amá and my father, Apá, traveled through the United States in search of a new life. Nothing came easily for Amá. Even the weather was tough. She overcame blizzards, bitter winter cold, scorching sun, and typhoons. She faced many of life's deceptions by the early age of nineteen. By then her heart had already been broken by the loss of her first four niños. Amá experienced hunger, fear, humiliation, and injustice. Her beliefs were tested, but she hung onto them. She was like a tree that grew beside a river, offspring of the earth sustained by the waters of truth, whose roots were planted in good, firm, nourishing soil. With her heart rooted in this soil, she survived. Many times, looking withered and broken, she fooled you and came back even stronger.
Elisa Rojas Torres, my mother, was born in a small mountain village in northern Mexico. As my Amá would proudly say, "Soy una India de la sierra." ("I am an Indian from the mountains.") She had no memory of her father, who died a year after she was born. I remember her telling us: "My mother tried to raise all three of us, but it became too hard. She found a nice man who was willing to marry her and keep us together. This, though, was not to be. Abuelito, 'Grandfather,' believed that only men of the same blood should share the same roof. Rather than giving my mother's new husband a chance, Abuelito parceled us out to different blood relatives. I was nine years old when Abuelito and Abuelita took me in. My sister, Maria, and brother, Felipe, were raised by my aunt."
Amá would often tell me of her life as a young child. "We had more important things to worry about than going to school. How could Abuelito have time to even think about sending us to school, when we had to work to survive each day? My sister and brother and I worked from dawn until dusk doing what we were trained to do. We worked the fields as soon as we were able to walk. My first chore, at early dawn, was to go check on my friends' animals and see if any of them had multiplied. I fed them and had them fat and ready to be sent to market. Others were served for dinner. At the age of nine, I could already outrun a chicken better than any adult could. I could twist its head off, clean it, and make fresh chicken soup. I could roast the red chiles until they danced on the comal and turn them with my bare fingers as easily as if they were tortillas.
"The scent of roasting chiles was so strong it would irritate the nostrils and throat, causing even adults to cry. Early in life, through the endurance of the burning noses and mouths, proud fathers would boast, 'Look at this girl—she'll be a real woman.' The more calluses and body scars, the prouder the fathers were. What I didn't know then, was that I was being taught how to be a good wife.
"Five years later, I was still sleeping with Abuelita, playing with dolls and reminiscing over the sweet stories of ancestors that had passed on to the other life. I was so familiar with the stories that I would finish them after Abuelita dozed off, looking more dead than alive. Many nights I questioned if she was still in her body. I threw my arm around her chest and felt if her heart was still beating. At that time, at fourteen, I wasn't a little girl nor yet an adult. I was, however, doing women's chores.
"Early in the morning I joined the other girls from the ranches on the long walk down to the river to get the wash done, with baskets of clothes balanced on our heads. The morning started with the fresh smell of earth, as the abuelas watered the ground to settle the dirt before starting the day. This day, as every day—the day I met your father—the sun was warming our backs, and the chickens and pigs were running in the front yard. The women were going around in circles, busily starting their day. We had done our wash, our dancing, and our dreaming in the river."
This was as far as Amá would usually get with her story about meeting Apá. When we asked what attracted her to Apá, she answered, with a sound of regret, "Hijas, you remember when you had your doll and you made her feel special? There were times when the baby doll just needed to be cuddled, kissed, and held close to your chest. Other times she was the ballerina that could fly, capturing the audience and taking their breath away. It was like that when I heard your father's voice. The happiest time with your father was just an illusion; it only lasted the lifetime of a rose. Why should I remember things? What could I know of love when I was fourteen?"
Amá's first encounter with Apá did begin like a fairy tale. After the girls finished the laundry, their reward was to bathe and play in the river. The brush and weed concealed the young women from anyone passing by. Wearing only their white cotton slips, they often danced with wild abandon. They did not realize that their slim, nearly naked forms were mirrored in the river like beautiful water lilies. Their voices were full of playful laughter. People passing by could hear the splashing water, but they respected the girls' modesty and continued on their way. Several times a week, Amá heard the voice of a young man singing as his horses trotted by. She was used to hearing this joyful voice and she would tell herself, "There is a man who loves his life and sings like a canary."
One warm afternoon, surrounded by a virgin land of untamed beauty, Amá felt safe and hidden from the outside world as she finished her basket of laundry. She slipped out of her dress and was wearing only her delicate white slip that was soaking wet from the healing, rippling water. Strolling among the yucca with its beautiful blossoms, she contemplated her life, hopes, and dreams. She marveled at the wonderful fruit-bearing cactus called "su magelle" while she spread her clothes out to dry on the spearlike leaves of the yucca. As she sat on ancient rocks to cool her feet, she observed the worn surface of the rocks, made smooth by countless generations of people passing by. She emerged from the reeds wearing her slip, feeling modest but unaware that the fragile, wet fabric simply graced her nudity.
Just as she was preparing to join the other girls in their bathing, she glanced up, sweeping back her waist-length hair, and was startled to find before her a young, dark man with a wide forehead. That should have been her first clue. Abuelita had warned her that people with wide foreheads were stubborn, but she forgot the warning the instant she saw the inviting smile in his eyes. Gallantly, he removed the sombrero that covered his coal black, curly hair. His eyes were intriguing—the dark shade of black olives. His hands were rough with calluses, showing that he was a man who earned satisfaction from his labor. Abuelita had told her, "If you want to really know a man, look at his hands and feet."
It was he whose voice had raised so much curiosity over the months. Several times a week he sang as he delivered meat from the family butcher. The two exchanged glances. They saw in each other's eyes their own beauty and desires. It was here that two worlds combined in a single moment of heaven on earth. Amá liked how open and unguarded he seemed. Apá was surely attracted by her shyness. He secretly followed her home and began tucking little notes for her in the cracks of the adobe bricks. As she found them, she would quickly hide them under her blouse, waiting until dark when her neighbor friend could read them to her.
Elisa was afraid to be discovered by her abuelito. She thought if she were found out, she would be sent away to live with an aunt in another town. Abuelito had noticed the attraction between the two youngsters and had warned her of the bad blood in Apá's family. Since only a hundred people lived in the village, the reputation of Apá's family was well known to all. His mother, the midwife Doña Demétria, was a woman who had broken all traditions. She smoked, drank liquor, and had numerous men in her life. She earned her name, la mujer mala ("the bad woman"). But in spite of these warnings, Amá responded to Apá's persistence. Eventually, with his whole tribe present, as called for by tradition, he asked for Amá's hand in marriage.
Apá had asked the village priest to the ranch to speak for him with Abuelito and to request Amá's hand in marriage. Juan, his oldest brother, came with Apá to stand in for the father they lacked. The men looked as if they had showered in dust. Apá and Tío Juan's white clothes were covered with dirt, and the priest's robe was not any cleaner. They all seemed tired, which seemed a strange sign, as they came down the dirt hill and approached Amá's ranchito. Flocks of people followed behind the priest, for any small event was big news. The ones who didn't join in would stretch their necks out their windows to see what was going on. The large mamás with their barefoot children, some bare-bottomed as well, followed the priest as if they were in a parade.
On that day, even the animals were on their guard. It was as if they knew something very special was going on. The chickens stayed in their corral, and the mules didn't follow their usual routine of mingling with the people.
The traditional, brightly colored bowls were scrubbed so clean they looked brand-new. The wet earth smelled as clean as freshly bleached sheets. One could almost eat off the earthen floor, as it had been watered twice a day for the last week in order to keep the dust down.
When my Amá's abuelito saw Apá, his brother Juan, and the priest nearing the yard, he went out to meet them halfway. It would have been unusual for anyone to meet inside the house, as there was only one room, the bedroom, which was considered a sacred place that only family members could enter. Abuelito greeted the priest with the respect that was customary; he knelt and kissed his hands.
Without wasting any time, the priest spoke of the reason for his presence. He had come to ask for Elisa's hand in marriage, and he spoke of the intentions Apá had for her. Apá promised to take care of her, to be kind, considerate, loving, and loyal, and to build Amá her own home as soon as possible. He would be the kind of father he had always dreamed of having . . . one that would stick around. While the promises were being recited, Abuelito, with a glance, gave the order for Maria, Amá's sister, to bring refreshments. Each person was served warm cinnamon bread and a cup of hot chocolate, which had been made that morning with fresh cow's milk.
The spicy aroma brought to the young men's mind thoughts of the young girls who kneaded the soft dough every morning. In the pale light of morning, as they kneaded, the young girls' minds drifted from their work while they imagined a life far better than the ones they had. Their romantic illusions convinced them, at the age of twelve or thirteen, that the best part of life was belonging to a man.
The priest asked my mother to be present so he could hear her will, and Abuelito went to fetch her. Amá still wore her hair in two long braids falling to her waist and tied with wool strings. She was dressed in an apron that she herself had made, wrapped around her childlike body. She came forward shyly with her head down, as was expected when there were men around. The priest asked Amá if she was willing to become Fidéncio's wife, and she solemnly nodded "yes." She knew that she was not to show any emotion or it would be interpreted that she was too libre ("anxious"). The priest announced that her answer was given and they would come back in five months to make sure that her answer was coming from her heart.
The five months was not an idle waiting period. During this time she had to learn what was expected of her in her husband's house, from scrubbing his pants on a rock by the river and making his underwear, to all the other duties of a wife.
At the end of the five months, they all met at the same place as before. Again the priest asked for Amá. Looking straight into her eyes, he asked, "Hija, do you have an answer for us?" She answered, "Yes, I will marry him." The priest asked her, "Is this of your own will?" Again she answered, "Yes."
"Now that you have given me your answer, I have a question," the priest said. The world became still and the neighbors fell silent and listened intently as he said, "Do you have anything to confess? Remember, you are not lying to me, you are lying to Mother Mary." Amá answered, "No, I have nothing to confess." Had Amá's virginity not been intact, she would have been returned to her family and the whole town would have turned their backs on her. But that would have been a gentler fate than the future she now faced with such naïveté.
It would take about a week to prepare the food for the wedding fiesta. But that was easy, for the uncles made their living by making barbacoa ("barbequing"). They came from a long line of butchers, so they expertly killed a couple of lambs, dug a hole in the ground, and cooked the meat. The aroma invited everyone to the fiesta. They brought with them gifts of live chickens, pigs, eggs, corn, and beans—whatever they had.
The women attended to the details of the wedding dress. One was in charge of the sleeves; another worked on the embroidered yoke. The lace, veil, everything was handmade. The gathering was a special time when the women came together to offer the young bride advice learned from their own experiences. My mother was petite, not strong and big like most women who worked the way she did. She was beautiful, with soft and supple skin, but her beauty was not an attribute that she wasted time with.
Her tías knew what was ahead of her. They accepted their duty of passing on the treasures of the wisdom, but they didn't understand that they were really conditioning her for the abuse that was to come. They said to her, "Mi hija, these are things that you have to know so that you don't learn the hard way. When a man sees you, he does not see a beautiful young lady. He sees a woman that he should own. He envisions himself with her in bed. A husband does not welcome these looks of lust. Avoid these men and their burning eyes. They scour you from head to toe. They make you feel as though you have undressed willingly for them. Keep your eyes lowered when you pass them—do not let them know that you see them. Cross your arms and walk quickly. Your husband will fault you for their behavior. Your beauty will be your burden. Men will take their anger out on their wives, cowards that they are. They learn que el miédo no anda en burro ('fear runs fast'). We know that there are husbands that don't even permit their wife to visit her own parents. If Fidéncio is this kind of man, don't cross him; we will understand."
They told her if any man appears in her yard, to make sure she does not show her face unless her husband sends for her. She should never let any man inside the house, even her own uncle, brother, or abuelito. "Why?" Amá asked. "Just do what he says," they told her.
As Abuelita Angelita listened to their words, she knew Amá would become just a memory in their lives. She knew Apá's family was hard-hearted and she would not be free to come and see them when her heart desired. Before the day of parting, Elisa spent many hours together with her sister, brother, and Abuelita, just brushing each other's hair. The love they shared would only come to life again in stories.
After the ceremony, Amá stayed one last night with her family, for she had just received the Holy Eucharist. It was considered sinful for her to consummate the marriage on this day. My father went home alone with Amá's dowry of a couple of pigs, handmade embroidered pillows and sheets, and a few crocheted doilies.
The next day at midmorning, Apá appeared on his horse. Standing in the yard was Amá's whole family. Her mother, sister, brother, aunts, and cousins were there to see her off. Doña Angel, Amá's mother, said, "Elisa, kneel down and receive your grandmother's benediction." Her abuelita crossed her shaking fingers to form a cross, blessed Amá's head, and said in a trembling voice, "Que Dios te bendiga y sea una buena esposa." ("May God bless you and may you be a good wife.") Abuelita, with a lump in her throat, stroked Amá's hair one last time, holding back tears she believed would bring Amá bad luck if they were spilled.
Apá boosted Amá onto the horse and threw two bundles up behind her. They rode away from the ranch, her family following them until they disappeared into the long rows of corn, leaving the rustling leaves and clouds of dust behind them. The farther away they got, they younger they seemed to be. The family hoped that Apá did not inherit the alma negra de su madre ("black nature of his mother").
Finally, Amá thought, she had a man to replace the one taken away from her in her youth, her father. She now had someone who would wrap his arms around her and call her his own. She had someone of her own as well, someone besides the doll with the cornhusk hair that she had cradled against her heart for so long. Looking back, Amá says, "I had no clue of what I was getting into. If only Abuelito had told me that this was the kind of hombre he used to tell stories of . . . hombres with the diablo inside of them. I would have been scared and more cautious, but instead I entered the marriage unprepared for the chaos of Apá's family. I thought I was going to my perfect home."
Instead, at the end of the horseback ride, what she discovered was a crazy mother-in-law who was more interested in a bottle of tequila and married men than she was in being a mother. Moreover, she found four brothers and three sisters in the home Apá brought her to. Amá was to share her dream home with four teenage boys who were no better than motherless untamed animals. She found that she had not only pledged herself to her husband, but to his family as well. Doña Demétria, Apá's mother, expected Amá to turn these animals into angels. She saw a mother for her children, not a daughter-in-law.
Amá cooked, cleaned, and tried to make sure that everything under her command was taken care of. When Doña was sober and her children could not be found to distribute the meat to vendors, she would wake Amá by grabbing her by the hair, demanding to know where they were. When Doña was drunk, she would come home with strange men and invite her children to drink with them. Doña Demétria was unable to control her wild children because they were doing exactly what she did. One of them had already been nearly killed for playing free with a married woman.
Amá was blamed for everything that went wrong. Doña Demétria beat her with a belt or broomstick, sometimes locking her in the outhouse while Doña rewarded my father with another woman. As the noise from their drunken party filled the night, Amá, a terrified child, faced her fear of what the coming darkness would bring. She learned quickly that for her to survive in this family, it was best to become invisible. She spent many nights crying, unable to escape when she heard the words of her mother-in-law, "Where is that woman?" When Doña came, Amá knew it was time to be beaten.
Amá had never been beaten by her own family. Nights had never been a source of terror as they were in this family. The dark had been a special time when her dear, gentle Abuelita would share with her the stories of their ancestors, passing on myths of graceful women. Now she prayed that she would just be left alone. She would prostrate herself to the Lord, begging him to give her a safe and loving home.
Instead, he gave Amá her firstborn child. Now she would have someone who would listen to her, someone she could talk to out loud and without fear. This baby would be like a bridge to another lifetime. She felt she no longer lived in vain.
Amá's favorite chore of the day was to go down to the river to wash the family clothing. She sat by the same rock every day, scrubbing the basketful of clothes while her mind wandered. She knew the name of her baby would be chosen by the religious calendar. Each day had a saint's name, and when a baby was born, it inherited that saint's name. Thereafter, the saint would be an advocate for this child for the rest of its life.
At home she would lie down on her straw mat. In the quiet of the hot, dark nights, she would hug her womb and, in a soft, secret voice, whisper her feelings for the life inside of her. She would profess her love to the little seed of life.
While Amá's stomach was secretly growing under her loose clothes, Apá wandered from ranch to ranch full of resentment and anger toward his mother. Even he could not understand the beatings he got from his mother. He would not return home until he had decided Doña was over her anger. Alone, Amá continued her exhausting chores from early morning until night. Now, she gave thanks for the darkness, for they would have her work nonstop like the animals if it were daytime.
As her time of delivery drew near the whole neighborhood anticipated this sacred event. Amá knew what was expected of her because she had been present at many other deliveries. As much as she feared Doña Demétria, she knew that her suegra knew her job well. No one talked about the coming birth, but there was a stillness that filled the house. Amá knew she had to be strong and endure her pain, for that was the nature of women. She knew, too, that she would get her little comadrona, which was made with two different kinds of tea with a shot of liquor. It was supposed to numb her pain. Doña Demétria claimed the potion would bring her contractions closer together. People trusted Doña with her herbs and traditional shaman rituals. They had no other choice, for there was no doctor in this village. If a woman suffered complications, she most likely would die, since it took four hours to get to the nearest town. There were no roads at this time, and the only way to travel was by donkey, mule, or cart. Amá prayed for a fast birth.
The mystery of birth was sacred. The family would gather to observe the miracle until the midwife, covered from head to toe in dark clothes, showed up with a pan of hot water in her hands and muslin cloth draped across her arm. The children would be sent outside with the husband, but even the youngest were aware of what was about to happen, for a baby would always appear. The villagers would continue their daily routines until the first cry of the child released everyone from the tension.
This was the only time Amá would be taken care of. She was nurtured by her suegra for thirty days in bed. Her head and feet were covered to keep her warm. She would not be allowed to stand up, so she was bathed in bed, and she was not allowed to leave the house. It was a time of prayer, at the end of which the baby was named and baptized.
The placenta and umbilical cord were considered sacred. Doña Demétria would carefully save them and place them on a big green leaf. She waited until midnight for the light of the moon, selected a small spot on the earth, dug a grave, and gently laid the placenta and umbilical cord to rest. The burial rituals were believed to assure that the newborn would return someday to his homeland. Some believed this determined the infant's fate in life.
While Amá carried her newborn son around in her shawl, Apá was struggling with his inner turmoil and rebellion. He struggled to be free of his family's expectations that he, too, would become a butcher. He chose to go to other ranches, each time going farther and farther away. Escaping the animosity he had for his family, he returned only infrequently. Again he impregnated Amá.
As she was nursing her second child, her firstborn son was withering away. He looked sicklier each day. As she held him close to her breast, he refused to nurse. Her lovely breasts were full to overflowing with nourishing milk. They were hard as pomegranates and ached constantly. She cried in pain, especially when she knew that her baby's mouth desperately searched for her breast even as he turned his head away from the life-giving nourishment. She knew that something was terribly wrong. At first she thought it was her milk, so she tried to make him his own agua de arroz ("rice water"). Still he refused to drink. The baby was dehydrated, burning away from the inside out. By the third day, he just lay like a rag doll. His eyes stared vacantly, looking like two small pieces of glass pasted to his face. Fever consumed his tiny body.
Doña Demétria wrapped him in mud to cool down the fever, but there was no change. His once pudgy hands were now just little bones, and his little face was only an outline of what it had been. Soon, his eyes could no longer open all the way. Doña prayed, sprinkled his body with holy water, and retried all her old remedies. Amá prayed and tried to bargain with God, lighting candles from morning to night. After fifteen days, he finally closed his eyes. His color had faded from healthy, living flesh to the pale blue of death.
The tiny child was buried wearing a little shroud made by his grandmother and a tiny scapular that once had been wrapped around his chubby neck. Now it hung loosely. Amá believed that Mother Mary would recognize and embrace this child buried with her own cloth.
Apá happened to be home at the time of the burial but only stayed a short time. He used the death of his son as yet another excuse to run away. He was there just long enough to impregnate Amá for the third time. Apá's visits were well tracked by Amá's stomach. Crying inside for her little lost baby, she was still able to give love and attention to her second niño. She soon began to notice this baby's life slipping away in the same manner as the first's. The cycle repeated itself.
Now, as she began to lose her second child, her once pleasurable trips to the river were repeated in torment. On her knees, with her arms outstretched as if she could see God and reach in his direction, she cried out, "Why is this happening to me? Why am I being punished? Why do you let me see their first smiles and hear them call me 'Mama'? Please don't give me any more babies if you are going to take them away!" She bowed her head, letting her tears join the river water, for she was about to bring her third baby into this world. Meanwhile, her second baby died.
The time of the aguas is the time of year that nature flourishes. Everything blooms and people nourish themselves from the crops produced during this time of plenty. Amá's third baby was thriving, looking healthy, fat and rich brown. Terrified by the past, she dropped to her knees to pound the ground with clenched fists. She pleaded to the mother of all Mexicans, and mother of all with Indian origins, la Virgin de Guadalupe, "You know the pain of being a mother. Please don't take this baby away." However, as the season ended and the fruit withered, so did Amá's third baby. He died just like the others.
Amá was not crying alone. Death was all around, brought by an epidemic of scarlet fever. By now, Amá was eighteen years old. Forbidden to see her own family, she was unable to be comforted by her grandmother, the only person who truly cared for her. The only connection she had with her loved ones was an occasional tidbit of news passed on by a vendor who knew them. When her loneliness and the anguish of her losses overtook her and she allowed the pain to show, Doña Demétria would tell her, "Tienes que aguantar. Tienes que ser mujer." ("You have to put up with it. You must be a woman.") Doña would also ask her, "Why should you cry for something that has no solution?"
Within the next year, her fourth baby boy arrived. He lived past the sixteen-month danger point and Amá began feeling hopeful. Fooled by life, she began to do things she was unable to do before. She crocheted bigger booties and made little outfits for her healthy baby. Her joy, however, was short-lived. As he turned two, he became ill and eventually joined his three brothers. Another scar was added to her pierced heart.
Amá never let us forget our brothers. The only memento we had of these small seeds of life was a picture of one of the babies. That picture became a symbol of all four of them. Pointing to the picture of the baby with the dark, deep-set eyes and long, fanning eyelashes, the double chin and perfect little arms and fat legs, people would ask who the child was. We always answered, "He is our brothers."