The priest in Torreón had always told bisabuelita Lucía Oviedo López that if she were a good soul, she would die and go to heaven. Instead, she died and went to Santa Ana.
There she was, a newlywed at sixteen, in a canvas tent lying supine on a wool blanket underneath a thin cotton sheet. Sweat dripped down her face as she kept screaming out in pain and terror, giving birth to her first child with only another migrant woman sitting by her side (she had said she was a midwife of sorts). Her husband was nowhere to be found—probably off drinking with her brothers, flirting with girls even younger than her, she assumed.
She always thought she had been a good soul, but as she entered the final stretches of labor, she remembered. She remembered how when she was young during la revolución she always disobeyed her parents’ orders not to leave the safety of the church when there was fighting outside. A sin to disobey your parents, the priest had said. But sometimes the bullet holes through the church’s adobe brick were too slight for her to see through to the exhilarating action on the other side.
«¡Dios mío!» she pleaded, staring up through the small holes in the canvas tent up to the California sun, «¿por qué me haces sufrir tanto?»
The priest in Acambay had always told mama Clotilde Martínez Cano that if she were a good soul, she would die and go to heaven. Instead, she died and went to Marysville.
She knew she was already quite old at the age of forty to have two very young children. Now Wilfredo, four, and Edie, two, were running her ragged down the aisles of what everyone kept calling an esupermarket. What kind of place was this mercado, where people bought fruta in a can and leche sometimes came in a solid powder form?
Esevan dolers, the cashier seemed to say to her. She stared at him blankly. What did esevan dolers mean? The cashier got impatient and started yelling at her. Edie started crying and Wilfredo hid behind her in fear. Finally some sort of superior came to the register and calmed the cashier down. The superior looked at her and held up seven fingers. She scrambled for her wallet and carefully counted out seven bills that had the number one on them.
She always thought she had been a good soul, but as she walked home from the esupermarket, she remembered how her parents had always wanted her to go to Toluca and marry a rich doctor or lawyer. Instead, she married a boy from her little town of Acambay, trained as a silversmith and now a bracero, a farm worker—a farm worker that had taken her from her beloved home. A sin to disobey your parents, the priest had said. But what other boy in Acambay, or even Toluca, didn’t drink or smoke and would stay faithful to her?
«¡Dios mío!» she thought, waiting for her husband to come pick her and the kids up in a borrowed Packard, staring down the long dirt road back to the ranch where she now lived, «¿por qué me haces sufrir tanto?»
The priest in El Paso had always told grandma Celia Rebecca Martínez Alonzo that if she were a good soul, she would die and go to heaven. Instead, she died and went to Nebraska. And then Virginia. And then Massachusetts.
José told her he loved her and that the best gift she could give him would be the gift of children. So, because she loved him, she gave him children—first one, then another, and before she was forty, there were seven. She gave him children, and she followed him to wherever the United States Air Force said they needed him, “a good man like Joe.” A good man like Joe, she thought, every time he scolded her for leaving the house without telling him, and every time he hit her when she talked to another man, and every time he disappeared for days—“serving his country,” he would say, when he was really “serving” some gringa named Carol in California.
She always thought she had been a good soul, but as she stared out the window of their new home in Falls Church (or Sleepy Hollow, whatever this new town was called) and watched her children play in the yard, she remembered how furious she had made her father by eloping with José. Un sinvergüenza, her father called him—just a good-looking, sweet-talking faldero. A sin to disobey your parents, the priest had said. But every time José looked at her with those bold dark eyes and told her that to kiss her was to see las estrellas, she melted, and told him she would follow him anywhere. And that’s just what she did.
«¡Dios mío!» she softly sobbed, her head in her hands, «¿por qué me haces sufrir tanto?»
The priest in Los Angeles had always told me that if I were a good soul, I would die and go to heaven. Instead, I died and went to Russia.
Do something different, I told myself, go somewhere no one has gone. No one I knew had gone to Moscow, so I did something different and I went to Moscow. There I was, two months shy of twenty-one, sitting at the kitchen table of my babushka (that’s what we were supposed to call our hosts, anyway), eating the bean and cheese burrito that I had made for dinner. I stared intently at the television in the hopes of avoiding the stink-eye my babushka’s daughter was giving me and my little burrito. That’s not food that real people eat, she had said to me. After bolting it down, I walked to my room, passing the bathroom on the way. Most of the time, I could bet on the door being wide open and seeing my babushka, fully naked, sitting on the toilet, probably about to defecate. This was one of those times. She smiled and waved.
I always thought I had been a good soul, but as I sat on my bed, listening to Herb Alpert and peering out my window to the cold and barren streets of the city, I remembered how many times I had snuck boyfriends in and out of the house right under my parents’ noses—Corey coming in through the patio doors, Alex leaving through the side door, Michael jumping down from my bedroom window onto the balcony below and taking the stairs through the backyard; countless times with Tristan, my sister distracted my parents as we snuck out the front door. A sin to disobey your parents, the priest had said, but I was eight-years-old when the priest told me this, so what did sinning mean to me?
“God—” I whispered, alone in my room for the fourth day straight—no class to go to, since professors are real flakes when it comes to teaching, and no one to see, since the other students disliked how little I spoke Russian and how little I cared about Christianity—“why must I suffer so?”
«¿Dios mío?» I whispered apprehensively, «¿por qué me haces sufrir tanto?»
«На русском, черт возьми! Говори по-русский!»
(In Russian, goddammit! Speak Russian!)
«Я не понимаю тебя. Ты в России. Скажи на русском, пожалуйста.»
(I don’t understand you. You’re in Russia. Speak in Russian, please.)
My babushka stood in the doorway of my bedroom, a scowl on her face.
Bisabuelita, mama, and grandma—they were women of the faith. I’d always thought I wasn’t like them, that I didn’t get religion. It turns out religion never got us.
By: Kate Holguin, Features Editor
All Images found via Tumblr