by Leah M. Cano
I was seventeen and it was the most romantic thing anyone had ever done for me. It had been a public display of affection for all to see. He had jumped up on the side of the bus as the driver was revving his engine, hoisting himself up toward the open window where I sat, giving me a kiss. A kiss that stopped my heart. Somehow, the word romantic didn’t quite capture the intensity of that moment. The men on the bus began yelling for him to get off, but I hardly heard them. Their shouts were like whispers compared to the sound of my beating heart. The women began to laugh, and leaned toward one another, hiding their words in their cupped hands, smiling all the while they were watching us. I could tell they thought it was romantic too. Then, the driver shouted angrily at him and he grasped at my hand before it slipped away, the bus began to move and he reluctantly slid off. I craned my neck to catch the last image of him that I would carry in my mind for the entire trip.
I was grateful for the loud, sluggish sound of the motor that discouraged much conversation. I was packing that last, precious vision in my head to take with me through this journey I was beginning. Then it came to me… gallant. The word was gallant. It was an act that may have been stupid, and definitely dangerous, but after all, I was seventeen… that’s what made it so gallant.
I looked out the window, observing the crowded streets of Mexico City, alive with the faces of bronzed kissed children playing on the half-eaten sidewalks, of women scurrying with their mandados or errands to run, their arms weighted down with colorful plastic bags harboring eggs, tortillas and meat for the afternoon meal, and the leathered faces of ancient men, their straw hats shading their river lined foreheads. The air was a fusion of food, fumes, flowers and hot dust.
As the bus traveled on, I wondered what was in store for me on this journey to Acapulco. I was near the outskirts of this city I had chosen to help me discover my second culture. Though I had heard Spanish all my life in the San Fernando Valley, I was never made to speak it, to read it, to identify with it. Now, I wanted to know about this other side of me. I wanted to see where my grandparents had walked. I wanted to fuse with their Mexico and make it my mine. I didn’t anticipate that, instead, it would be waiting for me. I had come to live with thirteen cousins who spoke absolutely no English and who lived in a three-bedroom tenement apartment in the heart of the city and who were only too happy to teach me how to connect to my severed cultural roots.
One of my cousins, Lourdes, had a friend who was the only black Mexican I had ever seen. Cresencia was a short and slightly stocky girl, with a wide face, a big smile and a gentle manner. My cousins’ entire family had been invited to attend Cresencia’s sister’s wedding somewhere near Acapulco. Only four of us, my older cousin, Lourdes, my aunt Carmen, my thirteen-year old cousin, Carmela and I decided to go. It was just for a few days and I was thinking that in Acapulco, my life might be temporarily “upgraded” to a streamlined, modern hotel or perhaps a quaint Mexican tiled hacienda overlooking the azure waters of the Pacific.
At any rate, I had come prepared to seize the opportunity to communicate my passion and undying devotion to my love in a letter written on some special stationery I had brought along just for this purpose. It had a little bouquet of red, blue and yellow flowers, wrapped with a white bow that trailed prettily down across the first creamy sheet with a matching envelope. I had taken two sheets because I knew I would need it for my very first love letter! Now I was asking myself, would two sheets be enough? I was looking forward to attempting to write down the elusive words of love hundreds of ancient poets before me had miraculously managed to harness.
We had come to a stop and had been sitting on the hilly crest of this unpaved road, tucked away from the towering, sleek buildings of Acapulco we had passed about half an hour ago. If I sat up very straight in my seat, I could still see the tops of those tall, shining monuments like monsters of “progress” threatening to devour the peaceful, surrounding countryside like Godzillas of the south. At first, I thought something must have gone wrong with our bus, that it must have broken down, but as no one else moved from their seat and with Cresencia beckoning to us, already out of hers, following the bus driver down the stairs off the bus, I began to realize that this was going to be our stop. How could this be if we were in the middle of nowhere? As the heat of the dazzling sun engulfed us, and its shimmering rays played atop the bus, we found we were surrounded by rolling hills of dry, camel-colored grass. We were grateful for the slightest murmur of a gentle breeze as the chofer , our bus driver opened the large, gaping baggage compartment and began unloading our valises. Cresencia, as usual, was smiling and informed us that they would be here soon. They?
If my face looked a little perplexed, it was nothing new to my cousins. I had long ceased to be a novelty to them, this strange American who shared their name but who spoke little Spanish and who looked (as they always said) “As Mexican as a red hot chili pepper”. They thought everything here perplexed me and they weren’t far from wrong. Having been raised in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California and then in a coastal artist colony in Orange County did not prepare me for life in Mexico City and certainly not for the adventure that would come looking for me that day.
I looked around to survey the surrounding hills, shading my eyes with the downturned palm of my hand, feeling expectant but rather foolish nonetheless. Then I saw them. First one head, then two appeared from the top of a hill slowly revealing the shadowed, slim, sparsely clothed torsos beneath. There were about six of them, all but one was male. If I didn’t know any better, I would have believed we were in Africa, for the faces belonging to these six walking single file, were black and glistening. As they approached, I could see the contrast of their white smiles. Of course. They were Cresencia’s people.
Before I knew it, each one took a valise, which they effortlessly balanced atop their heads and the chofer said goodbye, boarded the bus and was on his way. I stood there in the middle of the dusty road, mesmerized, watching the bus become smaller and smaller and listening to the roar of the motor fade to a monotonous hum. Lourdes’ shouts brought me back to reality as I was told to follow. Ascending up over the hills, listening to the crunch of brittle, dry grass under my feet, I felt beads of sweat forming at the nape of my neck. While I watched my suitcase guiding me from atop the head of one of Cresencia’s kin, I had a strange feeling that our destination was going to be someplace other than a streamlined hotel or a quaint Mexican hacienda…
Our home for the next few days was situated within the isolated confines of a few hilly streets, far from crowded avenues of cities or even the moderately populated roads of towns. Rocky and dusty, they were lined with crudely constructed homes built of plaster. Some were attached, some were not. Some were painted in pastel colors, some were not painted at all. Not many had doors and all had open windows that were devoid of screen or shutters. I did notice that the walls were very, very thick.
As we came upon one small and solitary, white building, Cresencia stood in the doorway there, waiting for us and then stepped inside. In the darkness, I could see the scattering of tree branches and what looked like groups of bowling balls stacked in a corner. As my eyes adjusted, I could see a man, short in stature, with dark skin, wide-set cheekbones and a straw hat, who turned and releasing the huge machete grasped in his hand, greeted Cresencia, nodding to my cousins and to me. Cresencia introduced us to her father. He welcomed us in a heavily accented, indigenous Spanish and as we said goodbye, he tipped his hat. Our fellow transporters already out of sight, Cresencia led the way to our accommodations.
I held back for a second and peered into the small room again upon hearing a strange swooshing sound. I saw Cresencia’s father thrusting cocoanuts into the air, chopping them in half with one tremendous downward stroke of the enormous machete blade. I shivered. I was certainly glad that we were honored guests from “the city” and I found comfort in the knowledge that this was probably the man from whom Cresencia had inherited her gentle manner. I was thinking that I would never want to get on his wrong side as I scurried to catch up with the others, clouds of dust dancing at my heels.
I found myself sitting in the sun on one of the rough cement steps beside an outside patio the next morning, with my stationery in my hands, ready for my first sentences. We had slept in what Cresencia had said was one of the better houses of her village. Apparently, it was a great honor to have it all to ourselves, especially since its owner was very well respected and had offered his home for our stay. It was one massive room with high ceilings and huge, oversized stairs leading up to the entrance which revealed the width of its walls within its gaping, enormous doorway. Although the entire structure seemed very primitive to me, I felt somehow protected there as though it hid within its walls the strength of some ancient fortress.
The cool, darkness of the inside smelled of clay, soothingly shielding its guests from the unrelenting heat outside. In a corner on the uneven floor stood a huge cantaro , a clay pitcher with no spout upon which rested a fitted clay cup. This, I recognized as something my grandmother had kept in her bedroom. For this reason, it was comforting to me. The clay kept the water cool, clean and deliciously refreshing, all without refrigeration.
Now as I sat there in the sun on the old cement veined with cracks, I writhed with a soreness in my back. I had slept in one of the hammocks, naively thinking it would be “fun”. After I fell out twice in the middle of the night, Lourdes had sighed, gotten up from her petate , a woven mat on the floor and traded places with me. My ineptness really appeared to perturb my cousins. It was beginning to dawn on me just how spoiled I was.
Now, I was ready to get down to the business of the letter, despite the discomfort in my body. I looked around for inspiration. There was a well on the far side of the patio, where we had all drawn water from a wooden bucket and then taken turns going behind one of two small cement enclosures, the opening draped across with a thin cloth for privacy, to wash our bodies. What, no hot running water? By this time, I knew better than to ask Lourdes.
Behind me on the huge slab of cement, were thousands of corn kernels drying in the sun. They were like a rich colored autumn carpet in flaming hues of orange and yellow. How strange, I thought, to have no machinery around. No sputtering engines to grind, to can or to otherwise prepare mass quantities of this familiar, golden staple. It was all very peaceful except for the laughter coming from the direction of the small house attached to the patio as Cresencia, Lourdes, Carmela and Cresencia’s female relatives chatted among themselves. I closed my eyes briefly as I let the sun warm my skin.
When I opened them, my pen was poised, ready for that first word that would transform itself into the opening sentence of my letter of love, but then I realized… I had an audience. About ten feet from me stood a donkey, a burro that had been tied up to a tree. It stood blinking in the shade of its foliage, calmly watching me with its enormous, almond, doe-like eyes. I remember thinking that I’d give anything for those eyes. What could it be thinking? The animal almost seemed expectant, intent. Even it was waiting for me to write the first word…
Just then, Lourdes came out of the doorway beckoning me to come inside. I put my pen and stationery down. I followed her to a separate part of the house in the coolness of an enclosed patio, where the group of women surrounded a young girl who was kneeling and bent over a metate , a rough slab of stone supported by four legs in a descending slant. She was gripping a large pipe of some sort as she worked the repeated rolling motion necessary to manually grind the fresh, dried corn. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even know people still used these. The only place I had ever seen them depicted was on the label of the plastic wrapped, massed produced tortillas we would buy in the grocery stores at home. Now, they were laughing, saying that they wanted to see “ la Americana ” try grinding the corn.
As I knelt and gripped the smooth pipe, it felt alien to my hands, but I slowly crushed the dried kernels with a back and forth, rocking motion. The women tried to hold their laughter. Then, the young woman knelt and modeled for me, the correct, sliding motion of the pipe. I tried again, truly desiring to learn how to do this. After all, this was part of the heritage I had come to discover and when I thought that this was something my great grandmothers had probably done, it almost began to seem like a sacred ritual. At first, I was very slow, but then, my grinding began to produce coarse cornmeal. The women nodded their approval and said that with a little practice, I could be very good. As Lourdes informed the women that I had come all the way from California mainly to discover my “roots”, I felt the rhythmic motion of my hands becoming faster and faster…
The following morning, I was sitting with my now tired-looking sheets of stationery in the enclosed patio at the back of Cresencia’s home beginning my letter again, sipping a can of pineapple juice as the preparations for the wedding, or should I say weddings, were taking place all around me. We had been informed that because of the remoteness of this village, a priest would come only twice a year to perform wedding ceremonies. As a result, there would usually be more than one when the priest did come. Those brides who waited for the priest’s arrival before consummating the union with their grooms, were given the honor of wearing the traditional white wedding dress. All the others wore pastel shades.
There was much hustle and bustle around the tiny village as men mounted old, nearly obsolete auditory equipment for the music at the receptions, women were scurrying about preparing food and excitement was engulfing everyone as children played on the desolate landscape, taking bites from their warm, morning tortillas.
I was watching Cresencia’s father dragging something wrapped in a canvas-like tarp. He had leaned his machete temporarily against one of the posts of the backyard open air, unpaved patio. On one of the posts was a large, steel hook. I was wondering what it was for, but I turned back to my letter. In my head were the first words: My Dear Love, I am sitting here thinking about you…. I am sitting here thinking, dreaming ? about you. Hmmmm…
I lifted the can of juice to take another sip as I glanced at Cresencia’s father, but it never touched my lips, for he had suddenly uncovered the tarp, revealing the body of a dead goat. With a swiftness I did not believe possible, he lifted it up to hang on the steel hook, grabbed the awaiting machete and sliced the stomach open with the familiar sudden stroke downwards, the animal’s entrails spilling onto the now empty tarp.
My stomach emptied into my hands as I felt it lurch forward at the sight. I covered my mouth as I jumped off the ledge where I was sitting, casting the can aside and ran around to the front of the house to vomit beside a small bush that had the misfortune of having had its roots planted precisely where I found myself heaving up the remains of my liquid breakfast. I was trying to get the terrifying scene out of my mind when Lourdes came around the corner looking for me.
She proceeded to ask me what was wrong as, in between gags I tried to explain, how I had been surprised at the horrid sight of the animal’s intestines spilling out upon the ground. Lourdes didn’t seem a bit sympathetic as she stood there, her fisted hands placed firmly on the hips that supported her small but sturdy frame. She asked me suspiciously, with eyes narrowed, if I was expecting her to believe that I had never, in my seventeen years of life, seen an animal slaughtered for a meal? I must have had the usual perplexed look on my face because I wasn’t sure if what she said next was said in earnest or in jest.
“I suppose”, she continued “that where you live you have chicken all cut up in clean little pieces, arranged in neat, little piles, wrapped in cellophane, put into little boxes and even refrigerated???!!!!” Relieved that she finally understood, I said “Well…yes!”
That’s when she gave my arm a little slap and turned away in disgust and disbelief. I cringed. I knew my cousins were losing patience with me.
The wedding celebrations engulfed the village that night as the music from the three weddings was playing simultaneously, becoming one loud cacophony of noise. We ate outdoors at a large, rustic table with Cresencia’s family and what seemed like everyone else from the village.
That evening, I was a source of conversation and entertainment for the others as none of them could imagine that I had never seen an animal slaughtered for a meal. While everyone dined on birria , the dish the animal had sacrificed its life for, despite the continual offer of food and mild deriding of the others, I had only Coca-Cola and lots of tortillas, with that morning scene still fresh in my mind.
It was difficult to sleep that night as the loud music played into the wee hours of the night. I had heard someone tell Lourdes that these celebrations sometimes lasted a few days because the chance only came a few times a year. Also, I had been awakened several times by an ominous shadow sliding across the wall that seemed to disappear into the darkness of the night, a darkness that eventually lulled me into an uneasy slumber. Apparently, it was the owner who had hung up another hammock and did what many of the village’s male inhabitants did at celebrations like these. They went around to enjoy the feasting and dancing at all the receptions with little catnaps in their hammocks in between.
Now that the wedding was over, we were preparing to leave the following day. My letter of love still awaiting the words it would hold on its by now creased, nearly ripped and dirt stained pages, I decided to travel a little farther away from all the commotion where I would be sure there would be no corn grinding, and no animal slaughter, where I could be a little more isolated with my thoughts. So, I walked to the outskirts of the village, to the street that had first welcomed me to this dusty, and primitively enlightening world. I sat myself down on one of the elevated, uneven, crooked slabs of cement to make one last attempt at writing my love letter. I was wondering whether all those poets throughout the ages who wrote the now famous love sonnets found in books had ever encountered the kinds of interruptions I had.
After a few minutes with no success, I decided that maybe it was my youth that was blocking my progress. It certainly wasn’t for lack of desire, I decided as I twirled my useless pen around in my hand. Perhaps I should ask a seasoned, more mature individual who had more experience in this world.
The brilliant sun was simmering the parched, dry earth. A thin, scraggly brown dog walked by me on the other side of the street, with quick strides, ignoring me as though he were late to some pressing engagement on the far end of town.
I saw the heat rising in waves from the street when I shaded my eyes, watching a tallish figure coming towards me from far down the road in the opposite direction. As it approached, I could see it was a woman with ebony skin and a colorful skirt that swished with the movement of her thinly soled feet. The contrast between her skin and the coral and earth tones of her blouse was striking. On her head, she had some kind of rag wrapped in a circle and on top of that, sat a basket of what looked like bananas. Possessing an agility at this feat I had seen many in this town demonstrate, she had one arm reaching up and only slightly touching the basket. Incredible. She was smiling. I felt her spirit reach me before her body did. I liked her already. I decided she was the mature woman I would ask.
As she came closer to me, I asked her in Spanish, “Señora, can you help me please? I am writing a love letter. Do you know how to write a love letter?”
She stopped and blinked incredulously at me. Then, she threw back her head slightly and laughed so openly, I was sure I saw her tonsils as she had to catch hold of her basket before it fell.
“ Hija ,” she said, ” a love letter?” She paused to laugh again, I suppose thinking of the absurdity of the thought and perhaps, especially about asking her .
“I have never done such a thing”, she said in her rural, accented Spanish. ” I don’t know how to write. Besides, there isn’t a mailbox to be found for miles.”
I was disappointed. She was my last hope for some kind of guidance from someone with more experience in the matters of love. My face fell and she saw it.
“But”, she continued hopefully, “I can offer you one of these.”
She reached up and grabbed a golden banana from her basket and handed it to me. I thanked her, took it from her and watched her as she proceeded down the road. Her shoulders shook every few steps as she walked away and I knew she was chuckling to herself at my strange request.
I sighed as I began to peel the banana and it made me think… Maybe, just maybe there were no words to express this sentiment, this feeling of love in my heart. Maybe I was attempting something that was clearly…fruitless. I half-heartedly smiled to myself as I took the first bite of the banana. Maybe it was an impossible thing, truly communicated by a few, very talented people throughout history only once every thousand years.
I returned to Mexico City and my beloved without having written my letter of love because I was convinced by then that what I was feeling was inexpressible through the written word. I lied… partially. I told him that I was incredibly busy everyday and that anyway, there were no mailboxes in the remote village where Cresencia had taken us.
Weeks later, when I was on the plane heading towards California, after a painful departure from him, I regretted not having tried to write those words of love at least one, last time. I thought about that quest of love I had taken with me when I entered the village, one that had never been realized. Feeling a need to write my feelings down as I was going through this difficult transition upon returning home, I reached for the small journal in the bag I had carried on the plane with me.
As I opened it, I saw a small, dark shadowy object concealed within its pages. I took it out and held it in my hand.
It was soft.
It was a lock of his hair.
After a few moments, I slowly closed my journal and looked out the window. Sometime later, as I felt my seat bounce gently above the wheels scraping the runway below, I found myself realizing that I was right after all.
There were no words to express such a feeling.
Apparently, it was something he seemed to have known all along.
Leah M. Cano is a teacher/writer living in Laguna Beach, California and has written for Transitions Abroad Magazine, MAMM Magazine and is featured in the Experiment for International Living and Vermont Studio Center websites.