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Authors: Demetria Martinez

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BOOK: Mother Tongue
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I took the almond oil, offered to rub his back, his shoulder blades that tensed like birds’ wings before flight. Beneath my hands was a constellation of markings that in any other lifetime might have been a momentary flushing of skin in the fire of passion, marks left by a woman’s fingernails. And as I so often did in those days, I refused to believe my own eyes. I refused to believe that what I was seeing was a pattern of scars, the legend to the map of his life—1982, someone had branded those numbers into his back. You had to really look to see, as if searching heaven for the big dipper on a cloudy night. Nineteen eighty-two was the year he was tortured, that thousands were tortured. In a country the size of Massachusetts. In a country named after Christ.

Later, as I massaged his temples, his eyes turned to glass—rearview mirrors that let him look back many miles, many months, at a woman I sensed had touched him just as I was doing. A woman I feared had met the same fate as the nuns, their bodies not merely “mutilated” as the newspapers reported, but their hands cut off as a warning to all who would dare try nursing a nation back to health.

A few weeks after the nuns’ deaths, I found a poem in Spanish folded in José Luis’s Bible. I put it back after reading it, pretended it was not there, told myself I hadn’t seen it, and so assured that its shape would be preserved in my memory forever, like autumn leaves ironed between sheets of waxed paper.


When at last my man
gets out
to become a new man
in North America,
when he finds a woman
to take the war out of him,
she will make love to a man
and a monster,
she will rise
from her bed,
ticking in her.

The poem was signed, “Ana.”


y son, José Luis, is nineteen years old. On his breaks from college in New York City he always comes home—to a brown mushroom of a house that seems to have sprung from the fertile mud of the Valley, the house that Soledad coated with mud and straw before her death, before she signed it over to me. After meeting José Luis yesterday at the America West gate, I helped lug his knapsacks and other bundles,
embarrassed at my secret joy in knowing he still brings jeans and sweatshirts home to be washed. It is all part of the myth we share, the pact—he lets me do his laundry and indulge in some semblance of mothering, some illusion of authority. Like all children, he had to have sensed his mother’s grief over the nature of things: that a child, sprouted like a plant from a clipping of one’s own flesh, grows up and away, becomes a person unto himself. Feeling my loss when he went away to college, he hit upon the ritual of the unwashed clothes; he also lets me call him mijito, my little boy. And in return I try to refrain from telling him what to do with his life, his world.

Oftentimes, after supper, when I would rather we go on a walk, José Luis descends to the basement where, years ago, we set up his first computer. Messages flash like lightning on the screen and he answers, communicating for hours at a sitting with students in Brazil, biologists in China—wherever wetlands or highlands or any other land is in danger of disappearing, of
becoming something it is not due to man-made chemicals that have infiltrated once pristine places. My son doesn’t hear me or see me when he is clacking away at the computer. This reminds me of how he used to sit at Soledad’s piano for hours and pluck out “songs.” As a boy, he was drawn to the minor chords. And even now, on vacation, he prefers to be present, if only by way of computer, at a catastrophe.

How different his universe is from the one Soledad knew. José Luis and his friends cast bottles upon oceans of computer screens, and, in an instant, their messages wash up as far away as Africa. Before history happens—a land takeover, a nuclear waste accident, the death of another species—José Luis knows about it. His is a generation of psychics, not because they can peer into the future but because the sins of earlier generations have forced them to look deeply into the here and now and thereby alter fate. It is a frightful balancing act, attending to the moment in order to create the future. His basement walls are papered with maps of frayed ozone layer,
dying forests, dust bowls where crops once thrived. The maps tell the real story of how the world has changed since Soledad was his age. José Luis is caught up in a struggle larger than that of an individual nation. He and his friends talk about saving the planet. I wish I could say they were exaggerating.

During his vacations we indulge in other rituals besides joking about his unwashed clothes. My favorite is where I say, mijito, how’s your Spanish coming along? Just fifteen minutes a day reading the Juárez newspapers and you’ll have it down, or better yet, go to the Spanish mass.… Then, with a grin, he asks me if I kept my part of the bargain, if I have learned to at least pronounce names of chemicals he is studying in his environmental biology class. Chemicals that my son, the budding topsoil expert, says act on the earth like cancer—cells that don’t know what they are in relation to the whole.

That he and I can go back and forth this way is a sign of healing. When José Luis was in high school, I made an error I feared was fatal. I told
him that if he passed his Spanish class, I would send him to El Salvador for a summer, to volunteer in one of the new communities, Ciudad Grande. No sooner had the thought escaped from my mouth when a terrible storm gathered in that Olmec Indian face of his, wide and round and brown as cinnamon. He thundered: Ma, I don’t wanna go there, I don’t wanna major in Spanish. How come you never say anything about how good I’m doing in science? How come you never ask about my project for the Science Fair?

My son, as all children must do, indicted me on charges of conspiring to control him. He presented the evidence. And he grew up. Right there, one terrible afternoon, my baby grew up and became himself: Olmec with a warrior’s helmet, raging against me and the powers that had laid waste his Earth.

When José Luis slipped into the world three months too soon, he had a fig for a face, a body
no longer than a woman’s size eight shoe. I had no idea how to hold a thing that small without breaking it, but it didn’t matter. Nurses washed the muds off him and whisked him away to an incubator where he meowed under harsh lights, tubes, and antennae. They kept him there until his lungs showed signs of inflating, sails strong enough to catch the wind and propel him through life.

For what seemed an eternity that hospital was my home—the university hospital serving the uninsured, where a Jewish friend of Soledad’s treated refugees, afterwards walking them through underground hallways and out a back door, bypassing official forms and sliding fee scales. It was there, in a room of glass mangers, that Soledad brought me food and headlines from the outside world. In the early evenings we dipped corn tortillas in thermoses filled with black beans and then went to a waiting room to listen to news from Central America on the shortwave radio. It bothered her that the doctors would not allow the radio in the “preemie” ward. Soledad wanted José
Luis from the very start to breathe the atmosphere of El Salvador, its tropical airs that she said must have had something to do with the people’s ability to live for so long on so little. After the news I usually fell asleep on a rocker next to José Luis’s incubator. One night as I was sleeping, Soledad taped holy cards to José Luis’s glass cocoon. Mary, Joseph, St. Jude, Rafael the Archangel, a kind of ad hoc committee of divine intervention. Another night she draped an oxygen tent with rosaries blessed in Lourdes. In a crisis, Soledad had a hard time not turning blank surfaces into altars. She was all for hedging her bets, or, at the very least, somehow sanctifying the most hopeless of situations, the fruits of which she promised would be visible “if not in this life, then in the next one.”

It was there, at the hospital, that I learned to proofread. I scrutinized every line on my child’s face, certain that at any moment he might be a comma or period away from oblivion. A glovelike device fastened to the incubator allowed me to slip my hand in and gently poke him; the smallest stirrings restored me to peace. His eyes
were shut as tightly as a new kitten’s. He was all animal, a bundle of hungers. He was still in the garden and my face was a passing cloud in his sky. The news from El Salvador was a babbling brook. Looking at him, I wondered, what will I do if he leaves me, how will I live if he dies? I hated my helplessness. After months of eating the right foods and reading the right books on pregnancy and parenting, there was now not a thing I could do—except keep watch at this mystery.

Years before, Soledad told me that her great-aunt, who was of Nahuatl Indian descent, believed that it took five years for a child’s body and spirit to decide whether or not to remain together. Remembering her words, I asked myself, who am I to demand that my son’s flesh and breath stay together for my sake? José Luis’s father taught me love could not be used like a cage to make a man stay. What if the universe now was telling me that it might take even greater love to let someone go? But I was not capable of detachment. The dream that my child would live was a rope I tied around my waist to
keep me from slipping into a pit of despair. In my desperation I pleaded with God, cried out in the hope that one day He would hear the echo: let José Luis live and I will tell him the story of how he came into this world.

One night, sensing that the darkness had become too much for me, Soledad said very gently, Offer it up, mija. Offer up your pain for the mothers whose children are disappeared. There were times when I had hated Soledad’s fatalism, her “si Dios quiere,” her God-willings, the way, in the name of realism, she could suddenly dismantle her expectations rather than reinforce them, come what may. I did not yet understand that by accepting things as they were, Soledad found energy to try and change the world, or at least her portion of it. But that particular night, too exhausted to revert to logic and having nothing better to do, I did as she said; I offered up my helplessness, all that was small and weak and frightened inside me, on behalf of those who were worse off. And somehow, Soledad’s mandate became an umbilical cord
through which I received nutrients of meaning. These kept me going until doctors declared that José Luis’s lungs had grown strong enough to contain his cries so that we could take him home. Since that time I have tried to interpret “offering it up” for my friends. “Empathy” does not quite embody its spirit. No, the word I think comes closest is “solidarity,” and it is that word that resonates the most with my friends and my son, the nonbelievers.

By demanding that I attend a troubled entry into the world and, later, soccer games, science fairs, and graduation—by demanding not perfection but presence—José Luis drove me to ordinariness; that has been his great gift to me. He began by giving me reason to get up each morning. So that we could live, I got a job as a copy editor at the
Albuquerque Herald
. I joined a day care cooperative that the Quakers sponsored at the Meeting House. When José Luis started first grade, I signed on with the PTA and, eventually, a “Parents for Peace” project. We aimed to educate other parents about the menace of
nuclear war and nuclear waste. When the elementary school principal tried to ban us from open house night, I circulated a petition demanding that we be allowed to display our literature. I presented it at a school board meeting and our request was granted. There was nothing mysterious about my budding interest in politics, which Soledad had long predicted. I wanted a better world for my son. God only knows if I have made any difference at all. But at the very least, life began to taste good to me; it became memorable. With each vote I cast or letter to the editor that I ghosted for friends, another part of me woke up.

Now, as I tell you these things, José Luis is at his computer in the basement, the room where he was conceived. The room where his father told me, I’m leaving now, I’m going back to El Salvador. Someday I have to tell my son the story of his room and the spirits that dwell there. But first, I must tell myself the rest of the story, chew on it like oshá root, sweat it out. What I can’t remember, I will invent, offer up my tales for
those who were not granted time enough to recall, to mend. My son is cursed with a mother who makes up stories, a liar, blessed with a mother who is a storyteller given a blank notebook and a free hour. There are some memories I would rather fight to the death. Fight, rather than say to my son, mijito, once upon a time I gave you the name José Luis in order to make it real, to make a made-up name real.


hat night the rain sounded like piñón nuts trickling into a mason jar.

The world smelled like wet adobe, like chamomile flowers steaming on the stove.

Black lace clouds covered the face of the full moon, then lifted. Moonlight clear as white wine emptied into the room.

I tell you all this so that you will know the night was beautiful despite …

A blow to the face is the color of blueberries …

BOOK: Mother Tongue
12.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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