Authors: Oscar Lewis
This situation didn’t last long, because Paula died soon after. When she died, I almost died. I would rather it had been me. I wished it with all my soul and shouted that they take my life and leave hers. I screamed for her not to die. Only He knew why He did it.
The night she was dying, we took the children to another house after she had blessed them. Paula looked like a corpse already, but that tiny flame that gives us our thirst for life made me keep hoping she wouldn’t die. Dr. Ramón came to give her a plasma transfusion. Dr. Valdés was taking care of her also. But she died. It was the most terrible blow of my life. It was as if suddenly a hand made of wax was pressing on my brain. The color of the sunlight changed to a whitishness, like that of the bones I had seen in the graveyard. I don’t even know what I felt when she expired. I just cried. I cried so much my eyes ached.
The day we buried Paula I got another awful blow. When we came home from the cemetery, I asked Roberto to spread out some sacks for me, so I could lie down. I had no strength at all, I didn’t even feel like talking. Claudia sat down to eat with my father and my half-sister Marielena before serving my brother. I watched them eating together. It made me mad to see Claudia sitting there with my father. I became suspicious that there was something going on between them. I couldn’t take it when my father shouted at Roberto, “You, loafer! Take the knife and get to work and scrape the floor and wash it.”
I don’t know where I got the strength but I said to Roberto, “Why should you do it? It seems to me that’s what we pay this girl for. It’s her job to do it.”
I didn’t finish speaking before my father, with one leap, was right on top of me, shouting with real fury, “And who are you, you miserable creature? You’re not worth a five
piece! Just look at yourself!”
That night he made me sleep in the bed in which Paula had died. Perhaps he thought this was a punishment. Once the light was out, I
began to cry, not from the pain in my body now, but because I felt that my heart had been hurt.
After this, I had to swallow the presence of Claudia. She wasn’t the one who had to do the work, but I was. When I called her attention to the fact that she hadn’t brought water, or something else, she would complain to my father and I had to take humiliation and ill treatment. I couldn’t order Claudia to do anything. Again, I felt like nothing in the house.
But I remained in charge of the four children. My father said Manuel should support the children while Roberto and I help with the household expenses. My job for Bacardi came to an end just at that time, but I didn’t have to worry yet about paying rent or light. Later, Manuel said that what he earned wasn’t enough and I had to look for work so we could cover expenses.
In the meantime, I was happy with my little nephews and nieces, taking care of them, bathing them, and once in a while spanking them for misbehaving. They began to fatten up. I tried to feed them the best I could—raw sliced tomato with salt in the mornings, and milk during the day. I kept them clean, and the house too, and I was a little fatter myself. I wanted to keep these little children from suffering. The ideals and dreams I had had for my own family now centered on them.
My father began to show more favoritism to Claudia. My father gave her money or authorized her to get things on credit. Almost every day, she showed me new clothes she had bought. Whenever she asked for an advance he gave it to her, but when I asked for a
or two to look for a job he would refuse. I saw that I was losing ground in my rights as the unmarried daughter. Marta had her home with the father of her children, Antonia and Marielena lived with their mother, I had come to know the run of the house and now that Paula was dead, I wanted to be the woman of the house. I saw danger in Claudia.
My father told me one night he was thinking of marrying her. I said he could do as he pleased but that he should recognize my rights and give me my proper place in the house. I fought to make my father see I wasn’t mad at his wanting to marry her but rather because of the way he treated me. He criticized and belittled me; he said I was conceited and arrogant, that I was trying to get out of my class. He told me to beat it because he was fed up with me. His words became
harsher and harsher. One night he told me, “You look like your mother’s drunken race and you are as foolish as you look.”
“My mother is dead,
, what harm is she doing you? Say anything you like to me but not to her.” His words hurt more because Claudia was there. And how I hated that woman!
The next day I went to my aunt’s and told her what my father had said. I cried and beat my forehead, cursing my bad luck. Again I began asking, “Tell me the truth, Auntie, am I not his daughter?” My aunt was very angry with my father and said she was going to take back my mother’s photo which hung next to one of my father on our wall.
“My sister isn’t going to be laughed at by any wretch!” she said. We both went to my house to get the picture. When I saw my father’s photo I said, “There’s no reason for that picture to be here. I’ll treat him the way he treats us.” I pulled it out of the frame I had bought in installments and began to beat it on the floor while Claudia and my aunt watched in amazement.
I was yelling and crying and tearing the picture when Roberto came in. He was furious and hit me, but the thing that made me cry most was that my father, my saint, had fallen from his pedestal. And that night he punished me in a way I did not expect. I came home late and found him sitting with all our baby photos on his knee and tears rolling down his cheeks. He was smoking, which was unusual. He asked me, rather gently, why I had torn up his picture and I didn’t know what to say. I cannot describe the terrible remorse I felt at that moment. I knelt at his feet, crying and begging his pardon. My
didn’t answer or move; he just held the photographs in his hand and the tears kept falling.
But my rebellion continued and I told Claudia we didn’t need her any more. When my father came home and didn’t find her there he chased me out and sent Roberto to bring her back. “If that girl doesn’t come back, you’ll be sorry, both of you, because I’ll rent this place and throw you out on the street.” Claudia came back and naturally after that did what she pleased. I spent all day at my aunt’s house, coming home only when my father was there.
That’s when I thought of Delila, Paula’s sister. She had left her husband, who was a drunkard, and needed a home for herself and her son. “She is of the same blood as the children, she is their aunt. How can she not take good care of them?” I said to my father. I kept
insisting that Claudia was not a good worker and that the children were being neglected. Manuel had disappeared and was not contributing any money for them. My father was convinced and went to fetch Delila, although he still kept Claudia.
How could I have known when I said to my father, “Let Delila come,
,” that I would grow to hate her! The few times I had had the opportunity of seeing her, I took her for a sweet, long-suffering girl who needed help. But now I know that she used that pose as a mask behind which to study the person she intended to attack. She thus gained an advantage which she used without scruple. She was like a snake who lay in the grass to spy on the fat victim she intended to destroy. She was astute and tricky and all that was evil.
When Delila moved in she behaved very well at first. She left her son Geofredo with her mother, so that he would not be in the way. We would talk and go to the movies. But this began to change little by little, or rather, she didn’t change but my father kept getting more difficult with me. I couldn’t touch anything any more. He would accuse me of taking things to my aunt and treated me like a thief. I couldn’t explain why my father hated me more than ever.
My father was also annoyed with Jaime, who was becoming unbearable even to me. His drinking became almost continuous. At night, Roberto would have to get up to take him home or put him in a cab, but thirty minutes later he would be back again, banging on the door. Rather than console me for what he saw was happening at home, he would get angry, insult me, shake me by the shoulders and say that I was annoyed with him because there was someone else. One time, completely drunk, Jaime smashed my picture against the door frame. Another time he tried to cut his veins and gave me a terrible scare. I couldn’t break with him because whenever I tried, he would make an attempt on his life. Besides, his mother cried and begged me not to be cruel to him.
One night I thought I should make him face things; the time limit my father had set was soon going to be up. “Three years,” my father had said when I introduced Jaime. If we lasted that long, we could get married. When I told him that I was thinking about the time limit being almost up, he said, “Look, Skinny, I had the money saved up for us to get married, but because you got mad, I spent it with my friends.”
I felt as though the sky had fallen in. I had clung to the illusion that we would be married. His
had assured me we would.
“You and my son will marry in August. We will make a lovely
for you. I’ll pick out a dress with lots of lace and a long veil.” She would say how proud she was and how understanding my father would be.
Her words had made me go off into a thousand rosy dreams, like when I was fifteen. To honor my father was my greatest ambition; to enter on my father’s arm, in my white dress, and to go up to the altar with him, where the one who was going to give me his name would be waiting for me; to have the bridesmaids all around as I danced the waltz and to see the pleasure my father would feel when the daughter whom he had treated the worst and for whom he had the most contempt, had honored him. After the wedding, I would have my house, all furnished, and every week my family would come to have dinner with us. I had no intention of being disobedient to my husband in anything. I could stand next to him and hold my head high. Through all the trouble with Jaime I still had cherished this dream. But with his money gone there was no hope left.
But Jaime wasn’t my only problem. One morning Delila was preparing breakfast and my little nephew, Alanes, was sitting in the doorway trying to lace his shoe. Delila gave him a slap and told him to go to the store for something. The child said, “Right away, Aunt, I’m lacing my shoe.” Delila began to scream at him and hit him on the head with a spoon.
“Why do you hit him?” I said. “Don’t be unreasonable. The child can’t do two things at once.”
That was enough to bring Delila over to me shouting, “What business is it of yours? I’m breaking my back here, and I can do what I want with them. Don’t stick your nose in where you don’t belong.”
After looking at her for a minute, I smiled and said, “Ah, poor thing. How hard she works. Don’t kill yourself like that or you’ll die on me any minute. And as far as your being able to do what you want with them, that’s out around here. First you ask my permission.”
“And who do you think you are, the Queen of Sheba or what? You’re nothing in this house—your father has said so.”
I got mad and shouted; “The reason you’re here, idiot, is because I asked my father to let you come, not because he wanted you here.”
“That means nothing to me. I am here because your father wants me. I can throw you out without lifting a finger. Let’s see who goes first, you or me.”
“A woman like you can go to bed with anybody.”
She tried to jump on me and hit me. I got up to defend myself but
the children started to cry and so nothing happened. I calmed them; after all, there was no reason for frightening them.
I decided I was placing too much importance on that bitch. I went to my aunt’s house. I stayed there most of the day and didn’t get home to talk to my father before Delila did. As I walked into the house, my father slammed the door shut. In a very grim voice, he said, “Why did you answer Delila back that way? What did she do to you? Why did you try to hit her?” I started to explain. “Lies, lies, always lying. Faker, scum. You are just like the other sons-of-bitches, you’re on the same road. That’s the way you’re headed and you’ll never amount to anything else. You’re from the same miserable blood your mother came from, all drunks, all—”
I didn’t let him go. I stood up to him. My tears dried as if by magic, and I said, “Don’t you talk about my mother! Don’t even mention her name in front of this creature. What does she want from you? She’s dead now. Neither she nor my uncles ever come knocking at your door. They may be poor, but they never ask you for anything.”
Then Delila spoke up: “She is mad because she wants her aunt to come to work here, so she can take things out of here later.”
I walked over to her and yelled, “My aunt asks you for the same thing the breeze asked Juárez,” and at the same time I tried to slap her. My father caught my arm and pushed me and I ran to my friend’s house to have a good cry.
Delila kept her word. Day by day it became more of an inferno for me to live in that house. Every night when I came home to sleep, I found my clothes out of place or the things in my drawer upside down. My niece told me that Delila’s son searched through my things in the mornings. One time there was some money missing. I complained to my father.
, tell that woman to correct her son. He is always going through my things. Let him learn respect for other people’s property.”
My father was in bed already, but he sat up and said with his usual loud, gruff voice, “If you don’t want anybody to touch your things, get them out of here. That way nobody can take anything.” He slammed a chair to one side and said, “Get out of here. Beat it!”
I picked up my coat. “Yes, I’m leaving, and thanks for your hospitality,” and I went out.
Everyone was asleep at my aunt’s house when I arrived, and there was a strong smell of alcohol. My aunt and uncle were in the bed
and some visitors were lying on the floor. Holding back my tears, I told my aunt I was going to sleep there. She was so drunk, she hardly understood me. I got into the narrow bed as best I could and lay down with them, covering myself with my coat.