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Authors: José Orduña

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BOOK: The Weight of Shadows
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The saying coming from Díaz makes less sense if you consider that the United States supported his dictatorship because it was in their economic and political interest to do so. Some historians argue that “by the dawn of the twentieth century the United States controlled the Mexican economy.” Because of mounting popular pressure, Díaz announced that Mexico was ready for democracy and agreed to hold free elections in 1909, during which he would run for his eighth term. William Howard Taft, the twenty-seventh president of the United States, met with Díaz at the El Paso–Juarez border in a historic show of solidarity for the “identical aims and ideals” of both nations. This wasn't surprising because “according to US Consular General Andrew D. Barlow, 1,117 US-based companies and individuals had invested $500 million in Mexico,” and dictatorial rule had been good for this kind of American involvement. To Taft and US investors, the plethora of horrors created by the Porfiriato—like widespread debt slavery and Yaqui people being forced into labor camps—mattered little.

Popular resistance to Díaz grew, and Francisco I. Madero, an opposition candidate, ran in the election. Madero had gained widespread support, so much so that when the government announced the official election result, a landslide victory for Díaz, it was widely believed to have been fraudulent, and the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910. The people of Mexico went to war with the ruling class, of which Díaz was a key representative.

During Madero's triumphant march to take the presidency there was an earthquake that produced cracks in the national palace—an omen of things to come. Madero had been a figure of opposition during the revolution, but soon after becoming the first new president in over thirty years it
became clear to his former allies and to the Mexican people that he had been a revolutionary in name only. He kept many of the Díaz-created power structures in place and refused to institute policy that would challenge the hegemony of the wealthy landowning class, to which he and his family belonged. Díaz had been exiled to Paris soon after the revolution broke out, and the United States continued to support the regime most favorable to its economic interests. Henry Lane Wilson, the US ambassador to Mexico, became concerned that Madero would overturn the policies instituted by Díaz that had created foreign dominance of oil, mining, and railroads in Mexico. Shortly after the transition of power, there was a coup orchestrated in part by Wilson and led by Mexican general Victoriano Huerta. When it was over, Madero was dead, and Huerta declared himself president.

By 1935 most of the oil-producing companies in Mexico were foreign-owned. Sixty percent of oil production came from the Mexican Eagle Company, which was a subsidiary of the Royal Dutch Shell Company, and another 30 percent came from Jersey Standard and Standard Oil Company of California (now Chevron). It wasn't until 1938 that Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated the assets of nearly every foreign oil company operating in Mexico, to which the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands reacted by boycotting Mexican exports. But the US government quickly backed off when war clouds rolled in across the Atlantic, casting ambiguous shadows on the Americas.

In all the photographs of my first birthday, Martín is conspicuously missing. After Yoli had gotten kicked out of her house for becoming pregnant, she moved in with Martín's family while he worked in fields more than two thousand miles away. I spent the first months of my life in a house full of old people—my grandmother and her three brothers—who
were in an almost constant state of elation at their first grandchild being available to them after work each day.

On several occasions I've tried to gently ask Yoli how she felt then, asking if she felt lonely when I really meant abandoned. She's always said it wasn't a lonely time, because she lived with four people who considered themselves grandparents, and my actual grandmother was so doting and intuitive, but I'm not sure I believe her. Her mother had already passed away, and she says by that time she'd learned not to care about her father, but I don't know if I think that's possible. It must have injured her or, if she'd gotten so good at suppressing things, it must have dragged behind her like a plow.

“En esos días eras como la chingada,” says Yoli, looking at a washed-out photo of her holding me above my huge white birthday cake.

She says right around then I'd started pointing with my index, and right before pointing I'd stare at the tip of my finger and pucker my lips, so she knew when it was coming. She'd started asking me how old I was right when she could tell I was going to point anyway, just for laughs. In the photo my index is up, and in the background all my aunts and uncles are laughing and cheering. She tells me this as we're sitting on her couch in my parents' rented apartment in Bucktown. She hands me the photo, which is slightly warped. I'm helping her put the rest of our old pictures into albums because right before they moved here there was a flood in their old house. The box of photos was on top of a small toolbox. If the water had been an inch higher we would have lost more than a decade of memories. Yoli had started putting them into albums, but the process was slowed because humidity had seeped into the box, and many of the pictures fused together. She'd laid the fused ones out on the living room floor, allowing them to dry in the sun before she started gently peeling them apart.

The moisture made many of the figures in the pictures
unrecognizable. Some were no more than sheets of blossoming color that looked more like exploding nebulae than the artifacts of a human life. And in a way they were similar: they represented the destruction of many realities. Without the photos, the particularities of our collective events would fade and continue to fade until the entirety of the events themselves would be lost to oblivion. For the time being, Yoli is able to make out what had been in the ruined photos: the entrance to the gazebo in the town square where we lived, my uncle Victor dressed in his white medical school uniform just a few weeks before the car accident that mangled his left hand, a small patch of grass where I took my first steps.

She hands me a stack of photos and explains that I should group them on the living room floor in some kind of order—whatever seems related—as best I can. The task is surreal because the home where they'd been living for the last five years was repossessed, and they scrambled to find an apartment with their bad credit. This, the only place they were able to get, was the apartment Martín's aunt Hilda had first lived in when she moved to the United States more than thirty years earlier. When Yoli and I arrived, we'd moved in next door. One of the first photographs in the stack is of Yoli stuffing me into a bright blue snowsuit during my first Chicago winter. My arms stick straight out, and we're standing in the very spot where we're now sitting over two decades later. My mom is a lot thinner in the photo, but she still has her full head of black hair that looks like wire, and there still isn't a single white one. I wonder whether she thinks it was all worth it. It seems, in this moment, like some circle has closed, like my mom and dad are exactly where they started, and for a moment I want to acknowledge this. I think about asking if she would do it again knowing how things turn out, but I decide it's a cruel and stupid question.

They knew it would be hard, but people really don't understand what that means until it becomes their life, and
even then there's no understanding. It just becomes the condition in which you live. Staying would have meant growing up in the conditions post NAFTA and after Calderón and Clinton's declaration of war on drugs. In a letter Martín wrote on the occasion of my first birthday, knowing Yoli would be the one to read it, he says he hadn't expected to feel so bad. “The solitude feels like it's in my body. I don't feel physically well. Nothing is like
over there
.” Nothing. He still hasn't found a place that sells the small avocados with the skin you can eat, and he can't tell when people are insulting him, but it feels as though they are all the time. “A million differences cascade into each other,” he writes, “until you find yourself in a strange place and even
have become difficult to recognize.”

In high school, when I started smoking weed and going to parties instead of studying, they would invoke the sacrifice they'd made in coming here. “How could you?” they asked. But I couldn't understand what they meant. I didn't want to be able to feel the weight of that kind of sacrifice, so I avoided thinking about anything that might lead me toward feeling this. And sometimes like a pinprick I would become acutely aware of that possibility, and instinctively I would do anything to get rid of that feeling as quickly and completely as possible.

Their plan had always been to send me to school. That was it. A good school. And somehow they made it happen. Along with photos, they keep documents and small trinkets in that same cardboard box. Yoli hands me a few pieces of crisp white paper folded in thirds:

: Mr. M. Orduna and Mrs. Y. Gonzalez

: Orduna, Jose

: 11799.50.

She says it's like the pictures some people take at the top of mountains, and while I understand her pride, part of me
cringes in thinking about how this aspect of our lives is used to advance the idea of the merit-based structure of the so-called American dream.

“Cómo va la aplicación?” asks Yoli.


After two weeks of logging onto the US Citizenship and Immigration Services website, I'd finally clicked on the link to download the PDF version of the N-400. After that it was another two weeks before I opened the file, only to immediately close it. I'd dragged it to my desktop, but just looking at the icon produced a fluttering in my ribs, so I'd kept a window open over it. I had to get a little drunk in order to finally start putting my information on the lines. Growing up I watched Yoli execute a similar maneuver with piles of envelopes that came in the mail. Martín was a dishwasher, and Yoli was a nanny to two boys. We didn't live in the worst neighborhood, but we were not unfamiliar with things like shootings. One night a young man was shot in the throat while he was sitting in front of our building, and we heard him screaming as he bled out on the sidewalk. Martín and Yoli decided they would send me to the local parochial school and would somehow make that work, so when the bills trickled in throughout the month, Yoli was in charge of trying to manage an impossible situation.

Sometimes she was able to manage, but other times it was too much, so she would stuff the envelopes in a drawer and avoid looking inside until she went to stuff another one in and couldn't because the drawer was full. Then she would open all the envelopes, grab the phone, and in a frantic purge pay as many of them as she could. The ones she was able to pay she tossed aside, and the others were shuffled around the table and put through a mysterious but exacting system she seemed to have worked out over the years. She'd call the
various utility companies, creditors, or the landlord to try to negotiate more time. Sometimes she had to decide what necessity we would go without.

I remember always being aware of our money situation—we didn't have any—but not really having a clear sense of how our lives were different than other people's. It didn't really become clear until I reached high school. Yoli recently told me when she used to take me to the toy store, even when I was really young, it would break her heart to see me tear down the aisles until I saw something I liked. I'd slow down and become quiet. When she'd get to where I was, I'd be standing in front of the toy I wanted. I would take her by the hand and ask: “Hay dinero?”

The day of the entrance exam at Saint Ignatius, I walked under an archway covered in ivy. To the right, on a perfectly kept patch of grass, lay a twenty-foot slab of ornately carved stone. Later, after being accepted, I learned it was the only remaining piece of cornice from Louis Sullivan's old Chicago Stock Exchange, which had been demolished in 1965. I sat in the last row of my exam room, behind a tall girl named Chloé, and periodically I'd peak behind me out a window that looked down onto a brick courtyard with tendrils of ivy snaking up the exterior walls and a few benches nestled between flowered bushes. It was a meditation garden. I'd never met a Chloé, and I'd never imagined going to a high school with a meditation garden that looked like something from a Victorian novel.

Throughout my high school search, Martín and Yoli had been at an almost complete loss. They didn't know anything about the process or even that it
a process, and both were working fifty- or sixty-hour weeks. A day before the entrance exam, my middle school principal called me into her office and handed me a note card with an address on it. She said it was for Saint Ignatius and that I should go there and take the test. She asked if I'd be able to get a ride. I think she may have given me a calculator to use. When Martín pulled up
in front of the sprawling grounds the following morning, he blurted out “holy shit,” wished me luck, and gave me a kiss on the forehead.

I immediately felt the space to be severe. The original buildings were done in the Second Empire style, so the school resembles a palace. The main edifice is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It's symmetrical, with a central tower and a mansard roof, vaguely French and slightly Baroque. Entering from Roosevelt Road one passes a ten-foot statue of Father Arnold Damen SJ, a Belgian Jesuit who founded Saint Ignatius after having been in the Dakotas converting Native peoples. He was alleged to have personally “saved” twelve thousand souls. Outside the lunchroom there's a fifteen-foot cast bronze herald blowing his horn, a statue that used to be on the Chicago Herald Building built by Burnham and Root. The main hallway is lined with framed photographs of each graduating class. Every small face is of a dead white man until a quarter of the way down the hall when white women are admitted. Farther down, the faces of people of color begin to emerge.

BOOK: The Weight of Shadows
5.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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