What do you picture when you read my name for the first time? What do you assume is true about my life? Maybe you think you know the color of my hair or how tall I am. Maybe you think you know how far I went in school or the kinds of things I do—and don't do—for a living. Maybe you think my life is pretty simple compared to yours. More limits than opportunities. More traps than triumphs. The Maria Mendozas of this world are not someone you would ever want to trade places with. Not for a day. Not even for an hour.
Here's a thought. You can't picture me because you don't know me. All you can picture is what someone called Maria Mendoza should look like, ought to be, based on your experience—all the Marias and Juanitas and Glorias and Doloreses and Roselias you've ever met and the places you've met them. Maybe they cleaned your office overnight or a hotel room after you left. Maybe they watched your kids or took your order for breakfast. Maybe you blame them for having "too many babies", filling up the Emergency Room when they get sick or the check out line at Costco when you're in a hurry. Maybe you drive down deserted streets before the sun comes up trying to score with a girl who's poor. Sure, picture me. Tell me who I am and what I'm good for. Tell me what I can and can't achieve. Tell me where I belong and how far I can go. Tell me all those slogans and cliches about what it takes to succeed and be somebody. Tell me that they apply to those already seated at the table and not just those struggling to get in the door.
Do you know what it's like to want something so badly that your throat feels tight and your skin crawls at the thought of not having it, because you know what it's like to go without, and that's no longer an option? Do you know what it's like to want to be somebody you've never been, because it hurts too much to be the person you are? Do you know what it's like to be driven by fear and self-contempt because the alternative seems ridiculous and so far out of reach it might as well be on the moon? Do you know how black the sky appears at 3AM? Or how empty it can seem at three in the afternoon?
In some dark corner of my soul there's a little girl who won't go away, no matter what I call myself or do for a living. She never deserved all the things that happened to her. I am not ashamed of her; I—I love her. But I don't know what to do with her. I don't want to make her vanish. I want to make her safe. Maybe then she won't have to be so angry, so quick to get even, so desperate even after all these years. Maybe then she can sleep without being afraid and see the world through innocent eyes again. Maybe then she can love herself. Maybe then she will finally understand that she already is somebody, and no one can take that away.
There is a story that comes to mind when I am tired or I’ve had too much to drink, when I let my guard down and forget to be brave. The story tells more than I care to about where I come from and what I carry inside. It’s not the kind of story I tell people easily or at all. It’s not the kind of thing I want others to see or know about me. But even if they don’t, I see it and know it all the time. My strength is a mask, and I know what’s on the other side. Sometimes it seems that everything I’ve done was for one reason―to change the ending of this story, to make true what wasn’t, to make impossible what was, to change history, to change me.
Mama's eyes opened wide at the sound of the knock, the firm knock at the front door. She whispered "Sigue cantando mi hija"—keep singing—so I kept singing, almost shouting, the words. Before she could stand up, the door was kicked in. Wood and splinters flew against the wall. I remember trembling; I couldn't help it. My voice vanished; my throat was swollen shut. Mama leaned down, yelling "Buscale a Pancho"—go get Pancho. Pancho had already left; he could be anywhere. Before I could get up, my baby brother, lying on the bed in mama's room, started to cry. I ran to the back, past the bathroom door, and yanked on the blanket where he had been sleeping. He slid into my arms, his face frozen with fear. Mom would have punished me for doing that, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the moment. I thought of my sister, sleeping in our older brother's room. I clutched the baby tightly and went to wake my sister.
KK—that's what we called her—was still asleep, curled up on a bean bag, under the fan. "Despiertate"—wake up—I told her, over and over. "Wake up sis—we, we...” “We have to...” What was I supposed to say? KK was sleepy and cranky. She was always like that when she woke up—never settled down 'til she had her milky. She started to cry, and my "shhh" did nothing. My baby brother was crying. None of us had shoes on, so going outside was out of the question—nothing but rocks and broken glass. Besides there was nowhere to hide. I can't tell you what I thought or felt at that point; I knew just one thing. I had to save the babies.
From the front room, we heard a man shouting and mama screaming in Spanish. We heard how her breathing changed as she was slammed against the wall. A muffled scream—he must have had his hands over her mouth or around her throat. We hear furniture slide across the floor. A thud and the sound of something shattering. KK asked “who is mama fighting with?” I didn’t know what to say. I knew who it was from the sound of his voice, but how do you explain this to a three year old? How do you explain it to anybody? “Vamos a jugar”—let's play a game—I blurted out, hoping it would distract them both. She started to count the blocks on the floor. She always had a good imagination. It could move mountains. When it kicked in, anything was possible. Twenty-eight. That’s how many blocks she counted. She giggled and smiled. Proud of herself, she lay down and fell asleep again. I laid my brother down next to her. My legs felt tired as if they were made of cement. The room was dark but for a sliver of light coming in through the bathroom window. The light bathed my legs stretched out on the floor. For a moment, I imagined I was big and strong, able to run fast, to go get help, to carry everyone to safety. I can’t say how long we stayed there. Silence descended over the house, except for the sound of music coming from the radio in the neighbor’s kitchen. Their window must have been open just like ours was. They must have heard it all.
I wasn’t a hero the night that man beat and raped my mother. That man was a man she partied with and helped come to the US. For her efforts, he beat her and tore her little body. Mama never went to the doctor; she thought that would mean that she was weak. I remember the smell of vinegar and whiskey that she cleaned her wounds with. I remember her telling Pancho what happened and how angry he became. To this day, I see it and smell it and hear it just as if it happened last night. These are no ordinary memories—it's IMAX and 3-D. I can’t take my eyes off the screen or turn my head, because the screen is inside my head, and I see the same things even when my eyes are closed. Even when I’m asleep. Besides, mama had no way to escape it, so why should I? The least I can do is be there for her.
The hero that I wasn’t would have made sure there was a different ending, The hero would have rescued mama or stabbed her attacker, or something. The hero would have made him sorry he ever kicked our door in. The hero would have made him suffer. The hero would have made him pay. The hero would have saved mama from all the things that ravaged her body and mind and soul. The hero would have kept our family together. The hero would have kept mama alive.
The hero doesn’t appear in my story, not in this or any other telling of it. Mama was no coward, but there were things that she couldn’t beat. There have been things I couldn’t beat as well. No matter how much I’d like to, I know I can’t change the past. I struggle with that knowledge every day. I’ve made mistakes, but if mama were here, I hope she’d be proud of me. I wish I could show her. I wish she could see. Her grandchildren, my marriage, my graduation and career—sometimes things do work out. Sometimes we can make things work even when the odds are against us. I’ll never be the hero mama needed that night. But I haven’t let her down completely either. I love her and think of her everyday. I will always be there for her. That’s the least I can do.
This story is dedicated to my mother.
Este cuento está dedicado a mi madre.
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