The first thing Esmeralda heard was the baby crying. She awoke, face to the wall on the single-sized mattress, hardly bigger than a cot, that she shared with Tony. But today Esmeralda didn't feel her little brother's usual weight, or the familiar pressure of his feet at her back. Tony was already up, and the house smelled of frijoles de la olla. It must be late.
Then she remembered the party, and la Americana—Chelsea—and felt again how implausible the whole thing was. That she, Esmeralda, should have been in such a place. That José Peredo, who grew up across the street—Chepito, as her father called him—should be in possession of such a house, and such a wife. It had kept her awake until late into the night, going over it all in her mind.
Some people were rich, she knew that. They peopled the telenovelas that her mother and grandmother watched nightly, driving flashy cars and living out glamorous lives. Here in León, they lived in grand old colonial houses downtown or in the newer, gated neighborhoods of the Campestre district. They shopped at American supermarkets rather than at la plazita, the outdoor market. But Esmeralda had never known any of them personally.
It was different with José. He was from Tepeyac, like her.
Esmeralda even remembered him, vaguely, a gangly youth with a thick moustache and dark, serious eyes under heavy brows. And she'd heard things about him while he was away: that he was studying, for example—she didn't know what—on a scholarship in Mexico City, then in an American university. When he married, he flew Doña Matilde and Don Manuel to Chicago for the wedding. Esmeralda had seen the gilt-framed photograph in Doña Matilde's front room: José, moustacheless but as grave-looking as ever, standing beside his blonde gabacha bride, not in a church but in a garden gazebo. However, though Esmeralda knew these things, José had always been peripheral to her. She was aware of him only as she was aware of all her neighbors, with no particular interest or curiosity. Then too, she was a child when he left. She'd mostly forgotten any firsthand knowledge of him and saw him only as the figure of legend that he was in the neighborhood. Un fenómeno.
Before last month, Esmeralda hadn't seen José for seven years. But now he was here, in León, to stay. He'd bought and renovated one of the mansions downtown, a house that stretched a full city block and dated from the time of la Revolución. A couple of weeks ago he'd visited them, reminiscing with her father in the back patio for over an hour before leaving an invitation: a birthday party for Chelsea, his American wife, at their new house.
"¡Esme!" came the sharp voice of her grandmother over Estrella's cries. Esmeralda, groaning inwardly, pulled herself from the bed and slipped her feet into a pair of faded pink flip-flops. "¡Voy!" she called, stepping into the adjacent room, her parents' bedroom, and lifting her little sister from her cradle. The baby paused and looked at her, wide-eyed, before resuming her howls.
"Shhh, shhh, shhh …" Esmeralda started toward the kitchen, bouncing Estrella softly each step she took. Her grandmother, she saw, already had a bottle soaking in warm water on the stove. Esmeralda checked its tempature against her wrist and popped it into the baby's mouth, twisting her arm to support Estrella's head and looking around the kitchen for her grandmother. She wasn't there.
Must be out back doing the washing, Esmeralda thought. She walked back through the house, perfunctorily noting the broken tiles around the kitchen sink, the concrete floors, and the mismatched sheets hung as curtains in the doorway between her and Tony's bedroom and that of their parents. She laid Estrella carefully in her cradle without removing the bottle from her mouth then sat down on her parents' bed, propping her arm on the cradle's edge and looking at her sister with tenderness. Esmeralda wrapped Estrella's little hands around the bottle and put a raggedy teddy bear within her reach, then she kissed the baby's forehead softly and flapped toward the back patio to look for her grandmother. She found her bent over the sink, scrubbing one of Esmeralda's father's work shirts. The air smelled crisply of Jabón Zote laundry soap.
"Buenos días, Abuelita."
"Buenos días, m'hija. Have you had your breakfast?"
"No. I'll get it now."
She padded back into the kitchen and ladled herself out a helping of beans from the steaming olla. She took two tortillas from the cloth they were wrapped in and rolled them into thin tubes that she placed in her broth. Then she added a teaspoon of chile, looking around her again at the rusted cookstove, the cracks in the ceiling, the naked lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. The sink had only a curtain draped beneath it to hide the tubing, and the plaster had fallen in chunks from the aqua-colored walls of the kitchen. Esmeralda sighed.
Last night there had been fruit of every kind, with a chocolate dipping sauce that undulated down a little fountain on the table. There was sushi, which Esmeralda had not only never eaten but had never even heard of before. There were tiny sandwiches filled with cucumbers, cut into triangles with no crusts, and buttery croissants, the kind her family ate only on Christmas. Everything was arranged on a long table with a white lace tablecloth in the dining room, beneath a chandelier like the one Belle and the Beast danced under in the Disney movie. On one wall of the room a painting of la Virgen María stretched from floor to ceiling. From the end of the table where Esmeralda sat in a throne-like wooden chair, it looked as if the Virgin with her outstretched hand was inviting the guests to the banquet.
She wore an oversized black manta adorned with silver flowers that twined upward in a fluid motion from the hem of her dress. Her skin was olive-colored, her eyes black, and a frank, satisfied expression, not unlike that of the Mona Lisa from Esmeralda's Art Appreciation textbook, played about her face. Around her head shone twelve stars; Esmeralda knew there were twelve because she counted them. At her feet an assortment of exotic birds pranced and preened before a lush background of alcatraz flowers and oversized plant fronds in various shades of green. Esmeralda took in every detail of the painting. It was all part of the same warm feeling of joy that had suffused her--the exotic delicacies in her stomach, the brassy melody of "El Son de la Negra" from the next room, and the face of the Virgin looking on.
Esmeralda sat with Yaya, whose feet barely touched the floor from atop the tall chair, and the two girls talked in hushed voices and watched the mariachis through the stone archway that led into the next room. They tasted all the foods and discussed which of them they liked best. Observing the guests, Esmeralda began to categorize them mentally into those José grew up with and those he must have worked or studied with. The rich women wore stylish dresses and upswept hairstyles. The men slicked their hair back and wore button-down shirts like those Esmeralda had seen in the Liverpool commercials on TV. The poor of Tepeyac were shabbier. The women had their hair done into long braids or, those who'd been to the hairdresser, lacquered curls that bounced when they walked. The men's faces were ruddy, sun-weathered; some were missing teeth. The two groups didn't mix.
Suddenly José called out, "¡Vengan! We must all sing las mañanitas to Chelsea!" and the guests began to make their way toward the mariachis, who were already striking up the familiar tune. Esmeralda and Yaya left their plates on their chairs and walked slowly toward the doorway, where they hung back behind the other onlookers.
José stood to the side of the musicians with one arm around his wife, golden-haired, willowy Chelsea. She was smiling at the guests around her, her two rows of straight, white teeth visible. She had eyes such as Esmeralda had never seen except in the faces of blonde baby dolls mass produced in other countries and shipped to Mexican department stores--wide, expressive, clear blue eyes that revealed her obvious pleasure. Her hair was chin-length and cut off bluntly at a pert angle, and she wore a red tailored suit, the skirt above-knee length. The trim cut of the suit, angled inward at the waist, set off her lithe figure. When the song ended, Chelsea turned toward the mariachis and applauded. Esmeralda noticed that she wore several rings.
The sound of the front door opening pulled Esmeralda back to herself. Her mother and Tony were back. She stood up and walked the two steps to the sink, washing the clay bowl in cold water and placing it atop another bowl in the already full dish rack.
"Buenos días, dormilona," her mother said fondly as she wheeled a handcart into the kitchen, pausing to hoist it over the uneven concrete of the doorway.
"Buenos días, Mami." From where she stood Esmeralda could see Tony leaning over Estrella's cradle talking to her. He'd taken up the teddy bear and was prancing it jauntily around the rim of the cradle to entertain his baby sister.
Esmeralda silently watched her mother as she unpacked the fresh fruits and vegetables and dried beans she'd brought from the plazita. For the first time in her life, the girl looked at her mother as if she were a person Esmeralda didn't know. The polyester pants, the dowdy synthetic leather shoes, thehair, just beginning to gray at the temples, hanging in a braid to her waist--for the first time, all seemed unsatisfactory to her. Esmeralda couldn't repress the thought that there was a bovine quality about her mother, an impression created by her girth--she was so overweight that she hadn't known she was pregnant with Estrella until the sixth month--her dull, cow-like eyes, and her habitual silence. Esmeralda quickly quashed this disloyal thought and walked over to her mother, embracing her from behind.
"Did you have a good time yesterday, mi amor?"
Esmeralda heard the contentment in her mother's voice. She paused reflectively before answering, "Yes, I did. You know what, Mami? I think it was the best day of my life."
Carlos, her Careers teacher, gave them the assignment the following Monday. They were to interview a college graduate, using a set of questions copied from the blackboard, to which they could add other questions of their own. The assignment was to be written up in question/answer format and turned in the following week.
That evening as Esmeralda's father took off his work boots, she read him out each of the questions: What did you study? What types of jobs are available with this degree? What responsibilities does your job entail? When she finished he asked, "Why don't you interview Chepito?"
Yes, José had not only been to college, he'd been to two colleges, one of them in el norte. Esmeralda doubted that any of her classmates would find so impressive a subject. "Sí, Papi."
"I'll go over and get his phone number after we eat. Then you can call him and make the arrangements."
But when her father returned from Don Manuel's house, the arrangements had already been made. José was leaving for Mexico City early the following morning and wouldn't be back in León for ten days, so she wouldn't be able to interview him. Doña Matilde had suggested that she interview Chelsea instead. Esmeralda's father had already made the call to José, and it was settled that she would conduct the interview on Saturday at four o'clock.
"But what if she doesn't understand me?" Esmeralda asked anxiously. "Does she even speak Spanish?"
"She speaks Spanish." Her father smiled. "Very good Spanish."
"But I won't know what to say to her," protested Esmeralda.
"Pues, that's the point of your list of questions, isn't it?"
"¡Papi! Why didn't you ask me first?"
"How was I going to know that you wouldn't want to interview her?"
Esmeralda walked to her room and sat down heavily on the mattress. She was sure that she wouldn't even be able to open her mouth to ask the questions, with those great blue eyes on her. And what would she wear? She only had one dress that she liked, and she'd already worn it to the party. She couldn't very well go dressed in her school pinafore on a Saturday.
As the days passed, these preoccupations filled Esmeralda's mind to the point of distraction. She alternately envisioned disasters and triumphs: stumbling over her words, not being able to make Chelsea understand her, or performing so brilliantly that Chelsea invited her back again, patting her hand tenderly and saying, "I hope someday I'll have a daughter like you."
The night before the interview she lay awake into the night going back over the list of questions, which she'd long since memorized. In the dim light that filtered through the gauzy bedroom curtain, she held her hands close to her face examining the bitten-off fingernails. Chelsea would be sure to notice them as Esmeralda wrote down her responses to the questions. What if she couldn't write fast enough and Chelsea became impatient with her? She lay listening to Tony's deep, regular breathing from the other end of the bed and once raised her head to look at his peaceful face. He looked younger and more vulnerable asleep. At last Esmeralda slept too, but fitfully, a sleep filled with restless dreams that she couldn't remember the next morning except that they'd been full of foreboding.
The hours passed quickly. After the two o'clock meal, Esmeralda locked herself in the bathroom and peered at her reflection in the mirror. Unlike Tony, who'd inherited their mother's heavy, sleepy eyes, both she and Estrella had the clear, alert eyes of their father. But there was still much of her mother in her appearance: the round shape of her face, the flat chata nose, and the earthen tone of her skin, darker than either Tony's or Estrella's. These were the ancient traits of the Chichimec, nomads who wore no clothes and fiercely resisted the Spanish invaders' incursion into their lands. Esmeralda enjoyed learning about los Chichimecas at school, studying their lean brown bodies in her history textbook—always sideways or behind plants, for modesty's sake—but today she found her resemblance to them unnerving.
Likewise, Esmeralda's cut-glass hair ornaments from la plazita, which she'd always thought pretty before, now struck her as cheap-looking. She pulled each one out of the shoebox she kept them in, looking at it briefly before tossing it back in again. Finally she pulled her hair back into a simple ponytail with a single black rubber band and smoothed down the curls around her face with gel. She faced a new crisis over what to wear. After fiften minutes of trying on every garment she owned and looking at herself critically in the mirror, she chose a plain black t-shirt and a pair of jeans. The choice of shoes was easier, since she only owned four pairs. Two were for school--black synthetic leather to go with her academic uniform, white tennis shoes for la educación física--and the third was a pair of her mother's old flip-flops, for use on the cold tile floors of their home. She chose the fourth, black sneakers of no brand name from el mercado.
At five minutes past three o'clock she found herself boarding la oruga, "the caterpillar,"one of the double-length buses that carried passengers from all over town to the central district. When she stepped off the bus in front of la Catedral twenty minutes later, Esmeralda checked her watch then crossed decisively through the church courtyard toward its massive wooden door. She crossed herself at the threshold before walking slowly toward the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows and kneeling in front of it. There was silence in the nearly empty church. After several minutes Esmeralda stood and made her way back toward the door, pausing to make the sign of the cross and wondering fleetingly why shehadn't thought to pray the Rosary as she lay awake last night. She crossed the stone courtyard again, this time passing under the shadow of the statue of Saint Genevieve, her hands crossed over her breast, the lamb at her feet as grave and dour as an old schoolmaster.
When Esmeralda rang the bell at 414 Avenida Cinco de Mayo, she was shown into the house by a thin, hook-nosed housekeeper who looked at least her grandmother's age. The woman didn't say a word but conducted Esmeralda to a library at the back of the house, her gray braid swinging behind her with each step. Esmeralda could see Chelsea sitting sideways at a table with her sandaled feet on the rung of the opposite chair, a book in her hand. At their approach, she laid the book on the table and jumped up.
"Esmeralda!" she cried. "¿Cómo estás?" She hugged the girl warmly. "Sit down, sit down."
Chelsea was no less attractive up close than at a distance. Her hair was pinned back today, and she wore a dark pink tank top sweater and navy capri pants. Her make-up was light, a pink shimmer on her lips, a touch of rose-colored eye shadow. At such close range Esmeralda could see a spray of pale brown freckles on her nose; they gave her the look of a children's book heroine.
"So listen, tell me about yourself. Joey says he and your father are old friends, is that right?" She asked the girl several questions, nodding and smiling encouragingly at her answers. Before long Esmeralda's nervousness had faded. She asked herself what she had been afraid of from such a charming person. As the girl pulled the folded question list from her purse, she cast a surreptitious glance at the title of the book Chelsea had been reading when she came in: Bonjour Tristesse. She surmised wonderingly that Chelsea spoke French.
Esmeralda carefully read out the questions, and Chelsea gave detailed answers to each of them. When asked about college, she described the campus, the sorority she belonged to, the clubs she was in, even the school mascot. She'd studied International Finance, and since those majoring in any area of International Business had to minor in a foreign language, she'd chosen Spanish. "It seemed a lot easier than Chinese!" Chelsea grinned. She and "Joey" had met on the college quad one night when they both showed up for a star-gazing event sponsored by the Astronomy Club. "Sooo romantic," she breathed facetiously.
When their laughter subsided, Esmeralda asked her, "Do you like living in León?"
For the first time, a shadow crossed Chelsea's lovely face. She hesitated, then answered, "It's okay. We'll probably end up in Mexico City eventually. It's just so much more progressive there. A lot of internationals, bike lanes, abortion is legal, all that kind of thing—just, culture, you know?" She sighed deeply. "But Joey wanted to be near his family, so we'll spend a few years in León first, I guess." She screwed up her mouth into a pout that suggested that this was a battle she'd lost.
A thought suddenly occurred to Esmeralda. "Pope Benedict came here. When he visited Mexico. He choose León over Mexico City." But Chelsea only cast a doubtful glance in her direction and made a short, inarticulate "hn" sound.
"What I like about living in Mexico is having a housekeeper ," Chelsea went on, looking upward as though in deep thought. "And we have a cook, too, Dolores. She's a good cook, but everything she makes is so greasy! I'm going to have to teach her some new recipes." Chelsea laughed a light, tinkly laugh, her teeth showing. Esmeralda wondered that she didn't lower her voice to avoid being overheard. Chelsea went on, "I'm a vegetarian, you know. Well, except for fish. I hate the idea of killing animals to eat them."
But before Esmeralda had time to take in this information, Chelsea was asking her what she wanted to study in college. Since Esmeralda had never given this any thought—no one in her family had ever gone to college before, or even finished high school—she said the first thing that popped into her mind: "Inglés."
"You're kidding!" Chelsea cried. "Then you'll have to come over and practice! You know I'm all alone, with Joey traveling so much for work."
"Do you and, um, Joey plan to have children soon?" Esmeralda asked.
"Actually …" Chelsea responded, "we don't plan to have children at all." She sighed deeply before going on, "I've just never seen myself as the motherly type, and if you aren't motherly, it's better not to have children in the first place than to end up ruining their lives. There's a movie actress in the United States--Katharine Hepburn, do you know her? Well, she's always been one of my idols. We grew up in the same part of Connecticut, and I just have a lot in common with her … anyway, she once said, 'I'd be a terrible mother because I'm basically a very selfish human being.' And I guess I'd have to say the same." She wrinkled up her nose and laughed before adding wryly, "Having babies doesn’t do much for your body either."
Not have children? Esmeralda considered the idea with alarm. All the bedrooms in this house … for no one? It was unthinkable. Wasn't that why people got married? She thought of little Estrella in her cradle and a chill crossed her body, as if she'd seen something frightening.
Then Esmeralda remembered what she'd planned to do, what she'd practiced a dozen times as she'd lain awake last night. "I … I wanted to invite you to the Mass this weekend in Tepeyac. It's to celebrate the apparition."
"What does that mean, 'the apparition'?"
"Oh—well, it's the anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego. Our Lady of Guadalupe."
At Chelsea's blank look, Esmeralda swallowed and went on, "You may have seen the shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe outside Don Pato's store, just across the street from Don Manuel's house. It's a statue of the Virgin, with roses at her feet. All of us who live in Tepeyac gather for a Mass there at midnight, in honor of Our Lady's apparition to Juan Diego. He was a Chichimec Indian—poor, illiterate—but she chose him. She told him she was his mother. The site of the apparition was called Tepeyac. That's where the name of our neighborhood comes from."
Chelsea paused uncertainly. "Oh, well, it sounds nice, but… actually, I'm not—"
But Esmeralda had remembered something. "There's—there's a tilma, like a kind of apron, and it's hanging in the Basilica, still today—it, it hasn't deteriorated at all, in almost five hundred years. It couldn’t be destroyed by a bombing in the 1920s—everything around it was, but the tilma was untouched. She's on it, her image, pregnant, with a mantle of stars. The bishop didn't believe Juan Diego, he asked for some kind of proof that he'd really seen her, so the Virgin told him to gather some roses to take back. Normally there wouldn't be any roses—it was December--but when Juan Diego looked around him, there were roses everywhere. So he gathered them up, an apronful, only when he opened his apron in the presence of the bishop to show him the flowers … there she was, her image, emblazoned on the tilma. God did it. It was a miracle."
Esmeralda stopped and looked at Chelsea, who was silent.
When at last she spoke, Chelsea said flatly, "The thing is Esmeralda, I actually don't believe in God." She saw the confused look on Esmeralda's face and clarified, "Soy atea. I don't believe in God or the devil or angels or Heaven or Hell or any of that."
"You don't … believe in God?" Esmeralda repeated slowly.
"But … the Virgin …?" She was unable to articulate the complete thought, but Chelsea followed with her eyes the half turn of Esmeralda's body and deduced the rest.
"Oh, I love Mexican religious art!" she cried enthusiastically. "It's a beautiful decoration, isn't it? You should see my collection of palm folk art from the Palm Sunday celebrations …" she continued, but Esmeralda wasn't listening.
"José—" the girl broke in stubbornly. "He believes."
" Joey's a scientist," Chelsea said, as if the statement were self-explanatory. "But of course he enjoys the traditions, the observances. It's an important part of his culture."
Esmeralda desperately tried a different tack. "Do your parents know you don't believe in God?"
Here Chelsea chuckled as if a joke had been made. "I really don't think they'd mind, given that my parents are atheists too. That's how they raised my brother and me, to think for ourselves and not to believe in fairy tales. They're very proud of that."
Esmeralda fairly reeled at this information. Parents who raised their children not to believe in God… it was akin to child abuse, she thought. Suddenly, she stood up. "I have to go," she said, lifting her denim purse from the chair back where it hung and stuffing her papers back into it.
"Well, you're welcome to come back any time, to practice your English …" Chelsea suggested hopefully as she followed Esmeralda out of the library.
The girl made no reply but slackened her pace when she reached the dining room, and turning around, cast a long final look at the painting. She now saw that the Virgin's black eyes—the eyes that she'd thought showed pleasure—bespoke something deeper. What they expressed was an unflinching strength and equanimity, an acceptance of both good and evil. The expression was more poignant than the anguished faces of any of the Sorrowful Mothers. Yet the invitation was there, just as Esmeralda had seen it the week before, in the extended hand, the steady openness of the gaze.
Esmeralda distractedly took her leave at the front door and stepped out onto the sidewalk, her eyes gradually adjusting to the dimness of the city street as she walked toward the bus stop. When at last la oruga spat her out near the goat farm at the edge of the neighborhood, Esmeralda didn't walk homeward but instead began up the steep incline toward the top of the hill. There she sat down on a flat rock, still breathing heavily from the climb, and looked down on Tepeyac below. From this height, she could see the whole of la colonia and the receding edge of San Nicolás beyond. The sun, which was just setting, cast an unearthly glow over the scrub trees and bald patches of earth on the hill, and over the roofs of the houses below. She looked down at the people of her neighborhood: two old men playing dominó on a rickety table between them; a group of children kicking a ten-peso rubber ball in the street, their excited cries barely audible to her; Adilene Collazo nursing little Sebastián in a rusted rocker, her shoulder covered with a frayed blue blanket that was little more than a rag; a tamalera hawking tamales and atole to passersby; and old blind Hernaldo atop his mule-cart piled high with camotes, his little grandson Nestor at the reins. Then she turned her eyes to the foot of the hill, the intersection of Calles Lucero and Salvador. There at the corner stood a memorial to Uriel Hernández, who was struck by a car and killed the day before his fourth birthday. In the light of the sunset, the red plastic roses that surrounded the silver cross took on a brilliant hue that made them look as though they were aflame.
This was Tepeyac.
When at last Esmeralda began the walk back down the hill, the sun had long ago set, and the sky beyond the line of palm trees on the Western horizon was a rich purple. As she opened the door to her own house, she saw her mother bent over the ironing board and Tony on the sofa, gently bouncing Estrella on his knee. The house rang with the baby's laughter.
"¿Cómo te fue, querida?" her mother asked, looking up from her ironing.
"Ay, Mami," said Esmeralda, her eyes shining. "It was the best day of my life."
A native of the North Carolina foothills, April Vázquez holds a B.A. in Literature and Language from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and an M.A. in the Teaching of English as a Second Language from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She currently lives in León, Guanajuato, Mexico, where she homeschools her daughters Daisy, Dani, and Dahlia. April's work has been published or is forthcoming in The Missing Slate, Windhover, Cleaver, The New Plains Review, Gravel, and others.