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Andrea Saenz

Everyoneís Abuelo Canít Have Ridden With Pancho Villa

 

Mexicans are always making things up, Grandma Jefa told us the week before she died. Donít ever believe these family legends people have. Itís like how white people like to say their great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess, but worse. Isnít that funny, she cackled, getting sidetracked. A Cherokee princess, que menso.

We were at El Dorado Park in Long Beach for a family party like always, the area with the barbecue pits and the good covered picnic tables that Aunt Silvia had paid a cousin $10 to sit on since 10 am so another family wouldnít take them. It was someoneís birthday, Emmaís babyís first, not that he understood any of it. All the cousins were sitting drinking Sprites and eyeing the cake while Grandma Jefa held forth on the storytelling abilities of Mexicans. I was home for spring break and feeling pleasantly sleepy in the heat, my belly full of Aunt Martaís chili beans.

You take this old guy, Grandma Jefa says, waving a hand at Grandpa Lalo sitting in the sun. He rolls his eyes at her and tugs his cap down. Canít keep a story straight to save his life. When we were young he used to say that the Aguilars were 100% Spanish, Basque even, thatís where we got the skinny nose and the long ears. Being from Spain was high-class back then, you know, se creen la muy muy. Then twenty years later everyoneís saying Chicano this and Raza that and itís better to be indŪgena so now heís saying the Aguilars are half Hopi and the whole tribe came down to Mesilla, New Mexico, to dance at his fatherís funeral. RidŪculo, Ņque no?

Grandpa Lalo cranes his head up. Quť dices de mi, Jefita? he yells. What are you saying about me?

Ay, nothing, nothing, she yells back, and he shrugs and closes his eyes to the April warmth. Grandma Jefa turns back to us, black eyes sparkling through the soft tan folds of her face.

Itís not just your abuelo, she says. Everyoneís family is like that. Everyoneís grandmother drank with Diego and Frida. Everyoneís tios were at the March on Washington and struck with Cesar Chavez. Sheís counting the lies on her hand now, pointing at each of her thick fingers. Everyoneís tias acted in Teatro Campesino and saw Bobby Kennedy get shot, and everyoneís grandfather rode with Pancho Villa. Everyoneís abuelo canít have ridden with Pancho Villa, mijos. The Mexican army would have seen then coming ten miles away!

Dad almost saw Bobby Kennedy get shot, says Ricky, Uncle Betoís son, who is sitting with his bored-looking fiancťe, a girl with hoop earrings as big as jar lids.

And praise Jesus that he didnít, says Grandma Jefa, clutching her heart. I had a terrible, terrible dream the night before, and I told Beto he could not go to that rally because something bad was going to happen, and he was just mad as a wet cat because he was on one of the student committees and he would have followed Bobby Kennedy right through that back kitchen where it happened. Grandma Jefa shakes her head in horror. I said no, or like Beto used to say, nel, Manuel, and he sat there watching it on TV and not talking to me until all of a sudden the shooting happened. And now I bet heís happy he didnít go and catch a stray bullet, you just ask him. She sits back, triumphant. Most of us have heard this story before, and I wonder if the other cousins are thinking what I am, which is that thereís no reason Grandma and even Uncle Beto arenít making this whole thing up too. Once I start thinking that family histories are nothing more than drunken boasts and corridos passed off as truth, thereís no end to it. The mirrors in the maze. My Borges professor should get his hands on Grandma Jefa.

Emmaís baby starts crying, and Grandma Jefa takes him off Emmaís lap and clucks at him. So you see, mijos, she says over the babyís round head, you just be careful about all the cuentos these old Mexicans tell you. The only things you can really believe are the Holy Bible and what you see with your own eyes. The baby sticks out his small tongue at all of us, to underscore this last point, and grins. The cousins all grin back.

The next Thursday, when I was back at school, she died, quickly and quietly. Heart attack. Grandpa Lalo heard her call for him in Spanish from the backyard, and by the time the paramedics showed up, she was gone, her eyes closed, her head resting on the newly-cut grass. Mom called to tell me that everyone would understand if I didnít come to the funeral, because tickets to fly back on short notice were too expensive for us. I felt terrible. My roommate helped me call the airlines anyway, and Mom was right. We didnít have the money. Itís okay, my mother said several times. Grandma was old and she lived her life. Sheíll know you wanted to go.

So I donít see Grandma Jefaís funeral, and have to get the story secondhand from my mother and my cousin Lola, Emmaís sister. They tell me Aunt Marta sang real pretty, like she always does, and Grandpa Lalo held up better than anyone expected, just leaning on his cane a little more than usual. And my mother says Lola did a perfect job of reading the note I had sent as a sort of apology to the family and Grandma Jefa.

The last time I saw her, Grandma Jefa told us we should only believe the Bible and what we see with our own eyes. But the Bible says, blessed are those who have not seen, but yet believe! Iím not sure what to do.

In the end, I think we should err on the side of too much faith in people and too much faith in the stories that make up our history. None of us grandkids saw Josefa Aguilar Perez raise five kids and run a business, but I choose to believe the story that she did it with more style that anyone in Easí Los. And right now, you canít see me to know that I miss Grandma and I miss the Aguilars, but I hope youíll believe it anyway. Los quiero mucho.

Itís one in the morning in New York when I finally get off the phone with my family. Iím sitting in the dark feeling sorry for myself, watching the silhouettes of midtown from out our southern window.

Tell me something funny, I say to Lola. I feel so depressed about all of this.

Lola thinks for a moment. You know what Pancho Villaís last words were? she says. My mom told me today.

What?

He said, Donít let it end like this. Tell them I said something.

No.

I swear, girl, says Lola, and then she has to go, and again I have to release the slender string that holds me to my family. I put down the receiver and itís just me, and the thought of Grandma Jefa, whose last words I donít know.

I look out at the lights of this island, and hear in the sweep of taxis and trash trucks and subway cars the sound of Los Dorados cresting the hill on horseback, ancient rifles at the ready, the army of a thousand grandfathers. If any of this story is true, and some of it is not, itís that Jefa had something to say. That much we saw with our own eyes.


Andrea Saenz is a former ESL teacher and a current student at Harvard Law School. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse, CALYX Journal, The Paterson Literary Review, and BorderSenses.

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