She, who never asks for anything, pointed to the display case and said, “I want this.” It was a porcelain Christmas figurine, nothing short of a glazed monument. As a centerpiece, it would overtake most of a dinner table. Santa Claus was sculpted into a Mexican cowboy, with spurred boots, sombrero, and a black mustache. Mexican Santa sat high on a blanket saddle and held the reins of a red-nosed burro, lifted onto its hind legs, triumphantly carrying them to the North Pole. Like all Santas, his cheeks were ruddy and his smile jovial. Cargo hung off the burro’s flank, bulging with dolls and other children’s toys. My father bought it for my mother immediately, because she had asked.
It had been a mistake for my father to pack it in the plastic rooftop carrier that he’d bought secondhand. When he first mounted the carrier, before our annual drive from Chicago to Guadalajara, he foisted it on by himself, heaving it like a decathlete onto our baby blue Chevy Impala. He was confident, overly so, about these types of things. Packing it the first time, he stood on a kitchen chair in our alley, arranging things inside. My mother handed him items from a pile at her feet while we played stickball in the alley around them. We had dropped off duffel bags, sleeping bags, pillows and a heap of loose books and magazines in English. We didn’t read them much when we were home in Chicago, but knew we would want them once we got to Mexico. As soon as I saw the carrier sliding around up there, I became worried. “Papi,” I asked, “where are the mounting brackets?” “In el garage,” he answered. He said American manufacturers added unnecessary parts because of the lawyers and made things overly complicado, for show. But his way, I thought, of getting them back by leaving things out, was also a kind of show. My father didn’t like advice from anyone, least of all his twelve-year-old daughter, so I let it go. When no more of our things could possibly fit, he said, “no mas,” and closed the thing like a giant clamshell. He tied ropes around it every which way he could, crosswise, then lengthwise, as if he were sewing it to the top of the car. When he was done, he went around to close the trunk. He had to slam it a few times but it finally took.
The weight of our things on the roof only added to my claustrophobia on the thirty-three hour three-day drive there and the four-day drive back. There were too many of us in the car. In the front seat my younger sister Veronica sat between my parents, lording control of the stereo, making us call her Vero the Hero if we wanted a different station. In the back, my little brothers Luisito and Carlitos folded themselves together into one person, like a Siamese twin, next to me. We rested like puppies into the soft lap rolls of our half-aunts, Sagrario and Constancia. Out on the open highway, we cruised lower to the ground than the cars next to us, ropes flapping against the metal frame of our Chevy.
As we got further south, the air turned warm. Sweat began to cover our legs and backs, pasting us to the shiny pile of the ivory velour. Halfway into the drive, I knew it would be pointless to ask, but I did it anyway. With no bodies of water for miles, and too many arms and legs touching me, the arid brown landscape of Texas was starting to feel like a test. I shouted into the drivers seat, fighting the wall of air coming through the windows, as if into an airplane propeller. My father rolled up his window to hear me while I gripped his headrest to lift myself up. “Papi, why didn’t we take two cars and why doesn’t the air conditioning work?” When I saw the back of his neck getting red, I knew the mistake. “For shame, why don’t you like your family” is all he said, and that was the end of it. He opened his window, all the way down this time, to make sure it hit me good and hard, in the face.
Deeper into Texas, we passed time by reading city names as they whizzed by. The names started turning Spanish the closer we got to San Antonio, then Laredo. Even I found it to be a relief. Even I, who took to English the most melodramatically of all of us, who liked to imitate the excitement of infomercials and game show hosts with the power to give away washing machines, thought English could sound hollow once the excitement wore off. Though none of us born in Chicago learned Spanish the right way, and though our parents and tios never learned English the whole way, our family’s bones and ears were made exactly the same. They wanted both. They wanted to hear both at the same time. When we heard English we wanted Spanish nearby, the radio or television would do. When we heard Spanish, we wanted to mix in English. We always wanted what we couldn’t have.
Our annual Christmas drive to Guadalajara affected us all, but it always affected my mother the most. The circumstance by which she was conceived was treated in our family, on both sides of the border, like the apple bite in our own sad little Garden of Eden. We collectively wanted to erase it, but we couldn’t. The deed was long done. In its telling, or refusal to tell completely, it became even more apocalyptic. But just like those fables in the bible, it never went away, instead we made it gospel. The very fact of my mother living and breathing crystallized our belief that They with a capital T, Ellos with a capital E, didn’t want us.
My mother told me the entire story precisely once, when I turned seven, and I still remember the details. She said there had been a fifteen-year-old from a prominent family that lived in a house in Guadalajara on the Plaza Mayor. He wore oiled back hair and buttery hand sewn Italian shoes. My grandmother as a girl supposedly loved the boy (my words, not my mother’s, she said with certainty that she loved the boy), and to this day my grandmother wants to be buried with a picture of him in her coffin. The boy had heart surgeons and factory owners for uncles. Whereas our uncles pulled up potatoes in Utah and plucked cherries in Michigan. What I remember most from that conversation with my mother was her deepest belief. She said there was never an iota of a chance, not then, not even in the more modern now, not even a remote one, not even by the seeming hope of a partly-indigenous presidential candidate named Cuauhtémoc who would come along eventually, of this fifteen-year-old boy marrying my grandmother after she got pregnant. And not because she had only been fourteen. My grandmother was an indigenous beauty with eyes like torches that could guide villages through the night when the electricity went out. And they were from a place where the electricity was going out constantly. And fourteen was perfectly acceptable back then, I was told. “No,” my mother said, with that same voice of literal gospel. “All of us are unwanted, back then and now, except maybe to do los trabajos nobody else wants. He didn’t visit, didn’t send money, didn’t want me.”
She wasn’t done with the fable yet, though I had heard enough. Once she left the Garden of Guadalajaran Eden (my words), “what was a fourteen-year-old girl to do?” my mother asked. According to my mother, there was only one answer. There was only ever one real possibility. Where was the easiest place for a girl like her with an obvious bump to run when she couldn’t hide? “North of the border,” she said. So that’s where my Grandma Torch Eyes went. First she went to Utah and then she went to Michigan, like the men before her. Grandma Torch Eyes gave birth to my mother in a hospital in Utah, near the potato fields. The baby, my mother, got citizenship, because that’s how it worked back then. She was taken back to Mexico a few weeks later. My mother got quiet at that point in the story. She was taken to a Mexican ranch on the outskirts of Guadalajara in a kind of hiding, and left there, to be tended to by her grandparents. Apparently, Grandma Torch Eyes said she did it because the American camps were no place for infants. But in reality there were plenty of babies born and living in the camps. Years passed like that, my grandmother between Utah and Michigan, my mother on the ranch. And then when my Grandma got tired of being around so many men in the camps craving her as a torch, she decided to go to Chicago. Going back to Guadalajara was out of the question, her cheeks probably flushed with shame just thinking about it, my mother said. Chicago was a perfectly fine place. A place with brick houses neatly lined up in rows wherever you looked, a place with enough Mexicans that she couldn’t reject it completely, a place with the right kind of Mexicans. Quiet working ones from all over Mexico, most of whom had never even been to Guadalajara. Mexicans that understood the weight of a secret and wouldn’t ask her anything.
Then my mother’s voice changed. She said that one day on the ranch, her grandparents, without warning, “on the day of,” she said, “told me to pack all my things.” She said it was a day of full sun on an ordinary July afternoon. She was told that she would be going to Chicago to live from then on. In Chicago, she would meet her new half–hermanas, Sagrario and Constancia, who she’d never heard of before. In August, she would go to the Cooper Elementary School in Pilsen, in un barrio Mexicano in Chicago. My great grandmother on the ranch didn’t call it a ghetto, I’m calling it one. And she didn’t call it Pilsen, because she told my mother all this in Spanish. She called it “La Dieciocho,” meaning Calle Dieciocho, meaning 18th Street, the way she’d heard it called so many times over the static of telephone calls. My mother packed up all her things as she was told. My great grandmother told her to put on her only dress, a soft pink one with matching vinyl Mary Jane shoes that she only ever wore to church and baptisms. Then they waited in the front parlor, quietly, for my grandmother to arrive from Chicago by car to retrieve her.
Grandma Torch Eyes finally showed up. My mother said that when she stepped out of the car, she was wearing a pressed sundress with miniature cherries all over it and matching red shoes. She had a strange haircut, bobbed evenly at her shoulders. My mother said, “I didn’t recognize this woman, this was not my mother.” I couldn’t tell if it was because of the American getup straight out of a detergent ad or because of how my Grandma talked that my mother felt this way. My mother said that Grandma Torch Eyes immediately started showing off by pretending to have forgotten words in Spanish and using English instead, words like “snow and Christmas.” She kept telling my mother that she would love Chicago because it had snow and Christmas which didn’t happen the same way in Mexico. “Christmas es hermosa en Chicago,” she kept saying. This was long before annual drives down to Guadalajara began. “You will love the United States, mijita.” My mother said she didn’t care about snow or Christmas in Chicago or the United States. She wanted to stay on the ranch, so she could keep sitting on the burros out back that walked her in gentle circles. She wanted to stay and keep feeding the anemic dogs that roamed free. She wanted to stay in Mexico.
Standing right next to Grandma Torch Eyes, as my mother listened to stories of white Christmases and La Calle Dieciocho and La Escuela Cooper, was a new miniature brown husband, three inches shorter than her, that she had met in the cherry orchards of Michigan. He was from Michoacan and had married her willingly, despite knowledge of the apple bite. She had told him about it the night before a priest was coming to marry them under a cherry tree. Grandma Torch Eyes gave him the night to think it over. My mother thinks my Grandma wouldn’t have married him if it weren’t for the poison because she had really wanted to marry the boy with the slicked back hair in Guadalajara. I couldn’t believe my mother called herself that, the poison. It broke my heart in two. And then my mother finally finished telling the fable that she would never speak of, and I would never ask about, again. She said that with her things packed up, in one suitcase, she was led into the back seat of a sedan as comfortable as a living room with license plates that said “Land of Lincoln.” On the way to this Chicago, this supposed mother in a cherry dress and a bobbed hairdo and her miniature brown husband spoke in forced English to each other when they wanted to talk between themselves. My mother didn’t understand a word of English yet, but she said even then she knew theirs was broken. My mother finished by saying she never got a chance to say a proper goodbye. On that long first drive to Chicago, she wished she could go back, alone, to be with the burros and the dogs.
Our Christmas that year in Guadalajara was spent just like it was in Chicago, but without the snow. We took turns removing tamales from a steaming tower, playing a game to get the hot ones in the middle without causing all of them to tumble, our own version of Jenga. We sucked on hairy mangos doused in lime and chili powder. Veronica and I played Loteria back to back, ad infinitum, with watermelon and calavera cards strewn on the lace tablecloth, forgetting to write down the score after awhile. The screenless doors and windows were open, and Carlitos and Luisito ran in and out, in and out. My half-aunts Sagrario and Constancia talked a lot more and my mother talked a lot less. Neighborhood men dropped by after dinner with terracotta ceramic shot cups and their best mezcal for my father. We shopped for stainless steel tortilla presses and basket warmers in the shape of sombreros. The only thing I missed, besides the snow (Grandma Torch Eyes was right, the snow in Chicago at Christmas was magical) were the Motown Christmas records from Detroit that my family loved, by the Jackson Five. But we could listen to them once we got home. This year, my father bought the giant porcelain Santa for my mother, which the store owner wrapped in green bubble wrap with tiny red holly. On January 6, the holiday was officially declared over and we piled back into the Impala to head back. My father loaded the carrier again, same as last time, tucking the bubble wrapped statue in between sleeping bags.
Somewhere in the endless state of Texas, my father stopped at a gas station, where he took a torn squeegee out of a bucket and splashed blue detergent onto the windshield to scare us. Then he reached down to clean the grime off the Illinois license plates, perhaps to remind himself where we were going. Pulling out of the gas station and onto the highway ramp, our Impala sagged, despite my father accelerating as fast as it would go. The sun bore down through the clean windows, blinding my father’s view. Only at the last second did he see the dog running across the interstate, feral and lost. It was copper and skinny, reminiscent of a coyote. Striking it dead, my father braked with such force that his careful knots securing the carrier snapped off. The cargo carrier flung open, sending Santa and the red-nosed burro onto the road, shattering painted clay into dust. Tiny air pockets of futile green and red bubbles crackled flat under tires. Clothing soaked with mezcal and dog’s blood flew into windshields and caught onto bushes. My mother who doesn’t cry, yelped. While my father pulled over, the dog went through a round of seizures, then stiffened for good.
We stayed in the car on the side of the highway, waiting for La Policia to arrive. Cars slowed down to gape. A white police car with brown and yellow lettering pulled up behind us in a haze of flashing sirens. The officers sat in that car for what felt like a long time, with their sirens at full blare. I wondered why they didn’t get out of their car faster to help us, like on the television shows where officers run to the rescue. The two officers got out on their own time, wearing brown short-sleeved shirts and square toed boots. They walked over, practically bow legged, and looked into our car, but not our eyes. They were scanning to see if we had the markings of illegals. Then they told us to get out of the car, all of us. They pulled us aside, one by one, including me, to ask us questions. I couldn’t believe it. Our stuff was all over the highway and they were trying to deport us. One of the officers was Mexican-American, his name was Officer Guerrero, I saw his badge. Officer Guerrero asked more questions than the White one, with a Texas drawl that was mysterious and thick as molasses. As if a ventriloquist were operating it from a foreign throat. Did his partner, Officer McFadden, hold invisible strings?
I would like to believe it was my Midwestern English, that I loved to practice to make sound like I was a young Austrian nun, running through fields of flowers yodeling, blonde orphans running behind me, that saved us from getting taken in for who knows what. That because of me, Officer Guerrero finally left us alone. I had a reputation in my family for talking too much, imitating different voices, and I couldn’t control it, even when I tried. I told the Officers all about our Christmas in Guadalajara, using the voice of a virtuous woman in the Swiss Alps, thinking they might enjoy knowing how much clean fun we all had. After talking to me, maybe they felt sorry for us, maybe they still had the spirit of Christmas, or maybe they just wanted lunch. They stopped with the questioning and finally set up flares so we could collect our things. We salvaged what we could. Officers McFadden and Guerrero wanted us to leave the carrier behind, but they underestimated my father’s will. He re-attached it and filled it with our unusable things. Then he pulled back onto the road. After the police were out of view, he pulled off at the next ramp, to check us into a motel next to a waffle house. After booking a room, one not two, my father walked out from the lobby with a family-sized bag of lime Fritos and handed it through the window directly to me. I shared it with everyone, our hands diving in such a frenzy that the tin foil ripped. Then we all swam together in the pool, for hours, as the shade of the afternoon turned into evening.
The worst part of the trip for me was not when we accidentally killed the dog and lost our things. Or even talking to that Frankenstein Officer Guerrero. It was the next morning, day three of the four-day drive home, when my mother started settling back into her stony ways. She was becoming mute again, like a hardened cast, no less luminous to me, but still. Even from deep in the cavern of the back seat, covered in ever restless arms and legs, I could see the stiffening completing itself. I could see her face going slack, the light in her eyes fading out, the sun through the windshield glazing her like a kiln. I prayed that she might actually be alive in there somewhere, tried to imagine her in a ruffled bolero dress and lipstick, hair pulled into a shiny top knot, dancing the tango with my father under a moving spotlight in a Hollywood competition. I wanted her to come back alive for me, like Santa and the red-nosed burro did for her. But it wasn’t going to happen. This road, so vertical, so northward, always did this to her. I knew she was up there in the front seat making herself deaf and dumb again, carrying herself off to someplace else, a place without city name or geography, to tell herself those familiar lies. The stupid lessons of the stupid fable. The one about it being better not to want. Then the ones about being born poison and unwanted. And then the worst one of all, the one about it being her place on earth never to ask for anything.
Claudia Cadavid is a writer living in Chicago. Her work has been published in Hobart and Monkeybicycle.