I am who I am because of Graciela and her bright red sash and because of her Abuela, the old woman with the melted candlestick.
The old woman who used to braid her granddaughter’s hair in log rope twists and drags the candle down the aisle at the old Spanish church and prays to the La Virgen for the day when her life would be worth something. She added wax and remolded it when it was still warm from midnight prayers, keeping it there, keeping the promise of baptism against her breast.
Do you renounce Satan? I do, I do.
Do you renounce this world and all its lies? I do, I do.
And the candle melted and the prayers fell down the sides like blood from a broken heart.
She prayed on it for the day. She did not have to hide in dark corners when new children came to play. Hiding in the fields when the policia were called on them, the workers of the fields, the hands that picked the strawberries from the first-morning dew to the highest moon, hung in the sky as a promise of something everlasting.
And Abuela took it as a sign,
“One day you’ll be worth something.”
And this is what she told us,
“Mijas, the moon is a promise that we are not alone.”
Graciela was my friend. Her Abuela was my grandmother, too, a grandmother by accident, a grandmother I only lived with for one hour on Tuesdays at Girl Scouts.
They taught me to dance El Jarabe Tapatio, dancing around a lazy sombrero tossed in the middle of the cold waxed floor, because everyone had to choose a dance and gather in a group of three. But no one wanted Graciela, and no one wanted me.
All the white girls were afraid to dance Mexican. It made them look stupid, and no one wanted to look stupid next to the brown girl with the twisted braids and the bright red sash that tied her somehow to her Papi in Mexico. The crooked teeth, the Spanish tongue.
It pained the other girls to touch her, but I was blind and without grace, and so I took her hand, and we danced.
Abuela brought tamales and the candle and put it between us for lunch.
She signed, she prayed,
“Ave Maria, Dios te salve, llena eres de gracia…”
And I learned to say my Irish Hail Mary in Spanish, with a Mexican accent.
Come. Eat and then dance.
And we did, and I loved Graciela and the words she taught me in Spanish and the way she made me feel home in the middle of a mall with people watching as we tapped out Latin rhythms every week when we practiced for International Day there, in broken times and missteps.
Abuela laughed and hugged me and said my name backward,
“Tanfini, La Virgen te ama. She loves you. Pray to her, because men do not understand like La Virgen does.”
She gave me strange orange soda, Jarritos Mango’, and I drank until I hiccuped and they laughed and said I sounded like a happy puppy. Abuela twisted my hair, too. My mother couldn’t find me at first.
“Tiffani-Lynne,”she said in her sweet Southern voice.
“What on earth have you done to your hair?”
“Abuela did it,” and I pointed to the round Mexican grandmother with the half-melted candle beside her on the bench, and my mother smiled quickly and took my hand.
“It’s time to go.”
“But I haven’t finished my tamale.”
“Say thank you. You have finished.”
She dragged me through the mall, past the other Girl Scouts, who were singing “It’s a Small World” and we were home eating pizza before dark.
I saw them in Mass later, Graciela’s smile wiped clean and her eyes wide as they were fixed on La Virgen to save her. Abuela carrying the candle, building it back up, pressing it like clay as it cooled, her tears staining the front of her woven peasant dress.
“Ave María. Santa María. Sálvame, Virgen Keep us here.”
“The policia,” she mouthed to me as she crawled on her bloody knees past my pew.
“They’re coming for us.”
Father kept her candle on the altar for weeks, but I never saw them again, not Graciela, the girl with the bright red sash or Abuela, crawling on her knees towards the Virgen-Ever-Sad. They weren’t in the strawberry fields near our home. I searched for them in the orange groves near the highway when my mother took us there with Christmas food and presents for the children, but the pressboard houses were empty of them, and the other migrants and their barefoot babies didn’t know Graciela and Abuela.
“Were they angels?” I asked my mother. “Because if they’re angels then they’re safe and they can see me wherever they fly.”
“No, they’re illegals. They probably got sent back,” she said.
I started to cry like someone had murdered them, someone had taken my first dance back to Mexico and my first Abuela, who was too old to be in jail or living in a hot clay house under the Oaxacan sun.
I didn’t eat tamales for five years. I only looked at them and then turned away, vowing not to eat until they came home.
But nothing happened, and the candle got thrown away, and on the Spanish news, we had to watch in class, a whole village was mowed down with machine guns because the government didn’t like street children roaming the hills of Oaxaca. And I prayed that they’d make it safely back to California with the coyotes that they said had brought them through the desert on their hairy backs.
But all the white kids in class said their parents didn’t trust illegals, that they deserved to go to jail. They all sang the same song to our teacher who was from El Pueblo and who made us watch El Norte’ to make us understand. But the students sang out their parents’ song,
“They’re coming to steal our jobs!”
“They’re coming to sell us drugs!”
“They’re coming to rape our women!”
Graciela and Abuela? No. They’re coming to be free, and that is all.
“Ave María. Santa María. Sálvame, Virgen. Keep us here.”
Photo © Julie Anderson All Rights Reserved