She had never thought of herself as “la otra,” the Other Woman. All she knew was that she had loved him better, and it was only natural that he should leave his fiance and marry her.
“But that was a long time ago,” she would laugh when telling this story to Sirena, who seemed fascinated by her abuela’s past. “Back when the animals could talk.”
Anita had not been looking for a husband in those days. She already had too many men in her life – five brothers and a widowed father. She cooked and washed from dawn to night, then got up and did it all over again. When the house burned down along with half of the town, it was a relief – there was nothing to wash and nothing to cook. They had no choice but to join up with all the other refugees and walk north.
Some of the men stayed to fight. Her oldest brother, Manuel, stayed with his sweetheart’s family to defend what was left of the town. But the soldiers did not want the town. They wanted more soldiers. Both sides. Men and boys were compelled, forced, conscripted and dragooned, so that brother ended up fighting brother, father fighting son, uncles fighting nephews. It was all mixed up. The crops were deliberately destroyed three years in a row, and finally they had eaten all the seed corn. Better to walk north, where the Americanos were paying good wages.
“Bring extra money, and bring extra shoes,” was the advise Celso, who led the travellers out of town, gave to them. People brought a lot more than that, but most of it was lost along the way.
The first place of any size the family came to was Guanajuato. Los Guanejuatensos were not known for their friendliness to outsiders. In fact, the last time people had come to try to make themselves at home, they were herded into the granary and set on fire. This was in colonial times, when the Spanish rule had become unbearable. But the worker who had carried a stone on his back to deflect the bullets so he could set fire to the door of the granary was still a hero, El Pípila. No one remembered his name, just his pock-marked face.
Introspective people, used to the darkness of the mines and the insulated feel of their valley, they did not speak unless spoken to, offer information or help unless asked directly. It was here that the bedraggled Don Barcielego dragged his exhausted sons and daughter. By then one of Anita’s brothers had developed an infection. He had cut his foot on the walk, and the laceration refused to close and had begun to smell. The other members of the group said to leave him, that he would die of gangrene. Out of desperation, as she saw her brother get sicker and sicker, and her father begin to despair, Anita inquired if there was a curandera who could help him. A gnarled old woman, for Anita was at the age when she assumed gnarled people were old, came and cleaned the wound and wrapped it in a poultice made of local herbs. Then she suggested that the family pray to el Señor de Villa Seca for intervention on behalf of the ailing brother. No one in the family had heard of this Señor, but they prayed, nevertheless.
Whether it was the prayers or the poultice, the brother got well. Her father would not allow Anita to go to the church of Villa Seca to give thanks, but when he understood that it was in the mountains going north, he agreed that they could all stop on their way to El Paso del Norte. The brother who had been cured, who had a gift, painted a retablo of thanks on a broken piece of wood and left it there.
Sirena’s abuela claimed not to remember much more of the trip. She said she remembered going into towns and begging people for water. She remembered falling asleep while walking, she was so tired. She remembered hiding for hours in the ruins of a building, all of them trying not to make a sound, while armed men – soldiers or policemen, were around. She remembered a town up north that seemed almost deserted, until they found an old woman who showed them a fountain with water. How good it felt to wash her hands and face, her hair, let the water run down the front of her dress. Thirty-eight people started the trek, and thirty-two finished it. Anita remembered that one person died in his sleep, and they found him cold the next morning. Another began to panic during a time of needed silence, and was held down until he no longer moved. She does not remember what happened to the others. Maybe they stayed in some of the towns along the way, or died, or were carried away by a flock of birds.
Sirena watched her grandmother intently when she told these stories, trying to glean from her grandmother’s face and hands what she did not understand in words. When Anita got to the part where she described the missing as possibly being carried away to heaven by a flock of birds, the little girl’s mouth would go slack with amazement. When she got older, that expression was replaced by a sorrowful smile, the trademark expression of the Diamantes.
By the time they crossed the border, they were all as thin as could be – puro hueso – all bone, Anita would say, holding her fingers a quarter inch apart to show how thin they were. Not like I am now, she would add, patting her comfortable belly fat.
Sirena would just laugh at her tiny grandmother. Next to her, Sirena felt large and awkward. It was hard to imagine her abuela surviving the long walk, the hunger and thirst, the uncertainty of death waiting for them at every crossroads. But Anita Diamante greeted every dawn with the cautious optimism of a survivor, throwing water on her front steps and sweeping her walkway down to the sidewalk. Let the day bring what it will, she seemed to say – God willing, it will find me here.
As hard as it was to get her grandmother to tell the story of their migration to the United States, it was even harder to get her to tell about how she met her husband, and took him away from his intended. She did not tell this story to Sirena until she was older – old enough to know better, old enough to have gained the sorrowful smile.
After all their travails, and several false starts, Anita’s family went to work picking oranges in Southern California. They settled with other refugees on ground too high and rocky to cultivate, but close enough to meet the foreman at dawn in the orange groves. Anita’s father and brothers built a one room stone house with a cooking shed on the back. Anita asked for one window on the wall facing the street that was a little larger than the small, high windows on the other walls. This had a piece of tin that fitted inside of it to close, fastened by a piece of wire. In summer, Anita took down this shutter and sold aguas frescas to people walking by. Later, she began to sell a few canned goods, and after a year she had a small store where the orange pickers and farmworkers could obtain a few goods near their homes from someone who spoke Spanish. By extending a little credit until payday, “Anita’s Tiendita” became popular in the neighborhood.
At first, her father was nervous about Anita being home alone all day with cash in the house, but she assured him that she knew how to handle things. He got her a dog they named Flojo, after the mayor of their town in Mexico. When her father saw how much she was able to make, enough to save, he allowed her to handle all of the finances for the family. Anita was the only one who could make change and count to ten in English. On Fridays, she was accompanied to the bank by her four brothers, where the American clerk nervously counted the small bills and wrote out a receipt under their watchful eyes.
With all of this brotherly love and attention, Anita despaired that she would ever marry and start a household of her own.
Whenever her grandmother got to this part, Sirena grew pensive, staring deep into the pattern on the carpet to hide the feelings she knew would show in her eyes.
“Pero ya, mira,” her abuela would say, drawing Sirena’s attention back to the story. “One day a car drove up and parked across the road. A Model A. A man was driving, and he got out to help a girl from the other side. She was well-dressed, but she acted completely helpless in climbing out of the car.”
Here her grandmother would flop her arms, like a rag doll. “But once she got on her feet, she grabbed the man’s arm like he was the big prize. I could tell that he was embarrassed by her, and I knew then that I would make a better life mate than she!”
Abuela would cackle in remembrance at this point, and Sirena would smile in anticipation of the rest of the story.
“It turns out that they had come to our place in the woods to tell us about hygiene. Hygiene! As though, just because we were poor, we didn’t know how to take baths. She talked to the women, and he talked to the men. But she was so embarrassed, and used such funny language, that no one knew what she was talking about!”
“You went to the talk?”
“Seguro que si! Of course! I had to find out what was going on.”
Sirena squirmed in delight. Anita was fully animated now.
“Afterwards, I went up to that man – and I could see that he was handsome, too – and I told him that I could do a better job than that girl.
“He gave me this look – the way you look at something to see if it has more value than it appears to have.
“You think so? He said. All right then. Here is the address of the next talk. It is right next door here, in Corona. And here are some of the brochures that we give people. Take them home and read them, and if you still think you can do a better job, come to the next talk.
“And so I started going around with him, giving the talks. I was from the people, so I knew how to talk to them in their own language. And then we got married.”
Sirena knew there had to be more to the story than that. Like how her father let her go. And what happened to the store, and all her brothers. But she also knew that was all she was going to get out of her grandmother today.
“Bueno,” said her grandmother. “Let’s go to Pancha’s for lunch.” Pancha’s Comida Mexicana was about two blocks away, on a busy commercial street, but they could walk. And her grandmother could order anything she wanted, on the menu or not, and get it. Sirena never turned down a chance to go to Pancha’s with her grandmother. Pancha’s offered tamales and hope.
The scuffed linoleum floor, a fake brick design, held six small tables and a counter. Sirena’s grandmother favored a table by the window, not too far from the kitchen. Settled with sugary hot teas, Sirena ventured another question.
“What was he like?”
Anita looked outside to the parking lot, as though she could see the Model A on the hot pavement. “Like I said, he was very handsome. You have seen his pictures. He was handsome enough that people admired him when we passed.”
“They weren’t admiring you, too?” Sirena teased.
“No, of course not. You see how I am. Maybe they admired me for having him.” Anita held up her hand as though she had something important to say.
“But he was also kind. He was very good to me, not like some other men were to their wives.” She stirred her tea for a minute. “In those days, no one said anything if a man hit his wife. It was his right.”
“Some people still think so,” said Sirena.
“I know. But it is not right. At least now, women can ask for help, can get protection if they need to. Then, if a woman had children to protect, her parents might take her back, at least for awhile.”
Anita looked at her sharply. “Otherwise, she put up with it, or had to survive on her own.”
Panchita came out from behind the counter to greet her grandmother. “Como estas, Anita?”
“Bien, bien gracias. Recuerdas mi nieta, Sirena?”
Sirena nodded and smiled. “Hola,” she said.
The older ladies had a ritual they had to go through each time, no matter how many times Sirena had been introduced. They would continue to discuss her as though she was not present.
“Ay si, La Sirena! Que guapa esta! Como movie star!”
“Si como no. Y su hermano tambien.”
“De veras que si? Y donde viva?”
“En otro estado, muy lejos. Ya tiene esposa.”
“Y Sirena? ya tiene novio?”
“No, todavia no,” said Sirena, jumping into the conversation before her grandmother could say anything.
“Bueno,” said Panchita. “No se importa. No te preocupas.”
After taking their order, Panchita left the table, and Anita could see that Sirena was, nevertheless, distressed.
“Take your time,” she said, patting her hand. “You will know when the right one comes along.”
“I hope so,” said Sirena.
“In the meantime, enjoy being young. Don’t let viejas tell you what to do.”
Sirena smiled, her first genuine smile all day. “I won’t,” she said, “except for you.”
“Andale,” said her grandmother, laughing, as their steaming bowls of menudo arrived. Both stopped talking to eat.
When she had her fill, Sirena’s grandmother sat back in her chair, patting her mouth with her paper napkin. “She tried to have me killed, you know.”
“La muchacha. La otra.”
“The fiancee? The one you took him away from?”
“Yes. But that is another story.”
Kathleen Alcala was born in Compton and grew up in San Bernardino, California. She is the author of five books of fiction and nonfiction, and teaches Creative Writing at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. “La Otra” is part of a collection of stories about Sirena Diamond. More at http://www.kathleenalcala.com