You've heard of crying Virgin Marys, haven't you? Slabs of stone fashioned into delicate curves, painted baby blue and veiled in white, always in some faraway cathedral run by an eccentric priest who's traveled the world in search of miracles only to find one standing on his lonely altar, hands pressed together in eternal prayer?
Asi, you dismiss them with a wave of your hand. So did I, once. We're Americans, too--verdad? Not just Mexicans. And even if we were still on the other side, we'd know about the crazies with the UFOs and Elvis sightings. Same thing, right? Well, I always thought so. Until I met this professor at a party.
It was one of those backyard barbecues, with mariachi, pinatas, raspadas--the works. Some kid's birthday, I think. Anyway, this professor--he's one of those gringos who can't get enough of lindo mejico, you know, the kind that knows more about Zapata than the Zapatistas--he tells me about this girl named Maria Lopez. I'll never forget it. She was a Tzeltal Mayan, from the town of Cancuc, and the Virgin Mary appeared to her when she was only 13 years old. She was just walking along, on the outskirts of her town, when La Madre Purisima herself said to her, "Maria, you are my daughter. Make a cross on this place and mark the earth. It is my will that a shrine be made here for me to live in with you." This is what she said, o algo asi. And, of course, little Maria Lopez and her husband and her parents and all the townspeople erected a cross immediately. Everyone helped and, soon, a little cross turned into a fine chapel. There, the Virgin made regular visits to Maria and the girl eventually became a spiritual leader for the town.
How is this so different from weeping statues and Elvis at the strip mall? The difference is that this happened in 1712. 1712! That's almost three centuries ago! It's far easier to believe the fantastic when we're talking about hundreds of years back. And besides, why would a little Indian girl in 18th-century Chiapas lie about something like that? Why would she try to summon the wrath of the Spanish ecclesiastical authorities?
You've got your superstitions, too. And I was in a pretty vulnerable state, anyway, when the professor approached me with that story. I needed something to believe in then.
My son, Angel, was in a heap of trouble. It wasn't like before, when he was driven home in a squad car or sent to juvie. He was a full-grown man and the police weren't going to let him off with a slap on the wrist, you know? It wasn't some petty crime, either. He was being tried for murder, or at least assisting in a murder, and I couldn't stand the idea of him being locked up with a serial killer--my little Angel, with the mustache that looked like it was drawn on with eyeliner. So skinny, so much like my daddy who couldn't make it across the border and couldn't stay in Zacatecas, either.
Mi Angelito was found with the gun that killed El Chico Galarza--a low-life, good-for-nothing who got my niece pregnant when she was 14 and didn't even offer to help pay for the abortion. The Chico deserved a trip to his maker, but m'ijo wasn't the one who gave him the ticket. Angel wasn't even in town when it happened. He was visiting some friends in Miami, probably gangbangers who couldn't stand the heat anymore. When he got back, there was a cop at his door asking if he could come in--no warrant. And since Angel was unaware of the murder, and his place was clear of drugs at the time, he welcomed the officer right in--real smooth--saying, "Mi casa, su casa, officer. Would you like something to drink? I can warm up some coffee or tea..." Meanwhile, the cop's eyeing the place for incriminating evidence and boy, did he find it. Revolver planted right on top of Angel's TV set. And get this: that same pistola was stolen from a cop weeks before. Can you believe it? Each of its bullets was probably inscribed "Property of the Chicago Police Department"!
Hospitality or no, Angel was cuffed so fast he should've directed the cabbie to drive him from the airport straight to Cook County Jail. That's when I got the call. I hadn't heard from my son in months--since Christmas, actually--and now he was telling me, "Mami, I don't know what's going on. I'm in a whole lotta shit." They string up Chicanos, and morenos tambien, on practically nothing these days, and it's not like I could afford one of those hotshot lawyers like on TV--not scrubbing toilets, I can't. So I tell him I'll ask around. My neighbors had a big fiesta that day, and they were always inviting outsiders--real educated types. So I thought that maybe, if I tried to be social, they would refer me to one of their lawyer friends. Or maybe they were lawyers themselves, you never know. There I was, sucking up tequila, wearing a short black skirt--at my age! Well, ten years ago, but still...
A hell of a lot of good it did me, that miniskirt. All I found was a professor. Oh, he was real smart, that one--and good-looking too, like ese Paul Newman who used to be the leading man, el mas guapo de todos, but only makes salad dressing and pasta sauce now. Well, the professor was like that, only he spent too much time in the sun. He was an orange, pre-salad-dressing, Cool Hand Luke Paul Newman. And he was flirting with me, too, telling me about the Virgin and Maria Lopez, right up until I told him my son was being tried for murder.
You should have seen the look on his face. It was the moment he'd been waiting for his whole life. Time to give back to lindo mejico, to compensate for the land his fathers took from nosotros. He started talking maquiladoras, immigration, border politics, the way the U.S. will loosen up to let some below-minimum-wage workers pass and then tighten up when it's got too many wetbags. He started talking, also, about Chicano crime statistics and I knew he was serious, grave even, when he got that faraway look in his eyes. But each word made my blood boil. Biting my lip, I excused myself and flew through a crowd of borrachos like I was seven years old, playing Red Rover.
When I found myself on the cracked sidewalk, heading home, I cried. Fifty-four years old. I remember saying to no one, "Fuck," then sliding off my shoes and kicking them aside. Toward a patch of weeds, broken glass--I don't know. Everything seemed broken then. Todo quebrado. Paint peeling off each frame house I passed. Once a kaleidoscope of parrot's feathers, of lemon yellows and lime greens, of the aquamarine that swept a crisp Caribbean breeze into the heart of the Windy City, now our barrio was a dull progression of splintered wood and shattered glass, cold and colorless. Was it ever aquamarine? Was it ever anything other than rows and rows of broken-down boxes?
My tights got snagged on a ragged edge of cement underfoot. I yanked the nylon, sending a run up my thigh. Suddenly I wanted to rip them off, to rip off all of my clothes and walk down the middle of the street naked. Desnuda. Eso es lo mio. The thought of it made me wet. My skin became as sheer and delicate as the nylon, the dreaded run replaced by a shiny gash across my belly--my cesarean section scar. Luckily, I was at my front door before I lost my mind and got arrested for public indecency. I was fully dressed. And I was not alone.
"Esperanza," he said.
It seemed like I hadn't heard my name in ages. Chica, yes. Hermana, dona, companera, comadre, mami. But not Esperanza. Out of the professor's mouth, it seemed like ancient Sanskrit.
"What the fuck do you want?" I asked, digging through the layers of old receipts, loose change, and makeup in my crocheted black purse. "You a stalker or something?"
"I got some asshole stalker following me, that's what's wrong."
"Mira, chingon, no me hablas en espanol! It ain't your fucking language! It's mine. You probably learned it from some goddamn Castilian master--the language of the people, los desgraciados! But I am the people, OK?"
A glimmer in his blue eyes exposed my faulty reasoning. Spanish wasn't the language of my great-great-great-grandmother, the poor braided girl who was raped by some conquistador. It was the language of the rapist. He fucked her out of her body, her land, her culture, her religion, and his ultimate victory was now achieved, centuries later, when I, her descendant, could not summon the words she used to cry out against her own murder. I was the seed of that rape, the life born of that murder. I had no language.
There were no more words spoken between the professor and me. He understood. He pressed himself against me, and as I fumbled with my keys I felt the baby hairs on the back of my neck gently vibrate beneath his warm breath. An ambulance passed, its siren absorbing the sound of my door crashing against the wall. He shoved it open so violently the doorknob dented the plaster in its wake, so violently that it shut itself. I stood perfectly still as he tore my shirt off me, ripping it at the seams. Perfectly still as he savagely removed my bra, skirt, tights, and panties. Perfectly still as I stood naked under his hateful glare. He seized a fistful of my hair and pulled my head back, then down, right into the floor. My face was buried in green shag carpeting and I imagined it was grass. I wasn't in my living room, I was on a Mexican battlefield. I was La Malinche, Cortes's mistress. In Mexico she's commonly known as La Chingada, the Fucked One. Somehow, I felt powerful. Fuerte. He lifted me back by my hair again, this time guiding me into a kneeling position, and then he undid his belt, his pants. Eye level with his cock, I realized with dismay that despite my nakedness, my submission, he was unaroused.
For a brief moment it seemed I was mistaken. I was no Malinche, he was no Cortes. We were just horny, and not even horny enough to get the machinery up and running. But then Cortes took his belt and transformed it into a cat-claw whip, flogging my back, shoulders, and upper thighs. My skin was sheer and delicate again, blazing. A sound escaped my throat, un grito, that was both foreign and familiar. I heard it as an infant hears its first word, realizing that it was the only sound that was truly mine. This was my language. Cortes recognized it, too, and he responded quickly. He was no longer limp.
The sunlight seemed sickly then, weak and jaundiced. It seeped in, a river of golden blood, through the gaps between my bamboo blinds, specs of dust floating dreamily in its current. It was one of those moments, you know? Como se llaman? Una epifania. The universe was frozen, moving in slow motion. I followed the stream of light with my eyes. It led me right up to the Blessed Virgin.
Well, it wasn't exactly the Virgin, but it was close enough for me. It was Patti from the Doug cartoon. You know, the blond with the big round face, the little drinking-straw-shaped nose, and the two little black polka-dot eyes? You see, I had that Patti on a key chain--a tiny doll wearing the same kind of blue that the Virgin usually does. I don't remember when or where I found her, and I also don't remember a time when she wasn't hanging from a rusty nail between my two living room windows. She was soaking up the feeble sunlight when she began to speak. She said, "Esperanza, you are my sister."
Certainly, I was astonished to hear my key chain speak. More than that, however, I was mortified to find myself having a sacred vision while getting butt-fucked. When I responded to the spirit, I could only do so one syllable at a time.
"Who...are...you?" I asked.
The professor didn't hear me or, if he did, he continued his own primal wheezing without interruption.
"I am a messenger sent by the goddess."
"The 'Virgin' you speak of did conceive without penetration, that's true. But she was certainly torn when the Christ child emerged. I came to tell you to rest your heart. Your son's fingerprints are not on that weapon and, before nightfall, the victim's little sister will confess to having witnessed the murder. She will identify the real killer and Angel will be set free."
Never did I see or speak to the professor again. Every now and again, though, I'll catch a late-night movie starring Paul Newman and I'll imagine myself to be La Malinche once again.
Stories of weeping statues don't make me laugh anymore, either, even if they're in the National Enquirer. In fact, I've become sort of obsessed with them. Having filled two scrapbooks with tabloid clippings and religious tracts, and having erected an altar in her honor right over my grassy Mexican battlefield, I seek out the Virgin a dozen times a day, more even, saying, "Hail, Mary, full of grace," just like they teach you in Catholic school, not because she was "blessed among women," nor because she arranged for good news to be delivered to me ahead of schedule. To be honest, I'm not sure my vision wasn't the result of something slipped into my cerveza. (I mean, Patti from the Doug cartoon?) I can't say the Virgin kept Angel safe, either. They let him out of jail when Galarza's sister came forward, but he was gunned down a block from his home only a few days later. No, I pray to the Virgin because era chingada, she was fucked, from the inside out. Just like La Malinche. Just like me.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Michael Teague.