Chapter One

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September 14, 2004

Ciudad Juárez, México

"Ay, mijita. Are you sure about this? They can kill you like they killed your cousin Juancho! Don't you remember?" Tía Lupe yells at me, clearly agitatedly. Her brown almond-shaped eyes widen in reaction to the news I just delivered; her bronzed skin a few tones paler. Lupe's face arrays a reflection of striking disbelief pouring trepidation and confusion. She just got started.

"The Coyote stole all his money, beat him up, and left him dead in the middle of the desert. His life and his life's savings? All gone!" She sobs gasping for air. The frantic heave of her chest echoes a thousand questions asked in silence. Still, her quietude reverberates with a deafening voice. I wasn't expecting this reaction. I warned my aunt that I'd be leaving this town before, but she's behaving as if she never expected it. As if it was the first time we talked about it.

Tía Lupe is the typical Mexican chaparrita. She's not tall, like most women in our family, but her small height pales in comparison to her big heart. Even someone who can't tell the difference between being dead or alive like me can see it. Her black hair is usually worn in two long braids, but her peculiar look isn't the main reason why everyone in the colony knows her. She's best known for her delicious freshly baked Mexican pieces of bread and cookies. Among the families' favorites, she bakes the cookie-topped sweet conchas bread, the orejas, a sweet puff pastry shaped like ears, and the sweet cookies known as polvorones, also known as Mexican wedding cookies.

Every morning, her neighbors come to the little store in the back of her house to get their favorite freshly baked delicacy that will accompany their morning coffee. By ten o'clock in the morning, all the bread is sold. If there are any leftovers, they're given to the homeless on her way to the chapel.

As part of her daily routine, Tía Lupe visits the chapel to give thanks and pray the rosary like abuela did until she lost her battle against cancer. On occasion, when she gets back home, she tells me she prayed for me. The poor soul prays that someday I can forgive and forget all the people who hurt me. She hopes that someday I can find happiness. In all fairness, Lupe is a kind woman and I do believe she'd have been a good mother. Sadly, her body denied her the opportunity of having children of her own.

Perhaps she finds solace and strength in her prayers, like an imaginary life jacket that keeps her afloat in a sea of despair and disappointment. I wonder if that's the reason why she doesn't want to let me go... Too many years living in loneliness can do that. She never talks about not having children, but she always tries hard to convince me that this is the place where I belong.

After strolling through my foggy memories, I focus on the woman in front of me. Lupe is visibly trying to gain control over her conflicting emotions. Her breathing becomes smoother and, after a couple of minutes, she slowly raises her hands up to her chest, fingers entwined as in prayer. Her previously high-pitched voice drops down a few decibels. "Listen, Marife, you're a young woman who, unfortunately, has gone through a lot more in your short years than many people I know. You're as fierce as a lion, but, mijita, you're only a young woman. You can't defend yourself from people like the Coyotes and I ..."

"Tía," I interject her words; my voice, ice cold. "When you say people like this, you mean, people like your brother, don't you?"

My words had the effect I was expecting. Lupe took care of me after she found out about her brother's dirty secrets. I hate him with every fiber of my body. I haven't forgiven my mother, but I hate Don Manuel Montero. He taught me the real meaning of hate. There is a part of me that will always be dead because of him. He probably did the same to my mother, and that's the reason why she left and never came back for me as she promised. Instead, she left me with that monster. I continue as embarrassment and a profound pain is reflected in her face.

"I am not going to talk about my life in Guerrero. Do you understand? I hiss furiously. "We had a deal. I'd come to live with you if you didn't ask questions about what happened, and you agreed, remember?" My voice is low, but my tone is more menacing than I intend. My features inevitably become harder than I want to. I can feel my nails biting the palm of my hands as they close into fists. Why would I want to I relive the night where my soul was shattered and the light inside me faded away, leaving me in complete darkness? No one heard my desperate cry for help. No one put a stop to that atrocity. Now, is too late. What is done, is done, and it's not worth remembering.

My chest rises and slumps. I'm panting for air. I don't want Lupe to see my weakness, so I turn around and walk a few steps away from her. It takes a few minutes to gather my emotions, my breathing the only sound between us. When I feel ready to turn around to her, I can't help to notice the way she's grasping her rose scented rosary in her right hand. Her other hand covers the hand holding the rosary. She's holding it so tightly; as if her life depended on it. Knowing Lupe, more like if my salvation depended on it.

I don't want to hurt her but I do. I wasn't always like this. 

I used to pray as she did when I was a child. I even used to pray long after my mom left. She made me believe that there wasn't a single prayer left unheard. I had faith and hoped for my mother's return. I believed it was a way to keep our connection, but all my hopes vanished that dark night. That dreadful night I learned that prayers didn't make a difference. They wouldn't change anything. Lupe is just wasting her time, just like I did all those years.

When I free myself once more from the fleeting spell cast from my childhood memory, they meet Lupe's pleading gaze. I see in them a silent prayer written with traces of sorrow and fear. I stole her joy with the news of leaving this country by crossing the border. But I just can't understand her reaction. After knowing all she does, I still wonder how she can't realize that I have nothing to lose. I'm already dead inside. 

She lives in constant denial, praying to all her saints that, someday, I can be safe and learn again to have dreams like other chamacas at my age. She dares to hope that someday, I can learn to love again... I can't love anyone. Not even her. But Lupe is stubborn as a mule and doesn't give up. She calls it faith. I call it delusion. She believes in hope and prays relentlessly to our Virgen de la Guadalupe, waiting for a miracle to happen. I don't believe in miracles. I only know that you can be dead even when you are still breathing and your heart is still beating.

My decision is made regardless of what she hopes, prays for, or believes. If I die crossing the border, death would only be the coup de grace to end my worthless existence. Being shot like Juan would be an act of mercy. I have nothing to lose. I'm prepared to die. What I'm not prepared for is to survive. I have no idea of what to do if I make it alive to the other side of the border.

Lupe brings me back a third time from the frenzy of my thoughts when she holds my hands and gently squeezes them. She looks apologetic, but it's not surprising. This is Lupe. She doesn't know how to give up.

"Please, Marife. Please. I beg you, mijita. Think about this a little bit more," the anguish drawn in her eyes mirrors the tone of her voice. Drops of sweat glide from her forehead to her round cheeks, making her brown skin glisten in this hot and humid weather. It's ninety-six degrees today and we all are feeling the intense heat.

"You want me to stay here. And do what, Tía?" I shake my head and step backward, needing some space between us. Although I remain calm, I'm also defiant. As I run my fingers through my black straight hair, my eyes are set on the living room's window. Workers are coming back from the town's factories owned by the same few families that own half of this town. The factory workers give it all and beyond only to earn a few pesos to bring some food to their table.

I'm still staring at the group of workers chatting in front of her house, but my words keep flowing effortlessly. "Have you ever thought that any day I can end up as one of the four hundred women that were found a few months ago? Raped and strangled? Authorities are afraid of the cartels and there's corruption and fear everywhere. The narcos are the ones ruling this petty place and you know it. I'd rather die crossing the border than waiting to be the next corpse found in this city.

"I know you care for me, Tía," I added as my body shifts toward her. I'd like her to understand me. I have a lot to thank her for. Shaking my head I say, "I have no future here. You speak about hope? Then, let me find it. Give me the opportunity to see if it's real," my pleading tone reflects a profound emotion. "It's a good time to see if all your prayers have ever been heard." 

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