Locked Up in the Mind
“Roses are Mexican’s favorite flower. I think, how symbolic—thorns and all.”
She lost him before she even knew it. Tía Alicia lost her son, cousin Beto, to the letters carved on his stomach, the size of freeway signs, announcing cities and streets from far away distances. With those drawings under his clothes and skin, he relived the beatings that echoed in his memory, like the lighter burning the melting brown rock on a spoon, easing the pain only he felt. Too much trippin’ locked primo Beto up in the mind, like the hamster that overfeeds itself and doesn’t know how to stop eating—and dies. But primo Beto didn’t die. He’s locked up in the mind and behind bars.
Back then, if you talked to him, he stared at you but not like he was your cousin or your own son. Beto looked at you to see how you could feed his addiction (with your VCR, TV, tool box or blender). That’s only part of the reason he’s locked up en la grande. Tía Alicia has hope—the kind only a mother understands. The kind only she understands because her hope reads backwards when I see him.
“He was a good boy.”
Maybe mom’s right when she says that people bring their children to this country in search of better lives, in search of dreams. Instead, children are lost and yearn for a family while their parents take care of someone else’s kids. While parents work overtime, their children waste away in the streets as beggars of praise and acceptance.
In hardworking parents’ minds, their children don’t work when they study: they’re not working—not with arched backs, not with a shovel or a mop in-between their hands. Parents are so tired they don’t want to talk about school work. Instead, they stare at the lives of pretty rich people on TV and wake up at dawn to beat the traffic, so they can keep their bosses happy.
“He was a good boy,” tía Alicia says. When I hear her talk like that, I can see that she’s locked up in the mind too, but she has faith.
Tía Alicia doesn’t understand how her son’s mind works. In front of her doorsteps, he sees signs and colors. The Lutheran Church divides the west and the east side: The Vatos Locos del Westside and The Vatos Locos del Eastside patrolled their ground. She doesn’t see that. She can’t. Primo Beto claimed a hood that belonged to no one—like the air that we breathe. (Don’t breathe. It’s my air. How does that sound?) Similar to how governments mark their territory with white, yellow, red, and blue lines to divide streets and borders.
Tía Alicia says he had a good girlfriend who dressed him well, but his girlfriend gave up on him when Beto said he wouldn’t be going to college. The last time I saw him he looked sharp—bien catrín—in his creased pants, black shiny shoes and slick black hair like he worked at a bank.
The primo Betos of today are easy, necessary targets to play the game of pistolitas and mad doggers. Similar to an angry grizzly bear, his stare really kills. (Don’t stare too long, or you’ll get clawed.) His generation and next generation fill up prison cells instead of classrooms. They sit lined up against the curb, looking like real bad asses with a police officer calling up for backup and hoping to find a background on the bait.
Primo Beto might as well have had a real bullet tattooed to the side of his temple or his neck; that’s what his uniform did. (That’s how my grandfather died, but mother doesn’t want to talk about it; grandfather’s uniform killed him. That’s what I think.)
I heard primo Beto isn’t just locked up in the mind but behind bars in another country. He got that tattoo on his face after the incident—trying to stop his own father from fucking his sister. Beto finally had the courage to strike his own father. With an iron, Beto struck his own father on the temple.
If a stranger looked at my cousin, he’d be scared. I’m not. Every tattoo tells Beto’s story like the crosses, the thorns, paintings and statues at churches. Like a church, he decorates his body with memories of pain. His body is a war and peace zone of both visual and written languages, a miscommunication of sorts. Because numbers, words and images spoken and written own his brown body, according to him, are worth sacrificing for, like most faithful soldiers believe. Without a doubt in their mind, they are fighting a just war.
Behind bars, primo Beto circles and circles like a caged bear at the zoo. He will never feel a chilly night tug at his skin. He awaits in vain for the cage to open to relive his life now that tío Roberto’s dead. But now, he’s locked up in the mind and behind himself.
“He was a good boy . . . he gave me a rose for Mother’s Day when he was five.”
“I remember we were driving in your car
The speed so fast I felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arm felt nice wrapped ’round my shoulder
And I had a feeling that I belonged
And I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone . . . ”
—Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”
Leaving behind empty cans of beer and bags of Doritos on the beige and worn out Monte Carlos’s tapestry, he hobbles side to side and then almost falls forward in effort to reach the front door step of his house. On his way to the front door, he kneels and crouches forward as he citrifies the grass, next to mother’s crimson red, soft yellow, white and bright pink roses—lots of roses—offerings for a life size replica of the very Virgencita de Guadalupe who always listens to her prayers silently—“make the drinking go away.” Por favor Virgencita, te pido con todo mi corazón que Pancho ya no tome. Sí, yo sé que es muy trabajador, pero mira el ejemplo que les está dando a los muchachos. También te pido que protejas y libres de todo mal a cada uno de mis hijos. Y por último te pido que me quites este cáncer porque quiero vivir y ver crecer a todos mis hijos. Gracias por escucharme. (1)
In those days, dad was EL BORRACHO, right out of La Lotería (2), with lots of pictures to read. “Ellll borrachooo,” the cardholder called out. A lucky winner announced, “Aquí. Buenas con el borracho,” (3) as he claimed the jackpot composed of nickels and dimes, and all players cleared their beans or pennies off their favorite card that brought them luck. But not so buenas (4) for those who lived with an obnoxious and hot-tempered borracho like my father who drank on weekdays, weekends and drove back drunk with mother closing her eyes and praying to all her saints and clenching her right hand onto the unraveling tight stitches while us children enjoyed the roller coaster ride.
“Come on dad! Go faster! Faster!”
“Niñas por favor no hablen con su papá que no ven que está manejando.” (5)
One time dad “raced a real pendejo on the freeway”—a cop. The police officer dropped off my little brothers at home that time. Nothing changed after hours of AA meetings. The drinking continued. Some borrachos sobered up on Mondays while working and, of course, always denied they had a drinking problem. A drunk will always tell you that you can cure a hangover if you drink another beer, which does work because he’s on an endless drunken state of mind. A drunk will always claim he’s perfectly healthy because his numbing his illnesses with an antidepressant.
Parties without beer, according to dad, “valian pura madre,” (6) so at fiestas where alcohol was prohibited, which were very few, he’d cut out a Pepsi can and place it like a label over a Budweiser can and sit like a king holding his latest invention while the mariachi played José Alfredo Jimenez’s “El Rey.” (7)
On weekdays, we knew better and remained behind walls and out of sight or else at 2:15 a.m. on a school night, dad would call a meeting, where he always spoke the last word and demanded we’d listen and was especially hostile with his words. “Así que estas dos pendejitas van a tratar de decirme que estoy mal. Ya decía mi madre, ‘Cría cuervos y te sacaran los ojos.’” (8) The worse part about his drinking problem was always enduring the silencing and the biting of my tongue because mom always said, “No digas nada. Quédate callada. Sofía, ¿Qué no has aprendido nada?” (9)
For most of my life, father had been not just a good man, a great man of acts and words. He had taught me how to read Spanish even though he didn’t know how to read himself, paid us to learn how to make flour tortillas, for bringing home good grades, (and when he hit thirty), paid us to pull out his grey hair. He taught us that both smoking and coffee were drugs and corrosive to the human body. Father was a good man until the drinking and mother’s cancer spells began when he started working his new construction job, and those hot summers with a 105° beating sun and cold winters with the cold wind whipping his face broke him. Beer always took the edge off so much that he was forgetting the meaning of family. And drinking was blurring my father’s vision, and I was beginning to fear his presence because his words cut deep, and I wished El Borracho remained trapped on a card, not in my father. What could I do? I was only his daughter and not even the eldest.
American Cats Mean More Than a Woman’s Body
Mexican commercials and news didn’t care. You’d be eating dinner with a mouthful of tortilla, beans and green salsa, and sure enough, on my parents’ big screen TV that took up half of the living room wall, you’d get bombarded with commercials that advertised anti toenail fungus treatments—and the before and after close-up photos, which always proved the effectiveness of the wondrous products. And sometimes in between commercials, something hard to believe would escape the news reporter, something that when I first heard I couldn’t believe, something that sounded straight out of the yellow ¡Alarma! (10) magazines, I had come across as a kid when we would cross the border—except this time it was on TV.
The human carcasses, including a pregnant body, had been recently found mutilated, tortured, strangled, raped and disposed like battered old TVs, VCRs and putrid refrigerators in the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, in empty lots, in sewage channels, in ditches, on roads, especially the road to Casas Grandes, in baseball fields but mostly in the city—anywhere that left someone alone, sick and devouring a woman’s body.
And who could that person or those people be?
These deaths, claimed the reporter, were growing in number with each passing year. “Angélica Márquez Ledezma, 16; Sonia Ivette Ramírez, 13; Elizabeth Castro García, 17; Olga Alicia Carillo Pérez, 19; Silvia Elena Rivera Morales; Not Identified, 14–18; No Name Woman, approximately 30 . . . .” Some victims were students—usually with long hair. Others were killed in their own vicinities or were on their way or coming back from the maquiladoras—and sometimes looking for work. “Eighty-five percent of the factories are US owned,” added the reporter. Who were these big and large companies?
Bodies were being found like used bullets with empty shells in the desert. Women’s bodies. When I heard the Mexican news, I wanted to believe that it was really an error on the teleprompter. It must have been an error because I had never heard anything of this nature on the news in English.
On the American news, I had heard about cat and dog food poisoning pets. But the newscaster said mujeres, not dogs, not cats. As the living room caved in on me and the TV screen transmitted warped images that would have never been shown on the English news, what the TV was saying was that lives of one hundred American cats meant more than a Mexican woman’s body. The lives of endangered animals caused riots among American pet owners and animal rights activists. When all along, historically, women were the endangered species.
Along the United States and Mexican border, resided Juárez and Texas, where according to my government teacher’s guest speaker, NAFTA would create more jobs for impoverished countries. My parents’ news taught me that the desert created a salted sea of mermaids and their bodies were tangled in the fishermen’s nets, with no country to run to, because some—not all—of the women wore fishnet stockings.
Mexican news didn’t cross the border. Because to the American government, the lives of their women didn’t mean a thing—maybe their deaths could help, by keeping women in their place.
These women hadn’t enlisted for war, but everyday they walked through minefields. Bodies popped up like rodents in a real Whack the Gopher game. Dead bodies didn’t go away with a blow to the head, and burlap sacks only served to annoy companies that didn’t need the spotlight on the news that only served to ruin the image of global relations.
In the meantime, these mastermind fishermen turned a blind eye to an easy catch. Why bother—they were just Mexican women’s bodies.
The Day Paco Almost Had a Heart Attack
“Cucurrucucu, Cucurrucucu, Cucurrucu Paloma ya no llores.” (11)
—Lola Beltrán, Mexican Singer
The night before, I had dreamt my sister, my brothers—crying. Against the cold-glass window, the warm rain poured. We held each other. On my sister’s forehead, a third eye she could not see.
He was so drunk and mad as he stumbled in the kitchen Paco started screaming.
“¡Paco qué! ¡Mira lo que hago con este pinche pájaro!” (12)
When my father’s construction hands squeezed Paco violently, I thought Paco was dead. His green feathers fluttered like a chicken trying to escape as she’s being wrung by the neck. Wheezing for his last breath, Paco lay at the bottom of his cage not as a bird but like a fish flopped on its belly.
“¡Este pájaro me importa una madre! ¡Mira! ¡Mira!” (13)
Minutes later, in my room, my wings had been trampled by this man I called father. Locked in my father’s white room, I was sure Paco had suffered a heart attack as his screams replayed in my memory, and that day I screamed with all my might—on paper.
The day Paco almost had a heart attack, Paloma and I left fluttering through the front door as we escaped into the darkness from a drunken man’s bird cage we had called home. Our cooing mother grieved all night as if her feet and arms had been torn from her as she lay in her empty nest.
With trails of tears behind us, we stepped out of drunken man’s house, who was no longer our father. That night the floor shook violently under our feet, but we regained strength as we learned to walk for the first time on our own two feet.
We had been let loose, and the bird cager’s imaginary door had been opened wide, and on this side of the border only we could shut the bars upon ourselves because we had inherited the dreams of illiterate minds.
We didn’t know—yet, but we were two Adelitas (14) with limitless boundaries in a world of reconcilable differences, and Pancho Villa wasn’t here to stop us.
That, not a stranger’s words, not a father’s words, not a mother’s silence, or a boss’s words, could stop us from kissing dreams from a distance because we had been taught that visions are where dreams began. And like my father foresaw for his children’s future, a pen filled with ideas was a necessary tool in order to paint our dreams with paper and letters, and I knew and never forgot I owed that to illiterate minds.
1. Please Virgin, I ask with all my heart that Pancho not drink anymore. Yes, I know he’s a hard worker, but look at the bad example he’s showing the boys. I also ask that you protect everyone of my children. And lastly I ask that you take this cancer because I want to live and watch my children grow. Thank you for listening to me.
2. Mexican Bingo.
3. Bingo with The Drunk.
4. Not so good.
5. Children—please—can’t you see your father’s driving?
6. In Spanish, the word Mother is used as a curse word. The English equivalent would be: “were full of shit.”
7. José Alfredo Jimenez, one of Mexico’s famous singer and composer who was an alcoholic epitomizes the Mexican macho. His song “El Rey” translates to “The King.”
8. So these two idiots are going to try to tell me I’m wrong. Like my mother said, Raise crows, and they will take your eyes out.
9. Don’t say anything. Stay quiet. Haven’t you learned anything?
10. Alarma! is a Mexican magazine that presents both gore and sometimes nude images of both male and female victims.
11. Coo, Coo, Coo. Dove, do not cry anymore.
12. Paco what? Look what I do with Paco.
13. I don’t give a damn about this bird! Look! Look!
14. A Mexican soldadera, a female revolutionary soldier.