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Tío Ernesto was one of those men you hardly saw at parties, get-togethers, or important family occasions. The few times that I saw him, he nodded and smiled through teary eyes, clenched teeth, and alcohol breath, suckling on a caguama like a baby bottle, and slurring through a combat of memory that spooled over a song by Los Bukis. Yo te-e necesito. The words would evaporate out of him like gas as he passed his cold, wet hand through my hair. In the corner where he sat, watching people dance, small children would gather around and play. And we would line up and wait for him to spin us in the air, and he would say, vénganse cipotes. My sister and I would run up to him and jump, for Tío Ernesto was the tallest man we’d ever seen, and we wanted to climb up his legs like a tree trunk and nestle in his arms so he could sing to us before bed. But as days went by, those lullabies became memories. And until the day my mother told us he would never be coming back, I waited for him to return, so he could lift me up in the air and sing a song to me, one last time.
Sana, Sana . . .
My mother, Graciela, had kept a diary ever since she was fourteen years old. She would always tell me, hijo, tenés que escribir para que te acordés del pasado. It was from her that I learned that writing was key to remembering the past.
I would often find her in front of her mirror—the one she pretended was a full-body mirror that, in fact, only showed her above her knees. She would stand there and turn from her right to her left, caressing the hairs that dangled on her forehead. I yelled into the room one day, and she jumped, startled at the fact that I had caught her looking at herself in her new beautiful white dress.
She sat me on the bed and began to undress herself as she told me how excited she was to go to a wedding. I wondered if I should cover my eyes as she removed her dress, but my mother didn’t seem to care that I was watching. Her dark skin, which had for decades been exposed to sun, looked almost as scaly as the skin of fishes she cooked for me. She removed her bra, and her soft breasts fell close to her belly button. I could feel my cheeks go warm, and I turned my head to look out the window.
Our yard was but a small cubicle, covered in dust and shit from the chickens that my grandmother kept in the shed. The feathers would glide in the air, and I would often collect a few of them to slip into the small green notebook my mother had bought me.
Esto es para vos. She pulled out a small black suit from the closet with a little red tie. She held it next to her face, observing me with a furtive smile. I reacted how I thought she wanted me to and ran toward her and hugged her legs before asking her to let me try it on. My mother gave me a kiss and began to unbutton my shirt. I could feel her cold fingers as they briefly touched my warm stomach and arms, the touch of them sending waves of small bumps across my skin. The rose color of her cheeks was almost hidden by her dark complexion. She pulled down my pants, and the cold wind of autumn swept through my white underwear. The yellow stain in front of them was still there, and I felt embarrassed that she saw me wearing them. But my mother put on my pants and pulled up my zipper without mentioning it.
Te ves guapo. She licked the tips of her fingers to part my hair to the right side. Mirá. She moved away from the mirror and picked me up so that I could get a good look at myself. There I was, ready for the wedding, ready for my Tío Ernesto’s wedding, which would be taking place in just a few hours to a woman I didn’t know. The phone rang, and my mother went to the living room to answer it. I stayed in front of the mirror looking at myself, turning from my left to my right just like I saw my mother do. I then ran my fingers through my hair so it would dangle over my forehead just like hers did. I stepped back to get a better look at myself and saw, in the mirror, the white dress that my mother had left on the bed. It was a beautiful dress, with diagonal lines of satin and small pearly beads arranged to look like flowers. I extended my arm to caress it and stood there all by myself, without noticing how much time had passed, until my mother came back in to tell me it was time to go.
Colita de rana . . .
My grandmother was one of those ladies who judged you by the way you looked on the street. She would elbow my mother and point at you with her mouth, and look you up and down, mortified, incredulous, taking in breath like she was out of it. Que barbaridad, mirá vos.
Although it was well known that she only showered once a week, and used baby wipes to clean herself on other days, on special occasions such as a wedding, she liked to appear as clean and regal as possible by wearing her expensive burgundy dress, gifted to her by a wealthy man from her past she would always talk about. René, René, René. El me lo regaló. Mirá que bonito, she would say, on her tippy toes, in front of the mirror.
Abuela Manuela was the mother of five, born in El Salvador sometime in the thirties. In the seventies, after falling in love with René, whom she had met at the restaurant where she was waitressing, she left all her children in El Salvador and arrived in South Central Los Angeles for a pre-wedding honeymoon. A wedding that never took place, because the civil war in El Salvador was just beginning, and she convinced René to pay for her children’s departure. And once they arrived, after a perilous journey across thousands of miles, René was never heard from again.
My grandmother turned her bitterness toward those she blamed for his disappearance: her children. She put them all to work immediately so they could support her, and only spared my mother after she got pregnant and had to stay home to take care of me. My father had taken up a job as a janitor, and it was only then that Abuela Manuela accepted him—a wanderer my mother had met in Tijuana—since he gave her half his paycheck so that he, my mother and I could live with her in a small apartment.
Abuela Manuela entered the church three minutes before the bride did. Her wooden high heels echoed down the large hall, and people turned their heads to see the woman with the large burgundy hat and dress. She held her head high, fixing the fake pearls on her neck and smiling from side to side at no one in particular. She sat next to me. Her wrinkly, sweaty hands passed over my forehead. Her greeting was always the same. She then took out a small mirror and powdered her nose before turning to my mother and asking how she looked. Bien, my mother said, rolling her eyes as soon as my grandmother turned with a wide smirk.
My father, who sat next to her with my sister on his lap, waved at her. She simply glanced at him and looked away. My mother said this was the reason Abuela Manuela never kept a man by her side. She was too hard to please and too moody for men to stick around and see her smash plates on the walls. That is why her children all have different daddies! my mother would shout. Some of whom never stuck around to meet their children! My mother said this was the reason she had stayed with my father, because she didn’t want my sister and me to grow up fatherless and alone. And what good did it do you? my grandmother would ask. He’s weak and useless. Abuela hated men who didn’t always convey a macho demeanor, which is why on her son’s wedding day, she had the nerve to get up and, in front of everyone, tell Tío Ernesto to stand up straight and not hunch his back, just at the very second when the bride and her father were entering the church.
Sino sanas hoy . . .
My father, Mario, often took me to the park when I was little. MacArthur was close to our apartment and always full of people, pigeons, and little carts of fruit. He would take a large soccer ball with him, and I would take an inflatable one that I could kick without getting hurt. Under the shade of a large tree, my father would tell me how to kick the ball so that I could join the little league at school. I followed his instructions but mostly, I liked spending time with him there, watching him kick the soccer ball by himself. He would hold my hand in his large, calloused hand and walk me. I could feel the sweat accumulating—our sweat accumulating together, under the heat of the sun. On the way back, he would put me over his shoulders as though I were riding him like a horse, and I would grasp his black, curly hair or wrap my arms around his neck to be sure I didn’t fall.
I would arrive home covered in dirt, and my mother would rush me to the bathroom so that I wouldn’t get the carpet dirty. My father would follow behind me and start to undress me. Tenés que ser más listo en la cancha, he would say. I would cover myself after he pulled down my shorts so that he wouldn’t see me, but my father would chuckle and put me in the shower. As the water ran cold down my back, my father would quickly undress. His hairy chest and belly were lighter than his dark forearms. By then he worked in construction and was hardly home during the week. He would remove his dirty socks and roll them into one and put them on the toilet seat. By this time, I felt nervous, and my heart would start pounding. Sometimes, I would look away. But then I realized that my father didn’t pay attention to me as he rolled down his shorts and underwear. He would place those on top of his dirty socks and get in the shower with me. He would kneel down to scrub me with a sponge that tickled. I would hold onto his shoulders, looking down at him. He would get up and scrub my back, my face in front of his body.
I remember a few things as vividly as I remember those showers. But when I told my father one day that I no longer wanted to play soccer with him because I wasn’t any good after all, the park outings stopped. And then, I only saw him before I went to sleep, if I was lucky. That is how I learned to shower, each time I came home from school, all by myself.
Sanarás mañana . . .
Esmeralda, my sister, was not the quiet type when she grew up. She talked a million words per minute. My mother would tell me that was just how teenagers are, as though I had not just been a teenager myself. When we were little and shared a room, Esmeralda and I played together. But by the time she was a teenager, I hardly knew her. She kept us out by plugging in earphones, talking on the phone, and going out with boys. Sometimes they would come over to “hang out,” until my mother would kick them out.
Our old apartment was a war zone every time I visited. One day, Esmeralda was crying in her room because my mother wouldn’t let her go to a party. ¡Está loca! my mother shouted, as loud as she could. Her veins pulsed. She wouldn’t say it, but I could tell she was afraid that Esmeralda had grown up too fast. Only yesterday, she yelled, she was but a small thing I could hold in my hands! Now she is big and horny. Before I know it, she’s going to be home with a child in her own hands!
I took it as an opportunity to knock on Esmeralda’s door and ask if I could come in. The small room looked almost the same as I remembered, except the half-mirror was gone. Now, Esmeralda had a dresser there filled with makeup and perfume bottles. I walked toward her bed where she was crying on her pillow and put my hand on her back as she lifted her face.
Why is she like this? I hate her, she said. I patted her on the back and told her to relax, trying to remember the last time I had been that angry with my mother. It would’ve been when she had told me I could not go on a tour of schools so far away from home. I remember how much passive aggressive silence it took until she had reluctantly said that I could. I couldn’t fathom wanting to go to a party so badly that it stirred up that much rage. How did you live with her? How did you ever have fun? I sat there quietly, holding her and rocking her, thinking of how I was when I was her age. I envy you, she said. You’re out of this house, you can do anything you want. Before I could answer, Esmeralda’s phone rang. Hi honey, she said, flirtatiously, as though she had not just been crying. No, it’s nothing, just my mom being a bitch. Right then, I realized that perhaps I held a little envy for her also. For in the caves of my memory, I could hardly remember an instance of someone so special consoling me in the dark or rocking me to sleep when my heart most needed it.
Sana, Sana . . .
When my mother told us that Tío Ernesto would not be coming back, we sat around and cried for his return. No lloren, my mother told us. No matter how much we asked for a reason, she would not give one. Only weeks prior, I had learned that people eventually died and that once they did, we would never see them again. I asked my mother if my uncle had died, and she said that he was as good as dead. She then walked out of the room and slammed the door behind her. My mother had been in a terrible mood since my father had left us. He packed his bags and left in the middle of the night, simply waving goodbye to Esmeralda and me. I remember telling myself that it would be temporary. But after two weeks, my mother said that he was as good as dead, and the photo of him, which I had stolen from the garbage can where she had thrown it, was the only part of him that I kept under my pillow. Within a few months, Tío Ernesto was gone too, and I was beginning to think that all of the men I knew would be gone before I grew up.
But things with Tío Ernesto had been strange before my mother’s announcement. A month before, I had heard that he and his wife had had an argument. My mother hung up the telephone, crying hysterically in the bathroom. Hours later, Abuela Manuela came to our house. She wore black clothes and didn’t say a word. In the other room, where Esmeralda and I listened to their conversation, we could hear them talk about how they couldn’t believe that he had decided to do that, and then used words my young ears had never heard before.
I went to bed that night petrified, thinking that, in the morning, I would get news that someone had died. When I awoke, my mother was sitting on the edge of my bed. Her chin was resting on her palm as she watched me. I hugged her and asked her what was wrong. Her eyes pierced through me as tears began to well, and she said, nunca me hagas lo que nos hizo tu tío. Never do unto me what your uncle has done to us. But I didn’t know what she meant. I didn’t know about his crime.
Colita de rana . . .
I walked several blocks without stopping. Confusion dripped within me like paint, and I could feel it spreading through me as people held hands, mothers hugged their children, boyfriends kissed their girlfriends. Faces upon faces I had seen each time I walked down that street were blurred, collaged into the portrait of a ghost staring back at me. The lights of the city were as foreign as those people, and yet I kept walking. In my hand, a photo of you. I decided to crumple it and throw it away. But I couldn’t. I kept it in the palm of my hand; I kept it until you came back to find your face blurred by my sweat.
We sat on a park bench. You were afraid to touch my hand, and I was disgusted. I opened my mouth but nothing came out, except a faint noise of anger. You said you didn’t mean to hurt me. I said what a silly excuse. You stayed silent. The same silence as that of all those who came before you.
All their rooms were different, but they all had a mirror. And in those mirrors I only saw half my body in the dark. My own eyes were but two dark hollow spots in my head. But with them, I saw you. We locked eyes from across the room, but I don’t know who smiled first. We spoke before we even opened our mouths. And when we were face to face for the first time, we couldn’t say a thing. Several universes were born and gyrated within me just from looking at you.
I told my mother, and I said your name was Rosa. I imagined that it was appropriate because of the way you opened up to me the first time we walked in the dark. You revealed to me what scared you. I don’t want to get too attached. Who has hurt such a pretty thing? You didn’t answer me, but I could tell that you had built a wall. A wall made of petals that I wanted to topple with every chance I had. And every time I asked a question you allowed me in. You let me kiss you as you whispered my name. And every time it felt like it was the first time I was inside you. You were opening up for me. I would pass my fingers through your hair, and our sweat would drip down your forehead. You would lick your lips, and I would kiss them as I bathed you. Little bumps would form on your skin as I passed my fingers across your chest and down to your navel, which made you quiver and close your eyes.
And then one day I opened mine, and you were sitting on the edge of the bed with your chin resting on your palm in deep thought. I wanted to get up and kiss you and hug you and ask you what was wrong, but I thought if I didn’t ask, then perhaps you wouldn’t say what your eyes had been telling me. It had been months of us together, and now your wall had completely fallen. You had nothing else protecting you, guarding you. You were free. And in this freedom, I no longer existed because my company was the antithesis of what you were. It was then when you turned around and looked at me. Your eyes looked like the hollow dark spots reflected in the mirror, and you didn’t say a thing. But you didn’t have to. You never did.
You vanished just like my father. Like all the other men who said they would stay. They ran their fingers across my body, tracing every surface. I gave them all I was, and then they left.
Sino sanas hoy . . .
The bottle of champagne popped, and everyone applauded as my sister’s white dress trailed down the backyard patio of my mother’s new house. My little nephew, Jonathan, ran around in his white suit stained with soda and dirt as my mother chased after him. Under my sister’s dress, another child was waiting to be born, and all the guests formed a line waiting to rub and whisper into her belly. Her husband stood next to her with his arm around her, and as she looked up at him and at the pretty girl with a mini skirt in front of her, I could tell that my sister was angry.
At the sight of me, people asked the same questions again and again: How was my life after college? Where did I work? When was I going to bring Rosa? My mother avoided my eyes when I approached her, as though her mind was forced to think of other things around me. Ayudale a tu abuelita, she said, pointing at Abuela Manuela with her mouth. Abuela was walking down the stairs, her cane barely staying in contact with the ground as her hands shivered. I took her arm, but she pushed me away. Yo lo puedo hacer. Her sunglasses hid the cataracts in her eyes. She no longer seemed as tall, bent over with gray hair and a ponytail, pulling her bony face back in sour anger. She hardly spoke anymore, just whispers under her breath, memories she repeated like a prayer over and over again.
Here and there people murmured the truth. My mother and my grandmother never spoke of it. The unspeakable. His existence. All photographs of him removed from shelves, walls, and tables. My grandmother had four children, not five. My mother had two brothers, not three. He was gone. La funeral, my grandmother would say. But there had never been a coffin, no cemetery, no body. He had vanished like Enoch, and we carried on without him.
For weeks after he disappeared, Abuela Manuela wouldn’t leave the house. My mother would cook for her and, from the living room where I waited, I would peer into the dark room where Abuela slept, slumped on the bed as my mother fed her with a spoon. It would be years before I learned what had really happened. But I didn’t learn it from them.
I was walking down the street after work when I heard my name. I didn’t know at first if I had imagined it. I recognized the voice, but I was but a child when I had last heard it. I took a few steps back. He was a ghost standing there before me, and we couldn’t even speak.
His eyes said so much yet nothing. I reached out my hand to shake his. He leaned in and hugged me.
Sanarás mañana . . .
I took Tío Ernesto’s hand in mine. He looked out the window, taking a drag from his cigarette slowly, as though sucking any life out of it that he could. Somewhere underneath his wrinkles, I could still see the boyish smile he used to have when I was a child. His long protruding legs arched like those of a spider on the small chair where he sat. He blew out smoke and finally blurted into the silence: Era muy guapo. He took a gulp from his drink as he remembered, turning up the volume slightly on the radio. Brittle ash flew in the air and disappeared. No one else came close to what we had. He stood and walked toward the other side of the room. There was a narrow pathway around the apartment, a labyrinth he had figured out amongst the things he had collected and kept around for years: piles of magazines, records, books, posters, hanging plants, but the only photo was the one he walked over to take down from the wall. He held the frame in front of me so I could see. It’s very unfortunate the trick life played on him, he said. In the photo, a younger Tío Ernesto and Juan smiled, their arms around each other. He trailed off, but I already knew what he meant. He had told me in the car on the way there, and even then, he had found it hard to say the four-letter word that had taken him away.
With small questions we tried to piece together the decades we had lost. Y mi mamá? he asked. Not so well, I said. I wish she hadn’t seen me. I almost told him not to feel guilty, but I knew it wouldn’t matter. It wasn’t the first time she saw me. I pictured what he had told me a few minutes before, how Abuela Manuela had come into his house and found him and Juan on the bed. He didn’t know how long she had been there, but when he realized it, she spit in their faces and walked out the door. Tío Ernesto paused between thoughts, digesting or figuring out a way to speak. I wish I had died with him. He walked back and placed the photo on the wall. Sometimes, in the corner of my eye, I see him standing right there, right where you are.
He walked back to sit down on the chair, and I was at a loss for words as a song from my childhood started to play on the radio. Yo te-e necesito. I glanced at Tío Ernesto because I remembered how the song would make him cry. But Tío Ernesto’s expression didn’t change. Instead, he turned to look at me and asked: What was his name? I looked back at him, not knowing what he meant, but I knew that he knew that I was hiding. I still didn’t know if I could say it. If I could admit it to him. But before I could hold myself back, I said the name I had never uttered to another person. Ro-Roberto, I stuttered. Did you love him? he asked. He observed me with one eye and inhaled deeply from his cigarette as I stayed silent. Then you know what I mean, he said. Then you know exactly how I feel.
My mother steps forward and drops dirt onto the coffin. Just two weeks before, she had been lighting a candle on Abuela Manuela’s birthday cake. The flames reflected on Abuela’s dark sunglasses as we sang. She sat there motionless, not uttering a word, watching her own reflection like she did every day by the window.
It had been some time since my mom had heard her mother’s voice, which was why, when she heard Abuela speak a few days after the birthday party, my mother couldn’t believe it and ran into the living room to find my grandmother with her hands over her face. Ernesto, she had said. Ernesto, she had wailed. Then, Abuela had become quiet and didn’t move. An hour later she was dead.
She was laid in the coffin in her burgundy dress. Everyone she had ever criticized showed up to pay their respects and cry before her. It seemed that apart from weddings, death brought us all together. And after all, this was Abuela Manuela, who had lived for so long it seemed possible she would outlive everyone. She was la matriarca, la pionera, who had brought El Salvador to Los Angeles. She was flawed but, because of her, we were here. And as her seed, we had to recognize her within us. Her legacy, her memories, her dreams were ours—us.
As the last crumbs of dirt drizzle down from my mother’s hand, I hear the whispers, the wails and sniffling quieting before all is silence. I turn to see Tío Ernesto falling to his knees at the edge of the grave. He sits there, peering down into the earth, and I remember seeing this pain on his face many years ago. I walk over and kneel next to him and put my hand on his shoulder. He lowers his head into my neck, and I wrap my arms around him, feeling his heart beat against my chest. As I hold him, I think of how many times his heart has sounded this shattered at night. I think of the moment he locked eyes with the man whom he loved and how they wasted so many years apart, when they could have been together. I start to hum a tune from my youth that Tío Ernesto used to sing, and I realize that he and I are the same. That somewhere on this planet, there are men who have taken a part of our hearts but have left enough of us so that we can still feel something, even this, together. And in the end, if this is all we have, then this moment with you is all that matters.
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