A frequently published playwright, with over 50 publications, Romero has had her work published by Dramatists Play Service, Samuel French, Vintage Books, TRW, University of Arizona Press, and Simon & Schuster to name a few. Upcoming script publications include Swastika, Permission, Harriet and Irene, and a collection of plays. Arizona Theatre Company (ATC), where Romero serves as Playwright-in-Residence, spearheaded RomeroFest in March 2021, a festival of Romero’s work, featuring 20 plays with 17 collaborators in the U.S. and Mexico. Winner of the Chicano/Latino Literary Award and the Society of Southwestern Authors Short Story Award, Romero’s work has also appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Tucson Guide Quarterly, Poems & Plays, Eleven Eleven, Santa Ana River Review, Black Ridge Review, and Rosebud Magazine. She is also the author of the short films, A Sentiment, Fidelity, and Dream Friend. Romero is an Associate Professor in the School of Theatre, Film & Television at the University of Arizona.
A Simple Breath
In honor of my mother, Irene Sánchez Romero, who shared the stories of her father's grandmother, Marillita Dominguez Ulibarrí and her maternal grandmother Sofía Martínez y Archibeque Cobley.
“The earth dropped three women on a spot in the desert—a landscape graced by an expansive saguaro with many arms, a rock with numerous little rocks below it, and a stream that ran beneath the earth that nobody could see. The women lived in a house built for them by people they didn't know who took more than they gave. One day, one of those people came and took the youngest one away, erasing her mind with machines, trying to stop the flow of words that tumbled from her mouth. They called that girl developmentally disabled to her family and insane behind her back. 'I am,' the little girl cried. 'I am.'” Or so the story went.
Keesha rubbed her face with sage and blew bits of it onto a fire with hot coals, which she called all my relations. Indeed, the spirits of her ancestors shone brightly within each burning volcanic rock, glowing more fiercely when met with the force of her breath. If she stared long enough, she could tell one ancestor from the other by the curve of their particular stone. It felt good to tell the story again if only to herself. It was her story, her story of rape and loss—one that she found within herself the power to change. She would complete the correct ritual with the correct words and bless herself three times as the Catholics had taught her—the Mexican Catholics who had instructed her to bless her mind, her words, and her heart. The tear that would well up in her right eye, after saying such a blessing, was her own addition, one to which she had become particularly attached.
She blessed herself with holy oil and began.
She could see her granddaughter, her nieta, on the ground—the floor of a room with no history, a room where ancestors did not naturally come to visit. In this spiritless place, she saw her granddaughter so lost in the confusion of her mind that Keesha almost could not bear to look. But she forced herself to see with a shaman's eyes, a medicine woman's gifts, for these gifts gave her the ability to peer into the souls of others, and, at the same time, find them and their place on this earth.
This was especially important in a case like this, where a relation had been stolen.
She made the sign of the cross at the thought of it. ¡Híjole!
The smell of sage oil led Keesha into a trance-like state, head heavy, muscles relaxed, as if she were shedding her physical body like the skin of a snake so her spiritual body could shine free. She tossed some of the sage oil on the coals—her relations—and leaned over the smoke from the coals to feel the spirit of the sage scorch her lungs, embedding its presence inside her. The sage in her respiratory tract brought about an inner calmness that surprised Keesha each time. The spirits were always stronger than she imagined, and in this case the spirit of this plant infused her every breath. As she breathed in the sage and allowed it to meld with her lungs, she breathed out the darkness of the toxins trapped inside her body.
The calling of the sacred was something Keesha had practiced since she was a little girl on her family’s ancestral land. Her mother had been a medicine woman, and her grandmother before that. (In fact, her grandmother had known the healing properties of the region’s plants so well that the doctors would come to her when their cures had failed. These medicinal exchanges happened in the dark of night lest their inadequacies be brought to light.) So gifted were her family’s women in the healing arts that it seemed impossible to Keesha that women could exist who did not access the spirits as part of a daily routine. Women like her daughter Marie, who had resisted the old ways and taken on the likenesses of their fathers, seemed the only ones to lack this ancient art. Deep inside her being, Keesha believed her granddaughter, Delilah, to be a medicine woman. The gift itself, Keesha presumed, made Delilah seem not right to the outside world. And indeed, she knew her granddaughter was not without a fractured mind, but it is this splintering that leads to spiritual awakening because the linear confines of reason are broken by insanity. That is why people are so often moved when the insane speak the truth. Their truths transcend like no other. Keesha knew that Delilah's mental illness was a gift not to be run out of her body by electrical currents and behavior modification. Delilah would change when she was good and ready—when the spirits told her to and no sooner.
Now, Keesha's plan was somewhat urgent. She could sense Delilah's displacement from the world had reached a point as wide as the Grand Canyon to the north or Barrancas del Cobre to the south and that even another added degree of separation would lead her to a place from which she could not return.
Every day "professionals" worked from sunrise to sunrise trying to remove her precious one’s true spirit from this world. Keesha had constructed a number of spiritual walls or barriers to trick the doctors into releasing Delilah to her Nana's care. These tricks were projected illusions that made Delilah appear as people wanted her to appear. Success would be measured by whether or not the doctors and nurses called Delilah "more normal” or “cured.” Keesha had sent the trickster, coyote, to make sure Delilah's actions fit the standard expected of her.
It is easy for a grandmother, even one who is not a medicine woman, to release an animal spirit protector to her young. So, it was without much forethought that Keesha sent the animal spirit coyote and the plant spirit saguaro to her granddaughter at that desolate place in the Phoenix desert. It was a desert that spit out the people of her tribe. They often laughed at it, but that was where her granddaughter now resided far away from the cactus forests of her youth. Keesha had chosen to send her an animal and plant spirit to remind Delilah of her home for it was only through Delilah's focused wishing that any real magic could be done.
It was difficult for Keesha to look in on Delilah even now when she had confidence that she could free her from the institution. She had also placed her grandfather's spirit in the heart of a big, underestimated man who was Delilah's nurse. The man had adjusted so well to the expansion of his heart that Keesha dared not recall the spirit from him but gifted him with a vast ability to love for the rest of his natural life.
The nurse's caring love for Delilah surprised Keesha for she had not remembered that ancestor as warmly as he, must have been. The unique fusing of these two hearts had increased the one threefold. Samuel, the nurse, had used his larger heart far beyond the workplace. He had become his nephews and nieces' favorite uncle and had even proposed marriage to the woman with whom he had been living for seven years.
In the workplace, Samuel lobbied daily on Delilah's behalf and encouraged the doctors to allow the patient some time with “her people.” The doctors, convinced that Samuel knew something of tribes because he seemed a nation unto himself, consented to allow their young patient to go home for Thanksgiving, which Samuel had convinced them to do with some story about the corn mothers returning to earth that one day a year. Confused, this only convinced the medical staff further to allow Delilah to return home to do “her people’s thing.” Thus, permission was granted.
In this moment, en este momento, Keesha breathed in the fiery steam with a bravery only understood by women her age who had endured life's toughest hardships, and thus, built solid calluses on their hearts that could only be peeled off by the bending of a grandmother's will.
Keesha knew what she must do, yet she feared doing it, lest her heart give out and Delilah be left with no caring relatives to free her from that prison. She pushed that thought away. The sacred knowledge of this practice would not have been revealed to her by prayer and solitude, if she were not ready to attempt it and had not survived all other methods of self-sacrifice she had imposed upon herself in the name of healing another. Certainly, a simple breath, in and out, could steal not much more. Hadn't Jesus breathed on the cross? Hadn't her grandfather breathed Keesha's heart into himself and placed it back inside her body before he had died so that she would be increased by him? Keesha knew much about sacred breath, but permitting herself to take one still seemed daunting.
She began her ritual, knees flat on the ground, feet pointing away from each other, hands lifted up, connected to the Great Spirit. A humming began inside her that was not of her. Though this possession frightened her, she allowed it to get louder and louder until the entire room vibrated with the hum of her ancestors. The vibrations reached such a high frequency that when Keesha glanced in the four directions, which was part of the ceremony itself, she did not see the walls of the outsiders' house that she dwelled in, but a kiva she had visited with her grandmother when she was a child. They had visited it only in their minds because traditionally, women were not allowed to enter this kiva. In this kiva of her imagination, her grandmother had healed many people. And it was in this kiva that the moment had occurred—the moment that had changed Keesha's life forever. Her grandmother had pried Keesha's mouth open and blown air inside her so strongly that she had thought her lungs would burst. And in the moment that Keesha's lungs had accepted this outside breath as her own, she had felt a tingling across her skin. Feeling hot and prickly, she began to rub her arms, legs, and stomach. She watched her skin walk away in human form having freed the spirit of a curandera—a medicine woman. And having thrown off the limitations of a sickened body, an asthmatic who had hacked her way through childhood, she was finally free. Perhaps it was Keesha's health history that sanctified her breath. Regardless, Keesha considered the holy exchange of breath between generations to be one of the most healing gifts of all, one she had waited for years to pass on to her grandchild someday. But it was the cost that made Keesha hesitate. Then, without further thinking, she breathed in.
When Keesha took that one giant breath, the ceiling of the sacred space opened up as her breath pushed the roof violently off that round-walled building of her mind – one that would not have had a roof if she had been allowed to enter a real kiva. Her breath swept past desert sand and saguaros, freeway and cars, clearing out everything in its way like a tornado that enters unseen but can have the same devastating effects. Animal and plant spirits alike clung to their material bodies as Keesha's breath gushed through the desert like a gust of the greatest wind.
Keesha had never been to the mental hospital, so her breath sought Delilah out and divined her whereabouts like a water witch who finds the hidden rivers under old properties in Arizona. As the breath swept its way up I-10 north and west into Phoenix, a number of small fender benders occurred. Plants that had not seen a grandfather spirit for generations quivered at the sight of the one once spoken of but never seen. Finally, the breath burst open the prison walls of the mental hospital and found Keesha's beloved granddaughter Delilah crouched in front of the heater.
Keesha rolled her tongue out of her mouth across the landscape of Arizona with its spiny cactus and thorny mesquite, across the black asphalt of Phoenix freeway. Her tongue sizzled from the heat.
Coyote gave Delilah a small nudge. She pushed him away. Finally, coyote bit her slightly on the other side of her body and she was tricked into getting up and running onto her grandmother's tongue for transport. Once secure that her granddaughter was with her, Keesha pulled her tongue in, drawing in the sacred breath, the breath that would unify grandmother and granddaughter in an unbreakable spiritual bond. And with her granddaughter contained in her breath, in her lungs, Keesha would take on the weight of her granddaughter's life in ways she had never known before, feel her pain as if it were her own, and merge with the mental illness of her mind so strongly that Keesha's own mind would be permanently changed. It was this alteration that Keesha feared the most, yet refusing to take a sacred breath meant certain death for the grandchild involved.
She nurtured her granddaughter in her lungs, using the healing powers her own grandmother had imparted inside her. She so loved cuddling her granddaughter from within herself that she wanted to hold that breath forever and never let go. She was moved by Delilah's delicacy of spirit and was refreshed by the influence of the innocence of her mind.
But as all breaths go, Keesha knew she must breathe out, and thus release her beloved Delilah back into the world, back into the horrid walls of that institution—released with a renewed mind, a stronger spirit, and the power to become a healer herself someday. Keesha released her beloved back into the world, grandmother and granddaughter both increased by a spiritual union, which rarely occurs and is never talked about.
Keesha felt her back bend forward as the release of her breath had brought with it the promised price. Keesha would forever lean forward instead of standing straight up. For this is what happens to women—to grandmothers who breathe sacred breaths, their backs lean forward and their faces look toward mother earth, not from a lack of calcium as the white people have said, but by breathing in the weight of the spirits that they love. They take this heaviness upon themselves to lighten another's load. It is for this love that they make this sacrifice.
You will never hear an old woman speak of this sacred mystery because a woman who has given her back to her descendants would never brag of her sacrifice. Instead she will humbly lean forward and kiss the earth in front of her, communing with earth, her mother, and saying those sacred words uttered as one crawls in and out of the kiva, a crawling which is like a breath itself. These sacred words honor her ancestors for seven generations behind her and her descendants for seven generations before her, "All my relations."