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.
Soledad Esparza walked four miles north on Stone Ave., took a left on Kennedy St., and walked diagonally across a vacant lot to get to Main Street. She walked past the mural of an Aztec princess or somebody, and what looked like her lover. It was painted on the side of a building in Barrio Libre, the heart of Tucson, Arizona. She smelled the fresh tortillas from the tortilla factory across the street that smelled like pancakes to the untrained nose. She even got a wink from the old crossing guard at El Carrillo Elementary School.
When she arrived at El Tiradito, the shrine of the sinner on unconsecrated ground, she laid down two slim red candles on the built-in candelabra. She looked at the earth around the ruins of an adobe wall—turned shrine. It appeared wet from years of candle wax having seeped into the earth like blood. The adobe wall was black from years of smoke from candle-lit prayers of the faithful. She thought of all the loved ones she had buried there, how this outside shrine was now the only church she would allow herself to attend, how far she had strayed from her Catholic youth, from the sense of familia her mother had instilled in her. "En México," her mother had said, "our families are the world. More important than money. More important than food." At the time, she had not understood her mother's perspective. She had not understood that family should be the world.
As a mother, she had been distracted at best, trying to find ways to continue living in spite of the fractured lives of her wayward children. For better or for worse, she didn't believe in giving up what she had worked so hard to obtain. She still felt she was right to want a life of her own, unencumbered by familial responsibilities, but she felt guilty anyway. So, today she lit red candles for Fernando. She would seek her son's wisdom for what to do next, for the dead are always wise in death, no matter how they acted on this earth. They are perfected by death, and thus, give much better advice than even a priest. That's what her mother had said. Fernando had been an absent father, an absent Chicano father, like his father before him. Like most damaging behaviors, it was learned.
What would Fernando tell her about her granddaughter, her nieta? What kind of insight would he have? If only Soledad could train her ear to listen to his still small voice.
Soledad lit the first candle and waited. Better to wait than to rush off too quickly and miss the minor miracle she expected to receive. She wiped the sweat from her brow and concentrated. Fernando would only be able to answer a clear question from a clear mind. Soledad was disappointed with herself when she finally formed her question, which felt too simplistic.
"What should I do?"
A small gust of wind swept in front of the open shrine and blew out her two red candles. She lit them again. It was just the wind. She closed her eyes, tried to imagine Fernando in front of her, frustrated with what a weak image of him remained in her mind’s eye. The candles blew out again, but this time, there seemed to be no wind. She relit the candles and looked up to the sky. Perhaps, through the clouds and haze overhead, she would have a vision of him—her only son. Perhaps he would appear to her in a shaft of light, flanked by angels graced with wings, something fancy like that. The third time the candles went out, Soledad didn't utter a word. She even wondered if a ghost of the old barrio was now playing tricks on her. She lit them one more time, singeing the midway point of her middle finger with the match and catching herself before she uttered a profanity on the peoples’ unconsecrated, sacred ground.
She stared at the candle's flame. It had grown immense since her unsuccessful attempt at lighting it. The flame grew and grew, much larger than its small wick could contain. Soledad grew afraid of its fire and stepped back. The flame had now engulfed the entire candle, the candelabra, and part of the adobe wall behind it. Soledad did not step away from the fire. She gazed into it, for she had heard the story of Moses and his burning bush. She figured that if God Almighty had gone to visit Moses himself, the least she could do was trust her only son would appear to her when she requested.
"Fernando," Soledad said aloud before she saw the newly-dead Fernando appear before her. Death had been good to him—he'd lost his world-weariness and he looked much younger, his wrinkles having stayed behind on Earth.
"It's about Delilah," Soledad began and tried to close her eyes to avoid the pain she anticipated seeing on her son's youthful face. How did one bridge the gap to talk about the granddaughter raised away from her Mexican family on the res across town? The granddaughter whose birth brought news of a mental disability, the granddaughter who was forever broken?
Now Soledad wasn't sure if the stories her mother had told her were true: the dead sit up on clouds in heaven watching us on Earth like they’re watching television. She wasn't sure if the dead knew all our private thoughts and actions. In fact, she was completely uncertain about any facts concerning the dead whatsoever. And in this moment, she wished she had listened to her mother a little more and paid attention to the details of El Día de Los Muertos, so she could interact appropriately.
"She came to see me. With the old lady."
"Keesha," Fernando said, confirming for Soledad that he could indeed talk back and relay vital information such as Delilah's grandmother's name.
"I'm worried about her. About Delilah," Soledad said, not knowing completely how to express herself. "It's too late now, mi'jo—too late for me to step in."
"You promised." Fernando's voice sounded irritated.
"I promised, but they seem so happy, so united. Does she really need the trouble of another grandmother knocking around her heart?"
"I want her to know where I come from—who I came from." He continued.
“She’s not only from the res. She’s from us. She’s Mexican, too.”
"I will tell her," Soledad said, feeling awkward that she struggled with granting her dead son his simple wish.
"You will," Fernando said, not questioning her.
"Just tell me one thing," Soledad said as her son began to turn away, "That thing with your Chevy—it was an accident, ¿qué no?"
Fernando paused a moment. "Yes. I had much to live for," he said as he disappeared, from the shrine of the sinner on unconsecrated ground, into the sky above, which Soledad presumed led directly to heaven. She wasn't sure if he had heard her utter goodbye. Sometimes, life with her son felt like an unfinished sentence.
Soledad wiped some tears from her eyes, tears she had not realized she had cried and put to rest the issue of Fernando's suicide—a theory propagated by a particularly unpleasant acquaintance of her son who had gotten drunk outside the Quik Mart at 22nd St. and 4th Ave. and spewed his truths like a Jehovah's Witness on a Saturday morning.
No, Fernando had not taken his life. With that rumor laid to rest, Soledad began to feel she could resume living much better than she had before. Her son had left his life graciously, and the daughter he had left behind, no matter how ill, was one of the few remnants of him left on this Earth. She had to truly look at the girl, to embrace her fractured mind and integrate the troubled girl into herself. It was her job, as a grandmother, if she were to do things right, to invite this broken child to partake of the sacred rituals of grandmothers and granddaughters. Soledad had no reason to deny her this blessing.
And with that thought secured tightly in her brain and fortified by her spirit and heart, she began the four-mile journey back home. She passed the loud, vibrating cars and the abandoned Circle K, past the liquor stores and the old grocery store, passed many memories that she thought she had left far behind her.
"Goodbye, mi'jo," she whispered, as she remembered her time with Fernando in this barrio now etched with gang graffiti, a place full of fear.
"I will change this place," she thought. "I will do it myself." She tightened her fist for emphasis and strolled home through her barrio with pride. When she returned home, she would call her granddaughter. She would reach her grandmotherly hand across to the other tribe, to the other side. And maybe, just maybe, she could complete the most vital task of her son’s abbreviated life.