Mark Sky has lived and taught in Mexico for several years. His recent book 100 Haikus from Vietnam: Drunken Visions of a Distant Land is available now on Kindle.
La Cuenta de Josefina
Josefina lived in Puebla, Mexico where her mother Juanita was born, and this is the story of her family.
When Josefina was seventeen years old, she sold oranges on the streets with her sisters. Her sisters were always lazy and never sold as much as her.
Juanita was very proud of her daughter and gave her a beautiful shawl to wear as a reward for all her hard work she did for the family. This inspired the hatred of her sisters who wouldn't even talk to her.
To add to this animosity, Josefina had spoken openly about her dreams to her family at dinner. “We were in the streets selling fruit. Suddenly, everyone bowed down before me.”
Her sisters laughed at her, “Ay si, La Reina Josefina!” And they all mocked her by bowing down at her feet with their arms praising her.
Later, she had another dream and again she told her family. “Look, I was dressed up in some of those fancy, modern clothes and I had one of those nice cars like they do in the movies. People were taking photos of me as I crossed the streets.”
Again her sisters cackled and jokingly pretended to take pictures of her. “Mira la modela Josefina!”
When her mother heard this, she grew angry. “What’s this nonsense coming out of you? Do you want all of us to worship you with statues and prayer beads?” Josefina’s sisters only laughed at her, but her mother kept wondering about the dream.
One afternoon, after stopping by her house for a quick lunch, her mother instructed her to find her sisters.
“Mi hija, go and find out how much they've sold today. Then come back and let me know.”
“Si mamá, ay voy.”
Josefina wandered down the narrow streets and as she approached the plaza the local newspaper vendor caught sight of her. “Oye, que onda? Que buscas?”
“Have you seen my sisters? I can't find them.”
“Ah, they were here a while ago, but I think they left to Analco.”
So she started the long walk back in the opposite direction, eventually spotting them from a distance sitting on a street-corner.
“Mira,” said Yolanda, the eldest sister, “ay viene La Reyna!” “Pensé en algo,” said another. “Follow my lead.” But one of them protested. “Que?” asked Victoria. “What are you planning to do? Don't hurt her.” The others ignored her.
Upon her arrival Josefina greeted them with a smile “Hola chicas. Que tal?”
Instantly one of them yanked the shawl off her shoulders and then another pushed her into a nearby sewer hole that was left open. “Stop!” Victoria yelled. “What are you doing?” But the deed was done all too quickly, so there was nothing she could do. The eleven sisters immediately ran away from the scene before anyone could report them.
And as they got farther away, one of them had an idea. “Hey, you still have that guy's number, este narco, Choncho?” Yoli's eyes lit up. She found a nearby pay-phone and for 200 pesos the sisters sold Josefina to a cartel.
By the time Victoria went back to the street to rescue her sister, she was too late. Josefina was already sitting in the back of a pick-up truck on her way to Sonora, home to Los Dragones, one of the most notorious cartels in Mexico.
When the sisters came home, Juanita was worried. “Where is your sister?”
Feigning despair, they presented her with the colorful shawl. “Mamá, we looked everywhere, but this is all we found.” Her mother was so shattered by this news that she went inside her little room and wouldn't come out.
They all tried to console her, but she refused. “I will go to my grave, mourning for my daughter.”
Meanwhile, Josefina was forced to live and work for a man named Carlos, who was in charge of the cartel's entire security forces.
When Carlos learned of her background as a street hawker, he decided to give her small roles around his house as a maid, scrubbing floors, doing laundry, cooking, etc.
Carlos liked Josefina because she worked so hard and he eventually made her his personal assistant, putting her in charge of his house and eventually his finances. He left everything up to Josefina because with her there, the only decision he had to make was what he wanted to eat or wear.
Carlos’ wife, Miranda, noticed all this and became very jealous. She did not like how he seemed to trust Josefina more than her.
When Josefina was busy balancing the monthly accounts, Miranda dropped a thick stack of cash in front of her. “American Dollars. Take it. Take the money and leave. I won’t say anything. You and I both know that is more than you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”
Josefina raised her head slightly to take a quick glance at the pile of crisp, green bills and then resumed her focus on the work she was doing. “My master isn’t worried about anything in his house because he placed me in charge. It is a matter of trust. If I take this money, I will betray him and everything he has done for me.” Miranda kept insisting she take the money, but Josefina refused.
One day Josefina went to the office to carry out her usual administrative duties, but she found the safe left wide open. As she bent over to inspect it closer, Carlos' wife was already waiting on one corner with her phone in hand snapping shots of the scene. “Miralo! Choncho! Manuel! Oso!” she called all the guards, and they came rushing over. “Look, look at what she's doing!” She showed them the photos.
The guards quickly arrested her and contacted Carlos who was away on business.
“Como? No. Es imposible!” he replied in disbelief. But when they sent him the photos, he decided to have her killed. “Matala esta traidora!”
“She may be a thief and a traitor,” said his top guard, “but she's also a hard worker and we need more hands in the fields.”
“Bien. Put her to work in the fields then. That's like dying every day.”
So, Josefina was sent to harvest the mota under the midday sun. She would wake up at dawn and spend long hours on her feet, pruning, watering, collecting or planting seeds, inspecting bushels, spraying pesticide, etc.
All the workers lived together in these barrack-style longhouses, with only the most basic of amenities: cots to sleep on, a single outhouse, and a spigot outside that flowed running water.
Living amongst her was a man who used to be the personal accountant for the drug lord. He was accused of embezzling money from the cartel. And there was another man who ran up too many gambling debts that he couldn't pay back.
One morning when Josefina was eating a quesadilla she made from her monthly food rations, she overheard the two men talking. “What could they mean?” one of them said to the other.
“Quien sabe? Es un señal de Dios.”
“O el Diablo.”
“Cual señal?” asked Josefina, who couldn't help herself.
“We both had these strange dreams, but we don't know what they could mean.”
“Tell me about them. Maybe I can help.”
“In my dream,” the accountant began, “I saw three giant weed trees grow and blossom until they became ripe. I harvested, cut, and packaged them nicely into three giant blunts that I presented to El Rey Dragon.”
She thought about it for a moment and then said, “This is the meaning of your dream. The three trees stand for the three days before El Rey will pardon you. He will make you his personal accountant again and you will make him more money just as you used to do.”
“You really think so? That would be wonderful.”
“But when you resume your work for him, don't forget to tell him about me. Tell him how my sisters sold me and that I was framed by Carlos' wife.”
After hearing Josefina, the gambler wanted his dream deciphered. “I, too, had a dream. I held up a plate of three tacos for El Rey Dragon, but when I looked down at them, they were full of scorpions, bugs, and buzzing flies all devouring what looked like brain matter.”
“Hmm...” Josefina shook her head. “This is the meaning of your dream. The three tacos also represent three days, but in three days El Rey will shoot you in the head. Your body will be left in the desert where the critters will come and eat away at it.”
Three days later when El Rey was celebrating his birthday, he sent for his former accountant and the gambler. He reinstated the personal accountant in his old job and the gambler was shot. It all happened as Josefina predicted but the accountant forgot to mention her to El Rey.
Two years later, El Rey Dragon dreamed he was standing atop an Aztec pyramid. He oversaw seven villages around him full of happy, healthy people living in comfort and riches. He then saw seven Spanish military regiments come out of the ocean and slay all of his people. When this happened, he awoke.
When he went back to sleep, he had another dream. This time seven buds, healthy and good, were growing on a single stalk. After them, seven other buds sprouted thin and were scorched by the sun. The thin buds swallowed up the seven healthy, full buds.
The next morning, he was very concerned. He consulted his most trusted curanderos, but none of them could make sense of his visions. His accountant finally remembered how Josefina had accurately predicted his fate and recommended her to his boss.
Sweating in the merciless heat, Josefina was busy spraying the shrubs when three white SUVs pulled over at a distance and motioned the field capo to bring her to them. They promptly brought her to the drug lord's home.
“I am told you can read dreams,” El Rey said to Josefina.
“I only pray to God that he helps me to see his messages.”
He told her both dreams he had and how nobody he knew could interpret them.
“Jefe, both your dreams mean the same thing. God's plan has become clear to me. The seven villages stand for seven years of prosperity and so do the seven full buds. The seven Spanish troops and seven dried buds stand for seven years of drought. It will be just as I said. For seven years, there will be an abundance of mota, but they will be followed by seven years where there won't be enough. The good years will be forgotten, and Los Dragones will be bankrupt. God gave you two dreams to let you be certain of this and that it will happen soon.
“Jefe, you should find someone who is wise and will know what to do so you can put him in charge. Appoint your capos to store a fifth of your weed harvest in temperate secure places so that it can be sold during the seven years of hard times to come. This will keep the cartel from getting ruined.”
El Rey looked at his accountant and then replied, “No one is wiser than you Josefina. You are to be the one who will manage this for all of Sonora.” He then got out from behind his desk and gave Josefina a signature Dragon ring and told her, “I might be El Rey but from now on you will be La Reina. Nobody in Sonora is to do anything without your permission.”
Josefina was thirty when she took on this powerful role. During the first seven years, the fields were abundant. She collected all the mota produced during that time and stored it in secret underground locations. So much was stored that people in Canada were probably wondering about the smell.
Before the years of drought came, Josefina became a kind of celebrity. The paparazzi came from all over to interview her. There were even movies and TV shows that popularized the legend of “La Reina.”
Eventually, the period of abundance came to an end and the seven years of drought would begin. Other areas of Mexico were heavily impacted but in Sonora, Los Dragones had plenty. Because of the drought, the local villagers complained to El Rey that they could not grow any food. He simply replied, “Go to Josefina and do what she tells you.”
As the drought spread through all of Mexico, the other cartels pled with Josefina to sell to them. She brokered many lucrative deals that made her and the cartel one of the wealthiest in Mexico. With this wealth she freely gave food and money to the people so they could live in relative comfort.
Back in Puebla, Juanita and her family were struggling. They couldn't grow any fruit to sell because of the drought. She looked angrily at her daughters. “Por que ustedes son tan flojeras?”
“Pero mamá, no tenemos...”
“Callanse sus bocas! Mira. Oir que ellos en Sonora son tan ricos. Su Tio me dije que los carteleros estan regalando comida y dinero a la gente. I want you to go over there and bring back whatever they give you.”
The sisters hitched a ride on the back of their uncle's pick-up headed down to Sonora, but Juanita did not send Victoria with them. She did not want harm to come to her.
A day or two later, they arrived at a warehouse surrounded by a long line of people. Each person was given a giant sack filled with masa, canned goods, money, clothes, and medicine. Josefina was there overseeing the entire operation. As soon as she spotted her sisters waiting in line, she recognized them instantly but pretended to be a stranger. She marched right up to them. “Y ustedes? De donde eres?” she asked.
“Somos de Puebla,” they replied. “Perdon Señora, but we are poor and starving. We have nowhere else to turn.”
It was apparent to Josefina that they had not recognized her in make-up and expensive clothes. “You are spies! Son el Dea!” She looked nothing like before when she used to live with them.
“No Señora! We promise. We are here for the same reasons as everyone else!”
No!” she said sternly. “No te creo!”
But then Yoli replied, “We are all sisters. There are 12 of us. We are daughters of Doña Juana. Our youngest is with our mother now and another died long ago.”
“Puras mentiras!” She wouldn't hear any more of it and turned to her guards who were standing by. They promptly arrested the sisters and drove them to an undisclosed location where they were locked in a room together for the next three days.
On the third day, she met with them. “If you really are who you say you are, then let one of your sisters stay here while the rest of you go and take this food back to your home. But you must bring your youngest sister to me, so that I can see you were telling the truth.” They all agreed to this, and it was decided that Yolanda would stay until the others returned with Victoria.
Each of them was given a sack of goods, but they were all very worried now. None of them said a word on the long ride home. When they returned to their mother, they told her everything. “Este Señora, she thought we were spies!”
Juanita was furious. “Tontas! Long ago you failed to protect your sister, Josefina. You lost Yolanda and now I have to give up Victoria too!? Ay, Dios mio! Por favor San Agustin, perdoname pero por que estamos en este pesadilla?”
After thinking it over, Juanita said, “No. She is not going. If something happens to her, too, I could never forgive myself.”
But a few months later, as the drought persisted and they used up all of their rations, their mother finally caved. “Go back to them and see if they will give us more food and water.”
“Mamá, la Señora told us very clearly that we had to come with Victoria.”
uanita shut her weathered eyelids. “Ok. Take her with you.” Then she scurried around their small shack and laid a few items before them: a crucifix, some of her old jewelry passed down to her, and the shawl that once belonged to Josefina and was now collecting dust. “Offer these to her as gifts and hopefully she will let all of you come back safely with Yolanda and Victoria.” As the sisters left, Juanita had got on her knees and prayed with her rosary facing a framed picture of the Virgin Mary on the corner of a wall.
The sisters fled to Sonora and quickly found La Reina at the same warehouse where they were distributing food to the people. When she saw Victoria with them, she ordered her guards to take them to her home.
They were very afraid and yet impressed as the maid showed them inside the magnificent villa. “Do you think she's going to believe us?” one of them asked the others.
When Josefina arrived, she saw their humble gifts laid out on a table before her. “We wanted to show our gratitude to you. Please accept these. It is all we can give.” When she saw the shawl, Josefina fled to her room unable to hold back her tears. She washed her face and carefully re-applied her make-up so they wouldn't recognize her.
Meanwhile, the sisters looked at each other now more concerned than ever. “That was our best shot. There's nothing else we can give. What are we going to do now?”
As they said this, they did not realize she had already returned. “How is your mother? Is she still alive?”
“She is still alive and very grateful to you for what you have given us.”
Josefina looked at all of them and found Victoria. “Is this your youngest sister, the one you told me about?” She was so happy to see her. Again, she tried to contain herself and nodded to one of the guards who promptly left. She turned to them and said, “You must be hungry. Come join me for some lunch and then you can be on your way.”
They looked suspiciously at each other but agreed. Presented before them was some of the best food they had ever eaten. A buffet of ambrosias: an assortment of carnitas, enchiladas with different types of moles, chilaquiles de pollo, gorditas, stewed guisados. The women eagerly helped themselves to as much as they could handle. While they ate the guards returned with Yolanda. “They fed me well and gave me things to do to keep me occupied,” she told them.
As they reunited with each other, Josefina whispered to her head maid, “I want you to fill their sacks with as much food and supplies as they can carry. But put my Rolex in Victoria's sack.” So, it was done.
After they were fed, the women prepared to leave. They got on the back of a pick-up truck with their sacks, thanked Josefina again and headed out. However, when they were only a mile or two away from her house, the driver got a call. He then made a sharp U-turn and headed back to the home of Josefina.
Now they truly feared for their lives. Back at her home, Josefina was waiting for them. “Why have you repaid my hospitality with a wicked deed?”
They all looked at each other confused and afraid. “Señora, we do not know what you mean. We are very grateful to you. That is why we brought you gifts.”
“So, you're going to play dumb.”
She nodded to the guards to dump out their sacks and there it was, glinting in the sunlight, the Rolex as it fell out of Victoria's sack. Victoria was just as stunned as her sisters and melted into fearful tears.
“You are going to stay here,” Josefina said to her and then she looked at the others. “The rest of you can leave and never return.”
The guards whisked Victoria away back to the house. “Please Señora,” they asked, “if we return without her it will break our mother's heart. She already looks down on us for not protecting another of our sisters that we lost long ago. If we lose Victoria, it would be too much for her. Surely her heart would not be able to take it.”
“I'm sorry but she chose her actions. How would I look if I let such a crime against me go unpunished? No. This time my generosity has come to an end.”
From among them, Yolanda stepped forth. She bowed her head as she fell to the ground before Josefina's feet. “Please...” she began in tears, “I am the oldest. Take me instead of her. I am the oldest, I should take responsibility here as I should have done long ago. I deserve this punishment more.”
Upon hearing this, Josefina could not stand it any longer. She ordered the guards to bring them all back into her house. She went with them but headed into her room to wash away her make-up. She took off her expensive jewelry and put on the colorful shawl her mother made for her long ago.
Then she returned to her sisters who were anxiously standing in the living room. “It is me, your sister. I am Josefina.”
It took a few seconds for them to match her words with her appearance. They had not remembered her face for so long. But her honest eyes and the shawl on her back were unmistakable.
“It's me, your sister. The one you sold to the cartel! Don't worry. All is forgiven. I realize now that this was part of God's plan. God needed me here to save lives, even yours during the drought.”
They all hugged her and cried and profusely apologized. After talking openly for a few hours she said, “Look, I want you to go back to mamá and tell her who I really am. Tell her to come here. I want you all to come live with me.” They took a picture of her to show as proof.
“Mira mamá, she is alive and rules over all of Sonora!” Juanita stared long and hard at the picture and then placed her hand over her heart with her mouth and eyes wide open. “Ay dios mio! I can't believe it. It is my Josefina!”
When she arrived and stood in front of her daughter, they threw their arms around each other and wept. From then on, Josefina settled her mother and sisters in Sonora and gave them a home in the best area.