Victoria Ballesteros is a writer from Los Angeles. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, her work reflects her bicultural upbringing and experiences. Her stories have appeared or will soon appear in Your Impossible Voice, Latin@ Literatures, trampset, Cutleaf Journal, ¡Pa'Lante!, The Acentos Review, and ¡Basta! Anthology. She is enrolled in the creative writing program at UCLA extension. Find her on Twitter at @VicB_Writes.
Tomasa pressed her fingertips to her forehead, brought them down to her chest, reached over, and touched her left shoulder, then her right. After blessing herself, she clasped her hands together and said a quiet prayer to the Virgen de Guadalupe.
“Querida virgencita, be with me in my time of need. Take care of my family and keep us safe. I place myself in your hands.”
A Virgen de Guadalupe candle flickered as she prayed. Tomasa believed in God and Jesus, but when she needed a miracle, her faith was with the Virgen.
She lay in bed and listened to the sound of traffic as Tiburcio slept next to her. Their bedroom window faced the northbound 605 freeway. As cars sped by, beams of light entered the room through the curtains and moved across the ceiling like spotlights in the night sky. She could see mold growing around the aluminum window frame and a coat of soot on the screens from the exhaust of passing vehicles. Tomasa rolled over with her back to the window. She watched the numbers change on the white, plastic clock on the nightstand, marking the passing of each minute with a soft click.
Tomasa drifted in and out of sleep. She’d doze off and find herself in a maze of abandoned buildings, taunted by the wind that carried the cries of her children and parted her hair like a jagged comb. Running in the direction of their voices, she’d find herself chasing echoes. The sound of her own screams would awaken her. After a few minutes and another prayer to the Virgen, she’d repeat the cycle.
In another variation of the dream, she was in the garment factory on North Los Angeles Street where she once worked, looking for her godson Beto. It was dark, and the sewing machines were still. Mounds of unsewn clothes and fabric created a wall 100 feet high, with Beto on the other side crying out to her. She tried digging her way through the piles of material but couldn’t reach him. She woke up from that dream drenched in sweat, arms tangled in her blankets.
The nights continued like this for the better part of a month as Tomasa thought about her godson, Beto. In the morning, as Tiburcio got dressed for his shift at the General Motors plant, she tried to get information. Tiburcio laced up his Red Wing work boots as she spoke.
“Have you heard any news? Any word from the rancho?” she asked.
“Vieja, that is not your concern,” Tiburcio responded. “It will happen when it happens,” he added, ending the conversation.
She knew the men could show up at any moment. For a fee of $500 U.S. dollars, Beto would be brought 1,500 miles north to Tomasa and Tiburcio’s home in Norwalk. She imagined the moment of his arrival over and over. The knock on the door might happen during the day while the children were in school and Tiburcio was at work, or in the middle of the night as the family slept. She tried to ignore the weight in her stomach, which grew heavier as the days passed. She reminded herself to breathe and go about her business so that her children wouldn’t sense anything was amiss.
Back in bed for another sleepless night, Tomasa thought about her journey with Tiburcio to the north, how she’d given birth along the way, and how they ended up in their current home. They were living in Compton when the last of her children were born. For five years, she and Tiburcio had rented a one bedroom, one bathroom, roach-infested bungalow on Acacia Street, paying $105 per month. On the day their youngest daughter, Catarina, was baptized, Tomasa was eager to get a head start on warming the birria and frijoles for the celebration. She headed home with the baby in her arms, still in her white dress and cap while the rest of the family stayed at the church hall cleaning up. Walking alongside Tomasa was her youngest son Emilio, who was three. As they turned on Acacia Street and approached the bungalow, Tomasa felt a pipe strike the back of her head, the vulgar sound of metal on bone ringing in her ears. She bent over in pain–never letting go of the baby–as the white silk bag she was holding was ripped from her hands. In it was $53.00, gifted to Catarina in small amounts from family, friends, and neighbors.
“Fucking wetback!” was all Tomasa heard as the man ran off with her money.
Tomasa stood dazed on the sidewalk with Catarina and Emilio who were now wailing. The neighbors, Doña Lupe and Don Pedro, rushed from their house across the street to tend to Tomasa and her babies. Later that night, as Tiburcio climbed into bed, Tomasa gave him an ultimatum.
“Tiburcio,” she said in a voice that emanated from deep within her belly as she watched a roach cross the ceiling. “Lo juro por Dios, either we leave together, or I am taking the children, but I will not live like this anymore!”
Within two months, they purchased their house in Norwalk for $18,000 on ‘rent to own’ terms. It was an overwhelming sum, but they agreed they could survive on beans and tortillas. The new house was a mansion compared to the bungalow, with two bedrooms, one bathroom, and a sizable backyard with a lemon tree and two peach trees. The house sat across from the northbound lanes of the freeway, separated by a chain link fence and a narrow road. Tiburcio planted corn, zucchini, tomatoes, strawberries, pumpkins, guayaba, rosemary, spearmint, and green beans in the backyard, all of which made their way to the dinner table.
Tomasa’s thoughts drifted back to her children sleeping in their rooms. Her four daughters shared the other bedroom, and her five sons slept in the converted garage. She’d given birth to twelve but only nine survived, with three being stillborn. Those babies stayed behind in Mexico. She often wondered what became of the souls of children born with no life in them. She refused to believe that St. Peter would not allow them into heaven and had faith she would see them again when her time came.
The clock read 3:32 a.m. Sleepless nights were not new for Tomasa; there was always something happening that required her prayers. A cousin’s wife had cancer; a friend’s husband lost his fingers in the machinery at work.
As Tomasa lay in her semi-awake state, she thought she heard a tap on the front door. Her eyes bulged out, body frozen as she waited to see if she’d imagined the sound. She could feel the blood pulsating inside her skull as the cold air flowed through her nostrils. After a long pause she heard it again, this time with certainty: three swift and urgent knocks on the front door. She sat up in bed and shook her husband, waking him with a loud whisper.
“Tiburcio! Tiburcio, somebody’s at the door!”
Tiburcio sat up without saying a word and stepped out of bed. His long sideburns and hair were disheveled, his eyes red. He slipped into the brown polyester pants he’d left on the floor, still wearing white cotton briefs and his undershirt from the day before. He buckled his belt, threw on a jacket, and reached into his nightstand to pull out a Smith & Wesson .22 revolver. He reached behind his back and tucked the gun into his waistband.
“Stay here,” he said to Tomasa as he walked out of the bedroom. He headed to the front door and cracked it open to see a man standing in the dark.
“I have your package from Mascota,” the man said in a voice that sounded like gravel from deep within the earth, naming the small town in Mexico from which they came. Tiburcio unlatched the safety chain, stepped outside, and closed the door behind him. Hearing this, Tomasa rushed from the bedroom to the kitchen window to look outside. Past Tiburcio and the stranger, two men were sitting in a 1973 Buick Electra parked under the streetlight. She could see her godson, Beto, in the backseat. He was not moving. Tomasa imagined what he must be feeling at that moment, what he must have gone through to get here, and felt a pain rising in her throat so unbearable she feared she might cry out.
Tomasa ran back to her bedroom and put on her shoes. She was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt and grabbed a jacket. She knew better than to go outside with Tiburcio – this was men’s business, it belonged to them. As she was putting on her jacket, Tomasa gasped. She remembered that her little girls, Joanna and Catarina, were asleep in the living room sofa bed.
She needed to get them as far away as possible from the men at her door. Tomasa rushed to the living room. The glow of passing headlights lit the room and she could see her daughters tangled in their blankets. Outside, an unknown voice was discussing payment with Tiburcio. She turned to her two girls who were holding hands as they slept.
“Mijas! Mijas, wake up. You need to come with me right now,” she said, shaking Joanna awake. The girls knew better than to question their mother and followed half-asleep as Tomasa led them to her bedroom. Joanna was in a long blue flannel gown, and Catarina wore Peanuts pajamas with a Snoopy and Charlie Brown pattern they’d found at the Goodwill thrift store.
“Wait!” Catarina cried out. She let go of her sister’s hand, ran back to the sofa bed, and grabbed Fred, her stuffed dog, who was still wrapped inside the blankets. They climbed into Tomasa’s bed as she closed the bedroom door.
“It’s the coyote,” whispered Joanna.
Catarina’s eyes went wide with fear.
“Like the big bad wolf?” she asked as her older sister giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. Catarina imagined a four-legged beast standing upright at the front door, like in the story.
Tomasa dismissed their talk.
“Shhhhhh, go to sleep. No more talk of coyotes!” she insisted.
Tomasa went to her closet. Her hands trembling, she reached for the Sagrada Biblia she kept wrapped in plastic on the top shelf. It had gold-gilt edges and an image of Jesus on the cover. She opened the bible. Tucked deep inside the pages was a Nuestra Señora de la Victoria envelope containing $500.00 in small bills. Her hands continued to shake as she counted the money. She’d counted it a dozen times over the last few days, but needed to be sure one last time.
Tiburcio and Tomasa had managed, with great effort, to come up with the $500, the going rate for smuggling a person across the border. Some coyotes charged far less, but the risk of capture – or worse – was higher. Others charged far more, which increased the risk of being robbed or charged a ransom, because then the coyotes suspected the family had some money. In an underground business that catered to desperate families, tragic endings were not uncommon. For Tomasa and Tiburcio, $500 represented a year’s worth of plotting, saving, and hustling. Tiburcio earned $3.80/hour at the General Mills plant, well above minimum wage, but with nine children to feed, it was a stretch. Tomasa sewed garments at home when she could, for which she was paid by the piece. Along with donations from family and friends who wanted to see Beto, they’d scraped together the money.
Beto was 11 years old when his mother Juana died. His father had long since disappeared, going to the north, never to be heard from again. Juana was Tomasa’s childhood friend in Mexico, and they grew up dreaming of the day they would raise their children in the abundance of the north. They imagined refrigerators full of food like the ones in the Sears Roebuck catalog, and big, grassy yards where their children could play together.
One September day, Juana came down with a cough – a common infection, everyone thought – but there was no money for a doctor and no medicine. Two weeks later Juana died of pneumonia. Tomasa’s last promise to Juana was that she would always look out for Beto. Through sheer will and persistence, Tomasa orchestrated the move, with Tiburcio and his brother securing a job for Beto in Santa Maria, picking strawberries with his cousins. He would stay with Tiburcio and Tomasa for a few weeks before heading further north. First, they needed to get through this night and pay the men for Beto’s delivery.
Tomasa heard the front door open, and Tiburcio call out to her.
“Vieja, bring me the money!”
Tomasa shushed her daughters who were talking under the blankets. She hurried to the front door, clutching her jacket to her chest as she handed her husband the envelope. She headed back to her bedroom and leaned against the wall to wait. She stared straight ahead in the darkness. Her breathing slowed to a halt as she settled her gaze on the floor in front of her. The tan linoleum with white specks was lifting in one corner, and mold was growing near the floorboards.
She was snapped back into the moment when she heard the men begin to argue outside. Tomasa put her ear to the door. The man with the gravel voice was raising his price to $750. Tiburcio protested the change in terms. Tomasa felt her body go cold as the men’s voices grew louder. She could hear the cars speeding by on the freeway and thought of the drivers of those cars, safe in their travels and unaware of the injustice unfolding in her house. Tomasa had heard enough stories to know that these transactions could end in violence. A siren wailed in the distance, and the neighbor’s dog started to bark. Tomasa’s head began to spin as she became frantic with fear. She made the sign of the cross, knowing they had to figure out what to do next. She couldn’t let anything happen to Beto, who had already come so far.
Tiburcio came inside and entered their bedroom. Beto was not with him.
“Hijos de sus putas madres,” Tiburcio said under his breath in a voice filled with rage that Tomasa did not recognize.
“Tiburcio, what are we going to do?” Tomasa asked in desperation.
Tiburcio turned to Tomasa to speak then stopped himself when he realized his daughters were in the room. He looked back at Tomasa, held her eyes for a moment, and said, “Leave it to me, vieja. You take care of the girls.”
Tiburcio walked to the nightstand, opened the top drawer, and pulled out a small black pouch. Inside it were several silver coins he’d brought with him from Jalisco in 1965. They were worth about a hundred U.S. dollars and Tiburcio had taken comfort knowing they had money stashed away for family emergencies. As the negotiations with the coyote had become volatile, Tiburcio decided that this was an emergency. He placed the coins in his jacket pocket, checked the bullets in the revolver, and placed it back in his waistband. He walked outside to talk to the man who was now joined by his compañero.
Tomasa turned to her daughters who were pretending to be asleep and felt her fear turn into rage. Then a sense of calm enveloped her. She walked to her side of the bed, reached under the mattress, and pulled out her grandfather’s long, curved machete. Tomasa kept it sharpened and stored in its leather sheath. She unsheathed the long blade and held it in her right hand as it caught the light from the passing headlights. Tomasa made eye contact with Catarina. Her youngest child was awake and terrified at the sight of her mother holding the weapon.
Tomasa bent over her daughter.
“Mija, go back to sleep, there is nothing to fear.”
Catarina squeezed her eyes shut and hugged Fred to her chest. Joanna grabbed her little sister’s hand as Tomasa pulled the blanket over her girls, grateful that her older daughters and sons were fast asleep.
The house was quiet. Tomasa could hear the clock counting the minutes as they passed. She could no longer hear the men talking, only a high-pitched ringing in her ears. She kissed the scapulary she wore around her neck with the blessed mother on one side and the sacred heart of Jesus on the other. She stood facing the bedroom door, machete in her right hand, prepared for whatever might come next. She was not afraid.
Another minute went by. Then two. Five minutes, which felt like hours passed when she heard the front door open. It slammed shut. She heard footsteps and a loud thud, the sound of something heavy dropping to the ground. Tomasa positioned herself, ready to strike. The footsteps moved in her direction, becoming louder as they approached the bedroom. She could tell by the sound that two people were approaching. She grabbed the doorknob and pulled the door open wide; machete raised in the air. Standing before her with flushed cheeks and a soft smile was her godson, Beto, his overgrown curly hair lopsided from the long journey. Tiburcio stood behind him.
“Hi, Nina Tomasa,” said Beto in a voice not quite a man’s but no longer that of a child. Seeing his black coffee eyes, Tomasa dropped the machete to the ground and stepped forward to embrace him, sobbing. Catarina and Joanna looked at their mother, then at each other with eyes wide open, illuminated by the glow of the Virgen de Guadalupe candle flickering in the room.