De mil heroes la patria aqui fue

It is a sleepy day in the Mission District. A slight breeze whisps by, seeming to mimic the sound of the underground BART trains leaving the 16th Street station. Latinos in collared flannel shirts wipe their hands on dirty rags slipping from their back pockets in the repair shop halfway to The Panaderia—the bakery. Others shuffle by in typical Latino clothing—cowboy hats, Western-style ties around their necks, heavy belts—and keep their heads down aside from a brief nod and quick turn of the eyes as they quietly wish me a “Buenos dias.” Two women stand huddled together in front of a cookie-cutter ramshackle apartment that shares a wall with a Mexican market. The shorter, fatter woman turned her head upon eye-contact and puffed her cigarette facing the edifice. The sleek, younger woman kept her eye on her daughter—a small, tan girl with pigtails, sporting a pink shirt and worn purple windbreaker. A table sits on the very edge of the curb with hand-me-down Barbies, toy cars and little ornaments in the shapes of animals, with a low price scribbled on hardly-visible blue stickers stuck all over the treasure trove. A block down, after stumbling over haphazardly strewn bikes on the sidewalk outside of an obnoxious yellow coffee shop that charged $2 for a medium coffee while patrons sit cross-legged, obsessively heaving over iPhones, an elderly Latina sits behind a table of handmade necklaces of blue, red, green and yellow stones. Her head slumps as the wrinkles on her brow make her eyes appear half shut. Her wrinkled jaw line quivers. I turned my head as I crossed the street to get a better look. A van proclaiming the word of Jesus covered her entirely.

The bakery huts from the corner with its lackluster white façade. The Flower Vendor sits in his usual place on the two dirty steps leading up to a clear door with a barren frame that must be chained closed lest it remain jarred open like a tired mouth. There is a stain of dirt on the right side of the door, where the Flower Vendor sits, due to his frequent stops in front of the panaderia. The bell stuck between the door and the crack above jingles a sad tune. “Buenos dias,” says Maria, the woman behind the counter. She has a sweet smile on her face. She looks like Mama. Her lips are full, but dainty little roses painted a bright pink upon her tan face. Her hair flips out on the sides, with a slight blonde hue painted in to give her a glow. She was like an older version of Mama’s wedding photo.

“Is Jaime here?” I asked in Spanish. “I’m curious about the bakery.” She raised an eyebrow and looked around to humor me before frowning, obviously upset with the news she had to give me.

“Ay, señorita,” she sighed. “No esta. Nunca esta aqui los viernes.” (“Oh, little lady. He’s not here. He’s never here on Friday”)

I gathered myself for a minute. He forgot we were supposed to talk today.

“Puedes esperar si quieres. Hay pan si quieres comprar,” she said. (“You can wait if you want. There’s bread if you want to buy some.”)

I smiled and decided to wait for an hour while I peeked at the cabinets of sweets that were available. The colors and smells were all like Mexico. One clear case closest to the window glimmered with cupcakes drenched in vibrant sprinkles, all one color, never mixed. The names of each bread were scratched onto cards covered with flour in rustic yellow letters. They were all in Spanish. A few blondes wandered in and tried to make sense of the pricing, inquiring about each bread simply by pointing instead of trying to pronounce the name. Maria stood straight and patient at the counter the entire time until she is approached. After a few awkward moments of trying to start conversation between the sharp interruptions in English courtesy of the two blondes—one of which forgot to take her sunglasses off in an obviously dark room, only illuminated by drooping shells covering weak lightbulbs. It was quiet once they were gone.

“¿Porque quieres platicar con Jaime?” Maria asked.

“Estoy hacideno un articulo para me clase. Quiero platicar con el de la inmigracion,” I answered to her dismay. (“I’m doing an article for class. I want to talk to him about immigration.”)

    “Oh!” she chimed in with a laugh. A thundering slam echoed from the back room where the rest of the bread was being made. There were a few inaudible comments that echoed deeply throughout the back. One woman emerged in the doorway. She was short and chubbier, with a hat keeping her long hair back and out of the way of the bread. She had a defined face, round with sharper bone structure, except for her nose. Her nose was a little blub on her face, as her eyes curved into what looked like little tadpoles.

“¿Estas aqui para trabajar?” she asked, enthused. (“Are you here to work?”)

     I shook my head. “No señora.” She opened a cabinet closest to the window and set down a tray of bread cut into ovals, with a vibrant red filling in the center that looked just like an egg. Coconut flakes covered the edges. She sighed.

“Ooo,” she howled. “Yo pense que viniste para el trabajo. No tenemos suficiente empleados.” (“I thought you came for a job. We don’t have enough employees right now”)

     The silver tray slammed and made a piercing echo throughout the bakery. They called the place Victoria. Victory.

“Pues, Jaime no esta,” Maria said with another sigh. “Puedes esperar por un ratito si te dijo que iba a venir.” (“Well, Jaime isn’t here. You can wait for a little be if he told you he was coming.”)

I spent 10 minutes rummaging through day-old bread and staring contemplatively at sugar-glazed puffs of bread while my head told me Jaime was never going to show up. Maria eyed me as the Headmaster who asked me if I was there for a job paced back in forth in the baking room. Maria had a sympathy to her eyes, which I had come to associate with my mother. I swallowed impatiently, as I didn’t know what I could say that would make Jaime come or if she would know anything that could help me. I knew how much it annoyed me when strangers assumed my mother was the bank of information on all things Latino. Would it be rude to ask her where she was from and how she got here?

“¿De donde eres?” she asked. (“Where are you from?”)

     “Los Angeles,” I quip.

“¿Y tus papas?” (“And your parents?”)

     “Mi mama es de Morelos” (“My mother is from Morelos”)

     “¡Mexico!” she smiled.

I went on a tangent about my dad’s American-ness and the lack of Latino blood in him. I said some random drivel about having an accent when I spoke Spanish because I grew up speaking English more because of my dad, and made little references to my mom’s side-conversations when dad was within earshot, but not willing to contribute to what we had to say. She smiled the whole time. Maria fled Mexico around the same time my mom did in the early 80s. Mom didn’t flee. She came to learn English to earn her Master’s. But Maria fled in the hopes of a better life, like the old adages go. She hails from Jalisco, a state that wraps around my mother’s home. Jalisco is No. 3 on the list of Mexican states immigrants in the U.S. are from, behind Michoacan and Oaxaca. Her daughter was a different story.

“Mi hija va al UNAM,” she said. (“My daughter goes to UNAM.”)

     My mother always told me about UNAM. It is the most prestigious school any Mexican citizen could ever hope for. The admissions process is a systemic web of tests and applications, much like anything in Mexico—getting a passport, getting a visa—and to be on the other end of an acceptance letter was like being found in the desert after years and being told you would live like a king forever. If you didn’t blow it, that is. Then you’d be like my tia Geno, who my mother would snarl at on occasion with the memory of her screaming at my abuelito and abandoning UNAM for the sake of a man. UNAM was definitely a place you respected more than yourself.

Maria was something of a missing piece to life in San Francisco for me. She was here to stay, though the lament of leaving the grassy shade of Mexico, the glimmering of the moon in its late night hours and warm tropical storms was present in the flimsy way she threw about her words when she spoke of it. And her daughter dared to leave what some say is the comfort of American life—though Mexican children never believe it—to be there. I always told mom I was moving to Mexico after college.

Maria asked me about mom a lot, particularly if dad “fixed her.” It’s how she described becoming a citizen. Maria got “fixed” when her daughter was 10 through the “regular process.” She was never more specific than that.

“¿Y todavia tienes miedo? ¿O sientes mejor estar aqui siendo legal?” I asked. (“And are you still afraid? Or do you feel better knowing you’re legal?”)

     “No, ya no tengo razon para tener miedo. No, no, no. Estoy contenta por que no me pueden llevar,” she said, waving her hands as if to say it was sacrilige to think being legal would ever be anything short of glorious. (“No. I don’t have a reason to be afraid. No, no, no. I’m happy because they can’t take me away.”)

A stout old man shuffled in. The door pinched his short, ragged body. He turned around and made a hoarse scoffing sound deep in his throat as he shook his head. His wrinkled face rolled down to his neck and shook with his dissatisfaction. His red plaid shirttails stuck out awkwardly from his brown corduroy. He sniffled. Maria stared wide-eyed. His thinning white hair barely touched down on his head. His white skin seemed to be more noticeable against the bakery that was decorated brown to its very heart.

“Good morning,” he said gruffly while clearing his throat.

Maria wrung her hands. Her eyes were still as wide as they were the moment he walked in. She put a hand on the register, flipped around and looked at the coffee dispensers before fixing the stack of white squares on the counter.

“Uh…uh,” she stammered as she looked into my eyes. She let out a long breath. “Good morning.” Her accent barely allowed her to pronounce the d in “good.”

The man shuffled over to the counter, a wrinkle in his forehead. “Coffee,” he said.

Maria said nothing. She slowly began lifting a finger and accidentally pointed at the coffee making station with the cream and sugar, where customers could fix the traditional Mexican blend to whatever they fancied.

“Yes,” the old man barked. “Coffee.”

She began hastily pouring coffee. “Oh!” she gasped. “Um…American coffee, yes?” She put the cup down to keep it from shaking.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” the old man said impatiently. She pushed the cup across the counter, mouth agape. “$1.75, señor…um…sir.” A crumpled dollar and six coins dropped down on the counter. She carefully scraped them up and counted in Spanish. “Vienticino, thrientiacinco…” She stopped and shook her head. “Twenty-five, thirty-five, fourty-five…” She dumped each coin one by one and crammed the dollar in, wrinkling it and getting it caught in the metal mousetraps of the register. “Thank you,” she said, not pronouncing the h. He said nothing. The bell rang as he trudged up 16th. Her face was flushed, yet she turned and gave me her motherly smile.

Mother, Do You Think They’ll Drop the Bomb?

My gasps between tears were long and heavy. My throat was feeling tighter with each breath. I could almost see my lungs being force to their capacity as I shook and wailed like an injured animal. The parking lot was deserted, but through my tears it appeared as though cars were speeding by in a flurry of smog and hearty engine noises. It was like crying on a freeway.

“Megan!” mom shouted. “Megan, shut up! Enough! Enough! Shut the fuck up, Megan. It’s over.”

I begged my mother to let me cry as I tried to carefully peel back my emotions like a delicate tangerine, without slipping more into hysterics. “No, mom. Why? It’s not fair, mom. I hate her. I hate her, she doesn’t even know you.”

The only thing that succeeded that miserable shouting was a nail in the crevice of my forearm on the underside of my elbow. It was like a magic cure. A painful, magic cure. My voice quivered, my tears were broken. I was not better. I was not done. Mom was.

Three years later, I told mom I wanted to report on Latino issues. “And do what? Be the same like everyone else? Feeling sorry for people who don’t need saving? Be careful how you report on your own people,” she said, her accent somehow helping her take command of the moment.

“Well, what should I report on, mom?” I asked.

“Report on how all of us would leave this country if we didn’t have husbands and children,” she scorned. When mom would get upset when I was younger, she would cry and go to the master bedroom claiming she was going to Mexico and leave us all alone.

“Report on how nothing we do matters. We are always Mexican.”

I sat quietly, rubbing my hand over my hot coffee mug. I was everything like my mother. She was doing the same thing, with that same right hand under her chin, looking down at her cup. The only difference was that I was born here.

“Mom, remember the time that woman in the parking lot told you to go back to Mexico?”

She reclined back, drew a breath and said: “Si. ¿Y que con eso? Pinche vieja no me conoce. Y tu de chillona. ¿Porque te preocupas tanto, mija?” (“Yes. And what of it? That fucking hag doesn’t know me. And you—being a crybaby. Why do you worry so much, honey?”)

     “Because mom…eres legal. ¿Como pueden decir esas cosas?” (“Because mom…you’re legal. How could anyone say those things?”)

     “Ay, Megan, callate ya. No pueden ver si eres legal, entonces ¿pa’ que chingados me importa?” (“Ay, Megan. Shut up now. Legality isn’t visible, so why the fuck does it matter?”) In English, mom was the business administration major—with a master’s—who knew her stuff when you asked her. She was a classy woman who knew how to get clothes, jewelry, handbags and make-up from Macy’s for less than half the price (sometimes free) with her black card she got from spending $1,000 or more annually and buying enough at retail price to start winning neatly enveloped cupons. She never swore, but sometimes she was partial to “shit,” if she really lost it. In Spanish, she was just the same, except for a voracious speaker with an affinity for cursing and hacking words to pieces when she was upset. She told strangers they were stupid more so than in English. She was everything short of a razor blade wrapped in an aggressive package, but no one in this country ever knew.

“America doesn’t know anything about us. They know as much about legals as they know about illegals, but they would be nothing, Megan. They would be nothing without us. We do everything to be like them and we’re never like them,” she said before taking a proud sip of coffee.

Al sonoro ruguir del cañon

Maria scribbled Jaime’s cell phone number on a faded yellow Post-It before I left the first time.

“Jaime es bien olvidon, pero nos cuide,” she said as she passed off the note and held my hand for a moment. (“Jaime is very forgetful, but he takes care of us.”)

The Flower Vendor was sitting at a table in the very center of the initial entryway of the bakery. He slouched back and his droopy eyes wandered back and forth. He looked as though he was washing away. He would smile at Maria sometimes and raise a shriveled hand, his fingers slightly curled as if to raise his hand to mark his turn to speak. He would make quick, cheery comments about how beautiful the place still was, what the weather was like and how he was happy it was Friday.

“Nadie habla directamente sobre inmigracion o si alguien es legal o no,” Maria said. (“Nobody speaks directly about immigration or if someone is legal or not.”) The Flower Vendor nodded, his head flopping so that the glimmer of his eye could barely be seen under his sombrero. He smiled and didn’t say anything. “Pero por lo menos cuando te arreglan, no tienes que tener miedo aunque te tienen miedo a ti.” (“But at least when they fix you, you don’t have to be afraid even if they’re afraid of you.) The whole time, The Headmaster and the rest of the bakers stuffed themselves in the doorway of the baking room. They were wind-up dolls, strolling back and forth with what seemed like the same metal trays before splitting off in an odd dance into the front of the bakery, where the pans slammed and the scent wafted even stronger into the nose.

Jaime never answered my calls for the weekend. Monday morning a tall, tan man in a purple scarf loosely spun around his neck stood over the cash register. “Buenos dias.”

“Jaime?” I asked. He placed his hand awkwardly on the counter, making it difficult not to stare at the yellow gauze sloppily wrapped around his hand. I reminded him about his missed interview.

“Oh. See, I’d love to talk to you, but I don’t look very presentable right now and I don’t think it would be appropriate.”

Jaime Maldonado is hailed as a savior of the Latino culture, with his bakery displaying Latino art, inviting the Latino community and staying true to its Mexican heritage when it comes to the bread he serves. He is the face of the Mission food scene, with videos posted on blogs surrounding all things San Francisco proudly brandished on his Web site. The Headmaster and the bakers peered through the doorway during our whole conversation. They never spoke up. They never came out. But we always made eye contact.

Maria bunched her lips to the right and frowned.

I was back on Friday. “¿Hay ilegales trabajando aqui?” I asked Maria. (“Are there any illegals working here?”)

     “Pues, todos empezamos asi. Algunos terminan asi. Nadamas seguimos trabajando,” she said. (“Well, we all start that way. Some end that way. We just keep on working.”)

Of course Mama’s gonna help build the wall

Mom got deported almost a week after her wedding. She and dad got married after six months of dating to keep her in the country after her visa expired. After a day of 1980s bliss with mom’s ball gown in front of a crowd of people whose language my dad did not understand, they were ready to go back to the States soon. “Fuimos una bola de mensos. Lo hizimos mal,” my mom said. (“We were a couple of idiots. We did it wrong.”) They married in Mexico first. Mom got taken to a facility where she remembers three separate groups of people sitting in each corner of what was like a grey pen. An elder Latino sat in arthritic pain, looking down and never speaking. On older Asian man did the same opposite him. Mom was opposite of two young Asian girls, sisters, skinny and frail and strewn on top of each other, sobbing hysterically. She remembers being driven in a cave and being pulled in every which direction along with the others to make sure something always blocked their view of the general area to keep them from deducing where they were. Dad spent hours yelling at the airport. Mom was long gone, flying solo on a plane back to Mexico City.

In the month she fought for her paperwork, mom lost 20 pounds. “I could not eat. I never ate. I think I went days without eating,” she said.

Four months later, my mom stared down the border, a dusty brown archway where dad’s old red Chevy hummed impatiently. She pulled out her passport for a clean-cut, blond American man who looked as though he’d been in the military. “Where are your bags?” he asked.

“I don’t have bags,” mom said. She gasped. He stared intently, her passport inches from sliding out of his hands and onto the ground.

“No bags?”

“I…I…no. No bags,” she said, wringing her hands. Silence.

“Go through,” he sighed.

Mom was illegal for another three months until she was able to take and pass her citizenship test. She’s never been above 110 pounds since her deportation.

“It was horrible. I was in pain every day,” she said. “No piece of paper could ever fix what I went through.”

Un laurel para ti de Victoria, un sepulcro para ellos de honor

The Flower Vendor slept in front of la Victoria bakery. A group of teens pushed past, some clad in neon and dangling black adornments of lace while shouting and pulling the backpacks of those riding bikes. He stirred and rolled over. He clasped onto his bucket to keep the “gueros” from tipping over his haul. Now he nods and his head wobbles under his sombrero. “Buenos dias.”

“Soy legal, pero soy Mexicana,” Maria said as she leaned toward me and handed me another cup of coffee. “Todos, ultimamente somos Mexicanos.” (“I’m legal, but I’m Mexican. We are all, ultimately, Mexican”)

The streets were dry every Friday, with the same picturesque moments of families speaking a muffled tongue. Their faces, their movements all seemed to run together.

“Vivmos sin cara, aunque damos todos a este pais,” mom said to me years before. (“We live without a face, even if we give everything to this country.”)

The Headmaster heckled me about a job again as she continued her robotic spin through the bakery with her fellow employees, who never greeted me. Jaime never returned when I dropped by. I never met the bakers save for a “Buenos dias.”

“Illegals work there,” some said. I couldn’t tell.