Rosa’s lips were cracked and bleeding. Her world for a little something to drink or eat, to keep them going, just a little longer. The journey to America, to libertad.... What was the gringo word, ah yes, freedom, had not been easy. Then again Rosa and her family had known that it wouldn’t be from the plentiful stories that circulated among the families remaining in the small, hopelessly dusty village of Nuevo Muerte, Mexico.
Even the name of her family’s village, New Death, was symbolic of the perpetual loss and misery that surrounded their life. Despite the fact that many businesses had come from America, there were few jobs and far too many of her compadres applying for them. Turnover was rare, because the work was so hard to come by, few people complained or left once they got work.
Though Rosa had noticed something peculiar about these factories that troubled her, even though she lacked the education to comprehend it. Soon after the paint factory--one of several factories that lined up along the river on the east side of town--opened, people who lived along the river started to become ill - some even died. As more factories opened along the river, more people who lived downstream - men, women, children of all ages became very sick. These families were the outcasts of Nuevo Muerte, some for crimes they had committed, some for acting strangely (mental illness), and most for just being unfortunate enough to have no family, no wealth and no prospects.
Their dwellings were ramshackle at best. Cardboard, plywood, sheets of metal, old abandoned cars - these were the resources used to construct their shelter. Power, running water, and the like were completely out of the question as these dwellings couldn’t meet code. Lanterns and beeswax candles served for light, old car radios for entertainment, and discarded oil drums as cisterns for water. When the rain season hit, many of the cardboard shacks were simply washed away. The rains could force the river to crest it’s banks and when that happened, all who lived in the path of the raging river, fell victim to its unleashed fury.
What nature didn’t do to these disenfranchised people, the factories more than took care of. Within ten years of the factories moving to Nuevo Muerte, nearly three-fourths of the river rats as they were known, had died.
Rosa had known some of the people who lived by the river, they were her friends. She had never had any problem befriending people, until they gave her a reason to not be kind to them. Rosa found in these people, rare gems of life truths that over the years she had come to rely on. They saw the world with a clarity that most could not - and Rosa always valued that. Another benefit Rosa derived from these people was that most of these folks had delicious stories of times gone by, when Nuevo Muerte had been a different kind of town - before the Mexican-American war. A village that thrived on the mining of natural resources. Rosa’s family at one time had owned part of a mine - so her family had seen good times and now they were seeing bad times - those who were left - one more reminder of how much had been lost. So many men were lost to the war that the mines closed and a long dry spell of poverty had set in to Nuevo Muerte. That is, until the American factories began coming to the village.
So for some, really a precious few, the American dream had come to Nuevo Muerte, but for the majority - like Rosa and her familia, the dust had settled on their lives, and the vultures of time and opportunity had begun to circle. Juan, Rosa’s husband and best friend, had no interest in working in the American factories. In fact, Juan was convinced there was only one way out of Nuevo Muerte, and that was to actually leave town, finding work closer to, if not in, America. Rosa always knew that Juan believed to accept a job in the factories was to settle, and for Juan, whose pride had carried them thus far, there would be no settling, no compromise, only attaining the dream so many had tried and failed. Especially pitiful were the ones who had managed to get across the border, only to be captured and returned, rejected, beaten, half-starved and dejected. Juan would never get caught, Rosa believed that with all her heart - he was too smart. Their weaknesses and failures were carefully noted by Juan, stored mentally, so that each time he left the village to work, he took with him a growing list of things not to do. In the end, he never did get caught.
If only Juan had lived, how different their lives might have been. A man could make a decent living, decent by Mexican standards anyhow. If only he hadn’t been killed in the fields of America, the victim of a machine that scoured the fields harvesting vegetables. So Juan had managed to evade capture by the Federales, only to be handed a death sentence by a cold, impersonal machine that couldn’t distinguish between Juan and an ear of corn. Putting her personal grief and pain aside, Rosa understood immediately when she received word of his death that his loss put her family in dire straits. Then and there, Rosa resolved to get out of Nuevo Muerte, out of the death sentence handed to her by life, and to take her two daughters and herself and flee to the only place that offered hope - Tierra de Promision. The Promised Land. America.
After selling what they could of their personal belongings, they gathered the few mementos and pictures left, and headed to the prearranged spot, carefully negotiated with local Pedro deJesus, he being the one who made the journey to Tierra de Promision possible - with enough dinero of course. His unsuccessful attempts at negotiating a little sex on the side had been firmly and repeatedly rebuked by Rosa, who had no fear of men, unlike so many of her amigas. Pedro gave up finally and agreed to carry them to the border. After that, he had told her, they were on their own.
Twenty of them, all seeking the same promise of freedom, had voluntarily squashed themselves like the guts of a burrito into the back of the hot, smelly van. The oldest was 70, a man believing himself still macho enough to find work “if only”. Funny, Rosa thought to herself, they had all said “if only” at one point or another in the back of that van. So filled with promise, hope and yes, a healthy dose of fear. The Federales were notoriously mean, their reputation widely known, and to avoid them was the wisest route. So too, was taking the dirt road, for a van filled with twenty Mexicanos would not be welcomed at the U.S. Border, and that was understood by everyone. As the dust blew up in concentric plumes around the van, it made its way along the snaking trail. With nothing to do but continually steady herself and the girls against the violent lurching side to side of the van, Rosa felt as if the life she had known in Nuevo Muerte was being washed away by the wind and the rocking motion, to be replaced by gentler waves of water - happiness and love - all in great supply in America - “if only”.
They traveled for hours, without stopping which proved to be the one thing Rosa had not taken into consideration. Surely Pedro would understand that she and the girls couldn’t just pee in a plastic cup as the men had, Rosa shielding their eyes. Even Pedro had to possess some humanity. However, he steadfastly refused her repeated requests for un momentito. So Pedro left Rosa no choice but to give the girls permission to wet themselves, explaining in hushed tones that they would bathe and wash the clothing once off the van. They were only little girls, all would understand that. For herself, Rosa refused as stubbornly as Pedro, to pee at all. She was tough, she was strong, she would wait.
The bright golden sun was rising in the east as they left Nuevo Muerte, and it was now nearly dark by the time Pedro pulled the van to a stop roughly and in a terse whisper, ordered them out. “Vamos ahora,” he repeated several times. He pointed in a Northeastern direction and instructed them to run like conejos rabidiosos - rabid rabbits - if they wanted to survive. That is precisely what they did - not stopping for what felt like several hours. Their forward motion of running into the unknown terrain had long since been replaced with a quick trot, to a fast walk, to now where blistered feet, dry mouths and tired ninas necessitated walking with occasional breaks.
Rosa had decided that she would tell the girls - Maria, age seven and Selena, age five, that this was an adventure - hoping it would spark their energy and carry them further than the reality of the situation might. They seemed so tired all the time, for little children, so tired. Yet, they seemed to understand and shared in Rosa’s enthusiasm. She’d sold them on the idea almost immediately.
Long since separated from her other compadres in the group, Rosa and the girls made their own way, determined to find their path - because Rosa believed that God would lead them to safety. Rosa had always believed in God, before the abuelas had tried to teach her about God in church, she had her own relationship with God. That was how she knew it was safe to break away from the group, to go it alone in the desert with two girls - God had told her it was a beautiful day and they would be fine. Rosa believed it without question.
When their pace slowed because Rosa had to carry the littlest nina and all the possessions - which included two large portable plastic gas cans filled with water, she made the decision to stop for the night. A good night’s rest, some food in their bellies and a story would finish nicely what had quickly become the biggest adventure of their life.
Clothes rinsed, bladders emptied, bellies full, food depleted, and a tent made of her abuela’s hand sewn quilt brought them to a place they could call home por la noche. Rosa told a story to the girls, one of hope and possibility. For their part, Maria and Selena sat together, hands clasped, looking like cherubs with pouty lips, red-flamed cheeks surrounded by brown ringlets of long hair, their chocolate eyes wide as they listened to the grande tale their mother wove from her weary mind.
Her tale to the girls intentionally woven to fit their own journey to libertad. “This brave mother rabbit, with her two young babies, journeyed far through the forest. Her hutch had been destroyed by the gringos who were clearing the forest to make way for a big new factory, which left Momma Coneja no choice but to move her family to find another forest. The baby bunnies named Hope and Joy stayed close to their momma, because the forest proved to be very dark, and very scary. Their Momma was very proud of them for being so brave and for not complaining.”
“Momma!” Maria exclaimed, tired but excited, “They are taking a journey just likes ours!”
“Yes they are, Maria, and you and your sister Selena are just as brave as Hope and Joy were. I am very proud of both of you.” Rosa replied, swallowing her tears and her doubts. Lost in thought, she almost missed Selena’s statement.
“What funny names for the bunnies, Momma!” Selena giggled in rhythm with Maria, their eyes locked on their mother.
“Well, no bambina, those names were chosen carefully. Momma coneja wanted her baby bunnies to have names that would always remind her of what was good about life - even when bad people crossed her path. So you see, their names were muy importante.” Rosa smiled broadly, proud of herself for being so clever, despite the ache setting in across her shoulders from carrying the cans of water and her child.
“So Momma,” Maria whispered, her eyelids growing heavier, “what happened to the Coneja familia?”
“Well Maria, they found a mighty tree with a hole at the base of it. So they decided to use the tree as a house for the night. In the morning, they made some breakfast of carrots and turnips, and headed off to find their new home, in a safe and beautiful forest. But, we’ll finish their story tomorrow night. For now mi ninas, sleep - sleep with the angels wings around you. I love you bambinas.” Rosa watched lovingly, as the girls slowly drifted off to sleep - hopefully filled with fiestas, mucho toys, flores, and an ocean with the kind of water that made you believe in God because of it’s color and purity. Rosa had never seen the ocean herself, only in books, but that didn’t stop her from wanting to believe that her daughters could dream about it. Her daughters, Rosa hoped, would live the kind of life they deserved - one without fear, with hope, with potential - far away from Nuevo Muerte. That life was somewhere to the North of them, and Rosa was determined, despite her own pain and suffering - to keep them moving, to get them to libertad, no matter what it took.
Left to her own thoughts for the first time in several days, Rosa rested against a large boulder, one of several surrounding them, with her bloodshot eyes, cracked lips, and spasming bladder. She surveyed the stars of the cloudless night in search of....something, anything, some sort of sign to let her know that she was where she was supposed to be. Despite the beauty and majesty of the heavens, the twinkling stars, the pregnant moon - nearly full, and the cool breeze that brushed across her body like a welcome rain storm, no sign showed itself forth.
Welling up inside of Rosa was a tiny seed, so small at first she ignored it. But it grew quickly and it spread like a wildfire throughout her mind, her heart and her body. The seed was the culmination of pain, anger, frustration, sadness, loneliness, and fear...there she had seen it in her mind, acknowledged it - and now without her doing a thing, the fear was surging through her body, ahead of all the other emotions, winning the race to reach her lips to escape into the belly of the desert. Rosa slapped her hands over her mouth and let out a primal blood curdling scream, squelched by her hands into oblivion, and her tears which appeared in torrents, flowed silently to the desert floor, nourishing the dry ground in a way that she herself needed to be nourished.
Rosa’s eyes were blurry from the tears and her heaving sobs wracked her body of its remaining energy. She lay against the boulder, allowing the cold dampness to radiate throughout her back. Eyes now closed, mind exhausted, body shot, heart broken, Rosa drifted off to sleep.
Except for the occasional unfamiliar noises of the desert, Rosa and her daughters slept deeply, using each other and their blankets to keep warm against the chilling desert winds. The desert symphony of insects and whatever else managed to survive the treacherous conditions, revealed no noises of civilization, but Rosa knew instinctively they were close, she knew it as sure as she drew breath.
In the morning, the hot golden sun shone down brightly on them, serving as the alarm to wake up. Looking off to the distance for a place to relieve herself, Rosa could already see the shimmering waves of heat bouncing across the desert floor. Sweat beads were already forming on Rosa’s forehead and her skin felt hot to the touch. Today, would be merciless, as most days in a desert are.
Rosa considered the desert as she got up, using some of the remaining water to cool and clean herself as best she could. As she poured the soothing water over her body and raw lips from the gas can, she detected an odor of petroleum, but quickly dismissed it as just part of what was to be expected when taking a journey such as this. So her water smelled funny, at least they had water - for now.
A funny place - the desert, Rosa thought to herself. On the one hand, the desert was host to the most hearty of wildlife - plant and animal. A cactus could live in the desert a very long time, relying mostly upon itself and the sun to survive. It needed no humans, no pruning, no watering. Snakes and other such creatures like lizards and scorpions preyed upon those poor misguided and unfortunate creatures like rabbits, mice, occasional dogs and birds for their survival. The desert was the ultimate battlefield - the strongest of the strong pitted against the weak - both physically and in spirit. The enigma of how this came to be still puzzled Rosa, but she knew one thing - she and the girls would not be counted among the weak. They would not become prey, victims, or any other nonsense. That was not their destiny.
Without even reacting, Rosa reached for the now empty gas can, having used up the last of the water it contained and smashed the snake in front of her, hissing violently. In almost a trance-like state, Rosa quite efficiently beat the snake to death - her blows each landing squarely on the head of the fat rattler, until the hissing and rattling tail stopped. Thinking fast was part of survival, and Rosa was good at that. She liked to believe that her ability to think quickly would be a good skill to an employer. Her left hand steadied the snake on the hot rock as her right hand swung hard downward, cutting the snake’s head off cleanly the first time. The sacrifice of the snake’s life, ensured that her children would eat. With instinctive precision, Rosa quickly gutted the snake, saving only the parts that would be edible. She stored the snake in her old burlap bag, grabbed the empty gas can, and then headed back to the camp where the girls were just pouring the last of their water onto a lone, scraggly cactus.
“Mommy, look at the beautiful flowers! They looked thirsty so we gave them a drink. Mommy, would you tie my shoe, it’s got a big knot in it.” Selena’s words flew over Rosa’s head as the enormity of what just happened hit her. There went the last of their water. In their kind and spirited natures, the girls had just depleted what might well be the last water they would see for days. Trying hard to keep her composure, but devastated just the same, Rosa could only mutter, “Si, nina, I see, I see.” Back to Selena. Oh sure, she knew how to get water from cactuses, but the process was long and painful. Perhaps it was just as well, she thought to herself, the water did not taste right. Rosa had not known that the leftover gas from previous use still lingered in the plastic for years.
This setback would not stop them. Though it did mean that Rosa would have to think hard about how to get more water during their day’s journey. Wiping more sweat from her forehead, she resumed conversation with the girls - making small talk about the bareness of the desert, and the plan for the day, to walk until the sun set. They ate only part of the tortillas and beans, carefully wrapping the remaining food for later. They then picked up their belongings and set off once more, in a northeasterly direction, Selena fiercely waving goodbye to the cactus - the well-watered cactus.
Rosa and the girls sang songs to pass the time, songs of comfort and joy. They made animales out of the clouds above and talked of grande feasts and cool water. The terrain was flat, but very rocky - and the rocks were sharp and from time to time one of them would slip and fall. Cuts and bruises were part of traveling in such conditions, so complaints were kept to a minimum. They had seen several snakes, a few scorpions, but mostly, what they saw was miles and miles of barren wasteland, where nothing but sand, rocks, and the occasional desert plant lived in harmony with nature. The beauty of the desert was in its simplicity, and this kind of barrenness was vibrant when compared to Nuevo Muerte.
The songs and games allowed them to travel very far that day. However, by late afternoon, Selena started to complain of thirst - quickly joined in chorus by Maria. Rosa could not find any water - not even a cactus to nurse liquid from, but instead of growing angry with the girls she turned it into a game of hide and seek. “The water is hiding and we must find it!” She chirped in her most positive tone, hoping the girls would not pick up on her growing concern.
For the next couple of hours they scoured their surroundings, looking for anything. Nothing, not a thing. “Cara Dios,” Rosa prayed, “God grant it that we should find something, anything to keep us going. We were not meant to die in the dust in Nuevo Muerte, nor are we meant to die in the desert of Tierra de Promision. Algo, Padre, something!”
Just as Rosa finished her silent appeal to God, Maria let out a hoarse scream. Rosa’s deep brown eyes, wrinkled at the edges by the sorrows of life in Nuevo Muerte, frantically searched the desert until at last she focused on Maria jumping up and down, hands flailing, and oddly enough giggling. Rosa felt sure she was hysterical from the heat of the hot sun, believing it had burned through the child’s chocolate hair into her mind.
“Mamasita!” Maria screamed repeatedly. Rosa and Selena raced toward Maria, convinced she was about to watch Maria collapse from heat exhaustion. As Maria came more fully into view, far from her expectation, Rosa understood at once what had her hija in such a state of hysteria. There was a road, NO, a highway, paved, smooth, black, and with waves of heat rising from it. Bending down, Rosa gingerly touched the scalding pavement, and knew that her burned palm meant it was not a hallucination, it was real - they had found freedom! Curiously enough in the middle of the road was a perfect, three-tiered cake. “Salvacion!” Rosa cried out from her dry, cracked and bleeding lips as she ran toward Maria, who was now circling the cake, singing a old song of joy that Rosa had taught the girls, one Rosa had learned from her grandmother. Gleefully, Maria was celebrating her discovery. Selena joined her sister in the dance and song as Maria, having finally caught up to them, stopped just inches shy of the cake, and while catching her breath, surveyed the magnificent cake, a feast by anyone’s standards. Sure it was plato de comida, a bit messy, but it looked edible.
“I’ve got joy in my heart, at the sun rising and the birds singing. I’ve got joy in my heart, because I have hope for you. I’ve got joy in my heart, at the sight of this cake and how good it will taste. I’ve got joy in my heart, because I have love for you.”
Rosa marvelled at how Maria had so easily altered the words to fit the situation.
It was allright, it would all be okay. Taking Maria’s hand and Selena’s hand, they formed a circle around the cake and Rosa, in a voice filled with peace and determination exclaimed her simple life philosophy to the girls, “You must always believe in salvacion mi preciosas ninas, for all things are possible if you believe.”
(c) Rose Limongi, 2004