Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
TIERRA Y LIBERTAD
b y   c a r o l   z a p a t a - w h e l a n   ~   c l o v i s ,   c a l i f o r n i a

Another time it will be like this, another time: things will be the same, some time, some place. What happened long ago, and which no longer happens, will be again -- it will be done again -- as it was in far-off times: Those who now live, will live again, they will... live again... .

-- Nahuatl Proverb

THE DAY that General Emiliano Zapata cursed the fang marks that a rattler had just left him, a young campesino, Tranquilino Tiburcio Rodriguez Garcia, galloped faster than the poison and pulled death out of his hero with a bite more potent than the snake's. Tranquilino, himself, had been stung by countless snakes -- and lived. So it was said that he carried the blood of Quetzalcoatl, whose icon is the plumed serpent. And when Tranquilino, himself, died of a snake bite, his legend, ironically, was confirmed.

A warped sepia portrait -- the only one ever taken -- of Tranquilino, stiff as his winged mustache, belies a life of ambition, altruism and a rash courage that sifted, in varying measures, to a few of his descendants, those who faithfully lit candles and left white roses for his spirit by an image of Our Lady, la virgencita.

One of the descendants who left roses for Tranquilino was his granddaughter, Maria Guadalupe, a sturdy young woman with a benevolent face and long hair the color of cinnamon. Though she should have been called Maria Guadalupe, or even Lupita, in honor of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Maria lost half of her identity when she was naturalized by an INS official with a crew-cut and no nonsense stamping pad. That was the day Maria Guadalupe Rodriguez Castañon painstakingly unfolded her documents and shyly signed on to a new life as Maria Rodriguez. (Months, years, later, Maria would hide her cinnamon hair in a disposable hairnet and bend over moving bridges of golden raisins. She would have learned a few more English words than the ones she memorized the night she arrived in the U.S., or the day her name was abbreviated to change her life.)

Maria never had time to stop and think if her future had improved. She was too busy working assembly lines when packing houses called, cleaning homes when customers didn't cancel, caring for other women's children, attending daily Mass and driving a wood-paneled station wagon with a magnetic Our Lady of Guadalupe on the dashboard, a rosary swinging from the rear-view mirror, and bags full of clothes for the Mexican poor. When she married Carlos, an immaculate young mechanic who sang with the choir and whose mustache smelled of lemon, she took a day off.

Another of Tranquilino's descendants who never forgot to leave white roses for him by Our Lady's statue was Maria's younger sister, Dulce Esperanza. Dulce Esperanza had onyx eyes, perfect features and an Arabian air. She got to keep her full name because she entered the United States in the trunk of a Mustang driven by a coyote, a sullen man with bad breath and a dirty beard who couldn't care less how many names Dulce Esperanza gave herself as long as she paid in American dollars. During her trek, Dulce Esperanza, perpetually unwashed and thirsty, hallucinating with fear and exhaustion, prayed to Our Lady and asked Tranquilino for protection. She was not let down. The rodents that made their daily rounds left her unmolested, and one morning, she was awoken by a little rattling noise that turned out to be a divine sign. The rattling belonged, not to a snake, but to the maraca of a small boy chanting to himself outside the window of a dismal way station. The small boy smiled as Dulce Esperanza asked, "¿Como te llamas?" Tranquilino Rodriguez, he answered, with a shake of the snake rattle.

Dulce Esperanza never forgot the divine sign her great grandfather and Our Lady sent her during the harrowing cross. And like the snakes her grandfather could charm, she shed useless old shapes and started to gain ground imperiously in her new territory. Unlike Maria, Dulce Esperanza learned English quickly, and soon was the unofficial interpreter of their barrio, a liaison between the Irish priest and his Hispanic faithful, the organizer of food drives and charity raffles. Dulce Esperanza was the one who instated the St. Sebastian's posadas to celebrate Christmas and who made sure that the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe was properly honored in flashy procession, with a wide embroidered banner of Juan Diego's vision, mariachis with glossy guitars, youths in metallic Aztec dress, painted candles and blooming flowers.

Because Dulce Esperanza, like her great grandfather Tranquilino, was as strong and resourceful as the plumed serpent of myth, she tolerated well her outdoor labor in the harshest climate California had to offer. She was always the only woman reaching up from a ladder in the shag of the orange groves, stooping at the neat green rows of strawberry fields or laying grapes on the drying trays of a dusty vineyard.

One infernal Valley afternoon, when burning asphalt rippled the horizon and the air in the grove turned thick as marmalade, the familiar sound rose, dry and deadly. Young Jose Hernandez, dropping his shears in the crusty furrows, never heard or saw it. As the other men hesitated, faces stunned by the heat, it was Dulce Esperanza who tore off her plaid flannel overshirt, tied it around the boy's leg and did what had made her grandfather a legend.

When Maria heard about the snake, she told her sister to clean air-conditioned houses with her. "No hay víboras allí," she admonished. Not the kind on the ground, retorted Dulce Esperanza, rattling off in the old station wagon, leaving a trail of dark oil in the driveway of their tiny stucco house.

Everything would have been fine for Dulce Esperanza, if she had taken her grandfather Tranquilino's advice in a dream, and stayed with Maria to clean a mansion flanking the vast eucalyptus trees of a country club. No, ni modo, said Dulce Esperanza while Maria had begged: "¡Un favorcito, Dulce! It takes me ten hours to clean that castle and la señora always puts on that face."

Of course there was another reason that Maria wanted company, but she couldn't tell her sister or any future cleaning partnership would be jinxed for sure. Twice, when Maria was dragging a mop across the marble floors in the upstairs bathrooms, the doorbell rang. Twice, Maria descended wearily down the spiral staircase to open the door -- to no one. "¿Abuelito?" she called out. It wouldn't have been the first time Tranquilino had paid an unannounced visit at someone else's home. But the silence that answered was not Tranquilino's. (And he usually arrived with a light menthol fragrance.) Maria felt her arms turn to chicken skin. She carefully shut the door and resigned herself to dusting the living room with its dark antiques. Because the theory that neighborhood children might have been playing a game never occurred to Maria, she did what anyone else would have done when the third bell rang: she dropped the Old English and ran.


"Is there someone there who can habla inglés?" asked a woman on the phone who identified herself as Sylvia Wilhelm, pronouncing each word carefully.

"I espeak," said Carlos Zuñiga with unconvincing confidence.

"Well, please tell Maria she spilled lemon oil all over the Persian rug and left the French doors wide open, so Ashley ruined the side of the couch!"

"Maria ruin your couch with ashes?"

"No, no," said Mrs. Wilhelm sweetly. "Ashley is my cat, and she's having like a -- Oh, never mind! Just tell your wife if she wrecks anything else, I'll dock her pay."

"Okay!" said Carlos brightly.

Maria convinced her sister to help clean the Wilhelm house and told the truth. "It's probably just el abuelo," shrugged Dulce Esperanza. Tranquilino had come to her recently in the dream, trying to scold -- or warn -- her about something, but Dulce Esperanza never paid much attention to her grandfather in dreams, especially if he appeared to be giving advice. "No matter how brave, old people are always afraid of everything," she would complain to Maria.


"They're here to guard the house," said Mrs. Wilhelm, gesturing to two men in sweats on the porch and a white van at the curb. (Behind her, across the garage doors, sloppily scrawled in red enamel was: "HEiL WiLHELm.") Inside the van was a dead-serious bald man handling a walkie-talkie.

"My husband's had death threats from the labor union," Mrs. Wilhelm added, offhandedly. "You don't know labor unions! Someone left dead flowers on our porch this morning. The phone's been ringing off the hook and the DOORBELL's been going nuts...." Mrs. Wilhelm was a tiny red-haired woman, who might have been pretty had it not been for a peculiar combination of suspicion and confusion that marked her features.

"Now that the bell has guards, you don't need me," said Dulce Esperanza, craning her neck at the stone turrets of the house's faux castle façade. "I'm going to the fields. I'd rather kill snakes."


The overcrowded van full of farmworkers that transported Dulce Esperanza ran a stop sign and took a mortal side-swipe, plowing helplessly into a vineyard. Eight people were loaded onto ambulances in zipped body bags and four were lifted by helicopter to the Valley's main trauma center. Though Dulce Esperanza Rodriguez had never ridden through the air, she was unable to marvel at the systolic sound of helicopter blades beating across the sky.

While Dulce Esperanza, tethered to this earth only by tubes, lines and beeping blue screens, wavered between worlds, Tranquilino waited, the only soul allowed across the threshold of the ICU. "Am I dead, Abuelito?" she asked as he stood near, his hand on her dry, hot forehead.

"¡Cabeza dura!" he said angrily.

"It's a good thing I have a hard head! Or I wouldn't be here. Abuelito, am I...'here'?"

"Didn't I warn you? I even tried to tell Maria and she took off as if she'd seen a -- "

"You rang all the doorbells, Abuelo?"

"I even left flowers!"

"You've never done that before," said Dulce Esperanza in disbelief.

"I arranged them myself!" said Tranquilino proudly. "I should have put them in water..."

"Ay! Would you please answer me, Tranquilino! Am I alive?"

"You have work to do, mi hija. You know, you are very lucky I did not save as many people from the snakes as they say I did, because by now, I would be taking it easy in Heaven."

Dulce Esperanza awoke exactly three days after her conversation with Tranquilino. She had no memory of the visitation and had no way of knowing that the future obligations that had spared her life would be harder than crashing through a vineyard.


It was as if the accident had left Dulce Esperanza out of focus. "I don't know what's happened to you," said Maria in exasperation one day. Dulce Esperanza regarded her sister with that new faraway look that had taken over her eyes. She never seemed to be able to answer simple questions like, "Do you want pan dulce or churros with your chocolate?" or "What's your favorite color?" It was as if she were deliberately stalling for time, holding off commitment with a vague "Ah...." Sometimes Maria wanted to shake her sister, but then felt guilty, sorry, and explained redundantly to no one in particular: "El accidente, pobrecita."

But the accident left other things intact things which caused the maternal cousin of Jose Hernandez (whom she had saved from the snake), Eliseo Benavides, to fall in love with Dulce Esperanza. She seemed fond enough of the ambitious young gardener, whose menacing good looks belied a pure soul, but nobody could tell if his devotion was reciprocated. Whenever the question came up -- which was daily -- Dulce Esperanza retreated to her lost look and all-purpose "Ah...."

It was not long before Dulce Esperanza, weary of trick questions, planned the perfect white wedding and married Eliseo Benavides. With his abundant slicked hair and borrowed black tux, Eliseo cut the figure of a matinee idol, while she creaked regally down the aisle, looking like a nervous meringue. Father O'Leary, who said the wedding Mass, had practiced his Spanish relentlessly for the occasion, cornering Hispanic parishioners at every opportunity to help him roll his "r's". And when the priest had successfully married Dulce Esperanza and Eliseo Benavides in a flawless Castilian marred only by his tripping over his own Irish name (which Father O'Leary inadvertently said in Spanish), the congregation gave its pastor a standing ovation before the groom kissed the bride.


Pregnancy made Dulce Esperanza more absentminded than ever. There were times when she became incensed at the friendly pats to her belly -- until she remembered, "¡El bebé!" And there were days when she spoke of the baby in plural, as if she were having more than one or already had a few children. This type of talk brought Maria to her wit's end, as she was already forced to suppress a guilty rivalry with her sister -- she had been unable to conceive despite every rosary and novena, every strategy of modern science and ancient magic. What if Dulce Esperanza were, after all, having multiple births! It was too unfair for Maria to even consider.

The subterranean currents between the two sisters became so strong that Eliseo Benavides realized it was time to separate the families, which, until then, had been sharing the same tiny stucco house. "I have saved enough," he assured Dulce Esperanza, and found a bigger stucco house in a neighborhood with sidewalks.


The trouble started as most troubles start, on an invisible scale. The new neighbors, unlike the families in the old barrio, never came by to say "bienvenidos," to offer a hand, a phone, or a plate of warm tamales. There were a few friendly faces, a few people who waved "hi" while sponging off a car or walking a dog , but it gradually became apparent to Dulce Esperanza that she and Eliseo had not only moved "up" in the world, they had landed in a different universe.

One afternoon, as Dulce Esperanza, big with child, was dragging bags of groceries across the yard, she came face-to-face for the first time with her next-door neighbor, a square, florid-faced man whose silver hair was still sharp from a buzz cut. She smiled at the man and extended her hand, which he ignored.

"I'm tired of you people parking on my property," the neighbor said by way of greeting. Momentarily taken aback, Dulce Esperanza set down her bags and assured the man politely that her car would never again cross his property line.

"And if you play that there music of yours too loud, I'm calling the cops!" he bellowed before ducking into his stucco house.


A fist came down on the kitchen table. Eliseo was not as accommodating as his absentminded wife. "No man treats my family with disrespect!" he said, loud enough for the neighbors to hear. Dulce Esperanza was also caught off guard by her husband's response. Eliseo was normally a good-natured, fair-minded man, who did not anger easily or respond irrationally to small annoyances.

But the trouble escalated, with the next-door neighbor and his young grandsons making surly trips across the Benavides's front yard -- for no good reason. And once a lawn-mower "accidently" made a dent the size of a toaster on the side of the Benavides's old Chevy Impala. Dulce Esperanza did her best to ignore the comments and heated monologues pointed over the fence while she strung borrowed baby linens on the clothesline.


Maria got home as the answering machine clicked. She had just missed catching Dulce Esperanza, and excitedly hit a button to hear if the baby was on its way. What the machine played back, instead, jolted her blood: "Oh, Maria!" said her sister, a supressed sob jarring her voice. " I need a lawyer. I'm in jail!"

Madre santísima, how could this possibly have happened? Who can I call? Where do I go? What time is it? Where is Eliseo? Maria's thoughts were like birds trapped in a room, fluttering wildly about with no exit in sight. She lit a candle before Our Lady and was distractedly making the sign of the cross when the phone rang again.

"Maria? This is Sylvia Wilhelm. Where did you put my -- "

"AY! Gracias a Dios! Mrs! My sister is in the jail!"

"Good Lord, Maria! Let me get Leonard."

Mrs. Wilhelm took an eternity to locate her husband in their castle, but Maria could finally hear the echo of Mr. Wilhelm's voice growing less faint: "Isn't she the one who's out of it? Didn't she stick my dress shoes in the toy box?"

"Just get me a notepad!" reproached Mrs. Wilhelm.

"What could that girl possibly be arrested for?" asked Mr. Wilhelm. "Felony confusion?"


Dulce Esperanza had been arrested for Assault With a Deadly Weapon, Section PC245A1 of the Penal Code, her bail set at $20,000, her arraignment scheduled after a long holiday weekend. Mr. Wilhelm was able to find a golfing buddy to get Dulce Esperanza out of the County Detention Facility on her own recognizance.

Mrs. Wilhelm even visited Dulce Esperanza before she was released, taking along a cosmetics sample bag and a Bible, not knowing that the Bible and the make-up would go in a lobby locker while she chatted with Dulce Esperanza through bullet-proof glass.

Mrs. Wilhelm had never seen anyone -- much less an expectant mother -- in jail. "That forest-green looks good on you," she said uncomfortably, taking in Dulce Esperanza and her vast belly in the jail jumpsuit. "Is that maternity size?"

Dulce Esperanza ignored Mrs. Wilhelm's good intentions and started to give her a clear and precise account of how she landed in jail instead of making it to a comadre's house to pick up another bag of baby clothes.

The day before, when Dulce Esperanza had settled heavily into a borrowed truck (the Chevy Impala was having its toaster-sized dent fixed) which she had absentmindedly parked a few feet over her neighbor's property line, the block was deserted. Then, just as the truck's engine sounded, Mr. Hacker, the neighbor, came out for his newspaper.

"Suddenly, I hear a loud thump. He had thrown the newspaper at the back of the truck," said Dulce Esperanza. "So, I pretended like nothing happened because I didn't want no trouble."

As Dulce Esperanza backed out the truck, Mr. Hacker stooped to pick up his paper. Flustered, and most scattered of all in the mornings, she never noticed her neighbor bending down behind the bumper until she heard the blood-curdling howl -- and braked violently. Then Mr. Hacker limped over to the driver's window, cursing and hollering: "YOU HURT ME! YOU HURT ME! "

"Was he really injured?" asked Mrs. Wilhelm.

Dulce Esperanza widened her eyes. "NO! Because he got up in his truck and drove his little grandson to school! And the grandson was laughing!" She held onto her belly as if for support.

"An hour later two policemen knocked to arrest me for hurting Mr. Hacker. They put handcuffs on me in my kitchen. I said, 'I can't believe this is happening!' They said, 'Believe it!' "

As she was being led to the plain white squad car, Dulce Esperanza wondered if she might need a lawyer, and brought this idea up, uncertainly, to the police. But both men assured her that her case would look better to any judge if she would "cooperate fully."

As Dulce Esperanza retraced the last twenty-four hours and drew conclusions from her story, Mrs. Wilhem realized that Maria's younger sister had never spoken more eloquently or looked more alert. Even her complexion seemed brighter.

What the van accident did to Dulce Esperanza, the day in jail seemed to reverse. She had gotten back her old verve; she was Tranquilino Rodriguez's granddaughter again. And what was more, Dulce Esperanza Rodriguez Castanon de Benavides had acquired a new vision.


Despite the frenetic demands of motherhood -- of a perfect, hard-headed cinnamon-haired baby called Ezequiel, who grew into a perfect, harder-headed, boy called Zeke -- or maybe because of them, Dulce Esperanza worked for her high school diploma, went to college and made a career in -- law enforcement. And because police department employees are not immune to false charges, once again, Dulce Esperanza needed legal defense. This time she was not handcuffed or arrested. She was sued.

"Race discrimination?" Dulce Esperanza asked in shock, looking up from an official-looking document.

"And sexual harrassment," said her brother-in-law, Carlos, now a new associate at Sanson and Carrasco Law Offices.

Dulce Esperanza was being sued because she and her immediate superior, an African-American police chief, were accused of thwarting the careers of three men -- who were Caucasian. The truth was, the police chief was "set up" by an elaborate legal intrigue built on an old vendetta. The sexual harrassment charge -- part of the conspiracy -- was thrown in against Dulce Esperanza by a wilting middle-aged man who sent her saucy e-mails, and even tried to warn her about the lawsuit in one of them.

"This lawsuit opens up with a fairytale: that people of color have the same rights as everyone else -- that justice is blind," ranted Dulce Esperanza one afternoon in Carlos's tiny congested office.

"Do you know when justice is blind?" said Carlos. "When the police find an Hispanic boy running to his abuelita's house and zas! -- he's on the ground, handcuffed for stealing a van. BUT it is a case of mistaken identity. They let him go after he celebrates Easter in Juvenile Hall."

The night before the trial began, Tranquilino came to caution Dulce Esperanza in a dream: "The other attorney has the eyes of a snake. Never look in his face."

The trial was like an endless sentence for everyone trapped in the ring of that wood-paneled courtroom. And then, finally, just when Dulce Esperanza felt she couldn't state her own name in a believable tone of voice, Tranquilino sent a sign.

The attorney with the soft voice and the eyes of a snake (magnified by glasses) was about to try to confuse her again, make her say that black was white, down was up. He was handing out a document, passing the same papers to the judge, the other lawyers, the jury. Dulce Esperanza glanced down at her copy, looked up and looked down again -- and started to laugh -- she had to laugh -- and laugh -- and laugh. And she was echoed by Carlos -- and the jury! Even the bailiff's shoulders began to shake. But the one who laughed hardest of all was the judge, who was forced to slam his gavel for the first time.

"What's so funny?" the soft-voiced lawyer finally asked, only his voice wasn't so soft in the marble corridors.

"Counselor, you have made a 'global change' to this document in your computer?" asked Carlos.

"Yes, I had our staff in Los Angeles standardize all reference to race. My paralegal appropriately converted the word 'black' wherever it was stated to 'African-American.' " He added matter-of-factly: "My document doesn't reflect the conversion yet."

"Well, you have converted more than you think," said Carlos, flashing his paper. "You have submitted this to Superior Court Judge, the Honorable 'Seamus S. African-American.' "


Not long after Tranquilino's sign, the lawsuit against Dulce Esperanza and her chief was dismissed. There were not enough facts to support the case. The night of the decision, Tranquilino appeared to her in a dream.

"Our victory today was small, Dulce."

"There's nothing small about justice."

"Better if the facts had piled high as a mountain against you and your chief."

"Go home, abuelito. You never make sense when I'm asleep. "

"You are still far away -- from tierra y libertad, the land, the freedom I fought for with mi general."

"Go home, Tranquilino. We got the snake."

"No, mi hija: When people of color finally rise or fall through the free will God gave them to fly or strike, swift and strong as the plumed serpent, then you will be closer to tierra y libertad. Andale, Dulce Esperanza."

"Vaya con Dios, Abuelo."

And I, Tranquilino Tiburcio Rodriguez Garcia, did just that.

Para mis padres, Maria Celia Correas Leal y Daniel Zapata Mercader.

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