As a young boy in Southwest Texas, my tantrums were met with a finger at my mouth and the hushed voice of my mamá. “Te oye,” she would say with pursed lips and a hint of a frown. Even at a very young age, the tale of La Llorona was imprinted in my mind. This is a folktale used to calm Mexican children and it kept me awake at night. I would peer into the dimly lit street looking towards the river, straining to hear those words wafting in the wind, “Aaaaaaaaaayyyy, mis hijos!” A curse once heard, cannot be lifted.
The legend varies by region and storyteller, but mine tells a tragic story of Maria, a poor village woman who marries a wealthy ranchero, bearing him two prized sons. The man’s attention soon turns to a younger, prettier girl in the village, and Maria catches her husband in an act of infidelity. He rebukes his wife, reminding Maria that he lifted her from poverty and gave her everything she wanted. Maria is heartbroken and panics. She cannot let this young girl take her place and raise her sons while she herself is cast away. Madness overtakes Maria and she drags her sons to the river and drowns them. Her fury soon subsides, and the sobering reality of her actions is too much to bear. Regret and guilt overcome her and as she cries for her dead sons, she drowns herself in the river. But suicide is a great sin in the Catholic faith, and Maria is destined to wander the land for eternity, weeping endlessly as she searches the rivers for her lost children.
I was raised in a Mexican household that deeply embraced both superstition and religion. We prayed for the help of the Virgin Mary in difficult times, listened steadfastly to psychic Walter Mercado on TV, and paid attention to sightings of the chupacabra on the evening news. It’s a fantastical way of thinking about life that may perplex many Americans. Some might interpret the superstitious beliefs as a lack of education or awareness, but this is not the case. Deep-rooted cultural beliefs are passed down through our ancestors from generation to generation, and these include both mystical and spiritual elements that are both difficult to accept and difficult to dismiss. We are more open to the possibilities of the supernatural, and we have faith that good will conquer over evil. I believe this whole-heartedly, even in life’s darkest moments.
My parents met and wed in Juárez, Mexico just across the border from El Paso, Texas. My father held a job in a furniture store, as my mother prepped the nursery for their first child’s arrival. They were doing well for themselves. On the day of the birth, my father sat in the waiting room with the other men, while my mother gave birth to their first son. But she would never hold her baby. A nurse dropped the newborn after the delivery and killed him. My father was told, and he ordered them to immediately remove the infant and sedate my mother. In that moment, my father decided to leave his cherished country and vowed to never have another son on its soil. They immigrated to America in the 1950s to start a new life.
I was the last to join my family of four older siblings. I grew up primarily with my brother, Pepe, who was 4 years older than me. Our modest house in El Paso with its grey bricks and white wood trim sat in a humble Mexican suburb of single-family homes. The grand Franklin Mountains loomed in the background, and the immediate area was a childhood wonderland with a zoo, a lake, an amusement park, a drive-in, a coliseum, and two malls – all within 10 minutes of my home.
My father chose this house at the end of Flores Avenue because it faced south, with a clear view of Mexico. One block and three houses stood between us and another country. There was no wall, or fence or anything else between us and Mexico then. There was the Rio Grande as a natural border, but it was usually a shallow stream in this area. If my father could not be in Mexico, he was going to be as close to his motherland as possible.
In the summer, my brother, my neighborhood friends, and I would jump on our bikes and ride down the street to Mexico to play in the sandy dunes just on the other side. Sometimes we ventured even further but realized on some level that we were trespassing. The days stretched into the night, and we often stayed out much too late. My mother would stand on the front lawn and yell our names, her voice carried south in the evening wind.
Playing on these dunes was not the best idea. They would be quite high at places, littered with broken bottles, sharp rocks, and remnants of things left behind, like bras, bloody shoes, and housewares. At night, desperate Mexican citizens crossed through this area into the U.S. because it was not heavily patrolled, making their way into our neighborhood and beyond. I feared these strangers and didn’t understand why they carried suitcases, boxes, and bags. Later I would learn that the journey to get to this point was brutal as most of the area was rugged, desolate, and sandy for many miles.
My brother didn’t have much patience with me, often leaving me behind to struggle on the dunes with my bike. He was lean and fast, and I was not. One day, I became separated from my friends, likely distracted by some treasure I found, and suddenly realized I was alone. The sky was quickly darkening, and all was quiet except for the wind whipping the sand about. Where was my brother and why wasn’t he looking for me? Survival of the fittest, little albondiga. I climbed down a steep slope and had a difficult time getting back up. In the wind, I heard the distant voices of both my parents now, screaming for us.
The more nervous I grew, the more careless I was, and started traveling along the dune instead of across it. I didn’t hear my parents. I climbed another dune and stood on a suitcase. I didn’t recognize these houses at all. So, I decided to backtrack, hoping something would soon look familiar. By this point, I was crying with fear and at 8-years-old, I was entitled. I climbed another dune and saw a woman standing there in the river. She wore an old blue dress, and her hair was a careless wad gathered on her head. She didn’t have anything with her and stood alone. She stared at me with surprise. “Estas perdido?” she said in a calm, soothing voice. I was entranced and stared back blankly, mouth agape. “Ven aqui, te ayudo.” She didn’t look like the other people I’d seen crossing this area, and she had no shoes. These dunes were littered with things that would cut your feet. “Ven aqui,” she said more sternly, and I wanted to obey but did not. The growing disquiet in my belly prevented me from taking one step. Why did she not come to me? “No te vayas,” she said glumly, looking down but still not moving. I turned, dropped my treasures, and ran up the dune, looking back only once to see if she was following me. She was not. She was nowhere to be seen.
My sister, Gloria, greeted me at the door, and I ran past her. She was married but living with us during the last few weeks of her pregnancy to get help from my mamá. The men, it seems, can never adequately help. Gloria and I were best of friends, and I often saw her as my second mother. After the baby came home, her son cried day and night seemingly non-stop. My bedroom was next to Gloria’s, and the crying from her son was a ceaseless, high-pitch drone. I was assured it was normal, but the sound was terrifying, and not how I’d seen babies on TV shows. I could not sleep or think about anything else and wondered when it would stop. Everyone in the house grew agitated, frustration leading to despondency and anger. The crying resumed. For such little lungs, the force was unimaginable. My mom attended to my sister around the clock, and I faded into the background with what I now understand as anxiety. I was so young. I didn’t know what was happening and wanted everyone to be happy again. It was only the end of August, and yet the house grew darker and darker. By the end of the week, Gloria’s son stopped crying altogether and passed away in his sleep. I’d never experienced such sorrow around me and could not begin to understand nor process this level of grief. The gloom hung in the air like smoke, choking us. My mother, my father, and my dear sister were inconsolable, each grieving in a different room of the house. I stood in the corner of my room holding onto the walls, silently screaming and silently crying, completely unattended.
In my young mind, my thoughts turned to that woman I’d seen at the river and remembered the horrors I’d heard all my life. It was HER claiming another child. I ran out of the house and towards the dunes to try to find her again. I would confront her and tell her to give back the baby. That it wasn’t hers. That it wasn’t fair what she did to my sister or my family. I would beg her to give him back, and I would cry like she wanted. But I only got as far as the end of the block, staring at the darkness beyond. Then I heard footsteps behind me. I was terrified and didn’t want to look. It was my brother Pepe. He asked what I was doing out here by myself, reminding me that little albondigas don’t do well in the dark. I sat on the sidewalk and told him to leave me alone. He sat next to me, and reluctantly put his arm around me. I looked at him, perplexed. He said it was okay to be sad but not to cry. He said we have no control over life and that one day I would understand. I still do not.
If curses exist, I believe my family may have succumbed to one. And yet today our family is a happy one. My sister has two children now and she is the second strongest and most determined woman I know. I admire her deeply. I never wanted children of my own, partly because of the trauma I experienced. I only recently learned about my mother’s loss of her first son, and it stirred up those deep-rooted irrational fears again. Had we been marked? I often wonder about that woman I saw on the river. It was a fleeting moment over 35 years ago, and yet one I can’t seem to forget. When I visit my childhood home where my mother still lives, I always wander down that street. There’s now a very tall border fence with bright lights, the dunes are gone, and many shanty homes now stand crowded together. Behind the fence there’s also a new plaza where a gigantic art sculpture called The Equis sits and jets 197 feet (or 18 stories) in the air. The sculpture is a giant letter “X” and it towers over my neighborhood. At night it casts an eerie red glow on the houses below. The locals have all kinds of new lore about the X, calling it a drug cartel message to America, or even an Illuminati-funded installation. I see it and feel uneasy about it, because for me it marks a moment in time, in a place where my imagination and reality crossed.