As Patricia and David had promised, their mother didn’t live far across the river from El Paso, Texas. After David drove through downtown Juárez, he spent five minutes winding through dark neighborhoods before turning into Carmela’s driveway. He unlocked a padlocked gate to pull into the courtyard. The gate had been there before Mexico’s drug war. Juárez has long known big-city, border-town dangers.
The inside looked bigger than the outside suggested. In the new addition, an old-fashioned wood stove warmed and cheered the room.
The house wasn’t small, though it might seem poor by American standards: a graying, peeling sprawl of cinderblock, brick, and adobe. “It’s too bad they can’t fix up the outside, isn’t it?” Patricia said. “No one wants anyone to know that they have anything and attract attention.” Juárez sees plenty of robberies these days.
The inside looked bigger than the outside suggested: the original casita with bedroom and kitchen; an old addition with a sitting room, two bedrooms, and a bathroom; and a new addition with a living room, dining room, and unfinished kitchen.
Patricia had warned me that, although her mother is warm and generous, she gives wooden handshakes and rarely smiles. So I was surprised when Carmela, a stocky woman of seventy with reddish-gray hair pulled tight into a bun, smiled broadly, threw her arms around me, and kissed my cheek. Maybe she has reached that point in life when she’s ready to risk revealing her inner self. For the rest of the evening she gave me alternately benevolent smiles and puzzled stares, either surprised that I spoke Spanish, or appalled at how badly I spoke it, or both.
Patricia presented her mother and brother with gifts: framed copies of the only photo of all seven brothers and sisters together. The children stood in a dirt yard in front of a tiny adobe house in a village nicknamed Terrero, which means “pile of dirt.” David touched each face, laughing and remembering. Carmela’s eyes shone with happy tears. “Mis ninos!” (My babies!)
Patricia mapped the faces for me: Ignacio, Patricia holding David (she was thirteen and he was two), Julio, Sara, Diego, and Tito. The only two I’d met so far were Patricia and David — the baby of the family. Diego, second youngest, still lived with his mother and would arrive home soon. I would meet Sara the next day.
The photo whispered old stories to them that it couldn’t tell me. Patricia shared one tale: a pig once fell down a well in that yard. Her mother lowered Juan in a bucket, so he could pick up the pig at the bottom and put it in. After they pulled up the pig, Juan climbed back into the bucket so they could pull him up, too. They worried the rope might break, but it held. Patricia also pointed out the courtyard wall in the photo. The older boys had built that wall, using rocks that their old swaybacked burro had carried down from the hills.
The photo was taken by their father, a harsh man and musician who came and went without warning. Patricia says that, the day he took the photo, they knew he wasn’t coming back. She swore it showed in their eyes, so I imagined I saw it, too: a forced final happiness, looks of smiling relief, confused resignation, and swallowed resentment. Not long after, her mother sold first one pig, then another, then the cow, then the burro — so she could feed her children. One year, they gleaned the scattered grains local farmers left in their fields after the harvest – grain by grain – so they could bake bread. Carmela finally sold the house, making just enough money for one-way bus tickets to Juárez, where she and the older children could find jobs.
The shining laughter the family shared over this photo told me more about the hardships they’d endured than tears could have. Their humor gave them the strength to survive deep poverty. That strength carried them through school, and on to careers as business owners, teachers, editors. It carried three of them to America.
We ate dinner in the modern dining room, next to the old-fashioned woodstove. “This is very important to my mom,” Patricia said of the stove, and I could see why. The chubby antique warmed and cheered the room, as well as heating coffee and tortillas.
Our traditional dinner reminded me of my grandmother’s cooking: cocido, a soup made with beef bones and vegetables; thick homemade flour tortillas; and sopa, a tomato-based, soupy dish which my grandmother used to make with rice, but which Carmela made with noodles. I asked Carmela what made her sopa so creamy. She said the secret was sour cream. Everyone urged me to use my fingers to pull the gristly meat off the bones in the cosido, and I finally gave in. Every culture has a tradition of hospitality, but there’s something very casual and familiar about Mexican hospitality, as warming to my soul as that woodstove was to my flesh. I felt as welcome as a long-lost cousin.
After dinner, I was so stuffed and travel-weary I could barely stay awake to meet Patricia’s brother Diego. I discovered that he and Carmela had built the new addition themselves: him doing the construction, carpentry, and drywall; her carrying huge cinderblocks and doing other grunt work. All this, though Carmela is seventy and Diego puts in ten-hour days at the downtown beauty salon he owns. When Patricia gave him a copy of the family photo, I watched another face crinkle with memories softened by time.
Outside the padlocked gate, Juárez was going to hell in the hands of drug cartels, but in this room, I was watched over by an altar of small saints.
I excused myself early and went to bed in David’s old room. The house was freezing, but under four heavy blankets I felt warmer than at home. Outside the padlocked gate, Juárez was going to hell in the hands of drug cartels, but in this room, watched over by an altar of small saints, the night was so quiet I might have been in the village of Terrero, “pile of dirt,” where I slept like a rock.
(The names of the people in this story have been changed for their safety.)