By Sandra Cisneros
We’re waiting for the awful grandmother who is inside dropping pesos into la ofrenda box before
the alter to La Divina Providencia. Lighting votive candles and genuflecting. Blessing herself
and kissing her thumb. Running a crystal rosary between her fingers. Mumbling, mumbling,
There are so many prayers and promises and thanks-be-to-God to be given in the name of the
husband and the sons and the only daughter who never attend mass. It doesn’t matter. Like La
Virgin de Guadalupe, the awful grandmother intercedes on their behalf. For the grandfather who
hasn’t believed in anything since the first PRI elections. For my father, el Periquin, so skinny he
needs his sleep. For Auntie Light-skin, who only a few hours before was breakfasting on brain
and goat tacos after dancing all night in the pink zone. For Uncle Fat-face, the blackest of the
black sheep – Always remember your Uncle Fat-face in your prayers. And Uncle Baby – You go
for me, Mamá – God listens to you.
The awful grandmother has been gone a long time. She disappeared behind the heavy leather
outer curtain and the dusty velvet inner. We must stay near the church entrance. We must not
wander over to the balloon and punch-ball vendors. We cannot spend our allowance on fried
cookies or Familia Burron comic books or those clear cone-shaped suckers that make everything
look like a rainbow when you look through them. We cannot run off and have our picture taken
on the wooden ponies. We must not climb the steps up the hill behind the church and chase each
other through the cemetery. We have promised to stay right where the awful grandmother left us
until she returns.
There are those walking to church on their knees. Some with fat rags tied around their legs and
others with pillows, one to kneel on, and one to flop ahead. There are women with black shawls
crossing and uncrossing themselves. There are armies of penitents carrying banners and flowered
arches while musicians play tinny trumpets and tinny drums.
La Virgen de Guadalupe is waiting inside behind a plate of thick glass. There’s also a gold
crucifix bent crooked as a mesquite tree when someone once threw a bomb. La Virgin de
Guadalupe on the main alter because she’s a big miracle, the crooked crucifix on a side alter
because that’s a little miracle.
But we’re outside in the sun. My big brother Junior hunkered against the wall with his eyes shut.
My little brother Keeks running around in circles.
Maybe and most probably my little brother is imagining he’s a flying feather dancer, like the
ones we saw swinging high up from a pole on the Virgin’s birthday. I want to be a flying feather
dancer too, but when he circles past me he shouts, “I’m a B-Fifty-two bomber, you’re a German,”
and shoots me with an invisible machine gun. I’d rather play flying feather dancers, but if I tell
my brother this, he might not play with me at all.
“Girl. We can’t play with a girl.” Girl. It’s my brothers’ favorite insult now instead of “sissy.”
“You girl,” they’ll yell at each other. “You throw the ball like a girl.”
I’ve already made up my mind to be a German when Keeks swoops past again, this time yelling,
“I’m Flash Gordon. You’re Ming the Merciless and the Mud People.” I don’t mind being Ming
the Merciless, but I don’t like being the Mud People. Something wants to come out of the corners
of my eyes, but I don’t let it. Crying is what girls do.
I leave Keeks running around in circles – “I’m the Lone Ranger, you’re Tonto.” I leave Junior
squatting on his ankles and go look for the awful grandmother.
Why do churches smell like the inside of an ear? Like incense and the dark and candles in blue
glass? And why does holy water smell of tears? The awful grandmother makes me kneel and fold
my hands. The ceiling is high and everyone’s prayers bumping up there like balloons.
If I stare at the eyes of the saints long enough, they move and wink at me, which makes me a sort
of saint too. When I get tired of winking saints, I count the awful grandmother’s mustache hairs
while she prays for Uncle Old, sick from the worm, and Auntie Cuca, suffering from a life of
troubles that left half her face crooked and the other half sad.
There must be a long, long list of relatives who haven’t gone to church. The awful grandmother
knits the names of the dead and the living into one long prayer fringed with the grandchildren
born in that barbaric country with its barbaric ways.
I put my weight on one knee, then the other, and when they both grow fat as a mattress of pins, I
slap them each awake. Micaela, you may wait outside with Alfredito and Enrique. The awful
grandmother says it all in Spanish, which I understand when I’m paying attention. “What?” I say,
though it’s neither proper nor polite. “What?” which the awful grandmother hears as “¿Güat?”
But she only gives me a look and shoves me toward the door.
After all that dust and dark, the light from the plaza makes me squinch my eyes like if I just
came out of the movies. My brother Keeks is drawing squiggly lines on the concrete with a
wedge of glass and the heel of his shoe. My brother Junior squatting against the entrance, talking
to a lady and a man.
They’re not from here. Ladies don’t come to church dressed in pants. And everybody knows men
aren’t supposed to wear shorts.
“¿Quieres chicle?” the lady asks in a spanish way too big for her mouth. “Gracias,” The lady
gives him a whole handful of gum for free, little cellophane cubes of Chiclets, cinnamon and
aqua and the white ones that don’t taste like anything but are good for pretend buck teeth.
“Por favor,” says the lady. “¿Un foto?” pointing to her camera.
She’s so busy taking Junior’s picture, she doesn’t notice me and Keeks.
“Hey, Michelle, Keeks. You guys want gum?”
“But you speak English!”
“Yeah,” my brother says, “we’re Mericans.”
We’re Mericans, we’re Mericans, and inside the awful grandmother prays.