This is a story that I’ve been working on for a few weeks, and the first draft that I feel comfortable sharing. It will likely continue to change, but I did want to put this out there. When I decide that I have reached a “final” draft, I may share it again.
When we were younger Juanita was an older sister to me. I was glad to drive two-thousand miles through dusty valleys and sweltering deserts just to get to spend a month with her. I was an expert at the eleven hour trip from Los Angeles to El Paso, but I didn’t know the routes once we got into Ciudad Juárez. It was always frustrating having to try to figure out how far we were based on barren landscapes that had few indicators of the passing kilómetros on our way to Irapuato. Only papi’s stories helped me count down the hours; his favorite story was about moving to El Norte. Abuelo had left our family to go find work and money. Papi had to grow up without his papá, and abuela and his older sister Chela were the only support he had. They worked hard so that he could go to school. As he got older he realized that they couldn’t do as much to support the family as an hombre could. He had more opportunities to work, so he left to Los Angeles. Away from home, other hombres taught him how to be one of them. He came to understand that abuela and Chela depended on him to survive, they needed him. It was up to them, to mujeres, to take care of the family so that he could continue to work.
Juanita was always waiting for us when we finally drove into abuela’s lot. She carried herself in a detached and sarcastic manner: she acted as if she didn’t want to see me, but she’d always invite me to tag along with her. She talked back to both our papás when they told us that muchachas shouldn’t be running around alone. She even made Julio cry once when he was bullying me. I hadn’t seen her in eight years.
“Mamá, I can’t do this,” Juanita’s voice brings me back to this moment. Juanita is sitting next to me in the kitchen. I came down alone on my winter break from school to surprise everyone, so Juanita and my Tia Irma, her mamá, came over to visit me. After she introduced me to her four year old son, Andres, we sat down for lunch that my abuela was making with my Tia Chela, and Juanita started to tell me about her life in the years I’ve been gone. I asked about her esposo, and she started to cry.
She got married the last time we visited. Her esposo was pretty enough for my taste, but more importantly, he treated her right. They dated since she was twelve, and she planned their wedding to line up with my family’s trip in December the year that she turned sixteen. I was her maid of honor at thirteen, and I’m proud to say I was so mature that my Tia Chela offered me a glass of wine. She also drunkenly threatened to cut off the novio’s huevos if he ever hurt Juanita, but that’s beside the point. That day was the happiest I’d ever seen Juanita; I still remember how perfect she looked grinning at me in her long white gown.
The memory that lingers fades and I see her as she is now. The years have not been kind to her; even her trademark smirk is currently missing, and she hasn’t made a single sassy remark. A mixture of smooth and raw cuts cover the undersides of her arms. The bruises on the outsides have darkened since she got here. I awkwardly hold her close across the two chairs we’re sitting on. Her son comes over and pats her on the leg once before going back to his ball. Even at four years old this little hombre is used to seeing mujeres in pain.
“I’ve tried so hard to make it work, but I made a mistake when I married him.” Juanita mumbles so quietly that I’m sure only I heard her. She continues louder, “I know I can’t leave, but I’m not sure how much longer I can live in these conditions.” I reach my hand over to her and gently rub at her arms.
“You have to be strong, hija.” My Tia Irma looks at us with a hopeful smile. “Dios will be there for you if you go to him.”
“That’s not enough right now, hermana” Chela chimes in while picking at dirt under her nails. She’s the oldest of my tias, and the foundation that her younger sisters rely on. Even papi has stories of her being the toughest chingóna that he ever met. Once while drunk he told me that the only person I could rely on in this world more than him was Chela.
“He was there for me when her father shared my home with those putas!” Irma slams her hands down on the table, there’s a sudden desperation in her voice. The fragile plastic table we’re using rattles momentarily. Chela grabs her beer and takes a long drink. She puts a hand firmly on the table to stop the rattling.
“Irma. Dios isn’t the one who kicked that puta out of your house and beat the shit out of your miserable excuse for an esposo.” Mami told me about this. Five years ago Irma and Chela went to Irma’s house to take my Tio Jose some food from a party. Irma walked into her room to find Jose with another woman. Chela calmly sat her down in the living room, went to her bedroom, knocked respectfully, asked the puta to leave, and when Jose ordered her to leave him with his esposa she beat him so badly that he needed a rectal catheter. She literally beat the shit out of him.
“I know, hermana.” She reaches out and tries to hold Chela’s hand; she awkwardly rests it on top instead when she decides that Chela won’t hold her hand. “I was still hurt after it happened though. That cabron brought those perras into the house that I raised my children in. I didn’t know what to do. I loved him. Diosito gave me strength.” Her smile grows wider. “You have to have faith, hija. Dios has a plan. Your family can support you.” Even after she caught him cheating, my Tia stayed with Jose. It was normal for him to sleep around now according to my mami.
I can’t say anything. I don’t know what to say. I’ve dealt with machismo and sexism in LA; catcalls and boys that think they’re entitled to my body isn’t anything new. Hombres puercos, mami would say when I told her about random men on streets. For a while I tried dating white boys, thinking that machismo was entirely a Latino thing. They were just as sexist, and then I had to deal with being their mami caliente. Even after that, I don’t know how to respond to such blatant mistreatment; I always felt safe asserting myself with boys. The hombres here don’t even try to hide what they think about mujeres around them.
“You know our husbands won’t get involved,” Chela replies. “For all their talk and machismo, they won’t go out of their way to defend her. They’ll say it’s not their problem.” Chela is the opposite of my Tia Irma. Where Irma is short and skinny, Chela is as tall as papi and as thick as any hombre in our family. Her hands are covered in hard calluses and her shoulders and arms are muscular from years working our family’s land. As long as I can remember she has told me not to listen to papi telling me I can’t do things because I’m a mujer.
“She’s right, Tia,” I add in. “Papi was talking about it earlier. He said that it wasn’t his place to go interfere between a man and his wife… He said that back when she left she was happy enough, and it’s not his problem that she regrets it now.” Juanita holds my hand tighter while I say that.
“That’s not right. Our hermano will help her, he’s always helped us. The men in our family aren’t like the culeros we married.”
That’s not true. The men in our family are machistas too. She sounds so sure, so happy. I know it’s not true though. “Tia… Mami told me stories. She said that papi was the same with her. He brought other women around after I was born. He’d yell at her. He threatened that he’d take his hija and leave if she didn’t do what he said. He might not have ever hit her, but my mamá has scars too. Scars that your hermano gave her.”
Juanita starts crying. It’s not the same as my Tia Irma or even me: the tears are slow and steady, their release a break in an act that’s been held up too long. Juanita has seen her mamá suffer the same way she has, and her mamá stayed. The mujer that raised her is trying to be strong enough to put up with a sucio of an esposo, so she thinks that’s the only option she has.
Abuela comes over and sits at the head of the table. She puts down a few tortillas she had been warming up for us. “I put up with your papá for years, and I raised my hijo to be better.” Abuela is speaking slowly, and we all quiet down to hear her. “Even so, machismo surrounded him and he forgot that while his papá abandoned him to waste his time en El Norte, his mamá struggled by herself to raise him. This obsession with hombres is a part of our cultura that we’ve allowed to continue by putting our faith in Dios and assuming it’ll get better on it’s own.
“They’re all the same,” Chela says. She moves over to Irma and starts to rub at her shoulders. “Don’t cry, hermana. We don’t need any of them, we have each other. Your hija is too strong to let this break her.”
Juanita looks at abuela as she starts talking, “I gave that man twelve years of my life, he’s my son’s father.” Her focus is distant. “I work my hands to the bone in that restaurant of theirs, and they still treat me like a beggar at their table.” She wipes her tears off her face, and her eyes harden. “He doesn’t defend me in front of his mother or his sister, pendejas.” Juanita sighs and looks at her mom, her composure regained. “I know he fucks other women, and he only cares about me when they don’t make him feel like a man. I can’t even look at him anymore, and he says it makes him sad. If not for my son, I would have left a long time ago.” I can see Andres playing outside through the kitchen’s sliding glass door. It saddens me to think that someday he might be the same as his father.
“You should leave anyway,” I whisper to her. I’m pleading with her.
“Ay, prima. I don’t have anywhere to go,” she says to me with a half smile. Without support she can’t leave; she knows that she can survive her current situation, but the danger of leaving scares her.
“You can come back home,” Irma quickly says. “Hija, the day you left was so sad for me. You’re my oldest. Having you back would help me put up with your papá.”
“No. I can’t. Papá won’t let me work. I need to be able to take care of me and my son. By myself. I can’t just trade one cage for another.”
“It’s not a cage, hija… It’s your home. It’s our home. I can take care of Andres for you. I can take care of you.”
“You don’t understand, mamá. I’m treated like I can’t take care of myself living with that puerco and his family. That’s what papá will do to me. He’ll say it’s because he loves me, but my esposo says the same thing!”
“He does love you! Your his -”
“That’s the point! I’m not anyone’s! I need to be mine. I need to be my own person, and papá won’t let me do that.” Juanita isn’t crying anymore. She’s angry; her grip on my hand is painful.
“You can come here!” The thought breaks through my lips. “After I leave this house will be empty. It’s just our abuelos. You can live here with them, you’ll have all this space!” I’m excited at being able to do something. I know it’s hard for her to leave her esposo, but that situation isn’t something that any mujer should accept.
“My hermano won’t like that,” Irma says.
“To hell with papi. He doesn’t need to know. He’s told me this house is mine, and I say she can use it.”
“Carolina, you can’t say things like that. Even if he’s not perfect, he’s your papá.” Irma is pressing her cross to her lips and rubbing it between her thumb and forefinger. She closes her eyes and I can see her mumbling something.
“Tia, I see Juanita struggling with this marriage, and I have to do something. That isn’t love, this is. We’re here for each other, we’re supporting each other, we’re willing to break custom for each other. I just want to help her. To support her,” I’m yelling the last few words. I’m angry at seeing mujeres that raised me, that I love so much, that I have looked up to my whole life hurting like this. For all the hombres’ machismo, these mujeres are the strongest people I know; for my own sake I need to know that a strong woman can do more than survive our cultura.
“You should listen to her, hija.” Abuela says to Irma while still cleaning. “Carolina is trying to help you meet Dios halfway. Help your daughter and your niece break this cycle, and raise your grandson to remember that his father’s actions aren’t acceptable.”
Juanita moves across the room and hugs our abuela. It looks for a moment as if the strength of her embrace is going to crush the hunched old mujer, but she returns the embrace with the same vigor. Abuela reaches up and pulls Juanita’s head into the nook of her shoulder. “My old eyes ran out of tears years ago, hija. My body doesn’t have it left in it to be sad anymore. With my nietas the only thing I have left is anger. My life is almost over, and I want to see you smiling the day I die.”
“Mamá, I want you to help me and Caro move my stuff here tomorrow.”
“We’ll do it together,” Chela says while taking Irma’s hand in her own. “You can bring some of your things here too, hermana. If you can’t stand that esposo of yours, you can come here with your mamá and your hija.”
“Alright,” Irma sounds sad, but she’s smiling. “We’ll do it, and Dios willing things will get better for you, hija.” Juanita rushes over and hugs her mamá. They’re both crying, but I can feel that these tears are different. This is happiness at the thought of a better life; this is hope. The seeds for a change from machismo were planted long ago, and enough rain has fallen for them to flourish now.