By: Miguel Escoto
Although a Mercedes-Benz SL 500 is parked in the garage, my sister and I can’t afford the luxury of our own language. Our parents, our aunts, our uncles, our grandparents—they all have one. It smells like warm flour tortillas and sounds like loud, passionate ideas rolled into “r” consonants. Our Anglo-Saxon friends at school have one. It is the dialogue in my favorite movies and the “shhh” after a lullaby is sung. Even our Tex-Mex neighbors have one. It is an organic mixture of the businessman and lover; the rich and the poor; the north and the south; the English and the Spanish. We dealt with it in different ways. I, for one, gave birth to an alter ego—a quieter, shier, more antisocial version of myself who buried himself in books and hardly felt the need to converse with relatives. Maria Sabrina, on the other hand, ran as far away from El Paso, Texas as possible when she was eighteen. During her time here, however, she drowned out the emptiness in her heart with punk-rock, purple hair, feminist books, vegetarianism, and drastic protests—one of which included fleeing to New York City to pursue a degree in Women’s Studies despite our parents’ wishes. Another honorable mention was her refusal to earn a motor vehicle driver’s license because “carbon dioxide emissions are the equivalent of using Hitler’s gas chambers on Mother Earth.” I prefer my way because it made Mama cry less.
Maria Sabrina’s rebellion, and her continued reliance on Manhattan’s public transit system, is what currently makes me a chauffeur cruising along Paisano Drive. I will admit to making every which directional excuse to drive along this route and today, as I drive my sister and her wife (Kathy Peterson) from El Paso International Airport to our home on the West Side, is no exception. On one side, a sharp knife with barbed wire and flood lights cuts through the innocent desert land. However tall, scary, and sharp, it is a fence nonetheless with gaps just wide enough to squeeze a look through.
“This part of Cuidad Juarez is called Anapra,” Maria Sabrina explains to Kathy, who has been as quiet as my alter ego so far. The Mexican houses, surrounded by dirt roads, have fallen victim to crumbling walls covered in faded paint. It is a reminder to us that people outside of America can suffer as well. On the other side of Paisano Drive, a modern University of Texas at El Paso stands tall atop mountainous terrain—sleek, new, beautiful, successful.
“Not all of the city looks like that.” I interrupt Maria Sabrina’s rant on El Paso’s lack of composting services to clear up Kathy’s idea of Juarez—the city where I left half of my heart. Some of the city is as developed as El Paso; most of the city is more advanced than Anapra. I can still vaguely remember the interesting smells, the bright colors, the warm personalities, the ill-planned infrastructure, and the delicious food—flautas, tacos, tortas—that was technically also sold in the U.S. but tasted differently in Mexico. I also remember the fear of drug cartels, the sound of gunshots, uncle Arturo’s murder, the 3,115 deaths in 2008, and the dozens of cardboard boxes our family used to move to El Paso in 2009. I bend my eyebrows inward and make it a point not to speak to Kathy for the rest of the day.
We drive past our former school, the prestigious Timothy G. Harrison private school known for its excellence in academics. Student success here came at a cost: absolutely no Spanish was tolerated. Maria Sabrina and I were very young when our family crossed the river to flee violence. So, despite the confusing fear of “Narcos,” we struggled most with our words. “Ni modo. Esa escuela te va ayudar a tener éxito en éste país.” (There’s no other way. That school is going to help you succeed in this country.) Papa answered when we complained about their non-Spanish policy. “Y tampoco creas que vas a estar hablando como gringo en esta casa.” (Don’t think you’re going to be speaking like a gringo in this house either.) My brain is still sloppy at processing the cultural data. English at school (1), Spanish at home (0). English with friends (1), Spanish with family (0). No decimal points allowed. I always envied how my neighbor Ruben’s family never felt the need to be binary. His language intertwined both sides of the border into a product called “Pocho.” This—although tempting, natural, and easy—was definitely not permitted by my social program’s code. Since we were educated in Harrison High, English was the easiest form of communication for us. To a family of reluctant immigrants who fled their home because of America’s high demand for black-market narcotics, however, it was also the most offensive. This meant late nights with Spanish dictionaries for me and late nights of family arguments for a sister who ultimately decided to embrace the offensive. This meant I kept both halves of my heart quiet, wearing a Latin accent when I spoke English and a gringo accent when I spoke Spanish. Maria, on the other hand, strapped one half of her heart with duct tape made in the USA.
Mama opens the door with a violent hug as we finally arrive. With teary eyes and exclaimed praises to the Virgin de Guadalupe, she hugs a daughter she hasn’t seen for years and who she finally convinced to visit. Completely owning her broken English with confidence, Mama meets a daughter-in-law she took time to accept. “Gracias Alberto,” mother whispers to me with a smile. In the language of the 1848 buyers of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming, Maria Sabrina introduces the entire room to her wife in a loud, defensive tone. Papa keeps his facial expressions unchanged by the announcement. My uncles smile awkwardly. Most aunts raise their eyebrows, with the exception of Flor—Arturo’s widow—who covers her cheeks with her palms and covers her eyes with her fingers. My Abuela, the mother who buried her son, unabashedly scoffs. My cousins, who are also in the same language based existential crisis as Maria and I, say “Hola” in a mocking gringo accent. I try not to defuse the tension and intentionally let Maria Sabrina feel the sting of the moment as long as possible. It is her own fault for making Mama cry and making Papa angry all those years.
We all sit hypnotized by a TV airing the Mexico vs. USA soccer game, a spectacle more anticipated than the Super Bowl. Chicharrones, tacos, chips, beer, salsa, guacamole, the works. It is tied 2-2 on minute 76. All thirty-seven U.S.-citizen family members cheered for Mexico. Abuela is getting anxious. She vocally declares Kathy as the bad luck which causes Mexico’s two back-to-back blown defensive coverages. “Ahora resulta que desde que llegó la gringa, no podemos defender.” (Turns out that ever since the gringa arrived, we can’t defend.) Maria quickly asks Abuela not to be rude. All the while, Kathy can hardly understand a word of Abuela’s language. The poor creature is cheering for Mexico louder than any of us. A curved shot from outside the box, flying just out of Memo Ochoa’s reach, marks the end of minute 88. Curses, frowns, groans, and flying Takis Fuego potato chips that Papa was holding flew through the room. Even Kathy exclaims “No!” Just as everyone is quiet enough to hear the TV commentators, Maria Sabrina stands up, raises her hand over her head and yells “Goal!” The room grew silent. We invited her and her wife to this family reunion, we ignored the Catholic Church to accept her marriage, we tolerated the fact that Kathy couldn’t roll her r’s. But this was treason.
Abuela roars “Lárgate de ésta casa.” (Get away from this house.) Maybe she is reminded of the way Arturo was hung from the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry bridge because he looked like somebody else the cartels hated. Maybe she misses the old Juarez home where she raised Mama and Arturo. Undoubtedly, she feels betrayed. Maria Sabrina’s volatile, fierce, rebellious façade caved him. She runs outside out the door with black mascara running down her cheeks—it is just like her teenage years. Kathy followed. There is nothing but the sound of TV. No one moves. It hurts to breathe. I turn off the TV, pick it up with trembling arms, and place it in our front lawn—the same place Maria would stay whenever she “ran away” when we were little. As I finally find an outlet for the extension cord, I think back to all those confusing years of our childhood. Although Maria and I lacked a language, we had each other. Soon enough, my cousins, uncles, parents, aunts, and even Abuela sit on the grass, watching the Mexican team lose. It took Abuela until the next Mexican victory to apologize.