Hernandez sisters! The mere mention of their names sends most abuelas
to signing crosses over their bosoms. And I am sure my abuela has signed
more crosses than all of las abuelas of Mexico put together. Whenever
she gets wind that any girl in our village is thinking about going north
to look for work, she finds a way to tell that tired old story of the
Hernandez sisters one more time.
This is the last afternoon of August and
I have finally found the courage to tell her of my own plans. I stand
in the doorway of the little room that serves as our kitchen, beads of
sweat sliding down my forehead, and speak to the back of her dress:
She doesn’t answer.
I wipe the palms of my hands against my
skirt, “Abuela, I have to talk to you… Estrella and I have saved money
for bus tickets to Tijuana.”
Abuela keeps washing dishes.
“We’re leaving Tuesday morning.” I continue,
“When we get to Tijuana, we will stay with Tía Gabriela, and find
jobs baby-sitting or cleaning until we have enough money… to pay a coyote…
to take us across the border…” My voice trails off. I wait to the sound
of plates being rinsed.
Santa Maria! I am twenty-one years
old, standing in the doorway, looking at the back of this old woman’s
dress, waiting for her to say it’s OK for me to move my life forward!
What does it matter what she says? I’m going.
But still, I wait. The buzzing of flies
outside the screen has a hypnotic effect, but at the same time my legs
are filled with that twitchy feeling. The problem is that Abuela does
not live in the same dimension as you or I, where an hour is an hour,
and time is the same for everyone. In Abuela’s world, she is the sole
keeper of time. It is hers to give or to deny. Sometimes she gives, sometimes
she doesn’t, and usually she makes you wait.
Finally, she dries her hands and stretches
to pull a bowl from the top shelf. Then she rummages in the drawer beside
the sink and draws out a large spoon. This ancient utensil is carved from
rosewood, and practically black now, having soaked up the essences of
uncountable flans, cremas, moles, polentas, chilaquiles, and other magical
concoctions. I’ve seen it in her hand so often, this spoon, it is difficult
to imagine her without it! It’s like her scepter, the symbol of her authority.
Despite the spoon, I feel impatient. After
all, I am her first and only grandchild. Since the death of my parents,
each of us is all the other has. She could at least give me the courtesy
of her attention. I shift my weight to my other foot and sigh. Loudly.
Finally, she goes over to the icebox and
opens it. As she turns, a bottle of milk in her hand, she says, “Oyes,
mi hija. Did you forget about the Hernandez sisters?”
Oh sí, here we go. “Abuela, please
don’t…” I say.
She crosses herself. Of course. “Don’t
you know there are very bad people out in the world who can make a lot
of money off pretty young girls like you?”
I lean against the doorway and stare at
“It’s easy to be taken in, oh so easy.
They are very clever, these diablos…”
The strap across my right sandal is loose.
I will need new shoes before I leave, or maybe I can sew it back.
“…niña, please look at your abuela
when she is speaking to you!”
I lift my head. “But I am listening…”
She brings flour and sugar from beneath
the cabinet and sets them on the table, “I’m going to tell you again,
cariña, so you’ll understand, and get this crazy idea out of your
There’s nothing I can do to stop her. The
tip of her tongue slips from between her lips, draws a quick circle, and
then she begins:
Many years ago there were two young girls from Santa Rosalia who
wanted to go to the United States. They thought the streets up there would
be paved with beautiful clothes, expensive jewelry, and fancy automobile—not
to mention rich and handsome men who would want to marry them! For a whole
year they saved every peso until they finally had enough for bus tickets
Of course, they did not tell their mamas
or their abuelas about this scheme, those who could have given them some
excellent advice and saved them. No, no, no! Like thieves in the night
they crawled from their windows without so much as a good-by to the poor
women who had loved them and sacrificed so much for them…
“Abuela,” I step from the doorway into the kitchen, “that’s why I’m trying
to tell you now…”
She keeps talking as if she hasn’t heard.
…When they got to Tijuana, the first
thing those two girls did was get a newspaper and look at the job advertisements.
What do you think they found?”
I pull out one of the kitchen chairs
and sit at the table.
“Hija! Do you remember?”
I fold my hands and place them on the table.
Why shouldn’t I remember, after the one-thousandth time?
“Sí, Abuela, the first thing they saw was Elena Hernandez’ advertisement.”
Elena Hernandez, the sister whose job it was to travel around Mexico
recruiting innocent young girls. She would place advertisements in newspapers
promising a high life working as maids in San Diego. And of course those
two girls from Santa Rosalia were more than ready to believe—they were
too ignorant to know better. Not like you, hija, so wise and sophisticated…
I open my mouth to object but she begins measuring the sugar and flour
into the bowl and goes right on.
They thought they would be wearing
silk dresses and dating American movie stars, while cleaning shit from
the toilets of rich gringos! Imagine! But when that van of Elena Hernandez’
crossed the frontera with those two girls in the back—along with twenty
others packed up against one another like sardines—it didn’t stop in San
Diego. It didn’t stop in Los Angeles. It didn’t stop until it had driven
them all the way up to San Francisco!
Abuela cups her hand over the bowl. First baking powder then salt sifts
into her palm, and slips into the bowl. She claps her hands three times…
They were driven to a house on Court Street, a house with a gallery
that ran all the way around and a sign over the door: “The House of Blue
Orchids.” When they realized the true nature of their so-called ‘jobs’—Ojala,
how those girls cried—like babies! But what did that mean to Rita Hernandez,
the other sister, the one who ran the House of Blue Orchids? About as
much as the shit in the gringo toilets those girls would never get a chance
Can you imagine, having to do all those
disgusting things with all those disgusting men, day in and day out, what
sickening acts they must have been forced to perform? Santa Madre, nos
Again Abuela signs the cross and again takes up her spoon… but then changes
her mind. She rests it against the side of the bowl and looks at me, “Hija?”
“Don’t you think that would be horrible, such a life?”
“Would you like to end up with a life like that?”
“Sí… I mean no, Abuela.”
She slips the lid off the milk, measures out two cups.
In that kind of life a woman does not
keep her looks for long…
“…eggs, in the ice box, cariña, I need all twelve… gracias…”
…it’s a fact.
She cracks an egg against the side of the bowl… a flash of gold slips
into the batter.
Those who knew them said within a very
few years the girls’ complexions became wrinkled and drawn. Their eyes,
once clear and bright, sank within dark hollows. And of course their hair,
which had once been much like yours hija, so thick and beautiful, became
thin and dull. Eventually, none of the customers would waste their money
“How do you know all this, Abuela?” I ask.
She shrugs. Her eyes are wide, “It’s what everyone knew.”
She is quiet then, breaking the rest of the eggs and dropping each into
the bowl… dos—tres—cuatro—cinco—seis—siete—ocho-nueve—diez: once… and
pausing with the last egg in her hand, she turns back to me, “When the
pitiful creatures were no longer able to make money for The House of Blue
Orchids—you might think Rita would have just sent them home, wouldn’t
“Doce.” She cracks the last egg and tosses the shell into the trash beneath
the sink, smiling as though she has just won a prize.
I stare at the surface of the kitchen table,
its grain criss-crossed with hundreds of little dents and scars, and silently
ask, What about my life, my future! Dios mío!
Abuela frowns, “You know Rita would never let any of the girls go free—they
might tell the secret! Besides, both of the Hernandez sisters were simply
evil; evil needs no excuse for anything it does, m’ija. It exists for
its own sake, just like God.”
She is quiet then as she mixes the batter using vigorous strokes, as if
she is beating the Devil out of what’s inside the bowl. The table rocks
with her efforts.
But then she stops and her shoulders droop. She shakes her head, her voice
breaks as she says, “Why couldn’t they have just let all those girls go
back to their mamas and abuelas… oh, hand me a towel, cariña…”
I hand her the towel that lies on the table in front of her.
“…After all, the House of Blue Orchids was a thousand miles from Mexico,”
her voice is plaintive and she looks at me with eyes which are beginning
to fill, “and the San Francisco policía, they didn’t mind whoring
so much.” She dabs at her tears, “Ay Santa Maria!… it is so sad, what
happened! Isn’t it, mi querida?” She blows her nose in the towel.
She sniffs while she folds the towel into four quarters, smoothes it,
and tosses it behind her. Then she takes up her spoon and clears her throat,
“You remember the worst part?”
I lift one eyebrow, a gesture I learned from her to combat her spells,
“…the girls didn’t get to marry millionaires?”
She raps the bowl with her spoon, and it rings like a hollow bell, even
though it is full of batter. Then, I swear to you, my abuela grows taller.
She rises up and up until she towers over me like a tree, her leaves reaching
all the way to the ceiling. I shrink into my chair.
“Don’t you remember?” Her voice is now louder and full of power. “When
the police finally caught up with them, don’t you remember what they found?”
“Yes,” I answer, my voice small.
The spoon is moving again, a strong steady
beat, shluup, shluup, shluup. Her breasts and the flesh at the
tops of her arms vibrate with each stir, as if she is beating a drum.
I was young then. As a matter of fact, about the same age as you,
and this event had a powerful effect on all of us young girls. Everyone
in my village was talking about it. It was in the newspapers on both sides
of the border. All because of Senora Chong. Do you remember?
When Lily Chong discovered her husband’s
fondness for The House of Blue Orchids—and that is another story in itself,
hija—no amount of money, even though it was offered, could keep her from
telling that whole other story to a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle.
Senora Chong let a very fat gato out of the bag, because her husband happened
to be Raymond Chong, United States Senator from California. When the story
came out, it was the first domino to fall for the Hernandez sisters.
A few days afterwards, when Rita Hernandez’s
informant phoned to say the police were on their way, Rita just hung up
and checked her lipstick in the hall mirror. Then she went to stash her
big blue ledger in the secret place—the police have never found it to
this day—and made a brief call to her lawyer. After that she proceeded
to the side veranda to enjoy a cold cerveza while waiting for her maid
to announce the arrival of the policía. Surrounded by bougainvillea
blossoms, puffing on a Turkish cigarette, Rita felt confident. She knew
that within hours she would be back at The House of Blue Orchids, engaged
in the one true joy of her life—except for counting money—the only thing
she really cared about… tending her magnificent blue orchids which grew
in the courtyard.
But on that day, Rita was to encounter
a twist in her fate—the second domino fell as the officers were escorting
the Blue Orchid girls into the van. One of them—it might have been one
of the poor girls from Santa Rosalia—anyway, one of them offered to show
the captain something of great importance if he would only “por la amor
de Dios!” provide her with a bus ticket back home to Santa Rosalia. The
officer agreed… perhaps she would lead him to the ledger. Wouldn’t that
have been a feather in his cap?
The girl took him into the courtyard and
pointed toward Rita’s amazing circular bed of orchids which rose high
above the patio’s pretty blue tiles in three glorious tiers, a magnificent
fountain of flowers and greenery—and sobbed out one word: “Dig!”
It took an entire hour to tear out the
border of thyme, the jade plants, the cactus, and of course all those
orchids, which had won prizes at shows in Mexico City, San Diego, and
Los Angeles. Rita had bred her blooms hundreds of times until they produced
dull, greenish-blue blossoms which she boasted were the precise color
of the veins which pulsed beneath the translucent flesh in the breasts
of ladies of pure Castilian heritage. Such irony, because Rita Herndandez’
heritage was far from pure, and from a certain climate far warmer than
that of Castile!
This puta sat in the back of the police
van spitting words no true lady of Castile would ever think of. She first
tried threatening the captain with her connections, with lawsuits, with
sure death through the spell of her evil eye, and finally sank to describing
alarming things she would do to a certain part of his manhood. But none
of it mattered when about three o’clock in the morning the police got
down to the second tier…
“Dios mío!…” I laugh, trying to sabotage her story, “Such a pity
to destroy all those lovely flowers…”
Abuela places her hands on the table and
leans forward, “Don’t be insolente!”
She straightens back up an continues the
story, but there is a low rumbling quality to her voice now, disconcerting,
like when distant thunder filters into your dreams.
While digging in the second tier, the policemen’s shovels hit something
hard. That was the discovery of the first skull. Then a second skull.
Next, a leg bone. And then three ribs. The rest of the dominoes fell one
by one, and there was no stopping them. In the final count, the police
found over a hundred bodies in that flowerbed. It seems the fate of all
the girls in the House of Blue Orchids, sooner or later, was to become
food for Rita’s vein-colored flowers.
Of course God dealt fairly with both Hernandez
sisters. Rita died in a California prison in 1959… complications from
the syphilis, a horrible death! As to her sister Elena, she was murdered
in Tijuana soon after Rita’s arrest, probably by somebody’s abuela!
Too late for all those Orchid girls.
I am embarrassed that her story has affected
me. This usually happens, and I can never figure out how she does it.
This time there’s something about the telling of these events—such extraordinary
events—within the ordinary walls of our kitchen.
It might also be the certain quality her
voice can take… or the hypnotic effect of her spoon beating… or just that
awful picture of the orchids feeding on the girls’ bodies. Whatever it
is, it is Abuela’s gift and difficult to escape.
She faces me, hands on her hips, “Now I ask you, hija, do you want to
end up like that?”
I go to the cabinet and take down a glass, return and fill it with milk.
I finish the entire glass in one long drink, swallowing slowly, gathering
my strength as the cool liquid flows down my throat. I wipe at my upper
lip with my fingertips, then give her an answer, the only one I can think
of, “You aren’t being realistic, Abuela.”
She looks at me sideways. “Fate is never realistic, cariña, you
can’t shake your finger at fate and say, ‘Por favor, be realistic!’”
“But that all took place forty years ago!”
“The past predicts the future… hand me the cake pan.”
I reach under the sink and toss the pan on the table, harder than I intended.
She isn’t going to say it’s OK for me to go. She isn’t going to wish me
well. Why can’t she just do that, such a small thing? Vaya con Dios, niña,
go and be happy!
Instead, she scoops a large chunk of butter with her fingers and, as she
has always taught me is absolutely necessary, begins to grease the pan.
“Hija…” she says smoothly, “…in the end, it all comes to this: Do you
want to kill the woman to whom you owe your heritage?”
I sometimes wonder how different our lives would have turned out if Abuela’s
true fate had been realized. Perhaps we would be living in Spain and she
would be making films for that famous director—I have forgotten his name.
Abuela saw him once through the window of his train when it stopped in
Puerta Linda on its way to Mexico City. She was young then, selling sweetbreads
on the platform. He smiled at her as the train was leaving. So many times
she has told me the story.
Perhaps if they had met I might now be
leaving for my university, the wealthy and cultured granddaughter of a
world-famous actriz. Instead, I am standing in the dim kitchen of a crumbling
house in a poor puebla, struggling to find the courage to cross a line
some people imagine lies up north. And for what? To care for other people’s
children, to cook other people’s meals. Will it be as Abuela says, scrubbing
the shit from their toilets, and no different from here?
My eyes study her face as she works… the crease between her eyebrows,
not from frowning, but from concentration, she has often told
me. The straight nose, the brown skin stretched tightly across a high
forehead—and the small mouth, drooping at its corners like a wilted flower.
The ridges and valleys of her face are better known to me and more loved
than any home I have ever known… am I making a mistake?
She asks, smiling pleasantly, “To kill
the woman to whom you owe your heritage… Hija, is that what you want?”
“Abuela, you know it is not…”
“Then mi corazón, quedarte en casa
con su abuela! Where you are safe.”
What more is there to say? I return to
my chair, rest my head on the table and close my eyes. When I open them,
a bowl has appeared in front of me, a bowl containing twelve, ripe, green-black
avocados, their skins as coarse and dark as the highway that unravels
for three hundred miles up the coast until it reaches that doorway—Tijuana.
It pulls at me, that road, despite Abuela’s spell.
“You can peel the avocados now!”
As I am getting the knife, I notice through
the window, the figure of a young woman standing in the road. She wears
a faded green skirt with white birds painted around the hem, a skirt she
has owned since we were both fourteen. Estrella, drawing circles in the
dust with her toes.
A gust of wind suddenly fills the air with
the fine powder the earth has become during the summer, and Estrella’s
skirt presses flat against her belly, its hem whipping behind, snapping
and popping toward the north.
I return to my chair and silently peel
the bumpy skins from the green which lies beneath. After a few minutes,
Abuela takes the knife from me and begins to slice the avocados. I wash
the rest of the utensils, including her spoon, dry them, and put them
away. Finally, I take the dishpan from the sink, go outside, and pour
water over the gardenias which grow in coffee cans outside our door.
Estrella moves toward me now, her skirt billowing, full of the wind.
She is smiling. I smile back, but then something very strange happens.
Just as suddenly as the wind came up, it is gone. One moment it is stirring
everything like Abuela’s spoon, and the next all is still as a well. Abuela
is at the door now, drying her hands on the dishtowel, looking over my
shoulder. The stillness is uncomfortable. Flinging the last drops of water
from the pan, I run back into the kitchen and stand beside Abuela, just
inside the door. Estrella reaches the gardenias and stops, her skirt hanging
Abuela greets her, “Hola, Estrella.”
“Buenos tardes, Abuela,” Estrella replies.
Abuela moves in front of me, blocking my view of my friend, and rests
her hand on the latch, “You are too soon, Niña… your tickets aren’t
until next week. We were just discussing the Hernandez Sisters. Have you
I push past Abuela and open the screen, “She has, Abuela, but where are
your manners? Come in Estrella, come in. We can talk.”
“Gracias,” Estrella moves through the door.
“Yes, yes,” Abuela says, “Let us talk, did you know that many years ago,
there were two young girls from Santa Rosalia who wanted to go to the
United States, just like you and my Sofia?”
Estrella turns to us. “Yes,” she says smiling. Her face is serene, her
eyes kind, “Yes, I do know that story…” And then, right there within the
four walls of our kitchen, a place never discovered by any breeze, Estrella’s
skirt gently billows outward. The birds along its border open their wings
and as they begin to beat them silently and insistently, Abuela’s arm
settles itself carefully around my shoulders.