Brenda Salinas Baker
“My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break.”
The Taming of the Shrew, 4.3 83-84
When our mother sent our teenage maid back to her village, our tears could have washed all of the apostles’ feet. It was one of the last spring days in San Pedro Garza García. A cool breeze carried the smell of pines down the mountain to the valley. Our mother, baptized as Isabela, was called Doña Chela by those who feared her and Chelita by her inner circle. “God is like the wind,” she often told us, “you may not see Him directly, but you can hear the leaves rustle.”
The five figures gathered around the entryway of the pink brick house must have looked like a collection of Marian statues. My sisters and I were flanked by square limestone columns that just weeks ago had been circular. Our mother tilted her chin like a dove and pondered reinstating them to their original design.
Our mother’s gaze was inscrutable behind her oval Oakley sunglasses, but when she would later recount this anecdote, it was not without pain. That morning, her saint-of-the-day calendar told her it was the feast of Santa Rita Cascia, patroness of abused wives and heartbroken women. It was one of the little signs God sent her on the path.
When we listened to our mother’s words, each of us drew a different meaning. For my eldest sister, Paula—named, like many in her generation, for the Pope’s visit to Mexico in 1979—it was a warning that the wrong man can ruin a woman’s life. For my middle sister, Cristina, it was proof that under our mother’s pink silks and cashmeres, there lay something hard and unforgiving. For me, the daughter our mother prayed for the most, the events shifted the tectonic plates of my made-up world, swallowing my favorite stories.
In our mother’s retelling, she emphasized how, when Anaïs first arrived in our home, she took her to the women’s clinic for a checkup, the secretarial school for enrollment, and to the department store to purchase two brassiers. Our mother didn’t like when domestic workers wore uniforms, so she supplied two sensible pairs of slacks, four modest blouses and comfortable sneakers intended for nurses. Throughout the years, she encouraged Anaïs to change out of the American clothes she was given when she cleaned the house, but God in his wisdom gave man free will. Now, as she examined Anaïs’ bleach-stained jeans, originally purchased for my sister Paula, she thought, “The girl can’t say she wasn’t warned.”
Though Cristina and I were still years away from our quinceañeras, our mother saw the three of us as the mujeres hechas y derechas we would become, especially when she was tempted to spoil us. Her mind returned to the image of us waking at dawn, of feeding a colicky baby and smearing diaper cream on a little pink butt, thinking, “My mother did this for me once.” During her first labor, she was in so much pain that she mixed up the words in her rosary, terrifying her spirit. For her subsequent pregnancies, she wrote out her prayers on index cards and tucked them into the pocket of her hospital bag. There is a certain comfort in knowing what one’s last words will be.
These are the thoughts that ran through our mother’s mind as she waited for the crunch of tires on gravel that marked the arrival of the girl’s uncle. He pulled into the driveway, windows down, in an ocean blue Chevy Silverado with wood paneling. An accordion-heavy country ballad played through the car radio. The man wore a cream-colored cowboy hat and a grey mustache. When he got out of the car, I was eye level with his silver belt buckle.
“Bueno, Señora,” he said. “Thank you for taking care of our Anaïs.”
“Of course. She’s a good girl. A hard worker.”
“Too bad about the ending, though.”
As her uncle loaded her suitcase into the truck bed, Anaïs pressed her lips into a smile and fixed her eyes on her patrona’s leather loafers. She said “Gracias Señora” with a croak that betrayed her anger. Our mother braced herself for the moment she might have to shake the leather-skinned man’s callused hand, but thankfully, he did not offer it. He got in the car, tipped his hat, and drove off with Anaïs in the passenger seat.
I don’t remember when Anaïs first came to stay with us. It was as if she had always been there, like a fairy born from a spell. She was shorter than Paula (who bragged she was as tall as an Americana), but she had bigger breasts. She had black hair that hung straight down her back when she unbraided it, dulce-de-leche skin and a gummy smile. I thought she was as pretty as Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Carmelita, Carmenchu, Carmucha, Carmina— I disliked every nickname I was given, but Anaïs called me Camu, which I hated the least. I had friends who were raised by their families’ muchachas—young indigenous women who trailed them to school drop-offs and piñatas. But our mother’s insistence on raising us was almost pathological. I studied math and history in a plaid pinafore a few hours a week, but what I learned from observing her, my mother insisted, was my real patrimony.
She said something similar to Anaïs when she asked her to redo a task (more bleach, more starch!): “One day, you will have a house of your own and what you learn here will help you keep it.”
I dreaded the two nights a week Anaïs spent in secretarial school. I preferred helping her in the kitchen to accompanying my sisters to the rhythmic gymnastics and swimming lessons I was too young for. In the car, my mother and I recited little rhyming prayers that fit together like riddles.
“Sea Maria tu corazón…”
“¡de todo el mundo la salvación!”
“En el cielo y la tierra sea por siempre alabado…”
“¡El corazón amoroso de Jesús sacramentado!”
“Jesús, José y Maria…”
“¡Os doy el corazón y el alma mía!”
In the kitchen with Anaïs, I scooped black pearls out of papayas, mixed foaming love potions in a lemonade pitcher, massacred tomatoes into a bloody pulp, and flattened masa balls in a medieval torture/tortilla device. Anaïs told me of beautiful women who were stolen from her village by men on bareback, festivals that lasted for days, and a neighbor who played the guitarrón so beautifully he could break a maiden’s heart by strumming his strings.
“Do handsome men give you serentas in the village?” I asked.
She laughed. “I don’t have a balcony, and besides, I’m always here.”
“Do you have any suitors when you leave the house?”
She smiled coyly. “Just a neighbor who says hello to me sometimes when I go on my walks.”
“Tell me the story of how you’re Santa Claus!”
Anaïs laughed. “When I go back to visit my family with the bags of clothes and toys you and your sisters have outgrown, my little cousins swarm me like bees. They hug my knees and bury me with kisses until I fall down. My cousin Chincho told me we should sell the stuff, but I told him it’s not in the Christmas spirit. Besides, I like being the thing everyone looks forward to.”
“And on Christmas Eve,” I continued, “your little house is so cold that all your brothers and sisters have to climb into your Mom’s bed to keep each other warm.”
Anaïs said that story wasn’t true, but still, I gathered eight dolls into my bed and clutched them tightly, imagining myself as the single matriarch of a freezing clay house.
“You’re going to suffocate with so much synthetic hair,” my mother said, lining my dolls on my headboard. I had recently discovered I could fall asleep anywhere and wake up in my own bed. I’d tested my magic in every room, including the pantry. The nights my mother thwarted my experiment, she insisted on brushing out my knots and stuffing me into a blanket like a taquito. After our prayers, she licked a dog-eared page from the violet book with white hands clasped around a crystal rosary on the cover.
“Born a Spanish noblewoman in 1515, Santa Teresa de Avila was a renowned mystic who through solitude, contributed to Spanish Renaissance literature...”
The happily-ever-after in my mother’s stories was always implied.
I asked, “Are there ghosts in heaven?”
“There are no such things as ghosts. Only angels and the Holy Spirit, which is how God moves the world until Jesus’ return.”
“Oh.” I thought about the trailer for Jaws that was playing on every television channel. “Do dead sharks go to heaven?”
In the daytime, I sneaked into my mother’s nightstand to read the stories she skipped. Santa Cecilia hacked to death by a Roman sword. Santa Agnes paraded naked through the streets. I shared my research with Anaïs. “When she was beheaded in a stadium, Christians soaked up her blood with cloth!”
Anaïs and I watched telenovelas in the kitchen. I cleaned the beans, sifting through handfuls to remove stowaway pebbles. Anaïs folded and ironed clothes with one eye on the television. She shouted “¡Chones!” every time she picked up a pair of my father’s underwear, and I squeezed my eyes into raisins. We watched the novelas where the land-owning heiress is softened by a man she initially reviles, but our favorites were the ones when the servant girl falls in love with the evil matron’s son, and after a series of harrowing obstacles, earns her place in society. The novela ended with a daily cliffhanger. While the credits rolled over the specially-commissioned ballad, Anaïs and I predicted what would happen next.
“The young man writes the heroine a romantic letter explaining why he had to be so cold to her,” Anaïs said.
“The Doña is revealed to be an evil sorceress who harvests heartbroken maiden’s hearts for her wrinkle cream!”
The kitchen table was also the stage for the only meal our family shared together: breakfast. I remember one morning when I was triumphantly smearing jam over the pre-toasted Bimbo bread that I loved.
“Make a mess now,” my mother said, “because when my friends come over you can’t eat anything that will stain your pretty dress.”
I nodded, licking my hot-chocolate mustache. The real mustache was grumbling behind a newspaper. I stopped asking about the news when my sisters teased me for not being able to pronounce “periodico,” but I knew people were angry because the president’s brother had killed the president’s friend.
“A disgrace...a sham of a trial,” my father said.
My mother poured my father coffee. “You know better than to expect justice in this life, mi amor.”
After my sisters tumbled into my father’s Chrysler, my mother told me it was time to french-braid my hair.
“I want Anaïs to do it,” I said, fearing the pull of my mother’s hands against my pink scalp, the fog of hairspray tightening in my lungs like poison.
“She’s busy getting ready for the merienda, and you have to look perfect.”
I groaned. “Will I be performing today?” I asked, silently rehearsing my repertoire of tap and poetry.
“Yes,” my mother answered, “you’ll be playing the role of a little girl who obeys.”
Anaïs winked at me while she cleared our plates.
Wearing a peach dress with embroidered flowers on the chest, ruffled socks tucked into patent leather Mary Janes, I greeted my mother’s friends at the door with a curtsy and directed them towards the formal living room. The best part of my mother’s parties was that they took place in the part of the house that was only for company; the sliding doors revealed a portal into a parallel universe. I sat next to my mother on the mint green couch, hands folded into my lap, ankles crossed. Anaïs told me she would save a few of the best cookies for me, and I was eyeing the spread with anticipation.
“Chela—she looks like a little doll!”
My mother beamed. I transformed myself into one of the dolls on my headboard, closing my eyes while lying down, and opening them when I sat back up a few times. My mother stroked my back menacingly. I stifled a yawn and put my ear to her stomach. I liked hearing how her voice sounded deeper and warmer from inside her body.
“I can confirm that we have adequate funds to buy Padre Francisco new Lenten vestments,” my mother said. The women clapped.
“Thank Christ. The eye gets bored seeing the same frock week after week.”
“I’m giving the floor to Olivia, who is in charge of the purchase,” my mother continued.
“Thank you dear Chelita. I have sourced the most beautiful violet vestment from Spain. It’s hand-embroidered by a community of Sisters that dates back to the Middle Ages. I guarantee no priest in the state will have a finer set of robes this Easter.”
“Gracias Olivia,” my mother continued. “And I’m pleased to say that we have adequate funds left over to cover the cost of a communal baptismal gown for the Church. This is something we’ve talked about for the last year, but it has become increasingly urgent. As many of you know, last month a little boy showed up for the blessed sacrament wearing an El Tigres Club jersey.”
“Mary Mother of God.” A few women made the sign of the cross.
“We still need a volunteer to source the gown.”
“Clarisa, didn’t you purchase your grandson’s gown in San Miguel de Allende?”
“You can’t expect us to purchase such finery for a communal gown. It will get torn to shreds! We need something more durable.”
“And stain proof.”
“Maybe something made out of duck cloth? Or waxed canvas?”
The women laughed. I couldn’t believe I’d skipped my nap for this.
I was in the house alone with my mother that night. Anaïs was in school and my glamorous sisters were returning home in a carpool so my mother could recuperate from her party. I was directing a multi-generational doll saga in my playroom when I heard the doorbell. I looked out the window and saw the top of a floral scarf tucked into a black jacket with exaggerated shoulder pads. I ran down the stairs to tell my mother to not eat any fruit that the witch was selling. She shushed me away and opened the heavy wooden doors, which always failed to emit an ominous groan.
The neighbor was not quite as light-skinned as my blonde mother. Her floral perfume clashed with the lemon scented cleaner Anaïs had used to mop the marble floors.
“Buenas tardes. My name is Angelica Santiago del Campo, I live just on the corner of Bosques del Valle and Inocentes.”
My mother, sensing an opportunity to love thy neighbor, invited the woman to come inside. “Can I offer you a cup of tea?”
“I’m afraid I can’t stay today, but it would be nice for us to get together soon, since our children are spending so much time together.”
“Our children?” My mother’s vocal chords tightened.
“Yes, your daughter and my son have been going on walks together.”
I imagined my teenage sister burned at the stake with her braces and scrunchies.
“She said her name was Anaïs.”
My mother gasped. “There’s been a terrible misunderstanding. The girl isn’t my daughter. I am her employer.”
The woman nodded, as if she had known all along. After saying goodbye, my mother closed the door. I felt a gust of wind brush my cheek as my mother rushed up the stairs muttering an Ave Maria. She glided through her bedroom into her dressing room—too far away to hear. I skipped into the empty kitchen towards the phone. I picked up the receiver with one hand while pressing the hook with the other. I gently released the pressure and held my breath. I heard my Tía Nela’s girlish voice on the other line.
“Dear Lord Chela. What are you going to do?”
“What else can I do? I’ll send word to the girl’s parents, she’s my responsibility.”
“Thank God the mother caught them before it was too late. Imagine the scandal!”
“God forbid. That boy could have ruined her.”
When my mother said “ruined,” I pictured Anaïs as a cupcake gone stale, a dress smeared with jam, a gold hoop earring without its pair. I waited until my mother said adios to hang up the phone.
The next day after breakfast, my mother invited me to go upstairs and watch television—that’s how I knew something exciting was happening. I turned on the TV in Paula’s bedroom, momentarily tempted by the opportunity to play with her lip glosses, but tip-toed downstairs, passing the four foot crucifix that hung from the wall. It was too risky to put my ear to the swinging kitchen door, so I crouched by the bottom step, combing the shag carpet with my fingers.
I heard Anaïs wail. “He’s not my boyfriend or anything. I promise, Señora. He just accompanied me on a few walks.”
“I want to believe you dear, but your word has been corrupted. That woman thought you were my daughter.”
“I never said that! I just said that I lived in the pink house up the street!”
“That is a sin by omission. Do I need to tell you what could have happened if you hadn’t been discovered? The adults in your life are here to protect you, to help you better your circumstances.”
“Please Señora, I promise I will never see him again.”
“That’s for certain. But I told your parents that I would guard you while you were in the city. I have no choice but to discuss this with them.”
My mother took me out on errands for the rest of the day, where she imparted the importance of establishing long-term relationships with merchants, regardless of price. “Loyalty is important—you never know when you’ll need help getting out of trouble.” I was forced to follow my mother around like a duck for weeks until Anaïs finished her semester. We were both being punished—her, through banishment, and me, through the most dreadful errands. Every time I tried to get close to Anaïs, my mother called me away. I drew her a picture of a brown-skinned princess with black hair hanging from a tower to remind her of where we were in the story—the part before the happy ending where the young couple faces a big obstacle. We had to keep the faith.
Night after night, I waited for the handsome prince to scale a ladder into the service room. When weeks passed without as much as a serenata, I started imagining Anaïs’ boyfriend as more and more repulsive until he was transformed into a warty toad. My sweet friend had been tricked! It was up to me to prove her virtue. I knew if she saved my life, her fate would be spared.
The next morning at breakfast, Anaïs’ eyes were puffy and her smile was strained. Her usually fluid movements had become staggered, as if she were waiting for my mother’s permission to complete her routine chores. I waited until Anaïs was close to make myself choke on a piece of toast—which is surprisingly difficult when you’re not sure your family will revive you. After my third cough, my sisters laughed at me, “What’s wrong with you, sonsa?”
As time ran out on Anaïs' salvation, I busied myself making talismans out of modeling clay, knotting pieces of string around every doorknob and muttering invented incantations; but I couldn’t keep the day from coming.
On the morning of Anaïs’ departure, I stood in the driveway weeping. I wept harder knowing I was weeping harder than anyone had ever wept. I wondered why my sisters were crying—everyone knew I was Anaïs’ favorite. It occurred to me that my sisters were deeply moved to witness my heartbreak, and that cheered me up a little.
Before taking Anaïs back to her dusty village forever, her uncle loaded a single frayed suitcase onto the truck bed. The suitcase had belonged to my father before I was born, and it was the only thing Anaïs took with her. I wondered if her cousins would be disappointed that she wasn’t Santa Claus anymore. I imagined her silver-haired mother holding her in a tight embrace, relieved to finally have her home. I waited for Anaïs to wave to me, but she never looked back. I knew it was my fault. My magic had failed her.
Our mother shepherded us back into the pink house and said, “Remember my dears, the Lord knows what he does.” She kept her tortoiseshell glasses on the entryway table next to the staircase. When my mother turned around, I balanced the frames on the bridge of my nose and looked at the crucifix at the end of the stairs that guided our every step. Through the glass, I could make out the individual thorns on Jesus’ head, the drops of blood on his face, the outline of his muscles, and the wounds on his hands and feet. I believed eyeglasses, like breasts and understanding, would be given to me one day in a foil-wrapped box. It would be another two years before an adult noticed my advanced myopia.
This anecdote has been told and retold many times, morphing around the motives of the speaker, but certain facts are indisputable. The pink brick house still stands in the valley. Rising to meet God’s subsequent trials and tribulations, Doña Chela successfully tamed three patrician daughters, all apostles in the faith.
I don’t remember much about the next muchacha my mother hired, an older woman who only came during the day. She was a better cook than Anaïs, but she didn’t tell stories, and as I approached my First Communion, my incantations were replaced with prayers, my fairy tales with proverbs. I liked her less.
BRENDA SALINAS BAKER is a first-year MFA student at The Writer's Foundry at St. Joseph's College in Brooklyn, New York.