Magdalena on: Fact

Somewhere near breakfast Juan Duran signaled, and one by one the train of now-dusty cars pulled to the left and parked near a field. The field was full of crops, something low-cut and greenish, like parsley; and speckled throughout the harvest were farmers in old Dodger caps and white t-shirts, digging up produce and depositing dirty bunches into large wooden crates beneath umbrellas of bright orange and yellow and pink.

You mean the umbrellas aren’t for the workers? I asked Ricky in a hushed voice.

What? Donna, who was riding shotgun, asked.

The umbrellas, I said, pointing, you mean they aren’t…

Unbelievable, Donna said, before opening her door and directing a sharp glare at Ricky. I thought she grew up on a farm. I should have guessed this from you, she said, though it was unclear to whom she was speaking. Then she slammed the door and walked off barefoot towards the lead Caddy, mumbling under her breath.

I sat in the backseat with my hat in my lap, stunned and looking at Ricky. It was a vineyard, I said quietly, a small one. When we hired people it was just a few and they used the house.

Hey, don’t worry about it, Donna’s second husband, Christopher, said as he pushed the tip of his foot against the e-brake and took the keys out of the ignition. She’s still bitter about the scars and the smell of cilantro brings it back. Then he opened his door and slipped out after Donna, carrying her heels in his left hand and her sunglasses in the other.

Ricky slipped an arm around my shoulder and rubbed the back of my head with his palm. Hey, don’t worry about it. How could you have known?

You could have told me, I thought. Should I apologize?

Nah, she’ll forget about it before lunch. Just next time, maybe save your questions for when we’re alone. He opened his car door and let in a burst of golden light that had been previously muted by tinted windows.

Right, I said, pulling on my hat and pushing my sunglasses against my face.

Oh, come on, Magsie, Ricky said, ducking back into the car and planting a kiss on the top of my head. Don’t let it get you down. He tugged on my arm and I let him slide me across the leather seat and out of the car.

Outside, doors and trunks began to click open and slam shut as the Mora de la Cruz family poured out of their air-conditioned cars and into the heat of the Mexican morning sun. Their polo shirts and pressed Levis contrasted loudly with the tattered, muted colors of the farm around them.

We walked en masse along a cracked dirt driveway and into a stucco barn-like structure that functioned as sort of multipurpose dining room/mess hall. The girls and their men spread out and took up occupancy around the various tables, fanning each other with poorly folded maps and sun hats while Ricky, who held tightly to my hand, was corralled by his father into the kitchen.

Three old ladies tied up in faded paisley aprons—their arms covered in cornmeal to the elbows—were pounding tortillas, while a small, gold, portable radio hummed Mexican folk songs from the windowsill. When they saw Ricky they exploded into Spanish pandemonium, exclaiming and folding Ricky and Juan Duran into a sweaty embrace and littering their faces and starched black shirts with kisses and corn-covered pats. Overwhelmed, I managed to wrestle my hand from Ricky’s grasp and took a seat on a wooden crate in the corner. The old lady shrieks seemed to set off some sort of chain reaction and, before long, what appeared to be the entire town had gathered around, some of the children and a few older boys singing in broken English and particled Spanish, He’s here. He’s here. Yup the guy from California and his son. Happy.

Of course, the Spanish part I didn’t understand. My mother had been trying to teach me a working vocabulary since before I could walk, and Ricky had managed to teach me a word or two, but for the most part I nodded a lot, held up my fingers and used gestures. It worked well, but there were a few flaws. For example, my hand held like a cup to my lips seemed to be the universal sign for water (agua, duh), but even with the word there was no gesture for water from the bottles in the back of the truck and not Mexican water from a rusty pipe. So rather than ask I’d just brave the heat, follow the dirt drive back to the car, fish around under the tarp of the truck, wrestle with a gallon sized jug and pour myself a hot glass of L.A. tap. And that’s how it happened. How it hit me. How I knew that it would be water, in small plastic bottles, sold to America by a Mexican son. The irony was enough to make me choke, but I didn’t. Instead I spit the water from my mouth in a single stream onto the cracked brown dirt below and twisted the cap back on the recycled gallon-carton.

Of course, I could have said all this to the adoring crowd assembled around Ricky, but I didn’t.

Unlike Ricky I didn’t say a word. Didn’t correct a single fact. Didn’t rearrange anything at all. Instead, I stood with my back to the sea and looked around at Ricky’s assembled beach-front audience. I eyed each of the interns in turn. I scanned tanned and tucked faces illuminated by the subtle orange glow of Tiki torches and tried to figure out which one. Which slut. Which common whore was screwing my husband right under my $22,000 nose?

Magdalena on: Imagination

Truth be told, Ricky’s father learned English off the portable radio and his children suffered the consequences: Rhonda, Donna, Sherry, Cheri, Venus, Barbara Ann and Ricky. Six Spanish-speaking baby girls and one American-born prince. The Mora de la Cruz girls, with the exception of Venus (who staged political protests and came out at sixteen), grew up in the shadows of Los Angeles and came into the city as one might expect: they married well, divorced, took half and then married again to second and third husbands always a little bit older and a little bit richer than their first. Other than Barbara Ann (who had three daughters with three different daddies), they remained childless, thin, beautiful and determined above everything to choose and maintain a certain lifestyle. To erase a certain past.

In the past the Mora de la Cruzs’ picked grapes, asparagus, peaches and—worst of all—strawberries from the time they set foot on California soil until the youngest among them turned twelve. They moved with the harvest, living in the dust and hay of the farm labor camps from Salem to Stockton, Bellingham to Riverside. Between the nine of them they were deported—individually and collectively—thirteen times under various grounds and foundations. Yet somehow, with assorted auspices and finagling, they always managed to make their way back to the states.

Juan Duran de la Cruz, a.k.a. The Cauliflower King, put on a bathing suit and—unable to swim—kicked a rubber tire a treacherous fifteen miles to shore. Rhonda waded through raw sewage in the Tijuana River. Sherry and Cheri jammed themselves into boxcars with hundreds of other norteños, unable to move, hardly able to breathe. Donna rode across the border spread-eagle on the top of a freight train, her blistered hands white with holding on. And Venus, a particularly bold and quick girl of fourteen, sprinted through the backed-up traffic at the port of entry, defying Border Patrol to chase her. Barbara Ann had to pay $550 American dollars to a coyote smuggler to take her to Fresno. She rode sewn inside the bench-seat upholstery of a Volkswagen Vanagon for 149 miles; and once she crossed la frontera she was held hostage for another $250 in ransom, which required her to work a full five months indentured and hungry, sleeping in the dirt with rotten lettuce for a pillow. But Ricky—the only true-to-flesh American born citizen of the de la Cruz clan—holds the best yarn by far.

Caught as an infant sucking on warm milk and stuffed inside the folds of his mother’s dress, Ricky was deported with his mother, Angelina, without question of the papers that secured his legitimacy. On the wrong side of the Rio Bravo, Ricky was stuffed into a Styrofoam cooler and floated across the border like Moses while his mother trailed behind. Kicking against the current and steering little Ricky away from eddies, Angelina fished crawdads from Ricky’s makeshift cradle and tucked him into the tulle at the first sign of danger.

References the Los Angeles Times article “3 Men, 2 Nations, 1 Dream” (Jennifer Mena, June 30, 2001, A-1)