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Octavio Solis

Art by Bradley Kerl

From Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived on the Border (City Lights)



    Tenemos que ir, she says.

    Aquí es donde vivo. Allá no, he replies.

    Pero allá es donde todos podemos vivir. Tu. Yo. Y el niño.

    El niño.

    Tenemos que pensar por el niño.

    But they are niños themselves. Too young to get married, according to my grandmother Mamá Concha, who despises my sullen young father. Now that her daughter of 16 is pregnant with me, she hates him even more. She beats him with her fists and kicks him in the shins whenever he comes by. But they’re in love and the birth is near. So, what can she do? Mamá Concha gives her blessing, but on the condition that they move to el Norte. Mis nietos will be American, she says. She is newly married herself and has a room secured for them in the same tenement she lives in. So, in short order, they exchange vows and countries in an old church in El Paso.

    Thus begins our America myth: three of us, my mother, father and me, crowded in a dingy tenement room with a hot plate to cook all the food. Mamá Concha and her new man two doors down. Community bath at the end of the hall. My mother and her mother have pasaportes locales which make them resident aliens and I’m a born citizen. My father, however, has none of his papers. He works in Juarez in an entry-level job in a bank, where he counts out crisp new bills of Mexican currency. When he moves to El Paso he loses the job but soon gets another selling ad space in Juarez for a radio station. Every morning he walks across the Santa Fe Bridge to work, then returns in the evening over the same span. Some months later, the officer at the checkpoint remembers him.

    I see you come and go every day. What’s going on with you?

    I live here but I work there, my father says in that gruff voice that makes the facts facts.

    Well, you can’t do that, says the officer. A man lives where he works. If you want to cross, go ahead, but you won’t be coming back in. Make up your mind where you want to live.

    My wife is here. My baby is here.

    So from now on, here is where you work. That is that.

    Now he has to find a job in a city that speaks English. But he can’t because he doesn’t. With his limited language, he is good only for menial work. He washes dishes in a greasy burger and menudo diner on the worst shift possible, the grim overnight hours before dawn. But the cook likes him, he’s good to him and teaches him how to make things on the grill because he needs someone to cover for him on the days when he will be too drunk or hungover to come work. That’s how my father becomes a short-order cook. One of the best in the city. It’s what he will do for most of his life. For the sake and welfare of this niño and the four more who come later.

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“Thus begins our America myth: three of us, my mother, father and me, crowded in a dingy tenement room with a hot plate to cook all the food. My mother and her mother have pasaportes locales which make them resident aliens and I’m a born citizen. My father, however, has none of his papers.”


    My mother. She’s close to her Mamá Concha. With shared unspoken troubles, they work together cleaning the houses of rich women. It’s hard with the children. One of whom dies. Even I almost lose it when I drink a bottle of turpentine left uncapped in the room being painted. My father runs all the way to the hospital with me turning white in his arms. My mother prays over and over, Madre Santa, don’t make me bury another. My stomach is pumped, and I live.

    Later, Immigration men come to the door. They have reports that an illegal is living in this residence.  My mother says, please don’t take my husband. I need him to watch my babies while I go to work. The men are embarrassed by their duty, and one of them gives my mother the name of an official in the INS. See him as soon as you can. He will make your man legal. Then they drive away with my father in their car. My mother rushes to the County Courthouse and finds this official after a long search. He listens to this pleading young mother with two children and one on the way and somehow grants her wish. Her husband will get his papers. This is a different time. A time when people know compassion. A time when kindness is haphazardly bestowed.

    My father spends five days and nights with other deportees in a dank joyless pen called el corralón. They are the blackest hours of his life. He cannot sleep. The place has a foul odor. Everyone around him looks as shamed as he feels. I’m not like them, he thinks. He wonders if he will be taken back across. Once he wanted that; once he yearned to return to the life he knew. But now he yearns only for his family. His one-room tenement home.

    My mother has him released after showing his proof of employment. They have procedures to perform to make him a resident, procedures that will allow him to live and work and pay taxes in a country that speaks English. In a way, what enables this to happen is me. My parents are legal and living in this country because of my brothers and sister and me. Decades will pass before they take a test and recite the oath of allegiance in English with their hands over their hearts as they look on the American flag and become full incontestable citizens.

    I am an anchor baby. Someone coined the term to impugn the motives of immigrants coming to this country. They use it to suggest that for some couples conceiving a child is not just an act of love but a ploy to secure the rights of residence. But every baby is an anchor for young parents navigating the stormy waters of daily life; every baby is an anchor for those who are looking for their true north, their purpose, their identity. We give our parents hope when they drift from bad times to bad times to worse. We give them solace when they consider going back to the little they had before. I anchor them to a place and an ideal worth living for. Like they anchor me.

    We have to go, dice ella.

    Here is where I live. Not there, dice el.

    But there is where we can all live. You. Me. And the child.

    The child.

    We have to think of the child.



    This is a retablo of our maid. She has something in her hands. A precious object. She comes down from the mountains of Mexico and takes a long bus ride to Ciudad Juarez, then walking over the Santa Fe Bridge to El Paso, boards another bus that takes her along the curve of the Lower Valley to our house. She lives with us, this lady whom everyone thinks is our abuela, because like our abuela, she commands our respect and rouses our love. Setting up her meager belongings in a small room near the kitchen, her comb, her picture of San Martín giving a piece of his cloak to a mendicant, her rosary and her small crumbling Bible, beside the single bed that used to be my little brother’s, she puts on her simple country dress and her apron with homemade rick rack. She’s small and stout, with strong bowed legs that carry her through the house she spends all day cleaning. Her face dark and furrowed with a life of endless work and strife, her hair silver and tightly braided into a plait that hangs down her back like a staff, her hands rough and calloused as a man’s, she cooks all our meals and calls for us when the plates are served. Wherever we are, we hear her summons and head for home. The food is so good that Kino and Marcos and the other kids want a plate too. She feeds us, feeds the dog, feeds the canaries in their cage, then feeds herself. All we know is her name, which is Consolation, which is perfect, since that is what she brings to my parents, who bust their asses day and night to make ends meet, which they never do, these ends that barely even pass each other across the room.  She grows yerbas in the backyard and makes healing soups and teas for us when we’re sick. Sometimes, when she’s alone, when a lull in her daily labors permits, she sits and watches the Canal Dos on TV, the Spanish language shows. At night, after we’ve all had our dinners and are getting ready for bed, she goes to her room with the door closed, sits on her bed with her opened Bible and prays. There are times when she goes to see her family, she says she’ll be gone two weeks, but two weeks can turn into four and then into eight because of difficulties at home or crossing-over issues. But six years of Consuelo, six years of her quiet folk singing as she hangs our clothes on the line, her sweeping the porch with that old broom, her stern admonishments to us for disrespecting our parents, six years of her practically raising us, invokes the deep mestizaje that lives in our blood, that reminds us we come from something older, simpler, and richer than the privileges we think are owed to us in this land.

    This is a retablo of her, sitting on her bed with the door ajar just enough for a nine year old to peer through, this old woman with her hair unbraided, loose all the way down to her lap, with a sacred object in the crèche of her hands, what can it be but the apple we threw away but she retrieved, saying waste nothing of God’s, and took to her room, and here it is receiving prayers, this sunken moldy apple, and Consuelo gingerly taking bites of it in the luminous mystery of faith, the apple in its own native gleam, already halfway earth.



    EVERY CORNER OF THE WORLD has its changeling, and Demon broods in ours. With his solemn Mayan face sloping back to a scalp nicked with the hieroglyphs of old corrections, his eyes crossed and bloodshot, he is the oldest of our tribe, the smallest, and the least capable of grasping the long straws of his simple life.

    When my parents move us to a house just a half mile from the Rio Grande, it doesn’t take long for us to meet the other kids in the area. Striking friendships we think will last forever, we play street football, ride our banana-seat bikes up and down the dried irrigation ditches, play hide-and-go-seek till nightfall and liven up our summers with sno-cones and monkeyshines. Somehow, Demon is a part of all that. He just shows up one night and sits down with us while we tell ghost stories. He doesn’t say a word, just sits on our porch and nods like a monk every now and then. I see his dirty scabbed elbows and his hands, small and calloused as a rancher’s, and wonder what he’s been through. When my mom calls us in, he abruptly jumps to his feet and shuffles off.

    Who’s he, I ask Kino, one of our newfound camaradas.

    That’s Demon.


    A toda madre. He’s cool.

    What’s his real name?

    Kino thinks for a second. I dunno.

    Where does he live?

    Somewhere over there, I think.

“We all kinda know something’s not right with Demon but nobody mentions it. We treat him like one of the team, except when we wanna play Dare. We dare him to do the riskiest shit ’cause we know he’ll always comply. He’ll throw water balloons at the Border Patrol vans for us. He’ll run to the girls from down the street to ask them if they’ll hike their dresses up.”


    For a few days, nobody sees him around. We don’t really miss him, but we wonder about him anyway. Then he’ll turn up like he was always there. I’ll spot him from the back seat of the car trudging along Alameda Street in a pair of stiff jeans too big for him. There goes Demon, I say to Mom and Dad. Pobrecito, my mom says back.

    We all kinda know something’s not right with Demon but nobody mentions it. We treat him like one of the team, except when we wanna play Dare. We dare him to do the riskiest shit ’cause we know he’ll always comply. He’ll jump into Mr. Martinez’s yard to steal some peaches from his tree for us. He’ll throw water balloons at the Border Patrol vans for us. He’ll run to the girls from down the street to ask them if they’ll hike their dresses up for us. He’ll get into some ugly fights too. He takes on kids bigger than him and even when he’s losing, he doesn’t quit. He’s fearless. But he also does the things that we’d never dare anybody. Like suck enamel spray off a sock for hours at a time. I catch him once crouched in a culvert, rattling that ball bearing in a can of semi-gloss white. When I ask what he’s doing, he shrugs and does that thing with his mouth that he thinks is a smile and shoots some spray into a tube sock. Then he turns away and inhales it with an audible hiss. I see him teeter on his haunches for a long minute, his head bobbing on his shoulders like it’s about to come off, and I guess that’s one of the reasons people call him Demon.

    He doesn’t seem to go to school ’cause we don’t see him in any of our classes. And by the time we get to high school, we don’t see much of each other, either. We outgrow our Demon days. Meanwhile, he becomes a solitary urchin roaming the hood with a rag and pail, asking people if they want their car washed. Later on, he’ll give up the pail and just ask people for change.

    But I’m not thinking about that. I’m three-quarters through my freshman year at Riverside High and I’ve been seeing this girl. She lives far out in the Ysleta school district and I have to hop a bus to see her. We talk a little on her porch with the light out and then spend the next hour or so kissing and feeling each other up. We get to the point where we can’t go any further without doing something stupid and then we say goodnight. I walk back to the bus stop and ride the long dissatisfaction home.

    The bus stops near Midnight and Alameda and I get off and start walking down my street. There’s no moon in sight and the trees throw dense shadows in my path. I hear the chink-chink of a keychain, someone walking behind me, and I think maybe some vatos in their gang are looking to jump me. I quicken my pace. Then I hear my name called in a dull syrupy voice I haven’t heard in years. I slow down to let Demon catch up. I can’t see his face, but I know it’s him. He’s wearing his jacket zipped up and the same stiff pair of old jeans bunched up at the ankles.

    Hey, Demon.

    ¿Cómo te va, güey?

    I’m nervous around him for no reason but I tell him I’m fine and ask him where he’s been.

    Por aquí, por allá.

    Yeah, I’ve been around too. I just came from my girlfriend’s house.

    ¿O sí?

    He asks that in such an oblique way, like he wants to know more, like maybe he doesn’t know what a girlfriend is. Maybe he just wants to make conversation. I tell him I almost did it with this girl. I tell him she’s crazy beautiful and we’re all hot and heavy for each other, but I don’t know if it’ll work out because she lives so far.

    ¿Muy lejos?

    All the way to Ysleta, I tell him. He stops and looks in the direction that I’m pointing, then he says, That ain’t far, güey.

    It is far, Demon.

    Almost every week I walk that. To see my tía.

    Your aunt lives out there?

    No. She’s dead. She’s buried in Socorro.

    I’m sorry, ese.

    He explains to me that he’s not. He explains that his mother didn’t want him and it was his aunt that raised him from a baby, but she didn’t take care of him like she was supposed to. He had some checks coming every month from the government and tía kept all the money. Now she’s gone too and all he has is her grave to visit.

    Pues, why do you go?

    He shrugs and holds his hand to his chest like his heart’s about to leap out. I think of all the things we made him do, all the dares he undertook to be one of us, and how none of it made a difference anyway. ’Cause look where we are now. He comes back around to the subject of my girlfriend and remarks that it’s not the distance I’m afraid of. It’s her.

    What do you mean?

    You’re scared you might do it with her, güey. And then you’ll have a baby and who’s going to take care of that shit, right? ¿Verdad?

    I’m about to tell him he’s wrong, that there’s a lot of guys out there who married really young and started families and they still get to follow their dreams, even if their dreams are small-time and probably hamstrung by family concerns, but he stops and mutters hey in that thick sleepy voice and unzips his jacket a little as he gestures me toward him.

    With some apprehension, I look in the crook of his jacket and I think I see something moving, but it’s too dark to see what. I’m afraid it might be some ugly thing he’s saved up just for me. But then he opens his jacket wider and shows me a small bird, a sparrow nestled in his chest. It seems so still and unreal but when I reach my hand in, it flutters weakly against his shirt. Where’d you get it?

    I found it. Its wing is broke. A cat almost got it.

    What are you gonna do with it?

    He tells me he’s going to take care of it till it heals and then he’s going to let it go at his aunt’s gravesite. I tell him it’s a real decent thing to do and that I hope it heals quick.

    He nods more times than he should and then starts veering off to wherever his house is. Wherever forgotten changelings go. But there’s still something I have to know.

    Demon, what’s your real name?

    He stops in the middle of the dark street and turns around. He waits a while like he can’t believe I asked that question. I hear the bird against his chest.

    You already know it, he says.

    I can’t see his face, just the outline of that large tapered head, but I think he’s doing that thing with his mouth that he thinks is a smile. Chink-chink goes his keychain.