Author’s Note: As a female Hispanic playwright of mixed race, I’ve tried to capture the unsteady, uncomfortable relationship between female undocumented Mexican women and the work they do within the United States. Although significantly impacting the country’s growth and development, these women have been denied a rightful recognition in claiming their space in that history. I’ve witnessed this first hand in South Texas, where these workers occupy a distinctly unsettled space strewn with exploitation, misogyny and other indignities from both sides of the border.
In my play Quimera on the Storm, I intended to portray a “realistic” representation of such a woman who, after living in the U.S. for over two decades, comes to know the land better than anyone, and reclaims a space from which her Mexican-American boss himself has been evicted. Shortly after conceiving the story, I had concerns: How would she speak? I wanted to write an innovative, sharp-witted woman who’d not only learned English but used it better than the native speakers around her. But what would it mean if I wanted her to sound lyrical? I knew I did not want to transform her into an “Aztec Earth Mother,” or turn her into a political soapbox. Lastly, the stage itself already gives way to a sense of “unreality,” which provided both freedoms and obstacles in telling this story, which was imagined but not imaginary. What followed in writing the play was a meditation on her character, and my anxieties, on how I should portray her particular experience.
You lie in wait, a distant point on the horizon, where the dark night sky falls into chaparral and salt marshes of Tamapulipas, or perhaps an old Tamarisk tree, which you’ve hidden behind, the strong winds of the Sonora Desert whistling through patches of bristly cholla. Perhaps you are waiting for a panga on a Gulf coast beach to steal you across.
As you draw closer, I see the bent, thinned-out body, the diaphanous haze of sleeplessness and worry, a face like warped wood and twisted with determination. You were never out for war, which you are walking into, even before you crossed over from Matamoros, Rey Nosa, Nuevo Laredo, the swipes of your nimble feet running across the river’s edge and vast deserts where coyotes have stolen you across the border.
Most likely this is not your first trip.
Most likely, this is at least the second time you’ve handed over several years worth of savings to a coyote who promises to smuggle you into Gringolandia, all the while knowing he might betray you and dump you in the river, the very divide itself, which you then brave in the dead of night only to have la migra shine a flashlight in your face. In the darkness your eyes do not meet, but it is both a moment of instant recognition and imminent erasure of your dead-end fate, the most temporary and vagrant of desires. Perhaps the first time you let the man jackknife your tired, soaked body over his shoulder, and wrap you in a blanket before the mass roundup into the police van, before the fingerprints, mug shot, holding, deportation. But not this time: you know the fortune found in shadows. What it means to be wanted without the desire to possess, or know on an intimate level. Your name will never be mentioned in the papers, only “a woman who matches this description…” Your elusiveness, the cunning of exploited anonymity, how soon before you emerge from the shadows and overtake us in our fitful sleep, with your wily tongue and knowledge of our land we no longer cultivate ourselves…
As you can see, the talk about you, which is not about you, never stops.
And I imagine you, a woman who made it to Gringolandia, who has listened to that talk for over 20 years. You’ve given two decades of your life to a ranch in the Texas Hill Country owned by a Mexican-American, which had been in his family since the 1830s, which you come to know better than him. And yet you cannot claim it as your own, not even one speck of dirt, although you are the first to see that the land has become exhausted and depleted and unable to give anymore. It loses its value, and the ranch goes into foreclosure.
That is when an Anglo (as my mother calls white men) from the North, who originally came for a taste of cowboy churches and the storefronts on Main Street, buys the ranch. He ends up on the porch swing, still in loafers, listening to the tarnished metal chains creaking until the sun goes down, as pretty little somethings (but not you) wait at his feet, until he decides to cut his losses and sell the land to developers to turn into a golf course. He turns the other workers loose with nothing except their wits and their grit. But not you– you will not leave just like that and what’s more, you’re taking the land with you, you will raze it to the ground, so it will be new again and belong to no one, so women like yourself don’t have to go on the run from la migra, from those who want to send you back to a place that you no longer call home.
Querida, my mother says when I call to tell her of my idea. That is the stupidest thing you could do.
Stupid? I say once I’ve recovered from her response. It’s not stupid– it’s beautiful. And it’s better than what she’d get in the end if it really happened.
What she’d …“get?” My mother sounds even more upset. Look, you might as well be writing propaganda: “see this play, see how the illegals will burn your house down.” You can’t be poetic with this; it will be taken from you and used against you– and you won’t even be the one to feel the effects.
I’m trying to show the impossibility of her dream, I retort. That’s the tragedy. What is done to these people– they work and slave with no–
Querida, she cuts me off, you don’t know what’s become of the border. You’ve been gone too long. You’re out of touch…
As you can see, the talk about you, which is not about you, never stops.
But I’ve stopped listening. It’s my mother who is out of touch with the new generation. Where she sees quemadura, a burning and destruction, I see the possibility of quimera: a woman living outside the law who still takes action.
I will call you Quimera. Chimera. In Greek mythology, an indomitable, fire-breathing creature waging wars against those who seek to go against the unsympathetic lawlessness of the natural world because the imposition of law leads to mass extinctions. You are also a desire which cannot be fulfilled because it is impossible, and in the end, one must settle for the beauty to be found in the attempt itself, however futile.
That summer I begin writing you, I return with my mother to her family’s home in Harlingen, a small, neglected Texas town about 15 minutes away from the U.S.-Mexican border. Outside a half-abandoned strip mall, we see your image peddled and misplaced on a ceramic plate by a midwestern artist who came to paint the local color. He has left you barefoot. Every other part of you is hidden in the folds of a ratty rebozo. You look like something that someone else had discarded. I imagine this middle-aged Anglo imagining you smelling like old newspaper left out in the rain. I imagine him greasing rouge over your wounds and then tearing you down again, until you are born with clothes ripped in the right places, so that he can cover you and make you properly, politely, native again, back into a peso who had thought herself a penny.
While my mother smiles politely and shakes her head as he explains the local color to her, as he explains the jagged, thin line on which she grew up, I shut him up by forking over the ten bucks that he was asking for his local color. Only out of earshot does my mother tell this is more distasteful than the plate itself.
That night, she says little to me as she prepares dinner with my aunts. I sit with my male cousins and uncles– I can’t cook to save my life– my feet skimming the ground on the porch swing, as we simmer along with the barbacoa and drink warm beer. The men pass around the plate and have a round of laughs, especially when I smother you in meatless tamales and eat off your ratty-rebozo body. When I finish, your image has bald spots and I realize I have ingested some of the local color. My mother is silent, but her gaze levels mine when I dare to meet it. I avoid her for the rest of the night.
Perhaps due to paint toxicity, that night I dream of women who work in maquiladoras (depending on one’s translation, either “factory” or “duty-free-enslavement”) across the border. Instead of gluing together the soles of athletic shoes or dipping their bare hands in solvents, they are stitching up the border with simple thread. I am not there, but I am all around them, hovering as close as I can get, when suddenly, windfall men without saddles dust down from Southwest plains and try to stop these women. But their skilled fingers are too quick. Like a long-festered wound, the Rio Grande disappears, its seams nearly invisible. The air became very thin. Birds fell from the sky like spent stones.
I awake quickly, and throw up, unable to keep down what I have done.
For it was my doing. I cannot possibly know what you have left behind, Quimera.
Decorative plates, after all, are not meant to be used.
In the dizzy haze of the next day, I wake up worried that all I can do is write you as a costume and not even know how to wear you. I realize I’ve done it before. Once in high school I wanted to be a pachuco for Halloween. A Jewish Mexican of mixed race dressing up as a kind of Mexican-American rebel/criminal (depending on your version of history). The zoot suit belonged to my mother’s uncle who lent it to me only when he realized I wouldn’t shut up about it.
In his collection of essays The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz observed that the kind of pachuco he met in Los Angeles “seeks and attracts persecution and scandal…his dangerousness lies in his singularity” (16). But from my mother’s memories, I don’t think that’s what my uncle and his friends were after. Persecution wasn’t the goal, nor was it the image of a social menace. They were after something larger: an aggressive (though not necessarily threatening) aspiration to claim a space both physical and linguistic.
When my mother first saw her uncle in his zoot suit, she thought he was muy padre. Cool. She wanted to wear one too, but since she was a ruca (Pachuco for “girl”), it wasn’t allowed. And she was too young, a mere child who hadn’t lost all her baby teeth and was still somewhat new to language in general. Still she was old enough to envy the pachucos. La raza unida nunca sera vencida, my mother recited, recalling an old motto that to her as a child sounded like a call-to-arms. It means “United, the people will never be defeated.”
We used to believe that, my mother had told me, waiting for me in the living room as I tried to figure out the suit in the bathroom. The whole family, whether they said it or not believed it, she went on, because he believed it. Even the women who worried that they were walking bulls-eyes for the police. Because we still believed that he was on to something. That he would start new and promising that would last. That our place would finally be carved very clearly. With definitive lines, understand? A dangerous but necessary dream that was going to happen regardless of how we felt about it.
But now, how many decades later, who speaks pachuco anymore? It was just slang, a fad that faded away along with the fashion of the dress. It wouldn’t be a new language for Mexican-Americans, or a new way of living. Who today says Viva La Raza when there’s all this talk about putting the National Guard on the border, to hunt down people like they’re mosquitoes swarming the Rio Grande, people– my mother lamented, her voice hoarse and quiet so my uncle who’s hidden himself in the kitchen won’t hear– people who are closer to us in blood and breathing than those who told me us as a child to leave Harlingen to get somewhere better? It got them nowhere. Her uncle became used-up and bitter by the time he was twenty-five.
There was a knock on the bathroom door. It was said uncle, who indeed had heard everything she was saying. He took one look at me, snorted in amusement, and announced that he should’ve just kept it hidden in back of the closet. Out of my covetous reach. It is only now that I realize the insult of playing dress-in his discarded dreams on Halloween. Of invading a space where many men his age hid a whole generation’s failures. After all, where did it get them? He and his friends never went through any riots. They weren’t out there defending East L.A. from bigoted sailors who were burning zoot suits right out in the streets.
And yet I remember there was something subversive about putting on a pair of tramas, attaching a long-chained watch that had stopped working long ago, and draping a carlango around my shoulders. In that moment, I even thought it would make my mother proud, reclaiming something she was denied as a young girl. I didn’t notice how the lapel was twisted back, or how crumpled and threadbare the feather on the hat was, after years of regret and shame and neglect.
When I brought the vision over to my mother, her mouth dropped open.
I was a gangly teenager who was a third of his size.
Take it off, she said, trying to save me further embarrassment. Querida, you look really dumb.
The questions and fears and doubt, I suppose, will remain. The look of suspicion and then disappointment from theatergoers, as well as my family, that I gave you the name Quimera.
But in the end, who is the illusion? Am I pretending to be part of something that I am now too far away and removed to understand, even if I carry it in my blood? At what point does your story become nothing more than a sounding board for border politics, or worse, an idiotic portrayal of a kind of woman whom I’ve ironically locked into a stereotype in order to seem authentic? Can I really tell the reality from the illusions (and which came first?) of borders, laws and the facelessness that come along with being Quimera? And of your course, your gender is inescapable– and I mean your gender, not your sex. What it means to be a Mexican woman in South Texas without papers, without rights, and with the will to speak of things other than these that come from my mouth, shoving into yours. I want to capture the story of a woman without choices who nonetheless takes action, but in doing so I too risk painting that fantastic, yet recognizable, image on the plate. Costumes and the local color. An image that does capture you, though not in the way I mean.
Who am I to think I can free you from that plate?
It must be believable, my mother advises, and this must be difficult. Don’t put her in a costume, but don’t make her too grand either. There should be some quiet, some solitude.
Nothing too grand. You are not a prophet for the world. If I put you in a loin-cloth, you’d wear it with self-loathing purpose. As I write you, I anguish how many lives you have had, only to tear you down again, tear off the ratty rebozo. And perhaps I too grease rouge over your wounds, and now it seems you were born with clothes ripped in places and I know I have failed once more, I—
Have yet to let you finish a sentence, Quimera….
Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth of Solitude and other Writings. Translated by Lysander Kemp,
Yara Milos and Rachel Phillips Belash. Grove Press: New York, 1985.
Quimera on the Storm. By Rosebud Ben-Oni. Dir. Melody Brooks. New Perspectives Theater
Company. New York, New York. 20-26 Sept 2010.