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I too am a border woman

This memoir through poetry by Juana Moriel-Payne is an excerpt from a longer body of work that is yet untitled.

I I too am a border woman

but from the shadow side

(donde los perros callejeros husmean basuras y cuerpos ejecutados en las calles bajo la mirada fría de un búho, un triste fantasma precolombino ya extinguido)

that has been,

perhaps since The Beginning,

when God created the heaven and the earth,

(¿O desde que Hunahpuh and Xbalanque nos regalaron el sol y la luna?)

the land of darkness.

I too am a fronteriza

from La Nueva Galicia and La Nueva Vizcaya,

(Tierras de Guerras a Sangre y Fuego)

from an edge of Mexico´s colonial dress-

one that pretended to be brand-new-

(de un verde que te quiero verde terciopelo rematado con sedoso brocado italiano)

but was much older,

as old and tricky as the Reconquest;

an assaulted torn dress from where those desdichados adelantados came out

attracted by the persistent smell of gold and silver,

and of the northern Chichimeca blood,

one they scattered and stepped on,

(durante tenebrosas guerras con los indígenas bárbaros del norte)

the blood with which they stamped the trail of death,

up and across the river,

behind their boots and beneath a northern sky,

since then,


pardo like the skin of many of us,

and since then, enlivening the imprecision of this land forged in barbarism;

the land of darkness.

I too am a mestiza

from the southern side of the Río Bravo,

the Mansos´ river that Oñate claimed for Fernando II de España,

La Toma,

el inicio después del inicio

-como el amor después del amor-

followed by a boring sermon, and an improvised play, and a feast with fresh fish

from the uncontaminated river

and wild rabbits and goose and fresh air and fire and

a perfect harmony

for the false painting of the first Thanksgiving Day,

sí, en estos lares that,

perhaps Coronado and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca previously visited

as the Mansos already knew how to make the sign of the Holy Cross,

en el nombre del Padre del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo, Amén.

Welcome, Mi casa es su Casa!

I too am a mestiza

from the southern side of the Río Bravo

already tainted with the blood of la raza vencida de lenguas extrañas;

the Río Bravo already being the brave watery grave of free and captive

Mansos, Sumas, Janos, Julimes, Conchos, Apaches, Piros, Tiguas

and more local groups that sometimes revolted against gachupines

who arrived with the figure of the Apostol Santiago de Matamoros

to kill and dominate,

in absence of Moors,

the Indians;

the Río Bravo already tainted with the impure blood of the ashamed

castizos, mestizos, zambos, apiñonados, coyotes, lobos, cuarterones, cambujos

and more castas,

the illegitimate children of free or enslaved

Indian and Black

women, of mulatta women, of coyote women

who still howl

for their dead indomitable, insurgent, revolutionary children

on full moon nights,

a progeny born and died

in the land of darkness.

I too am a mestiza

from the Chihuahua Desert,

from Ciudad Juárez, the cradle of the Mexican Revolution

that left us a big question mark on the face,

who often attended mass at the very first mission in Ciudad Juárez-El Paso area,

La Misión de los Mansos,

later la Misión de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de los Mansos,

the mother church of El Paso del Norte,

as for many years did the Piros, Sumas, Janos, Tiguas, Tompiros, Apaches,

Jumanos and more local groups that had lived there since


since the Sun and the Moon and the Stars.

With a clean ironed second-hand dress,

I went with my mom and brothers to celebrate Ash Wednesdays, Palm Sundays,

and Domingos de Resurección to,

once libres de inocentes pecados,

drink champurrado at el Mercado Cuauhtémoc

while watching the Matachines dancing with colorful penachos y sonajas,

La Danza del Venado, and after that,

all tired, sleepy and dirty,

to wait for the bus in the very front of the cine Plaza to go home,

to go to our land of darkness.

I am a Río Grande woman who born with a question mark

(como la vaporosa sombra fugitiva que todo lo quiere saber)

on the bank of a river that

since long ago

is no longer grande

and now is dry

-oh, irony-

a daring woman in a patriarchal land

always wanting to know

how- when- what- who-where-and why,

but a long time had to pass to find the answers because

she was born in a dense dream,

not precisely a pleasant one

(de negros vapores que intimidaban)

in the bookless

land of darkness.

And I am a Río Brava woman because of my stubborn father and mother

and their reluctance to follow their fathers´ steps,

the Bracero call,

and the later illegal immigration path that was in vogue.

Come to the United States all you dumb, dirty, lazy, vicious Mexicans,

we need you to harvest and clean our houses!

That stubbornness gave me a soul that yells in Spanish,

speaks Spanish,

writes in Spanish,

and yes,

I know where the tildes go.

And in Spanish with tildes and ñ and double rr,

I’m still dreaming the enlightened dream

in the land of darkness,

as I write this manuscript,

not fully ordering my thinking with Cervantes´ language

as my teachers taught me because

I am now on this side, on your side, on Shakespeare´s side,

and I want you to read me no matter how often I slip between parentheses

as I did during my dream when I crossed

(sólo Dios sabe cuántas veces)

to the other side,

to El Paso city,

our Ciudad Juárez´ gringa sister, our rich sister, our (perhaps not so lucky) sister

that an opportunistic,

an unprincipled English young man

ripped off

from the weak and confused new Mexican man´s hands

and assaulted her,

adopted her,

transformed her,

cleaned her, and

ordered her.

Say cheese and smile for the picture pretty woman.

And in waiting for the arrival of books that could answer

the many questions that flew around my pillow, my home, my neighborhood,

sometimes quietly (Y en la quietud contenta de imperio silencioso)

and others fiercely (con el aliento denso que exhalaba)

in that isolated desert (de nocturnas aves/tan oscuras/tan graves)

full of thorns and hares (las que Dios pasó de largo),

and full of bats and owls and more crepuscular creatures (hijos de las sombras)

that in circles wondered too about the whereabouts of my answers,

I grew up,

leaving a question etched in the adobe walls of a house on the street corner

where I waited for the bus to arrive to take lunch to my father,

to go with my mother to the open market downtown,

to go to the Cathedral on Palm Sundays,

to go to El Chamizal Park each Easter day,

to go to middle school during the week,

to go to work at my father´s butcher shop during the weekends,

to go to my Social Work classes at Universidad de Ciudad Juárez,

to go to futile parties and,


to go to El Paso,

that coquette city that was, literally,

in front of me all the time,

to buy all sort of American dreams:

¿Hasta cuándo?

And despite the geographical and temporal distance,

and with a PhD in History in hand,

earned in El Paso (solo porque Dios es muy grande)

as a phantom I have returned

several times

to that house on the street corner (ahora mis ruinas circulares)

not to wait for the bus to take me to the city´s downtown

but to question the popular Mexican assertion:

there is no evil that lasts a hundred years (ni loco o loca que lo aguante).

Even though the plaster on the wall where I wrote that question is gone

and only the adobe can be perceived

(una historia -ahora vista- diferente en forma si afrentosa transformada),

under the omniscient gaze of our sister city and her white-face country

(y la mirada fría de un búho),

with a mind now inhabited by some books

(pero aún temiendo en la tiniebla),

enlivened by the late beat of the moving dusty wind

(el triste son intercadente de la asombrosa turba silenciosa),

and assuring myself

I too am a Border woman,

I still have the same question:

¿Hasta cuándo?

II The Arrival

With me in her arms, her first newborn baby, and my aunt Leti

carrying a bag that contained my mom´s clothes and some fabric diapers the nurses from the Seguro Social gave her after I was born, my mom yelled with the determination, as if she was leaving aside daydreams about going back to her town

(Aquí nos quedamos porque aquí hemos tenido,

no un hijo como tú querías, sino una hermosa hija),

for the bus to stop right in front of La Santa Cruz parish in complete ignorance and without any care that 1967 was the first of Cien años de soledad.

The discreet God´s house was an elongated building with small windows all around and in front, at the top, had a big wood cross that was supposed to protect that dusty neighborhood located on a plateau

(Créeme, la colonia era como un polvorón),

composed of weak little houses here and there

(en la soledad inmensa y tenebrosa del paraje)

that housed the poor rubble of two old border cities that had a long and complicated story, and tons of shared memories, being the most shameful that one that started in 1800s: ASARCO´s guilt

(la sombra funesta de la tierra al cielo encaminaba).

That refinery scattered, with the help of the obtuse winds of Chihuahua desert and the mining elites, without paying attention to territorial divisions, for decades, years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds, lead and arsenic particles over the bodies of paseños y juarenses por igual, starting with the Smeltertown workers community, mostly refugees from the Mexican Revolution, sus parentelas,

y los que vinieron después,

all those that lived and died in the juncture of three states, two young countries, and two decrepit empires that,

the same year I born, 1967,

reinforced their contaminated blood ties with the brand-new Córdova Bridge,

with the rename of The University of Texas at El Paso,

and with the fresh 828 foot tall chimney

(piramidal vano obelisco de punta altiva)

built to alleviate local air pollution and that became, until 2003, the area landmark,

y la verguenza más grande in our land of darkness.

En fin que ese día frío, El cigarrote, as I called it,

and the 29 foot tall limestone statue of Christ made in 1939

that was put on top of El Cerro de Cristo Rey, and him,

with an altered delusional vision,

perhaps trying to put together all the latent elements present in that surreal stamp, greeted me: Welcome to the borderland of darkness!

It was November, so the dust was frozen y aplacado,

and as the snow fell over the dirty streets,

my mom and Leti turned their backs to the snowy Franklin Mountains and walked towards El Cerro Bola

(al que años más tarde uno de tantos grupos de protestantes-evangélicos-inscribieron con enormes letras blancas: La Biblia es la verdad: Léela).

As they passed in front of the parish,

se santiguaron making the sign of the Holy Cross,

and with careful steps, and in complete silence

(con tan solo el ruido que hace un conejo corriendo entre la nieve),

they continued down the street until they arrived home and closed the door

(a las sombras espesas que más tarde avanzarán como olas por las montañas

y el sol, turbio y deshecho, lleno de sangre, se arrastrará…).

The cold room, four lime-sand walls, filled with an old wood stove, a bed covered with a second-hand blanket my mom got from the flea market at La Chaveña, the inherited-blessed crucifix my mom carried from Jalisco

(de su madre fallecida en pleno parto),

a window covered with curtains my mom sewed with tears and by hand, and the wood crib my father built for me, greeted us. Fifteen years old Leti rejoiced with me, La Nani, her new toy that forced her to put aside Yesenia, Rarotonga, and more romantic heroines in Lágrimas y Risas comics, at least until electricity arrived at the colonia and my father was able to buy a television. The question for her and for my mom and my father was, now where Leti was going to sleep if La Nani was going to occupy the crib?

Leti lived with my parents most of the time as my grandfather remarried and she couldn´t find a place for her in the new family. She was one year old when my grandmother died giving birth to her last brother, who passed a year after, so my mother, then 12, was practically her mother, and she was practically my big sister,

but no,

she has always been my lovely aunt,

and as she was changing my clothes and putting on me a red yarn hat that matched the sweater

-a gift from la China, my father´s boss-

my mom, an active petite woman of big round black eyes and small nose

(una hermosa Úrsula Iguarán que parecía estar en todas partes

desde el amanecer hasta entrada la noche, cantando canciones de Juan Gabriel,

siempre perseguida por las oleadas de sus pantalones acampañados)

lit the stove (y mi alma)

with the firewood piled on the back porch -between the latrine and the water tanks- firewood my father bought from a man who brought trinkets from demolished buildings in El Paso, a man who had three sons who helped him to deliver the stuff, a son who born in El Paso by mere accident

-as it was common in our land of darkness-,

a son who didn’t know he was going to be the father of my two children.

III Growing up 1967-1972 I was born the same year el Che Guevara was assassinated,

as Jimi Hendrix sang in Woodstock,

as Martin Luther King gave his last speech,

“I´ve been to the Mountain Top”

-the one we missed because no television was around-

that told workers who were protesting low pay and

deplorable working conditions what he had seen

the Promised Land,

only to be assassinated a day after,

in my crib

I stood.

Between baby bottles and lullabies,

between La Masacre de Tlatelolco

and Neil Armstrong landing on the moon,

-not to mention the many suits against ASARCO

because of its violations of the Texas Clean Air Act

( la sombra funesta que al cielo encaminaba),

with the gradual and constant arrival of Mexicans looking to cross to the other side

(con el hambre y el deseo pintados en la boca),

Along with the invasion of lots in surrounding west-side colonias by those that couldn´t cross or just decided to mediovivir there

like my father,

and with my mom´s clothesline always full and proud

of showing the vecinas the whitest cloth diapers,

I crawled

on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, one same area, the most heavily polluted zone in the nation -The United States nation, of course- nonetheless proudly premiering the recently remodeled San Jacinto Plaza, La Plaza de Los Lagartos that I visited some years later. Viva El Paso!

As Orlando Walt Disney World in Florida was inaugurated and as the newspapers dispersed the news about the recent Massacre de los estudiantes un jueves de Corpus Christi en la Ciudad de México,

I walked.

As the RCA Maquiladora opened its doors in Ciudad Juárez for the expelled Bracero men, not knowing yet that women -me and tía Leti included-

Will join the workforce,

and as the Chamizal was finally a public park to go to on Easter days,

I ran.

And as I carried that big notebook where I learned to write

my name with big, rounded A´s, my father built another room

as two years later my brother José arrived, and David joined us a year after,

and as I grabbed my first childhood memory:

(la ventana y la luna encuadran e iluminan todavía como entonces aquel primer recuerdo)

it was September 1970, José and I observing and the newborn that looked like…

a little sun through the crib bars,

José, with those benevolent lovely round black eyes surrounded by bushy lashes looking at the baby and then at me, and me looking at him with the same eyes as in a mirror, perhaps the two of us just wondering now what, a question

(y muchas más que estaban por venir)

my mom eventually answered.

1 comment

1 Comment

This piece is cinematically inclined, a struggling journey that, with time, dedication and determination, one can accomplish our dreams; writing expressions set up the legacy of family, remembering the everyday struggle of all American immigrants. We are all citizens fighting against this new world order. I see a Mini-Series

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