by Marcia Calhoun Forecki
Elena flung open the front door and tossed her backpack onto a chair inside. “Mami,” she called from outside the door. No one answered from the kitchen. Elena turned toward a car double-parked in front of her parents’ house. She held up an index finger, and the driver acknowledged her request to wait with a nod. Elena stepped through the door, only far enough that she could back out quickly, even if her mother said she should stay home and do her homework and help with dinner. Elena did not intend to disobey her mother, but she knew she could bargain with Mami and gain a free hour at least. If her papi were around, getting permission to ride with her friend would be impossible. He was old fashioned and disliked seeing his daughter adopt the reckless ways of teenagers in the U.S. culture.
“Cállate. Close the door.”
Elena stepped toward the voice of her brother. He was lying on the sofa, out of sight from the doorway. The television was off. Mateo always turned on the television as soon as he entered the house. Elena felt the quiet of the house press down on her. Elena waved her waiting friend away, closed the door quickly and locked it.
“What happened?” Elena asked her brother.
“They raided the plant. Mami and Papi are detained.”
The sentences sounded familiar to Elena. She had heard them in her head in the moments before sleep when she thought about the danger of her parents being deported. Josefina and Oscar had talked to their children about what she should do if she ever came home from school and learned that her parents had been taken. Mateo was to take Elena her to their aunt’s house. Then, he would have to stay with friends for a few days, in case the dragnet extended to him as well.
Only Elena had been born in the U.S. Only she was exempt from deportation. But, how could a young girl live alone without her family? Aunt Rosa would care for her and protect her, but who would fill the hole those long-dreaded words had just torn in Elena’s heart.
Mateo was twenty-four. He had crossed the border on his father’s back, years before, when the family waded across the Rio Bravo and arrived in a new world. The little money Oscar and Josefina sent to Mexico benefited the whole family. The benefit carried a heavy cost, though. The family was divided, indefinitely. Elena had never seen her grandparents or played with her cousins whose names and birthdays she knew by heart. Today, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, had cut another slice out of Elena’s family.
Mateo’s phone rang. He answered it, spoke a few words and then put the call on speaker. It was Gertruda, a friend who worked at the meat packing plant with Elena’s parents.
“I had just arrived at my place on the line,” Gertruda said. She repeated the story of the raid to Elena and Mateo. She was calling as many of the families of the detainees as she knew.
“My supervisor had a list. First thing in the morning, and he already had a list. The company knew the raid was coming. They bosses had time to clear the anglos out; no witnesses. They let me leave because of my babies. Bad publicity to detain mothers with babies at home. That’s why the supervisor had a list. He whispers to the young madres: ‘Go to your locker. Get your clothes and go home. Don’t run. Say nothing.’ We don’t have to say anything. Everyone can see the line of young mothers walking to the lockers. The chain isn’t moving. No meat is coming down the line.
“I walk to the time clocks. There’s another supervisor with a list. ‘Punch out quickly,’ he says. ‘I am marking you out sick. Hurry. Drive away from the plant and don’t come back until we call you.’
“’I got no ride,’ I say. Others say, “How am I supposed to get home? Walk?’
“’If you don’t have a ride, there’s a bus. See out there. That van parked on the street. Get in quick. We only have ten minutes to clear out the mothers.’
“I get a ride with my neighbor’s husband. I’m not getting in a van. When I look back, the plant door is closed. Security is standing around the guard shack. I left with my hairnet still on. My little babies saved me. But, not so lucky the other mothers. Mira, who says a child ten or twelve years old doesn’t need his mother, eh? I thank God I got away. I thank God someone put my name on a list. Elena, I didn’t see your mother or father. I’m sorry. I must go now. Go to the church. The priest will try to get news. No one else knows anything. No one else cares.”
Elena went into her room, to pack a few things before Mateo took her to her aunt’s house. Mateo turned on the television, and quickly became interested in a soccer game: two teams from Brazil. There was nothing he could do for his parents, and his sister was safe. Mateo would be picked up, or he would not. Either way, there was no reason to miss a good match.
When Elena emerged from her room, Mateo said, “Mami wants you to take care of the tanda this week.”.
“You talked to her? When? Why didn’t you let me talk to her?”
Elena swung a fist at her brother, but she missed him. He grabbed her arm and whispered, “It was before you came home. She only had time to say, ‘Tell Elena to collect the tanda.’”
Elena clenched her jaw to keep from crying. When would she hear her mother’s voice again? The calm, rich alto of her mother’s voice had always been a constant in the family when fortunes rose or fell.
Elena threw her suitcase on the sofa opposite Mateo. The two sofa sleepers, of conflicting plaids, came with the house. They were placed in a L-shape and had never been moved. In the tiny living room, this was the only configuration that allowed both of them to be open as beds at the same time. Often, both were needed when family members came into the country, or if a neighbor needed a place to put her children down to sleep because her husband came home drunk and loud. Josefina turned no one away, not even the drunk husbands, though she made them sleep in the basement and lectured them on responsibility over Nescafe in the morning.
“Why me? You are older. You should collect the tanda.” Elena said.
“Because that’s what Mami wants. She trusts you.”
“Will the others trust me?”
“If you say, ‘Doña Josefina put the tanda in my hands,’ they will trust you.”
Elena knew Mateo was right. Her mother was respected. No one would hand over 100 precious dollars a week to someone they did not completely trust.
A tanda is a kind of community bank. In little villages across Mexico, people contribute to a fund from which they draw when it comes their turn. Each person, in a group of six to eight people, contributes $100 per week, entrusting it to the “banker” who runs the tanda. The banker makes the collections, keeps the cash secure, and turns it over to the person whose turn it is to receive the whole amount. The banker must contribute, too. If anyone were to default, the banker has the responsibility to make up his contribution for that week, as well. The banker must consider carefully who can be included in the tanda. The tanda goes on for as many weeks as there are participants. Each week, one person gets $600 or $800 to use for some large purchase. The banker collects no fees and pays no interest. When all the participants have been paid, the tanda is over. A participant who hesitates or refuses to pay is never allowed to participate again. That rarely happens, of course, because of the respect the contributors have for the banker. It is all based on trust and respect.
Josefina had run many tandas but entrusting it to Elena was risky. While the participants might respect Josefina’s choice of a substitute banker, Elena was very young. She did not have the authority to demand payments. More important, with her parents in detention, there was no money coming in. How could the participants be sure that Elena would be able to come up with her mother’s contribution?
Elena left her brother to his soccer. She went into her parents’ bedroom. Standing in front of her mother’s bureau, she searched for her mother’s face in the mirror. She saw her father’s chin and her aunt’s arched eyebrows. Her mother’s face was there, less care-worn but less confident, too.
Elena’s fingers fluttered slightly when she touched the handles of her mother’s bureau drawer. She was about to enter her mother’s private life. As a child, she was not allowed to look in her mother’s bureau. Later, when she burned with impatience to be a woman, Elena tried her mother’s make-up, kept in a chipped bowl in the bathroom. She draped her mother’s blouses over her cartoon-character t-shirts. Josefina did not become angry when Elena entered the kitchen wearing every piece of her mother’s jewelry: her wedding earrings, the bracelets her padrinos had given her for confirmation and at her gold crucifix. Elena wore the rosary from the grandmother she had never met rosary around her neck.
“Good morning, esteemed Miss. Maybe I offer you some juice?” Elena’s mother asked.
“No. I will take café with milk and lots of sugar, please.”
Mother and daughter shared many womanly secrets over sweet coffee at the metal kitchen table.
Opening her mother’s bureau drawer was another step into womanhood for Elena. This time, she was not playing at being a grownup. Today, Elena was rushing her maturity at her mother’s direction. She was not a sixteen-year-old, acting like her mother. She was acting in her mother’s place.
Opening the drawer, Elena inhaled her mother’s scent from her clothes. She touched her mother’s underclothes. A few silky pieces were folded carefully at the bottom of the drawer. Elena touched them and imagined her mother’s round body filling them. Would she ever lie with her head in my mother’s lap again?
Under an embroidered nightgown, Elena felt a small pouch. It was made of leather so worn that it felt as if it were melting under the warmth of Elena’s fingers. Elena pulled the pouch out of the drawer. When she opened it, Elena found a stack of currency and a piece of creased paper. On the paper, Elena read seven names. These were the participants in the tanda. Elena counted the money. There was $700. One hundred was Mami’s money. So, that meant there was one person who had not contributed. That was the collection Mami wanted her to make.
Tiburcio Tejada - Tibi Teja - was built like a stone column. His round head sat on a short neck atop square shoulders. He was only five and a half feet tall, but from his shoulders to his feet, he cast the shadow of a solid block. Still, Tibi Teja could scale a scaffold like a lithe cat and walk on rebar all day. He looked down at Elena when he answered her knock at his door. Elena stood down from the top step, wanting to keep as much distance as possible from this imposing man.
“I am Doña Josefina’s daughter,” Elena said. Normally, she would have identified her father, but the tanda was her mother’s trust.
“¿Y qué? What of it?” Tiburcio’s body nearly filled the doorway.
“My mother is away right now. She asked me to work the tanda until she returns. Tomorrow is the pay day, and your name is not marked on her list.”
“I know where your mother is,” said Tiburcio.
“Of course. All the people from the plant are where the whites put them. They could be in another state. Maybe they are back in Mexico already.”
“But, they haven’t even seen a lawyer yet.”
“¡Ai!,“ Tiburcio raised his head and cried out. The sound nearly rattled the door jamb. “A lawyer? Who is paying for this lawyer? You? Mateo? Your brother sells shoes and CD’s out of his trunk. He’ll need a lawyer of his own soon enough when some agente asks can he buy a Daddy Yankee CD and then arrests him for a narcotráfico.”
“Mateo works construction. He doesn’t touch drugs.”
“He doesn’t have to. The police will put them in his car for him, right before they arrest him.”
“You owe the tanda $100.”
“Why should I pay?” Tiburcio asked. He pulled his arms across his chest but was only able to cross them at the wrist. His chest and arms were both too thick to allow his hands to lock at his elbows.
“You are the last one. When you pay, the collection is complete and the money can go to the person whose turn it is to receive the money this week,” said Elena.
“Your mother did not pay.”
“She did pay. Her $100 went into the collection before any other.”
“Still, I will not pay. Muchachita, your mami is not coming back. If you pay out the tanda money this week, I will be screwed next week, on my turn. Your mother can’t put in her share if she is on a bus to Tzintzantzun instead of scraping brains out of cows’ heads. How many others on that list work at the plant, eh? Next week, you won’t find enough Mexicans to collect half the amount. So, I’m the one screwed. No, I keep my hundred this week and next week, too. Go home, little girl. Take care of your brother and start saying a novena. Maybe the Virgin will lead you to the last $100, up in a tree, or in the lap of some cholo.”
Tiburcio finished his speech. Even his sing-song Mexican accent did not make his ugly words sound less threatening. But Elena had heard men talk like this. They confided their anger to her father, damning this one to hell or demanding that one receive the beating he deserved. Elena hated this kind of talk, but understood it was a necessary release for men who had to work like animals and grovel like servants to support their families.
“You would not speak to my mother like that,” said Elena.
“I would not. But you are not your mother, my little canary. Fly away home.”
“I have the honor to speak for my mother. The tanda will be collected next week, and you will be paid. Did you doubt my mother? No? Then, have the wisdom to trust me.”
Tibi Teja smiled at Elena. “Yes, I will give you the $100. Come in. It is in a very safe place. Come in and I will get it for you.”
Tiburcio took a step back, into his house. Out of sight of the street, he thrust his hips forward. He cupped his hands around his crotch. He used both hands, to show Elena how big his manhood was.
Elena was afraid. Tiburcio was a coiled snake ready to strike a tiny, cornered mouse. But Elena was not cornered. She could walk down the steps of Tiburcio’s house and leave. She knew he would not pursue her. He would stand in his living room laughing, his hands still cradling his precious huevos. His laughter would rattle the windowpanes.
Elena did not walk down the stairs. She waited quietly for Tiburcio to calm himself. Then, she said, “I will wait here. It is true my mother is in jail. She has nothing but time to pray. You know what a good woman she is. You think the Virgin would not listen to her and shrink a man’s huevos if my mother asked it. The Virgin is the mother of our Lord, but she’s a woman, too. I don’t think She likes strutting roosters any more than my mother does. So, bring me the $100, please.”
Tiburcio took a step back. He removed his wallet from his back pocket and took out a tightly folded bill hidden deep a corner. Without taking his eyes off Elena, he held out the folded $100 bill. Elena stepped up onto the landing of the front stairs and took the sweaty bill from Tiburcio.
“I will see you next week, Señor Tejada. Gracias.”
Elena turned and descended the stairs. She felt the heat of Tibi Teja’s penetrating eyes with each step. When she spoke with her mother again, she would have a story to tell. Now, she had to figure out how to come up with $100 for next week’s tanda. She would sell her quinceañera dress and ask Mateo for a few dollars. The family would supply the rest, and the tanda would be completed. For a moment, the hole in Elena’s heart was filled with pride. When the pain returned, Elena accepted it as a woman always does.
About the Author
Marcia Calhoun Forecki graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with an MA in Latin American Studies. She has taught English as a Second Language as her second job for more than fifteen years to adults from all over the world. Her first book about her son’s deafness was published by Gallaudet University press and used in deaf education classes for many years. She has published 2 novels as well as several short stories. She is a contributing editor with Fine Lines Literary Journal.
Speak to Me, 1985 Gallaudet University Press
Better than Magic, Self-published
Hurricane Blues, A collection of stories, Write Life Publishing
Blood of the White Bear, Write Life Publishing
"I was drawn to the mission of The Ice Colony because of my passion about the Spanish language, which I started studying in elementary school in the 1960’s. Over the years, I have met and taught so many English language learners and felt honored when they shared their stories with me. Our country is enriched by immigrants. Let us always be welcoming hosts." -Marcia Calhoun Forecki