Graciella: A Sisters of the Morning Star Story

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Posted by Abigail from ( on jueves, julio 24, 2003 at 00:01:01 :

I wrote this story YEARS ago. Thought some of you might like the trip down memory lane. But remember be gentle, I'm shy about my writing and after all – it's just a story.

3276 words

by Abigail Lovett. All rights reserved.

There was a time when the only sound that broke my reverie in this seaside town was the ethereal call of the quartz wind chimes the Indian women sold. They would walk up and down the beach strategically tinkling them as they approached prospective customers. Then Mexico in preparation for NAFTA, rushed to rise to the standards of Canada and the U.S. In an attempt to modernize, the Mexican government has removed the “nuisance” Indians off the beaches. The transporting sound of those chimes has been substituted by the rhythmous cacophony of the “beach boy’s” percussion injected Volkswagon Rabbit, pulling up to discharge more beer, more food, more muscle bound bronzed youths whose Indian dark hair has been bleached by the sun. Instead of hawking crafts to take home and remember they sell experiences which can only be felt by those who purchase them. There is no gift of para sail flight which can be shared with friends at home. No para-sail ride which can be put on the mantle to remind you at a glance that, “I was there.” They have replaced the slow plodding tread of their indigenous predecessors with deliveries of gasoline. The Last Lords of Indigionous Mexico have been repalced by The Lords of Water sports; changos: monkeys, I call them, because of the way they hang from the para-sails and blow their whistles. They scream and chatter just like Howler monkeys trying to get your attention after they’ve stolen your Rolex watch on a deserted beach. I have watched many a ten-day-tourist share their food and beverages with them in hopes of a better deal when they decided to take the para-sail dare, only to have them flown up and down the lower half of the beach and dropped back down to the sand. I no longer go in the water to swim between ten and five, the sharks are on the surface now, backward glancing power boat pilots towing amateur water skiers, Vaqueros on Jet Skis.
The Indian women have all been shunted off the beach to special markets just off the beach; if you can find them. They must sit there during the day and wait for the tourists to find them. Special police guard the beach and watch for Indian vendors who might sneak out to chance a sale. Tourists in the know keep an eye out for the police and warn the vendors when the police are lurking around the beach-side hotels. These people who are supposedly protected by the laws prohibiting the vendors to sell on the beach are on the side, not of the police, but of the vendors themselves. Taking the vendors off the beach is removing the last vestige of “Old Mexico” the average ten-day-to-two-week beach side tourist comes in contact with. He can still argue with the taxi driver over the form of highway robbery he is being subjected to and from the airport, and he can still count on getting his intestines involved with the indigenous parasites; those remnants of “Old Mexico” will probably be with us far into the next century. He can even form a genial relationship with the chambermaids or restaurant personnel, but this is not equal to the experience of listening to the ancient echoes of the Pre-Columbian Aztec empire in the soft spoken Spanish of the Indians, accented with their native Nahuatal.
I have watched some of these girls grow up. They start off as slender preteens, and steadily round out as they get older. One, in particular, I have known even longer.
Graciella is almost as stout now as she was when I first saw her, a toddler trailing after her mother in the sand. Her eyes possessed the primal knowledge of their race while still set in the clear liquid pools of her infancy. Her small curled hand reached out to grasp your finger at her mother’s encouragement. Her grip, unlike that of North American infants was feather light; instead of a show of strength it was more a means of contact for the soul. Her mother’s handshake too, even when closing a sale for the crafts she sold, in town and on the beach, had more the feeling of a caressing of souls than the closing of a business deal.
I watched Graciella’s mother walk up and down, selling her wares with Graciella in tow. Even as a small child Graciella’s mother would occasionally send her ahead with a painted mask for her to hold out silently to a potential customer. The effect was always an ice breaker and very seldom did Graciella and her mother move on without a token gift or a sale. I truly believe that although Graciella’s mother was happy for the sales and gifts she also felt she was adding to the good fortune of her daughter. She taught Graciella how to sell as a life style more than a trade.
Graciella’s innocence provided her mother and her mother’s friends with much amusement as she grew up. Often her naive observations would bring peals of laughter that sometimes confused Graciella and more often than not made the tourists look up wishing they could share in the joke wondering what was so funny. Graciella would pump her mother with queries, such as, did the tourists learned to swim from the books they read, or if the tourists were Gypsies because of the entire households of things they would bring to the beach with them. The first time she noticed tan lines she asked her mother why the tourists wore underwear with their bathing suits. From that time on Graciella’s mother judged her customers willingness to buy by the depth of their tan lines. “Look!”, she would say, “Our friends are just about ready to go. See they’ve put their underwear on. Now they will buy gifts to prove to their friends they were here,” and she would send Graciella over to bring to fulfillment the friendship they had extended to the tourists.
In later years Graciella, no longer in her mother’s tow, wandered the beach with other girls her own age. They informed and misinformed each other, as all girls do, and they giggled from behind their hands a great deal more than when they were with their mothers. They laughed at the sticky white skin of the foreigners when they first arrived. The odd shapes and sizes they came in and their odd mannerisms. They made up stories about the tourists and doubled over with laughter at their approximations of their lives. They would stare dumbly when foreigners shouted over and over again, as if their volume would make them more understandable. More often than not they would sit under a palapa using the potential sale as an excuse to sit in the shade. They worked hard at not laughing out-right at a man with blue sunscreen on his nose.
It was during this time that I decided to find out if Graciella had any ambitions.
It was one of those days when I had overdosed on reading. My voracious reading habit becomes an addiction when I get on a tropical beach. I had been on a literary lost weekend. The topics and characters of all I had read were running together. I had to resurface and give myself a break. I was letting my mind wander over the scenery giving myself a rhorschak test with the palm trees: pinwheels, green spiders on light poles, one legged transvestite can-can dancers...I needed a cause to bring me back to reality.
Graciella plopped down on the sand in front of me. I was a regular on her beat. Like most drunks I have a one track mind and I asked Graciella if she could read. She smiled, knowing where the conversation was headed and said, “No.” I asked her if she went to school. There was laughter in her smile as she shook her head no. She knew I saw her every day on the beach. She just shrugged when I asked her if she wanted to go to school.
I kept looking at Graciella and thinking about her nice smile, how bright she was and how soon she would be caught up in childbearing. I wondered if she thought of anything more for her life. I imagined her coming back to the U.S. with us. She could learn English with us over the summer, and then we would enroll her in school. She would become a scientist, a doctor, or a writer, she would come back to Mexico and improve people’s lives. She would write books about the things she had discovered, maybe even dedicating one to us. She would become one of those extraordinary women who rise far above their circumstances in life, to do great things for their people and country. I decided it would overwhelm her if I was too direct in my approach.
I asked her if she wanted to go to the U.S. She responded by asking me if it was very cold in the U.S. She had seen a poster in an airline office window showing people skiing down a snow covered mountain. She wanted to know if my home was like that. I told her how we had blizzards at this time of the year, and how when I was her age I had to walk five miles through the snow to buy food because a big snow storm had left us stranded for a week. I told her how beautiful the trees looked when they were covered with snow and how naked the trees looked against the grey skies. I told her how the world looked as if it was made of crystal when there was and ice storm. I told her how we used salt to melt the ice. I told her how each flake was different, like the grains of sand on the beach. Graciella looked down as if she had never noticed this before. She nonchalantly picked up a hand full of sand and let it sift through her fingers.
A young girl Graciella’s age, a fellow vendor, plopped down in the shade of the palapa next to Graciella. Graciella said something to her in the soft slurring sound of Nahuatal and they picked up handfuls of sand, throwing them into the air, imagining a snow storm. They looked at each other and laughed. I offered them a small cellophane package containing four lavender flavored violet Chicklets. They conversed a bit more and motivated by her companion’s sense of duty, Graciella and her friend rose, said, “Gracias” and moved out onto the hot sand to find a more profitable foreign friend.
I couldn’t go back to my book, I was thinking of all the possibilities available to Graciella. I watched them walk down the beach, both of them wearing the same dress covered with the same apron the one distinguishable from the other only by the choice of fabric. For years the Indian women had cut the same pattern for their clothes, it was a life skill they handed down to their daughters. The similarity in dress gave them a sense of oneness that made them feel more secure in a rapidly divergent world. Although they were on the bottom of the social scale in Mexico, they were also protected from the ravages of change.
My husband returned from his run and diverted my thoughts from Graciella by playing our daily best out of three at backgammon, which was usually very fierce because the winner got to chose where we ate at night. It didn’t take long for my thoughts to return to Graciella. I thought of her as we walked the two miles in to town to go to the restaurant I had chosen. I imagined her in different clothes, her hard-callused feet in shoes, her hair styled, maybe even a touch of make-up on her face.
The next day I was determined to whet her appetite for English. I purchased a homemade sesame and honey candy to keep her attention. I was ready to take her beyond, “Hey laydy ju wanna buy necklace?” I knew she was capable. She had learned all the rudimentary English she needed to make sales. Her mastery of numbers surpassed mine, especially when I realized English, to her, was a third language; she was always right on the money.
I think it was a game she had played with tourists before. First you point to something, then you say the word for it. Bathing suit comes out “Bayding zut” and sun tan lotion is so long and difficult you just look at each other, smile, and shake your heads. I started pulling things out of my beach bag. Peanuts, was good, super ball was ok but we got bogged down trying to demonstrate its powers on the sand. What was the benefit of teaching her how to say “Koosh ball”, when the object defies descr1ption? “Sun”, I said pointing to the sky. Glasses I said pointing to the ones on my face giving me a clear enough view of her eyes to realize her fidgeting was signaling boredom. “Don’t you want to learn English so you can make more money?”, I asked her. She shrugged her shoulders. We had been at this game for twenty minutes, her break was too much like work. I realized Rome wasn’t built in a day and changed the subject by looking at the pottery vase she was supposed to be selling. Graciella quickly discussed prices with me, I told her I’d think about it. After a few moments she left me with a smiling, “Adios”. I’m not sure if she was smiling to thank me for the candy or in relief that the lesson was over.
I didn’t see Graciella for a few days. We had decided to take some side trips to some of the deserted beaches. We spent long shadeless afternoons in the tropical sun, riding waves and combing the beaches for shells. My tan darkened several shades. My beach bag jangled with shells - and weighed a ton. My head ached with over exposure to the sun. I was afraid I would permanently cook what few brains I had. When Graciella found me again, I was sitting under our usual palapa deep in the shade, wearing a hat and sunglasses. It was so hot that walking across the sand burned your feet. Graciella, as usual, was barefoot. She smiled when she saw me. I don’t know whether she had forgiven me for the English lesson, or she was relieved to see someone who would share their shade with her without forcing her to do her job.
I told Graciella about our business, how much money we made and about our beautiful home. I told her about the exclusive area we live in. How the culture of New York and Philadelphia are just a short drive away. How we could go to the grocery store and buy any food you could imagine. I told her how simple modern conveniences, like blenders and microwave ovens were cheaper to buy there than in Mexico. I told her about the furnishings in our house and the art work. The central air conditioning for summer and heat for winter months. Wall to wall carpeting and mirrors; it took a while to describe the bidet in the master bathroom. I described to her our three cars. She already knew all about the international liberators: cable television and video cassettes.
Then I described to her how all of this was possible because of our work ethic and our education. How all we had came to us because of the intense activity in our daily lives. I told her of my days, how they involved cash registers, direct deposit credit card processing machines, telephones, photo copiers, computers and all of the rest of the electronic tangle of equipment required to run a modern retail store. How, despite my being a woman, I had to know how to deal with all of these things. I had to be able to teach others how to use them and figure out how to get around it when it jammed or malfunctioned. How I was on call twenty four hours a day. I never knew when I was going to have to deal with a problem an employee did not know how to deal with, or a customer who wanted special attention. I told her how a part of me was always on perched on the edge of my reality, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. I told her how even though we worked as hard as we did we had simple needs and did not ask as much out of life as many of our friends. We set limits to how much we worked, so we could travel. We had no family. Many people we better off than we were and they worked harder than we did to have the things which we did not have or want.
The heat had made me peevish and I felt as aggravated as I normally did at home when I was caught up in the stream of things. I realized how unpleasant all of this hustle and bustle must have sounded to Graciella. I realized how much I hated it when I looked back on it. How much I looked forward to the refuge of this quiet, slow-paced place for my yearly vacation How the trip to this tropical paradise was the carrot I held out to myself all year long.
I found myself saying, “You can have all of this too if you go to school, learn English and get an education.”
“But I am here already.” Graciella said to me, smiling as if I had been telling her a joke.
Years later I sit in the same spot on the beach unable to read my book because the hotel has hired a one-man-band to prevent quiet introspection at the restaurant attached to our beach-side hotel. His keyboards are equipped with one of those hooky built in rhythm machines that can make you homicidal. This Mexican version of a Holiday Inn entertainer spends more time talking in between songs than playing. To make matters worse he never turns off the reverb, so he sounds as if he is under water. His speakers have long since been destroyed by sea corrosion and inappropriate use at high volume. It is one of those small cultural details which the Mexicans seem to love, but turn paradise into hell for foreign tourists
I would go for a swim but I am afraid of being run over by a power boat pulling a para-sail or a tourist attempting to jet ski or wind sail, a safe distance from the shore. I hear the disco music pumping out of the boom-box next to the Mexican boy with the heavy “pump” sneakers and day glow sunglasses. Instead of taking a leisurely twenty minutes joking in Spanish with the restaurant personnel to get a bottle of mineral water, I am bombarded by an on-the-ball waiter who interrupts me every fifteen minutes to make sure there is nothing else I might need. The vendors no longer approach me with masks and tinkling wind chimes which transport me to a time when days passed in a slow and dreamy way. In their complacency their way of life is being pushed aside. I realize that others had presented the same arguments about progress I had presented to Graciella, and that others had followed that advice. I was seeing the changes that naturally come about from thinking what we had was better.

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