ON THE COOL OCTOBER MORNING when Cayetana Chávez brought her baby to
light, it was the start of that season in Sinaloa when the
humid torments of summer finally gave way to breezes and
falling leaves, and small red birds skittered through the
corrals, and the dogs grew new coats.
On the big Santana rancho, the People had never seen paved streets, streetlamps, a trolley, or a ship. Steps were an innovation that seemed an occult work, stairways were the wicked cousins of ladders, and greatly to be avoided. Even the streets of Ocoroni, trod on certain Sundays when the People formed a long parade and left the safety of the hacienda to attend Mass, were dirt, or cobbled, not paved. The People thought all great cities had pigs in the streets and great muddy rivers of mule piss attracting hysterical swarms of wasps, and that all places were built of dirt and straw. They called little Cayetana the Hummingbird, using the mother tongue to say it: Semalú.
On that October day, the fifteenth, the People had already begun readying for the Day of the Dead, only two weeks away. They were starting to prepare plates of the dead's favorite snacks: deceased uncles, already half-forgotten, still got their favorite green tamales, which, due to the heat and the flies, would soon turn even greener. Small glasses held the dead's preferred brands of tequila, or rum, or rompope: Tío Pancho liked beer, so a clay flagon of watery Guaymas brew fizzled itself flat before his graven image on a family altar. The ranch workers set aside candied sweet potatoes, cactus and guayaba sweets, mango jam, goat jerky, dribbly white cheeses, all food they themselves would like to eat, but they knew the restless spirits were famished, and no family could afford to assuage its own hunger and insult the dead. Jesús! Everybody knew that being dead could put you in a terrible mood.
The People were already setting out the dead's favorite corn-husk cigarettes, and if they could not afford tobacco, they filled the cigarros with machuche, which would burn just as well and only make the smokers cough a little. Grandmother's thimble, Grandfather's old bullets, pictures of Father and Mother, a baby's umbilical cord in a crocheted pouch. They saved up their centavos to buy loaves of ghost bread and sugar skulls with blue icing on their foreheads spelling out the names of the dead they wished to honor, though they could not read the skulls, and the confectioners often couldn't read them either, an alphabet falling downstairs. Tomás Urrea, the master of the rancho, along with his hired cowboys, thought it was funny to note the grammatical atrocities committed by the candy skulls: Martía, Jorse, Octablio. The vaqueros laughed wickedly, though most of them couldn't read, either. Still, they were not about to lead Don Tomás to think they were brutos, or worsependejos.
"A poem!" Tomás announced.
Copyright © 2005 by Luis Alberto Urrea
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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