Excerpt from Swift As Desire by Laura Esquivel, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Swift As Desire

by Laura Esquivel

Swift As Desire
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2001, 208 pages
    Aug 2002, 208 pages

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And so, from the age of five, the child became the family's official interpreter. This was a fairly complicated matter for a small child, as he had to take into account that when doña Jesusa said the word mar, she was referring to the sea in front of their home, where the family often swam. On the other hand, when doña Itzel said the word K'ak'nab, she wasn't referring only to the sea, but also to the "lady of the sea," which is the name given to one of the phases of the moon and is associated with large bodies of water. Both of these entities have the same name in Mayan. So, as Júbilo translated, not only did he have to be aware of these subtleties, but he also had to pay attention to his mother's and grandmother's tone of voice, the tension in their vocal cords, as well as the expression on their faces and the set of their mouths. It was a difficult task, but one which Júbilo performed with great pleasure. Of course, he didn't always translate literally. He always added a kind word or two to soften the exchange between the two women. Over time, this little trick managed to help them get along a little better each day, and they eventually grew to love one another.

This experience helped Júbilo to discover the power of words for bringing people closer or pushing them apart, and that the important thing wasn't what was said, but the intention behind the communication. This sounds simple, but it is in fact very complicated. When Júbilo's grandmother gave him a message to translate, generally the words didn't coincide with what she really wanted to say. The tension around her mouth and vocal cords gave her away. Even to an innocent child like Júbilo, it was obvious that his grandmother was making an effort to swallow her words. But, as strange as it sounds, Júbilo heard the silent words clearly, even though they had never been spoken. And he understood that this "voice" that remained silent was the one that truly represented his grandmother's desires. So Júbilo, without thinking much about it, frequently translated those imperceptible murmurings instead of the words she spoke out loud. Of course, it never crossed his mind to do this to be naughty, just the opposite; his ultimate objective was always to reconcile these two women, both of them so beloved and important to him, to say out loud the magic word that neither of them ever dared to speak, the word that had to do with repressed desires. The frequent disagreements that arose between his mother and his grandmother were a clear example of this. Júbilo had no doubt that when one of them said black, she really meant white, and vice versa.

At his young age, what he didn't understand was why these two women made their lives, and as a consequence the lives of everyone around them, so complicated, since any argument between them had repercussions on all the rest of the family. There was never a strife-free day. They always found reasons to fight. If one said that Indians were lazier than Spaniards, the other would say that Spaniards smelled worse than Indians. There was no shortage of arguments, but without a doubt, the most sensitive were those that had to do with the life and customs of doña Jesusa. Doña Itzel had always worried that her grandchildren would be brought up in a lifestyle that, to her way of thinking, wasn't appropriate for them. This had been one of the main reasons why she had avoided coming to the house in the past. She had wanted to avoid seeing how her daughter-in-law was raising the grandchildren like little Spaniards, but now she was back and was determined to save Júbilo, her favorite grandchild, from the loss of his cultural heritage. So he wouldn't forget his origins, she was always telling him Mayan stories and legends as well as accounts of the battles the Mayan Indians had been forced to fight to preserve their history.

The most recent was the War of the Castes, an Indian insurrection during which approximately twenty-five thousand Indians lost their lives, and in which as it happened Júbilo's grandmother herself had played an important role. In spite of the Indians' ultimate defeat, something good came out of that battle, because later her son Librado was placed in charge of one of the country's largest exporters of henequen -- the fibers from an agave plant used for making rope and other materials. He had then taken the unusual step of marrying a Spanish woman. Mestizaje, the mixing of races, was not as common in the Yucatán peninsula as it was in other regions conquered by the Spaniards. During the colonial period, Spaniards had rarely spent more than twenty-four hours at a time in the encomiendas, the large royal land grants where the Mayans worked as laborers. They didn't mix with the Indians and when they married they did so in Cuba, with Spanish women, never with Indians. So the marriage of a Mayan Indian man to a Spanish woman was highly unusual. But for doña Itzel this union represented a danger more than something to be proud of. And the proof lay in the fact that none of her grandchildren, except Júbilo, spoke Mayan, and that they preferred to drink hot chocolate made with milk instead of water. For anyone else, it would be amusing to hear the heated discussions these two women held in the kitchen, but not for Júbilo, because he had to translate for them. On these occasions he had to be even more attentive than usual, because he knew anything they said could easily be interpreted as a declaration of war.

From Swift As Desire by Laura Esquivel. Copyright Laura Esquivel 2001. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Crown.

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