On a cool Friday night in August we stay up too late, singing and doing shots. My
cousin Veronica, even after the cancer, still has a beautiful body. She is built like a
dream, like our grandma, Cruzita. Appropriately, on the day of her burial, our grandma’s
name means “the little cross.” Grandma Cruzita has just died of cancer, which started in
her stomach and made its way up to breasts, but left her heart untouched we like to think.
Now, the night of the funeral we gather around the fire in our uncle’s backyard, so that
we can practice being alive.
I rub my burning eyes and work to clear the sting from my throat and wonder if it was
a curse to be built so beautifully, like we were built to bear children. The women in my
family are graced with wide hips and full breasts, except for me. I know that underneath
my cousin’s bra is flesh burned from radiation, patched together with stitches like shreds
of shiny cotton. She is still glorious in her perfection but now a bit singed and scarred.
Her chest, a quilt of poorly approximated edges.
“How many more treatments,” I ask Veronica when laugher and voices have stopped
for just a moment.
“Two. I think.” She pays little mind to my question and I understand that she doesn’t
want to discuss this from her short answer and lack of eye contact.
“Quit asking stupid questions,” my sister Kathy says to me as Veronica walks away.
I don’t respond to Kathy, because I always feel foolish, the younger cousin, the younger
sister, always so curious, so different from my sister and cousins physically, but so
similar in spirit and curiosity.
We all have many things in common, all of the women in the Quintanilla family. We
were all taught to sing about the lost black bird, about the same time we were taught our
ABC’s. “Paloma Negra. Paloma negra. Donde? Donde andara?” The lyrics that tell of
the search for a lost black bird run through my brain each time I lift my glass and
remember my grandma’s dark hair turned up into a French twist, and her tiny lips
covered in magenta gloss. When my grandma’s thin lips were pursed together she sang
like a bird, soft and sweet. I am grateful that we were taught this song, and sing it loud
with my mother in my Tio Chavy’s backyard, standing over a table of empty beer cans
and wedges of lime until all of the west side of El Paso can hear.
As the night gets cooler we start slamming shots with our Tios and brothers, arms
around each other as if we would never leave.
“Sing that one, you know it, you know you do,” my mother calls to me.
“I haven’t had enough to drink,” I respond, but I sing anyway.
Our Tias look on at us girls, like they are looking in the mirror. They sway back and
forth on the lawn chairs while we perform around the fire with a mixed drink in one hand
and the other securely wrapped around the waist of one of our cousins. We don’t smoke,
because we know it causes cancer, but we drink. Our skin makes us undeniable as family.
We are the lightest family on Yandell Street and the neighbors know by looking at us,
who we belong to. “You are a Quintanilla girl, aren’t you?” they would ask as we ran
through the corner grocery store as children. The neighbors expect that a Quintanilla girl
will have a small waist, light skin, mature hips and eyes that can speak volumes with just
one glance. We all have a laugh that has extended through the ages and through my
grandma’s grave and through her pink and lavender suit which she was buried in. When
we laugh, her belly moves up and down as she laughs with us.
Sitting around the backyard fire our Tias feel responsible for telling us about our past,
and where our grandmother came from, as if she looked on, rolling in the coils of smoke.
“You know mija, you look like her sometimes. Sometimes, when you are lost in
thought, like right now. Everyone around you is singing, so sing. Your life is so much
more carefree than your grandma’s was. Celebrate it.” my Tia Alma taking a deep
breath, as if she will sing the next sentence that emerges from her mouth. I understand
that my grandma came from the earth of her father’s San Elizario, Texas ranch. We are
told that the rich ranch soil fills our bodies. In our nurturing ways, we can grow
something from nothing, like our great grandpa did so many years ago. In the most
difficult times of uncertainty, I pull from this knowledge and remind myself that if I
water that soil within me, I can continue to grow regardless of the devastation. Whether
devastated by life, or by the sting of chemotherapy, I know that my survival is inevitable.
My grandma knew this and as she moved away from the ranch, she transformed into a
paloma, a bird, always growing, always singing. The stories are a huge part of the
drinking, singing and dancing because they act like sweet, sappy sugar that keeps our
family stuck together through times like these or weigh us down when we work to
emerge from what is expected of us.
Like our cousin Veronica, all of the women in our family have edges of flesh that are
not well approximated but come together so that we don’t spill out all over the place, so
we continue to survive.
“I can’t maintain myself here,” I said to me sister when we entered my grandma’s life
celebration this evening.
“You don’t have a choice. None of us lose our composure, you know this, you’ve
been told so many times. How could you forget it?” She squeezed my hand before I
turned the knob of the door to the home that once belonged to my grandma. I know it has
never been acceptable to let our emotions seep from our bodies in mixed company.
Maintenance of composure and security of self is what we are told makes a strong
woman. I can’t spill because I don’t have the luxury of spilling onto the table in my uncle
Chavy’s kitchen in front of my family, then everyone else will have to set their grief
aside and help me gather myself back to composure. I don’t want anyone to see my
thoughts come out, from within, because I fear they may not understand. I know this
isn’t true. So, I let my edges hold me in as the sutures tug and flesh pokes out from
between running stitches. We are not unique in our wound. I am certain that each
woman has her own scar from which she fears she may spill.
My cousin Veronica sits her daughter Alexis on her lap and leans into me, telling me
in my ear,
“Be grateful. Look at your husband and your children, and thank God.
“Pass me Alexis,” I smile at her awkwardly. Somehow I refused to count my
blessings. Whether it is superstition or the knowledge that I have my husband and my
cousin does not is not what is important to me on this night. I still don’t want to think
about my husband or my children. I don’t want to be grateful.
“Don’t change the subject mija, it’s important that you understand that your health is
in your hands. You have a lot of time to take care of yourself, so be grateful that you
don’t have cancer. Mija, you have a chance still.” I smile again, but say nothing.
Because she is right.
She knows I will listen to her, because she is my older cousin, and I always do. It is a
reality that I sit amongst nine women who will never know the maternal act of giving
milk again. Radical mastectomies and lumpectomies are a part of our stories now. My
Tia Aurora teases me and points at my flat chest saying, “The reason mija, our baby girl
has not gotten cancer, is because she has no breasts. Look at her, pobresita, you poor
thing.” My breasts are small but they are still attached to me, unlike my aunt’s and are
smooth and unscarred. I shrug off the laughter, sit straight up and stick out my chest,
which is almost as flat as those of my aunts whom have already been through surgery. I
am grateful, because I have my breasts in the morning when I place them into my bra and
know that the youngest of my cousins to suffer from the struggles of breast cancer was
only three years older than I am today. Veronica was only thirty-six when she was
It is a pleasure to be in a circle, around the fire, watching my aunts taking in shots like
water. I see them letting go, laughing a little bit louder, dancing a little bit looser. By
midnight, my white, freckled chest is exposed and I am the only one of nine women not
afflicted by the wounds from a scalpel but I am the most embarrassed to have my chest
exposed. My aunts and cousin wear their scars like badges of honor, like metals that tell
the world that they have won a personal battle, and as a family we fight a war.
In the summer air our passion grew stronger but the fire began to go out. Between
adding more wood and fanning more oxygen to the fire, my Tia Alma would
intermittently pull the white tissue from the cups of her bra to keep the fire going. “Por
favor, please Alma, before long, you will need to go for a refill,” my mother says to her
oldest sister, offering up Kleenex from her own bra. White, thin tissue against the black
of the sky, like white palomas, graceful birds flying above the fire, swaying down and
swooping to the center, until they finally curl out of sight. Our dark hair, our freckled
shoulders and walnut colored eyes made us family, but the August picture of all of us, in
our bras by the fire made us blood. There is so much to be said about the fire. There is
smoke in the hair, smoke on the skin, and burning red eyes the morning after. The
morning after a family gathering fulfills promises of hangovers and chorizo.
Just a day since we buried my grandma, the morning after we built our fire we are
tired and need to go home. We know that we have to prepare for our jobs and school, the
life we lead when we are away from the comfort of our family. My invisible stitches hurt
when I look at Veronica scoop up her breakfast beans with her tortilla. This day, after the
fire, and the songs, she doesn’t wear her wig. She has her head hung uncomfortably low,
tired from grief and company. Her scalp is shining and pale against her mint colored
pajamas that button over her sunken chest. Her black bra from the night before, hangs on
the door knob in aunt Chayo’s bathroom no longer stuffed with tissue and she winces as
she drinks down juice. She is no longer playing the part of my healthy cousin, but is now
a victim of the disease. She is no longer serving me advice or telling me to offer up
thanks. This morning I imagine that she is haunted by the black bird that drifted down to
my grandmother and took up her breath in its beak. She won’t admit her fear or illness
this morning as she eats with tired eyes, but we remind her that being weeks from
finishing treatment, chemotherapy cocktails should be her only indulgence and she
should not indulge in tequila on Friday nights. She laughs, and as we laugh, my
grandma’s belly rises and falls in the cold earth, as she laughs too.
We eat our breakfast at the same table where my mother sorted beans as a girl. My
Tia Chayo’s kitchen décor is the same as it has been since I was a child. She has red
linoleum, copper kettles hanging on black shelves, and a nice big round table where we
can gather to eat my Tio’s cooking. “I have eighteen hours of driving ahead of me Tia,”
my sister says between bites. We eat slowly because we know that soon we have to go
back to New Mexico, to Las Cruces. My sister is already tired from the eighteen hour
drive ahead of her to Modesto, California.
My sister lives far from us and has forgotten how gratifying the feeling of family is.
She pokes fun at us because she says we need to be better Christians. She can’t believe
she has been sitting in our uncle’s jacket until all hours of the night, just as she did when
she was a little girl and wanted to be part of the party, while the adults drank and sang.
She comments on the liquor, the Tecate and chicharones that were all around us, just like
she remembers from her childhood. She says, “I can’t believe the way our Tia Aurora
belted out her best Linda Ronstadt between shots of Tequila but pinched me at church for
crossing my legs. We are horrible Catholics,” and we all laugh.
At our dead grandma’s table, my sister eats and smiles, recounting the fun from the
night before, telling us that she does not regret driving from so far away. She closes her
eyes and makes a satisfied hum as she takes in the soft papas. She looks down and her
eyes swell. Too strong to cry, she throws her curly hair back out of her face. I look up
from my plate at my sister and get up from my chair to help her pull her hair back into a
semi-ponytail and she smiles, and laughs. I know by looking at her that she is thinking
about the song, the stories, and the warmth from the previous night’s flames. She relaxes
back in her chair as if her mind is doing the backstroke through the smoke of the night
before. This smoke she remembers is swirled in tales of my mother as a child and carried
the words into the smoke that curled past my plump lips and into the black sky above our
My sister reminds my mother that she needs to get back to California in time to go to
church. She sits and eats with cheeks that are burned from the night air of summer. The
radiation of the backyard flames has turned the tip of her nose the color of strawberry
taffy. Her brown eyes are outlined in red and are glossed over with the tears that were
cried at yesterday’s funeral. She sits quiet and I can tell it is because the food is so good
and the fullness of family sits in her belly. The love is so tasty that she craves for more.
She is warm from the chile, warm from the coffee and warm inside from a fire that has
been burning for many years in our Tio’s backyard on Yandell Street.
Tia Chayo comes by the table and stands between me and my sister. She carefully
leans in and starts to pull her fingers through my sister’s dense mess of curls. Out of the
corner of my eye I see the young girl I used to follow around, want to emulate, my only
sister, as she leans sideways and rests her head on our Tia’s belly and closes her eyes. It
is at this time that I acknowledge that my sister, like me does not have breast cancer. I
remember that once she told me, “Hey, I am nine years older than you and if you think
you are ever frightened about something, remember that I have been frightened about it
for nine years before you and I will always understand.” When she opens her brown
eyes, they are filled, but not overflowing. She says that when she goes away she will not
wait so long to return, but she does not cry.
After the dishes, the cleanup, and the hugs we walk through the chain link gate in
front of my Tio’s home which is the home that my mother was also raised in, onto the
uneven, cracked sidewalk and say our good-byes. We wave good-bye to Veronica, Tio
Chavy and Tia Chayo. Like always, we promise to not stay away so long, promise to
keep in touch, and promise that we won’t forget all of the stories we were told. I only
live forty-five miles from my Tio and Tia but do not visit them unless there is a wedding
or a funeral and I smile foolishly when they remind me of this.
I look to the side of the old adobe house and smile at my grandma as she sits on the
wooden rocker under the patio. There is a thin ribbon of smoke rising up toward the
afternoon sky and the breast tissues are white ash at the bottom of the pit now. Before I
close the car door, I smile and wave at my grandma. She sits in her pink and lavender
suit, her right hand pressed gently across her heart laughing heartily as we drive away.