Sixteen Cents

I dreamed of misty ground, clouds under my feet where carrots grew. I pulled carrots, cleaned off the dirt, placed bunches in boxes. Carrots turned green, boxes grew enormous. I worked all day long waiting for sixteen cents.

A shape emerged from the white fog haze. I saw …her, a woman, Apache. She looked at the monster box of carrots, then at me. What could I do? More carrots. I needed to fill another box. Sixteen cents. I needed more than sixteen cents.

Clink. My eyes opened. I heard Mama at the old stove, the rustle of paper, the snap of kindling, the scratch of the match. She made lunches before any of us moved. I slipped out of bed without making a sound. I put on Levi’s, dressing in privacy behind the curtain that separated my bed from the rest of the room. Everyone wore pants in the fields.

My back, legs, and arms ached in all the places they had the day before. I blinked my heavy eyelids. They did not want to be up this early. I walked into the front room.

“Good morning, mija,” Mama said. Mija, my daughter. The words squished together in Spanish claiming me again each day, forming a special I-love-you-because-you-were-born-to-me-word.

I knew so much since Sister Mary Esther taught me some of the old ways, like the prayer Grandpa Taiyin said at my birth. He told me he’d protected me with tule pollen. He presented me to ancient spirits. Not my older brothers and sisters, Paul, Sally, Molly, Tony, or Chila, but me. Not the younger ones, Lita and Virgil, just me.

“Here is a child who has been given to us. Let us bring her to adulthood for you. You who are White Sun, You who are Black Moon, You who are Mountain Spirits of our Mescalero people, give her good fortune, we ask.”

I was the child given to the Mescalero Apache, but Mama never stopped reclaiming me as hers. My parents never wanted me to know the Mescalero part. Never wanted me to know about Apaches in prison or about all the Mescaleros living on reservation land or how many Indians were kept out of business places with signs that said, NO DOGS, NO NEGROES, NO INDIANS. Sister Mary Esther, Grandpa Taiyin’s cousin, taught me, “What saved you can also hurt you.”

Mama knew my work shirt hung loose without looking. She knew I wore Levi’s, and saddle shoes, the ones I’d finished seventh grade in. These were my only work clothes. I watched Mama cook.

“Will you can today, Mama?” I said, still fighting sleep.

“And tomorrow,” she said.

I knew her day: the laundry she’d wash in the ringer washer, the sewing, the dirty dishes, the peaches from Tía Tere waiting to be canned. She lived her life in this two-room house that Dad and Tío Chon built, except when she got work cooking for the Braceros. The glass pitcher and pretty dishes, her embroidered dishtowels, even the worthless glass figurines, her life. I tried to like them because my old, aproned Mama liked them. Her pretty things made her smile.

For me she wanted school. My whole family wanted school for me. I was to be the one who made it farther than the fields.

צילום: אורן פלס, Oren Peles (CC BY 2.5 ), via Wikimedia Commons

צילום: אורן פלס, Oren Peles (CC BY 2.5 ), via Wikimedia Commons

Ve. Trae el agua de la llave.

Sí, Amá.” I stood to go outside in the dark, fourteen steps to the spigot. I didn’t mind early morning August cold as much as June, when the air slapped your skin awake, but I didn’t want to splash water on me at this hour anyway. I filled the bucket that used to be so heavy for me.

“Here. Warm yourself.” Mama handed me a cup of cinnamon tea.

Gracias, Amá.

In September, Apá alone caught the early morning truck to the fields, if he let me return to school. Mama might have to use Paul’s money orders for food. But I knew if my family gave me the chance, I could make them proud.

Sor Juana boarding school days might be in the past, but the day after Labor Day I hoped to be at my cousin Amparo’s front gate, walk along Metz Road, then arrive at Soledad school in the front row for eighth grade by 9:00 a.m.

Apá sat at the table. He looked at me and nodded, but no words. He stopped talking to me after I became a señorita and Mama hung the curtain. Or was it when Tony joined the Marines? Or because Chila ran off? I used to be his Muñeca Azul. We used to read La Opinion together on the front steps. He used to tell me how pretty I was. Now, I dreamed of returning to Soledad School. He kept to himself. In a way, I understood.

Without school, I’d be up at three for the rest of my life. With that clink, Mama putting the metal plate back in its place on the wood burning stove after the kindling started, I’d be out of bed. I’d step into carrot fields by dawn. I begged for a chance to work, but that was three summers ago before I knew much about life. I only knew summer poppies with Amparo on our way to the Pinnacles, eating popcorn at the movies with my brother Tony. Everything changed. At least Tony, or rather Marine Private Tony Almaraz, still sent letters:

August 1949

Dear Monchi,

You are working in Monterey or the valley by now. Don’t tell me you still let the sun tan you brown, you crazy girl. I want you back in school in September and I’m not afraid to tell Apá either. You get to eighth grade. None of us ever made it that far.

Everything here is fine. Except for me on stage at talent night. Word got around about my playing guitar, but for the show, I froze up. Couldn’t play a thing. I guess I needed you here.

No real troubles though, just a bunch of guys messing around.

Take care of yourself and be a good girl. Well, I guess you’re not so much a girl anymore, fourteen pretty soon. Are you still too darn skinny?

I can’t make it home for awhile, but of course, I’ll be home next year for your Quinceañera. We’ve never seen that in Soledad, so I’ll have to tell you all about it. Maybe I’ll show up with a little money.

Tony,
Camp Pendleton

Birthdays. What did I care? Fourteen meant old enough to work, my own name on the payroll. When I read my letter to Mama she said, “Pa los que tienen feria.” Parties are for Mexicans with money, that’s who celebrated turning fifteen. Not Spanish people like us from small towns like Anthony. Besides, the Sunday matinee used up all our spare change. One ticket, twenty-five cents, for popcorn, candy, soda, the movie. I’d fill three boxes of carrots to get that money on Dad’s check.

“Eat. I don’t need to tell you,” Dad said.

I looked up from my thoughts.

After breakfast, Apá stepped outside and Mama brought my three bandanas to the table.

“I don’t need a hat,” I said. “I don’t have light skin like Sally.”

Llévate los paños.” Mama pushed the pile of head coverings towards me.

“I work better without them.”

“Too much sun, no good.”

“Just let me do my job. Stop worrying.”

“Tie up your hair at least.” Mama picked up the pile of bandanas. She placed them in my hands.

Leave me alone, I thought. I’m as brown as you. But of course, just thinking that was another sin.

Photo by Mr. Nixter, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Forgive me,” I whispered to the Virgen. I knew not to think about Mama that way. But it was true, I didn’t start with creamy light skin like Sally, why should a little more brown bother me?

I grabbed my jacket. “Adios, Amá,” I said at the door where she never let me leave without a blessing.

*

Still twilight, a hundred workers spread out into the fields. Crisp air snapped through jackets and clothes. I knelt down in the water-soaked plants like I was about to offer prayers to the Virgencita.

Los paños, stay in my pocket,” I said to no one, so I could get in the last word. Then I saw him. Enrico.

I looked at my hands. “Can you make Enrico like me?” I asked my box-filling, working hands. I pulled carrots without seeing a thing. Down the row, still nothing. My hands had a gift, maybe they could help me, if I only knew how to work them. Then I decided to try for help elsewhere.

Virgencita, you could make Enrico smile at me. It’s not a sin. Just a smile.” Just a smile, I said, carrot after carrot, a hundred times until the smile became a hand written note. A love note. A love note for a girl covered in dirt. I came to my senses. How many Our Fathers did I need to pray now? Please forgive us our trespasses… Please forgive me.

Tony was right. I wasn’t so much a little girl anymore.

I never used to notice my body, not even trickles of sweat trailing down my back, giving me goose bumps, not skinny me with short hair Sally cut in a bob at Easter. But now, after the first hour of work when sweat became another layer of skin, I lived for the slight breezes. Teasing wind played with my hair, cooled my neck, soothed my arms. By lunch when tiredness took over, I didn’t care what my skin felt.

*

Sally. She could talk to me about boys, but she wouldn’t be home until winter when work ended. Besides, she never once told me about work: aching limbs, knees that didn’t want to hold up a body, stinking bandanas that plastered your hair to your head. I knew she worked like she was born to fields. We were all proud of our oldest sister.

How hard did I work? I could fill and stack five boxes in an hour.

Mira, Apá,” I said when he came around to check.

He nodded.

Sixteen cents a box, same as always; eighty cents an hour if I could fill five boxes. That pace might get us eight whole dollars, but I never could work that hard, that long.

How did Sally do it? She worked in hot places near Mexico, then on to deserts in Arizona. In Mendota, I saw her haul hundred-pound sacks of cotton down the row. Her sack of cotton grew as big as Tía Tere’s new 1949 Chevy. Not the weight of the sack or the hundred-and-ten-degree heat made her stop. Only when Yiyo, Lulu, or Anastasio needed her did she slow down.

In her last letter, she told me Yiyo needed school, real school. She wanted to come back to Soledad.

Finally, I heard Apá say, “A comer.” We walked to the end of the row.

“Sit here,” Apá said. “In the shade.” He unwrapped our tacos.

We saw la Sra. Mariluz take a bite of taco before trying to give it to her little boy. He ran down the carrot row. She chased after him waving the taco.

Hermenejildo, hay que comer.

Yo no quiero,” he cried again and again, loud and clear.

Workers laughed, even me and Apá. My brother, Virgil, wouldn’t dare. No one wasted food in our family. I wished I could write Sally about this, but she’d move to the next harvest before a letter would reach her.

That night at the table, I scooped up frijoles with tortilla. School began soon. Eighth grade. I chewed like tomorrow would be the day I walked with Amparo and Norma and the friends I’d missed. I’d send Lita off to the elementary wing. I’d borrow books from the library. I’d learn to tease the boys.

“You’re a good worker, “ Apá said between bites.

I looked up. No one in my family had been to eighth grade. Paul, Sally, Molly, Tony, and Chila had all helped Apá before they left home. Without me, he’d be alone. His check would have to feed Virgil, Lita, Mama, himself, and me.

Frijoles in my mouth became tasteless. My hunger vanished. I finished my plate like a tired old woman. Would Apá let me go back?

*

That night I dreamed again of misty ground, clouds under my feet where carrots grew. I knelt to pull carrots, clean off dirt, place bunches in the boxes. Carrots turned green, red, purple. Boxes grew enormous. The misty ground transformed into a shallow lake. I worked all day waiting for sixteen cents.

The shape emerged from the white fog haze. I saw her, the Apache woman. She looked at me.

But I needed to fill another box. Sixteen cents. I needed more than sixteen cents. My eyes got hot. Why don’t you do something? I cried.

“Pollen Girl,” she said.

“No.”

“Pollen Girl,” she said in a quiet whisper. “You create your destiny.”

“Just a little Mescalero,” I heard my own voice answer. “Way back.”

*

Mama shuffled out of bed. No one moved. Pollen Girl. Pollen Girl. The sound bounced around the sleeping room. When I heard the clink of the wood-burning stove, I got up and dressed in the dark. How could I get back to school?

About Lori Anaya

Lori Anaya, a writer, teacher, and artist, was the second girl in her high school allowed to take Occupational Auto Shop and the only one of five sisters who hiked Mount Whitney.
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