a promise to God
Acclaimed author Denise Chávez invited me to participate in a panel at the Press Women of New Mexico Conference held in Mesilla, New Mexico on April 22, 2017. She asked the panelists to address the following questions:
I have a childhood memory. One of those dream like memories that you question over the years. My mother is walking on her knees up the steps of a church, each move forward more painful. I am walking alongside her. I know that I am very little because even though she is on her knees I am still smaller than she is. It is her manda, her spiritual promise. When she was in her 80s, she told me, “Remember when I walked on my knees to the church?” That’s all she said. I never knew why she made that sacrifice or what motivated her to do something I had never known her to do before.
My father’s manda, however, was a story I heard all my life. Born in 1910, two months before the Mexican Revolution broke out in the Mexican north, he was blind. His mother Emeteria made a manda. She would not cut his hair until he was healed and once he was healed, she would cut it and offer it to El Santo Niño de Atocha, the beloved holy child that people in Durango where my grandmother was from turn to in times of need. When my father was two, he began to see. My grandmother braided his hair, tied it with a blue ribbon and took it to the church. The priest said, “Why would I want this hair? We need money.” So the family kept the braids and now I keep them these 105 year old trenzas, waiting for the day I give them to my son.
Over the years I have made my own mandas, my own sacrifices made in prayer. I have fasted. I have done without water for days. I have walked down dusty roads praying on my way to a church. My greatest manda, however, has been the one to dedicate myself to recovering and preserving the histories of la frontera. It is a place to me that is painful and weighs on me so heavily sometimes that I feel that I can’t breathe. It is also a place of beauty and vitality and creativity that I can never imagine leaving.
Many of us hear the stories of our births and they become part of our origin story. I am no different. I was born in the mid-1950s to a teenaged woman name Guadalupe. My identical twin sister and I where is born at 2 pounds and no one expected us to live. Everyone waited for us to die—the doctor, the nurses, our mother and family. We spent a month in an incubator and when it was time to release us my mother did not have the money to pay the bill. The doctor made a proposal. Give one of us to him and she could just leave. As a child, I sometimes saw his house as we drove down Avenida Juárez. To me it look like a mansion and I wondered whether I would be raised as his daughter or as a criada, a servant.
Instead, my mother offered us to her aunt who had never been able to have children. Her aunt said she could not take children from their mother. She offered us to her mother but her mother said she was too poor to keep us. She thought about keeping us but wasn't sure how she would keep us alive. In the end her aunt relented and agreed to take one of us so she gave one of us to her aunt and one of us to her mother. When her aunt first saw us she looked for the one who looked más vivita, more alive and energetic. She chose me and brought me to El Paso. My sister died after a brief time with our grandmother in Juárez from drinking bad water. I came to El Paso, received medical care and thrived. Because my sister lies in an unmarked grave on the other side of the Border I know that part of me exists on each side.
I tell you this origin story because I don’t remember a time that I didn’t know it. I remember knowing it before I entered school and it shaped me and my understanding of my place in the world. This is why I do the work I do—because the border is filled with stories of potential, of different paths, of suffering and rebirth. It is not the black and white story told by our politicians of “bad hombres” and invasions. It is not the “ground zero” that Attorney Sessions labeled it on his visit to El Paso a couple of days ago.
I see my work as a historian, as a keeper of histories, as the reason I survived my birth. It is my calling. For thirty years I have documented the histories of border people. I see it as a way to heal. We don’t always understand the lives of the people who came before us and the ways in which we carry their trauma and their resiliency. It’s more common now to talk about epigenetics – how the experiences of our ancestors change the ways our DNA functions. But social workers and psychologists have studied inter-generational trauma for decades.
For years I’ve documented the history of Mexican American children on the border and the unequal education they received from school districts who believed that Mexican children didn’t need an education. More recently, I’ve conducted oral histories on the elders who lived these experiences and supervised the creation of videos for a “Voices from the Border” series. I want their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren to know these histories so that they understand themselves. And I want the larger community to know the histories so that when politicians say the border is filled with people who don’t want to work, who are threats to the United States, who come here to seek only welfare, we will have a historical record of the truth.
Denise Chávez asked us to think about our legacy and it is something that I have started to think about recently, as I grow older. The legacy that I hope to leave behind is my work as an educator who trains my students to look at the complexities of border life and are devoted to their work as historians, but who as importantly understand that the work we do has a deeper meaning than simply writing for other historians. What we recover and the histories we tell, the truth-telling, goes back to heal the memories of generations past and forward to heal the generations to come. And I know that truth-telling is not always pretty but without it, we won’t know who we truly are.