Once A Year Does No Harm
Bags packed, to the brim, no real luggage, just cardboard boxes and duffle bags, stuffed with clothes, shoes, even a few toys; stacked inside, underneath our feet, on the roof, tied down with little more than twisted rope. In the white and blue zebra suburban with no air conditioning, a crevice of space was always left in between our luggage, just big enough for the seven of us kids to take turns resting on the 12-hour-plus summer trips from Houston to San Luis Potosi. We really couldn’t sleep back there, but it was always a little slice of heaven to be able to stretch our legs.
Up front, mom and dad, talking all the way, laughing, carrying on, entertaining us with their stories, yelling at us when we got too loud, hurrying us every restroom stop, keeping tabs on who was next to get some rest. When he’d get tired she’d pour cold water over his head. Her job was to keep him awake. In the middle seat, my two eldest sisters, both too young to drive, but old enough to keep my mother company when she was trying to keep herself and my dad awake. In the last seat, the one nearest towers of luggage, used to prop ourselves onto comforter and pillow, the rest of us taking turns laying down and sitting in between our sisters, playing, fighting, awing at the majesty of the Sierra Madre and all her splendor. When we’d get to the rancho this seat would come out to make room for the many cousins, aunts and neighbors who’d squeeze in shoulder-to-shoulder, knee-to-knee on our trips into the tiny town of Cerritos, about an hour’s drive away down a nothing-but-rock-and-dirt main road.
Sedans and basically anything smaller than a truck could not make it through the mountains from Cerritos to El Sauz so our zebra was a symbol of success, proof of our American Dream come true, never mind the fact that it was purchased cash, used, beaten up, without air conditioning and on its last wing. To them it meant we were americanos from El Norte, you know the ones with the green dolares.
We were like celebrities when we’d show up. Tell me something in English! Teach me! Wow those shoes are nice! What does that mean? What does this mean? How is it living in El Norte?
Much too young to understand, fibbing became our pastime: in America our life was grand; we could afford anything we wanted, our tiny apartment was huge, and why not? At least there we didn’t have to carry water in tin pails over our shoulders like a herd of bulls just to take a shower; we had running light and water almost every single day of the year, we didn’t have to chop down shrubs and weeds with pitchforks and the like, we had color television, a Nintendo system and our cooler full of food. Still the people made it fun. Sitting in pitch dark, cold air at our face, tales of la llorona, witches and ghosts, fireside laughter, chocolate-sweetened coffee, sweetbread, sweeter smiles, so many cousins, so many friends, really a magical time, for all of us.
The happiest moments, always our arrivals – cousins jumping in excitement, us bursting at the seams, screaming out of joy, so excited to jump out of the zebra and start running all over the place, and grandma always waiting, full of kisses and caresses. The saddest: our departures. Tears running down our faces, waves goodbye through the zebra’s windows, promises made to each other, sadness riding from San Luis Potosi to Houston, comforted only by the idea that next summer we’d be back.