When you’ve got nothing else, you’ll always have at least a tortilla to get you through. Learn to use them. Take a tortilla, an old one that’s gone hard, and hold it over a flame. Watch the tortilla blacken and break. Take those ashes, when you have nothing else, take the ashes and rub them onto your teeth with your fingers. Smudge them, scrub them over your gums, all over inside your mouth. Con un buche de agua, rinse and spit into the ground. Rinse very well, lest anyone con fuse you with a witch. La gente es bien pendeja. Like they don’t know the brujas are often the most beautiful. Careful with the bonitas, I say. One minute they are the sweetest pair of honeyed calves dripping down the street, and the next they’re owl wings beating the night air. But not us. Not too pretty, though we have our gifts, we keep our teeth clean, our floors swept.
The things my grandmother used to say.
I often wondered what kind of situation would require me to burn a tortilla to clean my teeth. When might I be without basic items like toothpaste or bath soap, so that I’d have to find some elemental alternative to perform simple personal hygiene? It was hard to imagine what kind of thing might happen that would knock you back to where your grand mother had been.
It’s a wonder even to me how I ended up on that pig farm. I wasn’t meant for farm life, you know. Good at math, I was still going to high school and everything, kept my socks up but my skirt short like all the other girls, playing hooky on the Malecón whenever we were sure we’d get away with it. My own mother, qué en paz descanse was no saint, just normal like me. But when you’re a girl of seventeen, and a man, young and handsome, looks you in the eye, serious, unlike the clowns you grew up with, and he tells you to marry him, well you think, why not? Here was a man, like a door, instead of a hole or a rope. Formal and upright. But I didn’t think to ask where I’d end up with him on the other side of that door. He was opaque that way, didn’t give many clues, but I should have known better with all that dust that covered him. That dust. That’s where I went—a place full of dust. Americans think Mexico is green and lush, a big resort hotel and a pyramid in a jungle by the sea. Well why wouldn’t they? They just jump on their American Airline and off they go, skipping over everything, the dust and the rocks, the farms and the factories, and even the cities. They arrive at Cancún or Puerto Vallarta with their shoes clean and they find an ocean fit for a white bikini.
Or that’s what I’ve heard. I haven’t returned since.
The dust is what I most remember about living on the farm. Dust everywhere, always. One spends the day trying to keep the tile clean, when it might just as well have been made of dirt. You can imagine. Sweeping and sweeping, dusting and dusting and nothing ever gets clean. Polvo eres y en polvo te convertirás. Every day was Ash Wednesday, somber with ashy doom marked upon you no matter how bright the sun. It was this life, pressed upon my forehead every year of my childhood, a reminder from God, his sinister plan always there waiting for me, and I’d finally arrived to it. As a girl, laughing and sneaking drinks with the boys, it was hard to believe the Sunday litanies or the abuelitas’ threats, but then one day you’re Alicia following a white rabbit down the hole or a through a door. It was always there, waiting for you. Bienvenida. This is your país now. These are your maravillas.
My Luisito really was a maravillla, I could hardly believe it. A perfect baby, a perfect boy. Now on his way to being a man, and believe me, I’ve taught him not to be any kind of rabbit. Along with the dusty floors and shelves and pots and pans and everything else, I constantly wiped him clean, as if to clear him of any fate that was bound to that place. I did my best to keep his nose and his knees clean, but you know how kids are, especially boys. In my heart I prayed, over and over I’d whisper to him like a little song, not here, not this place, not like your father, not this life. Más allá, más allá, el mundo es grande como tu corazón. Es un círculo, un cír-cu-loooo, no tiene fin. Ven, con tu dedito, trace a circle, te amo te amo te amo sin fin. Lord knows, I’ve always tried my best.
Martín, his father, now a name like flakes of rust on my tongue, would come home smelling like pig shit and beer, but it was his bad mood that bothered me the most. He always came home looking for reasons to yell, mostly at me. Nothing I did pleased him. As if it were my fault that we lived on a pig farm or as if it were my fault that we never had enough money or as if it were my fault that I got pregnant with Luis too soon and spoiled whatever fairy tale plans he had for our life. I was only seventeen.
One day, normal like any other day, he came home for dinner. He took his seat at the table without a word, which was not unusual because I’d learned he was not a man of many words except when he was angry. Both hands waiting on the table for his food, I could feel him searching in his silence. Luis had just turned three years old and ran around the house like an unleashed puppy, so thrilled was he to see his papá. We hardly saw anyone at the time. I was standing over the comal, flipping the tortillas when I heard a crash followed by the hard scrape of Martín’s chair over the gritty tile. As I ran from the kitchen I could hear him spitting out his malhabladas, barking like a rabid dog. By the time I got to them, he was already taking off his belt to whip my little boy. Luis had knocked down a small, framed portrait of Martín’s parents. The photograph and the frame seemed fine, but the glass was shattered. It was just glass.
That belt was probably the most expensive thing in the house. When he bought it, we hardly had a thing to eat for a week. There I was, asking for tortillas y frijoles on credit, a strip of meat for the baby, scrounging around the garden for acelgas or quelites, whatever weeds I knew wouldn’t poison us because the pigs ate them. I never would have imagined it in my youth, my recent childhood when it was not hard to have a coin for a treat. Not a thing of this did I mention to my mother in my letters, but when we talked on the phone once a month I’m sure she could hear something was wrong. I could hear something hollow in my own words when I repeated that everything was fine. To console me in my secret hardship, but probably to console herself, my mother said it was always hard in the early years of a family. But a family learns to grow together through its hardships. Perhaps she was right, but from what I could remember, I’d not been born into this kind of poverty. I didn’t have the space for hunger built into my body. But now, I learned to build it for myself so that the baby would not suffer it. There’s a way to make room for hunger, to hold it, embrace it. But this was a lonely hunger, the kind that separates you from others, and that’s what hurts the most. I hope you will never have to learn this.
I was bewildered by the exquisite belt, more valuable than my life. I understood this when he first brought it home, laid it on the bed coiled like a baby serpent. I’d seen cintos piteados before on our trips to town, but none this ornate. An elaborate design patterned its length, bunches of roses and vines bursting with morning glories, one antlered deer kissed stalks of grass, another kissed the sky. Stitched in fine maguey threads, a landscape of hills was fashioned in the background of glyphs. Its geometries spoke an ancient language we’d learned in our blood to decipher. Its beauty clued me in to the misery that would follow.
And when I saw that this viejo desgraciado was about to turn his belt on my son, I threw myself to protect him with my own body. The leather was thick but I toughened myself against it as it landed on my ribs. I pulled the baby aside, I can still hear him screaming, and I stood up to this man, pushed myself right up to his face to let him know I was not afraid. He would not make less of me. I was never meek, but Martín had never seen me like this, and I could see the surprise light up his expression, before it turned into a fire. That’s when he punched me in the face, knocked me right to the ground. But even then I would not yield to him, already pushing myself up on all fours when he whipped me on the back. I bit my lips so as to not scream, I saw my boy’s eyes fixed on me. I crawled to him and curled myself around his shivering little body, to muffle his cries with my bosom. That beast crunched his face into a scowl, locked his lips like he’d had the last word.
As soon as he slammed the front door shut behind him, I grabbed the baby and ran for my things, my purse and a handful of clothes and that was it. You’d be surprised by how little you need when you’re running for your life. The last thing I remember was seeing Martín’s food still on the table and thinking about the tortillas I’d left on the comal smoking over the gas flame. I let them burn.
“Tortillas Burning” appears in Carribean Fragoza’s debut collection of stories Eat the Mouth That Feeds You. Excerpted with the permission of City Lights Books. Copyright © 2021 by Carribean Fragoza.