Dia de los Muertos
Fall had always been Héctor Villa’s least-favorite season. This year, as the days shortened and his cousin’s stayover in his home lengthened inexorably, he felt his substance as a householder drain away in exact proportion to the diminishing quantity of the pale indirect light. Four days after the shortest day of the year comes Christmas; already, AveMaría had her credit cards out, and Juana was promising to pay her share of the debt as soon as the local economy picked up enough to allow Eufemio to find a job.
Though born to a family of paisanos, Héctor had never before lived in a colonia, and he found it difficult to adjust to the experience now. True, by comparison with the Juárez colonias visible from Interstate 10 in the neighborhood of the ARCO plant in El Paso, his home in Belen was a palace. Unfortunately, it was also crowded to bursting, unlike the seemingly deserted barrios across the brown trickle of the Rio Grande, at whose empty and precipitous dirt streets Héctor gazed wistfully each time he made the trip to the border, though formerly he had found Ciudad Juárez dirty, distasteful, and depressing. Like it or not, he’d be visiting the place again at the beginning of November for Dia de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead, Juana Villa’s favorite holiday. Héctor expected he would need to rent two vans to transport the families there for a three-night stay at the Holiday Inn Express on the Paseo Triunfo de la Republica, in the vicinity of the Plaza Monumental bull ring. Maybe even a third, to hold all the Christmas presents the girls bought at the mercado along the Avenida Juárez. It gave him a sick feeling just thinking about it. On top of everything, he would have to endure the wrath of his Assembly of God church if Dr. Billy Joe learned he’d attended a heathen festival in Mexico. Of course, celebrating Dia de los Muertos wasn’t actually a sin, like going to Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Still, Héctor suspected, it was sin enough—in the preacher’s eyes, anyhow. He consoled himself by reflecting that, after nearly two months, his regular visits to the Taberna Aztlán on the road between Belen and Los Lunas in the company of Jesús “Eddie” Juárez had yet to be revealed to the world. Though not what the world calls a drinking man, Héctor found the taberna a refuge from the chaos the Eufemio Villas had made of his once-comfortable home, a relatively quiet place where he could get away for an hour or two after supper to relax while conversing with his friend. Since Jesús “Eddie,” as a candidate for a seat on the local school board in the upcoming fall election, knew everything that went on at the city hall these days and seemed more than willing to talk about it, Héctor was content to let him do most of the talking, while he drank beer and listened.
“The goddamn Anglos,” Jesús “Eddie” was complaining on a chilly evening in mid-October as the two men sat across the table from each other beside the big plate-glass window looking out on Highway 47, considered to be the most dangerous in New Mexico on account of its narrow shoulders, frequent curves, and numerous drunk drivers. Directly across the road from the taberna, a large billboard, lighted from below, read VOTE JESÚS “EDDIE” JUÁREZ FOR SCHOOL BOARD DISTRICT NO. 2 in huge red letters. “They want to take over our public schoolsystem, hombre! All these immigrant white kids from Chicago, Minnesota, Ohio! Hundreds of thousands of them in the last ten years alone! Ten more, and our teachers will have to speak English in class. Then the Anglos will have stolen our culture from us for good! Listen to me, compadrito—it is time Eufemio’s kids went to school here, in Belen. We need all the brown children we can get, even if they are wetbacks from Mexico!”
“Eufemio can’t risk enrolling them until he has the necessary documents to show,” Héctor explained patiently, for at least the fourth or fifth time in a month. “He’s got a fellow in Canutillo drawing them up now.” Héctor didn’t add that he himself was paying for the forgery, to the tune of a couple of thousand dollars or so.
“You need to get the boy, Máximo, out of the house as soon as possible, compadrito, before he finds mischief to get into.” By “mischief,” Jesús “Eddie” meant Contracepción, though he didn’t dare to say so. Though grudgingly aware that he himself was too old for the girl (in her father’s eyes, at least), he found the thought of the younger man having her intolerable. Seeing the way the kid made out with the girl when he thought her father wasn’t looking made him squirm with jealousy and frustration.
“I’m driving everyone to Juárez for Dia de los Muertos in a couple of weeks,” Héctor assured his friend. “We can stop in Canutillo for the papers on the way down there, if they’re ready by then.”
Jesús “Eddie” froze suddenly, the tequila bottle poised above his glass, to squint resentfully at the billboard, where one of the electric lights had just burned out in a sudden small explosion.
“When I am a school board member,” he said darkly, “the migra won’t dare come around, asking to see people’s papers—you see if they don’t, hombre.”
With November’s approach, disagreement emerged among the Villas—the Héctor as well as the Eufemio family—concerning the proposed trip to Ciudad Juárez at the start of the month. Eufemio, it appeared, detesting Dia de los Muertos as a superstitious relic of the Catholic religion for which, since his arrival in El Norte, he’d conceived a violent dislike, preferred to attend the stock-car races in Alamagordo instead. Héctor had been relieved by the prospect of having to rent only one van to make the trip, before Contracepción began pleading permission to accompany Luz, her best friend, at a three-day, open-air rock concert at the State Fair grounds in Albuquerque.
“Too much money,” he decreed shortly. Besides the cost of the (to him) fabulously overpriced ticket, there was also the combined expense of gas, meals, and two or three nights in a big-city hotel to consider. “Here am I, supporting half the village of Namiquipa out of my own pocket, and my daughter expects me to pay for her to attend a fiesta de percusión?” Since the alternative was her share of a room at the Holiday Inn Express and meals, money was not the true ground of Héctor’s objection. His nephew Máximo was.
“You’d have to pay for me anyway, in Juárez,” Contracepción reminded him.
“In Albuquerque, we can sleep in the car, or in sleeping bags at the fairground. Besides, they give me extra credit in school—for Life Experience—if I go. O, mi querido Papá—por piedad!”
Though she was an indifferent student at best, it was important to Héctor that his daughter do well in school so that she might grow up to realize the American Dream, as he had. Therefore, he relented. Perhaps Máximo would rather take in the dog races in Juárez than a three-day rock concert, anyhow.
Several days before the departure date, the Villa-family outing seemed to have fragmented to the point where Héctor felt confident in reserving a single van to accommodate all who wished to travel to Mexico for the Dia de los Muertos celebration, a number of the males in the younger generation having decided to accompany Eufemio to Alamagordo instead. Then, only the day before he’d intended to call the rental office, the telephone rang just as the Villas had finished supper and Juana was settling in to watch Desperate Housewives in the den, while AveMaría and Contracepción cleared away the table. It was Jesús “Eddie” calling for Héctor from the Taberna Aztlán.
“Buenas noches,” he said. “A word to the wise with you, hermano.”
“Anytime, compadrito. ’S’up?”
“Are you sitting down?” Jesús “Eddie” asked him.
Héctor had been sitting at the table when AveMaría handed him the telephone receiver at the end of its stretch cord. Now, he stood up quickly. “What is the matter?” he demanded in alarm.
“Plenty,” Jesús “Eddie” told him darkly, his voice dropping nearly to a whisper. “The f--king Anglos, man—they’re trying to make trouble for you again! This time, on account of all the people you have living with you, in your own home. They’re claiming Héctor Villa is in violation of the residential code; the summons will be mailed out later this week. I heard the news over at City Hall two hours ago, when I was putting a campaign mailing through the postage-stamp machine. (The town clerk, Estevan “Gordo” Baca, is a buddy of mine, a real hermano.) I’m telling you—it’s racism, man!”
Barely aware of what he was saying, Héctor thanked Jesús “Eddie” for the tip and broke the connection without cradling the receiver. Then, he dialed the rental company’s 1-800 number and reserved two Ford vans, capable of accommodating up to 24 people, from October 31 through November 3.
Héctor lay awake all that night, with the baby Dubya crowded between him and AveMaría on account of the shortage of beds in the combined Villa households; by the morning, he had a plan. It was one he felt so sure of that, even when Contracepción ambushed him in the vulnerable period between arising and drinking his first cup of coffee to announce that Máximo had selflessly proposed to forego the dog track so as to be at liberty to drive Luz and her to Albuquerque, he did not despair; in fact, he scarcely even flinched. His scheme, he felt, partook of the genius of Pancho Villa in commandeering a coal train and using it as a modern-day Trojan Horse to smuggle his troops into Ciudad Juárez. Where The Centaur had not failed, he, Héctor Villa, would not fail, either. All he needed was nerve, a bit of luck, and—above all—timing.
Thirty-six hours ahead of the scheduled departure for Mexico, Héctor sprained his wrist in a fall from the roof of his house, where he had gone climbing to nail down a few shingles that never needed nailing in the first place. Refusing to visit a doctor, he had AveMaría bandage the arm, starting at the fingertips and going as high as the shoulder, until, it seemed, almost his entire right side was swathed in an impressive cocoon of gauze and tape. Then, twenty-four hours before departure, he informed his cousin that, as he himself was manifestly incapable of operating a motor vehicle, Eufemio would have to take the wheel of one van, while Máximo drove the other. This announcement, as Héctor had expected, produced noisy protests asserting a preference for Alamagordo and Albuquerque over Juárez. Also as expected, the protests were instantly and effectively suppressed by Juana, as soon as she was made to understand that, absent Eufemio and Máximo, no one would be traveling to Mexico for Dia de los Muertos at all.
The party made a delayed start on the thirty-first, on account of Héctor experiencing an attack of diarrhea that lasted from breakfast until well after lunch, so that, by the time they reached Canutillo, they were running so late he suggested they continue south to the border and pick up the Eufemio Villas’ forged documentation papers on the way home, as they wouldn’t be required on the trip. In Juárez, the Villas checked in to the Holiday Express Inn and went for dinner afterward at the McDonald’s on the Avenida de las Americas, where Héctor tried to ignore the Tarahumara Indian women with their babies and tin cups and the street vendors selling sugar candy in the shape of skulls. Never had Mexico seemed to him so dirty, backward, and miserable—so downright embarrassing, really.
For the next three days, while the families watched the Indians dance on the plaza before the cathedral and ate their lunches off the tombstones of unknown dead people in neighboring cemeteries, and Eufemio lost the money he’d borrowed at the dog races, Héctor lay stretched on his bed at the hotel, with the television set switched on. In fact, it wasn’t the documentary about General Huerta’s treacherous killing of President Madero that occupied his mind but the final step of the master plan he had conceived in Belen the week before. At last, when he was quite certain he was doing the right thing, on the afternoon before the return to the U.S., he made a single phone call from his bedside phone.
At a little past eight o’clock the next morning, two white Ford vans filled with shrieking children left the parking lot behind the Holiday Inn Express and made their way, one following the other, through the rush-hour traffic toward the international bridge. Riders in the police helicopters hovering overhead would have seen the vans pass silently beneath the acre-sized flags, Mexican and American, waving above Chamizal Park and continue on their way across the Rio Grande to the Customs and Immigration inspection station on the north bank of the river, where Old Glory waved alone in splendid isolation. And they would have watched tensely as a small squad of agents in green uniforms surrounded the vehicles that halted at a signal from two of the men, who thereupon stepped forward to rap smartly on the drivers’ windows.
“Documentation?” the agents demanded grimly.
In the instant of his deliverance, the words of a familiar American song, half remembered, occurred vaguely to Héctor Villa. “Free at last! Thank God I’m free at last!” He felt a little remorse, but not much, hardly more than a pang. And Juana, at least, really had been a terrorist of sorts, after all.