January 1st, Just Like Any Another Day

Translated  by Katrina Hassan

Catalina buys the chicken first thing in the morning, together with the vegetables that will accompany the dish. She also buys the fruit to make punch. She would like to make tamales but it is too much work to do on her own. When Catalina finishes work she is too tired. She barely has any energy left to clean her small apartment, where she lives with her two kids. Juan is 12 and Guadalupe is 3. Today she must go to the laundromat because her building doesn’t have a laundry room. She is running late to prepare New Year’s Eve dinner.

Carolina emigrated to the US from Totonicapán, Guatemala. She is from a mountain. The first time she ever wore sandals was when she was 13. She didn’t wear proper shoes until she arrived in the USA. She is the 6th in line out of 13 siblings. Her dad worked picking coffee all day. After he finished work, he went to the local cantina and asked for beer on credit. By the time pay day came, the money was all owed and he ended up with nothing. He came home drunk to beat his wife and kids. Slowly, one by one, the siblings left the house without telling anyone. They couldn’t deal with the beatings and the poverty. None of them finished even 3rd grade, because by that time, they were able to work with their dad picking coffee. 

The day came when it was her turn to leave the house. She took all the clothes she owned, two huipiles and two skirts. She stuffed them in a plastic bag, made the tortilla dough and left it by the kitchen door. She left without saying goodbye. By the age of 14, Catalina had worked in all the nearby coffee and vegetable plantations. This time she went to work as a housekeeper in the center of Totonicapán. There, her employers treated her worse than in the fields.

Carolina is from the Quiché tribe and at that time didn’t speak Spanish. At this job she only had 4 hours off on Sundays. Her three meals consisted of tortillas and beans. She had no right to eat the same food as her employers. She woke up at 3am to clean and make breakfast. She went to bed at 11pm, that is, if her boss was not drinking with his friends. If they were drinking, they did so regularly, she would not go bed till dawn. She slept on a mattress that the dogs used in the storage room. Her bosses bathed in warm water, while her bathroom only had cold.

The day the boss hit her with the belt buckle because she burned the tortillas for the dogs’ food, she packed up her two changes of clothing and left. She went to live with Juan, an 18 year old that sold mops and brooms door to door. He was originally from San Marcos and was renting a room in a boarding house. They met outside church where she went every Sunday. He had been courting her for months. One month later she was pregnant with her first son, Juanito.

The day the baby was born, Juan was dead drunk at the cantina. He had beat her on repeated occasions. When Juanito was six months old, Juan beat her so badly that she ended up in the hospital. She did not report him, but she did take her son to one of her sisters, took a loan from a family member in the USA in order to make her way up North. In two weeks she was crossing Mexican territory inside the darkness of a van full of undocumented migrants. Carolina reached the land of dreams soon after she had just turned 17.

At first Carolina had three jobs and only rented enough space for her bed at a relative’s house. She paid her debt and started to save so she could bring Juanito. She ate one meal a day, with barely enough time for it. She cleaned houses in the morning, in the afternoon she worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant, and at night she cleaned offices. Some days she slept and others she barely had a wink. In the restaurant she met Shuba. He was a Zapotec from Juchitán, Oaxaca. He was separated and had 3 kids in Mexico. They rented a place together in the basement of a house. This time Catalina did not get pregnant right away because her priority was to bring Juanito over.

Finally, after ten years of saving money, she managed to bring Juanito home. Carolina had to pay double to cross him through the border crossing, between Arizona and Sonora. This was so he wouldn’t be in danger crossing deserts and rivers. In total she paid 15,000 dollars. She was so happy to finally have her son in her arms that day. She hadn’t seen him in years and only knew him by phone calls. That same year she got pregnant with Guadalupe. They named her after the Virgin of Guadalupe. The baby had to go to daycare at two months old in order for Carolina to go back to work. She had two jobs now, one cleaning houses in the morning and in the evening as a dishwasher. Shuba found work in a Polish bakery and as a part time driver to an elderly anglo-saxon couple. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, the elderly couple that Shuba worked for got Corona virus. They both died in the hospital. Around the same time, Shuba also got sick and died in his bedroom. They were scared to go to the hospital for fear of debt and deportation, so he stayed in his room. Catalina took a year to save to have Shuba cremated and sent the ashes to his family in Oaxaca. People from her church and coworkers donated money. The body could not be sent because of national security reasons. Everyone who died of the virus need to be cremated. 

Ever since Shuba died, Catalina works in a slaughter house cleaning up blood. She uses a uniform much like an astronaut’s one. The gloves are thick and weigh a pound each. The boots weigh 3 pounds each. She wears a face mask and on top of that a helmet that barely lets her breathe. She starts at 6pm and finishes at 6am. She doesn’t drink water after 4pm so she doesn’t have to go to the bathroom and take off the whole uniform. She only has ten minutes of break time and that is not enough. If they take longer, it gets deducted from their pay check. The hoses used at work are like those used by firefighters. If you don’t stand correctly they will fly up in the air.

The smell of blood gets embedded  in her clothes and skin. It stats even if she washes her clothes with the strongest detergent or after many showers. She leaves her kids asleep in her apartment. Carolina pays the daughter of a neighbor to sleep over until she comes home in the morning. 

It’s New Years Eve, Catalina prepares the chicken, makes the punch, feeds her kids and goes to work. A work shift like every other, with co-workers that are mostly undocumented. Mexicans and Central Americans cut the meat up and clean the blood up. The bosses are Europeans and Black. They only check and take notes on paper. The doors open and Catalina steps out to the cold wintery dawn. It is a new day, the first of January, but it’s just like any other day.

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Ilka Oliva-Corado @ilkaolivacorado

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