Translated by Marvin Najarro
She leaves work, it’s around six in the evening, that day she cleaned two houses, the last one took her longer than usual because her Iranian employers had a Christmas celebration; a late Christmas they celebrate on January 7 in the Julian calendar as it has been explained to her by the house mistress in countless occasions when in the middle of her mopping chores she appear to tell her stories about her country and ancestors. Tomasina lets her talk while she mops incessantly; she barely understands English.
When she arrived she found the house turned upside down, not even her advanced pregnancy persuade her employers to show any consideration for her, and try not to make such a mess. But it is like they did it on purpose littering the floor for her to clean; piles of dirty dishes that haven’t been washed in a week. It is not possible for her to do it all. But what can Tomasina expect if her work is to clean. If she was born to clean; she has thought ever since she became aware of it.
She cleans for as long as she can remember. Cleaning her parents’ house and helping in her grandparents’, cleaning the chicken coop, the pigsty, and the sheep and goats pen. Delousing her brothers so they were not embarrassed at school; a school she could not attend because she was the oldest daughter. Grinding the nixtamal for tortillas on the grinding stone. Washing her brother and father’s clothes. Cleaning; her hands were made to clean other people’s dirt, she has always thought.
Tomasina, who watched the children bathing and jumping into the pools of the river, always dreamed of enjoying that kind of fun, she imagined what it would be like to jump from the trees’ branches and belly flop into the pools as the children did, but her parents would not allow it because they thought it was a waste of time given the many obligations she had at home. Being the only daughter and the oldest of all the siblings meant for her to carry a heavy load; too much for her young age. It was a common occurrence among the girls of the village. The only time she tried to play dolls with the young corn hairs she took a beating from her father that left her bedridden for two days; she never tried again.
Born in San Blas Atempa, Oxaca, Mexico, Tomasina emigrated to the United States when she was 16 years old, on a day of torrential rain, without eating anything, her guts growling from hunger, and with her numbed feet wearing a pair of sandals patched up by herself. Wearing her grandmother’s sweater and in a knotted piece of cloth a handful of soil so that her roots will not get lost in that faraway land where she was heading to. She fled from a marriage arranged by both her father and grandfather from which neither her grandmother nor her mother could protect her, because men have the last word. Her mother helped her to get out of there; she was the one who called her cousins in the United States so they could lend the money to pay for Tomasina’s trip; the coyote, an acquaintance from the village, crossed her over to the other side.
She has been in the United States for 10 winters, and just a year ago she married Felipe, a Salvadoran who arrived without papers two years after her. Felipe emigrated because in a drunken rage he beat the son of a police officer who in revenge wanted to kill him; his parents sent him to the United States where some of his close relatives lived. Felipe was introduced to her by a friend of hers on one of her children’s birthday party, and since that day they haven’t stopped seeing each other for a single day. It’s not that she is in love with him, like in the soap operas, but they are very close friends, and that’s enough for them.
He works as a mason for a Polish company where the heavy work is done by Latin Americas who get paid the least because they are undocumented. Thy live in a rented apartment, which they share with 9 other people, both of them send money to their families back in their countries of origin to help with the education and upbringing of their younger siblings, fort their grandparents’ medical expenses, and to help their parents too.
In the 8th month of pregnancy, Tomasina is still cleaning houses, otherwise there will not be money for the remittances or for paying the rent, Felipe is unable to meet all the expenses alone. The last week there was a heavy snowfall, and this week it’s been sleet rain, which it has turned into black ice, dangerous for driving and walking because the roads and walkways become sheets of ice. As a new immigrant she fell several times because she didn’t know how to walk on black ice, her mother’s cousins explained to her that it is called black ice because is very transparent and slippery and it does not look like white snow.
She doesn’t own a car, does not know how to drive, she takes the bus every day, lives in a working-class neighborhood in Indiana. She has never seen people as black as the ones living there, nor so many Mexicans from so many different places together. She gets off the bus and while Felipe comes to pick her up, she lives ten blocks away from the bus stop, she walks toward the corner where a new thrift store has just opened.
She notices the portrait of a woman wearing a balaclava on the storefront door. A young woman helps her to open the door while welcoming her to “Comandanta Ramona” store, which is a place where they raise funds to send food, medicine and clothing to indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico, she says. Tomasina who does not know how to read or write observes the large letters at the entrance of the store, but what catches her attention is the gaze of the woman with the balaclava. The young woman explains to her that this woman is Comandanta Ramona, and very kindly pulls up a chair for her to sit down.
Speaking in perfect Spanish the young American woman fascinated tells her that she had traveled to Latin America many times and that she was impressed by how the Zapatista women were organized in Mexico and that Comandanta Ramona has been an inspiration for thousands of women around the world because she fought for the rights of indigenous women within the ranks of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. That’s why the decision was taken to name the store after her, in honor of her struggle.
Realizing Tomasina’s interest, the Young woman reaches for a booklet containing the biography of Comandanta Ramona; next she tells her that she died in 2006 but that her example lives on in the struggle of the women of Chiapas. Also, that Comandanta Ramona fought against arranged marriages and for the right of women to decide over their bodies, attend school, raise their voices, express their opinions and make decisions in the family and the community. Tomasina tells her that she does not know how to read and write so the booklet would be of no use for her, but the young American woman offers herself to help her so that she can learn to read and write, because that’s the example of Comandanta Ramona: helping one another regardless of nationality, creed or language. She agrees to come three times a week after work, with her notebook so she can teach her.
Felipe comes to pick her up, and she leaves the thrift store convinced she will name her future daughter Ramona, like the Comandanta. She believes that by naming her daughter Ramona, she will have the strength, the fortitude and the courage to raise her voice, stand up for her right to get an education and one day finish college, so she will not be an illiterate person like her, and does not have to fled to scape an arranged marriage.
She mentions that to Felipe over dinner and he tells her that whatever name she chooses for her future daughter will be fine. That same day Tomasina went into early labor and Felipe called the paramedics who rushed her to the hospital and, in the early morning of black ice, Ramona Citlali is born, thousands of miles away from her great-grandparents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, with the strength and irreverence of her ancestors who like her mother, her grandmother and Comandanta Ramona, rebelled against patriarchal oppression. Later that day, in San Blas Atempa, her mother cried when Tomasina called to let her know that her niece was born and that she named her, Ramona Citlali; Citlali in honor of her who freed her from an arranged marriage so that her granddaughter could have a better future.
Finally, Tomasina may plant an aromatic herb in the handful of soil she took with her when she emigrated; she always loved the scent of basil and rosemary, or perhaps she would grow chile piquin, to have always at hand the seasoning for soups.
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Ilka Oliva-Corado @ilkaolivacorado