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  EN LA VIDA

Entre Los Mundos
by Lisa Alvarado
2003-01-08

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It's winter Mami, and I'm thinking of you. Not Mother's Day, not your birthday--on an icy, white, nameless day in the heart of winter. Through the cold that seems like it will never end, my thoughts turn to you and that memory--the last happy time.

We're in Geneva, near the Wisconsin border, tobogganing, with abuelo and silent, angry Daddy. I'm four, I think, and you are kneeling in the snow, your hair in a French braid, your fur coat billowing around you as the wind blows. I'm in my blue snow suit, chubby and smiling, and loving you, loving you so very much. How could I know that you would soon start to leave me by degrees?

Each time I remember the snow, your beautiful face, I ache. I want you. I want a woman. Only a woman. This longing is about the hunger only a woman can feed. I want what I want. I want what I can't have. I let a woman hold me. It is something. It is never enough.

But I remember you taught me about stories and the power in telling them.

This is how this one goes.

My mother was a woman who spoke little of the past, when I became a teenager I became more curious about her life before she got married to my father. I'd asked her to tell me the story of how she named me. (In 1956, the year I was born, Lisa was not a popular name.) To my surprise, she told me that it came from Club De Lisa, a popular jazz club on the South Side. (I've come to find out that it had a national reputation, and was a hub for cool jazz.)

After some prodding, I found out that she had a very different life then. I only knew her as an unhappy housewife, someone who doted over me when I was little, but disappeared into alcoholism and drug addiction before I was 12. She told me a story of a completely different woman, a model with the Pat Stevens Agency, who made all the rounds at the chic clubs, dated musicians, and was a former print ad model for Maybelline mascara and eyebrow pencils.

One day, after what she thought was her best shoot, the art director told her that it was too bad--that this was as far as she would ever go because she was so Mexican-looking. (The ads only featured a tight shot of her eyes, avoiding her strong Indio nose, and were altered to make her skin seem lighter.)

Little details about my childhood seem to make more sense. I remember her crying after making a princess costume for me ... she'd cut down her only good suit ... silk shantung, which I found out after the revelation was one of the last vestiges of her modeling days. I remembered back to tobogganing with her when I was about five. She was kneeling down in the snow, her hair in a long French braid, wearing a fur coat, impossibly beautiful. It wasn't long after that the coat got destroyed ... in a fight with my father, I think.

I had access to some more of her life, her true life, the one she in which she was happy before it all went to hell. It didn't change how being a Chicana in the '50s limited her choices, didn't change hw an abusive marriage trapped her and eroded her soul. Knowledge here, did notmean freedom, either for her or for me.

I was never able to save her.

I am looking for you, mother

I am looking for you mother,

looking for you everywhere.

In the corridors of dreams,

windowless, empty.

I look for the door

that will lead me to you.

I look, but I never find it.

I am looking for you, mother.

Racing across hard streets

and cracked sidewalks,

I run past carnicerias,

babies dressed for bautizos,

family parties in back yards.

But you are never there.

I am looking for you, mother.

I play Billie Holliday just like you did.

I think if I close my eyes

and wait long enough;

I will smell your perfume

and you will finally be here.

But you never come.

Doctors took you away.

You took yourself away

with pieces of paper neatly lettered

with milligrams and the proper dose.

They help you forget that once you were

almost celebrated

almost called beautiful

by people who thought it was a shame

that you were so Mexican looking.

So you give the man the paper

and he gives you the pills.

The pills help you.

The pills have stolen you from me.

I am looking for you, mother

A woman kisses my hand,

I think it is you.

A woman holds me,

I think it is you.

My lover tells me

he thinks I am beautiful.

Not almost.

I think about you.

I wonder if I will ever find you.

I wonder if you will ever kiss me.

I wonder if you will ever hold me or tell me I am beautiful.

I wonder if you'll ever know

that I wrote this for you.

A version of this essay was broadcast on WBEZ"s 848 program.


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