The Crystal Frontier | Chapter 9 of 15

Author: Carlos Fuentes | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1185 Views | Add a Review

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5

MALINTZIN OF THE MAQUILAS

For Enrique Cortázar, Pedro Garay, and Carlos Salas-Porras

Her parents gave Marina that name because of their desire to see the ocean. When she was baptized, they said, maybe this one will get a chance to see the ocean. In the clump of shacks in the northern desert, the young would get together with their elders, and the elders would tell how, when they were young, they wondered what the ocean was like. None of us had ever seen the ocean.

Now, as the frozen January sun rises, Marina sees only the thin waters of the Río Grande, and the sun feels that everything’s so cold it would like to slip back down between the dun sheets of the desert from which it is beginning to emerge.

It’s five o’clock and she has to be at the factory by seven. She’s late. What made her late was making love with Rolando last night, going with him to El Paso, Texas, on the other side of the river, and returning late, alone, shivering as she crossed the international bridge to her one-room house with lavatory in Colonia Bellavista, Ciudad Juárez.

Rolando had stayed flat on his back in bed, one arm folded behind his head, the other flattening a cellular phone to his ear. He looked at Marina with weary satisfaction, and she didn’t ask him to take her home. She could see how comfortable he was, so boyish, all cuddled up, and also so open, so moist and warm. Above all, she saw him ready to start working, making calls on his cellular phone since very early—the early bird catches the worm, especially if the bird’s a Mexican making deals on both sides of the border.

She glanced at herself in the mirror before leaving. She was a sleepy beauty, with the thick eyelashes of a young girl. Sighing, she put on her blue down jacket, which looked bad with her miniskirt because it hung to her knees while the skirt just reached her thighs. She stuffed her work sneakers into her bag and slung it over her shoulder. Unlike the grin-gas, who walked to work in Keds and put on their high heels in the office, Marina always wore pointy high heels to work even if they sank into the mud from time to time. Marina wouldn’t sacrifice her elegant shoes for anything: no one would ever see her in worn-out shoes looking like some Apache.

She caught the first bus on Cadmio Street, and, as she did every other morning, she tried to look beyond the dirt-colored neighborhood, the shacks that looked as though they’d popped up out of the ground. Every day, without fail, she tried to look at the vast horizon. The sky and the sun seemed her protectors; they were the beauty of the world, they belonged to everyone and cost nothing. How could ordinary people make something as beautiful as that? Everything else was ugly by comparison. The sun, the sky … and—so they said—the sea!

She always ended up looking toward the gullies that tumbled down toward the river, as if her eyes were pulled by the law of gravity, as if even within her soul all things were always falling down. Even at this early hour the Juárez gullies looked like anthills. Activity in the poorest neighborhoods began early, as swarms of people poured out of the shacks down by the edge of the narrow river, trying to cross. She turned away, uncertain if what she saw annoyed her, embarrassed her, aroused her sympathy, or made her feel like imitating those crossing to the other side.

Better she fix her eyes on a solitary cypress tree until she couldn’t see it anymore.

Instead of the cypress, Marina saw only concrete, wall upon wall of concrete, a long avenue boxed in by concrete. The bus stopped at a field where some boys in shorts were playing soccer to keep warm, and then, shivering, it crossed the vacant lot to the next stop.

She sat down next to her friend Dinorah, who was wearing a red sweater, blue jeans, and loafers. Marina held on tight to her bag but crossed her legs so Dinorah and the other passengers could see her classy high heels with a chain instead of a leather strap across the ankle.

They made their usual small talk: How’s the little one, who’d you leave him with? At first, Marina’s questions irritated Dinorah and she would pretend to be distracted—looking for a piece of chewing gum in her bag or fixing her mop of short orange-colored curls. Then she realized she’d be running into Marina on the bus every day of her life and she would quickly answer, My neighbor’s going to take him to a day-care center.

“There’s so few of them,” Marina would say.

“Of what?”

“Day-care centers.”

“Around here, sister, there’s not enough of anything for anything.”

She wasn’t about to tell Dinorah to get married, because the one time she did, Dinorah had responded angrily, Why don’t you go ahead and do it first? Set an example, Miss Know-It-All. Marina wasn’t about to point out that, though neither of them was married, she didn’t have a child—that was the difference. Didn’t the kid need a father?

“What for? Around here, men don’t work. You want me to support two instead of just one?”

Marina told her that with a man at home she’d be able to defend herself better against the pests at the factory, who were always after her because they saw that she was defenseless, that no one stood up for her. Marina’s comment infuriated Dinorah, and she told Marina she was sick and tired of her, God may have thrown them together on the same bus, but if Marina went on giving advice no one asked for, she’d quit talking to her. Marina should stop being such a hypocrite.

“I’ve got Rolando,” said Marina, and Dinorah almost died laughing: All the girls have Rolando, and Rolando has all the girls. Who do you think you are, you idiot? Marina began to sob, though the tears didn’t roll down her cheeks but instead welled up in her eyelashes, and Dinorah felt bad. She pulled a tissue from her pocket, hugged Marina, and wiped her eyes.

“You don’t need to worry about me, honey,” said Dinorah. “I know how to protect myself from the boys in the factory. And if someone tells me I’ve got to fuck him to get a promotion, I’ll just change factories. Anyway, nobody moves up around here. We just go sideways, like crabs.”

Marina asked Dinorah if she changed jobs a lot. Marina’s job was her first, but she’d heard that when the girls got fed up with one place they moved on to another. Dinorah told her that after you’ve done the same work for nine months your sides start to hurt and your back won’t let you sleep.

They had to get off to change buses.

“You’re late too.”

“I guess it’s for the same reason you are,” Dinorah said with a smile. They walked off laughing, arms around each other’s waist.

The plaza, crowded with little shops and all kinds of stalls, was already bustling. Everyone was exhaling winter mist, and vendors were showing off their merchandise or hanging up their signs: Hurry, hurry, get your beans from Jean. The two women stopped to buy corn, delicious ears of it dripping melted butter and still steaming. They giggled at an advertisement: Use Macho Man for Sexual Deficiency. Dinorah asked Marina if she’d ever met a man with sexual deficiency. Marina said no, but that didn’t matter as much as choosing the right man. The right man? Well, the one you really like. Dinorah said that the men with sexual deficiencies were almost always the braggarts, the ones who bothered them and tried to take advantage of them in the factories.

“Rolando’s not like that. He’s very macho.”

“So you told me. And what else does he have?”

“A cellular phone.”

“Wow.” Dinorah rolled her eyes mockingly but said nothing more because the bus arrived and they got on to make the last leg of the trip to the assembly plant. A very thin but good-looking young woman, with an aquiline beauty unusual in those parts, came running up to catch the bus. She was in a Carmelite habit and sandals. As she took the seat in front of them, Dinorah asked if her little feet weren’t cold like that in winter, without stockings or anything. She blew her nose and said it was a vow that only made sense in the frost, not in the summer—she used the English word.

“Do you two know each other?” asked Dinorah.

“Only by sight,” said Marina.

“This is Rosa Lupe. You can’t recognize her when she’s in a saintly mood. But believe me, she’s normally very different. Why’d you get involved with this vow business?”

“Because of my famullo.

She told them she’d been working in the plants for four years but her husband—her famullo—still hadn’t found work. The children were the reason: who would take care of them? Rosa Lupe looked at Dinorah, although not with obvious malice. The famullo stayed home with the kids, at least until they were grown.

“You support him?” asked Dinorah, to get back at Rosa Lupe for her remark.

“Just ask around at the factory. Half the women working there are the breadwinners in their families. We’re what they call heads of households. But I have a famullo. At least I’m not a single mother.”

To avoid a fight, Marina commented that they were coming into the nice area, and without saying another word the three of them looked at the rows of cypresses lining both sides of the road. They were waiting for the incredibly beautiful vision that never failed to dazzle them though they’d seen it countless times. The television assembly plant, a mirage of glass and shining steel, like a bubble of crystalline air. It was almost like a fantasy to work there, surrounded by purity, by brilliance, in a factory so clean and modern, what the managers called an industrial park.

It was one of the plants that allowed the gringos to assemble toys, textiles, motors, furniture, computers, and television sets from parts made in the United States, put together in Mexico at a tenth the labor cost, and sent back across the border to the U.S. market with a value-added tax. About such things the women knew little. Ciudad Juárez was simply the place where the jobs called them, jobs that did not exist in the desert and mountain villages, jobs that were impossible to find in Oaxaca or Chiapas or in the capital itself. Those jobs were here, and even if the salary was a tenth what it was in the United States, it was ten times more than the nothing paid everywhere else in Mexico.

At least that was what Candelaria wore herself out telling them. A woman of thirty, Candelaria was more square than fat, the same size on all four sides. She always wore traditional peasant clothing, though it was difficult to tell from which region of Mexico, as the totally sincere, serious, but smiling Candelaria mixed a little bit of everything: pigtails tied with Huichol wool, Yucatan-style smocks, Texan skirts, Tzotzil belts, huaraches with Goodrich tire soles available at any market. And since she was the lover of an antigovernment union leader, she knew what she was talking about. It was a miracle she hadn’t been blackballed from all the assembly plants. But Candelaria always managed to save her skin: she was a wizard at changing jobs. Every six months she went to another factory, and each time, her boss breathed a sigh of relief because the agitator was leaving, and as far as the owners were concerned, frequent job changes meant little or no change in political consciousness: there wasn’t enough time to stir anyone up. Candelaria would just shake her comical pigtails and go on raising consciousness in one place after another, every six months.

She had been working in the plants for fifteen of her thirty years and didn’t want to ruin her health. She’d already worked in a paint factory and the solvents had made her sick—imagine, she said at the time, spending nine months filling paint cans just to end up painted inside. That’s when she met Beltrán Herrera, a mature man—which is why Candelaria liked him—mature but with tender eyes and vigorous hands; dark-skinned, he had graying hair and wore a moustache and glasses.

Candelaria, Bernal said to her, they wouldn’t give you water around here if you were dying of thirst. Whatever you need you’ve got to earn with the sweat of your brow. They talk about costs and profits, sure, but there’s no insurance for work-related accidents, no medical treatment, no pension, no compensation for marriage, maternity, or death. They’re doing us a big favor giving us work, thank you very much, so keep your mouth shut. Say so much as three little words, my dear Candelaria, “three little words,” as the old song goes, strike by coalition, strike by coalition, strike by coalition—say it three times like a litany, Candy sweetest, and you’ll see how they turn pale, promise you raises and bonuses, respect your opinions, urge you to switch factories. Do it, darling. I’d rather you switched than died.

“This place is so beautiful,” sighed Marina, taking care not to let her stiletto heels puncture the green lawn marked with the double warning NO PISE EL PASTO/KEEP OFF THE GRASS.

“It looks like Disneyland,” said Dinorah, half joking, half serious.

“Sure, but it’s full of ogres who eat innocent princesses like you,” said Candelaria with a sarcastic smile, fully aware that her irony was lost on these three. She loved them anyway.

Everyone but Rosa Lupe put on a regulation blue smock, and they all took their places opposite the skeletons of television sets, each ready to do her job in order—Candelaria the chassis, Dinorah the soldering, Marina the newcomer learning to repair weldings—and Rosa Lupe checked for defects like loose wires, cracked washers and, as she worked, Rosa Lupe spoke to Candelaria. Listen, don’t you think it’s about time to stop treating us like jerks? And don’t go into your Saint Candelaria act, okay? You’re always preaching to us, always treating us like shit. Candelaria opened her eyes wide. Me? Dinorah, listen, you tell me if there’s anyone more screwed than I am: I came here alone from the village, I brought my kids, then my brothers and sisters, then my dad. How’s that for a load to carry? Think I make enough?

“Your union boss doesn’t chip in, Candelaria?”

The square woman gave Dinorah an electric shock, a trick she knew how to do. Dinorah squealed and called the fat woman a bastard, but Candelaria just laughed and said that every one of them had a whole soap opera to tell, so maybe they should just try to get along with each other, okay? To spend their time together and not die of boredom, okay?

“Why’d you bring your dad?”

“For the memories,” said Candelaria.

“Old people get in the way,” said Dinorah softly.

All these women came from other places. That’s why they entertained one another with stories about their backgrounds, about their families, the things that made them all different. And yet at times they were astonished at how alike they were in many things—families, villages, relatives. All of them felt torn inside. Was it better to leave all that behind and set about making a new life here on the border? Or should they feed their souls with memories, hum along with José Alfredo Jiménez, feel the sadness of the past, agree that indifference is the death of the soul?

Sometimes they looked at one another without saying a word, all four friends, comrades—Candelaria, the one who’d worked the longest in the plants, Rosa Lupe and Dinorah, who’d come at the same time, Marina, greenest of the lot—understanding that they didn’t have to use words to say these things, that they all needed love, not memories, but that even so it was impossible to separate memory from tenderness. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The one best at keeping track of the stories was Candelaria, and her conclusion was that all the women came from somewhere else, that none of them was from the border. She liked to ask them where they were from, but it was hard for them to talk except with Candelaria, whom they trusted and with whom they dared to link love and memory. Candelaria wanted to keep them both alive, feeling it was important they not condemn themselves to oblivion or indifference, the death of the soul. She hummed the tunes of the unforgettable José Alfredo, as the radio announcers never failed to call him.

“From the Venustiano Carranza commune.”

“From deep in the heart of Chihuahua.”

“No, not from the country. From a city smaller than Juárez.”

“Well, from Zacatecas.”

“From La Laguna.”

“My dad took charge of the whole move,” said Rosa Lupe, the woman with the aquiline profile who dressed like a Carmelite. “He said there were too many of us for the communal land. The land we could farm was getting smaller and smaller and drier and drier the more we divided it up among all my brothers. I was always active, very active. At the commune they put me in charge of keeping the streets clean and the walls painted white. I liked to make confetti for the fiestas, bring in the bands, organize the children’s choruses. Dad said I was too clever to stay in the country. He brought me to the border himself when I was fifteen. My mother stayed behind with my little brothers and sisters. My father didn’t beat around the bush. He told me that I was going to make ten times more money in a month than the whole family would make in a year on the commune. That I was very active. That it wasn’t going to break me down. As long as he stayed here, I accepted things. He was like an extension of my life in the village. I didn’t tell him I missed the land, my mother, my little brothers and sisters, the religious festivals, especially Candlemas—like Candelaria!—when we dress up the Christ Child, decorate the Holy Cross, and have these terrific scary fireworks. And Ash Wednesday, when the whole village wore charcoal crosses on their foreheads, Holy Week, when the Jews with their white beards and long noses and black overcoats come out to play tricks on Christians. All of it—pilgrimages, the Wise Men—I missed it all. Here I look up the dates on the calendar, I have to make an effort to remember them, but back there I didn’t. The fiestas came along without having to be remembered, see? But my father set me up here in Juárez in a one-room house and told me, ‘Work hard and find a man. You’re the cleverest one in the family.’ Then he left.”

“I don’t know what’s better,” Candelaria said immediately. “I’ve already told you, I’m loaded down with responsibilities. When I came to the border, I brought my kids. Then my brothers and sisters came. Finally my parents got up enough nerve. That’s a big strain with a salary like mine. Watch those jokes, Dinorah, damn you. What our men give us we deserve. What my father gives me is remembrance. As long as my father is in the house, I’ll never forget. It’s beautiful having things to remember.”

“That’s not true,” said Dinorah. “Memories just hurt.”

“But it’s a good hurt,” answered Candelaria.

“Well, I’ve only seen the bad hurt,” Dinorah retorted.

“That’s because you don’t have anything to compare it with. You don’t give yourself the chance to save up your good memories of the past.”

“Piggy banks are for pigs,” said Dinorah, incensed.

Rosa Lupe was about to say something when a supervisor came over, an extremely tall woman in her forties with eyes like marbles and lips thin and long as stringbeans. She began to scold the beautiful Carmelite with the aquiline profile. Rosa Lupe was breaking the rules—who did she think she was coming to the factory dressed like a miracle worker? Didn’t she know everyone had to wear the regulation smock for hygiene and safety reasons?

“But I’ve made a vow, ma’am,” said Rosa Lupe in a dignified tone.

“Around here there’s no vow bigger than mine,” said the supervisor. “Come on, take off that getup and put on your smock.”

“Okay. I’ll change in the bathroom.”

“No, dear lady, you aren’t going to hold up production with your saintly act. You can change right here.”

“But I don’t have anything on underneath.”

“Let’s see,” said the supervisor. She grabbed Rosa Lupe by the shoulders and pulled the habit down to her waist. There were Rosa Lupe’s splendid breasts. The woman with eyes like marbles, unable to contain herself, seized them and fastened her stringbean lips on the beautiful Carmelite’s stiffened nipples. Rosa Lupe was so shocked she froze, but Candelaria grasped the supervisor by her permanent, cursing her and pulling her off, while Dinorah gave the pig a kick in the ass and Marina ran over to cover Rosa Lupe with her hands, feeling how hard her friend’s heart was pounding, how her own nipples had stiffened involuntarily.

Another supervisor came over to separate the women, settle things down, and laugh at his colleague. Don’t start taking my girlfriends away from me, Esmeralda, he said to the disheveled supervisor who was as inflamed as a fried tomato, Leave these cuties to me and go find yourself a man.

“Don’t make fun of me, Herminio, you’ll be sorry,” said the wretched Esmeralda, retreating with one hand on her forehead and the other on her belly.

“Don’t try poaching on my territory.”

“Going to report me?”

“No, I’m just going to screw you up.”

“Okay, girls, clear out,” said Herminio the supervisor, smiling. He was hairless as a sugar cube and exactly the same color. “I’m moving up your break. Go on, go have a soda and remember what a nice guy I am.”

“Going to make us pay for the favor?” asked Dinorah.

“You all come around on your own.” Herminio smiled lasciviously now.

They bought some Pepsis and sat for a while opposite the factory’s beautiful lawn—KEEP OFF THE GRASS—waiting for Rosa Lupe, who reappeared with Herminio. The supervisor looked very satisfied. The worker was wearing her blue smock.

“He looks like the cat who ate the canary,” said Candelaria when Herminio was gone.

“I let him watch me change. I’d just as soon you knew. I did it to thank him. I’d rather be the one who calls the shots. He promised he wouldn’t bother any of us, that he’d protect us from that bitch Esmeralda.”

“Well, it didn’t take much to—” Dinorah started to say, but Candelaria shut her up with a glance. The others lowered their eyes, never imagining that from the high administrative tower sheathed in opaque glass those inside could see them without themselves being seen. The Mexican owner of the business, Don Leonardo Barroso, was observing them as he recited for the benefit of his U.S. investors the line about their being blessed among women because the assembly plants employed eight of them for every man. The plants liberated women from farming, prostitution, even from machismo itself—Don Leonardo smiled broadly—because working women soon became the breadwinners in the family. Female heads of households acquired a dignity and strength that set them free, made them independent, made them modern women. And that, too, was democracy—didn’t his partners from Texas agree?

Besides—Don Leonardo was used to giving these periodic pep talks to calm the Yankees and soothe their consciences—these women, like the ones you see down there sitting together by the grass drinking sodas, were becoming part of a dynamic economic growth instead of living a depressed life in the agrarian stagnation of Mexico. In 1965, under Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, there were no plants on the border, zero. Then in 1972, under President Echeverría, there were 10,000; in 1982, under López Portillo, 35,000; in 1988, under De la Madrid, 120,000; and now, in 1994, under Salinas, 135,000. And the plants generated 200,000 jobs in related fields.

“The progress of the nation can be measured by the progress of the assembly plants,” exclaimed a satisfied Mr. Barroso.

“There must be some problems,” said a Yankee drier than a corncob pipe. “There are always problems, Mr. Barroso.”

“Call me Len, Mr. Murchinson.”

“And I’m Ted.”

“Labor problems? Unions aren’t allowed.”

“Problems with worker loyalty, Len. I’ve always tried to maintain the loyalty of my workers. Here the women last six or seven months and then move to another factory.”

“Sure, they all want to work with the Europeans because they treat them better. They fire or punish abusive supervisors, feed them fancy lunches, and God knows what else. Maybe they even send them on vacation to see the tulips in Holland … You do that and earnings will plummet, Ted.”

“We don’t do things that way in Michigan. The workers leave, the cost for services—water, housing—go up. Maybe those Dutch have the right idea.”

“We all change jobs,” chimed in Barroso merrily. “Even you. If we enforce work-safety rules, they move on. If we’re strict about applying the Federal Labor Law, they move on. If there’s a boom in the defense industry, they move on. You talk to me about job rotation? That’s the law of labor. If the Europeans prefer quality of life to profits, that’s their decision. Let the European Community subsidize them.”

“You still haven’t answered my question, Len. What about the loyalty factor?”

“Anyone who wants to hold onto a loyal labor force should do what I do. I offer bonuses to workers so they’ll stay. But the demand for labor is huge, the girls get bored, they don’t move up, so they move sideways, and that way they fool themselves into thinking they’re better off for changing. That does generate some costs, Ted, you’re right, but it avoids other costs. Nothing’s perfect. The plant isn’t a zero-sum situation. It’s a sum-sum one. We all end up making money.”

They laughed a little, and a man with graying long hair pulled back in a ponytail came in to serve coffee.

“No sugar for me, Villarreal,” said Don Leonardo to the servant.

“Look here, Ted,” Barroso went on. “You’re new at this game, but your partners in the States must have told you what the real business is here.”

“Running a national business that sells to one guaranteed buyer doesn’t seem like a bad idea to me. We don’t have that in the States.”

Barroso asked Murchinson to look outside, beyond the little group of workers drinking Pepsis, to look at the horizon. Yankee businessmen have always been men of vision, he said, not provincial chile counters the way they are in Mexico. It’s a huge horizon you see from here, right? Texas is the size of France; Mexico, which looks so small next to the U.S. of A., is six times larger than Spain—all that space, all that horizon, what inspiration! Barroso almost sighed.

“Ted, the real business here isn’t the plants. It’s land speculation. The location of the plants. The subdivisions. The industrial park. Did you see my house over in Campazas? People laugh at it. They call it Disneyland. But I’m the one laughing. I bought all those lots for five centavos per square meter. Now they’re worth a thousand dollars per square meter. That’s where the money is. I’m giving you good advice. Take advantage of it.”

“I’m all ears, Len.”

“The girls have to travel for more than an hour, on two buses, to get here. What we should do is set up another center due west of here. Which means we should be buying land in Bellavista. It’s a dump. Shitty shacks. In five years, it’ll be worth a thousand times more.”

Ted Murchinson was in favor of supplying money, with Leonardo Barroso as the front man—the Mexican constitution prohibits gringos from owning property on the border. There was talk about trusts, stocks, and percentages while Villarreal served the coffee, watered-down the way the gringos like it.

“What my husband wants is for me to leave the plant and work with him in a business. That way we’d see each other more and take turns with the kid. It’s the only brave idea he’s ever suggested to me, but I know that deep down he’s just as big a coward as I am. The plant is a sure thing, but as long as I work here, he’s tied to the house.”

Something Rosa Lupe said upset Dinorah terribly, to the point that she became violently sick and asked to go to the bathroom. Wanting to avoid any new conflict, the supervisor, Esmeralda, did not object. Sometimes she made vulgar comments when the women asked.

“What’s with her?” said Candelaria. Instantly she was sorry she’d opened her mouth. It was an unwritten law among them not to probe inside one another. What was going on outside could be seen and therefore discussed, especially in a joking spirit. But the soul, what songs called the soul …

Candelaria sang, and Marina and Rosa Lupe joined in:

Your ways drove me mad,

You’re so selfish, so solitary,

A jewel in the night,

While I’m so ordinary …

They laughed, then turned sad, and Marina thought about Rolando, wondering what he was up to in the streets of Juárez and El Paso, a man with one foot on that side and the other on this, a man connected to both places by his cellular phone.

“Don’t call me at my place at night. It’s better to call me in the car. Call my cellular phone,” he told Marina at the beginning. But when she asked for the number, Rolando wouldn’t give it to her. “They’ve got a tap on my cellular,” he explained. “If they pick up one of your calls, I might get you in trouble.”

“So how will we see each other?”

“You know. Every Thursday night at the courts on the other side…”

But what about Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays? We all work, Rolando said, life’s tough, it’s not a free ride. A night of love, can’t you see? Some people don’t even have that … And Saturdays and Sundays? My family, Rolando would say, weekends are for my family.

“But I don’t have one, Rolando. I’m all alone.”

“And Fridays?” he shot back with the speed of light. Rolando was fast, no one could take that away from him, and he knew that Marina would get flustered as soon as he mentioned Friday.

“No. Fridays I go out with the girls. It’s our day to be together.”

Rolando didn’t have to say another word, and Marina would anxiously wait for Thursday so she could cross the international bridge, show her green card, take a bus that left her three blocks from the motel, stop at the soda fountain for an ice-cream soda with a cherry on top (the kind they knew how to make only on the gringo side), and, fortified in her body, sleepy in her soul, fall into the arms of Rolando, her Rolando …

“Your Rolando? Yours? Every woman’s Rolando.”

The jokes the girls made echoed in her ears as she braided the black, blue, yellow, and red wires, an interior flag that announced the nationality of each television set. Made in Mexico—there’s something to be proud of. When would they put a label on the sets that said “Made by Marina, Marina Alva Martinez, Marina of the Assembly Plants”? But she didn’t have that pride in her work, that fleeting feeling she was doing something worthwhile, not useless, something that erased the jealousy Rolando made her feel, Rolando and his conquests. All the girls insinuated it, sometimes they said it: every woman’s Rolando. Well, if that was the way it was, at least she got her little piece of the action from a real star, well-dressed, with suits that were silvery like an airplane and shone even at night, nicely cut black hair (no sideburns), not like a hippy’s, a perfectly combed little moustache, an even olive-colored complexion, dreamy eyes. And his cellular phone stuck to his ear—everyone had seen him, in fancy restaurants, outside famous shops, on the bridge itself, with his phone to his ear, taking care of biznez, connecting, making deals, conquering the world. Rolando, with his Hermes tie and his jet-plane-colored suit, arranging the world, how could he afford to give more than one night a week to Marina, the new arrival, the simplest, the humblest? He, someone so lusted after, the main man?

“Come here,” he said the third time they met in the motel, when she burst into tears and made a jealous scene. “Come here and sit in front of this mirror.”

All she saw was that the tears were gathering in her thick eyelashes, the eyelashes still of a little girl.

“What do you see in the mirror?” asked Rolando, standing behind her, bending toward her face, caressing her bare shoulders with those smooth coffee-colored hands covered with rings.

“Me. I see myself, Rolando. What are you talking about?”

“That’s right, look at yourself, Marina. Look at that unbelievably beautiful girl with thick eyelashes and dark little eyes, look at the beauty of those lips, that perfect little nose, those divine dimples. Look at all that, Marina, look at that lovely girl, and then look at me when I ask myself, How can a girl that pretty be jealous, how can she think Rolando could like any other woman? Maybe she can’t see herself in the mirror, maybe she doesn’t realize how lovable she is. Doesn’t Marina have any self-confidence? Rolando Rozas will have to educate her.”

Then her tears flowed, tears of sorrow and happiness, and she threw her arms around Rolando’s neck, asking him to forgive her.

Today was Friday, but it was different. As they were leaving the assembly plant, Villarreal, the managers’ waiter, told Candelaria something that excited her, something that completely unnerved her—a woman usually so self-possessed. Rosa Lupe, though she pretended to be composed, was in a state of turmoil. She’d been sullied both by Esmeralda, who’d humiliated her, and by Herminio, who’d protected her—which of them was worse, the bestial old woman or the sex-crazed young man? Dinorah, too, was burdened, and Marina tried to recall all the day’s conversations to figure out what had upset Dinorah so much. Dinorah was a good woman, her cynicism was all pose, she was just defending herself against a life that seemed unfair to her, insane—usually she said it but now she was just insinuating it … Marina saw how sad they all looked, how preoccupied, and decided to do something unusual, something forbidden, something that would make all of them feel happy, different, free, who knows …

She took off her patent-leather stilettos, tossed them aside, and ran onto the grass barefoot, dancing over the grass, laughing, mocking the warning NO PISE EL PASTO/KEEP OFF THE GRASS, feeling a marvelous physical emotion. The lawn was so cool, so moist and well-kept, it tickled the soles of her feet; running over it barefoot was like bathing in one of those enchanted forests in the movies, where the pure maiden is surprised by the prince in shining armor, everything is shining, the water, the forest, the sword. Her bare feet, the freedom of her body, the freedom of that other thing—what is it called?—the soul. What the songs sing about—the body free, the soul free …

KEEP OFF THE GRASS

The women all laughed, made wisecracks, cheered, warned her, Don’t be such a nut, Marina, get out of there, they’ll fine you, fire you …

No, said Don Leonardo Barroso, laughing from behind his opaque windows. Just look, Ted, he said to the gringo who was dry as a corncob pipe. Look at the joy, the freedom of those girls, the satisfaction they take in having done their jobs. What do you think? But Murchinson looked at him skeptically, as if to say, How many times have you staged this little act?

*   *   *

The four women, Dinorah and Rosa Lupe, Marina and Candelaria, sat at their usual table right next to the discotheque’s dance floor. The manager knew them and reserved the table for them every Friday. It was Candelaria’s doing. The others knew it. Fridays it was extremely difficult to get a table at the Malibú, it was the great day of freedom, the death of the workweek, the resurrection of hope and hope’s companion, joy.

“Malibú? Maquilú! Maquilá!” said the MC—in a blue tux with a ruffled shirt and fluorescent tie—to the wave of women filling the stands around the dance floor, over a thousand working women all crowded in together. It’s the lights, just the lights, said Dinorah, the wet blanket. Without the lights this is a miserable corral, but the lights make it all nice and pretty. But Marina felt as if she were on a beach, yes, a marvelous beach at night, where the beams of light—blue, orange, pink—caressed her, especially the white, silvery light, which was like the moon touching her and tanning her at the same time, turning all to silver, not a suntan for others to envy (when would she ever go to a beach?) but a moon tan.

No one paid attention to sour Dinorah, and they all got up to dance with themselves, without men. Rock and roll lent itself to that—you didn’t have to put an arm around anyone’s waist or dance cheek-to-cheek. Rock was as pure as going to church: Sundays were for Mass, Fridays for the disco—the soul and the body were purified in the two temples. How well they all got along, what wild ideas they had, arms here, feet there, knees bent, hair flying, breasts bouncing, asses shaking freely, and most of all the faces, the expressions—ecstasy, mockery, seduction, shock, threat, jealousy, tenderness, passion, abandon, showing off, clowning around, imitating celebrities. All of it was allowed on the Malibú dance floor, all the lost emotions, the forbidden moves, the forgotten sensations, everything had its place here, justification, pleasure—pleasure above all—though the best thing was missing.

Sweaty, they returned to their seats—Candelaria in her multiethnic outfit, Marina tricked out in her miniskirt, a sequined blouse, and her stilettos, Dinorah on display in an attractive low-cut dress of red satin, Rosa Lupe wearing her Carmelite robe, carrying out her vow. But here fantasy was allowed, and it was somehow soothing to see someone dressed like that, all coffee-colored and draped in a scapular.

Then the Chippendales paraded onto the runway, gringos brought over from Texas. Bare-chested, they wore bow ties, ankle-high boots, and jocks whose straps slipped between their buttocks and whose pouches barely supported the weight of their sexes while revealing the forms and challenging the girls: Arouse me with your eyes. The boys were identical yet varied, each carrying his sack of gold, as Candelaria said laughing, but each different in certain details: this one with his pubis shaved, that one with a diamond in his navel, another with a tattoo of the two crossed flags—the stars and stripes, the eagle and the serpent—on his shoulder, one boy, if you looked lower down, with spurs on his boots. All of them moving to a delightful, manly, exciting beat while the girls stuck money in their jocks—Rosa Lupe, all of them—blond but tan, oiled so they’d shine more, their faces made up, all gringos, desirable little gringos, adorable, for me, for you. The girls elbow one another. In my bed, just imagine. In yours. If he’d only take me, I’m ready. If he’d only kidnap me, I’m kidnappable. A Chippendale squatted down and pulled the rope that bound Rosa Lupe’s penitential robe, and all the girls laughed. He began to play with the rope as Rosa Lupe said, This is my day, this makes the third time someone’s tried to strip me, but the boy, tanned, oiled, made up, with no hair in his armpits, played with the rope as if it were a snake and he a snake charmer, raising the rope, giving it an erection. The other girls elbowed Rosa Lupe, asking her if she’d rehearsed it all with this hunk, and she swore, laughing till the tears rolled down her face, that no, that was the good part, it was all a surprise. But the girls howled, begging the boy to toss them the rope, the rope, the rope, and he ran it between his legs and stuck it under the diamond in his navel as if it were an umbilical cord, driving the girls crazy, all of them shouting for him to give them the rope, to tie himself to them, to be a son by the rope, a lover by the rope, a slave, a master—they tied to him, he tied to them—until the Chippendale slid the end of the rope into Dinorah’s lap as she sat there next to the runway, and she yanked it so hard she almost pulled the boy down. Hey! he shouted, and she shouted wordlessly, howled, tugging on the rope, pulling herself forward, elbowing her way through the crowd, the astonishment, the comments …

The girlfriends looked at one another, astounded but not wanting to show it, wanting instead to show they approved of Dinorah. To vast applause, their jocks stuffed with money, the Chippendales took a break, losing, one after another, their assembly-line smiles, each one returning, as he stepped off the runway, to his everyday face. A parade of difference: one bored, one contemptuous, this one satisfied, as if everything he did had been admirable and should have earned him an Oscar, that one shooting murderous looks around the corral full of Mexican cows, as if, perhaps, he wished it were another corral, full of Mexican bulls. Frustrated ambition, ruin, fatigue, indifference, cruelty. Evil faces, said Marina without meaning to. Those boys wouldn’t know how to love me, they’re not like my Rolando, whatever his faults may be.

But now came the most beautiful part.

They began to play Mendelssohn’s wedding march, and the first model appeared on the runway, her face covered by a veil of tulle, her hands clutching a bouquet of forget-me-nots, a crown of orange blossoms on her head, her skirt puffed out like that of a queen, like a cloud. The girls let out a collective exclamation, a sigh really, and none of them had any doubt about the person whose face was hidden by the veil: she was one of them, dark-skinned, a Mexican woman—they would have been offended if a gringa had come out in a bridal gown. The boys had to be gringos, but the brides had to be Mexican … Once they did bring out a little blond bride with blue eyes, but in the riot that ensued, the place almost burned down. Now they knew. The parade of bridal gowns featured Mexican girls, it was meant for Mexican girls: five brides in a row, modest and virginal, then one in a mock bridal outfit, a taffeta miniskirt, and at the end a naked bride, wearing only a veil, the flowers in her hands, and high heels, ready for the nuptial bed, ready to give herself. Everyone laughed and shouted, and at the end a little man dressed as a priest appeared and blessed them all, filling them with emotion, with gratitude, with the desire to come back the next Friday to see how many promises had been kept. But there at the exit were Villarreal—Don Leonardo Barroso’s man, the boss’s servant—and Beltrán Herrera—Candelaria’s lover, the union leader, a serene, dark-skinned, graying man with tender eyes, now more tender than ever behind his glasses. His moustache was wet, and he took Candelaria by the arm to whisper something in her ear. Candelaria covered her mouth to keep from screaming or weeping, but she was a solid woman, maternal to the core, intelligent, strong, and discreet. She only told Marina and Rosa Lupe, “Something terrible’s happened.”

“To whom? Where?”

“To Dinorah. Come on, she’s going home as fast as she can.”

They hurried into Herrera’s car and Villarreal repeated the story he’d heard in Don Leonardo Barroso’s office, that they were going to tear down Colonia Bellavista to build factories, were going to buy the lots for nothing and sell them for millions. What were the workers going to do? They had enough weapons to prevent an outright looting, to get some notice, to demand that they, too, reap some benefits.

“But the houses aren’t even our own,” said Candelaria.

“We could organize like renters and throw a monkey wrench into the works,” Beltrán Herrera argued.

“Not even the lots are ours, Beltrán.”

“But we’ve got rights. We can refuse to move out until they pay us something comparable to what they’re going to make on this.”

“What they’re going to do is fire all of us women from the plants…”

“Enough is enough,” said Rosa Lupe, though she didn’t really understand what was going on and was speaking just so she wouldn’t seem completely passive and so someone would clarify the anxious question in Marina’s eyes: What happened to Dinorah?

“We appreciate your loyalty,” Herrera said, squeezing Villarreal’s shoulder. Villarreal was at the wheel, his ponytail blowing behind him. “Let’s hope it doesn’t get you into big trouble.”

“This isn’t the first time I’ve passed you information, Beltrán,” said the waiter.

“No, but this is something big. We’re going to organize once and for all, spread the word.”

“The girls hardly ever join up.” Villarreal shook his head. “Now, if they were men…”

“What about me?” said Candelaria in a loud voice. “Don’t be so macho, Villarreal.”

Herrera sighed and hugged Candelaria as he looked at the nighttime landscape, the brilliant lights on the American side, the absence of streetlights on the Mexican side. Forests, textiles, mines, he said, fruit, everything disappeared in favor of the factories, all the wealth of Chihuahua, forgotten.

“Wealth that didn’t give us enough to eat or a fifth the number of jobs we have now,” declared Candelaria. “So thanks for your wealth but no thanks!”

“You think the girls will join up?”

Herrera laid his gray head next to Candelaria’s black, shiny one.

“I do.” Candelaria hung her head. “This time they’ll join up as soon as they hear.”

“The house is never clean,” Dinorah was saying from the hard bench in her adobe shack. “I don’t have the time. Just a few hours’ sleep.”

The neighbors had gathered outside, but some went in to console Dinorah. The oldest women were talking about holding a beautiful wake for the child, his flowers, his little white box, the way they did in the old days back in the villages: Candelaria brought candles but could only find a couple of Coca-Cola bottles to use as candlesticks.

The old men came too, the whole neighborhood gathered, and Candelaria’s father, standing in the doorway, wondered out loud if they were right in coming to work in Juárez, where a woman had to leave a child alone, tied like an animal to a table leg. The poor innocent kid, how could he not hurt himself? The old people pointed out that such a thing couldn’t happen in the country—families there always had someone to look after the kids, you didn’t have to tie them up, ropes were for dogs and hogs.

“My father used to tell me,” answered Candelaria’s grandfather, “that we should stay peacefully in our homes, in one place. He would stand just the way I am now, half in and half out, and say, ‘Outside this door, the world ends.’”

He said he was very old and didn’t want to see anything more.

Marina had no idea how to comfort Dinorah. Crying, she listened to Candelaria’s grandfather and felt thankful that in her house there were no memories. She was on her own and it was better to be alone in this life than to put up with the grief suffered by those who had children, like poor Dinorah, her hair a mess, her makeup smeared, her red dress wrinkled and sliding up her thighs, her knees together, her legs splayed, she who was normally so fastidious and coquettish.

Then Marina, seeing the terrible scene of death and weeping and memories, thought it wasn’t true, she wasn’t alone, she had Rolando, even if she shared him with other women. Rolando would do her the favor of taking her to the sea, somewhere, to San Diego in California or Corpus Christi in Texas or even Guaymas in Sonora, he owed it to her, she asked for nothing but to go with Rolando to see the ocean for the first time. After that he could leave her, tell her she was a pain, but he should do her that one small favor …

She left Dinorah’s shack and heard the grandfather talking about a fiesta for the strangled child. To raise everyone’s spirits, he had some liquor brought in, saying, “The good thing about these big jugs is they look full until they’re empty.”

Marina dug around in her handbag until she found the number of Rolando’s cellular phone. What did it matter to her if she got into trouble? This was a life-or-death matter. He had to know that she depended on him for one thing only, to take her to see the ocean, not to say, like Candelaria’s grandfather, that there was nothing more he wanted to see. She dialed the number, but it was busy at first, then went dead. That made her think he had heard her but hadn’t answered so he wouldn’t get her into trouble. Would he hear her when she said, Take me to the ocean, honey, I don’t want to die like Dinorah’s little kid without seeing the ocean—do me that little favor even if afterward we stop seeing each other and we break up.

The silence of the telephone disappointed her but it got her stirred up too. Rolando had no business playing around with her. She was making a commitment—why couldn’t he commit himself a little too? She was giving him an out, telling him they could put all the love they felt for each other into one weekend at the beach and then never see each other again if he wanted. But what I won’t stand for anymore is a man’s picking me up like something he’s found thrown out on the street and takes in from pity. I’m never going to allow that again, Rolando. You taught me about life. I didn’t know how much you’d taught me until Dinorah’s little boy died and Candelaria’s grandfather was there, dry and old, uprooted, but as if he’d never die, and I only want to live, really live, this moment, when I’ve saved myself from dying young and don’t want to live to be old. I’m asking you to raise me up to where you are, Rolando; let’s go up together. I’m giving you this chance, sweetheart. I know deep inside that with me you’re rising and you’re going to take me where it’s high and beautiful if you want, Rolando, and if you don’t, we’re both going to be ruined, you’re going to bring us down so we won’t even matter to ourselves.

But Rolando didn’t answer his phone. It was 11:00 p.m. and Marina made her decision.

This time she didn’t stop for an ice-cream soda at the soda fountain; she crossed the bridge, took the bus, and walked the three blocks to the motel. The people at the desk recognized her but were surprised she was there on a Friday.

“Aren’t we free to change our plans if we want?”

“I guess so,” said the receptionist with mixed irony and resignation as he handed her a key.

The place smelled of disinfectant: the halls, the stairs, even the ice and soda machines smelled of something that kills bugs, cleans bathrooms, fumigates cushions. She stopped outside the door of the room she shared with Rolando on Thursdays, wondering if she should knock or put the key in the lock. She was impatient. She inserted the key, opened the door, walked in, and heard the agonized voice of Rolando, the high voice of the gringa. She turned on the light and stood there staring at them naked in the bed.

“You’ve had a good look, now get out,” said her Don Juan.

“I’m sorry. I kept calling you on the cellular phone. Something happened that…”

She saw the phone on the dresser and pointed at it. The gringa looked at both of them and burst out laughing.

“Rolando, did you fool this poor girl?” she said through her giggles as she picked up the phone. “At least you could tell the truth to your sweethearts. It’s okay that you go into banks and office buildings with this thing in your ear or that you talk into it in restaurants and fool half the world, but why fool your girlfriends? Just look at the confusion you cause, honey,” said the gringa as she stood up and started getting dressed.

“Baby, don’t leave now … Just when we were getting along so nicely … This kid isn’t anyone…”

“You can’t let an opportunity go by, can you?” The gringa wiggled into her pantyhose. “Don’t worry, I’ll come back. It’s not so important that I’d break up with you.”

Baby picked up the cellular phone, opened up the back, and showed Marina. “Look. No batteries. It’s never had batteries. It’s just to trick people, like that song: ‘Call me on my cell phone, I look so loose, it makes me look like someone, even with no juice…’”

She tossed it onto the bed and walked out—laughing.

Marina crossed the international bridge back to Ciudad Juárez. Her feet were tired, so she took off her high, pointy shoes. The pavement still held the cold tremor of the day. But the sensation in her feet wasn’t the same as when she’d danced freely over the forbidden grass of Don Leonardo Barroso’s assembly plant.

“This city is a disaster built on chaos,” said Barroso to his daughter-in-law, Michelina, as they passed Marina, she on her way back to Juárez, they on their way to a hotel in El Paso. Michelina laughed and kissed the businessman’s ear.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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