Poet Donato Martinez shares two works about his mother. (Scroll down for audio.)
—a mi madre
From the crack of the door
the early morning smell
of fresh tortillas,
and the sound of music
from the slap of her hands,
awaken my soul
and enter the palate of my mente.
Jefita's rebozo cradles her back
warms her innocent neck.
Her fingers sticky with masa,
forming, shaping, embracing it
into small balls of dough.
Hot coffee brewing on the stove.
Likes it hot.
Adds milk and a spoon of sugar.
Dips into it with a piece of soft bolillo
before French rolls, bagels, or croissants
came to America.
Her hands are forming tiny little miracles.
Grows yerba buena,
bathes her infants in magical mirto.
Roasts red chiles on a Oaxacan comal
crushes tomatillos on sacred Molcajetes.
Michelangelo and Rodin
would have learned a thing or two
from my Indian mother,
who loves the moods of the land,
works and toils the soft soil
with her pineapple callused hands.
cut and scratched by tunas and nopales,
pricked by rose bushes.
old and tattered from years of toil.
And every smear, smudge and stain tells a story
of how my mother came to be a sculptor.
My mother dropped out of school in the second grade.
She was raised in a pueblo and had little opportunity.
Despite the few years of school, she learned how to read and write in Spanish
learned mathematic equations
and taught her brothers how to write their names.
At 13 years old she helped raise her cousin, whose mother died at childbirth.
At 16 she married my father
and the little girl became a woman.
Quickly, she became a mother and raised her children on her own
as my father worked in the yunta.
Every day, she worried about what to feed them
and felt this pang of helplessness when they became sick.
During the summers, she went to the nearby arroyo to wash baskets of clothes.
Other days, she would haul cántaros full of water for meals and baths.
She would go to the molino for the masa on a daily basis.
Somehow she was creative in making meals with the little she had.
She immigrated with her family in 1973
and her children enrolled at the local elementary school.
She never learned English
but picked up words enough to survive
when she helped make flour tortillas at her kids’ schools.
She never had a job
except for a few scorching summers, picking grapes en los files de Fontana and Mira Loma.
With her oldest children, she arrived before the crack of dawn.
By the mid-morning sun, her cheeks became rosy red.
Her brows were smeared with dirt and sweat.
Her hair became untied and tangled underneath her hat
and the sand underneath her feet trampled her many times.
On the way home, she urged my oldest brother to drive quicker
for fear that her frijoles, slowly warming on the stove, would burn before she arrived.
My mother had her hustle.
When I was a little boy
late into the night, my mother would sneak into the bedrooms of her children.
She made sure everyone was covered with a blanket
and whispered a tiny prayer in front of every sleeping child.
My mother was the victim of my father’s anger.
She sustained many years of physical blows and verbal abuse.
He never flinched at hurting her
or hurling nasty obscenities in front of us screaming children.
She asked me about love one day. I tried to explain the feeling.
I told her I have felt it more than once.
She asked me to describe it. So I did.
With sadness in her voice, she said, “I have never known that feeling.”
Now—I steal tiny moments as I come around the corner.
I watch her write in her tiny book of prayers.
I hear her oraciones to the Virgen in the morning.
Late into the night, I see her struggle to watch her novelas while she battles with her insomnia.
Like when I was a child, I still smell the canela on the stove
the Ponds cream on her skin after an evening shower
the spicy chile in a molcajete or the warm mole in the kitchen.
On most days now, she raises and cares and scolds my father as if he were her child.
And oftentimes, he is.
I often wonder what my mother’s life would have been like
if she had not been poor, raised in a pueblo,
or married a man who didn’t know how to love.
With all that love, intelligence, and hustle.
This salt-of-the-earth woman, hecho de barro,
may have been a teacher. Or an artist.
However, she is the greatest storyteller.
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Thank you. Gracias. Tlazocamati.