by Pat Mora
Even the lights on the stage unrelenting
as the desert sun couldn’t hide the other
students, their eyes also unrelenting,
students who spoke English every night
as they ate their meat, potatoes, gravy.
Not you. In your house that smelled like
rose powder, you spoke Spanish formal
as your father, the judge without a courtroom
in the country he floated to in the dark
on a flatbed truck. He walked slow
as a hot river down the narrow hall
of your house. You never dared to race past him,
to say, “Please move,” in the language
you learned effortlessly, as you learned to run,
the language forbidden at home, though your mother
said you learned it to fight with the neighbors.
You liked winning with words. You liked
writing speeches about patriotism and democracy.
You liked all the faces looking at you, all those eyes.
“How did I do it?” you ask me now. “How did I do it
when my parents didn’t understand?”
The family story says your voice is the voice
of an aunt in Mexico, spunky as a peacock.
Family stories sing of what lives in the blood.
You told me only once about the time you went
to the state capitol, your family proud as if
you'd been named governor. But when you looked
around, the only Mexican in the auditorium,
you wanted to hide from those strange faces.
Their eyes were pinpricks, and you faked
hoarseness. You, who are never at a loss
for words, felt your breath stick in your throat
like an ice-cube. “I can't,” you whispered.
“I can't.” Yet you did. Not that day but years later.
You taught the four of us to speak up.
This is America, Mom. The undo-able is done
in the next generation. Your breath moves
through the family like the wind
moves through the trees.
~ ~ ~ ~
Poet and storyteller Pat Mora is a native of El Paso, Texas, where her Mexican grandparents settled during the Mexican Revolution (1911-1920).