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A Special Supplement: A Death in the Sanchez Family

By this time someone had picked my aunt up off the floor and laid her on the bed. They had cleaned off the blood, and a woman, one of those old hags, had mopped the blood off the floor so that it looked a little cleaner.

My brother left to see about the funeral and in a little while my wife and my godmother arrived, bringing my son with them.

Don’t come in, Andrea,” I said, “because it might harm the boy.”

Ay, whatever you say.”

What happened, Roberto?” asked my godmother.

What do you think, godmother? The last one left to me of my mother’s family has gone. And, look, now we need money for the burial.”

I brought only 100 pesos with me,” she said, “but I have another 150 pesos at home.” I accepted the loan of 250 pesos, but I told her, “Look, I don’t expect to have any money until December, and I’m not sure of that yet.”

What about your brother?”

All the poor fellow has right now is ten or fifteen pesos in his pocket. So what are we going to do?”

At least you have the 250 pesos. Here are 100, and I’ll go home right now and bring the other 150.” When she left I said to my wife, “Look, Andrea, here are 70 pesos. Take the boy to Dr. Ramón and buy the milk and whatever else you need. And send a telegram to my sister Consuelo.” I wondered if we should also notify my sister Marta in Acapulco, but I decided that with all those small children she wouldn’t be able to come anyway, and the news would only make her unhappy.

By this time my aunt was already in the coffin. When Gaspar returned from the hospital, where he had been to get the death certificate, I said, “Hombre, what happened? Who brought this?”

I did, señor Roberto,” he said. “It was the cheapest one I could find. At first the fellow at the Burial Agency wanted six hundred pesos for the complete service, with a hearse and a bus and everything, but I told him, ‘Six hundred! Excuse me, but I haven’t got that kind of money. It’s a lot for a man like me. I’m going where it will be cheaper.’ So he called me back and said, ‘All right, seeing it’s you, I’ll do it for four hundred.’ ”

Gaspar began to cry. That man was always crying! It made me angry. Honestly, I felt it wasn’t the man who was crying but the hypocrite.

Calm down, Gaspar, I feel her loss more deeply than you and I feel like crying too. But you don’t gain anything by crying. What we have to do is get things done.”

Well, I brought the coffin,” he said.

Did you pay something down?”

No. They told me at the Agency that as I was so poor they would give me until Monday to get the money together.”

It is Saturday now—three days of mourning for my aunt. All right, 400 pesos is less than I expected.”

Matilde and Pancho had offered to take up a collection among the news vendors. At about seven o’clock Pancho’s sister came in and I said to her, “Will you do me a favor? Go buy me some flowers and some candles for my aunt.”

Yes, gladly.” I gave her thirty pesos and she brought me back sixty centavos in change because the flowers and candles cost twenty-nine pesos and forty centavos. I waited for Matilde’s return to give her money to buy coffee, sugar, bread and charcoal and to get some chinchol to spike the coffee for the mourners.

By nighttime, we were ready to begin the wake.

Consuelo:

Señorita Consuelo Sánchez, Avenida del Sol, Nuevo Laredo.” The telegram was short: “Come by plane if you can. Aunt Guadalupe died this morning.”

You cannot imagine the shock it gave me. I had expected this blow, but I had trusted that when it came I would be there in time to say goodbye. After I read the telegram several times I sat down at my beloved typewriter. Usually it comforts me; it is the thing that brings self-respect and order to my life. But now I felt depressed, rejected, vastly alone. Two days before, on November 1, All Soul’s Day, when I took my four nieces and nephews to church, I had knelt before the altar and had begged Christ to let me see my aunt before her end came. Then I looked directly at Saint Martin on his marble pedestal surrounded by lighted candles and I said to him, “Brother Martin of Porres, if it is true that you can perform miracles, I challenge you to heal my aunt—overnight. That is the only thing that will make me believe in you.”

Saint Martin didn’t take up my challenge and now I scolded him, “You are bad. I don’t love you. You revenged yourself. Why? Why? I prayed so hard.”

What can I say to express the pain that has drained away the last drop of joy from my heart? I have never been able to accept death the way it comes to people in my class. We are all going to die, yes, but why in such inhuman, miserable conditions? I’ve always thought there was no need for the poor to die like that. Their struggle is so tremendous…so titanic…no, no, it isn’t fair. I refuse to resign myself to death in that tragic form.

There are authors who have written that the Mexican cares nothing about life and knows how to face death. There are jokes and sayings and songs about it but I would like to see those famous writers in our place, undergoing the terrible, hideous sufferings we do, and then see if they are able to accept the death of any one of us with a smile on their lips. It’s all a big lie. The way I see it, there’s nothing charming about death nor is it something we have become accustomed to because we celebrate fiestas for the dead or because we eat candy skulls or play with toy skeletons.

Maybe the older generation did have a philosophy of not attaching great importance to death but I believe that was the result of the suppression they were subjected to by the church. The church condemned them in their own minds by making them believe they were worthless and that they could achieve nothing here on earth, that they would get their reward in eternity. Their minds were completely crushed and they had no hopes or illusions of any kind. I mean to say they were dead while still alive.

Life holds no pleasure for me anymore. I expect nothing here in my tierra, my own land. Why do we insist on carrying on that absurd masquerade, the gigantic lie that hides the real truth here in this “republic” of Mexico? “We, the Mexicans,” amid “this prospering beauty with its politically strong, economically solid foundation….” Oh, yes, we are making progress. We are advancing in technology and science; the steel structures are rising over the corpses. Everybody knows that the peasants and the poor in the cities are being killed by starvation or other means…that they are being weakened. An entire generation is disappearing in an unforgivable fashion. I can no longer bear to see how they are humiliated and how they die.

Now my viejita, my little old lady, is dead. She had lived in a humble little nest full of lice, rats, filth and garbage, hidden among the folds of the formal gown of that elegant lady, Mexico City. In that “solid foundation” my aunt ate, slept, loved, and suffered. She swept the yard every day at six in the morning for fifteen pesos a month, unplugged the drains of the vecindad for two pesos more and washed a dozen pieces of laundry for three. For three times eight cents, North American, she kneeled at the washtub from seven in the morning until six at night. Besides all this, to be sure of something to eat, she would go from neighbor to neighbor minding the children for a mother who had just given birth, washing dishes and diapers, or scraping floors with steel wool and sandpaper, in return for which she might receive a taco which she would share with her compañero, Gaspar or with some other hungry person. She even managed to find something to feed her dog.

It would have been absurd to call her “saint” but that’s what she was. So gentle, so kind, so meek…she was incapable of insubordination to her masters, even to ask for the help to which she had a right. She was always ready to obey, always ready to serve. She revered the designs of God, unquestioningly following His commandments. Saints become saints because of their suffering. Well, she suffered martyrdom from the time they named her Guadalupe. Mexico, how can I love you when you devour those as defenseless as she?

Now we are free of that burden. She who was born “when the peaches were ripe…in the year…figure out how long ago it was, old man,” she would say to my uncle. She who travelled with the guerrillas in the revolution, washing and ironing for “my General with the earring, my General Angeles…he was very particular.” She, the last link to our dead mother, is now gone, slipping away from the edge of our lives along which she had passed on tiptoe.

I rested my head on the typewriter for a long time. The children paid no attention to me. They didn’t even notice that I was upset. Poor little orphans! They suffered so much to get so little. Knowing what future their lives would take if they were left in their father’s house, I brought them back to Nuevo Laredo with me. So there were four others to share my meager typist’s earnings. How I wanted to help them have a better life and how difficult it has been!

I thought of how badly my brothers had behaved toward my aunt, she who had given Manuel a home when he had married his first wife and who had taken in Roberto from prison when our father would not touch him. Two weeks before, in Mexico City, I had asked Roberto very specially to write me about her. That was after I had taken her to the doctor who said she needed an operation and analysis to find out whether she had cancer. I was angry with everyone for not telling me sooner, for waiting until everything was over.

It was Sunday and the bank was closed so I borrowed money from a neighbor for my ticket and a telegram: “Leaving by bus at two. Meet me.” It was not until Mariquita saw me folding my black dress into my suitcase that she asked, “Are you leaving, aunt?”

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