SanTana’s Fairy Tales
Excerpt from “Just A House”
By Sarah Rafael Garca
Doña Carmen’s house is the only thing in the neighborhood that has remained the same. Her house was so much bigger than ours. She had three bedrooms and a very big bathroom with pink tile. She also had a wooden chair to sit on her front porch where you could count all the passion and poppy flowers in her yard. Doña Carmen’s house didn’t smell like our house, gente could smell hers a block away. At least that’s what Mamá would say to Doña Carmen on days they gardened together. Mamá had her vegetable garden on the side of our house—filled with spinach, carrots, tomatoes, jalapenos, onions and cilantro. They would trade their vegetables and herbs.
The lavender near the front steps of Doña Carmen’s house grew so wide that the entrance looked half its size. In between the violet stems you could see the lime green spikes from her aloe plants. Sometimes Mamá picked lavender and pieces off the aloe for her teas. But that wasn’t all the plants, bougainvillea—the color of blood—stretched all over the left side of her house. Mamá said all those flowers were California plants. My favorites were the bowing girasoles and proud calla Lillis planted in the backyard, they reminded me of gente in our city. Back then Doña Carmen’s house didn’t have a fence so sometimes people stole her sunflowers and calla Lillis. She didn’t mind, she said as long as her flowers made people happy it wasn’t stealing. I also liked the yerba buena along the other side of her house because it smelled and tasted like breath mints.
She also had a lot of curios I couldn’t touch in her living room. I especially liked her collection of porcelain angels. Mamá used to say one day after I go to college I will be able to have a house just like Doña Carmen, with all the angels I’d collect from visiting my abuela in Zacatecas. Some angels in Doña Carmen’s living room had golden wings, others had jagged edges because someone dropped them and the wings broke. Doña Carmen said she couldn’t throw them away, it would be like ignoring the spirits who visit us on Día de los Muertos, they would just be lost in the in between world. Maybe that’s where Modesta lives too. Maybe Modesta was coming back to repay people in the next life. After that day, I asked Mamá about Modesta. She looked at me surprised.
“Mamá, who’s Modesta and why does Doña Carmen talk to her when there is no one there and she’s not on the phone? Is she talking to one of her angels?
“Did Doña Carmen tell you she was talking to Modesta?”
“No, I heard her say her name when I went to her house this morning. So do you think Doña Carmen talks to ghosts?”
“What makes you think Modesta is a ghost?”
“Mamá! Just tell me, is that old lady crazy o que?”
“Josefina María! Don’t disrespect your elders! If you want to know about Modesta I will tell you but don’t call people crazy for talking to spirits. I don’t know what they teach you at that school, but in my house we don’t talk badly of our neighbors or dismiss our ancestors. Además, Modesta is part of the history of this city, I don’t know why they don’t teach you that at school.”
I don’t remember how the rest of that day went. Even the months after flew by so fast, they all spun together like the leaves did when the Santa Ana winds hit while I walked to school or church. Mamá still makes fun of me for putting up a sign in front of the half house like Modesta put up on her family’s property.
“This half house belongs to my Mamá. And if the landlord raises the rent, he will have to let us live here for free.”
I thought it would work. I was the only one who read and wrote in English. I wrote one for Lalo and Yesenia too.
“This half house belongs to Lalo and Yesenia. And if the landlord raises the rent, he will have let them live here for free.”
They thanked me with a mango-chili lollipop and gave me a coloring book the day they moved away.
Tony moved before all of us, I didn’t try to save his art studio, especially because the new man who lived there made Mamá angry. He had noisy parties and we would find beer cans in our vegetable garden.
Doña Carmen asked me to put a sign to save her house. She even gave me paint to use instead of my crayons and taught me how to write it in Spanish too.
“This house belongs to Doña Carmen Rosas. And if the city wants to build here, they will have to pay her 10 million dollars.”
“Esta casa pertenece a doña Carmen Rosas. Y si la ciudad quiere construir aquí, tendrán que pagarle 10 millones de dólares.”
She giggled every time she saw it. She told me Modesta liked it too. Modesta never spoke to me, even though one time I lit candles and called her name three times. Mamá said Modesta didn’t need to talk to me because I was just a child. But I reminded Mamá that she was a child too when she stood up to the railroad people. Doña Carmen said Modesta also put up a clothesline to keep the railroad from being built on her land. But I didn’t need to do that, both Mamá and Doña Carmen already had a clothesline, I know because they made me hang up the wet clothes every week.
Doña Carmen did have to fight for her house. But not the kind of fight you see at school. She had to get a lawyer and go to court. She said Modesta didn’t trust any of those city people, especially the Hispanic council members who wear fancy suits. She said they are just trying to be like the gringos, some of them have forgotten their parents were once gente too.
Mamá and I eventually had to move. Señor Mike didn’t like my signs. He just told Mamá we had to remove them.
Sometimes I walk the long way home from school and pass by Doña Carmen’s house. Mamá never finds out because she’s always at work these days. I never see Doña Carmen in her garden anymore and all her flowers are gone. Her house is the only house left on that block. I like to think it was because of the sign I made to save her house. The empty lot is no longer empty. It has become apartments Mamá can’t rent because she said they ask for papers. I told her I have lots of papers and I can write anything she needs. She just ignores me.
Mamá doesn’t heal people anymore. She takes a long bus ride to the happiest place on earth but she’s never happy. The art studio is now an ice cream shop, but Don Gustavo doesn’t work there. The half house is now painted white and other people live there. They don’t know that was the only place I called home.