A Trace of Life

Once, when I was a child, my grandmother told me the story of La Llorona, of how her far cry was a warning to the children of the town to stay inside. Trembling under blankets, every child remained in their home, afraid to hear the distant voice approach their window. At that young age, the only image that remained with me was that of a weeping woman roaming the streets at night, black hair covering her drowned face. This story, among others, was a behavior management tactic my family used to call an end to my brother’s and my temper tantrums. And, for the most part, they worked. I recall my grandmother sermonizing about the children of today being absent-minded, locos, mal comportados, puny, and any other word that drove this message home. Yet, she managed to deal with all five grandchildren who came before me. And there began my understanding of the woman who sat next to me: a señora who was wise and contained a world’s worth of knowledge in her mind, una abuela, a grandmother. 

At six years old, I had a pristine image of who Leticia Cortez was. When I turned seven, geopolitical borders marked an end to the physicality of family; the longing for the safety my grandma’s presence gave me found a home at the southern US-Mexico border. At 13, I was reunited with family from Mexico that crossed the border, among them the woman whose hands could cure all evil in the world. She was an abuela ready to take back her seat among the table of angels who whirled around my upbringing. It was not until later that I came to know my grandmother as anything other than a caretaker.

In 2020, the future’s uncertainty became increasingly concerning as the start of my first college semester drew near. According to my parents, it was in my best interest to take virtual classes from home. I, however, wanted to leave. And I did. Despite the disapproval of my parents and my grandmother, my desire for independence and exploration carried me across the country from Texas to Massachusetts. Here, I found the distance to be simultaneously 1) culpable for the lonesome despair that accompanied me my first year, and 2) helpful in many ways. For one, it made me miss my family, a sentiment that hadn’t visited me often before. At the same time, it granted a space that allowed for growth. Distance bestowed a new perspective that made me want to connect with my family more than ever. 

Gradually, over the span of that first year, each family member back home began to undergo metamorphosis in my mind. My father was more than just my father. At 18 years old, he had left his hometown in Mexico and traveled to Texas to work in field picking, and afterward flew across the country from state to state, summer or winter, to work. My mother held jobs as a secretary and a house cleaner as early as 15 years old. This information, which had been presented to me before, was now being perceived through new eyes, eyes which had now seen a little bit more of this world. As a result, only now was the effect of those stories life-changing. During this time, I began to think of my family as people who had endured hardships way before I existed. Doing so made me understand that even though our situations were different, the very essence of how we felt was similar. Above all my newfound connections, the most important was my grandmother, whom I missed the most. She and I both stemmed from the same root.

Leticia Cortez was once a young lady reeling through the streets of Saltillo, Coahuila. She was once lost, messy, and in pain. Her hair, styled in accordance with the decade, swayed with the wind, bringing forth a new day’s adventure. Her mind, fraught with fears of the future– a future that is now my present,– played her favorite song on repeat: Si así tu me quieres, te puedo querer / pero si no puedes ni modo, qué hacer. She sat at her desk, attentive to the teacher’s instructions. In 1974, at 20 years old, she was a student of the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, where she earned a degree in nursing. This, however, did not come easy.

By the time she got to college she already had four children of her own, my mother included. Call it tradition or circumstance, but these four children were her everything, fueling her with ardor to continue with her education. Every weekend, while her parents helped with the children, she attended class. Despite how arduous it was at times, she always knew it was worth it. The tests, essays, group studies, and end-of-semester exams, things with which I’m all too familiar now, were once her present. She doubted herself before finals; she cried, sweated, witched her school hallways, mourned the loss of opportunities, celebrated gained experience, and came home to the family she’d created. Somewhere along that path, she gained the knowledge that made her the woman I’ve always known her to be.

The word before holds so much power in our lexicon. It both constructs and limits. The perspective of oral stories is one of the past; everything that is orated has happened before, the goal being to prevent it from occurring in the after. When my grandmother told me the story of La Llorona, it was told in the past tense because the world then belonged to the woman who became the cautionary tale. The word before only extends 21 years for me. Before that, there is nothing. Of course, there was a world then, but the world from then does not belong to me. It’s all my grandmother’s. And before her, there’s another mother whose life extends years before having her only child, and so on, until we reach the very beginning of life.

Before she was my grandmother, before she was my mother’s mother, she was just a daughter of two campesinos, a dream girl for boys whose ambition did not even reach above her knee. 

Even now, far away as I am from the woman who brightens every Christmas, I feel the presence of her 20-year-old self leading me through sidewalks of new beginnings and roads back home.