In my work on Mexican Femenine Archetypes, I still love the story of my three fairy godmothers. I would like to share them with you…
La Madrina – The Godmother – Ana Consuelo Matiella
Octavio Paz once said that Mexican women had no identity of their own, and that they only existed when men woke them up. Centuries before Paz, Grimm and Andersen without ever having stepped foot in Mexico. had the same philosophy. They told us stories of sleeping princesses and damsels stuck in towers waiting to be awakened, rescued or defined by men.
As angry as it makes me to acknowledge it, I was caught in a tower too. I pretended to be a tough cookie all the while holding on to the husband of my childhood for dear life. I put up with the indignities of generations of Mexican women who were married to men who no longer wanted them because I did not want to be in the world without a husband. Then, bless his heart, Art did me a great service. He left. When I saw Art’s back as he walked out, I took a deep breath and closed the door. Then I cried for several days and waited for the earth to open up and swallow me. Soon I expected to grow a hump and turn into a hag, as if Art, by leaving me, had taken a chunk of my femininity. I was deranged. I fantasized about how much better it would have been to save some dignity through widowhood. But after a few days, the earth felt as stable as it ever felt, my back never felt better and the birds still sang.
I came to three conclusions:
One: Of all things, my house could no longer be white. I invited everyone who loved me to paint something, the walls, the chairs, the nichos, the chest of drawers – all in different colors. Golden corn yellow, Mexican rose, communist blue. Even the dog got an accidental streak of mango orange on his brow.
Two: For the sake of the two most important women in my life, my daughter and myself, I had to learn to live a joyful life without a man.
Three: I needed help.
The third conclusion was the most formidable. It wasn’t just help in the form of support I needed, not just someone to paint a wall, provide a shoulder to cry on, break Art’s legs. No, I needed a special kind of help. I needed wisdom.
The two wisest women in my life thus far had been my maternal and paternal aunts, Tía Paqui and Mamachelo. They were my madrinas, my godmothers. Paqui was an old maid and Mamachelo was a widow and both of them lived most of their lives without men. Perhaps I could conjure up some help from the memories they left behind.
The truth is that the presence of my Tía Paqui has never left me. I see her firmly in my past and in the current day clutter of books, notebooks and rolls of fabric that seem to sprout out of nowhere in my house. So on that day, the first Paqui inspired act I performed was to bake a kick-ass lemon meringue pie without a recipe, just following Paqui’s instructions. The meringue healed my soul. I then went to my basket of fabric and pulled out the pieces she left me when she died. I vowed to make something out of the green and brown print. I took the fabric and put it around my shoulders like a hug. I could feel her blessings, her smiles and her kind encouragements. I remembered the best day I ever had with Paqui and was transported to a late afternoon on a mercilessly hot summer day on Rosario Street when I was eight, or ten or maybe twelve.
Madrina # 1
My parents had taken my older brother and my baby sister on another one of their trips. (The older one was too much trouble, they said, and the younger one was too young to be left, so the middle one, that one being me, got left behind.)
They left me with my grandmother and my Tía Paqui. My grandmother was mean and crazy by then and I didn’t want to be there. My Tía Paqui worked all day and I was left alone to play with the servant girl, who was a couple of years older, but she had work to do. There were pigeons to catch, rabbits to pet and eggs to pick; there were errands to run and tea towels to embroider, but the long and the short of it was that until my Paqui got home from work, I was bored and restless and wanted to go home. Home, as I mentioned, had gotten into a 1959 Chevy station wagon and gone to Guaymas.
So there I was counting the hours and the days until my family returned to pick me up and take me back to the American side of the border where at least I had daytime television and friends to play with.
I perched myself on the corner of the garden that overlooked the street, waiting until I could see her figure coming up the hill and then I ran to meet her to take her bags and ask her what were we going to do now. The minute my Tía Paqui got home I would want to do something with her. I would want her to teach me how to make something, like a lemon meringue pie or biscuits, but it was too hot to turn the oven on. Maybe today she would teach me that new stitch, the one called, “make me if you can.” It was a difficult one that not too many women knew how to do.
She was tired, she said, and why didn’t I come with her and take a nap in her room. But I had already taken the dreaded siesta and listened to the lizards and the pigeons count the hours. I told her I was bored. I wanted to go home. I started to cry. When was my mother coming back? Why did they leave me behind again? Why could they take my sister and my brother on their stupid trips and not take me? She stroked my hair and comforted me but gave me no good reason except that my brother was trouble and my baby sister was still in diapers. That was not reason enough for me. Why should I be punished for being civilized?
That afternoon after her small nap, when the sun was beginning to leave its eternal center in the sky, she said to take a bath and get pretty because we were going out.
I put on the blue and pink print dress she made for me and my red rubber calzi-plasticos, plastic gel shoes that stuck to the hot pavement if you went out in the middle of the day. But this was not the middle of the day, it was several hours past the wretched noon; the sun was beginning to move and there was a hint of rain to keep us cool. The plastic shoes made the sound of a bouncing ball against the hard dirt as we walked down Rosario hill and into town.
When I asked where we were going she said, “You’ll see. It’s a surprise.”
I had never been to a bookstore before. In Nogales, Arizona we had a library but no bookstore. I liked the idea of a place where you could buy books and keep them. When I walked in, the first thing I became aware of was the distinctive odor. I took a deep breath and it smelled like I thought heaven would smell like, cool and moist and protected from the sun. I didn’t know at the time but the musky aroma that I smelled was ink on paper and since that day, it is one of my favorite scents. The second thing I became aware of was the jumble of books stacked on top of each other with no apparent order and no one looking over your shoulder to make sure you didn’t put them in the wrong place.
My tía explained that students came here to buy their textbooks, and that you could buy comic books, fotonovelas, magazines, novels, cookbooks and other materials in print. There were more books there than in our small library on the American side of the border, more books than I thought could fit in such a small space. We spent what seemed like not enough time browsing and she bought me a Pequeña Lulú, a Little Lulu comic book, a book on cross stitch embroidery and another on word puzzles. She also bought me a chocolate candy lollipop with caramel inside and a hard candy one shaped like a red umbrella. I was already in heaven when she took me to the corner where all the school supplies were stocked. She picked out 4 pencils, red, blue, green and yellow, a tiny clear green plastic pencil sharpener and a blue notebook with paper so thin, I thought it would tear if I touched it.
“Here,” she said, “the next time you get bored and sad and you want to go home and you can’t because there’s no one there, write in this notebook.”
“But what can I write?” I asked.
“You know how when you sit in the corner of the garden looking down into the street, there are many people that go by?”
I still didn’t understand. She said, “Write about them. You know the washerwoman that goes by, the man that carries the table of bread on his head, the beggar that goes through the garbage foraging for food? Look inside them and make up stories. Then, write them down.”
I looked at her again and she said, “That’s how all these books got started, by someone writing in a notebook just like this one.”
I believed her. In my imagination, the blue notebook with the onion skin paper became a magic treasure chest of books. I looked up and saw her gentle smile, the one that was only meant for me. When Paqui smiled at me, I felt how much she loved me, like the first time I tried on the dress with the blue and pink flowers she had made me, just like I did only a few moments before when we walked into the cluttered store and I smelled a thousand books for the first time.
What was I? Eight or ten or maybe twelve? Did Paqui know she was changing my life by taking me to a bookstore, by telling me that all writers start their writing in a blue notebook with falling apart pages of onion skin paper? Could she have known that she was casting a spell on me that day?
Walking back home with my package in my sweaty hand, hearing the sole of my cheap plastic sandal hitting the hot desert dirt like a rubber ball, the long hot summer ahead of me didn’t look so grim.
We went back to Nana’s house and I couldn’t wait to get started. Who could I write about first? There was that old woman with the cages full of parrots on her head, the one that my grandmother said was a witch and to stay away from. I could write about her. And then there was that kid Julio who died because he talked to the pigeons and the pigeons talked back. And what about that old man, Don Nacho who kept the store down the hill? His nose was huge! I could make up a story about why his nose got so big. Maybe it was because he lied like Pinocchio, maybe it was because as my uncle Romeo said, when you get old, everything shrinks except your nose.
When the dusty stationwagon showed up for me on Rosario Street to take me back to Perkins Street, I was still yearning to get back to my American home, but I had a notebook full of stories in my bag, and three pencils, one blue, one green and one red. The yellow one had worn out.
Madrina # 2
Mamachelo was the 5-minute madrina. Everything she did, including giving me advice, she did well and in the minimum amount of time. She was a widow, wore black, and traveled. She was tall, busy and smelled good. While my Tia Paqui was plain and fostered humility, Mamachelo was elegant and fostered arrogance. Like my mother, Mamachelo spoke with so much authority that you wouldn’t even think to question that what she was saying was true. She expressed an open fondness for her own intelligence and the intelligence of others. She advised us to thank God every day because none of us were stupid.
Mamachelo came around about once a month in a whirlwind of activity with my second cousins, who were her granddaughters and so lucky because they got to go to back to Spain and visit the Louvre in Paris. I lived vicariously through their pretty clothes, what I deemed as sophisticated mannerisms, and how they came and went in the pleasantries orchestrated by Mamachelo.
Mamachelo told the stories of her childhood as if they were lessons from a book. How my grandfather was so over protective that she wasn’t allowed to go to high school and how she went about the business of educating herself. She reported that even in her old age, she read voraciously in both Spanish and English. She read three things regularly: Forbes Magazine for the economic news, Time Magazine en Español, for international news, and to balance things off, Rona Barrett’s Hollywood.
We heard about how she lifted herself out of the sadness and grief of widowhood by starting new businesses, volunteering in the community and going abroad whenever she darned well pleased. She was like a Spanish Auntie Mame without the overtones of decadence.
She had high expectations and very little use for complaints. Once when I was bemoaning about some friends who were gossiping about me she said, “Don’t worry when they talk about you, dear. Worry when they don’t talk about you.”
She held me responsible for my actions, and showered me with praise when I showed initiative or creativity.
My best day with her was when I was preparing myself for my first formal dance. My father’s alcoholism was beginning to take its toll on our family and we had fallen on hard economic times. My mother had committed to making my gown, a pale aqua blue satin that she embroidered with sequined flowers. My shoes had been dyed to match; I had borrowed a beaded purse from one of my well-to-do cousins, and all I needed were some gloves. In my mind, the gloves needed to be aqua blue but we couldn’t find them in that color and to order them would have been too expensive. My mother, who had accepted a donation of a pair of long white gloves from one of her friends, insisted that white was fine but I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted aqua blue gloves. I had read an article in Seventeen magazine about dying clothes so I went to the grocery store and bought myself a couple of boxes of Ritz dye and carefully read the directions on how to create aqua blue. By some odd miracle, the gloves matched the blue of the dress to perfection. I was pleased but not as pleased as when my Mamachelo, who was on her monthly visit from Hermosillo, found the long gloves drying in the shower.
You would have thought I was Pablo Picasso’s protégé the way she went on about how well the gloves matched the exact color of the dress. She asked me how I did it and listened to me recounting my steps. She nodded with approval and said that I had a good eye for color. Not just anyone could do this, she said, why she herself had created some disastrous colors. She was proud of me she said for taking what little resources I had to make something beautiful. She was certain that I was going to be one of most elegant girls at the dance.
Mamachelo came in and out of my life quickly and effectively. I saw her perhaps once a month when she came to Nogales, Arizona to shop for American products or collect her rents, but every time she came, she stopped to know me. I felt strong under her gaze.
In a long letter before she died she told me how proud she was of me and listed all of my accomplishments, some that I didn’t even know she knew about.
After my divorce, I vowed to be more like Mamachelo. I made it a priority to work hard and travel with my daughter, stand up tall and smell good. I didn’t spend too much time whining; it wasted time and I was busy.
They say that when you are loved right, you always go back to that love in time of crisis so in my moments of despondency, I ran back to the memory of my two madrinas and I was consoled. They witnessed all my sacraments, my baptism, my confirmation and my marriage. There was only one problem. They were both dead. What I needed now was a living madrina, one that would witness the sacrament of divorce.
Madrina # 3
Dr. Lee Little
My friend Karen, who was one of my lifelines during my divorce, understood what I was looking for and she told me about a psychotherapist she knew. She said she grew dahlias and had hair like mine and thought we might hit it off. Dahlias are the most magnificent flowers on earth and not too many women have hair like mine so I called and made an appointment.
From the moment Lee gave me directions on how to find her, in a small white house in an old compound on Canyon Road, I knew that I had arrived in a place where I could find healing. Like Mamachelo and Paqui, Lee had a quick wit and a sense of humor. Her one-liners were salve to the wound.
One of the things that you can become infected with in Santa Fe is the new age philosophy that can be as helpful as annoying. I am vulnerable to these kinds of gimmicks because some of my family members were psychic, some of them were superstitious; and some of them were just plain nuts and to this day I don’t have the discernment to tell them apart.
In my hour of need, I was pulling out all the stops. A friend of mine told me that I needed to bring good chi into my home and so recommended that I install a small pond that re-circulated water in the pathway that lead to the entrance of my home. After going about the business of setting up the pond, I was to buy three gold fish and assign a good intention to each one. The three little critters were going to aid me in my journey to recovery, clean the atmosphere and bring in good energy.
Three days later, my daughter and I came home from our long day in town and the three goldfish were floating belly up on the re-circulating water.
All Sixteen Year Old Daughter could say as she passed the catastrophe was, “Now, that can’t be good.”
I was devastated. Three gold fish with three good intentions dead in three days! How could this happen and what could it mean?
The next day was my first session with Lee and I came in with my heart in my throat. I sat down and recounted that the three goldfish died in three days; I told her about the three intentions and looked at her with anticipation. She had a serene look in her eyes and didn’t say a word.
“Well?” I said, eager to know what she thought. “What do you think this means?”
She shook her head softly and said, “Dear, sometimes a dead gold fish is just a dead goldfish.”
I burst out laughing and I knew that I had come to the right place.
I went on to tell her that I wanted to hire Moo Gonzalez to break Art’s legs. “Just save your venom for me,” she said.
And that is what I did. I would go in foaming at the mouth and come out feeling cleansed. I purposefully saved my venom for Lee, as she recommended, so that I would not contaminate my daughter with my anger at her father, a decent father whom she adored. Lee’s little white house was the place where I would go to separate my “stuff” so that Sara and I could grow in our separate ways. Whenever I went in worried about Sara’s adolescence, Lee would say, “We know she’s fine, but how are you?” And although Sara never went to Lee herself, she knew that Lee was in her corner. Whenever I got too intrusive or frantic about setting curfews or other limits, my daughter would say, “Ask Lee what she has to say about this.” Sara intuitively trusted Lee to guide her distraught mother in the right direction.
Lee grew dahlias and had hair like mine. I told her once that she was the Jewish mother I never had. She smiled and called me Honey from then on. She witnessed the sacrament of my divorce, the divorce of a woman who thought she was a tough cookie until she realized that she was snagged in a tower.
Unlike Sr. Paz’s archetype of the Mexican woman who only existed when men woke them up, I would point out that this Mexican woman had at least three wise women facilitate her awakening. I would also challenge Señor Grimm and his crony Andersen and tell them that they were remiss in their recounting the stories of stranded young maidens. If they had just come in a little closer, they would have seen that it was not just the prince, the king or the kind woodsman who saved the girl. Fairy godmothers had a hand in it too.