To tell you the truth, the hardest thing coming to this country
wasn't the winter everyone warned me about--it was the language.
If you had to choose the most tongue-twisting way of saying you
love somebody or how much a pound for the ground round, then
say it in English. For the longest time I thought Americans must
be smarter than us Latins--because how else could they speak
such a difficult language. After a while, it struck me the other way.
Given the choice of languages, only a fool would choose to speak
English on purpose.
I guess for each one in the family it was different what was the
hardest thing. For Carlos, it was having to start all over again at
forty-five, getting a license, setting up a practice. My eldest Carla
just couldn't bear that she wasn't the know-it-all anymore. Of
course, the Americans knew their country better than she did.
Sandi got more complicated, prettier, and I suppose that made it
hard on her, discovering she was a princess just as she had lost
her island kingdom. Baby Fifi took to this place like china in a
china shop, so if anything, the hardest thing for her was hearing
the rest of us moan and complain. As for Yo, I'd have to say the
hardest thing about this country was being thrown together in
such close proximity with me.
Back on the island we lived as a clan, not as what is called
here the nuclear family, which already the name should be a hint
that you're asking for trouble cooping up related tempers in the
small explosive chambers of each other's attention. The girls used
to run with their gang of cousins, supervised--if you can call it
that--by a whole bunch of aunts and nanny-maids who had
wiped our bottoms when we were babies and now were wiping the
drool of the old people who had hired them half a century ago.
There was never any reason to clash with anyone. You didn't get
along with your mother? You had two sisters, one brother-in-law,
three brothers and their wives, thirteen nieces and nephews, a
husband, your own kids, two great-aunts, your father, a bachelor
uncle, a deaf poor relation, and a small army of housemaids to
mediate and appease--so that if you muttered under your breath,
"You bitch!" by the time it got to your mother it would sound
something like, "Pass the mango dish, please."
And this was true for Yo and me.
Back there, that one was mostly raised by the maids. She
seemed to like to hang around them more than she did her own
kin, so that if she had been darker, I would have thought she was
a changeling that got switched with my own flesh and blood.
True, from time to time we did have our run-downs--not even
three, four dozen people could always block the clashing of our
two strong wills.
But I had a trick that I played back then, not just on her, but on
all my girls, to make them behave. I called it putting on the bear.
Of course, by the time we left the island, it no longer worked there,
and it was only by mistake that it worked once here.
It started innocently enough. My mother had given me a mink
coat she used to wear when she and my father were traveling a lot
to New York for vacations away from the dictatorship. I kept it
at the back of the walk-in closet, thinking maybe someday we
would escape the hell we were living in, and I'd get to wear that
coat into freedom. Often I thought about selling it. I hadn't
married a rich man and we were always short on money.
But every time I got ready to sell it, I don't know. I'd bury my
nose in that tickling fur that still held the smell of my mother's
perfume. I'd imagine myself walking down Fifth Avenue with
lights twinkling in the shop windows and snowflakes coming
down so pretty, and I just couldn't bear to part with the coat. I'd
slip the plastic cover back over it and think, I'll hold on to it a
Then one Christmas, I thought it'd be kind of neat to dress up
for all the kids. So I draped this coat over my head with a bit of my
face poking out, and the rest of the fur falling all the way down to
my calves. I had some story worked out that Santa Claus couldn't
make it down from the North Pole, so he had sent one of his bears
My girls and their cousins took one look at me and it was like
sheets hitting a fan. They screamed and ran. No one could be
coaxed to come forward for a present. Finally, Carlos pantomined
chasing me off with a broom, and as I hurried away, I dropped my
pillowcase of goodies. Minutes later, when I walked back in,
dressed in my red organdy, the girls ran to me, "Mami! Mami! El
cuco was here!" El cuco was the Haitian boogeyman I had told
them would come and steal them away if they didn't behave.
"Really?" I said, miming surprise. "What did you do?"
The girls looked at each other, big-eyed. What could they
have done but avoid being mouthfuls for a monster with an
appetite for their toys. But Yo piped up, "I beat him and chased
Here was a little problem that was not going to go away by
itself. Often, I put Tabasco in that mouth hoping to burn away the
lies that seemed to spring from her lips. For Yo, talking was like an
exercise in what you could make up. But that night was Christmas
Eve, and the dictatorship seemed far away in some storybook
about cucos, and Carlos looked so handsome in his white
guayabera, like a rich plantation owner in an American ad for
coffee beans or cigars. Besides I felt pleased with my little trick.
From then on, especially when I heard them fighting, I threw
that coat over my head and went hooting down the hall. I'd burst
into their room, swinging my arms, calling out their names, and
they'd scream, holding on to each other, whatever fight they had
been in the middle of forgotten. Step by step, I approached, until
they were at the edge of hysterics, their little faces pale and their
eyes wide with terror. Then I flung the coat off and threw out my
arms, "It's me, Mami!"
For a minute, even though they could see it was me, they
hung back, unconvinced.
Maybe it was a mean thing to do, I don't know. After a few
times, what I was really trying to do was see if my girls had any
sense at all. I thought for sure they would catch on. But no, each
time, I fooled them. And I began to feel angry at them for being so
Yo figured it out, finally. Maybe she was five, six--I don't
know. All those years have mixed together like an old puzzle
whose box top is lost. (I don't even know anymore what picture all
those little pieces make.) As usual, I went howling into the girls'
bedroom. But this time, Yo broke loose, came right up to me, and
yanked that coat off my head. "See," she said, turning to the
others. "It is just Mami like I told you."
It was no surprise to me that she was the one who caught on.
Back in my room, I was returning the coat when I noticed
someone had been poking around in the closet. My shoes were
scattered every which way, a hat box knocked over. That closet
wasn't just any walk-in closet. It had once been a hallway between
the master bedroom and Carlos's study, but we had closed it off
on both sides in order to make a closet you could enter from either
room. It was almost always locked on account of we kept
everything valuable there. I suppose at the back of our minds,
Carlos and I always knew that one day we would have to leave
the island in a hurry and that it would be handy to have our cash
and valuables on hand. And so, I was fit to be fried seeing signs
that someone had been rifling through our hiding place.
Then it came to me who our intruder had been--Yo! Earlier, I
had seen her in Carlos's study, looking over the medical books her
father let her play with. She must have gone in our closet, and
that's how she had figured out the fur was just a fur. I was ready
to call her in and give her a large serving of my right hand when I
saw that the floorboards close to the study side had been pried
open and not exactly wedged back in place. I crawled in under the
clothes with a flashlight and lifted one of those boards. It was my
turn to go pale--stashed inside and wrapped in one of my good
towels was a serious-looking gun.
You can bet when Carlos came home, I threatened to leave him
right then and there if he didn't tell me what he was up to. I found
out more than I wanted to know.
"No harm done," Carlos kept saying. "I'll just move it to
another location tonight." And he did, wrapping it inside my fur
coat and laying the bundle on the back seat of the Buick like he
was going off to sell that coat after all. He came back late that
night, the coat over his arm, and it wasn't until the next morning
as I was hanging it up that I found the oil stains on the lining.
They looked just like dried blood.
After that, I was a case all right. Nights, I was up to four
sleeping pills to numb myself into a few hours of the skimpiest
sleep. Days I took Valium to ease that jumpy feeling. It was hell on
the wheels of our marriage having me down so much of the time.
Worst were the migraines I got practically every afternoon. I'd
have to lie down in that small, hot bedroom with the jalousies
angled shut and a wet towel on my face. Far off, I could hear the
kids yelling in their bedroom, and I'd wish I could squeeze that
bear trick one more time to terrify them into silence.
Lots of worries went through my pounding head those
afternoons. One of them that kept hammering away was that Yo
had been snooping around in that closet. If she had seen that
hidden gun, it was just a matter of time before she'd tell someone
about it. Already I could see the SIM coming to the door to drag
us away. One afternoon when I just couldn't stand it anymore, I
leapt out of my bed and called down the hall for her to come to my
room this instant.
She must have thought she was going to get it about all the
loud bickering coming from their bedroom. She hurried down the
hall already defending herself that she had plucked off Fifi's baby
doll's head only because Fifi had asked her to. "Hush now," I said,
"it's not about that!" That stopped her short. She hung back at the
door, looking around my bedroom like maybe she wasn't so sure
the bear was nothing but her mother in a fur coat after all.
I gave her a little pep talk in a soft voice--the way you talk to
babies as you stroke them till their eyes drift shut. I told her Papa
Dios in heaven could see into every one of our souls. He knew
when we were good and when we were bad. When we lied and
when we told the truth. That He could have asked us to do whatever
He wanted, but out of all the hundred million things, He had
only chosen ten holy commandments for us to obey. And one of
those ten was honor thy father and mother which meant you
shouldn't lie to them.
"So always, always, you must tell your mami the truth. I
served her a big smile of which she only returned a little slice
back. She knew something else was coming. She sat on the bed,
watching me. Just as she had seen through the fur to her mother,
now she was looking through her mother to the scared woman
inside. I let out a long sigh, and said, "Now, cuca darling, Mami
wants you to tell her what things you saw when you went looking
in the closet the other day."
"You mean the big closet?" she said, pointing down the
passageway that led from the master bedroom to the walk-in
closet and right through to her father's study.
"That very one," I said. The migraine was hammering away
inside my head, building its big house of pain.
She looked at me like she knew that admitting she had been
snooping would get her into a closet full of trouble. So, I
promised her that telling the truth this time would make her my
and God's little darling.
"I saw your coat." she said.
"That's very good," I said. "That's what I mean. What else did
you see in Mami's closet?"
"Your funny shoes," she remarked. She meant the heels with
little holes pockmarked in the leather.
"Excellent!" I said. "Mami's darling. What else?"
She went through that whole closet with the full inventory of
practically every piece of clothing I owned. My God, I thought,
give her another decade and she could work for the SIM. I lay
there, listening because what else could I do? If she hadn't really
seen anything, I didn't want to put any ideas in her head. That
one had a mouth from here to China going the long way like
"How about the floor?" I asked stupidly. "Did you see
anything in the floor?"
She shook her head in a way that didn't convince me. I went
back over the ten commandments and not lying to thy mother, and
still I couldn't flush any more information from her except my
monogrammed hankies and, oh yes, my nylons in a pleated plastic
case. I finally made her promise that if she remembered anything
else, she should come and tell Mami directly and no one else. "It
will be our little secret," I whispered to her.
Just as she was slipping out the door, she turned around and
said a curious thing. "Mami, the bear won't be coming anymore."
It was as if she were stating her part of our bargain. "Honey cuca,"
I said. "Remember, Mami was the one playing the bear. It was just
a silly joke. But no," I promised her, "that bear's gone for good.
Okay?" She nodded her approval.
As soon as the door latched shut I cried into my pillow. My
head was hurting so much. I missed not having nice things,
money and freedom. I hated being at the mercy of my own child,
but in that house we were all at the mercy of her silence from that
Isn't a story a charm? All you have to say is, And then we came to
the United States, and with that and then, you skip over four more
years of disappearing friends, sleepless nights, house arrest,
narrow escape, and then, you've got two adults and four wired-up
kids in a small, dark apartment near Columbia University. Yo must
have kept her mouth shut or no charm would have worked to get
us free of the torture chambers we kept telling the immigration
people about so they wouldn't send us back.
Not being one hundred percent sure we would get to stay--that
was the hardest thing at the beginning. Even the problem
with the English language seemed like a drop in a leaky bucket
then. It was later that I got to thinking English was the hardest
thing of all for me. But believe me, back then at the beginning, I
had my hands too full to be making choices among our
Carlos was morose. All he could think about was the
companeros he had left behind. I kept asking him what else he
could have done but stay to die with them. He was studying like
cats and dogs for his license exam. We were living on the low end
of the hog off what little savings we had left, and there was no
money coming in. I was worried how I was going to pay for the
warm clothes my kids would be needing once the cold weather set in.
The last thing I needed was their whining and fighting. Every
day it was the same question, "When are we going to go back?"
Now that we were far away and I wasn't afraid of their blurting
things out, I tried to explain. But it was as if they thought I was
lying to them with a story to make them behave. They'd listen, but
as soon as I was done, they'd start in again. They wanted to go
back to their cousins and uncles and aunts and the maids. I
thought they would feel more at home once school began. But
September, October, November, December passed by, and they
were still having nightmares and nagging me all the long days that
they wanted to go back. Go back. Go back. Go back.
I resorted to locking them in closets. That old-fashioned
apartment was full of them, deep closets with glass knobs and
those keyholes like in cartoons for detectives to look through and
big iron keys with the handle part shaped like a fleur-de-lis. I
always used the same four closets, a small one in the girls'
bedroom and the big one in mine, the broom closet in the hall, and finally
the coat closet in the living room. Which child went into which
depended on who I grabbed first where.
I wouldn't leave them in there for long. Believe me. I'd go from
door to door, like a priest taking confession, promising to let them
out the minute they calmed down and agreed to live in peace. I
don't know how it happened that Yo never got the coat closet
until that one time that I lived to regret.
I had shut them all up and gone round, letting out the baby
first, then the oldest, who was always so outraged. Then the two
middle kids, first Sandi. When I got to Yo's door, I didn't get an
answer. That scared me, and I opened that door quick. There she
stood, pale with fright. And, ay, I felt so terrible!--she had gone
in her pants.
That damn mink coat was in that closet, way to one side, but
of course, being Yo, she'd gone poking around in the dark. She
must have touched the fur and lost her bananas. I don't
understand because it had seemed she knew the fur was just a
coat. Maybe she associated me being under that coat, and here I
was on one side of the door, and there she was alone on the
other side with a monster she was sure we had left behind in the
I pulled her out and into the bathroom. She didn't cry.
No--just that low moan kids do when they go deep inside
themselves looking for the mother you haven't turned out to be
for them. All she said that whole time I was trying to clean her up
was, "You promised that bear was gone for good."
I got weepy myself. "You girls are the bears! And here I
thought all our troubles would end when we got here." I laid down
my head on my arms on the side of the bathtub, and I started
bawling. "Ay, Mami, ay," the other three joined in. They had come
to the door of the bathroom to see what was going on. "We
promise we'll be good."
Not Yo. She stood up in the water and grabbed a towel, then
stomped out of the tub. When she was out of my reach, she cried,
"I don't want to be in this crazy family!"
Even back then, she always had to have the last word.
Not a week later a social worker at the school, Sally O'Brien, calls
up and asks to make a house visit. The minute I get off the phone,
I interrogate my girls about what they might have said to this
lady. But they all swear that they have nothing to confess. I warn
them if this lady gives us a bad report we'll be sent back, and if we
are sent back, cucos and bears are going to be stuffed animals
compared to the SIM fieras that will tear us apart there. I send
them off to put on their matching polka dot dresses I made them
for coming to the United States. And then I do what I haven't
done in our six months here. I take a Valium to give this lady a
In she comes, a tall lady in flat black shoes with straps and a
blond braid down her back like a schoolgirl dressed in an old
lady's suit. She has a pleasant, un-made-up face and eyes so blue
and sincere you know they've yet to see the worst things in the
world. She carries a satchel with little hearts painted on it. Out of
it she pulls a long yellow tablet with our name already written on
it. "Is it all right if I take some notes?"
"Of course, Mrs. O'Brien." I don't know if she is a married
woman but I've decided to compliment her with a husband even if
she doesn't have one.
"Will your husband be joining us?" she asks, looking around
the room. I follow her glance since I am sure she is checking out
whether the place looks clean and adequate for raising four girls.
The coat closet I forgot to shut looms like a torture chamber.
"My husband just received his medical license. So he has been
working like a god every day, even Sunday," I add, which she
writes down in her notepad. "We have been through hard times."
I've already decided that I won't try to pretend that we're having a
ball in America, though believe it or not, that was my original plan
on how to handle this visit. I thought it would sound more
"That must be a relief!" she says, nodding her head and
looking at me. Everything she says it's like she just put the rattle in
the baby's hand and is waiting to see what the baby is going to
do with it.
I shake it, good and hard. "We are free at last," I tell her.
"Thanks to this great country which has offered us the green
cards. We cannot go back," I add. "It would be certain death."
Her eyes blink at this, and she makes a note. "I read things in
the paper," she says, bringing her braid from behind to fall down
the front of her suit. She doesn't seem the nervous type, but the
way she keeps minding that braid it's like she is getting paid to
keep it occupied. "But are things really that bad?"
And right then and there in my broken English that usually
cuts my ideas down to the wrong size, I fill her two ears full with
what is happening back on the island--homes raided, people
hauled off, torture chambers, electric prods, attacks by dogs,
fingernails pulled out. I get a little carried away and invent a few
tortures of my own--nothing the SIM hadn't thought up, I'm
sure. As I talk, she keeps wincing until her hands go up to her
forehead like she has caught one of my migraines. In a whisper
she says, "This is truly awful. You must be so worried about the
rest of your family."
I can't trust my voice to say so. I give her a little nod.
"But what I don't get is how the girls keep saying they want to
go back. That things were better there."
"They are sick of home--" I explain, but that doesn't sound
"Homesick, yes," she says.
I nod. "They are children. They do not see the forest or the
"I understand." She says it so nicely that I am convinced that
even with those untried blue eyes, she does understand. "They
can't know the horror you and your husband have lived through."
I try to keep the tears back, but of course they come. What this
lady can't know is that I'm not just crying about leaving home or
about everything we've lost, but about what's to come. It's not
really until now with the whole clan pulled away like the
foundation under a house that I wonder if the six of us will stand
"I understand, I understand," she keeps saying until I get
control of myself. "We're just concerned because the girls seem
so anxious. Especially Yolanda."
I knew it! "Has she been telling stones?"
The lady nods slowly. "Her teacher says she loves stories. But
some of the ones she tells, well--" She lets out a sigh. She tosses
her braid behind her back like she doesn't want it to hear this.
"Frankly, they are a little disturbing."
"Disturbing?" I ask. Even though I know what the word means,
it sounds worse coming out of this woman's mouth.
"Oh, she's been mentioning things ..." The lady waves her
hand vaguely. "Things like what you were describing. Kids locked
in closets and their mouths burned with lye. Bears mauling little
children." She stops a moment, maybe because of the shocked look
on my face.
"It doesn't surprise me," the woman explains. "In fact, I'm glad
she's getting it all out."
"Yes," I say. And suddenly, I am feeling such envy for my
daughter, who is able to speak of what terrifies her. I myself can't
find the words in English--or Spanish. Only the howling of the
bear I used to impersonate captures some of what I feel.
"Yo has always been full of stories." I say it like an accusation.
"Oh, but you should be proud of her," the lady says, bringing
her braid forward like she is going to defend Yo with it.
"Proud?" I say in disbelief, ready to give her all the puzzle
pieces of my mind so she gets the full picture. But then, I realize it
is no use. How can this lady with her child's eyes and her sweet
smile understand who I am and what I have been through? And
maybe this is a blessing after all. That people only know the parts
we want to tell about ourselves. Look at her. Inside that
middle-aged woman is a nervous girl playing with her braid. But
how that girl got stuck in there, and where the key is to let her
out, maybe not even she can tell?
"Who knows where Yo got that need to invent," I finally say
because I don't know what else to say.
"This has been very helpful, Laura," she says, standing up to
go. "And I want you to know if there's anything we can do to help
you all in settling in, please don't hesitate to call." She hands me a
little card, not like our calling cards back home with all your
important family names in fancy gold lettering. This one shows her
name and title and the name of the school and her phone number
in black print.
"Let me call the girls to say goodbye."
She smiles when they come out in their pretty, ironed dresses,
curtsying like I taught them. And as she bends to shake each
one's hand, I glance down at her pad on the coffee table and read
the notes she has jotted: Trauma/dictatorship/family bonds
For a moment I feel redeemed as if everything we are suffering
and everything we will suffer is the fault of the dictatorship. I
know this will be the story I tell in the future about those hard
years--how we lived in terror, how the girls were traumatized by
the experience, how many nights I got up to check on their
blankets and they screamed if I touched them.