March 23, 1976. Berta watches horrified as her lover, a union organizer named Atilio, is thrown from a window to his death by soldiers. The next day, Colonel Jorge Rafael Videla stages a coup d’état and a military dictatorship takes control of Argentina. And even though she was never a part of Atilio’s union efforts, Berta is on a list to be “disappeared.”
Fleeing to relatives in the countryside, she becomes part of the family she knows only from old photographs: Aunt Avelina, who blasts music from an old record player; Uncle Nepomuceno, who watches slugs slither in the garden every afternoon; and Uncle Javier, who sits in his tiny grocery store day and night. But soon enough, Berta realizes she must run even further to save her life—and those she has come to love.
With a prose that is light yet penetrating, Gloria Lisé has written “a beautifully simple, poetic story of solidarity and love, with memorable characters painted in the tender strokes of a watercolor” (Luisa Valenzuela, author of Black Novel with Argentines).
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About the Author
Alice Weldon is an associate professor of Spanish and co-director of the women's studies program at University of North Carolina-Asheville. Weldon has published literary criticism on Spanish American women writers and translations, including the novel Son of the Murdered Maid by Bolivian author Gaby Vallejo.
Read an Excerpt
A Pig's Head
THEY THREW HIM OFF a balcony at the headquarters of the Tucumán Federation of Sugar Cane Workers. It was Atilio Sandoval who exploded down on the sidewalk of General Paz Street that hot night, a Tucumán night with a moon like cheese, and fans, and cats on the roofs. On that night, unlike the suffocating heat already giving way to the cooling winds of fall, Atilio Sandoval, plainly and simply, did not give way, but rather faced death, wearing it like a poncho.
It was March 23, 1976, and nothing would ever be the same.
They killed him, and just like that, there he lay, on the ground, dead, changed into a mere thing. Berta looked at his shattered head, and before his blood could start stinking like the slaughterhouse, she, who knew him so well, did the same as everybody else in the vicinity: she pretended she had not seen him and making sure her face did not give away her true feelings, she crossed the square. Opposite, the statue of Hipólito Yrigoyen stood with his back to the Palace of Justice, dressed in the pocketless suit that portrayed him as the one president who had not been a thief. He, with his back to the Palace of Justice, was looking off in another direction. So was she, and more importantly, at that very moment she was promising herself that she would continue to do so from then on.
Atilio could not be offended now, nor would he have considered it an act of betrayal. He had lost, and they had crushed him just as they had sworn they would. Because of his beliefs, he had to fly off a balcony, leaving behind Tucumán, the ideals of social justice, Berta's love and embraces, and her body that had sat on that very sidewalk, listening to him address the masses from that very balcony. Yes, it was true: he had a weakness for balconies, for he was a Peronist through and through.
From now on she would look away, and it would not matter any more because Atilio would not be there to judge her lack of commitment or courage, something he had at times cursed her for, even though he knew better than anybody that she was a woman of principle.
"I shit on the history that birthed you," she said under her breath.
It was not an appropriate way to say good-bye to him; these were not the final words that should have accompanied such a love story.
But angered by the little that remained of the man on the sidewalk, she felt like attacking him with her feet and her fists, planting powerful blows on his body and face, all the while asking:
"Why? Why didn't you listen to me, why didn't we get away when we still could, why didn't all I had given you matter enough, why did you just so stubbornly keep pursuing your damn ideal of justice? Don't you see that they sold you, they turned you in, almost certainly just as you said the Bolivians did to Che when you ranted about him starting a revolution in Bolivia that the people didn't want."
"For a pig's head, the peasants handed over the comandante," he had said. And now he was the one reduced to nothing more than a flattened, one-dimensional image, grotesque, ugly, faceless, silenced forever in the few seconds that Berta knew would go round and round in her head through all the stories to follow. Now she simply had to escape, and make sure that nobody would suspect she was on the run.
She reacted as quickly as a cat in the middle of a fall. It was time to come up with unexpected visits to unknown family members, with scholarships, jobs, or commitments in faraway places. She had to leave Tucumán as quickly as she could. The last barrier had been broken, and now any and everything might happen. It was urgent: alert others, pack, waste no time on good-byes that no longer had any meaning, and look for a place in the world where she could just look off in another direction, like the Yrigoyen statue.
Like him, she had no need for pockets or huge suitcases, fashionable clothing, books, or her guitar. The time for silent screams was on its way, and the music would be locked up in her closet, along with those dresses she would not be wearing any more that would be packed away in mothballs, kept that way in hope that at some point her body would revert to what it had been and would welcome them, the dresses that would slip down over her up-stretched arms, grateful to become part of a life again.CHAPTER 2
MOTHER, I AM ON MY WAY. I was able to buy a ticket to La Rioja, on a bus that takes me through Catamarca before it gets to where you grew up.
Last night, when I got home, I could see that you had already heard about it. So I just lowered my eyes and told you it was better for me to go away, surely for only a little while.
You were waiting for me, pale and more serious than ever, wordless, because you put more faith in action than words, and you never complain. You taught me that, and it is the way we will always be.
You didn't say a word to me; you just came to me after a little while with that handful of bills, all wrapped up carefully, Mother, because that is also the way you are, you are a Riera, introverted, wrapped into yourself, a pure Riojan. You gave me your pension, and I know that was all the money you have, and your blue bag, the canvas one that you get out only when you go to the Virgen del Valle, to the hospital or clinic to give birth; it's the lucky one, you used to say.
"Get going, child. You will find something. Go as far as you can and then get word to me of how you are doing."
On my way home, I'd heard they had taken Mauro Sandoval, Atilio's brother, the one who was head of the teachers' union, and everybody assumed he would turn up dead somewhere. Because of these two tragedies in the same family on the same night, people were praying for the mother and petitioning whichever saint had the responsibility to help in situations such as this.
I could not look you squarely in the eye, for I was not the daughter you had dreamed of. I was guilty; I had failed both myself and you. Now I was leaving you alone with all my brothers; leaving you, who had dreamed that I would be a doctor, a physician, paying you back for all your sleepless nights. Instead, I was going away like a thief, shaming and frightening you. You had to keep the door half-closed and let me know when the coast was clear so that no one would see me leave.
I know you had hoped I would leave all dressed in white for my wedding, the white wedding you never had, or as a doctor leaving to go and heal people and contribute to the country's progress. I couldn't deliver all that to you, Mother; I tried but failed, and now with the dawn so near there was no time to try to fix anything. I simply had to flee to try to save my skin and get through the night, which had to be the worst one of my life, Mother.
I don't know what I put in the blue bag — a rice tortilla you made me, the first tangerines of the season, and an apple, something you had always put in my school lunch. So, Mother, yet again you sent me off to face life with an apple; "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" was the saying you repeated, but I was not hungry and thought I never would be again, and I don't remember if I even thanked you for all of it.
I debated whether to take my university notebook, unsure whether it would be dangerous or come in handy at some point, because at that stage it was not clear how things would turn out. I decided to take it and I kept it hidden in that extra seam in the bottom of the bag just in case they searched me.
We didn't say good-bye. I just lowered my head, the way I did when you scolded me as a little girl. I waited for you to complain for once in your life about this child, or shed a tear of anger, or slap me for loving Atilio so much and not listening to you. But no, Mother, instead of that, you tenderly made the sign of the cross on my forehead, like in a christening, and you told me: "Never forget, daughter, that when you were born I gave you into the protection of the Virgin and San Nicolás of Bari. Your mother is right here, but the guardian angel is going with you to take care of you for me. Remember that wherever you go, if you give with one hand, God will bless you with two, and that you are named Berta Cristina because I consecrated you to Christ. So whenever you see a Sacred Heart, know it is your mother's heart praying for you, and if you bow you will show respect to your mother and to the Mother of God."
I left then without dragging things out or making any noise because the boys were asleep. I left you, alone, surrounded by all the religious images you filled the house with, and the frying pan that I hadn't washed because I didn't have time. I left with my university notebook, where they had written my grade, the grade you wanted: "Anatomy: passed with excellence, nine." I left you with my textbooks that you were still paying for. At the door, we just looked at each other.
All I could think of to tell you was:
"Don't forget to take your medicine, Mother."
And your eyes stayed with me, your eyes full of truth. Your eyes of farewell, of good-bye forever, eyes that didn't try to hide anything, because we both knew that you were ill, terminally ill, and that I wanted to take care of you but instead I was leaving, and you didn't even hold it against me. Your eyes told me that we would never see each other again.
I am now on the bus, in the early dawn on March 24, and I see the orchards full of oranges, lemons, grapefruit, and tangerines. It is harvest time. The sugar cane is green, Tucumán is green, dark green, maddeningly green, a green so intense that it seems to be exploding with life. So I think about Atilio, who will never again hold a sour orange in his hands, never again be able to tell me how the workers and students used to pick the fruit off the trees on the square to throw at the parading soldiers, or at the old guys so they would fall off their horses during the demonstrations. Atilio will never again be able to pluck an orange and smell the sweet aroma of its skin and tell me to make orange candy, and that if I don't know how, to learn and not be an ignoramus.
I slept a few minutes and saw your hands, Mother. Now you have the hands of an old woman and you are wearing the ring that was my grandfather's, Don Celestino Riera's, the one you put on just as your own mother did when her husband died, the one he had put on his own hand when he buried his mother. I see the ring on your finger, and I wake up and see the sun rising over Santiago del Estero. I am angry about all that has happened to me and to you, and I promise you, Mother, that I am going to live so that I, too, can put on that ring; that you are going to die an old woman and I will too; that some day I will return to Tucumán, and you will be proud of this successful daughter you have. I will close your eyes and you will rest in peace, and I will live in peace, because I am the daughter of your love and your pride, the fruit of your haughtiness. I will wear the Riera ring, our only fortune, because I will make a place for that angel you believe in, that one known by only you and three old ladies who pray with you: the guardian angel, who will take care of me, because I will let it take care of me, because that is what you want.
We will go on living, I swear this to you.CHAPTER 3
A World Within a World
CONTRASTING MELODIES could be heard around the barrio of Matadero, the melodies of many people arriving from other parts looking for work in Tucumán or just passing through because of the railroad, the markets, and the possibility of menial part-time jobs in machinery and manufacturing. The place Berta was leaving was a place to start over for other people, not because it was a good place, but simply because it seemed not as bad as what they were trying to leave behind.
The Matadero slaughterhouse was fired up day and night, but by late afternoon, the chimney was spewing a bright fire that roared death and life. Livestock were headed to slaughter and workers to barely eke out a living. It was like a huge factory, an accepted hell, with the killers dressed in white from head to toe. The area was surrounded by shady money dealers and flanked by streets scarred by hundreds of carts waiting for the processed beef and the offal ... carts that, as they traveled the bumps and curves, dripped tepid blood all over the neighborhood.
There were eating places, butcher shops, blacksmiths, and general merchandise stores where rural people stocked up. These were people who wore sandals and narrow-brimmed hats, who drank wine by the liter; hard, gruff, fun-loving people who lived by the knife and horse or drove carts drawn by beasts with harnesses decked out with long leather ribbons, bejeweled with large tacks that gleamed in the early morning comings and goings or shone brightly in the midday sun that was so unhealthy for humans and animals. These people traveled from the first twinkle of a star to the first rays of dawn without complaining of the cold or the heat, a heat that could not be exaggerated. They came from the surrounding areas and from far away, bringing cattle and then carrying away the meat. They mingled with the coal carts coming from Santiago del Estero and the sugarcane carts that, in harvest season, spilled green cane that had been haphazardly and hastily loaded because of the clinging earth and the limited time set aside for milling; it was accepted that part of the cane, so wearily packed, would fall and rot along the roadways.
Along with the laborers came farm workers, the owners of small farms, truck drivers, card and dice players, other gamesters, vagrants, drunks, and all kinds of scoundrels. Some people seemed dark; others seemed light, because they lacked depth or complications, and their lives had already been sapped by the simple but precarious matter of day-to-day survival, which was no small matter. There were heavy smokers, who ate stews or empanadas at eight in the morning because for them that was already past midday, people with pasts full of deeds with knives, who didn't notice the smell of blood because they lived in it. And camps of gypsies who periodically settled in the area; to the neighbors who let them have access to water, they gave hope for travel, mystery, and gardens, because in the colorful blankets that they stretched over their tents and cars grew the only flowers in that whole vast brown neighborhood.
It was a world within another world, ignored by the police, on the outskirts of the city. Farther in was the Bridge of Sighs, full of stories about suicide for love, ghost sweethearts, hangings, countless acts of revenge or debt settlement, deaths inspired by every possible motive; and from time to time the train that crossed over the bridge knocked off a little bit more of its railings.
The neighborhood came to an end up on Juan B. Justo Avenue, where respectable Tucumán began, the part still known as "the pearl of the north." There was a neighborhood of good houses, named Bishop Piedra Buena in honor of a pro-independence priest, and the Salí River ran below, where the vegetation began to thin out until the desert took over at Santiago del Estero.
The trains marked the hours of the day, and children watched for them coming in from the south and played on the tracks, in the shadow of so many tragedies. Passengers would gather at the windows of the cars moving very slowly as they approached the San Miguel station and stare at the locals, who would in turn stare back. The passengers were people from the south, or porteños (from Buenos Aires), and northerners who were returning home, some with an arrogant manner from having traveled beyond the interior, and others with eyes showing defeat or gratitude for being able to come back.
The children could make a few pesos begging or selling biscuits or nougat prepared at home, all dry and tasteless. They asked for money from passengers at the end of their journey, who, precisely because their trip was over, did not feel they had to hang on to all their coins or did not worry that it was a waste to be charitable to the children of Matadero running alongside the train. Indeed, the visitors thought it might even bring them good luck, there where the countryside and the country estates of Tucumán, blooming with orange blossoms, gave way to poverty and misery. These were children whose parents were caught in the closing of plants and factories, whose families were piling up in a conglomeration of dark, rundown, ugly, brutal barrios.
It was in that world, among those people, that Doña Amalia del Valle Riera had found a house in Villa 9 de Julio shortly after the death of her husband. Berta was already fifteen, sheltered from all that Matadero was and stood for because her mother had made up her mind that this daughter was only passing through, that she would be a lady, one on the inside rather than the outside, or even better, a "Doctor." And each time Berta tried to play with the children of the neighborhood, her mother took her inside to her books and closing the door behind her, said:
"Remember, you are not one of those people. You are a Rojas del Pino."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Departing at Dawn"
Copyright © 2005 Gloria Lisé.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Pig's Head,
A World Within a World,
This is My Family,
Listening to the Radio,
Twenty-one Years Old,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I saw this book on LT and it looked interesting. The story of a woman, a medical student, who sees her union activist boyfriend thrown off a balcony, right before the generals take over Argentina. Fearing for her life she flees the city. Her refuge is deep in the country, with her mother's estranged family. It is set in the 70s, and deals with the oppression and terror of the new regime.The main character, Berta, talks about how her countrymen accept the take over at first, because they are tired of political strife and violence. Slowly they realize this is a different kind of dictatorship than they are used to, or expecting. The new people kidnap, torture, and kill indiscriminately. Berta is wanted because they think she has union money that her boyfriend raised. Oddly her mother and 3 brothers are never threatened or arrested. In fact the whole idea that the regime is after her is treated like an afterthought - something to explain her flight and to try to develop tension.We see her trip to the family home and how she fits in even though her mother left in anger. We see the rhythm of life and family that gives her a foundation she lacked. They were all shunned by her father's family, because he was already married when he took up with Berta's mother. He eventually marries her, but the damage has been done. Berta's maternal family are also not happy about the relationship, and her mother severs their connections. Berta's father dies, and they are left alone.Berta gets warnings from her mother and must move again. She goes even deeper into the wilderness to stay with an elderly sick uncle on the farm where they all originated. She meets the head of another family, an Indian family, they squat on the same land as her family and have for generations. The 2 families cooperate and have learned to survive. She uses her medical training and helps a local mid-wife deliver babies for poor, isolated women. Again another warning, and Berta must flee to Spain. The book tells of her arrival there, but ends rather satisfyingly. The whole book is a bit unsatisfying. The writing has flashes of beauty, but is rather amateurish. Most authors write a story to set the scene, explain the background, describe the ambiance. Lise just makes lists. Every dramatic moment, Lise makes lists of adjectives to explain things. Very poor for the story. I don't think the translator can be blamed for a lack in the writing by the author.The book is also billed as a story about the political oppression of the general's take over of Argentina in 1976. Yet the story is much more about Berta's family situation and re-connecting with her maternal family than it is about the dictatorship. Disappointing. It is very short, and that can be a good thing when the book is mediocre, but also gives no chance for depth and story development.