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Book Excerpts

Book Excerpts from Count On Me: Tales of Sisterhoods and Fierce Friendships

 

Las Comais

by Esmeralda Santiago

 After she’d had seven children, and the youngest, Raymond, was four, Mami found a job in a garment factory in the next town. The comadres didn’t approve of her working outside her home. They ridiculed her for wearing a girdle, straight skirts, and high heels. They made nasty comments about how she curled her hair, powdered and colored her cheeks, and wore lipstick. They claimed she abandoned her children, and complained that we were running wild around the barrio. It was true that with Mami at work we were freer of her strict rules, but we weren’t alone. Mami hired doña Ana’s daughter to watch and feed us until she came home from work.

They could be spiteful, but the comadres couldn’t hold grudges for long because they might need each other at any moment. When comai Zena’s father fell ill, the comadres took turns nursing him, washing the linens, offering meals from their kitchens. It was the comadres who prepared the body and the house for the wake, and led the novenas after the funeral.

One year, the comadres and their families, including the husbands, hunkered behind the reinforced doors and windows of comai Ana’s cement house. The hurricane that raced throughPuerto Ricothat summer devastated the vegetable plots and gardens, destroyed homes, killed cattle, pigs, and horses, and felled fruit trees in every direction. Over the next weeks, the comadres shared what was in their pantries. Their husbands and sons formed work brigades to rebuild one another’s houses. The comadres organized the children to pick branches for kindling, and to clear the detritus the hurricane had deposited in our yards and on the road.

Near the mango tree, I found a strange metal object with four wheels. Papi said it was a roller skate and guessed this one had flown in the hurricane’s winds all the way from San Juan, where there were sidewalks. He gave me a cord so that I could tie it to my foot. Because there was no pavement until we reached the main road, the only place where I could ride my roller skate was on doña Ana’s cement porch. Mami held me as I balanced on one leg, and soon I was able to ride back and forth without falling. When tired of riding on the right leg, I switched to the left foot. The other kids lined up to take rides on the skate, and we spent hours rolling from here to there and back in doña Ana’s porch. We tried to outdo one another with tricks. We squatted over the skate with the free leg in front, or in our version of a ballet arabesque, balancing while the other leg stretched behind. The comadres watched and applauded, but just as often, had to pick us up from the hard floor when a particular maroma didn’t quite work as we had hoped.

Sana, sana, colita de rana, si no sana hoy, se sanará mañana.

Somehow a comadres’ voice singing a silly rhyme made us feel better, especially when accompanied by a tight hug and a kiss.
 

Road Sisters

by Stephanie Elizondo Griest

I had met Daphne a week ago, but didn’t know what to make of her. Born in Brazil, raised in Venezuelaand England, educated in the States, and trained in international aide relief in Africa, she was possibly the worldliest person I’d ever encountered, yet she approached each new destination on our road trip with the ecstatic enthusiasm of a novice. Her tongue was pierced and she bore a tattoo, implying a certain rebelliousness, yet she dutifully documented our mileage, filed our receipts, and cleaned out our 1981 Honda Hatchback each day. She was spontaneous but methodical, free-spirited but meticulous, gregarious but intimate, equally prone to laughter and tears. Who was this Brazilian badass, and why was she so fascinated by my life back inCorpus Christi,Texas?

“You were a Tigerette in high school? Like with pom-poms?” she asked for the twentieth time, a smile on her lips.

Was she—to use the British phrase she’d taught me—taking the piss out of me? Or was she genuinely interested? I wasn’t accustomed to someone so sophisticated being so curious.

“Yes, pom-poms. Sequined cowboy hats, too. But like I said, we weren’t cheerleaders. We were dancers.”

…..Any minute now, the sun was going to slip behind that faraway butte, and then we’d be driving in darkness. What if we missed the turn? Earlier that day, we had passed truckloads of Navajos who had stopped and poked their heads out their windows to check on us. (Bertha—our Honda—was visibly struggling along the dirt roads.) They confirmed we were headed in the right direction. Chilchinbito, straight ahead. Yet we hadn’t passed more than the occasional goat in miles. And the temperature was dropping at an alarming rate. This desert valley would soon be blue cold.

….

“Aha!” she said. “I see a hogan.”

…As Daphne pulled into the settlement, Bertha sputtered to a halt and started smoking. Chilchinbito or not, we were staying here for the night.

A middle-aged Navajo woman stepped out of a doorway, curious about the commotion. She wore a T-shirt of a howling coyote and baggy jeans. No time to strategize: We hustled over to greet her. When her gaze caught mine, my mouth parched—but not Daphne’s. Beaming broadly, she launched into our story. How we were from The Odyssey, a team of eight correspondents driving four cars thousands of miles across the nation to document the history so often omitted from classroom textbooks: slave rebellions, migrant workers, Japanese internment camps, the American Indian Movement. How we uploaded these stories onto a nonprofit website monitored by hundreds of thousands of K–12 students around the world. How we did all of this on a fifteen-dollar daily budget, which is why we needed to find the Cowboys of Chilchinbito, so we’d have a place to stay the night.

“The Cowboys?” the woman asked. “They’re our cousins.”

Daphne flung open her arms, as if to say ¡Familia! “Danny told us we’d find you!”

Not exactly.
 

Compadres

by Luis Alberto Urrea

I left again. I had a life to lead, I had books to write, I had my own mistakes and bad mojo to confront. But this time I left her with her first bank account. The bankers didn’t want her to enter when we went downtown—she wore her best shiny gold lame slippers. They stopped us at the door, this odd couple: the tiny Indian woman (Tarascan) and the big Irish-looking Spanish-speaking dude holding a baby. What must they have thought?

The bank manager, a nasty little bastard in a tight suit and bleached hair stopped us and said Negra could not enter. I could. But, really, what were we thinking bringing her type to the bank? I fanned out $1,200 in American twenties and said, “This is hers. Can she come in now?”

Oh, the bowing; oh, the manners.

I also had Western Union, that mainstay of the remittance money tide that floodedMexico. “La Western,” they called it. Negra would call me collect from a payphone near the little bodega in Juan Rulfo and tell me how much she needed.

When I returned, I returned because National Public Radio wanted me to find her. A producer followed me around with a mic and a recorder. It was, again, surreal. And this was the era when Negra made her impossible six hundred dollars for talking.

We were put up in the ritzy Camino Real. By any measure, a fancy hotel. Negra was too scared of the rich people to go alone, so she took her eldest daughter, Nayeli. They put on their best clothes, and we arrived at the hotel, and they balked at the escalator. They had not ridden escalators.

As we rose, and the great marble walls and the overhead lights revealed themselves, Negra turned to me and said, “I don’t belong here, compadre.”

“Why not?”

“We are poor.”

I said, “The only difference between you and these cabrones is that they have money.”

We entered the vast lobby, and there, to Negra and Nayeli’s shock, sat several Mexican telenovela actors. One guy with silver hair was reading a magazine, and they gasped, “Es Don ____!”

“Go say hello,” I suggested.

“We can’t!”

“Go on. He’ll love it.”

“Ay, Luis!”

…. We entered their room and two things happened immediately: Negra went to the beds and felt the mattresses while Nayeli went right to the bathroom and turned on the water in the bathtub to see it spill out. The next thing that happened was Nayeli, falling on the bed, and asking, “Luis, how do we get MTV?”

They were hungry. I showed them the room service menu. It had pictures of the food.

“But we have no money.”

“Your hosts will pay.”

Nayeli found pizzas. She called them “piksas.” I showed her the number to call and went next door to my room. A few minutes later, my phone rang—it was Nayeli.

“What number do I dial to order ice cream?” she asked.

 

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