A mother’s flight into the desert

An excerpt from Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me.


"Balance" shows a connection between humans and other lifeforms on The World Wall, a traveling mural installation.
Judith Baca
And the woman fled into the desert, there to be cared for, for 1,260 days, in a place which God had prepared for her.

—Revelation 12:6

It is over a decade since I left Chicago to live in the Chihuahuan Desert.

My home sits on a mesa. From the mistress bedroom, windows facing east, I have a view of the ­Franklin Mountains. The Franklins comprise a small range that extends from the state line of New Mexico through El Paso, ­Texas. They may well be over a billion years old.

Sitting on my bed, laptop propped, I have watched those low mountains throughout entire days, from sunrise to sunset, during heavy rains, obscured by dust storms, and throughout many clear days. As the mesa declines, there are the verdant crops of small farms in summer and, farthest below, the town of Anthony. It serves as the dividing line between New Mexico and Texas. To the south is El Paso and to the north are the colonias — villages that lead to Las Cruces.

Before the few pine trees around the house were nearly all annihilated by blight, there was a symphony of birds’ songs from dawn until dusk. When I had more trees, I watched the myriad of birds headed to nest and settle in for the night. The same chickadee woke me each day before sunrise. And throughout the day, chirps did indeed fill my heart with song. The light of the desert accompanies me, too. There’s nothing like it. In summer, so bright and combined with the heat, however, the sun makes you feel as if you’ve had your eyelids peeled back. I swear there is such a thing as eyeball burn. But mostly the light seems to play tricks on you. See the way it hits the wall there? See how it has changed the room since the morning? Outdoors, all of desert nature is in high relief. Periodically, you can hear the whistle of the Rio Grande and El Paso Railroad Co. trains rumbling through at a distance.

One warm night I was driving up the mesa to my casita. Suddenly my eye caught the shimmering of small lights out on a field, like a slow flurry of large fireflies. Along the dirt road, old cars were parked. Here and there a woman stood outside rocking a child. It was onion-picking season. Because of the excruciating heat, people were hired to work at night. The fireflies were miners’ lights strapped around their foreheads. At night, milder temperatures eased the backbreaking repetitive effort of pulling onions out of the earth, though you might also run across a rattler, scorpion, spider or other nighttime prowler.

Although before this recent life I was mostly a city dweller, I do have early memories that were triggered by those field workers. My mother’s younger sister was widowed very young. Tía Flora was born in Mexico City but moved near the border of Laredo and lived in Nuevo Laredo in her late teens, joining my mother and their grandparents, who had migrated earlier. The sisters were orphans. My aunt’s second husband, a card-carrying Tejano, came from a farmworker family. They migrated throughout the year following the crops. Every summer they made it to Indiana, which is close to Chicago, where I am from, and they stayed in the labor camp. From the visits we paid to see my Tía Flora’s in-laws in summer during tomato season in Indiana, I vividly recall the conditions that Mexicans and American Mexicans experienced in the camps. While picking the fruits and vegetables that would stock grocery shelves and would be sent to canneries (where more Mexicans worked) and eventually reached American tables, the workers existed in squalor.

I don’t like to think of those labor-camp visits. Although I was just a kid, una escuincle of 6 or 8 years of age, not knowing anything from anything else, growing up in a deteriorated neighborhood in Chicago that was about to get torn down, I knew the place that family was staying in was perpetually dark. It was a scary, dismal place for a child. A bulb hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room. I don’t recollect any windows. There was no refrigeration and no outlets for fans. Maybe six adults slept in that room. In Chicago, in our flat, we had big rats that chased the housecat. Sometimes kerosene ran out on winter nights and we slept with layers of clothes on, but the labor camp brought Mexican daily life to a different ­dimension.

At the labor camp, as opposed to the ranch house, there was no doubt it was a Mexican world. Perhaps there was a hot plate for the doña’s tortilla-making, my tía’s traveling mother-in-law. As for running water, I remember a large communal something that in my mind’s faded memory looks like a trough. In my head, I hear people laughing at that trough as they come with their bushels of picked tomatoes.

The workers were paid by the bushel. Children were paid less than adults for the same bushel. I see the sun-grazed faces of brown children, the faces of my older half-siblings among them. My mother sent them, around 11 or 13 years old, to work for a few weeks in summer. Instead of going away to summer camp for free with Jane Addams’ Hull House, they were picking fruit for a few cents a bushel.


Ana Castillo is reunited with her son.
Courtesy Ana Castillo

I set upon a novel (eventually it became Give It to Me) to restore humor to my soul. With the startling red-orange sun making its ritual descent behind the flat horizon each night, while below in town twinkling lights went on in the Escándalo Night Club, I stayed at my computer and tried to find the funny in living. While I worked hard at writing humor, my life was not funny, not even in the ironic way one might say, “Funny, you should say that. …”

To begin with, Mi’jo, several years out of college, was in jail. Since I had a cousin who served a sentence of 21 years, the two-year penalty my son received seemed merciful to a mother’s heart. That summer, midway through his incarceration, it felt like 21 years.

In the evenings, after a day’s work, I took advantage of the government-granted privilege of communication and sent my only child long electronic missives. I could write to him as much and as often as I wanted and not have to wait long for a response. Moreover, I could tell him everything that was on my mind. The emails were being read, of course, but what did a brokenhearted mother have to hide? With utter self-indulgence, I didn’t hold back the hurt, confusion, and anger I’d had over his decisions. All the ranting may have done little to brighten my son’s days, but it became a kind of release for me before bed.

At times, my son’s and my exchanges were not fraught with futile regrets or reproaches but filled with discussions about writing, books and music. From prison he began to write for my new arts and literary zine, La Tolteca. He won a writing award from PEN designated for the incarcerated. It wouldn’t go on his résumé later on — he had enough going against him with a record — but a writer getting an award from PEN is worth noting. He was in his own hell that summer. The inescapable heat and loneliness and the anguish of my son’s nonsensical loss of freedom meant I was in a purgatory of my own.

That summer, I stayed at my desk until late when sleep finally came to me. Mi’jo’s incarceration, for unarmed robbery, tormented me, and I thought a lot about the bizarre 10-year journey of Odysseus while his mother dwelled as a ­shadow in Hades.

My son was no hero, to be sure. He was born to no throne. Nevertheless, I would hang in there and wait out his absence.

My understanding of the story of The Odyssey is limited. (Unlike my son, who read Homer in high school, I graduated from a secretarial school for girls that stressed typing speed above all else.) I have no formal studies in the classics. Nevertheless, from a rudimentary understanding, the story of Odysseus, like most mythology, intrigued me.

Anticlea, the mother of Odysseus, gave up on her son’s return from the Trojan War; she died of grief. My son was no hero, to be sure. He was born to no throne. Nevertheless, I would hang in there and wait out his absence.

In myths, I have searched for the cultural seeds that make up men, women and other wondrous creatures. In reading the story of Odysseus, I tried to understand how in every journey a man or woman was both hero and anti-hero at varying times.

Years before, I taught a feminist class at a university using Joseph Campbell’s model of the hero’s journey to becoming savior or king. It was dismaying or perhaps, in the end, challenging, that I had to adjust women’s history on such a journey. Women did not share the linear narrative to leader (or failed potential leader). Instead, female archetypes had three life stages: lovely maiden, fertile mother, and (sterile, hunchbacked, saggy, wild-haired, banished-from-the-village-to-a-hut-where-she-concocted-poisons-to-harm-men-unworthy-of-love-although-wise-and-yet-despised-for-her-wisdom) crone. Me, in other words.

Looking around, there I was, living in isolation at the edge of the world, which is what desert, sea and sky have been to us for ages. I didn’t concoct spells like the village witch, but I did enjoy cool herbal tea. As for the bad body image older women were presented with in myths and fairy tales, I swam every day, rode horseback, and was on a dark green veggie-juice diet. I was not entirely something out of Grimm’s fairy tales. Nevertheless, the role of mothers in myth (and now for me in reality), which seemed to be standing on the sidelines, wringing our hands watching the lives of grown children unfold, seemed unavoidable.

Anticlea got very little time in the imagination of the patriarchs. In The Odyssey, she has died — but not of old age or illness. It is speculated by some that she took her own life after being told the lie that her son was dead. I sympathized.

There were instances during that period when patriarchy no less affected me. To begin with, when a child fails, at any stage, in any way, eyes turn to the mother. The chorus (certain family members, immediate community, society in general), with few exceptions, appeared to point fingers at me, as if to demand my banishment. After all, to me had been left the duty to produce a king or a hero. I imagined the whispers — what more could anyone expect from a woman who left a husband and who, furthermore, behaved as if she had no use for men? How dare she think she could walk about and be as liberated as any man? No wonder her son turned out such a disappointment. What male role model had he had? These toxic thoughts echoed in my skull the whole of his incarceration.

When I wasn’t sensing that others blamed me, I blamed myself.


Generations of women hold candles, depicting the beginning of a society’s movement toward peace, in a painting titled "Triumph of the Hearts."
Judith Bac

There are military surveillance planes from the White Sands Missile Range or Fort Bliss that fly overhead occasionally, intruding on the isolation. When the mares of my modest (near-barren) ranchito are let out of their corral, there is nothing more exciting than the sounds of their hooves against the sandy floor as they run free. Sometimes winds carry the yells of the neighbors playing basketball; I hear the thump-thump of dribbling and the banter of boys becoming men. There used to be a small grove of pecan trees next door to me. The tree keepers who resided in a trailer on that land would every now and then raise a ruckus with a family party. Mexican banda or norteño music played. Kids shouted from an inflatable bounce house, drunk male voices carried over, everything blaring against the stark light of the desert until dark. Disrupting my peace and the illusion that there I was free from gauche society, it all used to annoy me. Then the lovely grove went dry — the drought. The family moved out and their decrepit trailer was razed. Now, when I think of it all, I miss the vitality of those families; they lived unfettered by pretenses. I don’t miss their dogs.

The stark light fades to black slowly, leaving in its wake dogs barking and the occasional howling of coyotes. The dogs lie about all day, and after dark join the canine choir throughout the mesa. In winter (a winter that seems to grow longer and colder each year), they come inside and throw themselves down in front of the wood-burning stove in the living room. If permitted by the smallest one that sleeps with me, they sneak into my bedroom and loll around the bed. We all listen to the barking of less fortunate dogs left outside and howling coyotes until we go to sleep in the lonesome quiet of the desert.

Excerpted from Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and MeThe Feminist Press at CUNY (May 10, 2016) $16.95

Ana Castillo is a celebrated poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, editor, playwright, translator and scholar. Born and raised in Chicago, she is the author of So Far From God, The Guardians and Peel My Love like an Onion.

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