I walk behind her. Or rather, I walk behind the two large bags that trail her, the cans and bottles inside them clunking along the sidewalk. They make too much noise for conversation, so we stay silent. My mother is not much of a talker, anyway. Some mornings though, as she sits me on her lap to brush out my tangled hair, I can convince her to tell me stories about her childhood growing up with mi Abuelo and Ita back in Mexico. But not today. Today, we have work to do.
I see yet another trash pile up ahead, one of the many in our barrio. We’ve been to this one every Saturday since we arrived in New York City three months ago, sorting through it with our thick purple gloves, finding the waste that we can turn into dimes and quarters before the Monday trash collectors come. Mama tells me at five cents per a can, this will help pay for my school clothes when I start the third grade this fall. Right now all I have are the few pieces we were able to stuff into my backpack when we left Mexico.
I wonder if she’s heard my nickname, the one the neighborhood kids snicker under their breath as they pass by the fruit stand we set up on our corner each afternoon. Sucia, they call me – the dirty one.
“Things will be different soon niña, hold your head high,” she whispers to me on the days my shoulders slump and I crouch down behind our cart to hide. When we return from the recycling plant this afternoon, she will make a big show of putting the money we collect into the pink piggy bank she bought me. She says by summer’s end, there should be enough to buy me plenty of pretty dresses.
But I hate getting up before the sun to collect cans with her, and this morning she almost had to drag me out of bed. I was right in the middle of a beautiful dream: my father was reading me a bedtime story, and I lay curled up next to him. My belly was full from Ita’s dinner of tamales with rice and beans, and tucked around my feet, so soft and snug, was my favorite blanket – the one that I had to leave behind in Mexico. Papa smelled of the cigarillos he would sometimes sneak outside to smoke…
And then my mother’s face was floating over me as she jostled me from my slumber. The dream slipped away, along with any trace of happiness I’d had. I’d tried my best to hold onto it, but like fingers intent on grasping at rays of sunshine, it couldn’t be done. The warmth of it was replaced by the cold reality of a now-dead father. Tears escaped from the corners of my eyes, betraying me, but I refused to tell Mama why. I knew it would only make her sad too. Finally she just sighed and left the room to gather up our days’ supplies, warning me that I had ten minutes to get ready.
So here I am again, spending yet another Saturday morning digging through other people’s waste. I stare down at my shoes as we continue down the sidewalk. My toes are squished together at the points, but I ignore the pain. Soon I’ll get some new ones. I am deciding what color I want them to be when the sound of a boy’s laughter off to my left grabs my attention. My head turns towards a park there where I see some kids my age playing on a merry-go-round. My steps hesitate, and then slow to a stop. Mama doesn’t notice as I walk over to the fence that separates us from them. I rest my forehead against the cool metal and slip my fingers through the holes. What would it be like to get to play with them for once? Their faces are flushed with joy and exertion as they whirl around together. I watch for a few seconds, waiting for the scolding that I know is coming since I no longer hear the scraping of the trailing cans. When I finally glance at her though, I’m surprised to see her eyes moistening too.
“I’m sorry hija, but not today.”
We continue on towards a pile of basura up ahead. The crazy neighborhood borracho is passed out next to the trash bags. Beside him lay several empty beer cans, and I can see that underneath him the sidewalk is wet. The smell of urine carries through the hot, sticky summer air, causing me to gag. Even though I know he’ll be asleep for a while, I don’t want to get too close. My mother motions me forward with her hand, but I’m frozen in place. Despite the sun beating down, chill bumps erupt on my arms. I’ve seen the way he’s looked at her before, his sickening grin full of decay. Even though I can’t understand what he says in his slurred English, I don’t think it’s very nice. Nothing will deter my mother though. She’s already ripped open the first bag and found several plastic bottles that we can turn in for cash. The odor of rotten food fills my nose, causing a renewed wave of nausea.
Her shiny, black hair is pulled back in a bun at the nape of her neck. When Papa was around, she wore it down. I think back to Chiapas again, to my favorite part of the day when Papa came home from his job at the tire factory. I’d wait for him at the kitchen window so that I could be the first to run up to him as the puerta opened. He’d scoop me up in his arms, then tickle me until I could no longer breathe. Afterwards he’d go to Mama, wrap his arms around her waist and lean in for a long kiss. She’d be cooking dinner over the stove and so he’d hang around to sneak bites of food. Grinning, she’d slap away his hand. Her eyes would sparkle as she told Papa about all her bartering triumphs from market shopping that day. Or she’d recount how one of the chickens had escaped again, her shoulders shaking with laughter as she described chasing it all up and down the calle. Nobody else could make her shine like that, not even me. I look at her deep, brown eyes now and long to see the light in them again.
The night before Papa died was the last time I’d seen her really alive. We were his princesas. When he told us that Nueva York was where we needed to be for all of our dreams to come true, we listened. Ita and Abuelo had both already passed by then, and there was no longer any reason to stay in Mexico. So we made the trip here last May, knowing that we had him to help us navigate this strange new world.
That is, until we didn’t.
One evening he was out biking, making a routine food delivery for his night job at the neighborhood pizza shop, when two men attacked him. The police caught them a couple days later, and I overheard one of the officers telling Mama that my father had died over thirty-two dollars and seventeen cents.
After Papa was gone I was sure we would head back to Chiapas, to our farm and our crazy chickens. But Mama told me our home was here now, that our casa in Mexico had been sold a few days before our move to the States. “This is your future now, hija. You must work hard in school, so that one day you can go to la universidad, and you won’t have to sell cantaloupe and mangos on the street, like me,” she said.
I watch her a moment as she works, trying to salvage the used bottles and cans, trying to salvage our dreams. I stare at the stained T-shirt which hangs loosely over pants that are two sizes too big for her, and I wonder if she feels sucia too. I walk over and bend down to tear open one of the bags beside her. I pray that what she says is true: maybe one day things will be different.
Maybe one day, we will both get to smile again.