The Daughters Left Behind

The piece below is excerpted from Knitting the Fog by Claudia D. Hernandez. © 2019 by the author and reprinted with permission from Feminist Press.


Mamá didn’t have the courage to wake me up at 5 in the morning the day she left illegally for the United States. Tía Soila saw her sitting in the dark, caressing my face and whispering in my ear how much she loved me. Even though I was asleep, trapped in a dream, I remember hearing her distant voice: “I adore you, my sompopito!” Why didn’t I force my eyes open? When I woke up, Mamá was gone.

“Why didn’t you wake me, Tía Soila?” I cried. “Claudita, your mother told me not to; she thought it would be best. She was afraid that if you saw her leave, she wouldn’t find the strength to look you in the eye and still go.”

I couldn’t believe Mamá was gone, just like that. I was 7 and I felt an emptiness gnawing at my insides. The house didn’t look the same. It was missing her lavender smell.

Both my older sisters were still crying even though they got to say goodbye to her. At least they got to walk her to the bus station and hug her one last time.

Why didn’t they wake me up? I could have smelled her face again.

“She’ll be back for us, Claudita,” Consuelo said, trying to comfort me. But even she couldn’t hold her tears back. Consuelo was only 9 years old, but sometimes she acted like she was older than Sindy.

Sindy was 15 when Mamá left pa’ El Norte. I didn’t get to see much of Sindy’s face after she came back from the bus station. She hid on the corner bed in the room we all shared, and skipped her meals.

“I hope she doesn’t get sick,” Tía Soila said, looking at Consuelo and me.

“She’ll get hungry, eventually,” Consuelo responded.

I was already hungry. My hunger grew more every day after Mamá left.

Tía Soila’s eyes were red and swollen, but she didn’t cry in front of us. She loved Mamá like a daughter. Tía Soila had taken care of Mamá since she was 6 years old.

Mamá had asked Tía Soila to care for us while she was gone. I heard her pleading the night before, “Please, don’t leave my girls alone, ever. I beg you, Tía Soila!”

She also asked Mamatoya, her mother, to help out whenever possible. They knew that Mamá would never leave her daughters behind unless it was a “life-threatening emergency,” like I once heard Tía Soila say. I knew what the words life, threat, and emergency meant, but I had no idea about the whole phrase. Mamá promised Tía Soila that she’d send money home every month as soon as she settled down and found a job.

Later that day, once the family and neighbors heard the news that Mamá had left for the U.S., about 15 peo- ple, ranging from 5-year-olds to 80-year-olds, gathered at Tía Soila’s house demanding more details about Mamá’s trip, as if it was any of their business. The whole trip had been a secret. No one knew about it except Tía Soila and Mamatoya.

Sindy didn’t even bother to come out of the bedroom to greet everyone when they arrived. She stayed in the dark and Consuelo kept her company. I was on the patio, in the middle of all the conversations. They sat around asking questions and saying things that didn’t make sense to me at all. They always quieted down whenever Consuelo showed her face in the corridor. As soon as she would go back inside the room, they continued with the chisme, gossiping about Papá like there was nothing better to talk about.

I listened quietly, pretending I didn’t understand. There were some things I did understand, but I continued to play with my sticks and rocks, a naive look on my face. This was the only way I could find out more about the drama between Mamá and Papá.

Sure, I had seen the physical pain they inflicted on each other, but I wanted to understand why. What happened between them? Between us? Why did we fall apart? “Who knows how he’s going to react when he hears the news about Victoria,” said one. Papá was in the capital, working or getting drunk. “She had to get away from Raul,” said another. “He was not a good husband,” said a random man. “But Raul loves his daughters!” said a neighbor. “Last time he drank, he threatened to kill her,” said cousin Celia.

Everyone was talking at the same time. I didn’t know who was saying what, or why, but all the chisme made me sick. I didn’t know what to feel anymore; I didn’t feel like crying. I felt a pain in my chest. Like some invisible hands were wringing my insides.

Papá wants to kill Mamá? Is that why Mamá left for El Norte?

I wanted things back to normal. I wanted Mamá there with me.

I didn’t want to go to bed without Mamá caressing my face. The day was quickly vanishing. How far away was this infamous Norte everyone was talking about? I couldn’t wait to be there with Mamá. She’d promised to come back for the three of us and take us there, to the Promised Land.

La Siguanaba

Tía Soila’s ranchito was a one-room hut with an adobe wall in the middle. This wall divided the room into two: the bedroom and the kitchen. The kitchen was made of adobe walls and the room of cement blocks. The dining room was outdoors next to the patio and was covered with a tin roof. The floor was made of soil. There was no bathroom, only an outhouse a few yards away, up on a hill, next to the tallest tamarindo tree.

I loved eating the tamarindo’s fruit, breaking the crisp auburn shell to get to its soft and stringy sour meat. Tía Soila prepared a sweet drink with the fruit to cool us off on hot summer days. We call it fresco de tamarindo.

I was brave enough to use the outhouse during the day, but never at nighttime. The flying cockroaches hiding on the dark walls around the cement toilet bowl were bigger than my head.

During the day, I forced Tía Soila to go with me and scare them away. At nighttime, I learned to hold it, most of the time. Tía Soila couldn’t stand the smell of a bacinilla under the bed. So if I ever had an emergency at night, I was forced to pee on the patio while Tía Soila held the flashlight in her hand to scare the spiders and toads away. But there were other things in my mind that Tía Soila couldn’t scare away. With the light of the moon, Tía Soila stood out in the shadows of the mango and tamarindo trees wearing her long white camisón. I didn’t like looking at her because she reminded me of la Siguanaba, with her long hair and white nightgown.

I grew up hearing two versions of la Siguanaba. According to Mamatoya, la Siguanaba was a beautiful woman who wandered the streets in the middle of the night. She lured men with her beauty. But when they approached her, she revealed her skull face and drove them insane. She was a spirit, a madwoman. Tía Soila told us another version of la Siguanaba. Her version was the one that scared me the most when I was little, especially at 2 or 3 in the morning when the patio was pitch black. According to Tía Soila, la Siguanaba also appeared to children. She would tell us her scary stories at nighttime, whenever she would hear strange noises coming from the toma, the water canal that surrounds her house. This was her way of keeping us off the streets at night. It also kept Sindy away from the canal, where her admirers would visit her.

“La Siguanaba had children of her own, but she drowned them and abandoned them in the river,” Tía Soila would say to us while we lay in bed in the darkness. Every night I slept in a different bed. Sometimes I slept with Consuelo, other nights with Tía Soila. Sindy slept with Consuelo whenever I slept with Tía Soila, and Consuelo slept with Tía Soila whenever I slept with Sindy. It was like playing musical beds.

“She usually takes the appearance of the child’s mother in order to charm them and take them away,” she continued.

“What does she want with them, with us?” I wanted to know, holding on to Consuelo’s hand. Our hands were clammy, but I wouldn’t let go.

“She leaves them stranded in the woods near the river,” responded Tía Soila.

I always wondered if la Siguanaba knew that Mamá had immigrated to the U.S. and if she would ever pretend to be her. How would I tell them apart?

Tía Soila would take only a flashlight with her every time I had to use the bathroom at night. I was too embarrassed to ask her to bring along her machete, the one she used for chopping firewood.

Tía Soila told me that one way to scare la Siguanaba away is to bite the blade of the machete. I don’t think I could ever find the courage to bite Tía Soila’s dirty machete. I usually go limp when I get scared. I never believed that making the sign of the cross upon la Siguanaba would do the trick to scare her spirit away. That was Mamatoya’s way of getting rid of her.

Finally, one night, I couldn’t take it anymore and bravely told Tía Soila to either wear another camisón or put her hair up because she reminded me of la Siguanaba. She exploded with laughter as we went back inside the house. Her laughter confused me even more, but she never wore her white camisón again.

Mama Returns

After three years, Mamá came back to her homeland. She came back for us, just like she had promised.

Tía Soila always said, “Your mother has a backbone like no other woman.”

Mamá had returned for her three daughters, her greatest treasures in life. I was already 10, skinny as an earthworm. My hair, light brown, was cut short above my ears—it made my freckles stand out like tiny brown fleas scattered on my Mayan nose. I was as pale as a grieving ghost.

Consuelo had already turned 12. She was fair skinned, not too dark, not too pale. Her long, dark brown, shaggy bangs covered her bushy Frida eyebrows.

Sindy was 18. She was already a señorita, flaunting her jet-black, curly hair; her large curls gracefully accentuated her dark complexion.

Mamá looked different to me, shorter and thinner. She smelled different, too. A scent I did not recognize—a flowery perfume from Avon, perhaps. Her lavender smell had vanished. She wore shiny, 3-inch heels with skinny jeans. Her hair was still short, dark brown. She didn’t wear much makeup, but her lips were plump and red like always. She barely smiled. She looked almost the same, except prettier and somewhat happier.

When I read Mamá’s letter stating that she was coming back to Guatemala, I imagined the day of her return to be the happiest day of my life. I pictured her waiting for me in the middle of Tía Soila’s corridor holding two suitcases. As soon as she saw me getting home from school, she would drop her bags on the floor, run up to me, hug me and carry me like an infant bundled in her arms. It didn’t happen in that sequence.

For one, I saw Mamá at the airport and wanted to jump on top of her and kiss her face and smell her hair. I had missed her so much, but I had nothing to say. No sound came out of my mouth. I was surprised at my shyness toward her. I had developed a joker’s personality to cope with her absence.

Sindy and Consuelo were laughing and crying, thrilled to see her again. Mamá didn’t cry. I stood still, trying to hide my face in my neck. Since I didn’t find the courage to approach her, she walked up to me and hugged me tight. She buried my face in her soft yet firm belly and said, “There you are, my sompopito!”

She didn’t mention anything about how big I had grown in the past years. How my face was looking more like a teenager’s. She didn’t notice how my freckles were slowly fading from my face. “Let’s get out of here,” she said, grabbing her luggage. Mamá disliked being in airports and the capital. It made her nervous and anxious. She wanted to go back to the heat of Mayuelas. During our four-hour commute, Sindy and Consuelo kept asking Mamá questions about Los Angeles and Amado, her new husband. I usually got carsick so I sat quietly in the back admiring Mamá’s beauty. She sounded different, more sophisticated. As soon as we arrived in Mayuelas, all I wanted to do was hold her in my arms, never letting go.

But Mamá didn’t allow me to climb her body like a mango tree like I used to when I was little. Mamá didn’t allow me to kiss or suck her cheeks like a tamarindo pit. She kept her distance, not just from me, but from everyone else, too. Mayuelas was always hot, but on that day, it felt like a cold winter afternoon. And I felt like a mango forcefully detached from its tree. Not ready, not ripe.

I got nervous realizing I couldn’t climb her like a tree or eat her kisses like a fruit. Confused, I ran to the outhouse holding my stomach. I hid in there for 20 minutes, holding my nose. Everyone else continued to gather around Mamá like she was a famous rock star. In the outhouse, I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t laugh, or scream. I sat on the toilet for a few minutes, pooping, thinking, wondering who she had become. I wondered how much I had changed in her eyes. How many times did she die in the fall and resuscitate in the spring? Three times. Three years to be exact.

Then it finally hit me—Mamá was back. I wanted to tell her how much I had missed her and loved her and needed her. I pulled up my underwear without thinking or wiping my behind and carelessly ran outside and rushed at her.

I jumped on her and wrapped my legs around her waist. We almost fell. I cried, she cried, we all cried, again. She held me tight for a few seconds, but suddenly I felt her body go limp.

As she let me go, she scolded me, “Go wash your hands, you smell like shit!”

Everyone’s cries turned into laughter. I ran to the wash basin crying, laughing, realizing Mamá was really finally back.

This piece appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Ms. Become a member to get the next issue before it hits newsstands!


Claudia D. Hernández is a photographer, poet, editor, translator and bilingual educator residing in Los Angeles. She is the founder of the ongoing project Today’s Revolutionary Women of Color.