Privilegio: “Of Women and Salt” Follows Three Generations of Cuban Women

This piece is excerpted from Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia. Copyright (c) 2021 by the author and reprinted by permission of Flatiron Books.

Privilegio: Of Women and Salt Follows Three Generations of Cuban Women
Of Women and Salt. (Gabriela Garcia)

Ana, Irapuato, 2018

Mexico morphed her language. A chele became a güero, a guineo transformed into a plátano. Her Spanish grew stronger than her English again but her accent began to change. Trying to Mexicanize a stubborn tongue to fit in. Hearing the derogatory comments. Gente de afuera taking over the city, bringing crime, taking jobs, pinches cerotes, call the Migra, send them home. Some Mexicans kind, welcoming. Not all. Easier to try to blend in, easier to try on a new camouflage (also painful). Also confusing. Her mother promised every year they’d go back, they just needed to save a little more money. A lot more money. Maybe they’d never go back?

It’d been four years already. Ana and her mother were still in Mexico. She’d known almost as much life in Miami as in Irapuato.

Here, she worked. For a U.S.-born woman with flowing red hair. Doña Nancy. Well, technically she didn’t work for Nancy. Gloria, her mother, did. But Ana had always helped her mother, for years she had helped her mother, and Nancy finally offered Ana pay. The previous muchacha had started working in a kitchen when she was eight years old after her father died. As a girl she’d been able to buy shoes for all her sisters, and this had been a source of great pride. Ana heard her tell Gloria this story before the woman left her post to marry.

“I want to work too,” Ana had said to Doña Nancy some years back. Nancy had said no but agreed to give Ana an allowance for helping her mother. Plus Ana wasn’t going to school; Gloria taught her with books Nancy brought home from the middle school where she taught English. So Ana was working, but she wasn’t. It was all very confusing. She spent all her time around adults.

*

Nancy liked everything really, really hot. She liked a quesadilla that could set off a smoke alarm when you unfolded the tortilla. She liked her soup still bubbling in the bowl. If you served Nancy food, and it wasn’t scorching hot, Nancy would frown and then she’d get up and microwave her plate. So Ana charred everything, skirted burning every meal. She often scorched her fingers taking plates to the dinner table.


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You learned these kinds of things about people, their habits, their eccentricities, when you worked for them. Ana knew Nancy better than Nancy’s own husband, who sometimes sought Ana’s advice over a birthday gift or anniversary plan, which her mother thought was an outrageous thing to ask a child. Sometimes he’d even ask Ana about Nancy’s schedule.

For instance, Roberto probably didn’t notice that Nancy never wiped her feet on the bath mat when she got out of the shower, instead leaving a trail of watery footprints that required listening for the turn of the faucet, the opening of the bathroom door, so Ana could be ready with the mop.

Roberto probably didn’t know that Nancy smoked cigarettes sometimes while he was at work and then hid the carton in the upper-right drawer of their shared wardrobe between the neat rows of panties Ana folded each week.

Or that Ana had caught Nancy kissing her Spanish teacher in her driveway one morning while Roberto was at work and that no one said anything and Nancy had given her mother a raise two days later.

That Nancy liked to fidget by stretching a hair tie with her fingers, or picking at a piece of thread, or scratching off her nail polish.

That Nancy had a hidden stack of cash beneath a floorboard.

*

Doña Nancy spoke terrible Spanish but she managed to survive in a city like Irapuato where few tourists had reason to visit and not many people spoke English. She’d arrived, after several years of floundering from job to job in the States, to teach English at one of the private middle schools. She’d met Roberto by chance, on a weekend visit to Guanajuato. Roberto was taking a New York client on a tour of the mummy museum and in between an exhibit of a mummified fetus and one that wore socks, Nancy struck a conversation, delighted to meet an English-speaking Mexican whom she could pepper with questions. They exchanged numbers and two years later had a house in one of the new luxury colonias popping up all over Irapuato and a dual citizenship that allowed her to live in Mexico indefinitely.

Ana knew all this because Nancy loved to chat her up at the dining table as her mother swept and mopped circles around them. Ana liked that Nancy spoke to her as if she were any of the other adults in her life and not a twelve- year-old girl. Nancy said she had stood up for Ana and her mother, had vocally argued to keep them in the home even though Roberto had not wanted a Salvadoreña maid. It was typical, this attitude, Nancy said to Ana when telling her about how she’d fought for their hiring, as if Ana weren’t acutely aware of the bias she herself faced.

“He means well,” Nancy said to her that day, “but how do you undo what is so ingrained? I mean, Roberto has so much privilege. Privilegio. Do you know what that word means?”

Nancy liked to sprinkle her speech with Spanish even though Ana spoke English. Ana nodded though she wasn’t sure.

*

The first day they’d been in the home, Gloria had served their food in a separate part of the house, a little room off the kitchen, where the two of them could eat out of sight. But Nancy had swept in and said no, no, they were now part of the family, of course they had to eat with her and Roberto, and they had all eaten together in mostly silence as Roberto glared and Nancy directed questions that her mother answered with a quiet humility Ana had never seen in her, and she wished they could just eat, alone, in the little room so she could just stop . . . performing.

But that was years ago. Now she liked being around Nancy. She wanted so badly to be Nancy. Not of here but with a not-of-hereness that evoked curiosity and interest, maybe humor, like when Nancy went to the mercado and her Spanish was met with amusement, with kindness. Nancy in a huipil, her hair in ribboned braids. Nancy telling the Indigenous artesanos at the market how beautiful they wove. Nancy with the not-of-hereness people smiled at, just a little bit of smirk. Said here, come, take.

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About

Gabriela Garcia is the author of the novel Of Women and Salt, from Flatiron (U.S.), Picador (U.K.), and in seven other languages. Her fiction and poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Tin House, Zyzzyva, Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Cincinnati Review, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. The daughter of immigrants from Cuba and Mexico, Gabriela was raised in Miami and currently lives in the Bay Area.