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Sunday, October 7, 2012

From the Archives: The Rosa Stories or "Back to Writing Seriously"

I have started writing short-fiction again after a hiatus of several years. I started seriously writing short stories as a young teenager and in some ways I took it much more seriously then than I do now. I sent manuscripts to magazines and contests for publication and despite a few encouraging notes from editors I never got anything published. I last tried submitted something for publication when I was 16 or 17. I did continue writing fiction throughout my college years and took two creative writing courses but life got too busy and I put it aside, using this blog as a way to keep somewhat in "writing shape" as it were. 

Getting back into it after a hiatus is fascinating. First of all the world of publishing has changed drastically since I first submitted a story to a science fiction magazine at 13. Back then only printed snail-mail manuscripts were accepted (with a self-addressed stamped envelope) and manuscripts had to be formatted according to very particular specifications (which inevitably varied in completely arbitrary ways at every publication) which if deferred from in even the slightest manner would get your story thrown into the "rejected" bin without being read. Today few publications still accept snail-mail submissions for short fiction. Email and online submission forms have finally conquered the field. Secondly I now get to read what I wrote a decade to three years ago with a much more skilled and sober eye and pore over the many flaws in my writing. I was expecting the work from my aborted science fiction career (age 12-15) to be dreadful but it actually isn't; you wouldn't know a kid wrote the stories and it looks like what it is, okay second-rate amateur science fiction that had no place being printed in the professional magazines I was submitting to. One of the stories is actually worth rewriting, cleaning up and sending it to the same magazine that rejected it a decade ago. Similarly some of the work I wrote for my first creative writing class five years ago is decent albeit flawed and two of the stories I wrote in my creative writing class three years ago are actually quite good although one has a serious flaw towards the end that I was not a mature enough writer (or reader) at 21 to catch or remedy. In short, the stories I hadn't read in years were better than I had expected and it's definitely worth my time to continue with it. The question that I cannot yet answer is if and when I'll be able to write anything better than I did three years ago after such a long hiatus. 

In any case, going through my old work I found these writing exercises for my freshman-year creative writing class that I don't remember writing. They were both specific assignments assigned and written over one week. The first assignment was to create a character of the opposite sex and a different race and class than yourself and write his or her reaction to a news story featuring a current political controversy. The second was to write a story featuring the same character interacting with a relative. Since I'm never going to do anything further with these and as they're better than I would have expected my writing at the time to be (albeit not great literature by any means), inspired by my friend 
Julie Sugar who often posts things she wrote years ago I decided to post the two stories exercises below. Let me know what you think..... 

                                                                    Exercise 1: 

Kids asleep, lunches made for tomorrow, I throw back my hair over my left shoulder and turn on the TV. I put in the tape and press the big button like the landlord has shown me. I run my fingers through my hair, its turning greasy like spilled fruit juice after it dries on hands on a rainless summer day. I usually have beautiful hair, my Mom’s Mayan hair. Her people were short and of winding hills. They were stout. Very stout. As a child they seemed almost square to me, their torsos far taller than their legs. They’re beautiful people, my mother’s, but nothing is as nice as their hair. Usually my hair would be beautiful too but money’s tight and I haven’t had shampoo in months. If it’s a choice between rice for my daughters or us having clean hair, the rice will always come first. In my country, Guatemala, I’d make my own shampoo. But I don’t know where to get the ingredients here in America, in the big city, where it seems like even the hills are made of cement. 

Last week Rosa came home from school and said “Mommy, you need to speak English. You need to talk like Mrs. Chen.” I told her that I can’t speak English. She looked at me and said “Eight years in this country and you can’t speak English, you’re an embarrassment”. She’s nine years old. I don’t understand where she picks up such things. “I asked Mrs. Chen to tell me how you could learn English. She said you must take classes or watch TV in English. Take classes Mommy.” I don’t explain that I can’t read or write anything but my own name and that to take a class I need to know how to write and that even if I found one where I didn’t, it would probably be a trap. I don’t tell her that I can’t afford CDs and a player or that I tried to get a library card but I couldn’t because I had no utilities bill or proof that I even live where I do because I pay my rent under the table. I’ve never told her that I’m illegal or that she is too. After all, little girls can’t tell secrets they don’t know. 

I told her that I would get the landlord to tape the English news for me and here I am putting it in right now. I watch it but I only understand the pictures. I hear some words that sound like Spanish words but I don’t know for sure. After the second commercial break, a white woman is shown screaming at a group of Mexicans. She looks angry, real angry, the type of anger that can only come from fear. I am a simple woman of the Guatemalan mountains, I have no words for such anger. I rewind the tape and put a piece of paper against the screen and trace the letters. My landlord speaks English. I will have him tell me what the words mean. 

It’s 11:30. I turn on the news. “Buenas noches. Como están, y bienvenidos a una otra edición de Ultima Hora con Enrique Gratas”. The news begins, with the same words as always. It’s comforting. I wonder if the English news begins with the announcer asking how everyone is. It’s seems silly to me because he never gets an answer. But I like it. 

My eyes focus intently on the screen before I even realize what I’m looking at. It’s the woman from before, the angry one with the vicious eyes. They are interviewing her and dubbing Spanish over her words. She explains that she has formed a group that she calls “Mother’s Against Illegal Aliens,” that she is distributing a petition to convince the lawmakers in Washington to make it so that children born in this country won’t be citizens if their parents are illegal. I think of my two younger daughters, who were born here and have rights. I cringe inside. The woman continues, her first name is Michelle, I don’t catch her last name. She says that my children should be deported and that I have no right to send them to school and force her children to learn Spanish. I wonder if this woman is really a mother. I think that if this woman really is a mother, she must not be a good one because if she cares nothing for my children she must not care for her own either, because nobody who truly hates anyone’s child can really love their own. 

I don’t understand what she means about her children having to learn Spanish, none of my Rosa’s friends at school speak to her in Spanish, most of them don’t know it and those that do aren’t allowed to speak it. The teachers yell at them to speak English, Rosa is embarrassed because most of her friends can’t talk to me. I wish they could, they seem nice. I want to know what they’re talking about when they play their games with invisible buildings. Rosa will only say that she is playing princess. I know what a princess is but I don’t know this game. If she is pretending to be one I can guess why, because deep down she wants a mother who rules things and has command over her people in her land. Not one like me who can’t even speak to them. The woman with the vicious eyes continues speaking. She speaks about the fourteenth amendment for a long time. I don’t know the amendments but I know that if a child is born here it’s a citizen. A nurse at the hospital told me. She’s got no reason to lie. The woman with the vicious eyes continues that the amendment is being misinterpreted. Misinterpreted I wonder. How can a law be wrong for more than 200 years? The woman with the vicious eyes continues. She says that American children need to be protected from learning that breaking laws will get you ahead in life. I picture Rosa’s friends. They’re not learning anything about breaking laws or bad lessons from my daughter, she doesn’t even know that she’s illegal. How could any of her classmates understand that she had broken a law as a baby? How would a child think that crossing a desert and working two jobs is cheating? What kind of mother would teach such a thing to her child? 

I teach my daughter to love everyone and treat them with respect. But I don’t know how to teach her to deal with people like this. How am I going to explain to her that there are people like this in the world? I just don’t know. I’ll have to try. 

                                                                       Exercise 2: 

One day Rosa doesn’t come home from school. I flip out. My middle daughter, Angela, has come on the bus without her. I feel like cotton’s been put up my nose and down my throat. I can’t breathe in, I can’t breathe out. I begin to feel the apartment shrinking, pushing me between a wall and a sword as they say. But I can’t show any of it in front of Angela. I don’t want her to panic as well. The obvious hits me. They are supposed to be on the same school bus now, have been for a week already. In two years she’s never been late before. 

“Angelita mìa, where is your sister?” 


“What do you mean you don’t?” 

She looks ashamed and looks away with one eye following my face slowly as her head turns. 

“I asked the driver……. Said they had told him she wasn’t coming” 

“Who are they?” 


“Was it Mr. Lamar or another?” 

“Mr. Lamar.” 

I would breathe in relief but I have had this entire conversation without taking a single breath. I trust Mr. Lamar even though I can’t talk to him, I know he’s responsible. In the winter he walks the kids in our apartment complex to their doors because we’re the last stop and it’s long dark by then. He walks with a limp. His right knee’s bum. Rosa says he was shot in a war. I can’t picture him dressed as a soldier but he has a certain sadness about him that tells me what she says is true. 

I don’t know who to call at their school that speaks Spanish and would know where Rosa is. It’s 4:20, nobody is around in my building, the landlord’s out, nobody useful is left at their school either I figure. 

The phone rings, I pick it up, the voice is speaking English. It sounds official like a TV announcer announcing a tragedy. I get nervous. My heart hurts- doesn’t skip any beats- just hurts. 

“Espere un minuto, pleeze. Mì hija speak English” falls out of my mouth toward the phone which I hand to my daughter. She listens for a half minute, says very little, listens and hangs up. Her voice is softer, more timid when she speaks English. She sounds like another person, like someone else’s daughter. 

“Rosa’s been bad. She’s in… I don’t know the word, she’s in punishment. They want you to get her there.” 

“At the school?” 


I have work in an hour but I have no choice but to grab the baby, take Angela and get on a bus and go. I know Angela is avoiding telling me what happened. I don’t blame her. She’s only seven. She wants to protect her big sister. 

When I arrive, Rosa’s in a little room with two other little girls and two female teachers reading books. Other than my daughter, they’re all black; nobody says anything, everybody looks pissed. Rosa gets up and walks towards me, I ask her if she can leave, she says she can. I bow forward a little as we leave and she just runs behind me. I ask her what happened when we get outside. 

“Mamì, what’s an opportunity?” she says. I stop cold. Never in her entire life before has my daughter avoided a question from me. Never! I’m so surprised I answer her. 

“An opportunity is when you are able to do something that you could not do before and might not be able to do in the future. Why do you ask?” 

“They told me I will have one opportunity tomorrow to correct what I did”. Neither of us says anything. “Did you ever have the opportunity to do something special Mommy?” 

“No,” I lie. “Never.” I think of the Cardinal who came to my village when I was twelve. I had been working the fields every weekday since I was five with my father, but that day we got the day off in advance of his arrival. My father was the only adult man who wasn’t full Quiché Maya in the village and he translated the Cardinal’s Spanish words into Quiché for the others. He had always spoken to me and my mother in Spanish, she and the others spoke in Quiché to me, so I understood everything that was said in either. Some of the other children knew only a little Spanish and needed my father’s translation. The church was looking for girls to go away to school to learn to read and write and learn about Christ. He said that after the massacres the new government wanted us to be educated, to be able to speak good Spanish and read it. This did not go over well with the crowd. We blamed the military, the white men in cities for what the priest was calling “genocide”, a word my father could not translate because it did not exist in Quiché. We did not blame our own poverty or ignorance. But despite this I wanted to go, badly, I wanted to see more of the world. I begged my Mom, and she agreed that I should go to be educated by the Sisters. But my father wouldn’t have it. “No!” he said. He never elaborated, never gave a reason and never changed his mind. I think he did not trust white people, even though they were half his blood. He never mentioned his father, just that his father lived in the city but never with his mother and that my father had learned Spanish there. I often wonder what would have happened if I had gone to live with the Sisters. I would probably have lived for good in the city in Guatemala, married a mixed person like me or become a nun. For a moment I wonder if my life would have been better. It’s a horrible thought because I know that if I had left I would never have met my husband or had my daughters. 

I turn to Rosa. “You know what an opportunity is. It’s made up, it’s bullshit. Things don’t just come along that give you the chance to do something, you’ve got to do it yourself for yourself.” 

She looks at me as if I have just removed my nose and handed it to her. 

“That’s why I got in trouble. ‘Cause I said bad words.” 

I know she has missed the point which is okay because I may have as well. We go home, the four of us by bus. I wonder what the other girls did to end up in punishment.