Editors' Choice

El Otro Lado (The Other Side)

by Pamela Alma Bass

Patience is learned in the knitting of a sweater, the telling of life stories.

The tiny sweaters catch my eye every time I pass them on my way to the biblioteca, or the mercado. They dangle from small plastic hangers on the open wooden doors of the shop, beckoning me with their multicolored shouts, little silk ribbons waving in the wind, teasing me with their cry of cute, cute, cute for a baby, baby, baby. I can almost imagine the tiny arms and bodies that will one day pour into them. The blues and greens and yellows for a boy. The pinks and magentas and reds for a girl, extra ribbons on the necks, tiny pearl buttons up the fronts, pairs of matching booties and pom-poms bouncing off the hats. One day I stop and run my fingers across them. One, two, three, four. They slip from my fingers and swing back and forth.

“Para tu bebé?” The storekeeper assumes I must have a baby (at my age). That is thirty-six, four years away from forty.

“No tengo,” I say. I don’t have. There are plenty of things I have now that once I would have believed impossible: a husband, a house, a career. But still, whenever I come back to Mexico I am reminded that more is always possible; if you inhale more deeply you can smell the jasmine dripping off the sides of walls, if you look up you can see the rising mountains beyond the edges of the farthest colonial building, past the crooked cobblestone streets and colorful alleyways, and if you walk through the Jardin almost any night of the week you can hear the trumpets and the throaty wails of mariachis in tight black pants lined with shiny silver buttons serenading lovers and tourists and drunks and anyone who is willing, because it is achingly romantic beneath the glow of the church, all lit up, and even if you’re not in love at least you can wail along with the band about how you wish you were and how you should be and how your heart has been broken too. Because here in the mountains of central Mexico come the broken-hearted, the expats. the wanna-be artists, the hippie backpackers and those on-the-run from the law and Mexico welcomes them all with open arms, because in Mexico hospitality is first and foremost.

I’ve come back because if I go too long without returning I begin to hurry to much or work too hard or make myself sick with worry about achieving rather than being. But I cannot stay in Mexico too long either or I get sick with parasites, wear myself down with salsa dancing and lack of sleep, and find myself propelled towards shiftless men, who rain from the heavens as if it were Christmas every day.

“When are you going to have a baby?” asks the short woman with the long black hair and the knitting needles. This is the favorite question of salesclerks, taxi drivers and almost everyone I meet. If not this one it is: Are you married or single? How big is your family? No one cares what I do for a living. I come from a country where this is the first question out of people’s mouths. I come from a family where dinner-table discussions revolve around politics and what-have-you-achieved today. In Mexico I feel the weight of expectations slip from me, and I walk more lightly. But although I have recently acquired a husband who is not shiftless, I don’t yet have a baby, so I have to answer questions about when and how soon. Here and there I find myself teetering on the uncomfortable border of things.

“Sure I want a baby, someday,” I say. I don’t tell her that as much as I want a baby, I’m terrified about my capacity to conceive, to carry a baby, to push through the pain of birth, and then, then, to be a better mother than all the generations of women before me, my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and her mother before that.

The sweaters are surprisingly soft and the woman’s smile so engaging that I want to buy one just to please her. I try to think of whom I might send one to. All my friends back in the U.S. are starting to have babies. Then I wonder: Will they realize this has been knit by hand? Wouldn’t they prefer the latest designer model from Baby GAP? Their kids probably have closets overflowing with unwanted clothes and one more sweater with its hand-made imperfections will be forgotten amongst the heap of more glamorous factory-made novelties.

“You must have so much patience,” I say. I could never sit in a chair all day, repeating the same movement over and over again persisting until a thing like that is finished, repairing mistakes as I go. Perhaps this is the kind of patience required of a good mother.

In back of the store are the trendier clothes: mini skirts, plaid pants, and tight t-shirts that say “princess” and “hot stuff,” cut off at the waist to reveal belly buttons and accentuate cleavage. These are the clothes that will probably sell faster than the sweaters, because they are what the young girls strut around in at Mama Mia, the town hotspot, not because the clothes are pretty, but because everyone in the magazines is wearing them, because they bear the stamp of Los Estados Unidos. Yet I, who have a closet-full of designer clothes, am drawn to what is hand-made, because I come from a world of machines and efficiency and tightly sewn business suits and sterile office buildings, air conditioned places where even hand-made sweaters cannot keep out the chill and jasmine cannot bloom.

The woman sits on a plastic chair with knitting needles in her hands, click clicking away, an aqua-blue spool in a box on the floor, unraveling itself as she pulls it from nothingness into something, something that a child may be photographed in, may throw up in, may remember later on as the one that their mother forced them to wear, or the one they never wanted to take off.

Because I have caressed the sweaters, paid attention to them, I feel obliged to buy one now. They are only one hundred and fifty pesos, a little less than fifteen dollars. So much given for so little.

I don’t know how it begins, the unraveling of her story. It happens so fluidly, the same way she so easily seems to weave gold from straw.

I toss the questions back at her, about babies and husbands.

“I am divorced,” she says, with the wave of her hand.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

She shrugs, and says, “Men,” and we laugh together.

“Mejor sola que mal acompañada,” I say, an expression I learned once, better alone than in bad company. She seems impressed by my Spanish, which although rusty, slips back onto my tongue so fluidly, the softness of the words sweet as the taste of freshly sliced mango. “But at least your family? Do they help you?” People always say that families here in Mexico are more united than in the United States. I expect as much.

“Oh no!” she says, snipping the ends of a pom pom, the snippets falling to the floor like forgotten worries. “He was a mujeriega, so I left him. Then the shoe store I managed for my family? My parents gave it to him and our house too. Everything!”

“No me digas,” I say. I fall into the interpersonal tu without thinking, but I feel that we have crossed some kind of boundary in which it feels all right to drop the more formal usted. I sit at her feet on a plastic milk crate. I find myself surprised by parents who would betray their own child, as if I were foreign to such a thing. Yet it sounds more terrible somehow coming out of someone else’s mouth. “I know,” I say, “my own mother. I had to run far away! All the way here!” I laugh. She laughs. Her needles kept on moving, click-clack, click-clack, like the ticking of a clock.

This is the first time I’ve been back to San Miguel de Allende in years. But everything I fell in love with that first time, seven years ago, all comes rushing back at me, as if the city were an ex-lover still capable of getting under my skin even when I know better. There are small differences since the last time: the mariachis now carry cell phones on their belt buckles, there’s an internet café on every corner, an Irish bar has replaced La Lola’s as the latest hipster hang out; there are new labels for old things. Newcomers are still discovering it all for the first time, old-timers are still pretending to be all that, and the same drunk ex-pats and locals still warm the bar stools at Mama Mia’s. But I am still awed by the intensity of the rainstorms and sing-song of the peanut man and the way the hanger man balances fifty hangers on a pole and the surprise of the firecrackers which explode before dawn. I still feel more beautiful here even when my hair is messy and I’m wearing no make-up, because the men look up and murmur as if I were the hottest tamale in town.

Cecelia asks if I want the whole story or the short version, so I say give me the whole thing.

“It was my daughter’s wedding day,” she begins, “and I wanted was to help her get dressed. I had spent the whole day cleaning la casa, mi casa that I had scrubbed on my hands and knees for all the years we were married, but my husband barricaded the door against me.”

“Porque?” I ask.

“Because he had had another novia.”

“So he had the adventura, and you got kicked out?”

“Si,” she nods and yanks at a stitch. “Ay, I lost one here, you see, I have to go back now.” She unwinds one row and begins again. “So my daughter was crying on her wedding day, ruining her make-up and everything, tu sabes? And she was so beautiful you know, flowers in her hair piled up like expectations. La trucke waiting outside the church to take them away, her new husband with his cowboy hat and his boots all polished-- the kids all dressed up in their white party dresses and shiny black shoes.”

“Did you get mad?” I ask.

“Ay, no,” she says. “Pues, it was her wedding day. I had to try to act happy.” Cecilia shakes her head. Her needles dance back and forth, and back and forth. Every now and then she yanks the needles up high to let the ball unravel a little more.

“You are not bitter,” I say, “How do you manage?”

“What else can I do? I cannot cry every day or I would cry my life away!”

I tell her I want a sweater for my 3-year-old godson. His mother is Argentinian, a knitter herself. She will appreciate it.

“How fast do you need it?” she asks.

“I’m not in a hurry,” I say. “Take as much time as you need.” I have spent my whole life late and in a hurry. Mexico slows me down. Here I have no schedule, no duties, nothing holding me down. I feel unshackled as the string of a kite cut loose; it’s dangerous and exhilarating.

Cecelia beckons me to follow her. She leaves the doors wide open, trusting in god to guard her goods. We walk around the corner, into another store past two wide-eyed old women who gape at me as if they aren’t accustomed to the sight of gringas. Cecelia has me pick from rows and rows of dyed wool, and I who am usually so overwhelmed by choices am not overwhelmed at all. Immediately I see the deep grass green, and I point.

A few days later Cecelia pulls the green sweater out of a box of sweaters, waiting expectantly. The weave is loose, with space for air to slip in between each stitch. I think of what my Argentinian friend once said about knitting, “Some people knit very tight. I knit loose. That way you have more space for breathing.”

“I love it,” I say to Cecelia, fingering the soft wool. “It’s perfect.” I can imagine my godson in the winter—sheltered by its generosity. “You know, I couldn’t stop thinking about you. Your stories.”

“They’re not stories,” she says. “They’re real. That’s why. Do you have time?”

I have used the word cuentos, perhaps because although my Spanish is decent, it’s a bit rusty and now I realize that perhaps cuentos is used to refer to fictional stories, yet perhaps this is because Cecelia strikes me as the kind of heroine deserving of her own movie or book.

She waves at the box. What better thing do I have to do? In San Francisco I never would have time to sit and talk to a stranger in a shop. I would have work to do, a date to make, somewhere more pressing to get to. Such pauses in a day, which seem so natural here, would be out of the question in my ordinary life.

“One time, this store was robbed. They cleared out everything. I lost all the money I had.” Although the store is tiny it is hers, bought with her own money. “Before this store I used to work at my parents shoe store. Back when I was married, recuerdas? But when I divorced my parents disowned me—kicked me out of their store—gave the business to my husband.

“I saved up a long time to buy this place, but when it got robbed I was left with nada nada nada and I had children I was trying to put through college without even un centavo from my husband. Sometimes God gives you a lot to carry.”

“What did you do?” I ask.

“I decided to go to the other side.” Mexicans call the U.S. the other side, as if it is not really a separate country, but the other side of the coin, or the flip side of a clay mask, which is half a sun and half a moon.

I have never understood this, this desperate need to cross over when everything here seems to be more than enough: enough wooden doors opening onto secret gardens in the heat of blossom, enough sun to warm you in summer or winter, enough music to make your feet move against your will, enough time to smile at strangers in the street. I don’t know what it is to confront hunger or near-drowning or the border patrol, but I know what it is to run from a place that cannot sustain you. But I know too the limitations of what money can buy. We have, both of us, crossed in opposite directions, seeking what we were lacking.

“Ay,” she says, “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”

“Go ahead,” I say. “Digame.”

“I walked for five days, and ay, I was ten kilos fatter back then, seventy-five kilos! Ten years ago it was, so I was fifty-two. Something like that. Caray!” She is only slightly chubby now and small, maybe five foot two, not the kind of person you would imagine crossing rivers and hiding from the law, not like the men I’ve met who drive taxis or wait tables, who are sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, twenty-something and not yet old enough to be acquainted with fear.

Cecelia tells me she walked one day for every decade of her life, bearing her seventy-five kilograms on her one meter and fifty-five centimeter frame, along with a small back-pack containing two water bottles, four sandwiches and one extra pair of Nikes.

“We crossed el rio,” she says, by which she means the El Paso river a moody thing known for wrapping its slippery arms around so many who try to contend with it.

I think of another border crossing story I have heard; a mother who lived three doors down from a friend of mine, swallowed by the river just three months ago, her five and seven year old watching from the shore as her body was taken by the current, the empty plastic water bottles tied to her ankles and wrists, not quite strong enough to keep her afloat.

“We were lucky,” she says, “It was low tide, so it came just to my chin, but it was still strong. I lost my backpack, my sandwiches, my water bottle, but at least I had still my life and the three hundred pesos I had tucked right here,” she points to her bra.

I cannot remember now who was with her, but I can imagine from conversations I have had with waiters, storekeepers, friends.

Perhaps there were four of them in all, for they go in small groups to avoid drawing attention. That would have included the coyote, the man paid two thousand dollars a head to lead them across—a sum they would spend years paying off, the men in the fields, the women cleaning houses. The coyote was a thirty-something man, who had been caught three times and had his photo pinned up on sign-posts all along la frontera, the rugged border between here and there. He may have worn a thick mustache like Zapata and perhaps he knew his body could not take it much longer. There may have been a young kid, like the one who told me about how he would keep going back no matter that he’d been caught three times. Perhaps he was a skinny sixteen year old planning on buying a Mercedes and getting a blond girlfriend like the ones on Beverly Hills 90210. The last could have been an unemployed bus driver trying to prove to his wife that he was not just a no-good-drunk that couldn’t support three children. Finally, there was Cecelia.

At first she was afraid, being the only woman, but once they got to know each other she saw they were good people, even if the kid did talk too much, and the bus driver snored so loud he made the cacti quiver, and the coyote kept reminding them that if they tried to get out of making their payments—that his people had ways. But then he’d grin, a big gold-toothed grin, pat one of them on the back, and all of a sudden it would seem he hadn’t really meant it. Not like the ones you heard about who raped you and left you in the mountains to die after taking your last centavo.

Cecelia describes the cactus more clearly than anything, so it is this which stays with me, and this is certain:

“On the other side we were greeted by the dry dusty land thick with burs, cacti and prickly things. You’ve never seen such cacti—like monsters attacking from all sides.”

They would have come across things that were left behind by those who went before them: empty tins of tuna, crushed cans of Coke, a diaper covered with flies and a pile of bones. The coyote might have shrugged off the bones as belonging to a mountain lion or a real coyote, but some part would surely resemble a small human hand. A busboy once told me that in some parts there are black vultures circling overhead; zopilotes they are called, masters of the wind. You can almost hear them thinking, wishing you the worst. No one would speak of the fears these things might induce, because to speak them would give them weight.

“Dios mio, my feet were so swollen and sore and full of cactus spines because I kept bumping into them in the dark.” She waves her hand around to demonstrate the magnitude of how blistered her feet were, and the pain from all the cactus spines embedded there. “We got to a swampy field with tall, tall grass, and my shoe got stuck in the mud and I couldn’t get it out!” She shows me how she tried to extract her shoe by digging around with one foot. “I yanked it out hard! Bam! I fell backwards first. When I got up I fell again—this time on my face!” She begins to laugh. “I felt like a ball bouncing back and forth and back and forth!”

I think of the Weebles I used to play with as a child, their trick of bouncing back no matter how many times you pushed them over. I would have stayed in the mud, cried myself silly, thrown a tantrum, railed at the world. But this is not Cecelia’s way.

“I laughed and laughed,” she says, “But I had to cover my mouth so la migra wouldn’t hear me giggling in the swamp grass. I lost my compañeros in the pitch-black night. They only came back because they heard me laughing, so maybe it was a good thing.”

The coyote must have hushed her.

The bus driver might have shook his head and said, “You’ll get us all caught. Are you crazy?”

She would have answered, “You know when you are so tired all you can do is laugh?”

“Por dios!” I say. “Weren’t you scared?” I think about all of my irrational fears over petty things: airplanes crashing, camping, divorce, parasites, never having a baby.

“I just kept thinking about my children. I could barely walk by the end. I was too fat,” she jokes.

Despite the shared sips of water and the half sandwich the teenager offered she was weak with hunger and thirst, her skin was burnt and dry, her feet swollen and raw with blisters and cactus spines.

The busboy told me that night is when the snakes and scorpions slither out of their hiding places, fast and venomous enough to kill you in one bite. You have to take turns sleeping so one person can keep watch. The men would have grown scruffy shadows across their faces, calluses would flourish on hands and feet, everyone except the coyote must have gotten stomach poisoning, and surely they all lost five kilos and what remained of their spirits.

“Go on without me," commanded Cecelia. "Go on! I can’t bear it.” She wanted la migra to just come get her and have it done with. She didn’t care by then that they were already in Texas—that they had made it.

“We’re so close,” said someone, maybe the bus driver putting out his hand to steady her. “Don’t give up now.” Maybe it was the kid who felt homesick already for his mother, and sister.

Then Cecelia saw it, “The highway—it was so big and bright and beautiful!”

I’ve never thought of a highway as beautiful. I’ve found them stark and lonely and impersonal but a necessary means of getting from one place to another. But I imagine if I had walked for five days and faced death that the solidity of a highway might indeed appear beautiful.

“We had to run across it, hiding on the side until the autos had gone. There was another highway and then another. I limped like una animale that has been shot. I had to take off my sneakers for all the spines in them, but the second pair I brought was lost in the river. The pain was as hard as giving birth.” The literal translation of giving birth is giving to the light, dar a luz. I imagine a baby going from the darkness of the womb to the brightness of the world, and I think it must feel like waking up, that difficult transition from the peacefulness of night to the assault of day and all the not knowing of what that will bring.

“When I looked up, there they were: the red lights and the sirens and the shiny badges. We all stood very still. I think I stopped breathing I was so scared.”

The coyote may have said, “mierda,” and turned his head to spit into the ditch. The young kid may have made a quick movement as if to run, but the bus driver would have grabbed his arm, and said “Don’t be stupid, güey.”

“A young man in uniform towered over me and my bleeding bare feet,” she says.

“Then what?”

“Then the officer began to speak, saying, ‘Ma’am, Ma’am, Oh Ma’am,’ and looking so sorry and pointing to my feet, saying other things I could not understand. I only heard, ‘Ma’am, Ma’am, Oh Ma’am.’ I saw how sorry he was. I took the cold bottle of water he gave. I let him help me to the car.” She repeats the words like a chant, “La migra, he was so big and handsome, just like the highway, so big and beautiful.”

I have expected the worst from la migra and my countrymen, and I am so grateful that this officer turned out differently from my expectation and hers. We hug each other awkwardly and then stand for a moment, not knowing what to say or do.

I don’t know how I came to be in this sweater store in a foreign country hugging a small stranger with knitting needles. But this is the kind of thing that seems to happen to me here in Mexico, perhaps because Mexico makes me see the foolishness in hurrying, or perhaps because it leads me to follow my desires, which led me into this little store, and brought me from the wool, to the fingers that knit the wool, to the woman to whom the fingers belong. Even once she has let me go I can still feel the heat of her embrace. I clutch the small green sweater in my hands and decide I will not give it away, I will keep it, so that when I have my own baby I will remember Cecelia, and if one day I am pushed to raise my voice or raise my hand I will instead remember to be patient. I will remember to laugh.

The church bells of the Parroquia begin to toll the hour, as they have done for hundreds of years their reliable ding-dong ding-dong mapping out a mysterious pattern I can never quite read, but it doesn’t matter. The two of us stand surrounded by Cecelia’s sweaters, which hang all around us like milagros in a church—little tin replicas of body parts, arms, legs, head, heart—wounded pieces offered up to the saints with only a safety pin and a prayer.


Pamela Alma Bass is a writer who lives in San Francisco. This story won the Gold Award for Travel and Healing in the First Annual Solas Awards.


About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




Read more from Editors' Choice, Pamela Alma Bass

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