Botellas y Latas (Siempre Hay Esperanza)

“Levántate.”

“Huh?”

“Get up,” Mami snapped.

Mami snatched the covers off Lupita and pulled the curtains open. The dawning sun hit Lupita’s brown skin. Mami headed toward the kitchen as Lupita climbed off the bed they shared. Mami’s Café Bustelo wafted from the kitchen into the bedroom. Breakfast was ready.

“Lupe,” Mami called from the kitchen.

“I’m going.”

Lupita grabbed her chanclas and made her way to the kitchen table. The cramped kitchen was filled by a serape-covered, worn-out wooden table with scribbles, dents, and scratches on it, and four plastic folding chairs that Mami picked off the street. And a straw basket of apples and mangos sat between two plates holding Mami’s standard breakfast: huevos picados, casamiento, queso fresco, and platanos fritos. All topped off with a cup of Tampico Citrus Punch for Lupe and café for Mami. Lupe hoisted herself onto the chair. Mami was already eating.

“It’s 6 a.m. on a Saturday. Why are we up?” Lupe grabbed the plastic fork and mixed her queso fresco with the platanos.

“We’re going out. Mami lost her job again, and we need some extra money quick.”

“When is Papi coming home?”

“I don’t know. No se donde se fue.”

Lupe scraped the leftover queso fresco into some of her casamiento.

“I got a 90 for my art exam yesterday. Mr. Gomez says I’m really getting good at drawing.”

Mami didn’t reply.

“I think I wanna be president of the Art Club. Mr. Gomez says we can stay after school for an hour to work on—”

“Vas a comer o no?” Mami interrupted.

Lupe didn’t want to upset Mami first thing in the morning. She stuffed the remaining huevos picados into her mouth and chewed quickly. She looked at Mami’s baggy eyes as Mami picked up her own plate and set it in the sink.

“We have to get there by 9.”

“Where?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Mami put on her bright green hoodie and got her straw hat from the wooden coat hook on the front door. She put on her chanclas and stepped outside, grabbing a shopping cart she found the night before.

“Vamos,” she called from outside, “and get the plastic bags from the kitchen.”

Lupe grabbed the roll of plastic bags from the kitchen counter and walked toward the front door. She picked up her smeared, navy blue Jansport bag. Inside were broken Crayolas, a black composition notebook, four colors of ink pens, #2 pencils, crumpled papers, two small pencil sharpeners, pencil shavings, and rubber erasers. The notebook was full of butterfly drawings of different shapes, colors, and species. Lupe’s favorite was the monarch butterfly, the orange and black one.

Lupe stepped out into the brisk morning. Palm trees, sprouting out of the concrete, extended towards the open pink and blue sky, toppling over her block. Rows of these trees lined both sides of the street.

Lupe looked at the top of the palm trees, the sky, then looked down at her surroundings: the cracked sidewalks with debris, dirt, and dust. Scattered throughout the block were torn mattresses, broken computer desks, tires, shattered glass. Cigarette butts were strewn over the concrete, with some tucked into the cracks. Broken bottle glass littered in the alleys. The neighborhood had a whiff of spoiled vegetables mixed with gasoline and smoke, a smell Lupe hated. On the corner of her block, two signs read “Florence Av” and “Figueroa.” Both words sounded Spanish to Lupe, words that she might have heard back in El Salvador.

On the corner, Lupe saw Mami’s stocky frame pushing the shopping cart up Figueroa, heading north. Mami stuck her hand into the trash bag on the corner, pulling out three bottles of Gatorade, one can of Coca-Cola, and a Modelo can. She threw them into the plastic bag inside the cart.

“Let’s go,” Mami called.

“What are you doing?” asked Lupe incredulously.

“We need some extra money, so we’re picking this up all morning.”

“I’m not doing this,” Lupe protested.

“And I don’t wanna hear it,” Mami said.

“You can’t make me do this.”

“No me importa. Hurry up, or I won’t buy none of that art stuff for you.”

Mami pushed the rattling shopping cart and went north towards the direction of downtown Los Angeles. Lupe sped up, put her head down, and grimaced as she approached Mami.

“I can’t believe this shit,” Lupe muttered.

“What the fuck did you just say?” Mami looked back, “Te dije que I don’t want you cursing around me.”

Lupe walked steady, frowning, not saying a word.

“Walk in front of me,” Mami ordered, and Lupe listened.

They passed by a concrete wall with red graffiti marks on it spelling, “NO LOVE IN THE STREETS.” They could hear the engine of a nearby bus, ready to pick up passengers waiting at the bus stop in front of them. Lupe saw all the people waiting for the bus to get to work. In a few minutes, these people would get dropped off at different locations throughout Los Angeles, whether it was working to clean offices or hotels downtown or in Beverly Hills.

“Lupe,” Mami called. “There’s a trash can right there.”

“Where?”

“Right there in front of you.” Mami pointed next to the bus stop in front of the people.

“Let’s go. Count them in Spanish,” she ordered.

“Uno, dos,” Lupe counted as she picked the cans and dropped them into the plastic bag in the shopping cart, “three, four.”

Mami stared at her sternly.

“Tres y cuatro,” Lupe muttered.

She didn’t want to talk Spanish. She saw no point in learning a language that only helped kids flunk in school. Juana and Gabriel spoke perfect English and got As and took art classes after school. The kids who spoke only Spanish seemed confused and fell further behind every year.

“Seventeen.”

“Diecisiete,” Mami corrected

Mami kept pushing the cart, and Lupe trailed behind, instructed to point out any cans or bottles they might’ve missed.

Alleys filled each block they walked up Figueroa. A lot of alleys were good signs to find hidden cases of empty bottles or tossed cans. People always congregated in these alleys, the kind of people whom Mami warned Lupe about. The junkies, drug dealers, or the gangbangers. The kind of people who recruited boys Lupe’s age to join their set.

Lupe loved the alleyways because of the nice graffiti tags she’d find, with their curves and Old English fonts and the low riders with skulls drawn neatly. Mami hated it. They continued to pick can after can. Lupe read the labels back and forth in her mind to pass the time:

Dos Equis, Corona, Heineken, Corona.

Corona, Corona, Corona.

Modelo, Modelo, Modelo.

Corona, Modelo, Corona, Modelo.

“This is so nasty,” Lupe said, picking can after can from trash after trash. Mami ignored the complaints and kept putting more cans in the cart.

Mami had to take a break, so she sat at a bus stop while Lupe walked ahead to look at a mural by the corner. It was a painting of a man with brown skin, a stern, wrinkled face, pointed nose, thick lips, bagged eyes, and straight black hair. He looked Indian. To his left were farm workers in a field picking grapes. On his right, more farm workers and other Latinos held signs that read “HUELGA,” “NO VIOLENCE,” “WE WANT BETTER EDUCATION,” “BE BROWN & BE PROUD,” “CHICANO POWER,” “SI SE PUEDE,” and “VIVA LA RAZA.”

Below them, a large, red banner with black letters said “United Farm Workers” and “AFL-CIO” above a black eagle spreading its wings. The eagle’s wings looked like inverted steps of a pyramid. The man’s eyes seemed to watch something beyond that proximity, something beyond Los Angeles, beyond the fields.

Lupe loved the beauty of that mural but hated the surrounding scrawls and graffiti written with R.I.P.s and gang member names.

“Vamos,” Mami called as she passed Lupe with the shopping cart. Their first bag was almost full.

“Cuentalo,” Mami ordered.

Lupe started counting the cans and the bottles of beer, water, and sports drinks. Mami looked over her.

“You need to speak to me in Spanish, mija.”

Lupe didn’t want to listen and focused on counting.

“It’s going to help you in the future. You need to learn to talk Spanish para entender la gente, to understand the people.”

“But I don’t wanna learn Spanish.”

Mami didn’t argue. They kept walking on Figueroa, passing a large stadium to their left.

The streets started to become more orderly. No cigarette butts on the sidewalks. Somewhat bearable air to breathe. As they approached a new neighborhood, they saw oak trees neatly tucked into the edges of the curbs.

Not a good sign for Lupe and Mami. No alleyways, no mess, no botellas y latas.

They walked up toward Jefferson Boulevard, passing Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Target, Wingstop, and Starbucks. Lupe gazed at two signs at the corner in front of them, “Figueroa St” and “Jefferson Bl,” and further ahead to skyscrapers, office buildings, and construction sites downtown. Behind her was her L.A. neighborhood, to her left was a school campus, to the right were more neighborhoods looking like the ones she knew.

“Vamos,” Mami said, and they walked down Jefferson Boulevard toward a row of trees blocking the sky. The oak trees covered the open sky. All they saw were green and the gates to their left guarding the campus. When they reached a gap in the trees, they were blinded by a shimmering object atop a tall, narrow building.

It was an empty globe with metal outlines. The outlines looked like the insides of an orange, with longitude lines going vertically and latitude lines going horizontally. Lupe observed the towering globe and looked around the nearby buildings, neatly trimmed grass, and the gates behind them.

“What is this, Mami?”

“No se, mija, hay un letrero allí”

Lupe walked over to a stone inscription by the gate that read “University of Southern California.” She looked at the metal outlines of the globe spiraling on top of the building. That world was the apex of what she wanted, something different. It looked so neat that she wanted to hold it in the palms of her hands. The world would be hers.

But something was strange about that world as well. It seemed so close but distant at the same time. It seemed like something out of her reach, something difficult to attain. It intimidated her.

Mami looked away from the globe like she didn’t want to talk about it. It seemed as if Mami had seen that globe before and it intimidated her as well.

“You can go there if you want,” Mami said.

“Isn’t that stuff a lot of money?”

“It is, pero don’t worry about it. Just focus on being good in school.”

Mami parked the cart at a nearby bench and sat down to rest. Lupe kept staring at the globe. Lupe’s world felt different from the campus they stood on. All she knew now was how to collect bottles and cans to make money.

Lupe pointed at the full bag and asked Mami, “How much are we gonna make from that bag?”

“Could be about five dollars.”

“Five dollars?!”

Lupe couldn’t believe it and sank into the bench with Mami. She took a deep breath and stared at the globe in disbelief. How did they just walk all these blocks and collect all these cans for just five dollars?

This can’t be what we’re gonna do for the rest of our lives, thought Lupe. She leaned back on the bench, pushed her head back, and looked at the sky. An idea dawned on her, and her disposition changed. She turned to Mami.

“Ma, how do you say ‘hope’ in Spanish?”

“Why do you want to know Spanish all of a sudden?”

“I just wanna know.”

“Esperanza.”

Lupe meditated on the word and repeated the word multiple times in her head. Esperanza. It sounded like the word “esperate”—something Mami always told her in Spanish. Even though she didn’t like waiting, she liked the way esperanza sounded as it parted from her lips.

She looked at the globe again and felt a yearning for that world. She knew she would have to wait years before she could attain that world, but she wanted it now.

Lupe reached into her backpack and grabbed her composition book. “Can I draw this really quick?”

Mami turned to her, surprised. “Go ahead.”

Lupe sat at the other end of the bench and took out her pens, pencils, and erasers. She started by using the #2 pencil to outline what she wanted, the orb, the outlines, all while erasing little defects as she sketched hastily on the page.

Lupe became enraptured by the process, stroking the pencil up and down the pages, then taking out her black and orange pens. She filled the world with colors and drew small butterflies surrounding it flapping their wings. She used the Crayolas to conjure up a hazy background zigzagging with blue, orange, yellow, and red.

Lupe motioned for Mami to come over and look at the drawing. Mami scooted next to Lupe and looked at her drawing, looked at the world through Lupe’s page.

“How does it look, Ma?”

“It looks good, mija.”

Mami smiled at Lupe’s drawing, but a wave of concern passed over her face.

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