The rain poured, with no evident intention of stopping. Nearby, a mother with two little boys, who were wearing bright-colored rain boots, tugged at her sons’ coats to stop them from splashing around in the puddles. On the other side of the sidewalk, an elderly couple walked hand in hand under a sizable opaque umbrella. At the end of the street, a party of giggling school girls danced around, allowing the droplets to soak their plaid uniforms. The sight was oddly beautiful, poetic even.
Unfortunately, my current situation did not allow me to appreciate the scenery. Wearing nothing but a cardigan and worn jeans, and without an umbrella at hand, I was unprepared for the downpour. My curls, which I so desperately tried to dominate, began to uncoil and drooped onto my face. I had missed the bus by a second and had to wait for the next. The bus stop bench was drenched; therefore, I was forced to stand.
My phone rang. “Rosario, dónde estás?” Buela’s frail voice asked. She was probably worried because I was running later than usual.
“No alcance el autobús, tengo que esperar a que llegue el otro. Pero no se preocupe, todo está bien.” I tried to appease her, explaining that I had missed the bus and was waiting for the next.
“Ok pues, mija.” She still sounded preoccupied.
“La carta,” I heard my older brother, Esteban, whispering to my grandma on the other side of the phone. “Aver, pásemela entonces,” he said, asking for the phone.
“Hey, sissie, what’s up?” His deep voice sounded anxious. “Aye, um, you got a letter… from a college… I think it’s from that cinema school.”
My heart sank. “Is it in a small envelope or in a big envelope?!”
“Look, Rosi, I think it’s best if you get home de volada and see for yourself.” It was hard to decipher his tone of voice. Before I could say anything, he clicked on me.
The bus was nowhere in sight, so I started to walk. I felt a sharp pain in my leg. I had completely forgotten about the screw.
The wind blew my hair in every direction possible. My brothers were rotating a disposable Kodak camera amongst themselves. They had propped me up on a tree branch and each snapped a picture of me. I struck a new pose every time the light flashed and they laughed at every face I made. Esteban was sitting on a park bench with Julieta. He turned to us, began to yell, and walked towards us.
“What’s the matter with you guys? Where in your little brains did it seem like a good idea to put her up there? What if she falls and busts her head? What then, huh?”
Miguel, Emilio, and Mauricio were terrified of Esteban—we all were. None of them dared to look at him in the eye. Remorse overwhelmed my six-year-old soul—I had begged them to put me there. While Esteban ranted on, I tried to get down. I grabbed on to a smaller branch, but it was not strong enough, and it snapped. I tilted forward and fell to the ground.
I heard a crunching sound come from my leg. My brothers all rushed over to me and I heard Julieta scream.
My body went cold.
I was too afraid to move.
Time stood still for a second.
Time stood still for a second.
Time stood still for a second.
But I was brought back to reality by the sound of the ambulance.
A week later, I lay in bed watching Dora the Explorer. My leg was shielded by a cast and Buela had placed a pillow under it to keep it elevated. Once in a while, she would come in to place a new warm cloth over my leg. To make sure the metal screw, which the doctor had placed in my bone, didn’t get too cold. Otherwise, the crying would never stop.
After a few minutes the pain was more bearable. I kept pushing my legs to go farther and faster. Soon, the smell of fresh pastries hit me. I passed by the Martinez Donut Shop and peeked inside. Maria-Elena was behind the register, donning her signature bubble-gum-pink lipstick and bright blue eyeshadow. She looked up and caught me watching her through the glass window. She smiled her big white smile and waved.
“What do you mean I can’t work there anymore? It’s my life, and I choose to live it the way I want to. You are not my dad. You have no authority over me.” Tears streamed down my cheek and off my chin.
“I may not be your father, but I am the hand that feeds you. And it’s thanks to my hard work that you have a roof over your head and clothes on your back. And I will not have you talking to me with that tone in my own house. Aquí, yo mando.” My grandfather’s voice rang through the whole house and probably throughout the whole neighborhood.
“You’re acting like I’m out on the streets” I couldn’t believe how closed-minded he was being. What was so wrong about working at the donut shop? It wasn’t the best job on the planet, but Maria-Elena was nice and the pay wasn’t bad. He kept saying that if I wanted to be treated like a grown-up, then I had to start accepting grown-up responsibilities.
Well, I thought, that’s exactly what I’m doing, and it’s still not good enough for him!
“Rosario, I am done having this conversation. You either quit that job tomorrow or I will go myself and talk to Maria-Elena” He took a step back and walked out the front door. I heard the door slam and an engine start. I ran to the front door and watched as Buelo pulled out of the driveway and sped off into the street.
I went to my room, shut the door, flung myself onto my bed, and wept.
An hour later, my brother Lalo walked in with a glass of water.“Hey, princess. Are you done crying? Come on, get up.”
I sat up. My head was spinning and I felt like throwing up. My vision was blurry, because my eyes had swollen up so much. I drank some of the water and cleared my throat.
“Why is he making such a big deal out of nothing, Lalo?” I hugged him tightly. I felt like nothing could cause me harm, not while I was under the warmth of my brother. For a split second, I was once again the eight year old who ran to him whenever Buela tried to spank me.
He didn’t let go of his grip. He whispered,“Rosario, he’s not doing this because he wants to make your life miserable—he wants to make your life easier. You don’t really need a job. Yeah, sure, it feels nice to carry a little extra cash in your pocket, but it’s not like you’re in need of money. And eventually, there’ll come a moment when you’ll be forced to choose between your schoolwork and your job. And that’s the last thing Buelo wants—it’s the last thing any of us want. We know you are capable of going to college and making something of yourself. We won’t give up on you—don’t give up on us…”
The next day, after school, I went to the donut shop and quit my job.
I was two blocks away from home. My head was racing, but I tried not to think about it too much. The faster I got home, the less time I would have to spend thinking about it. So I decided my best option was to take a short cut. I would walk through the small streets rather than the main streets.
I had avoided that route for such a long time. The neighborhoods seemed foreign, the houses unfamiliar, and the faces unwelcoming.
As I passed by Mr. Bernie’s front lawn, an old, dirty dog lay with flies and pigeons sur-
rounding him. That was the almighty dog that frightened me so much as a child. Now he was barely able to move, never mind bark.
The next house on my route was Leticia’s, the elderly woman who was once very close to my grandmother. We would go over to her house to eat some pan con café. She and my grandmother would spill the beans about everyone on the block. They always had the best chisme. They knew that Kenia was going to leave her husband before he did. When Xochitl’s brother got married to an older woman, they were the first to know. When Esteban and Julieta started dating, Buela and Leticia were the first to catch them.
At Leticia’s funeral, Buela refused to talk to anyone and sat beside her grave for hours. Buelo had to beg Buela to come home. And after many hours of pleading, she reluctantly agreed to leave Leticia’s side.
Leticia’s house wasn’t the reason I avoided this route. It was the orange house with the grey porch. It was the house of the only guy I’ve ever loved.
“I told you that kid was up to no good, Rosa!” Esteban yelled.
“I’m telling you, Uriel didn’t do anything. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Come on, please, let me go see what’s going on.”
Uriel and his cousins had been arrested in the park on drug possession charges. But I knew him better than anyone else did. He didn’t mess with any drugs. I’m sure it was all a big misunderstanding, but I wanted to check it out for myself.
“Lalo, please tell him that Uriel is a good guy, that he’s not like the rest of those lowlifes. Please, I have to go see what is happening to him. Please!” I could no longer hold back my tears.
Uriel and I had met the summer after ninth grade. My cousin, Maritza, had a huge crush on his stepbrother, Felipe. And Felipe liked Maritza too. Uriel and I ended up being their messengers. They would give us gifts to swap for them and sent each other Ferrero Rocher boxes and letters soaked in Curve cologne and Victoria’s Secret perfume. My whole life, my brothers taught me to distrust boys, so I paid Uriel no mind in the beginning.
As time went by, I started having actual conversations with him. And eventually, our conversations were less about Maritza and Felipe and more about Rosario and Uriel—until one day when he showed up to my doorstep with a box of chocolates, a bouquet of sunflowers, and a cologne-soaked envelope. His hair was combed back and he was wearing a button-up shirt. I knew those flowers weren’t for Maritza.
He became the person I trusted the most. I told him my deepest secrets, let him see my most vulnerable moments, and gave him a front row seat to the showcasing of all my insecurities. Even my grandparents liked him. They personally invited him to family carne asadas and Buela even helped him get a job at the local barbershop. Uriel helped Miguel, Emilio, and Mauricio get into the community sports teams and got Lalo a job at the community center.
Uriel’s cousins were infamous for their reckless drag races, their uncontrollable kickbacks, and for recruiting neighborhood boys to sell “product.” Uriel made it his life’s mission not to succumb to this lifestyle. He thought it was “too late to go to college,” but he educated himself in different ways. When he wasn’t at the barbershop, or with me, he was in the library reading about La Batalla de Puebla or the Zoot Suit Riots or keeping up with the daily news of his mother’s homeland.
Everyone loved Uriel—he was noble, trabajador y tranquilo—everyone but Esteban. Uriel was a couple years older than me and Esteban was convinced that Uriel’s intentions were anything but pure. He was sure that I would ruin my life if I stayed with Uriel. “He ain’t up to no good, Rosario. Just another cholito trying to run a hustle on a pretty young woman. You don’t need a silly barrio kid in your life—you’re going places,” Esteban would say whenever Uriel came to family events.
Esteban’s comment wasn’t completely wrong: Uriel was a barrio kid. He thought like one—knew which streets were safe to walk and which to avoid. He spoke like one—using caló to speak the beauty of our everyday struggle. He acted like one—didn’t let people put him down because his brown skin showed traces of indigenous effort. He loved like one—put his mother before any other woman on the planet, respected his father (and made sure to tell him he loved him everyday), pushed those around him to do good for themselves, held me in his arms, promising to never stop protecting me.
A while later, there was a knock on the door. It was Jessica, Uriel’s neighbor. Her hair was a mess of knots and tangles. Her clothes were wrinkled and wet. Her face florid, she was crying hysterically. She had a hard time catching her breath. But finally she managed to say three simple words. Three simple words that would change my world forever:
“They shot Uriel.”
I was finally at my porch. My clothes were soaked. My leg hurt so much it had gone numb. My body ached. My curls were now a ball of frizz, but I was finally home. That letter would determine the outcome of the rest of my life. If I got accepted, I would spend the rest of my life making money doing what I loved: writing stories that spoke to people. My life would change forever. I would be able to write movies about regular people like Buelo and Buela and Leticia, Maria-Elena, and Mr. Bernie. I would break the stereotype that Latinas don’t go to college to write film. I would be able to write a tribute to Uriel and share with the world what the silly barrio kid brought to the world.
If I didn’t get accepted, I would spend the rest of my life working a job that only “paid the bills.” I would be just like any other person who walked the Earth and made no contributions. I would be just another smart homegirl who got stuck in the all-too-familiar cycle of failure after high school. I would just be Doña Chuya’s nieta trabajadora, Don Manuel’s stubborn granddaughter, the girlfriend whom Uriel left behind.
I unlocked the door and walked in. Esteban, Lalo, Miguel, Emilio, Mauricio, and Buela were all sitting on the couch. I smiled nervously at them. They said nothing—just smiled back.
There it was. On the dining table. I picked up the envelope and opened it. I began to read. I read the first few words, and that was all I needed to read.
My eyes couldn’t fight off the tears.