As I write this, we are in the tenth month of sheltering in place while the pandemic wreaks havoc on our country. We also nervously await the inauguration of a new president as our nation’s Capitol is militarized in anticipation of further acts of insurrection.
And I am still mourning the passing of my father, Michael Augustine Olivas, who was called back on September 23, 2020, after a long illness. The son of Mexican immigrants, my father had dreamed of publishing his fiction and poetry, but to no avail. He destroyed all of his writings and got on with his life of being a loving husband and father of five children. Though he never explained to me why he took such permanent, drastic action, I suspect the rejection was just too much for my father, and he decided to snuff out all physical evidence of his literary dreams. But he took great pleasure in the fact that I became a published author, and my last visits with him were filled with joyous discussions about books and my latest literary projects.
I am also a person with two lives. On the one hand, in my “day job” as a senior attorney with the California Department of Justice, I supervise a team of just under fifty attorneys and paralegals in the areas of land use, environmental enforcement, and affordable housing. My days are filled with video meetings, phone calls, memoranda, legal briefs, and assorted correspondence—all while I sit at our kitchen island as my wife also teleworks and supervises a team of administrative law judges from our home study. I work with committed, brilliant professionals who have “kept it together” despite being forced to work from home, sometimes with young children to care for and educate while juggling a demanding legal practice. And some of this legal work involves fighting the Trump administration’s policies targeting our immigrant communities with regard to basic needs such as housing. So in terms of my day job, my plate is full, as they say.
In my other life, I write fiction, poetry, essays, author interviews, and plays. And after almost twenty-five years of writing short stories of various genres, I realized that many—though not all—of my narratives fell within the world of magic, fairy tales, fables, and dystopian futures. A few months ago, I decided to read through my published stories and select some of my favorite, more curious tales. Our strange times seemed to call for it. In compiling the stories that make up this volume, I noticed that many of them confronted—either directly or obliquely—questions of morality, justice, and self-determination while being deeply steeped in Chicano and Mexican culture. A few of my tales simply focused on the way that we, as people, often hurt those we love for reasons that are as cruel as they are confounding. And the final two stories in this collection represent my newest pieces, written in 2019, both of which confront Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies; in one, I utilize a dystopian narrative that now seems a bit too close to reality, while the other is imbued with magical realism.
As I reread my stories and assembled this collection, I found myself falling back into memories of writing these tales throughout the last quarter century. Our son was quite young when I wrote many of these stories, and as he matured and became more sophisticated, I would like to think my storytelling abilities did so as well.
I also pondered a question that I have explored in my dozens of published interviews with other authors: Why do I write? While many of the authors I have interviewed throughout the years eloquently explained what inspired them to become writers, I truly do not know why I must write. I do know that I attempt to express the beauty and complexities of my culture rooted in Mexico, the home of my grandparents. Moreover, inaccurate depictions of my culture are too common, and I believe I have a moral duty to correct those depictions through my own storytelling.
You could say that when I write, I am making a political statement because I am adding my voice—my very Chicano voice—to the artistic conversation of our country. I think this inherently political element is inevitable for all writers who come from marginalized communities. And I know that my parents encouraged my siblings and me to express pride in our culture in whatever form we felt appropriate.
Why did I choose “How to Date a Flying Mexican” as the title story? Two reasons. First, of all the stories I have read to audiences throughout the years, that is the one that has received the strongest response: in the form of laughter but also recognition of the cultural touchstones that it describes. Second, it was one of my late father’s favorite stories of mine. The title alone made him laugh—a laugh I miss more and more each day.
My father was a proud Chicano who—along with my mother—made certain his children were exposed to Mexican art, literature, and culture. And this collection is imbued with that cultural pride. In one of my last conversations with my father, I told him I was working on this manuscript and that I had chosen his favorite piece as the title story. He smiled. He approved. A son could not ask for more.
If you have read most of these stories before, I hope you enjoy them again. And if my stories are new to you, let me say: Welcome to my strange little world.
“How to Date a Flying Mexican”
Rule 1: Don’t Tell Anyone About the Flying Part After the second night Conchita witnessed Moisés flying in his backyard under the moonlight, and after the first night they shared her bed (which happened to be the second night she witnessed him flying in his backyard under the moonlight), she realized that no one, not even her sister Julieta, could learn of her new novio’s extraordinary talent. What would people think? Certainly gossip would spread throughout the neighborhood, eventually migrating south out of Los Angeles and down below the border to Conchita’s hometown of Ocotlán via whispered phone calls, wisecracking emails, and even terse though revealing postcards. Yes, the chisme would most certainly creep out of the city limits, inexorably spreading like a noxious fog, finally reaching all of her friends and family, who would shake their collective head about poor Conchita Lozano de la Peña finally going loca. And, of course they would proclaim, such madness involved lust. See what happens when you don’t settle down like all good Catholic Mexican women and marry a man who can give you children and something to look forward to in old age! No God-fearing woman should enter her sixth decade of life—as Conchita had two years earlier—without having walked down the aisle to accept the sacrament of marriage. And it makes no matter that Conchita certainly doesn’t look her age—with skin as smooth as Indian pottery combined with a voluptuous figure that would knock the false teeth out of any mature (and eligible) man. But that’s the problem, you see. Too much fun, not enough pain. And now Conchita thinks she has fallen in love with a Mexican who can fly. ¡Ay Chihuahua!
So, you see, no one can find out about her novio’s penchant for flying. Period. Conchita’s good fortune cannot be tarnished by this slightly odd behavior. While keeping this secret, she will proudly introduce him to her comadres at tardeadas, quinceañeras, and funerals even if they have already recognized Moisés Rojo as Conchita’s recently widowed but still vigorous next-door neighbor. And people will, indeed, nod with approval because this woman (¡finalmente!) has found a solid, handsome, and age-appropriate gentleman who maybe—just maybe—will ask her to marry him. And perhaps—they will say—Conchita will come to her senses after all these years of “dating” charming but useless men and allow the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to bless their union in a proper Mexican wedding. Because in God’s eyes, it is never too late for sinners as long as they are still living and breathing and taking up space on this miraculous place we call Earth.
When Conchita finally broached the subject with Moisés—about his flying, not marriage—he held up his right hand, palm out to his new love, and corrected her: “I do not fly, mi amor,” he said softly. “I levitate.”
“And what exactly is the difference?” she asked.
“Planes fly,” he explained. “Birds and mosquitoes and kites fly. People levitate.”
“Oh,” said Conchita. “That’s clear. But what should I tell people?”
Moisés only shrugged. A few minutes later, when Conchita attempted to return to the topic, Moisés kissed her. Conchita surrendered to him as if this were their first kiss. Moisés pulled back and looked into his novia’s eyes. “Tell people whatever you wish,” he said. “To me it makes no difference.”
And so it was: Conchita decided never to share her secret with anyone.
Rule 2: Don’t Try to Understand How He Does It Other than the flying part, Conchita found Moisés to be quite normal. He ate, slept, read the paper, and loved her as any ordinary man would. When Conchita asked him one day why she couldn’t fly unless she held his hand (in which case she would rise effortlessly from the Earth as if she were filled with helium), Moisés, of course, corrected her terminology (“I levitate, I don’t fly”) and then explained that after his wife died, he had fallen out of balance. So he took up yoga and transcendental meditation.
“How did you learn of these things?” asked Conchita.
“I went online and typed in: OUT OF BALANCE,” he said. “I found many excellent websites and articles.”
“And?” Conchita pressed.
“And after much study, I became a disciple.”
“A disciple of what?”
“Of balance, mi amor,” Moisés answered. “Balance.”
“And if I studied yoga and transcendental meditation,” ventured Conchita, “I, too, could learn to fly?”
“Of course not,” he said. “I read nothing of levitation. It just happened one night as I sat in the lotus position while chanting my mantra.”
Conchita skipped asking what a mantra was but nonetheless continued her cross-examination on the crucial issue at hand: “Must you have moonlight to fly?”
“No, no,” said Moisés, betraying a bit of impatience. “This is not magic. It is pure physics.”
“I knew it!” exclaimed Conchita. “No magic, just magnetic fields, right?”
At this, Moisés simply sniffed and reached for his cup of coffee. Conchita stood at her kitchen sink waiting for an answer to her question.
“You make the richest coffee I’ve ever tasted,” Moisés finally offered. “What do you do to make it so delicious?”
“It’s my mother’s little secret,” she said, pleased by the compliment but annoyed at the evasion.
Sensing Conchita’s conflicting emotions, Moisés said: “Magnetic fields could certainly be at work.”
Conchita smiled and refilled her lover’s cup with fresh coffee.
Rule 3: Don’t Lie about It to Your Dead Mother On the third night they shared her bed, Conchita’s late mother, Belén, appeared to her daughter. Moisés snored softly, curled up like a milk-drowsed baby, while Conchita sat by his side, propped up on two pillows, surveying her new and quite delightful situation. And then, in a blink, there stood Belén at the foot of her bed dressed in the pretty floral print she’d been buried in, holding a cup of coffee and puffing on a fat hand-rolled cigarette.
“Ay, mija,” said Belén after she exhaled a large billow of white smoke. “Another man?”
“Mamá,” whispered Conchita. “How long have you been watching?”
“Oh, mija, I saw the whole thing.”
“¡Ay Dios mío!” exclaimed Conchita through tight lips. “This is so embarrassing!”
“Don’t worry, mija,” said Belén. “I’m dead. Nothing embarrasses me. You ought to see what your sisters do.”
Conchita was partially placated by this thought but she wondered if, in fact, her younger sisters really enjoyed themselves with their men and whether they were having more fun than she. But her mother interrupted such musings.
“So, mija, your new man flies, eh?”
“I don’t know what you mean, Mamá,” said Conchita as she crossed her arms and turned to gaze upon a slumbering Moisés.
“Don’t lie to your mother,” said Belén. “The Fourth Commandment forbids it, as it is numbered by the Roman Catholic Church.”
“It is useless anyway,” reasoned Belén. “I know all. Mothers always do.”
Conchita knew that her mother spoke the truth.
“So, otra vez, mija, I ask you: Does your new man fly?”
“If mothers know all,” said Conchita with a sly smile, “why do you ask?”
“Because mothers want their children to admit things,” she scolded. “Does your novio fly?”
“No, Mamá, he levitates,” said Conchita as she turned to face her mother. “Planes fly. And so do mosquitoes and birds and other things. But people levitate.”
“Ni modo,” said Belén with a wave of her cigarette. “It’s all the same. He’s up in the air like a plane or a bird or a mosquito or whatever.” With that, Belén sipped her coffee and let out a little burp.
“But his special talent doesn’t make him a bad person, Mamá,” said Conchita, feeling a bit defensive.
“You’re right,” said Belén. “Sabes qué, mija, before I met your papá, I dated a man who could do things with his mouth that were simply miraculous.”
“No, Mamá, I don’t need to hear this.”
“Oh, mija, that man,” continued Belén, “that man could make me fly!”
Belén let out a little laugh as her mind wandered to ancient memories.
And Conchita let out a sigh.
“His name was Francisco,” said Belén after a few moments.
Conchita blinked. “You mean the butcher?”
Belén nodded, took another sip of coffee, and then puffed heartily on her fat cigarette.
At that moment, Moisés woke with a start. “Did you say something?” he asked without opening his eyes.
Belén blew a kiss to her daughter and disappeared.
“No, mi cielo,” said Conchita. “Back to sleep; it was nothing.”
“Have you been smoking?” asked Moisés as he sniffed the air and opened his eyes to a mere slit.
“No, mi cielo, no,” said Conchita as she pushed down her pillows and snuggled near her man. “You know I don’t smoke.”
Moisés closed his eyes and started to snore softly.
Rule 4: Don’t Grow Weak in Your Resolve to Keep the Secret Each morning before 7:30 a.m., except on Sundays, Conchita asks Moisés to go back home. It’s not because she doesn’t appreciate the intimacy that only long, lazy hours in bed can bring. No. It’s because her sister Julieta drops by each morning at 7:30 a.m. sharp, Monday through Saturday, to end her power walk and have a little chat with her hermana. After sharing a little family time, Julieta walks home, showers, and meets her husband at their camera shop for another full day of keeping their fussy customers happy. Having Moisés leave before Julieta arrives is not for Julieta’s benefit. Not at all. Julieta knows that, throughout the years, her older sister has enjoyed dating many men. And, being sisters, they have shared many personal stories, though most of them came from Conchita, not Julieta. In reality, Conchita wanted to spare Moisés the embarrassment of having to socialize with Julieta. He was a sensitive man who read books, enjoyed art and, most important, was still healing from his wife’s death, though he tried mightily to hide his grief from Conchita.
So Conchita would wake to her buzzing alarm clock at 6:00 a.m., kiss Moisés before doing anything else, serve a wonderful breakfast of tamales de puerco and hot coffee along with the newspaper, and then direct her man out the front door. Moisés obliged without argument, subdued by love, food, and the morning news. He’d walk next door to his home, shower, and then meditate in his living room while Conchita and Julieta visited.
During the first two weeks Conchita had enjoyed her new relationship, Julieta used her morning visits to pepper her older sister with questions. Julieta’s preliminary queries were somewhat benign and quite general, such as “Does he snore?” and “What’s his favorite food?” But then, after a couple of days, Julieta dug deep: “How often do you make love?” and “How big a wedding do you want?” Such questions didn’t bother Conchita. Indeed, she’d be insulted if Julieta failed to probe into her love life. But one morning, her sister surprised Conchita with a particularly insightful query.
“What makes Moisés different from all the other men you’ve been with?” she asked as Conchita served coffee.
This was precisely the kind of question that Conchita had feared. She’d always shared with Julieta the deepest, most personal elements of her dating life even though Julieta, after drinking up every delicious detail, would eventually scold her older sister for not settling down. Would it hurt if Conchita revealed this little secret to her best audience? What’s the worst that could happen? Julieta would think she’s crazy? No big deal. But perhaps Conchita shouldn’t move too fast on this. Maybe she could drop little crumbs of information to see how Julieta reacts.
“He’s very spiritual,” answered Conchita, relying on every ounce of self-control that she could muster.
Julieta perked up. “Spiritual?” she asked. “You mean he prays to todos los santos and goes to Mass a lot?”
“Not quite,” answered Conchita, looking over to the kitchen window.
“Well, what do you mean, hermana?”
Conchita turned back to her sister, brought the coffee cup to her lips, and said: “He meditates.”
Conchita drank and then slowly lowered her cup until it met the wooden tabletop with a muffled clink. She nodded and waited.
“Meditates?” Julieta spat out again. “What is he, some kind of . . . of . . . of . . . agnostic?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that.”
“But meditation?” continued Julieta. “What kind of man meditates? What’s wrong with saying a rosary? That works for me. It works for all good Catholics, right? A good rosary and I’m ready for bed and a good night’s sleep.”
At that moment Conchita realized that it would be a mistake to tell her sister that in addition to meditation, Moisés also levitated. So much for sharing.
Rule 5: Don’t Google the Word Levitation The same morning Conchita decided, once and for all, that it would be best not to share with Julieta her little secret, she decided to do some research on her novio’s special talent. She typed in “levitation” on Google and got over 2 million hits. Too many to go through. How could she limit her search? Ah! One of the books Moisés loved to read was entitled The Gateway to Eastern Mysticism. Conchita added the words “eastern mysticism” to “levitation” and got 15,263 hits. Much more manageable. After going through several websites, she found one that seemed promising. The first paragraph explained this phenomenon:
The reported instances of levitations have been observed in connection with hauntings, shamanistic trances, mystical rapture, mediumship, magic, bewitchments, and (of course) possessions of various types (e.g., satanic or demonic). Based on documented events, many if not most levitations last a short time, perhaps only a few seconds or minutes. In the field of parapsychology, levitation is considered by many as a phenomenon of telekinesis, also known as “mind over matter.”
The first part sent an electrical current of panic through Conchita’s entire body. Hauntings? Satanic possessions? ¡Dios mío! What had she gotten herself into?
She pushed on:
Not a small number of saints and mystics reportedly levitated as proof of God’s great power over the incarnate form, in holy rapture, or because of their saintly nature. Reputable reports documented the abilities of the seventeenth-century saint Joseph of Cupertino, who could levitate. Indeed, the reports indicated that he could fly in the air for longer periods of time than ever documented with other similar instances of levitation. Conversely, in Eastern mysticism, levitation is an act made possible by mastering concentration as well as breathing techniques that are at the core of the universal life energy.
Ah! Saints! Perhaps Moisés was a modern santo! Conchita wiped her upper lip with the back of her hand and began to calm down. Maybe levitation wasn’t so odd after all. She went to Wikipedia, typed in “St. Joseph of Cupertino” and read:
Saint Joseph of Cupertino (Italian: San Giuseppe da Copertino) (June 17, 1603–September 18, 1663) was an Italian saint. He was said to have been remarkably unclever, but prone to miraculous levitation and intense ecstatic visions that left him gaping. In turn, he is recognized as the patron saint of air travelers, aviators, astronauts, people with a mental handicap, test takers, and weak students. He was canonized in the year 1767.
Conchita read about Joseph’s father, who was a carpenter and a charitable man. But he died before poor Joseph was even born, leaving his wife, Francesca Panara, “destitute and pregnant with the future saint.” Conchita eventually came to this:
As a child, Joseph was remarkably slow witted. He loved God a lot and built an altar. This was where he prayed the rosary. He suffered from painful ulcers during his childhood. After a hermit applied oil from the lamp burning before a picture of Our Lady of Grace, Joseph was completely cured from his painful ulcers. He was given the pejorative nickname “the Gaper” due to his habit of staring blankly into space. He was also said to have had a violent temper.
Such miserable lives these saints lived, thought Conchita. Clearly, that’s why they became santos. ¿No? But what of levitation? Conchita wanted to know the details. She scanned the article further, her heart beating fast. This Joseph of Cupertino was a real misfit who had been teased endlessly by his classmates when he had holy visions at the age of eight. Eight! So young to be seeing things. Because of his bad temper and limited education, he had been turned away, at seventeen, by the Friars Minor Conventuals. Eventually, Joseph was admitted to a Capuchin friary, but was soon removed when his constant fits of ecstasy proved him unsuitable. In his early twenties, he was accepted by a Franciscan friary near Cupertino. The article continued:
On October 4, 1630, the town of Cupertino held a procession on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Joseph was assisting in the procession when he suddenly soared into the sky, where he remained hovering over the crowd. When he descended and realized what had happened, he became so embarrassed that he fled to his mother’s house and hid. This was the first of many flights, which soon earned him the nickname “The Flying Saint.”
And finally, she read that when this saint heard the names of Jesus or Mary, participated in the singing of hymns during the feast of St. Francis, or prayed at Mass, he would go into a trance and soar into the air, “remaining there until a superior commanded him under obedience to revive.” His superiors eventually hid him away because his levitations caused great public disturbances. But he also gave off a sweet smell because he was pure. Poor St. Joseph of Cupertino! A prisoner of his own holiness. Would that be her new man’s fate if anyone discovered his secret? Would the government or even the Catholic Church want to hide Moisés away so as not to cause public disturbances? No, it was clear to Conchita. Moisés must keep his levitation a secret from all. Period. End of story.
Rule 6: Don’t Forget to Breathe Conchita and Moisés made a compact. If she taught him the secret of her delicious coffee, he’d teach her how to meditate. Moisés quickly mastered Conchita’s brewing techniques. However, introducing Conchita to the art of meditation was an entirely different affair. Oh, she easily became skilled at sitting in the lotus position—due in large part to her great flexibility, which also made her a delight in bed. But Conchita wrestled mightily with the meditation part of it.
“I’m distracted,” she complained as she sat on his living room carpet. “I can’t keep my mind from bouncing from thing to thing.”
Moisés counseled her: “Mi amor, the most important moment in meditation is when you realize that you are, in fact, distracted.”
“¡No es cierto!”
“Yes, it is true,” he cooed. “Say to yourself: I am now distracted.”
“But I can’t empty my mind,” she protested.
Moisés said, “Meditation is not the absence of thought.”
Conchita opened her eyes and turned to her man, who kneeled next to her. “What the hell is it, then?” she asked.
Moisés gently turned Conchita’s head, closed her eyes with his fingertips, and pressed his right palm onto her lower back, his left onto her abdomen. “Don’t forget to breathe,” he said.
Conchita obeyed her teacher and inhaled deeply.
“Now exhale,” he instructed. “Let your thoughts come and go without clinging to them so that you can focus on the meditation.”
Conchita inhaled deeply again. And after a few moments, she exhaled with a soft whoosh.
This is really stupid, she thought. I’m such a pendeja.
“Tomorrow,” said Moisés, “we’ll discover your mantra.”
“Perfecto,” said Conchita. “Perfecto.”
“Do you mean it?”
“Yes,” said Conchita. “I’ve always wondered what kind of mantra I would have when I grew old and senile.”
Summing Up: Let Us Review First, never, under any circumstances, let anyone know that your new lover can fly. This will cause your family and friends great consternation and might lead to the government or Catholic Church locking him up to prevent public disturbances.
Second, don’t lie to your dead mother about it. She is dead, after all, so she won’t be disturbed by the news. Besides, nothing escapes her so you might as well fess up. The Fourth Commandment (as it is numbered by the Roman Catholic Church) is, indeed, the most important one of all. At least for dead mothers.
Third, do not conduct internet research on your lover’s levitation skills. What you find will only cause great agitation and make you perspire profusely. Sometimes controlled ignorance is the only way to get through life.
Fourth, enjoy your flying Mexican. Life is short and we all need to take delight where we can find it. A corollary to this is that you should learn to accept your lover’s special talents even if they’re annoying.
And finally, we hope that you remember the most important lesson of all: Do not forget to breathe.