April 20, 2018
Dear Mamá Coco,
It's been a pretty interesting month. My teacher, Carlos, got interviewed on Azteca Uno about de la Cruz. He said that he'd suspected for a long time that there was a secret songwriter, and he made a lot of points about disconnects in the way the music comes together in the arrangements, and the way de la Cruz talked in his interviews. And he said that he had an opportunity to hear Papá Héctor on the record the nuns found, and he's convinced that Papá Héctor is the real songwriter. He said a lot of technical things, but it really came back to that record, with an older version of Poco Loco on it. It's hard to argue with, you know? So that started the circus. We've had reporters all over Santa Cecilia for three weeks, and tourists coming in, and they keep trying to take pictures of us. I sing in the plaza now -- every Saturday night, it's great, and I'm making my own money! -- and now people keep trying to ask if I'm going to, I don't know, take all of the old movies or something.
Papá gave one reporter permission to talk to me, because she knew I was Carlos's source for the record and the lyrics. So there I am, on television, and she asked me what I thought the music was supposed to sound like. I told her that "Remember Me" was a lullaby, and she asked me to sing it the way it was meant to be. I told her that it was meant to be in the family, and she didn't push, but I kind of wonder if I should sing it once in public, so that people know what de la Cruz really did to it. I'm trying to figure out if that would be okay, but I'm going to go with 'no' until there's a really good reason to change my mind.
There was a man after the interview who said I didn't need to wait for school to be finished, and I could just be a singer now and maybe be in a telenovela he's producing. I definitely said no to that! He kept bothering me about it until Papá said "My son said to leave now -- I suggest you do."
Anyway, it helped a lot when we had a hearing in the mayor's office, with the ladies from the historical society. They saw me on television, and they saw all the people who came down just to find out about Papá Héctor, and they think it will be all right to take the guitar out of de la Cruz's tomb. Tía Gloria is going to make a little museum at the shop for tourists to come to, so the town will still get the money, which makes them happy. Abel is going to build a wall so we can all still make shoes in peace. (And I made a pair of wing-tips… tell Papá Julio, I used his pattern.) I was really slow, but I did it. I'm still practicing on the new guitar (Papá painted designs on it that are like the eyelets in a shoe!), but I'm performing with the real one. It's back! And it's still perfect.
Abuelita took me to the bank after school on Monday, and we set up a savings account for my music money to go into. It will be for the conservatory. I'm learning a lot. I've watched two operas, a lot of old Broadway musicals, a Beethoven symphony, and an African drumming group. Next week, a steel drum band is coming to the plaza all the way from Jamaica! I'm going to go see them, and I might be going with a friend of mine. Her name is Abril. I kind of like her. I wish you were here so I could tell you every single thing, but I'll let you know next time how it went.
Love you, Mamá Coco!
The truck rattled and belched as it made its way up the mountain. Luisa and the baby were safely up in the cab with Isidro. Enrique and Miguel were in the truck bed. Miguel seemed to be enjoying the ride, and had to be told several times to keep himself belted to the slats. Enrique had a feeling that allowing this sort of thing might be frowned upon in parenting guides.
On the other hand, he'd spent his own childhood riding around in truck beds, and he'd lived to tell the tale, and this wasn't the first time Miguel had ridden in his grandfather's truck this way.
Still, Enrique was more comfortable watching Miguel than watching the scenery roll away beside them, especially as the dirt road skirted along beside long drops into the gullies. They'd passed through a low cloud earlier, and both of them were a little wet and sticky. Miguel didn't seem to mind. He hadn't brought along his guitar (for once), so there was no worry about damaging it.
And getting out of town had never seemed like a better idea. Enrique regretted allowing a television reporter to speak to Miguel -- she'd been kind, and he'd presented himself very well. Too well. Other reporters were trying to get pictures, and Enrique and Luisa had spent a good deal of the past week making sure that Miguel only got letters that weren't disturbing. Enrique was disturbed enough for all three of them. He let through the ones from other children, even the girls who left lipstick prints on their letters, but the ones from adults got much more careful attention. About half of them were locked up before Miguel got home, and the only reason they weren't shredded was that Calles recommended keeping them, in case any of the crazies tried anything. It had not set Enrique's mind at ease about letting Miguel perform anywhere other than the plaza. He'd breathed a sigh of relief when Miguel himself had balked at offers from television producers. Carlos had advised Miguel to answer none of the mail ("You'll end up doing nothing else, and some of these types, you don't want to encourage").
There had also been a smattering of angry letters from de la Cruz fans, but most of that had landed on Carlos, who said he was happy to take it.
But it was good to get away from the first taste of craziness.
Papá Isidro's village, San Pedro Ayahuitl, was about an hour and a half out of Santa Cecilia, but it felt like an entirely different world as the truck finally pulled up beside an old brick house that practically hung off the side of the mountain. Cats were draped over an old swing on the veranda and three of them had climbed up to the roof to sun themselves. Across the street and up a little bit was another house that looked the same, and further up, Enrique knew, there was a small school and a basketball court under a shade structure. The town's entire population might have been two hundred souls. It made Santa Cecilia look like a major urban center.
The door opened as Enrique got down and reached up to help Miguel down. A woman came out wearing blue jeans and an embroidered shirt, a pair of cheap rubber chanclas, and an exquisitely woven straw sunhat. She shouted something at Isidro in Zapotec, and he answered her, then looked over his shoulder at Enrique. "My sister says you're still too skinny and the boy is a twig. She would get along with Elena, I think."
Miguel waved. "Hola, Tía Meche."
Meche shook her head and switched to Spanish. "Hola, Miguel. It's good to finally see you up here! I have treats inside, and your cousins are waiting for you." She switched back to Zapotec and said something cross to Isidro.
He shook his head and looked at Enrique. "She wants to know why you and Miguel haven't learned your own language yet."
"Well, Miguel, maybe, but…"
Meche made a "tsssk" sound as Miguel went around her into the house, and shook her hands at the sky with another exclamation.
"She says to look in a mirror sometime," Isidro translated. "And with that, I mainly agree. But she knows you don't speak the language, and is just being rude right now."
Meche sighed and went to the truck, where she happily took the baby from Luisa to let her get down. Luisa's Zapotec was rusty (at best; Isidro had raised her in town with Spanish as her first language), but she wasn't treated to a lecture on the subject. Socorro simply got an earful of whatever Meche was telling her.
Luisa slipped her arm around Enrique's waist. "Sorry," she said. "I did mean to teach Miguel. I just never got around to it. Tía Meche is a little bit particular."
They climbed the stairs to the squeaky front door and went inside. Miguel was already settled with a handful of second cousins, all of whom had appeared to have seen him on television and wanted to know about the pretty reporter he'd spoken to about Papá Héctor's songs, and what the cameras had been like, and whether or not the lights were as hot as people said (Enrique was willing to give that one an unqualified yes -- he'd thought he was going to melt on the sidelines). Miguel told them that he wanted to learn everything about this side of his family now, and, before Luisa and Enrique had even sat down, there was a great scurrying among the children to get "all the things." Miguel disappeared upstairs with them.
"Isidro told me what Miguel is doing," Meche said in perfectly good Spanish. "The children are excited to help, at least since they saw him on television. They're very impressed at being related to someone who was on television." She gave the screen a disapproving look. "We tell stories every Día de Muertos. They know them all. Mostly we tell them in town, though, in the plaza. Everyone is related to everyone, anyway."
"Where are Leti and Bas?" Luisa asked. "I was hoping to see them."
"Leti will come for dinner, and to pick up the children. She has a job at the market in town. She manages the day shift," Meche said proudly. "That's why I have the twins for the day. Nando is doing extra shifts at the mine." Enrique racked his brains for the names of Luisa's cousin's twins. The girl was Loli, he thought. The boy was another "L" name. Leo? Lalo? Luchi?
Luchi. He was Luis, after Luisa. Enrique decided that he really ought to remember that one.
The other two, whose names he just plain didn't know, belonged to Meche's son Bas, who Enrique hadn't seen since the wedding. He'd seemed a good enough sort.
"Bas is driving a truck," Meche said. "It's good money, but he's gone a lot. Mamá and Papá got him started on it. They meet a lot of truckers while they go around in that camper. They told him about the money. He needs it. That house of theirs is falling apart. Gabi's down in the city. She's a nurse. She works three days a week, two shifts each, then comes up for the other four days. Chayo and Nico stay with me while she's gone. I hope Miguel will be all right in with Nico tonight?"
"He'll be fine," Luisa said.
In a thunder of jostling bodies, the children came down the stairs, pushing along a large cardboard box. Miguel guided it to an open spot on the floor, and little Nico pushed open the flaps and started pulling out shawls and ribbons and a half a dozen other kinds of family detritus. Miguel extracted a photo album, and for the next hour, he sat between Tía Meche and Papá Isidro, listening to their extended introductions to which belongings went with which picture of their various tíos and tías, and cousins counted out on their fingers. (Some of the cousins were married to each other, and their children's relationship to Miguel had to be calculated.) Enrique was vaguely interested in this; Luisa's eyes were glazed over as she fed Socorro (from a bottle; to her disappointment, that situation had not corrected itself). Miguel, on the other hand, was listening raptly, asking questions about what each person liked. The children were ready to jump in on this. ("Prima Sabri loved pineapples! Tío Tomi had a funny mustache!")
They went straight back on their line through to their own great-great-grandparents before the trail seemed to grow cold. But stories had been told about them to their grandchildren, and to their grandchildren, and now to their grandchildren's grandchildren's grandchildren. In the land of the dead, they were probably getting a boost. Enrique amused himself thinking of people who would have been old enough to be Mamá Imelda's grandparents going out for a stroll along the cobblestoned streets he'd imagined for Miguel's tale, maybe doing a little bit of shopping.
"And you have music from everywhere," Loli said. "Mamá Meche sings."
"You do?" Miguel asked.
Meche nodded. "Maybe I'll teach you a song later."
"And her mother sings, and her father sings, and…"
"Loli, we get the idea," Meche said.
"I didn't know any of this," Luisa said, pulling herself up from her semi-glazed state and re-arranging Socorro on her shoulder. "Papá, you never told me you came from music people."
"Why do you think I let people in to tune that beautiful guitar? It was a sin, letting it hang in a tomb, untouched." He tipped his cowboy hat at Miguel.
Miguel seemed delighted with all of this. "So Tío Sandro was a farmer?"
"Yes. He had to move to the valley, of course. He grew fine beans."
"And Papá Angel" -- he pointed to his great-great grandfather on the rough tree Papá Isidro had drawn wanted to be a priest, but he changed his mind."
"Love will do that," Papá Isidro said and winked at Luisa, who had, as a young girl, genuinely thought she was going to be a nun.
"But he sang prettily in Latin," Meche said. "A nice baritone voice."
"Did anyone write songs?"
"Not songs," Papá Isidro said. "But we've a had a few poets." He pointed at some scraps of ancient, yellowing paper that were pasted into the book. "Weren't those Tía Maribel's, like those blankets?" He pointed at some nicely woven brown and white blankets that had come out earlier without much introduction.
Miguel leaned forward eagerly to read the poems, then blushed when he realized they weren't in Spanish. "Um… what do they mean?"
Meche rolled her eyes and shook a finger at Papá Isidro, but didn't bother with a full scold. "They're love poems. And I think they were songs, actually. Papá Angel always used to talk about how his mother, Mamá Gracia, used to sing at the dances, and she told him that she used to sing with her big sister, who was so talented that she went off to the big city to make her fortune." She snorted. "Of course, that's what she told Papá Angel. He found out from someone else that she really ran off with some boy when she was sixteen. It's always some boy. Girls, don't let there be some boy. Boys, don't be some boy." She shook her finger lazily at the gathered children, who all looked bewildered by this advice.
Papá Isidro said something to her in Zapotec, and gave her a hard smile.
She shrugged and answered him in a casual way, then pointed at the poems. "She left behind a lot of these poems. Mamá Gracia saved them all. She never did see her sister again. It was war time. Or it would be very soon after. Who knows what became of her?"
"Can I scan them?" Miguel asked, getting out his phone.
"Be my guest, but don't expect to be able to send them far. Our connection is terrible."
"I can just keep them on the phone until I get home," Miguel said. "And I'll learn how to read them properly."
"Miguel," Luisa said, "be careful what you promise. You have a lot on your plate."
Miguel looked sheepishly at his great-aunt. "Well… I will, but it might take a while."
"You could come up here and stay for a while this summer. Total immersion."
Enrique didn't think this was a half-bad idea, given the craziness about de la Cruz which was likely to be breaking by then, but if the internet connection was as bad as Meche suggested, that would mean dropping music lessons, and he didn't think Miguel would want to do that.
Miguel just smiled politely, like he had for years when the family talked to him about shoes, and nodded helplessly in Papá Isidro's direction.
"Miguel has a life in Santa Cecilia," Papá Isidro said. "Not to put too fine a point on it, but there's nothing stopping you from coming down the mountain to visit."
"I told you all the things stopping me," Meche said, pointing at her grandchildren. She moved the album off of her lap and laid it down on a table. "Now," she said, "I thought we could have a walk around town. And a few people want to say hello in the plaza. What do you say? Luisa, I think I have a spare stroller somewhere for Socorro. Or do you like carrying her in a sling?"
"Oh, she likes the sling. But my back is tired. Enrique, would you mind…?"
"Oh, yes," he said dryly. "You know how I hate carrying the baby."
"Can I carry her?" Miguel asked, holding out his arms.
Luisa looked at Enrique, who shrugged, then helped Miguel into the baby sling.
Meche watched this with approval. "Language aside," she said, "you're raising him well."
"Yes, hermanita, and I'm sure they were just waiting for your blessing," Papá Isidro said, rolling his eyes at his sister.
The children rushed into the kitchen and got a lunch out of the refrigerator, packing it into a large woven sack and chattering happily about showing Miguel the basketball court and the plaza and the church and the graveyard and possibly a few individual strands of mountain grass. Loli wanted to pick flowers for the table at dinner, which the others mostly didn't like, but Miguel said he would enjoy, and she could show Socorro all the best ones.
"Did you hear that?" Loli asked, quite unnecessarily. "I can show flowers to the baby."
Perhaps because she took this responsibility seriously, perhaps because there wasn't much else to look at in San Pedro Ayahuitl, the children were constantly distracted, making the climb up the hill toward the town square very slow. Enrique and the other adults still stayed behind the children, keep an eye on them. Miguel periodically squatted down at the roadside beside Loli, showing various flowers to Socorro. Chayo climbed the rocks at the roadside and jumped down on her brother. Luchi had a slingshot, which he used to fire rocks over the drop-off (Meche had to yell at him twice as they walked to not fire them in the direction of his sister).
Meche dropped in beside Luisa. "So… these fancy people you know now. You're being careful?"
Luisa didn't pretend not to understand. "Very careful. And…" She looked at Enrique, who, since he'd already thought it himself, was not surprised when she said, "And if it gets really crazy, do you think Miguel could come up here to stay for a bit? He won't like giving up lessons, but there are strange people in the world."
"Why don't you all come up if it's wild? The reporters will suddenly find people not able to give them directions. Our cousin Sabel lives down the mountain a bit. She could spread it around that reporters need a little… misdirection." She smiled, and it was the same smile that her brother and Miguel had, when an outrageous course of action occurred to them. "There are benefits to small towns, mija. We can take care of each other."
"I can run interference back home by myself," Enrique said. "If it gets crazy."
Luisa nodded. It wasn't much of a plan, and it might never come to fruition, but it was good to know that it was an option. And it might not even take prima Sabel to misdirect. Anyone in Santa Cecilia could easily forget where Luisa's family came from.
"Have you found anything out, other than family history?" Meche asked, as the children crested the hill ahead, and Nico pointed toward the area where Enrique thought the basketball court was.
"I had a message from our detective friend just before we left," Enrique said. "He's talking to Miguel's teacher about the music, and he thinks he can get an order for the studio to turn over any materials, based on what Carlos has found. That would include the song book. And he's following up another lead about trains. He said he had a theory, and he'd tell me more about it soon. He's checking on something this weekend. He'll send a text if anything comes of it." Enrique considered this. "Is there anywhere in town where a text is more likely to get through?"
"The plaza. It's not great, but there's a satellite link, and there's usually enough for a call or a text. We'll probably be there for a while, if you want to try."
Papá Isidro frowned. "How long do you expect us to stay in the plaza, Meche?"
"Like I said, there are people who want to say hello. I told them Luisa was bringing her son up, and he wanted to learn his history."
"What did you set up?"
But they crested the hill themselves before Meche answered. About twenty old men were gathered in the plaza, lounging on benches and watching the children, who had joined some of their fellows and were playing with an old basketball (Miguel had carefully transferred Socorro to Loli, and was trying unsuccessfully to make a free throw). All of them had bags that seemed to be stuffed with various things like the box of memories at Meche's place.
Once Meche had led the adults into the plaza and gotten them settled on the benches, one of the men reached into his bag and pulled out an ocarina.
He didn't do anything particularly flashy with it. He just started playing an old tune, a pretty sort of thing that sounded like wind coming through the valleys.
It was the right approach.
Miguel, who had been holding up the basketball and measuring for another shot, tipped his head and listened. After a moment, he turned around and saw everyone gathered. He passed the ball to another boy (not one of his cousins, at least not as far as Enrique knew) and smiled apologetically, then reached down and picked up Socorro from Loli's arms and started over, Loli tagging determinedly behind him.
"That's nice," he said to the man, as he finished up the song.
The man nodded to him, then reached into the bag and brought out another ocarina. "For you," he said. "Meche says you're a musician."
Miguel handed Socorro to Enrique and took the instrument. "I don't play this."
"It's simple. Let's try it. Just blow, the finger holes control the tone."
Miguel made a few experimental sounds, moving his fingers around, then managed a bit of a scale. He took it away from his mouth and smiled. "Neat, thanks, but I can't take things, it looks valuable…"
"It's made of mud. It's the player who makes it valuable." He made an offering gesture with his hand. "Please, give it value. It's not old and has no connections. I just made it last week."
Miguel smiled. "Thanks, then. I'll learn it. I don't know what my teacher will think. I think he only plays guitar and a little piano for composing. Well, maybe a little tiny bit of other things."
"So, what are your questions?" one of the other men asked. "Not enough children ask questions these days."
Miguel looked anxiously at Enrique, who was quite certain that Miguel didn't have a single specific question that he meant to ask twenty old men he'd never met before.
"There's a lot we don't know," Enrique said. "Why don't we start with the town? What's it doing way up here…?"
The answer, as he'd expected, was that it was originally built as a defensive fortress against the Aztecs, then the Spanish, like so many of the mountain villages. But that led to the particular history -- to the missionaries and the battles and the revolution and the peccadilloes of daily life. They played music, and they told stories, and, as the sun set, they lit a bonfire, with what seemed like the whole town gathered around. Hot cocoa was passed out, and more songs were sung, and the stars, so close here, appeared in the sky.
Socorro was passed from cousin to cousin, and she only cried a little bit. Like Miguel, she was a curious baby, and she seemed to want to touch and learn everyone's faces.
Enrique had found himself caught up in the tales and songs, and enthralled at watching his son learn. By the fourth of fifth song, he was reasonably competent on the little ocarina, and through the stories, he sat cross-legged, occasionally noodling tunes, almost unconscious of it. It seemed in some way like they'd stepped back in time, or stepped out of time, into some eternal world where the village simply went on and on, the people gathered around a fire, as humans had gathered around fires since they lived in caves. It was a good, healthy feeling.
It all felt so old-fashioned that at first, Enrique didn't even recognize the buzzing of his phone in his pocket. It was completely incongruous with anything going on around them.
But Luisa, sitting beside him, felt it as well, and tapped his arm.
He blinked and came back to the specific present, to the spring of 2018, and he pulled the phone out. The screen was glowing. There were only two bars showing the connection, but it was there. And there was a new text message from Calles.
Luisa's eyes widened.
Enrique tapped the notification, and the message window opened.
I found something. Maybe everything. Do you think you could get to Juarez this month? Don't bring Miguel this time. If it's what I think it is, you're not going to like it.