October 5, 2018
Dear Mamá Coco,
We won the case.
Papá says it’s more like the studio decided that they didn’t want to lose it, so they decided to say they were on our side all along. They’re paying us for all the back copyright, with interest added. I don’t know how much it is. They’re keeping the house—like I wanted it!—but only if they make it into a museum of musical history in Mexico, and make a scholarship fund for children who want to study music. There was also a lot of money for “moral damages,” which is what they call covering up a murder. We’re giving that to the conservatory to help musicians who have problems with contracts and things. None of us wanted to keep blood money. We’re doing well enough that we don’t need that.
The biggest thing is that we got control of the music. I don’t really understand how copyright works. The simple part should have been over in 1971, fifty years after Papá Héctor passed, but the studio did something, I don’t know what, that made them own it longer so that people still had to pay them to play the songs. Now we have that, and the judge decided that, since Papá Héctor was just declared missing and has only been found dead this year, he’s going to count it by copyright law now, which is a hundred more years. People are saying that’s crazy, and I kind of think they’re right.
Anyway, Papá says I need to decide about the music, because Papá Héctor is my friend, and because I’m a musician. And I made a really, really hard decision. I hope you and Papá Héctor aren’t angry at me. I just couldn’t stand how sad everyone was. I know “Remember Me” was your song and it never every should have been anything else. But it was. I had to do what I did. Please understand. Please!
I love you a lot.
The family gathered in Mamá Coco’s room around the big screen where Miguel usually had his lessons with Carlos. They could have watched this from the living room, where they usually did, but this felt right.
It was on Canal Once—not a big primetime show for most of the country, but Carlos had guessed that a lot of people would tune in. He’d very much wanted Miguel to be there, to perform the last song, but Miguel had refused several times. He didn’t want this to look like he was trying to advance his own career. He couldn’t verbalize it, but it was about letting go, letting things be what they were and what they needed to be. And, Enrique thought, he was afraid that, if he were there, he would keep changing his mind until the last minute had passed. As it was, he looked a little sick and pale at the magnitude of what he was doing.
Carlos was on the screen, but it wasn’t a two-way feed this time. He was standing on one of the many stages at the National Conservatory, an orchestra spread out in front of him. They were wearing black and silver outfits that weren’t quite mariachi uniforms, but somehow called them to mind. Carlos was in full attire, though it was an understated suit. Luisa had embroidered it for him as a thank you for all he’d done for the family.
The last half hour had been a special about his discoveries over the year, with footage from the de la Cruz house and pictures of Papá Héctor and his songbook. Now, the feed was live, and reporters were speculating on what news he planned to pass on. Would they finally hear the songs as they were meant to be heard?
In fact, they would, but that wasn’t the point of the exercise.
Miguel was standing between Enrique and Luisa, holding Coco. He glanced up at Enrique and said, “It’s too late, right? I can’t stop it now?”
“I think if you called Carlos right now and told him to just do the public songs properly, he’d do them, even if he had to answer his phone on television. Do you want your phone?”
Miguel hugged Coco more tightly, leaned into Luisa’s arms, and shook his head.
The camera panned the audience. Calles and Tina were sitting up front, both dressed formally. An older woman that Enrique took for Calles’s mother was there as well. Professor Moreno stood near the stage door, his arms crossed, watching with professional interest. Some of the other students they’d spoken to the day they visited the Conservatory were in the orchestra. The girl who’d written the Montezuma opera was playing first violin. Carlos’s guitar was beside him, leaning on a stand.
The screen split, showing two anchors in the Canal Once studio. The woman said, “And now, after a year of turmoil in the world of classical Mexican music, we have come, at last, full circle. For the first time, the songs of Héctor Rivera Esposito will be played with the full blessing of his family, in the way they were intended to be played. Conducting the orchestra is Carlos Navarro, chosen for this honor by his student, Miguel Rivera, who helped with the arrangements you will hear tonight. There will be solo performances from many of today’s greatest singers…”
She went on to list several names that seemed to mean a great deal to Miguel, but which Enrique, raised without any grounding in music, didn’t recognize.
Finally, the camera returned to the orchestra. Carlos raised his arms and silence fell in the auditorium. The family in Mamá Coco’s room tensed, grabbing one another’s hands.
They opened with “The World Is Mi Famila.” It was a jaunty start after such a somber lead-up, but all of the soloists took turns singing. The song had turned out to have many more verses in Papá Héctor’s songbook than de la Cruz had ever sung, words about watching strangers become friends in the embrace of music, words about the dance of life… and the final verse, which of course, de la Cruz had never sung: And I leave you now tonight, después de la comedia, Knowing music is my language, and my world is mi familia.
The next twenty minutes were songs that were increasingly less known. “Poco Loco” was in there, first in the form that de la Cruz had released, then as a duet as it had appeared on the record. There was a pretty ballad called “Candela, Candela,” and one called “Roses and the Sea,” that de la Cruz had sung while playing a pirate, but which Papá Héctor seemed to have meant to refer to a seaside picnic. The arrangement changed from a rather bombastic seafaring shanty to something sweeter and more delicate, though Enrique couldn’t have said what the real difference was.
Miguel watched and listened, but Enrique knew his mind was on what was coming, and when it did, he leaned back further, now against Enrique, who put his arms around both of his children. Luisa slipped her arms around him as well.
Carlos appeared in a close-up. The lights on the stage went down, and he sat in a single spotlight, holding a piece of school notebook paper. (This was a theatrical touch; the actual letter was an e-mail—which Enrique and Mamá had helped Miguel write as nicely as he could—and Tina had copied it onto the lined paper, carefully leaving a fringe of torn tabs on the side.) He took a deep breath. “My friends,” he said, “I’d like to now read you a letter from my student, Miguel Rivera. It came to me, because mine is the address he had, but it is written to all of you.” He paused, then read aloud:
To my family and my people,
A lot of the songs you’ve heard tonight were never meant to be played outside of our family. My Papá Héctor wrote them for his wife and his daughter. If he’d lived, maybe he would have written more for his grandchildren and great-children, and given other songs to the world. He just wrote songs out of love.
But the songs did get into the world. They became part of people’s lives, just like they became part of mine, a long time before I knew they had anything to do with me. These are the songs I learned to play my guitar on, and the songs I dreamed to, and I know I’m not the only one. Music touches people’s lives. It’s in people’s memories, and it means things to them beyond what it originally meant.
So maybe once this song could have stayed between Papá Héctor and Mamá Coco, the way it was meant—as a lullaby, a special song, like the ones I sing my baby sister. But once it was in the world, it became its own thing, and people took it when they needed it most. To take it back now, to hold onto it and hide it, wouldn’t be right. It was written with love, not greed and not fear.
I talked to my family about this, and we all agree: These songs that you’ve spent your lives hearing don’t belong to us. The belong to the people.
And I’d like, especially, to give this song back, sung the way it was meant to be sung.
It was always meant to stay in the family.
But maybe, because of Papá Héctor's music, the family is bigger than we ever thought.
So my family wants to give this song back to the people, with love. Please treat it nicely. It means a lot to us, too.
And please, don’t let it become about murder. Keep it about love.
Miguel took a shaky breath.
Carlos picked up his guitar and played the soft opening notes of “Remember Me.”
The family said nothing. They all held onto one another.
On television, the screen split again, and showed people reacting in the audience. Miguel had especially asked that the woman who had lost her husband be invited, and there she was, her hands to her heart, her eyes closed in prayer or remembrance. Other people held hands. Tina dabbed at her eyes, even though she’d heard the arrangement before. Calles’s mother sat with her head bent forward, her eyes covered with one hand. Strangers put their hands to their throats and over their hearts, and somehow, for that moment, Enrique did feel like they were all his family.
The program ended half an hour later, after a brief recap with the anchors. Carlos had refused an interview, and was sitting down with his people now. A legal expert explained that the family had turned down the legal decision to give them a century’s copyright. He seemed baffled by the choice. Moreno talked about the legal fund at the Conservatory, and a woman from the studio (one of the same ones who had, only three weeks ago, all but called the family money-grubbing fame seekers) talked about how they would transform the de la Cruz mansion into a real museum. She did not mention that they were trying to find some college where they could sell the large collection of historical pornography. Miguel didn’t know about it, and Enrique had worked through Tina to make them give the money to help beleaguered sex workers. A few graduate departments were bidding on it. Enrique guessed there were a few private collectors trying to get their hands on it as well. It was probably just as well that he hadn’t gotten hold of it. It made his hands feel dirty thinking of it, and he’d have probably just thrown it all into a trash fire and been done with it, to hell with the fascinating subject of the history of the skin trade.
Finally, Berto reached over and turned off the television. “That’s that,” he said.
“It was…” Miguel bit his lip. “It was right… wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Rosa said regretfully. “It was right. But think of the money…”
“Rosa,” Berto said, “let it go.”
“I’m just kidding. Miguel was right.” She sighed. “And I have math homework.”
“Me, too,” Miguel said. He looked pale and shaky, but less like he was sick than like he was just coming up from a sickness. He managed a smile. “Want to do it in the kitchen?”
“Too windy. Let’s bring it inside.”
And they disappeared without another word, Miguel still carrying Coco, though Enrique didn’t think she’d be of much help with pre-Algebra.
Abel took one twin under each arm and ran them out, spinning them like he was a helicopter as soon as they got into the courtyard. They squealed with delight.
“Is it over?” Mamá asked. “Is that the end?”
Papá put his arm over her shoulders. “I think so. At least this part of it.”
“Rosa’s not wrong about the money,” Gloria sniffed. “I know that’s not what it was about, but…”
Berto shook his head sharply. “Glorita, we’ve already spent a hundred years in the shadow of a murder. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to get out from under it. We couldn’t do that if we spent the next hundred years trying to keep the songs in a cage. Let them be free, and maybe we can be, too.”
Gloria sighed and nodded. “The house, though. Can you see me living in that house?”
“Like a queen,” Mamá said, then sniffed. “You’re much too good for that man’s house. Leave it down there with the movie people, where it belongs.”
Luisa smiled. “Are we going to have no movies as a rule now, Mamá Elena?”
“Don’t be silly,” Mamá said. “I’d miss Iron-Man.” She raised her hand and made a laser sound, then grinned. “I think Tony Stark needs to build an Iron Abuela suit, with a laser chancla.”
“I think you just terrified every Mexican child in the world, cariña,” Papá said, taking her hand.
“Child, nothing,” Berto said. “I’m terrified.”
“No abuela needs a super suit,” Luisa pointed out. “It would be overkill.”
“Maybe I just want one.”
Enrique hugged his mother, something he didn’t remember the last time he’d done. She didn’t joke often, and she was obviously doing it now to lighten the family mood, and he loved her for it.
They talked in the music room for a few more minutes, then drifted off. Mamá and Berto had an order to finish. Papá found Abel, and they started to work on the plans for the new addition. Gloria informed Luisa and Carmen that they were all going out for a drink together. Enrique guessed it was to gauge the mood of the town.
He went looking for Rosa and Miguel, who had set up in Coco’s room. Coco was in her crib, still awake and watching them with big eyes as they sat cross-legged on the floor, working on their homework at the too-low play table. He checked their work and made a few corrections—surprisingly, only to Rosa’s. Miguel’s math grades had gone up exponentially this year, and he was now near the top of his class in the subject.
Miguel, meanwhile, had switched to his music notebooks, and was tweaking the Corazon song that he’d started months ago. Enrique hadn’t seen him take it out since… really, since the funeral. He didn’t comment.
“I have a part for you,” Miguel said, pushing the notebook at Rosa. “Can you do it?”
She looked at it. “It’s a little hard, but I could learn it. When do you want me to play it?”
“I thought we could play it for everyone on Día de los Muertos. Abel’s part is really simple, so…”
“You know it’s only a few weeks now?”
“I know. I trust you.”
Rosa traced the violin line with one finger. “Are we playing it in the plaza?”
“At home first. Maybe the plaza later, I don’t know. I have another one for the plaza.”
“You should ask my friend Yola to come to the plaza. She likes you.”
Miguel blushed. “That’s the one with the curly hair?”
“Yes. You’ve known her for five years, primo.”
“I don’t keep track of your friends.”
But the blush was pretty deep, and Enrique guessed that Miguel was completely aware of the curly-haired girl. He sighed. It was probably too late to put this particular genie securely back in its bottle, if there had ever been a chance of such a thing. Life tended to move forward pretty relentlessly. And when it stopped doing that, well… that as the opposite of life, wasn’t it?
He talked with the children for a while. The subject of the concert came up tentatively—Rosa had liked Tina’s dress, and thought the orchestra sounded amazing—but Miguel steered the subject away. Enrique didn’t push.
Rosa finished some homework questions for her science teacher, then went to her room to practice English with someone online. The way she said “someone” with a superior look at Miguel seemed to be a subtle hint that the someone in question was a redhead in Minnesota, but he didn’t take the bait. She rolled her eyes hugely and said, “I’ll tell her you said hi,” then disappeared.
“How are you really feeling?” Enrique asked when she was gone.
Miguel thought about it. “I’m okay.”
He nodded. “I’m a little worried that Papá Héctor and Mamá Coco might not like it. But… I think it was right. I think it was all right.” Enrique waited for him, not wanting to deliberately lead him down this path again. It went in little circles until it finally came back out at the same place. Miguel seemed to realize this, too, and shook his head, smiling. “It all sounded good. And I’m glad I didn’t do it myself. That really would have made it look like I was trying to… I don’t know. Own the songs. Make them mine instead of Papá Héctor’s. That would have been as bad as what de la Cruz did.”
“No, really not.” Enrique ruffled his hair. “Really not. But I respect your choice about that. And now you’re back to work on your song.”
“Just some things on the arrangement. I thought of them while I was working with Carlos. It was done, Papá. I hadn’t quit it.”
He smiled, a real one. “You were worried about that?”
“Thanks. But I thought it was done until I started thinking about violins. I noticed Rosa’s part wasn’t right. That’s all. Sesasi—the one with the opera?—she was in the session. Did you see she was first violin? I didn’t know she played both. I need to pick up some more instruments before I try for the Conservatory. Almost everybody plays more than one, even if they’ve got one main one. Carlos plays six instruments.”
“Well, you already got the ocarina.”
“Yeah. I started a little song for that. I’ll show it to Papá Isidro on Día de los Muertos. He’s trying to talk Tía Meche into coming down, too. They’ll bring some pictures for the ofrenda, so everyone can come.”
“I’ve been working Rosa’s violin sometimes. I think I’ll save money for a violin next. And I was looking around the old house. If I get some of the old stuff cleaned out, there’s room for a piano. It’ll take a while to save up for one of those, though.”
“Carlos said you could practice on an electronic keyboard.”
“Those aren’t cheap, at least not ones with enough octaves.”
“Cheaper than pianos, and it’s just possible you may acquire one in… oh, a couple of months.”
“Yeah. What else do you think you need to pick up?”
“Well… I can’t learn everything, but I want to at least understand what everyone in the orchestra can do. Maybe a trumpet. At least I should be able to play everything in a mariachi band, right?”
“You’re laughing at me.”
“No, I’m not. I think it’s a good goal.”
Miguel smiled and went to Coco’s crib. “I want to learn different kinds of singing, too. Carlos says not to do the screaming kinds that Abel likes, ‘cause I’ll burst a vocal cord or something, but opera’s supposed to be the best voice training, even if it’s not the way I really want to sing. Sesasi says it teaches breath control and range and lots of good stuff.”
Enrique shook his head. “And here I am, thinking you’re pretty good already.”
“I could always be better.” Miguel looked over his shoulder, then back at Coco. “And it’s not just that, Papá. This is what I like. It makes me happy to learn this stuff. I guess I haven’t really looked like that this year. But it’s all really cool. I used to think I already knew everything from the de la Cruz movies. Because he thought he knew everything about music, so I figured that’s what it meant to be a musician. But it’s not. There’s always more stuff out there. I’ll never run out of it. I mean, how great is that? I can do this ‘til I’m a hundred and I’ll never get bored.”
“That’s pretty great,” Enrique said.
“What do you like?”
“I mean, other than shoes and Mamá and Coco and me.”
Enrique thought about it. “I don’t know. I’ve been enjoying being Papá so much I hadn’t thought about anything else for a while.”
“What did you want to do when you were thirteen?”
“I wanted to ride a motorcycle from Tierra del Fuego to the Yukon.”
“Turns out there’s a gap in the road. Sixty miles in Panama.”
“Just sixty miles of all that?” Miguel shook his head. “Couldn’t you put the motorcycle on a boat or something?”
“There’s no ferry. They tried it for a while. It’s pretty dangerous country to go overland in, too.”
Miguel thought about it. “Well, maybe we could hire a boat in Guyana or something and put the motorcycles on it.”
“Yeah. After I finish school but before the conservatory. If I can make enough money for motorcycles, we could completely do that.”
“The grown-up part of my brain is saying that it’s a bad idea, and there’s a lot of dangerous country to cross, not to mention a few hostile borders.”
“And the rest of your brain?”
Enrique laughed. “Is trying to figure what we should pack.”
Miguel’s smile broadened. “Do you think Mamá would let us?”
“That may take some finessing. And it’s not about asking permission when you’re a grown-up. It’s about making sure that no one’s getting hurt. And it’s about making sure we’re not trying to have a holiday in a war zone. It’s a lot calmer than it used to be in a lot of places, but there’s still trouble out there.”
“Well, we’ve got five years. I’m sure everything will calm down by then.”
“Ah, yes. Peace on earth in five years.”
“Through the power of ranchera music!” Miguel laughed and played an air guitar.
“That will work, I’m sure.”
“So, it’s a plan. I work on world peace, then ride a motorcycle to the Yukon with my papá. Maybe I’ll play concerts along the way to keep the bikes gassed up.” He poked a rattle through the slats of Coco’s crib and played a little rhythm on it. She kicked her feet in time.
Enrique went to stand beside him. “That whole trip might be a little ambitious, and you might want to do other things for a few months instead.”
“Maybe. But we should do something when I’m a grown-up. I think you’d be fun to be a grown-up with.”
Enrique reached into the crib and smoothed down Coco’s hair while he worked around a large lump in hs throat. “You know what?” he said finally. “Something is an iron clad promise. We’ll decide what when the time comes.”
He put his arm around Miguel, who leaned into him. Coco reached out her little fists, and each of them took one through the slats. They stayed that way for a while, and, after a few minutes, Miguel began to sing.