North by way of South

Nov 11, 2014 | Bubbler, Features, Spotlight

Now that we are putting the finishing touches on our fifth issue (due in February 2015), the awards are showing up for our 2013 issues. It seems fitting that Sandra Ramirez’ Best American Essay notable selection would begin South of the border because Free State has always been about border-less moments where any day can be Wednesday if you want it to be.

Displaying SandraRamirez.jpg




Dogs on my parent’s property in Rosarito, Mexico, took down a foal once—surrounded it when the mother wasn’t looking. My uncle found the bloodied parts, the mother watching from a distance. Born to nameless bitches, the dogs run free among the craggy hills that face the ocean. The flea medication my mother sneaks across the border every month a symbol for the quality of life they lead above other strays. It wasn’t hunger that drove them that day. Only two took it to the next level. The females. The third one, a male named “Chato” returned home and settled into a corner until my uncle told him to go get the girls, which he did. When my uncle Jorge saw their blood-drenched fur, he went looking for what they’d killed.

For the most part, the dogs stand guard over the unfinished property, though few live in or venture to that part of the development. It sits at the top of a hill in perpetual Phase One. There is no water or electricity or even a paved road. The concrete stops just above the highway that runs along the Pacific Ocean where surfers bob in the distance. My parents purchased the quarter acre lot from a drunken Mexican cowboy for five thousand dollars. They’d made his acquaintance through a hairstylist my mother saw on weekend trips to Tijuana. Don Pedro was a neighbor of the cowboy. My mother had let slip in one of her wistful sighs how she wished she and my father could buy a house in Rosarito. Somewhere to retire. A place with some peace and quiet, though my mother tends to be restless. She tires easily of simple routine and her boredom becomes resentment.

I once made the three-hour trip south from Los Angeles. There was a shack perched atop a mound of dirt, and I scolded my parents for making rash decisions. I attempted to set things right. Saying nothing, the Mexican cowboy put me in my place with his hungry stare and red-rimmed eyes. My parents took over the payments, the transaction completed in an auto supply store in town owned and operated by the developer. The whole thing seemed crazy to me, but my parents had made a deal with the cowboy, and a handshake was a deal in Mexico. Utilities would be installed within a year, and the hills dotted with new homes. My parents would tear down and build anew. How wonderful it would be to feel the ocean breeze. This was in 2007, at the height of the Baja real estate market.


I was pregnant by my lover. We did what we could to minimize the pain we’d caused. Our spouses were sure we’d lost our minds. I packed my belongings in a Nissan Quest. I could live in that van if I needed to. Everything I had accumulated in the past thirty-eight years fit into that rectangular compartment. Only a short while ago, there’d been a house with a pool, furniture, pots and pans, a small, ignored garden. Even a dog. Had time erased these things? I was leaving Los Angeles, the city I grew up in, for the unfamiliar landscape of Chicago. I tried to reassure my mother I’d be back every few months, but her face sank with worry. When her own mother had passed in Durango, Mexico, she was in L.A. If she’d left, there was a chance she might not get back into country. Back to me. I see her mourning through the phone, the way she held onto the umbilical-like cord that was connecting her to Durango. That first night in my old room after I left my husband, she tried to tuck me in. She leaned into my face and said, welcome home. In Vegas, we spent a few hours at the Sahara instead of at one of the Disneyland- style casinos. Unknown to us, in a few days it would shut its doors for good. Here Sinatra sang. Here, Abbott and Costello took the stage for the last time. Judy Garland. Sammy Davis Jr. Marlene Dietrich, Cantiflas. Ghosts now.

The giant lunar-like sandstone structures in Utah shut us up. On a homestead-turned-hotel, two scraggly buffalo grazed. We ate rattlesnake patties in Colorado. Deep snow still covered the Rockies in May. We bridged the miles and the year apart this way, by crossing lines.


There was a young man who lived in a trailer near my parent’s plot in Rosarito. He watched over the owner’s property, which consisted only of the trailer on cement blocks and some tools. My parents couldn’t afford to hire more hands, but took him on to construct their home. Over the course of two years, he transformed the pile of wood and dirt into something resembling a foundation. My mother described him as sweet, if on the frail side. She brought him food and clothes from the States. She said he often seemed bothered by the attention. I asked if he knew what he was doing. He’d lived in Los Angeles for ten years, and had done construction before being caught at the border with some marijuana stuffed into the trunk, supposedly planted there by a friend. He’d stayed in Tijuana looking for work and trying to make his way across again. He’d moved a little south to Rosarito and began living on the development.

On one of their bi-monthly trips, my parents showed up unannounced and found him fucked up out of his mind. He said he was sick. When I spoke to my mother afterward, she described the ratty sequined slip he was wearing and the blue eye shadow dusted over his eyelids. “Can you imagine?” she said to me. “A fake eyelash hanging from his eye like a dead spider?” Along with the revelation that he was a drag queen, some copper wire and a generator had been stolen. My mother was disappointed when he began to lose weight and abandoned the job. They fired him. He had a Rottweiler- mutt puppy he used to cart around, and she asked him if she could keep it. My mother is the kind of person who brings dog food across the border and dumps it on street corners. He shrugged and handed over the dog. She named her La Negra, “the dark one.” He disappeared after that, and my parents never saw him again.


On our way to Chicago, we stopped to see my uncle Mauro near Denver. The visit lasted all of ten minutes. Not a talkative man by nature, he awkwardly asked us inside. Ten hours of driving still awaited us. The senior apartment housing lets him rent a one-bedroom for four hundred dollars and he gets food stamps he has trouble going through every month because he lives alone. His step-daughter is nearby, and during the day he watches her twin girls while she’s at work. He had put on some weight, but otherwise seemed at peace.

Back in Santa Monica, my uncle had lived in his truck in front of my parent’s apartment for fifteen years. After a while, this didn’t seem strange at all. He began living in his truck after he and his wife separated. Before then, they lived in San Bernandino and he worked in Santa Monica, an eighty-mile commute. More often than not, he’d stay in his truck during the week and then drive home on the weekends. After he and his wife split, he just never bothered leaving Santa Monica. The truck had one of those aluminum covers and tinted windows. I never got a peek inside his home. As a teenager, I had fantasies of what he kept in there because it couldn’t just be a sleeping bag and pillows. I hoped a body would emerge or some other secret. I had secrets of my own by then. At one point, my sister and I thought the truck hid his loot, the money he saved on rent. We’d had our share of arguments over the years, but he’d softened in my eyes by the time he moved to Colorado. He had been ill as a teenager. “I came to America to save him,” my mother said.

During the day, he’d come inside and shower, eat and then go to work. He paid my mother for food and water. After he retired, he spent his daily hours in front of the television watching the news, only venturing out for food or to rummage in the garage where he kept some belongings. My uncle was into conspiracy theories and trusted no one, and the news helped feed this paranoia, which he then passed on to my nervous mother, who in turn would vent to me. “I’m so sick of him!” She’d say. “He just sits there.” At night, he’d climb into his truck. This routine lasted until he moved to Colorado. My mother cried like a baby.

Uncle Mauro’s truck broke down on the highway on his way out of Los Angeles. He had to abandon it. A letter from the city came a few weeks later asking for recovery money, but he was long gone. I thought about this as Chicago steadily rose, its steel arms reaching for the sky, like us. I had a flash of my uncle’s red truck growing cold as the sunlight eased off the interstate and disappeared.


We bought cheap Scandinavian furniture and decorated the walls. The fridge wouldn’t stay cold so we defrosted the freezer, but a chunk of ice was blocking the electrical tube. With a long cooking spoon, we chiseled it out. After two hours, we freed the ice and it dropped to the bottom of the freezer with a thump. We called it our ice baby. There’s a photo of my boyfriend cradling “Inés Ryan” in his arms, smiling.


When my parents were starting their life together in Santa Monica, my father drank. My mother said he’d go out to see his brother, Eliseo, in East L.A., promising to be gone only a few hours, and wouldn’t return until dawn, wasted. To imagine my father doing this is almost impossible because he’s a religious and sober man now. He used to get together with his brother and play music. My father was a very good guitar player then. He played in a folk band with his brother. His fingers have since thickened, and he can’t touch the catgut strings like he used to. Sometimes I like to imagine my father as a young man, his dark unruly hair, drunk in a smoky bar, a guitar case at his feet.

My mother would sit in a dumpy apartment with me in her arms and wait for my father to come home. One night, they got into an argument and he tried to hit her. My mother told me this story after I had left my husband. He climbed on top of her on the bed and took a swing. She dodged it and he fell to the floor. My father was so drunk he stayed there and passed out. The next day she kicked him out. He took his clothes and left. A day later, he returned. My parents have been together for forty years.


That first summer together was filled with trips to Lake Michigan. As the late afternoons settled, we sat on our patch of sand by the overturned boats. That part of the beach was usually empty, a corner that butted against a natural preserve in the midst of renewal. We’d bring Leo, my boyfriend’s eight-year-old son, and throw the ball around. He’d taken my arrival pretty well, though I’d catch him sometimes watching me from the corner of his eye, as if he wondered if I was a figment of his imagination.

So we’d run races, always letting the boy win. We’d do it over and over again until we couldn’t breathe. Afterward, we’d wade into the lake. Sometimes I’d sit on the shore and watch as they went in, hand in hand to throw rocks. When the sun went down, we’d walk barefoot to the car. We’d shake the sand off and drive home with the windows rolled down.


The work in Rosarito was taken over by my uncle Jorge, who was recently widowed. He and his teenage son had made the move from Durango. Between bouts of depression and alcoholism, my uncle completed what stands there today. It took three years, but the septic system was built, a water tank installed and the pipes buried to allow for showers. There was talk of adding a second floor, but my parents had run through their savings. As my uncle slid deeper into old regrets and sadness, he began neglecting the dogs. That year, he and my mother lost two siblings back in Durango. La Negra sneaked off and mated.

One day, my mother called to tell me the dog was pregnant. I told her she should have had her fixed when she had the chance. “I know, I know,” she said. “But time, money. It slipped away.” She said a vet in Rosarito could perform an abortion. I’d never heard of such a thing. I imagined the veterinarian sucking out the tiny embryos one by one, and my stomach turned. She said she had to do it. There just was no way she’d be able to find homes for all of them.

The dog gave birth before my mother could get her to the vet. My parents went out to see the puppies that weekend, and found my uncle extremely ill. The whites of his eyes had turned yellow and he’d been vomiting blood. He checked himself into a hospital in Tijuana the next day. Two days later, my cousin called and gave my mother the news. My uncle had passed in the middle of the night.

My mother tried to figure out what to do with her brother’s body. In Tijuana, my father and cousin identified the corpse. They hadn’t even bothered to close his eyes. To send him back home would’ve cost a fortune, and so they opted to have him cremated. My parents have begun talking about cremation, selling the side-by-side plots in Forest Lawn in Glendale. They’ve been paid off for years, and if there’s any other sort of prime property, it’s the ground you’ll be buried in.

A week later, my mother called. A friend of my uncle was willing to watch the property until my parents figured out what to do next. They’d gone down there and he’d cleaned up the place. She said she hadn’t realized what a mess it was while my uncle had been in charge. I asked her about the puppies. All eight had survived and were doing fine.


That weekend, the first breath of winter in the air, we bought a coffee table, a mid-century American piece. Made from a solid piece of walnut, the inlayed wood panels oppose each other. Two rings, the tree’s signature, punctuate the center and seem to be reaching for one another. We spotted it right away, and didn’t bother looking anywhere else. There are a few serious chinks in a couple places, but the wood shines, vibrates in its sturdiness. The salesman said it would last forever.

The next morning, we sat in a parking lot across the street from an abortion clinic. We’d gotten there early, too early, and we sat in the car in silence. I couldn’t quiet my emotions, and I’d been crying from the moment we left the apartment. I rubbed my gloved hands, as if trying to spark the image of who I thought we were, of the vision I was trying to hold onto.

Inside, blood was taken, an ultrasound performed. We were weighed and dressed in our paper gowns. In the final waiting area, a movie with Jennifer Lopez played. She’d just run into the cute blond guy from the coffee shop and was about to test his interest by asking him what color her eyes were. In a few moments, I’d be called into a sterile room and give myself up to the sweet burn of anesthesia. The doctor would be all business. The nurse would ask me how I made it to thirty- eight without children. I took this to mean because I’m Latina. I closed my eyes and thought about Jennifer Lopez’s face in full cinematic glow, as the world faded to black.