Editor’s Note: When the Street Lamps Glow

There is a statue near the border of Nogales, Arizona of a small boy. Every time my mother, brother, and I would walk by she’d turn to us and say that if we misbehaved or did not follow her instructions we would become a statue just like that small boy. My mother was always aided by folk tales or myths to scare us into thinking that if we deliberately disobeyed her, consequences would arise.

My mother is from Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Molded by a culture full of folk tales and old proverbs, she passed on generations of stories to my siblings and I.  My mother shared the legends of El Cucuy, the Mexican boogeymann and El Chupacabra, a goat-like creature the size of a small bear–its spines reaching from its neck to the base of its tail–that haunts the desert. She also told me about La Llorona.

La Llorona is told as a cautionary tale to children to make them behave properly. Different versions of the story are told depending on the region. Some say the story focuses on Maria, a woman so beautiful that all the men in her town attempted to woo her each time she walked by. Maria, with a sense of self absorption, believed she deserved the attention. She would flirt with the men but vowed only to marry the most handsome and wealthiest man she could find. The only problem interfering with her lifestyle? Her two sons. So she decided to drown them.

Other versions of the tale say Maria married a wealthy man and they were happy. She bore him two sons. After a time, the man would go away for long periods of time and when he returned, only focused on his sons. One day, he returned with another woman at his side and left again. Enraged, Maria drowned her two children in the river. Maria became deeply remorseful and wandered along the banks hoping her sons would return. It is said that when she finally died, her weeping spirit wandered the land, crying, “¡Ay, mis hijos!”

One day when I was five, my three siblings and I were playing a game of freeze tag on my grandma’s patio. Our dogs chased and barked at us. The daylight was quickly vanishing and the street lamps were turning on. As the sun set, my mother called out to us and yelled it was time to return inside. We didn’t listen. She yelled out, “¡Si no regresan ya, los va a agarrar La Llorona!” which roughly translates to, “If you don’t return now, La Llorona will come get you.” My brothers stopped playing and ran inside. I didn’t understand who my mom was speaking of because I was the youngest and had not heard the tale. I stayed outside for another five minutes and when I decided to go back, I found the door was locked. My mom on the other side said it was too late and La Llorona coming. Panicking, I begged to go inside. She hesitated. I said I was sorry for not coming back when she asked. The door unlocked and I ran inside.

I sat on a rusty old stool as I listened to my mother explain the importance of La Llorona. A weeping women all dressed in a white dress and her face covered by a white veil. She wouldn’t rest until she found her kids. That’s when my mom uttered the word: “Unless…” I stared at her, tightening my eyebrows. “Unless she finds other children, children who misbehave, and takes them instead.” I felt my skin lose its smoothness and small bumps started forming from my forearm to my shoulder. “La Llorona will come as soon as the lights on the street start turning on. Make sure you’re inside when the street lamps glow.


This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editorial assistant Gabriel A. Jiménez. 

Interview: Michael Mejia

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I  first encountered Michael Mejia’s short story “Coyote Takes Us Home” last year, while reading Kate Bernheimer and Carmen Giménez Smith’s anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. As a story based on Mexican folktales that addresses the U.S.-Mexico border, it stands out in an anthology that–while excellent–mostly draws upon European lore. Mejia carved out time in his busy schedule (he teaches creative writing at the University of Utah, is the Editor-in-chief of Western Humanities Review, the co-founding editor of Ninebark Press, and the author of the novel Forgetfulness) to talk to me about “Coyote Takes Us Home,” the fraught landscape of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and the trips he took south of the border in an effort to learn about his Mexican heritage.

I live near the U.S.-Mexican border–in Tucson, Arizona–and I encountered your story, “Coyote Takes Us Home,” while writing about borderland fairy tales and folklore for the Fairy Tale Review blog. Why did you decide to write a newfangled fairy tale about crossing the border?

As with any good fairy tale, there are three knocks required to open this question.

The first reveals an answer you may already know. In my note following “Coyote Takes Us Home,” I mention having half-heard, some years ago, a news report about unaccompanied minors stowed in cars crossing the border, in a way we might expect with shipments of drugs. It’s fantastic, of course, and dangerous, and absurd, and real. Parents leave their children with relatives, come to the U.S., work to pay for the kids’ care, eventually putting aside enough to have them sent north, through a network of strangers, and smuggled across the border. Sometimes the parents will be forced to pay thousands of dollars more, a ransom, to have the kids delivered as much as 2000 miles away, to North Carolina or Pennsylvania, Washington or Chicago. Or the kids might get caught along the way and repatriated to a shelter on the Mexican side of the border. A phone call or a fax from their parents, a promise to send them home, to not to try again, can be enough to get them released, and that night they’ll be back in the Arizona desert.

The story got even more desperate in 2014, when more than 40,000 kids from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala (far more than from Mexico) were fleeing gang violence and recruitment as well as poverty. They came walking, riding buses, and riding the tops of trains across multiple borders on their way north, with no family at all in the US.  Aside from finding these stories terrifying and sad—though if…when…the kids do make it across, I think we know there’s a real chance at something like a happy ending—I wanted to consider the issues of abandoning your home place, the socio-economic pressures that would make that place unlivable, the unexpected uprooting that occurs on that morning word comes that you’re to get in the car, on the bus, and the loss of cultural knowledge this journey represents. Which brings me to the second knock.

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