(Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from This Wicked Patch of Dust by Sergio Troncoso. © 2011 Sergio Troncoso. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press.)
Synopsis of novel:
In the border shantytown of Ysleta, Mexican immigrants Pilar and Cuauhtémoc Martínez strive to teach their four children to forsake the drugs and gangs of their neighborhood. Spanning four decades, this is a story of a family’s struggle to become American and yet not be pulled apart by cultural forces. As a young adult, daughter Julieta is disenchanted with Catholicism and converts to Islam. Youngest son Ismael, always the bookworm, is accepted to Harvard but feels out of place in the Northeast.
they had returned to Lilah’s apartment. After she served him a small shot glass of Grand Marnier, they kissed on the sofa (her roommate was out for the evening), and she locked her bedroom door. Yet he wondered whether the car alarm he heard in the distance was from his rental. Soon Ismael and Lilah were in bed together, and the world around them fell away into the darkness. Only then did his car cease to exist in his mind. After Ismael woke up and made hazelnut coffee for both of them, he slipped on his jogging shorts. He ran toward the Charles River and passed Pembroke Street and a few broken beer bottles on the sidewalk. Hallelujah! His Dodge Colt appeared untouched.
“So who’s going to be there?” asked Ismael as he steered the car onto a windy, tree-lined road dotted with New England Colonials. He stopped in front of the Wellesley town square with a red-brick church on a hillside. Its blindingly white steeple pierced the sky like a needle.
“Turn right and just follow Lexington for a while. My sisters, maybe Danny, Becky’s boyfriend, and maybe one or two of Deborah’s friends from Harvard. My parents, of course.”
“You sure what I’m wearing is fine?”
“How long do we have to stay?”
“Until after the meal. I haven’t seen them for a while. I’ve been so busy at work. My mother invited us to stay over,” Lilah said, her blue eyes staring straight ahead.
He glanced at her. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Why don’t you like my parents?”
“Why do you say that? I’m going, aren’t I?”
“Did you send your parents an Easter card? It’s this Sunday, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“We could send them Easter lilies. Wouldn’t your mother love that?”
“She would. When are you coming back to El Paso with me?”
“Whenever you want. Take the next right and just follow the road until you get to my house. You remember, don’t you?”
“More or less. I didn’t pay much attention when your father picked us up at the train station.” The houses were nestled inside a suburban forest. The meandering driveways and hedges seemed trimmed with a plumb line. Lilah’s gray and white house was behind a row of trees and a low, grayish rock wall. The two-acre property sloped downward toward a line of trees at the entrance of a preservation land trust that was the Kantors’ backyard. He and Lilah had hiked for hours in this forest of labyrinthine paths. Lilah knew them by heart. The picture windows of Lilah’s house felt to Ismael like giant eyes following their every move.
Lilah’s mother opened the door. People milled about in the spacious living room, in the kitchen, and around the long, diligently arranged table with a Haggadah in front of each seat. He smiled, shook hands, and introduced himself, saying as little as possible. Ismael knew how to work this kind of crowd. As an undergraduate, he would have been intimidated by the wall-to-wall picture windows overlooking the woods, the fine white-and-gray china on the table, and the bifurcated etching of an orchestra conductor on the wall. The baritone of Lilah’s father reverberated in the background as he lectured Danny in medicalese. Mrs. Kantor (or Jenny, as Ismael had not yet dared call her) hugged him awkwardly, and stared at him for a second too long as if to say, “Well, here you are again. How nice.”
Lilah’s blue eyes widened as she hugged her sisters, embraced her mother, and kissed her father. She ushered Ismael in to present him to the guests, and to show him his seat at the Passover table with a quick step and verve that radiated her joy at coming home. They took turns reading the story about the slavery of the Jewish people in Egypt and their miraculous escape from the decree to slaughter their firstborns. When it was Lilah’s turn and she read the passage, “And the mountains skipped like lambs, the hills like rams,” she snorted loudly. Everybody knew those had been her favorite lines as a child. Ismael was secretly pleased to see Lilah’s eyes sparkle at the sight of her family. That made the trip worth it. He dug into the matzo ball soup, his favorite dish at previous Passover meals. That soup always warmed the pit of his stomach.
“Ismael, are you applying to law school again? You can’t be thinking of staying another year in New Haven, can you?” Mrs. Kantor said, squeezing herself into her seat. Lilah’s mother possessed lively blue-gray eyes, jowly cheeks, and a body twice the size of any of her daughters. She had just brought two more bowls of matzo ball soup, one of which she placed in front of Ismael’s first bowl.
“Well, I don’t know. I might apply to graduate school. Haven’t decided.”
“Would they take you back at Berkeley if you applied again?”
“I suppose so. My job in New Haven is great.”
“Great? Isn’t it only a part-time job?”
“It is, but I enjoy it. It gives me time to do other work.”
“He’s writing stories, Mom. His first one’s been accepted at the Blue Mesa Review. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“Do they pay you?”
“Not really. I get five copies of the review.”
“That’s a shame. Don’t you think you need to do something practical, like going to law school or business school, even if you do write? Marion’s daughter—remember her, Lilah?—just published a novel and she’s a real-estate lawyer.”
“Mom, Jessica wrote a romance. That’s not exactly real literature.” Lilah smiled nervously at Ismael.
“But she got a $10,000 advance and is on a book tour in the Northeast. She was on the radio in Boston last week. She’s really talented. They just bought a house in Newton. Her husband’s an intern at Mass General. She has a three-year-old girl and another one on the way,” Mrs. Kantor said excitedly. A drop of perspiration trickled over her thick makeup, down her pinkish white temple.
“Good for her. Have you heard anything about Elise? I haven’t seen her in years.”
“Marion told me she’s at Harvard Business School, her second year. She’ll probably get a job in New York, in finance or derivatives. Elise interned at First Boston last summer.”
“Jenny, do you even know what derivatives are?” bellowed Dr. Kantor from the head of the table. Everyone fell silent. All eyes turned to Mrs. Kantor. The Haggadah on Ismael’s lap fell to the floor with a soft thud.
“Well, they’re some sort of financial product,” she stammered. “Derivatives make money for a bank, that’s all I know. Elise is a very smart girl.”
“It’s okay, Mom. I don’t know what derivatives are either, and I really don’t care.” Lilah picked up her mother’s and Ismael’s soup bowls and marched into the kitchen.
“A derivative security, according to Black, and certainly not Fowler, is a financial contract whose value depends on, and is derived from, the value of an underlying asset, like gold or oil or pork bellies,” Dr. Kantor proclaimed to no one in particular. Only Danny Cohan, a student at Harvard Medical School, Becky’s boyfriend and Dr. Kantor’s biggest fan, seemed to pay attention.
“Elise is moving to New York?” Becky said quickly, standing up to pick up her father’s and Danny’s soup bowls. “Did you hear what happened in Central Park?”
“Oh, what an awful story! Is that woman still alive?” Mrs. Kantor exclaimed, on the edge of her seat. “The New York Times said she was small and blond, and was left to die.”
“They brutalized and raped her.”
“And Elise is a jogger too. Didn’t she run a marathon last year?”
“I read it in the Globe. Her skull was bashed in.”
“Lilah, you don’t jog by yourself in the Fens, do you?”
“A gang of four or five black men. They attacked her like animals,” somebody else chimed in.
“No, I only run on Beacon, or with Ismael on the Charles. But there are spots, under the bridges, where no one’s around.”
“Did you hear Reverend Al on CNN?” piped in Dr. Kantor, who pushed his chair from the table. “‘Let’s not taint an entire community! These boys are not a pack of wolves!’ Of course they’re wolves. They’re worse than wolves. Did you know that studies on intelligence have shown blacks have lower IQs than just about any other racial group?”
“This is about some kids who attacked a jogger. What does that have to do with intelligence studies?” Lilah said looking at Ismael.
“This is what they do. Why, Nancy’s purse got stolen and she got knocked down by a black man in the middle of the afternoon last week, right in front of the John Hancock Building,” Mrs. Kantor said, passing the tsimmes to Lilah. “The poor dear needed four stitches on her forehead.”
“Lilah, you don’t see a pack of Jewish boys, yamulkes flapping, beating up and raping a girl, do you? That’s the difference.”
“Imagine a different kind of Mitzvah tank. When that van’s a rockin’ don’t come a knockin’!”
“Those Hasids are all a bit creepy.”
“Look, Lilah, the fact is blacks have never scored above the average in analytical problem-solving, logic, or mental mathematics tests. Neurologists and statisticians have pointed this out, and of course have argued that society, racism, have played crucial roles in these results,” Lilah’s father said.
“Those kids don’t represent anybody but themselves and their families. How do you explain when a poor kid doesn’t join a wolf pack? Doesn’t do what his friends are doing?”
“Lilah, of course that would be an interesting, aberrant case. But over the years these statistical results of intelligence studies show that, even when controlled for income, or the education of their parents, blacks never do as well as Asians, or Jews.”
“Ismael, you grew up poor, yet you went to Harvard,” Mrs. Kantor said, turning to him.
“And you never raped anybody.”
“What I mean, Lilah, is simply that we have a good example right here.” Mrs. Kantor’s eyes tried to calm down her daughter, who glared at her.
“Just leave the poor guy alone. Gosh, mom, can’t we stop talking about this?” Deborah got up and passed the asparagus to her side of the table.
“It’s okay. I did, I mean I do, have great parents,” Ismael said smiling and shifting in his seat. “And my parents were tough on us. We lived in a neighborhood with drugs, gangs. Everyone was poor, everybody was from Mexico. Some families did well, others didn’t. But my parents never allowed us to get involved with cholos. They put us to work, and encouraged us to be tough and independent. To think for ourselves.”
“We were encouraged to kvetch and feel special.”
“What’s a ‘sholo’?”
“It worked, didn’t it? I remember I used the techniques I learned from training monkeys in my lab on you children. They’re actually quite effective.”
“It’s ‘cholo,’ and it means something like ‘hoodlum,’ right?” Lilah said, turning to Ismael.
“Monkeys? You trained us like monkeys? What does that mean exactly?”
Ismael picked up his near-empty plate, squeezed Lilah’s shoulder, and picked up her plate as well. He walked into the kitchen, away from the Passover table and the Kantors and Wellesley. He lingered in the kitchen, pretending to open and close the refrigerator to search for something and hoping dinner would end soon and they could return to Lilah’s apartment. He knew they had accepted him, if begrudgingly, or ignored him, or in the case of Deborah, Lilah’s younger sister, genuinely befriended him. He wasn’t trying to fit in anymore. He just wanted to survive the evening. He wanted to make Lilah happy.
Ismael remembered the first few dinners he had with Lilah’s parents. He did not know about liberal Massachusetts politics, or the Democratic Party, and did not care one way or another. But they did, and vehemently so. He was not familiar with medicine, or medical politics. He did not know about statistics, or the history of Harvard (Mrs. Kantor had been Class of ’58). Ismael couldn’t play a musical instrument, and did not know what bass or treble clef was, or adagio molto, or who George Solti was, for that matter. He was not interested in how to shoot a chipmunk with a pump-action pellet gun and how to trap a squirrel persistently attacking a bird feeder. Ismael did not care about the state of American medical care, HMOs and their war against doctors, pharmaceutical companies and their price gouging, and how Dr. Kantor could pontificate on these and other topics in ninety-minute lectures, even if his audience turned glassy-eyed. Indeed, at the dinner table Ismael felt like the gray squirrel in the Have-a-Heart trap under the oak tree. Ismael had first hated himself for his ignorance. Then he had hated himself for his silence. Finally Ismael stopped hating himself when he realized the Kantors had little control over Lilah, and Lilah loved him.
He walked to the hallway, studying the grandfather clock that did and did not work, the picture of Dr. Kantor shaking hands with George H. W. Bush, and a glass sculpture of a dolphin leaping into the air. Pictures of the Kantor family were arranged on bookshelves. There was one of Lilah with straight, long brown hair and braces. She was in between the split trunk of a tree, about twelve or thirteen years old. It was Ismael’s favorite picture. He imagined stealing it one day. Lilah looked like a young granny, her smile so genuine. She wasn’t exactly pretty, and she must’ve endured so many taunts from the gorgeous girls in high school. How could this family raise such a good person? He hated the Kantors, yet he also wanted to be like them. He hated himself for not having what he wanted, and for not even knowing what he wanted anymore. Ismael was from Ysleta. But he had also left Ysleta forever.
“Bear, what are you doing here?”
“Looking at you with your cute braces.”
“You really like that picture, don’t you? It’s called that awkward young-adult phase.”
“You look beautiful to me.”
“Ismael, can we stay here tonight? I really miss my parents. Deborah is staying over, too.”
“Thank you so much. It means a lot to me. I know you kinda hate it,” she said, and rubbed his back gently. She kissed him slowly and deliciously on the mouth, and he imagined what could happen tonight. Her fingers traced the outline of his spine, and a shiver raced up to his neck and down to his back.
“We’ll just keep this between the two of us.”
Aliyah recited her first morning prayer. Fatigue spread through her body. Yet the prayer, in part for the ailing health of Imam Khomeini, for her family, and for Mohammed’s new job at Tehran University, lifted her toward God and rejuvenated her. There was a dim yellowish light in the small bedroom of the old brownstone, or what reminded her of a New York City brownstone. Delivery trucks roared by on the busy, dusty Tehran street. The city was exceptionally crowded, like Mexico City. Thousands of new refugees from the war added to a weary claustrophobia in the air. She did not hear the children. Aliyah hoped they were preoccupied or asleep.
As she rolled up her embroidered red prayer rug, a gift from Mohammed’s mother, Aliyah remembered she had to buy sangak and Barbari breads for tonight’s dinner. She could get the bread when she took the kids for a trip to the new park commemorating the martyrs of the revolution. Her father-in-law was a baker, but his shop was not in her neighborhood. Ibraheem began to cry in his crib in the living room as her oldest, four-year-old Zahira, sweetly pacified her baby brother in a singsong voice. Aliyah had bragged to Pilar about how good little Zahira was at diapering Ibraheem. Her mother had only chided her. “You are taking advantage of Zahirita, and making her do what no child her age should be doing. You are the mother, not Zahirita,” she scolded over the international phone line from Ysleta.
In truth, Zahira was only allowed to change Ibraheem occasionally, and half the time Aliyah had to redo the crooked diaper. Yet Zahira was enthusiastic about helping her mother do housework, and Aliyah didn’t see anything wrong with encouraging her to be “Mamani’s helper.” Aliyah wasn’t obsessed with cleaning, as her mother Pilar was, and Mohammed didn’t care. So why shouldn’t Aliyah encourage Zahira, if she was more like her workaholic abuelita, and less like her own mother?
“Zahira, where’s Majdy? You were supposed to watch her while I did my prayers.”
“Mamani, I was helping Ibraheemi. I think Maji is in the bedroom,” the little girl said, looking wide-eyed at Aliyah in the way that always unnerved her.
Aliyah pushed the old wooden door to the bathroom, and it creaked open slowly. Majdy, her three-year-old, was sitting atop the rickety, unpainted toilet seat, her long skirt at her ankles. Gobs of sky blue shampoo were smeared on her hands, on the bare concrete floor, around the toilet seat, and even across her cheeks. “Majdy! Oh, my goodness, m’ija!” Aliyah said. This is not for playing!” As Aliyah wiped up the mess, she thought about how her mother had called her “m’ija” so often that as a child Aliyah had assumed her real name was “Meeha.”
The hardest thing about becoming Muslim five years ago had not been the religion. She loved to pray, she loved to read the Koran, and for the first time in a long time her heart seemed to have a purpose. It wasn’t hard marrying Mohammed, who was a good man, a patient and intelligent partner. Having children changed their lives, but Zahira, Majdy, and Ibraheem were God’s will. Creating a modest household without the material obsessions of America was a struggle, but the good life was always a struggle. When Mohammed finished his doctorate in political science, and they made their plans to return to Tehran, a place they had visited for a week or two over the years, Aliyah faced her most difficult challenge.
Her Farsi, which she had thought was decent in conversations with Mohammed’s family over the years, was in reality a mishmash of mistakes and misunderstandings. Her command of the language was rapidly improving week to week, as she was forced to use her Farsi to buy food, answer the phone, or strike up a conversation with another mother at the park. Yet Aliyah remained a foreigner. It wasn’t that she was Mexican, which was how she described herself to anyone who asked. Muslims from every country and ethnicity lived in Tehran. It was certainly better to be from Mexico than from the land of the Great Satan. Her unease resided not in her background or heritage, but in her broken language.
Aliyah changed Ibraheem and put him into a dark blue jumpsuit (a gift from El Paso). Zahira dressed herself in a long tuniclike beige dress, with long sleeves. Aliyah helped Majdy into a T-shirt and brown elastic pants. Quickly Aliyah made five chicken sandwiches, wrapped them in plastic, and dropped them in a canvas bag that she draped behind Ibraheem’s stroller. She grabbed a couple of apples, an orange for Majdy, a banana for Ibraheem, and filled three bottles of water from the old faucet in the kitchen sink. The faucet’s copper patina reminded her of the faucet in her mother’s garden in Ysleta.
Aliyah assembled the bottom section of her black chador, tied it to her body, then slipped her head through the top section. She arranged it so her shoulders were straight and her hair was neatly tucked behind the light yet sturdy black fabric. Whenever Aliyah had worn her chador in El Paso, many assumed she was a Catholic nun and opened doors for her, murmuring a “Dios Nuestro Señor.” Aliyah had returned the blessing and smiled politely. Jesus Christ was a prophet in the Koran, and following the word of God was what mattered, wasn’t it? As her black chador floated behind her like a dark cloud, Aliyah escorted the children into the sunny concrete patio in front of their brownstone. Women in black chadors were everywhere, on their way to the market with and without children, on their way to work, or out for a stroll. Some women donned a light headscarf instead of a chador. As Aliyah walked toward the park for the martyrs of the Iranian revolution, a breeze meandered through the warm air. She seemed like any other mother on the streets of Tehran. Her face was a luminous moon surrounded by night.
Aliyah and the children walked for an hour and reached the great fountain, her favorite spot at the park. With brightly blue and gold mosaics and Farsi gold lettering extolling the triumphs of the Iranian revolution (which was celebrating its tenth anniversary this year), the massively round fountain was a sanctuary to be closer to God. She watched her children sprint around its edges with delight, pointing at the Farsi letters they could now read. Zahira trailed Majdy like a shadow.
Aliyah admired the newly planted red tulips around the fountain, a giant swaying wheel. Each tulip commemorated one of the thousands of martyrs of the revolution. “Let their blood reach to Heaven, let it pave our commitment to God, let it be a sacrifice worthy of the most Holy,” the inscription read. The tulips always inspired Aliyah to soft tears, a rapturous belief that Muslims would win their struggle against the West. When Zahira came up to her and asked her what was wrong, Aliyah replied, “Oh, my little one, I am just happy to be with you. Happy to be enjoying the sun. I am remembering those who died for us.”
Aliyah noticed a woman about her own age circle the expanse of the fountain once, and then distractedly approach a crosswalk, only to turn back slowly toward the fountain. She did not wear a black chador, but instead a white hijab around her face. A simple dark brown dress covered her shoes. She carried a large black suitcase in one hand.
“Help you may I?” Aliyah said, smiling politely at the woman.
“Oh, yes. Please. I’m looking for the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. I need to . . .” She slumped next to Aliyah on the park bench. The woman’s suitcase had a gash across it. Her hands were shaking. The hem of her dress was ripped where she had repeatedly stepped on it. Ibraheem toddled to the suitcase and stared at the woman. Zahira and Majdy were at the other side of the fountain, playing with something in the water.
“I think on this street twenty or thirty seconds—I mean minutes—right where Mosque of the Golden Dome. I am sorry for my Farsi,” Aliyah said. The woman solemnly stared at her hands, which seemed strangely older than her face. She smiled wearily at Ibraheem, who hadn’t taken his eyes off her.
“How old is your child?”
“Ibraheem, he is, he is, how do you say it? Almost one year.”
“I have two children too. A boy and a girl. You are not from Iran?”
“From Mexico. My husband is Iranian,” Aliyah said slowly and carefully.
The woman suddenly started to cry.
Aliyah sat closer to the woman and placed a hand lightly on her shoulders. “Maybe I can help you. Are you okay?”
“My children. My husband. I, I don’t know what to say. You are very kind.”
“Here, please, water for you,” Aliyah said soothingly as she handed the woman one of her water bottles from the stroller. Even Ibraheem had guided himself closer to the woman, and placed a tiny hand on her knee. The woman’s hands shook wildly, as if the baby’s touch shocked her.
“How can I help you?” asked Aliyah.
“I just arrived in Tehran this morning. From Qum. I am so tired. Please forgive me. I don’t know what to do.”
“I arrived in Tehran almost ninety, no, sorry, nine months ago. My husband a professor is at Tehran University. These are our three children, little Ibraheem, and two girls, Zahira and Majdy,” Aliyah said, pointing at the girls who were racing around the far edge of the fountain. “I take care of them. I am at home.”
“You are a good mother.”
“Thank you. Where is your family?” The woman looked as if she had been slapped.
“I am sorry. I not ask that.”
“No, it is okay. Last year my husband became a martyr,” the woman said, staring at the hundreds of gently dancing tulips in front of her. “I knew so many war widows in Qum because I was on a local committee to help them, to make their sacrifice for our country easier. I imagined that if I worked hard for the war widows that, somehow, God would spare me. I had heard rumors that the war was about to end, but I tried to push them away from my mind. I did not want to hope. I did not want to feel joy. I did not want to betray my husband and his readiness for martyrdom in God’s eyes. But God did not spare him.
“At Shalamjah, O Shalamjah! When a member of the committee for war widows and a volunteer came up to me one day, I thought he would reassign me to another location. I thought they might tell me to go home. Never did I imagine . . . it was time to tell me my husband had died at Shalamjah. They didn’t even have to get in their car and use gasoline to tell me the news.
“It was very difficult for the first few months. But we survived, my children, my boy and my girl. The government provided us with some help, I kept working with the war widows committee, and they began to pay me. I only worked part-time, because I wanted to be with my children when they came home from school. They are but a few years older than your oldest. Then my in-laws asserted their right to their grandchildren and took my children away—and the government allowed it. What kind of law is this? What was the point of my sacrifices? Where in the Koran does it say a good mother must lose her children? I told my in-laws I would happily be their slave to be near my little ones. But they said no.
“I have tried for a month to get my children back. I spoke to officials in Qum, the war widows committee, our cleric at the neighborhood mosque. I begged them to help me, but nothing has happened. Where does it say in Islamic law that a family must be ripped apart? I came here on the train last night to talk with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, to see if someone, anyone, would help me. I don’t know what to do.”
“I will walk you there. Aliyah my name is.”
“You are an angel, Aliyah. I am so desperate. I have no money. I have no friends in Tehran.”
“I will walk you there, after my children lunch have.”
“My name is Fatemeh. Fatemeh from Qum.”
“You can stay with us, Fatemeh. I will talk to my husband. He is a good man. And I know he will allow to stay you with us for a few days.”
“You are like the angel Gabriel, Aliyah. Thank you.”
Sergio Troncoso, the son of Mexican immigrants, was born in El Paso, Texas and now lives in New York City. He graduated from Harvard College, and studied international relations and philosophy at Yale University. Troncoso won a Fulbright Scholarship to Mexico, and was inducted into the Hispanic Scholarship Fund’s Alumni Hall of Fame and the Texas Institute of Letters.