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By Eric Franco

[dropcap1]A[/dropcap1]long crackled road runs through a small collection of houses, a village far from any city. The sky above this village is light gray during winter and the fields of green crops are now dry and faded yellow.

On one quiet street sits an orange adobe, home to an elderly couple. He sits at the kitchen table drinking coffee with a crinkled newspaper by his side; she spends her day lying in a bed in the next room.

Margarita has been resting in this frigid room for weeks now. The glow from an unwatched television is the only illumination. She has lived in this house for most of her life, in this farming town two hours from the state’s capital. Opportunities are scarce, and most of the people she knows have left in hopes of a better future elsewhere. Relatives occasionally visit, but Margarita finds herself mostly alone, in the company of memories common to a woman her age.

By closing her eyes she transports herself to another time. It helps distract her from more recent events.

Life has always been difficult here alongside her husband, Sergio, and he’s not making these last days any easier. Excruciating stomach pain, that’s what led to the hospital visit. She learned of her illness from him that day. Beginning to feel ill, she was resting in this very bed when she heard him bickering with one of their daughters.

“You’ve got to come quick, my mother is still feeling really sick!” their daughter said.

“Shut up, woman!” Sergio replied. “The doctor already said that it’s cancer; there isn’t any hope for her!”

His words bruised more than any of his blows, hurt more than his adultery, said more than any of his drunken confessions.

She has been in this room ever since. At the mercy of time.

“It was never part of my plan to come back,” she thinks.

Years before, she had traveled to East Los Angeles. StoryArtA time in her life that shines brighter than any other. She spent an entire year in the United States, and there she was reunited with seven of her nine children. She worked, made her own money, and found a safe haven from the abuse of the man she married at sixteen.

She was not driven there by the promise of money or a better life. She wanted only to attend the wedding of a son, so she spent three days on a cramped bus to Baja California. The journey up north was made easy by the human smugglers who were then abundant in her town. Laura, a woman from her hometown, met her at the bus station. Small in stature, large in confidence, the young Laura was an experienced human smuggler, and that day she was Margarita’s guide.

“Don’t worry about a thing, Ms. Mago. We’ll cross today, stay the night in a house nearby and we’ll leave for L.A. first thing in the morning.”

Margarita ceased trembling. She could already see her children’s faces.

Laura and her group of smugglers had a routine that earned them an admirable reputation in the business. Back then the U.S./Mexico border was easier to cross. Other migrants struggled through hills and deserts; Laura’s expensive services required less physical strain.

At dawn they gathered the small group of migrants at a truck parking lot in Tijuana. Margarita could see Laura’s breath as she gave instructions. They were taken to a less secured part of the border. All it took was a leap over a wall, and they were on U.S. soil. A few minutes’ walk away Laura’s men were waiting in a van. They drove to a safe house in San Ysidro where they spent the night. The checkpoints were the only concern now. But the smugglers had learned what time of day the highways were less patrolled. A few hours later, Margarita was in Los Angeles.

She arrived with days to spare before the wedding. A great number of people attended. She found herself surrounded by relatives she hadn’t seen in years. The grin on her son’s face was unerasable that day. Margarita was awed by her daughter-in-law’s elegant white dress and stared at it with some envy.

“What a difference,” she thought, remembering her marriage to Sergio. They were kids and had been seeing each other for some time, when one day they decided Margarita would move in with Sergio without her parents’ consent. It was a rebellious method of matrimony practiced frequently in Mexican small towns. “Stealing a wife,” people called it.

Sergio waited outside of her school on her last day. She left with him still wearing her school uniform, trading in the life of a student for that of a wife. There was no graceful white dress; no adoring relatives. Together they walked on the dirt path that led to their new life.

“It wasn’t anything like a real wedding, not like this” she murmured. This was heavenly.

She now wanted to stay in Los Angeles. It didn’t matter that she didn’t understand the country’s language, or that her obligations at home would be ignored. All she wanted to do was pursue a more comfortable life here, near her children.

She still prides herself in the job she found: Babysitting children and getting paid quite well for it; much more money than she had seen back home. With the money earned, she’d take the bus down Whittier Boulevard and get off on Ferris Avenue to visit her sister-in-law – Sergio’s sister – one of her closest friends. Together they would go to shopping centers, grab a bite to eat, and spend hours talking.

In East L.A., she was again surrounded by her children who had left Mexico young to find work. She could never hide her pride in them. They worked tirelessly, starting families, and none possessing a single vice. Margarita prepared their meals before they headed out to work, as she had when they were kids. They always appreciated her labor, especially her first born, Daniel. Her connection with Daniel was different than the one she had with the rest of her sons. He was the oldest, and thus the authority figure among his brothers and sisters.

Margarita lived in his house in East L.A. and spent more time with him than with the others.

With her children and grandchildren, she would attend church every Sunday, and go out for a day in the city afterwards. Daniel and the rest of her children were her strength and support, and they continued to be so even after she had returned to Mexico.

She remembers when their existence had kept her alive back in the village. She had heard rumors of Sergio having an affair with another women, so she followed him one day and furiously confronted him at the home of his mistress. Sergio was not ashamed. Instead, in a fit of rage he forced Margarita into his truck and drove off. He shouted obscenities at her as he drove, telling her she had no right to offend his mistress, that she was just jealous of not being a real woman like his girlfriend. Margarita shouted in return. Sergio threatened to kill her. He drove to the isolated hills far outside the town.

“I’m going to end you right here!” Sergio yelled.

“Well, wait until your kids find out, just wait until Daniel finds out what you did to me. Let’s see how you deal with them!”

Sergio stopped the car, froze for a few seconds, forced Margarita out of the car, and drove off, leaving her miles from home.

Years later, in this room in her house in the village, she still thinks of her children, still misses her life with them, far from here.

It wasn’t her idea to come back. Sergio’s phone calls became insistent.

“What are you thinking? You’ve been over there way too long. I need you back.”

Her children asked her to stay, but she gave in to Sergio’s demands. She boarded a plane and headed back.

Now she’s lost track of the years that have passed since she last saw her children.

Her movements on this bed are limited. Each time she shifts, the creaking of the bed echoes through the empty room; but otherwise, it’s silent.

She has taken all the doctor’s medication, but that burning pain that started in her stomach has now spread through her body, and she hasn’t been able to empty her bladder since last night. All she does now is remember.

Then she is roused from her reverie. Footsteps draw near. She opens her eyes. She is no longer remembering but alive in the moment. Shoes scrape the dirt floor. Her door opens and she hears Daniel’s voice.

“Mom, I’m here.”

____

Eric E. Franco Aguilar is a photographer residing in East Los Angeles. His photographic projects have been featured in several literary journals, and explore themes of identity and transnational relations. He is in the process of obtaining his B.A in Latin American Studies.
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By Milton Alex Chi

It is another sunny day in southern California. While walking down the pier I can feel the cool ocean breeze and smell the hot dogs and cotton candy. I feel thirsty all of a sudden and I crave a tall glass of ice cold orange soda. Kids are running around excited about going on the rides. Along the beach I can see people laying on their towels working on their golden California tans. Beyond the pier I see a few sail boats slowly glide across the blue ocean.

It was late 2009 when I first started to get headaches and started feeling out of sorts.

I figured it was just temporary and it would go away eventually but it did not. Then I noticed a small bump on the right side of my neck, sort of like a pimple, which I thought was strange.Image for Story

The headaches continued and the bump on the right side of my neck kept growing. I was able to feel it now like a small pea. In a few weeks it was the size of a lemon. In February 2010 I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I went to the hospital the following Monday to start chemotherapy.

The first week I felt no side effects but as the treatments increased soon came nausea, vomiting, dizzy spells, joint and body aches, flu-like symptoms, etc. I could no longer work and had to apply for disability. Without work, I couldn’t pay my mortgage and bills. The bank foreclosed on the house and gave me thirty days to vacate the property. My brother lived in a two bedroom apartment so I ended up moving in with him.

Six months later I felt better. The doctor gave me a release letter to go back to work. When I called my employer I was told that my position had been eliminated. I updated my resume and asked my former bosses and co-workers if they heard of any openings. Five months later I started a new job. It was quite a commute but I was thankful to have a job nonetheless.

Then in October, 2013 they again found some tumors, this time under my right arm. A battery of tests showed that the Lymphoma had returned. I started chemotherapy again. The weekend after the last treatment I felt really sick. My head throbbed, my body ached and I had no energy. I wasn’t sure what it was. I drove myself to the hospital and checked my self in; I had a fever of 108.

I was there a few days. They could not give me any antibiotics until they found what type of virus I had. The fever was not going down. They had me in a tub with ice and cold blankets; in the meantime the flu turned into pneumonia. My blood pressure was really high and my body was going through shock. I was having a hard time breathing. They had no choice but to induce a coma in order to connect me to all the machines and to get oxygen to my brain and help me breathe.

While I was in the coma, they determined that I had caught the H1N1 virus; also know as “swine flu,” a human respiratory infection caused by an influenza strain that started in pigs. I was on strong antibiotics and oxygen, had an IV on my arm, a heart monitor, and a tube in my stomach where I was being fed, and a tracheotomy, as well.

My body was shutting down. The doctors were giving up and they were getting ready to unplug me from the respirator. They advised my family and friends to come and say their goodbye as they thought I would not make it through the night.

Everyone came; they made a circle around my bed and as they held hands they thanked God for my life and prayed for my health. I remember then being lifted from the bed. It was like I had wings beneath me and as they flapped they reflected a silver light with a white glow. I felt the air flowing under me as I rose.

I looked down and saw the nurses and my family around my bed. Then all of a sudden everything turned dark. My spirit returned to my body and I was back in bed. Still unconscious, I had a lot of nightmares and sweet dreams during that period. I dreamed I was walking on the Santa Monica Pier and it was a hot summer day, which was something I hadn’t done in years.

At my bedside, my brother didn’t know what to do so he called my oncologist for his opinion. He told my brother to tell the doctors that they should give me a few more days. My body was fighting. Soon the fever started to go down slowly and I improved.

A few days passed. I stabilized. Then I heard voices and I opened my eyes for the first time in weeks. I looked around. I was alone in a room; I had no idea where I was, what day it was or what time it was. I tried to move and could not. My arms where strapped to the bed and I could not speak. I was paralyzed from the neck down. I could only move my head and my eyes. The nurses came in and asked me a few questions. My family arrived and asked if I recognized everyone. All I could do was nod. They told me what had happened and that I had been in a coma for about two months.

I was told that while I was in my coma I had a lot of visitors: my family, friends, church members and co-workers. Some came to read books or the Bible and held my hand in prayer. They told me that my aunt had come to sing to me a hymn -“Because He Lives”- and that by the time she finished tears were rolling down my cheeks. She asked the nurse if she had done something wrong. The nurse said that it was a good sign; I was reacting to her singing and my blood pressure had gone down. Then the nurse asked my aunt if she could go and sing for another patient on the floor and she did.

A couple of friends created a blog for me on “Caringbridge” where they kept everyone informed of my condition. People wrote their comments on this site as well. The last time I checked there were over six thousands hits on this blog.

One of the nurses told me that I might never walk again. After a couple of weeks they sent me to another hospital with a respiratory facility where they helped me breathe on my own. I was transferred to another hospital where they provided physical therapy and speech therapy. Every time my family came to visit they would massage my legs, feet and arms trying to reactivate the nerves. I believe that the massages and prayers really helped my recovery.

Slowly I started to move my fingers, then hands, arms and feet. One day three nurses tried to help me stand from the wheelchair. My legs gave way. I was too weak. But the physical therapy continued and after a while I could move a little. The speech therapist helped me learn to speak again.

So it was that within three months, I had learned to function again as a human being.

When they saw my progress they sent me home; my insurance, they said, would no longer be covering my stay, and I could continue my physical therapy at another hospital. I was released on July 7th,2014; in a wheelchair.

I kept the physical therapy. They taught me how to walk with a cane and how to go up and down stairs. Within five months I was able to walk slowly on my own. My first trip was to Marie Calendar’s for a slice of pie.

Now I walk and talk and drive. I’m looking for a job, and, as you can see, I’m writing. I am staying with my brother until I get back on my feet again. I threw a party for my friends and family who stood by my bed.

But there is one thing left to do.

So today, the forecast calls for highs in the 90’s. I am at the Santa Monica pier. The fresh cool air brushes my face. My shoes are off so I can feel the sand between my toes. I look at the seagulls flying overhead. I will have that ice cold orange soda now.

____

Milton Alex Chi was born in El Salvador, the son of a Salvadoran mother and Chinese-immigrant father, who together ran a store and a restaurant. His family left El Salvador during that country’s civil war and he has resided in the Los Angeles area for more than 40 years. He has always wanted to write and he feels grateful and honored to be able to share his life tale in this book.
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