Guayaquil, Ecuador – 1929
Etelvina Alarcón awakes just before dawn, muttering “Se acabó la buena vida.” The good life is over. She arrives at the shoe factory, sits on her usual chair, and assembles the first pair of the day. While her co-workers chat about their husbands, boyfriends, or “special friends,” she remains silent.
“Old maid,” one of them says. “Twenty-five years old and unwed? Despicable.”
When lunch break comes, Etelvina hides in a sweltering supply closet, her pocket-sized picture of Saint Anthony gripped in her aching hand. She prays for a husband until tears pour from her fatigued eyes. The second lunch break ends, she returns to the main floor where she makes shoes until nightfall. The last shoes of the day are dress shoes, her size. The manager turns away for a minute to scream at her co-workers for working slowly. Etelvina slips the shoes on without anyone noticing. She admires their sparkle, the elegant side buckle, and the stylish wedged heels. She imagines herself wearing them on her wedding day, but while she’s in her daydream, the manager shouts at her for dawdling. Thankfully, he doesn’t notice her feet. Etelvina puts on her own shoes, deep holes in the material, and tosses the shiny ones into her pile. As she walks home alone in the dark, her fingers stiffen.
Saint Anthony fulfills her wish eight years later. On her wedding day, Etelvina wears a pair of dress shoes she crafted herself. The morning her daughter, Eloisa, is born, Etelvina celebrates the new life she created with her dearest love. But soon, her husband of a brief moment fades with a sunset. She never prays for a husband again. Instead, she asks Saint Anthony for something else.
“Help my descendants find their true paths,” Etelvina utters in the privacy of her modest bedroom. “Give them good lives. Grant my prayer.”
Days after her passing, Etelvina is buried next to Eloisa’s in-laws. “Se acabó la buena vida” echoes from the cemetery.
New York City – 1970
Eloisa Martinez makes file folders at a factory in Brooklyn. The temperature is much higher than the pay. Inside her tiny apartment in the Bronx, her husband teaches himself simple English phrases, but his accent, no matter how much he attempts to mask it, stays strong. Their newborn wails from hunger. Eloisa throws folder number 154 in a box as she thinks about her three children. Though she’s many miles away from home, she swears she hears her baby crying for her. With nearly numb hands, Eloisa starts folder number 155.
Meanwhile, Tammy, the younger daughter, has only grasped two English words so far: Mother. Father. But she aces her math quiz. Her penmanship is flawless. At the school library, Tammy checks out books for her little brother. During lunch, she identifies the colorful pictures with their words. She pronounces them several times to herself. She doesn’t know if she’s saying them correctly and for now, she’s not overly concerned. Her teacher at P.S. 37, Mr. Rosenberg, notices her determination.
“You could be a teacher someday,” he says.
Tammy doesn’t understand.
Back at the factory, a drill sergeant manager shouts at Eloisa.
“Work harder! Faster! These folders don’t make them-damn-selves! Lazy immigrant!”
Eloisa doesn’t respond. She counts mentally. Folder number 200, folder 201, folder 202, folder 203, folder 204.
“Faster!” the manager repeats. “FASTER! Be grateful for this job, you wetback!”
One day, she thinks. I will own a store and I won’t listen to these insults ever again.
One day, Tammy thinks. I will be a teacher like Mr. Rosenberg.
Eloisa arrives home after dark with swollen feet, throbbing hands, and aching fingers. She feeds her newborn son and then cooks dinner. After everyone eats, Eloisa scrubs the dishes, wipes the kitchen counters, and takes the trash out to the compactor closet. Past midnight, she relaxes in the bathtub, listening to her husband practice saying “Hello, my name is Hector.”
“Hello,” she whispers. “My name is Eloisa. Welcome to my store.”
Houston, Texas – 1991
Tammy has a degree in education, but since she earned it in Ecuador, she must have it verified by the United States before she can work at a school. She has been in Houston for a few weeks thanks to her husband, Jose, completing a residency at the Texas Medical Center. For now, Jose doesn’t earn much. Since two children need to be fed, Tammy applies at a sandwich shop, one which never slows down in business. Tammy’s job is cleaning the oven. She scrubs the inside over and over, especially during the peak times from noon to two in the afternoon. The moment she finishes a scrub, the cycle begins again. The heat of the oven radiates to her face. After her first day, she calls her mother in Ecuador.
“I want to quit!” she sobs. “My hands are numb! My fingers hurt! I earn close to nothing! I want to go home!”
Eloisa listens to Tammy as she counts the money in her cash register. Ten customers walk inside her store. She watches them grab snacks and drinks and then line up to pay.
“Hija,” Eloisa answers. “You will be fine. I have customers right now. Call me later.”
Tammy catches the last bus home. With stiff fingers, she unlocks her apartment door and as soon as she walks in, her children cry. They didn’t understand the English spoken at school.
“Learn English!” their classmates shouted. “English only!”
“Chiquitos,” Tammy says and pats their backs. “When I arrived in New York City, the only words I knew were ‘mother’ and ‘father.’ Don’t worry, I will teach you more English.”’
And she does. Within a few weeks, her children are nearly fluent.
Mr. Rosenberg would be so proud of me, Tammy thinks. I can teach and I will teach.
Late one night, nausea keeps Tammy awake. She drinks herbal tea, but it doesn’t help. She arrives at her new job, a daycare that offered her an extra dollar an hour than the sandwich shop. By lunchtime, the nausea strengthens. For the next two weeks, it doesn’t stop.
“Congratulations Tammy,” her doctor says when she gets a day off to see him. “You are pregnant. It’s a girl.”
Houston, Texas – 2019
Every dawn when I wake up for work, I say phrases which can’t be aired on television. My husband, the morning person he is, has already recited his prayers, exercised, eaten breakfast, packed his lunch, and washed the night before’s dishes. He kisses me goodbye as I grumble to myself. I fling my lunch into a travel cooler, gobble a protein bar, and put on business casual clothing. I grab my lanyard, the end of it holding a badge with my name and a picture of myself with the fakest smile in the entire world. I always arrive at my office ten minutes early to clock in, check emails, and gather a sliver of energy to greet my students. Most days, no matter how much I prepare, I take a moment to count the days until my retirement. If the day is difficult, I text my mother to vent. During her break, she replies with We educators are important. Your students and my students need us. I text back Do they really? She answers They do.
On the hardest days, I pace around campus, wondering if I can make up a realistic-sounding religious holiday and take a week off. I look at the campus calendar, hoping winter break is the next day, but it’s only September 1st. I take a deep breath, picture myself on a plane, at the beach, or in bed with all the covers over myself. Then I realize something.
My hands have never been numb.
My feet have never been swollen.
My fingers have never ached.
Saint Anthony granted my great-grandmother’s prayer.
Tomorrow, when I get ready for another day of work, I will hope to hear her voice.
“Wake up,” she’ll say. “Time to shine! Time to teach! Celebrate la buena vida!”
Darlene P. Campos earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Texas at El Paso. When she’s not writing, she enjoys reading, exercising, and going to museums. She is Ecuadorian-American and lives in Houston, TX with her husband and their six rescue cats. She is represented by Stimola Literary Studio. Visit her website at www.darlenepcampos.com.