The Desert Remembers My Name
Kathleen Alcalá’s work takes readers to “a world where one would like to stay forever” (Ursula K. LeGuin). Her words “convincingly move the reader from one reality to the other” (Rudolfo Anaya) and attest to “the power of storytelling as testimony” (The Utne Reader). And now, in her first nonfiction collection The Desert Remembers My Name, Alcalá demonstrates that reflecting upon and sharing one’s own history is as intellectually and spiritually rewarding as using fiction to chronicle the past.
In this lyrical collection of personal essays, esteemed Chicana writer Kathleen Alcalá explores the many meanings of “family.” Having unearthed her family’s history and secrets in three award-winning novels, Alcalá now presents a memoir that reflects upon that past. In it, she ultimately uncovers the forces that shaped her as writer and shows how the act of writing can free a person from cultural and personal restraints.
Although the essays are in many ways personal, their themes are also universal. When Alcalá examines her history, she is encouraging us to inspect our own families, too. When she investigates a family secret, she is supporting our own search for meaning. After reading these essays, we understand not only why Kathleen Alcalá is a writer but also why we appreciate her so much. She helps us to find ourselves.
"Alcalá displays an intellectual curiosity that has led her to think and write creatively about less personal matters. Her essay on the Opata peoples of Mexico is fascinating, and in another essay, she masterfully blends the harrowing experience of Andrea Yates, who drowned her five young children, with the mythic stories of Mexican folklore."
An excerpt from The Desert Remembers My Name:
The Woman Who Loved Water
Once, there was a woman who loved water. On dry land, she could merely walk. But in the water, she could fly. She spent as much time as possible in the water, and that is where her husband first saw her - floating on her back in a swimming pool, completely at ease. He vowed to meet her, and eventually, they were married.
The two of them were very happy, and they wanted to have many children. The woman continued to swim until her first child was born. For a time after that, the water seemed to whisper unfamiliar things to her, strange things, but she did not listen. After their second child was born, the water began to whisper again, more strongly this time, but the woman stopped her ears and said "No, no no!" until the whispers receded. The woman loved her children very much.
Her husband proposed that they free themselves of earthly possessions, that they live simply and concentrate on their family. They sold their home and most of their possessions and moved to a small trailer. But they were near the water, and so the woman was happy.
After the birth of their third child, the waters in her head came back more strongly. She had to concentrate to block out what the voices were saying. It was exhausting, scary. She confessed to her husband that it was hard to be with three children in such a small space, to care for them by herself while he was gone all day, to teach them and cook for them and clean.
And so, the family moved closer to his parents. They bought a house. The waters in her mind receded, and the woman was happy again. A fourth child was born. The waters surged forward, as though waiting, waiting for her. In order to hold back the whispers, to keep their meaning from becoming obvious, the woman had to concentrate all her energy on the breaking waves in her head. She could no longer eat. She could no longer sleep. She could no longer care for her children. The man took her to a doctor, who gave her medicine. The doctor told the husband that the woman would be all right, that the water in her head was only temporary, but that it was strongest when she had just had a child. The doctor suggested that they have no more children.
But they did. And with the fifth child, the dam that the woman had so carefully constructed between her mind and the black, surging waters finally broke. She could no longer hold them back, nor could she ignore what the whispers had been trying to tell her all along. She finally listened to the voices, and did as they told her. The woman filled the bathtub and drowned her five children.
This is a terrible story, based on an account of Andrea Yates' murder of her children on June 20, 2001, in Time Magazine ("The Yates Odyssey," January 28, 2002). "She was a person who was more graceful in the water than out of it," said her husband, Russell (Rusty) Yates. Like the rest of you, I read about the case and heard about it and flinched with each additional detail. I scrutinized her photograph in the paper to see what I could discern about her state of mind from her appearance. The whole thing seemed unbelievable.
But there was something disturbingly familiar about this tale, as well.
One day, I realized why. I have been hearing this story, in one form or another, all my life.
One version goes like this: Once there was a woman who fell in love with a man. He was very handsome, and all the women desired him. Eventually, she attracted his notice and they were married. They were very happy, or so she thought, and had many children. One day, the woman went to the river to get water and saw her husband with another woman. In a fit of rage and jealousy, she drowned all of her children. She was put to death for her crime, but continues to haunt the river, looking for her lost children. She can be heard late at night, weeping. (An example of this version can be found at www.dixiefiles.homestead.com)
This is, of course, the most famous of Mexican folk tales, the story of La llorona, the weeping woman. There have been songs written about her, and there are many versions of the stories and the songs, with echoes of her undying love for both the children and the absent father.
"How does a person survive who cannot speak up to explain what she wants," asks Rosemarie Coste in her article "La Llorona y El Grito/The Ghost and The Scream: Noisy Women in Borderlands and Beyond"(www.womenwriters.net, 12/15/2000), her exploration of the Llorona myths and their interpretation, "…who cannot argue when she is pushed in a direction she does not want to go, who cannot insist that she be consulted when decisions are made about her future?"
This seems to describe Andrea Yates, a woman wracked by mental illness, in a marriage based on the fundamentalist teachings of Michael Woroniecki, a preacher unaffiliated with any established religious group who travelled around the country in a camper with his wife, Rachel, and six children, often speaking at college campuses, and homeschooling his children.
Russell Yates admired this lifestyle. "Man is the breadwinner and woman is the homemaker," he told prosecutor Joe Owmby under cross-examination at Andrea Yates' trial. "It's the way it's been for years." ("Mental Decline of Yates Documented," Houston(AP) - CourtTV.Com - Texas v. Andrea Yates, February 27, 2002). Social worker Earline Wilcott, who counseled Andrea Yates for years, testified that she met Russell Yates once and learned that his beliefs included that a wife should submit to her husband.(AP).
This belief is based on Ephesians 5: 22-24, "Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church…But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything." (New American Standard Bible, 1972, p 272). These few verses have been the subject of much discussion over the years, as women have struggled to reach religious parity with men. Both sides usually ignore the instructions to men that follow.
A more sinister view of women, however, shows up in Woroniecki's teachings: "Woroniecki preached a stern and patriarchal doctrine. In letters and taped messages to the [Yates] family, he claimed 'all women are descendants of Eve and Eve was a witch. The women, particularly women who worked outside the home, are wicked.'" (Ellen Makkai, www.ezboard.com, March 23, 2002) It was the Woroniecki's old motor home, with 350 square feet of living space, that the Yates purchased in 1998. Only after Andrea attempted suicide twice, and at her parents' insistence, did they move back into a house in Houston ("Yates Odyssey," Time, p. 10).
Andrea Yates had worked as a post-op nurse at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center before she met Russell and until the birth of her first child, and continued to act as a caregiver for her father, who had Alzheimer's and had never fully recovered from a heart attack ("Yates Odyssey," Time, p 6). Her father, Andrew Kennedy, died a few months after the birth of Andrea's last child, Mary, and shortly before her last breakdown.
La llorona weeps wordlessly, "unspeakably," Coste continues, "expressing her longing for the precious things she has lost and cannot find: her home, her family, her body, her life. The many versions of her story differ as to what her losses were and how they occurred, but they unite in judging her to be certainly miserable and probably dangerous, jealous of those who still have the treasures she long ago lost."
When Yates was hospitalized with postpartum depression, her friend Debbie Holmes testified, Russell could not understand why his wife couldn't keep up with taking care of the children and home-schooling them. He admired another woman in the neighborhood ("Mental Decline," AP): "She's got nine kids, teaches her kids tee ball and she does just fine. I don't know why Andrea's having so much trouble," said Russell Yates, according to Holmes.
"A woman who will not suffer silently, who makes her displeasure heard and expects it to be dealt with, is an exceptional and amazing creature in a culture like the one that created La llorona's legend, a culture that values patient endurance above many other virtues." (Coste)
In Borderlands/La Frontera (aunt lute, 1999), Gloria Anzaldúa writes extensively about attempts to silence the Chicana, the mixed-blood Latinas of the border between Mexico and the United States.
En boca cerrada no entran moscas. "Flies don't enter a closed mouth" is a saying I kept hearing when I was a child. Ser habladora was to be a gossip and a liar, to talk too much. Muchachitas bien criadas, well-bred girls don't answer back. Es una falta de respeto to talk back to one's mother or father…hablar pa' trás, repelar, hocicona, repelona, chismosa, having a big mouth, questioning, carrying tales are all signs of being mal criada. In my culture they are all words that are derogatory if applied to women - I've never heard them applied to men. (Anzaldúa, p. 76)
Anzaldúa is one of the few people who has attempted to rewrite the Llorona myth, in her children's book, Prietita and the Ghost Woman/Prietita y la lloron (Children's Book Press, 1995), which features a benevolent Llorona guiding a lost girl, first to a medicinal herb for her mother, then to rescue. Interestingly, this ghost woman is completely silent.
While there are many differences between Andrea Yates' situation and those of Latina women, the fundamental Christian belief system to which she adheres values the wife who submits to her husband, and there is some indication that this was true of the Yates family.
Frank Ochberg, MD, a psychiatrist and the author of Post-Traumatic Therapy and Victims of Violence (Brunner/Mazel, 1988), said in a recent talk in Seattle that the first sign of trauma is speechlessness (Symposium on The Languages of Emotional Injury, Seattle University, April 26, 2002). Most violence is in the home, he says, and so is especially difficult to treat. "If the language of the victim or advocate is too strong," he says, "ears close. If it is too soft, it is not heard."
Sandra Cisneros also retells the Llorona myth, in her story "Woman Hollering Creek" (Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Random House, 1991). In it, Cleofílas finds the voice to tell a health worker of her abusive situation, and is rescued by a woman who, "when they drove across the arroyo… opened her mouth and let out a yell as loud as any mariachi.
"…I like the name of that arroyo," she tells her startled passenger. "Makes you want to holler like Tarzan, right?" In this case, Cisneros shows that the silence of abuse can be escaped, and the legend re-imagined to show a woman who stands up for herself.
There is no indication that Andrea Yates ever complained about her situation, or even saw herself in that light. The worst that was put in writing was that "The patient's husband might be a little bit controlling." (social worker Norma Tauriac, Yates Odyssey, Time, p. 8) Rather, according to Sergeant Eric Mehl, the officer who responded to her 911 call and took her confession, "she would sit in 15 seconds of stone-cold silence if he asked too much. She could give only short answers to simple questions in their 17 minute conversation as she twice recounted the order in which her children were born and died." (Yates Odyssey, Time, p. 16)
Another version of La llorona goes like this: a man and a woman fell in love and married. They were very happy, but very poor. They did not have enough food or money to feed their children, and so the man left their village to look for work. The woman was left alone with the children, and, after the man had been gone a long time, they began to starve to death. Finally, the woman drowned her children in the river rather than watch them starve. To this day, she grieves, and can be heard calling for them along the riverbank, looking for her lost children. You can hear her there, calling late at night, and if she mistakes you for one of her children, she might take you, too. I was told this version in the 1970s by a college classmate, the daughter of farmworkers, who went on to become a lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund.
On June 20, 2001, Andrea Yates, 37, told Officer Eric Mehl that she drowned her five children - Noah, 7, John, 5, Paul, 3, Luke, 2 and 6-month-old Mary.
Three weeks later, she told psychiatrist Phillip Resnick that she was failing as a mother and believed she had to kill the children to keep them from going to hell. "These were their innocent years," she told him. "God would take them up" (Houston AP, March 4, 2002).
Yates drowned her children to save them from eternal damnation. Because she had been a bad mother, she reasoned, her children were also turning out to be bad. Only by drowning them while they were still young and innocent, by sacrificing herself to the laws of secular man, could she assure their eternal salvation. She, in turn, would be executed by the state and Satan would be eliminated from the world.
"I realized it was time to be punished," Yates told Sgt. Eric Mehl.
"And what do you need to be punished for?"
""For not being a good mother." (Houston Chronicle, February 21, 2002)
After her imprisonment, Yates told doctors that the death of her children was her punishment, not theirs. It was, she explained, a mother's final act of mercy. According to the Bible , (Matthew 18:6) it was better to be flung into the sea with a stone tied to one's neck than cause little ones to stumble. And she had failed them.
This is an important point in Yates' system of belief. It had been her job to instruct her children, both in secular studies and in religious studies, since the Yates did not attend church. Rather, they held Bible studies three evenings a week. Yates had "earmarked pages in her Bible about a mother's obligaton to raise her children or face the consequences… She came to believe that she had failed so badly to measure up to her own extreme ideals of motherhood (she thought the kids should say their ABCs by age 2) that, as she told the psychiatrist, the kids were destined to perish in the fires of hell." ("The Devil and Andrea Yates," Time, March 11, 2002)
Hamida Bosmajian is a professor of English at Seattle University who has made a study of the use of language in the indoctrination of children by the Nazi regime (Sparing the Child: Children's Literature about Nazism and the Holocaust, Garland, 2002t). During the Third Reich, power was achieved primarily by the use of language. First, it was used to divide people from each other; then to unite those where were left. "Children in particular were reshaped as warriors," said Bosmajian. They were told that individual identity counted for nothing. Finally, the general population was encouraged to "become like children" and let the people in power maintain the material conditions of life. (Symposium on The Languages of Emotional Injury, Seattle University, April 26, 2002).
Only by making sure that her young children were well-versed in the beliefs of their elders, could they become warriors for Christ. If they could not read the Bible, this would not be possible. "They did a lot of silly stuff and didn't obey," Yates said. "They did things God didn't like." (CourtTV.com, March 4, 2002)
Because Andrea Yates was unable to do all that was expected of her, she was a bad mother. Because she was a bad mother, her children were bad. Only her execution would rescue them from the evil inside her - a state-sanctioned exorcism in which George W. Bush, the former Governor and now President, would come to save her from the clutches of Satan. (Odyssey, Time, p 16).
In the last days before the drownings, Yates had also wanted to have her head shaved so that she could see the mark of the beast as described in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 13:6), the number 666, that she was sure was emblazoned on her scalp.
After Yates' arrest, Michael Woroniecki tried to downplay the influence he had on the family through personal correspondence and through his publication, The Perilous Times,a copy of which was put into evidence by Yates' attorney (Newsweek, March 18, 2002). In it, a poem laments the disobedient children of the "Modern Mother Wordly," ending with the question, "What becomes of the children of such a Jezebel?" Woroniecki wrote a letter to Newsweek magazine denying responsibility for Yates' actions. But his views of women were shared by Russell Yates, who saw his wife's mental illness as an indication that her resistance to evil had been lowered.
At one point when court-appointed psychiatrist Phillip Resnick was interviewing Yates, he asked her how she felt about her children.
"I didn't hate my children," she responded.
"Did you love your children?" Resnick asked.
"Yeah," she responded after a long pause. "Some. Not in the right way, though." (Houston AP, March 4, 2002)
According to Coste, folklorists claim to see, in the hundreds of variants of the La llorona tale,
"Mexican-American cultural attitudes toward mothering activities and . . . the conflicts and stresses that Mexican-American women experience in relation to the mother role," as well as "insight into the interpretation of the infanticide motif as a psychological device related to the frustrations of child care," showing that "contemplation of infanticide provides a momentary 'escape' from the problems of child rearing."
Like all living mythology, there are newer versions of La llorona. Coste has found "the first signs of a merging of the traditional La llorona legend and the contemporary stories of babies found abandoned in trash dumpsters, a more modern method for disposing of children than drowning."
Coste also found research showing that La llorona is known to the female inmates of Juvenile Hall, even by those who do not know her by name. Of thirty-one ghost stories collected by researcher Bess Lomax Hawes, twenty-eight were about adult women, most of whom were threats to the living. This is in contrast to ghost lore in general, in which most ghosts are males, who are indifferent to the living. The girls' stories varied in many details, but all featured ghosts that were female, vicious, and very much inclined to attack. The most frequent themes were infanticide and other aggressive crimes committed by women, punishment or aggressive crimes against women, unconsolable grief or loss, and mutilation, another kind of loss.
Of the two versions of La llorona I have recounted here, I suspect that men are more likely to tell the first version - of the woman who drowns her children for spite, and women the second - the woman who drowns her children to spare them suffering. One is a story of jealousy, and the second, a story of desperation. One could argue that, if La llorona killed her children out of spite and jealousy, she did it for the wrong reasons. If she killed her children out of pity and mercy, then she did it for the right reasons - still wrong, but motivated by compassion.
"Even though she knew it was against the law," said psychiatrist Phillip Resnick, "She did what she thought was right in the world she perceived through her psychotic eyes at the time," (Houston AP, March 4, 2002)
Which version is closer to the truth? And which model did the jury have in mind when they convicted Andrea Yates of murder on March 12, 2002? Under Texas law Yates "could have been found not guilty only if jurors believed she suffered from a mental defect that prevented her from distinguishing right from wrong" (NY Times, March 13, 2002). The jury took less than four hours to reach a verdict. During the deliberations, the jury requested an audio tape player and may have listened again to the 911 recording of Andrea Yates' call to the police and her taped confession. This suggests that they concentrated on her actions the morning of the killings, rather than the extensive testimony describing her history of mental illness.
"The way she did it and the way she acted afterwards was inconsistent with somebody who didn't know what she was doing," said Rusty Hardin, a former local prosecutor who watched closing arguments (NYT March 13, 2002).
In the Llorona tales, the townspeople feel the same way. In some versions, she is stoned or hung by the other villagers when it is discovered what she has done. In others, she stays by the river and wastes away on her own, until only the wail is left.
"The loving act of a mother was to leave [Noah's] body floating in the bathtub," said prosecuting attorney Raylynn Williford, sarcastically, in closing arguments. "She made the choice to fill the tub. She made the choice to kill these children. She knew it was wrong…
"At one point during Ms. Williford's arguments, Mrs. Yates cried silently at the defense table" (NYT, March 13, 2002).
Sadly, Noah was named after the Biblical patriarch to whom God made the promise that the world would never again be destroyed by water (Genesis 9:15).
What is La llorona trying to tell us? And why is the Andrea Yates case so eerily similar?
Tales of the supernatural persist because they portray a situation that we continue to understand over the passage of time and place. They carry some universal meaning that allows them to be adapted to current circumstances, always timely, always applicable. The specific characters may change, but as editor Rob Johnson says in the introduction to Fantasmas: Supernatural Tales by Mexican American Writers (Bilingual Press, 2001) these stories "never forget there is a spiritual side of life, but even more importantly, don't ignore social reality."
La llorona is, in part, a story about power - power over our own circumstances. What control do we have over what happens to us, over what happens to the closest thing that we have to an extension of ourselves, our children? The song versions of La llorona, in particular, tell us that she was dark
Todos me dicen el negro, llorona
Negro pero cariñoso
And so most likely, lower class and powerless. Some versions of the Llorona story, those that fall into the jealous woman category, also say that she is lower class, and her husband/lover is of the upper class. But she is also reminiscent of the beautiful lover in the Song of Songs:
I am dark, but comely…
Don't stare at me because I am swarthy,
Because the sun has gazed upon me.
(The Song of Songs,1:5,6, Tanakh, JPS translation, 1985)
What does a middle-class Anglo woman, supposedly living in comfortable circumstances, have in common with a poor, dark woman from Mexico? These questions continued to haunt me as a travelled to Texas and Mexico in April of 2002, closer to the origin of the Llorona stories.
In Saltillo, Mexico I took the opportunity to ask a couple of people their version of La llorona. It turned out to be quite different from that recounted in the United States.
My cousin, Amalia Moreira Narro de Heede, who is in her seventies, told me a version she had heard from her greatgrandmother on her mother's side. This is a prehispanic version, she said. In it, a woman had a premonition that the Spaniards were coming to Mexico, and would slaughter her children. She began to cry, "Ay, mis hijos! Ay, mis hijos!" She appeared in a long white dress, with long hair to the ground.
On the plane to Houston, I asked a man, who appeared to be in his late 30s, if he had heard the Llorona story. He was reading an American murder mystery in Spanish. He said that he was originally from Reynosa, Mexico, but worked in McAllen. The man put down his book and thought a minute. He said that his grandmother used to read a lot, and liked to tell them stories. Yes, he said, he had heard about a woman in a white dress calling "Ay, mis hijos, ay, mis hijos," because her children had died. He could not remember why they had died, or how.
As I thought about it, the long white dress gave me a clue: the priests and holy people in the court of Moctezuma wore long white gowns, and were not allowed to cut their hair. It was caked from dried blood due to their almost daily ritual of bloodletting. The image of the woman was a warning to others, like the warnings of the dreamers disregarded by Moctezuma until it was too late. This Llorona starts to sound a lot like the dreamers in Ana Castillo's Massacre of the Dreamers, Essays on Xicanisma (Plume/Penguin, 1995, p 16):
…Moteuczoma (sic) called upon the thousands of dreamers who were sharing the same premonition: the prophesied arrival of Cortés and the subsequent annihilation of the Empire. Moteuczoma's order to have the dreamers murdered en masse did not stop the landing of those alien ships that were already on their way…
Moteuczoma, who relied heavily on mysticsim and having received various ominous omens about the fall of his empire, also consulted with his greatest wizards and magicians. These, unable to advise Moteuczoma as to how to prevent what had already been divinely decreed were imprisoned. But being magicians they mysteriously escaped. Moteuczoma avenged them by having their wives and children hung and their houses destroyed.
The entire time that I was in Texas and Mexico, it rained. They told me it had not rained for months, and my relatives began to call me Tlaloc, the rain god, because I had brought rain from the Northwest. Like columnist Patricia Gonzales, in her essay of March 8, 2002, "I carry a pot of tears on my head…. La llorona tells us there is something wrong with society, that there are many forms of madness…." (XColumn, Universal Press Syndicate, 2002). It occurred to me, as I jumped across puddles in my sandals, that the drownings of these children, in Andrea Yates universe, might have been a sort of baptism. Romans 6:4 encourages us to be "buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life." In her attempt to save her children from her own madness and powerlessness, Yates may have taken the only tangible step that promised salvation at the time.
After a spectacular lightning storm the night before, my last morning in Saltillo dawned calm and sunny. I turned on the shower to warm up the water before getting in. When it still seemed cool, I gave it a few more seconds. That's when I heard a noise near the ceiling and instinctively ducked away from the open shower door. An enormous crash followed. When I looked around, the shower was filled with the wet, sparkling shards of a huge light fixture that had detached from the ceiling and broken to bits on the concrete shower floor.
"We have, at this point, some hope and expectation that Ms. Yates will receive the same or better care than she received before she was arrested," said Joe Lovelace, a public policy consultant for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Texas (Dallas Morning News, March 13, 2002). "That's not saying a lot."
I may never fully comprehend why a woman who loved water drowned her own children, but I will take it as a warning that "it is not [La llorona] who will 'get' us if we are not careful, but our own ordinary and dangerous lives," Says Coste. I suspect that Andrea Yates' story will be added to the La llorona lore of Texas. The old stories persist because the old ills persist. And the old ills persist because, in the end, human nature does not change.