By Fay Tarlock
Synopsis: the story “Hermanas” (sisters) is narrated by an American woman living temporarily in Mexico. Lolita, a Mexican woman, visits the American Senora and asks for employment for herself and her daughter Graciela, who is almost eighteen, a beautiful girl, well educated, and deserving the opportunity of living in a good home, which Lolita, now a widow, cannot provide for her. The American Senora explains that she is well satisfied with the household help she already has. However, she hesitates and wonders if, perhaps, there is not some way that she can help Graciela. She learns that the mother and daughter had known Mormon missionaries.
The girl’s erudition surprised me. She knew three foreign languages and the history and literature of those countries almost as well as she knew her own Mexican history. There was a mature intelligence behind her childish front.
“What are you prepared to do, or what did Senora Urbina plan for you when you finished school?”
“She wanted me to be able to earn my living in a better way than my mother. I was to be one of the new women of Mexico.” Her face was very grave.
“How do you propose to do it?” My eyes sought hers with equal gravity.
Her laughter was sweet as a silver bell. “You will think me foolish, Senora, but I will tell you. When I was sixteen I wanted to be a great star of the cinema – one who would play first in a small South American cinema, then be seen by a great American director who would summon me to Hollywood. There I would make so much money that I would live in a Hollywood palace and my mother would have a servant for each day in the week.” Her eyes danced with laughter. “That was when I was sixteen, Senora.”
“Now that you are almost eighteen, what are your ideas of a profession?”
“I have more practical ideas now.” She folded her hands demurely in her lap.
“There are perhaps two things I could do to earn money soon. And I must be quick, Senora, for I do not want to become a servant, and I must care for my mother as well as myself.”
“And the two things?” This girl, I thought, knows what she is about more than her mother realizes.
“The first is easy. I could become a saleslady in a department store. My English would insure me a place and the other languages would help.”
“But do you want to become a salesgirl?”
“No.” She said it with decision, her face dark. Then with mercurial quickness, she rocked in gay mirth. “Have you seen some of them, Senora?” She stood up, raising her head with exaggerated pride. “The girls with their haughty manners, their queenly carriages?” Walking across the garden, she imitated the haughty mien of a would-be-lady. More than once I had trailed meekly behind such proud creatures. I laughed until the tears came.
“I would have to gain many pounds, and besides there is little pay to it.” Quietly she sat beside me. “It is all right for the girls who do not have the great necessity, but I must earn more soon.” Her eyes, dark and deep as a child’s, sought mine, asking. After a long look she seemed satisfied and leaned against the pomegranate tree, her dark braids touching the cool tile of the bench.
“If it is possible, I do the second way, the way of the typewriter. You understand?”
“Not just ordinary work with the typewriter, that would not pay enough, and I would be very bored. I must be a secretary, a confidential secretary, no?”
My sigh was one of relief. The girl was practical, she had brains, and she had charm. Now, if she had the necessary skills.
“Can you type, can you take dictation? Typing and dictation will open the first doors.”
“In school for two years I have typed. I can take dictation in Spanish with a little practice, for it comes easy to me. But now,” she leaned forward, her whole desire in her eyes, “it is necessary that I go for a while to a good business school where I type and take dictation in English. It is the English dictation that will get me the good work. I need, too, a typewriter for the practice at home. I need also clothes that I will look like a girl from families who go to work only to get independence from home.”
She slid from the bench and stood before me. “You see how I dress, senora?” There was bitterness in her voice, in the taut lines of her slender body. “How can I make these dreams come true?”
She asked the question of herself, not of me.
“I am, at last, in Mexico, and there is a good business school on Insurgentes. To get it I have only to ride on the red bus for a few minutes. I could even walk from here. But to get to that school on Insurgentes I have to cross a barranca that is as deep as it is wide. I can find no path and there is a raging stream at the bottom.”
“In my country,” I said, hating myself for my triteness, “we say there is no gulf so wide nor so deep that we cannot cross it, if there is a will.”
“I know,” she sighed, her body drooping. “I have read your stories. When I heard your missionaries talk at Buenos Aires, I felt I could do anything.” She passed her fingers, brown and tapering, over her eyes. “But now it is dark. I think and I think; yet I have not found a way.” She looked like a woebegone child.
“Once, Senora, I thought I had found the way. I said I would go to the school and promise to work for the manager or the teachers until my debt was paid, though it would take a long time. But my mother says it is impossible, that if I start doing housework, as a servant, I end there. I am so limited.”
“Does your mother have any money saved or friends she can ask?” I knew that was foolish, even as I asked it.
“We have been a long time absent,” she said, answering the last question first. “My mother was able to save, though you know the wages of servants, and the Senora was kind, but her death came so sudden. The boat home cost money, then the operation, and the living until we came here. There is little left.”
“The Senora de Vargas, would she help?”
“She is a widow and has many problems, and we are not of her family. I must find another way.”
Now, I have the rash, Irish disposition that will take on anything. Caution whispered that often as not my plans did not work, that other people did not see eye to eye with me, but I led, chin out, with, “Do you really want to do this? You are serious?”
“As serious as life itself.”
I had enough caution left to say I must talk with John, my husband, before I made any promises. “I think, however,” I added slowly, ‘we can work something out. The tuition, how much is it a month, and how many months will you need?”
The amount she named was formidable, until I translated the pesos into dollars.
“I would work day and night to finish quickly. And I am quick.” She tried hard to control her eagerness.
“I think I may have a plan, but we must not be too sure. We are in very modest circumstances, but if my husband agrees, we may find a way to pay your tuition, and you may use my typewriter, starting today, for practice.”
“If you can make such a plan come true, I will do anything for you, anything! It is the truth I speak.”
“I wouldn’t ask you for everything. Neither do I believe you should accept without due returns. Perhaps, you can give me a few hours each day with the children, take them to the park, read to them in Spanish.”
As I spoke, I decided she must have at least one meal a day with us, to fill out her spare little body. Then some agreeable work could be found for Lolita. The Beemans, friends of ours in San Angel, had been unable to get a satisfactory nana for their small son. They might like Lolita to care for him part of each day. She could live at the old home and cook for Ramon.
Clothes? It was wartime and my wardrobe was small. We would buy some Mexican material for skirts and blouses, and a few cottons for the warm days. Lolita should be able to sew. In my mind I parted with a light jacket. In this I was not entirely unselfish, for it was on the small side.
When Graciela tried the jacket on she was ecstatic, pushing the too-long sleeves up and down, and twirling right and left before the long mirror in the closet door. “It is perfect, Senora, perfect!” After another long look of admiration in the mirror, she sighed happily. “Or it will be when my mother has adjusted the sleeves.” She stroked the collar with loving fingers. “I had never hoped for anything so elegant.”
Shyly she advanced towards me, rubbing the material with loving fingers. “The other clothes you spoke of, Senora, would they, too, be fitting to my years?”
I assured her they would be, then we came to the problem of shoes. Graciela’s were worn huarachas. I thought of my American friends who had ridden the bus to San Antonio to buy American shoes, and felt they had saved money. Graciela would have to buy the stiff shoes in the market until she earned her own money. As to stockings, I closed my eyes. Only a spendthrift or a millionaire would buy the gossamer silk ones Mexico offered.
I sighed. “One thing at a time. We will worry about stockings when you get the shoes. And it is foolish to talk of anything until I have el Senor’s consent.”
On Lolita’s last Sunday at the de Vargas house, we were able to make the long drive to Church. She rose with the dawn that April morning to have her dinner ready at the usual hour of two. Up and down the street the servants were aware of Lolita’s plans. The maids lingered on the sidewalks over their brooms. Others gave the grass unneeded waterings and the chauffeurs were a long time polishing their cars.
Mother and daughter radiated happiness. Lolita wore a neat, dark dress and a little black straw bonnet. Graciela was pretty in a new cotton frock with a design of blue flowers. She had her new shoes, but her stockings were faded ones of cotton. They sat straight and smiling in the back seat of the car, responding like royalty to the hand waves as we progressed towards avenida Insurgentes.
I can see the meetinghouse so plainly that the walls of my own chapel fade away and I am again in the intense, golden light of the oldest city on our continent. The chapel, new then, was as unlike the domed and spired cathedrals of Mexico as is my religion from the traditional one of the centuries. It was a modest building with the usual rostrum and side aisles with no decorations save the fresh cut flowers and the cleansing sunlight that poured through the clear windows. There was also the smaller hall and the kitchen, in addition to the class rooms. About it was no dank smell of centuries. It was a church for today, clean and practical.
On the grass in front of the chapel was an unwanted contribution, some mango seeds carelessly dropped. I saw an irate member of the Church grumble to himself as he stopped to pick up the huge seeds. When he straightened, I was met with a smile that was big as all outdoors. It was Roberto, who owned the fruit stands I patronized. It had not taken me long to discover his oranges were the sweetest, his fruits the soundest, and his prices not subject to haggling.
“Una hermana, usted?” He doffed his hat and bowed low over my outstretched hand.
“Why have I not seen you here before?” My astonishment equaled his.
There was a twinkle in his respectful eyes. “In part, it is because you do not come often. The other part is that I am not often here. It is the pressure of making a living, you understand, Senora, the hour for Church comes when my customers are the most pressing.” He swept us into the chapel, leading our group into a prominent front position.
The congregation? It was Mexican, of the new Mexico that calls all strains of blood, all races born under the flag, Mexican. There were the reboza-wrapped women, hatless, with their hair either in long braids or coiffed low, their infants snug in their laps. Then there were the quiet-faced women dressed in black, hats covering their thick coils of hair. There were men in the clean blue cotton clothes of the people; men in neat business suits and white collars of the business class, office workers, and people of the professions. Scattered about were the young missionaries from the North, comely girls and bright-eyed young men. There were the prosperous looking tourists who had given a Sunday morning of their scant time, and there were the North Americans, residents of the city, and law and medical students from the North.
One young man I could not place. He seemed American, tall and straight, but with dark hair, olive skin, and blue eyes in an intelligent, sensitive face. He was a stranger, and, yet, too much at ease to be a tourist.
It was a happy gathering. We sang the familiar music to Spanish words that gave the hymns a more poignant meaning. Some of the speakers spoke to us in English, and had their words translated so quickly into fluent Spanish by el Presidente that they gasped in astonishment. When the services were over, we moved slowly to the front lawn and into the shade of the pepper trees, shaking hands all the way. The wife of the mission president, petite and fair-haired, made her way towards us, the mysterious young man at her elbow.
“You must meet one of our members from the States,” she said, taking my hand in warm welcome. “He is Dr. James Flores who is studying at the University of Mexico, and expects to practice here.”
The young man flushed and extended his hand. I thought him young to be a doctor. “La Presidente elevates me too rapidly,” he said, as his hand grasped mine, “for a while yet, the title is only mine by courtesy.”
“You have no need for modesty here,” I said smiling. “Titles are highly valued and most often.”
“I know,” he replied, turning to me after he had greeted John. “I am in a way a native, though I have been a long time away.” He told us that his mother was a Mexican girl who had married his father on one of his visits to Mexico, and that his father’s people were Mexican by way of California before the Revolutionary War. He had lived in Mexico when he was a child, but his father had returned to the States during his seventh year. He was a 4-F, a minor thing, but the services would not have him, and now that his father was dead and his mother long gone, he had come to Mexico to finish his medical training and do some special research. “My mother gave me a great love for Mexico,” he said, ending his short saga.
“But why finish here?” I asked. “Would it not be better to do it in the States?”
“It would be my last year there, but, here, I will take longer.” He was eager to explain. “Here I can make it on my own. I’m lucky because of the research work. It got me a laboratory job at the hospital and supplies my room and board there. You’ll have to excuse my babbling.” He flushed again. “I guess it’s because I haven’t had a chance to talk to an American woman for so long.” He glanced at the small figure of la Presidente, surrounded by members. “At the Mission Home they’ve been kindness itself, but I’ve been too busy to go there for week.”
Graciela, who had been standing quietly behind me during all this flow of words, came forward, her eyes big in her lovely, eager face.
I introduced them, speaking in English, and wondering if her vocabulary was good enough to have caught all we had said.
“I know about you.” She looked up into his face. “You are like me, of Mexico, but we have lived elsewhere.”
Jim Flores, who had looked at her as a man looks at an attractive child, opened his eyes and saw the woman whose words no longer left them strangers.
“I think I have always been of Mexico,” he said in Spanish, “but it is only lately I have come to understand. Now I am happier for it.”
“Then you have come home. I am glad, for I, too, am just come home.” Her hand still rested in his, and it was in that moment that the seeds of their love were sown.