Will this day ever end? I’m so tired my eyes burn and my feet are killing me. If I could only sit down for a couple of minutes I’ll get my second or will it be my third wind. Ten hours a day of mounting circuit boards and connecting cables on Panasonic’s plasma TV assembly line here in a Maquiladora (NAFTA sweat-shop) is taking its toll on me. I’m only nineteen years old and I don’t have the energy of an old lady. My abuelita (grandma) at home has more get-up-and-go than me.
It’s been eight months since I arrived here in Juárez to work and send money home to my parents in their village of Zaragoza in Tamaulipas, a hundred kilometers or so from Ciudad Vitoria. Why I ever let them talk me into this I’ll never know but what is there for me at home, a marriage to Pablo and a life of never having enough to feed my hungry children. I miss Pablo so much. Will he ever forgive me for running out on him? My abuelita said in her last letter that Pablo is still single and poor with emphasis on poor.
Finally, the shift whistle blows. I don’t have the energy to walk back to the lunch room. I could sleep right here on the floor. Come on, get going, it’s only Thursday and we’ve got two more days of this before Sunday, our one day off. My friend, Maria looks as exhausted as I feel. Maybe we can drag each other to the bus.
“Hola, Maria how was your day?” I mumble to my best friend.
“Shitty, same as yours.”
“Let’s get on the bus before I fall asleep in this hell hole.”
Our bus ride is only 30 minutes to our so-called rooming house. It was a hotel years ago and Pancho Villa probably slept there before they converted and condemned it. Its only redeeming quality is that it is a women-only rooming house with strict rules about male visitors. I share a little bedroom with Maria and we share a bath at the end of the hall with 12 other girls.
Everyone in Mexico has heard of the murders of over 700 young women in Juarez. I’m scared and live by the three rules my abuelita insisted on when she put me on the bus to this God-awful-place: Do not trust any man; do not go anywhere alone; do no go out after dark. I have to cheat a little on the third rule, in the winter it’s dark when we get off work and we have to eat.
Delores and Tita stop by our room and invite us to have dinner with them at our usual spot, Morales’ just around the corner. We’re too tired to move but too hungry to say no so Maria combs her hair while I put on a warm sweater. Morales’ food is Northern ranchero style and not very good but it is filling and cheap. I miss my mother’s cooking so bad I’ll never complain about her soggy tamales again.
Tita wants to go down the street to a gaudy, loud cantina for a drink; just one drink she promises and maybe even a dance or two. Delores and Maria are undecided but I’m positive, it’s only Thursday, I’m exhausted and the alarm will sound at 6 a.m. tomorrow. They all agree to go so I walk home alone. It’s not far and it’s still early.
I kneel, as I try to do every night, at the side of my bed and say a small prayer for the health and safety of my family. As usual, my abuelita answers me as if I’m on a party line and she has been listening in on my brief one-way chats with God. I’m used to my grandma’s advice by now. I don’t know if she is really talking to me or if I am just remembering something she’s told me in the past. Whichever it is, I find my abuelita’s words comforting.
The 6 a.m. alarm bell must have been the fire alarm when this place was a real hotel. It’s so loud the entire block must hear it. As I rise I notice that Maria’s bed is still made. She didn’t come home last night. I’m worried; she’s never done this before.
A very sleepy-looking Delores admits that she, Tita and Maria had lots of drinks after I left them. They met some guys and danced and laughed until past midnight. When Delores insisted they go home, Maria said she was going to stay with this guy and she would see them on the bus tomorrow. Maria is not on the bus.
Maria was not at work or in our room when I return this evening. No one has seen her since last night. I ask Delores to walk with me to the cantina where they were so I can talk to the bartender. He doesn’t know anything. Yes, he remembers the girls last night but that’s all. I’m really worried now but I don’t know what else to do.
The days go by and we all assume that Maria is gone, gone forever. I stuff her suitcase with all of her clothes and put it under my bed. That night during my prayers my abuelita tells me that Maria es muerta and I should tell all of the girls to be especially careful and never go near that bar again. I’m too embarrassed to tell anyone that my grandma talks to me at night so I don’t say anything. Everyone already knows or suspects what has happened to Maria so nothing needs to be said. What an awful place this is.
Late Wednesday afternoon one of the big managers, one that I’ve only seen but never met, comes up to me on the production line and hands me an envelope with my name on it. He smiles and tells me to be sure to attend. I open the letter thinking it has something to do with my job, maybe a raise or a promotion. I unfold a beautifully printed page that reads:
Dear Srta. Elena Montoya,
The friends and family of Señor Emilio Estañan are pleased to invite you to a party honoring Señor Estañan’s 60th birthday at 8 pm on Saturday evening. A coach will pick you up at your residence at 7:45 pm. Formal dress is requested.
PS Sr. Estañan has requested of your employer that you be excused from work on Saturday the 14th. You will be reimbursed for a days pay. As a special treat a bus will pick you and the other invited ladies up at 1 pm at your residence to take you shopping for your dresses, shoes and accessories followed by a stop at Juárez’s finest beauty shop. All expenses will be paid by Sr. Estañan as a small treat for your attendance at his party.
I can’t believe that I’m actually being invited to some rich guy’s birthday party. Should I go? I’ve never had a party dress or fancy shoes for that matter. I wonder if we get to keep them. I feel like Cinderella going to the ball. Sure, I’ll go. This could be the most exciting night of my life. But, what about my abuelita’s warnings? I’m going with a group of girls, it’s at night and I’m sure there will be men there, why else would they invite a bunch of young women. I’ll ask my abuelita tonight in my prayers.
On the bus everyone is talking about the party. It seems that only the attractive and sexy girls got invitations and I’m proud to be included in that group. No one even suggests that we not go; everyone is thrilled by the promise of new expensive dresses, elegant shoes, fine wine, wonderful music and rich, rich men.
I’m so excited about the party I can’t think of anything else. As I get ready for bed I drop to my knees and say my evening prayer. “Dear God please give me the wisdom to make the right decision about the party and if you let me go I want to be safe, have fun and act like a lady my abuelita would be proud of. Please look after my mother, father and my abuelita. Amen.”
Before I could rise my abuelita speaks to me, “Hija, I’m so happy for you. Remember your host has ulterior motives and you must be the lady I raised you to be. Be very careful with the alcohol and be pleasant but firm with the men and all of their romantic advances. I wish I had taught you to dance a little bit better but go and have fun.”
Sixteen of us girls assemble in the lobby a little past noon. You can feel the excitement as we all giggle and jump around like a bunch of schoolgirls. A mini-bus arrives promptly at 1 p.m. and we all hurry aboard ready for what will be for many, if not all of us, our first real shopping trip.
We are greeted at our first stop, a lovely dress shop in a part of town none of us have ever been in before, by an elegant lady who introduces herself as Señora Gomez and says that she will help each of us choose our dresses and accessories. She shows us to chairs arranged in a semicircle around what must be a draped dressing room. Soon after we are seated a tall elegant model struts out wearing the most beautiful long, flowing gown I’ve ever seen. Sra. Gomez rises, holds the hand of the model and says in her really proper Spanish, “Who of you ladies would like this dress for the party.” Three girls raise their hands. Sra. Gomez asks each girl to come forward and make a model-like turn before she announces that this dress would be perfect for Gloria. Gloria and the model return behind the drapery for what I assume will be her fitting. You can hear gasps as another model comes out in an even more stunning gown. Sra. Gomez asks for a show of hands and so it goes until each of us has the dress of our choice and Sra. Gomez’s approval. I choose a tight fitting red dress with a slit and a wonderful lacy bodice. I have never seen myself so beautiful. I stare in the mirror at what must be a movie star.
We all get a pair of shoes, hose and the sexiest underclothes I’ve ever owned. I’m not going to tell my abuelita about my new lacy red bra and tiny little panties.
Our trip to the beauty shop is almost as much fun as shopping. My mother has always cut and styled my hair and I’ve never really thought about wearing it any differently. The stylist looks at me from all angles and says he will do something special for me. He cuts, combs, brushes and sprays without saying a word. He aimed my chair so that I can’t see myself until he is finished. He turns me around and I’m taken back. Is this me, Elena? Am I really the woman in the mirror, the woman with this beautiful hair?
A little after seven the girls waltz into the lobby adorned in their new gowns and a bit unsteady in their new heels. We look like a bunch of sorority girls preparing to go to some rich-girl’s ball. Our mini-bus arrives right on time and we are all so nervous that there is total silence on our ride. Twenty minutes or so later we pull into the courtyard of a mansion; the biggest and most beautiful house I have ever seen. A handsome young man in a tuxedo stands at the door and helps each of us down the steps and into the courtyard. We can hear wonderful music coming from somewhere in the house. Our tuxedoed escort leads us all through a massive door and down a hallway to a large sitting room. We pass though the room and out French doors onto a patio that looks like a Hollywood set with a swimming pool, an orchestra, a bar and lots of beautifully decorated tables. The music is wonderful, not Mexican that I can tell, maybe classical of some kind.
We all are just standing there with our mouths agape when this distinguished looking older man comes over to us and introduces himself as our host, Señor Emilio Estañan. He is handsome in an old-man sort of way. He introduces himself to each girl. He seemed to know where each of us is from and he makes a comment or two about our home towns. He doesn’t know my village of Zaragoza but he speaks favorably about Ciudad Vitoria. It is clear that he is a man of great wealth and importance. He invites us all over to the bar and tells the bartender to serve champagne all around.
The champagne is delightfully tart and bubbly. I’ve never tasted anything as wonderful as this. The music changes to salsa dance music and some men come over and ask us to dance. I’m unsure about what to do with my champagne and my little purse if someone asks me to dance. Do I set them on a table or give them to the bartender? My abuelita never taught me what to do at a rich man’s ball. Soon a very handsome young man in a beautifully tailored dark blue suit asks me to dance. I look puzzled until he says, “Here, let me take these things for you,” as he takes my purse and champagne flute and sets them on a table-for-two next to the dance floor.
I don’t know if it is my handsome partner, the music, the champagne or the beautiful patio but I feel like I can actually dance. Not just move to the beat of the music but dance gracefully like a ballerina. He holds me in his arms ever so lightly and somehow I follow his steps.
“We have not been formally introduced, my name is Ramón, Ramón Ramirez and you are?”
“Elena Montoya,” I say as if I am ashamed of my peasant name.
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Elena. You dance as if you are a professional. Tell me, are you a dancer at some nightclub in town.”
“Ramón, you flatter me. I am just a small-town girl at her first big party and I’m trying as hard as I can to follow you.”
“I love your honesty but regardless of all of that, you look and dance as if you’ve been doing this all of your life.”
“You must say that to all of the country girls you meet. Does that sort of flattery really work?”
“I’m sorry if I offend you. I am only trying to make conversation and tell you how beautiful you are. If I sound slick or trite, please forgive me. I only mean to compliment you.”
I say “You are forgiven,” just as the music ends. Ramón leads me to the table where he had placed my purse and immediately orders two more glasses of champagne. We talk and dance and laugh and drink well into the evening. He is the most handsome and interesting man I have ever met. I know it’s too early to say this, but I think I’m in love.
We dance, talk and drink until our tuxedoed escort announces that the bus is leaving for the women’s residence. Ramón walks me to the door of the bus and as I am ready to climb the first step he turns me and we kiss a warm passionate kiss. I climb into the bus feeling giddy and totally in love. There are only 9 girls on the bus for the ride home.
I hang my beautiful dress with special care and kneel at the side of my bed. “Dear God, thank you for this wonderful evening and thank you so much for introducing me to Ramón. I pray that he is as good a man as I feel he must be. And, God, please look after my mother, father and my abuelita. Amen.”
My abuelita comes right back with, “You were a good young lady at the party tonight and I am so proud of you. I like Ramón too. Be careful mi hija, I don’t want to see you with a broken heart.” Somehow, having my grandma’s blessing, if that’s what it is, feels reassuring. I fall to sleep the happiest I’ve ever been.
Work is work. I get up early, ride the bus to work, work all day, ride the bus home, gobble down a couple of tacos and fall asleep remembering my wonderful night with Ramón.
After work, three days later, I’m dragging myself out to the bus when I see Ramón leaning on the door of this beautiful car. He’s wearing casual but very stylish clothes and looks even more handsome than I remember. He waves and calls to me.
“I came to take you to dinner. I know you have to be up early tomorrow so I thought we would have an early dinner. And, I bought you this dress. It’s not as nice as the dress you wore Saturday but I hope you like it. Sra. Gomez helped me pick it out.”
I don’t know what to say. I just stand there grinning like some shy schoolgirl. Ramón opens the passenger door for me and I climb in without having said a word. He drives to my rooming house in this most magnificent car. He asks me about my day but what is there to tell? I’m sure he doesn’t want to hear about how many TVs I assembled today or what a lousy lunch I had.
“I’ll drop you off so you can freshen up and change. When you’re ready, join me at that cantina over there,” he says pointing to the bar where Maria was last seen.
“I won’t be long,” I say as I hop from the car and race into the lobby.
My new dress is stunning; not as formal as my red dress but chic and stylish and it goes well with my one pair of high-heels. I feel like a lady of substance having a drink with the most handsome man in the cantina wearing my new dress and my sexy heels.
We have dinner at a really nice restaurant, the nicest I’ve ever seen. I follow Ramón’s lead on what utensil to use and when. All in all, I think I do pretty well, especially for a girl who was raised scraping beans from a bowl with a tortilla. My abuelita taught me table manners using sticks and twigs for the silverware we never owned.
We talk and talk. I am falling deeper and deeper in love with this wonderful man. Ramón is vague about what he does for a living and his relationship to Sr. Estañan. He only says that he is a business man and that Sr. Estañan is a very important man in not only Juárez but throughout Mexico and the U.S.
Ramón has me at my front door a 10 p.m. sharp. He double parks and walks me to the door and we kiss a long and lovely kiss. He grabs me as I turn to open the door and we kiss again. Mi Dios, what a man.
After hanging up my second new dress in less than a week I kneel to say my prayers. “Dear God, I pray that Ramón loves me just a little bit. Take care of my mother, father and my abuelita. Amen.”
Grandma is quick to comment. “Hija, I am so happy for you. You are in love with a rich and wonderful man and I think he loves you too. I wish you knew more about his business but I am convinced he is a good and honest man. Sleep well mi hija.”
Friday at work I am paged for the first time over the intercom system. “Señorita Montoya, please come to Señor Herrera’s office for an important telephone call.” I run to my manager’s office afraid that something must have happened to my family for me to get “an important telephone call” at work. My hands are shaking as I hold the telephone. “Bueno,” I say in a quivering voice.
“Elena, this is Ramón. I’m terribly sorry to bother you at work but I called to ask you for a date tomorrow evening. We will go to dinner and then dance the night away. I’ll pick you up at 8. Wear your red dress. Okay?”
I am too shocked and relieved to answer but I mumble, “Yes, I’d love to. See you at 8.”
“Great, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I walk back through the plant in a daze with all of the girls staring at me. I can almost hear their gossip as I pick up my tools and go back to work. That night after saying my prayers my grandma speaks to me as she seems to do almost every night. “Hija, You have a big date coming up tomorrow. I believe that this date is crucial in determining where your relationship with Ramón is headed. Follow your heart and remember that I am cheering and looking out for you. Have fun and be yourself.”
We dine and dance in the most elegant nightclub. This evening is the best night of my life. I’m in love and Ramón seems to be in love also. Around 2:30 he suggests we have one more glass of champagne at his house. Anxious to see his house and to be alone with him for the first time I eagerly agree.
His house is lovely, not a mansion like Sr. Estañan’s but very, very nice. We sit in front of the fireplace watching the dancing fire but I can’t decide whether to look at the lights of El Paso through the window, the romantic fire or beautiful Ramón in the amber glow of the fire. We share a glass of champagne and cuddle on the sofa. After many kisses Ramón picks me up like he’s lifting a bride over the threshold and carries me to his bedroom. We make the most wonderful love so many times that I lose count before Ramón falls asleep in my arms.
We wake late on Sunday to a beautiful breakfast in bed. After two sips of juice we decide we would rather make love than eat. Breakfast can wait. Later as we rest in each others arms Ramón tells me that he will have a package delivered to my rooming-house later this week. I am to hide it until he tells me it is the time for us to open it together. It’s something special for us.
He drives me home early Sunday evening. I have never felt so much in love and so happy and full of life as I do now. I say a short prayer and for the first time in a long time my grandma never chimes in. I fall asleep as soon as I turn off the light.
Back to work and the same old grind. Tuesday evening a young boy delivers a box addressed to me. I hide it under my bed as Ramón asked me to do. By Thursday I am worried. I have not heard from Ramón. Did our weekend of love not go as well as I thought?
Friday in the lunchroom Tita asks if I’ve seen the morning paper. She shows me an article about some recent drug cartel violence. Four senior members of the Juárez cartel were assassinated gangland style in a restaurant on Wednesday night. I can’t figure out why she wants me to read this story until I see the names of the victims. Ramón Ramirez’s name jumps off the page. I scream and drop the paper. Is this my Ramón? I pick up the paper and look over the story again. Killed was Emilio Estañan, the head of the Juárez cartel, and three of his lieutenants, one of which was identified as Ramón Ramirez. My God, it is Ramón.
I put my head down on the table and cry and cry. The other girls go back to work but I just stay in the lunch room and sob. Why God? Why did you take Ramón from me? Why? Why? Why? My abuelita answers in a very sober voice, “Hija, I am so sorry. God must have a plan for you; he would never have let you enjoy Ramón’s love for such a short time.”
I sob all the way home. Tita helps me up the stairs and to my room. I lay in my bed staring at the ceiling when I remember the box that Ramón asked me to hide. I pull it out from under my bed. After cutting the tape I open the box flaps and see an envelope addressed to me. I hastily rip it open and find a single page of handwritten text:
If you are reading this it means what I feared might happen has happened. I put this together for us to share and enjoy. I pray you will think of me and remember our short time together as you enjoy this, my last gift to you. I love you,
Finally, my tears slow enough for me to see again. I open the box wide and peer into it for the first time. Stacked neatly are banded bundles of U.S. $100 bills.
©2009 by Bob Rockwell