Night had come slowly. Neighbors, friends and relatives were arriving bringing pan dulce and café (Mexican sweet bread and coffee), tamales and frijoles boludos (whole not refried beans) with tortillas de maiz o harina (corn and flour). This was the custom in the small barrio enclave of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans when we mourn a loved one who has passed on. This time it was my uncle, my mother’s little brother, who had died and so the wake began.
Eight year-old Alfredito had been dead for two days. He had been placed on two crates draped with a white sheet. A separate white sheet covered Alfredo’s body but not his face. Two candles on tall candleholders were lit on either side and two small kerosene lamps flickered, casting elongated dancing shadows on the walls of the somber room.
In those early days of the twelfth year of the new century, 1900, the quiet unassuming, mainly Mexican, neighborhood was very self-sustaining. Of course, they had to be, they were poor people who mostly worked the cotton fields of south Texas.
A small alter sat on a tiered shelf; it was stacked with saint icons and penny candles. Hanging over Alfredito’s head on the wall, was a picture of Jesus sitting on a rock in Gethsemane Garden, his hands clasped in prayer, looking heavenward. Around the sparsely furnished room, two oval shaped picture frames hung on the opposite wall with pictures of other family members who also had passed on. Leaning against a small table were some wooden folding chairs. Near the entrance to the kitchen, three women dressed in long black dresses sat on the velvet sofa. Behind them, a knitted, Mexican flag cover was draped over the sofa’s back support.
The men entered the room and paid their respects, then, quickly went outside to converse and imbibe from their hidden, brown bagged, favorite alcoholic beverage. Some sat on wooden chairs, others preferred to stand to talk and drink.
Alfredito had had pneumonia for a week. The doctor pronounced him dead on Wednesday at ten in the morning. Tonight was Friday night,eight o’clock.
My Grandmother had spent the last two days at her sister’s home being consoled by family over the death of her son. But when she came home and saw Alfredito’s lifeless little body lying on those wooden crates, the shock was too much. She screamed.
“He is not dead! No esta muerto! My son is still here! I will not mourn for my child until HE gives him back to me! I will not cry for my child until I hold him alive in my arms! I will not look at my child until he looks back at me! Do you hear me! God? Me oyes?”
She pointed at the ceiling, but she meant heaven where God resides. She looked at the makeshift cadaver stage and continued to shout,
“If HE wants him, HE can have him, but I do not give him up willingly. Llevatelo o dejamelo! (Take him or leave him to me!)”
Her eyes glared fiercely at the picture of Jesus. Darting to her bedroom, in defiance, she tore off the sheet that covered the mirror. In those days of 1920, women covered all mirrors in the house when there was a death in the family. She did not cry. Her face was flushed but resolute, her fists tightly clenched, her dark, rebellious eyes just stared at her reflection in the oval mirror.
“He is not dead! No esta muerto!” She convinced herself, repeating the words again and again and again, but in between admonishing her God, she prayed. Countless minutes came and went, disappearing into a cacophony of wails and screams of the mourning neighborhood women and friends who shook their heads sympathetically and tried to alleviate my grandmother’s grief by embracing her, trying to sooth her unforgiving pain.
The men outside heard it all and looked at each other sadly. They shook their heads, but all they could say in sympathy was, “Pobre senora. Pobrecita, pobrecita.” (Poor woman, poor dear woman, poor dear woman.)
Outside, the men continued eating thepan dulce and drinking their whiskey enhanced café. Although they commiserated with Grandmother’s grief, they paid no mind to the women howling without end, as was the tradition in Mexican wakes in that era of the 1920’s.
More minutes went by, during which my Grandmother could be heard for blocks above all the other voices, screaming obscenities at a God that seemed unfazed. In her bedroom, in between her tirades she prayed and was inconsolable, torn by the loss of the son she would not relinquish.
When my mother told me this story, I asked her, “How could Grandma cuss at God, isn’t that a sin?” My mother answered, “Not when a mother has lost a child.” It seemed an eternity since my grandmother began her tirades, interspersed with prayers as my Mother recalled, but actually it was not that long. Of course, nobody noticed immediately, but unbeknownst to the gathering. Silently and suddenly, my uncle Alfredo bolted straight up and sat. He turned his head and looked around the room. My aunt screamed being the first to see him, “Ay, Santo Dios!” Everybody in the room with mouths agape dropped their saucers of coffee and sweet bread onto the floor. A friend of my grandmother’s fainted. The men outside rushed in. The wailing stopped. Everyone was petrified and the room became quiet. It was so quiet; they could hear each other’s breathing and their hearts pounding. This had never happened before. Nobody had ever witnessed a resurrection before. One of the ladies shouted, “It’s a miracle!” and dropped to her knees, others followed, pulling out their rosaries and began praying the Lord’s Prayer in unison, “Padre Nuestro, que ‘stas en el cielo… (Our Father which art in heaven…)
My Grandmother was the only one who did not seem surprised or shocked; she knew what she had to done. When she heard the commotion, she came out of her bedroom and ran to Alfredito, picked him up and wrapped him in the sheet that covered him, making the sign of the cross on his forehead. She then carried him to her bedroom, making the sign of the cross on her own forehead as Catholics do, and began saying the Rosary while cradling him.
She asked the women to heat the tea on the stove, so she could give to her son. While the women were heating the tea, she got a small bottle of oil from the bathroom cabinet and soaked a towel with it. Then she rubbed Alfredito’s head, his neck, and shoulders with it. After that, she oiled a small palm leaf and brushed it over the rest of his body, while saying a special prayer. This was part of a ritual to rid him of any lingering bad effects or spirits, my mother explained.My uncle, recently awakened from the dead, laughed out loud when my grandmother rubbed his armpits, tickling him. My Mother said, in telling his story that the first words he uttered were, “’Ama (Mom), que paso (what happened), am I ok?” With the countenance of La Virgin Maria my grandmother said, “Si mijito, (yes, my son), nothing happened, you are ok now,” and she began to cry.
Every time my Mother told Uncle Alfredo’s story, I imagined that somewhere in the outer reaches of space great storms brewed, thunder roared and lightning sheared the darkness of black matter. I believed that on that night a tense, fitful unrest reigned in heaven.
There had been an enormous battle between my Grandmother’s will and her God’s reluctance to release what HE felt was HIS, and after an exhaustive and strenuous struggle, my Grandmother had won. It seems that not even a God can stand between a Mother and her love for her children.
My Grandmother, in all humility, for the rest of her life prayed a Rosary every day and gave thanks to the God she had battled. She praised HIM for HIS compassion and understanding, and in the end, HIS great gift to her.
My Grandmother died several years later, a legend in the neighborhood.
This story was purported to be true by my mother, aunts and uncles who witnessed it and swore that it happened on Marguerite Street in the little barrio of Eckerd Addition in Corpus Christi, Texas where my mother grew up and years later, so did I.
My uncle’s first death took place on September 22nd, 10 A.M., in 1920, a Wednesday. The resurrection occurred on Friday at 10 P.M.,September 24th.
My uncle died at age 70, right to the day and hour of his first death.
Unlike his first death, this time, he stayed dead.
Norberto Franco Cisneros