They say that there are no strangers in a small town, but it is especially true in a tight-knit Spanish-speaking community. Every man, woman, and small child is inherently responsible for immediately knowing how everyone is related to everyone else.
I say this from first-hand experience.
If we do not know, we ask–politely.
If we don’t ask, we treat each visitor as respectfully as the Pope, who of course has a direct line to God’s ear.
Or as if that outsider might know our mamá, which is pretty close to the same thing. As often as my own mother has invoked the name of Jesus Christ and the Virgin and more saints than I can remember, I wouldn’t doubt she also has God’s personal hotline on speed dial.
That’s why I was surprised to see a total stranger at the cash register of my favorite restaurant. She was an older woman, one I had never seen leaning against the fender of some rusty truck parked at the Saturday flea market, or bumped into while choosing avocados at the supermarket, or even just noticed at the lone gas station while filling up.
Nope, she was totally unknown, which made it even stranger that she was glaring at me while she took my ten dollar bill and then reluctantly flung back the change.
“You have the chin of a white girl,” she said, and shoved my tacos over the counter towards me.
When I was much younger, say a willowy sixteen, I would have meekly taken my tacos and horchata and fled the building.
But being now the firm and upright age of twenty-one, I leaned in like a supple birch who has her roots set deeply in place and slapped a verbal challenge down in the strained space between us : “What do you mean by that?”
The woman’s brown eyes snapped, angrily, but her hunched shoulders were worried, waiting for a supervisor to intervene and point to the crooked, stained sign just under the counter that read The Customer Is Always Right.
My middle cousin Felipe used to work here, so I knew about the sign. I also knew the supervisor, Round Alma, and the short-tempered manager Raul who was dating one of my tías.
So without moving to take the tray, I asked again, “What does that mean?”
This time the woman leaned forward, as if her words would throw acid in my face.
“You stick your chin out like a white girl who knows the world owes her a living,” she snarled at me.
I glared at her, and she glared back at me. But, you cannot go around hating everyone who doesn’t like the shape of your nose, or, in this case, my chin.
I took my lunch to a little booth off the side, sat down, and thought about this.
In the back I could hear the murmuring swell of gossip and repercussions, the rich tide of Spanish swirling like water down a drain.
“Don’t you know that el jefe is dating Rosario Esparza?” whispered Natalia, who I had glimpsed near the ovens. Natalia was just a kid, a senior at Freedom High School a few blocks away. Her mother was always bragging about how she has straight A’s; she could be valedictorian, maybe.
“So?” the unfamiliar woman replied haughtily, polishing the already clean counter. But Natalia moved away, grabbing a rag and industriously wiping the inside of the ovens, double-checking supplies as if preparing for the lunch rush that had already passed.
Like I said, she was a smart kid.
Luckily, there was Chencha, who just happened to be nearby, up to her elbows in dishes at the sink.
In a little town like Oakley, it’s all about who you know.
Word about the incident spread quickly, mostly because Chencha suddenly seemed to have a lot of errands to run across every corner of town.
Chencha used to date my older cousin Sergio but held no hard feelings when he broke up with her and left to go to college in the Midwest on a football scholarship.
“What would I have done out there, in Wyoming, where you can’t even buy fresh tortillas off the street?” she had said in wonder. She ended up marrying Miguel, who runs the Oakley Mini Mart, and she didn’t even have to work at Raul’s taqueria except that Raul and Miguel were brothers and his dishwasher, stupid Lupita Morales, had just up and quit that morning, off to Los Angeles to become a movie star. But Chencha has a good heart and industrious hands, so she dropped off her two boys with my younger cousin Amanda and came in to help out.
“I heard her growling at Letti, like a dog with the rabies,” Chencha recalled, her eyes wild and her hands curled like big paws waiting to snatch up her wide-eyed audience, the newlywed Gonzalez couple from down the street. She ran into them in the parking lot just as she was leaving, and of course it would be rude not to say hello and share the news.
“Natalia tried to tell her something, but the woman just said, ‘So?’” and Chencha made an exaggerated face of disdain, with her hands on her wide hips and her mouth pulled down like a cartoon frown. The other moms who were also picking up their little ones from my cousin’s informal daycare gasped and exchanged looks with each other, shaking their heads at this brazen disrespect in our little town.
It turns out that the bruja at the register had recently walked in on her man with another woman, a fair skinned blonde who apparently was walking around with my chin attached to her face. La Bruja was so angry that she didn’t really remember what this interloper looked like, only the chin and the yellow curls.
“I told her, ‘But Letti has brown hair,’” Chencha explained, pulling at her own dark tresses to dramatize the moment as she told it again for the five Hernandez teenagers who had stopped by the Mini Mart for Cokes.
“Then she forked the evil eye at me,” continued Chencha, and the tiny grandmothers wearing black shawls over their grey hair as they walked to St. Anthony’s crossed themselves with uneasy gasps and grave murmurs about what the world was coming to.
“Then the woman said, ‘She could have dyed it,’” Chencha elaborated to my own mother, who happened to be strolling past Chencha’s front porch in the middle of the afternoon for no apparent reason.
“In a day?” my mother asked, horrified at the very thought of me ruining my long hair that had never even been cut with something as suspiciously sinful as peroxide.
“I asked her the same thing, no?” Chencha rushed to complete the story. “And that woman said, ‘In an hour,’ like her life was full of lemons.”
With each re-telling circulated by a hundred wagging tongues, the story grew to epic proportions. Now the woman reached across the counter and punched me; now Chencha was smacking us both with drippy tacos and demanding that we repent; now Natalia was weeping in the corner while the stranger threw salt on the floor and screamed evil curses against the restaurant industry.
When asked if it were true, any or all of it, I just smiled and said, “If Chencha says so, it must be the truth.”
‘Cause I’m no dummy, either.
Within two days the woman had quit and not only that but left town. Her good-for-nothing boyfriend now emerged to add his two cents, that she had been trying to set up as a witch doctor, that she had put a curse on him that made him drink every day and that was why he had been unfaithful, trying to break her hold on him. But nobody much believed Roberto, because he had always been an unfaithful drunk, and so he slipped back into the shadows.
Chencha was hailed by the whole town as a hero. After all, most of us were related to her by either blood or tacos.
Because, like I said, in this town, it’s all about who you know.
Quick Spanish references:
el jefe: boss
la bruja: the witch
Photo Credit: © Nicoleta Ionescu | Dreamstime.com – <a href=”https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-two-best-friend-girls-whispering-secret-young-women-sharing-gossip-secrets-image58053572#res6043055″>Two Best Friend Girls Whispering a Secret</a>