Cafecito con Mosca. Photo by author.
Feeding the Mothers of Life and Death
Mama Panchi hummed to herself as she prepared the morning cafecito. She retrieved the old rusty tray from the top of the refrigerator, and lined it with one of her embroidered dishtowels. On top, she arranged three mugs of steaming café con leche, grating a little cinnamon and piloncillo into each cup for sweetness. She served up three Mexican pastries, each on their own plate—a voluptuous pink-crusted concha, a more sensible cochinito, and a flaky oreja. She tucked in a few napkins and added sprigs of rosemary onto the tray for beauty. Before heading out the back screen door, she leaned over and took in a long whiff. She smiled.
Mama Panchi took her time carrying the tray down the meandering cobblestone paths to the center of her garden. As she wound through the plant beds, she greeted her plantitas like old friends. She took note of who needed what and mentally compiled her gardening task-list. For the past 40 years, Panchi had spent every day steadily transforming the eroding hillside under her home into a terraced garden paradise.
In her younger years, Panchi had worked as a seamstress. Tirelessly, every day—weekends, holidays, nights—she strained her eyes and fingertips, somehow managing to scrape together enough money for a plot of land. She’d plopped herself onto this hill that was a stone’s throw away from the U.S.-Mexico boundary line in the small city of Nogales, Arizona. She knew full well that the townspeople had been whispering behind her back. They tsked and shook their heads in pity at the poor, dark-skinned widow who’d been duped by the gringo real estate moghul into buying land that would amount to nothing but limestone boulders and dissolving hillside. But Panchi’s skin color—and her father’s skin color—had locked her out of the fancier developments in town, so she paid no mind to all the pinches chismosos. She retired her sewing needles and went about her work with dirt, stones, water, sun, and seeds. Now, as an old woman who had outlived most of the naysayers, she reveled in what had come to life around her.
All the paths in Mama Panchi’s garden ultimately led to a stone alcove built right into the hillside, where Panchi had created a shrine for the statue of a Lady she called Guadalupe de los Cerros. The shrine was flanked by nopales and shaded by Mexican magnolia trees. Passion vines in full purple bloom threaded up wires and make-shift trellises all along the stone face of the alcove. Inside her nicho, Guadalupe stood five feet tall, much larger than any garden-variety, backyard statue. At Guadalupe’s feet was a row of veladoras and a much smaller figure, not easily discernible, cloaked in a velvety black robe.
It was right here, in front of the shrine, where Panchi set down her tray of morning goodies on a wrought-iron table that was painted sky blue.
“Buenos días, Mamitas. Cómo amanecieron? Aquí les traigo desayuno.” She announced cheerily.
She lit the veladoras and proceeded to set two places at the base of the shrine, complete with napkin, plated pastry, and coffee. She neatly arranged her own breakfast at the table and sat down with a satisfied sigh. Panchi raised her coffee cup to Guadalupe and the cloaked figure, pronouncing:
Panchi sipped her coffee and sank her teeth into the gingerbread cochinito, having offered the concha and oreja to the Madres. She proceeded to chatter away with the Ladies. Any passerby who paused to watch the viejita would have seen her waving her hands and laughing as she recounted who-knows-what stories to the Madres. There were moments when Panchi paused and nodded, clearly listening to someone speaking. Skeptical bystanders, who glimpsed Panchi from the hillside road, would just chalk up the whole scene to the fantasy world of an old lady who was probably too close to death to warrant much concern. However, the more spiritually daring would say that Mama Panchi had “la facultad,” and that it was a good thing someone did around here.
After Mama Panchi finished up her breakfast, she took the Madrecitas’ coffee cups and emptied them into the earth at the side of the shrine. She tore up the pastries and scattered the pieces off the side of the hill, where they would be scavenged by packrats and ants. She turned back to the shrine and pulled out a mason jar stored behind Guadalupe’s feet. She removed the lid and used a rag to scrape up some rose- and mint-infused beeswax from inside.
Panchi leaned into the shrine and affectionately began to rub the Lady’s dark wooden feet with the beeswax. This Guadalupe didn’t have her feet concealed by robes and angel wings. No, this Lady seemed to be suspended in motion. One foot pressed down firmly on the crescent moon beneath her, and the other foot was raised, as if about to step off the moon and onto the Earth below. Mama Panchi loved this about her. She was a Lady in Motion. Lista. Ready. Señora Muy Movida.
Mama Panchi cooed to the Lady as she massaged the fragrant wax into her feet.
“Ay, tanto que caminas por donde quiera. It’s just no wonder that your feet get so rough, so sore. The yerba buena will help you,” she said as she finished up with a gentle pat for each foot.
Panchi hoisted herself up onto the stone base that held the Madres. She began to dust the whole of Guadalupe's body with the rag. The rest of the Lady’s features were mostly typical for a Mexican Lupita: rays of the sun, head tilted, hands joined together, cinta at the waist, and a starry cloak. But there was one thing that had gotten everyone’s hackles up in September 1947, when Panchi had first brought the Lady home and into the public eye: This Virgencita was the spitting image of Panchi herself—right down to her black complexion, the deep color of mountains in twilight.
Back then the town busybodies had gone into an instant frenzy. What exactly was Panchi trying to pull anyway? Didn’t everyone know that Guadalupe was morena but not THAT morena? And to display a holy statue that seemed to reflect your own likeness? What nerve! Somehow, some way, that must be a sin. Que no?
Panchi had let the rumors and outrage spread like wildfire. She offered no explanations, no arguments. For a few months, Panchi’s garden had been somewhat of a local tourist destination. People would walk or drive by for a spectator’s peek at the Black Guadalupe who looked like the poor widow on the hill. Panchi herself just kept on minding her own goddamn business. She focused on building the Lady’s stone grotto, digging out flower beds, planting trees, and figuring out how to water her plants.
The rumors eventually grew tired and worn out. Panchi’s garden flourished. The Lady stayed young and strong. Panchi grew old and hunched over. Now as she gently dusted Guadalupe’s face, Panchi scarcely could recognize how this Lady had ever been mistaken for her look-alike. She laughed to herself. All that fuss, when the march of time and death would reliably resolve the scandal. She planted a kiss on each of the Lady’s cheeks and on her forehead.
Finally, Panchi bent over to tend to the cloaked figure standing at Guadalupe’s feet. At the height of all the early controversy over the statue, the only protective measure Panchi ever took was to place a small statue of La Santísima Muerte right at the base of Guadalupe. If any vandal or thief wanted to come after Madrecita, well they’d have to know they were doing it under the watchful eye of the Mother of Death. Besides, Panchi enjoyed adding a bit of mischief to the mix. The well-placed fear of death could go a long way toward guarding her from troublemakers.
Over time, Panchi had grown to love the face of this Madre viejísima just as much as any cherub-cheeked maiden. She fed La Santa Muerte with as much care and devotion as she did Madrecita. In fact, La Santísima, with her hollowed-out body and otherworldly gaze, was easily becoming the more accurate reflection of Panchi herself.
Panchi removed La Santísima’s black robe and replaced it with a scarlet cloak that she fished out of her apron pocket.
“Madrecita, te traje una capa nueva,” she explained to La Muerte, straightening out the fabric.
From the side of the shrine, Panchi cut a strand of passion vine, heavy with glorious jellyfish-shaped flowers. She wound the vine around La Santísima. The flowers released a subtle sweetness. The blooms never lasted long after the vine was cut, which made them an apt offering to the Madre who understood all too well the magic of fleeting youth and beauty.
Mama Panchi kissed La Santísima’s head and carefully lowered herself back onto the cobblestone path. She walked over to a gate at the edge of her garden, where her little corner of hillside met the road. On the gate there hung a black sign with neon orange letters, reading “abierto” and “cerrado” on opposite sides. Mama Panchi flipped the sign to abierto, letting any potential visitors know they were welcome to visit the shrine and walk the paths.
She returned to the Madres and loaded up her tray with the empty cups and dishes. She dusted off her apron. She was about to begin her walk back to the kitchen when she felt the air suddenly shift and the sky grow dark. She looked up and saw storm clouds approaching from the southwest.
Mama Panchi set down the tray. There was a different smell to the air. There was something else stirring in the wind. As raindrops began to fall in full, fat splatters, Panchi reached up to catch a few on her palm. She brought her hand up to her mouth and licked up the water with her tongue. She closed her eyes and tasted. For a brief instant, she felt the sensation of complete freefall, her stomach dropping out from underneath her. She instantly was retrieved by a soothing coolness that rippled in gentle currents from the center of her forehead down to her feet. Panchi took a deep breath and nodded in recognition. A single salty tear rolled down a groove on her sun-leathered face.
Mama Panchi’s life had stretched out over the better part of a century. In all those years, there was only one task that she had left undone. She had never told a single living soul the story of her life. She’d never breathed a word about how she had come to live on a hillside overlooking the boundary between worlds and taken it upon herself to house and feed the Mothers of Life and Death in a desert garden. Mama Panchi knew that, sooner or later, it would be a story worth telling. Until this moment, she had never been in a hurry to begin.