Cave wall. Telles Shrine, Patagonia, AZ. Photo by author.
The Black Madonna Claims Mama Panchi
There was no way for Papá to talk to Panchi about Mamá without also talking about Mamá’s absence and how she remained well-known to everyone else but anonymous to her daughter. Papá never allowed himself to shed a tear in front of Panchi, never lost his temper. But she could see how his muscles clenched and contorted to hold back wails of grief. She could sense how his body braced, trying to buffer his little girl from the full knowledge of the bottomless cruelty behind this world called civilization.
“People know your Mamá, mihijita,” he’d explain. “They know her name and her face. People on both sides of the border have an interest in her reputation.”
The tenderness in Papá’s voice retracted, tethered to the weight of heartbreak and ire. There was nowhere safe enough for the three of them to be together. Even in the borderlands, at the edges between civilized worlds, thousands of kilometers away from where Papá had been born into slavery. Even here in this place where the laws were full of loopholes. Even here there were people who would sooner kill before they’d stand by and watch a woman with fame and reputation and drops of white blood settle down with a Black man to raise their Black child. Even though Mamá was Mexican. Even though she was Indian. She wasn’t forgettable, nameless, voiceless, and brown enough for them not to care.
“She left before anyone could trace us to her,” Papá explained. “Before they could stamp your newborn life with danger.
“But,” he continued, “not before Mamá had brought you to this creek herself. Not before she bathed your head in these waters, and she walked across the way to bury your umbilical cord at the mouth of the hillside cave. Whatever happens in this life, you must believe—you must know—that your Mamá left out of love.
“One day, when it is safer, I will tell you Mamá’s name.”
Every time Papá repeated this story to Panchi, he felt something inside of him rupture and fall into emptiness. All he wanted was to reach out and promise the world to this 9-year-old girl with braided hair and a space between her front teeth. A girl whose stomach was knotted with questions and fear. A girl who would learn too soon about the illusions fabricated by charlatan gods who did not build worlds meant to love her. A girl who would learn to survive in a life shrouded in questions for which only the dead had answers.
How Papá longed to follow the waters of this creek and step into a world where he had different stories to tell Panchi. A world where he could answer her wide and watery eyes with wonder and belonging.
And then, one day, mysteriously, Papá did just that.
It would be the last day they spent together under the willows. Panchi would look back on that day with a mixture of awe and heartache. Days later, Papá would leave for a surveying job and never return. There was no newspaper mention, no telegram from the mining company, no investigation. His name and the imprint of his life would just vanish from the world of men. Panchi would continue living with the circle of nanas who’d been caring for her since she was a newborn. They would teach her how to survive. But on that last day under the willows, Papá would teach her how to live.
On that day in 1904, a fire blazed in Papá’s eyes. It was the kind of spark that sprouted seeds and hatched eggs. It was the glisten in the eye of a hawk. On that day, Papá took Panchi’s face in his warm hands that smelled of tobacco. In a voice gruff with emotion, he spoke words that would stitch themselves into the lining of Panchi’s life.
“She’s real, mihijita,” Papá whispered. “I have seen her.”
“The one your Mamá prays to. The one her people never lost. The one who cradled my people long before their lives were stolen. She’s real, and no one is ever lost to her.”
Panchi squinted at Papá, studying his face. Papá’s voice rose.
“Mihijita, she does not come down from the sky! Imagine that! Your Mamá was right! She comes up through the Earth.”
Papá laughed with a freedom Panchi had never seen, never imagined possible.
“I see her in your eyes. En tus ojos veo el ánimo del mundo.”
If Papá had been a religious man, his words that day could have been a rousing sermon. But Papá was not a religious man, and from that day forward, Panchi knew she would never have a need for religion. All the mysteries of the world seemed to be swirling like the cosmos on Papa’s skin. He glistened like the darkest wild honey. He leaned over to embrace her. The wind stirred. The cottonwoods bathed them in soft percussive flutters. A flock of wild turkeys squawked.
Growing serious, Papá spoke directly into Panchi’s eyes:
“Mihijita, you must learn how to be in more than one world at a time. The world built up around you is not the real world. This world of mines, railroads, and shining cities is not the real world. It is a labor camp gilded in the dust of the fool. It is trickery. You must survive in this world built by men, and then you must live in the world growing through the cracks of this one. The real world is as close as your heartbeat and the twitch of your senses.”
Papá allowed tears to fill his eyes as he spoke. The tears surfaced, just to the brim, no more—not a drop spilled. Then the waters returned to the deep well of his heart, and he pressed his forehead to Panchi’s.
“Existen otros mundos. En tus ojos veo estos mundos. In these worlds, the signatures of our hearts will recognize each other forever. Hers are worlds of reunion.”
Papá breathed the essence of his soul’s longings into Panchi. He spoke these words that held hidden worlds. His words were prayers witnessed by the willows, the alamos, the creek, and the breezes. He willed upon these words the joys and sorrows of his heart. These words rose up, birthed from a cavern where the seed of the soul resides in between the bones. These words were spells that emerged from Papá’s mouth with blue and orange tail feathers—winged messengers that took flight, catching the wind currents that carried them over the hills and into the womb of the Earth where prayers are heard and answered in perfect timing.
Then the Earth quaked.
And in 1983, in the midst of the biggest tropical storm in Arizona’s recorded history, the Earth quaked again. The rumble wasn’t enough to measure, nothing that would appear in newspapers already overwhelmed with headlines. The Earth quaked just enough to rouse creation to the molecular memory of the old prayer—aged but never lost. The cottonwoods and willows murmured. The stones of the creek quivered. The rattlesnakes danced and the bobcats purred.
Panchi felt the firm touch of the stones at her feet again, as she returned to her garden walkway. Pummeled by sheets of rain, she looked up to the dark skies and welcomed the storm to make a river of her.