Every morning the church bells would wake me. The first time I heard them, I desired to always be awakened like the arijunas, far from the crow of the roosters and the cluck of the hens, far from the crank of the mill and the sack of corn. I begged mom so much to get me out of the countryside. I didn’t know about God in those times and also didn’t know that He was the only one that should be implored; but I also learned that by the strength of pleas all your heart’s desires are achieved and thus in exchange for chicken eggs, goat cheese, and milk my mom managed for my godmother to agree to have me in her house. In the beginning my godmother refused to accept them, but in my house goats and chickens abound and against my father’s will I am here, speaking with paper and paper speaking with me. Nevertheless, not a night has gone by since the moons I’ve lived here that I do not feel as though I were sleeping in the hammock mom weaved me, waking up stunned by the blow of falling from the bed and before the church’s first wake-up call sounds through my dreams the smell of cherries have come, the crows of the roosters, the cry of the goat kids tied up looking at their mothers while dad and my older brothers milk them.
Irama used to listen to the memories that Jierrantá would tell her. She had arrived very early to tell her a dream she had had with dragonflies in the recent dawn and was drinking coffee with ginger that she had made her.
—And that photo?
There I was getting married to Him; which was why my godmother lent me that white dress and there I was trying to learn the creed of the ten commandments of my husband’s law. I didn’t want to marry someone I didn’t know. Besides, I was just 14 years old and even less if to do so I had to memorize things that my head refused to keep. Nevertheless, I liked the shoes because they had heels and a silver buckle, which made me look like a bride. That was why I didn’t want to get married, but I did it because that day they would clothe me in a dress used only once by the only daughter of my godmother. Here in the village where I always wanted to live so that the church bells would wake me and not the rooster’s crow nor the goat’s cry, to eat red bread, “rojas pinilla” with milk and coffee; and above all in order to learn to speak with paper and for paper to also speak with me. That’s why my mother left me here in my godmother’s house. Only mother could know my heart’s desires or perhaps I am her heart’s desires. My loaned dress, that was mine while I was getting married to Him, on Saint Augustine’s day. It smelled like a chest, so I sat close to my grandmother while they measured it on me. I overheard my godmother say they had brought that dress from Belén. So I think of Mary of Nazareth, who had His child. Mary has some of the same things happen to her as mother, because she has a husband who gets married to one woman and gets another pregnant. God is Wayuu.
—I have a photo of yours, I clipped it from the newspaper.
This photo in particular I like a lot and it’s the one I chose because that’s how I recall my only maternal aunt when she was a single woman. She was the nurse at Paraiso’s health post. By then dressed in white and going from house to house with a thermos of vaccines. She introduced family planning in indigenous communities. In times of war it was she who traversed the borders without being touched by the droplets of steel. Those were other times when the sacred courage of Wayuu women was an honor code. Meanwhile my mother, who already had two children with a Black arijuna, preferred to take us to Maicao, far from the clan wars, and just like that, without warning the nurse would arrive with a paper bag full of pichiguel for me. From her I learned what cactus and prickly pear fruits tasted like and she warned me that the paths I fancied were and are full of thorns. To not turn around if I heard my name in the multitude; if it was a message for me it would arrive without needing me to stop; to never turn my back and to not allow them to cover my eyes in that game of “guess who”; to carry a carnelian somewhere on my person; on my wrist, on my ankles, on my hips or in my bag. There are times when I see myself in my mother, but today I saw myself in her… Rosa.
It moves me to see myself in them, to evoke my mother’s youth when she used to set out decidedly from her ranchería to the closest village and together with her only sister used to sell country chicken eggs. My mother tells me it was a thrill to go to whatever village, to see the assortment of your grandmother’s miscellaneous pewter mugs in Fonseca, the red gold earrings in the Mompox people’s display case in Maicao. To get on the Pretty Thing bus with wooden bodywork. I hear her and I hold myself back from tears because the name of the sister that is no longer here accidentally slips out and she remembers that morning they decided to get their identity cards. They both went, to me the most beautiful women in the world, one older than the other and, nevertheless, registered the same day and therefore their identity card numbers are consecutive. Getting the identity cards in San Juan del Cesar was easy, taking the photo was the challenging part, laughing together at the other’s seriousness. The photographer never got upset.
—Did you go into the church?
It’s the second time in my life going into this church. The first time I was guided by my aunt Rosa, the pretty one, the rebellious one, the brave one of the house. Dressed as a nurse she went to ask father “Pretty Thing” to hold a mass for my grandmother’s eternal rest. The father looked at me as if searching the veils of his memory for the girl from Paraíso who wanted to study; the one who used to recite the mysteries of the blessed virgin Mary without further ritual than memory and a rushed amen, whose hair would get mistaken for the black Spanish shawl that covered her head and he asked: Who is she?
—Irama, Rita’s daughter, she responded.
How could I not love Fonseca when my footprints are here, my footprints of live birth, the first lights of the village neighboring the small groups of country homes, Saint Augustine’s church, where how many afternoons, perhaps obligated, my mother may have recited the painful, joyful, and glorious mysteries as compensation for the lodging that a gorgeous Arab woman gave her to continue her studies in this land of singers; father Pretty Thing’s confessional, where she would kneel and confess made-up sins only to commune and taste the flavor of pita bread converted into the body of Christ amidst the marriage supper of the lamb.
—They say your great-grandmother died when she was 100.
One hundred and seven rains. Mama Victoria used to tell me she would be a butterfly, that she would not die, but rather transform, that the calendar and hours must not be seen because the time and distances of the arijunas do not exist for us; that she is here visiting me in the form of a nocturnal butterfly and sees how I flee from her and close the door on her for fear that she may speak to me. She is also abandoning the Alta Guajira as just a girl because of the drought, she is being asked in matrimony by a man she doesn’t know and he is taking her this very moment to a small group of country homes in San Juan, time and time again in attendance because at her grandchildren’s wakes she likes to cry for her dead, that she is also handing over my grandmother to a man 20 years her senior and he is my grandfather. She is also telling my mother not to get married to that arijuna who will take her far away and that she’d have uprooted children who would believe in calendars and that time for us is much too late, that I am now seeing her lying in the hammock thinking that tomorrow she will only be a memory that tells me time does not exist wrapping me up again in that spiral that is not of time, but of the now.
I always hear her voice. I write by and for her, I do not conceive of one line in which her voice is not present, that of my mother, that of my aunts and the voice of my sister, which is my own voice. She spoke to me of the Julamia women and of the Iramas. She told me she had not been born on a 31st of December and that her true name stayed shrouded beneath the name of Victoria. That she came down from the Alta Guajira very close to Nazaret in search of the rain waters of the South, “The rains are in the South,” she would say. Four generations of us were born there since then, fleeing the eternal drought of the Alta Guajira. Today more than ever I’ve remembered when she told me the same as my grandfather, “How lovely when paper speaks with you” (to read). She did not speak to me of Mother Earth, she spoke to me of territory, because wherever I would go I am nothing more than a small extension of my umbilical cord buried at the foot of the cherry tree in my grandparents’ ranchería. She did not teach me to speak with the moon, nor with the sun; only by the certainty that each rain I turn a year older and each moon I pay taxes. I need not alter my state of being to know my future; my future is so uncertain and contrary to my dreams (asleep) that so much uncertainty and contrariness are converted into certitudes. I know only that our dreams are those that we have while we sleep. So may you all not ask me what I am dreaming while I am awake; ask me if I awaken next to you and if I am in the kitchen making coffee with ginger in the morning. I only dream asleep.
—The last time I visited your house you had many mirrors, do you still have them?
I have built my own world, a closed world that contains the infinitude of mirrors; I have always thought that if mirrors do not have frames they can expand throughout the room. That’s why I frame them in forged iron, I fear the mirrors may invade my house and that I may be the image in the pane, if I am not already. Then the most guileless Wayuu woman in the world peeks her head into the room and says to her: Irama stop speaking with the mirror.
I have requested from my mother all her old furniture because I want to encapsulate myself in a time past: the smell of the wood, its ancient colors fill me with a comforting nostalgia. Have you not had the opportunity to sit on an old piece of furniture while it rains? Then you do not know what it feels like to see the rain sitting atop memories.
—I keep fleeing…
Then I offer you La Guajira as asylum, in the most deserted ranchería, where salty water is drunk and you eat from time to time; we have breakfast when we can, we have lunch when we can. When if you want fresh water you must walk many kilometers. May you experience in the flesh the promises unfulfilled. Where it won’t matter to us if you did it or didn’t do it because we won’t ask you. Where you will cease to eat goat kid just because you saw how they killed it while the smallest one from the ranchería stuck his little hands in the calabash bowl of coagulated blood and took it to his mouth. Where you will feel the drops of scarce rain as if it was a flood because they fall upon zinc roofs and where you will not rest at night because the grandmothers don’t allow for the spiders that are all over the ranch to be killed. In that ranchería they won’t be able to search for you nor will they want to because they know that we don’t give over those who seek asylum here and because they know that only we Wayuu can bear this thirst for never-ending life.
Red as I love you red.
Red the carnelian stone.
Red the thread of the protection that my mother tied to my hip when I was still a girl.
Red the color of the fresh and tepid blood that runs through the hands of the smallest one of the ranchería when he sticks them in the calabash bowl that stores the blood of the lamb that taketh away not sin, but hunger.
Red the color of strength and life that is thirsty.
Why do they say that we are only born on the 31sts of December?
From so much accepting without knowing what we were asked, we ended up celebrating the year’s end a different way, because on any given day we were all “Born on a 31st of December.” The State forgot the name of the other moons and wanted us all to also celebrate our birthdays as a commemoration of the year’s end. In the recent past, when one rain would be a year more of life, it was because the moon would return to the same place and its same brightness on the black shawl that would cover the Alta Guajira. So our grandmothers would say, “Today is my child’s first rain”; we knew not of dates and calendars. Those came after, an after when they realized that there were a lot of people here, who walk in the sun, do not complain about the desert nor the summer, nor the winter, because when it rains they collect the rain and store it, they walk calmly not knowing that beneath them there is a great lode of coal; nor do they know that they only have one river and pass by it making beach wells; the men have seven women and they sell them and the best of all is that they like red bread with a red soda and for the women a red shawl, because they believe that gives them strength in their blood and will take away their hunger. They shoot one another up and sort it all out with a meeting beneath a ranch that has a roof and no walls, they like to live as that which they are because they can go about undocumented even and it’s imperative to get them registered with names. So today Prisoner, Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, Simón Bolivar, Diomedes Díaz, Head, Big-head, Iron-scraper, Blueback Mullet, M Nineteen, in the countryside and before midnight on the 31st of December go to their hammocks not knowing that a public official, the same one who gave me a kiss near the mouth and promised to marry me when I grow up, in the village thinks: “Today the Indians are dressed in red and are celebrating their birthdays.”
If you want to celebrate dress in red
If you are afraid dress in red
If a dream asks it of you dress in red
If you want to send a message of war dress in red
If you want them to see you dress in red
—Have you returned to Paraíso?
Yesterday I was in the territory where I was just born and that now treasures some steps of fawn girl upon its great fertility, but I stepped so hard that my footprints remained engraved in the only paths that my grandfather and my aunt allowed me to go down. I didn’t have the courage to go further than where I was allowed because they were full of ghosts. A woman’s name that chased me in my girlish past was the cause of fallen and abandoned ranches, my childhood also keeps the murmur of that name of lily, that fled with her children and the children of their children, that left animals and ranches, but in her getaway she left an amulet to lie in wait for those who dared pass through her abandoned ranch. Yesterday I returned after three rains and my eyes encountered an alive and tangible memento, it was the piece of furniture where Aunt Rosa would put her pewter dishes. I didn’t have to close my eyes nor hide in the countryside so that they wouldn’t see me cry, the tears simply just didn’t sprout, they became a slight smile of melancholy and feeling of that same joy when my aunt, still a maiden, broke off a piece of panela for the girl who stayed crying in the ranch while my cousins would go to the mill to play.
—What was the last thing you said to the boy from the mountain?
All of the sudden before eleven at night peeks out the idea assails me that for whatever reason we may never see each other again. I think what if maybe tomorrow I don’t wake up or I fall in love with someone else or I wake up believing, absolutely convinced that it was all a dream and that I never met you, that you were simply a product of my overflowing imagination and that because of the 31st of December it came to you to look for me and you found me. What if it all has been or is a dream. Now more than ever I am afraid to sleep because I feel like tomorrow you will be that dream in the dream that I will only remember if in that custom of ours of those that turn a year older with the rains they ask me: What did you dream last night?, but tomorrow there will be none of mine near to ask me. So I will never be certain if you were real, as I now also think that it was all true; that we laughed, yes, we played on the beach, you spoke to me of La Loma and you found your small island next to the mark of my clan in the saltpeter of one of the walls of the butterfly house and she who writes all this is my image in the mirror. So on that October morning, when I no longer recall your voice nor your smell, a young man so similar to someone from my past will arrive and will tell me he knows me and that he traversed the country and crossed the oceans in search of a legend his grandfather made up.
—And what did he say to you?
—That I was crazy because of the mirrors and speaking with them all the time.
—That doesn’t frighten you?
—Nothing frightens me now like the first time I faced the world alone; refraining from calling my father, my legitimate provider and benefactor, to have the things I wanted and needed, because I could do it: travel alone, live alone and go as far as I yearned from girlhood when I saw the world atlas. Do you remember?
Yes, that rectangular book that contained all of the Earth’s arteries. I thought then I’d visit the Sahara, Morocco and old Constantinople; find out what New York is like until I had it so close to me and that people like me lived and still do live, because its name is written on the wooden plank that the Caribbean pulled out of itself and is nailed to a stick of trupillo in the Alta Guajira. It’s the only place on earth where New York is a few kilometers from Paris and Buenos Aires. I keep wishing to go far, but when night comes, to return to the hammock that my mother gave me.
—And what if that rainy afternoon in La Loma came back again?
When I sensed that it was high time to go back and fifteen rains later I’ve awoken in the heat of this beautiful tropic, by the tepid and salty sweat of my neck and without you. Lately the elderly island woman who tried to pronounce my name has come to mind, but I would have rather she call me Nina, followed by your last name. That way my long name, my black last name and my indigenous clan would rest beneath your insular coat; I would avoid giving those explanations saying where I’m from and who I was and am; finding a world atlas and pointing out that I was born here, at latitude 11.3764 North and longitude 72º 14’44” West.
If I had agreed to follow you and wake up late because on the island it never stops raining or to run on the beach or to buy pineapples and mangos at the San Martín market, longing for you to find me and bare my nudity again, beneath the shawl that covers my body in the Taroa dunes, while I wait for you in another city of the world. To go into your room again, but this one doesn’t have your fragrance anymore, it smells like a chest, it’s been enclosed for many rains, the humidity and the saltpeter eat away at the walls. Before I came in search of answers; I no longer seek them, nor do I want them. She believes that someday I will return with news of you and I believe that she has a message for me. We linger about playing to not lose the custom of waiting. I am no longer afraid of my small portrait in your wallet because I know they’ll never find it. This is the second time I’ve thrown myself on your bed, I close my eyes, I feel like it’s only been a few minutes, but my neck sweat woke me up again. I fell asleep and dreamt asleep in your bed, I dreamt of myself, while she of dreams kept sleeping and she who saw me was my very self, trying not to make noise to not wake me because I wanted you to appear in that very dream, but no longer for me, but rather for her, for you, Irama.
—And how did you meet him?
—Him of whom you dream awake.
There was not even the remotest possibility for us to meet. In fact, no one’s had that possibility; it was a stroke of luck, the flapping of a butterfly in Tokyo with effect on our transitory surroundings, the sneeze of a baby in a cardboard house, whatever may have transpired in the universe.
—Where are you going?
Wherever my heart takes me, I responded, because in that moment I was remembering the book my mother gave me before leaving here, where I’m back and that I misplaced in a city bus five years earlier. A book that I always evoke and that someday I will recover.
—Will we see each other again?
That depends, if in heaven you remember my name.
—Remember the time they took you to Chelalo’s place?
Yes, of course. The doctors found nothing in my level chest. “Breathe in deep… let it out,” they told me and came to the conclusion that there was nothing in my chest. But, it was a pain that all of a sudden penetrated in the form of electric shocks that made me clinch and writhe together in pain. It was an era of abundance and my father seemed like a gypsy going from doctor to doctor at the best specialist centers in Cartagena. I say gypsy because he would carry three small children, a pregnant woman, and on top of that, a jug of water. In every doctor’s office they would take my x-rays, I would raise my arms and feel a photocopier noise and that was it. The pain would come at any given time and I learned to cope with it, I wouldn’t breathe while it rode through my chest for a few seconds. Then I would breathe slowly. My aunt Rosa came for me, we awoke early and traveled in a Pretty Thing to San Juan. That office was not like the ones in Cartagena and a heat of men and women and dry coughs rode through, so they’d leave the doctor’s office with a bottle. I sunk my face into my aunt’s flat belly, but it just wasn’t a giant ball like my mother’s. I’m hungry, I said to her, and from her pocket she took out a wrapped up cooked green banana with pieces of offal; I ate it. My turn came and led by my aunt to the doctor’s room she says to him: Dr. Chelalo, I have brought the girl here to you. My world of abundance did not conceive that a doctor would be named Chelalo and I smiled. He looked at me and said, “She doesn’t have anything. Only a cat that wants to get out and is scratching her inside.”
—What’s that noise Jierrantá?, Irama asked, while she finished the coffee with ginger that Jierrantá gave her.
—They’re the dragonflies and with a rain’s fall the cherries will return and with them the dragonflies. Then the most guileless Wayuu woman in the world comes into the room and says to her for a second time: Irama, stop speaking with the mirrors!
Arijuna: She/he that does not belong to the Wayuu community.
Cosita Linda/Pretty Thing: Business name of a defunct interdepartmental transit company of busses with wooden bodywork. It was also the affectionate nickname for the priest Oñate, well known in the region.
Julamias: Wayuu woman with many possessions and wealth who, due to the cost of her dowry, does not obtain a suitor. Forever maiden.
Irama: Wayuu woman who did not go through enclosure; translates as “deer.”
Jierrantá: Wayuu name that translates as “very feminine.”
Wayuu: Colombian-Venezuelan indigenous people.
Translated by Patrick Cheney
Patrick Cheney has a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies from the University of Utah. He is a translator with experience in Spanish, Nahuatl, and Guaraní. He has worked on abuse documentation on the Mexico-US border and also has experience as a Spanish-language medical interpreter. He currently lives in Salt Lake City and is a staff member at the Center for Latin American Studies and the Asia Center at the University of Utah.