Me and Florentine
by Stephanie Evelyn
I was around ten years old when it started.
“Do you speak Spanish?” she said.
“Well, no. Not really.” Over the years I developed my prose into a better defense, but back then, that was my only response. She stared at me like she just got a whiff of sour milk. Her eyes scanned down my face, past my waist, and pinned my feet to the ground.
“You aren’t a real Mexican then, hija de puta.” She locked eyes with mine. “Is there a problem, white girl?”
I shook my head, and confusion pulled me away in silence. It was recess, and as I watched the other kids around me, I knew I didn’t have a place. The white kids were mostly blonde, and if they weren’t, their blue eyes, light skin, and smooth hair lent them a hand. The Mexican kids had thick, dark hair, like mine, deep brown eyes like mine, and olive skin that was darker than mine. There was one thing that they all had together: they spoke Spanish. But I didn’t.
Born in the United States, my parents grew up in east side San Jose in California. My abuela on my father’s side is from Chihuahua, Mexico, and my abuela on my mother’s side was born in the United States. Both of my grandmothers spoke Spanish, and everything in our culture except the language was passed on to my parents.
Every year during Christmas, mi familia, mis tios y tias, mis primos y primas, we got together and made tamales. A tradition passed down from my grandma Gloria. My mother, also not a Spanish speaker, cooked chile verde, rellenos, pozole, and menudo. My parents grew up in Chicano culture because we are Chicanos. We are Mexican Americans. Our roots from Mexico, but our birthplace in the United States.
We do not belong to America and we do not belong to Mexico. Where do we belong then?
I still cannot answer this question, but I realize it’s because it’s the wrong question to ask. I know now that I should’ve been asking, where could I find the others that didn’t belong?It wasn’t until I met her, the woman in white, that everything would change.
I was in middle school when it happened. Twelve years old. Middle school was the worst time of my life. I wasn’t pretty like the other girls. My hair was frizzy and baby hairs curled out from my hairline, sticking out the sides. Skinny as a skeleton, my curves were nonexistent. The thing I got made fun of the most, all the time, was my big, Aztec nose. Unlike the petite, small curvature of all the pretty girls’ noses in school, the bridge of my nose started as a bump. Rigid and rough and took over the majority of my face. And even with my Aztec nose, I still was not Mexican enough. I wasn’t pretty enough, and I wasn’t American enough. I was in between.
“Mira, puta fea. What are you looking at?” It was Jackie Garcia. She had long, curly hair that was held together with Aqua Net. Shiny, crisp curls that moved with the attitude in her neck.
“I wasn’t looking at anything,” I said.
“That’s what I thought. Wannabe Mexican.”
“I am Mexican. I make tamales every year with my family.”
“Me cago en tu madre,” Jackie said, and her two friends laughed behind her.
The heat in my face baked my skin red, skin that was already too light to be a real Mexican. I ran to the bathroom, slammed the stall door, and sat there and cried. I didn’t understand why my own people, my own hermanos y hermanas were treating me this way. All because I didn’t speak Spanish. How did that deny me of my heritage? And how was it my fault that my parents didn’t speak to me in Spanish?
I didn’t go to my class that day. I stayed locked in the bathroom stall crying. What I didn’t realize was that my cries would be heard by the woman in white.
After school, I saw Jackie and her friends standing in the front of the school waiting for the bus. I decided to take the back way. Walking across the school field, I wondered what Jackie called me in Spanish. I couldn’t remember what the words sounded like.
At the end of the field was a neighborhood. Past the neighborhood stood a wooden bridge, and hiding under the bridge was the creek. Everyone called it the creek. Sometimes older kids hung out down there. Today, there was no one down there, so down I went.
I threw my backpack down and sat on the dirt against the water. I leaned over and stared in. Along my hairline, baby hairs were sticking up. I tried pressing them down, smoothing them out, but they just curled right back up. My reflection in the water was rippled by the current. I hated my reflection. I hated that I didn’t speak Spanish and I hated my Aztec nose.
Then, the hairs on the back of my neck stuck straight up, pulled by an electric force. It prickled my skin, but I couldn’t move. A chill as sharp as an ice cube running down my back made me sit up. My eyes moved left to right, but I couldn’t turn to see what was behind me.
The hairs on my neck dropped and the chill disappeared. I turned around. Only the bridge watched me, and the leaves crawled slowly across the ground. In my peripheral, something white fluttered in the air. A sheer, white shawl tied to a tree branch fought with the wind and whipped back and forth. With steady steps I walked to it. I grabbed the end of the shawl and held it. I saw eyes watching me from behind the tree trunk.
“Jackie, is that you? Why don’t you leave me alone?”
The eyes that watched me were completely black. There was no reflection of light, no sparkle, no spec of anything but black. The eyes peeked out from behind the tree, but there was no sign of the person or their body. I backed away as slowly as I could, imagining that I was invisible. The white shawl whipped in the wind and tugged away from the tree branch. It reached toward me until it broke free and covered my face. I yanked it off, then saw her standing in front of me: the woman in white. She had straight, long black hair that draped over each shoulder down to her waist. Her eyes breathed sorrow, with distressed eyebrows and black eyes that were ready to fall out of their sockets at any moment from an unspoken tragedy.
“Mija, you are in pain,” she said.
“Who are you?”
“I am here to help you. My name is Florentine. I am the woman in white.”
“You don’t look like you go to school here. I’m not supposed to talk to people I don’t know.”
“You do know me. Soy familia. I am the pain and confusion that you feel. I understand what it means to not be good enough, not pretty enough. My husband left me for someone younger, richer.”
I looked down. She wasn’t wearing any shoes. Her toes pressed into the dirt and a black beetle
moved across her foot.
“Gabriela, I can help you. I can make your pain and confusion go away,” she held her arms out.
I looked into her black eyes and all I could see was sadness. My heart slowed and I felt her love in the air around me. I moved into her arms and wrapped my arms around her. She hugged me like she was my mother. We stood still until she started to sway us back and forth into a soft dance. Her whispers in my ear told me exactly what I needed to do to make the pain and confusion go away.
The next day at school, I told Jackie and her friends that I saw Francisco down at the creek and he wanted Jackie to meet him there after school. The anger in her face softened.
“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”
I pulled out a note from my backpack, “Here, he wanted me to give you this.”
She opened it and it was the first time I saw a smile crawl across her face. She saw that I noticed, and her smile dropped dead.
“It’s your loss if you don’t go,” I said. “I’m just letting you know.” I walked away.
Jackie and her two friends were not seen again. The San Jose police were called out to do a search. The entire school was talking about how Jackie and her friends went missing, how the police couldn’t find her and how she must’ve run off with Francisco, but the night they went missing, he was at a football game.
The three girls were found at the creek. Their bodies lay face down in the water, their hair like long spider legs reaching out across the current, threads of dead life floating. Swaying. As shallow as the creek was, the cause of death was drowning. No one understood how it happened, but I knew.
“What’s your last name?”
That old, familiar question. This time asked by a sophomore at my high school.
“Gabriela Ramirez,” I said.
“Oh, I see.” She stared me down. “You’re that kind of Mexican.”
I smiled. “Yeah, I guess I am.”