Most stories start out with “once upon a time” or “in a land far, far away.” These stories usually end with the heroine and her lover living happily ever after, and maybe starting a family of their own – that, or the heroine overcomes all of her obstacles before finally returning back to her village. No matter how the tales are told, they all have one thing in common – a happy ending. There’s no lies, no heartache or abandonment – the heroine’s lover does not leave her alone at home with a child to raise, while he goes off to fulfill his own dream, never bothering to come back…
…though in my case, it’s actually the heroine who leaves.
Okay, so that might be a little confusing for you – but just let me explain.
See, a long time ago – I mean after the revolution ended long ago, not the fairytale long ago – there was this family: a mamá, a papá and their little girl. The mamá was a musician, and she would play music for her husband and daughter – she and her family would sing and dance together in pure bliss, as though they were in their own little world.
But the mamá had a dream of her own: to play for the world.
So she packed up her suitcases and all of her belongings, leaving with her guitar slung on her back… and she never came back. She just disappeared without a single trace.
And the papá, you ask? He stopped waiting for the musician as it became clear to him that she wasn’t coming home anytime soon. The first thing he did was throw out all of the instruments, records and just about anything that made noises even resembling a melody – he practically banned music completely!
He read all the books he could, before using his last peso on some leather – and with that, he made his first pair of shoes. I personally think he’d be better off making toys, or being a schoolteacher or even a college professor – but in the end, his decision was shoes, and that's the decision he stuck with throughout his life.
When his daughter turned twelve, he taught her how to make shoes. Later, he taught his son-in-law, his granddaughter and grandson – as the family grew, the business did as well. The knowledge of making shoes was passed down from generation to generation, in a never-ending circle of footwear.
Music nearly destroyed his family tree, but shoes was the string that tied the rest of his family all together.
The man who became the shoemaker is my great-great grandfather, Papá Héctor. He died of a heart attack in 1970, just a year before my Tío Berto was born – but my abuelita still tells his story every year on Día de los Muertos.
And the little girl, his preciosa hija? She’s my great-grandmother, Mamá Coco.
“Holá, Mamá Coco.”
“How are you, Julio?”
My name is Miguel, actually – Julio is the name of her husband who died in 2001, only two years before my Prima Rosa was born. Mamá Coco has trouble remembering things, since she’s ninety-nine and pushing one-hundred in a year… but it’s good to talk to her anyway, since she’s the only one I can really talk to now.
I used to talk to Prima Rosa about everything, but when she started working at the shoe shop, we started talking less and less… but whatever. At least I can tell Mamá Coco everything.
And I mean everything – how my way of running has changed, my love of wrestling and how I have a dimple on one side but not the other.
“Miguel, eat your food!”
My Abuelita Elena is Mamá Coco’s daughter, though sometimes I wonder how they’re related when they’re both so different…
“You’re practically a twig, mijo. Have some more.”
“No, gracias. I’m good.”
“…I asked if you would like some more tamales.”
“I – I mean s-sí?”
“That’s what I thought you said!”
She runs the house more strictly than Papá Héctor ever did. This means that whenever I blow into a glass soda bottle, or when a truck drives by the window with its blaring radio tunes or even when a trio of gentlemen happen to be strolling by the compound while serenading each other, she’ll yell: “No music!”
We’re the only family in Mexico who doesn’t like music, and they’re all fine with that.
I’m not like them, though.
Whenever I’m able to go out, I visit the one place my family bans me from visiting: the plaza. Passing by the musicians and their bands as radios blare with their cumbia rhythms and the church bells chime in harmony, tapping out rhythms on fantastical wooden alebrije sculptures, hanging out Dante – I love it all, even if Dante can be a dumb dog sometimes.
I know I’m not supposed to love music, but it’s not my fault! It’s hers: Ernestina de la Cruz.
Born in 1896, she was a beautiful mariachi with a powerful, heavenly voice – the most magnificent musician of all time.
“And right here, in this very plaza, the young Ernestina de la Cruz took her first steps toward becoming the most beloved singer in Mexican history!”
She started out a total nobody from Santa Cecilia, like me – but when she played music, she made people fall in love with her! In fact, she had many lovers in the past, even though she never actually settled down and married a man.
Not only could she sing well, but she made a pretty good actress, too – to the point where she starred in over twenty films! She had a cool skull guitar, she could fly and she wrote the best songs ever!
But my favorite out all her songs is Recuérdame.
Hoy me tengo que ir, mi amor!
No llores por favor!”
The music, the lights, all of the men dancing, De la Cruz twirling around in her mariachi suit’s dress while playing her guitar!
“Te llevo en mi corazón y cerca me tendrás,
A solas yo te cantaré soñando en regresar.
Aunque tenga que emigrar,
Si mi guitarra oyes llorar!
Ella con su triste canto te acompañará,
Hasta que en mis brazos tú estés…”
She lived the kind of life you’d dream about…
…until 1942, when she was crushed by a giant bell during a midnight performance.
I wanna be just like her.
Sometimes, I look at the statue of her and I get this feeling… it’s like we’re connected somehow. Like, if she could play music, then maybe I could too, someday…
“…if it wasn’t for my family.”
“Wow, your life sounds rough, kid,” the mariachi woman sympathized.
Miguel snapped out of his daydream and looked up at her. “Yeah…” He went back to shining the woman’s shoe. “Sorry for talking so much. I just can’t really talk about this at home…”
“Why don’t you try standing up to them?” the mariachi woman suggested. “You have the right to voice your thoughts.”
“I don’t know if I have the courage to…”
“But aren’t you a musician?”
“I don’t know…” Miguel shrugged. “I’ve only played for myself, not others–”
“Did De la Cruz become the world’s best musician by shying away from showing off her majestic skills? No! She walked out onto that plaza and played out loud!” She gestured to a band stand, where organizers were setting up for a show. “Mira! They’re setting up for the competition tonight – for Día de Muertos.” She turned back to the boy. “Wanna be like your heroine? You oughta sign up.”
Miguel shook his head quickly. “If I signed up, my family would have a bunch of heart attacks !”
“Look, do you want to waste your life by making shoes?” the mariachi woman asked him.
Miguel considered it, then said, “No…”
“Remember what De la Cruz always said?”
“Of course – how could I forget her most popular catchphrase: Seize your moment ?” Miguel quoted the deceased musician.
The mariachi glanced at her own guitar, then offered it to the boy. “Play for me, muchacho. I’ll be your first audience.”
Miguel’s eyebrows raised in surprise. He glanced between it and the mariachi. He spread his fingers across the stringers, then raised his hands to strum them.
“ MIGUEL !”
At the sound of his grandmother’s voice, Miguel quickly pushed the guitar back into the mariachi’s hands. He turned around, freezing up as he saw his grandmother storming over, with his Tío Berto and Prima Rosa following with bouquets of marigold flowers from the market.
“What are you doing here?!”
Miguel quickly packed away his shine rag and shoe polish. “Um… uh…”
Elena marched over to the mariachi woman, removed one of her sandals and struck the musician’s forehead with it. “Deja a mi nieto solo, sucia sirena !”
“Señora, por favor! I was only–”
“ SILENCIO !” Elena shouted at her. She looked to her grandson. “What was she saying to you?”
“She was only showing me her guitar, that’s all!”
His tío and prima gasped. “Have you no shame or decency?!” his tío yelled at the mariachi woman.
Elena held her sandal up at the mariachi, threatening her with it. “My grandson is a dulce, perfecto, precioso angelito – he wants no part of your brainwashing music, sirena! Leave him alone!”
Frightened by the elderly woman, the mariachi scurried away.
After putting her sandal back on, Elena smothered her grandson with a tight hug, showering him with a bunch of kisses. “Ay, mi bebito!” She then released him from her embrace. “You know better than to be at the plaza! You will come home now. ”
The elderly woman stormed away, followed by her eldest son and her granddaughter – but not before the latter flashed a sympathetic look at Miguel, to which the boy sighed.
(Rosa used to be the second only person he talked to about everything, including music – but when she turned twelve and started working at the shoe shop, she became more responsible, more orderly, more of a shoemaker than a girl who aspired to be a violinist.
But the real injustice of it all was when Abuelita started saying how she was almost just like her Tío Víctor – a grandparent’s obedient child.
Sure, it made some sense – Rosa’s middle name was Victoria, which was based on her late Tío Víctor’s name. That didn’t lessen the sting that the comment had left on Miguel.
So, he stopped trying to talk to Rosa as it was clear as day she wouldn’t want to dare break the rules lest she should disappoint Abuelita, her parents or Tío Víctor.
At least Mamá Coco wouldn’t betray him in fear of breaking the rules.)
Miguel picked up his shine box. Then, he saw a flyer for the plaza’s talent show on a noticeboard nearby. He ripped it from the board and pocketed it, then ran to catch up with his family.
“How many times have we told you to stay away from that plaza!” Berto scolded him. “That place is filled with mariachis, musicians – all kinds of sirenas !”
“Lo sé, Tío Berto.”
Dante strolled out of the alleyway towards Miguel, barking eagerly while the boy attempted to shoo him away.
“ Vete, chucho !” Elena shooed him away by taking off her sandal once again and throwing it at the Xoloitzcuintli, causing the dog to dart off in fear.
“It’s just Dante! He doesn’t bite or scratch!”
“You shouldn’t name street dogs!” Elena said, turning back to the boy. “They become to attached once given a name… ahora, ve por mi zapato.”
“Encontré a tu hijo en Mariachi Plaza!”
Enrique sighed in exasperation, turning away from his work to his son. “Miguel–”
“You know that the plaza is forbidden,” Luisa interrupted softly, though there was a bit of sympathy in her tone. She was once in a position similar to Miguel’s when she first married into the family, having to give up on music completely just to be with her love.
“I was only shining a woman’s shoes!” Miguel tried defending himself.
“ A mariachi woman’s shoes !” Berto added, making the entire family minus his daughter gasp in shock. His eldest son, Abel, was so shocked that he lost his grip on the shoe he was polishing, which flung away from the polisher and lodged up in the roof.
“The plaza has countless musicians who need a shoe shine – it’s the perfect place for foot traffic!”
Enrique rolled his eyes, then stated, “If Abuelita says the plaza is forbidden, then it is forbidden. No more sneaking off there, trying to get all friendly with the musicians. There are plenty of other places where you can find good foot traffic.”
“But what about tonight?” Miguel blurted out.
His Abuelito Franco raised an eyebrow. “What’s tonight?”
“Well, um…” Miguel fiddled with his thumbs as he turned to his mother, squirming a little. “They’re having this talent show, and I thought I might…”
“…sign up?” Luisa finished, smiling curiously.
“Don’t you need an instrument to enter a talent show?” Rosa asked, laughing a little. “Like a violin?”
“Yeah!” Abel agreed with his younger sister. “Or an accordion!” The shoe from the ceiling fell onto his head one second later, causing him to shut up before Elena could shoot a glare at him or his sister for bringing up instruments.
Before Miguel could so much as even respond to his cousins’ words, his Abuelita grabbed his shoulder and turned him around. “It’s Día de los Muertos – no one will be going anywhere, especially not to a talent show!” She pushed a bouquet of marigolds into his hands. “ Esta noche es sobre familia y tradición! Ofrenda room. Vamonos.”
Miguel spat out a marigold petal as Elena dragged him out of the shoe shop, into the courtyard. She let go on him, only so that she could push her mother’s wheelchair into the ofrenda room. He followed her to the family ofrenda, holding the pile of marigolds for her so that she could arrange the flowers on the altar.
“No me mires así,” she scolded him upon seeing the look on his face. “Día de los Muertos is the only night of the year where our relatives can come and visit us.” She gestured to all of the photos on the ofrenda. “We put up their photos so that their spirits are able to cross over – this is very important! If we don’t put their photos up, they won’t be able to come here.” She pointed to all the offerings set up. “You see all of this food – all of these offerings? These are all of the things they’ve loved in life. So much work is put into bringing the family together. I don’t want you sneaking off to who knows where–” She looked up to find her grandson trying to sneak away. “Hombre joven, where do you think you’re going ?”
“I thought we were finished…”
“Dios mío…” Elena grabbed Miguel’s arm, dragging him back towards the ofrenda. “Do you think these are all just pictures on a shelf? No! They’re family, and they’re counting on us to keep their memory alive.” She picked up the picture of her father. “Miguel, take a look,” she said as she held her father’s photo up. “This is your Papá Julio. You know what he did – for sixty-three years, he made shoes.” She pulled him over to the twins’ side of the ofrenda, picking up her great-uncles’ photos. “Over here, we have the twins: your Tíos Óscar and Felipe.” She looked between the photos, unable to tell who was who. “Felipe and Óscar?” She shrugged, putting the photos back on the shelf. “Whatever, doesn’t matter – they made shoes.” She then pointed to her older brother’s photo. “And your Tío Víctor–”
“–let me guess: he made shoes, too?” Miguel interrupted. He shook his head, letting out a sigh of exhaustion. “Abuelita, what point are you trying to make here?”
“To be a part of this family means that you must accept your role and be here for this family,” Elena answered him. “I don’t want to see you end up like–” she stopped as she looked up to the photo of Papá Héctor, a young Coco and Coco’s mother.
The patriarch’s wife’s face had been torn out of the photo long ago, leaving nothing but a faceless woman in a traditional dress. If it had not been for the fact that she held little Coco in her lap, the rest of her body would’ve probably been ripped out from the picture as well.
“Like Mamá Coco’s mamá?” Miguel finished for his grandmother.
“Shh! We do not speak of that – that moza sucia y mentirosa !” Elena snapped. “ She’s better off forgotten !”
“But you’re the one who brought her up,” Miguel pointed out. “And how do we know if she left on purpose? What if she–”
“I’m just saying–”
“ Shhhhh !”
The two turned to see Coco, with her eyes opened as she looked around the room for any traces of her mother. “Has Mamá finally come home?”
“No, Mamá,” Elena sighed. “She’s not here.” She smiled as she went over to her mother. “But it’s okay. I’m here. ”
Coco looked up at her daughter. “And who might you be, mujer joven ?”
Sadness rose within Elena, but she managed to swallow it down. “Descansa, Mamá,” she whispered gently, pulling up her mother’s blanket to keep the older woman warm. “…Miguel, I’m only hard on you because I don’t want you to– Miguel ?”
The twelve year-old was nowhere to be found, though.
“Oh, when will that boy learn?” Elena asked as she looked back at the ofrenda. She looked to the photo of Papá Héctor, and her eyes soon brightened as an idea formed in her mind. “That’s a brilliant idea, Abuelito! That is exactly what he needs.”