By Eillen Daniela Martinez
Her dad said she was la reina de todo el mundo. But Nereida was content to just explore it, especially the dirt and forest parts. Now she was new girl. Girl with a fresh start at an important red-brick school called Discovery Middle. Un nuevo comienzo Mami said so much. Even after she came home with bags under her eyes and an upside-down Sears name tag on her chest. Back home, she used to come back in a suit. She used to look like a serious briefcase. But Nereida knew she wasn’t. Mami would come home in her suit and face like a briefcase to dance with Nereida on top of creaking mattresses, shaking hips like Shakira. Oooo yeahh. Whenever, wherever. Mami was probably a professional suit dancer. Now, because English isn’t her language, she couldn’t come home in suits anymore and has to work until she can. They need abogados who speak English and she doesn’t. At least that’s what she says when she comes home to sleep on the mattress instead of to dance.
Nereida remembers the day mami and papi told her to sit down so they could tell her something. She sat down running her pinky along the cracks of their cement floor. Turns out something meant moving.
“Reina,” Papi said and rubbed the spiky hairs of his cheek, “Vamos a tener una nueva aventura.” Turns out nueva aventura meant saying goodbye to all the things and people they call home. Nereida said bye last to Don Mario, the old bodega owner across the street who always gave her a free tequeño. Nereida called him anciano even though Mami said she was being grosera to an elder. But it’s ok cause he called Nereida niñita loquita. The day the taxi came, Don Mario came and pinched Nereida’s nose. The skin of his face was tired like he saw many people go. Nereida picked up her baby brother Nerio, climbed into Mami’s lap in the taxi.
The driver slammed the accelerator and Nereida’s head lurched as she sang, “Chao casitaaa, chao perritos de la calle, chao bosque, chao-chao montaña, ah-ah-ah, chao anciano!”
And then Mami said epa and put a finger to her mouth to say shh. She looked like maybe she didn’t want to be sad so Nereida was quiet.
“Un nuevo comienzo,” Mami whispered not even looking back. If she had she might have seen how the dogs ran behind them, ribs dancing against their skins.
On the first day at the new school, Nereida walked into the office holding Mami’s hand. Mami said it was so the principal could say bienvenida but Nereida knew probably her teachers from back home had teamed up and told the principal watch out. When he opened his door, he had a white beard like Don Mario so Nereida listened when he said “I’m Dr. Burnham. Young lady, welcome to Discovery Middle.”
Nereida looked up at his wrinkly face and said, “Anciano!” Mami pinched the inside of Nereida’s wrist and did her pretend laugh. El doctor jamón quemado then said, “Don’t worry we have a state-of-the-art ESL program.” Nereida didn’t know what art had to do with being anciano. Then he said, “Did you know our school mascot is an astronaut?” What kind of a pet was that? At home mascotas were Naranjita the cat that visited often, Pepe the chicken that laid eggs they’d scramble with rice, and Oso the dog that chased the chicken.
Not like Papi would ever let mascotas en la casa now that they lived in a nice one with a sliding glass door and fake wood floors that were stained with foot sweat. Nereida liked to tell the kids in the new American school about it, how the glass door went WACATA! when she played tag with her baby brother Nerio and all of a sudden the door was invisible and it punched her whole face like a giant concrete hand!
“Como una mano concreta! Wanna see my bruse?” She told the kids in her first class after el doctor jamón walked her to the room like he was worried she wouldn’t find it. She showed the kids the purple golf ball on her forehead, pulling back her sweaty curls.
In the new American house, Nereida sat and made faces at herself in the reflection of the floors sometimes because who knew floors could be mirrors?!
She curled herself like a caterpillar against the shiny floor, where she clasped her hands like praying in misa and batted her eyes so beautiful. “Mirror, mirror, on the FLOOR? Get it?!” She was home and not en la escuela so a dad had to do more than stare.
“Si muy gracioso, Reina. Very funny,” Papi says without really looking up from washing la carne in the kitchen as if he was bathing baby Nerio. They would eat it later with arepas.
Nereida liked to watch Papi’s big muscular hands that seemed like they belonged to a doctor or superhero. But they belonged to her papi who was balding and typed on the computer all day speaking on the phone in his man voice like he was trying to convince people that he was one. He worked mostly from home now and so didn’t bring back friends from the office to drink from glass bottles and laugh really loud to the twang of un cuatro which his friend Juan Carlos used to play. But he still called her Reina and still made arepas that tasted like they remembered home too.
The new school was different, but she expected different ever since the first day when people accused her of eating people for breakfast. Nereida heard of people who lived south in la Amazonia who maybe did that. Mami said it was traditional and part of their cultura. But Nereida didn’t like to eat people. At least she didn’t think so.
Nereida found it funny that people didn’t understand her. She could say teta and even coño, and words her dad sometimes says that gets her a smack in the nalga at home but in school got her empty stares. It makes her tired though, English. And not just in la clase de ingles anymore. But in all of las clases. In the playground with fake sand and even in the bathroom when Nereida wanted to talk to the girl in the next stall. Kids were mostly quiet to her though. So far nobody said much except, “Where’d you get your hair done? Where’d you come from?”
“My mami. Answers both your questions.”
Those niños looked kind of like skeletons, bony and a white that meant they never played in mud. Of course, that’s what gave Nereida her brown skin and brown eyes. Mami said they needed sol and needed to eat ten times their weight. She also told Nereida to straighten up so that her tummy tucked into her jeans.
“Why don’t I straighten your hair today, mija?” Mami woke Nereida up at 5 in the morning before work so it really wasn’t a question.
“NO! You’ll burn my ears!!” Nereida cupped her ears beneath her frizzy mane and contorts her face into a peach core.
“Don’t be necia! Ay mijita, your face will get stuck! FINE. Here!” And went to Nerio’s closet.
Nereida went to school that second day with frizzy straight hair and her little brother’s socks on her ears. She asked the kids at school how much they weighed. “Ok now multiply by ten, that’s how much of you to eat.” Which didn’t help the people-eating accusations.
The teachers mispronounced words a lot, saying her name flat like “Nurreeda” and an r sound that sounded like they were swallowing their tongue or something. They smiled at her the kind of smile that meant they were tired of her but didn’t want to say it. She knew the smile from her teachers back home who actually knew her to be the girl to start dancing with hips shaking on top of the desks. Now Nereida didn’t need to do anything and they still were careful about her. It’s probably because of the first show-and-tell when she brought back an empty glass bottle and a rock she found from the forest next to the playground.
“My papi used to drink from these with his amigos.” Nereida held the bottle up like she remembered the baboon do with Simba en el Rey Leon.
“This is how he talks with them.” Nereida puffed up her chest, furrowed her eyebrows, and tried to dance salsa like her mom taught her but ended up walking back and forth with a stumble. “Epaaaa chamo!!!” Nereida had drawn a face with a unibrow on the rock, like the face of Juan Carlos.
She made the rock reply, “Chamo! Carajo you look angry! Let us drrink!”
Nereida gave an eager look to her classmates who sat staring and her teacher who stood gaping, her mouth open so that a spider could probably crawl in.
The teacher had a meeting with her parents the next day. Papi came home and was mad because the teacher thought maybe he had a problem with drinking. “Que vaina tan seria! They bring me from work to tell me I’m an alcoholic and it’s affecting Nereida in the brain. Estos gringos no entienden nada.” Mami laughed the kind that made her eyes close which was surprising because Nereida hadn’t heard it since they left home. That night they drank Malta they had found in the part of the grocery store where they sold hot sauce spelled in Spanish and soy sauce spelled in Chinese. Nereida showed her parents her show-and-tell performance, using Nerio as Juan Carlos. They all laughed, which made Nereida glad because it seemed like everyone was holding their breath.
That night, Nereida laid her belly down on the floor outside her parent’s door and listened to their mumbling. They talked about home but like news anchors saying how their town has been ransacked. Mami said how at work a customer told her to go back to where she came from. They talked about el doctor jamón and how the school thinks Nereida should go back a grade and improve her English. Nereida wondered if they left the troubles behind or if they just followed. Then Papi called him el anciano and Nereida laughed. She thought of Don Mario and hoped he saved enough tequeños for himself now that the shelves were empty. She fell asleep at the door, sending a telepathic message to Pepe to find food for himself, since Oso and Naranjita were bigger and always took the food first.
Nereida awoke the next morning to her mother’s “coñoo de su madre!” when she almost tripped on Nereida’s body stuck to the laminate. Mami picked her up and threw her on the bed so she and papi could tickle her. Nereida understood these were the moments her mami and papi needed to survive.
For Nereida it was the forest. It had been years since she could go by herself. Now she could go to the one in the backyard of the new house and also to the one next to the fake sand playground and look for treasure. This was Nereida’s piece of home that she lost long before she moved to los Estados Unidos. Back when the marching and huelgas started, Mami said it wasn’t safe to explore. There could be land mines in the ground, especially in the forests just like in Colombia. What happened in Colombia Nereida didn’t know, but Mami said you could be walking and being happy and then the next second get your leg blown off. Something about the government and corrupción and people fighting. So because of government and corrupción and people fighting Nereida stopped going to the forest. She liked her legs. Sometimes you’re not a part of something horrible, but it’s still a part of you.
Nereida thought of home and its broken parts that before didn’t seem so broken. Like the cars that stopped running because they didn’t have gasolina and there was nowhere to buy it unless you wanted to go to Colombia and get it there. Like the dogs that walked the streets with a limp, sometimes with bald spots, sometimes with eyes locos and sharp teeth that growled like the time Papi picked up Nereida so fast it hurt and he ran with her in his arms. Papi never runs. Or like the time when Nereida was walking with Mami who was wearing her suit and they were singing the new Shakira song and a man grabbed Mami, pushed a gun in her face, and nodded at her hand. Mami let go of Nereida, took her pretty ring off slowly from her left hand and gave it to the man. He ran away quick which is lucky and Nereida saw a tear fall down Mami’s face. They walked home fast and in silence. Here in Los Estados Unidos dogs skipped on the streets wearing leashes like they didn’t want their paws dirty. There were gas stations every other corner that sold gasolina and even perros calientes. And guns were toys for kids to play with.
In the class of history the teacher with her blonde hair and straight bangs talked about the Declaration of Independence and slavery and how it was bad and it was no more and that was that. They talked about the greatness of Paul Revere and once had to act out a time when he was riding in the night. Nereida wanted to be the horse. They talked about the Civil War as if wars like that happened nowhere else. Nereida said in class that her papi thinks that might happen in her country. But her country wasn’t on the class currículo so they didn’t learn about that.
One time during show-and-tell, a little skinny white boy brought in a picture of his mami. She was dressed in a brown and green uniform like Nereida knew soldiers wore and he said without looking up from his feet that she was in the war and he wasn’t sure when she would come home. Maybe this place had its battles too.
The first time it rained, the class watched Tarzan during el recreo cause maybe they thought mud was dangerous. But it was a little emocionante because it was the first movie she saw here. The words actually matched the movement of the characters’ mouths! The kids started calling Nereida ‘Tarzana.’ Fascinated that they were amused at something, Nereida reveled in the name. She liked to pump her chest and let out loud yodels which sometimes scared the little skinny white boy.
“Oye. Don’t worry. I know you. My mami is a fighter like yours. And wears a uniform too. We can be friends.” And for the first time, he looked up from the ground.
They learned lots of things in las clases, but her favorite was geography because they talked of different grounds. She thought of this new land, and how it was supposed to be a new start, away from the danger of home like Mami said. But Nereida knew that her home would always be hers, that she could really feel like a reina there. Today, Nereida stands in front of la clase and points to the map, “That’s my ground. Venezuela. My chicken Pepe lives there.” And their faces transform into deep reverence.
Maybe she could be queen of this world too.