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Praying Over Her Bones
by Maya C.

        I cried for three hours, then I packed my U.S. passport and headed to New Mexico.

           The entire first day back on my Abuela’s land felt like an out of body experience. I did not apologize to my husband for the lack of clarity in the plan for our time in the Southwest. I was honest. My ancestors kept summoning me back to the desert in dreams, and I could either return alone, or he could join me as a witness.

     We returned to the land during the season of fresh green chili and late afternoon thunderstorms. 

     The woman at the rental car company in Albuquerque looks like me. We could be cousins.  A mix of the same blood so many Mestizos have in the Southwest. We look at each other knowingly, then she upgrades our rental car without comment. Suddenly, I find myself in the driver's seat of a brand new, white Dodge Challenger. 

     Our new car is fast, easily gliding past 100mph without any pull. The heat of mid-August plays in mirages across the wide-open road dotted with hitchhikers. For a moment, I wonder if it is possible these are the people who have always been here, as tied to the environment as the mesas and valleys. Perhaps, they are the shapeshifters Abuela would talk about, one story in particular. 

     Decades ago, when Mama still had the name Cordova on her Colorado driver’s license, and Abuelo was still young enough to works the fields in the wide yawning valley, their family drove an old truck down these same highways in the dusky hours on the way to and from the fields.

     One evening, when Abuelo was driving in his truck with a friend, the men saw a beautiful dark-haired woman standing in the middle of the road. They stopped and offered to take the woman into town where she would be safe. The story varies from there, depending on which of my many relatives is serving as the family storyteller. I would like to sit with Abuelo, to hear the story from him, told in Spanish, over smalls glasses of whiskey at the old kitchen table, but he has long passed into spirit. He would be proud to know how much I grew up to remember, and how much alike we are. Before he died, Abuelo was the family storyteller and the story of the hitchhiker was one of his favorites to tell my dad during our summer visits back home. 

     Now, when I want to hear the story of the hitchhiker, I ask my dad.

     “Dadito,” I say, grinning with anticipation, “tell me the story of Grampo and the cow.”

     “Okay.” He smiles, already knowing why I am asking. “Grampo was driving out in the valley, where the ranch used to be. He had a friend in the truck. They were coming home from the fields, still driving through the middle of nowhere. They saw a beautiful woman standing in the middle of the open road. They offered her a ride to town, and she was very quiet as they dove. After some time, she motioned for them to stop the truck to let her out. They thought it was very strange this young woman would ask to be left along the road so far from town, but that was what she wanted. After Grampo got back in the truck and drove away, he felt the urge to turn the truck around and look for the woman. Moments later, they looked where the woman should have been, but no one was there. Grampo got out of his truck, confused. No one was around, except for a cow, standing at the edge of the pasture near the road.”

     Dadito takes a deep breath, leaning in with a slight smile. “Grampo looked at the cow. The cow looked back.” Then, in a low, deep voice, the cow said, “Thanks for the ride.”

     Dadito always does the cow voice.

     This makes us laugh, the way Grampo used to laugh. Mama does not laugh. These stories and the truths behind them frighten her almost as much as me returning to New Mexico frightens her. Before I invited my husband, I invited her. I hoped we could return together, for a rebirth, rather than another family funeral.

     We returned when Abuelo died. The old cramped church in Capulin was filled with familiar faces of people I didn't know, but whose blood I shared. Abuela's body crumpled as she wailed beside her husband's open casket. The pain of being apart slowly killed her. They are together now, buried in the same garden of bones, marked with crosses and Spanish last names. 

     I often wonder about the names of our ancestors before the Spaniards arrived bringing their religion of shame. I wonder what came before Catholicism, about the before times, when ancestors like Abuela Josefa practiced the mystical traditions of the land. I wonder how it is possible for my body to know stories my ears have never heard. I know the healing plants by their smell and taste, even when I do not know their names. 

     I am returning to learn, to remember what my body is telling me.  

     When I told Dadito I was called to revisit the places in these stories, he told me to watch out for shapeshifters, and police. 

     He said, “I don’t have to remind you, Maya, but be sure to take your passport, and always drive the speed limit even if you don’t think anyone else is on those country roads.”

     A moment of silence passed between us, and then he spoke life into my rage.

     “If you are within 100 miles of the Mexico border officials can ask you for your documents.”

     When he says this, I feel the grief in my stomach come alive, shooting bile into the back of my throat. In the eyes of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, Chicanos on the U.S. side of the border are all suspicious. These officials don’t care that my family history on this land pre-dates the formation of the United States of America. These officials don’t care that I can point to hundreds of years of family buried here, Cordovas and Trujillos who gave their lives to this land, and all of our indigenous ancestors.

     The grief of being unwelcome in my own homeland overwhelms me as I prepare for my return. I light a white candle and pray to the spirits in my maternal line. I ask them to imbue my conscious mind with knowing and grace. I ask them to show me what they want me to see, that I may honor them.

     I pack my passport, even though I know I should not have to. I know from lived experience the difference between what is legal, and what is reality. Even in northern California, I have been asked to show my documents, as a passenger in the car with my white husband.

     These aspects of my reality disturb my white immigrant husband who has never had his American-ness questioned. No one calls him exotic or asks where his family is “really from”. They see me, and my body begins to tell the story of my family before I have time to say a word. In that way, I am like Abuelo. In other ways, I am more like Abuela Josefa; Mama's grandmother.

     Abuela Josefa, the Tewa bruja and curandera, the stolen sister, who visits me in visions, beckoning me back to the land. I came back for her, to pray over her bones in the place that birthed us, to begin the long journey of remembering how to shift. 

      I am alone, so close to the Mexico border I could walk. Instead, I drive away from Las Cruces with my foot pressed into the accelerator, speeding toward destiny. I feel equal parts angry and free, gliding past The Crosses, the crossroad town at the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. I know these places, these names, and their stories. Places where Grampo grazed livestock or watered his horses. There are stories of tramping trains, boxing matches, and mysterious women. Places ancestors were married or buried or born a thousand generations before me. 

     In the rearview, a storm is rising like a familiar face in the mirror. Clouds half-cover the glittering eye of the sun like dark grey curls. I know the woman in the road behind me. Mírate, hija. She tells me to look. We are the same. I have her eyes, her anger.

     I have her power. 

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