Battle of the Abuelas

Photo credit: "Abuela" by Christian Frausto Bernal via Flickr
Photo credit: “Abuela” by Christian Frausto Bernal via Flickr

On a map find the southern point on the straight border where New Mexico nudges up to Arizona, set your odometer. Drive south and slightly east. At exactly 222 miles you will be in my hometown in Mexico. El Cielo. Population 2,600. When I tell this to my neighbors in Phoenix, where I have lived and worked since college, they assume my birth town is filled with violence due to the sad reality of supply-and-demand for drugs and the reputation of northern Mexican towns for such criminality. But this is not the case with El Cielo. No one dares bring disgrace on our town, fearing, as well they should, retribution from the old grandmothers, the abuelas, who hold great sway over the inhabitants. No drug dealer lasts more than a month. If they don’t leave, they die. The townspeople will tell you this is due to the Curse of the Moths, placed on them by the abuelas. They will tell you this is the most effective drug war.

Let me tell you about an instance of the Curse which contributes to El Cielo’s premier legend, known as the Battle of the Abuelas. As with most stories, opinions differ regarding the meaning of these events. In my required college literature class I was driven mad by the imprecision of interpretation: does the white whale stand for purity or evil; is his albino nature righteous or perverse? I am a scientist but I have since learned that the scientific method is difficult to apply to all the earth’s phenomena. Perhaps it is wise to withhold judgment until the outcome of this tale is fully determined.

Twenty-three years ago, in ’78, during Semana Santa or the Holy week before Easter Sunday Lent, a small girl by the name of Carlita was whisked into my hometown aboard a fin-tailed 1960 Desoto, by her father (my cousin), Lavin, a man who had grown up amongst us and who, when he was our town’s carpenter, had repaired the adobe walls and the tiled or metal or sod roofs of our homes many times over. Lavin appeared in town unannounced on a day of racing thunderclouds and stayed a mere three nights, repeatedly declining his mother’s entreaties to linger until Easter dinner. He left under cover of a vast star-sprinkled sky in a hurry, he said, to get back to his drywall business in California, which he boastfully reported to all who would listen, was going great guns. (I was just eleven years old, and how I wished to follow him and work in the glamorous and moneymaking drywall business!)

It seems that his former wife—I use “wife” loosely because they were never married (this distinction cited frequently by our gossips)—was once again “decompensating” as his de facto-mother-in-law put it, or “going completely loca” as Lavin put it, and he felt his much loved little girl, Carlita, needed the safety and warmth of extended family that El Cielo afforded. He left the girl, a small suitcase, one threadbare ragdoll, and $300 American dollars in twenties on the Abuela’s ancient nightstand.

Carlita was five at the time, and beyond the advantage of being slightly pudgy, hence huggable and cuddly, she had the attraction of thick, waist-length, honey-colored hair and radiant pink cheeks. Her power to enchant caused the mothers in town to swoon and give in to an inescapable desire to hug the little girl, much to the displeasure of the child who took to cowering behind her grandmother’s orange, yellow, and brown layered skirts, peeking out only far enough to avoid tripping on the cobbled streets.

At this time I was living between the houses of my Abuela and my uncle Daniel because my father had gone to Panama to build hotels and my mother had crossed to the U.S. in search of her lover. My abuela, who at that time still operated a shop on the town plaza, mostly selling food to the other shop owners, often needed me to take Carlita for a morning walk or to sit sentry while she napped in the afternoons.

Our town was a mix of people from different regions, including indigenous Tarahumara many of whom still live in villages far up the canyons of the Sierra Nevada Occidental; they were a people who successfully evaded the conquistadores and now simply wanted to live in peace. My family, like most families, was blended, as they say here in the States. My abuela’s mother was mixed Cuban and Yoruban. It was said my grandmother’s mother came to El Cielo to consult Niño Fidencio, the folk saint and curandero, to learn the old ways of healing and deliver her mother from a cancer of the thyroid, but instead of returning to Cuba she stayed and married Niño, leaving her sick mother to her fate. My abuela learned folkways from her Cuban mother. She learned native Tarahumaran ways from her father, a man with a mercurial temper who could run twenty kilometers (about 12 miles) to the nearest lake to catch a bass for dinner and arrive back in a little more than an hour.

Because we lived in a town, not a village, Spanish was the lingua franca. My English was good and Carlita’s (she was my second cousin) Spanish was still unformed so in this way I became both her caretaker and her interpreter. We often sat in front of our Abuela’s store, me reading to Carlita or sharing sweets I’d appropriated from the candy jars behind the register. My friends laughed, always calling me a niñera mariquita—a sissy babysitter. The loud lout of the pack, who has since lost his arm in a baling accident, taunted me daily, “Niñera, show me your tetas,” which always brought on guffaws even from my closest friend, Paulo, who avoided eye contact with me. But Carlita comforted me by promising to “spank those naughty boys,” and this somehow cheered me up.

The child warmed to and blossomed under the affection of the Abuela who was previously unknown to little Carlita, who had visited only once when she was eight months old, before the time of memory formation. Back then the happy parents had arrived to warm welcomes even though the infant’s mother was a gringa, wore her pants too tight, revealed too much cleavage, dyed her hair platinum, and did not speak a word of Spanish, much less the Abuela’s indigenous language.

Still, the Abuela was willing, for the sake of her son, to forgive many faults because the granddaughter was, everyone agreed, magnificent and bore a true resemblance to the Christ child (whittled in rosewood by a deaf town baker) that resided in the portico of our chapel, built by missionaries in 1649. Having grown up viewing this sculpted baby god daily on my way to and from our disheveled town school, I could see no particular resemblance beyond chubby cheeks and a full, rosebud of a mouth. But that is me; as my own mother, Carlita’s father’s cousin, says, “you have no imagination, Julio, and never will.” So, as it has been long established that I have no capacity for mental imagery, perhaps my word on this cannot be trusted.

It was in the sixth month of Carlita’s residence—by this time the people had ceased compulsively stopping to adore the child and now merely cast admiring smiles in her direction whenever she passed—chubby hand grasping her Abuela’s skirt—that the fracas began with the arrival in El Cielo of the other Grandmother. The wealthy gringa from Los Angeles.

The L.A. Grandmother flew into the airport in Espléndido on a private airplane she had chartered—a Piper Seminole no less; I saw it with my own eyes when I drove out with Manuel to pick her up. We shuttled her into town through a dust storm in Manuel’s suspension-less Chevy, the sole taxi in a three-town radius. She maintained her cool even as our potholes caused her head to bounce off the roof. She offended Manuel by complaining about the missing rear window which allowed a plume of dry copper-colored dirt into the car, ruining her hair, her silk dress, and exposing her asthma-ridden lungs to irritation. Still, when she arrived in El Cielo, she exited the car with a regal bearing and proceeded to book two rooms in our town’s only hotel, a pink-stuccoed, three-story former manse of a Spanish colonel that squarely faced the town plaza, Plaza de Oro (though silver, not gold, had been mined here).

Great activity ensued as she set up shop in the hotel’s small covered patio. She immediately purchased a hammock, wooden table and chairs, and a rainbow-striped umbrella to protect against the merciless August sun. A flatbed truck, rarely seen in the town, made three trips to deliver items which the townspeople had lived without for hundreds of years—bottled water, portable air-conditioners, thick new mattresses, spray-bottles to mist overheated bodies, tins of imported Russian caviar (though this last may have been an exaggeration). Two out-of-work shepherds were hired by the hotel to water the courtyards, rake pea-gravel, and tend the pink rockroses and ocotillo that bordered the stone walls of the inner courtyard.

There, in some of the best shade in town and amongst the landlady’s prized purple-blossomed bougainvillea the L.A. Grandmother and her interpreter-lawyer made their wolf den, intending to negotiate for possession of the cub. That is, of Carlita.

The Abuela was at first startled by the presence of the other grandmother, then gradually intrigued, irritated, offended, and finally incensed. Who was this fancy woman with no humility? For how could she be a morally sound person if she had mothered the flashy, non-maternal, cheating, not to mention loca, mother of Carlita? More to the point, why was she here?

The L.A. Grandmother wore many gold chains around her wrist. Pearls dangled around her thin neck and large topaz earrings stretched her earlobes. She also possessed suspiciously non-wrinkled skin on her face and neck, which, the Abuela exclaimed, displayed ungodly vanity and wastefulness. “Besides,’ she was heard to say, “why erase the wrinkles on your forehead and leave your arms to sag?” It was clear, she said, that this woman had not lifted a finger to work in the whole of her privileged existence. This last was criticism of the highest order. The Abuela had worked since she was ten years old.

Like most towns in this part of the country, El Cielo has a water shortage. We have enough for small home gardens and for drinking; the few cows and goats people still wish to keep have water and the babies get a bath daily, but the adults, by custom, resort to spit baths. It was rumored that in this, the driest season of the year, bathtubs were filled for the Grandmother twice a day with water supplied by a rancher who raised cattle fifty miles to the north. I mention this as proof of the Grandmother’s arrogance, though to be honest, if I had the money I might have done the same, so desiccating is the unceasing summer heat in my hometown.

The first encounter between the Abuela and the Grandmother was of a symbolic sort. The Abuela had long established notoriety in the region since, as a young mother in her twenties, she had invented a thirst quenching drink made from the planta de nube, or cloud plant. This plant produces berries in the late spring which—after cooking, sifting, and straining them several times over—form the nectar from which is made the sugary, tart concoction, known as Agridulce, or Agrio for short, for no matter how much sugar is added the tongue’s sour taste buds are kicked into overdrive when the beverage is drunk. Yet Agrio is surprisingly thirst quenching and very popular, and for decades made up a sizeable chunk of its inventor’s household income. The Abuela, shrewd businesswoman that she was, charged higher prices in hotter weather. No one dared complain.

One day the L.A. Grandmother was seen at our town store purchasing two bottles of Agridulce. It was reported that upon tasting the liquid the lawyer spit it out onto the sidewalk and the Grandmother was said to remark, “Suck it up Harold, it is slightly better than the mud they call water. You don’t want to become dehydrated. ” When she was informed of this comment the Abuela found it insulting beyond measure, not just to herself but also to the fine people of the town. Mud drinkers! How dare she.

The second volley consisted of the Grandmother sending her lawyer to visit the Abuela. The lawyer, a tall tomato-faced man with wide-spaced insect eyes who bowed as if the Abuela were a queen, set his dirty briefcase on the clean tablecloth and proceeded to negotiate. With sweet words and a checkbook at the ready, he offered “on behalf of his generous client” to provide a “better, more appropriate, home for the poor, traumatized child.”

That evening, when the weather had cooled to simmering from sweltering, and the crickets had begun their modulated evening chirrup, the Abuela marched over to the courtyard of the Hotel Dormilón and insisted that the Grandmother apologize for attempting to “buy” her granddaughter as if she were a cow, a goat, or rather more insulting, a pig.

“I’ve done nothing of the kind,” said the Grandmother, who held her skinny body stiffly as if to exude moral and fashion superiority. “Carlita would be better off in the States where she will be well provided for. I’ve seen the schoolhouse here. Surely you want more for her.” The Abuela was so angry she prayed a silent prayer to San Gabriel to give her the strength to keep her hands to her sides and squelch her impulse to scratch the Grandmother’s taut face, twist her earlobes, and scatter her pearls on the tiles.

“I can see, Grandmother, that you wish to engage in a battle. You will find me a formidable foe,” the Abuela said, although it was her nephew, acting as her interpreter, who had provided the lovely words “formidable foe,” which were nevertheless enshrined in legend as coming from the Abuela’s mouth (the Abuela had said araño viuda negra—Black Widow spider). And with that noble stance, she became the proud warrior of the town’s honor, whose powers came straight from the Eyerúame, the iconic “mother protector” according to the old people who still retained some of the old Tarahumara language and pre-Catholic beliefs.

The L.A. Grandmother was determined to have the upper hand and in a week’s time three more rooms at the usually empty hotel had been booked for so-called “advisors,” two men and a woman who wore what must have been impossibly hot suits (the woman also wore high heels and this caused snickers every time she hobbled to the corner shop for her afternoon popcicleta).

The days turned into weeks.

In the fourth week of the campaign the Grandmother decided to do an end run around the Abuela and sent her team of overdressed burros, as the townspeople had taken to calling them, to Carlita’s father’s two brothers, sister’s-in-law, and five of his second-cousins, one of whom was the head of the town council. The burros promised a new recreation center with air-conditioning, ping pong tables and a community television with satellite dish; an eight-thousand gallon, elegant cistern (12 x18”photos of a similar one in Nogales were displayed with gold push-pins on a cork-board); and a concrete block and tile-roofed pre-school building complete with a small kitchen for hot lunches and funding for two teachers for five years—this last to be named Escuela Carlita, presumably to stick in the craw of the Abuela long after the granddaughter had gone.

The stakes were now high and the Abuela, who had assumed the stance of a patient Gray-headed dove, now became a condor, bird of prey.

The Abuela consulted two of the longest-lived women in the town—the weaver of shawls, who now sold only to tourists, and the potter, whose wares were no longer in demand because of plastic—about the ethics of deploying the Curse of the Moths on her granddaughter’s grandmother. They, like her, guarded the secret of the Curse, handed uniquely to them by the Abuela’s mother who had come from an island in a sea the Abuelas had heard of but never seen.

“She is a devil masquerading in the guise of goodness,” said the weaver.

“Yet the benevolence is just a cover for her wicked plan to abscond with Carlita, a clear violation of Lavin’s wish,” said the potter.

“Would I be correct to invoke The Curse?” Abuela asked.

To which the two, whose ages added together totaled one hundred and eighty-three, shrugged and shook their heads as if to say the gringa grandmother had brought down the moth plague onto herself with her shameful plotting.


Let me explain the Curse of the Moths: In the ancient belief of our culture, moths represent the final state of the soul of a man, the state in which one enters heaven. It is therefore a good omen when the moths appear before or after the funeral of one recently departed—presumably they speed him on his journey to heaven.

But sometimes the moths swarm. My great-grandmother learned to harness this phenomenon, passing the secret down the generations to select women, her daughter, the Abuela, being one.

Speaking in my capacity as a scientist (I am a pedologist for the Arizona Department of Agriculture—I test and study soil) I can say it is a biological fact that every spring moths proliferate. Winter departs, spring begins and within days the moths arrive with their soft white and brown-stripped wings unfurled, enveloping the walls of buildings seemingly overnight. Many houses in El Cielo are overtaken with cocoons, which form under rafters, blackout windows, clog vents, and festoon the acacias along the streets. The cocoons and moths inhabit only the exterior of buildings, and only briefly—perhaps eight days, maybe two weeks—then decamp for their northern habitat.

Unless the Curse has been invoked.

The guilty are cursed for breaking God’s rules or man’s laws. For instance, the Curse has been called down upon people guilty of lying and cheating (the guy who sold bad car tires and batteries) trafficking drugs (the tattooed maleantes—thugs—who set up shop in the former rail shed), wife or husband beating (both and several), stealing cars (my uncle’s included), and tempting young boys to entertain a life of crime (me and Paulo amongst others). The moths stay until the perpetrator repents and turns themselves in, or flees, or expires.

In such cases the moth infestation can last a month or more. When the Curse is implemented, swarms of moths as large as thunderclouds overtake the guilty person. The “clouds” produce panic in one unaccustomed to seeing these thick, fluttering swarms. The proliferation of moths invades the interior of homes and businesses of the guilty, their automobiles, and every fold of skin. An infestation is evidence that one of the old women has, after careful deliberation, decided to protect the town’s purity. Once cursed, there is no chance for eternal rest; the moths become the emblem of hell rather than a harbinger of heaven. With the exception of certain approved and life-long acts of penitence, forgiveness is rarely granted.

Everyone in town believes the curse exists, even those who will not admit it. My uncle Ramos says to me, “the evidence lies before you, evil visits the town. The abuelas curse transgressors. If they don’t leave with their forked tails between their ass cheeks, they die.”

Me, I am a scientist. How can I believe this?

As for the moths, a common species of Lepidoptera (the order that comprises butterflies and moths), they abound and thrive in El Cielo as do old women, who statistically live much longer than their miner husbands. The temperature in El Cielo can reach a stubborn one-hundred-and-twenty degrees in the summer yet it is not unusual to see abuelas quick-stepping along the streets in their block-heeled sandals and colorful head scarves, shopping and visiting under the nearly shadeless Mesquite trees as if the sun were a ball of white ice rather than of fire, while I, on my obligatory quarterly visit, am reduced to lying with a wet rag on my forehead hoping for the rare high-dessert breeze.

Entomologists, including amateurs like myself, account for our town’s surfeit of moths by describing the perfect intersection of weather and habitat—dessert winds, low bluffs, and el planta de nube, whose thick and spiny branches provide a safe home for the reproducing moths. Others speak of the loss, because of drought, of their preferred more northern habitat—specifically the Huachuca Mountains of Southern Arizona.

Technically the moths, even when swarming, pose no risk to human health. Yet, some of those cursed actually die. Do these evildoers smother? Do the moths expose them to a virus? Do they die from fear?

As a scientist I have asked other questions: What conditions prompt the moths to nest exclusively inside the homes of rule breakers? Which invites other less scientific questions: Don’t each of us in some way transgress, if only on moral grounds? Who is not worthy of punishment? Is the Curse a proof of an alternative reality in which mysticism exists? A spiritism which, let’s face it, my countrymen have embraced from before the time of our Catholic conquistadores? Correlation does not imply causation, as any scientist knows. Still, something is fishy here.

Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be cursed.

Regardless of how one explains it, the outcome is that crime has always been pretty rare in El Cielo.


Having reached consensus with her fellow matriarchs, the Abuela prepared to execute the curse. A covert ceremony was undertaken in which certain words were chanted and ancient Bare-throated tiger-heron tail feathers were laid over bowls filled with berries from the planta de nube. One king snake, three lizards, and a Leopard frog were sacrificed on a flat-topped boulder in the gully behind the gas station, after which a tissue paper lantern was set aloft on the warm air stream that pushes upward over the bluff where the town sits.

Spent, the Abulea sat on a boulder watching as the lantern dipped side to side like an angry ghost down the length of the arroyo, losing sight of it as it wafted out over El Cañón Triste—the Sad Canyon.

It was now up to the spirits of the desert.

The moths came the following afternoon. Giant waves of susurrating moths could be seen approaching on two fronts from the arroyos. The postman’s car careened down tortuous town roads like a fuzzy bunny with two windshield-wiped eyes. The town square was a soft undulating nest for a turkey hen the size of eight houses. Quietly buzzing moths covered the Church of San Gabriel’s two stuccoed spires and coated the solid door with soft, riffling fur.

However—and this is where differing interpretations arise—the Abuela’s own house and patio as well as the cart from which she sold her tart drinks on special occasions appeared as if buried under drifts of fluffy sand.

That night, as she intermittently slept the Abuela dreamed of angels coming to her aid. The two angels carried chalices of molten silver and presented her dream self with two golden swords, one called Vengence and the other called Circunspección. The message was, even for a dream, confusing at best.

She awakened to find the moths had invaded the interior of her very own house. How did the she-devil accomplish this feat? Who was the hoodlum, who the violator, whose purpose was evil here anyway! The Abuela was forced to flee to her store.

Her fellow abuelas, including the weaver and the potter, stopped by in the late morning to report that the hotel, with the exception of the drunken gardener’s potting shed, was devoid of moths. The Abuela was incensed. She was finding it difficult to apply the principle of stillness and patience with regard to the spider in their midst (as she would readily admit in subsequent recountings).

Word spread house to house in record time—faster than it would’ve taken to dial the town phone tree. That night at my uncle’s house I imagined I heard a murmurous vibration filling the air above the houses. I believed it was the sound of everyone in the town talking amongst themselves, questioning the meaning of the backfired curse. Shocked. Surprised. Baffled.

That night the Abuela lost her dignity, or, because she had always been considered the wisest muki´ in the town, some say the Devil collaborated with God to test her. Other’s say she lost her mind. My friend’s father, the town’s postal clerk, believes that she went to the church to pray and came across the tesgüino, a corn-based beer used for the Sunday service, and, finding herself thirsty, imbibed, not realizing how disruptive this would be to her spirit of self-control. My uncle Ramos believes she went to the church in search of the brew, having given in to despair thinking she was losing both her granddaughter and her honor. Others believed the Abuela considered it a done deal that the town council would vote in favor of the improvements offered by the L.A. Grandmother and—sure they would pressure her, browbeat her, and generally freeze her out if she chose to retain custody of Carlita over the proposed communal benefits to the town—she meant to drink herself to oblivion. The devout believed she went to the church to ask the pardon of San Gabriel for administering the ancient, heathen Curse in hopes it wasn’t too late to rectify her actions.

She did not know how to drive. That is what her sons said after the fact, but this did not stop her from driving the priest’s jeep through the flimsy gate, into the courtyard of the Hotel Dormilón. The moment she started the car, the Abuela would say years later, the night road turned to velvet and a bright beam shown as if the Moon herself was guiding her from heaven towards the evil interloper. Righteousness gave strength to her feeble old legs allowing her to keep the gas pedal pressed to the floor. At one point she imagined herself cupped in the palm of the Virgin, padded with soft writhing moths.

No one else was hurt, although the ancient fountain built with imported marble and golden glazed tiles, which sat in El Dormilon’s courtyard, required specialized repair at no small cost. The hotel’s occupants were in bed by then, with their fans on, running up tremendous bills for the hotel and causing brownouts at the two town bars as they had for several nights running.

The Abuela cracked two ribs, broke her left tibia, hit her head on the dashboard, and suffered extensive bruising of her face including two black eyes. She was unconscious one week, Sunday to Sunday.

She awoke a calm woman. While not admitting defeat, the Abuela sat up in her bed and directed me, as her interpreter and now, sadly, her body stand-in to pack the small red suitcase Carlita had arrived with. At dusk, after much hugging and crying, as well as the formal placing of a silver locket around the child’s frail neck, I walked hand-in-hand with Carlita up the winding, cobbled road to the hotel.

The transfer was smooth. Carlita did not cry; she seemed dazzled by the Grandmother’s pearls, gold bracelets, and spicy gardenia perfume—a fact I did not disclose to my Abuela.

They say the Abuela’s recovery in the months following was impeded rather than helped by the crayon drawings and photographs of Carlita that the U.S. Grandmother sent regularly from Los Angeles, whether out of guilt or the pleasure of giving graphic jabs of pain to the Abuela.

The people of the town, on their way to the recreation center, or to drop their toddlers off at the new day-care—everyone fresh from their abundant morning ablutions—would regularly stop by the home of the Abuela to leave sweet treats, handmade paper flower bouquets, poems written in flashes of inspiration, or a pot of hot pozole on the front stoop. Every citizen was appreciative of her spunk, her loyalty, and, I would guess, afraid of her wrath.

The Abuela spoke to no one but me the first six months. Thereafter she spoke enigmatically to her fellow abuelas about the brief flame marking the days of man, and forecast vague afflictions to come in the lives of unnamed people. To some these were the mumblings of an old lady.

She emerged from her self-sequestration two years later, to attend the baptism of her grandson, my uncle Paolo’s, firstborn to whom she gifted a hand-crocheted baptismal cap and romper, a costume commented upon by every woman who saw it as inspired by God in its delicacy and seamstress virtuosity. Her newfound qualities of kindness and long-suffering guided her interactions with the townspeople—she cooked meals for the feeble sweeper, repaired the priest’s hassock, rocked the possessed (i.e., colicky) grandniece at midnight, and showed forbearance and generosity toward the sick and stupid. When I asked if she missed Carlita her answer was invariably, “she is connected by a thread from my heart to her heart. In this way she is here, Julio. Never doubt.”

People say that in the matter of the Battle of the Grandmothers, it may have been the wealthy grandmother that won the golden granddaughter who looked exactly like the rosewood Christ child, but it was our mukí, our wise protector, who, despite her possession by the Devil for one single evening, was the true victor. For despite the temptation of riches, she had never for a moment failed to be true to her granddaughter and had bravely stood as tall and straight as the rich grandmother. She never once, in the many years since Carlita was spirited away, admitted that her granddaughter was better off in the land of crazy mothers who show too much cleavage and of grandmothers who dare attempt to buy their own granddaughters.

Though she could not read or write, the Abuela sent a letter each week, penned by me and, when I left for college, by her niece, in which she told Carlita stories of the monsoon rivers cutting deep scars in the land; of the famed Tarahumara, or as they call themselves, Rarámuri, the light-footed ones, whose distance-runners run barefoot or in huaraches while “foot throwing”, that is kicking a ball (the men) or while flinging and catching hoops with sticks (the women); of the beating of goat-skinned drums to keep God from dozing during the vulnerable time before and during Semana Santa when the Devil lingers close by; and, of course, the stories of the many sins of the sinners who’ve brought the Curse of the Moths down upon their heads.

The townspeople tell the Battle of the Grandmothers story with slight variations each passing year, but the aspect of the tale that never changes is this: the Abuela’s purer love ensures that Carlita will be with her in heaven, while the L.A. Grandmother will spend an eternity running in place, or alternatively, as some speculate, circling the sky in her private airplane, never allowed a landing strip in heaven.

As for me, I have lived in the U.S. long enough to know the power of the dollar that lies at the heart of the tale.


I visited Carlita in L.A. one time only, when I was asked to deliver, in person, a gift for her quinceañera—her fifteenth birthday. The Abuela had sewed a traditional costume for her granddaughter: skirt embroidered with pink bougainvillea around the hem (tiny black beads forming the pistils) and an openwork shawl, delicate and shimmering with gold and silver threads. It was an outfit I knew an L.A. girl would never wear.

When I arrived at Carlita’s house, the Grandmother said I would have to visit Carlita at the eating disorder rehab center if I wished to see her, which I did. The Grandmother would call ahead to approve my visit. I drove north out of Malibu in my rented car and waited an hour for her group session to be over.

I recognized the eyes and the silver locket, but not the nervous girl before me whose eyelashes and eyebrows had been picked clean; alopecia is a common occurrence in these disorders. She took tiny sips of water every few seconds, told me she remembered me, and asked why her Abuela had never written to her over the many, long years.

Piles of letters. Intercepted. Does the Devil know no bounds? But of course, being an atheist I know there is no such thing as the devil. It is normally self-interest that drives evil. I regretted leaving the birthday costume with the L.A. Grandmother.

After seeing Carlita, I personally lobbied two years for her return. When she turned seventeen she was “allowed,” to move to El Cielo for a “reconnection with her familial roots,” as the L.A. Grandmother put it. I believe she had had enough of Carlita’s persistent problems by that time.

To her delight my Abuela is now a great-grandmother several times over. Carlita married Manuel’s son who now owns a fleet of three taxis and they are expecting their second child—a boy they will name Julio, after me.

But before I finish the story, I must mention here a natural occurrence that began twenty-one years ago, a few months after the Abuela emerged from her self-imposed isolation.

Peculiar entomological phenomena began to overtake the farms along the southern border of California and Arizona. A slightly variant version of the moth that inhabits my hometown of El Cielo began invading the lettuce, cotton, and hay crops, particularly eviscerating the melons. To this day it affects crops all along the southwestern states. Federal and state Departments of Agriculture have pressed with urgency for research on this peculiar pestilence, but so far there does not seem to be an explanation for the devastation. Scientists have no solutions to offer and fear it will continue to spread west as far as Los Angeles stopping only at the Pacific Ocean. Whether it will proceed north to California’s Central Valley is anyone’s guess.

On a recent visit back home, I spoke to my Abuela of this continuing plague. Tapping me once on the forehead and once on the chest she said, “Certainly even a man with no imagination knows in his heart why the moths have invaded the land of the wealthy Grandmother.” To which she added, “Mi tonto! Más vale tarde que nunca,” roughly, My silly boy! Better late than never.

I am well aware of the human tendency toward apophenia—humans see connections where only random or meaningless data exist. As a scientist, I believe that every occurrence of nature will someday be explained, however far in the future.

As a boy from El Cielo, I have to concede that it may be impossible to explain, much less measure, a grandmother’s love.

Lynn Wiley Grant

Lynn Wiley Grant

Lynn Wiley Grant writes fiction, book reviews, and essays. She works as a developmental editor and volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) representing children in the juvenile court system. She has a BA and MA in English literature, and a BSN in Nursing from the University of Washington, and an MFA in Writing from Goddard College, Vermont. Her work has appeared in Copper Nickel, Pif Magazine, and Minerva Rising.

Lynn Wiley Grant writes fiction, book reviews, and essays. She works as a developmental editor and volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) representing children in the juvenile court system. She has a BA and MA in English literature, and a BSN in Nursing from the University of Washington, and an MFA in Writing from Goddard College, Vermont. Her work has appeared in Copper Nickel, Pif Magazine, and Minerva Rising.

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