The new Detroiters and the tourists celebrate the Day of the Dead with plastic beads and cameras around their necks . . . but north of the tracks, where the chickens poke for bugs along the embankment and trains roll through, the backyards are alive with celebration and remembrance.
The new Detroiters and the tourists celebrate the Day of the Dead with plastic beads and cameras around their necks. They climb down from the buses to take pictures of the Ofrendas, altars laid out in storefronts and bars in the Mexican neighborhood near the Ambassador Bridge to Canada. A young Latino waiter serves a blonde-haired faux Frida wearing a peasant blouse and her skeleton-painted companion. They toast each other with neon green margaritas under an adobe arch festooned like child’s birthday party. But north of the tracks, where the chickens poke for bugs along the embankment and trains roll through, the backyards are alive with celebration and remembrance. Bright skeletons cut from jewel-toned tissue paper frame the windows of red brick duplexes. Porches decked out like living rooms stretch down the block in an endless house party. Laughter, the clinking of cutlery and the smells of caldo fill the air. Uncles and cousins sit on the sagging sofas, balancing bowls of hot soup on their knees. They toast Tio Rogelio and Grandma, Abuela Juana, may she rest in peace.
One house was quiet, the porchlight off, and the chiminea cold. Marta lit the candles on the first of November for Itzlali. This year, she placed no carpet of golden marigolds, no shot glasses of tequila for the ancestors. Tonight was la Velación de los Angelitos, for the children. Marta’s hand shook as she placed the candle next to the newest photograph in its bubblegum pink frame, then stepped out to the porch, broom in hand. Across the street, novena candles in their tall glass jars with images of guardian angels and saints lit the dusk with a flickering band of colors, San José and la Vírgen María appeared as a stained glass window shining for la pobre señora Elena’s little son, gunned down by mistake in a drive-by. Marta had never gone to the neighbor’s house to offer comfort or sympathy. She didn’t want sympathy, not from senora Elena, not from the heavy-set Polish woman next door who nodded at her from the front stairs, holding her young daughter’s hands. Two daughters, dressed like twins in matching sashed dresses and scuffed shoes. Two daughters, still alive. Marta wouldn’t put her candles on the porch for the world to see, What happened in her home was nobody’s business, it was a family matter.
Marta rubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand, too angry to let herself cry. Her daughter Yessica had no such compunction, sucking up all the sadness in the house as if she was the only one who felt any grief.
There she was crying again, her birdlike shoulder blades hunched over and trembling. Marta’s lip curled in a sneer as she watched her daughter’s repetitive movements, the constant hair twisting, then the braiding into the heavy winding style of the old timey soldier women from the Mexican Revolution. Yessica was a waste. She spent her days staring dumbly at telenovelas or walking back and forth in front of the window, refusing to close the curtains. She’d make an easy target, Marta thought, like a fall carnival game-that tin duck ratcheting around and around on its elliptical chain. One minute you’d see the duck, the next thing you didn’t, but sooner or later, there it would be again, shining in the early September sun.
Marta pushed past Yessica, shoving her with the laundry basket. Yessica didn’t even startle, but at least she stopped posing in the window, like she was conjuring up the sound of a car racing up the block, and a shower of bullets. Marta could picture the living room window shattering and dissolving into a curtain of shards. Down would go Yessica, and she’d stop sucking all the life out of the house, and then Marta would have no girls, only her son Alfonso, thin and terrified with his glasses and books, not even daring to go down to the corner store. Her husband Pedro was always complaining that things had gotten so much worse since the Southwest precinct mini- station shut down last spring, but Marta couldn’t blame it on that. Yessica looked for trouble.
Yessica should have been in school like studious, sweetheart, Alfonso. Itzlali, God rest her soul, would have been in Honors Geometry and Student Council. Before boyfriends, before Itzlali, Yessica used to be good at school, but then Ms. Marquez, the truant officer from the school had called.
“How long has she been skipping school? And going into the park? What is she thinking?!” Pedro ended the call and turned to Marta. “Because of Yessica and that killer she brought into our lives, the whole family needs protection. She has to be watched at all times.” Pedro slammed his fist on his thigh. “At the park! That’s the worst place!”
Marta knew he’d take charge of the situation, and thank God he didn’t ask her how long Yessica had been messing up. They walked out of the room, together. Pedro moved the chair and opened the bedroom door where they had locked Yessica in. Yessica sat upright on her bed, holding Itzlali’s Beanie Baby, picking imaginary lint from its fake pink fur, Marta ripped it from her hands. “Stop that, you’ll ruin it. Pay attention to your father.”
Pedro looked at Yessica and took a deep breath. “Yessica, it’s time for you to stop going to school, don’t ask when you are going back, who is going to drive you, all that. Just stop asking. You are not going back, ever,” Pedro said, “and it’s final.”
“What?” her voice rose to a shriek.
Yessica had to know something like this was coming, Marta thought; she had to know there’d be consequences.
“You can help your mother in the house, help your aunt with babysitting.” Pedro’s voice was steady.
It was Pedro’s job to be the steady one. Still wearing his green All Seasons Landscaping polo, his fingernails were black with dirt. Marta stepped forward and stood by her husband’s side.
“But, I’m a senior! My VocTech Certificate! My job!” Yessica’s eyes moved from face to face, looking for one of her parents to show some flicker of love or understanding.
“It’s not safe.” Pedro’s voice was flat. “You’re not going, and that’s final.”
Yessica’s chin lowered a fraction, her eyes glittering. There would be no arguing with her father.
Marta glanced at Pedro, emboldened by his words.
“Yessica, don’t forget what you caused the last time you disobeyed us.” Marta crossed her arms over her ruffled blouse, and fingered her ornate golden cross.
This wiped the expression of defiance from Yessica’s face once and for all. She didn’t even look to her father for support. She crumpled, and, as Marta later reflected, that little bitch hadn’t stopped crying since.
Yessica stared out the window at the porch lights of the house down the street, watching for signs of life. Her eighteen-year-old cousin used to hang out with one of the boys there. Yessica imagined walking down there and asking around. “Hey you guys see Dayanira?” Maybe Dayanira had a car and wanted to go to Florida or something. They could get jobs in one of those souvenir shops on the beach; sell seashells by the sea shore, like those sayings Mrs.Julie her ESL teacher always was trying to get them to repeat when she was at Maybury School. Yessica flinched when she heard her mother’s voice coming from the kitchen and looked up to see her holding a soup ladle in her fist like she wanted to club Yessica in the head. Yessica stood, trying to make out what her mother wanted. Her gaze moved up from her mother’s fist to her eyes, not sure what to expect.
“Yessica sweetheart? I’ve got some caldo de pollo for you.”
Yessica heard the catch in her mother’s voice. She’s wasn’t sure if it was a growl or a sigh. There weren’t any clues as to which response Yessica was supposed to provide, penitence for her many sins, or sorrow for her mother’s pain.
“Yes, ok, Mama.” Yessica knew that the answer had to be yes, although she wondered if she’d be able to swallow anything.
“Oh Jesus y María.” Marta was back in the kitchen, muttering again as if no one could hear her.
“Mama?” Yessica peeked into the kitchen. The caldo de pollo pot smelled of scorched chicken, and Marta was back to stirring the bright pink cookie dough. Itzlali’s favorite color was always pink. She had a pink bicycle, a pink Barbie, and little brown hands with pink nails reaching for the pink cookies mama made for her. Even when she had grown into a tall and languorous teenager, she had still favored pink, the color of her dress on her quinceañera, her last birthday.
Yessica pulled her chair up to the table, still grainy with sugar from making frosting and dye for candied sugar skulls, and started in on the last offering for the altar, Itzlali’s cookies. Yessica began forming little pink balls from the dough, placing each one on the baking sheet. She looked at her peeling acrylic nails, the last sign of the person she used to be. Yessica’s shiny blonde hair was overgrown with black roots, and she’d braided it into heavy ropes. Her pierced earring holes were closing over. Vanity was now forbidden, and Yessica’s mother had made sure that Satan got no more booty from this home. Yessica knew that it was her mother’s mission to root out the devil in this house, from now until eternity.
Yessica wondered if she would be rooted out too. Sometimes her mother looked at her, holding a knife in mid-chop or slice as if the last thing on her mind was plunging it back into the roast or chicken of the week. Yessica knew that in those moments her mother wanted to kill her, but the image she had created of herself as the perfect mother was too entrenched, so she telegraphed it with her eyes, a message only for Yessica, no one else: “I could stab you right now.”
Yessica wondered if Itzlali’s killers even knew who she was. Would she recognize la Mafia if they came after her? Did they think that she knew anything about Ricky and his dealings? Yessica had no idea if Ricky was still alive because he’d gone into hiding when his brother was killed execution-style in Dearborn at that fancy hotel right next to Fords World Headquarters.
Her parents paced the floors, locked themselves in their rooms, and discussed the situation. Her brother avoided her questions. He wasn’t allowed to answer. Custom dictated that when a girl disgraced herself she was sent to Mexico to live on the ranch with her abuelos. But this was not an option now. La Mafia was everywhere.
The killers, out there, knew, like everyone in the house knew, the bullet that killed Itzlali, Yessica’s little sister, wasn’t an act of random violence in Southwest Detroit. It was meant for Yessica’s boyfriend, and Yessica had been with him against her parents’ wishes. She was not allowed to have boyfriends, not even boys as friends. Ricky had been willing to overlook her age and her parents’ objections, completely skipping the part when he should have asked her father’s permission to date her. Yessica thought her parents were old fashioned, she didn’t need their blessing. But, ever since that day she had let him take things further, Ricky had been more distant, she could feel it.
“Of course I love you; Te quiero,” Ricky pulled her into him until she could feel him, hard and insistent. “Can’t you feel how much?” She remembered this, and said she believed, just like a Disney movie. But what if she wasn’t the girl with the happy ending?
On the day Itzali was shot, Yessica felt restless. She should have known that it was an omen to stay home, not a sign to go out and try to find Ricky, but he wasn’t calling.
She checked to make sure her phone was charged, checked the ringer. What was Ricky up to? She’d begged to go out. She had to see him.
“Mama, I just want to take Itzlali to Fairlane Center. We want to look at dresses for Itzlali’s Homecoming.” Yessica knew her mother would be unable to resist anything related to Itzlali, especially if it gave her time to stay home and wax the floor again. It’s all she ever did– clean the house and talk about her precious child—Itzlali this, Itzlali that.
“Ok, but go straight there, no stops.” their mother answered.
Yessica and Itzali ran down that stairs of the flat and to the car parallel parked a few houses down. Yessica had the perfect cover to see her boyfriend, but Ricky hadn’t answered Yessica’s texts.
“Going 2 mall w/Lali. Want 2 come w/us?” and, “U there Boo?” She peered down at her phone, glancing up to make sure her mom wasn’t somehow looking down the street at them.
Ricky always answered, even if he was hanging out in the ‘hood with his “associates,” partly to show off. At first she didn’t like it when Tonio or other members of his posse talk about their girlfriends like, “See? This Bitch is all over me.”
But now she considered calling herself Ricky’s “Bitch” was something of an honor. She didn’t want to lose it. She thought Ricky maybe had someone else, an ex-girlfriend, or a new girlfriend. Yessica just had to check. He was so guapo, so stylish with his combed back hair and the three blue tear tattoos. Maybe he would tattoo her name on his arm in a great red corazon. She had to make sure she hadn’t wasted her virginity on someone who wasn’t going to love her forever, and he had to love her forever. She planned to swing by where they hung out on Parkdale Street, and just be chill like, “Hey, want to go for a ride with us?” and not mention that he didn’t answer her texts. She’d overlook that. Yessica knew he preferred to do the texting and calling, but she couldn’t wait. As she and Itzlali climbed into the car, Itzlali was excited, curls bouncing up and down like a little kid’s as she turned on the radio and started moving to the song on the radio. Itzlali squealed. “Beyonce!!”
“Itzlali, get in the back!” Yessica said. “And calm down! We’re going to see Ricky first!” Yessica punched at the radio, trying to find that station that played the love ballads.
Itzlali was a good little sister, she didn’t complain. Itzlali climbed into the back seat and pulled out her phone, her pink nails a blur as she texted her friends in a flurry. “Going to Fairlane. U want me 2 ask Yessie if u can come?”
Yessica didn’t go straight down Michigan Avenue towards the Fairlane Mall. Instead, she took a little detour and turned the rusted 90 Oldsmobile down Livernois Avenue and over to the street where Ricky was “just visiting” the posse that hung out there. Yessica swung into the parking space, barely missing the fire hydrant. “Oh” Yessica sighed, not realizing she’d been holding her breath. No girls. Thank God. Ricky saw Yessica and gave her a casual nod. Was he mad at her? She couldn’t tell. He took a slow swig of whiskey, handed the bottle to his friend Tonio, and got into the front seat, sliding over real close, and slipped his hand under Yessica’s skirt. Yessica knew she should push his hand away, Itzlali was in the back seat, but it was hard telling Ricky no, so she leaned back and closed her eyes.
Itzlali wrinkled up nose at Yessica, and scooted forward, hanging over the front seat. “You got a cigarette?”
They didn’t see the low, dark sedan with the tinted windows as it drove through the back alley, past the little grocery and turned, and idled next to them. Ricky must have sensed something bearing down, a dark shadow looming in the side mirror. He ducked, knocking down Yessica, moments before the tinted windows came down and the shots began, a drive by in the middle of a sunny September afternoon, A half block away, a line of tiny preschoolers in matching blue t-shirts were taking a walk with their teacher, holding onto a bright red rope. They froze in place, then their teacher started pulling them back towards the playground, as the shots fired again and again.
Yessica’s first thought was for Ricky. The car door was hanging open, and his posse had scattered. Yessica wiped the broken glass from the front of her blouse and stared at her hand, blood trickling down. It took Yessica a full minute to realize there was no noise coming from the back seat. She turned around, afraid to see. There slumped Itzlali, smooth as glass and unmoving. Itzlali hadn’t had time to react at all.
“Itzlali!” Yessica cried and climbed into the backseat, gathering her little sister close.
“Itzlali!” Yessica held onto Itzlali and repeated, “It’s OK, It’s OK! Somebody help! Help!” Yessica rocked back and forth. “Itzlali, I’m here! Open your eyes! Itzlali!” Yessica’s blouse was soaked with blood. She heard a tinkling noise and looked up, but it was the ice cream man, pedaling his cart down the street to the school, to sell late summer’s last popsicles to the children as they left school. He glanced at Yessica and kept pedaling.
“Help!” Yessica moaned, and with shaking fingers, tapped out 911, and bent over her baby sister.
Yessica pulled the last of the pink cookies from the baking sheet. They were ready to place on the altar for Itzlali. She wept as she stacked them on the bright blue plate, pyramid style, Itzlali always knew exactly how many cookies there were, and if someone other than her were eating them up. How did Itzlali stay so skinny? She hadn’t even really got hips, yet there she’d stand, right there in the kitchen, crumbs all over her face and reaching for another cookie, another gulp of milk. Even when she was already a teenager she sounded like such a little kid.
“No Yessica, they’re mine! Mami made them for me!” She’d laugh, then pull the plate away from Yessica. “Sike!” You can have one. Then Itzlali would offer the plate, and even though Yessica didn’t even really like cookies, she’d always take one.
Yessica took a deep, shuddering breath. She needed to get out. She had to breathe. Her mother scraped the chicken from the bottom of the pan, hovering and watching. She’d been watching her cry the whole time, but her mother had said nothing, stayed away from her like Yessica was inside an invisible cage, never touching her. Yessica felt clouds of black closing in on her, the kitchen like a dark tunnel..
“Mama, should I take out la basura?” She reached for the garbage bag, tying it off. She stepped away from her mother.
Marta walked over to the back door, looked out the curtained window.
“It’s dark, Yessica.” She checked the deadbolt.
Yessica knew her mother wouldn’t be letting her outside anytime soon, maybe never. Maybe there was someone waiting outside by the garage, and she could have ended it right then, but maybe there was nobody and never would be.
Her feet moved in slow motion, and her mother’s eyes were opaque, expressionless.
“Here. Take the cookies to Itzlali, Yessica.” Marta turned her back. Yessica started toward the altar with the plate, heavy with all things said and unsaid. She wondered how long she could carry it.
And then she knows. She sets down this gift to her sister before the bright pink frame, lightly touching the image of Itzlali’s face. “I’m sorry ‘Lali,” she whispers, “I have to go.” In another photograph her great grandmother, Yessica Hilaria, stares out of the sepia-tinged photograph. !Presente! She’s not frozen in history from the days of the Revolution. Yessica touches her braided hair then back at the woman staring at the camera with fierce eyes. She looks over her shoulder to where her mother is lurking in the kitchen, slips off her house shoes, and pads down the front stairs in bare feet. Fresh air enters the house for a moment before Yessica shuts the door behind her, enclosing it like a tomb.
Elisa Anne Sinnett is a Canadian-American who has spent most of her life in the border town of Detroit, Michigan. She writes fiction set mostly in Detroit, where she raised two amazing humans and currently teaches high school Spanish and English in the City of Hamtramck, Michigan. Her writing has been recognized by Glimmer Train, Friends Journal, Penduline Press, Hip Mama and Stealing Time Magazine.
Debranne Dominguez is an artist and design archaeologist who is currently based in New Mexico. Debranne Dominguez’s photograph “No More Hate” depicts the Southwest neighborhood of our fictional protagonists. Her digitally manipulated piece “Souls Live Forever” captures the deep fear of unprotected children. “Tree of LIfe” is a painting of the cultural and ancestral story of the Latinx in the USA, while “For Itzlali” is a depiction of Debranne’s childhood legends intertwined with Elisa’s story, “Night of the Little Departed Angels”
This is Debranne Dominguez and Elisa Sinnett’s first literary and visual art collaboration. They grew up together in the post 1967 riot landscape of Detroit in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In this dark wonderland they roamed the city creating playgrounds out of dismantling large appliances, and invented their own highly inefficient sign language. They are currently working on their next collaboration.