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Authors: Demetria Martinez

Mother Tongue

BOOK: Mother Tongue
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Publishers Weekly
(starred review)

“A marvelous, quietly epic tale of two alien cultures … Spellbinding descriptive language.”

The Nation

“Thronged with shimmering insights and full of reverence for the power of language.”

The Bloomsbury Review

“Demetria Martínez writes like the poet she is, but also with a novelist’s ear and with the authority of her close knowledge of the life of Central American refugees seeking (and so rarely finding) asylum in this country, and of those who try to help them. She tells a moving, passionate, suspenseful story, which combines romance and political punch in a most unusual and compelling way.”

—Denise Levertov

“Superbly lyrical … A story of strength and love without borders.”

Columbus Dispatch

“I love this wonderful and original novel; I will never forget María, Soledad, and José Luis. I think Demetria Martínez is one of the best, the most poetic, and the most passionate writers of her generation. I was touched by her compassion, and I envy to the depth of me her insights into human behavior, love, atrocity, and redemption. I read the book in one sitting and was so excited that I went right back and started again. Each page contains countless gems. I wish I could write like this, with such flair and gentleness together.”

—John Nichols


Belles Lettres

“Those of us who have read Demetria Martínez’s newspaper articles on the plight of Central American refugees knew her to be a talented reporter. In
Mother Tongue
she displays her gifts as a novelist with a story that touches the heart, and warms it.

—Tony Hillerman

Mother Tongue
brings us into the heart of a woman falling in love with the El Salvadoran refugee she is hiding. It is a lush, rich book fragrant as a mango and brightly colored as a parrot, but it is set firmly and inexorably into the history of our time. In Mary and José Luis, Demetria Martínez has created two fine and believable lovers in a first novel whose impact and power belies its shortness.”

—Marge Piercy

“Demetria Martínez’s
Mother Tongue
is beautiful, taut, deep, and unique, a book that should have been written and ought to be read.”

—Andre Dubus

“Poetry, politics, and no-holds-barred emotions burst from the tiny binding of a notable first novel by poet and activist Martínez.… Striking from the very first line is Martínez’s ability to combine poetic language and imagery with novelistic structure and suspense.… Beautiful writing and astute commentary.”

Kirkus Reviews

A One World Book
Published by The Random House Publishing Group

Copyright © 1994 by Demetria Martínez

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by One World Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

One World is a registered trademark and the One World colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.

The quote by Paul Simon appearing on p. ix is used by permission of the publisher. Copyright © 1986, Paul Simon.

The Roque Dalton quotation appearing on
this page
is from
Poetry and Militancy in Latin America
, published by Curbstone Press (1981). Used by permission of the publisher.

“Mortally Wounded” and a portion of “The Return” are reprinted from
Woman of the River
by Claribel Alegría, translated by D. J. Flakoll, by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
© 1989 by Claribel Alegría.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 98-96098

eISBN: 978-0-307-53861-1

This edition published by arrangement with Bilingual Press



I am indebted to iconographer Robert Lentz for his images of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Mother of the Disappeared. Numerous Chicano and feminist scholars, including David Carrasco and Deena Metzger, have shed new light on the history of spirituality. I am grateful for their work. Finally, I want to thank my parents, Ted and Dolores Martínez, for their faith; and Mary J. Vineyard and Valentina Cruz Dixon, for knowing a story when they see one.

The characters in this novel are fictional but the context is not. More than 75,000 citizens of El Salvador died during a twelve-year civil war, which officially ended in 1991. Most died at the hands of their own government. The United States supported this effort with more than $6 billion in military aid. Declassified State Department documents indicate that officials at the highest levels of the U.S. government knew of El Salvador’s policy of targeting civilians, including Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1980. Those in power chose to look the other way.

Remember us after we are gone. Don’t forget us. Conjure up our faces and our words. Our image will be as a tear in the hearts of those who want to remember us.


This is the story of how we begin to remember This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein



is nation chewed him up and spat him out like a piñon shell, and when he emerged from an airplane one late afternoon, I knew I would one day make love with him. He had arrived in Albuquerque to start life over, or at least sidestep death, on this husk of red earth, this Nuevo Mejico. His was a face I’d seen in a dream. A face with no borders: Tibetan eyelids, Spanish hazel irises, Mayan cheekbones
dovetailing delicately as matchsticks. I don’t know why I had expected Olmec: African features and a warrior’s helmet as in those sculpted basalt heads, big as boulders, strewn on their cheeks in Mesoamerican jungles. No, he had no warrior’s face. Because the war was still inside him. Time had not yet leached its poisons to his surfaces. And I was one of those women whose fate is to take a war out of a man, or at least imagine she is doing so, like prostitutes once upon a time who gave themselves in temples to returning soldiers. Before he appeared at the airport gate, I had no clue such a place existed inside of me. But then it opened up like an unexpected courtyard that teases dreamers with sunlight, bougainvillea, terra-cotta pots blooming marigolds.

It was Independence Day, 1982. Last off the plane, he wore jeans, shirt, and tie, the first of many disguises. The church people in Mexico must have told him to look for a woman with a bracelet made of turquoise stones because he walked toward me. And as we shook hands, I
saw everything—all that was meant to be or never meant to be, but that I would make happen by taking reality in my hands and bending it like a willow branch. I saw myself whispering his false name by the flame of my Guadalupe candle, the two of us in a whorl of India bedspread, Salvation Army mattresses heaped on floorboards, adobe walls painted Juárez blue. Before his arrival the chaos of my life had no axis about which to spin. Now I had a center. A center so far away from God that I asked forgiveness in advance, remembering words I’d read somewhere, words from the mouth of Ishtar:
A prostitute compassionate am I

July 3, 1982

Dear Mary

I’ve got a lot to pack, so I have to type quickly. My El Paso contact arranged for our guest to fly out on AmeriAir. He should be arriving around 4 p.m. tomorrow. As I told you last week, don’t forget to take the Yale sweatshirt I gave you just in case his clothing
is too suspicious looking. Send him to the nearest bathroom if this is the case. The Border Patrol looks for “un-American” clothing. I remember the time they even checked out a woman’s blouse tag right there in the airport—“Hecho en El Salvador.” It took us another year and the grace of God to get her back up after she was deported

Anyhow, when he comes off the plane, speak to him in English. Tell him all about how “the relatives” are doing. When you’re safely out of earshot of anyone remind him that if anyone asks, he should say he’s from Juárez. If he should be deported, we want immigration to have no question he is from Mexico. It’ll be easier to fetch him from there than from a Salvadoran graveyard. Later on it might be helpful to show him a map of Mexico. Make him memorize the capital and the names of states. And I have a tape of the national anthem. These are the kinds of crazy things la migra asks about when they think they have a Central American. (Oh yes, and
if his hair is too long, get him to Sandoval’s on Second Street. The barber won’t charge or ask questions.) El Paso called last night and said he should change his first name again, something different from what’s on the plane ticket. Tend to this when you get home

I’ve left the keys between the bottom pods of the red chile ristra near my side door. Make yourselves at home (and water my plants, please). I’ve lined up volunteers to get our guest to a doctor, lawyers, and so forth for as long as I’m here in Arizona. God willing, the affidavit from the San Salvador archdiocese doctor will be dropped off at the house by a member of the Guadalupe parish delegation that was just there. That is, assuming the doctor is not among those mowed down last week in La Cruz

As I told you earlier, our guest is a classic political asylum case, assuming he decides to apply. Complete with proof of torture. Although even then he has only a two percent chance of being accepted by the United States
El Salvador’s leaders may be butchers, but they’re butchering on behalf of democracy so our government refuses to admit anything might be wrong. Now I know St. Paul says we’re supposed to pray for our leaders and I do, but not without first fantasizing about lining them up and shooting them

Now see, you got me going again. Anyway, we used to marry off the worst cases, for the piece of paper, so they could apply for residency and a work permit. But nowadays, you can’t apply for anything unless you’ve been married for several years and immigration is satisfied that the marriage is for real. Years ago, when Carlos applied, immigration interrogated us in separate rooms about the color of our bathroom tile, the dog food brand we bought, when we last did you-know-what. To see if our answers matched. Those years I was “married” I even managed to fool you. That is, until we got the divorce, the day after he got his citizenship papers. But you were too young for me to teach you about life
outside the law. Which used to be so simple in the old days

Failing everything, we’ll get the underground railroad in place. Canada

Thanks, mijita, for agreeing to do this. The volunteers will take care of everything (they know where the key is hidden), so just make our guest feel at home. Maybe take him to Old Town. After all, it’s not everyone who lives on a plaza their great-great-etcetera-grandparents helped build. I’m glad you have some time, that you’re between jobs. With your little inheritance, you can afford to take a few months off and figure out what to do with your life. But don’t get yourself sick over it. I’m fifty and I still haven’t figured it out for myself. Just trust the Lord, who works in mysterious ways

I don’t know how long I’ll be in Phoenix. My mother’s last fall was a pretty hard one, and if she needs surgery, I could end up here for the summer. Don’t forget to feed the cats and take out the garbage. I’m slipping
this under your door so that if they ever catch me, I won’t have conspiratorial use of the mails added to all the other charges I’ve chalked up. Rip this up! Be careful

Love & Prayers,

BOOK: Mother Tongue
13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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