On the road home from Barranquilla, I lost my voice. Papa tried to revive me. “Bella sol,” he whispered affectionately to me, calling me the beautiful sun, hoping that a happy response would release from my pursed lips and reassure him that all was alright. But I could not speak. My thoughts raged within me like driving bulls. I did not know how Papa remained so calm. He was so still, so pensive as he maneuvered our rusty pick-up truck slowly and cautiously along the rough terrain leading back to our tomato farm in Pueblo Bosillo.
I wanted to talk; I did. I wanted to scream. I wanted to demand of Papa the true purpose behind these monthly trips to Barranquilla. I wanted to reveal to him that I was not stupid, that I knewsomething was not right, that he was notpaying taxes to the government as he told me and Mama and his sons. I wanted to bang my fists on the faded gray dashboard in frustration at the vibrant images that kept replaying in my mind, that had replayed in my mind month after month after month:
A man with an angry face and jealous eyes would yell at Papa and demand that Papa pay him everything he had. And Papa would give him all that he had in his pockets plus an envelope with more pesos. And Papa would soothe the man with his kind words and loving eyes. He would tell the man to settle down and to rethink his actions and to turn from his negative life.
But the man would just take the money and laugh at Papa. He would laugh loud and tell Papa that he was foolish to believe in God, to know God, to think that living by God’s rules was honorable. The man would ridicule Papa while he counted the pesos that Papa gave him.
Papa would just wait for him to finish. He would just wait for the mocking, rude, angry man to finish counting the money he did not earn, the money that Papa had made from selling tomatoes from our little farm, the money that Papa could have used to send my oldest brother to university or buy new farm equipment. Papa just waited for the man to finish, to pocket the money, to look into Papa’s eyes and tell him that it was enough for now and that Papa had better bring more next month.
Only then would Papa leave. He would take me by the hand and walk out of the building and back to his truck. He would just drive off, not saying anything to me at first, pretending that this was life, that this something he had to endure, that the mysterious mean man was not worthy of explanation. He would just calmly drive down the dusty road leading back to our farm.
On previous trips to Barranquilla, I had talked. I had asked Papa why. “Why did he do that to you? Why do we have to go? Why do you bring me instead of my brothers, Luis or Chū-Cho? Who is that mean man? Why do you endure such mockery?” And Papa would respond by avoiding my questions, choosing to recant silly stories of his countryside boyhood instead. And then my hot questions would fade from my mind as images from Papa’s boyish tales of adventure and courage replaced my serious thoughts. Then when we would finally come home, Mama would hug Papa tightly, then squeeze me against her soft bosom while her eyes moistened with happy tears. Every single month this happened.
Yet this time, something was different. Indeed, the greedy man in Barranquilla was the same. His angry face and jealous eyes were the same. The boiling country sun was the same. Papa’s soft sighs as he climbed back into our truck was the same. It was all the same. Perhaps it was me that was different, for I am a teen Latina, a young woman full of questions and tired of receiving the same answers. Maybe it’s me that was not the same this time.
As we passed by our neighbors’ farms, I felt the warm wind shift slightly. My brown hair twirled in an odd way as I gazed out of the passenger side window. For several minutes, I softly listened to the usual late morning cacophony of farm culture, the melodious tunes of chirping birds, the crunch of wild grass under the paws of wild dogs, the grunts of poor country families pulling and pushing and plucking and cutting and slicing and packing, the grinding sound of roving old farm machines….
In my daze, I suddenly recalled a word that the Barranquilla men had tortured Papa with, traitor. I realized that this word had not been used before by the man in our previous trips. And for some reason, during this trip, he had hurled it at Papa repeatedly.
I turned to Papa wanting to ask him about this word, about why the man tortured him with it, about what Papa did or did not do to deserve such a demeaning slur. But when I looked at Papa, I saw his weathered face and I decided against it. I shifted my gaze back to my window and back to my persistent ruminations.
“Bella sol,” whispered Papa, trying to revive me again.
But I could not respond because I did not want to talk about his fake childhood escapades anymore. I had no desire to laugh at the fantasies my father always created to lighten my mood during these trips. I wanted to ask Papa the truth, but I knew he would never tell me.
And then that is when it happened. Somewhere after the passing of our truck under the old tree that marked the last mile home, I lost my voice. I felt the power of my words, my many, many questions, shift from my mouth and flow through my arms then down into my fingers. It happened so smoothly, so suddenly. By the time we reached our farm, I developed an insatiable, irresistible urge to write.
My high school teacher, Señora Rosano, never sweats. Although she was the best teacher in the school and was always busy with many things, her clothes remained uncharacteristically dry and breezy as if she had just ironed them and put them on that very minute.
In a way, Señora Rosano was out of place in my school in Pueblo Bosillo. Our classrooms were hot and open and sticky with heavy country heat. Our books were torn in many places with many pages missing. Our desks, old. Our chairs, broken. Our principal, always out of breath and apologetic.
But not Señora Rosano. She was young and fresh. Her clothes were clean and pristine, although they revealed her possession of a very limited wardrobe. She smiled easily and always gave an answer to every question. And despite the lack of luxurious amenities such as air conditioners and teacher chairs, Señora Rosano’s forehead was always dry.
One late afternoon, she stood in front of us, scanning the room. Our teacher was looking for a victim, a term she often used when she was about to call on a student. We shifted nervously in our chairs as we tried to avoid her gaze. I looked away when she turned in my direction, hoping she would summon the student behind me, but instead, Señora Rosano called on me. It was the first time this year she called me to the front of the classroom.
“Marisol Vega, please go to the front of the room,” said Señora Rosano.
I obediently stood up from my rickety wooden chair and walked to the spot my teacher was gesturing to. There, I remained poised as my classmates quietly drank in my narrow confidence.
“Marisol, I want you to repeat the main lesson for today,” she continued. “The lesson about courage. We read many books, including the bible, about courage. Please tell the class what you learned from the lesson.”
I cleared my throat before I spoke. My voice was not as strong as it used to be. I did not want my classmates to laugh at me. I suddenly wished I could just write this impromptu speech instead.
“Go on, Marisol. We are waiting. School will be ending soon,” said Señora Rosano.
“Courage is based on strength and trust. You need strength to be courageous so you can do something you have never done before,” I began.
“Very good, Marisol. Go on,” the teacher urged.
“And you need to have trust,” I continued. “You have to have trust in yourself and in God.”
The classroom was quiet as they listened. Señora Rosano was leaning against a paint-chipped wall, smiling at me approvingly.
“To have courage, you have to believe that God will be with you and will do things for you. If you don’t have courage, then bad things can happen. Whatever you fear will come and taunt you and take you away like a boogey man and then you will live in misery and fear and-”
“Eh,” interrupted Señora Rosano, frowning, “Marisol, just keep to the lesson, please.”
I nodded in understanding before resuming. “Courage is something we should all strive to have,” I said. “You need courage to do small things like speak in front of a crowd or stand up to a bully. But you also need courage to do big things like exposing the truth about something, especially something mysterious, or something you know someone is keeping from you and refuses to tell you what it is and-”
“Eh, okay, Marisol,’ interrupted Señora Rosano again, “thank you very much. That was very good. Please return to your seat.”
“But there is more,” I said.
“Yes, well…,” said Señora Rosano just as the bell rang, signaling the end of the school day.
Señora Rosano called after us, reminding us of our homework as we rushed out of the classroom and began our long treks home to our respective farms.
As always, my brother Chū-Cho waited for me under the old tree. He was the oldest child and was very good at acting like a little father when Papa was not around. I waved goodbye to my friends and joined Chū-Cho. Wordlessly, we began the three mile walk home. Papa had always refused to let me walk home by myself out of fear of danger finding me.
“How was school?” asked Chū-Cho.
“Okay. Señora Rosano finally called on me. The first time this year,” I said.
Chū-Cho wrinkled his face. “She did? How did you do?”
“I had to talk about courage. That was the lesson for today.”
“Courage? What did they teach about that?”
“Just stuff about trusting in God and having strength to do things that you’ve never done before.”
“That’s good, Marisol. You need courage in life, especially in this life.”
“What do you mean?”
“Marisol, don’t tell anybody this but Papa told me once that it was very difficult for him to start the farm after Grandpa Vega died.”
“But Chū-Cho, I thought Papa always helped Grandpa on the farm. Why was it so hard after he died?”
“Hah! That’s what we told you so you could stop asking questions. The truth is that after Grandpa died, someone wanted to take the farm from Papa.”
“I don’t know, Marisol. Papa didn’t explain much. He only said somebody was angry that Papa inherited Grandpa Vega’s farm. That person used to harass Papa and call him a traitor.”
“A traitor?” I asked, looking intently at Chū-Cho.
“Papa remembered the man calling him a traitor right after Grandpa died,” he said.
“Do you think that person is still alive, Chū-Cho?”
“No, Marisol. That was in the past. No one has ever bothered Papa for a long time now. Papa told me that as long as he pays the monthly taxes, nothing will happen.”
I did not respond to Chū-Cho. It was obvious he did not know Papa was not paying taxes, though I still did not know what Papa was paying or why.
Then Chū-Cho, recognizing my sudden reclusiveness, abruptly stopped walking, and reached into his pocket to pull out some pesos. “Here,” he said, turning to me. “Señor Gutierrez’s store is just up the way. Go in there and buy some ice cream. I’ll wait for you. Go on.”
“Okay,” I said, taking the money, smiling in thanks.
I gave Chū-Cho my book bag and ran up the dirt road, taking a sharp right near an old farmhouse. Soon, I bounded into Señor Gutierrez’s makeshift convenience store which was housed in a former dilapidated horse stall.
“Señor Pedro!” I said happily as I came in.
Señor Guiterrez, who had long ago ordered me to call him by his first name, Pedro, appeared older since the last time I saw him. Although he was Papa’s age, his hair was completely white. It seemed permanently disheveled with unraveled curls standing on end. His old clothes hung looser on him then they ever did. His large, calloused hands still bore his wedding ring despite his wife’s passing many years ago.
Señor Pedro’s kind eyes smiled at me as he talked. “My daughter! It’s been a long time! How’s school, eh?” he said.
“School’s fine,” I replied. “We have a new tenth grade teacher, Señora Rosano. She’s really good.”
“Very good, very good. How about some ice cream for you?”
“Sure. Here’s the money,” I said, placing the coins on the wooden counter.
Señor Pedro looked perturbed. “No money, Marisol,” he said, waving it away. “Just smile; that is enough for me.”
Then he reached into a small freezer sitting on the counter. It was hooked up to a gas-powered generator, similar to the one we had at home. Señor Pedro pulled out a fudge icicle pop and handed it to me. I immediately unwrapped the treat and took a bite.
“Señor Pedro?” I asked him after some minutes.
“Yes, my daughter,” he replied, leaning against the counter, smiling at me while I enjoyed the treat.
“Do you know anything about someone calling Papa a traitor?”
Señor Pedro’s eyes widened, and his smile died. He wrung his hands before responding. “My daughter, what is this? What are you asking?” he said.
“I don’t know. We were talking about courage in school and when I told Chū-Cho about it, he said there was somebody that tried to take the farm from Papa after Grandpa Vega died. He said that person called Papa a traitor.
Señor Pedro looked intently at me. “Did he say who?” he whispered.
“No,” I whispered back. “Why?”
“Ah, well then, it is just folklore, Marisol,” he said, clearly relieved. “Don’t worry about those things.”
“Tell me what you know about Grandpa Vega,” I persisted.
He sighed as he began to speak. “My daughter, there are many things men do without thinking and the consequences are not always good.”
“Is that why Papa suffers on our trips to Barranquilla?”
Señor Pedro raised his eyebrows. “What do you mean? How is my friend suffering?”
Just then a customer walked into the little store, a local woman with a baby. She smiled and waved to Señor Pedro as she walked to a row of shelves.
“Marisol,” said Señor Pedro, whispering again. “I want you to promise me something. I want you to promise me that you will protect your father by never telling anyone about this man, okay?”
“But Señor Pedro, what about Barranquilla?” I asked. “Papa hasn’t told you about Barranquilla?”
“What about Barranquilla?” asked the woman with the baby. She had chosen her item and was now standing closely behind me, smiling warmly, patiently waiting for her turn to pay.
“Eh, nothing,” said Señor Pedro, smiling to the woman. “I’ll be with you in one minute.”
Then he turned to me, smiling as if pretending we had not spoken of anything serious. “Go, my daughter,” he said laughingly. “Tell your father I just received a shipment of the new work gloves he wanted!”
I reluctantly left, confused at Señor Pedro’s behavior. As I walked slowly to rejoin Chū-Cho, I tried to decipher the mystery behind Señor Pedro’s admonition to me. It was clear he knew much more.
When I reached Chū-Cho, I found him sitting on the grass, staring at the cloudless sky.
“Feel better?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “But I’m not a little kid, Chū-Cho. I don’t need ice-cream to make me happy. I’m sixteen years old, you know.”
Chū-Cho laughed while he stood up, dusting off his pants. “Little sister, you will always be little to me,” he said, smiling, his brown eyes twinkling. “I remember when you used to live for ice-cream. Every time Papa took you on a trip somewhere, he always had to give you ice-cream just to keep you from acting up. I bet he still does, eh?”
“Is that why you think Papa takes me to Barranquilla with him?”
“You were always his favorite, Marisol. You’re his only daughter. I think he just likes to spoil you.”
“That’s not exactly what happens when we go to Barranquilla, Chū-Cho.”
“What do you mean?”
I was stunned at my big brother’s naiveté. It just could not be that he never questioned what Papa did on those monthly trips.
“Chū-Cho, do you think the person who called Papa a traitor could be a relative, a bad relative, like a criminal?”
Chū-Cho stopped and turned to me. He looked at me intently with furrowed brows and clenched jaws. “Marisol, don’t ever say that again!” he growled. “That’s not our family. We are Vegas! We are good people. We don’t have bad people in our family. I know you like to ask questions, but you better keep that to yourself, okay?”
Shocked by Chū-Cho’s sudden aggressiveness, I merely nodded my head yes.
“Good,” he said flatly. “Let’s get home. There’s work to do.”
Night fell softly like black mist. It gently blanketed the sky until all was dark and quiet. We laid in our beds, waiting patiently for tomorrow when we would wake up and toil again. I was the only one in the house who slept alone. My small bedroom, a former pantry, fitted me perfectly. It sat on the far end of our house, behind the kitchen, next to the back door which led to the fields.
Sometimes I listened to the stillness, the crickets, the fireflies, even the delicate creaking of beetles’ feet on the tomato vines. Papa grew bananas, too, and often I would hear the pitter-patter of raccoons stealing a midnight snack.
On this night, my mind was restless. I stared at the ceiling wondering about everything, about Papa, about Grandpa, about the mysterious man in Barranquilla, about our farm. After several minutes, I sat up and searched for my book bag. Remembering I left it in the kitchen, I slipped out of bed to get it. Heeding Papa’s constant warnings to conserve electricity powered by our gas generator, I quickly lit a candle and walked around the small kitchen, searching for my book bag.
When I found it laying carelessly on the edge of the kitchen table, I reached for it, then suddenly heard a sound, like someone yelling. It was coming from outside, from the fields. Shoving my bare feet into Mama’s sandals which she always left near the back door, I took the candle and walked outside.
I heard the sound again. I realized it was the sound of voices arguing. I crouched low behind a row of hedges. Blowing out the candle, I remained still and listened.
“Traitor!” is what I heard. The word was spoken with such venom that I shuddered involuntarily.
“Traitor!” the person hurled again. “That’s who you are!”
“You can still change,” said a man who sounded like Papa. “You can still turn your life around. God will help you.”
“There is no God! You took everything from me,” said the angry voice.
“I took nothing from you. You bowed to evil and that is why you were left with nothing,” said the man who sounded like Papa.
“If you don’t increase the payment, I will destroy you and your family!” said the angry voice.
I blew out the candle, tossed it, then ran towards the voices. They were emanating from an old barn on the far corner of our farm. Papa used to house pigs in it until the last pig died and he converted it into a farm machine warehouse. I boldly flung the barn gate open and thrust myself into the scene.
“Papa!” I cried.
I saw Papa standing next to the man from Barranquilla. Papa was dressed in his old farm clothes while the man was outfitted in all black, like a robber.
“Papa, what’s going on?” I asked, approaching Papa.
“Don’t get any closer, little girl,” growled the angry man. “This is a discussion between your Papa and me.”
Papa put his hand up to me, warning me not to come any closer. “Go back inside, bella sol,” he said softly. “We are just talking. Everything is fine.”
“But Papa?” I said, running to him, wrapping my arms around him.
The angry man stepped back as if confused by my display of affection. He watched us for several minutes before speaking to Papa again.
“Traitor,” he said angrily. “You want peace, eh? There is a price for peace and your payments have been getting less and less.”
“Fine,” said Papa, casually shrugging his shoulders. “Just take the farm.”
The man threw his head back and laughed like a wild Spanish jackal. “This farm was supposed to be mine!” he said. “You robbed me! Now it is nothing but spoiled tomatoes and a handful of black bananas! I don’t want this farm anymore. I want the money!”
“It could have been yours, but that was before you turned away from God. You disgraced yourself. You became a shame with your evil ways. Instead of having courage, you were a coward,” Papa replied calmly, all the while keeping me close to his side.
The man stared at Papa. “You’re calling me a coward?” he asked.
Papa did not respond. He simply stared back, forcing the man to feel uncomfortable and shift nervously.
“I may be a coward,” said the man. “But you’re the one who will run away tonight!”
At that, the man ran to the corner of the born and rolled out what appeared to be a propane tank. He positioned it near the barn doors, then pulled out a lighter from his black jacket pocket.
“No!” cried Papa, realizing what the man was about to do. Papa grabbed me and headed for the back of the barn where Papa had carved out a slim back door years ago. Papa pushed me out and bade me to run. So I ran like the wind, letting my spindly legs carry me across the farm like a gazelle in the African wild. I did not turn back to guage Papa’s distance behind me until I heard an explosion. When I stopped to look back, I saw in the place of our old barn, a large fireball of hay and wood. I did not see the angry man, nor did I see Papa.
Bella sol, long ago in the rural countryside, lived a boy. He was a well-mannered boy who tended his father’s farm with pride and skill. He was poor, but smart. Hungry, but full of laughter. Small, but strong.
One day, when the sun rose to its highest throne in the sky, the boy took a break from his work on the farm. His mother gave him an apple and he sat down under the old tree to eat it. His dog, Perro, sat next to him.
The boy looked around. His father’s farm seemed to go on forever. He could not see its borders from his view under the old tree. All he could see was his father working hard, tilling the soil, singing to God, trusting that God will produce sweet and delicious fruit from his work.
The boy watched his father work. The boy wanted to be just like his father in every way. But then the boy grew tired. He finished his apple. He stood up and dusted his pants. Perro stood up, too.
The boy decided to do what he loved to do on the farm. He found a row of tomato vines. He walked through them slowly, closing his eyes and lifting up his head. He inhaled the sweet scent of the budding fruit. He picked one and gently rubbed its delicate skin. He pressed it to his nose and inhaled again. Then he sat on the ground and bit into the tomato. He shared some of it with Perro.
The boy heard his father calling him. So he finished the rest of his tomato, wiped his mouth and ran to his father. Perro ran ahead. The boy found his father near the house, sitting on a bench, shading the sun from his eyes. The boy sat next to his father on the bench. They looked out at the farm in bloom. The boy loved to see the endless clusters of tomato vines. He licked his lips, thinking of the tomato he just enjoyed. His father seemed to love the view, too. He sighed and wiped tears from his eyes with his sleeve.
When Perro ran off to chase a bird, the boy and his father laughed. They sat, arm in arm, marveling at the beauty of the land. His father told the boy that it takes great courage to be a farmer. He said that a true farmer must be loving; he must believe and worship God; he must trust that God will provide for him; he must have the strength to bend his back and enjoy his work because without faith in God, there is no planting, and without planting, there is no harvest, and without a harvest, there is no farm, no food, and no life.