Cuquita Chulita

By Diane de Anda 

El Paso, Texas, 1925                  

Eh, flaca, más café,” (“Hey, skinny, more coffee,”) called Jorge lifting his cup toward fourteen year old Cuca as she made her way around the workmen’s table with the tin coffee pot.

Cuca tightened her lips as she began to fill his cup, the pressure pushing her bottom lip out in a slight pout. She wanted to ignore them when they called her flaka, walk away to teach them a lesson, but papá would be angry if she didn’t do her job, so she just swallowed the words that she would have liked to return.

Ay, mira la trompa. Tú la insultaste.” (“Oh, look at that pouty mouth. You insulted her.”), said Guillermo in a mock sympathetic tone.

That was all that Cuca could bear. She left Jorge’s cup half-full as she turned away from the table, scurrying from the patio up the porch steps and into the kitchen. Cuca knew she would need an excuse for returning with a pot three-quarters full. She set the pot on the table, excusing herself from the room with a quick, “Me quemé mi mano,” (“I burned my hand,”) as she headed for the bathroom cabinet which contained the bottle of salve they put on scalds and burns.

“¿Necessitas ayuda, m’ija?” (“Do you need help, m’ija[1]?”) offered a concerned Mage.

“No, es casi nada,” (“No, it’s almost nothing,”) Cuca replied closing the bathroom door.

She sat on the toilet seat pondering what to do. She could tell her mother had sent her older sister, Nacha, out with the coffee pot, because she heard the men’s greetings.

“Oye, Bella, una tacita, por favor.” (“Hey, beautiful, one little cup, please.”)

“Nacha linda, ven aquí.” (“Pretty Nacha, come over here.”)

She knew they would only address her and her sister this way when there were no men of the family around, her father, el maestro[2] to them, or Nacha’s husband. The men were playful, not disrespectful, but their father was a serious man and a man of few words. When he sat at the table, meals were eaten in silence. Nacha’s husband was accustomed to men noticing his wife, to comments on her beauty from both men and women, but these were his father-in-law’s workmen, and he would have expected them to keep their place.

Nacha felt secure in her place as a married woman and the daughter of el maestro, so she just filled the coffee cups without a trace of acknowledgement and left the pot with the remaining coffee on the table.

Meanwhile, Cuca rubbed a spot on her right hand near her index finger over and over again until it became bright red. Then she took the metal can of salve from the cabinet and dabbed it with the sticky beige potion.

* * * * *

Cuca went to the newsstand every afternoon to pick up a newspaper for her father. The old woman who ran the stand was a friend of the family. El Maestro had built the stand for her and her husband many years ago, and he had fixed the roof and the locking gates for free after her husband died, and she had to run it by herself. In gratitude, she let Cuca take her father a newspaper each day for free along with any left over magazines she wanted that hadn’t sold the previous month.

Cuca couldn’t read the English magazines very well, having left school after the fourth grade. But she loved looking through the magazines with all the women in fancy silk and satin dresses with their bobbed hairdos, waves and little spitcurls surrounding white faces and lips painted red into perfect little bows. Her father scoffed at the pale, painted women. “Mujeres de la calle,” (“Women of the street,”) he called them. Their women were born with color on their faces, did not need to disgrace themselves with paint or cut their hair like men, he said. Indeed, the women in the family rarely cut their hair, her mother’s hair hanging in gentle waves below the curve of her buttocks, but always neatly rolled into a molote[3] at the nape of her neck. Nacha wore her long redish brown hair in a twist at the top of her head like the Españolas[4] or braided and crossed on the top of her head if she were going to do some work that needed a sturdier hairdo.

Cuca always wore her dark hair in braids, hanging down with ribbons when she was younger, but now approaching young womanhood, pinned in a crisscross across the crown of her head. She was thin and petite, her skin a chestnut to her sister’s golden caramel, so she piled the braids high to make herself look taller and more woman than girl. On Sundays, the high braids would hold up the short white mantilla[5] she wore to Church like the peinetas de las Españolas[6], she thought, her once a week claim to some look of sophistication.

Today there were women in the barbershop, two brown haired Anglo women in their twenties. From outside the barbershop window, Cuca could see one holding a hand mirror at arm’s length, studying her new bob. Little waves rippled along the oval curve of her face. She puckered her lips and blew the mirror a kiss, and both she and her friend laughed. Cuca didn’t realize she had been standing still staring until they came out the door and gave her a raised eyebrow glance, then burst out giggling again. Cuca suddenly felt ashamed of her little girl braids across her head, her cotton blouse tucked into the waist of her long, full-gathered skirt. They turned away and walked down the block, their waistless chemise dresses rippling their shiny fabric, their knees and calves boldly exposed.

* * * * *

The week was filled with women’s tasks. The floors needed sweeping and scrubbing, and the carpets beaten on the line before they could cover the floors again. The laundry kept the scrub board singing its monotonous melody for days until the bed linens and towels were replaced and the clothes not on their backs blowing on the backyard clotheslines. And the food preparation for the workmen and the family never ended. The only part Cuca looked forward to was the weekly gathering they had in their home to share some of the more complicated food preparation tasks. Two of the neighbors, one with a daughter one year older and the other with a daughter one year younger than Cuca, would come, and they’d all join in the task. They would make tamales or trays of enchiladas together, but the most hateful task was the killing, and especially the plucking, of the chickens that roosted in pens in their back yards. After a quick splash of the headless chicken into a pot of boiling water, it would take a good hour or more to yank off the feathers and dig out any remaining quills, one at a time. But that was also the only time, besides fiestas for bautizos,[7] bodas,[8] or holidays, when the women could take the time to gather and enjoy each other’s company, talking and laughing in their separate age groups.

Before the girls left, they slipped into Cuca’s bedroom to look through her latest magazines and into a world far removed from their own. As faces, all Cupie doll and Betty Boop, smiled across the pages they turned, Cuca described the two women she had seen at the barber shop, omitting the look of disdain they had cast toward her. Cuca lifted up her skirt and showed her thin, bony knees when she described their dresses, and the two girls covered their faces and giggled.

* * * * *

The next day, before Cuca left the house for her afternoon foray to the newsstand, she took a scarf, a picture she had torn out of one of the magazines, and a silver dollar she had received as a gift for her Confirmation, and stuck them into her cloth, pull-string purse. The walk to the stand seemed longer today, as she kept going over her plan, thinking of what she was going to say to the barber, who didn’t speak Spanish.

First she stopped at the newsstand and picked up her father’s newspaper. It was too early in the month for the magazines to be outdated, so she rolled up the newspaper and said her thanks. Without a word, Cuca turned and walked toward then entered the barber shop, not glancing back to catch the astonished look on the newsstand woman’s face or note that she positioned herself to watch through the barber shop window.

Cuca pulled open her purse, reached in, and took out the silver dollar and the photo. “Please,” she said as she handed him both.

The barber grabbed them both as they fell from her hands in the awkward exchange, then stopped and quietly studied her for a few moments. Although he cut mostly men’s hair, he did do the women’s new bobs too. But he had never seen a Mexican girl with a bob, much less cut one.

“Are you sure?” he asked, looking at her earnestly

“Please,” Cuca repeated, not completely comprehending the question.

“Okay,” he responded, taking her answer as an affirmation of her request.

The chair was comfortable, and she felt modestly covered by the cloth bib he placed over her. But the touch of his fingers unraveling her braids made her feel strangely uncomfortable. A man had never touched her hair before, much less an Anglo man. He had given her back the picture to hold, and now she focused on it intently, making herself oblivious to the process by concentrating on the transformation she envisioned. The single mindedness that often got her in trouble at home, that unseeing, unhearing push toward her desire, eased her through the process, and before she was aware of it, the barber had finished and was handing her the mirror.

She stopped breathing as she beheld her image for the first time. She leapt from the chair and turned the mirror to see from different angles. She lowered the mirror and moved to the larger mirror on the wall to look at the exotic beauty that called to her from the glass. She tried to pucker her lips like she had seen the young woman do the other day, but only managed to force her bottom lip out instead in a childish looking pout.

“Here, Miss,” the barber interrupted. “You paid me too much.” And he handed her a fifty-cent piece.

Confused, she took the coin and said one of the earliest English phrases she had learned, “Thank you.”

¡Ay, Cuquita! ¡Ay, Chamaka! ¿Qué hiciste?” (“Oh, little Cuca! Oh, little girl! What have you done?”) cried the newsstand woman when Cuca walked out of the barber shop. “Dios te bendiga,” (“God save you,”) she muttered and blessed herself making small crosses with her thumb on her forehead, lips and above her breasts.

Hearing the blessing said in such ominous tones, Cuca pulled her scarf out of her purse and quickly covered her head, tying a soft knot under her chin. She hadn’t let herself plan past this point, hadn’t let herself think of what papá and mamá would say. She figured she would have time to work it out later. And now that she looked beautiful, she felt everything would just fall into place. She kept the scarf on so no one would see and tell them ahead of time. So they would know when they saw her for themselves, beautiful for the first time.

When she reached home, it was time to help serve the midday meal for the workers. She entered the kitchen, slipped on an apron, and picked up a platter of carne asada[9] to take out to the patio. Her mother turned and noticed the scarf.

“¿Porqué tienes el pañuelo?” (“Why are you wearing the scarf?”) she queried.

Siento un poco de frio,” (“I feel a little cold,”) she replied quickly and slipped out the door.

As she approached the table, she reached up with one hand and loosened the knot at her neck. The scarf shifted and slid down to her shoulders. Two of the men had heard the door slam behind her and looked up to see the sudden unveiling. Caught by such an unexpected spectacle, they said nothing until she had reached the table.

Cuquita Chulita, ay mi corazón,” (“Pretty little Cuca, oh my heart,”) Raul sputtered, clutching at his heart.

“Cuquita Chulita, angel de mis sueños,” (“Pretty little Cuca, angel of my dreams,”) chimed in Jorge.

By this time, all five workers had noticed her transformation and were muttering audible and inaudible approval when the side gate opened and all fell silent.

El maestro stood inside the gate, frozen, staring at his daughter and the men seated at the table. Silence hung heavy in the air, holding them all suspended for a few moments as though caught in a vacuum. Finally, el maestro moved forward, his eyes unwavering from his daughter’s ashen face.

“Vete adentro,” (“Get yourself inside,”) he whispered to her. “Apurate!” (“Hurry up!”) he shouted as she turned toward the kitchen door. He walked past the table as though the men were invisible.

¡Madre purisima! ¿Hija, qué hiciste?” (“Purest mother[10]! Daughter, what have you done?”) the men heard Mage gasp as Cuca entered the kitchen.

* * * * *

Mage tasted the salty tears that rolled down her face as she wrung the towel above the basin of warm water then placed it gently across the rows of welts her husband Pedro’s belt had raised across Cuca’s back and buttocks. She winced as Cuca’s frame jolted suddenly at the touch, them relaxed into the soothing warmth, her crying muffled into the pillow where she buried her face.

“M’ija, m’ija,” Mage cooed as she caressed the strangely bare head, missing its usual crown of braids.

It had been several hours now since she and Nacha had cried in unison, begging him to stop, since Cuca had caused him to stop by vomiting repeatedly in response to the pain, that he had turned and walked out of the house without a word.

Mage and Nacha had called the curandera[11]. Concha had prepared the warm herb water, had knelt with them in prayer, had left the blessed candles and the salve they would put on before she slept for the night.

When she heard the front door open, Mage called Nacha to take charge of the soothing towels while she went to see her husband. It was clear when she found Pedro sunken in the big arm chair that he had spent the last few hours drinking.

Mage stood in front of the chair and looked down at him as she spoke, “Está en la cama. Concha vino.” (“She’s in bed. Concha came.”)

“¿Qué querías que yo hiciera? Un hombre tiene sus responsabilidades. Tengo que protegerla de la calle.” (“What did you want me to do? A man has his responsibilities. I had to protect her from the street.”)

The word proteger[12] stung on his tongue. Unlike others, he had never struck his children. Now he had, even worse, a girl child. His wife could see he had drunk for hours, but she did not know he had vomited yellow bile into the street over and over again, his body shaking as he wretched to the image of each lash.

“¿Y como vamos a protegerla ahora?” (“And how are we going to protect her now?”) his wife countered.

Pedro knew what she meant. How would they protect her from what others would think if they saw her hair cut like the loose women of the street. She could wear the scarf some, but not all, of the time; people would also talk then as only gitanas[13] did that. She could wear a thick, dark mantilla to Mass, but she would have to stay inside for weeks until her hair grew, and it would take months before it would be long enough again for trenzas[14].

Then Mage whispered her idea to Pedro. He cupped his wife’s hands in his and kissed them tenderly, signaling his sad agreement. Mage stood up and walked over to the sewing basket. She reached in, took out a pair of scissors, and disappeared into the bathroom.

About fifteen minutes later, she walked from the bathroom straight into the bedroom where Cuca lay in a dreamy half-sleep. She would tell her the whole plan later. She just wanted her to have some sense of hope, that everything was not completely undone, before she drifted off to sleep.

“M’ijita, mira, tengo algo aquí para tí.” (“My little girl, look, I have something here for you.”) Mage spoke in a soothing tone to Cuca as Nacha looked on. She placed a perfect little molote on the pillow next to Cuca’s face.

“Mamá, no!” cried Cuca in a weary voice.

“No te preocupes. Tengo más pelo del que necesito. Mira, todavía tengo mi molote, nomás es un poquito más fino.” (“Don’t worry yourself about it. I have more hair than I need. Look, I still have my molote; it’s just a little thinner.”) Mage smiled. “Vamos a peinarte y poner el molote atrás y nadie va saber nada. Además, es tiempo de estar sin trenzas y tener un molote de mujer.” (“We will comb your hair and pin the molote in back and no one will know. Besides, it’s time for you to be without braids and have a woman’s molote.”)

And the three women smiled at each other through glazed and loving eyes.

* * * * *

It was three days before Cuca had the strength to get out of bed. The curandera had visited again and brought poultices that helped the welts and bruises fade and the aching muscles rest.

Cuca knew she would have to cover her head with the scarf and stay in the house until her hair grew long enough to pull back and attach the molote. As she rose, she lifted the scarf from the chair alongside the bed, folded it into a triangle, and carried it to the mirror on the wall. Before she slipped it on her head, she took a long look in the mirror.

Cuquita Chulita,” she said and smiled.           

                                             

[1]    m’ija is a contraction of mi (my) and hija (daughter), used as a term of endearment

[2]    litterally, the master, indicating he was the master carpenter and their boss

[3]    a loose bun created by rolling the hair around in a circle, usually worn at the nape of the neck

[4]    Spanish women

[5]    a lacy veil

[6]    tall, decorative combs of the Spanish women

[7]    baptisms

[8]    weddings

[9]    beef, cut up and fried in a hot, spicy sauce, usually with onions, tomatoes, peppers, etc.

[10]   reference to the Virgin Mary

[11]   folk healer

[12]   protect

[13]   gypsies

[14]   braids

______________________________________________________________

Diane de Anda, MSW, Ph.D., is Professor Emerita in the Department of Social Welfare at UCLA. She served as editor of the Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work for twelve years, has edited four books dealing with issues related to ethnically diverse populations and has published numerous articles in scholarly journals on issues of adolescent populations. She has authored two cognitive behavioral programs: Violence Prevention for Adolescents and Stress Management for Adolescents.

She has also continued to write and publish literary works over the years. Her short stories, essays, and poetry for adults have appeared in Rosebud, Straylight, Storyteller, Saguaro, El Grito, Pacific Review, Frogpond, Modern Haiku, Bottle Rockets, Presence and others. She recently was runner-up in the X.J. Kennedy Essay Contest 2013. She has also published four picture books, three collections of short stories, and poetry for children, a number of which have won multiple awards. Several of her satirical articles have appeared in Humor Times and Satire and Comment. Her bicultural background, as a third generation Latina, is often evident in her work.

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