The Language Of...
Author's note: We were given a project to do that would inform others what it was like to be Mexico in the midst... Show full author's note »
The Language Of...The Language Of…
Sometimes, no matter where we’re from, we all speak the same language.
When I first laid eyes on Celestina Arriaga, I had a number of reactions. My first was shock – shock that such a quiet, innocent looking girl could be brought up on heinous charges such as drug smuggling and murder. She had to be about fifteen or sixteen, maybe seventeen. Didn’t even look old enough to know how to spell cocaine, let alone hide it and try to sneak it over
And who would, being frowned upon when they were innocent in a city like this? On my way in here, I’d have three cops stop me and ask if I had any connections back home in America. “I’m a lawyer”, I had hissed. “My job is to make sure everyone abides by the law, not break it. Have some decency”. Much to my fury, they had snorted at me and laughed. Snorted, like I was some teenager trying to convince them that I was right and they were wrong instead of a lawyer working on a case that, if the charges were cleared, could put their city in the headlines for something good for once; maybe even clear its name somehow. They didn’t look convinced and neither does Celestina. Her knees are drawn up to her chest and she has her skinny little arms wrapped around them as if she’s cold, even though it’s easily a hundred degrees in here, maybe more. Her hair falls between us, making a dark curtain that conceals her face. Doubt overcomes me. What if I was wrong and I couldn’t get her to talk? What then? The guard outside of the door had warned me about this. “I would not count on her speaking, Senorita. She is not much of a talker unless she is around her Brother, but he’s got thrown in solitary confinement for starting a fight last night. I doubt you’ll get anything” he’d said. But of course, I’d proudly informed him that I would, thank you very much. It looked unlikely as of now, but still I had to try.
“Hi there. I’m Delia. Delia Smith and I’m going to be representing you during your trial. You must be Celestina Arriaga” I said, feeling awkward. But hey, it was worth a shot. She didn’t look up at me. Didn’t even seem to breathe in response. I decided to try a more direct approach. I walked around in front of her and squatted so that we were at eye level. “I’m Delia Smith”, I said again. “And I’m here to help you and your brother. You’re his sister, Celestina, aren’t you”? This time she has no choice but to look at me. When our eyes meet, I wish she never had. It looked like somebody had lit her on fire from the inside but she couldn’t scream, like she found out the one thing that meant everything to her didn’t exist and she had nothing left to live for. I couldn’t even see the shadow of the vibrant girl she probably once was. It was like she never existed in the first place. She averted her eyes from me and mumbled something. “I’m sorry”? I asked, leaning closer.
“Hola. Cuantos anos tienes”? She repeated, looking at me somewhat expectantly. Dear God, why did I slack off so much in Spanish class back when I was in school? She’d lost me after Hola. I know what you’re thinking: Why on Earth would I come to Mexico if I hardly knew a lick of Spanish? One, because this case means a lot to me and two, because I’m not the type of woman who takes no for an answer or lets flimsy barriers like language stand in my way. “I don’t…I’m sorry, I didn’t get very much out of that apart from where you said hello” I admitted. Celestina’s lips twitched, as if she was fighting a smile or a smirk. Probably the latter. “I asked you how old you were. You look muy joven – very young – to be a lawyer” She drawled in a thick accent. I noticed her blush a bit when she spoke. Was she embarrassed by it? I wondered. “I’ll be thirty six next year. What about you”? I asked, happy she had spoken to me instead of giving me that awful look. “I’m sure you know all about me. My brother too. It’s probably tucked away in one of those little files of yours and just because you can remember what’s printed about us on a piece of paper, you think you know us” She answered bitterly.
Once again, I was at a loss. “I don’t think I know you at all, but I sure would like to get to know you and your brother. We’re going to be spending a lot of time together, you know. I’d like for us to be friends” I said. She laughs a short, humorless laugh. “Us? Friends? I think you and I both know that that won’t be possible”. She probably thought that I was corrupt like them and I didn’t blame her. Life had to be tough when you couldn’t even trust your own law enforcement. That was a problem, even back home in America; maybe even everywhere. “Nothing is impossible, Celestina”. This time I look directly into her eyes and I don’t flinch away from the waves of loneliness that seem to pour out of them. Like the cops outside, she snorted and turned away from me and that was that. I honestly think it would have been better if she wouldn’t have spoken at all.
“I’m telling you, Babe, she hates me. We haven’t even known each other a day yet and she can’t stand the sight of me! You should have seen the way she looked at me when I tried to get to know her; it was like she wanted me to drop dead or something”! I ranted into the phone. It was hours later and I was settled as comfortable as I could get in my hotel room. Around others, I’m a power suit wearing, action demanding dynamo that stops at nothing to get what she wants. When I’m alone or at home with my husband, Phil, it’s a completely different story. It’s there that I can kick off those disgustingly expensive Italian shoes, let my hair down, and be myself. I miss that so much right now it’s unreal. “Oh, she does not hate you. Give the kid some time – she just met you. With all the crazy stuff going on down there, would you trust a lawyer? Or anybody who says they want to help you for that matter? She’s just as freaked out as you are” He told me. “When you put it that way…” “It actually makes sense. She’ll warm up to you eventually. In the mean time just keep on being nice to her and she’ll thaw out. How’s the Brother”? I sighed. “Haven’t met him yet. Apparently he’s stuck in solitary for a day for starting a fight or something. I hope to God I see him tomorrow. Maybe he’ll be easier to deal with”.
“I don’t know about that. Boys tend to be more aggressive than girls”- “You sure know how to reassure a person, you know that”? Phil laughed. “So that’s what they call it these days? I’ll have to make a note of it. Anyway, get some rest. You have a big day ahead of you tomorrow”. I twirled the phone cord around nervously, like I was sixteen instead of thirty six. Old habits die hard, I guess. “I can hardly wait” I muttered. “I can hardly wait until you get home. I miss you so much. And remember, I can fly down there if you need me. I’m on call twenty for seven, three sixty five” he informed me. I couldn’t help but smile.
“I love you” I told him, wishing more than ever that I could say it to his face. I realized now that I’d been taking our time together for granted. What I wouldn’t give for another five seconds at the very least! “Don’t be sad”, he said as if he could read my thoughts. “This’ll be over before you know it; I promise you’re doing a good thing, Delia. I’m proud of you”. I took his praise and stored it in my mind right then, so that it would stay with me when the going got rough. That didn’t take long – no sooner than I hung up and lay down, sharp cracks began splitting the air. I shuddered once I realized what they were: gunshots. I drifted off after a few hours, playing Phil’s words over and over in my head. I’m proud of you, Delia…
“Ay, Dios mio”! At first I think that this is a dream, the sound of the woman screaming. It had to be ; there was no way that such an anguished sound was capable of coming from a real, live human being, not even in Hell. I turned over, hoping to dispel the imaginary noise. Then the shouts turned into throat ripping wails of despair. I had never heard anything like it, and let me tell you, pray to God that you never have to hear it. For some odd reason, they reminded me of Celestina, of the screams she seemed to be so violently trying to suppress. I bolted out of bed and over to my window. There was a woman in the road in front of the hotel, hunched over something. No, someone. The world suddenly titled sideways on his axis. Somebody had been killed out there. Of their own accord, my legs sprinted out of my room, then down the stairs and out of the door, and then I was in the road. Suddenly I was so close to the woman that my I could feel her shaking. She didn’t quit sobbing when she heard me approach; it only seemed to sadden her even more. I didn’t know what to say to her. Didn’t even know if we spoke the same language. But I knew that I had to do something. So I did. I knelt down beside her and lay a hand on her shoulder. She collapsed into my arms and began that awful wailing again, but she clung to me as if she was grateful that I came to her. Compassion – it’s a universal thing. Sometimes words don’t have to be spoken to get your point across. The other person just knows. We sat there holding each other, that woman and I. And even though she was the one in distress, it felt as if she was trying to comfort me. The authorities arrive with the rising of the sun, which miffs me, but I don’t speak on it. They had probably been out all night, taking care of other chilling scenes like this one, only in the other ones; the grieving woman wouldn’t have had somebody. She’d have been alone, I realized sadly. Everyone else was either too scared or too indifferent to come see what was going on.
I recognized the cop who’d sneered at me and his pals as they lifted the young man’s body onto the stretcher and put him in back of the ambulance. They looked resigned, almost bored, even when the woman insisted in Spanish that rode in back of the vehicle with them. And the look in her eyes…just like her screams, I’ll never forget it. The look was tired and resigned, like an animal being led to slaughter but choosing not to fight it because it was inevitable. Is that how they all felt here? Like losing your loved ones was inevitable? I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night after that.
In the morning, the old guard spied the dark circles under my eyes. “Rough night, si”? He inquired sympathetically. “Very. I hardly slept” I croaked. My voice was thick with sleep deprivation, and I wasn’t sure that I would ever sleep again after last night. He gave me a knowing look and sighed. It was the resigned animal sigh, and it broke my heart clean in two. “How does anybody here ever get used to this – all of the killing and the violence? How do you stand living here when it goes on everyday”? I didn’t realize that I was crying until, to my surprise, he hugged me. “You don’t. As of late, such things are facts of life. Our people, we’re muy fuerte – very strong – and we will overcome this just as we have overcome the other troubles we’ve encountered” He told me. He handed me something white and small. It took me a minute to grasp what it was: a handkerchief. I dabbed my eyes and extended my hand to give it back, but he shook his head. “Keep it”, he said, opening the door. The conclusion to his statement hung above us like a two ton lead safe: You’ll need it. When I entered the room, Celestina was the same as yesterday. Knees up to her chin, her eyes vacant and staring, this time at the wall. “Buenos dias” I greeted her, setting my briefcase down on the floor. I had heard people saying it to one another in the lobby; it seemed nice enough. Surprise flickers across her face for a moment, but she quickly composed it and grudgingly echoed me. If I was any other person, I would have given up right then and there. I would have picked up my briefcase, turned on my heel, and stalked out of the door without so much as a goodbye. But I’ve never been any other person. Instead of leaving, I grabbed the chair next to her and pulled it out in front of her, and then I sat so that we were face to face. “Celestina, do you like games”? I asked. She gave me a blank stare. “Oh, c’mon, everybody likes games. What do you say we play one, to get to know one another”? Celestina shrugged.
“Great. Okay, here’s how it works. I ask you a question and you answer me, but with a question, okay”? “Vale” she replied emotionlessly. “What does that mean”? I asked for a start. “It’s a Spanish term for ‘okay’. Why do you want to know”? She demanded. “So I can understand what you’re saying and get to know you better. Why don’t you want me to get to know you”? She looked taken aback. “I never said that. Why would you think that”? “It was implied in the way you acted towards me yesterday. I’m here to help you, not you hurt you. You know that, don’t you”? For a moment, her hard exterior fades away. All of her carefully built walls came tumbling down, and I see something in her eyes. Not hope, but the ghost of it, like she is daring herself to do such a thing. I opened my mouth to speak, but she quickly turned away. “Celestina? What’s the matter”? Had I said something wrong? She shook her head. “I don’t want to play this game anymore” she said, and something told me that it wasn’t just about that. She meant everything. Suddenly she looked five thousand instead of a mere fifteen. I lay my hand on her shoulder to show her I understood. We remained that way until my time with her was up.
The next few weeks settled into a maddening, monotonous routine. I’d wake up insanely early and drive down to the courthouse to meet Celestina, and she would say two words to me and go back to being sullen. I asked about her brother, but she didn’t give me anything on him. Even the guard was unhelpful, always making some excuse about him starting a fight. “Every day”? I’d demanded incredulously of the guard one morning. “How violent can one person be”? But he hadn’t answered me in the slightest. I was beginning to get really frustrated. I felt like I was getting nowhere, with Celestina not talking to me. The start of the trial was looming closer and closer, and I had nothing but murder statistics to go off of and an unresponsive client. The prosecutor was going to eat me alive. Unless…Unless I did something about the situation myself. That was when I decided what I was going to do. I would go to the prison and find this brother of hers myself.
When my Mother said not to judge a book by its cover, she was right. When I first pulled up outside of this prison, I’d almost thought that I was in the wrong place. It was so nice. It almost looked like a palace. If I wouldn’t have known better, I’d have thought it was a palace, save for the barbed wire fences and guards. Even though I’m this kid’s lawyer, I still have to get searched even though I told them that I was the last person in the world who would bring him drugs. I was the person who was supposed to spring him for possessing them, so why would I put him in jeopardy? But they insisted, and after much protesting agreed to it. Half an hour later I was in the prison’s makeshift conference room, waiting for him. After all that I had been through, he had better be able to show up. If he wasn’t, I would go visit him in his cell myself. I needed answers, and I needed them now.
I already had what I would do planned out. I would ask him questions instead of firing facts at him. I would believe him and actually listen. And I wouldn’t mention plea bargaining unless he wanted to. An electronic buzzer sounded, a door opened, and in came a man in an orange jump suit. He was the polar opposite of Celestina. Not in looks department, but in the demeanor. Despite the guards clutching to his arms, he seemed to skip over to the table we would be sitting at. His brown eyes were bright, mischievous. Like he was dying to have a good time but wanted me to initiate the fun first. He smiled at me as he sat down. “You’re Dario Arriaga”? I asked, even though I knew. I’d read and memorized both files before I’d even come to Veracruz. “The one and only”, he replied coolly. “And you…you’re The Help”? The what?! “If by ‘the help’, you mean your help, then yes, I am. I’m Delia Smith, and I’ll be getting your freedom” I said confidently. He barked a laugh. “You’re so confident of yourself, like it’s possible. Whatever you’re on, I’d sure like some”. “Everything is possible, including the truth. Now, I need to know”- I never got the chance to finish because he was suddenly in my face.
“If there is anything in this world you do not call me, it’s a liar” he snarled at me. I swear to God, my heart stopped. “No one’s calling you a liar! When did you hear me say that”? I nearly shouted, praying for somebody to intervene before he killed me. Just as quick as he sprang at me, he’s standing upright. “Never”, he answered amiably, as if I’d asked him if he’d ever had caviar as opposed to practically begging him not to kill me. I looked up as I made my way back to my seat to see that not one of the guards had moved. What kind of prison was this, anyway? It was stupid of me to come here. Dario gave me a long, considering look. “You’re right, you know. It was stupid of you to come here. Not just to the prison, but to Mexico, period. You can’t help us. You don’t even know what it’s like” He sneered. I narrowed my eyes at him. “And you don’t even know what I’m thinking right now” I challenged. “Try me” he challenged right back at me. I glowered at him and opened my briefcase. “I’m not here to play games, Mr. Arriaga. I’m here to get answers because Celestina refuses to talk to me. May I remind you that your trial date is in less than a week and unless I get some answers, we’re all in serious trouble”?
“Oh, so I’m Mr. Arriaga now? What is it with you people? Why can’t you just give it up already? I know good and well that you don’t want to help me or my sister. You just want me to snitch on somebody quickly so you can get back to your cozy little American life. That’s what you’re thinking” He drawled angrily. I wanted to throw my brief case at him, but I knew if I did then I would be spending the night in a cell right along with him. I leapt to my feet and threw my hands up, exasperated. “You’re right”, I exploded. “I don’t want to help you or Celestina! I only came down here so that I could work on my tan. That’s right; I spent all of my hard earned money and risked my marriage falling apart because of the distance because I didn’t care. In fact, I only came here to taunt you. I could give less than a crap what happens to you. I just want to go home”. Now it was my turn to snort at him. Much to my fury, Dario started laughing. Laughing. “What is so FUNNY”?! I demanded, literally two seconds away from storming back to my car.
“It’s just that when you put it that way, it sounds ridiculous. ‘To work on your tan’…hah”! “So first I’m an uncaring traitor and now I’m a riot, huh”? My sour tone was enough to wipe the smirk off of his face. “C’mon, lady, don’t take it personally. ‘Tina and I just haven’t had the best experience with the law, you know what I mean? Things down here are different than they are in your country. You trust no one and you stay alive here. That’s just the way it is” He explained to me. “You know, America isn’t the land of rainbows and fluffy kittens either. Every country has its problems…but you shouldn’t take yours out on me. I’m risking a lot to be here, and so are you. You want to protect your sister and ensure that she has a good life and is well taken care of. If you help me, I promise that will happen. For both of you”. I reached out to touch his hand but he flinched away, like he was being tasered. “It is too late for me”, He said. “But not for her. Celestina doesn’t deserve to live this way. I promised mis padres that I would take care of her when they died…and now look at what’s happened” He looks so sad and vulnerable right then that I want to spring to my feet and hug him. “You can change that –we can change that – together. You have to give me a chance” I pleaded. For a second, it looked like he was actually considering it, with the way he was looking at me. I realized with a jolt of shock that this was the first time that he had looked me right in the eyes. Eventually, I was the one who turned away from him; I couldn’t take the intensity of his stare. “Please”, I croaked again, at my wits end. Then I put my card on the table and gathered my things to leave before I lost my mind.
The minute that I heard that fool of a woman announce that she was going to see my brother in prison; I knew that it was a terrible idea. If she’d thought that I was bad, she hadn’t seen anything yet until she met Dario. He didn’t want anything to do with her or this case. He’d told me so himself the morning after I had first met her. “Don’t talk to her, Celestina, I mean it. People like her are nothing but trouble. Everything that comes out of her mouth is a lie. She doesn’t want to help us. She wants to make sure we rot for the rest of our lives just like everyone else does” He’d hissed at me over the phone. But he hadn’t needed to tell me that; I already knew. Ever since my parents were murdered and then made out to be criminals by the state, and we in turn were named as their killers, I had lost all faith in justice. This situation was no different. I knew that it was hopeless. Dario knew that it was pointless…everyone in the World, it seemed, knew that this whole thing was hopeless except for that foolish woman. She just didn’t know when to quit. I had been ignoring her for almost a month now and she still hadn’t gotten the message that I wasn’t going to talk to her. I knew that if I trusted her, everything would be over. Nobody would be helped, and she’d just wind up dead. Another dead American sticking their nose where it didn’t belong, only not literally this time. Didn’t she realize that it was for both of our safeties that I kept my mouth shut, why I refused to look her in the eye and answer her questions? If I were her, I’d pack it up and high tail it back to America as fast as my legs could carry me. In a way, I envied her. She had a future, a home to go back to. I didn’t. And the person who mattered the most to me was going to be in prison regardless. So what was the point?
This morning was no different than the others. The door opened and in came Delia; looking…It took every ounce of my willpower not to gape at her. She looked tired, disheveled. There were dark circles under her eyes and she was pale as a ghost, but even that wasn’t what made me want to gape. It was the absence of the fire in her eyes, of the determination. It looked like…like she had given up. She shuffles over to the chair across from me and drops her briefcase, then sits down with a sigh. “I suppose I shouldn’t ask you if you’re willing to talk to me today. I know the answer already”. Good, I thought, and then I automatically felt bad about it. About everything : shutting her out, being so mean to her, not telling her anything…she must feel awful. Trying to help somebody who doesn’t want it is maddening. The words escape from me before I can stop them. “You…are thinking about quitting, aren’t you”? The woman gaped at me like she’d just witnessed an explosion, and then quickly composed herself.
“What would give you that idea? I’m just tired, that’s all,” She said defensively. An awkward silence stretches between us, vast as a canyon, but she’s determined not to let it last. Now that I’ve spoken to her, I’ve created a monster. “What about you? Have you been sleeping well”? As good as a person can with gunfire ripping through the night, I think wryly to myself, but I decide to play nice and answer without snapping at her. “Asi asi” I make gestures so that she gets that I mean ‘so so’. And then I think of a question for her. “I was wondering…if you would like to give that game of yours another shot…” I stammer, embarrassed. She probably doesn’t want anything more to do with me, not with the way I’ve treated her. Infuriatingly, she smiles and it is like the sun lining the clouds in gold before it rises. “I would love to”, she says. And then she pauses and looks towards the door. Immediately, I begin to mistrust her. “What is it”? I demand, thinking that she is going to send somebody in to have me locked up. Delia keeps on starting. Bites her lip nervously. Then it dawns on me: she is waiting for someone. But who? I don’t have to wonder long; the door opens and in steps the one person who I would never expect to see here: Dario. I sprint over to him and hug him. Before I can stop myself, I’m crying tears of joy. I haven’t seen him since the night that everything happened, and it feels surreal that he’s here now. Wordlessly, Delia smiles over at us. “You…” I nearly gasp when I realize. She holds up her hands as if she’s warding off traffic. “Don’t go giving me all of the credit. I was about ready to quit yesterday, but then I got a phone call”. She gives Dario a knowing look. It irritates me; I don’t know why. He doesn’t smile back at her, though, just gives me a look and asks if we can be alone. Delia looks nervous for once. “I don’t know if that’s…” she begins, but trails off. “Oh, who cares? I’ll be right outside if you need me”. And then she is gone, leaving me alone with my brother. “Celestina…” he begins, but I don’t want to hear it. I know what he’s going to say before he says it. “She’s brain washed you too” I grit out through my teeth. “Nobody’s brainwashing anybody. Listen to me: that woman is our only hope of ever being free again and you know it”. I shake my head stubbornly. “I don’t know anything”. He grabs me by the shoulders so that I have no choice but to look at him. “When Mama and Papa died, they made me promise to take care of you, and that’s what I’m going to do whether you like it or not. If this woman wasn’t serious about helping us, she would have left. Especially after yesterday”. His lips twitch, like he’s trying not to laugh. “What did you do to her”?
“Jumped at her – scared her half to death. Usually that’s what it takes for all of the others to quit us…but she didn’t. You know what she did? Went to go sit back down and then yelled at me”. Anger filled me. “She yelled at you”? He laughs. “Sure did. But it made me realize something. That American woman isn’t leaving for anything in the World, and she’s all we’ve got. And you know she cares if she’s been putting up with you for the past month. So what do you say? Are you going to help us or keep being obstinate”? I didn’t know how to answer that question. After what happened, how could he possibly trust any form of law enforcement? I couldn’t see how he could be that forgiving. “If we do this…we’ll have to tell her everything” I hedge. He nods as if he already thought it over a million times. “I know” he replies. “We’ll have to put our lives on the line. Risk getting killed even…and we’ll have to…” I almost choke getting the last word out. “American’s call it ‘tattling’ “he finished for me. If it had been any other situation, I might have laughed. “If you really think about it, Delia is risking her safety to help us too. She almost got fired for wanting to come down here, and the woman doesn’t know a lick of Spanish. Doesn’t know anything about our customs, but she’s still willing to help us. Those barriers don’t matter to her. ‘No matter where we’re from or what language we speak, we’re all still people’ she said to me when I called her last night. She is right, you know” He tells me.
“I usually am”, she chimes in from the doorway. I glower at her for listening, but only halfway mean it. “We can do this, you two. I know we can. But you have to be completely honest with me, and you have to trust me. Can you do that”? She asks. I look at Dario, and then at her. At him. Back at her again. I take a deep breath and close my eyes. This is going to take everything in me to do. And I won’t like it. Finally, I open my eyes and motion for her to kneel so we’re the same height. “Yes” I answer boldly in English. “Our people can do anything”. Then, with the door open and probably everyone watching, the three of us came together and hugged tightly. I didn’t care that everyone was staring at us or wondering what was going on or that the guards were itching to pry us apart or that maybe this was the craziest, ill fated thing I’d done in my life. Maybe we would win, maybe we wouldn’t, and to be honest the odds weren’t in our favor. Right then, it didn’t matter. Because, like someone great once said : Nothing is impossible.