Issue 2, Spring 2007


La Chata
by Diane Lefer

La Chata's mother curses the chickens in Spanish. The rest of the time she speaks Zapotec with its Indian shushes and clicks. When she bathes, she goes behind the bamboo palisade that La Chata built in the corner of the yard. She takes off her blouse and lets down her hair. The water comes cold from the hogshead and she pours it over her body with a plastic cup. Barebreasted in the patio, she looks old.

The old man, her husband, can't see. He sits straight-backed on the hard chair, his cane between his legs. When he pounds the cane on the ground, she goes to him and helps him to the hammock. In the hammock, La Chata's father settles himself, draws up his knees.

The women help the men to move. At the other end of the compound, Toño's cream-colored wife helps him into the cement block room, the only room with a bed.

The old man spits. He lifts his head to hear Marilinda's creamy giggle and Toño's gasp, a burst of air like a swimmer breaking surface.

"My daughter Chata knows how to work," he says. "My son only knew how to get married."

Inside the room, Marilinda turns on the radio. Chata bought the stereo console and built the cement block room around it. Since no one would come to the village to put in windows, she hitched a ride down to the port, asked questions, bought glass and frames and did it herself. When Toño and Marilinda got married, La Chata gave them the room. Then the house was more than a collection of bamboo shacks and La Chata built a brick wall around the yard and put up the iron door.

The old man knows Chata, his baby, can do anything.

Tita Carmen from across the way throws open the door that no one thinks to bolt. "Have you seen the dead man?" she asks. "They just fished him out."

There has been another drowning. It's a mystery. People have gone to swim in the river for hundreds of years and no one from the village has ever been lost. But when strangers from the refinery try to swim, they put a toe in the water and are sucked right down.

La Chata's mother mutters to hear the news. She understands more Spanish than anyone guesses. She also knows about Tita Carmen, that she goes to the city now and then and gets arrested and comes home all bloody. It's politics. She's a wild woman now.

The old man rocks in the hammock, grinning to hear Tita Carmen's voice. "Yes, there's a war coming," he says. "We're going to have another war."

The music stops and the radio announcer tells about the bomb that went off in the city, five people dead.

"Ay, que feo!" cries Tita Carmen. "Who could do a thing like that?"

"You're the revolutionary!" says the old man who should know better than to use that word out loud.

"Ay, but how awful! Maybe I'm not after all."

The mother thinks Tita Carmen will soon be wilder than ever. She thinks she understands. When she was a girl and her parents were killed, hadn't she been the same? How could people be that way, she'd asked. Violence was wrong. How could people kill? Why did they have to argue? Why couldn't they live in peace? It bothered her so much, it hurt, and it bothered her until she wished she had a gun and could kill them all.

"Revolutionary or not," says the old man, "you're welcome in my humble home."

"It's Chata's home," says Tita Carmen. "She built it."

Toño could have built it. He helped to build the refinery. Gave up on school and let the fields grow wild and took a salary. Once it's built, La Chata warned him, then what will you do? They'll only need people with skills. You'll have no job and we'll have lost our land.

But he took the job and bought bits of black lace for Marilinda and electric curlers to do her hair. He bought a mahogany wardrobe and a Japanese music box.

"I've been promoted to foreman," he said one day, and when he refused to fake the timesheets, they pushed him under a truck.

"Will your job be waiting for you when the cast comes off?" asked La Chata.

"My Chata!" says the old man. "When she was a girl, I didn't want her to go to school. Think of that! Now she's a modern woman, with an education and a government job, and probably she has herself a man there in town." He swings wildly in the hammock until his wife helps him back to the chair. "Well, she's old enough now. A woman of twenty-two. She has the right."

In town, La Chata eats breakfast in the marketplace, a glass of orange juice with two egg yolks floating on top. The women who squat with their baskets and tubs and children cluck to see her hurry. They are fat and imperious as ever and don't know this life won't last.

Chata takes the bus to work, to the new school the government built for the people. She waits for the director to come and unlock the gate.

Two women in the opposite doorway invite her to sit inside with them, out of the sun. Their room is like a cave. The women are embroidering together, working on the same piece of black velvet. The fabric is stretched on a frame at table height and the two women sit at either end, rolls of silk thread set up between them like a chess game. They bend over the velvet with their needles. La Chata's eyes hurt, watching the flowers unfolding in the dark.

I'll end up blind like my father, she thinks, and she wonders again what she ought to do. If she got leave from work, maybe she could drag him off to the city. It might be cataracts and they could operate. But without promising him his sight back, she'll never convince him to go. What if it isn't cataracts? It would be terrible to raise false hopes.

La Chata would like to talk it over with someone. She thinks of the director. He knows something of the world and he would listen carefully. But no, she doesn't like the way he listens, curious to learn the workings of the savage mind.

He arrives at 8:15 and she hurries across the street to join him. When he unlocks the door, La Chata props it open with some bricks from the street.

Inside, the patio is mercilessly sunny. There's a water tap in the corner where the garden is supposed to grow, and by the other wall, two filthy toilets without doors. The classrooms are painted a sickening green and the floor is filthy. The windows which face the street have no panes. The north wind blows in dust and the people passing by toss in garbage.

The director leaves to go to breakfast and Chata gets the broom. She sweeps out paper, dirt, fruit rinds and broken glass as the children start to arrive. The girls wear short cotton dresses that let their panties show. The boys wear dirty little tee-shirts and no shoes. Some of the children help with the cleaning. They carry garbage out to the street. Others cup their hands for water from the tap while some just scream and jump around.

When the schoolday starts, the children go into the classroom and screech out a high-pitched song, incomprehensible and in perfect unison. They jump up and down from their seats and run in and out of the room. The fruit vendor stations himself at the door and La Chata doesn't care. The children run out to buy candy and oranges, they dash to her desk so she can approve their scribbles. The children crack nuts and spit out shells and orange seeds to settle in the dust. They take out pencil stubs and scraps of paper and sprawl on the ground while they write out their vowels. Sometimes two children will consult with each other and point at La Chata before asking her for money.

Two nurses appear in the patio and set up folding chairs. They vaccinated the schoolchildren months ago and now they have been sent to immunize the rest of town. People have been notified. The nurses sit on their folding chairs and wait.

When the children go home, there's a hot wind in the street and La Chata goes walking. There are five dark little stores in town that use loudspeakers to advertise their wares. Maybe the owners will announce that the nurses have come. She visits the stores and talks to fat, barechested men. Then she returns to the school.

The women in the opposite doorway call to her. The nurses are sitting and waiting, bored in the sun.

The afternoon class arrives. Children drink from the tap and splash each other and scream. Girls whisper together and take turns on the open toilets while their friends form nervous walls.

La Chata used to think education was the first step, the key. Teach the people to read, she thought. But the only books they sell in town are illustrated romances and comics. Once she

wanted to study. She wanted to help children and her parents and her kid brother Toño. And herself. Now La Chata doesn't read, except when someone hands her something political. Then she studies the ideas carefully for clues—how to move forward—and she is careful not to talk about what she reads.

At the end of the day, Chusito's panel truck is waiting outside the school. When he's traveling this route, he always stops to offer the teacher a ride as far as the highway turnoff. They head down the hill and bump along the rutted road, through the high grass outside of town while Chusito brags about his ignorance.

When they reach the river, he slows the truck as he drives through the shallows. He opens the door, grabs a bucket from somewhere at his feet and fills it with water.

"Radiator trouble." He rolls the "r's" sonorously, as though announcing the winner of a race.

He leaves La Chata at the turnoff and she gets a lift in a trailer truck. Buses don't run to the village but there's always someone driving out toward the refinery that's still being built. This truck carries concrete tubes. The sun is going down and they follow the river's edge.

It's dark when La Chata leaves the truck. Now it's an hour's walk to home: the familiar path, the fireflies, wind roaring in the wild bamboo. The stars whirl and move above her like animals uncoiling in the sky, and somewhere there's a fiesta. She can hear the music pulsing through the night. It's dark now, but she knows where she's going. Here, at least, she knows the way. She can see the cross on the riverbank, marking the spot where strangers drown.

The old man is talking about modern medicine. It's a new world, full of wonders, at least for some people. His daughter Chata would know.

Toño comes out of the room. "Did you hear the radio? In the capital, everyone's gone on strike."

Everyone is silent.

Then the old man says, "Do you think La Chata is coming home tonight?" You never knew when she might get a ride. He smiles. "She drinks beer now," he says. "Two, three, or four bottles, like a man."

The mother hopes La Chata will get home. Someday she'd like to ask her about the old man's eyes, if there isn't something that can be done. But you can't have private talks in Zapotec. What you say in dialect belongs to the village, the whole village hears you, the old man would hear her talking about him. In dialect, words spread so fast, she believes they enter dreams. He would hear every word, even in his sleep.

Someday she'd like to talk to her daughter, privately, about all this politics and the trouble that's coming, but there are no words in Zapotec for some of the things she'd like to know. The mother doesn't understand about politics. She speaks no Spanish, except for curse words, and so she has no opinions.

Marilinda is looking for split ends, but even she can hear the radio going on—bombs and shootings and strikes.

The mother thinks about her daughter. La Chata never greets anyone with hugs anymore. No hearty abrazos for her. The mother has watched her daughter shake hands with people, cool and polite. Was that part of being modern? Or was it part of being a beautiful girl with a job? Of having to take rides in trucks with any strange man going your way?

Is La Chata happy? she wonders. What is her life like?

And she wonders, What is going to become of us?

The old man is the first to hear someone at the door. He struggles to sit up in the hammock and reaches for his cane. He slams it against the pounded earth floor.

"My Chata!" he says.

La Chata was first published in South Dakota Review, Summer 1983, and collected in The Circles I Move In (Zoland Books/Steerforth Press, 1994). The author dedicates this reprint to the teachers of Oaxaca and their struggle, 2006.