An excerpt from the novel
Jimmy Santiago Baca

While he waited for Carmen to arrive at the warehouse, Lorenzo decided to pack some chili. The conveyor belt looped in and out at the blemish stations, then the spray station, then carried the chili to the end where workers alongside the belt plucked and packed. It was at this time of the evening—seven—that his mother used to bring him to the warehouse to pack, and the resinous fragrance of the chili brought back memories that made him forget Carmen was late.

He missed his mother and recalled that she used to say how nice and soft the tortilla dough felt in her palms, drawing out the aches from her fingers and forearms. He’d seen the scarred claws of other workers, the blistered husks or whatever you want to call what passed as human hands. Every part of the body bore the mark of excessive work, even dreams—he’d often hear his father mutter in his sleep, whimpering from pain, hurrying from the rows to the sheds, his knees swollen with arthritis. Now he just grunted. His mother, however, used to tell him she came up with songs while rolling and kneading dough; the constant rhythm of rolling and squeezing gave her lyrics a soft roll. “Tortilla dreams” she called those songs.

There was another part of his mother few knew about. When she got up and dressed before the sun rose, when the trucks came into the camp to load up the workers, he noted how she listened to their voices with sorrow. When he looked at her sitting in the back of the truck he saw she loathed the chili fields and he saw, after each day, how she vigorously scrubbed at the dirt and the day’s dried sweat that coated her body.

There was no such thing as a promotion or a high position in the camp. You might have a different title, but everyone had to work in the fields. His mother sometimes stared with envy and resentment at the motorists pulling up to the stands at the end of the dirt road. Women from Las Cruces and El Paso, wearing flowing Spanish pleated-hem skirts, white blouses, and sunglasses, sat in their cars while the workers loaded their trunks with melons, chili, and squash.

He knew the woman part of her, sensed her female desire in the way she sprinkled water into the flour on the cutting board. He saw how while the neighbors chatted in the kitchen she would drift into a reverie while flattening the dough smooth, flipping it back and forth between her hands and placing it on the comal. Standing at the front door, behind the screen, facing the compound and fields, she imagined leaving the camp with Casimiro and going to Chicago, where her singing career could flourish. Lorenzo could tell she’d been trapped—Casimiro loved her and she could not leave him—yet when she scanned the labor camp a deep loathing suffocated her. She had seen too much of it, smelled too much, and she had to fight off the terrible thoughts that crept into her heart—thoughts of packing up and leaving, especially when those cowboys came in with trailers to pick up hay. They looked at her in such a way that their eyes followed her into her bed. Once a month on the weekend, she joined the other camp women going into town for groceries. Walking the aisles she studied the white women: strangers with unhappy faces, dyed and styled haircuts, they were fat and thin, pale creatures in workout clothes, their lives seemingly as neat as stainless steel forks and spoons lined up in a silverware drawer.

She was invisible to them. She learned a long time ago to avoid eyes, to never complain, to conduct herself in public as a prisoner of war.

After shopping, the white women would go back to their private, secure worlds and she would return to the flat iron plate on the woodstove, to sprinkling the exact amount of flour on the cutting board, powdering another dough ball, and kneading it out round. Fear coiled at the pit of her stomach, fear for her future, of growing prematurely old; fear worked into her eyes, fingertips, ears, and legs, rattling a warning of wariness at vehicles in the distance raising a cloud of dust coming down the road. She’d wrap the stack of tortillas in a towel to keep them warm and then, hiding behind them, she’d make her way to the baptism, wedding, funeral, party, or communal meeting, and when Monday came, she’d give the grower her labor, her pride, her sweat, until nothing was left.

But never respect.

Carmen was so much like her.

From the novel A GLASS OF WATER by Jimmy Santiago Baca, published by Grove Press, New York, New York on October 1, 2009. Copyright 2009 by Jimmy Santiago Baca; all rights reserved by the author and Grove / Atlantic Inc. Used by permission. The book is available here

Jimmy Santiago Baca was born in New Mexico of Indio-Mexican descent. Jimmy was raised first by his grandmother and later sent to an orphanage. A runaway at age 13, it was after Baca was sentenced to five years in a maximum security prison that he began to turn his life around: he learned to read and write, and unearthed a voracious passion for poetry—Jimmy was shaken by the voices of Neruda and Lorca, and made a choice that would alter his destiny. Baca sent three of his poems to Denise Levertov, the poetry editor of Mother Jones. The poems were published and became part of
Immigrants in Our Own Land, published in 1979, the year he was released from prison. He earned his GED later that same year.
He is the winner of the Pushcart Prize, the American Book Award, the International Hispanic Heritage Award and, for his memoir,
A Place to Stand, the prestigious International Award. In 2006 he won the Cornelius P. Turner Award, which recognizes one GED graduate a year who has made outstanding contributions to society in education, justice, health, public service and social welfare.
Baca has devoted his post-prison life to writing and teaching others who are overcoming hardship. His themes include American Southwest barrios, addiction, injustice, education, community, love, and more. He has conducted hundreds of writing workshops in prisons, community centers, libraries and universities throughout America.

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