The war had no end in sight. At the airport, past the security check, Mom, whose eyes were already tearing behind her gold-frame prescription glasses, took me in her thick arms for a weepy welcome home. She smelled of coconut sunscreen and gushed affection like warm water spilling from a garden hose.
Dad, who was turning sixty that summer, gave me an awkward back slap. He looked skinny and underfed, his mouth missing a few teeth toward the back.
“He’s in a bad mood,” Mom sighed. “Como siempre—like always.”
Neither of them admitted it, but the “bad mood” was my fault, because I’d forgotten to let them know the airline I’d be arriving on and Mom assumed American. When they got to the airport and were told the last American flight had arrived hours ago and they couldn’t find me, they started bickering. As they retold the story, they resumed their fight, and I escaped to the baggage claim, where a siren blared to keep clear of the moving carousel.
On the drive from the airport, they continued their fight, but this time Dad scolded Mom for talking to a man whom she mistook for a psychologist. She’d wanted his opinion on her depression. But when he said he wasn’t a doctor of any kind, she said, “So you’re nothing?”
Dad laughed. “¡Hijo! El guy looked all aguita’o. Your mom calling him nothing.”
“Yourmomyourmomyourmom,” Mom squawked. “He’s always con ese ‘yourmom.’”
“How could you say he was nothing?” Dad said.
“I meant that he wasn’t a doctor.”
“But you told him he was nothing.”
“And so?” Mom snapped.
Dad let out a low whistle and looked at me through the rearview mirror. “El guy—he said he was a minister—just wanted to crawl under a rock after your mom was through with him.”
I’d been back in South Texas all of fifteen minutes and I was ready to crawl back to New York where I’d been living for more than a decade. I went home about once a year, and I was always surprised how I managed to forget about all the fighting. I no longer felt guilty about setting them off earlier, because my parents fought about anything, everything and nothing, though I did want to be more careful while navigating through this minefield called home.
My parents dropped their fight from the airport at the next stop, but only to start another about how best to get to Los Arrieros, the restaurant where we were having dinner. The entire ride over, Mom gave a running commentary on Dad’s driving and instructions on full stops and middle lanes.
“Metete en la otra lane porque vas a tener q’hacer turn,” she coached.
Dad ignored her and motioned to a boat for sale on the side of the road.
“Sure,” Mom sneered. “Come back tomorrow to buy it.”
“I will,” he said, “but I’m not gonna take you fishing with me.”
“Callate, por favor,” she said, dredging up all our childhood summers he refused to go with us to the beach or anywhere else.
I knew better than to get in the middle, which I’d done as a kid, back when the fights seemed more terrifying with their threat of physical violence. As my older sister and baby brother cried, I jumped between my shouting parents with tears streaming down my cheeks, our grief sparkling like the glitter imbedded in the flocked ceilings of the old house. I wailed for my parents to stop until my voice gave out.
Now in my early 30s, having left home more than a dozen years ago, I figured they hadn’t killed themselves yet and so whenever I visited I forced myself to shut up and observe with pained amusement that our last name didn’t mean “war” for nothing.
Besides, their fights these days seemed more like roughhousing. Instead of cursing and hechando madres, Dad was now just hechando mosca, or being as pesky as a housefly. Like the afternoon Mom walked through the living room and, Dad, wanting a few laughs, tapped her leg with his foot.
“¡Chingao!,” she said, slipping off her chancla to slap him with it.
“Your mother has no sense of humor,” Dad said to me after Mom went outside. “You know most of the Garzas are hard headed.”
Garza was Mom’s maiden name and in that part of the country, garzas were white cranes with mystical portents that traced all the way back to the times of the Aztecs, but Dad always made a point of equating the surname with uneducated ranch people. He used “Garza” as a put down, pointing out that Mom had only gone as far as the sixth grade—but only because she was pulled out of school and put to work in the cotton fields to help out her family. Still, Mom, a hard-worker, was sharp enough to manage a few local Mr. Donut shops, and she looked over the household finances and raised us pretty much alone as Dad, a telephone repairman, spent his nights and weekends at the southside cantinas.
Growing up, a teenage fan of rocker Pat Benatar and her hit “Love is a Battlefield,” I became tired of the fights between my parents, and whenever a skirmish broke out, my siblings and I fled to our rooms and shouted for them to “get a divorce already.”
In later years, my baby brother, who still lived at home on occasion as an adult, was the one igniting the fights between our parents. He leveraged one against the other, distracting them so that they wouldn’t take a more critical look at his life.
More than once, on these trips home, I heard him shout after a heated back and forth with Mom, “Where are the divorce papers.” He could never quite bring himself to leave the family—who else was going to feed him and allow him to live rent free?—but there was a palpable separation even as he continued to live in the same house with them. So whenever I went back, I either spent time with my brother, or time with Mom and Dad. We spent little time together as a family.
They used to fight about “real” things, like Dad’s late-night drinking, or Mom’s spending. Now they squabbled about who’d left the knob of the air-con on “red” when it should’ve been set on “blue.” Or why Luby’s cafeteria closed at eight. Or, walking through the Luby’s parking lot one night, they fought about the name of the squat trees with the white blooms. I’d only asked what they were called.
“They’re Nacahuitas,” Dad said.
“No they are not,” Mom said.
“Yes they are.”
“¡Que no! Nacahuitas have the orange things. Not the flower.”
“Nacahuitas,” he said.
“Liar,” she shouted, her voice echoing through the parking lot.
“The pills are really getting to you,” he said. “Te ‘stan haciendo mal.”
The night before returning to New York, Mom and Dad and I—my brother still refused to join us—ate a late dinner at El Patio, a family-owned restaurant where posters of the high school football team and a signed photo of a former Iraq War P.OW. who’d come home a hero greet you at the front door. At the table, when they began their old quarrels, I stopped them and had them speak one at a time. But Mom kept interrupting whenever Dad said something that bugged her. Otherwise, she crunched on greasy corn chips, calling over the waitress to refill her tumbler of iced tea, looking around the restaurant absentmindedly, distracted by everything and nothing—until he said one thing that she didn’t agree with and shouted him down.
“You see,” Dad pointed out. “You can’t get anywhere with your mom.”
“Yourmomyourmomyourmom,” she rattled off, shaking her head.
I asked them both, “Do you ever get tired of always fighting?”
They remained silent for the first time. I heard the ranchera music playing overhead, the clank of plates as busboys cleared the abandoned tables, the whoosh of the traffic along Conway, the main thoroughfare that connected the northside ranch where the Garza’s still lived and the southside barrio where the Guerra’s were.
But that night’s ceasefire only lasted a little while.
When Mom and Dad pulled out past incidents to continue arguing over, I pushed aside my plate, unable to finish the rest of my now cold chicken-fried steak. Paying the bill at the register, I stared at the photo of the former P.O.W., anticipating my next day’s escape.
Erasmo Guerra was born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. Having grown up in the colonias of the Texas-Mexico border, one of the poorest and most neglected areas of
the United States, Guerra feels a great responsibility to his working class community. In the tradition of Américo Paredes and Gloria Anzaldúa, he writes not just about the physical boundary that separates one country from another, but about divisions that are economic, cultural and psychological.
His novel Between Dances, 2000, won the Lambda Literary Award. He is also the editor of the nonfiction collection Latin Lovers: True Stories of Latin Men in Love, 1999. His work has been published in The New York Times, The Texas Observer and other newspapers and journals.
In 2000, Guerra participated in Sandra Cisnero’s writing workshop, which was then held in the kitchen of her home. Since then, he has co-led workshops at Macondo, worked on a number of committees, and has served on the board of the Macondo Foundation since January 2007.
Guerra has received writing fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
He received his B.A. (2002) from The New School’s Eugene Lang College and has taught writing workshops for immigrant Latino youth in New York City where he currently lives.