The old house where my grandmother and her godmother lived, in Santa Elena, had no waste plumbery. The children washed in front of the pila, a huge stoned carved to hold water and a basin for washing clothes and dishes. There, out in the open patio and in front of the pila they placed two aluminum containers and filled them with water. We would get in them naked, all together, and play in the water. Some adult would then hold the hose over us to get swine soap, a round ball of hand made soap, black, and smelling like Lupe’s long black hair. All the children bathed together. At some given age, following an unknown algorithm the adults would use to determine the exact moment this became necessary, the kids would have to start using underwear when bathing. When the gender difference became too obvious, and way before puberty hit, we graduated from the outside patio into the room right next to the pila. It was built with think wall, as the rest of the house, but these walls were made of stone, and not the mixture of adobe brick coated with lime.
This room had a stone bathtub where Papa Juan bathed even before his dementia kicked in, before he kept trying to lure the young servant girls into bathing with him. “Linda,” he told once the teenage girl serving in the house, “let’s go to the bathtub together.” Papa Juan was standing naked in front of the kitchen, where Linda was grinding the masa to make the tortillas for that day. She was rolling the hard round stone against the equally hard basin to make the masa even and thin, swaying her torso back and forth and making her hair dance, and the smoke from the brick oven would play along, circling her and retreating playfully when her hair sway close to the smoke. I was watching this dance of hair, smoke, sunlight through the roof tiles, and Linda at the center of it all, making masa that will turn into those delicious Salvadoran tortillas, thick and warm, the baseline of satisfaction and well-being in every meal. My fascination was interrupted when my cousin, Melva, cracked up in laughter while swaying on the hammock in the living room across the patio. She was laughing at Papa Juan’s nude backside. I looked at what she was pointing, “his crack is all out there,” she said.
Linda laughed too, but more in amusement than mockery. “What are we going to do there, don Juan?” she asked playfully, knowing he had been entering senility and dementia for a few months now. “We can talk,” he said in his serious tone. “Talk about what?” asked Linda after a beautiful short laugh made the thin smoke around her recoil in surprise. “Things of love,” said Papa Juan in all seriousness. “You go ahead,” said Linda. “Go bathe, and wait there, maybe someone will come to talk with you about things of love.” He left to take his bath alone, and to forget again in a few moments.
Lupe then came in, to help Linda in the kitchen. To say that both were my grandma’s maids would be a horrible loss of translation. To properly say what they were, we would have to have a term that illustrates how my abuelita Consuelo used to be a child of some privilege and status in Santa Elena. How my tia Tere, who was not really my aunt but my grandma’s godmother, had set up a store in her large house––a house we always thought of as my grandma’s house, but it was really her godmother’s house. How my tia Tere and papa Juan, who had the coolest jobs working for a railroad and every time he saw me when he was still working and not senile he would give a shinny quarter for my piggy bank, were both supporting my grandmother and raising her to be a member of society. They sent my grandma, when she was a pubescent child, to a boarding school, so she could have an education and get her ready for society. She came back after having finished her elementary education, all the way to the eighth grade. She had a proper academic and religious education, having been raised by the nuns and taught to be a proper lady. My grandmother quickly became the promise of the family. She was sure to marry high and well. People would come to pay their respect, to meet her, to get her to become their child’s godmother. One day, for sure, she would be someone important and of influence. To have someone like that as a godmother was a good way to invest in the future of your children. However, my dad seemed to have been growing in her belly prematurely, too soon. He swelled her belly out of sequence, before she was married off to a good candidate. Her prospects thus shot, she was now in charge of a big house, a large family, and two elderly benefactors. Families, however, kept coming to her to baptize their children, and some would bring their young daughters for my grandma to raise. It was an old Indian way to set up a child for apprenticeship: give her away to an elder to be taught. Linda and Lupe came that way, and they were being raised by my grandmother and taught all things about running a household: cooking, cleaning, tending the pig sty, raising the chickens, caring for the children and the elderly. To say they were maids is simply too whitewashed of a commercial transaction. To say they were adoptive children is simply too off the mark. They were in a special category that only makes sense when you mix a native population and insert generations of European catholicism and classism into their nonetheless undying millenary society.
Linda and Lupe came to the house when they were 13. Now, they are almost ready to go out into the world, having learned all about running a household, and also having gone to night school to learn to read and write––a true privilege for any servant to have. Unbeknownst to me, very soon they will not be there any more. Linda will not walk with me, hand in hand, to take me with her to her school where, at 15, she is learning the same things I am learning in my first grade. She will not sing alphabet letters and imitate with me the shapes of the letters. Lupe will not race with me to prove to me that girls are faster because they have to be. They will not be, for too much longer, building houses and jails with me out of cushions, rails, and cotton. Linda will not be directing a recreation of last night’s soap opera. She will not be the beautiful heroine, crying in jail because her father abandoned her there for having loved too much too soon. Lupe won’t be the evil seductress who would kiss me in the cheek to prove how dangerous she was. And I won’t be cast as the handsome hero, as I have been so far, every time. I won’t be rescuing Linda. I won’t be seeing her cry no more. They would both move on. I would get to see Lupe years later, when she came to San Salvador and worked there for my mom as a maid. I never saw Linda after she became a woman.
Papa Juan didn’t get a companion for his bath. His mind deteriorated more, to the amusement and hidden fear of the adults. He managed to keep enjoying his soccer games through the transistor radio, by having a note pad with him and writing a mark every time a team scored. He slept through the game, but every yell of GOOOOOLLLL woke him up to set another mark.
Life was about to change, and I didn’t know it. Things were coming to me in life. Things were brewing in the country, where beyond the thick adobe walls of this old house, the machinery of war and industry was being mobilized by forces unknown to me. In the kitchen, these young beauties were preparing the tortillas and chicken broth, the rice and vegetables. The holla de frijoles was over the brick oven, and the smoke and sunlight were now in wild rebellion around these young beauties who now moved frantically as they laughed heartily at the inventions of Papa Juan, as they shared with each other the joys of his insanities.
Under the rock, carved to hold the water, a hole had been made to let the water from the washing basin come out. The water there flows in a channel of cement, that goes to the bath house where it collects the water from the big pila where the children bathe, and then collects the water from the room I had just days ago been initiated into, to take showers from a hanging hose, all my myself, with lizards and spiders crawling on the stone, and me trying hard to believe I can be there with them without getting scared. The water trickles and flows all the way to the long back yard full of trees and rocks and secrets. It is taking away with it the grime and soap, the nubile laughter, the stories, and the dance of light and smoke.