A short story about a day at work in Washington.
Camila shows up without an appointment. The receptionist calls my desk in the social work office and informs me that she is waiting. Something personal is going on, I intuit. If she came for help with welfare forms or letters, she would not have waited in the lobby through my lunch. She is asking for someone she trusts.
I call her from the lobby into an empty office where we can talk in private. Baby Diego wiggles happily on her lap when I smile at him.
“Necesito que me ayude con mi hermano,” she says.
“Ok?” I ask. “En qué sentido?”
“Necesito que me ayude a escribir una carta.”
Now she drops her eyes and straightens baby Diego’s little hat. At her full adult height she is four feet tall like her mother and grandmother, and wears clothes she buys in the children’s section at Walmart. All of them, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands and a growing band of cousins have come from a remote mountain village in Mexico. They live together as they did before they stole across the border, in a decrepit three bedroom trailer heated by a wood stove in the living room. I have been there. I sat with her every month on the sagging bed in the living room, in that intimate chaos, discussing baby Diego’s growth from the time he was nothing but a little lump.
“Está en la cárcel,” she tells me.
“Qué pasó?” I ask.
He’s a good man, she tells me, and the family is very sad. She wants to write a letter telling the judge that he should be allowed to come home. He is not a bad person. He is a hard worker and he doesn’t drink. Will I help her?
“Sí,” I tell her. But why is he in jail?
“Lo metieron en la cárcel porque su esposa es muy joven. Ella tiene trece años. Y lo metieron en la cárcel.”
“Lo metieron en la cárcel porque la esposa tiene trece años?”
Ah, I say. Yes. In this country it is illegal for a man to have a thirteen year old wife.
“Ya sé,” she tells me, “Pero para nosotros, es normal.”
“Yo lo sé,” I say, and prop my head on my hand, looking at her.
I hate this.
“Como está la esposa?” I ask, trying to understand. If he is in la cárcel, something happened. Something.
“Ella está muy triste,” Camila says. “Ella quiere que lo dejen ir.”
“Ella lo ama?”
“Oh, sí. Mucho,” she earnestly nods.
“Él la trata bien?”
“Sí, la trata bien. Es un hombre muy bueno. No toma licor, nunca.”
“Cuántos años tiene él?”
“El tiene 21.”
Well, yes. Indeed.
“Tienen niños?” I ask. I realize I don’t need this much information to write the letter she wants, but I can’t help it. Throughout her pregnancy with baby Diego, we developed a sort of lopsided friendship, and I care about things for which I can offer no remedy.
“No, she says, “Pero está embarazada.”
Quietly, a sigh deflates me.
I can see it perfectly: the thirteen year old girl who speaks no English and very little Spanish goes to the doctor with her mother, or mother-in-law, where it is confirmed that she is pregnant. They do not show their delight or any other emotion in front of the large white strangers. Their round faces are stoic, expressionless, and the nurse sends them directly to speak with a social worker. They do not know what a social worker is, but they know to cooperate with large white strangers.
They answer the interpreter’s questions in broken Spanish.
How old are you?
Are you in school?
Where is the father of your baby?
How old is he?
Where does he live?
The large white strangers note his name, his age, that his address is the same. They do not ask her if she is married, if her baby’s father is her husband, betrothed to her when he was fifteen and she was a child of seven. They read flickers of fear on the face of the older woman and they misunderstand.
“El es muy bueno, y queremos que lo dejen ir,” Camila says. The sadness in her is bottomless.
I write the letter to the judge, stating that Eduardo is a good man, that his family misses him very much and that they need him. That the pregnant child is his wife and that she needs him. That he is a hard worker who doesn’t drink liquor or consume drugs. That the judge may please consider that he is not a criminal and let him go.
I realize, of course, that by my country’s law, he is.
Camila hugs me gratefully and leaves carrying the letter in one hand, clutching delighted baby Diego to her small hip with the other.
I go back into the little room where we can talk in private and sit there by myself, immobilized by a sorrow that seems to expand in all directions. I say a prayer for rain in the high plains of Mexico, that corn may germinate and grow, that the goats may have milk enough for everyone’s babies, that people may find hope in their homelands far away from large strangers with our clipboards, prying questionnaires and sudden handcuffs.