José had a special name for his Tía Cuca, the kind of name a kid whispers under his breath or between snickers. The kind of name that acts as a placeholder before they learn how to cuss. Before boys like him learned words like puta and coño. He called her La Chupa, after the hunchbacked, black-eyed, goat-sucking chupacabra. It’s not far off, he’d say to his sister, I mean just look at her. He’d tell his younger sister, Maggie, all sorts of horror stories about their tía. About how under a moonless sky her skin would turn a dark shade of green and she’d go out into the night hunting misbehaving children like her.
If that were true, she would’ve taken you a long time ago.
José would shrug at this, she wasn’t wrong. He was not the most manageable of nephews and he prided himself on that. He could think of at least three occasions on which he’d “accidentally” spilled grape juice on her favorite blouse. Or the time he popped the largest pink bubble gum bubble he’d ever blown right next to her hair. Aye, she’d scream, cabrón my highlights! But José would just pout his face and ask innocently, what does cabrón mean? He was still young enough to get away with that. His mother would come to his rescue, covering his ears and scolding his tía for her language. He’s just a child, his mother would say, he didn’t mean it.
A child, La Chupa would yell, no es un hijo del diablo!
José was already planning the ways he’d torment his aunt. She was going to be living with them for the next few months. It was summer and neither José nor his sister were in school. Their mother, bless her heart, could not keep up with them. Between two jobs and the aching grief that still hung around her after losing her husband, she needed the extra help. So La Chupa came to the rescue, scales and all. José’s father, La Chupa’s younger brother, had died almost ten years ago. José was so young then, not even his sister had been born yet. He didn’t remember how it happened, didn’t remember the whispers of gang violence, didn’t remember the solemn hugs and empty lo sientos. But está bien.
José and his sister Maggie, short for Magdalena, were the kind of barrio kids that other barrio kids looked up to. They were the ones who could throw tied up shoes around telephone wires and make it look easy. The ones who always found the best rocks to use for chalk on the sidewalks. The ones who could always run the fastest and the farthest despite how worn down their sneakers were. For all intents and purposes, they were the popular kids in the barrio. Not that it meant anything, but it did make the whispers from other parents easier to ignore. All the viejitas who’d whisper pobrecitos with a little shake of their heads. Their lips pursed, making their wrinkles look more like cracks than laugh lines. But José and Maggie didn’t care. They ruled that little piece of Cypress Avenue and no one was going to change that, not even La Chupa.
La Chupa lived on the other side of the fence in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. It’s where she and José’s father were born, where Tía Cuca had been living her entire life. It was a lively city to say the least. Juárez was packed to the brim with small cinderblock houses, layers upon layers of them, all along the hills that lined the Rio Grande. For those in los Estados Unidos, the ones that wanted an escape from everyday life, whether they were bored with the comforts and safety of America or just tired of the prices of living there, Juárez was the destination. Its bars were packed with white boys and girls who quickly realized Mexico’s drinking age was much lower. Its street vendors sold knockoffs of brands like Dolce and Gabbana, Prada, and Nike. Stitching so tight and precise that you’d mistake it for the real deal, honest to God, genuine article. Your guilty conscious could rest easy knowing that it wasn’t a sweatshop in China that made your fly new kicks, it was a fleet of abuelitas who made it right across the border. How convenient. Better yet, anyone looking for cheap medical treatment wouldn’t have any trouble finding a doctor to cure their ailments. Juárez had specialists in any field you could think of and all of them would be willing to operate for a fraction of the prices in the United States. In fact, most of them even had medical degrees.
Of course, even for the greedy Americanos, Juárez was no paradise. You had your drug lords and gangs fighting over territories and crooked cops who couldn’t care less about what an American was screaming about. Visiting Juárez was a risk, everyone knew that, but rarely did an American think to consider what it must be like for those who lived there. The extortion that kept family business from being anything more than hole in the wall taquerias or convenience stores. The gangs that drove through their neighborhoods looking for chicos to recruit or chicas to pick up. The drive-by shootings that tore through children’s birthday parties because the head of one gang or another was the uncle. The women who disappeared. That’s the big one. Decades will go by before anyone stops to ask about what is happening. Where are they? Who is taking them? Decades before pink crosses will start to dot the city as a cry for help or a memorial to those lost. So, Tía Cuca volunteered to watch her little niece and nephew on the other side of that fence, to get away from the chaos and the fear, but José doesn’t know any of this when he yells at La Chupa.
Go back to Juárez where you belong!
La Chupa had committed the cardinal sin of changing the tv channel and José was not going to let her get away with it. How could she not understand that he had to watch every minute of the climactic battle scene in Beast Wars, arguably the best Transformers animated series. It was beginning to look like Megatron might actually beat Optimus and the other Maximals, and José was on the edge of his seat. The fate of the galaxy rested on these pivotal few minutes. So what if this was a rerun and José had already seen this episode four times. La Chupa didn’t need to know that. All she needed to know was how offended and betrayed José was. He puffed out his chest, tightened his hands into fists, and yelled at the top of his twelve-year-old lungs.
You think you can just come here and do whatever you want, he screamed.
Oralé, La Chupa muttered, José what has gotten into you?
Gotten into me, José fumed as he snatched the remote out of La Chupa’s claws, what’s gotten into you? He looked her square in the eyes and knew that this was his moment, his chance to try and break her. La Chupa had only been there a week, but he and his sister made a bet to see how long it would take to get her to leave. His sister said no less than a month, but José disagreed, he could do it in less. Two weeks, he had proclaimed, two weeks and I’ll get her scaly butt crawling back to Juárez. Sure, he was confident enough when he said it, but it had been a tricky first week. She seemed ready for him. She brought extra strength detergent for the stains he’d put in her clothes. Ear plugs to block out the loud tv and his yelling whenever she was napping. Even a special soap to help get bubblegum out of her hair. All of José’s go-to tricks were thwarted and that wasn’t even all she did. She had even gone through the house and did her best to José-proof her stay. All the crayons and markers seemed to disappear overnight. His secret stash of fireworks and poppers went missing. And the super glue? Gone. What was left for José to do but get creative?
So, he thought, how do you kill that which is heartless? A small fire, he thought, just in her room? But, of course, the matches were gone, which is probably for the best. If he burnt down the house they’d probably just end up living with her in Juárez and that, to him, was the definition of Hell. Then he thought about pretending to be possessed. He’d scratch his arms and speak gibberish, something he had seen in those late night horror movies that played on the fuzzy channels of their television set. He’d even flip the cross that hung on her wall upside down and get his sister to play scared in the middle of the night. He coached her on what to say. Tell her I’m floating, he told his sister, I’m floating and you can hear a voice coming from inside the walls! But talking about this just scared Maggie and that flushed the whole plan down the drain. Speaking of drains, he thought of that too. He had once flushed a washcloth down the toilet and stopped up the whole works. His mother had to ask a man from a few doors down to check the pipes. He had to tear a hole in the wall just to get to it and the whole house smelled like shit for a week. That would get her to leave for sure, but José knew he’d get a whooping from his mother if he ever did that again.
Then it hit him. He’d play with her emotions. That’s how he’d break her and this was his chance and he knew just what he had to do. You see, José did not remember his father. How could he? He was three when his father passed and not even his sister had met the man since she was born a few months later. So, he didn’t think twice as the words welled up in his throat. Didn’t think of what it would mean to give them life and let them breathe the air the hung between them. All he knew was the pent up frustration that was stored deep inside him and that innocent, unhindered way kids can be cruel.
La Chupa stood there, scolding the boy, reprimanding both him and his mother saying, your mother should’ve raised you better if you think you can talk to me like that. I know that if your father were around—
There’s his cue. José screamed, well what good is he? Huh? Both of you, useless and better off dead.
There it was. He let it out. He let those words out and they sat in the air like thick, summer heat. Even Maggie knew this was too far. She quietly slunk away until she was in the safety of her and her brother’s room, tightly wound in a blanket. And José, well maybe part of him knew that he had gone too far, but a bigger part of him felt proud. He thought, this is it, she’s done for. But La Chupa just stood there, frozen, hewn from stone. She seemed to age right before him, like time had finally caught up to her. Finally, and only through clenched teeth, La Chupa spoke and asked, what did you just say?
Useless, José repeated, both of you are—
And she slapped him. Hard and quick and hot.
How dare you, she said, how dare you talk about your father like that. Like you know the shit he went through. All the things he did to make sure you were born on the right side. La Chupa stared at José, who now shriveled up and shrunk down into the dusty tile floors. She was glad the boy’s mother wasn’t around to see this. She’d never hear the end of it, but she knew it was exactly what he deserved. The way he talked about her brother. Useless, she repeated to herself, his words echoing in her head.
Maggie, who heard the slap, and finally built up the courage to come back out of her room, albeit still wrapped up in her blanket, peeked around the corner of the hallway. For a moment, she thought she saw it, the chupacabra, the scaly, hunchbacked beast ready to pounce on her brother, but no. It was Tía Cuca, fuming and tense. Maggie lowered herself closer to the floor, trying to meet her brother’s eye line, wanting somehow to help. Her brother’s eyes were red and watery and focused on the floor. Maggie wanted to call out to him but then he made eye contact with her and she saw that he was angry. Before any of them knew it, José was out the door. He sprang to his feet so quickly that La Chupa barely even had time to make a grab for him, her long claws barely missing the collar of his shirt. The screen door clicked shut behind him.
It was dark by the time La Chupa found José sitting alone on their roof. He had been crying, for a long time it seemed, looking at the way the tears had cut through the dirt on his face. He sat on the edge that faced the border fence, Juárez lit as bright as ever, blocking out the stars. She wasn’t afraid he’d get hurt. The apartment block was only two stories tall with nothing but dirt and dry grass below, but she still took her time coming up to him.
José, she started, I’m sorry.
He remained quiet. And stubborn.
Look, I was angry, she continued. Still no response. So instead she joined him, her aching feeling hanging over the edge. She had walked all across the neighborhood looking for him and had already planned three different stories she could tell his mother if she came back from work early, but thankfully she hadn’t and La Chupa had found José, for the most part, unharmed. José didn’t seem to mind either. He made no move to run away again. So she just sat with him and looked out at Juárez.
She smiled and said softly, your father and I, we used to ride our bikes right across the border to see concerts.
José turned to her, looking confused.
Yeah, back then it was easy. All you had to do was wait a few minutes for the border patrol trucks to drive by and then down the hill you went, right into the states. Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, your dad loved all those guys. Me, I hated them. Didn’t care for that kind of music, but I went to all of them for him. Just to be around him. La Chupa quickly wiped a small tear from her cheek before José could notice it.
But José noticed it. Quietly he asked, what was he like?
José, mijo, don’t you remember? She looked at him as he shook his little head. He was quick like you, clever. He used to carry you on his shoulders and run down these streets, nearly gave your mother a heart attack. Oh, he loved you so much. The way his face lit up whenever he saw you made him look ten years younger, like he was just a kid again filled with that same pure joy. If he were here now, and you had run away like this, he would’ve torn the neighborhood apart looking for you. Brick by brick until he found you. José, if he was here he’d never let you forget how much he loved you.
Finding the courage, José asked, what happened to him? But she couldn’t answer him. She only ran her hand through his short, dark hair and said, he was just taken from us too soon.
It was quiet again. José clicked together the heels of his sneakers, their little dim lights flashing against the brick of the apartment building. He asked, do you miss him?
Of course I do. Do you?
Yeah, I think so.
They stayed quiet for a long time. José had never asked about his father before. Never asked his tired mother or his sister who knew even less about him. And La Chupa? Maybe now he could trust her. He leaned his head onto her shoulder and said, you loved him, didn’t you?
You love your sister, right?
Would you do anything for her?
Good, because your sister never got to meet her father. You have to understand that. There isn’t a single picture in your home with a picture of her and your father together. Just one with your mother barely showing her baby bump. She doesn’t know what it was like to be held by him. To hear his laugh. To see that smile. You might not remember any of those things either but it’s in you José. You have to be those things for her, you know that, right? You have to fill that space and take care of her.
La Chupa looked into José’s eyes and knew that he understood. He raised his hands and wiped away the dusty tears, his face dimly lit by Juárez’s pale, yellow glow.
Tía, he said, straightening his back, you should tell me more stories about my dad.
I will mijo, Tía Cuca said, we have all summer.
Andrew Siañez-De La O is a Chicanx playwright and author from El Paso, Texas. He graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a BFA in Theatre and Performance and was awarded the school’s Betsy Carpenter Playwriting award for his play Sangre Mía. His collection of short stories, Lo Siento Miguel, was also published by Wilde Press, Emerson’s Undergraduate Students for Publishing group. Currently, he is a Young Playwright in Residence at the Echo Theatre Company in Los Angeles, where he will also be attending the 2017 Latino Theatre Commons Convening as a representative of his hometown and border community.