When the old rooster who lives with his many wives behind our neighbor's casita crows, I know the sun is rising and I must leave my warm bed. I do not wish to awaken my two little sisters who share it with me, so I slip my legs out from the thin cloth that covers us and crawl over their tiny, curled-up bodies. They are so tired in the night, sometimes they fall asleep in their daytime clothes. Then one of them will kick me with her sandals, but she does not mean to do it and it doesn't hurt me; the sandals are so old, they have become soft like an old sweater. Once they belonged to me, but when my feet grew too large, Mamá made me give them to Carmencita; when her feet also became too big for them, she had to pass them on to Luz. Carmencita cried that day, because she loves me very much and hoped she would always wear my old huaraches, but of course, that was not possible. Así es la vida.
Today, the old rooster and I are the only ones awake. I look at my brothers, sleeping on top of each other like four brown rabbits on the floor next to our bed. Carlos, the oldest boy, who is seven, is shivering; the others have pulled the cover off him during the night and the only part of him that isn't cold is the stomach side that is hugging little Paco's back. Paco is nestled against Jorge, who holds the baby, Ramoncito. I wish there were another piece of cloth to cover Carlos' backside with, but there is not. Perhaps I will earn enough money now to buy something warm for the little ones. We shall see, as Papá says.
Mamá left a hardened pan dulce on the table for my breakfast. "You must eat every morning, mi hija, and have a cup of hot coffee before you go to the house where you will work. You must show them that you are strong." Mamá is going to have another baby, so she told me that she might not be able to cook for me so early in the mornings, since she is very tired. "You will make us proud, Martita, I am sure. The señora and señor will be happy to have you in their home. Always say thank you and smile at them, so they will be content to keep you and maybe one day, give you more money."
When my tía Rosa became pregnant again and knew she would have to stop working for these people, she offered to train me to take her place. Señora Acosta wasn't quite certain about me when we met the first time, but Tía Rosa showed her how quiet I was and how quickly I learned to sweep, and dust, and change the sheets on the big beds. That was hard for me to do, because, as I told you, I am very small and I have to jump up onto the bed to spread the bedclothes. But it was my way with children that Sra. Acosta seemed to like the best about me. The little boy, Miguel, was crying and crying the first time I saw him. He is only three years old and I could tell right away why he was upset. He had wet himself and no one seemed to care about changing his pants. I asked my tía where his clean clothes were kept. She showed me and I patted him on the head, like I do with Ramoncito, so that he trusted me. Then I took off his pants and his underpants. His little bottom was red from not being changed, so I washed him with warm water and put olive oil on his skin. Once I got his dry clothes on him, he smiled and I tickled him a little bit, so that he began to laugh. Sra. Acosta told my tía that this was a good sign, because Miguel was very shy with strangers. Maybe he likes me because I am not much taller than he is.
Señor Acosta is a nice man, I think. Sra. Acosta told him when he came home for lunch how I had helped with their son. He looked at me with a kindly expression in his eyes and said, "That is a very good start, Martita. I hope you will be happy here."
"Thank you, señor," I said. Then I smiled.
That day of training was last week. Today, Tuesday, I will work alone; Tía Rosa is confined to her bed already and soon her baby will be here. She says that now that she will have five children less than eight years old, she will not be able to return to work for a long time. So it is very important that I do a good job and keep the work in our family. I know I will.
I stir the hot coffee on the little charcoal stove. We do not have much sugar, so it tastes slightly bitter, but I don't mind; it is more water than coffee anyway, because we can only afford a little bag of even the cheapest coffee. I dip the pan dulce in it and gulp the rest of the hot liquid quickly, because I must catch the bus and it is three streets from our house. I dip my fingers in the icy water that Papá left in the bucket on the floor and wipe my teeth on a little cloth. I am dressed in a dark blue skirt and a white blouse, which looks like the uniform I see the neighborhood girls wear to school. I hope Sra. Acosta will approve of it; I have nothing else that fits me. I have only a pair of sandals for my feet, but they are comfortable and I am sure I can stand on them all day without too much pain.
I must take three buses to reach the bottom of the hill below the house of the Acosta family. Each bus costs me thirty quetzales and I worry that the round trip fare will be too much for me. Even though I left school after the third year, I understand enough to see that I might have to give up one of the buses if I don't want to spend all of my wages on bus fare. If I give one up on my way to work, I will be too tired to do a good job. If I do it on my way home, I may be too exhausted to walk. Ay, dios mío. My first day of work and already there is a problem.
The third bus drops me off at the bottom of the hill that leads to the beautiful house where I will spend today working. I can almost see the red tiles of the roof from where I stand. I wish my legs were longer; I must use three steps for every two that a taller person would need. I thank the Good Lord that I am so skinny, though, since that at least makes it easier for me to fly up the hill and reach the back gate of the Acosta garden in time to wash the dust off my feet with a hose I find there before I start to work.
When I enter the door that leads to the kitchen, I see that it is five minutes before seven o'clock, the time I am supposed to begin. Clearly, I will not be able to give up one of the buses in the morning. I cannot risk being late to my job. I will have to see how the trip home goes; at least it is all downhill from this house to the first bus.
Lupe, the cook, is already preparing breakfast. Tía Rosa told me that Lupe has worked for Sra. Acosta's family from the time she was a child. The parents gave Lupe to Sra. Acosta when she married Sr. Acosta, just like you would give someone a pretty vase or a piece of lace for the table. I hope no one tries to give me as a present.
Lupe looks very, very old. She is almost as small as I am and even thinner, with dark skin like an elderly iguana and hair so white that the sunlight bounces off it and blinds you if you stare at it too long. At least that is how my tía describes it. Lupe's hair is divided into two braids, which must be very long, but they are wrapped around her head making it hard to tell exactly where one starts and the other finishes.
"Buenos días, Doña Lupe," I say politely.
"Muy buenos días, Martita," she replies in a raspy voice. "Are you hungry, mi hija?"
"No, gracias, pero tengo sed." My throat is so dry after running up the hill that I can hardly speak. Lupe opens the door of the huge white refrigerator and brings out a tall pitcher. It is earthenware and decorated with colorful pictures of ducks and chickens. She takes a glass from a shelf she can barely reach and pours a golden stream of some kind of clear liquid, which she hands to me. I don't recognize it, but I feel her eyes on me, so I take a tiny sip. It is cold and sweet and more delicious than anything I have ever tasted. I can't help myself: I gulp down nearly the entire glass before stopping and asking her what it is.
"Manzana, mi hija. It is the juice of the apple. Haven't you ever tasted this before?"
"No, never, señora. I did not know apples even had juice inside them."
Lupe laughs at this.
"Well, now you know. There is always a pitcher of some kind of juice in the refrigerator and you are welcome to drink as much as you like. The Acostas are very generous that way. I only ask that you tell me when the juice needs to be replaced." She pours a little more into my glass. "And Martita - perhaps your Tía Rosa forgot to tell you that you are welcome to eat breakfast here with me, but you must arrive a few minutes earlier for that."
Dios mío, I think. As much fresh juice as I want and breakfast, too. What will Mamá and Papá say when they hear this? Maybe my feet won't hurt so much at the end of the day after all.
This house of the Acosta family is very large. On the ground floor, beyond the kitchen are a room for eating breakfast, with two glass doors that open onto a small rose garden; another, much grander room for eating dinner, I suppose; a room where the family can play games or watch the television, which has shelves from the floor to the ceiling covered with books; and the grand salon, where... I am not sure what they do in this room. I do not think you could stand on one side of this room and speak to someone on the other side and expect them to hear you, unless, of course, you shouted with a big voice. I am very nervous while I dust this room, because there are such beautiful and delicate ornaments everywhere. My hands almost shake, I am so frightened of breaking something.
From the entryway, which is bigger than my family's entire casita, there is a long, winding staircase, with an iron banister that leads to the second floor. Up here are six bedrooms and four bathrooms, which I think is too many, since I only see Sr. and Sra. Acosta and little Miguel. Who sleeps in the other rooms? Tía Rosa told me that no matter what, I must clean each room every week; the bathrooms must be scrubbed and polished each time I come, which for now is only on Tuesdays and Fridays. I am to work until I finish, with no particular ending time, and for this I will be paid one hundred quetzales every month. Mamá's friend Maria tells me that in America, that would be fifteen dollars, which is not very much, but here in Guatemala City, for a girl like me, it is a lot of money. Maria lived in a place called Ohio for two years, but she was arrested by la migra for not having papers and sent back here, yet still she tells me how wonderful her life was there and that one day, she will go back. I think she is crazy. Who would want to leave Guatemala and their family?
I clean the large rooms on the bottom floor first. When I am almost finished dusting the large salon, Dona Lupe comes to get me.
"Come with me, mi hija. I have prepared lunch for you in the kitchen."
I am startled by this. Tía Rosa never said anything about these people feeding me, but I am certainly hungry, so I follow the old lady back to the kitchen. She has made two places at the little table that sits under the window, one for her and one for me. She brings two plates from the stove. Each one has a generous portion of frijoles topped with queso fresco, a small piece of carne asada, and some kind of green vegetable that I do not recognize. The pretty pitcher with the icy juice from the apple is already sitting on the table; Lupe nods at it, letting me know that it is all right for me to pour it into our two glasses.
The meat and the beans are delicious, but I am not so sure about the vegetable. "Perdóname, Lupe, but what is this green thing?"
"That is zucchini, Martita. I think it comes from a town called Italy. See if you like it. If you don't, you can give yours to me, because I like it very much."
I can see small pieces of onion and red peppers mixed in with this zucchini thing. I am always afraid of new foods, but I know it is a sin to waste any, so I am brave and place a small piece in my mouth. Lupe smiles when she sees how large my eyes have become.
"Do you like it, mi hija?"
"Oh, yes, señora. Very much!"
When we finish our meal, I offer to wash the dishes, but Lupe says that no, thank you, the kitchen is her job. "Now it is time for you to clean the bathrooms."
"Lupe," I say, "Where is little Miguel? I have not seen or heard him since I arrived."
"He is with la señora today. They have gone into town, I think, to shop. Don't worry; he will be home in time for his siesta, before you go home."
And so he is. I am working in the third bathroom near his room when I hear him climbing up the stairs. It must be hard for such a tiny child to use those steps all by himself, but then I hear his mother's voice and know she is helping him.
"Buenos días, Marta," says la señora, standing in the doorway. "Look who is here, Miguelito. Your friend, Martita."
When he recognizes my face, Miguelito runs to me and hugs my legs. I am embarrassed, but Sra. Acosta laughs and says, "I see my son is in love already, Marta. I think you will make him very happy. And how has your first day of work been?" she asks.
"Very nice, señora. I hope you are pleased with everything."
"I have just come in, Marta, and I am ready for my siesta, but I will tell you on Friday how you are doing. For now, I see you have almost finished cleaning this bathroom. If you are done for the day, you may go home."
"Oh, I have one more bathroom to clean, señora. Then I will leave."
"Fine. We will see you again on Friday. Thank you, Marta." She takes Miguelito by the hand and they go to his bedroom, where I see them both lie down on his day bed. Sra. Acosta sings a little song to her son and by the time I have finished my work, both are fast asleep.
Before leaving for home, I splash cool water on my face and pat down my hair. The mirror is so high, I can only see the top of my head. I say buenas noches to Lupe and start down the hill to the bus stop. I knew it would go faster on the way down and I was right. When the bus finally arrives, I am lucky: I find a seat, which makes my feet very grateful. They were starting to complain a little, but now they have stopped. I lean my head against the window, close my eyes and nearly fall asleep, but too soon we arrive at the next stop and I must change buses. My feet are not so lucky on the next two buses—there is no seat to be had during the going-home hour—but my happiness makes the walk down the three streets to our house go by quickly.
Mamá has saved me a plate of rice and beans, and gives me a little piece of sugar cane to suck on after dinner. "That is to celebrate your first day on the new job, mi hija. You will sleep very well tonight, I think."
I can hardly wait to return to my job on Friday. Again, I arrive a few minutes before seven and again, Lupe offers me the pitcher of fresh juice, only this time, it is mango. We also share a small plate of eggs with tortillas and fresh fruit. I eat it all very quickly, because I am anxious to begin my work.
After lunch, Sra. Acosta asks me to sit down with her in the grand salon. My heart begins to pound; I wonder what she will say.
"Marta, you know that Rosa has worked here a long time and we like her very much. I was so sad when she told us about the new baby and that she would have to leave us. Sr. Acosta also felt sad, as did our son.
"But I think—we all think—that your aunt has given us a gift and that gift is you. We already see how well you work and how careful you are. If you continue this way, perhaps you will stay here as long as your tía Rosa did. That is, of course, if you are happy, too."
For the first time, I look right into Sra. Acosta's eyes when she says this last thing.
"Gracias, señora. I think I am very happy to be here and will try to please you in what I do. Por favor, if you ever need to correct me, or punish me for anything I do wrong, it will be all right. I am a strong girl and I can take it."
Sra. Acosta looks a bit surprised when I say this, but she smiles and says softly, "I promise, Martita: We will always be honest with you and hope you will be honest with us, too."
A month has passed since I first came to work in La Casa Acosta. Today, I will be given my first pay. I wish they would pay me every week, but Tía Rosa told me that this is how they like to do it, so I cannot say anything. There is a new little baby at Tía Rosa's and her husband has taken on a third job, to make up for the money they lost when she could no longer work. I wonder why it has to be that way and how any of their children will even recognize their papá if he is never home. I hope that doesn't happen to me when I get married.
At the end of the day, Sra. Acosta finds me upstairs, putting the cleaning tools away.
"Marta, here is your salary. You have done such good work that we have decided to pay you a little more than we had originally discussed."
"Ay! Muchisimas gracias, señora!" I am too embarrassed to open the small envelope in front of Sra. Acosta, so I slip it into my pocket, unopened.
"Now, I have a question for you, Marta," she says. "I have noticed that you never wear shoes - only this same pair of sandals. Is there a reason for this?"
I am surprised by this question, but answer truthfully.
"There are almost eight children in my family, señora, and I am the oldest. I say 'almost', because my mamá is going to have another baby soon.
"Whatever money I earn must go on the table, not on my feet. If I don't buy food, my little sisters and brothers will not have enough to eat. So, no shoes. I am very sorry."
"Ah," she sighs. "I understand, Martita. Please do not be sorry - it is not your fault and I apologize if I embarrassed you. I will not ask again."
The following Tuesday, la señora comes to me in the morning.
"Martita," she says, "I would like you to finish your work two hours early today. I have to go downtown and I will give you a ride home."
"Está bien, señora."
This is very strange, I think. Why does Sra. Acosta wish to drive me home? Ay, ay, ay! I do not want her to see where I live. And that part of the city where my family and I live is dangerous to someone who has money. Suppose she is robbed! That would be my fault. Oh, no - this is not good.
Finally, I finish my work early, as she asked and clean myself up as well as I can. The señora leads me to the driveway and opens the door of the beautiful, shiny black car for me. It is so large, my feet do not touch the floor in front of me and I can barely see out the window. Sra. Acosta drives carefully, but she doesn't ask me where I live or how to go there. I only know how the buses go, so I am not sure if she is driving the correct roads or not. Eventually, though, I can tell that she is not going in the right direction, but instead is heading to the shopping area in the center of town. Suddenly, she pulls into a parking space and stops the car.
"Come, Martita. I have a surprise for you!"
Sra. Acosta comes around to my side of the car, opens my door and gives me her hand, as if I were a little girl. I do not mind; she is such a sweet lady that I cannot imagine her doing anything that is not nice. We walk hand-in-hand until she stops in front of a large shop window that has hundreds of wonderful shoes on display. I look from the window to Sra. Acosta's pretty face, then back to the window. Once more, I look up into her face, which now is smiling. She pulls me by the hand, opens the door to the shop and we enter.
"Buenos días, Sra. Acosta!" A woman with very strange looking yellow hair piled on top of her head walks quickly toward us. "How may I help you today?"
"We wish to see your most comfortable walking shoes... for this young lady."
"I see," says the other woman. "Please follow me and we will measure her feet."
She leads us to the back of the store and makes me take off my sandals. I have to stand on an odd little metal contraption; she slides the ends and the sides, and announces to Sra. Acosta, "The young lady has extremely tiny feet, señora. Please allow me a few minutes to find for her whatever shoes we may have that will fit."
While we wait, Sra. Acosta walks around the shop. I can see that she is admiring the pretty, brightly colored shoes with the very high, very thin heels. I have never seen shoes like this and cannot imagine how or why anyone would wear such dangerous looking things.
Finally, the blonde woman returns and in her arms she carries a pile of boxes, almost up to her nose, which she places on the floor in front of me. Each box contains a pair of shoes, some brown, some dark blue and some black; all are plain, with very low heels and thick rubber soles. Gracias a dios, none of them has those high, thin heels that the señora favors.
The woman hands me a pair of silly little socks. "You must put these on before you try the shoes," she tells me, and puts her hands on her hips when I hesitate. I look up at Sra. Acosta, who nods at me, so I put them on.
Some of the shoes are too small, but the woman uses a little curved plastic thing that looks like a long seashell and helps squeeze my feet into them. When she bends over, I see that under the yellow hair it is very dark next to her scalp. I wonder why God would make hair like that. Ouch! she is pinching my skin with that seashell!
"Ay, excuse me," she says in a whiny voice. "Now please stand up and walk around a little, so we can see how they fit."
I already know they do not fit, but I do as I am told. My poor toes are shoved up against the ends of each shoe and I can barely walk.
"They look perfect, señora!" la estupida says to Sra. Acosta.
"How do they feel, Martita?"
"They hurt, Sra. Acosta. They are too small." I try to smile, as my mamá advised me, but unless I sit down, the pain is going to bring tears to my eyes.
"Then let's try a different size, por favor," she says to the woman.
The next pair of shoes goes on very easily. Too easily. When I walk in them, my feet slide up and down. Even I know that this will cause sores on my feet. I point this out to both ladies.
We continue this routine with the next three pairs and I think we are all starting to worry. But with the sixth pair of shoes we finally have success.
"Señora, these are perfect, I think," I say, staring down at my own feet as I walk farther and farther away from our seats and then turn around.
"Are you sure, Marta?" she asks. "We don't want to make a mistake, you know."
I walk back and I can feel my face smiling. "I am sure, señora. They feel wonderful."
"How many colors do these come in?" she asks the silly blond woman.
"Black and light brown, señora."
"Then we will take one of each. And six pairs of socks to go with them. Please wrap them up and charge them to my account."
When we are seated in the big black car once again, I am so happy, I can hardly speak. Then I think of something and as Sra. Acosta is about to turn the key to start the engine, I say, "Excuse me, señora, but I have a favor to ask of you."
"What is it, Martita?"
"If it isn't too much trouble, could you please write a note to my father and tell him it was you who bought these shoes for me? He is able to read a little."
"Well, of course, but may I ask why?"
"Because if I walk into our house with these new shoes, he will perhaps worry that a man—you know, a boyfriend-man—gave them to me. That would make him very angry. Do you understand?"
"Oh, yes, Marta. I do understand. My papá would have had the same reaction. I am happy to write that note for you."
"Gracias, señora. Gracias por todo." I draw in a deep breath. "Señora, would it be all right if I took the bus home from here? I think it will be easier... for both of us."
I carry the big plastic shopping bag into our casita and lay it on the floor, next to my bed. Everyone stares, first at the bag and then at me. Mamá gives me a fearful look as she continues to stir the pot of fish stew on the charcoal stove. I pull the note that Sra. Acosta has written out of my pocket and hand it to Papá. He looks at it suspiciously, with a deep frown on his brown, brown face. Slowly, he unfolds the paper and reads. I can see that his eyes are going from top to bottom of the page and then back to the top again. When he finishes reading it for the second time, he has a huge smile spread across his face, which I think he is trying to control.
"Tell me one thing, mi hija," he says. "Did they take the money for these shoes from your pay?"
"No, Papá! I was worried about that, too, so I asked the lady before she paid for them. Not only did she not make me pay for them, but she even told me that they are going to give me more money in the future. Is that not wonderful, Papá?"
My papá is not one to kiss and hug us very often, but he puts his arms around my shoulders and pulls me toward him. "I am very proud of you, mi hija," he whispers in my ear and then he kisses the top of my head.
Tomorrow is my birthday. I will be thirteen years old.
Title image "Guatemalan Shoes #1" and closing image "Guatemalan Shoes #2" provided courtesy of K.D. Wallis.