High Hopes

Emily Herrera soars toward stardom

Once when Emily was looking through her mother's drawers, she spotted official-looking paperwork with Air Force seals. When she asked what it meant, her mother revealed her plan. "Don't tell your father," Velma warned her seven-year-old daughter.

"Why would I tell him anything?" Emily asked. She only hoped her mother's plan wouldn't take much longer.

It didn't. One Saturday afternoon Fred turned on Emily, accusing her of misplacing his TV Guide. Drunk, and enraged by her denials, he undid the heavy metal buckle of his belt and began hitting her. When Velma rushed into the room to rescue her daughter, he struck her, too. Somehow Velma managed to get the girls past him, though, and they fled to a neighbor's house. Emily's back was covered with welts, some made by the belt and others clearly showing the imprint of a hand.

Velma took the girls home to San Antonio, to Celia and Antonio. They kept the girls while she started basic training.

For Emily, it was like going to sleep in hell and waking up in heaven. If anything, she was her grandfather's favorite because she had dark skin. He called her "my Emilia" and would hold his arms open so that she could jump into them. He was soft-spoken, but he loved to laugh, and she could tell him anything.

Emily and her sister were now surrounded by family. Most of the aunts and uncles on their mother's side lived within walking distance of Antonio and Celia, and the numerous cousins seemed to spend as much time at the house as the two sisters. They rarely heard from their father, and they didn't care if they ever did again.

The modest home--the ceilings were so low that the girls could touch them by bouncing on their beds--was filled with loving sounds and the smells of Tex-Mex cooking. On Sundays Antonio would go to the butcher for barbacoa--meat placed in a calf's head and cooked slowly underground--which dripped with fat destined to be sopped up with homemade tortillas. And at Christmas, there were always Celia's famous tamales.

Celia was the taskmaster and disciplinarian. Antonio's job was to play with the girls. He scolded them only when they broke one rule: The various dogs and cats that roamed the yard were not allowed in the house. But one day Emily slipped and let in a cat, which promptly relieved itself.

When he found out, Antonio threw a rare fit. Emily was frightened, but the old man quickly forgave his granddaughter.

Two weeks later Antonio was suddenly taken to the hospital, where he died.
Hundreds of people attended Antonio's funeral--family and neighbors and people he had met through his work. But Emily could take little consolation from those who assured her that her grandfather had lived a rich, full life and had gone on to a better place. She was sure she had caused her grandfather's death by letting in the cat. It was her guilty secret that she felt she would probably carry to her own grave.

But a week or so after the funeral, Emily was sitting on the bed in her grandfather's room with one of her cousins when both girls felt a weight on the mattress behind them and a warm pressure on their backs, as though someone had placed a hand there. Knowing they were alone, the frightened girls ran from the room without looking back.

After she caught her breath, Emily decided that the presence must have been her grandfather, coming back to assure her everything was all right. "Grandfather, grandfather!" she called, running back into the room. There was no reply, but from that day forward she believed that Antonio Delgado watched over his Emilia.

She was still missing her grandfather a few months later when she climbed on the garage roof and stopped to listen to her grandmother sing. It was as if she was hearing music for the first time.

Celia had never been Emily's favorite grandparent; she was strict and far stingier with her hugs than Antonio had been. And Celia would scold her when she didn't understand something said in Spanish. "Emilia," she would ask, "why don't you know the language of your people?" About the only thing Emily knew was a little song she'd learned in kindergarten called "Cielito Lindo."

But now, crouching on the roof and hearing Celia sing, Emily felt herself drawn to the old woman as surely as if a string ran between their two hearts.

Although untrained, Celia's soprano had a natural vibrato that imparted so much warmth and emotion that Emily felt she could almost understand the words of the old Spanish song. Taking in the scene below, she thought about her grandfather looking down on her while her grandmother's voice soared past her, up to the heavens like la golondrina, the swallow.

Mi corazon al tuyo estrechare. My heart will be bound to yours.
Oira tu canto tierna la golondrina. The swallow will hear your sweet song.
Recordare mi patria y llorare. I will remember my country and cry.

When Emily was ten, her mother was transferred to an air base in England. This time she took her children, as well as a new husband, with her. Velma had gotten married because she thought her children needed a father figure, especially now that her own father had passed away. But the man turned out to be an overbearing dictator, and the trip overseas almost lasted longer than the marriage.

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