THE QUEENS OF SANTO NIÑO
In the parking lot of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, in the cool dusk—which is a lie already, because it is never really cool, not even on this January evening, since this is Texas and, more specifically, this is Galveston—we wait. We stand on the concrete, ducking into windows of one another’s parked cars to chat, or we sit inside with the AC blasting, or we lean against the walls and watch twilight draw shadows like a dark veil around the church. We are there before even the priest arrives to unlock the doors or the volunteer choir sets up their amps and microphone stands.
We prowl for things to do, tasks to help with. Some of us, like Yoli Sandoval and Tagay Macasantos, cart in vases of flowers from our new Buicks. Some of us, like Gloria Rivera or Marlo Suayan, arrive in hand-me-down Hondas with roses clipped from our backyard bushes—red, always red, for the holy day. We arrange flowers on the altar, or at the feet of the Blessed Mother’s statue, or beside the portrait of the Sacred Heart of Jesus for whom this church is named. (When we think about that, we place more flowers by the portrait.) Some of us, humming with the energy of Santo Niño feast day, buzz about distributing paper programs—the programs we have used since we started this event many years ago. The pamphlets are battered, creased from our hands, pocked by inkblots and typos where we list the schedule of the Mass, the Tagalog prayers we will say together, the Tagalog songs we will sing. We place copies in each pew. We sit or kneel on the cushions, our fingers pressed to rosary beads. We tune our guitars and warble a few chords of the opening song. O Santo Niñong marikit, sanggol na handog ng langit.
Our voices—in song or in gossip—echo in every corner of the Catholic church on Broadway and 13th, which had been quiet before we arrived. We do very little quietly. And yet we quiet when Maharlika Castillo walks in. We turn to watch. She has that effect. She strides into Sacred Heart purposefully, with her daughter—Carly, is that her name? yes—by the hand.
Hello, we call out to them, and ask Maharlika, Kumusta ka na?
“I’m fine,” she replies in pointed English. We flinch. We can’t help it. Her English is sharp, intentional, a knife aimed at us. From her new crooked smile that shows teeth to this language she chooses in place of ours, she has built an arsenal; she wages war against us and the world.
* * *
Once she was kind to us. When she arrived, she found us almost immediately, as every FOB does—bonding first with the ones who worked at the hospital. We walked her through the corridors and buildings of John Sealy and the larger complex, taught her where the supply closets and cafeterias were, where to purchase scrubs, how to update charts and input medical data for UTMB system-wide. We instructed her on the Spanish phrases she would need to learn (¿Cómo se escribe su nombre? ¿Tienes seguro médico?). In our homes we passed her platters of sticky rice and whole fish fried crisp; when she wept with homesickness, we rubbed her shoulders, shushing her as we, too, had once needed. And on this feast day, the one day of the year when the Filipino community emerges from every sweaty corner of Galveston to unite and honor our patron saint, Maharlika was always there. She read at the podium. Sang in the choir. Served plates of pancit and adobo at the after-party. Was it just two years ago that she was last here? That she was one of us?
Maharlika, we used to say with admiration, marveling at the rare, beautiful name that means in our tongue something akin to nobility, to being of a line with royal blood. Maharlika.
But she is exalted now, or thinks she is. That is probably our fault.
She washed up on this island with a nursing degree and a job at the hospital despite having never set foot in America before. We thought she was embracing a new life, as we had. Unlike us, she had family here—her mother, who had immigrated long before. We did not really know her mother, and when she died of cancer not long after Maharlika arrived, we felt no sorrow, but we went dutifully to her funeral Mass, prayed the novena for her in Maharlika’s apartment in Fish Village.
We should have noticed it then, but we didn’t. Should have seen the shape Maharlika’s grief took—curled up sideways on the couch, cheek to the padded arm, slippered feet tucked beneath her as if she hadn’t the energy to take her shoes off. How she burst into sobs in the middle of shift-change meetings or standing in the Walmart checkout line. We should have seen that her grief was lasting. We did not expect that when the next loss came—her man—it would shift again, reshape itself into a grief for the old ways, her old lives in which she belonged to someone. A mother. A man. A country. When she was a child of something tangible in the world. Years from now, it will seem so obvious to us that she was never meant to be a mother or an immigrant.
* * *
“Carly,” she says to the daughter, “sit here. Practice the prayers.” In the front-row pew she has claimed for herself—Yoli Sandoval sees her coming and scoots her brood of five way down, hissing at them to move faster—she hands the girl our program. Carly clutches a rosary. She is six years old.
“Practice,” Maharlika says. She prods her daughter, poking at her.
In the busy quiet of the church, we watch Carly squint at the words.
“Ama … Ama namin,” she begins the Our Father in Tagalog, painfully slow. We look at her, the little mixed girl. “Sumasa—suma—” It hurts our ears, her accent; from our places at the podium, in the choir, by the entrance, we wince.
“Sumasalangit Ka,” Maharlika corrects her. “You know this, Carly. Try again.”
The child has grown, we think as we tilt our heads at her. She is taller than our own children, though Maharlika is small, like us. Was the child’s father tall? In our memories we find only a hazy image: skin brown as ours, with wide shoulders and an arched nose. He came to one Santo Niño fiesta and sat in the back while Maharlika led us through the First Reading. He was Catholic, we assumed, like most of the Mexicans here, but he seemed to have forgotten even the English prayers, or maybe was simply uninterested in reciting them. During the Our Father when we reached out for one another’s hands, he kept his tucked into the pockets of his khaki slacks.
If he was handsome, we did not notice. His slacks fit him poorly and looked ragged. We thought him crude, uncouth. Emblematic of his kind. We dislike Mexicans—the slouch of their posture, the growl of their accents, which sound like those of the peasants in the lower provinces we left across the Pacific. The way they speak Spanish even here, glaring when people insist on English, muttering gringo and Tejas and did you know the border crossed us, and all the while we have killed ourselves to learn the hard, sharp words of America, force our teeth and breathe through our noses to imitate their sounds, refusing to recall colonizers or occupation and instead remembering MacArthur, Kennedy, Elvis. But that is only the start of it. Listen: The important thing for this moment is that her man was Mexican. Maharlika loved him and hated our scorn. That one fiesta when we sneered at him was the first time she looked at us with shadowed eyes and saw something she was not part of.
The girl is speaking, or trying to. She casts her gaze past her mother to us, pleading. Baby Manon-og and Gloria Rivera, who have American grandchildren, take the most pity on her. You can do it, we dare to say aloud, just go more slowly.
Carly starts again, breaks again. She fumbles through our words, and we are afraid that what we suspect is true, that she has a Filipina mother but no Philippines anywhere in her. That Maharlika has cast us off, truly. That this—flaunting the half-breed child who came from her but knows nothing of our ways—is her simply going through the motions, another weapon she can wield.
* * *
We named our children traditional names: Rose, Lucia, Yolanda. Virgilio, Esteban, Rudolfo. Paz, Joel. Maria. Lourdes. Maria Lourdes. We named them as Americans: Jessica. Gregory. Belinda. Luke. Kaylee. Hannah. Blake. Madison. David. We named them for saints—Bernadette, Joseph, Catherine—and for political leaders—George, Lyndon, Benigno, Corazón—and for things that sound sweet, that make us smile—Cherry Pie, Little Boy, Honeybaby, Sunshine.
Maharlika did the same. At least we can say that.
We were there after her delivery as soon as the OB nurses would let us in (which, since seven of us work there, was very soon). Maharlika held the bundle of pink, puffy-faced girl to her breast.
Anong pangalan niya? we asked.
“Carly,” she said. She smiled; we all did, remembering the first year Maharlika arrived here, 1979, how the only American song she knew the words to was “You’re So Vain,” she and her mother singing along with Carly Simon on cassette, how that song was the first thing she loved, truly, about America.
Our children were born here, or raised here, and when they are old enough, they will rename themselves. Benigno will not be called Ninoy, for fear that he will share that politician’s fate; Corazón is called Cory, in hopes that she will. Yolanda is Yoly, or Yoli, or Yoyo (whichever distinguishes her from the three other Yolandas in her sophomore class). “Call me Birdie,” Bernadette will say to her patients. Maria Lourdes’s name badge says Marlo, or Maria, or Lola, or, in one confusing instance, Odette.
Long after her mother is gone, after she has cut ties with this part of her, Carly will stay Carly.
* * *
While Carly reads in the pew, we cluck our tongues and turn back to our work. We place the remaining programs and fluff cushions. Near the back of the church, we gather to discuss the order of things. Rosie, go up to the podium and give the greeting. Make sure, Yoli, that the choir starts with the right song this time—last year maraming mga mistakes. Ihanda ang music. Lolo, your family will bring the bread and wine during the Offertory, can you make sure your husband doesn’t wobble the decanter? Hay nako.
Copyright © 2022 by Kimberly Garza