by Douglas Mendoza
I am not quite sure how it happened or why it happened. But I found myself in the house of a woman from my home town of Cochabamba. Perhaps it was a result of our system of reciprocity. My family had helped scrape together money for her journey to the US when she was a teen. And now, she was going to help me, who had been sent to the US by my desperate parents in the hopes that I could forge a better future for myself. I was a very skinny boy who seldom found a reason to speak except when I was hungry. I was clueless, shy and hopelessly naïve.
After an arduous journey, of which the most difficult part was getting from Logan Airport to an address in East Boston, I arrive at the front door. I am holding a piece of paper with the address in one hand, and an old suitcase which has been carefully packed by my mother in the other hand. As I am taken up a helical stairway, I cannot see where I am going because her rear end—which is directly in front of my face—is so large that it completely obscures my vision. She brings me to a small attic room which consists of a bed, a small window, a light and a steeply sloped ceiling. I lay my suitcase on the floor and sit on the bed. I think, ‘There is no room to stand up, but this will be fine; this room is only for sitting on the bed and sleeping.’
I open my suitcase, and look carefully at the objects my mom has meticulously packed. On top are a science book, a notebook, and a pouch filled with writing utensils; on the side is my favorite pair of brown slippers; all the clothes underneath have been folded, ironed and placed in for maximum capacity by my mother; on the other side of the suitcase is my food box. I am sad because I have already eaten all the empanadas and cunades my mother has made for me for my long journey. I have been traveling for twenty-four hours. So I lie down and close my eyes.
“Douglas, get up, you’re coming with me.” I don’t know how long I have been sleeping, but it must have been only minutes. I jump up, smashing my head into the ceiling. I am very confused and disoriented. She says, “Douglas, you’re coming with me to the mall.” I am really excited. I’ve heard about US malls, where you can get everything. In Cochabamba, there is only one shopping center. But my family buys all our food from small local stores. ‘Maybe this woman is bringing me to the mall to get me something special!’ I jump into the front seat of her Toyota RAV4. The city is so big and noisy; I wonder how anyone knows where they’re going. We arrive at a giant building and drive straight into it. Down, down we go into its pansa, its belly.
We leave the car and enter into a transparent elevator. As we go up I see the walls passing by. We emerge to bright lights, signs and people everywhere. We see them through the glass. I wave but no one notices. We step out on the third floor. I can smell food from the floor below. I have no idea which store she is bringing me to, but I hope it’s for food. We walk up to a kiosk. It has sports paraphernalia hanging all over the place. She speaks to the woman selling the stuff. The woman gets her bag and walks away.
I hear the woman from Cochabamba saying, “Douglas, te quedas aqui, mirar el carrito, si alguen viene, agarra el dinero,” Douglas, stay here, watch the cart, if anyone comes, take the money. Then the woman from Cochabamba, too, walks away down the mall and into the crowd. I am confused. I am standing by the cart and looking around. I see people looking at the stuff on the cart. Some of them are interested in the products and speak to me in English. I have no idea what they are saying. One woman hands me an acrylic ball with “Red Sox” stamped in its interior. I don’t know why she hands me this; she then hands me a piece of paper money with a five on it. I look down at my hands; a ball in one hand; five dollars in the other. I shake my head for a few seconds, and then I realize that the ball has come from the cart I am standing by and it has a $4.99 sticker on it. I look at the register—I have seen them in Bolivia, but have no idea how to open it. The shopper is getting a little irritated. She takes the ball and walks away. I am at the kiosk trying to figure out how to do this transaction and others for what feels like an eternity, but it is actually only an hour and a half before the woman from Cochabamba returns, locks up the kiosk and we leave.
We get back to her house and I meet her family. Her husband, Julian from Ecuador, is much smaller than her and welcomes me in a very soft voice. Her two children come from the living room where they are watching TV. Twelve-year-old Cristian and ten-year-old Marco giggle as they shake my hand. They are very plump children and their Spanish sounds very strange to me. After Cristian and Marco greet me, they run back to the living room. I glimpse a huge fifty-inch flat screen TV with cartoons blaring.
It seems clear to me that this woman from Cochabamba is the supreme leader of the household. She starts speaking to me. Her voice is pinched: “This is America. Nobody gives you anything here; nothing is for free. You have to work for everything.”
I look at her confused—I am so hungry that I can’t even process what she is saying or why she is saying it.
“The tasks you will be responsible for in this house are: the dishes every day, the garbage on Thursdays and sweeping the floors twice a week.”
The only thing I am thinking about is my aching stomach. So I ask her if I can have some food before I go to bed. She allows me to get myself a glass of milk and a peanut butter and jam sandwich. As I am making my sandwich, Cristian and Marco join me and quickly make themselves two large sandwiches each. I notice that now there is no more bread.
Alone in my little angled-ceiling room, I lie down and think about my family—wishing that I could be there with my mom cooking me silpancho. I am still hungry! As I fall asleep, I wonder: “Is she really from Cochabamba? This woman from Cochabamba is so weird. She told me to make myself a strange sandwich instead of providing a real meal.” Waves of exhaustion overtake me; I am asleep. I am dreaming of my mother and father. They are in the kitchen, my father is pounding meat; my mother is cooking rice and frying potatoes; my sister is cracking open the eggs. Oh! They are making me silpancho!! Mmmm, silpancho.
It is the next day; she is bringing me to a large supermarket. Again, I am overjoyed. We are going to get all kinds of foods and many varieties of potatoes. Maybe she’ll cook silpancho. She fills up the cart with all kinds of packaged food that I have never seen before. Coco Puffs, Cookie Crisp, chocolate chip cookies, fake apple pie, Doritos, frozen chicken fingers overflow the cart. We come to check out and she demands I pay half the bill. I feel very uncomfortable; the bill is more than my parents spend in half a year. I will be giving up all the money my father told me to spend very carefully. This money in my wallet is what I am supposed to live on; everyone in my family sacrificed to put it together for me to come to the US. I hand her a hundred and ten dollars. I am left with forty dollars. Marco and Cristian are really happy eating Oreo cookies all the way home. I am sad because we have not bought potatoes.
As each day comes, my life is increasingly challenging and I don’t know how to ease my predicament. I feel rushed and hungry all the time. The woman from Cochabamba brings me to sign in to high school. She fills out the forms at school headquarters as if she is my legal guardian. She drops me off at Brighton High School. I see a huge gothic castle at the top of a steep hill. I am thinking, “I thought the US was a new country; how can this old castle structure be my school?” Inside, the school is pure chaos for me. The students are loud, rowdy and overexcited. They are all willing to help me find where I am supposed to go, but I don’t know how to communicate with them.
Finding my way back by myself to the house of the woman from Cochabamba in East Boston is an adventure. I have instructions from a guidance counselor at school on how to go from Brighton to East Boston. He has told me really quickly in Spanish, “Take the green line and at the junction, take the blue line.” He did not tell me there were lots of junctions and lots of colors. I follow the main crowd of students and we all get on the trolley. The group does not stay together and new groups join. I notice a train map above one of the trolley’s doors. The map consists of six colored paths that intercept and some of them even split into two or four paths. All the colors are different, but I cannot tell what colors they are. I have an unplanned tour to both South Boston and Forest Hills. It takes me over four hours to get back to East Boston the first time. The school has been crazy, loud and confusing, but now the subway is frightening—the people are not happy, they are not interacting with each other and some of them look hostile. The subway is dirty, jerky and crowded.
Every day at school I am hungry. I have no money to pay for lunch; the other students give their ID number and get free lunch. I give my ID number and I hear the lunch lady say, “That will be three dollars and twenty-five cents.” The woman from Cochabamba has filled out the lunch form with her income. So with that action, I do not qualify for free lunch; she does not give me lunch money or any other money for anything. I do not want to write my parents to ask them for money because I know how hard it is for them to send me any—I do write to them, but I tell them that I am doing well and working very hard, and that they don’t have to worry about me.
I start to stay after school every day, to study in the physics room. When I get back to the house of the woman from Cochabamba, sometimes there is no food left, but there is always a big stack of dishes to be washed. After I finish my chores, I spend a couple of hours doing math and physics on my little bed in the attic. On weekends, I am forced to work eight to ten hour shifts at her sports logo item business in the mall.
As the first year passes, I am miserable. School is a nightmare. I am being completely misunderstood. I am assigned to English immersion classes—where they teach non-English speakers only in English without using any of their native languages. My English teacher, Mrs. Wu, is a very strict Chinese woman in her sixties from Jamaica. The class consists of what I can only describe as a bunch of clowns. During class, Mrs. Wu speaks loudly and slowly in English and then calls on us for responses. “COMPLETE THE FOLLOWING SENTENCES: MY CAT IS _____.” She points right at my head saying, “MR. MENDOZA, ANSWER.” I am thinking in Spanish, ‘I am allergic to cats. I dislike them because they make me very sick.’ But it is Spanish, not English, so no words come out. “MR. MENDOZA, STOP FOOLING AROUND, ANSWER.” The boys in the class throw paper at the girls, crack jokes in different languages, and sleep; some speak really really fast in Spanish for fun, so that Mrs. Wu has no chance of knowing what they are saying. The girls are not quite as foolish, but they do spend most of the class flirting and giggling. There are a few students like me, who sit in class totally confused and do nothing.
Just when I think things cannot get any worse, the woman from Cochabamba goes to my school and has a private meeting with Mrs. Wu. She chooses Mrs. Wu because I am doing poorly in her class. After their meeting is over, we get back to the house in East Boston, and the woman from Cochabamba demeans me. She tells me I am good for nothing, screams at me that I am a devil-worshipper and a drug addict. Somehow she has decided I am evil. I am not exactly sure why, but I suspect it is my two-year-old Slipknot T-Shirt and my three-year-old MP3 player loaded with heavy metal.
Now every day, the woman from Cochabamba yells at me for eating food that her own children, Marco and Cristian, are eating. Cristian stands behind her and looks at me; he knows it is he and Marco who are eating the food before I get home from school. I say nothing because I don’t want to blame Marco and Cristian since they are just kids. However, I am thinking to myself how ironic to imagine that I am the one consuming all the food. I am getting skinnier and skinnier, while the woman from Cochabamba, Marco and Cristian are getting fatter and fatter and fatter. In school, Mrs. Wu now thinks that I am a good-for-nothing boy. She believes what the woman from Cochabamba has told her in the private meeting—that I eat up all her food and never help with anything, that I am on drugs and into devil worship. Meanwhile, I never miss a night of washing dishes; the floor is always swept; the garbage is always taken out; I help Marco and Cristian with their math homework; and I work long hours in her business at the mall every weekend. I do, however, have my MP3 player on when I do the house work. But I just love the beat; I have no idea what the words to the songs I listen to mean. My English is not progressing at all and my spoken Spanish disappearing—I am having no conversations at the house, and at school I am avoiding conversations. At the mall, I focus on doing the job effectively. I have now learned how to do all transactions and I don’t mind dealing with customers. I find it can all be done with sign language.
It is the end of my first year; I have started to create a pretty decent life in the intervals between my tortures; I am even starting to find my berating by the woman from Cochabamba amusing, which of course makes her even more furious. Now more and more, I am able to spend long hours after school immersed in physics problem-solving. This is my oasis; this is the space where no woman from Cochabamba can tread. My physics and math teachers are very supportive of me. My physics teacher notices how skinny I am getting; she starts to share her lunch with me every day. My calculus teacher cracks math jokes that always make me laugh. I am on the robotics team and play volleyball. I have a few crazy friends who don’t mind me not talking to them. We have no intellectual discussion but they are a lot of fun. Angel is a big Peruvian who wants to be an engineer but has no intention of studying. Oscar is from Venezuela; he is a very good pitcher and wants to be a baseball star. His only problem is that he is undocumented. Julio is from Colombia; he is a good soccer player and crazy about girls. There is very little time for me to do anything outside school.
One day, Angel, Oscar and Julio decide that we are all going to eat before practice. So we go to “Boca Grande” for burritos. As they are ordering, they shout, “Douglas, you’re buying,” and I respond, “Why? I have no money.” Angel retorts, “Don’t hide the fucking money, we all know you work every week in the mall.” I look at them confused. “I don’t get paid, I have to work there,” I tell them. Oscar and Julio protest, “WHAAAAATTT? You’re lying.” But when I show them my empty wallet, Angel reluctantly pays for me; still, none of them believe that I work at the mall every weekend for no money.
The next day, I ask my physics teacher why my friends were surprised that I had no money. “I didn’t know you were getting nothing,” she responds emphatically. “Slavery is against the law in the US.” I start to think. ‘Yes, I am forced to work for no money.’ I reply, “But she gives me a place to sleep.” My teacher responds without hesitating, “So did the slave owners; they had to provide a place for slaves to sleep, and food to keep them going. You don’t even seem to get food!” There is nothing more to be said; we return to doing physics problems.
Through the winter, I continue to work for the woman from Cochabamba. I now know she is taking advantage of me. But I have no choice. Focusing more intensely on my AP Physics and Calculus, I really start to learn and enjoy learning. One weekend in February, the woman from Cochabamba loans me to her brother for his business in another mall. He asks her what my current salary is; she tells him not to pay me. He does not argue with her, but at the end of the day he gives me eighty dollars and doesn’t say a word.
In late April, I ask the woman from Cochabamba if I can take a couple of weekends off because my classes are meeting to study for the upcoming AP exams. She refuses. “You’re just faking studying; I had to work when I came to America. Nobody gave me days off. You are a lazy boy.”
Saturday comes; instead of going to the mall, I study with my AP class for ten hours, and make it up by working extra hours on Sunday. She is furious. I have disobeyed her. She informs me that I have to leave her house. It is the week of the AP exams; I am taking three. Tomorrow is the first one: calculus. So I decide to go to bed early.
“Douglas, come down here,” calls the woman from Cochabamba from the bottom of the stairs. I don’t believe it; it’s 10pm and I have a big test tomorrow. I walk down the stairs; she directs me down to the basement. There are stacks and stacks of unopened boxes. She makes me work in her moldy basement opening the boxes and sorting inventory from China until three o’clock in the morning. Getting up for my exam is really difficult, but when I arrive five minutes late, I quickly lose myself in the differentiation and integration.
The process of working in her basement and taking the AP exams is repeated throughout the week. The woman from Cochabamba seems determined to break me, but now nothing is going to stop me from learning and achieving. When I return to East Boston each night, she repeatedly yells at me that I have to get out; she is calling me names and screaming at me.
The week my AP exams ends, she is still making me work in the basement. The exams are over; I have time to take a breath. Everything crystallizes for me. ‘No way can I keep functioning under these conditions. She is throwing me out and making me work more hours for her at the same time. How is this logical? How can she not see that I am benefiting her? No situation could be as intolerable as the one I am in now. I have been with this woman from Cochabamba for one year. I have no winter coat; I have only the clothes I came with; my toes have broken through my sneakers.’
The next day, I work my last ten-hour shift for her and return to East Boston. As I walk in the door, she is throwing words at me, as usual. “You must get out; you ate all the cereal; you are taking up too much space; I need the attic back; you are useless; get out.” I have my suitcase already packed; in fact, I don’t believe I ever fully unpacked it. As I walk out, she looks at me shocked. Her husband pats me gently on my shoulder and hands me twenty dollars. I walk out into the city alone, but free.
Douglas Mendoza is from Cochabamba, Bolivia. He is from a native Quechuan ancestry with some possible conquistador contribution. He was born in the US, but was raised in Cochabamba until he was sixteen. After his family experienced some disappointments and hardships, Douglas, a mediocre student, unexpectedly won fourth place in the National Mathematics Competition and placed second in a national science competition. It was decided by a council of elders, priests, teachers and his parents that he should be sent to the US to gain an American education.
He arrived at the Boston Public Schools as a sort of an anomaly. Here he was, he appeared to be a substandard student without a word of English, but somehow he was supposed to be smart. Now, four years later Douglas is a junior in good standing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, class of 2013.