“¿Y cuándo vuelves?” says my great-grandma, Ama Lola, in her shaky voice. Ama Lola’s small body sits hunched on the edge of the beige plastic-covered couch. She’s wearing one of her simple floral dresses and her hair pulled tightly into a bun. My great aunt Maria Luisa, or as I like to call her my tía Maria Luisa is sitting down next to her. She’s my Ama Lola’s oldest daughter. My tía does Ama Lola’s hair every morning, amongst many other duties as her primary caretaker. I bend to give Ama Lola a hug, pa’ despedirme (to say goodbye). She slips 400 pesos into my hand. My tía Maria Luisa, quick to scold, says “¿Ay ama, para que le das eso? Si ya se va.” (Mom, why are you giving her that? She’s leaving.) The irritation routinely present and noticeable in my aunt’s voice, especially when speaking to my great-grandma. But all that is just a memory that has come bursting in. “¿Y cuándo vuelves?” (And when will you return?) Ama Lola asked that to anyone going back home to the States. It doesn’t matter now what I told her that visit. I didn’t return until after she was gone.
One morning my tía Maria Luisa found my Ama Lola unresponsive. Those of us in California flew to Mexico right away. Following Mexican Catholic tradition, there would be a novenario, a novena. That evening, those that fit inside, gathered cramped in my great-grandma’s tiny living room. Ama Lola was known by everyone in the rancho. There were even rows of chairs in the front patio and the backyard. Family, neighbors, even small children recited the prayers so swiftly. It was ingrained in them. Sitting with my back straight on a brown metal folding chair at the very back of the room, I pretended to be a good-little Catholic mouthing what I thought were the right phrases at the right time. “Padre….estas en…cielo…tu nombre.” (Father…who art...heaven…your name)
The next day was almost the same, except this time I looked for my tía Maria Luisa, with her familiar pixie haircut and simple button-ups, in the crowded room. It was usually rare to find her showing her emotions. But if I could catch a glimpse of her during prayer, where most were letting their guard down, maybe I could witness how she was feeling. Would it be grief? Devotion? Resentment? Or perhaps, I wanted to see her face because I needed to know she’d be okay. Nevertheless, I could not spot her.
Before this trip, I always knew my tía to be stoic and quick-tempered, and her body moving with determination. While she fried our eggs for breakfast on Summer mornings, she’d gaze at the pan silently, as if studying the hot grease bubbles as they jumped on the egg. Then in an instant she’d appear outside, sweeping the cement backyard in quick, fluid motions. Now, entering her 80s, she walked slowly with a limp. Years of neglecting her knee had caught up to her. Her left eye wouldn’t stop watering. A chronic cough had settled in her throat. Her body, much smaller and fragile.
The next day, inside my uncle Chuy’s small brown house, two white rectangular tables were pushed together and the whole family sat down for lunch. Caldo de pollo, fitting for the cold February afternoon. Towards the end of the meal, my tía Maria Luisa stood up to head slowly toward the couch. Suddenly, she fainted. My cousin Junior caught her frail body and swept her into a chair. Another cousin lifted her arm to monitor her vital signs. Someone called for an ambulance. They told us to remove any tight clothing. I grabbed some scissors and cut open her shirt to reveal una faja, a waist trainer. Also known as a staple of an old-school Latina. With no time to think I sliced through the sturdy fabric—straight down. Her faja was clasped on so tight, I thought I might pierce her skin. Someone else pushed tiny pieces of chocolate into her mouth. They said it would raise her blood sugar.
Gradually, my tia Maria Luisa woke up. The moment became increasingly calm; everyone let out their sighs of relief. And in the brief quiet my tía, half-awake, whispered, “Es que solo cierro los ojos y sigo viendo su carita.” (I just close my eyes and all I see is her face.) The sight of Ama Lola’s face had buried itself in my aunt’s memory. I had never heard her say something so personal. In my family, the vulnerable typically remains unsaid.
Many years ago, when I could no longer keep in what I needed to say, I came out to my grandma. She hugged me, then said, “Tu tía Maria Luisa también es como tú.” (Your aunt is also like you.) It was no surprise to me. She donned a pixie cut and devoted herself to trousers and button-ups. There was no boyfriend or husband. There was a woman, we all called tía Ofelia, who slept in the same room as her for years. The clues were all there.
From what my grandma told me, my Ama Lola refused to acknowledge my tía and her partner as a couple. She’d say, “¡Ay, esas viejas ridículas!” (Those ridiculous old women!) My Ama Lola was not alone in that sentiment. Most people—including my great-aunt—maintained an attitude of, “Lo que se ve no se pregunta.” That was the famous response from the Mexican singer, and now queer icon, Juan Gabriel when asked about his sexuality decades ago. (You do not ask about what is plain to see.) In public, my tía never held her partner’s hand, spoke about their plans together, or displayed any other type of affection towards her. Their relationship could not extend beyond being in the same space together. My tía Ofelia passed away a very long time ago. Now my Ama Lola was gone, too. The fourth night of the novena had come and gone. My week-long stay at my Ama Lola’s house was coming to an end. As I was inching towards sleep and staring at the red brick ceiling above, I could not shake the image of my tía alone in the small orange house. Soon we would all be leaving her behind, too. Would she feel lonely?
Out of her brothers and sisters, my tía Maria Luisa stayed in the house they all grew up in to take care of Ama Lola. Everyone else got married, and created families of their own. I’ve known of other older Latinx queers who also became responsible for their parents’ care. In truth, I don’t know whether that was her choice, an obligation—for not being straight—or both. Did she sacrifice her own life for her mom? Yet, who am I to say she didn’t think her life was enough? What was clear though was that besides the love she had for my Ama Lola, there was a great deal of resentment. If my Ama Lola said something was black, my tía jumped on the chance to say it was in fact white. At first, watching the two of them was amusing, and eventually it would get uncomfortable.
I felt some guilt that week. Despite also being queer, my aunt’s life developed differently than mine. By sheer luck of timing, I get to be truly out. That week my mom and I went to Tlajomuclo, in search of a raspado, shaved ice. We sat at a nearby bench. With my raspado de leche in hand, I asked her if she also ever wondered what my aunt’s life must’ve been like in such a stifling environment. The thing that stood out was the stern warning she gave me: “Nunca le vayas a preguntar de eso.” (Never ask her about that.)
Some of my life-firsts feature Mexico as the backdrop. My first kiss, my first leg-shave, my first motorcycle ride, my first and last dine-and-dash. Yes, perhaps you are given free rein to do almost whatever you want when visiting Mexico as a kid. A beautiful combination exists in all ranchos: It consists of cousins your own age and adults who are too busy gossiping or cooking inside. You mix the two and suddenly you find yourself in a situation involving some degree of bravery and novelty. Now, in my late-twenties, Mexico was the setting of the first novenario I had attended. I got through it, unscathed by my lack of knowledge in the most basic of Catholic prayers. I’ve been lucky, I have not experienced much death in my life. That week was also a reminder that time won’t always be abundant. One day it will be too late to ask my tía anything. Considering the circumstances of that trip, I knew it wasn’t going to involve a first-time connection wherein I learn about her on a deeper level. So, I am left to daydream. In this daydream, my tía Maria Luisa and I sit on her plastic-covered couch, where Ama Lola sat when I last promised her I would return. We sip on some cafecito. We are comfortable enough to face each other and even go so far as to shed a few tears over our shared-experiences. Using all the courage I have, I ask–What made you fall for my tía Ofelia? What was it like being queer here? Did you ever imagine a different life for yourself? Just how many dark blue button-ups do you own? Maybe she’d laugh and shake her head at my curiosity, or maybe she’d sit speechless and fixated on the disrespect of me even asking. But I’ve never had the opportunity to truly get to know other queer relatives. Perhaps it’s an American thing to ask those questions and simultaneously a human need to connect. Still, I hope that it can be a conversation for my next trip, when I return.
GINNA DIAZ is an actor and occasional writer, born and raised in Los Angeles. The heart of her work rests in telling stories that include and highlight the joys, ambitions, and imperfections of Latinx characters.