Going to Palomas — Communion by Camera
Story and photos by Victoria Tester
Editor's note: Victoria Tester is an award-winning poet and playwright, the author of Miracles of Sainted Earth (University of New Mexico Press). Over a decade ago, she began to visit and photograph the Mexican border town of Palomas, and to keep journals as a candid record of her experiences there. In a new series beginning in this issue, Going to Palomas, Tester offers us, through the jointed flow of her private journals and memorable photographic images of Palomas, a retrospective of her journeys there.
Given the recent epidemic of violence in Palomas, which claimed the life of the town's mayor last fall, and out of respect for the privacy of those Tester talked to, most names herein are abbreviated.
Tester adds: "All photographs presented in the series were taken with an old half-broken pawnshop Olympus. I didn't know an f-stop from a Border Patrol gate. The journals were scrawled in cheap black-and-white children's composition books, one of which was lost when my old car burst into flames on a journey back from the border to my home in the Gila Wilderness."
I'm in a little café in Columbus called La Casita, and there's a Mexican woman kissing a lucky two-dollar bill she's showing to her friends. I eavesdrop on the women until they invite me to join them. They fight over whose sofa I'm going to sleep on and the next morning I'm walking into Cantina El Flamingo in Palomas in broad daylight with L — , who sometimes works there. She's carrying a homemade cheesecake.
We find the cantina women embroidering and reading those little Mexican novels where the heroine, who usually loses her mother at birth, is always pure and always loved.
"Photograph us like this, Victoria," they laugh. "Let them see what we're really like."
We talk about death so much our sides ache with laughter and expectation. "I don't want to be put in the ground," the oldest woman, in her sixties, confides. "I want a glass coffin above the ground in case I wake up."
It's the Day of the Dead and L — and I are going to the cemetery to take a wreath to put on her father's grave. On the way there she buys me a little Virgin of Guadalupe behind glass.
In the cemetery a man accuses me of practicing magic with my camera. The living are mixing with the dead, and I'm trailing around with my camera like a broken black wing.
"Why is she taking pictures of the children? She must be a witch!" an old man deep into his bottle mutters to his family.
I don't defend myself. Isn't he right? The souls of the children are fluttering against the insides of my little black box.
They look anxious, and his wife approaches me politely. "My husband wonders why you are taking pictures of the children."
"No, no, no," L — says. "She's a journalist."
"She works for the newspaper. Would you like me to take a picture of you?" L — is carrying around a Polaroid so when we find her father's grave she can take a picture of it. The family is delighted she wants to take their picture for no charge, so they stand in a group around the grave and pose, solemn. L — takes the picture and gives it to them, and while they watch it develop she looks at me, shaking her head.
The souls of the children aren't captured in the little black box. She knows it, they know it, they all know it except me, and maybe the grieving old man's bottle. The bottle and I are the happiest ones in the cemetery on the Day of the Dead.
I'm sitting in J — 's kitchen. "It's like heaven," I tell her, with Vicente Fernandez on the tape player. I wish J — were my grandmother. She acts young as a colt.
I'm eating membrillo made by her sister, esa inocenta, and J — is pulling on nine separate strands of black cord, braiding them together into a camera strap that will last me forever, she says. Para toda la vida.
There's the curvaceous 1876 stove that belonged to her mother. It still keeps the adobe house warm, cuando hay mucho aire. The stove has as many trap doors as a magical house. It looks like an organ! J — lets me open each door to look inside. Each separate niche houses a different pan, and there are at least eight places for cooking many dishes at once, not counting the top burners. This stove is a Cadillac.
J — 's father built the little chapel next to the house, a beautiful stone chapel as big as the kitchen we're in. "It was struck by lightning," she offers, "but none of the candles we had inside were damaged, not one." For some reason, I guess something about grief, the chapel has been closed. Is it grief? Or simply disorder?
But there is a tree outside, a feathery tree with a thick trunk she points to when we go to give bones to a puppy who lives in a cage like a chicken.
His joy shines even through his ribs. Later, when I come back, she'll tell me he died. Who, I wonder, can afford to feed a dog in Palomas?
"That tree is where my father sat to shade himself from the sun when he was old. I water it and take good care of it. He passed away in 1967. How many years ago is that?" "Twenty-eight," I say, and she asks me to write it down for her on a slip of paper, para un recuerdo.
"I had seven novios, and the seventh was Victor. That's how I'll remember your name, Victoria. But I lied and lied to him, stringing him along for years. All I could think of was God. I couldn't be happy with a man." Who can blame her? J — is lively as one of the little deer whose broken legs she mended growing up on a ranch in the nearby hills.
She exclaims again and again over the photograph of Doa P — I brought back as an offering after creeping up on her and taking the picture: a stranger at her prayers when a radiant light was falling on her feet. "I'm going to make Father Elias guess who this is." J — loves it because it looks old. I'm thrilled. "It looks like a Mexican photograph," she insists. It's a shining compliment.
J — tells me about the three priests she's served over the years at the little church where we met. The second, Father Ruben, served at the church in Palomas for nine years. "He loved to kill deer. I once asked him if he wasn't ashamed to kill deer, and he told me it made him more ashamed to miss a shot." A framed photo of Father Ruben, alone in the mountains with his gun, hangs on the wall. J — wove the strap for his rifle.
The new priest, Father Elias, celebrated his 400th mass yesterday. "He arrived on the first of September, and now he insists that on the first of every month we wish him happy anniversary."
I tell her I'm returning Wednesday to photograph the First Holy Communion of 90 of the children of Palomas. J — is afraid I'm pulling her leg and won't return. She's going to make me asado. I worry about the cost. "Fool," I tell myself. "Your camera won't feed anyone unless they steal it. You'd better bring back food to Palomas."
We hear a whistle and J — goes out quickly and I see her giving wood to a brightly dressed woman wearing large earrings.
"What do I owe you?" the woman asks.
"Whatever you put in my hand," J — says.
"Let me read your palm for you, then." J — draws back her hand as if all seven of her boyfriends grabbed it at once, says "no thank you," and walks away quickly.
"Los hungaros," she explains. The gypsies. "They might have come in and taken your camera! Good thing I wove you that strap."
When we say goodbye back in the church in the little room where the wafers and Father Elias's priestly garments are kept, she spills some of the holy water and we look at it in silent panic. J — follows me into the dusty street to say goodbye but she's thinking of the water. Her work never ends.
How will she get the holy water off the floor? I smile when I think of the mop.