Story and photos by Victoria Tester
Editor's note: Over a decade ago, Victoria Tester began to visit and photograph the Mexican border town of Palomas, and to keep journals as a candid record of her experiences there. In this series, which concludes this issue, Tester offers a retrospective of her journeys there.
It is the Day of the Dead, this November, and a little girl sits crying into the dust of the cemetery, holding her wounded arm. Five other little girls try to console her. I go over to her, drop to my knees and stare into her eyes.
"My God!" I say. "Look how beautiful her eyes have become! Look, look at them!"
We all stare into her eyes. "Did you knowing crying makes our eyes more beautiful?"
She flashes me a smile so bright I almost faint.
"You must be an angel," I say. She begins to giggle helplessly and I turn to another girl, the smallest, in amazement and say, "And you, you must be a diamond." And to another, "And you a queen!" "And you a flower, and you the sun, and you the moon!"
All are laughing; all have new names that fit so well they are the ones I remember when I leave Palomas. "And that boy who threw that rock at you is truly a coyote, or a mountain lion." More laughs.
They gather around and I snap the picture, and thank God for revealing once again the true beauty of this desert.
Two little girls stand against the backdrop of the cemetery, amid a cluster of crosses. They hold their purses, yes, purses even in a cemetery — especially in a cemetery? — and cling to each other. I look again and again at the silent photograph when it's printed, until I am sure understand what they are saying:
"This is what is important. Let us take joy in one another."
On that Day of the Dead years before, wasn't the cemetery like a carnival? Pink and blue and yellow, I write in my journal, full of people carrying new wreaths and flowers. Children run screaming in joy, stealing an occasional flower from a grave, or they sit on the outskirts of the cemetery, playing in the sand. Women and men carry brooms, fresh paint and water in plastic milk jugs in order to tend the resting places of their dead.
I see an old woman bend down to gently pat the earth over the grave of her husband. Her hand is bandaged, probably from cooking.
A child draws with water and sings over the grave of his grandfather as his grandmother washes the dim stone.
The priest from the Catholic church arrives to bless the dead. I don't know yet that it is Father Elas, and that we are destined to become friends. He reads from a list of the dead that is many pages long.
Those who have gathered stay until every last name in the cemetery is called, and I stay, too. I linger until dusk, when only a little girl and I remain. Busy with her broom, she pays no attention to me. Then she pauses, as if much older than her eight or nine years, silhouetted against the sky, completely worn into her solitude.
I visit J — , who is ironing the dress she will wear to her younger daughter's wedding. She is the first Protestant I've met in Palomas. She is caring for her grandson C — . The walls of the house exude peace and a gentle happiness.
"The poor cantina girls," she tells me, not even needing to bother to describe their joyless lives. I nod and shake my head, too.
I've never found judgment among any women against the cantina workers in Palomas. Only among women on the US side.
C — hides between a soft curtain and glass and looks out at the world. There is an adobe wall, a yard of dust, a clothesline, maybe the shadow of a cat. What does he see? He turns back to us, brighter, as if it were something good.
With adoration, C — watches his young uncle, maybe 10 years old, do his homework. After a while he becomes tired and cranky and bites his young uncle, who forgives him before the littler one falls into his afternoon nap.
He sleeps so peacefully under a calendar of the Farmacia San Jos.
My Photograph Teacher looks into the fresh print in my tray, and sees the wing of light over J — 's face. It's obvious I just threw the shutter open to create that wing.
"No," I tell myself, "it must have been there."
He shakes his head and once again I'm ashamed.
I know it's a strange image. It's not like the ones I just can't get myself to like as much, where I accidentally got the f-stops right, and the features of J — 's face are distinguishable as she irons.
I know I should throw the print with the wing away. Who could iron with a wing over their face, anyway? But I can't let it go.
She really looked that way, didn't she? Yes, I decide.
I'll never learn to photograph like I'm supposed to.
Why do I love the wrong things? Why do I always love the wrong things?
I don't know what to do with what I see, or myself, anymore. Maybe even my camera wishes it belonged to someone else. Somebody like Lois Lane.
My Photography Teacher fishes the print quickly from the waste basket, where I've thrown it in despair. Hands it back to me.
"Look at it," he says. "Love what you've done. It's powerful."
After morning mass, Father Elas, A — the altar boy and I are flying down the dirt road to Chepas, a small village a good ways from Palomas. The suitcase carrying the wine and holy wafers bounces in the back of the truck.
On the road to Chepas, Father Elas turns the radio to the jazz station, exclaiming over the music.
We pull up into Chepas, past old adobes, carefully mended fences and into the yard of the small church.
"God doesn't want poverty," Elas says, "but he prefers those who are poor." He smiles at the paradox, and says, "Me, too."
After mass in the little church in Chepas, Elas calls out to his shy congregation, "Who am I eating breakfast with this morning?"
There is the long silence of rural poverty, and then a woman with long gray hair and a direct gaze invites the three of us to her house. We eat eggs and beans and tortillas in her small kitchen. Then a younger woman who has been standing nervously nearby asks hesitantly, "Que se necesita para casarse, padre? What does it take to get married, Father?"
Of course she means married in the Catholic Church.
"Un par de novios! A bride and a groom," Elas answers her, and we all break into smiles. "Just bring me those!"
His natural joy lightens their worried faces.
As we are leaving, the older woman expresses anguish over her youngest son, who stole off in the truck without permission while we were eating. "I'd like to box his ears!"
The boy has dropped out after middle school. "Send him to me," Father Elas tells her. "He can live with me and go to high school." The woman looks doubtful that her willful son will agree, but I see a new glimmer of hope in her eyes that was not there before.
And the younger woman's eyes look like maybe she's dreaming of a soft wedding veil, if she can find a way to buy one.
We leave those new glimmers in Chepas as we head back towards Palomas on the dusty road, past the two Border Patrol trucks parked side by side just on the other side of the fence that separates the vast open space of sand and creosote.
I wave to the Border Patrol. They wave back.
We go to see a woman who is dying, a neighbor of Doa Nona, the catechist, who has asked Father Elas to go. We enter the small adobe where five women have gathered around a woman in her fifties who is obviously in her last hour.