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Matres Dolorosas: A Watershed of Tears

Ocean fog protected the Bay from European discovery, until 1769, when explorer Gaspar de Portolá viewed the body of water from a mountaintop. Six years later, on August 5, 1775, the ship San Carlos sailed through the golden gate under a moonlit sky. The Huimen Ohlone awoke to find a 193-ton, two-masted brig, 58 feet in length, floating in their landscape. In the following days, the crew of the San Carlos set out to sound the Bay in their longboats. Second Pilot Juan Bautista Aguirre took a boat Southeast to scout for good anchorage. On an inlet of a cove, he observed three native people weeping; their faces painted black and streaked with tears.

The Ohlone ritualized their grieving as a village affair, and prohibited the name of the dead to be spoken, lest the spirit of the deceased be distracted from moving on to the Island of the Dead. A widow, most at risk of being haunted, would singe her hair close to the scalp, smear peet and ash on her face, and demonstratively claw at her breasts and cheeks to draw blood. That day, we do not know for whom cried the Ohlone, but impressed, Second Pilot Aguirre named this cove after them La Ensenada de los Llorones or the Cove of Weepers; later to be renamed Mission Bay. On that day, the watershed of the Mission was first christened by the Spaniards in the name of tears.

The following year in late June 1776, the Mission of San Francisco de Asis was founded. From early days, the Mission became known by its sobriquet of Misión Dolores or Mission of Sorrows, after the Creek of Sorrows that ran in its proximity. The creek was given its Catholic name by Friar Font of the De Anza Expedition, who came upon it on a Friday of Sorrows in April 1776. This tributary of the Mission was thus, by coincidence or prophesy, christened also in the name of grief; a name that came to identify the Mission itself.

The Friday of Sorrows is the last Friday of lent, a week before the Crucifixtion of Christ. On the Friday of Sorrows, Catholics venerate the Mater Dolorosa or Our Lady of Sorrows, which is a devotion to the seven terrible woes of Mary, the mother of Christ. The first sorrow of Mary is a foretelling that due to the life her son would lead, her “own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed." (Luke.2:34-35).” Our Lady of Sorrows is often depicted with her heart crossed by as many as seven swords; one for every sorrow. She is often dressed in Red and Blue, or black for mourning. Red and Blue are also the colors sported by the two current competing gangs of the Mission, respectively the Norteños and the Sureños. These two bands account for many Mission mothers cloaked in grief for their children fallen to gun violence or drugs, languishing in prison, or victimized by profiling and policing.

Recently, residents of the Mission have taken an increased interest in the original Creek of Sorrows. The ground water of the old creek continues to course through the Mission. A hatch in the basement of Mission High School reveals flowing source water. Other buildings on a downhill trajectory have similar hatches, creating a trail of invisible temples to the vanquished rivers of the Mission. On the northern boundary of the neighborhood, the flow of the Creek of Sorrows can be followed to 14th Street and Mission, into the Old Armory (now the ball gag-and-whip armory of, a BDSM porn company). Past the dungeon studios, down into the basement, in a corner, the clear clean body of the Mission Creek bucks and bristles hard against its restraints. It is a river in bondage; an item in a freak show that you can pay to view in a tour of the building. The water marks of old floods stand nine feet above the ground, forcing to run water pumps twenty-four hours, seven days a week, to stop this untame slave from flooding the basement, again. The meandering of this creek is repressed by the ignominy of gridded pavement and sewage pipes, and I protest to see it daylighted.

Yet, even more invisible is that other river running in a torrential sweep of grief through the Mission, unchecked and unseen. It is a river of tears teased out by poverty, policing, addiction, gun violence, and discrimination. Entire families are drowning in its waters, mothers are cracked and fractured, and youth are harmed, but this raging violence holds no geeky affinity of palatable liberal interest to us, like an actual river.

Seven Mission mothers grabbed hold of the sword lodged into their hearts to tell me their sorrows, so that their truth could be revealed to you, so that you help multiply the revelation to others. This writing is a collaborative protest to see this Creek of Sorrows daylighted.

First Sorrow

Mrs. Peña was the first mater dolorosa of the Mission that I befriended. I first met her at her son’s funeral. Frank lay dead in his coffin, she sat in the first pew a few meters back, a small woman, nodding politely at our condolences. Back in the Mission, I eventually gathered the courage to ring the doorbell to her place and reintroduce myself. Mrs. Peña welcomed me into her impeccable home. She had by then rented out Frank’s old room, where he had lived with his partner and their 6 month old baby before he was killed. I visit Mrs. Peña from time to time. She offers me a soda and we sit and talk about life, and Francisco. She says, “I am so old, and yet I’ve learned nothing in life,” meaning that she still can’t understand why her son—who by the grace of God had broken free from a decade of drug addiction, distanced himself from gang activity, gotten a steady job, and started a family—died while going to get a pizza.

All her life she was a steady and consistent single working mother. “I would wake-up at 3a.m., take the bus, and arrive at work by 5 a.m. I would get out at 3 p.m. and return home to make dinner for my children, do their laundry, iron their shirts, prepare their lunches, and go to bed early.” Mrs. Peña also took care to be a meticulous factory worker, “I saw some terrible accidents at the laundry. People constantly caught a hand or finger in the rollers.” Her hard work to provide for her children meant that she was not able to be around for them, nearly as much as she wanted. The youngest son started hanging out with the block homeboys in his teenage years. Boyish block gangs were normal throughout Mission history, but in the eighties, the essence of these youthful bands transformed as block corners turned into contested drug transaction territories. Fist fights and baseball games testing adolescent vitality turned into calamities of retail drug wars. Mrs. Peña’s son became a crack addict.

Frank’s death seems so unfair to Mrs. Peña, because of all those years that Frank struggled with his addiction. Often he went on benders that left him wandering and passed out on the street for days. She tells me, “His father never abandoned him through those years. He didn’t live in the Mission, but he would come back here to comb the streets looking for Francisco far into the dawn. He never abandoned his children…  My son would come back home after a few days, and I would just ask, ‘Are you hungry?’ ‘Yes mamma, I’m hungry.’ And, I would make him a meal.”

Over and over Mrs. Peña plays out Frank’s death in her mind. Not his real death, but the one she would have wanted for him, “I would have stepped out in front of him, and mind you, they would have still killed him, but they would have killed me first, then him, and we would have gone together.” Mrs. Peña does not try to change God’s will to take Frank, but only wishes that the natural order of life and death between parent and child had been respected. Her living room has a mantle with many photos of Frank, and her other sons and grandchildren. On special dates, she visits Frank’s grave.

Years pass and Mrs. Peña still grieves Frank as if he was killed yesterday. Wishing her to heal, I once asked, “Do you think you will ever be able to let the memory of Frank rest?” Her answer is decisive and angry, “Yes, when I am dead.” On another visit, I propose ways in which she might let go of her grief, but she is not interested in talk therapy or circles. This leaves me confused for some time, pondering whether she is simply stubborn, until I understand that the sequence of events of that fatal day fundamentally reconstituted her. A that moment of comprehension, I blurt out a question, “Do you miss yourself?! Do you miss the woman you used to be before Francisco died?”

“Yes. Yes, I do,” she nods repeatedly.

More relaxed, I lean back, and ask “Please tell me the story of the day that Frank died.” She concedes, and for the first time, though I’ve heard that story before, I listen to a tale about the violent destruction of identity in the mystery of this mother’s grief.

“He passed by my room door and said, ‘Mami, I’m going out, but I’ll be back soon.’

Muy bien, hijo. No te dilates./ Ok, son. Don’t delay.”

About a half hour passed, when her daughter-in-law received a call. She hung up, brought the baby to Mrs. Peña, and calmly asked her to please take the baby, and left.

“Standing in the middle of the living room, holding the boy, I started trembling. I hugged the baby hard, harder, and I just stood there in the middle of the room holding him for I don’t know how long. This feeling of terror had overcome me …”

Some time passed and the doorbell rang. Still holding the baby, Mrs. Peña went out to the stoop. There was M’s sister saying that she had come to pick up the baby, and needed the diaper bag.

“I looked at her firmly and asked, ‘What happened to my son?’ She stood silently, staring at me. I asked again, and she remained still. Then I pled, ‘If you are a mother, you know what I am going through right now, and you will tell me where is my son.’”

The sister stood silent for a minute and then replied, “He is at SF General.”

Mrs. Peña climbed down the stairs, handed the baby, and started running like a loca, a mad woman, down Shotwell Street to 24th Street. “As I got to the corner, the priest of the Evangelical church on 24th Street stopped me, and told me he would drive me to the hospital. We went down 24th Street towards the hospital, past Harrison, Alabama, Bryant, but as we were reaching York, all traffic was stopped. It was like a war zone with police cars, fire engines, flashing lights, helicopters, and a swarm of people. I made to get out of the car and start running to the hospital, but the priest stopped me and said he would detour around. When we got to the hospital, there was an ocean of people in the parking lot. All my son’s friends had shown up. They never abandoned him, and I will be forever grateful to them for that. … I was put in a waiting room, after being informed that Francisco was in an operation. Finally, a doctor came in, and I got out of my seat and exclaimed ‘Praise be to God’ for I was certain that Francisco had seen this one through. But the doctor told me that he had been shot in the heart, and that they were able to close that wound, but that he had been shot several times in the stomach and his intestines were destroyed. They fought for Francisco, and he had been strong, but they were not able to save him … I was stunned. I asked to see him.

Soon after, they took me to a room where he lay on a stretcher with a white sheet covering his bare chest. There in the room was Francisco’s father. A lady cop was also in the room, and she prohibited me from touching Francisco. So, we both stood there, one on each side of Francisco, contemplating our dead son.

The policewoman asked me, ‘What are going to do with your son?’ I answered the only thing I could think of, ‘I’ll cremate him and keep him at home.’ But, his father kindly interjected, ‘Olgita, you are his mother, and we will do whatever you want, but I have this spot that I bought for myself in Colma next to my mother, and if you wish we could bury him there.’ I agreed and asked him, ‘Can you take care of it?’ ‘Yes, Olga, I can take care of everything.’ His father, you know, he never abandoned Francisco; I’ll be forever grateful to him for that.”

Another day, despite all her suffering (and my age), Mrs. Peña encourages me to have a child, “¡Anímese…! You could still have a child. It is like no other love.”

Second Sorrow

I went to The Lab near 16th Street and Shotwell to see the Cyclecide display of freaky fantasy bicycles. An hour passed, I had seen the bikes, but my husband continued in engaged conversation with a multitude of friends. I wandered out to the door, then, I wandered some more across the narrow alley that separates The Lab from The City Bar. Through the open door, I saw Aura. She was the one woman at this day laborer and local homie bar. Aura… I saddled up next to her at the bar, and soon enough we were talking. She said it was her birthday, she was with a companion and she had bought herself flowers, and so I bought us all tequilas.

Aura was raised in the Circo Atayde Hermanos, Mexico’s most famous and largest touring circus. Her father was the elephant trainer. “The elephants were my toys. They would raise me onto their backs with their trunks. I would play in between their legs, and with their snouts.” Aura’s eyes twinkle as she remembers, “They were my toys.” And likely, she was treated as their child. She travelled through the country with her circus family, but her mother took her out when she was a teenager. She wanted Aura to get a formal education. “It was the most terrible time of my youth. Barely a week in Mexico City, I was out playing on the street, when a boy pushed me straight onto my face, without any provocation. To me, that was inconceivable. In the circus, we all took care of each other.”

Despite her mother’s aspirations, Aura remained unconventional. At fourteen years of age, she had a first child, who would be put up for adoption. Then, in high school, she became a student activist during the late years of the Dirty Wars waged by the Mexican government. She was taken, alongside her boyfriend, as a political prisoner. A few years later, she had a daughter with him, but she would leave them. They still remain fast friends. They call each other, from time to time, to reminisce about revolutionary days, and to sing ballads to each other over the phone. This infuriates her daughter. “But we can’t help ourselves; the bonds of comrades are sometimes as strong as the bonds of love.”

Aura had three more children with another man, and one day, she took a vacation to San Francisco. In the City by the Bay, she realized that she could never go back to the domesticity of her life in Mexico. She abandoned her family again. “I know that to other people I am putísima (whoreish), but that wasn’t life for me…”

Yet one more daughter came to Aura in San Francisco. Aura had survived torture, political imprisonment, domesticity, but this child of hers would walk a path of heartaches. This one made her a single mother and a mater dolorosa.

One day, her fourteen year old daughter bullied a kid at school, and the school called the police. They did not call Aura. They called the police. Aura’s face contorts with pain as she remembers, and she breaks down. Pawing at her breasts and her womb, she repeats a song of grief, “They took my womanhood, my motherhood, my womb, my breasts. They took it all from me… They should have called me! Me! I’m her mother. I would have told her how to behave!.. Just because we lived on Lexington and 18th, they assumed she ran with gangs.” Her daughter was sent to juvie hall for several months, and there she was forced to claim Blue.

“When she came back, she was never the same,” Aura looks into her drink. A few years after juvie hall, her daughter became a crack addict. Today, her grown daughter lives away, as far away from the Mission as she can afford to go within the Bay Area, so that she doesn’t get triggered into her addiction by the streets of her teenage years. “I hardly see her, but she still needs my help from time to time…” The anger swells in Aura again, and she slaps her hands across her breasts and womb, “They took my womanhood, my motherhood, my womb, my breasts. They took it all from me….”

Then, she confesses a fantasy revenge plot to me. “I think of suing the school district for having called the police, instead of calling me, when my daughter needed parenting.” I get caught up in this; it is a plausible idea. There are many mothers in the Mission and all around the Bay, just like Aura. I wonder how many have also fantasized to take-back the dignity of their motherhood from the state. I look at my drink, and at the jukebox. I leave the bar. While taking the lock of my bicycle, I listen to a peeved voicemail from my husband, who left after he couldn’t find me.

One day, while sewing and watching TV, an actress playing a female U.S. vice-president (fiction of course) explains that she loves elephants, because elephant society is a matriarchal society. The actress laughs as she explains this to a gritty female reporter, and I think of Aura, the woman raised by elephants, the Elephant Woman. The females kick the males out of the herd when they reach mating age, around the age of 12 to 15 years. Adult females keep the company of their daughters, but they are not obliged to provide service to the adult males in their society.

Elephants lumber through my thoughts, and I find myself considering the many times that I have prettily acquiesced to the expectations of patriarchy. These expectations were placed inside me long ago, and I remain a neurological vessel holding this discreet violence against myself. I ponder how rape is a devastating climax of violence against women, but that a more subtle violence courses camouflaged through all our bodies, our manners, and our minds, even my own. I think of parenting, and how parenting demands delivery into the service of another, namely, a child. Most of us women are trained to provide service to others from a very early age. It is the rare woman who places limits in her service to others.

I cross paths again with the Elephant Woman at a street protest, in front of the Univisión offices in downtown San Francisco. The protest was called by chapter members of the Bay Area YoSoy#132 movement to mirror actions organized in Mexico. Together, that day we protested against the mass media manipulations that surrounded the campaign leading to the 2012 election of President Enrique Peña Nieto. We protested also, because the party of Peña Nieto is the party of the Dirty Wars in Mexican history, and like elephants, we do not forget. At this rally, I see Aura, the Mexican revolutionary, railing against the return of the PRI, the party that imprisoned her, and I gather that she is not that broken. I smile heartened that perhaps one day the school district and the police will find their match in the gathering herd of Elephant Women.

Third Sorrow

The young man who killed Francisco was raised by his grandmother several blocks from where I live. On the street, I was told which house used to be his home. I often pass by there, and I always think of his grandmother.  One day, recently, the door of the home was open, and I spied an old lady on the top of the steep Victorian staircase. I called out to her. “…I’d like to talk to you”, I brace myself and reveal my motive, “… about your story with your grandson.”

She immediately shakes her head, and says, “I have nothing to say to you. You know where my grandson is… You can go find your story there.”

“I actually don’t know where he is… I want to talk to you.”

“I have nothing to say… What have I got to say? I am old and he will be gone for a very long time. I will die and I will never see him again. I have nothing to say…” She shakes her hand at me in dismissal.

I feel embarrassed and leave to conclude my errand. On my return home, I pass a Mexican bakery on her same street, and spy her sitting on a chair behind the painted lettering of the storefront glass. I stutter step in front of her gaze, but she does not see me. She is staring listlessly out upon the street; her inner eye turned towards important thoughts and memories.

Her woe had the violent allure of a velvet painting, but as my pupils rested upon the fabric of her eyes, the obsidian dagger in her heart reared at me, cutting through the rarefied air with sharpened hoofs, and I ran. I ran home past the bookstores, and cafés; the block hipsters and the block drunks, hoping no one could read the scarlet shame on my face.

My apologies, Abuela, for assuming that I know anything about your grief.

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