By Willow Barnosky
The sky was an ashy sepia, not its usual California cerulean, the sidewalks empty.
At the end of the street, the usual suspects were missing from the parking lot, though the convenience store still showed signs of their graffiti. When I rounded the curve onto the highway, I held my foot above the brake thinking of the times I’d almost hit someone who had wandered onto the on-ramp. But today, the people who had filled the shoulder with tents and shopping carts were gone, and only litter remained.
The death count had been upped that morning, first responders still looking for bodies, an entire town up north decimated by the fires.
I exited the highway and turned onto residential streets lined with cars, no sign of life on the sidewalks, lawns devoid of children. I squeezed into the only spot I could find and walked quickly down the quiet street, wishing I’d brought a face mask.
On the next block, children’s shouts, a familiar noise made unfamiliar, echoed eerily off the background of silence in the rest of the neighborhood. Rounding the corner, I saw two rows of one-story apartments flanking a long driveway. A bouncy castle, the big kind, with a long slide, sat in the parking lot at the back. A herd of children were gathered around the slide, and more shouted and shook the castle from inside.
Next to the castle was a carport, where pastel balloons hung; long folding tables filled the parking spots. A few people sat in folding chairs at the back. I groaned.
“Teacher!” Adela appeared in an apartment doorway, wiping her hands on an apron she wore over her dress, her cheeks shiny with glitter and sweat. Adela was young, the kind of young that when she had told me she had a 6-year-old, I’d checked the corners of her eyes for some subtle sign I’d missed that showed she wasn’t 18. As far as I knew, she and her daughter were alone here, the rest of her family in Mexico, no relatives in the States.
We hugged, and she outlined the party itinerary in rapid Spanish. I tried to focus, but I was distracted by the children sliding and jumping, running and climbing, behind her.
In my Beginning ESL class, my students treated me with a deference that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. I’d given up asking them to call me by my first name, reminding them that they didn’t need to apologize if they didn’t know an answer; after each class, they thanked me solemnly for teaching them. More than their language teacher, they viewed me as their guide to U.S. society, an expert on cultural norms here, a role I wore uneasily. I’d lived abroad long enough to feel like an expat in my home country. Besides, I’d grown up across the country on the east coast, and most of my students had lived in California longer than I had.
Adela told me how happy she was that I’d come, turned to call her daughter to come and greet me.
How far did my responsibility as a teacher go? This wasn’t my classroom; my students were adults. Still, Adela was alone and young and had only been in the United States for a few months. When I’d lived abroad, professors and supervisors had acted as surrogate family members, helping me find my way in a foreign country, and I wanted to return the favor. And sometimes I felt, rationally or not, that I had a responsibility to help my students to make up for what was happening at the border. Children in cages. Refugees dying in detention centers. Knowing how far the scales were tipped in one direction made me want to help tip them back.
“Adela, what about the smoke from the fires up north? The air’s dangerous, especially for children. Gabi’s school was closed yesterday, wasn’t it?”
She grimaced, “I know, I know. But where could I put the castle?” She waved toward the children playing and shrugged. What can you do?
“I can’t stay long. The air’s not good for anyone; no one should be outside.” Gabi ran up to us in a tutu and crown.
Adela said ok, she understood, led me over to the folding tables, rapidly introduced me to her neighbors and coworkers and invited me to sit at a table near the gifts. Did I want a drink? Beer? No? Soda? Ok. She was sorry, but she had to finish getting ready. Did she need help? No, just relax and enjoy the party.
I made small talk with a few guests, but they didn’t say much. We smiled at each other and I sipped my drink and texted my husband.
Party’s outside. I won’t stay long.
Do you want me to bring a mask?
No—you know how much they cost? Cheap surgical masks don’t work. You need one with a respirator.
So I wear a mask while everyone else breathes this air?
A car horn sounded and Maria, another one of my students, appeared, unloading foil tubs of food. Adela motioned me to a table and began peeling foil away from platters of rice and beans. “Maria made morisqueta for you–without meat.”
I’m going to eat & then I’ll leave
A screenshot, a quote from the news: “Short-term exposure to wildfire can spur a lifetime of asthma, allergy and constricted breathing.”
A couple who introduced themselves as Hector and Sandra asked if they could join me. Hector told me that he worked with Maria and was from the same town in Michoacán.
I asked Sandra if she was from Michoacán, too, but she said no, Oaxaca.
“How long have you lived in California?” A touchy question, I knew, sometimes used as a euphemism to determine if someone belonged here, was worthy of being treated with respect or not. There’d been a campaign, I remembered, with pins or buttons, something to wear to show that you were an ally. I’d thought it silly at the time, especially since I’d wondered if new arrivals to the country would even know what the pins meant. But there were people protesting migrants at the border, people who told my students to “go back to where you came from”; it would be nice to have something, something unobtrusive, to say, Welcome.
“My family moved here when I was 5, and Hector’s been here for 10 years.”
“I lived in Mexico for a few years–in Puebla and Mexico City.”
“Did you like Mexico?”
I talked about my time there, the friends I’d made, the bougainvillea, the feeling of buzzing in the air. They smiled, not polite smiles, but wide smiles that exposed naked feeling, like I smiled whenever I was homesick abroad and someone praised my home state. We talked about Michoacán and Oaxaca, about learning Spanish and learning English, and which was harder.
There was shouting and cheering, and we turned to see the children abandoning the castle to run to the driveway. Adela was carrying a star shaped piñata and a wooden plank and the kids circled around her.
There were no trees by the apartments, and no posts or poles to hang a piñata from. But by the time we’d chosen a spot behind the kids, the star had risen off the ground and hung high in the air. On the roof of Adela’s apartment, there was a man, and another on the carport’s roof, each holding an end of the rope that held the piñata.
Gabi, the birthday girl, got first swing. She swung the plank with more strength than I would have expected from a 6-year-old, and the other children were standing within striking distance. Still, their parents were standing nearby, rooting Gabi on, and no one but me seemed concerned. She wasn’t wearing a blind fold, but hitting the piñata was no easy feat, since the men jerked the star up each time she swung. After several kids got a turn and didn’t make a dent in the star, a big kid, middle-school aged at least, stepped up with a baseball bat. Candy started pouring out like sand after a few whacks and the children ran under the swinging piñata to grab handfuls until it was gone.
“You can see the moon a lot better tonight.” Hector pointed to the sky.
It was true. The moon had been covered in haze the last few nights, but now it was pretty clear. My eyes weren’t burning, either, now that I thought of it, like they had the day before when I’d wandered around the grocery store parking lot looking for my car.
“People at work are so worried about the air, but you breathe in smoke whenever you have a barbecue or make a camp fire.” He shrugged.
“But the fire isn’t just burning trees, it’s burning houses and cars. It’s releasing chemicals into the air.”
A woman standing near me laughed. “California people get so worried about dirty air.” She waved her hand to indicate the other guests at the party. “You think everyone came here on an airplane?” She shook her head and walked away.
I had a student, Marta, who was my age but looked older than my mother. She’d told me about her sister, who worked in the mountains of Oaxaca, teaching Spanish to the Mixtecas. Marta was traveling there soon, to take donations of notebooks and other school supplies to her sister. She’d shared her residency status with me, so I asked her if she’d be able to come back to the U.S.
It was hard to know which conversations were safe and which were best avoided in class. Many of my Beginner students viewed class as a respite from a long day of work, a chance to focus on lighter subjects like shopping and pronunciation. Some wanted to be the students they couldn’t be in their first countries, like Luis from Guatemala, who’d worked in the fields since childhood. He told me, “I didn’t go to school. Not even kindergarten,” and was eager to learn, viewing anything but English skills practice as a waste of time. But some days it felt inhumane to focus on the difference between discount and clearance or practice minimal pairs with /b/ and /v/ when some were suffering the effects of trauma; some had parents and children they might never see again or had grown up in towns controlled by drug cartels, only to move to a country where they had to fear ICE.
Marta was one of my more candid students; she talked with the other students about crossing the border and told me, “You don’t know. You can’t imagine. The walking for days in the desert…” The hunger and the times she’d been caught and sent back. She spoke with emotion, but without self-pity. She was lucky, she said. Many hadn’t made it across, including her brother. She spoke with resignation, accepting the fact that some people could get in a car and drive to their hometown, while others had to risk their lives to see family.
Back at the table, I looked around at everyone eating and drinking and talking animatedly. Gabi circled the tables smiling shyly, traces of frosting on her chin, offering candy to all the adults.
Adela stopped by with beer again, holding up a bottle of lager invitingly in front of me. “Why not?” I said. Sandra, Hector, and I each took a beer from her and leaned forward to tap bottle necks. “Salud” To your health.