Written by Vania T. Curtidor | Translation by Monica Louzon
Illustration by Gutti Barrios
Length 4885 Words
Highlight to read content warnings:
Discussion of death, Racism
Through watery eyes, Lidia makes out the letters on the sign next to the Bolivian flag: "La Paz Bus Terminal". Although it's dark inside the bus, she hasn't taken her eyes off the window for over an hour. She doesn't want anyone to see her cry.
As soon as they enter the terminal, however, she peels her gaze from the glass, annoyed by the fluorescent lights greeting her with their artificial joy. The man in the seat next to her is sleeping with his mouth open; the lady in the aisle, who's traveling with a bundle tied to her back, has only looked forward. Drying her tears from time to time, she waits until she's the last person left to disembark. In the end, none of the passengers notice her state.
While she waits for the porter to retrieve her suitcase from the bus's cargo hold, Lidia fixes her hair and straightens her clothes a little. It's only been four days since she departed from this same terminal, although her fatigued, itchy eyes and the all-encompassing sensation of unreality make her feel as if four months could have passed. Or four years.
Once she's out of the bus terminal, she heads over to the minibus that will take her to Señor Miguel's house. With over an hour until she gets there, she can't stop thinking about how that Sunday was nothing like any of her other days off. Not even those first ones, when she spent hours upon hours walking alone to kill time.
On the minibus, Lidia tries to soothe her cheeks, which have been punished by her salty tears and the cold air. When the minibus driver asks her to pay for her ride, she takes the coins out of her pants’ pocket and discovers a piece of paper she'd forgotten about. Lidia had found it folded on the seat next to her before she got off the bus in La Paz, but when she disembarked, she couldn't find the man who'd been sitting there. Distracted with making sure no one stole her luggage, she'd put it in her pocket so it wouldn't get in the way, and now she can't return it to its owner.
Just before reaching her destination, she reads its contents, hoping that it doesn't contain important information:
This prayer has traveled the world four times to reach you. Bad luck will come to whoever breaks the chain.
Please, copy it and something good will happen in four days. Send this prayer and four photocopies to people you cherish. This must happen within twenty-four hours.
Please, don't keep this copy. General Patton got married two months after receiving it. Richard Allen received a promotion, but then he lost it because he broke the chain.
Good luck will find you in four days.
This is not a joke. You just have to trust in the good energy that circulates throughout our tierra.
This isn't the first time she's come across one of these chain letters. Even though they're less common now that so many people use the Internet, it's not unusual to see something like this once in a while, especially in less wealthy areas. The words vary from version to version, but the message is always the same, formatted so that four copies fit on one sheet of paper.
Despite this, Lidia can't help but take the note personally—that promise that good luck is coming for her, like a blow she can't dodge.
Her first impulse is to tear up the paper and throw it out the little window, but she contents herself with crumpling it into a ball while her bag hangs from her shoulder. She gets off the minibus and walks quickly to escape the icy air. Once she reaches the apartment, she'll start a fire and watch it burn.
True to her plan, without even taking off her coat, she takes the lighter from the kitchen and closes the washroom door behind her. Before burning the paper, as a last sign of contempt, she writes on the back: I've lost my mother. Your luck is worthless.
Before going to bed, she scoops up the little mountain of ash and puts it in the flowerpot on the kitchen windowsill. Cigarette ashes are supposed to be good for plants, so perhaps paper ones are, too.
Thursday morning, hours before her trip, had begun with the same routine as always.
Wake up at five, get out of bed, dress as fast as possible to beat the cold, wake Laura and Miguel for school, iron Señor Miguel's shirt and suit for the day, warm the milk, set the table for breakfast... Nothing in the tasks hinted at the news she was about to receive. Nor did she notice anything strange on her walk back to the house after taking the children to the school bus stop on the corner. When Señor Miguel left, telling her what he wanted for dinner that night, there was nothing to indicate she wouldn't be able to prepare it later.
The day had begun so harmlessly that—after making the bed, sweeping the rooms, cleaning the bathroom, and tidying the kitchen—she was planning to take a short nap because she had plenty of time before the children returned. But she didn't get to do so, because she saw the shirt—which the Señor had stained with wine the previous day—still soaking. She'd forgotten about it.
So, without having a chance to lie down, she had begun to make lunch. While she was straining the rice, the phone rang. She dried her hands before going to answer it in the living room.
"Lidia, hijita. I'm sorry to call you at the caballero's house." On the other end, the usually calm voice sounded agitated.
"Papá? What happened?"
"Hijita, I have bad news." After a pause, during which Lidia heard him swallow, he continued. "Your mother... She's not with us anymore."
"Papá," she repeated, this time through sobs.
After that, Lidia hadn't even been able to follow the conversation. When she hung up the phone, she couldn't remember the words they'd exchanged. The only thing she knew was that she had to prepare to go to her mother's funeral and call Mrs. Marcela to tell her what time she would arrive. Mrs. Marcela would pass the details to Lidia's father. Every Sunday, Mrs. Marcela let Lidia's parents use the phone installed in her shop so that Lidia could chat with them.
But that wasn't going to happen anymore.
Before the children could come back from school, Lidia had gone into her bathroom to calm herself down. She'd looked at her coffee-colored eyes, framed by now-damp lashes, and inhaled deeply. She hadn't realized it, but in her despair, she'd raised her hands to her head so much that now her hair was a mess.
She summoned all the willpower that she had left to try to braid it without crying. Her mother was the one who'd taught her how to brush her hair, since Lidia had inherited her mother's thick and temperamental hair. First, she gathered it into a ponytail with a clip, then she made a tight braid so that it would be sure to stay in place all day. When Lidia was finished, she fixed her bangs and looked at herself again in the mirror.
She was ashamed to remember that she'd thought about dyeing it, hoping to reduce the bulk of her hair and lighten its dark color. She'd wanted to seem a little more like the people who could afford apartments like the one she worked in, and less like the Lidia who had arrived in the city. She'd hoped to be able to work and save money to study at the university.
Lidia had been rejected from that job in an ice cream shop in the Zona Sur because, "Well, with those imilla features, no one's going to hire you around here."
That hadn't been the first time, nor would it be the last, that they'd called her imilla, a term that she'd had to relearn. In Aymara, it meant "girl", but, in the city, it was used to refer to a young woman of indigenous descent. They called her "imilla" because she came from a village. And it didn't matter whether someone had been born in the city—if they had brown skin, an aquiline nose, prominent cheekbones, and a strong complexion, they couldn't have white blood. They could only be imilla, with a chola mother and an indio father.
That word had made her realize that it would be better if she settled for being a domestic worker. When they interviewed her to fill vacancies in the "In-home Employee Wanted" ads, no one looked at her as if she'd gotten lost or questioned her ability to do the job. In the end, Lidia ended up convinced that she was part of a group of people for whom certain paths were inaccessible.
The rest of that Thursday had passed as if it were a dream. Without really knowing how, she had managed to prepare food for the children to eat, accompanied them to English class, called Señor Miguel to ask him for some time off, packed a suitcase with clothes, went to the house where her friend Clara worked, asked her to help her find someone to sub for her, and went to the bus station.
The twelve-hour trip from La Paz to Potosí didn't help her shake that surreal sensation. Neither did her father's welcome, nor the three nights they kept vigil in the living room of the house where she'd lived for so many years. Not even seeing the familiar faces from her childhood could do it.
Only Sunday, when arriving in the cemetery after they carried her mother's coffin in a procession through the streets—so that her soul might be able to say goodbye to the streets that had witnessed her life—did Lidia begin to understand that, at the age of twenty-two, she was going to have to accept reality.
Two hours later, she fell asleep on the return bus and didn't wake until almost ten hours later, with a feeling of desolation anchored in her stomach.
She hadn't been able to stop crying for the rest of the journey.
Monday, after the children have eaten, Lidia notices something strange while she has lunch at the kitchen table. When she looks at the window, she realizes that the paper she burned has somehow become intact again in the flowerpot.
At first, she tries to convince herself that she hadn't really burned it, that exhaustion made her misremember, but she has to yield to the evidence when she sees the note on its reverse:
It pains me very much to know that your mother left this world, but now her body will return to Pachamama. Her soul is free at last.
I am the achachila of Huayna Potosí. Because of the message you sent me, we are now connected. I share your suffering and your pain to help you in your life. You aren't alone. Through the tierra, we are connected.
Lidia rereads the short message to figure out what's happening. Did she really receive a note written by one of the mountain spirits? She knows that achachilas were considered protectors of the Aymara people. Lidia had never heard of them directly contacting humans. Ever since she first learned about achachilas, she had imagined them as very wrinkled old people with white hair. After all, achachi was, sometimes, the word that they use to refer to the elderly.
Even though she spends all afternoon trying to find an explanation for the paper's strange reappearance, she has to face the facts: none of the house's inhabitants have that handwriting.
Furthermore, beneath the note from the achachila, she discovers her own words in a pale blue, as if someone has stolen the color from them and then added a second layer of ink to make them visible again without obscuring the original message. On the back, there's no trace of the original photocopy.
Still trying to reconcile the situation, she realizes that, for the first time in days, the lump in her chest has relaxed a little, letting her breath more easily.
For the first time since Thursday, she feels a little less alone.
After putting the children to bed, she sits at the kitchen table. A couple of minutes pass before she starts writing, carefully, on the paper's blank side. It's one of the rare times she writes in Aymara, because in school they only used Spanish, and at home, a mix of both languages, but she wants to respond in the same language as the note she received. This time, she has to be much more respectful than the night before, so she starts by writing the date, remembering the class when they taught her how to write a letter:
June 4, 2001
Dear Señor Achachila:
Thank you for writing to me. I don't know what I can do for you, but on Sunday, I think I'll go make a challa. Sooner isn't possible, because I have to work in the city. What liquor do you like?
I didn't tell you earlier: My name is Lidia, and I'm twenty-two years old. I was born in the province of Potosí, kind of close to the Cerro Rico. I've been working in La Paz for three years, as an empleada. Are you familiar with the city? Since the buildings are so tall, you must be able to see them from your mountain.
I must say goodbye already, I'm running out of paper. I send you my regards.
Tuesday, when she wakes, Lidia feels two knots in her body. She has been carrying the one in her chest since she heard her father's voice on the other end of the line, but the one in her stomach is new.
As she goes to the kitchen, the sensation grows, only to disappear as soon as she sees the paper that had replaced the pile of ashes that she left in the flowerpot last night. With her heart pounding in her ears and her feet cold, she begins to read as soon as she picks up the paper:
Hola, Lidia. Just call me Huayna Potosí. "Señor Achachila" made me feel very old. I am known as little more than the youngest achachila. I would have liked to call myself something more original, certainly not "Young Foothill", but that's what they named me in honor of the mountain in your region. We already seem like gringos; the only thing missing is for someone to call me "Potosí Jr.". Ja, ja, ja. Luckily, when I was created, they didn't speak English on this continent.
I'm pleased that your little letters appeared in my cave. It has been a while since any human contacted me. You don't have to come make a challa, that whole thing with the offerings is outdated. I prefer to drink right away, without waiting for you to throw it on the ground. But, if you want to come visit me, tell me, and I will send the road to meet you.
For a few seconds, the only thing she can think about is the smile that has stretched itself across her face. Back in her room, she asks herself if the words of an achachila have magic powers. She's never felt so pleased to have someone explain something so boring to her. In fact, she hasn't felt this happy since that time when Clara, once they'd become friends after they kept running into one another in the market, had invited Lidia to spend Sundays with her family.
Like every Tuesday, the children eat with their grandparents, which Lidia takes advantage of to go shopping. Most weeks, she meets Clara, and they go together. When she reaches the corner where they take the minibus, she sees that Clara's already waiting for her.
This time, they don't talk about neighborhood gossip or their chores. As soon as her friend offers her condolences, Lidia has to hold back tears, so they spend most of the trip in silence until, trying to cheer herself up, Lidia asks, "Where do you want to eat lunch?" Clara always decides the menu.
"Oh, Lidia, don't get mad. Last week, I told Wilfred that we could have lunch together today. Also, I made him promise to take me to a restaurant, not to the market cafeteria," Clara adds, sounding truly pained. "But when we get there, I'll tell him I'm spending the day with you."
"Letting me down again. Wilfred has turned you into such a liar," Lidia teases, alternating between annoyance and amusement. "Just go. We can go shopping later," she says, smiling. It makes her happy to see her friend excited.
"Are you sure?" After a nod from Lidia, Clara promises, "I'll be back at one o'clock sharp, I swear."
"I'll already be waiting for you at the fruit stand. Don't be late."
"No, I'll be perfectly punctual." Without giving Lidia time to add anything else or even apologize, Clara changes the topic. "Are you going with the Señor and the little ones to the Gran Poder, too?"
"Pucha, I didn't even remember," Lidia replies, suddenly remembering what season they're in. "Well, I guess so."
"Then you won't be coming to my parents' this week, right?"
"Well, no. You know that the Señor spends Sunday with chaki and I have to take care of him and the kids."
This will be Lidia's fourth year at the feast of Jesús del Gran Poder. She can still remember the emotion that filled her when she saw the different groups going through the streets performing the folk dances of the Bolivian altiplano, back when she hadn't even been in La Paz for three months.
The city always seemed to be trying to gobble her up, but that day was a gift to all her senses. The music of the bands accompanying each ensemble, the rumble of the bass drums in her chest, the smell of the food and beer that the wandering vendors carried, colored paper—streamers and confetti—raining down upon the dancers' vibrant outfits.
As she saw traditions, like the challa, coexisting with modern life, Lidia had felt that perhaps she could be whoever she wanted. Seated in the front row with the Señor's coworkers from the bank and their families, she promised herself that, each year, by the next one, she'd be closer to becoming someone who could contribute to society.
Although she didn't realize it immediately, when she left the festival behind, the city went back to erasing her.
By the next day, she'd resigned herself once again to being just a girl who took care of the house, the children, and Señor Miguel's hangovers.
Her mind returns to the present as the minibus reaches the market corner. Despite it having been a strange week, Lidia finds herself enjoying the situation.
Tuesdays are relaxing days. She can eat a leisurely lunch, run errands with Clara, and return later in a taxi with the bags. When she disembarks, she sees Wilfred approaching her friend. She sends Clara off with a wave.
While Lidia decides which food stall to sit at, she asks herself if Huayna Potosí's achachila will look like one of the older men who cross her path. Trying not to pay attention to the women who remind her too much of her mother, Lidia starts to think about the note that she'll leave that night, explaining that her visit to the cerro will have to wait another week.
By the time she meets back up with Clara, Lidia has decided that she still won't tell Clara about her correspondence. Though she tells herself she should ask the achachila about revealing his existence. There's also a part of her that fears talking about him will make her feel less unique.
On Wednesday, although her instinct is to go to the kitchen as soon as she wakes up, Lidia forces herself to get dressed and comb her hair before doing so. It's still hard to look at herself in the mirror. Despite the relief she felt after sending the note last night, the stitch in her chest almost makes her double over in pain. Before she can burst into tears, Lidia braids her hair as fast as she can. While she goes to the kitchen, she also fends off the fear whispering that the achachila has probably decided that she isn't worthy of his time.
But the paper is in the flowerpot and her breathing calms a bit. The message has reached her and it reaffirms, for another day, that she isn't alone:
Don't worry about the visit, I have lived so many days that a week flies by. Enjoy the Gran Poder and the dancing. Think of me when you see the tinkus. Before, back when the Quechuas and Aymaras ruled these tierras, the populations clashed to offer blood to the Pachamama and to us lesser gods. From that ceremony came the dance and, to me, the dance seems more fun.
One time, they came to record a video of a tinku song to the cerro. The clothes were modernized, and the colors gaudier, but they were nice costumes, even with rubber flip flops instead of shoes. Now, they only use the ondas to dance and they challa with liquor. They have swapped blood for alcohol—a human being's two favorite things.
Of course she will think of him. Perhaps he'll even think of her. The simple way he expresses himself and how he refers to time make life seem a little bit easier.
That morning, she permits herself to turn on the radio while she makes breakfast. Life won't go back to being the same, but something tells her that maybe it won't be as bad as she thought.
Although the certainty of knowing she'll find a note every morning gives Lidia a dose of optimism and hope, parts of some days are difficult to endure.
Friday is full of those parts. Even though she tries to be strong, at the end of the day, she can't sleep. In the darkness of her room, she can't stop thinking about how she feels just as lost as she did a week ago, when she couldn't sleep either, because she was keeping vigil for her mother.
Lidia tells herself that, if she could perceive time like the achachila does, she might understand how the passage of a week doesn't mean anything. If she were as wise as him, she would understand that the essence of her mother continues to live within her. But she can't.
In this moment, all she can feel is pain and rage. She'll never hear her mother's voice again. Lidia will never be able to tell her that she graduated from the university. She'll never be able to make her mother proud of her. It pains her that she lives in a room where she can barely fit in the bed and a closet with sliding doors—she wouldn't be able to open them if she had to pull them outward. The only thing she's able to do between sobs is lace her fingers together and beg for forgiveness aloud. She apologizes to her mother, for not having had the strength to be better—although, perhaps, she's apologizing to herself.
Lidia doesn't know if it's crazy, but she decides to get out of bed and write. She doesn't have the slightest idea whether the notebook paper that she has in the kitchen will be able to reach Huayna Potosí, but she needs to feel less alone.
Blending Aymara and Spanish, letting the words flow, she's honest with the only friend who makes her feel understood. She starts by writing about her grief, and then she writes about everything else that causes her pain.
She tells him that she doesn't know what she's going to study, how she doesn't have hope anymore, how she feels ashamed every time she visits her village and has to speak about her life in the big city. She even tells him that if she were white, no one would be surprised that she had gone so far from home because she wants to go to a university.
She regrets the words as soon as she has written them, although she's kept them inside and never dared express them before. With strength born from the rage inside her, she decides not to cross out the words. She lets her thoughts flow and adds that, even if it costs her, she wants to contribute in some way to eliminating these kinds of injustices.
Without giving herself time to second-guess herself, she burns the page and leaves its ashes inside the flowerpot, next to those of her previous note.
When her alarm goes off, she's not sure how long she slept. Her eyes sting and her eyelids are swollen, but she makes an effort to get up. She feels less sad than she had the night before, but she regrets the letter that she wrote while mired in such a state. She feels guilty for having bothered the achachila, even though she doesn't know whether it reached him. When she approaches the flowerpot, she sees a single page, but there are no traces of ashes. All of her doubts fall away upon seeing the response written on the notebook paper:
As I told you in my first note, you aren't alone. You can always write to me when you need me. You are human, and sometimes you have to feel bad in order to heal and become stronger. I know that it doesn't feel like it right now, but your mom is always with you through the tierra.
It hurts me to know you feel bad for just being who you are. I understand that what happened to you has happened to many people throughout history. I have spent so much time in this world. I have seen it happen many times. I know there are people who think they're better than others because they have another type of culture. Sometimes, that doesn't even matter, because there are also people who believe physical characteristics determine someone's superiority. I have seen so many different peoples and beliefs pass through this place that I know thousands of stories. Some of those people noticed my existence and venerated me. Others believed in me and in the other achachilas, only because human life is full of fear and uncertainty.
You are one of the few who has noticed my existence. Thanks to that, I can tell you that you shouldn't let others make you believe lies about yourself. Just because they repeat the same thing many times does not make it true. No one can do things like you would, even if they do the same thing. Don't doubt your power to change things. You will always have my support. I know you will find people who want to work with you and create a better future.
You are very brave. Don't ever forget it, imillitay.
While reading, Lidia fights back tears, but when she reaches the end and sees that someone has referred to her with the affectionate diminutive of a word that, for so long, was used as a slur against her, she stops holding them in. She can only feel him through his notes, but she has no doubt about the achachila's presence in her life. They're connected through their words, and they both feel understood and loved. It's something for which she'll never be able to thank him enough.