Madre-abuelita (for manuela & josé)


I long for my grandmother’s tortillas

her bold hands that seized fevers and captured ghosts

her guidance, her comales, where chiles and tomatoes sang

she nourished us with food and prayer

to plant flowers

to surround us with family, community and hope

she didn’t want anyone to die

she preferred to die first

than see us suffer

she promised to see us after death

she came back twice

once she alone and the last time she was with her husband José.

She smiled sternly, but she was smiling.

Everything works out in the end

Her bones rest

Her footsteps let us know she does not sleep

Until everyone is safe


She loved

black coffee,

fresh jalapeños that made men cry

and talking back to God.


As she lay dying

Her eyes

Her hands

Her wilting heart

showered us with tenderness and compassion

Even when she recovered from the first heart attack

she didn’t stop working

Instead of resting

we would return from work

to find the house swept and mopped

food cooking on the stove

a stack of freshly cooked tortillas

and she on her feet

challenging us, defying her own heart


her whole body

was a prayer

a thunderous prayer

then she decided to die

after she found out some terrible news

she was betrayed

she tried to strangle my grandfather

who did not resist

he knew what he had done and was willing to let her have what she wanted now

Gustavo and I were in a side room playing guitars

when we heard arguing voices crescendo

then bodies crashing against walls and floors

We stuck our heads out the door and slowly came out

She was choking my abuelito

He just lay there, she on top, still

holding him down with her legs over his chest and knees on his arms

Then she flopped down on the floor

Leaning her head against the frayed sofa

Enraged, spit drooling out of her mouth

Her body was still a prayer

Invoking herself against herself

That summer

She continued working in the fields

Until she suffered another stroke at the onset of autumn

Then winter came

And she died

Her body still a prayer

When we buried her it began raining, then the sun broke through

The winter day became springtime

We sent her off with prayers, partying

Time under the open sky

The stars swelling until everyone cried

because we were going to miss her

we miss her prayers, her praying

her backbone

her food, her caldos, tortillas, her ponqui pie, her lipstick

her curses, her defense


She kept her promises, she waits for everyone.


Will we rest alongside her bones

or will we be scattered by the wind

only to be reached by her voice,

rescued by her prayers?


Manuela, arise

sons and daughters

grand-sons and granddaughters

great-grand-sons and great grand-daughters


Our mother

Our grandmother

does not forget anyone

does not leave anyone behind…


[Poem: 2002 | Portrait of Manuela Ochoa (wedding day), 6″x8″, oil pastels, 1994]

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