San Bartolo

Photo: Emma Alvarez Gibson

By Emma Alvarez Gibson

She is crying, lying in a huge bed in a room with crumbling walls and the impermeable smell of decay. Her tiny blond brother sleeps next to her, so she turns to face the wall, careful not to shake the bed. She can’t explain, doesn’t want him to sense this wellspring inside of her.

Earlier that evening, holding his hand, she’d led him down to the plaza where the games and rides were. The streets were lined with makeshift booths selling plastic toys, purses for little girls, wooden combs, engravable fake gold rings. They headed to the merry-go-round where brown children, and a few pale ones with dirty blond hair, jumped on, grinning, clinging to the decaying metal that wouldn’t pass a safety inspection anywhere else, save another country like this one where children were a dime a dozen. She and her brother bought tickets from their allowances.

She watched as the more wretched local kids formed their uneasy bonds with the carnies’ children. Lower than the poorest kids of this poor ghost town, these children were the ones who slept and ate on blankets underneath the wooden counters that housed the trinkets that make their paltry existence possible. They took turns, two or three at a time, leaping onto the carousel, shouting and laughing until the ride’s operator barked at them, pulling at their skinny arms and calling them terrible names. The kids would scatter with no visible trace of the mortification she felt for them. In a few minutes they’d be back, and then a different team of two or three would jump on while the others kept watch for the dark-skinned man in charge.

A couple of boys in the pack eyed her; one curiously, the other with contempt. He was maybe two years older than her, but with the shrunken-leather look of malnutrition. Their eyes met for a moment. She blinked, recoiling from his silent and bitter accusation, and from the weight of the grand, mean-spirited joke to which she was suddenly privy. She couldn’t deny a thing. At home, they sometimes can’t afford to have milk, but here, she and her brother are golden-tanned, light-haired kids from El Norte. She was wearing her best dress, blue and white, with black buttons, and her patent leather Mary Janes; her braids were tied with pretty blue ribbons; she is, as a rule, well fed and clean. She lives in Los Angeles. She is only here on vacation. Like her father has told her over and over again, she is fortunate enough to be able to go to school. She has never begged, and her parents bought her way onto the carousel.

She had wanted to tell the boy that her friends from school were not allowed to visit because no one wanted their kids in her neighborhood. That when her parents fought, it was her job to shush them and remind them that they had children who were trying to sleep. That she was constantly explaining things to them as best she could, making up what she didn’t know, to fill in the cracks. That at night she would grind her teeth and developed headaches during the day. That she was running to stand still, all the time, and she didn’t know how to make it stop.

The boy had glared at her for an instant before taking up his mask of boredom again, and turning away. What did a girl like her know about reality?

She cries until she’s exhausted. Then she has to pee. She sits up, brushing her flip-flops lightly with her feet to make sure there are no scorpions lying in wait. After putting them on, she reaches under the bed for the white tin chamber pot. It makes a loud, screeching sound on the ancient tiles as she pulls it toward her. Grimacing when her bottom touches the cold rim, she tries not to look around in the dark. This house scares her tremendously. It was old when her father was born in it, and no one has taken care of it in who knows how many years. Every summer she plays a game with herself, telling herself she is not scared. Not of the ancient red Louis XIV-style sofas, where her mother lost a bobby pin between the cushions and pulled out a stiff dead mouse instead. Not of her aunt’s bedroom with the high, high ceiling and a skylight, where someone could look in on you while you’re sleeping, and where the sheets in the extra bed always feel like they’re filled with sand, no matter how many times you shake them out. Not of the windowless library, filled with books dating back to the eighteenth century, books written in Latin and covered in leather so old it looks like human skin. Books that belonged to her grandmother’s brother, who was a priest and has been dead now for years, the way it seems all the important people are.

She tells herself other things that aren’t true. Like this: the kitchen, with its creaky metal screen door that can be heard from the street, does not stink – it’s a good, cozy smell. The bathroom, located outside, behind the kitchen, is not weird or gross, even though its only door is an old shower curtain from the ’60s, and the toilet only flushes when you pour a pail of water into it. She doesn’t really need friends here that she can relate to, because she is popular by default, by the lightness of her skin and the country of her birth. She should like the girls here – girls who will only play at cleaning or cooking, girls who do not run or yell – because her father wants her to like them. And, well, it’s not like she can play with the boys here. It isn’t done. She should be like them. The sadness that presses down on her from every direction in this town, in this country isn’t sadness, just a different way of living. The shrill-voiced, red-cheeked midget that is always at the door of the butcher shop is just a human being like you and me, not proof of how sometimes bad things just happen to you, and you have no say over them.

She gets back into bed. Her brother stirs and she pats his curls softly. When he’s asleep again she pulls the blankets over her head, tells herself they smell familiar and soothing, and wills herself to sleep.


Photograpy: Emma Alvarez Gibson. All rights reserved.


Emma is a cheerfully obsessive writer, editor and creative gun-for-hire. She’s had a hand in all types of media, at every step in the process. Jack Move is her fifth from-scratch magazine. (Clearly, this has become A Thing.) She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. Follow her on Twitter (@ealvarezgibson) and find out more at

One Response to “San Bartolo”

  1. Nikki says:

    I love this, Emma.

Leave a Reply