Leslie Contreras Schwartz

Aug 29, 2018

My grandmother, Marisol, taught me to respect storms. Hurricanes deserved respect more than fear. Fear freezes you, Moni, her nickname for me, she’d say. But that was in Guanajuato, where the rules seemed different somehow. When I arrived in Houston ten years ago, I knew this place was a different world. Everything so perfectly symmetrical, from the food in the grocery store, to the houses and their yards and their carefully placed perennials. I was used to wild gardens,  hardy gardens, one made from dry soil and a handful of manure, bursting with life and color. I was used to streets and alleys with no names, the urgent feeling of so many bodies pressed up against each other in the market. I was used to the storms that brought flooding and a wildness that was not surprising to us, who lived in such proximity to each other and the open world in so many ways.

But now Houston, this more sanitized city, although wild in its mix of people and its own ways, is my home. I was thinking of the differences as I watched the hurricane clouds install itself closer and closer, little by little. “Are you a guest or an invader?” I asked myself as Flor and I stared out the window at the rain pour itself angrily, inching up the staircase outside our apartment. I looked at Flor by my side, her small head in tight braids that I’d done this morning, and remembered that to many, we, too, are invaders, not guests in this country. I felt then a sibling to this storm.

Isn’t it this – this fury of wind and let-down river, that the gringos, and all human beings, are afraid of? We are just the symbols they’ve chosen to mean death, me, a house cleaner and Flor, a slight five-year-old learning how to read and write.

The sky cracked and cracked some more, sending Flor and me to hide in the closet for several nights from tornadoes. When we came out the fourth and last time, we stepped into a foot of water in our apartment. The water kept rising. The sky had come for us. We could not just sit tight until it was done.

I could respect this axe in its attempt to splinter us, its cruel rotten water, rising and rising. I can respect it because as I put my daughter in a laundry basket, prepared myself to swim until I found a place to hide, I knew that this kind of foe comes indiscriminately: the young, the old, the Mexicans, the “aliens,” gringos, the drunk, the homeless, and yes, even those rich people whose houses I cleaned.

As I swam, shouting over the rain to Flor, who was cold and wet, that we would be okay, we saw all of our neighbors were on the balconies or going into the water with their families, their children too in laundry baskets, bins, containers, or holding onto makeshift rafts. 

Not a single passenger escapes, and our boxes in which we are ferried from this life to the next, that is our only choosing. Which boxes.

My daughter and I escaped, as if well tucked in another box, a box made of flood and wildness, a dangerous embrace, that looked at all humans with the same regard. This is the kind of death song I respect, that sky showing itself, reminding me that here the world of people can cave with the same fall, the same dance. I saw my neighbor, a viejita who always gave us a dirty look in the laundry room like we might contaminate her clothes with our dark skin, our human smell.

I swam to the lady in her white cotton robe, her silver hair out of its usual perfect curled shell, and held out my hand. Her hair was matted to the sides of her face in tight curls as she looked at me, her translucent blue eyes. It was if we had just met, and in many ways, we did.