Betsy and Bella
By Armando Ortiz
“Betsy, it’s time to say your prayers and go to sleep,” said Bella, who’d been in the kitchen washing a stack of dirty dishes that had piled up the last few days. Betsy was in the living room reading, directly under a light that emanated from the ceiling. She was engrossed with a Curious George book. Bella walked towards her, wiping her hands with a towel. Her smooth tanned arms shone under the light. Their niche was directly across the light. Betsy was always under the watchful eye of her mom and the Virgin of Guadalupe. They knelt before her and prayed. The image of St Christopher was on the foreground of the Virgin Mary, to the right. Another little statuette was on the left side, that of St Jude. In between these was a candle, a little flower vase and a plaster cast image of Jesus Christ. The Virgin’s eyes always caught Betsy’s attention, since it seemed to be looking down at her, with ancient Buddha eyes, had an aura of love and serenity. They always followed the routine right before going to sleep. Her mom mostly did the talking. She begged the Virgensita, the beloved virgin, for patience and strength, thanked her for life and having food that day. Following this brief ceremony Bella would tuck Betsy in her own small Hello Kitty bed and kiss her goodnight.
She was always in prayer, a relentless woman of prayer, and earnestly felt that the Virgin was taking care of them. The same part of the couch where her daughter had been studying was now being used by her. Now it was Bella that was directly across from the image of the Lady of Mercy. Now it was her turn to be under those watchful eyes and commence the two hour study session. She was an autodidact, but simply gave thanks to the heavens above and always brought flowers she’d cut on the way back home from work; yellow daisies, red roses and occasionally magenta baby bottle scrubbers. Bella would stay up a few hours past bed time, studying and reviewing for the Dental Assistant course that she was taking at the local vocational school.
Bella worked as a housekeeper at one of the old hotels in downtown Los Angeles. She’d been given the job after a neighbor who’d worked there for 15 years had finally found a man and married. The newlywed couple decided to head north and start a new life somewhere in Salem, Oregon. Bella gave thanks to the Virgin for the job, and used some of the money from that first pay check to buy a bouquet of roses, and went to the church she attended and placed them on the altar.
Life was certainly not easy, especially housekeeping. She had to clean thirteen rooms in eight hours. She had some help, but it was always frowned upon to call for assistance. Towards the end of the day her back ached from all the bending, leaning and pulling.. As soon as she clocked out, the bus would take her back home, where she would pick up her daughter from the next door neighbor, who watched over Betsy for two hours after school. The pain and tiredness was relentless, but she always thanked people and thanked the image that watched over them. Betsy would have her homework done by the time she was picked up, but she knew that her mom expected nothing but reading and writing at the house. Though it was routine, she found it easy to write in her diary and write on what she’d done that day or write down her dreams and the things that she wanted. She knew that her mom also had a diary, because sometimes her mom would sit on the kitchenette table and write down her own thoughts, her own hopes in a leather bound diary that she’d picked up while passing through Mexico.
Her family wasn’t particularly religious, occasionally going to Sunday mass to pray and every so often go to confession. Nevertheless, for Bella, her trip through Mexico made her a believer. Her hazel eyes had seen people walking on their knees, and crawling towards sanctuaries where the Virgin was housed. Every house that gave shelter and a plate of food had a little sanctuary that honored the Mother of Jesus. The people she crossed paths with gave her a deep impression, helping her along and showing extreme generosity in opening their homes. A sense of spiritual debt to them and to the image of the Eternal Grandmother would weigh on her for a very long time.
When Betsy thought about her mom, she imagined her writing notes to people, a habit that had been acquired by her as well. She’d sneak notes for her teacher to read after lunch, give friends notes of friendship or make drawings, like two kids playing handball. The person who got the onslaught of notes wasn’t her mom though; instead it was the neighbor Margarita, whose refrigerator was riddled with notes that Bella had given her making it look like a multi-colored bird that’d lived ages ago.
When they weren’t studying they’d be praying, constantly petitioning the Virgin for grace. If it was not thanking something and looking up to heaven, Betsy found that her mom, practically thanked all kinds of people, all the time. Margarita, the neighbor that watched over her, the vato that stood outside the building all day with his hands in his pocket, shaking hands with strangers all day, and the lady that sold tamales in the morning. As if the powers that be had set everything up so that she would be grateful for her lot in life. In the weekends they went to a vocational school for four hours. Betsy would take her journal or a coloring book and get lost in her imagination. Her mom on the other hand, sat, took notes, turned in assignments, and asked the instructor a multitude of questions. Mr. Ofoma knew she was a single mother working to get bye, so he’d given her permission to have her daughter in the class. Betsy just sat there working on binders that contained her drawings. At times she’d just sit there and listen to Mr. Ofoma’s lecture. He, along with the other instructors saw that Bella was different. She had gumption. She had the heart and commitment of a marathon athlete. She wouldn’t stop, instead just kept going. At bed time Bella would think of her parents back home. She wondered how they were doing. She’d left her home at sixteen and had taken the trip north a few years back. They would receive money from her at least once every two months.
Her brother, Santos, had recently arrived. He’d taken the train over here and spent a few months wandering around to get to the US. She found it odd that along the way he’d been stranded by several coyotes. Usually a coyote, a human trafficker, committed himself to taking the person the whole trip till they reached a destination where a known business associate would complete the adventure for them. His journey had been different though, because after he managed to get to Guadalajara, he apparently got stranded, and turned up in Mexico DF a few months later. All along he’d call his loving sister and beg for money. Bella didn’t have much, but would figure things out, like find a cleaning gig in West Los Angeles or help clean the Laundromat that was two blocks away from her house on 3rd street. Every ounce of sweat that came out of that 5 foot figure was worth more than gold to her, since it was family that was being helped.
For Santos, it seemed that Bella had made it in the U.S., since every time he found himself in a bind he’d just dial the numbers and in a few days money filled both pockets. Santos was escaping Honduras. His parents thought he’d moved out and had been working at a tobacco company, which he had for a while, but he’d really started to gamble, drink and hang out with the wrong crowd. Circumstances made it necessary for him to relocate somewhere far, as soon as possible, hence his abrupt decision to head north. It seemed that kind eyes were looking after him from above.
When Santos arrived in LA he was sent to MacArthur Park to get his papers in order. Any person who had recently crossed the border and need a fake identification card or green card went to the park to get them- a bazar of illegal activities. He’d been walking north along Alvarado Blvd. when suddenly he saw his elementary school friend, Jose, who was standing by the corner of the Pharmacia Del Pueblo. He looked different, but his facial features were distinguishable. He wasn’t wearing shorts or was barefoot. Instead Nike Cortez protected those running feet, and for some reason his hair was slicked back, like a cow lick. His brown slacks were ironed clean as if a black pin stripe ran along the front and back of his legs.
“Jose, is that you? It’s me Santos from La Colonia Diego Garcia. We used to play ball.” Jose at first gave him a dirty look, which turned into astonishment, which then transformed into familiarity.
“Santos, wassup foo, wachu doin around here?”
“You know, work,” replied Santos.
Occasionally going to buy toiletries at El Piojito made Betsy familiar with the area, but she never really stuck around the area since she was too busy with work. She had given Santos a small map that she drew on a piece of paper. He knew he was near. Only a few more blocks to go before reaching the place his sister said reliable green cards were sold. He showed the sketch to Jose telling him he was sent to that location. Jose looked at the paper and spat on the ground and his face had suddenly became more wrinkled and his cold stare returned.
“Who the fuck sent you there, ese?,” inquired Jose, with a hard nod to the skies while keeping eye contact.
“My sister said that’s where she got her papers,” replied Santos.
“Well your sister is wrong ese. No seas bayunco, si tienes pedo ponte listo cabron” Jose sounded angry.
“Calmado, calmado,” said Santos slightly raising his arms and showing Jose his palms. “Mira loco, I just got here and all I am trying to do is get my papers to get a job. If you can help me with that then I’ll be grateful.”
“How much you got?,” he was asked.
“Pues, this is what my sister gave me. She said I could get a mica,” he replied.
“Aver,” there was a moment of pause before his voice broke through the sound of passing cars, “esos cabrones te estan robaaando. I sell papers much cheaper than that, vente conmigo,” he swung his arm forward signaling Santos to follow him. Like a blind man following another blind man, he followed.
Santos returned home in the evening and was unusually chatty, he kept talking about all sorts of things. Bella already had dinner cooked for the three of them. It had been a long time since he’d had yucca frita with chicharon, fried cassava with fried pork, a common staple back in many Central American countries, and this for him was a reminder that now he was with family. He ate his dinner and kept talking about his adventure earlier that day. Bella ate her food and listened to everything he was sharing. She found it odd that he just kept talking and talking about how good the food was, but only once mentioned getting his papers.
“Y la mica?,”she finally interjected.
He paused for a moment and pulled out his green card. He was no longer Santos, instead he was Arnoldo Toledo.
Every morning everyone seemed to wake up after Bella took a shower, soon afterward Betsy would go into the shower, where mom would scrub her down. Then it was Santos, who always woke up last. He seemed to relish the extra hour from when Bella awoke. He knew he’d have to cook his own breakfast. He’d been in LA two weeks and had yet to find a job. He’d tell Bella that he was going out and meeting with old friends who worked in factories, hotels and other odd places. Once he was outside, he’d just disappear and merge with the crowds of people and the mid-day traffic, everything being flooded by that bright Southern California light, and come back home late in the evenings.