San Antonio de la Fe, Michoacán Mexico
Years later, Diego would remember the lit torches, the shadows wrapping across crumbling walls and stone buildings, the glowing faces of women clutching crucifixes, and the cheers from the old men as they raised withered fists in the air the night the revolution came to San Antonio de la Fe. Most of all, though, he would remember the feel of his father’s hands, remember the dirt and grit beneath his fingernails when he reached out to touch Diego for the last time.
“If I die out there,” he said, with no fear or pity or passion in his voice, “you will be the last León. You alone will carry on our name.”
Diego was proud of his father, but he did not want him to go. Without his father, who would plow a ditch around the field to protect it from flooding? Who would teach him when to plant the corn? How would Diego learn these things now? His mother, clutching the rifle’s neck, pleaded for his father to stay.
“Let the others go,” she said. “We need you here. Think of your son. Think of me.”
The other men were already on their horses, some of them shouting, “Death to Díaz! Long live the revolution.” Of Díaz, Diego knew only this: He was the president of the country, and he was very rich. When people in San Antonio talked about him, they spat on the ground, cursed his name, and called him a devil. They said he had ruled Mexico for a long time and had taken everything away from the poor and given it to the rich. But then the people called for revolution, and men like his father were rising up against him.
As the men made their way out of town, their cries mixed with the sound of hooves clopping down San Antonio’s only paved road. The women tossed bundles of food wrapped in flour sacks at the soldiers as they paraded by. The men caught these and tied them to their saddles, cheering and firing their guns in the air. The loud cracks echoed through the street, and the horses whinnied and shook their manes.
Luis Vara, whom the others called el Barriga because of his large belly, whipped his horse’s flanks, and the animal galloped toward the rest of the troop. He turned and shouted his father’s name, said something about marrying a city woman, and told him it was time to go. Diego clung to his mother’s skirt and looked at his father, hoping he might not listen.
When he at last broke away from Diego’s mother, she let out a cry. He watched his father put on his hat and drape a bandolier over each shoulder, and his face was stoic, almost expressionless. He mounted his mare and the horse snorted and neighed, puffs of white mist blowing out from its damp nostrils. Seeing him coming, the troop took off once again, and the people waved good-bye from the sagging doorways of their shacks. Just before he disappeared around the bend, Diego’s father turned and saluted them. But his mother didn’t see it—she had already looked away.
In that moment, just as his father rode off, into that darkness and violence which knew no beginning and knew no end, Diego León was only a boy. He knew nothing of the world then. He couldn’t understand why men like his father—men like the one he himself would one day become—were always forced to make these choices, always forced to make sacrifices that shaped destinies and altered lives forever. He was just a child, frightened, unsure, confused. He could not imagine the many faces he would be called to wear—a soldier, a thief, a lover, a villain, a king, a husband, a father—or the name by which he would be known and remembered. Not his birth name, his father’s name, but a false name. A name he would spend his life inventing, then becoming, only to lose himself in the riddles and the lies.
It had been over a year since his father left, and still there was no word. Each day, his mother grew uneasy, restless. One afternoon, Diego found her in the middle of their cookhouse, head bent down in prayer before an image of the Virgin Mary painted on a thin piece of tin. A tallow candle resting atop a wooden bench burned, small and solitary, and the flame stirred in the breeze.
Unlike their house, which was built of brick and clay, the cookhouse had no walls, just a flimsy thatched roof. It was the wet season, and through the strips of dried palm fronds Diego could see the sky above, the clouds rolling by, white and massive, like strips of torn cotton. The roof always leaked during the heavy rains, muddying the dirt floor, dampening the posts that held it up so much that the wood would swell up from the moisture only to split during the warmer, dry months of September and October. Diego had awoken early to gather twigs for the fire, and he placed the bundle he collected near the dugout in the center of the cookhouse.
“Mama?” Diego asked. “What is it?”
Watching the candle burn, she sighed and shook her head. “I can’t take it much longer. I wish I knew where he was, if he was fine.”
Diego lowered his head and remained silent. He’d learned by now there was nothing he could say.
“What should we do?” she continued, speaking more to the Virgin than to him. “Go back to Morelia?”
“What is it like there, Mama? Tell me about the city,” he insisted, hoping to distract her.
“I’m sorry,” his mother said, hugging him. She blew the tallow candle out and rose. “The city feels like a world away. It’s big and there are lots of people there.”
“How many people?”
“Well, thousands,” she said, smiling.
Diego asked, curious, “How many is that? Is it more than here in San Antonio?”
“Yes,” she told him. “Many more. Yet, out of all those faces, I still managed to meet your father, someone who would offer me an entirely different life.”
Two years before Diego’s birth, she explained, his father had left San Antonio for Morelia to find work. He got a job selling trinkets on the street, and each day he would stand on the sidewalk in front of Diego’s grandfather’s notary business peddling his wares.
“Your grandparents hated him,” his mother said. “A lowly peasant. They wouldn’t dream of their daughter falling for such a man. I did it to spite them, really. We married, and I followed him to San Antonio, and then you came. It’s been hard, of course, but I don’t wish I’d chosen another life. Otherwise I wouldn’t have you. I thank God every day for you.” She wiped her tears on her dress. “Go out and gather more wood. Quickly, before the rain comes.”
Outside, the sky was darkening, and the air smelled of damp earth. Chickens pecked at the muddy ground, and a sow rolled around in a tuft of wild grass. Diego followed a narrow dirt path leading up a steep hill and out into a wide clearing behind their house, gathering twigs that would keep the fire going well into the night. At the end of the path, he turned and looked down the hill. In the distance was the lake, Pátzcuaro, the weak sunlight bouncing off its surface, glimmering like ribbons of glass. Diego looked across the water and could make out some of the other villages—Tzintzunzan, Tocuaro, Erongaricuaro—along the northern shore, strung there like beads on a necklace. Before him was San Antonio, his home, his birthplace, so small that outsiders tended to forget its existence among the bigger villages. Here was the main avenue, which started at the lakeside and passed through the town. Two summers ago, his father and a few of the other men cobbled the road by hand with bricks that everyone had given money to buy. He could remember the day vividly—his father kneeling, scooping out handfuls of dirt with his coarse hands, and spreading it in the gaps between the bricks, the August heat, the flies buzzing in the cool shadows of opened doorways. His father had taken some mud and placed it in Diego’s hand.
“Here,” he had said, bending down, guiding Diego’s fingers. “In between. Spread the mud there. It’ll bake under the sun and harden.”
He looked at the avenue now, at the houses along its sides, one next to the other. Beyond, there was the tortilleria, the wood-carver José Tamez’s shop, the grocer’s store where the women could buy soap for the laundry or sacks of bleached flour and cubes of sugar. Diego looked still further, beyond the plaster church, beyond the town’s small zócalo where people gathered on Sundays after Mass, beyond the cemetery where his father’s family was buried, their bones mixing with the red clay soil of the land, toward the wide green hills of the countryside. Cicadas hummed in the huisache trees, and the wind rustled, the air warm and heavy with the coming rain. And where was his father, he wondered? Had he been killed? Was Diego indeed the last León?
Every Saturday, Diego and his mother traveled to Pátzcuaro. Even though the city was several kilometers away, his mother preferred the marketplace there over the one in San Antonio because it was larger, because they sold bolts of fabric, fine soaps and oils, and newspapers and magazines from Morelia, things you couldn’t get in their village.
Since his father left, his great-aunt Elva had started accompanying them, because she said traveling alone through the countryside was unsafe for a lady like his mother. Tía Elva was one of the last remaining full-blooded P’urhépecha indias.
“My mother refused to marry a Spaniard, and my late husband was full-blooded too. Even though all three of my daughters are P’urhépechas they moved to Mexico City, cut their hair, and rejected the old ways,” she once told Diego. “Your father’s mother, my sister Eulogia, married one of the mestizos who moved to San Antonio years ago to buy up land to build haciendas. She was taken in by their lighter skin and sophisticated ways. But she was india. So your father’s half and half. Your mother, well, I’m not sure what she is. You’ll have to ask her.”
One such Saturday, his mother mounted the burro, and Elva led them out of town toward Pátzcuaro. It was past eight, and they would likely reach the city by noon. From where he sat behind his mother, Diego could see the glistening skin of the lake. The fishermen were out, their wooden canoes bobbing up and down as they drifted toward the middle of the water. They raised their nets, the long arms extending like the wings of a magnificent bird, and dipped them in then out. To Diego, it looked like a dance, the way they all moved together.
They soon came into a field dotted with prickly pear cacti, their wide green paddles reaching up into the sky like hands in supplication. Diego thought about the cochinilla, the insects that arrived in the spring and attached themselves to the paddles. Elva once told him that the females liked to feast on the cactus fiber. He watched the old woman press her fingers across the white clusters, crushing the insects. They released a bright crimson tint, which she dabbed on her mouth, then leaned in to kiss the back of his hands and arms, leaving faint impressions of her lips behind. They lasted the rest of the day, fading away little by little.
Elva held the burro’s saddle with her hand as she guided them, singing in P’urhépecha. More than once, Diego had heard Elva speaking the language to herself while she worked, mixing the words with Spanish. They were so strange, so different, and Diego liked their sound. He asked her to teach him, but his mother didn’t approve. He had some of their blood, she said, but he wasn’t one of them. He was different, she insisted. He could grow up to be whatever, whoever, he wanted.
They arrived in Pátzcuaro and followed the main avenue into town and toward the marketplace. It was teeming with vendors selling fruits, vegetables, spices, and flowers whose fragrant buds mixed with the scent of fresh tilapia the fishermen had caught that morning. They passed the ice vendor, the large square blocks dripping water, dampening the walkway where customers shuffled about. Under a blue tarp, his mother purchased strips of fabric, a lace handkerchief, and a new pair of shoes and knitted socks for Diego.
“Aren’t they nice?” she asked, bending down to show him the shoes.
Elva reached out and felt them. “Very nice,” said the old woman. “And expensive, no doubt.”
“Nothing is too much for my son,” she said. “We have to make sure you have nice things for when your father returns. Come along. We’ll get you a bag of candy.”
His mother led them through the maze of stalls, past bundles of herbs drying in the sun, wicker baskets full of baked bread, and slabs of meat hanging from iron hooks where children with smoke-stained faces swatted flies away and shouted prices.
On their way out of the market, they passed the rail station. His mother pointed to the train that had just arrived. The engine hissed steam into the air as a whistle blew and a crowd of people climbed out from the wooden cars and onto the station’s planks.
“Look,” his mother told Diego. “That train there. You see it?”
Diego nodded, chewing on a piece of guava candy.
“It’s coming from Morelia,” she said. “We should board it. Take it into the city.”
“What about my father?” Diego asked, looking at her now.
But his mother didn’t answer.
Excerpted from The Five Acts of Diego Leon by Alex Espinoza. Copyright © 2013 by Alex Espinoza. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.