[When I decided to use the image of the Santo Niño de Nuestra Señora de Atocha on the front of this year’s Christmas cards, I felt a need to explain why that image was important to me. I started out to write two or three sentences that would be included in the cards but once I started writing, I realized that there was no simple or short way to fully explain the significance of the image, so I ended up with the paragraphs below, which have a few more details than what is on the cards. A note for those of you receiving my Christmas card: the date below, July 9, 1939, is the correct date.]
IN THE HOT South Texas mid-summer days of 1939, eleven years after she was married, two years after the death of her second child and less than a year after having given birth to her sixth, my mother lay in her bed in the small house that her father-in-law had built for her and Domingo.
Martina López Palomo, who was 31, was in pain most of the time and her constant moans could be heard by anyone in or near the house. María Luisa, their oldest child, had just turned ten, yet even now – three quarters of a century later – she harbors searing memories of my mother’s agonizing cries.
The doctor had told my mother that her ovaries were infected and that she needed to have surgery to remove them. Without that surgery, she would die. That was his verdict. But for whatever reason, my mother resisted, and so her suffering continued.
More than likely, money played a role in her decision. Or rather, lack of it. This was at the tail end of the Great Depression and times were hard. Although my father had worked for the railroad, when he stopped working because of his hand injury, his income stopped. And so it was up to my grandparents and Tía Benita, my father’s oldest sister who lived at the other end of the block with her husband, Melecio Alfaro, to provide food for the family. Tío Mele was a businessman and so his family was relatively well off, compared to ours and compared to the other families in the neighborhood, and Tía Benita made certain that her brother’s family did not go hungry.
But while there was enough family support to keep the family from starving, there was none for huge medical expenses, so my mother continued to suffer.
And her cries intensified.
There was little my father could do, for he was not around. He was 120 miles away, in a San Antonio hospital, recovering from a hand injury he had incurred while working for the railroad. Before he was taken to San Antonio – aboard a railroad handcar – he too had lain in bed for days, in agony, taking nothing but aspirin for his intense pain.
Until he was taken away, Luisa could hear him too. Crying, like a child.
My grandmother, Manuela Limón Palomo, would come in during the day to help take care of my mother, as would Tía Benita. There were times when my mother’s stepmother, María López, and others would come to help. But that was during the day. At night, it was up to Luisa to look after my mother and eight-month-old Mariana, and the other children, eight-year-old Delfina, five-year-old Alejandro and three-year-old Norberto.
My grandfather had fashioned a small hammock out of rope and canvas for Mariana.
“I would lie on the floor at night, near the hammock, and with my foot I would gently push it to rock it back and forth so that Mariana would fall asleep,” Luisa remembers. “But I couldn’t sleep: I kept hearing my mother’s lloridos.”
‘Buelita Manuela was a stern, no-nonsense kind of person.
“Era de leyes,” is how Luisa describes her – she was stickler for rules, her rules.
Among those rules was that it was up to Luisa to keep Mariana in clean diapers. That meant soaking the diapers in a washtub filled with boiling water. Luisa not only had to stoke the fire to keep it burning, she had to stir the washtub’s contents with a stick and then use that stick and to remove the soaking diapers. The fact that afternoon temperatures surpassed 100 degrees didn’t matter; the diapers had to be washed.
When Tía Benita would come upon Luisa doing that chore, she would become angry at ‘Buelita and insist that she, Benita, could wash the diapers. But the next day, before Tía could come over, the old woman had already made Luisa wash the diapers.
“Era mala reata,” Luisa says about ‘Buelita. (I don’t know if there’s a translation for that. A cruel piece of old rope?)
From her bed, my mother could see what her mother-in-law, whom she called mamá, would put Luisa and the others through, but there was nothing she could do about it.
“If I die,” she told Luisa one day. “Mamá is going to eat the four of you alive.”
On July 9, ‘Buelita, who lived next door, came to Luisa. In her wrinkled brown hands, she carried a small worn booklet. It is unclear how long she had owned it, but this we do know: She had carried that booklet, printed in Guanajuato in 1847, with her when the family had walked to Texas 19 years earlier from near San Luis Potosí. The booklet was a triduo (triduum), a three-day litany of prayers to the Santo Niño de Nuestra Señora de Atocha. (We know that date because Luisa wrote it, in pencil, on the front of the book.)
“Here,” she told Luisa. “Take this booklet. Use it to pray for your mother, so that she can live.”
Luisa did as her grandmother beseeched. She wanted my mother to live, and so she prayed. Every day. Religiously, asking the Santo Niño to return my mother to health.
And little by little, that’s what happened; my mother did begin to get better, and stronger, until one day she was able to leave her bed and once again resume her duties as wife and mother.
My mother was to live for more than 52 years after her illness, and she was to give birth to three additional children, including me, the youngest.
When it became clear that my mother would live, Luisa made a promise to the Santo Niño that she would one day visit His shrine in Mexico. Many decades later, Luisa fulfilled her vow by making that pilgrimage to the shrine, which is near Fresnillo, Zacatecas, to offer her thanks.
WAS MY MOTHER’S recovery a miracle of the Santo Niño de Nuestra Señora de Atocha? Or was the doctor simply wrong in his initial prognosis? Or was my mother’s fear about what would happened to her four young children should she die enough to give her the strength to defeat whatever was wrong with her?
I don’t know. Over the years, I have learned to steer clear of certainty when it comes to matters of the soul, or of the universe and beyond. But I have also come to the conclusion that while nothing is certain, everything is possible. And so I’ll leave it at that.
During my most recent visit to her home in California, Luisa chose to make me be the keeper of this precious and delicate booklet. It is in dreadful shape, but I consider it and its tattered yellowed pages among my most-prized possessions.
At the front of the booklet appears the image shown on this card. There are many versions of this image, but I have searched extensively online and I have yet to find a version that matches this one exactly. After I made a copy of the image, I started to Photoshop it to remove the blemishes and other signs of wear and abuse, but I quickly decided that those signs were part of the essence of its beauty, and so they remain.
IN THIS SEASON of peace, promise, joy and new beginnings, I have elected to share this image – and this story – with you, in the hopes that they instill in you and your loved ones a deeper sense of family, love and devotion – and the possibility of a better, more peaceful, generous and miraculous world.