Sarah Rafael García


Sarah Rafael García is a writer, community educator and traveler. Since publishing Las Niñas, she founded Barrio Writers and obtained a M.F.A. in Creative Writing. Her writing has appeared in LATINO MagazineContrapuntos IIIOutrage: A Protest Anthology For Injustice in a Post 9/11 WorldLa Tolteca ZineAs/Us Journal, among others. Sarah Rafael is currently the Editor for the annual Barrio Writers anthology and Co-editor of pariahs writing from outside the margins anthology.

Most recently, Sarah Rafael is a 2016 Macondo Fellow and was awarded for Santana's Fairy Tales, which is supported in part by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, through a grant supporting the Artist-in-Residence initiative at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California.

“I don't paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.” -- Frida Kahlo


The Movement

You may not believe my tale, but let me tell you anyway.

About six months ago, the change in la Chicana began when she was off to a women’s circle to call upon her indigenous ancestors. Well, that’s what she mentioned to the cell phone. I hung on the far wall while she stood staring at me with the cell phone pressed to her right ear. When guest acknowledged my presence, she referred to me as “Frida’s Self-Portrait from 1940.” She used words like, “Chingona,” “Feminist Icon,” and “the Mexican artist I aspire to be,” to describe me to everyone. It was normal for her to stand in the middle of the living room with her back to the prayer candle. She called her La Virgencita. But she contemplated ideas rather than prayers to me. She said I inspired her. But like a mound of tamales the day after Christmas, I too was taken for granted.

You know, la Chicana once prayed to La Virgencita first, then turned to me with such convoluted ideas, “Right Frida, we’ll show them! It’s all about the female power! They can’t tell us what to do! I’m free spirited like you Frida! I can have sex with whoever I want.”

The girl walked away from both of us pushing her cellphone’s buttons. Minutes later there was a knock at the front door. I didn’t even get to see if they were man or woman. They both raced across the barren floor, kissing and pulling on each other’s clothes, straight into the bedroom—only leaving a bra and shoe, like breadcrumbs on a trail. When they disappeared, I noticed La Virgencita burnt brighter than ever before.

That night, La Virgencita’s flame danced to the echoes from the bedpost, high pitched coos filled with such vulgarities only the devil could have invented. Señorita frrree-spirited, what does she know about real freedom? The real Frida was revolutionary until the end, she lived with pain as a reminder of her existence and purpose—imagine a metal pole thrust through her innards and she survived! She didn’t need such tacky rendezvous to feel alive. She calculated each encounter, stitched each thread of her life into a life-size rebozo hung on the shoulders of every Mexicana who defied any social roles—at least that’s what the one prior to la Chicana said aloud during a party she hosted. Yes, the change in la Chicana clearly started the day when I spoke about the duende to La Virgencita.

As soon as la Chicana locked the front door on her way to the women’s circle, La Virgencita, who seemed to draw more attention than me because she was a three-dimensional relic, spoke from across the room.

“Oye comadre, tell me one of those passionate stories again.”

She couldn’t help to call out every time we were alone—particularly when she had no new prayers to handoff to the real Virgin Mary for la Chicana. La Virgencita often asked about the real Frida but on that particular day I wanted to share something different, I wanted to be more than just stories of what I was supposed to represent. But la Virgencita was unrelenting.

“Andale Frida, tell me a story, don’t act like you’re all innocent. If I can’t live through you, then what am I to do? Sit hear and talk to these ‘made in China’ seashells?”

Paper mâche marigolds, seashells, some burnt sage, and smaller candles were placed all around La Virgenicita. From the crooked angle in which I hung, I could see the moon shine in from the single, front window. La Virgencita sat on the second shelf with no real view but of the backside of the futon and me straight-ahead. The double bolted door was on the right and the kitchen I never got to see was on her left. But she always received special offerings from la Chicana. La Virgencita’s original wax was halfway burnt. Lucky for her, she always received a new votive candle, placed on top during full moons—it was la Chicana’s only routine.

You know, la Chicana found me at the same thrift shop as the bookcase that displayed La Virgencita, over two years ago—but that feisty prayer candle came into la Chicana’s life long before I came along. La Chicana once said to a friend, “My mama passed it on to me when I was little girl, to protect me from evil and the duende who distracted me from cleaning my room,”—that’s how she explained it and often went on to say she put all her faith in La Virgencita.

Sometimes La Virgencita was lit with green or red candles but for the most part la Chicana preferred the color white. La Chicana was very spiritual in that way—or so I thought. Sometimes la Chicana offered La Virgencita fresh wild flowers, copal incense and Mexican sweets. I knew the prayer candle must’ve been verrry especial to have her verrry own shelf on the bookcase, but I would have never thought anything else. But like the saying goes, water from candy can kill you, and she who takes care of you will make you crawl for the things you want.

So I fell for La Virgencita too, and started telling a story, “Bueno ok Virgencita, I’ll share a story. But no more of Diego or communist lovers—let me speak of the forgotten myths that in these days never get told by this new generation.”

“Forgotten myths? Are you trying to convert me Frida? Ay por favor, I’m just a candle and you’re just a replica. Not even a real painting. Don’t be trying to talk all-fancy now. Andale cabrona, maybe the one about the sexy jazz singer? You know the dark-skinned woman they say you took to bed one time. Now that’s a tale I want hear about again.” This time La Virgencita chuckled so hard her flame went out. But as animated as she was, she nonchalantly relit her flame before the smoke cleared. I should’ve known better, because where there’s smoke, there’s always something brewing. Well, at least that’s what la Chicana’s mama used to say. But that day, la Virgencita was quite persistent and I was bored with our own ritual.

“Ay Virgencita, they are just stories. Why do you want to hear me tell’em again? You see, I’m always here just like you—except I hang uneven on this eggshell wall. It is you she seeks for comfort. Me? I’m just a colorful icon.”

We hadn’t been at the apartment verrry long, but after two years of going back and forth between roommates and her mother’s home, la Chicana finally got her own place. Si, si, I should’ve been pleased. After all, I did have my own wall. But I knew it was just a matter of time. She was a painter—a Chicana muralist. But the mujer barely had money to fill her gas tank. Then she got herself this big condo on the eastside walking distance to the park filled with old oak trees, near the river, close to el centro and lots and lots of shops, blah, blah, blah—that’s all I heard her say to the cell phone, over and over again.

“Oh mama, you shouldn’t worry. It’s a nice place, near the lake and a park filled with trees. The condo is near lots of shops, soon I will be able to shop there too. What are you talking about? Mama, duendes don’t exist. Why are you so traditional? I’m moving on up mama, isn’t that what you wanted for me? Si, of course, I always light my prayer candle.”

I too listened like the cell phone. La Chicana came to me with her problems and emotions but she never offered anything to me. And now look where I am. Give someone a hand and they give you their foot.

But La Virgencita finally did let me tell my story, “Fine, so what new cuento do you have for me Frida? Don’t start talking about La Llorona or the Boogie man, because I heard all about them already.” In that moment her flame grew so tall that the old singed area on the above shelf got twice as wide.

I went along with her request, “Bueno, there are old tales of these mischievous creatures who roam in forests and sometimes near bodies of water. They are known to be short and verrry ugly with long hair. Longer than our hair and they are more like men of course. Verrry ugly. Dwen-des, yes she called him a duende. I don’t know if it’s magical but it is some sort of myth. It is said duendes are known to distract children, take them out to play in the trees or along the water’s edge, show them to care more about candy, toys and material stuff like that. You see duendes will give children anything as long as they get attention and bring them the offerings they request like food and whatever else they want. Duendes want to be the center of the child’s attention.”

“It sounds like the child gets more than the duende, no?”

La Virgencita seemed to be genuinely interested, so I continued.

“But a legend follows them, Mexican parents don’t like their children playing with duendes because sometimes their children disappear or are found floating in the rivers and lakes—fooled by all the false promises made by the duende. Actually, if I remember right, they are all over, from the rainforests of Belize to even the rocks and caves of the Philippines.”

La Virgencita interrupted, “Ay Frida, you expect me to believe that? Doesn’t the Irish leprechaun get his day here, where everyone dances in the streets wearing his color and filled with his spirits? Mira, he even promises a pot of gold and we don’t see any gold around here, do we? Por favor, who ever you heard talking about these duendes didn’t know anything. Just forget the story. And why do you say they are ugly? How would you know, have you seen one?”

Before I could answer la Chicana barged through the front door with two other young women. Upon throwing her worn backpack on the couch, she shouted, “Ay that girl thinks she can come into our circle after everyone knows she slept with my ex! Seriously, she has slept with all of the men on the eastside!”

The girl wearing a “Brown & Proud” shirt responded, “Ay Susanna, c’mon like you said, he’s your ex. Let’s remember the movement is bigger than this.”

But la Chicana was too angry. I could see by the way pulled on chongo. She shouted again, “The movement? This isn’t about the cause or the anti-SB1070 walkouts in 2009—this is about her up in my life! She’s everywhere, at the protests, the meetings. She was in one of my classes, now even my women’s circle. Man, that slut needs to stay out of my way before my fist goes up straight into her face!”

Then the one carrying a stenciled canvas bag spoke sarcastically, “Oh wow, now you want to call her a slut and threaten with violence? C’mon mujer, we are not supposed to oppress our own. And you don’t want bad karma on you, especially when you’re about to graduate and start your new job as a badass graphic designer! Mira, look at your Frida on the wall, now ask yourself, what would Frida do?”

At that comment, la Chicana pushed her friend on the shoulder and laughed hysterically. She giggled over and straightened me out, I was almost paralleled to the bookcase.

“We’ll show them Frida. I am bigger than all of this. And with you at my side, I know I can do it!”

Smirking, they all sprang to the kitchen in unison, that’s when I saw La Virgencita’s flame lean in the same direction. She flashed a blazing-blue, then suddenly blinked off like a flashlight.

Ay, the real Frida would smoke a cigarillo right about now or maybe even toss back some mescal to ease the disappointment. What do I know—the real Frida could also be an old folktale. All along I thought La Virgencita asked for Frida’s stories to praise her and compliment me. But now, I think I was just temporary wall décor, just something to talk about.

After returning from the women’s circle, la Chicana did not leave her studio apartment for the days that followed. She wore the same oversized plaid piyamas pants, white-ribbed tank top and messy chongo on the top of her head for three whole days. In the past, she was never one to show off her slender legs or even her black satin hair, not even when she was the only one in the room. Most of the time her hair was braided to one side and she hid her legs in frayed jeans. The only sign of vanity were her embroidered blouses and vivid rebozos.

During the first two days her nose was buried in graphic art books. Other moments she stared seriously at her loteria journal where she had carefully checked off words she had previously written down. Towards nightfall, she wasted many hours sitting on the couch with her laptop covered in washed-out stickers that read, “Xicana Power,” “Stop Deportations” and “Feminist do it without you.”

On the third day, her cellphone disrupted the silence in the late afternoon with a song, “Yeah, we gotta take the power back…Come on, come on.” Upon raising it close to her ear the song stopped and she began yelling obscenities but not like the ones she shouted in the bedroom. Her last word ended with a guttural sigh. La Chicana tossed the cell phone onto the floor. It bounced a couple of times but survived without damage. While stomping towards the kitchen she grew red in the face and pulled her hair down hysterically. She returned choking a wine bottle in her right hand and chanted twice, “Madrecita, dear God, I’m so over this!” Tears rolled down her tense cheeks while she drank directly out of the “damn cheap bottle of wine,” as she had yelled a number of times before it was empty. Sometime after midnight, the bottle rolled under the futon when she nearly fell over the coffee table making her way towards the bedroom.

On the fourth morning, she went to la Virgencita, added three mandarins to the altar and whispered something I couldn’t hear. She didn’t wear her usual huaraches or converse, not even one of her Mexican-like tops. No, no, that day she wore a plain black dress with a sweater. You know, like the white girls wear—si, they call them cardigans. The real Frida wore rebozos everyday, not a car-di-gan—her shoulders were always draped with red or turquoise ones. Well at least that’s what la Chicana said when she showed off her collection to her friends.

It is true I’m just a replica—we all are, even you. And we just get passed on from one Chicana to the next, each of them used me as a symbol while telling stories of the real Frida to impress whoever they were trying to out do in Chicana facts like it was some sort of social status. But one of them—about four Chicanas ago—actually took a class on magical realism and she is the one who spoke openly about myths to her lovers. Si, the writer is mi favorita. She was well educated, well read and she too had mixed blood like the real Frida—I can’t remember if she was Irish or German but she was more like the real Frida. She was planning to be a Chicano Studies professor, now that has a real purpose, que no? It was she who handed me to La Chicana.

“Here this is for you, this Frida has helped me along the way. I know she’s not like a real painting but she is still the one who reminded me that my own struggles were nothing compared to the real Frida’s daily pain and life in the shadows of Diego. And because of her, we as women and artists get to rebel and create on our own magic within reality. Go on take it, put her up in your living room, talk to her, she’s quite reassuring.”

Well, she gifted me to one of her friends who needed me more, she said. All the others before her were only about the protests, Chicano moratorium and fists in the air, blah, blah, blah—just mouths full of honey that later changed into greedy hands. Most of them lost interest once they graduated from the university, received real paychecks and some of them even traded me out for newer prints of Van Gogh, O’Keeffe and Gustav Klimt.

Anyways, on that day, with her new dress and all, la Chicana also wore her hair down and carried a real purse—not a canvas bag or book-bag—a black-leather clutch tucked under her arm. Si, from that day la Chicana changed—but not like the change she referred to as a result of “the movement.”

Later that morning, la Virgencita spoke to me for the first time in a week, “Oye comadre, tell me again about those good-looking duendes.”

Honestly, I was quite surprised to hear anything from la Virgencita. Most of the time when la Chicana whispered towards the altar, I wouldn’t hear from her for another set of days.

“I said they were verrry ugly—not good-looking. And today you are speaking to me after she whispered to you. That’s a first.”

She quickly replied, “Well, it’s only because your story was en-ter-tain-ing. I do have much to consider today. But tell me more about those duendes you mentioned the other day. I thought you said you had a magical story.”

 “Virgencita, if you don’t believe me then why did you ask me about it? Now, you tell me something. What did la Chicana say to you today? She is acting strange, que no? And did you see what she was wearing today? More American than a hot dog on 4th of July.

“You know I can’t tell you, I have to pass on her requests to the real Virgin Mary. If not, the poor Chicana will never see her prayers come true. You and I have very different roles Fridita. I mean you are colorful y todo. But me, she can’t live without me. I’ve been with her since she was a niña. I will get passed on to her children too. You, well you know. You’ll have to wait and see who your next Chicana is going to be.” La Virgencita flickered as if she was covering her chuckles with a real hand.

“Aaaay, I thought you were supposed to be holy and nice. Look, I’m just telling you a story I heard. It was even said they ward off duendes with Virgin candles and crosses, so you will always be important in this world Virgencita. No need to insult me.”

“Mira, Señora Replica, why don’t you stay out of my business and I’ll stay out of yours. I mean the only reason I spoke to you was because I have to stare at you all day long. Pues, you are nothiiing. Someone dumped you out like ba-su-ra, yes just like trash! I was just doing you a favor while you pass the time. Tu sabes, before she passes you along.”

I had never seen her burn so high, the top shelf started to smolder. Then just like that the flame vanished. The smoke transformed into a shadow on the wall, swirling in the air, creating a tiny rounded figurine. The peculiar image ran wildly, disappearing into the front door. La Virgencita stopped talking to me that day. She never told me why or answered my comments from across my side of the room ever again. But that shadow, that shadow haunted me for weeks.


Three months passed, La Chicana came and went. She moved the altar into her bedroom without public explanation and crammed used books in its place. Days later, I saw the chubby shadow once again. It ran against my wall, waddled up to tap my frame and seeped into the corner towards the outside. I could hear la Chicana start her new car that she bragged about to herself when she walked out the door.

I hung more crooked than I ever did before but now I was also left alone.

As the days progressed I felt the magenta and turmeric hues fade from the flowers on my canvas. My fabric also withered away, resembling old linen. Each day I was gradually perishing. I started to tell stories about the real Frida just to convince myself that I existed.

After losing count of the nights, la Chicana came in with bags and bags. Some labeled “IKEA,” “Target,” and “Whole Foods.” She added a carpet under the coffee table, traded out her red rebozo decorating her futon with a beige, wool blanket and lit candles labeled “velvet cabernet.” And just when I thought she was done with the new décor, she unhooked me from the wall. I was left leaning on the futon, discarded like an empty wine bottle. Can you believe she took the time to carefully mark the wall with a pencil then placed a mirror where I once hung? She even walked backwards away from it. Tilting her head to the right, confirming it lined up perfectly with the ceiling. Si, she made sure the mirror was verrry straight.

Upon smiling at her accomplishment, she ran to her bedroom, spoke giddily to herself and returned in a new black dress. This one was the tightest and shortest I’d ever seen. If I read the three digits on the tag correctly that was no “damn cheap” dress either. Tucking in the price tag under her armpit, she approached the mirror, grinned from ear to ear then proceeded to apply cherry red lipstick, making sure to dab a little more here and there. Talking to it like she used to talk to me. She blew herself kisses and was ignorant to everything else.

Just then, the shadow dashed out from the crease on the left where the wood floor met the wall, gray-like little feet leaped up about ten times like it was climbing a peak, and then it buried itself under the mirror. Just then the pewter frame changed into iridescent silver, even reflected la Chicana as a flawless image with long waves of caramel highlights in her shiny now auburn hair. La Chicana asked for the mirrors approval.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, do I look good and all?”

While turning to the left, she puckered her lips and twirled away towards the futon. She pulled a shoebox out of yet another bag and placed her freshly-done, red toes into golden-studded sandals.

And just when she was about to lean back onto me, she jumped.

“Ay Frida, you scared me! I have to put you away before all the advertising peeps arrive. I’ll show everyone. I caaan be one of them.”

And that’s how I ended up here.

That same night she lit a new votive and placed some candy at the altar, making sure her room remained closed at all times. I only know this because her new leather bound journal contained the words she spoke aloud and checked off with a pen. She eventually slid me under her bed. All I heard that evening were heavy steps that caused me to tremble, lots of laughter, lots of request for more wine and not one guest spoke Spanish or even mentioned “the movement.”

Not one.

They all kept mentioning the “new opening” for an account executive and how she would be perfect—especially because she was “Hispanic and all”—si, that’s what they said. The real Frida would have corrected them. Even the writer would have said, “I’m Mexican-American.” But not la Chicana, she just laughed in their accent, she just kept asking for their thoughts on the new mirror.

A couple days after her stylish event, she dropped some mismatching silverware, her huaraches and me here in this box—she told the cellphone she needed to donate a few things before brunch with her new boss. For a moment I thought she remembered what her mama often said, the richest is not who has more, but who needs the least. Ay, I think she misunderstood that dicho.

And well, here I am staring at you—who looks just like me. I’ve never seen another Frida this close but you do have a slight resemblance to all their descriptions. It’s like you’re my reflection—a rainbow of flowers on your head, cursed with an austere brow and decorated with a rebozo displaying the pride the real Frida carried on her shoulders. She must be real if we both exist. So tell me, how did we both end up in this box, staring at our skeletons and biting our tongues?

“Um yeah, I don’t know anything about no Freeda, Verhenseeta or Spanish. I didn’t want to interrupt you for the sake of being entertained and all, but the divorcees picked me up during their honeymoon in Cancoon. My only guess is that they both trashed me. Or maybe want some sort of tax credit. But here we are like pigs in a blanket.

But what did you say about that dwen-dy-shadow agiiin? That ther’ sounded like a pesky gnome to me. Oh what the hell. We got time to kill…let me tell you about the gnome that sat on the porch—that porch that was made to match the white picket fence around the house in the suburbs…”