The Acentos Review


Israel drove to the church where he planned to tell Cristina everything, but he needed roses.  Israel pulled onto the lot where he used to park Tacos Aztecas, his taquería, and where there was now a viejo selling flowers from the back of a van.  Red roses were Cristina’s favorites, or they’d used to be.  Cristina had changed in the past year, turned almost muda after finding Artemio left for dead behind Ben’s Grocery.  It was Holy Saturday, and Israel knew Cristina would be at Our Lady of Guadalupe, sitting in the plaza.  He’d stood her up the night before and the church was her place to think.  He’d found her there after Artemio, face swollen from crying and sleeping on the concrete steps.  Israel knelt over a bucket of roses, the red bulbs closed and petals wrinkled, loose.  He cupped his hands and breathed.

“How much for a dozen?”  Israel asked. 

“Doce, señor.” 

Israel didn’t recognize the guy, an indio with a fat nose and ears too big for his head, but his eyes reminded Israel of his old life, calmado and not thinking too hard.  Israel missed the sounds of the street, kids playing and dogs barking, grown-ups talking loud over mariachi tunes.  He missed staring at the mountains just before evening, the way dirt and rocks and weeds were packed together in some whacked-out creation. Israel hoped the flowers would take Cristina back to her old life, too.  She probably thought Israel didn’t love her anymore, didn’t know his love stayed in the memories he returned to most nights while downing beers.  Israel remembered their dates in Juáritos, the cumbias and crowded dance floors, the taste of tacos al carbón and him whispering cariños as they walked across the bridge.

The whole terrible thing was Israel’s fault for not learning to let shit be.  Israel had told Artemio to throw chingasos with the boys giving him trouble, hoped his son would have his mind changed about being a sissy after a few harmless golpes. After the funeral Israel quickly turned into his old man, a vato full of coraje who worked and drank too much, and Cristina became like his lonely tías (all of them widowed one way or the other; one husband lost to the war and another to cancer, two to loose women, the hurt just as bad or so they’d said).  Israel guessed this was how life went—everyone alone with the messes they made—but Cristina seemed back to normal as Artemio’s anniversary got closer.  She sometimes sat with Israel in the backyard, once in the stupid wooden boat he’d gotten her.  She didn’t say much but still distracted him from the thoughts in his head. She told him about her manda. 

Cristina’s manda had been to La Virgen—a year of fasting and keeping away from Israel to get pure, to clean Artemio’s one sin.  This, she said, would take away the curse that had been with her and Israel from the start.  She’d made the manda the morning after Artemio died—after a vision—but never told Israel.  I know how you are, Cristina said as she explained how the Mass would be the end, Cristina only wanting Israel to come and pray the Our Fathers and Stations of the Cross with her.  She promised that afterward everything would be better.

At first Israel liked the idea, forgive and forget, and he’d thought he could handle it when he promised to go along.  Maybe this really could be a way to start over, but even as he tried to convince himself Cristina’s manda could fix everything, he knew it wouldn’t. Cristina had been the one to find Artemio’s body, held Artemio and rubbed his busted face.  Israel couldn’t watch her relive that night.

Israel ended up at Bogart’s instead, a dive bar near the church, and drank.  He tried to flood his memories, feel them drip from his ears so he could wipe them away, but his past with Cristina had roots.  They grew through his ribs and surrounded his heart.  Squeezed it.  He was close to passing out when he pictured Cristina alone in the church pews, surrounded by angels and saints, their painted eyes wanting her to be stone like them.  

Israel paid for the roses and walked back to his truck.  They made him feel good but only for a while.  Inside the cabin the smell of loose tools and sweat soaked upholstery reminded him of his jale patching drywall and picking up extra plata as a shade-tree mechanic.  Israel had decided to park Tacos Aztecas a week after Artemio’s funeral, when he realized there was no one left to feed.  Israel cranked the engine and drove to the church, practiced his words: Can you forgive me?  Can you ever love me again?


The Matachines danced, and Cristina, sitting on the concrete steps, watched as they practiced “La Gloria,” the dance they did the night before Easter.  The Matachines stomped and slid to the thump of a drum and a pair of violins whistling back and forth.  They didn’t notice Cristina, and Cristina didn’t care that they weren’t dressed in their ceremonial vests or skirts, that they weren’t wearing their coronas or bandanas with mirrors and medallas pinned to them.  Cristina tried hard not to think about Israel.

Cristina had found the Matachines practicing on a Holy Saturday, her waking to them after spending the night locked outside the doors of the church.  The Matachines were teenagers around Artemio’s age, some girls but mostly boys.  At first Cristina hadn’t been able to look at them, but their music and dancing spoke to her.  Music had always been an easy language for Cristina, one she spoke with her body—her arms and feet always keeping nice, her hips saying everything loud.  The Matachines twisted and turned under the sun, their feet pounding the ground, faces without words.  The Matachines were the soldiers of La Virgen de Guadalupe.  Her vision.

   The manda was supposed to end with Artemio being forgiven the sin Cristina had passed onto him, Israel coming back to her.   In her mind she and Israel sat along the back wall of the church holding hands and Israel knowing she’d gotten rid of the curse that had followed them from the first time they’d parked on Scenic Drive.  When Cristina made up her mind to spend a whole year praying Novenas and Santo Rosarios, to make confession every week and bring ofrendas (mostly flowers from the señor on Israel’s old corner) to La Virgen’s nicho, to shut herself off so completely she even forgot the taste of food, Cristina had never once thought her life would end up worse when the manda was over.

   To lose a child, people had told Cristina after Artemio’s funeral.  I couldn’t imagine.  But all of Cristina’s life she had imagined it, had worshiped the story of the surprised young mother and the good go-along husband, the son who got himself killed because he couldn’t change who he was.  All Cristina wanted was to give Artemio his second chance.  He was too young to know his body could make trouble.

   The Matachines finished and left Cristina alone.  The church had always been big in Cristina’s life.  As a little girl she played hide-and-seek and jumped rope in the plaza only to later fall asleep in the empty pews, her amá all sangrona over it, but Cristina felt relaxed surrounded by the santos and the viejitas who lit candles in the middle of the day.  Our Lady of Guadalupe was where she danced with Kiki Borjas—the first boy she kissed for real—during her quinceañera and where she married Israel while secretly pregnant.  Cristina went and stood by the statue of La Virgen, the paint peeled around the cheeks and the blue gown faded a bone white.  The peace Cristina had always felt in this place was gone, and she wondered if Israel had had it right from the start.

   Israel had always been rasquache.  The way Israel mixed random ingredients to make comida—gorditas de pollo asado, salchichas fritas, and her favorite, Tacos Aztecas (pulled-pork tacos with chopped radish, onion, and jalapeño that were so messy they dripped down her arms whenever she ate them)—was the way he lived his life.  On their first anniversary he’d bought a rotted wooden boat and put it on blocks in the backyard.  I’m gonna get this thing going and take you around the world.  The tonto had never even seen the ocean.  And on the night when they were first together, parked and looking out at the sky over Juárez, Israel said to her: Let’s make a thousand babies. 

   Cristina walked to the back of the plaza and stared at the nearby houses with their sagging porches and flat yards.  She’d lived her entire life in this neighborhood and never thought of leaving, but the barrio depressed her now, the drooping lines of laundry and smell of wet concrete, the graffiti on the walls with lettering curved into doomed mazes; even the pigeons that sang on windowsills made her want to run away.

   Israel’s truck crept up the hill, toward the church and Cristina.  The sight of Israel surprised her.  Cristina had imagined Israel waking up in the backyard, still petho and messing around under the hood of some junker without giving her or the night before any thought.  But there he was, and with him the chance to be different.  Cristina decided if Israel came to her in the plaza, she’d get in his truck.  Drive, she’d tell him, drive a thousand miles from here.  


Cristina had taken the flowers and climbed in Israel’s truck without saying a word, caused Israel to lose his nerve.  Cristina seemed different, like she’d made a decision about something.  So Israel decided to take the ride slow and soak up the barrio.  The little brick houses looked proud with their neat yards and sturdy plants.  This place could still be right for starting and keeping a family; Israel wanted another chance.  He’d seen abuelo looking couples (older than him and Cristina, for sure) on TV starting families like nothing, women going to doctors to have babies planted inside them. Israel could convince Cristina to go along, give her the life she’d always wanted.

Israel wanted to tell Cristina everything in the backyard.  If Cristina had already made up her mind to walk out, at least Israel wouldn’t have to see her leave out the front door, only go back inside where he could pretend she’d always be.  Cristina didn’t like how the backyard looked like trash, her garden replaced by rusted-out ranflas, but Israel could finally tell her what he’d done to Artemio, and what he wanted to do for her now.  Israel looked at Cristina through the reflection in the passenger window.  She held the flowers to her chest.

When Israel and Cristina had first started dating, he’d always buy her red roses.  They made her smile, even though she knew how corny he was being, him saying things like: una rosa para mi hermosa; she couldn’t help herself.  Israel had always been good with girls—not a player but a dude with pegué—and Cristina ended up spending her nights parked on Scenic Drive.  They watched the whole city, the rows of headlights cruising the highways, the El Paso lights bright and most of Juárez dark—the colonias put to bed but awake like always.  They made out and had dreamy teenager talk.  Cristina wanted a big family with a house and a yard and a dumb dog, Israel to get rich somehow.  They didn’t have a past, only silly ideas of the future.  And roses.  All that changed after their first time.

Israel had picked Cristina up that night, had gone inside the house to meet her jefes for the first time.  Israel stood in the living room, Cristina’s amá and apá watching him like a leaky faucet.  A mesquite cross hung over a mantle loaded with family pictures, Cristina at her quinceañera, smiling with some dude Israel didn’t know but would ask about later.  Her little brothers and sisters looked goofy in picture after picture, her grandparents out of place at Chucky Cheese.  Cristina’s parents wouldn’t let her have a boyfriend, said she wasn’t ready for that kind of trouble, but Cristina wanted to be brave.

Cristina’s old man was the quiet type, but the señora made up for it, shot Israel with questions: Who are your parents?  Where do they work, and how come we don’t see you at Mass?  Did you even do Confirmation, y qué quieres con Cristina?  Israel answered her.  Librado and Elodia Anaya, both with jales at the boot factory (má up front with the phones and pops in the back on the forklift).  Yes, he was confirmed, but no, he didn’t do too much church.  His last answer, a thought he’d had once but never held on to, surprised him.  I want to teach your daughter to cook.   

The señora led him to the kitchen and told him to make the old man his champurrado—a chocolate atole he drank every night after dinner.  Let’s see if you’re a teacher or a liar.  With the ingredients in front of him, Israel got busy.  He mixed the masa with water and simmered it on the stove, adding splashes of milk and chocolate and clumps of piloncillo; he made sure to get the ingredients smooth before straining the drink into the old man’s cup and sprinkled canela on top for looks.  Israel had done this before—as a chamaco with his nana, during Christmas time—but never with an audience watching, la señora waiting to see if he’d mess up, Cristina worrying he would.  Israel liked how at that moment everything depended on food

Cristina didn’t say much that night; only that watching him win over the two old grouches with one drink made her love him like crazy.  Israel loved her too, said so over and over, and when Cristina gave herself to Israel’s busy hands on the side of that mountain, he did more than take.  He told her his wildest dreams.  

Israel parked on the street.  The house needed paint, the yard to be weeded and cleared out.  Tacos Aztecas was parked in the driveway covered in dust and bird shit.  He could sell the taquería—get extra cash for doctors if things went right.  Israel jumped from the truck and went to let Cristina out.  The wind blew.  Cristina let Israel walk her up the stairs, and Israel didn’t know if her holding him was good or bad.  She’d let him lead like that at Artemio’s funeral only to later pull away.  Cristina slipped her arm from Israel’s as she reached the front door and disappeared into the kitchen. 

Israel stayed on the porch.  Inside cabinets opened and slammed shut.  He’d wait for her to leave the kitchen, didn’t want to feel like a ghost haunting his old space.  Israel had taught Cristina his best dishes, and now she cooked all the meals—though they never ate together.  Cristina didn’t want or need Israel to make chile colorado over diced beef, or albondigas, her favorite, with fresh ground pork.  The wind kicked up and made dust devils.  Artemio had been the one who needed food, who ate Israel’s comida so openly and never said no to a new dish.  Israel couldn’t believe a year had gone by, how much he missed his boy.


A vase slipped through Cristina’s hands and shattered on the ground.  The roses had freaked Cristina out, gave her feelings she’d thought were long gone.  Israel had shaved and combed his hair, and she didn’t recognize him looking handsome.  Cristina didn’t tell Israel to drive anywhere like she’d planned, instead hoped he’d surprise her.  She imagined stopping by their old hang-outs in Juárez before heading someplace new, maybe cruise all the way to México City where they’d get lost in a tormenta of people; there they could eat and dance and maybe stop at the Basilica to pray, but Cristina’s excitement wilted as soon as Israel pulled from the church and turned toward the neighborhood. 

Cristina dropped the roses in the sink and began gathering the broken glass.  The kitchen counter above her was lined with white veladoras, some burning, some burned-out, pictures of Artemio taped to each one.  Cristina had always told people she wanted a big family, but the words never felt true.  Cristina had four brothers and three sisters, all with four and five kids of their own.  Her tíos and tías were worse, made so many cousins she couldn’t remember all their names or where some even lived.  It seemed right to want the same, but Cristina had been cursed, had heard her family talk bad about her—La pobre with only one kid, one like that—at every birthday party and cookout, but now, with pictures of Artemio looking down at her, the life she’d never really wanted seemed small to the one she’d lost.

Cristina didn’t know what her life was supposed to be, if it were meant to be anything.  Growing up Cristina had never been a type, not the loud Chicana who got in peoples faces and made so much noise about La Raza; she wasn’t the badass chola throwing down or the stuffy church girl—not yet, anyway.  Cristina had only wanted to dance, to eat and be around the people she liked most.

When Cristina had first learned she was pregnant, she’d thought it would be hard getting Israel to want a family.  If Cristina was the kind who didn’t know who she was supposed to be, Israel was the opposite, thought he could be everything.  Israel chased dreams, but his searching made him leave things behind.  When Cristina first met Israel he’d been on the high school football team (he was good at catching and not getting tackled), but he quit to take a job fixing up old cars at Galvan’s Auto.  He thought making lowriders would be his ticket.  Then Israel stopped doing that to work with a carpenter, planned to build dream houses for rich people and get himself loaded, too.  So when Cristina told Israel about the baby—them checking out the Westside and the fancy houses lined with palm trees and bright stucco walls, the windows rolled down to smell the grass—and he smiled big at her, Cristina knew that wherever Israel ran he’d pull her along, too.

  After telling Israel, Cristina was ready to tell everyone, thought her family would be happy and give big abrazos, but her amá put a stop to that kind of thinking.  The baby needed to be kept secret.  La familia would look down on her for being the type of girl who got herself into trouble.  Cristina had to get married before she got too big.  It’s the only way, her amá had said, to keep curses from getting you.

After Artemio was born everything fell into place, and Cristina let herself quit worrying.  She and Israel got an apartment.  Israel landed a job as a prep-cook at a gringo steakhouse, and Cristina found her place as a mother.  Artemio was perfect, his smell a perfume, his baby noises music.  Cristina and Israel decided to go for the big family after only eight months, and they tried for over a year.  Nothing happened.  Cristina read books, drank her amá’s atoles.  Prayed to San Antonio de Padova.  Cristina remembered all the talk about curses and became nervous.  She watched as Artemio grew, and Israel pulled away.  Israel quit his job and spent the money she’d been saving for the new baby to buy Tacos Aztecas.  He told Cristina they had time, they’d keep trying, but she knew better. 

As Artemio got older, Cristina could tell he was different and not like the way she remembered her brothers, loud and clumsy and wanting to be in the middle of everything.  Artemio was quiet, liked to watch and be at the edges of family get-togethers.  Cristina had accepted her carga, understood her insides had been ruined for being mañosa.  It wasn’t until Cristina found Artemio in the backyard kissing Juanito (his friend from Catechism) that she knew just how far her punishment went.  Cristina’s need for Israel, for dancing and wanting a life she could feel and taste had been passed on to Artemio.  She’d have to watch her hijo always be starving. 

Cristina screamed as a piece of broken glass pierced her finger.  Israel rushed into the room and stood Cristina up, took her to the sink.  Blood dripped onto the floor, leaving a trail.  Israel opened the faucet and the water stung as he washed Cristina’s hand.  Israel squeezed down with his thumbs, his fingernails yellow and cracked.  After Artemio died, Israel quit cooking and took a job hanging drywall; he turned borracho.  Israel slept in the backyard most nights, but sometimes he stumbled into the bedroom and crawled in bed with Cristina.  On these nights Israel confessed everything, told Cristina how he’d sent Artemio back to Ben’s Grocery to face the boys who would kill him.  He never remembered in the morning.  

“It doesn’t look deep,” Israel said, holding Cristina’s hand close to his face. 

Cristina looked in the sink.  The rose buds had come apart and loose petals clung to the wet metal, blood splattered.  Israel had been a good father to Artemio, took him to work at Tacos Aztecas and let him be first to try new recipes, but when Cristina told Israel about Artemio he’d wanted to change his son’s mind, pushed him hard the wrong way.


Israel left Cristina by the sink and walked over to the kitchen table.  There was an altar where Artemio used to sit—more burning prayer candles surrounded a statue of La Virgen and another photo of Artemio taped above an empty brass plate.  Israel sat and wondered how long the shrine had been there, how much time Cristina spent sitting alone with images of Artemio surrounding her.  Israel remembered the photograph. 

He’d taken it at Artemio’s seventeenth birthday party, the day Cristina told him Artemio was gay.  Cristina explained how she’d found Artemio and Juanito, how she’d known for a long time and there was no use arguing about it.  Israel took the camera Cristina used at family parties and began snapping pictures.  He got one of the suegros sitting uncomfortably on the couch, the TV glowing beside them.  Israel took pictures of his nephews looking tough for the camera, of his compadres sipping beers and grinning wide.  He watched them all in the viewfinder and wondered what each could be hiding. 

Israel escaped to the backyard where he found Artemio and Juanito sitting together.  Soon everyone would know about Artemio; Cristina’s family, who already felt sorry for them, would get mean and start whispering behind his back.  Israel remembered being Artemio’s age, the excitement of wanting a future that never seemed to come fast enough until it finally did.  How about a picture?  Artemio asked.  He was smiling.  Israel raised the camera.  Juanito sat close to Artemio and tried hard to look like just a friend.  Israel zoomed tight on Artemio’s face and clicked. 

Artemio was killed three months later on Good Friday.  It had been a slow day at Tacos Aztecas, gave Israel time to work with his recipe for tacos de mole poblano.  He’d been messing with different combinations of chiles for weeks but couldn’t figure them out.  Taste had gone missing, and having Artemio working close clouded his head until he started sending the boy home early.  Israel wanted to quit thinking and mix things up like he always had.  

Israel grabbed a handful of chiles pasillas, guajillos, anchos, and mulatos.  He deveined and fried them with the bananas he’d brought for lunch.  The taquería filled with good smelling steam, but it was missing almonds and garlic.  He chopped the nuts and pounded the cloves, scraped them across the grill.  Feeling good about the smell and look of the browning garlic, he dropped everything into a pot of Chocolate Abuelita.  The mole would take hours to turn brownish red and have the right flavors to serve with shredded chicken inside a lightly fried tortilla. 

Across the street Juanito ran toward Tacos Aztecas, his bony legs jerking like a strange bird’s.  Israel knew something had gone bad.  The day before Artemio and Juanito had been chased from Ben’s Grocery by some wannabes who hung out in front and looked to make trouble.  Israel knew their type, standing tall but always too much talk.  Don’t let yourselves, Israel had told them when they came to Tacos Aztecas looking to hide.  Be men and go back.  Show those cabrones you ain’t scared.  It was the same thing Israel would’ve said to Artemio no matter how the boy had turned out, but Israel didn’t stop talking. He told Artemio not to be a mama’s boy, that the next day he better go back and quit being such a maricón.  Israel remembered Artemio’s face, his look hurt but not surprised.    

Israel met Juanito on the sidewalk, and he told Israel what had went down.  Juanito and Artemio had gone back to Ben’s, and at first nothing happened, the wannabes only watched through the corners of their eyes.  It wasn’t until Artemio and Juanito left and turned to walk home that trouble followed.  The wannabes surrounded them behind the grocery store and told them, again, to get lost, but Artemio wouldn’t back down, not even when he saw the guy with the knife.  

Cristina sat with Israel.  She lifted up the statue of La Virgen, underneath the Host, a dehydrated two-inch wafer of wheat-flour, salt, and baking powder.  Blood soaked through a towel Cristina had wrapped around her hand.  She put the Host on the offering plate.  Israel leaned back and looked at his wife, her face skinny, bony shoulders and arms.  They were both too worn down for more kids, no doctor was going to change that, but Israel couldn’t go back to hiding in the yard, either.  Israel needed to tell Cristina.  That’s all that was left. 


Israel’s eyes were closed, the wrinkles around them dark.  He said he was sorry for skipping out on her, for the cars in the backyard, for drinking too much—even for the boat.  Israel was building to his confession, but listening to Israel in the kitchen was different than in the bedroom.  Israel paid attention and never held back in la cocina.  Cristina wanted to touch him, to let Israel know she didn’t blame him, but she didn’t say anything.  Israel was stuck with his own pecados.

Cristina listened, and she remembered.  She’d been on her way to get milk.  Ben’s Grocery was up the street from their house—she still walked passed on her way to church.  The mercado used to sell fresh vegetables and bread but overtime had replaced most of its food with booze.  Cristina didn’t have to get close to the body to know it was Artemio.  She recognized his clothes, how lonely he looked.  Cristina ran to him, held him.  Saw all the blood.

Artemio died in the hospital.  There were no chairs in the ICU.  Cristina stood and watched doctors and nurses float from patient to patient.  The whiteness of the room made her think of purgatory.  Later, a doctor hugged her, and a nurse asked if there was someone they could call.  She spent time with police.  They put Cristina in a waiting room with a television and a hard sofa.  Cristina waited two hours for Israel before deciding to take the bus to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the only place she could think to go.

Israel finished talking and went quiet.  Cristina rubbed the Host with her good fingers, the flat surface smooth and the edge sharp from being pressed under the statue.  She’d cupped it in her hands after communion the week before Artemio’s Good Friday Mass.  It was meant to be a gift for La Virgen, a way for Cristina to say, Gracias Madrecita, for always being around for mandas. 

The afternoon light faded and blued the room; the glow of prayer candles the only light.  Cristina’s finger throbbed.  She couldn’t make out Israel’s face, only the picture of Artemio.   When Cristina was Artemio’s age she’d made love with Israel, and on her wedding day she hid that love in her belly.  Cristina had not only been afraid of what her family would think but also scared of the kind of life she wanted, of who she was.  Cristina made herself quiet when she wanted to be loud. 

“I promised La Virgen this as a gift,” Cristina said.

Cristina put the Host on the offering plate.  The manda was over because Cristina wanted it to be.  Israel paused for a moment and then stood.  Cristina thought he was going to fade into the backyard, but he came back from the sink with a handful of wet petals and sprinkled them onto the offering plate. 

“One more gift,” Israel said.  “Pretty flowers for a pretty lady.” 

Cristina watched Israel’s hands and felt good.  The Host absorbed the drops of water left by the petals and spread across the plate.  It grew from a hard and white disk to a soft pink skin.  It looked alive.


The Matachines danced, dressed in red skirts and embroidered vests covered with wooden reeds that clacked when they moved.  The Matachines passed in front of Israel and Cristina, their bandannas red and green, coronas reaching into the air like out stretched arms.  Israel and Cristina had decided to come see the dance and hear music.  To eat.  They stood side-by-side and shared tacos de carne asada with pico de gallo.  Cristina picked from the plate with her good hand, Israel holding it for her.  The bass drum pounded between the plaza walls.  The violins screeched.  Israel and Cristina fell into the crowd, taken over by a rush of bodies, of food and music.  The Matachines hoisted a banner of La Virgen de Guadalupe into the air and the plaza boiled with gritos, the sound rising high into the air, a cloud waiting to make rain.


Tacos Aztecas

Matt Mendez

Matt Mendez’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Bordersenses, Alligator Juniper, PANK, Moonshot, and The Literary Review and have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and inclusion in Best New American Voices.  His story “Airman” was winner of Alligator Juniper’s National Fiction Contest and others have been finalists for Glimmer Train, Nimrod, and the Charles Angoff Award.  He earned his MFA from the University of Arizona.