Ambar Grullón

All Mamis Know


Ambar Grullón (she/her/hers) is a Dominican writer based in West New York, New Jersey. She is the author of Blooming Our Own Eden, a chapbook that defines selfhood as a garden we must upkeep, for we are forever in bloom. Her writing appears in Sigma Tau Delta's The Rectangle ("Why I Stopped Introducing Myself as 'Amber'") and The Lion's Eye. She is currently pursuing her M.A. in English at The College of New Jersey. You can find her on Instagram @decolonize_the_canon.

At that moment, Criselda Espinal hated her daughter. She was taught not to swear—learned the hard way by dropping a coño that ended with a pinched ear—but she felt the word crawling up her throat and she let it slither between her teeth. Coño. She forgot that she was a forty-six year old transplant from the island, that she was wearing her cleaning clothes and chancletas outside their apartment on Bergenline. She hadn’t showered in three days, having deep-cleaned the homes of three white families in order to pay the electricity bill next month. She was not a mother who let herself get angry often, but she was also a woman incredibly well-versed in the art of shutting up and at this moment, she argued later, she was justified in needing a release.

And though she had convinced herself of that release, Criselda Espinal was remorseful. She hoped that someday, her daughter would learn that this moment was fleeting and that the moments that followed afterwards—apologies, tears, prayers—were the moments that mattered. However, there are moments that fester beyond their control: the kind you can see happening before the moment’s begun, some premonition that the moments that follow will forever be shaped by an unforgivable remorse.

All mamis know is a lifetime of motherhood mistakes, Criselda Espinal bitterly thought when the moment passed, when her daughter’s eyes were glazed over. All hijas know is a lifetime of daughters’ woes.


The August heat seemed to seep through the Corolla’s air vents as Criselda drove down River Road. Not even the open windows could provide some respite—coupled with her Fabuloso-soaked sweatshirt and the weed emanating from outside, she found no pleasure in the glittering skyline.

Hector must have arrived at the Port Authority by now, she figured. He was heading in for a double-shift, so he’d have to miss noon mass and lunch. She had packed him three meals and a set of rosary beads. Even though he wasn’t as keen to pray as she was, Criselda kept packing rosary beads for him. Made her feel like she was doing her best, being a good wife. She followed the example of all the mamis that came before her: how they dutifully sent their husbands away, each hour apart blessed with a decade. It’s what her mami did for her father: draped herself in a white lace shawl and scraped her knees on their concrete floor, a makeshift altar, until he came home.

Being a good mami, on the other hand: una vaina, that Dianelys. Such a pretty girl, with those dark curls and that button nose. She had always been a well-behaved girl, even kicked gently in the womb. Didn’t complain about sharing a room with Criselda and Hector until they were able to afford their place on Bergenline. Didn’t talk during mass, didn’t interrupt the nuns at Sunday School. She made her bed in the morning and helped Criselda with the dishes after dinner. She was the Espinal family’s blessing: a pearl amongst their calloused hands and bruised knuckles, a purpose for all the housekeeping and night shifts.

When Dianelys earned a scholarship for her liberal arts college, Criselda and Hector broke the news. They sat her at their dinner table, the surface splintering their mantel.

“Dianelys,” Hector started—always the one to bring good news. “Dianelys, we are so proud of you and your hard work. I can’t tell you how much we smiled when we told Abuela Antonia you got into a fancy school. But,” and he turned to Criselda, the perpetual bearer of bad news. One might assume that she hated their arrangement, but she knew that bearing bad news was a sign of compassion. Mamis saben que es lo mejor, Criselda’s mami told her once. Las malas noticias son amor.

“But,” Criselda said, taking Dianelys’ warm hands into her own. She was briefly distracted by her daughter’s chipped nails and scars; when did these hands grow without her noticing? “We did the math. Even with your scholarship and the Financial Aid package—which does help, mi amor, don’t think otherwise—we still have so much to pay out of pocket. What Papi and I are trying to say is: we don’t know what we can do to help.” Criselda was so careful not to name the unspoken, for the moment was tenuous and precariously perched upon two possible outcomes.

Dianelys traced the embroidered roses on the mantel, her fingers circling the loose red thread at the base of the bouquet. She pushed her glasses up her nose—glasses that once belonged to Hector, that she decided to wear so she could be just like him. Her delicate girl. Mi muñeca, Criselda thought. Quiero que ella sea una muñeca de nuevo.

“I guess I’m not surprised.” She hesitated, then continued. “Do you think, if I worked and contributed with the remainder, I could still go?” And she did: along with Criselda and Hector’s portion, Dianelys rotated through a career carousel to barely scrape by. She promised to handle the college finances completely, since they handled the bills. It was not ideal, but these simple acts were enough. That was two years ago—their system was working.

Yet, with the pride that comes from raising a daughter so capable of anything, there came a time when Criselda was distinctly aware that Dianelys stopped waiting to be excused, that she sat as close to the edge of her seat as possible. Sometimes, it meant picking up another shift at the tutoring center nearby, or pulling doubles at the Edgewater Cineplex. Work was an understandable obligation; noble, even, to take upon a parent’s extra load and offer sacrifice as their love. But at some point, Dianelys’ permiso was a statement that told Criselda she would be coming home late and that where she was and who she was with was unnecessary information.

Oh, Criselda tried to knock some sense into her. Malcriada, who did she think she was? ¿Una gringa? When did she and Dianelys stop making fun of the white girls who sassed their mamis and become them? Dianelys didn’t have to sass her mother to hurt her—she just became reclusive. Hector told her that their daughter needed space. Becoming an adult, after all, was what they wanted for her. “Nineteen means she’s a woman now,” he’d rub her shoulders, grease curling beneath his nails. Nineteen meant getting taller, curls dropping, eyes less likely to gleam. She looks like my mami.


Criselda turned on the radio. It was a bachata remix, the kind that’s morally disappointing but had a kick suitable enough for a late night drive. Dianelys would hate this, Criselda thought and smiled. Her serious daughter. She tapped on the wheel, mouthing the words.

What did Hector know about women? If he’d have known better, he wouldn’t have taken Dianelys to Edgewater Commons without knowing the where’s and the who’s. If he’d have known better, he wouldn’t have called Criselda to ask her to pick up Dianelys as it was late and he had his double-shift. Siempre está como amemá, her stupid husband was. But because she loved him—loved being right even more—she rushed cleaning the Joyce family’s bathroom and headed out.

And the night wasn’t over, either: Dianelys’ junior fall semester started in less than a week and la princesa hadn’t packed yet. She was usually on top of her move-in schedule, but she had been pulling late nights. That was okay. Maybe this would be a chance for Dianelys to start choosing her.

She finally parked, with a group of well-dressed women passing by. She rolled up the windows: no need to subject the gringasto her stench. She dialed.

“Yes, Mami?” Dianelys was still a well-mannered girl, but her tone combined with the smells of their Corolla grated on Criselda’s senses.

“¿Dianelys, dónde estás? I’m outside Chipotle.”

“Oh. I thought Papi was picking me up?”

“Mi amor, he’s doing a double.” Did she feel guilty? Did she think she was going to get away with it, without Criselda knowing? Maybe she’d be nicer in the car ride back. Good, Criselda thought.

“I could have just walked home,” Dianelys said.

“After I left the Joyces’ with a grimy toilet to get here? Atrévete. Look, you know I’m tired and you didn’t think this through. Get in.”

“Okay,” Dianelys breathed. “I’m on my way.”


“Stop changing the station, I’m driving!” Criselda snapped. They were at the intersection outside Edgewater Commons, the maniacal four-way death trap that made the red light torturous.

Dianelys sighed, managing to tuck those long legs beneath her. She rolled down the window and the weed returned. Who did these kids think they were, bringing their grajo out in public?

“And please put the window back up, I don’t want to get high, too,” she added. The red light finally turned green and Criselda sped down River Road.

Dianelys scoffed. “You think you’re gonna get high just by smelling it?”

“You think I want to take a chance? Put your legs down, what if we get into an accident and your legs are squashed, hm?” Criselda particularly didn’t care whether or not she got high, but Dianelys inherited her intrinsic need to be right from someone and it wasn’t Hector.

“Do you always have to be in control? You’re the driver, you don’t need any more power.” Still, Dianelys honored her mother 's request. Mamis saben que es lo mejor.

Criselda forced herself to take a breath. No need to be so severe, for now. “So,” she asked, “did you have a nice day?”

“Yeah. It was nice.” Clipped.

“Okay, I’m sorry that I had to ask. I guess it’s my fault my daughter doesn’t like to tell me things.”

“Mami, that’s not fair.”

“Not fair?” Criselda glanced at her daughter. “‘Not fair’ is when your father has to work overtime at night because he was passed over for a promotion. ‘Not fair’ is when Abuela Antonia struggles to keep the farm running because we can’t afford to pay for help. ‘Not fair’ is having to clean white people’s bathrooms, which are absolutely disgusting, and Mrs. Joyce still not paying me minimum wage while inviting me to her holiday parties because I’m part of the family. Would getting upset because your daughter hides things seem fair to you?” Dianelys had turned her head away, her curls exploding into fried ringlets in the heat.

“‘Not fair’ is when you’re too depressed to function and your mother is forcing you to unpack,” Dianelys said softly.

Criselda knew all about depression. All mamis knew the sickness: the devil preying on self-doubt and fear, writing sonnets praising their faults and calling it love. All mamis knew the cure: ignoring it entirely, sowing beauty into the wreckage and calling it sacrifice. It’s what her mami did when her father died and there was no man to save them from a tin roof and laughable fence. It’s what she was doing for Dianelys: whenever she remembered her mami, whenever Hector spent the day watching Netflix on the couch as opposed to sleeping, whenever Dianelys pulled away, Criselda folded those worries into neatly laundered piles. Al mal tiempo, buena cara.

They slowly drove up the overpass, West New York’s tenements winking at the top.

“I know what depression is like, Dianelys,” Criselda said. The skyline blurred past her stubborn tears. “Your Abuela has it. Hector doesn’t think so, but he has it. I have it. I know it’s hard. I know that it’s not easy and that waking up in the morning is hard. I get it. But you have to do better, Mama. Just thank God that you’re here and not father-less on the island, like I was. You don’t have to feel alone.” She reached over to grab Dianelys’ hand, which scratched her in an attempt to escape.

“Are you kidding?” Dianelys whispered.

They passed Christopher Columbus Park, two ice cream trucks hovering by the fountain. Two lines sprawled around the playground, ending by the riverwalk. Criselda had a craving for a Strawberry Shortcake pop. She and Dianelys used to share those, before they moved to their apartment on Bergenline, before she and Hector could begin to figure out what kind of parents they wanted to be. An ice cream and a five-year-old, her worried mami cuddling her on a rickety bench. 

“You never listen. You hear exactly what you want to hear and expect me to just go along with it. Put on a sweater for mass. Pray a decade for Papi while he’s pulling a double. Come back home by ten o’clock. Don’t talk back to your boss, even when they say something rude. Make sure you push to collect your checks early,” Dianelys mumbled. They were cruising Boulevard East, only a few minutes away from landing.

“You want to know why I never tell you anything?” Criselda turned on 51st and they shot down the hill, passing Andry Bodega and Public School #2 and the West New York baseball field. There was a Little League game, the stadium lights flickering and the bleachers filled with ketchup-stained parents and siblings. Criselda would have traded all of the baseball stand’s sauerkraut dogs for the stuffy smell still lingering in the car.

They made it to Bergenline and Criselda parked on the side street. The garbage trucks had yet to pick up their block’s trash: another unavoidable stench. Neither mami nor hija moved.

“I remember my senior year of high school. You and Papi told me that we couldn’t afford to send me to college and we worked out our plan. Which was fine. But I still went to bed crying because I spent all of high school believing that college was going to be some revolutionary experience and I could become someone beyond Hudson County. I cried because you and Papi believed it, too, and you didn’t say no to my plan. You accepted it. I’ve asked for everything and I’ve never heard you say no. And maybe that’s every daughter’s dream, that their parents can provide them with every gift under the sun because money is the root of all happiness, isn’t it? It’s what brought you and your mami to New Jersey. It’s why Abuela Antonia sent Papi to Brooklyn so he could do better. And where’s that left us? Where’s that left me?” Dianelys breathed in. She kicked open the passenger door, but she stayed seated.

Dianelys looked at Criselda. “Sometimes, I wish there was a universe where you and Papi stayed in the D.R. Because there is so much you left behind that you can’t find here. I know I’ve never been back home, but I know that the expectations there are lower. We could have lived blissfully unaware of whatever you thought you’d find here. I know that we would have struggled, but we would have done it in a country you understood. You came here to find opportunity and for what? Breaking your back to pay for a shitty two-bedroom in New Jersey’s densest street? Couldn’t afford college for yourself and you expected to do it for me? We can’t take care of ourselves.”

“We’ve got to start packing for your semester,” Criselda heard herself say. She got out of the car. Shut the door. Made her way to the front steps. She heard the passenger door slam, but no steps. She turned around.

She could handle being yelled at—it was what all mamis knew, the wrestle and tangle with hijas growing up too fast, too much. She did it with her mami when they moved to New Jersey and she refused to speak for two years because her teachers didn’t understand her accent. Her mami just let her yell because there would come a time when hijas learned that the world does not exist for them. Yelling is survival.

But silence? Silence was death.

“Dianelys, what is it?” Her daughter was standing by the car, rubbing her arms up and down though there was no breeze. Instinctively, Criselda started memorizing Dianelys’ movements, dark curls, downcast eyes. This was a moment that was finally being colored in, the shadows outlining a vignette.

“Mami. I can’t take care of myself,” Dianelys started. All mamis knew when to hug their hijas and this, this was not the time.


“I didn’t have work tonight.”


“I wasn’t going to work tomorrow, either.”

“Mi amor—”

“I actually haven’t worked in weeks.” Dianelys met her mami’s eyes. “I don’t know why, I couldn’t do it. The tutoring center kept calling me and I just couldn’t answer. I stopped signing up for shifts at the Cineplex. So, I’ve been pretending to go to work.I’m sorry, I don’t know why, I couldn’t. So I didn’t have enough to pay tuition for the semester.”


“So I can’t go. I’m not going. I’m sorry.”

“You’ve been pretending to go to work? What are you doing, drugs? Are you wasting our money on drugs?” Criselda needed to know. She needed Dianelys to realize that she was here for her. If she was on drugs, el puto de madre, she was going to wean off and get set straight.

Dianelys cried, “Mami, I’m not on drugs. I’m depressed. If anything, I need drugs.” Hysterical.

Criselda wanted to roll her eyes. “Dianelys, is anyone hurting you? Are you pregnant and too afraid to tell us? We’ll be upset, I won’t lie, but we’re here. We’ll help raise the baby.”

“Why can’t you accept that it's a mental illness? I’m not pregnant, I haven’t had sex. I’m not seeing anybody!”

“Why else would you pretend to work? Please tell me the truth, I don’t understand.”

Dianelys said quietly, her cries finally stifled and her softness slowly hardening. “I’m not lying! I’m tired of lying. I’m not going to school. We don’t have the money. I don’t know what to do. Are you happy now?”

And then Dianelys Espinal reached for her mami.

And then Criselda Espinal began to swear.

© The Acentos Review 2021