Yliana Gonzalez


The bus ride from Los Pilares, Chihuahua to Marfa, Texas is nearly four hours long, with a stop on the Mexican side at the border town of Babilonia, and another on the American side at Porvenir. The old woman boards at Los Pilares, eases into a seat near the head of the bus and carefully sets a plastic bag underneath the seat in front of her. The bag holds her toothbrush, in need of replacing, a change of clothes for an overnight stay, and four dozen pork tamales tightly wrapped in foil and a kitchen towel to preserve the heat. The tamales are her grandson’s favorite, and the old woman has labored since sunrise preparing the dish as a gift for Juanito for being the first in the family to graduate from high school. 

The old woman loathes the trip to Marfa, where her son lives with his family, and generally prefers to have them visit her in Mexico, a request her son usually accommodates, even as he insists that she “forget Porvenir already.” The old woman clutches her purse in her lap and settles in for the long drive. There will be little to see on the way to Marfa, nothing but flowerless creosote bushes, the dead sticks of ocotillo and the Sierra Vieja Mountains. It is the mountains that cause the old woman unease. She is convinced that as the bus drives through the saddleshaped peaks, they will thrust all her buried memories of Porvenir at her, taunting her. The old woman feels she can endure them all but one: the memory of that cold night when she was ten years old and the masked strangers arrived to kill the men of Porvenir.

La Flaca, as the old woman was known when she was a young, scrawny girl, was sleeping when the rinches broke into her house on the night of January 24, 1918. She woke at the sound of her mother’s screams, and sat up in bed just as the man walked into the small bedroom La Flaca shared with her younger sisters. The moonlight poured in through the open window and fell upon an encircled silver star pinned on the man’s shirt. La Flaca shielded her eyes from the glare bouncing off the star. The rest of him was enshadowed, but she squinted and saw his face, his grimy, pale skin, his dark, broad-brimmed hat pushed far back on his head. He spoke one word—a gruff, snarling command.


The old woman squeezes her eyes shut, attempting to will the rinches out of her head, knowing it is no use. An hour and a half goes by as she looks out the bus window at the passing sparse landscape, the vast expanse of sameness, but all she sees are the ghosts of the dead men of Porvenir, her father looking like a lace doily. Before that night, La Flaca had only heard of the rinches from her father. The rinches were the monsters of his tales, the masked villains he threatened would punish her and her siblings if they misbehaved. She remembers with a sad smile that it was Henry Warren, the American schoolteacher of Porvenir, who taught her that rinches was just another word the Mexicans mispronounced. It was only an hour after the slaughter when she heard Mr. Warren refer to the killers as Rangers, and La Flaca then understood that the Mexicans had been saying it wrong all those years.

The bus has stopped at Babilonia, and the driver announces they will be parked for fifteen minutes. The old woman gets off the bus, hoping to find a distraction from her thoughts among the vendors outside the station. She walks up and down the line of food carts of hibiscus water, lemonade, roasted chili peanuts, marzipan candies and stops in front of the vendor selling watermelon wedges. It has been so long since she ate watermelon grown in these parts. Her mouth waters instantly.

She purchases a slice from the vendor and finds a bench where she can sit. The watermelon bursts in her mouth, its juice as sweet and delicious as she remembers. The old woman’s mouth erupts into a wide, toothy grin, causing the liquid to dribble down her chin. She laughs at herself.

Almost as good as Señor Longino’s, she thinks.

Longino Flores was La Flaca’s neighbor in Porvenir, her grandfather’s best friend, and grew the best fruit in the entire town, then sold it diced and ready-to-eat after Sunday mass. After the summer harvest, La Flaca’s mother would send her on errands to Señor Longino’s home with a basket of corn or a jar of milk to give Señor Longino in exchange for fruit. La Flaca would cut through her neighbor’s backyard and often find her grandfather sitting with Señor Longino at his well-worn picnic table, chatting with his friend while he chopped up his fruit. Señor Longino would offer her a bowl of cubed, seeded watermelon, but she would always reach for a wedge instead.

“Flaca, it tastes better when it’s bite-sized and the seeds are removed,” he said.

“No, it tastes just as good like this.”

They laughed at her, shaking their heads, and she sat on a sandy, overturned bucket and listened to the men gossip about the town and trade news about the revolution in Mexico, as she happily bit into her watermelon slice, the sugary juice running down her skinny arms and gangly legs.

If I could only remember Porvenir like this, thinks the old woman, resuming her seat on the bus, how it wasn’t always fear and screams and gunshots. There were some good memories, too, the countless days she spent playing hide-and-seek with the other children, climbing the Texas Madroño trees to avoid being found, only to wind up stuffing herself with berries out of boredom when the seekers down below gave up on finding her because a javelina had turned up and they’d scampered away.

She struggles to remember if she has told her son her happier tales of Porvenir, but she fears she has only filled his head with the story of that night. She must remedy this, she thinks, or when she dies, Porvenir will only exist as a horrific tragedy. Her son has always been sympathetic—he is a good son—but she can sense that he has grown tired of hearing her anxiety over the bus ride through Porvenir, hearing her talk of the nightmares that plague her every now and then.

When the bus stops at Porvenir an hour later, the old woman does not get off the bus. In the twenty years that her son has lived in the U.S., she has never set foot in Porvenir, not since the day she walked away from the town in 1918, together with her grandfather, mother and siblings and all the other grieving families. She feels she has enough of Porvenir in her head so that she doesn’t ever need to return. From what she can see of the town out her window, nothing appears to have remained, only the bus station and a shabby diner named Meme’s across the street. There is no trace of those who lived through that night, and this, more than anything, worries the old woman. She fears that perhaps her memories aren’t real, that the events of that night never happened, and she thinks of her mother who in the summer of 1918 took a pistol to her mouth and pulled the trigger, and she wonders if she, too, has lost her mind.


The cold night air sends shivers coursing through La Flaca’s body, the icy earth makes her curl her bare toes. She wants to cry along with her sisters, but she is too afraid. One of the Rangers prods her father, who has stopped to scoop up La Flaca’s little sister, along with his shotgun.

“Make the kid walk,” the Ranger snarls. La Flaca’s father sets his bawling daughter down.

They lead the family to Central Street in front of the church. The other families are there, many in their pajamas. One man wears only his underwear, his wife a sheet. La Flaca spots Señor Longino, whose eyes look resigned and defeated. La Flaca starts to whimper, until her grandfather grabs her hand and stands beside her.

The Rangers form a circle around them. Some are on their horses. La Flaca can see three of them before her but she doesn’t dare turn her head to count how many more there are. Nearly all wear masks that shroud their eyes. The Ranger standing closest to La Flaca smells of urine and alcohol and sweat. They all have guns in their hands, smirks on their faces.

They single out fifteen men. Among them are La Flaca’s father, her three brothers, the youngest only twelve, her uncle Ambrosio, who had arrived from Pecos three days prior, and her neighbor Señor Longino. La Flaca’s mother protests, unwilling to release her husband’s hand, but the one unmasked Ranger shoves his Winchester in her face, and she grows silent. A few of the women begin to pray, their words indistinct by the sound of the children’s crying.

Six Rangers take the chosen men away, shoving and prodding them forward as though they were cattle. La Flaca’s brothers all turn back to call out to their mother, the fear on their faces palpable under the moonlight. Her father does not look back. The remaining Mexicans, the women, children and old men of Porvenir, watch their loved ones go until they disappear into the night. They are left to wait in silence under the watch of the remaining armed Rangers. Time becomes impossible to discern. They spend what feels like hours straining their ears to hear anything from their kidnapped family members. The children grow comfortable with the silence and stop crying. The women keep praying.

La Flaca focuses on the silver star of the unmasked Ranger, transfixed by the gleam of the moonlight reflected off of it. She feels as though the star holds answers for her, and if she stares long enough, they will reveal themselves to her.

“Stop staring at me, kid,” the Ranger says and raises his gun.

“Flaca,” her grandfather says in an angry tone. He covers her eyes with his free hand and squeezes her hand with the other.

Then, the shots ring out, far enough to sound muffled but close enough to reach expectant ears. La Flaca’s mother wants to bolt after the second shot, but the grandfather clings to his daughter, tackles her to the ground. There are still Rangers aiming pistols at them. La Flaca counts twenty-three shots fired before she loses track.

The Rangers keep them there on Central Street until the other Rangers return. There are wails of mourning all around her, but La Flaca does not cry. She feels hollow inside and her entire body is tense, down to her fingertips and toes.

When the other Rangers return, their clothing spattered with blood, they are greeted with screams and curses by the remaining Mexicans.

“Cowards!” La Flaca’s grandfather yells at the Rangers. “You goddamn cowards!”

The Rangers leave Porvenir on their horses, firing their guns into the night air. As they retreat, the survivors’ insults grow louder. La Flaca goes to her sisters and pulls them close to her. Their mother is on the floor, still sobbing.

The remaining men assemble a search party to locate the bodies. Henry Warren offers to help and brings lanterns. The sky is growing lighter, but it will be another hour before the sun rises.

La Flaca steals away from her mother and sisters and follows the group. She creeps through the mountains that she knows so well, staying within earshot of the men’s footsteps. By the time the men find the bodies, the sky is a fiery orange. They find all fifteen men lined up against a rock bluff, the corpses mutilated. La Flaca hides behind a creosote shrub, staring wide-eyed at the mass of bodies, the darkened pools of blood attracting flies.

“They used ‘dum dum’ bullets,” Mr. Warren tells them, “cut off at the end to make the projectile flat so they can cause more damage.”

His eyes won’t meet the eyes of La Flaca’s grandfather. Henry Warren has lost no one. The grandfather has lost his two sons, three grandsons and his best friend.

La Flaca doesn’t know she is shaking until her grandfather places his hands on her shoulders, and she feels her body convulsing against his steady touch. He scoops her up in his arms and she buries her head in his neck, too afraid to cry.

The very next day the remaining Mexicans of Porvenir fled to Mexico on foot, carrying their dead with them.

Sixty-four years have passed since that night in 1918, and time has blurred the old woman’s memories, making it hard for her to remember certain details, like what the Rangers said to them as they held them captive for two hours by the creek. Other memories are so sharp that she doubts they are real and wonders if it was something she saw on the television. The smell of gunpowder that permeated the landscape, the moonlight gleaming against the badge.

Did that happen, or did she make it up? The old woman is no longer sure, and it is this uncertainty that frightens her. She feels alone in remembering Porvenir, a loneliness that expands in her chest and makes her want to cry out, but the old woman has not cried for Porvenir in her entire life, and she will not begin now. As the bus pulls away from the station and takes her toward her son, she takes a deep, extended breath and leaves Porvenir behind.


Yliana Gonzalez received her MFA in Creative Writing from Northwestern University. She grew up along the border in Texas.

© The Acentos Review 2013