Nicholas Belardes




Nicholas Belardes is author of the essay collection Ranting Out Loud: My Life, Pop Culture & How We Sometimes Don’t Get Along (2016). His work has appeared in Carve MagazinePithead Chapel, Island ReviewBarrelhouse and others. He illustrated the NYT best-selling novel West of Here, and is author of the first experimental twitterature, Small Places. He tweets from @nickbelardes. More at

A Different Kind Of Boiling Point


Jack was in the hospital. Something about bloodwork. Something about passing out in front of his interns. Camila wanted to put him out of her mind, at least until her office was able to tip off the media about what really happened in Arvin with that dead farm worker boy.

“Mama, you should wear your hat.” Alma said. She was holding Camila’s white cap that had been left in the car. They were in an onion field outside Arvin, California. The sun was blistering. “The dust storm may be gone,” she added, “but the sun isn’t.”

“Don’t let anyone hear you call me that in public,” Camila said. “You call me Camila.”

Camila was eighty but she wasn’t frail like other women her age. She stepped boldly into the dirt, making no attempt to accept the hat. In the distance fire crews were still cleaning up. She ignored them and instead gazed to where the boy’s body had been slumped in the dirt. He’d long been taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Alma was still carrying the hat. “No one can hear me,” she said. “Put this on.”

“I want to feel the heat,” Camila said. She’d felt this sort of helplessness before. Migrants treated like mosquitoes. Gassed as if in standing water.

Alma carefully watched her mother’s footing. “It’s a hundred and seven degrees out here,” she said. “You already know what that feels like.”

“When have you ever seen me out here? When?” Camila demanded. “I haven’t been in these fields in years. It’s a different kind of boiling point when you’re bent over all day in misery. All I was doing was holding a bullhorn.”

Alma knew where this was going. It wasn’t like her mother hadn’t stood in the heat striking, standing up to white thugs. She wasn’t going to allow her mother to forget. “Deputies beat you in this heat,” she said. “They kicked you, spit on you.” She offered the hat again. “You need to stay shaded. Cover yourself.”

Camila’s skin retreated along her ribcage. She actually felt goosebumps. Baton strikes and cracked ribs came to mind. “Why are we here, Alma?” she ignored the hat. “Just to give lip service? If I can’t come here anymore, then I’m done. It’s over. A nineteen-year-old boy died choking on vomit right here. And that other young farm worker, Domenica? Have you met her? She told David Colón tainted water was poured over the boy’s face and down his throat by other farm workers. When the HAZMAT team from the Kern County Fire Department arrived they found 73 farm workers and nearby residents exposed to an invisible cloud of soil fumigant. Do you know what metam sodium does to a body?”

“I know, Mama,” Alma whispered. “But you won’t do anyone any good if you get sunstroke. I’m wearing a hat too and I’m forty-three.”

“Domenica told David that it was like a plague out here. She was throwing up too. Do you know she’s pregnant?”

Where the dirt was most disturbed lay a straw hat and bandana, a pair of shoes, a long-sleeve gold-and-blue plaid shirt and a broken string of police tape. Camila ached with the death of this boy. She sensed that Alma was hurting too. She never had to fight with her daughter over a sense of justice, only her own sense of self-importance.

Alma followed Camila along the edge of the field, the cap hanging from her fingers. She was tempted to just put it on her mother’s head.

“They tried to say the boy died from the heat,” Camila grunted. “Domenica said all their eyes and noses were burning. They couldn’t see. They couldn’t breathe.”

“I know, Mama. How’s she doing?”

“I don’t know. I only spoke to the lawyer. If you’d been in the office you would have heard us on speaker-phone.”

“I was getting your medicine. I had a date last night. Didn’t Lupe help you out with setting up interviews?”

Camila was getting more impatient by the second. It was as if Alma wasn’t listening. These deaths took precedence over everything. “Your dates can go to hell. I need to go back to the office. I need Domenica’s number from David.”

“Okay but I have to drop you off.”

“You’re not coming to the office again? I need you to come in and help make phone calls.” Camila stooped over the straw hat on the ground, picked it up, dusted the brim, handed it to Alma. “Be sure to get this to the family.”

Alma didn’t question her mother as she took the hat. “I can’t make any calls this afternoon. I have to get the oil changed. Three thousand miles was up three weeks ago.”

“That’s ridiculous.” Camila said.

“I’ll only be gone forty-five minutes. You realize I’m working for you seven days a week?”

“I realize this foundation is in my image and not yours.” Camila said this matter-of-factly. There was no malice. She knew what she was doing. When her daughter pushed back, she reminded her of all the history, essays, articles, poems, meetings with the President, and turned-down movie deals she’d been a part of.

Alma retreated. “Are you going to see Jack this evening?”

“Yes, Jack . . .” Camila didn’t want to imagine how sick he might be. The intern had left a frantic voicemail how he’d passed out while dictating one of his newsletters about the state of youth politics in Kern County. She said he was to be admitted overnight, that Jack wanted her to know. What Camila wanted to know was if he was getting any rest, or if he was being bothered by these interns. She sighed. She was always looking out for her old friend. He always did the same for her. Maybe it was finally time to tell him. She always knew she’d eventually admit the past. It was just that she’d waited so long. Decades too long. She stared hard at the field one last time then started toward the car. “Just get me back to the office. I can’t stand the smell out here.”

. . .

Camila struggled to rest her coffee on the carpet outside her office and find her key. Maybe the heat had been a little much.

She wasn’t worried about Alma’s love life. She just liked to have her daughter around the office to do the heavy lifting, to make all the pre-calls. Camila said she would like to thank you for inviting her to speak at your upcoming gala. Camila would like to formally accept your invitation to discuss borderlands and the modern woman. Camila will accept your award but has a few questions she’d like to personally ask.

Her hand shook as she searched her purse. She’d developed the tremor only a year ago. She really thought it was going to go away. When she found the key she saw it had worn dull. How long had she even been working from this office? She leased it during the ten years since she’d retired from the labor union sealing deals on countless contracts with the growers. The ten years since starting the Camila Cisneroz Foundation. Had it already been five years since she toured the country? She’d rallied Latinas to do more than enter the workforce, to do more than work a job that made husbands happy. She wanted them to focus on their own lives. Did she love her children? Truth is, she loved Alma the most but raised her the least. Camila had long become a born-again feminist and was one of the first women in America to say a child should be raised by a community of people, that the burden should never be placed on one woman alone. Women had a bigger role in society, bigger shoes to fill. After all, she thought a woman’s peregrinación began the day she was born, the day she was exiled from her mother.

 Camila dropped her purse on the desk, picked up the phone and dialed David Colón, a Los Angeles lawyer with the Legal Defense and Education of Latino Americans.

“Here we go again,” she said when he answered.

David’s voice had a nasal pitch. “Camila. What an honor to hear from you again. The grower is not taking responsibility. They say it was heat exposure. The union is gathering evidence. Your voice, however . . .”

Camila wasn’t interested in being David’s mouthpiece. “I want Domenica’s number. I want talk to her about the boy myself.”

David paused. “I can relay you more of her thoughts. You do understand this is going to be a battle?”

“Quit being an asshole,” she said. “I don’t have time for games. Give me her number. I know one of you is hiding something.”

“I’m not hiding anything. I wouldn’t.”

“Then she is.”

. . .

Domenica easily reminded Camila of Alma. Something in her voice hid a deeper mystery, a truth. Didn’t matter. She would get it out of the girl. She knew the hurt the young woman was feeling, the sting of betrayal toward her employer, the feeling of loss even though the boy wasn’t a relative. Domenica would open up the way Alma always did. Camila was sure of it.

“The HAZMAT crew’s portable tent-shower went up about thirty minutes after Miguel died,” Domenica said. “Our skin was scrubbed until we bled. There was no modesty. Workers were forced to take off everything and get scraped. Most of the women screamed and tried to cover themselves. It feels like the worst sunburn.”

Camila took careful notes. David would learn his lesson. She would give the notes to Alma, who would relay them to the media without the lawyer’s permission. She knew sometimes attacking the problem wasn’t worth waiting like some wounded fox in a den. Better to claw and snap at the eyes of those bearing down on the hole.

“They treated you like an animal,” Camila said, “wanting you barely clean enough, barely sane enough, barely healthy enough to do the work. They don’t care if your body is filled with poison. That’s how these people are. What else do you remember?”

“Vomit, shivers, pain,” Domenica said. “When they were done with me, Miguel was still in the onion field lying like a pile of trash. A sheet covered everything but his arm. I kept expecting them to cover his blackened fingers. I thought they might burn, catch fire. He was reaching for the sun.”

Camila recalled seeing onions on the ground like the eyes of a great giant beneath the earth peeking at the empty shell of the valley. She wondered if the giant was judging her. The media would listen, though they would come at her with hard questions. She would lay in wait, knowing she was even greater than the giant. She was the crack in the earth where he lay, ready to shake loose the veil of the growers and swallow the earth they stood on.

Domenica had paused. There was terror in her silence.

“You can tell me what’s been happening,” said Camila. “I can tell by your voice there’s more to this story. Don’t let the lawyer or the growers frighten you.”

Domenica’s voice started breaking. “Miguel refused to drink any water today because he was afraid of being poisoned. He never went to the bathroom because he was afraid of being fired. When the pesticide drift hit, that’s why his body took it harder than anyone. He isn’t the only one afraid, either. There are others who won’t piss or shit. They won’t drink anything unless it’s their own water. More could die in this heatwave.”

Camila imagined the boy dropping in the dirt. Heat and pesticide had struck him like a bolt of corroded lightning. Then Domenica told her how Miguel dug his nails into her arm as he died. Just before she and the rest of the farm workers got sick.

. . .

There were many calls Camila needed to make but her head was starting to spin. That sun. It never left once you were in it. It hung above you even indoors, pressing on the top of your head, pushing at your eyes with invisible hot fingers. She made a pot of coffee. She was about to go through her list of contacts at the labor unions but dialed the hospital instead.

Jack answered. His voice was raspier than usual. Slower. “Camila. You didn’t have to call.”

“Of course I had to call,” she said. “Had to see how you’re doing. Who else is going to make sure you’re not jumping out of bed to go run down the street? Did I wake you?”

“No. I was counting ceiling tiles again. Sixty-four. Do you remember Sixty-four?”

“I remember ten years before that. That was two years after we met.”

The sound of his voice picked up a little. “We were in our prime.”

“Maybe you were,” she said. He always wanted to talk about the past. She wondered if the present was holding too little for either of them to make sense. She promised herself she wouldn’t bring up the boy who died. Jack didn’t need to be her sounding board. Not this time. “I was still trying to get out from under the thumb of my first husband,” she said. “We argued all the time why I wasn’t like other wives. He criticized me in bed, about my face, my hair, my nails, the living room, the bathroom sink, the shower, any water spot on a faucet, the babies—the way the diapers were pinned—the way the babies cried, the smell of the house, the smell of our sex, the sound of my voice, my laugh, my logic, my tears. I told him I was going to go to school during the day, then work nights. He wasn’t going to stop me.”

“No one ever stops you,” Jack said. “That’s why you’re still here, why you’re strong. I remember when we met no one even thought you were married and had a kid. You had so much energy. You really helped clean up those Bakersfield slums.”

“How you feeling?” she asked, writing a quick note to call the pharmacy later. She still didn’t feel right and was starting to think the medicine Alma had picked up was making her ill.

“I’m feeling,” he said.

“You always say that.” She searched the desk for a message from the day before. A handwritten note from a publisher wanting a follow-up question on an interview. Alma had opened the envelope. Camila wondered why the interviewer hadn’t just emailed her. Was this his way of getting an autograph or a handwritten note?

Jack was busy telling her about his irregular heartbeat, about his blood, how it had been too thin. Now it was too thick. The medications were putting his entire work regimen out of sync and he was light-headed from it all.

She hummed a response and continued examining the note on the desk.


             Dear Ms. Cisneroz,

             Just one more question if I may. Why did Montoya Calderon say
             in 1972, “You’re not a Mexican”? I’ve seen some of your answers
             to this through the years. You say you’re a logical woman, even
             though we both know you can be fiery—it’s on record. Can this
             be why you weren’t president of the Central Farm Workers
             Union? Can this be why you tried to start a sub-union for women?


                                       Richard Salinas
                                       Center For Hispanic Studies


The answer was somewhere in those harsh days before man landed on the moon. Before man considered whether or not a woman should have been standing naked in the dust of grey tranquility. During that first grape strike someone in a pickup tried to run her over. She saw the blood in his eyes through the dirty windshield. He was one of those Teamsters. Like the growers, he thought every farm worker was subhuman. Didn’t matter if you were Latino, Arab or Filipino. You somehow owed them for giving you a job. They had free land, free water, free seeds, so goddam if they weren’t going to have free labor too. And if she was on the bullhorn, screaming “Viva huelga!” then she was the monkey trying to start a riot and take away what was theirs. They said she was only good for humping all the other monkeys to have their babies so the growers could have more bodies in the fields. They said, “You’re no Mexican. Put the bullhorn down. Pull your pants around your ankles and bend over.” When that car was coming for her she dove headfirst into a grapevine and was knocked out.

Jack was waiting for her to talk. She naturally hummed again at the pause and set down the letter.

“Jack. Why don’t I just come down there?” she demanded.

He said, “I think they’ll release me tomorrow. Although, I don’t know. I was feeling faint again an hour ago. Are you even paying attention to your health? Are you walking?”

“I’m calling the pharmacy later,” she said. “This medicine they gave me might be making me dizzy.”

“I know dizzy,” Jack said. “You know what’s kept us alive? All those hills where we used to take long walks and talk until sunup. Just thinking about those roads makes me winded.”

Camila laughed. “You always complain,” she said.

“Because I don’t want you to go out of your way? Hey, why didn’t Dylan try to become Dylan before Dylan? You ever think how that would have gone over?”

“You and your theories.”

“You know, I figured out what’s wrong with the world while I’ve been lying here. Want to know?”

“What’s that?”


That made Camila laugh. “What now? Soap Operas? Fox News? I could have told you that.”

“I remember all of Rudy’s staff gathered around NBC’s American Forum of the Air,” Jack said. “You remember Rudy don’t you? He was turning the dials on that mammoth mahogany box every night before we went home. We were just kids. He’d pace back and forth, pushing his glasses up his face, watching the freakishly small screen and dull, two-tone image in its vertical rollover. There was this one night. Joseph McCarthy was on the tube.”

Camila suddenly wondered if Jack knew her secret. After all this time. Was that why he was telling this story?

Jack continued, “All that tinny yelling from the TV, the close-up of those flaps of skin folded over McCarthy’s eyes, that off-centered widow’s peak, that face of angry puppetry, screen pulsing like all of America had miraculously been transported into a black and white goldfish bowl. His voice was like hyper static: The true difference between us and them? My good people, the difference resides in the religion of immoralism invented not so long ago by Marx himself! . . . Will the Red half of the world triumph?  . . . Ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down—they are truly down . . .” Jack could barely laugh.

“I remember,” Camila said.

Television rebuketh the literate faith,” Jack whispered. “I think I read that somewhere.”

Camila wasn’t surprised when she heard keys jangling in the lock. Alma had come back early. She hadn’t taken the car in at all. Her slight blush gave her away. Always had. Camila squinted at her daughter when she entered.

Alma set down a green tea and sat in front of Camila, expecting more of her mother’s attention than a dirty look.

“Alma’s here to drop the car off,” Camila said to Jack. “I have to go to the Post Office and stop by the house. I can come by after that.”

“I wish your office wasn’t downtown,” Jack said. “Why do you want to be above all those bars and tattoo parlors? People shoot each other around there on the weekends.”

“Stop it. I don’t work after dark. I’m not even sure how much longer I’ll be around to do all of this. You quit worrying about it. I’ll be down there in a little while.”

Camila hung up the phone and turned to her daughter. “What about the car?”

“They were too busy.”

“Was your boyfriend too busy?”

If that was the truth Alma didn’t let on. “Let me drive you.”

Camila waved Alma off and got up. “I made a list of calls for you to make and notes for a press release about the boy and Domenica. Write it this afternoon. I want you to fax it to those dopes at the TV stations.” Camila smiled to herself at her ability to push Alma. More so, she knew that David Colón would be enraged knowing her foundation had let the cat out of the bag about the dead youth fearing to drink water or to even take a piss. This would not only throw dirt on the growers but place her in a national discussion as well. After teen dies former Latino labor leader exposes farm worker retribution fears . . . She’d steal Colón’s limelight. This was the necessary part of the business with the media. You had to step in front of others sometimes. You had to be a leader. This was life in the public view.

Camila grabbed her purse and a recommendation letter she needed to mail on behalf of a Chicano Studies major. A few minutes later she was parked outside the Post Office on 18th Street. A construction worker held open the door as she walked up the steps. She moved to the end of the line where she considered the sullen faces of everyone in the building. Even the postal workers held a silent fear as if all there ever could be in life was an endless stream of chitinous letters sent toward some dull ether.

Her feet were sore as she waited her turn. She’d given so many university commencement speeches lately that she was just worn out. Stanford, UCLA, CSU Bakersfield, Chico State. She could still march several miles when called to do so at immigration reform rallies and regularly walked to keep her heart and lungs in shape. But she knew the reality. A heart slows. Lungs eventually breathe into dust.

She left the post office and drove home. Her thoughts drifted to Jack, to the calmness he exuded while in the hospital. What really was wrong with his blood? Some days her old friend could hardly breathe. She would wash his face when she visited. He wouldn’t complain when she passed the cool cloth across his forehead or onto his neck along the delicate edge where bones connect to skin.

Twenty years after they met she and Jack remained friends. She had been helping farm laborers and factory workers. He was appointed president of the mid-California chapter of the Teachers and Education Union (TEU). He’d lost his swagger just like he’d lost most of his hair. He didn’t infuse spirituality into his mission. He wasn’t going to try to reach teachers by building an altar in the back of a truck with images of the mysterious woman on Tepeyac Hill, or postcards of the crucifix, plastic flowers, and crossed candelabrum in a Blessing of the Throats. He wasn’t going to hold mass out in a quad or in a parking lot. There were no visions of a boy swallowing fishbones no matter how much the members of the TEU needed some kind of salvation. His was a different path. God was made of statistics and economies. Years later he retired, worked in his yard, talked to neighbors, counseled the young activists and hopeful politicians at sunrise breakfasts at Loraine’s, elbows propped on plastic tablecloths. He turned his office into a meeting place for the new generation of young revolutionaries and hired some of them as interns.

Camila walked to a cabinet grabbed a book shoved near the back. On the cover was an illustration of a red hand, a ribbon microphone in the palm. She hadn’t held it in how many years? She’d paid a dollar for it in the 1950s only because she’d helped put some of the information there.

She opened the book. In the introduction was a paragraph that had struck fear in her as a young woman . . .


             In a testimonial before a U.S. Congressional committee, J. Edgar
             Hoover, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, stated:
             “The Communists have departed from depending upon
             magazines, leaflets and newspapers as its medium of propelling
             propaganda into the West and has taken to the air. The
             sympathizers have not only infiltrated the airways of this great
             nation but they are now persistently seeking radio, television and
             film channels. This is the Communist front and the beginning of
             the great upheaval where the Communist Party will assume
             control of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, the result of 
             which will be a red revolution, a CIVIL WAR.”


She shook her head at herself and flipped to THE LIST OF AGITATORS. Clear as day there was Jack’s uncle, Anthony Young. He’d been listed because of information she’d turned over that he was a pinko, a dyed-in-the-wool red, some kind of Soviet dupe.

Again she shook her head, this time resolving to finally tell Jack not only about his uncle, but that she almost labeled as a communist too.

There’d been so many opportunities to tell him. So many walks, phone calls, speeches and rallies over the years. For the longest time she’d forgotten. But that memory always crept back into her stomach, whirled there.

She picked up a burger on the way to the hospital. Plain. No fries. She would cut it in half and give Jack the smaller of the two because he ate so little these days.

. . .

She arrived to a commotion outside Jack’s room.

The student interns he’d hired were always visiting. What were they up to now? It was in their best interest to come take care of him, listen to his stories about how he’d battled through his time in the union. But he really needed his rest. She’d shoo them away and feed him.

Then Camila instinctively clung to her purse. She brought it to her chest as if in sudden pain. These weren’t interns. Two nurses were in the room. A doctor too. Everyone was talking fast.

Camila took in a painful suck of air that rattled her lungs.

Jack’s eyes were wide, full of terror.

Right away she knew what it was. His heart was fluttering like a stuck windmill, blades no longer turning but shaking, gears ripping and shredding.

She’d seen men die from old age, cancer, shootings, beatings, heart attacks, even like this, like the poisoned boy in the onion field, writhing, burning on coals beneath the final day of the fifth sun.

Most dying men had the same feigned grins, faces twisted from the shock of knowing. What they knew, she thought, was the same thing she’d figured out long ago, that three minutes more on this earth was a gift, that love was an emotion felt while coming to or when drifting away. She saw this on Jack’s face too. She was terrified at his realization.

Suddenly she couldn’t smell, taste or register whether she was standing up, lying down or hovering outside the window pounding to get in. Everything went blurry. Every sound and color was reduced to a pinpoint, a nuclear moment before blossoming outward and blackening her vision. If ever there was a borderland this was it. She floated to that place where spirituality is a light ringing in the ears before passing out.

Somehow in those moments Jack was taken past her into a surgery room.

A nurse helped her into a chair.

Camila waved the nurse away just as she would Alma. She didn’t cry but sat for a while until the ringing went away. Then she found a pen and started writing a letter. She didn’t stop until she saw it through.

She knew Jack’s interns would find the letter after she placed it on a stand next to a card. It might even find its way to a mysterious archive. One day a scholar would inevitably make a connection. Someone would understand.


             Dearest Jack,

             Our peregrinación begins the day we’re born, the day we’re exiled
             from our mothers. A second exile begins when we leave for
             school or work, or when we get married. Our most substantial is
             the peregrinación penitencia revolución, when we embrace the
             ideological origins of our private revolutions from our husbands,
             from our jobs, from the oppression of the world. Though
             ongoing, you realize you’re part of the fight, and the fight is more 
             important than yourself, more important than your children, more
             important than money, homes, or as Montoya Calderon taught us
             during his many hunger strikes, more important than the food we
             grow, those food-related jobs we fight for, the food we put in our
             mouths. What did he say after tasting that wafer placed in his
             mouth in the tent after 39 days with no food? “The bread was
             delicious. Oh it was good . . . promises are made so they can be
             broken.” And so that doesn’t mean you should always give in just
             because anything is delicious. What is delicious can be covered in
             poison, grown with poison. What is delicious can be the thought
             in our heart or the bed we might share. Don’t let us forget our
             peregrinación penitencia revolución. Don’t let us forget each
             other. Don’t let us forget that we must atone. We must atone.



© The Acentos Review 2016