Alfredo Gutierrez


Alfredo Gutierrez is a fourth year student at New York University studying English and Creative Writing. A first-generation chicano born and raised in the Bronx, his work explores what it means to have a hyphenated identity that is handed to you rather than chosen. He is currently working on a collection of stories revolving around a group of siblings and their experiences and relationships with El Norte, Mexico, and each other. This is his first published work.



Located in northern Cholula, Tlachihualtepetl sat quietly like a sleeping god. The sprawling adobe structure consumed the space around it, spreading its reach until the four hundred meters surrounding belonged to it. Radiating a mystic wonder to both native Mexicans and foreigners alike, the Great Pyramid of Cholula was a remnant of a time long past. Present since the 9th century and jutting 66 meters into the sky, it anchored the heavens to the earth. For the pre-Columbian people it was a dedication to Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of wind and learning – and for the conquistadors, it was a symbol for hope and salvation. The myth goes that after La Noche Triste, the Spanish conquistadors had to hide in the indigenous temples to recuperate before launching a counterattack against the Aztecs. One of the soldiers prayed to La Virgen de los Remedios and left a small pendant in one of the temples as a thank you, and it is believed this secured the Spanish victory over the Aztecs. Years later, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios was constructed atop Tlachihualtepetl as a way to commemorate her helping the Spanish. In modern-day Mexico, pilgrims come from all over Puebla and all over the country to put their own charms and pendants inside the church at the top of the pyramid.

From the bottom, however, there seemed to be no pyramid. Instead, what stood in front of Felix Madrigal was a towering overgrown mountain with a yellow-gold chapel standing at the top like a crown. At multiple points, the history of Tlachihualtepetl revealed itself. The adobe structure stuck out without shame as tourists stood on the steps and had relatives take their picture. Felix stood before the famous pyramid and took it all in, adjusting his hat to combat the flaring September sun. His outfit made him feel out of place: black canvas shoes vulnerable in the Mexican heat, his t-shirt clinging to his skin, and the straw hat his aunt had given him. The place was definitely a tourist location, something he could tell within moments of arriving. Yet, it also held an air of authenticity, something about the connection the pyramid held to the earth made the whole place feel spiritual. There was a sense of natural beauty hidden deep under the mountain that had formed around Tlachihualtepetl that called to Felix and the other tourists that had traveled from so far to be there. It didn’t surprise him though—after all, he made the two hour trip from his mother’s town for that exact reason. He wanted to call it a pilgrimage, but always hesitated due to the fact he didn’t know what he was going to Cholula for. A pilgrimage, he thought, has a previously understood purpose. His trip, however, was a shot in the dark.

Felix had been to the pyramid of Cholula once before, on a July holiday trip with his godparents. It had been about ten years ago, while he was still in high school. They were staying at his godmothers’ place in la Ciudad de Puebla, a much shorter distance from Cholula than Felix’s mother’s town. The ground that day radiated heat and the pyramid seemed suffocating to him so he had opted to stay at the bottom in the shade of a tree. He and his godbrother hung out by the paletero as everyone else climbed to the top. The heat increased the farther everyone else got from the two boys, and they passed the time talking about the video games they wanted to play when they went back to New York. As much as he tried to ignore it, the Iglesia sunk deep into him. As the sun reached its peak, aligning with the gold shimmer of the church, he voiced his yearning to climb to the top and see why so many people traveled so far to see it. His eagerness deflated, however, as he saw his godmother and the rest of their party walking down the last flight of steps, all of them talking in unison of the beauty inside the chapel, their journey complete.

On this second trip, however, Felix returned filled with that desire. He walked to the dirt path that began his journey to the top, and was greeted with the voladores. They were in the same spot as the first time he found himself in Cholula, but he was too young to grasp the weight of the performers. Ten years ago, he found himself bored and unamused by what he assumed was a tourist attraction. Now, however, he looked up with awe as the danza began: in their traditional dress, the five voladores climbed the towering wooden pole, slowly and one at a time arriving at the top where a square platform waited for them. One of them took his place in the center and began playing the flute to the tune of one of the other voladores’ drums. The one in the middle stood up and extended his arms, making a cross as he faced directly towards the sun, the music humming around him. Felix watched as the other four voladores, their bodies tied by a rope connected to the platform, began slowly turning, spinning around the pole as they slowly lowered themselves. The one still on the platform played both instruments at once, choreographing the ritual. Children around Felix clapped and hollered in amusement, their eyes widening as they watched the four voladores spin, eloquently cutting through the sky as the drum played for the sun.

Felix switched his gaze from the voladores to the church at the top of the pyramid. He took a deep breath and kept walking, clutching the straps of his backpack firmly. He walked away from the spectacle of the voladores and towards a set of tents with all types of vendors. Tacos, beer, handmade bags, jewelry, clothing – a myriad of vendors stationed themselves at the base of the pyramid, attracting tourists with maps and foreign tongues. He made it to the entrance of the tunnel that goes through the bottom level of the pyramid and got on line, standing behind a mother and her two kids.

“¿Cuando entremos agarren mi mano, entienden?” she furrowed her brow at her kids and they nodded, the younger boy holding her hand tighter. As the line crawled to the ticket booth, her two kids jumped up and down and told each other what they thought they would see. The older one tried to convince his brother that there would be skeletons and ghosts, and the younger boy tensed up.

“¿De verdad, Ma? ¿Hay esqueletos?” he looked up at his mother as his older brother snickering to himself.

“Son puras tonterias, no le hagas caso,” her attention was on the ticket booth and her hands fishing into her purse for her wallet. She took out the 150 pesos and handed them to the cashier in exchange for three tickets that she handed to the woman in uniform at the entrance. The two kids hollered and laughed as they entered the tunnel. Felix watched all this, and as he handed the cashier the last of his pesos, he couldn’t help but think of why he took this trip in the first place.

On the 3rd of July, he got a call from his mother.

“Tienes que ir, ya que yo no puedo.” She told him, crying on the phone. Felix was in his apartment tidying up for his 4th of July party he was hosting. He was sitting on the couch with music humming low from his speakers and the slinking mid-summer breeze slipping in through the open window in his kitchen. He put his hands on his head, his mother’s voice coming through his earphones.

“Se está muriendo mi mama, hijo,” through her inconsolable sobbing, Felix’s mid-fifties mother told him what they all knew was long overdue. His grandmother, Maria Guadalupe, had been sick for as long as he could remember yet he hadn’t prepared himself for this fated phone call. He got up from the couch and started pacing. Felix ran down the list of questions to his mother: What does she have? How long does she have left? Are they taking care of her? He had met Maria Guadalupe twice, both times when he was a child, so the news weren’t what distressed him. Rather, it was his mother and what she planned to do that concerned him. He poured himself a cup of coffee and leaned against his window, watching people draped in their black coats as they walked on the street.

Felix’s aunt had been the one designated by the family to watch over her in the town they all grew up in, so she had been the one to call Felix’s mother. His aunt informed Felix’s mother that Maria Guadalupe Valdez had become bedridden at 81, barely being able to get up for dinner or to use the bathroom. It had started off with Maria Guadalupe having back pains when she was 72, but after a fall on her way to their kitchen the pain had doubled. She was rushed to the local doctor, who told her that she just had to rest. Weeks passed, and her pain never went away. She hadn’t minded, and simply adjusted her life around that perpetual pain. If that’s what God has planned for me, then that’s what I have to live with, she had once told Felix’s mother

Felix spent five hours with his mother on the phone that night, telling her that there wasn’t much she could do. He reminded her that they were in New York and Maria Guadalupe was in a small town two hours from Cholula, a distance he knew his mother had felt for the past thirty years of her life.

“No importa. Tengo que verla,” his mother told him, although it sounded like she was telling herself.

“Yo voy,” he responded. Felix’s own declaration held the firmness of the mountains surrounding his mother’s hometown. He told his mother he would take the trip. She disagreed with him, telling him that it was important for her to see her own mother. None of it mattered to her, not the States, not New York, and not her small Bronx home. The only thing that mattered to Felix’s mother was seeing Maria Guadalupe one last time.

“¿Si nunca la veo? ¿Si se me va y nunca la veo otra vez?” Her sobbing got worse as the night went on, and Felix struggled to find something that would really comfort her. She was right, what happened if she never saw her? If nothing changed in the next couple months and she didn’t see her before she passed away? She didn’t have the answers. Felix didn’t either

“Tu tienes tu vida aqui, y no puedes dejar perder los ultimos 30 años. Yo la voy a ver. No te preocupes.” He felt his chest tighten as he heard his own voice speak the harsh truth of their reality. He had to go for her—he couldn’t let her throw away the past thirty years in one moment. She had spent most of her adult life in New York, experiencing the weight of living a life far from her mother, and she couldn’t let one instance of sorrow make all of that null by going back to Mexico. This also meant, however, she would have to be absent from her own mother’s dying days. Felix thought of all of this and took a deep breath as he told his mother he loved her deeply. He went to bed that night knowing he would have to be his mother’s surrogate not only by going to Mexico, but by bearing the weight of seeing Maria Guadalupe at the end of her life. In the darkness of that night, he let himself feel the melancholy of the situation as he fell asleep to the sound of his own tears.

Now, on September 8th, he handed the woman in uniform the tickets and stepped into the damp tunnel that ran under the pyramid of Cholula.  He ducked his head as he entered, following the family that was in front of him on line. The tunnel was well lit and there was a slight echo, making everyone’s comments in the tunnel more public than private. A couple of descriptions and historical facts hung on the walls but for the most part the whole allure was to simply walk through to the other side. The tunnel was only wide enough for one person at a time, so Felix found himself between the mother of the two boys and an American tourist. The single-file line slugged through the tunnel and the boys in front of him stopped to touch the wall every few seconds, peeking into the closed off areas. The first time he was there, he and his godbrother had been filled with excitement at knowing they were standing inside an ancient pyramid that, in their eyes, could potentially collapse on them at any moment. This time, however, Felix calmly followed the line as if being ushered to his seat. The two brothers ahead of him slowed down the line due to their excitement and  Felix stopped when they stopped, running his hand along the wall just as they did.

Two days ago, Felix found himself taking the train to JFK alone. He sat on the E train with his suitcase and a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The train snaked its way towards the airport, men and women with tired looks and one hand on their suitcases lined the train, adding to the dread already surrounding his trip. As he had promised, he had taken the first opportunity he found to go to Puebla to see Maria Guadalupe. He felt guilty, however, because he had wanted to go back on his promise. He had only met his grandmother a handful of times since he had only been to Mexico a handful of times—surely he loved her, but he often wondered how he could love someone he barely knew. The whole ordeal was a lot for him, especially how his mother was dealing with it. He had visited her almost daily and she was a mess every time. Seeing her that way, in bed most of the time and her cheeks always swollen from crying for hours, he knew he had to go through with this trip.

He flipped a page of his book as he mentally prepared himself, the train screeching to a halt as it arrived at the Woodhaven station. It wasn’t a long flight—he wished it was. Maria Guadalupe had gotten worse in the time between the phone call and the beginning of his departure. By the time Felix had packed his suitcase, Maria Guadalupe hadn’t gotten out of bed for a week. Felix’s mother had been sending money back every few weeks for the medicine needed to keep Maria Guadalupe alive. The E train filled with pilgrims pulled every fiber of Felix’s body apart. He closed his book as the train arrived at JFK.

The tunnel under the pyramid opened up on the other side, and the two brothers in front of Felix ran out laughing and pushing each other. The older brother had convinced the younger brother that there were ghosts chasing him, and urged him to run out with him before they were caught. They fell onto a patch of grass, laughing, relishing their escape from the ghosts closing in on them. The tunnel opened into a small path that lead to the stairs leading towards the top of the pyramid. Felix walked towards the stairs, pausing at the bottom to buy a bottle of water. Behind him, the two kids bought paletas and sat in the shade of a tree to eat them. Felix made his way up the steps. The sun was beating down on the voyagers, every step draining them as their sweat fell to the floor.        

The steps were thin and narrow, making it easy to misstep and trip. Due to this, everyone was careful and slow in climbing their way to the church. After two flights, there was a landing with a small chapel before the steps continued. Already a bit up, the entrance to the tunnel where Felix came from could be seen from the edge of the landing. He saw everyone going into the chapel, so he followed them inside. In the middle of the chapel was a large fountain with an image of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios behind it and a jar with a small cardboard sign on it. It read: “dejen una donación y llévense la agua bendita de Nuestra Señora.” Tourists and locals alike threw in a couple of coins into the jar and filled their bottles and containers with the water from the fountain, as the note told them to. Others dipped two fingers into the fountain and made the sign of the cross on their forehead, chest, arms or throat. Felix watched this ceremony, throwing in a couple of pesos before exiting the chapel from the other side.

When he had arrived at the Mexico City airport, he realized that he didn’t know what his aunt looked like. He had last seen her on the trip 10 years ago with his godparents, but he hardly remembered her. Felix had stood at the arrivals gate for ten minutes before a short woman who looked vaguely like his mother walked up to him and hugged him tightly. Startled, he had been hesitant to wrap his own arms around this woman until she told him how glad she was he had decided to come in his mother’s place. They walked to her car and started the three hour journey to Yehualtepec, the city where Felix’s mom grew up and where Maria Guadalupe was dying.  His aunt told him what was happening in their town: the local festival, the renovation of the church, her two kids taking part in the parade celebrating a saint Felix would never remember. He had looked out the window and watched the city escape him. The farther they drove from the City, more and more small adobe houses replaced the three story brick homes that lined the streets of Mexico City. Felix felt bad for not recognizing his aunt, but there were few things he didn’t feel bad for at that point. The car was a small van Felix’s mother had paid for so her sister could transport Maria Guadalupe from their home to the doctor. The trip from Mexico City to Puebla would be the longest trip that van would ever make.

“Como está tu mama?” she finally asked him as they drive down the highway. Felix hesitated. Perhaps he himself didn’t know how his mother was doing, or perhaps he knew that in answering that question he would cement his role in the whole ordeal as a delegate.

“No está bien,” his voice was somber. It was the truth though, his mother wasn’t doing well at all. On their last phone call the night before he was on the E train to JFK, she cried and cried and he couldn’t stop her. He told her everything he could, that he was going to do as much as he could and if Maria Guadalupe really was in her final days he would say goodbye for her and he would hold her hand the whole time he was with her—but she only stopped crying when he told her he needed to get sleep before his flight.

“Pues yo tampoco. Que horrible que no puede venir,” Felix’s aunt didnt take her eyes off the road, yet he could tell there were tears swelling up in her eyes. Yes, he thought, it really was a damn tragedy. All of it. She told him there wasn’t much they could do for Maria Guadalupe anymore. She was dying. “Pero confió en Dios que toda va estar bien,” she said. Felix didn’t believe her. He kept looking out the window for the rest of the trip, and his aunt left him alone. He wondered what his mother was doing.

After exiting the chapel, Felix found himself faced with more stone steps than when he exited the tunnel. He took a long drink of his water bottle and put the rest of it in his bag. Taking a deep breath, he kept going. The steps wound back and forth, left and right, making Felix feel like he wasn’t going anywhere. The heavy September heat flooded his lungs and he found himself stopping in front of what seemed to be a final set of steps. These steps were split in the middle by a railing, more obviously modern than the rest. These didn’t wind back and forth, but instead went straight up, a final hurdle before arriving at la Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios.

As Felix and his aunt had pulled into their small, dusty town, she asked him for a favor.

“Vete a Cholula. A la Iglesia,” she had wiped her tears off her face but her voice was still hoarse. Maria Guadalupe’s house was at the end of the only paved road, past the town center and the renovated church. They drove past the candy store Maria Guadalupe used to take Felix’s mom to when she was a little girl, past the ice cream shop they would go to after Sunday Mass, and past the park where so many of their memories rested.

“Ok.” Felix had nodded as wiped his face with a napkin she had given him.

“Cuando llegues a la Iglesia, pon esto ahi,” she handed him a small bronze charm. It was an image of the Virgen the Guadalupe, small enough to be a pin or a keychain, but when Felix ran his hands on it he could tell it was homemade. The ruffles of the Virgen’s dress were intricately carved, as were her clasped hands. He flipped it over, revealing the inscribed dedication: Maria Guadalupe Valdez, Madre, Hermana, Mujer. He put it in his bag as they pulled up to the house at the end of the town.

After climbing what he thought was the final set of steps of the journey, Felix found himself at the top of the mountain, in a clearing that oversaw all of Cholula and had Puebla in the distance. He walked to the other side, the edge of the mountain that was fenced off a few feet before the edge. He looked out towards Puebla, holding onto the fence with his right hand. He thought of the people running their errands in the city, the children going to school as they always do. His mother entered his thoughts, as did Maria Guadalupe. He stood there for what seemed like ages, taking in the merit of getting to the top as well as the fresh, clean air he didn’t have back home—when his phone rang. He was surprised to feel his phone vibrating in his pocket since he had forgotten about the international plan he had added to his bill, but he answered it.

“Se murió. Tu abuela. Ya no está con nosotros, mijo.”

His aunt’s voice sounded distant, as if she was calling him from a place where only she could go. For a minute, Felix listened to the sounds of Tlachihualteptl: the light wind ruffling the grass that covered the final landing he was standing on, the conversations being had by the others arriving at La Iglesia, some laughing and some speaking solemnly, and finally the mountain itself. Felix could hear and feel the mountain adjusting itself, its joints rusty as it yawned and spread its reach before going back to sleep. Tlachihualtepetl, and perhaps Quetzalcoatl himself could feel Maria Guadalupe’s soul finding her way to rest. Just before replying to his aunt, he thought of his mother in her old, creaky home, sitting by the window and drinking the té de manzanilla she would make him as a kid whenever he wasn’t feeling well.

“Ok. Yo entiendo.” he said before hanging up.

After taking one last look at the city, he turned to his right, coming face to face with two things. First, there was another set of steps left, albeit not too steep and more adorned than any of the previous steps. But he also was standing steps from La Iglesia. It was much larger than he imagined, and definitely much larger than it looked from the bottom of the pyramid. He stood in awe, examining the magnitude of the church. Dipped in gold, the church emanated a gravity that seemed foreign and ancient. As if taping into the roots of the pyramid it stood on, La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios held a mystical aura, the two domes at the top aiming towards the sky, finding a place between earth and sky where only La Iglesia existed. Tourists or locals, everyone became a pilgrim here.

Felix reached into his bag for the small charm and held it in his hand. He could feel the church pulling him inside, asking him to ask for his remedy. With feet like lead and a heart much heavier, Felix walked towards the steps to La Iglesia.




© The Acentos Review 2017