Secret Lives dramatizes the conflicts and struggles of a teenage Mexican American Catholic girl when she learns her family and ancestors have been living as secret Jews.
This story is based on reports of actual events.)
I wasn’t much of a church goer, but seeing Ana scoot in, I followed her. With my short leg, it took awhile, but leaning on my mesquite cane I managed to hobble to a pew where I could see her. She was on her knees lighting white candles, probably praying for guidance in passing her Confirmation tests. Now sixteen, my oldest grandchild, Ana was more involved in the church than any of her seven brothers and sisters.
I studied her face, once round and red like a Jonathan apple, but now long and thin and honey-colored. Her body was changing, too. When she stood, her blouse stretched so tight across her chest I was afraid her buttons would pop. Ana was becoming a woman right before my eyes. Ah, I should tell her while there’s still time. I’m getting on—seventy seven next month.
On seeing me, Anna grinned, showing crooked incisors just like mine. We shared another trait, a round purple mole next to our right ear. No one could question that she came from my line. Maybe that’s why I was so close to her, but then I felt that bond since the day she was born, and it grew stronger through the years as I took over her care. Her mama, Serena, was always too busy with babies coming one after the other. And her papa, who worked two jobs, was too tired at home to do anything but eat and doze in front of the TV.
I had a hard time keeping up with Ana on the way home. She didn’t walk but dipped and hopped and danced and twirled all the while chattering like a Magpie about her coming Confirmation—her sponsor, Sister Claire, the dress her mama was making, the vows she was memorizing. And then as we neared house, without warning, she dashed across the street to play with her friend Carmen.
The day was warm and after resting my cane against the outside wall of the house, I sank into the worn cushions of the porch couch. Somehow I felt safe in that couch taking in the familiar scene before me--the pastel-colored adobe houses with red and yellow peppers strung out to dry on poles, the small sandy yards sprinkled with desert plants, and beyond, the golden glow of the late-in-the-day sun on sandstone cliffs.
My eyes drifted across the street. The girls were sitting on the scrubby ground in Carmen’s yard, Ana nested between Carmen’s outstretched legs while Carmen braided her long, black hair. I closed my eyes and rubbed my thumb across the inside tips of my fingers as if I was the one plying Ana’s silk strands. I loved taking care of Ana, teaching her how to make tortillas and tamales and flam, holding her in my lap when she was sick, telling her stories about my life in Mexico City and Guadalajara. I was her angel. Dear God, don’t turn her against me when she learns the secret. Must I be the one to drop the bombshell? No, no, no. Serena should do it, but she’s so scared she refuses even to talk about it. I must try to change her mind.
The next morning, while Serena and I were sitting at the long wooden kitchen table dicing salt pork, tomatoes, and onions for frijoles, I opened the subject. “Hija, daughter, Ana is growing up. It’s time she knew.”
Serena tightened her lips, stood up, and went over to load the washing machine in the far corner of the kitchen.
She often turned a deaf ear to my suggestions about Ana, but this time I couldn’t let her.
“Hija, I said, it’s time to tell Ana.”
“There’s plenty of time,” she murmured without looking at me.
“Not if I’m to be here to explain things.”
Serena’s shoulder twitched. “Why does she have to know anyway?”
“Would you have wanted me to keep it from you?”
She looked at me from half-shuttered eyes. “Many times I wished so. But Mama, deep down, I knew you did the right thing.” She squeezed her head in her hands. “Only please, Mama, don’t ask me to do it. I can’t. I simply can’t.”
I went to my bedroom and quickly closed the door. Everyone in the Garcia family understood the ban on coming in when my door was shut, and I wanted to think without interruptions. I had to figure out the best way to approach Anna. Bit by bit? No, she’ll never let me get by with hints. She’ll insist on knowing every detail. I must pick a time when she’s relaxed and likely to be receptive. Ay, what a dreamer I am—she’ll never be receptive. I’ll just have to let the words fall out as they come.
I thought I was ready, but I had second thoughts a few evenings later when, sitting on the couch on the porch, I listened to Ana’s sponsor, Sister Claire, rehearse Ana on the Baptismal vows she had to take at her Confirmation.
“Do you believe there is only one true God?”
“Do you believe that in our one God there are three Divine Persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God, the Holy Ghost?
Ana’s eyes shone when she spoke these few words. This was to be the big moment, the high point in her life. Did I really want to wreck it? Maybe I should put off the telling until after her Confirmation? Yet, that might make it harder when she’s even more devoted to the church. Oh dear God, whisper words of wisdom in my ear.
The next night, a Friday, Ana ignored my closed door and barged into my room. “Abuela, Gramdmother, I picked one—my Confirmation name. Do you want to guess or should I tell you?”
I knew Ana wanted me to share her excitement, but I couldn’t, not when I was about to shatter it.
Ana went on. “Santa Juanita. It’s perfect. She’s from below the border like you, and died nearly as young as me, so I can carry on her name and…”
She stopped in the middle of the sentence and peered at me. “Abuela, why are you lighting candles?”
In all these years, no Garcia child had ever seen my Friday night ritual when I draw the curtains, sit cross-legged on the floor, and light two candles bedded down in cups so deep no one can see the flame from the outside.
I sucked in a deep breath. “To celebrate the Sabbath.”
“Sabbath is tomorrow.”
“The Jewish Sabbath.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because….because we’re Jewish.”
“That’s totally stupid. We’ve always been Catholic. Why do you say such a thing?”
“Ana, I’d cut off my arm for you, but I will not cut you off from your heritage.”
She flushed to the tips of her ears. “I don’t believe you. You can’t be Jewish. You pay a tithe; you go to Mass. Why do you lie to me?”
Her accusation was like a hammer blow to my head. I was too stunned to answer.
She glared at me, her arms crossed.
I drew in deep breaths until I could speak and then my voice came out jagged. “The signs, so many signs all around you.”
“Like, why do you think we don’t eat pork?”
“That’s silly. Mama served it just last week when Sister Claire came to dinner.”
“We don’t have pigs in our yard like our neighbors. That could raise questions. So, when company comes, we serve pork to ward off suspicions we keep kosher.”
“That’s dumb. It’s because mama knows I hate pork.”
Ana was right. I was dumb. I had to think of better examples to convince her. “Well, here’s something else. Why do you think we hide a Torah in our house?”
“No way. I’d recognize a Torah. I’ve seen pictures of them in church books.”
“It’s hidden inside that carving of a crucifix on the parlor wall. You never examined it?”
Ana squinted like she does when she’s trying to pull something from memory. “I couldn’t. Mama told me it was holy and I should never touch it.”
“Go fetch it.”
Ana didn’t move, maybe trying to decide whether to fight me or follow me. Her lip quivered, but she chose the latter. When she returned with the crucifix, I put it face down on the palm of my hand, pried open the two tiny doors on its back with my finger nail, and lifted out a tiny scroll written in Hebrew. I handed the scroll to Ana.
She put her hands palm up as if to ward off something rotten or evil.
“Ana, this scroll belonged to my mama and grandmother and her mama and grandmother before and as long back as anyone can remember.”
Her face turned white as lime and her eyes fluttered as if she was going to pass out.
“Ana, Ana,” I called her to me.
She wiped spit on the sleeve of her shirt and swallowed hard: “You know Sarah?” she said.
Sarah was the only openly Jewish girl in the neighborhood.
“No one plays with her. And kids from the church, they call her pig and Christ killer. One day Carlos and Ruiz threw stones at her for drinking the blood of Christian babies at her ceremonies.”
Ana’s eyes grew wide. “No, no, I can’t be Jewish. I don’t want to be Jewish. I’m not Jewish. Shit on Jewish.” She spit out the words as she ran like a wild thing from my room, down the stairs, and out the front door.
Oh glory, why did I push so hard I drove her away? I should know better. I should know when to stop. I should say just enough to make her curious and then drop the subject until she gets used to the idea. But I shouldn’t fret about Ana. She’s strong. She’ll bounce back, like she did the time her papa lost his job; she went right out and got herself hired as assistant to the school janitor. Still, this is the greatest shock of all, to suddenly learn that you’re not who you thought you were? I must help her want to be who she really is, help her believe Jewish is better than Catholic. I’ll tell her tales that will make her proud of our history, proud of our courage and strength. She already knows about the holocaust, but not about the inquisition or burnings at the stake or our ancestors’ flights from Spain to Portugal to Mexico to here. And then I must bring our history close to home with stories about me and my relatives.
I was waiting on the porch for Ana’s return from school the next afternoon, hoping to continue our conversation. But without a word or nod of recognition, she scurried past me and was about to go inside when I said, “Sit down, Ana.”
She walked over and sat stiffly beside me.
“We need to talk.”
Her face turned scarlet. “Okay, then tell me this: why are we the only family in the neighborhood , except Sarah’s, that’s gotta be Jewish? If you weren’t Jewish, if mama and papa weren’t Jewish, then we wouldn’t have to be. Right? So why don’t you forget about it?”
“Forget about it! Impossible. Wherever I am--Mexico City, Guadalajara, Santa Fe—I know what to do every single day. I know to change the linens and cook special meals and light candles on Fridays. I know to atone for my sins on Yom Kippur and make flat bread on Passover.”
“It is a big deal. It’s as much a part of me as my eyes and ears, the memories of all the special things I did with my mama and grandmother and aunts and uncles and cousins. And … and it’s being a link in the chain that’s kept our bond and faith alive for hundreds of years, in spite of persecution and torture. If I dishonor our history, our ancestors, our relatives, I dishonor my soul, my covenant with God never to forget and never to let my descendants forget.”
Ana leaned towards me as I talked, drawn by my words, but then suddenly she pulled back and sat in that stiff posture, and said, “So, if it’s such a great thing, why do you keep it secret?”
I’d asked myself that question a thousand times. How often I dreamed of wearing the star of David around my neck, of greeting other Jews on the street with a loud Shalom, of going to synagogue on holidays. But every dream was tainted by fear--my great grandmother’s rape by a gang of Jew-haters, my brother’s ouster from his neighborhood for coming out in the open, Nazi gangs, anti-Semitic attacks.
“Ana, the ax can fall any time, Take the German Jews who thought it was safe to be open, only to be burned alive in gas chambers a few years later.”
“That’s not America.”
“Then take my game leg.” I looked off in the distance remembering. “Mexico City. A Friday night. Some kids looked in the window and saw mama light Sabbath candles, a sure sign of Jewish faith in our barrio. Later when my brother and I ran out to play, a gang with shaved heads attacked him. They had knives. I tried to pull them off him. Two of them threw me to the ground, kicked me, whacked me with a two by four until I was numb, all the while shouting —“kikes, Christ Killers, swine.” I passed out. I came to lying in a cart beside our belongings. My parents were moving us to Guadalajara. And I still walk crooked.”
Ana wrapped her arms around her shoulders to warm herself. “You never told me this before.” Then, in a voice that stuttered, she said, “But that was long ago.”
“Well, here’s a recent example. A year ago, my brother Ricardo in Guadalajara got tired of living a lie. So he stopped going to church; he lit the Sabbath candles in his window where everyone could see them; on the outside of his door he pasted a menorah—that’s a tiny symbol of a Torah. Word traveled fast. His boss fired him. His landlord kicked him out. No one would give him food or shelter. So he ran away. I don’t know where.” I swallowed a sob. “Havent heard from him since.”
Ana’s breath came out in short gasps and sweat broke out on her brow. Finally, the fear had gripped her, and I felt like begging her forgiveness for putting it there. But I bit my tongue, for I knew that fear. one I’d lived with most of my life, was part of being a Jew. I went over and put my arms around her. She shrugged them off, and spitting the words through her teeth, said, “But that’s a foreign country; it could never happen here.”
“How about the skin heads you heard on the radio calling Jews dogs? How about the shooting of Jewish children in Los Angeles? And how about Sarah, who lives on our block?”
Ana jumped up and headed for the door.
“Wait. Before you go, you must promise to keep our secret. If you don’t, all hell could break loose on our family. Promise, querida muchacha, dear granddaughter!”
“Why can’t you?”
Her voice trembled. “My Confirmation. My vow to believe in the Trinity. Oh dear Jesus how can I take my vows when I come from a Jewish family, believers in one God, no son, no holy ghost? There’s only one answer. I must confess and renounce my Jewish ties.”
“And harm us all?” `
She shook her head vigorously. “I can’t sin against the church.”
“One leak, one whisper and it will travel through the neighborhood like a wild fire—and then, think of your papa, who works for a church deacon, fired; your mama ostracized by her church circle; your brothers and sisters, and you, too, scorned and shunned, maybe stoned like Sarah.”
“Stop it. Stop it,” she screamed as she bolted from the room.
Ana steered clear of me for the next three days. And I was in agony worried about what she was thinking. Was she still planning to confess? Had she done it? Exposed our family? Renounced our faith? Did she hate me? On the fourth day, I stayed on the porch couch all afternoon, determined to catch her as soon as she came home.
Surprise! She rushed toward me, smiling, her eyes shining, and plunked down beside me.
“Abuela, I thought of something. Your parents and grandparents taught you to be Jewish, right?”
“They also taught you to be Catholic, right?”
I nodded again. Where was she heading?
“So, you could choose to be a Catholic or a Jew, right?”
She gulped. “Why not?”
“When folks at church call Jews dogs or say they start wars or take all the good jobs, or own all the banks, I become more Jewish, not more Catholic.”
Ana’s nose crinkled against tears. “Can’t you find anything good to say about the church?”
“Oh, many things--the quiet hush in the sanctuary, the sweet sound of the chorus, the procession honoring the Virgin with children throwing flowers in the path, the beauty of the icons and statues and candles and candelabras. But Ana, when I look at a statue of Mary, I don’t see a Virgin, I see a Jewish woman. When I look at a picture of Jesus, I don’t see God or the Messiah, I see a Jewish man. When Father Tomas gives blessings, I don’t see the wine as the blood of Jesus but as the blood of our ancestors who this church burned alive. This church, Ana, has our blood on its hands.”
I reached for Ana’s hand, but she yanked it away.
“I want your heart to beat like mine.”
“My heart beats all right, but with grief. Grief that I’ll never get to wear the white tulle dress with the lace trim that mama made for my Confirmation, never hear Father Tomas bless me, never have a Confirmation name and…and…” She stopped, and with a step as soft as a cat’s, she went into the house.
I didn’t see her again until she came to my room the next evening before supper.“I talked to Father Tomas at church today.”
My heart flopped over. Had she confessed?
“I’m on my knees when suddenly he stands before me. He says, ‘Ana, what put those dark circles under your eyes?’ I take a big breath and say, ‘I’m not going to be confirmed.’ He says, ‘why’? I don’t answer. And maybe thinking I had shame about something, he says: ‘don’t worry, Ana, the Lord is all-forgiving.’ And I blurt out without thinking, ‘will he forgive me even if I worship another God?’ And he says, ‘yes,’ and talking real slow, he goes on to say, ‘providing you regret it, confess your regret, and vow to honor Him forever.’ And then I say something even more way out, something I’ve been thinking about, I say, ‘Father, our God is three Gods, but what was He before Jesus was born?’”
Her eye began to tic, but she went on. “Father Tomas gets stiff like a fence post and his lips get tight; he says, ‘Ana, a good Catholic never questions the scripture; a good Catholic relies on God’s agents to interpret it. You must come to church more often, pray more often, listen more carefully to my words, and confess the sin of doubting them.’ And then he turns and walks fast away from me.
“Abuela, my brain’s scrambled. I don’t know what to do. No good talking to Father Tomas when I can’t tell him the real reason for those dark circles under my eyes. Yet, after what I told him today, if I don’t confess, if I don’t follow his instructions, he might kick me out of church.” She swiped at the sweat on her cheeks with the back of her hand, Or were those tears? “Maybe I don’t belong there anymore anyhow. Maybe I don’t belong here in this neighborhood where everyone goes to Mass. Maybe I don’t belong anyplace. This secret, this rotten secret makes me a stranger even to myself.”
Oh, if only I could show her a way out. On the other hand, wasn’t this just the reaction I wanted--to see her wean herself away from the church and into her true faith—and wasn’t it impossible to do this without great pain? I remembered how I suffered when my mama told me. I ran away, spent hours at the river where I could be alone and scream at the water and wind and air. I slept at my friends for four nights, turned my mama’s hair white. But my mama and grandmother kept telling me about our ancestors and our holidays and before long those things became a part of me. That’s what I must do with Ana, keep telling her things. And wasn’t this the perfect night to do it? It was the eve of Yom Kippur.
I went over and pulled the shades, arranged candles in their cups, and then handed Ana a match. “Light them.”
She squeezed her brows together, looking puzzled. “But this is Thursday, not Friday.”
“It’s to celebrate Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, the most important holiday of the year.”
“I don’t know about Yom Kippur.”
“We don’t eat or drink, just pray and repent our sins. The open Jews, they go to services at the synagogue, but we have to celebrate behind the curtains at home.” I smiled at a memory. “One Yom Kippur, I sneaked into the synagogue. Covered my face with a scarf so no one would recognize me. I relive that service every time I light the candles.”
“What was it like?”
In this back and forth with Ana, I hadn’t shed a single tear until this moment. Now I couldn’t stop them.
Ana wound her arms around me. “Abuela, tell me where I can find a synagogue? I want to see a Yom Kippur Service. Tonight. I want to go tonight.”
“Someone might see you.”
“I’ll cover my face the way you did.”
My hand began to tremble from fear, but I had to match her courage. I gave her directions.
I couldn’t quiet my heart beat the entire time she was gone. And when she finally returned, I took deep breaths, afraid of what I’d hear. She wasn’t smiling, but she wasn’t scowling either. Her words spilled out. “It was so blah in there. No stained glass windows or statues or colorful icons like at St. Mathews. Just some Hebrew letters on the walls, and an ark holding the Torah, and a platform with a star of David over it. And their clothes, so everyday, even Rabbi Hirsch in a business suit. He’s a little guy, hardly taller than me, but his voice boomed like God’s.” She paused and looked deep into my eyes. “The prayer, the Kol Nidre. I couldn’t believe my ears. It says it’s not a sin to break vows you make during the year. And I realized--their God doesn’t consider me a sinner. On the way home, I felt, well, not ashamed anymore.”
If I was younger I would have leapt up and danced the Hora. Instead I walked over and hugged her. “It’s a proud thing to be a Jew.”
She pushed away from me. “Am I a Jew? Don’t you have to feel like one to be one? Well, I don’t feel like one. How can I when I don’t know anything about being Jewish?”
She stopped, looking very thoughtful, then said, “Rabbi Hirsch, he’s cool. Maybe I’ll ask him some questions. Maybe I’ll think of some to ask Father Tomas, too.” She sighed as she rose and slowly left my room.