I knew a woman forty years ago, long, long before I began writing things down, a native San Franciscan, tall, shapely, raven-haired. Her face was painfully sensitive. She was generous. She read Virginia Wolfe and Faulkner. And she was an accomplished flamenco dancer. That’s how we connected. I’ve played flamenco guitar since I was a kid, never very well, but well enough to hang around the edges of that world. We met at a party and discovered we shared something a bit out of the ordinary.
We spent some time together, Alicia and I, and she told me her story.
She had been seduced by flamenco when she was a teen. She studied and danced in San Francisco until she felt she had exhausted the possibilities. At the age of twenty-one, she bravely set off for Andalusia in southern Spain, alone.
She told me what happened to her there, and my brief description of that place in the seventies, the mores, the culture, and especially the gypsies, is based on what I can recall of Alicia’s tale.
In Moron de la Frontera, that bleached, sun-struck Andalusian city steeped in a history of Moorish occupation, generations of gypsy dynasties, and as they say there, centuries of flamenco puro, Alicia danced and studied dance. She concentrated on the old, old flamenco forms, the cante jondo, the deep song, the solea, the seguiryias, songs of wrenching personal and historical tragedies in the lives of the Spanish gypsies who have certainly had enough tragedy in their history to sing and dance about. But she also studied the gay alegrias and the sardonic bulerias, a favorite with audiences, and the modern Latin American-influenced razzle-dazzles like the rumba and the columbiana. She studied and practiced and danced in public wherever she could, until much to her surprise, she was invited to join a working flamenco performance company.
“They were real gypsies,” she told me. “I was the only payo.”
And one of those gypsies – let’s call him Manolo – was the troupe’s main cantaor, their lean, dark, good-looking lead singer. If you’ve ever heard flamenco sung, you’ll know how heart-breaking it can be, but also how sarcastic and mocking. It soars and falls. It wails and moans. It brings to mind calls to prayer sung by Muslim muezzins, and bits and pieces of the Roman Catholic liturgy. It can also sound straight out of a street, a rough marketplace, a whorehouse, a dark alley.
“When Manolo sang I heard duende in his voice. He really hypnotized me, that guy,” Alicia told me, and I understood that duende had to do with an artist approaching extreme reality in their work, which, Garcia Lorca once famously wrote, really means approaching death, the ultimate reality. Evidently, Manolo could pull this off, enough to convince Alicia anyway.
The two became lovers. Alicia got pregnant. They married.
“It was his idea,” Alicia said. “Manny said he wanted the baby and he wanted it to be born to a legally married couple,” which rather surprised her, the gypsies she had hung around with so far having made a point of their disdain for legal niceties. “And he loved me, he said. He wanted to make a life with me, he said.” But very soon after the wedding celebration, which Alicia described as a drunken flamenco party that lasted till dawn, “the romance was over.”
She found that because she had landed a secretarial job at the nearby US Air Force base when she first arrived in Moron, she was expected to support an entire family that included herself, her husband, his mother in whose house they lived, and the baby growing inside her. Manolo, the sexy cantaor, much preferred hanging out with his gypsy friends in the tavernas, to fixing shoes here and there or doing the other odd jobs with which he had scraped by for years. In other words, with Alicia’s income, he could retire from mere work.
He also became abusive. He hit Alicia when he was drunk. He flew into rages and hit her when he caught her reading books, her sole escape, she told me, from the nightmare developing around her. He hit her for the hell of it. He hit her so hard she couldn’t see straight, literally. A diagnoses at the Air Force clinic found that Manolo had loosened her retina.
And like a harpy hovering always at her elbow, Manolo’s bitter, shrunken, crow-eyed mother watched her and watched her with merciless intensity.
“She was afraid I’d run out on them,” Alicia told me. “Which had entered my mind, believe me.”
But the harpy accompanied her on the bus to work and waited for her at the gates of the base when she finished work, then accompanied her home. She followed her shopping in the market and even around the house.
“She was afraid I’d sneak out the door at night,” said Alicia. “So she locked it once I was in and hung the key around her neck. Manny kept the other key, the only other key.”
Then, much to Alicia’s relief, she gave birth to a baby son, a perfectly healthy baby son. She had seriously worried about the condition of the fetus, considering the anxiety and the violence she had been subjected to for much of the nine months she had carried it. But this little guy was as sound as a fresh walnut.
Alicia hoped that the addition of an infant son to the household would calm it down, sweeten it, make it “more civilized,” in her words. After all, Manolo was a father now, his mother an abuela, a grandma. Alicia hoped these new weighty roles would draw the family together around the anointed one, the new child they christened Federico, Freddie. She hoped, she hoped against hope, this new dynamic would turn Manolo and his mother toward her, toward the mother, to protect her, to help her, but most of all, to cherish her.
But things didn’t turn out that way. No, not at all. Manolo and his mother became possessive, exclusively possessive. The father would call Freddy, “My son.” He’d say to anyone around, including Alicia, “Look at that beautiful nose! Like mine! Look at those eyes! Look at that dark face! Es un gitano de veras, he’s a true gypsy. Like his pop!” There was no mention of Alicia’s possible influence in tiny Federico. Not by her husband anyway.
And Grandma found a new way to pass the time. She snatched the baby out of mama’s arms at every opportunity and cuddled him in her own. She plugged a baby bottle into his mouth at the earliest possible moment and as often as she could.
The idea was to ease Alicia out of her indispensable maternal role and get her back to work, prontisimo. Manolo and his mother were afraid Alicia would lose her job at the Air Force base if she was absent too long. They simply wouldn’t believe her when she told them again and again that the US military had a maternity leave policy in place for its civilian workers. She had been given several months of paid leave time to care for her new baby, she told them. Didn’t they see?
No, they didn’t see. They simply wouldn’t believe the high and mighty US Government, that could launch mighty bombers and screaming jet fighters into the air with deafening noise and god-like efficiency, would pay a woman for not working! No, no. She’d better get back to work immediately – tomorrow morning, in fact! – before she was fired. If that happened, well…then where would they be?
Of course, as Alicia explained to me, where they would be is where they had been for years before she came along with her US paycheck. They’d be scratching along, but they’d survive just fine. They might have to sell the TV grandma had insisted upon her buying, and the second-hand Fiat Manolo had insisted upon even louder. And if a winter was especially cold, if Manolo’s shoe-repair business dried up, if grandma’s occasional sewing jobs disappeared, other gypsy families would lend a hand. They did that sort of thing. They helped each other out if need be.
In hindsight, Alicia imagined that Manny and his mother suspected she was trying to get fired so she could lie back and live off them and become the indolent mamma nursing her baby forever after. “That’s how their minds worked,” mused Alicia, “so there’s a good chance they assumed mine worked that way too.”
Back to work she went, Manny’s mother as attached to her as ever – getting on the bus with her in the morning, sitting next to her, walking with her to the Air Force gate, taking Freddy out of her arms. Then waiting for her there at five, with baby of course, escorting her to the bus, walking into the house with her, locking the door. Click.
This went on until one night a drunken Manolo punched Alicia in the face with exceptional enthusiasm. She couldn’t sleep all night with the pain. The next morning her face was swollen to twice its size, both eyes were black, and she could hardly see.
She had had enough. She would have gone to the police, she told me, except how could she, with that barnacle attached to her, that abuelita bruja, that grandmother witch? And anyway, at that time in that society, she feared the cops would merely smirk at her, figure she probably deserved it, think that’s the way a husband needed to treat a pestiferous wife on occasion, then call Manolo to come and get her the hell out of their hair. And by then she had a good idea of what Manolo’s reaction to this “betrayal” would be, once he got her home.
So Alicia went to work as usual, the old lady breathing down her neck, little Freddy crying his eyes out, sensing something very wrong going on with the grownups in his life.
The base medics told Alicia her retina was now truly detached and needed to be operated on if her sight was to be restored, or at least mostly restored. Meanwhile her boss, an Air Force lieutenant who had spent two or three years in Moron, bluntly told her he was seriously concerned about her. He knew of other cases like hers, of foreign girls marrying into the wrong local families, and how some of them ended up miserable, some in hospitals, even the morgue. She needed to escape, he told her. What good would it do her son if she were blinded, or spiritually broken, in any case a slave for life? Or dead? He offered to lend her money and arrange a seat on a Military Air Transport Service plane out of there.
Now Alicia had a terrible decision to make: what to do. Because she needed to do something, and fast. Her first instinct of course was to stay in Moron with the child in order to raise him and protect him from the dark forces in that family. But she knew the Lieutenant was right, absolutely right. She knew it the moment his words left his lips. If she stayed, she would soon be an empty shell, maybe a blind empty shell, even a dead one. But in no case a functional mother. And Freddy would witness this tragedy close up during his most tender years.
On the other hand, what if she could steal Freddy away and take him home to San Francisco with her? Stealing was the operative word, because she feared any appeals to the legal authorities by a foreign mother against a native father would be met with scorn. Then a worse beating than ever and even closer captivity. But as if grandma knew the idea of stealing Freddy would enter Alicia’s mind sooner or later, her surveillance had tightened.
Alicia made her decision. It was terrible but apparently inevitable.
One morning, a few days after the punch, she kissed Freddy with more tenderness than ever, then handed him over to grandma and passed through the base gate. She accepted an envelope of US dollars from the Lieutenant and boarded a MATS flight to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, “crying all the way across the Atlantic.” She took a bus to JFK in New York, and from there flew back here to San Francisco.
“For the first month I was a wreck” she told me. But then she rallied. She wrote a careful letter to Manolo explaining her actions and asking his forgiveness. “I did not,” she said, “suggest in any way my coming back. Now that I was clear of Moron, I could see even more clearly what a terrible situation I had been in.”
The letter was sent back to her unopened in an envelope stamped at the Moron main post office.
She landed a lucrative job in a law firm. She paid back the Lieutenant’s loan and began sending money to Manolo, one money order after another. For Freddy’s clothes, she thought. For some sort of nursery school to get him out of that house. Each and every one was returned to her as was the first letter, still in their original envelopes, unlooked at, definitely unused.
“I’m sure they knew what was in those envelopes,” Alicia told me. “What temptations they must have suffered! But finally I understood. Because of my ‘treachery,’ to them I was dead. They declared me dead. They may have told themselves I had never existed at all.” But if they had read her letters or cashed her checks, that would have been an acknowledgment of her walking the earth, a contradiction, and a sign of weakness on their part.
I met Alicia five years and many eye operations after her escape from Moron. She told me that in all that time she had continued to send money, only to have it sent back.
But through sympathetic gypsy and payo friends friends in Moron she had learned a few things about the family. Manolo was by then a dedicated alcoholic, though from all anyone knew, he treated Freddy with flawless respect and affection. Alicia wondered whether he would have done so if their child was a girl. At any rate, Manny lived off some sort of government dole and occasional flamenco gigs. He had moved a younger gypsy woman into the house as housekeeper, child-care giver, and who knew what else? Manny’s mother was decrepit and sick, and hardly seen outside the house anymore.
But most important, Alicia learned that her son Freddy had grown into a bright, handsome, and surprisingly calm and polite boy. He had started school and already attracted the attention of the nuns who announced they saw real promise in him.
It’s been years since Alicia and I went our separate ways. But I can’t forget her and her history. I wonder – and I very much hope – if when Freddy grew into young-manhood he came looking for his mama. It’s difficult to imagine that in all those years he had failed to sneak a look at the return addresses on those letters from her that arrived in Moron every few months, return addresses that would have led him straight to her.
If by some chance this little essay goes out into the world, and you Alicia happen to read it, please let me know somehow if Freddy finally found you. I’d be truly grateful. Call me a sentimental old fool, but I like to see something good come out of the worst messes.
I’ve changed all the names in your history, including yours, for a number of reasons. And I’ve filled in a few gaps and taken certain liberties writing this report. But if you get to read this, I trust you’ll recognize an extraordinary piece of your very own life.