Atenida is not my name. My name is Athena. They sound similar enough in Spanish; you pronounce the ‘th’ like ‘t’, and the ‘e’ like ‘eh’. A-the-na, A-teh-na, Atenida. I’m Athena, but according to my sisters, and especially my mother, I’m also Atenida. But the question isn’t Athena versus Atenida, the question is Athena. Now what would a first-generation brat born of good Catholic working-class Mexican immigrants, the fourth of six kids, be doing with a chingao gringo hipster name like Athena?
It’s pagan is what it is. You have to give it that much: its pagan appeal. You might get into thinking about it, on a Sunday night when your sisters are out dancing and your mother’s locked herself in her room; when your brothers are sleeping and the rain is falling to the rhythm of your eyelids. Maybe then you’ll look out the living room window, onto the street and its drab buildings, and then you’ll be crazy enough to roll the name around your mouth. Under your tongue, between your teeth, hugged to the roof of your mouth. Athena. And I guess if you’re feeling really crazy, and the abandoned book of mythology you never really intended to read is open next to you, it might start to remind you of war. Of flight, and fight, and stars hurling down their spears and struggling at the close of day, or something out of a Keats poem. But if you’re a real loca, maybe you’ll think of priestesses, too, of women chanting incantations in a circle, of candles and vigils and witchcraft. Athena. My grandma, whose mouth was too consecrated to ever learn a word of English, turned up her nose at it at first, but then she says she saw me stare at her, unblinking and without affection, and suddenly everything about Athena was Mexican.
Still, you’d think my mother, with all of her witch ancestors, wouldn’t have to rely on the Greeks to find a pagan name for her daughter, if that’s what she wanted to give me so badly.
But I think I know what my mother was thinking.
When Mamá goes to church on Sundays, she prays that Rosa will be the first in the family to finish college. But Mami was the first one to go.
A picture I found in a photo album shows Mamá with a mustached boy, both in sweatshirts that read ‘UCLA’ and smiling like it’s the happiest day of their adolescent lives. Rosa said that UCLA is a university, and if you work harder with your reading, lazyass, you might get in one day. I asked Grandma about it on one of her visits, and she got a little fuzzy around the edges. She told me that Mamá’s majors were Classics and Philosophy, and I didn’t ask her why Mamá stopped going, because I knew she wouldn’t have told me anyway.
I assume that Classics and Philosophy are where she got the Athena from. But once I started wondering why she stopped going, the question of why she would name her daughter after something from a past since abandoned never left my head. Who would want to look at their kid everyday and be reminded of what they wanted but couldn’t have?
I almost think she knew I was the last daughter she would have — Rosa, Amara, Raquel, and at the end, Athena. Was she experiencing regret over something that had gone awry in her life when she had me? Was it something she felt she had done wrong in how she raised my sisters that she intended to remedy with me — beginning by giving me this name?
She had the twins after that, but neither “Tomás” nor “Mateo” really screams “bodily manifestation of a time passed” like “Athena” does.
In a fit of irony, the cosmos decided I would disappoint Mami a little bit more than she bargained for, and that’s how Athena came to be switched out for Atenida more often than not. Atenida! Lazy, unmotivated, sluggish… Ya vete, no quiero verte más.
Do you know what Papá’s homecomings have always made me think of? A bachata radio love song playing on repeat. The kind of song we play on summer-night parties. The ones where Raquel hangs up paper lanterns and the women kick off their heels to dance in the grass, the men circling their heavy arms around their girls’ waists. Everyone laughs and drinks palomas that began their existence as innocent Sprites, until one of the tíos spiked them with tequila. The smell of want-to-drink-and-fuck hangs ripe next to the mangoes.
As children, all four of us would line up by the door when Papi came home. We were a lot smaller then, so we could all fit by the entrance. He would fling the door open with a little-boy grin, cast his bags onto the floor, and pick us up, beginning to spin us around to the rhythm of that love song. One by one we were dancing barefoot on a Saturday night. But just as soon as it started it would stop; time for him to push deeper into the house where Mami stood smiling hesitantly. We would scream in disgust and cover our eyes while he dipped her back and kissed her as though he were an old-cinema charro.
Contain yourself, Mami’s smothered smile would tell him when they resurfaced.
Contain me, his deepened kiss would reply, cramming awkward innuendo into words already replete with meaning.
Papá never comes home empty-handed, and Mamá never greets him with an empty dinner table. The table is always loaded with pozole and carnitas and chicharron and sopes and tortas: enough food to feed an army, even an army of Mexicans, and every friend and extended family member is invited to help eat the food. It’s more than we or our guests could ever finish, leaving a hodgepodge of leftovers to be stored away and eaten throughout the week that follows in a race against expiration. Long after Papi leaves us to go upstate for work again, we’ll be peering into containers of leftovers from which we’ll make our next meal; inevitably and mournfully dumping the food that’s gone bad too soon into the trash. How can you live with all of that waste, and not remember the years when your dad wouldn’t come home for months on end, and your family had to live fueled by cereal and tortillas alone? I’ve always wanted to blame Mami for it, but looking at her face each time we throw the bad food away, she’s the saddest of us all.
But on these days when Papá returns, the only thing more laden than the table is the air, always simmering with a tension between Mamá and Papá fit to explode. No sooner will Papá have had his fill than we’ll look up to find that they’ve both disappeared behind their locked bedroom door. The tíos share jovial, meaningful looks while the tías sigh — wistfully? — and smack their viejos. “Marranos!” they’ll scold.
Mamá will do her best to get someone to cover her shifts at work on those days. She’ll pull out dresses I’ve never seen before, and wear flowers in her hair. She’ll spend all day in the kitchen, or sitting with Papá, but when she’s in the kitchen, Papá will come up behind her and wrap her up in his arms, hands on her hips, and she’ll let go of her spoon for a moment to lean into him.
I think back to that photo of Mami in her UCLA sweater and wonder: Is that what she gave it up for?
Once they enter the bedroom, they won’t reemerge for another twenty-four hours, at the very least. This is ideal for my sisters, who wait for the last of the tías and tíos, primos and friends to leave before they dress up and leave Raquel and me, off to escape with their novios. But they always come loping back before the twenty-four hours are passed, silently prying open the screen door at the side of the house, bearing toothy grins like hyenas.
The house gets drowsy with everyone gone. Mami and Papi locked away in their bedroom wonderland. Rosa y Amara enjoying the dubious wonders of teenage boys’ arms in half-empty movie theaters. All that remains is Raquel and me and greasy pots to scrub from the feast since abandoned. But for us there is nowhere to go, so we open the windows and pull back the blinds, allowing the evening sun to filter in sweetly. If it’s summer, the lucid strums of the neighborhood drunk’s guitar will join it, until the morning is rising again and he’s strummed his fingers raw.
When we were younger, the four of us would mix cleaning with conjectures about the gifts Papi had surely brought us. There was an order, a hierarchy of cleanliness, if you will. Rosa would empty the leftover food from its pots and plates and pans into plastic containers, while I found them places in the fridge and Amara scrubbed the dirty dishes while Raquel swept. Everyone got her turn to share what she hoped Papi had brought. When Amara finished scrubbing, Raquel would rinse the dishes and wipe down the counters while I put dirty napkins and empty beer cans in plastic trash bags and Rosa and Amara got on their knees and scrubbed the greasy floors. After Tomás and Mateo were born, Raquel and I would take care of them until Rosa and Amara finished. Rosa would play music for us on the iPod Papi got her for her birthday, one good month that he’d come home. It was bachata more often than not, partly to silence any naïve questions about the noises coming from the bedroom, but also because bachata just felt right. It cast a sloppy, rose-tinted glow over the whole affair.
When Rosa and Amara got boyfriends, we lost access to Rosa’s iPod and its stores of bachata. That’s when Raquel and I had to start relying on faint memories of the lyrics and our indifferent voices in order for the bachata to work. Neither one of us is good with lyrics, so a lot of the time it went like “Y si te invito a una copa, y me acerco a tu boca, ta da da da da conmigo, y la do da da de do da.” We filled in the forgotten parts. Sometimes, it’d be a particularly long section of do’s and di’s and forgotten lyrics, and we’d double over laughing, twisting our heads to catch the other’s eye, tears streaming.
My sisters fell away one by one. College, marriage, boyfriends, work called them away for good until they only came to visit on holidays and the occasional weekend. Until it was just me and the lyrics that I couldn’t quite put a finger on.
Mamá wasn’t always able to get her shifts covered on the days Papá came home. She left Papá alone one day, on one of those sacred Second Days of Papá when the bachata was in full swing. She put on her work clothes and exited the front door while Papá lay there covered in sheets. She came home at night and found him just where she’d left him, twisted up in sweaty, wrinkled white sheets with a disgruntled look on his face, like the one I’m always seeing on Doña.
I don’t see why you still have that job. Ese trabajo que te separa de tu propia familia, mujer. I don’t work away from my family for months so I can come home and find that my wife is still slaving away at that damn place for hours. I work away so my family won’t want for any-thing, and that means you don’t have to work.
For a fraction of a second, the music froze; Mami’s back approached a fearful perpendicularity to the bedroom’s wooden floor. Of course Tomás, it’s all for Athena’s tuition next year. St. Anthony’s isn’t a cheap school, but it’s what would be best for la chiquilla.
The thing about mothers is that you always owe them something, and no matter how much you give them, it is universally accepted that it will never be enough to repay them for what they gave you — birth. Even though you didn’t ask for it. Even when you don’t want it. That night, I was filled with the ambiguously gleeful and dreadful knowledge that for the first time, my mother owed me something — and not just any old something. She owed me her job and her marriage.
That was the first time I learned I would be attending St. Anthony’s in the fall, and I’m convinced that it was the first time my mother learned it too. And then the music kept playing.
A couple of months before I started St. Anthony’s, my sisters pitched in to buy me a dress for my fifteenth birthday. It was lovelier than anything I had ever owned—black and modestly cut at the neck, but shoulderless with sleeves made exclusively of the same black lace that covered the fitted polyester slip underneath. It fell right above my knees and was the most stunning thing I had ever owned.
Mira que bonito, Mamá said as I lifted it out of the gift bag. I never had anything as beautiful as this when I was your age — your grandfather would never allow it.
I was instantly swimming in visions of myself. I could picture myself emulating sophistication as I read a book in the library while wearing the dress, or perhaps cutting a striking image in the evening sun if I wore it on an outing with my friends.
But Mamá had other ideas for it. She pulled me aside and told me that I was only ever to wear it in the house, that I must never wear it when Papá came home, and that if I was ever wearing it when male visitors knocked on our door, I must change out of it immediately.
Therein lay the issue. At fourteen, having worn pants and stayed inside for the greater part of my life, I wanted out. I wanted to ride far away, into the night, into the desert where I could see the stars and be alone. I wanted to walk freely on the streets, away from my mother and my family’s watchful eyes. And I wanted to be like the girls who strode by outside my living room window on summer days, who wore red nail polish with small skirts and lipstick, and straightened hair that reached down to their elbows. But according to Mamá, I could not have both.
I had finally ventured to slip away from Mamá and wear the dress outside in mid-July when the neighbors’ daughter, Elvira, pulled me into the little side street between our houses and kissed me. Her kiss was dusty, and tart like unripe mangoes eaten too soon. But the promise of the kiss was pearlescent, and I leaned into her to draw out more of it. She was the prettiest girl in our grade, and I hastened to match the motions of my kiss to hers. When I raised my hand to touch Elvira’s face, she did the same to me. I did not know that one could be held in such a tender and unfurling way. My head was still reeling from the sweetness of her mouth and the stab of novelty, when I looked past her face, over her shoulders, to a round-faced boy with sweat on his forehead and a mean glint of power in his eyes. A couple weeks later, her family moved away. They were going back to Mexico, her mother said when she came to pay her final visit to Mamá, the whole time managing to not look at me while she poured foulness in my direction with all her being.
Afterwards, Mamá gave me a look. My intestines quivered, and I looked at her, and she said, with steely, untelling eyes, We don’t have to talk to your father, do we Athena?
We didn’t. I didn’t want to know what would happen if we did. It’s a very strange thing to wonder like this. Yes I love my family, and my family loves me. And yes we’re eating breakfast and mom’s passing me hard-boiled eggs, but with a single sentence I could change that. One sentence and I don’t know if I would still be in this house, or alternatively, if I would ever be allowed to leave it. If I would ever be loved, or if I would ever be given food again.
But something must have happened, somebody must have told somebody, and people must have talked, because the next Saturday party we had, one of Papá’s friends had too much beer, and he found me in the same alley where Elvira and I had kissed.
He was a gringo with a head full of yellow hair who spoke Spanish better than any politician I had ever heard on TV. He and Papá had met in high school and he’d brought him home to my grandma’s house, and the family had essentially adopted him. There are pictures of him bouncing me and my sisters on his knee when we were little.
As he came in I kept hoping he’s just drunk and doesn’t know where he’s going — no need to be paranoid, to stop being nice, just point him the other way and it’ll all be alright.
And this had worked before, I suppose: a previous succession of high-rising panics that had turned into near misses, and the doubt and persuasion that had followed as soon as safety was nigh. I was just being paranoid.
Sometimes my sisters would chime in if I told them — Atenida! Your imagination! You’re paranoid is what you are; you read too many books, watch too many novelas. You’ve got to stop dreaming up horrendous motives for these poor boys who are just walking behind you! — exchanging doubting looks between themselves. This is how we protect little girls from the knowledge of a thing, taking away the only weapons they have to protect themselves.
But Papá’s friend kept coming in closer, and I kept telling myself to stop panicking; kept telling myself I was overreacting. He’s just drunk and disoriented and you’re reading him wrong. Don’t stop being nice, don’t stop smiling, don’t run away. Think of how embarrassing this will be if you behave like a bitch for nothing.
Only it wasn’t, I don’t think, was not, nothing. Because he kept coming in forward and I kept retreating, even as I tried to point him back to the party. And then I was so surprised because I had just felt my back hit the wall, and that surprise, that stupid surprise, was the last thing I felt before he was pushing me with all his force, his hands and jutting paunch pinning me while he started lifting up my skirt and rubbing thick-fingered hands against my thighs.
I made little sounds.
I couldn’t move.
I couldn’t push.
With all the air and the panic and the bile in my throat, I still couldn’t shout. My vocal cords congealed even as the world moved horridly, unstoppably onward. I knew the horrible desperation of every sound I made being too weak; of trying and trying, but my pleas not being enough. All the while it kept happening. He spoke words — he called me names. He said something about how things were supposed to be, about how he would show me what felt better, and I couldn’t breathe and I was going to throw up and my face was wet and I wanted my mother.
I could not make a noise that would drown out what he said, let alone a noise that would save me. And I hated myself for that. What a cruel and horrible thing that my body could exist to experience a thing like this but not to rescue me from it.
And the damn bachata from the speakers at the party played on.
But from the corner somebody called him; somebody wanted him. He had his wife’s keys or he owed somebody money or… all I know is something happened.
And he stroked my head clumsily with the same thick, heavy hand and said, Later, walking away. I couldn’t stand, so I sat there on the ground in the alleyway, trying to breathe and get myself together enough to walk back into the house. Lock my bedroom door. Put on a pair of pants. And lie down on my bed.
When Mamá called me out to hug and kiss my aunts and uncles goodbye, I found him waiting, smiling, reeking of beer. I walked outside without saying goodbye to anybody. Shakily, I undid the chain on my bike — blue and too small, a former birthday present never meant to last me into my teens — and rode it all the way into the desert, without noticing the distance until I climbed off and lay down with my thighs burning. I looked at the stars that used to calm me, but now they were distant and small.
Mamá roared the next morning when I showed up on my bike. She demanded an explanation, wanted to know where I had been, needed to know why I had been gone so long.
Maybe I could’ve told her, but when I tried to explain, nothing came out. So I went to my room, and she looked at me and shook her head. Her face was pale with disgust.
Mamá is not the curator of The Museum. She quit college but she’d taken secretarial classes in high school, and when Papá went away to work upstate, she got a job that was half Curator’s Assistant and half Tour Leader.
Except she really is the curator. He’s not there to begin with half the time. It could run without her, it could do fine with just Mr. Orwell, but then it would only be a museum, not The Museum, not the one that has its picture and name listed in fancy magazines in waiting room tables that white women love to read, under “Hidden Gems of America to Visit Before You Die.” Not the one that gets pieces on loan from the Smithsonian and the British Museum and dead artists’ family members.
This job is the reason why she pulled St. Anthony’s up from thin air and into my life. Well, that and her marriage, but Mexican women don’t just give up their marriages, it’s not allowed. Also, she loves Papi I think, but the point is that she could’ve kept her marriage without thrusting a fancy school on me, just by giving up her job. So it really is her job behind it all.
By the second year of the whole affair, I was pissed off. All spring and summer, she stopped trying as hard to get her shifts covered when Papá came home, parading under the excuse of “Athena’s school this year was more expensive than I’d thought. Better make sure we can pay it next year.”
And when Papá looked doubtful, she’d pull him in closer and rub his back and tell him that it was all worth it, that he should see how I studied and read when he was gone, how my teachers had nothing bad to say about me, how my report cards were so nice. And he would grumble and say, Private school or not, she better. Because that is the job of the Virtuous Mexican Daughter — a mythical creature based on the famed obedience, patience, industriousness, and unreproaching flawlessness of our Mexican grandmothers and great-grandmothers, whose virtuous perfection we daughters of immigrants are told we must strive to attain, or die trying.
Our days as Mexican daughters, the period during which we live in our parents’ houses and abide — or pretend to abide — by their rules, are divided into two epochs. The first is the epoch during which we wholeheartedly believe in the Virtuous Mexican Daughter. She is all around us: she is our mothers, our older sisters, our aunts, and our primas, whom our parents praise so sedulously and pointedly before us, especially the primas. During that period, we sincerely believe that being the Virtuous Mexican Daughter will bring us happiness. Our parents will love us and everyone will praise us and we won’t get spanked or yelled at, as we do when we do something that the Virtuous Mexican Daughter would never dream of doing. Dutifully, we smile and shake hands with every visitor at every gathering, we help our mothers and sisters with the cooking and the chores, we strive for perfect A’s on every spelling test, we accept every uncle’s uncomfortable kiss-hug greeting, up until the day we don’t.
The second epoch starts sometime around adolescence, when we wriggle out of our uncles’ beer-scented hugs, when we shout back, Everyone else got a C-, why can’t you be happy with my B+?! when we roll our eyes and tell our mothers to ask our sisters to help her with the cooking instead — after all, they never do anything — when our parents cease to view us as a Virtuous Mexican Daughter with occasional lapses in character, and instead their default perception switches to the Lazy, Irresponsible Americanized Daughter, who is always doing wrong, unless for a moment she is doing right, and who has to work three times as hard to be regarded, even for a moment, in the glorious golden light of the Virtuous Mexican Daughter.
From that moment on, we either strive ardently to regain our status as the Virtuous Mexican Daughter, or we say “fuck it.” And if we choose to say “fuck it” then we have two more options: we can genuinely fuck it, or we can adopt the façade of someone striving for Virtuous Mexican Daughter status. We reject the motherland or we accept that VMD standards don’t define our relationship to it, or we labor towards it with the shameful, hoping feeling of unworthiness.
Mamá wanted me to play the Virtuous Mexican Daughter for Papi every time he came home following the St. Anthony’s enrollment. She would call me loudly to the kitchen, hand me his plates to deliver to him, and give a strained smile as she told him about my school progress, telling me to sit down with him and talk about my classes. But Papá’s eyes never stopped following me; never stopped scrutinizing, distrustfully, my Virtuous Mexican Daughter proficiency, which always fell below his standards. The man knew he’d been duped, knew he’d been promised a perfect family and a Virtuous Mexican Daughter 2.0 when he agreed to St. Anthony’s, but he didn’t know where the lie was. He just didn’t know. In order for Mamá to keep her job, I took on St. Anthony’s and Papá’s discontent, letting her force me into a performance of the Virtuous Mexican Daughter that was doomed from the start.
But when you give your daughter a pagan name like Athena, you can’t legitimately expect her to be a VMD, and you can’t expect her to be happy trying to be one either.
So I asked my father, on the miraculous Third Day of one of his visits, where his friend worked. He told me the street, and informed me that he worked at El Coronel. I made up an excuse about wanting to take him some herbs for his bad leg, which made Papá benevolently smile.
With a hurricane in my stomach, I secured my backpack around both shoulders and rode my bicycle to El Coronel. I left it on the sidewalk around the corner before approaching the store.
In the parking lot, I found his motorcycle, but that was as far as I could go. I could not fathom being able to enter the store again. All these things in my life he had wrenched away. Feeling safe in my own home, the ability to fall asleep, comfortably wearing a skirt, trusting my family, the sound of bachata, and now the simple act of walking into a store to buy an after-school snack A fantasy sprang into my mind, and I took a step toward his bike. I could imagine him mounting the bike after work, starting it up to go home only to find, in the middle of the street, that his brakes didn’t work. The feeling of powerlessness that would overtake him as the bike careened down the avenue, and he realized that he had lost all control. It wouldn’t kill him, I reasoned. He’d gain control of it eventually, in the nick of time, just enough to scrape him up and give him a taste of fear.
There was a knife I carried in my pocket, now, and I reached for it. I would’ve loved to be the kind of girl who could fearlessly cut his brakes. But there was another vision that arose in my mind — in this one, he was surrounded by my uncles at my parents’ next Saturday party, bragging about how some hooligan had cut the brakes on his motorcycle, but thanks to his great strength and quick thinking, he had survived. He would feel triumph, I realized, and the fear would not last. He would be praised like a hero.
I wanted to tell Mamá what had happened. I wanted to give her a chance to protect me for real this time, not like all the times she’d paid lip service to strength and independence, only to rein me back in and demand that I smile, play the good girl and make a nice show out of serving food and washing dishes for whatever acquaintance stopped by. But I did not know that she would take the chance, and this was not a risk I could take. I wanted to tell my sisters, but I was scared of what they’d say to me. I was afraid that they’d try to persuade me out of what happened, as they’d tried to persuade me out of all my previous suspicions, and I was afraid that if they tried long and hard enough, they might succeed.
I took another step toward the motorcycle, and this time it was another fantasy that overtook me. In this fantasy, I wrenched a pin out of the braids around my head and hijacked the ignition. I would mount the bike, feel the purr of the engine’s rev, as I unleashed us onto the street. The wind that touched my face would scream of possibility, even as drivers on both sides of the road slammed on their brakes and their horns. The desert would call my name and I would ride into its embrace.
And I’d be gone from my mother and my sisters, old love songs on Saturday nights, without home and security, lost to the cousins I loved who tugged at me at parties and peppered me with questions, and he’d still be here, unchecked. I would’ve loved to be the kind of girl who could steal a motorcycle and escape.
Or I could kill the VMD, and stay.
I kicked the bike and it fell to the ground — if I couldn’t run away, neither could he. My legs moved of their own accord and I kicked it over and over again, until the end of my foot was a pulsing spot of pain, and the side of the bike flush to the ground was covered in scratches.
Each time my foot made contact with the metal, the fallen motorcycle scraped back an inch against the loose gravel of the dingy parking lot. The grunting crunch of metal against rocks consumed every thought in my head. Face contorted, I didn’t stop until the tip of my foot became nothing more than a flaring pulse of heat and pain — and when that moment came, I took my knife in hand and knelt next to the bike with stinging eyes. I carved a litany of fury onto its body and sank the knife into the rubber of the tires. Where each slash opened up, long and crooked, I felt my lungs ease.
I’d looked up what atenida means on the internet. You know, just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. And it’s an insult but it comes from the verb atener. To maintain, to live with, abide by, accept. Atenida. One who lives at the expense of others, one who waits for others to do things for her. But that would never be me.