My mother, Rosanna Pope, was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and was left without a mother before she was two years old. Abuelita Pope died, and after that, my mother was shuffled around from family to family, playing the role of Cinderella for anyone who needed her.
A Mexican national, Manuel Portugal, fell in love with my mother when she was in her teens. He wanted her to marry him and live with him in Mexico. My Irish grandfather Solomon Pope did what he could to stop the marriage, but Manuel was bent on possessing my mother – a beauty, as seen in old photos of her looking like a movie star. Eventually, she crossed the border to live in Sonora, Mexico, with him and picked up a new name to boot.
On the other side of the border, Mexican women made fun of my mother, because she didn’t speak exactly like they did and because she was “una Americana” trying to pass as a Mejicana. They called her La Norteña, the woman from the north.
In my mother’s mind, she was Mexican, until she actually started living in Mexico. Then she found out she didn’t belong. Not here, and not over there. On one side, she was too high and mighty, too stylish. On the other side, she was ignorant, poor and disrespected by the Anglos. Still, she chose, like a bird pecking away at its cage door and finally springing it open to freedom.
A dream set her destiny in motion. She saw herself on a train back to the place of her birth, and beside her sat Christ.
“I recognized Him by His profile,” she said. “There He was with me and my two little girls. And what do you think that meant?”
I knew the answer. “He was telling you to come home,” I said.
Once she crossed the border, my mother had to learn all over again how to take her place and disappear, without a sound, into the madness of el gringo, who made mincemeat out of land deeds, claiming everything was his, from the border of Nogales to wherever the eagle changed wings and became a sea gull flying over the Atlantic.
Frankly, I’m glad La Norteña came back; otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about her now. She eventually married my father Francisco Duarte and added six children to the two girls, Linda and Lena, who rode on the train with her from Mexico.
I had heard the story of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman from my mother. She had drowned her two children in a raging river. After the notorious deed, La Llorona sought to save her children from the river, only to find that it was too late. To this day, it is said that she searches for her children, flying in the air, spying her own offspring in the face of every Mexican child on earth, trying to recover the parts of herself she chose to destroy.
“That is the story of women,” my mother would say. “Are you listening, mija? La Llorona flies over the border every night and no one can stop her – and if you think that’s not courageous, well, I can tell you a thing or two! And that’s the way to live, mija, never lacking in courage no matter which side of the border you’re on.”
La Norteña’s words ring true today. An imaginary line drawn on the dirt by men cannot measure who we are. My mother understood that “home” is only an illusion. The heart is the home, and either side cannot contain it.
Stella Pope Duarte was born and raised in South Phoenix. She began her writing career in 1995 after she had a dream in which her deceased father told her that her destiny was to become a writer. Her work has won awards and honors nationwide.