The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómezby John Rechy
“A gritty picture of life on the cusp . . . vividly rendered.” —Kirkus Reviews
On a hot, still day in May, Amalia Gómez sees—or thinks she sees—a large silver cross in the sky. Does that augur a miracle? The pragmatic, twice-divorced Amalia is doubtful. The neighborhood—a decaying area near a shabby part of Hollywood Boulevard—is under attack from gang wars and the police. Her live-in boyfriend is behaving suspiciously, her “fast” teenage daughter Gloria has become too much to handle, and her teenage son is hinting he’s in serious trouble. Most of all, Amalia is haunted by thoughts of her past and her first-born, dead in jail under mysterious circumstances. As the epiphanies and small omens of Amalia’s day build to a climax as wondrous as it is shattering, John Rechy takes us into the life of a Chicano family in Los Angeles, its spirit and its gritty reality, and “scorchingly evokes . . . the dark side of the American dream” (Publishers Weekly).
“A triumph, a sad, beautiful and loving book rooted in cultural experience as well as deep intuition . . . Amalia comes to stunning and breathtaking life.” —Newsday
“A fierce book . . . [told in] tough, uninhibited, explosive prose.” —Hartford Courant
“A vivid and touching novel . . . rough, heartbreaking . . . Rechy is masterful.” —San Antonio Express News
“A novel with more truth in it than a carload of best-sellers.” —The Washington Post
“A marvelous account of one woman’s life in violence-torn East Los Angeles . . . a wonderfully contemporary novel . . . John Rechy demonstrates eloquently that it is possible to write of the serious contemporary problems of minority groups without penning a pronunciamento or a racist diatribe. . . . An uplifting and almost inspirational story . . . told so well that it’s impossible not to become caught up in it from the first page . . . a renewal of faith in the human spirit.” —The Dallas Morning News
“John Rechy is a . . . rare and wonderful novelist. The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez . . . [has] one of the best endings of a novel that I’ve ever read . . . a ‘miracle’ so startling and original, so utterly convincing . . . that I’ll always consider Rechy a literary great, even if he never writes another novel.” —Wichita Eagle
“Rechy probes the dark underside of the American Dream in this powerful portrait. . . . He scorchingly evokes the prejudice faced by Mexican Americans. . . . the poverty, gang warfare, illegal border crossings and visions of salvation.” —Publishers Weekly
“A fine novel.” —USA Today
“Most successful in [its] graphic descriptions of the hellish underbelly of East Los Angeles.” —The New York Times Book Review
“If Los Angeles is one of this country’s most important cities, then the humane and social message of [this] novel is equally important. In taut, clear prose, the story line follows a day in the life of a twice-divorced Mexican-American woman in her mid-40s. Through her personal life we look into the human heart; through her working life we look into the conditions of invisible millions. . . . As Amalia moves toward her miracle . . . Rechy’s pictures are grainy, rough, raw. And yet . . . Amalia’s refusal to surrender enables her to make heroic resolutions at the end of this miraculous day [in a] last chapter worth waiting for.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“A disturbing portrayal . . . In a series of skillful vignettes, Rechy evokes the world of seedy neighborhoods . . . the violence in the lives of the poor. Rechy is, above all, a storyteller . . . but injustice and fear are the real subjects of this engaging novel.” —Los Angeles Times
“A rich portrayal . . . a readable and moving work . . . The characters are vibrant and ring true.” —Library Journal
“Few American novelists know our lower depths as well as Rechy . . . and he is particularly well equipped to write about the barrio. [With] truthfulness and credibility . . . Rechy lays it bare, right down to the blood and gristle, never softening or sentimentalizing the subject. As a study of working-class Hispanic life, Amalia Gómez can’t be faulted.” —Los Angeles Daily News
“A fine novel, an eloquent feat of imagination . . . One is reminded how real stories can open doors in walls one didn’t know were there, how they can seize heart and mind.” —Paula Fox, author of A Servant’s Tale
“[Rechy’s] best . . . as gut-wrenching as his first City of Night but in a completely different genre . . . [With] sensitivity and intuitive concern, he realistically documents the prejudice, gang warfare, drugs, despair and daily struggle to survive without losing sight of the human dignity that permeates the [Mexican-American] culture . . . searing veracity . . . brilliant characterization. . . . [It] leaps to a stunning climax.” —El Paso Herald Post
“A gritty picture of life on the cusp . . . vividly rendered.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A character well worth knowing . . . [The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez] will make the reader rejoice. . . . Amalia demonstrates startlingly and brilliantly that not all heroines must have lives of heroic proportions.” —San Antonio Express-News
“John Rechy has a tremendous gift of insight into the lives of Hispanic women living in the barrio. Amalia Gómez’s spirit lives in every woman who is oppressed, victimized, trapped in poverty, humiliated, and surrounded by fear and violence.” —Maia Leyba, Albuquerque Journal
When Amelia Gómez woke up, a half hour later than on other Saturdays because last night she had had three beers instead of her usual weekend two, she looked out, startled by God knows what, past the screenless iron-barred window of her stucco bungalow unit in one of the many decaying neighborhoods that sprout off the shabbiest part of Hollywood Boulevard; and she saw a large silver cross in the otherwise clear sky.
Amalia closed her eyes. When she opened them again, would there be a dazzling white radiance within which the Blessed Mother would bask?—a holy sign always preceded such apparitions. What would she do first? Kneel, of course. She might try to get quickly to the heart of the matter—in movies it took at least two more visitations; she would ask for a tangible sign on this initial encounter, proof for the inevitable skeptics. She would ask that the sign be . . . a flower, yes, a white rose.
Then there would follow a hidden message—messages from Our Lady were always mysterious—and an exhortation that the rose and the message, exactly as given, be taken to a priest, who would—What language would the Virgin Mother speak? “Blessed Mother, please, I do speak English—but with an accent, and I speak Spanish much better. So would you kindly—?”
What strange thoughts! Amalia opened her eyes. The cross was gone.
She had seen it, knew she had seen it, thought she had. No, Amalia was a logical Mexican-American woman not yet forty. There had been no real cross. No miraculous sign would appear to a twice-divorced woman with grown, rebellious children and living with a man who wasn’t her husband, although God was forgiving, wasn’t He? The “cross” had been an illusion created by a filmy cloud–or streaks of smoke, perhaps from a sky-writing airplane.
Amalia sat up in her bed. The artificial flowers she had located everywhere to camouflage worn second-hand furniture were losing their brightness, looked old and drab. She heard the growl of cars always on the busy streets in this neighborhood that was rapidly becoming a barrio like others she had fled. Looking dreamily toward the window, she sighed.
It was too hot for May! It’s usually by late August that heat clenches these bungalows and doesn’t let go until rain thrusts it off as steam. Amalia glanced beside her. Raynaldo hadn’t come back after last night’s quarrel at El Bar & Grill. Other times, he’d stayed away only a few hours after a spat; usually he was proud of the attention she drew, liked to show off his woman.
And Amalia was a good-looking woman, with thick, lustrous, wavy black hair that retained all its vibrant shininess and color. No one could accuse her of being “slender,” but for a woman with firm, ample breasts and sensual round hips, her waist was small; any smaller might look ridiculous on a lush woman, she often assured herself. “Lush” was a word she liked. An Anglo man who had wandered into El Bar & Grill once had directed it at her, and that very night Raynaldo had called her “my lush brown-eyed woman, my lush Amalia.”
Daily she moistened her thick eyelashes with saliva, to preserve their curl. She disliked downward-slanting eyelashes—but not, as some people of her mother’s generation disdained them, because they were supposed to signal a predominance of “Indian blood.” Unlike her mother, who repeatedly claimed “some Spanish blood,” Amalia did not welcome it when people she did housework for referred to her—carefully—as “Spanish.” She was proud to be Mexican-American.
She did not like the word “Chicano”—which, in her youth, in El Paso, Texas, had been a term of disapproval among Mexicans; and she did not refer to Los Angeles as “Ellay.” “The city of angels!” she had said in awe when she arrived here from Texas with her two children–on an eerie day when Sant” Ana winds blew in from the hot desert and fire blazed along the horizon.
Raynaldo was not her husband, although–of course–she had told her children he was. Gloria was fifteen, and Juan seventeen. They slept in what would have been a small living room, Juan in a roll-out cot, Gloria on the pull-out sofa. When Teresa, Amalia’s mother, was alive, she occupied the small other “bedroom,” a porch converted by Raynaldo. The last time he was out of jail, Manny, Amalia’s oldest son, shared it, sleeping on the floor next to his grandmother’s cot. Now the improvised room was vacant, surrendered to two deaths.
On a small table in Amalia’s room were a large framed picture of Our Lord and one of his Blessed Mother, next to a small statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe on a bed of plastic flowers. There, too, was a photograph of President John F. Kennedy. When he was murdered in her home state, Amalia and her mother–her father was on a binge and cried belatedly–went to several Masses and wept through the televised funeral, the only time Teresa did not resent “Queen for a Day” being pushed off the black-and-white television.
Amalia made her slow, reverential morning sign of the cross toward the picture of Christ, hands outstretched, his bright red Sacred Heart enclosed in an aura of gold; and she extended her gesture to the Blessed Mother, resplendent in her blue-starred robe. They would certainly understand why it was necessary that she tell her children Raynaldo was her husband, to set a moral example, why else?
Almost beefy and with a nest of graying hairs on his chest nearly as thick as on his head, Raynaldo was not the kind of handsome man Amalia preferred, but he was a good man who had a steady job with a freight-loading company, and he helped generously with rent and groceries. He had been faithfully with her for five years, the only one of her men who had never hit her. Once he had paid a mariachi–who had wandered into El Bar & Grill from East Los Angeles in his black, silver-lined charro outfit–to sing a sad, romantic favorite of hers, “A Punto de Llorar”; and he led her in a dance. God would forgive her a small sin, that she pretended he was a handsome groom dancing with her one more time before their grand church wedding.
Amalia pulled her eyes away from the picture of Christ and the Holy Mother because she had located the place on the wall where the plaster had cracked during a recent earthquake. She had felt a sudden trembling in the house and then a violent jolt. As she always did at the prospect of violence, she had crouched in a corner and seen the crack splitting the wall. Now every time the house quivered from an idling truck, she thought of rushing out–although she had heard repeated warnings that that was the worst thing to do. But what if the house was falling on you? She wished the talk of earthquakes would stop, but it seemed to her that constant predictions of a “Big One” were made with increasing delight by television “authorities.”
My God! It was eight-thirty and she was still in bed. On weekdays she might already be at one of the pretty houses–and she chose only pretty ones–that she cleaned. She preferred to work at different homes in order to get paid daily, and for variety. Too, the hours provided her more time with her children, although now they were seldom around. She was well liked and got along with the people she worked for, though she felt mostly indifferent toward them. She always dressed her best, always wore shimmery earrings; one woman often greeted her with: “You look like you’ve come to visit, not work.” Amalia was not sure how the remark was intended, but she did know the woman was not “lush.” Lately Amalia had begun to feel some anxiety about her regular workdays because “new illegals’–Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans without papers–were willing to work for hardly anything, and one of her employers had laughingly suggested lowering her wage.
Amalia sat on the edge of her bed. A strap of her thin slip fell off her brown shoulder. Had it really happened, in the restaurant-bar, after Raynaldo left and that young man came over? Amalia pushed away the mortifying memory.
She walked to the window. One side of her bungalow bordered the street. At the window she did not look at the sky.
Daily, the neighborhood decayed. Lawns surrendered to weeds and dirt. Cars were left mounted on bricks. Everywhere were iron bars on windows. Some houses were boarded up. At night, shadows of homeless men and women, carrying rags, moved in and left at dawn. And there was the hated graffiti, no longer even words, just tangled scrawls like curses.
When she had first moved here, the court looked better than now. The three bungalows sharing a wall in common and facing three more units were graying; and in the small patches of “garden” before each, only yellowish grass survived. At the far end of the court, near the garage area taken over by skeletons of cars that no longer ran, there remained an incongruous rosebush that had managed only a few feeble buds this year, without opening. Amalia continued to water it, though, hating to see anything pretty die.
Still, she was glad to live in Hollywood. After all, that was impressive, wasn’t it? Even the poorest sections retained a flashy prettiness, flowers pasted against cracking walls draped by splashes of bou-gainvillea. Even weeds had tiny buds. And sometimes, out of the gathering rubble on the streets, there would be the sudden sweetness of flowers.
There were far worse places inhabited by Mexicans and the new aliens–blackened tenements in downtown and central Los Angeles, where families sometimes lived in shifts in one always-dark room, tenements as terrible as the one Amalia had been born in–at times she thought she remembered being born within the stench of garbage–Still other people lived in old cars, on the streets, in the shadows of parks.
As she stood by the window of her stucco bungalow, Amalia did not think of any of that. She was allowing her eyes to slide casually across the street to a vacant lot enclosed by wire–and then her eyes roamed to its far edge, past a row of white oleanders above which rose jacaranda trees with ghostly lavender blossoms. Even more slowly, her eyes glided toward the tall pines bordering the giant Fox Television Studio that extended incongruously from the end of the weedy lot to Sunset Boulevard; and then her gaze floated over the huge HOLLYWOOD sign amid distant hills smeared with flowers, crowned with beautiful homes. Finally, she looked up into the sky.
The cross was not there!
Of course not–and it had never been there. And yet–
Yet the impression of the silver cross she had wakened to had altered the morning. Amalia was startled to realize that for the first time in her recent memory she had not awakened into the limbo of despondence that contained all the worries that cluttered her life, worries that would require a miracle to solve.
Trying not to feel betrayed, she turned away from the sky. She heard the sound of tangling traffic on the nearby Hollywood Free-way, heard the cacophony of radios, stereos, televisions, that rampaged the bungalow court each weekend.
Amalia touched her lips with her tongue. Last night’s extra beer had left a bitter taste. No, it was the memory of it, of that man she allowed to sit with her last night at El Bar & Grill. Released with a sigh, that thought broke the lingering spell of the morning’s awakening and her worries swarmed her.
Worries about Juan!–handsomer each day and each day more secretive, no longer a happy young man, but a moody one. He’d been looking for work but what kind of job would he keep?–proud as he was. He had made terrible grades that last year of Manny’s imprisonment. Was he in a gang? She had fled one barrio in East Los Angeles to keep him and Gloria from drugs and killings and the gangs that had claimed her Manny. Now, students carried weapons in school and gangs terrorized whole neighborhoods. Yesterday she thought she had seen bold new graffiti on a wall. The placa of a new gang? That is how cholo gangs claim their turf. And Juan was coming home later and later–recently with a gash over one eye. He had money. Was he selling roca–street crack?
And who wouldn’t worry about Gloria? So very pretty, and wearing more and more makeup, using words even men would blush to hear. What had Gloria wanted to tell her the other morning when she hadn’t been able to listen because she was on her way to work and came back too late to ask her? Gloria had turned surly toward Raynaldo, who loved her like a father all these years. Did she suspect they weren’t really married?” Amalia was sure God knew why she had to live with Raynaldo, but she wasn’t certain He would extend His compassion, infinite though it was, to a sullen girl.” What had she wanted to tell her that morning?
Something about her involvement with that Mick?–that strange young man who rode a motorcycle and wore a single earring that glistened against his jet-black long hair? Although he was Mexican-American, he had a drawly voice like those Anglos from the San Fernando Valley, and he wore metallic belts and wristbands. What had Gloria wanted to tell her?
And Raynaldo! If he didn’t come back–but he would–there would be mounting bills again, constant threats to disconnect this and that. There was still the unpaid mortuary bill–Teresa had demanded that there be lots of flowers at her funeral. Amalia could afford this bungalow, small and tired as it was, only because of Raynaldo. Had his jealousy really been aroused last night so quickly because the man staring at her at El Bar & Grill was young and good-looking? Or had he used that as an excuse for anger already there, tension about Gloria’s–and, increasingly, Juan’s–abrupt resentment of him?
Of course, of course, Amalia missed Teresa–who wouldn’t miss her own mother?–dead from old age and coughing at night and probably all her meanness, thrusting those cruel judgments at her own daughter. Who would blame her for having slapped her just that once? Certainly God would have wanted her to stop the vile accusations she was making before Gloria and Juan during those black, terrible days after Manny’s death. And who could blame her for having waited only until after the funeral to pack away the old woman’s foot-tall statue of La Dolorosa, the Mother of Sorrows?” Of course, however you referred to her, she was always the Virgin Mary, whether you called her Blessed Mother, the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady, the Madonna, Mother of God, Holy Mother–or Our Lady of Guadalupe, the name she assumed for her miraculous appearance in Mexico to the peasant Juan Diego, long ago. Still, Teresa’s La Dolorosa, draped in black, wrenched in grief, hands clasped in anguish, tiny pieces of glass embedded under agonized eyes to testify to endless tears, had always disturbed Amalia, had seemed to her–God would forgive her this if she was wrong–not exactly the Virgin Mary whom she revered, so beautiful, so pure, so kind in her understanding–and so miraculous!
Yes, and now there wasn’t even her trusted friend, Rosario, to turn to for advice, crazy as her talk sometimes was when they both worked in the ‘sewing sweatshop” in downtown Los Angeles. That tiny, incomprehensible, strong woman was gone, fled–where?–had just disappeared among all those rumors that she was in trouble with the hated ‘migra,” the Immigration, for helping the illegals who tore her heart.
Her beloved firstborn. His angel face haunted her. A year after the blackest day of her life, she still awoke at night into a stark awareness of his absence. Did he hear the guards approaching along the desolate corridor toward his isolated cell? Did he recognize them in the gray darkness as the two he had broken away from earlier, the one he had hit across the face with handcuffs? Did he know immediately what they were going to do to him?
The horror of it all would push into Amalia’s mind. She saw the guards tightening the shirt around his neck. Did he cry out to her as he had each time he was arrested?” What were his last thoughts?–that he would never see her again, about his love for her, of course.
No, she would not even open the letter that had arrived yesterday from the public attorney. She knew what it would say. More investigations! She could not go through any more pain, listen to any more filthy cop lies. Let her son rest!
And then last night–
She cursed the extra beer that allowed last night to happen. She had said yes when the young man offered it to her, but only in defiance–the Blessed Mother would attest to that–because Amalia was a moral woman who had never been unfaithful to any of her husbands, nor to a steady “boyfriend.” She spat angrily now. The hot humiliation of last night grasped her–Raynaldo stalking out of the bar, accusing her of flirting with that young man, who had kept staring at her. And so–
“Yes, I will have that beer,” she had told him. He joined her in the “family” section of the restaurant-bar. He brought his own beer and a fresh one for her. Yes, he was good-looking–why deny what everyone could see? He had dreamy dark eyes, smooth brown skin, and he wore a sacred cross on a tiny golden chain on his chest. He was from Nicaragua, his family displaced; where?” Like her he spoke English and lapsed into Spanish. She was sure he thought she was younger than she was. She attracted all types of men, after all, and she was wearing one of her prettiest dresses, watery blue, with ruffles–and her shiniest earrings, with golden fringe.
“Bonita Amalia,” he had said.
“How do you know my name?” She was not flirting, just asserting that it was he who was interested in her.
“I heard the man you were with.” Then he told her his name: “Angel.”
Angel! Amalia had a weakness for handsome men with holy names. Her first husband’s name was Salvador, savior; her second was named Gabriel. She hated it when “Angel” was mispronounced by Anglos as “Ain-jel.” It was “Ahn-hel.” ” The holy cross on his chest, the sadness about his family, his beautiful name, and his eyes–and Raynaldo’s unfair accusation–that’s what had goaded her “
Amalia drank the extra beer with him, and then–
In her bedroom now, Amalia’s eyes drifted toward the window. It would be a beautiful summer-tinged spring day, she told herself. Yet a sadness had swept away the exhilaration of this day’s beginning.
She stood up to face the day. She could hear Gloria and Juan talking in their “bedroom.” They were so close she sometimes felt left out of their lives.” And why shouldn’t they sleep in the same room? After all, they were brother and sister, weren’t they?–and of the same father. Soon one of them would be moving into Teresa’s room, where Manny had slept–and they had adored their reckless half brother. They were avoiding moving into that room, Amalia knew, but there was just so long that you could avoid things, and that’s what she must tell them.
She dressed quickly. Now she would leave this room with its aroused worries. She would allow no more, none, not about Juan–Hiding what with his new moodiness? Was he using drugs? Who was that Salvadoran boy he had let sleep in the garage; hiding from what?” No more worries! Not about Gloria. She had thrown up recently. Was she pregnant by that odd Mick with his colorless eyes and dark, dark eyebrows? What had she wanted to tell her that morning? ” No more worries! Not about Raynaldo, either–What was really bothering him? Would he come back? No more worries!
And she was not going to give one more thought to the white cross–no, it had been silver!–that she had seen–thought she had seen this morning ” although it had been so beautiful.
And certainly no more about last night!
“Una florpara la bonita Amalia.” Angel had said that last night.
“What?” She had wanted to hear it again.
“A flower for pretty Amalia.” He had already called to the girl selling flowers in the bar-restaurant. He placed the bud in her dark hair, as if he had known her for long, from her girlhood, yes, and he had made her feel the way she had wanted to feel as a girl, and that’s why she said yes to him when he asked to join her, because–
Because he had given her a gardenia, the color of the pearl-white wedding dress she had never worn because at fifteen she had already aborted one child by a man who raped her and whom she was forced to marry.