La mariposa volotea
y arde — con el sol — a veces
“The butterfly flutters
And burns – with the sun – sometimes”
(from “La mariposa de Otoño” – The Autumn Butterfly – by Pablo Neruda)
Every year they come to Michoacán, filling the wide, open space of the space between earth and above with blood-red color. Las mariposas. They arrive each October, thousands of them tinting the sky with their delicate wings, as fierce dry winds blow down from the mountains, the red dirt swirling up like demons in a frenzy.
“Como los demonios,” old María always says, her wrinkled face turned away from the wind. María is always the first to call out when the butterflies arrive: “Los muertos”, carrying the souls of the dead.
Esperanza closes her eyes for a minute, resting from her hard labor of scrubbing out the filthy chicken coop. Her mind fills with visions of butterflies pirouetting within a spinning vortex of dry, red earth.
“Esperanza!” a voice scolds.
She forces herself awake. Yolanda from the village is peering down at her, “You should be working, child. I’m going to take your father these churros.” The old woman walks away towards the house, muttering as she goes. “Ay, Dios mio.”
Esperanza sighs, resuming her task and dreaming. She fantasizes about escaping the village and migrating, like a butterfly, to Los Angeles. “La ciudad de los ángeles”. She has never seen a picture of the city but in her mind it is white, like she imagines heaven, and there you can be anything you want to be. You can start over. Una nueva vida; a new life.
“Ay, what do you want to go there for, niña?” Her father grumbles. “It’s full of people and noise.”
“Papa! You don’t understand.”
“I understand well enough to know Los Angeles is no place for a young, illiterate Mexican girl,” her father replies sharply. He gestures for Esperanza to serve up the corundas and they eat in silence, dipping each forkful in punchy red salsa.
When they have eaten, Esperanza wraps her shawl around her shoulders when she goes out to feed the horse. Looking down the dirt track, she recalls the time when los Americanos visited, a group of them traveling through. They only stayed in the village for a day but she met them when she went to fetch water from the well. In her broken English, she greeted them and then, with a thrill of excitement, asked them, “¿De dónde eres? ¿Los Angeles?”
They shook their heads. “Fresno.” They tried to teach her how to say her name in English: “In English it means hope”.
“Hope,” Esperanza repeated, turning it into two Spanish-like syllables which roll off her tongue. “Hope-eh?”
The horse whinnies when the wind blows; the butterflies hover as they land on the trees. And Esperanza wishes she could start over, break out of her chrysalis and fly.
*Volotear is an invented Spanish verb. It is probably the case that Neruda meant revolotear but used poetic license and dropped the “re-” prefix.
*Michoacán is a state in the west of Mexico, the destination of thousands of migrating monarch butterflies every winter.
*Churros are a type of fried pastry traditionally served with Mexican hot chocolate or coffee.
*Corundas – a type of tamale originating from Michoacán.
*¿De dónde eres? – “where are you from?”