Your name never seemed like it belonged to you. It sounded ridiculous when you said it out loud. It came from your mother, who wanted a bit of greatness, so she named you after Benito Juárez.
“El Presidente?” people would ask with a chuckle under their breath.
You’d get slight smiles, bad jokes, or a history lesson. Everyone knew who he was. It was like naming your kid George Washington.
Who was Benito Juárez? The fucking hero of Mexico.
He was destined for greatness. The Spanish Empire never saw him coming, did they? The shepherd who became an orphan who became a lawyer. A natural-born leader — the one who curbed back the Church and even died early enough to not become a dictator.
You looked nothing like the real Benito Juárez. His body didn’t extend up flatly like a reed. If he wore glasses, they weren’t slipping off all the damn time. He was a mountain of a man, with a life so mythic and prone to exaggeration it probably didn’t disappoint him at least twice a day.
You finished college with a liberal arts degree. The next big thing was not to whip an imperial power but probably to work the front desk of a Phoenix hotel.
Mom threw a party when you finally graduated, her slight body setting up the chairs and tables with a speed that surprised everyone. Like she wanted you in law school ASAP, before the posole was done.
You had six hundred dollars and a Sentra, and you knew you had to get out. The move to New Orleans, driving through Texas with a U-Haul trailer dragging behind — that disappointed a lot of people.
It wasn’t exactly magical seeing the city for the first time.
Bourbon Street smelled more like puke than anything that ever came out of your body. When you told the first bartender about Americorps, he didn’t congratulate you or offer his thanks, but said he knew someone who also did Americorps before he jumped off a bridge.
“His name was Stuart or maybe Stanley,” he said. “Broke every bone in his pelvis. Yeah, he went home early, never finished that Americorps thing. You guys work for the UN? Man, fuck the UN. Or FEMA? You with FEMA?”
You found a studio, not too far from the river. Brick-made and up three flights of stairs, it was high enough to temper the sirens and the streetcars, cheap enough to brag of its stacked washer and dryer that were not made to be stackable, old enough to have an icebox in its cramped kitchenette – a place where its previous tenants put ice in its first compartment and milk in its second. You’d tell people it was between Lafayette and Perdido Street, knowing that Lafayette was some French General and Perdido, even to your pocho ass, meant “Lost” in Spanish.
This was your home now, and its names were many: Crescent City, the Big Easy, the drunken stepdaughter of Paris, the swamp-pumped city on a hill that survived Betsy and Camille (but Katrina was a bitch).
Its freeways followed the river; it had the most corrupt government in the country and the lowest tax on cigarettes.
But being all of twenty-two years old, that place was the shit to you. Delicious amber beer on tap for two dollars and enough music to keep the nights moving and thudding against your chest. The scene there wasn’t just “diverse,” a nice word, but something completely its own. Hip-hop merged with trombones to form swamp funk; spoken-word poetry transitioned into jam sessions; random people in the audience pulled trumpets from their jackets and jumped on stage.
Your Americorps gig was not with the UN. The year-long assignment was with a small nonprofit sporting the word “rebuild” in its title. They gave you a truck, a blue and white Ford Ranger, the kind they don’t make anymore. Most days you were gutting out people’s homes, wearing a Hazmat suit while tearing out chunks of drywall with a crowbar. Seeing the FEMA symbols on people’s doors, spray-painted with giant X’s like historical tattoos. Thick with letters, lines and numbers, they dutifully marked the date, if the house was checked, the gas situation, the number of people found and the number of people dead. You saw how it all repeated in the poorer parts of town, the handwriting and the colors of the lines on doorposts and siding, windowsills and raised porches. How it all extended across the whole city like some biblical shit — an otherworldly terror communicated to the city’s survivors.
Coordinator. That’s the word you’d put on your resume. With volunteers in tow, you’d step inside a person’s living room and see the water lines where the flooding had reached and sat for weeks. Six feet, high, eight feet, ten feet above the windows, marking the walls like squiggly scars.
Your mom called every Saturday.
“Are you okay, mijo?”
“Yeah, mom, I’m fine. Just working a lot.”
“I love you, I just want you to be happy. But also to go to law school.”
Or she told you how Adriana was doing — three months pregnant, then four, then five. Begged you to call her.
“She’s your sister, she didn’t mean those things she said. But if you do call her, don’t you dare start fighting. I’m not going to lose this child over you two chamacos.”
She guilt-tripped you so easily to go to mass. On Sundays, you’d walk down the wet streets and see the river, trudge over to the cathedral and open the heavy doors.
Sitting in the back like a good Catholic, noticing how people coughed, kneeled, prayed through the motions. You’d do it all, repeating the words, smelling the incense and looking at the priest hold up the Eucharist like a small full moon. You held back a smirk, because you’d think of how Benito Juárez had been exiled to New Orleans when the church elites wanted him dead for talking about the poor. The basket would come around and you’d throw a few dollars in it, okay with the contradiction.
God, you were happy there. Elated, actually, to not be in law school.
Being in a new city made you ask yourself questions you never thought to ask, cut through your assumptions about the way people are and why they do what they do. Why they fail, sin, doubt, get drunk, celebrate, love. The rent was cheap. The nights were incredible. It was like dating an older woman — with luxury, without any commitment, with the main goal not being loyalty but simply being. She was as close as family, so prone to disrespect—but the loving kind. New Orleans constantly asked Who are you, really? and was never satisfied with your answers.
For the first time in your life, you felt the euphoria of being in control. Walking inside the wrought-iron cafes full of hanging plants and echoes of Paris, you’d always find a booth and, soon enough, discover what you loved. The words, the page, the magic of a blank thing becoming full of thought, discovery, and clarity. Shitty fiction, that’s what you wrote with each cup of coffee. The rain tapped on the windows and the old-fashioned clocks that weren’t trying to be old-fashioned ticked along.
And you’d carve out stories. Full of intricate landscapes and flat characters walking through them. They felt like video games. You were there every weekend, making worlds you could walk through, ones with outcomes you could affect.
Community Coffee—or CC’s, as the locals called it—was the best.
Free refills, kickass baristas—it was the local Louisiana roaster that bragged of its family brand and its ability to hold Starbucks at bay in the Crescent City. You loved coffee in any form, and it loved you back. Sitting in the cafes and wearing an oversized wool sweater made you look literary enough. You found the blue sweater at a thrift store, never looking at the John Ashford logo. You felt safe within its threads, barely noticing the weekends slipping by or the blank pages being filled, not stopping until a friend texted or a girl talked to you.
They promoted you. No longer tearing out chunks of people’s homes, you now coordinated groups of college students, old church groups, or corporate, feel-good volunteers. Led them all, broke down the day ahead of them chipping off paint or fixing the previous group’s mistakes. One of your coworkers, getting his master’s in nonprofit management, tried to convince you to quit and help him form a new organization, telling you of the potential of receiving government funding and mobilizing our generation to renew New Orleans.
You only wanted to write.
Spring came. Mardi Gras landed and marched through the city like a second-line parade, full of brass and too much cheap alcohol. The sun broke through the Gulf’s clouds, in tune with the crawfish hatching in the mud of the river, ready to be scooped up by the barrel and thrown upon picnic tables.
That’s when your laptop broke, the clunky beast. It had lasted long enough, dutifully hummed in an armor of metal-band stickers and a battery that only worked when plugged into the wall. Without it, you tried writing freehand on yellow legal pads with cheap pens, your wrists and fingers often aching before you even started.
The streetcars were free for locals. So you’d catch them to Tulane, right off Lafayette and Perdido. There, you’d plug a USB drive into a university desktop and write, write ’til midnight, write like you were running out of time.
The aesthetics of being a “writer” (which you never called yourself) would always be pleasing. Touching the keys rapidly, covering your head with oversized headphones to blast music in the basements of quiet, beautiful libraries.
You wrote and wrote, not messing around or waiting for inspiration. The work grew and grew, forty, sixty, a hundred pages, until it became too unwieldy to think about, too much of a headache to hold it all together. You weren’t terrible with words, but you suspected very truly that you lacked experience. Felt like you weren’t ready for this. Your taste was excellent, but there was a certain uncertainty when you tried to salvage the sloppiness or let go of the unworkable. You couldn’t recognize the almost-great.
Writing kicked the shit out of you.
It reminded you of Mondo, who in junior high trained you to spar. Patiently showed you how to wrap the tape around your knuckles, slip on the gloves, how to hold up your hands.
He was your cousin, the two of you primos and confidants from kindergarten to sixth grade, when he flunked and you moved on to junior high. Dude had the posture of a bowling ball.
It was a genuine mystery how a kid could be so chunky and fast. He always dodged everything, could first step past anyone on a basketball court and get to the hoop at will. And in the ring? The gordito moved like Ali. Like fat lightning.
But when you tried to move like that, it was clumsy, too unsure.
Getting hit, Jesus, you hated that. Even with your face protected by those leather helmets that trapped your breath. Mondo said it was okay to wear glasses under the faceguard, which protruded over every inch of your face. But when a dude was in front of you, arms up, ready to smack you, it was all flinching. Step, step, arms up, you’d only see the gloves, faking, feinting, ready to pelt and hurt. Your eyes would strain to stay open, expecting every second to be your last.
One time, you really overthought it. Your mind moved too damn fast, faster than your feet. Stepping into a punch felt only like an instant burn, a hotness that struck your face and dizzied up all thinking, seized the whole building, made you blink, and then you were on the ground. Everyone jumped into the ring to make sure you weren’t brain dead, then you felt a bruising, a welting, and a coldness. Mondo was there, smiling.
You left the gym and went out into the street, cursing at a bum who tried to talk to you.
Mondo called you about it, and he never called you.
“Got the shit knocked of you, son. You coming back, right?”
“I’m too damn slow.”
“Carnal, don’t feel so bad about getting hit. Trial by fire, only way a boy gonna learn. It’s the best teacher, you know?”
“Teaching me what?”
“More than you know. Look, man, you need to take the hits. The only difference between getting punched and getting great is that you learn from taking the hit. So the next time, when the punch is coming, you know when to move.”
Writing was like that.
Creating something, anything—it felt right to you. Whatever muscles it took to fill out a blank page were getting stronger.
But, like, when you stopped texting Mondo, stopped showing up every Monday, it was too much.
The story sucked. You were good enough to know that, but not good enough to fix it. Move, or move on.
Two hundred and ninety pages. That’s how long it was. The inconsistencies, the pure drivel of the story, was too much. Eventually, it fell apart. It collapsed on itself like a too raw cake.
You finally seized the black thumb drive, pressed it hard against your sweater, and left the library for the last time. Not even taking the streetcar, you walked past the cathedral and the gypsy fortunetellers, the street performers and drunken tourists, to finally find the river.
It looked filthy, dirtied up with decades of industrialization.
The thumb drive didn’t sink, it floated, almost happy to be bobbing up and down the current.
You’d never forget the worst lines and shit dialogue that came out of your own damn head. Trite and overdone, they were full of bad description: mist and fog, bitten lips, too many adverbs marching downward and wrapping up what you were trying to say like a last-minute Christmas gift.
After work, exhausted and showered, you retreated to your bed and had trouble sleeping. Sleeping pills were kind of pricy. Beer was cheaper. But still, your characters would speak through the darkness.
They’d appear, walking right out of your closet, standing there on the wood floor dripping river water from their clothes. At first, they’d come in pairs and groups, crowding your consciousness to recreate their scenes and spout their dialogue. Using the yoga mat as a sort of stage, they were full of suggestions. But eventually they visited one at a time: your flawed heroes, your identity-wracked narrators, confessing things like you were their fucking high priest.
You tried ignoring them.
They started asking good questions.
“Were you hoping for something more? Did we disappoint you?”
“No,” you’d say. “I just don’t know how to make it work, to make it make sense.”
“You’re always tired, working that job. You should be building our world up, speaking to us, carving out room for us.”
“I can’t do it. Maybe someday I will.”
“Why not now?” they’d say. “It’s like riding a bike, or driving a car. You just have to learn, not think too much about falling or making a dent. And eventually you’re doing it — you’re somewhere else.”
“I think I need a real fucking job.”
“Why can’t we speak? We want to speak, but the words you’ve given us are made of paper.”
Pensive and quite at home, they’d curl up on the desk, touch your things, attempt to turn on the beast of a laptop, which only hummed in disappointment. Sleep would carry you away from them until the alarm clock buzzed and broke open the day.
Americorps ended and you actually felt homesick. It wasn’t Phoenix or your mother pulling you back, but the thought of Adriana. You felt the rareness of feeling real affinity toward family, the two of you witnesses of the same upbringing, the same laughs and the shared trials. So close in age, people thought you were twins. Co-conspirators willing to lie for each other but never to one another.
So drinking beers at noon on Frenchmen Street, you broke up with a white girl named Kat Tiger. She pulled back her hair, a deep auburn with tinges of green in it, and said something forgettable. You paid the bartender and wondered if he remembered you or the broken pelvis story. The Sentra held all of your things — books, clothes, your diploma, and some thrift store art. You drove through big-ass Texas and moved back home.
Mondo helped you get the job, moving furniture.
It surprised you to discover how many gated communities — compounds with too much lushness, elaborate estates nestled between mountains — existed in Phoenix. Your back grew hot carrying armoires, chests of drawers, and vanities until Mondo and David showed how to use leverage, prop things up with the heavy handcarts. But sometimes a piece was too massive and so awkward that you really had to hurl yourself to trudge it forward; needed to endure the slight burning you felt inside your stomach, across your back and neck, in order to carry that kind of weight. Heavy things interested the rich, and your bony ass grew strong carrying them to their designated rooms. The muscles didn’t fit. Your glasses probably made people look twice at your sharp features, your perceptive eyes now on a body that could carry anything.
You sensed you were still young, though. Young bodies can endure much. Except your hands. Hands, when they’re doing that much, grow tough. They bore almost all the strain; held most of the hurt as they began to mark the hourly output with scrapes, blisters, a roughness that never went away. Many years later, your uncle would shake hands with you and feel all the distance inside the lines of your hands. Looking him in the eye, the old man, without words, would give and get across the most valuable thing he had: his respect. He’d give it to you because he knew you’d done much with your hands, had given your body to the world and had attained whatever came with that.
On a July afternoon, you found yourself in a common but strenuous situation. A reclaimed wood armoire, going up to the third floor. With insides heaving and arms stretched high enough to lift it over a metal railing, it was the last piece to move. Made of solid wood, it was overpriced and probably worth more than all of your paychecks. Carrying it up the staircase (with high, bending rails) involved a series of lifts and ducking it in such ways to make it narrower (and heavier on your limbs) for a moment to get the damn thing up.
Sal was helping you. It was a job of two people negotiating with three hundred pounds and a whole lot of gravity. Heaving it and prayerfully holding that kind of weight directly above the chest made it feel closer than your breath.
That was the day Sal fucked up.
He was a giant, at least 6’4” and 240 pounds. Built for this job. But damn.
The dude’s body let out drops of sweat like a busted faucet. He always avoided the fact that he needed to wear two shirts or how he bought eight-dollar deodorant and especially his most unfortunate attribute: sweaty hands. Sal’s hands were constantly wet, even in the winter. His perspiration wasn’t a problem for you until that afternoon when Sal’s grip on the dresser, the one placed conveniently above your face while walking it up, step by step — let go.
The drawers slipped out first, crashing against the railing and making most of the noise.
What didn’t make much of a sound was the corner of the wood, solid and reclaimed, crashing down on your throat. You slipped a step, two, then three, until the whole thing fell on your foot, crushing it like a perfect Haymaker punch.
Broke your biggest toe. Workers comp, paperwork, a splint, all that shit.
It was a good job though.
You had to convince your mom of this.
“You have a college degree. Are you going to spend your whole life lifting things?”
“I’m looking into MFA programs.”
Thankfully, her response to that never came.
Adriana called, and your mother answered the phone.
“Bueno. Mija? Ay Dios. Ya voy, ya voy!”
The baby was coming. Three weeks early.
Your mom already had a bag full of clothes. In ten minutes, both of you were on the highway.
It was a two-hour drive to Tucson.
Your mom usually listened to the news. At home or at work, she clung to the twenty-four-hour cycle, so ready to hear the bad news of break-ins, accidents, shootings, people dying, and the world showing how horrible it could be. But now, in her own chaos, with thoughts of baby complications, how many things could go wrong with an early baby — she couldn’t hear news. Before she ran out of the house, she had opened up her stereo and stashed the loaded CD into her jacket — Adele. She blared it the whole trip, as loud as possible, and you soon heard the whole album, strangely similar to the great Mexican ballads but now coming from a working-class English girl. Songs of loss and regret, with only a twinge of hope. That’s what your mother needed now. For those two hours and two hundred miles to Tucson, she was every song on that CD.
Adriana was already admitted to Labor and Delivery.
You hadn’t spoken with her in a month. Before that, it was six months. She had brought that dumbass, the cowboy, to Thanksgiving. He was the father and didn’t pay his own bills. Drank too much, gave too little. Probably hit her — a big accusation, but you thought the signs were there.
At least she was smart enough to let him go. He wouldn’t be there.
The last time you spoke with her, you were both yelling.
She likely didn’t remember all of the things she said to you. You screamed at her too, let out some messed-up shit. True, all of it. But it wasn’t generous. You told yourself that it wasn’t you, and it wasn’t her. That people are more than their current mishaps. That some mistakes could be undone.
They gave her privacy on the second floor, a little hospital room trying to look like it wasn’t hooked up to wires.
All of your mom’s fears were assuaged by the young doctor, who spoke perfect Spanish. The baby was fine — and she was coming.
“It’s a girl?” Adriana asked, sweating on the bed.
“She didn’t know,” you told the doctor, who apologized and blushed awkwardly.
“Mami, I’m having a little girl!”
She went into labor. They walked you out of the room, but not before your mom snuck out with you, grabbing your shoulder tight.
“Mijo, listen,” she said. “You know your sister. Three weeks early and it might as well have been nine months too soon.”
She gave you two hundred-dollar bills and told you what to get from Target.
A car seat, diapers, a bassinet, clothes, bottles, and a breast pump.
“Set it all up, I’ll stay here and do the rest.”
You drove to Adriana’s house, not far from Target or the hospital.
It was situated in the nalgas of downtown Tucson. Close to the university, not a mile from the oldest part of town that the Spanish laid out. The houses were bunched close together, more European than anything on the West Coast.
You unloaded everything, set it up with an Allen wrench and a beer.
When your mom called, she was exasperated and breathless, hardly able to speak a single word.
They’d stay the night at the hospital. The baby was born, beautifully.
“Xiomara,” Adriana told you, grabbing the phone. “That’s her name. Xiomara Benita Juárez.”
You finished the beer, an Abita from New Orleans, and stepped outside.
The Tucson air was readying itself for a monsoon, the plants and trees excreting and exciting their oils for the promise of rain. Clouds bundled up the moon, covering the night.
The neighborhood slept, except for the sound you heard not two houses down.
You heard notes — the unmistakable, clear sounds of a trumpet. It would speed up then slow back down, continue on. You heard it so crisp against the cold, the melody of every note falling into the next like a river. Patient, sure of itself. Not only bellowing out its own song, but somehow containing every note that it didn’t play. Like it was holding back, playing with expectation. Rising, lamenting, crashing into what it was always meant to be.
You felt the need to look upon this trumpet player. Who was she? Of course, you didn’t know if it was a she, but somehow that thought pleased you. You wanted to see her hands, the fingers and lips that could put forth such a song into the cold. Wearing a hat, drinking and smoking between the silence, her cheeks puffing with heat. Had she lived here long? In this house and this city her entire life? Or did she leave at some point, break away, hear this song from a strange city in a different time?
Dogs barked in the oldest part of Tucson. A few stars hung over the city, and you thought of how far their light must have traveled to arrive here in clear, cold shafts. You tried to connect them in their constellations, maps people made to form animals or give shape to their gods. The stars quietly glimmered, giants made not only of gas and light, but time.
You had time.
Perhaps El Presidente, walking home from his job in New Orleans, saw the same stars and was touched by the same light. During his exile there, to feed himself, he rolled cigars in a factory a stone’s throw from the Mississippi. Did he hear the music from Frenchmen Street? Did the early beginnings of jazz, the rising sounds of an old port city, move him past the doubt — the rational doubt that kept him alive — of a real human being? And did he imagine others would be named after him, that his life would be studied and mythologized, picked apart and disconnected from what he really was?
Just a man. You tried to think of all his stern portraits, the silent Indian, the wise Reformer who only spoke words of prudent law.
But amid the trumpet’s sounds, the joy of waiting for a little innocent daughter, the crisp air, and the feeling of peace in the home that awaited her — you now saw the old Presidente’s face break into a smile. A big grin, holding his face with his hands. His teeth like brilliant limestone, tearing down all the myths and histories into a pulpy mess.
You’d never know how similar you felt to him, when his generals, his liberal thinkers and his caciques, found him in New Orleans, a bit leaner than they remembered him.
How excited they were, with the new Constitution already written up and the reforms that would shock the heart of Mexico, revitalize the people and the vast poor. They all knew what would come next — wars, starvation, ammunition runs, their cities with flags hung at half-mast and bodies dangling from tree branches. The pangs, the price they were all willing to pay, already drawn from their hearts and their guts for this thing called Revolution.
Did they hear a trumpet?
Did they feel the same question that you felt at this moment — the question that had to answer so much before it could even be asked?
You could see the little girl growing up here. She’d get taller, but always be a bit small for her age. Her teeth would come out early, perfect. She’d grow beautiful, strong, smart enough to discover all the answers she’d need to ask the question that you were asking now, that Benito Juárez surely asked himself loading the guns and the money into the ship to sail back to Veracruz to make a country.
You’d show Adriana’s daughter how to answer that question, to the best of her ability, giving the utmost of who she was.
You’d struggle against the same question, work through it, imagine new ways to answer it, write your own story with it.
It would be the question of the century. What the horrors of Katrina, Hiroshima, Guatemala, and a thousand other places needed an answer to; what the future of cities and civilizations and economies and think tanks were all desperately trying to map out and extrapolate.
The question that creation itself was constantly answering, from the plants to the stars, growth and death across the silent universe like a dance.
The question your sister was asking herself, wrapping the blanket around the newborn baby, the youngest Juárez still taking her first breaths.
The question that drove your mother to this land.
The same question that sang a new song inside you, perfectly in tune with the ringing sounds of the trumpet.
What comes next?
Rogelio Juárez lives in Phoenix, Arizona, where he is currently moving furniture and working on a short-story collection. An alumni of VONA/Voice’s SoCal regional workshop, he’s beginning his MFA at California College of the Arts this fall. “3 Juárez” is his first published story. Selected by Dawnie Walton.
Image copyright Jody Joldersma.