DOÑA CARMEN • by David Medina

Her last name escapes me. Milagros something from the depths of Guatemala. She sits on a metal folding chair, shoveling plastic spoonfuls of rice and beans from a paper plate on her lap into the mouths of her two pre-schoolers. They fidget at her feet in grimy, thrift-store jackets, trimmed with the characters from The Little Mermaid.

The free meal, offered at every PTA meeting, takes priority over the augmented voice of our president, LaShawn Jackson, battling the ear-piercing feedback coming from the loud speakers on the stage. The first item on tonight’s agenda, LaShawn announces in English, is an appeal to any Spanish-speaking parents in the audience to sign on as plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the Board of Education. It won’t cost them anything, she explains. The lawsuit accuses the Board of violating their constitutional rights by barring their kids from entering the annual lottery to win seats in the district’s new magnet schools, because they don’t speak English. Even if they could speak English, they’d have a one-in-ten chance of winning anyway. But, LaShawn means well. She’s a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. She can solve all the world’s injustices with lawsuits and protest marches. When no one raises a hand in response to her appeal, LaShawn calls a “translator” to the stage, who prods them again in horribly mutilated Spanish, peppered with meaningless Anglicisms, like escuela magnet.

A cinnamon skinned tribal woman with long black hair and a floor length peasant skirt, Milagros studies the idiocy on stage with the stone-faced curiosity of a space alien who just landed in the auditorium from the far side of Jupiter. Was Guatemala that much worse? She recognizes me and her face lights up, as if I were the Coast Guard, coming to rescue her from drowning. Frantically, she waves me over to her side.

We met at the previous PTA meeting, two weeks ago. I arrived late. The only available seat was next to Milagros because the other parents avoided her and her restless youngsters. She had no clue as to what was being discussed on stage, so the Good Samaritan in me decided to lessen her isolation. Before long, she was chatting me up about the silly things she does at Walmart for $10.58 an hour, while her kids attend Head Start. I, in turn, walked her through the agenda items, paying close attention to the ones that might affect her. She arrived in this country five years ago, right around the time she must have been having her first child. I imagine that one event influenced the other. Milagros made no mention of a man in her life. She spoke as if she conceived her kids without one, and I thought it best not to go there. I was having too good a time prattling on with her in Spanish, as though we were childhood best friends, cuddling up under a warm blanket in flannel pajamas. I could breathe again. I summoned back the playfulness of choosing a word that has a thousand different meanings and expressing the right one through intonation and pitch. English doesn’t do that for me. A thousand words share the same meaning and I choose my words by the impression I want to make or the information I want to pry out of someone. To make matters worse, every social class has its own vocabulary. I can tell what people earn by what they say, whether I want to or not. Having grown up speaking Spanish at home, while simultaneously adjusting to the English-speaking world around me, I find the whole process exhausting. It makes the simplest conversation feel like a job interview.

Milagros gently taps my arm and looks at me with pleading eyes. “Please forgive me for troubling you, Doña Carmen,” she says. “But did she say that all I have to do is sign a piece of paper and my babies can get into one of those new magnet schools?”

I cringe. “Doña” is a title reserved for employers, matriarchs, ladies of the court, the wives of slave masters, or intimidating rich people. Two weeks ago, I was just Carmen. Our relationship has now changed — all because I can navigate two languages and she can’t. Milagros won’t find it so dazzling, when her kids surrender to English entirely and leave her behind, like my Bradley did.

My talent feels like a curse. I don’t want to be the one to tell Milagros that her kids will have children of their own by the time that lawsuit is resolved. I don’t want to be the one to tell her that, until then, the Board will dump her kids in broken down traditional schools, where mice run free and paper is rationed, because much of the money for those schools was siphoned off to the magnets. I have my own struggles to deal with. I don’t need this. Bradley is having trouble with Algebra II.

But, Milagros has no one else to turn to, and being her “Doña” obliges me to respond or I will never be able to live with the shame of deserting one of my subjects in a moment of need. So, I tiptoe through a general explanation of how lawsuits work that avoids crushing her heart, but makes it obvious that her babies aren’t getting into magnet schools anytime soon.

I, of course, never mention that for $3,000 in cash, an administrator at the district office secured a slot for Bradley at the Magnet Academy of Science, where he’s certain to graduate high school and get into a good college. All things considered, it was a small price to pay.

“Tell me, Doña Carmen, could they deport me, if I sign up for this lawsuit anyway?”

“I don’t think so. But why take the risk?”

“So that my babies can get a better education, wouldn’t you do the same?”

Since 2015, David Medina has dedicated himself exclusively to writing fiction. His last short story, “Sofie The Warrior Queen” was published in the March 2018 edition of the 34th Parallel Literary Review (vol. 51). He has been a writer, reporter and editor at numerous media outlets including the New York Daily News, where he worked as a politics and government reporter and was a frequent contributor to the newspaper’s opinion page, and the Hartford Courant, where he served as a member of its editorial board and an opinion page contributor.

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