The ringing of the church’s campana let them know that the ceremony was about to start. She held her Mami’s hand as tight as she could. She never wanted to do her first communion in the first place. Papi made her do it. They didn’t even go to church but that didn’t matter to him. Catholics had first communions and that’s what she was going to do. A las buenas o a las malas. Papi would drop her off at church on Saturdays for catechism class. She’d ride in the back of his bicycle holding on to his waist as tight as she could and she’d bury her head in his back. She’d close her eyes because the zooming cars scared her. She’d close her eyes and the hint of Marlboro cigarettes filled her nose but she didn’t care. She wouldn’t trade that moment for anything else. She wanted to stay there forever, with her eyes closed, wishing Papi made her feel this safe all the time.
At ten years old, she was the oldest girl doing her first communion. The nuns never failed to remind her that her family had dishonored God by waiting so long. She was still learning English so all she could do was smile and nod. She sat in class making a list of words she understood in English: God. Sin. Pray. Pay. And a list of sins she was told she had to atone for before her first communion: Lying. Hating. Cussing.
The nuns preached of God’s love. Of God’s protection. Of God’s forgiveness. They promised that all those who believed in him would never be alone. She didn’t understand. She believed. She believed as hard as her tiny ten-year-old body would let her. She believed from a very young age. But every night Papi would hit Mami. But every night Papi would come home drunk. Come home high. And every night she would hear yelling and cussing and smashing and slamming and crying. Some nights she would hide. Some nights she’d have to call the cops. Every night she slept with her shoes on just in case Mami wanted to try running away again. But every night, every night she would pray. She’d pray that they would stop fighting. She’d pray that God would save her. She’d pray that Papi would die. She’d pray that Mami would survive. But every night God didn’t show up. God still hadn’t showed up.
Her catechism lessons convinced her that maybe God didn’t see her because she hadn’t done her first communion yet. She had only just been baptized earlier that year. Maybe God didn’t know where she was. The first communion would let God know she was there and she believed and she was willing. And maybe God would listen because she would have eaten his body wafer and drunk his blood wine. After that day God would see her. He had to see her.
La campana’s song was fading in the background. She looked up at Mami. The light brightened her face and she could see the purple bruise Mami tried to hide with makeup. Mami kneeled down to her and smoothed her dress and her hair. Her dress was a hand-me down from Goodwill. The satin, white dress was too big for her small frame. The shoulders didn’t fit right. Some of the appliques were missing. She didn’t wear gloves like the rest of the girls. She didn’t wear a crown or a veil. The dress covered her white gym shoes. The shoes Mami polished the night before. But none of that mattered. After this ceremony everything would be different.
She made her way down the aisle to meet with the nuns and the other girls. She could see Mami seated in the back pew. Her heart beat fast. She was anxious. Excited. Hopeful. She would accept God into her heart and be blessed by the priest and after that God would love her. God would forgive her. God would protect her. The priest began his sermon. She closed her eyes and prayed: Hello God. Please love me. I’m here. I’m here. Please see me. Please love me. I love you.
The nuns asked the row of girls to stand and line up in front of the priest to receive el cuerpo de Dios. Finally. It was her turn. The priest towered over her. His white robes glimmered. Right behind him she could see the body of Christ on the cross. Later in life, she’d swear she saw Christ smile at her. She opened her mouth and received the host. The wafer melted in her mouth. She took a sip of the priest’s chalice and she swallowed the bitter, dry wine. She closed her eyes and heard the priest bless her. Tears fell from her eyes. Things would get better now. All the fighting would stop. God would be there to protect her now.
She turned around to make her way back to the pew. She made eye contact with Mami who also had tears rolling down her cheeks. She gave Mami a big smile and two thumbs up. It was going to be alright now.
La campana sang its song again. Mass was over. She ran to her Mami and hugged her.
“Te quiero, chiquita.” Mami wiped her tears and smiled.
“It’s going to be okay now, Mami.” She held Mami’s hand.
They walked down the block hand in hand, la campana’s song getting softer and softer.
Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez received a PhD in English from the University of California Riverside. She is currently an Assistant Professor at LaGuardia Community College in NYC. Her writing stems from her personal experiences, her community work, and her desire for liberation.