by Evelyn Liu
I open my eyes to the sound of a too-slow moving fan and the sticky feeling of dried sweat on my cheeks. The screen of my phone is too bright and I have to squint to see the numbers. It’s only five-thirty. I really need to use the restroom but it feels a little too far. Then again, the rooster outside is a broken record unable to stop, and I won’t be able to sleep anyway.
Outside of my room, the house is still dark, but someone has the radio on.
Entonces Jesús llegó de Galilea al Jordán, a donde estaba Juan, para ser bautizado por él.
I spy Doña Grecia’s sleeping form beneath the mosquito net, breathing softly to the rhythm of the biblical recitation.
Y he aquí, se oyó una voz de los cielos que decía: Este es mi Hijo amado en quien me he complacido.
I wonder if she listens in her dreams.
The rooster is still crowing and it’s nearly seven AM. My roommate is tossing and turning in the bed two feet away, sheets flung off, spread out like a starfish. The street vendors have started to call.
¡Mango! ¡Chinola! ¡Un cartón de huevos noventa pesos!
As the morning progresses, everything becomes brighter and shinier. The sun is hotter, the humidity wetter, the vendors uncomfortable, the roosters frustrating, the food an adventure, my friends unknown, the mosquito bites felt, the hugs and kisses fumbled, the cariño appreciated and the streets an everlasting maze.
I would love to get used to the heat, to understand my host mom’s accent and to not have to give anyone blank stares when my language skills fail me. But there is also something exciting and worthwhile about being able to feel everything — something good about life being raw.
Breakfast is a culinary adventure, and Doña Grecia always makes sure to cook a family-sized portion for the two of us Cornell students to share. During the first few days, Doña sat at the table staring at us as we ate, savoring the smiles of appreciation and the words of praise that we gave in recognition of her art and livelihood.
A constant source of complaint is Frekito the cat. I hate this cat! Doña huffs, jumping on my table and stealing my bread!
Even when she shuts the doors, Frekito always finds a new way in to follow Doña around in what I can only describe as adoration.
She may claim to hate the cat, but I caught her feeding him a slice of cheese this morning, so maybe the strict Doña has more of a soft side than she lets on.
Most of the day, Doña Grecia sits slumped in her white plastic chair by the doorway waiting for people to come by. They purchase cakes and juices from her, staying to sit on the front steps and chat. Communicating with her is still a bit of a struggle for me, so I try new ways to approach her each day. Today I pull up a stool and join her by the doorway, and we somehow get into a conversation about faith. She immediately lights up. Maybe this will be my way in.
Tonight, she is the happiest that I’ve ever seen her, singing hymns among her sisters in a grupo de oración — a prayer group — that meets here every Wednesday night. There is genuine joy in her voice, a tapping sandaled foot, and a tremor that only slightly betrays her old age.
¡Alegre la mañana que nos habla de Ti! ¡Alegre la mañana!
Everyone in the prayer group sings along to the chorus, but Doña Grecia holds the hymn book and sings alone during each verse. All the other women sway along, tapping feet, waving babies and mumbling slightly, eyes shut.
At the end of the first round of singing, Doña puts down her hymn book and stares fiercely at each of the women before her.
¿Qué es la Comunión?
What is Communion?
She doesn’t wait for the other women to answer. “Dos palabras: Comunidad y unión.” She continues:
“Our community must be unified because the community is a reflection of the union of the holy trinity. This means that we must love each other, we must care, we must look out for each other and hold each other accountable. The children of this neighborhood and the visitors we host will be like our own children.”
At this she looks directly at me.
Ladies, we are a family, and this barrio is our home.
Evelyn Liu is a junior Global and Public Health Sciences major and was in the DR program in 2017.