Portrait of a Bracero as José Olivares

In this work by the Coachella Valley’s John Olivares Espinoza, the poet brings his grandfather, a California farmworker, to life.

J. R. Eyerman

I want to remember my grandfather as making
heads of cabbage shriek when he approached
with a blade. He was that good.
I’d like to think that it was okay for Pepe,
his last-born son to work the fields,
carrying a tin pail loaded with cucumbers
because with each step the weight
plays his spine like an accordion,
and his music inspires the braceros
to hoe faster for a higher yield
of commissions. I’d like to think
that my mother—a young girl of 7
with micro lacerations on her knuckles
left by the okra she’s picking—
could unspool the collective cuts
& hand the thread over to her amá
to stitch together a First Communion dress.
I want to think of my grandfather
as resourceful, turning a diamondback’s
molt into a pair of argyle socks
for bautismos, bodas, y entierros.
I’d like to think that tufts of mint
sprouted from his boot prints overnight,
his thumb allayed both tooth & heartache,
that he could make the Salton Sea
swimmable again, that the calla lilies
he nursed radiated clean light for him
y Josie y Salva y Lola y Pepe y Güerita
as they trekked back to camp after dusk.
I want to believe there was a day
while tilling soil he unearthed a rare coin
stamped with the portrait of Porfirio Díaz,
whose stoic gaze—matched only
by my grandfather’s—shattered
the confidence of an emperor
& had he kept it, the coin would be worth
the payout to the salt miner’s widow.
What I don’t want to know is how
my grandfather kicked my mother out
to look for work or how she returned
to find the pages of her textbooks folded
into a knot of toads. This was not
the grandfather who spoiled me with comics,
helados, and five-dollar bills, unsupervised
time with a knife shaving sticks,
their gold bark curling like a scorpion’s tail.
I want to believe that he traded that coin
at Lopez Hardware for a canteen to displace
the town’s only oasis to mollify his thirst.
I say from experience
thirst is a devil’s fork on the tongue
of the desperate so I know it tempted
my grandfather to drink the bottled oasis.
I want to believe that he thought
of every throat in the valley as a cup
as he listened to the hum of the horizon.

John Olivares Espinoza was born and raised in California’s Coachella Valley and is   the author of The Date Fruit Elegies.
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