Popo and Itza

— Adrianna Sampedro

Outside a storm was fermenting as the sun disappeared underneath the clouds like a frightened child hiding behind its mother’s legs. Magdalena imagined her husband crossing the Chihuahuan desert and hoped the clouds offered him reprieve, too. La Señora Garcia conceded and requested for her to return at seven the following morning to accompany her to church. Magdalena dressed her son in his raincoat; it was a bit snug. She instructed him to say adios as they bid their farewells with the promise to return tomorrow.

The air outside smelled of rain and blooming magueys. She held Sebastian’s hand firmly as they made the five-block walk to the small two-bedroom home she shared with her parents. Her sisters had long left their childhood home when they married. Their husbands had favored the alfalfa fields and carpentry over trading in Chivas soccer t-shirts for Dallas Cowboys jerseys. The pair had just arrived at the doorstep when the clouds thundered, and thick droplets made the ground slick like a mechanic’s greased fingers. Magdalena shuffled her son past the entrance. As she shut the door behind her, they were both smothered by the hot air from the oven. Her mother kept the oven door open in place of a heater.

When Magdalena first met la Señora Garcia, she had been eleven years old and was seated in the very front of the classroom. Magdalena had tugged at the school skirt that her mother had taken in from the sides. The jungle green skirt was three shades lighter than those of her schoolmates because it had belonged to her sister. She had laid out on her desk an unsharpened pencil, a new spiral notebook, and her drawing pad that had four uncolored drawings.

La Señora Garcia had generously bought Magdalena her supplies and schoolbooks. She was the last of her five siblings to attend school while her father tended the fields of tomatillo, and her mother kept the house clean, and the family fed. Magdalena’s mother had agreed for her daughter to help with la Señora Garcia’s housekeeping for a small wage.

Magdalena greeted her mother with a kiss on the cheek, interrupting her Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s. Magdalena urged her son to prepare for his bath. On an end table in the small living room, sat a framed photo. In the photo, Magdalena held a swaddled newborn as she stood half a foot shorter next to a man with skin darkened by the sun. This was before the coyote smuggled her husband across the border like cattle. Magdalena had begged to go with him. She’d insisted they could send for their son when he was older, once they’d settled into a house like she had seen in the American movies they played in the plaza for fifty pesos.

Octavio had insisted against it. And when the smuggler asked for payment, the two realized they barely had enough. Their life savings of fifty-thousand pesos was emptied like the Rio Bravo in a drought. He dressed in old jeans and a plain white t-shirt. Before his departure, Magdalena clasped a crucifix pendant around his neck. His journey was guaranteed to take twenty days.

Her head felt sore from wearing a ponytail all day. She flipped the light switch on in the restroom. Rolling up her sleeves, she rotated the faucet on the tub until warm water flowed like an irrigation dam. She beckoned her son then sat him in the tub as Magdalena lathered his thick, straight hair with shampoo from the local supermarket. She was careful not to get residue in his eyes. Sebastian’s giggles echoed when she playfully splashed him with water. Magdalena shut the water off before grabbing a fresh towel to dry her son off. Then she ran a comb through his damp hair before she dressed him in warm pajamas.

The echoes of the rosary prayer had ceased, and Magdalena knew her mother had gone to bed. Magdalena removed the small black elastic band that held her hair back when she worked. Her hair cascaded across her shoulders like a prayer shawl.

Tomorrow, Magdalena would be attending a church service with la Señora Garcia. This service was honoring Our Lady of Mount Carmel. As a child, Magdalena had worn a brown scapular, accompanied with a dress that had the same shape as a potato sack, to show devotion. She had laid flowers at the feet of the large statue for Our Lady of Mount Carmel. In the evening when the celebration had concluded, and her family headed home, Magdalena recalled asking her mother if she could remove the dress.

“The virgin never takes off her dress,” she responded succinctly.

“Not even to sleep?”

Resting her head upon the pillow, she pulled the blanket over herself and her sleeping son. She closed her eyes and murmured a quiet prayer. Sleep washed over her like tidal waves to the shore. Sweat coated her skin. The Chihuahuan desert crawled through her dreams. The landscape was peppered with sand, green cacti that bore prickly pears, and cacti whose skin had been turned red due to the blistering sun. There were no weeping willows or butterfly bushes. Reprieve from the heat was scarce. The riverbank was barren, and the parched earth had begun to show cracks.

The next morning, Magdalena’s legs swung over the edge of the bed, and her bare feet touched the cold, cracking tile. Often her mother would chastise her, insisting that she would get sick for not wearing socks or shoes to keep her feet warm. Magdalena walked to the kitchen where there were a couple of plastic, brightly colored cups resting in the dish drainer. The kitchen only fit one person comfortably. She turned on the faucet and filled a cup to the brim with tepid water. At the end of the counter sat a knitted tortilla warmer. As a child, her mother had knitted a variety of tortilla warmers and pot holders, and within them, she had carefully stitched flowers or names.

On the kitchen walls, several pots and pans were hung. Some were made of clay and had once belonged to Magdalena’s great-grandmother. There was a crucifix nailed to the wall. Adjacent to it hung an old clock her mother had haggled for at the town’s market. It was fifteen past six. The hills outside were dipped in golden rays as the sun rose over the horizon. Flecks of pink and orange cascaded along the slopes. Magdalena placed the empty cup in the sink. She’d address it in the evening when she hand-washed what little dishware her mother used.

She went back to her room. From a small wooden dresser, she pulled out a change of clothes for herself and Sebastian. Magdalena changed into black pants that had weathered to a gray like her charcoal drawings. Her t-shirt was plain, and its terracotta color enhanced the golden tones of her skin.

“Wake up, little one,” she cooed at the sleeping toddler.

Sebastian’s small fists rubbed his eyes.

“Hungry,” he said in-between yawns.


Every morning, la Señora Garcia had a fresh and ample selection of sweet breakfast breads. Often there was gingerbread in the shape of a pig and bread shaped like seashells. But Magdalena’s favorite were the breads lightly dusted with powdered sugar and filled with bright raspberry jelly.

She dressed her son in a two-piece outfit of sweatpants and a t-shirt with a faded superhero on it. Magdalena could never take her son to see the newly released movies. Instead, when she had a little extra change, she’d buy the pirated copies at a small stand in the mercado for just a little over the price of bubblegum.

Magdalena brushed her hair into her signature ponytail. The black elastic band had stretched from its original round form into an oval. She washed the sleep from her eyes at the bathroom sink.

Magdalena secured the lock on the door as she and Sebastian left the house. The smell of rain lingered in the air like the scent of a blown-out candle. Clouds were nonexistent as the sun continued to ascend over the horizon. Magdalena firmly grasped her son’s hand as they made the short walk to the church where the service would be held. On the corner of the street where they resided, a stray dog was curled up.

The pair arrived at the church. Gold trim surrounded the exterior doors. Inside, large statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus were showcased. The statues were much taller than the average man, and they were housed in a glass case. There were ten rows of wooden benches that patrons filled every Mass. People had already congregated at the foot of the altar like moths to a flame.

There were other children at the service. Their mothers clasped their hands like a hook to a fish to dissuade horseplay. Very few men were present as the fields needed to be tended, storefronts opened, flat tires mended, and most importantly, money to be earned for their wives to purchase discounted beans and tortillas for the week. Magdalena caressed the top of her son’s hair and encouraged him to say buenos dias to those who passed by.

“Buenos dias,” she greeted la Señora Garcia. La Señora Garcia beckoned the duo to follow her into the pew. They sat down together in the middle row. The two women made the sign of the cross from their forehead down to their chest and across their shoulders. Sebastian sat beside his mother, feet fidgeting. Magdalena nudged her son to stop just before the priest took to the altar. Father Miguel led them into prayer as Magdalena silently pleaded to a higher being for Octavio’s safety.

The sermon ended. The patrons waited for the priest to exit first. As the priest walked between the pews toward the exit, he sprinkled Holy Water on the patrons and wished them peace. Magdalena and her son followed la Señora Garcia out of the church, where the sun swept across their toasted skin. The previous evening’s rain had left a coat of humidity that felt like a lover’s embrace.

The walk to La Señora Garcia’s home was as familiar to Magdalena as kneading the masa to make pork tamales on Christmas Day. Her surroundings blurred as they passed bus stops, the tortilleria, and the corner store that sold gum and potato chips. The corner store had a sign that just read ABARROTES in bold, blocky letters and had been owned by el Señor Sanchez. Sometimes if you didn’t have enough pesos for the milk or the loaf you needed, el Señor Sanchez would allow you to take it with the promise you’d pay him back the next time.

Magdalena had already begun to make a mental list of what cleaning she had left to do—the tile floors still needed to be mopped then swept, and the meal she would prepare for the day. Her thoughts were interrupted by the voice of La Señora Garcia.

“Take los niños out for some fresh air,” she suggested. The niños were her grandchildren.

“Are you sure?” Magdalena asked with her brows furrowed, her mind still preoccupied on chores.

“Don’t worry. El trabajo estara ahi mañana.”

Magdalena knew she was right. Tomorrow the dishes would still be sitting in the sink, another load of laundry to be scrubbed over a wash basin, and the courtyard to be swept. Her son had grown tired of chasing lizards in the patio and splashing water at his mother despite her objections.

In the kitchen, Magdalena took a brown mug. She filled the mug with water before placing it on the center plate of the microwave. The timer was set for two minutes. Sugar from the sweet bread dusted Sebastian’s fingers and the tip of his nose. Some crumbs lined his collar. The microwave made a loud beep.

Magdalena stirred ground coffee into the warm water as she recalled how every morning she would rise before the sun to prepare coffee and breakfast for Octavio. He didn’t take his coffee black like the men in her family. The breakfast he requested the most were breakfast tacos bloated with eggs. Magdalena combined the eggs with chorizo or diced ham or sometimes diced jalapeños. She would bid him goodbye with a kiss and the sign of the cross.

She looked down at her coffee, and it was murky like the Rio Bravo after a rare summer rainstorm.

“Ready?” La Señora Garcia asked as she stood in the kitchen entrance. Her grandchildren stood behind her. The boy, who was eleven years old, was almost as tall as his grandmother. His sister was quieter and stood half a foot shorter.

Magdalena nodded. Grabbing a napkin, she wet it and wiped the sticky mess off her son’s face. Before leaving, Magdalena grabbed her cross-body bag that had her notebook and pencils tucked inside. She and the three children exited the house and walked north towards the mountains and the two volcanoes that were linked by a high saddle.

The three children played veo, veo, which was like the game I Spy that American children played.

“Veo, veo algo rojo,” said the grandson.

“La rosa,” exclaimed Sebastian as he pointed at the rose bush that crossed their path.

The paved sidewalk had long ended. There was grass sprouting from the soil, and large trees offered shade as they made their ascent. Foil gum wrappers littered the ground and flared when the sun’s rays bloomed through the tree.

“I spy something from Bambi!” Sebastian said.

“Conejito!” The granddaughter exclaimed as she pointed at a rabbit that scampered deeper into the comfort of the trees.

“Pa’ mixiotes,” the older boy said before laughing.

Magdalena cringed as she recalled watching her father break the neck of a gray rabbit. They baked the skinned animal with a mix of spices and red chili sauce.

The four of them reached the valley below the trailhead of la Mujer Dormida. The mountain received its name because it reminded the people of Mexico of a sleeping woman. The valley was flush with Mexican white cedar trees.

“Snow!” Sebastian said, and his small hand tugged on the hem of Magdalena’s shirt. The four of them looked up ahead at where the mountain lay. At the peaks, they could see the white spread across like a bride’s veil. No matter the season, la Mujer Dormida housed permanent glaciers and snow. The children decided to run around the gorge, gather rocks, and inspect the lizards that scurried away from their tennis shoes.

“Don’t go too far,” Magdalena warned.

She sat down on the flat ground with her legs crossed. From her bag, she pulled out her sketchpad and pencils. Magdalena began to sketch the face of a woman with almond-shaped eyes and bold eyebrows. She drew a head with long, loose curls. As she began to draw a crown of flowers, her son came tumbling into her lap.

“Princess?” He asked as he pointed at her sketch.

She nodded and pointed at the large mountain ahead and said, “It’s her.”

Sebastian crinkled his nose, and his eyebrows creased.

“She, Izta, was a Nahua princess,” Magdalena began to explain. Now the other two children had sat next to her. Their legs were crossed too, and the young girl had propped her chin on her fists.

“Was she pretty?” The granddaughter asked.

Magdalena nodded. She told them that a war had erupted, like lava spitting from a fissure, between the Nahuas and the Aztecs and how Izta fell for a warrior named Popo.

“Izta’s father sent the warrior to war and promised Popo he could marry the princess when he returned victorious,” she continued.

“What did he look like?” The children asked.

Magdalena drew the contours of a young man with broad shoulders. A headdress adorned with feathers was nestled atop Popo’s head. She explained that a man from the village was jealous of the warrior and gave word that Popo had died. And Izta died of heartbreak.

Sebastian and the girl gasped.

“Popo returned from the war,” Magdalena continued. “And carried her to the top of a montaña so she could sleep for all eternity.”

“But where is Popo?” The children asked before looking at one another.

Magdalena pointed to the south of la Mujer Dormida at a volcano that was larger than the mountain. Ribbonlike smoke billowed out of the volcano as the children stared with their mouths agape. A gust ruffled the group’s hair-like feathers. The penciled drawing catapulted out of Magdalena’s grasp before plunging into a distant snowfield.

Sebastian looked up at Magdalena. “Where is papá?”

“The other side. El otro lado.”

Read more from Issue No. 23 or share on Twitter.