What She Would
By James Seals
The mule women, porteadoras, of Melilla often carry one hundred and thirty pound loads of domestic goods, toiletries and second-hand garments upon their petite backs. These grandmothers and mothers amble doubled-over along a dirt road. They wrap the payload’s thick, coarse rope around their tiny, calloused hands, ensuring their freight’s stability. The mule women are fashioned in their traditional colorful dresses, heelless soft-leather slippers and head scarves.
An antiquated agreement between the Spanish enclave Melilla and Morocco states that if the women can carry the goods across the border into Morocco, the imported fares are duty-free. Many of the mule women work as porteadoras because work in Morocco is scarce. Some porteadoras have four children, no husband. Some porteadoras have husbands who are sick, unable to work. But the mule women of Melilla all have families and their families must eat.
As a child an auntie, Tita, told me a story about my mother: “She was a princess, your grandfather a chief.” I failed to understand what Tita meant by princess as I envisioned Disney’s Snow White and Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Tita explained that Mother, Luisita Morena, had fled her village.
“Why?” I asked. “Did she dislike her castle?”
Tita laughed then revealed that there are no castles or motes or sword-wielding knights in the Philippines. I hung my head. Tita explained that Luisita Morena had escaped her father and the wealthy old man whom her father prearranged her marriage to.
“Why?” I asked.
“For gifts,” Tita replied, almost adding of course. Tita told me that the gifts consisted of American cigarettes, chocolates and dollars. What I later came to realize was that the true gift was one less mouth for my grandfather to feed.
Luisita Morena supposedly walked the two hundred and fifty-four miles from her village to Angeles City, The Entertainment Capital of the Philippines. My mother’s journey transpired just after JFK had insinuated America into the French and Vietnamese conflict, which began the weekly invasion of American airmen landing at Clark Air Force Base, Angeles City.
Many of the Melilla porteadoras have worked for more than twenty years as a mule woman, sometimes carrying over one hundred and seventy-five pounds of merchandise to a dusty and overcrowded Moroccan marketplace. The porteadoras earn $4.10 for transporting their bundle to traders who likely ship the wares throughout North Africa, pocketing substantially more of the four hundred million dollars that this operation has been estimated to gross each year. Mule women have stated that they would rather perform domestic house tasks – cleaning and cooking – unfortunately that sort of work is unavailable. So the porteadoras, though pregnant or ill or cancer stricken, must arduously labor for their and their family’s survival.
Tita had sworn to me that my mother would have done anything to survive. I often wondered to what extent Mother would have gone. A month after I had turned thirteen my family traveled to the Philippines to visit my ailing grandfather. He refused to speak to my sister and me because the last photos that he had seen of us two showed my sister at three years of age and I had just turned one. My grandfather simply declined to believe that we were his grandchildren. Mother found her father’s disillusions laughable and she shrugged off the ignorance he displayed. During our visit, Mother appeared happy to see her Filipino family and friends after so many years away. Mother cried so often that her crying became infectious; I never told her but I hid in my transitory nipa-hut room so that she could not see me crying too.
Near the end of our trip, my father and I spent a day together – a rare occurrence of him and me on our own – wandering the streets of Angeles City. My father seemed on a mission, scurrying by flip-flop salesmen and coconut merchants and sugary halo-halo stands. My father, though, slowed as we enter the Red Light District of The Entertainment Capital of the Philippines.
I ogled the women in their fish-net dresses, seeing a woman’s naked flesh in person for the first time. I listened as the semi nudes shouted, “Hey big boy,” to my father. Then I spied my father’s “shit-eating grin” as they told him, “I likey you white skin.” My father’s grasp turned limp and he allowed my hand to fall to my side, though he had earlier told me to “hold my hand like a man” because he was afraid we might become separated.
The mule women of Melilla now complain that men have begun occupying their space in the long cargo queue, prompting new agreement talks between the two countries. Morocco’s growing unemployment rates have led Moroccan men to seek jobs that have customarily been deemed only for women. So now the porteadoras have another obstacle to overcome, incensing them as they fear that their daughters may one day soon be forced to work as mules too.
That evening when I was thirteen, I began to wonder what Luisita Morena would have done to survive. According to Tita, Mother would have done anything. Growing up, I remember Filipina women filtering in then out of my mother’s life. My mother match-made for native Filipina women: flying them from the PI to wherever we lived then introducing the girls to white American GIs. My mother match-made better than anyone I have ever known; every Filipina found a suitable husband, which led me to often joke that my mother was a pimp.
I silently watched my father eyeball those working and buy-me-drink girls along the filthy streets of Angeles City. My father’s smile had shown in a way that resembled a man reminiscing about his “good old days.” My mother died before I attained the courage to ask her what she would have done to survive. Yet I have always known what the princess, Luisita Morena, would have done to live.
James Seals is an MFA student at the Southern New Hampshire University. He is studying fiction writing. James earned his bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and English from SNHU. His stories have been published in Amoskeag Journal, Forge Journal, Rio Grande Review, Pithead Chapel, O-Dark-Thirty, and The Apeiron Review. James’ story “White, Like You” was selected as the winner of SNHU’s graduate writing contest. Also, James’ poetry has been published inThe Penmen Review and anthologized in Measuring Twine: Poetry with Strings Attached.
(Updated Jan. 2014)