Home > Essays > An Epistle for Edenia
Published: Mon Apr 15 2024
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
AGNI 99 Family Home Ethnicity
An Epistle for Edenia

Dear Ma,

I was in my early twenties when I told you I am a writer. You dug into the same bookcase you had in the living room since I was a kid (which still held the Compton’s Encyclopedia set you bought from a door-to-door salesman back in the mid-eighties) and took out a legal pad filled with your writing. “Yo comencé a escribir mi historia,” you said as I flipped through the pages. Your hand was so hard, the backs of the pages felt like braille.

When I started reading you yanked the legal pad from me and laughed when I reached for it. I whined, “Lemme read. I wanna read.”

“Cuando yo me muera,” you said, still smiling.

I’ve thought of those pages so many times over the years. I thought about them when you died last June.


You told me stories of your childhood in Honduras when you wanted me to see how good I had it. Stories about how you went barefoot to school because shoes were a luxury. How, if you were late, you’d have no milk that day. The milk was powdered and tasted like chalk, and bugs floated on top of the yellow liquid, but you drank it because it was the only milk you’d get. I’ve written these stories down, as a way to bring them into my body. I imagine these scenes, using images from the Save the Children commercials that aired in the eighties, full of emaciated children with bugs flying around their faces, bellies bloated, so weak they can barely raise their heads.

You once shared a memory of when you were six or seven years old. You were sitting on the latrine, like the one I used on my first trip to Honduras in 1985, when I was nine. I was a spoiled Americana who had only used a toilet that flushed so I didn’t have to look at where the stuff went. While the toilets at home were white and eddied the business away, this thing was a black, bottomless hole where I imagined all sorts of vermin squirmed, waiting for an unsuspecting child like me to grab and chew on. The wooden planks of the shack were old and splintered, black in parts where the moisture had seeped into the grain, which was now growing mold. You could peek out through the slats where the wood had warped. You were sitting on the wooden top, no toilet seat to protect your rear, but by then you knew how to sit so the splinters didn’t dig into you. You’d grown immune to the stench and the frightening thoughts of what festered in that hole. You were swinging your skinny legs, elbows propped on your knees, face in your hands, scarred from mosquito bites and so many falls. You picked at a scab and wondered what you’d eat that night. Maybe some tortillas y frijoles, the staple diet de los pobres. You hoped Abuelita Tinita had scrounged enough to buy at least a piece of meat. Un pollito o una carnesita de res dripping in fat and juices. It had been so long since you ate meat. That was when you felt the shudder in your stomach, as if something inside it was moving, slithering. Then you started to choke. Something had lodged in your throat, and prevented you from breathing in or out. You kicked the flimsy wooden door of the latrine. Your worn-too-many- times panties and shorts were still around your ankles. Your T-shirt was still rolled up above your belly button. Abuelita, who was sitting on a stool in the patio shelling beans, ran to you and shoved her hand into your mouth. You gagged, but nothing came up. Tinita shoved her fingers deeper until she felt it. She grabbed hold and yanked, pulled out a tapeworm several feet long. You fell back onto the dirt, sweating and heaving.


We were poor growing up, but for us that meant living in Bushwick, Brooklyn, in a neighborhood that looked like a war zone. I remember watching the news on our tiny television set, its antenna made from a repurposed metal hanger, and seeing what was left of Beirut after the bombings during the civil war. I thought: That looks like home.

We lived in an apartment with walls that flaked off in chunks, their dust giving me asthma and Carlos lead poisoning. We never had the latest kicks and couldn’t go on school trips that cost money, even if it was just a few dollars.

Poor for you meant watching your baby sister have seizures and die “por una fiebre que no le bajaba.” When you recounted this memory, you clawed your hands and flailed your arms to show me como le brincaba el cuerpo a la niña, who was not yet a year old. Your mother left Honduras six months after in search of a better life. You were nine.


When you died, I went to your apartment in search of one thing: that legal pad. I didn’t expect to discover that you’d started writing a memoir. I found its pages tucked into an H&M bag in the bottom of your wall unit. You had gathered sheets of lined paper, punched holes at the top, above the first line, and pinned them together with brass plated fasteners. Then you gave each packet a title in big, neat letters: Cosas que Sucedieron en Sabá, Partida de Honduras así a NY, Padrastos. Most of them were blank, but there were a few you’d started writing, including the one titled Escuela.

You started school at seven-years-old at José Trinidad de Cabañas in La Ceiba. When she put you to bed the night before your first day, your Abuelita, the woman who raised you, told you, “Tomorrow you begin to prepare yourself for life. Although I never went to school and your mother could only get to the second grade, school is important. You will learn to read, write, the numbers. You will be able to read all those magazines your mother has that you pretend to read.” She made the skirt and blouse of your uniform out of a flour sack that she washed and let dry in the sun to remove the yellowish tint. “Fue mi uniforme mas bello.” Abuelita made many more uniforms over the years, but this one was special because you saw the lengths she went through so you could have and do things she never could. With thread that was gifted to you and with Abuelita’s help, you embroidered a patch with the school’s name and the Honduran flag on the lapel of the blouse.

When I was a kid, I often saw you embroidering flowers onto large strips of fabric. Eventually these became tablecloths that you only took out when you were expecting company. I didn’t know it was Abuelita who taught you how to stitch with intricacy.

You wrote that Abuelita will never know how you kept every detail, every loving caress, every sacrifice, all the selfless love she doted on you, in your memory. When I translated these lines, a beam of sun broke through the clouds outside my window onto my page, as if Abuelita was saying: Si, m’ija, lo se.

The next day, Abuelita bathed you using water she carried from the river. She took you to school, as she would every morning until you left her at fifteen to go live with your mother in New York. When you arrived at school the first day, the headmistress addressed the children and parents. She stressed that the children must be clean—have clean nails, ears, hair, their uniform ironed. She said the children’s feet must be spotless. It was at this moment that you started to dislike “aquella vieja estúpida,” whose name you still remembered, Dora de Palou. How dare she demand clean feet when most of the families couldn’t afford shoes? From that day forward, Abuelita made you hop from stone to stone on your walk to school so you wouldn’t dirty your feet too much. When you arrived at the gates, she sat you down on a rock and cleaned your feet with the damp rag she carried. In the courtyard, you were lined up like soldiers and the headmistress went up and down the lines with a ruler in hand, inspecting each child one by one. If a child’s cleanliness didn’t meet her standards, she whacked them with her ruler. She glared and gritted her teeth at your makeshift uniform, but you wore it so proudly.

On that first day Abuelita approached your teacher, Lupita, and asked her to call you by your middle name, Edenia. When Lupita asked why, Abuelita answered: “She is being reborn. It is a new day for her where she will learn to read, write, to prepare herself for life.” Lupita smiled and said, “Así será.” Abuelita had impressed the teacher. When she mentioned her in class, it was always to praise her. During recess, Abuelita was always there waiting for you at the gate. You wrote so much about her loyalty, her incomparable love. When she could, she’d bring you that savory bread I love so much, a bululo, with butter and a bit of unsweetened coffee. She said sugar wasn’t good for you, but later you realized she was trying to stretch the little sugar she had.

Now I know why you always drank your coffee unsweetened.

On days when there was no money for bululos, she brought you a tortilla or a ginger cookie called caballito. If she had nothing to feed you, she promised: “Mañana Dios nos traera.” It was she who ingrained in you a steadfast faith in God, no matter the circumstances you endured.

Whatever she brought you was both breakfast and lunch, and she pretended to share with you. She’d pass you the cup of coffee with the same amount it had when you passed it to her, and she only nibbled the bululo before passing it back. She went on doing this until the food was gone. As I read and translated, I felt your guilt emit from the page. You hadn’t realized she was tricking you. That she was trying to mitigate your hunger. That relentless hunger that was always with you.

When she picked you up in the afternoons, she took you to the river, el Río Cangrejal, where she washed the clothes of the rich for pennies. There, as she slapped the clothes onto the boulders and scrubbed, she had you recount what you learned that day, and once you were able, you read to her aloud from la cartilla, the book you were given at school. She’d point at you proudly and tell the other women who washed next to her that they too should send their children to school to learn to read and write, “Y quizás sus vidas serán mejor que las de nosotras.”

The following spring, Lupita told the class that there was going to be a party in the schoolyard on Mother’s Day, and the student who recited a poem best would win a prize for their mother. Lupita wrote the poem on the board and said that the child who learned the poem, acted it out and was expressive, would represent the class in the assembly. She practiced with the class, knowing this was a tall order for first graders who’d only been in school a few months. Each afternoon she asked for a volunteer to read the poem. You never raised your hand, though you practiced every day because you wanted to win that prize for Abuelita. You told me so many times throughout my life, “Esa anciana fue mi mamá.” Throughout your writing you wrote over and over, “Where was my mother? I don’t know.”

The poem was short and simple, but still difficult for a child beginning to learn how to read and write. All those decades later, you still remembered the poem:

Mi madre es una rosa
Mi padre es un clavel
Yo soy un botoncito acabadito de nacer.

Mis zapatitos me brillan
Mi pelo me da calor
Y los besos que tu me das madre querida
Los tengo en el corazón.

One day Lupita called each student up one by one to recite the poem. You were the third student she called and you were so nervous, but you got up and did what you were told, as Abuelita instructed you: “Tienes que obedecer y respetar a tu maestra.” You didn’t yet know the poem well and skipped some words, but you performed it with charm and jest. At the part about the shoes (“mis zapatitos me brillan”), you showed your bare feet and everyone laughed, including Lupita, who you were quickly growing to love. From that day forward, you recited the poem in front of the class every afternoon, and were ultimately chosen to represent the class at the Mother’s Day assembly. You had to keep this to yourself—one of the rules was that the selection was secret.

The party was the second Sunday in May. Here again you ask: “Where was my mother?” You didn’t know though as an adult you imagined she was working in another city, San Pedro Sula or the capital, Tegucigalpa. You often told me: “Mi mamá fue más padre.” It didn’t matter because you wanted to win the prize for Abuelita since, even at the age of seven, you knew Abuelita was more your mother than your biological one.

At the assembly, your class was the first of the three first-grade classes to be called. Lupita went up to the stage to welcome the families, then she asked you to come up to the stage. You looked for Abuelita in the audience and there she was, emocionada, encantada, orgullosa, sorprendida were the words you used to describe her. You kept your eyes on her as you recited the poem. Again, at the part about the shoes, you raised your feet one by one and giggled, without taking your eyes off Abuelita. Everyone laughed, but it wasn’t a taunting laugh. They weren’t mocking you. They were amused by your innocence and humor. When you were done, you blew Abuelita a kiss and she blew one back. Later, the audience chose the winner through applause, and you won. They called Abuelita, who was radiant with happiness, up to the stage. They gave you the prizes to hand to her one by one: a bouquet of flowers, a set of glass cups with a pitcher, a small basket of cookies, candies, an apple, and a pear. Later, back in the classroom, Lupita hugged you and congratulated Abuelita, wishing her a Happy Mother’s Day. No one mentioned your mother.

That first year of school had an enormous impact on you. You learned to read la cartilla front to back. Then Lupita loaned you simple books (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Gingerbread Man, and more) that she had you read aloud to the class after you’d ingested them. She was amazed by how quickly you took to reading. Abuelita made sure the oil lamp had oil or that she had a candle so you could practice your lessons. You read the books to Abuelita, acting them out as you read, and she’d laugh and applaud. You said you became another person when you acted out those stories, when you put yourself in the book and became the characters. Vanidades, the most popular Spanish language women’s magazine in that era, and your mother’s cowboy novels, were your first best friends. When you arrived in the States nothing shocked or impressed you, not the buildings or the people and their fashion, since with the help of your vivid imagination, you had learned about that world through those magazines.

At the assembly on the last day of school, you were the only student in your class who received high honors certificates. You passed with S for Sobresaliente in all your subjects.

Here, a memory flashes through my mind: how you beamed with pride and gushed over me at awards ceremonies. When I went to your apartment after you died I found, next to where you rested your head, a folder containing various certificates and awards I received in eighth grade, the last year we lived together before I left for boarding school and never moved back.

Months into your second-grade year, an epidemic of polio and measles hit Honduras. The schools became vaccination facilities, and it was the Americanos who came with these vaccines. I wondered, as I read, if the children of Honduras—you among them—were test dummies for these developing vaccines. The polio vaccine was first used in 1955, the measles in 1963. You went to second grade in 1962.

Abuelita carried you to the school to get vaccinated, though by then you were already showing symptoms of polio—you had high fevers and the joints of your arms and legs ached. You remembered seeing parents with sick children waiting in long lines to be vaccinated. Those vaccines ended up having debilitating effects on the children who were malnourished and full of parasites. Many died, were left disabled, never walked again, or ended up with twisted legs. One of your classmates from first grade lost an arm, and another lost mobility. For the rest of his life, he dragged himself to get around.


You once told me about the death of a little girl from the barrio. When I asked you how she died, you looked at me, shrugged, and shook your head: “La pobreza, Vanessa.” During the wake in the family’s home (which was nothing more than a shack really) you watched as parasitic worms slithered out of her nose and poked at her cheeks. Eventually, her mouth had to be opened to let them out.


You were bedridden, unable to move for months, and, like many, didn’t return to school that year when they eventually reopened. As you got better, the sites of the vaccines got infected—“Se podrieron”— and became holes that oozed pus and blood. The pain was intense. You describe how hard that time was—no food, no nutrition for the dying girl you were.

Abuelita couldn’t go to the river to wash clothes or do any of the other various things she did to make money because she was nursing you. You got better but then came down with the measles, probably because you were already so weak. You cried day and night from the severity of the headaches; your ears oozed a foul-smelling liquid. Abuelita, with her knowledge of herbs, traditional medicines, and healing modalities, tended to you, sometimes causing you even more suffering. It was all she could do to help, and eventually, with her and God’s intervention, it worked. Where was your mother? You have a faint memory of her coming to see you when she got word that you might not make it. She didn’t stay long and never once did she tend to you.


After my college graduation in 1993, we went to lunch at an Italian restaurant on Broadway, a few blocks from campus. The decor was rustic, with long tables made of weathered wood and matching chairs. The near floor-to-ceiling windows looked out onto the busy avenue. We were eating and talking when Titi, your sister, asked: “So what are your plans? What are you going to do now?”

I looked at you and back at Titi. You were busy eating your pasta, avoiding my eyes. That was when I finally confessed: “I’m not gonna go to law school. I’m gonna take a year to see what’s next.”

You slammed your fork on the table so hard, the table shook and the water in my glass splashed onto the table. “Yo sabía que tú no ibas a ser ni mierda con tú vida.” I was still wearing my graduation gown with the Columbia crown stitched onto the lapel.

I was angry and resentful for years. Law school was your dream for me, because I talked back, and liked to debate and argue my side. From when I was small, you’d tell me and anyone who would listen: “Con esa boca tiene que ser abogada.” So much of what I’d done up to that point was to appease you. Maybe if I do this, she’ll love me . . . Maybe if I do that. That day I realized that no matter how I tried, nothing I did would get me what I yearned for, what I still yearn for even now as a woman of almost fifty—your love and support. Your approval.

Ours was a difficult relationship, up to the end. When you died, we hadn’t spoken or seen one another for 364 days. This wasn’t the first time, and it wasn’t the longest one of our silences either.


I’ve been writing your stories for so long, trying to understand you, to get close to you, to see how and why you became the mother you became, the mother who finally confessed to your abuse in your letters: “A ti te maltrate.” Is that why you left me these stories? You couldn’t give me the love and nurturing I needed, but you could give me this, your version of your life in your hand. You could give me answers, so that with them I could do what I’ve been trying to do for more than fifteen years—“Para que Vanessa escriba un libro.”


On the bottom shelf of the same bookcase you never threw out, I found a purple marbled composition book with the words Dreams, Sueños, Deseos on the cover. On the first page you wrote: “Dreams that I have that . . . but I can’t because . . .” The rest of the notebook was blank.


I imagine the slideshow of memories that flooded your mind when you saw me cross the stage and shake the hand of the dean of students, and accept my diploma. You remember your walks to school, practicing your letters by candlelight, your teacher Lupita who instilled in you a love for reading that lasted into adulthood. I remember watching you read Reader’s Digest Selecciones while you sat in our living room, the bonnet hair dryer over your massive rolos. When we realized we had similar tastes, we exchanged books—I gave you Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Sons, and Paula by Isabel Allende; you gave me David Sheff ’s Beautiful Boy when your son, my beloved brother Carlos, reeled into addiction.

As always, you remembered Abuelita Tinita, esa anciana, who loved you so beautifully, who made you believe education was the key to a brighter future. You continued your education, even after having us kids. I found the GED certificate you received in 1985 in a folder next to your bed. You started college but dropped out when your daughter, my sister, had her son at sixteen. You sacrificed so she could continue her education.

I imagine you thinking, when you heard me say “I’m not going to law school,” How dare she, who has so much access, not take advantage of all this opportunity.

I was the one who looked most like you, the one who reminded you most of yourself with my stubbornness and unwillingness to let anything stop me. But I had something you didn’t have: access. In your eyes, I was squandering it by not continuing my education as you saw fit.


After I had my daughter at twenty-nine, I decided to quit my full-time editing job and pursue writing and teaching. I learned early that cubicle work was not for me. That’s why I got fired from so many corporate jobs. You didn’t know this though. How could I tell you about all those failures?

When I quit my job, I wanted you to hear it from me. I planned to tell you outside so, if anything, I could run.

I got that opportunity one day when you visited Titi in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan, where I also lived a few blocks away. I walked you to the train when you were ready to go back to Brooklyn.

We were crossing Broadway when I said, “Ma, I’m leaving my job.”

“Y que vas a hacer?” You looked at me, confused.

“I wanna write and teach.”

“Y la nena?”

“She has health insurance through her dad. We’ll be fine.”

You stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and looked at me. I couldn’t read your face, so I tensed my body and dug my feet into my sneakers, readying myself to run.

“Bueno, if I know anything about you, it’s that when you set your mind to something, you do it.”

I was shocked. I never really understood why you didn’t slap or degrade me, tell me that I was wasting my education. It was only after reading your incomplete memoir that I understood. I have tried not to be like you, but I am your child through and through. I am a writer like you were. By leaving me your writing, you left it to me to do something you never could—write a book about us, our family.

I never imagined you could have a relationship with someone after their death. That’s what you left me. Not just stories, but answers. A way for us to talk to each other like we couldn’t when you were alive. Now we can have those long overdue conversations on the page.

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Vanessa Mártir is a queer, Bushwick, Brooklyn–raised, Afro-Indigenous artist, writer, editor, and educator. Her work has appeared in such publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, AGNI, Aster(ix), The Rumpus, and Bitch, and has been anthologized in Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay, and So We Can Know: Writers of Color on Pregnancy, Loss, Abortion, and Birth, edited by Aracelis Girmay. Recipient of the 2021 Letras Boricuas Fellowship, she founded the Writing Our Lives Workshop and the Writing the Mother Wound movement. More at vanessamartir.com and in her newsletter writingourlives.substack.com. (updated 4/2024)

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