Your Sweet Words, José: Translations from the Portuguese

Eleanor Stanford


We came by truck, my daughter Mila and I. It took one week. We drove through the desert, the women in front in one vehicle and the men following. The coyote said it was better this way.

At the Rio Grande, we got into the rafts. We tossed our bags in, and lay down, and the men pulled us across.

It was one in the afternoon, broad daylight. There were many people crossing at the same time we were. It was both secretive and bizarrely public, the air full of fear and excitement, the muddy water sloshing beneath us, flies buzzing around our ears.

You didn't look at anyone, didn't pretend to know where they came from, or what they had paid to get here.

On the other side, we had to walk for twenty minutes until someone came to pick us up again in a truck. Those twenty minutes were the worst of the entire trip. I wanted to run, but couldn't. Whatever you do, the coyote had told us, don't run.

Mila was nine. She was not a strong child, pale and easily fatigued. I looked back at her, trembling and breathing hard, trying to keeping up. I wanted to carry her, but she was heavy, and I was so tired.

When we first arrived in Philadelphia, I was afraid we wouldn't be able to go outside, go to the store, anything. I imagined immigration lurking everywhere, men with mustaches and big guns, always behind the next corner.

It's not like that, though.

Some days are hard. I think, forget it, I'll just pack up, take the money I've earned and go home.

Some days it's ok, and I think maybe I could stay here and make a life.

I think sometimes of a poem I read in school.

E agora, José? Drummond de Andrade asks the immigrant in his poem.

What now?

The keys to the large empty houses rattle on my ring: keys to other people's lives, their cool hallways, vases of lilies and freesias, enormous subzero refrigerators I wipe down until my reflection wavers in the steel door.


It's been years since I left school. But for some reason this poem stays with me, and surfaces sometimes. Mostly at night, when I've finished the dishes and wait for sleep, picturing my mother back in Minas, shooing the chickens into their pen:


Alone in the dark

like a wild animal,

without tradition,

without a naked wall

to lean against.


I pull the sheets taut over the corners of the bed. I smooth the tablecloth. I empty the bucket of dirty water in the sink.


In the summer, when Mila has no school, she comes with me. Sometimes she helps, washing the dishes, folding the clean laundry. Sometimes she bring her bathing suit, a sparkly gold bikini, and floats in the swimming pool, her long hair trailing out behind her.

For so long I haven't known what to tell her. Not when she was nine and we were walking under the hot sun, and we couldn't run and we couldn't stop, and we couldn't turn back, either.

Not now, when she is fifteen, and comes home with pages of questions in a language I barely understand.


In his poem, Drummond de Andrade tells José:


You want to die in the sea,

but the sea has dried;

you want to go to Minas,

but Minas is no longer there.


When I finish my last house, I gather my rags and cleaning sprays and mop, my keychain dangling a small Brazilian flag. 

I picture our apartment, locked and empty. The sink spotless, the beds made. Outside, the streets are scarred with trolley tracks. The stores advertise international phone cards and Brahma beer. At the restaurants and car repair shops you don't have to speak English, there are so many new arrivals from Minas and Goiás.  

Immigration's been making raids. The one in Riverside was a disaster. Not as bad here, yet, on this side of the river, but I know plenty who've been sent back, or cut their losses and fled, afraid. Some who've ended up in jail. 

What now, José?

I slip on my shoes, my footprints drying to invisibility on the mopped floor. I fumble for the key, tighten my ponytail, straighten my t-shirt over my hips.

The hinges creak. The screen slams shut. 

No door exists.

José, where to?