chickens aren’t the only ones my daughter’s book repeats
and names all the animals which lay eggs: crocodiles more elegant birds
like peacocks turtles doves animals with fangs
I think of all the parcels we’ve left by the time we reach adulthood
eggs that hatch from a deep unconscious ovum of hunger
& then to wake up and see all these hungry mouths wanting to be fed
red dripping with red opening and shutting
Is this called being a mother? A father? To see hungry mouths,
their need to be fed? That your own hunger must wait patiently?
That this hunger is inherited? That this hunger is not made of language
but of need? That you, you are trapped inside the hunger of your own
children? That there is no such food to fill it, but once, once, there was
and your body tells you to find it, this missing food,
that fed your people for millennia.
The kitchen is closed, my mother used to say,
when I’d beg for a snack at bedtime, in the middle of the day,
either that or she’d sit me in front of a dinner plate for hours if I refused to eat the tired steak,
the griseled ground beef, the lump of rice, all patiently waiting for my mouth to open
as I stared and kept my mouth closed. I don’t like what you feed me, I would say.
My mom refused to cook
when we all stopped wanting her food.
The hand-made tortillas, the frozen meat cooked with a boiling tomato.
Her talks on the phone with Sister Magdalena in Spanish
aye gracias a Dios, si sister, her voice childlike and afraid
as she answered reprimands for not having a traditional kind of family.
She began to only feed us with food
made by other people, through windows,
who lived poorer lives, who were hungrier
and had children also hungrier
but whose kitchen was always open to us.
We were fed by the kind of people my mom knew
named Panchi or Juanita, Consuela or Rosa whose prima
she helped find clothes for her children, a mattress for a newborn,
blankets or sheets for a bare mattress
where a family of six slept.
My mother, wing-tipped hair with department store clothes,
adept at raising money for PTO carnivals, new uniforms for the dance team,
the lunch money needed for that one kid, the face behind
the snowcone machine and hands dripping with red syrup.
But shame, an animal living in my mother, released
over time. It became difficult to look at a hungry mouth, especially ours,
and not know exactly what to feed us.
And so the shut kitchen, refusing to budge, the shut-in reptile birthed into a room of telenovelas
and All My Children.
My mother was born hungry.
Her fifteen-year-old birthmother, too, ravenous, hunger-
rage. Something to do with having names like Ninfa, Amelia, Henrietta or Queta, Maria, Adela,
Dionnes or Guadalupe or Cruz (which someone now says how odd, what odd not common
names) and wanting children with names that look fed and well-groomed, sophisticated, nothing
that makes a head swivel and a glance that demands why are you not in the kitchen? Are
you the nanny? a girl asks me while I wait for my daughter to finish her last spin on the
gymnastics beam What are you doing here?
My name is Leslie or as my Lita pronounced it Yeslie and sometimes when I try to roll my
tongue to speak to someone who looks like me but does not speak the same language, I hear her
voice saying aver aver looking down over my mother’s shoulder as she pins a bead on a wedding
dress in her cluttered sewing room and how I felt stupid and poor waiting in her house for my
mother to finish visiting with her how someone once told me that we were people stupid and
poor that did not use bathroom facilities or showers and I hated sitting by the dirty air
conditioning unit that only seemed to circulate hot air I hated the roaches racing across her
floor when you turned the lights on the mothball smell of the hallway the fact that
Lita once looked like a young lady with dark eyes and a stylish hair style, puffed up into clouds
above her brow and red lipstick and during the Mexican revolution and the soldiers were
raping and killing and her family fled because of an incident something that cracked
across her face, a something hardened into a permanent No on my Lita and she could not have
and she only wanted to be
served by girls so she adopted my
mother who cooked and
cleaned and cooked and was raised to serve God in a convent
On visits, my grandmother
would tell my mom to send us into the kitchen not
the beans to stir the mole stare at the rice boiling
my mother whispered to go play outside so my sister and I
walked out on the sidewalks crackling with broken glass made up mean games to hurt
each other or ourselves or simply said let’s see who can run
fastest pretend we’re being chased by someone who wants to kill us
let’s see who gets to live
My mother looking over my shoulder as I did homework, eyes darting as I read words longer
and longer, and the notes she wrote to me when I yelled childishly This doesn’t even make
sense? You don’t know how to spell X? and the understanding years later that
she raised me barely knowing how to read that she did not know how to speak
English until she was in fourth grade by watching “I Love Lucy” that her
neighborhood was for Mexicans and other Latinx immigrants and their children and that
now her English is perfectly lilted perfectly American and full of slang so that no one knows
who she was before and how for her the worst kind of embarrassment was
having an accent and being called stupid which she thought was her name in English as a
three ribs broken on the playground Don’t talk that way she told me once when I
faked a valley accent to fit in at middle school You sound uneducated, the worst kind of
Mexican— There is no reason to talk that way I want better for you
My mother was
my mother had been so
hungry and as I filled
my days with words and more words she didn’t understand she wondered why she didn’t feel
full as I read and read more I wondered why I didn’t either I became used to
hunger I became used to blaming her, my family, for the fact that I was hungry
We let her be different and
once a dancer in baile folklórico, skilled
all the traditional dances, handmade costumes in full bright red and yellow skirts
long hair braided up with ribbons and elaborate pinned styles
She said let me teach you
and I did not answer except to say You
teach me Spanish I went to my room and did homework and felt angry for reasons I could
not define I / She felt hungry it was always dinnertime in our relationship and we did not
know how to speak to another in a common language or how to share a meal
My mom says stay within the seam allowance don’t pull or tug the fabric let the machine
its teeth carry the fabric through to sew down the thread together I have trouble with
the machine catching I have trouble threading the needle I spend an hour attending
to the machine cutting the fabric my mom watches me struggle sees me tug
the straight line into a jagged crooked nest of fabric and thread Aver she says she takes it
and with three quick hand movements she finishes the shirt pulls it over my body and
says I knew exactly what size to make it I was cutting it I added darts
and hemmed the bottom while you weren’t looking while you weren’t paying attention
I remember the handmade Halloween costumes for all three children in my house the lace
collars and the frills I liked as a child but was annoyed by as I reached middle school It
doesn’t look right I’d say It looks homemade I did not realize that somewhere
someone else had made the clothes I wore bought cheaply at the store at the mall someone else’s
mother or daughter and the difference was that they didn’t know me did not memorize my
size did not ever think She’ll look good in that color it’s just right I’ll get four yards
Leslie Contreras Schwartz is a multi-genre writer from Houston. Her work examines the individual versus public bodies and documents lived experiences and narratives of those usually silenced, such as people with mental illness, sex workers, women who are trafficked, or children in custody. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Missouri Review, The Collagist, [PANK], Verse Daily, The Texas Review, Catapult, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal, among others. Her new collection of poems, Nightbloom & Cenote (St. Julian Press, May 2018), was a semi-finalist for the 2017 Tupelo Press Dorset Prize, judged by Ilya Kaminsky.
In 2018, she was a featured poet for the Houston Poetry Fest. She is the author of Fuego, and was a finalist for the 2018 Houston Poet Laureate. Her fiction will be included in Houston Noir, edited by Gwendolyn Zepeda (Akashic Press, May 2019). She is currently a poetry editor at Four Way Review, and works as a lecturer at the University of Houston. She is a graduate of The Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and earned a bachelor’s at Rice University.