By Alma Luz Villanueva
I lived in Santa Cruz, California, for sixteen years while my youngest son grew up, became a surfer, a runner, and went off to university. So, when I heard that eight-year-old Madyson Middleton was missing from the Tannery Arts Center, where she lived with her mother, I immediately began to worry in a personal way. Also, one of my granddaughters is exactly Madyson’s age, and I was to find out later that she knew Maddy from school. And so, the night of July 26, 2015 I kept checking for updates- was she found yet. Then I finally gave up, went to sleep after midnight. I kept seeing her large, beautiful, child eyes, awake when I checked the clock, back to dreaming. In the very pit of my stomach, where the truth lives, I knew she was no longer alive- but I refused to believe it. And her mother, her young mother- I imagined what she was going through. Her beloved child missing.
I felt the horror in every cell of my body like small fires. And I remembered myself at seven, an older thirteen year old friend saying it was okay to go to the park by ourselves. Buena Vista Park, San Francisco, the early 1950s. I was wearing a brand new dress and twirling around because I thought I was beautiful, special, in my brand new dress. My grandmother had made large curls on my thick, dark hair, held by barrettes- I remember they matched my dress, soft pink. I never left the street by myself, my grandmother, Mamacita, watching me from the window as I rode my Hopalong Cassidy bike with rainbow streamers on the handlebars. She’d yell my name, “ALMA,” and I had to answer like a song we knew together. Alma means Soul, and she’d often say (in Spanish), “Tu eres mi Alma…You are my soul.”
When my older friend, Peggy, and I got to the playground area we had swinging contests to see who could go higher. Of course, she was stronger as her feet pierced the sky much higher than mine. But I didn’t mind, I remember I was just happy to be swinging with my new dress blowing around me. I remember wondering if Mamacita was calling my name, waiting for me to sing back to her. I remember wanting to go back suddenly, like a pain my eight-year-old stomach.
A young man- now I realize he was a teenager, but he looked like a grown up to me- showed Peggy and I a police badge and said that one of us had to go sign a book because we weren’t supposed to be there alone. Peggy said immediately, “She’ll go,” and ran away. The boy/man told me to follow him and I did- then, he picked me up, taking me into some bushes. He took off my brand new pretty dress, my panties, but he left my shoes on- I remember they were black and shiny. He told me to lie down and I did, on the scratchy ground. There was so sound- not a car, not Mamacita calling my name. Nothing. I remember I wasn’t really afraid, but mostly curious why he wanted to take off my clothes, lie down on the scratchy ground. I remember he touched my body all over and once put his finger in my pee place which hurt, and he stopped touching my body. He asked me if I wanted to taste something good- I believed him and (now I realize) he put his penis in my mouth. It didn’t taste like anything and he took it out pretty fast.
That’s when I heard La Llorona’s weeping, her voice, “Don’t scream, don’t move, Alma, niña.” And I remembered Mamacita telling me if I ever hear La Llorona weeping, her voice, I was in danger. And so, I didn’t scream or move.
“You can get dressed now,” he said. “But see this gun, if you tell anyone I’ll find you and kill you. Do you understand?” I remember he was thin, tall, dark-haired, and I could still hear La Llorona weeping, softly, so I just shook my head yes. And I didn’t cry or say a word. I didn’t run. I walked carefully all the way home, but I didn’t twirl once in my pretty new dress.
“The police are looking for you, niña!” my aunt Ruth almost screamed, running toward me. “Peggy said a man took you away in the park.”
Mamacita came toward me, holding me within her soft wings. “Did he hurt you, mi Alma?” she asked (in Spanish- she not ever spoke English).
“Just once but he stopped and he had a gun too.”
My aunt and Mamacita went with me to police station, where they first did an exam of my pee place, and the lady said, “She’s okay,” smiling at me. I remember I started to cry, thinking of La Llorona’s voice, the young man’s gun, his warning. “If you tell anyone, I’ll find you and kill you.”
The police man brought me an ice cream and told me to look through the police book with lots of pictures. “Let me know if you see him, honey,” he said. I thought of how the young man tricked me, to go with him to sign a book, and I started to look at the pictures of so many men. And I found him, “There he is. That’s him. And he has a gun. He showed it to me.” I didn’t cry. I found him in the big police book. I was still wearing my pretty new dress, and now it felt old. I didn’t like it anymore. But I didn’t cry.
When my mother came home from work, I started to cry, and she told me, “Nothing happened to you, big cry baby.” My aunt Ruth stepped between us, I remember, and Mamacita ran a bath for me. I heard my aunt, “What’s wrong with you, Lydia, your daughter could have been killed.”
Those words stayed with me, “Your daughter could have been killed.” I wouldn’t go outside and I stayed home from school for a long time. Peggy came one time to see if I wanted to play with her in the house. Although I was only seven, I knew she had let me do the dirty work, and I never played with her again.
I finally told Mamacita, as we lay in bed together before sleep, when she told me stories of her Mexico and often La Llorona. That she saw her once after one of her babies died, and that she was very beautiful. I later learned that Mamacita was a curandera, a healer, like her mother, when she lived in her Mexico. I finally told Mamacita that I heard La Llorona crying, and her voice, to not scream, to be still.
“Ayyyy, niña, tienes coraje…Child you are brave.” But she knew I was still scared because I wouldn’t go outside on the street to ride my Hopalong Cassidy bike with its rainbow streamers on the handlebars. And I wouldn’t wear the pretty new dress. I hated it. And I didn’t twirl around like dancing.
The next morning a huge storm blew in from the Pacific Ocean. Mamacita loved the ocean. We often took the 5 McAllister trolley through the dark tunnel to her ocean. She got me dressed in pants, warm clothing and brought an umbrella which the wind kept turning inside out, making me laugh. She laughed with me. Mamacita always wore thick stockings and a dress, with her overcoat and hat, when we went out together. Like Chinatown for the alive chickens, which she picked out, the best one. She said it was just like her Mexico and I could tell she was happy there. The Chinese man spoke Chinese and she spoke Spanish, and he always gave me some candy treats, smiling into my eyes.
When we got off the trolley, she didn’t even bother putting the umbrella up- the wind and rain just welcomed us. Usually, we stopped for chocolate covered bananas, hot dogs on a stick (I was her translator and ordered for us in my proud voice)- but this time she took my hand, crossing the street to the great madre mar. She took me to the wet sand and I could feel the ocean wanting to kill me.
Then, she said, pointing, “Do you see her, niña…do you see the beautiful La Llorona? She will always remember you now. You are her child. You heard her voice, mi Alma.”
And I saw her walking toward us, and she was singing to la madre mar without fear. Her long, dark dress flew in the wind, and she sang so sweetly. A part of me wanted to run, but Mamacita’s hand held me tight. “Do you hear her singing, niña?”
Yes, I nodded and I wasn’t afraid. I would learn to wear boy’s clothes at around ten when I wanted to ride my bike anywhere in San Francisco- from the Mission District to Golden Gate Park, to la madre mar. I would never happily wear a dress again, and twirl like dancing. I loved my freedom.
Maddy’s eight-year-old body was found at the bottom of a dumpster within the Tannery Arts Center- a fifteen-year-old boy/man was arrested as her killer. She was duct-taped, beaten, raped, stabbed in the neck, and she died of positional asphyxiation. Which means she didn’t die right away at the bottom of the dumpster after the boy/man, her trusted neighbor, placed her there underneath the disposable things. In a recent update, I read that there’s a current slew of such youth/teen crimes, and I realize that the boy/man, sixty-three years ago, didn’t have twenty-four hour a day access to the internet, pornography. I read that one child pornography site had children chained to walls, waiting for their rapists, and that some were killed online as well. Did this boy/man find these sites, I wonder. Did this give him permission to torture, rape, kill eight-year-old Madyson Middleton…how many child rapes did he witness via these sites, I wonder.
When Maddy was at the bottom of the disposable things, the dumpster, did she hear La Llorona singing to her sweetly. Did she feel La Llorona’s powerful arms enfold her, comfort her, carry her home, I wonder.
**La Llorona is the reincarnation of Mexico’s ancient native Goddesses, such as Coatlicue, the Goddess of Life/Death/Rebirth. She wears a skirt of skulls, and when she walks, dances, the sound of rattles, rain, regeneration. After the Conquest, La Llorona emerged weeping, calling for her millions of dead native children. My grandmother, Mamacita, told me stories of La Llorona, her Mexico, and in her stories there was much sorrow, but also a sense of endurance, healing magic, and ultimately rising joy. Mamacita was a curandera/healer from Sonora, Mexico- stories, poetry her gift to me. As well as La Llorona- I pass her onto you.
Alma Luz Villanueva is the author of eight published books of poetry, most recently, ‘GRACIAS.’ Also, four novels, most recently, ‘SONG OF THE GOLDEN SCORPION.’ She has lived in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the past ten years, returning to teach at Antioch University’s MFA in Creative Writing program, Los Angeles, now seventeen years. This piece is an excerpt from her ongoing memior project.