I still remember the spell by rote. To regain the affections of a loved one who has left you, you must first fill a bowl with holy water. Then gently suspend a flower, either a doradilla or flor de peña—the fronded spikemoss native to the Chihuahuan Desert—above the pool. Place the water under your bed after that, and then say a prayer to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. If the saint hears your call, she will cause roses to bloom in your garden and your beloved will come rapping at the door. If the plant fails to unfold in the water, and if the roses do not bloom, it is a sign that God has not willed love to return to you. Still, you continue to light your candle, say your rosary, and look toward Saint Thérèse’s holy card and her beguiling smile.
I saw this ritual played out before me on a humid, still afternoon in my aunt Yoli’s house when I was ten years old. It was purely accidental, this witnessing of magic. I had come in looking for my cousin and was promptly told to go outside. At the time I had no clue what the holy water or the flor de peña or the novena to Saint Thérèse was, or how they fit together. I didn’t know a lot of things back then, such as why certain large spiders cowered in the crevices of a house just before hurricanes. I knew little about the intricacies of family ties, with old benevolent uncles who all nodded and smiled to one another during visits with my grandfather under the carport of our house in Harlingen, their conflicts long buried under the weight of time.
My tía Yoli had all the answers to these questions. Once I was old enough to appreciate her spiritual advice, she’d read my cards for me. “Tómate un asiento, vamos a leer las cartas,” she’d say, gesturing me toward a kitchen chair. Mind you, these were not a regular deck of Bicycle brand playing cards, but rather the Spanish deck with its baroque imagery of banderoles, gold coins, and bearded kings, more akin to tarot cards than to their Anglophone counterparts. Each family member embodied a specific card: My mother Margaret, for example, was a reina de bastos—the queen of wands—because she had been born a redhead. My younger brother Paul, who loves his hunting rifle and his pickup truck, is a rey de espadas, a king of swords, rash and hotheaded. And she was intimately familiar with my grandfather José’s card, which also happens to be mine—rey de copas, king of cups, because of the whirlpool of sentimental and nostalgic feelings that continuously swirled in his hazel eyes, which were passed on to me.
The cards she read foretold the stories of our lives, our loves, our collective history as we passed through the humid, salty air of the Gulf. To her, reading the cards was a vehicle for humbly divining the will of God, something as natural as dreaming itself. She would effortlessly lay the cards over the tablecloth covered with clear plastic vinyl and tell me whom I’d be seeing soon, in quicksilver Spanish delivered as if someone else were speaking.
The Rio Grande Valley gets its magic from people like my aunt—those who believe in the blessedness of its brown, humid soil and in its inherent sacredness and inviolability, in the link between those dwelling on the earth and those existing beyond the veil. The liminal is found everywhere in the Valley: along the border, in the green lip of the sea as it meets the sandy margins of Padre Island, in the way people code-switch identity and nationality and ethnicity. The spiritual and physical are naked and coexisting realities. Every prayer or lit votive candle carries with it a tenuous and furtive memory.
Traditions such as reading the cards, making buñuelos, or visiting a cemetery on a windy day, as tiresome as they were to trot out every year, had to be reenacted or retold, because in doing so we learned what it was to love. Through this, my aunt showed me what it was to be Tejano: to love your quirks and to always respect the past, but to always believe in the certainty and optimism of the American experience, slanted through the prism of the borderland.
The hard facts of South Texas informed Yoli’s life. She had been born into a working-class family; like everyone else on the block, she and her family had been farmworkers or manual laborers, clearing thousands of acres of South Texas scrubland to build the paradise of the Magic Valley. World War II had changed everyone’s fortunes, and one day my grandfather started working as a foreman, building A-line frame houses for Chicano and Anglo residents alike. My aunt—the youngest, the baby of my grandfather’s family—hid in the dark black skirts of her grandmother, who effortlessly kneaded out tortillas from thin air and lived in a small cabin behind the big house. Grandpa was a devoted, loving father. From him, she inherited a specific sentimentality and spirituality—qualities that were both intriguing and forbidding.
My grandfather’s family was poor. But no matter what befell them, they still found a way to have their tinsel fifties Christmases, with chiffon petticoats, white Mary Janes with tiny satin bows, Communion dresses, and dolls from Sears bearing perfectly blond hair. The only difference was that Mama Grande would assert herself in the kitchen with pots full of tamales and pans full of Spanish rice and her flour tortillas. My aunt remembered these kitchen excursions and cherished these repasts of love and family togetherness. As the years passed, these traditions—barbecues, tamaladas, prayer circles—grew in her own family, and, later, into mine.
Yoli had three children with her Mexican-born husband, and they traveled together to Colorado to look for work. My aunt came to live in my great-grandmother’s old house, which eventually became hers. It was closer than next door; the house was within arm’s reach. When the sea breeze poured rain, the water from her home’s eaves fell onto mine. Yoli decorated her house with huge, gaudy bouquets of fake flowers she’d found at the Hobby Lobby (a hallmark of nineties Pentecostal chic), and every Halloween she fashioned popcorn balls, shaping each one with buttery hands. Her Christmases were legendary. I still remember her rich shortbread cookies, served with the typical five o’clock merienda of coffee and the evening news.
In the summertime, she watered her night-blooming jasmine, her crape myrtles with their weepy, fuchsia-colored flowers, and we’d sit on her deck and play chalupa with pinto beans. As a family we all took trips to Austin, to the Texas State Aquarium, to Aquarena Springs in San Marcos with its landlubberly mermaids and gift shop. I had my first taste of tripe tacos at her kitchen table and of agua de sandía, (watermelon juice) in Mercedes at its chaotic flea market with her in tow. When Hurricane Dolly roared ashore in 2008, she made my family fideo on a sweltering afternoon the day after the storm made landfall, when we had no food or money for groceries.
Sometimes it was just Yoli and me, eating classic Whataburger combos together on nights when the heat was too intense and the boredom of the house too confining. Under the passing meteors of amber security lights we’d drive around Harlingen in a powder blue Cadillac DeVille—a gigantic drag queen of a car—sipping from milkshakes and pondering what our lives would be like if we won the lottery. We crashed weddings together where I learned how to cumbia and she shuffled along with me. Later, when I was an adult, we indulged in free coffee and doughnuts at the maquinitas—roadside casinos dotting Interstate 69, where she threw down dollar bills on Russian-made video poker and roulette games, one last little pleasure when her health was fading.
Like me, she had once leafed through her maternal grandmother’s missal, back when the canon of the Mass was in Latin and printed on rose-scented India paper. For her the promises made to her in catechism were real: sacrifice something for someone you love, grow a family, and God will bless you. She was strict with her family like her mother—my grandmother—had been, and you had better pray you didn’t fall on her bad side.
So much of who Yoli was, what she believed in, and what she practiced was formed in Old Mexico and transformed by American ideals and morals. There were steady and unmistakable Texanisms in the way she moved and talked and made food and shared it; her character was larger than life, like the state itself. And her gift to me was Texas itself, indelibly captured in everything from moonlight pláticas, or talks, during summer nights to the warm morsels of masa harina and brisket served during Christmas.
When I moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2012, I looked for Tía Yoli’s presence—someone who reminded me of the things she had said. I wanted so desperately to show her what a real Victorian house looked like, and I took copious photos of rose gardens, wrought iron gates, Eastlake houses, Douglas firs, and shady street corners of the Pacific Northwest. I promised myself that whenever I got my dream job, I would amass a book of Portland Victoriana to send back to her. Portland is such a Tía Yoli city—cool and refreshing and quirky, just like she was. I wanted to conjure her up there, if not to give her the long wished-for vacation she desperately needed.
When I came home to visit in the spring of 2019, we stayed up late and caught up on what scandals had taken place on old Wright Street, where I had grown up. “Nothing changes,” she said. “The old get older, and people die off.” But we still spent hours sitting on her deck, where she’d share updates on across-the-street neighbors, or what new gringo thing H-E-B was selling, or if the world really was beginning to come to an end, or the cursory, impractical advice of televangelists. I think she apprehended that things were not right in this life when she suffered a series of strokes and congestive heart failure began to manifest itself in the fall of 2019. I contemplated moving back home just to be close to her and Mom, but didn’t. That previous March she had hugged me goodbye as I was leaving to go to the airport. I asked her if she wanted me to come home. “Yes, I think so, mi’jo,” she replied. “I miss you, and it’s not the same without you.” There were so many things I wanted to tell her there on her deck—apologies for past wrongs, hopes for the future, but above all, I wanted to tell her I loved her immensely. She wasn’t just my aunt. She was at once a mentor, a friend, someone who would always remind me of who I am and what I am made of.
Later that year, she died on a miserable November day. I went to work like I normally did. I avoided making eye contact with anyone on the bus. My day job is facilities coordinator for a tech company, and I spent most of my working day wavering between crying spells and mute disbelief. No one in that office could have been expected to understand that specific complexities of Tejano grief: it is a stoic, deep, resigned grief. (True to her express wishes, I wore mourning for four months as the custom dictates, every night washing two pairs of black pants and two black shirts to observe it.)
At around four in the afternoon that day, the sun came out. Most everyone had left the office. I stood under a tall window imagining the same low rhombus of gold-colored light had just a few hours earlier crept into my tía’s deck, where we had once sipped iced tea together. For a second, a gentle breeze wafted over to me. I smelled white gardenias and the dust of the South Texas wind. She was telling me she loved me in her own way, from beyond the threshold she’d straddled all throughout her life.