I learned Jennifer’s name because she asked for my help with a homework assignment, though I already knew her by sight as I’d been buying homemade pan from her for months. She took over the bread sales after her half-sister Elizabeth ran away to Mexico City with a soldier who was stationed here in La Tigra. The grapevine alleged Jennifer’s father was unkind to Elizabeth because he and her mother divorced, the gossipmongers painted a Cinderella portrait.
Jennifer has earned the respect of the rumor mill because she works hard. She goes to school, helps her mother bake, and walks the village web of gravel roads and paths worn by man and animal, selling pan, every day. It’s a high honor to be spoken of kindly in the town’s foremost information network.
But Jennifer doesn’t seem much happier that her half-sister though she is the daughter of the home’s current Dona. My husband Felipe, also delivered bread in La Tigra as a child. He says it’s hard to be the only kid who works ever day when all your friends are playing. Or perhaps it’s a contagion; I’ve never seen their father express more than a scowl. Although he does now, after seven years as neighbors, concede to nod when he sees me.
I probably give more significance to a smile than I should; liberal smiling isn’t the custom here. But since I’m from Iowa (Smile You’re in Iowa, was actually considered for the state’s slogan) I crave them, especially from sullen, hardworking twelve year olds.
Jennifer’s request to me was to look up the meaning of her name on the internet. I thought it strange her teacher assigned homework online since the only signal in town is at the clinic, and hardly anyone has a wireless device. I questioned the maestra’s understanding of the community, as I agreed to find the information for Jennifer. She told me she’d return after she visited those houses, gesturing up a steep hillside neighborhood.
I settled into my ersatz office behind the free clinic on top of the hazardous waste bin. The signal is strongest there, I like to imagine because of my fondness of the absurd. As I awaited the ponderously slow results (Jobian patience is a necessity in La Tigra) several of the children from Jennifer’s class huddled around me, asking for help, telling me their names and waiting even more patiently for my makeshift translations.
Some of the names required creative interpretations because the meanings were awful. I was reluctant to tell a child their name meant wrath of god or likely to grow warts. So I might say; unique beauty or power of god instead. Close enough I thought, an angry god is powerful, no? Finally the crowd dispersed and I wrote down the results for Jennifer.
She returned with an empty basket. One side of her mouth curved up when she saw I was waiting for her. I invited her to sit beside me on the curb and I asked if she knew of the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. She did.
“Jennifer,” I said, “your name comes from the name Guinevere, the queen of King Arthur’s court. It means pale and smooth, which, coincidently she is. Her eyes widened, credibility had been established. It also means: compassionate, intuitive, loyal, independent and you are a born leader.”
Slowly, very slowly, as I shared the potential implied in her name, each side of her mouth, independent of the other, bowed into a confident smile.
When I see her now I can tell she’s waiting…I speak her name like an invocation… summoning belief; it blooms across her face like a secret– a promise.
I cannot tell you what this knowledge means to Jennifer, the seclusion of The Sons of La Malinche* remains in Mexico’s pueblitos. But for me, this uncommon smile is a flicker of hope, shining– it hovers between us– palpable, nascent, as I select my pan and place the coins in her palm.
*Our hermeticism is baffling or even offensive to strangers, and it has created the legend of the Mexican as an inscrutable being . Our suspicions keep us at a distance. Our courtesy may be attractive but our reserve is chilling, and the stranger is always disconcerted by the unforeseen violence that lacerates us, by the solemn and convulsive splendor of our fiestas, by our cult of death.
Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude
My gratitude to Jennifer for allowing me to photograph her, and tell this story .
© 2013 Abby Smith, Writer