Dispatch 31 (Dec. 11-12, 1998)
By the time she came around to pick me up,
Ginas 5 p.m. had turned to 8 and it was dark and cold as we took off. I wore a heavy
coat and gloves, but the heater in Ginas car was blowing a thin, inadequate stream
of lukewarm air. I leaned back in the seat and tried to nap, longing for my bed, or at
least a comforter to huddle into.
Ginas mood had changed I could sense it the
minute she arrived and during the quiet hours spent on the road. When Id spoken to
her last, shed seemed excited and happy; it was the Gina whod shown me her
favorite places in Austin and whod confided to me some of her passions and dreams.
The Gina driving southbound was spooked. She was quiet and
distracted, barely speaking when she arrived at my place and silent still over the empty
miles that stretched on after wed passed San Antonio.
Id packed two days worth of clothes, unsure how long
wed be staying. But Gina had said nothing about her parents. Instead, we were going
to a place Id never been: a church I knew nothing about.
"Hey, Gina? Where are we staying?" I asked just
past San Antonio.
She didnt answer for a moment. But the words must
have penetrated because she finally spoke, her eyes never leaving the road. "Staying?
No, were not staying. Were coming back tomorrow."
"Right," I said. "But where are we staying
"Were going to the church tonight."
"All night?" I asked. "Are they even open
"They will be by the time we get there," she
I looked at my watch. It was almost 9:30 p.m.
"Gina, well be there at around 12:30. Unless
they have a late midnight mass, their doors might not even be open."
"Were not driving all the way," she said.
I was confounded, unsure if Gina was making sense, or if I
just wasnt listening properly. "Were what?"
"Ill try to explain," Gina said.
Three nights ago, Gina said, her sister called. Mom was
worse. She was having trouble keeping food down and she was getting weaker and thinner.
The doctors, whod been optimistic throughout her surgery, were now saying they
didnt get all the cancer. They werent sure yet how far it had spread.
Five minutes before she called me, Gina had made up her
mind about what she would do. She called, happy that shed broken her depression long
enough to find a direction. And now we were on the road and her doubts and fears and
depression were back, darkening her mood like the wintry sky outside.
We were on our way to the town of San Juan to visit the
church where Ginas prayers had always been answered. The place where a shrine hangs
of Our Lady of San Juan Del Valle.
What Gina didnt tell me before we were driving was
about the promesas. The church, she explained on the way, is special to a lot of people in
the Valley. Its beautiful, she said. "Huge and beautiful and imposing. You can
see it from the highway."
The church has a history. Since the 50s, a more humble
version of the shrine stood. In 1970, someone in a small plane deliberately crashed into
the church, destroying part of it. Although services were going on, nobody was hurt,
including 50 priests and a hundred and fifty children. And the statue of the Virgin
suffered not even a scratch.
The church has roots as far back as the 1600s when an
image of the Immaculate Conception was placed in the town of San Juan de los Lagos near
Guadalajara. A traveling acrobat, it is said, was brought to life by a statue of the
The Texas church grew in the late 40s after a woman
claimed to have seen the image of the Lady of Guadalupe in a stone near San Juan. The
shrine itself was built in the 1950s.
The promesas are a tradition, but they are even more
common at this church where people come from across the country to see the Virgin and to
pray. Promesas are a promise to God, a kind of covenant where you agree to a sacrifice in
the hope that a miracle or help will be delivered.
We arrived near the Valley and I could see the transition
as palm trees appeared next to the road and the ground surrounding was lush again after a
hundred miles of empty Texas dust and weed.
I recognized the area even in the dark as we approached
the place of Ginas birth. We were on the highway, but instead of going east, we were
heading west toward the church.
I was looking out for it, sure that whenever we hit it I
wouldnt miss the sight.
"Are you ready?" Gina asked.
"Yeah," I said. Ready to arrive? I wasnt
sure what she meant, but five hours on the road had made me sleepily gullible; I just
wanted to get out of the seat.
"Okay. Lets stop here," she said.
I thought, absurdly, that she might have to go to the
bathroom, out here, where there were even bushes to shield her from passing motorists.
"Um, why are we stopping?"
"For the promesa," Gina said. "I have to
"Walk to the church?" I asked.
"Yes, Heather," she said, sounding like the
patient teacher of a slow child. "I have to walk to San Juan."
"How far is that from here?"
"About 10 miles," she said. She had pulled over
and was already unstrapping her seatbelt and shutting the car off.
"Its after midnight," I said. "Why
are you doing this at night?"
"Its easier this way," Gina said.
"Fewer cars, less distraction. Ill get there in the morning when the sun is
"Oh," I said, agreeing to the logic, if not the
principle of what she was about to do.
"What do you want me to do?" I asked.
Gina paused. In her excitement, she may not have thought
much about how I fit into this. I read this as true as her eyes darted left and right,
looking for a direction for me.
"Well... thats up to you," she said.
"You can go with me, or you can stay in the car and drive there, or you can stay in a
hotel. Whatever you want to do."
"I cant let you walk by yourself," I said.
The thought of walking 10 miles in my present tired state was a nightmare, but my sense of
responsibility wasnt going to let me sleep or rest if I let her walk along the
Gina just looked at me. "I cant make you
go," she said. "I didnt think about that when I asked you to come. I just
wanted you to see the church."
I weighed my options. Stay in the car. Walk. Walk. Stay in
the car. For a minute, I thought about being Ginas pacer, driving along at a crawl
as she walked on, giving her little water cups to keep her thirst sated. Stupid.
"Ill go," I blurted. I figured the less I
thought about it the better.
I left my purse, taking only my credit card and $20 and
folding them together in the right front pocket of my jeans. Gina and I both wore coats.
Id been chilly on the road, but the night air outside was even colder. As I stepped
into it, I could see the plumes of misty breath in front of me.
"Lets go," Gina said. We each locked our
doors and closed them and then we were walking.
We walked mostly on the sandy dirt area between the
breakdown lane and where stringy, weedy grass began to the right of the pavement. The
walking at first was energizing. Being out so late and inhaling cool air into my lungs
invigorated me. My steps were tall and true and Gina matched me stride for stride despite
our height difference.
It went that way for an hour, neither of us saying much.
When I looked to her, I sometimes saw Gina walking with her eyes closed. Sometimes, her
lips trembled and moved, as if she was frightened in prayer.
I did what I do when I jog sometimes and am without a
Walkman I played songs in my head, sometimes mumbling the words under my breath.
Although I hadnt heard the song in at least three years, I was thinking about this
stupid Paul Simon/Linda Ronstadt duet that
was on "Graceland."
I know, I know, Linda Ronstadt? The lady who sang the mouse song from "An American
Their voices were soothing in the night, though, so I let
"Josephs face was black as night / the pale yellow
moon shone in his eyes.
His path was marked by the stars in the Southern hemisphere /
And he walked his days under African skies..."
By the time the were doing the "Uh, ooomba, oomba,
oomba whooahh ooohhhh" part, I was already lost in the melody and if my feet
connected to the road, I wasnt aware.
* * *
An hour later, my feet were starting to hurt. I was
trying to compensate, my feet doing weird things like stepping away from the balls and
heels of my feet and trying to skirt along the edges of my shoe soles. That made things
worse because soon my ankles were getting tired of being cranked in unnatural directions.
I gave that up and walked normally. Feet hurting.
Gina was still silent. She had lost the slight bounce in
her step shed started with and now just walked. She wasnt carrying a purse or
a backpack, so her stride was the most natural thing in the world, unencumbered even by
the bags shed be carrying if she were mall Power Shopping.
* * *
Hour and a half more. My bones werent aching yet.
If I had been jogging, they would be by now, oxygen-deprived and cramping. But I
wasnt sweating the air was still cool and not as cold as when wed left
Austin and my body had adjusted to the stride/stride, left/right.
It was Gina who suggested we stop. She just lost stride,
stopped, turned to me as I was still walking, and said, "Lets stop here."
She sat in the breakdown lane, sitting Indian style. I sat
next to her.
"How are you feeling?" I asked.
"I dont feel anything," Gina said.
"Im not here. Im praying and thinking about mama and thinking about the
church. But Im not here. Are you okay?"
"Better than I thought I would be," I said.
"I didnt think I could walk this far."
The truth was, it wasnt walking that was wearing me
out. It was just being up this late. My watch said 3:15 a.m. The pain in my feet had gone
away, as it sometimes does when the initial pinching of a roller skate numbs out and you
settle into the feeling.
"Im thinking a lot," Gina said suddenly.
"Thats a good thing," I said.
"Do you think you can erase the past, I mean if you
do really good things? If you clear them from you, like purging a virus or bad blood? If
they stop being a part of who you are?"
"Everything you do is who you are," I said. I
looked up and the skies, pockmarked with the off-whiteness of its stars, making me wonder
how significant it all was to begin with. Who are we but little bits of carbon and ether
in a vast expanding Everything?
"What if Mother Teresa had had some horrible past
secret? She wouldnt be any less great, right?" Gina asked.
"What if Hitler had lived and repented?" I
asked. "Would he be any less a monster? Its easy to be sorry afterward.
Its easy to repent when youve already committed sins."
"So its impossible?" Gina said, allowing
hopelessness to creep into her voice.
I wanted to make her feel better. I wanted to lie. But
instead I found a way to tell the truth. "If you believe in God, which you do, then
Hell know whats sincere and whats bullshit. Its between you and
Him, knowing who you really are. Ive been trying for three months to know who you
are, and I dont think Im any closer than when I started."
Gina absorbed that. Her head was lowered and in the
darkness, I couldnt see her face anymore. "You know a lot more than most
people," she said.
"I wish I knew why I did these things," she
said. "These self-destructive things. Cheating on Juan, not caring enough about my
mother until this happens."
"Thats not your fault," I said quickly.
"I want to experience everything," she said.
"All the pleasure, all the desire, everything. But it pushes me away from love
sometimes. Tanto sabor, pero sin amor. Thats me," she said.
"Without love, but tasting lifes fruits,"
"I thought doing this would clear my mind, but also
clear my sins. Like a bulk confession, pulling the dump truck up to the church and just
"Its not that easy?" I asked.
"No," Gina said. "Its not.
She started to get up to walk some more. I had thought for
a minute that she was giving this up, calling the whole thing off and that wed walk
back the way wed come. Instead we continued the walk, passing a few lit billboards
for hotels an trailer home parks I would never visit and diners Id probably never
* * *
4:30. Found an all-night gas station. I grabbed coffee,
hoping it would enliven my sleepy, heavy eyes. Gina grabbed a half-liter bottle of water.
No snacks or food.
Gina said we were getting closer. Just another hour or
two. My feet began to ache again, but my music kept me going. Whatever was keeping Gina
going, be it the role of mothers savior or the avoidance of damnation, we
didnt talk about it. Gina took a step, then another, and we were getting closer,
closer to the church.
* * *
San Juan. The church was just ahead. The sun was
peeking up and it was just past 6 a.m.
Gina told me, quietly because her voice was tired and
raspy, that three towns meet here where the church stands. San Juan, Alamo and Pharr. The
Triple City ballroom, where lots of Tejano acts play, is nearby. So is PSJA, the
abbreviated school of the three towns.
When I first saw the church, hazy in the morning
mistiness, I was already amazed. It was enormous, with a huge cross tower just south of
the highway. As we approached, I saw it was even larger than my first glimpse had
Gina and I were both ragged, our steps heavy and leaden.
Before the church came into view, I wasnt sure we were going to make it. I was
making a mental backup plan, wondering where the nearest phone could be found to call a
cab and get us back to Ginas car.
Seeing the church reenergized us both. We pressed on a
little quicker, despite fatigue. I could see as we came closer that the church was
surrounded by a campus, lots of little buildings including a massive gift shop, a huge
parking lot and lots of sidewalk.
The structure, architecturally beautiful and angular, was
lit by amber lights. It all seemed very holy and enormous, like some desert mirage.
Gina had told me that some who make promesas start or end
the journey on their knees, practically crawling to the alter for the last bit. We
didnt do that instead we walked up to the church. From here I could only see
a few cars in the parking lot, but at least it was open.
As we approached the steps, Gina crossed herself. Without
thinking, I did the same.
We went inside. It was a cathedral, a shrine, a holy
place, a warm expanse of structure that unlike other churches, enveloped me in welcoming.
It was less a church and more an indoor amphitheater, the seats pointing toward the center
and positioned like inside a concert hall.
There was a huge Christmas tree at the altar and red leafy
flowers in small pots. I looked around and saw large signs pointing to the Rectors
Office, or the Candle Room or the Confessional, all in Spanish and English and all, with
the Big Blue Official Sign look, reminding me of an airport walkway.
I followed Gina around the inner perimeter of the round
building. I could see the statue of the Virgin from here. I thought she would be bigger.
Instead, the figure of her, with her blue robes, was high atop and behind the altar. It
was only about two feet tall, surrounded, however, by ornate and beautiful art.
We walked around and behind the alter an there was an area
just below the shrine itself. Gina knelt where there was a long line of candleholders. She
hadnt brought one of her own. But she prayed anyway, her head down, her promesa, I
believed, at its conclusion.
I wandered on my own and I peeked inside a place labeled
It was a black room full of racks and racks of candles in
glasses with the Virgins logo on them. I looked at the room as the flames burned
silently more than silently because they absorbed and fed on the oxygen surrounding
them. I watched them burn, thousands of promesas and prayers and dreams and communions
with God. I watched them silently as Gina prayed behind me. The stillness of it, instead
of making me sleepy, filled me until I was wide awake, transfixed, hypnotized by the
I stood there for a few minutes, unaware of anything else.
I made my own promise. To write as much as I could, to live well and to love, and to stop
hiding in this shell of myself waiting for things to happen.
It was a little early for New Years resolution, and
Id always believed it was too late for me and God to give it a whirl. But I knew I
was making a promise to somebody outside myself. Somebody was watching, making a
note of it, seeing if I could keep my promise. My skin tingled with goosebumps. I
couldnt see them with my coat on, but I knew they were there, prickling my arms and
legs. My breath quickened.
And then it passed.
When Gina tapped me on the shoulder to tell me she
was done, I was ready. I was done here, too.