Photo by Carla de Souza Campos/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Photo by Carla de Souza Campos/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

6 March 1981

Today I left the land run by boys. I left the roosters that cry kikirikí, the people who have nurtured me, and the place where my roots dig deep. My abuela thinks I’m insane, but I think it’s time for me to start living.

“Don’t do anything you’ll regret!” she exclaimed this morning at the airport.

“I love you too,” I replied. I hugged her for a few long moments, and although she resisted at first, I finally got the waterworks once I started to walk away. I dragged my blue suitcase behind me. I was so paranoid about losing my clothing that I had duct taped it shut and scribbled my name with a thick black marker all over the gray tape.

Maria Esmeralda Cueva. Maria Cueva. Maria.

The plane ride was a mess. It was the first time I had ever been on one, and I hope it will be the last. It reeked of hope, despair, and sweat. I was wearing the black dress. You know, the black dress. The one abuela said every girl should own.

“Every girl has to have the black dress. The dress they wear when they fall for their true love. The dress they wear to meet their love’s parents for the first time. The dress in which they experience womanhood for the first time.” So I wore it, thinking I would fall in love with New York.

Boy, was I wrong.

I got off the plane and I was a daisy, uplifted from the earth’s mantle and thrown into a sea of sunflowers. There were so many different people: tall, thin, pale, beautifully dyed, straight hair. And here I was: short, curvy, tan, jet-black, curly hair. People looked confused. Their faces said, Why are you here?

I wore my red, blue, and yellow bandana with the coat of arms directly in the middle—the flag of Ecuador—around my upper arm. I was an easy outsider but wanted to stand out. I shine best under a spotlight.

I recognized my Tía almost immediately, even though I hadn’t seen her in years. Her giant hoop earrings were just that remarkable.

“Maria! Bienvenido!” Tía yelled from across the hall. Tía wore a bright yellow blouse, Tío wore lime-green shorts, and my primo wore a light blue t-shirt. The three of them ran towards me and hugged me. I embraced their love. Their bright, loud colors masked my black dress.

“We live close to the airport,” they said, but it turned out to be an hour commute by bus. “Jackson Heights, Queens,” Tía recited to me. She made me a nice list of phrases she thought I should know:

Where is the closest train or bus?

Please call the police!

Where is the bathroom?

She wasn’t aware that I took four years of English in high school and graduated at the top of my class. I took her list and attached it to the back of this diary.

When we finally arrived at the apartment, Tía gave me the four-room tour. The living room was lined with family photos of the three of them. I went up to the photos, dusting and examining each one. In each one, Tía had beautiful, curly hair with red lipstick on and, of course, her giant hoop earrings. Tío had on a wrinkled dress shirt with his current moustache shaved off. My primo was wearing a collared shirt but seemed uninterested in the photo. This photo was hanging right above the two brown, cotton sofas that have a pillow and a blanket each. The kitchen was cramped; it fit a full kitchen set and a table with four small chairs. The aroma of the Ecuadorian spices I knew well filled my nostrils, easing my anxiety. I entered the poorly-lit bathroom and Tía attempted to show me where I could put my toothbrush. But the both of us in there made it impossible; it was too small. We headed for the bedroom, which contained a bunk bed—the top for me and the bottom for Tía. “The boys in one room and the girls in the other,” she whispered, ready to hear all the Ecuadorian gossip.

I am writing in this journal at two in the morning because I cannot sleep. I am sitting outside on the rusty fire escape, taking notes of things about the neighborhood, like the small Mexican woman who just got kicked out of her house and packed a large scream, or the Dominican men blasting bachata from their basement. The fact that there are noises from the neighborhood past dusk gives me anxiety; there never seems to be a time where there is silence. I just need time to accept that I am ready to chase my dreams—something Tía and abuela never achieved.

There is an orange and white cat here, and at first he seemed scared. “Yo también,” I whispered. And before I knew it, he was rubbing against my legs, craving attention.

7 March 1981

Today, Tía taught me proper protocol if I’m ever in trouble.

“Look for a woman that speaks Spanish first. Most of them will be your friends.” She explained this to me as I helped her fold laundry. “But never go to a policeman. They are trouble.”

Tía finally figured out why I decided to come to America. She heard me sing in the bathroom as I scrubbed the toilet clean. “Que asombroso!” she exclaimed when she heard me for the first time. She smiled with all her teeth and hugged me tightly, but quickly dropped her smile and told me how terrible I am at scrubbing the toilet.


The cat wanted to come in today, but I spent time with him out on the fire escape instead. Estrella, I decided to name him. A perfect name for a cat that only comes out with the stars.

8 March 1981

Today was the first day Tía let me leave the house. I explored the neighborhood with my primo, and he showed me where to get a cheap cola, what parts of the pueblo were dangerous, and where the train and bus stops were.

We reached a train station and went up the green staircase. At the top, he handed me a map of the train and bus systems, and gave me a few tokens. “Eventually, this will all become second nature,” he said. I looked at the map: lines going all across the pueblos and markings he’s etched on—mostly places to avoid. “A woman never goes there,” he explained.

“And what if I need to go there?”

“Then Tío or I will go.”

I sighed and pushed the token into the machine, rushing up more stairs when we heard the rumbling of the train getting louder. 

At times, it feels like this rusty fire escape is the only place I can breathe. Estrella came back today and stayed by my feet. I gave him a small can of tuna, and eventually he left when he felt he had overstayed his welcome.

10 March 1981

I finally met with my friend Miguel today. He has changed so much. He was wearing a purple, velvet blazer and his shirt, pants, and shoes were blindingly white—an outfit that would be ridiculed back in Ecuador.

“Aye Maria,” he sighed. “It seems like you’ve lost weight instead of gaining like I’ve told you. The producers like melones, not mandarinas.”

Looking at myself in the mirror now, I see what he was saying. I have not been eating much, but that’s because I feel guilty eating food my aunt provides for me, even if I am paying rent.

I apologized and asked Miguel when he was going to make me a star. He went on and on about how I could be the next big thing, how he had connections to different producers and record labels. I listened with excitement. Singing brings me so much joy, and I came here to pursue the only thing in which I excel.

“I’ll set up an appointment in a few days, so you can talk to a producer about your ideas. Bring any music you’ve written and rest your voice. You sound sick.” He lit his cigar and went back to his flashy red car. I knew I was not sick; there was no way I could hit the soprano notes with ease if I were sick.

I went back home, made tea with honey, and went through my notebook of songs I had written. Many torn pages later, I chose two songs I wrote in Spanish and a cover of a catchy English song I heard on the radio.

Rest up, Maria. It’s your time to shine.

13 March 1981

I’m going back home.

14 March 1981

I don’t know what to do. Should I tell Tía? She would just send me back, take me to a hospital, or cry. Maybe all of the above.

15 March 1981

I was a daisy, uplifted from the earth’s mantle and thrown into a sea of sunflowers. My petals have been ripped off, one by one. I am destroyed.

16 March 1981

He told me to relax. He told me that it would be this one time. He put his hands in spots that I had never let anyone else touch. Sacred. Not anymore. He said if I do this, he can make me the biggest star out there.

He never heard me sing.

24 March 1981

I have not seen Estrella.

28 March 1981

I finally broke down today. This was in front of Tía.

Her eyes widened. “What’s wrong?” she exclaimed. She had her arms out, ready to catch me as I fell apart.

I attempted to talk between my sobs, but I couldn’t catch my breath. 

She pulled me into her warm body, stopping me from shaking. I kept crying, leaving stains on her yellow shirt. Ya, ya, she kept repeating as she rubbed my back. “It’s not your fault.” My body was shaking. As soon as I calmed down, she braided my hair, commenting how damaged it was from consistently straightening it. She braided, unbraided, and re-braided until I fell asleep.

When I woke up, I went to the fire escape with the warmth of my blanket clinging to me. Tía brought a hot cup of rompope and asked I wanted to talk about it. I accepted the glossy red mug.

“Not yet,” I replied.

“Okay. I’ll wait, as long as it takes. Si Dios lo permite.”

I miss Estrella. Leaning over the fire escape, looking at the hundreds of lights from nearby apartments, I call for him.

1 April 1981

I told her what happened and she wanted details. She wanted to know the man’s full name and where this took place. She wanted to know why I was there, and I explained to her that Miguel promised me he’d make me a star. She began to cry and hugged me. She cried more than I ever did.

Why was she crying? And why was I not?

6 April 1981

I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. My Tía suggested I look into universities, go to therapy, or get a job, so I went down the street today and asked Doña Elena if I could work with her selling fruits. I started the second I asked for the job—she desperately needed employees and there I was.

I am a proud vendor of watermelon.

The ripe, green watermelons were heavy. I moved forty of them from her small black truck to the floor by her stand. “Bueno, this is how you cut them.” Elena wielded the knife and skillfully slashed off the rind of the watermelon, leaving the fresh, pink insides. “Tenga. Have a bite.” She handed me a piece. It was the juiciest, sweetest watermelon I’d ever had.

“Now your turn.” She handed me the knife and I attempted to cut into the flesh. “You need more force!” Elena shouted at me. “Get angry! Use those Ecuadorian muscles!” I tried again.

“Get angry!” Elena repeated, shouting, as if the louder she got, the less thick the rind would be. And so I did. I thought about Miguel and his dirty lies. I thought about his face. And I stabbed the watermelon. I stabbed, I slashed, I mutilated until all that was left were small slices.

Elena was very surprised and concerned. She ran off to get tissues for my tears, but I kindly refused, left her some money, and went back home.

I brought back the small pieces of the watermelon I had destroyed.

23 April 1981

Tía suggested I stay and try therapy. That it’ll fix me and make me feel like I used to, filled with dreams. I felt bad but I just laughed. What an American.

I packed my belongings. I am ripping the pages of this journal and sealing it in this luggage. I leave in a few days for Ecuador.

A new start. Again.

Tía thinks that I will come back, that nothing will be the same for me in Ecuador. She doesn’t understand. Already nothing is the same. She explained that I will want independence one day and I’ll get it in America. I wish I could believe her.

Estrella came back today, waiting at the windowsill, but I locked the windows and closed the blinds.

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