NIÑAS DEL FUEGO
By Elisa Luna-Ady
My sister Amma used to say the borderlands is the place brown girls go to die when they have no reason left to live. They give themselves up to the fence like a burnt offering, body crumpled at its teeth, and await capture. I read somewhere that some animals will commit suicide—suffocate themselves or stop eating altogether—to escape captivity. I think it’s like that.
Eso, allá, es la boca del infierno, she'd say, pointing to the border fence in the far distance.
The mouth of hell. Then she'd go back to braiding my hair.
Once, when I was a girl, I watched a riot cop take Amma into his arms during a confrontation at the fence. She'd thrown a rock that landed and, in a fury, he abandoned his tear gas canister and scooped her up. She—older and wilier than me, black hair loosened down her back in a show of feminine maturity, in a dirty T-shirt with the sleeves slashed off—began to thrash like a wild fish. The crowd gathering went silent at the sound of her shrieks, everybody’s voice but my own stilling.
Amma had a howl like la llorona. Everyone was always saying she'd end up walking the blackest body of water in our village for eternity after she died, forever lamenting the lost.
Whenever she wept, it felt like a seismic shift.
The riot cop tightened his grip and her keening grew in volume. It was like watching el carnicero through a window in the slaughterhouse. Despite the obvious suffering of the animal, we could not look away.
I, the younger sister, lurched forward as if in flight, our eyes meeting briefly, and thought: This is where I go to die. But Amma was the most clever in our village, and she slipped through the cop's arms just as suddenly as she'd been caught in them. She scuttled back into the crowd, cackling, skinny mosquito-bitten legs pounding asphalt, until she was once again environed by sweaty brown bodies.
I could see that this irritated the cop, but before my equilibrium settled, the crowd was roaring again and a rum bottle had found its way into my small bird hands. I looked down at it, confused, as the crush of bodies crawled closer.
"Tirarlo! Tiralo! P'arriba!" the crowd chanted.
And, standing in the dying gold of a streetlamp that had beguiled an eclipse of moths, I launched the bottle into the air without another thought. It swung forward, landed, and burst into flames. The cop dropped to the floor, his body a long line of red.
La boca del infierno, I thought to myself as the crowd lifted me into the air. I sat suspended, watching the heat gorge.
This was all before the borderlands had a real name.
Tonight, the heart of Huitzilopochtli is burning and my sister Amma is dead.
Center city is teeming with riot cops. It's evening, half sunset, and the few mesquite trees left are lit up like a row of ugly candles. Our people clutch their saints close, send a silent prayer to the god of war that tonight might favor the nationless, and then we set fire to a gutted pig's head. It's ritual to watch the smoke rise and dissipate before a riot.
Two rail-thin boys to my left—Micho and Chalchi, I realize—lower their gas masks and take turns lugging dirty jugs of milk behind our makeshift barricade in preparation. A gnarled woman manning a kiosk to our right offers us free refreshments: a pack of Marlboros, matches, elotes asados, clean rags. Street vendors don’t stop selling for storms, much less riots.
"Here is where los clandestinos wait to die, eh, Cipri?" Chalchi says in my direction, half his mouth curling as he slides a pack of cigarettes into his pocket. He's always poking fun at me for being a pessimist.
I ignore this and lower my mask.
"Ain't nobody dying tonight, carnal," Micho says. "No one 'cept a few pigs."
A chorus of snorting rises up in response to this, taunting, that quickly dissolves into laughter at the sight of hundreds of riot cops assembled along the border fence before us. Their helmets belie the revulsion held between each piece of their black armor. I know with certainty that they hate us. Behind them, thirty-seven paint-splattered shirts are displayed along the fence's barbed wire—one for each girl stolen in the last month.
My eyes find the fifth shirt down, a sleeveless white.
When I wonder why I fight, I remember each girl's face: upturned to the sun like lost pennies, bodies sterilized then charred, each limb a blackened river. Hundreds of immigrant girls lifted from their beds with none but the moon as witness. I remember their names and I do not weep. I remind myself: There is no flesh my fingers will not find and tear. No place exists beyond the distance my arm can throw, beyond the place my flame will eat.
I remind myself: There is no flesh my fingers will not find and tear.
Chalchi lets out a long whistle and the crowd of gas-masked rioters begins to clap and stomp at once. Their chanting rises up, tides my throat, and permeates the air as a bleeding song.
"P'arriba! P'arriba! P'arriba!"
My eyes find the girl closest to me and then I am hoisting her onto my shoulders. I recognize her by the long red curls—Lupe, the little thing I rescued just last week, right before they could sterilize her. She's tiny but fierce. Someone places a bottle in her hand and the chanting grows in volume.
"Tiralo! Tiralo! Tiralo!"
In Huitzilopochtli, it is tradition to let a small girl throw the first bottle. We call them niñas del fuego. They are our strongest and most vulnerable.
Lupe pulls her arm back, her round, vernal face determined, and hurls the bottle at the cops. It lands, then bursts.