“You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore." — Cesar Chavez
Dodge struggled to focus on his lesson plan during the Tuesday morning trek to Phoenix. “Sister” Frieda had permanently assigned him shotgun, and an obligatory period of cautious small talk was de rigueur.
By the time Frieda’s Mercedes negotiated the I-60 West ramp, however, he usually was forgotten, as Frieda and Joan and Antonia dished liturgy and rightwing dogma. Marisol endured the ride with her nose in a yellow legal pad, earnestly polishing her lesson plan as Dodge evaded engagement.
Joan was the only one of the Tuesday Morning ESL team’s holy trinity ever to have taken vows, though purportedly, she’d parted ways with the sisterhood some 30 years before over matters of the heart, or, more likely, of the libido. His neighbor and bilingual literacy sponsor nonetheless had remained on solid terms with the holy ex, and she, Antonia, and Frieda appeared to plot their days around Mass, a crowded calendar of catered parish observances and functions, and community works.
Frieda, who captained the burgundy Mercedes crossover and occupied a Gilbert casa suited in the media-suckled Dodge’s view to a Cartwright or Barkley, operated a suite of worthwhile but sternly faith-based local charities. Charitable, in fact, defined Frieda, whose low-key demeanor was a few degrees warmer than the drafty casa’s cucina where the team convened before debarking to the Camelback Elementary campus. If Frieda brought the gravitas, Antonia brought the hugs, iPhone galleries of beaming grandkids and greats, and usually, a Glad-wrapped tray of some powdered Mexican confection for the ride.
Joan, seemingly, had been commissioned to bring the pain. Stylish but sardonically severe in her mid-60s, she appeared always to troll serenely for sin or at least the venal vapors of transgression in her neighbors and friends. She’d grilled Dodge exhaustively on the one occasion he’d demurred from the Tuesday morning trek, and ostracized Rudy for his restiveness whenever Dodge encountered her in the HOA, regarding the chihuahua’s master with the air of Almira Gulch sizing up Toto for flying monkey chow.
The brief jaunt from Palm Shadows to Casa Freida sapped Dodge’s electrolytes, and he imagined Sister Joan had left a trail of demoralized priests, disheartened acolytes, and precipitously fallen Catholics in her roiling wake before the vow of celibacy purportedly cracked one of her gaskets. Not for nothing Reg next door had dubbed her “Muthah Superior.”
“Talked to the diocese last week about Father Dave,” Sister Joan purred. Her tone alone told Dodge the good father was to come to no good end.
Joan had recovered from Frieda’s abrupt reassignment of six intermediate advanced students to Dodge’s group three weeks previous, but to his relief, she was still conversationally cool toward him. He settled back to await whatever fate had befallen Father Dave.
“. . .the Church as a safe haven for felons and parasites,” Joan continued dourly. “Of course, the archbishop prattled on about His Eminence’ position on ‘humanitarian’ support, the usual nonsensical blasphemy about Joseph and Mary as unwashed refugees, quoted Deuteronomy to me. Quoting scripture to me, mind you.”
Frieda sighed as a HVAC van sporting a grinning polar bear cut her off. “It’s this new liberal Vatican. Pope Francis and his activist manifesto, this whole ‘sanctuary’ movement.”
“You know he was a nightclub bouncer, right?” Joan huffed. “Before he entered the seminary. A janitor and a scientist, some kind of chemist.”
“Not surprised,” Antonia rumbled from behind Dodge. “Heard him on FOX the other day going on about global warming. Global warming. From a holy man. Like the Argentinians – think they’re all that. So, ah, European.”
“A bouncer from Argentina,” Joan mused. “You’d think he’d know what happens when you let just anybody in the door. Instead, the Holy Father wants us to put them up like it’s the Marriott.”
Dodge flashed a peek at Marisol. Her lips moved as she scribbled furiously at her study notes. Whether she was conjugating verbs or praying for sanctuary herself, Dodge couldn’t tell.
“My father, he came here legal in ‘65, got his card, took the test, took his oath,” Antonia declared, as she had every Tuesday the previous two months. “These fence-hoppers, they got no respect for the law. Or the liberales. Dios ayudanos!”
Marisol’s pen scratched loudly. Dodge craned to read the exit ahead.
“So, what’d you do for fun, back home, growing up?”
The Women glanced warily at each other over their Xeroxed study guides. Even the normally spirited Maria II – a sixty-something fireplug of dry and playful sarcasm – had clearly been uneasy about Chapter Six, “Where I Come From,” and while Dodge’s inordinate interest in the cuisines of the Baja and Sonora drew a few chuckles from his posse of housewives, grandmothers, and second-shifters, he’d approached the background queries with genial caution.
Dodge had divined a different aura out here, vs. Central Illinois. The Latino culture was far more pervasive in Arizona, of course -- his Midwest ESL students, a mix of Spanish-speaking, Asian, and Congolese adults -- were reticent, strangers in a strange land. While eager to master their adopted second tongue, winning their trust hadn't been as challenging as igniting their confidence.
He’d never put any thought to his students’ status’ – either back home or out here. The question had never come up in three years of Central Illinois ESL, but out here, “Sheriff Joe” Arpaio rode anti-immigrant sentiment like a prize Appaloosa in the annual police parade, and Dodge suspected even the Holy Trinity had the toll-free ICE reporting number pre-programmed.
In Millington, Dodge saw bilingual education as insurance against getting fucked over by a mechanic or boss or bureaucrat or cashier. Out here, despite the relative numbers, despite the extant community and culture, he'd realized the stakes hewed closer to daily survival, and The Women initially had greeted the tubby retiree with suspicion rather than an instinct toward submission.
Oddly, Bianca -- who still regarded Dodge with mingled deference and wariness -- spoke up. “Fun?”
“Divertido,” Alisa murmured, her amber eyes twinkling. The young Latina showed up each Tuesday with a gleaming white F-350 long-box crew-cab, Scottsdale jeans, and a lush display of clavicular flesh. She planted herself across from Dodge and maintained a discomfiting and seemingly calculated level of eye contact, despite “Teacher’s” best efforts to stay in her periphery.
No sexual component to it, of course — Alisa simply had her sisters, and was constantly appraising the graying, sore-thumb veijo blanco's potential threat level. These women had been reassigned from the adjoining room, where Joan and Frieda seemed to conduct something somewhere between a missionary-style Bible class for students already steeped in the faith and a non-profit sweatshop cranking out confirmation dresses and other essentials Muthah Superior and her BFF provided for young women trying to adapt to an unfamiliar and predatory and xenophobic and patriarchal new environment.
“You know.” Alisa raised her bare arms and swayed. “Y son las cosas pequeñas un abrazo un te extraño,” she sang, shooting a hip. “Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na…”
Dodge downed a hasty shot of Pepsi as The Women came alive and he was immersed in a flurry of animated Spanish. Gaunt Maria I joined in Alisa’s chorus, Maria II rolled her eyes with a show of dentures, and even Bianca, who’d sparingly recounted life in a remote rural village, glowed.
“So, um, dancing?” Dodge ventured.
“Every night, dancing,” Maria I sang. “Salsa, norteno, bachata.”
“Romeo,” plump Anna moaned. The Women, save Maria II, tittered. Dodge mentally blocked some Wiki time for after lunch.
Only Dodge noticed the classroom door edge open. A lock of silver hair and one disapproving blue eye appeared in the gap.
“Guys,” Dodge cautioned gently, with a penitent nod to Muthah Superior. The Women glanced back, muted instantly by the sight of their former mentor. The door clicked shut. Maria II snorted, and Dodge tolerated a final volley of semi-suppressed giggles.
“So,” he recapped. “Dancing.”
“Every night,” Alisa reiterated.
“But not so much now,” Bianca amended. The Women fell silent as her brown eyes turned to their tutor. “No es seguro. Not, uh, safe.”
“The cartels, the gangs,” Alisa clarified. “You don’t wanna go out at night, even on the main street. Too dangerous, ‘specially you’re a girl. Even the policia, they don’t take no chances. When they’re not, you know, socios con el cártel. Sorry – working with the cartel.”
The Women corroborated with grim nods and pursed lips, and Dodge bypassed the double negative. Kidnaping, rape, female trafficking for sex or service as drug mules, collateral victims of the drug wars – Dodge certainly had read about it all, heard the gory details on 60 Minutes or Dateline. The mood of the room had chilled precipitously, so he closed the workbook.
“OK, we have about 15 minutes. Anna, your son was sick last week—“
“Jaime’s much better,” Anna interjected. “Was the flu, but he’s OK now. The doctor gives him a, an…” She scanned the classroom.
“Antibiotic,” Alisa supplied. Anna nodded gratefully.
“Thanks, Alisa,” Dodge responded. “So when I asked Anna if she’d seen a pediatrician, a couple of you hadn’t heard the term. I was thinking we could run down some medical and health terms you might need some time. So who knows what ‘cardiac’ means?”
Dodge tensed as he nudged the last Rubbermaid tub of repurposed T-shirts into the Mercedes’ cargo hold. He knew Frieda shipped them to developing world orphans, and, searching for whiteboard markers his first week, he’d instantly discovered who sewed angels and flowers and baseballs and embroidered Judeo-Christian missives onto the donated tees. Little wonder The Women had taken their reassignment with such good cheer.
Dodge blinked into the reptilian intensity of Joan’s smile. “Yeah?”
“I’m so glad your girls have adjusted so confidently to their abrupt change,” Joan suggested. “But we don’t want to be disruptive, do we?”
Dodge’s head wobbled. “Absolutely not.”
Joan nodded, turned, and returned. “Oh, and our meeting’s tonight. You interested? One of Governor Palin’s former staffers is keynote speaker.”
It was his fifth invite to the Maricopa County Tea Party’s seemingly biweekly soiree, and Dodge had no candid response appropriate for a neo-conservative ex-nun. “We usually do Facetime with our granddaughter on Tuesday nights, thanks, though,” he sighed, compounding his deception with the likely more venal familial lie. At two, Ella had mastered Apple’s operating system and Facetime, and her contacts were random by adult standards, coinciding routinely with her mother’s meal prep and failure to adequately secure Ella’s Pixar-stickered tablet.
Joan regarded him briefly, nodded curtly. “Well. Let’s load up. I missed noon Mass last week – Marisol thought one of the girls needed some extra help. The one time she decides to get chatty.”
A white F-350 glided past with a double-tap of the horn, chromed rims strobing in the cobalt-clear Arizona morning. Dodge waved absently.
“Well, come on,” Joan sighed.