Fiction The Ecstasy issue

The Smile

By Dahlia de la Cerda

Illustration by Nicole Rifkin

Came North on the Beast. Nothing left for me back home. Not anymore, anyway. Came up looking for a future. Heard there was work in the maquiladoras near the border and that while I was there, I might as well hop over to the other side. Gringo dream, ya sabes. I rode the Beast ’cause it’s free: all you do is take off, run, run, jump, and úpale, you’re on. Course, only if you’re lucky and get a good grip, if not the Beast will crush you with its steel hooves and best-case scenario it kills you, or else you’re lame for good. But life’s a gamble and I went all in, what the fuck. 

I didn’t have a pot to piss in back home. I was dirt poor and totally screwed—slept in a hammock, lived in flip-flops, ate fish scraps for every meal. No future there. Zip. And nowhere to look for one either. No joke. My days went more or less like this: wake up, fish with my apá, head to the docks to sell our catch, then back to the beach for the sunset. Sounds pretty sweet for one day, or for a vacation or whatever, but trust me that shit’s not so hot. I wanted to see the world, buy something to listen to music on. To dance, have a little fun. What I didn’t want was to be stuck looking at the same sand, the same waves, the same sunset until I died. But I got the math wrong: life’s a bitch. 

Back home they called me La Negra. I’m Black, so what. All black maize, tumbao, and a mess of curly hair. Afro, they called me at the factory. Here at the maquiladora, I’m Chiki, la chiquita. ’Cause I’m not just Black, I’m tiny, too. Short, Black, with messy curls. Look, here comes the walking microphone, they’d say. Those bitches always had their claws out. Then up north I confused everybody. They didn’t get how I could be Mexican, as Mexican as I am Black. They thought I’d come out mulatita ’cause my amá cheated on my apá with some gringo rapper, or that a Black woman left me on the beach and my family adopted me. Please. I’m more Mexican than nopales. Mexica negrita. Brown sugar, the gringos called me when I sold them fish on a stick. 

The border isn’t what you think, or what people say it is. The border is a ravenous monster. A bottomless pit that feeds on work, sex, drugs, and women. I had no idea. All I’d been told was there was work in Juárez at the factories and maquiladoras, that stuff was intense up there, ragers every fucking day, and look, I’m just saying all that shit got my head spinning.

I didn’t tell a soul. Just took off one day. Rode up here, dreams and all. Juárez is just one big ranch, far as I can tell. A ranch crawling with dudes in oversize cowboy hats and trucks that make you say, Those fuckers are totally narcos. And boots hanging from power lines. Every place has its own footwear: on the coast they’ve got flip-flops, in the country I saw sneakers hung by the laces, and here it’s cowboy boots. Cracks me up. People, man, we’re a fucking riot. They put up pink crosses here, too, in memory of the dead girls of Juárez. There are more signs for desaparecidas than dances, that’s what I was told.

On the Beast I met this awesome chick from Colombia. She had a shit ton of cumbia on her phone and gave me an earbud so we could listen together. Whenever the train slowed down and it wasn’t too hilly, we danced. You heard me, right there on top of the train, cheating death. We were riding halfway across the country on la ruta de la muerte, so it’s not like we weren’t already playing with fire. Me and the Colombian danced real nice, I remember, pure cumbia, real sabrosito. It was like cheating death and not falling into the hands of narcos, rapists, and pimps. But that was real death cheating. When we danced on top of the train we were celebrating the fact that death didn’t have shit on us, at least not that day. With cumbia, there was no death, only dance. The Colombian chick left me in Juaritos and went off in search of the American Dream. I moved in with my aunt, who lived in a tiny room on the outskirts of the city. She’s the one who twisted my arm. What kind of life do you expect down there, you’re not about to turn into a mermaid, move in with me up here. And I did. 

Working at the maquiladora was like going to school but different. I had the night shift: in at 4 P.M. and out at 4 A.M., when the roosters aren’t singing, but the vultures are. Sometimes the maquiladora looks like prison: all of us in khaki, busting ass, making shit at full speed, pushing for a productivity bonus, busting our asses for a few hours of overtime and some scratch to pay into the tanda, busting our asses for a day off so we can go out and party. 

I was having a blast. I knew working at a maquiladora was risky ’cause everybody just knows by word of mouth that all the desaparecidas are maquilocas. That’s what they called the women who worked at the factories, maquilocas. Said we hooked up with truckers and slutted around, but it’s not true, or maybe it is. Either way, it stung when dudes called us maquilocas. Fuck yeah I was loca. I worked my ass off and deserved to go a little crazy. I liked to party, I liked to dress sexy and paint my lips red. I hung around with guys from work and made out with dudes at parties. I wasn’t into cantinas, though. If people weren’t dancing, it wasn’t for me. I love music, guys, and grinding. So sue me. I worked my ass off, for real. Zero vacation days, double output, double shifts and shit, all so I could pull on a pair of high-heeled boots, tight jeans, and a denim jacket and party till dawn with two or three guys. I only ever drank a couple of beers. I’m seventeen. Does being a maquiloca mean I deserve what happened to me? Was I asking for it? Do you really think I’d be asking for it? I spent a whole week cheating death while dancing cumbia. Please, mijo. 

The funniest part was that when they killed me—did they kill me?—I wasn’t even out partying. I remember I’d thrown on a shirt with Los Tigres del Norte on it that day, plus a black skirt that went to my knees and a pair of shell-toe sneakers. Ridiculous, I know, but I’d been working nonstop for two months to buy a phone and a ticket for the VIP section at Intocable and I just couldn’t be bothered. I had four different tandas going, I was saving up. So I caught a bus headed to the city, ’cause that way it’d be cheaper to get home. But something went wrong. Very fucking wrong. When I got on there were like ten other girls, but one by one they got off until I was left alone with the driver. Christ. Just thinking about it makes my hands sweat, just like they did that night, they became the ocean, they were sweating and I was sweating, scared to death. El Poder del Norte was playing on my headphones but the lead’s nasal voice couldn’t distract me from my paranoia—or was it a premonition? I still don’t know when the driver, that piece of shit, went off route. I started praying, I prayed to God it was a shortcut, that it was just a more direct way back,but no, all of a sudden there was nothing out there, just desert and dark. I’m fucked, I thought. Fucking fucked. Panic took hold of me and I started screaming for him to let me off the bus, where the hell was he taking me, on his mother’s life and his fucking daughter’s life he’d better not lay a fucking finger on me. The piece of shit just laughed. He stopped the bus. I was curled up in a ball, sobbing, cursing. I heard him step out and saw the lights of a patrol car. I screamed, I screamed my lungs out, I called for help, I begged, but those dirtbags pretended they couldn’t hear me and let him drive on. We headed farther into the desert. And then he braked, hard. He opened the door and four other pieces of shit climbed in. You want me to tell it?

They raped me, all five of them. They took turns. Tied my hands and feet, burned me with cigarettes, beat me until they got tired. They’d let me go just so they could hunt me down again. They bit my breasts. They’d let me go and I’d run as hard as I could, but they were faster and stronger. Whenever one caught up to me, he’d grab me by the hair and throw me down on the sand. Then he’d kick my face, my chest. Viciously. 

I’d heard lots of things, that they used girls for sado porn and satanic rituals for bored gringos. But no. None of that. They didn’t film shit and they weren’t gringos, they were Mexican dudes, could’ve been your cousin or my dad, normal guys, not yuppies or foreigners. I don’t know why they do it, I don’t, but if I know one thing it’s this: they enjoy it. They liked watching me cry and beg. It was in their eyes, in their grunts of pleasure. Fucking assholes, pieces of shit, motherfuckers. They’d play at suffocating me with a red bandanna and when they saw I was on my last legs they’d let me go, then fuck with me all over again. 

Between all the dicks and hands I couldn’t tell how long they were at it, but I was all fucked up, beaten to shit, bruises on top of bruises and burns on top of burns. They raped me with their filthy cocks and their nasty fingers and with something made of metal. When they finally got bored, they left me for dead in the middle of the desert. 

Little by little, the darkness turned light. I opened my eyes and saw El Charro Negro standing right next to me. So La Santa Muerte comes for me and she’s a fucking dude, I thought. But no, it wasn’t her. I realized it wasn’t Death because the guy took a bite out of my neck. That’s right, motherfucker bit me. Then he threw me over his shoulder and that’s the last thing I remember. 

I had a fever or something worse. Maybe I died and came back, it was a trip and I had these—whoops broken record—trippy visions or like memories. I remembered how when my siblings and I were little, we used to pee the bed. Super funny, I don’t know why I remembered that or dreamed it, really, but for a while there, we were real little pissers. We were synchronized, pissing the bed at the exact same time, totally supernatural. My parents tried everything and nothing worked. We even came up with a couple of prevention strategies, but no dice. In the end, my apá had no choice but to give us baths in the morning so we didn’t reek when we went to school. The part that stressed me out was that I was older, twelve already, and I was flirting with this boy, so I thought, What if we run off and I piss all over him on our first night together? He’ll dump me right back on my doorstep. I was in the middle of this childhood soap opera when I woke up. It didn’t take me long to figure out I was in a freaking cave in the middle of the desert. At least I was alive. I cheated death, I thought. What I didn’t realize was—I am death. 

I saw the sun coming up and figured I’d step outside to catch a few rays, check the scene, see what’s what. Bad idea. The second the light hit my skin I felt like I was on fire, I fucking started giving off smoke, motherfuck, so I scrambled back inside. The next few days were awful. Nothing compared to my rape and murder, but definitely still shitty. My skin started decomposing, but it didn’t just smell like rot, it actually started falling off. In freaking strips. All my hair fell out. And I puked. I started puking up all my organs—stomach, intestines, kidneys, liver, pancreas, I shit you not. I watched the whole thing with these eyes that no worm will ever eat. I watched my damn intestines come out my mouth. They still tasted like tacos al pastor. Seriously, I even tugged them a little to make it go faster. My liver tasted like blood, like fresh blood. I was into it. My pancreas was kinda sweet, like baby’s milk. My heart? I didn’t spit that out, God knows why. 

After puking up all my organs and losing my hair, I died again. I don’t know what to tell you. The whole thing seems like a weird-ass trip, but when I woke up I was me. Like before. No cuts or bruises, no pain, no nothing: there I was, motherfucking Chiki in all my splendor, but buck naked, or almost. All I had on was a black T-shirt. Those pieces of shit ditched my clothes who the fuck knows where, fucking assholes. So I waited for it to get dark, right, and I went looking for El Charro Negro, the fucker who bit me. Dude owed me an explanation or two. I started walking through the desert and I swear to God I could see totally fine in the dark, like I was wearing those ultrared goggles or some shit. Infrared? Anyway, it rocked. Before I knew it, I stumbled on a freaking camper van in the middle of the desert. I knocked on the door real cute and when I had the dude in front of me I was like, What the fuck, man?

El Charro Negro said this fucking hilarious thing, said I’d cheated death and found my way back. Apparently those pieces of shit hadn’t killed me all the way, they’d just left me out there dying and then he put some weird spell on me to catch my last breath and keep it and make it eternal. My take is that matter isn’t created or destroyed, it just gets transformed, right, what the fuck are you laughing at, I might look dumb but I finished high school, asshole. El Charro told me my body could cure itself now, but that it needed blood to do it. Not human blood, ’cause the lines get crossed or some shit and you end up covered in hives. Animal blood can help our bodies regenerate and fix whatever injury. First you decompose, then you rise from the ashes dancing cumbia. Killer. He also told me about how my eyesight was like supercharged now, how I could smell and hear better, and had superhuman strength. I must be tripping, I thought. But no, man. It was real. Maybe that horrible shit I went through made me a martyr and now God was playing catch-up with these superpowers, or maybe it was life giving me a chance to get even. But same as how God didn’t give scorpions wings, he gave us this one fucking weakness: the sun. A mega motherfucking allergy to the sun. So I have to make my moves at night. 

Long story short, El Charro Negro filled me in on the whole undead thing, the mutation of survival. He told me how raven’s blood tastes bitter, how if we want to go in somewhere we have to be invited, ha, you should’ve seen me standing at the door of these shops in Juaritos asking the girls, Hey, can I come in? All so I could buy some freaking threads. And a few of them were real bitches and answered like, Yeah, or, No, but I needed them to say the whole thing, You can come in, or, You may enter, or whatever. It was a major hassle but I got what I was looking for: a Tigres del Norte shirt just like the one I had on the night those pieces of shit went way the fuck overboard.

I don’t know how the hell I managed, but I used my feminine wiles to convince El Charro to help me get revenge. Not that it was all that hard. Did I mention dude had a hobby that was like sweet and terrifying at the same time? He collected the bones of murdered women and put them where they could be found. I asked him why, with his superpowers and everything, he never stopped the killers or killed them or did anything to them. He told me he was waiting for a woman to do that part. 

Dude was a saint, went all over Juaritos with me so I could buy a black denim skirt and shell-toe sneakers. I saw my face on a poster. MISSING, it said. It made me sad as fuck to picture my family out there searching for me and my aunt counting how many days it’d been. No one had heard from me in six months, they had no idea if I was dead or alive. I gave into temptation and drew a speech bubble on one of the posters that said, “Pieces of shit fucked me, but I’m alive and I’m coming for them.” El Charro smiled in a way I hadn’t seen before. I went into a public restroom, threw on my Los Tigres del Norte shirt, black skirt, and sneakers, and painted my lips red. I looked in the mirror. I couldn’t see my reflection but I knew it was me. The same me who’d walked out of the maquiladora that morning. The exact same person. I was dead but the desert hadn’t devoured me, it had spat me out, puked me up. I smiled. I walked out of the bathroom and a cumbia tune by Grupo Cañaveral was playing. I stopped and danced the way I’d danced with the Colombian chick on top of the Beast, one of those moments when you think you’re cheating death but don’t realize the motherfucking joke’s on you.

El Charro Negro walked me to the bus stop. I recognized the number right away: 495. The bus slowed and I got on with some other chicks. The driver didn’t even notice me. I sat all the way in the back, hidden enough so he couldn’t really see me but not so much that he wouldn’t know I was there. Déjà vu. He went off route, pulled over for a patrol car. Headed into the desert, stopped. The four pieces of shit were there waiting. I went out to meet them. One of the bastards recognized me immediately. I guess the Afro and the Los Tigres del Norte shirt gave me away. “Is this a fucking joke?” he asked the driver. I didn’t give them a chance to say shit. Not one fucking word. I walked up to them, real slow, and saw the panic on their faces. One of them pissed himself, those fuckers can dish it out but they can’t take it. I was scared, our bodies remember. But I swallowed my fear and smiled, baring my fangs.


Dahlia de la Cerda was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico. She is the author of Perras de reserva and the codirector of the feminist collective Morras Help Morras. In 2019, she won the prestigious Premio Nacional de Cuento Joven Comala. 
Heather Cleary has translated novels by Brenda Lozano, María Ospina, Betina González, Mario Bellatin, and Sergio Chejfec, among others. A member of the Cedilla & Co. translation collective and founding editor of the bilingual Buenos Aires Review, she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.
Julia Sanches is the author of more than a dozen translations from Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan into English. Her translations and writing have appeared in Granta, The Paris Review Daily, and The Common, among others. Born in Brazil, she now lives in Providence, Rhode Island.