Paper Flowers by Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez
Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez carried the scenes of their essay “Paper Flowers” around with them, trying on different forms the way a woman might try on different dresses in a shop, attempting to force what they did not know into the light of understanding. “Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how,” Donald Barthelme suggests in “Not-Knowing.” What Rodríguez achieves in “Paper Flowers” is not only deeper insight into the struggles their mother faced as an impoverished Mexican immigrant in Chicago, trying to clothe and feed and care for her family. They also unearth revelations of their self, of the girl becoming a woman through the clothes they do not and later, do possess, and through the way other girls and boys react to their change in fashion. “Recognizing the connections in the stories allowed me to play with their order to land the emotional resonance,” Rodríguez writes in their author’s note. “Personally, it was also healing for me to make sense by arranging pieces of my life that in the past I’ve struggled to understand. I enjoyed examining these patterns, some of which I wasn’t aware of until I had to cut and paste to reorganize this essay.” From flea markets and thrift shops to graduation dresses and, much later, plastic-flower-planted gardens and paper-flower weddings, Rodríguez maps the what and how to reach the who, to find the woman their mother is and the woman Rodríguez would become. —CRAFT
I’m on the 7 train on my way to Manhattan from Queens. My AirPods blast Cardi B’s “I Like It” as I squeeze my way through the crowded car, not liking the pushing and the pulling as I make my way to the middle. I spot an ad for “ReFashion Week NYC.” In the ad, a Black woman, in a Cinderella-blue A-line dress, stands triumphantly on top of a pile of black plastic garbage bags with red pull ties. The model holds her leg at a right angle with one hand resting on it and the other arm gingerly holding a beige suit jacket over her shoulder. The words “ReFashion Your World” are emblazoned on top of it all. And I can’t help but think of Mami and the ways she tried to refashion my world because she had no other choice. Mami was twenty-three years old when she arrived in Chicago, Illinois, from Juarez, Mexico, with my five-year-old self and my four-year-old sister by her side. She likes to remind us that when she got off the plane in Midway Airport she didn’t bother to pick up her small suitcase from baggage claim because she was desperate to start her new life. ¿Pa’que? I’ll find things out there. She stepped out into the humid Chicago air holding on to her daughters with only the clothes on her back. Mami sure did figure out how to clothe all of us. At la segunda, what Mami and many people call secondhand stores like Goodwill, she found ways to navigate the poverty we experienced in our new lives in America. Now, on the 7, I grip the handrail above my head, which I can just barely reach, as the train jostles me back and forth.
At the flea markets around Chicago, my family and I looked like everyone else there—brown, dark hair, dark eyes, beautiful. We felt safe in a way we didn’t in traditional commercial spaces. We navigated the flea market with the confidence that we belonged. My father spent most of his time in the auto parts section looking for pieces to fix and customize his car. In another life, he would have been a mechanic. He had dreams of flipping used cars—maybe opening his own business. But his regular day (and sometimes night) jobs, plus the lack of space like a garage, made his dreams unrealistic. Instead, he’d buy cars that barely worked, and they stayed that way until he had to get rid of them. But he, too, walked around the flea market with a sense of pride—with tall, relaxed shoulders, and at his own pace. He’d inspect each car part with the meticulous tenderness of an archeologist studying unearthed treasures. He carried a rag in his back pocket for the grease that would inevitably end up on his clothes. In Spanish, Mami could haggle and get the best price for what we needed. Mami bought socks and underwear and undershirts and scrunchies, convincing every seller to make a better deal: I’ll give you $20 for all of it. If they refused, she’d walk away, head high, certain they’d call her back with a seño, seño. At the flea market, Mami had power. At the flea market, people begged her for attention.
I learned shame at school. Shame for how my parents made a living and for how they made do when their living wasn’t enough. The shaming never came in the form of pointing and laughing. It came in the form of questions: Why do you dress like that? Is your family poor? Why don’t you wear makeup? Have you tried contacts instead of glasses? You know, you could be so pretty, right? In eighth grade, I pleaded with Mami to buy me my school uniform at a store where they sold new clothes—clothes in my size, clothes like the other girls wore. The girls in my grade wore snug-fitting bell-bottom pants, white shirts with little lace trims on the collar, and cardigans. I was dressed like the boys—in my father’s discarded navy Dickies, two sizes too big for me, held up by a brown leather belt that scrunched the waist of the pants. I don’t know what Mami sacrificed, the impact on the entire family, but I got new, polyester, stretchy, bootcut navy blue pants to wear as part of my school uniform. I walked into school feeling hella fresh—like a slow-motion scene from a movie where the ugly girl gets the makeover. I smiled and waved as others turned to look at me. Girls whispered to one another. Boys smiled and riled each other up. I felt it—the slow, anxious ride up the rollercoaster, the power, the rush. I felt wanted. It would be the same girls who asked why I didn’t dress like them who would shun me first. I went to my locker, grabbed my books, and from down the hall I heard one of them comment on the way my body looked. I didn’t know my ass was that big either. I couldn’t see it in the baggy clothes handed down to me before. The more comments I received about my body, the more self-conscious I became. After lunch, I put on my father’s oversized blue sweatshirt to cover myself. The eighth-grade girls in the tight bell bottoms didn’t embrace me. But it was the way the boys stared that would stay with me. I’d continue to search for a long time for that thrill of being wanted.
Shopping at la segunda was a source of fulfillment for Mami. In America, people have so much stuff, there are stores for the stuff people don’t want anymore. She prided herself on a bargain. A store that offered pairs of pants for five dollars, fifty-cent shirts, and more to sustain her family of four was the place for her. Secondhand stores, garage sales, flea markets, and driving up and down Chicago alleys were ways Mami filled the gap created by how much she and my father worked but how little they actually earned. These trips in my childhood, to scavenge for treasures amidst the discarded and unwanted, were where I learned second chances become third chances and fourth chances, and then you never leave because you’ve spent so much time fixing this broken thing you thought could eventually love you.
The dress doesn’t fit me anymore but it’s been in my possession for seven years. I’ve brought it with me from California, to Illinois, to New York—where I shove it into a suitcase under my bed in winter and pull it out in summer to shove into my closet and never wear it. I purchased it at a Burlington Coat Factory for my PhD graduation: an A-line white summer dress covered in black and red roses, cap sleeves, mid length. This dress cost me seventeen dollars! I told everyone I interacted with on that sunny Southern California day. I sounded, and probably was, prouder of having found a bargain than of completing my degree. But the day of my PhD graduation, Mami and I got into a yelling match in the parking lot of the auditorium for everyone to witness.
Not long before, I had walked the stage, been hooded, and been called doctor for the first time. We hugged, smiled, and laughed all the way to our rental car where I gave my best friend Mami’s spare chanclas because her feet hurt from the heels she wore. Mami’s face changed—in slow motion I could see a wave of grief coming for us, our past catching up to us, and I knew we’d drown. Her shoulders sagged, and with tears in her eyes, she asked, What about me? What if I hurt too? Before I could hold my breath, plant my feet, filter my emotions, like my therapist had taught me, I was pulled under by the wave and said, Why does everything have to be about you? Mami and I haven’t learned to swim. At best, I can float and tread in shallow waters. The wave tossed us, up was down and down was up, until it was unclear who was yelling what to whom: you’re selfish, you’re ungrateful, you can’t treat me like this, you’re supposed to protect me, you weren’t there for me. We resurfaced but the wave changed us.
I stare at the A-line white summer dress with the red and black roses as I pull it from its winter storage. It is still soft but now tighter than I remembered. I look sadder in it and much more tired than when I first bought it for seventeen dollars. This isn’t my dress anymore. I pack it to take to a secondhand store for someone else to give it another chance.
Being at la segunda always made me itchy. As a child, I’d feel as if tiny insects, baby roaches, were crawling all over me, and I’d have a hard time breathing, a hard time being in my skin. The feeling of a roach crawling on my body was familiar to me because of the apartments we could afford. My skin prickled as soon as I walked into la segunda. At first, Mami was understanding and caring. Ha de ser allergic to something. But throughout my teenage years, the itchy feeling still hadn’t gone away, and my parents were still living paycheck to paycheck. She’d accuse me of being a creida—as in, she thought that I thought I was too good for the ways she took care of me. This unspoken tension, wherein she thought I was constantly judging her and I (unknowingly) was always judging her, was always the fodder for our fights. At la segunda, Mami would make me search for white polos and navy blue pants for my school uniform, and as I perused the crowded racks my arms would get blotchy pink and then streaky red. Later in life, I’d learn that my skin is supersensitive to certain soaps and detergents. But at that time, when Mami struggled to give all of her children what they needed, my itchy skin at the secondhand store was a visual that told Mami that I, and my siblings, were getting absorbed by American life and she was being left behind.
I don’t have many photographs of Mami from when she was younger. In the few that she’s shared, her smile is very Julia Roberts-like—a wide grin that’s all teeth. Her lips form a straight line rather than a curve. As she got older, and as life beat her, while my father literally beat her, her smile shifted. There’s now a slight tilt—one side a tiny bit higher than the other. Her crooked smile is a lot more noticeable when she does her fake smile, her get-me-out-of-here smile, her ya-me-chingué smile, her I-don’t-want-to-live smile, her que-dirán-if-I-don’t-smile smile, her ya-verás-cuando-lleguemos-a-la-casa smile, her please-love-me smile. Her lips stretch and hide her teeth while her left side lifts just a little bit. Her right side is more rebellious, more skeptical, more indignant about smiling through the hurt she’s endured. I’ve inherited Mami’s crooked smile. The more I tried to be unlike her, the more I could see her in me. In the photographs I have of the two of us posing next to each other, cheek to cheek, our smiles always reveal the truth about us. Our crooked smiles tilt with the weight of our grief and also rise with the possibility that there is more to our lives.
Mami found my confirmation dress at a secondhand store—an A-line dress with lace appliques and puffy short sleeves. The dress was a faded white, with a hint of yellowing. It was too big on my lanky frame. I imagined this would have been an older sister’s dress, if I’d had one, and I had somehow failed to fill it. And I imagined I’d have a chip on my shoulder about meeting the standards the older sister had set, and that I’d rebel against my family’s expectations of who I should be and what I should do with my life. But I’m the older sister and I’d have to set that bar and somehow grow into the dress. My confirmation was important to my father, even though he didn’t go to church. Mami was the churchgoer, which made sense to me—she had a lot to pray for, a lot of secrets she carried. But that my father insisted I go to church when he didn’t was something that baffled me. At that age, I didn’t understand that my father couldn’t and wouldn’t protect me and he was betting it all on God to keep me safe. On that special day, I didn’t wear a crown or white gloves or have a shiny new rosary like the other girls getting confirmed. My straight hair was bobbed, brushing the lobes of my ears, and my bangs were crooked because Mami had cut them herself. She made me wear orange cotton shorts and a plain white tee underneath the saggy dress. Maybe she thought another outfit underneath would help me fill the dress. Mami sat in the pews while my father waited in the car during the ceremony. Afterward, we went to McDonald’s. I wanted to play in the PlayPlace with my sister, but my father said I couldn’t because I was in a dress, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for a señorita. If I had shorts, could I play? I asked him. His eyes narrowed, recognizing a change in me before I did. Sí, if you had shorts you could go play. I lifted the skirt of the dress to show him my shorts. Mami and I laughed at our secret. My father threw his hands up—accepting his loss but likely planning new ways to make me submit to the kind of girl he thought I should be. My confirmation on that day wasn’t the magical protect-forever ceremony my parents hoped it would be. On that day, though, Mami taught me that, in life, I’d be given dresses that don’t fit me, that I’d need to make them fit, and I’d need to perform. She also taught me that I’d need a way out—always have an escape plan.
Mami plants silk and plastic flowers in her new backyard. My parents bought their first home during the pandemic. It took us thirty years but this house is for all of us, she said. Mami texts the family group chat to ask if the plants and flowers look nice: the ferns, the florets, the roses with their price tag waving with the breeze. Plant real ones! I type and add a winky, tongue-out emoji, my stomach tightening at the sight of the dollar-store flora and fauna. She keeps sending pictures and videos of silk flowers lining her white fence, of plastic greens in cream-colored pots resting on her new outdoor furniture. Do these look pretty? she replies, ignoring my text entirely. Sí, I message, not wanting to crush her hopes for a beautiful suburban home. From afar, the flowers and plants look real. They sing and dance as much as any real plant and flower I’ve ever seen. Mami prides herself on her makeshift garden, in a place she can finally call her own, where she can keep all the stuff she’s accumulated while in America.
My partner gave me an orange paper flower on the night we said I love you. I still have that flower—it’s faded and a bit burned from the sun because I’ve displayed it on my windowsills, from our shared Chicago apartment to our various New York City homes. I’m now making all of the flowers for my wedding out of tissue paper. I have stacks of goldenrod, petal pink, fire red, and sky blue sheets piled high on my corner desk. In the evenings, I lay out sheets of tissue paper on my coffee table and resize them, cut them, and fold them into tiny fans. Once I’ve tied the stem to the folded fan, I sit back on my couch and peel back the layers of tissue paper, one at a time. When I’m done, the paper flower resembles a marigold with its multiple layers and curved edges. Mami didn’t teach me to make these flowers; she doesn’t ask me much about the wedding at all. I chose to not buy fresh flowers because they’d go to waste. Their ephemerality scares me, makes me anxious, saddens me. I don’t want to love them, just to lose them. Give me flowers that last forever. I text pictures of the tissue-paper bouquets I’ve made to my sister and to my best friend: Do they look pretty? I’m surrounded by vases filled with paper flowers carefully placed on my bookshelf, on the corners of the TV stand, on the coffee table. Outside my apartment in Queens, drivers yell at double-parked cars, the honking becomes background music to the laughter and squeals from children exiting the school next door, the 7 train is a subtle clatter not far away. I sit in a garden I’ve created inside my living room. On my wedding day, I’ll hand Mami my bouquet of red paper flowers while I adjust my dress, both of us caught in the reflection of the mirror, and I’ll ask her if she thinks they’re pretty. I can hear her say, Sí, mamacita.
SONIA ALEJANDRA RODRÍGUEZ (she/they) is a writer and educator living in Queens, New York. They are a Mexican immigrant, raised in Cicero, Illinois. Their stories have been published in Strange Horizons, The Acentos Review, Longreads, Okay Donkey, Reckon Review, Mixed Mag, HAD, and elsewhere. Sonia’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfiction. Follow them on Twitter @RodriguezSoniaA.
Featured image by Andre Silva courtesy of Unsplash