Secrets of a Wooden Saint in a Church in Jalcomulco

The mothers look into the lake and see the whole sky.
They believe I can keep their children safe.
They come, photos snipped to stamp size, and pin their daughters’ faces on my robe.
Carmela, Rosamaria, Inocencia, Flor.
They come with a lock of their sons’ hair, a snip from his work shirt, a prayer.
Roberto, Marco Antonio, Anastasio, Gil.

The mothers come with snot and tears
to caress my feet
to leave me field flowers
to light a votive
to leave me with the lives of
so many young men and women.
They tack them into the flesh of my arms.
They sneak them into the brocade folds of my vestment.
They fasten them with metal twist-ties to my staff.

Yes, I will send your prayer to the one and only.
Yes, I will align the angels.
Yes, I will call their names in the night when others sleep.
But I cannot make the desert cool,
Or the great river quiet.
I cannot make the coyote less cruel,
Or la migra blind.

The mothers, they look into the lake and see the whole sky.
They look at a wooden saint on a splintered shelf in a church in Jalcomulco
and see a warm bed in Milwaukee,
a meal of enchiladas con crema in Atlanta .
And sometimes a mother comes to spit at me,
to take back a lock of cat-brown hair cut from her son while he slept
on the night before he took two pairs of jeans in a backpack to el Norte
saying he’d be back soon, he loved her, he’d call.

Mary Ellen Sanger lived for 17 years in Mexico and since 2003 Mexico lives in her. She is (still) writing her book on the women she met when incarcerated in Ixcotel prison and now works with prison issues and Mexican issues in NYC. She thinks it’s funny how things work out sometimes. See some amazing writers on the blog from the Mexican writing workshop she leads on Mondays:

Mary Ellen SangerMary Ellen Sanger recently  won $1000 first prize in a poetry contest for that poem in Jaguar Speaks? The Orlando Prize sponsored by the “Room of her Own Foundation.”



things come ’round

A sugar bowl, plastic, cut to look like crystal.
In it, a spoon, real silver, from her wedding day.
(She polishes it with lemon juice.)
A coffee cup, no handle, painted with quick slashes to resemble daisies.
A chipped plate with one sweet roll.
Guavas, mandarins and bananas, gifts from her yard, an abstract pyramid of fruit.

These things are on Elpidia Avendaño’s table
in her dirt-floor, one-room home where a flowery curtain
is the door to her bedroom.
(She arranges a plush bunny over the hole in her bedspread.) 
Oh, the table wears a checkered oilcloth with blue pears.
Yes, blue pears.

A coop, leaning southward, home to fourteen hens.
A clothesline draped from the avocado tree to the mandarin.
You already know about the fruit trees.
A black dog with a white bib scratching behind a floppy ear.
A scrub sink full of somebody else’s sweat- and mud-drenched clothes.
A florifundio drooping white trumpets to perfume her pillow.

These things are in Elpidia Avendaño’s yard
in back of the house her husband and son built
from muscle, savings and cinderblock, painting it yellow and pink
just before they left again to cross.
Yes, yellow and pink.
They promised her a tile floor when they next returned.

A Sony boombox. An Osterizer.
A KitchenAid wide-slice toaster.
A Panasonic telephone with digital answering machine.
A crock pot. Electric can opener. Pair of Nikes. 

These things were stacked in Elpidia Avendaño’s closet,
behind a curtain with golden fringe, in the corner by the bird cage.
Canta, cenzontle, canta.
Boxes indecipherable to her but for the pictures,
a techno-pyramid of gifts too good to use.
Until yesterday.

Until yesterday when her son called,
“Things are upside-down, mamá.”
Elpidia Avendaño listened from the straight-backed chair by the old black phone,
pulling a rosary, warmed by worry, from the pocket of her apron.
He said, “The recession, mamá. It’s hard up here.”
She said, in the hushed voice of lullabies, 
“Shhhh shhhhh m’ijo.Things come ’round.
Things come ’round, m’ijo. Things come ’round.”

At the pawn shop on Mier y Terán and Independencia
she was sixth in a queue of people with upside-down lives.
The broker gave her more for the Nikes than for the toaster.
It didn’t make sense, they’re just shoes.
Elpidia Avendaño tucked the money into her bra
and walking to Western Union, pressed her thumb
into the shallow bowl of the silver spoon she kept
quiet and close in the pocket of her apron.


  1. Pingback: Jaguar Speaks: Oaxaca’s Online Arts & Information Magazine « JAGUAR SPEAKS

  2. Dear Mary Ellen,

    I congratulate you on this fine poem. I found great truth in it, presented with great skill, beautifully. I would like to read more of your poetry.

  3. Thanks so much for reading, Marian —
    If you live in Oaxaca and go to the little church by the Tule tree — I think you will see some saints holding wee pictures like I mentioned here…
    Warm regards,

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