The alphabet in my hands : a writing life /
Marjorie Agosín ; translated by Nancy Abraham Hall.
New Brunswick, NJ : Rutgers University Press, c2000.
xxiv, 187 p. : ill.
081352704X (cloth : alk. paper)
More Details
New Brunswick, NJ : Rutgers University Press, c2000.
081352704X (cloth : alk. paper)
catalogue key
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One



Spring returns to enumerate the cycles of the earth and summon the rhythm of words. Submerged, the earth awaits the spell of warmth in all its forms. How long have I lived in regions that do not belong to me? How do I remember the names of all the absences?

    Sometimes I lean over to stir the soil. I am in the sinuous forests of Chile, the smell of eucalyptus settling along the length of my hands; at times it is the earth of Georgia, red like the happiness of a new life. Now I am in New England, awaiting another spring. The rains have passed and the birds return on bubbles of light. I, too, am here, but I return to memory. I am the sum of all the voyages and returns. I could no longer say that this is my place, that here I will plant trees. I can only promise that I will build a house full of words.

    Suddenly the earth expands and folds. All the leaves of the earth are an alphabet in my hands. I remember my mother saying that we must water the earth and relieve the thirst of the dead. I lean still further over this damp, humid place and return to all the places I have been: the water, the highlands of Bolivia, the city of Santiago with its walls of smoke. And yet, my body has learned a new language, new sounds and cadences. Suddenly I recognize myself. I am from this place, I tell myself, and my hands open to receive the leaves that spell my name.


During her fifth month, the doctors told my mother the baby she was carrying was dead. As she left the medical building, she plummeted into the sublime darkness of a mournful runnel. The next day she returned to the office, and by one of those curious chances, the doctor decided to listen to me again. There I was. He recognized my heartbeat, and I slowly shifted, as through crystalline waters.

    I was born during summer in the northern hemisphere, at dawn. They say I was fragile and bald for a year. My mother cried seeing me weak, barely able to enter life. Yet suddenly, when I knew I was alive in her arms, she said a reddish down began to cover my head, like a tenuous flame. Then someone told her I had been born under a lucky star, so they called me Marjorie Morningstar, after the girl in the Howard Fast novel, the television character "My Little Margie," and my Aunt Estrella who died in a concentration camp.


The table as long as a map of distant lands spread before us children like a sovereign queen. Bouquets of white and mauve roses presided over the house, keeping the mirrors company, and my grandmother Helena, smiling and dancing, sliced apples into small pieces and mixed them with nuts. "This is Passover," she would say to me, "this is the holiday of freedom," and I assumed I could say forbidden words as well as polite ones, leave my hair uncombed, and lounge in a chair like a satisfied lady because that was happiness.

    At Passover we sang and gossiped, whistled. From her kitchen of smoke and stars Carmencita sang the Ave Maria and made the sign of the cross for the sake of the heretics she served with love.

    We felt less alone at Passover, the Haggadah contained illustrations similar to those in the books owned by the girls who lived at the corner. Everything about Passover had the fragrance of violets and then Easter week would arrive and we would eat fish from the Pacific that, like unleavened bread, had come from the heavens.

Back to School

Along those coastal roads, the month of March would reinstate itself like the sovereign of drowsy days, days of fog, with a chill both tender and severe. Gone were the extended vacations when we women, sisters of summer, were always initiated into the rituals of desire. I remember the summer my mother first forbade us to wear tight white slacks and to stay on the beach for hours until the sand became the accomplice of our feet. But summer was also the future, the beginning of school, the new starched uniforms that seemed to belong to others. We loved to return to Santiago for Passover, the favorite holiday both in school and at my grandparents' house. I remember the four hundred chairs, one for each child, that we placed in the schoolyard for the festivities. On glorious, velvet afternoons touched by the still languid breezes of summer, we celebrated as the dazzling, stoic mountains of the Andes watched us break bread into small pieces. The earth smelled of stories, yet only in our imaginations did the river, pounding waves, and white slacks live on. I loved Passover for allowing me to tell the girls in my neighborhood that I, too, had angels who swooped over the homes of good Jews.


When the southern hemisphere thinned its golden days and ushered in the season of returns, my sister and I dreamed of the day we would arrive in Santiago to buy material for our new uniforms. Each time we were lucky to obtain the latest silky cloth of cobalt and sky blue. Excited, we awaited our return to Santiago, to the structured days of that city of mountain chains and rubber plants. We liked to watch the clocks foretell our return to the predictable time when school began.

    Then we went with our mother to buy material for our uniforms, pencils, school supplies, and lovely paper for covering our books. But we were also sad because our old, worn uniforms would be handed down to María, who would mend and iron them for her own children and perhaps the children of others. Poverty was like that, mother said, and she told us about her own grandmothers and great-grandmothers who walked from Poland to Hamburg, then sailed on to Santiago de Chile. María, too, was like the women in my family, itinerant, nomadic, so sad in their silence, so meager in their poverty.

The Blue Uniform

The uniform smelled of frost and starch. It rested in humble elegance across the chairs of the poor and the footrests of the rich. My uniform, resplendent, blue like a slice of fresh summer sky, or the praying shawls in which we hid when our grandfather blessed us. The skirt was very blue, the socks too white, the blouse the color of sandpaper, stiffened by a charcoal iron. Every morning the uniform shaped itself to my skin and pronounced the geography of my country. Children in southernmost Arauco wore it as did those in the north, and out in the streets, identically dressed, we recognized one another as fragile and vulnerable.

My Arpron

My apron was made of light percale cotton with patches of many colors, like the breath of peace. I loved my apron, protective fairy to the dark blue school uniform. The apron was a winter angel, a blanket of pale bluish snow on which to draw suns and myriad dreams. My mother had several aprons for each of us, a few for winter days with enormous, puffy cloudlike sleeves, good for stashing notes from admirers. The summer aprons were sown with flowers and fledgling orchards. They had two great pockets to which we entrusted our dreams and fondest desires, such as imagining the apron might rise into the sky and become a huge balloon in which to navigate the widest, bluest sky the earth had ever seen.

My Desk

It was made of greenish mahogany. My mother says they brought it from the thick southern forests where gazes mingle with chloroform dreams and memory follows the rhythm of the rains. They say that two men had gone there to find it. My desk was green, noble, and hospitable, like the very tree that gave it life. From the time I was quite small I sat at my desk conversing with words. They were neither far nor near, yet they controlled me like voices from illuminated mirrors, like bonfires that left marks in the cup of my hands.

    My mother gave me a key similar to those that fit the locks abandoned by my grandmother as she fled the weary streets and broken windowpanes of Vienna. I loved that key because it contained secrets as happy as the desire I felt whenever I prepared to sing or pray certain words. Inside my desk I kept eucalyptus leaves, fragrant as the deepest forest. I kept candelabras and seven candles, and the dreams of women who traveled to lands where nothing bloomed, of women who longed to be birds. Inside the green desk I kept my music, the music of the women I loved.

Rabbit Easter

My aunt Liesl Goldschmid was born in Austria but was raised as an only child in London while her parents hid in the woods of Vienna. Like Agatha of Austria, she had the invincible custom of celebrating, year after year, the feast of the Rabbits. She said that Resurrection Sunday was a day for remembering those who were in hiding during the most treacherous years.

    Very serious, she would create paths through the woods of the house next door, and sing Spanish songs while we hid multicolored eggs, painted lilac and mauve. In Chile, this was considered an act of bad faith, like the procession of heretics over the earth. Easter in Chile was subdued, and widows donned their most severe mourning clothes. That strange scene of Jewish children and their parents looking for eggs was not proper. But for us, the eggs hidden deep in the damp forest, and the sacred cheeks of those children, were like a beginning, the birth of innocence, of memory. We liked to hear my aunt proclaim "Oh, too much love," as she unpacked her wedding dress and danced in the transparent space of night and sea while we looked for eggs and buried our hands in the warm April earth, preparing ourselves for the southern hemisphere. We were happy because the previous week we had celebrated Passover as the maids watched us with surprise singing and repeating the questions of the night. Perhaps that was what it meant to be Jewish, to suffer the breath of God in the back of our necks while we prayed and to feel our hands buried in the soil while we looked for rabbits steeped in the wisdom of the earth.

St. John's Eve

My nana Carmen Carrasco was a faithful observer of all manner of feast days, from the grape harvests on sweet and drowsy summer nights to the eve of St. John, her personal favorite. Carmen loved to dress in white so as to scare off Death and all her mischief making.

    At midnight, the hour of owls and rivers—even though the one behind my house was merely a brook—Carmen went outside to beat the trees. She beat them in a marvelous frenzy, with all the fury of generations, with all the power of her womanhood. I watched her, wishing fervently to be grown up solely to beat trees, knowing full well that Jewish girls could never do so. We had no saint day's eves, no St. John.

    On the nights she beat the trees, when her hair puffed up like a cloud of smoke, Carmen Carrasco took me to her room, yes, the room in the back, and told me the hour of my salvation had arrived. Since I was Jewish she baptized me with holy water brought from the fonts of nearby churches. She told me to stay very still so I wouldn't sprout horns. Only then did she tell me to look in the wide, concave mirror that would reveal a shift in my fortune. I was somewhere between subdued and happy, gazing into the mirror as if approaching the edge of a cliff, the cloudy ages of lost rituals, and I watched myself in the deep, transparent veil of this night of all nights. In the mirror, Carmen Carrasco saw the sinuous procession of the living and the dead, the stars of the most sublime galaxies. Carmen Carrasco assured me that the mirror told the truth. She whispered supplications, sweet prayers very close to my ear. She told me that she, too, was a Jewish woman, because, after all, the Spaniards were Jewish, and that, in order to survive, she had loved life above all else. This is how I spent my nights, my St. John eves, during winters in the southern hemisphere, when frost covered the fields of both rich and poor, when winter seemed like a great lady snug in her carriage of ice.

My Birthday

Of all my memories, or what I choose to remember from among the mist and the moving boxes of forgetfulness, I remember my birthday celebrations. Nana Carmencha told me that mothers like mine did not give their babies names of saints or even have them baptized. That's why it was imperative to celebrate my birthday in the most baroque fashion possible. My nana Carmencha saw to it that birthdays took on the magic of a procession, by which she did not mean walking about with a saint on one's shoulders and genuflecting with thanks for a favor granted. Not that at all, but I will tell you that at seven in the morning, when the rebellious winter throws off its stubborn blankets, Carmen Carrasco and her helper Guillermina Oyarzún got up.

    They lit the candles on an enormous, delicious cake, and aglow in their festive shawls, they went outside and walked around the block intoning "This is the morning song King David used to sing," then returned to our courtyard. I saw them through the misty windows, stunned with happiness to know that they had walked with a lit cake past the neighborhood butcher shop, the woman with the crooked mouth, and the knife-sharpener. They had blessed this saintless little girl's birthday.

    Close behind them came my grandmother wearing the sky blue scarf that matched her eyes. Rather than cakes she brought a decapitated (and not very kosher) hen, a gift from Carmen's relative in Chillán. Upon seeing this pitiless animal, bathed in blood, I trembled, but knew that for the household servants, eating meat was the utmost pleasure. In the desolate countryside, hunger roamed the solitudes, so the hen was a celebration of abundance and good life.

    During the day my mother prepared tirelessly for the celebration. She rushed off to the supermarket, or to Doña Jacinta's flower shop and returned with golden copihues. She and my grandmother then cut out the most beautifully colored paper shapes and created necklaces of marzipan. They peeled oranges and shaped the skins into little sailboats, and fashioned tiny dolls full of sugar with mirrors for faces. I watched them, but preferred to read my primer or talk to myself in the company of freshly sharpened pencils.

    The adults arrived later, men in suits as dark as night and complexions yellowed by the exhaustion of avarice. Astonished, I watched them gesture as they conversed, weary and obedient to the rules of social obligation. They left gifts, plastic dolls, lavender water, a jar of peaches, a kilo of cheese, a secondhand book of drawings from my favorite uncle, and then they departed as hastily as they had arrived. In the interlude, my girlfriends convened. But I quickly tired of my peers. Pretending to have a terrible headache, I went to the attic where, behind a locked door, I waited for the guests to leave.

    When the house returned to the peace of nightfall, when the evening noises turned to murmurs, I thought about my birthday party, the lit cake advancing along the street, my nana's prayers like sacred songs, and my grandmother parading through the neighborhood with the dead hen.


They had named her Soledad and her name prefigured a still body behind the ivy, small hands limply holding drab wild flowers, with the millenary tear that separates the healthy from the ill. Soledad had been born mentally retarded, her head somewhat bent and pointed, her drooping lips covered with reddish foam. In Chile, to be mentally retarded is not to exist, someone who must be hidden and who, by virtue of a vulnerable birth, is guilty. My parents wanted us to grow in compassion, in human solidarity, and so they spoke to us about Soledad, about the beauty of her amber-colored eyes, her hands desperate to catch the light. Every Sunday we walked to her house to play. We did not go to church or to synagogue because my father had told us that goodness exists on earth, that there were no rewards after death, and that playing with Soledad was a mitzvah. A mitzvah was not repaid with either chocolates or eternal life. Rather, it was like writing a poem, always immediate, timeless, and beautiful. There was something very direct in any conversation with Soledad, and we played with her bald dolls. Soledad pulled their hair out in order to cover them with it. From time to time happiness invaded her knees and, with all the noise of the sea, she asked us to dance the Twist, getting to her feet like a comet, smiling. We hugged Soledad and thought about Gabriela Mistral's poems. It was true that as we danced we were queens and the garden filled with shadows and lanterns, and we danced without speaking or moving. We danced because our hearts were bleeding life, because on that Sunday afternoon Soledad was not alone, and her solitude had become a basket full of smiles.


The rain was not a merciful blanket of water descending from the sky. The rain was angry, sweeping away the humble table, the fragile roofs of tin and cardboard. The rain arrived in the immenseness of night, as if death had arrived, inopportune, without warning. The children who shielded themselves with pieces of cardboard became covered with malign water that kept them awake even more than their hollow dreams, more than the impudent immediacy of hunger. Over there, in the other Chile, the rain danced on huge windows and the children in those neighborhoods, including myself, ate toast and drank hot chocolate. The grown-ups declared the storm to be beautiful and admired the savage flames in the fireplace. The rain, too, was poverty's enemy. With indifference, she swept away the tiny, frail, makeshift huts, refuges for poor and rich alike.

The Beggar Woman

It is hard to see how big or small she is. Kneeling, she seems as fragile as drizzle. She has as many names as corners, but at night, when she shelters herself from sadness in a shawl as changing as clouds, her name is Magda. I see her every day shaking her small tin can, making music with simple coins. She makes her rounds in the morning. She begs for money and she prays. At times she sings certain passages from the Bible, but she gets them wrong because her memory is failing. Later, when the noonday sun warms her, Magda, who is also Mary, returns to collect litter and discarded bottles for resale.

    I stop to speak to her. She waits for me as our meetings have become routine. Sometimes I bring her paper cut in the shape of stars or the sun, and she is delighted. She asks me where I live, if my house is close by. She says she lives down south, far away, where the wind noisily attacks rooftops and splits her long, black, hand-me-down skirt.

    My grandmother says that one shouldn't speak to the poor, or worse, pay them any attention. Besides, she doesn't even hear me. I keep telling Magda that tomorrow I will bring her more paper stars, and I return to my warm bed and try to imagine Magda's face, which does not exist, which I cannot recall as vividly as her poverty and her tattered black shawls.

Long Live Saint Peter!

All night long the women of the village took care of him. They rubbed his wooden body with branches of eucalyptus and spring flowers like lilies and forget-me-nots. Quiet peace emanated from his body, and around him, the bonfires burned like transparent circles of light and the blood of so humble a heart. "Long live Saint Peter!" they said to him, and a chorus, bowing in the thick night and drinking grape brandy, said "Long live! Long live!" My mother took us to see the saint as well, and we touched his body covered with branches and flowers, just as earlier, on those March days, we had touched and kissed the Torah. Faith seemed like those blue shawls my grandfather donned to pray. Faith seemed like the destiny of a restless, shifting sea assailing us.

    Very early in the morning, when the sea descended angrily on the sand and the night ceded its realm to the still fragile blinks of the morning sun, the fishermen left their brightly colored houses. They wore wool caps made by their wives and they left on boats named for flowers and lovers: "María Celeste," "Rosa de la Costa," "María del Valle Azul," and the saint would rock, guiding them with his blind, doubtful faith, with his wooden torso ringed with flowers. Meanwhile we were there, on the side, along the shoreline, lighting small candles of love, strewing rose petals into the water so that the saint would have a fragrant journey. It was then that I realized it didn't matter whether we were Jewish or Catholic, the most important thing was faith. Here it was like a double flame of love and peace; here we were, young Jewish girls, keeping St. Peter company and then following the Belgian priest to Mass at the small stone church, the church where the poor illuminated the earth and the priest said, with a French accent, "Long live Saint Peter! Long live God and the Virgin Mary!" We were happy because in that procession of acquaintances and strangers we did not feel alone. No one spit at us like the well-brought-up British schoolgirls. This was the real Chile: a chain of good men and women whose beloved Saint Peter, the miraculous saint of the sea, reddened by rings of roses, disappeared and then reappeared over the horizon of faith.

September 18

The women of the house spoke about September 18. They intoned strange sentences. Some said tiki, tiki, tik, and moved their feet as if they might be swept, dancing, to the ends of the earth. My mother smiled as well and said tiki, tiki, tik. The 18th was a patriotic holiday in this odd nation that celebrated the days on which battles had been lost, and whose national hero was a blue-bearded Irishman. My mother said that this holiday was very important for the goyim, the non-Jews, just as the New Year was for us. From that moment on, I knew we were half Chilean and half Jewish.

    For me the 18th marked the invasion of our garden by wild aromas: wisteria and gum trees germinated, certain warm and reddish roses bloomed. The 18th was like spring with weeping willows sighing and dancing. On that day my nana dressed me in layers of petticoats, like a cabbage, and put red and white ribbons, the colors of the flag, in our hair. Generally we spent the holiday at the beach house. Nana took me to the Arbors, a group of small straw cabins that brought to my mind the sukka of the Jewish people. In the Arbors men and women danced, got drunk, fell in love. The women, with unhurried grace, lifted their skirts and looked at one another, then chose partners for the night. The smell of pine and blue sea blended with the melodious waves, with the movement of bodies, with the to and fro of the breeze and of love. Even though they said this holiday was not ours, I loved it just the same, tied to my nana's arm, that dark and noble arm that cured fevers and placed white calyxes in my ear. I, too, went to dance among the people they called poor and lazy Indians.

    My people were somber and danced only on the 18th. Even so, they danced slowly, their heads hanging slightly. They asked forgiveness, and they gave themselves the luxury of getting drunk once a year, in September, so to honor a country that viewed them with indifference and arrogance.

    My grandfather died on September 18, our nation's special day. They transported him to the Jewish cemetery of Santiago where all the workers stood with their red and white flags among the headstones etched with Hebrew letters. On each small stone there was a flag. Then and there I knew that Chile was ours as much as its air, its garbage, and its dead.

The Marconi Theater

My grandmother was afraid of prayers, but she warbled like a love-struck-bird. She always said that the real paradise was here on earth, and that was why I loved her, because she was mischievous and disorderly, because she read love letters out loud. On fast days, she used to become annoyed at all the the gods, banners, and Carmen's Virgin. As if pleasantly drunk, she ate ham and fried fish with exquisite indifference. My grandfather would say, "You ought to be ashamed, Josefina, on the holy days." She would look at him unmoved and continue savoring the sweet taste of her forbidden dinners.

    I, on the other hand, would draw near to grandfather, stealing my small hand into his enormous green coat, and get ready to go out with him to the Marconi Theater, where the German Jews celebrated the holy days. My grandfather and I most often took a taxi and had the driver drop us off five blocks before the theater so that everyone else would think we had arrived on foot. I liked to lie about such things because they were delicious and impressive lies, lies that adults told, not children.

    We would arrive at the Marconi Theater where the men smelled of confinement and bygone ages. These men greeted my grandfather in German, and he was thrilled to hear his own language. His language? The language that killed millions of Jews, but he was happy with so little. That was my grandfather, too good to be human. They called him "the angel." I would sit on his lap trembling with song and prayer. I am sure that he thought of his father in his solitary tomb in the woods of Vienna, and he would beat his breast and pray for the angels, for the sparrows, for all his beloved dead, numbering more than six million, and for the Jews, who were acknowledged only on feast days.

    My grandfather was like a resting place. His was the grace and gift of the enlightened, and I loved him and prayed for his dead in that Marconi Theater. Between prayers the afternoon passed slowly, like random, rainy days. We, the little Jewish girls, winked at one another. Perched on our grandfathers' laps, we exchanged sweets, orange blossoms, the pleasing things of happiness. My grandfather would beat his breast and kiss me. We would go to a place beyond time, and the men and women would hug and say in German "Alles Gute, alles Schöne." I would also repeat those words in that language, which sounded wild to me, and feeling wild and dark myself, I yearned to go tell Carmencita that I was surely seated among her saints and braziers.

Rosh Hashanab

October in Chile is warm. The inhabitants take off their endless layers of scarves and excite to the explosion of greens and yellows. It is the season of aromas. Life is pursued. Retired people return to the spots that have been held for them. After a dark winter, balloons appear, morning glories, violets, caresses in the park. Cemeteries fill with flowers that always accompany the dead.

    October in Chile, and it is the Jewish New Year, even though few people know it, and at times people in the street simply say that the Jews have closed their shops. My mother and I look at one another with delight, we laugh with such passion because we don't know what to say. We were bending over with laughter and also with humility and we were getting ready to celebrate this new year which, more than a fresh start on a calendar, marks a different way of viewing the world and becoming accustomed to it. Perhaps the Jewish New Year is a way of accepting time. Entangled and enormous, time is like a stellar shawl, like a time beyond our grasp, a useless time, and as such, a time submerged in otherness. My mother tells me to collect stones so that we can throw them in the river and ask for forgiveness. I tell her that there aren't many sins I can recall. Perhaps when I pulled my sister's hair, but most of all I just remember bits of scenes, intermittent and forgotten memory.

    The Jewish New Year, and the ten days that surround it, is a time not only of introspection but of gratitude beyond alphabets and calendars, beyond thresholds and uncertain times. My grandfather would take me to the Sephardic synagogue because he felt at home there. It was, in truth, a great theater with reddish, dragon-like rugs leased by Jews from the capital and the provinces. They got together on these holy days. We walked enveiled in the smell of hyacinths, the light of spring glowing on our faces full of yearning. At last we had a holiday! Since I was little, strolling arm in arm with my grandfather, we spoke about how hardheaded God was with regard to the poor, about how the Andes looked like an enormous Chantilly cream pie. More than anything, I remember the Sephardic community gathering in the streets near the synagogue, smiling, singing with whistles and drums Old Castillian and gypsy melodies, and we, the Kulturmenschen, would walk austerely, germanically, to pray to a silent uncaring God who let millions die in the chambers of blue gas. My Omama Helena sent me a disapproving glance because she saw the questions in my eyes. She taught me to remain quiet in the face of the incomprehensible, the inexpressible. From that Jewish New Year on, I entered into an eternal conflict with God, and it was not just a passing phase of adolescence. I understood that religious knowledge goes beyond history, beyond books of fiction. It is a way to contemplate the sky, to approach the time of breezes, to embrace the beggars, and to go wherever our hearts may lead us.

Kol Nidre

It was the most wondrous night of nights. The moon above the sky's open labyrinth lit the path of silence on this night of wonders, on this night when grown men repent, beat their breasts, and repeat words as if praying or moaning, "Mea culpa, mea culpa."

    A woman seated beside us searches for her dead sisters in the melodies of Kol Nidre. She also looks for herself, bewitched by the horror, and she sings like an angel, her throat full of mist. Her voice is unrepentant, yet it murmurs: I seek the water of the living in the grottos of the dead.

    My mother winks at me and says she is not sorry about anything. She has not sinned, she says. She has only played with the afternoon, with the leaves, and has marveled at the lavishness of leisure. She has stored her shoes with the somnolent autumn leaves and has visited the sick without offering false hope. I see her as if she were floating, green from head to toe, in a spiral of smoke, far from those men who beat their breasts and then yell over money or unrequited love.

    In the distance I hear a woman sobbing, her voice a dry violin in all the deserts of the world. This is the night of Kol Nidre, the most wondrous night, the most wary night, the night of those who repent.

Day of Atonement

We liked the Day of Atonement because we felt closer to the gifts in our neighborhood who, every Sunday, disguised as starch, went to speak to the parish priest in those marvelous velvet rooms where one knelt to tell secrets about touching one's body in the resplendent solitude of night and yelling obscene words for the sheer pleasure of how it feels to stroke one's belly at the sound of them. But to whom could we confess about how bad we had been or how many dirty words we had said? Our family had few prohibitions. The Day of Atonement drew us closer to the Christian girls we so wanted to be like, girls with holy cards, First Communion girls. My mother didn't like to go to God's house where men beat their breasts then put their hands in their pockets to count money. None of that, my mother would say. So we would go to the river, dressed in white and carrying lilies. We washed our hair and looked for fresh stones. We threw the stones into the river with love, stones like prayers. The stones were for our sins, for the times we had disobeyed, been stubborn, wished for bad things to happen. We threw a lot of stones. We liked the sound they made, and we liked knowing that the turbulent, crystalline river, slippery as bubbles, swept away our sins and evil deeds. Later that afternoon we felt happy and light. God's house was everywhere, especially in my mother's hands that gently caressed us. That's how we celebrated the Day of Atonement.

Christmas Eve at the Pacific

At night the ocean became thin and sighed in preparation for the days of perpetual sun and water. I loved Christmas as something forbidden, something that I could never have. My grandfather said that Christmas was like the mouth of the night, very dark for Jews. My grandmother, in a wise and distant voice, replied that all nights were dark for Jews. For a long time I did not understand when people said to me, "You Jews killed Christ," and "You Jews are strange, "and "You Jews do not celebrate death as we do." On Christmas Eve, when the nanas put on their best clothes and placed clay pitchers in every corner, I felt distant and alone. Being Jewish was like having an open wound that never healed.

    One Christmas my nana Delfina saw me sobbing in the shadows and she said, "Dry your tears, little gift, and let's go dancing." Together we joined the crowd that had gathered outside to celebrate the birth of the Christ child. Nana bought me a beautiful bouquet of red carnations and parsley for good luck. And when no one was looking, she opened her patent leather wallet and gave me the best Christmas present I have ever received: a small Star of David as golden as my hair.

New Year's by the Sea

New Year's is celebrated by the sea, in the disorderly, uncombed city of Valparaíso, where sky and sea blend under colored lanterns hung high in the Pacific night. An ancient pyrotechnic tradition, more or less a hundred years old, is the pride of a city that was first among Pacific ports during the previous century.

    Today the inhabitants of Valparaíso don their garments of poverty, and still transport water on exhausted mules laden with garlands of flowers, mules that also obey misery's avatar. The whorehouses of the city, where naked, impoverished sailors turn love's pirouettes, are also illuminated majestically. Ladies of the night, painted red and in fuchsia high heels, head for the docks, aroused.

    Every corner and hill is occupied by anxious spectators who, since dawn, have made the blue pilgrimage to claim their place near the sky. The balconies of the poor are cleared tonight of the usual washing hung out to dry and allow an unimpeded view of the bursts of happiness and the sea, with its ancient, defeated ships of war: the Esmeralda, the oldest ship in the Chilean fleet, sailing the world displaying her white magic riggings.

    Suddenly in the sea and sky, the night wind flares into a single flame of air and light. Life and death, dreams of the future, what will and cannot be, strike an agreement on this night by the sea. Strangers hug as if the world's end had come. They dance barefoot along the tree-lined avenue, along Lovers' Way, and even stutterers sing. On this beloved night, one of few that Chileans recognize as their own, golden stars and old women on balconies, above the crowds and the ashes, launch warm, blue doves into the hills.

Summers of Syrup

Summers were spreading like golden lizards from early December to mid-March. Beach days drew near and we entered the space of happiness. We finished the school year. My mother, who, like her mother, feared rickets above all other diseases, prepared us for a luminous pilgrimage to the coast. The car was loaded with matresses, blankets, jars of sugar, peaches, and tuna fish. We began our journey along the sinuous highways as if we were traveling to the end of the earth. In truth the coast was quite nearby, only an hour and a half from the capital. A good part of the ritual involved the food supply and the obligatory escape of the melon, rolling off ceremoniously each time we climbed a hill. My mother, resembling a victorious bird, watched over the stash of small lemons.

    I cannot clearly remember precise moments, dates, or events, but happiness was an outstretched hand, an open handkerchief, something fleeting and intangible, yet at the same time present and real. Never again have I been able to recover this feeling. The summer consisted of nights turning into day and days into night. Rushing was unheard of and in bad taste. We were not lazy. Rather, time took on a different rhythm, measured by a different gauge. Haste was looked at askance because one had to pause in the hearts of flowers, look at tiny dragonflies, the night rain on the cacti, or red leaves that had been well preserved since the previous autumn.

    We went on long afternoon walks on a steep earthen path along enormous cliffs. The rocks took the shape of legends, their faces sculpted by the wind and the imagination. My mother often took us to the Princess Rock with the face of a woman in love, her eyes turned inward. She told us that the Princess cried, especially when the moon was full, because she was in love with the sea.

    Everything by the sea took on the organic rhythm of life: the tides rested and dreamed, the footsteps galloped after the sand, the house recovered light and a face in the morning, and opened itself religiously at noon. It was probably in this small stone house by the sea that I first felt the shudder at the sound of poetry, communion with the living and the dead, the aroma of Doña Blanquita's freshly baked bread, and the antics of the inebriated men on the corner. But nothing seemed out of kilter. Everything in that dominion, from the smallest to most gigantic thing, had its peculiar essence, its own gestures. All one had to do was watch and interpret the watery movements of the lizards, the nuns resting in the blue kitchen, the crabs kicking in the fish market stalls. It all signaled you were alive.

Tidal Pools

Every summer we went to the shore, time set aside for wandering along the sonorous, silent sand. Every summer we walked by the sea, along the beach, as if caressing the body of someone we love. My childhood transpired in the small coastal town called El Quisco. Due to frequent blackouts in the village, electric light was scarce at night. Potable water was also scarce. Each house had its own septic well, and we spent hours pumping. Flies appeared like privileged guests in the blue kitchen during light meals, and yet, we were happy, caught in the languid rhythm of each day's passing, in the beauty of an unexpectedly slow day, the sound of the ocean and its fragrances. At night my sister and I read poems by Gabriela Mistral and dreamed we were queens.

    In El Quisco I lived alongside fishermen and breadmakers, and the area's intellectuals who left behind the impetuous rush of normal days and elected barefoot time in the sand, the peace that allowed them to welcome angels and converse with the living.

    Summers at water's edge allowed me deeper knowledge of my own body, which in many ways became waterlike. My form stretched and my hair became tangled in seaweed. Water ran down my legs, just as the tiny stream of blood had done when I turned thirteen. Water made me feel alone, free of other people, of the gaze of villagers who said: Those summer people, those blonde foreigners should arrive any day. The sound of men's whistling voices did not upset me when I was at the tidal pools. There I felt happy because the water was like fog, like cloudy crystals, and my body, which needed no reply, was just there, the way things are, day and night.

Gypsy Women

In summer, when days grow as long as patience, we used to go to the plazas to see the gypsy women arrive. There they were, in the wake of winter's shadows, with their tents like secrets and moist palaces. There they were with their silk skirts, withered by the clouded gaze of passion and badly plotted secrets. They seemed to float among the shrubs, walk across forbidden lawns, go off in bare feet to urinate like an orchestra of crickets. Sometimes their clothing would not cover their private parts, and everyone stared at them, especially at the clusters of hair between their legs. Then we saw her approaching us. Her hands were the size of storks, and she said, "Bonfires bloom in your heart." Gypsy women asked for nothing, only the gold coins that pedestrians generously tossed at them in every neighborhood.

    At first I was afraid of them became the maids at my house insisted they would kidnap me, drag me to a dark hallway, and cut out my heart. Little by little I began to love them unreservedly like the noise of dreams. Every summer when I was allowed to bare my legs and feel the yearning presence of desire, skin shedding its petals, I invoked their image. Then we went out into the plaza and saw them in their crazy witches' garments, bunches of silk at their hearts, and they would say to me, "My darling girl, give me your hand." I gave them my hand because I was alone, because I was like them. I, too, had come out of my dark castle. I gave them my hand, some jewelry that I received from a few dark ancestors. In the end I offered them both hands, faintly lined and ripe for invention. I gave them my faith and asked in exchange that they caress my palms.

The Movies

Adolescence emerges from the shadows and the face of the girl I was comes into view. The past is an uncertain braid. I remember going often with my mother to a small movie theater. Located in the beach town of El Quisco and painted cobalt blue and turquoise, it stood on a rocky, dusty corner reminiscent of those ghostly towns in northern Chile where men lose their way in the fog and women become lost in their houses. Around seven in the evening, I thrilled to hear my mother say she wanted to go into town to watch the sunset and later a film. There were no rules, as there were in the cities, about how old one had to be to enter the theater. There were no absurd ratings pronouncing "age fourteen and up only."

    So we put on our white slacks and went to the movies, where there were no orchestra or box seats, only wooden chairs carved from familiar trees. We sat with our snacks, bananas and milk for me and lots of strong coffee for my mother. We also brought along candies to share with whoever happened to sit next to us. Attending a movie in that beach town felt like communal living. There were no distinctions between rich and poor, summer residents and natives. In certain ways the movies, like school uniforms, made us feel equal, like a family, accomplices in that world of illusion up on the screen. I loved to hear people say that my golden hair reminded them of Marilyn Monroe's.

The Island of Swallows

During the summer, when nights weighed little and sadness was warm and fleeting, I liked to tie myself to my mother's body, sense her jasmine smell, slide my hand through her curls, imagining them to be copper-colored waves. That's how we spent the summer, next to one another, asleep in the wondrous stupor of days that repeated themselves, equal in their slowness, in their rhythm of chance and sand games. Then, so as not to alter the habit of repetition, I asked my mother to tell me the story of the Island of Swallows.

    As she spoke, she ran her hands through my hair: One summer there was a girl who dreamed about swallows. She played in her garden beside the woods, at once far from and close to the sea, and dreamed about swallows, like angels with white breasts plowing the domed sky. Then suddenly, she felt herself being lifted like a blue snowflake, her body like a luminous summer wing. The swallows were taking her to an island where the sea was full of anemones, wisteria, and small flowers, where the sea was a blue and violet gauze.

    It was their island, a place where naked women combed their hair and fastened their curls with combs of generous wood. On the Island of Swallows words danced beside the women. The only sound came from the gentle, prodigious cadence of words traversing the sky. The women told one another stories, and whenever their spirits or words ran low, the swallows helped them out. Then I looked at my mother with delight, because I realized that on the Island of Swallows there were no dark words, memories were the color of turquoise, and words bloomed in the water like magic trees. I always wanted to live on the Island of Swallows. There the dead would appear dancing on the foliage sparkling with ashes. Now they spoke to those women who had perished in the forests of ash. Now they spoke with languages of water and fire. I understood that on the Island of Swallows memory was allowed, that only there could I emerge from the shadows and be happy amid faith and words.

    In the dense nights, when the soul is an agile feather, I return to the Island of Swallows. There I find my mother, her fingers like pencils floating in the sand. I stand at her side on an island where pilgrims rest and the sea is a thick waist in the rhythm of the night. Suddenly the swallows appear, surrounding my head. Enamored of these nighttime birds and their flight, I open and shut my eyes, and know myself to be at the heart of memory, in a childhood amid forests and fresh, sonorous water. I lie naked next to my mother and write a story about a girl who grows up on the Island of Swallows, an island built on memories that plow the nights and clear the days. My mother now asks me to tell her about the Island of Swallows, and when I cannot get to sleep, I take her hand. My copper-colored hair blends with hers and I say, "Mom, once upon a time there was an island inhabited by swallows ...," and we set out for the world of words.

Guardian Angels

Summers were always spent by the sea, beyond the hills. From every corner of the house it was possible to catch a glance of the ocean, which neither lurked nor asked questions. The sea was one of those vulnerable presences, it had roots and awoke in love with it's own waves. At night the sea undulated in the wind, in the air, its waters rocking like a magic seesaw.

    I grew up by the sea and believed in all the tales of her islands and archipelagos because my country was entwined with the ocean everywhere. Sometimes its enveloping presence blinded us or made us unhappy.

    Life in the summer was water, sunsets, sand, walks to the Princess Rock and back to the house after dark, down the dirt road where not even the vast silence terrified us.

    At summer's end, so-called soirees were celebrated at water's edge. They consisted of carnival acts with midgets and disobedient girls. My mother took us to those festivities. I loved the beach late at night and the huge bonfires. My hair was grown long and I was dressed in white, as I had always dreamed. Led along by my older sister, I caught a first glimpse of lovemaking and desire.

    On the last night of that week by the sea, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's incredible story The Little Prince was enacted. The insinuating fox appeared, full of maleficent weaknesses, the fox that made us tremble, she was so astute. Suddenly the lights on the beach went out. The water seemed frozen in place and the ocean turned very thick. There was no moon that night, no wind, only the fragrance of forests and lavender. Then out on the immense expanse of the Pacific a boat appeared, draped in white sails, like a mirror. It came to take the Little Prince away so that he would not be tempted by the fox, and took him to another island where he would likely live with his rose, surrounded by water and beauty.

    I understood then that perhaps we all had many guardian angels, that at the decisive moment someone ultimately looks out for us. The day we left Chile I thought of the plane as the boat that had taken the Little Prince to new waters, Then I prayed for what I was leaving behind and what the future might hold. My breathing marked the rhythm of the engines as on the night when I felt my heart to be a single watery wave. I held my mother's hand, closed my eyes, and remembered an entire childhood by the sea in my house of stone.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 2000-05-01:
This compact volume is yet another in the increasingly popular form of memoirs presented in disjunctive sections. The best work in the book comes in the first half, which focuses on the author's childhood. Agosin (Wellesley College) describes her upbringing as a Chilean Jew and her memories of persecution and antisemitism. Much of the writing in this first section is both unique and poignant. The power of these childhood sections is what gives the book real value. Indeed, the volume would have been even more powerful had Agosin limited the volume to childhood memories, because the second half of the book, which she calls "Journey to the Other America," leaves the reader wishing for coherence and richer meaning. Here the author's reminiscences about diverse experiences have less of a unifying theme and so seem disjointed. Recommended for general readers and for libraries collecting literary memoirs to support work at the upper-division undergraduate level and above. S. Raeschild; College of Santa Fe
This item was reviewed in:
Chicago Tribune, February 2000
Choice, May 2000
Washington Post, July 2000
New York Times Book Review, September 2000
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Publisher Fact Sheet
The author takes us on a personal journey of discovery. During her childhood in Chile, she was raised to regard her Jewish heritage with loving awareness. Her family also participated in the dominant Catholic culture. As a young girl, she became keenly aware of her dual identity in her country, both as a participant & an outsider. She recounts the events that forced her family to emigrate to America: the overthrow of Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet. She writes of her new life in Athens, Georgia, of the sudden loss of all that was familiar. Ostracized as an emigrant, her high school years were made even more painful by the news from Chile: prisoners taken & classmates disappearing or shot. Years later, she goes back to Chile & travels there with her own children. And in the final chapter, she addresses two important topics: her current residence in New England & the central role of writing & literature in her life.

This information is provided by a service that aggregates data from review sources and other sources that are often consulted by libraries, and readers. The University does not edit this information and merely includes it as a convenience for users. It does not warrant that reviews are accurate. As with any review users should approach reviews critically and where deemed necessary should consult multiple review sources. Any concerns or questions about particular reviews should be directed to the reviewer and/or publisher.

  link to old catalogue

Report a problem