It was my second day on the job at Walmart corporate, by far the most prestigious position this brown girl had ever been in, and the pressure of the production floor, of the perfectly polished people who might see the weakness hiding behind my trembling bottom lip, forced me to the far stall of the restroom to pull myself together, somewhere safe from their vindictive gaze.
That’s where I met Maria.
Walking out of the stall, still tearful and shaking, I spotted her kneeling beside the sink, her wrinkled hands wringing out the mophead, the white suds running down her brown fingers.
She smiled warmly and said hola. I took a deep breath and responded in my mother tongue, trying bravely to smile back. I stared into the mirror, smoothed out the silk blouse bought specifically for this job, then heard her say tus padres deben de estar muy orgullosos, and for a moment, her words were the salty Alajuela breeze I used to breathe in back home. I smiled and thanked her.
My parents ARE proud of this job.
I began planning my bathroom breaks for 10am and 3pm every day, when I knew I would find her there. She’d ask me if the computers were still being pendejos and I would ask if her daughter had sent her rude Biology professor p’al carajo, and we’d struggle to stay straight-faced as the tight-laced white folks passed by, nodding their greetings to me while turning their faces away to ignore Maria.
It wasn’t until my third week that I noticed it wasn’t just the gringos whose eyes would roll at her, but the latinas too. Their expensive heels clicking on the freshly mopped tile, eyes locked on the mirror so they could ignore their parents’ reflection in her aging, hunched frame, a reminder of what we might have been. She keeps her eyes fixed to the floor on the filth their soles leave behind.
The day one of the latinas threw a wadded paper towel down and said that’s what janitors are for, I asked Maria where home was. She told me she moved here four years ago from Guadalajara, hoping to start a bakery making pink and yellow frosted Mexican bread, but the bank is a border wall of words and paperwork that she doesn’t have the language to scale it, so she silently kneels and cleans the fading tile.
Maria knows her place and she reminds me of my father, how his Master’s degree became worthless the day he stepped foot on this ‘American Dream’ soil, his education wasted as he waded in the blood on a chicken plant killing floor. And I remember how I promised myself I would never stain my hands cleaning floors so others could build their success on my back. So I used my American college education to bleach the Costa Rica out, sterilized my island soiled accent for that interview at an ideal job, steamed the North Pacific waves of my hair flat for that “exceeds expectations” review.
Now, I think about how brown bodies like Maria’s are the steps I have climbed to become a disaster tourist in this bathroom that she will never be able to leave.
Maria is throwing trash bags into her cart when she sees me leaving, surrounded by my coworkers. Her eyes meet mine and I hesitate for a split second, knowing if I nod or smile or speak in her direction, the brown of my skin will show through the whitewash and the culture
I’ve tried so hard to dress up, press down, and clean out, how it will all come tumbling through.
Maria remains silent and unsmiling, waiting for acknowledgement, for permission to speak, but I walk past her, looking down at my hands, suddenly feeling dirtier than the tiles I will never have to clean.
Noelia Cerna is a Latina poet based in Fayetteville, AR and received a Bachelor’s degree in English from Westminster College in Missouri. Noelia is a reader and poetry feedback editor for Tinderbox Poetry Journal, a writing mentor for Pen America’s Prison Writing Mentorship program and an Associate Editor with Sibling Rivalry Press. Her poems have appeared in Terse Journal and in The North Meridian Review. She presented poetry at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in May and was the keynote speaker for the Northwest Arkansas Center for Sexual Assault’s MeToo Voices Event.