Esperanza, Fe, and Caridad, Sofia’s eldest daughters, slept through the “howling and neighing” of the dogs, cats, and horses on the night La Loca died, but Sofia did not. She checked on her pets as they ran around “with their ears back and fur standing on end,” but she couldn’t understand why they were agitated. She checked on her eldest daughters in their bedroom, finding them undisturbed. Finally, she checked on her youngest daughter, La Loca, who shared Sofia’s room. La Loca would have looked like she, too, was asleep if not for the way she jerked and thrashed. Sofia screamed as La Loca’s seizure caused her to tumble from the bed and onto the “hard stone floor, white foam mixed with a little blood spilling from the corners of her mouth.” The older girls ran in to see what was happening just as three-year-old La Loca fell perfectly still.
Friends, godparents, and neighbors all came to La Loca’s funeral mass in Tome, New Mexico. The only person who did not attend was her father, Domingo. His and Sofia’s marriage had “a black ribbon on its door from the beginning.” Domingo was a gambler, and Sofia’s family had refused to give the couple their blessing. The night they eloped, it was Sofia who had chosen to gamble. When she returned, her family no longer criticized her decision; instead, they waited for the inevitable divorce. It never came. One day, Domingo simply left.
Father Jerome told the pallbearers to set the casket down in front of the church’s doors, reminding the congregation before entering that it was not for the faithful to question God’s will. Sofia wailed and threw herself beside the coffin, rejecting the priest’s advice and demanding to know why she deserved such punishment. She cried until distracted by the screams around her: first of Esperanza, then of the entire funeral party. By then, only Father Jerome had refrained from moving away from the casket, which lay open with La Loca sitting upright inside, rubbing her eyes like she had just awoken from a nap.
Father Jerome sprinkled holy water, “too stunned to utter so much as a word of prayer,” and moved toward La Loca, who in return “lifted herself up into the air and landed on the church roof” and warned him not to touch her. He implored the child to say whether her resurrection had been the work of God or Satan, which brought Sofia out of her shock and into the defense of her “blessed, sweet baby,” whose presence could only be the Lord’s response to her prayers.
La Loca announced from the rooftop that on her “long trip,” she visited hell, purgatory, and heaven. She said that she was sent back to help and to pray for those in the audience who, like the priest, would otherwise fail to reach heaven. When the priest reluctantly agreed that it was possible that La Loca had returned from heaven to guide those around her, “the child brought herself back to the ground, landing gently on her bare feet, her ruffled chiffon night-dress, bought for the occasion of her burial, fluttering softly in the air.”
La Loca was soon diagnosed with epilepsy by a doctor in Albuquerque, though this condition could not explain all of her abnormal behaviors. People who had heard about her resurrection traveled to see her, La Loca Santa, in the hope of being blessed or witness to a miracle. They left disappointed because La Loca could not go near them: she had come to hate the odor of humans, which reminded her of...
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the place she had been during the time she was dead. Pilgrims stopped coming, and the strange girl from Tome was no longer their “Santa,” just “La Loca.”
She has answered to La Loca for so long now, at twenty-one, that even her mother and sisters have forgotten her real name.
Unlike La Loca, whose aversion to people has intensified in the years since her resurrection, Esperanza, Caridad, and Fe are trying to establish relationships and careers beyond their provincial roots. When Esperanza, the only daughter to graduate from college, was left unexpectedly by her live-in boyfriend, Rubén, she returned to school, earned an MA in communications, and found a job as a television news reporter.
Caridad, the most beautiful of the sisters, became pregnant in high school and married her boyfriend, Memo, the day after graduation. Two weeks later, when she learned that Memo had been cheating on her, she had an abortion, told Memo that she had miscarried, and annulled their marriage. Nevertheless, she “kept up” with Memo for several years until he left to join the Marines. Since then, she has been drinking heavily and sleeping with anyone who vaguely resembles him.
Fe, Sofia’s second-youngest daughter, has worked at the same bank since high school graduation and has recently become engaged to her long-term, hardworking boyfriend, Tom. She is popular within her social circle and protective of her image, “from the organized desk at work to weekly manicured fingernails and a neat coiffure.” Fe does not understand why her mother and sisters, with the exception of Esperanza, are so “unambitious.” She only occasionally feels compassion for La Loca, whom she views as “a soulless creature” whose life has been irreparably damaged by epilepsy and superstition.
Fe cannot wait to leave her mother’s house, and Tome thereafter, but she wants to do it with “a little more style and class” than the rest of her family. She’s just returned home from having her bridal gown and bridesmaids’ dresses fitted for the wedding when La Loca points to a letter from Tom. In it, he explains that he loves Fe but isn’t ready to get married and asks her not to call him to try to change his mind. Sofia and La Loca have to break down the bathroom door to get to the screaming, raving Fe. She is still screaming ten days later when Sofia leaves to find Tom, who will not return her calls. She hopes he will be able to soothe Fe.
When Tom hears the screaming coming from Sofia’s house, he thinks it’s La Loca, “Fe’s so-called retarded sister,” whom he has heard of but never met. Sofia tells him it is his girlfriend, and he refuses to go inside. La Loca prays for her sister, and for Tom. “Like so many hispanos, nuevo mexicanos, whatever he wanted to call himself,” the narrator says, “something about giving himself over to a woman was worse than having lunch with the devil.”
Fe’s “bloodcurdling wail” remains the center of the household’s attention until the night Caridad comes home “as mangled as a stray cat, having been left for dead by the side of the road.” She nearly dies by the time an ambulance delivers her to the hospital bleeding and branded, both nipples bitten off, with a stab wound to her throat. Caridad’s once-beautiful body is mutilated, a fate considered “akin to martyrdom” by many who know her, and masses are said in her name. But there are others, including the local law enforcement, who blame her for what has happened. Her attackers are never found, and her story is forgotten over the months that follow.
When Sofia breaks down, overwhelmed by the traumas of three of her daughters, Esperanza, the fourth, attempts to soothe her by announcing that she has been offered a job in Houston. Sofia is too preoccupied to hear her, which has been a common occurrence throughout Esperanza’s life as the eldest child. Frustrated, Esperanza decides to take the job. Before she leaves town, however, she meets her ex-boyfriend for lunch. She learns that his wife, whom he left Esperanza for, has left him. Rubén reminds Esperanza of their life together in college: the sweat lodges, the peyote, the lovemaking. She decides to stay in Tome, continuing their relationship where they left off years before.
Caridad is released after three months in the hospital. Sofia takes care of her, as well as the still-aggrieved Fe, while La Loca takes care of the animals and Esperanza continues to work in the local newsroom. They are all home the night that La Loca has one of her “infrequent seizures,” and Sofia and Esperanza are tending to her when they see something move through the adjacent room. It is Caridad, no longer mutilated, dressed in Fe’s wedding gown.
La Loca tells her mother that she prayed for Caridad. “I know you did, ‘jita, I know,” Sofia responds as she, Esperanza, and La Loca follow Caridad to her bedroom. They find her lying in Fe’s arms, feverish but otherwise healthy. “I prayed for you,” La Loca tells Fe, who has also been cured. Esperanza tries to tenderly rest her hand on La Loca’s shoulder but is met with a shout: “don’t touch me!” Esperanza, who has always felt a sense of displacement from her family and from society, decides that she has had enough dysfunction in her life. She tells her mother that she is going to call Rubén, but her mother is too distracted by Caridad and Fe’s recoveries to hear her. Rubén speaks to her condescendingly and casually, like a friend who expects gifts and rides and attention but is unwilling to give anything in return. She tells him that she is accepting a job in Washington and she does not want to see him anymore.
Esperanza notices a man peering through the kitchen window and hangs up the phone abruptly. Despite not having seen him for nearly twenty years, Esperanza recognizes her father, Domingo, immediately. He has returned to his family bearing stories and rumors of what happened to him while he was gone. His family accepts him, even La Loca, who occasionally and tentatively approaches Domingo to sniff him. Domingo remains still as she does this, not wanting to scare her, but Sofia eventually asks what it is that La Loca is smelling. Hell, she says. “Mom, I been to hell. You never forget that smell. And my dad . . . he was there, too.”