What’s your name? the man in the airplane asked again. Violetta, I said. I was seven years old, and my mother and grandmother were sitting one row ahead, each one holding a twin on her lap, and my little brother was whining in the window seat. There was no more room,and so I had to sit alone. The man gave me a grandfatherly smile and offered me his window seat.
I didn’t like my name. Violetta wasn’t a proud bloom like the sunflower that shot straight up and turned its wide face to stare at the sun; Violetta was a shy flower that crouched in the shadowy corners of the garden. Violetta had furry leaves and flowers with bowed heads. Violetta, the color of a bruise, I thought, not Violetta,the color of royal robes.
But Violetta was also my great-grandmother, the first woman to fly an airplane in El Salvador. Violetta in a leather cap and goggles, tight-lipped, boring her eyes into whoever it was that was holding the camera. Violetta three times married and divorced, in the 1920s, when that was still shocking, leaving her husbands when they stepped out of line. Violetta who oversaw the work at her properties, riding through the coffee plantations on horseback. Violetta, the first woman in the country to drive a car, most likely a car she bought with her own money.
The man leaned in close and touched my arm. Antonietta? I shook my head, said my name again, louder. Ah, Violetta, what a beautiful name. As the plane took off, I pressed my face to the window, imagining the trees closing in, vines tightening around the jungle, a temple-memory I’d invented full of macaws, jaguars, and Mayan secrets etched in stone. It was more likely there were guerrilleros camped out in the foothills; we were leaving behind soldier-sentineled, sandbagged corners of the city, daily bombings of transformers and power outages, dusk-to-dawn curfews. It was 1980, and the civil war had begun in earnest. We were relocating to Miami, where my father, a new house, and a new school waited for us. How could the promise of a four-poster canopy bed with a Holly Hobbie comforter have been enough to convince me to leave? I’d spent my last days in San Salvador at my grandmother’s house, carving my initials into walls, palm trunks, the undersides of tables in the hopes of finding them when I returned.
It wasn’t the first time I’d flown, but I didn’t remember any of those earlier trips. My grandmother said that in her day, people knew how to dress when they traveled. She’d shown me photos of her and her sister wearing fur coats, feather-topped and lace-veiled hats as they boarded a plane to San Francisco. My mother argued that those days were long gone and that pants were acceptable and more practical, but I’d wanted to impress my grandmother because she’d been doting on my twin sisters so much. Even though I hated wearing dresses—itchy, embroidered, and stiff-starched—I’d insisted on wearing one the morning of our departure.
In those days, the plane wasn’t filled with passengers carting oil-soaked boxes of Pollo Camperoor string-tied boxes of Lido cakes and pastries; blue-eyed, Bible-toting missionaries; women from the countryside wearing their city best topped with ruffled and ribboned kitchen aprons (arrepollados, my mother would say, furled and curling like cabbage leaves); businessmen; families headed to Disney; women darting out for a shopping getaway; menin straw sombreros,who eat trays of food with their fingers, who wrap the bread and butter in napkins to save for later, who bashfully ask you to fill out their immigration forms, which they carefully sign with an X. These are the SAL-MIA passengers of 2017. I suppose then, in the El Salvador of the early ’80s, the plane was filled with people fleeing, and no matter how much it hurt to leave, at least my family and I were leaving by choice. The war had erupted around us, but we were intact; other families had broken in its grip.
I wasn’t aware of any of those things when I was a seven-year-old girl, but I suppose my mother and grandmother were torn between relief and guilt: we were going to be safe, but for all of those left behind, the war was just beginning.Though, who knows? That day, they had a lot on their hands: two squirming infants and my four-year-old brother, who cried the whole way and probably had an ear infection. I don’t remember the first part of the flight; I might have slept. I snapped to when my brother was yelling, banging his head onto the seat, shaking my tray table open and startling me.
Beside me, the man was taking the last sips of his drink and swirling the glass; I distinctly remember the two ice cubes running circles along the base of the glass, one chasing and one fleeing. He clapped his hand on my leg and leaned in to whisper, Buenos días, bella durmiente. His breath was heavy with whiskey—a smell that even today feels like a chloroform-soaked handkerchief—and though I couldn’t explain it then, I could see his eyes had gone sleepy, that his words fell out of his lips like tangled yarn; he was drunk. And I was a deer in the woods. Flickering ears, coat twitching, little front hoof raised, ready to dash into the thicket. But his tray, with picked-over food and balled up napkins, created a barrier.
I poked my mom’s shoulder through the gap in the seats, pressed my face into the crack, and called, Mami, Mami. One of the twins had kicked over a drink, and she was trying to mop it up—the cranberry stain on the crotch of my brother’s pants would never come off. The man put his hand on the tray’s edge and along the cleave of my armpit, and I felt the heat like a stove I should back away from. Mami, Mami, I called, and she turned and angrily said, ¡No puedo! ¡Ahorita no! I started crying, quietly at first, turning toward the window, and the man began to rub my back in broad strokes. Violetta, the rag doll. Violetta, crushed underfoot. Violetta, dress the color of crumpled petals.
The sobs rattled through me,and the man brought his puffy-eyed face close to mine, asking what was wrong. I tucked my hands beneath my thighs, leaned forward, tried to make myself into a ball. He talked into my ear, saying things you would say to a testy pony. He complimented my dress, smoothed the sleeves, pressing down on my shoulders. His hands were layering me with something heavy, like wet sand, something dark and suffocating. It was hard to tell where the wrongness originated; it spread all over us, tangled and confused. He touched my cheek. Is it because you’re sad you’re leaving? I shrugged his hand off and wiped my face. Then I shook my head yes, took a breath,and sat back. It was a good way out, if I wanted to be polite—and I did. But he reached for my hand and started singing, Don’t cry for me, Argentina. . ., the whole song worming into my ear.
How no one noticed, I will never know. The stewardesses were probably at the front of the plane picking up trays, the other passengers across the aisle minding their own business, and maybe we appeared to be a crying girl and a consoling grandfather. But his voice in my ear sounded like a ghost mourning his own funeral. Don’t cry for me, the man sang. And I knew this man was no one’s grandfather.
Violetta, plume of smoke. Violetta, the hottest blue-black of the flame. Violetta, flying over the sky’s last light. I tried to unlock my hand from his, asked him to please let me out. The man suddenly threw my hand down and curtly said that his back hurt. Could I please just climb over? He clicked his table closed and put the tray aside. And because this was my escape, I did what I had to. I lifted my leg over the hurdle of his lap.His hands were resting on his knees, and as I stepped over,I felt him grab me between my legs. Seconds passed, and I was stuck with my leg in the air, above the dam he had built, the ridge of his fingers pressing against my underwear. The man leaned back, eyes closed but with a slight smile. I grabbed onto the back of my mother’s chair, hopped,and pulled myself away from him. I felt as if I had snapped out of a husk and fallen into midair.
I cried in the aisle, red-faced,next to my grandmother, and tried to crawl over to my mother, who was already wrung dry, spent by my siblings’ push and pull. I wanted to figure it out on my own because even then I knew she was taking on too much. I felt ashamed because I felt implicated somehow. What had happened to my body was so precise, and yet I couldn’t make sense of it. The only thing I could offer was a kind of surrender. My mother had been right about not wearing a dress; I’d been frivolous, wishy-washy;I should’ve known better. The man had seen my weakness. His hands were crushing, heavy weights. How could I explain it to my mother? Probably she assumed I was letting myself be carried away by the commotion of the move, and she just looked at me as she bounced my sister, who was also crying. Ya, ya, ya, vaya, vaya—surely it was all that she could muster, the soft shushing sounds you make to a colicky baby in the middle of the night when all you want is sleep. I know she was torn, taking her children to live in safety, in a country that offered a full spectrum of opportunities, but leaving behind family, sisters, friends, and her country, which was tearing itself apart from the inside, split in two as if by an earthquake.
And if this moment stands out, it also reminds me of my earliest memory. I was a toddler, and I’d woken up between my parentsin the middle of the night. My mother and father were pulling me by my hands and legs—not unlike being drawn and quartered by horses—desperate to get out of bed and find their way to the doorway. Our whole house was shaking, the walls rattling, the floor tiles rolling in waves.
That day on the plane, I also felt pulled in different directions—to stay quiet, to say what had happened. I just cried and cried, holding my skirt down with both hands, covering the place my grandmother had reminded me always to wash for fear of a mushroom growing. And my mother asked again and again, What happened? What happened? And I could only glance back toward the man, the man who pretended to sleep, his eyes closed, his mouth open, even emitting a soft snore. His song looped in my brain: Don’t cry for me, Argentina. I cried harder as anger ripped through me.
I cried again years later when I saw Madonna play Eva Perón—one strong woman taking on another strong woman’s role, crying out from a balcony to a crowd waving white handkerchiefs below—and again when I heard her Miami remix of the song on the radio. A voice at first penitent, supplicating, a woman who leans forward and shows her palms to the audience. Then: an upswing of violins as she belts out the words in operatic upper registers and orchestral finales, a woman unafraid to communicate with her body, flaring her hands as if she’s waving a fire to life, blowing kisses into both of her palms and releasing them like doves. A voice bold and unbreaking.
Around that time, I asked my mother about the incident on the airplane,and she claimed not to remember, even insistedI’d made it up. Maybe I was exaggerating, she said—it was probably a pesky old man who was trying to make me laugh. Sometimes, when I remember the scene, she understands what I’m trying to communicate with my eyes, yells at the man, and holds me in her lap the rest of the way. And honestly, I can’t remember what happened. Did I go back to my seat? Did anyone say anything?
What I do know: that moment on the airplane was the first time I doubted myself. What had really happened, just minutes ago? Had I imagined it? Was it possible to confuse a touch to my very own body, to my most private center? It seemed to me that not long ago, I had inhabited my mother’s body, had been fed from her body, slept in her arms. And yet, as I stood in that airplane aisle, I was split open, disconnected. I was my own separate being, suspended above the clouds, and also speeding to some unknown somewhere. Mid-flight, traveling between two worlds, I had to stake a claim on my body and say, This is mine, this flesh and blood,my mortal and beating heart, alone or accompanied, regardless of who came before me and who will come after me. I felt the weight of my bones and knew: no matter the coordinates of the ground I’m standing upon, this is me, Violetta.