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Vuelve a Casa

Latin Heritage Month Contest Winner

CAS for Database

Zanna Vasquez

Portland, OR, USA

Stanford Online High School


Vuelve a Casa

El Paso, Texas. 1942

I didn’t know why I was here. It was the war I wanted to flee to, not an old house in the slums. I wanted to be a pilot. Or a nurse. Anything to get away from my life.

“You want to go to war?” Mama had cried when I’d mentioned it. She hadn’t said a word to me that entire afternoon.

I couldn’t remember when this house had been abandoned. Dust soured in my mouth like smoke, painted my palm when I braced a hand against the collapsed door frame to the kitchen.

My mother would be fine without me after I left. I would be fine without her. I would.

I found a box of cigarettes buried in an ashy kitchen drawer and lit one, going outside to smoke it on the porch. The river below me was black and glassy at nighttime.

The first cigarette didn’t start so I threw it into the water, cupping my hand around the flame and lighting another. I coughed smoke into the air as it started to rain, the cigarette hot between my fingers and the smell burning my nose. I tilted my head back and listened to the rain drumming on the roof.

Ay, mis hijas!

I started and whirled toward the noise. It sounded like Mama. Reminded me of her. Don’t think about Mama. I was sure I was going to leave her.

I didn’t know why I’d jumped at the noise. This was the poor, Mexican part of the city. I knew everything about it from school and my day job at the diner downtown. I swore to God I would never let myself live in a place like this like Mama had.

I looked behind me into the house. I still didn’t know why I was here. I knew the way to the army. I knew that was where I wanted to go.

My gaze fell back to the river. Then there were fingers on the side of my neck. I shouted when I saw her and smoke burst from the side of my mouth. She paid no mind, caressing the side of my face, thumb brushing over my cheek, her touch achingly similar to Mama’s.


There was something strange about how cold her hands were—her face behind the veil. Her fingers shook. I froze. All I could manage to say was, “Where are you from?” It might well be her house whose porch I was sitting on, I realized. I wondered what had happened to her.

I couldn’t understand what she said when she responded. “My nana is from there,” I replied anyway, then flinched, because it sounded Spanish. I didn’t know why I said anything. “I’ve—” I looked away from her face, because she didn’t stop staring at me. I swallowed and pulled at my collar. “I haven’t actually met her.”

She turned my head back to her with a twitch of her fingers, her long, sharp nails pricking my skin. I took another drag of my cigarette—out of anxiety or fear, I did not know.

I saw her face clearly then. I’d thought her skin was bronze but it was in reality a dark gray, so translucent I could see through it to the river. I widened my eyes and the realization left me breathless. She was not alive. I knew who she was.

Ay de mí. Llorona, Llorona. Llorona de un campo lirio.

I’d heard the song on the radio a year ago, and I remember the moment fondly. Mama, dancing a plucked chicken around the kitchen, had paused to listen to it. I didn’t understand the words. I’d never wanted to learn to speak Spanish—that way, the only thing marking me as Mexican was my name. Mama had explained when I said I didn’t know who it was about. La Llorona, who drowned her own children. The weeping woman, a ghost—a wanderer.

“I’m—” I started. “I’m not really.” I swallowed. “Spanish.” La Llorona tilted her head. “I don’t even look like it—I used to visit my family in New York every Christmas.” I didn’t feel it when she dug her fingers into my skin until tearlets of hot blood ran down my cheek, staining my collar.

I stepped back sharply and she leaned toward me. I didn’t believe in her, so she was not real. It had been the cigarettes. It was just a stupid story. But I was lying to myself.

“I mean, look at me,” I said. I held out my arm, shaking. “You know Rita Hayworth? My mother says I look like her. Sweet, all-American girl. I’m not like my mother. I’m really not. I don’t know who you are.”

The scratches on my cheek stung. They were very real. But I was going to leave. None of this mattered. The air force. I would take the twelve o’ clock train, and be gone by the morning. That was what I wanted. Wasn’t it?

Then she lunged at me. I screamed, falling from the porch and scrambling toward the riverbank, a hand raised protectively.

“I told you!” I cried. “I don’t know why you’re here! I’m not like you. My mother. . . .” I stopped and looked at her, remembering.

Mama, loving me. Mama, playing hide and seek with me as a child, pretending not to find me in the linen closet. Telling me about Nana settling the dirt floors in her stucco home with water and telling stories under stars. Telling me that, after the war, I could finally meet her family. Make tamales and see cousins I’d never known. At the time, I hated the idea. At the time, I hated her, too. Yet I wanted it, really wanted it all.

All that to die in an old abandoned house.The war waited for me but not for Mama. If I left, she would be alone.

Tu madre?” La Llorona said. I looked up at her. The river was quiet behind me.

“My mama?” I said. My blood red on her fingertips.

She was gone. The clock, half-broken in the house, struck eleven. I didn’t know why I was there. I wanted to go home. I wanted Mama.


I especially liked the ethereal description of La Llorona, and the effect of the cigarette’s smoke. I loved the artful connection [Vasquez] made between the character’s very real ethnic struggle and la Llorona, a very mystical yet understandable representation of a mother whose child has been lost from her way of culture. This story contains the strange and familiar feeling of being separated from something as fundamental as culture, yet becoming your own person despite the alienation from it.


Zanna Vasquez is a student at Stanford Online High School. She likes writing historical fiction and fantasy, Oscar Wilde, and morally grey characters. When she’s not writing about pirates and 1920s gangsters, you can find her fencing, drawing, researching, or eating cheese with her friends.

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