Welcome to Nopal, AZ. Population, 900.
I had heard stories about the little border town where my father Javier grew up, but nothing could ever prepare me for the real thing. Just imagine reading about Neverland your entire life, then one night Peter Pan comes along and flies you to the real thing Wendy style. That’s what it was like to suddenly find myself in Nopal. To me, Nopal was Narnia, Neverland, Oz and Hogwarts all wrapped up in one.
As we drove in, I had to blink and blink and blink so my eyes could adjust to all the color. You’d think nobody in this town ever heard of a neutral. The corner market was orange, the elementary school was yellow, the church was painted in green and red stripes. Mexican colors. The colors of our people, Javi would say.
Actually, Javi hadn’t said much of anything on the drive from Burbank. He stopped the car by a small, peach-colored house and announced our arrival with an icy “We’re here”. It gave me the heebie-jeebies and I had to hold in a cringe because it was so not Javi. At this point in a normal road trip, Javi would do some goofy impersonation of a cab driver. I do believe this is your stop, miss. Or, he would say something cheesy about how his uncles built this house with nothing but their bare hands, ya know.
This wasn’t a normal trip, though. This was the week before his father’s funeral, and Javi was understandably off. We were watching Jeopardy when we got the news. I remember getting a sinking feeling in my stomach, because the only ones who called the landline anymore were debt collectors or other bearers of bad news. Javi got up, talked for five minutes then came back to the Lay-Z-Boy and just stared at the TV. When I asked who had called, he said; “My sister in Arizona. My dad just died”. Then he turned and answered for the contestant on the screen like nothing even happened.
“Who is; Christopher Columbus!”
He even got it right. It was the most unsettling thing I think I’ve ever seen, and I saw The Ring when I was five. Javi didn’t mention it again until the next morning, when he said we were heading to Arizona for the funeral and that we were staying for the entire summer. He said he wanted me to learn where I came from before I went off to college in the fall.
“But I’m not from Arizona,” I reminded him. “I’m from L.A.”
“Then I want you to see where I come from.”
I had never given much thought to where Javi came from before now. I knew he was from this little town in Arizona. I knew he had parents (obviously) and a younger sister, and that his younger sister had a son around my age who was my only first cousin. But these people were more like characters is an old fable to me than my actual relatives. Neverland, remember? Nopal only existed in stories. Now I was actually here, staring out the car window at a little peach house that looked like it was made of clay. Now, Nopal was going to be real.
We got out and started unloading our things from the trunk and I couldn’t help but think our Volkswagen, who I affectionately named “Zim” when I was six because of it’s resemblance to that creepy green alien from Nickelodeon, looked aptly out of place in Nopal. Almost like seeing a futuristic time machine in the middle of an old timey tavern.
The screen door on the little peach house opened with a loud creak and slammed shut. Javi and I both spun around to see a lady with neatly trimmed black hair, olive skin and serious brown eyes walk down the front steps toward us. Javi put down his bags elbowed me in the ribs.
“Come and say hi to your Abuela,” he said.