Mango Graves

by Vanessa Mancos

Vanessa Mancos is a writer living in Los Angeles. She writes for television shows and her short stories and essays have appeared in publications such as NY Tyrant, The Coachella Review, and Memoir Mixtapes, among others. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking and finding new and inventive ways to destroy the patriarchy.

She was always waving a butcher knife. She was always calling my aunt a witch. She was always wearing gold rings on every finger. She was always bringing us groceries. She was always warning me people would poison my food. She was always changing the names of her chickens. She was always playing Elvis. She was always praying to Jesus. She was always talking about The Rapture. She was always throwing our cats off the roof. She was always buying me pearl earrings. She was always planting roses. She was always turning off all the lights to hide. She was always in the graveyard. She was always at the bus stop after school. She was always reading my palm. She was always seeing what no one else could. She was always my Abuela.


The most popular sport in the Dominican Republic is baseball. Locals call it pelota, but you won’t find that on Google Translate since most people aren’t familiar with Dominican patois. It is considered by many Spanish-speaking countries to be “hillbilly Spanish”—an amalgamation of the languages of slave traders, colonizers, Indigenous peoples, and slang. It is confusing; hard to understand unless you are from there. Talented young pelota players from the island who manage to make it all the way to the American leagues are a source of national pride. They are proof that Dominicans are important on the world stage. In 2020, the Dominican Republic had 110 players in the MLB—more than any other foreign country. 

The scandal should be that it is so hard for poverty-stricken families to earn enough to survive that their only hope for prosperity must begin with deception, but it is not.

Elite training academies have been set up in the D.R. by teams like the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs to serve as a pipeline for amateur players aged 13–16. At age 17, the player is eligible for major league tryouts and can potentially spark a bidding war in the millions. The competition to be selected by one of the scouts scouring the barrio is fierce and has led to more than one young man lying about his age so that he may have a chance to succeed. Whispers of men aged 18, 19, 20 getting recruited by an MLB scout have followed players for years. The scandal should be that it is so hard for poverty-stricken families to earn enough to survive that their only hope for prosperity must begin with deception, but it is not. The scandal is that these men are not really children, but that is not exactly true either. Frontal lobes, the structure inside the human brain that controls maturation-markers like impulsivity and emotional expression, are not fully developed in males until their mid-30s. 

My uncle, Abuela’s  son, was in a fatal car accident when he was 27. He was still her child. She sat beside his grave for hours every day. 


Abuela sets a frothy glass of Vitamin D milk and a salami-and-white-bread sandwich smeared with cold butter in front of me. It is my favorite thing to eat after I come home from kindergarten. She sits at the other end of the table and watches me. She has told me it turns her stomach to put so much butter on the snack, but she still makes it the way I like. This is our routine. Abuela lives on the other side of our duplex in the Midwest. She waits for me on a big white boulder at the bus stop every day, and then we hang out until my parents get home from work. 

“Que esta predendo en escuela?”  She is carving an avocado with her butcher knife. I won’t realize this is strange until I’m in my 20s. 

“We’re learning the alphabet. Letters and how they sound,” I reply. 

Abuela  nods, focusing intently on the fruit. I am thinking if I should ask to watch Lamb Chop’s Play-Along, even though she has banned it from the house because she thinks the songs are annoying and the sock puppet characters are stupid. 

“You… can…” Abuela is trying to string together some of the English words she knows. She pauses when I look at her, then makes a writing motion with her hand. “Me?” 

“Sure,” I reply, knowing just what she’s asking. “It’s easy.” 

She flips over an old bill collector’s envelope from the nearby stack and hands me a pencil. I draw the alphabet vertically down the side of the paper, just like we did in class today. I point to the letter A, re-trace it with the pencil slowly. 

“A.” 

“Aye.” 

I tap the blank space next to “A” on the envelope with the pencil, then hand it to her. Her “A” is shaky. She takes a long time to finish; starting then erasing and starting over, her eyes flicking to my side of the envelope for guidance before she hands the pencil back to me. I point to the letter B, retrace it with the pencil slowly. 

“B.” 

“Bey.”

We practice like this, learning the alphabet together, every day after I finish my snack, until one afternoon she shoos me off. 

“No esta importante.” 

“But you’re getting bueno.” 

“No esta importante,”  she repeats, turning her back to me, placing her hands on the counter, shoulders slumping forward. I won’t know until I’m a teenager that this signals defeat. 

“Can I watch Lamb Chop?” 

“Si.” 


“Perhaps what we have most near is death. But that idea does not frighten me.”

—María Teresa Mirabel, Dominican political opposition activist.

Mirabel and her two sisters were tortured to death in 1960 by associates of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic. 


In Los Angeles, it feels like everyone celebrates Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday honoring those who have passed on. Glittery porcelain sugar skulls, fluorescent-coloured sarape blankets, and fragrant marigolds decorate store windows and front porches. Some homes and businesses combine their displays with Halloween decorations, since Dia de los Muertos takes place on November first and second. Autumn in Southern California brings warm gusts of the Santa Ana winds and sunsets streaked with violet and neon orange. Brisk nights bring the smoky aroma of fireplaces turning on for the season. An unusual electricity crackles through the air and it is almost believable that there are ghostly visitors among us. 

Even though I am not Mexican, I like what Dia de los Muertos  represents, so I ask some of my Mexican friends how to build an altar for my dead relatives. I will need photos, candles, objects the people enjoyed on Earth, and marigolds. 

“The strong scent of the marigolds helps guide their spirit to your home. So, if you can’t find them, just get some other flower,” a friend advises me. 

Good thing, because the grocery store is sold out. I buy the strongest-smelling candle I can find instead. It is apple-cinnamon and meant to cover pet odors. I miss my abuela  the most, so I place her photo prominently. It is black and white and a little torn because I had to rip it out of an old photo album. Abuela’s face is scrunched into a displeased scowl and she is wearing a ’60s-style, puffy-sleeved dress down to her knees. It must be Easter, because my mother, a toddler in the background, is carrying a basket full of eggs. I set some of Abuela’s gold rings under her photo on my TV stand and light the candle. I am not sure what else to do, so I put on an Elvis record and wait. Elvis’ voice crackles through the speakers: When she is far away, you’ll think of her each day. That’s someone you’ll never forget. 

Maybe I don’t need to talk to her. Maybe she likes being with her dead family. Maybe it’s presumptuous to think the dead want anything to do with us.

Nothing happens for such a long time that I fall asleep on the couch. I dream in strange, dream-within-a-dream fragments: I left the candle burning, my apartment building is on fire, people are dead, it is all my fault, everyone is angry with me. When I wake up in the morning, all of her rings are scattered across the floor. Maybe I don’t need to talk to her. Maybe she likes being with her dead family. Maybe it’s presumptuous to think the dead want anything to do with us. 


Sometimes when I am sitting at a red light, I think about beeping at the car in front of me. Not because I want to accuse them of colluding with the stoplight to make me late, but because in the Dominican Republic that is how people in cars speak to each other. One quick honk says, I’m here. Do you see me? 


My sister and I are running through the rose garden like tiny Tasmanian devils. We are four and six years old. It is summertime and there is no school. We are always outside because the house has no air conditioning and in the Midwest at this time of year, the humidity wraps itself around your neck like a choke collar until you are panting like a dog. 

Abuela sits in her mauve, plastic lawn chair, which she carries upside-down on her head around the yard, following the shade. She slices a mango with her massive butcher knife and licks the fruit from the sharp edge. Red-orange nectar drips off her gold rings and across her dry, cracked hands. I keep glancing over, making sure she hasn’t died, because I remember my mother and father have told me that if you get too close to a knife, it can kill you. And I really do not want any of us to die. 

My sister is crying and pointing in horror to something under the pine tree. There is a fallen bird’s nest with three cracked blue shells, half-formed baby birds spilling out onto the grass. They are all veins and blood, coated in yellow-green, snotty liquid, with bulging black dots where their eyes should be. I can’t look away; I want to scoop them into their shells and put the nest back on its branch in the tree and maybe that will help reverse time and make it so this never happened. 

Abuela  appears behind us and tells us to go inside, explaining, “Hombre malo.”  Bad omen. I watch from the window. Abuela pulverizes the nest and eggs with the blunt end of her knife as my sister sobs behind me. Next, she uses her garden shovel to dig a tiny grave in the back of the yard, far from the house. Abuela gestures for us to join her back outside. We wrap the baby birds in a piece of linen with the mango Abuela has been slicing, lay the bundle into the grave, and pour a shiny mixture that smells like rosemary and clove over it. After filling the grave, Abuela  sticks the dirt with thin needles from her sewing kit. We are not allowed to play near the pine tree for a few days. 

“Es un malo energía,” she says, waving her knife in the direction of death. 


On August 16th, 1977, Elvis Presley was found dead by his girlfriend, Ginger Alden, in his bathroom at Graceland mansion, with a copy of The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus by Frank O. Adams allegedly nearby. The book investigates the Shroud of Turin, which some claim is the linen burial shroud in which Jesus was laid to rest. The shroud has been called “both intensely studied and controversial.”

When Elvis appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the third time, he was famously censored, filmed only from the waist up, due to his pelvic thrusting. Ed Sullivan originally banned the singer from appearing on his show, stating he was “unfit for family viewing.” Eventually, he relented, and Elvis’ appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 and 1957 cemented his place in American pop culture as The King of Rock and Roll. 

Over 30,000 fans filed through a public viewing of Elvis’ casket in his foyer, while 75,000 poured into Memphis to pay tribute to their King. President Carter deployed 300 National Guard troops to maintain order while the city mourned. Abuela  cried for three days straight when she learned Elvis died. I wasn’t born yet, but she told me all about it. She watched coverage of his funeral on TV, prayed the rosary, and sent flowers to Ginger. 


Underneath the kitchen table, it is lights out. The postman has been knocking on the door for what feels like 30 minutes but who knows, because I am only seven and have no concept of time. Abuela  holds me tight and rocks back and forth, lips moving rapidly in silent prayer. I want to tell her that he is just there to deliver a package, but she clamps a hand over my mouth, then draws her index finger across her neck with the other any time I try to speak. I do not understand much, but I know that she does not believe this is a postman. 

Many years later, I will hear stories of the way Rafael Trullijo was known to disappear his own citizens, barge into their homes and wipe all traces of their existence from the earth without warning. All I know right now is that she is under attack. We hide until evening, then we are allowed to crawl out, cloaked in darkness and exhaustion. 


In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, author Junot Diaz tells the story of a Dominican boy and his cursed family. His mother, describing life under the leadership of a ruthless dictator, says, “It was like being at the bottom of an ocean. There was no light and a whole ocean crushing down on you. But most people had gotten so used to it they thought it normal, they forgot even that there was a world above.”


It is nearly dawn and has been snowing for five days. I am six and inside and huffing my breath onto the living room window so I can write HI! backwards with my index finger. Dad drops me off at school early in the mornings, on his way to work. I like it because I can sit at my desk and read my latest Nancy Drew Mystery until my classmates arrive an hour later. I am reading The Witch Tree Symbol and Nancy has to prove she isn’t a witch. But before that, I am waiting here, bundled in my puffy parka, furry earmuffs, and heavy boots, blowing on the window. 

When we opened our front door this morning to go to the truck, Abuela  was standing knee-deep in the snow, barefoot, in her nightgown. She was staring wide-eyed at the sky, still black velvet smattered with stars, mushing a banana between her palms and laughing. 

Dad asked what she was doing and without looking at us she said, “I am waiting for Elvis to take me up in his spaceship.” 

Dad told me to go back inside. I am getting antsy and starting to sweat. I can’t be in my winter gear too long or I start to feel like I am being strangled. 

Dad comes back in. I ask him if I can go with Abuela when Elvis comes to pick her up. This must be his resurrection, like Jesus, only intergalactic. 

He tilts his head to the side, considering my question. Finally, he replies, “I don’t think that would be very fun for you.” 


As if The Rapture happened, but only to her. One day she was gone. I kept expecting to see her at the bus stop afterschool. Weeds overtook her roses and I couldn’t believe she let it happen. We  got rid of all her chickens. I was mad because I couldn’t remember any of the new names she gave them the day before, so there was no way to bid them goodbye. We had no idea what she did with all her rings or her knife. I was only 12 and didn’t have anything black to wear so I put on pearl earrings she got me and a purple dress for her funeral. 

I will find the rings 15 years later, when I am cleaning out her side of the duplex, stuffed between couch cushions and behind stacks of chipped china. I will never find the knife. I will collect rosaries, even though I don’t believe in organized religion, because they remind me of her. I will see a flash of her and the smashed baby birds every time I bite into a mango. She is buried next to her son, who died a decade before her. She never wanted to leave the graveyard, anyway. 


Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. A line separates the countries on a map: one-third Haiti and two-thirds the Dominican Republic. In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of an island the Indigenous Taíno inhabitants called either Ayiti or Quisqueya, which means, mother of all lands. The first slave ship arrived in 1503, because so many Taíno had been killed that the local slave population was dwindling. That same year, female Taíno ruler cacique Anacaona, which means chief Goldenflower, was murdered by the governor of Hispaniola. Anacaona was also a poet. The tallest building in the Caribbean is named after her. 

For the next 300 years, Hispaniola was the scene of war battles, rebellions, and emigration. In 1844, the D.R. declared independence from Haiti. Many Dominicans felt Haitians were their oppressors. In 1861, the D.R. reverted back to Spanish rule. In 1865, the D.R. won its independence again. In 1866, the D.R. was recognized by the United States as an independent nation, although they occupied it from 1916 to 1924 in order to instill a puppet government during a time known as the Banana Wars. 

Some days I feel like an entire country and some days I feel split up inside from all the wars we know about and don’t know about.

My great-grandfather was Haitian. My great-grandmother was Dominican. They were both dead before my Abuela was 12, leaving her to take care of her 13 siblings by selling fruit. I wonder if she ever considered her father her oppressor. Abuela  was Dominican. She married a Russian. Her daughter, my mother, married someone who is Spanish-Czech-Appalachian. 

Sometimes I feel like that line zig-zagging down the middle of the island. Some days I feel like an entire country and some days I feel split up inside from all the wars we know about and don’t know about. People have told me I am the worst place to live in the Western Hemisphere, and others have said I am their favorite tourist destination. I have declared independence from hostile rulers so that I can hand myself over to colonizers so that I can be controlled by dictators so that I can try again; this last time, I will get it right. I am going to build a Bianco Carrara marble hotel in the sand along the Caribbean Sea, 41 stories high, just like Torre Anacaona 27, except I won’t let anyone inside. I don’t care if it ruins their view. I don’t care if the marble soaks up all the salt and moisture from the air and crumbles in on itself. It will be a salty pile of expensive dust. It will be mine, mine, mine.

  


Vanessa Mancos is a writer living in Los Angeles. She writes for television shows and her short stories and essays have appeared in publications such as NY Tyrant, The Coachella Review, and Memoir Mixtapes, among others. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking and finding new and inventive ways to destroy the patriarchy.

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