Coco Mío

By JoyEllen Freeman


People lie.

Mothers, fathers, teachers . . . everyone lies. But the worst, most notorious liars are social workers.

"You are going to love El Paso, sweetheart. It's just like Greenville, but a little bit bigger and drier. And better. You'll be with your new family. You know, a fresh start. You just watch . . . you're going to love it."

For the record, El Paso is nothing like Greenville. Absolutely nothing. Well, except for the heat, of course. Today was especially hot, not a humid hot like we have in Mississippi, but a dry heat, the kind of heat no one is prepared for. Certainly no one in our van was prepared for it, especially Henry, my new probation officer. Sweat ran down from his bald head to his cheeks and through his white government-issued polo with the letters SALVA printed on the right side. His knuckles were white from gripping his clipboard for dear life, as the sweat from his hands threatened to send it crashing to the floor, which had already happened once. I shifted toward the window and tightened my grip on the one and only photo of my mother that I held in my sweaty hand, careful not to crumple it more than I already had. I was a long way from home, and I wasn't going back. At least, that's what my social worker said. But then again, she was probably lying.

"Coco, sit up!" Henry boomed. His startling voice made me jolt. It even made the dozing girl next to me wince and then yelp something in Spanish.

"Dios mío," she uttered under her breath, fanning herself.

I slowly sat up, barely aware I had been leaning.

"This is govnm't property, girl. Last thing we need is you bustin' a window and gettin' the taxpayers all riled up."

Yes, Henry, that is exactly what's on my mind right now. Taxpayers. I wanted to kick him. Feeling nauseous from both the window and Henry, I buried my head in my lap only to hear Henry's revolting voice once again.

"We're here!"

He leaped out of the van. The Spanish-speaking girl and I slowly exited.

"All right. Welcome to El Paso," Henry said with a crass southern accent. He pulled up his pants, which were beginning to sag under his protruding beer belly. "We're about to walk into the El Paso Department of Human Services building. This is where Operation SALVA has its headquarters. When you walk out of this building today, you're gonna have new parents and a new life—for six weeks, that is. If for some reason you or your new parents don't get along, either party can opt out of the arrangement. Get it?"

The Spanish-speaking girl looked at Henry with frightened eyes. She did not seem to have any idea what Henry was saying.

"So Henry, this is like a try it before you buy it thing?" I asked him.

He threw his head back and responded with a malicious and sardonic laugh that made me cringe. "C'mon. It's this way." He motioned for us to follow him, and for some reason, we did.

*    *    * 

Inside the office was small. There was paper strewn nearly everywhere, some of it in folders, but most of it just loose. Pictures of smiling families hung in a collage on the back wall. I had to stare at it for a second before realizing the collage spelled out the word, "SALVA." The lady sitting at the desk had her back to me while she finished typing something on her Mac. The label on her desk read Martina Alvarez, Director. When she turned around, the first thing I noticed about her was her smile. I'd seen it before. Somewhere.

"It's so good to finally meet you, Coco," she said. She spoke with strong Spanish accent. "We're so glad to have you with us here at Operation SALVA."

SALVA sounded a lot better when Ms. Alvarez said it than when Henry said it. I looked around the room, unsure of what to make of this whole situation. I wanted her to cut to the chase. "How'd you find me?"

She smiled. "Operation SALVA stands for Saving American Life Via Adoption. We help place children that are wards of the state, like yourself, with families. To be honest, we've never taken a student who is . . . well . . ." She caught herself. I knew what she wanted to say.

"Black, you mean?"

"—from Mississippi," she corrected. "Our funding gives us license to assist children in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. But we got a special recommendation for you."


She spun around one of the pictures from her desk. "Recognize her?"

"It's Mami Carmen," I blurted with too much enthusiasm.

Ms. Alvarez laughed. "Sí, sí. Mami Carmen happens to be my real mami. "

It all made sense now. I became defensive. "So she talked to you about me?"

Ms. Alvarez wasn't intimidated." Why yes, Coco. She did. She told me you were smart and wonderful. She told me she loved you and you needed help. And that someone had to save you." Ms. Alvarez developed a serious look on her face to match my frowning one. "That's why we're here Coco. Para salvarte. To save you."

I looked away, trying not to cry thinking of Mami Carmen and my late-night escapes to her house when things got bad in the streets. And how she would feed me churros and hot chocolate and then rub my wounds and braid my hair with aceite de coco—coconut oil. "El coco para mi Coco," she would say.

Ms. Alvarez continued. "I began searching for your registros personales."

"My what?"

"Your personal records. They are nowhere to be found. And with your mother being . . . you know . . . "

"Away?" I decided to finish the sentence for her again.

"Yes, umm, away. It's been difficult to compile a portfolio for you. I don't even have a copy of your birth certificate. Do you remember where you born, or who might have a copy?"

I figured it was pointless to tell Ms. Alvarez she wasn't going to find anything. Right before Mamma left for prison, she told me to never leave traces. That's how you end up like me, she said. Caught. I shifted uncomfortably at the thought, feeling friction from the photo in my back pocket. I would never tell Ms. Alvarez what my mamma told me. I simply shook my head and muttered, "No."

A rap at the door caught us both by surprise. Ms. Alvarez looked excited. "¡Ay! Tus padres han llegado. Que maravilloso." Your parents have arrived, Coco." She smiled and then spoke loudly toward the door, "¡Hola, hola!"

 The door opened slowly, and in they came. The woman was blonde and pale with innocent-looking blue eyes. She wore a preppy-looking white sundress that complemented her fresh French manicure. The man was of Hispanic origin—average height, dark hair and eyes, and with exceptionally white teeth. They held hands while smiling at me.

Ms. Alvarez spoke first. "Coco, meet Lynn and Daniel Hernandez. Your new parents."

My eyes darted from them to Ms. Alvarez. To them, and then back to Ms. Alvarez. Dios mío, I thought.  

*    *    *  

Mrs. Hernandez never stopped talking on the ride home. I tuned her out until she turned around in her seat to face me. "Coco, we've just got to make a quick stop at my job, and then we'll go right home. Is that okay?"

"Sure," I whispered.

Just a few minutes later, we pulled up to a very small building with a faded sign that read El Paso Historical Society.

"I'll be just a minute," Mrs. Hernandez said hopping out of the car. She grabbed two funny-looking boxes from the trunk. "These are from Martina," she said to Mr. Hernandez through the window. "She's got even more records for me. Isn't that great? The archives is truly growing."  

Mr. Hernandez smiled, obviously enjoying seeing his wife happy. "Sí, mi amor. Es muy bien," he agreed. "That is very good, my love.

Mrs. Hernandez returned to the car shortly. "Terminada. Finished," she said looking content.

"Well, my ladies," Mr. Hernandez announced, "on to the casa we go."  

*    *    *   

"¡Daniel, Coco, es la hora! ¡Vengan aquí para la cena! Come down for dinner!" Mrs. Hernandez yelled from the kitchen. "I hope you like homemade tacos," she said to me once we were all seated with our plates full. She took my hand, and Mr. Hernandez took my other. "Padre," she began without warning, "gracias por Coco. Let us love one another para siempre. Forever. Amen."

The tacos were tastier than I expected. Either that or I was hungrier than I realized. Apparently, Mr. Hernandez agreed. 

"Mmm que rico," he said while sopping up his tortilla in a puddle of salsa and sour cream. "Not bad for a gringa." He laughed with a mouth full of food. Mrs. Hernandez pretended to punch him in the arm. I figured it must be an inside joke.

Mrs. Hernandez wiped salsa from her fingers and dabbed the corners of her mouth with a napkin. "Coco, back in Greenville, did your social worker tell you about the community service hours you need to complete?"

"Yeah. 'Cause of the . . . incident," I muttered.

Her nod signified she wouldn't press for further details. "Well," She looked at her husband, "Daniel and I thought you might enjoy completing your hours at the archives with me. I've got lots of little tasks you might like. And it would give us a chance to get to know each other, better. What do you think?"  

"Sounds like free labor before you send me away after six weeks," I said without thinking.

"Qué?" Mr. Hernandez looked confused. Mrs. Hernandez simply looked hurt.

"Ain't that the point of this thing?" I asked, suddenly overcome with frustration and fear. "Henry told us if we screwed up you'd send us back."

Mrs. Hernandez put her hand over her heart and let out a pained sigh. Then, to my surprise, she reached for my hand and grasped it. "Coco, you're not a . . . a . . . piece of paper we're trying to mark up and then throw away. You're precious to us. We want to, well, preserve you; we want to keep you safe and away from further harm. Para siempre."

Though I found her analogy strange, I found her sincerity even stranger. She didn't even know me. What about me was worth preserving? Worth keeping forever?  

*    *    *

The archives was filled with piles. Piles of photographs, documents, folders, pencil packs, labels, and overstuffed binders.

"Excuse the mess," Mrs. Hernandez said. "I've been backed up lately. And when I say lately, I mean since I founded the archives five years ago." She laughed in spite of herself.

Feeling a surge of determination, I responded, "Well then, teach me. Teach me so I can help you with this."

She taught me for weeks. She taught me how to handle documents and photos—how to clean  them, folder them, remove rusty staples, and pick gummy rubber bands off of them. She taught me about collections—how to decipher series, search for dates, research context, and write scope notes. She taught me about the elements—heat, dust mites, light, and pests. She also taught me about donors. Our most frequent donor was Ms. Alvarez. She always came bearing boxes full of papers, photos, address books, letters, and even old VHS and cassette tapes she found buried in her office. Some days, she also came bearing bags of spicy almendra nuts or a pint of homemade salsa that made me sweat when I sniffed it.

"How come Ms. Alvarez comes here so much," I asked Mrs. Hernandez one day while we shared a bag of almendras outside on the curb during our break time.

"Martina has been helping me for the past six months," she explained. "We're trying to archive the records of Operation SALVA. These records document the children, parents, love stories, tragic stories, family stories—everything that makes up Operation SALVA's history. We think the records date back to the 1950s at least, perhaps even earlier. It's a big project, but it's worth it."

I frowned. "Why is it worth it? I mean, it's not like anybody really cares about this stuff anymore. It's not like we get many visitors . . ." my voice trailed off.

"People do care, and they will come," she said with confidence. "But even if no one came, it doesn't change the fact that the records of SALVA tell a story. They tell the story of five childless women in El Paso who started an organization that would change the story of our city forever. And that's precisely why our archives exists—to document El Paso's story." She looked sheepish for a minute and then leaned in toward me. "Not to mention, those records tell our story."

I felt uncomfortable at the thought. Never leave traces. "Well not everyone wants their story to be told," I retorted. "We shouldn't put records of people in here if they don't want to be remembered." I spoke with a little too much accusation in my voice, but Ms. Hernandez wasn't offended. She sucked the rest of the spices off the almendra in her mouth before biting it. I could tell she was contemplating how to answer me.  

"True, some people don't want their story to be told, and that's their right," she admitted. "The only thing is, if we can't tell everybody's side of the story, it sure makes it hard for the archives to tell the truth, doesn't it?"

*    *    *  

It bothered me to think about the archives telling the truth. What truth? Each day we sifted through at least one hundred records—which ones told the truth? Just yesterday Ms. Alvarez told me she still had no luck tracking down my birth certificate. If no record existed of my birth, was I ever born, or was that a lie too?

"Ah!" Mrs. Hernandez yelped. Thinking she might be hurt, I ran over to her.

"What happened?"

She blushed. "Ay, lo siento, Coco." I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. I was just looking through my desk, and I found an old essay I wrote for graduate school." She thumbed through it. "Evidence of me," she mumbled.

"What'd you say?"

She looked at me and smiled. "One of my favorite quotes. I first read it in an article by Sue McKemmish many years ago. She was quoting a wonderful book called Ever After. One of the characters in the book was talking about his notebooks, and he said, "Keep them, burn them—they are evidence of me."  

*    *    * 

The next day we didn't go to the archives because it was Sunday. Instead we went to the catedral for church and then out to eat for chimichangas. Later that night, Ms. Alvarez stopped by. She was neither carrying boxes nor almendras.  

Mr. Hernandez opened the door for her and immediately knew something was wrong. "¿Martina, qué pasό? "What happened?"

She shook her head, refusing to answer him. "I need to speak with Coco. Ahora."

*    *    *  

I remember two things about that night. It was dark, and I was running. I wasn't sure where I was running to, but I knew what I was running from. I was running from my dark past—abandonment, violence, abuse. I was running from the memories that soothed me—Mami Carmen, coconut oil, amor. I was running from my present—Mr. and Mrs. Hernandez, Ms. Alvarez, para siempre. Most of all, I was running from the news that my mother was dead.

An hour later, a powerful glare of headlights smacked me in the face. The light made my eyes squint, and I could barely see who was running toward me. A brief but strong whiff of Chanel No. 5 told me it was Mrs. Hernandez.

"¡No te preocupes. Está aquí! She's here!" Mrs. Hernandez yelled to whoever else was in the car, presumably Mr. Hernandez. "Oh Coco, mi amor. Estás segura. Gracias, Padre. Thank God you're safe."

With a trembling hand, I pulled the photo of my mother out of my back pocket. Upon staring at it, I burst into tears and threw the picture to the ground. I stomped it with my foot because I didn't know what else to do.

¡Ay no! ¡Coco, por favor, no! Mrs. Hernandez rescued my photo and pulled me into her chest. I cried and trembled while my body shook with pain. I heard her muffled and soothing voice comforting me. "Está bien, mi amor. No llores. Estás segura aquí. Para siempre. Don't cry, my love. You are safe here. Forever."  

*    *    *  

 The day my mother died was the day my forever began. It was the day I stopped living to hide Coco and started living to save her. One year later, I was not only saving Coco, but so many other lives and stories as well.

"After a year of hard work and many long hours," Ms. Alvarez spoke above the crowd of families packed into the archives, "Martina and Coco Hernandez of the El Paso Historical Society have successfully processed the records of Operation SALVA. ¡Que increíble!

 Applause filled the room. Mrs. Hernandez and I smiled at one another.

"On behalf of the El Paso Historical Society and Operation SALVA, I officially deem the Records of Operation SALVA open for research!" Ms. Alvarez exclaimed.

More applause followed, and guests began to "ooh and ahh" over the beautiful exhibit of photographs, documents, film reels, and artifacts we'd spent so much time cleaning and preparing for the display. I couldn't help but smile at the small, crumpled photo laying right in the center. Sensing my emotions, Mrs. Hernandez walked over to me and put her arm over my shoulder while we both stared at the photo.

"Now aren't you glad we kept it?" she asked, stroking my hair.

"," I replied. "Because it's evidence of me."   


© 2015 by JoyEllen Freeman.

About the author:

JoyEllen Freeman is a graduate student at Clayton State University and a 2015 – 2017 Association of Research Libraries/Society of American Archivists Mosaic Fellow. JoyEllen currently works as an intern at the Robert W. Woodruff Library, Atlanta University Center. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and writing historical fiction books, baking, and volunteering at a local community archives.  

2015 Archives Short Fiction Contest

Winning Entry:

"A Silent Promise" 
by Stephanie T. Vaillant

Honorable Mentions:

"Principles of Provenance"
by Laura Millar

"Coco Mío"
by JoyEllen Freeman