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He was born happy and on a holiday. Welcomed into the world by his whole family, gathered together for the special day. They say his mother laughed so hard at one of the jokes being told around the table that her waters broke. At first she thought the dampness between her legs was urine that she had not been able to contain because of her laughter but she soon realized that this was not the case, that the torrent was a signal that her twelfth child was about to be born. Still laughing, she excused herself and went to her bedroom. As she had gone through eleven previous deliveries, this one took only a few minutes, and she gave birth to a beautiful boy who, instead of coming into the world crying, entered it laughing.
After bathing, Doña Jesusa returned to the dining room. "Look what happened to me!" she announced to her relatives. Everyone turned to look at her, and, revealing the tiny bundle she held in her arms, she said, "I laughed so hard, the baby came out."
A loud burst of laughter filled the dining room and everyone enthusiastically applauded the happy occasion. Her husband, Librado Chi, raised his arms and exclaimed, "Qué júbillo!""What joy!"
And that was what they named him. In truth, they could not have chosen a better name. Júbilo was a worthy representative of joy, of pleasure, of joviality. Even when he became blind, many years later, he always retained his sense of humor. It seemed as if he had been born with a special gift for happiness. And I don't mean simply a capacity for being happy, but also a talent for bringing happiness to everyone around him.Wherever he went, he was accompanied by a chorus of laughter. No matter how heavy the atmosphere, his arrival, as if by magic, would always ease tension, calm moods, and cause the most pessimistic person to see the brighter side of life, as if, above all else, he had the gift of bringing peace.
The only person with whom this gift failed him was his wife, but that isolated case constituted the sole exception to the rule. In general, there was no one who could resist his charm and good humor. Even Itzel Ay, his paternal grandmother-the woman who, after her son had married a white woman, had been left with a permanent frown etched on her forehead-began to smile when she saw Júbilo. She called him Che'ehunche'eh Wich, which in the Mayan language means "the one with the smiling face."
The relationship between doña Jesusa and doña Itzel was far from good until after Júbilo was born. Because of race. Doña Itzel was one hundred percent Mayan Indian and she disapproved of the mixing of her race's blood with doña Jesusa's Spanish blood. For many years, she had avoided visiting her son's home. Her grandchildren grew up without her being very involved in their lives. Her rejection of her daughter-in-law was so great that for years she refused to speak to her, arguing that she couldn't speak Spanish. So doña Jesusa was forced to learn Mayan in order to be able to speak with her mother-in-law. But she found it very difficult to learn a new language while raising twelve children, so communication between the two was sparse and of poor quality.
But all that changed after Júbilo was born. As she desired with all her soul to be near the baby, his grandmother began to visit her son's house again, which had never happened with the other grandchildren, as if she had no great interest in them. But from the first moment she saw Júbilo, she became fascinated with his smiling face. Júbilo was a blessing to the family; he appeared like a gift from heaven that no one expected. A beautiful gift that they didn't know what to do with. The difference in age between him and the youngest of his siblings was several years, and a few of his older brothers and sisters were already married and had children of their own. So it was almost as if Júbilo were an only child, and his playmates were his nieces and nephews, who were the same age as he. Because his mother was busy simultaneously fulfilling the roles of mother, wife, grandmother, mother-in-law, and daughter-in-law, Júbilo spent a lot of time in the company of the servants, until his grandmother adopted him as her favorite grandchild. They spent most of the day together, taking walks, playing, talking. Of course, his grandmother spoke to him in Mayan, which meant that Júbilo became doña Itzel's first bilingual grandchild.
And so, from the age of five, the child became the family's official interpreter. This was a fairly complicated matter for a small child, as he had to take into account that when doña Jesusa said the word mar, she was referring to the sea in front of their home, where the family often swam. On the other hand, when doña Itzel said the word K'ak'nab, she wasn't referring only to the sea, but also to the "lady of the sea," which is the name given to one of the phases of the moon and is associated with large bodies of water. Both of these entities have the same name in Mayan. So, as Júbilo translated, not only did he have to be aware of these subtleties, but he also had to pay attention to his mother's and grandmother's tone of voice, the tension in their vocal cords, as well as the expression on their faces and the set of their mouths. It was a difficult task, but one which Júbilo performed with great pleasure. Of course, he didn't always translate literally. He always added a kind word or two to soften the exchange between the two women. Over time, this little trick managed to help them get along a little better each day, and they eventually grew to love one another.
This experience helped Júbilo to discover the power of words for bringing people closer or pushing them apart, and that the important thing wasn't what was said, but the intention behind the communication. This sounds simple, but it is in fact very complicated. When Júbilo's grandmother gave him a message to translate, generally the words didn't coincide with what she really wanted to say. The tension around her mouth and vocal cords gave her away. Even to an innocent child like Júbilo, it was obvious that his grandmother was making an effort to swallow her words. But, as strange as it sounds, Júbilo heard the silent words clearly, even though they had never been spoken. And he understood that this "voice" that remained silent was the one that truly represented his grandmother's desires. So Júbilo, without thinking much about it, frequently translated those imperceptible murmurings instead of the words she spoke out loud. Of course, it never crossed his mind to do this to be naughty, just the opposite; his ultimate objective was always to reconcile these two women, both of them so beloved and important to him, to say out loud the magic word that neither of them ever dared to speak, the word that had to do with repressed desires. The frequent disagreements that arose between his mother and his grandmother were a clear example of this. Júbilo had no doubt that when one of them said black, she really meant white, and vice versa.
At his young age, what he didn't understand was why these two women made their lives, and as a consequence the lives of everyone around them, so complicated, since any argument between them had repercussions on all the rest of the family. There was never a strife-free day. They always found reasons to fight. If one said that Indians were lazier than Spaniards, the other would say that Spaniards smelled worse than Indians. There was no shortage of arguments, but without a doubt, the most sensitive were those that had to do with the life and customs of doña Jesusa. Doña Itzel had always worried that her grandchildren would be brought up in a lifestyle that, to her way of thinking, wasn't appropriate for them. This had been one of the main reasons why she had avoided coming to the house in the past. She had wanted to avoid seeing how her daughter-in-law was raising the grandchildren like little Spaniards, but now she was back and was determined to save Júbilo, her favorite grandchild, from the loss of his cultural heritage. So he wouldn't forget his origins, she was always telling him Mayan stories and legends as well as accounts of the battles the Mayan Indians had been forced to fight to preserve their history.
The most recent was the War of the Castes, an Indian insurrection during which approximately twenty-five thousand Indians lost their lives, and in which as it happened Júbilo's grandmother herself had played an important role. In spite of the Indians' ultimate defeat, something good came out of that battle, because later her son Librado was placed in charge of one of the country's largest exporters of henequen the fibers from an agave plant used for making rope and other materials. He had then taken the unusual step of marrying a Spanish woman. Mestizaje, the mixing of races, was not as common in the Yucatán peninsula as it was in other regions conquered by the Spaniards. During the colonial period, Spaniards had rarely spent more than twenty-four hours at a time in the encomiendas, the large royal land grants where the Mayans worked as laborers. They didn't mix with the Indians and when they married they did so in Cuba, with Spanish women, never with Indians. So the marriage of a Mayan Indian man to a Spanish woman was highly unusual. But for doña Itzel this union represented a danger more than something to be proud of. And the proof lay in the fact that none of her grandchildren, except Júbilo, spoke Mayan, and that they preferred to drink hot chocolate made with milk instead of water. For anyone else, it would be amusing to hear the heated discussions these two women held in the kitchen, but not for Júbilo, because he had to translate for them. On these occasions he had to be even more attentive than usual, because he knew anything they said could easily be interpreted as a declaration of war.
One day the air in the kitchen was particularly heated. A couple of hurtful messages had already been hurled across the room, making Júbilo feel very uncomfortable, especially because the unhappiness his grandmother's words caused his mother was obvious. Most unbelievable, though, was that neither woman was really fighting about how to make hot chocolate. That was just a pretext. What doña Itzel was really saying was: "Look, niña, for your information, my forefathers built monumental pyramids, observatories, and sacred temples, and they knew about astronomy and mathematics way before your people, so don't you come trying to teach me anything, especially not how to make hot chocolate."
And doña Jesusa, who had a sharp tongue, had to repress the urge to counter: "Look, woman, you are used to looking down on anyone who is not of your race, because the Mayans are so great and so wonderful, but they are separatists by nature and I'm not about to put up with that kind of snobbishness. If you disdain me so much, then don't come to my house anymore."
Finally the situation grew so tense, and each woman was defending her point of view with such passion, that Júbilo began to fear something terrible would happen. So when his mother, summoning up her courage, said: "Son, tell your abuela that I don't allow anyone to come into my house to tell me how to do things, because I don't take orders from anyone, especially not from her!," Júbilo had no choice but to translate: "Abuela, my mamá says that we don't take orders in this house . . . well, except from you."
Upon hearing these words, doña Itzel changed her attitude completely. For the first time in her life, she felt her daughter-in-law had acknowledged her rightful position. DoÃ±a Jesusa, on the other hand, was taken by surprise. She never imagined her mother-in-law would react to such strong aggression with a peaceful smile. After the initial shock she too responded with a smile and, for the first time since her marriage, she felt accepted by her mother-in-law. With just a simple change of meaning, Júbilo had been able to give each of them what they had been seeking: to feel appreciated.
From that day on, doña Itzel, convinced her orders were now being followed to the last letter, stopped interfering in the kitchen; and doña Jesusa, confident that her mother-in-law finally accepted her way of life, was able to approach her suegra, her mother-in-law, affectionately. The whole family returned to normal thanks to Júbilo's mediation, and he in turn felt completely satisfied. He had discovered the power of words and, having acted as his family's translator since his early childhood, it wasn't too surprising that instead of wanting to be a fireman or a policeman, he expressed the desire to become a telegraph operator when he grew up.
Copyright 2001 by Laura Esquivel