From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

La Brava

Her name was María de Jesús Galván, and she was my paternal grandmother. She was a rather tall woman, especially by Mexican standards, but she appeared even taller with her erect posture and no-nonsense demeanor. Her stature was accentuated by her dark complexion, deep black eyes and the long black hair that she always wore in an Indian braid style. There was a natural sense of dignity about her, as if she were a holy woman. She was also blessed with an extraordinary memory, a photographic memory that I utilized many years later in my genealogical research.

I once asked her if there was an incident in her life that stood out for her as a defining moment—a “make-or-break” kind of moment. She responded that there had been many highlights, as well as tragedies, in her life. But my question must have been one that she had already contemplated because she wasted no time in describing what she told me was the most poignant incident in her life.

The year was 1914, and it was a time of great civil unrest. Mexico was ripped apart by revolution. The war left many towns and villages in Northern Mexico even more isolated than before and at the mercy of the rival armies. Still, even in rural Méndez, the news of the war traveled quickly. Although Méndez was of no strategic significance, it was situated in the midst of the revolution. Far from the reach of the government, the armies of Pancho Villa controlled the vast uninhabited and desolate areas of this northern Mexican state.

Little María had heard the hushed tales that little girls of ten were not supposed to hear—stories of rape and of murder at the hands of heavily armed marauders. Her own father had died two years prior, and she feared for the men of the village. These same poor and humble men had been so generous to María and her widowed mother after her father’s death. Without their help, God only knows how they would have ended up. Her fears were fueled by word that all the men in a nearby village had been executed— shot down in cold blood—in the town square. Rumors were spread that the rebels were behind the atrocities so as to terrorize the populace. Others argued vehemently that only the government could be so cruel.

Still, life went on as well as could be expected. It was August, and there were fields to tend to, livestock to feed and meals to cook. It was little María’s daily chore to fetch the water. Now, this was no small job. Her family was poor and did not have the benefit of a personal well. Rather, she had to lug the earthenware vessels to the town square several blocks away. There she would fill the containers and struggle with them all the way home. Fortunately, on most mornings some kind man would usually help carry her heavy load home.

This particular day María hauled two empty vessels to the square. It was early, perhaps no later than eight o’clock, but the sun was strong, and it was already hot. She had filled one vessel and was struggling with the second when she first noticed the commotion. Men were shouting and directing the women to run home immediately. Apparently, a field worker had reported that a large column of armed men was a few miles away and headed toward town. As the men rounded up the horses, wagons and donkeys to hide for safekeeping, María contemplated her situation. With all the men running off to protect their families and all the women hiding, there was no one to help her. And she wasn’t going to leave her water vessels unattended. She was infuriated at her misfortune. Alone with no one to help or defend her, she decided right then and there that she was not going to take it anymore. There was no choice but to stand her ground and fight. The second vessel full, she looked up to see the cloud of dust in the distance. Her hope that perhaps the men had been wrong vanished. She decided to pull up the last bucket of water before facing her enemy. She contemplated how she would die, and after deciding that she would be brave, she said her prayers as best she could.

Before she had finished her mental rosary, the rebels arrived. The thundering hooves of a hundred warhorses announced their arrival. There were so many! It appeared to her that these riders weren’t men at all, but giants! And the deafening roar of the horses’ gait was almost overwhelming. Still, she stood her ground; no one would steal her water.

She must have been quite a sight to the young commander as he gestured his troops to halt. The dark little girl with long black braids and cold black eyes was standing between him and the water well. She refused to budge even as his stallion moved within a couple of feet in front of her. For a few moments there was absolute silence. El Comandante and the little girl locked eyes for some time before he finally asked, “Is there no one else here to greet the army of Pancho Villa?” She refused to answer, and the silence continued.

El Comandante finally nodded and smiled before he dismounted. His spurs jingled as he stepped her way. He wore a full sombrero and bandoleros. Two guns and a sword hung at his side. He was dusty from the ride, but he was also clean-shaven, with clean black hair and the most awesome full mustache she had ever seen.

Now standing right in front of her, El Comandante looked down at the child. Defiantly, María had never broken eye contact. She could see deep into the officer’s brown eyes as he towered above her. After a few torturously long moments, in which no words were spoken, María at last closed her eyes, expecting death to strike immediately. El Comandante waited for the little girl to open her eyes again. Then, with just the hint of a smile, he removed his sombrero in a gesture of respect and went down on one knee and spoke.

“Little girl,” he said, “my men are tired and thirsty. Would you be so kind as to share your water with us?”

“Perhaps I could do that,” said La Brava. “But if I do, will you help me refill the jars and take them home?”

“Why, of course, my princesa. It would only be fair to do so.”

And with that he affectionately cupped and caressed her head and directed his men to approach the well. María offered El Comandante her bucket of cool water from which he took a long quenching drink before pouring the rest over his head. She stayed there and helped the rebel soldiers draw water until their thirst had been sated. Then she helped water and care for the horses as the men rested.

Soon it was time for the army to move on. As the troops remounted, El Comandante ordered two soldiers to fill the water vessels and accompany María home. As the young commander mounted his horse and prepared to lead his men to war, María, now confident in the righteousness of the revolution, shouted out to him, “Viva la revolución!” To which he replied in a loud and triumphant voice, “Y viva México!”

María never saw him again, except in her dreams, but she never forgot him. She would later tell me: “That day El Comandante taught me that it is better to die standing on one’s feet than to live on one’s knees.” She carried the fire of the revolution in her heart all the days of her life. Then she leaned over to me. “I have only one regret,” she said.

What was La Brava’s only regret, you ask?

“I should have gotten his name,” she winked. “He was gorgeous!”

Robert Suarez

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