I found Rosa in Thonotosassa, a small community 16 miles north east of Tampa. The trailer park where she lives now is a little jungle of oak trees, their branches heavy with moss. From outside, her trailer looks old and moldy, like it is about to cave in, but inside, the trailer stands as a testament of Rosa’s determination to turn any place into a home. A modest, new vinyl floor has been laid down and on the walls are mismatched pictures in shabby plastic frames.
She covers her mouth with both hands as she opens the door. “It’s you,” she says. “I thought you had forgotten about me.” She pulls me inside the trailer and gives me a long, hard squeeze. She invites me to sit down on a wobbly sofa whose original color I wouldn’t dare to guess and gives me a bottle of water. She looks me up and down and comments on how thin I am, and I can’t tell if it is a compliment or a suggestion to include more fat in my diet.
Rosa has a homemade mask on her face. Bits of lemon stick to her forehead and chin. She tells me it is an old wives recipe to get rid of stains and to give the skin back its youthfulness. And it’s working, she tells me with a chuckle.
I ask her about Camilo. She tells me that he is doing fine, his heart problems are closely monitored and under control; his only problem is the half of his body which the doctors “messed up” when he was a baby. “Remember he just had a weak heart when he went in for surgery?” she asks. I nod. “After the operation, his arm went dead and his little hand curled into a fist and never, ever did he open it again.” A lawyer told her that had she filed a malpractice lawsuit against the hospital soon after the incident, she would have been awarded one million dollars in compensation. “But it’s too late now,” she says. “And in any case, what would I do with the money? Buy my boy a new arm and hand?” she sneers. “These gringo lawyers think you can buy everything with money.”
I give her a copy of Looking for Esperanza, opened in the chapter dedicated to her and Camilo. She looks at it and quietly runs her fingers down the page. “It’s in English,” she says. I apologize, feeling like a cretin. I wonder what it would take to get this thing translated into Spanish, how many more obstacles as an emerging writer I would have to face to get the words in what seems to me the “right” language for it. Rosa sees how embarrassed I am and tells me that she understands enough English to get by and that if she gets stuck reading the book, she’ll ask her American boss to give her a hand.
“What American boss?” I ask. “Are you back in the fields?” She waves her hands in the air. No, of course she is not back in the fields. That type of job is for mules and she is not cut out for it. She cleans houses now. “I’m a maid,” she says and I know that in her eyes, she has moved up the ladder.
A week after thanksgiving, I paid Laura a visit. The house was exactly as it had been a few years back when she took me to work on the strawberry fields. The manicured front yard, the tidy porche with matching rocking chairs and recently-watered plants, the smell of food making its way outside, all proof that Laura still lived in that house.
She opened the door and we held gazes for a few seconds.
"My God, I remember you," she said and asked me in.
She hasn't changed. She is the same woman I met when I was looking for Esperanza: vivacious, witty, with impeccable skin and brawny arms developed by years of work in the fields.
Her husband was in the kitchen finishing his dinner. I apologized for the interruption and offered to come some other time. To no avail. They asked me to stay. He also remembered me, not so much because of the interview he gave me but because Laura used to tell him all about our days together. I'm sure I was the topic of conversation every evening after working during the day with Laura in the fields. The crazy writer who thought she could keep up with Laura. The fool who felt fit enough to withstand the stooping position for hours, the nut case who drove up and down Florida looking for a woman's story.
We had a laugh (at my hopeless lack of agricultural skills), talked about their children (no longer children but grown up men), and between laughs and jokes about Laura's father (the flirt!), I showed Laura the book. I opened it in the chapter titled "Laura" and we hugged.
She hugged me because someone had dimmed her life worthy to be remembered, because a book in English dedicated a whole chapter to her, her family and her story.
I hugged her because every time she took me to the fields, she taught me a lesson of humility, of resilience, of determination and fearlessnes. Because one day at a tomato warehouse in Dover, after hours of stooping over the dizzing conveyors, when I was just about to throw the towel, she cracked a joke about body odor. And we laughed in secret, when the crew leader wasn't looking, and then she cracked another joke and all of us women at the conveyor stopped to laugh, to live, to allow some humanity into the backbraking job of sorting out tomatos for salads they will not taste.