Honoring Our Literary Ancestors: On Arcelia

In the days leading up to my grandmother’s death, my eyes lingered on her ninety-year-old hands. As a little tomboy, Arcelia’s hands had mesmerized me. I watched them feed cookies to caged parrots. I felt the caresses she offered to dogs, cats, and pigeons. In the kitchen, her mandil darkened as she wiped her wet palms against its threadbare gingham. At the kitchen table, her hands tore bolillo in half, fingernails digging into the white fluff, pulling it away from jagged crust. My abuelita Arcelia’s hands also lifted brushes, pressing them to canvas to paint portraits emphasizing vision. Brush stroke after brush stroke recreated our eyes. Her portraiture captured my sister’s anguish. Her portraiture captured my brother’s cautious joy. Her portraiture captured my queer childhood mischievousness so well that my earliest portrait still spooks people. This painting hangs in my parents’ home. Guests have asked that it be covered, claiming that its eyes proverbially follow them.

To look at a portrait painted by my grandmother is to see how much looking, and commemorating, delighted her.