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Soda Springs: Chapter 7

Lupe Sandoval balanced her paintbrush on the five-gallon can, dug a grimy bandana from her overalls, swabbed her forehead. "Ay, Conchita, I'm too old for this. I need a year off."

Beside her, Concha Montoya stretched from the nine-foot-high scaffold and attacked the last swath of unpainted ceiling in the old Studebaker showroom.

Warily, Lupe sat down on the plank catwalk and admired her niece's steady brush strokes. Conchita threw herself into a job like a kindergartner given free reign with Day-Glo finger paints. Sky blue paint spattered her backwards baseball cap, her face, the tight kinks of this new Afro poking out like a frizzy band of hair on a circus clown.

Below them in the barn-like room, guys nailed in studs for classroom walls, their pounding rhythmic as a chorus, voices echoing in Spanish and English all mezclado into a bilingual poem. No one in the barrio had ever gone to technical school; they learned by remodeling their own homes. A half-dozen batos, teenage guys with tattoos and ducktails, all dropouts, unloaded a pallet of thick sheet rock. None held jobs. One by one, Concha had sweet-talked them into helping. They all worked like family, no jefes or peones.

Lupe thanked God she had ignored the know-it-alls. In the barrio, they sprouted like thistles. "That old Studebaker place? It's a fire trap." "A place for migrants? They piss in the corner, you know." In white Soda Springs, the mayor told the town council, "The Mexicans? Shit, they'll never pull it off."

Well, at this rate, they would finish La Casa de Esperanza, the House of Hope, by June 1. And they were downtown, right under the mayor's snooty nose. For sure, the sweat of honest work makes the sweetest perfume.

Lupe marveled at her niece, as hard a worker as any man. And a true beauty, even sweaty and paint smeared. In high school, the only Mexican ever voted homecoming queen, and the only Mexican cheerleader. Concha didn't prance her beauty, but she knew how to use it. Every guy in the barrio would trade his cojones for a date with her.

Exactly as Lupe had prayed, La Casa de Esperanza already had rescued Concha, even though their summer program wouldn't begin for another month.

Only three years out of high school and Concha had fallen into the dead end that fate dealt most Mejicanos in town: sorting spuds in a freezing warehouse all winter, scrambling for odd jobs until farm work started in June. Two months ago, Concha planned to hire on at A & W in Alamosa -- even that she had to wear a miniskirt and wiggle her ass so dirty old men would tip her salary up to minimum wage. Then came Esperanza. It started when a gringo from Denver, a state man in a coat and tie, met with the barrio in the basement of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church. He said the state wanted to help migrant workers.

Lupe remembered the guy's blank look when she told him, "We're all migrants here." Most Mexicans in Soda Springs didn't have year-round jobs; they had to migrate to Denver or the peach orchards of Grand Junction part of the year, then return to work the lettuce and potato harvests. He didn't believe it. But Concha found a study at the college in Alamosa about Spanish-surnamed Americans that proved it. In the end, the state certified every Mexican in Soda Springs a migrant. What the hell, it was true -- even her husband Elias migrated home every day for lunch, then migrated back to work at Pippins Lumber.

Lupe inched down the makeshift ladder like a backwards cockroach, praying she wouldn't fall, and sank onto an old crate someone had dragged in. Her arms ached, and she didn't have enough energy to walk across to the ice chest for a beer. She rasped, "Elias, por favor, bring your poor wife a --"

The service door banged open. "Okay, party's over. Time to scram." Chief Zeigler slouched in the doorway like John Wayne about to wade into a bar brawl. His foghorn bark brought work to a halt. "It's past ten. You're violatin' curfew."

Lupe shot across the room. "What curfew? What are you up to now, Glen?"

"You heard the siren. Ten o'clock. Curfew time."

"That siren's been going off at ten ever since 1930. There's no curfew," Lupe said.

"Is now. Town Council just voted it. I come straight from the meetin'. That ain't all. Your crew's finished here. You got no building permit."

Chief stood his ground, but he stared over her shoulder like he expected someone to jump him. Lupe felt the barrio men crowding in behind her, then a calloused hand on her shoulder. "No te preocupes, cuñada. He's mine." Nacho bulled up beside her. "You're full of shit, Chief. None of us ever needed a building permit to work on anything."

"Don't want no trouble, Nacho. I'm just doin' my job. You remodel a store, you need a permit. Council just passed that one into law, too. This here work's illegal."

"You want me to throw him out?" Nacho said.

Elias appeared beside Lupe. "What's up, Chief? You hassling my family?"

"Not hasslin' nobody, Elias. Mayor says no building permit, no work. You gotta lock this place up until you get one."

Chief Zeigler enforced the law like it was set down by God Himself. He was the kind of guy who came to a dead halt at a stop sign at two a.m., even when there were no headlights for ten miles around. So, the mayor wasn't blowing smoke: "They'll open that damn building over my dead body." He meant to kill Esperanza. Que pendejo!

"Doesn't matter, we've done enough work tonight. Tomorrow's another day," Lupe said.

"I'm serious, Lupe. No permit, no work. Tomorrow, it'll be me and Haggarty and the sheriff. If that ain't enough, I'll call in the state patrol. Chief tapped his old Ralston-Purina baseball cap and backed into the street.

The barrio clustered around Lupe like a football team outraged by a referee's bad call.

"They can't do that, can they?" Concha asked.

"Maybe they can, maybe they can't, mijita. We'll see," Lupe said. She raised both hands, brought the noise down to a roar. "Tomorrow night, same time," she shouted. "We'll make them throw us out. Nacho and Elias first."

Read on: Jump to Chapter 8

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