~ Prologue ~
Rosa Castillo met her husband, Ignacio, in a chance encounter. He was a quiet, mysterious sixteen-year-old. She was twelve and convinced instantly that he hung the moon. She would never forget that day. Good thing – because it would be years before she saw him again. Though she eventually grew to hate sounding emotional and fanciful, after being knocked around by life, back then – she knew the moment they spoke, she would love him for all of her days.
Ignacio Castillo, sixteen – grew up in California, but spent his summers in Rosa’s small community, near the Mar de Cortés, also known as the Sea of Cortez, in the Mexican state of Sonora. His great-grandparents built a second home there, with a view of the sea – that eventually became their full time home base. Though a few of his great aunts, uncles, and cousins had always lived there, his branch of the Castillo family had settled near the Pacific coast and along the Central Valley, long before California was California. Their Spanish blood intermingled with First Nations people – as it did in Mexico. California was as much a part of the Castillos, as was Sonora.
Ignacio’s great-grandpa made each of his four children swear that once he retired from ranching, they’d send the Nietos to Mexico each summer, even if it was just a few weeks. His Californian progeny happily sent their kids for as much of the summer they could spare them. Twelve of Rosa Moreno’s summers passed, before she laid eyes on Ignacio. She didn’t know the day they met that two short years later, the man of her dreams would go off to war, as one of 750,000 Mexican Americans who fought in World War II. She wouldn’t see him again until 1945.
“I want to go in. I’m thirsty,” Rosa said to her younger sister, Carolina. Carolina, in only the way a sassy ten-year-old can, whined in protest. It was hot. She was tired and hungry. She’d grown impatient with her sister’s social butterfly ways. Rosa was the exact opposite of Carolina. Carolina preferred her quiet reading corner – in the tiny bedroom, they shared.
“No! No more. It’s too hot, Rosa. I need to go home. Now.”
“You’re such a bore. Besides, this is the last stop. I’ll buy you a drink. A soda?”
“Mommy will kill you,” Carolina says. She was always the angel on the shoulder of her big sister – who rarely listened. Nonetheless, Carolina persisted.
“She’ll never know,” Rosa said, as she pulled her sister headlong into yet another store they couldn’t afford. They couldn’t afford it, because they couldn’t afford anything – barely eeking by in the years since their father left Carolina and Rosa alone with their mother. The door of the store slammed shut as a gust of wind blew through the store. The back door was propped open as the owner unloaded soda, candies, and name-brand snacks from across the border – food not sold anywhere else in town.
That’s when Rosa saw him. Ignacio stood in front of a display of cigarettes – which made him all the more attractive. He wore jeans, worn from work she guessed, cuffed at the bottom, and a polo shirt. His left hand was in his back pocket – a small hole in the pocket drew her attention. The Moreno girls lived in a small casita, their mother serving as a housekeeper for the second generation of the same family. But their enclave was a wealthy mirage in the dusty desert savannah that is Sonora. It wasn’t the norm to meet people her age, with similar economic backgrounds, in their town.
Something about the hole in his pocket made her heart skip a beat. Perhaps she wouldn’t quite give up hope of meeting someone of similar means, after all. Rosa, always intense, wildly brave, and the life of every party – knew it was now or never. She stepped right up to the display next to the slender young man, who couldn’t have been more than an inch or two taller than her. “Can I help you find something?” she asked, as if she’d worked there all her life.
“You work here?” he replied, a hint of something different in his accent.
“She doesn’t work here,” Carolina said dryly.
“I don’t. But so what. I can help you.”
Ignacio laughed. Rosa’s heart lurched into her throat. “I don’t need help. But thank you,” he said in English, catching even himself off guard, if the shaking of his head was any indication. He’d shaken his head as if he’d forgotten where he was – or who he was. He turned to face Rosa. “Shouldn’t you be at home? Aren’t you two, too young to be out roaming the streets, at dusk?” he asked, returning to Spanish. He smiled, his green eyes lighting up, as if sparks popped and crackled from them, lighting Rosa’s insides in a way she’d never experienced before.
“I am not too young,” Rosa huffed in reply.
“Right, niñita,” he said, emphasizing niñita.
His efforts to put Rosa in her place worked, because she suddenly felt little and ridiculous. Ignacio turned back to the display, picked up a pack of cigarettes, examined it, and then walked to the front of the tiny store. He looked around for the owner. “He’s outside,” Rosa said, recovering from her embarrassment and following him. “Do you live here?” Rosa asked. “You don’t look familiar. And you spoke in English.”
“Rosa, let’s go. Come on. Mommy will be so mad. We should have been home a half-hour ago,” Carolina said.
“I live here in the summer. My grandparents live here.”
“Where do you live the rest of the year?” Carolina asked.
“I live in California,” he said, quietly.
“California?” Carolina asked, sounding shocked.
“Yeah,” he said, shaking his head.
“What’s your name?” Rosa asked.
Rosa’s heart sank. He was one of them, she thought. Rosa, even at twelve had strong feelings about how the world should work. Wealth was as dirty to her as the sewer. She’d inherited her father’s attraction to Marxism. “Oh,” she said, flatly.
Ignacio recognized the tone. He turned toward Rosa. “And your name is?” he asked, his Spanish perfect – without a hint of Americanization which she now knew is what she’d heard earlier.
“Rosa Moreno. My family is the type to clean Castillo houses and wipe the culos of your babies,” she replied. “Also, I’m a Marxist,” she said, reaching out to shake his hand. “Nice to meet you ricachón.” Ignacio returned the handshake and then laughed as Rosa turned tail and sauntered proudly out of the store, her sister following quickly behind her.
For two more summers, before the war started, Rosa Moreno prayed she’d run into Ignacio again. She never stopped thinking of him – memorizing the way he’d stood, the color of his polo shirt, his scuffed-up black shoes, and the small hole in his pocket. He was too old for her, she knew. But somehow, she couldn’t stop thinking of him. In spite of his last name, she knew he wasn’t like the rest of them. He couldn’t be. His worn jeans and the hole told her all the story she needed to know about him – he knew how to work. She made friends with every Castillo she could find, thereafter. She hung on their every word – hoping against hope his name would enter the conversation. Every so often, his name would float out in the midst of a conversation. She’d pieced together enough to know he was still alive at least. In 1943, she learned from her new friend, Isabella Castillo, Ignacio’s only sister, that he was a Corpsman, serving alongside Marines in the Pacific – a fact that filled her with fear.
Isabella told her that it had taken her two years to come to Sonora by herself, worrying constantly her brother wouldn’t return to them. But as the war dragged on, she missed her family and made the trip – though it seemed frivolous and pointless when the world was burning. The day they’d met was Rosa’s sixteenth birthday. She asked Isabella to send Ignacio a letter on her behalf. Isabella instead gave Rosa his address. She swore from that birthday on, she would spend every birthday thereafter, loving Ignacio Castillo – even if it took her years to see his green eyes again. She dreamed of him and prayed constantly for his safety and his return to Sonora. Two days after her eighteenth birthday, her prayers were answered.
Blaine Langston & Mercedes Castillo
Mercedes Castillo wasn’t exactly what one would call warm – at least not in adulthood. She was, however brilliant, tall, slender, elegant, and beautiful. She was, hands down, the smartest person most people in her circle would ever meet. She inherited the light skin of her mother’s side of the family and the dark brown-black hair and green eyes from her father’s side of the family. In many ways, she looked like a white girl. But her accent was thick and betrayed her constantly. Her mother’s one hill to die on was that her only surviving babies would never lose sight of who they were or the blood that coursed through their veins. There was no such thing as English in their household. It didn’t matter to Rosa Castillo that English was quickly becoming, with each passing year, a near requirement for most of the world.
As a result of a 100% Spanish household, Mercedes’s accent was thick, though she spoke English fluently. She’d been homeschooled on the ranch until her mother finally succumbed to pressure from Ignacio, her husband, and allowed her children to attend the Pacific Valley School in Big Sur. The school was one school – serving elementary through high school kids. And while there were migrant children from time to time, Mercedes and her brother were the only Mexicans in a school full of Caucasian children. That fact didn’t help the growing chip on her shoulder. Though she’d been born as fierce as her mother, she learned in those years to quiet and close herself off from those who crossed her path. It was best that way. She inherited her mother’s discomfort with wealth and privilege, in spite of being surrounded by it. She also inherited her mother’s politics and disdain for most things her mother deemed white. Keeping everything and everyone at bay worked – for a while anyway.
It worked until she was a freshman at Boston College and ran across a tall, broad football player by the name of Blaine Langston. His name even sounded like a terrible idea. Blaine and Mercedes, however, were instantly inseparable.
Blaine was drawn to Mercedes Castillo’s determination and wickedly brilliant mind. It didn’t hurt that she was the most beautiful woman he’d laid eyes on. Not a single girl in Boston or Virginia – where he was from, could hold a candle to her. But it was a hard-fought road for the couple. While Mercedes was wealthy, smart, and beautiful – she was a Mexican – a fact his parents mentioned in nearly every conversation they had with him, until the weekend he brought her home for the first time, the week he proposed to her.
While Mercedes napped in her room in the Langston guest house, just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, the afternoon they’d arrived for a spring break visit, Blaine sat with his parents on their expansive back porch. “It’s just that this isn’t what I saw for you,” his mother said.
Blaine laughed. “What you saw for me? What does that mean, mother? It’s almost 1970. What is wrong with you?”
“There are plenty of girls, from very good families, right here in Virginia.”
“You mean white families, right?”
“I’m not racist,” his mother says quickly.
“If it acts like a duck -”
“Don’t speak to your mother so disrespectfully, son,” his father interrupted.
“I’m not being disrespectful. It seems odd that the one girlfriend you object to is the one non-white girlfriend I’ve ever had.”
“This has nothing to do with all that,” his mother says. “You come from a very – how shall I say this? A very privileged family. We have roots in Virginia that date back to the Revolutionary War, for goodness sakes.”
Blaine laughed, dropped his head, and mustered the strength to devastate his mother’s fragile world. “The Castillo family has more old-world money than you and daddy could ever dream of. The Langston family will never – not ever, surpass their wealth unless there’s some kind of miracle. Mercedes is the most accomplished twenty-year-old I’ve ever met. She speaks French and English along with Spanish. She’s literally learning Mandarin Chinese – for the fun of it. She has traveled the world and seen far more than I have. And if you want to talk about roots, her family was in the United States long before we were.”
“You know what I mean,” his mother says in reply. “But I can see there’s no convincing you.”
Blaine laughs again, taking this as a sign that dollar signs now flash across his mother’s eyes. “There is no convincing me that anyone else besides Mercedes Castillo is meant to be my bride. I hope you will find it in your heart to accept her as your daughter. She is smart and accomplished. She’s not afraid of military life. That has to count for something. I’ll be at TBS by next summer,” he says, standing up – his beer in his hands, facing a view he’d first come to love as a child when the house and land belonged to his grandparents.
“Is she . . .” his mother starts to ask a question.
“Catholic?” Blaine asks, interrupting her.
“She is.” His mother sighs, so he continues, “But she is willing to convert.”
“Well that’s a relief, at least,” she says. “I suppose you’re going to want grandma’s ring now?” his mother replies, haughtily.
“No. I don’t want grandma’s ring. I have her great-grandma’s ring. I talked to her father at Christmas. He gave it to me.” Blaine reaches into the pocket of his jacket. He’s worn the jacket since they arrived, the ring burning a hole in it’s pocket. His anxiety about his parent’s treatment of Mercedes complicated his hopes for a beautiful proposal, here on the land that he loved so much. He opens the black velvet ring box, handing it to his mother.
“Oh my,” she says. “That is the most beautiful ring I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure I’ve seen a sapphire that size in person.”
“It is beautiful, isn’t it? Mercedes has dreamt her whole life about this ring. I’m grateful her parents are so accepting of me – to let me give this family heirloom to the woman I love.”
“That is lovely of them,” his father says, sounding contrite for his harsh tone earlier and the lack of affection shown to them upon their arrival.
“It is. They’re great people. Her mom is a little prickly. But I’m wearing Miss Rosa down.” He smiles wide. His mother smiles in return. It’s impossible to mistake the happiness on his face.
“I couldn’t find you!” The Langstons turn in unison toward the direction of the scratchy, husky voice of Mercedes Castillo. She’s standing near a wide oak tree, next to the patio.
Blaine’s smile grows wider still at the sound of her voice. “Sorry, Mercy – I forgot to tell you where you could find us at 5:00 PM, here at Weston House. We like to get a little sloshed before dinner, so we’re numb to our emotions before we sit down.”
“Blaine Langston! How dare you? Welcome, dear. I hope you had a nice nap,” his mother recovers quickly.
“Thank you,” she says before quickly climbing the steps. Mercedes is wearing ballet flats and a canary yellow cocktail swing dress, with a white belt. Her hair is wrapped in a bun and a small set of pearls hangs from her slender neck. “I had a wonderful nap. I slept so soundly I thought I’d missed dinner.”
“Can I get you a drink?” Blaine’s father asks. He names off a white wine, seltzer water, two kinds of beer, a cola, and champagne – quieting as he says the vintage, but not the name – as if Mercedes couldn’t possibly know about it.
“The Pol Roger would be lovely,” Mercedes says, knowing the label well.
“Of course,” Blaine Langston, senior says – as he reaches for a flute to pour Mercedes a drink. “Cheers,” he says as he hands her the drink. They clink glasses.
“Do you drink Pol Roger, often?” his mother asks, her earlier haughtiness returning.
“I wouldn’t say often. My parents are wealthy – not me. I don’t go around ordering it when Blaine and I go out to eat. But we drink it on special occasions along with my family’s wine.”
“Your family makes wine? How quaint,” Adeline Langston says.
Blaine clears his throat, crosses the patio, slips his hand into Mercedes’s free hand, and whispers something in her ear. Mercedes takes a sip of the champagne. She sniffs the champagne lightly before taking another sip. Mercedes says to no one, “This vintage has the most lovely floral and woodsy notes.”
“What’s that?” Adeline Langston asks.
Blaine squeezes Mercedes’s hand. She whispers to him, “It’s fine. I’m a big girl.” She raises her voice a bit and tries with all her might to dampen the thickness of her accent, “The champagne – I was saying this vintage has the most lovely floral and woodsy notes.”
“Oh. Yes. It’s quite good,” Adeline says in reply, apparently uncertain how to respond.
“And yes, we do make wine. We have made wine for hundreds of years. It’s a long-standing tradition for the Castillo family. I will bring you some next time,” Mercedes says, standing taller, straightening out her slender 5’8 frame. Blaine smiles at his beautiful girl. She has no fear, he thinks – not even of Blaine and Adeline Langston. It’s confirmed seeing her stand so proudly in front of his two snobbish parents – there could never be any other woman for him.