Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna. Alda P. Dobbs. 2021. [September] 288 pages. [Source: Library]
First sentence: The smoking star lit the night sky as women wept, holding their babies close. Men kept quiet while the old and the weak prayed for mercy. It was on that night that all of us huddled under the giant crucifix, the night when everyone—everyone but me—awaited the end of the world. Everything was a sign to us mestizos, from eclipses to new moons to burned tamales in a pot. I learned early on that all signs were bad. When sparks flew out of a fire, it meant an unwelcome visitor would show up. A sneeze meant someone was talking bad about you. If a metate—a grinding stone—broke, it meant death to its owner or a family member. But the biggest sign of all was citlalin popoca, the smoking star. Papá’s big boss at the mine called it a comet.
Premise/plot: Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna is set in Mexico in 1913. Petra Luna, our heroine, has made a promise to her father to keep the family together and safe. But some promises are hard to keep--no matter how big the heart. With the Revolution in progress, there is so much uncertainty from day to day to day. The family--Petra, her grandmother, her younger sister, her baby brother--is forced to flee their village with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Everything is gone; there is no assurance for tomorrow. Still, Petra dreams big dreams. She dreams of learning to read and write...of a better future. Most of all she dreams of the day when her father will find them again.
My thoughts: Absolutely beautiful and compelling. The writing is gorgeous. Truly a poetic work of art. I absolutely loved every bittersweet moment of this one. There's depth and substance. The characters are oh-so-human.
Promise. The word churned inside my head day and night. Six months ago, I had made the biggest promise ever when Papá was given the choice to join the Federales or be placed in front of a firing squad. On that day I had run across town looking for Papá, and when I found him, I knew he had chosen not to join. Papá stood against a wall blindfolded, his hands tied behind his back. He faced a line of soldiers with rifles aimed at him. All I heard next were my bare feet running across the line of fire toward Papá and my screams, begging to be shot along with him. I held on to Papá as two soldiers came to pull me away. I kicked with all my strength, and over my screams I heard Papá shouting for them to let me go, but the soldiers didn’t stop until Papá said he’d join their war. Before Papá was dragged away, I promised to take care of Amelia, Luisito, and our grandmother, Abuelita. He then swore to return.
The Federales were the army of the government, of our current president, Victoriano Huerta, whom Papá had called a tyrant. This was the second time they’d charged into our village. The first time, they’d shot men as old as sixty and boys as young as eight for not joining them. They’d dragged Papá away and had also shot one woman who’d protested against her sons’ forced conscription. They were monsters
I rushed into the burning hut, dropped to my hands and knees, and crawled across the long room. The smoke burned my eyes, and the flood of tears blinded me, but I pressed on. I felt my way around the floor, across the broken crates and pots, until my hand found it—my black rock. It was the only thing I had left from Papá.
I don’t want to grow any thorns,” said Amelia. “Thorns are ugly.”
“M’ija”—Abuelita wiped the corners of her mouth with her fingers—“your first breath was in the desert. The cord that connected you to your mamá was buried under a mesquite tree so that you’d always be part of this land. You already have thorns, and thorns are beautiful—they make you strong.” Abuelita spat out the chewed mesquite seeds. “Always be grateful for what you have. The day you take things for granted, your heart will swell with poison.”
Amelia looked down at her elbow and rubbed it. “You’re right, Abuelita. The other day I felt something prickly here, and I think—”
“Abuelita meant thorns in your heart, Amelia,” I said.
Abuelita nodded. “En tu corazón y en tu espírito.” She patted her chest, pointing to her heart and spirit inside her.
Are you scared, Petra?” Amelia whispered.
“Scared of what?”
“Of the Federales or of never seeing Papá again.”
“We’ll see Papá again,” I said. “And right now, I’m much too tired to worry about the Federales.”
“How about un apapácho?” said Amelia. “Are you too tired for that?”
Unlike me at her age, Amelia never asked for a story or a song before going to sleep. Instead, she’d ask for an apapácho. If I had to guess, I’d say apapácho was Amelia’s favorite word. It meant cuddling or embracing someone with your soul.
“Come here,” I said and stretched my arms around her. I squeezed her tight and used one hand to pat her back. And like Mamá, I ended the apapácho with a head rub and a kiss on the forehead.
I lay restless for most of the night. My feet, my back, and everything in between throbbed. I wanted to stretch out the pain, but my muscles cramped with every attempt. My mind stirred too. I thought about my promise to Papá and how it’d been a constant struggle to keep in Esperanzas. I was now in the middle of the desert with a little girl and a baby in tow and an old woman with rickety knees. How would I ever fulfill it? And my dreams of learning to read and write—those drew further away each day. By now they were as distant and unreachable as the stars above.
You’ve come to the right place,” said the priest. “You’ll be safe here.”
Abuelita kissed the priest’s hand. “Dios lo bendiga, Padre. God bless you.”
Suddenly, the sweet smell of pan pobre, poor bread, hit my nose. The scent awakened my stomach and tugged strongly at my heart. I looked around, sniffing the air, wondering where the smell came from. It was a scent that had always brought feelings of comfort and safety. I didn’t believe in signs, but if I did, I’d bet we were safe here.
I lay down and pulled out my black rock from the hem of my skirt. I brought it close to me. It was a piece of coal Papá had given me for my birthday two years ago. It was more than a black rock, though. It was a baby diamond.
“That’s how diamonds are born,” Papá had often explained. “When a piece of coal gets squeezed very hard for a very long time, it becomes a diamond.”
My name is Adeline. What’s yours?”
“Petra,” I said.
“My mamá says Spanish names always mean something. What does yours mean?”
“It means rock,” I said.
“Like the one you’re holding?”
I looked down at my black rock and put it back in its safe place.
“My name doesn’t mean anything,” said Adeline. “But my last name, Wilson, is the same as the American president’s. His name is Woodrow Wilson, but my papá says we’re not related.”
“Why didn’t you leave with your papá?”
“My papá worked at a silver mine,” said Adeline. “He was an engineer there, and when the bad guys came to his work, he had to leave fast before anyone saw him. Later, a man came to our house and gave us a letter from Papá telling us to leave and meet him in Texas. We took a coach and got here two days ago.”
“Do you have brothers and sisters?” I asked.
“No.” Adeline frowned. “It’s just me.”
Adeline continued to talk, and she talked a lot, but she also listened to everything I said. She shared her dreams of being an animal doctor, and I told her mine of learning to read and write. She told me stories she’d read about an orphan girl who lived with two evil sisters and another about a princess who’d been poisoned with an apple
Adeline handed me the slate before covering our legs with the ivory blanket. “My mamá told me that when good, hardworking people have dreams, it’s always nice to help make them come true.”
The slate had letters written on it already.
“What does this say?” I asked.
“That’s your name.”
I took a second look at the slate. The white, chalky letters looked strong and beautiful.
First, we’re going to learn to write your name,” said Adeline. “This is how you hold the chalk. Here, you try it.”
Adeline wrapped my finger around the white, blocky stick. My hand trembled as Adeline guided me to outline P-E-T-R-A across the slate. I sounded out each letter along with her as I traced it over and over. I struggled to hold the chalk straight at first, but by my fiftieth time, I was able to write my name all on my own, without tracing it.
“So?” Adeline asked as I erased my name. “What happens now?” Her tone was sad.
“I write my name all over again and keep practicing,” I said, steadying the chalk over the slate, pretending to have misunderstood Adeline. I was sure she meant what would happen after the church, but I didn’t want to think about it. Not right now. I wanted to keep chatting, to keep learning. I wanted to, for a moment, forget all my pain and anguish. My day with Adeline had been like a sweet siesta, and I refused to be awoken.
“No, I mean where will you go from here
After Adeline notated the champurrado recipe, she threw her arms around me. “Gracias, Petra.”
I didn’t tell Adeline, but recipes were also family secrets for us, and if Abuelita knew I’d just given two away, she’d probably have a patatús. I understood all about not sharing recipes, but after a long day with Adeline, she felt like a sister to me.
Suddenly, a tall, blond woman with striking blue eyes approached us.
“Petra,” said Adeline, standing up, “this is my mamá.”
I shot up and stood straight.
Adeline’s mamá smiled and brushed my hair back with her long, slender fingers. She said something in English, and I quickly turned to Adeline to learn what she’d said.
Abuelita pushed air through her nose. “Barefoot dreams,” she muttered and turned to her side, facing away from us.
“I’ll ask Adeline tomorrow,” I said to Amelia. “I’m sure she’ll say yes.”
I turned back to Abuelita. She had always scorned my talk of letters, teachers, or learning to read. Her words had never bothered me, but now that Mamá and Papá were gone, they stung.
“Why did you say ‘barefoot dreams’?” I asked.
Abuelita remained silent and still.
Amelia and I exchanged glances before she gently patted Abuelita’s back. “Abuelita, Petra wants to—”
Abuelita gave an exasperated sigh and turned to us.
“Wanting to learn to read is a big dream, and big dreams are dangerous,” said Abuelita. “You’ll do better when you accept things as they are, when you accept your lot in life.”
I closed my eyes for a moment. Those words—lot in life—always turned my insides; they made me feel sick.
“Petra, I know you mean well,” said Abuelita. Her tone had softened. “But dreams like yours are barefoot dreams. They’re like us barefoot peasants and indios—they’re not meant to go far. Be content with what you have.”
I thought back to my village, to Esperanzas. No one there knew how to read or write except for the well-to-do. That bothered me, but what angered me the most were people like Abuelita who simply accepted it.
Why hadn’t I been smarter? Why hadn’t I asked Adeline to teach me to write something more useful like train or station?
A heavy, invisible force pressed down on my shoulders. The force pushed through me, reaching my soul and sapping away my last shred of strength. I fell on my haunches and hung my head. I wanted to cry but had no tears. I wanted to scream but had no strength. Instead, I cracked open my mouth, and a small squeak escaped my lips. I’d been defeated. I would never fulfill my promise to Papá or shine like the diamond I longed to be. I’d remain a lump of coal for the rest of my life.
So, what now?” she asked. “Where do you go from here?”
“We’re going north, to el otro lado,” I said. “The other side.”
Marietta looked shocked. “The United States? Why?”
“It’s too dangerous here,” I said. “I was told we’d be safe across el Río Bravo.”
Marietta turned her gaze to the fire. She pressed her lips together and gave a subtle nod.
“Besides,” I said, “I want to learn to read and write, and there aren’t any schools here.”
“You know who Pancho Villa is?” asked Marietta.
I nodded. Papá had told me about him. Pancho Villa led the rebels in northern Mexico. Many folk songs called corridos were sung about him, his bravery, and his love for the poor. Even children’s riddles mentioned him. He was loved by many, feared by many, and was known to have a weak spot for children, especially poor ones.
Villa’s opening schools everywhere,” said Marietta. “He wants all kids to learn to read and write. Maybe you can go to one of his schools.”
I glanced over at Luisito, who slept on Abuelita’s lap, and then at Amelia, who yawned but still clapped. She swayed her bandaged feet from side to side. My family looked so peaceful and content, but how long would it last?
“How did you become a soldier?” I asked Marietta.
“It’s a long story,” she said.
I shrugged my shoulders, smiling.
“Where to start?” said Marietta. Her eyes locked on the campfire in front of us.
“It’d always been my papá and me,” she said. “My mother died giving birth, and I had no siblings. Since my papá never remarried, he focused solely on me and taught me everything he knew.” Marietta lifted her chin and her face lit up as she continued. “Papá was great. He was the best vaquero, cowboy, in the region. Everyone always brought horses for him to tame, and he trained them so well, you barely had to touch the reins to let the horse know what to do.”
Marietta sighed, and the glow in her eyes faded. “Almost three years ago, two Federales stopped at our home. I was preparing dinner when I heard a scuffle outside.
Marietta nodded. “After winning five battles as a captain, I unpinned my braids and let them loose. No one could believe it. But since I’d proven myself many times, they let me be. I went from Mario back to Marietta and still kept everyone’s respect.”
I was speechless. I wanted to be like Marietta. I wanted to learn things, to teach things. I wanted people’s respect.
“Why do you fight?” I asked. “To avenge your father’s death?”
“I did at first. I was outraged, but as time passed, I remembered talks I had with my father about the injustices in our lives. We both wanted a better Mexico. A Mexico that belonged to everyone, not just the rich, and especially not the foreigners.”
Marietta picked up a handful of desert dust and held it in a clenched fist in front of her. She released a thin, almost invisible trickle of sand through the bottom of her fist.
You probably won’t believe this,” said Marietta. “But a hundred years from now, Mexico will be unrecognizable. It’ll be such a rich, beautiful country that the gringos up north will be the ones crossing the river into Mexico for a better life.”
Marietta chuckled at her own words, and I smiled, hoping there was some truth to them. She remained quiet, staring at the campfire, then at me. “Petra, what do you want in life? Deep down inside your heart, what is it you want most?”
I looked up at the sky and thought about my answer. “I want peace,” I said. “I want peace for me and my family, and I want my papá back in our lives. I also want land, not much, just a small piece to live on. I want to go to school and for my sister and brother to go to school too.
Join us,” said Marietta.
“Join who, the rebels?”
Marietta nodded, “Yes. This army needs good, smart fighters like—”
“But I want peace,” I said, raising my voice. I quickly lowered my eyes, realizing I’d been disrespectful.
“I know.” Marietta nodded repeatedly. “Every soul in this camp wants peace. We’re all tired of fighting, but in order to achieve peace and attain the land and freedom we want, we need to fight.”
Someway, somehow, I hoped Papá could find us. I knew I would never see Esperanzas again, at least not the town I’d known since birth. Despite these harsh truths, I was hopeful to one day see Mexico flourish into a country full of peace and prosperity for the people who’d fought and given up so much for her. For now, I was eager to explore this new land, eager to meet its people and welcome new opportunities. Every struggle and challenge I’d grapple with and every failure and victory that lay ahead would dig deep into me and help chisel out my true character.
And I knew then, with all my heart, that one day I would burst with light and shine like the baby diamond I have always longed to be.
The Inspiration for Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna
I am blessed to have grown up listening to stories of my ancestors, especially stories of my grandmother, Güela Pepa, and my great-grandmother, Güelita Juanita. Both women grew up surrounded by harsh poverty and prejudice, but always faced adversity with bold spirits and resilience.
My great-grandmother, Juanita Martínez, inspired the core of Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna. She, along with her family, escaped her burning village in 1913 during the Mexican Revolution. Unlike Petra, my great-grandmother was nine years old when she, her father, two younger siblings, and two cousins crossed the scorching desert by foot and reached the border town of Piedras Negras, Coahuila. At the border, their entry into the United States was denied along with hundreds of other refugees
I found an article that described my great-grandmother’s story. The event occurred in the early afternoon of October 6, 1913, and it wasn’t hundreds of people who’d tried to flee across like she’d stated, it was thousands. Over six thousand, to be exact. Everything else—the desperation, the pleading, and the rage of the Federales—was exactly as she’d recounted it.
Working on this book has fulfilled me in many ways, and despite my grandmother and great-grandmother no longer living, I feel closer to them than ever. Thanks to them and my mother, I learned stories that I would have never learned from books or school. Unfortunately, many stories like my great-grandmother’s or like Petra’s remain in the shadows. How do we fix this? I believe we fix it with curiosity. We need to be curious. We need to look to our ancestors and ask questions. We need to listen to their stories, write them down, on paper or on our hearts, and pass them on. By doing this, we bring stories of bravery, of humanity, and of great compassion to the light and, in turn, we learn more about ourselves and keep the bold spirits of our ancestors alive.
© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews