Marcos Najera wonders what Brown Town would have been without his nona-Nana

It was the strangest day of my life. It was one of the best days of my life. On a Saturday in early April, I went to a funeral, a wedding, and a 90th-birthday bash — all on the same day.

It was all quite mixed up. It was all quite fantastically switch-a-roo.

The memorial service celebrated the life of a dear friend's mom. During the eulogies, a man nibbled on cheese and crackers in his pew. At the wedding, high school friends bopped to cheesy dance music inside the Phoenix Art Museum while friends and family shared written memories, prayers, and blessings for the new couple, Dani Malody and Joe Viola. Both are lawyers at Snell and Wilmer. Dani and I rocked student government at Alhambra High School back in the day.

And at the birthday party, the guest of honor wiped away goblets of tears, both sad and joyful. We sang "Las Mañanitas" twice that day for my nonagenerian Nana Mary. Heretofore, I call her nona-Nana. It was a cause to celebrate indeed.

But I have to tell you that, as I write this, I am sad.

A few days after Nana's party, doctors found a large aneurysm inside her fragile, cherry-plump frame. My sister Regina and her husband Matt, both physicians, insist surgery could be coming. But my Nana is 90. I think that is all we think about now. Ox-strong as she has always been, she is 90.

A confession.

I fear her funeral. I fear her absence at my wedding. I've always been jealous of my cousin Eric because my Nana blessed him at his Pointe Squaw Peak wedding to Guillermo several years back. I've always secretly dreamed of her making the sign of the cross on me moments before I walked down a candlelit, rose petal-draped aisle. Those hopes have grown stronger ever since the Legislature struck down a strange initiative recently aimed at inserting homophobia into our state Constitution with a same-sex marriage ban.

Don't get me wrong. My nona-Nana is a conservative, traditional, rosary-chanting Catholic Latina. It's not as though she'd go to an Exposé concert at Phoenix Pride or attend a PFLAG meeting with my mom. In fact, when I asked her recently to recall the blessing she gave Eric at his wedding, she lied to me! I tell her, "No seas, mentirosa Nana!" She punches me. We laugh. But she stands firm. "No me recuerdo, mijo." She insists she remembers nothing. I can't tell whether she is telling the truth or protecting fragile feelings inside an increasingly fragile frame.

But this is how the mind plays tricks on you. Because I have to tell you that, as I write this, I am full of hope.

My Nana is strong. Very strong. I can tell from her hands. I can tell from her wrinkles. I can tell from her near-century of survival.

Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico. Circa 1920. It's springtime. A young, brown-skinned mother waters her flowers that fill the ceramic pots. A little girl named Maria plays while her mother tends the colorful patio garden surrounded by citrus trees and enlivened with chubby little, snorting cochis, or pigs.

A few years later, Maria's miner father decides it's time to head north to a place called Prescott, where he doesn't find much work as a miner. The year was 1923. Maria had just turned 5.

Luckily, Maria's grandmother, Placida, lives in a town near Phoenix called Glendale. She knows the ranchers. They are hiring ranch hands. "Ven a Glendale," she tells Maria's dad. The family moves again.

Life is good.

One day, Maria's dad buys a new pair of black, patent leather work shoes with his ranchero earnings. A few days later, he was working on the barn roof in his new shoes. They were so new, so shiny, so leathery black, and he slipped. He fell. He died.

"Pero no recuerdo mas que eso, mijo," I'm sorry, mijo, my Nana Maria tells me now, "I don't remember anything else."

When I was a teenager alternately sporting DayGlo T-shirts, skinny neckties, and burgundy parachute pants, my Tata Ray would tell me the only way my Nana ever made it across the border in 1923 was by hiding under a mountain of tortillas in a truck flatbed while she nibbled on the soft disks of flour.

Nearly 90 years later, I'm sporting a black Donna Karan necktie and a crisp white shirt from Bloomingdale's NYC. I videotape my Nana Mary. She cries as the mariachis play for her cumple. People admire black-and-white slideshow pictures of a young Maria living, working, and raising a family in early Phoenix, whilst being crowed a Fiestas Patrias princess.

Nona-Nana is a permanent resident. She has been since the '40s. But nothing made me sadder than hearing about her deportation fears as the anti-immigrant climate began to shift in the past decade.

When Nana illegally crossed into America, she was coming at a time when the border was more a brief suggestion, instead of a patriotic battleground.

As she sits inside a doctor's office in Mesa nowadays, I wonder what would have happened had Maria Macias Leyvas never come to Brown Town. Where would I be now? What would Arizona be like? What would America have become?

Her memories are crackerjack. She tells me about riding cable cars through downtown Phoenix. Cleaning floors for the Romley family at a weekly $3 pittance. Seeing movies in Spanish at the Orpheum and old Azteca. Making mattresses at Tata's factory for old-time City Councilman Calvin Goode. Sending her husband to fight for America in World War II and, years later, sending her son to Vietnam.

Funny enough, she can remember that day in California when she and my mom stood on a train platform and waved goodbye to my Uncle Roy.

Giving your flesh and blood to Uncle Sam's ranks is no small sacrifice of the heart.

Clearly, hers is solid gold. I can tell from her beautiful wrinkles. I can tell from her leathered, elegant hands.

And that is why, gentle reader, I plan to invite my Nana to my wedding one day. I'll wear black and white Armani. I'll let her nibble cheese and crackers and soft tortillas in the church pew, she'll offer blessings and prayers and memories to me, and I'll wipe away goblets of tears.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Marcos Najera
Contact: Marcos Najera