I go outside with my suitcase to wait for my new Peruvian friend. There I am waiting, anxious, excited and worried, wondering if she’ll come or if she lied to me. Finally she arrives, very happy. I get inside her car. From Hempstead to Elmont it’s 20 minutes. When we arrive at the famous racetrack she takes me to get a permit that everyone who arrives there for the first time must get because there’s a lot of security at the entrance.
With it in hand we begin to walk, and I see one long barn after another, all of them very well covered, with windows all around. There are 62 barns in all, and in each there is a horse owner that trains only the horses from that barn, and there can be 40 to 50 stables within each barn where the horses live. These horses come out every morning so they can be trained on the big track, so that when they’re ready they can run in races that go for thousands to millions of dollars.
Here I am riding in my friend’s car. How beautiful it is. There are many green and lush trees where I hear the songs of many birds. There are avenues and tracks. How big it is. I see men on horseback, people talking. I also hear the crow of roosters. There are doves. I am very excited, asking myself how this can exist in New York. It can’t be. I don’t understand a thing, but here I go.
All of a sudden we both get out of the car and begin to ask in each barn, “Do you need a walker?” “No,” “No,” “No,” is the response, while I tell myself a bit dismayed, This woman told me there was work and there is none. At last, we arrive at a barn where the Peruvian woman says, “He’s one of the most famous trainers and pays well. They say he’s won big races.” We say hello, ask the question, and he responds, “Yes, we need a walker.” There my friend leaves me. She says goodbye and walks away. The first question is, “Have you ever walked a horse before?” Very quickly I answer fearfully, “No, sir.” “A woman named Amparo will be in charge of teaching you,” he responds.
I follow her without losing track of a single one of her movements, and to my surprise she takes the chain and goes to grab a big, roan horse as she says to me, “He is very tame, and his name is Dancing; he’s good to learn with. You hold him like this. Walk slowly. Don’t let him know you’re afraid. Dominate the horse and don’t let him dominate you. Come here, I’ll go with you on a lap while he gets to know you.”
We complete the lap, and she hands him to me. I take him, I look at him, and I walk slowly. He begins to look at me out of the corner of his eye, and I feel scared. He breathes thickly and so do I, out of fear, while I repeat what Mrs. Amparo taught me, “Don’t let him know you’re afraid.” I have to dominate him. Also, as I’m walking I catch a whiff of the horse and wonder if this huge animal is for real.
Image courtesy of the12thplaya via Flickr
I stop, look to see that no one is looking, and give him a small pinch. He tries to bite me and I say, “OK, OK,” at last walking and meditating on my mom’s little house, the one I will buy her from here. I decide to talk to the horse to become his friend. I say to him, “Hello, how are you? What’s your name? Oh, yes, Amparo said Dancing. Hi, Dancing. How beautiful you are. My name is Adiela.” He begins to sniff me and continues looking at me from the corner of his eye but is walking beside me. While I walk I ask myself, How long will it take for me to learn this little job? How hard, this going around and around in circles with this animal. How silly it all is. And while I’m walking, without missing a detail I see how a doctor comes to check some of the horses. A blacksmith also comes to change some horseshoes.
So I’m walking until I’ve walked for thirty minutes. How bad this animal smells. It moves its ears and has a blanket on it with the initials of its owner. Now I notice that when I talk to this animal, he licks his lips and sticks out his tongue. There are horses in the stables that, when I pass by, open their mouths trying to bite me. I say, “Ay, ay, ay!” while all the men, I would say 80 percent of them Mexican, say, “Calm down, don’t let them know you’re afraid.” So I finish with the first horse and have to get another to walk him just like the first. I feel afraid, so I begin to talk to it, “Hello, what’s your name? I’m Adiela.” This one, in the same way, responds by licking his lips and looking at me from the corner of his eye.
Everything is so strange. I see roosters, chickens, chicks, dogs, and doves. I remember the countryside where I grew up with my parents, how mom would call her chickens to feed them and how her pigs would squeal. I imagine Mom as happy. And with this horse in hand, I also remember Chispa, the mare we all loved.
That morning I walk four horses, and I leave the track with very tired legs. My body aches, I smell of horse dung, my face is red and sweaty. I head to the office to ask for a room. A man hands me a key to house #8. Walking very slowly, I head towards it. After so much walking, I stop before the door and put the key in, wondering if anyone will be inside. And what a surprise to see papers on the floor, mud on the floor, clothes strewn all over, dirty walls, and to smell a bad odor. I head to the bathroom; the toilets are filled with paper. Dirty, everything is dirty. I return to the room and in an empty corner I put my suitcase down, sit on it, and with my hands on my face begin to cry, asking myself, What am I doing here?
Someone puts in a key in the door, and it slowly opens. Hiding my tears, I see someone come in, dust off her shoes, and place bags by the door. I see a short, robust woman come in, with uncombed hair, sweaty and dirty, of humble appearance. She says to me, “Hello, you’re my roommate. Good to meet you, I’m Maria.” With little enthusiasm I respond, “My name is Adiela.” She notices my sadness and says to me, “Did something happen? I want you to know I’m your friend. You can use whatever’s mine. You don’t have a bed? Only that suitcase?” This woman keeps insisting on being my friend. Night comes and this woman finds a bed for me to sleep in.
Belmont stables at night (Credit: Kristine Paulus via Flickr)
How bad it smells. It’s the sweat from Maria’s shoes. I can also smell the humidity of the room. The bad odor from the bathroom filters through the cracks. Maria is snoring. I hear something like mice. The night is long. I can’t sleep, tossing and turning and thinking, How will I ever get that little house for Mom? Or should I go back to Colombia? There I had it all….Why did I come? I’m so scared. It’s a long, dark, and cold night, filled with fears and doubts. I’m very scared, scared because maybe I won’t be able to do the work, afraid I won’t be able to dominate those horses and that they’ll ask me to leave. And where will I go? Afraid because I see very few women, almost 100 percent of the people are men. And what if a horse kills me?
That’s how I get through the night. At 3:30 I hear people talking and roosters crowing. At 4:30 the alarm sounds, and I jump from the bed to go to the bathroom to shower and go to work. Like the first day, I head towards my barn to walk. Fear and doubts come with me, they don’t leave me.
I worked in that barn until the year 2000. Then I went to work in another barn with a woman named Sarita. All her horses were really tame, but there was a black horse that was mean. One day, while walking him, I noticed he was walking fast and breathing hard. Behind the barn, he stuck his leg out and kicked my right foot. I lost my balance, falling to the ground, without letting go of the chain. He dragged me across the shedrow until I could get up. I went around with him until, finally, a worker took him from me.
My foot swelled up a lot. My boss drove me to the office and put ice on it, but it continued to swell up, so I went to my room walking very slowly. It took three days for me to get well and return to work. This was my first accident at the racetrack.
It’s my first winter at the racetrack. It’s very cold, and a lot of snow is falling. Like in all the barns, we start at 5:30 in the morning. The chickens are hiding in the stables, looking for the warmth of the horses. Their chicks are under their wings. Other, bigger chickens are nestled on top of them. The pigeons on the roofs look down below and get us dirty from up above. Some roosters throw themselves from up high, landing on top of the horses, startling them. One chicken lands from above on a horse, managing to stay there, enjoying the lull of its walk.
A rumor goes around for a week that a famous horse is coming that has won many expensive races. We’re all waiting for this famous horse to arrive. Finally the stud appears. He’s big and yellow, with his mane very long. He’s beautiful, with his white legs. He’s licking himself a lot and comes with a bad reputation: he’s a biter. With that said, we’re all afraid of him, all the walkers going in hiding because no one wants to walk this animal. He doesn’t leave a single walker unbitten. He bites backs, he bites arms, but still we have to take good care of him because he belongs to Steve. One morning when they were both on the training track I went to the restroom to hide but miscalculated my time because on my way back I bumped into my boss who handed him over to me. In the eight days since his arrival I had not walked him.
Image courtesy of Parabola via Flickr
I’m walking alongside him. I decide to talk to him as I do with all of them. “Hello, I’m Adiela. How beautiful you are, what’s your name?” My friends looked at me and smiled as if saying, “You’re the boss.” Believing myself very sure, I walked firmly and briskly at his speed. He was very sure and easygoing, licking his lips and suddenly opening his mouth letting me see his very big, even, yellow teeth. After walking him for 15 minutes, he was turning his head to look at me, wanting to bite me. I yanked the chain, and he moved his ears back, angrily. He was a very angry animal. Almost 30 minutes later and I’m tired of this animal, trying to prevent him from biting me. Thirty minutes have seemed to me two hours. Good, it’s time to put him back in his corral. I’m angry because my arms hurt from fighting with him so he wouldn’t nip my hands. Finally, in his corral, I take him to the wall, take off his chain, and on my way out I give him a strong punch, out of spite, for having been such a pain to walk. But he didn’t give me time to leave the stable. He stretched his neck and caught my right arm, biting me furiously with his yellow teeth. I hold my right arm with my left one. My face changes color. Someone asks me, “What happened to you?” Out of pride I answer, “I hit myself on the door.” That morning was a long one. My arm hurt and I felt underneath my blouse that something was wet.
Back in my room, I quickly took off my blouse and headed to the mirror. I examined my arm and was surprised to see such a tremendous bite. I had an open wound, covered in a lot of blood. In eight days I began to feel better.
With this bite I understand that horses don’t like to be mistreated. They like to be caressed. And if we wake up angry, they’re also angry. I have learned to love them a lot. Every time I walk my horses I talk to them and they answer by licking their lips or moving their heads. When I find myself eating bread or cookies, they take everything from my hand.
Adiela López is a Colombia immigrant and a member of the board of directors for the Workplace Project.
To order a copy of “Latinas Write/Escriben,” the bilingual anthology in which this appears, email firstname.lastname@example.org.