Whenever I sit down to write, it doesn’t take long before my mind floats back to la factoría. It sounds like the name of an opera, but it’s what we called the transistor factory where my mom worked most of her life. It was a dreary place in Queens, with cement floors, a stench of cleaning chemicals, and thunderous sound effects from the bowling alley upstairs. More than one of my sick days was spent watching mice running high along the pipes.
But what really lodges la factoría in my creative brain is what lodges every good book in my heart: its characters.
This was a factory of almost all women — mothers from all over Latin America and Eastern Europe. The common thread was that they needed work and they spoke lousy English. La factoría became the great equalizer. Old country socialites sat across from those who’d grown up in the Bronx projects. Intellectuals exchanged recipes with ladies easily taxed by picking out their nail polish. It didn’t seem to matter. Instead, they shared all they could figure out about this country — everything from how to get a driver’s license to how to get expensive shoes from an Iraqi guy who sold them cheap. It was a family – so much so that when, Rosie, the forelady, had her first baby, the playpen came in so she could keeping working – and so everyone could stand around and coo.
Even as a kid, I knew their days were long and monotonous. I knew I wanted more. But their colorful chatter – like wild parrots – is something I’ll always remember. That and the good sense they showed to stop working precisely at 2 pm for a daily cafecito brewed by my mother in the back.
They’re elderly now. A few have passed. But I keep them all exactly as they were all those years ago. I let them float into my stories disguised as the doting friend or the noble gossip – or even the hot-tempered villain. These were the women I knew growing up, the brave mothers getting by, the real heroines, even if I didn’t know it then.