Image credit: Cameron York, "Three"

Until recently, Andrea taught at the same Eastern European university where I work. She was over sixty when I met her. A brilliant woman, respected by students and colleagues, but not sociable; her superficial pleasantness becomes a wall of ice if you try to get close to her. She has fine features, is elegant in dress and demeanor. She’s a widow. She has children, but they live abroad. She has no friends, as far as anyone knows.


I was curious about this woman from the moment we became colleagues. There was something about her that inspired sympathy in me, perhaps because she made me think of women in European novels between the world wars. I often had the impulse to start a conversation with her, but she stopped me cold with a glance. Like she did everyone.


One day I saw her in the train station. I was waiting for a friend who was coming to visit me, and Andrea was arriving from somewhere. She didn’t see me, but I saw her and thought I’d say a quick hello.


At that moment something happened that left me stunned: a well-dressed, grey-haired man approached her, looked her in the eye and spat in her face.


No one said anything. The people who crowded the platform, if they saw the act, preferred to ignore it.


With the inexplicable resignation of one who deserved the punishment, Andrea lowered her head, searched for a tissue in the pocket of her coat and cleaned her face. The man who’d spat on her had disappeared.


My friend arrived and I lost sight of Andrea. But that incident made a profound impression on me, so much so that, whenever I could, I began to inquire about her.


I asked my colleagues, especially the oldest ones, and soon realized that no one at the university wanted to talk about her; they said they didn’t know anything, but they did. I spent hours on the internet, investigating I don’t know how many people, only because they had the same last name as Andrea. Finally, after many days of detective work and of people looking at me as if to say, “what does it matter to this nosy Mexican,” I managed to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.


Andrea’s father had been an informant for the secret police during socialist times. He wasn’t actually a spy but kept an ear to the ground and reported all he heard. He named names. He did this for many years. People disappeared or were tortured because of him. He didn’t live very long after the system changed, died of an illness. Justice never had a chance to catch up with him.


And that stigma was the burden Andrea carried. The man at the train station wasn’t the only one who had spat on her.


The story made me sad and angry, but I couldn’t reach any conclusion. Would I spit on the daughter of an informant in Mexico, if someone in my family or among my close friends had suffered at his hands? Probably I would. You don’t know. Wounds like those never heal.


Several years have passed since that incident at the train station. Andrea retired and I don’t see her anymore. I suppose she lives locked in with her shame. Or perhaps she went to live in another city, or another country with her children. A place where nobody spits in her face on the street.


I remember Andrea every time I see somewhere the slogan “Neither forgive nor forget.” And I no longer know how I feel.

Hasta hace poco, Andrea daba clases en la misma universidad Europeo donde yo trabajo. Tenía ella más de sesenta años cuando la conocí. Una mujer brillante, respetada por alumnos y colegas, pero poco sociable; de trato amable en la superficie, que se convierte en un muro de hielo si intenta uno acercarse. De rasgos finos, elegante en el vestir y en el actuar. Es viuda. Tuvo hijos, pero se fueron a vivir al extranjero. No tiene amigos ni amigas, que se sepa.


Desde que empezamos a ser colegas, me dio curiosidad esta mujer. Había algo en ella que me inspiraba mucha simpatía, tal vez que me hacía pensar en las mujeres de las novelas europeas de entre guerras mundiales. Muchas veces tuve el impulso de hacerle la plática, pero ella me detenía en seco con una mirada. Como a todos.


Un día la vi en la estación del tren. Yo estaba ahí esperando a un amigo que venía a visitarme, y Andrea venía llegando de algún lado. No me vio, pero yo sí la vi a ella y tuve ganas de saludarla rápidamente.

En ese momento sucedió algo que me dejó pasmado: un hombre de pelo ya cano, bien vestido, se acercó a ella, la miró a los ojos y la escupió en la cara.


Nadie dijo nada. La gente que abarrotaba el andén, si vio algo, prefirió ignorarlo.


Con la inexplicable resignación de quien merece el castigo, Andrea inclinó la cabeza, buscó un kleenex en el bolsillo de su abrigo y se limpió la cara. El hombre que la escupió había desaparecido.

En eso llegó mi amigo y ya no la vi a ella tampoco. Pero aquel incidente me dejó una impresión profunda, a tal grado que, en cuanto pude, comencé a indagar.


Pregunté a mis colegas, especialmente a los más viejos; pasé horas en internet, investigando a quién sabe cuántas personas, sólo porque tenían el mismo apellido que Andrea. Me di cuenta de que, en la universidad, a nadie le gustaba hablar de ella; decían no saber nada, pero sí sabían.


Finalmente, luego de muchos días de trabajo policial y de que varias personas me vieran con cara de “Y a este metiche mexicano qué le importa”, logré armar las piezas del rompecabezas.


El padre de Andrea había sido un informante de la policía secreta de tiempos socialistas. No espiaba propiamente, pero se mantenía atento y reportaba todo lo que oía. Daba nombres. Durante muchos años hizo eso. Mucha gente fue desaparecida o torturada por su culpa. Cuando cambió el sistema, el señor ya no vivió mucho. La justicia nunca lo alcanzó.


Y ese era el estigma con el que cargaba Andrea. Aquel hombre de la estación del tren no era el único que la habría escupido.


La historia me dio tristeza y rabia, pero no he podido llegar a ninguna conclusión. ¿Escupiría yo a la hija de un informante de México, si alguien de mi familia o de mis amigos cercanos hubiera padecido por su culpa? Probablemente sí. Uno no sabe. Esas heridas nunca sanan.


Han pasado algunos años de aquel incidente en la estación del tren. Andrea se jubiló y ya no la veo más. Supongo que vive encerrada con su vergüenza. O tal vez se fue a vivir a otra ciudad o a otro país, con sus hijos. A algún lugar donde nadie la escupa en la calle.


Me acuerdo de Andrea cada vez que veo, en cualquier país, la consigna “Ni perdón ni olvido”. Y ya no sé qué siento.

Translator's Note

I have translated twenty-four short stories by Agustín Cadena, along with sample chapters of two young adult novels and a handful of poems. Translating a writer for the first time is as challenging as meeting a class for the first time. Like that group of students, the writer is a stranger. I don’t know his habits of mind, of language, his recurring themes and methods. It takes getting to know their names, in the case of the students. With the writer, by the third or fourth story, I am entering familiar rooms, seeing scenes whose sentences I know my way around. I have learned, among other things, whether this writer is one to whom I can send questions.

In the case of Agustín Cadena, who studied American and British literature and counts Raymond Carver among his influences, conversation has been voluble, and he’s gone so far as to say he likes my choice of language in one case or another better than his own. But then, as Margaret Jull Costa replied when it was reported that Javier Marías said the same: “He’s a Spanish gentleman, isn’t he?” Substitute Mexican for Spanish and done.

Cadena treats tragic aspects of life without sentimentality and does so with the kind of spare, straightforward writing Carver would have appreciated. “My Ex-colleague” is a prime example, treating a case involving the repercussions of political injustice in a sketch, just the bare bones, and yet devastating by conclusion. I translated this story in one sitting, revised and sent it to Agustín with three questions. One more revision and we pronounced it done.

Patricia Dubrava


In the Classroom