Jan/Feb 2021  •   Nonfiction

The Raffle Prize Winner

by Marianna Marlowe

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador, 'Cracks III' View 2 , 2013. Half Moon Bay, CA

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador

My mother stood from her place at the table and approached the low stage, taken off guard but pleased nonetheless. They had called her name. From those of hundreds of ladies who lunch, her ticket number had been chosen. She had won the raffle. She later said, Nunca me toca nada—I never win anything. She had been singled out, and she was delighted.

Whenever my family lived abroad—in Manila or Quito or Rio—my mother joined a women's group, usually made up of a mix of expats and locals. On the day she won the raffle, she sat at one of the many round tables elegantly set with lavish bouquets of roses, Ecuador's premier luxury commodity, at a fundraising luncheon put on by Quito's women's club. At the podium, the president of Las Damas Latinas handed my mother her prize: a tall, elegant vase, cut-crystal and heavy, its pattern of soft purples and lavenders complementing the silk of my mother's royal blue dress.

I, too, was delighted when my mother told me the story of her good fortune after I came home from school that afternoon. How lucky she was! She won a prize! And one so beautiful and precious! I held the vase carefully in both hands, appreciating the exquisite pattern of amethyst diamonds carved into the thick crystal. It seemed to my ten-year-old eyes a treasure worthy of Ali Baba's cave.

For long afterwards we associated the raffle prize with good luck, with felicitous coincidence and favorable chance. It gave me a feeling of storybook magic whenever I looked at it in its place of honor on the side table in our living room, as if it had been conjured from a fairy godmother's wand. It was many months, perhaps a year later, when we learned that contrary to what we believed, my mother's raffle win had nothing to do with luck or fortune, or even random chance, and everything to do with a family holiday taken weeks before.


Our road trip to Colombia from Ecuador was the only one taken by my family during our four years living in Quito. We had a small station wagon, our suitcases in the trunk, me and my two younger siblings in the back seat, and my parents up front. It took us an entire day to arrive at our destination after an early morning start. I don't remember much about the drive, only the rainy days of our Colombian stay. We were at a resort, that much I know, with a pool and a lake, but it was hard to take advantage of these amenities in the damp of the pseudo-tropics. Neither do I remember much about what we actually did to amuse ourselves as children when it was too wet to spend time outside. I assume my father read his newspapers contentedly between meals. I'm sure he made us go on at least one walk a day, as he always did wherever we were, rain or shine. Do I remember rubber boots when wading through the mist in a dark silent lake? Or breakfasts in an airy white dining room with a view of the watery green world outside? I think I do, but rather than clear recollections sharply delineated, these memories are faded photographs rendered blurry and indistinct by time.

Nor do I remember much about our drive back to Quito, with the exception of one incident: soldiers stopping our car at the border and refusing my mother re-entry into Ecuador. I remember quick conversations between my parents; I remember a decision being made for my mother to stay there, at the checkpoint, with her purse and her passport, and for the rest of us to continue on so that my father could go to work and the children could go to school the following day. Thinking back, it is striking to me that I wasn't more afraid of leaving my mother behind. I am the oldest daughter, and she and I were very close. Why wasn't I more worried? Maybe because back then, at the age of ten, I had no real knowledge of politics and citizenship, of border control and identification papers. My parents probably made light of the situation in front of the children, not wanting to worry us or make traumatic the parting at the military kiosk.

Over the next few years, I gradually put together, in the vague, hazy, piecemeal way children do, a narrative around that moment at the boundary acting as a wall barring my mother from leaving one country and entering another. There had been a flare-up that year in the generations-old border dispute between Ecuador and Peru. As can happen with land grabs and power struggles, there existed a geopolitical limbo between the two feuding nations, both claiming on official maps the in-between territory at the border for themselves. It began with reports of shots fired by soldiers stationed there. Subsequently on the news we learned about protests in each country, demonizing the citizens of the other: Peruvians tied monkeys representing Ecuadorians and Ecuadorians tied chickens representing Peruvians to the ends of sticks, the better to brandish them aloft and swing them about as they chanted xenophobic insults.

How did this affect my family? My mother was Peruvian. And, as a loyal patriot, she had yet to become a US citizen. Her passport, her official identity, her citizenship, were all Peruvian. She asked us during that time of political friction to refrain from talking about her nationality with others, fearing being singled out by Ecuadorians as the enemy.

As we attempted that day to return to our home in Quito, the soldiers at the border held my Peruvian mother hostage, denying her access to Ecuadorian territory. I know now, after having heard the story repeatedly over the years during which I became more aware of political affairs and international conflicts, that my mother was frightened that day at the border, still in Colombia, not allowed to step foot into Ecuador. The mother of three young children, left without husband or family, she felt stranded in that in-between space, alone and in a precarious position without recourse or agency; she felt unmoored, with no inviolate identity to anchor her, to secure her to the protection of the citizenship she needed at that moment. There was no United States embassy across the way, like a genie in a lamp to magic her to safety. But my father, perhaps complacent in his solid American identity and insensitive to the vulnerability my mother felt, was nothing if not pragmatic—he needed to get home for work, the children needed to get home for school, my mother would have to sort things out on her own and catch up with us by bus.

And that is what she did, eventually. She had to stay for hours, if not overnight, sitting in the kiosk, making calls to different agencies. Ultimately, the soldiers received orders from some higher authority to let her go, and she was allowed, since there was no train station or airport or car service, to board a bus bound toward Quito.

This bus was full of a variety of travelers: men and women and at least one young boy, farmers and peddlers and small business owners. My mother was the only person of affluence. She was taller, more expensively dressed, her hair salon-styled; she wore fine leather shoes and sported a designer purse. It would have been clear at a glance that she was different; she stood out among the rest of the passengers on the bus—a fact that proved fortunate for her.

A couple of hours into the trip, the busload of passengers was stopped by a group of military police. This time they were not interested in nationalities, but instead in fleecing the travelers of money and valuables. After they were forcibly disembarked from the bus, the peasants and farmers and peddlers emptied their pockets in face of the machine guns pointed directly at them. One by one they gave up the little cash they had. My mother was not harassed in any way. They left the only upper-class woman alone, fearing future retribution from a rich husband or family, or from political connections. The solitary boy on his way back home from the market, however, had the few sucres he had earned in exchange for his family's produce stolen from him in a matter of seconds.

My mother recounts the almost physical pain she felt watching this little boy realize the small tragedy that had befallen him and his family, and watching him run after the police jeep, crying for his money. ¡Que pena me dio! When he was forced to give up and return to the bus, face grimy with dust and tears, chest heaving with sobs, she felt compelled to give him all the cash she had on her. Emptying her pocketbook, she handed a bundle of bills to the boy. This more than compensated for the money he had lost to the soldiers. He revived instantaneously, his spirits rising like a wilted flower that has finally been watered, smiles wreathing his still wet cheeks.

My mother's trials were not yet over, however. A few hours further into their journey, when she was thoroughly hungry and thirsty, hot and fatigued from her long ordeal, the bus stopped at a junction where food and drinks were sold to weary travelers. A few of the passengers brought out coins they had managed to squirrel away somewhere on their persons, hidden from the eyes of the police who had sought to steal everything they had. The little boy happily took out the sucres my mother had gifted him and bought an ice-cold bottle of Coca-Cola and an empanada, drinking and eating enthusiastically, seemingly without a care in the world. My mother, thirst parching her throat, hunger digging into her stomach, could only watch as the boy enjoyed his meal, innocently unconscious of the need my mother felt for a tiny portion of the money she had given away, or for a bite and a sip of his bounty.


She survived, as they say, to tell the tale. It is a story she has told her children many times. In the way of family stories, it evolved into one of our legends, a heroic tale of perseverance, but also a cautionary one, warning of fortune's fickle nature.

My mother finally did become a US citizen three years after we left Ecuador and returned to California. We went as a family to San Francisco's Civic Center where she took part in a ceremony with a large group of people from all over the world who together swore allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. Afterward, amidst the families congratulating each other, I saw a little boy with black hair and a round face squatting on the sidewalk—comfortable, bored, unconcerned. Although I didn't then, I wonder now where the other little boy is these days. The other little boy who didn't have the luxury of boredom or comfort or relaxation. I wonder if he is alive or dead. Did he die of disease or accident or violence? If he is alive, I imagine different scenarios: perhaps he left his parents' home as soon as he was able, traveling to a big city and finding some kind of employment there—working at a market, gardening in fancy neighborhoods, repairing cars as a mechanic; possibly he left home and got married, setting up his own small business in a neighboring pueblo; or he may have elected to stay home, helping his parents in their old age, bringing a wife into the fold, having children, inheriting the farm.

In their house down the street from my own, my parents still have the raffle prize from the Damas Latinas luncheon so many years ago. The heavy crystal vase sits, among other cherished objects, on a special shelf. We know now what we didn't know that happy day my mother's name and ticket number were announced from the stage—that certain members of her women's group had heard of my mother's ordeal at the border, and that the Colombians among them had determined to try and make up for her suffering. They had carefully planned the whole raffle by planting the first prize ticket and thus ensuring that my mother was singled out as the winner.

The moral of this story is still not clear to me, but I imagine it has to do with identity, with time and place and culture, with imperialism, politics, and nationalism, with the shifting and relative nature of luck. All I know is that the vase sits there still, visible to all who visit my parents' home, a talisman against the human impulse to create boundaries and define borders as well as a reminder of people's capacity for empathy, of their instinct to help, of their desire to set things right.