Ixchel—an eighth grade Mexican-American girl—explains that it has been eighteen weeks since Abuelita, her grandmother, chased off a man named Chaq Uxmal Paloquín, whom Ixchel calls Boy Baby. Boy Baby, she says, is the descendant of Mayan kings. Ixchel confesses that she has never told anybody this story except her two friends Rachel and Lourdes. Boy Baby, she continues, promised to love her “like a revolution, like a religion,” but Abuelita has sent her to Mexico so that she is as far as possible from this supposed Mayan royalty. Now Ixchel lives with “one wrinkled witch woman who rubs [her] belly with jade,” as well as with 16 cousins.
From the very beginning of “One Holy Night,” love takes center stage. Ixchel’s relationship with Boy Baby is defined by the allure of forbidden love, since Abuelita so vehemently tries to prevent the two from seeing one another. In addition to the shadowy draw of forbidden love, though, Ixchel’s affinity for Boy Baby contains a certain amount of mystery, since his entire personality is predicated on the strange and enticing claim that he comes from a long line of Mayan kings. By including this detail, Cisneros is able to lure readers toward Boy Baby with the same kind of curiosity that attracts Ixchel to him.
The story of Ixchel’s fall from grace begins with her time spent selling cucumbers from the family pushcart. “I don’t know how many girls have gone bad from selling cucumbers,” she says. “I know I’m not the first. My mother took the crooked walk too, I’m told, and I’m sure my Abuelita has her own story, but it’s not my place to ask.” Abuelita, for her part, blames Uncle Lalo because she thinks he should be the one working the pushcart, not Ixchel, who is “too foolish to look after herself.” In defense, Uncle Lalo says that if the family never left Mexico in the first place, “shame enough would have kept a girl from doing devil things.”
As if Boy Baby’s mysterious history weren’t enough already to attract Ixchel (and readers, for that matter) to him, Abuelita’s strict rules and seemingly puritanical reaction to Ixchel’s involvement with Boy Baby renders the relationship even more irresistible. As such, Cisneros demonstrates how that which is forbidden so often feels unavoidable.
When Ixchel first meets Boy Baby and asks how old he is, he tells her he doesn’t know. “The past and the future are the same thing,” Ixchel writes. “So he seemed boy and baby and man all at once, and the way he looked at me, how do I explain?” One Saturday, Ixchel stations the pushcart in front of a grocery store. Boy Baby arrives and buys a mango on a stick—every Saturday thereafter, he comes to buy fruit from the cart, telling Ixchel each time to keep the change. One day he brings her Kool-Aid in a small plastic cup, and that’s when she starts to recognize her feelings for him. She notes that readers might not be so fond of him, especially since his fingernails are greasy and his long hair dusty. All the same, she waits for him every Saturday in a pretty blue dress.
The fact that Boy Baby doesn’t know his age adds to his mysterious allure, and it becomes clear that Ixchel enjoys the fact that she can’t contextualize him. Indeed, she likes that he is “boy and baby and man” all at once, so much so that she’s able to look past his dirty fingernails and unwashed hair. Though her acceptance of his mysteriousness demonstrates that humans are often attracted to that which they don’t fully understand, it also suggests that she is naïve and innocent, since a mature adult would naturally question such a shady character.
One night, Ixchel stations the pushcart outside Esparza & Sons Auto Repair, where Boy Baby lives in a small old closet with “pink plastic curtains on a narrow window” and a cot blanketed by newspapers. Inside, they stand under a single exposed light bulb hanging from the ceiling as Boy Baby shows her his collection of 24 guns—“rifles and pistols, one rusty musket, a machine gun, and several tiny weapons with mother-of-pearl handles that looked like toys.” As he takes them out and displays them on the bed, he tells her he wants to show her these weapons so that she’ll “see who” he is; so that she’ll “understand.” “But,” she notes privately, “I didn’t want to know.”
Ixchel’s assertion that she “didn’t want to know” who Boy Baby really is confirms that she is perhaps too taken by the idea of mystery. Rather than examining the many disturbing warning signs that Boy Baby is a dangerous person, she would rather move forward as if he is a man with no background. Above all, this willful ignorance is a sign of her immaturity and an indication that she is most likely unprepared to advance in this romantic relationship.
Boy Baby talks about his lineage, saying that the stars have predicted his future son’s birth. He claims this son will “bring back the grandeur of [his] people.” Years ago, he tells Ixchel, his father brought him to the Temple of the Magician and forced him to promise that he would “bring back the ancient ways.” As he tells this story, he lies down next to the guns on the newspaper and weeps. Ixchel touches him, but the look he gives her is cold and faraway. “You must not tell anyone what I am going to do,” he says. The next thing Ixchel remembers is the look of the moon, how “pale” it seems as it glows through the pink plastic curtains. Then something inside seems to bite her, and she whimpers softly, crying for another version of herself that seems to leap out of her body and run away forever.
There’s little doubt that this strange part of Ixchel that leaps out of her body and runs away forever is her innocence. Only an eighth-grader, she has crossed the threshold of adulthood long before she can fully conceptualize the implications, and yet she still experiences the feeling of suddenly entering a new realm of maturity. In this way, Cisneros spotlights the internal process of coming of age, which sometimes expresses itself in abstract ways, proving that young people are capable of feeling intense and advanced emotions even if they experience them inarticulately, as Ixchel does in this moment with the surreal image of a version of herself leaving her own body.
Regarding this moment on the newspaper bed with Boy Baby, Ixchel writes: “So I was initiated beneath an ancient sky by a great and mighty heir—Chaq Uxmal Paloquín. I, Ixchel, his queen.” Following this statement, though, she writes, “The truth is, it wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t any deal at all.” After lying with Boy Baby, she hides her bloody underwear under her T-shirt and runs home while hugging herself, thinking all the while that she has now become “a part of history,” wondering if she looks suddenly different to the people she passes on the street. And though she understands that she is “supposed to feel ashamed,” she feels no remorse at all. In fact, she wants to stand on a rooftop and yell, “I know.”
Once again, coming of age is portrayed as vastly complex, as Ixchel vacillates between grandiosity and nonchalance; in one moment, she sees herself as a Mayan queen anointed by a “mighty heir”—the next moment, she casually says, “It wasn’t a big deal.” In a way, she’s right in both cases. On the one hand, something monumental has just happened in her life, an experience that deserves to be exalted if only for how much it will change her conception of the world. On the other hand, every single person in the history of the world has been the product of sexual reproduction, rendering the entire act a rather ordinary thing. This attitude is perhaps what helps her avoid feeling “ashamed” for engaging in an act that almost everybody engages in at some point in their lives.
Feeling suddenly wise, Ixchel comes confidently back home, laughing at her newfound knowledge until Abuelita takes one look at her and asks, “Where’s the pushcart?” Scrambling for an excuse, she tells her grandmother it was stolen, and the family searches the town for the thieves. In the following days, Abuelita learns more and more of the truth. A neighbor tells her that Ixchel takes the pushcart to Esparza & Sons every Saturday and talks to a “dark Indian” man who wheels the cart into his garage, at which point they go inside together. Hearing this, Abuelita goes to the garage to find Boy Baby, but discovers he has moved away, leaving the pushcart behind as a way of paying his outstanding rent. The family then pays $20 to get the pushcart back, and Ixchel tells Abuelita the real story, though she leaves out the bit about her sexual encounter.
Baby Boy’s willingness to use the pushcart to pay his outstanding rent further indicates that he is morally corrupt. Not only has he now had sex with a girl who is only 13 or 14 years old, but he also has seemingly no qualms with paying rent using something that doesn’t belong to him. As such, his previously mysterious qualities begin to seem sinister, and whatever tenderness he has showed Ixchel becomes even more disturbing.
Despite her best efforts to hide the fact that she and Boy Baby had sex, Ixchel’s secret becomes obvious when her period never comes and her stomach swells. When Abuelita discovers her granddaughter is pregnant, she weeps and blames Uncle Lalo, who blames the United States. Overcome, Abuelita burns the pushcart and calls Ixchel a sinvergüenza—a woman without shame. In the coming weeks, Abuelita periodically returns to the garage in the hopes of gaining information about Boy Baby—the demonio, in her words—and his whereabouts. Picking up his mail, she finds a letter from a convent in another town. She writes to this convent and asks the nuns if they know where Boy Baby might be hiding. Meanwhile, she removes Ixchel from school when her uniform stretches tightly over her stomach.
By blaming Uncle Lalo for Ixchel’s pregnancy instead of Ixchel herself, Abuelita strips her granddaughter of personal agency. Rather than accepting the notion that Ixchel made a conscious decision to indulge her own sexual desires, she blames the nearest man in her life, as if only men can influence women when it comes to sex. At the same time, it is fair to say that Ixchel didn’t actually make a consenting decision, since she’s so young. In this moment, Cisneros plumbs the murky waters surrounding agency and sexual independence, once more demonstrating how the process of coming of age is complex and difficult to navigate.
Only her friends Rachel and Lourdes know about Ixchel’s pregnancy, and Abuelita wants to keep it that way. Consequently, she arranges to send Ixchel to live with her cousins in Mexico, where she was originally conceived. When her mother got pregnant, Ixchel explains, Abuelita decided to send her to the United States so that the neighbors “wouldn’t ask why her belly was suddenly big.”
Given that Ixchel is now moving from Mexico to the United States to avoid the shame and embarrassment of her neighbors discovering that she’s pregnant, it’s ironic that her mother moved to Mexico to avoid the same kind of humiliation in the United States. It seems that no matter where a family lives, then, young people often find themselves drawn to sexual encounters before they’re ready to handle the consequences.
A letter arrives from the convent. In it, the nuns tell Abuelita what they know about Boy Baby: that he was born to a knife sharpener and a fruit vendor; that he’s 37 years old; that his name is Chato, meaning “fat-face”; and that his blood contains not an ounce of Mayan heritage.
The nuns’ letter to Abuelita confirms what readers have already guessed: that the mystery that so attracted Ixchel to Boy Baby was, in fact, only an indication that he was lying about his past. In this moment, it becomes even more clear that he has manipulated Ixchel, capitalizing on and exploiting her young naivety.
As the baby grows inside her, Ixchel can feel the “ghost” of Boy Baby circling through her innards, refusing to “let [her] rest.” Not long after she arrives in Mexico, Boy Baby visits Abuelita’s house looking for Ixchel, but Abuelita chases him away with a broom. When the family next hears about him, it is in a newspaper article displaying a picture of him held by two police officers. The paper reveals that “eleven female bodies” in “the last seven years” have been found in “the Caves of the Hidden Girl.” Boy Baby, it seems, is responsible for these deaths. Ixchel stares at the article and the photograph, unable to do anything but look at the “little black-and-white dots that make up the face [she is] in love with.”
Even upon finding out that Boy Baby is a serial killer who preys on young women like herself, Ixchel remains in love with him. In turn, Cisneros illustrates that love is not a rational feeling, but rather an illogical and impulsive emotion. Simply put, the feelings humans experience for one another are often out of step with what makes sense, and longing frequently overtakes a person despite her better judgment.
In Mexico, Ixchel’s female cousins are hesitant to talk to her. The ones that do engage her in conversation are young and ask questions the others know they shouldn’t pose—questions about what it’s like to “have a man.” “They don’t know what it is to lay so still until his sleep breathing is heavy,” she writes, “for the eyes in the dim dark to look and look without worry at the man-bones and the neck, […] to stare at how perfect is a man.” However, she doesn’t say this to them. Instead, she merely states, “It’s a bad joke. When you find out you’ll be sorry.”
The tragedy of Ixchel’s story comes to the forefront when she tells her younger cousins that love is a “bad joke.” Though many women likely agree with her, this pessimistic attitude is no doubt the direct result of the fact that she has been led into a complicated romantic and sexual relationship before she’s old enough to grapple with the implications of such a serious and intimate connection. Of course, the fact that Boy Baby is a murderer only further complicates this dynamic, leaving Ixchel even more conflicted—she cares for this man and suddenly knows the joy of love, but she also has been scarred by this experience and hasn’t actually encountered a healthy form of love, since her relationship with Boy Baby was disingenuous and wrong.
Ruminating on the nature of love, Ixchel writes about how her friend Rachel thinks love “is like a big black piano being pushed off the top of a three-story building and you’re waiting on the bottom to catch it.” Lourdes, on the other hand, thinks love is like spinning a top and watching all the colors whirl together until everything is just a “white hum.” But Ixchel has her own conception of love. She remembers a crazy man who used to live upstairs. Unable to talk, he used to keep a harmonica in his mouth at all times. Instead of playing the instrument, he would simply breathe through it, “wheezing, in and out, in and out.” For Ixchel, this is what love is like.
Ixchel’s metaphor casts love as inevitable and expressive. In the same way that the crazy man’s every breath is transformed into music, every little action of a person’s life leads to love and relationships, creating music but also proving such raw emotion to be inescapable. This is both beautiful and deeply complicated, something to be appreciated but also something that can become a burden. By using this metaphor for love, Ixchel reveals a nuanced and varied understanding, a conception of romance that is far beyond her years. In turn, Cisneros shows how intensely romantic relationships can alter young people, suddenly initiating them into a messy world of emotion whether or not they’re prepared.