La Protecciòn de la Virgen Maria.

As devout Catholics, my parents were very concerned about the neighborhood gang violence affecting the education of local school children in the San Fernando Valley during the 90’s. Public middle schools had a reputation for bad teachers and a poopy environment conducive to promoting vulgar children with a vocabulary to meet basic survival beeper necessities. My parents strived to obtain a decent education for us and aimed to place us in an environment that kept us out of harm’s way. We were never allowed to use a beeper. Beepers were dirty.

I loved my Catholic middle school experience, particularly, a day in which my friend’s and I decided to be thieves. We had bake sales. Our parents were obligated to pay for the bake sale by sending each child to school with a box of doughnuts in the morning and the lunch lady sold them at recess. On this day, we dropped off our boxes of doughnuts in the cafeteria before the morning bell rang. At 8:00 am we started music class with Sister Gertrude. She noticed that we were missing a few chairs for the class so she said, “Denise and Bobby, I need you both to go to the auditorium and bring back four chairs.” We responded, “Yes, Sister Gertrude.” As we were about to step out of the classroom, our other friend said, “I’m gonna ask to go to the bathroom, and when you see me, get me a doughnut from the cafeteria.” With whispered excitement, “Ok. Yea. We’ll get doughnuts.” We mischievously plotted to get twisty doughnuts.

Bobby entered the cafeteria first, “Denise! There’s nobody!” I said, “Shhh, they’re gonna hear us.” He said, “Ok, let’s get doughnuts and see if Jezebel is waiting for us outside.” Bobby checked the playground, walked back in the cafeteria, “She’s waiting for us.” I said, “Ok, let’s walk outside.” However, Bobby was so excited he couldn’t contain himself. He ran past the statue of the Virgin Mary screaming, “Jezebel, I got doughnuts!” As I walked behind him my heart almost jumped out of my chest when I heard Father Pancracio’s voice. He sternly exclaimed, “Bobby, get over here!” I sprinted to the statue of the Virgin Mary hoping she would intercede a miracle and return me to music class without being seen. I thought, “Por favor ayudame Virgencita, ayudame. Te necesito.” As Bobby started slowly walking toward Father Pancracio, he pointed at me while I was shoving the doughnuts in my skirt pockets and said, “Denise is hiding behind the Virgin Mary.” Then Father Pancracio said, “Denise, get over here.” “I saw both of you. Go to the principal’s office.”

We sat in the principal’s office silently. The principal reprimanded us by telling us we were a disgrace as role models to the younger children. We were suspended for the day and were told to leave the doughnuts on her desk and write an apology letter to the school. We were both scared and nervous. All the kids considered the principal to be a witch and we believed she always flew around on her broom at night snatching children out of their beds in the middle of the night. We prayed to the Virgencita to keep us safe at night. She told us that we had to pay for the doughnuts we stole. We said, “Yes, Mrs. Schiller.” We remained silent. I wondered if my mom was going to throw chanclas at me for embarrassing her and shaming the family. I wondered if she was going to be super mad and get the belt.

Our mom’s showed up at the same time and lucky for me, Bobby’s mom explained to the principal that we were both hungry and skipped out on breakfast. My mom was mad. She said, “Salì de trabajar para recogerte. Me las vaz a pagar.” I was silent. She dropped me off at home. As I watched her drive away from the living room window I felt her take away from me the love I had of doughnuts. I moped. I sulked. I was a little bit mopey. Then, I thought, “Hey, wait a minute! I can watch music videos!” I turned on the TV to BET and for the first time in my life I saw D’Angelo’s video, “How does it feel?” I almost fainted. I fell in love. I was like, “Is this what it feels like to fall in love?” “Is he talking to me?” “Who is he talking to like that?” “How does what feel?” “What is he saying?” “Oh my gosh!” “God is watching me!” “I’m gonna be in big trouble!” “Hahahahaha.” It was so scary and exhilarating. It was like watching Zac Morris, but better. I liked getting suspended.

As the hours went by and the sun began to set, a wave of panic started to take over me. I tried putting a pillow in my butt. Nope. Too big. I tried hiding all the chanclas. Nope. Too many. I practiced pretending to be asleep. Nope. I kept opening my eyes. I tried pretending I was sick by coughing in the mirror. Nope. Sounded too fake. So, I decided to wash the dishes. As I finished washing the dishes I heard my mom’s clunk, clunk carcacha pull up to the house. When she walked up to the door, I opened the door for her, “Hi, mom!” “I washed the dishes.” And smiled with as much charisma as I thought I could possibly exude. She said, “Sabes que Denise, no me hagas pasar verguenzas.” I promptly interrupted, “Yea, but it wasn’t just me. My other friends did it too.” “After I got in trouble, Selma and Mikaela got in trouble and when they went to the principal’s office they ate the doughnuts on her desk when the principal wasn’t looking.” “You see.” “Cayate, Denise.” “Don’t talk back to me.” “El Sabado to vaz a confesar.” “Eres una malcreada desentendida!” “You’re not going to watch TV and you’re not going to talk on the phone with you’re friends.” “I spend too much money sending you to a Catholic school.” “I could be doing other things with my money.” You want to go to a school with cholos?” “Eres una burra, mal agredecida.” I thought, “At least I got to watch the D’Angelo video. I couldn’t believe my eyes.” Jejejejejeje. Lero lero pan con queso. Excitement!

Advertisements

La Cucaracha.

My prima lived in the hood. One fourth of July we decided to spend it with her family. As a child, I started recognizing differences between all the places I visited. Church was boring. The market had the 25 cent pony. Pre-school had a slide. The projects were special. In my neighborhood we played with puppies we found at the park and in her neighborhood we played with cucarachas seeping out of the apartment walls.

I was always told to play my prima’s games when I was at her house. It was the polite thing to do. So I figured, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Rigoberta kept her pet cucarachas in a plastic take home fish tank with a blue lid. After the passing of her goldfish, she put her new pets in it. When we played outside, Rigoberta drew a circle on the cement with chalk and put Pedro the chubby cucaracha to race against Rodolfo the skinny cucaracha. Whichever cucaracha ran out of the circle first, was the champion.

After playing with beat down worn-out cucarachas we played with one big ginormous hula-hoop. Everyone hopped in the hula-hoop at the same time. We didn’t know how to take turns and we wanted the hula-hoop at the same time. We all got in the middle at the same time and spun it around at the same time.

Bang! Bang! Bang! “Aaaaahhhhh!” “Drive by!” Everybody criss crossed each other in the hula-hoop frantically trying to get out. “Aaaaahhhhh!!!!” “I don’t want to die!!!” “Stop!” “Fall!” “Aaaahhhhh!” We fell to the floor laughing hysterically. “Oh my gosh!” “Dang!” “Touch my heart.” “Look it.” “Oh my gosh!” “It’s like my heart ran away to Pluto.” “I thought I was gonna die, but I didn’t.” “I know, me too!” “I was like, they got me.” “Cholos are crazy, huh?” “Yea, big time.” “When I get big, my boyfriend is gonna be a cholo.” “Yea, me too.”

As the sun began to set, I started wondering where we were going to watch fireworks. I asked my dad, “Dad, where are we going to watch the quetes?” My dad said, “It’s too late to go to the park so we’re just gonna stay here.” I was like, “What? But I want to go the park.” Then my dad said, “Don’t be rude. Spend time with your cousins.” I said, “Ok. Fine.” I always used to get reprimanded for making foochie faces when I didn’t like something. I always got reprimanded for voicing my opinion. That didn’t stop me. I did it anyway. I felt it was important to say whatever was on my mind, discreetly.

On this fourth of July, after the drive by, all the kids ran out of their houses to the lawn to light their own fireworks. In amazement, I thought “Wow. This is crazy.” My dad said, “Don’t even think about it.” My uncle chimed in laughing about how kids burn their fingers lighting their own fireworks. He said, “No mas, ay, que tener cuidado.”

So the sun went down and kids started lighting fireworks, running away as soon as they lit the cuete. It was like the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Adrenaline was pumping high and after watching one or two, light and dart strategies, I joined the crowd of kids. “Prendelooooo!” “Aaaahhhh, corrreeeellllleeeeee!” All the kids would scatter away from the shooting firecracker, pushing and shoving each other out of the way. Some kids tripped and stumbled as the frantic running ensued. Todos corrian casi atropellando el uno al otro para no quemarse con los cuetes. Crack! Crack! Crack! “Cooooollllll!!!” “Look it!!!”

We spent the evening running around jolting with muscle spasms due to the fear of getting hit by a firecracker. Any noise startled us, kinda like, Watson’s Baby Albert experiment. Eliciting respondent behavior is funny when you do it on purpose. We ran around throwing “Pop Pop” snappers on the ground. Then we laughed. If you grow up poor, your only remedy and outlook for survival is laughter. It soothes the soul and heals all wounds. Fear and laughter go hand in hand when you grow up living ‘hood life. Then we ended the night watching La Bamba while sipping a café con leche.

El Paletero y la Traviesia.

On hot summer days in sunny Los Angeles, we loved to eat push-ups, big sticks, strawberry shortcakes, ninja turtles with gumball eyeballs and choco tacos from the paletero. Whenever we heard “la cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya no puede caminar, porque le falta, porque la falta dos patitas para caminar,” we knew the paletero was making its rounds on our block. We flocked to our houses for money. We always played outside, scattered across the lawn of every neighbor. “Mami!” “Papi!” “Dame dinero!” “Quiero una paleta!” We ran in and out of the house to the clamping noise of our chanklitas and guaraches, anticipating quarters so we could buy our favorite ice cream bar.

On one occasion, one of the neighbors didn’t get any money. Upset and envious, the little girl asked one of the other kids with her cutest precious moments face, “Can I have one lick?” The other little girl said, “Ok, but just lick it one time and give it back.” “You promise.” “Yea, I promise.” The little girl took one lick, locked her hand on the push-up and darted to her house like a little esquincla. The traviesa tried to devour the push-up before being caught by the crowd of kids chasing after her to give the ice cream back. “Dumb, liar!” “Give it back!” “You stole it!” “We’re gonna tell your mom!” “I’m telling!” “I’m telling on you!” “Ooooooooohhhhhh, you’re in big trouble!” “Watch!” “Vas a ver!” “Le vamos a decir a tù mom.” The little traviesa didn’t care. The momentary pleasure of the ice cream was worth it. The savory sugary delight of an ice cream was worth the spanking. The reward outweighed the cost. Everybody chased her and demanded the ice cream back. It was too late. She devoured it.

That day we learned that sometimes when “you give an inch, they take a foot.” All the kids explained to her mom what happened. Everybody gossiped to their own mom about what happened. It was a scandalous event that rocked the neighborhood kids. They pinky promised not to share with her again. “Ay, you swear?” “You pinky promise you won’t ever give your ice cream to her?” “Look at me, for reals?” “Yea for reals. That’s not fair.” “She can’t do that.” “Yea, pinky promise.” “Never. Ever.” “That’s messed up.”

Puppies.

Naming a puppy is one of the most exciting events in a child’s life. When my sister’s and I got our first puppy, we named it “Princess” because we loved “Princess Nala” from the Lion King, so we thought “Princess” would be a fantastic name for our puppy. Our neighbor got a scruffy little rescue dog, he found at the park. In our neighborhood it was very common at the time, for your dad to drop off the family pet at the park and accidentally forget it there. Oops.

Anyway, he named his dog, “Ketchup.” He loved Ketchup. He loved to put Ketchup on everything.  He put Ketchup on his scrambled eggs. He put Ketchup in his quesadilla. He put Ketchup on his potatoes. He put Ketchup on his huevos rancheros. He put Ketchup on his enchiladas. He loved Ketchup. He figured naming his dog “Ketchup” was equivalent to the happiness he felt when he put Ketchup on his food.

Our other neighbor named her dog, “Horchata.” It was her favorite drink. She loved horchata from Rigo’s Tacos so much that she thought horchata was the perfect name for her puppy. She was going to love her puppy as much as she loved to drink horchata.

The neighbor in the green house with the chicken coop and the roosters, wished she could fly away like a pretty little butterfly. She always carried a blanky. She thought the best name for her little poodle was “butterfly.” The neighbor on the other block, around the corner, loved to eat hot cheetoes. His Spiderman baby tee had cheeto paw prints and his leather guaraches that his mom got him at the callejones always had cheeto flakes. He had cheeto flake toe jam. He loved cheetos so so much, he named his pet goldfish “Cheeto.”

Chasing Squirrels

My parents frequently took my sister and I to Griffith Park, post tantrum. In this manner, we learned crying, whining and screaming resulted in getting access to what we wanted. Berrinches were common in our house. Either my parents liked it or they didn’t know how to teach us appropriate ways to gain access to the activities we wanted to partake in. Once we got to Griffith Park, we rode the ponies. After riding the ponies we went to the carousel. After the carousel we laid on the grass and stared at the clouds. On days with clear blue skies we claimed clouds looked like puppies or gremlins or Gizmo or butterflies or dragons or whales or rainbows or ships from Peter Pan or monster slime blobs with three eyeballs like the one in “Big Trouble in Little China.”

After not being able to withstand the spikey itchiness from the grass, we rolled down the hill like “rollie pollies.” We giggled and laughed at how deliriously dizzy we felt. As we walked up the hill to do it again, we would pick up dandelions and blow them out. We ran after dandelions, blowing them out and watching the florets be blown away by the wind had a mesmerizing effect. To me, it’s comparable to the hypnotizing effect of Baby Einstein videos but there’s nothing as vivid as the experience of watching something happen in real time, naturally.

Next, we stared at squirrels. We watched them nibble on nuts. We watched them scurry up trees and across tree braches. We chased the squirrels. The idea was motivated by a hope to catch one and make it our puppy. But one day, we saw another little boy chase squirrels too. The squirrel didn’t like it. The boy got too close, was bitten by the squirrel and ran away crying. After that day we decided chasing squirrels was bad.

We were too young to understand the necessary mutual respect for all living creatures. We hadn’t seen the Jungle Book or the Lion King, yet, at best we were familiar with Snow White and the concept of never placing trust in an old witch. However, that day, through natural contingencies of reinforcement and punishment we were reminded not to be space invaders. Being a space invader resulted in peligroooooo.

Halloween.

Rainbow BrightHalloween is so exciting. Candy. Trick-or-Treating. Costumes. Me and all my little friends rehearsed, “Trick-or-treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat.” We rehearsed for about a week prior to Halloween. We wanted to make sure we were prepared for the big event. We would talk about how we didn’t want to be shy. We had to be as cute as possible to get the best candy from every neighbor. “Yea, you got to.” “That way when you go to the house, the mom is like, ‘Oh my gosh! You’re so cute! I’m gonna give you two candies.’” And then you smile and say “Thank you!” “That’s what my mom told me to say.” “You have to.” “Ok. This is what you do.” “You walk to the door and you say, ‘trick-or-treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat’ you don’t have to say that, but you could.” “Yea.” Some other kid would chime into the conversation. “Yea and then you show them your pumpkin pale.” “What?” “I never have a pumpkin pale.” “Huh?” “That’s weird.” “What do you have?” “Like a pillow case.” “I use a bag with a picture of a pumpkin on it.” “Oh ok, whatever.” “Yea, as long as you have something to get the candy.” “Yea, I always have some-ting.” “Yea, me too.”

Without further discussion, it was assumed that a pumpkin pale denoted status. It was more expensive. My mom would say, “No. No pumpkin pale. Eso està muy caro.” At the elementary school I attended, nobody had status and if you did you were considered conceited. Somebody’s grandmother always made the Halloween costume and nobody actually shopped for packaged items. If you did, “Ay, that’s conceited.”

Every year we looked forward to the costume parade at school. Early in the morning everyone marched around the schoolyard in one giant line. One year, as I was rushing to school, I assumed I was running late. I told time, like the Aztecs, if I noticed the sun had completely risen, that was my way of knowing that I was supposed to be at school, not at home. So my dad, slurping away at his morning coffee, hopped in his blue buggy and stormed off to my elementary school. He did a stop and roll at one of the stop signs. Next thing you know, a siren is woot-wooting right behind us. I knew la chota was going to get him. My dad was pulled over. I started to panic. I began screaming and crying. “Don’t take my dad to jail!” “Nooooo!!!!!” “My daddy is going to jail!” “I need to go to the parade!” I don’t recall whether or not my dad got a ticket. Although, fortunately, I made it to the parade. It was the hugest sigh of relief. My dad didn’t go to jail and I went to the parade.

Skid Row.

I loved to go shopping. One time my mom used my strongest reinforcer to trick me and teach me a lesson. “Yo’ mama so fat and stupid, she puts baby dookie on her hot fudge sundae.” “Oh yea, you’re momma so fat she takes a shower in the swimming pool.” “Yo’ mama breath so hot she could make scrambled eggs wit’ it.” “You so poor, you live in a cardboard box under the freeway.” “Yo’ mama so poor she flips pancakes with the fly swatter.” “Denise wins,” said Cheeto. And so the yo’ mama jokes went on for days during recess or lunchtime. I battled everyone. You had to. If you didn’t battle, you were a little chump. A nobody.

My mom happened to be a secretary at the elementary school I attended. Someone ratted me out that I had been participating in yo’ mama joke battles. I wondered if it was the safety monitor, always walking around staring at everyone with her little safety sash. Perhaps it was one of the older kids that watched over the younger kids, maybe the girl who always ate a lollipop for breakfast and smelled like banana bread. In any case, my mother was enraged and outraged by such behavior. She wanted me to be a perfect little doll. She expected perfection and nothing less. Prim and proper. However, there was nothing proper about kids at my school. It was an environment plagued by poverty and vulgarity. You either punked or got punked. I chose not to get punked.

My mom decided to put the smack down. She was rough herself. If something happened she didn’t like, she resorted to extreme measures to get her point across. Typically, this resulted in fierce resentment. Resentment, that set the tone for our relationship over the years. As an adult I recognize her efforts to make me respectful. I understand that parents don’t pick up manuals on disciplining their children without the use of severe punishment strategies. I didn’t understand then because I was a kid with a limited behavioral repertoire. I followed the take it a like thief tootsie pop kid culture in a yo’ mama joke battle. She followed the traditional philosophical threat, “do it one more time and I’ll smack you with a chankla.”

It was a Saturday morning. A bright, sunny Saturday morning. She said she was going to surprise me with some shopping at the callejones. I was so excited. I was completely clueless about the conversations she had with someone behind my back about my jokes with my friends. I had no idea what was about to unfold. The trauma of being ambushed is severe. That’s how she rolled. I prepped myself with some sunblock, umbrella hat, Minnie Mouse sunglasses, and a water bottle in my Rainbow Bright backpack. I loved to go shopping. I was always very observant of all the freeways, streetlights and stop signs.

On this particular day, I noticed she went off route. I started getting suspicious. “Hey, wait a minute.” “Where are you going?” I began to nervously fidget. Oh my gosh, is she taking me to the doctor for a shot? Oh my gosh, what is she doing to me? “Mom, where are we going?” “Mija, I’m going to show you something.” She started driving at a drive-by speed. I was getting scared. Am I gonna die? Does she have an AK?

We pulled up to Skid Row. “Mija, you think this is funny?” “Look at the people living in cardboard boxes.” “You see that.” “Do you see the woman with her baby laying on the floor?” “She lives in that tent.” I was crying hysterically. “Stop, mom!” “Stop it.” “Why are you doing this to me?” “This is scary.” “Are you gonna drop me off here?” “You don’t want me anymore.” “I’m sorry.” “I don’t want any toys.” I gasped for air. I couldn’t breathe. My mom said, “I heard about the jokes you were saying with your friends.” I was furious someone ratted me out. “Who did it?” “Who told you?”

I wanted to kick, scream and slap whoever ratted me out. I felt ashamed. I couldn’t believe people really lived in cardboard boxes. I was deeply saddened. Traumatized. My mom said, “I’m gonna drive by one more time.” “No mom, I already saw.” “I know.” “We don’t need to go down that street.” “Let’s go down a different street.” My mom ignored me, “We’re going down that street one more time.” The street was filled with needles and trash. People strewn across the floor, sitting next to shopping carts and people lying in tents scarred me. I was shocked. Sometimes you learn about bad little boys and girls by reading Aesop’s fables and sometimes you learn from experience. That was painful.

The Baby.

I always referred to my youngest sibling as the baby. I was fiercely jealous. I didn’t like the responsibility of being the eldest. I didn’t like the idea of sharing a room with my other sister for the rest of my life. I didn’t like setting the example for anyone. The constant nagging I got from my parents was something along the lines of, “Denisita, eres la màs grande, te debes portar mejor que tus hermanitas.”

I resented the day my sister was born. I was in second grade and she was born on a weekday. I remember my dad took my mom to the hospital in the middle of the night and when I woke up my dad was in the kitchen making me and my other sister scrambled eggs. I asked, “Dad, why are you cooking?” He responded, “Your mom is having a baby and we’re going to pick them up afterschool.” I thought, “Ugh, another baby. I’m sick of taking care of babies.” Then I asked, “Who’s going to brush my hair?” My dad said, “I am.” I was like, “What?” “You never brush my hair. You can’t brush it. I don’t know how to brush it. I’m going to look dumb at school!” At that age, kids started caring about their appearance and an ugly ponytail was not the look I was trying to rock.

My mom used to brush my hair so that I had a super tight ponytail that jerked my eyes back a little bit. She ritually dabbed the brush en agua con limon para que no me despienara. Every girl had a super tight ponytail. That morning my dad made a lumpy ponytail, hair sticking out all over the place. I was mortified to show up at school.

After a long day of school, my afternoon routine of watching MariMar was interrupted by a trip to the hospital. My dad picked me up with great enthusiasm, my youngest sister had been born and he was extremely excited to get back to the hospital. When we got to the hospital, the little gift from God was wrapped in my mother’s arms. My relatives were there to greet the new baby and my cousins and I discussed how she was born. We didn’t know where she came from. We wanted an explanation and we didn’t get one, so we made one up.

I looked out the window to check for a stork. “You know, I think we missed the stork that delivers the baby, you know that big bird at the baby shower.” “I wish I would have seen it.” “It’s probably a really big bird.” “Where does the bird get the blanket?” My cousin responded, “At the store.” Then my other cousin said, “No, you get babies at the baby store in the hospital. I just walked by the baby store.” Then I said, “I want to go to the baby store! I want to pick my own baby!” My other cousins agreed that we should have all discussed on what kind of baby my parents were going to buy.

After chit chatting about babies we went home with our new baby. We didn’t bother talking about our ideas with the grown ups because they never explained anything anyway. I had asked my mom once, “Where do babies come from?” and she responded, “Solo Dios sabe.”

Don Gorgonio y El Micro.

My grandfather had certain habits he never broke. He never showered. He believed that a shower caused a resfriado. He never brushed his teeth. He used a toothpick. He had the same jean jacket, wool on the inside, for about thirty years. He always wore a beanie or a sombrero to keep his head from catching a cold.

During the last few years of his life he entertained himself watching Spanish novelas para ver las viejas. Whenever I saw him for lunchtime he asked me to go to Carl’s Jr. and buy him a famous star. He would say, “Muchacha, vaya a comprarme una hamburguesa.” As soon as I would get back from Carl’s Jr. he’d ask me to grab a Coca-Cola. “Ponla en el micro por viente segundos.” I would heat his Coca-Cola in the microwave for twenty seconds and hand it to him in a mug. He sat at the table chowing down on his burger while drinking his warm Cola. Then he got back to mirando las viejas.

As he ate his hamburger, he slowly chewed every bite. He probably chewed about 80 times and then swallowed. If he noticed something about his chew he didn’t like, he spit it out onto a napkin. After he finished eating, he didn’t wash his hands. He would get up, throw away the trash and hand me the mug. Only women washed dishes. Then he walked over to the couch para ver las viejas de cerca.

My mother usually placed a blanket over the couch for him to sit on because he always left a memorable odor. Sometimes he got offended, “Ese olor viene de tù fundillo, el mio está limpio.” My mom always turned beet red and walked away. I laughed hysterically. He would look at me with a huge smirk, run his hand over his comb over and giggle.

I loved my grandpa. I loved Don Gorgonio. He was a brat. He was rude. He was sassy. He spoke his mind. Fue un viejito bien rabo-verde. He was who he was and he didn’t care about anyone’s opinion. He was the best grandpa in the world.

In his final days, while stationed at a nursing home due to pneumonia, he refused to be seen by ugly nurses. He slapped nurses on the hiney. He said and did whatever his heart desired. I valued his honesty and his determination to be respected as an autonomous human being even through old age. He never complained. He simply made demands and stood his ground until the day he passed. At his funeral, there were tears, mariachi and Ramon Ayala’s, “Un Puño de Tierra.”