Growing up poor (but how were we to know?)
We were rich with love and imagination
Picture if you will, 14 or 16 grandchildren, ranging in skin color from ghost white to cocoa brown, ages six to twelve walking down the street to our local hang out- Samel’s burger stand for a large bag of extra greasy fries or the local Stater Bros. for candy. That was us, a small but brave Mexican-American gang related by blood and a strong bond. We didn’t always get along but if an outsider hurt us in any way, watcha! We had each others backs, no questions asked. Okay, so we weren’t really a gang per say, but in laments terms “that’s how we rolled”; always together, leaving no one behind.
Some of our best outings were going to the SwapMeet when our grandfather would sell the treasures in his garage. We would have fun putting out his wares and bagging up people’s purchases. Grandpa always gave us a little something if it was a good day that would send us out on our own search for some plastic toy or accessory. Some days the older cousins would complain about the younger ones tagging along (for that, I’m sorry), but for the most part we stuck together. I also can’t forget to mention Puddingstone. Barbecues and swimming in the lake. Those were some of the best times of our lives. Sometimes we had sleep overs consisting of silly games such as Truth or Dare (when a few of us dared each other to run around naked in the back yard of my Padrinos home- you know who you are!) and even took sides during verbal warfare of who was better at racing or who could bite into a jalapeño first. We danced together at family functions, anxiously awaited for midnight on Christmas Eve so we could open presents, all of this without any outside friendship influence. We were best friends as well as cousins.
We made the most out of life, using our imaginations to conjure up something fun to pass the time. We played games like tag or hide n seek and on hot days we ate big sticks or watermelon while taking turns on the bamboo chair rigged as a swing or running through the sprinklers and the slip and slide made up of grandpa’s black tarp in the summertime. During later years a few of us walked the 5 or 6 miles to Washington Park and paid .50 cents to use the public pool. We double-dutched on the dirt driveway, learned to break dance after watching Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo
, or rummaged through the treasures in the garage that our grandfather would collect on his garbage truck routes. One time the boy cousins found nude magazines and we snuck them out to the football field to examine (sorry Tías, I know you weren’t aware of that.) Some of us attended school together and lunch time was never defined by who got free lunch and who paid. It was a pink card which the lunch lady hole-punched and we were on our way. We always had a new pair of shoes, school accessories like pencils and folders (my favorite), and we all wore decent clothes that would come from the Thrift Store or out of lay-away at Zody’s the day before school started. For me, I dived into my education, head first. I relished in simple Spelling Bee victories, student of the month certificates, or how many books I could read during the school year. It wasn’t like that for all my cousins, but in the end we did the best we could.
We didn’t own Atari, our parents didn’t own jet skis, there was no pool to bask in, some of us didn’t even own a phone. If we were lucky, someone at least had cable t.v., but to us that didn’t define us as poor. Poor were the children in Africa who were starving, or the bums digging through trash cans for cans or food. We knew we didn’t come from wealthy families but our father’s worked or our mother’s received help by way of Welfare and food stamps. Back then I didn’t understand the concept of Welfare to define us as poor although I knew enough about food stamps to stand in shame at the checkout line while the cashier stamped each and every one with that disapproving look. Up until then I didn’t think food stamps were a bad thing until the day people in back of us made disgruntled faces and rude comments for having to wait so long. And sure, I would complain about school shopping at the Thrift Store, but I just thought my parents were stingy with their money. After all, we owned a Gemco card which was a big thing back then. It was like a Target with a membership. At the end of the day I am grateful we didn’t have the exuberant luxuries most non Mexican-American children had. Because we had no choice but to use our imaginations and our feet to get us places, we grew up respectful of the values we acquired from our grandparents and for some, our parents.
They lived the only way they knew how, nothing wrong with that.
Just like us, our Tías and Tíos weren’t defined as poor within their family either. None of them worried about Euro-American labels Mexicans were given back in the day. They too worked with what they had and sometimes they “worked” whether picking cotton or fruit with my grandparents. To them it was a game, who could pick the most fruit, or watching while the youngest toted a bag for cotton twice his size. They worked in the early hours of morning and then it was off to school. There was no shame, no whining amongst siblings. They pumped water from a well to wash their dishes, slept five to a bed at one point, lived in a house with a dirt floor that my grandmother would sweep and wet to keep the dust away. Within the different homes they occupied they would sleep five to a bed in one room while in the Franklin House the boys were on bunk beds stacked along the walls in one room while their baby sister had a room all to herself.
They would pass the time inventing ways to have fun. Back then there was no Monopoly, no video games, so they played by tying two cans to a string like a telephone or playing cowboys and Indians. The latter game resulting in my Tío being tied up, a small fire at his feet, his leg hair burnt and a trip to the hospital. It was creative, I’ll give them that, though I’m sure after a few spankings they never played that again.
It wasn’t until Junior High and High School that my Tías and Tíos knew they were different; economically speaking. Still, there was no “poor” label in their minds, the thought of “free lunch” was embarrassing only because lunches were determined by the type of ticket you had. Each color represented a free or paid lunch. I’m sure no one wanted to be singled out by others. At times it was difficult to provide the simplest things such as bologna and bread so Grandma would make burritos for her children to take to lunch which would embarrass my Tía Yolanda as she’d take it out of the brown paper bag. It wasn’t until people around her wanted to trade her burrito for a sandwich that she became comfortable. Grandma was so busy packing lunches for all her children sometimes she’d forget the bologna and just send one or two off with two slices of bread. What we’d call struggles and sacrifice they knew as life and were a happy family living it.