Words from an Insomniac still trying to find her way

Chicken Mole for the Mexican-American soul

When we were your age… Pt.1

I look at my grandparents; my father’s parents, and the color of their brown sun-drenched skin, their faded tattoos of a rebellious life before my time, their tired and humble eyes, their loving hands, toughened by years of hard work in the fields. I look at them; whether in photographs or memories and I try to understand their struggle. It’s hard to imagine them ever being a child or a teenager for that matter, but I know they’ve lived; experiences and all. I also know it was a more difficult time growing up for them; especially with the racism they faced at the time. It was during the 50’s and times weren’t that great so I was told.

The only work available for Mexican Americans was picking, be it some kind of fruit or cotton. And that’s what they did. They survived and continued living in the U.S. during such uneducated attempts as Operation Wetback when President Eisenhower tried removing illegal immigrants from California and Arizona. I say uneducated because it is my opinion that government officials must’ve missed the lesson on who the real citizens of the Southwest were and still are. They made it through WWII when Mexican Americans were sent off to fight for a country that didn’t give a damn about them; even denying them medical attention or denying them funeral services because of race. When they were young they struggled with the substandard education and segregation, often forced to speak only English or be ridiculed and labeled as stupid or slow.

They were a product of the Southwest; dreamers looking for a better life to give their children. They came from Texas and Arizona and didn’t meet till my grandfather traveled to Arizona. They married and continued living in Arizona until children came. It was when they began having kids that they decided to move, looking for work and the American Dream. So they packed their bags and headed for California. They picked fruit or cotton in Fresno and later moved further south. In later years my grandfather retired from his final job working for the waste removal company in Southern California. Throughout their lives they instilled the meaning of hard work and earning a paycheck while having respect for one’s self as well as others in all of their children, and eventually their grandchildren. These are lessons that have been rooted into my own way of thinking and will continue to be passed down from generation to generation.

My grandparents were very loving never denying us hugs and attention, always providing what they could when we needed. They were always smiling, whether grandma slaved away in the cocina cooking for her husband, her six hungry boys and three growing girls or while grandpa kept his yard up in the hot summer sun. Of the two, grandpa was the strict one. “Don’t play with that!, Get away from there! Stop messing with those dogs!” He never failed to mention how lazy his boys or his grandkids were and how hard he and grandma worked when they were our age. Stories were repeated of how they didn’t have shoes and went to school barefoot, or slept on dirt floors because they didn’t have a floor or bed, and tales of walking 5 miles to school in the snow, or working in the fields in the dark hours of morning before they went to school, were a constant lesson on respect and gratitude. And then there were stories of  La Llorona(The Weeping Woman) to scare us into behaving when we acted like bad chamacos. We never believed in their stories growing up, but the older I get, the more I have no choice but to admit that some of  those tales might have been spot on. When I think of those old familiar stories I find myself laughing through the repetitiveness of passing down our own stories of woe to our children, nieces and nephews.

The one thing I always remember was the love and kindness they displayed to each other; perfection in my eyes. They never argued in front of their children, and never in front of us. Their marriage was the definition of how I wanted to be with my husband some day. The subtle silent flirtation they thought no one saw, or the way my grandfather looked at my grandmother was proof that love existed. I was sure it wasn’t a perfect marriage but I believed it was pretty close. However, I found out many years later, it wasn’t that way in the beginning. When they were young, my grandparents had a fight one evening. My grandfather said some nasty thing or other to my grandmother who counter attacked with “Chinga tu Madre!” words which would never spew from her mouth again. They continued their fight when out of nowhere he hit her. She wasn’t going to take any crap from him so she in turn fought back, ripping his suit up before running off. That was the first and last time he ever laid a hand on her. After that, she never failed to mention her words of wisdom to the women in our family; you never let a man hit you. Ever. My grandparents stayed strong till the very end; taking care of each other, taking care of us, giving and never asking for much in return. I’ll never be able to say Thank you to them, for their lessons and love. I can only hope they know that we all feel that way.


Growing up poor (but how were we to know?)

                                                                                                                  Part 1

                                                                             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.
                                                                                                             Part 2
                                          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.

Chapter one- Home was grandma and grandpa’s house (most of the time.)

                                                                                     Part One

                                                                                252 W. Franklin Ave.

There are many things I will never be able to remember in this lifetime no matter how hard I try. But of the few, like my Grandparents’ phone number (on mom’s side), my sss#, and the words to “All is full of love” by Bjork, I won’t ever forget my Grandparents’ address (on my dad’s side). 252 W. Franklin; the old Casa Blanca with a yard big enough for two huge lemon trees, walnut, grapefruit, kumquat, and avocado trees, a row of cactus plants in the backyard, a garage the size of another home, two to three dogs that we were deathly afraid of (except the mother dog named Blackie), and plenty of room for all of us changos/monkeys to play. Nowadays it is rare to find a house in California with so much yard unless its price tag is in the millions.

Holidays, get-togethers, and barbecues created the wonderful and sometimes frustrating memories in my life. Games of tag, hide-n-seek and pickle were played here till the sun went down. Memories; they are like wild-fire when I think of that house, like my sister screaming in the bathtub while my mom and Tïas tried pulling out espinas/thorns from a small palm tree she ran into while we played tag. Most days us cousins sat in the back of our grandfather’s truck and made up games, letting our imaginations run wild or we climbed the chain link fence in the back yard which separated the house from the high school, just to walk around when we were bored. There were many fights (always verbal) and hurtful words that would spread like a contagious disease, jealousy, and even a bit of harmless torture, but at the end of the day, we were closer than most families.

The house itself; not that big at all. One story. Three small bedrooms. My grandparents’ bedroom at the front of the house was the warmest of the three. I found myself there often, taking small naps with its inviting warmth and aroma of perfume, dust, and old spice. Large windows occupied two walls letting in the warm sun rays and the uncomfortable cold air at night. It was a simple room which contained within it’s confines one large bed, a long dresser with mirror, an end table, and a couple of shelves full of grandma’s knickknacks. My Tía Mary, the youngest of nine children, now occupied the back bedroom which was even smaller than my grandparents’ room, but was fun to hang out in nonetheless, while my cousin Paul took the middle bedroom and that is where most of us slept whenever our parents were too drunk to drive home.

A small laundry room which became a temporary bedroom to everyone (including myself) at one time was behind the kitchen; at the back of the house. One bathroom with a wrench that controlled the bath tub water, a floor that was very very cold, and a wait line for days during family gatherings and parties was the most uncomfortable of places being too small to move around and embarrassing when while one of us was using the bathroom one of our Tías would barge in for an emergency pee herself. Try imagining that one bathroom in a home of (now seven) children. The living room was roomy enough and the dining room was always full of grown-ups gossiping about someone who wasn’t there or airing their family’s dirty laundry. But the most important part of that house was my Abuelitas’ cocina/kitchen. A meeting place for Tïas and Great Aunts while cooking up savory memorable foods; and my Grandmother at the heart of it all.

With it’s very old appliances like her stove which had to be there from the beginning of time, to the fridge which looked about the same age, to her pale yellow wall around the sink where ants enjoyed their marches on hot days, white walls around the stove, and one tall very thin closet pantry that held everything and anything edible such as oatmeal for days, generic cereal in the bag, Progresso soup, fideo, masa, and flour. I’m reminded of that kitchen whenever I smell homemade flour tortillas, frijoles, Mexican rice, or my favorite; Chicken Mole. My Abuelita was the best cook to grace this world with her presence and she didn’t have to earn a degree for it. We young ones were always shooed out of the cocina while she cooked, small as it was, it was a wonder she could cook at all. But she did it, and her cocina remained the heart of the house forever after.

Growing up in a Mexican-American family I am reminded daily about togetherness, about family and what brought us all together besides holidays and special occasions and the only thing that comes to mind is the fervor of food. Many Mexican-Americans will agree that food is the glue that keeps most families together. Just look at Mi Family, Mi Familia; food was the glue that held them together.

If we weren’t living at our grandparents home we were still there most of the time, visiting family or just barbecuing. In my heart I believe it goes a bit farther than that. I believe it was my Abuelita and Abuelito that were the glue holding us together. You see, they knew what it meant to be a family, to provide for a family, and to love like people should. My Abuelita also knew how to keep her husband and her family happy; cooking with love and doing it well. Perhaps she was taught these ways by her parents, maybe she was taught these ways on her own, but nonetheless, she was great at it, all of it. The loving, the disciplining (at least with us grandchildren), and the giving. My grandparents were family oriented and never thought less when it came to providing and sharing.

You see, my grandparents met in Arizona, moved out to California for work and lived in several cities with family or on their own with the kids until they finally landed in the lap of the Casa Blanca in the late 70’s. By then the older girls were married off and my youngest Tía had her own room while all six of the boys shared the other one. This became the house of many memories and adventures. We all made it our own while we either lived there at one time or had summer visits with our fathers. Throughout it all my grandparents gave us their love, culture, and history.

The house is gone now, the land stripped of its plentiful trees and young voices, but the memories are still there, and I bet if you drove down Franklin Ave. you too would smell the best homemade flour tortillas and chicken mole to ever come out of a wonderful home.

                                                                                         Part Two

                                                                     The House on Waco Street

The house on Waco street stands tall with a nice front yard complete with a huge avocado tree, continuously kept up by my grandfather, a brick stand for the mailbox with the address on the front. This is the house I will call home for the majority of my young life. Memories swim through here as well within its pretty shell, not all of them very nice, but memories all the same. Originally a three bedroom, two bath, the house on Waco Street grew with the addition of a back room, a brick/ rod-iron fence, and a garage that became a bedroom for my cousin.

Again, my favorite place in the house was my grandparent’s bedroom. The amount of sunlight was incredible through a row of small windows located at the top of the southern wall. A plain room in detail, just a queen sized bed, a long dresser and a small closet all embraced by white walls with my grandmothers sprawled detailed appliqués of ribbons and flowers. The living room as well as the kitchen were always darkened by closed doors and window shades, barely enough light to walk around. The kitchen was our grandmother’s headquarters as she always sat at the kitchen table, smoking her Pall Malls with a plastic filter, drinking black coffee, and continuously looking out her small window at the going ons happening around her.

The back room was specifically built for my grandfather, uncles, and male cousins dedicated to all things sports. Superbowls, boxing matches, all celebrated with grandpa’s famous ceviche, carne asada off the grill, and beer. I was lucky to have joined in the festivities, not because of the sports but because of the belonging and not being treated like a “girl”. A portion of that back room eventually became my youngest uncles bedroom. The two bedrooms housed my mother and Aunt as well as my two uncles and eventually my sisters and I while we lived there. The back bedroom eventually turned into a medium between kitchen and laundry room, not really a room anymore. I actually remember the wall of that room coming down for expansion. The windows at the top that my sisters and I would peek through when the guys hung out or sleeping one night only to be awakened by whispers of my grandmother standing in the corner of the room praying over our lost souls. I was creeped out that whole week, afraid to be awakened by her stares and prayers in the middle of the night again.

For me, the kitchen was the best. Watching my grandmother make homemade flour tortillas and the savoring warm aroma they released, homemade vinaigrette dressing, the over amount of bleach in the dish water all complete with conversations held between the women in the family. Stories and gossip about what’s-her-name or the neighbors drug addicted son in trouble again. My fondest memories of my grandmother are her flour tortilla making lessons. I loved being there with her, making my own awkward small tortilla, watching her cook it on the Comal and enjoying a piece of my hard work. Sometimes I was honored with a sneak peek of a stolen kiss from my grandfather to my grandmother or a sip of café con leche (which my grandmother stated would stunt my growth.- Looks like she was right after all!). It was frijoles and papas, or sometimes grandma would go out on a limb with a fancy dinner she saw on the Food Channels that we would chew and hide in our napkins disgusted by the unfamiliar taste of fancy food. Whatever the occasion, I’ll miss it, from the different food, the flour tortillas, the gossip, to the moment I broke my arm as the kitchen table fell on me, I miss her, I miss her cooking, I miss her conversation in later years.

The house on Waco Street still stands. I visit as often as I can, helping out my grandfather with simple (or tough grease) cleaning or just for his company. I visit to listen to his stories of youth and life before I was born. Although the kitchen walls have been cleaned of cigarette smoke and grease and re-painted, and the ribbons and flower appliqués are painted over in most areas, I still feel my grandmother’s presence. The house on Waco Street is my grandmother, in all its darkness and warmth.

Three is a Lucky Number (dedicated to three wonderful women)

Every life is unlike the next. Even within the comforts of a large family,

experiences are lived differently.

Being different means loving in one’s own way. Sharing lessons the same way.

I have the privilege of being loved, being taught lessons and meanings

from three wonderful human beings;

my Tías.

I have learned so much from their experiences and stories.

I took it all for granted in the past. Had I asked them the questions about life

as I was still learning mine,

life might have been different for me.

I am forever thankful to these beautiful women who shared their struggles, their triumphs

their courage and sacrifices, and in return, only gave back

with love and ears to hear.

You see I needed to let go of a past of my own

and they were all there with inviting arms and hearts to take me in.

I will forever hold them high in my world.

Tía Patsy:

Your courage and strength

what else can I say?

Being the oldest daughter

you were the first to experience life changes

to make hasty decisions and come out

with both feet planted on the ground.

I take from you a head held high

proud to be who I am, no matter the price.

Proud to make God the first in my life.

I give to you my love, my respect

and the understanding

that life becomes the choices we make,

We can either learn or run away.

I stop running and choose to stay.

Thank you.

Tía Yolanda:

Your strong will and desire to do great things,

I used to think you were just plain mean.

I see now what you wanted from us and

from your own children; just to succeed,

to believe in ourselves and not in foolish things.

The second daughter in line,

you were proud of many things

and struggled through many more,

and you still smile because God is by your side.

I am humbled by your faith, by your daily strength

Thank you for trusting me with your past life

with showing me that love lives

even in our imperfections.

Thank you.

Tía Mupe:

The youngest of a large family

you had it made, or so it seemed,

but you had a life unlike your siblings.

Although you were babied and treated so special

the choices you made didn’t live up to their one goal.

Only you know why you chose that road

and I see you trying hard to find a new one.

I see in you new struggles, always carrying the pain

you have so much to live for

I want you to know that.

My grandparents knew that and so did my cousin.

Look at how much love surrounds you!

Thank you for the love you never ran out of

for cleaning my self-inflicted wound

and not judging me in the process.

You took care of me like a mother would

and I am forever grateful.

I give you all my love in return,

all of my prayers and hopes.

You are still young, and still alive,

and the road can still be found.

Thank you.

(another installment for “Chicken Mole for the Mexican-American Soul”)

                                                  Family… enough said  (Part I)
In these desperate times I have prayed, hoped, and dreamt of my family reuniting, becoming strong within the blood of our roots, the wisdom of our ancestors. Instead, we have lost faith within the absent generation of our parents; their clouded views, distorted beliefs and lifestyles. They have become the hopeless, the runaways of hard work of becoming someone, having strayed into the confines of dark empty closets of shame and despair. 

Now here we are, another generation that has been trapped in this crazy repetitious cycle unknowingly passing these ways of life onto the next generation. When will this vicious cycle end? How much longer must the oppression of my family rage on within the wombs of our mothers and the wombs of my generation, generations thereafter? What are we leaving our children if not a closet filled of painful shame of skeletons and bruised egos?

I have come to plead, on battered knees, to make you, my family, understand how sacred family is and how wrong we have been by ignoring this fact.

To my Juarez Familia:

The Juarez family began with hard labor, making a mark, standing on solid ground with great achievement and long-awaited accomplishments. My great-grandmother was Native American, her family knew the ways of this world before they were stripped of all worth. She lived to see so much, at times, far too much of this world to make one’s heart grow weak. But then there were the images that would send her relief; her granddaughters  and with them; new dreams, her great granddaughters and  the beginning of change, her great great granddaughters and the last of any hope in their eyes, and all would be alright again.

My great-grandfather; the provider, the educator, the laborer of sacrifice who cleared a path for his children’s future, a future with promise with more than just labels. Providing shelter, nourishment, and all his wisdom of life before, sadly taken before I had been born. I see his influence passed on to my great uncles, great aunts, my own grandmother. They all knew what it meant to be strong in a world where you weren’t wanted unless a house needed cleaning or a war needed bodies. I am proud of my Juarez heritage, proud to know that success is not proven by the language one speaks, by the brown in one’s skin, by the labels one used.

Family is the world that matters…

I give you my thanks for it is because of you that this strong blood runs through my veins. It is because of you, my beautiful great grandparents, that I have the courage and values to look back on when I am afraid of looking ahead, I give you my  respect for bringing up my great aunts and uncles with importance and love, I feel that love from them still…

And when our grandparents came to be, and everything meant to continue, meant to hold up the ladder of the past, it resulted in Uncles and Aunts, my parents, they had given life to. But sadly, this is where life has come to halt,  has lost all sacred values and we, the product of these children, are drowning suffocating in the lapse of a once meaningful life. It’s time to get that life they were meant to give, back.

To my Peña Familia;

It is because of you, mi Abuelito y Abuelita.  You both knew the meaning of hard work, you both knew the blessings of a family.  It is because of you that life can change. The mistakes of the past can stay that way. I know you tried as hard as you could, but it wasn’t always easy.  You tried, like so many others. How were you to know what the future held? And like all things, times change and sometimes not for the good.  When did you realize you had lost hold of your children?  When did they decide to think for themselves and stray from the family before them who brought them great principles?  There were many obstacles, many changes along the way. Did you struggle with some private pain while trying to raise a family of your own?  Did it become complicated and too much to handle? It seemed that you worked your whole lives just to give your children what you never had.

Was that asking too much of you?  These children of yours are my aunt and uncles, my mother. These were the voices, the examples I was to learn from; lean on.  But it only happened way too late, and now it seems that there is no home to go back to. It is because of you; my grandparents, I had a place to stay, I had advice to take. It is my turn to give back before those once important morals float silently out to sea.  I give you my thankfulness, for not turning me away. I give you my respect for doing all that you could to give your children the best. I praise your admiration for diving head-first into the role of parenting.  You weren’t perfect as I’m sure I don’t know the half of it, but why would anyone want perfection? I’m sure your children only wanted you to be there, only wanted your acceptance and love.  Life is such a strange thing. We strive for things we can never seem to achieve. 

My Aunts, Uncles and my Mother;

Wake Up! Before the rooster crows and the time for adjustment becomes yesterday. Remember what you always wanted from the ones you looked up to. Remember these feelings and these dreams you once had and how your children wished for the same.  In the end, we all just want to be loved; affectionately. In the end we all just want to be accepted without any strings, without any “buts”. Remember the meaning of familia and what you want to leave behind. We, your children, are waiting on you. We can’t solve your problems for you, we can’t always make the first move. Be strong like our ancestors were strong, be wise and patient, be all that you wanted to be when you first looked down on your newborn child. If you have made amends with yourself, then it is time to work on others.

I am grateful for your love, your advice, your motherly type love when there was none around. I am honored that I can call you family. I am hopeful that time will tell when all will be right with our family again. Not perfect, but harmonious and full of life.