Friday, September 24, 2010


This morning as I staggered off the train and down the street to the office, still drunk from lack of sleep and the bright-light, screeching slot machine that is my brain, all I could think about was a piece of fruit. Any piece of fruit: apple, banana, pear… spots, no spots, bruised, shriveled. I was hungry, and my ama wasn’t around to predict that I would regret running out the door without a morning bite.

While living under my parent’s roof, my ama always made it a point to shove some piece of fruit into the bottom of my bag. In high school, I remember finding shriveled oranges wrestling in the brown slime that I assume used to be a banana at the bottom of my backpack. When I began making a long-haul commute to and from campus, she graduated to sneaking in breakfast burritos and bolillos into my book bag. It should be noted that I’m fully talented in the art of procrastination and as such would typically run out of my bedroom in the mornings with one shoe on my foot and the other in my hand; yanking at book bag straps and fumbling with door knobs. This big-time college Chicana was way too busy to “throw something in my gut,” as my ama would always say. My replies to that always sounding like drunken troll drivel.

Baaarrghgrhhhh… running late!

Gaahhpfstthh… Gonna miss the bus!

Oooossggghhhh….  No hambre, hungry no!

Meeeeeghgghhhh…. Noqweiisk fdseirr!!

In her typical loving manner, my ama would simply call me a mensa and, in an indirect way, tell me that it would be my fault were I to suffer and die of starvation should I be stranded somewhere in the winding wilderness of Westwood. 

That should I be sitting in the interrogation rooms of PoliSci discussion courses with a stomach so hungry it would eat itself inside out, the pain would be mine and mine alone to bear.

She would not think twice nor feel guilty were I to find myself penniless in front of the menacing vending machine, teasingly showing off the shining jewel of a wrapper surrounding its one last granola bar.

These scenarios she was able to vividly illustrate with her minimal eloquence every morning as she uttered:

‘ingate pues.

But my momma was a master of predicting the perils of hunger I was sure to face that day and so, she would get up earlier than I, rally the banana commandos and burrito generals and prepare them for the battle I would face later that day. Many a time I would find myself in some labyrinth of Plexiglas windows, counseling offices, financial aid centers with its never ending retractable ropes and ink-less pens, fighting my stomach from eating itself inside out. 

I’d reach into my bag for something, anything, that would help me feel some sort of warm humanity among frigid bureaucracies. My hand would come in contact with some object that felt nothing like a bag of skittles or half-eaten granola bar. 

At the end of my careful excavation I'd find myself holding, nay, cradling a platinum breakfast burrito; its diamond beads of condensation running through the trenches of foil folds, desperately trying to reach my trembling hands as if to say:





This morning, as I sadly found a void in my bag where there once was a piece of fruit, I reflected… 

Dang. Mommaknow.

My father had the same realization some 60 years ago, standing in the dark wilderness soaking wet and battling a blaze.

My late great-uncle, Tio Bibi, was a compassionate and giving man. So giving he dedicated his eternal life to spreading the love of God as a priest in various Mexican towns. As a young man, my father often accompanied my uncle on his trips to visit families, churches, orphanages or on other tasks.

Some 60 years ago, my father joined my uncle on one of these trips, this time to a nunnery in San Martin to dutifully deliver blankets to the sisters and their community. My father and my uncle packed their horses with over-night provisions as the trip they were going to make would take a good part of two days over and two days back. Being the experienced travelers they were, they packed their blankets (along with those they were delivering), some food, matches, mangas de ule (popularized in the United States under the alias: ponchos), machetes and other survival gear.

My late grandmother, Maria, in all of her intimidating pettiness, urged my father to take his church shoes along with him. They were, after all, going to visit a community of God and would most likely attend mass upon their arrival. It was inconceivable for my Ma'ma Maria that my father would walk into any house of God in his dusty huaraches. After much debate and insistence on my father’s behalf that his cargo was heavy enough, he let out his drunken troll drivel of agreement:

Grraarrrruuuhhhh si. Esta bien.

She very delicately wrapped his Sunday shoes in a towel, guarded them with a morral and added to his cargo.

The latter part of their first day of traveling was invaded by a rolling storm, putting a quick stop to the rest of their journey for the day. The soaked travelers decided to ease their troubled horses and camp in the cerro for the night.

They spotted a large lazy log with a dried underbelly and quickly sentenced it to death by camp-fire. Using  still-green oak leaves and soaking matches, both my father and uncle tried their hands at the impossible task of creating the foundation for a blaze.

They emerged victorious, with a few match-head casualties and dragged the tip of the forsaken log over the small flame. My father and uncle made their way to the tail end of the log; a tactic that would allow them to absorb the warm electricity being channeled by the burning tip of the log at the other end.

My father gave his trusty huaraches the same treatment so that their tired soles would dry off. The travelers then huddled under their mangas de ule and, in slumber, waited for the next part of their journey marked with warm sun kisses to wake and greet them.

In his slumber, my father felt himself become intensely warmer and warmer. Intending to find the sun caressing his face, he opened his eyes and discovered that the condemned log had cried revenge, swallowed the camp-fire flame and dragged it through its decrepit, dry underbelly . It had, through some sort of mystical, wild tree flatulatory process, begun spitting the flame onto my father and my uncle. Their mangas de ule quickly growing weaker and hotter as it attempted to protect its inhabitants.

My father and uncle sprung up from their earthen beds and stood back to watch the malicious log cackle and hiss; using its newly acquired torch limbs to paw at the weary travelers. My father then realized that in his escape, he neglected to reach out and grab his trusted companions. Somewhere in the cackle and hiss of the log, he realized, were the sad cries of his huaraches.

Looking down at his naked feet, he struggled to think just how he would continue to make the rest of the journey with nothing protecting his vulnerable soles. Surely the community in San Martin would think he was one of my uncle’s rescued orphans, seeking refuge, salvation and shoes.

Lost in his mourning for his rubber-soled huaraches, my father began fumbling through the cargo mounted on his horse and found himself grasping a humble little morral. Reaching for its cradled contents inside, his trembling fingers were greeting with a smooth, comforting feeling of leather.

Slipping on his Sunday shoes, my father incredulously said to himself;

Dang. Mommaknow.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The High Life

In the 1970’s, my dad managed to make his way through the great state of Zacatecas, through the schizophrenic mountainous desert regions of northern Mexico and eventually found himself in the suburban pit of Los Angeles known as the San Fernando Valley. His wife (my Ama) and his eight kids staying behind, anxiously waiting to be called on up into el norte like dirty-kneed third graders in a kickball line. He worked various jobs that, apparently, many middle-class Americans are hungry for today; as a bus-boy, a dish-washer, fruit-picker, weed-yanker. At some point in his American transition, he came across a man named Roy.

I’m very certain he had a last name to accompany that, however I don’t recall it, nor is it anything that would elevate his status of respect in my father’s mind like the Klark Kents or Bruce Waynes of the world. To me, to most of us, he was Roy.

Roy took my father under his wing and provided him with the best survival tools a migrant like my father could have in this dog town: a job and a grain of knowledge.

Eventually my father was able to bring my mother, brothers and sisters over the border in various, precarious ways; a couple of them crossing with my mother, a few of them with practical strangers. My sister Ana becoming a stranger to herself as her long thick hair was butchered turning her into a little Mexican Joan of Arc, entering the American battlefront as a transgender little soldier.

Roy moved my father and my family into an overwhelming property in Canoga Park for which he was the caretaker; the owner of said property having passed away and leaving her heirs at a loss for what to do with it. Even though the home was massive and we were allowed to stay in the mainstay, our parents strictly prohibited us from staying there. We were the groundskeepers and so would stay in the workers quarters; this was one of our first lessons in humility. The hills of the property were covered with rows of Orange trees, vast green lawns which my father carefully took care of and little garden oasis.’ It was a small paradise for such a humble family.

After a few years, the heirs decided to tear down this paradise of ours and turn them into town-homes.


My parents found a decently priced home in Pacoima, then still a growing family community, loaded us up into the Ford and moved us to the other side of the valley. My father had been working with Roy as a groundskeeper for many years and so my father continued on this career path as a gardener and landscaper.

He would wake up before the lazy sun itself would open its eye and head out to cut the lawns of attorneys, business men, rich women with rich husbands, shop owners and the woman with the cats.

Man, she had a lot of cats.

As a little girl, this is what I knew and loved. My father’s career wasn’t glamorous, it wasn’t easy, to many – probably not respected. To me and my brothers and sisters, it was our American dream.

He would return from work and continue his duties around the house, keeping his own home in order, paying the bills, patting his children on his head. My father isn’t a relatively tall man, but in our eyes, he towered the trees that lined the street. His Tejana sitting on top of his head like a golden-straw crown, skin as tough as leather, moustache to be feared.

Even the sweat on his forehead glistened like itty-bitty diamonds.

I had one self-imposed chore getting home from school: wait for my apa to come home.

I had to make sure to sit in the front yard, in the living room or anywhere in earshot of his truck with the clank-clank of rakes strapped to the side as it came down the street; ears perking up like any child hearing the bells of an ice cream truck.

I knew that getting home from a long, hot day of work, my father only really wanted two things: his slippers and his Miller High Life.

It’s what let him know his work day was done, that he could relax and not have to worry about anymore “yes Ms., no Mister., cut grass? No blower? Trash today?” Arriving to this marked the finish line, he was at HIS home, with HIS family.

I was a fat little kid and I would still manage to run like a jack rabbit to get his slippers ready, jump up and grab his cold Miller High Life out of the fridge and wait for him at the door. I’d stand and watch as he sat on the bench outside and dust himself off, place his hat on the bench and start at the duty of yanking at the miniature ropes that were his laces. It would be an extra joy for me when he would let me help him untie his heavy, grass-stained work boots. 

My father’s feet would slip into the faux-fur lined slippers, which I always imagined felt like stepping on bouncy clouds, take the beer from my hand and sit in the front yard to take in what was his, smiling at us with his silver-capped teeth. 

Brilliant small stars of his internal universe.

Sometimes he would let me sit on his lap or lean my head on his shoulder and I would breathe in his smell. It wasn’t cologne, or the smell of his shaving lotion, nor the crisp fabric softener my mother used. It wasn’t even Irish Spring or Lava for that matter. It was the musky smell of skin, sweat, leather. 

It was the smell of earth and sun, of my family’s history.

My father is now long retired, strictly ordered to cease all labor-intensive activities by his doctors and his family; though if it were really up to him, he’d still be out climbing and trimming someone’s palm tree (and I probably would still be sitting on the couch waiting for the sound of clanking rakes.) While he rarely ever drinks his Miller High Life, he still sits in his front yard, wearing his slippers, taking in what is his. He feeds his Koi fish in his Koi pond, yanks at dead leaves in the garden, complains about the kids leaving their scooters in the middle of the street, tells us stories from Zacatecas, tears through religious books and jigsaw puzzles and talks about Roy, who passed away some time ago, fondly and with much respect, a man who was able to help my father build this high life that we can now drink in.