Nonfiction by Melissa and Tina Villa-Nicholas
Se me olvidó
I am in middle school when I first hear it.
“I’m Spanish!” says a light-skinned Latina girl.
It's spring outside and I'm standing in the lunch line. Even though I have my tortilla, I wait for my friend Evie, my first proud Mexican girlfriend, who can’t speak Spanish but laughs at the girl. Evie is my neighbor and best friend.
“Ha! She is not!” Evie says to me later and laughs even louder.
Every day at 12:05 we run to the lunch line; even though I bring a sack lunch I wait with Evie. When the “Spanish girls” ask why I have a sack lunch, I merely shrug while Evie gets in their faces and asks, “Why? It's none of your beeswax!”
Evie and I hear this time and time again, as though “Mexican” is a word only to be whispered. It's 1964 and I am twelve years old. I am one of a few Mexican American children in a mostly white school in the suburbs of Los Angeles. I've known for most of my school experience that being Spanish means “green eyes, lighter skin.” Like my Grandmother who is part French and pretty mean. Are they all that way?
One day one of my older sisters tells us, “The Spanish kids are slightly lighter than us.” I wait for Evie’s response, but she knows better than to challenge the big sister.
In my high school auditorium a set of twins, a boy and girl who work hard at staying out of the sun, run up to me.
“I’m Spanish! My mother was born in Spain, see?” The girl, Linda, shows us her hand. Her brother Max puts his out at the same time, as though they rehearsed this together.
Evie looks at me and I at her. “Well, that makes us the only two Mexicans left here, Tina. You and me.” She laughs out loud, and with that the Spanish twins turn on their heels in unison and leave us.
In the girls' locker room I overhear time and time again, “What are you?” from white girls to the few Latina girls who attend.
“I’m Spanish,” they respond, sounding so dignified.
The same Spanish girls taunt us in the locker room.
“Why is your hair so black?”
“Mine is straight and dark brown like my grandmother's from Spain. I’m Spanish!”
Every day Evie responds, “Look at your eyebrows. They're black! I’m Mexican. My mother is from Mexico that makes me Mexican.”
I often wonder to myself, How does she do that? And then I am proud and courageous with Evie around, until the next time the word comes flying our way.
My fears developed in first grade and grew as the bullying continued throughout school. Name-calling words like “dirty Mexican.” I wonder How am I dirty? I take a bath every day. Being particularly dark or morena, with curly hair, doesn’t help. I feel at times like a big bulls-eye to those white boys, so maybe being Spanish would make it easier? It crosses my mind, but with Evie around I can get through the day. Later I will realize that any other nationality does not fit into the white school. We are all victims of the wrong color skin, so it's no wonder the few Mexicans claim they are “Spanish.”
Evie is right. The word “Mexican” means "second-class citizen" at Leuzinger High School. I hear that word in my head every time I see the twins throughout my high school years. I wonder in confusion, Why don’t they want to be Mexican? What does that mean to me? To my two older sisters who also attend this school, and to Evie? What about the others?
Our neighbors, the Garnicas, who have seventeen brothers and sisters, are all very dark, and my Papá says they are of Indian descent.
“Ay pobrecitos to them!” says my mother.
Why? Who can I ask?
At Grandma and Pop’s house in the suburbs, we read The Chronicles of Narnia in Spanish together. The walls are lined with mismatching wallpaper--red checkers on the bottom and flowers on the top with a strip of more flowers between the two. Whereas the Osage House was made up of browns and yellows, this house is swallowed by dull blues. The carpet is a matted teal, a leftover gift from the previous owners. The couch is blue with tanned flecks, with a frilled duster lining the floor. The fireplace at Grandma and Pop’s house is real, unlike the cardboard cutout at the Osage House, and it's lined with a parade of saints, elephants, and children's toys. They wait patiently for the nietos and nietas to visit, always on display, some frozen in that state since the last time kids visited. St. Francis faces off against Thomas the Train, and Wolverine rides an exotic ceramic elephant.
Grandma sits on her stone blue reclining chair, listening as I struggle through C.S. Lewis in Spanish. She oscillates from laughing and sewing to nodding off and snoring, before waking herself up and laughing again.
Every once in a while, I stop and ask her what a word means in English. She looks at me with a puzzled expression, and I don’t know if I’ve triggered frustration at her fading memories or if she just doesn’t know the translation. This book is mostly about a ship at sea, so the words are ones we already don’t know in English, like starboard, mast, and stern.
“Jose!” Grandma yells, and Pop comes through the door to the garage as though he’s been waiting on stage left for his cue.
“What does cuerda mean?”
“It means rope!”
“Ohhhh, se me olvidó,” she realizes, and laughs a little. Pop mutters to himself and wanders back to his workspace, a table in the garage cluttered with duct tape and small projects that keep his hands moving.
We return to our ritual of reading, sleeping, and laughing, and the over-saturated blue becomes more familiar. Warming, instead of cooling, the room.
It’s been about four months since I returned from Mexico, and I worry the words may slip from my mouth and be lost forever. I’m moving back to Los Angeles in August and I want to return fluent, a different person. Someone who can speak Spanish anywhere, conversing as though it’s my first language.
I feel strangely free at this point in time. I’ve just turned my back on an ex-boyfriend who kept trying to reappear in my life, sneaking in through the vulnerable cracks of post-college living, where I live with my parents and work at Starbucks with my higher ed degree. But I have a clear sense that I’m getting out of the pink suburb very soon. That my adult life waits for me to the west. Right now life is groggy and I constantly smell like burnt coffee. I wake up at 3:30 a.m. for the opening shift and I’m off by noon. The rest of the day I drag around like a half-awake zombie, heading to Grandma's in the afternoon for Spanish and comedies. We go to the movies and she laughs hysterically at the thump the seat makes when she falls into it.
During our Spanish readings, I struggle through the pages, often completely uncertain of what's happening in the story. My mouth and tongue strain while I thrum and roll my rrrr’s, mimicking my grandma’s Northern Mexico accent, which makes “cha” sound like “shhh.” I usually take a break when my mouth and tongue are sore from unpracticed movements and strained muscles.
I’m too familiar with the slip of Spanish. My mom told me she had once only spoken Spanish but eventually blocked it all out, only to find herself unable to retrieve it when she was ready, like an old friendship that was impossible to recover.
We leave at the end of the chapter, promising to come back in a few days. Grandma always looks a little sad. The thing with Mexican families is that you're not supposed to leave, ever. No matter how many hours you’ve spent together, the surprised question will always follow you out the door: “Ya té vas?”
Our weekly ritual of reading in Spanish and watching slapstick comedies at the matinee is coming to a close as I prepare to move to LA with college girlfriends. Grandma alternates between circling her large-print word puzzle and snoring. Shaky lines loop around the smooth brown paper. Since finding out she has dementia, our family has taken to buying a spectrum of remedies for memory, from crosswords puzzles to high-end fish oils.
Annie, our elderly, half-deaf shih tzu, shuffles across the living room like an old dirty mop. Because we’re treading the shallow waters of the recession, Annie no longer gets professional haircuts, which make her prance as if she's a few years younger. These days Annie’s shaggy hair falls over her brown eyes, though she is rarely interested in looking beyond her two-foot frame anyway.
Annie is aging quickly. Every once in a while she sparks to life, like someone jumpstarted her batteries, and it's as if she's young again. She darts through the house and rolls around, taking command of any surrounding pets. But within a few minutes of revival she is curled up again, tucked into her soggy white shag. We have to clap for her attention. And if something is really wrong, she gives a distorted cry, partially muted and unheard by most ears.
“Annie!” Grandma calls out with a smile in her voice. “Annie!” she calls again, patting the edge of her corduroy chair.
Annie moves over to Grandma’s side, hovering over her worn chanclas that tear at the leather and buckle. “I got to get me a little dog like that," Grandma says a little sadly, her crossword half completed.
“Jose! I want a little dog like Annie!”
Pop comes through the garage door, “Mande?”
“I want a little dog like Annie!”
“Que vas a hacer con un perrito, Esperanza?” Pop says, retreating back to his work bench and ranchero music.
After college, every day for me is the same. Drive to Starbucks in the dark dawn. Put on an apron that smells of charred coffee and stale muffins. Take drink orders for eight hours. Go home. Shower. Wash coffee out of work clothes. Go to Grandma's. Read in Spanish. Go to a matinee. Sleep by eight pm.
My Starbucks coworkers invite me to beach bonfires and bars, to do the exact same things I used to do in high school. But I try to stay pointed in the other direction.
Grandma’s feet stay reclined in her chair, its deep cushions folding around her. Her feet look like potatoes, swollen and baked for too long. Beige nylons hug them tightly, easing the arthritic pain. They are tucked carefully into her withering chanclas, single-buckle Birkenstocks. I wore some for a few months in college with long flowery skirts, but they didn’t stick. My aunts continue to buy her shoes, expensive shoes with padding and arches, but she always goes back to these chanclas, tearing at the leather, shabby and molded to her feet over the years.
A dog would promise Grandma a future. Getting a new dog, or taking a typing class, or finishing her sewing projects means that she has plans. That we believe she should have plans. Giving her an Annie means that she has to live as long as Annie. That she will wake up and feed her, take her outside, bend over down low to pet her.
Grandma doesn’t get a little dog. She has a few minutes with Annie every day. She walks her down the street, pulling her leash so Annie drags from the neck and coughs. She doesn’t get any of the things she asks for. We all hesitate when she asks, unsure how someone with memory loss would do with a dog or sewing needles. Instead we distract her with puzzles and gardening and movies. Cluttering the future with fish oil.
On Thanksgiving, cousins and uncles are stuffed and draped across the couch and floor. Lotería cards are scattered along the table. One of my aunts ritualistically finds El Diablo and flips his card upside down, warding off evil spirits through the ‘if we can’t see him, he can’t see us’ rule. My grandma sits across from me at the table; the overhead lights reflect two bulbs in her glasses frames.
“Yeah, Grandma?” I say as my fingers brush the computer keys. I'm chatting with friends on AOL Instant Messaging about their holidays.
“What is it you’re doing?” She stretches her small frame to look over the oversized plastic flowers in the middle of the table, probably brought by my nina, who can't leave a store without a consolation prize for shopping there in the first place.
“I’m responding to emails.”
Further confusion settles over her murky cataract-afflicted eyes.
“It's like a typewriter. I hit the key, and it types up on my computer.”
“Oh. I got to get me a typing class…”
I half listen as I make plans for my return to Los Angeles.
Back in LA I am a ‘grown up.’ I wake up every day at six in the morning. I ride my bike or drive to the train stop a mile down Figueroa. I take the Gold Line to Union Station and transfer to the Red Line, sometimes just barely squeezing through the automatic doors. I exit 7th and Metro and stand in a corner of the city that is always shadowed and windy, closed in by high rises. The smell of bread and coffee mixes with trash and gutter waste as I wait for the freeway bus to take me twenty miles southwest, to the other edge of Figueroa, where my work is located. And I wake up the next day and do it again.
“Jose! I want to take typing classes!” Pop rouses from his reclined state in his chair.
“Que vas a hacer con typing, Esperanza?” Pop responds, closing his eyes once more with a final glance towards Clint Eastwood, who points a gun at a snarling boracho Mexican draped in an exaggerated serape. “He always gets those guys, jajaja.” Pop falls back into slumber, laughing.
Grandma’s face makes a frown, her eyebrows hunching as though she is thinking of an answer to Pop’s question. She stretches her neck a little more in an attempt to see my keyboard, but I ignore her, too self-absorbed to be bothered. Her patas dangle from the chair, just grazing the carpet. Her instinct is to get up and wash dishes or wipe the table, but tias scold her to sit down and relax. So she looks at each of us and finds something new to talk about.
“Here, Grandma, I’ll teach you how to type,” one of my primas offers, and they walk slowly through the keys together, leaving me heavy with guilt and Thanksgiving food.
The Last Supper spreads across the wall behind Grandma like a mural. It is always somewhere in my periphery when I’m with my grandparents. Each person has a role at the table. The savior, the traitor, the devoted, the chismosos, the skeptic, the servant. They buzz around the center, trying and failing and trying again to get close. To be the favorite, or at least physically the closest, to the guy in the middle. His arms stretch out in an attempt to be close to all of them, but it’s not possible. Some are destined to be left out. Some can’t fit, or it's not enough; the little edge of the table they’ve been given is not enough.
I tell myself I will be a better nieta next time. That I will pay attention and jump at my chance to be selfless. But I fall into my routine--the daily walk to the car, to the train, to the other train, to the bus--and somewhere amid the dull tasks of being an ‘adult’ in the ‘real world,’ I forget those resolutions. To be strong, or good, or selfless seems impossible as I elbow a space for myself at the table.
Gloria and Sandra huddle close together in front of me, reading a book. My cousin Juana looks on. She is very smart, a year older than Gloria, and she has paved the way for all of us. She reminds all of us, “You will be made fun of if you speak Spanish.”
Behind them I hear my mamá y papá, “Que quieres a comer, Jose?” my mamá asks as she flips the tortilla on her well-used placa.
The words float away as I begin to embrace the English language and dismiss my Spanish. My sisters and I made a silent pact: “ No more Spanish in this household.”
“The dumb class is where you will end up,” she continues, “if you speak Spanish.” Upon hearing this, my sisters appear to read even more clearly in broken English. Behind me I vaguely hear the Spanish words of Mamá, “Venga a comer pronto, Jose,” mi mamá announces.
We live in the suburbs of Los Angeles, surrounded by predominately white neighbors. Our schools teach in English only and no one knows a word of Spanish. I suffer the same torment of an unknown language. We struggle to learn English using our own devices as fast as possible.
Routine in our home helps the unknown language that is waiting for me outside. The small house has only one bathroom, so the line begins depending on what time you get up. “Huevona,” Sandra calls me, as she proudly tells us she has been up since the first tortilla was made. My mamá begins making the daily tortillas at four a.m. for papá’s lunch. Eight chairs circle a large dining room table and fill up for our daily portion of avena. Then we get in line for our hair to be braided, a ritual as well as a blessing from Mamá. Finally it's off to school with my brown legs trembling beneath me.
I feel warm. Maybe I can stay home.
“Tina, attencion. Don’t forget to pay attention,” Gloria tells me.
“No!” I say inside as I bite my bottom lip, but I would never say it aloud. Maybe today I will understand the words I’m trying to read. Maybe today I will read and understand my teacher, I say to myself. But I just received my first report card and the failing grade does not give me hope.
“Don’t speak any words if you cannot speak English,” continue my cousin and sisters all the way to school. In class, I squirm in my chair as I try to become invisible. The English language is full of strange sounds, with words that seem like only white people can learn. Practicing under my breath, I mutter “Deskkk,” copying a girl next to me as she speaks English with ease.
“The dumb group that can’t read!” my cousin and sister remind me. What will happen to me?
I end up exactly where they predicted--with the dumb group. The dreadful boys who speak English like birds laugh at me as I try to make words come out, copying only what I hear others have just read.
We stick to our pact: no more Spanish at home. I wait to move into the smart groups at school, but it never happens. I stay at the edges of the classroom, hiding the Spanish below the desk with my brown legs.
The first author, Melissa Villa-Nicholas, is a faculty member at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, she writes on Latina/o intersectional histories of information technologies. Tina Villa-Nicholas, is a pre-school teacher and immigrant rights activist. She has received the Heroes in Education award from the Lake Elsinore School District. They write together on race, culture, gender, and their experiences being Mexican-American in the United States.