Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Real Deal

When I was a child growing up in the sterile manicured suburbs of Southern California we were fortunate to live on the edge of a wild canyon, where I spent a great deal of time climbing trees and fishing polliwogs out of the muddy creek and exploring the mysteries of nature among the danger of poison oak and rattlesnakes. It was a place I could go where I felt like I could truly be myself; wild and natural and free. Years later at age 23, I had a strong desire to travel to Mexico, precisely because of its danger, mystery, and wildness. Because it was so close, it was an easy choice. I have since returned many times, and each time I am enchanted by the experience. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I can see now that in some ways Mexico was another version of the canyon in my back yard.
What follows is a short piece about one of my first childhood experiences with the Mexican culture...


The Garcias were the only Mexican family in the neighborhood, and the first I’d ever met. They lived down the block and across the street from our house in the suburbs of San Diego. Their house was different from ours; instead of a perfectly manicured lawn there were potted plants, an old wooden gate, spiny cactus growing outside the door. Inside, there was always the smell of roasting chilies and salsa and corn tortillas and meat, even when no one was cooking. There was always music playing, people coming and going and hundreds of things to look at. Little plaster poodles with gold chains next to figurines of the Virgin Mary and various saints and angels. There was a calendar on the wall in the kitchen with a picture of Jesus on it, his pleading eyes looking up to heaven, blood oozing from the thorns sticking into his forehead. If you moved slowly up and down he would open and close his eyes and a river of tears would stream down his sorrowful face. I had never seen anything like it, and would spend a long time bobbing up and down in front of the calendar watching Jesus in his infinite sorrow, batting his eyes for God.

On Saturdays when most fathers were mowing the lawn or washing their cars I would go down the street to the bright green house with the bicycles in the yard and eat tamales at Dona Lupe’s crowded table while her husband Carlos sang along to the Spanish songs on the radio. I would play in the backyard of overgrown weeds with her daughter Sylvia, who was the same age as me. One day I asked her about the Jesus picture and the words that were printed in Spanish beneath his painful portrait. What does it say? I wanted to know.
“It says ‘Carniceria Gonzalez; Freshest meats in town’. “It’s from a butcher shop in Tijuana,” she said.

At our house the d├ęcor was Japanese. Rattan furniture with little fan patterns on the cushions, straw tatami mats on the floor. A little brass Buddha incense burner perched on the coffee table and prints of airbrushed Jaguars prowling through exotic jungles adorned the walls. It never occurred to me at the time to wonder how my cockney English mother and Jewish father from the Bronx had ever come to embrace this mishmash of Oriental decor, but this is how it was in the suburbs of southern California in the fifties. You bought a tract home in a development called ‘Cinderella Homes,’ chose an interior motif based on a fantasy, and there you dwelt in the environment of a culture you knew nothing about. Anything tropical and exotic was in, and we attended countless neighborhood luaus where we would sip Hawaiian punch under the light of tiki torches as we watched our drunken parents bump their chests on the limbo pole to the tunes of Chubby Checker singing the Limbo Rock. “How lowww can you gooo?”

A few years later we switched to Early Colonial American. Heavy dark stained notched wood with brown Naugahyde cushions, brass eagle lamps, prints of autumn landscapes and horses, braided rag rugs in Avocado Green and Harvest Gold. The Naugahyde would stick to your skin in hot weather and make strange squeaking sounds when you moved. I wondered how those early colonial people handled it. We traded our Formica table for a larger one made of faux carved wood where my mother would serve up spaghetti with canned sauce and frozen chicken pot pies and pizza and ground beef with packaged taco mix in perfect molded hard taco shells. We took on the flavor of other cultures and periods of history and made them our own. We embraced them as if they were a ride at Disneyland.

But at the Garcia’s house, everything about it was Mexican. Mexican food. Mexican music. Mexican language. Even the chachkes were Mexican. The photos lined up under the rabbit ears antenna on the Zenith TV set were of Mexican people. Grandparents and uncles and cousins and nieces. Girls in frilly white dresses and men in cowboy hats, all with dark eyes and brown skin, peering out of their ornate plastic frames like a silent crowd of ancestors watching over their progeny. These people were the real deal.

Sometimes Sylvia would come over to my house and we would play on my swing set or in my room, which she couldn’t believe I had all to myself. It was decorated in lavender and pink with ruffled curtains and matching wallpaper that my mother had chosen for the little girl she wished she had. The floor was strewn with little plastic army men and baseball mitts and super hero comic books. Sometimes it seemed as if the rooms of our house were decorated for someone else's family. They just hadn’t arrived yet.

Years later, when I was seventeen and my parents were divorced and we had sold the house to live in separate condos, (my father said that he always hated having to mow that lawn on his days off) I ran into Sylvia at the Kmart. She was pushing a shopping cart with a small toddler sitting in it. She said she didn’t know where the father was but that it was okay, because her mother and sisters were helping her out. In her cart were several bottles of Coke, a large box of Cheerios and a package of Pampers. She told me how they had moved into some apartments on the other side of the freeway, where a lot of other Mexican families were living now, and how she had a part time job busing tables at Shakey’s Pizza. Her eyes were lined in black and her tight blouse revealed her now full breasts and the paunch of her belly. Suddenly the baby began to shriek, kicking his feet against the cart. Sylvia rolled her eyes and said she had to go.
For some reason I remembered the Jesus calendar, and with the memory came the spicy smells of the kitchen, the ayayay! of ranchera music, and the vision of bright red pepper plants sprouting up amidst the weeds like painted fingernails. I laughed out loud.
“What?” she asked. She had taken the child out of the cart and was bouncing him on her hip.
“Oh, I was just thinking about that Jesus picture,” I said. “Remember? The one where the eyes opened and closed?” She looked at me over her shoulder, her penciled eyebrows raised, and said she didn’t remember a thing about it. What she did remember, she said, was the feeling of riding high on that swing in my backyard. How she loved looking down from the sky like that, for just a second, before chain jerked you back to earth again. Back to the bittersweet green smell of freshly mowed grass.