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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Mother’s Unspectacular Affair*

We had lived in the “Gashouse” for a few months when my brother was born. He was born in October of 1985; I was 10 years old. We’d been back in the States less than a year. My brother’s an anchor baby! When he turned three, he wanted nothing but to be outside, in the weeds, the dirt, mud, and hazardous materials, poisons, and sharp objects that populated the surrounding area around the house—we lived in the middle of a working agricultural farm, after all. My father was gone most of the day—starting at about 5 a.m.—and he would stop by once in a while throughout the morning just to see his youngest boy. I was at school. After lunch, he wouldn’t be seen until he was off work, at around 7 or 8 p.m.

My mother never left the house. She would take my brother out for walks around the God Trees, but she was tethered to the house by the gas leak. My father’s supervisor, the Foreman, began stopping by the house sometime after my brother turned 2 or 3—he got a kick out of him, his cheeks, and his penguin-like way of waddling about. He would chat it up with my mom and bring them treats…ice cream, chips, sodas. After a while, the Foreman would take my brother with him as he did his supervisory things around the ranch. He would take him to see my dad. My brother would ride on the Foreman’s truck—he loved nothing more! The bouncing and the dirt, the speed—it made him laugh and giggle. The Foreman would bring him back after a few hours and the boy would fall asleep on the couch, exhausted. This made my mother very happy.

A few months passed. That the Foreman would take my brother and tire him out was routine. My father expected to see him; my mother expected the break. At some point—I don’t know when—the Foreman began the ritual of waiting for my mother to put my brother down and hanging out with her, in the front steps of the house, talking. He was an average sized Mexican man with a Pancho Villa-mustache that made him look authoritative and elegant. He wore a baseball hat and his pants were never as muddy as my father’s. He smelled like Old Spice and Spearmint gum. He didn’t smoke or drink. He later died of testicular cancer. It was the first of many deaths for that group.

They became closer as they talked. I don’t know what they talked about most of the time. I wasn’t there. I would see him leave when I got home from school. I became jealous once and asked my mom about it. She said she was just talking. She seemed happy. Relaxed. She walked with purpose. I had never seen her like that before. When she argued with my father, it was easier to tune him out. She did. He screamed, but she didn’t care. She walked confidently through the terror.

After a night of violence, my mother pulled me into the bathroom and told me that she was leaving with the Foreman. That he had asked to go with him—where, I don’t know—and that she was ready to do it. That she had a real chance at happiness, and she was going to go for it. That I would see her later…when things with my father calmed down. I asked her if she was having an affair with the Foreman. She said no. But that the long afternoon conversations where enough reason to follow him to the ends of the earth. I don’t know what he told her, but it must’ve been promising.

She didn’t leave that night. She never left. But she knew she could…or she believed she could. The Foreman was married. They had no children. He lived in a trailer with his wife. She was pushy and overbearing. He was ready to leave. My mother’s imagination took over from there—anything was possible with the Foreman. My father, whom she had never agreed to marry in the first place, didn’t appreciate her like he did. The spectacular affair lasted months. He never crossed the threshold of the house. He never climbed a step. He just made gestures with words which glided out of his mouth, filtered through his Pancho Villa-mustache, and punctured holes in my mother’s reality.

My uncle, my father’s brother, found out about the affair one day when he was coming to the house to pester my mother. He told her that if she didn’t sleep with him, he would tell my father, his brother, about the goings-ons with the Foreman. My mother said nothing was going on with the Foreman. He cornered her and insisted. I came home just as he was making his move and kicked him out of the house. I think I threatened to kill him. I was about 13, but I think I would’ve tried. Dejected, my uncle told my father about the affair. I corroborated my mother’s innocence and my uncle’s perversions. My father, for once, believed us. But the affair was over. The opportunity had passed. The Foreman died a year later, and so did my mom’s imagination.

*By writing this “memory” down, I am crossing a very thin line that I had drawn for myself a while back. I had deemed certain things un-writeable, and, some, un-recallable. Their sanctity lies in their silence: no one has ever spoken of them before, leaving them repressed in my memory to fester and make me ill. But I near the end of this blog-adventure, and I want to get some things out for myself…just to see them laid out in public, to insert them into the American narrative, if only in this narrative I’m creating and which I’m calling “American.”

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Then there's Jenny, Part I

There was something liberating about our poverty. We knew exactly where we stood—what we had, what we didn’t, what we wanted but knew we couldn’t have. We knew that little could be taken from us; that death was a price we would readily pay. Of course I didn’t understand this last part. But I understood the rest.

The violence was necessary. It kept the place loud with voices. It made us bleed. And we knew we were human because we bled. Of course, the resentment was necessary, too. The hate. The terror. And this was normal. So when my sister, Jenny, was born we expected life to continue being what it was. There was something liberating about our misery: it couldn’t get any worse.

The cloud of pesticides that slept in our porch crawled into my mother’s womb and made a nest. There it lingered while Jenny was being shaped into her human form. When she was born in late December of 1989, she didn’t cry or scream. A few years later she matured into a healthy 3 year old; twenty years later, she’s still 3…or maybe 6.

This was different than poverty or terror. My mother asked God to explain this to her; she’s still asking. After all, this would be her burden. Doctors figured out early on that Jenny would not grow up. That she would not reason with us about the things she did or wanted or feared. But Doctors didn’t explain this right; they still haven’t clearly explained what it is that makes her who she is. This means that Jenny is alone in the world; that my mother is alone with Jenny; that to misery and terror we add solitude and insanity.

I don’t know what will happen to Jenny when my mother migrates to those unknown lands that Dante talks about. But it makes me sad. My mother is the only one who understands her burden—despite her resistance and her refusals.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


When my father first brought it home, he laid it on the table and stared at it for a few hours…drinking and thinking, maybe praising God (although, as an atheist, his God is the God of his mother, not his own—for if he had a God, He would be the silent type). I walked over to the table to look at it, too. So did my mother, although she had seen one before. It looked like…well, like an ID, except for the holograms and seals and multitude of numbers. It had his name, including that J which refers to his middle name, but which is not really his middle name, but his last name, or the name of his father’s father. It was, of course, green.

Emancipated, situated, defined, constituted: words made relevant for the first time by a document. A piece of plastic with ink, numbers, a picture, and a signature. The signature was his universal seal. It was his document; he had a name; he was a subject. After all of that, he could walk amongst the citizenry without fear. He could demand his rights. He could testify! At least in theory. But he was now different than his fellows, than those who surrounded him, even my mother, whose documents wouldn’t come for another 10 years. This document legitimated his status as a worker, as a legal entity, and, as a man. So long as he carried it, he carried the weight of a matanarrative that said he was not to be fucked with.

The news soon spread. Cousins, uncles, friends, came to the house to congratulate him and take a look at the thing. A cousin took his out and compared it with my father’s: “see,” he said happily, “mine almost looks real!” He had bought his at the Tropicana parking lot, in San Jose. It was then that I saw the document’s real power. Those that heard Cousin say this blushed—they felt sorry for him and his deception. He was a false man, a fabricated subject, an illusion! Sure, they didn’t say this, but they didn’t have to. Cousin’s subjectivity was tied to his lie. He was committed to it—in social spaces, he couldn’t take off his mask even if he wanted to. He was, in fact, still human; but only in fact. As an “undocumented,” he was still on the fringes of humanity—at least in the US. And they all knew it, or believed it. My father, on the other hand, was documented, written into the archives, into the narratives of the just and the free.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Genius, I

The Salinas River crawls its way through the Southern tip of Monterey County, through the outskirts of King City, avoids Greenfield completely, and heads Northwest just before hitting Soledad. It is a shallow river, filled with more will than water, which surprisingly makes it all the way to the Pacific somewhere by Monterey. This is Steinbeck Country! Of Mice and Men takes place just a few miles from my parent's current home; East of Eden starts off half a mile from where I grew up. Steinbeck’s father claimed to be the first permanent resident of King City. I knew none of this growing up. I learned these things my second year of college, when I first read Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Small towns have this effect: they yank you out of history.

And so I thought I was a-historical. That everything I did was new; that no one had lived like me before. So I did those things which can only be done once; things which could only be done by me. For instance, no one had ever figured out how to grow secret marijuana gardens in public property until I came along. First, I drew a map of places I had found along the river bank where no one had been before; next, I cleared these spots of weeds and rocks, dug some holes in the ground, and planted the tiny plants all throughout the river bank, spread out about 15 to 60 feet. My most ingenious idea was to develop an irrigation system that I didn’t have to monitor. What was genius about this idea was its simplicity: I filled plastic bottles (gallons) with water, poked a hole on the side, and tilted them against a stick near the base of the plant: drip irrigation! I restocked the water supply every 5 to 8 days. About a month into my operation, my father grew suspicious of my late afternoon hikes into the river. He asked my mom what I was doing, and she said, “ask him!” which he didn’t, but I caught him following me in his truck anyway, at which point I took a different route to get him off my tracks and once he caught up to me I pretended to be immersed in nudy-magazines, which I carried everywhere with me anyway; he was embarrassed to have witnessed me spreading out the center-fold in the afternoon air, so he never followed me again, although he never stopped suspecting me of some sort of trickery, of which I was completely guilty. A few months later the plants blossomed. If you looked closely from far away, you could see them radiating green in concentric circles all around them: they were the greenest things around. But, in those days, no one was looking closely. And, besides, I was a genius, and since no one had done this before, no one bothered to look for it. But now that they were ready for harvest I encountered a new problem: how to get them out of the river bank and into my house. My father detested drugs and everything that they stood for. He called them (drugs), “la chingadera esa.” That fucking thing. So he would say things like: “you better not be doing esa chingadera!” Or, “I don’t want you near Ramon; his uncle likes esa chingadera.” He never called weed marijuana or cocaine cocaine…so I was stuck. I was 16 years old, with thousands of dollars waiting for me, and all I had to do was figure out a way to cut it, smuggle it into my house, dry it, trim it, package it, sell it, and not get caught doing any of those things. And I couldn’t trust anyone. Thinking back, if I had put the planning and vigilance that went into this project into my studies, I would’ve been a Rhodes Scholar!

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