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MCG, a Chicana feminist, for sure, teaches community college English

Monday, July 30, 2012

Secret Rivalries

           Being in a class with another kid who has the same name was a drag. It made extra work for everyone, and there is always some kind of confusion or rivalry. Michelle Brewer and I were both in Mrs. Plescia's second grade class; we were known as Michelle G. and Michelle B. We were both petite, but Michelle B. was blonde with dainty English features, and I looked her opposite: dark-haired and indigenous. Our moms were friends, sort of -- they both hung out at the Logger's Club, one of the three bars in the one block radius that made up downtown Tuolumne. My mom and Maureen were both interested in the same guy, so by extension Michelle B. and I became rivals too. Robert Mason was a tall, rugged, blond haired guy, who sometimes wore Indian leather and who all women loved. They would both eventually date him but at different times.
         Michelle and I we just went to school and pretended we were normal. I wore dresses with tights and kept my hair neatly braided. I was polite, respectful, and easy going with the teachers. Michelle kept her unusually long fingernails clean, smiled when she was in trouble or spoke in a cutesy voice. But as extensions of our single, beer-drinking, pot-smoking, bar-carousing mothers, we were at risk of being exposed. 
         We should have been friends, but mostly we tried to pretend we didn't know the other, hadn't both stood around in front of the bar, closer to the little store as cover, waiting for our moms to finish their beers and come home. Michelle's mom, Maureen, also a pretty, petite blond, had a son and a daughter, and was on welfare just like my mom. Just like mine, she had to fill out a monthly income report, meet with the family's social worker in Sonora in the hospital building, and buy food with brightly colored food stamps -- the mark of poverty. The monthly income report had to be filled out every month and sent in or hand delivered by a set date in order for a family to receive its benefits: a check for cash, food stamps, and those green medi-cal stickers that my brother and I used to stick all over each other once we received a fresh batch to be used in the new month. My mom complained about those income reports each month as she was filling them out, usually at the last minute and in need of a ride to Sonora to get them there on time. 
         "The same fucking thing every God damn month," she'd say, rummaging through her purse for the envelope sent by the welfare office. "Every god damn month."
         I had heard this tirade before. I knew that they always asked about how many people lived in the house, if the recipient has made any money, or received any cash gifts, and on and on. And most of the time, the information that she put on those forms was the same information that she had included the month before that and that and that, but sometimes she did lie -- usually about whether or not she was "co-habitating," or not. It seems the welfare system liked knowing if they're single parent recipients were getting laid or not and/or whether parties responsible for making sexual contributions to the head of household were also contributing financially. If that were the case the recipients’ benefits would need to be "adjusted." Michelle B.'s mom, Maureen had to fill out the same forms, and decide whether or not to report the short-term live-in boyfriend whom she had hoped would have lasted longer than he did, not necessarily expecting him to begin providing for her children of her former husband, or as it turned out, to stick around.
         For these reasons, Michelle B. and I were sort of friends; we sometimes played together on the weekends when our mothers took us with them to visit their mutual friends. When our mothers weren't getting along or were competing for the same man, or accusing the other of being bad mothers, we'd argue and Michelle would pinch me on the underside of my upper arm with her long fingernails. At school, we kept our distance, always still aware of what the other was doing, or saying, and to whom.
         We made an unspoken effort not to be associated with the other for several years.  We probably weren't the only welfare kids who worked hard to not look shabby and to blend in. Michelle used her petite femininity, and I just tried to stay out of trouble. As I got older, the biggest complaint from my teachers was that I talked too much in class, but not in second and third grade. In those early grades, I kept to myself and spent a lot of time observing the other students act up and the teachers' reactions. 
         In Ms. Plescia's second grade class, it was Jimbo Dry who had become known for getting into trouble. Jimbo was stout and muscular in the second grade. I suppose his stature, his dark skin, and his often serious face intimidated some teachers; it seemed to make our second grade teacher, Mrs. Plescia angry. Jimbo had what I recognize now as a great deal of difficulty with authority figures and anger issues. And maybe this was the case because his most important authority figures weren't meeting his needs, or because being male and Me-wuk, he was expected to act up and probably to fail, or some combination of the two. Our teacher, Mrs. Plescia, also had anger issues. She was widowed and lived with her sisters in a mansion that bordered the school grounds. One of her sisters, Mrs. Robinson, also taught at Summerville Elementary school; I had her in first grade. Mrs. Plescia was what kids called a strict teacher. She often warned our second grade class to behave, threatening to turn into a "grumble snort" if we didn't
         "Class, you know what happens when you don't listen when I'm talking," she'd warn. "I turn into a grumble snort. You don't want me turning into a grumble snort do you?"
         Frankly, I never saw much of difference between the real Ms. Plescia and her grumble snort, but I did see her very very angry one time, and it was at Jimbo.
         The class had been particularly rambunctious that day and Mrs. Plescia had already threatened us with the grumble snort several times and asked Jimbo several times to do as he had been told. While transitioning from working at our desks to the next activity, there was lots of talking, the sounds of desks opening and closing, chairs scraping the floor, and children milling about. But a much louder commotion brewing between Jimbo and Mrs. Plescia stopped time, freezing each kid in place.
         "I said, sit down," Mrs. Plescia shouted at Jimbo, her face in his.
         Jimbo just stood still, his arms crossed in front of him.
         "Sit at your desk. I said, sit down" Mrs. Plescia repeated, this time leaning in and grabbing Jimbo by the elbow.  
         With that, his face suddenly a dark, dark red, Jimbo, went toward his desk. Half growling, half shouting, he threw the desk over, going immediately to the empty desk in front of him. Mrs. Plescia who had jumped out of the way of the first desk, was now lunging for Jimbo, who was lunging for another desk. Just as he grabbed a corner, Mrs. Plescia grabbed one of his arms, put him in a kind of bear hug, and dragged him writhing and half growling, half screaming out of the room, crashing into empty chairs and desks with kids sitting in them, their mouths agape, along the way. Stunned into complete blind obedience, each second grader went to his or her seat if not already there and sat quietly until a teacher from another classroom came and told us to read quietly to ourselves. We remained in a silent shock until Mrs. Plescia returned alone to the classroom a few minutes later, still breathing hard. We were quiet and on our best behavior for the rest of the afternoon.       
         Though no one mentioned his name for the rest of the day or the incident ever again, I couldn't help thinking about Jimbo. Why couldn't he listen to the teacher? Why did Mrs. Plescia get so angry? Didn’t Jimbo know what he did meant? How what he did was now always going to be associated with who he was? It was the kind of attention I avoided, the reason Michelle B. and I pretended we didn't know each other, or that our lives were any different from any of the other kids in our class -- except Jimbo. We certainly were not like Jimb; that much had been made clear. 
         I managed to lay low for a month or so after the Jimbo incident which was still fresh in my mind. I managed not to bring any unwanted attention to myself, my image still intact. I couldn't say the same for Mrs. Plescia who had taken to reading to us often from her favorite Mrs. Piggle Wiggle chapter books, but who we were all still afraid of. One morning after reading a chapter or more, the class was getting restless, and Michelle spoke out of turn.  
         "My mom saw Michelle G's mom at the Logger's Club on Tuesday night. She was dancing and she wasn't wearing any underwear."
         Stunned, I turned my head with a quick jerk in Michelle's direction. Waiting for an audible reaction from the class, she looked smug, her pointy nose in the air. But the room was mostly quiet, probably waiting for my reaction. 

         And I hadn't been there, but I could see it. The Loggers Club. The juke box playing "The Boys are Back in Town" by Thin Lizzy. My mom dancing with some guy, the only lights coming from the juke box display, the lamp over the pool table in the back of the room, and the low lights at the bar. Hazy lines of cigarette smoke and mom dancing in circles, her hands over head, her cotton prairie skirt lifting, lifting, floating higher and higher on a naked gust of wind.
         I didn't say a word.
         And I didn't look at Mrs. Plescia either, but I knew that she was looking at me.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Mexican Girl

Indians and Sailors
MCG in braids
Mother Lode Parade circa 1975

        I guess it was easy to assume I was Me-wuk. I had dark skin; I wore my dark hair in long braids, and my clothes were second-hand. I even played an Indian in my first Mother Load Parade – Sammie, one of my first friends in Tuolumne, did too. Our gymnastics troupe marched in the parade, a row of little Indians and a row of sailors. The girls with shorter hair wore sailor hats and red and white striped leotards. The girls with long hair wore red leotards with a strip of white fringe around our waists and our braids wrapped at the ends and tied off with white ribbon -– my mom's idea.  All of us wore white ballet flats which we attempted not to soil as we cartwheeled around fresh piles of horse manure from the contingents in front of us, most of which, it seemed, were on horseback.
          Mostly, I understood that I was not Me-wuk, that I was Mexican even though I didn’t really know what that meant other than tacos and a language neither my mother nor I could speak, and even though I was in Indian Club at school. In second grade, the school’s janitor knew I was Mexican, and she gave me the business about it too.
         Like many other mornings in school, I raised my hand and asked permission to go to the bathroom. Small for my age with a tiny bladder, like most children, I had been holding it for a long time already. It wasn't until I was out of my seat that I realized how badly I needed to go. I made an easy decision to walk through the cafeteria rather than around on the sidewalk under the breezeway. I saw that the doors were open as I walked toward the cafeteria, behind which were the closest bathrooms. My bladder was so full that it was difficult to walk. I concentrated hard on making it to the bathroom before wetting myself, which I knew I couldn't do because I was in second grade and not kindergarten.
But as I neared the cafeteria, I noticed that the lights were off, the room only lit by the lights coming through the high windows. I could see blue sky and a couple of cumulus clouds – we had learned about those in Mrs. Plescia's class. Once I got to the middle of the now quiet and empty cafeteria, I realized that I was treading on a freshly mopped floor.  Mrs. Fulcher, the school custodian, appeared in front of me, her hands on the handle of an industrial-sized mop, a large bucket on wheels nearby. I didn't know why, but she had a hard look on her face. I stopped, my wet footprints on the damp linoleum trailing behind me.
I looked at Mrs. Fulcher. She was eying me hard, still leaning on the mop handle. I really had to go pee bad.
         “You're pretty bold for a Mexican girl,” Mrs. Fulcher said, gripping the mop handle, readying herself to wipe clean the tracks behind me.
I wanted to turn back, but I knew I wouldn't make it. So I set my eyes straight ahead, focusing only on the far door. The bathrooms were just on the other side them. I could feel Mrs. Fulcher's frozen stare and her grip on the mop handle, as I walked by. I picked up my pace, nearly releasing a hot stream down my leg.

         In the bathroom, it all came pouring out of me almost before I was able to lift my dress and wriggle out of my tights. You're pretty bold for a Mexican girl. I turned the phrase over and over in my head while pulling my tights up and walking very slowly, the long way around the cafeteria building back to my classroom. I couldn’t bring myself to rush even though I felt like had been gone for a very long time. Had I been bold? Was that so bad? Mexican girl? Was it bold to cut through the empty cafeteria, to walk on the wet floor when I hadn’t known it was wet?
         Pretty bold for a Mexican girl.
She shouldn’t have said it -- I knew that, but I didn't know why. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Middle Child

          My brother Amonie was the middle child, but he was actually the baby for many years before my sister was born. Amonie was the kind of little boy who lived the five senses. He smelled everything he got his hands on, ate snails, listened wide-eyed instead of talked, and bit Mom's friend Janet on the boob when he was four. He was shy but mischievous with big eyes and thick dark hair – women loved him.
         Janet was visiting us in Tuolumne after we moved from Sonora. She had been one of our roommates in Palo Alto, and she hadn't seen Amonie in at least a year. He was sitting on her lap on our saggy green couch.
         “Amonie, you're so cute,” Janet crooned.
         Amonie was straddling her lap, making big eyes when he lowered his head in a moment of embarrassment, and Janet let out a surprised yelp.
         “He bit me; he bit my boob,” Janet said, suddenly holding him away from her.

         At times I felt like Amonie's big sister, and other times he was my playmate. We were only twenty-two months apart; I wasn’t even two when Amonie was born. Both with long dark hair, most people thought we were twins. I was short for my age, and he having a tall white father, was not short which meant we were nearly the same size for several years.  We both looked like our mom in different ways, but Amonie could pass for white when I could not, maybe because my skin was darker, my long dark hair was usually in braids, or because my eyes were more almond shaped. His last name was also Thorne and mine was Gonzales. I hated it when people said that we were half brother and sister. I was his sister. I'd run to his aid when I happened to see him crying on the school playground, and I attempted to protect him from our mother's tirades during which she'd yield wooden spoons or sections of his plastic race track, her wild curly hair a mess on her head, cuss words spewing from her mouth. She did not spare the rod.
         We were never sure what would set Mom off, and I was relieved one Christmas season when she found his antics cute rather than infuriating. Still around four years old and still a baby, Amonie was very excited for Christmas and a white Christmas in Tuolumne was a real possibility. The skimpy, leaning, Charlie Brown Christmas tree that Mom found and cut down somewhere not too far from the house didn't dampen his spirits, and no one had threatened to put coal in his stocking. On December twenty-third, also excited about Christmas, I told Amonie that the next day was Christmas eve. There had already been a couple of gifts under the tree, and Mom had wrapped two more the night before, surprising us with them, getting us more and more excited as Christmas day drew near.
         “Amonie, tomorrow is Christmas eve,” I told him as he stumbled out of bed on the morning of the twenty-third. Mom was getting the fire in the wood stove going, putting a large piece of cedar on the kindling that had gotten burning good and strong. The lights on the little tree in the corner were lit. Mom had plugged them back in when she got out of bed, different colors twinkling from the branches: blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. Only one more day until Christmas.
         The next morning, Christmas Eve morning, mom and I got up again at the same time, both probably woken by the same noises. There in the living room Amonie was sitting on the floor in front of the tree with every single gift unwrapped and sitting around him. There were wads of wrapping paper and bows strewn about.
         “Amonie, it's not Christmas, not today,” I said, horrified that he couldn't wait, that someone would do such a thing.
         “You told him yesterday that today was Christmas eve,” Mom said, laughing and snatching some of the gifts from the floor quickly, hiding them under her faded red robe.
         Mom re-wrapped the gifts with what paper she had left. Some of the gifts had gaps where we could peek in and see what we might be getting, if we hadn’t seen already. Within a year or so, Amonie could read and learned the difference between Christmas and Christmas Eve, so we didn't have to worry about him opening all the gifts a day early, even gifts that were not his. Though he did eat all the chocolate kisses used to decorate a friend's tree, crumpling the silver, green, and red wrappers, to reshape them into a kiss shape as best he could before hanging them back where he had found them.

Monday, July 9, 2012

My Plymouth Rock

Four year old MCG on the steps of the Plymouth Rock House

Before moving to Tuolumne County, first Sonora, the county seat, then to Tuolumne, it's namesake, my mom had never been on her own. She had gone from her own dad to my dad who she married because that’s what you did after being kicked out of high school for getting pregnant in 1969. She left my dad and LA in 1970, only eight months after my birth, having had enough of him knocking her down stairs, blackening her eyes, and threatening to take her life.
     She met Amonies dad, Bob Thorne, a janitor, at the INS office where she worked making green cards on an IBM punch machine downtown Los Angeles. Mom had grown increasingly afraid for our safety after my dad kidnapped me from my grandfather's house where we had moved, leaving me bruised and scratched because he fell and dropped me. He had snatched me up and ran out of the house, me just a bundle in his arms, my mom running and screaming behind him. Bob swooped in to save us, a white knight, leaving his job in Southern California to move my mom far away from my father.
            Mom and Bob wound up in San Mateo where Bobs grandmother, the woman who raised him, had lived for many years in a tidy apartment near a small shopping center that had a Dutch Boy paint store the sign an overwhelmingly large depiction of a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy with a page boy haircut, wearing a painters cap and blue overalls, holding a tilted bucket of paint.
            Bob Thorne was tall and handsome, the kind of man who smiled easily in spite of having lost both his parents, traveling musicians, at a very young age. He wore his straight brown hair long but just to his chin, heavy boots, and these black leather wrist cuffs fastened with a heavy silver snaps. He played guitar too, and let me strum the strings of his guitar as he formed the chords and sang my favorite song, Puff the Magic Dragon.  It felt like I was almost playing the song myself.  But Mom and Bob split up only a couple of years of living together, and having my brother, and well after I had started calling Bob Daddy. I had loved our rides to the corner store in Redwood City, where mom and Bob rented a little house, me on the back of his rams-horn-handle-barred ten-speed bike -- on a toddler seat that he had fastened just for me. He'd buy me my own pack of M&M's and a pack of Zig Zag rolling papers for himself each time.
            After the split, Bob got his own apartment, and we lived with mom in a house with several roommates in Menlo Park. One night while spending the night at Bob's, my brother, Amonie, woke up disoriented in the middle of the night and went outside looking for Mom. He was found walking down the street near the 7-11 confused and lost. There were police, and crying, and a call to CPS.
            Poor Bob, I knew it wasn't his fault. But losing track of my brother, or sleeping too heavily to hear him slip out the door in the middle of the night, hastened my mother's decision to move to the country, and Bob had friends living in Sonora Wendy Ray and some others. So about as quickly as he came into our lives, Bob was gone, not one to settle down for long, perhaps condemned to a life of wandering childless as his parents had done before their early death. He faded slowly from our lives, at first visiting us in Sonora after getting us settled, but the visits grew further and further apart until mom was left really on her own and with two kids to support.
            Before finally settling for good in Tuolumne in 1975, after leaving Bob in the Bay Area, my mom, brother, and I stayed for a year in the nearby town of Sonora. We stayed with Bob's friend Wendy Ray, another single mom and her three kids Tammy, Scotty, and Missy who were quite a bit older than we were. Wendy Ray (everyone always called her by her first and last name; rarely did anyone just call her Wendy) and the kids had been kind to take us in but the gettin was good right around the time Amonie had developed a habit of scribbling Z for Zorro on any available wall or flat surface with any type of writing device left accidentally within his three-year old reach: pens, pencils, the stub of an old crayon. He and Scotty had watched Zorro on the familys black and white TV, sitting side-by side in front of the small screen all the rest of us could see was the back of Scotty's blond head and a bit of the TV that wasn't covered by my brother's head of dark hair and his swashbuckling arms slicing through a ray of dust-mote-filled light coming through the window.
         Instead of watching TV, Missy, Wendy Ray's youngest who was prone to fits of whiny tantrums played everyone's favorite song on the record player. Music calmed her, helped her forget all the things that she didn't think were fair. She'd pull the record carefully from its brightly colored jacket (Maria Muldaur floating on a magic carpet in the clouds and a radiant yellow sunset) put the record on the turntable, and carefully lowered the needle down on the second groove of the first side -- “ Midnight at the Oasis,”  and she'd sing along in a way I'd never heard someone her age sing – head up,  straight, blond hair floating away behind her. While picking up the house or making dinner, Mom and Wendy Ray would join in, singing their single-mom sadness away, “Midnight at the oasis/send your camel to bed/shadows paintin’ our faces/ traces of romance in our heads.”
         But we never spent much time hanging around in the house before the moms chased us outdoors to play. Children and flies belonged outside. If the sun was shining, Wendy and mom would chase us out, call us in for lunch, and chase us back out again.
          “It's not faaiirr, Tammy gets to stay inside,” Missy would whine because her sister who was already a teen was allowed to hang around with grownups.
         But Tammy, in her thick-framed glasses, wearing her nylon fur collared coat if it was the least bit chilly, liked coming outside too. And neither Tammy, Scotty, nor Missy seemed to mind too much about having my brother and me tag along with them around the lot where their house sat just off of Tuolumne Road amongst a small crop of ragged-looking mobile homes. The only other house on the property was inhabited by a very old man who we didn’t see too often who spooked us from time to time when he’d all of a sudden appear slightly stooped and grumpy looking. We'd dart around on the cracked court that bordered his property a place we often played or met the neighborhood kids -- known tattle-tales, who lived in one of the rickety trailers on the lot, the one with the busted up stairs.
         When we tired of running around on the court, searching for rolly-polly bugs between the weeds that grew through the cracks, or throwing dirt clod bombs at one another, we'd climb the two glacial boulders, or we'd pretend to drive the old rusted out car on blocks, sitting inside it on what was left of the seat, springs poking through, turning the steering wheel round and round. My brother drove recklessly, a funny sight – a little boy with long brown hair in the front seat of a rusted car with no driver side door, unable to see out the windshield, but Tammy always helped him get out of the car so he wouldn't get hurt. Before I graduated high school and left Tuolumne, the houses on the property in Sonora, my family’s Plymouth Rock, was leveled, the boulders and car chassis disappeared; the land was cleared of any evidence of nature, wild children, or Zorro graffiti and replaced with a car dealership.           
         Tammy, Scotty, who bore a striking resemblance to the Dutch Boy in San Mateo, and Missy were good company in spite of missing Bob and his music. Together we made a new kind of music, but after about a year of looking for our own place in Tuolumne, mom found a rent-to-own property for the three of us, just Mom, Amonie, and me.              
         Only seven or so miles away from Sonora, Tuolumne had a distinctly different feel from Sonora. Our new place, a half-acre of property with several tall, acorn-dropping oak trees, seemed to satisfy her pastoral fantasy – the one that she had been nursing along with several house plants since she left East LA, from the time we arrived to Redwood City where we lived with Bob, to the house we lived without him in Menlo Park, to Sonora, and finally to Tuolumne where the schools were still safe, and the land was cheap, filled with trees and promise. If only the dirt road that began at the end of our property didn’t lead down to the sewer treatment plant that we discovered gave off a mighty powerful smell during the summer and attracted plenty of mosquitoes. The house on the property was a problem too. Barely inhabitable, it was filled with garbage, only promising a roof over our heads and plenty of ragged wall space for my brother to cheer up with Zorro’s mark.
         I watched as some old guy name Hoyt, a neighbor who had seen Mom working in the yard all by herself and offered to help, pull bags and bags of trash from the house, faded yellow Coors cans, a broken toilet, and scrap wood from the house. Most of the garbage dragged from the house was taken to the dump, but what Mom couldn’t move herself or afford to take to the dump was thrown in the yard with the rest of the discarded things that lay about – little mountains of kitchen linoleum, pieces of cement, an old tire, nine volt batteries, nails, bolts, a rotted piece of two-by-four, the springs and stuffing from an old chair, and an occasional salvageable toy – an old metal car missing wheels, and a little plastic horse with a melted hoof.
         The scrap wood was burnt in the tin lizzy wood stove that mom scraped up the money to buy after the long cold nights had already settled into deep places where layers couldn’t reach. During the day, I went outside in search of a sunny spot to warm back up after having to snuggle with my bother, who still wet the bed, to keep warm. From outside, the house looked more like a shit shack, something built by a man with a terrible hangover, with its tin roof sloped at odd angles and that leaked rain into dented pots and pans that mom placed strategically around the kitchen floor during thunderstorms, the ping, ping, pinging of water drip, drip dripping and the hiss from the fire in the tin lizzy, keeping us awake and lulling us to sleep. My brother’s habit of writing on the walls subsided, but his bed-wetting got worse.
         Living on our own was noticeably different – quiet and solitary, even though there were three of us. We missed Wendy, Tammy, Scotty, and Missy. Without them we were faced with the realness of our situation. We had nothing. No car, no black and white TV, no wood for the winter, not even enough light bulbs for each room, and no more Maria Muldaur, no more “Midnight at the Oasis/Take your camel to bed,” though mom could be heard humming the tune during the day as she did what she could to make the place feel like home. During dinner, while my brother and I ate, she'd take her plate and sit alone in the front room. Sometime later, she got a small radio and she listened to it quietly during dinner away from us. I couldn’t help sneaking peeks at her from my place at the table, the seat a splintery picnic bench.     
         She looked sad.
My brother and I tried to be good and did what we could to cheer her up, and by extension ourselves – offering to rub her feet or color her toenails with old stubs of crayon, each toe a different waxy color. We knew she’d be okay when she’d get up off the worn saggy couch and put a large oak log into the wood stove, the kind that lasts most way through the night, and then lie back down and pull us toward her. She’d roll onto her side, so one of us could crawl in behind her and the other would lay in front, spooned by her body. Wedged in between the two of us, with her arm around whoever lay closest to the edge, we did not move or fidget; we did not stir, and the coals on the fire, the flame and heat of the single oak log, caused the sides of the tin lizzy to glow red.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Mexicans In Tuolumne

I wasnt the only Mexican in town, but I was the only one like me. The Maria sisters, they were real Mexicans each with long straight sandy brown hair, each sister a different shade of brown. There were four of them. Each named Maria something. If you saw them they were usually together, or in pairs wearing roomy, button down blouses and boxy skirts worn below the knee. They lived in very small, splintery, unpainted, clapboard house behind the baseball field. I often passed by their casita on my way to town with my brother or alone on my yellow Schwinn bike a gift from my blonde sisters grandparents. A Maria sister never walked around town without one of the other sisters at her side.
            A couple of other Mexicanas, Rosa and Martha Espinoza, lived on the other side of town where the houses had patches of lawn and sometimes a fence but fewer oak trees. Rosa and Martha had thick, wavy black hair. Rosa wore hers short like her mothers --  a mass of curl and fluff. Martha's hair was thick and long, and she usually wore it in braids. She had dark almond-shaped eyes and a dark birth mark above her lip. They had a cute little brother named Victor; he was shy and spent most his time hanging around their mom who spoke English with a very heavy accent. When she spoke English, I noticed that she sounded an awful lot like the Maria sisters.  Marthas English was only lightly accented, Rosas a bit more. I had been to their house after school a few times, and I marveled at how neat and tidy it was. Martha wasnt cool, but it was pretty cool to hear her speak Spanish to her mom, then English to me in practically the same breath. Rosa wasnt cool at all.
            When Martha and I were in second grade, Rosa was in fourth. Apparently, her only friend was Martha, which meant she had to sit with us at lunch. The only saving grace was that fourth graders were excused from class later than second graders, meaning Martha and I did get a little time to ourselves, but then just a bit later shed arrive with her class, Rosa, in the lunch line, gripping her tray, eagerly scanning the cafeteria, trying to locate her younger sister.  Even the way she carried her tray and set it down on the table next to us annoyed me. Martha and I would go from giggling about something that had happened in class or talking about boys to quiet and serious about macaroni casserole faster than Rosa could say enchilada.
            One day as Rosa worked quietly on her grilled chicken, the din of child chatter and the sound of silverware clanking seem to grow louder and louder around us. Martha and I were sitting quietly, obediently waiting for Rosa to finish when I picked up the wizened wing still on my tray, inspected it closely for no particular reason then tossed it on Rosa’s plate. Gasping as if I had thrown a cockroach in her face, Rosa said, “I hhhhhhhate when people put food on my plate!” She took the wing between thumb and forefinger from her plate and tossed it back.
            “Hate plate, hate plate,” I said, laughing and dancing in my seat. Martha sat watching wide-eyed and she didn’t laugh; she didn’t even smile.  I didn't get too many more invitations to her house after that, but we did still sit together at lunch though less and less over time. The Espinoza family eventually moved to Sonora, only seven miles away, but an actual town with its own police department and more grocery stores than bars.
         Luckily, I met Amelie Sanchez just as Martha began phasing me out of her life. Amelie was Mexican too, even though her mom was not. Her parents had been divorced for several years already and she only saw her dad Jess, short for Jesus and pronounced the Spanish way, about once a year – usually during summer and sometimes around Christmas.  Amelie’s mom, Shawn Sanchez, formerly Pauline Hutcherson had grown up in Tuolumne in the very same house that she lived in with Amelie, and Amelie's grandmother, Buggo, as we called her.  Amelie’s mom was really smart and she liked helping us with our homework. She went to UC Berkeley for a semester before dropping out to bum around the Bay Area where she waited tables and met Jess. I liked being around Amelie and Shawn. Their house wasn’t messy, but not too clean either, and they paid for their groceries with food stamps like we did.
         Amelie and I had seen each other around school before fourth grade, but she and her mom had been living in Carson City for a bit before returning to live with Buggo on Carter street. Amelie played the flute like I did and joined Mr. Lark’s school band. She began getting more of the solos or harder parts, as she was a better musician, but I didn’t care. I introduced her to Martha and Rosa and we all occasionally sat together during lunch, but Rosa made it pretty clear that she didn’t want her sweet little sister hanging around a bad-mannered pocha and her unusually tall tomboy pocha friend. I wondered if Rosa liked anyone. She didn’t even associate herself with any of the mild-mannered Maria sisters, not even the ones close to her age.
         Amelie was cool. She spoke differently than anyone I knew and used words I rarely heard kids our age use, words like “evidently” or “tubular” and she was good at English and math. She didn’t speak Spanish either, which I didn’t think was cool, necessarily, but it made me feel better. Secretly, though, we both wanted to be bilingual – to be able to speak our grandparents and both our fathers’ first language. Much later in high school, even though Buggo told her she ought to study a more civilized language like French, Amelie and I enrolled in Spanish together Freshmen year. 
         By the time Amelie and I were in fifth grade, we were hot shot band members who were occasionally pulled out of PE or Art for special band events or to do special projects for Mr. Lark, like sorting through years and years worth of sheet music in the band room. We went through dusty filing cabinets and put sheet music in alphabetical order according to composer. Amelie, who was much taller than I was, would pull the music from the top filing cabinets and hand it to me.
         One morning while sorting music alone, Amelie pulled a single sheet from a top file drawer and began roaring with laughter, falling backward on the chair near the filing cabinet, the foot of the chair making a loud scraping noise on the freshly waxed floor.
         “B, b, buy my,” she sputtered, laughing too hard to tell me what was so funny.
         “What?” I said, laughing only because she was.
         “Buy My Tortillas,” she said, finally able to get it out. “This song is called “Buy My Tortillas,” she said, doubling over with laughter once again.
         I grabbed the sheet of music out of her hand and studied it for a second.
         “I wonder how that song goes?” I said, and we laughed harder, both of us grabbing our stomachs in pain. I looked toward the door hoping that Mr. Parker wouldn't come in right then and think that we were just messing around.
         For months, all Amelie and I had to do to send the other into a fit of uncontrollable laughter was utter the title to the Chilean folk, “Buy My Tortillas.” It definitely wasn’t one of the songs we were playing in 1982, 83, and 84. We were working on more important tunes like the theme songs to Rocky or MASH, which Mr. Lark secretly told us was really titled, “Suicide is Painless.” Rosa and Martha would have never understood any of it.
         There was plenty not to understand in those days, but I found it all much easier to face with Amelie at my side helping me sort it out along the way. Still, I didn't understand why people had to ask me, “what are you,” all the time. It was a question that I got asked a lot but never got used to answering. What are you? I knew people were asking because my skin was brown, that they wanted to know about my background. I knew I was supposed to say Mexican, but saying that didn't feel quite right either.  I wasn't Mexican like Martha and Rosa or the Maria sisters. I didn't speak Spanish and neither did my mother. I had been born in East LA like my mother, and I was growing up in a gold rush town where Mexicans from Sonora Mexico and other mining states were invited to help work the mines and who were run off when townships were being settled. I didn't know that either, but there I was.