I wasn’t 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 sister’s 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 mother’s -- 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. Martha’s English was only lightly accented, Rosa’s 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 wasn’t cool, but it was pretty cool to hear her speak Spanish to her mom, then English to me in practically the same breath. Rosa wasn’t 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 she’d 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.