|MCG with "Sammie"|
photo by Bill Fox
Almost every morning during my early elementary school years, until I cut my hair short, a betrayal of my Mexicanisma, my mom would brush my long hair to get all the tangles out. I'd sit between her legs, and she'd pull the blue brush with the long rat tail through my hair, slowing the brush through the tangles unless I pulled away or winced. If I moved too many times, she'd get frustrated and brush hard or whack me on the head. I learned to sit still and let her braid my hair because I liked having her this close. I thought it must be how kittens felt when their mother's licked them clean with their scratchy tongues.
It was hard to sit so still and not wince when she had to work out a big knot, but I knew she worried what people would see if I went to school looking dirty. I knew that worry had something to do with why she yelled at me for not changing out of my school clothes to put on play clothes right when I got home, or when I got holes in my tights, usually from tripping and falling on the playground. My hair in tight braids was my mom's way of making sure I looked neat and cared for and not a dirty Mexican.
But my straight hair and my braids caused people to assume I was Me-wuk – what a pretty little Indian girl. And I was in Indian club at school. Mom had made sure that my brother and I be in the club. Having grown up in East LA during the Chicano movement, my mom had learned some things. She told me that Mexicans were Indian, Indian and Spanish mixed together, Aztec or Mayan Indian, so we could be in the club too. It sort of made sense to me at the time, and I liked getting out of class make crafts with tiny beads on a small loom, even beaded Christmas ornaments for our tree. But sometimes, even I wasn't sure who I was. Some people assumed I was Me-wuk; others asked, “what are you,” and I'd answer the best I could at that moment.
One spring afternoon, when I was nine or ten, mom had company – some riff-raff from town, a couple, who came around from time to time to see if she had a joint to smoke. Being the oldest of three, I liked to hang around and listen to the adults talk. I'd wash dishes as quietly as I could so I could eavesdrop on their conversations. I knew my mom didn't really want me “hovering around,” but I also knew not go too far in case my sister woke up from her nap because if mom's friends were still there, I'd have to take care of her. So I had to be there, but I also had to make myself invisible.
I looked out the window over the sink. The sunlight filtered through the massive oak tree that loomed over our house. The light on the ground looked like shadow lace. The neighbor's rooster was crowing as it began doing every morning at around four and continued throughout the day. The conversation in the living room went from being about someone who got pulled over by the cops in town, to a fight in the bar, to the joint they were smoking. Once I finished the last of the pots and pans, I noticed that it had grown quiet in the front room, so I wiped my hands on my pants and went to investigate. Mom's friends, the guy with long blond hair and a blond beard and the woman in jeans and barefoot and wearing a halter top, even though it wasn't quite warm enough yet, were sitting on the couch not talking just leaning back quietly with heavy eyes. I could hear the water from the toilet, so I knew mom must have just gone to the bathroom.
“Hey Michelle,” the woman said in one of those voices adults use when they don't have kids of their own and don't know how to talk to kids in a regular voice. “Look at your hair. It sure is long and dark. What are you Indian?” she asked. It was the question most followed with making a comment about my skin or hair.
“Yes,” I said, looking up to see my mom. “Indian.”
I could tell from the look on my mom's face that I said something wrong, but she just sat down and finished her conversation with her friends. Figuring I should try to make myself invisible again, I went back to the kitchen to put some of the precariously piled dishes in the cabinet before they fell over and got me in trouble. I decided then to make sure that my sister was still sleeping and to see whether my mom was mad at me by passing again through the front room and testing her reaction. When I passed by, she didn't react at all which wasn't a bad sign, but it wasn't a good sign either. Once in the middle-room, I held my breath and peered into the crib at my sister. I listened as the conversation in the front room wound down and heard the screen door slam. Not quite two years old, my sister stirred in her sleep, the honey-blond curls around her forehead were damp with baby sweat. At this I decided to go outside and read, but my mom stopped me in the front room. Coming out of the kitchen with a glass of water in one hand, she charged at me and grabbed my arm with her free hand.
“You’re Mexican. Do you hear me?” she said, looking me hard in the eye. And don’t you ever forget it!” And she squeezed my arm tight to make sure I had really heard her.
I opened my mouth to speak but all the air used to form words had been sucked out of me. All my senses now humming, I could hear the neighbor's rooster crowing in the distance.