So, a little Grandma time.
Since the earliest time I can remember, my grandmother was an integral part of my upbringing. Her influence colors what I do to this day some fifty years later. Growing up half-Latino, I was immersed in the culture from my first breath. For Latinos, or as I like to identify now – given my queer life – Latinx, family is everything. So much so, that your decisions in life are sometimes guided by (and even hampered by) what the family will think. Doesn’t mean you don’t buck the system, you just have to be a bit more clever about doing it.
As I said a few posts ago, my mother and father both worked day jobs. So from a very early age my maternal grandmother (and my mother’s sister, mi tia) held enormous influence over my younger years. That’s not to say it wasn’t filled with love and laughter – for there was plenty of that. Being the first grandchild, I was practically inundated with gifts, love and pride. Just the fact I was healthy and breathing seemed to be the only requirement for me to retain that lofty family status. The favorite. Only because I had the luck of the draw to be the first.
My brother (and sister, to a degree) both felt the weight of my being the favorite. I acknowledge that now, but at the time I did everything I could to deny it – even when I knew it to be true.
We had some very quirky things that were customary in our family. Traits that I don’t think many other families had. For instance, it was absolute sacrilege in my family that if Spanish Rice graced the dinner table, there was a complete order to how it was served, if you bucked the system there were repercussions. This came home to roost when my tia invited her then boyfriend, who sadly became her fiancé later – for the man was a compete idiot – and her boyfriend reached over to serve himself a helping of the rice from somewhere in the middle of the dish and the entire family froze on the spot. Conversations ceased, and all eyes moved to my grandmother, who as the grand matriarch of the family, we all gauged how she – and by extension, we – should react. She held up a hand and calmly said, “It’s alright. He doesn’t know.” Why that sticks with me to this day and why I still follow how to serve Spanish Rice in my own home is rather bizarre. But I still do it, confident that if I don’t she’d come from the spirit world and give me a whack across my hands.
It seems like a simple thing. You have a dish to serve at dinner, why not just scoop some up onto your plate, right? Turns out, not so much.
But nothing with our family was quite that simple. Many things were like that.
I’ll give you another: there was a room in my grandmother’s house that had ornate furniture – completely covered in plastic – which was so prevalent at that time, but here’s the thing: we weren’t allowed to go into that room whenever we were at her house. It struck me as rather odd because it was like having a fully decorated room in the house but couldn’t ever enjoy it. And it’s not like we were rich or something. In fact, having a “museum” like room only pointed out the fact that we were rather poor. The lesson to be learned here? Have something nice? You lock it away and don’t let anyone come near it. The only time we ever used the room was during Christmas. In those early childhood years we alternated between everyone coming over to my parents house and going to my grandparents house. It was a very special treat to go there and to sit in the forbidden room.
I never understood that forbidden room as a child until many years later when traveling down the road my grandmother used to take we kids down from my parent’s home in Spring Valley, to her house closer to downtown San Diego. I was on that road with my mother many years later who told me a story about a house very near to a busy traffic corner where we had stopped, waiting for our signal to continue. Oddly enough, we’d been discussing that museum room in her parent’s house the day before where I expressed my confusion over its existence.
“Did you ever wonder why your grandmother had that room in perfect condition? And why you kids were never allowed to go into it?”
Of course I jumped at the chance to hear why that room existed. It was a huge mystery in my childhood.
“Well, sure.” I added, hoping that I’d get some really deep, dark family secret. Ya know, like a body was buried underneath. Something really fucking scary to explain the step one toe in that room and you’ll pull back a stump feeling about it.
“It goes back to a girl that your grandmother went to school with. Her family had money. Your grandmother’s didn’t. But they put on airs that they did. Anyway, your grandma was very envious of this girl. From what I know, the girl didn’t rub your grandmother’s face in it. But because they had it, and it showed in the way they lived, your grandmother coveted that sort of lifestyle and expression of money. Not having it was hard on your grandma.”
I turned to look over my shoulder at the house half a block back from the corner we were sitting at waiting for the light to change. “So, what’s that house have to do with it?”
“That’s where the girl grew up and got married and ended up living. Your grandmother was very jealous of her.”
“Why? It’s not like they were best friends or anything.”
“Because your grandmother had always been like that – obsessed with money and power. It’s why that room is the way it is. If she couldn’t have an entire house like that she would have a room that would say how she wanted others to think of her.”
While I finally had an answer, It made me even more confused on what to do with that information. You have to understand that this revelation from my mother was years after my grandmother’s death. So it wasn’t like I could go ask her for her side of the story. Though, thinking on it now, I am not too sure she would’ve admitted it to me. Yet, I had more than enough examples where I’d experienced my grandmother’s obsession with exerting power and influence – she did it to my grandfather all of his life. She was a very formidable woman. A woman who loved the crap out of me, but also could be equally vicious if she was ever crossed. I was smart enough not to do that so for the most part that pointed barb of hers never was pointed my direction. But I’d seen her do it to others.
From her I learned perception is everything, even above family. Yet, from my mother I learned that you can never control perceptions from others – “…at best, all you can do is mitigate it. You can never control what they think of you.”
Got it – perceptions can be mitigated, but never controlled. A very valuable life lesson.
It’s why I am obsessed with writing about perceptions. They color everything you do, whether you want to acknowledge their presence or not. They are your guiding force. Growing up in a family obsessed with perceptions went a long way to forming the man I’ve become. Comng from the lower end of the middle class, perceptions ruled my entire world. It was also one of the reasons why my mother didn’t want Spanish spoken in the house. She didn’t want her children to deal with having an accent. It was her way of mitigating those very perceptions that could hold us back. So English was the dominant language. So much so, we practically became Anglophiles in the process.
But it wasn’t all about control, power and perceptions. There was a whole lot of love, laughter and amazing food along the way.
From my grandmother I learned my love of Mexican food and cooking. Family recipes and the love she poured into them now flavor what I make for my own family. From her I learned that you didn’t need precious measuring spoons or cups. “God gave you everything you need right here,” she’d tell me holding a cupped hand out in my direction. The message was clear: I’d learn to measure as she had, learning what a tablespoon, teaspoon and such looked like in my own hand. It was a long process, but one that I embraced because I wanted it to taste as good as hers did.
At least I didn’t have to learn how to roll the perfect tortilla in three rolls of the pin. My mother learned how to do it that way from her grandmother. If she failed to roll that perfect tortilla by the third roll, she got a rather hard whack on her hand for her “lack of effort” in getting it done. So I counted my blessings that no whacking of the hands happened with my learning how to cook. Refried beans from scratch? Yeah, I did that. Fideo, lord almighty, her fideo was legendary, with my mother’s coming a close second. but I learned that too. Chili Reinos, Spanish Rice, Albondigas, Pozole, Menudo, all of it. From her, more than anyone, my latinx heritage was secured. The latin women of my family ensured my love of my culture. The food, family life, ritual and traditions of our race. Viva la raza and all of that. I have to admit, I didn’t always feel it. Probably the queer kid in me taking root. And it’s a tricky thing for me to embrace wholly even now. I still struggle with it. Mostly because there is still so much of my heritage that stands against who I am. It’s a tough road to walk.
Yet, the food. The food is what brings me back. Every time I have Albondigas, I don’t just think of family, I feel them course through me, their memories and love flavoring the soup with each successive spoonful.
Being the first grandchild, I got to enjoy things my brother and sister didn’t. I get that. I feel a tad guilty for it, but it wasn’t anything I did other than being born first. So one such guilty pleasure was something rather silly but meant the world to a three year old boy: I had a specially crafted seat in my grandparents 1962 Cadillac.
Okay, it wasn’t a special seat made just for me. It was actually a double-wide arm rest but my little butt fit onto it and could nestle myself in the indent where the armrest could be stowed when not in use. So I sort of made it my own seat. Now, this was years before the whole click it or ticket sort of thing. We lived on the edge. Kids riding carefree in the back of pickup trucks with no seat belts, nothing to keep their butts on the bed of the truck. Hell, there were times my brother, sister and I would stand up in the back of my dad’s old Ford pickup, gripping the wrought iron frame he had in the back helping us stay in the damned truck.
My brother and sister probably resented the fact that I was the favorite. No, thinking on it now, there is no probably about it. They definitely did. My grandmother made no bones about it. She came from an era where that happened and no one questioned it. My parents, on the other hand, weren’t so accepting of that sort of tradition. As much as my grandmother was obsessed with perceptions about the family, my father was equally obsessed with each of his children being treated fairly. It had become so lopsided that my parents had a rather large fight with my grandparents that they had to treat the three of their children equally or they wouldn’t see any of us at all.
My mother said that it broke my grandmother’s heart to be given that ultimatum, but it was necessary so that my brother and sister wouldn’t grow up to hate me. I got that and was thankful for my parents having the courage and foresight to nip that one in the bud. The thing is, I don’t know that they were all that successful in detecting when she did favor me. Because I can recall many times she did long after being given that edict from my parents. All it did was serve to drive it underground. She was just more clever on how she gave me a bit more than my brother or sister. On some level I knew it still went on. But I was a kid. You bet your ass I took whatever extra came my way. I’m not proud of that now, it’s just how it played out.
But anyway, back to my custom built seat. The Caddy was a huge influence on me. Later on I’d realize that it, too, was an expression of my grandmother wanting to appear rich when we were anything but. But at the time I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was, as a young boy, I had a small throne for the little prince to ride around in. From that I got that a little favoritism went a long way to building confidence. In those early years i felt like I could do anything. I had a confidence that when my grandmother told me I was special and I could do anything, I felt like I really could.
That didn’t last all the way through my childhood. But in those early years, it mattered. And that wasn’t because they stopped believing in me as I grew older. It was just that, as my queer self started to blossom, I realized just how removed I was from all of them. That’s where the self-doubt and hiding from them all began.
Yet, those few years in that Caddy, that specially designed seat my grandmother had made just for me, meant the world. I still can’t see one of those bullet shaped taillights on that car and not feel a bit whimsical for my youth. I’d probably trade a year off my life to be a young boy in that “special seat” one more time.
This last part doesn’t have to do with my grandmother so much as it does the influence she had on our lives.
I’m talking about the years I don’t remember quite as well that haunt my thoughts to this day. These are the earliest years of my life that I’d like to watch like a fly on the wall. Years when I was told that everything that had to do with me as a young boy were celebrated to the nth degree. In the Latin culture, boys are celebrated at birth, girls are lamented. This is because, for my people, boys rule and our lives are generally lived unfettered by “you can’t or you shouldn’t” – where that’s all the girls hear. For girls born into Latin families, their lives are seen as hard and unforgiving. To a great degree, though our family did its level best to keep things as an even playing field. my sister did deal with harsher realities than me. It’s one of the reasons to this day that I admire her so. In that adversity both within the culture and within the family, she found a way to prosper. I am sure she had to work nearly twice as hard as I did. I was there for her in every way I could think of, but I also know how much easier I had it by being born male. I am all too aware of the male privilege that I enjoy. Times are changing, but it didn’t escape my sight that my sister had a much harder time of it. But like those strong women of my Latinx family, my sister gave me probably the greatest gift of all – to never give up despite what life throws at you. Her perseverance in life feeds my own.
Love ya, sis. I think even Grandma would be proud of how we turned out.
Until next time …