Book: Resilience - The Life of a Mexican American. Novel based on a true life story. Names changed to protect participants. Introduction & 18 Chapters. I´ve posted first nine chapters. Interested in reader feedback. If interested, please read and provide me contructive feedback via comments. For additional chapters and poems, email (comments emailed to me, not posted so as not to influence future readers)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Chapter 2: A “Messykin” in School

It was October and the school year already started. I was going into Kindergarten. Most of the children had formed their cliques. Not only was I the new kid, there was another reason they didn´t like me.

The kids in my grade treated me like I was a foreigner. Some of the prissy girls teased me. “Look at the Messykin!” I was the only Mexican-American child in class.

At five, I was a shocked and hurt by their words. We just returned from San Antonio where many Mexican American families lived. No one called me “Messykin” there.

I always wanted everyone to like me and I didn´t understand why they teased me. I tried my best to please them so they would be my friends.

Once, when drawing a picture of a house, I colored it in pink polka dots. I thought it was so pretty. The prissy girls laughed, “Houses aren’t polka dotted, you goof!”

I cried.

The teacher came by and said, “Oh, what a pretty house!” I felt better and the kids stopped teasing.

After a while, I made a very good friend, Helen.

Once, Helen took me to the bathroom and tried to help me scrub my skin. “I just know that brown will come right off. I get dirty myself and all the brown comes off.”

Helen was trying to help me but she just didn’t understand the color stuck.

When I came home from Kindergarten that day, Mom saw my arms were red and raw. She asked, "What happened to your arms?"

"My friend Helen tried to help me wash the brown off, Mama. She said my skin was just dirty and it would come off if I washed it," I answered.

Mom gathered me up in her arms. She said, "The color doesn't come off mija."

"Then why would she say my skin was dirty mama? Why?" I asked, tears rolling down my cheeks.

She hugged me and replied, "They just think it is mijita. But don't worry. God made you this way. God loves you and made you this way. Be proud of who you are."

Though Helen was kind, some of the other kids were not.

When Gloria and I went roller skating in a trendy East Lansing rink someone said, “Oooh, what are you doing in here? MeXX-kins aren’t allowed in this place.”

She hurt my feelings. I cried. Gloria had her arm around me and we skated away.

Afterwards, I went back to Mom.

“But Momma, they call us MeXX-kins,” I pleaded. “Why can´t we be Americans too?”Patiently, she tried to explain, “We are Americans, but they have always called us Mexicans. We have brown skin. We haved lived in the country for hundreds of years. It doesn´t matter what they call us. Never be ashamed of who you are. You are a child of God, made in God´s image and you are an American.”

After that, if anyone teased me, I remembered Mom´s words, “God made you. Be proud of who you are.” I stayed strong and decided not to let their words discourage me. Inside I knew I was American, God made me and I was good.

Gradually, the teasing stopped in Kindergarten and all of us were either friends or tolerated each other.

In the first grade, I went to a Catholic school. Kindergarten in public school was totally different than first grade at St. Therese school.

We had fun in Kindergarten. We played house. We had tea parties. We drew pictures with water colors. We laughed and played until we grew tired and took our little naps.

At St. Therese, we had a daily regimen!

At seven thirty, we boarded the school bus. At eight, we went to Mass. We prayed. We sang songs. We stayed quiet and obedient. At eight forty-five we went to our classrooms. We were on time, controlled by the bell. We sat straight. We folded our hands by cupping one hand over the other, neatly on our desks. We didn´t fidget. We listened to our teachers. We knew our math tables. We studied our spelling words.

“What happened to school being fun?” I wondered.

During the first grade, I met my sister-in-law Celia for the first time. She wasn’t my sister-in-law then, of course. That would come much later.

Celia was a street smart Mexican-American girl. She was cute and very sure of herself. She teased me often. One day, I wore a beautiful scarf to school. She grabbed it off my neck and threw it on the grass.

“Hey, don’t step on the grass!” she laughed as she pointed at the “Keep of the Grass” sign. She knew I liked to follow the rules, but this time, I broke the rules. I stepped on the grass and got my scarf back.

“Nyahhh, I’m telling. You broke the rules!” she laughed, but she really didn’t tell.

I liked Celia but she had such a weird sense of humor. Somehow, I just couldn’t convince myself to feel bad when the nun in the cafeteria made Celia eat sauerkraut that made her throw up. It just made me secretly smile.

I admired Celia though. The popular girls rarely teased her and if they did, she just didn’t care. What a girl!

On Saturday nights, Mom frequently took us to the Mexican dances at the IOOF Hall. My sister Christina was the belle of the ball at those dances. Christina was tall, light skinned and beautiful. She looked like a taller Salma Hayek.

Christina was so pretty, she ran for Queen of our Mexican-American neighborhood. Our neighborhoods did things like that back then. It was a way for the promoter to raise money.

Dad made Christina pull out of the contest before the vote. He said it was a con game. Each contestant sold tickets. The contestant selling the most tickets won. The contest wasn´t about beauty, talent or popularity. It was more about money going into the pockets of the promoter.

Even though Christina wasn’t Queen, people treated her like one. She loved going to the dances and I think the rest of us, Mom, my brothers and sisters and I, all went to the dance to watch Christina dance with all of the cutest boys.

That summer, my brother Ramon went off to the army. Mom didn’t want him to go and it broke her heart when he went. I looked back at pictures of that time.

When we took Ramon to the bus station, we took pictures in those little booths, four pictures for a dollar. Mom took a picture with Ramon and tears streamed down her cheeks. I must have insisted that she take a picture with me too. There we were, my face mirroring Mom’s face, straight, somber and unsmiling.

The fall after Ramon went into the Army, I transferred to a different Catholic school, St. Mary’s. It was the same school my older sister Christina and my brother Raul were in. They were seniors in high school. Christina was doing ok but Raul was always in trouble.

As a dark skinned Mexican, Elvis Presley type of guy, he felt he had to live up to his tough image. He was cool. He was popular with his greaser friends. They called him “Spooky.” He even had this name tattooed onto his arm.

Spooky loved Elvis. It was the late fifties. Elvis was the coolest. Spooky was the coolest. He used to slick his hair and comb it up into a high pompadour, like Elvis. Raul used to hang out with our cousin Rob. Rob wore his hair the same way Raul did. They were so cool. I remember them walking down the street together, all hunkered down. Hair high, jeans tight, white, tight t-shirts with cigarettes rolled up in their sleeves.

They always had a bevy of pretty girls hanging around. When we went to the movies or the drive-in, Raul and Rob had a large following of girls and guys.

Once, all the kids went to the movies to see the latest Elvis movie. It was a double feature. Elvis was singing King Creole. Raul and Rob were at the front of the theater. They stood up and sang when Elvis sang. I just stared in awe. At eight years old, I worshipped Raul. He was like a Rock Star to me.

At home, Raul didn’t get along with Dad. Dad was king of our family. Raul was king of his crowd. There wasn’t room for two kings in our little house.

I remember one Saturday when Raul and Dad were arguing. Raul was the only one in our family to ever argue with Dad. They were arguing about a fur coat. Raul bought one for Mom. Dad bought her the same fur coat. They argued for hours. Raul decided to push Dad back. What a mistake.

At seventeen, Raul was about 5’ 8” and 150 pounds. Dad was six feet tall and weighed over two hundred pounds. Raul was still a teenager. Dad was a full grown, strong, factory working man. Raul got knocked out the window that day.

Raul didn’t have it any easier in school. Once, he was kicked out of school for retaliating when a white jock classmate pushed him and called him a dirty Mexican. Raul had been taking his abuse for weeks. Finally he retaliated. Raul brought out his slick little switchblade and poked the kid with it although he didn´t hurt him. Soon Raul joined Ramon in the Army.

Christina remained the good, beautiful, oldest daughter. The only problem she ever had at home was with the strict rules Dad asked her to follow. He didn’t allow her to date while she lived at home. This was a tough rule when you were 18 years old and had plenty of guys asking for dates.

Christina occasionally snuck out of the house for an afternoon date. She had a handsome boyfriend named J.C. He looked like Jimmy Smits, he was so good looking. He was tall and handsome and had the best intentions. Mom knew about the dates but she and Christina conspired to keep these dates secret from Dad.

The dates were very innocent. I know because Christina often took me along as her chaperone. I loved this. There I was, sitting in the back seat as we cruised in his cool car. He took us to Nip and Sip, a favorite teen-age hangout. He bought me a root beer and a hamburger. What a generous, nice guy!

On our way back home, we ran into trouble. Our two brothers, Steven and Mark, saw us. They had a shocked look on their face when they recognized us. Then they started laughing and took off running towards home. We knew we were finished. They were a couple of squealers.

J.C. dropped us off a half a block away from home. We pretended innocence, hoping against hope the squealers wouldn’t tell.

It was too late. Dad was pacing in the house when we walked in. Mom was quiet in the corner. He knew.

Dad was yelling. Christina and I both remained silent. Steven and Mark smirked.

Finally, Christina ran upstairs, leaving me behind, staring at the floor.

Dad gathered me up on his lap. “Kiki, my beautiful girl, you must always tell your Dad the truth. It’s a sin to tell a lie. Tell me the truth. Tell me what happened.”

I didn’t know what to do. How could I lie to Dad?

I told.

He called Christina back downstairs. He didn’t yell. He just told her he was disappointed in her. He said he was trying to protect her. He said this as he held my hand. Christina looked at me. She knew I told.

Dad became even stricter. She could go nowhere by herself. I was the stool pigeon. I had to go with her everywhere. It was kind of funny, though. Christina still sometimes met J.C. We were just much more careful so we always knew where our brothers were.

J.C. loved Christina and wanted to marry her. Finally J.C. let Christina know he wanted to bring his Dad over to meet our Dad. He wanted to do this right. He was going to ask our Dad for her hand. We ran all the way home and Christina raced to tell Mom. They made a plan. Mom would break the news to Dad as we waited for J.C. and his Dad to come over to ask for Christina’s hand.

For some reason, Dad didn’t like the idea of Christina marrying J.C. The Saturday J.C. and his Dad came over, Dad arranged for the boys to move our old player piano outside the house. As Dad and the boys moved it, the piano became stuck in the front doorway.

There they were, Dad inside the house, the piano stuck in the doorway. J.C. and his Dad were blocked outside. Dad raised his voice to be heard. J.C.’s dad raised his voice to be heard. No one was listening to anybody. Finally, J.C. and his dad left. Soon after this “non meeting”, Christina and J.C. broke up.

I don’t think Christina or Mom ever completely forgave Dad for that incident.

Once Christina graduated from high school, she decided to join the service like my brothers did. She was glad to join the service, anything to get away from the strict home-front.

Gloria, my next oldest sister, was totally different than Christina. She was three years younger. She wore her hair shorter. She was darker skinned, pretty, but sassy.

Even though Dad was strict with Christina, he respected her work ethic and her will to succeed. Dad was disappointed about Gloria´s lack of motivation. Christina studied and did well in school. Gloria preferred having fun.

Dad wanted all of his children to take school seriously. He wanted us to be educated, earn good grades, graduate from high school, get a good job and be successful in life.

Gloria’s lack of motivation disappointed him greatly. He didn’t know what to make of it. Gloria was a smart girl.

I had to admire Gloria for the way she handled his disappointment. She took it on the chin and never seemed to let it bother her. She gained a tough girl type of attitude and didn’t often listen to what anyone said.

She also didn’t listen to Dad. He said, “You have to be a good girl. You can’t date.” He said all the things he said to Christina. However, Gloria didn’t listen. She seemed joyous when she broke his rules. She snuck out. She went on secret dates. She waved at the Army trucks that drove by, loaded with soldiers going on field maneuvers. All Dad’s rules fell on deaf ears.

After she graduated, she took a job working in the cafeteria in Dad’s factory. Gloria was pretty, in a racy sort of way. She wore make-up and short skirts and she flirted mercilessly. The guys in the factory loved her.

She dated more than a few of the guys and made quite a reputation for herself. I think she did this just to irritate Dad and our brothers.

Word, of course, got back to Dad and my brothers. Dad was embarrassed. Soon though, Gloria found another job and she kept up her merry ways. She moved out shortly after that.

My brother Steven was the next oldest. We all called him a mama’s boy. He was Mom’s favorite son. There was a good reason for this, though.

When Steven was a baby, an old widow lady named Severita, was staying with us, helping Mom with the tons of housework we had. In Mexican-American households, it was a common practice for full families to take in widowed relatives. This would serve two benefits. The widow lady would be cared for financially and the household would have an extra pair of hands to help with the housework.

Severita was a nice enough old lady, but she was somewhat forgetful. One day, she left a hot pail of water next to Steven. She was getting ready to mop the floor and she didn’t see Steven sitting there. Steven, being a baby, spilled the pail of hot, hot water onto himself. It scared and hurt him so badly that he stopped talking and walking.

When Dad found out what happened, he was fit to be tied. He let the poor old woman have a tongue lashing. Severita moved out shortly after that, although she moved back in a few years later.

Afterwards, Mom turned her attention to Steven and coddled him until he was better. He was walking and talking quickly with her help and soon had no traces of the accident at all. However, as the years went on, he remained a mama’s boy, often hiding behind Mom’s skirts. Steven suffered “Momma’s Boy” teasing for years after that.

Despite the teasing at home, Steven excelled in school. He was a very smart guy. After high school, he joined the service. He served in Vietnam. When he came back, we all thought he was a hero. I think the Army helped him build up not only his muscles but his self-esteem.

The family members that I spent most of my childhood with were my older brother Mark, my younger brother Rick and later my two youngest sisters, Tina and Baby.

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