With a cup of strong coffee and five packets of half-and-half, I can approximate the skin tone of the nine members of my mother's family.
I never see the shadow arc or the red carton flash, and even when the pint of Valley Gold milk explodes against the head of my wheat-haired friend, I'm late to understand what the Chicano means when he curses from the sidewalk outside my junior high cafeteria, "Shit. Missed that honky."
I watch my mother in the kitchen table glow of our Albuquerque home, rolling pin thumping, windows steamed, kneading flour, soda, and salt as effortlessly as the Spanish and English mingle on her tongue and rise into the griddle smoke.
"¿De veras?" my grandmother asks.
"Oh, sí," my mother replies. "Every word."
I eat my tortillas hot and whole and plain, nourishing myself on the ingredients as if they really were my bread.
My mother has her own philosophy about beans. Instead of spooning in the traditional curl of Snowcap pig's fat, she adds bay leaves, olive oil, and [End Page 57] garlic. She cooks her pintos all day over a low gas flame, in a glass pot, until the broth bubbles a rich murky brown. When an aunt, a cousin, or a neighbor visits for supper, they always frown up from their first tablespoon sip, "Good. But different."
To which my mother replies, "Exactly."
During World War II, my mother lived in East Los Angeles, just before the "Zoot Suit Riots." From her apartment window, she watched pachucos strut up and down the boulevard in their shoulder-padded jackets, double-pleated trousers, and wide-brim hats, so proud, so defiant, as exotic to her as tropical birds, pulsing streaks of red, yellow, green, and blue, competing with the neon for attention.
One summer, her uncle Gilo visited from her grandparents' ranch in Corrales. He was the baby in my mother's family, spoiled rotten because of his fair skin, blond hair, and green eyes, the image of his father, who always crowed about his Spanish blood. Gilo had never been to the big city. My mother took him to the corner market for an after-supper ice cream. They strolled hand in hand along the sidewalk, turning heads as they went, she in her schoolgirl plaids and he in his pearl-button shirt, Dorothy and the Scarecrow in the Land of Oz. On the way back, several pachucos blocked their path.
"Orale," the biggest one said. "Where are you going, gringo?"
The pachucos circled them.
"Long way from the ranch, no?"
The big one flicked off Gilo's hat.
"Who do you think you are anyway? The Lone Ranger? Hi, ho Silver!"
My mother backed away, turned to run. Gilo stammered, "Who are you calling gringo? My name's Perea." In Spanish, he told them he was visiting from New Mexico, and if they didn't believe him, he'd fetch one of his uncles. The pachucos fell over each other laughing. They punched Gilo's arm, messed up his hair, pinched his cheeks. They escorted Gilo and my mother all the way home. For the rest of his visit, they treated him like royalty, like a movie star, like an iridescent jewel.
Ricky Sandoval pins me by the throat against the C-Building locker, combination lock spinning beside my head, and slaps me hard on one cheek, [End Page 58] then the other, until my composure cracks, my eyes water, and my face burns red.
"See. That's all you need," he laughs, "a little color."
"We are in no way, shape, or form Mexican," my mother says.
"Chicano?" I ask.
"No," she laughs.
"Then what do I say on my report?"
"Don't say anything."
"How about Irish? Like Dad."
"He wasn't Irish. He was Scottish-French."
"Wasn't your grandmother Italian? I thought that's where I got my red hair."
"Your hair isn't red. It's auburn. Look, if you really want to know the truth, my family is Basque."
"How do you spell it?"