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Callaloo 24.4 (2001) 1186-1193
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My father's name was Alfred Mendez. He was descended from the Mendezes on the southside of Chicago, all of whom had names like Mercedes, Pedro, Maria, Carlos, even Javiar and Concepcion. Indeed, Alfred had been christened Alfredo. But the Mendezes weren't Spanish or Cuban, which were identities they cultivated, nor were they Cape Verdean, an identity they shunned. They were just brown-tinged New World people with roots no closer to Mexico than Houston, no closer to Cuba than Charleston, or for that matter, no closer to Spain than Canada, who lived in the Negro community (housing restrictions apply to brown-skinned Spanish, too, they reminded) but made it abundantly clear that they weren't black. They had been so insistent about this for so many years, so many generations, that people just let it go, or, as one wag said, let it pass. The Mendez spectacle was just so elaborate, so astonishing, that few questioned it, for few wanted the spectacle to end.
And the Mendez family didn't want it to end. The Pedros and Marias gave their children more elegant, mellifluous Spanish names. The men inherited certain slouches and other bearings along with magnificent sideburns and moustaches. The women memorized their grandmothers' and aunts' stories of tropical girlhoods replete with dressmakers and servant girls and afternoon teas served with benne cakes. In family chorus, they rehearsed a ballad of lament which narrated the sea-change that brought them to Chicago, which was always followed by a prose poem, not exactly about Uplift, a term not in their vocabulary, but about justice and recognition: recognition that they justly deserved the positions in the bureaucracies and professions which they held--and which they were making sure that the next Javiar or Pilar would hold, too.
The spectacle of my father's family. My family, too, I guess. How valiant they were in keeping all this going. How they kept at it at his funeral, as well: the women with the exquisite mantillas, the men whispering in and out of an accented English all their own. The whole troupe there to weep and mourn, honor and bury. A battalion of formidable, impeccable Family, swelling more than a few pews in the Episcopal church they had joined after being "unappreciated" at the Catholic church across the street. (Not Catholic, but still Caribbean, the family elders had said.) Proper though they were, they in unison shuddered and shook, the collective beat suggesting a boleros. Softly, lyrically, they moaned their love for caro Alfredo, magnificently forgiving his transgressions, his defections.
What had he done? Oh, I can tell you. Even though I am considered by them just the odd boy in the family, the mestizo boy --if you can believe that-- born out in "that New England" Alfred fled to with that wife he found in California. That woman (my [End Page 1186] mother!!) they said was "at best French at worst white." I was never there to eavesdrop with my cousins on the Mendez elders hissing in their Chicago kitchens, sipping tea until an exasperated tio broke out the rum. But I can tell you, because my mother, for her own reasons, told me.
* * *
"Your father," my mother began, flipping the tea towel to the kitchen counter, gazing out the kitchen window at Alfred, who with hands in his pockets was staring into the stream, "was a different man before you were born. He was a different man when I met him, but he was in the process of becoming something else, which is probably the real reason he had come out to California: to become someone else. How many times has he told you, laughing, and me laughing, too, that he came out to Berkeley to find some manuscripts and he found me instead? It's true --we weren't kidding you. He found me and I found him and we got married. But Alfred was about his own intense project of finding a self he couldn't find, or didn't think he could find, as long as...