Monday, March 05, 2007

Cuentos de mis Padres

A comment on my last blog entry got me to thinking about my Mom and Dad.

"Hey there Ms. Bag! This is Harakiri, from Mexico City. That mom & dad pic happily walking in Mexico it's just great; and I 'm so curious, when did you all come to USA? I'm thinking how weird must have been for your family to face the fact of L.A. punk and hijita Alicia messing around!!
Would you tell me a little about this??

Dear Harakiri,

Much of what I know about my parent’s lives before I was born comes to me from my mother. She enjoyed regaling me with stories of her childhood and young adulthood. My father was more reticent and so I know only sketchy details about his past. They lived such colorful and rich lives that I felt a lengthy answer was warranted, so these recollections of my mother and father might end up unfolding over several blog entries. Anyway, let me begin by telling you a bit about my Mother.

My mother, Candelaria, who was the third Candelaria born to my Grandmother after the first two died. The third time is the charm.

My mom, Candelaria (also known as Lala to her family or just Candy to her American friends) grew up during the Great Depression. She was born in Torreon, in the State of Coahuila, Mexico, but her family moved to the United States when she was still young. With a large family consisting of eleven brothers and sisters, my grandmother and assorted uncles and aunts, they all worked the fields, picking fruit. I expected my mom to tell me how hard and backbreaking this was, but instead she told me that she was very young and often goofed around on the job, playing with her siblings and picking only a modest amount of fruit. With that kind of work ethic, it’s no wonder that there was little money for anything but essentials.

Candy and her brothers and sisters would sometimes raid the dumpsters behind a big shoe factory in downtown Los Angeles, hoping to find a new pair of shoes. She described searching through mountains of shoes, but they never found a single matching pair. What usually happened was that if they found two of the same style they were for the same foot. If they were really lucky, they might find a pair where one foot was a half size bigger than the other. Those they could wear with a little bit of toilet paper stuffed into the toe box.

Candy learned to sew at an early age. During the Depression, any fabric that could be fashioned into clothing was considered a luxury and being handy with a needle and thread was a source of pride for my mom. My mom sewed clothes from any available cloth, from bed sheets to flour sacks. Her real expertise was the blind hem. She boasted that every morning on the way to school she would tuck a threaded needle into a seam in her skirt. A block away from the school, she would stop and hem the bottom of her skirt or dress to a much shorter length than my grandmother allowed and every afternoon on her way home, she let it back down. She claimed to be able to do a blind hem by hand in 2 or 3 minutes. I can’t do one at all. But I think that story explains why my mom allowed me to have the shortest school uniform at Sacred Heart of Mary High School.

When my mom was fifteen she met her first love and he carted her back to Mexico (where she could be legally married at the age of fifteen) to work with him, running a little store. My mom promptly began having children and was happy running her store until a fire burned it down and her husband was diagnosed with cancer. After his untimely death, my mother was left alone with four small children and no work.

She met a handsome stranger on streetcar who threw a few piropos her way. He was on his way home from work, wearing a sweaty tee-shirt (I imagine Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, except with my Dad’s face) and as the story goes, he told my mother, “If I wasn’t so dirty, I’d invite you to a movie” to which my mother replied not with a slap in the face, not with “We‘ve not been properly introduced,” but with “You don’t look dirty to me.” You go, Mom!

My father, Manuel Armendariz, came from Parral, which is in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Before you know it, I was on my way to being born and the family was moving back to the U.S. For my Dad - unlike my mom - was fond of hopping trains to come look for work in the U.S., illegally. He boasted that he was on friendly terms with the Border officers who he claimed to have known by name. They would often bid each other farewell with “See you next week,”(things sure have changed!) Dad eventually became a member of the officially sanctioned bracero (or guest worker) program and everyone started to feel a little bit more American.

My older siblings promptly got married and flew the coop but my half sister Yolanda lived with us. She was my idol. Every night, she and my mom would wrap their fancy hairdos in miles and miles of toilet paper, a strange ritual that mystified me. Then it seemed they had to sleep very still so that in the morning they could add another layer of Aquanet to stick it back together. It was so Memoirs of a Geisha, except from the 'hood.

Just as strange was the initial setting of the hair, which involved soaking the strands of hair in a concoction of Lucky Lager beer mixed with Dippity Do and then rolling it onto the rollers. I remember my mom and sister going through this ritual during a time when they were studying for their American citizenship exams. They claimed to know more about American history than the people who were born here, which is probably true of most immigrants studying to pass the citizenship exams. And like most immigrants, once they became legal citizens the color of their blood changed from red to red, white and blue.

My sister Yolanda looking glamorous, me wearing a raincoat and matching umbrella I wish I still had and my Mom, looking effortlessly beautiful. I know what you're thinking..."cool hairdo, Alice!"

Only my Dad held steadfast to his Mexican nationality. He refused to take the citizenship exams. He reminded me that I was not only American, I was a special kind of American - a Mexican American (Ohhh... Ahhh...). He ridiculed the pochos who didn’t know their mother tongue and decreed Spanish as the official language of our home. He resisted the notion of assimilation but learned to swim in the new cultural waters of the U.S.

As for what he thought of his daughter being in a crazy punk rock band, I can tell you that he and my mom went to see me perform with the Bags at Madame Wong's. I had no idea that they were going to show up that night. My mother later told me that my father was standing on top of a chair, enthusiastically cheering me on. I am also certain that this was the night a riot broke out at Madame Wong's because our audience got so unruly. Afterwards, my Dad said to me, "I don't know what you were singing about, but I loved the way you were doing it."