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."


Jason said...

I love your entries about your family and your family history. It is very interesting. The part about your father and mother going to the show and what he said to you made me smile.

Anonymous said...

It's great this will of you about sharing those stories, (eventually with me also). You know, I've been into the strange-hair- toilette paper-curling-style becuz my mom was born in 1942 and she went thru all this strange way of beauty. She even slept with curlers!! Anyway, I think this bicultural background gave you a lot of mixed influences wich later appeared if not directly in L.A. punk scene, in all the art work you've doing all these years.
I was so interested about the way your parents felt becuz it was kinda hard for me to keep a balance between my "teen behaviour" and my family behaviour during this candid era called grunge and the remains of metal era. At the beggining my mom was shocked about all this stuff in wich I was into; of course it was all different you know, here in Mex city but there are things that never change as drugs, sex, music and girls going crazy about street fashion. I'm 26 now and it seems like finally this is seen as something cool, even to my mom..hehe.
Thanks for sharing dear Alice and let's keep talking, ok?

Jenny Lens said...

OH Alice, how I love reading whatever you write! I wanna know how you managed to take off that baby fat and I didn't! I guess you stopped eating during high school and I increased.

Bless your mother for doing so much for you, like saving so many fliers and artifacts from your punk days. And bless both of them for showing up at the Hong Kong!

I remember your mother being so nice to me. You both were, when I was so shy and new to the emerging punk scene. I keep thinking it was late 1976. I wish we could remember where or how we met. But I'm glad we did!!

My mother taught me how to sew and embroider before I could read. I remember her showing me using a piece of newspaper, not cloth. It was stiffer and easier, cos I must have been about 3 or 4.

When I was a young teen I took a class at the local Singer sewing machine store. I learned enough not to follow patterns nor directions. I made clothes based on costumes in movies and art history books.

I taught myself how to do a blind hem. I sewed all the time, til I started making so much art in college I no longer had time.

I truly miss sewing, but I miss doing so much art that no one even knows about. I never dreamt I'd be a photographer. I miss the feel of fabric, designing patterns, looking for the perfect fabrics, sewing by machine and finishing by hand.

I even silk-screened (we're talking mid '60's, when it wasn't in vogue), tie-dyed and linoleum-block print on cloth, then made copper enamel or beaded jewelry (earrings and necklaces) to match the colors and designs on my cloth. Those were such fun days!

You remind me of those things I love and gave up because of my photo archive. As they sang in "A Chorus Line": "what I did for love." That includes sacrifice and although most think that song about love between people, it's really about love of one's art. Passion that has nothing to do with relationships with others, but with our own creativity.

Oh my parents were horrified I bought things at thrift stores and raided trash containers. They grew up during the Depression and wanted better for their kids, and that didn't include discarded items.

That's where our parents differed! And being older, already with my Master of Fine Arts Degree, meant that I didn't tell my parents too much about my punk lifestyle. But my mother always supported and encouraged me. She was so proud then and more so now.

You are truly inspiring. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Really nice writing, Alice. What great stories about the immigrant experience and so different from the ones we usually hear about. I'd love to hear more and I gather from watching that interview video on your website (about Happy Accident) that it wasn't all sweetness and light. I'm sure that had alot to do with you forming a punk band, right?

Take care,
Adrian from NYC

Anonymous said...

Alice, I really like your blogs, but I can't figure out why! Why is it that the family life / history of someone I briefly met a couple of times 25 years ago, really interests me? Very good stuff, keep it up.

Anonymous said...

aww alice i love you!!! i love thee expression on your face in that pic.. the shit our parents make us wear sometimes!! i've nvr seen matching Rain Coat & Umbrella, especially with that funky pattern :)!! You're right about your mom being handy with sewing, it looks like she made that raincoat out of curtains!! (i mean that with much love) too bad u still dnt have it!! lil' sophie would have loved to have worn it too (maybe)!! your so cute alice!!!
take care
the lil'one

Anonymous said...

Hey Alice, by reading your blogs for the past year, it's obvious your Mom and Dad and immediate family supported your rather unconventional endevours - and that's cool. However, what about your extended family : Aunts, Uncles, cousins, family friends, etc.?

I'm trying to make sense out of some of stuff that happened around my own Mother's death, concerning certain members of my extended family, and I'm trying to get some feedback from some of my fellow geezer punks, on these issues.

Were you ever disowned by anyone?

Did your aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., ever view you as an embarassment?

Were they scared of you?

Did they view you as stupid?

Let's hear it!

Anonymous said...

Hola Alice,

I loved reading about your family history and the pictures are just great! What groovy hairdo's sported by you and your sister! YouR parents are just gorgeous.

You have inspired me to start my own blog:

Any words of advice you can give me on the do's and don'ts of blogdom? L.A.Geo

Nick said...

Hey Alice

Been reading your blog for some time and love it. Some old punk friends and I decided that we should take a step beyond the virtual and get people's hands grubby with newsprint. Our mag, hoozdo, is about Phoenix - past, present and future - and I would like to get a copy to you. We will be giving copies away at First Friday (apr 6th) outside anti-space. Do you have a po box or somewhere we could send you one? Basic info on our site - We're just trying to light a small fire and get non-professional writers, photographers, musicians, etc involved and looking at their city in fresh ways. keep up the great work!

Alice Bag said...

I think most of my family thought I was a dork. Maybe I shouldn't use past tense.

As far as advice on blogging, I'm the worst person to ask because I only do it intermittently and I read that the first rule of blogging is to write on a regular basis. My rule is to try not to feel guilty when you leave it for a few weeks and then just pick up where you left off.

Hugo Estrada said...

Hola, Alice,

No recuerdo exactamente como encontre tu blog, pero llegue a una pagina donde estabas hablando del cine mexicano.

Me gusto mucho leer la historia de tus padres. gracias por compartilo.