Sunday, September 14, 2008

The good neighborhood in the Bay Area: discovering the Latino community

When my family moved to a small border town near Mexico when I was ten, I went through a withdrawal of all things American. It was such a culture shock to be immersed in Mexicana even though Calexico was technically part of the United States. I was the object of endless fascination for the adolescent boys in my fifth-grade class (many of whom where in their young teens since they were “left-back” so many times), subject to teasing from the other kids (I didn’t know that teasing is an integral part of the culture and harmless), and shocked by the “looseness” of the girls and women who wore bright makeup, tight clothes and were very comfortable with their femininity and sexuality.

Needless to say I hated everything about this border town! I begged my parents to move back to San Diego, where the air was cool and everything seemed saner and more civilized. They refused because in Calexico, they found a willing and eager market for their imported goods. In San Diego, they couldn’t afford to feed me and my five brothers and sisters. There was prosperity in this hot, dingy little town by the border for them. They marveled at how the Mexicans cared for their children. It was so similar to the way Koreans took care of their own families. Even the word for father and mother sounded the same, “amma” and “appa.” They appreciated that the Mexicans knew how to live well. Mexicans loved to get together with friends and families for formal and informal fiestas. They were warm, helpful and friendly and didn’t mind that none of us could speak a word of Spanish.

I was ten when we moved to Calexico and I was stuck there. No matter how many times I pretended to be sick they made me go to school. No matter how many times I complained I had to follow them to work in the flea markets and their stores where I stocked the merchandise and took care of the Spanish-speaking customers. I began to learn Spanish and make friends, despite my negative attitude. We lived in Calexico until I graduated from high school, about seven years, on and off. I didn’t know then that I would actually treasure the time I spent there, now that I am forty years old.

Living in Calexico was really a lucky thing. I didn’t know that, there, in this miserable little town there lived so many warm and caring people who cared about the same things that I hold so dear now. Things like family, getting together for meals, babies, children, helping others, God. Living in San Francisco, which has a miserably low population of children, and many many people who do not believe in these things, I really began to appreciate the Mexican culture. Not only that, I learned how to speak Spanish in my seven years there.

If I hadn’t learned Spanish and learned how to interact with Spanish-speaking people, I would never have gotten to know my Guatemalan babysitter so well. Last night, we were invited into the “inner circle” and were greeted warmly at her son’s birthday party. Now, when I say “party” this is not your regular, run-of-the-mill party. Whenever my babysitter, let’s call her Irma, throws a party, everyone in her Guatemalan neighborhood attends (that’s about 200 people.) They crowd into her tiny, 1000 square foot rental and patio and spill over into the lawn next door and onto the streets. She and her sister cook all day and prepare several different kinds of agua frescas, taco meat, fried taco shells, tortillas, enough guacamole and salsa to feed 300, taquitos, fruit salad and that is just the appetizer. For the actual meal, they will also cook two vats of chicken, vats of rice, vats of macaroni salad, vats of vegetable salad and expect everyone to eat their fill of this too. They’ll be several kinds of cake, candies, lots of beer and wine, lots of music. Her parties start at 4pm and end at 2am, long after the children are in bed.

The birthday party was festive. Irma’s family do not have much to share but what they do have is shared. The couches were put outside for everyone to sit on and everyone was in a jovial and friendly mood. No one minds that the grass outside is dead and that there are not enough chairs for everyone. No one cares that there is absolutely nothing fancy and there is no entertainment. It’s all about getting together and the great food and the good mood. We were the only non-Latinos at this party and while we did get some curious looks when we first walked in, everyone smiled at us and greeted us warmly.

My white husband, who is very preppy and very white, was absolutely enchanted. Despite the language barrier, he managed to have a great conversation with Irma’s brother (the girl has 16 brothers and sisters!!) Irma has just a lovely family. Perhaps all people from Guatemala are this open and nice!

It’s amazing to me that so many people in the Bay Area are into other cultures yet so many of the ones I know have no friends in the Latino community. People are very much segregated, not just by economic level, but also by race. If you talk to anyone who is upper-middle class, white, Asian they will tell you that Redwood City is a good neighborhood, only west of El Camino Real. Anything east of that is bad. They will never actually say it’s bad because “it’s all Latino” but that’s exactly what they are implying. I’m certainly guilty of that too. I have to tell you though that Irma’s neighborhood is really nice. There is a lovely park right across the street from her house and she will tell you the elementary school her children go to is really great. There is a great sense of community in Redwood City east of El Camino.

I can’t tell you how much I miss this sense of community. Sometimes I feel as if white culture is so cold and calculating. If I could just find a Latina friend, someone who was simpatico, I wouldn’t feel so alone in my upper-middle class white and Asian neighborhood. Life is really not that difficult for people like me and my neighbors. When I talk to Irma and her relatives I am shocked at how difficult life is for them.

Irma tells me stories about how poor Guatemalans are. There are many stories of women who give birth to stillborn babies, because the hospitals there demand payment up-front. These women have to go through labor without medical help and if they are poor, often they and their babies die. She tells me how her father, a farmer, who has 16 children, came to adopt the 17th child. A friend of her father’s had traveled to the capital and brought back a skinny, sick eleven year-old boy he had found digging through the trash. This boy was so weak he couldn’t lift a cup of water to his mouth. The friend couldn’t care for the boy so Irma’s father, who was also poor, took the boy in, declaring that “if his children can eat frijoles, well then, this boy will eat frijoles too!”

It was the best thing to have ever happened to her adopted brother. Amazingly, he had been able to live on his own, on the streets of Guatemala City for five years, eating from trash cans and begging. His mother, a prostitute, had sent him out on his own at the age of six! I can’t even write this without a tear forming in my eye. My own son is six and the thought of a boy his age being kicked out onto the street and living on his own is almost too much for me to imagine. The boy is now 30 years old and living in Houston, working as a truck driver. Not many years ago, he visited Irma’s parents, Graciela and Pedro. His mother had come searching for him, apparently remorseful, perhaps looking for monetary assistance too. Irma’s adopted brother told his birth mother that he only had one mother and one father and that was Graciela and Pedro. Irma told me that the birth mother wept bitterly as she listened to the man who she had cast away as a child. Irma tells me that he loves his adoptive parents so much that he sends money to them even now.

I was also able to meet Irma’s sister at the party. Let’s call her Maria. Maria looks so much like Irma, but a little more glamorous and just as warm and friendly. She has a ready smile. After I talked with her more I realized just how brave that smile really is. Maria, like so many Latina women, had to leave her children in Guatemala behind. It has been seven years since she has seen them! She has an 8 year old daughter and an 11 year old son. Her daughter had to have brain surgery when she was a toddler and even now requires very expensive medical care. She is divorced from her husband, who is an epileptic and abusive. In order to pay for her daughter’s care, she made the decision to overstay her visa to work and send money home. Maria is really in a catch-22. If she leaves the U.S. she can’t support her children overseas but if she stays she cannot travel back to see them. As I was talking to her and the sadness of her situation hit me fully, I could see her choking back tears and the easy smile pull away from her lips. Irma says that Maria misses her children so much that she spends extra time doting on any child that comes her way.

Milagro is another remarkable woman I spoke with at the party. Her little 3 year old daughter kept trying to scoop up my 16-month old boy in the jumpy house. Of course, she’s only a few pounds heavier than he is and maybe an inch or two taller so she would try to grab him by his butt and he would just flop over again. Milagro means “miracle” in Spanish and I remarked that I loved her name. She told me that she was a miracle for her mother who was told that she would die if she gave birth to her. Not only did her mother live through Milagro’s birth but ended up having another three children after her! Her mother prayed so hard for Milagro and God answered her prayers. Milagro showed me her arms which were covered in goose pimples. She says just telling me the story gives her chills everytime.

Guatemalans celebrate birthdays with piñatas just like the Mexicans. There was a blue piñata for the boys and a pink one for the girls. It took a while to break the blue one so almost every boy had a chance to hit it several times. Plus, they know how to do the piñata. There’s usually a man controlling it with a rope slung over a tree or a line and he will lift and lower the piñata based on whether he thinks the hitter will break it or not. When I’ve seen piñatas done at non-Latino parties, it’s usually stationary and one of the big kids will hit and break it before everyone gets a chance and all the kids start crying.

Cake cutting happened around 8:30pm. One of Irma’s friends, after she got a piece of cake, yelled out to her, “ya me voy pues!” and they both started howling with laughter. (That means “now I’m leaving!”) Yikes I thought. I knew it would be time for us to be leaving soon! Maybe we would have stayed longer had we not had the kids. We were definitely the first ones to leave and a little embarrassed about it but Irma was gracious. She knew our ways!

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