Sometimes when I teach my Spanish classes, students will ask me how to swear in Spanish. They express disappointment when I inform them that I will not teach them how to swear in Spanish. However, whenever I ask who knows how to swear in Spanish, at least half of the students always raise their hands. “If you want to learn how to swear in Spanish, see these students after class,” I tell the inquisitive student.
Occasionally, students will ask me about certain words they heard someone saying, but then couldn’t find in their English-Spanish dictionary for some strange reason. These words are invariably profanities. The word “güey” is a common topic in class because some Mexicans use it so often–so frequently, that students think that it’s okay to use it in any context. However, under the wrong circumstances, “güey” is an insult that could result in physical abuse to the speaker. Literally, “güey” means ox. That doesn’t really sound so insulting, does it? In Mexico, “güey” has been used as an insult for so long, that it no longer even refers to an ox. To put it in perspective, think of the word that refers to the female dog: “bitch.” That word has become so offensive that I would never call any self-respecting female dog a bitch. It’s that bad! So remember: “güey” has the same negative connotations as “bitch.”
A few years back, the Mexican restaurant Chi Chi’s had a radio commercial with the following dialogue: “No way!” “Yes way!” “No way!” “Yes way!” And when the commercial was over, the announcer said, “By the way, never say way to a Mexican.” But I’m sure he really meant, “By the way, never say “güey” to a Mexican.” I think that’s good advice everyone should follow!
I’ve learned that with my Ph.D. and five bucks I can buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks. I’ve also learned research skills that allow me to circumnavigate the Google-verse. I can find anything and everything on the Internet—everything except a job.
I’ve been searching unsuccessfully for a tenure-track position in Spanish for twelve years now. However, I’m not bitter at all. Actually, I’m sure I’m on the verge of finding a job very soon. In 1995, I was actually awarded a tenure-track position at a community college near my home. This was the ideal job for me. As a community college student myself, I would have been the perfect role model for most community college students. I was supposed to teach some combination of English and Spanish courses because I had one M.A. in English and one in Spanish. I immediately applied to a doctoral program in Hispanic Studies so I could move up another step on the salary scale. Sadly, when the college board of trustees met, they decided that my position wasn’t necessary and the college couldn’t afford to pay another salary. I had lost my tenure-track position before I even taught my first class! And I have continued my fruitless job search ever since.
Now why did I want a Ph.D. again? Well, since I was in grade school, I wanted to be the most educated person in the world. I remember I once asked my seventh grade teacher, Sister LaVerne, “What’s the highest degree you can get?” And she immediately responded, “Ph.D.” with a sense of awe and reverence. “I’m going to get one of those someday,” I told her. In my heart, it was more like a solemn vow, an eternal quest for knowledge. I would someday be Dr. Rodríguez! However, I never wanted to be a medical doctor. I get squeamish if someone describes medical procedures in too much detail.
There were a few bumps, detours, and stalls on the road to becoming Dr. Rodríguez. My parents groomed me for the life of a manual laborer. As a high school student, I was already a full-time factory worker and couldn’t graduate. Well, it’s hard to get into college if you drop out of high school. Go figure! But I got my GED. I’d hate to think that I wasted six years in high school! Then, I worked in a peanut butter factory for twelve years with a brief three-year stint in the Marines Corps in the middle. I’d say that was a significant detour to becoming Dr. Rodríguez. I must admit that while I was in the Marines, I enrolled in an English composition class at Fallbrook Community College, but ended up dropping out because the composition professor critiqued my writing. Didn’t she know that I would someday be Dr. Rodríguez?
Dr. Rodríguez was ever-present in my thoughts as I continued reading and writing. I always fondly recalled my conversation with Sister Laverne. I didn’t even know what a Ph.D. was back then. (And now, I’m not sure what to do with it!) There was no escaping those constant reminders of my becoming a doctor. My initials are DR! Every time I bought a house, I kept initialing DR. My license plate, the same one that I’ve had since the 70s, begins with my initials: DR.
When the peanut butter factory closed, I tried my luck as a standup comedian. I was pretty good, but I couldn’t handle the Bohemian lifestyle of the starving artist. I needed a steady, good-paying job. Okay, I admit it. Over the years, I’ve developed an addiction to food.
So I became a police officer because the job paid well and offered good benefits. Being a police officer wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t so many criminals. In 1987, the Chicago Police Department encouraged everyone to go back to college to get a bachelor’s degree order to qualify for future promotional exams. Well, at first I resisted going back to school. But the very first time I had to work midnights, with the realization that I would have work midnights every third month, I made up my mind to finally graduate from college and find another line of work. So I enrolled at Richard J. Daley College and earned my A.A. in two years while working fulltime on the afternoon shift. When I went back to school, I was able to request working the straight afternoons and avoid midnights altogether. I loved the fact that Chicago’s Mayor was Richard M. Daley and I attended the college that was named after his father.
When I transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago, I also transferred to a police district closer to home. So I lived and worked in Bridgeport, the home of Mayor Richard M. Daley. As luck would have it, I was the new officer in the district so I would have to work assignments that the seasoned veterans didn’t want. As the new guy, I had to sit in an unmarked car guarding the mayor’s house because most police officers didn’t want to be anchored to one place for the entire shift. I, on the other hand, loved guarding the mayor’s house, sitting there reading the assigned texts for my classes. I was the perfect officer for the post because the mayor didn’t like the officers to watch TV while on duty. I loved to read and I always studied to get good grades. When the mayor would leave his house, I had plenty of time to put away my book before he saw it. For a while there, I really loved being a police officer! I must admit that I loved the job, but I hated working most of my weekends.
Well, I graduated with a double major in English and Spanish. And since I could study most of my shift, I also graduated Phi Beta Kappa. I applied for a few jobs after graduation, but I was unsuccessful. When the mayor was reelected, I just had to take advantage of my situation. I applied to graduate school for both English and Hispanic Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, since they offered many classes that would fit my schedule. I applied for two graduate programs because I desperately wanted to go to graduate school. I wasn’t sure which program would accept me and I really didn’t care as long I could become a graduate student. I wanted to guard Mayor Daley’s house with a purpose. The mayor’s security detail loved having me in front of the Mayor’s house because I was always wide awake and actually guarding the mayor.
Well, I did get accepted to graduate school! To both programs! I agonized over which program to choose. I loved English and American literature, but I realized it would be more difficult finding a job with an English degree. I made up my mind to choose the Hispanic Studies program because I loved Spanish literature and I could probably find a job with a Spanish degree since I was bilingual. But, why should I be forced to choose between the two programs? Suddenly, one afternoon, while I was guarding the mayor’s house, it occurred to me, like an epiphany. Since I could read all day while I’m at my police job, I could enter both programs! And so I did.
When I graduated with two MAs in 1995, I was hired by the community college, even though I never actually got the job. But I was still in a doctoral program for Hispanic Studies. Mayor Daley was reelected again and I was finally on the road to Dr. Rodríguez in earnest.
When I earned my Ph.D., one of my police partners bought me a nameplate for my uniform that said, “Dr. D. Rodriguez” as a graduation gift. At first, I was hesitant about wearing it, but then I wore it proudly. The supervisors and top brass who saw the nameplate were impressed. All my police colleagues began calling me “Dr. D.” Whenever someone would ask me a question and I knew the answer. Someone would invariably say, “That’s why he’s the Doctor!” Of course, there were playful jokes, too. One police officer would always tell me about his aches and pains, and then ask me for a prescription for painkillers. “I’m not that kind of doctor,” I’d tell him. “But if it’ll make you feel better, I’ll read you some poetry.” No one ever took me up on the poetry reading.
I’ve been teaching for twelve years now. I really love the interaction with the students, even when we argue over silly matters. I’m the greatest teacher in the world! (But aren’t we all?) Most students seem to enjoy my classes and often ask me what I’m teaching next semester. Sometimes, I say things that make the students laugh, so I write them down. I’m thinking of going back on stage. I’m not joking!
Well, I’ve given up looking for a tenure-track position. So if some university or college wants to offer me a position, I may accept it, but only if I don’t have to go through another interview with a search committee. I’ve learned to accept the fact that I’m a retired police officer after a mere twenty years of service: I came, I saw, I retired. I really enjoy teaching so I’ll continue teaching as a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago. However, I am proud to have earned a Ph.D. I once made a pilgrimage to the UIC Library to visit my doctoral dissertation. As I wrote it, I often wondered if anyone would ever read it. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that not only had it been checked out a few times, but someone had also marked some passages! So now, I flaunt my degree whenever possible. I use Dr. or Ph.D. next to my name whenever possible. My PBK newsletter comes addressed to Dr. David Diego Rodríguez. I can’t wait to start getting bulk mail addressed to Dr. Occupant. I started a blog titled, “David Diego Rodriguez, Ph.D.” at davidrodriguez.us. I love being Googled. If I ever accidently bump into someone on the mean streets of Chicago and they say, “Watch it, asshole!” I’m going to say, “Hey, that’s Dr. Asshole to you!”
When I attended Gage Park High School, I was on the school chess team. I even lettered in chess! I remember one day I was pulled from one of my classes and told to go the assembly hall. I saw my other teammates from the chess team there. We were attending the athletic awards ceremony where all the school athletes were brought on stage and given the school letter to put on the school jacket. When they called the chess team on stage, the whole assembly burst out into uproarious laughter because no one thought of the chess team as athletes. We chess players didn’t think of ourselves as athletes either, but we really enjoyed receiving the school letter. We were officially school jocks!
When we weren’t playing chess at school, we also played at a chess club that met every Tuesday at the the Marquette Park field house. After we played there a few weeks, we were required to join the chess club that was called the Mar Par Chessman. I’m sure I still have my membership card around somewhere. I really improved my chess skills by playing there and I met quite a few characters there. I remember the room was always filled with cigar smoke. For some strange reason, no one smoked cigarettes. I remember one player would occasionally blow cigar smoke across the chessboard to try to psyche me out. The winter meetings truly taught me to develop my concentration because a recording droned on monotonously, “Danger! No skating. Thin ice.” even when the temperatures were above freezing and the water in the lagoon wasn’t even close to freezing. Sometimes I hear the voice to this day whenever I see a frozen lagoon or a chess set.
The character I remember the most was Spans. I never learned his full name because everyone called him Spans, just Spans. I thought he was Lithuanian. I also believed he was a retiree. I was 16 at the time so I could have been wrong. A few times, I saw him sitting alone, so I offered to play him, but he told me he was waiting for someone. I only ever saw him play this one player whom I no longer remember because Spans was the more memorable of the two. Once his partner showed up, Spans would liven up and become a whole different person. He was like a tiger on the prowl. I’m not sure how strong a player he was, but I was always impressed by his demeanor and focus during the game. He always looked like he was just about to checkmate his opponent even before the game began. However, I don’t recall that he ever won a game. He really wasn’t interested in winning. He just wanted to play a good game. From observing him, I gathered that a good game for him was placing his opponent’s king in check as many times as possible before losing the game. Since this was his favorite part of the game, everyone knew when Spans was on the attack. He would slam down the attacking piece with all his might and yell at the top of his lungs, “CHECK!” The room would tremble slightly and his “CHECK!” would reverberate in the room and his breath would actually clear some of the cigar smoke from around his chessboard. When Spans was on a roll delivering check after check, he would actually drown out the “Danger! No skating. Thin ice.” announcement. In good game, he would deliver about ten “CHECK!”s before finally losing the game. And he would play to the very last move and make his opponent checkmate him. “Checkmate!” his opponent would yell at Spans, but with no enthusiasm or emotion compared to Spans’ delivery. Spans would say, “It doesn’t matter that you won. Did you see how many times I checked you? I hope you learned your lesson!”
No Mexican party or picnic is complete without a piñata. Piñatas are usually store-bought nowadays, but once upon a time they were made at home by the hosting family. At some point during the party or picnic, after everyone has eaten, one of the drunk uncles remembers about the piñata and struggles to hang it from a nearby tree. The children form a circle around the piñata while watching one blindfolded child attempting to strike the piñata with a stick. Of course, the fix is in because no one wants one of the first few children to break the piñata right away. Every kid should get a turn to hit the piñata. Before a child gets a turn, he or she must be blindfolded and spun around a few times. This child is so disoriented by then that he or she must be pointed in the direction of the piñata and starts swinging wildly at the piñata. Meanwhile, everyone sings the piñata song: “Dale, dale, dale, / No pierdas el tino / Porque si lo pierdes / Pierdes el destino.” Everyone sings the piñata song repeatedly until the child swinging the stick gets so sick of hearing it that he or she finally breaks the piñata.
I have broken a few piñatas in my lifetime. But I definitely enjoy watching children break them a lot more. When I was in Mexico as a boy, my aunt made a piñata from a clay pot that she filled with candy. I was so fascinated watching her make it. Ever since, I have believed that this is the truly authentic way to make a piñata. However, when the piñata breaks, those flying shards could seriously injure someone. Never mind the swinging stick that’s still swinging as the children are diving toward the falling candy! Perhaps the new supermercado piñatas are safer for everyone involved.
Once, before my sister went to Mexico, she asked me if I wanted her to bring me back anything. I knew I was supposed to ask for something, anything, so that she would feel useful and wanted. Finally, I said, “Yes, I’d like a piñata bat.” “What is a piñata bat?” she asked. I wasn’t actually sure if there was such a thing as a piñata bat, but surely some ingenious Mexican must have invented one since there are so many piñatas in Mexico. My younger sister has always looked up to me, so I didn’t want her to think I was as soft as the tortilla of a tostada after sitting on the buffet table at the birthday party all day because the kids found out it was made with tongue. “What!” I told my sister, “You never heard of piñata bat? What kind of Mexican are you?” She was visibly embarrassed. “Okay, I’ll bring you back a piñata bat,” she promised. Imagine my surprise when she returned from Mexico proudly waving a piñata bat over her head. “You don’t know how much trouble I went through to get this!” she said. “I hope you appreciate it.” And then I realized she was actually swinging the bat at me. But I dodged it since I never had the ambition to be a piñata. Apparently no one in Mexico had ever heard of a piñata bat, either. However, my sister actually found one. And a beautiful bat it was! Someone had carved designs in the bat and painted it in many bright colors. The bat is so beautiful, I have never actually brought it out of storage to break a piñata! At every party, my sister keeps asking about the whereabouts of my piñata bat.
When I was a boy, my mother made a piñata so indestructible that not even a crowbar could break it! But it always looked like it was just about to break. So everyone took several turns trying to break it. After the third turn, no one even wore the blindfold and we were using a Louisville Slugger baseball bat. But alas, the piñata would not yield its precious cargo. When it was Lupe’s turn to break the piñata, she insisted on wearing the blindfold and using the stick. We tried to talk her out of it, but she insisted. So, we spun her around a few extra times after she was blindfolded and we didn’t point her in the direction of the piñata. We started singing the piñata song and Lupe started swinging. And swinging and swinging. And missing and missing. Then, someone shouted, “Go to your left” and Lupe turned to her left and swung. And missed, of course, because there was no piñata there. “Go straight,” someone else shouted. And Lupe moved forward a few steps and missed again. All the children started giving her different directions and she would follow them. Someone had the brilliant idea to have her go outside of our backyard. No matter what direction we gave her she obeyed it. Soon she was going around the block blindly swinging wherever she imagined the piñata to be. We all tried not to laugh to make this last as long as possible. We actually went around the block on this beautiful Sunday afternoon. Lupe was followed by all the children at the birthday party and quite a few adults, too. Soon some of the neighbors also started following. At least a hundred people where now following Lupe, who was oblivious to all this excitement. We finally led her back to our yard and everyone else came into the yard. Finally, we told Lupe where to swing and she broke the piñata! She never even knew that she left the backyard. Even after we told her several days later, she didn’t believe the story!
Well, I’ve been thinking about all of my lifelong goals and how I haven’t completed most of them. There are so many things I have yet to do. I’ve started so many things that I’ve forgotten to go back to them to finish them. I’ve started writing several novels, but haven’t gotten past the opening lines. I have actually almost already finished a comedy play. Of course, I’ve been working on it for 25 years now. However, I’m almost done editing it. Really! I have about eighty pages and it’s almost done. Any day now!
But I have a lot of other things that I haven’t finished either. I have a utility sink in the basement that I probably won’t install before I sell the house. I have a set of French books so I can learn French some day. Ditto for the Italian and Latin books. I have an unopened jigsaw puzzle of the John Hancock building when it was the world’s tallest building. I’m almost done with my website that I started four years ago. NOT!
In the late 1950s, my parents and I lived in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where I was born. My mother told my father that she would only marry him and come to America if she could visit her family in Mexico every year. My father agreed even though he would never return to Mexico for another fifty years.
About 1957, my mother learned that her father was dying in Mexico. She bought plane tickets to go visit her father on his deathbed. My mother took me with her even though I was still a baby. My father drove us to the airport. He always had trouble driving anywhere without getting lost. When he asked for directions, he would only confuse himself even more. Well, my mother and I were supposed to fly to Mexico from Newark. My mother told me this story several times. However, I remember the story become more exciting and compelling everytime she told it.
Well, my father asked for directions to the airport in Newark. At that time, neither my father or mother understood English very well and they spoke English even more poorly. So when my father asked for directions to the airport in Newark, the man misunderstood my father and gave directions to the airport in New York, . Well, my parents and I ended up going to the wrong airport. By the time we arrived at the right airport, they told my mother that our plane had already departed. She began crying because she would not be able to see her father before he died. Someone with a private plane heard her crying and when she told them why, he arranged for us to fly on a charter flight to Texas. From there, we flew to Mexico.
When we arrived at her father’s house in Mexico, my mother saw vigil candles lighted all over the house. When her family answered the door, they started crying even more when they saw us. My mother started crying thinking that she had arrived too late to talk to her father. “Did he die already,” my mother asked. “No,” my aunt answered. “He’s still alive?” my mother asked. “Yes,” my aunt said. “Then why is everyone crying?” my mother asked. “We thought you were dead. Your plane crashed!”