Reading has been my lifelong passion. I have always loved reading! Even when I went camping with my friend Jim, I took books along. He took this picture of me reading while I was so engrossed in reading.
I loved the first grade when we started reading. At that level, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know English. Our homework involved reading to our parents at home. My mother thought that was too much trouble for her after a long day’s work, so I would read to my abuelita. Unfortunately, not only did she not speak English, but she was also blind. But she loved it when I read to her. And I was grateful to have someone to listen to me read.
When I was a little older, I used to go to the library to read. I mostly read joke and riddle books, but that still counts as reading in my book. In the seventh grade, Divine Heart Seminary let me check out books from their library via the USPS. I only remember two of the books that I read. One book was about Father Damien who was a missionary on a leper island in Hawaii. And the other one was Fighting Father Duffy who was a U.S. Army chaplain during World War II. Now why would the seminary only send me books about priests? I’ve always wondered about that. Not!
I like reading at the library because I had more privacy. If mother saw me reading comic books or even books, she would criticize me for being lazy. When I finally bought my first car, I would drive to Marquette Park just to read in my car. When I would come home, my mother would ask me what I did. When I told her I went to the park to read, her blood would boil. Then she would tell me about other constructive things I could have been doing around the house.
In general, the uneducated masses don’t understand why anyone would want to read a book. When I worked in the peanut butter factory, I always carried a paperback in my back pocket. Whenever the production line stopped or I was on break or lunch, I would pull out my book and start reading, even if I had to stand. No matter who my boss was, he would come by and tell me to pick up a broom and start cleaning up my area. No one at the factory really understood why I liked reading so much.
Ironically, the books I chose to read were the books that I refused to read in high school. In high school, I spent most of my time reading chess books. For two years my life revolved around chess. But once the assigned books weren’t required reading, they piqued my curiosity. Why were they required reading in the first place? So, one by one, I read all the books I once rebelled against. Suddenly, I felt a certain sense of fulfillment.
In the Marines, I bought the Great Books set and I would read them every free moment. My fellow Marines thought I was a bit crazy, but that’s why no one started any trouble with me. That and I told everyone I knew kung fu. No one wanted to risk starting trouble with me.
I’ve mentioned this before, but burritos are not a traditional Mexican food. My abuelita never made even one burrito in her entire ninety years on the face of this earth. Not even my mother made burritos. My father didn’t make burritos either and he used to cook up some weird combinations of ingredients that no one in our family ever ate even though he said it was delicious. Only my father would eat his concoctions, which were only made palatable by adding profuse amounts of salsa and/or jalapeño peppers. And sometimes even he didn’t finish the entire serving. Despite his creativity, he never neared anything resembling a burrito. I guess because no one had invented giant tortillas back then.
Flash forward to the present. Somehow, mysteriously, burritos became American fast food. Yes, I’ve been known to eat a burrito or two on the go. Unlike traditional Mexican food that must be eaten sitting a table–picture yourself eating tostadas with all the trimmings on top–the burrito is the perfect driving food! It is one of the staple foods of American youth today. Including my oldest son. I think my son loves burritos almost as much as me. I think I once saved his life by throwing away a three-week-old burrito he had in the refrigerator. So, last week, he says we should go out to eat together. You know, so we can catch up on things, which usually means we hurry up and eat and then pull out our smart phones and ignore each other. However, we really do enjoy our time together.
Anyway, we ate a place called El Famous Burrito¡ with the exclamation point upside down at the end of the sentence instead of the beginning! We were in a hurry and there was parking out in front, at Madison and Peoria. The most eye-opening revelation of our whole fine dining experience was learning that burritos could come in different sizes! They were offered in large, medium, and mini. But the mini burrito looked more like an egg roll! When I used to eat burritos before my son was born, they only came in one size. Large! I would usually eat one burrito along with three tostadas. Now, I don’t always finish a burrito. So I ordered a medium. Well, the medium was just right for me. Although back in my younger days, I’m sure I would have ordered something else. But these burritos passed the most important taste test of all. They tasted Mexican!
In Mexico, I was surprised when my cousin handed me a bag of potatoes and a potato peeler. She actually wanted me to peel potatoes! In the past, whenever I went to Mexico, I was never allowed in the kitchen while the women cooked. So I sat down at the kitchen table and actually peeled potatoes while my cousin and my aunt prepared the New Year’s Eve dinner. Amazingly, there were two other males in the kitchen helping with the cooking. Mexico is changing. I remember when I was a boy and my mother and aunts were making tamales, I got kicked out of the kitchen while they were preparing the tamales. Once my mother made tortillas and she let me roll one tortilla, but then she kicked me out of the kitchen. My abuelita never even let me try to cook anything when she lived with us in Chicago. Now that I think back, most Mexicanas always tried to discourage me from helping in the kitchen. But I think that it’s a conspiracy. Because then when you meet American girls, one of the first things they ask is, “What can you cook?” And if you ever go to their place for dinner, they test your culinary talents by making you help with the dinner. They’ll let you cook the entire meal if you’re able. But if you’re like me and grew up in a traditional Mexican family, you won’t be able to do much more than warm up tortillas! And they’ll settle for you washing the lettuce.
Whenever I go to México City, I’m always certain to visit mi tía Jovita. I believe she was my mother’s favorite sister. And tía Jovita has always paid me a lot of attention whenever I’m in México. I know I can go to her house anytime and I’ll be welcome there. The earliest I can remember visiting her is 1965 when we spent about two months in México from December to February. My mother had told the nuns at Holy Cross School that we were going to México for two months and the nuns told mother that if my brothers and I missed that much school we would all fail to be promoted to the next grade. My mother didn’t take the nuns seriously and we stayed in Mexico for two whole months and didn’t come back until the end of February. And guess what! My mother bragged that the nuns didn’t fail all of us! They only failed to promote me! Danny and Tato were promoted, but I wasn’t. Well, two out of three ain’t bad! I had to repeat the fourth grade, but my mother viewed this as a victory against the Holy Cross nuns. I, however, was distraught about being considered a retard! Kids were cruel like that back then. Now, I look back and think of it as 4th Grade 2.0.
Anyway, when we first went to tía Jovita’s house it only had one floor. The house is built on the side of a steep mountain slope. At the top, stood a little brick building that served as the bathroom. It’s now a two-room house where my cousin Mauricio lives with his daughter and her daughter. But when I first went there, it was a very small house with all of tía Jovita’s children living there. She eventually had ten children and her grandchildren would often be there, too. There were always a lot of children there because her brother-in-law lived right next door and there was a door that opened to my tía Jovita’s back yard. I remember my cousins would call their cousins primo or prima I would also call them cousin. But they would tell me that they weren’t my cousins. They were just their cousins. And they were right. But as a nine year old, I just didn’t get it. Now that I think of it, I’m still confused by our family tree.
I went there in 1978 and it still had only one floor. And then I stopped going to Mexico for about twenty-nine years. But I got to see the house, because every time my sister Delia went she brought back pictures of the house. Well, not exactly pictures of the house, but rather pictures of the family. I couldn’t help but notice the house in the background in these pictures. One time, I told my sister, “Wow, tía Jovita now has a second floor!” When I returned last December, I saw that she now had a third floor. When I left, I asked her to build a fourth floor so I could move in.
So, tía Jovita has a son living on the second floor with his two daughters, a daughter living on the third floor with her husband, son and two daughters. And another son living in the little house at the top with his daughter and granddaughter. An NO ONE pays any rent to tía Jovita! Even in México, this just isn’t right! But she doesn’t say anything. She is just such a nice woman.
I met Leslie Cloud when I was in the Marine Corps Boot Camp in San Diego, California. He was proud of the fact that he was a Chippewa Indian from Wisconsin.
In boot camp we only knew our fellow Marines by their surname because first names were unimportant. However, if we took a liking to someone, we introduced ourselves. Leslie approached me first. He said, “Hi, my name is White Cloud.” I started laughing because I immediately thought of the toilet paper by the same name. When I noticed he was staring at me with a menacing look, I stopped laughing. Then he laughed and said, “My name’s really Leslie.” I felt an immense sense of relief because for a second there I thought he would pound the laughter out of me.
We shared the same set of bunk beds, so that made us partners for many of our boot camp activities. Actually, he picked me for his bunk partner, although I’m not sure why. He said that I had to sleep on the top bunk, and the way he said it, I knew I didn’t have any other option.
I never really learned too much about his personal life, but occasionally he would say something that revealed his past. I was a regular Marine and he was a reservist who would return to his reservation after boot camp. Sometimes he would reminisce about his life on the reservation, how he could hunt whenever he wanted. But other than that, he remained a mystery to me.
He had a sense of humor that today would be considered politically incorrect, but he always made laugh. There were moments when I thought he was the funniest man in the world. Unfortunately, laughing was not allowed in boot camp. So he tried to make me laugh at the most inappropriate moments. In the morning, we had to make our bunks and stand at attention. The goal was not to be the last one done, or you and your partner would be ordered to do pushups or another callisthenic exercise. The first day we were bunkmates, I thought I was making my bunk at breakneck speed. By the time I had finished tucking the hospital folds of the bottom flat sheet, Leslie began helping me with the top sheet. When I looked at his bunk, I was amazed that he had already made it. It was so perfectly made, too, that it passed the quarter-bouncing test when the drill instructor bounced a quarter on the bed to see if the sheets are tucked in tightly enough. “Where did you learn to make a bed like that,” I asked. With a wink of an eye, he said, “It’s an old Injun trick!” Then, he got serious and said that he had grown up in an orphanage.
When we were in infantry training, we shared a tent that we put up faster than any other team in the platoon. I realized that I had only assisted him while he did most of the work. We stood at attention for what seemed an eternity waiting the next team to finish setting up their tent. While we were standing there, I asked, “How did you put up the tent so fast?” He looked at me with a straight face and said, “Injun-uity!” I had to contain my laughter so as not to be punished for not being at attention. The incident I remember most? I was looking at picture from my last trip to México immediately before entering boot camp. I had a picture of my grandmother with her long black hair with traces of gray in the traditional Mexican braids and her dark brown skin and broad cheeks. I saw Leslie looking at the picture, so I told him she was my grandmother. He solemnly said, “So you’re one of us.”
Toward the end of our boot camp training, we were informed that we had both been meritoriously promoted to Private First Class (PFC). He began calling me PFC Rodriguez, and I called him PFC Cloud. Those titles sounded so prestigious in boot camp when most recruits were only privates. However, during the promotion ceremony, I was promoted but not Leslie. He showed no outward indication of disappointment. I never found out why Leslie didn’t get promoted. When we said our good-byes after boot camp, I asked him for his address so we could stay in touch. He said no because he wouldn’t write to me anyway. And that was the last I ever heard of him.
Mexicanas are very unique women in this world. However, I don’t want to lump them all into one group as there are different kinds of Mexicanas. Sure they all have the common denominator of Mexico somewhere in their background and that’s enough to differentiate them from women of other ethnicities. So in an effort to educate you, gentle reader, I will over-analyze Mexicanas for you. Yes, there are different kinds of Mexicanas that I like to divide into three groups: 1. Mexicanas, 2. Mexicanas, and 3. Mexicanas. As you can see, UIC didn’t give me my Ph.D. for nuthin’! I learned to categorize just about everything while studying for my graduate degrees. Anyway, if you examine my groups of Mexicanas, you will clearly see that there are three different kinds of Mexicanas: 1, 2, and 3. Is that clear?
First of all, there are Mexicanas like my abuelita, born and raised in Mexico, destined never to live anywhere else. And they don’t want to leave Mexico either. Their names are usually María or Guadalupe. Or, even Guadalupe María or María Guadalupe. No exceptions. My abuelita María Guadalupe Valdivía came to Chicago only because my mother insisted. Abuelita didn’t like Chicago at all because it wasn’t Mexico. She hated the winters here and she hated the fact that she would have to learn English. She stayed just long enough to have her eye surgery and then she returned to Mexico. And she never came back. And she never missed Chicago at all. My mother would visit abuelita at least once a year in Mexico. And even though she was blind, abuelita lived by herself in Mexico. She was a very strong Mexicana.
Second, there are Mexicanas like my strong-willed mother who were also born and raised in Mexico, but not firmly rooted there. They come to America for a while, then go back to Mexico. But return to America even though they always complained about America in Mexico. They just keep going back and forth never entirely happy in either place. In general, nothing seems to please them. My mother always complained about everything, to everyone in America and Mexico. When her Mexicana friends would visit, they would all sit around complaining about America. And then, to change the subject just a little, they would complain about Mexico. Nothing ever seemed to please these Mexicanas as they sat around complaining and breast-feeding their babies.
Third, there are Mexicanas like my sister or ex-wives, born in America, but unmistakably Mexicana by their accent. I once had a Mexicana girlfriend who had the Mexicana accent, but couldn’t speak a word of Spanish! She used to get so mad when people automatically spoke Spanish to her and she would have to admit that she only knew English, albeit the Mexicana kind of English. These Mexicanas love everything about Mexico, the music, the food, the culture, but they wouldn’t want to live there. It’s okay to visit once in while to catch up with family events, but that’s about it. America is their home, even if they are Mexicanas, and they never hesitate to let the gringos know it.
I’ve known Mexicanas all my life, beginning with my mother, then my abuelita, and finally, my significant others. The more I get to know them, the less I seem to understand them. I do know they are sexual beings from observing them and from my very own personal hands-on experience. I don’t know much about my abuelita’s sex life, but let me say this. She never married my abuelito and they rarely lived together. Yet they managed to have six children together. My parents were always fighting and I never ever heard them having a normal, civilized conversation. My father was always affectionate with my mother, but she would repel all his amorous overtures, at least that I could see. Occasionally, when my father didn’t work the midnight shift, I could hear him trying to seduce my mother in their bedroom, right next to mine. My father always saying something affectionate and my mother always telling him to leave her alone. Apparently he didn’t give up and she didn’t resist enough because they had six children together. My youngest brother was born soon after my parents separated.
The Mexicanas that came into my life were certainly very affectionate, if you know what I mean. That’s the thing about Mexicanas: They immediately know if they like you or not, if they will love you or not. I met my first wife Linda when my friend invited me to go with him to a wedding in Merrill, Michigan. We barely spoke and I didn’t see her again for another month–and we spoke even less then. Next thing I knew she moved to Chicago just to be with me–not that I minded, of course.
My second wife Anna chased after me, too. She kept hinting for me to ask her out. I really wasn’t interested in her, but she was persistent. She gave me her phone number and I threw it away. Her friend gave me Anna’s phone number and I threw it away again. She was so persistent that I finally gave in. If a Mexicana is that interested in me, I know we will be happy together. If Mexicanas don’t love you, or at least like you, you better back off because you don’t have a chance and you’re just wasting your time.
From what I’ve seen, the odds are against you if you think you can win a Mexicana over. However, once she yours, you better show her that you need her and she’ll be yours for as long as she wants you. But that may or may not be till death do you part. One of the fringe benefits of having a Mexicana is having an active sex life. I mean there’s no begging at all. In fact, I was dragged into the bedroom many times, although I must admit that I didn’t put up much of a fight. And the fun doesn’t stop just because it’s that time of month, either. In fact, a Mexicana wants you even more right then. This happened to me many times. And just because you have all these heated arguments during the day, doesn’t mean that you’ll be ignored at night. In fact, that’s usually some of the best lovemaking. And the next morning? She continues being mad at you from the day before. That is, until night falls again.
Well, that’s about all I’m willing to say for my over-analysis of Mexicanas for now. But someday, I’ll truly delve into Mexicanas to try to understand them! Maybe, I’ll discover that there are many more than just three groups of Mexicanas.
My tía Matilde was quite a character. Once when we were visiting in México, we stayed with my abuelita who was blind. All our relatives would always visit abuelita, especially when we came from Chicago. Matilde was still single at the time, so she lived with my abuelita.
While we were there, my mother decided to fix up my abuelita’s place a little. That meant everyone there had to work, vacation or not! We cleaned and painted, and when my mother saw the freshly painted walls she decided to hang up some family pictures. Only one problem. My abuelita didn’t have a hammer. So, my mother sent tía Matilde to get a hammer from a friend’s house.
That sounds easy enough, no? Well, not to a Mexicana. Somehow the simplest errands become complicated quests. Tía Matilde sets of on the simple errand of bringing back a hammer so my mother could hang up some pictures. My aunt should have returned in ten to fifteen minutes tops. Well, a half hour went by and tía Matilde didn’t return.
My mother looked down the street and saw no sign of her sister. An hour passed, then another, and still no sign of tía Matilde. My mother sent me to the friend’s house to see if Matilde ever went there. No, they hadn’t seen her all day. No one really worried about her because in México sometimes people get distracted and forget their original mission, in this case, the quest for the hammer.
Tía Matilde finally returned about three hours later! My abuelita and my mother started interrogating her. “Where did you go? What took you so long?”
Well, she met this certain Samuel. He was standing on the corner playing the guitar and he started serenading her. They went for a walk and before she knew it, three hours had passed. Then, she remembered about the hammer! She returned, finally, but without the hammer!
My abuelita and mother were mad at tía Matilde, but they also couldn’t help laughing at the whole situation. By the way, Matilde and Samuel eventually married and had six children.
My tía Matilde came to Chicago as part of the package deal when my abuelita came for eye surgery. Tía Matilde also needed surgery, so she came from México to have surgery on her ears. I’m not sure what exactly was wrong with her ears, but she was otherwise healthy.
My aunt was very young when she came and she liked living in Chicago. She loved listening to pop music on the radio and she bought all the records by her favorite singer, Rick Nelson. She went wild when listening to his music.
What I remember most about my tía Matilde was how she did laundry. We, my parents, my three brothers, my abuelita, my tía Matilde, and me, all lived in a small four-room apartment. We had a washer and dryer in the kitchen next to the sink. When my parents were at work, tía Matilde would do all the laundry in the house, every last handkerchief and sock. She would search everywhere in the apartment for dirty clothes. She found dirty clothes where I would never even think of looking. She just had to make sure that every last item of dirty clothing was clean when she was done doing the laundry. And so, when all the dirty clothes were in the washer, and there was a little room in the tub for more clothes, she would start taking off her clothes right at the washer and start putting them in the washer. She would be standing in the kitchen wearing nothing but her bra and panties, proud of the fact that all the dirty clothes in the house were now washed, obviously oblivious to my presence.
Back then, we always seemed to be either at home or at Cook County Hospital taking either my abuelita or tía Matilde to the doctors there. Anyway, my tía Matilde, who would undress at the washer, was very shy with the doctors when they asked her to disrobe. The day of her surgery, she refused to undress and refused to put on the hospital gown because it had no back to it. I still remember her telling this story when she returned from her surgery. She absolutely refused to undress for the nurses and doctors. She thought she had won her battle, but after the surgery, she woke up in her hospital bed and immediately realized that she was completely naked! Whenever she told this story, she always sounded so shocked that this could have happened to her despite her precautions. She didn’t even remember when or why she lost consciousness. She always wondered who managed to see her naked. She would blush everytime she told the story. She was truly traumatized by this experience!
She eventually went back to México with my abuelita.
I remember when my abuelita came to live with us in Chicago back in the 1960s. I liked having my grandmother living with us because she used to take care of me when both my parents went to work. She even protected me from my mother when she hit me a little too hard or a little too long.
I remember once for homework in the first grade I was supposed to read aloud from our reader to one of my parents. My father wasn’t home, so I went to my mother. She said she was too tired from work to help me do my homework. I told her that all she had to do was listen to me read. The reader was quite simple: “See David. See Ann.” And so on. I didn’t even know that much English at the time.
Anyway, my mother didn’t want to be bothered by me. I kept begging her to listen to me. Finally, my abuelita said that I should read to her. I wasn’t sure if she could help me to read this book. At first, I hesitated because not only did she not know English, but she was also blind. One of the reasons she came to Chicago was to get eye surgery.
I remember we would all go to Cook County Hospital and wait for hours until the doctor finally saw her. After her surgery, she no longer had her eyes. I remember my parents struggling to put her glass eyes into her eye sockets and my grandmother complaining about how much pain she was in. Eventually, my mother learned how to put them in herself. My mother wanted my abuelita to stay in Chicago and live with us. Abuelita didn’t like the weather in Chicago. It was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. She thought our fair city was ¡una Chicagada! A rough translation of this word would be “Shitcago.” I couldn’t help myself and I laughed out loud. I’m sure my mother would have smacked me if abuelita wouldn’t have been so close to her.
A Mexican meal without tortillas is not really a Mexican meal. You can mix and match different entrees, but you always need tortillas with every meal. Tortillas have been around since Aztec times and are the equivalent of bread in many cultures. The tortilla, tlaxcalli to the Aztecs, is flat, round, made from corn, and may serve as a plate or an eating utensil such as a fork or spoon. When the Spaniards first encountered them, they called it a tortilla because it was circular like their Spanish dish of the same name.
Tortillas have always been part of my life. My father could eat a bowl of soup using only corn tortillas! My abuelita and mother were always heating up tortillas at the stove for every meal. They even made their own. They would use a rolling-pin to flatten the masa out, or in case of an emergency, a Coke bottle. My mother once bought an aluminum contraption that flattened the masa into a tortilla, but everyone agreed that they didn’t taste the same.
When we went to Mexico, I used to like going to the Tortillería to buy tortillas. They had a giant machine that would just make hundreds of hot tortillas for the customers waiting in line. You didn’t need directions to find the Tortillería because you would find it by following your nose. I would always eat at least one or two before I took the rest home.
Tortillas were also good for an afterschool snack. I’d sometimes come home and heat up some tortillas on the stove and eat them with butter. I rolled them up very tightly like a flauta. Sometimes I would eat them with just salt inside. Sometimes I would just heat them up and eat them plain. I really loved tortillas. When we kept the tortillas too long and they got hard, my mother would fry them and use them to make tostadas or chilaquiles. No tortilla was ever wasted in our home.
Occasionally, we ate flour tortillas, tortillas de harina, but they were always store-bought. We just preferred the taste of corn tortillas. Mexican restaurants use giant flour tortillas to make burritos. Other restaurants use them to make chicken wraps, where the “wrap” is actually a flour tortilla. Tortillas also evolved into the tortilla chips in Mexican restaurants, Frito’s corn chips, Tostitos, Doritos, thanks in no small part to capitalism.
I still have a comal to heat up my tortillas. Occasionally, I’ll eat them with cheddar cheese inside. Or I’ll eat them plain when I feel like reminiscing. But I definitely eat them when I make huevos con chorizo. I always keep a dozen corn tortillas in the freezer so I’ll have them whenever I crave them. They keep very well in the freezer and thaw out quickly in the microwave before I heat them up on my comal.