The ghost of Thanksgiving past


This Thanksgiving Day, I was reminded of how we have celebrated previous Thanksgiving Days with our family. And by our family, I mean the Rodriguez family. That’s my father’s side of the family, which is very, very big. When my Uncle Simon and Aunt Maricela bought their first house, the Rodriguez family began celebrating Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve at their home. All the family tried to come to celebrate these holidays together. We usually had between forty to fifty people in the house. That included family members, friends, and neighbors for Thanksgiving.

I have many fond memories of Thanksgiving with my family. My aunt was such a great cook. I especially loved her baked sweet potatoes. And all those desserts she baked. I used to go with my parents, my brothers, and my sister until my parents got divorced. Then, my father would take us without our mother. Eventually, just my father and I would go alone.

I especially remember the last time I went there for Thanksgiving. Just my father and I went. I think that was the most people who went to this Thanksgiving dinner. There were lots of cousins and their friends.

I had just finished Marine Corps boot camp that week. I flew back to Chicago from San Diego on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, which is always a very busy travel day. We flew a circling pattern all the way from St. Louis to Chicago. I was beginning to get nauseous. Luckily, we landed before I got really sick.

The next day I called my Uncle Simon’s house and asked if they were still having the annual Thanksgiving dinner. Of course, they were! I didn’t actually talk to my Uncle Simon. My cousin Lulu anwered the phone. I don’t think their family really knew I had enlisted in the Marine Corps. When I told Lulu I just got back from boot camp, she said, “That’s great! Come on over! Wear your uniform!”

So, of course, I wore my uniform to the dinner. My father was so proud to present me to the Rodriguez family in my Marine Corps uniform! Lulu was happy to see that I had listened to her. The dinner went well, but since there were so many people there, we had to eat in shifts. But everyone ate. Then, my aunt brought out the desserts. I remember my Uncle Placido, who is a Roman Catholic bishop, looking at the desserts and saying, “All this and heaven, too!”

After dinner, my cousin told me we were going to Fat City, a bar where she worked. I really didn’t want to go to a bar in uniform, but she insisted. Well, I went, against my better judgment, but people I didn’t even know were happy to see me there. In fact, several people were buying me beers, which I didn’t realize at first. When the waitress brought me the first beer, I told her, “I didn’t order a beer.” She pointed to someone across the room and said, “This beer’s on him! He was in the Marines, too!” I got a few more beers that night.

I have to admit that that was my most memorable Thanksgiving dinner. And, the very few times I saw someone in a military uniform, I bought them a drink.

La cocina


enchiladas
Enchiladas suizas

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.

Wow! That was deep!

¡Buen provecho!


Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

What I love about going to Mexico is all the attention I receive from my relatives who are genuinely happy to see me. They ask me many questions about my life in particular and life in general in America. The only problem with this is that they tend to ask me these questions while I’m eating. So I was always the last one done eating.

I’m a slow eater anyway, but answering questions slows me down even more. And they ask rather personal questions, too. But everyone is so honest when speaking that I feel compelled to answer their questions honestly. And no one judges anyone about each other’s behavior. At least not that I noticed.

So, how did I enjoy a good home-cooked Mexican meal with everyone insisting that I answer their questions? Well, I didn’t want to be rude, so I answered all question immediately. Of course, sometimes I answered with my mouth full of food because I was caught off guard by the timing of the questions. I guess I was being rude by talking with my mouth full just because I didn’t want to be rude!

El americano


Dr. D. in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo.

So, I’m in Mexico, visiting mi familia, and the whole time, everyone keeps reminding me that I’m an americano.  Just look at me in the picture. I’m sitting on green, white, and red bench wearing an Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo tourist t-shirt. Now, be honest with me. Do I look American or Mexican? Okay, please tell me after you finish reading this post. I think I’d rather not hear your answer right now.

It’s December 30, 2008, and I’m at my cousin house visiting because all her brothers and sisters are coming in for New Year’s Eve. She has an impromptu dinner because, unexpectedly, she is expecting about thirty guests in her house. No one complains about the fast food (fast for Mexico) that we eat buffet style on styrofoam plates. I already have my food and I’m eating in the living room at the opposite side of the house where the food is on the table in the dining room.

Suddenly, one cousin begins to speak Spanish with a fake American accent. Then, someone else joins in the conversation with his fake American accent. Before you know it, about ten people are speaking Spanish with a fake American accents. I think it’s rather funny. Much laughter ensues until my cousin notices me. Everyone immediately stops talking in Spanish with their fake American accent and everyone looks at me. My cousin asks me if I was offended. Actually, I tell her, I thought it was very funny. I had never heard Mexicans talk in fake American accents before, so I kind of enjoyed it. I heard other people talking like Americans on my trip through Mexico, but they always stopped when they noticed I was near. Everyone seems to think I’m an americano. To be honest, I’m not sure what I am!

My cousin’s husband (my cousin-in-law?) constantly reminded me that I looked American. He couldn’t explain why, but he said I didn’t look Mexican. Other people told me the same thing. I’m sure my skin color had nothing to do with it because Mexicans come in all shades, from dark to light. Perhaps it was my gray hair? Mexicans my age, in general, don’t have as much gray hair as me. Maybe it was my clothing. All my clothes were bought in America. Okay, I bought some of them in Wal-Mart in Evergreen Park, Illinois, but they don’t sell the same clothes at the Wal-Marts in Mexico. I just don’t get it. I have cousins in Mexico who look more American than me, but everyone immediately recognized them as Mexicans.

Conversely, when I’m in Chicago, Mexicans approach me and immediately speak to me in Spanish. How did they know I speak Spanish if I look American? Wouldn’t that make me Mexican? When I’m in Mexico, my cousins eventually concede that I am, in fact, Mexican. Unlike other Mexicans who go back to Mexico to visit their familia, I do eat all kinds of Mexican food and I do understand EVERYTHING they say, including all the colloquialisms and swear words. I always seem to blend in with my familia. Until someone points out that I don’t look mexicano!

Béisbol


Chicago White Sox Promotion in Spanish.

I’m watching the World Series even though neither the White Sox nor the Cubs are playing. “World Series” is a misnomer because it’s not really a world competition at all. However, there are many players from many countries such Venezuela, Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Japan among others.

When I read Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow years ago, he described a professional baseball game in the early 1900s. He noted that the ethnicity of the baseball players was representative of the immigration pattern of the period. Here’s the passage from Chapter 30 of Ragtime:

On the Giant side were Merkle, Doyle, Meyers, Snodgrass and Herzog, among others. The Boston team boasted a player named Rabbit Maranville, a shortstop who [sic] he noted roamed his position bent over with his hands at the end of his long arms grazing the grass in a manner that would more properly be called simian. There was a first baseman named Butch Schmidt, and others with the names Cocrehan, Moran, Hess, Rudolph, which led inevitably to the conclusion that professional baseball was played by immigrants.

If you look at the players of today’s Major League Baseball, you will see many Spanish last names. Of course, those, too, are representative of the migration patterns of Spanish speakers from Latin America to the U.S.

When I was in Mexico last July, I watched the All-Star Game with my cousin and her family. We laughed every time the announcer mispronounced a Spanish last name. Both announcers consistently mispronounced Evan Longoria. Well, tonight, I had to laugh when Jason Bartlett stole second base and the announcer let everyone know that Taco Bell had a promotion: Steal a Base, Steal a Taco for every stolen base. So next Tuesday, we can go to Taco Bell for a free taco. They even interviewed Taco Bell president Greg Creed who personally invited everyone to go to Taco Bell to get their free taco!

Writing letters


My best friend!

I don’t know why, but Mexicans find it difficult to write letters to each other.

When I left Mexico, both times, I said I would write back and send pictures. Well, it took me a while took write back, but I finally wrote back! And guess who wrote back? One cousin to whom I didn’t even write. So, I felt guilty and wrote her a letter.

I wrote to my aunt and then she relayed a message to my cousin who e-mailed me telling me that my aunt said hello. This same aunt still had letters that I had written to her thirty years ago. They were tucked away in her picture box along with my Chicago Marathon medal, which I have no idea how she obtained it. Perhaps, I gave it to my mother before she went on one her trips to Mexico. Now it’s starting to come back to me. My mother said if I wanted to give something to my aunt, so I gave her my marathon medal. Actually, it was a lot easier than writing a letter. Even with the Internet we don’t seem to be writing to each other any more frequently. I still have a long list of relatives to whom I will write before my next visit. But even if I don’t, we’ll pick up the conversation right where we left off the last time. My cousin likes to IM me and that’s fine when I have time. It is a lot easier than writing letters.

Duke


Duke

Duke was the best dog that our family ever had. When we lived at 4405 S. Wood Street, he followed my brothers and me home from school. He really did. At first, he followed us at a distance and that was fine by us because we weren’t sure if he would bite us. He was already full-grown and he was at least part Golden Retriever and maybe a little bit German Shepard and Chow Chow. We were sure that, since Duke got along well with the whole family, he probably was also part Mexican.

He followed us into our backyard and we went into the house. When we looked out the window later, he was still there. We gave him some bologna and went back inside. The next day, he followed us home again and we gave him some milk this time. He let us pet him and he seemed very friendly. He was too clean to be a stray dog and he didn’t have the battle scars of street dogs, but he didn’t have a collar or dog tags either. We never let him into the house because we knew our mother would get mad at us. But Duke kept following us home after school. He knew what time we got out of school and he would meet us at the corner of our block and follow us home so we could give him something to eat.

One day, my mother came home from work and asked us about the dog on the back porch. “What dog on the back porch?” I asked, knowing we were about to get in trouble. We didn’t admit to anything. Eventually, my mother brought Duke into the house and we all started playing with him. He was really happy with us and never even growled when my little sister pulled his ears or fur. We asked our mother if we could keep it, but she said it probably belonged to someone else and they would eventually want him back. We could keep him until someone claimed him.

We were so happy to have a dog again. And the good news was that he was already house-broken. At first, my mother would open the door to let Duke go out by himself thinking that he would eventually go to his real home. But he always came back. After a while, I started walking him without a leash. He always stayed close to me and he would never run away. I walked him all over the neighborhood so that maybe Duke would recognize his original home, but we never found his original owner. Soon I knew I was Duke’s master because one of the neighborhood bullies threatened me with Duke at my side and Duke growled at him ready to defend me.

Duke had some pretty good street cred, too, because when other dogs would see him, they would run away. I didn’t need a leash to control Duke because he so obedient that he listened to my every command. However, he loved to chase squirrels, but he would only do say when I gave him permission. Whenever he saw a squirrel at a distance, he ears would perk up and he would growl, but he would stay by my side until I said, “Go get him, Duke!” And he would run at full speed toward the squirrel. He never once caught a squirrel because the squirrels were usually too far away from us and too close to a tree that they climbed to escape. Only once, did I think that Duke would actually catch a squirrel in his mouth. He was rapidly closing in on a squirrel that was foolish enough to try to outrun Duke instead of climbing a tree. I think that Duke slowed down to give the squirrel a running chance and the squirrel got away.

When we moved to 2509 W. Marquette Road, Duke moved with us. By then, he was part of our family. Somehow, I remained Duke’s master. My brothers and I had to be careful when we wrestled because Duke would attempt to bite my brothers in my defense. Even after I married and moved away from my mother’s house. Once I was visiting and I started wrestling with Tato, my brother Jerry, in the basement just like in the good old days. Duke just stood there watching. He was a lot older now and he didn’t growl at my brother as he once did. Well, I could still out-wrestle all my brothers even though we were all about the same size now. I managed to throw my brother down on his back on the sofa. I jokingly said, “Sic him!” and Duke ran and bit my brother’s face. I really didn’t think he would attack my brother. I immediately grabbed Duke by his collar and he finally calmed down. My brother had some puncture wounds on his face from being bitten a few times. I apologized profusely to my brother. Neither one of us thought Duke would attack. But he did. I was still his master even though I had lived away from him for about a year. I still feel badly about this even now as I described the incident.

Duke lived to be very old, but we never knew his exact age since he was already full-grown when he started living with us. Eventually, he had so many health problems that my sister had him put to sleep. He was such a great dog that I can still visualize him.

Mariposa

Moving to Mexico


Could I actually live in a condo in a tourist area? I don't think so!

Over the years, I have had one identity crisis after another. The identity crisis recurs most often is the one in which I can’t decide if I should live in Chicago or Mexico because I’m not sure if I’m Mexican or American. Sometimes I feel as if I don’t belong here in the U.S. because I feel so Mexican and like a foreigner here. When I’m Mexico, I feel very comfortable there. Of course, that could be merely because I’m a guest there and the excitement and the newness of my being there hasn’t worn off yet. If I stayed much longer, everyone might not be as friendly toward me. I’ve mentioned to some of my friends that I was thinking of moving to Mexico and they immediately offered to help me pack! Wow! What friends!

I went to Mexico when I was 22 and I seriously considered staying there. But then I realized that I would have to get a job in order to support myself. But Mexicans don’t really want foreigners coming in and taking away their jobs. Besides, I didn’t really want to work a back-breaking job in Mexico when I already had a back-breaking job in Chicago. So I went back home to Chicago. However, I often daydreamed about living in Mexico.

Now, I am actually in a position where I can afford to move to Mexico since I have a small pension. I now have to work a job in order to live comfortably in Chicago, but I could live more than comfortably if I moved to Mexico. And I won’t have to work at all if I lived in Mexico. I could sit at home all day writing blog entry after blog entry. Wait, that’s what I’m doing now! But I have to teach in order to supplement my pension. In Mexico, I would always find something to keep me busy since they do have the Internet down there. And I wouldn’t be lonely because I have a lot of family in Mexico in several cities. Our family, both on my father’s and mother’s side, was very prolific. That’s why Rodriguez and Martinez are some of the most common Spanish last names in the world. So I wouldn’t be lonely. And even though I’m American, Mexicans–my family in particular–consider me Mexican, sort of. Since I’m American, everyone in Mexico was surprised that I spoke Spanish and ate tortillas. I’m glad that Mexicans thought of me as a Mexican, at least most of the time.

When I go back to Mexico in July, I’ll take another look at where I could possibly live in Mexico. I really love Celaya, Guanajuato, the home of my father’s family. It’s a fairly big city with a small-town feel to it. And, I have an uncle, two aunts, and fifteen cousins who live there! Plus, there’s a university in the city where I could possibly find a teaching position if I ever have the urge to teach again. That would be quite an adventure for me. So now I’m struggling to redefine myself and resolve my latest identity crisis. I’m sure that this time I’ll find myself. Or, maybe not.

¿Dónde debo vivir? ¿Chicago o México?

Speed Racer


Great movie theater snack!

I love going to the show. And I love to spend quality time bonding with my sons. If I can do both simultaneously, I feel like I have accomplished greatness. At least in my own eyes.

When I compare myself to my twelve-year-old twins, I realize that they’re much more mature than me because emotionally I’m ten. When Horton Hears a Who came out as a movie, I wanted to see it with my sons, but they refused to see it because was a kiddy movie. I was rather disappointed to miss seeing Horton Hears a Who because I remembered really enjoying reading the Dr. Seuss book and watching the TV special as a boy. So I’ve missed out on some very good movies just because my sons thought they were childish. But I never once threw a tantrum.

Anyway, last week I brought up going to see Speed Racer and my sons instantly refused. I was rather disappointed because I remembered watching Speed Racer as a cartoon show on TV when I was a kid. Today, I finally talked them into seeing it. As we drove to the show, they didn’t seem too happy. I knew I was pressuring them to see it.

Well, that got me to thinking about how I used to watch Speed Racer after school. Then, I remembered that I didn’t actually like watching Speed Racer. But my brothers and I had this policy that whoever arrived home first from school could pick the first show to be watched. After that we would all vote on the next show to be watched. If Danny arrived home first, he would watch Dark Shadows. I was the only one who didn’t like Dark Shadows. I liked comedies. After that, everyone except me voted to watch Speed Racer. I remember now! I hated watching Speed Racer! And now I was driving with my sons to see the movie version of Speed Racer at the show.  Well, it was too late to tell them that I didn’t want to see it. However, as I drove, I realized that I liked the show, but I was just upset that my three brothers had voted against me.

But back to the movie today. My sons didn’t seem too happy about going to see Speed Racer today.  Well, I wasn’t either after I recalled all the surrounding cirmcumstances. However, I was determined to have fun with my sons. So we watched the movie with mixed feelings. Once the movie started, we were captivated by the music, the story line, and all the color graphics. Plus, I snuck in a bag of authentic tortilla chips for us to eat during the movie. (I’m becoming more like my father with each passing day!) We talked about many of the movie details afterwards. We really enjoyed the movie! We were all surprised at how much better it was than we had expected. Plus, I think we all grew a little closer through this bonding experience!

Marina


Mariachis

Marina was a Mexicana whom I met when I was in the police academy. We met just by chance because the Chicago Police Department, in its infinite wisdom, divided all the new recruits into four different classrooms based on race, ethnicity, and sex in order to be politically correct. There we were, in the police academy gym, and the instructors asked all the white males to step forward. They were immediately divided into four groups. Next, they called the females who were sorted out on the basis of their gender regardless of their race or ethnicity. Then, the African-American / Black males were equally divided into the four groups. And last, but not least, the Hispanic / Latino males were assigned to a classroom. The department tried to avoid racial and sexual discrimination lawsuits using this system for hiring new police officers.

Anyway, Marina and I were assigned to the same classroom where the entire class was assigned desks by alpabetical order. Since her last name was Perez, she sat directly in front of me. Well, we became good friends because we were partners for many of the training activities. She was a very pretty Mexicana, but a little on the plump side. However, she could meet all the physical requirements for calesthenics, running, and self defense. I was single at that time, but she had a boyfriend then, so we remained just friends.

One day during self-defense class, we had to practice applying a wrist lock on each other. We had to command each other to walk in a certain direction, lay face-down, and then handcuff our “arrestee.” If the arrestee didn’t obey, we applied more pressure on the wrist lock until they complied. By then, I knew Marina well enough to joke around with her. The instructor observed everyone to make sure they were applying the wrist lock properly.

Well, when I had Marina in the wrist lock, the instructor told me that I did it well and then walked away. I took advantage of the fact that he wouldn’t be back for a few minutes. So, I steered Marina around the mat by tightening my grip on her wrist. I told her to get on her knees and she did. I told her to lie down and she did. Then, I asked her if she wanted to go out me. I was just joking, of course. She immediately said “No!” I applied a little more pressure on her wrist and she changed her answer to “Yes!” even though she had a boyfriend. Then, I told her to tell me that she loved me. With a little bit more pressure, she did. I just had to smile.

When I released her, she said, “You’re gonna get it!” Now it was her turn to restrain me! Well, I immediately apologized, but it was too late to be sorry. But I was surprised when she applied her wrist lock on me. I was able to control the pain. You see, I would just recall all the times that my mother used to hit me with the belt, the broom, the extension cord, or whatever else was within reach whenever I angered her. Thanks to my mother, I had a high tolerance for pain and Marina wasn’t able to make me do anything I didn’t want to do. Eventually, I just went through the motions and let myself be restrained. After classes were over, we saw her boyfriend and I told him what I had done. He wasn’t very amused, but I thought it be better if I told him instead of Marina.

Eventually, we finished our academy training, but I always saw Marina at traffic court since they assigned our courtrooms by alphabetical order. She later broke up with her boyfriend and invited me to go to her family Thanksgiving Dinner, which I did. Later, I went to her family Christmas party, but we remained merely friends. I didn’t see her again for a couple of years.

I met her again through her fiance who happened to work in my district. We just started talking one day after roll call and I learned that he would soon marry Marina. We became friends after that. He was Lithuanian so he had lived in the same neighborhoods as me. We had a few things in common. Well, when they married, they invited my wife and me to their wedding. When I asked Marina about his family, she told me that they weren’t too happy that he was marrying a Mexicana. They wanted him to marry a nice Lithuanian girl. So at the reception, the hall was evenly divided with the Lithuanians on one side and the Mexicans on the other. They had hired a DJ for the music, but they had also hired some Mariachis to play while everyone ate dinner to show everyone how wonderful Mexicans are. However, the Mariachis were late! And his side of the family was upset. Eventually, the Mariachis showed up, but dinner was almost over. The police had pulled over their van for running a redlight and the driver didn’t have a driver’s license or auto insurance. So it took a while before they got to the reception. Well, the Lithuanians were upset at the Mariachis and the Mexicans were embarrassed by them!