From the fanzine The Missionary, dated July 1990, by Willie Colon (real name and address withheld by request)
My favorite episode of the classic TV series Mission Venus (1) is without a doubt “Major Juan.” That episode was significant not only to science fiction and to Latinos, but especially to moi. The strange thing is, it only aired once (on October 9, 1970).
The low-rated series, which ran only October ’69 to May ’71 on Friday nights on ABC, achieved cult status in syndication in the late ’70s. The series was never a favorite of network executives, one of whom infamously deemed it “not cerebral enough.”
Yet the “Major Juan” episode—while undeniably campy in some respects, which you have to remember was part of the aesthete of the times (2)—demonstrates how clearly wrong that executive was.
As all of you know, the series has not been released on video. But this spring at I-Con IX in Stony Brook, I was fortunate enough to obtain a pirated cassette of the episode. I had not seen the episode since that one time it originally aired, so it was with great anticipation, as well as a giant bowl of popcorn, that I sat down to rewatch it. And rewatch it I did, 17 times in a row.
As with every episode of the series, this one started with a brief cold open.
A Terran rocket ship nears a planet. A navigator announces, “Approaching Jupiter, captain!" (The planet Jupiter is played by a rather good matte painting of Saturn by legendary sci fi artist Emsh.) We see the captain of this ship and his crew are handsome men and women, who seem to spend more time giggling and flirting with each other than attending to their duties. The camera closes in on a short, swarthy man with a thick mustache who is mopping the deck. (Yes, in the future they still use mops!)
His overalls are dark and drab. Two male officers dressed in primary-colored uniforms walk by. One of them, with a nametag that reads “Abbot,” stops and gives the janitor a mock salute. “Aloha, Major Juan,” he says. The other man, with a nametag that reads, “Costell,” takes the mop, spilling the bucket, and says, “I’m sure you could use this to fight evil aliens, Major Juan, huh?” The two officers exit laughing.
The janitor, crestfallen, looks down at the mess they’ve made.
An imposing authority figure then comes by. His nametag reads “Capt. Jackson” and he says, “Don’t just stand there, you lazy git! Get to work! What are we paying you for?”
The camera lingers on the spilled mopwater and at that moment the transparent form of the Dutchman rises up through the riveted floor to his waistline. The janitor continues to swob the deck, sometimes passing the mop through the broadly smiling apparition.
Played, as we all fondly remember, by veteran actor Van Johnson, the Dutchman (3) was the spirit of the dead skipper of the ill-fated Earth ship Dutchman. In exchange for having lost his entire crew, he was cursed to wander through the galaxy and witness the misadventures of humans in space. (4) He would materialize out of thin air or emerge through a bulkhead or hover over an alien world, and, unnoticed by that episode’s characters, would introduce the story and then reappear at the end to wrap up things with a piquant moral.
In this episode, hands across his broad chest and in Johnson’s distinct baritone, the Dutchman intones: “Meet Jose Ortega, a simple, hardworking man with a dream: To own and operate his own space ship. His fellow crewmen on the United Earth vessel Maine laugh at him and his dream, but they won’t be laughing . . . for long.”
As the camera pulls back from the Dutchman and out through a porthole, he adds, “The Maine’s mission: reconnoiter a fleet of UFOs heading directly toward planet Earth. What do these aliens want? What will happen to Earth when they arrive? And can one simple man make a difference?”
The series’ music and credit roll at this point, accompanied by the infectious theme song, with its distinctive mix of theremin and surf music, and the lyrics we all know: We're out of space and we’re out of time, my love Let’s go where no one can see us Out of here before we lose our minds, my love Let’s go . . . let’s go on a mission to Venus!(5)
A commercial break follows, with ads for Goodyear tires (“When there’s no man around…”) and the Frito Bandito.
After the commercial break, we see Jose putting away his mop and bucket. Judy, a scantily dressed blonde communications officer, is sitting nearby, smoking a cigarette.
“Don’t let those bullies get you down,” she says. “There’ll be a time for you. A time for both of us.”
Jose shakes his head. “I don’t know, Miss Judy. All I have ever wanted was to have a ship of my own to go gallivanting around the cosmos.”
“Such a man! Major Juan, why don’t you settle down with a good woman and have a few bambinos?”
She hugs him tightly, and we can see from Jose’s leery reaction and the bawdy musical cue that he thinks she could be that good woman, but she just smiles and turns away.
Suddenly, alarms blare! Red lights blink! Three alien spaceships looking a lot like pie tins dwarf the Maine. (According to The Mission Venus Compendium, these were indeed made of old pie tins.) At her post, Miss Judy (how she got there so quickly is never made clear), the scantily dressed blonde communications officer, tells Capt. Jackson that she can’t get the aliens to respond. Jackson orders nuclear missiles to be armed. The camera cuts to two empty chairs on bridge. Then there’s a smash cut to the crewmembers who are apparently in charge of the missiles frolicking in a radioactively-heated hot tub not noticing the “DANGER OVERHEATING” sign (which we’re led to assume is being caused by their ardor).
At that moment, Ortega is outside in a patch-covered space suit scrubbing the sides of the ship. (How he got there after putting away his gear is never made clear.) No one has bothered to warn him or call him back inside. Suddenly, the ship begins to rock back and forth, we hear explosions, and then see a blinding flash of light. We see Van Johnson’s ghostly image waving as Ortega’s spins away into space, unattached to the ship and out of control.
Suddenly, after a cut to black, we find Ortega unconscious in a circle of light. Next to him is the unconscious Capt. Jackson, for some reason. Dramatic theremin music plays. As he stirs, three tall, silver aliens with big heart-shaped heads emerge from the darkness. (According to The Mission Venus Compendium, these were made of papier-mâché and footballs.) Their expressions are fixed, wide eyes and eyebrows up in big curves. Ortega holds up a scrub brush to protect himself when, suddenly, one of the hyperencephalic alien speaks: “¿Que es su nombre?” The subtitle reads: “What is your name?”
Ortega is dumbfounded. To himself he says, “Madre de Dios!” Which is translated as “Oh my!” Then when he finally makes his reply, it’s fascinating. He says, proudly, “Me llamo Major Juan."
This—this is an important moment! This janitor, thought of as lowly by the rest of the Maine’s crew, has appropriated their derisive nickname for him in order to empower himself.
“We have come to seek friendship,” says the head alien--in English. But we are meant to realize the rest of the conversation is still in Spanish, which is admittedly confusing. Per the Compendium, the producers thought switching to English made it easier for the predominantly English-speaking audience and/or for the people who hated subtitles.
“Tell us of your planet, Earth,” says the leader,
“There is so much to say. I don’t know where to begin,” answers Ortega. “It is blue and green and beautiful. It is rich with resources, enough for everyone to live and live well.”
“Humans such as you are in charge of this world?”
“Well, such as me and not such as me.”
The lead alien looks surprised still, but with the musical cue we are meant to realize he is horrified. “Are all the humans on Earth not treated fairly?”
“Well, some of us could be treated a little better.”
The lead alien remains looking horrified.
Capt. Jackson rouses himself them. He says, “What’s all this Martian gobbledygook?” He grabs Jose by the color and shakes him.
“They’re speaking my language, captain. They are speaking Spanish.”
“What?! That’s impossible!”
“But they are!”
“Listen here, you nitwit: If you collude with these aliens, you’re betraying your country and you’re betraying your planet! But most importantly your country!”
“Mucho gusto,” the aliens say (returning to on-screen Spanish; the subtitle reads “Hello, friend”).
The captain’s eyes almost come out of his skull. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!”
There is a flash of light—and then we cut to commercial! Some of the old ads included Kool-Aid (“Kool-Aid, Kool-Aid, so great, once you try it no can wait!”) and Fresh Stick (“I did everything you said, but my boss still hasn’t asked me to lunch!”).
We come back to what looks like a courtroom situation, with the three aliens behind a tall bench, and Ortega and the captain in two docks. The lead alien asks if the society of Earth is a fair and just society. Capt. Jackson vehemently says it is. “Everyone on Earth, at least in my country, gets a fair share. But they have to work for it. We can’t just give stuff away. That would be Communism.”
The lead alien then turns to “Major Juan” and asks him what he thinks.
Ortega is silent for a long time while the show’s suspenseful theremin music plays. Sweat beads on his swarthy face. (Note: The Greek actor’s ethnic features were amplified with dark makeup). His first words are “The burdens of generations of poverty . . .”—and then suddenly, as if someone somewhere pulled a giant switch, the screen goes blank!
I remember this happening in 1970. I was five years old, and I remember screaming at the television, “Wait! What happened?!” And I remember my father, rarely at home in the evening, pounding the box on the side forcefully, to no avail. The screen went to a test pattern, then commercials until it was time for that week’s episode of Judd, for the Defense.
We know that the decision to cut off the broadcast came from the network, but we do not know who made the decision. Rumors abound that an affiliate or an accountant or a lawyer finally read the script or saw the completed cut and decided that America was not ready for it.
What we do know of the ending comes from Ready to Explode, the biography of the script writer, Corinthian Tody, aka the pen name of the late series co-creator Jack Hoffman Sr., as well as his collection of essays, Under the Electric Udder. Apparently, he had written several endings. Here is a reproduction of his own personal notes:
--Jose allies with aliens to conquer Earth. Speaking only Spanish they swoop down and start invading. (Forget this! Will put me on FBI list. I hate my life!)
--Jose befriends aliens and brings them to Earth to celebrate. Note: Reject inevitable request by Scott to play “La Cucaracha” during this scene. FUCK ME.
--The aliens capture Judy and Jose rescues her, and they fall in love. Would have to be careful about casting. She couldn’t be too pretty or viewers would balk.
--Jose leaves solar system with the aliens to find himself. Very Ram Dass. Very Razor’s Edge. Could be backdoor pilot to series, like Route 66 or Then Came Bronson, but in space! (Fat chance getting this greenlit!!!)
--Aliens cook and eat Jose like livestock. Serling did already, no? He did everything already!
--Jose somehow at ship’s helm. In the background, Capt. Jackson and ensigns are swobbing the deck. Cut to an exterior shot that shows Jose leading the alien ships toward Earth. To what end? Who knows! Jose asks the comely communications officer to hail Earth: "This is Major Juan to ground control. I’m coming home." (6) Then, floating into the control room from stage left, the Dutchman turns to the audience and concludes: “What happens next? At the very least, we can say that, to the people of our small blue marble of a planet, the stars are going to be looking very different from now on. Buenas noches all, and to all a good night." Note: Network will never let me do this!
So which one was actually filmed? With Hoffman dead, every one of his four wives silent on the matter, and no existing original finished prints of the episode, we may never know!
But I will tell you it is Hoffman’s final idea here that I would have killed to see. Here we have Jose finally fulfilling his dream of owning a space ship. It would have said to me at that age, a four-eyed, little Hispanic boy who barely spoke anything at all, let alone English, that I could be a space hero one day! (7)
Maybe one day, someone will find the finished shooting script. Maybe one day the truth will be uncovered. (8) — Willie Colon.
FULL CAST Jose Ortega Michael Constantine Captain Jackson Robert Culp Ensign Abbot Frank Sutton Ensign Costell Ron Masak Communications Officer Judy Lynne Marta Ensign in Hot Tub Dick Gauthier Girl Ensign in Hot Tub Judy Carne
1 As we all know, Mission Venus was the brainchild of writer Jack Hoffman Sr. and producer Scott Forbin. Hoffman wanted to do a serious anthology show, but it was Forbin who retooled the pitch and sold the show as “a sexy romp to the stars.” Why Venus is in the title is also never explained—though a star chart of Hoffman revealed he was “Pisces, venus rising.” Each week the ship encountered different humans and alien species in crisis—like the mad scientist who searches for his lost android in “Robby Come Home”; the superintelligent insect man who starts a rebellion at a research facility in “Ant Misbehaving”; or the meek bookworm who gets stranded on a planet with a beautiful woman but no Dickens in “Almost Paradise.”
2 Many fans have noted the series could be characterized as Twilight Zone meets Star Trek meets Love, American Style.
3 Obviously a play on the Flying Dutchman legend.
4 As you know none of this was stated in the actual series. But we know the Dutchman’s origin story from the pilot script, written by series creator Jack Hoffman, which was never filmed and never aired. Forbin attempted to rewrite but gave it up because he said, “It gave me the blues, man.”
5 Every schoolboy knows the dirty version of these lyrics, so there’s no need to reprint them here.
6 David Bowie was a close friend of Scott Forbin’s and a frequent visitor to the set of Mission Venus. Whether this episode inspired his song “Space Oddity” in any way is the subject of another column. But we have to note: He was listed as co-owner of the famous Mission Venus disco in Manhattan.
7 However, I ended up becoming a pornographer. 8 The truth was never uncovered.
* * *
Felisa flipped off the translator and raised her head from the brittle manuscript she had been examining. “¿Qué estupidez es esto?” she said to her lover.
Zita turned from the console, where she had been struggling to map planets that no longer existed, that had been swallowed by a swollen star, whose hydrogen was slowly depleting. Meanwhile, their ship’s computer steered them through a field of space dust and debris. “Cualquier tonto que fuera tenía una gran imaginación.”
“Todas hablan español en el universo.”
“Lo sé, mi amor, ciertamente cualquier persona con inteligencia.”
Felisa wrapped her arms around Zita and kissed her. “No puedo creer que perdí tanto tiempo leyéndolo.”
“Es nuestro trabajo examinar lo que encontramos en este sistema muerto. ¿Eso estaba en la caja de metal?”
“Sí, pero la mayor parte se desintegró cuando abrí la caja. Lo que sobrevivió fueron figuras anatómicas de las criaturas que deben haber escrito esta tonta historia.”
“¡Basta de estas criaturas muertas! Guarda eso y ven al hidromasaje y muéstrame tu figura anatómico.”
“Pero tenemos trabajo.”
“Olvídate de trabajo ya. Hueles a polvo. Ven aquí.”
“Estas tan fresca, mi amor!”
“Déjame mostrarte cuánto.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, of parents from Puerto Rico, Richie Narvaez is award-winning author of Roachkiller & Other Stories, Hipster Death Rattle, Holly Hernandez and the Death of Disco, and Noiryorican. He lives in the Bronx.
“Watch out,” my sister Elena warned me, “Abuelita Marisol has decided you are too old to be single. She’s hired Señora Alba to fix you up with a suitable young man.”
Grandmother wasn’t the only one who thought I needed a partner. My mother gently told me last month, “I keep looking for a saint we could ask to help you find a novio.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the chances of the Catholic Church creating a patron saint of queer relationships was infinitesimally small.
It didn’t matter who or what you were, my family thought no one should be single. My Aunt Davida kept pushing me to go out and meet guys. “Sleep around until you meet one you like,” was her advice. “That’s the best way to find true love.” This from a woman who married my uncle when she was sixteen and was still blissfully with him nearly fifty years later.
One cousin suggested I should sign up for a dating service, not knowing all the apps I had on my phone, and another told me it was time for me to think about children. “You aren’t getting any younger,” he admonished. They preferred I meet a nice Mexican man, of course, or at least someone Latino. But that wasn’t necessary. Everyone just wanted me to be with someone.
I had four siblings, all of whom had at least embarked on a long-term relationship even if they didn’t last. It was my turn, if only to give everyone something to gossip about. “I’m sure there is someone wonderful out there for you,” Elena promised me. “And we will all talk behind your back about why he puts up with your annoying habits.”
I was twenty-six, out of school, and living on my own. I had graduated with a business degree and was an independent adult gainfully employed. On paper at least, it was time I acted like an adult. While my family was otherwise proud of me, Mom still had a picture of my league champion soccer team from my high school up in the hallway, they thought that being single made me incomplete.
On the other hand, I felt like I was just starting out in life. Despite the low-cost education I received from the California State University system and living at home my first two years, I graduated with huge student loans I can barely make the payments on. I drive an old car that embarrasses me and live in a studio apartment my brother Mike calls the smallest in Silicon Valley. I have far too much Indian blood in me to pass for anything but Mexican so if that isn’t a guy’s taste, I am out of luck. An accountant for a real estate company, my only luxury is my gym membership. Now that I think about it, maybe I was too dull to be marriage material.
If you want to hire a matchmaker, Señora Alba is a great choice. Not only is she a well-respected bruja, she also dabbles as a curandera, and during tax season prepares returns for half the neighborhood. Thus, she knows everyone: the good, the bad, the broke, and the single. In my family alone, she found Uncle Rodrigo his second wife, cured my cousin Manuela of hiccups by brewing a special herbal tea, and helped Elena straighten out her 401(k) roll over. “You weren’t too proud to go running to Alba to have your taxes done,” Elena taunted me. “What makes matchmaking so different?” Still, the idea of Alba assessing my physical, emotional, and financial strengths and weaknesses disturbed me. And though Alba has excellent taste in men, her love life is legendary, I was put off by her meddling. Angry that they thought I was a pathetic loser at romance, I vowed to Elena, “I am going to reject anyone that Alba picks out for me.” Childish, but they had hurt my feelings.
The next evening at the gym, I found out my humiliation had gone public when Mike and his buddy Alejandro teased about the matchmaking going on all around me. “No ring yet,” Michael reported to Alejandro as he held my hand up. “I’ve heard Alba has interviewed over a hundred men in three languages and none have agreed to woo my hermanito.”
“It’s his baby face,” Alejandro suggested as he pinched my cheek. “He’s cute in that muchacho next door kind of way but dating him would be like going out with a puppy dog. That’s not everyone’s taste.” Michael and Alejandro laughed while I turned red. They were best friends, having met when they started working at Mayfair High School where Mike taught Drama and Alejandro ran the ESL program. Though Alejandro was handsome and gay, I never paid much attention to him because he never expressed any interest in me. However, he had the key as to why Abuelita had made my love life her priority.
“Last Saturday, your grandmother was at Pancho González and Julian Chávez ‘s wedding. You should have been there, it was spectacular,” he explained. “They wore matching tuxedos and arrived in separate coaches drawn by white horses. There was a sit-down dinner at eight prepared by a chef from Oaxaca, and a midnight buffet that featured sushi and a taco bar. They had a band inside rocking the best norteño music I’ve ever heard, and a DJ blasting party tunes out on the patio. Your grandmother danced for hours. Everyone did. Sometime after her third glass of champagne, Abuelita told me you were her only chance to have an over-the-top gay wedding in the family.” I was doomed.
Over the next several days, I kept my eyes out for a setup, but nothing happened until Friday when Abuelita asked for a favor. “I bought a new television online and didn’t want it stolen off my porch, you know how bad the crime is on my street. So I had them deliver it at Santiago’s Market where I need you to pick it up for me. When you get there, see Tony, Santiago’s son. He’ll help you get the TV into your car and then come over with you to bring it up the stairs to my apartment. I arranged it all.” This was so obvious that I had a hard time not laughing. Still, if Abuelita asks me to do something, I do it.
Again, my humiliation was public and there was a crowd at the market when I got there including my mother, two aunts, my brother, and Alejandro. It was as if someone had sold tickets. “This is too entertaining to pass up,” Alejandro said, smiling.
To punish him and to thwart Alba’s machinations, I asked Alejandro to help me with the television. I admit I was tempted by Tony. He was mad handsome and still as built as he had been during his high school wrestling days when I had drooled over him. But I was determined not to let Grandmother run my love life and refused Tony’s offer to help. Abuelita must have been surprised when Alejandro and I carried her television into her apartment, but she didn’t say anything. I had won the first round in this war, but I didn’t gloat.
Afterwards, Alejandro and I went out for burgers to dissect the setup. “You know Alba would lead with a Dominican, she loves their music,” he teased. “Let’s face it, your family could use some outside blood.” That was true. Just about everyone in the family had married someone from Coahuila. Abuela had married a second cousin from her little village while Mom and Dad had lived across the street from each other growing up. My family never went too far afield to find our mates.
“Nothing against Tony, I’d have a roll in bed with him anytime.” I wondered why we had never hooked up. Maybe I was too timid to act on my crushes. “But he has no ambition beyond running his father’s store. I want someone who wishes he could go to Mars, even though he knows it will never happen,” I told Alejandro. “I want a guy who lives in his dreams. Tony is too literal.”
“Dang, you are tough,” he replied. “I’m lucky that Alba isn’t pushing me on you.” We both laughed.
Thanks to Alba, I started getting all sorts of strange requests. A guy I barely knew wanted me to be his date at his sister’s quinceañera party, a one-night trick from two years ago suddenly resurfaced to ask me to dinner, and a man at the gym invited me to go home with him. “You’re hot as hell, bro,” he said as he stood next to me in front of one of the wall mirrors by the free weights. “I want it right now.” Fortunately, Mike and Alejandro didn’t see us leave together. Gym guy was not one of Alba’s setups, however. Though I had a good time, it turned out he had a boyfriend.
The hits kept coming. A guy on Grindr texted me that he was “Grandmother approved” while a bartender asked me how the matchmaking was going as he slipped me his phone number. “I am exhausted from all this,” I complained to Alejandro the next evening at the gym.
“Cheer up,” he said as he hugged me. “Now you know everyone wants your hot body.” His arm around my shoulder felt good.
The next Thursday, everyone went to see Mike’s students perform Romeo and Juliet. With a party of thirty in an open seating auditorium, it was chaos with people trying to figure out where to sit. At the very last second, Alba ordered Kyle Moon, a gym coach, to take the seat next to me. This may have been innocent, but with Alba in action, I suspected everything. As far as I knew, Kyle was straight and I was pretty sure that Abuelita would prefer me to date a Latinx guy, but under the circumstances, I was annoyed by this blatant setup. To make matters worse, Alejandro was sitting on the other side of Kyle, rather than next to me, and by this point, I was convinced that he should be the one I go out with. But of course, he wasn’t anyone’s idea of a proper boyfriend for me. Keeping my anger hot, Abuela and Alba sat behind me, and before the play started, they loudly assessed the romantic potential of every young man in the audience. I seethed.
The family had found out I was gay ten years ago when I stupidly left a Valentine’s Day card from a classmate on the kitchen counter. Billy Martínez was a dream and had worked for a week to create a giant card that opened up into a three-dimensional football stadium with our names in a pink heart at the fifty-yard line. My parents were cool, though I was mortified when they put the card up on the mantle to show off. Elena helped me through that time. “Be grateful,” she told me. “Mom is trying to tell you the family loves you more than anything.”
Not everyone was nice about my being gay. Aunt Julia’s boyfriend is always making crude jokes, and a cousin pointedly told me that I was never allowed to be near her kids. There were guys at my high school who threatened to kill me, and a group of girls nicknamed me mariposa rosa and painted pink butterflies and obscene drawings on my locker. I was happy to get out of there alive.
Watching the doomed romance unfold on stage, I kept wondering why I was single and ultimately decided I was too shy. There were several men that in hindsight would have loved to become involved with me, but nothing ever happened because I was too scared to initiate a relationship. When this matchmaking ended, I vowed, I would go out there and act on my feelings. Then I decided not to wait. I abruptly asked Alejandro to go on a date as we walked out of the auditorium.
“Sure, if you want,” was his response. I didn’t find that reassuring.
Regretting my spontaneity and fearing more public humiliation, I said, “Please don’t tell anyone about this. You know how everyone is watching me.” He agreed to keep it quiet.
Alejandro is so handsome, he makes me nervous. He is two inches taller than me with a perfectly proportioned body, well-muscled arms, and a widow’s peak that draws attention to his big sparkling eyes. We are about the same dark shade of brown and he has a way of talking with his hands that I find irresistible. Three years older than me, he was much more grounded than I could ever be. Though he likes to laugh and is always full of jokes, he is serious while I am all giggles. Thus, I didn’t have high hopes for us going forward. I figured he was only going out with me out of pity.
It turned out to be the best date I had ever been on. We were blissfully happy and totally in sync with each other. At one point I was suppressing the urge to laugh and tell him I was having a great time because I didn’t want him to think I was a gushy romantic when Alejandro leaned back, laughed, and said, “This dinner with you is so wonderful, I don’t want it to end.” I was hooked.
He spoke a lot about his family. “As the youngest, I am the only one with status; everyone else stays in the shadows so they don’t get picked up. From the start, I had to interpret for them and represent them when we faced the outside world.”
I felt all of my privilege for being born in the US, but I also knew the pushes and pulls he had experienced. “We all have to work together to protect the most vulnerable of us,” I told him. “A lot of folks are here without documents. We live intertwined together, we share our lives. If we lost any one of them, we all would suffer,” I felt helpless as I always do when the topic is immigration.
“I teach ESL to help the kids who are like me when I was young,” Alejandro told me. “There is so much pressure to get ahead, yet at the same time, their families so depend on them that they can’t keep up.” Mike had told me how Alejandro’s students adore him and how he is always helping them navigate the bureaucratic mess that ensnares non-citizens.
“I know how our families frame our lives,” I said. “My father wouldn’t let me become a social worker or a community organizer. No. I had to major in something practical like business. ‘We gave up your brother to teaching to help our people. You have to look for other ways to make something of yourself,’ he told me. You’ve met my father. I couldn’t ever go against his wishes.”
“I understand. We are all still trying to figure out our way between our families and the world,” Alejandro nodded. He still lived at home, though Mike told me he wanted to move out. “I’m always second guessing myself. I wonder if teaching is the right way to go. Sometimes I think I should run for office to change things. My father thinks that I am crazy when I talk about that, but I like to aim high.” I just stared into Alejandro’s eyes, lost in their possibilities.
After a brief silence, Alejandro said, “When you give me that cute puppy dog look, I have to ask if your apartment is really as small as your brother says it is.”
“It is pretty cramped,” I answered. “When I have a guy over, we have to be on top of each other all night long.” I let that sink in as I explained, “I moved out of my parents’ place when my sister and her three kids came to live with us. I was too old to sleep on a couch every night.” Then I took another bold step. “Want to come back with me?”
When Alejandro looked around my tiny apartment, he smiled and said wistfully, “You are so lucky. I wish I had a place like this.” Then he pushed me down on the bed.
Within a week Alejandro was spending every night with me. By the end of the month, he had moved in. We alternated Sunday dinners, one with his family, one with mine, and we did everything together: the gym, soccer, and knocking on doors to get our candidate elected to the city council. Still, as far as I knew no one had a clue we were seeing each other, and I was happy I had outsmarted Alba. I wanted to keep things quiet but the news of our relationship began to leak out. Elena saw Alejandro’s car parked in front of my apartment early one morning, and Mike caught us sharing a drunk sloppy kiss after our soccer team went out to celebrate a big win. He confronted us when he saw me wearing Alejandro’s beat up Mayfair High tee shirt at the gym. “Listen up, lovebirds. Either you go public, or I am going to tell everyone. I can’t keep a secret.”
It is hard to overstate the status of Mexican grandmothers. Fathers may love us to pieces, but they always have unreasonable expectations. We have to have perfect in every way. My father even had an opinion on what car I should drive. “Get a dark sedan. Cops always pull over a Mexican driving a red SUV.” Daughters have it even worse. Mexican fathers’ primary role in life is to make their daughters miserable by being overprotective. They hate every boy who even glances at their virginal little girls.
Mexican mothers are similarly ambiguous. They will fight to the death to protect us, but they also feel it is their duty to wheedle, threaten, prompt, and cajole their sons to do what they think is right. It drove my mom to madness if I left the house in a wrinkled shirt, for example. “If the teachers see you disheveled, they will blame me,” she said, tears running down her cheeks at the thought of the humiliation. Again, Mexican daughters have it worse because their mothers try extremely hard to prevent them from making the same mistakes they did. Daughters are too much like their mothers to get along.
Grandmothers, however, are the warm source of unconditional love. There are never any fights, never an argument or raised voice, and they never hurt our feelings. Abuelita would slip me cookies when my parents weren’t looking, and she let me stay up late to watch spooky movies when she babysat me. I admit to being annoyed when she made me say the rosary with her, and I grew bored the hundredth time she told me how bad things were in Mexico before she left. But those were minor quibbles.
Abuelita was the tough matriarch of our family. Denied the opportunity to go to school, she had taught herself how to read and write Spanish and after she moved to California, learned it all over again in English. She organized everyone to come to the United States, and when the window to citizenship opened up in the eighties, she had everyone apply. She and Abuelito raised seven children, and thanks to their force of will, none of their children or grandchildren succumbed to gangs or drugs. After a lifetime of hard work cleaning hotel rooms, Abuelita was at last retired, but only because her children demanded she rest. We all did whatever we could to please her.
Imagine my fright that I was going to confront her, perhaps the first time since the time of the fifth sun—the Aztec creation myth says we are in the fifth world—a grandson was going to directly contradict his grandmother. But I owed it to her. I couldn’t let her keep spending her money finding me a match.
My opportunity came while we were at Tía Agueda’s house. Alejandro was out back teaching Mike’s four-year-old and the other kids how to merengue; by now he had spent so much time with my family that if I showed up someplace without him, everyone asked where he was. My parents and their siblings were playing cards around the dining table while arguing over who was responsible for the latest defeat of the Mexican National Soccer Team. Abuelita and I were cleaning up in the kitchen. She is a tiny woman; I could easily lift her up over my head. Her short hair had turned gray before I was born; now it was mostly white, which made her dark skin glow. While she talked about her volunteer work at the parish, I kept looking at her to assess her mood. But she is as undecipherable as a marble statue. No one knows what Abuelita is thinking, but we always know what she wants. And here I was about to go against her wishes.
Surprisingly, it went very well. “Alejandro is a good boy. His family is very proud of him.” That is the greatest complement Abuelita has for anyone. “Es muy guapo,” she added. “Though both of you need to put on some weight.”
“No hard feelings?” I asked. “I am so sorry you were worried about me. I apologized for making you go through all this.” It was heartfelt.
“Pues, it was worth a try. I only wanted to help,” she said with a smile. I offered to reimburse her for Alba’s fee, but she refused. “This is a business transaction between the Bruja and me. Don’t go poking into it.” I backed off and put it out of my mind because I was excited that I was in a full blown, open, happy relationship with Alejandro. And I was with him on my own, without anyone pushing us together.
My sister finally told me what happened. “You really are a fool,” Elena rolled her eyes at my innocence. “No one can outsmart a bruja. It’s impossible to stop an abuela when she sets her mind to do something. Everyone knows that Alba planned to set you up with Alejandro from the beginning.”
Russ López is the author of six nonfiction books as well as book reviews and journal articles. After an extensive career of community organizing and social justice advocacy, he is the editor of LatineLit, a magazine that publishes fiction by and about Latinx people. “Matchmaking and Taxes” is part of a planned collection of short stories tentatively titled, The Lesser Saints of Silicon Valley. Originally from California, López has degrees from Stanford, Harvard, and Boston University. He currently divides his time between Boston and Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Prologue: Saturday, October 4, 2003; Tucson, Arizona, very late at night.
I’ve just returned from my very first visit to Magdalena de Kino, Sonora, México where I attended the most spectacular birthday celebration for the miraculous San Francisco, the town’s patron saint. Magdalena was the town where both my mother Dolores and my grandmother Conchita had been born and raised. And in this same town in 1923, my Nana Conchita busted my grandfather’s antique black clock with a hammer, divorced him and with just my ten-year-old mother and a mochila, came to Nogales, Sonora where my grandmother’s two sisters, Carmela and Dolores, lived. After a short stay, my Nana Conchita found work as a laundress in Arizona and she and my mother ended up in Barrio Anita, one of Tucson, Arizona’s poorest barrios, and that’s where my four older sisters and I were born.
I sincerely believe that if you’re very lucky, in your life there is someone whose words you will never forget, and for me, it was my Nana Conchita. She may have never told me that she loved me, and I may have never told her that I loved her, but in both of our corazones, in our hearts, without these words, we knew. So, right here I have to declare that I truly love and remember everything that my grandmother told me and I will never forget her words. I no longer have her in my life, and I do not remember exactly when she gave me this advice, but here it is: She said that when a very esteemed person in your life leaves this earth and you can no longer see them, their spirit, their essence, will continue to visit you in your dreams, your memories, and they will even walk right next to you even though you will probably never actually see them; but if you’re really lucky and have faith, sometimes you can feel their presence.
And if you find yourself all alone in a desperate, dangerous situation and in need of guidance and help, that’s when you will hear and maybe even see them because they will always come to help you. When she said this, I almost wanted to ask her if she would be by my side and come to help me if I ever needed it, but I thought it would be disrespectful so I didn’t say anything. She did not say anything either, but she looked intently at my face and the next thing she did was smile and pat my shoulder, the very same shoulder that she always used to hoist herself from any sitting position.
I thought that with my crazy imagination I would surely see spirits like Lola, my mother, sees Dusty, her best friend long gone, but I never saw any until tonight. And it could very well just be a myth, but like I read somewhere what a folklorist wrote about myths: If you believe that they’re true, then they’re true. So, for me, this is true: I believe that my grandmother will always be by my side forever, and she will come to help me if I need her just as she did tonight when she appeared and helped me save that little girl at the dry riverbed in Magdalena, Sonora, Mexico.
And tonight, right before I go to bed, I am remembering very clearly my grandmother’s precise description of the fiesta that she told me about over fifty years ago when she was around sixty years old; I was around twelve, newly-arrived from Salinas, California where I had lived the last four years speaking only English. But even so, my grandmother and I had many long conversations because she understood my English perfectly and I, slowly, eventually, learned her Spanish. In my saved-memories, very vividly I can picture my Nana dressed in a faded flannel nightgown and robe and praying the rosary every single night before she went to bed. She would slowly kneel next to her dresser where she had an improvised altar with her eight favorite saints. In between the rosary’s misterios, she would abruptly stop her praying and with her soft, sleepy voice and in great detail, she would describe Magdalena’s wondrous fiesta and the authentic Sonoran culinary delights that no other state in Mexico or Tucson restaurant could ever hope to duplicate or beat.
These two were her fondest memories and she never stopped telling me this. “¡Pos sí, Quinta, créyemelo o no, pero de veritas, anque hiziya un pinchi calor de la tiznada—y esto anque juera o no juera ya en el mes de octubre—no cave duda que la fiesta del milagroso San Francisco en mi pueblito de Magdalena de Kino, Sonora, era la fiesta más grandiosa de todo el mundo y con la mejor comida en todo México!”
Yes, these were my grandmother’s exact words in her very own distinctive and unique “imperfect” Spanish which included a truly impressive range of misuse, mispronunciations y las muchas malas palabras that I surely hope won’t offend anyone. And guess what? I now have to totally agree with my grandmother: The fiesta for San Francisco is the grandest celebration in the whole world and with the most delicious dishes in all of Mexico, especially the pozole de gallina pinta which is made with beef, pinto beans and hominy, and it is absolutely not a painted chicken! ¡Pero, híjole, Chihuahua, it was just like she’d said, for it being the month of October, it sure was tiznada HOT!!!
Chapter 1: My main delusions of grandeur and my pocho-mocho Spanish.
What you will never ever imagine when you see me standing anywhere looking toda rascuachita, chamagosa, y cochambruda, holding onto my notepad, my beat-up and battered famous quotations book, thesaurus, and Spanish and English dictionaries in my hands, is that I have the audacity to call myself a writer; but honestly, I do!!! I do!!! I mostly write about my good, bad, joyful and sad memories; lots of descriptions of my days, music that I love, my crazy relatives, my typing clients and all of our inane nonsense and shenanigans. I started writing the day that I got my book of famous quotations and my English and Spanish dictionaries sometime before my twelfth birthday. I remember when I told my Grandmother Conchita that I wanted to be a writer, she told me with her usual enigmatic words whenever I came up with an impossible, quixotic goal: “Ay, Quinta cabrona, ¿pos cuantas veces te voy a dijir que ‘del dicho al hecho hay muncho trecho,’ eh?” Which crazily translates to something like this: From the saying/statement to the action/deed there is a very long distance/space.
My Nana always felt that my writing (grouped along with my reading, daydreaming and my obsessive counting) was nothing but another one of my “puras bavosadas y pendejadas despilfarradas,” saliva-drooling nonsense that would make me waste and fritter away an entire day doing absolutely nothing. But anyway that didn’t stop me. First chance I’d get I would sneak away somewhere to write, but without fail my grandmother would find me, then she’d sigh, sniff and snicker, and—THUNK!—right there’s when she’d smack me on the head with her shoe or with the end of the broom or with whatever else was in her hands.
Well, believe it or not, in spite of the literal and figurative chingazos that life and my grandmother gave me, I still continued to write every chance I got because I wanted and needed to make some sense of my life that was filled with empty blank areas and horrific nightmares and of course this has turned out to be a super-long and difficult endeavor without a final resolution in sight.
Well, besides claiming to be a writer, I have another delusion of grandeur: I could’ve become a photographer like the woman who went around 14 La Quinta Soledad taking pictures of very sad and very poor people during the Great Depression. I forget her name—but it’ll come to me when I least expect it—anyway, just like her, I would have plenty of these gloomy subjects around here, except that I would prefer to take photographs of smiling people if I could find any.
And I would’ve been a good photographer because I have a tendency to view life like as if I was holding my hands out in front of me, my two thumbs together making a square, but missing the top line, and I am always checking out the lights and shadows and colors. For dramatic and most gripping effect, I especially like either the stark blacks and whites like in negatives, or a kaleidoscope of the latest-invented eighty-four Crayola rainbow colors to place over people’s heads.
With the camera in my mind I can very expertly create the most riveting dramatic images and scenes to either photograph plainly or to film with plenty of freezes, slow and fast motion speeds, super-impositions, compressed times with rolling white meringue clouds, deliberately out-of-order flash-backs to the past, flash-forwards to the future, intentional blurs for dramatic effect, and instant replays for the dumb ones who missed it the first time.
And because I like to write, I can even write the piquant and racy dialogue and deep-voiced narrative voice-overs, or else the people can talk sentences with just their eyes or with their words in bubbles over their heads like in the comic books. Or in contrast, I can even imagine the most tranquil inky-dark absolute silence like in a black bottomless abyss where a giant octopus awaits with its eight lazy floating tentacles.
Plus, not only that, but to accompany these scenes or images, I always then select the background music that will perfectly fit the mood, themes, or even the wild pacing of my photographs or films like from the most soporiferous sleep-inducing gringo classics like from Brahms’ “Waltz in A Flat Major, Op. 39, No. 5,” to any of the raunchiest and liveliest Mexican corridos norteños like from Los Alegres de Terán, or even the beer-drinkers’ favorite anthem: “Volver, Volver,” sung loudly by just about any drunk chorus of borrachentos desentonados right before the serious fistfights begin.
Needless to say, if you’re going to have delusions, you might as well go to the very top pinnacle, like up to Mount Everest, and that’s precisely why, in all of my daydreams and fantasies, I myself could’ve become a famous photographer just like Dorothea Lange—somewhere in my memory bank I found the answer that I needed: Dorothea Lange was the Depression photographer’s name and the name of the woman in her most famous photograph was Florence Thompson.
Or, you know, I could’ve even become a movie director like Alfred Hitchcock and I would give myself lots of cameo roles, and then I’d unobtrusively stroll in and out of all the different murder scenes, like maybe I could be a detective taking copious notes in a red spiral notebook, and plus I would get to mingle with the real actors and eat the fabulous catered meals under a rented tent.
At present time, I am a typist for my relatives, friends, felons, juvenile delinquents and a few law-abiding citizens, and I like to introduce myself as a “writer” to them. Although to be sure you could rightly say that calling myself a “writer” is quite a hyperbolic exaggeration because I truly believe that my command of both the English or Spanish languages is almost non-existent due to the fact that I have a very wonky manner of speaking and writing in a very mixed-up hodgepodge manner with improper bad English, pocho-mocho Spanish, Spanglish and code-switching.
But before you know it, like an uninvited intrusive comadre mitotera butting into the conversation, my Past always inserts itself into my Present every chance it finds, and then I can’t find margins or seams to separate the two. At these times I even think that I could be like Joanne Woodward in the movie “Three Faces of Eve,” where she had multiple personalities because when she was a little girl she was forced to touch her dead grandmother. But I know for a fact that I never touched my Nana Conchita to give me this kind of trauma because I never even went up to her coffin. And besides, to be honest, sometimes I think that I don’t even have one personality, much less three!!!
And added to that is the bad habit that I have of always hesitating before answering anything because I have to first, calmadamente, translate the words in my mind, Spanish to English, or English to Spanish, until I form a mental picture of them like as if I was going to take a photograph of them for my favorite Graphic Arts class at Tucson High way back in 1955 to 1956 when I was almost sixteen years old, in the ninth grade, and right before I dropped out of school for the first time.
Because of my high vocabulary score on my last exam when I ended the eighth grade at John Spring Junior High in 1955, I was mistakenly placed in Miss Benvenuto’s Advanced Reading and Writing English Class at Tucson High School where I surely had no business being there. In Miss Benvenuto’s class I had to read novels and short stories, write essays, and learn grammar and punctuation. Of these, what I did learn to enjoy the most was the reading of the assigned short stories and novels and then writing what I thought about them.
But learning the punctuation and the grammar gave me the worst headache that not even my Nana’s sliced raw potatoes on my forehead could take away. Las desgraciadas commas, I just tended to willy-nilly insert them like as if they were raisins in the oatmeal cookies, and I walked out of the class before I learned what a semicolon or a colon was really good for. But I do love the dashes that interrupt whenever and wherever they want—just like I do—and the parentheses that I stick in anywhere and anytime always remind me of those know-it-all viejas chismoleras that you can always count on to give you that extra, sometimes trivial, information. As for the exclamation marks, Miss Benvenuto insisted that only one was needed, but sometimes if something’s exciting, frightening or terribly important, I use three!!!
So without any nalgas huangas excuses or apologies, in April, 1956, I walked out of Miss Benvenuto’s class and dropped out of school before I even finished the ninth grade. In September, 1956, I did start the ninth grade all over again at Belmont High in Los Angeles, but I only lasted almost two months and around the end of October I dropped out for good this time and I returned to Tucson. And to be honest, I can sincerely say that in both of those ninth-grades, except for maybe the Typing and Gregg’s Shorthand classes, I didn’t learn anything even remotely worthwhile.
But now, in my writing, like as if it was a fence separating any of the feuding barrio neighbors, I just stick a semicolon in wherever I want; and the colon I use like as if it was a trumpet announcing a list or something important, or else it’s right before a famous quotation. To this date I still forever use the sacred punctuation marks without respect or boundaries or even omit them completely, but, really, put simply, what almost anyone really needs is two things: a question mark that wants an answer and a period that stops everything in its tracks, like this: period.
There’s lots of things that I’ve forgotten, thrown away or left out intentionally, and there’s still many more things that I’ve confabulated, obfuscated, sugar-coated and glossed over and which surely proves or confirms why Miss Benvenuto called me an unreliable narrator who had no form or structure!!!
And sorry, here I’m not “copping a ‘tude,” an expression that my juvenile delinquent clients always use, but I don’t even give a tiny rat’s pizzle about my sentences that tend to run-on untethered like cucarachas when you turn on the kitchen light with a can of Raid in your hand, and I ignore all of the rest of that boring English chicken-cuacha which included all the pendejadas like predicates, split infinities, dependent and independent clauses, sentence fragments; past, present and future tenses, transitions, points of views, diction, active and passive verbs and all the other chingaderas that never agreed and that I either violated, abused, mis-used, mis-placed, or like as if they were limp huevos boludos, I just simply left them somewhere dangling.
Right off, no matter how much I try to learn what Form and Structure means in writing, I obviously have no grasp of whatever that is. So, I do have to admit that I am just like as if I was a chapulín hopping around with all the other grasshoppers in a green alfalfa field. I have a tendency to either over-write or under-write and I do repeat a lot of senseless things or jump forward and backwards with the subject, point of view, time, place, mood, transitions and dates all out of order. I also create a very confusing syntax where the arrangement of my words inevitably either leads to muddled confusion or to scornful disdain. I don’t know how or why, but I even somehow manage to turn my statements into questions. Like this, you see?
But anyway, who cares what I violated to my heart’s content and even though I may not have learned the perfect punctuation and grammar before I walked out of Miss Benvenuto’s class, for sure what I learned was how to take very good notes because to this day I sagely and diligently follow the advice of an Italian man named Dante Alighieri who in my battered book of famous quotations wrote: “He listens well who takes notes.”
I have a perfect photographic memory (eidetic is the exact word in my English dictionary and in the newspaper’s crossword puzzle). So, with my notes I can recall anything with the most exquisite details in either English or Spanish, and I can describe, almost word for word, the things that I see, hear, touch, smell, taste, or feel. And of course, inevitably, to spice things up, I add my own music, imagery and dialogue. Well, sometimes I do forget the names of famous people or movies or words to a song, and I mix up a few places on the map, and some dates and even some years. But when I really need or want to remember something, it just comes to me, and conversely or reversely, when I don’t want to remember something, it doesn’t.
To be honest, with any one of my stolen pens or pencils that I have an overwhelming compulsion to steal, I can fill up pages and pages with my writing. When I am finished, I put them in a folder and label them as “Chapter” and I add a number and a few descriptive words to help me find something without going through all the pages. Some of these “chapters” are long, some are short, and most are choppy and wacky! Then I stuff them into my Salinas suitcase along with the stash of pens and pencils that I bundle into groups of hundreds.
On my “feeling good” days, I take out some of what I’ve written and I try to bring things up to date or to provide more information. I label it with capital letters: “UPDATE” and add descriptive words like I do on the “Chapters.” I think it’s like when you write postscripts in letters or film flash-backs and flash-forwards in movies. Some of these are brief and some are long with more details, but still not counting as a chapter.
This, of course, wreaks havoc with my past and present tenses, and in some of the dizzying transitions where I jump from there to here or from here to there, and get my dates mixed up, but I believe that’s exactly how people talk, so why not in writing? Anyhow, in my defense, all I can say is that when I’m not purposely avoiding something or else leaving out important information, I try my very best to stay truthful and really, aside from the lies in the letters and forms that I have to type for my quasi-law-abiding or my truly-felonious clients on another one of my client’s stolen electric typewriter—and these surely don’t count because I only type what they tell Mack or me—I never knowingly tell a lie, and so, on this you can trust me completely and implicitly.
But not to brag, I really think that if anyone will give me a word and its meaning, I can easily write a sentence with twelve or more words and it will be perfectly coherent and intelligent-sounding even if I can’t pronounce the word itself, and which is why I never could appear on “Jeopardy,” and that’s irregardless—yes, I do know that’s not a word—of how much I adore the handsome Alex Trebeck, but there really wouldn’t be one solitary interesting thing about me that we could discuss when he comes back after the break to chat with the contestants.
And although I’ve probably been speaking English all my life, I still speak it with an accent, and this I only know because when I was a student at Belmont High in Los Angeles, I applied for some kind of student/worker telephone operator job, and after the woman extolled my high test scores, she told me I couldn’t be hired because I had an accent! Well, I don’t know where the accent came from, but I suspect that it is in the genes before we are even born. So, yes, it’s an example of bitter irony at its best because when have you understood what any foreign telephone operator in New Delhi tells you nowadays? And sometimes, can you believe this, I’ve even been asked by some jackass what country I’m from?!!!
Well, if my English is horrid, you can bet for sure that my gobbledygook Spanish comes close to jack-shit, and I always like to make jokes about it because I surely cannot explain all that baloney about the assimilation and acculturation process; I just know that I am a product of a school system where speaking Spanish was forbidden, Treaty of Guadalupe or not.
So, anyway, pues, here’s where I think that I started to speak Spanish. In July, 1952, at age eleven and seven months, I came back from Salinas, California to Tucson, Arizona to help take care of my grandmother at 937 North Contzen in Tucson’s Barrio Anita. My Nana Conchita had just had an operation on her hips, and she had a cast on her left side from her waist to the beginning of her thigh, and on the right side, the cast went from her waist to her knee. Since she couldn’t move up from her bed for around six weeks, I was there to attend to her needs which were quite extensive, but the main one was to keep her entertained with lively conversations so she wouldn’t get into a bad mood or all sad and melancholy about the Mexico she’d left behind in 1923.
I don’t remember what language I spoke the first eight years of my life here in Tucson, 1940 to 1948, because those years are a total blank, but for the next four years, I had lived in Salinas, California from 1948 to 1952, where no one would be caught dead speaking Spanish for fear of being mistaken for a piojoso bracero field-worker from Mexico. In turn, my Nana Conchita was from Mexico and in the United States since 1923, but she wouldn’t be caught dead speaking English and be mistaken for an officious social worker from the welfare department even if it meant being called a guacha, or one who still wore guarachis on their feet and the cotton calzones de manta underwear, like as if she was a peasant soldadera in the revolution with Pancho Villa.
At first my Nana’s Spanish, even before her sleeping or pain pills started to work, had sounded like plain gibberish to me, but it seemed as though since my arrival that hot and windy afternoon, by pure force, but most likely because I had spoken Spanish in the first eight years of my life when I had lived before in Tucson, already I was re-learning Spanish by the minute, and by constantly interrupting and asking questions and forming mental images with the answers, I could instantly translate to English the gist of what my Nana was saying in Spanish, and somehow she always understood what I said in English.
To me, young as I was, some things that my Nana said made sense, others didn’t, and some I may have invented as the years went by because my memories always tend to jump around like pork chicharrones on the hot grill. In some strange way, I managed to memorize most of what she told me, and that’s why even now I try to write her words exactly as I heard them, and I don’t care who objects to them or who dares to correct me. And for sure, I really don’t care if someone tells me that they are “imperfect,” or that they don’t know what they mean because like I always like to say: that’s precisely why dictionaries were invented. (Hint. Hint.)
Anyway, I could talk to her and jabber away as much as I wanted to in English and she would answer me in Spanish, and if ever I had become a movie screenwriter and had written the dialogue for the scenes with my Nana Conchita, the actor portraying her would only speak Spanish and my grandmother’s words would be shown in English subtitles at the bottom of the screen, like in those foreign movies where you have to read really fast so you won’t miss seeing the actors’ dramatic facial expressions or subtle movements, and her bad words would be like this: @#%$^&*%# like in cartoons where someone smashes their fingers with a hammer!!!
I never really wanted to speak any Spanish, but not understanding my Nana when she told me that when I’d gone to California I’d left Guatemala for Guatepeor, made me resolve to pay more attention to the Spanish because, who knew, maybe, unlike the people in Salinas, California, here in Tucson, Arizona they were so backwards that that’s all the people spoke. But still, my Spanish must’ve been good enough because anyone in Barrio Anita that was allowed to be my friend spoke the same “improper and rascuacho” Spanish that I did, and so without going into details, that should tell you enough.
So, in less than a month after arriving in Tucson, I start to speak Spanish effortlessly—well, almost effortlessly—and soon I could easily switch from English to Spanish and from Spanish to English. Maybe it was like I remember René Martínez, the dishwasher in Salinas who started to speak English from one day to the next like as if he always had the English stored in his brain without his even knowing it; or maybe it was because I must’ve spoken Spanish earlier in my life; or maybe it was just because I was surrounded by it, here in this Tucson Barrio Anita.
That same summer when it was raining so hard that I could not go outside, not even to feed the chickens, and I only had the “Confidencias” magazines that my Nana Conchita’s two sisters sent to her from Nogales, Sonora for reading, so I taught myself to read in Spanish, slowly and by mouthing the words. In these “Confidencias” magazines, my Nana detested the monthly horoscopes that she called “puras brujerías fraudulentas,” but which I avidly devoured. Eventually, though, I believed these horoscopes had to be the most stupidest things I’d ever read, because even if the “Confidencias” had been up-to-date, and even when I cheated and tried three different Zodiac months, the actual December, and then November and January, none of the horoscopes even came close to fruition for me.
These magazines consisted mostly of what my Nana called las vaquetonadas y sinvergüenzadas indecentes, but which really just described nicely and circumspectly the latest escapades of the beautiful movie star María Felix and the results of the latest crooked political elections and what the newly-elected officials were already planning to steal next after they dedicated a new dam for the applauding campesinos. The two things that my grandmother really liked to read were the maudlin and soppy advice for the lovelorn, but only if she agreed with it and if it didn’t call for any of the forgiving “mierdero,” and the recipes that didn’t require strange ingredients like plantains and alcaparras and habichuelas, ingredients that were unknown to the Chino grocers, so she never made any of these dishes.
Well, I did manage to learn Spanish, as the saying goes, something like this: “de el trote y al moche,” and today I can brag that I can speak, read and write Spanish, albeit very badly—so, go ahead and call it an “improper and rascuacho” Spanish. And even so, by stretching the definition somewhat, you could say that I’m bilingual, which supposedly is a good thing to put down on any employment application, especially here in Arizona where probably over half the population speaks Spanish, or at least until some tapados get it outlawed.
The national book launch of La Quinta Soledad, sponsored by Borderlands Theater and Los Descendientes del Presidio de Tucson, will take place on Saturday, December 10, 2-4 p.m., at El Pueblo Center, 101 W. Irvington Rd., Tucson, Arizona.
A native of Tucson, Arizona, Silviana Wood received her M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Arizona and has been involved in the local theater community since the 1970s. She is known for her bilingual comedies and dramas as well as for being a professional storyteller, actor, director, and teacher of literature and Chicano theater. Silviana has twice won the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize from the University of California, Irvine: once for short story, and once for drama. She has also received playwriting fellowships and done several residencies at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas. She has been a member of TENAZ (El Teatro Nacional de Aztlán), Teatro del Pueblo, Teatro Libertad, and Teatro Chicano and is a founding member of Mujeres Que Escriben, a Latina writers’ group that was formed in 1991 and is comprised of professional women whose poetry and fiction have been published in various anthologies. In 2016, Barrio Dreams: Selected Plays by Silviana Wood was published by the University of Arizona Press.