Excerpts from Z is for Zapatazo by Ruben Rivera published by Atmosphere Press
Z is for Zapatazo
I started learning my ABC’s before I could even read. The first lesson involved a woman collapsed in the back lot of the Bronx tenement where we lived. Something had scared her nearly to death. There in the pouring rain she lay writhing and screaming out her wits while neighbors watched from the covered balconies and fire escapes. R is for Rat.
Another lesson was connected to chickens in that time when “children should be seen and not heard.” The Spanish version had, as usual, more syllables as well as color: “Los niños hablan cuando las gallinas mean.” “Children talk when the chickens pee.” Those who relate to chicken only in conveniently dismembered extra crispy form may ask when or how often do chickens pee? Never. We Nuyoricans, Spanglish-speaking Gothamites, who had never seen a chicken except when it arrived steaming aromatically on a plate with rice and beans, nevertheless knew well that chickens don’t relieve themselves like little boys and girls. C is for Chickens.
We moved to California, that hub of social contradictions. There I was raised on breezy primetime shows, punctuated by interruptions about some protest march, police suppression, riot, space-race launch, cold war threat, assassination, or other scary event. For a while it seemed like “We Interrupt This Program” was part of the regular TV line up. Maybe that’s why there were so many sitcoms and family shows – diversions from the worry and sheer terror. The shows conveyed placid American suburbs lined with houses that never needed painting, populated by families like the Andersons, the Nelsons, and the Cleavers, lovingly and rationally ruled by parents that never yelled or hit or even had sex.
Meanwhile, on this side of the fourth wall, verbal and physical discipline was natural. So natural in fact that it was conveyed in a Spanish-language ABC book for children. The benign English version that the Cleavers read had, “A is for Apple, B is for Ball, C is for Cat” and so on, to the last letter, “Z is for Zoo.” A logical entry for the Spanish Zeta (Z) would have been Zapato (Shoe), something every Latino child would know. But instead it read, “Z esporZapatazo” (paraphrased: Z is for Shoe Missile). The expounded letter was accompanied by a drawing of a dark-haired child with its wincing face cocked to the side from the impact of a flying shoe. A friend recalled the book to me years later and we responded with equal parts laughter and loathing at the kind of mentality that would include such a casually violent lesson in what is perhaps the most basic childhood introduction to an intelligible world.
History reminds me, however, that Anglo American ways of child rearing were not so idyllic as the TV shows portrayed. In colonial New England, a child’s education went hand in hand with physical discipline. The 1691 edition of The New England Primer for children had ABC lessons that included: “F: The idle FOOL is whipt at school,” and “J: JOB feels the rod, yet blesses God.” And even as the belt-free world of “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It To Beaver” was being beamed into televisions across North America, teachers in schools who looked just like Robert Young and Barbara Billingsley blistered our tender behinds with every device imaginable, from ping pong paddles to a cricket bat perforated in wood shop by one particularly sadistic misanthrope to cut wind resistance.
I can at least affirm that I advanced in my ABC’s fairly early in the game – my older brother, not so much. If I say that too frequently I followed a crowd of kids to an afterschool fight only to discover that my brother was one of the young gladiators, you’ll understand what I mean. The same feckless pugnacity repeatedly got him into needless trouble at home, where there was no immunity of non-combatants. K is for Knucklehead.
Years later, my mom and stepdad divorced. (My birth father I knew only through an old wedding photograph and mom’s spectacularly imaginative comparisons to our misbehavior.) By then I was married, living at the other end of the country and going to seminary. I did not know the degree to which their split had affected me. Then one evening, after my wife had gone to bed and I stayed up studying, I sank into an abyss of grief, crying and shaking uncontrollably.
Gone were the family parties when we kids listened to music and played while our parents did…whatever parents did at parties, until the sensuous Puerto Rican food appeared miraculously on the table to be gobbled up by gangly calorie-burning urchins, leaving the mess to be cleaned up by elves while we slept soundly wherever our bodies happened to land. Gone was the Monorail, and the Matterhorn, It’s A Small World, and the Adventure Thru Inner Space courtesy of Monsanto. Gone Knott’s berry pie. Gone the excursions to Pacific Ocean Park, Redondo Beach, and Newport Dunes, the broiling burgers, the quenching watermelon.
Gone the chilly early hours of Christmas when we’d sneak out of our beds to peek at the gift-wrapped silhouettes under the tree and imagine they were what we wanted. Gone a mother’s tender ministrations when any of us kids were sick. Gone her tears when she saw mine after a broken wrist ended high school gymnastics. Gone the rosary prayer circles and sleepless nights when my brother was in hospital with brain tumors. Gone the frantic calling for my sister lost in a Tijuana bazaar. Gone the tears of joy when she was found. Gone the dreaded daily tablespoon of cod liver oil and the sting of Mercurochrome on scraped knees and elbows.
Gone dad’s brutal six-day workweek that underwrote our lives. Gone when the family sat around the only television in the house after eating dinner at the same table, at the same time, and the wild symphony of everyone talking at once. Gone the laughter, I’m talking Puerto Rican laughter, the world series of laughter, now only faint bells in the distant steeple of my memory. Z is for Zapatazo.
The Fall of Middle Earth
One day, I went to that land between home and school, shocked to find it invaded. The scene looked like a horde of dragons, their plated skin clattering, their movement stuttering like some Harryhausean nightmare, and generals commanding troops in white helmets from blue paper battle plans. The noise cracked the sky’s thin blue shell and soot from organ pipe nostrils nearly blocked out the running yolk of the sun. Mandibles dropped open dripping an earthy stew then clammed shut with the metallic squeal of lightning, like colossal hinges on the gates of Mordor, maws of these steel-veined horrors engorging and disgorging dirt, rocks, grasses, trees, nests, warrens, dens and cloisters, secret gardens, fens and shires. Fangorn, Moria, Rivendell...
How I started hating conspiracy theories
How often the truth is just not sexy enough. But the lie? Now that’s an orgy. In the fifth grade I caught the flu so bad I missed two weeks of school. When I returned my teacher got down on one knee to look me in the eyes and said: “Ruben, are you OK? I heard you got in trouble with the law and went to juvenile detention.” “Home with the flu,” I said. “Nearly died. Didn’t you get mom’s letter?” “I heard you were really in juvie.” “Nope. Home sick. Nearly died.” He walked away disappointed, in the same way dogs find catching cars disappointing. That year I was “Juvie Rubie,” hang all my protestations for truth. Even today, I’m Juvie Rubie.
I Don’t Mean
I don’t mean to doubt your faith but why doesn’t it make you good to me?
I don’t mean to question your scriptures but why are the sweet parts applied to you and the harsh parts to me?
I don’t mean to be aloof but why does god love you unconditionally but me conditionally?
I don’t mean to sound unpatriotic but why does the god of the universe bless America over other nations, and before that Rome, or France, or Germany, or Spain, then England?
I don’t mean to risk your wrath but why does god look and act like the latest rulers?
I don’t mean to appear radical but why does god favor your race over mine?
I don’t mean to feel cheated, but why does god answer your prayers and not mine – when you got the job I didn’t, and the traffic lights you believe worked for you made me miss my friend’s last moments?
I don’t mean to impugn your justice but why does god love sinners like you more than sinners like me?
I don’t mean to question your motives but why does accepting your religion put me and mine under you and yours?
I don’t mean to sound bitter but why is there no room for me in the land, the neighborhood, your family, your heart?
I don’t mean to dislike your god of grace but why gift the one truth to you and leave others in damning ignorance?
I don’t mean to be impertinent but how come god welcomes prayer in any language but only English can be spoken here?
I don’t mean to be skeptical about the universality of your religion but why do I have to amputate my culture but you get to keep yours?
I don’t mean to be in your face but why can’t you see me?
I don’t mean to speak so loudly but why can’t you hear me?
I don’t mean to doubt your faith but why doesn’t it make you good to me?
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Ruben Rivera is Emeritus VP for DE&I and Associate Professor of History at Bethel University in Saint Paul, MN. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife Anita. Although his poetry has won awards in various contests, Z is for Zapatazo is Ruben’s first published collection.