Diana Griego Erwin
From my bedroom window in this dusty Mexican pueblo, I
search out Gemini in the midnight sky. A light haze hangs low over the
red-tile roofs of the residential section, but the sky overhead is clear.
A man in a dark baseball cap pushes a cart over the rutted road below my
window. Someone nearby is soothing their insomnia with Mexico’s version of
hot chocolate; the distinctive cinnamon warmth of the chocolatl’s aroma is
unmistakable. I write my name,
in the film of gritty dust on the windowsill. The coarse layer is
everywhere in Las Pulgitas. I usually feel small and insignificant under
the stars, but not tonight. I am one of The Twins. One or both. I look
down at the windowsill. Three question marks now punctuate my name.
In the room next door, twelve orphans sleep in bunk
beds. Five other rooms each hold just as many children. I am 22 years old
and a Peace Corps volunteer in the Our Lady of Holy Compassion orphanage.
In four days, I’ll drive home to L.A. for a fiesta honoring my great uncle
Beto, who’s retiring from his job with the electric company. Relatives are
coming from as far away as New Mexico and from as close as Pacoima.
These large family gatherings are noisy and festive by
day and melancholy by nightfall. The women will cook and gossip in the
kitchen and the men will drink outside on the patio; later, they’ll wander
inside to watch a little boxing. The boy cousins will gather in the yard
out front to admire someone’s shiny, new paint job and stay there. These
things I can depend on. But not everything is static.
"You think she’ll be there?" I asked my sister, Nettie,
several nights ago from the raspy public telephone in Las Pulgitas’ tiny
"Who?" she asked.
I haven’t seen my cousin, Gloria, for nearly five years
and I’m dying to see her face when she sees how Chicana I’ve become, or
maybe mejicana is more appropriate. I didn’t speak much Spanish as a kid,
but here in the orphanage it was learn the intricacies of the language or
die. I traded my shorts for long skirts despite the summer heat because
showing too much leg is indecent here in the orphanage. I make posole
from scratch and say and think my Hail Marys in Spanish. I have learned
how to be a respectable mejicana in social situations.
But it is the morning task of kneading and rolling and
flattening the dough into tortillas with the orphanage’s other women
workers that’s become my favorite ritual. I fall into a rhythm, the
coolness of the flour pressing into my skin, the smell becoming my smell.
It is a rhythm of self. Me. These women. How many women before us?
Every morning about five o’clock, six of us shape
several hundred tortillas in the warm kitchen for the children while
Rosaria, the orphanage’s small, sharp-featured cook, attempts to arrange
and manipulate my love life. I tell her that norteamericanas don’t worry
so much about marriage and biological clocks in the United States, even
the Latina ones. She cocks her head to one side like a blackbird trying to
figure me out. Shaking her head, she finally gives up. "Dios mío," she
says, crossing herself.
As the family reunion in Los Angeles nears, Rosaria
hears about my cousin, La Gloria, and the way she used to call my sister,
Nettie, and I "homogenized Hispanics." Our hair was too light; our noses
not Azteca enough. When I explain these things and more to Rosaria, it’s
like Nettie and I are back in our Aunt Sylvia’s house in the San Fernando
Valley. Our parents gathered there weekly to play 21 or poker at the cool
formica table in our Tia’s kitchen. Then time ceases to be and Nettie and
I are young girls sitting cross-legged on the two-tone green shag carpet
in the living room again. In front of us is a brand-new Monopoly game my
dad bought us. And there is Aunt Sylvia’s oldest daughter, La Gloria.
My mental picture of La Gloria freezes her in time to
how she looked at age 13 or 14, sitting there on the orange couch under
the velvet Elvis paintings, snapping her gum sharp and loud. Her lacquered
bangs form a shiny roll on her forehead like a chocolate Hostess HoHo.
Thin snakes of velvet black eyeliner droop over each eyelid, chola-style.
She’s about thirty pounds overweight, but, as she likes to say, she
carries it well. Aunt Sylvia’s Pedro Infante record plays in the background.
La Gloria snaps her gum to the beat.
Gloria, who is a year older than I and two years older
than Nettie, is the toughest girl in junior high. It’s the way she looks,
really, with those mean, drawn-on eyebrows. Gloria says she gets to go
first because it’s her house, so we let her. She rolls a five on the
Monopoly board and moves her silver marker, the car, which she swears is a
lowrider, to Boardwalk.
"You owe me fifty bucks," I say.
La Gloria looks at me hard and mean and hisses that
there ain’t no damn way she’s going to hand over no fifty dollars rent.
"You have to," I say. "It’s the rules. Don’t start
cheating Gloria. I’ll tell your mom."
"My mom is an all-powerful Chicana who knows that
Monopoly is a gringo, capitalistic game and I ain’t gonna pay no stinkin’
rent, so get that through your Anglicized head," she says. "Here we play it like this
is real life, comprendes? You’re going to have to evict me just
like the landlords do."
Her mother yells from the kitchen for Gloria to get up
and grab her another Budweiser. La Gloria sighs and struggles to get up
off the carpet. Fat rolls of extra Chicana show through her thin knit top.
She starts toward the kitchen, stops in the doorway and strikes a pose, a Latina Cheryl Tiegs
looking over her shoulder. "Roll," she commands Nettie, who rolls the dice
From the doorway, she turns an evil eye on me. Her upper
lip curls up in a sneer. "Ha, ha. She rolled," she says. "You lost your
chance and your money. Better luck next time." Nettie's mouth drops open,
but she doesn’t say a thing. She doesn't dare look at me.
By the time Gloria quits twenty minutes later, she’s
about to go broke. Nettie and I always beat her at board games, even
though she’s older than us. Gloria knows a lot about some things, like how
to French kiss, but she isn’t what papa calls "practical." Losing at
Monopoly or Scrabble or Battleship never bothers La Gloria. She thinks
she’s the hottest thing on the west side of town just because she’s vice
president of MEChA, the club at school for the coolest Chicanos and
With her high arched eyebrows, nut-brown skin, and lips
painted with stolen tubes of Cover Girl lipstick, Gloria is the undisputed
chola queen of the cigarettes-behind-the-gym crowd she runs with.
Nettie and I would love to wear dark lipstick, but our father won’t let
us. He says Gloria is headed down a hard road and that Aunt Sylvia, my
mother’s sister, just doesn’t see it. Neither does anyone else at our
school. Everybody treats Gloria and her friends like they’re ultra-cool,
tough shit --- or maybe like they’re afraid of them. In junior high,
sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
As for the stolen lipstick, which La Gloria has in
fourteen luscious shades, she says it’s not a crime because the Hi-Lo Drug
store in our neighborhood charges too much for Pepsi, so in the end, it
all comes out even. Gloria has developed her own brand of logic for
situations like this that always work in her favor. That girl has reasons
for everything --- except why she kept me out of MEChA.
La Gloria told the MEChA club that I wasn’t really,
really her blood cousin, that my medium-brown hair proves that I was
probably adopted. She said our family hadn’t eaten menudo on
weekends for years, ever since our dad got a promotion at the plant, which
she claimed was almost like turning our backs on our cultura.
She further pointed out that Nettie and I didn’t even
know Spanish, because our dad was intent on us becoming what she
sarcastically called "real Americans." Before we were born, he decided
we’d learn English only so we didn’t have to endure the discrimination he
faced. Instead, we face a kind of reverse discrimination at the hands of
La Gloria, like not getting into MEChA.
They don’t even know what la revolucion is about;
they are so unaware," La Gloria told her MEChA friends. "Mention it and
those Gomez fake cousins of mine think you mean the American Revolution,"
she added, and the kids all cracked up.
Then Gloria had to go tell the junior MEChA club that I
got straight A’s, which was true, and that my idea of fun was sitting
around doing algebra, which wasn’t. My friend, Carmen, who was there,
called it a rousing speech about remaining pure to la raza that
would have made even Zapata proud.
"There was this peer pressure thing going on, big time,"
Carmen whined, when I pointed out that unanimous meant that even she
didn’t vote for me.
Instead I got into Cal Berkeley a few years later while
La Gloria took a cashier’s job at the Hi-Lo Drug store. I went home to the
San Fernando Valley when I could, but I never saw Gloria because she was
always working. I don’t know that we would have grown closer anyway, we
were so different. Even at these gatherings, I was often studying,
something most of the family didn’t understand.
"Aye, that Lara. Nose in the book all the time," I’d
hear relatives say from the other room. My dad would explain that I had a
test on Monday, even when I didn’t.
"I say she thinks she’s too good for us," Barbara
sneered. Barbara is our cousin, too; La Gloria’s younger sister.
After college, the Peace Corps sent me to Mexico where
the Spanish I learned was quite different from that spoken in the
neighborhood. I recognized that the graffiti placas on walls around
the Los Angeles basin should have read "barrio," not "varrio." I noticed
that the desperately poor people living in cardboard shelters clinging to
canyon walls lived without menudo on Saturdays and still kept their
culture intact, thank you very much.
There were no such phrases such as "vamos a las movies"
or "homeboys," expressions used around the valley like they were bona fide
During rare weekends off from the orphanage, I drove to
Guadalajara, visited museums and bought postcards showing the pottery of
the Mayas. I went to mass in centuries-old cathedrals and trekked to the
remnants of ancient civilizations where I strolled among the gods of
civilizations past. Two young Mexican men who lived near the orphanage
professed their love for me, although I suspect that one of them mostly
wanted his green card.
Four days after sitting under The Twins and that
midnight sky, I drove into L.A. assured that La Gloria and I finally would
be on equal footing; that she can’t deny me the heritage that is mine as
much as hers. I am the girl of my childhood and this woman, too. I didn’t
need MEChA to find myself; I’d found myself out in the world on my own.
I am thin from my nine months in the orphanage the day I
walk into Aunt Sylvia’s house for the first time in several years the day
of my uncle’s big party. I bring pottery as gifts and wear a woven dress
with an embroidered bodice hand stitched by an Oaxacan woman who sat in
the marketplace with a child to her breast. I think I smell chocolatl, but
it is only my memories of the orphanage. I rub my arms self-consciously
and think I feel the dust of Las Pulgitas there. I wonder if the tortillas
they’ll serve will be homemade.
My nearly blind grandmother, Remedio, is in the living
room and I greet her in perfect Spanish. My grandmother calls me "preciosa"
as she always has each of her nineteen granddaughters. I notice that the
two-tone green carpet is gone. Aunt Sylvia had the wood floors redone and
they gleam. The velvet Elvis paintings are gone, too. My father, still in
his workshirt, brags about how I speak Spanish better than he does now and
his eyes brim with tears. My mother beams in the corner, cheeks flushed
pink. My great uncle Beto lets out a long, low whistle.
Hugging a tía here, a niece there, I make my way to La
Gloria, whose surprised eyebrows arch even higher than normal. She still
has on her button-up uniform blouse from the Hi-Lo Drug store with "Gloria
T" embroidered in red on the front. I notice that she’s going a little
easier on the eyeliner these days. I stop in front of her and try to
smile. My stomach flip flops as Gloria surveys me critically. She gives a
quick nod and I say something witty in Spanish. The boy cousins laugh.
Gloria takes a swig of the Budweiser in her hand and we both feel the
weight of the hushed silence as our aunts and uncles and nephews and
nieces and cousins watch us. Gloria’s eyes narrow like a trapped animal.
I am just about to say something else, something
non-threatening, when her boldly painted eyes flash bright with victory
and I know for half a second how she must have looked at the MEChA meeting
so long ago, the reigning Chicana queen of our junior high school.
"Gloria…" I say.
"Who is this?" she butt in, her voice a little too loud.
"La conquistadora? The queen of Spain?" The cousins snicker while La
Gloria continues. "Our San Fernando Valley Spanish not good enough for Ms.
College Graduate, Miss Orphanage Worker? To hell with this. Let’s play
She turns to my sister. "Hey! Nettie! Get me another
And Nettie does.
Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Diana Griego Erwin’s
work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times,
the San Francisco Chronicle, The Sacramento Bee, the
Orange County Register and other publications. While working on
fiction, she still writes three commentary columns each week, work that
recently won the 2001 Best of the West competition; the California
Newspaper Publishers Association has voted her column the state’s best
four times. Her work also has appeared in Best Newspaper Writing
and America’s Best Newspaper Writing. A native Californian, she was
born in suburban Los Angeles in 1959.