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Diana Griego Erwin

Arched Eyebrows

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, Lara, 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 cobblestone plaza.

"Who?" she asked.

"La Gloria."

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 right away.

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 Chicanas.

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 Spanish.

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 21."

She turns to my sister. "Hey! Nettie! Get me another beer, girl."

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.

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