One Nail Take Out Another Nail
There were many things unfamiliar to us in the big city. For eight years we’d known nothing but the sandy roads where my brothers and I spent countless hours making up imaginary games; long stretches of shrub and snake-infested woods we’d walk through to collect drinkable water from the local well; friendships no further than our own home; the one bedroom whitewashed house with dark brown trimming we all shared; and the harmonious choir-practicing my sisters did in front of the mirror with their hairbrushes. Our lives in McCook were quite simple.
Everyone in our ranch went to the same schools, as well as the same church, grocery stores, retail centers, and park in the town of Edinburg, about an hour away. For our Christmas shows at McCook Elementary local farm workers, mostly Mexicans, including my parents, and farm owners, mostly white, shared the same cafetorium where their kids normally ate lunch, to watch the simple plays put together by teachers like Ms. Keller and Ms. Valdez. One year I was a care bear and my only line was to say C is for caring. After much stuttering and panicked sweating I managed to get the words out of my mouth and nervously knelt on the stage where my teachers had told me to. For these special occasions my mother would bring sugar cookies as her contribution to the pot luck feastings, but rarely touched any of the offerings set out by any of her neighbors. We were all much too timid to eat amongst our better off neighbors and bosses, after all these were the ladies that paid my mother $15 a day to clean their homes.
I’d never seen a person of color outside of white and brown in the Valley, not even on television since we mostly watched Little House on the Prairie, The Visitors and cartoons like Thunder Cats and He-Man in those days, as well as my parents’ telenovelas like Rosa Salvaje and Quinceañera. Songs by Madonna and Whitney Houston are what my teenage sisters would sing around the house, although the rest of us hadn’t a clue who these people were – we just liked listening to them and thought some of the lyrics were catchy. In a lot of ways they were our connection to the outside world since they were then attending junior high in Edinburg with teens from other little ranches and the town itself. We looked up to them. We envied them. We thought they were so cool, and we waited for the day when we’d have the chance to travel into town everyday, even if it was only for school.
Sometimes semi-trucks full of cantaloupes and watermelons would show up on their way to drop off their cargo to the farmers’ cows and we’ve waive them down until they stopped and let us pick out some of the fruit for ourselves. My brother would climb the semi and throw down melons for the rest of us to catch and place inside the potato sacks our mother had rushed over. We’d then have sweets for days.
At the Bali Hai Apartments, though, we had many different kids to play with, lots of channels to watch, this new snack called a sandwich we could easily make ourselves, as many of them as we wanted, a little old lady who lived in apartment number one and sold us Mexican candies as cheap as five cents each, even an Asian neighbor in one of the apartments upstairs. To get to Pilgrim Elementary, which used a panda as its mascot, my mother would walk my brothers and me almost two miles to the school and wave at us from across the street as the crossing guard safely guided us past the black chain linked fence. In the afternoons we’d walk ourselves home past several apartment buildings and houses, across the acres of abandoned land, through the makeshift trails made by the people from our own apartments walking back and forth, until we finally met my mother on the other side of the trails. She was always there without failure.
Where and when I saw a black person for the first time I don’t recall, although it must have been pretty uneventful since no recollection of it comes to mind. Our concerns were much more focused on adjusting to our new lives and we had learned enough at school to know that people of color, no matter how light or dark, all shared many of the same struggles. There was much more awe in playing Carmen Sandiego on an actual computer for the first time in my life than anything else, as there was in wondering what people did during the day in those big skyscrapers my mom and sisters would clean in the evenings. When we’d got to pick them up after work in my dad’s truck I’d run around the buildings pressing my face against the glass windows to see what was inside until he’d yell at me to come back. Desks, computers, notepads, telephones, and the occasional picture frame and flowers are what I’d mostly find, yet my curiosity was never satisfied.
Eventually to pass the time my brother and I would head to The Galleria with our newfound friends from Bali Hai. Big shirts and big pants were the style in the early 90’s and that’s what we’d wear to fit in. This choice of clothing also came very handy when we decided to start taking what we wanted from the mall without paying for it. We’d grab a handful of shirts from the rack, head into the dressing room, rip off their tags, put on as many shirts as we could under own shirts, and walk out of the store nonchalantly hoping not to get caught. It was a rush unlike anything we’d ever felt playing in the sand in McCook, and it made us feel all grown up.
We were poor and we knew it. Even though we weren’t living in McCook anymore and our parents could afford to buy us more of the things we wanted, our family was still the type of family people handed down clothes and food to and felt sorry for. All those mouths to feed, pobrecitos…people would say and think. You could see it in their eyes even if they never vocalized it. The funny thing is it was the same look we’d gotten in Edinburg when we’d go shopping, a trail of kids behind my mother, only here it hurt and made us feel less adequate. Shoplifting was our way of fighting back against the stigma of being poor! It wasn’t right, but in the moment it felt great.