My grandma died this week and my feelings are in a hell of a mess; I can’t seem to focus on anything without thinking about the next task, the next thought, the next pain.
My abuelita was one of the sweetest characters you would ever want to meet, she was like the old school madres that those mariachis are always singing and paying tribute to. The madrecita’s of the Cine Mexicano era, the golden ages of cinematografia in Mexico when Pedro Infante and Maria Felix ruled the silver screen.
These women sometimes seem to be figments of a creative imagination: women who never anger, who silently carry their pain deep inside like a chastity belt for the heart, whose only purpose in life is to nurture and care for their young.
But my Abuelita was one of these mythical women. Not once did I see her scowl in anger, raise her hand at us, or yell a much deserved canijos at us. She always had a complacent smile on her face as she saw us play in her apartment on Union Ave. Even when my cousin and I went exploring behind the murphy bed that eventually came crashing down in the living room floor and caused my grandfather’s wheelchair to spill out over it- she didn’t say more than, “Hay mijitos, tengan cuidado. Se van a descalabrar.” If it had been our own mami’s queridas, they would have thrashed our hide with their chancla faster than we could say “Chin!”
Thinking of her makes me realize how lucky I was to have that juxtaposition of women in my life- my abuelita, always kind and carefree- and my own mother who had to deal with the burden of raising five kids. Sangre es sangre, right? You can’t walk away from sangre, because it eventually calls you back when you start to drain of your spirit and start looking like a palida pocha. That’s how I feel. I feel both sides, the old me and the new me, pulling at me and staking a claim; fighting for the right to coexist inside my heart, if that is even possible.
You see, lately I have been thinking a lot about when I was a chavelita. When I was a tough girl from the hood that had to stand her own during the solitary walks to and from school. The cultivated hard stare and stance that I would pull over like a cape falling on my shoulders to protect me from the malvados that would roam Cesar Chavez Ave, looking for girls like me- young and with no one to turn to when they slowed their pick up trucks alongside of me. “Shhhtt, Shhht.” They would start quietly at first, slowing to a crawl a few feet behind me- making the little hairs on the back of my neck prick up. Then they would hang their stupid cabezas out the door and start calling out to me as if I would be stupid enough to take their ride. A rage, an ugly built up rage would boil inside of me; I could feel my fists curl up tight- my fingernails digging deep into my skin to keep the rage at bay. Every muscle in my body would tense and I would keep walking as I kept an eye at the bastard bothering me and another eye scanning the street for an easy getaway. Most of the time they would let me be if I just walked faster and remained silent with my eyes staring into the distance straight ahead. But you always had those stupid pinche men that would want to push it further- the ones that parked their cars and would start following me. So many thoughts would run through my head as I prepared to run, mapped out my escape route in my head, man! I’m only 12, what do you want with me?? Can’t you bother the readily available and willing high school girls that would hang out at Evergreen park? But I kept silent and bolted just as I saw even a hint of ill motion towards me.
Why do I think of these memories now? Because I wonder what my own abuelita went through in her youth back in Colima and Michoacan- lands that I barely know and only as a tourist at that. I feel like she is taking a piece of the prologue of my life with her, and I have no way of recovering those pages. But today when I gathered with my entire family: my dad, my mom, siblings, primos and primas, tios and tias, and relatives I didn’t even know I had- I felt something within me crack open.
I’m a woman of extremes and I know it- I’m either all in or out the door without a second look back. Lately, and by that I mean the last few years, I have pulled away from my past and everything and everyone associated with it. It’s an easy way to deal with the pain- to do what I have always done to survive, moving forward no matter the weight dragging me down. But inside I’m still Susie, I’m still La Honey, I’m still an East Los girl. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been a gang banger nor joined a clica; La Honey was just a name for that girl that wanted to be hard and tough so badly. The most chola I ever was, was the Jordana honey colored lipliner that I would trace around my lips in the morning before school and that you better believe I would rub off after 6th period P.E. class, lest my mother whip my ass into a new shape. But the streets of Boyle Heights, East L.A., and Westlake shaped part of who I am, along with the summer stays in Chihuahua with my paternal abuelito, and my upbringing in a hardworking laborer Catholic family.
That past left some scars and crutches that I have been able to slowly recover from- emotional trauma from the streets and a cultural divide that made me feel alien when I wasn’t with my own kind- mi gente. My answer to fit into this new mold was to leave the past in the rear view mirror and focus on the present and future of my two little girls. I focused so much on shielding them from having to grow up too fast that I completely pushed that identity away from them.
And now, today, as I sit here reflecting on my abuelita;s funeral and everyone that loves her- I question what I have done. Which side has won the battle inside my heart? Can I balance those two identities to mold a new Susana? I don’t know but I have to say that La familia has a way of reeling you back in and making you feel like you fit. No need to enunciate the words correctly or worry if you are using a word in its proper context- you just fall into place. And that’s what my grandma wanted; for us to come together and be strong together as a unit.
Thank you Abuelita for giving me not quite an answer but a beginning to a new sense of self. I can’t stop thinking of your sweet smile that warms the soul; I want to bathe in it for as long as I can. You have become part of my cape now, protecting and watching over me, your firm grasp on my shoulder cooling my anger down…