Remember the time you thought you bit into a dismembered finger?
Remember how your eyes got all big and scared, and you looked up at your mom wondering if it was a trick or something? Like, a test. In your panic, you asked yourself: Is this what it felt like when an Aztec priest raised his head to the Sun and bit down on the flesh of the sacrificed? Is this how you prove to yourself and the world that you’re the real deal? But, as your tongue explored the horror in your mouth, you realized it was just a chunk of limón that got lost in the pollo asado street taco.
And when you swallowed the limón, you felt tough—and relieved that you didn’t blow chunks in front of your mom. Because you just know that she would have sneered and asked whether you wouldn’t have preferred a hamburger.
And then that time, on the way home from middle school, when Roberto, Manuel, David, and Mario said your sister was a total puta. You made sure to leave your book bag—the sketch blue Converse tote with all the holes—safely on the porch before you walked back out into the street, alone, and started throwing. You and Manuel got all tangled up, holding each other’s collars y tirando chingazos until the left sides of your faces swelled up like you were hockey players. As if any Chicano kid ever played hockey, right?
You traded right fists in front of everyone, both of you knowing you were on a one-way slide to hell until someone tapped out—and then, thank god, Manuel started to cry and Roberto and David and Mario were too scared to jump you because they saw the death in your eyes. You waited, wanted, for one of them to come at you because then, and only then, would you become someone to be reckoned with. Only then would you be authentic.
Sometimes still, decades later, you find yourself sitting quietly, fingers twitching, waiting for them to come.
Do you remember in high school, when Mikey picked you up to go out and get wrecked, but he had to step into the house first so your mom could look him over? Mikey yes-ma’amed and no-ma’amed her like a good whiteboy, so much like Eddie Haskell that you got embarrassed for him, and then on the way to the car yelled all loud Duuude! You’re fucking Mexican? and you could hear your mom and sister choking from laughter inside the house.
You got extra-wrecked that night.
And then in college, when your professor said, with pity in his eyes, that maybe you didn’t have the aptitude for advanced scholarship—despite the fact that you had straight As and had made sure to never, ever, talk like you did at the bus stop or 7-Eleven or cruising El Camino with Raúl and Paloma, and took care to put all the right endings on the words and make them sound like carefully stacked wooden blocks and not like the sharp-fanged serpents they really were. You wanted to grab ese pinche pendejo by the tie and give him a proper, Prague-style defenestration. Cold self-interest, not mercy, stayed your hand.
Murder would have almost certainly reflected poorly on your grad-school applications.
And then that time your boss said that you had all the tools and were sooo well-spoken, but sometimes…you know, that look on your face, it’s so threatening.
By then, you were old enough to know: Act like you’re listening, stay quiet, and go deep—so far under that your ears pop and his voice sounds like it’s coming from far away, distant enough to let you reflect on how your mother never prepared you for this. Shit like this was always her problem, you tell yourself, her burden, her cross.
Crouched in the hallway, your child-self catches a glimpse, through the crack of the door that’s been left ajar, of your mother crying on her bed, her face twisted in rage at what the white men did to her again—the ogling, the whispering, the extra work, late nights, weekends, the Alma-we-need-you-to-translate-this-into-Spanish-by-tomorrow-c’mon-be-a-sport-you’re-the-only-one, and the dog shit left on her desk chair when she wouldn’t agree to a date with her supervisor.
Which one was it this time, Mami?
And if your boss could make you—you: tall, light-skinned, all the benefits of maleness and, by accident, whiteness—feel so utterly worthless, so…alien, then how could your mother have done it for so long before going mad, before she was found wandering dark streets in her nightgown, lost and saying she had to get to work, where she was needed, where she belonged?
Do you even have a right to feel anger, to feel the blood turn to acid in your veins, like a xenomorph, ready to explode and burn everything around you into sizzling oblivion?
And then you remember the street taco, the chunk of limón, the stinging thickness of it sliding down your throat.
The swallowing of your pride, the bulge of it in your neck, the pain of the stretching muscles burning into you a glittering hope that, if you can get this down without dying, you will be real.