Around 4pm on Sunday afternoon, I gave my aunt Susanna a little wave and she waved right back, even offering a trace of a smile. But she was in great pain. It just wasn’t a good day for her. Most times she would rally, and she’d be lucid, funny and fiercely specific.
By 11am on Monday, we were given the news she had passed away. Not even 24 hours.
That’s the simplicity of life and death.
It is safer and easier for me to retreat onto a blank page, but not so easy to fill this space. Is it enough to say that I feel too much? My aunt Susanna was fond of saying “I love you too much.” Is anything ever too much?
We have lost a woman who was more than an aunt to my siblings and I. She was our second mother.
I just know I wanted a little bit more time. We all wanted a little bit more time. Knowing someone you love is going to be gone soon offers little consolation. We were told “two weeks to two months.”
Susanna lived for us for one more week.
That’s all she could give. And we are forever grateful. She was a strong-willed woman. That strength is now passed on to us, her legacy.
My friend and colleague John wrote to me, “Too many strong, beautiful women have left us this year.”
As I drove to work this AM, one of my favorite songs, “This Woman’s Work” came on my iPod. Hearing Kate Bush’s lyrics interpreted and given a striking context by Maxwell gave my feelings a new landscape to roam. I cried, I sang, I felt and loved too much all over again.
I’m sure as these days lead up to her memorial and burial, we will continue to feel too much. Feel and love, because that’s all that matters right now.
Tuesday, September 30.
“This Woman’s Work”
Written by Kate Bush — Performed by Maxwell
Pray God you can cope.
I stand outside this woman’s work,
This woman’s world.
Ooh, it’s hard on the man,
Now his part is over.
Now starts the craft of the father.
I know you have a little life in you yet.
I know you have a lot of strength left.
I know you have a little life in you yet.
I know you have a lot of strength left.
I should be crying, but I just can’t let it show.
I should be hoping, but I can’t stop thinking
Of all the things I should’ve said,
That I never said.
All the things we should’ve done,
That we never did.
All the things I should’ve given,
But I didn’t.
Oh, darling, make it go,
Make it go away.
Give me these moments back.
Give them back to me.
Give me that little kiss.
Give me your hand.
(I know you have a little life in you yet.
I know you have a lot of strength left.
I know you have a little life in you yet.
I know you have a lot of strength left.)
I should be crying, but I just can’t let it show.
I should be hoping, but I can’t stop thinking
Of all the things we should’ve said,
That were never said.
All the things we should’ve done,
That we never did.
All the things that you needed from me.
All the things that you wanted for me.
All the things that I should’ve given,
But I didn’t.
Oh, darling, make it go away.
Just make it go away now.
Mi nombre es Jorge. En el barrio de mi nacimiento, todavía soy “George,” pero ya no me identifico come ese muchacho del ayer. Soy Jorge, pero no soy el original. Yo soy el segundo Jorge porque llevo ell nombre de mi padre. Mi madre quería llamarme Alejandro pero nací para llevar la marca de ser el primer hombre en una familia sencilla. El orgullo me nombró, no la poesía o el romance.
Llevar el nombre de mi padre tiene una gran responsabilidad. Como todas las cosas buenas, los griegos inventaron “Jorge.” Per mis padres Jorge y Lilia Carreón Ramirez crearon esta versión. El origen de mi nombre representa lo que es un granjero o una persona que cultiva la tierra. Ni siquiera puedo cuidar una planta. Sin embargo, esto me dirige a usar una metáfora. Las palabras son lo que yo cultivo porque soy periodista. Yo cuento las historias de personas que tú conoces para ver en la tele o leer en la Internet. Creo que eso me hace un granjero de los medios.
Siendo el segundo Jorge de mi familia es una historia diferente, una historia que no llevo a contar al mundo. Nunca pensé que mi padre y yo teníamos muchas características en común. Siempre estuvimos en una guerra de ideología. Ahora soy mayor y empiezo a darme cuenta de lo que tenemos en común. Como la mayoría de los hombres latinos, vivimos en nuestros recuerdos. Es como si fuéramos granjeros cultivando la tierra que da vida a nuestro´árbol genealógico.
Ahora mi padre está enfermo. Su mente está borrándose lentamente en una manera insidiosa. Un día no voy a ser el segundo Jorge, pero el primero. Es por eso que tengo que recordar todo relacionado con él y con nosotros. Porque ser Jorge es mas que compartir el mismo nombre de mi padre. Ser Jorge es vivir como el conservador de la historia de mi familia.
Porque anoche, al final de la fiesta de cumpleaños de mi hermana mayor, mi padre se olvidó de mi por la primera vez. Me dio su mano, como si yo fuera un desconocido, no su hijo mayor, no el que lleva su nombre. En ese momento, si cambio todo porque reconocí que sí, mi nombre contiene poesía y romance.
Porque llegó el día de ser Jorge el primero.
Domingo 28 de septiembre 2014. En mi casa en South Pasadena, CA
My name is Jorge. People still call me “George,” especially in the neighborhood where I grew up, located in the shadow of downtown Los Angeles. I’m Jorge, but I’m not the First. I am the Second Jorge because I carry my father’s name, a junior version. My mom wanted to name me “Alejandro,” but I was born to carry the name of our patriarch, the first boy born of immigrants in their new country. Pride named me, not a sense of poetry or romance.
To carry your father’s name is a huge responsibility. Like all good things on this earth, it was the Greeks who invented Jorge. But my parents, Jorge and Lilia Carreon Ramirez, created this version. The origin of my name is supposed to mean “farmer” or a person who cultivates the ground. I can’t even take care of a plant. Regardless, this does lead me to use a metaphor. I cultivate words and images because I am a journalist. I tell the stories about people you know to watch on TV or read on the Internet. Maybe that makes me a farmer with the media as my expanse of land to nurture?
Being Jorge the Second is a different story, one I never intended to tell to the world. Not really. Yet reasons exist why I can admit that I never thought my father and I had much in common. We were always locked in a battle of ideology. Now that I am older, I see what we do share and it is more than the name. Like all Latino men, we live in our memories. It is as if we are a special brand of cultivators, tasked with the preservation of our family trees.
My father has Alzheimer’s. His mind is slowly being erased in the most insidious manner. Since the day he was diagnosed, I knew that at some point I would no longer be Jorge the Second, but the First. That is why I have to record all that is Us before his files are completely emptied of data.
Because being Jorge is not just sharing the same name.
Being Jorge is living as the chief chronicler of my family.
Because last night, at the end of my older sister’s birthday party, my father forgot who I was to him.
He offered me his hand to shake, smiling and saying “It was nice meeting you.” Sure, it was a polite and friendly gesture. He meant it. That was the version of Jorge for when he met people he liked. But it was more than that, because I recognized that my name does carry poetry and romance.
Last night, I became Jorge the First.
Sunday, September 28. Posted in Spanish and English from Wayne Avenue Manor in South Pasadena, CA
They are known as Las Hermanas Coraje, two sisters who share one wicked heart. They are a perfect Cat 5 storm, with a swirling eye powered by malice, lies and unmitigated rage. So pure is their misery, they will destroy everything in their wake, especially if it involves your being — gasp! — happy!
The younger sister lived in her spacious, made to order home in a land known for its arid and beige cloistered privacy. She took flight to this aspirational hamlet, putting as much distance as she could between her carefully curated life and her secret shame. She didn’t want anyone to know that she came from a world of immigrants parents, homeboy relatives and an iron maiden grandmother who spoke no English.
She wasn’t “nacida corriente” or “naca.” She was The Girl with Olive Skin, almost Mediterranea if you will. She had to have the right schools, the right friends, the right life she felt was her true birthright at any cost. Her family’s economic and social status be damned. She refused the middle class nightmare sustained by a coarse but charming father who ran a carpeting business, one he ran into the ground. She’d be damned if she ever let the evils of shag carpet ruin her destiny of blond wood floors and golf trips.
She would heed the lessons of a cold, embittered mother and rise above her station in life to marry a blue-eyed savior. She would fight to wear reversible down vests, ones that could cover up any signs of a past she buried. She would never dare to love her husband or anyone else for that matter. How could she? That would require a heart. And she would never risk having a forgiving or open heart because that would make her vulnerable to the world. And vulnerable meant weak.
The older sister was a professional spinster, a tender heart since corrupted by the toxic build up of failed relationships, duplicitous men and dreams unrealized. She just wanted to be loved, to hold the attention of those in her presence, and abjectly terrified of being forgotten.
She turned to the fantasy of acting because she needed an escape from an unfeeling mother who made her feel like she was less than of a woman, but more a misguided and silly girl. She wanted to shine in the eyes of someone as her own derisive father would joke she was better off being a nun. It was her piety that gave her strength to create the greatest role of her life after running away from the confines of a crumbling family unit.
She would see the world through a camera lens, documenting world history by joining the military. But when she came home, she discovered that she still couldn’t stand center stage. She remained a bit player, despite her many accomplishments. She was still being overshadowed by most members of her family. How ironic that she would foster a career of bit parts that mirrored aspects of her real life.
She had become a punchline for late-night television, walking on as a maid, a role her own mother took on after the family hit a serious financial downturn. The older sister couldn’t overcome being part the background, toiling as a glorified extra on daytime soap operas, always hungry for a chance to be on the other side of a camera. She created the illusion of honing her craft. Yet, what she was really doing was stewing in the juices of bubbling discontent, waiting for the moment to unleash her most God-less self against a world that refused to acknowledge she existed.
Caught in between these desperate women was their only brother who strived to be a duplicate of the man whose name he carried. He existed as a text book case of arrested development. He may have inherited his father’s desire to tell a story, yet he did so with none of the macho swagger and charm that made Dad a legend within the family.
Despite his broad build, he struggled under the weight of his father’s legacy. He dreamed of a house by the sea, of an idealized singleton life and national media attention. Yet despite his being humbled by the racial politics of his career, he settled for an idealized, yet ultimately carbon copy of his parents’ life. The house by the sea was decidedly inland and he was marooned by his own inability to mature. This was a man who chose being kept by his mother and sisters from evolving into manhood in the name of protecting the peace.. and his own sanity. They carried his balls in their sensible bags and he did nothing to get them back. Even cats called him a pussy.
These are the major players. These are the central roles in a drama that unfolds with increasing venom and selfishness. Am I embellishing any of this? That’s for me to know. But I have no interest in protecting the innocent as they are anything but deserving of protection at this point. I have been struggling to find a way to unburden myself of how I feel about my family of late. Not my immediate family, my extended family. Tough times are being experienced by the people I care about. We have reached an age where we are losing people closest to us. Cancer. Alzheimer’s. Age. Mothers. Fathers. Brothers. Sisters. Uncles. Aunts. Cousins. Everyone I love. Life and death are happening to all of us and these assholes are actually fighting for screen time?
I’ve stopped and started this post so many times. I was just too angry to write and I never intended to turn this into a burn book. But, I hate having to reaffirm the truth that people genuinely suck. And nothing feels worse than having that validated by the people you call your “family.” Some of these people are just cartoon characters to me, variations of the wicked stepsisters or, more appropriately, the screeching viragos found in the Mexican telenovela.
If I close my eyes hard enough, I can see the humor of what we are living out these days. I see the wicked machinations of a Robin Wright in “House of Cards” or a Joan Collins in “Dynasty.” I have always praised such calculated deviousness as the best in high art or Nolan Miller-dressed camp. But when it is happening in real life to people you know, suddenly having a bust and truck version of Lady Macbeth or a Soraya Montenegro in your midst is both sad, enraging and mystifying all at once.
In this week’s episodes, las hermanas y hermano Coraje wanted to make sure they aren’t lost in the swell of emotion as their aunt bravely fights cancer. One marriage is in trouble and they have taken to broadcasting their malice in the most extraordinary way. Hermano C, who during a brief visit to see his dying tia, made sure to tell his grief-stricken tio that he’s disappointed she’s chosen the side of his soon-to-be estranged wife?
It isn’t that any of us wants to have to choose a side, but that became an inevitability. They forced our hand as a result of his actually pulling focus away from the gravity of our aunt’s situation. What is appalling and what is so disappointing is: 1) the manner in which he’s chosen to handle his failing marriage, and, 2) the fact that he thinks this is the time to issue ultimatums on family loyalty. What. The. Fuck!
Meanwhile, las hermanas are in the background, stirring the pot like the witches in some demented coven. They have sprung from a special hell to unload the same message of enforced distancing to their nieces, who are also their goddaughters. All I can do is shake my head over their recent phone calls, peppered with such overripe dialogue as, “I choose to have only positive energy around me now!” or “I’m cutting out the negative people in my life!” Again, how is it you can make such calls, which were supposedly made in the name of support, only to turn the entire conversation around to focus on you and your needs? All the while your nieces’ mother is fighting for her life in the next room?!?
But the worst part of this? The B plot, where las hermanas Coraje maneuver and plot the destruction of their brother’s marriage. This is where my cousin in-law needs to take a page from the Katie Holmes Playbook. Lord knows La Prima Coraje has been trying to repair whatever damage has been caused to her union with The Ball Less Wonder, her husband. But with the sisters in-law Grimm making sure every off-ramp leading to sanity is razed, La Prima Coraje is running out of reasons to stay. Don’t miss this episode recap, where the younger Hermana Coraje (with her frigid husband in tow) take Hermano C to a divorce lawyer without his wife’s knowledge! Oh, and you’ll thrill to the cameo appearance of the elder Hermana Coraje, who makes sure to phone in to this pow wow so she can contribute her thoughts via speaker! And, wait until you see the scenes for next week, when las hermanas counsel their hermano to, yes, text his ex-girlfriends.
As one side of my family prepared itself for the loss of a parent, the other side of the same family flaunted the loss of their compassion and sanity. Somewhere in all of this, my immediate family is in the middle. Apparently they preferred to dwell on how everyone decided to choose sides, a state of affairs the saddened me to no end. Because it didn’t have to turn into this. From the conversations that I’ve had with my younger cousins, who are also my goddaughters, it appears we are part of the problem for being “negative people.”
I have run all of this information in my mind without pause. And I think I understand why Los Coraje feel the way they do. It isn’t the negative that they want to excise. It is the fact that we represent the truth about who they are, of their humble, complex origins. They are terrified that we will expose them. As if we would dare to pull the curtain on their Oz-like fantasy. Don’t they realize we don’t care about the positions they hold in this world? If they stopped to think about it, we are actually proud over how they took negative circumstances and turned them into positives. But they are hell bent in keeping up appearances, surrounding themselves with people who only feed their delusion. Syncophants, yes people, and minions who do their bidding because that’s the way they’ve always lived their tragic, small, human lives.
I know my family can be a very meddlesome unit. I don’t know how it is in your other tribes, but mine can be a smidge overwhelming. Everyone has an opinion and it doesn’t matter the topic, either. From the outside, it can appear that we are rather antagonistic. Plenty of button pushing goes on this group, but there’s never any malicious intent. I like to think my parents created a nation of too many chiefs and not enough indians, but that’s another story.
We are not always acting at fever pitch, screaming, “Sergio! Sueltame! Esta es mi hacienda!” or “Largase de aqui, babosa!” or “Vieja zorra! Te voy a dar una paliza que nunca vas a olvidar!” We have never resorted to pulling hair, slapping each other silly or plotting to destroy the Carrington family once and for all. Apparently, some of us do see the world in such terms. But my extended family has turned what should have been a defining moment into something thattrivializes their humanity in the process. Here the sins of their parents have been internalized and manifested into something beyond cruel and narcissistic.
We will never know the truth behind any one family’s dysfunction. But I know enough of their complicated family history to postulate my own hypothesis. They are the perfect Orwellian family in that they have perfected their abilities to maintain a revisionist history. They have invested so much of their emotional energy in keeping up their narrative, they really can’t discern between truth and lies anymore.
Is it my place to put all of this down in black and white? No, but I’m doing it anyway. I have always been the one to defend them, to not let the animosity boil over, to try and meet them halfway. But I can’t do it anymore. When you say the word “family” in the Latinx context, it encompasses a large number of people. I still see them as my family, even with this line drawn in the sand.
They can declare that we are all just jealous and envious of their material lives. Yet, they can’t ignore the facts. My father helped them when their father needed assistance. My uncle took them in when they had nowhere else to go, offering shelter at great sacrifice to his own family. We were there when their father died without fail or judgment. We were there when their grandmother died, a woman who either ignored us or kept us at arm’s length when we were children. I delivered her eulogy, even though my own heart was conflicted. Why would we as jealous or envious people EVER take such steps to help them? Yet, the damage is done. All that self-editing has taken a personal angle. We are being erased, too.
I can list so much more, but I won’t. It doesn’t matter. They’d deny it anyway. I have already validated their perceptions of being negative at this point. We’ve lost them, probably for good this time. But I don’t want any of us to forget what made this entire family split in two, especially them. All we can do now is accept the terms of the dissolution, move on and stop these ridiculous confrontations. No one is going to win. There are no spoils to reap. We are going to lose something that is going to matter in the end. The question is who will be the ones strong enough to stand in the middle again because you know how life can be. Sooner or later, they will need us. And I am certain some, not all, will be there to lend them a hand.
We all need a moment to step and back see the big picture. We are losing one of our own in the most awful way as cancer doesn’t give a shit if a family is fighting. We were supposed to be better than this. Better than our parents. Better than the dominant culture that has warped our basic values and morals. Just better, period. Instead we have turned ourselves into something so shameful.
Being part of a strong family is such a gift. I couldn’t survive this world without my family, here and in Mexico. They are my reason to live. Because that is how I have been raised to believe. My siblings and I may have our moments, but we’ve never plotted against each other. But let’s just say, we may need to do some rewrites, too.
In the meantime, I am going to ponder how these days will affect the next generations. That’s going to be interesting, how the children of the Corajes will grow up after witnessing their parents’ own sizzling narratives. I already have my bag of popcorn ready, because you know it’s going to be good.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
— Leo Tolstoy
I am writing out of pure emotion right now. I may have reason to regret the public airing of my own state, so I won’t mention names. Nor will I draw attention to specific details. I just don’t want to feel this anger anymore.
It is not acceptable to say, “I don’t care” or “Fuck them.” But I am pissed. So pissed. Angry over how family history is repeating itself. Furious that the middle generation of cousins and siblings have let a situation escalate to a crisis point. Now we have factions. Now we have “sides.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. As children, we saw what happened when pride and spite created a divide large enough we didn’t see each other for years.
Bearing a grudge is such low hanging fruit to me. But amazing how it nourished some of our kin with its attractive pettiness. We gained nothing from this period. We only lost something that could have been so wonderful. Was it a misunderstanding? Was it jealousy? I just remember hearing the anger pour forth from people that we loved and supposedly loved us back. I was under our dining room table, scared and surprised over what was happening. A door slammed that day, one that didn’t open again until I was in high school.
Now, I realize the long term effects of that horrible day. Not only did we gain the knowledge on how to stir the pot, we learned how to scorch the entire set. And I worry there is no repair this time. That pride and spite have returned in worse forms. Even more, I can’t help but think that the increasing visibility of our anger is paving the way for the grandchildren to take up the cause.
“Family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go according to any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds, they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material.”– F. Scott Fitzgerald
Do we even know what “the fight” is about anymore? If we have a conflict without context, then who really “wins?” We are aware multiple perspectives and truths are required to create a complete narrative. I know a lot of information is missing here. I have so many questions, yet I know I may never get the answers in return. How can one person’s rage be held so long? Why would anyone desire to create misery? To assuage their own guilt? To remedy what they feel has been denied them?
If all of this adds up to them saying, “Fuck you! I want nothing to do with you anymore,” then say so. I would respect that. At least it is a declarative sentence. It is the resolution of this ridiculous conflict and we can all move on with our lives. But as long as it remains a game of chess, of moves and countermoves driven by smugness then the silences, it will only add further layers of confusion and emotion. Or, as in my case, a chance to remedy it by finally speaking up.
People know I can’t leave things alone. I need a resolution. I firmly believe in the innate good that exists in us all, especially within a family. If we let any one member walk away without a fight, we stand to lose so much, especially when we are dealing with only wounded pride. That’s what fuels this entire conflict. Hurt feelings and what appears to be misplaced blame. Guess what? We are ALL to blame here.
What is saddening me even more is how this toxic cloud of shit has spread into other areas of the family.
No family member should ever wield enough power to become a horseman of the apocalypse against their own sibling. No one parent should allow their children to hurl brutal recriminations for sport. It’s like a deep rooted scab that’s been pulled because there was nothing else to do that day. Is it possible that we confuse ripping each other apart as being a sign that we truly do care about each other?
I realize that families aren’t perfect. I’ve joked that I like stories that put the “fun” in “dysfunction.” And maybe, there is an element of my own frustrated writer at play here, though some think I am overreacting. I know I’m the last one to even give a shit. And phrases like mosquita muerta or la cara de yo no fue are not funny to me anymore.
What motivated this rant is knowing we are losing one of our most treasured family members to cancer. Fucking cancer! That’s real life and death at its purest and most enraging. How can we allow for any family wars when we are already faced with a casualty? And believe me, there will be consequences to this loss. And there isn’t time to get in those last power plays to make a point, either.
Since I first started to read, no other narrative has resonated with me more than that of the family. From novels to novelas, you can be cradled and nurtured in its bosom or you can wither under its fire-breathing rage. It should be so harmonious, this grouping of genetics. Most of us are brought into this world to represent a legacy of good. It is not just the end result of procreation. It is the want to leave something better behind, to make up for whatever didn’t go right when our parents were young.
Maybe I’m still a child in wanting things to better, naive to think that any of this sound and fury will go heeded. Is it a written tantrum? Perhaps. But there is so much air to clear now. No one has bothered to sit down and try to reconcile, negotiate a truce, remedy the hurt. No one.
I didn’t grow up with grandparents. But I grew up with a history, one that embraces two cultures. Ours is a narrative that understands loss and hardship, like so many other families through the ages. Our hurt is not the first to be felt, nor will it be the last. But I have always taken solace that I am part of something so powerful and ageless. Dammit, I know we weren’t put on this Earth to destroy! So many of us have opted for lives where we can create, whether by having children or simply maintaining a blog as a record of who we were in this life.
Now, life is claiming those we love and need so much of late. Once all the members of the group give up, can anything ever go back to “normal?” I don’t want “normal,” that wouldn’t be “us.” I just want to know we will endure, that we will emerge united and stronger than ever. That we broke this horrible cycle once and for all.
I don’t give a shit if the world implodes on itself. I only care that we will stand together, as a family, when it does.
“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”– Jane Howard
Tuesday, September 23. Written and posted from Wayne Avenue Manor in South Pasadena. CA
“This rock we’re rolling on
Is like a circus ride that don’t last long
Round and round we go and then we’re gone
We waste time chasing ghosts
And overlook the things that matter most
We get so caught up in the maybes
Just trying to be somebody, baby
I was slowly going crazy…”
— Tim McGraw, “Overrated”
KCRW ran a piece on how the concept of “the neighbor” is vanishing because of social media.
I don’t want to think we’ve lost the meaning of “community.” But it is hard not to say that its redefinition in this digital age feels like a perversion and a travesty. Or is that just my inner curmudgeon speaking out loud? But when I look closely at the world I’ve built for myself, I realize community does exist within us all. I can’t speak for the rest of the city, but I can say, social media or not, I did forget how to recognize the ties that keep us together.
The post-WWII baby boom had given birth to the suburbs, or “bedroom communities.” It was a new take on the concept of “village.” This was a post-modern, self-sustaining utopia where everyone who lived in these manicured hamlets played a role in the sustaining the wellness of the group. These were supposed to be cradles of the new mobility, of front lawns and water sprinklers, of public parks and libraries, schools and pre-schools.
(Sure, the idea of localized commerce, with malls replacing the shopping districts of Main Street, anchored these spaces. I still choose to focus on these being halcyon days, when you could leave your front door open without fear of invasions or coups at the local high school.)
I would often joke that Pico Rivera was the Jewel of the San Gabriel Valley, more out of derision, maybe even ethnic self-loathing. But it was a place where kids rode their bikes and walked around unescorted, predators be damned. Sure, we had the cholo dynasties of Pico Viejo, Pico Nuevo and Rivera 13. But they kept to themselves. Everyone else kept a vigilant eye, Gladys Kravitz style, but no one was really worried. You could spend the night at your friend’s home because your best friend was a local troop Den Mother. You trusted your neighbors, your friends…yourselves. And, the whole family had dinner at the table.
It’s no joke to me now. The punchline seems to be on some of us for chasing the overrated myth of modernity with insidious ease. I know it appears I am under some nostalgic spell at the moment. What’s above is exactly what life was like for me while growing up. It isn’t a distorted view created by a sense of loss or a need for redemption. I don’t regret a single choice I made to achieve my version of the American Dream. But with clarity comes the acceptance that my values were truly adrift. I wasn’t raised to be that person.
My parents, both Mexican immigrants, understood the value of community. They were raised by their families, large units of siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, all blood relations playing a role in their upbringing. But, they were practically alone in the US. At times it felt like “us against the world,” but we flourished under the suburban model of community. My mom was fearless in how she integrated herself into lives of her American-born children outside of the home. She may have finished high school AFTER she had her family, but that didn’t mean education wasn’t a priority. She pulled us out the elementary closest to us because she felt the teachers were not up to par. She then got to know all of our teachers at each level of our education. She helped out as a room mother, befriended the school board. She asked questions as to our progress and the school’s own agenda for the future.
Mom was vigilant as to what we read, watched on our single TV and listened to on the radio. Rarely did she censor our choices. Yet, she kept incredibly current, boy. Of course, my early trajectory as a MediaJor did find me taking a few back streets that she found a bit unsavory:
“No, I shouldn’t be watching “Saturday Night Live” and I won’t explain to you why “Pussy Whip” is a dairy dessert topping for cats.”
“No, you don’t need to read “Valley of the Dolls.” It is not about toys.”
“Yes, Dad threw away your “Rocky Horror Picture Show” picture book. No, I won’t give you money to buy a new one.”
I wasn’t about just reading Nancy Drew books purchased with my allowance, if you get my drift.
I wish my Mom came of age in the blogging era. (Fuck you, Lena Dunham. My Mom would have written circles around you.) To this day, Mom’s devastating insight on the world gives most pundits a run for their money. And not just about what’s happening in the US. She never lost touch with su México lindo y querido. What sets Mom apart is how she embraced the dominant culture of America, something my father never really managed. It was most likely the language and culture as much as Dad’s intractable, very Catholic-Mexican way of viewing his American life. Mom was educated in Texas before heading to LA. Dad came to LA directly from Mexico City, bringing his steel-clad code of values, too. Either way, Mom knew who she was and she knew who she wanted us to be. It didn’t always correspond to Dad’s vision, but they both wisely left the choice of identities up to us. We ultimately became variations of their themes. It was a long process, but the idea of being American and Mexican would take root with most of my siblings. Though, even by today’s multicultural standards, we’re still the whitest Mexicans you will ever know.
I know that how I lived wasn’t the same at every house on the block. In fact, after reading “Peyton Place” at age 11, I realized that the town of Pico Rivera, where I was raised, had its own intrigue and scandal brewing underneath its middle class, Chicano facade. I would love to spill some of the secrets, but I may just save them all for my own version of “Peyton Place” (Pueblo Chico, Infierno Grande has already been taken) in the near future.
Many of my friends had similar lives to mine because we were an aspirational community. Pico was the upgrade from East Los Angeles, were Latinos could partake in the new mobility. Just like just an episode of “The Jeffersons.” But, you could feel the family dynamics were going to shift as we began to improve our economic standing as a minority group.
Without our knowing it, the “Big One” has already hit us Angelenos and the rest of the country. The fissures of the suburban dream widened with the aftershocks of Vietnam, Nixon, the energy crisis, the recession, Carter, Reagan. Pico Rivera was a microcosm of what the rest of the country was experiencing. The concept of “family” was being redefined. As the economy struggled, both parents had to work. Children were being left alone, often in the care of strangers. Worse, it wasn’t just the television that was the nanny, it was the advent of other devices to keep them “occupied” but not “engaged.”
We may have been under the shadow cast by downtown Los Angeles, but we also witnessed how the go-go 80s broke down the family unit. Stay at-home moms like mine became an endangered species. Shit got expensive, no? It wasn’t just about keeping up appearances, either, although that played a vanity role with unfortunate consequences.
It’s funny. My parents still live in the same house in Pico. More than 47 years have passed and I still marvel over how it — like my parents — weather the changes. Continuity has survived in small pockets. Some families have come and gone. Our best neighbors have died or moved away, with some of their kids choosing stay or sell and go.
Businesses have come and gone, but Mario’s Tacos and Casa Garcia show no signs of pulling up stakes anytime soon, even with that interloper King Taco a few block away. (Our nacho and special quesadilla needs are powerful!) And while Omega Burgers and Naugles are no more, McDonald’s has grown to offer three locations. And every other fast food shack has migrated to Pico over the years. It does comfort my arteries some to know that Steak ‘n’ Stein and Dal Rae still offer up top grilled meat at top prices. (Now I can enjoy a Dewar’s and soda to complete the dream.) Amazing how both these restaurants, one is even Zagat rated, exist in an town where every dollar counts in a given house. We were always a town that could EAT.
We were also a town that played under the trees at Smith Park. Some of us chose to read books during the summer reading program at the circular library at Mines Ave. Many of us didn’t let the Huck Finn Day Parade pass us by down Passons Blvd. (Although, it does make you ponder what a bunch of Chicanos had in common with Mark Twain. We did have a few black families, but regardless, it did fade away as a yearly tradition.)
The trees at Smith Park are no more, replaced by added baseball diamonds, a football field, skateboard park and bigger islands of jungle gyms. The circular library is gone, replaced by a gleaming, modern facility that is bigger, but with fewer books and more computer screens. Even my parents’ home has been upgraded to include central air, flat screens and DSL. But it is also a home that has taken in breast cancer and Alzheimer’s. One has left, for good, we hope. The other is a house guest who has entrenched itself for the long haul, robbing my father of all that he remembers of us.
I worry that my own brain will fail me in a haze of dementia. That I will also have a memory like an iPod in shuffle mode, where you hope one clear thought will make its way to the fore. Where you hope the smile on the face of your father is that of his recognizing you as his son, and not just the polite grin hiding the fact he’s forgotten you.
I’ve been making this migration slowly, finding my way back to the center of what should have mattered to me so long ago. Running away to greener pastures is not the answer. I have learned that you create the community you need to sustain you. Where we once we grew up with the kids next door, we now evolve with the people we gather as friends. Where our families fail us, we will find those who play a role in healing what has been broken. I have been lucky to have both in my life, a strong family and strong family of friends.
I think about how America’s penchant for isolationism has taken many forms. We stayed out of wars. We still prefer to ignore other cultures. We ignore each other. We live in a bubble of our own making, even more so as we handpick the moments we want to share online. The irony is we have no filter for the filtered images in our Instalives. We breathlessly await being liked, but prefer the distance provided by the anonymous folks hitting the buttons from afar. We know about their handles, but nothing about the people living next door.
It is easy to denigrate what the Internet has done to us. It has fostered a climate of snark, hate, paranoia and distrust. We are paying a cost for instant communication and unbridled searches for instant knowledge. Yet, I am aware that my support system has been built by harnessing the best of what the Internet can offer, as well as meeting people at what appears to be the most random of circumstances. I question whether or not some of the players in my beautiful ensemble can understand who it is I want to be today.
I used to believe that we don’t evolve, but that’s just magazine speak to keep us buying whatever self-help book is trending at the moment. If they admit people do evolve, these authors would be out of business. We’d accept the changes and not perpetuate the ones that keep us from reaching our fullest potential.
We are living, breathing organisms that are programmed to adapt to the world’s harshest environments. My weeks in Spain were the culmination of a search of self, of re-establishing purpose and finding inspiration to express myself again. Spain was my bid to connect with the world. And while I choose to live in this city of disconnected angles (for now), I have no intention of losing this frequency now. Nor do I want to revert back to type, that overeating gadfly who hid behind his own neuroses.
Whatever its form, I can go home again. And while I may not like the changes that surround my family today, I am very much aware of what counts, of what is true. I want a quieter life. I want to share this quieter life with those that matter to me.
I was told, just before I left for Spain, that I was cluttering my own self with static of my own doing. That when I finally freed myself of this external noise, what would burst forth with be of such clarity, it would finally reveal the truest sense of who I am to the world. I shouldn’t fear this revelation, because people will listen.
You may think I’m grossly generalizing the past. You may think I am way off target. You may prefer to only watch the clip of Tim McGraw. But for whatever moment you spend on this blog, you are part of this community of mine. And I’m glad. Now, sit a spell. Tell me about your day. We don’t know each other? Not a problem. To build a community, you just need to reach out and get to know your neighbor.
“Hello. My name is Jorge…”
Monday, September 22. Written and posted from Wayne Avenue manor in South Pasadena, CA
That Salamancan glow of summer faded too damn fast. Who am I kidding? I let it fade. Instead of just transferring it back home, I sat around with a look of petulance, bemoaning the American Way. Stupid. So stupid.
Once you’re knee deep in your 40s, I think you’re supposed to be painfully aware of the distance between “then” and “now.” By now we should realize our lives are constant examples of forward motion. That is until we allow ourselves the live in a state of arrested development. Remember, I’m just the guy who cain’t let go. Yet, I’m also the guy who will embrace change when I am left with no other recourse.
I left my job during the summer of 2013 to find a better self.
I returned to the classroom in the fall of 2013 to restore a better sense of self by studying Spanish again, this time at East Los Angeles College.
I ventured to Spain in the summer of 2014 to live out loud with what I learned being a student again, continuing my studies at the Pontificia in Salamanca. My self-esteem was in the process of being rebuilt, gaining strength and perspective. My voice was finally registering with so much hope, creating a narrative of optimism.
Then I went home.
I relapsed…no..willingly wallowed into a pit built with self-pity and binge eating.
I’m sitting here in a hotel room in Primm, Nevada. Watching these words flash across the screen, words given power by my hands. All I can think is, “What the fuck is wrong with me?” Why am I still chasing the same damn demons that I’ve let dominate my life since childhood.
I want to be liked.
I want to be pretty.
I want to be skinny.
I want to be happy.
I want…I want…I want. What the hell? What more can I want, Veruca? I have everything! Yet, why is it so hard to say “I have” and acknowledge the good amassed in this last year? Why return to the scene of my crimes against my own humanity?
We are living in a culture that has turned self-reflection into a business. But I think we are deluding ourselves. It is just a different brand of narcissism, this still being unable to be still. As I sit here with my thoughts, so late into the evening, I can’t help but ponder the obvious. It’s the doing that matters, not paying lip service to a dream you’ve opted to stall because you’re so chicken shit. But what happens when you realize you’ve outgrown the dream itself?
I can compose a narrative on a whim, revising it in my brain like a chewed up wad of gum, mulling it over and over until it loses all flavor. As we wade further into September, I am facing a reality I’ve been too afraid to acknowledge.
Maybe it wasn’t about MY being someone. Maybe it is about inspiring someone else to dare to express themselves in a way that affects us ALL in such a profound manner, it prompts change. That’s a dream worth chasing at any cost because it isn’t about me anymore.
I don’t want to see language devolve into statements constructed with 140 characters or less. I don’t want a filtered image on Instagram to be the defining record of our time, an image without context or nuance. I convinced myself to be ashamed that I worked this hard to reach only the middle. Truth be told, not all of us can be LeBron. That lofty status is reserved for those who are truly touched by the hand of God. I represent something between extra and ordinary, like so many of us who have the desire to make our time on Earth matter. It’s about the little legacies we leave behind without fear of judgment that counts. It’s accepting that we are SOMEONE, even if it is to a party of one.
What I have discovered at this juncture of my life is that I am deserving of a patch of blue, a landscape of green, a sense of peace and quiet within. I have understood that I possess enough good in this life to allow the optimism I carry inside to not be obfuscated by the chaos of people who only see what they want to see. I don’t want the status quo of being a proxy anything to anyone anymore. Nor will I allow myself to build a fortress of empty calories, sponsored by the folks at Emotional Eating and designed to hide me from the world again. It’s about knowing that we all carry the stars and the moon in our hearts.
Let’s remix this business…
“I met a man without a dollar to his name
Who had no traits of any value but his smile
I met a man who had no yearn or claim to fame
Who was content to let life pass him for a while
And I was sure that all I ever wanted
Was a life like the movie stars led
And he kissed me right here, and he said,
“I’ll give you stars and the moon and a soul to guide you
And a promise I’ll never go
I’ll give you hope to bring out all the life inside you
And the strength that will help you grow.
I’ll give you truth and a future that’s twenty times better
Than any Hollywood plot.”
And I thought, “You know, I’d rather have a yacht.”
I met a man who lived his life out on the road
Who left a wife and kids in Portland on a whim
I met a man whose fire and passion always showed
Who asked if I could spare a week to ride with him
But I was sure that all I ever wanted
Was a life that was scripted and planned
And he said, “But you don’t understand —
“I’ll give you stars and the moon and the open highway
And a river beneath your feet
I’ll give you day full of dreams if you travel my way
And a summer you can’t repeat.
I’ll give you nights full of passion and days of adventure,
No strings, just warm summer rain.”
And I thought, “You know, I’d rather have champagne.”
I met a man who had a fortune in the bank
Who had retired at age thirty, set for life.
I met a man and didn’t know which stars to thank,
And then he asked one day if I would be his wife.
And I looked up, and all I could think of
Was the life I had dreamt I would live
And I said to him, “What will you give?”
“I’ll give you cars and a townhouse in Turtle Bay
And a fur and a diamond ring
And we’ll be married in Spain on my yacht today
And we’ll honeymoon in Beijing.
And you’ll meet stars at the parties I throw at my villas
In Nice and Paris in June.”
And I thought, “Okay.”
And I took a breath
And I got my yacht
And the years went by
And it never changed
And it never grew
And I never dreamed
And I woke one day
And I looked around
And I thought, “My God…
I’ll never have the moon.”
“Stars and Moon,” music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Composed on Saturday, September 6 at Buffalo Bill’s Resort and Casino in Primm, Nevada — Posted on Sunday, September 7 from Wayne Avenue Manor in South Pasadena.