Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Selena says bye for now

Johnny's been a good sport to let me blog here this month. Since this is the last day of March, I thought I'd depart with one more memory.

I wanted to join the boys' soccer team in Middle School. Not that they had a problema recruiting boys for the team, as happens in some school districts. And it wasn't because there wasn't a girls' team - there was, and they were pretty good. But growing up with three brothers, I needed more competition. A challenge.

So my brother Antonio took me to the boys' field to introduce me to the coach. I politely asked to join the team, bouncing a ball knee to knee to show him what I could do. But the man spat out his whistle and laughed at me. "The cheerleaders are over there," he said, pointing behind me and widening his stance.

It sure looked like a goal to me.

So I drop-kicked the ball hard right between his goalposts, so to speak.

I was suspended for three days.

Ay, my Mami had the fire of an amazona in her eyes when I got home.

"Y que te ha entrado a ti? El que diran?" she scolded while stirring habichuelas on the stove. "What has gotten into you? What will they say?"

"They'll say I should have been allowed to try out," I said, displaying the unbecoming gringita
habit of speaking my mind.

So I was sent to bed without supper as well.

This is one of the 'rules' of growing up Latina: do not forget a woman's place. I keep forgetting this rule.

That's it. I'll "see" you again when you read Johnny's book VIPER coming around Christmas. For now, adios.

Bye for now

Johnny's been a good sport to let me take over his blog this month. Now, with the end of March, I'll add one more memory.

I wanted to join the boys' soccer squad in Middle School. Not that they didn't have enough boys signing up, which I hear is a problema in some school districts. It's just that the girls were not competitive enough for me. And they could be very competitive, believe me! But growing up with three brothers and being something of a tomboy, I needed more of a challenge.

So my brother Antonio took me out to the field during the boys' practice and introduced me to the coach. When I asked to join the team, the man spat his whistle from his mouth and laughed at me. "Who ever heard of such a thing?" he guffawed.

"At least let me try out," I requested, bouncing a ball knee to knee to show him what I could do.

"The cheerleaders are over there," he said, jerking his thumb and widening his stance.

It sure looked like a goal to me.

So I drop-kicked the ball hard, right between his goalposts, so to speak.

I was suspended for three days.

Ay, when I got home my Mami had the fire of an amazona in her eyes while she stirred the habichuelas on the stove.

"Y que te ha entrado a ti? El que diran?" she scolded. "What has gotten into you? What will they say?"

"They'll say I should have been allowed to try out."

So I was sent to bed without supper as well.

This is one of the 'rules' of growing up Latina: do not forget a woman's place. To be an 'independently minded Latina' is seen by many as a contradiction in terms. This is why a Latina must be brave -- to deal with the pressures of our jobs, our families' expectations, our tradiciones, and our own divided selves contra viento y marea, against all odds.

That's it. I guess I'll "see" you next time when Johnny's book VIPER comes out, maybe around Christmas. For now, adios.

Monday, March 29, 2010

At the Sinnissippi Dragway

Ola, it's Selena again.

Some gringo idiota in a 2009 Dodge Charger passed me on Route 2 today on the way to work. He honked and cut it pretty close, showing off. I was in the company Jeep Cherokee with the decal on the rear right-door window that says “You just got passed by a girl,” but I didn’t punch the gas just so he could see it when I returned the favor. After all, the road is two-lane and curvy, and badly pitted in spots from an Illinois winter.

So I just smirked to myself. I knew my Charger would leave him in the dust. I regularly burn carbon from the valves at 100 miles per hour in the first one-eighth of a mile on a country road I won’t name here. I’d go for 120 if the car still had the chutes, the ones Antonio installed to use at the Sinnissippi Dragway.

I’ll always remember the day Antonio took me there to watch him race the Charger at the annual Power Wheelstanding Competition. I got to wandering around and the track manager mistook me for the new flag girl and shoved a zebra-striped umpire’s shirt with black Lycra short-shorts into my gut, said I was late and told me where to change and report.

What else could I do?

I snapped the short shorts over the man’s head, pulled them down over his astonished face with a jerk, and stormed off shouting “¡Insolente! ¡Descarado!”

“Did you have to do that?” Antonio steamed while driving out the gate a few minutes later, the manager glowering at us in the rear-view mirror. “They said I can’t race here anymore.”

“Go back,” I said, thumping my chest with my thumb. “I’ll drive. I’ll show them what a Latina can do.”

“You already did that,” he said, gunning the gas to spin his back wheels. Gravel peppered the manager, and we both laughed.

Ay, I don’t pass a day when I don’t think about my fraternal twin brother. He’s the reason I joined the DEA in the first place. When you read Johnny’s new book VIPER, you’ll find out how that happened.

And amigas, when you do, remember he’s making all that up, and there are some things in there about me that just aren’t true.

Friday, March 26, 2010

How Mexican Am I

So I take the Facebook quiz “How Mexican Are You” and score as “coconut,” brown on the outside but white on the inside. Yo me ruborizo! How is that possible? I know my Papi was determined to have us kids fit in and be acculturated (not assimilated) and that’s a reason why we always had a very traditional American-style Thanksgiving with turkey, yams with marshmallows, corn, beans, and cranberry relish (all indigenous Mexican foods, ironically, except for the cranberry). But my Mami, well, she raised us in las viejas costumbres, the old ways.

I think I sensed this deeply for the first time in high school when I brought home an Anglo boy, Jerry, to meet the family. I feared Papi would interrogate him like a cop drilling a suspect and my Madrina Maria would corner him with stories of Oaxaca even though she didn’t speak English and Mami would serve tripe soup with chiles colorados to test his mettle – but I brought home the Anglo boy anyway. A crowd of Mami, Papi, my three brothers, all my cousins, uncles and tias, with all the curious, chattering neighbors greeted him. Jerry shook hands with Papi and my three brothers and smiled at everyone else – not knowing he was expected to meet everyone personally with a handshake and a warm verbal greeting. I should have told him.

Later, Mami called him muy frio, very cold, mal educado, ill mannered. Is this how we raised you – to find a gringo for a boyfriend who is so bent on dishonoring us, who has no respeto for our familia?

He doesn’t know our ways, I cried. He is Americano.

And what are you? Mami asked.

And I realized fully for the first time I was in two worlds at once.

Maybe that’s why my Thanksgiving dinners have a Mexican twist to them these days, like the corn with salsa, jalapeños, green onion and red bell pepper, or my chipotle and chive cornbread, or the black bean dip for the blue tortilla chips. Just don’t ask me to serve mole with the turkey.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It's me, Selena

Johnny didn’t ask me for a third blog entry but I’ve had such fun with the first two and I was thinking about the first time I went undercover and, since I got his Blogger username and password (didn’t work undercover all those years for nothin’) I figured I’d share this little historia.

Every Holiday season sometime near La Fiesta del Neustra Señora de Guadalupe the staff at the downtown Chicago FBI and DEA offices get together for a dinner out. It’s a dress-up affair supposed to remind us that we don’t just occupy the same building a few floors apart but we’re on the same side. We’re supposed to mingle a bit, even if the G-men think of us as gun-happy Cocaine Cowboys and we think of them as suits.

So in my first year fresh from the Academy I’m sitting at a round table with other chicas from the Money Laundering Unit checking my watch way too often. Andy Pratt from Accounting sits next to me, trying to pick me up as usual. He’s a little overweight and his deodorant gave up hours ago. There are damp circles under his arms.

“Hey, Selena, have you tried this dip? It’s spicy, like you.” Andy bites into a tortilla chip and grins, chipotle mashed between his caps.

I sip from my glass of ice water and think about splashing him in the face with it. “Sorry, I haven’t,” I say. I’m feeling warmer than before so I shrug out of my black Ann Taylor jacket and hang it on the chair.

“Heckuva holiday party, huh?” Pratt says, chewing, looking around the hotel ballroom. “Musta
cost a pretty penny to rent this joint.”

I tug absently on my silver hoop ear ring, admiring the crystal chandeliers and the garland decor twinkling with lights. Across the table, beyond the poinsettia centerpiece, two male Special Agents flirt with female clerks from the Financial Investigation Unit. The men haven’t shaved in order to keep their street look and they’re in ill-fitting suits they haven’t worn for ages.

“They prob’ly used the cash those guys took in the Aurora bust last week,” Pratt says. “How much was it?”

“Half mil, I heard,” I say with a pout, turning to the kitchen doors where Latina servers in sharp black-and-white uniforms emerge with salad bowls clicking on platters. Some of them probably commuted from those Aurora neighborhoods. Huge Mexican presence there, bigger than the Pilsen neighborhood where I grew up.

I guess I was still peeved they never asked me along on the Aurora op. I speak perfect Mexican Spanish and the Charger carries street cred among the hot rodders and low riders. I scored as high as any man on the exams, ran the firearms range in two-and-a-half minutes with 85 percent of my fifty rounds in the target’s kill zone, and scared the bejesus out of my male classmates on the high-speed chase track.

But they parked me at a desk from Day One to answer phones and file the Money Trail Initiative Reports submitted by the Special Ops Division. They said it was to make the best use of my business degree from Loyola that my father insisted I earn. But I’d heard the snickers: Chicks are too soft to pull the trigger.

You know the real reason you’re here at all, don’t you? Agnes Bloomberg, the office gossip, confided to me behind her knuckles. Di-ver-si-ty, honey. They needed to report more female and Hispanic recruitment. They got to check off two boxes with you.

Mami, I think I might quit,” I told my mother that night in tears. “I didn’t join up to sit at a desk all day.”

“What did I tell you, mija,” my mother said, shaking a dish towel at me. “That is no place for a woman. Here, scrape these for me so I can wash them.”

I slid a spatula across the plates with the leftover cherry pie and flan. “I trained hard to be in the street. Where the action is.”

“That is no way to find a husband,” my mother scolded. “Y el que diran?”

“Who cares what they’ll say?”

“They’ll say que pasa? A good-looking mujer like you, out of college and still no husband?”

“I have a career to build.”

“I tell them it’s because you are too skinny. A man wants a woman who is llenita, with a fine caderas.”

“My butt is big enough as it is, Mami.”

“Maybe it is good you are at a desk, inside, out of the sun. You’re dark enough. Outside, your nose will cast a shadow like a sundial. Then what man will have you? That is good enough, pequeña hija. Give me the plates.”

A server drops a plate of chopped iceburg lettuce and tomatoes in front of me.

“Salads?” Pratt spits. “That’s girly food. Where’s the meat?”

“Excuse me,” I say, bunching my napkin and throwing it on the table.

“Hey, aren’tcha hungry?”

I don’t answer. I grasp my clutch purse and weave around tables toward the cash bar. On the way, a seated silver-haired woman in ruffles grabs my arm.

“Pardon me, miss,” she says, wiggling a mug, “but when you get the time, could you bring me more coffee?”

I pull away without a word.

“Maybe she doesn’t speak English…” a voice behind me trails.

I stand in a short line at the bar, arms crossed, tapping my Sergio Rossis. I can feel my face squeezing. Could you bring me more coffee? I mouth. The nerve.

“What was that, miss?” asks the Latino barkeep.

“A screwdriver, por favor, y va fácil en el hielo porque duele los dientes.”

“Ho-kay, not much ice,” he says. The pinched lips and the glint in his eye say you’re not really one of us. He reaches down for a glass and mutters pocha.

“What was that?” I fire back.

“Six dollar, please.”

Míreme, look at me in the eye. That’s not what you said.” It was an insult, as bad as agringada, so Americanized no longer truly Mexicana, a sell-out.

“Six dollar,” he repeats.

“This one’s on me,” comes a man’s voice from behind me. A ten-spot flaps at my ear ring.

I brush it away. “I’m in no mood, mister—“

“Boss, to you.”

The blood rushes to my face. It’s the Special Ops Unit supervisor, Colin Bragg.

“Mr. Bragg,” I blurt out, startled. “What a surprise.”

“Call me Colin,” he says. “We’re not at the Academy anymore. Listen up: I need a date.”

I stick out my lower lip. “A date? You’re asking me out? Are you kidding?”

“Not like that,” he says. “C’mere.” He stuffs the greenback in the barkeep’s jar, takes my elbow and guides me out of the man’s ear shot. “My team has been working up a food chain and the last guy we flipped to become a CI (reader: that means confidential informer) introduced me to his distributor who’s having a house party tonight. We hear it’s gonna be big. Might be a cartel connection. He told me to show up with a date.”

“Since when do dopers ask their guests to come with a squeeze?”

“This is upscale, Selena. The party is in a penthouse. I rented this monkey-suit for that party, not this one.”

I give his tux the once-over. The crisp bow tie looks like a double exclamation point under his Adam’s apple. Then it hits me. “You mean this is for right now?”

“What do you say?” Bragg says. “I’ve cleared it from above. You won’t even have to change. Only one thing I ask.”

My heart is hammering. I finally get to see some action. “Sure. What’s that?”

“Let me do all the talking, all right? Act dumb.”

“You mean, like I can’t speak?”

“Not a peep.”

“You said there was a cartel connection. Won’t you need my Spanish?”

He draws his finger across his lips like a zipper. “Silencioso.”

It's almost funny. He means callado. I make a face. “You want me to smack bubble gum, too?”

“C’mon, Selena. The less you know and the less talking you do, the more likely we won’t blow the cover. I’ll brief you on the way over. For starters, your new name is Selena Peña. I’m Colin Bernard. My middle name. Then I don’t forget it. Anyway, just be sure to call me by that name if you have to call me at all.”

“Got it. Is the rest of your team our surveillance back up?”

“It’s just us.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I don’t kid about stuff like this. You know in a case like this any back up team is just an ambulance with the engine running. We’ll be long gone if something goes wrong. Still up for it?”

I step back to the barkeep, seize the screwdriver glass from the countertop, and drain it. Plunk the glass down hard. The ice rattles. “I’m ready.”

To find out what happened at this party, you’ll have to read VIPER. Johnny’s got about 100 pages to go.

OK, OK, I’ll just say I called Bragg by his real name and almost got us killed. Ay, such an ingénua then.

As usual, I’ve talked too much, pèrdon.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Guest Blogger: Selena De La Cruz, again

Johnny asked me for another memory, maybe about the car. So there was this time, OK, when I was in Bloomington for a conference and noticed a shudder in the steering wheel. Ay, que ahora, I say to myself. It was a back tire, from smokin’ them the night before trying to burn carbon from my valves.

So I find this place, “Tires For Less - and More,” and go in. A chime sounds and a blue-blazered salesman at the register squares his shoulders, straightens his polyester tie, and swaggers around the counter. I smell trouble.

“Helloooo, little lady,” he croons.

I nearly spin on my high heels. Should have waited and gone to Performance Plus as usual back home, I think. But maybe I could get a good deal here. I stay.

The man stops short and shades his eyes with his hand. “Oh, wait, I see better now,” he says, angling his head. I’m guessing the sharp light from the display windows behind me put me in silhouette. “Es-pahn-yohl, huh? Uno moh-men-toh, ok? We got a guy in the bays who-”

“I speak English just fine,” I tell him.

He shrugs in mock contrition. “All right, great. So what can I do for you?”

“I need two tires, for a-”

“Minivan?” he says.


“We can do that,” he says with a smile two octaves wide. “Right this way.”

He saunters behind the counter, leaving a cloud of Brut in his wake. I wave it away from my face. The man touches the screen of his computer. “I have some questions for you first, OK? Do you have an account with us?”

“No. I’m from out of town.”

“We can set one up now.” His fingers work the keyboard.

“Hold on,” I say. “Let me see what you’ve got, first.”

The tap-tapping halts. “Fair enough. Next question: How fast do you drive?”

I grin. “Pretty fast.”

“I’ll bet you do,” he replies with a wink. “Come over this way.”

He takes me over the wall where various tires are displayed. He raps his hairy knuckles on the first one and launches into a honeyed spiel: “Now this, little lady, is a passenger touring series tire rated at ninety miles an hour with innovative roundness and a molecular engineered carbon black-and-silica formula for safe handling in wet conditions like we get here in Illinois.” He pulls a shiny penny from his shirt pocket and sticks it in the threads. “And do you see these circumferential grooves? They channel water away for added safety.”

I’ve had enough. “I need performance radials optimized for rolling resistance and high speed handling.”

His eyebrows arch. “Heavy foot, huh?”

“Like 120 miles per hour.”

He points at my lime Mui Mui heels. “In those?”

“Barefoot, actually.” I lean forward to check his name tag. “Vinny, is it? Look, Vinny, I need two 75 series 225-75-15’s to fit American Racing Torq Thrust rims, type M.”

His mouth drops open. “Geezuz, lady, you drive a dragster or something?”

I plant my hand on my hip. I like talking about my car. “69 Dodge Charger R/T with a 528 Hemi, a 3000 r.p.m. Hughes Torque Converter, a Gear Vendors Overdrive Unit and a Dana 60 Rear End.”

He squints, and then laughs. Laughs harder. Slaps his knee. Wipes his eyes. “Hoo-boy! This is a joke, right? Did Joey hire you to do this? Who the devil are you?”

“My name is Selena, gringo tonto,” I inform him, foot tapping. “Do you have the tires or not?”

I drove 60 miles an hour all the way home to avoid the shuddering. When I got home, my face still hot, I told my brother Lorenzo about the store. He pinched his eyes, dropped the videogame control and doubled over with laughter. “So did you get the tires or what?” he asked.

“Are you kidding?” I said with a flick of my hand. “From that mono estúpido?”

“Ay, why did you say that, mi’ja?” my mother called from the kitchen. “Do you want to give Mexican women a reputation?”

“Yes, for being strong.”

“Mexican men do not like their women strong.”

“He wasn’t Mexican, Mami.”

My Mami stood in the doorway, strangling a dish towel. “Listen to me, Selena: you must be like the Virgin of Guadalupe – quiet. Eyes lowered in respeto. How else will you ever find a husband?”

“What’s worse,” Lorenzo chuckled, “is that this guy Vinny is gonna talk all day about a foxy Mexican chica named Selena Gringo Tonto.”

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Guest Blogger: Selena De La Cruz

Johnny asked me to say a little about my background or offer a memory or two. No problemo, I said, contento ayudar, amigo. I was reminiscing just last week when I visited my favorite tia and godmother Maria in Chicago. I drive up there to see her every week, you know.

So I wheel my '69 Charger onto 18th Street in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood near her place, and the throaty rumble of the big engine turns heads. Good street cred. I hear Norteño bands playing plaintive corridos on button accordions along with the thump-thump of quebradita, a blend of North Mexican banda and Aztec punk rockers singing in Spanglish. Ay, lemme tell you, I felt my Spanish blood beating.

Every time I pass Saint Adalbert’s Elementary in the shadow of the church’s skyline-dominating steeple I remember how in the sixth grade Sister Mary Beatrice (aka Sister Mary BattleAxe) caught me speaking Spanish in the back row asking Gloria Garcia for an eraser. Sister pulled me by the ear into the corner.

“You’re in America now,” the Polish nun reprimanded me, her milky finger in my mocha face. “We speak English here. If you want to be an American, speak American. If you want to speak Spanish, then go back to Mexico.”

I asked if there was a difference between speaking English and speaking American. Even then, Dios me ayuda, such a mouth.

Sister Beatrice kept me after school on KP (kitchen patrol) for "talking back."

Ay, you don’t talk back,” my mother chided me when I got home. Mami’s high Zapotec cheekbones colored and the jet-black bun on top of her head, I could have sworn, was spinning.

Muchachitas bien criadas, girls brought up well, don’t mouth off,” Mami said, wringing the dishtowel. “Do you want to be called ser habladora? A big mouth that talks too much? Is that what you want?”

Mami, all I did was ask a question.”

En boca cerrada no entran moscas,” my mother said, tapping her lips with a finger. Flies cannot enter a closed mouth. She had a dicho for everything.

I didn't tell her what the kids did in recess the next day. Joey Kowalski asked me if I knew the Frito Bandito and got the others to dance around a hat singing “La Cucaracha” while snapping their fingers like castanets over their heads. How could they know the famous Pancho Villa song was about Mexican heroes who bravely fought back against white oppressors? So when Joey asked me in my face if I knew Speedy Gonzalez too and trilled “Reba, reba! Andale!” I bloodied his nose with a single punch. He was too astonished and ashamed to tell Sister Mary BattleAxe what really happened and said he had taken a direct hit in the face during dodge ball in recess.

I told my twin brother Antonio about it that night.

“The boxing lessons I gave you, they helped, que no?” he said, laughing. “Did you put your shoulder into it, the way I showed you, like this?”

“Stop it,” I whispered, deflecting the playful punch. “Mami says I already act too much like you boys. Promise you won’t tell her. Or Lorenzo or Francisco. Promise me.”

“OK, Oscar de la Hoya.”

“It’s not funny. And don’t tell Papi, either.”

“Oh, he might be glad,” Antonio chuckled. “He wanted all boys anyway to start his own futbol team. Then you came along and put a stop to that idea.”

I socked him in the shoulder; he swung the pillow into my face, I threw mine at him, and soon the room was full of goose feathers and giggles.

Madre de Dios, how I miss him. I'd better stop here.

OK, Johnny, get back to writing my story or I'll give you a swift kick en la nalgas with my Guiseppi Zanottis!

Friday, March 12, 2010

New BLEEDER Web Site

Sophia Institute Press just launched a web site for BLEEDER, at

It is still under construction and will be moved at some point but have a look and let me know what you think.