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!