¡Ask Señora López!

I have some very exciting news!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been in touch with George of Sofrito For Your Soul. I’ve been a long time fan of his website and when I saw their new “Ask a Latino” feature, I joked with George that if he ever wanted to do “Ask a Gringa”, I was his girl.

My little chiste turned to conversation of a real collaboration, and so we now have “Ask Señora López” which will appear over at Sofrito For Your Soul soon. I’m announcing it here so that we can start collecting questions.

As a bi-cultural person, I consider myself an ambassador, or liaison of sorts. I’ve had Anglos ask me questions about Latinos, and Latinos ask me questions about Anglos. I really love to be able to bridge any gaps in understanding, (and have a little fun at the same time!)

So, if you have a question, ask me! You can ask in English or Spanish, and you can remain anonymous. I look forward to hearing from you!

CLICK HERE to E-mail Señora López a question!

The Pichichi

This morning I awakened before the sun, and it was not because I wanted to. I came out of a deep sleep to the sounds of some strange bird tweeting right by our bedroom window. Putting my pillow over my head only half-suffocated me, (that never works). Finally I just yelled in the direction of the window, “SHUT UP!” but that didn’t work either. I laid in bed hating that stupid bird which reminded me so much of my nemesis in El Salvador, the Pichichi.

The Pichichi is some sort of duck, in English it’s called the “Black-bellied Whistling Duck“, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that the noise that bird makes sounds like a really loud and demented doggy squeak toy from hell and it nearly drove me to insanity.

Most of our time in El Salvador was spent in the city of San Salvador at my husband’s childhood home, but we spent a couple nights in Chalatenango at the house of a Tio and the Abuelos. It was at the Tio’s house where I met the Pichichi. I’ll admit that at first I thought he was cute, but that all changed after the sun went down. I climbed into my hammock with my tired, sweaty baby on my chest. My oldest son was a year old at the time and still very fussy. It was difficult to get him to sleep, especially without the comforts of home, and he’d become so exhausted and overwhelmed that he would cry for hours at a time. I wrapped him in a blanket to shield him from the mosquitoes which feasted on me instead, and tried to get comfortable. I woke often, itching from the mosquito bites and unaccustomed to the swinging motion of the hammock, feeling like I was falling, worried I’d drop the baby. The baby would cry out in protest each time I moved and so I tried my best to hold still.

It wasn’t just the hammock and the mosquitoes though. Right out the window in the adjacent courtyard lived a Pichichi, and that stupid duck made its torturous noises almost all night. Every once in awhile I yelled, “SHUT UP!” towards the window, but it was no use. When I thought he had finally given in to my demands, the sunlight started to filter in through the curtain and the rooster started his shift.

The next day my Suegra had scheduled our son’s baptism at the church. At the time I was devoutly Protestant and I was upset that this had been arranged without my permission. I was feeling rather emotional, and the lack of sleep did nothing to help matters. The day of the baptism was incredibly hot. The sun beat down unrelenting, and in the small, windowless church, we all sweated through our clothes. The baby began to cry, and so I began to cry as well. No one quite knew what to make of it.

At one point in the ceremony, the Padre addresses the parents and the padrinos saying, “Do you believe in the Catholic church?” … I’ve never been one to lie, and I had no idea my husband had intended for me to just silently go along with things. “I’m Protestant!” I blurted out through my tears. Everyone was silent for a moment as the Padre seemed to wonder what to do, and then the ceremony went on as usual.

I probably didn’t make the best first impression on a lot of my in-laws when we went to visit El Salvador, but for some reason, they seemed to understand me, even if I didn’t totally understand myself.

The Many Uses of Chanclas

For those who don’t know, “chanclas” are house sandals in most Latin American homes, (those are my husband’s favorite pair pictured at left.) Most Latinos I’ve met wear them in the house at all times, (quite often with socks, even in the summer.) Suegra still finds my tendency to be barefoot quite abnormal but maybe it’s the difference between growing up with a dirt floor as she did, and wall-to-wall carpet as I did – that’s the most logical reason I can come up with for chancla cultures versus non-chancla cultures.

If you already know what “chanclas” are, you may be rubbing your nalgas which are stinging with memories, because you know that chanclas are quite versatile. Here are some of their many uses.

The Many Uses of Chanclas

* disciplinary device – When an Anglo kid see’s their parent reaching for their feet, they might assume their mother or father is simply removing their sandals and nothing more, pero niños Latinos make a run for their bedroom (¡Corre! ¡Corre!) and start apologizing, “I’m sorry! I won’t do it again!”

* fly swatter – I hear it multiple times per week in the summertime: “There’s a fly in the house! Get a chancla!” … Maybe my husband and kids are weird, but they go fly hunting. They wait until it goes into a bedroom and then the commotion starts, “She’s in your room! Close the door! Quick!” (For some reason my husband always refers to flies as “she”. I guess because the word for fly, “mosca”, is feminine.) … Sometimes the hunt can go on for a good 20 minutes. I’ll hear the chancla hit the wall with varying degrees of force. Sometimes the fly’s escape will be blamed on one of the children, (“You were in my way! I almost got it that time! Move!) and finally, the much awaited killing occurs with much celebration.

* hammer – Not for real home improvement jobs, pero, it’s good for a quick fix when a baseboard is loose.

* weapon/home security – Hear a noise downstairs in the middle of the night? Carry your chancla high in the air as you walk into the darkness, ready to sandal slap a ladrón. (This will only work against softer criminals, perhaps a Latino who has been traumatized by the chancla as a child and knows its power. For more hardcore criminals we have a baseball bat and machete as back up.)

* cobweb remover – Gets those hard to reach spots on the ceiling.

* door stopper – Not advised if you have a dog that likes to escape.

* foot covering – But only when it’s not being used for something else, of course.

Family vs. Familia

As you know, my mother-in-law and I don’t have the best relationship. The biggest bone of contention has been the living arrangements. Growing up, I imagined myself with a husband and two kids, maybe a dog, but in my perfect little Anglo world, I never considered that I’d have a mother-in-law living with me, too. In-laws and grandparents are supposed to live in their own house, usually a few states away – not down the hallway. Random uncles and cousins also are not supposed to “visit” for weeks or months at a time. When relatives visit, it’s supposed to be for a few days and they’re supposed to use a hotel – That is what my culture told me, anyway.

Well, in Latino culture, which I married into, “family” is not limited to Mom, Dad, Son and Daughter. Besides Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, (not to mention half-siblings in some cases), there’s Grandmother, Grandfather, uncles and aunts, nieces, nephews, cousins and more cousins, not to mention everyone’s in-laws. If that isn’t enough family for you, there are Godparents, and other non-blood related people who get the honorary privilege of being called “familia.”

I’ve become convinced that if Anglos have a “family tree” – Latinos have a “family forest.”

And so for years I miserably asked myself the question, “Why does my mother-in-law want to live with us?” – but I should have been asking “Why would she NOT want to live with us?” Just as much as my culture taught me that this is a strange, uncomfortable living arrangement, hers taught her that this is completely normal and so my resistance to it was incomprehensible, and even deeply hurtful.

This does not excuse any of my mother-in-laws many (many!) faults, but I feel almost like a Zen monk reaching enlightenment for all of this to make sense after so many years – and not just make sense, but to be okay about it.

In my heart of hearts, sometimes I wish I had been able to live my married life in a normal Anglo household, but I would have missed out on so much, and so would my children. My Spanish would not be near as good as it is if I didn’t have to communicate with my non-English speaking mother-in-law on a daily basis. I never would have learned how to pat a tortilla back-and-forth between my palms. I never would have heard the various childhood stories about my husband that she tells every now and then. I never would have gotten a glimpse into the psychology of what made my husband who he is due to her mothering, (the good and the bad.)

My children would never have heard silly folk songs like “Los Pollitos Dicen” – they would have only known of the Tooth Fairy and not of the Latin American equivalent, “Ratóncito Pérez”, (though my husband insists when he was a child, they were too poor to pay him for his teeth so he didn’t know of Ratóncito Pérez either.) My children never would have tasted the mangoes that their grandmother buys, which they love and I hate.

Now looking back, I realize that though my mother-in-law has caused her fair share of discord and misery at times, she also enriched our lives. I’m sure there will be days when it will be hard to remember that, days when I find cilantro leaves littering the kitchen floor that I just swept and mopped, days when I’m trying to write and she has a telenovela on in the living room at maximum volume, but in the end, I guess familia is what you make of it.

(Image source)

No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá

The other day my oldest son told me that at school he had to fill out a form which directed him to “Check only one” for his race. He had a decision to make. There was no bi-racial or multi-racial box. He looked back and forth between Caucasian and Latino, discovering for the first time how this world insists on trying to package us in neat little boxes which we can never comfortably fit into.

Mr. López faced a similar dilemma at his new job, which thankfully, he loves, despite the story I’m about to tell. At lunch time, his co-workers self-segregate to separate tables. The Mexicans sit at one table, and the Anglos sit at another. Where should he sit? He would have fit in with either group. He can speak English and talk sports with the Anglos, but he can speak Spanish and talk telenovelas with the Mexicans, (yeah, these machos watch soap operas every night, but it’s not a girly one. It’s called “El Capo” and it’s got drugs and guns and and stuff blowing up, apparently.)

If Mr. López decided where to sit based on race, perhaps he would choose to sit with the Latinos, but he’s Salvadoran not Mexican. If he chose based on nationality, as an American citizen, he would find himself at the Anglo table, but he wasn’t born here like they were. I joked that perhaps he needs to set up a little card table right in the middle of them both.

He ended up sitting with the Mexicans because he felt that if he didn’t, they would see him as a traitor and think that he felt superior to them, (because he speaks English and they don’t.) Also, Mr. López knew the Anglo guys couldn’t care less where he sat. The thing is, he wants to stay on everyone’s good side, because he is the unofficial interpreter and is constantly being called away from his work to translate between co-workers. He doesn’t mind this, except that in casual conversation, the Anglos complain about the Mexicans to him, and of course, the Mexicans complain about the Anglos to him. He just listens and nods, neither agreeing or disagreeing, feeling that he is neither here nor there.

Happy New Year

Last night at midnight, we kissed, and then my husband jumped up off the couch.

“Oh! I almost forgot a tradition!”

He went into the kitchen and returned with the dog’s water bowl.

“What in the world are you doing?” I asked as he headed towards the front door.

The niños watched him, giggling. Even the dog stared at him, perplexed. He opened the front door and tossed the water outside. The dog looked at me and I shrugged.

“There,” he said satisfied, as he returned to the kitchen to give the dog fresh water. “You toss out the old and start new.”

“That’s a tradition in El Salvador?” I asked as the niños continued giggling.
“Yes,” he said, turning off the faucet and setting the bowl back on the floor.
“You throw the dog’s drinking water out the door?”
“Nooo,” he said, finally understanding our confusion and laughter. “Any bowl of water. That one was just sitting there, so…”
“Ah, okay… Um, Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year!”
“To health, happiness, prosperity… and fresh dog water.”

Passion

Pasión, even the way most Latinos say it, the word drips with desire or anger, or un otro tipo de passion, because passion is not just love, n’ombre, it is a strength added to every emotion. A life sin pasión? No manches! That is a life not worth living.

The passionate Latino – Is it a stereotype? Is it truth? I can only say what I know, and I know Latinos to be a passionate people. It is an admirable trait – one that produces heroes willing to fight and even die for a cause, unforgettable all-consuming loves, and fierce loyalty, but it can also override the prized Anglo virtue of “sensibility”. Pasión is emotion, as puro as 100 proof Tequila, and it can burn in the same way. Pasión does not stop to think. Chale! Pasión acts, consequences be damned.

In a marriage, pasión can be at times romantic, and at other times exhausting. A passionate man is just as likely to be violently hot-tempered as he is to bring you flowers and then kiss you from head to toe. Sometimes you don’t know which you’re going to get.

Jeem

I have a neighbor who I have called “Jim” for over a year. He moved here with his family and has been helpful with repairing our monthly air conditioner break downs.

The other day, after his most recent repair, I wrote him a note to go with some cookies I was sending over with one of the kids, to say thanks.

“Dear Jim”, began the note, just like all the notes before.

Mr. López stood over my shoulder.
“Is that for Jim the neighbor next door?”
“Yes.”
“But that’s not how he spells his name.”
“How do you know? How else can you spell Jim?”
“When he gave me the bill for the part he replaced, his name was on it.”

I crumble the note and start a new one.

“Okay, how do you spell it?”
“G-E-N-E”
“What?”
“G-E—“
“I heard, you, but that doesn’t say Jim.”
“Yes it does, he just spells it different.”
“But that’s a completely different name! That’s Gene as in Eugene, not Jim as in James.”
“Jeem as in Eujeem. Jeem as in James. They sound the same.”
“Yeah, when YOU say them. Crap. Because you told me his name is “Jeem”, I’ve been calling him “Jim” all this time and he never even corrected me! Ugh. How awkward.”

I put pen to paper and write a new note.

Dear Gene,

I am sorry I’ve been calling you Jim all this time. I couldn’t understand my husband’s accent. Here are some cookies for you and your family in thanks for repairing the air conditioner again.

Thanks!

Sra. López

“You had a big head as a baby, but at least you grew into it” – And other loving things Latino parents say

At Thanksgiving dinner with my (Anglo) family yesterday, I realized just how Latina-ish I’ve become.

The conversation turned to the children at the table, and how much they’ve grown. I said to my oldest son, “You were such a difficult baby. My God, you cried and cried and never shut up.”
My oldest son said, “But I’m a good kid now, right?”
“Yes, now you’re a great kid,” I agreed.

My youngest son puffed out his chest. “I was a good baby, right Mommy?” he bragged.
“Oh yes, you were a very sweet baby. The sweetest!” The youngest son smiled in triumph.
“But, Mommy!” the oldest son said, “I was the cutest, wasn’t I? You told me once I looked like a model baby!”
“Yes, when you weren’t crying, you were absolutely gorgeous.”
My oldest son smiled.
“What about me, Mommy?” the youngest son said, “was I cute?”
“Yeah, you were cute, but you had a big head… at least you grew into it,” I said smiling and kissing his cabezón.

This is when I realized my entire family was looking on at this exchange in complete horror. The only person not looking horrified was Mr. López. My little sister mumbled, “Well, this will be the Thanksgiving they’ll remember in therapy.”

I felt a little embarrassed then, realizing what the conversation looked like through their eyes. I looked like a terrible mother, but these things I said to them are not things I haven’t said to them before, and in this way, the boys are not Anglo at all. They don’t take it personal, they are not traumatized. They take it in good humor, because this is the way Latino families lovingly joke with each other. It’s not uncommon for a family member who hasn’t seen you for a couple years to say, “Look at how fat you got!” and then to embrace you with a rib-crushing hug. No hurt feelings! (Admittedly, I can dish it out, but I can’t always take it.)

But later on the way home in the car, I began to worry, what if my boys are more Anglicized than I think? What if they’re harboring secret hurt feelings over my words? And so I asked them.
“Hey guys, what I said at the dinner table about you as babies, it didn’t hurt your feelings did it?”
“No,” they both said, bewildered.
“I was just joking around,” I said, in case they weren’t being honest.
“We know,” my oldest son said.
“Yeah,” the youngest son said, “it just means you love us.”
“Right,” I smiled.

Rick Sanchez on Anglicizing

anglo A couple weeks ago, while discussing the hotel manager who tried to force his Latino employees to change their names, (to make them easier to pronounce for non-Spanish speaking customers), CNN’s Rick Sanchez weighed in – and what he said shocked many. Dissenting from his fellow Latino colleagues, Sanchez defended the New Mexico hotel owner, Larry Whitten.

In part, Sanchez said:

“My real name is Ricardo Leon Sanchez de Reinaldo. I don’t use it because I want to be respectful of this wonderful country that allowed us as Hispanics to come here, and I think it’s easier if someone’s able to understand me by Anglicizing my name.”

I usually like Rick Sanchez but I thought this statement was incredibly ignorant. Perhaps Rick, as a recent Cuban immigrant, is thankful that he was “allowed…to come” to “this wonderful country”, but what he failed to realize is that not all Latinos are Cuban. Not all Latinos feel the need to pay respect for being “allowed” in because the fact of the matter is, their people were here FIRST – Before the Anglos. The Mexican people in New Mexico and in much of the Southwest are living on their own ancestral land.

If a person chooses to change their name, as Rick Sanchez did, because they feel it gives them a competitive edge, will help them become more successful, or for any reason at all, that is their prerogative, but no one ever, for any reason whatsoever should be forced to change their name.

We live in a country full of diverse people and diverse names and that is something that makes us special. In the list of “Most Common 1,000 Surnames in the United States”, we have:

#18. GARCIA
#19. MARTINEZ
#22. RODRIGUEZ
#29. HERNANDEZ
#32. LOPEZ
#38. GONZALEZ
#42. PEREZ
#52. SANCHEZ
#61. RIVERA
#67. TORRES
#70. RAMIREZ
#89. FLORES
#94. GONZALES
#99. DIAZ

These are just in the top 100. If you go further you continue to get an impressive mix of Latino and Anglo names. Eventually we get:

#229. NGUYEN (Vietnamese)
#281. O’BRIEN (Irish)
#363. COHEN (Jewish)
#459. WONG (Chinese)
#461. PARK (Korean)
#591. PATEL (Indian)
#683. LEBLANC (French)
#687. CHANG (Chinese)
#753. RUSSO (Italian)

My point, this is a nation of immigrants, get used to it. It won’t kill a white person to learn how to say Martín [Mar-teen] instead of Martin.

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names” ~ Chinese Proverb