When my father died last year, a week before Valentine’s Day, a piece of my heart died with him. My father, that supreme sentimental fool, loved my brothers and me to excess in a kind of over-the-top, rococo fever, all arabesques and sugar spirals, as sappy and charming as the romantic Mexican boleros he loved to sing. Just a little bit of your love at least, / just a little bit of your love, just that…. Music from my time, Father would say proudly, and I could almost smell the gardenias and Tres Flores hair oil.
Before my father died, it was simple cordiality that prompted me to say, “I’m sorry,” when comforting the bereaved. But with his death I am initiated into the family of humanity, I am connected to all deaths and to their survivors: “Lo siento,” which translates as both, “I am sorry,” and, “I feel it,” all at once.
Lo siento. Since his death, I feel life more intensely.
My father, born under the eagle and serpent of the Mexican flag, died beneath a blanket of stars and stripes, a U.S. World War II veteran. Like most immigrants, he was overly patriotic, exceptionally hardworking, and, above all, a great believer in family. Yet often I’m aware my father’s life doesn’t count, he’s not “history,” not the “American” politicians mean when they talk about “American.”
I thought of my father especially this holiday season. The day before Christmas 1997, forty-five unarmed Mayas were slain while they prayed in a chapel in Acteal, Chiapas – twenty-one of them women, fourteen children. The Mexican president was shocked and promised to hold all those responsible accountable. The Mexican people aren’t fools. Everybody knows who’s responsible, but it’s too much to wish for the Mexican president to fire himself.
I know the deaths in Chiapas are linked to me here in the United States. I know the massacre is connected to removing native people from their land, because although the people are poor the land is very rich and the government knows this. And the Mexican debt is connected to my high standard of living, and the military presence is necessary to calm U.S. investors, and the music goes round and round and it comes out here.
I have been thinking and thinking about all this from my home in San Antonio, Texas, as fidgety as a person with comezón, an itching, a hankering, an itch I can’t quite scratch. What is my responsibility as a writer in light of these events? As a woman, as a mestiza? As a U.S. citizen who lives on several borders? What do I do as the daughter of a Mexican man? Father, tell me. Ayúdame, help me, why don’t you. Lo siento. I have been searching for answers. On Christmas, I am reverberating like a bell.
In my father’s house, because my father was my father – Hello, my friend! – our Christmas dinners were a global feast, a lesson in history, diplomacy, and the capacity of the stomach to put aside racial grievances. Our holidays were a unique hybrid of cultures that perhaps could only happen in a city like Chicago, a bounty contributed by family and intermarriage, multiethnic neighborhoods, and the diversity of my father’s upholstery-shop employees.
To this day, a typical Christmas meal at our home consists first and foremost of tamales, that Indian delicacy that binds us to the preconquest. Twenty-five dozen for our family is typical, the popular, red tamales, the fiery, green tamales, and the sweet, pink tamales filled with jam and raisins for the kids. Sometimes they’re my mother’s homemade batch – This is the last year I’m going to make them! – but more often they’re ordered in advance from someone else willing to go through all the trouble, most recently from the excellent tamale lady in front of Carnicería Jiménez on North Avenue, who operates from a shopping cart.
Father’s annual contribution was his famous bacalao, a codfish stew of Spanish origin, which he made standing in one spot like a TV chef – Go get me a bowl, bring me an apron, somebody give me the tomatoes, wash them first, hand me that knife and chopping board, where are the olives?
Every year we are so spoiled we expect – and receive – a Christmas tray of homemade pierogis and Polish sausage, sometimes courtesy of my sister-in-law’s family, the Targonskis, and sometimes from my father’s Polish upholsterers, who can hardly speak a word of English. We also serve Jamaican meat pies, a legacy from Darryl, who was once my father’s furniture refinisher, but has long since left. And finally, our Christmas dinner includes the Italian magnificence from Ferrara Bakery in our old neighborhood on West Taylor Street. Imagine if a cake looked like the Vatican. We’ve been eating Ferrara’s pastries since I was in the third grade.
But this is no formal Normal Rockwell sit-down dinner. We eat when we’re inspired by hunger or by antojo, literally, “before the eye.” All day pots are on the stove steaming and the microwave is beeping. It’s common to begin a dessert plate of cannolis while someone next to you is finishing breakfast, a pork tamale sandwiched inside a piece of French bread, a mestizo invention thanks to the French intervention.
History is present at our table. The doomed Emperor Maximiliano’s French bread as well as the Aztec corn tamales of the Americas, our Andalusian recipe for codfish, our moves in and out of neighborhoods where we were the brown corridor between Chicago communities at war with one another. And finally a history of intermarriage, of employees who loved my father enough to share a plate of their homemade delicacies with our family even if our countries couldn’t share anything else.
Forty-five are dead in Acteal. My father is gone. I read the newspapers and the losses ring in my heart. More than half the Mexican-American kids in this country are dropping out of high school – more than half – and our politicians’ priority is bigger prisons. I live in a state where there are more people sentenced to death than anywhere else in the world. Alamo Heights, the affluent, white neighborhood of my city, values Spanish as a second language beginning in the first grade, yet elsewhere lawmakers work to demolish bilingual education for Spanish-dominant children. Two hours away from my home, the U.S. military is setting up camp in the name of bandits and drug lords. But I’m not stupid; I know who they mean to keep away. Lo siento. I feel it.
I’m thinking this while I attend a Latino leadership conference between the holidays. I don’t know what I expect from this gathering of Latino leaders, exactly, but I know I don’t want to leave without a statement about what’s happened in Acteal. Surely at least the Latino community recognizes the forty-five are our family.
“It is like a family,” one Arizona politico explains. “But understand, to you it may be a father who’s died, but to me it’s a distant cousin.”
Is it too much to ask our leaders to lead?
“You’re too impatient,” one Latina tells me, and I’m so stunned I can’t respond. A wild karaoke begins, and a Chicano filmmaker begins to preach – “There’s a season to play and a season to rage.” He talks and talks till I have to blink back the tears. After what seems like an eternity, he finally finishes by saying, “You know what you have to do, don’t you?”
And then it hits me, I do know what I have to do.
I will tell a story.
When we were in college my mother realized investing in real estate was the answer to our economic woes. Her plans were modest: to buy a cheap fixer-upper in the barrio that would bring us income. After months of searching, Mother finally found something we could afford, a scruffy building on the avenue with a store that could serve as Father’s upholstery shop and two apartments above that would pay the mortgage. At last my mother was a respectable landlady.
Almost immediately a family on the third floor began paying their rent late. It wasn’t an expensive apartment, something like a hundred dollars, but every first of the month, they were five or ten dollars short and would deliver the rent with a promise to pay the balance the next payday, which they did. Every month is was the same…the rest minus a few dollars promised for next Friday.
Mother hated to be taken advantage of. Do they think we’re rich or something, don’t we have bills, too? She sent Father, who was on good terms with everybody. You go and talk to that family, I’ve had it!
And so Father went, and a little later quietly returned.
“I fixed it,” Father announced.
“Already? How? What did you do?”
“I lowered the rent.”
Mother was ready to throw a fit. Until Father said, “Remember when ten dollars meant a lot to us?”
Mother was silent, as if by some milagro she remembered. Who would’ve thought Father was capable of such genius? He was not by nature a clever man. But he inspires me now to be creative in ways I never realized.
I don’t wish to make my father seem more than what he was. He wasn’t Gandhi; he lived a life terrified of those different from himself. He never read a newspaper and was naïve enough to believe history as told by la televisión. And, as my mother keeps reminding me, he wasn’t a perfect husband either. But he was very kind and at some things extraordinary. He was a wonderful father.
Maybe I’ve looked to the wrong leaders for leadership. Maybe what’s needed this new year are a few outrageous ideas. Something absurd and genius like those of my father, whose kindness and generosity teach me to enlarge my heart.
Maybe it’s time to lower the rent.
Just a little bit of your love at least, / just a little bit of your love, just that… ever since the year began that song runs through my head. My father just won’t let up. Lo siento. I feel it.
Papá, Buddha, Allah, Jesus Christ, Yahweh, La Virgin de Guadalupe, the Universe, the God in us, help us. Danos un poquito de tu amor siquiera, danos un popuito de tu amor nomás… just a little bit of your love at least, just a little bit of your love, just that….