Something to Really Cry About: A Memoir

The following work represents the first two chapters of a memoir that is still in the works. I hope to finish it, soon. It begins when I am three-years-old, and the memoir will end at the time of the L.A. riots, when I was twenty-three. I hope you enjoy it.

Preface

I was three-years-old when I received my first, major physical thrashing, and it came at the hands of my father. It was a brutal beating, too, made more so by the fact that before my father laid into me, I was already in a state of deep physical and emotional anguish, crying hysterically, crippled from a kitchen accident that took place only moments before my dad beat the fuck out of me.

In the years that followed this first beating, including my early teen years, I would become well acquainted with my dad’s rage and propensity for doling out physical punishment. When it came to disciplining me, my dad most often resorted to using his thick, blue-collared, machinest hands, as he did when I was three, but a belt or shoe or some type of heavy object was never far from reach. I was hit a lot and for a lot of different reasons, sometimes for asking the wrong question at the wrong time and sometimes for making mistakes. After multiple beatings, I learned to coil in my dad’s presence, trying hard to do things correctly or to act correctly in order to avoid the fuming temper that seemed to shadow my father. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my dad dearly, but I had reason to fear him.

If the beating my father unleashed on me when I was three-years-old had taken place today,  in our now heightened sense of concern and activism for children’s rights, my dad would’ve probably been arrested and locked up for child abuse, and things would not have gone well for him, but this was Los Angeles, in 1973, and we were Mexican, and in our culture, hardly anything was more Mexican than a good, old-fashioned ass beating, especially with a “chancla” or “cinturón.” Every Mexican friend I had got their ass beat, too. It was normal. We would do dumb shit and then get asses beat for it. If anyone bothered to ask if I deserved the many beatings I took as a kid and young teenager, I’d probably say, “Yeah, I deserved them.” But at three-years-old, I didn’t deserve getting whacked the way I did. I didn’t deserve to be beaten when I was most vulnerable, at an age when I was learning to love my parents, when I was becoming acquainted with the role I’d play in their lives. I was supposed to inherit unconditional, parental love from them.  I was supposed to be the center of my parents’ lives.  Over time, of course, the physical pain subsided. My three-year-old mind put it behind me, but the mental trauma left an indelible emotional scar accompanied with a shudder of confusion that may never come to pass.

I’m older now, and with old age comes understanding, along with other wiser traits. I am now able to make more sense of what happened to me—to trace back though everything that contributed to my dad’s temper—and to see things through a more emotionally stable, less clouded lens. I can also intellectualize things—to try to make sense of the past from rational points-of-view. I’ve learned about introspection, and I’ve engaged in a lot of soul searching, well into my twenties and thirties. All of this has taken practice, but all of it has helped immensely.

Dealing with the trauma is tricky. The mind plays games. In the midst of the long healing process, I found myself, at times, justifying my dad’s actions, almost defending them. I turned to various cultural theories to see if other children from other cultures were beaten as I was. I resorted to personally asking people about their upbringings, comparing theirs to mine. I watched how other fathers disciplined their kids in public. I took inventory of how other kids behaved and what they got away with. If I saw a kid talk back to his mom or dad and he wasn’t beaten for it, I would say, “Fuck! If that was me, my dad would’ve beaten the shit out of me!” I was looking for answers, anything to help explain to me why I got beat. And after stringing together theories and stories, I would conclude with, “Well, my dad’s parents beat him when he was a kid.  This is how they did it in Mexico. This is how Mexican parents deal with their kids. It’s normal.” Or I would say, “My dad was trying to teach me a lesson and I needed to learn the hard way.” This was my mind at work. I wracked my mind coming up with excuses for my father, and as far I was concerned, these excuses, these justifications sufficed. They helped me move along.

After all, like I said, every Mexican kid I knew got his ass regularly beat by his parents, and these beatings were often executed in public. It didn’t matter where the hell we were at—birthday parties, Little League games, Back-to-School Night, Church, the mall—no place was too sacred for a pinche “nalgada” or a “chanclazo” or a “cinturazo!” Getting our asses beat was ingrained in the Mexican culture, as Mexican as beans and tortillas and Christmas lights in August. This was the Mexican norm. Then my mind would come up with more excuses. “My dad knew he couldn’t be there to protect me, so he had to beat me so I would remember the pain. Then the pain would serve to remind me to never put myself in danger again—to look out for myself.” I kept trying to find the perfect reason. I don’t know if I’ve found, but I know I’m close.

I do know, however, that there’s no one answer.  This is why none of the explanations I had derived were satisfactory. They did little to help me understand or explain why my dad beat me. He had hit me several times before, and there were reasons for these beatings, as absurd as this sounds. They were prompted. I had done something stupid, and I needed to learn my lesson. It was an agreement between my father and me, an unwritten law of sorts, and I understood it. My brother did, too. But there was another element involved, something mysterious and intangible, something beyond anyone’s understanding. My dad was an angry man for most of his life. Anger was in his blood, and I don’t believe he had control over it. It dominated him, at times, and it got the best of him. When his anger was triggered, there were going to be casualties. Someone was going to get hurt. In realizing, later in life, that my dad was an angry man, I then began to find answers to the many questions I had about my dad and his actions.  More importantly, however, I found the answer to why he beat me when I was just a baby.

As in most family dramas there’s a comical side to my story. One might think that being disciplined by a father who believed in corporal punishment would lessen the trouble and mischief I got into, but this wasn’t the case with me. I was terrified of my dad, no doubt, and I always thought twice about my actions, but I still did a lot of stupid shit and got into a lot of trouble with my parents and teachers and the law. I cultivated a rebellious attitude, and I cared little about my own safety or what people thought about me. In my mind, the only thing scarier than the outside world was my dad, and I had already stared into that inferno many times before, and I survived.  Not even my father’s most volatile string of words nor his harshest punishment prevented me staying out of trouble. I just didn’t give a fuck. I experimented with almost every street drug available. I kicked some ass, and I got my ass kicked. I failed classes and got kicked out of school. I went to jail six times. I should be dead ten-times over by now. In short, I straddled a dangerous line, and I lived near the edge of serious injury. I had very few limits, and the fact that I’m still alive to tell you about it is a miracle in itself. And so this is what I’m going to do: I’m going to tell you my story.

Chapter One

Burned

My mom made French fries the Mexican way. It was a simple process. She washed and peeled the potatoes. Then she dried them and then cut them into long wedges, and then she put them aside. In the meantime, she kept a frying pan lit on the stove, the flame continuously on high so as to reach maximum heat. With the pan ready, my mom would dig a spoon into red box of Farmer John’s Lard or “manteca,” a staple in our house, and with a slight turn of her wrist, the spoon emerged with glob of dense, white paste clinging to it. My  mom then dropped the lard into center of the searing pan, and immediately, the kitchen’s peaceful hum was replaced by the roar of pops and sizzles, a combination of noises that became synonymous with my mom’s cooking. These were welcomed sounds in our home because it meant my mom dinner would be ready, soon, and my mom’s cooking is a natural extension of my DNA.

On this particular day, I was in the kitchen with my mom.  She was at the stove making the fries. I watched from a distance. At three-years-old, I already had enough experience with the sizzling beads of grease jumping out of the pan and stinging my little arms and feet, so I watched from a chair a few feet from the stove. I loved cooking with my mom because she talked to me during the process. She didn’t speak English, so this is how I learned Spanish.

My dad was asleep in my parents’ bedroom. He worked the graveyard shift for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, a pretty good job for a Mexican in the 70’s. He usually awoke around 9:30 p.m., ate the dinner my mom prepared him, and then left for work. He took the leftovers with him in a metal lunch pail.

My mom was careful not to make any unnecessary noise when my dad was sleeping because she knew my dad would explode if his sleep was bothered. We kept our voices low, with the sound of popping grease being the loudest noise in the house.

Finally, the fries were done, and as my dad slept, my mom and I ate at our little table. Any alone time I had with my mom was special, and on this night, I had her all to myself while my dad slept (I didn’t yet have siblings. They came later). I don’t remember exchanging small talk with my mom, but I’m sure I asked my mom a thousand questions about nothing. Then, at one point, I got of my seat. I wanted more fries and the plate on the kitchen table was empty.  I knew there were more fries on the stove because I could hear them cooking in the pan. While my mom remained seated, eating at the table, I made a move for the stove. I had to have looked funny doing it, too. A tiny kid with no shirt on, wearing only underwear on his way to get more food.

When I got to the stove, I couldn’t see the fries in the pan because the stove was too tall for me. I could’ve asked my mom to help me, but I was feeling independent. Instead, I opted to reach up and grab ahold of the pan’s handle all by myself. I was too young to know about danger. Tilting the pan downward and looking into it made sense to me.

And so I reached up for the handle and grabbed it with my right hand, while my left hand clung to my small, plastic kid’s plate. I pulled down on the handle, bringing it towards my face so I could see the fries. I did it quickly, and as I did, I watched a scalding, rushing wave of dirty grease and potato debris race over the pan’s lip and land directly onto my bare, three-year-old chest.

Everything after this happened at the speed of light, including the blackout I experienced as the grease hit my chest. The pain was instantaneous, and immense. Life, love, happiness, hunger, all the good things in my life ceased to exist. There was only pain of the highest degree, and in this moment of time, in this flash, I was nothing. As if in an out-of-body experience, I saw myself drop the plate, and as I did, I looked at my chest in time to see the top layers of my baby skins, the dermis and the epidermis layers, slide of my chest and onto my stomach, melting downward like brown wax.

I became a primate of the earliest order. I screamed a scream that no mother should ever hear their child make. In my confusion and fear and pain, I catapulted myself from the kitchen all the way to the farthest living room wall, frantic, anguished screams escaping my lungs, completely out of mind, hitting every agonizing note I could muster. I reached the wall, touched it, and turned back for the kitchen table, in moments, not even seconds. My mom was coming at me, arms outstretched, her face deformed by horror. I ran to her and was immediately enveloped in her arms, the safest place I could be.

She held me tightly, careful not to interfere with my wound.  She knew it was bad. It was in her face, in her twisted mouth, in her tears. She sat me on her lap and began to quickly rock me back and forth, in jolts, saying, “Ya, ya, mijo. No llores, mijo. Ya, ya, ya! Estas bein, mijo! Estas bien! No llores!” But the pain was intense, and I couldn’t stop crying. She was crying, too, and she couldn’t stop, either. I was fully experiencing every agonizing ounce of pain the hot grease had delivered. There could be no worse pain, but I was wrong. There was.

A loud boom erupted from the hallway. I knew it was my dad, and I knew that sound was his bedroom door slamming against the bedroom wall. It was thrown open in anger, and now I knew he was awake. Out he came, in his torn, worn out calzones, bolting out of the bedroom like a maniac intent on revenge, and he yelled from the deepest place in his body, “Chingada madre! ¿Que chingados está pasando, Martha? ¿Que pasó?” I was staring at my dad’s face. I had never seen him so angry.

My mom tried in vain to catch her breath so that she could tell my dad what had happened. “¡Se quemó, Marcos!” She was inaudible over her sobs, trying to talk, and she was still holding me. ¡Se quemó, Marcos!” All of sudden, my dad reached for my arm and yanked me out of my mom’s grasp, away from her and towards him, and as he did, he spun me around to get a look at my chest. I was still crying and nearly limp. When he saw what had happened, he transformed. He was no longer my father. I saw a malevolent stranger with a menacing look in his eyes, eyes that were foreign to me. His mouth was tight, teeth grinding. He grabbed my left arm, lifted me off the kitchen floor, and proceeded to beat the shit out of me, next to the kitchen table where only moments before I had been enjoying the soft company of my mother. He slapped my ass over and over and over again, with great force and I cried louder than before. There was no more pain from the burn.

Then everything went dark. I don’t remember going to a hospital or doctor. I don’t remember receiving any type of medical treatment. I don’t remember the next hour or the next day or the next year or the next two-years. For four-years after this event, I was absent from my own life. As I grew up, my dad and I never talked about it, not even when as I entered adulthood, and because neither of spoke of what happened, I never got any answers. I never asked him. I was scared, perhaps. I wonder if he even remembers hitting me then. Physically speaking, I’ve emerged in one piece. I don’t have a scar—nothing to suggest I suffered a second-degree burn. Mentally, though, I was turned inside out. I turned off being present and fell into a waking sleep that lasted four-years. When I finally woke up, I was seven, and then things got worse.

 

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