Wednesday, August 26, 2009

It's that time again!

It's almost time for school to begin. We are still scrambling to make those final purchases, new shoes, new socks, backpacks and clothes. The kids are trying to squeeze that last bit of fun out of those precious few days they have left. I am trying to squeeze out that last bit of manual labor from them while they are still in my control.

I wonder if they experience those bittersweet feelings that I remember having at the start of the new school year. Sadness about summer being over, no more lazy mornings, no more leisurely days with your friends as you found ways to escape the sweltering heat. No more days of breaking out the slip and slide or going to a friends house and swimming in their pool for 6 hours straight. The excitement of which one of your new, cute outfits will be honored with being chosen for the first day of school. Is your new teacher going to be amazing or will it be one that will make your life a living hell? Hopes that there will be some new students that will become new friends or new crushes for you and all your friends.

I went to Catholic elementary school so those first days of school were a little rough. It was still hot in those early weeks of September and you were forced into the stiff, scratchy, starched white shirt. But, of course, that was not bad enough because the plaid, wool jumper was pulled over the suffocating white shirt. It was torture trying to sit still in class with no air conditioning in those uniforms. To add insult to injury, we walked home in the afternoon heat with our knee high socks pulled all the way up. We couldn't rip that uniform off fast enough when we got home and jumped back into our summer shorts and tanks.

School for me was like being home, in a way. All my friends were there, even the ones that lived on my street. I grew up with these kids from 3rd grade to 8th grade. They were with me when I was the new kid who got yanked back into her desk by her pony tail by a very angry nun. They were with me when the priest yelled at me until I cried at my first confession because I forgot the words to the "Act of Contrition". They watched in horror as I choked on a piece of candy and the only remedy the nun could offer me was a drink at the fountain, which did me no good. She walked me in circles in a state of panic, I guess she was unfamiliar with the Heimlich maneuver. They were my constant companions when my parents divorced. We were there for each other as two of our schoolmates went missing and were eventually discovered murdered by the Hillside Stranglers. They were all my family. Many of us still keep in touch even after being apart for 30 years.

I was heartbroken when my dad pulled me out of school just as we started 8th grade. I begged and pleaded with him to leave me in school to no avail. I was so lonely and I felt so isolated without my friends. I never got to graduate the eighth grade with them or finish my confirmation with them. I missed that very special time that my friends were so fortunate to share with each other.

I never again experienced that sense of connection that I had with these people. High school was not the best experience for me because I knew so few of these people so that feeling of isolation continued until graduation. I don't keep in touch with people from high school. I did, however, go to my 10 year high school reunion. Once I was there I realized that I didn't know any of these people, not really. I never went to another high school reunion again.

Hopefully my kids can experience that sense of connection with their peers the same way I did in elementary school. You spend so much time with your friends at school, you have shared experiences that connect you, sometimes, for life. Those people sometimes make the best lifetimes friends, because they know, better than anyone can, who you really are.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I moved to Orange County from Los Angeles 15 years ago right after I married my husband, he already had a place there and I had been living with my sister. In my mind it was only temporary because I did not want to live here, behind the Orange Curtain, because I heard stories of how racist a lot of these people were.

When I lived in Los Angeles I never thought about, or should I say, never cared about what color people were because everyone I knew was different, which meant, for me at least, that we were all the same.

I never, ever remember feeling self conscious about being Mexican American. All the schools I went to were pretty mixed in terms of race or ethnic backgrounds. Our neighbors who lived across from us when I was in high school were Italian. They shared many of their cultural foods with us, and we did the same in return. We had Mexican, Italian, Irish, and African American friends, at home and at school.

A lot of my mom's friends were Jewish because she worked on Fairfax in a little place across the street from CBS Television Studios.You might think that that's a stereotype of people in the Fairfax district, its not, it's just a fact. I loved talking to these ladies, they were loud and boisterous and opinionated. They smoked and drank and cussed and they were charming and warm and hilarious! Charming because they were real, no excuses.

There was also an older Jewish gentleman who loved to take my little sister and I out to dinner with my mom. He took us to dinner one night, and then to see Little Shop of Horrors on stage. It was our first real theater experience and it was amazing. We went for drinks after the show to a place called La Masia on Santa Monica Blvd. My sister and I drank cokes, I was only 16 and she was 11. I remember that this place seemed pretty swank to me, a virgin of the LA nightlife scene. These were all the most fabulous, interesting people to me.

There was so much culture and history in every place that we knew so when I moved to Irvine, I have to say, it felt a little creepy, a little reminiscent of a "Stepford Wives" movie set. Every house looked the same, every lawn was perfectly manicured, every shopping center was filled with the same restaurant chains and stores. There were the tiny, Nike clad moms pushing strollers up and down the streets. Perfectly coiffed, pedigreed dogs with their rhinestone collars, being obediently walked down those master planned, curvy sidewalks. I was amazed how everything was can I put this....sterile.

I also found a job in Irvine, which was 1 1/2 miles from our new apartment. I started noticing little comments that people at my work would make that were off color, but being in the printing business I was used to "Men Behaving Badly". I was one of very few women in this company and for the most part I tried to ignore all the sexual innuendo that comes with working mostly with men.

One day the president of the company walked into the production area and one of the guys asked him if he was going to the weekend golf trip in Mexico that some of the guys had arranged. His reply was "Why would I go to Mexico?"

The guy who asked the question looked puzzled and asked "What do you mean?"

"What's in Mexico?", by that point we were all confused because everyone knew about the trip and we knew he did as well.

He repeated "What's in Mexico?"

Someone asked him "What do you mean?"

"What's in Mexico.... Mexicans!" was his only response, he glanced at me briefly and walked out of the room.

Of course all the guys laughed because you had to play along if you wanted to be part of the "club". I was infuriated! Did he really just say that? But, I was the new girl so I had to just move on with my day, still confused and pissed, "Do people still really act so stupidly?" The answer is yes.

A few months later, one of the salesman came in with his loud boisterous laugh and started talking about stupid racist things. I said to him, because he was white, "You have no idea how it feels to be treated badly just because of the color of your skin". He said that he could not believe that anyone would treat me badly for that reason so I told him a story about the first job I had outside of LA.

I told him how I went to a local mall near my office to purchase some greeting cards. I stood in a long line and waited forever because it was Valentine's Day. As I walked up to the cashier I gave her the cards that I wanted to purchase and the one that I wanted to exchange from a purchase I made the previous day. So, in front of a long line of customers, this 17 year old twit accused me of stealing the card. We argued as I become insulted and consequently enraged, and I finally just told her that I would never shop in her store again. "Good", as she looked me up and down, "we don't want you in here anyway!"

After I told the salesman this story, he looked shocked and said "I can't believe anyone would accuse you of stealing, you don't even have an accent!" Wow! I had never been involved in this sort of ignorant dialogue until I ventured outside of LA.

I have to say that I was naively confused by it. Confused as to why a bartender would ignore two women sitting a bar waiting for drinks, a nearly empty bar. It couldn't be because I was Mexican and she was African American. That's just ridiculous. But it wasn't, because it happened to us again at a different bar. Then it just started to piss me off.

It pissed me off when we moved into our house in Orange County and our neighbor came over and started to complain about the local public school her son was in. I listened to her story because my kids went to private school and I was curious about our local school. She proceeded to complain that these kids don't speak English and it bothered her and she didn't know what to do. She told me she was afraid. I asked her why she was afraid of these 1st graders! She said "They might have diseases!"

This is the same church going woman who won't let her kids say the word "fart" because it's offensive. She is always talking about Jesus and the bible. I said to her, "Are you really going to stand in the middle of my kitchen and spew out this racist crap? Do you see me, I'm standing here with my kids?" She laughed, "I know, I am so bad, huh?"

We were out with other neighbors who started talking about the "wetbacks" that you can hire. Another neighbor, who, by the way isn't white, told me a story about one of the ladies who lived on our corner. The lady on the corner accused her of stealing peaches off of her tree. "She must have thought I was Mexican", because that scenario, of course made more sense in her mind.

Usually people come up with their feeble attempts at rationalization when they are caught being just plain ignorant. My favorite one is "Oh, but you're not one of those Mexicans, we are not talking about you." Or, "Hey, its just a joke, you know!"

Or maybe they are talking about people like my dad, who did a lot of janitorial work, he did every job he could get his hands on to feed his kids and put them in Catholic school. Would these people consider him "one of those"? He's not well dressed, or well spoken but he's hard working, dedicated, conscientious and takes care of his family.

Apparently, to some people we are a low class, thieving, diseased, uncivilized lot. But if you ask these people if they considered themselves to be racist, they would not....because they're not talking about you!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I just realized that summer is almost over. It went by so fast, but doesn't it always seem that way? Anything that feels good always seems to slip away too quickly. Like those last few moments of a breathtaking sunset, the ones that pull your attention away from whatever it is that you are doing. You stop, and you're mesmerized as you see it disappear into that small sliver of warmth, and then it's gone, forever. Not sunsets, but this sunset, no two are ever the same, just like this summer, it is unique unto itself, as it should be.

I find that my children spend their summers so differently than we spent ours.

When I was a kid, we didn't have a pool and we couldn't go out and buy that cool Slip 'n Slide that we were in awe of during the commercial breaks of our Bugs Bunny cartoons. But all was not lost, there was fun to be found everywhere and we were not to be stopped in our pursuit of it, as well as some much needed cooling off.

We took large plastic trash bags, cut them open and made a track that we could fling our bodies on as the garden hose streamed water down the center. Our lawn had a slight slope to it so it was a beautiful thing. It was no less fun just because it wasn't that bright blue color that we saw on television. We laughed and squealed just as loud as any kid whose parents had the money to spend on such frivolity.

There were no beach towels that mom brought out to us, we laid on the warm sidewalk to dry off. I remember how the concrete smelled as I lay there shivering and waiting patiently as the sun and the sidewalk warmed and dried my skirted swimsuit. We tried to make funny shapes on the dry sidewalk, just as kids do in the snow. They were our own version of snow angels.

We also ran through the sprinklers, not automatic sprinklers but we broke out that funny looking contraption that swayed to and fro and wet the lawn from one side and back to the other. Jumping over the sprinkler or under the spray of the cold blasts, we took turns refreshing ourselves.

Mom would bring out huge slices of watermelon to us that she got on her weekly trips to central market in downtown L.A. I remember those crates of fruit she would come home with in the summer. Yes, crates, she had 7 children after all. They were filled with sweet, crunchy green grapes, black, syrupy plums and fragrant, fuzzy peaches.

Sitting on the curb, plunging our little faces into the flesh of red watermelon slices, we would spit those black slippery seeds into the streets because we weren't allowed to eat that mess in the house. There were contests of who could spit the seeds that farthest or highest. Oh, and the scary tales of how you would grow a watermelon in your belly if you accidentally swallowed one of the seeds. Laughing at the very thought of watermelon protruding out of your belly as if you were pregnant.

When we got thirsty after all of our running around, we would drink water from the hose which would inevitably turn into a crazed water fight, and we were wet, again. There was no cooler filled with juice boxes or a refrigerator in our garage filled with a variety of sodas that we were free to pilfer. Mom didn't come out with a beautiful glass pitcher filled with icy lemonade and a tray of glasses. This was real life. It was the hose but if we were really lucky, we might get some Kool-aid, which we absolutely loved by the way.

On our more ambitious days, we would venture to the public pool at the recreation center which was about a mile away. Walking in a group, with friends from the neighborhood, we had our rolled towels with our swimsuits tightly tucked inside the roll and firmly tucked underneath our arms. It was 25 cents to gain entry into the pool. Girls locker room on the right and boys locker room on the left. The locker room floors were always wet and cold and it was a challenge to keep our clothes dry while were changing. We couldn't get into our swimsuits fast enough. We were given these net like bags to put our clothes in and the bag went into a locker. The locker key was on some sort of industrial looking safety pin which you had to attach to your suit so you wouldn't lose it while you were swimming.

The locker rooms were dark so when we walked out to the pool area it was like walking into Nirvana. It was bright, with the sun reflecting off the water and the mass of concrete that surrounded it. There was lots of screaming and splashing going on and you could feel the excitement building and that little bit of anxiety you have just before you plunge yourself into what you know will be icy waters. The pool was rectangular with 2 shallow ends on either side and deep water in the center. You could see the big black letters marking the depths from 3 feet to 9 feet. There was a diving platform in the center with 2 levels. You were pretty amazing if you jumped off the high dive!

Other days, my brothers would take us all down to the wash by Arroyo Seco golf course, over on the nicer part of town. We would all gather up golf balls that went astray and wound up in the wash. We would find as many golf balls as we could because if we could fill up a basket, the golf course would give us a free round of miniature golf!

Collecting glass bottles was also very lucrative, we would get 5 cents for each bottle that we returned to the grocery store, and we filled up shopping carts sometimes. Taking our change to Thrifty Drug Stores, we would get ice cream, 1 scoop for 10 cents, 2 for 20 and 3 scoops for 25 cents. The rest of the money would go to filling up little brown paper bags with as much candy as we could buy with the money that we just made.

So, I find myself at a loss for words when my own 2 kids, who have their own playroom, television, 2 game systems, 3 dogs, Ipods, bikes, Razor scooters, balls, bats, books, puzzles, who live walking distance from parks and the library, tell me, they are bored!

In the pursuit to give our kids a better life, I often wonder if that is indeed what we have given them.

We made our own fun. We would be out of the house from morning til my father stood on the porch at dinner time and whistled. Kids came running from every direction because it was time to come home.

It was sunset and that tiny sliver of warmth was gone again, as was another day of our summer adventures.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Dog Days

We have three dogs, well because I don't have the good sense God gave me (as my mom would say). It is a little ironic because I never really considered myself a dog person. I consider myself more of a cat person, for which I have two. As for dogs, we have Elmo, a 13 year old beagle, Sushi, an eight year old mutt who looks like a Dingo and a 17 month old puppy who is half Boxer and half Rhodesian Ridegback. We named her Sashimi, Sasha for short.

I grew up with lots of cats and dogs. I think once we had over 20 cats because my mom never fixed our cats and consequently, we could have up to 3 new litters at one time. Now that I think about it, I don't know why she never fixed them, maybe it's a cultural thing. I personally believe that cats are easier than dogs. I know there is a lot of hate out there in the world for my furry feline friends but I don't care. To know cats is to love them.

I got my puppy Sasha in the fall of 2008 a few months after I was laid off and I was experiencing a moment of weakness and vulnerability. I was supposed to be out buying a lamp and to my surprise they were having adoption day at Petsmart, right next to the store I was headed for to shop for lamps. I love to look at the puppies so I decided to take a little detour to cheer myself up.

And there it was, that face! I had to hold her. A few of her litter mates were cuter but there was something about that face! I asked to hold her and she immediately curled into a ball and nuzzled her way into my neck and fell fast asleep. I was in love! She slept in my arms for a good twenty minutes while I contemplated the future of my marriage if I dared bringer her home, we already had 2 dogs. I knew if I called and asked my husband about it he would refuse me. Although, I did make one feeble attempt to call and since no one answered I took that as a yes.

I have been married for 15 years and I consider myself to be a very pragmatic and reasonable person. But not this time, I wanted it and I was going to have it, to hell with everyone else. Something for me and only me, decided by me. I mean really, what was he going to do, leave me because of a dog, I can handle the silent treatment for a few days.

I drove up to the house, with puppy sitting in my lap and to my good fortune my husband was standing outside talking to the neighbor. He looked over at me and then the smile immediately disappeared from his face, he turned and walked away from as I pulled into the driveway. "Oh crap" I thought. He called the kids out and said, "Look what your mom did, and don't get attached because it's going back!"

The kids squealed with excitement and said "Oh mommy, she's so cute!"

So I spent a lot of money and time on this dog, who of course immediately got sick and needed supplements and special dog food. She had bad diarrhea and it was raining all the time so she had many accidents in the house because she hated the rain. I nursed her back to health and bought her cute pink collars with matching leashes, which she promptly chewed to bits. More collar and leash purchases, more destruction. She got bigger and bigger and bigger and each time, larger collars need to be purchased to fit around her neck, which met the same fate as the previous sparkly adornments that I could never resist.

I watched The Dog Whisperer every day so I could be the best mommy possible. I was determined that she would be the best dog in the world. We ventured to our local dog park like they do on TV, because it just the place to be for any self respecting dog lover. She made fast friends and was the life of the party and mommy got to socialize with all the other "Mommies" and "Daddies".

We spent close to 2 hours every day at the dog park and I found that each day seemed to fly by so quickly. How many hours a day was I spending on this dog? It was like having another child! Perhaps she was exactly what I needed, a project. After all, I had no job and my future prospects were quite grim. I think it was a great thing for me, even though it made absolutely no sense on paper.

Sasha is now as much a part of this family as the rest of us, whether they have 2 legs or 4.

Unfortunately, Elmo's health has taken a sudden decline since his 13th birthday just this past February and I can see that it is time to make that very difficult decision. His arthritis is so bad that he can only walk on 3 legs and he is beginning to lose control of his bodily functions. It is very sad to watch, sadder still to see my husband in denial about what he needs to do. I understand, so I do not push him too hard about it. I only wish he could see that the time has come to say goodbye to his friend who was there for him when he was weak and vulnerable.

Cheers to Elmo and all that he has given to his daddy!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

My earliest memory is from the house we lived in, right off the Harbor freeway at the Florence exit in south Los Angeles. OK, before you jump to any conclusions, as you do, we did not live under the freeway. Just 2 houses away from it.

But, I digress. I was standing in my crib late one night and I was flicking the light switch on and off. It was hilarious. Hilarious because the other 4 people sleeping in my room (yes, everybody, 5 people sleeping in a room, how very unoriginal) didn't know what the heck was going on. I laughed and laughed, until my mom came in and smacked my hand and laid me back down in my crib as I continued to giggle. "Go to sleep" she growled.

Once mom left, I stood back up and continued my act only to be received by more groans and anger from my captive audience which, by the way, consisted of my 3 older sisters and my grandmother. Oh but, here she comes again, and she is not amused! I could here those staccato footsteps coming across the house (probably only 10 or 12 steps, small house you know) with rapid determination. "Smack". A reprimand followed, I can't remember what it was (for God's sake, I was only about 2, what do you people expect?). I do remember that it was forced through clenched teeth. The crib suddenly jerked as I stumbled back down onto my bottom, watching the light switch get farther and farther out of my reach. Mom had pulled the crib away from the wall and shut out the light with a quick smack against the wall. I can still hear those staccato footsteps as they disappeared to the other side of the house.

There were 9 people living in our house at that time, 6 kids, one grandmother and 2 parents. It's important to note that we were Catholic. The house was 2 bedrooms and there was a small room at the back of the house, I think it was some sort of laundry room or something like that. Anyway, it was turned into a makeshift room with a trundle bed for my 2 brothers. All the girls and grandma slept in the second bedroom and mom and dad slept in the front bedroom.

My dad worked 2, sometimes 3 jobs at a time to take care of all of us. The jobs that I can remember he had were butcher, janitor for a doctor's office and for a print shop. Sometimes he would take a few of us with him and I thought it was very exciting. We would take some of the candy from the doctor's office candy jar. OK, here is the real scary part, we would take the used syringes out of the trash cans (yes people, there were no bio-hazard locked containers for such nasty items back then) and we would take out the used, bent needle and keep the syringe part so we could take it home and play doctor. Wow!

My mom also worked as a cocktail waitress and later as a bartender. Now that I think about it, how the hell did these people find time to make so many babies? They even had one more after me? Oh, I forgot, we were Catholic....and Mexican! That's equivalent to rabbits on crack.

I hope that was enough to satisfy your need for stereotypes. Let's move on...

My life couldn't be any more different now. I live in the OC, or as we Angelenos like to call it, "Behind the Orange Curtain". I am married to a gringo, I have 2 kids and a pretty large house and I can't hear the freeway when I lay my head down at night. We both are currently unemployed and the kids visit their grandparents at their private country club in Palm Desert.

So I know what you are thinking, I sold out for the big house. First off, my house is not that fabulous and I would never be allowed on the Real Housewives of Orange County, besides, my sisters would drive out here and beat the hell out of me if that ever happened.

Yes, I married a man whose parents had money and lived on a private country club in the "Desert", that's how we OC people refer to the place where we golf, tan and spa! My husband had a skyrocketing career with a Fortune 100 company and he took me on lots of tropical vacations every year. So I married him! OK, don't be rude, I married him because I could see under that pompous, Republican, crusty outer shell, there was soft hearted, loving, loyal human being who let me be as crazy as I am. No excuses.

But, all the material aspirations came to a grinding halt, for a myriad of reasons, or as George Lopez would say "I can't have nuthin"!

Out of 15 years of marriage, 12 have been a struggle due to health, unemployment, financial and marital challenges. And we are still here, still together. Together because we want to be. Don't get me wrong, there have been many times when both of us have contemplated throwing in the towel because it has been hard, harder than I could have ever imagined.

Now we live the stereotypical life of every other person who worked hard for a nice place to live, financial security, and good medical care. It's all gone, no security, no assurances that we will have this place to live in and no promises that we can make to our children for their college education. We can promise them that no matter what, we will do everything to keep them safe, healthy and loved.

Monday, August 10, 2009

In the Beginning..

Let's start this with a little intro. Born and raised in California (lucky me), I am about to turn 45 and I currently reside in Orange County. A really nice, quiet, understated town in the OC. We don't live in a mini mansion or one of those prestigious communities that you are always hearing about in the media. We don't live behind a gate and I don't think there is one pair of plastic breasts anywhere on our street. I know you might be shocked and even disbelieving, but it's true! I have 2 kids, my daughter is 13 and "hell on wheels" and my son is 10 with a heart as big as California.

As with many Californians , my husband I are both currently unemployed, teetering on the brink of financial disaster. OK, relax, this is not going to some huge sob story about how my life sucks, because it doesn't. Don't get me wrong, it's hard, I mean really, really hard!!!! And there are lots of reasons for that which will be revealed as we move this dialog along.

We (my husband and I) like to look at things in a way that's best for us to manage the "Mountain of Mayhem" that is our life. If we can get through today alive, healthy, productive and relatively unscathed, then it's a good day! We don't worry about next week or next year, or how we are going to pay for college, or the mortgage for that matter. After 15 years of marriage and managing our way through each and every crisis, we have to come the realization that life doesn't follow a plan, even the one you might have made for next week, or tomorrow. We have 2 great kids, a bunch of crazy pets, a pretty solid relationship that has been through the ringer, a nice house (for now), some really great friends and our 2 dysfunctional, fascinating families.

The purpose of this blog is to share some stories with you that may hopefully dispel some myths about Latin people in your communities, health care lies, family life in the OC, work, struggle, survival and some really fun, crazy, heartbreaking stories along the way.

Until next time....