Why, in the minds of most Americans, are Latinas still thought of as maids, seductresses, and booty-shaking salsa divas?
Never has the concept of Latina identity been more relevant. Also, never has there been a new generation of Latinas so ready to say what they mean and even criticize the Latina generation that preceded them. Until now.
In Border-Line Personalities, twenty writers share their poignant and wickedly funny stories about fighting with their mothers, struggling with speaking Spanish, and dealing with the men who've done them wrong, among a myriad of other topics. In the end, each essay encompasses a different point of view, lending credence to the theory that no one can label any one item, idea, or person more Latina than the other.
Questions posed to Latinas of all ages in Border-Line Personalities:
A Picture of Us
by Robyn Moreno
I'm not sure exactly whose idea it was to celebrate m mom's fifty-fifth birthday at Graceland. But somehow I found myself standing in front of Elvis's rather modest mansion with a candle in my hand, along with my family and the thousands of other lunatics who had come to pay homage to the King. After three hours of worship, I was fantasizing about fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches when my older sister, Nevia, snapped me out of my reverie. She asked me to take her picture with a suspiciously effeminate Elvis impersonator. Like a true king, he grabbed her by the waist and started serenading "Love Me Tender." Her squeals of delight caught the attention of my other two sisters, Yvette and Bianca, who ran up and joined in the fun. After the impromptu performance, they cheered and clapped loudly. "Elvis" bowed his head humbly and mumbled a "Thank you, thank you very much." As they huddled into a photogenic position, I realized this particular Elvis had breasts. Hmmmm. Either no one noticed or, more likely, no one cared. As I peered through the camera at the three girls and the lesbian Elvis, I saw the truth, No matter which road I travel, all paths lead me back to my crazy family.
We weren't always lesbian Elvis worshippers. The second of four daughters, I had a pretty typical Mexican-American childhood in San Antonio, Texas, replete with dance classes, annual road trips to California, and even a pet goat. I was always thought of as the good daughter. At parties my mom was fond of boasting to friends and relatives about my straight As and other achievements, as Nevia dug through my mom's purse to steal the car keys.
Nevia is six years older than I am, so while I was playing with dolls, she was toying with boys. My little sister Yvette is three years younger, and Bianca, the baby, is seven years younger. I've always thought we were spaced perfectly. Close enough to play together, but not so close as to suffer the horror of actually attending school simultaneously. We got along as could be expected. After school Nevia smoked cigarettes and hung out with her friends. Without her as our babysitter, I improvised, emceeing our eighties version of American Idol. (Yvette and Bianca were particularly fond of belting out ballads from Whitney Houston and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam.)
If I was feeling particularly evil, I would inflict tickle torture on them, or give them nightmares by telling stories of La Liorona, a woman who drowned her kids, or La Chusa, a crazy devil bird that ate children. When I felt especially sisterly, we would scrounge the house for change and run to the corner store for dill pickles and chamoy.
Those carefree afternoons ended when I was thirteen. My dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I knew him as a hardworking man who barbecued every Sunday and took us to the park on his motorcycle. He had two degrees, in political science and biology, and in his day he was into "Brown Power" and the Chicano movement. My good grades put me in his good graces, and he enrolled us both in an evening computer course. Every Tuesday after work he would come home and change, and we would take off in his van to the local high school. We always stopped for a snack before, usually donut and coffee (Coke for me), then attended the class, where I was the only kid. Having to always fight for attention with my three sisters, I truly treasured this time spent alone, this special attention he paid to me. I relished my role as a good girl.
At the end of my eighth-grade year, my father complained of stomach pains and was initially misdiagnosed with gall stones. When they operated to remove them, they discovered it was in fact a malignant pancreatic tumor. They informed him and my mom, who eventually told Nevia; they felt that, a nineteen, she was old enough to understand. Nothing was ever explained to me and my little sisters, but intuitively we knew, would round the corner in my house to find my sister and dad embracing. On the way to school, my mom would cry in the car. My dad's religiously fanatic sisters would come over with bizarre entourage, forming a prayer circle around his bed. We began to live in hospitals. Once, I was ordered to keep him company and, as I sat by his bed, we watched TV in silence. Bored and uncomfortable, I excused myself and climbed onto the roof from a waiting area window, where I read for the rest of the afternoon. When I came back my cousin was with him, so went home. He told my mom not to bring me back. I was a worthless sitter. He died on Valentine's Day, ten months after being diagnosed. He was forty-seven.
It was a violent and unexpected departure in the framework of our family, and our lives would forever be characterized in terms of before and after. Before our father's death, we seemed to be a relatively normal family. After his death, we five girls (Mom included) were left alone, and we developed a serious dependence on each other that formed the basis of our relationship. To this day, I have spoken with either my mom or one of my sisters (or all of the above) every day of my life.
After the death, we moved, and I was transferred to a predominantly white school that seemed like 90210 to me. They had school-sponsored ski trips, huge pep rallies, and kids named Sunny and Tyler who drove BMWs. It was a huge change from the all-Mexican high school I just left.
I went from being vice-president of my old school's freshman class to eating lunch by myself. Eventually, I created a role for myself as a smart, well-mannered girl and eventually fit in by joining the debate club and dating a Jewish boy named Mitch ...