A few days ago I finished reading The Madonnas of Echo Park. Reading isn’t the right word to describe it..I devoured it, inhaled it. I loved it. I hadn’t really realized how similar a small Hispanic neighborhood in East LA would have with a small Hispanic community in the South Texas city that I grew up in. I I had an idea that it would be similar but the book talked about experiences that resonated with me. It brought back memories of growing up in a neighborhood that existed in between two cultures. My neighbors, the school I went to, the faces that I saw everyday, they could have been the same people that Brando Skyhorse was talking about.
Things were different in our little neighborhood from what I saw on television growing up. Aunts and uncles from different families grew up with each other, family feuds carried on for generations and people knew which houses were working class and which houses you crossed the street to avoid passing by. A whole separate social system was encapsulated within our neighborhood and anything outside of the ‘hood was like a whole other city There were three white kids in my entire high school and I remember their names to this day: Brandi, an athletic blonde, Chris, a transplant from Houston, and Nanette, the red headed girl who got side eyed by the cholas when she showed up one day in Dickies and a black over sized t shirt. After a couple of weeks she was sitting at their table and it wasn’t until she started “messing” with another girl’s boyfriend that people remembered that she didn’t quite fit in.
Life for me was awkward in high school, but in retrospect I don’t think that anyone escaped their teen years unscathed. While most of my school mates wondered how to be down, I was interested by art, feminism, and the riot grrl movement- in a time when gang culture was really taking hold in our little community. Lots of girls got pregnant and lots of boys dropped out of school to get jobs. In my mind boys were toxic. I liked boys, I just didn’t want to get stuck as a teen mom living at home when there was a wide world to explore. I rolled my eyes at the skater boys turned gangsters. Suffice to say that people thought I was weird and at one point got labeled a lesbian because I was one of the only girls who wore combat boots and flannels (it was the 90’s!). On of my worst memories was when, for my senior picture, one of my classmates took pity on me and did my hair and make up, complete with crispy waterfall bangs and bright red lipstick. She was trying to be nice and wanted me to fit in, when in all reality I was just biding my time until I could get the hell out. My husband laughs heartily at that picture whenever he sees it and I still have to restrain myself from putting my hands over it when my mom flashes it at family gatherings.
Skyhorse talks about all of those feelings. The feeling of not quite fitting in where you should feel most comfortable and feeling like you have to groom yourself to fit into where you feel you belong. I wasn’t ashamed of my culture, but I couldn’t find the beauty in a world that I desperately wanted to get away from. I wanted more than life in our neighborhood, where most of my extended family lived. It wasn’t unusual for generations of families to live within blocks of each other, never straying from their little world. The obligation and tradition seemed stiffing and claustrophobic. I got lots of side eye when I would tell my classmates about my dreams of New York, Los Angeles and my plans to see the world.
Duchess, the best friend of the protagonist, struck a chord in me. She reminded me so much of my friend Cindy that it brought tears to my eyes. Cindy (or Cydni as she preferred) became my friend in fourth grade and was my opposite. Where I was pale, lanky and awkward with straight hair, she was bubbly, confident and took pride in the fact that she could pass for Selena’s younger sister. We were thick as thieves in grade school. Together we debated the better qualities of Madonna and Cindy Lauper, learned how to Walk Like an Egyptian and giggled over the Beastie Boys.
As the story often goes, we drifted apart in junior high. Flat chested with braces and glasses, I was the Mexican Jan Brady. Cindy had the nerve to grow boobs and with her friendly, confident personality quickly became one of the cool girls. Still we’d hang out on the weekends and talk on the phone. She was the person who I confessed my first kiss to, the person I smoked my first joint with and the person I got into my first fist fight with. To be fair, we were egged on by a mob of bloodthirsty preteens “ooohing” when an argument over a boy (insert eye roll) got blown out of proportion and who scattered when the assistant principal appeared.
In spite of all of the ups and downs, we remained friends, even when my parents sent me to Catholic school and different social circles pulled us in opposite directions. When I went back to my small public high school my sophomore year, she was the one who helped me bridge the gap between being the girl who “talked like a white kid” and being down enough to skip class with her and her friends. Cindy was cool enough to date G’s (gangsters) and hang out with the two surfer kids in school who would take us on car rides jamming Men at Work’s ” A Land Down Under”. I remember how angry I was when one of her boyfriends blackened her eye for going to the mall without “permission”, and how disgusted I was when she forgave him and drove off with him in his old VW Rabbit. Our last semester of senior year she was trying to get in shape to pass the physical fitness test for the army and was being courted by a recruiter. I felt her disappointment when she found out that she was pregnant and her dreams of seeing the world as a GI Jane ( the picture which hung in her locker) were put on indefinite hold.
Cindy dropped out and moved to Houston to stay with her aunt and I finished my senior year eager to leave. I saw her one more time a few years later. I’d bounced back to my parents house and was trying to hatch another plan to get out of town. By this time the laser focus that I’d had in high school had faltered and I’d discovered drugs and rock and roll and my idea of what counterculture was. It was a cold sunny morning when she knocked at our door and she had the brightest smile when I answered. The disappointment in her face stung as she looked me over saw that I’d changed. We visited for maybe half an hour and she told me how she was going to school to become a teacher, how she loved being a mom and how life in Houston suited her. I remember how surprised I was by how grown up and full of hope she seemed. I remember feeling self conscious and stupid for some of the choices that I’d made and I told her about my missteps in those treacherous years between being a teenager and being an adult The visit was cut short when she got a page from her aunt and told me she had to leave. Right before she got in her car she told me,
“You know Melissa, my mom was a junkie. That’s why I lived with my grandmother, that’s why my aunt raised me. My mom couldn’t get it together enough to be a parent, so she gave me up. You’re too smart for this stuff. I hope you get your shit together girl.”
I didn’t have much to say to her and I stood on the curb watching as she drove off, back to her son, her life as a student teacher, and a future full of possibility.
This amazing book that I read brought all of these memories back to me..my story was different, but the same. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Cindy for the better part of a week now. I wonder if she graduated from college and if she is teaching young minds at a school somewhere, flashing her sunshine smile and dancing when she gets excited. (Remember the Roger Rabbit?) I wonder what her son, who must be in his 20’s, is like. Most of all I wish that I could thank her for caring enough to really take a look at me and tell me that she was disappointed.
Cindy, if you’re out there, I hope that your life is good and you are happy. I miss you girl.
For everyone else, read this book. It captures the essence of growing up Mexican/Hispanic/ Latino without watering down the discomfort and tensions that I think get glossed over in today’s conversations about race. If you don’t read it for that, read it for the beautiful story telling, because after all, who doesn’t like a good story.