Son of Chuquín
I often wonder who would I be without this stubborn, perennial image—my mother in bed in the dark, lying like a corpse, only her eyes and her mouth moving, talking to me as if reminiscing and at the same time prescribing a course for my life, anticipating perhaps losing me sooner rather than later, suspecting, although not necessarily wishing, that our voices playing in the dark would be all I’d be left with to explain my most secret sense of loss.
“Think big, now, Quique. What would you like to study?”
“I don’t know, Mom. I already told you so many times.”
“Well, something has to come to your mind, right?”
“At school, they gave us a test last week. It said I’m supposed to be an architect or a coach, a tennis coach, I guess.”
“I don’t see the relationship between those two options to tell you the truth, dear.”
“It said that I should look for a profession that combines science and art.”
“Well, I just don’t see where the science or the art is in being a tennis coach.”
“It actually came out as choreographer, but since the teacher and I didn’t know anything about choreography, he said it could be interpreted as some sort of coach. And since he knew I like to play tennis …”
“So the teacher modified the results of the test just because he didn’t know what a choreographer is?”
“I guess so.”
“That’s kind of nuts. The real problem, though, is that he didn’t give you any options.”
“Architect is an option, isn’t it?”
“Maybe in theory. In practice, the architects I know don’t make any money because they’re just drawing stuff for engineers; they’re the ones who have the resources to actually build.”
“Maybe I should be an engineer, then.”
“That’s a wise choice, dear. A very wise choice, don’t you think? ’Cause I don’t think you want to become another Chuquín, do you?”
“I guess not.”
Chuquín was my tennis coach. Actually, he was more than that. As a joke, although more like an insult, my friends called me Son of Chuquín. I was supposed to feel ashamed of him (and my connection with him) because he was dark, short, skinny, and rather peculiar. “A cocky, puny little thing of an Indian,” my mother used to say. Chuquín, by the way, was used to being mocked. And to make sure everybody knew he didn’t care, he walked with the most upright, super-erect posture in town, his chest leading the way like a puffed up pigeon marching in front of an imaginary military parade.
Having been Chuquín’s tennis student since I was six (he liked to call me his disciple), I was more than aware of his peculiar side. Somehow, though, I never gave in to the pressure to ridicule him. He had a way of teaching, not only tennis, but his own defiant version of how to respond to “the cruel laughter of the world” that, as a clandestinely rebellious kid, I found admirable. Even my mother, despite her unwavering prejudice toward dark-skinned people, had to respect him for that.
You could blame my father, I suppose, for bringing Chuquín to our lives. They weren’t exactly friends, but they were born in the same small town in the highlands of central Peru and considered helping each other “in exile” a moral duty, which given Chuquín’s starving tennis-coach lifestyle and my father’s solidly established businessman credentials meant that my father could play his favorite public role with Chuquín: the generous sports benefactor who is always donating trophies, uniforms, and footwear to all sorts of teams, tournaments, and coaches.
Where did my father’s fondness for sports come from? I still wonder. He was the most unathletic person I’d ever known. Walking the three blocks from our house to his import-export store was nothing short of “a cruel and vile form of punishment,” as he liked to say. The only plausible explanation I could come up with was that he’d somehow figured out this was a most cost-effective way of promoting his business in town.
In stark contrast, my mother cared nothing for sports or sponsoring them. What attracted her to tennis was its potential as a vehicle for social advancement. She had a college degree but no money. My father had money but very little in the way of formal education. Tennis was supposed to help with this imperfect union. Sending me to the only American school in town was also part of her upwardly mobile master plan.
“I just want you to grow up to be a successful professional, dear,” she would say to me, trying to justify why I had to learn tennis. “It’s the perfect sport for a promising young man.” And if she felt the need to buttress her argument with an actual reason, a reason that couldn’t be contested, she’d add: “You have to be proud of your English roots, okay? Tennis is part of that.”
To push things even further along this God-save-the-Queen direction, Chuquín happened to be as obsessed as my mother with everything English, although he couldn’t claim a real or imaginary genetic connection. For him, it was enough that England had invented tennis, “the most civilized of all sports.” Ergo, England had to be “the most civilized of all nations.” Which made him, according to his unique logic, a lot more than a tennis coach. He saw himself as a crusader. He was helping to bring civilization to Peru.
Despite my mother’s and Chuquín’s odd Anglo-Saxon convergence, though, there was one critical difference between them. My mother’s belief in England as the bastion of civilization was tempered (Chuquín would’ve probably said corrupted) by her preference for the U.S. As she liked to say to her faithful cadre of girlfriends over Darjeeling tea and homemade butter cookies, “I think we can agree that the English Empire has been successfully replaced by the American, which lacks class, no doubt, but it’s decisively more future-oriented, don’t you agree?”
By training with Chuquín, anyway, I wasn’t only being prepared to be the next Peruvian tennis champ, I was being groomed to be “a perfect English gentleman,” an ontological category I couldn’t have cared less about. What was important to me, and probably the only reason their Anglo-Saxon conspiracy worked so well, was that nothing in the realm of physical activity, aside from masturbation and cumbia dancing, gave me as much pleasure. Call it a precocious, perverted proclivity toward banal hedonism, but getting up at six every morning to run after a ball had to be one of my most consistent sources of joy as a child and teenager. And although I often pretended to be annoyed by having to be up and ready to walk out the door by Chuquín’s second ringing of the bell (daylight not yet the victor over darkness outside my bedroom window), I looked forward to playing tennis every morning with undiminished enthusiasm.
Before the actual tennis lesson, though, the two of us had to parade. Dressed in white and wearing shorts, let’s say we stood out from the other early risers “like a pair of fags in a whorehouse,” as my friends liked to say. Yet we kept on walking as proud as could be. Which was the only way Chuquín knew how to walk anyway—pretending we were strolling down the streets of Wimbledon or Oxford and that playing tennis first thing in the morning was as established a local tradition as flying kites after school in the spring, escaping to the beach in the summer, crashing parties on weekends, flirting during Sunday communion, and going back home feeling totally purified, eager to start sinning from scratch once again.
One more crucial detail, Chuquín walked joined at the hip to this gigantic two-speed bicycle packed like a burro with old rackets and dark, hairless tennis balls coming out of ripped plastic bags. And as he walked, he had to lecture me (and anybody who could hear him), about his favorite subject: the art of winning.
“’Cause to tell you the truth, Henry, I’d rather lose with style than win without it.”
I was always Henry to Chuquín. Never Quique or Enrique. Sometimes Henry V or VIII, depending on his mood.
“I mean anybody can win. But to do it with style, well, that’s the most difficult thing to master in life, Henry. The most, most difficult.”
“Your grandfather Enrique was the best tennis player ever in Tacna and Arica, you know that, right?”
“I know, Mom. You’ve told me that a million times.”
“Well, I just want to make sure you’re a good keeper of the torch, okay? Your brother is so useless, my God.”
“You also told me he was an incredible singer and guitar player. How come you never want me to play the guitar?”
“I’ve told you, honey. Your grandma suffered too much because of it. He’d disappear for days on end. He’d go from one party to the next, non-stop. Everybody wanted him playing and singing waltzes at their parties. He didn’t know how to say no. I just don’t want you imitating his bad side. Do you understand, dear?”
Actually, I didn’t want to.
Maybe I should say, I simply couldn’t. By the end of high school, I was the lead singer and bass player for Los Conchesumadres (The Motherfuckers), the most foul-mouthed, underground, garage-cumbia band in the history of Tacna. I wasn’t any good at it, but it didn’t matter. We played anti-establishment cumbia. It was meant to provoke and torment. We were ahead of our time, even ahead of the Brits and the Americans who hadn’t yet come up with punk rock. Anyway, I suspected she knew about my fertile underground punk-cumbia life. I also trusted she’d never mention it.
We had an understanding. It was written on the invisible pages of our mother-son contract. There were subjects tacitly deemed unsuitable for our late-night conversations. My grandmother’s blackness, item number one on the list. My aunt Rosamelia’s sexual preference for women, also number one. And another number one, the unspoken prohibition to mention my grandfather’s controversial-heroic-anti-heroic death. In general, though, anything my mother considered distasteful was barred from our nightly chats. As she liked to say to me in a slightly affected confessional tone, “Please, darling, just tell me beautiful, happy stories. There’s already enough ugliness and tragedy in this world.”
Dutifully, responsibly, obligingly, I stuck to the permissible and avoided the taboo. You could say I made an art form of it.
The Unthinkable Future, the Indiscernible Present, the Past’s Insufferable Weight
“So what do you think about going to study abroad, darling?”
I always admired the way my mother could talk lying in bed perfectly still, like a mummy, a mummy who’d wait for me no matter how late I came back home, which shouldn’t be understood as a some sort of selfless, motherly act. She simply could never sleep. At least that’s what she claimed, and not without pride, believing herself morally superior to the rest of us because of it.
My father, on the other hand, slept “like a narcoleptic,” according to my mother. And she acted as if there was something terribly wrong with him for being able to set aside his daily worries and tribulations and fall asleep until the next morning at seven-thirty. Always at seven thirty, when he’d tiptoe to the bathroom, farting and whistling tangos for our morning entertainment. He slept in a tiny bed, too. Impossible not to notice since my mother’s bed was three times as big. Maybe that was his punishment for his inconsiderate narcolepsy. Or maybe for being “a goddamned man,” as my aunt Rosamelia, who lived with us, would say so we never forget that in our household women were in charge.
“Like the U.S., darling.”
“Your father and I have been talking about it because, as you know, it’s becoming more and more dangerous to be a young man in Peru. These war games with Chile aren’t going to end well. And I’d probably not care if we lived in Lima, but we live right at the border, dear. The whole town’s already become a giant military base. Now you and your classmates are going to have to spend Saturdays in military training. And that’s just the beginning.”
“All I can say is I’m sick and tired of all these young officers taking over the town, and how they just have to show off their latest sport cars, their expensive sunglasses, imported blue jeans and holier-than-thou attitude. I mean all the good-looking girls only have eyes for them now.”
“Well, once the war starts, I don’t think they’ll have time to run after good-looking girls, if that’s any consolation. They’ll always be better off than us civilians, though. My God, where does this thirst for revenge come from? Don’t they realize that the Chileans are going to beat us to shame just like they did a hundred years ago? We’re so useless, my God. All posing and bravado.”
“Maybe we’ll beat them this time, Mom.”
“Look at you, talking about war as if there were winners and losers, as if you could trust anything this communist government says. What does it matter if we win anyway? We’re doomed to become another Cuba, which is no fun, let me tell you. That’s why your father and I have been talking about you going to California, dear. We’re too old to start all over. But you’re at the perfect age. Remember my dear friend Martha? Remember she has a brother who went to Australia? Well, he lives in San Francisco now. He can help you get settled. Eventually you could even bring your brother with you.”
I can’t say that my mother’s proposition wasn’t provocatively tempting. Its temptation, however, had very little to do with escaping a war with Chile or the fear of becoming a subject of a more totalitarian regime. What seemed irresistible to my seventeen-year-old self was the romantic (and clichéd, of course) promise of unlimited adventures in a foreign land with no adult supervision. And if in order to accomplish that I had to make an effort to empathize with and validate my mother’s worst fears I was more than willing to do it. I didn’t need her or anybody explaining to me how hard it had been for her to earn her upper-middle-class status, or to tell me how traumatic it must have been for her to live as child through a military occupation, although her memories of it were shockingly positive. I understood my mother, or better yet, I understood what made her think and feel the way she did, which included playing the mummy in bed every night as if to outwit her omnivorous anxiety, pretending to be numb and immune to history’s contingencies, which, in turn, might also explain why she failed to foresee the military coup (yes, yet another coup) that would steer Peru away from war and communism. The best resolution she could’ve hoped for. Too bad it came too late for comfort.
I mean, by then, I wasn’t only gone to a foreign land but was eagerly adopting San Francisco as my new home. Or to put it in even more irrevocable terms, I had already discovered the strange and almost perverse pleasure of reinventing myself as an American. And she had only herself to blame for it.
To make things even more distant between us, although I’m not sure it was a conscious decision, I decided I was the wrong person to provide her with any kind of solace. As a refugee from a communist regime that didn’t take hold and a war that never happened, I was in too much of a rush to let go of a past that felt awkwardly alien to me, a past that had less to do with me than with my mother’s designs for me.
The War Against all Wars
Then there was the war, a real one. Actually, there were two wars. And the passion with which I embraced the war against the war could only be understood, I suppose, if one considers that a part of me felt in desperate need of genuine immigrant pathos. I wanted to make up for what history had deprived me of. A war (or an anti-war in this case) was just the perfect setting to finally launch my own epic and be, by my own design, the hero of my own movie.
None of this was lived at a rational level, of course. I was simply responding to what surrounded me, including the curated Vietnam War images that a few newspapers and TV stations broadcasted for our sentimental and political education. What was I suppose to do, anyway, with the horrific self-immolations executed with unfathomable self-possession by Buddhist monks in protest against America? Or the scalding orange rivers running wild across the jungle, like lava, turning everything in its path into fluorescent ash? Or the tormented, frightened-beyond-fear faces of “our enemies” looking at the camera just before their heads exploded and their brains splattered on the ground?
Besides, most of my new friends (none of them from the Engineering Department) were actively involved in all sorts of anti-war marches and protests. I really didn’t have to do much to become one of them—a true pain-in-the-ass provocateur, witness and occasional victim to an organized, thuggish form of violence that came dressed in blue and never let go of us. It would’ve helped, of course, to have a better command of English to truly bear witness to my times, but what I lacked in eloquence I made up for in fervor, verve, and dedication to babbling on about charging horses, barking German shepherds, tear gas, malicious blows landing on young, idealistic, defenseless bodies, refusing to retreat or to stop expressing their righteous discontent.
Meanwhile, the more I delved into the muddy, early-seventies American cauldron, the more my provincial, Peruvian memories (how could I not notice?) faded in the distance, acquiring a quasi-pre-historical quality. To my surprise, though, no matter how foreign and distinctly irrelevant to my American life my past seemed, it continued to play an active, commanding role in my new life if only because Mother and Aunt Rosamelia, resolutely and unabashed, found a way to impress their opinions and desires on me just as they always had. In fact, now they had even more influence. Now that they had managed to trick time and space, they could live within me and come and go at will, and bring my pre-American persona and pre-historical universe back to life even when I didn’t want to deal with it, or maybe I should say, especially when I wanted to forget all about it.
The Pre-historical Heart of the Matter
So, yes, or maybe I should say no. This isn’t an immigrant saga. My life in the U.S., although essential, isn’t this tale’s central concern. This is all about, I’m afraid, the actors and forces that came before my American reinvention. In other words, maybe all I’m trying to do here is answer (with a modicum of wickedness) one single question, actually two. But let’s start with the question posed to me most promiscuously since the moment I arrived in San Francisco: What brought you here, man?
That is, I came here to go to college was (is) more of a shield than a portal through which I could reveal how Mother, Chuquín, Father, and Aunt Rosamelia, the essential components of my pre-history, worked together to create the first version of myself.
The second question, the one nobody asks and that I find most fascinating, would be how is it that the same old voices from your past keep on defining not only who you are but how you write your own narrative? Or to be more to the point, how is it that my mother keeps on prescribing my future (even if I eventually went and still go against her wishes), while my aunt informs how I talk about my past, which might be why in my memory (and imagination) the two of them have to be endlessly dueling.
Before delving into their eternal war, though, I’d like to go back to my mother. For she is the one and only adult in my pre-American world who not only drilled me and guided me but, like Moses, once she felt I was prepared to step onto the Promise Land, let go of me, something for which I never thanked her, but then nobody thanked Moses for anything either, he just did what he had to do and that was it.
“So are you ready, Quique? I know you’re tired. But one more rehearsal isn’t going to kill you, right? I’m not supposed to be nice to you, remember? I’m mean and rude. Like a grumpy cop. Let’s see, young man, I see you have a tourist visa. What’s your reason for traveling to the United States of America? May I know?”
“I’m going to visit Disneyland, sir. It’s been my dream ever since I was a little boy. I want to visit San Francisco and Los Angeles. I want to see the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, Universal Studios.”
“And why are you carrying those rackets with you? It doesn’t seem like you’d have much time to play tennis.”
“Come on, dear, you know you can’t pause like that. He’s going to think you’re lying. You’re supposed to say you’re a tennis champ. Americans love champs. They’re totally into winners. They can’t stand losers. As a matter of fact, they send them back to their countries or they put them in jail. So for Christ’s sake, try to sound more convincing, okay? Let’s start all over again.”
War hysteria and rigid drilling methodology aside, my mother’s dedication to making sure I was optimally prepared to clear U.S. Customs & Immigration and be on my own (no matter where I went) was genuinely honest. Her meticulous dedication, however, wasn’t unique to her or my family. Being constantly pressured to be prepared to leave town as soon as you were done with high school, especially if you had the means, was an essential part of growing up in Tacna in those days. If you stayed, you could study to be a nurse or a teacher. Those were your college degree options. That’s why, now I understand, almost every adult man in Tacna in those days was a merchant, a contrabandist, or both. Well, not only because of that.
According to our unique border-town mentality, smuggling merchandise to and from Chile was considered a patriotic duty, a unique way of keeping Tacna and Arica united despite the fact that they no longer belonged to the same country, a humble tribute to our ancestors who’d heroically fought against the Chileans and later endured their occupation. We’re talking about contraband as a sublime form of heroism. Which might sound funny, but the subject matter isn’t necessarily a shallow one. In fact, it runs deep and often undetected inside all of us Tacnenians. One could argue we have been successfully preconditioned to think of sneaking something (anything) across a real or imaginary border as a legitimate business, which in my case meant that the plan, conceived and orchestrated by my mother in consultation with my father and aunt, was based on the premise that sneaking myself into the U.S. as a tourist wasn’t just the most practical but the most honorable solution.
My point, though, isn’t to take credit away from my family’s border-sneaking talent, but simply to point out that as active masters of the art of patriotic contraband, their solution was rather predictable. That’s one side of the story, of course. The other side (related to the second question) is more intimate and obscure, and as complex as what lies behind two sisters’ infinite tug-of-war.
My Grandfather the Unforgiving Role Model
Fully aware of history as a transaction (and most often an immoral one), Aunt Rosamelia believed (or pretended to believe) there was nothing heroic about having resisted “those tight-assed, faux Nazis,” as she called the Chileans. “Wrapping yourself in the Peruvian flag and jumping off a cliff onto the ocean, that’s what I call a hero,” she’d say as if to make sure we (her nieces and nephews) understood what her minimum epic requirements were. Then, relapsing into a more conversational tone, she would add, “I mean what were we supposed to do? This was our town. There’s no heroism in staying put. There were, of course, a few so-called freedom fighters, Grandpa Enrique chief among them, but I don’t think what he did was heroic anyway. It was plain crazy and stupid if you want to know the truth.”
Aunt Rosamelia was the oldest of the three sisters and considered herself the official family historian, Aunt Chepa, three years younger, was “too dumb to care,” and my mother, by virtue of being the baby, “too young to remember.” My mother nonetheless claimed she remembered “everything.” And since her oldest sister persisted in dismissing her recollections, she preferred to leave the room whenever Aunt Rosamelia broached the subject of “life during the occupation.”
Their sisterly rivalry, though, as I’ve mentioned, went beyond a mere conflict of interpretation of their past. It was a prima donna contest. “There can be no more than one sun up in the sky,” was the way my aunt liked to put it. The past, nonetheless, and more specifically, the figure and legacy of their father, the family’s Anglo-Saxon bastion, was the fulcrum of their insoluble dilemma, which provided me with my first practical lessons on how to understand my own history. For as crucial as my nightly visits to my mother’s bedroom are in the creation of my pre-historical identity, my aunt’s flamboyant disregard of any romanticized version of the past, her penchant for coarse language (something my mother totally disapproved of), and especially her readiness to laugh at her ancestors were equally influential—all the more because she swore (to my mother’s chagrin) that I was the living image of my grandfather. Hearing her tell stories about Grandpa, then, was more like hearing stories about me; better yet, stories about a version of myself most appealing to my punk side, which as a teenager was all I cared about.
Hearing my aunt’s stories was also the exact opposite experience of hearing my mother’s. Instead of the intimate, secretive, bedroom-in-the-dark setting my mother and I shared, my aunt’s domain was the early-afternoon-big-family lunch—the warm sunshine percolating through the vines, all of us bathed in a gentle, golden light while the dishes were constantly brought and cleared from the table, everybody talking loudly, preferably while laughing. And if there happened to be a few half-asleep adults in their chairs, arms crossed over their snoring chests, distended bellies proudly revealing an overtaxed digestive system, heads bouncing back and forth, in and out of siesta oblivion, we knew that the moment Aunt Rosamelia took charge they would instantly wake up and become a devoted audience. Nobody could really resist her.
“I mean, let’s not forget that for almost twenty years I had to put up with being a goddamned second-class citizen, oh yeah. Let’s not forget either that my dear sister Ameriquita was barely seven when we went back to being part of Peru. So what can she really remember? And when Father died, she was only six months old. So I don’t think you have much of a choice here. To talk about Father you have to have known him. You have to have witnessed what a stubborn son of a bitch he was. I mean everything had to be done his way. Nobody could tell him what to do. Not the Chileans or the Peruvians. For him, authority was the enemy. They can kiss my ass and lick my balls was his favorite political slogan, as you all know.”
“That’s right. Kiss my ass and lick my balls. The family mantra, isn’t it?”
That was cousin Omar, who liked to play Aunt Rosamelia’s choir’s principal tenor. Cousins Laly, Priscila, Darío, Martha, and Hugo were part of the choir too, but Omar was the first to speak, the loudest and fastest. Aunt Rosamelia loved the call-and-response dialectics. The bigger the choir, he more supported she felt. She could then relax the tempo and drink her favorite wine (Chilean, by the way) and theatrically get back to her story.
“My poor mom suffered terribly because of him. I mean how could she avoid it? How could anybody who loved my father avoid it, really? At times, she’d even wonder if he’d married her just as an act of rebellion and not because he truly loved her, you know. Being a blond man in a brown country, and knowing how uncontrollably contrarian he was, she could never really get rid of the suspicions that he’d married her, a black woman, just to be rebellious.
“She was beautiful, of course, but she didn’t have the white kind of beauty that’s socially acceptable. Anyway, in those days, blacks and Indians intermarried and it was no big deal. But blond and black? Privileged upper-middle class boy marrying second generation, freed-slave girl? No wonder when we walked the streets as a family people would point at us as though we were a freak show or something.
“My father, needless to say, was totally thrilled by it. He liked to say he’d come into this world to defy all rules and labels. And he’d punch you in the face if you called him an anarchist. ‘I’m not an anarchist, a communist, an atheist, or whatever you want to call me. I am who I am and I don’t need you or anybody to tell me who I am.’ Can you imagine what it must have been like to live with a man like him? No wonder the Chilean authorities kept a close eye on him and on his two cousins who were as contentiously crazy as he was.”
“And what were the names of the two cousins, Auntie? Just for the record, you know.”
“Manuel and Alvaro, the only two male sons of Uncle Ambrosio, the best center forward in those days, a small man but mighty strong, and fast as a lizard.”
“That’s right. They called him ‘White Magic,’ didn’t they, Auntie? He could score from everywhere in the soccer field. Isn’t that right, Aunt Rosamelia?”
“That’s damned right, Omar. I’m so glad you remember his name and his amazing soccer feats, although we can’t forget he was also a terrible husband. A total Casanova. Poor Aunt Fortunata. Well, at least he was good in soccer, although it didn’t do him any good. ’Cause whenever they organized soccer matches between Chileans and Peruvians, the Peruvians always won. He was unbeatable. So the Chileans hated his guts and were always putting him in jail for one reason or another. Well, also because he was blond, like your grandpa, both whiter than the Chileans who, racists pigs that they were, saw themselves as the superior race. At least superior to us because we were darker.
“Anyway, you can imagine how they tried to brainwash us in school, to make us believe in our inferiority. They had the broomstick handy too if we didn’t accept their version of history. The worst part, though, was that I couldn’t tell any of it to my father. He would’ve set the school on fire or done something even crazier. The only person in my family I could tell these things to was my mother. Bless her heart!
“She was my moral rock during those years. And it wasn’t as if she had it easy. She was one of the few black women in town, and the Chileans weren’t subtle about showing her where she belonged. But just like me, she couldn’t tell my father how bad it was for her. Not that he didn’t know, but still. You didn’t want to provoke him. Oh my God, the silence we carried inside us. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to put into words the unbearable burden it was to keep it all to ourselves.
“On top of everything, Grandpa Enrique was just not the consoling type, you know. Any type of sentimentality was revolting to him, which is funny because he was an amazing guitar player and singer. I guess he reserved his soft side for his playing and singing. Away from his guitar, he was all macho bravado. And his two cousins were just like him.”
The Battle for History
Endowed with Herculean shoulders, enormous breasts, and arms to match, Aunt Rosamelia was fond of wearing at least three layers of white plaster on her face “to not look too black,” which had the curious effect of making her look “like Frankenstein’s sister,” according to my mother.
Aunt Rosamelia, however, didn’t mind the horror-movie effect. Quite the contrary, you could tell she derived an enormous amount pleasure from it. She’d figured out a way of keeping men at bay. Although I’m not sure it helped her find girlfriends. In any case, it was her invulnerable rhetorical armor that I admired, her blunt, iconoclastic dominance of the family’s narrative, which also made her the only person in my family I could talk to about my cumbia-punk projects. Having said that, I never had the nerve to share with her any of our band’s songs, usually composed by me. I mean You wanna fuck me, I wanna fuck you, you wanna fuck me, I wanna fuck you was probably our most family-friendly chorus. So I had the strong suspicion that even she wouldn’t approve of our poetic vein.
As for my mother, despite her hyper-sensitive, uptight propriety, she was as effective and inspiring a storyteller as my aunt. She just operated in a different emotional register. She wasn’t there to provoke you or make you laugh or cry. What she was good at was leaving you not knowing what to feel. And when it was just the two of us, she always had to make sure I understood that Aunt Rosamelia couldn’t be trusted.
“The thing is I just don’t think the occupation was as bad as Rosamelia claims.” My mother’s voice sounded soft, tender, as if she’d just woken up from a sleeping-beauty siesta, which was physically impossible for her because of her insomnia. “We were kind of prisoners of war, sure, but it wasn’t like we were living in a concentration camp. In many ways, I’d say we were better off than now. ’Cause they wanted us to become Chileans, you know. So they had the city well taken care of. The markets and stores were beautifully stocked. They’d remodeled all the schools and built new ones. And if you weren’t adamantly anti-Chilean, you were treated well.
“I mean, nowadays, even though we’re no longer occupied, if you go out and protest against the government, you get beat up and thrown in jail. It just wasn’t that different back then, with the advantage that things were more orderly. There was no crime. The streets were super clean. If they caught you littering, you paid a fine or went to jail. And what was even better, they didn’t allow the Indians to settle wherever they pleased. In fact, they allowed them in only for the day, so they could sell their products, but they would disinfect them and make them shower first. There were no shantytowns. There was opera twice a year and the best ballet company in Santiago visited all the time. I had wonderful Chilean friends and teachers. The best.”
I wonder (have been wondering ever since) if my mother’s rather pleasant memories of her childhood have to do with her being the blonde in the family. I also wonder if the Chilean authority’s unabashed racism toward Indian-looking and dark-skinned people in general might have something to do with how precociously she opted for identifying as white, something her mother and sisters absolutely couldn’t do by virtue of their looks.
Racial issues aside, I don’t think my mother or my aunt expected to have similar childhood memories. They just didn’t know how to live with their differences in public. So when my mother left the room to let Aunt Rosamelia talk freely about her “occupation memories,” it was with the implicit understanding that she was doing her sister and her audience (us) a favor. She wasn’t conceding. She was simply choosing to be civil.
The jarring part for me was feeling like a traitor to my mother for not only listening to my aunt but actually enjoying her tales so much. The fact that I was, as far as I knew, the only one in the family who had those whispering, late-night chats with Mother in bed was, I suspected, the crucial, isolating ingredient, which only made my traitor role feel more damning. In any case, my incapacity to reconcile my mother and aunt within me has a lot do with how avidly I began to fantasize about having a life as far away as possible from home so I could free myself from having to choose between them.
Now, I don’t mean to imply, though, that my mother’s and my aunt’s kingdom have equal weight in my psyche or history. Formidable as they both were, the level of intimacy my mother and I shared wasn’t possible with Aunt Rosamelia (or with any other member of my family for that matter). Aunt Rosamelia, to begin with, wasn’t the touchy-feely type. She actually pushed you away if you got too close to her. She needed her own secrets and the necessary space to protect them. Her theatrical, public persona was, in a way, how she protected her inner self. She only had, as far as we knew, a public persona. Talking to her alone or surrounded by the entire extended family made no difference. There was nothing she would reveal in the intimacy of a one-on-one conversation that she wouldn’t say in public and vice versa.
“She’s always performing, anyway,” I remember my mother sort of warning me.
I, of course, didn’t know what she meant. Or I did, but at the same time I had the suspicion that in life we all rely on performing for survival in one way or another. So it’s not like my mother was more honest than my aunt because she could talk to me in a more intimate tone. It was a mere difference of style. My mother’s central concern, anyway, was never the past, but the future. And when we were alone, my future. Her performance was all about it.
“Oh, to be your age again, Quique, to be seventeen and carefree. Although I don’t think I was ever as carefree as I should’ve been. There was always something or someone in the back of my mind telling me I had a million chores to do. Maybe because from a very young age I knew I wanted to be doctor. And since my mother couldn’t afford to send me to college, I had to plan things very carefully. Yes, I had to work after school from junior high on to save money. I also had on my shoulders this enormous pressure to get good grades. And since I also knew my mother wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of me leaving home to go to school, I did it all very quietly and somehow found a way not to be discouraged by what everybody told me, including my mother: Why would you bother studying something you’ll never be able to practice? Wouldn’t it be better to stay here and become a teacher like your sisters? ’Cause you know that no matter what you study, you’ll end up as a housewife, don’t you? And for that you don’t need any degree. Nobody does. Or don’t you want to have a family?
“Yes, I wanted to have a family. Of course. But how could I have explained to my mother that I also wanted to be a doctor and I didn’t see a conflict between the two? And I was full of doubts and I couldn’t tell her anything about it. Doubts about how I was going to survive all by myself in the big city. Doubts about what I was going to do once I ran out of the money I’d saved working after school. Doubts about not being smart or dedicated enough to study medicine, a career that in those days took a minimum of twelve years. To her, I could only show determination.
“Then, in my last year of high school, during winter break, my friend Martha, yes, Auntie Martha as you call her, well, she and her family moved to Lima. And her mom, who’d always treated me like a daughter, knowing that I was dying to go to college, offered me room and board in exchange for light housekeeping. That was all I needed to believe I was going to be who I wanted to be. And I know it’s not in good taste to compare yourself with others, but I can’t help but be a little envious at how fortunate you are, dear. You have our total support and nobody laughs at you because you’re going to San Francisco to be an engineer. And traveling, oh my God, is so much easier and safer nowadays.
“Imagine. Depending on the weather conditions and the type of ship you boarded, the trip to Lima could take up to two weeks. There were no airplanes. The roads were impassable. On top of everything, there was a war. No, not against the Chileans. Europe was at war. The German submarines were roaming the coast of Peru. They had already sunk a few passenger ships. My mom and my sister Chepa kept repeating to me, Death at sea means no grave. How are we going to leave you flowers?
“And I have to say that, for all my unshakeable determination, when the day to leave for Lima finally came, and we took a taxi to the port of Arica, as I stepped off it, my legs wouldn’t hold me up. Thank God your Rosamelia was there to practically carry me out of the car. And then, when we got to the pier, and I saw the actual ship I was supposed to board, not only my legs but my entire body went limp. It was such a ridiculously puny little thing. It was full of badly patched holes too. The paint was peeling from it like when you get sunburnt and your skin starts to come off. Anyway, the only painted part, sort of, was the captain’s cabin, where you could read its name: El Rey.
“‘That’s the saddest king I’ve seen in my life. What kind of a king is that?’ I remember telling Rosamelia, and then I burst into tears.
“I was in shock. Totally. Instead of the giant, floating city made of polished wood and shiny steel I had dreamt of, it was this pathetic fishing boat that had been, I don’t know how, turned into a sort of passenger-carrying device. To my astonishment, though, there were tons of people boarding. Nobody seemed to mind the boat’s funkiness. Thankfully, too, Rosamelia wouldn’t leave my side. So I eventually calmed down, although when it was my turn to walk up the ramp, my body just wouldn’t move.
“I had also cried so much, I couldn’t see anything. So Rosamelia, once again, helped me gather myself. She cleaned my face and retouched my makeup while she kept whispering, ‘This is no time to wobble, Ameriquita. You hear me? You’re going to be fine. You don’t need a giant boat to make it to Lima. Actually, it’s a lot safer than going in one of those fancy ships. Or do you think the Germans are going to waste a torpedo on that shitty cardboard raft?’
“You could always count on your aunt, I suppose, to make you laugh at the worst moments … Anyway, I did settle down, and eventually walked up the ramp. And only when I found a place on the deck where I had a clear view of the pier did I notice the joyous party around me. I’d been too overwhelmed to pay attention to it. A military band was playing cuecas, marineras, waltzes. Peruvians and Chileans were singing and dancing and embracing each other by the pier. It was, I remember telling myself, the perfect atmosphere to say goodbye to my childhood and teenage years.
“I could see my two sisters and my mother from the deck, standing there, so elegant in their long, flowery dresses, so glamorous under their wide-brimmed hats. Well, my two sisters. My mother had made herself up, but she wore only black. ‘I’m a professional widow,’ she liked to say. And I kept staring at them as they stood together, holding hands, waving their tear-soaked handkerchiefs. And I remember realizing, just before the boat began to glide off the pier, that I didn’t feel sad. Actually, I felt euphorically happy. I was crying happy tears.”
It Doesn’t Really End
I don’t remember ever asking my mother why she didn’t become a doctor. I don’t remember her volunteering an explanation about what kept her from realizing her dream either. It may seem odd now, but never did back then. One more layer of selective silence between us was far from discomfiting. One more tale in which she kept the central point unmentioned was part of her signature style. Like Homer leaving the Trojan War out of the Odyssey.
It was a mutual restraint anyway. I never told her anything about my sentimental or sexual adventures, even when she knew the actors involved. Like my long, languid, and predictable romance with Carla, her closest friend’s daughter, who would ride with me in my father’s car with the absolute conviction that we were destined to be married and live merrily ever after once I returned from San Francisco as a civil engineer. With the same unassuming confidence, too, she would never let me touch her body when we kissed. That was only supposed to happen when we marry.
In the same vein, it never crossed my mind either to tell my mother about my numerous escapades with my fellow Conchesumadres to the biggest whorehouse in town as a sort of never-ending farewell ritual during our last year of high school. Silence was, as I’ve said, an essential part of our deal, a deal that often made me think I had been raised (I had been cursed, really) to be a duplicitous, untrustworthy man, which, in turn, was also part of my secret reasons for wanting to leave home. Maybe away from her, without the fear of trampling on my own lies, I could speak openly about my life, I could enjoy a sort of freedom only imaginable once I could be on my own and that, not coincidentally, I began to savor the very same winter night I boarded a Boeing 747 bound to San Francisco.
Actually, I first noticed the change in myself a bit before boarding, while I waited with the other passengers at the gate and couldn’t stop looking at (as if I were looking at the encrypted version of my life to come) the giant tattoo covering the entire aircraft, the work (I later found out) of Alexander Calder, my favorite American artist because of it. And it was at that moment, the free-floating shapes painted by Calder providing a playful lightness to the moment, when I thought of Aunt Rosamelia (not my mother) as the only person in the world capable of telling the tale I was about to begin. And all of a sudden there she was. Or maybe I should say, there we were—out in the patio, the unbearable, summer sun sneaking in through the vines, the dirty dishes gone so as not to attract yet another invincible army of flies.
“Think about it. Just think about it for a minute. Grandpa Enrique with his two cousins, Manuel and Alvaro, had come up with this crazy tradition. Every weekend, they would go out late at night and terrorize lonely Chileans, preferably cops and soldiers. They’d cover their faces and attack them like vandals. Like a swarm of wasps, was how he used to describe what he did, which we had to keep secret, of course.
“I suppose Manuel and Alvaro did it out of patriotism. My father’s motivations, though, as I’ve said before, were less political. He was just a born contrarian son of a gun whose worst fear, by the way, was to be turned into a hero. Oh yeah, a hero is a political fabrication for suckers, I remember him saying. Hero or not, anyway, he knew he was playing with fire. You can’t go around beating people up with total impunity. You eventually gotta pay.”
“That’s right, Auntie. Everybody’s gotta pay. If not on the way in, on the way out.”
“I’m gland we’re in agreement here, Omar. Well, one Saturday night, a few days before Peruvian Independence Day, a night that apparently began just like any other violent night for your grandpa and his cousins, he finally had to face his fate.
“Now, you have to remember that, by then, word had spread around. So very few Chileans now dared to walk late at night by themselves. After going around and around fruitlessly looking for a victim, then, they decided to call it a night. Before disbanding, though, they went for drinks at La Bodega de Nicolás, which was about two blocks away from the Chilean Prefect’s Palace. And it was there, over fried pork skin and homemade wine, that Grandpa came up with the idea of bringing down the Chilean flag flying at the entrance to the Palace.
“According to my cousin Marilina, uncle’s Alvaro daughter, the main purpose of bringing down the flag was to pee on it. Knowing my father, though, I’d say he probably also wanted to shit on it. Anyway, that was the brilliant plan. My dear father only had brilliant plans. My God, why do men have to think with their dicks? When will they grow up? That’s why I will keep on saying till the day I die, if you want to make of him a hero, feel free to do so. But I don’t think peeing or shitting on a flag counts as heroism. He certainly didn’t either.
“Anyway, in order to shit on the flag, first they had to deal with the four soldiers guarding the palace day and night. So they decided that Manuel and Alvaro would walk up to them, pretend they were drunker than they were, and begin to insult them, which, needless to say, was something that came very naturally to them. Anyhow, the guards, as expected, bit the bait and ran after them, at which point my father, who’d been hiding somewhere, ran to the pole and brought the flag down.
“He was apparently peeing happily on the flag (he’d drunk enough wine to pee a river, for sure) when a whole platoon of Chilean soldiers came out of the Palace and shot him dead. Right there. He didn’t even have time to pull his dick back. Now, tell me if that’s not a ridiculous way to go. And what for? To send the Chileans a message? I’m telling you, sometimes I wonder if all the problems in the world would be solved if men were goddamned castrated at birth …”
And with her big, confident voice echoing inside me and Grandpa Enrique as the only possible role model for me to follow, I walked out of the gate onto the tarmac, the humid, sticky air of Lima making me feel already in a foreign land, although not too foreign. Not yet. For standing at the most prominent corner of the Lima Airport terrace, my fellow Conchesumadres were waving their arms, jumping and yelling at me: “Give them hell, Henry … Show them what we’re made of in this godforsaken country … lucky bastard … going to the land of James Brown, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, and Janis Joplin … write us about all those drugs you’ll be taking … LSD, motherfucker … mescaline, son of bitch … acid tripping, asshole … get yourself a beautiful all-American girl as sweet as apple pie and as wild as Tina Turner …”
As I comfortably sat back in seat 27A, I could see from my window they were still at it, even though they knew I could no longer hear them. Actually, all I could hear at that moment was my mother’s last late-night admonition, “Whatever you choose to do, darling, just don’t do anything that would bring you shame or remorse, okay? That’s all I ask.”
It was, I realized then, as it had always been and will always be—the two sisters of perpetual discord arguing and, by doing so, making sure I had path to follow or elude, a model to emulate or reject, an impossible-possible future and an intractable yet somehow always entertaining past.
The plane was up in the air now. It was that time of the night when Mother and I met with unintentional punctuality. Time for the late-night flavors, sounds, and shadows that surrounded us too: the casual, drunk footsteps of someone crossing the street, the occasional squealing of tires around the corner, followed by the irrepressible laughter of teenagers at the wheel, the discordant, foreign-accented voices of Mexican-dubbed American sitcoms coming from our neighbor’s window, the distant smell of an ocean we couldn’t see yet always dreamt about, especially in winter.
As the flight attendant made the customary announcements after takeoff, I felt the dry, quick caress of my mother’s warm lips on my right cheek, the unequivocal sign that it was time for me to get up from her bed and walk to my room in the dark, absolutely clueless about the life I would create for myself away from her, a life that would include (to my endless sense of secret pride and my mother’s unbearable shame) falling in love with the perfect girl with the wrong skin color, and quitting engineering and then school altogether to become, of all things, a tennis coach.
Willy Lizárraga was born in Peru and moved to San Francisco as a teenager. He has published short stories in the New South Journal, ZYZZYVA, Arroyo Literary Review, and Reed Magazine. He has one published novel in Spanish, winner of the 1996 Letras de Oro Literary Prize.
Runner Up, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize