Sunday, June 16, 2013

To the Best Bad Dad in the World: A Tribute to My Fragmented Father

Olga García Echeverría

I have a fond memory of my father. In the 11th grade, as part of a school fundraiser, I had to sell glazed donuts. I took home 4 dozen with nothing but good intentions, but since donuts are a weakness of mine, I ate one and then another. Originally, this was not a big concern. Each donut was .50 cents and I figured I could afford a few dollars worth. But as the days passed, I sold nothing; I didn’t even try. Instead, I peered at the aging donuts in the cardboard box, whispered “sorry” to some invisible Donut God, and devoured another. Before I knew it my debt had skyrocketed. When I did the math, I owed the school close to $20.00. This was a lot of money for a teenager in 1986. I had no idea how I was going to pay. My father, who understood the pressure of debt, must have picked up on my anxiety. I had about five donuts left when he said, Ya comételas, mija. ¡Yo te las pago todas! And he did, all 4 dozen.

I can share this story now, but there was a time when I was so angry at my father that I believed I had no good memories of him. For years, I completely blocked memories like the one above. Yes, it was a bit dysfunctional of him to simply pay for all the donuts I had eaten (encouraging my emotional eating like that), but it was also tender, especially for someone who rarely showed affection. For most of his life, my father was a hardcore alcoholic. Although he could sometimes be a harmless drunk mumbling to himself at the kitchen table, he was more often than not explosive. Yelling curses, breaking things, and raising fists in the air were a few of his fortes.

Mostly this was due to his childhood wounds. My paternal grandfather had been shot and killed when my dad was just a toddler, and later my grandmother remarried and “lent” my father out as a farmhand to an uncle who beat and berated him regularly. I don’t know why my grandmother “lent out” my dad or if she did it willfully—there are many gaps in the story--but I do know my father lived with a deep sense of abandonment thereafter. The years he spent with that uncle also scarred him for life; they crippled his ability to give and accept love; they filled him with pain and rage.  Alcohol became his life-long anesthesia.



Wallet & toy gun found in dad's old suitcase
Patriarchy screwed my father. It gave him a limited and oppressive definition of manhood. In short: guns, liquor, lots of women, and violence. Patriarchy rooted him on, encouraging irrational, destructive behavior. I’m remembering him drunk on our porch in East LA, shooting bullets into the night sky on the 4th of July. This made him feel like a real man. I’m also remembering him packing his gun into a leather bowling bag and insisting on taking it grocery shopping. According to my father, one never knew what could go down at the local Johnson’s market on Whittier Boulevard. Once, he actually got into a showdown in the parking lot with someone else’s alcoholic Mexican father who, like my dad, had packed a gun to go shopping. Hijole! Were they from the same pinche rancho or what? Both of them had probably seen way too many John Wayne movies. Nobody got shot or maimed that day thanks to the women and children on both sides of the showdown; we had to literally drag our fathers into their respective station wagons.


Picture of Indio-looking dad
I can laugh now, but growing up with my dad was crazy. Aside from patriarchy, colonization también lo chingó. It taught him caste and color. It fed him self-hate. In his eyes, everything wrong with my mother was a result of her pinche sangre Yaqui. He talked a lot of Yaqui shit, my dad, but at times in the middle of a Yaqui curse, he’d go into a monologue about how fierce they were, what great warriors, how they resisted the Spanish and then the Mexicans like no other tribe. Buenos para luchar los Yaquis! There was an overtone of awe and respect. My father wasn’t an Aztec, or a Toltec, or a Yaqui. He was a colonized Mestizo (and a borracho to boot) who’d long lost the thread of his own indigenous ancestry. When he cursed the Yaqui, he was cursing the long-lost Indio in himself.

I have a folder titled DAD that is full of all the scraps of poems, letters, essays, stories I’ve tried to write about my father over the years. When I sit down to tackle my papa drama in words, there is always an initial outpour of red-hot emotions—hurt, anger, wounded love—but before long, the momentum fizzles (red-hot emotions are exhausting) and another unfinished piece gets stuffed into the folder.

In a recent interview on PBS, Bill Moyers asked Sherman Alexie if his writing was cathartic. Alexie chuckled and answered, “No.” There was something cathartic about hearing Sherman Alexie say that his writing was not cathartic. He added, “I think it can be healing for readers. You know, I have been helped and healed by other people’s words. But I, my own words for myself, oh man, I don’t think so.”

Perhaps I was laughing because a part of me understood. Although I believe writing can be healing, there is also that other side of writing—the one that claws at the most vulnerable parts of us. The one that haunts and hurts like the jagged pieces of my father stuffed into a manila folder.

In her poem, “Tepalcate a tepalcate,” Elba Rosario Sánchez writes about how Spanish colonization in the Americas broke us, both physically and spiritually. Tepalcate, Elba notes at the onset of her poem, is a Nahuatl word which means “fragmento de una pieza de barro quebrada.” Through the generations of violence and racism, we became broken pieces of clay, dispersed. At the end of Elba’s poem, we (esos pedazos rotos) stand before each other as if standing before a mirror, tepalcate a tepalcate. We recognize one other through time and space. “Somos caras en relieve,” writes Elba, “de una misma pieza.”

When I open my DAD folder, this is what I see—tepalcates. The fragments are not only reflections of me; they are splintered pieces of American history. My father first migrated from Mexico to the U.S. in the late 1940’s, when he was in his early twenties. It was a time of overt racism, “unofficial segregation,” where signs that read No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed reflected a national, deep-seeded fear and hate for Mexicanos.

Like many migrants of his time, my father did not join the Bracero Program. Instead, he crossed and worked illegally, sin papeles. Much like today, deportations were rampant, and my father recalls being deported numerous times. Pero yo siempre regresaba al siguiente día, he says defiantly.

For years, my father followed the crops up and down California, working in pesticide-sprayed fields and in slave-like conditions. He tells stories of being “promoted” in the fields at some point and becoming a migrant camp cook, feeding close to a hundred workers a day. For several years in the 1960’s he worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. And later, when he settled in Los Angeles, he was gardener and handyman for White man, warehouse packer, factory worker, security guard.

Through the years, I’ve recovered other memories of my father that challenge my previously held belief that he was a one-dimensional monster, like memories of him sacrificing to take us to the most elegant of downtown restaurants—Clifton’s Cafeteria. We were ecstatic as we slid our food trays along the silver rail, scanning the steaming meats, mashed potatoes, gravy, cake slices and bright-colored gelatins. Agarren lo que quieran, my father would say as if we were rich, and our small hands would reach out, grabbing.

Or the memory of him in the kitchen baking cinnamon bread from scratch. He’d shed his machoness then, put on an apron and play chef. He had sazón and everything he made was delicious. Chile chipotle salsa. Birria. Barbacoa. Tortas de camaron con nopalitos. Homemade chorizo. Deep fried donuts (the root of my donut obsession).

There is the memory of him coming home after a long day of work and throwing himself on the couch like a falling giant, moaning, Aiii, Aiii. ¡Quítenme las botas! He gave us quarters, nickels and dimes for taking off his heavy boots and pulling out his blooming grey hairs, all our fingers eagerly digging into his scalp, searching. I loved the feel of his dark wavy hair and the smile of surrender on his face.

Portrait of dad with wavy hair sans canas
 
There were also the fruits and vegetables he seeded in whatever little niche of dirt he could find. We lived right by the 710 freeway where concrete and smog ruled, but he made of our immediate surroundings a small garden. We had corn, sprawling chayote, an orange tree, sugar cane stalks that grew twice our size. He sliced open the stalks with his navaja and gave us and the neighborhood kids pieces to chew. We sucked on the sweet juicy stalks until they became stringy mush in our mouths.

My father wasn’t a monster. True, when he staggered around the house unable to express himself he reminded me of Frankenstein. When he beat his fist against his inflated chest he reminded me of King Kong. When he threw his fits and roared, he resembled Godzilla. But in the end, weren’t these monsters misunderstood and mistreated beasts? Poor Frankenstein, created and then abandoned. King Kong taken from his homeland (for capitalistic interests) and displayed as a freak in the good old U.S.A. Even Godzilla, the most destructive of monsters, was conceived by the Japanese imagination post the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Destruction breeds destruction and even “The Bad” are multilayered stories waiting to be told and understood.

Which brings me to the act of excavating and piecing together tepalcates in an attempt to get a more comprehensive picture. I was going through one of my father’s old suitcases a few days ago, organizing. I found some treasures. Among them a Father’s Day card I gave him when I was a child. I have no recollection of making him this card and it’s not dated, but gathering from the writing and bad spelling, I’m guessing early elementary school. What child doesn’t want the fantasy “Best Dad In the World”? Despite my home reality I gave my father a card that reflected that deseo, esa fantasía. The funny thing is I misspelled “dad” and instead the card reads: To the best bad in the world. Happy Father’s Day! Freudian slip?
 

I’m not sure whose terrycloth I massacred in the making of this card and it’s obvious that colonization también me chingo a mí, since my father appears as a pink-skinned, light-haired, blue-eyed beach boy in striped shorts. There is so much more to say, but I will leave you with these few sentimental fragments and with a shout out to all the fragmented fathers, daughters, and sons out there who are trying to put themselves back together again, one tepalcate at a time.


 

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great piece, Olga. Your writing adds depth and sensation to today.
RudyG

Deborah A. Miranda said...

How many of us had the same father, I wonder? Thank you, Olga. Perfectly captures my own tormented father, whom I imagined as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - an artistic, talented, sensitive man when sober - and monster when drunk, which was pretty much every weekend. I loved him. I hated him. I feared him. And now, knowing more of his story (though not nearly enough), I ache for his suffering. That word for brokenness - yes.

Donna Miscolta said...

Thank you for this beautiful piece, Olga.

ERNEST HOGAN said...

You've done it again, Olga. Father's Day hasn't been easy for me since my father and grandfather died. Your piece helps.

Amelia ML Montes said...

Orale Olga-- you said it, y con fuerza. Thank you for going to las meras tepalcates, and creating such beauty in your piece from all el dolor y tristeza. Gracias, Olga!

Anonymous said...

A touching tribute Olga! To all the fathers out there in body or spirit my blessings go out. Your words tug my own memories Olga, all the good and bad. I was always called a "Daddy's Girl" and I realize now it was my saving grace.
Thank you Olga and as always,
Blessings,
Diana

Unknown said...

Fantastic piece!

Maritza said...

Another masterpiece full of courage, corazon and poetic humor. You go with your "bad" self! Thank you beautiful. :)

lesbrain said...

<3

raw poetry by donna snyder said...

You captured here all the scabby grit, and transformed it into beauty through your craft and insight, y su corazón tan grande

Linda Rodriguez said...

Yes. How many of us had some version of this father? Thank you for this piece, Olga. You've helped me to think with love on this Father's Day not only of the kind stepfather I finally had, but of the "monster" birth father, who was so violent because he was so broken.

Adriana Alvarez said...

Oh my goodness. The part about whispering an apology to the doughnut god made me laugh and cry. What a relief to read a more complete trubute on this special day. Thanks again and again, Olga . If we all did the work I know you have had to, to write such a piece, the world would be a better place. ♡

Susan the Neon Nurse said...

Like way too many of us, I can relate. Even though I am now older than my dad was when he died, Fathers Day still makes me feel a little weird. But I can also relate to what you are saying here, because over the years I am tending to remember good times more than the bad. Have to say I prefer that. :)

What might be helping the good memories is something I read somewhere; when you suddenly think of a lost loved one for no reason, it's because somewhere, wherever it is they are, they are thinking of you. There's no way to know if that's true or not, of course, but it doesn't hurt to believe it if you want to.

Unknown said...

Olga, I enjoyed reading this piece, made me cry.

Norma Cantu said...

Gracias, Olga. Beautiful piece. May your inner child rejoice in the celebration of your Dad.

Olga said...

Thank you all for taking the time to read and comment on this blog that was such a journey to write. I felt vulnerable posting it, sharing so much of myself. But I remembered how much I have been "helped and healed by other people's words" as Sherman Alexie states, and I realized that sharing it was important not only for me but also perhaps to other fragmented daughters and sons out there. Since posting this yesterday I've gotten many messages, comments, abrazos from people who relate. Knowing that my words/experience resonate and reading/hearing about other people's fragmented fathers is also part of my healing. From one healing inner child to so many others--gracias!

ire'ne lara silva said...

Un abrazo muy fuerte, Olga...my deepest thanks for being willing to be vulnerable...and to live with the vulnerability that comes after sharing a piece like this one...I wasn't even able to look at Facebook yesterday due to all the father's day postings...my path hasn't taken me to recovering the good memories, but your post gives me hope that someday it will....

Alchemy Massage and Movement Therapy said...

Olguita Chiquita y Potente,
Cien mil gracias for sharing the raw prickley insides of your Papa drama healing journey. The wisdom and chispa insights you share help my own chrystalize and settle a little more. This is the beginning of a monumental piece of work, I can feel it!

Anonymous said...

Magnificent piece!

liz gonzalez said...

This brilliant, moving, raw, and well-written. Thank you, Olga.

Maylei Blackwell said...

Thank you for the healing and humor in recovering one more piece. Our gifts as writers are often tied to our wounds that motivated us to retreat into our interior worlds. This is a tremendous piece of courage and compassion.

Agustin Orozco said...

Olga, this brought tears to my eyes. Given that we know each other's dad's and that they really have similar histories and ways of being in the world, this was very touching. I continue to struggle with my fragmented relationship with my East LA Mexicano dad and vacillate between love, respect, and anger. Gracias!

Anisa said...

I loved this essay! Thank you for sharing, Olga García Echeverría.

Anisa said...

I loved this essay! Thank you for sharing, Olga García Echeverría.

Anonymous said...

Oh how wonderful piece!! Me acuerdo cuando de Chiquita pensaba que mi familia era la unica....con todos estos problemas!! I never was able to identify because it was always about the "TV family" Thank you so much for sharing about your journey!! It made me feel so importante.... Sandra