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|
|Picture of Indio-looking dad|
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
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
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
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.
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|
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
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.