"Nineteen, missing her man for an old girl
Drain every beer left over at home
And listen to ghosts in the other room
Why not you're alone inside his keeping?
Oh I'll replace your drunk old man
Sit in the parking lot and hold you're hand
Easy to fall, part of your skull starts to break away
Drugged and in love out at a club, pulling me outside
She's a white girl, but I'm living with a white girl.
She's a white girl, but I'm living with a white girl."
I was in second grade at Mariposa Elementary when one of the Mexican girls at school called me white girl. I knew she was wrong. I wasn't a white girl. I saw myself as Mexican with some white thrown in. My Mexican mom grew up middle class in Orange County. Mom loved country music and cowboys and met my German dad at a honky tonk bar. My dad grew up dirt poor in Montana and loved country music, drinking and fiery, brown women. Mom was not the first of his four wives, but she was his last.
The white girls saw me as Mexican and thought I should hang with the girls they called "the cholas". Most of the so-called cholas were Mexican girls who wore karate slip on shoes with fitted pants and black jackets. One of my favorite people in the world at the time was my older cousin Carol from Buena Park who some considered a chola. I would have liked to hang out with the cholas, but I was a nerd, preppie girl who always sat at the front of the class and the so called cholas made fun of me for not speaking Spanish. I was never lonely because I had my twin sister Jackie to hang out with at breaks (they had put us in separate classes by this time).
In second grade, I met a Mexican girl who would become my best friend, Melinda who everyone called Mel. Mel was a clotheshorse and she made fun of the cholas' outfits behind their backs. Mel was born in Mexico and spoke Spanish and despite her disdain, the cholas accepted her. Mel hung out with different groups depending on her mood.
"Everyone says you're smart," Mel said with a smile. "But what are you wearing?" she said with a raised eyebrow as she stared at the green frog t-shirt that I had paired with blue flared Dittos. The outfit had seemed like a good idea that morning.
Mel shopped at Mervyn's and she made a face when I told her that my mom shopped for our clothes at K-Mart. Everyone wanted to be friends with Mel and I desperately wanted her to like me. She was everything I was not. She had straight black hair that she wore spiked up and perfect bronze colored skin. She favored jean jackets and tight jeans and even back then in elementary school, she was the epitome of cool. Mel was also bossy and sarcastic and popular with the boys. When she invited Jackie and I over her house after school, I tried to act nonchalant by saying, "sure" when I felt like screaming "yes". Our younger sister Annie tagged along because it turned out that Mel had a little sister named Pam that was Annie's age.
Mel and Pam lived with their parents in a tiny apartment down the street from us on the corner of G Street and Grove. Mel's mom Mary was in her early twenties. Mary got pregnant with Melinda at the age of fifteen in Mexico. Mary was lonely because she didn't drive and Mel's dad Arturo was always at work. After a couple of visits, Mary started watching my sisters and I almost every day because Mom didn't want us home alone after school while she worked the split shift (Mom called it the fuck you over shift) at a local Chinese restaurant.
As an after school treat, Mary would make us posole soup with homemade tortillas on the side which was a sharp change from the prepackaged macaroni and cheese my mom made us or the stews and beef roast that my dad cooked. "Sientate," Mary would say and all us girls would crowd around her tiny kitchen table slurping our bowls of soup. After our snack, we would walk to the liquor store on the corner to buy the salted plums covered with chili powder that Mel had introduced us to.
Mary and Mom became friends. If Mom got off early, she would come by and sit with Mary in the kitchen drinking cup after cup of coffee talking in Spanish. Mel would make me laugh by mimicking how Mom put spoon after spoon of sugar in her coffee.
If Mom didn't get off early, Dad would pick us up when he got off his shift at Mayflower Moving Company. Dad was often late and would drive up in his pickup truck with the smell of beer on his breath. Mary would shake her head and say with her Spanish accent, "John you're drunk. Can you drive?" Dad would wave her off and load us into the car swerving to Johnny Cash the four blocks home.
My sisters and I didn't bring friends home because if Mom was having a bad day she would tell people off. Mel and Pam became the exception to that rule because Mel handled my mom's varying moods with ease and didn't react when my mom yelled and called her a bitch.
Mel and I didn't talk about race at all. We knew we were brown. That was obvious. I loved hearing Mel talk Spanish to her mom even though Mel was hesitant to do so. She wanted her mom to learn English. I was jealous of this other world of rolled out Rs. It seemed romantic.
If asked, Mom would say that she didn't teach us Spanish because Dad hated when Mom's brothers made fun of him in Spanish. My uncles called Dad barracho wedo which we knew meant drunk white man. In truth, Mom's reasons for withholding her native tongue were much more complicated. Mom was the only non-white girl in her Orange County elementary school class. Years later, Mom showed me her black and white elementary school photo and she looked like a small dark spot in a class of white faces. Mom looked at the picture and shook her head with a frown and said, "It was hard being the only Mexican girl. They didn't let you speak Spanish."
I knew, even at a young age, that color mattered. Annie was sixteen months younger than us and she had Dad's lighter coloring. People would always coo over her and say how pretty she was. All my relatives called Annie bonita.
When I was in fifth grade, Mom decided we needed to be in Catholic school. My sisters and I were upset because we would have to make new friends. Despite our protests, Mom enrolled us at St. George's. Mom promised we could visit Mel and Pam on the weekends. When the school found out that Mom waitressed, they gave her a low income discount charging her one hundred dollars a month tuition for all three of us. Even with the discount, the tuition was still a stretch and Mom struggled to buy us faded, used uniforms with her tips. We complained the whole summer before school started. Mom told us that we were ungrateful brats that needed to stop bitching.
The first months were hard in a new school. All of the other kids seemed well off with their bright new uniforms. The nuns were stern and church was mandatory every day. And, I had to play volleyball which I was inept at. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't hold my arms right to bounce the ball off my wrist and I always ducked whenever the ball came at me.
In sixth grade, Laura McPherson, who was the captain of the volleyball team, invited Jackie and I to a slumber party at her house. Laura's dad was a doctor and everyone knew she was rich. She lived in a huge Spanish style house.
There was a girl in our class who always made fun of me. I don't remember her name. All I remember was that she was fat with blonde hair. We got into a fight at the slumber party and she called me a spic wetback. I screamed back at her, "Fuck you you fat bitch, my dad's white. I am Mexican and white." I don't know why I said what I did. I knew people saw me as Mexican and I liked it that way. Maybe I wanted her to know I didn't fit in with either side. I also knew spic was a racial slur, but I didn't know what it meant. I knew what wetback meant. I had heard Dad's friends use the insult. Mom hated those friends of his. Mom said Dad's friends were a bunch of white trash drunks who were a bad influence on Dad.
The spic and wetback slurs stuck in my mind during my time at St. George's. I knew that I didn't fit in. I would sometimes look down at my faded uniform and wish it was bright and new and the right length instead of long and faded. When Mom put us back in public school for our seventh grade year, I was relieved. I wanted to hang out with Mel and ride bikes with her after school and go to the liquor store and buy cigarettes. I felt comfortable with her. Mel knew my dad was a white drunk man and that my mom was Mexican and crazy. She didn't care and neither did I.
It is thirty-five years later and Mel and I are still best friends. Last week, I stopped by at her small apartment in Rancho Cucamonga and ate her homemade posole while our moms drank wine and laughed and reminisced.
"Remember Judy, when the girls got drunk and Mel came home with one shoe," Mary said to Mom in her Spanish accent.
"I remember when the girls stole John's pickup truck and drove around the neighborhood at night," Mom said with a shrug.
"They were locas," Mary said and Mom nodded in agreement.
I brought them coffee and watched as Mom spooned spoon after spoon of sugar in her coffee. Mel looked at me and smiled and I tried not to laugh. I felt right at home.