Alejandra Medina is a Chicana poet. Her work has appeared in WriteGirl's Lines & Breaks, Unpublished Magazine, and the Exposition Review, among other places. When she isn't writing, you can find her at a local art museum, attempting to capture the ekphrastic.
Mom was a paradox of brown skin and a white name. She would keep her Spanish safely tucked away at home and dye her hair yellow like the corn we bought from the street vendor. I liked when her roots started to show. Her part would turn into a dark brown trail that ran down her scalp like a road.
As soon as there was too much brown showing though, she’d get in a frenzy, pulling out the boxes of dye and the latex gloves. She would spend hours in the bathroom trying to undo what nature had redone. When every last drop of dye had been squeezed out of the bottle, and her head had become a gooey yellow mess, she’d walk around with a plastic grocery bag on her head as she waited for the dye to settle, inner peace at last obtained.
I liked calling these days Root Days.
The call came on a Root Day.
I was playing video games on the living room couch. Mom walked into the house as soon as the phone began to ring. She tossed the plastic bag from the pharmacy next to me, the box of hair dye falling out and landing in my lap. “Hello?” She said, snapping her fingers at me to pick up her things.
I ignored her as up on screen my character sliced another zombie’s head.
“Yes?” Mom said. And then, “Dad?”
The game controller slipped out of my hands. In an explosion of pixels my character died and I turned to mom, intrigued.
“Yes.” She said again. “Yes, you’re more than welcome to stay here.” We looked at each other, mom’s eyes slightly glazed over as if she were looking past me, beyond the living room, beyond that moment. When she hung up, she was still staring at me.
“Mom, are you okay?”
“I think I’m going to my room for a little bit.”
“Who was that on the phone?” I asked.
“Your grandfather.” That was all she said.
She disappeared into her bedroom then, leaving me with a box of hair dye, a dead video game character, and the word ‘grandfather’ ringing in my ear drums.
I had never met nor heard of him before. He existed only in my common sense, where I knew that in order for mother to have been born she needed to have a dad. And now he was coming over. A series of questions came to me then. Why hadn’t I heard about him before? What was he like? What did this mean, and why was he coming now?
Two weeks went by, and each day Mom would provide me with little to no information about him, her roots slowly starting to take over her entire head. One day, I came back from school and there were two strangers sitting on the couch.
There was a split second of panic in which I feared I’d stepped into the wrong house but then one of the strangers turned around and smiled.
“Mom.” The word fell from my mouth. I hadn’t recognized her. She had dyed her hair brown to match her roots.
She patted the empty space between her and the old man that sat beside her. “Come Matthew, sit. This is your grandfather Mateo.”
I stared at the old man I had been named after but had never met. He stared back, sharp brown eyes alert within his brown face. His hair and mustache were silver and almost sparkled beneath the light. His hands were big and square shaped, the skin that stretched across his knuckles rough and liver-spotted.
An elementary school memory resurfaced. I recalled my family tree assignment and how Mom had provided me with names but no stories, no faces. We were Mexican-American was all that I’d gathered, and when my teacher asked that’s what I told him, not fully grasping the meaning just stating the facts.
“Grandfather?” he scoffed. There was a slight accent to his voice, like English wasn’t all he knew or spoke. “What are you teaching him?” He looked at me, brown eyes sharp. “You call me abuelo. Okay, kid?”
I didn’t reply. This man was a stranger, not any family member of mine.
He raised a large, bushy gray eyebrow, “¿Hablas espańol?”
“No.” I muttered.
He nodded, glancing briefly up at my mom. “Why?”
“Well, because mom doesn’t really speak it—”
Mom patted my back a little more forcefully than usual. “Matt, go to your room. I’ll let you know when dinner’s ready, okay?”
The old man scoffed as I left. “Should’ve just done the thing properly and called him Mateo.”
The argument began then, like an echo of the times before the divorce, when my mother and father fought. But this time there were no screams. There was only the muffling of arguing voices and a tension in the air like a guitar string tuned too tight, one strum away from breaking apart. I’d press my ear to the door most evenings, desperate to get more clues on who this man was and why he had come. If he only wanted to fight with his daughter the whole time, he should’ve just never arrived.
Whenever we were in a room together, he’d eye me wearily, sizing me up. He never spoke to me directly, and when he did, he’d address me in Spanish, knowing very well I didn’t quite understand.
On a Saturday, after Mom had gone to one of her yoga sessions which the old man disliked, he wobbled over to the television as I played my video games and stood directly in front of it. The “Game Over” came almost instantly.
I turned my attention to him.
He jutted his chin towards the door. “I’m going out. I’m also old.” A small smile unfurled across his cheeks. “So, if you don’t want me to fall and break my neck out there, you’ll come with me, you hear?”
There was no other choice.
We took two buses to get there. He’d point out the window a lot, finger jutting at the Los Angeles skyline unfurling before us like a ribbon, bursting out a series of facts about anything and everything. “Look there!” he’d say, pointing at a dingy auto shop on Sunset Blvd. “My best friend Louie used to own a small restaurant in that place. Got burnt during the hippie riots, you know? Back in ’66?” He gestured out at the pavement. “And over there, that used to be Old Man Eiji’s place. Fought during War World II and got two fingers blown off, left them somewhere in Japan.”
It was ages before we arrived on Olvera Street.
“You brought me here?” I asked, missing my video game console a little more.
“You don’t like it?” he asked, already several feet ahead of me, walking with a purpose towards something on the other side of the cobble stone path.
“Well, Mom said this isn’t really Mexican. She says it's more of a tourist thing.”
“Your mom wouldn’t know what’s Mexican if it bit her in the nose.” He said.
We walked through the little shops, each a small box in bright shades displaying traditional Mexican attire, works of art, candles, books, sandals. There was a shop that sold hats and bags made of leather, the smell thick and haunting. Another sold candy, small cookies made of peanut dust and tiny spoons of tamarind. Saints stood in doorways, right beside hat stands that offered passing tourists sombreros and woven baskets. The old man did not stop to buy anything, but greeted everyone as if they were his family, every single stranger calling him ‘Abuelo.’
“How come all these people know you?” I asked.
“I come here often.” He said.
I followed him past the last shop, beyond a large wooden cross that stood on a platform made of rocks, onto a plaza. The old man’s feet made a beeline towards the trees with a youthful ease. He stopped to look up into the canopy of branches and leaves like a child fascinated.
“Look,” he said, pointing upwards. “These are Moreton Bay figs. Older than the freeways, older than you, older than me.”
I looked up into the trees’ long limbs, the branches turning the light into an intricate lace pattern of shadows on our skin.
The old man sighed and sat on a bench beneath the trees, looking out towards the distant glaring white clock tower of Union Station. I followed, too intrigued by the leaves to see the roots jutting out beneath me. I tripped, managing to catch my balance before falling on my face.
The old man grunted. “Careful not to trip on your roots, son.”
I could feel my face burning red as I sat next to him. He didn’t say anything else, just kept his eyes trained on the swaying palm trees in the distance. A group of children rushed past us with lucha libre masks over their heads, followed by a little girl who spun for her mother, the sunlight catching on the white fabric of her traditional Mexican dress. Their shouts and laughter were amplified by the Santa Ana winds, carrying with it the sounds of Mariachi music and the smell of the leather, churros, and tortillas.
“You know why I brought you here, Matthew?”
I shook my head.
He twisted around in his seat and gestured out at Olvera Street. “This is the oldest part of L.A., the heart of the city. This was called ‘Vine Street,’ ‘Wine Street,’ ‘Sonora Town.’ This was a place where immigrants and down-on-their-luck rascals could settle down, get a job, search for their American dream. Most just settled down and kept dreaming. But the place got ugly, see? Poverty makes people desperate. The city didn’t care, didn’t help, just shrugged, and brought out the bulldozers. Then, there was this rich lady, a Miss Sterling. She pulled a couple o’ strings and turned this thing into a nice tourist attraction, where Mexicanos could sell their culture to put some food on their table.”
“So, it is a tourist thing?” I asked.
The old man raised an eyebrow at me. “Well, yes. But it’s so much more. It’s where we’ve set down our roots.” He thrusted his thumb over his shoulder, at the church that stood behind us across the street. “See that place next to that church? That was called la Plaza. Olvera Street was finished in 1930 but when I was seven years old in 1931, many Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans were taken from there, packed into trucks, and shipped off back to Mexico. Strange, huh? That our culture was being celebrated here while across the street we were being sent away.”
I looked across at the families congregating outside the church. Someone laughed, a loud warbled laugh that sounded almost like a scream. “Why?” I asked. “Some of them were Americans. They were born here, right?”
“That wasn’t the point,” he said. “I just told you that poverty makes people desperate. The Great Depression happened in the 30’s. There weren’t enough jobs, not enough money. Racism thrived. If someone had your skin color, my last name, if someone looked remotely different than your ‘average American,’ then they were stealing jobs and funds from the White man. They had to be sent back.” He chuckled. “The funny thing is that they called it ‘repatriation’ like they were doing us a favor sending us back to our motherland. But Olvera Street was meant to be a piece of Mexico in L.A., those people were already in Mexico, maybe the only version of Mexico they’d ever known.”
I looked at him, confused. I couldn’t grasp the significance. This was 2013 after all, we were a long way away from being deported back to a strange place without our consent. “Why are you telling me this?” I asked, kind of annoyed at this place, at this history lesson, at the old man who was forcing me to listen.
“I’m telling you this because all those people forced back to their country, you inherited their fear and hatred, son. My own father was an immigrant. Those raids scared him. So bad that he simply left, went back to Mexico on his own two feet before he was dragged over there by someone else. My mom didn’t feel that fear, she was born here, had milky white skin. She could pass as White. She worked hard to sustain my sister and me. As a kid, I’d watch her cry herself to sleep, watched her serve us food first and pretend to eat, always content with the scraps we left behind. We suffered so much. So, I learned to resent my father for leaving and my skin for looking like his. I hated being Mexican. When your mother was born, I hated the fear that came with trying to be a good dad because how could I do something I had never been taught? So, because of me, your mother has been through a lot. She struggles to accept who she is. I suspect she inherited the resentment I felt for my own dad.”
“She dyes her hair a lot,” I blurted out, noticing his own roots for the first time. There were dark brown patches I hadn’t noticed before, hidden amongst the white.
“Yes.” He nodded. “She loves to hide. That’s mostly my fault. I never taught her pride.” He smiled at me, his eyes roaming the plains of my face. “Can you forgive me?” he asked. “For not being there for you?”
I nodded. “Yes. But I think my mom deserves an apology too.”
“Yes.” He sighed. “Yes, I know.”
On the other side of the plaza, an ice cream vendor stood with his cart, brown skin gleaming with sweat beneath his wide-brimmed hat. He was surrounded by shadows, the sound of ringing bells, and a handful of children waving fistfuls of dollars in the air.
The little girl in her white dress pulled impatiently at her mother’s sleeve. “Mama, me compras un helado?” she asked, her Spanish rolling off the tongue, smooth and sweet.
I gestured towards the ice cream man. “Do you want one?”
The old man smiled, displaying his denture perfect teeth. “Okay, pues.”
I walked over, and awaited my turn, looking like an odd palm tree amongst the tiny children.
“What would you like, mijo?” the ice cream man asked, once it was my turn.
“Two ice cream sandwiches please.” I looked over my shoulder at the old man waiting for me on the bench. “One for me and one for my abuelo.”
As he picked the ice creams out of his cart, I looked down at the roots of the trees. They snaked over the dirt in braids, coming together and then extending out. I bent down and picked up a leaf, put it in my pocket.
From across the street, the church bell strikes the hour. I took my ice cream, paid the vendor, and walked over to my grandfather, carefully paying attention to the roots beneath my feet.