Top | Excerpts

Gringa

(article, Melissa Hart)

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h3. From the chapter "O, Christmas Tree"

Red-and-green streamers twisted across the vast room. At one end stood a 20-foot buffet table, its red plastic tablecloth crowded with platters and Crock-Pots and bowls. At the other end, dozens of people circled a man who strummed a nylon-stringed guitar.

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From the doorway, I gazed out upon the unfamiliar scene. Old abuelos reclined on metal folding chairs in faded denim and ironed cowboy shirts. They nursed Budweisers as the older women buzzed around the buffet table in their red-and-green pantsuits and orthopedic shoes. Little girls in red velvet dresses and gleaming Mary Janes skittered across the polished hall floor with boys in tiny suits. As I watched, this last demographic loped over to the dessert end of the buffet and fixed predatory eyes on the dishes of flan and fudge and gingerbread men.

“Oh, Jesus,” Tony muttered. “Cousin Chico’s playing ‘De Colores.’”

“What’s ‘De Colores’?” I whispered.

“Some Mexican traditional crap.”

“I’ve gotta learn it!” From where I stood, I saw sheet music making the rounds. But my platter stymied me. The cheddar cheese, which had previously oozed from golden flour tortillas, now congealed into shiny orange rubber.

“Tony!” A flock of middle-aged women caught sight of my boyfriend and rushed over. “We haven’t seen you in years. Who’s this?”

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Their eyes widened at me. I looked back at the women in their knitted reindeer and snowman sweaters, their brightly colored earrings shaped like Christmas-tree light bulbs, and shook hands all around.

“¡Hola!” I cried. “¡Buenos días! ¡Con mucho gusto!”

“It’s nice to meet you too, honey.” Tony’s four-foot-nine mother patted my hand and peered up into my face. “I don’t know why you put up with my son, but we’re glad you could be here.”

“Nice to see you too, Mom.” Tony stalked across the hall to join a group of men gathered like elk around the watering hole of a giant silver keg.

The other women regarded me warily. “So how long have you been dating Tony?” one asked.

“Where’s your family?” questioned another.

“A year,” I replied to the first woman. The second question I let go, unsure of the reception my mother and her girlfriend, my disabled brother, and my oversexed great-grandmother might receive from this crowd.

“So you’re Tony’s homegirl.” A man walked up to me, looking like an older version of my boyfriend with his red eyes and lopsided smile. I recognized him from the framed photo in his parents’ trailer. He shook my hand and grinned down at my wrist peeking out from under my buttoned black sleeve. “Damn, chica. You’re white.”

The men trailing him erupted with laughter. The women hid smiles behind genteel hands. Red-faced, I focused on the man’s T-shirt. It read, I’M THE REASON SANTA HAS A NAUGHTY LIST.

“No offense.” The guy socked me in the shoulder. “I’m Tony’s big brother.”

The laughter trickled off as a tall young woman walked up. “I’m Laura.” She shoved the man out of the way. “It’s good to meet you.” She took the platter from my hands. “These look delicious. Let’s put them on the buffet.”

I followed her through a throng of family members, who parted respectfully. Laura wore snug Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and a knit sweater in a blue-and-white snowflake pattern. Her light-brown hair fell across her shoulders in a gentle, perfumed perm. None of this by itself struck me as remarkable. But as she set my platter between dishes of homemade enchiladas and tamales, I stared at her.

Laura was white.

“Are you . . . are you a member of the family?” I stammered.

She rolled her eyes and nodded at Tony’s brother across the room. “That tonto’s my boyfriend for the last 10 years.”

She lifted a framed photo of a sober, fat-faced woman from an overturned ramekin in the center of a 9-by-13-inch pan of tamales. “Welcome to the Nana Canché clan. Nana died five years ago, but ay dios, her spirit lives on. Her favorite food was tamales.” Laura lowered her voice. “Better learn to make ’em in a hurry.”

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h1. About the book and author

Melissa Hart teaches journalism and memoir-writing at the University of Oregon and the University of California, Berkeley. 

Gringa is a memoir of Hart's childhood in southern California, when she was torn between her staid father, her lesbian mother, and her fascination with Latin American culture.

Reprinted by permission of Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.

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I peered into Nana Canché’s grim eyes and vowed to be worthy of her family. All that afternoon, I watched Laura as an anthropologist might study a particularly self-assured native. Her skin was as pale as mine, her foundation at least a shade lighter, and yet she chatted with Tony’s elderly uncle in flawless Spanish and copied a recipe for what I learned was her famed chicken mole onto a napkin for one of the aunts. She leaned in close to the woman, who listened intently. “The secret’s in buying the best dark chocolate you can afford,” she revealed.

“Do Laura and your son have children?” I asked Tony’s mother as she heaped food onto my plate.

“They’ve got two little boys.” She pointed at a couple of youngsters who’d shed their coats and were busy covering mouths and starched white shirts with taquitos in red sauce.

No more information forthcoming from Tony’s mother, I plied his aunts and girl cousins with questions about Laura. I learned that the women gathered at her house each Christmas Eve to make roast-beef tamales because she knew which panaderías sold the fluffiest masa_ and where to find the widest corn husks.

“She can down a Tecate in less than a minute.” Tony’s sister gazed at Laura with admiration. “And she knows the words to every Santana song.”

That afternoon, Laura became my role model and my nemesis. She’d bushwhacked her way through the jungle of her own unfortunate ethnicity and emerged into cultural clarity. I wanted to be just like her.

After the reunion, we washed dishes in the kitchen and put away leftovers. My Tortilla Flats had plastered themselves to my platter. Laura chipped them off with a spatula and moved toward the garbage can, then caught my eye. “Hey, mind if I wrap these up for my boys?” she asked. “They’ll love them for lunch with guacamole.”


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