Being a Chingona is hereditary

I don’t know if you know this, but I’m a Chingona. Not a chillona. Not a cachetona. A Chingona. It’s not easy being one, though many in my family are and we learned it from the most confident, hard-working, know-how woman that we probably ever will meet in our lifetime: our grandmother.

15369147_10107163019328660_1503421221294478142_oNow, if your family is anything like mine, they wouldn’t appreciate the use of the word Chingona unless they have grown to understand the power of our culture and how it has evolved since the days of our families crossing the border into the candy land dream; the same one that has challenged many of us into thinking we weren’t worthy to eat the fruits of our own labor.

But let me show you the power that was instilled by those planting seeds so that we should succeed as the fruit that blossoms to make this world a sweeter place, with more abundance and more to offer.

My grandmother, the Mera Chingona as I like to call her, came to this country knowing that she had to keep her family together, make sure her children were provided for and wasn’t going to let anything stop her from doing that.

She was tough, she wouldn’t take crap from anyone and her ideals shone through her like a light. God was her shoulder to lean on when no one else could give her what she was searching for and her faith in Him never wavered. She taught us how to pray with her. She always asked that God bless us, and her explanations of certain aspects were built on the fact that, sorry Charlie, a lot of what happens in this world isn’t about you.

But challenge us all she did. We wanted to make her proud. Knowing about her journey to the states, hearing stories about what she and my mom and aunts and uncles went through, there was really no other option but success. She carried the seeds and planted them right where we needed to be set. Now, it is up to the rest of us to show just how great her actions were and become testaments of her legacy.

Despite the adversity, nothing stood in her way. The culture of storytelling in Mexican families runs deep and if there’s anything that has stayed with this family, it’s that tradition. We heard about the houses and neighborhoods growing up, the challenges but also the great moments. From hot dogs on Friday nights after my grandmother got out of work, to the Christmas gift tradition of pj’s and only one toy for each child, we knew very well where and what our parents came from.

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Her stories of Mexico and living in Michoacán made me want to go back with her as she ate her fruits and ran through the fields. Conversations I’ve had with her old friend Anita also gave me a different perception of the same place. “Todo lo mejor viene de Michoacán,” Anita once told me. “Pregúntale a tu abuelita.” I’m not arguing with that!

My mother was born there, too, and because my grandmother was a chingona, most naturally, she is one as well. As protectors and care givers (sometimes the lines got crossed like when they got scared, they didn’t necessarily talk to you nicely, but they’d yell at you for scaring them after realizing you’re OK), they would do absolutely anything they had to for their children. Like any parent, right?

But it wasn’t that they may have yelled at a school bully, which they didn’t, but they did one better– they would give you everything you’d ever need to look out for and have confidence in yourself. It might not have seemed like that at first, but that’s exactly what they did because we still use those dichos and pieces of advice more than we ever thought we would.

A Chingona doesn’t just look out for their families, she makes sure that they’re able to take care of themselves. Because of that, our parents passed on her teachings and treatments. She passed them on herself. Whether it was talking to me about cooking, her childhood or chatting about what I had been up to, it felt good to communicate, to let her know I was building myself up as a Chingona, too, just like her and my mom.

A Chingona doesn’t let you get away without knowing where you came from first. Whether it was knowing our Catholic faith or being sure to be good hosts to others in our home, my grandma was always the first to teach us prayer, the power of faith and how to make sure visitors felt welcomed and respected. It was tradition; it was values; it was ethics and morals. She told parables, not just stories and each time she had something to say, she had a point.

Stories over dinners were deep and meaningful to us. She told us about her childhood, her brothers, her Nino and Nina who raised her and history about her own grandparents. She also told some traditional stories about the towns, celebrations or experiences in Mexico that she bounced off my father who would agree with her most of the time and tell stories of his youth as well.

A Chingona has beliefs beyond those of religion that rely more on culture and worldly experiences more than anything else. Natural remedies, odd concoctions and the power of energy and faith were instilled in my ways of being to this day. Her wisdom extended beyond her almost 94 years of life on Earth.

My cousin Michael and I always wanted to record her stories but we never got the chance to do it. How I wish we would have made the time. However, those stories are now for us to tell.

A Chingona doesn’t let anything stand in her way. I wrote about her life a few years ago on this same blog. It told her story and afterwards soon realized how happy I was to capture that– through stories and pictures. She was determined and knew that failure wasn’t an option, something she shared with all of us.

We all knew her well in our own way, have our own memories and experiences with her that no one will ever take away from us. When we said goodbye to her on Dec. 4, 2016, it was probably one of the hardest goodbyes, but one of the most joyous. After seeing family members pass before their time (at 42, 35 and 12), it’s a blessing to know that my grandmother lived a full life.

The following are memories that have been creeping into my mind since she passed last Sunday. Thank you for reading and as she would say every time we parted ways, “Que Dios te acompañe.”

When I came home from college during Thanksgiving break my freshman year of college, my mom and cousin Desiree cornered me in the kitchen and started grilling me on my tattoos. “Why would you do that?” They asked, among many other things that were being said. My aunt Marina and Carmen were trying to help me through it, but weren’t really getting anywhere. My furious mother told me, “go show grandma,” as if I was really going to get it from her. I walked into the living room and told her that my mom wanted me to show her my tattoo. “Enséñame la,” she told me. When I did she said, “hm.. esta bonita.” I went and with the biggest smile on my face told my mom she said it was pretty.

Walking into my grandmother’s house was an experience all in and of itself. There were bells on the door that jingled and the sound of the door slamming will always be ingrained in my memory. On the walk up the stairs, you could smell the nostalgic sent of food, memories and love. I would make a right at the top of the stairs and at the end of my tunneled vision, I could see grandma sitting at her kitchen table, where she played solitaire and turned her head to the right to watch the television that sat on top of her dresser in her bedroom. Usually, she would turn when I got to the dining room, smiling as I would say, “Hi, Grandma! ¿Cómo esta?”

When we went to grandma’s for dinner, she would cook for us and warm up tortillas while we all sat in the dining room talking and waiting for her to finish. When we offered to help, she would tell us to sit down. As a courtesy, we didn’t start our meal without her. I remember it taking forever for her to sit down with us. “Ya comen,” she would tell us. But out of defiance and respect, no one started without her.

When I came home from studying abroad in Spain for 4 months, I remember being in the car talking to my parents about my trip. When we got off the expressway way too early, I asked where we were going. My parents took me directly to my grandma’s house where she had made my favorite dish and my aunts and cousins were there to welcome me home.

Christmas always meant tamales for us and to me always felt like a bonding experience, especially for all the women in the family and my dad. When I would asked to help, I was always told to go play. Those times I tried though, I remember sitting at the long table that sat so many family dinners, attempting to spread the dough evenly across the corn husk, while grandma would stand at the head of the table with the large pot on her chair, arranging the tamales for steaming. It was an assembly line and we would talk while we passed the tamales down to have meat and salsa added to the center, folded and placed in the pot. Grandma would tie mine together so that I could find them easily. 

When I was little, around 4 years old, I was going to pre-school in Humboldt Park. Around that time, my parents bought a house on the southwest side of the city and moved us out of the neighborhood and out of grandma’s building (we lived in the basement). But since I was still going to school there and my dad worked all the way up north, he would drop off my mom and I at my grandma’s before she went to work and I went to school. I would sit at grandma’s desk, that had a little pull out table just for me, to eat my breakfast and watch cartoons. When my mom left for work, I would either stay in the room or go hang out with my tía Carmen before she took me to school. I got yelled at once by my grandma for sitting in her recliner and refusing to get up for my pregnant mother. Oops! 

A few years ago when I still lived at home, I was up in my room listening to music. My favorite song was on at the time and I was belting it out. My grandma was visiting and sitting downstairs. When we were in the car, I was singing softly to myself and my grandmother told me something along the lines of, “Sing louder. You have a voice equal to that of the girl singing. I think it’s even better.” At the time, I was embarrassed that she heard me at all! Now, I’m just proud. 

I remember going with Grandma to get her numbers. Down the stairs, though the gangway, across the alley, through a yard and to the bodega. When we got in there, the cashier and possibly the owner would already know what she wanted and asked how she was. She would get me a treat and we’d walk back through the winding road to get back to the house.

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Jose Luis Pérez AKA Uncle Joey

I could write a book about Uncle Joey. He was a character.  A fun-loving, truth-telling, dancer of a character. Everybody loved him. I know plenty of people who say that about people who’ve passed, right? But I’m actually serious. Everyone he came across saw the light that we were so blessed to have in our family.

Uncle Joey was a dancer. He was a ballroom dancer, something that started when he was in high school. The job took him places we had never been like Hawaii, South Carolina and Alexandria, Virginia. He was the reason most of our family traveled outside of the Midwest on vacation.

wpid-wp-1446493281573.jpegBefore the era of the internet, we used to record and send VHS tapes to each other, giving updates, saying hello. The last one we found was from Mother’s Day and my birthday. I don’t know if he would edit them or would have someone else do it, but since he was in competitions we couldn’t get to, he’d have them recorded and then placed within the video he’d send us. I can still hear his voice telling us when and where the competition took place.

My grandmother used to call him Luís and man, what a momma’s boy he was. I got confused when I was a kid. I didn’t understand why he had multiple names until I was older. Uncle Joey was also my godfather. He was a great one, too, always giving us gifts and telling us stories.

I think our favorite was the story of Ms. Fuchi. That’s right, ladies and gents, he created the story of Ms. Fuchi, a little ballerina girl that he taught to dance. She didn’t wear shoes and always had mocos coming out of her nose. The real reason he made up the story was because we had these spinning ballerina dolls that flew up into the air. He saw it and created the story for us on the spot.

wpid-wp-1446489511522.jpegDon’t get me wrong though. Uncle Joey was also mean. I don’t mean malicious, he was like me. It’s weird to say, but after he passed in 1995 my family would look at me and say, “Oh, my God. You look just like Joey.” Or “That’s totally something Joey would say,” or “That’s exactly the kind of face Joey would make.” I was basically him incarnate and then I realized how much more I was like him. He was the honest truth-teller. He also called people out.

Let me give you an example. I used to like to chew big wads of gum. Why? I have no idea. I was a dumb kid. I shoved a whole 5-stick pack of gum in my mouth, you know, those Extra bubble gum flavored ones. Before I could get the stupid wad out of my mouth, Uncle Joey looked at me and said, “How many did you stick in your mouth? All of them?” “No!” I said, clearly embarrassed to which I proceeded to spit out the gum in the trash.  You didn’t want him to think you were stupid.

Another time, he had a briefcase with him. I’m pretty sure he came to my house right after flying in– something he’d do a lot. He always had gifts for us, like I said before. He told me to sit down in front of him and he pulled out a little something for me. I don’t even remember what it was, but I tried to peek into the case, to which he grabbed it and turned it so I couldn’t see inside. “Hey! What else are you looking for?” he said to me. I was a spoiled brat.

See all the things he made me realize without really even saying it?

When Uncle Joey came in from out of town, it was a huge event. One Christmas, my parents “went to the store.” I’m kinda really close to my parents so when they didn’t come back quick enough for me, I kept asking where they were. The whole family was gathered at my grandmother’s house waiting for everyone to get there. This was also when we could all FIT in my grandmother’s house. All of a sudden, we heard the bell of the door downstairs jingle. The door opened and up walked my mom, dad and right behind them Uncle Joey telling us kids to shush. As he walked into the dining room, we heard a scream from my tía Rosa. The kids laughed and then ran over, waiting patiently to hug Uncle Joey– after he said hello to grandma and his brothers and sisters first.

Once we surprised him at his gate (pre 9/11) during a layover. He walked out and we were all sitting there patiently waiting for him. I forget who, but someone stepped up to him as he walked out of the gate. He was so surprised and then those of us who were sitting in the seats turned around. He was thrilled to see us all there waiting for him.

The last time we went out to D.C. to visit him, it was during Shark Week and I just so happened to be into sharks. We camped out in his living room (basically hung out on the sofa bed) and watched hours and hours of shark action. He couldn’t believe he had done that either, but it was fun. I also remember that that’s when I got to see his tattoo for the first time.

Those were fun and almost magical times.

I saw the worrisome and pained Uncle Joey, too. Not that I really like to talk about it much, but I’m starting to understand it as I near his age. He would call our house late at night to talk to my mom or my tía Carmen if she was around, but I always got to talk to him before it got to them. If the phone rang after 11p.m. it was usually him and I would race to the phone saying, “I got it! It’s probably Uncle Joey!”

There are times I’ll never forget, especially when I saw the pure child that lived inside him. Once he grabbed a photo of my grandfather and kept asking, “I look like dad, don’t I? Don’t I look like daddy?” The desire to be tied to someone that everyone lost early on was apparent, just like me today.

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Tía Marina and Uncle Joey at a wedding

Uncle Joey died on the first day of winter. He was born the first day of summer. When we realized this, it almost made sense to us. I learned so much from Uncle Joey. Too much to recount here. He made life fun and loved to laugh. Whether or not he knew what was coming, he never seemed to be worried about it. In his final days, he had admitted that he wasn’t afraid to die anymore– something that gives me solace as I think about it. He knew he was going to be with his father, with my first Wendy, and that things would be OK.

Keeping him alive in our memory is easy, especially at weddings when the song “Last Dance” by Donna Summer is played. The song reminds the family (and those who were alive to witness it) of the time that Uncle Joey and my tía Marina danced to the song in high school for a dance competition.  I played it today as I left the cemetery, the only time in the history of visiting the cemetery that I ever played music. I thought it was appropriate and that Uncle Joey would appreciate it.

God and the swing set

It was a sunny day in June. The weather was warm enough to walk around outside without a jacket. The tumultuous weather in Illinois is something else, which is why it felt good to be bare-armed in the breeze. She walked with her head down, staring at her feet as she took her slow and steady steps, one foot in front of the other. In her ears played a Spanish song about leaving; leaving and never coming back and that’s exactly what she wanted to do. What am I doing? she constantly asked herself. This is was not where I want to be.

Since she was a little girl, she loved the swings. It was a place of refuge, a place to be free and to get away from the world. As a child, it was time with her dad who pushed her high enough to kick the leaves on the tree in front of her. In grammar school it brought about the swinging competitions; who could swing higher then who was brave enough to jump off. In high school it was a stress reliever, where she and her friends would go to feel like children again and now, it was the only place where she could feel at peace among the mess that she had found herself in.

Graduated, no job and scraping the bottom of the lowest low in her life. Running away seemed to be the only answer, yet at the moment, the swing set seemed to be the only relief. She walked to the park closest to where she lived. Slowly but surely she made her way there. Beneath a tree, there were two people sitting at a picnic table; a man and a woman.

She sat on a swing and the song played on repeat in her ears. She felt sad. The look on her 23-year-old face must have said more than words could at that point. She looked at the tree as she swung. When the song from her iPod stopped playing just to repeat itself, she realized that the swing she chose to sit on was quite possibly the noisiest one. The rust on the swing made it whine like a dying cat, or so she thought.

She decided to peel herself off the swing because she didn’t want to bother the people sitting under the tree with the sound of the swing. She walked to a black bench and sat down to admire the greenery and in an attempt to calm her mind and the million things running through it. With her ear buds still in her ears, she pulled out a book to read about something that didn’t have to do with her life. She couldn’t take reality any more.

As she looked down to stick her nose in her book, she noticed a shadow and a man mouthing words to her. She put her book down and removed her ear buds. It was the man who was sitting at the picnic table. “Excuse me,” said the balding older man. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to say that I couldn’t help but watch you on the swing. You looked beautiful.” She looked at this man and didn’t know what to say. He wore a white shirt, khaki shorts and running shoes with white tube socks. She said thank you.

“You reminded me of my daughter,” he continued. “I used to push her on the swings and she loved it. But I lost her about 23 years ago.” As she looked up at him, the sky a bright blue behind his balding head, she could only say, “Oh.” He looked back at the woman at the picnic table. “Anyway, I just had to come over and tell you that. Sorry to bother you again,” he said as he turned and walked back to the table. “No bother,” said the girl.

All of a sudden, she felt overwhelmed. She felt strangely safe and strangely loved. There was hope and love and meaningful loss in the world. She didn’t know his story but her swinging reminded him of what she remembered as a child. It was the most comforting, yet distant source of security.

After he sat at the table with the woman, she noticed that he didn’t look her way again. Instead, she felt the need to go home and take a nap. Oddly enough, she had found what she was looking for.