A Worrier for the Poor (Non-fiction memoir)
By Fernando RomeroFernando, graduated from Cal State Long Beach in 2009 and studied Creative Writing and Journalism. He is a co-founding member of Dreamers Adrift and co-founding member of the AB 540 group FUEL @ CSULB. He is also the Coordinator for the Justice for Immigrants Coalition of Inland Southern California, which is an immigrant-rights coalition in the Inland Empire region of California. He is also a contributing writer to the Huffington Post on the Dream Activist series.
I was six or so. I remember that it was November because my birthday had just passed. I was sitting on a bench inside the courtyard of Juan Escutia, the primary school my brothers and I attended in Tepatitlan, Jalisco. A Bimbo bread bag rested on my lap as I stuck my hand inside and reached for a sandwich. My friend, Monica, sat beside me. We usually ate together right before we played an intense game of tag with the rest of our classmates.
Every weekday, my mother would get up in the morning and make our lunches for school, which usually consisted of sandwiches. She would prepare them, put them in the same Bimbo bag the bread came in and then walk us to school. Once there, she would hand over the bag to the school nurse, Susana. I was the one entrusted with the duty of retrieving the sandwiches because my class was closest to her office.
Monica ate out of her lunchbox. She took out a ham sandwich, a small carton of milk and a bag of chocolate cookies. She assembled her food on the bench in a uniform, parallel fashion; like the streets of a city.
She asked me if I wanted to play jump rope after we finished eating, but I didn’t answer her or even bothered to look up.
I looked at the sandwich like a painter inspecting his artwork of oil on canvas. I squinted, trying to find something, but didn’t even know what. I flipped the sandwich over, under, to the side; nothing. The two pieces of white bread were simply slathered with a coat of sour cream and sprinkled with salt.
Inside the bag, were another four sandwiches, one for each of my brothers. They all had the same ingredients; sour cream and salt. Like the bearer of bad news I would have to make sure they got to where they were supposed to.
The bag mocked me. But for some strange reason, I wasn’t even surprised that there was no ham or even a slice of cheese gently resting between those two pieces of white bread. I knew my mother had not forgotten how to make sandwiches (and I knew for a fact that it wasn’t Friday during Lent), but I still took it with an almost matter-of fact attitude. By this age I already knew we were poor and that sometimes, going hungry was just a matter of fact.
Monica looked at me; I looked back at her. In her eyes, there was a dance of light from the reflection of the beaming sunlight upon the asphalt. Her face, a smattering of speckled freckles, spelled out disbelief. She wanted to say something, but didn’t know what.
She asked with skepticism as she ogled the salt on mayonnaise, “That’s your lunch?”
“Yeah,” I quipped. “My mom made it.”
A sense of shame overcame me and I started to put the sandwich back in the bag.
“Aren’t you gonna eat it?”
“Nah. I’m not hungry,” I lied.
I felt a shooting pain in the recesses of my stomach. I wanted to make up an excuse, to tell her that my stomach was full and that I had eaten earlier in the day; that these mayonnaise and salt sandwiches were just snacks. But the truth was that the shame overcame me. Today, I figured I’d go hungry.
She didn’t understand; I didn’t understand either. All I knew was that my parents worked hard. They worked como burros, as my mother would say, to provide us with a good education. Inevitably, “ends meet” sometimes became critical.
I stood up and walked away. I wasn’t mad at anybody, but I just did not feel like joining in the playground games. The remainder of the lunch period, I stood pressed against the fence, like a lone wolf; bitter at the idea that any child, for any reason would skip a meal or ever go hungry. I was always a worrier for the poor.
The nuns used to say that God had a special place for poor people; that God was more merciful. But like everything else the nuns said, and partly because I was just a kid, their message was simply lost on me.
And on that afternoon when I went hungry, the worries of my childhood superseded all that was me. As I walked home, I chewed on stalks of grass. I heard my stomach growl. I climbed an orange tree and stole an orange from some unlucky person’s house.
Even then, I had a way with words like a struggling poet. I wanted to tell stories of what I saw and how I lived, of those meager streets of houses and buildings, of unsightly characters who roamed the streets. I thought a lot. I wondered what it must be like to live in a house with a big front yard and sprinklers that twirled, and of moms who baked pies and left them on the window sill. My mind reverted to food again and again.
I thought about the streets of Tepa. We lived on Calle Allende 71. From school I would usually walk down Avenida Moctezuma or Lerdo. Both were parallel to one another and if one kept on walking downhill, one would reach La Plaza Morelos, where my parents would take us every Sunday for Mass and to a taco stand at La Plaza afterwards. At that time, I didn’t know that those streets would have such an effect on me. Some years later, Calle Allende became Atlantic Avenue and it was all still the same, but different.
When I got home, my parents were still at work. The afternoon was still young. I went inside and heated up some tortillas on the comal. I poured some hot sauce on the tortilla and ate. I felt guilt, remorse and shame for taking food that my mother may have needed later on; for the rest of us.
With the tortilla rolled up and hot sauce gushing
from the corner of my mouth, I went out to the patio. My stomach did not feel as empty. My brothers were home by now. In the patio, Ezequiel, David Alejandro, Valentin and Gonzalo were all playing marbles and making bomb sounds
on the cracked, uneven pavement.
My twelve-year-old brother Ezequiel, as the oldest, always took it upon himself to initiate the name of the game; he had the temperament of a mule, but could sometimes be fair and reasonable.
“So what you guys wanna play today?,” Ezequiel asked with indifference.
We all kind of shrugged. When it came to games, our options were always limited. We would either make up our own games or construct our own toys. Fun times ranged from catching tadpoles at a nearby pond, to making forts out of cardboard boxes, breaking-and-entering into a nearby construction site. Playing with matches was at the top of the list for fun, until some way, somehow, when I was in kindergarten, we accidentally set my parents’ mattress on fire. We don’t know how or who started the fire (cuz if you asked my brothers, they’d probably say I did it. But if you ask me I would point the finger back at any of them). Nonetheless, we got the punishment of a lifetime for that one.
We needed to kill time until my parents came home from work. My stomach grumbled. I could sense my brothers’ did too. Valentin said we should play outside. At nine, he was already a vagabond and always wanted to go outside.
“I have my soccer ball,” Valentin said. “Let’s just go outside and play soccer.”
“Can’t,” eleven-year old David interjected. “Mi Amá said no. Remember?”
My parents had gotten too many complaints from the neighbors for our alleged terrorizing of the neighborhood. My parents said to stay inside until they came home, which was usually less than hour after we got home.
David had always been the quietest, but he loved a good fighting. If there was anything he ever liked to do, it was beat up on his little brothers.
“Okay, then where’s the frisbee?” Ezequiel asked.
“I know! It’s over there,” Valentin said as he pointed to what seemed like the box where we kept a lot of our stuff.
I was closest to the box so I walked a couple paces to where Valentin pointed and looked inside. I only saw a pile of toy cars and some coloring utensils.
“Nope! No sir,” I said with a wrinkled face, being no one’s fool.
“Not there, stupid!” Valentin snapped. “Behind it.”
There it was. I picked up the frisbee and tossed it to Valentin. It probably sounded more fun in our heads than it actually was because no one seemed animated enough to play.
“This sucks! Let’s do something else,” Ezequiel said.
“Yeah! This is dumb. I’m goin’ inside,” David said.
We stood outside for awhile. Gonzalo, the youngest at five, sat on the ground, took some chalk and started to draw on the ground.
Man, that looks like fun, I thought.
At that moment my mother came home from work. We all went inside to wash up in the kitchen sink. She said dinner would be ready soon.
Every one of my brothers went into the living room to watch The Wonder Years, dubbed in Spanish. On the television, Kevin Arnold and his family sat in their dining room table in white clothes eating. Later on, my father came home and plopped himself on the living room couch, beaten from his job at a meat processing plant; a job that made little money.
My mother and I were in the kitchen, steam covered the glass windows from her cooking. My mother scurried back and forth making dinner. I wanted to talkto her about school and what had happened during lunch. But most importantly, I knew Christmas was coming up soon and I wanted to ask her to get me the most coveted toy there ever was. Sure, for Christmas I wanted for Baby Jesus to be born and for there to be happiness and peace in the universe, but most importantly, what I wanted was the toy sword the leader of The Thundercats used. I wanted Lion-O’s sword more than anything.
In those days, it seemed that my mother was always at the stove, her pale skin glistening as the steam team rose.
“Amá,” I started. “For Christmas…can I get a…umh.”
I didn’t even get a chance to finish.
“What is it?” she asked. “ You know what? Not right now, okay? We’ll talk about it a little bit later.”
I said okay. I knew “later” wouldn’t come. In the Mexican language “al rato” is usually translated into never.
The sun had set before my mother called everyone to dinner. We sat there: my mother’s eyes looked exhausted but had a vibrant glow as she scanned the table of six faces before her. Steam silvered the room while she said grace; my brothers with their heads bowed made ugly faces at the vegetables on their plates. I gagged too, but eagerly ate big rips of tortilla that held scooped up beans with melted cheese.
Like every other night at dinnertime, the house grew louder. A sense of insomnia descended upon the house. By now, we were accustomed to a life of surprises and evenings with festivities, even on non-festive days.
Finished eating dinner, I went outside. The air was cold. The hunger pangs were lulled. But those pangs in my stomach have followed me like a shadow; a reminder of who I was, where I’ve been and where I’ve come from.
Originally published in September 2008 for El Reflejo, an news and arts zine at Cal State Long Beach.