Culturally speaking I had what will become the American childhood, a mélange of cheerful American pragmatism and Latin baroque and African-American skepticism, and the hybridity seemed irreconcilable for so many years until I understood the American habit of maintaining a reductive naiveté through compartmentalized guilt. I hadn’t yet learned to feign ignorance towards the different parts of myself; to participate in national innocence through collective delineation. Until I understood this, it was impossible for me to integrate my childhood memories:
A piñata at every birthday party, the beating of which heralded rips and grass stains on massive white dresses. Sporadic attendance at mass, but baptisms and first communions requiring the rental of a public space and a mariachi band. At least three cars to every house—two cars beached in the driveway or on the curb, one without wheels. Every Saturday afternoon, a team of oil-stained men surrounding the cars, fortified by a cooler of beer and a busted radio booming Mexican rock. Scant mention of Mexico in school history classes; still, a regular festival for Cinco de Mayo (but only those aspects which could be safely dehistoricized and commodified, such as folklorico performances and trays of empanadas), which was much more fun than Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (always a dreary assembly, with the tone-deaf lower grades crooning “We Shall Overcome” to a piano arrangement that sounded like a dirge). Long bedazzling days of fruit-picking in Watsonville with friends’ families. Childish beauty fantasies guided by the hands of older Chicanas, who insisted on the elegance of black lipliner and Aqua-Net hairspray. Cafeteria burritos on Monday, tacos on Thursday. Innumerable aunts and cousins in every family, and at least four godparents for every child. All-night story sessions when la abuela y la tia came to visit. First crushes named Cruz. A Spanish vocabulary consisting exclusively of cuss words and slang. Slip ‘n Slides, kiddie pools, and jugs of Kool-Aid dragged out to front yards during hot summer nights. Parents drunk enough on the heat and the long conversations to slosh in the pools by midnight. Joking discussion of la duena when the prettiest daughters started to date. Family photographs on every available surface. Letters from Mexico. The rosary. Black beans. Gilt.
And the list ends here. Thinking about it now, a chronological explanation seems deceptive, but were I to draw a timeline the list would end during the summer after my first year of middle school. I can place an exact moment, in fact—a hot July evening during the summer of 1991.
That was the night I discovered a cheerful rap group from Los Angeles. My teacher in rap, as my teacher in so many things that summer, was a girl named Indiana. We were constant companions. Our friendship was based on our shared inability to join any acceptable clique at school. Indiana was wiry and nervous and possessed of a schizophrenic beauty. It was the nervousness, and the fact that she was flaca at a time when most Chicanas were developing curves, that kept her locked out of the group she desired to join. She was also unacceptable—though I didn’t realize this at first—because she was not really Chicana, but some inexplicable white ethnic mix that failed to make the cut. I was withdrawn into myself even then, socially awkward, and far too developed for anyone’s good. We made an interesting pair that summer, cruising the mall, begging our mothers to leave us unchaperoned at the amusement park, stealing candy and cigarettes from the pharmacy.
One Friday night, an uncle or cousin or one of Indiana’s mother’s boyfriends—there were always men at Indiana’s house, men who were gruff and burly, men whose clothes shone with permanent grease stains—announced his intention to drive through east San Jose in order to pick up a spare part for his car. Indiana wheedled him into taking us along. The wait for the spare part would be long and stifling and he would threaten to abandon us before it was all over, but we knew that before we drove off and we knew, too, that it was worth it. He had to drive down Santa Clara Street.
During the week, Santa Clara Street was a six-lane road connecting a mercantile stretch of east San Jose (panaderias, pool halls, tattoo parlors) with one in downtown San Jose (flagship investment banks, skyrise hotels) and the Rose Garden district of San Jose (historical-society homes, attorney-at-law offices, parking regulations). Then it passed the 87 freeway and became The Alameda. The Alameda ran into the nether world of Santa Clara (Santa Clara University, artisan coffee shops, weekend farmers’ markets). So the street attracted all types of people. But many of those people stayed far away from the east San Jose side on weekend nights.
Because when the weekend came the cars came out of hiding. Long, sleek, candy-colored machines with fantastical names like LeBaron and El Dorado and Monte Carlo. Cars with periwinkle interiors and sparkling headlights. Suicide doors, Daewoo speakers piled in the back, whitewall tires, rear-view mirrors draped with green pine trees, embroidered Mexican flags, rosary beads. Twenty-inch rims. The license plates read LINDA and MAMI and SANCHA and the trunks told an airbrushed story about La Morenita, the Virgin of Guadeloupe, re-envisioned with a ripped red bodice to match her sheath of roses. These were cars that demanded the sacrifice of every Friday afternoon for polishing, cars that insisted upon trips to Richmond or Daly City for the special mechanics who could make them bounce. These were exacting vehicles, and what they exacted on Santa Clara Street was a traffic flow of about five miles an hour.
So there we were. Our driver was thirty-five years old, with two jobs, two kids, and a gambling habit. He had no patience for Santa Clara Street. He snarled and honked and ducked in and out of lanes. Our vehicle was a hardtop, rust-colored behemoth, completely at odds with protocol. But although we were ashamed, neither Indiana nor I expected anything else. We knew that Santa Clara Street was not for the likes of us. We were content to be in the crush, the excess, the sweat, the beauty, the noise—we pushed to each side of the bucket seat in the back and hung our heads out of the windows.
That’s when I heard “On a Sunday Afternoon,” approaching from a red Sentra on our right. Sentras were not designed to cruise—they were Japanese, for one thing, and aesthetically they were far too small and boxy—but this one was trying its best, with gleaming rims, tinted windows, and a sound system blaring the song of the moment. I was enthralled: the song’s focus was a rolling barrio voice, which looped and hopped down one of the melodies I had heard so many times from my mother’s Motown collection.
I asked Indiana about the song, and she shoved over to my side of the bucket seat. The song, she said after a moment’s listening, was enormously popular on all the local radio stations. Everyone she knew from our school was listening to it, and she heard it everywhere she went—in shopping malls, parking lots, corner stores. She was amazed that I hadn’t heard it before. Maybe, she said, such silliness could be explained by the name of the group in question, A Lighter Shade of Brown, and the fact that by choosing such a name they were saying that they were a shade too dark for her and a shade too light for me.
Excerpt from The Golden Age (Penguin, 2008)