Mama Says Om--She's So Unusual
In my grammar school, there were two types of girls--Cyndi Lauper girls and Madonna girls. Madonna girls wore makeup early, and dressed in ways that caused the boys to occasionally drop their books low and blush. Cyndi Lauper girls got their own share of glances, but those were usually accompanied by whispered comments, "she’s just weird, man."
I was a Cyndi Lauper girl, due to the influence of my adored Punkish Middle Sister. In my admiring eyes, she was everything that embodied Cool, and I circled around her planet like the worshipful little moon I was in those days.
She had the gift of telling an enthralling story--finding the extraordinary in all of the small events that made up our day. I credit her with my interest in mythology, because she always had a way of connecting our lives to something larger, more exciting. Bigger than our often humdrum working class lives.
She introduced me to punk (of course!), safety pins in my ears, all black clothing, defiantly short haircuts, and the East Village. She listened patiently as I babbled happily about the stories I was writing, my "pretends" as I called them, and gave me valuable advice. We created fabulous fantasy lives for my Barbie dolls (a fact that would have mortified her if I’d ever spilled to one of her few close friends).
My Mami and Papi, though, were desperately chasing after the Usual. Anything to paint a smooth smiling patina on our own fragmented experiences as immigrants, as outsiders. They wanted so much to give us that deep sense of belonging, the confidence in our new world that they lacked. Punkish Middle Sister came to this country as an eleven year girl, so bright she was skipped forward into high school. They pinned their hopes on her intelligence, not considering what an American high school really was, or whether a sheltered eleven year old from another country would fit in there.
I guess she decided that if people were going to stare at her, she would find a way to be REALLY unusual. Needless to say, my parents absolutely did not approve. "Why can’t you be normal?!" shouted in Spanish across the dinner table. But she couldn’t. She wanted to have salsa AND the Sex Pistols; she longed for the warm tropical childhood she had even as she adored the hard angles of New York City. She wanted to be an ultra femme Latina woman, but was drawn to the idea of self-creation through androgyny.
So they tried to stifle my sister, tried to force her into acceptable interests, like school, and cooking, and silence.
I think that’s why she loved spending time with me back then, her little sister seven years younger. Because I loved exactly who she was; I wanted to be exactly like her. Unlike the world (and my parents), I wasn’t concerned about her lackluster grades; I was too busy being in awe over her enormous pencil drawing of Conan the Barbarian, so passionately and sensitively done that her art teacher didn’t believe she could have created it--it had to have been done by a boy, right? I would beg her to sing to me; she had a lovely, clear alto voice she couldn’t find any use for. To me, she was good at everything artistic--she was the undisputedly best dancer in our family (and for Latinos, that’s really saying something), sang beautifully, drew gorgeously, and possessed a serious native gift for language and storytelling, all the more surprising considering she learned English in her teens. I modeled myself after her in every way, imitated her style, her charisma, her passion for all of the arts. I drank deeply from all of her dreams of bohemia and freedom.
It wasn’t all roses and absinthe, though. My sister resented me almost as much as she loved me, this native born little sister, much petted by my parents. The sister who achieved straight As almost effortlessly, and who could please Mami and Papi almost without trying. Mami demanded that my sister give up all of her afterschool activities to take care of me; after all, she had to work the second shift at the factory, and my older siblings were both in college and thus unavailable. She got her revenge in little ways--subtly stepping on my own stories, reminding me that all of the good things in our family happened before they came to this country (i.e. before I was born), upstaging my nascent attempts to sing, and dance, and draw like she did (making sure that I knew I’d never be better than she was). I was so in thrall that I never considered how hard she had it--high school in a new country, a new language, culture. Being ripped away from everything she knew and not feeling connected to my parents at all. Maybe being weird was better than being ignored, or unsure. Maybe it was her way of taking all of her awkward bits and turning them into something important, into something beautiful.
It didn’t matter what she did to me, though. I still worshipped her. And I hope, in some small way, I gave her a safe place to be fully and completely herself. I applauded her, depended on her advice about boys, creativity, life.
We’re both still struggling--trying to reconcile who we are with wanting approval from our parents, spouses, and the world. She’s given up on those bohemian dreams from long ago, but left those seeds in me. It’s hard for me to watch her disavow all of her desires from back then--I miss having her lead me there. But she has different dreams now, and maybe it’s time for me to find my own path. I’ll always miss that time, and always be grateful for her inspiration, even if she doesn’t value those ideals anymore.
Some things haven't changed. She's still moody, and creative, and defiant, and insecure. She doesn't know what she wants to do with her life. She's remained a fabulous storyteller. She still drives my parents insane with her ideas (only now about parenthood). Still, she’s so unusual.
Mama Says Om
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