el sabor del amor y del dolor

y si quieren saber de mi pasado, es preciso decir una mentira, les dire que llegue de un mundo raro, que no se del dolor, que triunfe en el amor y que nunca he llorado…

the eulogy


The first time I freaked out was a random tuesday night February of last year, I called home and when my pops answered he didn’t recognize my voice. On the third ring he picked up, and I could hear the chaos of my niece and nephew and mom cooking in the background. I said, “Hello” and he said, “Who’s this?” – to which I respond, “Apa it’s ME.” After an awkward pause he says, “Oh mija no te reconoci, how are you?” “I’m fine” I say, ask to talk to my mom. As soon as I hang up I tell myself, this week – I’m going to tell them, I’m going to tell them everything. Graduation is coming up, I’m one and a half chapters away from finishing my dissertation – I tell myself I have to hold it together and that the right moment is going to come for me to explain the confusing changes that they have been hearing and sensing in my voice. … A month later, after a night of bad dreams and sweats I get a phone call from my mom, before I can say hello she says, “Your Wela’s in the hospital, we’re not sure she’s going to make it.” I tell her, “Okay I’m coming home – I’ll have someone cover my classes, ask for days off from my other two jobs.” She tells me no, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Before I can argue she says she has to go, the doctor has finally arrived. I go on about my day, like its any other day, but it surely is not.

The next day as I’m about to leave for work, my phone rings and it’s her (my heart sinks and I don’t want to answer, I know she’s going to tell me wela’s gone, it’s 6:30 am in Brawley, there’s no other reason for her to call at this time). I say hello, and she says, “Wela died this morning, I was there, I held her hand and saw her take her last breath”. And that’s all she could get out before she began crying and I could say nothing, except that I would find a flight that would get me there as soon as possible. I stayed silent on the phone and sunk into the couch, but I couldn’t cry – I was angry with myself and upset that I was not there, that I had not been there to witness my wela leave this earth. I adored my wela, I was her favorite – she for many years was the only woman in my life that told me she loved me, said the words, “te quiero mucho mi reyna.” Of course my mom loves me but she wasn’t always the kind of woman to say those words – at least not until I moved away from home. I had to take the risk and say it first because I missed her so much and in the absence of her presence words over the phone were all I had to remind me of her love. Even though it had been years since my Wela recognized anyone but my mom, the last few times I visited her she called me mijo and always asked “¿Este galancito quien es?” My mom always tried to correct her and say, “No ama, es la Johanna – tu nieta” but eventually gave up. I couldn’t cry because I was angry with myself for what at the moment I believed to be selfishness in wanting to escape my hometown. I wanted to be there to see the woman who helped raised me leave this earth, instead I was stuck in the Midwest, struggling to jump through that “final” hoop and finish my PhD – my research seemed to matter less and less as I felt I was scripting my own death as I retold scenes of violence towards trans* chican@s, so to write their presence into history so that they would not be forgotten, and above all highlight the injustice in the normalization of indignity that is faced on the daily and engraved on the body, psyche and spirit. In academe and the activist spaces I encountered, the literature I read and the people I met, always seemed to make me feel like my hometown was a backwards place, a place I had to run away from, a place that would only suffocate and make me invisible. When I was seventeen, I believed this and I left with no intention of ever returning and from that point every trip home was marked by impatiently counting down every second until I could leave and resume my life. I had to ways to manage the guilt for missing birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, quinceañeras, I felt erased from my family history because my image was absent from almost every family picture taken since I had left home – I had convinced myself that I didn’t fit, because the image of me that remained in my parent’s home, are remnants of a person I have been unfashioning piece by piece, and refiguring and reassembling day by day. All of this flashed through my mind and I couldn’t cry, couldn’t move or breathe. In an instant my mom broke our silence and she said “I want you to write the eulogy, I want you to say a few words about her life, you’re the only one in the family who is good at writing, acabo que you’ve been going to school for so long to learn to be a writer. ¿You’re writing a book que no?”

A day later, I made the journey from one rancho in the middle of the Midwest to the other rancho I call home on the borderlands, a city on the north end of the Imperial Valley. The Imperial Valley is 120 miles east of San Diego, shares a border with Mexicali and is 40 miles from the Arizona state border. My hometown, Brawley, was founded and incorporated by the Imperial Land Company, a land colonization corporation – the region is named the Imperial Valley for its fertile soil and all the agribusiness enterprise that would soon follow at the turn of the century as rich white business men and rich Mexican business men brokered water rights and contracts to keep the soil fertile through intricate canal systems that brought water in from the Colorado River and later the construction of the All American Canal – that functions as a unforgiving and deadly border to separate the US from Mexico – this kept/keeps business booming. Over the course of the twentieth century, the Imperial Valley’s agricultural boom would attract various settlers including: working class white folks from the dust bowl, Portuguese, Chinese, Swedish and Punjabi settlers and of course Mexicans. Brawley is my small town, but Brole is my home, will always be my home – it was on eastside Brole in that I came to understand the intimacies of oppression as they were felt and experienced and how that can bind you to a place, a history, a temporality larger than yourself and the depths of your own memory. My consciousness was born from springs and summers spent playing outside, unknowingly breathing pesticides blown in by the breeze from the fields three streets away from my home; a familiarity with death born from attending countless funerals of family friends who worked in the fields and the empaques all their lives and lost long battles with cancer; and an anger born when my sister and two of her childhood friends were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The valley is imperial indeed, in its exploitation and wearing out of raza who work the land and their families who proudly own homes where the eastside meets the fields of agricultural bounty that feed the state of California. Brole is my home and it is where I witnessed inequality, suffering, exploitation but also love, familia, tradition and togetherness.

After a two-hour drive to Indianapolis, a five-hour flight to San Diego and two-hour drive to Brawley I’m home. I haven’t slept, and sat in front of my laptop the entire flight, writing and rewriting sentences that just didn’t seem meaningful enough to capture the 100 years that my Wela spent on this earth. I wasn’t prepared for all the family from Arizona and the Central Valley that was arriving, as they stopped by my mom’s house each arrival was a new introduction – as each prima and primo couldn’t seem to recognize me. Some thought I was my brother’s oldest son; others just stared, trying to remember me. Everyone had a story to tell about my Wela, and I took notes, still trying to fashion a narrative about her life. That night I sat down at the dining room table, alone in the dark away from the day’s scrutiny and wove together what I thought would be fitting to memorialize her. At the wake and at the funeral I stood before my family, family friends, neighbors, and all those who had gathered on the eastside to honor her. I stood before the community that had raised me as a man they found familiar, but could not recognize. I recounted the story of my Wela’s journey to the United States in a steady and clear yet cracking voice I began: “Francisca Valdivia Marquez, was born on December 3, 1910 in a pueblito somewhere outside Durango-Durango Mexico, both her parents died of influenza and as an orphan migrated with her grandparents, sister and primas, primos, and tia and tio during the height of the Mexican revolution. She made part of the journey on a burro named violin. They first arrived in Nogales, Arizona and later settled in Tucson. During their trip to el norte, they had to hide under floorboards in old wooden houses, in cuevitas and other hidden spaces from Pancho Villa and his soldaderos, porque decian que robaban a las jovencitas.. As a young woman she cleaned rich people’s houses. She would settle in Brawley in the late 1930s and marry Martin Marquez in 1943, a man whom she was proud of marrying because in her own words, era alto, guapo y guero. She would soon after give birth to my mom, Yolanda and later would also give birth to a son, Martin Marquez Jr. who was equally as tall and handsome as his father but would be murdered in San Francisco because of a drug deal gone wrong.” … I reminded everyone of her highly sought out skill as a seamstress, she sewed cheerleading uniforms for the rich White farmer’s daughters, most importantly I noted that she would sew the latest fashions for my mom and her friends, skirts con petticoats y todo, fit for dancing the night away at the baile or cruising Main Street in cars that were dropped low, and of course the beautiful gowns she made for a whole generation of Cinco de Mayo queens, whose grandchildren have surely had their own children by now. Also what most people didn’t know is that my grandmother’s largest clientele were African American women who also lived on the eastside, my wela sewed the dresses they donned to show off to one another at church on Sundays. My family history starts in Brole, because the Galarte and Marquez families were disconnected from their familial genealogies because of borders, deaths, migrations and family quarrels. I locate our beginning in Brole because my family has always lived on the eastside. My Ama was born in a small house on 10th street (now Cesar Chave Ave) behind el “Salon Hidalgo” and my dad was born on a small farm surrounded by lettuce fields, just outside of Brawley, Dad’s family would eventually lose the farm and move to the eastside. Mom and Dad grew up on the eastside, their paths crossing for years unknowingly, they would eventually meet at the “Primavera Ball” at the “Salon Hidalgo,” fall in love and raise my brother, sister and me on the eastside. Now my brother and his family live on J street five houses down from the house we grew up, the house where my parents will live until they leave this world. … I left my small town when I was 18 in search of love, lust and possibilities I didn’t see in the eastside. It would take me twelve years and my Wela’s death to realize that love, lust and possibilities where always on the eastside, and that I just didn’t know how to look for them. My decision to transition has caused me to become closer to Brawley and my family. Coming home to the eastside is always challenging, because my transition never appears as a transition, but rather a transformation, night and day. In my first presentations of gender non-conformity, when I cut my trenzas and abandoned any inclination towards a compulsory femininity that blends into eastside ordinariness I encountered whispers and double takes at the grocery store, in church or at the movies. As I’ve become comfortable with my gentle masculinity – a referential refashioning of my father’s manhood – double takes and whispers have become lingering stares and I began to take pleasure in the legibility I was experiencing.

Growing up on the eastside in Brole means I grew up in front of and with the entire neighborhood. Because my family has been on the eastside since my grandparents settled there in the 1930s, the Galartes and the Marquez families have had a presence and a stake in building the community through church, school and community events. Growing up, I just wasn’t me, I was Hector and Yolanda’s youngest child who was smart, read the lecturasat mass on sundays and would surely go away to college. I became a mystery as soon as I went away to school, and seemed to change so much each time I returned, increasingly I no longer fit, and they no longer knew me. But on the day that I read my grandmother’s eulogy to my eastside familia, I reintroduced myself – and made it clear that I still belonged and they in fact still knew me – despite my deeper voice, pompadoured hair, tailored black suit, shirt and tie. For the first time in years, I was certain that the sights, sounds, and stories that made up the eastside were still mine. It was clear that in those lingering stares I was feeling that these people who had witnessed me grow up were looking for something familiar, so as to identify or place me, it was a desire to assure themselves that they stillknew me. They were confounded by the imperceptibility I seemed to provoke, so to settle their discomfort they stare lingeringly, gently looking for familiarity in my eyes, my smile, my voice and in those moment I want to tell them with the most possible care that what appears as remnants of someone they once knew, are in fact the core of who I am and how I fashion my life, my love, my politics.

Just as they search for the remnants of the kid they witnessed grow up on J Street, I find myself searching for that kid as well. As I continue to struggle tremendously with the responsibility of learning manhood on my own terms and what it means to even craft manhood/masculinity, I yearn for the simplicity of the dreamworlds and fantasies I created for myself as a kid to survive the overexposure of growing up in front of an entire community, abound with gendered expectations and markers of coming of age that I could never successfully meet. What I hope people find in these lingering stares is that I have always been the man that now at first glance looks like a stranger. What I find in these lingering stares is the comfort of their concern to hold on to something familiar, instead of an interested denial of what my transformations could mean for the neighborhood.

At my Wela’s funeral I encountered something unexpected, a particular kind of acceptance in my return and in the gift I gave them by retelling my Wela’s life and legacy in the eulogy I wrote and standing at the altar to read the lecturas for her funeral. Señoras whose houses I visited as a kid, who hugged me every Sunday at church came up to me and said, “no sabia que hablabas el español tan bien,” my mother’s comadres and primas also came up to me and said, “I had no idea that you were such a good speaker, you were always so shy” their compliments on my Spanish and my ability to speak for my family in this time of mourning signaled their approval of my role as the one who will continue to tell the many stories of the eastside and our family- in their eyes and condolences was that familiar intimacy that I had been mourning, an unsaid acknowledgement of my journey and a welcoming back to a home I had been fleeing for years.

Now, when I go home I take the time to get to know my parents, not just as my parents but as people, whose love stories, fantasies, dreams and desires I don’t know. As I ask about their lives, they in turn are beginning to know me, in their eyes still as a daughter, but they are learning to retain the memories they have of me as their daughter so that eventually they will see and understand me as their son. I revel in watching my parents grow old together – I savor their eastside love story and make their memories my own, as I take awe in the courage they had to have growing up Mexican American in the 1950s, in a segregated, racist small town, where possibilities were dictated and decided for them through discriminatory schools, teachers and employers. I appreciate their legacy, their struggle and their dream to give me a certain kind of life, a kind of life that doesn’t require that I fight for my humanity as they did, a life that I certainly do not have – but I see that I make them proud, perhaps they are proud of the courage I have because it is similar to the courage they had to have growing up in the time they grew up in. Or maybe they see that I listened to the lessons they sought to teach me as a child and catch glimpses of how those lessons learned play out in very queer ways.

Despite occasional discomfort, I now try to enjoy and take pleasure in the imperceptibility I encounter in my small town. I return the lingering stares with eye contact so to say, “Yes, you do know me. Yes, I do look familiar.” Most recently I caught an old high school crush gazing upon me shopping at the grocery store, when my eyes met hers she blushed and looked away. As I walked away, I turned and caught her looking again but with a lingering pensive desire, a look I know from other encounters in far away places… In an instant I realized I had moved from invisible, to illegible to imperceptible, to desirable. It took my Wela’s death to bring me closer to understanding that the impossibility for queer desire that I had mapped upon my hometown, was impossible because I had been wandering the eastside looking down at the ground, partly scripting my own narrative of invisibility, impossibility and suffocation. I returned home with the expectation that I would be greeted with scorn and disapproval, but instead the eastside greeted me with a newfound possibility for desire, lustful encounters and maybe, maybe even love…

© 2012 Francisco J Galarte

(My mother and wela below)


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This entry was posted on July 19, 2012 by and tagged , .


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