Excerpt from Chapter 10
On Sunday, Corina went to Aunt Hilda’s for dinner, so dire had her loneliness become. Before she had crossed the threshold of the cottage in Castroville, Hilda lobbed a sizzling spray of condemnation. This time her ire was directed at a television actor arrested that morning for the hit and run death of a child in Santa Monica. The recklessness, the arrogance, the mercilessness, she hissed.
“I know,” Corina said nodding, barely knowing. She had heard a wisp of the news story on NPR while she made the guacamole for dinner, but hadn’t dwelled on it. Certainly Hilda had been inhaling every ounce of the tragedy on television. She was addicted to CNN like an alcoholic to vodka. The buzzing set was still on, humming with recycled news.
Corina followed Hilda into the fragrant kitchen. What could she do to help, Corina asked, hoping to redirect her aunt’s attention.
“Everything’s ready,” Hilda said, her hand waving at the mismatched plates arrayed on the tile countertop: tostadas, pinto beans, rice, chopped lettuce, and a spicy salsa that Hilda had made from scratch. The spicy-sweetness of Mexican hot chocolate saturated the air.
“Smells wonderful,” Corina said, eyeing the solid block of sweetened chocolate on the stove. Hot chocolate with pan de huevo or sweet empanadas was the traditional merienda taken in late afternoon before dinner.
“I’ll make you a cup after dinner,” Hilda said and grabbed a block wrapped in aluminum. “Here, take some home with you. It’s good to drink on days with heavy fog.”
At Hilda’s, Corina always gorged herself on Mexican sweets like hot chocolate, coconut candies, guava rolls, pineapple soda. Funny how she never thought to stock her own cupboards with these syrupy treats that she had regularly consumed in her childhood. Another casualty of assimilation.
They always ate in the kitchen, over a cracked plastic tablecloth, with paper napkins and decades’ old flatware with a rosebud motif. Two lottery tickets were posted on the refrigerator alongside a flyer for the upcoming Breast Cancer Walk. The squeals of the neighbor’s children floated in through the double-hinged window.
Hilda talked while she assembled her tostada. There was a folded tissue tucked into the sleeve of her sweater and reading glasses parked on her white head. When she had exhausted her inventory of complaints and pronouncements, she asked Corina what she had to report. Corina described her visit to the farm field where the farmworker housing would be built.
“Good for you, for helping your people.”
“Of course. Your grandparents were farmworkers, harvesting lettuce. Lettuce no different than what’s on your tostada.”
“I had forgotten all about that.”
“Papa Julio and Mama Lupita got around in a Ford truck, camper on the back made of plywood. Up and down the Salinas Valley during the 1940s. Both of them out in those fields, backs bent, arms all burnt up by the sun.”
Corina wiped salsa from the corner of her mouth. “Why is it that when I see workers in the field, I never think I’m just two generations removed from the very same life?”
“Send a girl to Stanford, that’s what happens.”
Corina stared into her aunt’s etched face, brown and speckled with dainty moles. It was a reflection of all the abuelas on the buses in Salinas, or at the post office, grandkids in tow, dispatching letters and checks to Mexico. Her own face would look the same in thirty years. And yet when she saw Mexicans in polyester dresses or sombreros or trailed by children, she didn’t see herself, her past, her people. She saw them as ‘them,’ and not as me. While she could gleefully enjoy a mariachi concert or telenovela and relish a cold glass of horchata at the taco stand on a Salinas corner without a twitch of embarrassment, she had also unconsciously acquired an appetite for Caribbean music and The New Yorker and miso soup and curry. She related to people of her class more readily than gente of her blood, and that had never been intentional. But here she had been today, standing in a farm field and missing altogether the connection to her family’s past. Should she wilt with guilt to have assimilated? You never saw Americans with British blood sitting down to a dinner of bangers and mash or those of German decent dancing the polka. So what did it matter if she relinquished the past? Good grief. If she was helping people in need, did it really matter what category her mind unconsciously assigned to them?
“It’s inevitable to forget those long-ago struggles,” Corina said. “And isn’t that why they worked so hard, so ours could be a better life?”
"Never forget where you came from,” Hilda said.
“Oh, but we do forget.”
“Maybe not. But what did grandpa know of his ancestors who came over the land bridge from Asia 16,000 years ago? Or homo erectus in Africa? How far back should we remember?”
“Dios mio! Are you crazy?”
“Is it really any more important to understand the struggles of my ancestors in the fields than to appreciate what the Chinese endured to build the railroads, or the saga of the slaves? Aren’t all equally worthy of contemplation.”
“Your story should matter to you. Take pride in your heritage.”
Or not, Corina thought. But she didn’t say it. What was the point in debating with her entrenched aunt? It would be refreshing to have the discussion with someone who listened. She thought of Mark and the conversation they had shared by the side of Salinas Road.
“One day you’ll understand about taking pride in your culture. You’ll get it some day when you’re my age, perhaps. You’ll say, that Aunt Hilda, she was right.”
Every quarrel drifted to the same denouncement. Hilda was right and Corina would realize it one day. How could such an absurd declaration be rebuffed?