by Baylee Vasquez
First, you need an abuelita; she will add the sweetness of tomatoes and the rich color. An abuelita is essential to making Spanish rice because she will know how to make it the right way and how to survive on it. She’s raised fourteen children, survived a divorce, and learned Spanglish. She says it’s because of her Spanish rice. As a matter of fact, you and your tíos and tías spend most of your time with her trying to figure out her recipes. She guards them. She insists that she doesn’t write anything down, but you occasionally spy her squinting at note cards and then slipping them back into her bra. No rice is good enough to go venture in there.
Second, spend time with your Mexican side of the family; they are the garlic. Having an abuelita requires that you are at least half Latin, but you’ve never met your abuelo. You’ve been told that he works at the circus, but you know he’s probably too old for that. Because of your Mexican side, you will be short. Very short. And when spending time with your family as a young child, your tía’s giant breasts and your tío’s gaucho bellies will usually knock you over when they turn to speak to you. You will get to know your family better by their breasts and bellies than their faces. As you grow up, you won’t get much taller, you will peak at 5’2”. Because you’re half Latin, you are expected to inherit the voluptuous curves of your cousins; instead you will get mosquito bites. Your abuelita will grab your protruding collarbone and shake you around saying “¿Hija, porqué estás tan flaca?” She will smack your father around for not feeding you correctly. “¡Aye Dios mío!” She crosses herself a lot. Don’t ever say Jesus Christ in front of her. Ever.
Third, be half white; rice is after all a basic of Spanish rice. And when I say white, I don’t mean, brown rice white. I mean sticky rice white. Your mother’s side of the family is Scottish/Irish. Yep, red hair and green eyes. When visiting the other half of your family, your aunts and uncles will say how beautiful your skin and hair is, then tell you to pull it up because it’s too big, it’s getting in everyone’s face.
Your cousins will ask you if you know any Spanish. You will impress them with phrases like“¿Quieres jugar?” or “¡Qué lata!” Then they will comment that your hips are too wide and that you have a mustache. This will teach you how to bleach and wax. This will also make you wish you had blonde or red hair like they do.
Fourth, understand what “dirty” means; dice onions for tear inducing flavor. When you enter elementary school, your father gets on his knees and warns you on the first day of kindergarten that some people will call you “dirty”. He then gives you a hug. You don’t understand why, and he doesn’t explain much, only that you’re Mexican and that’s all they need. He tells you that no matter what happens, that he loves you very much. There won’t too much trouble in elementary school. Yes, the teacher will try to speak very broken Spanish to you on the very first day of school. And she will increase her volume after you say you don’t understand her. You will have to explain to her that you don’t even speak Spanish. Every teacher will pronounce your name incorrectly. Sometimes they won’t even try to say it, or they’ll try once then decide that you no longer have a last name. You will also always be in the back of the lunch/recess/etc. line because your last name starts with a “V”. In middle school, all of your friends will be white and won’t understand when you talk about tamales or menudo, so you stop all together. Some of the students will call you “beaner,” “wet back,” or tell you that you should “go back over the fence.” You won’t understand these references mostly because you’ve never heard of them. When you ask your mother what they mean, she will frown and say that they don’t know what they’re talking about. She’ll say that the school needs a little more “color.” It won’t be until high school that you really understand.
Fifth, rebel a little bit in order to figure . . . anything out. Live a little and add jalapeños for a kick in the teeth. In high school, the other Latin kids will want to be your friend, until they find out that you actually don’t know Spanish. They will call you gringa or pocho or say “You think you’re better than us.” You will be called a traitor to your culture because you don’t know the mother tongue. The white kids won’t understand things like “Cinco de Mayo” or “El Día de los Muertos.”
Your tías will teach you how to wear makeup. Your mother teaches you how to be naturally beautiful. When you go to school, the tall, slender, white girls tell you that you look like a drag queen. You stop wearing makeup all together but your skin is too uneven. You will hide behind your hair. You will spend most of your evenings doing homework because your father won’t let you date. Your mother will explain that your abuelo used to shoot at the feet of any young men who came to court your tías, so they ran away and got pregnant.
“I trust you, it’s them I don’t trust,” he says. This makes you want to run away. Not get pregnant, but just run away. Throughout high school, you have boyfriends who believe that Latinas are loose. You will prove them wrong. Your parents won’t know about them if you’re good at sneaking out.
Sixth, there will be kind people in your life that sooth away some of the sting; add chicken broth until the rice is moist but not soupy or else will drown out all of the other flavors. You will get a job at a pizza joint at the edge of town to help pay for your state debate and state drama trips. This is where you will create your closer friends. All of the women who will be working here are the abused, the misunderstood, and the beaten down. They will respect your innocence but they will break you in. This is where you will learn how to swear, slap a man who grabs your ass, and make a mean grilled cheese sandwich.
“The secret is mayonnaise.”
They will also teach you that because you’ve been seen as a piece of meat your entire life, you have every right to see a man for a pork sword.
“Don’t ever let a man tell you that you’re not worth anything. All men are asses and dicks. Ha! Since you’re so short, you can only see asses and dicks!” That’s what the cook will tell you one day.
Seventh, the most essential ingredient is to realize that there will always be people who don’t understand the importance of Spanish rice, but there will be the select few that do—they are the salt. These special people will help you in situations where you can’t help yourself.
In American History class senior year, or any sort of class at any year, you and the other students will be in a heated debate with the teacher and each other about equal rights and the “don’t ask don’t tell” movement. The girl in front of you will start to say something about her grandfather but will only get out “My grandfather . . .” A boy will interrupt her and say, “Your grandfather was gay? That explains a lot!” Even though his statement doesn’t make sense, the girl will run out of the room anyway. You will tell this boy that he is out of line, but he will retort with, “Oh shove it! No one wants to hear from the frijoles section. Why don’t you go back to selling marijuana instead of telling me what to do?” Your teacher will protest but she’s never been able to command respect from anybody. She will sit at her desk the entire time. She won’t go get the principal; she won’t expunge the boy from the classroom. She will just sit there.
This boy, along with other young men, will continue to berate you. Your color. Your culture. Your race. Your family. Your classmates either cheer them on or avoid your eyes as you look to them for help. The other Latin boy clenches his fists and stares at his desk. The other girl opens her book and tries to get lost. Because you’ve been taught to face your problems, don’t leave the room. No matter how hard it is, don’t leave the room. If you leave the room, go back, otherwise you will lose the opportunity to witness something good.
No matter what you do, tears will come to your eyes. Turn away so your classmates don’t see. As you are wiping your cheeks, a coworker of yours will look this boy in the eye and say, “I’m tired of you ragging on Mexicans. You do realize that the Mexicans in this class are the ones with the top grades? If you would stop dealing marijuana then maybe you would graduate on the first try.”
Your coworker will tell you that it was nothing when you try to thank her. “I was just tired of his breath on the back of my neck.”