When one of the most well-respected editors in the city asks you to write a first-person story for one of the biggest publications in town, you almost faint from the anxiety. That was my scenario, anyway. A few months ago, Amy Silverman, managing editor of Phoenix New Times offered me an assignment: To share a “tale from the city” for the annual Best of Phoenix issue.
No pressure! One tale. Any tale! Being born and raised in Phoenix, I have a gazillion! My piece was to run as the lead for the “La Vida” section that features local Mexican and Chicano culture. Between my family’s Phoenix tamal history and my Mexican craft business, plus my family background, I knew I had a lot of yarns to choose from. Something that screamed cultura…la vida…la gente…ay yai yai!
I sorted multiple ideas until stress took over. I couldn’t choose. I wanted something with a fresh perspective, not obvious.
And then the ultimate idea popped in my head: High school. The time when I scored an interview with THE Alice Cooper.
*Needle scratches across record*
Well, how is THAT la vida related, you ask? Really? Alice Cooper?
OK – I am the “la vida!” Because I’m Mexican-American automatically qualifies it as “la vida!” Right?
Each one of us has our own unique story of how we fit in and relate to our culture. Even though I hadn’t embraced my heritage at that time, I still lived my life as a Mexi-teen. A coconut Mexi-teen, but still…
It is Hispanic Heritage Month and all, I’ll share some background.
At the age of 21 is when I really came to learn and love my culture. Since that day to now, it has become a part of all I do.
But – as a tween, I secretly despised being Mexican. It made me feel different in an awkward way, especially because I attended a mostly Anglo school. It goes back to fourth grade when I had a crush on Chuck C. and I always tried to talk to him, then one day his friend came up to me on the playground and said, “Leave Chuck alone, he doesn’t like you because you are Mexican!” His words shocked and confused me. “What the heck? Well now what?” I thought. “I’m stuck being Mexican forever! This SUCKS!”
It stuck with me through junior high and early high school. A lingering fear shadowed every interaction I had with boys. I kept a safe distance because I assumed they were all like Chuck C. I never wanted to put myself out there for any social events or clubs. Unnecessary paranoia! I was blessed to have best friends and classmates who were all very kind and genuine. Never had a Chuck C. issue again! Good memories of high school! Nothing but MAD LOVE for Cortez High School!
By my junior year, I got over the playground episode, but still wanted to forge my own way, and my “la vida” at the time meant disconnecting from my heritage. I didn’t feel it made me ‘cool’.
My point is that “la vida” is more than food or shopping or dancing the pachanga. It’s also about self-discovery – accepting your family’s history, your culture, and identifying with it. I hadn’t matured enough to reach that point. I wanted to prevent people from automatically assigning a label to me, I wanted to create my own label. And I wanted the label to be the opposite of what they expected.
So I went ahead and wrote my “la vida” Alice Cooper story for The Phoenix New Times and waited with baited breath for feedback from Amy. You know what? She said she loved it! She got it. She got me. She didn’t make me fit into a box of surface-level obvious Latino culture.
OK, part two of this post: Ernie Thorn!
Since we are on the topic of high school and boys, here’s another tale…We all have that one person who helps you turn a corner. Ernie Thorn was that person for me. Remember I mentioned I used to be afraid of boys for a long time after the fourth grade Chuck C. incident? Well, freshman year of high school came along and I met Ernie. THORN was the perfect name for him because he sure new how to prick at my nerves! He was a party guy, he used to flirt with all the girls who wore short skirts and rocked those slide-on Candies heels. YUCK! (I say YUCk cuz I WISH I could have worn outfits like that, lol!)
As much as he annoyed me, I wanted to hang out with him! He’d pick on me, but not in a mean way, but in a way that made my roll my eyes and come back with something (hopefully) deadpan and witty. During lunchtime he’d saunter across the campus, biting from the corner of a sandwich as he nodded at the different cliques to acknowledge them. Sometimes he’d stop by to chat with me and my friend, Dana, as we sat on the grass under a huge tree. Even though he loved to point out the grim realities of the world in a sarcastic-yet-comical way, his presence sure brightened up our lunch hour. We looked forward to teasing him before he teased us! I never knew what to expect and braced myself! He called out my insecurities, asked very direct questions, made rude (ok, hysterical) comments about my mouth full of metal, mocked my hamburger condiment choices, and the best part…made me laugh at myself.
Ernie Thorn helped me lighten up and celebrate my goofiness!
Our senior year, we both were on the yearbook staff and became much better friends! Ernie is entered in my teen journal as the first ‘friend who was a boy’ I ever had. And years later, when The Breakfast Club debuted, I’d swear the character of John Bender (played by Judd Nelson) was inspired by Ernie Thorn! Right down to the scowl and telling it like it is.
These days I’m friends with Ernie on Facebook and it breaks my heart to know that he has been battling cancer for the past few years. He is a FIGHTER and kicked its butt before, but now he just started chemo again. Even though I hardly talk to him anymore, he is always in my nightly prayers to live a long, happy life and to beat cancer! He is blessed with a supportive family & friends and amazing co-workers who are raising money for his treatments. He is so deserving of this! Please send good energy and prayers too! I’m going to paint a happy good energy healing coffee cup and mail it to him.
And this post about my high school days is dedicated to Mr. Ernie Thorn! Thanks for being my high school tormenter…and FRIEND! LOL!
And also to ALICE COOPER (I just tweeted to you, BTW)!