(This week’s blog begins a multi-part web series – a look behind-the-scenes as I start writing the book, Californio.)
They called my father a spic.
I haven’t heard the word used in years. Now, other words have taken its place – more descriptive perhaps, but just as derogatory. What I knew it to mean was the color brown – a skin darker than the all-powerful color of white. Of course no skins are really white or brown, but for some reason the darker the skin tone, the greater the insults.
I never thought of my father as dark. His hair was jet black, that’s true, and his eyes were the deepest of browns. I knew him only as a working man – an iron worker and welder who toiled outside under the sun on most days when he wasn’t in the shop, running the business. The sun darkened him, I thought. It didn’t have more meaning to me than that.
But to other people that deep pigment meant something else. I learned what that something was through my father’s own perception of what “being brown” meant to him. From the story he told about being a young soldier in a bar while another soldier spit that spic word in his direction, to the fights he almost got into until he learned he could always just say, “I’m Italian.”
My father wasn’t lying when he’d use “Italian” as a reason for turning his back on being brown. His grandfather’s father was an Italian immigrant – the owner of my father’s name, a name that had come from thousands of miles away, from Genoa. A name that I now own as my father’s blue-eyed, once-blonde-haired daughter.
My father loved holding me as a baby because people would ask him, “Who’s baby is that?” He’d always answer them proudly (knowing they were only questioning him because I was blonde and he wasn’t), “She’s mine!”
When I was old enough to hear these stories, and to notice a different language, other than English, that was spoken between my grandparents, I only assumed that what made our family what it was came from being Italian. My grandmother, Nanie, had an accent, and so did Bobbie, my grandfather. I was too little to know what Italian sounded like, or to notice that my grandmother spoke a different language with her sisters and sheep-herding brother than she did with her own husband. All I really understood was that my father didn’t like it. “Ma, speak English!” he’d tell her, and she’d shush him and keep speaking in words to her siblings that I didn’t understand. Until Bobbie would “Tsk!” in disgust and shake his head, barking a word – foreign again – and Nanie would go silent.
I was in kindergarten when I learned Nanie was French Basque. That our family wasn’t only Italian, we were Basque too. I listened closer to those strange words that she spoke and realized they were different than the other ones she used with my grandfather. Both were languages that my father never spoke at all. Not with his parents. Not with me. Not with absolutely anyone in this world. It would be a few years later that I learned my grandparents weren’t speaking Italian at all.
It was Spanish.
Every family has its share of secrets and I guess that was ours, that my grandparents spoke exclusively in Spanish to each other, throwing the odd slang word at us every now and then, whether we knew what it meant or not. In spite of my father’s protestations, we were told to wipe our “colinos” and that girls had “chi-chis” but boys didn’t. Someone was either a “cabron” or a “pendejo” when they were acting silly, or a “boboso” if they weren’t too smart. We were told “cholos” lived down the street and not to play with them, but we were also instructed never to use that word “cholo” because it could cause a fight if someone heard you call them that. “Vino” was wine, “Tia Marquesa” was what we called our old aunt, and “Quieres cafe?” were always the words my grandmother asked my grandfather when it was time for coffee and dessert. We never questioned why they spoke in Spanish, or why our table had frijoles or salsa at all of our barbecues. Our special Christmas enchiladas (made of cheese, onions, and chopped hard boiled eggs) didn’t seem out of place, nor did the chile rellenos my Nanie would sometimes make along with empaniditas, tamales, and homemade tortillas – flour, never corn. It just seemed normal to us; it was family, our family. And when I was little, I just assumed everyone’s family was like ours.
Then, I grew up.
I became aware that the Craviottos weren’t like any other family I saw on television, in the movies, or in the living rooms and backyards of my friends. In my teens, as my body started to feel uncomfortable with its new changes, so too did my perceptions of my family begin to grow less certain. Who were we? The only places that had salsa on the table, frijoles on the plates, enchiladas, tamales, and the sound of a language that made me feel l was home were Mexican restaurants. And for some reason, we never went to “those” kind of restaurants. Not if my father had anything to say about it.
Sometimes you get so busy growing up you forget to ask questions. Or maybe you just get the message as a kid that some things are okay to ask, and other things are off limits. We were Italian and that was okay to talk about. We were also French Basque and that was also fine to discuss. My mother’s family was Scotch/Irish and that was certainly no secret. But I never asked my father why his parents spoke Spanish, or why it embarrassed him so much. When our town celebrated Old Spanish Days Fiesta every August, commemorating its Spanish/Mexican early beginnings and my dad never participated, never wanted to dress up in Spanish costumes, or go down to El Mercado De La Guera to have Mexican food, I never wanted to know why. We went to Hawaii instead of El Mercado, or to Sea World, Yosemite, or even Bass Lake instead of La Noches de Ronda, or the Mission steps for La Fiesta Pequena. Dad wanted nothing to do with the celebration of anything Spanish, anything Mexican, and I never questioned or asked him why.
We were an old-time Santa Barbara family that had lived in that one small coastal California town for generations. “Everybody back in the old days in Santa Barbara spoke Spanish,” my father once admitted. End of story. That was a good enough explanation, I thought. It made sense to me: why look any deeper?
And I didn’t.
Unraveling the Past
The years passed, and so did Nanie and Bobbie, my only connection to those lyrical Spanish sounds, and to the answers of questions I never asked, but maybe should’ve. Occasionally, as my father and his brother aged, I’d overhear conversations, and names like “Gonzales,” and “Buelna.” My uncle would share some bit of information he’d discovered about some relative or some piece of the past, but dad would always stop him with: “You’re going to look so deep some day, Danny, you’re going to find something you don’t want to know.” And that would stop my uncle in his tracks; the conversation would just peter out, and they’d switch the subject to Notre Dame football, or some job they had to go measure for work.
Now, my father and my uncle are both gone – the last links to our family’s past, to the old days and customs long ago forgotten, to the old-timers who never spoke English but who shared a past that held all the answers to every question I now want to ask. I can’t ask those questions now because there’s no one left who can answer me.
Somehow I don’t think that will stop me from asking them.
I’m a writer and my imagination is restless. My ability to research is tireless; my talent for using words, and for creating stories is boundless. I will ask those questions anyway. And if I have to, I will be the one now to provide the answers.
(NEXT WEEK: Opening doors that have been locked for years. The 2nd CALIFORNIO post: Facebook Friends & Cousins.)