My abuelito was a bracero–part of one of the original groups of Mexican workers that came to America from 1942 to 1964. I don’t know the exact year he was in America but I know the town was Riverside. My abuelito, when he talked about it to his sons, called it “Ree-ber-see-deh” and remembered harvesting oranges. The entire town was just orange groves and orange groves, he said.
i told myself that i would write something new every week for a year. i have, for the most part, stuck to this. tonight i am writing this thing but i have a burning headache and i am coming to the extremely unpleasant realization that it may be due to caffeine withdrawal. i have had two cups of coffee today. i usually have four. this is the person i have become? been thinking also about witchcraft/curanderismo a lot lately. and the importance of eggs. Continue reading
Whenever my family is plotting a get-together, the same question gets asked: “Quien va traer el arroz?” This question, who will bring the rice, reverberates across the room with each woman pondering the question. Every tia needs to think that their arroz is the best.
The question is always settled gracefully. There is never fighting among the tias–but for the brief moment after the question is asked, each woman feels she is the only one talented enough to bring the arroz.
El arroz in question is always arroz rojo. Red rice. That there could be another type of rice at the party is not only distasteful but inconceivable.
In Mexican restaurants, the rice is called “Spanish rice” but no Mexican I’ve ever talked to has called it that. My cousins dodge around calling it anything at all by defaulting to Spanglish. They say things like, “Yeah, I guess the food was pretty good. The arroz was bomb.”
To my cousins and me, rice can be anything–fried with pineapple, plain with soy sauce, brown with steamed veggies but arroz can only be rojo.
The pros over at Wikipedia have the following to say about this rice: “Although called ‘Spanish rice’, this dish is unknown in Spain. The term ‘Spanish rice’ is not used by Mexicans or Mexican food enthusiasts, and its use probably stems from the fact that the Spanish language is spoken in Mexico; the dish is usually simply referred to as arroz (‘rice’) or arroz rojo (‘red rice’) in Mexico.”
What a mysterious Wikipedia entry–all the language loops around itself. At the core, there is no discernible origin to arroz rojo. Who knows where it originated?
All we know is that is the only partner for frijoles and carne asada.
Last year, my roommate embarked on a journey to make the perfect arroz rojo.
“I asked my mom to teach me,” he said confidently. I nodded and believed him. Here was a guy who had been roasting perfect chicken, marinating salmon, and baking pretty flan for as long I’d lived with him. Dude could cook.
A couple of weeks later, he came into my room, eyes wide. “Look!” he said, holding out a pan of rice. It was beyond mushy–it was soupy. And yet, it also managed to be horribly burnt.
“This is the third time!” he cried, giving up. From then on, he started bring pre-made arroz in a giant Ziploc bag. He would barge into my room and unfurl the rice bag in my face.
“Check out this riiiiiiiiiice,” he said. “My mom made it. I gave up on the arroz rojo life forever.”
I’ve never tried to make arroz rojo. I’ve made rice though–I’ve doused rice in olive oil and garam masala. One night, during finals week, I tossed rice, a can of chickpeas, turmeric, dried cranberries, and a chili pepper that a professor had given me into my ricemaker and recklessly pressed “cook”. The results were astoundingly edible.
But I’ve never ventured into the arroz rojo business. I am afraid to get it wrong or, even worse, to get it right.
Arroz rojo should only belong to my mom and tias.
My tia Violeta makes an awesome rice–extra corn and with individually defined grains. No mushes for her.
My tia is a really serene and no-nonsense lady. Her rice reflects that. However, for a brief time, when I was growing up, she allowed her rice to be tainted. Her youngest son, David, was a really picky eater. He was a tiny baby (and super annoying, too). He never like to eat anything but sweets. My sneaky tia eventually discovered that if she cut up a banana into his arroz, he would eat.
This continued for a long time, eventually corrupting her other children. I remember her getting up to look for a banana during a carne asada. Meanwhile, I ate my rice with frijoles and scowled at them. Why mess with my tia’s perfect rice?
My favorite kind of rice is my mom’s. She has no loyalty or uniformity. I doubt she has ever, in her entire life, followed a recipe. She makes the rice with garlic and tomato sauce, like everyone else. But she adds vegetables, or carrot chunks, or whatever she finds in the fridge.
Once, right before a party, when she was cooking five things at once, she accidentally put way too much salt in the rice. I saw her do it and gasped. I only cared about the rice.
“No hay problema,” she said. She quickly chopped up a potato and tossed it in the rice pot. “The potato will soak up the salt.”
Rice with potato slices? I was skeptical. But it was a big hit.
My mom hates traditions–she thinks tamales are stupid and unhealthy and will happily microwave something if she thinks she can get away with it.
Her arroz is rojo but unpredictable. She keeps the arroz tradition but bends it at will.
I find that the arroz rojo tradition lends itself to bending. Recently I attended a carne asada surprise birthday party for my friend. The party was hosted by his boyfriend. In the kitchen, the boyfriend’s mom was painstakingly making arroz rojo. When the rice was brought out, it was extra red and delightfully mushy.
I thought about Catholic traditions in Mexican families which strictly prohibit any kind of homosexuality. And yet. Here was the arroz rojo, an offering from a loving madre to her son’s boyfriend.
I chewed the rice and put some salsa on it. It was really good.
My mom looks at her hands with distinct dissatisfaction. It’s a stern look. I am grateful that for once this is not directed toward me. She gets up and grabs some Curell and, from the kitchen, a box of sugar. She mixes the lotion with the sugar, slowly and methodically.
I am five or six years old maybe and this is something I remember her doing on special occasions, mixing together the sugar scrub for her hands like it’s one of her recetas. I know that there’s some hatred involved in the cooking process for her. She thinks cooking is useless and redundant because everything gets eaten anyway. My smart, mean madre diciendo la pura verdad and perfectly explaining the concept of feminist immanence years before I ever read about it in The Second Sex. But the sugar scrub is a more sacred process.
My tias do the sugar scrub too. They also frown at their hands and get up, with purpose, to perform the scrub ritual. (As a five year old, I mostly lounge or bounce around. I have yet to do anything with purpose.) My tias complain about their hands being dry and about their eyes being tired.
“Son los quimicos que nos ponen a usar,” say the older tias to the younger tias. It’s the chemicals they make us use, they say, referring to the women whose houses they clean with brutal chemical cleaners.
My tia Lupita uses the sugar scrub more often than the others and the lotion she mixes in is extra expensive. She really cares about these things. My tia Felix uses it a lot too, but she does it absentmindedly, while she is doing a million other things so that some corners of her house have a sharp sugar crust where she has accidentally brushed against them.
Compared to her sisters, my mom almost never uses the scrub. She seems to save it for special occasions, when she wants to look extra nice or when she’s done a lot of cleaning work and wants to relax.
For me, the sugar scrub is a rare occasion. The sugar box comes down from the top shelf where I cannot reach it. In the mixing process, the sugar box is left unattended, waiting for me to steal a generous spoonful. I lurk around the house while my mom goes to wash off the scrub before launching my attack. I eat the sugar slowly, trying to crunch the grains before they dissolve in my mouth in too-sweet glory. My mom regañars me, but not too much. She understands the sugar’s hold on my five year old brain.
I never think to put it on my own hands. I just assume that the time will come, in the near future, where I will need this scrub for my hands to be soft.
But my hands are pretty much always soft. “Tienes manos de computadora,” my mom says over the phone, fifteen years later.
You have computer hands. Your hands only touch computers. She means that I will never do physical labor. There’s a kind of a reverence in the way she says it.
Borrowed this concept from The Hairpin because I wanted to do some hardcore navel-gazing and also I had to empty out my bag to shake out bread crumbs from a cranberry walnut bun I discreetly ate at work. I’m going to try to explain the items from top to bottom and left to right, like newspaper columns. Hopefully that makes sense.
1. The Bag. This is a teal bag that my mom got for me after I specifically asked her not to get me anything. It has CUPHOLDER pockets and it makes me feel like a ~mujer del mundo~ instead of like a ten year old, which is how I felt in my old backpack. Unfortunately, the stuff that I put in this bag is stuff that defeats its air of maturity.
2. Betty Boop tissues. A friend spontaneously gifted these to me after I told her a little about my life. Yeah. So far, though, I’ve been using them to wipe sriracha off my mouth instead of, like, tears so this is very good.
3. One movie pass for Regal Entertainment. Oh yeahhhh, saving this for a cool date with myself.
4. New earphones. I got these for $3 at Target and I’m not sure what I was expecting but they are not very good. They have a cute star pattern on them though. I am not above the charm of these things yet.
5. An unused band-aid. I have to say that I am so grateful that this is unused because I was really expecting some disgusting artifacts in here.
6. Novel: The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. I just finished it and it was so murdery and big and trashy and good.
7. Right underneath the novel is a Moleskine that another beautiful friend gave me. I’m trying to write my ~feelings~ in there but so far it’s a list of all the kinds of coffee I’ve been drinking. That’s good too, I guess.
7. A little pamphlet for how to check out books at the Riverside library. HAHA YOU JOKERS, I’VE BEEN CHECKING OUT BOOKS SINCE I WAS FOUR YEARS OLD. IT’S ALL I KNOW; I DON’T NEED YOUR PAMPHLET.
8. A toothbrush. Oral hygiene is important to me and to everyone I know, basically.
9. A highlighter and several pens that I’ve stolen from people. If you’re reading this and it’s yours, I’m never giving this back and you can pry them from my dead claws.
10. An expired coupon for eyebrow threading. I was pretty mad when I found this. Three dollars??? For eyebrow threading??? What a deal! I missed out.
11. A shocking and shameful assortment of chapsticks. Am I this kind of human being? I just buy and buy chapsticks? I thought I had integrity? My current fave is the plain old cherry chapstick which tastes great, like cherry cough syrup. My least fave is the purple Baby Lips, which tastes like grape cough syrup (unacceptable).
12. A receipt for some really expensive bread from Simple Simon’s.
13. Minty Trident gum. Pro tip: if you put these in your jean pockets, they get really warm and squishy and extra delicious.
14. If you squint, there is a white blob under the gum pack. If you’ve read this far, here’s where things get WEIRD. It’s a plastic baby from a Rosca de Reyes I ate in 2014. There’s been a little plastic baby in my bag for more than a year. Somebody please HELP ME. I don’t want it in my bag but it feels like a sin to throw it away. Every time I try throw it away, I am overcome with guilt and fear that I will be cursed forever.
15. A Pro-choice button. It reads: FREEDOM MEANS CHOICE with the lady power symbol. I keep it next to the plastic baby. Is this fucked up or just slovenly? I try to be a good person.
16. 54 cents.
17. Three bags of Trader Joe’s Green Tea for emergencies.
18. My business cards from the Highlander. I don’t know what to do with these.
19. Two bobby pins aka my life savers.
“Okay, podemos ir a caminar pero si te cansas, es tu problema. No cargo bebes,” Lina says meanly to her four year old cousin.
“I’m not a baby!” says Teresita predictably but then insists on bringing her large plastic car, a hideous yellow contraption with giant painted eyeballs instead of headlights. Teresita gets in the toy car and looks at Lina expectantly. Lina sighs and begins to push her down the street.
“This is just a stroller, you know.” Lina grumbles. “You’re not making any progress into becoming a real person.”
Teresita either does not hear or pretends not to understand the English sentence. Lina suspects that rather than being a child “confused by the dichotomies of her bilingual upbringing” as the pre-school teacher suggested, that Teresita is just selectively deaf.
“Mailbox!” Teresita responds, pointing to a mailbox painted to look like a frog. “Es una rana!”
Lina hums in acknowledgement and keeps walking, peering under the yellow hood of the plastic car every now and then to make sure that Teresita is still safe in there. They’ve walked farther than she thought, the shitty multi-colored houses jam packed with people all running together after a while. They hit the ultimate destination of any walk through this neighborhood: the liquor store.
Teresita rouses from her plastic car-induced reverie to demand candy. “Paletas! Paletas!”
“Okay pues,” Lina says, feigning irritation. At fifteen years, Lina is not yet free from the childhood thrall of candy. She gets a strawberry lollipop for Teresita and a Mango-Chile one for herself. The cashier, an older man with a pot belly, first leers at her but then gives her her change without saying anything. Lina guesses it’s because her age is so ambiguous–her body is at odds with her face. Her face is scowly but very young, chubby cheeks and round eyes but her body is bewilderingly womanly with overly generous curves. Her mama just calls the curves “lonjas” and tells Lina to lay off the Cheetos.
As Lina and Teresita turn to leave, the cashier calls out, “Hey next time, don’t bring that car in here okay, baby?”
“I’m not a baby!” Teresita says automatically. Lina laughs–cackles actually and pushes Teresita out of the automatic doors. She runs away, knowing that she will be too embarrassed to visit the liquor store for at least a month. Maybe she will have to lay off the Cheetos, Lina thinks.
Teresita seems unperturbed by the run down the street but Lina realizes now that it is getting late, the November chill seeping into the air, the sun long ago set. Her Tia Teresa will start to pretend to worry about Teresita, her precious only daughter, precious only when Tia Teresa is not at work or flirting with a new boyfriend.
Last week, the newest boyfriend, Raul, had cornered Lina in their living room, his breath smelling like hot sauce and beer. He’d leaned in really close and said, “You’re a very smart girl, huh? You got a real snobby face pero ese cuerpesito te va dar problemas.” He’d pinched her stomach and laughed for a long time. Lina had run up the stairs and burst into furious tears. Later, recounting the story to her mama, she had been admonished.
“Oh por dios, it was only a joke, Lina! Por que eres tan sensible? Don’t you want your aunt to get married so someone can take care of her and Teresita?” Lina’s mama had barely looked up from the carrots she’s been chopping.
Lina stops now and moves in front of the little car to crouch in front of Teresita. “What do you think of Raul?” she asks with the insane hope that someone else will believe he is a slimeball.
“He’s stinky,” Teresa says simply, her mouth a bright smear of red lollipop. Then she pauses, considering the question more carefully. “He makes my mami put on all her pretty clothes and nicest face.”
Lina stands up. It’s painful to be taught lessons in unselfishness from a child. Also, it just feels wrong to let Tia Teresa be with that guy–she feels like if she were in a sitcom, she could get rid of Raul in a series of escalating funny pranks and Tia Teresa would be mad at first but then hug Lina and say it was okay in the end. Somehow Lina would also make them very rich in this daydream.
It’s pointless to fantasize about changing those things though. Lina whirls the yellow car around in a sudden but controlled loop.
“Weee!” says Teresita.
They head home.
Ah, yes. The R & M Industries 5920 Apple Peeler/Corer/Slicer in bright red. Yesyesyes. The light from his laptop gives Malcolm an unnatural glow. He grins at the Amazon page for the apple peeler/corer/slicer. It’s gonna make him so happy. He can feel it.
He takes a delicate sip of his mango Four Loko and considers the intricacies of the machine. How it works is like this: first, you jam the apple into a metal rod, which removes its core, then you begin cranking the handle which rotates the apple around a blade until slowly, all of the apple’s skin is sheared off. Finally, it is sliced into bits. It’s a torture process that borders on medieval in terms of gruesomeness.
To begin consuming the apple, you must first admit that you hate it; you have always fucking hated fresh fruit. Malcolm finds beauty in this.
Actually, Malcolm cannot remember the last time he ate an apple, or any other piece of produce. If he buys the machine, he will definitely start though. Probably. He knows that the amount of flavored beef jerkies he eats is not going to lead to a long or healthy life, which actually is maybe why that’s the only thing he’s eaten for something like three months. But enough. This is not about the beef jerky. It’s about this wonderful machine.
The Amazon reviews suggest that it works particularly well with the most symmetrical apples. This also makes perfect sense to Malcolm–only the most perfect apple specimens deserve this kind of torture. It’s like when ancient tribes would sacrifice their most enticing maiden to satisfy their gods. (Although actually, what ancient tribes? Malcolm would check Wikipedia but he’s been banned from there after he tried to create too many conspiracy pages.)
Malcolm hopes this will not be a repeat of the banana slicer thing. As in, he bought a banana slicer and it came and he opened the box but it made him really sad. Now he had to buy bananas, he had thought, and find something to pair with sliced bananas, like yogurt. It was the pairing process that depressed him; the process asked too much of him. Also, he thought, why did this banana slicer exist? Didn’t people have knives? Didn’t people have teeth?
The apple peeler/corer/slicer is different though because it is a product of human ingenuity. It is a legitimate invention with components, harkening back to the style of Benjamin Franklin (Maybe. Fuck, he misses the sweet comforting interface of Wikipedia).
In his computer chair, his butt feels numb despite his special ergonomic cushions. It’s almost four in the morning. A simple “Add to Cart” will make this treasure his.
He doesn’t click the button. He doesn’t do the thing. He can’t. Once he buys it, he will no longer anticipate the moment of buying it. Malcolm knows his tired sad self well enough by now to be aware of this.
Malcolm is this end product apple that the machine produces; he is peeled, cored, sliced. Totally removed from what his untampered self should look like. He briefly imagines a tanned version of himself running outside, interacting with a tree or with a girl in some way. The thought process is tiring.
It is harder and harder to pull away from the computer chair every day.
The numbness spreads from his butt into his legs.
“If you are going to have a nervous breakdown,” Rocio says looking straight ahead, “I would really prefer it not entail grand theft auto.”
“Shut the fuck up,” says Val automatically, gripping the steering wheel, then after a pause, “Wait, your tio knows we took his truck, right?”
Rocio shrugs. Val knows enough about Rocio to guess the answer: her poor tio might call the police at any minute looking for his truck. Val’s knuckles on the steering wheel of the old red Chevrolet turn white. The truck slows down considerably and begins wobbling in and out of the lane.
The 91 West Freeway from Riverside to Anaheim is blissfully, suspiciously, miraculously free of traffic at 11:35 p.m on a Wednesday. Large trucks roll by occasionally but for the most part, Rocio’s uncle’s truck has free reign of the road.
Val and Rocio are escaping the stressers of their everyday life by going to Disneyland. So fun! So spontaneous! They are young college girls and they will remember this adventure with incredible fondness when they are drab old married ladies. At least, this was the gist of the conversation they had over Facebook Messenger last night when they first thought of the trip. The conversation had been rife with sunglasses and ice cream emojis.
But something about the dull January day and the stark beauty of the rocky hills that roll by, paired with the knowledge that with every passing mile, the monstrous old truck is guzzling gas, makes Val feel that Disneyland is no longer a possibility. Though the road is clear, Val cannot imagine a nearby future filled with Disneyland-style adventures. She does not want to imagine it. If she got to Disneyland, she would fail to meld with the environment; it would cling to her accusingly for failing to believe in the enchanting make-believe world.
Val takes a big breath.
“We have to turn back,” Val says.
“My uncle has, like, five trucks. Rhonda is his least favorite. Relax! He won’t know,” Rocio says, calm and looking at the mountains out the window. “Can’t even make fun larceny jokes around you anymore.”
Val cannot acknowledge that the truck she is driving is named Rhonda. This is also something that cannot exist for her. She tries to drive more carefully. The traffic-free thing is weird. It can’t last.
“So,” Rocio says casually after about ten minutes of silence. “What are you going to do about that Oceanography midterm? Did you talk to your professor?”
Val does not answer. She has told Rocio that she failed the Oceanography midterm. This is strictly true. Actually, Val is certain that she failed all of her midterms. How she did it was easy: she showed up to every single one of her classes and let the professors’ voices wash over her, their nuanced lessons about social constructions floating past her and their clever asides about politics never, ever touching her.
“I think you should get tutoring,” Rocio says, “I know this guy in my Physics class, he could teach you and you could just pay him in pizza, I swear.”
When midterms had rolled around, Val had shown up for those too. At every one, she had held her #2 pencil in her sweaty hand and looked at the scantrons. Her heart beating impossibly fast, thoughts flying every which way, Val had not filled in a single bubble. Four midterms. Four heart-thudding hours where she wrote nothing, nothing, nothing. Four blank tests. This is the part that Rocio doesn’t know.
Val knows that as a female person whose full name reads Valeria Orosco and whose parents were too busy tending to cows on a ranch in Mexico to finish high school, that she is the absolute prime demographic to drop out of college. And yet. She is utterly unpregnant. She has no pressing family obligations. She has great financial aid and no immediate monetary concerns. It’s just she can’t make herself do the work, like her body is rejecting the college curriculum, like it’s registering in her blood and bones that all this information is ultimately useless. Information which is interesting to share at a dinner party but won’t keep her alive. Every time she tries to focus on what a professor is saying, her heart starts beating so fast, until it’s all she can hear and this slow drain of blood happens in her head making her weak and drowsy.
She cannot tell this to Rocio, who functions on a practical level, who is studying to be a nurse practitioner, who paints her nails purple while reviewing her Chemistry flashcards.
“I just think you’re being too proud,” Rocio says. “I mean, I know you’re like, a super genius lady at Political Science, but breadth requirements are important, you know?”
Val tries to formulate a a scenario where she gracefully tells the people in her life that she is dropping out of college. Plenty of people have been successful without college. She can’t think of any, though. Einstein? Einstein is usually a safe bet for exceptionality. Val can’t imagine that anyone will swallow a comparison between her and Einstein. It doesn’t connect. She can’t explain anything.
A sign on the road reads RIGHT LANE ENDS. MERGE LEFT. Val keeps going in the right lane.
“Val? Are you listening? I really think something’s going on with you.”
The traffic creeps up almost imperceptibly. First a couple of giant trucks, then some small cars until the freeway is at a near standstill. Thirty miles per hour. Now twenty. Now fifteen. Val can’t see where she’s going with the Unistar truck in front of her.
RIGHT LANE ENDS. MERGE LEFT. Val ignores the sign.
“Your roommate told me you’re not really sleeping anymore? She says you just sit on your bed and stare into space–that’s–that’s not good.”
The right lane ends. Val has about a second to decide whether she wants to force her way into jam-packed traffic or veer into an unknown off-ramp. Car start to honk at her furiously. Val’s heart starts thudding loudly in her ears and the bloods drain from her head, leaving her feeling weak.