My cousin Maria died two weeks ago. Actually, she'd been in a coma for about a week and her younger brother Steve and her mother Ana decided to pull the plug because the doctors told them she wouldn't be getting any better. Maria had already gone blind and had a kidney transplant months previous, and the coma, the blindness, and the transplant were the result of complications from diabetes--an illness that runs rampant in my family (all three of my mother's brothers, tio Pedro, tio Jose, and tio Alejandro died from it, and tios Pedro and Jose each had one of their legs amputated below the knee).
The last time I saw Maria I must have been about eighteen; I ran into her at Rainbow. We said "hi," "I'm fine, how are you," and told each other to "take care." Tragically, I don't know who this forty-eight-year-old woman was, who she became. I only remember her from a seven-year-old child's perspective: she was a laughing, feisty, smiley, plump, twenty-one-year-old wild child. A woman-girl who loved life, music, and men (she had two children out of marriage: a son, Tony, and a daughter, Jessica).
My mom, her three brothers, and her sister Ana moved to Minnesota in the 50s to flee the border town they grew up in, with hopes of providing a good life for their respective families (although tia Ana never married). Then in the early-70s, Grandma Ramona and Grandpa Miguel Garcia moved to Minnesota to be with their children and grandchildren (but only for about four years--the cold winters were too much for them). And at about this time, the Lopez family was the only one who was "moving up"; the majority of the Garcia's ended living and having the type of existence they were determined not to have in California. Consequently our families became involved in a falling-out of sorts, mostly due to my family's "uppitiness," that's what I feel we'd been accused of having. In a slight way I can't blame them for thinking that: Mom and Dad were resolved to get out of the 'hood, out of the low-income housing residence were we lived in St. Paul. They wanted to set an example for us. Mom's contention was more or less (not necessarily in her words): "Hey, if it means keeping my kids away from the rest of the family to ensure a good life, then that's what I'll do." The Garcias were content staying where they were and if it was good enough for them, then it should've been good enough for the Lopezes. We were of the same blood and they couldn't understand why we had to "act" like we weren't. From what I know, which isn't much, I believe the whole "dispute" evolved into a "he said, she said" disaster and the families decided it was "best" to keep away from each other because it was obvious none of the Garcias were "good enough" for associating with the Lopez clan.
Looking back at the situation as an adult, I believe it was a case of misunderstanding, misconstrue, and possibly a little bit of envy: both my parents went to college and got their Master's degrees; my mother's brothers and sister didn't finish high school and their kids barely finished high school themselves, getting into drugs, jail, and bad marriages (not to say that my family hasn't seen the likes of these occurrences, but our "snobbishness" absolved it all because we Lopez kids graduated from high school and went to college). And so, by default, we became part of this "vendetta." End of story. End of relationships with relatives. It wasn't fair and I believe my parents now regret it.
Maria was the oldest sister of five kids (Steve, Carmen, Tina, and Roberto are her four brothers and sisters) and they were the children of Pedro and Marta. According to tradition, the oldest son (Pedro) would "give" his oldest child (Maria) to his parents to raise; that's why I'd always see Maria at Grandma and Grandpa's. They all--along with tia Ana--lived in a paint-chipping blue-and-white duplex a block from Jefferson Elementary. I'd stop by at least twice a week--after school on my way home which was only a mile away--to say "hi" and eat some of Grandma's tortillas, smothering them with butter.
Maria and tia Ana were tight; they were inseparable. I'm sure it had to do with the fact that tia never married or had children. They were constantly hanging out in tia's room, reading romance/mystery magazines, eating those luckless chocolate "diet" candies, and laughing. Always laughing.
Maria had a massive collection of 45s and a cheap little record player that was constantly playing while she was kickin' it in tia's room. One day when I stopped by the house Maria and tia were out, so I made my way into tia's room and shuffled through some of those cheesy magazines as well as a stack of Maria's records. As I was pretending to make an oh-so important phone call on that light blue "princess" rotary phone--while shoving a bunch of those diet chocolates in my mouth--Maria walked in and heard "My Mistake" by Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye on the record player. I could hear her snapping her fingers. I quickly turned to see her shaking her ample ass, raising her pencil-thin eyebrows that were high above her frosted white eye shadow, and singing (she was a good singer). She sat next to me, hugged and kissed me, and I could smell and taste her Avon perfume on my lips. After she sang the refrain of the song she said, "Girl, you've got some good taste in music." Right then I felt like I was the coolest seven-year-old in the world.
Maria would tell me--remind me--she knew I wasn't going to grow up to be "too good," and that I "wouldn't let this bullshit going on with our families catch up with you because it ain't like that; you ain't like that with me," and I was intent on not letting it happen. Maria, my grandparents, and tia Ana were the only Garcia members who didn't fall prey--tried not to--to the triviality of what was going on between the families.
The summer between second and third grades, I found out Maria was pregnant. I was crushed because I didn't want it to be true. I didn't want her to become another statistic. I especially didn't want it to become another example of what was "wrong" with that side of the family: "Sin verguenza! See, see what happens when you don't act right, when you do nothing with your life." But what hurt just as much was that the man who got her pregnant didn't want to have anything to do with her after he found out, though Maria insisted, "hey, I'm cool with it."
Maria knew my grandparents weren't happy about her situation and she felt it was best to move out, so she and tia Ana moved into an apartment complex across the street from our church.
Though it wasn't palatial by any means, and it wasn't as nice as Grandma's, it was clean, quiet, small, and cheap. Shortly after Tony was born, tia Ana and Maria asked my Mom if I could spend the weekend with them. To my surprise, Mom let me. I felt independent because I was doing something I wanted to do and I was allowed to do it.
The first night I stayed over we went shopping for diapers, clothes, and other necessities. Then on Saturday morning we watched "American Bandstand"; Maria knew how much I loved watching that show, because she did, too. We danced and sang in the living room, and throughout the weekend I helped her with Tony, with washing the dishes, and we talked about school and "that cute Ricky Perez" who was in my second-grade class.
My last night there she told me how polite I was and how much she appreciated all my help. "Your mom raised you right," she assured as she grabbed my cheeks. When I woke up the following day I found a little "package" on the table with my name on it; a small bundle wrapped in tin foil. I opened it and found a pair of blue socks and a pair of brown. She said, "I know it's not much, but I wanted to give you a little something to say 'thanks.'"
The following year my family moved to Bemidji and that's when our ties really began to wane, as did my friendship with Maria. I'd get an occasional letter from her and I'd send one back, but we rarely visited St. Paul so I never saw Maria, not nearly as much as I thought about seeing her.
By the time we headed back to the Twin Cities, my parents decided to move to Savage: a suburb, and of course that's when "pomposity" went into full effect. The rest of the Garcia family who were still living in St. Paul never talked to us again (nor did we talk to them) and Grandma, Grandpa, and tia Ana had moved back to California.
And after what seems like a thousand years, I find out Maria's dead, and with this I realize she was wrong about me. I was wrong about myself. I did allow myself to become a part of the bullshit. I let go of and forgot about her, about family. She was part of my family and good or bad, right or wrong, I loved her. I know some of her "behavior" wasn't approved of my parents, and sure the choices she made were ones I wouldn't have made myself, but I knew she was real; Maria was genuine, though I made no attempts to keep in touch with her. Yeah, so I was only a kid at that time and she was the adult, and it's easier for adults to maintain those types of bonds, but as I got older I could've made an effort. But I didn't. I was too concerned about getting that cute boyfriend, wearing the best clothes, being popular, then it was on to something else, something I thought was more important--more important than family. And it's sad because in retrospect it's too easy to say, "I really wish I would've kept in touch," because I shouldn't have been wishing, I should've been doing. Maybe she and I both let it get to us.
So, to you, Maria, wherever you are, I hope you've found peace. I hope you're singing, smiling, laughing, and shaking that ass.
Lupe Lopez is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. This is her first contribution to Minnesota Parent.
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