When I brought home my hand-print turkey from school, my Abuela Mirta asked me what it was. When I explained, she smiled at me with her dark brown eyebrows raised, and then she stuck it to the refrigerator with a corn shaped magnet next to my other schoolwork she didn’t understand.
I have to admit, I didn’t quite get the turkey either. I remembered a lot about our Thanksgiving dinner the previous year, because it was our first, but I couldn’t remember us eating turkey. My older sister made everyone go around the table and say what they were thankful for because, she said, that’s what you’re supposed to do on Thanksgiving. And according to my Abuelo Luis: If it’s what the Americanos do — then it’s what we do - because we’re American now too.
We made it only about a quarter of the way around the table because my grandfather, never one to shortcut tradition, was very thankful. He was thankful for freedom, for family, for democracy, for food to eat and Coca-Cola. He was thankful that my sister and I were born here; thankful that our family had officially started sowing its roots in this gran país, and for a great many other things. Eventually my Tia Maria cut him off.
My Tia Maria was my great-aunt. I always thought she was a little crazy. I think everybody did. So when she shouted at my grandfather “Callate ya!”-enough already, we all listened. She didn’t want to serve cold pork to Changó and upset all this good fortune she was convinced he had a hand in doling out. Of course, this started a whole new dragged out argument between her and my mother. My mother called Changó brujería, witchcraft, even though I once caught her swapping a small sausage for a larger one off of the plate in front of our Changó statue. My mother had winked at me and whispered, “Just in case.” I secretly hoped no one would remember the “What Are You Thankful For” tradition this year; much like no one seemed to remember the turkey we were supposed to be eating.
At my house we ate pork on all holidays, that much I knew, but no matter how hard I tried that day in class, I couldn’t convince my fingers to bend in the shape of a pig. I sat there for a long time contorting one finger over the next, willing my pinky to bend in a number of unnatural positions. At one point I thought I had it, but after a second glance I decided it looked more like a whale with its fins cut off than a pig.
When my teacher asked me what I was doing, I was too embarrassed to say. Instead, I told her that I didn’t understand. With a sigh, she took me to the back of the classroom by the hand, like she always did, and explained to me in a slow and clear voice that we were making “Tur-keys” which is what the “Na-tive A-mer-i-cans” ate at the first “Thanks-giv-ing.” Then she said something like, “It’s a big holiday here, sort of like Seen-co day My-o for you, I guess.” I remembered something that sounded like that from our Social Studies book. A Mexican holiday. At the beginning of the school year, I had tried to explain to her that I was Cuban, not Mexican.
It was humiliating standing in the back of the room like that with her. But it was better than admitting the truth and getting, what my sister called, “The Look” from the other kids in class.
“It’s how everyone looks at you when you say something they don’t understand-like you’re crazy or an alien or something,” she explained to me before my first day of school. But I couldn’t fully comprehend until the first time I was on the receiving end of a sea of quizzical glares.
I was sharpening my pencil at the ancient manual sharpener bolted to a table in the back of the classroom. It seemed like I was turning the tiny crank for ages without any effect whatsoever on the dull end of my Dixon Ticonderoga. I pushed it in deeper and turned the tiny crank harder, eventually causing my pencil to become permanently jammed. I yanked at it with all my strength, sending it flying across the floor along with several pieces of the sharpener itself and all the pencil shavings of a week’s worth of filing exploded in a cloud of lead dust around my feet. Everyone turned around to look at me, but they hadn’t given me “The Look” yet. They had simply reacted to the familiar noise of the sharpener falling apart, and seeing that it was nothing more, they were all prepared to turn right back around and continue with the Phonics lesson. But still, I panicked and quickly asked the teacher, “Where do you keep the escoba?”“The what?” she asked, obviously confused.
Per Contra Summer 2007