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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Foreign Desk
The Chicano Chronicles, Part 1
by Mario Acevedo
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People often ask me what I am. Usually I tell them that I am a pedestrian.
      "No, no," they insist. "What are you? What is your ethnic background?"
      Oh, that. Mexican.
      Many are put off when I tell them this. They would've preferred that I had said Italian or Persian. To them, Mexicans are these dark-skinned, treacherous men with drooping mustaches who go around knifing people. It never occurred to them that some Mexicans like to read books at the library or listen to classical music.
      But I can' t blame them. You see, even for me, the word Mexican does carry psychological baggage.
      It's my dad's fault. He would get us kids together and say, "We are Mexican. We act this way because we are Mexican. We behave this way because we are Mexican. We treat one another this way because we are Mexican."
      I grew up thinking Mexican meant dysfunctional.
      I couldn't imagine that people other than Mexicans had our problems. Back then, none of the Caucasians on TV had cousins born out of wedlock. These smiling blonds lived in split-level houses with swimming pools and never had to borrow money to bail their relatives from jail. What did they have in common with me?
      I lived in the barrio, the part of town where the Mexicans resided. One day, when I was in the third grade, a family of white people moved into the vacant house up the street. Why would these Caucasians, or any Caucasians, move here and not someplace else where the streets were paved and dogs didn't run loose?
      I had many questions and sneaked to their house to answer them. Peeking through the gaps in their dilapidated fence, I spied into their lives.
      These Caucasians had rusting appliances sitting on the front porch. The yard was full of weeds. The family car was up on blocks, home to a bunch of alley cats.
      The oldest son, the one who wasn't in prison, belonged to the tattoo of the month club and had a closet full of stolen radios.
      Their daughter was a very social girl. Make that sexually active. No, promiscuous. The hell with it, she was a tramp. Her golden arches served more people than McDonalds. She had been to the county health clinic so many times that they gave her own parking spot. When they finally convinced her to practice safe sex, she consumed more rubber than Goodyear. Her idea of a religious experience was to share a cheap motel room with Jimmy Swaggart.
      And the dad. This guy had no steady job, no insurance. He had this enormous gut and a set of breasts that would have looked good on a teenage girl but not on a grown man.
      All he did was sit in a beat-up recliner, watch TV, and drink beer. His wife hit him on the head with a frying pan, screaming and jerking around so hard that the curlers sprang from her hair. "Look at this dump. Look at the way we live. Get out and do something."
      I saw this and freaked out. I ran home, yelling, "Dad. Dad. These people might be from Oklahoma, but they sure act like Mexicans."
      And like our Okie brethren, the reason we Chicanos tend to stay at the bottom of the socio-economic food chain is because of limited aspirations. We are constantly being told, don't try too hard, don't ask for too much. Don't run the risk of disappointment.
      I wasn't aware of this until I visited a friend of mine who lives in Fairfax, Virginia. His son goes to an affluent, white high school, and on Career Day there the guidance counselors bring in corporate reps from Fortune 500 companies. On Career Day at my high school, the guidance counselors would bring in carnival-ride operators and beauticians. Learning how to operate a leaf-blower was considered a vocational skill. If you couldn't even do that, there was always the Marines.
      Some of my former classmates have persevered to become television celebrities. At my last high school reunion I recognized two of them from the time they were handcuffed and shoved into the back seat of a patrol car on the show "COPS".
      Like a lot of other Chicanos in the barrio, I too belonged to a gang. Mine was made up of the honor students, and we called ourselves Los Einsteins. Where as other kids had LOVE tattooed across their knuckles, we had E=MC squared . Our switch blades had calculators on the handles. Our gang initiation rites consisted of fielding questions from the Periodic Table of the Elements.
      Nobody messed with our gang, especially the chess club.
      Our school was a tough place. On the first day of class the teacher would make you fill out a toe-tag. Instead of a nurse's office we had a trauma center.
      Our football team was named the Trojans. The players weren't too bright and thought that the team was named after those things you buy in a drug store. Our world literature teacher wanted to enlighten them about the origins of Homer's epic warriors and the significance of the name today. But the only question she ever got was from the smartest guy on the team, a defensive tackle who asked, " So teacher, you trying to tell us that those ancient dudes used condoms too?"
      Whenever I tell these stories, I am often accused of pandering to the basest of Chicano stereotypes. Not true, everyone of my stories is based on fact.
      For example, take the myth of Montezuma's Revenge. Tourists go to Mexico, get diarrhea and blame it on a long dead Aztec king. Actually, Montezuma's Revenge is a two-sided curse.
      It started when Montezuma lay dying on the steps of his palace. His people had attacked and stoned him for his failure to stop Cortez and the Conquistadores. The broken-hearted Aztec emperor lifted an arm to the heavens and appealed to his indigenous pagan gods for deliverance.
      These gods heard him and said, "Listen vato, sorry, we're on our way out now. We gotta make room for this guy Jesus and this thing Christianity, so we can't do much. However, because you've been such a good heathen, we will give you a special curse as a going away present."
      Side A of the curse was to be against all gringos coming to Mexico and letting them know that their presence was not welcome. Bring plenty of Pepto-Bismol and be prepared to spend your vacation in the bathroom making painful, embarrassing noises.
      But it was against his own people, the Mexicans, that Montezuma addressed Side B of his deathbed curse, something so humiliating and diabolical that it would have to wait until the twentieth century to manifest itself--car problems.
      No Mexican, nor any descendant, can escape this curse. I don't care if you're an illegal alien with your pants still wet from crossing the Rio Grande or a thoroughly assimilated Hispanic, a Princeton graduate with a blonde trophy wife, a senior partner at your own Connecticut law firm and drive a new Jaguar. If you have one drop of Mexican blood circulating within your body, I will eventually see you parked beside the road with your hood up, begging for a push and a set of jumper cables.

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