My Father’s Journey

If you are caring for aging parents, then you may know what it’s like to hope for them to hold on to life, as long as possible. You don’t want your time together to end. Because if your parents do not play the roles they’ve filled for so long, who will?

It’s at this time that our once-close parental relationships can devolve, often spiked by role reversals, power shifts and unresolved issues. As this change takes place, we may also notice just how much we are like our parents. Sometimes this realization causes conflict. In other times, it’s a gentle reminder to treat each other with patience and kindness.

I wrote the following poem about my father in a moment of absolute frustration with his smoking and his lack of care for his own personal health. As I wrote it, I was forced to acknowledge that my frustration does not lie only with him and the smoke.

Smoke Escape

my dad’s hand quivers on the table

he reaches for another

c

i

g

arette,

the carton feeding his fear in doses as he exits the door.

we no longer welcome the smoke in this stale place.

with each   i n  h   a   l   e

he siphons hope for many new breaths, asking why –

why god made him work harder than others

why life is unfair

why he should try to hold on?

He quits.

quitter

he gives in and gives up. his body gives out.

He runs.

running ran runner

i think i am not like him. but i roam too.

He wanders.

traveler trapped

did he ever love us?

He dreams.

drags dread

his big city desires become mine. I die trying to fulfill his dreams.

He lets go.

Wishes and Dreams

What’s your favorite day of the year? For some, it’s Christmas. Others may look forward to the first day of school, or even the last. But if you’re anything like me, your birthday is your favorite day. The one day you look forward to each year.

Yes, I’m one of those obnoxious birthday people that celebrates their birthday like it’s a national holiday. It’s only because on this special day, I get to make a wish. And, on this day, it may actually come true. Think about wishes and dreams. As adults, how much do you really believe in wishes anymore? How about dreams? Or even … magic?

My hope is that I never stop dreaming. Never stop following my heart’s desires. My hope is that you don’t stop either.

So, today I am wishing for more wishes … three to be exact. What are yours?

1. I wish my family was closer. Not geographically closer, but intimate closer. I wish we talked more and laughed more. Yesterday, my dad called me during my lunchtime. I asked him if he had called for anything in particular, and he said “No, I just missed you. That’s all.” My heart melted. I want more of those moments, but with my mother, sister, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins. And I mean real live talking. Not texting. Not Facebook. But in-person, actual conversations. My wish is that I slow down this year, and be a better daughter, sister, aunt, niece and granddaughter. My wish will start with me reaching out to my family and starting these conversations.

It’s been two years since my grandmother passed, and one of the things I remember most about her was how she started a tradition after I graduated college and I was living in Boston. She called me every Sunday afternoon. The phone calls were brief, but I remember them. She was just trying to keep me close – to keep her family close. And I will always remember her in my heart because of little things like that.

2. I wish for compassion. For some reason, and I don’t know where this comes from, I feel like I always have to keep it together. Do you ever feel like that? This need for perfection, or for as close to perfection as possible. I try to keep everything balanced and in order. It’s the Virgo in me, I guess. Virgos strive for perfection. But this year, I am letting go. My wish is to be as close to imperfect as possible, in fact. To give in to my flaws and stop judging the flaws in others. My wish is to be more compassionate with others and myself. And I’m going to start right now with this blog post. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be an expression of myself.

3. I wish for home. If you know me in person, you’ll know that I enjoy traveling and adventure. But as I get older, I long to plant some roots. I dated this guy once who said a song titled “For Rent” by Dido reminded him of me. I asked why. He said because that’s how you live your life, like it’s for rent. He was right. But I’ve learned that home is not a place, necessarily. In our digital age, you can stay connected with your family and friends via Facebook. You can talk face-to-face on an iPhone. So while home is the people you love the most and those who love you — and you can stay connected to them anywhere — it still helps to be in the same physical place. And I’m on the right path to building my own “home” here in St. Louis.

33 Reflections on Life

This year marks my 33rd birthday, and what an adventure it has been! Following are 33 reflections and lessons I’ve learned from life so far. I can’t wait to see what’s next. Enjoy.

1. Everyone is a work in progress.

2. Pets make people kind.

3. I still don’t know which I love more – writing or dancing.

4. It’s okay to let people in. In fact, it makes life better.

5. Take time to listen to people. You’ll learn a lot more about them by listening, rather than doing all of the talking.

6. Not all men are alike.

7. Build a personal relationship with your health. Treat it like you would a child.

8. Technology can connect us with other people, but it can never replace actual face-to-face interaction.

9. Find out who you are and don’t worry about what others think. In this great world, there is someone for everyone.

10. Be kind to yourself when you learn something new.

11. You are not alone.

12. Find people who make you laugh. And spend a lot of time with them.

13. Take risks. When you succeed at them, congratulate yourself for pushing through. If you fail, reflect on the lesson to be learned from the experience.

14. Don’t lie, cheat or steal. You’ll just end up with regrets and waste time having to put the pieces back together.

15. Spend time outdoors each season. Nature is too splendid to miss.

16. Be adventurous. Try new activities, food, books and music. It will help you stay open-minded.

17. Reuse and recycle. Challenge yourself to make something new out of something old.

18. Vote. It gives you a chance to have your voice heard and be a part of something bigger than yourself.

19. Don’t expect someone to change for you. Often, it’s just a matter of timing that brings people together or pulls them apart.

20. Know your own nature.

21. Women can be some of the most competitive people you’ll ever meet. Instead of keeping another woman down, help her up. It will make you feel more valuable and she may return the favor one day.

22. Think global. Talk to many different people who speak other languages than your own. Learn about where they come from. It will enlighten you.

23. Be confident.

24. Appreciate art and artists. There is beauty and expression all around us.

25. Take pride in everything you do and do it well. It has your name on it.

26. Learn what turns you on – and what turns you off.

27. It’s okay to be different.

28. Be fair to others.

29. Have people in your life who knew you before you were “you.” They can help put things into perspective when you need it the most.

30. Take good care of your teeth.

31. Be decisive.

32. Trust yourself.

33. Think critically. Don’t just be a receiver of information. Put your own stamp on things instead. It’s what makes you unique.

Why Don’t You Speak Spanish?

I didn’t know I was going to be such a novelty in St. Louis. I knew before moving here that it would be possible to stand out, because St. Louis City’s Hispanic or Latino population is less than four percent. But how much, I didn’t know.

Sure enough, I’m different here too. As I sit here thinking about how to describe my skin color, I can’t land on one word that fits. Caramel? Cinnamon? It’s certainly a brown of some type, with yellow undertones. The color changes as the seasons do. In the winter, it’s more yellow, like it’s starved for sunlight. During the spring, it looks tan and my friends whine about how they have to go to a tanning salon to achieve my sun-kissed hue. In the summer, after a quick trip to the beach, it’s so dark it makes me look like a different person and I get the comments about my “exotic” skin tone.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a new Lebanese restaurant with my favorite Lebanese friend, and discovered that it was owned, surprisingly, by Palestinians. The beautiful, dark-haired waitress with almond-shaped eyes and glowing skin asked me if I was “mixed.” I uttered that I am Mexican-American and she conjured up the same surprised look as others have in similar instances, and said “I thought you were Indian or something.” After she invited us to return on Friday evening to watch the belly dancers, I whispered to my Lebanese friend about how most people around here don’t think I am Hispanic.

The people here never hesitate to ask me where I’m from or what [ethnicity] I am. Often, my definition changes almost as much as my skin color throughout the year. It depends on who I am speaking to and where he or she is from. The answer that I never change, however, is to the question about why I don’t speak Spanish. Last week, my Lebanese friend, a new Persian friend and I tried out a relatively new dancing venue for salsa in St. Louis, Coco Cabana Club. The deejay who we met at the door asked where we were from. After I responded “I’m from Texas,” he dismissed the interaction and said “oh, I thought you were ‘Spanish’.” I responded that I am. I’m Mexican. I dropped the “American” part because it is obvious. It must have been apparent to him as well that I don’t speak Spanish … I can only guess because his friend poked fun at the way I pronounced “salsa.” My Middle Eastern friends and I entered the Central West End club anyway, although I didn’t stay long.

Then there are the interactions with other Mexicans. As if not being ‘Spanish’ enough isn’t shameful already, it’s almost worse when the discernment comes from people who I am supposed to have something in common with – like language.

The Mexicans I do meet in St. Louis are actually from Mexico, many from Mexico City, in particular. It was here in St. Louis, if you can believe it, where I first was introduced to the term, Chilango, by none other than a guy from Mexico City. Wikipedia defines Chilango as “a Mexican slang demonym (read: a name for a resident of a locality) for a person born in the suburbs or surrounding areas of Mexico City who has moved to Mexico City.” Basically, a Chilango is anyone from Mexico City.

I’ve never even been to Mexico, much less Mexico City. And please excuse me if I have offended you if you are: Mexican-American or Mexican, from Mexico or any of its states, or from Mexico City. I should also apologize upfront to an ex-boyfriend who is from Mexico City and resides in Texas. One time when we were trying the long-distance thing, I met a dancer from Mexico City. When I told him my boyfriend also is from there, he asked me where exactly. I shrugged and said “hmm … I don’t know” as he led me through a salsa dance that suddenly turned awkward. He advised that I should find out. Not to my surprise, he also didn’t need to ask if I speak Spanish or not.

Upon meeting another Mexico City native and dancer in St. Louis, we exchanged an abrazo and the customary kiss on the cheek. I told him my name and he perked up and smiled. He asked (in Spanish), if I speak Spanish. I said no.

He rebuked, “Why?”

I told him the truth. Because I just don’t.

Does that make me a bad person? As far as I know, it did that day. I know that none of these folks mean any harm. The surprised looks, the knowing stares — it all comes with being different. And the questions, well, those are all in an effort to make a connection with someone who might be like them. Because these people probably feel different too. We all want to belong, after all.

But I am reluctant to inform them that while my name is Rosario (you can call me Chayo), and I am from San Antonio, and, yes, my parents speak Spanish … well, I don’t. The truth is that my parents grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in Texas, when Mexican-Americans were widely discriminated against for speaking Spanish in school. They were laughed at for bringing tacos instead of white bread sandwiches in their lunch sacks. When my parents raised my sister, brothers and me, they didn’t speak to us in Spanish because they did not want us to undergo the same discrimination.

Another truth is that my parents are second-generation Mexican-Americans, making me third-generation. There have been numerous studies of language assimilation that have demonstrated that while bilingualism is common among second-generation children, in the third and later generations, the predominant language is English. Mexicans are the largest immigrant group and tend to provide the most compelling example of this. Unless you grew up in a border community (which I did not), it is unlikely that you would be third generation and bilingual.

Upon meeting new dancers in St. Louis, I quip to them that I am more Texan than Mexican. This characterization of my ethnicity is my attempt to get them to see beyond my honey-colored (or is it copper?) skin and accentless speech. Yes, I am unique. Yes, I am Mexican-American. Yes, my parents speak Spanish. And no, I don’t. But if you can get past all of that then, yes, I would still love to dance.

I’m Thankful for My Sister

My sister was my first role model. That’s her there, standing next to my Mom. I’m in the middle, next to my older brother. This picture was taken before my younger brother, Juan, arrived. And it’s probably one of the only times my Dad wore a tie.

Tomasita, my sister, is the oldest and I bet she didn’t know it then, but she was destined for a lifetime of caring for others. In our family of four, she learned to watch over her siblings. It was her duty to help my Mother, to learn how to do things first and to teach my brothers and I later on. She used to fix my hair when we would get ready for school. Each and every day, she’d comb, brush, curl or style my hair for me so that I could look as pretty as her. When I visit her back home, I still ask her to french braid my hair, like old times. It makes me feel like she’s taking care of me again. Braiding my hair is only one of many things she knows that I don’t. Like how to do an oil change or fix a tire — she can maneuver her way around a car’s inner workings and I can’t.

Another life experience she has navigated before me is the role of motherhood. She, like our own Mother, is the proud parent of four children. And while she’s made it look as easy as a beginner’s braid, I know it hasn’t been. Now, her three oldest kids are in the teen or pre-teen stages, and I can see that parenting teenagers is starting to get the best of her. The burden of being the oldest has transformed into the extraordinary responsibility of being a wife and a mother, and there are days where I think she feels discouraged.

On those days, I want to tell her how thankful I am that she has gone first. She’s always done things ahead of me and I know it hasn’t been easy. I want to tell her to keep going because I still need her to be the woman I look up to, who I admire – just as I always have. I continue to love that she knows how to do things that I don’t, or that I haven’t yet, like parenting. I’m looking for her to guide the way because she is my sister. She is still my role model.

She is the oldest.

My Mom, My Style Icon

When my Mother, Sylvia Neaves, was  younger, her family teased her about looking like Olive Oyl. You know, Popeye The Sailor’s extremely thin flapper-like girlfriend, the tall one with no breasts. I must take after my Mother, because I heard all of the skinny names too while growing up: skinny minnie, chicken legs, flacaflaquita. I don’t mind the name-calling much anymore, because one of the great things about being thin is the hundreds of different outfits you can pull off … even some without a bra!

With her great (skinny) legs, my Mother strutted her style in high school in the early ’70s with the tiniest of skirts and hip-hugging pants. She also had an affinity for bow blouses and tight tees. But I would say her best feature was her straight, sleek, dark hair that flowed down her back and accentuated her small frame. If it wasn’t her style that attracted my Dad to her, it must have been her smile; after meeting her as a young boy in school, he hasn’t been apart from her since.

Today, my noted style pays homage to her in many ways. One of my favorite casual outfits is a wide-legged pair of trouser jeans from Forever 21 that I like to pair with a bow blouse and platform heels — very ’70s-inspired. I crave femininity in every style selection, from dresses of all lengths to high-heeled shoes to show off my (skinny) legs. Seriously, give me a mini-skirt any day of the week. I’ll also take peasant blouses, floral-patterned prints, and anything paisley.

I’m thankful to my Mother for my vintage ’70s style, and for inspiring me in more ways than just this one.