Living Ghosts

24 Feb 2024

Content warning: child abuse, homophobia, internalized racism, illness, death

I was dreaming I was asleep in my bed, but a nicer version without all the cat scratches on the foot board, or the hand-lettering I burned into the headboard for my husband when we were 21 that says “I would cross any room to find you.”

In the dream our bedroom was much larger and where, in real life, I have my white grandmother’s worn old mid-century modern dresser there was a huge scroll-top wardrobe I don’t recognize and wouldn’t choose for my house. I was sleeping on that same grandmother’s old cotton sheets. The ones with the little forsythia sprigs all over them, long since shredded and trashed. Also in the dream, I was just waking up, probably in the morning because I had on very classy matching pajamas, another thing I do not own.

The door opened and a version of my father I’ve never met stepped through. He was stocky, but very thin compared to how I knew him. He’d only ever dropped below 400 lbs after being locked up. And usually not even then. His face had a sickly pallor, staining his brown skin with ocher, but his hands looked the same as I remember from my childhood. As a kid, I used to sit in bed with him in the morning and we would talk about anything and nothing while I played with his hands; lacing our fingers, tracing the lines on his palms, tapping our nails together.

I was fascinated with hands at that age. The fact that people’s hands took on the work they did over the years of their life absolutely charmed me. I watched my dad snatching shrimp out of hot grease and roasting chilis over open flames with his cook hands, and my Mexican grandma mixed the masa and made tortillas and folded up tamales with her grandma hands. My uncles shuffled cards and opened beers, and cast fishing lines. They fixed roller skates and pet dogs, and sometimes they smacked little girls in the face and made them apologize for being disrespectful. Sometimes they tied little shoes, and kissed little injuries.

And sometimes they said “like that” and their hands went soft and graceful and rolled the air around themselves in an elegant waterfall even as their faces showed contempt or mockery.

I’m not estranged from my family because I’m queer. Mexicans are not queer, we are daughters and we are sons and we are granddaughters. And that is not queer. Whatever you learned at that white school you pay so much to go to, that’s your business. And you can do whatever you want out there. But in this house, you’re my daughter and you’re grandma’s granddaughter, and besides we don’t ask your cousin what he did in prison. And we’re not going to ask you what you did in college. ¿Entiendes?

So in the dream, when my father, skinny and sick-looking climbed onto the bed and leaned his back against my belly like I used to do to him when I stayed at grandma’s house, where he also lived; I was not surprised. When he took my hand, larger than it was, but still not larger than his, and laced our fingers together, tracing my tattoos and the lines on my palms, it felt like the most normal thing in the world.

And when I asked him if he thought I could still be a Mexican with no family left to me; if a queer Mexican dad, their white husband and adopted kid could be a Mexican family, he said yes and it didn’t feel like a lie.

Years ago, when we were in adoption training, Dad and I were once again trying to repair our broken relationship. I sat in the Starbucks in Pioneer Square and I told him that when we did adopt, I wouldn’t be picky about race. That our kid could come from anywhere, be anyone, and the only thing I would care about is whether or not I thought I could be a good parent to them. And he told me to feed them the food, tell them the stories, and play them the music and they would be Mexicans. Then he told a guy who asked us for change that it’s better to be a robber than a beggar and called him an f slur.

Mestizaje, as it was first explained to me, is a huge part of the beauty of being a Latino. People come to Latin America from everywhere. My own maternal grandfather’s mother is said to have been a fiery haired Eastern European woman who was sick and tired of being persecuted for being a Jew, so she fled to Mexico in the early 1900s, where she met a man, married him, and became a Mexican.

Our culture is not a closed culture. There are Black Mexicans, Arab Mexicans, Asian Mexicans and everything across and in-between. But Mestizaje is also the Mexican equivalent of saying ‘we don’t see color,’ and just as problematic.

One of the many forbidden things I learned in college that served to further alienate me from my family is what mestizaje meant to non-white, not mestizo Latin Americans. Many felt alienated by the phrase or erased. Friends told me that white and mestizo Mexicans used the phrase to dismiss them when they’d been on the receiving end of microaggressions and other racist behavior.

But Mexicans aren’t racist! We aren’t queer either. We don’t have white American problems like mental illness or drug addiction. And no one in a Mexican family has ever felt left out or ignored. Because we’re not a closed culture. We’re all about love and family. And not asking anybody anything about where they go or where they’ve been. Especially in college and prison.

In the dream, I didn’t ask my father where he’d been. This version of him had never disappeared on me, and I knew that. He’d never told me that I didn’t belong, or let his junky girl of the week throw my clothes away and scream in my face that I’m a stupid dyke bitch and I need to be fixed.

No, this version of him either had fewer demons, or he’d dealt with them better. But he was dying. I could smell the deep sweet rot of failing organs covered with Irish spring soap and Old Spice aftershave. The same way his father had smelled at the end. Old spice was one of the many men’s things I always think of from a downward angle after a childhood spent looking up at the white aftershave bottle with it’s curious metal top.

In the dream, he knew I was from somewhere else. He knew that I would be waking up in a world where I had no contact with my version of him. And he knew that the me in his world would soon be in a similar state for a different reason. So he held my hand and he told me that our culture is not a closed culture, and if I feed them the food, tell them the stories, and play them the music, that they would be Mexicans. And that I am not alone.

Because some Mexicans are daughters and we are sons at the same time. And that is queer and it’s good, and it’s who we’ve always been. And wherever you walk in the colonized world, whether it’s prison or college, your family comes with you because you are my child and you are grandma’s grandchild. And nothing and no one can take that away. ¿Entiendes?