Red Dress: Cristopher Nolasco
SPECIAL ISSUE: pinay
I call myself blackapino, half black half pinay. I spent my summers with my Filipino grandmother, my Lola, in Seaside, CA. Back then, in the eighties, I thought all the young spunky girls on television who looked nothing like me were beautiful and would say so. I have kinky hair and they didn’t.
My Lola pat me on the head, “Oh Missy you’re more maganda than those stupid silly girls.”
I didn’t believe her— mostly because the neighbor girls had a much better chance of looking like those television actresses but I was not allowed to play with them because Lola made the flaunting of their poverty a shameful thing. Their house was the same as ours but the debris and furniture on their lawn made Lola forbid me from talking to them.
A little girl with greasy cheeks would wave and sing hello to me and I was always ushered inside.
“If you play with them you will get lice, and if you get lice I will have to shave your head, because your hair is not like theirs.”
This was just another small way I was shamed. By this she meant that I was a little bad because my father is Black. These subtle nudges were tiny prejudices that weezled their way into my summers. She nagged me to tie my kinky hair back, pin it away from my face, wear it up in a bun, braid it, cover it with a scarf, a hat, or a veil, straighten it, cut it all off. The tortuous rollers and grease and heat were my punishment. So much of my childhood was sitting erect in front of the mirror while Lola pulled and straightened and greased. I clutched a spray that made an empty promise of “No More Tears” praying praying praying she would use more of it. I didn’t want to ask her because I didn’t want to get in any more trouble for being half Black. I could hear children laughing and playing in the street and I was too excited to go join them. My heart was battling over: the physical grief of the grooming of my hair (pulled back so tight my eyes seemed to be lifted two inches higher on my forehead), the need to be polite and well-mannered to maintain my status as my Lola’s favorite, the deep desire to go out and play with the other kids, and ultimately—ultimately unclasp the large purple glass balls and rubber band that acted like a vice on my childhood.
Lola had a lot of thoughts on how to be. Lola had advice and if you were ever seeking a man to marry Lola would tell you this is how you do it:
When you are sent to run an errand put extra powder under your arms. You don’t want to smell like a girl or a poor person.
If you can find VO-5 in the house put some of that on your hair first. If you don’t —you can use lotion or in an emergency cooking oil.
It is important to not have any stray hairs— but not to look too greasy.
If you are dark, use bleaching cream. Keep your skin covered in the sun and try to stay inside as much as possible to avoid getting too dark.
If your nose is flat you should sleep with a clothespin attached to the bridge.
If you are already twelve years old or older I am afraid it is too late but sometimes you can do this on the night before a big date. I heard it worked for Virgie and now she is happily married and only her first child came out with a flat nose but the rest have ears that stick out too far.
If you have ears that stick out you can stick them back with scotch tape.
Learn to play the piano and to sing songs. The songs you sing should be full of heart and pride and you should not sing anything you cannot sing in front of his Lola or Lolo because they will be watching you.
Never shave above your knees or everyone will think you’re a whore.
Never use deodorant or everyone will think you’re a whore.
Pray the rosary daily.
Always use pork when you cook. Pork is a seasoning.
Never make dry rice. Measure the rice by placing your index finger in the middle of the pan— the water should rise to the first creased line on your finger.
Do not use too much grease for your lumpia.
Never water down the peanut sauce in kare kare and always pick a fat pig for lechon. People will think you are cheap and lazy if you take short cuts.
If you wear too much make-up people will think you are a bakla pretending to be a woman.
Say please and sorry and May I please be excused.
Curtsey when you meet someone and tell them it is a pleasure to meet them and bow your head and look at their shoes.
If you are invited to eat at his house, eat everything you are offered and compliment the chef. If they give you the head of the fish, smile and eat around it, but know they do not like you for their son.
Remember to not leave any meat on any bones or they will think you are rude or picky.
When you two are talking try to flip your hair around when you laugh like white girls do.
It is best to date a man at least ten years older than you so he can take care of you. It is best to date an American man and even better if he is white. If he is white or if he is American make him take you to America so you can be a nurse and you can be rich.
Try to find an army man or a cop. Someone with a uniform.
Don’t date a man who drives their own car when they can obviously afford a chauffeur.
Enter the room of your suitor’s mother even if it smells like the toxic smoke of mosquito repellant incense. Don’t tell her it doesn’t work. All her hopes are hanging on this and the power of prayer.
If you do find love make sure you will one day be in the position to have a guest room next to the kitchen in the back of your house for me. All Lolas need a bedroom off the kitchen. Nothing fancy. Just a twin bed.
When you are served food, watch how they eat. If they eat with their hands eat with yours, if they it with a fork—still eat with your hands, this is something we do that is like prayer. Like saying thank you for my food. Don’t ever be too ashamed to eat with your hands.
Unless you are in a restaurant—true women hardly eat at all in public.
Don’t be intimidated if the mother of your suitor refers to him as a “gift from god.” But if he is her only son, smile politely and find another boyfriend. He will never have enough time for you.
On that note never marry any relation (no matter how loose) to a Queen.
Never marry an Igorot, they eat dog meat.
Never marry a man whose mother is a Yaya (nanny/maid). You will be shamed and you will never be able to clean as good as her. He will be jealous of the children she’s raised and you will be resentful of her constant emotional presence in your marriage.
If you fall in love with a man of humble origins always be open and willing to marry another less humble man to please your parents.
While you are waiting for your shower to warm you can scoop out the hairs around your areolas by squeezing them like blackheads.
If you don’t like something someone says smile widely. They will understand your disapproval.
Insist the man pay the check or otherwise he will think you are a whore.
Never give up on loving your man—and don’t underestimate him. You’ll be in for an unpleasant surprise.
Most of all be a good Catholic and practice your handwriting so that if you should ever find yourself in this position, like I am now, you can put it down on paper and people can read it.
Each of Lola’s kisses tasted like a funeral. Maybe it was her handkerchiefs and her rosary beads clutched tightly in her palm. Or the painting of her and Lolo in the living room— their eyes dark wet pearls, their hands clasped like they were being memorialized. Looking like they knew one of them was due to die the next day. Why?
Because she grew up in a trash heap. Because she had no shoes. Because she is part Spanish but part Chinese also and the latter crosses out the former. Because she has light skin compared to the other people from her part of the island. Because she says sige and tapos all day, Sige this, Sige that. Because gossip is her favorite pastime. Because she always looks displeased. Because she is a widow. Because her nails are manicured and filed into sharp points. Because every time her husband tried to make love to her he accused: You’re dead down there.
I’m dead to you, she whispered to herself.
Because after all of the thrashing and rolling around he finally grabbed her arms, bore down on her, pushing his bulbous stomach into her pelvis, stared fiercely into her eyes, and as she whimpered beneath him he declared, “I love you.”
Because she stood by as her husband beat my mother. Locked her in a closet. Made her stand on one leg. Made her recite things. Made her stand in a corner. Made her tiny body shiver with fear and heave with the pain of disappointing her dad. Because after watching my mother cry she came by and slipped her a small chocolate and whispered she was her favorite and when her husband came back in the room she would recite the tail end of a lecture she never began—“Because your father is always right.” Because she had a husband she loved once. Genuinely loved and then she had a miscarriage and the next child after died from sudden infant death syndrome. Or poverty. Or crib death. Or malnutrition. Aswang. Or all of it. Because her first husband died. Not in the war. Of a heart attack. She thinks the baby broke his heart. Because the last thing she sees at night before sleep finds her is that lost child’s face scrunched in a colicky scream—for milk. For comfort. For relief.
My Lola died years ago, all the usual things killed her, heart disease and diabetes and age and lard and poverty and loneliness. Today when I heat and curl my otherwise unruly hair I think of her standing there pleased and toothless looking like a disgruntled Pekinese. I think of her on days I have an unruly head of hair too. It makes me feel like somewhat of a vixen in my otherwise ordinary life. I’m sending a message, I want her to know I love her and all the parts of me that are her but I really dig the tough stuff bits that have nothing to do with all that.
(this piece was previously published in The Weeklings.)
Melissa Chadburn is a lover and a fighter, a union rep, a social arsonist, a writer, of color, smart, edgy and fun. She teaches creative writing at UCSD. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Guernica, SLAKE, Salon, The Rumpus, and a dozen other places. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and received notable mention in 2013’s Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She’s currently writing, A Tiny Upward Shove, her teenage foster care narrative. Reach her at fictiongrrrl(at)gmail.com or follow her on Twitter: @melissachadburn. She loves your whole outfit right now.