by Jose Skinner
[An excerpt from José Skinner’s yet-unnamed memoir-in-progress about growing up a privileged brat in Mexico and then getting his comeuppance when the family fell apart.]
My father left his native Mississippi in the early 1950s, eager to get away from the racial ugliness of the South. Segregation was obscene; returning black G.I.s could hardly be expected to acquiesce to Jim Crow after putting their lives on the line, same as he had, in Europe and Asia.
But he had long been disgusted with the way white Southern racism impeded business. When he was twelve years old, his entrepreneurial spirit had prompted him to buy wagonloads of watermelons and haul them by mule and buggy to Jackson’s main square. The year was 1933, middle of the Great Depression, but people white and black sometimes had a few pennies for a resonant melon. The problem wasn’t so much that he sold to both races—the sharp-eyed old guys on the courthouse steps made sure he kept the pennies from whites scrupulously separate from those given him by blacks so that there would be no cross contamination in change-giving, and that he wipe the fruit with a damp cloth after a nigger had thumped it and put it back. The problem was that he had bought the watermelons from a black farmer. Word got out, and that spelled the end of his white customers.
“You know how a watermelon is supposed to be white on the inside before you cut it open and expose it to the air?” my father told me when I was a boy. “To the white folks, it was as if those watermelons were black on the inside. Of course, in either case, as soon as you cut them open, they turned red like any other watermelon.”
I nodded and had no idea what he was talking about.
He’d saved much of the money he earned from this and other enterprises, but in 1936 an F5 tornado—the most severe category—roared into his hometown of Tupelo and swept his stash, which he kept wrapped in a bandanna, to the heavens, and left him naked in a tree. “Not hurt, but not a stitch on me—weird, but that’s the way of tornadoes.” (The tornado, the fourth deadliest in U.S. history, destroyed 48 city blocks and officially killed 233, but the actual toll was much higher since many blacks weren’t counted; the infant Elvis Presley was spared.) Henceforth, he was to eschew saving money as folly in a world as full of contingencies as this one. Besides, there was an intrinsic excitement in losing it all and having to start over again.
My father had lost it all and started over in several countries by the time we ended up on a ranch on the southern outskirts of Mexico City so he could try his hand at chicken farming. Our school, the Colegio Americano in Tacubaya, was an hour and a half away by bus, but every couple of weeks or so our father would give us relief from that groaning ride by driving us four children to school in his baby-blue VW Bug. The car was like an oversized toy: the turn signals were orange-lit sticks that flipped out of the pillars, I could crawl into the cozy cubbyhole behind the back seat, and it was fun to punch the chrome buttons on the radio and get new stations. But I wasn’t allowed to play with the buttons on those weekday mornings, because my father had to keep the radio tuned to the English-language news broadcast.
The news invariably reported on gorillas, mostly gorillas in Vietnam, a jungle country apparently full of them. Every day a slew of these gorillas would be killed, and in the process, a few G.I.s would be killed too. The G.I.s, real-life versions of the G.I. Joe dolls a gringo classmate had once brought to school, had been dispatched to Vietnam to hunt the gorillas. The gorillas were also known as Viet Kongs. These Kongs didn’t snatch planes out of the sky like King Kong did but would occasionally shoot them down, which meant the clever apes had learned to use guns. Still, to judge from the comparative body counts, they were no match for the G.I.s’s superior firepower.
My father, hunched over the wheel of the VW, listened to the dispatches from this strange war without comment. Though the conflict was happening in a faraway jungle, it had something to do with us, because those G.I.s were gringos like our father. I got the feeling he didn’t much approve of this war. He never cheered G.I. victories, and only occasionally lamented their casualties with a little shake of his head or cluck of his tongue. His reasons for disapproving of the war were personal, as it happened: it wasn’t helpful for a gringo trying to establish himself in Mexico to have the news dominated by U.S. attacks on a Third World country, given Mexico’s own bitter history of invasion by U.S. troops.
Our school, despite being full of gringos, did not shrink from teaching us about these invasions. One fourth-grade field trip took us to Chapultepec castle to contemplate the high stone wall from which the Niños Héroes had hurled themselves to their deaths rather than surrender to gringo troops who had invaded Mexico during the Mexican-American War. The Niños Héroes, the Boy Heroes, were cadets only a few years older than we were; one of them had supposedly wrapped himself in the Mexican flag before he jumped. And the first song we learned in music class, as we faced the Mexican flag, was the Mexican national anthem, which in the archaic language described the Mexican resistance to the invading Americans. The message was clear: a country had the obligation to repel any invader as heroically as necessary.
I didn’t then, of course, draw any parallel between the invasions of Mexico and the war in Vietnam, any more than I made an association between those pink-cheeked, epauletted cadets and the t-shirted toughs at the military school across the polluted canal from our ranch in Huipulco, whose marching band woke us every morning with its brassy, out-of-tune racket. The Niños Héroes were worthy of a kind of remote respect, but the boys on the other side of the canal were, to my brother and me, immediate real-world enemies. Every time he and I clambered to the top of the canal’s berm, they’d shout: “Chinga tu madre!”
Chinga tu madre. Whatever did that actually mean, other than something bad? Everything madre, every phrase with mother in it, was bad. Everything padre, on the other hand, was good. Chingar, whatever it meant, was very bad—and chinga tu madre was its most potent formulation.
“Chinga tu padre!” my brother once shouted back. They contemplated the novelty of the insult for a moment before bursting into laughter. We laughed too. They were only words.
But one day they started chucking rocks at us, and we responded in kind. We had the tactical advantage of being positioned above them, and my brother, inspired by the rock-throwing prowess of Timmy in Old Yeller, had been practicing. Two or three deadeye shots was all it took for several of them to vault their fence and start splashing towards us across the canal’s smelly blue or red or yellow water—the color depended on what dye they were using at the paper factory upstream. We fled to the walled safety of the ranch compound and hurried, in silent panic, to amass ammunition and prepared for battle. Where was everybody? We secretly hoped Justino the stableboy would show up to chase the bad boys off but knew it would be cowardly to run to him.
The enemy war-whooped like Indians in a Western circling a pioneer settlement. They lobbed a few missiles harmlessly over the wall before one of them hoisted himself to the top to survey the situation. Then another appeared, and another, older boys, around sixteen years old, the bristles of their buzz-cuts wire-brush thick. I realized then that the tops of the walls should have been encrusted with broken glass, as so many were in Mexico—a grave oversight of our father’s, who had had them built. Their pockets were full of rocks and their aims sure: they straddled the wall and pelted us.
We fled to the house, and, without speaking, headed to our father’s closet.
Our father kept a gleaming 12-gauge shotgun on the top shelf of his closet, above his rows of suits. The closet’s patriarchal scent of cigar smoke and Old Spice aftershave stopped us momentarily, the way the smell of bear repels animals that venture into its cave. We remembered well the day he showed it to us:
“Boys, it’s better that you know where it is than if you find it on your own. Because now I’ll know you’ll never touch it. How do I know you’ll never touch it?”
“Because you showed it to us and told us never to touch it.”
“And what else?”
“You’ll knock us into next week if we do.”
The threat was real, but today we knew, like the Niños Héroes, what we had to do. Our minds photographed the gun’s position and that of the sarape draped over it; we were going to have to replace things exactly to avoid being knocked into the following week.
The gun’s weight sank our arms; my brother took the barrel and I carried the stock. Two of the boys dropped behind the wall as soon as they saw us, but a third remained on top.
“Miren,” he said, almost friendly, showing us a trickle of blood running down his shin.
We stopped and gaped at the wound.
“You did this. You know how to throw.”
My brother’s chest swelled with pride, and the gun’s barrel rose with it. The boy crossed his hands over his face.
“Point it at that bird over there. Can you hit it from where you are?”
We hesitated. “No.”
“Come on, bring it here, let me see it.”
“Gringos make good soldiers. Are you going to be soldiers?”
A plume of dust rose along the canal road. Pinging of a VW engine. The boy dropped and he and the others ran off, yelling “Vietnam!” We tore back into the house with the shotgun.
“What have you boys been up to?” our father said. My brother and I were in our room by then, pretending to read comics.
“No, those other boys I’m talking to.”
My father’s sarcasm caught me off guard, as it often did, and I glanced around for those others.
“Playing?” my brother said.
“Playing.” My father said it with false wonder. “Playing at what?”
“Cowboys and Indians?”
“Cowboys and Indians.” He marveled at the banality. It was clear he’d had a tough day and was in a bad mood. I trembled at the thought of being knocked into next week, which now looked like it could reach into next month.
Time slowed excruciatingly as we waited for him to check and see if we cowboys had gotten our hands on the shotgun. But nothing happened. After supper, Brígida—the servant who habitually fed us children in the kitchen while our parents went off to their bedroom to engage in that mysterious and vaguely sickening activity of theirs, full of moans and slaps—returned from taking out the trash to reported that a dog had fallen in the garbage pit, if somebody cared to tell our father.
“Oh, no,” said my older sister. “Oh, no! We’ve got to get him out. ¡Sácalo de ahí, Brígida!”
“¿Pero cómo, niña?”
Justino could have lassoed the dog out. But: “Justino ya se fue, niña.”
“I’ll tell Papi,” my brother said, getting up. It had occurred to him that as soon as our father grabbed the shotgun, we were saved because then it couldn’t be proved that we’d disturbed it earlier.
My sister screamed, and my brother sat back down. My father came in to see what was going on.
Ever since my sister’s cocker spaniel Rusty had gotten rabies and had to be “put down” and every human who’d been in contact with the dog was forced to get a series of shots in the back or belly, he liked the strays dead. (Maybe that was why our parents had gotten us Old Yeller: Yeller had also gotten rabies and had to be killed, and the fact that this happened in literature made the experience universal and therefore, presumably, easier for us to accept.) But today’s stray somehow managed to scramble out of the pit before my father got there with the shotgun.
My brother and I were especially rambunctious that night. Throwing off our bedclothes, we raised our bare asses in the air and made farting noises with our lips, the surest sounds of celebration.
We heard our father in the hallway and scrambled under the covers. He flicked on the lights.
“You glad about that dog?”
“That he got out.”
“A lucky dog. You know who else is a lucky dog?”
“You are. You and your brother both. Isn’t that right?”
“Because Jesus loves us.”
The answer was screaming to be said: Because now you can’t prove we moved the shotgun.
We trembled in silence.
“If I hear another peep out of you tonight I’m going to knock you into next week.”
“Good night, lucky dogs.”
“Good night, big dog.”
He barked a big-dog laugh. We giggled lucky-dog giggles, but not a one too many.
He didn’t return the shotgun to its place in the closet, and we never saw it again.
[Find out more about Jose Skinner’s work in our feature interview]