Per Contra

Summer 2007


Plain Text Version - Non-Fiction

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The Look by Jessica Taboada

When I brought home my hand-print turkey from school, my Abuela Mirta asked me what it was.  When I explained, she smiled at me with her dark brown eyebrows raised, and then she stuck it to the refrigerator with a corn shaped magnet next to my other schoolwork she didn’t understand. 

I have to admit, I didn’t quite get the turkey either. I remembered a lot about our Thanksgiving dinner the previous year, because it was our first, but I couldn’t remember us eating turkey.  My older sister made everyone go around the table and say what they were thankful for because, she said, that’s what you’re supposed to do on Thanksgiving.  And according to my Abuelo Luis: If it’s what the Americanos do — then it’s what we do - because we’re American now too. 

We made it only about a quarter of the way around the table because my grandfather, never one to shortcut tradition, was very thankful. He was thankful for freedom, for family, for democracy, for food to eat and Coca-Cola.  He was thankful that my sister and I were born here; thankful that our family had officially started sowing its roots in this gran país, and for a great many other things.  Eventually my Tia Maria cut him off. 

My Tia Maria was my great-aunt.  I always thought she was a little crazy.  I think everybody did.  So when she shouted at my grandfather “Callate ya!”-enough already, we all listened.  She didn’t want to serve cold pork to Changó and upset all this good fortune she was convinced he had a hand in doling out.  Of course, this started a whole new dragged out argument between her and my mother. My mother called Changó brujería, witchcraft, even though I once caught her swapping a small sausage for a larger one off of the plate in front of our Changó statue.  My mother had winked at me and whispered, “Just in case.” I secretly hoped no one would remember the “What Are You Thankful For” tradition this year; much like no one seemed to remember the turkey we were supposed to be eating. 

At my house we ate pork on all holidays, that much I knew, but no matter how hard I tried that day in class, I couldn’t convince my fingers to bend in the shape of a pig.  I sat there for a long time contorting one finger over the next, willing my pinky to bend in a number of unnatural positions.  At one point I thought I had it, but after a second glance I decided it looked more like a whale with its fins cut off than a pig. 

When my teacher asked me what I was doing, I was too embarrassed to say.  Instead, I told her that I didn’t understand.  With a sigh, she took me to the back of the classroom by the hand, like she always did, and explained to me in a slow and clear voice that we were making “Tur-keys” which is what the “Na-tive A-mer-i-cans” ate at the first “Thanks-giv-ing.”  Then she said something like, “It’s a big holiday here, sort of like Seen-co day My-o for you, I guess.”  I remembered something that sounded like that from our Social Studies book.  A Mexican holiday.  At the beginning of the school year, I had tried to explain to her that I was Cuban, not Mexican.

It was humiliating standing in the back of the room like that with her.  But it was better than admitting the truth and getting, what my sister called, “The Look” from the other kids in class. 

“It’s how everyone looks at you when you say something they don’t understand-like you’re crazy or an alien or something,” she explained to me before my first day of school.  But I couldn’t fully comprehend until the first time I was on the receiving end of a sea of quizzical glares. 

I was sharpening my pencil at the ancient manual sharpener bolted to a table in the back of the classroom.  It seemed like I was turning the tiny crank for ages without any effect whatsoever on the dull end of my Dixon Ticonderoga.  I pushed it in deeper and turned the tiny crank harder, eventually causing my pencil to become permanently jammed.  I yanked at it with all my strength, sending it flying across the floor along with several pieces of the sharpener itself and all the pencil shavings of a week’s worth of filing exploded in a cloud of lead dust around my feet.  Everyone turned around to look at me, but they hadn’t given me “The Look” yet.  They had simply reacted to the familiar noise of the sharpener falling apart, and seeing that it was nothing more, they were all prepared to turn right back around and continue with the Phonics lesson.  But still, I panicked and quickly asked the teacher, “Where do you keep the escoba?”

“The what?” she asked, confused.

That’s when it came. “The Look” in all its stupefied wonder.  I realized instantly that the word that had just escaped my lips was not English.  My brain raced for the correct word. What was it? What was it? What was it?

“The, um, uh…the sweeper.” Desperate, I grasped the word, imitating the act with my arms.    I knew that wasn’t right either, but I couldn’t think of the word.  I couldn’t think at all.  Every eye in the room burned a hole in my skin and I wished they would all just bore right through so I could disappear.

“You mean the broom?” my teacher offered.

“Yes,” I said, relieved, “the broom.”  The other kids slowly turned around, eyebrows still alertly pointed up, eyes still rolled, some snickering to each other.  But at that point I didn’t care. As long as they weren’t looking at me anymore.  As long as they had stopped staring.

After just a few weeks, I resigned myself to the belief that the little talks teachers gave in the back of the room were the lesser of two evils.  So I stood there and nodded, staring up at my teacher’s big green eyes and curly blonde, almost white, hair; all the while wondering why the Pilgrims didn’t eat pork on their Thanksgiving.

I returned home defeated.  My handprint turkey was rather pathetic, having whipped it together in the final minutes allotted to the project.  I had wasted more time than I had realized trying to outline my distorted, not pig-like at all, fingers. 

I ambled into the living room, as was my routine, to watch cartoons with my great grandfather.  My Abuelo Marco loved cartoons so we’d watch them every day after school, sitting together in his old recliner. We’d scan the channels for reruns of The Pink Panther or Roadrunner-something we could both understand.  Sitting on his lap in the living room reminded me of my Sunday school assignment.  One of the Sisters had announced that Santa Clause himself was going to come to our class the next week to visit and how we should prepare our Christmas lists so that when we sat on his lap, we’d know what to ask him for. 

During the next commercial, I turned to my great-grandfather and told him that sitting on his lap reminded me of Santa.  I was itching to tell him all about how I would get to meet the big guy in person soon, but he stopped me…to ask who Santa was.  “No sabes, abuelito,” Didn’t he know?  I tried to explain it all to him, but I was struggling with the words in my mouth.  My Spanish was far from perfect, and it suffered with every year I spent in my All-American school that discouraged my sister and me from speaking Spanish in the halls; and it deteriorated even further when, in the following years, my parents insisted on speaking only English in the house so I wouldn’t have ESL, English as a Second Language, stamped on my permanent record like my sister did.  My teacher had called, “concerned,” about my escoba incident.

Eventually I called my mother into the living room and asked her for the Spanish translations to words like “reindeer” and “sleigh.”  After a lot of puzzling, she came to the conclusion that she didn’t know them either, but she left me with crayons and paper, so I could draw pictures of what I remembered from the story the Sister had read to us. I even threw in a “Ho, ho, ho!” for good measure as I continued talking and coloring, wearing my red crayon down to the nub.  My Abuelo Marco chuckled a little at my impersonation and then he looked at me very firmly.  I could tell because the wrinkles around his sharp, gray eyes multiplied tenfold.  He then explained to me that maybe Santa brings presents to the Americanos, but the Cuban children get their gifts from Los Reyes.  He asked me what I wanted the Three Kings to bring me.  Perhaps more crayons. He held up the box of Crayons.  But I didn’t answer.  No one at Sunday school had mentioned anything about a list for the Three Kings.

I returned to the kitchen where I watched sullenly as my grandmother tacked my Santa Clause drawing to the refrigerator, next to my hand-print turkey.  Even now, so many years later, when I recall her face as she turned around, I could swear, even if it was only for a split second, that she’d given me “The Look.”