Saturday, October 29, 2011

Finishing Up The Memoir

Here I am in the final stages of my memoir -- Pretty  Bold For A Mexican Girl: Growing Up Chicana In a Hick Town. It feels really, really good.

I have decided to begin and end the memoir with stories set in San Francisco where I moved after I left Tuolumne two weeks after graduating high school. The opening story will set up my angst for my Tuolumne experiences, experiences that comprise the majority of the memoir (see two examples here), and the final story sends me out into the world.

Here's the opening story:

Finding My Way Out
      I didn’t run away. I left.
      I left the long dusty drive way, the creaky front door, Mom and her lines on the kitchen table, my flunking-out-of-school brother, my blonde, eight year old sister, and April -- the baby who came to  live with us because her mom was doing more drugs than ours.
      I left and my mom cheated on her boyfriend -- our “step-dad,” starting doing lines with another guy across town; my brother dropped out of high school; my sister developed early, started her period at nine and started hanging out with boys, and April went to live with another family. April would go on to live with yet another family, my brother Amonie would wake up hungover everyday, and my sister would get pregnant at twelve.

      I left for San Francisco. Two weeks after graduation. I was only seventeen.  Suzy and me packed up our clothes, my drum set, and my green trunk filled with stuff for the kitchen we’d share in our new apartment on Delmar Street, the attic apartment with the slanted ceilings, the one just off Haight -- walking distance to Escape From New York pizza for lunch and/or dinner, the music store where we bought strings and drum sticks for band practice, and twenty-one year olds who’d buy us beer.
      I remember standing in the tiny kitchen of the apartment on Delmar street, only big enough for one person at a time, marveling at its brilliance. The sink didn’t leak, the cabinets all had doors, the counter wasn’t perpetually damp and crumbling away, and the four by four space of linoleum on the floor was intact, no peeling here and there, or pulling away at the corners. The landing of the apartment landing had a staircase up to our attic apartment, a spiral staircase. My mom wasn’t there awake and wiping at her nose for days on end, flipping out and screaming then sleeping for two or three days straight. We kept the kitchen clean, so as not to be reminded of home.
      I dreaded calling, but I missed the kids. I missed my mom too, but I had been missing her long before I moved to the city. With no phone in the apartment, I’d walk down to the corner of Masonic and Haight to the phone booth near the bus stop on the side of Rasputins. I’d have to quickly put my handful of coins in the coin box when someone answered the line, ka-chink, ka-chink, ka-chink, ka-chink. I’d watch for people I had gotten to know, the cute blond guy Billy, Theo the compact, muscular stage hand from the Farm, Lauren, the guy with a girl’s name, and the two girls we hated whose names I can’t remember.
      Tired of eating just-add-water falafel and not being able to afford more than one slice of pizza a day, I called home day, sobbing into the phone as soon as I heard my mom’s voice. I had wanted to come home to visit, but Suzy didn’t want to drive all the way there, and I didn’t have the money to pay her for the gas. I told mom all about it between tears and wiping my nose on my arm. I told her about the falafel and the fog even in the summertime -- maybe it was just the fog that was making me depressed.
      “I can send you the gas money,” she said.
      “Is it hot there?” I asked looking toward Rasputins.
      “Yeah, too fucking hot,” she answered.
      I could hear a rooster crowing in the background from her end of the line.
      “You can send me the money?” I asked.
      “I’ll send it Monday,” she said.
      A Muni bus was crossing the intersection at Haight coming my way.
      “Suzy isn’t going to want to drive up there anyway,” I said quickly before the bus got to the stop in front of me and opened its doors.
      “You could always just come back home,” she said. “I could send someone down, and you could just come home.”
      “No Mom, I can’t.” The bus doors wooshed shut and it pulled away. She didn’t believe me.
      “Just come home,” she said.
      I wished I had a tissue. My nose was running, and fresh tears were streaming down my face.
      “No, Mom, you don’t understand,” I said gulping for air. “I can’t. I can’t go back there. I won't go back.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Brand New Story about Middle-School Math

Today I gave a talk and led a writing exercise about education with a group of middle-schoolers participating in a summer program called Nosotras En Control  -- middle school Latinos from Livermore, Dublin, and Pleasanton. They were a great group, curious, participatory, sullen, and earnest; one even asked me if I ever did drugs. I talked about times when I struggled in school which surprises young people because they often think that teachers were always smart and self-assured.

While preparing for this event, I spoke with my friend Karin Spirn, author of / my colleague, and office mate, and she urged me to write a story for the occasion about how my middle-school math teacher ignored me once I got behind in her class. I always loved how much Karin felt for me the couple of times she heard me tell that story, how outraged she was that a teacher could ignore a student, and how if my teacher had been more attentive I wouldn't have to be embarrassed about how terrible I still am at math, but I didn't think it was a real story. It turns out I was wrong. And while I don't normally like sharing stories that aren't polished or at least revised a few times, it feels right this time. It's still in progress and still untitled, but you can let me know what you think anyway.
     The sixth, seventh, and eight grade teachers were noticeably meaner: Mr. Roundell, Ms. Martz, and Mrs. Casserly. The only nice teacher taught biology – Mr. Androlli. He had a comb over that flopped off his head and floated about whenever he got excited about cells dividing and mitochondria. Mr. Androlli drew animal cells, plant cells, paramecium, and bacteria, breaking his chalk, highlighting, and shading, and, dotting his masterpieces. At times he got too excited and went too fast, and I got lost. Othertimes, I got distracted by his hair. It had so many parts – one on the side just above the ear from where he combed the hair over his bald spot on the top and another in the back right in the middle. He combed this piece up to meet the hair he combed from the side and attempt to cover up what we all knew: Mr. Androlli was balding. He did make biology fun and I passed with a C.
      Summerville Elementary School was a K-8 school, but the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade classes worked liked middle school. Students went to different classrooms for different subjects.
      Mr. Roundell only taught seventh and eight grade social studies and PE. Mrs. Casserly taught sixth grade math and social studies, and Mrs. Martz taught English. Everyone got to know Mr. Roundell right away because he was a yard duty teacher, tall, and strict, and really mean to certain students. And he could be mean with a smile on his face. One recess during sixth grade I had to explain to him how Missy had gotten hurt running on the blacktop. I had seen the whole thing, and I was pretty sure that one of the seventh grade boys, one of Mr. Roundell's students, had tripped her. She was chubby and she would burst into tears anytime she got hurt, her feelings or anything else. This time she was really hurt; her knees were scraped and bloody and her elbow too, and she had to be taken to the office. She wasn't my friend really even though we had lived around the corner from each other since first grade and even though we sometimes walked together to school. She lived with her grandparents and no one ever asked where her mom was because we knew that would make her cry too, but Missy was always really nice to me, and I wanted Mr. Roundell to know what really happened.
      “Are you sure she didn't just fall?” he asked looking down at me, his head shielding my eyes from the sun. “Missy falls a lot,” he continued.
      “No, I'm pretty sure she didn't,” I said, pointing at the boys who Mr. Roundell had stopped but didn't bother talking to. “She was running from the ball wall, and they were watching her, and he,” I said, waving my arms and pointing again, “moved right in front of her and sort of put his foot out.”
      “You sure do move your arms a lot when you talk,” Mr. Roudell said, interrupting. “What are you Italian?” he said laughing as he said it.
      At first I didn't know what to say, but I could feel my face flush red.
      “No, I'm not Italian; I'm Mexican,” I said, regretting those words as soon as they came out of my mouth.
      “Oh, yeah Mexican,” he said, smiling before he turned away to scan the yard once again.
      I stood speechless on the black top for several seconds unsure of what to do next or of what had just happened.
      Mr. Roundell managed to humiliate me a couple of more times before I graduated from Summerville Elementary, but it was what happened, or didn't happen in Mrs. Casserly's math class that held me back the most.
      Middle-school math was hard. By the end of September I was totally lost. Elementary school level math had been fun. Mrs. Bowser had taught math using blocks, and puzzles, and boards with nails and rubber bands. Mrs. Bowser had a loft in her classroom, and we were allowed to take the puzzles and boards with nails, or books, to the loft where it was comfortable.
      Early in sixth grade alone at my desk with a pencil and paper, being slow at multiplication facts was discouraging, but I at least understood the concept of multiplication. I couldn't keep up at all when we got to multiplying and dividing fractions and decimals. I could almost feel my brain shutting down. I tried paying very close attention to everything that she wrote on the board, and raising my hand and asking questions though probably not enough. I tried calling Mrs. Casserly for help when the others were working problems, and she'd answer my questions in a whisper, as quickly as she could, in a rush to get back to the board to see who had come up with the right answer. Mrs. Casserly, who wore skirts to cover her wide hips, except on Fridays when she wore jeans, was always in a rush, always trying to fit her long lesson into the little time she had, but she was never in too much of a hurry to tell us a cute story about Mr. Casserly and how their initials were AC/DC, electricity, not the rock band. AC for Anna Casserly and DC for David Casserly. She must have been a newlywed even though she didn't look like one to me because she talked about her husband a lot.
      Once she noticed that I was getting behind, Mrs. Casserly tried checking in with me when she could, but eventually she stopped checking on me at all. I would sometimes summon the courage to ask a question because I knew that's what I was supposed to do, and because I wondered if she noticed I was there at all, but usually I just faced the board while she lectured and pretended that I was following along, and usually I didn't raise my hand, and Mrs. Casserly didn't bother calling on me either.
       My first year in high school, I flunked pre- algebra. After the first test on which I was able to work a couple of problems, I'd simply put my name on the the upper right-hand corner, Michelle Gonzales, turn it over to the blank side, doodle a bit, so the teacher thought I was writing, then I'd put my head down on the desk and take a nap. If I did my homework, I did it wrong. My step dad tried helping me, but he got so frustrated that I stopped asking him. And my teacher stopped helping me too.
      But I still loved to read and write, and I loved playing music. Even though I had failed pre-algebra, and had to take consumer math instead, I was still good at other things like understanding Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet so well that Mr. De Genero let me read the part of Juliet. I was good at playing the flute, and not getting nervous during performances, and staying up to date on current events that most people didn't know about like how the United States gave money and guns to governments that hurt their people for speaking out against them in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and, yes, Mr. Roundell, I was good at moving my hands when I talked too.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Blondes Have More Fun (Revised)

Blondes Have More Fun is the very first essay/story that I wrote about growing up in Tuolumne. I wrote it after I read Funny In Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas. I love the way Dumas uses humor to write about serious topics, to revisit what were once painful or complex memories, to see the humor in these experiences, and to write about them without whining, complaining, or sentimentalizing. 

Blondes Have More Fun is the seminal piece in my memoir, as it introduces an important thematic through line of my antagonistic relationship with blond girls whose sense or what I perceived as a sense of superiority further increased my festering feelings of inadequacy.

When I submitted this piece to the manuscript workshop, I got some really great feedback for revision, and I've revised it again, mainly the ending. This piece has already been revised several times -- maybe around ten times which really highlights the importance of revision. I always tell my students that it's in revision that the real writing gets done. What's interesting about this revision is that I was able to use an alternate ending that I wrote for a shorter illustrated version of the story  -- an exercise that I did with students last semester. The illustrated version is a lot shorter because that made more sense but also because I'm pretty limited when it comes to drawing. However, creating the illustrated version helped me see the story/my experience in a new way which helped me revise the original version below.

Blondes Have More Fun

Mr. Lark, the school’s double-duty vice principal and music teacher, called me into his office early one morning just after the bell rang. I was surprised he couldn’t wait to see me until band practice later that day but happy about it anyway. When I got to the front office, I was asked to wait while Mrs. Handy poked her head into Mr. Lark’s office to let him know that I had arrived. She motioned for me to enter his office, and I, always pleased to be in Mr. Lark’s company, practically sprinted the short distance from the front desk to Mr. Lark’s door. The name plate said, “Donald Lark – Vice Principal.” I was in fourth grade, and I had never been inside his office before. There was a large window near his his desk that looked out onto the Kindergarten class’ play yard and beyond that the parking lot.
      I was one of Mr. Lark’s favorites, or at least that’s how I saw it. He gave me a vocal solo in the annual Christmas program for two years in a row until I decided to play the flute in the third grade, so I could later join the school band under his tutelage. As a second grader, he gave me one of the coveted solos in a religious Christmas song which one I can’t remember, but I do remember that I was lucky enough to sing about Jesus. As a third grader, just when I started getting interested in boys, Mr. Lark gave me a solo in “Let It Snow;” perhaps I was one of the few girls who could pull off the flirtatious verse and chorus, “The weather outside is frightful/ the fire is so delightful/ and since there’s no place to go/ let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.” I’ll never forget how pleased he was when I played up the flirtatious lyrics with my third grade version of charm and nailed the sentiment that I thought he was going for. My being a poor Mexican-American girl from across town never factored into my solo potential, and so with “Let It Snow,” I left baby Jesus innocence behind and was well on my way to fourth grade. Though, to my horror, Mr. Lark was beginning his career as an administrator. I had always thought he wanted nothing more but to bring his guitar to each of the lower grades to sing, “There’s a hole in the bucket dear Liza,” “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,” and “Old Dan Tucker,” that song about a man who washed his face in a frying pan and combed his hair with a wagon wheel.
     As soon as Mr. Lark greeted me with a bright smile, I realized I had been called to his office for reasons other than to see his new digs.   
"Michelle, do you know why you’re here?”
     What I had done to Melissa Wheeling the day before suddenly popped into my head.
    “I think so,” I said, looking out the window toward the parking lot where I had grabbed      Melissa's precious white blond hair and yanked her to the ground.
      You know that there’s no fighting allowed on school grounds; do you want to tell me about what happened?”
     I trusted Mr. Lark a great deal, so I told him the truth. I also suspected that since he spent so much time on the play yard that he had some idea that I was involved in a very complicated love triangle.

     Melissa Wheeling, blond-haired, blue-eyed Melissa Wheeling, who had been my friend, had stolen my boyfriend Donnie Baugh. Donnie and I had been carrying on for a whole month or so, and to make matters worse, he lived up the hill from me. We’d walk home together and kiss on the hill above my house to the intoxicating scent of wild lilac until our lips were sore and until after our parents had started wondering where we were. I actually don’t think I mentioned the kissing to Mr. Lark, but he had a daughter who also in fourth grade and who was just as frisky and much more popular.
      "So Donnie broke up with you to go out with Melissa and that’s why you pushed her to the ground?”
      “I didn’t push her Mr. Lark;I pulled her by the hair, and not because Donnie broke up with me.  I did it because of what she said. And we were off school grounds, out of the parking lot.”
      “But you were on the sidewalk.”

      We were on the sidewalk, and Melissa and Donnie were showing off. They were holding hands, and when I called Ronnie’s name, Melissa turned around and said, ‘Blondes have more fun,’ flipping her white blond hair over shoulder. So I grabbed it and yanked her to the ground.

      With a slight hint of amusement showing on his appropriate administrator face, Mr. Lark listened intently to my version of the story, nodding from time to time. Sure he was the vice-principal, but he was also the school’s music teacher, my music teacher, a music lover. Surely he had seen the recent Rod Stewart album, the front showing Rod wrapped in a leopard print clad blonde, himself a blond. Surely he had heard the song that had been all over the radio that year, “If you want my body, and you think I’m sexy,” surely he saw the back side of the album, Blondes Have More Fun, which showed a mischievous-faced Rod with the dark-skinned brunette.
      “I see,” said Mr. Lark with a twinkle in his eye. He tried not to smile, but I’m sure I saw the beginnings of one as he turned to look toward the window where I had been motioning. “Michelle, you know you’re not supposed to be fighting at all, and not on school grounds, right?”
      “Yes,” I said. His words stung, but when I looked out the window to where the tussle took place, I was still glad I hadn’t let Melissa get away with pointing out just how different I was from her, Ronnie, and just about everyone else.
      “I’m supposed to keep you after school for forgetting, but given that,” he paused, cleared his throat and then smiled wide, “well given that you’ve never been in any trouble like this before, I don’t think that’s necessary.” And it wasn’t. Donnie broke up with Melissa soon after.
      The word on the playground was that Donnie broke up with Melissa because she had bad breath. I felt secretly avenged. And I had learned something back in Mr. Lark’s office, something about being discreet; it didn't feel good that everyone was talking bad about Melissa. I was glad when she moved away.

Friday, June 17, 2011

More on the Memoir in Progress

This week in the manuscript workshop that I'm taking, I had to submit an outline of my book -- a very fun exercise. I wrote mine in the form of a table of contents since my work is a collection of personal essays that fit together but can be read separately. This exercise was really useful as it helped to see the shape of my book, and for now I'm considering organizing it in three parts -- George Orwell seemed to love odd numbers, especially things that come in sets of three, so I do too. My three parts will be called Primary School, Middle-School Years, and High School.

The table of contents contains very brief summaries of each essay/story -- these were fun to write, you should try it sometime. The completed work will include more stories written this summer.

When I wrote this I had just started reading the Keith Richards autobiography -- I was clearly influenced by his style -- maybe a bit too much.  Enjoy!

Pretty Bold For A Mexican Girl: Growing Up Chicana in a Hicktown

Table of Contents

Primary School

**Blondes Have More Fun

In which I am sent to the principal's office for yanking Melissa Wheeling to the ground by her hair for taunting me after stealing my boyfriend. This essay/story introduces an important thematic through line: my growing antagonistic relationship with blond girls whose sense or what I perceived as a sense of superiority further increases my already festering feelings of inadequacy.

**Mexicans in Tuolumne

Introduces other Mexican girls living in Tuolumne, just a handful, including my childhood best friend, Amelie Lopez, and my complex relationships with them too.

**My Plymouth Rock

Introduces my family, how we landed in Tuolumne County and why

**Queen of Chlorine

In which I reveal an antagonistic relationship with a blonde lifeguard and introduces the Tuolumne band of Me-Wuk and stuff going on at home.

**Mexican Girl

In which my feelings of inadequacy rooted in class and race are justified by a run-in with the school janitor.

**Me and My Flat Tire

A rather long and vivid story about not being able to really depend on adults and the freedom I felt riding my bike around town.


In which I make many childhood horse lovers jealous by revealing that I once owned a pony, only she was fat, old, and we were too poor to actually take good care of her.

**Secret Rivalries

In which Michelle B., the daughter of one of my mom's sort of friends, outs me to the entire class. The story also details questionable behavior by a teacher and her fear of Jimbo Dyer, a troubled Me-wuk boy who throws a desk and is dragged screaming from the class.

**The Food Stamp Diet

A humorous look at the shit we had to eat while on welfare and how my mom made sure we didn't go hungry.

**Flour Tortillas with Butter

In which I am totally in love with my mother for coming to my class and teaching us to make flour tortillas by hand.

**David K and the Spaghetti on the Wall

Introduces the reader to my younger sister Zhanna's dad who my mom married and divorced all in the course of about two years – set amongst the backdrop of disco music and a 1970's approach to mental illness.

**Isn't She Lovely

Details the birth of my beautiful, blond haired, hazel-eyed sister, Zhanna June and goes more in depth about my mom and David's relationship.

Middle-School Years

**Stranded at the School Dance

Tells the story of the time that I had to walk home in the dark after a school dance because my mom was too stoned to remember to pick me up.

**Abusing Authority

Is about a teacher I had in 6th grade who made me put tape over my mouth for talking in class.

**Faking it

Introduces Lolani Hawkins, a Hawaiian girl who I went to school with all the way from elementary, middle, and high school. I was fascinated by how she managed to be popular even though she had even darker skin than I did and she was a tomboy.

**Punk Rock Americana

Introduces a set of stories to come that detail my affinity for punk rock music, seeing The Clash at the US festival, and dressing weird which only added to my alienation.The way I dressed matched how I felt inside which was convenient since I got my clothes from thrift stores, places where I could afford to shop.

High School


Tells the story of self-proclaimed cowboy, hick, Future Farmers of America member who began the year terrorizing Amelie and me in PE, and so we responded in kind.

**Prom Date

Is more a story about friends that Amelie and I made in marching band, boys who most everyone else thought of as freaks, than it is about prom.


Introduces a collection of boys that I dated for a couple of years and mostly all at the same time.


My mother's addictions have reached new heights, and my favorite teacher accuses me of forging my mom's name on a note.

**Green Acorns

Is all about my first love, Al Mendez .

**Beer Shampoo

Brings the reader right back to where he/she started, with me ensconced in a fraught antagonistic relationship with a trendy white girl who I was threatened by in elementary school and who has shown back up in my life in high school, poised to move in on my about-to-be boyfriend.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Bit About Me

Many who know me know that I am writing a book -- a collection of personal essays about growing up Chicana in hick town, but only a few have read what I've written so far. I've named my book Pretty Bold For a Mexican Girl. I will be sharing some of what I'm writing here -- only the shorter very polished pieces -- and below is an introduction (reading it will provide context for what's to come) that I wrote about myself for a community of writings working together to finish their book length works. Our teacher, facilitator, wise sage, and deadline keeper is Ariel Gore author of How To Become a Famous Writer Before Your Dead.
You should check her out.

About Me
I was born Michelle Christine Cruz in East LA to Cheryl Gonzales and Michael Cruz,two young Whittier Boulevard-cruising Chicanos. Only eight months later, I was Michelle Christine Gonzales, living in Redwood City with my mom who had to leave LA because Michael had kidnapped me after my mom quit him because he had beaten her one too many times.

When I was four we moved to the California Foothills, to Tuolumne, to get even farther away from Michael and because Mom was a hippie with a pastoral fantasy. I hated Tuolumne and it hated me which is what the book is all about though there were things, are things, that I love about it, and while I was born in East LA my family's homeland, my hometown, the placed that shaped me into who I am today, is Tuolumne.

While my mother still lives there, and in the same house where I grew up, I left Tuolumne when I was 17, two weeks after graduating high school. I moved to San Francisco with members of my all female punk rock band, signed up for City college, dropped out, partied too much, got a job as a pre-school teacher's aid, a job that I was very good at, formed another band -- Spitboy -- toured the US, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, and when that all broke apart, I went back to college got a BA and an MFA.

I teach English at a community college -- a career job that I love, where I am well-liked by the people there who matter most -- the students. And even though I never wanted to get married, I am happily married to a real Mexican with whom I own a home (he was raised in house with a dirt floor and I grew up on welfare), have nine year old, piano-playing son, and two loving chihuahuas who will no doubt be sitting on my lap while I write for you this summer.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Bienvenidos-- Welcome

I think a lot -- probably no more than most people but with an awareness about my thoughts that allows me to fold them into stories, music, English lessons, and even dinner. Some of these thoughts deserve to written down,  and many don't fit into the memoir I'm writing and should be writing right now. I like to remember things.

And real or imagined, blogging creates an audience, somewhere and someone to pour your thoughts over, to preserve ideas for use in future essays, stories, songs, and even dinner. Buen Provecho.