Christmas Eve, circa 1971. Christmas Eve, circa 1971. We arrive at our friend Argie's new house, two doors down from my grandparents' place in Silver Lake, just north of downtown Los Angeles. My parents are in their early thirties, as are most of the other couples. I am going on 10, one of the older among the dozen kids, mostly "mixed race" (as they would say today) sons and daughters of Anglo-Latin unions. I am one of the darker children; most of the others turned out quite striking, with their tan-skinned, brown-eyed, sandy-haired looks. I say "quite striking" because that's how they were regarded, even by their Latin moms. Nevertheless, I get a lot of attention; I'm the oldest boy, the "little man."
The furniture and lighting fixtures at Argie's are fat and loud in tones of gold and green. There is a pool in the back yard; next summer our tan and white and brown bodies will splash around in it together. The kitchen is just a few paces away from the entryway and living room, which Argie and her husband, Wayne, have decorated with a collection of clown portraits and statuettes that always scare me slightly. Argie's full name is Argentina, and like my mom she emigrated from El Salvador; Wayne Eisenhower is a World War II vet and distant relative of Ike, with steel-blue eyes and a beaming moon of a face.
As soon as we walk in we are greeted with the jumbled aromas of the American-Latin feast: a spread of Swedish meatballs, tamales, turkey 'n' fixin's, ambrosia, potatoes au gratin, pureed and refried black beans (Salvadoran style), baked beans and pork -- a completely overwrought and kitschy meal prepared by the Latin women to please themselves and their gringo husbands.
But the meal is for later. The first order of business is to walk downstairs to the den, which is dominated by a bar with puffy leather trim. The bar stools are taken up by the women. Wayne, a larger-than-life figure cut from classic Americana, with his vet's status and royal gringo pedigree, presides from behind the bar, offering us kids 7 Ups "on the rocks." There is lots of friendly, slightly drunken banter, never an untoward word. Argie's sisters klatch in one corner, a boisterous, Spanish-speaking group that my mom quickly joins. The American husbands stand at the other end of the bar, smoking and joking in English. But the loudest voices are those of the women when they speak in their heavily accented English (which makes me laugh because it reminds me of Ricky Ricardo), usually in response to some ribbing comment from the men.
In retrospect, it seems to me that the women's rejoinders always carried more punch, were the final word. It was as if they knew something the men would never know, were American in a way the men could never be -- a kind of hardscrabble, hard-won immigrant's American-ness, filled with both a sense of achievement and the sentiment of loss that only someone who's traveled a long road can know.
My mother immigrated to the United States as a single woman in the late 1950s. Although a couple of cousins followed her example over the years, the bulk of her family remained in Central America.
My father was the only son of Mexicans who had built a lonely existence for themselves in California, far from their families in northern Mexico. My parents met, as the family legend goes, outside church one Sunday, when my father was out riding around in his green MG convertible with a friend, looking to pick up good-looking women leaving church services. They married. They built a house on my father's lithographer's salary. (Back then, a union job could still land you in the middle class.) I was born. The American dream fulfilled -- but not quite.
My father, a famous workaholic, regularly pulled 18-hour shifts. My mother and I rarely left the house. It had a panoramic view looking clear across the Los Angeles Basin toward the Pacific, but it was a terrifying place for my mother and me, for we were mostly alone, in a city and a country that it would take her years to fully feel at home in. Contact with her family back home was limited to infrequent conversations over a hissing long-distance line.
In the early '60s, it was just my Mexican grandparents, my mom and pop, my sister and I (my brother was born at the end of the decade). We were a Latin family cut off from what makes a family Latin. It took several years for my parents to form a circle of friends to fill that familial void.
It was a curious crew, one that would stand out even today. From her earliest days in the States, my mother had bonded with other single women from El Salvador who'd come north. Most of them wound up marrying white American men, or English men or Germans or, like my mom, Mexican Americans. In a classic American brand of cultural irony, the Latin women were seeking a "liberal" life (in comparison with the machismo of the Old World), while the white guys were seeking a more "traditional" kind of marriage with women who knew their place. Both would get something in the bargain, at least for a while.
In the den at Argie and Wayne's, the women dominated the scene. If in the early stages of the celebration there was the Muzak flavor of Ray Conniff, Andy Williams or Mantovani on the stereo, eventually, inevitably, the party turned Central American, with cumbia, merengue or cha-cha-cha. On the dance floor before the bar, the women led their husbands' stiff hips and awkward feet into the tropical rhythms. Once again, the women laughed at the men, and they laughed at themselves. It was all good fun.
At midnight, the Latin style continued with the custom of opening gifts in the wee hours, the time of Baby Jesus's birth. We Martinez kids got the best of both traditions. We opened gifts from the Eisenhowers and a few of the other families, and then went home to await the American ritual of opening presents from Santa Claus on Christmas morning. We walked to our car in what was for us California kids the electrifying chill of winter, drunk on the magic of a world that was even greater than the sum of its parts.
It was wonderful inside that house, it really was, the kind of place that to this day I continue to believe America should or even could really become. The romantic in me. I didn't realize back then just how much we were an exception to the rule, and, notwithstanding the increase in "mixed race" families in this country in recent times, still would be considered so today.
Those were the best days of my parents' lives, and they lasted only a few years. By the late '80s, the circle of friends that gathered at Argie's had dissolved. Everything about us was changing. The terms of American marriage. The rites of assimilation for my mom and her migrant generation. Young couples became middle-aged couples seemingly overnight, worn down by their responsibilities.
Maybe the Americans took too much for granted, perhaps the Latins gambled away tradition too easily. My family and I are products of a flawed experiment, of an optimism gone sour in both hemispheres.
From the Latin-style intimacy we enjoyed at Argie's, we've returned, somehow, to the very void my mom and her immigrant friends had filled with our "adopted" family during the holidays. Now, the year-end celebrations remind me not of how close we are, but how distant we are from one another. I guess we've been assimilated after all.
This holiday season we have yet to decide if we'll gather at my parents' house in Arizona or in Silver Lake, at my grandparents' old house, where I now live. It'll be just my mom and my pop, my brother, my sister and I.
Ruben Martinez is an associate editor at Pacific News Service.