Not for a quality plumber to replace the water heater.
Not for paper plates to cut down on the dishes that seem to perpetually fill the sink now that everyone was home.
Not even for a therapist to assure me that, yes, many working parents were feeling as if they were one ill-coordinated step away from falling face-first off a treadmill.
Those options would have all been logical in their own way, but logic was not what I needed at that moment.
What I needed was a Mexican embroidered face mask.
I needed to get lost in turquoise threads sewn into the shapes of flowers, birds and sugar skulls. I needed to scroll through designs I was too practical to buy — ones featuring Selena and Frida Kahlo — until I found just the right one to sit between my face and the rest of the world.
Growing up a second-, third- or fourth-generation anything brings constant choices. At some point, you realize that the practices, traditions and flavors that your family sees as normal parts of their days aren’t for many people around you. So, as you create a life separate from your parents, you make thousands of small and not-so-small decisions about what to let fall away and what to keep close.
As a Mexican American who grew up in Texas and California, I had plenty to choose from: candy-filled piñatas at birthday parties, mariachi bands belting out gritos at weddings, confetti-filled eggs called cascarones that are made to crack over the heads of friends and relatives on Easter. On the weekends, my family didn’t have pancakes for breakfast. Our plates were usually topped with homemade flour tortillas filled with combinations of potato and egg, bacon and egg or, my favorite, beans and rice.
And then there were the home remedies. The adults in my family seemed to have one for every ailment. If we had the hiccups, they would pull a small red thread from whatever shirt or towel happened to be nearby, roll it into a pea-sized ball and affix it with a dab of saliva to our foreheads. If we had an earache, they would roll newspapers into cones, place the small end into the offending ear and light the other end on fire.
For colds and fevers, the Vicks VapoRub and Tylenol came out. But so did an egg from the refrigerator. My mom would slowly roll it over our bodies, while uttering a prayer, to guard against “mal ojo,” or evil eye.
I still remember the comfort that came in the coldness of that egg and the warmth of her undivided attention.
And yet, I have never felt the urge to roll an egg over my children’s bodies. I’m fairly certain I never will.
Then again, I was fairly certain of a lot of things before the pandemic started.
Now, I find myself looking up Mexican recipes I never before had a desire to cook and spending more time looking at masks than I did searching for a wedding dress. (Though, to be fair, I hated that process, so it took me only a day.)
Assimilation is often characterized as a breaking away from the past, as a process that involves stepping out of one culture and planting feet firmly in another. But if the pandemic has confirmed anything for me on a personal level, it’s that it is much more fluid than that. Sometimes it takes an extraordinary moment for us to realize we need to step back because we left too much behind. And sometimes it takes an extraordinary moment to see that we brought more with us than we realized.
I am not a superstitious person, or at least I didn’t think I was — until I found myself digging up a statue near the front door of a house a few years ago.
When my husband and I decided to sell our first home, a townhouse in Virginia, my mom advised me to buy a St. Joseph’s statue and bury it in the yard. It was supposed to help the sale go smoothly. I laughed and told her that I was not that desperate. It was a relatively new property, in great shape, and our real estate agent suspected it would sell quickly.
But then a few marketing mistakes led to it sitting empty longer than we expected, and I started to worry.
The third time my mom urged me to get the statue, I gave in. I walked into a botanica, bought the smallest one they had and buried it.
The house sold within days, and the paperwork was finalized shortly after that, which was a relief — except that it meant I had to retrieve a statue from a house that was technically no longer mine.
I went early in the morning and took with me a small shovel and a toy car. The shovel was to get the statue. The car was so I could pretend my kids left it behind in case any of my neighbors questioned what I was doing.
I realize this is one of those stories you’re not supposed to share with strangers. It’s one of those stories you’re supposed to tell only to people you know for sure grew up in similar families and will “get it.” People who will see the word “VapoRub” and immediately smell it because their parents used it in so many, intended and unintended, ways.
Before the pandemic and the protests, I probably wouldn’t have written about that statue.
But lately, I have found myself thinking about all those parts of me that came from relatives lost before the pandemic and relatives I am now afraid of losing because of it. And, unlike other times in my life, I don’t feel like apologizing for or explaining away any of those parts.
I also believe that if we are going to change, really change, the cultures in offices, newsrooms and schools to make them more welcoming to a diverse community, we can’t rely on hiring practices alone. Black, indigenous and other people of color need to be made to feel they can stop hiding aspects of themselves.
They need to be made to feel they can stop code-switching.
I won’t pretend that I was thinking all of that, at least not consciously, on the night I found myself scrutinizing the threadwork of masks. All I knew for certain was that I wanted the mask I wore to reflect the person behind it.
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