In Latino communities, the term “gringo” isn’t necessarily derogatory….. It’s what they, the Latinos, call the Americans – the outsiders, the white folks with their bad Spanish accents.
It’s what they called us, when I finally got old enough to pay attention.
I was born in New York to a Latino father and an Irish-Italian mother. I already had an older sister, Esther, and two half-siblings from my father’s previous marriage. And another half-sister on the way.
My father’s simultaneous marriage with J, as we’ll call her, was what the world today calls polygamy. It’s the one topic I have avoided writing about on this blog and it’s one I am hesitant to address even now.
We are not Mormon – gather from that admission what you will. They – my parents and J – simply obeyed the call they felt the Lord was making on their lives. With this call – as with most calls the Lord makes, I would think – came the loss of man’s good opinion. It came with much persecution and censure. It came with much suffering. It is the undercurrent to nearly every event that has transpired in my life. Easily understood? Never. Of great responsibility? Always. But Jesus Christ has been the center and the mainstay.
I think when people first hear about my family, they might wonder what rock we climbed out of under. Do people outside of the openly Mormon Sister Wives still live like that? It seems both too strange and too antiquated of a concept to fit into today’s society. And I get it. I do. I will say this, however, that nothing about my family seemed strange to me until I got old enough to notice how strange it was to other people. This was around the same time that I caught on to the gringo label.
My younger half-sister and I would tell people we were twins when we were little – it saved us the difficult task of explaining that yes, we were only eight months apart, and yes, we had the same father, and yes, we grew up together, but no, we had different mothers… Being that my father was a distributor for a multilevel marketing company, we were always around people – but not everybody knew. Though a great deal suspected, I’m sure. The neighbors who would eventually wind up calling social services on us certainly did.
When we left New York to settle down in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, I was just under two years old. I don’t remember the snow-lined, sooty streets of New York City or the small, wallpapered apartment where I learned to take my first steps. But I remember the burning sun that baked the streets of our new neighborhood, the heat of the sidewalk beneath my bare toes, and the long walks to the supermarket to get our groceries before we could get a car.
Our life, in the late 90s and early 00s, was relatively normal. My childhood was idyllic compared to other kids – especially the kinds of kids I’d get to know as I got older. We were homeschooled. My dad worked from home. We weren’t well-off but we had enough to get by. My sisters and I shared a room; my mother had her own, which she shared with the little girl who came along soon after our arrival to Puerto Rico; J had her bedroom with her newborn boy; and my father had his own. We were a small but well-functioning family. Both my mother and J were in their twenties – young, bright-eyed, and intelligent. My mom handled the groceries; J supervised our preschooling. My father knew Spanish and my mother and “step-mother” picked up on enough of it to handle small talk. We played at the local playground and took plenty of walks to keep ourselves busy. We made a few friends in the neighborhood – one even undertook the task of teaching J how to make proper arroz con gandules.
As a kid, my world was full of books and games and movies and the occasional loud-mouthed child that raced through my house – ours to entertain while my father pitched healthcare products to their parents. Occasionally, that world contained business meetings in lavish hotels back-dropped by glittering casinos and scores of well-dressed customers. Other times it was not so glamorous – we went a month without electricity when I was about six because of a backed-up bill we’d been unable to pay.
Our neighborhood was suburban and jammed between another, fully crowded urbanization and the bustling, over-packed city of Bayamon. We lived next door to a well-to-do dentist and across the street from a middle-aged couple that gave us the kinds of sideway glares reserved for brothels. We got our fruit from street-side vendors and spent our spare quarters on limbers.
And yet, there was no doubt about it – we were the outsiders, the weird Americans, the gringos. And we weren’t like everybody else. We were a gaggle of little girls and a solitary boy – a sweet, wide-eyed, fragile tot – a dad, and two moms. And our incredulous neighbors weren’t having it.
And so, sometime in the middle of 1999, I met my first social workers.