Growing up an immigrant can be difficult, especially when you just want to blend into the crowd. I remember sitting at the school picnic tables, waiting for the bell to ring us into class. All the girls were talking about where they were born.
“I was born in Reseda!”
“I was born in Los Angeles!”
“I was born in Arizona!” Oooooooooh. A collective murmur of approval from 5 seven year old girls. Good one! Someplace outside California!
And then it was my turn. Already nervous to be included in the conversation with so many of my classmates, I opened my mouth and said, “I was born in Buenos Aires.”
Dead silence. Stephanie looked at Julie and rolled her eyes. I could see the door to the inner circle closing fast. “I don’t know where that is but…” Too late. They had moved on more important topics that didn’t include me.
My name was different. My parents had accents. My lunch box contained sandwiches made with French loaves and obscure meats like mortadella and prosciutto. Even though we immigrated when I was six months old, my mom had found small ways to keep close the country we left behind, hoping one day I would appreciate her efforts. And years later I did. But as a shy child of seven, all I wanted was to go by the name Jennifer and eat pasta with sauce from the jar. I vowed to Americanize my parents.
To their credit, my parents were always willing to play along with my attempts to strip every last filament of culture from our home. As Thanksgiving approached, I gave detailed lectures on its meaning and the appropriate menu: a Butterball turkey, Stove Top stuffing, and cranberry sauce from a can. I gathered from eavesdropping on various conversations that this was what all the cool girls were eating so, by God, that’s what we were having. We also had to hold hands around the table and give thanks for things like God and the USA and Holly Hobbie. I remember my dad looking at me with, what I believed at the time, utmost concentration as I waxed on and on about the importance of being like everybody else. That same memory now, seen through the eyes of adult, clearly shows my dad barely able to contain his laughter.
Thanksgiving was a processed foods phenomena and, flying high on my dictatorial success, I started planning my birthday party. Now, let me just say that I was a shy child. I never wanted to go to parties and didn’t want to have any of my own, either. I don’t know what possessed me to have a birthday party, but I did.
I turned 8 with a bang.
I briefed my parents on proper party etiquette. Entertainment was a must. All the girls at school had a magician at their parties. My mom went and hired a magician.
We also needed a fancy cake from the supermarket with words on top! My mom went to Vons and ordered a cake.
Last, but not least, there needed to be a piñata. It was 1980 and my mom had no idea what a piñata was or where to buy one, but she was resourceful and determined to bring me out of my shell. She asked several of the moms at school about my latest party request. They all referred her to a Mexican/Hispanic market in town, and she bought the biggest, fanciest piñata they carried.
The day of the party came. The magician was perfect. The cake, delicious. My American party was going along as planned. And then, the moment I and every girl at my party had waited for: time to knock the crap out of the piñata and fight tooth and nail for every last bit of cheap candy.
All the girls had a chance to hit the piñata and we were now on the second round. By now, the parents were gathered around, eager to watch the approaching mayhem. Shani R. stepped up to bat. She was always a bit of a brute, and by the looks of the crumpled piñata we knew she was going to be the one to strike the death blow.
Whack! That was it: finished. Crepe paper snow drifted down to the ground and all fifteen of us girls dropped in a tangle of thin arms and legs and scraped the ground for toys, candy and, Hubba Bubba bubble gum. While the parents laughed and cheered, those of us in the ring quickly made a startling discovery. One by one, indignant girls jumped up from the ground.
“Hey!” Shani said. “This piñata doesn’t have any candy!”
All eyes turned on my mom, and there she stood with color creeping into her cheeks at an even faster rate than my own. While preparing for my party, she asked what a piñata was. She asked where to buy a piñata. She even asked how to set it up and bought a special rope for my dad to tie it to the basketball hoop. She just never thought to ask if they came filled with candy.
My mom ran into the house, leaving behind some good natured laughing by the parents in attendance. Some of the girls were still shaking out their hair and looking under their skirts for candy. The concept of an empty piñata was so incomprehensible they assumed the candy had somehow gotten trapped in their long hair or bounced off the ground and into their underwear.
It’s a damn good thing my birthday is 30 days after Halloween.
The screen door slammed open and out of the house ran my mom, her 80s perm blowing in the wind, clutching bags of leftover Halloween candy and various items raided from the pantry. Before anyone could yell “Cover!” we were hit with a spray of candy. Under pressure, mom has a good arm. She tossed handful after handful of candy at us like pigeons. Chocolate, gum balls, mints, Ding Dongs: if it was edible and prepackaged it was fair game.
It took us girls about 3 seconds to realize the piñata rules had changed, but once it clicked we hit the ground with the same excitement we had 5 minutes earlier. Only this time, instead of searching the ground and looking up at the piñata, we kept looking at my mom and her stash. Everyone was screaming and laughing. The parents were cheering my mom for her ingenuity and encouraging their daughters to skip the candy and go for the Doritos.
Needless to say, I didn’t get my American party. I got more. I found proof that my parents, who left everyone and everything behind so that we could live a better life in a new country, were willing to suffer all sorts of indignities for me to fit in. I witnessed resourcefulness under pressure. I learned that candy makes memories short and smiles long. And, above all, I have damn funny story to tell at any party with a piñata.