Two Zebra Finches:
Sandy and Danny are part of my very first memories. They were a zebra finch couple that belonged to my mamá. I sat at the kitchen table where their white cage was placed. I stared at the two birds. I remember an impulse to pet the birds. I was fascinated and enamored by the singing coming out of this wired box. My small hands reached for the cage door. I reached inside and they started flapping around. I don’t remember fear. I only remember wanting to hold the birds in my arms. I reached in and missed Danny. I reached again, this time for Sandy. I was excited to be able to hold her. I squeezed her and I squeezed her as I pet the top of her soft head. She started dripping down my arm. Blood and mucus-like fluid started coming out of Sandy. I screamed and screamed. I knew what I did was wrong, but I didn’t know how to explain to my mamá that I only wanted to caress and cradle her birds.
I look up at the sky and then down at my feet. The neighbor kid grabs my chin and tells me to strictly look up at the sky after he tells me a true scary story. There is a bruja in the apartment complex. She lives in the apartments past the courtyard and down the steps in the bottom floor. He points at her apartment from the top of the steps where we live. La bruja has a metal rooster in her yard that comes to life after midnight. It guards her from spirits and chismosos. Kids who look the rooster in the eye and then look down at the ground are taken by the diablo in their sleep. He swears it’s true. He asks me to walk with him to la bruja’s apartment. I remember my heart beating so fast and holding my chest as we walked down the steps to witness la bruja’s front yard.
The rooster was still. Nothing happened. I walked closer toward the rooster and without a word the neighbor kid started running back toward our apartments. He shouted back to me not to look at the ground. I panicked and the only thing I could think to do was stare at the rooster even harder. I squinted and I swear his eyes turned bright red. I grabbed my chest and looked up at the clear sky. I tried running, but I couldn’t. I slowly led myself up the stairs, past the courtyard and back to my apartment. I never looked down at the ground even when I got inside.
I got into a fistfight with the neighbor kid a short time after the rooster incident.
My mamá pulled me aside one day and told me about my dad. First, she told me his name (Otaniel). Second, she told me he was from Guatemala. He loved reading and playing piano. He taught my older sister how to read and write. One of his favorite songs was “Black Magic Woman” by Carlos Santana. He had to go back to Guatemala City before I was born. This is the information I hold onto in order to build this man inside my head.
In 9th grade, I found a “G” encyclopedia from the 1960’s and used it to write a report on Guatemala. In black and white, a tiny quetzal sat in the upper right hand corner of the first page for the country. I gave the report in front of a speech class and I felt so strange as I told a snippet of history about a country I wanted to connect to. My source was outdated and I felt similar. Teenage angst probed at me and told me I could never really know this part of myself. I finished my speech and sat down.
The kid behind me whispered in my ear, “I thought you were a wetback?”
At work, I meet a young man from Guatemala. The quetzal is on the first page of the passport and I tell him I think the bird is beautiful. He nods his head. I go through my small-talk spiel. I ask him questions in my sloppy Spanish. He is at PCC. He is studying history. He loves foreign films. His eyes light up when I tell him I love Korean films. He wants to learn Korean and English and Japanese. He asks me where my family is from. I explain that my mamá is from Mexico and my father is from Guatemala.
With kind eyes, he exclaims, “Eres Chapina también!”
Something about hearing him say this gives me a heavy feeling and relief at the same time.
It is mixed messages when you are a child of immigrants. You are either too much of one side of the border or you are never enough. You are nurtured under a social structure that dehumanizes you. It is a social structure that loves your culture, but loathes the actual people. Labels like “illegals” and “alien” give you a taste of what America thinks.
As a woman with brown skin, I am asked over and over “where are you really from?” I am approached at random about what my ethnicity might be. My physical appearance is a game for outsiders. Of course, they never intend to sound that way, but I know better.
I hold onto my lineage with pride. I never answer everyone who asks me “What are you?” Sometimes, I look them up and down and ask them why they care.
I have only seen two photographs of my father. Relatives in California comment on my resemblance to him. Sometimes, I remind them of him. When I see an image of a quetzal, I see a small piece of myself and imagine maybe my father sees a piece of himself in the quetzal too.
These are the things I know to be true: I am Chapina and Xicana, possibly a bruja and there’s a little piece of me that is part quetzal too.