Trenzas: A Girl, Her Braids, and Her Bully
Between the ages of two and five, my braids made me look cute. People admired my almond-shaped eyes when I wore them up high, and tight or apretaditas. I always looked well kept in them, not greñuda, like those wiry-haired witches I had seen in my pre-primers at school. My braids were the lure that drew in those cheek-pinching women we ran into at the grocery store.
“¡Mira, qué bonita! ¡Déjame tocarla!
Those eggs in my mother’s refrigerator couldn’t keep up with every “mal de ojo” that was cast down upon me at that age. Too many evil eyes—so few eggs.
Starting at age six and all the way to twelve, they were a necessity. I breezed right through Popsicle-stick-hair-inspections at school, while a few disafortunados did not. They were prodded at, pulled on and questioned to no end under hot gooseneck lamps.
“No,” Mandito confessed under the bright lights of the nurse’s station. They did not have shampoo at his house. At his house, it was the jabón de vasijas for the dishes, jabón de lavar for the clothes, o si no había más, bolas de canelón, pulled from the Chinaberry tree outside and rubbed together after a good soaking to create a lather for the hair.
“How could a family not have shampoo?” grunted a staff member in return, with obvious scorn in her voice.
Nevertheless, I stayed in line, waiting patiently until my name was called. My hair inspection took only an instant or two, and I was done, thanks to those trenzas.
I would not be taking home a yellow note from the nurse’s office that day. No parasite could penetrate the fort of hair held tight by those rubber bands we used day after day each time my mother had unraveled the Brownsville Herald.
The worst part of trenzas came from the removal of each giant rubber band at the end of each day. They choked the trenzas tighter than boa constrictors, rendering my hair lifeless and my scalp numb once released from their grip. Strands of brown and red, with fresh translucent roots dangling at each end, lay wrapped within the tangled hair and rubber mess each night. To this day, the tuning sound created by the removal of the rubber band around my morning paper still sends shudders through my spine.
To add to the drama, I had to end my evenings with the mandatory one-hundred strokes of the hairbrush before heading off to bed. That was the thing to do in those days. I watched my sister do it every night, because I wanted hair just like hers.
82, 83, 84… Numbness and uncontrollable static electricity followed, as fire ants seemed to traverse my entire head.
“Don’t scratch so much!” my sister Chachi would tell me. “People are going to think you have lice!”
So it came to pass that I wore my trenzas without argument or discussion. They had become part of me. I’d weave them and string them automatically without a second thought minutes after leaving the cool sheets of my morning bed. I could do them myself now; one less task for my mother to handle during her busy, busy start to each day.
I became comfortable with them. They had grown on me, and not just in length. They kept the back of my neck cool on hot days. When they were their longest; at my upper thigh, I could swing them in opposing directions just to impress my neighborhood friends; one swinging clockwise, and the other—the other way. I could keep it up until my head and eyes went cross, feeling emborachada or dizzy. They brought me celebrity status, as kids came from as far away as La Villa Verde just to see how it was done. It was our neighborhood version of the more modern Cirque de Soleil.
But those were my elementary school days. I concerned myself with more important things by sixth grade. Trenzas were the least of my worries. By this time, books, grades and studies consumed my time. I was never invited to those little get-togethers in sixth grade, where girls shared stories about the latest chismes, flavored lip gloss, menstrual problems, or the latest updates about bras and cup sizes.
“It’s because you are too homely,” a boy would later inform me.
Yup. Those trenzas made it all the more real for me.
Then there was Wicho.
Wicho, my annoying neighbor down the street, had pulled on my trenzas one too many times in my elementary days, tying them into the fancy knots he had learned on his father’s shrimp boat, leaving me there with a brain teaser of a nudo to untie—backwards, with a mirror, in my bathroom, while people waited outside in line.
People say that when a boy picks on you that way, he likes you. I beg to differ because I found him to be more than just a mild irritation, just like the heat rash I developed behind my sweaty knees and thighs on hot, blistery days. I would have preferred to have been liked by someone else, just not Wicho. Although I must admit, even though Wicho was a pain in the ass, at one point, he simply became tolerable.
That is, until the day in Wicho’s eyes I became a different kind of celebrity altogether.
One day in class, in a voice stretched like a limp rubber band, he yelled,
“ He-e-y, you!” I looked up at him slowly. “You look like a movie star!”
I should have known better than to fall for that seaman’s bait. But take it from me, at thirteen, I wished for just a sign, a glimmer of recognition that I even existed. His comment indicated to me that I just might make it to the “A” list of party goers at school.
“Really?” I responded.
“Sí, hombre: te pareces a la India Maria. Spitting image!” he snorted as he fell halfway out of his chair.
Uproarious laughter followed. As if they had to, cowards who pretended to be my friends turned a blind eye. A few friends like Eddie, Flora, Victor, and Alberto would have confronted him, but I chose not to tell a soul. Not one soul. The snickers from Wicho’s friends followed me all day long, through the halls, and all the way home or so it seemed. Loosening my trenzas would have made things more obvious.
I just wanted to get home.
La India Maria.
La India Maria—the one with the sing-songy voice on the Mexican channel on TV with braids hanging low, behind the ears, just like mine.
La India Maria—the one in huaraches with her dusty toes exposed. That’s who I became that day.
The name would follow me like a needy dog for years to come.
I was just too scared to spit out an equally ridiculous name for him in return, even though I had once thought of calling him “Trucha” because of his pointy–shaped mouth which he always kept open like a fish, and the many pecas that covered his skin, just like the spots on those trouts my father caught now and then.
“¡Trucha!,” I would whisper to myself when he teased me in class. Maybe one day I would use those words—ANY words—to fight back.
Once branded with an apodo o sobrenombre, it’s difficult to shake. I tried wearing my hair in one long trenza for a while just to salvage my name; but it was too late.
“¡La India Maria!!” he would shout every day, as I passed him in the hall.
This heavy cross, the hazing, and the harassment would never end, or so it seemed. I hated my sixth and seventh grade years.
And my trenzas? They just kept getting longer and heavier, just like my days in junior high.
Everybody has a breaking point. Mine came in the middle of daily roll call in Mr. Treviňo’s eighth grade class. As the assigned attendance monitor, I was able to leave my homeroom class to pick up all the attendance folders down the hall. It would give me a chance to drop in on other classes. Just maybe, I would catch a glimpse of Alberto, my childhood sweetheart since kindergarten, who treated me and my trencitas in the sweetest and kindest ways.
I was not prepared for the atrocity that followed. The events are still cloudy in my head-even to this day. As I stepped into Mr. Treviňo’s class, I heard a yelp from the back of the room.
“¡Mira nomás. Mira quién viene. Es la India Maria!”
I knew that voice. It was Wicho’s!
In a blur, and not in real time, I caught a glimpse of the heckler’s hands cupped around his mouth like a megaphone, then lowered slowly to his belly as he grasped it to relieve the pain of the laughter and carcajadas which traveled in waves throughout the entire room.
Time moved slowly. I vaguely remember what transpired, but somewhere in my moment of distress, a three-word-response came from the deepest, dustiest chasms of the word files in my head.
Without a second thought, I accessed the file marked, “SPANISH CUSS WORDS” with the disclaimer of “Use only in the event of a real emergency, like some relatives do,” written just below in the fine print of my brain.
Bells went off in my head. THIS was an emergency.
I went straight for “The Big One:” The one that includes references to one’s mother. My brain released them all in slow, shallow syllables, as if asking me, “Are you sure you want to use these three words?”
They rolled off my tongue slowly, methodically, in one deep breath. I gave it to him, eye-to-eye, and an eye for an eye. I’ll admit that I did feel badly about what I said about his mom because it wasn’t her fault she had such imbecile for a son, but what was done, was done.
The laughing stopped instantly. He sat up from his slouched position, shoulders back, and chin up. I said nothing else. I only remember walking out amidst the hoots and howls that taunted him in return. I did not dare look at the teacher, coward that he was, as I turned my body a full one-eighty, and walked out the door.
When I met my mother at the usual spot outside near the park by the school that afternoon, I resorted to a survival skill I had seen most of my friends use in their day. I pretended as if nothing significant had happened. We greeted each other in the normal everyday way.
“¿Cómo te fue?” preceded her automatic, “How was your day?”
“Fine Mami… fine,” I said as kissed her on the forehead. She looked at me again. I just raised both shoulders, made puffy my lower lip, and focused my eyes on a distant point outside the passenger window as we drove off.
A deep suspiro followed.
“I got a call today.”
That was all she needed to say. My blood went instantly cold, causing a fissure in my glass face. The expression that I held on to, broke. There was no need to confess. My expression said it all. Yes, I did it.
I was in trouble and I knew it. Big, sloppy tears, heavy enough to cause a backsplash, dropped toward the vinyl mat on the car floor.
Again, the events are still very cloudy to this day. I’m sure the punishment probably involved an immediate “I’m sorry” to Wicho and his family, but I don’t think I followed through with that, even though I said I did. For sure I had to belt out an apology to the teacher who had made the call to her that day. My memory does not allow me to remember her sorted details or consequences; for my own protection I guess.
“Lucky for you he didn’t take you straight to the office,” she said.
“Yeah, lucky for me,” I whispered under my breath.
For days after that I was grounded, THAT I do know. That’s okay. With strict parents like mine, never allowing me to go places on my own, I was BORN grounded. Made “no le hace” to me one way or the other.
Lying on my bed that night, staring at the ceiling while I pulled and played with my trenzas, I looked at the big steel scissors sitting on the dresser drawer that I had pulled from my mother’s sewing kit beneath the bed.
“I could do it, if I wanted to you know. They’d be gone in a snip or two.” I whispered as my eyes welled up with tears.
When we talked about it later, and I was allowed to defend myself, I sobbed inconsolable tears. Waterfalls flooded the crevices of my dimples, between my cheeks and nose. “I could not take the suffering and the teasing any longer,” I told her.
“I (gasp) DO. NOT (gasp). Want. These. Tren-zas… Any. More,” I whispered and sobbed syllabically, feeling one breath behind with each word I spoke.
The next day, a Saturday, called for a trip to Caro’s Beauty and Barber shop deep downtown. I flipped through pages and pages looking for just the right style. I didn’t have too many choices, but I thought I had picked the most flattering one. The Dorothy Hamill look was all the rage in those days. When she was done, my hair looked just like the picture in the photo, “Short & Sassy,” just like the ad said.
But with all my curls and all, what can I say? Everyone knows that beauty parlor hairdos don’t make it past the humidity and stickiness of the day. By the evening, I had a mop of curls covering my head. I looked like a fifty year old señora, all over again.
“Te pareces a Mar[ia.” Wicho’s friend said to me from across the rows of desks the following day. Wicho, sat listening in the back, appearing distant, defeated and hurt.
Maria? Is he talking about Maria Felix??? I thought. Wow! Maria Felix, one of Mexico’s jewels. Come to think of it, my hairdo didn’t quite resemble her latest look, but I couldn’t think of any other Maria at the time.
“¿De quién crees que hablo? ¡No te hagas! You look like la Señora Maria—the lady in the cafeteria. You know who she is…la mamá de Juan!”
“Es más,” he said, stifling another laugh, “Si quieres, mañana I’ll ask her for a hairnet just for you!”
Later that night I sat cross-legged on the cover of my bed, wondering if my life would ever take a turn for the better.
“Just once!!” I begged out loud.
Instinctively, I reached for that space off my shoulders that my trenzas had once occupied, thinking they were still with me, like old trusted friends.
There was only a void. They were gone.
I missed my trenzas. I wondered how long it would take for me to grow them back.
“Ni modo” I sighed, as I dug the hairbrush through my hair.