Growing up, my parents never really took us anywhere. Everything normal families made a fuss about, like graduations and birthdays, we spent at home. Their excuse was always how tired they were. I hated that excuse, but what I hated even more was the fact that it was true. They were tired from working jobs where the pay never matched the effort they put in, and the monthly bills never matched the pay.
My parents had been saving up for months to put me through my first communion. “Es algo sagrado,” Mami would say. To her it was something sacred, yet I didn’t know how to feel about my arranged marriage with God. At the time I thought, aren’t people supposed to be older when they get married? Aren’t they supposed to go to the movies and eat popcorn together? I was only eleven at the time and I couldn’t wrap my head around what a first communion actually was. To make matters worse, on the day of my arranged wedding, it turned out that everyone else in my Sunday class was also getting married to God.
“Fuiste la mas bonita de todas, Mi Reina,” Papi said after the ceremony. He always knew how to make me feel better. He decided that an occasion like this called for a celebration; he wanted me to know how proud he was. The problem was that my parents couldn’t afford to take the entire family to a restaurant. After the church service, Papi and my younger sister, Isabella, walked Mami and me across the street to a place called Italian Buffet. A real piece of crap establishment that sat between a Blockbuster and what I would later find out was a strip club. We waited for the bus that would take Isabella and Papi home. They looked at us from the bus window and waved as they pulled away. I wished they could have joined us.
Mami grabbed me by the hand and we walked into this run-down restaurant that I thought was magical. I’m still not sure what made the Italian Buffet so enchanting. Maybe it was the wallpaper that danced off the walls as if it was the host greeting us at the door. Or, the magic could have been the smell of wet dog that complemented the stack of broken chairs that sat next to the bathroom. More likely it was the rows and rows of food under heating lamps that was like nothing I had ever seen before. This was the type of place that could end world hunger. At the time I thought, this must be the Hard Rock Cafe of Newark, NJ.
“Twenty dollars per person, all you can eat,” the cashier said.
I answered for us because my parents always made me speak for them. They could never curve their tongues around the shame they felt when they tried to speak English. “Son veinte dolares, y puedes comer todo lo que quieras,” I whispered to Mami, trying to hide the fact that she didn’t speak English.
With those forty dollars we ate until our stomachs no longer belonged to our bodies. Mami ate fast, as if she was scared there wouldn’t be enough time to try everything, yet she made me eat slowly and cautiously. “Ese vestido lo tenemos que guardar para tu hermana el año que viene.” I never understood why I could never keep my clothes. Everything always had to be passed down to my sister. My parents were always looking for the next idea to save them a dollar. Mami always carried a plastic GLAD container labeled in case of an emergency, and as I forced another spoonful of ice cream down my throat and into my already packed stomach, I saw her empty the uneaten snacks from the container into her purse.
“Tenemos que llevarles comida a tu Papá y a Isabella. Yo no voy a cocinar cuando lleguemos a la casa,” she laughed.
She began to pile lasagna, chicken nuggets, apple pie, anything she thought Papi and Isabella would like, inside the container. The Tupperware seemed miniature compared to the mountains of food she was trying to squeeze into it. As if it was a game of Tetris, she moved pieces of lasagna and chicken nuggets around, if she could’ve fit the world into this one GLAD vessel, she would have.
“What the hell are you doing?” yelled the cashier.
“Que dice el señor?” she asked me.
“Fucking immigrants always stealing shit,” the cashier mumbled under his breath before I had a chance to translate for Mami.
Mami screamed back, “No, no. Yo no steal nada! Usted dijo que podríamos comer lo que queramos!”
She always understood English when someone was disrespecting her. I guess the years of being talked down to made her fluent in insults, and as I watched her explaining herself to this man in native tongue, I froze. I felt the need to protect her, but I had no idea how.
“Sir, you said it was all we could eat.” I came to Mami’s defense. “Nowhere does it say you have to eat the food here.”
“Don’t act dumb, kid. You Spics always causing trouble.” He tried to grab the container from Mami.
Mami, being the stubborn woman she is, would not let it go. They struggled back and forth until the food went flying and, as it landed on the floor, bits of lasagna splashed all over the ruffles of my dress. She screamed at the top of her lungs, “Yo page por esta comida y me la voy a llevar! No me importa si la tengo que botar cuando salga!” Instead of helping me clean up, she dropped to her knees and began to pick up the food from the floor and place it back into the container.
I hated her all of a sudden. I felt like people had already been looking down on us for the shade of our skin and the way we rolled our r’s, and now she was picking up apple pie from the floor like a rabid dog. She wasted her time screaming things in Spanish that I could barely understand, let alone the rest of the patrons that glared at us. We weren’t even in a classy neighborhood yet these assholes felt superior to us.
“Animals,” whispered someone from a nearby table.
I looked at Mami, while she slid around the floor on both hands and knees. I thought to myself, animals? Is that what we are to them? Thanks to Mami we were no longer human. The shame that I felt in that moment consumed me, hovering over me like a black cloud. I hated everyone in the restaurant. Most of all, I hated Mami. She proved them right. Animals, that’s what we were.