Sylvia Rexach

Alma Adentro

By Lemon Peralta

“Now you tell me what am I?”

My abuela‘s favorite question. It came out when she had done something particularly American: “Now you tell me what am I? Puertorriqueño?  Or americano?

Now every fifth grader knows that Puerto Rico is an American territory. I’m not arguing with that. Are you, Mr. Cotton Candy-head? But just as Southerners are Southerners and Northerners and Northerners and Californians are really anorexic New Yorkers on Xanax and tanning spray, so Puerto Ricans are Puerto Ricans. Despite this, my abuela liked to make claims about how American she was.

She was about as American as a yuca empanada.  Besides “Now you tell me what am I?” her favorite American phrases were “I don’t like you what you say ’cause you fool” and “Hootchie Cootchie.” She dressed like she had wandered into her mamá‘s 1960’s-era closet covered in glue and come out with every paisley scarf and gaudy-as-shit piece of jewelry stuck to every available surface. And she smoked like a blackened hot dog fallen through the grill of a faulty Hibachi.

She was my idol.

empanada
Empanada

But with her shriveled-up face and her bright black eyes and the apartment always smelling of coffee and tostones, the answer to her question seemed pretty obvious to my brother and me. We would joke about it when she wasn’t looking: “Now you tell me what am I? A hot dog or an empanada?”

We both went through a Courtney Love phase and even our dear beloved abuela wasn’t safe from it. My brother bleached his hair. I pierced my belly button. But the worst thing we did was to start eating Americano. My brother spent all his money on Kentucky Fried Chicken. I swore off plantains. I hadn’t trusted them since I was young. Something about the combination of starchiness, the greenish taste of a banana but without the actual flavor of banana, and the funk of sliminess always lurking around the edges. It took me years to overcome my aversion, and I probably don’t have to clarify that it took something Jamaican with Y chromosomes to change that.

But as much as I tried I couldn’t give up the yuca. And grandma knew it. Yuca is inedible until you cook it. It starts out like a tree branch and becomes creamy and delicious when you boil it, like sticky mashed potatoes. When abuela made it I felt a slippery connection with my heritage. So that’s how she got me. That, and the music. 

My abuela never listened to much music around the apartment. It was always a surprise when she did, and not just because the record player was more a piece of furniture than a listening instrument. It was always hidden beneath heaped-up newspapers and straggly potted plants and piles of cats. Digging it out was an ordeal. It usually meant sweeping up spilled dirt and surviving a couple of scratches from El Diablo, the one-eyed bastard who loved my pillow but hated my actual person.

There was a cache of records hidden in a secret compartment. If you put the record on without remembering to switch the speed to 78 rpm you would end up with the sounds of a full-fledged demonic possession. But if you put it on the right speed you would usually hear Sylvia, most often singing “Alma Adentro.”

sylvia rexach 2This chain-smoking, bling-wearing, shriveled old apple had music in her soul. In her music, she was puertorriqueño. Somewhere inside that blackened hot dog was a glowing ember, and when we caught her listening to it my brother stopped bouncing his basketball, my mother turned down her Sally Jessy Raphael. A hush came over the apartment like a tacky veil over a fifteen-year-old at her quinceañera. We’d all stop to listen to Rexach’s voice, in that slightly wobbly 78 rpm timbre, and the rattle of the plate used to catch the extra water underneath the geraniums. I could close my eyes and see the tree ferns and coconut palms, and hear the waves caressing the moonlit shore underneath the serious moonlight. And our hard American bodies and souls would become soft, mushy, and delicious.

Even today I sometimes look up “Alma Adentro” on Youtube and play it back.

Now you tell me what am I? A hot dog, or an empanada?

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Sylvia Rexach

Bruce Springsteen

American Land

By Lemon Peralta

Bruce springsteen 2
Mr. America

I used to work at a clinic that was frequented by the used condom wrappers of humanity. You know the type, torn and scummy and spending most of their time in the gutters. Because I’m a non-judgmental person, it never bothered me, except for the time when I had to get rid of the dirty men’s underwear someone had wedged into the mail slot overnight. Or the time when a woman puked on the hood of my Honda Civic parked out front, a puke so saturated with whatever drugs she’d been taking that it ate right through the candy-apple red paint, leaving corroded shape that in certain lights looks just like the Virgin Mary.

It never bothered me much. But dealing with the condom wrappers of humanity really ate into a lot of the employees. Especially my manager.

He would spend his days practicing all of the slang words he could think of: freak, boof, e-tard, perma-fried whore skank kimchi towelhead beaner. One day as a form of protest I told him that he should just call me a Block Hopping, Shemale Watermelon. I even drew a picture.

Statue of Liberty
Miss America

But I didn’t call him a wop, even though he earned it.

He was Italian in the way that a Hawaiian pizza is Italian.

That is, he wasn’t very.

But he paraded his Italian-ness like a Hawaiian pizza, big chunks of ham and pineapple and a whiff of garlic. Lots of cheese. I guess the same way I parade my trans-genderedness, if you want to really pick a fight. But do you? I’m pretty tough. I can hide razor blades in my hair.

Anyway, one day the little Honda Civic with the BVM on its hood broke down. The clinic had just closed and I had spent the last twenty minutes kicking Magic Marker, a regular, out of the office. He was harmless but exhausting, and it was raining and I had no cash on me.

Who steps in but Mr. Italian-American Hero?

Now, being someone who’s still got a perfectly intact hyphen, I understand hyphenates. I’ve actually got several intact hyphens. I’m Puerto Rican American (no hyphen in English, but one in Spanish: puertorriqueño-americano). I’m Guatemalan-American, I’m pre-op transgender. I’ve been known to be obsessive-compulsive, but I’m non-diagnosed. I’m often hot-to-trot, when I’m not feeling like a stick-in-the-mud. And I understand how important those little hyphens are. You’re not one thing or the other, you’re both. And you’re not beige, you’re café-au-lait.

So I get it. But I was skeptical about Mr. Italian-American and the ride home.

He was big Springsteen fan.

Bruce-Springsteen-Paul-Simon
Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon

Being someone who came of age in the Outkast and Ludacris era (I lost one hyphen to the track “Humble Mumble”), I always lumped Springsteen into the same pasty white category as Simon and Garfunkel, or Crosby, Stills and Nash. Yawn. Why don’t you just set the table with a big old bowl of mashed potatoes?

So, Born in the U.S.A. and all that. I mean, really, do I have to listen to it to know what it’s about? Flag waving, shotguns and rednecks.

But I was desperate for a ride. And he had a truck. With a cassette player. And guess what was playing?

When we got to the song “American Land” my heart froze in my chest. Did he even understand what he was listening to?

What is this land America? So many travel there
I’m going now while I’m still young, my darling meet me there
Wish me luck my lovely I’ll send for you when I can
And we’ll make our home in the American land

This sounded like a letter my grandfather could have sent home to his amor. The song went on, reporting on the experience of an immigrant in a way that I recognized from my grandfathers stories.

I won’t say I was happy to be forced to change my view of this slab of provolone. I tried to watch his face as he mouthed the words. Did he even understand what he was saying? He seemed to.

When I got home I Googled Bruce Springsteen, just to check up. Turns out his mother was Italian-American. Birth name Zirilli.

A little more Googling led me to this:

New ColossusGive me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

But the part that we don’t hear as much struck me even more:

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome.

Hey, I’m no poet. The only thing I slam is my two-inch nails in the car door, and that’s by accident. But it sounds to me like Bruce, maybe our most American singer ever, and Lady Liberty, are in agreement.

I know I’m not the only one whose very hyphenated person is at odds with our currently elected leader, but it seems to me that if Bruce and good old copper tits are in agreement, there’s really nothing to argue with. If Mr. Hawaiian pizza can understand, what’s keeping Middle America?

Bruce Springsteen

Nirvana

The Man Who Sold the World

By Lemon Peralta

Yes, I know it’s a Bowie song. But our dear departed Man Who Fell to Earth, Thin White Duke, Supermodel husband and Space Oddity is unfortunately not dancing on the tinfoil surface of my brain right now. There are some people who have so much inside them that they outgrow each persona like last year’s lace-up bodysuit. Bowie contained universes. Our dear departed Kurt, God bless him, never gave himself the chance to explore much beyond the feedback squeal of his acid-gargling grunge laments. The 90’s must have been hard for him, because damn, they were hard for me.

david bowie dress
Bowie in a dress

Think back to the 90’s. Has there been another recent decade more drenched in hairy upper-lip, sweaty armpit, semen-stained testosterone? Bruce Willis was big, Horn-dog Clinton was in office, and unshaven Grunge was on the radio.

But I have no problem with Kurt. It was his flannel-frocked fans who were the problem. It was his flannel-frocked fans who moshed in the mosh pit and who banged their heads and who locked me in my locker when they realized I was petite enough to fit in there.

My brother was one of these fans.

I won’t go into it, but I don’t talk to my brother anymore. But my brother is the focus of this memory, my brother who somehow got the hairy upper-lip, sweaty armpit, semen-stained genes in the family. My brother who was a member of the Field Hockey team. My brother who left pubes in the soap and skid marked chonies on the bedroom floor. My brother liked Nirvana. And one day I walked in on him strutting around our shared bedroom to this song, wearing our sister’s dress just like Kurt on the cover of The Face.

In case I haven’t mentioned it before, I’m trans.

Kurt Cobain Dress
Cobain in a dress

First thing for all you straight girls and boys who may not be familiar, I have to clarify that drag and trans are not the same thing. Girls in drag are always at their best. Because drag is about putting on a show. Drag is about the false eyelashes, the sequins, the MAC Cosmetics. Drag is tucking and pushing-up and hairspray and neon. Drag is about a night out.

Trans is the opposite. Trans is about living every day. Trans is about running out into the street in the piss-yellow light of six a.m. in flip-flops and three-day-old leg stubble when you realize you forgot to park the car out of the street sweeper zone because your desk shift at the clinic ran long when someone ransacked the supply closet and the manager thought it must be you. (Hint: it wasn’t me.) Trans is wearing dirty sweat pants to the emergency room when you cut your arm open on a jagged can of three-bean salad.

So whether I’m talking about my brother strutting around in our sister’s dress to the strains of Nirvana or Miss Thang in a hot-pink bouffant at Ray-Ray’s on a Friday night lip-syncing to the strains of Gloria Gaynor, I know they’re as different from what I am as a pancake from a prostitute. And there have been times when this has really pissed me off.

billy corgan dress
Billy Corgan in a dress

Don’t get me wrong. I like my caramel-colored skin and my size nine feet. But there have been times when I’ve boiled over watching straight boys putting on eyeliner to go to the Smashing Pumpkins concert, or bachelorette parties going to the drag club lining up outside the drag club. These things have pissed me off exactly as much as the white boy who used to drive down my street every evening in his Subaru Outback blasting Public Enemy. These kids get to play at being black or being trans, but without the downside. And the downsides are many.

When trans people (I prefer the term “Fantabulistix”) talk about gender, or when people of color (I prefer the term “Exquisitudinians”) talk about race, straight white people think that’s all we can think about. That’s because it’s always there on the surface, like that delicious froth which rises to the top of all those straight white people’s Americanos. And that can be a burden, even if you like Americanos.

But what I now know, at the wise old age of 26, is this: it’s culture as much as legislation that legitimizes the Fantabulistic Exquisitudinians. It’s the Bowies and the Kurts, God bless ’em.

When I was a kid I always wondered why there were no blue M&Ms. My mom said it was because the blue dye was cancerous. Well, it turns out the blue dye is not cancerous, it’s just that people think it’s unnatural. But you know what? These days kids eat the blue M&Ms without thinking twice about it.

I could never hate Bowie or Kurt as much as I hated my brother that day. But what I’ve learned, I guess, is that by enacting these fantasies, the straight white dudes who might otherwise shove me in a locker are getting to experience just a little bit of what I’ve experienced. And tasting a blue M&M can never be a bad thing.

 

Nirvana

Yoko Ono

Kiss Kiss Kiss

By Lemon Peralta

double-fantasyWho were the Beatles? Only another boy band with bad hair cuts and gaggles of mindless pre-teens fainting at their feet. What, they were both tuneful AND ground-breaking? Please. I’ve heard better tunes in the sing-song of my favorite drag queen. And if I wanted to hear the phrase “number nine” shouted at me repeatedly from a speaker I’d make another trip to my friendly neighborhood STD clinic. The only thing useful the Beatles ever brought me was the Nehru jacket. And that was when I was in my “boy” phase.

Oh, they brought one other thing: Yoko. Yoko, the destroyer of the greatest band of all time. Yoko, the performance artist who could dance like a butterfly and sing like a bee…or was it a fly? Yoko, the wall of hair, like something out of a Japanese horror movie, or my fondest dream. Yoko could have been just another loft-living, clothing-cutting, fly-impersonating, obscure-because-I’m-avant-garde performance artist, but she I had the good fortune for her to marry one of the most famous men of all time. Lucky me.

Out of all the songs featuring orgasmic moaning (I’ve heard Jane Birkin on J’Taime, moi non plus, and I’ve heard Donna Summer Loving to Love Me, Baby) Kiss Kiss Kiss this is the only song featuring orgasmic moaning to which I can contribute my personal growth.

I know we all remember the time when we first realized what and who we were, THAT way. For some guys it’s when they first saw a picture of Pamela Anderson. For some girls it’s when they first borrowed some goat-smelling teenage boy’s flannel shirt on a cold winter night at summer camp. For me it was when I first heard this song.

nehru-jacket

I wasn’t wearing a Nehru jacket at the time, though I was most definitely in my “boy” phase. At sixteen I had worn it once, for a date with a girl who most definitely didn’t appreciate the fact that I was shopping vintage and she was shopping Wet Seal. That’s fine, I told her. Cancel my subscription, ’cause I’m over your issues. I was quick with a snappy comeback, but slow to recover. I didn’t want to date her anyway, just get some guys at school off my back. It didn’t work, and the Nehru jacket went back in the closet, along with my damaged psyche. I died my hair jet black, to match my mood.

When she heard about it, my good friend Sloane promised a fabulous night out. She knew she could get us into the Store House, a sleazy biker bar uptown, mostly because when she did herself up like a two-dollar hooker she could pass for twenty-five. When I did myself up like a two-dollar hooker all I could pass for was a Superstar Barbie who’d been attacked by toddlers with crayons and blunt scissors.

crystal-pepsiBut we got in, and we got drinks. Sloane had a Zima, I had a rum-and-Crystal-Pepsi. I think we were fitting in nicely. But there wasn’t much action, there was no dance floor, and the jukebox roster was filled with AC/DC and Cheap Trick. And I had left my torn Def Leppard t-shirt and roach clip hair accessory at home, so no one asked me to dance.

But for some reason they had this song Kiss Kiss Kiss on the jukebox. Maybe because John Lennon was a Beatle? It was as out of place as culottes at a cotillion, but then so were we.

Sloane dared me to put it on.

When I was five my sister offered me her stash of Zotz candies if I would jump off of the top of our two-story apartment building into the dumpster. There was no way I was going to pass up a handful of fizzing, vinegar-and-baking-soda flavored candies just because there was danger involved. Luckily the dumpster was filled to the brim with after-Christmas Hefties full of discarded wrapping paper. I escaped with minor bruises.

zotz-candiesBut this was far more dangerous. Maybe it was a death-wish. Maybe it was the Crystal Pepsi. Maybe it was the first manifestation of a life-long perversity that later led me to get oh-so-briefly married to an orange vendor that I met at the intersection of La Cienega and Centinela. But I put the quarter in, and the carnage began. You could see the bikers looking up from their beers. The balls on the billiard table stopped clacking together. Incredulous stares scanned the Store Room, eventually landing on us as the only likely culprits.

Oblivious, Sloane and I laughed our asses off as Yoko moaned her way towards climax.

As the song ended and there was a gap before the jukebox found its next Cheap Trick song, the silence in that bar was profounder than the Declaration of Independence and the Book of Matthew and the Collected Lyrics of Abba rolled into one.

Sloane and I ran like hell.

But when I got home, I knew who I was. And I never tried to date a girl who shopped at Wet Seal again.

And my hair was already black, just like Yoko’s.

Yoko Ono