It all began with my full-blood Yaqui Indian grandmother, Mamacita, from Sonora, Mexico, who raised me in San Francisco. I was five years old and used to the living situation being mainly her and I; with my mother going to work, coming home late after playing piano bar (her second job). She was a trained classical pianist, but as she put it, she could also swing. My mother, Lydia, was a young Mexican woman during the racist 1950s, playing piano in a bar to a bunch of drunk men. I can’t even imagine, but with her out-going, playful personality she enjoyed the attention, and the tips. And so, my uncle from Mexico was visiting- a judge. My other uncle was a professor. They both went to university, but their sister, Mamacita, stayed at home with her curandera/healer mother, and trained as a curandera, midwife. My great-grandmother, Isidra, owned a boarding house and a laundry, and was known as a curandera. She was married five times (all of this pretty rare for the late 1800s, Mexico), and her favorite saying was, “Each time a better man!” The matriarchal line in my family bred strong, rebellious women, it seems. That Yaqui Indian blood.
The visiting uncle played a game with me- he’d begin to quote a song, “Luna, luna, come la tuna, hecha la cascara y come la tuna!…Moon, moon, eat the fig, peel the rind, eat the fig!” When he’d catch my five year old self, he’d tickle me until I screamed and cried. I hated it and now I realize he was also touching me all over my little body. Mamacita would come and rescue me, telling him to leave me alone; that I didn’t like the game, stop it. Then I would hear the song, “Luna, luna, come la tuna…” He was very huge and fat, and I dreaded those big, fat hands tickling me, touching me. “…hecha la cascara,” so I ran to the large dining room table covered with a tablecloth, which was my secret hiding place. I kept all of my art supplies there: crayons, paper, coloring book, my baby scissors. His big, fat hand reached for me, “…y come la tuna!” I was ready. I stabbed him with my baby scissors.
My mother, Lydia, took me once to the bar where she played the piano at night. She sat me in a booth with a coke and a sandwich. I was around seven, taking in the darkness of the bar, mostly men. I remember thinking it smelled really bad and there were no windows. Mamacita always had an open window for the wind in our apartment, as we were on the second floor. I watched my mother walk to the piano, a light shining on her black hair, making it sparkle, and her red lipstick smiled. I used to wake up, at that age, to her playing beautiful music on our rented piano. My favorite, Moonlight Sonata, she told me. I used to love to sneak up and watch her because her face was so peaceful, not rushed, worried, angry. In the dark bar, full of men, she began to play Moonlight Sonata and they began to yell things at her. She said, “This is for my daughter, then I’ll play whatever you want.” So they shut up and she played, and some of them clapped and yelled. She was peaceful for those moments, and then she played something fast and her red lipstick smiled but I knew she’d rather play her morning songs. During the day she was a medical secretary and once in a while she had a doctor boyfriend, but no one married her. She was a hot tamale. Who played Moonlight Sonata. Trained as a classical pianist by her minister father; Lydia played for church services. But she was still a hot tamale.
When I was ten she married an Irish guy who sang My Wild Irish Rose whenever he got really drunk after payday. I didn’t live with her because he was so mean, abusive. My grandmother and I lived in a room with a little kitchen, but it was home because she always had her altar, fresh flowers, pan dulce still warm from the corner store, in the Mission, San Francisco. My mother was pregnant. He was drunk. I was visiting. He locked me in the bedroom; the door made of glass panels. I heard and saw everything. He began to beat her, ripping her clothes off, her huge belly exposed. She screamed like a woman fighting for herself, and her child, as he started to choke her. The wise voice (I call it) said, “If you don’t do something, you will always remember this.” I was a skinny ten year old, but I thought I was tough, beating up boys who called me ‘spic, dirty Indian’ (they saw my grandmother). The girls wouldn’t talk to me, but the boys tried to bully me, and I beat their asses up, laughing. I remember. So I put my skinny fist through the glass, not one scratch, opened the door, grabbed his favorite marble ash tray and knocked him out. I was really trying to kill him and as my mother ran to him, worried he was dead, the wise voice said, “Look well.” It was after midnight. I put all of my stuff in a paper bag and left, taking three buses to my aunt’s place in the projects. My grandmother was staying there for a few days. I think of one of my four children out at midnight in the city, taking three buses to safety, and I’m reminded of that ten year old’s courage. Mamacita used to say, “Tienes coraje, niña…You have courage, child.”
When my first two children were three and one, we lived in the worst projects in San Francisco. I was eighteen and fully aware of the nightly dangers. My Jamaican neighbor told me, “Girl, you never be out there bringing in your wash after the sun goes down, they be raping women here every damn night.” I rigged up an alarm system with empty cans on the window sill downstairs. The bedrooms were upstairs and I slept with my biggest butcher knife. The cans crashed to the cement floor. My babies continued to sleep. I slid down the stairs, knife in hand, and saw a hand reaching through my window. I stabbed it, blood, scream, gone. I called the police, they came, and one of them returned demanding to be let in. I refused. I stayed on my couch all night facing the broken window, waiting for the cop’s hand to come through.
Fast forward to the high Sierras where I lived for five years in my mid-thirties, giving birth to my fourth child. My youngest, beloved son. During the summer months I backpacked out with friends to the most beautiful, glacier lakes. Once in a while I went by myself, with my wolf dog, Zeke, a true companion. My oldest son gave me a Buck Knife for my birthday, telling me, “Carry this with you for bears or whatever, Mom.” And I did, strapping it to my belt. I put it under my sleeping bag pillow, touching its leather casing once in a while, Zeke curled at my feet, aware. During the night I’d climb up to the Mother Rock, as my friends and I called her, taking my sleeping bag with me to sleep in one of her crevices. It felt like a cradle. The stars floated in the wide, silent lake, as earth/sky held me. This was the first place I felt no fear to be outside, alone, in spite of bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes. If they harmed you it was for self-defense or plain old hunger; there was no cruelty involved. This was the first place I heard the silence and the sound of the sun rising, a deep hum.
I remember my seventh grade gym teacher telling us girls, “If you’re ever attacked, don’t fight back, you’ll get hurt worse, maybe killed.” I remember how angry that made me, but I didn’t say anything, to the teacher. Later I told my best friend, “I’d rather die than be raped, so I’m fighting back, fuck that shit.” She laughed, thought I was being funny. Before I moved to the Sierras, I took kung fu lessons from a five foot woman from China, June, in Santa Cruz, California. She always paired me up with the biggest man in the class to do the exercises with. I finally asked her, after three classes, to be paired with another woman. June looked at me, smiling, pointing to him, “That’s you, inside.” Later she taught me killing blows for a week, just her and I. I’ve traveled to many places by myself and her lessons make feel a little safer, as I don’t pack my Buck Knife for Paris, for example. I do pack my Swiss Army Knife, so maybe I could open a bottle of wine to calm down an attacker (haha).
Now I live in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, by myself (with its challenges, a woman alone), returning to teach and visit family, friends. My Buck Knife rests on my night table, its handle poking out of the leather case. When I stabbed my pervert uncle, his huge hand reaching for my five year old self, I drew blood. He yelled angrily as my grandmother ran into the room, and I ran to hide behind her skirt. “Give her to me, look what she’s done! Give her to me!” (This is all in Spanish.) “I told you to leave her alone! Now you will!” “She’ll be a bruja like you, is that what you want?”
I felt her body quiver, with silent laughter, as I held onto her skirt tightly. He never followed me with that song again during his last days, and I stayed close to my grandmother. If she had given me to him, I would not have become who I am. A woman who sleeps with her Buck Knife, and a woman who would use it if I had to. That gym teacher was wrong- fight back. As June said, while teaching me killing blows, “You and I, we are eagles.” We are whole human beings, willing to fight for our lives, and willing to love so deeply. Those we choose to touch us.
Alma Luz Villanueva’s fourth, newest novel is Song of the Golden Scorpion. Eighth book of poetry, Gracias, to be published in 2014. Teaches at Antioch University’s MFA in creative writing program, Los Angeles. Lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, the past eight years.
Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. She will be leading a Manifestation Retreat in Costa Rica at the end of March and her annual retreat to Tuscany is in July 2014. All retreats are a combo of yoga/writing and for ALL levels. Read this post to understand what a Manifestation retreat is. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Jen and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October.