Cowboy Country

Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Our new house has a porch, two bedrooms, a huge backyard, an attic, a basement, and for 75 dollars a month it is all ours. The best part of the house is my bedroom. I share it with my sisters Lily and Monica and we have our own beds. Mom says that the best part is the kitchen but I think she only says that because she loves cooking. When we moved in, the first thing Mom did was ask where the kitchen was and started cooking right away.

I also like the kitchen. Everything is new in there. The stove is new, the fridge is new and everything in the entire house has a new smell like someone went inside before us and cleaned the whole place up. I also mentioned that we had a basement. I’ve never seen a basement before. Lily and I like to play in it. It’s kind of dark and the stairs are steep. The walls are made of brick and it’s only built for storage really, but I like it. Abuela’s house didn’t have a basement. It had a balcony, but it didn’t have a basement or an attic.

Idaho homes have these cute little porches that are surrounded by pine trees and the neighborhood’s stray cats like to come there so we can feed them. My littlest sister Monica loves feeding the cats; she’s only two but she’s not afraid. Mom also loves cats so she feeds them and lets them come into the house if they want to. The cats are my first friends in Idaho.

Papi loves the house very much. It is the first house he has ever owned. The houses were expensive in Lima so we lived with Abuela and Abuelo and Tio Julio. I heard Papi tell Mom once, “Inez, this is the first place to live where we are not the visitors.”

Mom is happy about that too, but I miss being with Abuela, Abuelo and Tio Julio. I miss the trolleys and the palm trees and the policeman with their white uniforms. I miss the Indian ladies with their long black braids and black skirts trimmed with colorful embroidery that cooked and cleaned in Abuela’s house. You didn’t have to be rich to have Quechan women work for you. They would lay out big lunches at mid-day and everyone would come together. Lima was family-focused like that.

Abuela’s house was always full of people and parties. She would carry a guitar on her back wherever she went and played it for us whenever we asked. All the uncles would drink and fight and hug each other, crying. There was one time when Abuela was away, and Tio Julio threw a big party for all his friends. He hung a neon sign outside like how restaurants and stores do and people came and drank till five in the morning. Mom had to hide us upstairs in our bedroom with the door locked to keep us away from the drunks. When we came downstairs people had passed out everywhere, even in the streets. Papi said this wasn’t an environment little girls should grow up in.

Papi asked Tia Camilla, his sister who lived in Boise, Idaho to sponsor our move to America. Papi says she is well-to-do because she married an American man. He is in the cattle business. They have two children together, my cousins Roger and Michael. Tia does Community Theater and helps the Mexican immigrant workers living in Idaho; she makes sure they are treated well. We had to go to the U.S. embassy in Peru first to be interviewed but afterwards we were allowed to come to America. Papi went first to California for work. A year later he called and told us to come to Idaho.

I bet Papi was lonely without us like how I’m lonely without Abuelo and Abuela. Monica had been a baby the last time she saw him. She didn’t remember him and when Papi tried to hug her, she punched him in the nose.

Abuela said we might not get to meet again because they are so old and might die before we come back to Peru.

I go to an American school now. It’s called the Hawthorne School. All the boys wear cowboy hats because Boise, Idaho is cowboy country and they showed me how to do the Do-Si-Do. Everybody here is Mormon so they are very nice. The neighbors even brought over apple pie. I never had apple pie before.

My teacher Mrs. Taylor is a cute, kind-of chubby woman with curly blonde hair. She always wears pointy glasses and plaid skirts. Mrs. Taylor sits with me and the other immigrant students to teach us English. They’re not from Peru though. They’re Mexican, but they also don’t speak English so we learn together. Lily is much better at it than me. She picks it up so easily because she isn’t afraid to speak. Lily is tall and pretty and has brown hair that is almost blonde so she fits in with the Americans. I am short and have black hair. I get worried that I will say something wrong and Mrs. Taylor will put her finger on my mouth and say, “No, this is how you pronounce it.” Not that I don’t like Mrs. Taylor—I do. She is very kind to us and cares about us fitting in.

We watch “I Love Lucy” on the television to help us speak English. We used to watch it back at Abuela’s house, but it was in Spanish. The black and white image of Lucy and Ethel stuffing their mouths full of chocolate always makes me laugh.

The school has given me a tag with my name and address on it: Susie Arriaran, 150 Corner. Sirens go off sometimes when we are in school. When the siren starts blaring we have to hide under our desks. They say it’s because the U.S. government has missiles in the next state over and the Soviet Union also have their own missiles. They say there might be a war. The news says that the Chinese communists are going to invade. Sometimes I dream that they invade our house. The army marches uniformly through the doors and the windows, up the stairs and to my bedroom. I tell Lily and she says, “What are you talking about? You’re crazy. Go to sleep.”

Papi is picking lettuce for work but he doesn’t have the hands to pick them. He says he has the hands of a teacher, the hands of an educated man, hands that have never done this kind of work in his entire life. Papi was offered a better job but they said we would have to become Mormons so Papi said no, we’re Catholics. Mom is babysitting children in the neighborhood. Mom is an educated woman.

Papi says in America you have to work from the bottom to get to the top. This is how the American dream works. It is all economics. At least there is work here.

Tio Julio was able to get work in Peru though. He’s a journalist, and he’s a pretty well known one too because he writes about the president in the paper and has been arrested for speaking out against the government. But Tio Julio still lives with Abuelo and Abuela. And he wears his pajamas all the time, throwing his robe around his shoulders like a king. Mom says Julio is odd, so maybe he doesn’t count.

Back when we were living in Peru, the census man came, a short balding man with big ears and a checkered suit, to ask how many people lived in our house. We all had to come down into the dining room to be counted. When Tio Julio came down he was wearing a towel wrapped around his head like Carmen Miranda. He was doing the salsa and pretending to be Abuela. He pointed at Papi and said, “This is my son Mario and his wife Inez. These are his daughters Susie, Lily and Monica.” Then he pointed at Abuelo and said, “and this is my good for nothing husband Avelardo!”

Abuelo and Tio Julio didn’t always get along because Abuelo drank a lot. Even though he had a stroke and couldn’t move his left side properly. With his arm bent and leg dragging behind him, he would take his cane and walk to the nearby pub. But the census man laughed and when he asked if that was everyone I said, “What about the mice?” Abuela didn’t like that very much.

Our neighbors are the Struckels. Mr. Struckel is a forest ranger so his job is to work in the woods. Mr. and Mrs. Struckel have two children, Sid who is my age—11, and Mark who is Monica’s age.

Sid has blond hair that flows into his big blue eyes and freckles on his nose. He is all-American cute. I want him to be my boyfriend. Mark has a spiky crew cut. Maybe he can be Monica’s boyfriend.

We like to play in the construction site near our house. They are building new houses like ours. It smells like freshly cut wood and the sawdust clings to our clothes. We play hide and seek and make believe, but I don’t think we’re supposed to be in there. We go in anyway.

Soon it will be Halloween and it will be my first time. I am going to go trick-or-treating with some of my new friends and my cousins, Roger and Michael. Sid says that all the kids go in groups walking around the neighborhood to get candy. We don’t have a lot of money so I can’t buy a costume but I’ve decided to make a gypsy costume from the clothes we have. I found a long black skirt, a fluffy white shirt, and a scarf that I’m going to tie around my head. I’m going to put on bright red lipstick and wear lots of chains. Lily is going to be a witch. She got a hat from one of the bins at the 5 & 10 store. Lily’s eyesight has started going bad and she’s been getting lots of headaches lately so Papi plans to take her to a doctor in New York. Mom says one of Papi’s sisters put a curse on Lily because she was so jealous of what a pretty baby Lily was.

For our first Thanksgiving one of our other neighbors invited us over. They are Mexican immigrants so they know what it is like being in a new country. They served us turkey, mashed potatoes, tacos, and enchiladas. I know Americans think that we eat tacos because we’re from South America, but that’s not true. This was the first time I’ve eaten tacos.

We brought over food too. Mom made papa rellena, rice, yucca and maduros, which are my favorite. We had an American, Mexican, Peruvian thanksgiving. We also met some people who were Native American. I didn’t realize that Americans weren’t all white. The white Americans in town are the ancestors of Mormons who moved west. So I guess they’re immigrants too.

We’ve moved again. This time to New York, a place called Jackson Heights. New York has doctors for Lily. Papi said there are more opportunities over there anyway. Papi has the job of a dishwasher but he plans to get a job “working the books.” Because you have to work from the bottom to get to the top. This is how the American dream works.

We will live in an apartment in a tall building with seven floors. It’s on 84th and 7th avenue. We don’t have an attic or a basement or a backyard but right behind it is the St. Joan of Arc catholic school, my new school. It’s kind of expensive and I don’t think Papi can really afford it but he still wants us to go to a nice private catholic school.

I miss my old school. I miss the heavy snowfall that blanketed the town in white. I miss the basement. I miss Sid. I miss the cats that came to our porch. I miss Idaho and it’s cowboy people. One of the girls from the Hawthorne school in Idaho sent me a statue of Mother Mary that her dad got on his trip to Rome. I miss my friends. Mom has started feeding the stray cats on the street and sometimes they come inside. They are my first friends in Queens.

The people aren’t as nice in New York as they were in Idaho. Instead of giving us apple pies they spit on the floor and call us spicks. Apparently it’s a bad name for Hispanic people. I never heard it before. They also call us PRs. I try to tell them I’m not from Puerto Rico. I was born in Peru. I’m a new immigrant from Idaho.

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