Published on February 24th, 2015 | by Leticia Del Toro9
Camouflage for Ice Cream: LETICIA DEL TORO on Raising a Latino Son in Times of Loss
My son is trying on a pair of thermals, just old-fashioned long johns to wear under his ski clothes. He is packing for ski week with his third grade class.
“Fits fine, Ma,” he says.
I’m distracted by the way the sleeves hang down on his gangly limbs. Isaac scrunches them up past his elbows and takes a seat in front of our electric keyboard, clanging out a hasty version of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” He moves from practicing on the keyboard, to the IPad, to the Lego travesty of his room and all the while I’m watching his hands, his forearms, the shape of him at play.
I have to be honest, sometimes it actually hurts to see his lithe brown hands and lean forearms—he looks too much like my late brother, Efraín. Isaac will never know his Uncle Efraín. He died seventeen years ago.
Efraín and I were the youngest in a family of six. I was seven years younger and vied for his attention constantly. The sight of my son in thermals is a reminder of eternal Sunday breakfasts of our Mom’s savory chilaquiles and refried beans.
I wonder if I should’ve gotten the green Coolmax underthings at the pricey sporting goods store, instead. They were an appealing Ninja green, but I cringed over the cost.
My son attends a private school on scholarship. He is one of three Latino students in a class of eighty kids. He is the only child of Mexican heritage, the only one who counts Spanish as his first language. I worry about him. I worry about his behavior away from home. Will he respect the adults and follow directions? Will he venture off alone? Does he ever use his fists instead of his words?
His long johns are not exactly white. They’re more of a vanilla tone, like camouflage for spilled ice cream. The only camo a boy should need. They are the color of the expensive aquarelle paper Efraín used to hoard under his bed. I coveted that paper, its weight and texture perfect for painting low-riders and seascapes.
I want to keep my son warm. I remember how Efraín and I would lean into the narrow swath of warmth generated by our living room’s wall heater, holding Christmas mugs of chocolatito as we ate delicate poinsettia-shaped buñuelos.
I try to ward off these memories by obsessing over the packing list: two pairs of ski gloves, two scarves, two ski hats. Who has two of everything, when you’ve never owned a single set? This is a sport for rich white folks.
Though I know that’s not true. You see, Efraín had adored skiing. He had taken me on my first trip when I was sixteen. Somewhere there’s a Kodak print where we sit perched on a ski lift and he offers me one of his ski poles. He pops the pole’s cap off and suggests I take a swig of the icy Peppermint Schnapps inside. I wonder if all ski poles double as flasks or if this is some invention he rigged. He wants me to live a little, to get out from behind my wall of books. He must have felt it was his duty to take me to see the snow. I had never been to the Sierras, even though we only lived three hours away.
Efraín was there for me, in ways my own father refused to be. He sat through a nine-hour spelling bee when I was thirteen to watch me win fifth in the county. When I complained of a bully at school, he enrolled us both in a family Karate class. After the lesson we would get cheeseburgers and berry pie at Nation’s. He taught me how to drive and even helped me buy my first car. Efraín had also financed my tuition to a Catholic high school, an expense my parents could not afford. How many older brothers would do this for their teenage sister? He cherished me.
I help Isaac pull off the thermals and change into lighter clothes before he heads off for school. Why do we dress our boys so carefully to make them look like upstanding, cleaned up kids? I am wholesome, harmless and my mamá still picks my pajamas. Of course, we want the world to see these boys as non-threatening. And when do they begin to resist, put aside the picked-by-my-mama outfits?
Soon Isaac will be trading in Pokemon dreams and jetpack musings for what may appear to others as a mask of distrust. My husband and I must help him negotiate that, help him enter the world with abundant hope and just enough caution to know that his life should not depend on what he wears or how dark his skin gets throughout the year. We will have to initiate the conversation that all mothers of young boys of color must be having in this country now.
I was eleven the year we got the call that my brother had been arrested. He had been on his way home from a weekend of skiing when he was pulled over for speeding through a small town in the Sierra foothills. Why had he taken this scenic route instead of coming down through Sacramento on I-80? I curse the backwoods Sheriff who insulted him, causing Efraín to insult him back and resist arrest. Thrown against the hood of his beloved Impala, of course he would fight back.
He would do time later that year. He was eventually released and tried to steer clear of trouble. He set goals. He became an apprentice welder and enjoyed the decent income he earned as he advanced in the trade. He even bought a beautiful Victorian triplex right next door to my parents’ home. Our elderly neighbor, Pina, loved him so much that she sold it to him way below market price.
In his thirties, Efraín fell for a woman he met in Reno and within a year he became a father. The woman he loved expressed no interest in forming a family, yet she became pregnant and decided to keep the baby. Soon after my niece was born, this woman left the state, saying motherhood was not for her.
This outraged our very baby-centric family. We adored the eight grandchildren already in the family. We expected to collectively raise the new baby, Karina, in her mother’s absence. We were confident and idealistic, but our mistake was to think that we, as a collective tribe, were enough. That Baby Karina would help Efraín settle down.
I see my generous, big-hearted, invincible brother in my mind’s eye. But I didn’t see all of him at the time. We discovered Efraín was a secretive guy, but maybe it was because we were a secretive family. As tough as he was rumored to be, I had never actually seen him fight anyone except our father. I lament the ease with which I write these words. Shame holds tight this conflicting truth from my childhood: my father raged on our family and my brothers instinctively jumped in to protect my mother and the rest of us. It pains me even now to think that Efraín’s need to protect us pitted him against our father, and must’ve left him ill-equipped for his own attempt at fatherhood.
Efraín also kept secrets about his continued love for Karina’s mother. She dredged up nothing but disapproval and contempt from us, his sisters and mother. We witnessed him powerless to both the need and confusion he experienced for picking someone who clashed so radically with our vision of the kind of woman who would be deserving of him.
We slowly came to learn that my brother also had an expensive addiction that he tried to keep under wraps. As long as he kept up the veneer of the father who provided, who went to court dates, fought for his child, and kept himself employed and solvent, we didn’t question his mood swings. Towards the end he started running out of cash and this immediately tipped us off. In spite of his earnings he sometimes asked our mother to buy milk for the baby.
I wish I had rummaged through his apartment, witnessed him wreck a car or doing something intervention worthy, but honestly we were all too busy taking the baby off his hands to get through the day-to-day grind. The “baby” was almost two and she spent most of her hours with my mother. My brother did his best to feed her, play with her, and put her into her pajamas at the end of the night, but ultimately she slept under our roof. When I think of Karina as a tiny baby and how she looked as Efraín held her in his massive arms, it is this tenderness that tells me he could’ve held the world.
Police brutality did not kill my brother. It killed a fragile dignity that Efraín struggled to hold on to every day. His early experience of violence with an officer levied a particular pressure on him: he could not afford to ever screw up. In his time of marital instability, he also racked up a DUI. His life spun out of control, a free-fall of contradictions, certainly complicated by our violent upbringing. I can’t help but think that the time he spent in jail affected his self-image. What took his life was the addiction, the desolation of not saving his marriage, and the paranoia that a third strike might be looming if he screwed up with the law.
I see my own boy’s sweet face and look at my brother in his eyes. I wonder about a genetic disposition to addiction, a raging temperament. What if he ever becomes a user? What if he has brushes with the law? What of our family trauma will Isaac’s generation inherit?
I know I’m cocooning Isaac with music lessons, an engaging curriculum, and all the opportunities we can afford, but how much can I protect him from a society that is hostile to brown and black men? In my worry over my son, I begin to think of the families that have little options for their children’s schools or cannot access reliable childcare or safe spaces for their kids to play. It seems that all it takes is for brown boys to be caught in a pack of kids, suspect at play with toy guns. Suspicion ensues for cursing in Spanish and running out of a 7-11. Suspicion ensues for reaching into pockets for ice cream money.
Children are not just dying of direct gunshot. They grow up dying deaths of serial indignities: a blow to the head, an unjust sentence, the inability to provide economically for themselves, their inability to access adequate mental health and addiction treatment.
What I would give to hold some younger version of my brother, hold him tight before he heads out into the world. I want to ward off the assholes that offered him his first toke and strike down the dealers who sold him more insidious drugs. If only I could allow him a glimpse into the future, to see his beautiful daughter and to see how she would need him even more than I do.
I hug my son tightly before he heads out the door for his long ride to school. My husband has raised a Neil Young devotee by playing his CDs during commute time. Isaac’s grabbing his backpack singing, “Old man look at my life…I’m a lot like you were.”
Growing to be an old man may not be a given. I have to stay grounded and keep faith for all families of color in America. I yearn for that possibility that we may build a world where all boys are able to reach old-manhood and sing back to their nine-year-old selves. I have to believe that if I see Isaac grow tall and strong, if he falls in love and becomes a father himself, I will be fulfilled. It’s the conditional “if” that makes it to this page that kills me.
Isaac is about to get in the car, but sees me lingering in the doorway and bounces back over for another final embrace. He hangs on me and folds into my arms, not yet too cool to hug his mamá twice. What holds he in his heart, but visions of snow?
It has been seventeen years and I miss my brother Efraín, day and night. Not a moment goes by that I do not wish he were present with us, and that we might have the opportunity to help him through his pain.
Let Isaac’s strength and warrior beauty thrive. May he walk proud, yet vigilant. Al alba, eyes peeled, my abuelita used to say. It is our obligation to nurture a brawny intellect and raise him to be swift with words. How will he disarm those who are set to take down the man he has yet to become?