Brown and White Issues
By Magalí Cohen
A memory: I am in sixth, maybe seventh grade. I am in that awkward stage of adolescence. I wear my dad’s bulky wool sweaters to school because they hide my body. I wear what I think is a very sophisticated shade of six-dollar Revlon all-day lipstick named “Fawn Fatale.” My dear mother called it “Dead Bambi.”
I feel misunderstood, different, special. But I am simply uncool; another angst-ridden tween. To make matters worse, my mother has become a leader among the parents of my school, a Hispanic-Jewish ambassador between two worlds to which she doesn’t really belong.
Mom was born in Texas. Her mother was a wealthy, blue-blooded beauty from Mexico City, once descended from Spain. Although she spent a good chunk of her childhood in Mexico, my mother can claim none of the poverty that infected my Mexican classmates in West Menlo Park, most of whom were migrant worker families. Still, my mother took it upon herself to spread the joys of her family’s colorful Mexico throughout our small WASP school with a surgical precision that lasted over a decade. She also injected Judaism into the school’s bloodstream. She charged on with Joan of Arc determination to force the school to accept both cultures. This, as she saw it, was her chance to be involved outside the confines of the PTA, avoiding those ridiculous glittery Christmas sweaters other mothers wear year-round. My mother was against all that. She is an “artist,” funneling her creativity onto a varieties of canvases: glow-in–the-dark shoes, sweatshirts, t-shirts, skirts, my brother’s hair. All reflected her love of the textured vibrancy of what she has always considered us, the “underdog.”
In her crusade for a voice, my mother sent every teacher seven-year Jewish calendars so they were sure to remember the holidays that all two of us (my brother and me) would be missing. She vehemently protested when a test was scheduled on a major Jewish holiday. I was automatically doled out the solos from the requisite Jewish songs forcibly sprinkled over the Christian dirge-like sets in the chorus. My voice was undeveloped and I would become overwhelmed by the audience; sounding like a puberty-stricken manboy. I had become the token Mexi-Jew of the school.
Mom’s quixotic enthusiasm likely source from her unusual background. My mother’s family owned and lived in several estates throughout Mexico, where she frequently escaped for a sort of asylum. Her own mother was a diagnosed schizophrenic. My grandmother would sometimes call my mom at school and make her come home because she swore that the Communists were trying to assassinate her. She committed suicide when Mom was 15. My grandfather was a red-neck cowboy who had a mammy.
In 1960s Texas, my mother was sent to Catholic school. She always hated how the nuns pulled her ears. When she was just 16, my mother converted to Judiaism. She credits her conversion to reading Anne Frank and her diary, an assignment from her 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Applebaum. My mother saw a spiritual side to Judaism she didn’t experience in Catholicism. Later, in college, she met my father square-dancing in Texas. She asked if he was Jewish. He must have been the only Jew within a 100 mile-radius.
Someone once told my parents that they had no idea how someone dry and boring as my father could marry someone as crazy and impassioned as my mother. But dry and boring aren’t the right adjectives for Dad. My father, of Eastern-European descent, stood at 6’3”. He was the last of his family to carry on the Cohen name, as my mom liked to remind him (and my brother). Had it not been for Mom (as she also likes to remind him), he might be feasting on pork ribs and naming his children “Christopher” and “Mary” while swathing them in madras and tennis whites.
My father was seemingly subservient to my mother. But it required immense patience and steadfastness to marry and remain married to this tempest of a woman. While she crusaded for my brother and I to seek “enlightenment” to find ourselves, he quietly urged us forward, frequently video taping us, happy or sad, and stressing the importance of good grades. My father adored us, following my brother and me around with a video camera. One surviving tape shows my brother throwing a tantrum on a pony; others preserved the images of my pink-birthday cakes shaped into dolls.
The tension between my parents’ perspectives is clear. My mother is so proud of her persecuted-peoples’ past. My father never spoke of his until I coaxed him into sharing some personal information for a college essay. Together, Mom and Dad have tattooed the identity of mixed “Other” onto my sense of self, leaving me always swinging on what has become the brightly colored fringes of my metaphoric Mexi-Jew tallit poncho.
Magali Cohen lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and freelances as a media maven for the Northern California Jewish community at large.