I like to think that immigrant parents are capable of alchemy. My mother created things right in front of my eyes, like her mother did back in the Dominican Republic post-dictatorship, and in the United States post-occupation. Post Parsley Massacre and before women's liberation. And sometimes I'm scared that I don't possess that skill. I'm afraid that my strain of magic is weaker; it's tainted by too many insecurities and processed foods in comparison with my parents and grandparents, who were always sure about the direction that they wanted to take our family in.
When I would bring it up to my mom that maybe she has some sort of concealed wizardry with her — "I dreamed about this and that; we have to play 24 in the lottery" — she'll just say, "I'm not a bruja," and she'll do the sign of the cross to show God her piety because no muchacha.
And she doesn't think that what she and my father do is any sort of special; it's what they do. I disagree because it's almost graceful and mystical how they go through the world dealing with people who have laughed at their accents and sound things out slowly and loudly as if they were hard of hearing. At times like those, I remember grabbing my dad and telling him, "Tell the lady you're not deaf, you're just Puerto Rican." And I said it in Spanish because I didn't want the lady to know that I was talking shit about her, which is the best part about speaking more than one language. You can talk shit about people with your dad.
It was unreal how my mom held us together when she worked nights after my dad was injured on his job and he had to have several surgeries. He couldn't work for years, and he raised us during the day. My grandmother and father had a gracefulness that they'd use to spin a story out of nowhere. It taught me about folklore and it taught me about how to listen. I know how to catch lizards, I know where spiders are in the grass in Puerto Rico, because my dad taught me how to listen and look. It's this weird mountain magic that he passed on to me even though I was born in Queens. He taught me to listen for accents so I know how to not say the wrong words to the wrong people. And I know to tell the difference from when someone calls on the phone and my dad's in the room signaling that no, he's not here.
I know how to say "Perdon, el no esta disponible" and "El ta busy" and "I'm sorry, he's not available," and meanwhile he's in the room motioning for me to shut up.
My mom doesn't think her magic is a big deal, no matter how much I tell her it is. But the best trick of all has been the number of excuses she has come up with so that I wouldn't go to a sleepover. I've heard I think over 100 worst-case scenarios. Some I didn't know were humanly possible until she said them out loud.
Over the years, other POC or immigrant kids and I have learned how to trade these worst-case scenarios, not unlike how you would trade baseball or Pokémon cards. It's not necessarily a pissing contest, but it is fun. We're often trying to find whose parent had the craziest thing to say about a sleepover, or why you can't do something, or why you can't go out. Here are a few of my favorites:
"I don't know all the fire exits in that house. If something happens, the house could burn to the ground and you'll be inside. And mami is going to be so sad."
They had taught me that bedrooms are intimate; going to someone else's house is intimate, too, and they were worried that we'd fall too far away from their wisdom.
"You know at these sleepovers, you kind of sleep on the floor with other people, and you have to share a mattress or a blanket, you don't know if they wash their hair, if they might have lice. Remember the doctor warned us about that weird lice, the one that doesn't go away with the stuff you use from the pharmacy. And then you'll have to burn all your stuff to get rid of that lice. And you don't want to have to burn all your stuff to get rid of lice, do you? And I don't know if these people clean, do they clean? 'Cause you don't know if they clean, so I don't think this is a good idea."
"But this is your house; mami y papi bought you a perfectly good house, why would you want to sleep somewhere else? Mami and papi are here, the bed is here, our bird, he's here. Your toothbrush is here, all your stuffed animals and pillow covers, they're here. They're in this house and not in that other house, and mami and papi are going to be so sad."
So … number four. This last one is a unique combination of several scenarios other Latino children and I have actually agreed on, and we're still very confused as to why this is a thing:
"I don't know that family very well, and neither do you. They could be Satanists, and then you'll come home with a demon following you around, and it takes a long time to get through to the Vatican. Or they could be robbers. A lot of people get robbed at sleepovers. Did you know that? I saw it on the news, they did this whole report on this girl and her stuff was stolen. So are you sure you want to go to that sleepover? Are you sure? You can stay until 11; papi will pick you up in his car. Have your phone out, papi will pick you up."
When she says "I saw it in the news," she often means the television version of a tabloid in Spanish. Their opening sections are sometimes "There's a two-headed goat in Central America" or "There's a cloud that deadass looked like Jesus" or "There's a soda fridge in a bodega somewhere with the Virgin Mary etched on it and now people are leaving candles." And so she'll say "I saw it on the news," and I'll ask if it was Al Rojo Vivo, she'll say yes, and all I'll think about are two-headed goats.
My mother recently asked me what my magic would be, and what I would create with it. And I responded that I would write a picture book that will be titled Why You Can't Leave Your House: A Guide for Children. Part two of the series will be titled El Diablo. A guide for all things you can't do because the Devil is bringing his fuckery.
And if this dream comes to fruition, which I really hope it does, because if another writer can write a book called Go the Fuck to Sleep, I can write a book titled El Diablo, and I'll be able to educate another generation of immigrant children as to why they will be socially awkward into their 20s. And why when they watch movies about sleepovers and sleepaway camp, it's going to feel really weird because of that hole in your heart.
I knew it was because they wanted to protect my siblings and me. My parents didn't understand the lack of ceremony behind all those movies where kids had sleepovers just because. They had taught me that bedrooms are intimate; going to someone else's house is intimate, too, and they were worried that we'd fall too far away from their wisdom. Maybe they were afraid that we'd become those kids they warned us about. The kind that opened other people's fridges without asking or who didn't speak formally to adults.
That, and once my mom saw two teens kiss in one of those movies that took place at a sleepaway camp, and she was convinced that keeping a better eye on us meant us staying home, or only having sleepovers with cousins.
If my dream of El Diablo doesn't come true, then I know for certain that I'm not an alchemist like my mother. But people like me who come from people who come from other places, I like to think that we do have something special. Our challenge wasn't leaving one world and going to the next one, it's creating a world where something else already exists. It's learning how to become several things at once, be several people at once. We're creating and molding into categories we aren't even sure about yet. We are shape-shifters, code switchers, language and accent swappers. And with each one, it feels as if I wear a new face.
I'm hoping to pass my craft on to my children, because it seems like the world is still a place where you have to switch, you have to become one of everything to make everyone else happy — even if it means passing down weird family folklore, seeing the Devil everywhere, and switching back between swearing in English, Spanglish, and then Spanish. I'll teach my children to be the soothsayers of conversations and situations. We'll mold them into other things time and time again. And underneath all the segmented parts of who we are, we're still whole.
Angely Mercado is a Queens native and writer whose work has appeared in DNAinfo, City Limits, HelloGiggles, the Billfold, and more.