Borrowing a phrase from my colleague, Dr. Taura Taylor, two important people in my emotional life became ancestors this week. First, Vicente Fernández and then bell hooks. I HAVE to write a quick tribute to both. While my heart is breaking, two memories are revealed in the cracks.
Vicente’s music poured through our home anytime Papi would make his salsa. He would almost always start with “El Rey.” It is a song about a man who is invisible, relatively powerless but still sees himself as a king. El Rey, in this song, is not a King who signals an overbearing aristocracy of wealth and opulence in the face of poverty. It also isn’t the machismo I’m-King-of-this-house variety. No, El Rey, is the king who understands your pain. El Rey is the king who gives you shoes because he remembers when he walked barefoot.
I loved that song because it reminds me of the duality of my father. He was a factory man for most of his life before he retired. He was also a janitor with Costco wholesale. This was a man who was familiar with heat and dirt from the factory. He knew what it meant to clean up after people who didn’t clean up after themselves. But he was also an artist in the kitchen….specifically when he makes his salsa.
So, here is my father, this factory man with calloused hands, delicately cutting and mixing cilantro, cebolla, tomate, jalapeños, garlic, salt, and lemon pepper seasoning in just the right proportions to make an elixir that enhanced the flavor of any meal. His salsa did not burn. It invited your tongue to experience the way food is supposed to taste! He was a worker in the factory, but, to me, he was always El Rey de mi corazon! The king of my heart!
When he and my mother divorced, the song became even more meaningful. The lyrics say, “No tengo trono ni reina. Ni nadien que me comprenda. Pero sigo siendo el rey.” (Translation: “I have no throne nor queen and nobody understands me, but I am still the king.”) After the divorce, he lived with me for several years. He was a broken man, but in those moments when he would pull out the blender and the cutting board, he became El Rey that I remembered. Greg and David knew we’d be coughing and crying from the peppers and onions, but the result was always worth it. I often wondered if the onion tears masked the real ones from my Papi’s broken heart.
Vicente provided the soundtrack for my papi’s life. He is “El Rey” who helped raise three “Mujeres Divinas” and had his heart broken in ways that all the ballads sung by Luther Vandross, Boyz II Men, and New Edition put together still could not measure. Not a contest, but for some perspective, “A House is Not a Home” has 16.4 million views (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WPJcEluBT0) and “Aca Entre Nos” has 155.2 million views (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkIstlkAxdw)! I grew up knowing what it meant to have my heart broken in two languages ya’ll!
I was introduced to bell hooks while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. Unfortunately, I don’t remember which class or which professor, but I do remember what it felt like to be seen and to see glimpses of myself in the brilliant books I read as an African American Studies major. Teaching to Transgress was the first bell hooks book I read.
Here I am this Chicana from small-town Battle Creek, Michigan who knew I was smart. Smart meant trying to win all the awards and accomplish all the accomplishments. In the intro she mentions earning tenure. I was too embarrassed to ask what tenure meant. Until very recently even, I thought tenure meant it took “ten years” to get tenure.
bell hooks writes that she fell into a “deep life-threatening depression” when she earned tenure. She thought she would be happy but she wasn’t because she was not doing what her heart really wanted which was to write. She explained:
“In the apartheid South, black girls from working-class backgrounds had three career choices. We could marry. We could work as maids. We could become school teachers. And since, according to the sexist thinking of the time, men did not really desire “smart” women, it was assumed that signs of intelligence sealed one’s fate. From grade school on, I was destined to become a teacher (2).”
As a Chicana, my choices were limited as well, I could get pregnant or drop out of high school. But, because I was smart, my options also meant maybe becoming a doctor, lawyer, or work in “an office.” The bottom line: I was supposed to grow up and make money to help my family. But I wanted to be a teacher…a profession that did not “make money.”
But I loved school. I was that kid that always wanted to “play school” as a kid. As bell hooks put it, “Attending school was sheer joy…Home was the place where I was forced to conform to someone else’s image of who and what I should be. School was the place where I could forget that self and, through ideas, reinvent myself (3).”
School also provided me a creative outlet. In high school, I loved theater and forensics. For a few months out of the year, I could embody a particular character. I was a ghost in And They Danced Real Slow in Jackson, or Sonia in Godspell dancing around the audience with a feather boa. I could make people cry when I performed Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales’ Yo Soy Joaquin and make them laugh when I played Jan in Grease. I felt free on stage and experienced that same freedom whenever I was teaching in a classroom or giving a speech.
It took me a long time to realize it. I often tell people that I went to Michigan to represent my Latiné community. I went to law school to represent my family. Yet, even with these accomplishments, I was not happy. I never quite felt like I finally made it. I was trying to make other people in my life happy. So, when I decided to go after a Ph.D., I realized that decision was all mine. In 2018, at the tender age of 44, I graduated with a Ph.D. and now, I am finally doing what I wanted to do the entire time…teach and write. I tell my students that I am basically a professional nerd and I love it. bell hooks insightful, soul stirring words of liberation help me make that declaration without hesitation.
While my heart breaks for this world’s loss, I realized three things. First, Vicente taught me love is worth living for. Second, bell hooks taught me that teaching is worth fighting for. Third, they both taught my scholarly soul to sing!
Now…I’m off to pour myself a shot of tequila and feel all my feelings very deeply as I read all about love: new visions with Vicente playing in the background.