I wanted a quinceañera almost more than anything. But my parents couldn’t afford throwing me one, or the coming-of-age ceremony wasn’t important enough for them to save up for it. My Mexican mother grew up trying to fit into her white, suburban neighborhood in Southern California. They pronounced their name with straightlaced A’s, as if from the South and not El Sur: Casas, like lasses, like molasses, like a girl stuck. Not the open-aired rooms of the houses of the ranchos and wild cactus from which we’d been both freed and captured in the Gringolandia my grandparents tried to mash themselves into like wet masa into dried corn husks. They saved the tripas y lengua for days no neighbors would drop in.
Atop never having a quinceañera of my own — never being the festejada in a sparkling dress, never wearing a crown fit for a princess, never marking my passage into womanhood or honoring my maturity and those family members who’d carried me safely to the other side, never thanking God at the Misa de acción de gracias for a completed girlhood — I was never even invited to participate in another girl’s. Never part of the formal party, the Corte de Honor consisting of the damas and chambelanes — one of whom is the man of honor, usually the festejada’s “crush” or boyfriend. Because I wasn’t part of the ceremony, I wasn’t invited to the Mass, only to the hall afterward for dinner and dancing. I’d show up in my strappy sandals and church dress, eat a heaping plate of barbacoa and tortillas, and leave halfway through the party with a boy.
On my own 15th birthday, I’d been dating Jesse two months. At the Mid-Winter Fair, we kissed outside the Future Farmers swine barns where he’d won a blue ribbon for his pig and sold it for a couple thousand dollars at auction. He spent it on taking me out over the next several months and on a new stereo system for his rusted ‘69 Mustang, which sat warping under a tarp in his backyard.
When we met, Jesse drove a moss-green delivery truck from the 1950s — a classic Ford F-150 that looked like it should have had glass jugs of milk strapped into wooden crates in the bed, and that might have sold well if remodeled and painted. Everything I knew about cars, especially classic cars, I learned from the magazines he kept in his bedroom, beside the Playboys and Maxims he’d make me try moves from. He got the Mustang running and we cruised it down Main Street, still unpainted, like rust was our style. There was no air conditioning. The floorboard beneath my feet in the passenger’s side had a hole in it, and I’d have to keep from kicking it whenever we had sex. He fucked me in all his vehicles — behind sweet-smelling alfalfa bales, beside irrigation ditches, beneath blood moons, new moons, in wet dirt beside frog ponds, sometimes outside the dump, cemetery, a church parking lot, or the high school swine barns. I kept time by his vehicles: a black pickup for college, then a larger green extended cab he bought when he got Caroline pregnant at college and I was still a senior in high school.
I read recently that teens are having less sex. A 2014 study by economists at the University of Maryland and Wellesley College found that one-third of the drop in teen birth rates between 2008 and 2011 could be attributed to teens watching shows like MTV’s “16 & Pregnant” and “Teen Mom.” Experts speculate cautionary tales act as peer pressure, reinforcing the growing social norm of not getting pregnant young.
Still, they say, the actual rates uncover a stark reality: Girls of color are much more likely to become pregnant young.
Two major factors in high teen birth rates: poverty and geography.
Rural teens have higher pregnancy rates than urban and suburban teens. According to these university psychologists and teen advocates, more important than cultural or religious differences? Education and access to contraceptives. They say it’s about lack of opportunity.
* * *
The smell of the Imperial Valley overwhelms: soured cow shit and sweetly pungent sugar beets. There’s a mountain of them hulled and left to crystalize in the desert sun at Holly Sugar, midway between Brawley, where I lived, and El Centro, the closest town with a movie theater and what passed for a mall. The land is flat but fertile with irrigation ditches and saltwater pumped in and decontaminated and sprayed onto vegetables picked by migrant farmworkers who labor under the 120-degree broil until too many of them perish, unnoticed. Your dinner plate likely speaks of them: asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, alfalfa, lettuce, y más.
Down in that basin I used to run with Jesse. We were both overeaters and ashamed of our bodies, though he was considerably larger than I. His nickname is Laco from childhood when he couldn’t pronounce his last name, and I once called him this at a party. Some of his football friends heard and guffawed, asking dubiously had I just called him Flaco (Skinny)? In Mexican culture it’s not uncommon to call someone disparaging apodos. There are Feas (Uglies) and Gorditas/Gordas (Fatsos) on nearly every block.
My mother never called me any of these names, though she and my older brother would sling around Cochina. Dirty pig. Dirty girl. They meant it in jest — like when one of us said something gross or stuck our spit-slick fingers into the pot of red rice instead of a fork when vying for the burnt rice brittled to the pot’s belly, a regular ritual with our arroz con pollo. Somehow the apodo unintended for me stuck. The voice in my head still calls me Cochina in a singsong telenovela voice I don’t ever remember my mother using. I’d been becoming the Mexican girl she’d buried all my life.
Jesse’s mother called me La Henna when he told her my name. It was intended as an insult at first. She thought I was white. Then she met me and the apodo stuck like that sticky black rice I finger-scraped from the metal pot, soiling my nail beds for days.
Summertime we’d wait until dusk to run, though even sunset broiled well over a hundred degrees, Cattle Call a sauna with the smell of asparagus and grass and cattle wafting through the steam.
After the running, we’d drive to the donut shop on the Westside again, two blocks from our houses, in the Vons parking lot. Two sweet teas and two chocolate bars later, we’d cross town to his Nana’s where he was staying that first summer after a fight with his dad, both too prideful to apologize.
Nana was often out at the casinos with her boyfriend. Even when she was home, Jesse and I had sex casually, quietly, in the guest room. I don’t understand why we were allowed so much freedom. I’d only gotten in trouble once being with Jesse; I hadn’t told my parents where I’d gone after school and I’d fallen asleep at his Nana’s. This was in the beginning of our relationship. Once my parents knew I was dating Jesse and we were safe at his Nana’s, no further questions were asked.
Jesse used to call me Punk, as in I love you, Punk. He’d run ahead of me up the hill, look back toward me and yell Keep running, Punk. I had to run off the lonjas at my sides he didn’t like. I’m not sure if he noticed how much I ate until I stopped running and started gaining weight. Then he became very vocal, asking me in front of his whole family if I’d had enough to eat. We’d eaten at home. But wherever we went, there was food offered. And I was always hungry. Even when I was achingly full.
His father once found us in bed together. I realize now that must’ve been the fight between him and his dad. We’d skipped first period maybe, and his father had come home as he often did — his foreman job involved a lot of driving around in his big white pickup truck. There was no door on Jesse’s converted-from-a-garage bedroom, his windows lined with tinfoil to keep out the sun.
His father came booming in, and before I could do anything but pull the sheets up over my naked 15-year-old body, he was standing in the doorway, screaming I don’t ever want to see her in this fucking bed again.
Jesse told me, Don’t worry, Henna. He’ll warm up to you when we have our first baby.
A year and a half later, when he told his parents he’d gotten a girl pregnant, they’d both assumed it was me. They had no idea who Caroline was.
* * *
The Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo is on Main Street where it’s been for 43 years. My visits to the Clinicas form a composite in my memory; I visited so many times as a teenager, though never with a parent. The website says it was the first migrant health center established in this nation by the federal government in 1970. Doctors’ offices lined the halls past the sliding glass doors, and an urgent care waiting room filled with Mexican Americans like me, only who looked very ill or broken. But I couldn’t go to Clinicas on Main Street that one time when I was 15. Not then. My mother never knew I’d visited the Clinicas there regularly, though she worked at a home health agency down the street, in the building where my dance studio had shut down.
Jesse didn’t want to risk her seeing us. Not like that. I was the religious one. He was a holiday Catholic, though I don’t remember him ever going to Mass, even on Christmas. Still, a sense of shame when it came to family ran deeply through him. The cognitive dissonance astounds me. The levels of degradation he was willing to put me through, my body, fucking me from behind in the hay and strong ammonia piss-smell of the swine barns, down by the cemetery and city dump, as if I were an animal. But he couldn’t let our families know we were trying to be responsible. Trying to take care of our “mistakes.”
I remember watching “Mermaids,” the 1990 film with Cher, when I was a young teenager, not understanding the scene in which Cher’s daughter, played by Winona Ryder, scrubs her body with a rough loofa after kissing an older man — as if trying to wash the deed off — and then becomes convinced she could get pregnant from a kiss, immaculate conception. She was 15.
Cher was born in El Centro, where Jesse and I went instead.
Though it was an abortion in my mind, it was actually the morning after pill, before it came in little drugstore, pop-out wrappers for girls over 15. It was new, and I didn’t understand how it worked. No one explained that to me. I suppose I was more like the Winona Ryder character than I’d realized.
Jesse and I’d had unprotected sex the night before, but what was new? He used the pull-out method, which always made me feel like a damp tissue, thrown in the garbage. It’s just, he’d said, it felt so good, so he hadn’t pulled out. Why we didn’t use a condom, I don’t know. We’d bought them before, at the gas station with a Subway, maybe a sandwich too. He convinced me we weren’t ready for a baby. Would it be so bad? I asked him, thinking somehow a baby meant out. No one had explained that to me either.
We’ll have time for that . . . just later, Punk, he said, kissing my forehead. We need to get out of this town. We have things to see.
We didn’t plan travel or discuss seeing anything in particular. I didn’t know the names of any museums or artwork. I could only name a few famous cities, but he knew I’d had a dream of sitting outside a Paris café writing poetry, the way I sat in the high school quad at break sometimes, writing. Sometimes I read him poems from Jewel’s “A Night Without Armor,” the only contemporary poetry book I knew. My brother Paul had given it to me for Christmas. When I finally got to Cal State Fullerton several years later, after almost dying in the Valley, after almost giving up hope completely, a professor joked about how Jewel’s book is not really poetry, and everyone in class laughed. I remember the heat prickling at my neck like I’d swallowed fire.
We didn’t have art schools or creative writing programs in the Valley. No coffee shops or spoken word or slams. There were bonfires in barrels, kegs between my thighs, plastic cups with chile on the rims. When Jewel was 15, she’d earned a scholarship to study operatic voice. A few years later, she was living out of her car in Southern California, a few hours away from me.
* * *
On the way to El Centro, Jesse and I passed the Holly Sugar plant, tall white silos with a Christmas holly berry wreath painted on the middle one and a sea-level line tattooing the left-hand silo, demarcating us all 200 feet below. The Imperial Valley is the largest producer of sugar beets in California, and this plant — the largest in the country — produces more sugar per acre than anywhere else in the nation.
When I went to Sacred Heart as a missionary outreach student, meaning the church paid part of my tuition, we took a field trip to the sugar beet plant and held the roots in our hands. They reminded me of bleached sweet potatoes, and I had trouble correlating the white, fleshy root and flat crown, its rosette of leaves, with the granulated crystals and stacking cubes I loved to slip into my mouth and under my tongue like saved Eucharist, which the priest warned us against — we were supposed to swallow the host, the body of Christ, in his presence, not carry it away in our mouths for later, to eat at our own pleasure like a little blanched, flattened treat.
I thought of the sugar beets sliced and boiled for their sweet white meat, then spun into crystals sweet on the tongue. It wasn’t the earthy smell of the plant as usual though, even as we passed it, those dusty white hulls left to form a kind of sugar mountain beside the silos while the harvested beets were trucked to a factory. No, it was formaldehyde that entered my nose, as if I had dissected a frog in biology that morning, though it was Saturday — that standstill death lingering, seeping into everything I touched, everything I ate. I couldn’t swallow salad for a week after that lab, the lettuce and tomatoes smelled like sliced little hearts. I didn’t tell Jesse any of this. He’d have laughed me away, rolled his eyes. You’re so dramatic, Punk. It’s going to be fine. People take this all the time.
* * *
I spent each night the summer after high school staring at the ocean from my Tía Elaine’s balcony in San Clemente, wondering how much Jesse’s baby had grown inside Caroline. Was she the size of a baseball? A cantaloupe? Was she blinking yet? Did she have fingernails? Could Caroline feel her kicking yet? Was her belly stretched like a balloon? Did the map of her skin widen, sprouting rivers and bumpy roads on a relief map, the north, south, east, west of her expanding with the baby inside her? Had her bellybutton popped? Did she call Jesse to feel this, come feel this! She’s kicking! The visits to the Clinicas and morning after pills, the days and mornings and evenings before I’d ever heard Caroline’s name were as distant as the sand in the desert to where Caroline had returned, home. It’s taken years for the resentment to wear off, for me to see how scared she must have been, how lonely. How it might have felt to her like my dreams were just beginning, and hers ending. How she was one of those 42 percent of Latinas who get pregnant as teens, and I wasn’t, though not for lack of trying. How she might have thought I was the freer one.
* * *
A few months after I turned 21, my mom threw Andrew, the boy I met in a college class called “Women: Fiction to Film,” and me a wedding — for under $8,000, DJ and all. It felt like a 21st birthday present. I hadn’t gotten a quinceañera, but I’d gotten a wedding.
The waiting room of the fertility clinic, just a year later, reminded me of the Clinicas in the Valley, except it was different in every way. At 22, Andrew and I were the youngest people there. We were enrolled in two classes together and lived in a tiny apartment across from campus. At the clinic though, the doctors didn’t balk at my age so much as my weight. I wanted to defend myself against their charts, their statistics. It’s baby weight, I wanted to say, meaning, My body carries the weight of all I’ve lost. If anyone found it strange that two college kids of color were hanging out at a fertility clinic, they didn’t show it. Or I was too consumed with obsessive grief to notice.
The medical assistant called me back, weighed me. I weighed 272 pounds.
Andrew took pictures as I laid back on the table. Why are you taking pictures? Nothing’s happened yet. I’m not pregnant. He answered, To mark the beginning of our journey.
He shot the empty screen where a sonogram should go. I called it a blank-faced moon that stared and stared. I pictured Caroline and Jesse at her doctor’s appointments, their moon bright and full with possibility.
After each miscarriage, Andrew would scrub my bloody underwear with bleach and a hard-bristled brush, the kind made of boar’s hair and meant to remove oil stains from concrete. I don’t know why he went along with any of it, not when we could have been young people, traveling, backpacking somewhere and staying in hostels.
At the wedding, my dad had stood to make a toast. He ended it with, Now get started making my grandchildren. Everyone laughed.
I suppose Dad had no idea I’d been trying to get back what I’d lost. It’s difficult to describe something I never had. I’m thinking back to a quinceañera, what I wanted so badly. But I’m an outsider in these memories, always skirting the edges, always leaving the party for a boy.
Later I found out that sparkling white hill outside the sugar silos is lime, a byproduct of the processing, not sugar at all. And what looks like an asphalt parking lot beside the plant is spread-out pulp. They dry it and send it to cattle yards as feed. Nothing’s as sweet as it seems.