I have always been bothered by a comment my mom always makes, “You used to smile all the time when you were a kid, I don’t know what happened to you” It always bothered me, to the point of bitter anger, but I could never figure out why. As I got older I was able to look back on my life and I was given the rare opportunity to analyze the moments that fundamentally changed me. Slowly, I started remembering pieces of a puzzle that didn’t seem to be my own at first, but overtime I was able to assemble parts of it to be able to remember with sufficient force some of the events that defined my childhood.
I have almost no memories of my dad for the first 5 years of my life; he was a migrant worker in Chicago, sending money back home to us. At the time it was just me, my mom, my sister and my brother who had just been born. We shared a small two bedroom apartment in Mexico City with my grandmother, my mom’s sister and her 2 brothers. My uncles were the male role models during that time. They were taken from me when I was still very young. One was murdered in Mexico City and the other one died in a freak drowning accident, both incidents revolving around alcohol abuse. For decades I replayed the events surrounding their deaths in my head. Nobody explained to me what happened, no one ever said a word, and I don’t think I even asked. That was just life.
That’s around the time I stopped smiling.
My mom would still lose two more brothers to alcoholism, both of them died of cirrhosis of the liver in NY while still relatively young. She has one brother left, fortunately he quit drinking a few years ago when he found religion.
The men on my father’s side of the family were also alcoholics but somehow they’ve been able to prolong their suffering to a much older age than my mom’s brothers. After leaving Mexico City in 1990, we moved west, to the city of Queretaro, and there I grew up with my dad’s side of the family.
I was forced to grow up fast during that time. My dad’s brothers and sisters had been living a highly dysfunctional life for decades. I still remember my aunt screaming at her husband about his drinking. I will never forget the things she used to say to him as she pulled his hair, almost tearing it out, hitting him with whatever she could find. He was the man that practically raised my dad after my grandfather died of alcoholism when my dad was only 6 years old.
My dad’s brothers were a different story. I remember one time going to one of my uncle’s house, they lived in the street behind me, and I found his wife unconscious on the floor after he had knocked her out. I remember her coming to my house, with a black eye, to talk to my mom a few times. I have this vivid memory of her with a Marlboro red and a beer, holding her forehead, trying to figure out what was wrong with her life.
She died in a car accident years later while she was out drinking with a friend. I still remember the night she died. What I remember the most was how devoid of feelings I was when I learned what had happened. My brother and my sister couldn’t stop crying and I couldn’t feel a thing.
When we moved to San Diego at the end of 1999, we shared an apartment with another one of my dad’s brothers, his wife and his two daughters. We were 10 people living in a two bedroom apartment. Half the adults in the apartment were illegally in the country and nobody spoke any English. During our first new year’s celebration in the U.S. my uncle and his wife started arguing, him and my dad were drunk; probably had been for days. My uncle’s wife hit him on the face with a wooden spoon and almost broke his nose. My uncle just punched her right in the face with a closed fist. I wish I could say that was the first time I’ve seen a man punch a woman like that but it wasn’t. She picked up a knife and my uncle picked up a screwdriver; they were going to kill each other. I don’t remember what happened next, I was drunk too. My next memory is me laying in my room, which was a small bed stuck in a closet between the bathroom and the bedroom where my parents slept with my two brother and my sister, and hearing the neighbors upstairs doing the new year’s countdown.
Sometimes, I think of all this, and I’m amazed by the fact that I can even function as much as I do. It’s enough to drive anyone fucking crazy, and it isn’t even the half of it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my family lately, how terrible their life circumstances were and how much they managed to accomplish despite all that. Even while trying to drink themselves to death they didn’t loose the drive to make something of themselves in a world, and in a society, that wasn’t build for them. Life took a lot from them too.
My great grandfather was an Indian with no name, a mountain dweller raising a family in a hut made of sticks and mud. My grandfather was an indentured servant to the sugar cane companies in Mexico. He picked our last name out of a list of names he could purchase because we didn’t even had a family name. My father grew up alone in the streets of Mexico city, raised by alcoholics. Later on finding his fortune in the violence of the rodeos in Southern Mexico. They really came from nothing.
And then, there’s me. I’m writing all this at a hotel in Vienna after celebrating 10 years of sobriety. I drove to the Austrian alps, I saw snow for the first time, I stood inside a concentration camp (a life changing experience) and I walked around a medieval castle in Hungary. I’ve now been to 13 different countries.
I wasn’t destined for any of this. The resentment against the life I was born into was blinding me to the possibilities of what my life could be. I couldn’t help but smile the whole time I was going from place to place, either driving, riding a train or simply walking. I smile now. But I had to descend to the lowest levels of my personal hell to figure out how.