“Our foundational truths are always cracking. “
Most of us would love to have a perfect memory, but we often fall far short of this aspiration. Who hasn’t forgotten someone’s name right after being introduced, or failed to remember where you left your car in the parking lot? Our memories are rarely as reliable as we’d like them to be. And more so, our memories – even some of our most formative ones – can alter over time. Like a game of telephone, each time we return to a memory it can change ever so slightly until the story in our mind — while it may reflect a personal truth — is suddenly far from the facts of the lived reality. Memory is ephemeral, ever-shifting, and foundational to the ways we understand our worlds and ourselves.
In this episode, we explore the phenomena of memory with two outstanding guests — Emilly Prado and an Anonymous Contributor — discussing and exploring the influence of patriarchy along the way.
Emilly Giselle Prado (she/her) is a writer, DJ, and educator living in Portland, Oregon with roots in the San Francisco Bay Area and Michoacán, Mexico. As an award-winning multimedia journalist, Emilly spent half a decade independently reporting on a wide range of topics, most often centered on amplifying the voices and experiences of people from historically marginalized communities. Her writing and photographs have been published widely, appearing in more than 30 publications including NPR, Marie Claire, Bitch Media, Eater, Oxygen, The Oregonian, Remezcla, and Travel Oregon. Emilly is the author of Funeral for Flaca, a memoir-in-essays shortlisted for the Pacific Northwest Book Award and called, “Utterly vulnerable, bold, and unique,” by Ms. Magazine. She is also the author of Examining Assimilation, a youth non-fiction title at the intersections of identity and U.S. history. Emilly is a Tin House and Las Dos Brujas Workshop alumna, Blackburn Fellow and MFA Candidate at Randolph College, and a co-founder of Portland in Color. She moonlights as DJ Mami Miami with Noche Libre, the Latinx DJ collective she co-founded in 2017.
Kate Keating (she/her) was raised in Hillsboro, OR but considers Portland home. She was raised in an evangelical church and has spent lots of time undoing, unlearning, and in therapy to understand the impact this beginning had on who she is. She’s spent years in churches of her choosing as an adult, but these days have found it better to stay away. She’s always up for riveting conversations surrounding the church and loves to hear about others experiences. Today she is very gay, has amazing partners, recently got the best dog ever, and enjoys the challenge of keeping her house plants alive.
We’re grateful to Kate for bringing a story from an Anonymous Contributor to life.
Por Qué Me Haces Llorar
My Papi’s family is old school. The adults strand in clusters at parties and when we younger familia arrive, we must walk from huddled group to group and interrupt them with greetings. The señoras get a handshake, and sometime a fake kiss too if you know how they’re related to you. Parties happen several times a year—Easter, bautizos, first communions, birthdays, deaths. The parties are big—no fewer than fifty guests in attendance with linen-covered table rentals, buffet or taquero, mariachi and/or a DJ, and plenty of tequila, vino, y cerveza. How many people successfully pull off the “Payaso de Rodeo” line dance determines exactly how cool a party is.
If it takes us 22 minutes to enter a party, it takes at least two times longer to leave when we make the rounds again because more adults have inevitably arrived, and the alcohol makes way for the truer, blunter, lengthier things they wan to get off their minds like why we don’t come around more often or if we know our Papi loves us? My sister and I have learned that if we don’t follow the rules, somebody will tell somebody and then somebody else will tell our dad, even if he isn’t there, and everyone will know we are disrespectful. Growing up, I often felt that our mere presence as bastard children—as the first family—was a disrespect, or at least another reason to be more scrutinized. It was like we were seen as washed-up child stars doomed for misery and, worse, poverty.
My Papi believes elders deserve our undying respect. He believes there are rules for how we must behave, and I have been taught to follow these.
“No andas con esas caras,” he’d say to me when, so often, my face would betray my attempts at obedience. “Your face is going to get stuck like that,” my mom would sometimes chime in.
Even though my Papi is the one who was born in Redwood City and my Mami was born in Apatzingán, he is the more Mexican one having been raised there. My Mami would agree. Other rules I have learned: don’t talk back, say please and thank you, repeat these—with a smile—if someone else decides you sound insincere, dress for parties with a full-body commitment; you will be judged by the smoothness of your hair to the colored polish of your toenails to the slimness of your waistline and everything in between, men are heads of the house and can do as they please, our women aren’t afraid to physically fight even at family parties, and only cry when you can blame the tequila (or corridos).
There is a years-long stretch of time when my mother and father speak every week. My Mami, mid-dishwashing, would rinse herself of suds, turn off the kitchen sink, then wiper her hands with a towel as quickly as she could to make sure she’d pick up our home phone by the second or third ring. Neck cranked to one side, cradling the receiver, she’d finish drying her hands with her jeans and would make he short walk down the hall to the bedroom they once shared. She’d lay on her back over the made bed, pick up the beige ringlet-corded phone from the nightstand, and hand up the wireless one. Then they’d talk. Sometimes she’d twirl her soft hair or the curled cord or pick out lint from her belly button. They’d do this for a long time.
She says they’d talk about us, her kids. She’d tell him about what we were up to, what we needed, and probably how much money he should send. I can’t imagine there’d be hours of conversation to b had about their three babies, but somehow there was. I don’t remember if they’d say they loved each other at the end, or silently in their heads, but I think this could be a possibility. I wonder if my Mami was like a therapist, taking in all the ways he was trying to work through his being f*cked up, or perhaps helping him see the ways he still was, or the ways he’d grown, or if this was just another space for my Mami to keep up the hope that he could be changed, to really want change. My Mami believes people can change. My Mami believes, and feels it in her bones, how life is not just. How good people can get hurt just as easily as the bad. How the ones who puff up their chests to pretend they are all edges are usually the most sad and soft. No one is innocent in her eyes and everyone hurts and has been hurt in their own ways. She holds so much love for others, but not very often for herself in the same way. I think I have learned these same lessons from her.
…you will be judged by the smoothness of your hair to the colored polish of your toenails to the slimness of your waistline and everything in between
“My parents actually have a great relationship,” was only true for half a decade. As the sad-ass saying goes, I suppose all good things must come to end.
My sister’s riff with our stepmother, when Erika was 17 or 18, was the tidal wave that damaged everything around it. My Mami and Papi’s cordial relationship was swallowed, and my 10-year-old Emilly song lyric comparisons were respawned. I still don’t know the details of their riff in full, but I know I am tired of picking at scabs. I think all parties involved would tell a different side of their story. I think all versions could be summarized with broken trust and stupidity and a silver ring maybe—stolen by my sister and our cousin from Camy and maybe-joke gone wrong and most of all: nobody on any side wanting to back down. I still think about sides now—how we have each other’s back until we don’t, and how blood always comes first, but how sometimes there are exceptions when your blood flows through so many veins. I think everyone is guilty. I think we all need therapy. I know I am tired of asking what went wrong.
Mami and Papi go most of four years without talking. Child support requests are delivered via texts or voicemail. I am 17, having made it through high school. I even graduate from the alternative program I enrolled in early. My sister goes on to community college and then moves to San Francisco with her boyfriend. She is punished by having tuition support from my dad withheld for moving in with her boyfriend-now-husband before marriage and winds up with a mountain of student debt Hector does middle school. We’ve been raising a puppy named GT—a tribute to my siter’s sapphire Mustang Gran Turismo. My Mami and Papi only see each other at our graduations. Our fragments have started to form islands.
My mother’s belly is round again, for the fourth time. It is 20008. She is 40 years old. It has been 13 years since the last time. She tells people this baby is a miracle.
My Mami has finally found lasting love in a dog park by our house. She says she’s to get over her new love’s thick Peruvian ace. I think his telenovela looks help—slicked black hair, sharp jaw, stick-straight posture, and chiseled arms. She asks the doctors to untie her tubes so she can gift her childless partner one of his own. People, including her children for many years to come, don’t need to know this baby was create with the miracle of science. An expensive and oh-so-worthy petri dish. I think the procedures she’d get maybe lined up with the time she said she was going in for gallbladder surgery. I tell this lie to a doctor who asks about my family’s medical history. Later, when I learn the truth of her IVF, I am offended by her withholding. I don’t understand her reasons, or most reasons, for lying. I wouldn’t judge her choices, but I have been lying by proxy. But these secrets are my Mami’s own. Secrets are her protection.
She holds so much love for others, but not very often for herself in the same way. I think I have learned these same lessons from her.
I am still learning to become a better detective. I can’t keep track of all the lies of my family, sometimes even my own. I learn more about my dad through whispers in hiding than from my dad himself. Our foundational truths are always cracking. When yet another truth is revealed, my brain has to arrange and rearrange the stories anew. I think my memories look like freeze frames superimposed on translucent cards—sometimes a simple shuffling of the files, of chronology, is in order, other times I think my brain tries to path newly-burned holes, or maybe my brain decides sometimes the easiest path forward is to shatter ones altogether. I reread my diary entries and see my obsessions with truth is one of few constants. I wonder how long my ability to detect lies has been lacking. I wonder if I will ever relearn how to listen to my gut.
“Mi Flacita y mi Erika, look how much you’ve grown,” Papi says to me and my sister one day sitting outside out townhouse.
He has turned off the engine of his pewter Porsche, having returned from a family party. We are perched atop the hill where my Mami raised her three kids in the home where Papi left us.
“Mami, I am so proud of you and your sister,” he says.
“You are both becoming such powerful womens.”
I suspend a laugh. I am always uneasy with sincerity and direct eye contact, but I feel like a f*cking monster for wanting to laugh at my immigrant-ish father for his imperfect English. I think this might be the nicest, realist thing he has ever said to me.
I thank him and let my eyes slowly well. Hearing nice things from adults always makes me uncomfortable—makes the tears want to drop and my throat want to close.
“Don’t you think it’s not fair that this baby would get part of the house I bought to leave to you and your sister and brother?”
I look Papi in his eyes. I look at our house. I look at the glossy faux-wood interior of this Porsche. His eyes are black and cold, what felt like the warmth of a Michoacán sun. The man who taught me how to avoid eye contact and whose eyes I feared when I gave him the wrong answer or cried because I cold not find the words I wanted to use—he has suddenly become a boy. I feel the routine knots in my throat build, fighting from being swallowed. The tiny chills sprinting across my body. The tears priming to push their way out. Already-depleted lungs starved of air, keeping me from breathing.
“No,” I say back, keeping the waves of my warble at bay. “That baby is my brother, and that will be his home too.”
I can’t keep track of all the lies, but I know I am on the other side of one now. I think about my Mami and how this must be a version of how she felt all those times my Papi asked her to believe him. I am 17.
My father’s eyes grow wider. They dare me to stay quiet. I do.
My father’s voice growls. This tone, I am more familiar with. He shouts and tries to convince me and my sister of the greed of this fetus. He thinks his loudness and listing all the nice things he has done for me and my siter and brother will convince us, but for the first time I know I am the one with the power.
When I recount this moment to my sister and Mami as an adult, my memories become morphed yet again. My recollection tells me I was all alone, but my siter tells me she was there. My memory of the dialogue—of “womens”—corroborates her presence. I’m not sure why my brain was trying to writer her out. My sister thinks we were in a different car: how would we three have been sitting in a two-seater? This is a good point too. My brain is still trying to figure out how to rewrite a whole new being into this story. I tell her I swear I remember it was that car, except a growing part of me begins to cast doubt. I think every memory I have and ever have will be shrouded in this same doubt. I tell her I remember that flashy car so vividly, but I don’t admit that I hated the flash and maybe that’s why it’s written itself in. I hated how every time he came to California in a new car, in his name brand attire, every time I witnessed how he and his side of abandonment, of all the things I wanted but didn’t get to have. When I visited my Papi, Camy, and sisters in Chicago, I saw the expanse of their home and land—the John Deer mower Papi has to sit on with a beer because pushing a mower by hand would be far too much for a single human. Another display of the ways his new family were the ones who got it all—the money, the name brands, the father. I tried to drown out the jealousy I felt of my father’s love and their things. I tried to live up to his beckoning of undying gratitude and respect.
Years later, when I write this book, my Mami will tell me how she outsmarted my dad with our house. How this young rocky couple used my Mami’s name and two cousins to qualify for the mortgage on our house because his income was best left untraceable. How the pair of cousins each came to my Mami in the first decade of ownership requesting to be removed from the title so they could buy houses of their own, and how the last cousin did so six months before the phone call came informing my Mom my Papi would be leaving. How my Mami has earned enough by 30 to refinance on her own in secret—her job security a version of insurance. How in 2008, my Papi tried, for the first time in their relationship, to lawyer up because my Mami was pregnant with the baby of another man. How the paper trial evidence that my Papi ever lived in this house did not exist. How my Mami’s secret, and her daughter’s conviction of what is ours, became the story of our own blood line’s protection.
an Anonymous Contriutor
Every once in a while my sister Sarah and I will text each other a memory to check whether we are making it up. Memories are unreliable sources of fact, we have found, but if the same incident is recorded in two different brains it’s more likely to be true.
The first time this happened, she texted “I have a memory of Dad shoving Brittany against a wall. Did that happen?” My heart fell into my gut. “Yes,” I texted back. “I was there too.” “Ok,” she wrote. “It just came into my mind and I thought maybe I dreamed it.”
A few months later I texted her, “I have a memory of Mom being terrified when Dad was in a rage, and she took us all into Michael’s room and locked the door and kept us huddled under her arms. I remember crying and staring at the water-colored picture of teddy bears on the wall. I remember the shape of the doorknob with that flimsy little push-button lock. Did that happen?” The reply came back, “I remember that too.”
There are happy memories also, in abundant supply: Dad carrying us on his back, telling us stories at night, reciting poetry at the dinner table. Dad praising Mom’s cooking and telling us how lucky he was to have married that beautiful cheerleader he fell in love with at age 16. Dad acting silly to make us laugh. Dad reading Old Yeller and clearing his throat to choke back his emotion at the end while we wept on the carpet around him. Dad carrying us in to bed when we fell asleep in the car… we would pretend to stay asleep so we could feel his strong arms hefting us through the house and up the stairs, then tenderly tucking us in.
I guess that’s why it was so confusing… why we doubted the other memories. There was nowhere as safe as our strong, wise, all-powerful Dad encompassing us in a hug. So when he turned on us—when he shoved us away with contempt and disgust, when he roared and swore and threatened to destroy our lives—there was nowhere as terrifying.
“Did Dad once tell you he would cut you off and you would have nothing and would go live under a bridge?” I asked my sister.
“What had you done to make him say that?”
“I told him he was being too hard on Ashley.”
“Did Dad used to tell you if you didn’t get your grades up he would turn the screws of your life so tight you wouldn’t be able to breathe?”
“How old were you when he used to say that to you?”
“I don’t know, but I remember I was wearing my striped skirt, and I wore that skirt in middle school, so… maybe 12?”
“Is it true that Dad told Ashley that her life was a cesspool, and everyone could smell it but her?”
“Yes, she told me that that happened right before they kicked her out and she came to live with me.”
“Did Dad come down to the basement bedroom to scream at me at night after Mom had gone to bed? I think I remember laying there crying a lot of times, but it’s a fuzzy memory. Did that happen?”
“Yes. I heard it through the walls and I laid there so scared that he would do it to me, and feeling grateful but guilty that he didn’t.”
“Did he tell you you were a flesh merchant if you were wearing a sleeveless shirt?” Yes.
“Did he tell Mom she should wear more makeup to look like women in magazines?” Yes.
“Did you hear him yell at Mom?” Yes.
“When she didn’t want to move to Dallas for his job when we were little, did he tell her she would have nothing without him?” Yes.
“Did he cut Mom off and refuse to tell her he loved her for a year when he found out she had dated someone else in college?” Yes.
There was nowhere as safe as our strong, wise, all-powerful Dad encompassing us in a hug. So when he turned on us—when he shoved us away with contempt and disgust, when he roared and swore and threatened to destroy our lives—there was nowhere as terrifying.
I didn’t have words for it at the time, but this is what patriarchy looked like to me as I was growing up. A lot of my memories are hazy, but I do remember clearly my dad yelling at my mom, “what do you think you promised me when you married me?” and her just crying, not knowing what to say. He was referring, of course, to the vow of obedience—when her father walked her down the aisle and gave her to my dad and the minister married them, she promised to love and cherish and obey my father. As a Christian family we heard a lot about male headship and how the man was the head of the woman, as Christ was the head of the church. We heard a lot about how a wife was to be industrious at home like the women in the Bible, never letting her candle go out as she performed her endless domestic duties, raising the children and being a support and helpmeet to her husband.
And this is why, as I look back now, I see that our home was not just terrorized by an emotionally abusive man—a one-off, individual example of a person with an anger problem. What I see now is that this dysfunction in my home was caused by systemic patriarchy. Sure, my dad had an anger problem, but that anger flared every time his wife or his kids didn’t do exactly what he wanted, and he had the expectation that his wife would dress for him and do her makeup for him and spend money the way he wanted and move to Dallas when he wanted without complaint, and his kids would get the grades he wanted (to not bring dishonor to him)… because patriarchy had taught him that the world revolved around him as a man. Adam was created first, Eve was made from his rib as a helpmeet. His wife pledged to obey him. He made the money – he had financial control. He possessed God-ordained headship of the family – scripture and our pastor and God himself proclaimed that the man was the leader and the woman’s greatest joy was to follow. When we departed even slightly from his expectations, from his center of power, he had no tools to deal with it and he erupted in fury.
One of the most tragic effects of patriarchy is that, for the majority of my life, I identified more with my dad than my mom. I saw my dad as powerful and my mom as weak; my dad as intelligent and my mom as feeble-minded; my dad as accomplished and my mom as infantile. I watched her cower and cave to him and I hated her for that. I used to have dreams that I was beating up my own mother. Dreams that I was beating up her mother – my grandmother who used to cry all the time after her husband left her for his secretary. Dreams that I was beating up my great-grandmother – this one on my dad’s side of the family—sober, sad-eyed Great-grandmother Abigail, whose husband, my great-grandfather was a pillar of our congregation and famous in the community for his leadership and charity, and who once caused such a scene screaming at Great-grandma at Thanksgiving that everyone quietly put on our coats and left the house before the turkey was even carved. I later learned that his abuse was more than verbal—that somber face was frequently bruised by his fists.
our home was not just terrorized by an emotionally abusive man…What I see now is that this dysfunction in my home was caused by systemic patriarchy.
I would always wake up from those dreams feeling so guilty. Who dreams of beating up their grandma? And my waking, real-life relationship with my mother was also largely defined by guilt. My mother, with her bony body, shriveled by anorexia and chronic pain. I loathed her for setting the example of what a Godly woman looked like: submissive, meek, subjugated. She never stood up for me or my siblings when our dad screamed at us. She locked us in a room to protect us, but she never said “No.” And every time she let him scream at her she showed me how women should expect to be treated by men. “This is what you are worth,” she said with her silence.
My dad is a pastor now, and my mom says his temper is a lot better. He only barged into her office out of the blue and withered her with criticism and insults once during the past year and a half. She says it is the workings of the Holy Spirit helping soften his heart, and hey, if the Holy Spirit is deciding to help my dad with anger management now, I guess better late than never. But I sure would have appreciated the help when I was a little kid watching him throw a dictionary at my brother. I sure would have appreciated that Holy Spirit when I was in fourth grade, listening to him emotionally brutalize my mother in their bedroom, through our shared wall. I would have liked the Holy Spirit to stay his hand from shoving my small, crying sister.
And while we’re at it, some people say that the Holy Spirit was originally feminine in the ancient texts. If that’s the case then I’d like to know where She was when my mom was getting molested as a little girl, by an older boy, and my mom had already so thoroughly absorbed the message that males were in charge that she took the money he gave her and never told a soul until she was grown. If the Holy Spirit is some sort of divine feminine, why didn’t she fill my mother’s heart with the courage to say “Get behind me Satan” to that older boy? Why didn’t the Holy Spirit roar back at my father all those times and say “You will not speak to me that way, and you definitely will not speak to me that way in front of our children! You will not speak to Lisa that way.” If the Holy Feminine Spirit had done that for my mom, and if my mom had done that for me, then I might not have allowed the older, bigger boy to hold me down, and I might not have caved to male authority and absorbed my own guilt and shame at having been ruined by a man, within a system that claimed that a “ruined” girl had no worth to other men. But no one helped my mom, and no one helped me, and we never, ever, ever talked about it.
Which leaves me sometimes wondering if it was all a dream. God is silent, the Holy Spirit is silent, my mother is silent and submissive, my father continues as the omnipotent center of the Universe, oblivious of his destructive power. But at least I have my sister as a witness. At least she can tell me,
“Yes, I was there too. It happened.”
I wonder how long my ability to detect lies has been lacking.
I wonder if I will ever relearn how to listen to my gut.
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