5 autographed copies will be given away on Friday, September 11, 2015
The Pura Belpré Honor winner for The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano and one of America’s most influential Hispanics–Maria on Sesame Street–delivers a beautifully wrought coming-of-age memoir.
Set in the 1970s in the Bronx, this is the story of a girl with a dream. Emmy Award-winning actress and writer Sonia Manzano plunges us into the daily lives of a Latino family that is loving–and troubled. This is Sonia’s own story rendered with an unforgettable narrative power. When readers meet young Sonia, she is a child living amidst the squalor of a boisterous home that is filled with noisy relatives and nosy neighbors. Each day she is glued to the TV screen that blots out the painful realities of her existence and also illuminates the possibilities that lie ahead.
But–click!–when the TV goes off, Sonia is taken back to real life–the cramped, colorful world of her neighborhood and an alcoholic father. But it is Sonia’s dream of becoming an actress that keeps her afloat among the turbulence of her life and times.
Spiced with culture, heartache, and humor, this memoir paints a lasting portrait of a girl’s resilience as she grows up to become an inspiration to millions.
Excerpt from the book:
Chapter 1: Kid Diaper Meets Mystery Girl
My mother is cooking my father. He is trapped, immobilized, with his knees pressed up against his chin in the kitchen tub as she moves back and forth from a nearby stove pouring hot water over his soapy head. A dark little girl comes into the room and they send her away.
Some days or nights later I hear a symphony of yelling and screaming and body shoves and slaps. When I crawl into the kitchen the door opens and the little girl enters between two big white policemen. My father tries to get un-drunk by standing tightly; my mother tries smiling.
“No problema, officer,” says my father.
“Todo bien,” adds my mother, turning away so the cop won’t see the mark on her face. She wipes down the metal panel top of the tub she had cooked my father in, like their fight was nothing special.
Once the policemen are gone my mother and father yell at the little girl, whoever she is. From then on out it seems she is sometimes there and sometimes not.
She is not there on the night my grandmother, livid about something, punches a wall and my finger gets caught in a door in the confusion. “Duele, duele,” I cry, telling Ma that it hurt, and she makes it all better with her magic warm breath—but I still look for the little girl. How should I know where she is? I’m still in diapers.
We move to the Bronx and before I can turn around the little girl is in our new place standing against the far wall between windows that face the street. She is wearing dark dungarees, a black T-shirt, and a skullcap pulled down to her eyebrows. The hair sticking out from under is thick. I want to get a better look but feel shy—besides, the light is coming into my eyes.
“It’s not pelo malo,” I hear a neighbor woman whispering to Ma in the kitchen.
“No,” says Ma. “Not bad hair at all. Just that my aunt, who I left her with in Puerto Rico, washed it with detergent. What can you do? They lived in El Fanguito.”
“Oh . . . terrible . . . what a terrible place to have to live. God knows how many babies drowned in the rivers of shit that flowed under the houses,” the neighbor answers.
They have a moment of silence for all the dead babies, then the neighbor goes on, “So washing her hair in detergent was what made it kinky; it’s not that she’s . . .”
She stops talking again. I wait for more but only hear heavy silence.
They come into the living room. The neighbor is tall and thin and looks like she smells something bad. My mother holds a hairbrush like a weapon.
“Aurea, ven acá.”
Ah! Some information. The little girl’s name is Aurea!
“Come, I’ll fix your hair,” Ma says. But Aurea turns away angrily. She is always angry.
I am walking through a dark, wet room.
“This way,” says Pops.
“I can’t see,” says Ma, and then adds, alarmed, “Sonia, don’t go near the wall!”
I jump back just in time. The walls are dripping with water. Was it raining inside? It smells funny down here, too—like the sidewalk, but here there is a thin layer of dirt on the ground as well. I know because I keep kicking it up as Ma drags me farther and farther toward a yellow light in the distance. We pass a big round machine that shimmers and shakes and burps and coughs heat, and continue dodging the cement columns holding up the building above us until reach another door that Pops pushes open.
“This way,” he says again.
“Ay, Dios mío,” moans Ma.
It’s a space for people to live in with a bed and table and chairs, but the room is not much different from the basement we just crept through. A man and a woman with hollow eyes look up at us as we enter. There are two little boys about my size wrestling in the corner. One isn’t wearing pants and I stare at something tiny and dangling between his legs. He has snot hanging out of his nose that stops at his upper lip. There is a girl a few years older whose coughing fits whip around her stringy hair. She stares at me between hacks as the grown-ups greet and talk. Suddenly Ma screams.
“Oh my God.”
The little boy with the dangling thing is taking a poop on the table. The woman giggles and the man yells, “Mickey, what the hell are you doing?” Ma picks me up. By the time they find something to clean up his mess he is done dumping. I can feel Ma’s anger through her dress. She keeps saying, “AveMaríaPurísima, there are bathrooms here!” as she paces up and down the tiny space.
“Don’t worry, Franco,” says Pops. “There might be a real apartment available on Fulton Avenue later. For now just live here and búscate la vida.”
“Look for your life”? My father had just told him to “look for his life.” What does that mean?
“Sí, seguro. I’m ready to work and make money right away,” says Franco.
“You’ll come with me tomorrow. I got a roofing job you can help with.”
“And what about me?” says the woman. “I can sew a little.”
“There’s piecework all over the city you can do, Iris,” says Ma irritably. “We’ll find something for you tomorrow . . .”
I can tell Ma wants to get out of there so after a short while we say good-bye. Out in the street Ma says “Terrible, terrible,” over and over again.
“All I could find for them,” says Pops. “They weren’t supposed to come so quick. I just told your brother Franco two weeks ago he should think about coming to New York. How could I know he was just going to show up so quickly? Did you want him to move in with us? I didn’t think he was going to get airline tickets and come right away.” He stops for a minute before saying, “Things must be worse in Puerto Rico than I thought.”
Those two words, Puerto Rico, make me listen for more, but there is no more coming. Ma keeps quiet as we trudge up Third Avenue as I hear the train rumbling into the station above my head.
“Franco is your brother,” says Pops, rubbing it in.
My mother’s words jump him. “And your sister, La Boba, got scared and started screaming when I tried to get her to step onto the escalator at Gimbels last week. I was so embarrassed . . .”
“Aw, come on, you know how she is . . .”
I want to know “how she is” and why my father’s sister is called “the dumb one” when she is sweet and nice and looks at me with Chinese eyes and I can understand her even though her tongue is thick and sloppy in her mouth.
My parents snap and growl about her brother Franco, and his sister, La Boba, all the way up the stairs to our apartment. The people who live in the dungeon are my uncle Frank; his wife, Iris; and my cousins Mickey, Chaty, and Mimi, who have just come from that strange place, Puerto Rico. We see them almost as often as we see Ma’s other brother, Uncle Eddie; his wife, Bon Bon; her daughter, Zoraida; and their son, Little Eddie, who is already my favorite. I think my father is too happy about Ma having loving brothers even though he’s friendly with them.
Aurea and I are alone and my father comes home wildly drunk. “Isa!” he screams. My mother is not here to answer him because she is not home. He doesn’t notice us, doesn’t ask Aurea where my mother might be, though she is old enough to answer. After my father runs and peeks into all four rooms, plus the kitchen, it finally dawns on him that she is not home! He comes back into the living room and looks about ferociously. Does he think Ma is hiding under the sofa, or behind the picture of Jesus Christ on the wall? Maybe she’s curled up in the ashtray. I think Aurea has gone to hide.
When he finally understands that his target is not home he picks up the coffee table and sends it flying through the air. I watch it smack into the wall and splinter. Then he picks up a lamp and sends it flying into the door of their bedroom, and I watch the lightbulb shatter like my feelings even though I’m not sure what I’m feeling except that I am beyond scared and turn into a one-note, catatonic, unbroken scream.
My father stops and looks around, wondering where that highpitched squeal is coming from, and notices me stuck in my spot, the top of my head just reaching his knees. His red eyes refocus like a robot villain’s. Who is this kid, he seems to think, and how did she get here? My screeching bothers him because he crouches down and comforts me, pawing me on the head with his big-callused, hard hand. But I don’t know if it’s safe to accept the comforting, though the whiskey smell coming from him is so sweet, I like it. But just when I’m comforted down to simple whimpering and sucking in great gusts of air, the devil that’s riding him takes over and he forgets about me, stands up, takes the mirror off the wall with the painted pink flamingoes on it and sends it flying onto the radiator. My whimpering ratchets up to the one-pitch scream again as he kicks in the television set before running out of the apartment.
I run to our fourth-floor window, looking out for anything, when I see Uncle Eddie’s car pull up. Out spills his wife, Bon Bon; my uncle Frank; his wife, Iris; and my beautiful mother. She is dressed in a soft-colored yellow dress with pleats down the front that she made herself. My father enters my line of vision as he lunges for her. Her brothers restrain him, and I can tell even from the fourth floor that Ma would rip his face off if she could.
There is something beautiful in the picture they make jerking around in the streetlight. And when the Third Avenue El comes swishing through, right in front of our window so suddenly, I feel like I am in the center of the universe and I am happy that they have had this fight because it has introduced me to the wonderful window. And that’s where I go every day, all the time between assaults when there is nervous calm.
From there I spy on the neighbors: sexy Flor with her big ass and yellow cotton-candy hair, and mean Genoveva, who always looks like she is smelling something bad, and pretty, Americanized Lydia, who wears her hair in a flip, and La Puerca/Bizca, who has two names because she is both a dirty pig—La Puerca—and cross-eyed— Bizca—and the big-headed red-haired Cabeza family. They all go in and out of Don Joe’s bodega right next to our building, unaware that I am watching them and that I know what they buy and how much time they spend hanging around talking.
I also spy on the Third Avenue elevated train barreling into our neighborhood every few minutes so I see the people spill out of the cars and scatter down the stairs of the station like marbles down a flight of steps—careening past the shoeshine boys, shooting up toward Crotona Park where Chaty and Mickey play so hard Ma feels sorry for the trees, or roll on down toward Bathgate Avenue, where they can buy live chickens from Jewish people who chop the chickens’ heads off and hang them upside down to bleed.
But mostly I wait for Ma to come home from work. Any train could be hers, and suddenly she appears like magic and waves and smiles at me in such a way I know I am the most beloved girl in the world. I’m so happy I tremble, watching her disappear under the station awning then reappear, going down the steps, past the enviable shoeshine boys who are outside all day.
And she doesn’t go up to Fulton or down to Bathgate like the other marbles but straight onto Third Avenue and to me. She walks under the stripes of light the sun makes through the tracks and once she gets past Don Joe’s bodega I know exactly how long it’ll take her to get to our door.
“Mami!” She is so pretty with her little waist and high-heeled shoes.
“Ya, ya, ya.” She hugs me, laughing and kissing me all over my head and neck. I search for the half-eaten candy bar that is always in her purse, but by the time I turn back to her the moment I have waited for all day is over, and suddenly feeling denied and drained I go back to the window and wait for the second and last part of the day to begin.
My father comes home and I listen for trouble but know we’ll be safe when I hear him playing the guitar, singing loudly.
“Mamá, yo quiero saber, de dónde son los cantantes . . .” he croons until he suddenly barks, “Sonia, scratch my back.” Dragging myself away from the window I climb up and stand behind him as he sits on the sofa and I scratch his back that seems acres big. Methodically I work my way between his shoulders, then down the sides, then along the top of his belt before filling in its vastness with general scraping. I peek at the movie on the television. King Kong is hanging on to the Empire State Building as planes attack, and I feel so sad about it I stop scratching. My father wiggles his ears. I laugh. He does it again, making me laugh harder. I wish I could wiggle my ears like him and I try, concentrating and concentrating, but it’s impossible, I can only feel my ears with my hands; still, I wish we could wiggle and laugh together forever. But he gets bored in an instant and thinks of something else.
“¡Agua!” he says.
I look at his face but his eyes say he is somewhere else. I slip off the sofa and run into the kitchen, where my mother is standing at the stove.
“Papi quiere . . .”
I don’t have to finish because she knows what I want and fills a glass of water for me to give to him. I reach for the glass, and though her hands are free, she points with her lips to newly fried pork rinds she has rendered dry for flavoring, and offers me the crispy tidbit leftovers. She looks like an angel to me as I chew on the salty treat.
“Que los encuentro galantes . . .” My father has begun to sing again.
“¡Ven a comer!” Ma calls Pops to eat. Entering, he grabs the glass of water out of her hands and gulps it as he sits. When he’s done eating Ma calls to me and Aurea, who watches my father suspiciously as he leaves. I sit and play with my food.
“Eat,” Ma threatens.
“She don’t want to eat,” says Aurea.
“She’s going to eat or else,” says Ma.
After a while Aurea goes to her room and I rest my head on the table so I can play with my food from that angle because it looks like it could be more fun.
“You are not leaving this table until you finish,” scolds Ma, standing and eating at the stove. But she gets tired after a while. “Oh, never mind,” she says, picking up my plate. “Good food going to waste. Terrible.”
Yay! I’m free! Running to the door I am just in time to see the super picking up the garbage. He stops on every floor with a large garbage can collecting people’s trash, which he empties into his larger can, then packs it down by jumping into it with both feet.
Food smacks against the building’s walls and I know that our neighbors had the same thing for dinner that we had—some sort of rice and beans. I wish I could jump in the garbage like that.
“A dormir . . .” Ma drags me away from the door, triple-locks it, and shoos me into the bedroom.
“¡Avanza!” says Ma, pointing to the chamber pot. A gloominess falls over us. She hates that I wet the bed—and I really feel bad about it, too. She waits until I start to pee in the pot, then leaves to do something else. The sound of the El coming into the station drowns out the sound I make peeing.
Getting into bed I examine my feet. Manipulating them with my hands I discover a curious parallel relationship between my feet and my hands. A certain symmetry emerges . . . I begin to hyperventilate . . . because . . . I thought . . . that—yes . . . it must be right . . . I have the same number of fingers as I have toes! Is that possible? I count again—this time firmly separating each toe from the previous one to keep them from dangling together at the end of my foot like a bunch of grapes. I count again, and again, and realize that I do indeed have ten toes just like I have ten fingers. I call out, “Ma, I have ten toes!”
She reenters the room and then a look of disbelief momentarily rearranges her face.
“Go to sleep,” she says, leaving.
Her command that I should go to sleep does not even bother me. The symmetry of my digits at the ends of my arms and legs both excites and calms me. It proves there is order in the universe. I snuggle in and stare at the ceiling, where I find shapes in the cracked plaster. I see a boat, a house, a cloud . . .
About the author:
Sonia Manzano has affected the lives of millions since the early 1970s, as the actress who defined the role of “Maria” on the acclaimed television series Sesame Street. Sonia has won fifteen Emmy Awards for her television writing and is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Arts and Sciences. People Magazine named Sonia one of America’s most influential Hispanics. The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano was Sonia’s first novel. She lives in New York City.
5 autographed copies will be given away on Friday, Sep 11, 2015
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