Sample text for Playing with boys / Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez.

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There were times that made me s'dang proud to be a Mexican I wept 'til my mascara melted—say, when Vincente Fernandez sang "Cielito Lindo" for the Republican National Convention in 2000. But darlin', this wasn't one of those times.

I stood alone in a black-tie crowd, at a private cocktail party, at L.A.'s Getty Museum, faking interest in a cube of raw tuna on a silver tray. It was like a wobbly, wet, red dice—or was it die? Correction: Was it dead? I jabbed it with my designer toothpick, just to be sure.

"It's only Jell-O, sugar," I whispered as I closed my eyes and shoved it into my mouth. But it was nothing like Jell-O, unless they'd come out with a "slippery acrid" flavor I hadn't seen yet.
What I needed was a steak, well-done. Fat chance.

Suddenly, the chatting dimmed and all eyes turned toward a doorway as I held my breath and prayed for patience.

One by one, the members of Los Chimpances del Norte—the norteño band I had stumbled, dear God please tell me how, into managing—strutted single-file onto the terrace in perfectly matching toucan-vomit-meets-cowboy outfits.

I'd asked them to wear Armani. Black Armani. As usual, they'd ignored me. I instinctively fingered the little pink pearls around my neck, and smoothed my hands along the sides of the size 14 Ann Taylor cocktail dress I liked to think of as my "little black," but which was, by L.A. standards, more like a massive, flapping black.

A woman behind me gasped. "What are they wearing?" A man comforted her by saying, "I believe they're going for post-modern kitch." No, I wanted to say. They think they look good, and there is a large percentage of an entire nation—my ancestral nation of origin—that agrees. I was not among that percentage, but then, I was raised in Texas, not Mexico.

Lime-green fringed blazers aren't for everyone. Neither are banana-yellow Wrangler pants worn tight as skin on a sausage. White ten-gallon Stetsons look good enough on Toby Keith. But twelve of 'em, all in a row, stuffed over waxy Mexican mullets in the middle of a modern museum? Lordy. And who knew twenty-four maroon snakeskin boots could look quite that bad, all lined up together like the keys of Satan's own little player piano?

We were here this evening, enjoying the gardens of this curvy, white modernist masterpiece of a museum perched in the gently smoggy hills above the twinkling lights of Los Angeles, for an exclusive private party. A celebration. What were we celebrating? This: The fact that Los Chimpances del Norte (the Chimpanzees of the North) had just donated $5 million to UCLA's Center for Chicano Studies, for the study of previously neglected U.S.-Mexico border music of the oom-pah type they themselves had inflicted upon the public for the past twenty years.

I was a Dallas girl, born and raised, armed with an arsenal of acronyms—BA and MBA from SMU, darlin'—but I was trying to become a California girl, with mixed results. I came to Hell-eh because I thought it was shameful that in a city where the top-three FM radio station now played Mexican music, the big PR companies were oblivious to the talent and riches in Spanish-speaking America. I was the first to offer these artists American-style publicity, complete with professional press releases, follow-up calls, lunches—as opposed to Mexican-style publicity, which usually meant buying reporters off with things like cocaine, or island vacations.

My clients at Tower Entertainment, the Whittier-based firm I worked for, had been on the Tonight Show, Sixty Minutes, and in the New York Times, which impressed me but rarely impressed my clients. As I often had to tell reporters, America was changing, fast. Tortillas now outsold bagels. Famously, Americans now ate more salsa than ketchup. Wal-Mart carried plantains, yuca, and Goya products. Kraft in the U.S. had come out with something they called "mayonesa," a Mexican mayonnaise with lime. Why? Not because they were nice. Because they had to. The top FM stations in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago broadcast in Spanish, and the U.S. had become the world's fourth-largest Spanish-speaking country. And I was one of those lucky people who had long existed in a United States—Texas, to be precise—that spoke Spanish and English with matching facility. I swung with ease between the cheesy comedy of Sábado Gigante and the cheesy comedy of WB sitcoms. Some academic types, like my professors at Southern Methodist University, called people like me bicultural. But with Latinos poised to make up one in four Americans in the blink of a big brown eye, I preferred to call it American.

Of course, most people here didn't care about any of that. They cared that there was a "Latin" band that lived in Los Angeles that had this kind of money—that they'd never heard of until the L.A. Times ran a story on them. Everyone knew the statistics about the growing Hispanic population, and for money reasons wanted to connect with us. So they came. But they had no idea what they were getting into with my boys. I called the Chimps mine, but really I was theirs: their manager, their agent, their publicist, their whipping girl.

Five million bucks was the sort of gift American schools traditionally got from benefactors whose non-Spanish last names were read in soothing monotones at the end of programming on NPR and PBS. And a private Getty shindig was the sort of shiny event people attended in cocktail dresses and bow ties.

In other words, there was something horrifying to my sorority-girl brain (Sigma Lambda Gamma, y'all) about the Chimps showing up in neon cowboy gear like rowdy goat-humping bumpkins from Chihuahua. I knew, of course, that the Chimps had made their millions (yes, millions) playing "workingman's" music in rodeo arenas from Zacatecas to Whittier, and that they, bless their hearts, did not forget this, though they had amassed enough of a fortune to forget whatever they pleased. Maybe the goofy getups were a statement to the effect. Either that, or they just had no clue.

So, while I was proud of my guys for being successful enough to give away enough money to attract the movers and shakers of this achy-quakey town—and, I should add, support me and my potentially unhealthy handbag habit—I was also a well-bred youngish woman of twenty-nine, whose lovely, Avon-selling momma had worked herself near to death to give me the kind of life she'd never had and always wanted. The kind of life where I made good money and was respected, where I was never assumed to be stupid for lack of credentials, and where I knew what side of the table-setting the bread plate went on; like momma woulda been if her parents, my dear but insanely backward Granny and Grampy Lopez, hadn't been the kind of old-world first-generation Mexicanos who said things like "Only easy women go to college," and "Don't talk so much or act too smart cuz no man's never gonna go fer no woman like that." Sigh

It had been my idea to give "chimp change," as I called the hefty donation, to UCLA. I suggested the academic gift as a way to raise the group's visibility among mainstream Americans, and in the process raise the profile of all successful Mexicans and Meximericans here, which, in the end, might improve my life, too. And, who knew, maybe if L.A. powerbrokers started to see that we Messicans had money—real money—and not just, I dunno, pruning shears and toilet brushes, they might start to produce movies where The Mexican was a person and not a gun, and Hidalgo was a human instead of a stinkin' (but determined) horse. It was a long shot, but so was everything worth doing, in my humble opinion, and in Hollywood, there was plenty that needed changin' and doin', Amen.

"Orale, Alexis!" shouted Filoberto, the bandleader, spying me. His lips pulled back to reveal a checkerboard of yellow and gold teeth, one or two outlined with what looked like brown eyeliner. He slowly lifted one hand, then flicked it toward the floor, in one fast snap, as if a roach had landed there after losing footing on the ceiling and he wanted it off. This was Filoberto's "mero mero" mime-speak for "I'm here and I'm manly, ahua, Amen."

I hurried to greet my band.

"Filoberto," I said, kissing him on the cheek as was our custom. "Hi, honey."

I leaned close to his ear and whispered, "Didn't you want to wear the Armani suits?"

"Pues, no," Filoberto replied. Both his hands dove to his crotch area, and I cringed. I didn't want to look, but I did. He gripped and shook his enormous belt buckle up and down, and a few of the Chimps followed suit, in a strange approximation of a circle jerk. I was relieved. I'd feared Filoberto was going to whip "it" out, as he'd done backstage last month when I suggested he be nicer to a reporter. "Who's the man here?" he'd asked as "it" peered out like a deflated one-eyed slug.

In general, belt buckles are a good idea. They keep your pants up, hold the belt on. They're useful. But when they are the size of a salad plate and encrusted with red, green, and white gem stones sparkling in the shape of a Mexican flag, there's something unforgivably, I dunno, Liberace about them. Particularly when they cut deep into the flesh of a beer belly. I looked down the lineup of chimps. They all had them.

"Why?" I whispered to Filoberto.

Filoberto stared hard into my eyes. "Look," he said, in the perfect English he often pretended he didn't speak, but which he used to knock people off balance; the Chimps were from Sacramento, California, but pretended to be from Sinaloa." Mexicans gave us the money that we gave to the school. We owe our careers to Mexicans. We are Mexicans. And we're not going to dress like gringos just to make your little ooh-ooh friends here comfortable."

Ooh-ooh? Nice to see Filoberto not only speaking English, but enhancing it as well.

"I didn't ask you to dress like a gringo," I said, cringing at the racial slur. My stepdaddy was a "gringo" and the nicest man in the world. "I asked you to wear Armani."

"And I should ask you to suck it," he whispered in my ear. "Because this is my band and we do what I want. Got it?"

"Okay," I said, drawing on my sashimi smile once more. "I understand. It's your choice and I respect that. I hope I didn't offend you. Good luck tonight." I started to walk away. Whenever anger bubbled up, that was the best policy. Back away, calm down, then talk.

"It's not us that need to change," continued Filoberto. "It's them."

Blah, blah, blah. Filoberto still thought we were fighting the Alamo.

"You're right," I said. "I'm proud of you. Knock 'em dead, sweetie."

Many of the elites assembled here did not seem to know quite how to regard the Chimps, and seemed to be searching for the right facial expression. Condescending benevolence did not work. But neither did obsequious curiosity. Mostly, those unfamiliar with the border gangsta-polka world—folks who had, I think, come expecting a salsa band—stared at the Chimps in disbelief. Heck, I stared at them in disbelief. But why not have the Chimps at the Getty? After all, the Chimps lived in the U.S., paid taxes in the U.S., and made as much money off their music as many major U.S. pop stars, even in Rolling Stone, Spin and every pop music writer in the land ignored them with almost vicious regularity.

With relief I saw three representatives from UCLA emerge from inside the museum and walk toward us in three-piece suits. At least they got it. The cute one, Samuel Reyes, managed to be cute even though he was balding. He smiled at me and my pulse quickened.

As the university people got closer, I stepped forward, past Filoberto, to be the first one to greet them. I heard Filoberto sigh behind me, dismayed yet again that I believed I could wear pants.

"Samuel," I said with a huge smile. I gripped his hand and shook it with authority. He held it longer than he needed to and searched my eyes.

"They look great," he said. "They're courageous."

"Yes, they are. This is a wonderful event. You've done such a good job."

Samuel nodded. He agreed he was great. A proper Texan man would have returned the compliment. But, Toto, we weren't in Texas anymore.

As the university people mingled with the Chimps and prepared to present the award, I strolled off to schmooze. After harvesting a few business cards for later use—yes, I hoped to one day escape the Chimp world—I stood back to observe the Chimps. I soon wished I hadn't.

First, a well-known Pacific Palisades socialite and her husband approached Filoberto to introduce themselves. Filoberto made eye contact only with the man, though the woman was the one speaking to him.

"So nice to meet you," she said. "Congratulations."

Filoberto addressed her large, buoyant breasts, a perfect pair of surgically constructed half-grapefruits like so many in Southern California. "So nice to meet you," he leered. Then, to her husband, he added, "Congratulations," with a suggestive chortle.

The couple quickly hurried off to inspect a sculpture.

As I headed back toward Filoberto to give him a quickie etiquette lesson, a tall, gorgeous waitress sashayed past the line of Chimps with her tray of shrimp. Filoberto slapped her ass. He needed a lot more than etiquette. And I needed a new job.

The tuna cubes floated past once more, and I couldn't do it. I couldn't. Once was enough. See, at the center of my fat-saturated heart, I was a steak-and-potatoes girl who didn't like exercise unless it involved a man in my bed. I was Christian, and unapologetically Republican, as my momma and daddy raised me. You can imagine how far this got me in Hell-eh, where it seemed to me everyone wanted to spend their free time doing yoga, volunteering for liberal causes, or lecturing the rest of us to join them. Oh, and I had a flat chest—a crime in Southern California.

Anyhoo. Schmoozing. I walked with confidence to a small cluster of beautiful people and planted myself among them.

Copyright 2004 by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Hispanic American women Fiction, Los Angeles (Calif, ) Fiction, Female friendship Fiction