It was the kind of homework assignment a self-conscious Latina dreaded most. Picture, if you will, 1964. LBJ is in the White House. Muhammad Ali beats Sonny Liston and is crowned heavyweight champion of the world. The Beatles make their U.S. debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show." And me? I'm in Queens, attending school at P.S. 154, sitting in the second row of Mrs. Warmbran's third grade class. Oh, and I'm sweating bullets.
For, Mrs. Warmbran has just given the class one of the hardest, most horrific homework assignments of all. I'm talking much worse than in second grade, when Mrs. Green asked us to create a project for the science fair. Science was not my forte and, with my father's assistance, I created a pinwheel made of straws. My father assured me the class would find my pinwheel brilliant and I believed him. That is, until I saw Stewie Moskowitz' log cabin, with electric lights that turned on and off, and smoke that blew out the chimney. That little upstart had put my flimsy effort to shame.
But then Mrs. Warmbran came along with her nefarious assignment: to create a family tree. Simple enough, you might think and I would agree, if the family names were Jane or Jimmy. Or Patty and Cathy, like the twin cousins on "The Patty Duke Show." Latino names were not commonplace in my neighborhood and I certainly don't remember watching any shows with Latino characters. And now my teacher was forcing me to reveal that my father's name was Enrique and my relatives had names like Teotiste, Cesar, Josefina, Juan and so on. I wasn't ready to display my Venezuelan roots to the world.
So I had a plan. It involved poster board, markers, a flashlight and a lie. I didn't want my parents to know what I was up to, so I grabbed my supplies and tiptoed down to the basement while the rest of my family gathered around the TV console to watch "The Fugitive." That's the show in which Dr. Richard Kimble, falsely convicted of his wife's murder, is hounded by Lieutenant Gerard, and Kimble must find the one-armed man, the real culprit before the lieutenant finds him. Creeping down the stairs, in the cover of darkness, I felt like a fugitive myself, or El Fujitivo, as we called him in my house. That was me, El Fujitivo, trying to escape unnoticed to do my homework.
I began with great flourish to draw my fake family tree. Instead of writing the actual names, my father was now Ricky, my grandparents became Samantha and Darren and my Tia Yoly, Aunt Bea. (Yes, I know, I wasn't very original, taking the names from TV shows of the day.) Though I knew it was wrong, I kept at it and soon I was enjoying conjuring up these new names and identities. I was feeling quite proud of myself, convinced I would get a good grade for my work, when I heard a footstep on the stairs.
"Moníca, qué haces allí?"
There was no way I could tell my mother what I was doing. I tried to shove the poster under the sofa, but my mother, shrewd that she was, spotted it in a flash. Like Lieutenant Gerard she was on to me, El Fujitivo. I had to think quickly. Could I blame it on the one-armed man?
No, it was all me, and it didn't take long for my mother to figure it out. The sadness in her eyes said it all. My father, who normally is quick to shout and ask questions later, was heartbroken. Clearly, all they saw was that their daughter was ashamed of the family. I couldn't find the words to tell them the truth. That all I wanted was what most kids want: to blend in. All I saw was their pain, and so I did what any kid would do. I burst into tears.
The next morning, I took the poster to school, having added the real names. This was my true Family Tree, accurately reflecting my heritage. This was the beginning, the knowing that I was different from my peers and I just had to face it.
A few years later, when I was 12, we left Queens and moved to the suburbs. At the time, we were the only Latinos in the neighborhood. A classmate asked me,
"Are you 'colored'?"
Flinching at her choice of words, I replied, "No, I am Venezuelan."
A Venezuelan American. Born in the U.S. and known in some circles as, El Fujitivo.
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