Mom is speeding at 82 miles an hour on the 405 Freeway in Santa Monica. She uses her vehicle like a crosscut saw, in and out of traffic. I am biting my lips and clutching the door handle wondering if it would be safer to bail out on the paved highway. Mother's age is the same as her speed and she insists on driving, to everyone's terror. My jaw is shut tight: I ponder the thought that we may never make it to the hospital in two days for her knee surgery, or to visit my brother, Bart, whom I haven't seen in years.
She exits Highway 101 in Ventura at 60 miles an hour -- I think the sign says 35. Mother lands the vehicle on East Main Street after two near sidewinders and one near head-on. She drives down Main Street like she was in a pageant -- fans waving to her, congratulating her safe arrival without killing anyone.
She tells me to look for Bart at the corner of Oak and Main. I plead with her to let me drive after we pick him up. She flicks her hand in the air like a manikin, and slightly turns it. In some cultures, that gesture would be unmentionable; to my Mom, it probably means, "whatever", or "leave me alone."
Bart is standing right where he is supposed to be. He takes a last puff of his cigarette and snuffs out the butt on a trash can. Mother gives him 6 seconds to squeeze his 350-pound body into the back seat before she punches the pedal to speed nowhere.
"Hi Bart, good to see ya. Uh, Bart, how are ya?...Mom, is Bart on new meds or something? He doesn't seem to hear me."
"Bart, your sister is asking you a question -- can't you answer her?"
"Oh, yeah, whuja say Kate?"
"Just asking how you're doing -- haven't seen you in a while."
Mother jerks the car into the left lane without signaling. Bart whiplashes backwards and forwards without Mom even noticing. We are supposed to drive around and enjoy each other's company -- maybe stop for coffee -- even though Mother doesn't like coffee.
As we stop and go, stop and go, we pass by the old Buenaventura Mission. Mom notices people walking to the church. (Mother likes to go to Sunday services on Saturday, even though she still goes on Sundays). She slams on the brakes and tells me to get out of the car and see when Mass starts. I honor her wishes because I have to. I dash up the steps and peak into the 1782 white-stucco, mothball-smelling mission with 400 Latinos staring at me. They are all dressed up for Sunday when it's only a Saturday, and there's a Mariachi Band in the choir loft. I run downstairs to tell Mom the Mass would be in Spanish, she wouldn't understand the sermon, and we would be the only gringos. Mom says she doesn't care and we should all go. I remind her that we just picked up Bart, he doesn't go to church, and it would be impolite to leave him. She says, "Bart can go too; it would be good for him to go to church once in awhile. And if he doesn't want to, he can sit on the bench across the street from the Mission and watch the car for us." Bart is 52 years old.
While I am apologizing to Bart, Mom is speed-limping ahead of me and I lose her. When I finally reach the entrance, brown smiling faces in costume attire stare at me in my pink tourist T-shirt and jeans. I scope the church for Mom, but can't find her because she's been shrinking for the last few years. Her tiny body is probably buried between someone's colorful dress and hat.
As I am looking, I am distracted by the most sublime and uplifting music I have ever heard. This is not just ANY everyday Mariachi music. This is an exquisite blend of cumbia, merenge, polka, country, pop, and classical, all mixed to create a fiery, festive, and powerful sound. As forceful and dynamic as it is, the riffs are interposed with tranquility. This music is like a superb Arabic dark roasted coffee, brewed from spring water and stirred with a little French vanilla cream. The music, perfected from the Mexican villages, cantinas, and churches, screams the soul of the people -- triumph over strife -- redemption by peace. I want to toss my tennis shoes and dance.
I love the rhythm and the spirit of this Church, the lively and cheerful parishioners, and the mesmerizing music. In my head, I am shouting, "I WANT TO BE A MEXICAN!" No, not Hispanic, because that word is too diluted and sanitized. (The word Hispanic was probably instigated by the wealthy to dismiss any guilt from wanting taller and longer borders). Yes, I WANT TO BE A MEXICAN FROM MEXICO! I want to convert from my rigid and stubborn Irish-Catholic heritage to become a joyful Mexican Catholic -- I HAVE COME HOME! I have been away for 25 years: I miss the white stucco homes and churches with red tile roofs, the oversized mission furniture that never fits in any rooms, the eucalyptus trees, surfers, the In-And-Out Burger joints, and the Mexicans.
As the Priest is preparing for Consecration, I am daydreaming about my newly adopted culture; dying my blonde hair jet black, and listening to Mexican soap operas to quickly learn Spanish.
I finally locate my Mother's little white bobbing head above a pew. As I saunter up to her, she smiles at me in a mother's loving way; I can tell she likes the music too.
After communion, the band slows its tempo and the parishioners are hushed. The Priest turns to the crowd. He is beaming as he proudly introduces the bride and groom. The church echoes and vibrates with clapping and cheering. My glorious music ignites to a powerful fever pitch -- I think my head is going to explode. Mother taps my hand to signal it's time to leave, after she realizes we just crashed a wedding. I feel like she is tearing me away from my new home and I want to scream, "I'm not going." I deliberately slacken my pace to hear every last riff so it is implanted in my mind.
In the outdoor cobblestone courtyard, I say, "Mom, have you ever heard such awesome music? Don't you wish you were born Mexican?"
Mother squints her face, looks perplexed, and says, "Katie, Mexicans don't have the easiest lives."
"Mom, no one does, it's how you live it; that's why I like this music, it transcends life. Mom, I can't believe we just crashed this wedding. Since we're already here, why don't we just hang around and listen to the band and have some appetizers?"
"Kate, we can't stay at the wedding any longer." I knew Mother's finishing school background would never allow her to stay. She had committed the mortal sin for all Ms. Manners by crashing a party and showing too much emotion. Her rules of etiquette would mandate that she escort herself immediately from the premises. "Katie, we have to leave now and find your brother. I hope he's not wandering around the streets of Ventura."
Bart is just where he is supposed to be, sitting on a bench under a large oak tree, watching the car. I tell Mom I will be driving now. She gets irritated, flicks her hand into the air,and displays her aggravation by getting into the back seat. The force of the music is with me now -- I tell her, "That's fine by me. I'll just drive you around like a chauffeur and you can be Ms. Daisy."
And for an hour, the three of us tour the streets of Ventura searching for a place to eat, Mother directing every stop and turn. As we cruise up East Santa Clara Street, my ears secretly and desperately listen for the contagious sounds of a uniquely blended mariachi band as we pass every bistro, bar, and taqueria. The euphoric and passionate music is the manifestation for my conversion, at the old Buenaventura Mission on a Saturday at 2 in the afternoon.
-- Mary Andes