Are suppose to be permanent.
The first time I got a tattoo, I got it in a garage. Homemade tattoo machine – the kind created by unobstructed boredom in prison – made from parts of an electric pencil sharpener. Ink from a Bic ballpoint pen, and stainless steel wire disinfected with a lighter; wiped down with alcohol. I took two shots of tequila before straddling the metal folding chair where this work of art was to take place. I wanted a rose with a ribbon wrapped around its stem that read, “Rest in Peace Alex” in honor of my brother who had died a year before from a gunshot wound to his heart. I sat there and felt the stabbing of rose thorns as my ass squirmed and made screeching sounds and the tattoo guy worked his magic with machine on one hand and cigarette on the other. By now, your lips should have an incredulous gap between them. By the time I got home, the rose stretched the length of the left side of my upper and mid back. It was permanent, and like my brother’s death, there was no turning back.
The second time I got a tattoo, I tattooed Carmen’s sperm donor’s name near my crotch. Did you just fall off your seat?! I know this one really deserves a, “What the FUCK were you thinking?!?!?!?!” Want to stay on the floor? The same guy that tattooed my rose, tattooed my baby daddy’s name. And yes, that time too, he was holding a cigarette on the other hand. Need to walk away and SYH (Shake Your Head) – completely understand, no hurt feelings here.
So what got me to tattoo a guy’s name next to my crotch, out of all places? Stupidity. The idea that a guy could complete me. I had constructed in my mind a fairy tale of the romanced girl who is loved and venerated into a Disney-mirage of happiness. I had never been a princess, and I saw the opportunity to be the sexy vampiress that kept my prince’s interest in me by arousing his wild, sexual desires. Even then I was confronted with the dichotomy of the polite and obedient marriageable princess and the edgier, sexually fierce vampiress – both necessary to keep my man [happy]. I thought he’d find the tattoo alluring, and me, sexually irresistible. His name on my flesh was an affirmation that he was coming back (Navy, stationed in the East Coast) to rescue my daughter and me. All those fucking Mexican novelas didn’t help to contrast these illusory roles I had bought into either. Interestingly enough, no man had ever rescued the women in my family; they had used their own strength to live; however, I had seen many men come in and out of the lives of the women around me, and there was a part of me that wanted the “father” of my daughter to be the one. The only thing permanent from that relationship is the tattoo. In case you are wondering, I still have it. I see it more as a scar. When I ask my husband how he feels, he says it doesn’t bother him anymore, he’s beyond that. But I think I’ll surprise him one of these days.
The only time my grandmother got a tattoo, my grandfather forced her onto the bed, held her down like a cow and branded her so as to identify the owner. He and one of his friends held her against her will, while my grandfather vandalized her pearly skin amidst the stench of alcohol. Luis, porfavor! She screamed, but there was no prince in shining armor to come save her. She was so ashamed of it. Unlike me, she never had the chance, the choice to accept it on her body. Ultimately, she mustered the courage to leave my grandfather, only to endure 20 more years of abuse at the side of another man who she thought would be the one.
The next time I thought I’d fall in love, I took my time. I wanted to find the one, not the perfect one, but the one.
I first met my husband, David Malo, in 1993 while attending community college. I can still picture him in his raver-like baggy jeans, with his ebony hair draped down his back and the NY Yankee hat that inconspicuously hid his eyes. I was 19 years old at the time, raising a one-year-old baby and very focused on transferring to San Diego State University (SDSU). We quickly became close friends. One of the qualities that most attracted me to him was his gentle and vulnerable spirit. He was kind with his words and listened to me without judgment. He brought calmness into a time of my life that was full of chaos and stress.
He was someone who I felt safe around, because he respected me as a woman, and a mother. Because I was working, attending school full-time, and nursing my daughter, the circle of friends I once had was practically non-existent. He became someone I could count on unconditionally, and even if I didn’t make contact with him for weeks, I could call him in the spur of the moment, and we would pick up right where we had left off. We continued to be friends and he brought a peaceful silence into my life that my spirit had been yearning for.
We began dating the summer of 1995 and both transferred to SDSU in August of that same year. He never asked for more than I could give. I never felt pressured or any sense of obligation, because he understood how dedicated I was to my daughter and my studies. He just patiently waited for me to have time for him. It wasn’t surprising that my grandmother, whom I lived with, and my daughter quickly grew an affinity toward him.
On June 29, 2002 we married and vowed a life of love, partnership, and commitment to each other. Not only did he accept me into his life, but he also accepted my daughter and grandmother. Though we have had challenging times in our relationship, his gentle and kind spirit has been the constant force that has helped us heal and overcome the painful experiences. Before my grandmother died a year ago, she told me she could go in peace, because she knew David would take care of Carmen and me the way she (my grandmother) had taken care of us.
The first time Carmen got a tattoo was on her 19th birthday. We both tattooed a hummingbird, once sketched by Frida Kahlo, on the frontal part of our left shoulder, where our heart continues to extend through our arms. We fell in love with the image when we first saw it in The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An intimate Self-Portrait. This time I took my time and let the idea of this potentially new permanence sit in my heart for a while. As for Carmen, I wanted her to understand the process of making important decisions in her life, like tattoos and marriage. I figured starting with a tattoo was less risky than marriage (giggle inside). Disclaimer: Falling in love and sharing your life with someone doesn’t require marriage. But even the decision of whether to get married or not is one that has to come from deep inside one’s soul – one that we have to be able to live with.
The hummingbird is (was) significant to us in so many ways. It’s at the center of many traditions, and folklore of Mexico, and we grew up understanding the hummingbird through the lens of our Mexicansimo. Frida Kahlo, whom we deeply admire for the profound, relentless questioning of her identity and exploration and liberation of her soul, inspired us to face our journey with authenticity and courage, and to fiercely question: who do I think I am; what am I looking for; what is my intention; what am I resisting; who or what am I blaming; who do I need to forgive; what really matters to me; what do I stand for? She often sketched and painted hummingbirds to symbolize her suffering and endurance. She is an example of strength, for like the hummingbird, despite her immense pain and handicaps, she was never mentally or spiritually confined. She explored her feminism, masculinity, sexuality, and Mexicanismo without regard to mainstream social norms.
Carmen and I inherited Tita’s alma de colibrí (soul of a hummingbird). She too, despite the abuse and suffering, never stopped flying, never stopped exploring, never stopped living. The hummingbird is the only bird that can fly backwards, and emerges into flight from the sole power of its wings. It exemplifies the bold, extraordinary spirit of our Tita. A few months after Carmen left to college, Tita died of lung cancer. I found myself alone, spiritually fractured; I didn’t know how to live without them. I entered a stage of transformation. I was either going to drown in the muddiness of my pain, or I was going to honor my grandmother’s spirit by emerging from self-pity to self-realization. At the same time this was happening to me, Carmen was beginning to take flight. We are (were) both exploring and discovering a new stage in our lives, one in which our spirit is teaching and guiding us to live fearlessly and fiercefully. The hummingbird above our heart is a reminder of where we come from and where we are going.