Hustler in a Party Dress

When I was little (yes I start this way a lot) I used to scream and cry if my mother tried to put me in pants. All I liked to wear were dresses. Everyday. It didn't matter if I was going to the park- whatever, dress please. Once in my party dress, I would go downstairs to our building's courtyard where I would collect bugs and sell them at a dollar a piece to this boy named James. James was obsessed with bugs. I would tell him that these regular, old Queens-bugs were special and rare (and maybe from Japan!). And, he'd believe me.

The building courtyard was a hotspot for me to hatch all my plans. My friends Tina and Betsy were tiny and Greek. I wanted them to play the babies in our game of house, but since they were small for their ages they wanted nothing to do with that and insisted on being mom and dad instead. The bugs came in handy here once again. Tina and Betsy were terrified of bugs, so I would pretend that one was crawling up their legs and they would then cry and want me to carry them. Hence, making them the babies.

It wasn't all about bugs, though. I had other dreams. Broadway mainly. I made the kids in the building be in my shows. I rehearsed them mericilessly and forced them to buy costumes according to my specifications. In a production of "Annie", I made a Pakistani boy play Punjab. When he showed up for the show in the outfit I had told him to buy, his parents looked at me in disbelief. They had no idea their son's director was seven. They scolded me and told me I was a naughty girl. I told them I was sorry I wasn't an adult, but tickets were still going to cost them five dollars. No comps for family. Always my motto.


When I was about four years old we lived in Colombia for a while at my grandmother's house in Manizales. She had a maid named Tulia. Tulia was one of those old ladies who wore her long grey hair in braids. You know the kind. She wore printed, cotton dresses and was no taller than a ten year old child. I loved Tulia so much that I insisted on sleeping with her every night in her bed. Something about that concerned my mother for some reason and eventually she put a stop to it.

Tulia believed herself to be clairvoyant. She once started telling the family for days that the world was coming to an end. Shortly thereafter, we were hit with one of the biggest earthquakes in Colombian history. Every house on the block collapsed but ours. I remember seeing the street cracked down the middle. But what I remember mostly is Tulia. On her knees in the backyard praying frantically to be pardoned by Jesus and be taken to heaven. Or to live. I'm not sure what she was praying for, but there was begging involved.

Tulia had a nephew who was ten or eleven and mentally retarded. He was also quite large. He came to visit her every now and then. Once he started to tickle me and wouldn't stop. When they found us on the kitchen floor I was bright red and gasping for air. They had to pull him off of me. So, basically I almost got tickled to death. You may understand now why I have a fear of being tickled.

I went to nursery school at a place called "El Mundo de Los Ninos". We wore orange and white checkered smocks. The kids teased me and called me "gringa" because according to my dad I had a funny accent. I think I just talked like any bilingual four year-old.

I also had a friend named Lena who lived across the street. She had blond hair and blue eyes which in Colombia is close to royalty. She was a bad little girl. She stole my doll that walked and talked. My mom stormed into her house one day insisting to Lena's mother my doll was there. She ransacked Lena's bedroom till she found it hiding in her closet. My mom was not about to let someone take my walking and talking doll. My mom seemed to want that doll more than I did. Somehow she knew Lena was the culprit. Lena then got spanked in front of all of us. I felt terrible for Lena. I figured she should be allowed to steal that doll if she really wanted to since she was my best friend.

Luckily, with all this stressful stuff going on I had Tulia to come home to. She told me all kinds of great stuff I can't remember anymore.

Grandma Always Wore Lipstiq

On Tuesday my gradmother, Maria Elena Villegas, passed away. She was 80 years old. I want to share some things I remember about her life...

She was one of sixteen children. That's right, sixteen. I've heard the family joke around that it was so crowded in their house, some of the kids had to sleep in the bathtub and other strange places. I'm not sure if this is a true-joke or a lie-joke.

She was sixteen and already engaged when she met my grandfather Ernesto. Ernesto met her exactly twice before telling her to leave her fiancee and marry him instead.

When she was in her late 20's my grandfather passed away leaving her a widow with eight children. That's right, eight. In an effort to remarry, she would make some of the younger kids hide whenever a suitor came to visit. She figured it would be much easier to rope a man in with say, three or four kids, instead of eight. The youngest, my uncle Pedro, would often come crawling out of hiding and the other kids would have to chase after him. This would totally foil my grandma's plans. She never remarried.

My grandma babysat for me when I was a little girl. She was extremely vain. I never saw her without her "face on" which always included firey, red lips. Her hair was always completely in place too. We would walk around Jackson Heights together, but not till after she made me promise to call her tia (aunt) in front of other people. I usually forgot and called her abuelita anyway. She never really got over me embarrassing her like that and brought it up often "Remember when you were little and used to call me grandma in front of people?!"

Sadly, I did not inherit her cleavage. Come to think of it, both my grandmas had bras that looked like giant salad bowls to me. Something happened to the family line.

My parents who were both vegetarians forbid her to feed me meat. As soon as my parents would leave I would beg my grandma for steak. She'd always give me some and make me swear I wouldn't tell. This was usually the first thing I would tell my mother as soon as she walked in the door. Mom and grandma would fight and the very next day I would beg for meat again. I would promise her that this time I really wouldn't tell. As soon as I saw my mom I would not only tell her about the meat, but go into crazy details about how my grandma cut it up into tiny pieces for me and how she cooked it and so forth. This cycle repeated daily, so I'm not really sure why I say I was raised vegetarian come to think of it.

She wore so much make up that a few summers ago my stepfather was worried she would make the pool multi-colored when they went swimming.

My grandma was a journalist and poet. She had a deep, throaty voice, sometimes when she answered the phone people thought she was a man. She had red hair. She liked her vodka. She had a very dark sense of humor. She was sharp and elegant. She was a big flirt. She painted pictures of birds and houses. She kind of reminded me of Lucille Ball.