Life Slapped Her Hard Hand
Felt like Life had slapped her hard hand
over my mouth
and tried to shut me up,
tried to keep me
from being me,
keep me from even my song,
even my name.
Yes, she tried to shut me up,
and for a little while,
she did. How I Got My Name
So when I was born, my mom said, Ay, qué preciosa. I want to name her Celina.
But my dad said, I want to name her after your mom, Teresa.
And Mom nodded (kind of) and said, We’ll name her Celina Teresa, and we can call her Tere around the house so Gramma can know how much we love her.
And they did.
And everything was good with my name except for one thing:
My dad’s last name is Guerrero
and my mom’s is Amaya,
and the nurse got confused when she saw
“all those names”
(Celina Teresa Guerrero Amaya.
I don’t think four is too many names,
but I guess the nurse did),
so she wrote down Guerrera
with an A
at the end of the name instead of an O
And dropped the Amaya completely.
No one noticed right away ’cause they were
too busy oohing and aahing over me.
Then the birth certificate came in the mail,
and they noticed it and Dad just laughed.
He said, Well . . .
Guerrera means a “WOMAN warrior.” I bet she’ll be brave and strong and fight for justicia
And then he said, We could get it fixed later . . . Maybe.
And Mom repeated, Maybe . . .
Then, the very next month,
they deported my dad back to Mexico
for not having the right papers.
Funny how papers can be so right and so wrong
and can even mean more than people
in some folks’ eyes. What Matters
Luckily, my dad returned to us pretty soon
because there’s no way he was gonna leave
my mom alone to raise their beautiful baby girl (me).
Mama said to get back, Dad had to work to raise money
and borrow some from his cousin too.
He had to swim across a river at night
and then cross a desert with no water
and then walk through a field of snakes,
but he came back.
And he kept working here to pay for the rent
and for the food and the diapers.
He kept trying to get his papers,
but something else always had to be paid first,
like taking me to get my shots
or getting the motor fixed on the car
or learning enough English to do his taxes
or working to help Mama pay for her nurse’s aide schooling.
But nothing was going to stop him
from being there for me
and being the best dad,
and that’s what really
matters. Gramma Said I Was Wonderful
Life is so much fun,
so rica with adventure and dreams
when you’re little and at home
with people who love you and look at you with eyes full of
That’s what my grandma did.
She looked at me
(even when I was bad and snuck an extra pan de polvo
off the plate before the party)
and laughed and said, ¡Qué sinvergüenza esta muchacha!
Even though her words said I was rascally,
that’s not what her eyes said.
I saw her eyes.
They said I was
Wonderful. Couldn’t Wait
I couldn’t wait for the first day of first grade.
I was big. I was cool.
I was ready to go
and show la teacher that I was
smart and pretty and wonderful . . .
I even put TWO bows in my hair
so that I’d look “bien purty.”
I thought first grade was going to be
better than Christmas!
But instead of getting things,
we’d be learning things.
And I especially wanted to show the teacher
that I already knew how to write my name
in BIG letters, like a BIG girl:
Tere, the name of my grandmother.
And my grandmother’s grandmother.
And my grandmother’s grandmother’s
I remember that day so clearly,
remember bursting with excitement.
But sometimes things
don’t turn out the way you
hope.First-Grade Tere Tells Her Story
My teacher was so pretty.
A big, tall lady with blond hair.
But our first conversation went like this:
Hi. I’m Miss Jones.
Hi. I Tere.
Awww . . . Terry.
No, iss Tere.
No, it’s pronounced Terry.
Iss . . . per-nounce . . . Tere.
No. Watch my mouth. Teh. Reee. See?
No, iss Teh-reh. Iss always been Tere.
Look. Make your mouth like this and pronounce it right. Teh. REEEE! That’s what your name is here, and you will learn to say it right.
Pero RIGHT iss Tere, miss.
She lookin’ at me so mean. And her eyebrows,
they like two standing-up lines of mad,
so I say, Okay,
it doesn’t matter.
I in first grade, I smart, and I want teacher lady
to like me. Erased
When I color the Cinderella princess,
I make her look like my big cousin,
with long black hair down to there
and blue glitter above her eyes.
But teacher says, Cinderella has blond hair
She takes away my picture,
says, Do it over. Do it right.
And I think, No importa
’cause maybe she doesn’t understand.
Then we go to the cafeteria, and the food looks weird.
I’m hungry after lunch, but no importa,
In gym I get my own coach (like in the Olympics).
He lets the boys go first to show us how to run the races
(even though I run faster than Juanito and Chale).
When I yell, ¡Córrele, Juanito!
Coach comes over to scold me,
says, This is the U.S. Speak English!
So I say, Run, Johnny. Run!
Coach still looks at me funny.
But I think, No importa
’cause gym is over.
We go back to the class and teacher says
she’s gonna teach us how to write our names.
I show her my paper full of big proud letters that say
She erases my name!
Says I got too many capitals
and not enough R
Tells me, Do it over. Do it RIGHT!
But my paper looks so empty
and I feel like I just disappeared,
got erased, turned invisible.
And it hurts.
So I’m glad we have a game at the end of the day
so I can show la teacher how smart I am.
Teacher explains the game: When I touch your head, jump up and say your name.
I jump up, say, TERE,
and she mumbles something ’bout
putting me in the slow class.
I don’t WANT to be in the slow class,
to move slow and run slow and act slow.
But I don’t say anything.
I go home and take off my two bows.
I have first grade again tomorrow, but . . .
It doesn’t matter. Moving
We had to move.
I don’t remember why.
My dad got a new job
or the old job finished
or didn’t pay enough to stay.
The new town wasn’t any bigger than the old one,
but the people were meaner to us
and I felt a lot more lost,
especially in school.
The teacher there must’ve taken lessons
from the teacher in the old place,
because she, too, changed my name to Terry.
Guess none of them liked
names that sounded like Spanish.
So they took away my name.
I wonder what is left
that they CAN’T
take away. Celebrating a Chubasco
We didn’t live with Gramma back then,
but she’d always come to visit
and tell us stories to remind us who we were.
The house would fill with laughter,
and nothing—nothing ever—
could keep us from celebrating everything.
One day when she arrived,
the summer sky changed in a flash.
When your sweltering hot boring day
turns dark as night and the wind
begins to blow like magic
and heavy clouds roll in to throw a big surprise party
as they throw down a confetti of icy hail.
When thunder booms so big Gramma says it sounds
like a huge fiesta with someone banging hard on the drums.
But you and Dad watch it while sitting safely on the porch
and laugh and pretend to play drums
right along with the sound that beats down
from that cool wild drummer in the sky. My Gramma Tere Taught Me
One of the things my gramma Tere taught me
was how to make a fiesta out of every day.
Every day she would whisper, Today is a celebration! It’s the feast of San Fulano de Tal!
And she would tell me the name of
the saint for that day
or the celebration for that day
or the reason we should be happy that day.
El Día del Mariachi!
So we’d listen to mariachi music. El Día del Chef!
So we’d cook something special and exotic. El Día de la Risa!
So we’d spend the day joking and laughing.
Now I know why Tere
is just as strong a warrior name as Guerrera.
Because when you’re celebrating,
when you find a reason to be happy,
a reason to sing or dance or paint or play or laugh or write,
they haven’t taken everything
away from you.
Copyright © 2023 by Carmen Tafolla. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.