2020 Youth Voice Contest Winner: Mexican-American Abstraction: Family Through the Translation of the /Slash/

Note from the author: This short essay contains pieces of dreams, memories, scents, and laughs that I shared with my family. Mexican-Americans have a strong understanding of abstraction: we live in-between identities. And no one understands abstraction better than foster youth, we live in confusion — this piece blends both of my lives together. My goal was to add texture, scent, and depth to my understanding of family.

Family is weird. It’s not biological, it’s not psychological, and it’s not perfect. My family does not
share one last name: we are not Papias, we are togetherness. We have eliminated binaries, we
are not “brother” and “sister,” do not ask me about “mother” and “father.” We pull each other up, gas you up until you smile, we create our own playing field, and our confidence blooms like the red tomatoes in our backyard.

Do not use the term “instability” to name our family, do not call us “broken.” My family is
abstract: family is a collapse—a compression of memories, scents, rivers, emotions, and flashes of color.

We want our raices/roots: Where are our raices?

Family is coalition. It’s political, it’s social, and it’s fractured. It’s the sunflowers in a bed of
roses. Our raices/roots have tangled, like the orange extension cords in the silver tool-chest, the
cords we used to power the lights: to paint in the dark. We stand on the same brown soil, we
share water and sol/sun. We are hugged by the same moon, we grow in the night lights. Family is
the dark breeze that pulls our shadows, the stars laugh at us, as we camp in the doghouse with
our best friend: Oso/bear.

We want to grow, we want to bloom under the cotton white clouds of the sky—a sky more blue
than sky, blue as deep as the ocean’s depths. Family is nutrients, it’s all that helps us grow: sun,
water, and brown soil.

Manure built from the skins of oranges picked by ancestors. Her kisses
gone forever, but found in every plate of tacos, spritz of Marc Jacobs’
“Daisy,” and convertible blowing out their radio on the 405 freeway.
Her hair danced to her voice.

Family is memory. We remember the salty sweat that came from the indents of our eyes, tear
buckets run on empty in our family. We pull each other in closer, as the buggers in our nose run:
we make sure our shirts become your tissue paper. You sit in our arms as you scramble for
words through the pools of salty-water memories.

We apologize. We pray/beg/wish—we rub the gold plating off the four-leaf-clover— hoping that
they don’t remember these tears. We remember our tears, why would they forget theirs? You try
to become something you never had, you walk down 35th Street West alone, and at ten years old
you memorize your new address.

Ashley’s kaleidoscope sits in memories. Rosa Reds, Blueberry Blues, Toxic
Yellows rest on tin. She put it into our hands, twists of color-pools,
teleportation to uncertainty. Excess of color and saturation, fragments of abstract futures.

Family is confusing. You use him to understand what not to be, you see that you do not cut down
the tree to preserve it: you never cut the base. Care does not show up as a buzz-cut over tears, it
does not show up in homophobia, and it does not show up in the raised voice during fraction
worksheets on the kitchen table. It shows up in the thumbs-up from the side of AYSO gopher
infested soccer fields, it shows up in the sweat we laid into the corn-rows of Jalisco, it shows up
in the nights around the cast-iron fire-pit, the one that was taller than the trees Tavo climbed. As
he went to touch the sky, I stood in our tomato garden with Oso/bear: chasing the possums away.

We want our family to grow away from homophobia, anti-blackness, and misogyny. We remove
roots, throw them in the fire-pit, and start over. Our family does not whisper, with a compass
juiced with morals, we yell what y’all don’t want to hear. We scream for an ounce of equity.

Her children: Isaac, Ashley, and Michael. Our laugh, our strength, our
mannerisms, our Isaac. Green eyes: guey/dude, you are the art! Only he
can convince me that the sun is made of the feathers of palomas/doves, the same ones he hunted.

Family is tightly knit. Tight as the threads of the sarape/blanket from Jalisco. We do not let our
family walk into the world without a map, we bring our ears tight to our mouths. We learn from
our family, we grow together. Like the threads of the sarape tied to the back of the saddle, like
the threads of the sarape we ate dinner on top of: the smell of Mexico is sunk into the yarn of the sarape. A deep inhale takes you to the pueblo/town that you trace a family history, the “origins”
of Papias—your last name is Griego/Greek, right?

Family doesn’t have an origin, it’s hometown is not Tepec, Jalisco. Family is born in our hugs,
it’s in the warm embraces of trust. It’s the food we share, the car rides to LA, the dry high desert
clouds, it’s the ward of the court letter.

We left our memories in the clay.
I sleep in the warm colors of the sarape, hugged by saturated memories.
The stripes of the sarape hold me in deep sleep, they wrap around the skin
handed down from generation to generation: mixed, pulled, and pushed.
The colored dyes of the sarape bleed onto my bones.

Family is dense. Dense as the metal shoes nailed to the hooves of the caballos/horses that carried
us across dried LA river beds. The muscles of a machine that didn’t understand the word stop.
That bucked at the sight of a puddle, that drank from the river at its own pace: he took care of us.
The horse was faster than the lightning it ran away from. The crack of atoms splitting, made its
hair stand, it jumped through memories of separation and trauma—family is as dense as the
horse’s mane.

It galloped, it floated, 1,000 pounds of beast drifted across LA river veins. Our sombreros/hats,
our prize possessions: a broad-brimmed brown trim, straw masterpiece. We smiled at the sight
of boots, lassos, spurs, and the chikote/whip. We smiled at the sight of abuelo/grandpa, we knew
that he would always be there. The chickens, the cat, the laughs, the horse-sweat, the game of
cards on a rainy Sunday. Who would have thought: rancheros/ranchers in the middle of LA.

Make sure you talk to the caballo when you wash her hair.
Cranberry juice will help make your spots go away—he’s the last bit of
them I have left—I wish I could look at him without crying.
Cuídate/take care of yourself.

Family is warm. Like the inside of a crispy quesadilla/cheese-tortilla-dish. Queso/cheese cut
from a block of white gold, shreds of monterey jack—nah, we called it quesadilla cheese! You
will find family inside the air bubbles of the harina/flour tortilla, we moved away from corn, but
we all still melt inside the tortilla, everything melts over the warm comal/flat-griddle. The
quesadillas were born on top of the gas stove—the feet of the stove took root into the orange
tile—it sat across from a 1950 Northstar teal colored fridge, a kitchen born from a
Mexican-American fever dream: the Northstar had queso fresco, tortillas, Eggos, and Western
Bagel cream cheese. There is no family home, there is only the molcajete/stone-mortar.

In the bowl of the molcajete, brown hands infused flavor, spice, and history into each bite.
Family is warm: like the Western Bagel onion bagel, like the quesadilla, like the inside of the
molcajete—our kitchen memories sit in the stone bowl.

The maize/corn tortilla sat on top of the comal, the atoms of the tortilla
raised by a gentle heat, filled with life again—was this the same corn we
grew in Jalisco?

Family is the smell of campfire smoke in your skin. Family is the cloudy
days we spent on the side of Mexican corn hills, the smell of wet dirt.
Family is the Pajarete/Mexican-morning-drink drank under the white
stars of Tepec’s open night sky: I saw the mouth of the universe swallow
us whole.

Family is the glitter on the luchador/wrestler mask. It’s Isaac holding me in a headlock, it’s being
glued to the TV as Eddie Guerrero flies across the wrestling ring—it’s the frog splash!—it’s
sitting next to Isaac in the Staples Center as our heroes hold each other in choke-holds: wrestling
was an excuse for me to hold him close. Family is at the bottom of the Rice Krispie and Cocoa
Puff cereal bowls we ate during WWE Wrestle Mania! It’s the mask of Rey Mysterio, it’s the
Nelson hold that made you scream an ear-piercing MERCY, it’s the body slams, and it’s the
jumps off the third rope, that’s family.

It was Isaac that sat next to me in the principal’s office, we threw Pop-Pop Fireworks at one
another, smiling every time we hit each other. Dime-sized poppers, wrapped in a thin white
tissue paper—POPPED—when thrown with enough amor/force: only Isaac is fearless enough to
pop them in between his fingers. It was the highlight of childhood, Isaac laughed as I cried at the
principal’s raised voice, family doesn’t let you go through it alone.

It’s the tighty-whitie wrestling matches.
It’s the reflection off the replica WWE heavyweight belt we got for

It’s the wrestling moves we practiced on the trampoline.
I liked wrestling only because you liked wrestling.
In a dream: we went back to that principal and put him into a Nelson
hold! Say Mercy!

Family is Tía/aunt. Family is all the women that open their hearts to the Orphans of the world.
She brought us all into her arms, hugged us tight, and never let us go. The selflessness of human
love, a level of care that all your money will never buy….worth more than all the riches of the
world. Family is all the birthdays, all the breakfasts, all the rides to school, all the graduations,
all the food in the pantry, and all the loads of laundry you cleaned without complaining.

She gave us the food off her own plate, she played Clair de Lune to help us sleep, she taught me
how to let go of anxiety, and she signed my planner every night, even when she got home late
from work.

I never told her I was embarrassed of the Superman tin-lunch box, now I
look for her in dreams, to tell her my biggest fears.
We stood under the light of the moon, we felt the cool May wind kiss our
cheeks, and the tiny hugs of the warm grains of sand under our toes: a
portrait of the Mexican-American family, life before abstract.

Family is flashes of color. From Jenifer’s blue hair to Dwayne’s white Doc Martens. From Oso’s
brown eyes to the red tomato blooming in the memories of brown brain matter. Highlights of
brown, streams of yellow, puddles of blue, all splatter across our infinite skies. Consumed by
“instability” we find passion in the bold colors of the sarape. The deep-caramel waves of the
horses mane bring memories of family.

The wild imaginations of a twenty-one year old Mexican-American Orphan, afraid of his own
spanish. He breaks the tin-kaleidoscope, points the mirrors at the world and rips apart the hard
lines of reality, he creates his own pool of colors. And dives headfirst into the warm light: let
your tears dry under the sun.

We drove past our exit, I steered the car towards the mouth of the desert
and pushed the pedal to the ground. We ripped through desert roads and
we never looked back—we drove through the sun and joined our family for
the 5:00am Pajarete, we all sat in the bowl of the molcajete/universe.


Michael Papias is a first generation, low-income, Latinx student, studying at UC Berkeley. Outside of his classes, “I am working on an independent research project that focuses on the experiences of Latinx foster youth from across California; specifically, examining how Latinx foster youth have approached their own understandings of cultural and family identity. Creative writing should be used to unite our people, to bring immense emotion, and force structures to change—our creative writing is more than powerful than research, it is timeless.”

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