My Mexican family is stereotypically huge. My mother is one of five and my father is one of six; all but one of those aunts/uncles is married and all but two of them have at least two kids. This, however, is not even the tip of el iceberg. The real fun starts when you get into counting cousins, for mine is a family where the number of times some of the women have given birth is in the double digits. Think about that.
I won’t lie to you here: I don’t even know how many of us there are. All I know is that I could see half of my extended family in the street and not know we were related. Do you know how terrifying that is? I could meet some guy tomorrow, fall in love and start a Pinterest board only to be out on a date, asking about weekend plans and discover most unceremoniously that my Uncle Gabe is his uncle too.
Let’s chat about my Quinceañera. My parents and I had trimmed and cropped the invite list so many times and were still looking at a massive 325+ guests - you know Latinos: you don’t want to offend anyone, so you get pressured to invite everyone. We finally sat down and agreed on a few key points: our family was huge, we loved them all, but I personally didn’t even know a lot of them very well and helloooo: we were ballin’ on a budget. My mom, ever the optimist, came up with a genius plan for dealing with the Torres, her mom’s particularly sizable side of the family. We’d give ten invitations to each of the “smaller” family units that make up the larger clan, then they could each decide amongst themselves who would like to attend. Those ten people would get the supreme privilege of watching me dance to Thalia’s Piel Morena in my pretty white dress while all those less enthused by the idea could stay at home and save the gas money. Win-win for everyone! But oh, the best laid plans of mice, men and Mexicans…
A few weeks before my big day, I got home from school and checked the mail like usual. Tucked between the Pennysaver and an Oriental Trading catalog were several RSVPs in those cute little cream-colored envelopes we’d supplied with the invitations. I was about to hand those over to my mom when another little stack of envelopes caught my eye, plain white ones with our address handwritten on the front. I opened one of them out of curiosity and it took me a minute to figure out what I was looking at…
It was my RSVP card, but not. It was black and white and written on. I yelled out, “Moooooom!” as the realization sunk in: my big fat Mexican family had photocopied my invitation and passed that sucker to everyone. We were already feeling pretty obnoxious about our ridiculous guest list when we found ourselves upping the food order and calling the hall with the emergency revision: please open up that final wing, sir, we need space for over 400 bodies. That staggering figure is precisely why I’ve always said that I will have to marry an only child or an orphan. Maaaaaybe a dude with one sibling. We’ll see.
Just a few years later at my cousin’s Quinceañera, this same crazy but lovable Torres family showed up in droves once again. Her venue couldn’t physically accommodate the additional number of guests, so what was she to do? Nothing! See, they got a hotel down the street and attended the party in shifts. Say what you want, dude, but Mexicans are resourceful.
Given the size of the bunch, it is therefore an impressive feat that this Torres family organizes an annual family reunion. It is hosted by one of families of the Torres siblings, i.e. my Abuela Mari and her brothers and sisters, and is generally held in either San Diego, Riverside or LA’s San Gabriel Valley. A couple of weeks ago, I attended the 2015 reunion in Irwindale, California at the Santa Fe Dam.
I carpooled in a big comfy minivan with my Tio Tony and Tia Monica, my Abuela Mari, cousins Alexis and Amanda, and Alexis’ boyfriend Rosendo. We left just after 7am, as always not quite on time, hitting the road while munching on a fresh batch of Abuela’s papa y chorizo burritos. Amanda kept to herself and played with her phone, my Tia fought to get a word in with my Abuela, and my Tio barked back at us from time to time, “EY! Calabazas! Pass me an iced tea!” Alexis and I, the “Calabazas,” shared the last row of the van with a giant cooler and each other. We cozied up with a set of blankets nearly as old as we were, sang songs on the radio and talked our faces off. Minus the presence of a boyfriend figure who got the “coveted” privilege of sharing the front row with my Tio, it was just like old times.
Upon arrival, we helped ourselves to some piping hot menudo and a steaming cup of freshly made café de olla then made our rounds greeting members of our extended family. The next 8+ hours were spent talking and eating, taking pictures and eating, pivoting canopies and chairs to stay in the shade and eating. Prizes were raffled, bingo was played, the young folks partook in a rousing volleyball match and everyone else oohed and aahed over how grown all of the young ones were.
The highlight of the day unfolded when my Uncle Gabe announced that my great aunt Trini was selling a selection of her hand-knit items. The items included coin pouches, phone and iPad cases, wristlets and the like, and Rosendo decided to show his support by purchasing a camo-colored phone pouch. My Abuela asked him what he had in his hands and Rosendo foolishly held it out for her to see. Poor Rosendo, so naïve to Abuela’s wily ways.
See, my grandmother is a thug. She wasn't always, to be fair - the shift took place when she had her liver transplant over a decade ago. Doctors warned us that we might observe changes in her personality and boy, he wasn't kidding. She was always so sweet and even tempered, never raised her voice and always sort of went with the flow. Her smile never wavered and she was always the pacifist, keeping everybody happy because that's just how grandma was.
Now she'll punk you in a game of cards, sass you if she thinks you looked at her funny and will flat out tell you where you can go if you try to cramp her style. She once called me stupid for having gone wine tasting in Temecula, not because she has a problem with wine, but because only a stupid person wouldn’t have gone to the nearby casino instead. She's accused me of wearing a wig twice in the last six months, giving me side-eye when I insist that I just have a lot of hair. Her latest quirk is that she insists on wearing this flimsy fleece scarf tied around her waist all the time. She "has" to wear it, she says, and will kung fu fight with anyone who insinuates that it is not indeed as effective as a back brace. That sucker was like $10 from Old Navy, dude, knock it off. I value my life though, so I keep that thought to myself.
My Abuela is also very sneaky. At the reunion, she took that pouch from Rosendo's hand before he could get a single word in and thanked him for the item, proceeding to mock her sister Tere for not having one of them herself. Rosendo was in a bit of a bind here: he could correct her and take the pouch back from her, sure. Then he’d be the dick taking a hunk of yarn from an old lady. He could let it go instead and just be out the five dollars, but he’d genuinely taken a liking to this colorful little pouch made with love. He went back to the table with the knit goods in search of a similar item when Abuela dearest appeared to his left out of nowhere. This, dear friends, is where the con artist went in for the kill: “Oh,” she asked in a voice both soft and saccharine, “did you mean to buy this for yourself?”
“Oh, it’s ok!” he said, sinking further in sneaky old lady quicksand. “You can have it back!” Abuela said. “Let’s just go pick out a new one for me!” Without missing a beat and before our poor sucker could protest, she picked out not one pouch but two of them then motioned towards Rosendo for payment. She wore that triumphant smirk proudly as Rosendo looked on in bewilderment, wondering how he’d just been swindled into buying not one pouch but three. Insert the unmistakable chords of The Next Episode here: that right there is thug life, and Abuela stays on that grind.
That’s my family for you. My grandma will try to hustle you out of money or gifts. My UCLA-loving uncles will threaten to hock your USC gear on eBay. My cousin will shove a handful of Birthday Cake Oreos in your purse because you never quite know when you'll have an Oreo emergency; my aunt will remind your mother that it was high time she got herself some grandkids and suggest you join a Catholic singles group because “Mija, come on. You’re thirty.” There’s a lot of love behind the crazy though, and I for one am glad that we take at least one day out of the year to celebrate it. I hope this love keeps bringing us together when it’s me channeling my inner Sophia Petrillo, selling self-published short stories and homemade bookmarks to suckers for cash to spend on booze and more books.