Thursday, March 24, 2016

Nopal En La Frente: Revisited


On visiting my blog today I find it interesting that of all my posts over the years only one has generated any measurable amount of interest (comments) from readers and that it a short post on the use of the phrase "Nopal en la Frente." The image in that post is of a clay mask I made some time ago of a face with a nopal or cactus pasted on its forehead. I was sure I had already posted a chapter from my book, "Songs from the Barrio" by the same title. So, I am taking the liberty of posting it here in hopes that it can continue to generate the spirited discussion of the first post.

Un Nopal en la Frente (from "Songs from the Barrio", by Richard Rios

It became obvious to me early in life that the color of a person’s skin would play a crucial role in succeeding in American culture. Ironically, in our family three of us, John, Shirley and me, were born light-complected, with freckles and red hair. The other three, Mary, Eddie, and Jessie were dark-skinned with black hair. My mother would admonish me for playing in the sun. “Métete a la sombra! Te vas a poner negro, como Indio!” It was understood that to be a black or “dark Indian”, was bad. The nice word for being dark skinned was to be called “Moreno.”

Mexicans refer to light skinned Mexicans as gueros or gueritos. I hated the word because it was often accompanied by a tone of ridicule. Where the red hair and freckles came from in our family, we never knew. Neither my mom or dad had red hair, nor did their parents as far as we knew, though my dad was light-skinned with freckles. I heard stories of Mexicans with blue eyes and fair skin in regions of Mexico, but I pretty much bought into the popular stereotype that all Mexicans were dark skinned and had black hair, and that I was an anomaly.

When I became a dad years later, both of our boys were born dark skinned with jet black hair. When they asked “Daddy, why do you have freckles?”  Jokingly, I would say, “One day my mother was painting the ceiling over my crib and I was spattered with drippings.” They would crack up. “Tell it again Dad, tell it again!

However, in school, being light skinned gave me an advantage over my darker skinned friends, who were quickly labeled “slow learners” and put in the back of the room. They were the ones prodded into fights by the White kids. As a result, they banned together, running in groups for self-protection. Ironically, most people never knew I was Mexican and I could run comfortably in both circles, even with Whites from downtown. But this was risky business. None of us wanted to be called a Gringo-lover. “Check out this Vato. He thinks he’s better than us,” they would say about any Mexican running with White guys.

But I have to admit something here. I had a thing for White girls, little “gringitas”, as we called them in Grammar school. I went head over heels for Greta Johnson and Louise Sailor, with the golden locks; but they never even knew I existed. My mother, sensing my dismay, would say in her old sage wisdom, “Acuerdate, amor de lejos, amor de pendejos”, reminding me that love from a distance, was a fool’s love. “Cuando te cases, casaté con una Mexicana porque ellas saben como respetar a sus hombres.” It was only Mexican women who knew how to respect their men so I needed to make sure to marry one, she warned. I would take her advice to heart years later and marry a girl from Mexico City.

It was the barrio culture for Mexicans to stick with Mexicans. Scandals would arise when someone married outside his group, a Mexican with a White, or the supreme disgrace, a Mexican with a Negro! These individuals were often ostracized in the barrio and treated with great suspicion. For a Mexican to pretend he was better than the rest, was considered a supreme insult. “Miralo, se cree muy Americano el pendejo, pero trae el nopal en la frente!” The image of someone having a nopal (cactus) pasted on his  forehead was hilarious.  We all understood that the cactus was our firebrand, sealing our Mexicaness, something we could never disguise or change, one we took to our grave. That no matter how American we thought ourselves to be, to them we would always be “just another Mexican”, was an irony that too often proved to be true.

“You are not an American”, one of teachers once told me, “You’re a Mexican”. “Mom, am I an American?” “No, you are a Mexican.” She confirmed. “But I was born here!” I protested, “And I speak English!”  “But in their eyes you will always be a Mexican”. End of argument. The teacher’s also changed our names. Beautiful Spanish names were shortened, I suppose, for their convenience. Federico became Fred, Margarita became Maggie, Jose became Joe, and Richard became Dick. I hated Dick. We all knew what a dick was. Worse, were stories circulated in the barrio about Mexican families or individuals who had actually Anglicized their names, about the Campos’ who were now the Fields’, and the Martinez’ who were now the Martins’.

Our Spanish accent was a separate issue. No matter how hard they tried many of my barrio buddies could never kick the Mexican accent and it became a barrier to them. “Mai teechur, tol’ me I gotta reed dis’ buk by tomurow.” For me, shedding the accent was as easy as discarding an old coat. But there was a huge price tag for trading our Mother-tongue for another. We had to choose: Spanish or English; there would be no compromise. Being bilingual was a thing touted in those days.  “The sooner you get rid of Spanish and your accent, the better”, was inherently understood by us Chicanos, pounded into our psyches to the point that some of us became ashamed to call ourselves “Mexican”. “No, I’m not Mexican, I’m Spanish”! We insisted. We understood clearly that Spanish had more class than the other word.

The advent of what would later be dubbed “Pocho” or “Spanglish” is even more of a mystery but it neatly and easily embedded itself in the barrio, a tossed salad of English and Spanish. “Mi teacher me dijo que tenia que read este book y write un essay on it.” There were no rules for grammar here. Nonetheless, most of us clearly understood it we flowed between las dos lenguas seamlessly”.

And so we ate “Spanish food”, not Mexican. My mom spoke only Spanish at home, though she understood it. For her, it was a cultural compromise to speak it. “Why should I?” She demanded. I was comfortable moving back in forth between the two languages and understood that one was to be used in barrio, and the other in public. I hated people scowling at us at a store or the bank when we spoke Spanish out loud, so I kept it to myself.

During the 40’s it was not unheard of for families to forbid their children to speak Spanish in the home, believing that it would prevent them from getting “ahead” in American society. While this bothered me at the time, I understood why they were doing it; in our home it was not so. We all spoke flawless English, but we never forgot Spanish, though we spoke it brokenly.  Many who lost the ability to speak Spanish would later grow to regret it, and I felt sorry for them.

For a Mexican born in the U.S., there was nothing more embarrassing or humiliating than to be spoken to in Spanish and not being able to answer! One of my mother’s greatest dismays was that of the many grandchildren she had, not one of them spoke Spanish, with the exception of my our son Michaelangelo, who my wife and I insured would grow up to speak Spanish, and she was proud of that.

Looking at myself in the mirror today, my red hair has grown white, and the freckles darkened, and my nopal en la frente, has almost vanished, though I still feel the prick of its spines on occasion. I had it removed surgically, so as to leave no scar. Now, I wear it proudly, by choice and I’m proud of it. After all, it cost me dearly.

(Book may be purchased for $9.95 on or at or by contacting me.)


Don Tiemann said...

Thank you for this blog. I am a North American who has lived in Mexico for 10 years. I have become very frustrated with the hate directed at Mexico and its people by the political candidates in America today. It was most refreshing to read your commentary. The Americans who have said so many untrue and hateful things of the Mexican race should be ashamed of themselves. I find it very difficult and lonely to travel in the US although I lived there for 53 years. I feel very sorry for those people, how miserable and small their lives must be to be so full of hate. Un mil gracias, Pablo

Brittanie Lewis said...

Hi Richard,

My name is Brittanie Lewis. I'm a senior History major studying at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, but I'm originally from Modesto.

This year, I am writing a thesis, an original research project of about 100 pages, and I'm hoping to do a history of El Rematito/The Crows Landing Road Flea Market from 1986 to the present. I'm interested in using this history to ask broader questions about how the Mexican community members who frequent el remate claim spaces for citizenship, the development of survival strategies, and the experience of Latino/a people vis-a-vis white identifying people who still live on the south side of the city (I'm hypothesizing that many have been there for a long time/have seen the south side of the city and particularly areas like Shackelford and Bystrom/El Barrio transform over the years). I'm hoping to incorporate (of course, in the safest way possible) some ethnographic research on the experiences of the undocumented community on Modesto's South Side as well.

I'm very excited for this project because there is little to no academic secondary literature on Mexican/Mexican-American community in Modesto. Needles to say, I was so excited when I found your book Songs From the Barrio. I'm reading it right now and I am thoroughly enjoying it so far. I'm really excited to contribute to a gap in the field and bring to life the history of a crucial community in Modesto that has been left out of the historical record of our home. As far as I know, yours is the only book of its kind, and there are no reliable histories written of non-white communities in Modesto. All of the published histories I've read of either the San Joaquin County or Modesto (except for one history dissertation about the history of Fresno, which I very much enjoyed reading!) have been written by authors who make no mention of the Hispanic community nor the Mexican people in particular in the contributions they've made to the history of this place. I'm trying to begin righting that wrong.

Therefore, I was wondering if you would like to speak with me about your experiences. The time frame of my project is 1986 to the present (the year of IRCA's passing, as well as the year that Pedro Marquez, the founder of El Rematito, arrived in Modesto), but I would absolutely love to hear from you more broadly as someone who has seen Modesto change over the years. I will be back in California for one week in November and then for about five weeks in December and January to conduct research. If you would like to to speak with me, I would love to get together and conduct and interview when I'm back in November. You have a crucial voice that would contribute so very much to my thesis, so I look forward to the opportunity to listen to your story.

Thank you so much for your time in advance, and I'm looking forward to hearing back from you! Please feel free to email me at

All my best,

Brittanie Lewis
Senior, Amherst College
B.A., History