Grew Up Macho

“‘Pos mira, cabroncito,” my brother said, looking me in the eye, “si no comes cebolla, nunca serás macho.”  He whispered this outside my mother’s ears—outside her “radar” as we called it, because she could hear us whispering in the backyard, which was a good two-hundred yards away from the kitchen. Imagine—that’s good hearing.

I looked my oldest brother in the shoulder (because I didn’t have the nerve to look him in the eye) and shrugged.  I didn’t think it was necessary to eat onions to be a man, but I suppose he was right. I’d eaten onions only once before and did not like the taste of them, especially raw, freshly-peeled, white onions. Which was what sat in front of me.  My mother had just cooked a big batch of pollo en mole poblano (“chocolate sauce,” for you gringos) and the recipe called for a light tossing of sliced, raw, white onions on top to complete the dish. Now, for you culinary connoisseurs, mole without raw onions is like a filet mignon au poivre without the poivre, if you catch my drift. The rest of you who don’t understand this can go fuck yourselves because I am not in the mood to explain recipes or condiment arrangements.

My oldest brother got through to me. His “intimidation factor” took over all reason. The thought of getting a good beating on top of being ridiculed in front of others was enough for me to simply believe my brother’s statement that men are made of, and by, onions. I have no idea what Jesus Christ might have to say about this, but—never mind.

My mother’s mole was smoking in front of me as we waited for her to sit down.  We always waited for my mother to sit at the table before wolfing down her food. My Dad was absent that day but his presence was everywhere. Try to just so much as defy my mother, and you’re dead. My dad said, “This is what we do,” and that’s what we did. Now, that is macho.

Mother sat down.

Hay que rezar,” she stated, and looked me in the eye. I prayed.

Gracias, Diós por todo lo que nos haz dado. Amen.” I wanted to ask God to keep me from my brother’s bullying ways but he was sitting next to me.  God wasn’t.

“Amá!” said my brother. “You know Agustín loves raw onions on the mole.”

My mother looked at Saúl and said, “Are you making him eat raw onions?” without so much as missing a beat. She knew him and his “big brother” tactics, the way he made his younger brothers do what he wanted, whether they liked it or not. He would send us out on errands, and we, poor fools, ran them without questioning his motives. We were used to obeying, to taking orders, to doing what was asked of us without so much as questioning, because according to my father, that was the best way to shape our future lives.  Learn to take orders.  In addition to taking orders, we were encouraged to think for ourselves, to take a position on issues, to form opinions. A man without opinions, who cannot think for himself, is no man.

Now I know this sounds contradictory, “take orders and think for yourself,” and it is indeed contradictory, but life is full of contradictions.  Witness a dumb president, a leader. A “dumb leader”?  If that is not a contradiction, I don’t know what is. Yet, we have them in the U.S., and they are real. You probably have a dumb boss. Get what I mean?

You might want to know a bit about my military-style upbringing, specifically, “taking orders without question.” It’s easy to explain. Look at your children. They yell at you, they disobey you, they disrespect and even humiliate you in front of others, and you take it. Well, in my family, that never happened, not even once.  We learned to respect Dad’s guidance, because, after all: he never misled us, or pointed our lives in the wrong direction. I know few parents who mislead their children.  Parents make mistakes, and may not know better, but they do not intentionally mislead their children down the wrong road. In any case, I don’t remember an instance when my father misguided me in any way. It was always “you do things like this,” or “you do not do things like that.”  Correction and guidance was the name of the game.

Now, others may think this upbringing is quite forceful or restraining, even militant, but the way I understand it today is that it instilled a great deal of discipline in me. I have a discipline others will never know in their lives. And the reason I point this out is that I view things through my upbringing every day. I notice when people are doing things wrong or are about to have a major catastrophe, a catastrophe that is not out of carelessness. Carelessness is another thing altogether.  I’m talking about things like mowing the lawn, for example. Now there is really only one way to mow the lawn, if you think about it, and that is the right way.  I have seen full-grown adults mow a lawn and leave it looking like a bad haircut on a Beatle.  The pattern of cutting the grass is not clearly defined, the blade on the lawnmower may not be lowered to the right level, corners and circular motions are butchered exposing yellow grass below, and edges are left thick and furry, blocking the sprinkler system from executing its installed purpose.  Dead grass is left on the lawn to dry-out, fallen leaves scattered.  If you are happy to see your lawn look like that, well, that’s your choice.  All I can say is that my lawn never looked like that, and never will.  Because I learned to do it right in the first place, through instruction, guidance, and discipline. I was supervised, you might say, taught to proceed by using logic and skill.

My dad always supervised our tasks.  He would first give us instructions, then sit and watch us proceed, correcting us as we went along.  At first it was almost painful for me because I thought I couldn’t do it right, but as I learned to work through mistakes and do things correctly, the frustration disappeared and confidence took over.  By the time I was eleven I could assist my dad with any task. I knew where every tool was stored (because things have their place, and that is where they belong), when to follow directions, how to lift things without breaking them, watch, listen, and learn.  We built a beautiful brick patio in the backyard that wrapped around the house; we built a patio table with bancos; in the garage, I helped my dad install cupboards for storage.  We planted trees in the backyard, shrubs in the front, repainted the living room—you get the idea. Every Saturday there were tasks, and every week I helped my dad.  Every week I knew I had to get the tasks done if I wanted to play football with my buddies, or go for a bike ride.  In addition, I had my two hours of music, homework and errands to run.  I was a busy boy.  I don’t remember ever being idle, except at bedtime, when I’d spend what seemed like hours looking at the ceiling. What I do remember clearly is being thirty-six years old and idle for the first time, having not much to do because I’d done everything I had to do that Saturday.  In speaking to my wife, I explained I was going crazy because I’d never been idle before, I’d always kept busy with something productive. “I guess you’re going to have to learn to be idle,” she said, and proceeded to take me out the door to shop at Bergdorf Goodman’s. I never had to learn to shop, I just watched my wife.  Believe me, you watch a woman shop and you experience several things: first, you pretend to be interested; second, you ask why she looks at every single thing in the store. Third, you lose interest and go to the Men’s Shop to look at shirts and the newest styles, or to the Furniture Department to sit on a comfortable sofa, and finally, you help her out the door with a handful of heavy bags.  The only thing you learn from such an experience is to keep your mouth shut and be idle.

“Agustín is learning to be a man,” my brother answered my mom.

“And how is that?” my mother retorted, a tone of interest in her sweet voice. Whenever she confronted you, she responded quickly, almost taking you by surprise with her question.  Most of the time she stumped you. You were left with no answer. She broke your rhythm, you couldn’t answer fast enough. In this way she would catch you in a lie, or call your bluff.  My mother frequently caught us fibbing.

This was one such instance when she was seeing my brother wrap himself in a mess. A lie.

“He understands that certain actions define a man, Mother,” he answered. “Dad’s not here to eat your mole, and last time Agustín ate mole, he didn’t have onions. Dad didn’t say anything about it, but I will. He’s going to eat onions with his mole. Learn to be a man.”  My big brother laughed.  He always laughed when he entertained himself with his wit. He laughed because he knew he got out of a tight spot, or because he got one over on you. But he had it coming, because my mother was no pushover. Believe me when I say that.  She might have been a softy, but no pushover.

“Your brother does not have to eat onions to be a man,” Softy said.

Big silence.  My brother was stumped and I watched him slither out of this one. He stammered, fidgeted and laughed.

“All I know is that my dad said the same thing to me, and I ate onions. Nobody messes with me.” He said this last bit with macho pride, a tone of certainty, sounding very much like a young adult who meets little or no confrontations in life because he is seen as a man and not a mouse.

“First of all,” my mother said, “eat your mole.” My big brother had stopped eating to get his point across. “Second of all, your father does not like onions. They give him bad breath. And thirdly, your father would never say such a thing to anyone. ‘Eat your onions, learn to be a man!’ That’s ridiculous.”

Softy’s certainty in the matter had finality to it. It was true my father did not like onions, it was also true he would never say such a thing to another soul. My dad did not need to prove his manhood, his machismo, in any way.  This was my brother’s head-trip, proving he was a man, wanting his little brother to learn the same. I guess my oldest brother thought I needed such a lesson. Perhaps he saw me as some kind of weakling among the rest.  After all, I had four more brothers, and all of them sort of shoved me around to their liking.  They told me what to do and I did it. I did their tasks, or else.  One of the twins once ordered me to do his task, a task my father ordered him to do, and when I complained, he beat me, punched me on the arms until I agreed to complete the work. My father said he did not care who carried out the order as long as it got done. The fighting that went on between us was our business and we had to learn how to resolve things, he said.  Only when things got out of hand did he intervene. Things got straightened up real quick, believe me.

So I guess I was looked at as a weakling, but I didn’t care.  Truth be told, I appreciate having been the weakling because it meant I got to do a lot of things around the house, and today, I can pretty much take on anything in this old house and do it right. Several women in my life have complimented me on those skills.

My brother was no coward.  He ate his food slowly, the screws in his head turning this way and that, working to figure a way out of this little, entertaining moment he got himself into. You could see his mind at work if you looked close enough.  Where would my mother’s teasing lead him?  I say “teasing” because I know my mother was playing with him the way he was playing with me. She was defending me in her own way, and without making my brother look bad, or without hurting his feelings.  She was also testing him, seeing how he would use the logic and reason necessary to make a point such as this.  She was now entertaining herself, the way he was entertaining himself.  It was an interesting game. He had to come up with something.  But there was no hurry.

“Okay, Mom,” he said, “how does one learn to be a man?”

He laughed—or rather, snickered—not because he returned to the origins of the idea, but because he knew he just threw Softy a curveball. He was a pitcher in high school, and baseball taught him lots.  Or better said, he learned lots from this American pastime. She might go for the curveball, swing the bat, and miss.  Strike!

He rolled a tortilla and ate heartily.

“First of all,” my mother answered, “you are not yet fully a man, so you don’t know the answer to your own question.”  Which was true.  My brother was only eighteen, and still green behind the ears.  “You are learning to be a man, and developing, but in many ways you are still a child.”

This did not go well with my oldest brother, who clenched his jaw like a redneck.  He tapped his fork on the plate, and shook his head.  I knew he wanted to get up from the table, but in my house, nobody ever did that. In my house, you asked permission to get up from the table and only did so when it was granted. Otherwise, you were stuck to the seat until dinner was over.  There was none of this emotional-outburst-leave-the-table thing allowed in my house.  No, sir.  My brother wanted to get up, but did not ask for permission.  He just sat there.

“Second of all,” Softy continued, “I can distinguish a man from someone who is not a man, but do not know and have never said I know what it takes to be a man. I know one when I see one. Your father is a man.  Your uncles are all men.  As for how they learned to be men, or who they learned it from, you’ll have to ask them.”

Another silence.  My brother was now steaming.  I have never seen his face get red, and it didn’t now.  Instead, he got loud.

“All right,” he answered. “I am not yet a man, as you say, I am learning to be one. But what I have learned so far is that men eat onions.  You said you can tell who is a man, but my father does not eat onions. Now, I am not saying my dad is not a man, I am just saying you know a man when you see one, but Dad doesn’t eat onions.  My definition of a man is one who eats onions.”

“So are you saying your father is not a man?”

“I just said, ‘Dad is a man who does not eat onions.’”

“So,” said Softy, in a firm voice. “Some men eat onions, and some don’t.”

By the look on my brother’s face, he’d never stopped to consider that.

“My children are going to grow up eating onions,” is all he said before asking permission to leave the table. Permission was granted.

I eat raw onions today, and think of my brother every time I do so. I do not care if my breath stinks, and I never apologize for being a man.