Only the good die young

Living the life that I’ve had, I’ve became accustomed to surviving. Not quite living, but more like floating around like a virus; a twisted bundle of genetic matter encased in a double layer of proteins and phospholipids, just waiting for the right moment to bond with something alive and injecting myself into the situation. I can go days, months, years without any interaction, just waiting until something interesting comes around.

Growing up was tormenting for me. Anytime I strayed the slightest bit from what was expected from me, it resulted in bad consequences. Example: when I was little I spent a lot of time at the library…voluntarily. My mom would drop me off to work on projects. It was probably my first taste of independence at nine or ten. My only goal was to just explore. Smell the phenolic aldehyde in the books that gave them that particularly heavenly scent reminiscent of vanilla. Run my hands over pages until I’d sanded my fingerprints down. Convening with authors teleported over time and distance to teach me their ways. All these volumes had to contain the answers that fourth grade social studies couldn’t give me. I had so many questions.

Me at ten with my cousin Angie.

But when my mother would pick me up, she always said the same thing: I heard you behaved badly.

I don’t know if she ever did get reports back from people. I was in Nogales, where my name was not Vene. It was “La hija de Gordo y Ceci” or “La nieta de Camilo y Chacha.”

My grandparents, Camilo and Grace (Chacha).

I was conspicuous. There were eyes on me at all time. This was a small town. Everything got reported. They published the honor roll in the Nogales Herald and the Nogales International. I can distinctly remember sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, which always smelled of garlic, onions and tomatoes, and watching my grandfather’s E.T.-like fingers parsing the words in black ink on newsprint, looking for my name. People would call my grandparents to let them know I was in the paper. Or on local TV as part of the school board. Or in the parades that coursed down Grande and then Morley. I was never not seen. From a very early age, I knew what was expected from me because it was constantly drilled over and over: stand out and be distinguished, but only for the right reasons.

That’s my grandpa in the middle and me to the left of him, after meeting Janet Reno. I was thirteen.

That’s me in a parade. I’m twelve.

I say I never knew what my mom knew because she was capable of lying to me to keep me in line, even if I was never the type of kid who would have done anything bad. I just didn’t have it in me. I wasn’t like the kids who got kicked out of Pizza Hut for unscrewing all the Parmesan shakers. I got in trouble for walking to Walmart once. I got in trouble for wearing mascara once in seventh grade. Once. She just thought I was trouble. She had no imagination when it came to all the good I was capable of but so much faith in believing the worst about me.

I was suffocated to the point that I learned to exist in a vacuum. And, while physicists have yet to prove this to a scientific degree of certainty, joy cannot exist in a vacuum. My needs and desires were never considered. I was not the “pretty” one. That was Camille, my cousin. No, I was singled out early on as the “smart” one. And I was going to be a lawyer, whether I wanted to be one or not. My grandfather had plans for me. I would one day be county judge. Camilo, ever the politician, had ambitions for me from a very, very young age.

So I did what they asked.

That’s Liz, Lisa, Megan, me and Rui in May 2005 at law school graduation.

Want the recipe for making a really ambitious female lawyer? Restrict her in an environment lined with “no’s” and watch her check for seams, sussing out the faults, trying to find the “yes’s.” I’ve always been spectacular and winnowing my way through a loophole.

So I found ways to have fun within my gilded cage. Reading racy material on the grown up side of the public library in junior high. Skipping class because I could teach the material to the rest of the class and the teachers never had to worry about me passing exams. And going to conferences.

Chris, me, Michael and Dino, 1995 in D.C.

Between junior and senior years, I got away four times: D.C. for ‘We The People’ nationals; Tucson for college classes; D.C. again for a government camp; and NYC for a conference at the U.N.

I’m in the bottom row, in a flowered skirt, holding hands with Chris. Michael is immediately to my left. D is in the first row, second to the left. He was such a stone cold fox back then. He was so fucking commanding and brilliant. I know exactly why 16-year old me dug him.

Anyway, these escapes from Nogales allowed me to breathe. For the first time in my life, I could experiment with my personality. No one was going to report back to my parents and I was in big cities with kids my own age. Of course, I was sent with strict orders to not do anything remotely fun. But I was also smart enough to know what I could get away with. For the first time in my life, I frolicked.

I remember calling home from D.C. at the government camp. I talked to my mom in Spanish on the phone–something I never did because the woman would never let me speak a sentence without correcting me or telling me my accent was terrible, also something that led to a stutter in Spanish that sometimes still comes out. My mom sounded confused. I didn’t sound like me, she said. I sounded…different. I know exactly why I didn’t sound like “me.” I sounded, well, happy. Something that I wasn’t capable of being at home.

Breaking rules, in a safe environment, where I was allowed to test boundaries and judgment, forged me into something better. The way steel is made under heat and pressure.

Looking back on my childhood, I must have seemed like such a wet blanket to all the other kids. And not just in Nogales, AZ, but to the rich kids in Nogales, Sonora. I didn’t speak Spanish freely, I was terrified that they’d report me to my parents and, for lack of practice, I wasn’t as sophisticated as they were at the social interaction. It scared me to my very core.

Debutante Ball de Club de Leones in Nogales, Sonora, 1994.

Cut to present day. I’m 40, living in NYC and pretty much divorced of my younger self. I’m still testing boundaries and still processing a childhood built on false premises. All those cautionary tales I was fed as a kid to keep me afraid are being cast aside, sometimes more than one at a time. And who I am now is not a fiction or a put on. This is who I would have been if I’d even been given room to breathe. If I’d have been given a nurturing environment, instead of stuck inside that cell of proteins and phospholipids and expected to exist on a diet of air.

I must have posted ten videos of me on Instagram yesterday. I’m dealing with the onset of cabin fever due to the cold weather. It’s an easy fix. I don’t care if anyone watches my videos, I do it for me. But it’s interesting to see who looks at them. I know if one person from Nogales, Sonora looks at them, then probably everyone of that social set knows about it. That’s how it works among them. “Ay, esa Veneranda,” they probably say, ensconced in fur coats against the desert winter chill, on outdoor patios, at the annual posadas that precede Christmas, and click their tongues. “Que loca se puso!”

But they keep watching. I think they’re finally seeing me, and not the daughter of Gordo and Ceci or the nieta of Camilo and Chacha, or the less pretty and graceful cousin of Camille. They’re seeing me for the first time.

Now I am not just genetic matter. I am organic…filled with carbon. And now, when exposed to oxygen, I am combustible. And, goddamnit, do I burn brightly. You can see the fire all the way back in Arizona from here in NYC. Let them look, I think. Let them see.