Pocas Pero Locas: An Interpersonal Chicana Essay Where Two Primas Make Sure Shit Gets Told Right
Episode one of a four episode series. Read episode two here.
Of Backpacks and Backbones
My cousin Desiree and I never played house.
We mimicked much cooler adults. We played at being female gangsters, cholas, Mexican bad asses with big hair, hand-poked tattoos, and fingers that could deftly apply eyeliner and squeeze a trigger. Our gang had two members, us, and we planned on recruiting nobody, not our siblings and especially not our parents. We dubbed ourselves POCAS PERO LOCAS, THE FEW BUT INSANE, and we practiced throwing signs with our hands, curling our fingers into PPL.
Desiree, who’ll forever be one year older and wiser than me, speaks to me by phone, confessing, “I felt most comfortable when you and I were POCAS PERO LOCAS. By 14, I’d already been introduced to a gang and by teaching you the things that they were teaching me, I was trying to show you that there was another way out.”
My prima’s wisdom holds true. Lifelines are what gangs continue to represent to many kids who join them.
These days, neither my cousin nor I are rushing to escape from chronic abuse or neglect. Gone are the atmospheres of terror which we both survived. We’re grown women now and I sit at my kitchen table, reminiscing with my beloved loca.
To reach me, Desiree no longer has to wait for an operator to process a collect call. That was one of various obstacles she learned to navigate to reach the world beyond prison and since exiting a cell for the last time, my prima now dials me directly. Today is her day off from work and we’re spending our morning in conversation, revisiting that season in our lives, nearly thirty years ago, when adulthood, and hard time, seemed impossibly far off.
At the ages of 14 and 13, fire and fear filled the two of us and that combination turned us short-sighted. Like most desperate people, we grew hyper-focused on the present and our adolescent dress rehearsal turned into real life for Desiree. Nonetheless, POCAS PERO LOCAS lives on and as such, we’re chronicling how this fucked up country punished Desiree for doing what she had to in order to survive. Ultimately, what we’re trying to get across is that no girl is born a gangster and when one does become a loca, she’s clinging to self-respect. She’s choosing to surrender her dignity to no man and no bitch.
A loca pledges allegiance to herself.
The criminal punishment system fucks with girls and women by seldom bringing the hammer down on our violent abusers. Instead, the state condemns victims of gender-based violence, going extra hard against those of us who violently and passionately resist. In lieu of subsidizing our recovery, the state of California disappears many of us at an annual cost of $81,000 per prisoner. In cases like Lisa Montgomery’s, our government executes us.
According to sociologists Traci Schlesinger and Jodie Lawson, 43% of women in our general population have experienced either physical or sexual assault. Studies examining the rates of violence experienced by people in women’s prisons have found that up to 75% of those surveyed have gone through physical or sexual violence. Painting a similarly stark picture, the ACLU reports that the vast majority of those caged in women’s prisons have been victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and child abuse. It should also be emphasized that “incarcerated women have experienced violence more often and in more forms than have other women.” Desiree and I experienced every form of violence listed by the ACLU, but various privileges, class status in particular, shielded me from incarceration. Nevertheless, my prima and I have both taken turns carrying what she calls “a heavy backpack of skeletons.”
“I was so curious about everything you had to teach me,” I tell my prima. “You came to stay at our house in 1990 and you lived only a few hours away, near Los Angeles, which I thought was so romantic. I lived somewhere boring, by strawberry fields and cows, and you represented sophistication. When Dad told me you were coming to spend the summer before high school with us, I thought, Holy Shit! I can’t wait! I lived to watch you put on your eyeliner.”
As I recall my cousin warming her eyeliner pencil with a Zippo lighter, she laughs. Then, in a serious tone, Desiree replies, “I felt like I was being shipped away. I was seen as a problem. That’s why I was sent to you guys, but I treated the stay as an adventure. I was glad to be away from Whittier but when I got to Santa Maria, I felt that I stood out like a sore thumb. We went to the mall and I kept trying to hide my tattoo. It was my first one, and you kept saying, ‘No! Don’t hide it! It’s cool!’”
I chuckle, recalling how my cousin’s tattoo of Saint Teresa, a sixteenth century teen runaway, inspired me to get inked. My first tattoo took the form of a smiling kitten perched on my left shoulder. Soon after the cat came a topless woman with horns and a tail. That she-devil fades on my right shoulder.
“With you, I felt like I could be myself,” says Desiree. “It was like we decided to be one another’s backbone. We weren’t going to let anybody harm us.”
While POCAS PERO LOCAS practiced self-defense, it never occurred to us to train for custodial interrogation, indictment, or conviction. That a judge might sentence one of us to spend decades behind bars seemed more than light years away. Cages were for animals and we weren’t zoo creatures. We were locas.
Because we grew up trapped by circumstances that we despised, Desiree and I longed for freedom and relief. The pain we were enduring made it difficult for us to imagine situations worse than what we were already experiencing and for countless kids, childhood amounts to a panic-inducing labyrinth, a terrifying place where sadistic, incompetent, and/or apathetic adults guard the exits. When kids do try to escape from abusive environments, few people applaud them. Instead, the state calls such rebels “juvenile delinquents.” Psychologists describe our defensive behaviors as “anti-social.”
Those categorizations are bullshit. Organizing into a two-girl gang was one of the most pro-social things I’ve ever done. Belonging to POCAS PERO LOCAS cultivated our confidence, imbuing my cousin and me with the strength and intellectual discipline to think critically about human relationships, especially familial ones. POCAS PERO LOCAS empowered us to revolt against harmful rules and it inspired us to flirt with a taboo subject, the truth. In addition to acting as my cousin’s mafiosa sidekick, I also played at being her scribe. Decades later, my PPL role remains the same and so, when Desiree instructed me to tell our story, I rolled up my sleeves.
When a co-conspirator tells you to jump, the only appropriate answer is, “How high?”
Desiree and I formed POCAS PERO LOCAS to shield one another from oppression, the kind systemically aimed at girl children, ethnically and racially minoritized communities, and the modestly educated. We desperately wanted to flee from institutions, places and individuals that harmed us and so, we worked with what we had. We had curiosity, intelligence, love, loyalty, and a learned capacity for violence. We built a micro-family, a micro-mafia, one that would defend us at any cost, and this interpersonal essay demonstrates that the social structure Desiree and I built during our Chicana childhoods remains functional, beautiful, well-oiled and relevant. This is our story.
“Home is Where I Learned to Lie”
My dad, Butch, is Desiree’s uncle. Desiree’s mom is my Aunt Becky. Our grandma Hope (Esperanza) and our grandpa Peter raised our mom and dad. Since historical context and place are everything, you should know that Grandma and Grandpa’s story began in Mexico.
In 1941, Grandpa met Grandma in el Parque de la Revolución, a Guadalajara park whose grounds had once been home to a notorious prison, the Escobedo Penitentiary. Grandma was a 15-year-old Tapatía desperate to get away from her stepfather, a man thoroughly deserving of her contempt. I imagine Grandpa represented freedom, a way to escape, and when he, a 32-year-old gringo, started courting her, she acquiesced.
Two years after meeting, the couple married.
Grandma began bearing children and in 1952, the growing family boarded a northbound train. After 3 days, they disembarked at Los Angeles’s Union Station, checking into the Gates Hotel, where Dad ate waffles for the first time. Later, when he glimpsed City Hall, Dad mistook the iconic white structure for the Empire State Building. He must’ve seen that skyscraper in King Kong.
The family’s first California home was made at Estrada Courts, a public housing project in East Los Angeles, and at Echo Park’s Queen of Angels Hospital, Grandma gave birth to Aunt Becky. Douglass Aircraft Company employed Grandpa, stationing him along an assembly line, and he soon moved the family southeast, to a three-bedroom tract home in suburban Norwalk. In his Woodie wagon, Grandpa commuted to and from Santa Monica, where he put airplanes together for the rest of his life. Though Grandpa spoke several languages, he never graduated from high school.
All of this is to say that Desiree and I come from people who got their hands dirty in west LA, not people who owned property there, and Dad used to kid that like him, Marilyn Monroe and Bela Lugosi also lived in Norwalk. It’s true. At various times during the 1950s, the sex icon and the screen vampire received treatment at Norwalk’s psychiatric facility, Metropolitan State Hospital.
In November of 1967, Grandma found Grandpa lying still as a statue in the driveway. While tinkering with his car, a heart attack had killed him and I’ve heard it joked that the Thanksgiving dinner was that good. Desiree and I had yet to be born so we only know Grandpa through stories like that one. In photos, he’s usually pictured wearing a short-sleeved button-down shirt and a fedora. In a black and white image shot somewhere in the Southwest, he poses beside a horse. He holds guns.
Desiree was born in Whittier in 1976. If you’ve seen Back to the Future, you’ve seen some of Whittier. The movie’s high school scenes were filmed at Whittier High, the campus having been chosen for its “traditional” look and in the 1930s, a future head of state failed in his attempt to become Whittier High’s student body president. That loser, President Richard Nixon, is buried in Yorba Linda. Grandma Hope is buried in Whittier. She died in 2014 and rests near Eazy-E’s grave. The rapper and Grandma are both interred at Rose Hills Memorial Park & Mortuary, a hilly necropolis sometimes referred to as the “Disneyland of death.”
Desiree mostly grew up in Whittier. She lived with Grandma and Grandma’s second husband, a cranky furniture store owner named Bob. Aunty Becky and Desiree’s little sister, Elizabeth, lived with them too and their home stood not far from the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility, a “reform school” for boys.
The facility scared me. As we drove past it to visit Grandma, Dad pointed in its direction.
“That’s kiddie jail,” he said.
I imagined it like an adult jail but with everything small. Tiny bars. Shorter chains. Child-sized tin cups.
Desiree’s dad, who was absent throughout much of her childhood, was Chicano. I never met him. I liked Aunt Becky. She used profanity even more creatively than Dad, ate chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and collected dolls, mostly old Barbies. She bought these at yard sales, garage sales, swap meets and estate sales. Dolls packed her bedroom shelves and they seemed curious about us, about humans. You could feel their blue eyes following you, not wanting to lose sight of you.
Dad took us to Whittier during vacations and I spent most of my time at Grandma’s with Desiree. We jumped on her bed and dared each other to do stupid things, like eat dog food. Sometimes, we watched reruns of The Twilight Zone. I liked looking at Aunt Becky’s dolls but we mostly stayed in the bedroom Desiree shared with Elizabeth. In there we hid from the tension permeating the rest of the house. Adults could begin screaming at any moment and I didn’t want to have to cover my ears. I especially didn’t want to hear grown-ups yell things like, “Shut up, you IDIOT!” Hearing them bark cruel shit made my stomach hurt and by playing the oldies station, we could drown out the din with the radio.
Once I became a pre-teen, Desiree and I traded Garbage Pail Kids cards while blasting cassette tapes on her small stereo. One album we listened to a lot was Too $hort’s Life Is… Too Short: “Cusswords, just let em roll/ Motherfucking shit,/ God damn asshole.” Compared to the cruel words being shouted in Grandma’s living room and kitchen, Too $hort’s lyrics were preferable.
“My childhood was a roller coaster ride,” says Desiree. “I never knew what to expect but I always had to put on a smile. My mom worked her butt off to take care of me and I got sent to a lot of babysitters. That was when the sexual abuse began. My babysitters were disgusting people who didn’t know how to keep their hands to themselves. A lot of people didn’t know what was going on. I mostly kept what was happening a secret because I was ashamed. When your family visited us, you were my comfort. You were my safety. With you guys, I knew I wasn’t going to be hurt.”
The abusers that violated Desiree are family members and the type of harm she experienced remains pervasive. “1 in 3-to-4 girls and 1 in 5-to-7 boys are sexually abused before they turn 18, an overwhelming incidence of which happens inside the family” and child sexual abuse, incest in particular, belongs to a category of trauma that tends to happen long before victims can name the harm, long before victims have the language to explain how caretakers are injuring them. Because incest primes children to distrust everyone and everything, it is a supremely destructive social force.
The shame provoked by abuse compelled Desiree to shed it. At age 6, she carried her jump rope to her closet where she tried to fashion a noose to hang herself. Luckily, the rope broke. After the suicide attempt, Desiree told a grown-up about her ordeal. That adult commanded her to shut up.
She complied and forced herself to pretend that “everything was okay.”
“Home is where I learned to lie,” says Desiree. “I learned to put on a mask. I learned to roll with the actual, physical punches.”
Desiree’s abusers used coercive control to extract her silence.
Coercive control relies on a pattern of degradation, manipulation, threats, and violence and after targeting her for sexual abuse, Desiree’s torturers threatened to hurt Aunt Becky and Elizabeth if she told the truth. The abusers also promised that if she spoke up, no one would believe her. They weren’t wrong: Few people want to confront child abuse, especially when the violence implicates family members. People who deny that abuse is real, rampant, and devastating enrage me but I take comfort in the idea that the truth remains the truth even in the face of total disbelief. Being told that something never happened doesn’t undo the fact of its occurrence and for that reason, the truth soothes me. In spite of all the lies we’re forced to believe the truth just is.
It depends on no one but itself.
Episode one of four. Read Episode 2 here.
Myriam Gurba is the editor-in-chief of Tasteful Rude. She is also the author of the memoir Mean, a New York Times editors’ choice. O, the Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time and Publishers’ Weekly describes Gurba as having a voice like no other. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris Review, TIME.com, and the Believer. Gurba has been known to call shitty writers pendejas and has no qualms about it. Along with Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, she co-founded Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots literary organization that seeks to revolutionize publishing.