Published on October 22nd, 2019 | by Pat Alderete


Butch Mama

When my daughter, mi querida hija, was placed in my arms for the first time, I told myself I would give her everything I always wanted but didn’t get. I looked at her and envisioned holiday gifts of Rockin’ Sockin’ Robots, baseball gloves and cleats – high adventure.  I promised to show her all the Universal Classic Monster Movies and, especially, to introduce her to the sensitive genius of Boris Karloff, my first love.

To my growing horror, she early on displayed a love for all things princess.  When I took her shopping for clothes, I pointed to the pants section and told her to get anything she liked. She promptly ran to the dresses and picked ones with fur collars. What started as me quizzing her on what roles Bela Lugosi played, turned into her making me name the Disney princesses. When I finally was able to name them, she insisted I match the princess with the color dress they wore. I can still see her beaming face when I finally matched yellow with Belle. She learned who the Beatles were long before I figured out Aurora, Jasmine, and Cinderella.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I knew I had much to teach her, but I hadn’t a clue how much more she had to clarify for me.  She didn’t want to play softball; instead she wanted me to play hide and seek with her Littlest Pony herd. Only my daughter could have made me say Little Pony, Little Pony, neigh! It pleased her. I wanted to buy her high-top tennies, the kind I was denied as a young girl. She wanted the sparkly silver Mary Janes.

It seemed my daughter was my mother’s revenge. My mom was as straight and femme as they come. I remember catching her looking at me from the corner of her eyes, as though wondering how I could possibly be hers. She loved the traditional feminine arts like sewing, which I absolutely hated. My daughter liked sewing and wanted to learn more about it. It was a sadness that my mom, suffering from dementia, was going downhill as fast as my daughter was developing. They both hit the same emotional age when my daughter was about two. Someone gifted my mom with a Hello Kitty blanket. My mother, wicked in her decline, would wait until my daughter would toddle by. Waving the blanket, my mom would say, “Mine! Mine!” Fighting words to any two-year-old. I often felt like a referee at some bizarre and twisted lucha libre wrestling ring, La Mama Loca vs. Tasmanian Mija. My mother died when mija was five. We draped her beloved Hello Kitty blanket over the casket, and I was terrified my daughter would knock over the coffin trying to get it.

Mija taught me it wasn’t about giving her the things I wanted and didn’t get. That time had come and gone. My redemption lay in seeing her clearly and giving her the things she wanted and needed. She didn’t like the predatory lion Halloween outfit I got her but was delighted with the Snow-White costume I surprised her with.

One day she brought in whip-like strands from the palm trees near our house. I’m not sure what their proper name is, but they look like cat-o-nine tails. I went into another room, very disturbed.  I had been beaten with those as a child and I still remembered the whooshing sound they made and the welts they caused. I didn’t want to be crazy about it, but I didn’t want them in the house either. When I walked back into the room, she had pulled the seeds out and arranged them into a heart. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to explain exactly what that meant to me, but I felt some part of me breathing again.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

I was just shy of 45, an old butch mama, when mija entered my life. My age didn’t seem to bother my daughter. One day, when mija came home from middle school, she said, “I have a friend whose grandparents are younger than you!” She laughed, I grimaced.

It’s been painful when other parents have kept their children away from my daughter, citing their religious right to be exclusionary. I saw their children’s faces turn from open and friendly to distrusting and disapproving. This scorning wasn’t based on my daughter’s behavior but on their parents’ homophobic judgment of me. Thankfully, it never caused my daughter to reject me.

I found the more relaxed I was about being butch, the more comfortable mija was. Once we were waiting for a table at a restaurant. Two sisters, one about a year older than my then five-year-old daughter, the other about a year younger, finished eating and ran over to play with her. After a while, the older one came to me.  “Are you her mama?” she asked.  Beaming with pride, I answered, “Yes, yes I am.”  “Hmmm,” the little girl titled her head.  “You look more like her daddy.”  My daughter agreed with her and they kept right on playing, happy in the moment.

There have been perks to being a butch mama. Besides being good at fixing her toys, I drove a 1955 Chevy pickup truck that mija loved and named Rusty. And I was the only mom who rode a motorcycle with a sidecar, with room for her and all her stuffed animals. Along with any friend who wanted a ride, and they all wanted rides.

When my daughter complained about boys bullying her in elementary school, I showed up. One boy in particular had been giving her grief. I strode up to him and said, “Have you been chasing my daughter?”

“Oh no!”  He said, “Not me!”

“Do me a favor,” I said, “You see anyone chasing her, you tell me.  Ok?”

His eyes big and round, he nodded. Mija told me he never bothered her again and the word got out.

Photo by Jacob Sedlacek on Unsplash

The fact that we’re an adoptive family has been an issue. Not from my daughter but, again, from other people. I’ve been surprised at how removed from normal restraint people are with their opinions about adoption. Once I was sitting with two other mothers at mija’s elementary school. “Pat,” I was asked, “how did you become a family?” I answered we had gone the foster/adopt route. I could see she had more questions, but I interrupted with, “Tell me, how did you become a family?” 

Her whole body quivered, her face reddened and she said, “Well, we had to use a sperm donor because, well….” I didn’t want to embarrass her, just make her realize that the particular circumstances are intimate. The third woman sensed this and spoke up, “We used penile vaginal penetration.” We all laughed the awkwardness off. It wasn’t always so easy.

People say the stupidest things, such as asking if I still wanted children of my own. Or talking about how they could never give up their child. Or asking if I know who the father is.  Or who the real mother is. Or talking about how lucky my daughter is when actually I’m the lucky one.  My daughter has never been denied any part of her story. Adoption is not a big secret, but its particulars are personal. As with any family, its creation touches upon intimate relationships – adoptive or not. When we first became a family, I was surprised how many people would ask me for the particular circumstances of how we came together. Then, as now, I say that story belongs to my daughter. If she chooses to share that someday, it is her choice, not mine. Not some terrible secret, just personal.

I thought I was going to give my daughter all the things I wanted but didn’t get. Instead she gave me what I need and, I think, I hope, I gave her a few things too.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the sixth grade, my daughter came home excited because she earned extra credit in a class. “How’d you do that, mija?” I asked. Smiling she answered, “I knew it was Universal Studios that made the Frankenstein and Dracula movies!”

But I was never prouder then the time we were watching a Frankenstein movie that had Glenn Strange as the monster. I could see mija looking critically at the monster. “That’s not Boris!  He’s just growling and stomping around!”

That’s right, mija. Just like your mama doesn’t look like other mothers, you still know I’m your mama. Not the only one, but this one.

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About the Author

Born and raised in East Los Angeles, Pat Alderete writes about the beauty and brutality of varrio life, rendering the complex inner worlds and strict social hierarchies of a community seldom observed in literature. Her short stories are published in Joteria and PEN Center Journal, and have been anthologized in Hers 2 and 3; Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Latino Arts Anthology 1988-2000; A Geography of Rage; Afro-Hispanic Review; and Love West Hollywood. She has written two one-act plays, Ghost and the Spirit and Love and Fire. Pat was an inaugural member of PEN Emerging Voices.  She is also a member and current board member of Macondo, a writers homeland founded by author Sandra Cisneros.  Alderete is currently working on her memoir about Chicana life in East L.A.

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