Sandra Cisneros was born in 1954. She is Mexican-American, the only girl of 7 children in a family that traveled back and forth from the Chicago Chicano barrio to Mexico. She lives now in San Antonio, Texas. Her subjects are both Mexican and Chicana women. She is the recipient of many awards, including a MacArthur “genius grant.” “Eleven” takes place on the birthday of a little girl like Sandra.
What they don't understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you're eleven, you're also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don't. You open your eyes and everything's just like yesterday, only it's today. And you don't feel eleven at all. You feel like you're still ten. And you are --underneath the year that makes you eleven.
Like some days you might say something stupid, and that's the part of you that's still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama's lap because you're scared, and that's the part of you that's five. And maybe one day when you're all grown up maybe you will need to cry like you're three, and that's okay. That's what I tell Mama when she's sad and needs to cry. Maybe she's feeling three.
Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That's how being eleven years old is.
You don't feel eleven. Not right away. It takes a few days, weeks even, sometimes even months before you say Eleven when they ask you. And you don't feel smart eleven, not until you're almost twelve. That's the way it is.
Only today I wish I didn't have only eleven years rattling inside me like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box. Today I wish I was one hundred and two instead of eleven because if I was one hundred and two I'd have known what to say when Mrs. Price put the red sweater on my desk. I would've known how to tell her it wasn't min instead of just sitting there with that look on my face and nothing coming out of my mouth.
"Whose is this?" Mrs. Price says, and she holds the red sweater up in the air for all the class to see. "Whose? It's been sitting in the coatroom for a month."
"Not mine," says everybody. "Not me."
"It has to belong to somebody," Mrs. Price keeps saying, but nobody can remember. It's an ugly sweater with red plastic buttons and a collar and sleeves all stretched out like you could use it for a jump rope. It's maybe a thousand years old and even if it belonged to me I wouldn't say so.
Maybe because I'm skinny, maybe because she doesn't' like me, that stupid Sylvia Saldivar says, "I think it belongs to Rachel." An ugly sweater like that, all raggedy and old, but Mrs. Price believes her. Mrs. Price takes the sweater and puts it right on my desk, but when I open my mouth nothing comes out.
"That's not, I don't , your not...Not mine," I finally say in a little voice that was maybe me when I was four.
"Of course it's yours," Mrs. Price says. "I remember you wearing in once." Because she's older and the teacher, she's right and I'm not.
Not mine, not mine, not mine, but Mrs. Price is already turning to page thirty-two, and math problem number four. I don't know why but all of a sudden I'm feeling sick inside, like the part of me that's three wants to come out of my eyes, only I squeeze them shut tight and bite down on my teeth real hard and try to remember today I am eleven, eleven. Mama is making a cake for me tonight, and when Papa comes home everybody will sing Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday to you.
But when the sick feeling goes away and I open my eyes, the red sweater's still sitting there like a big red mountain. I move the red sweater to the corner of my desk wit my ruler. I move my pencil and books and eraser as far from it as possible. I even move my chair a little to the right. Not mine, not mine, not mine.
In my head I'm thinking how long till lunchtime, how long till I can take the red sweater and throw it over the school yard fence, or even leave it hanging on a parking meter, or bunch it up into a little ball and toss it in the alley. Except when math period ends Mrs. Price says loud and in front of everybody , "Now Rachel, that's enough," because she sees I've shoved the red sweater to the tippy-tip corner of my desk and it's hanging all over the edge like a waterfall, but I don't' care.
"Rachel," Mrs. Price says. She says it like she's getting mad. "You put that sweater on right now and no more nonsense."
"But it's not--"
"Now!" Mrs. Price says.
This is when I wish I wasn't eleven, because all the years inside of me--ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two and one-- are pushing at the back of my eyes when I put one arm through one sleeve of the sweater that smells like cottage cheese, and then the other arm through the other and stand there with my arms apart like if the sweater hurts me and it does, all itchy and full of germs that aren't even mine.
That's when everything I've been holding in since this morning, since when Mrs. Price put the sweater on my desk, finally lets go, and all of a sudden I'm crying in front of everybody. I wish I was invisible but I'm not. I'm eleven and it's my birthday today and I'm crying like I'm three in front of everybody. I put my head down on the desk and bury my face in my stupid clown-sweater arms. My face all hot and spit coming out of my mouth because I can't stop the little animal noises from coming out of me, until there aren't any more tears left in my eyes, and it's just my body shaking like when you have the hiccups, and my whole head hurts like when you drink milk too fast.
But the worst part is right before the bell rings for lunch. That stupid Phyllis Lopez, who is even dumber than Sylvia Saldivar, says she remembers the red sweater is hers! I take it off right away and give it to her, only Mrs. Price pretends like everything's okay.
Today I'm eleven. There's cake Mama's making for tonight, and when Papa comes home from work we'll eat it. There'll be candles and presents and everybody will sing Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday to you Rachel, only it's too late.
I'm eleven today. I'm eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and one, but I wish I was one hundred and two. I wish I was anything but eleven, because I want today to be far away already, far away like a runaway balloon, like a tiny o in the sky, so tiny-tiny you have to close your eyes to see it.
1. In what ways does the teacher stereotype Rachel in “Eleven?”
2. Rachel says, “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.” This and other statements show you that Rachel feels powerless, especially because she is an immigrant. Find other examples.
3. Find some of the similes in “Eleven.” They are all expressed through the limited experiences of childhood. Here is one example: “ my whole head hurts like when you drink milk too fast.”
Julia Alvarez was born in New York City in 1950, just before the family returned for ten years to the Dominican Republic. They were forced to leave when Alvarez’s father was in danger because of his political opposition to the dictator Trujillo. All of these experiences inspired Alvarez’s award-winning writing. This episode appears in her novel “How the Garcia Girls lost Their Accents.”
Our first year in New York we rented a small apartment with a Catholic school nearby, taught by the Sisters of Charity, hefty women in long black gowns and bonnets that made them look peculiar, like dolls in mourning. I liked them a lot, especially my grandmotherly fourth grade teacher, Sister Zoe. I had a lovely name, she said, and she had me teach the whole class how to pronounce it. Yo-lan-da. As the only immigrant in my class, I was put in a special seat in the first row by the window, apart from the other children so that Sister Zoe could tutor me without disturbing them. Slowly, she enunciated the new words I was to repeat: laundromat, cornflakes, subway, snow.
Soon I picked up enough English to understand holocaust was in the air. Sister Zoe explained to a wide eyed classroom what was happening in Cuba. Russian missiles were being assembled, trained supposedly on New York City. President Kennedy, looking worried too, was on the television at home, explaining we might have to go to war against the Communists. At school, we had air raid drills: an ominous bell would go off and we'd file into the hall, fall to the floor, cover our heads with our coats, and imagine our hair falling out, the bones in our arms going soft. At home, Mami and my sisters and I said a rosary for world peace. I heard new vocabulary: nuclear bomb, radioactive fallout, bomb shelter. Sister Zoe explained how it would happen. She drew a picture of a mushroom on the blackboard and dotted a flurry of chalk marks for the dusty fallout that would kill us all.
The months grew cold, November, December. It was dark when I got up in the morning, frosty when I followed my breath to school. One morning as I sat at my desk daydreaming out the window, I saw dots in the air like the ones Sister Zoe had drawn random at first, then lots and lots. I shrieked, "Bomb! Bomb!" Sister Zoe jerked around, her full black skirt ballooning as she hurried to my side. A few girls began to cry.
But then Sister Zoe's shocked look faded. "Why, Yolanda dear, that's snow!" She laughed. "Snow."
"Snow," I repeated. I looked out the window warily. All my life I had heard about the white crystals that fell out of American skies in the winter. From my desk I watched the fine powder dust the sidewalk and parked cars below. Each flake was different, Sister Zoe had said, like a person, irreplaceable and beautiful.
1. Yolanda came from a Caribbean island where it never snows. If you were to
emigrate to the Caribbean, what might you see that you had never seen before? Look up “Caribbean islands” in Google and select Images for some suggestions.
2. Did you ever misunderstand something that your teacher or your parents had told you, when you were small children? Were there song lyrics that you got wrong? (In Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona and the Pest,” Ramona’s kindergarten teacher tells her to sit a certain desk, “for the present.” Ramona waits all morning for the gift she expects.)
3. Immigrants often come to the United States to flee from danger. In the story, their new country scares Yolanda. What examples of “Push/Pull” immigration can you find in Lesson 5of the Citizenship Counts curriculum. What dangers might immigrants from some other countries and other years find in the United States?
Firoozeh Dumas and her family moved from Abadan, Iran, to California when she was a girl. Growing up, she struggled to mix with her American classmates, who knew nothing about Iran. She also retells firsthand experiences of prejudice and racism from being Iranian in America during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Firoozeh began to write and submit essays to obtain money to go toward college, the beginning of her career as an award-winning author. She attended the University of California, Berkeley where she met and married her French husband. Throughout her experiences, she emphasizes the significance of family strength and love in her life. To find out more about Firoozeh, read through her website https://firoozehdumas.com/
My cousin’s name, Farbod, means “Greatness.” When he moved to America, all the kids called him “Farthead.” My brother Farshid (“He Who Enlightens”) became “Fartshit.” The name of my friend Neggar means “Beloved,” although it can be more accurately translated as “She Whose Name Almost Incites Riots.” Her brother Arash (“Giver”) initially couldn’t understand why every time he’d say his name, people would laugh and ask him if it itched.
All of us immigrants knew that moving to America would be fraught with challenges, but none of us thought that our names would be such an obstacle. How could our parents have ever imagined that someday we would end up in a country where monosyllabic names reign supreme, a land where “William” is shortened to “Bill,” where “Susan” becomes “Sue,” and “Richard” somehow evolves into “Dick”? America is a great country, but nobody without a mask and a cape has a z in his name. And have Americans ever realized the great scope of the guttural sounds they’re missing?
Okay, so it has to do with linguistic roots, but I do believe this would be a richer country if all Americans could do a little tongue aerobics and learn to pronounce “kh,” a sound more commonly associated in this culture with phlegm, or “gh,” the sound usually made by actors in the final moments of a choking scene. It’s like adding a few new spices to the kitchen pantry. Move over cinnamon and nutmeg, make way for cardamom and sumac.
Exotic analogies aside, having a foreign name in this land of Joes and Marys is a pain in thespice cabinet. When I was twelve, I decided to simplify my life by adding an American middle name. This decision serves as proof that sometimes simplifying one’s life in the short run only complicates it in the long run.
My name, Firoozeh, chosen by my mother, means “Turquoise” in Farsi. In America, it means “Unpronounceable” or “I’m Not Going to Talk to You Because I Cannot Possibly Learn Your Name and I Just Don’t Want to Have to Ask You Again and Again Because You’ll Think I’m Dumb or You Might Get Upset or Something.” My father, incidentally, had wanted to name me Sara. I do wish he had won that argument.
To strengthen my decision to add an American name, I had just finished fifth grade in Whittier, where all the kids incessantly called me “Ferocious.” That summer, my family moved to Newport Beach, where I looked forward to starting a new life. I wanted to be a kid with a name that didn’t draw so much attention, a name that didn’t come with a built-in inquisition as to when and why I had moved to America and how was it that I spoke English without an accent and was I planning on going back and what did I think of America.
My last name didn’t help any. I can’t mention my maiden name, because:
“Dad, I’m writing a memoir.”
“Great! Just don’t mention our name.”
Suffice it to say that, with eight letters, including a z, and four syllables, my last name is as difficult and foreign as my first. My first and last name together generally served the same purpose as a high brick wall. There was one exception to this rule. In Berkeley, and only in Berkeley, my name drew people like flies to baklava. These were usually people named Amaryllis or Chrysanthemum, types who vacationed in Costa Rica and to whom lentils described a type of burger. These folks were probably not the pride of Poughkeepsie, but they were refreshingly nonjudgmental.
When I announced to my family that I wanted to add an American name, they reacted with their usual laughter. Never one to let mockery or good judgment stand in my way, I proceeded to ask for suggestions. My father suggested “Fifi.” Had I had a special affinity for French poodles or been considering a career in prostitution, I would’ve gone with that one. My mom suggested “Farah,” a name easier than “Firoozeh” yet still Iranian. Her reasoning made sense, except that
Farrah Fawcett was at the height of her popularity and I didn’t want to be associated with somebody whose poster hung in every post pubescent boy’s bedroom. We couldn’t think of any American names beginning with F, so we moved on to J, the first letter of our last name. I don’t know why we limited ourselves to names beginning with my initials, but it made sense at that moment, perhaps by the logic employed moments before bungee jumping. I finally chose the name
“Julie” mainly for its simplicity. My brothers, Farid and Farshid, thought that adding an American name was totally stupid. They later became Fred and Sean.
That same afternoon, our doorbell rang. It was our new next-door neighbor, a friendly girl my age named Julie. She asked me my name and after a moment of hesitation, I introduced myself as Julie. “What a coincidence!” she said. I didn’t mention that I had been Julie for only half an hour.
Thus I started sixth grade with my new, easy name and life became infinitely simpler. People actually remembered my name, which was an entirely refreshing new sensation. All was well until the Iranian Revolution, when I found myself with a new set of problems. Because I spoke English without an accent and was known as Julie, people assumed I was American. This meant that I was often privy to their real feelings about those “damn I-raynians.” It was like having those X-ray
glasses that let you see people undressed, except that what I was seeing was far uglier than people’s underwear. It dawned on me that these people would have probably never invited me to their house had they known me as Firoozeh. I felt like a fake.
When I went to college, I eventually went back to using my real name. All was well until I graduated and started looking for a job. Even though I had graduated with honors from UC-Berkeley, I couldn’t get a single interview. I was guilty of being a humanities major, but I began to suspect that there was more to my problems. After three months of rejections, I added “Julie” to my resume. Call it coincidence, but the job offers started coming in. Perhaps it’s the same kind of coincidence that keeps African Americans from getting cabs in New York.
Once I got married, my name became Julie Dumas. I went from having an identifiably “ethnic” name to having ancestors who wore clogs. My family and non-American friends continued calling me “Firoozeh, while my coworkers and American friends called me Julie. My life became one big know, especially when friends who knew me as Julie met friends who knew me as Firoozeh. I feltlike those characters in soap operas who have an evil twin. The two, of course, can never be in the same room, since they’re played by the same person, a struggling actress who wears a wig to play one of the twins and dreams of moving on to bigger and better roles. I couldn’t blame my mess on a screenwriter; it was my own doing.
I decided to untangle the knot once and for all by going back to my real name. By then, I was a stay-at-home mom, so I really didn’t care whether people remembered my name or gave me job interviews. Besides, most of the people I dealt with were in diapers and were in no position to judge. I was also living in Silicon Valley, an area filled with people named Rajeev, Avishai, and Insook.
Every once in a while, though, somebody comes up with a new permutation and I am once again reminded that I am an immigrant with a foreign name. I recently went to have blood drawn for a physical exam. The waiting room for blood work at our local medical clinic is in the basement of the building, and no matter how early one arrives for an appointment, forty coughing, wheezing people have gotten there first. Apart from reading Golf Digest and Popular Mechanics , there isn’t much to do except guess the number of contagious diseases represented in the windowless room. Every ten minutes, a name is called and everyone looks to see which cough matches that name. As I waited patiently, the receptionist called out, “Fritzy, Fritzy!” Everyone looked around, but no one stood up. Usually, if I’m waiting to be called by someone who doesn’t know me, I will respond to just about any name starting with an F. Having been called Froozy, Frizzy, Fiorucci, and Frooz and just plan “Uhhhh…,” I am highly accommodating. I did not, however, respond to “Fritzy” because there is, as far as I know, not in my name. The receptionist tried again, “Fritzy, Fritzy DumbAss.” As I stood up to this most linguistically original version of my name, I could feel all eyes upon me. The room was momentarily silent as all of these sick people sat united in a moment of gratitude for their own names.
Despite a few exceptions, I have found that Americans are now far more willing to learn new names, just as they’re far more willing to try new ethnic foods. Of course, some people just don’t like to learn. One mom at my children’s school adamantly refused to learn my “impossible” name and instead settled on calling me “F Word.” She was recently transferred to New York where, from what I’ve heard, she might meet an immigrant or two and, who knows, she just might have to make some room in her spice cabinet.
1. Your name is very much a part of your identity. What do you know about your own first name? What does it mean? Who chose it, and why? Are you named for someone honored by your parents?
2. What is the origin of your last name (surname)?
3. Do you form a preconceived idea about people you haven’t met from their names? Give an example, if you have.
4. Firoozeh found that she wasn’t offered jobs because of hers. Do you think that still happens to immigrants? (You can research that online.)
5. Some immigrants past and present have changed their names to “Americanize” them. Is there an example from your own family?
Did you enjoy reading this selection from “Funny in Farsi?” You can buy the whole paperback book online. Even better, you can join Firoozeh’s “Falafel Kindness Project,” named for her novel “It’s Not So Awful, Falafel.” See below.
THE FALAFEL KINDNESS PROJECT
The very first two sentences I wrote for It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel were the dedication. “To all the kids who don’t belong, for whatever reason. This one’s for you.”
We all know that school, especially middle school, can be a tough, or even miserable experience. I remember not fitting in for many reasons, but I also remember how much I appreciated friends, teachers, librarians, and all the people who, perhaps without realizing it, showed kindness towards me when I really needed it. This is how The Falafel Kindness Project was born. We hear a lot these days about standing up to bullies but I think that is a terrible idea! I would never recommend standing up to a bully unless you are built like Shaquille O’Neal. But we all know that kids who are built like Shaquille O’Neal are not the ones being bullied.
Let’s face it– everyone feels like an outsider at some point. You don’t have to be an immigrant named Zomorod, whose father is unemployed and whose mother does not speak English, to feel like you don’t belong. It takes the most trivial matter and suddenly, boom, you’re in Tease Town. Are you tall, short, fat, skinny, or not good at sports? Does your mom pack a lunch that looks like mud on rice? Is your hair too curly, too straight, too thick, too thin, or too anything? Do kids call you gay? Do you wear glasses? Are you from an unpopular country or state? (“Which are the unpopular states?” you ask. Depending on where you live, it can be anywhere, except Hawaii, of course.) The list is endless and pretty much includes everyone, except for approximately three kids at each school.
So for the rest of us, here’s the plan. Let’s create a kind, safe environment that diffuses bullying. Let’s make sure no one eats alone, unless they want to. Let’s make sure new kids have someone to hang out with that dreaded first week of school. Let’s banish the word “retarded” when used as an insult. If you see a kid being teased, for whatever reason, befriend that kid! It’s no fun teasing a kid who comes with a whole posse of friends who care. Be that friend who cares! Become a member of Team Falafel! (Or you can pick a cooler name, although I do think being named after a deep-fried bean ball is kinda cool, in a subversive way.)