“…vulgar term.”


Some things are better left unsaid, and somethings need to be said. I remember hanging out with my sister one day back home. I was playing street hockey barefoot in the front yard with some of the neighborhood kids with a broom and a tennis ball. Mighty Ducks had just come out, and we were all trying to act like we could play hockey. Except, I never ice skated a day in my life or owned a hockey stick. Years later my Dad bought me a wood hockey stick for left-handers that was only 2.99 at Play it Again Sports. But I remember that day running around barefoot, and some of the older neighborhood kids came around and started talking. There was a pretty vulgar term I overheard them say, and it stuck in my mind for most of that Spring of my childhood into my Summer.

We were on our trip back from Montana in our blue Astro van with my parents, some minister friends, and Camie. I remember sitting in the back seat, contemplating my life as a 7-year-old. This was the early 90s, and we didn’t have portable TVs, and we couldn’t quite afford a Gameboy just yet. And so I was looking out the window looking at the picturesque scenery of the Glacier Mountain Park when I decided to ask my Mom something. I said to my Mom, “Mom.” She said, “Yes son.” I said, “What does “vulgar term,” mean?” My Mom didn’t say anything, but I’ll say, I got it good. Later on, during that same trip, I choked and eventually swallowed a big Lego… I didn’t tell anyone.

That Lego is probably still stuck in my body somewhere, and I probably should have told someone about the swallowed Lego at the moment, given it was a huge piece of red plastic. But that was my first experience realizing that I didn’t need to speak everything that’s on my mind and also to speak up if something was about to hurt me. A reminder to not fear speaking hurt and to hold peace.

she turns to me and asks,”JD, will you go get me a Mr. G’s bean and cheese burrito.”

My Nana passed away a little more than 8 years ago. She lived in a small two-bedroom house that my Tata built in Winterhaven, CA. In the past year, I’ve been having more dreams about her. In my last dream, she was about to pass away. I was sitting at her bedside, and she turns to me and asks,”JD, will you go get me a Mr. G’s bean and cheese burrito.” We laughed together in the dream. I’m so grateful that I spent my summer months with her as a kid.

The house was on the border of the Quechan reservation, California, Arizona, Mexico, and the Colorado River. My family loved to tell stories about how much she loved to dance and her escapades. Apparently, she was quite lovely at wrestling matches in the 40s and 50s. In one of the events, my Tata had to intervene and carried her out because her loud, threatening voice was berating what she called fake wrestlers. She continued to taunt them, and argue that she could work them over. The event caused a small ruckus. I never knew that side of her, just the side where she made Saturday breakfast, made sure all the men were served and ate before the women, and turned the bedroom wall a/c on the coolest setting before we came to visit.

As a kid, our family always stayed with her. Outside of the guest bedroom, her house was always warm in the summer and a little colder than normal in the winter. I would sleep on the daybed right in front of the wall a/c and roll myself into a multilayered burrito of blankets. To be that cold and that warm at the same time, gave me some of the best sleep of my life. There wasn’t much to play with in her house. She had a couch full of taco bell chihuahua dogs that were for only observation and an old black and white tv that only played novellas. I often went around back of the house to play in the dirt or build fires in her old stove. The backyard was mostly barren with soft dirt that was as pliable as beach sand with a little water. Your feet would sink a little with each footstep. I would crawl through and jump on the old broken down car and dirt bike my Uncle left from his high school days; pretending I was cruising around town. Every year, I looked forward to those few weeks and months of hot summer days beneath the sun sweating in vehicles and building dirt castles for my hot wheels cars.

I continued to visit her through high school and eventually through my college years. When the opportunity to do my student teaching on my rez was presented, I didn’t hesitate to ask my Nana if I could live with her for four months. It was some of the most memorable times I had. Not because we went on a lot of adventures, but just because I never spent so much time talking and in silence with someone. I loved to ask questions about our family. I asked her what it was like as a kid in the great depression. I wondered why she could speak Spanish and English so well. I asked her why she didn’t remarry. And then we would watch novellas, and she would tell me that I don’t speak Spanish correctly. She would gossip with me about anything she could. A girl I was dating at the time stopped by, and she didn’t hesitate to tell me that she didn’t like her family.

But then there were times I would get home from San Pasqual elementary, the school on my rez, and she would be sitting in her chair. I would lay on the love seat with my legs hanging over the arm. As soon as I would plop myself on the couch, a plume of dust would rise and settle over my dress clothes. We would sit in the hot living room with the door open to let the dirt filled breeze cool us down. It would be a few minutes and sometimes hours of silence. And I loved that, and I miss it now when I come back home to my reservation.

“there is a side to each of us that we don’t always talk about.”

I think there is a side to each of us that we don’t always talk about. Maybe not purposely, or maybe purposely. For me, I don’t often talk about our Hispanic heritage. It’s not purposely. But the reality of most Natives in the US, is that we are multiethnic. And identity to me, is more of a reflection of one’s experience than their citizenship or lack of tribal citizenship, and I didn’t have as much experience as a hispanic person compared to my cousins; partly because our parents raised us as Natives. But there are a few other reasons I don’t always write or share from these perspectives. One because, my Mom told us that our Native heritage needs to be counted for tests and if we mark multiracial we would be left out of statistics (which I understand more now, as a researcher). Two, my Mom told me that her classmates used to tease her about being the milk man’s daughter. Those classmates would later become councilmembers and challenged her membership in our tribe. Of course they were unable to prove anything because her birth certificate indicates she is 4/4 Quechan, but she wanted us to be cognizant of rumors. And finally, the Hispanic heritage from my Dad’s side is a mix of Indigenous people from Mexico, descendants of Yaqui and Cocopah, German, and Spanish. For simplicity sake, because I consider our Hispanic heritage Indigenous, I just say I’m Native. It is obviously a little more complicated than that, nonetheless, it is an important side of who I am.

I used to sit with my Tata when I was in middle school. Mostly because I was fascinated with the Army and even more so, with music. My Tata played in a mariachi band for most of his life into his 70s. He never really showed me how to play anything. I’ll put it straight, he wasn’t a teacher. He was a musician. If I played something wrong he let me know. He played, played really well, and if you just had to try to keep up.

But my fascination with music was because all our family played. My sisters somewhat played, my cousins, a few of my uncles, my Tata, my great grandpa. And I love that about our family. But I like the stories just as much as the music they played.

I remember sitting with my Tata one time. He was telling me about how he learned jazz chords. He said, “I was heading to World War II, and was shipping out from the south.” The south at this point still had segregation. Something that my Nana or Tata wasn’t accustomed to coming from a Mexican border town, but soon found the realities. The restaurants in the south wouldn’t serve my Nana or my Tata despite him heading to fight in America’s war.

At the same time, the Black speakeasies weren’t always accepting of my Tata either because he wasn’t Black. But occasionally his army buddies would sneak him into the club. He told me, “that’s where I learned jazz chords.” And listening to the mariachi music, you can seem glimpses into those notes.

Later on during the war he was shot, got a Purple Heart, and was allowed to recover and travel with the Army band in Europe. But every time I play music, I always remember part of that influence and legacy of what we play. And it’s also a reminder of the other side of me.


“…this must be how Angelina Jolie’s adopted kids feel.”

Growing up I was never curious about what it would be like to be adopted by White parents. One, because I had great parents and two, all the White parents I knew from school were mostly mean to me. But as an adult, I wonder what it would be like to be adopted by a White person. Like, if people were going to throw a racial slur at me, would they call me a, “cracker.” Or would I still be considered an apple? Would I still get followed around in WalMart? Would I wear polo shirts? Honestly, I would probably still get followed in WalMart. And honestly, I couldn’t imagine being adopted by a White family because of my childhood experiences with my classmates’ parents in school.

I remember the first time hearing a White Mom tell her daughter not to talk to me. I was walking out of class near the student pick up area with my friend. I overheard her Mom say, “he doesn’t look friendly, you shouldn’t hang out with him.” Almost like that Mom was fearing I was a big Brown monster or something. I didn’t understand. But my neighborhood and childhood experiences were filled with White Moms like that.

Middle class working White Moms. The Moms who came to pick up their kids in pant suits driving an SUV. The ones who told their daughters not to talk to me. They locked their car doors when I was on the corner of a street light. They moved their purses to the opposite arm securely tightening it under their armpits when I walked by. I intentionally avoided middle-class White Moms, not because of hate or disdain, but because they made me feel like I didn’t belong talking to them. Unless they approached me, then I was friendly. It was hard for me to trust them, but as I grew up, I realized they’re not all like that. And especially while in graduate school.

I had a very intelligent and classy professor who fit the profile, and I thought she might be like those moms of my childhood. I wasn’t sure how the professor would treat me, mostly because I’m this Native guy who grew up eating fried bologna sandwiches from empty happy meal boxes. But the professor was nice to me, helped me with my writing, helped me get into a conference, and publish a paper. The professor didn’t want or ask to get recognition or exploit the relationship for credit. When she was kind to me, all I could think was,  “this must be how Angelina Jolie’s adopted kids feel.”

But then again, I’m definitely glad I wasn’t adopted by a White family. Mostly because it’s been done in Native communities for a long time. And especially In 1958, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs created the Indian adoption project to take Native kids from their parents. This was an attempt to continually assimilate Native kids into mainstream culture and many of the kids from this era, now adults, suffer with traumatic childhoods of being raised in abusive non-Native homes. Those kids raised by non-Native parents are still trying to figure out their identity as Natives in White communities and Natives in Native communities. I’m glad I had two awesome Brown parents, and I wasn’t put up for adoption, or else I may be wearing polo shirts.

“…two reasons that my Mom cut my hair as a kid, 1. Lice and 2. Funerals.”


Besides the need to look presentable, there are two reasons that my Mom cut my hair as a kid, 1. Lice and 2. Funerals. Lice were straightforward. Lice get out of hand and sometimes rather than going through my hair with a fine-tooth comb strand by strand, my Mom cut my hair. Funerals were a little different.

I can’t remember the first funeral I went to (My parents took us to a lot of funerals as kids because my Dad was a licensed minister). But I remember bits and pieces of the first time I went to our Big House. And If I’m honest with myself about the first time I went, it was a bit scary… because I didn’t understand it.

As we approached the Big House, where our tribe holds our wakes, you could hear the singers’ gourds and see women start to sway to the rhythm of our ancient songs through the small window openings. I walked in and saw the old wooden pews beneath the dim lighting, and the mourning family with women crying at the open casket. My Mom directed me to go shake hands with the family members mourning and then we went to sit down. We just sat there, no talking, some whispering, and a lot of reflecting. I watched the Bird and Pipa singers most of the night, and watched the Quechan women stand and sit during the songs. After we had spent a few hours there, my Mom said we were leaving. We proceeded to shake hands again, but this time with everyone in the Big House. We squeezed through the small aisles to shake everyone’s hands and I watched as my Mom smiled at some of her family and childhood friends. Before we left, I went with my parents next door to eat some pasole and tortillas and watched them visit with our relatives and friends they hadn’t seen in years.

I went to my Nana’s house to sleep for a few hours and the next morning my parents woke me up to bring me to the cremation ceremony. I watched as my Uncles brought the body out of the casket and laid it between the cottonwood. Soon after they asked for blankets and then my Uncle stood there and said a word in Quechan, meaning clothes. My Mom leaned toward me and said, “Take your shirt off.” I didn’t understand why, but I also didn’t question her. As I started to see everyone putting their shirts and dresses on top of body with the blankets, I took my shirt off and put it in too. My Uncles lit it all on fire. I stood there watching the remains, blankets, and clothes become engulfed in flames with smoke leading to the morning sky. We left the ceremony not too long after, and that evening my Mom cut my hair.

I never quite understood the tradition of why we threw our clothes into the fire, but a few weeks ago I was sitting with an elder. Among many things he imparted to me, he mentioned that during the death of the creator in our tribe’s creation story the animals didn’t know how to mourn, so they began to take their ears and tails off to throw into the fire. A piece of us dies when someone we love passes away, and it’s one way we remember that. In a similar vain, it’s why my Mom cut my hair, to signify a piece of me was taken.

“…I couldn’t make eclipse glasses out of cereal boxes because our cereal came in bags.”

With the recent eclipse, some tutorials were popping up on my Facebook timeline talking about how to make eclipse glasses out of cereal boxes. All I kept thinking about was when I was a kid I couldn’t make eclipse glasses out of cereal boxes, because our cereal came in bags. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little, because we had the occasional bran flakes that came with our commods.

Have you ever had commodity food? For those of you who haven’t, it’s a part of a federal food distribution program for Natives. And if you really think about the history of commodity food you realize that one of Native America’s staples, Fry Bread, is an off spring of those government rations. I’m sure for most of my Native sisters and brothers especially know about the golden brick. It was the glorified and highly anticipated commodity cheese.

However, if you have ever survived on commodity food you would know about another one of my favorites, commodity peanut butter. As my Mother would grow tired of making school lunches in my later years of grade school, I became responsible of making my own lunches. I remember the first time I tried to make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with commodity peanut butter. I attempted to spread the peanut butter when instantly the peanut butter crumbled the bread. Commodity peanut butter is like trying to put on your high school jeans after years of binging on frybread, honey, and powdered sugar, everything just kind of crumbles and falls apart… including your self-esteem. I used to ask my Mom, “why can’t we just get JIF.” My Mom hated when I complained, and rightfully so. She grew up often times without food, but my Mom was also patient with me. She showed me a little trick. She said, “JD, go get the pancake syrup.” I did, and she continued, “Put about a teaspoon of syrup and mix it together. Now try to spread the peanut butter on the bread.” And boom! Wouldn’t you know, I had made knockoff JIF. As I reflect now, Natives are the syrup to the stiff consistency of our society, because we can make the best of anything.

“Son, I have something to tell you… you’re not Black.”

My experience as a Native American growing up in a metropolitan area is a bit different than those on my reservation and probably much different than those from other reservations. In the city, I attended a predominately White school in North Phoenix. I happened to be the darkest and only red/brownish kid in my class. Being what it was, one day I started telling kids that I was Black. I never seen a real Black person in my life until a few years later, or at least none that I knew about. I was telling all the kids in my class, and finally my teacher overheard me. My teacher immediately called my Mother and said, “Ma’am, it’s not a big deal, but your son is telling all the kids that he is Black. He’s not Black is he?” My Mother replied laughing, “No. He is Native American.”

That day I came home, and my Mom sat me down. She said, “Son, I have something to tell you… you’re not Black.” I was in shock! For the first 8 years of my life I was Black, and now she dropped this bomb on me. I was completely disappointed, because I thoroughly enjoyed being African American all those years. So I asked my Mother, “So what am I.” She told me, “You’re Native American.” My face lit up, and with big eyes I looked up at her and said, “Are you serious?” My Mom said, “Yes.” Immediately I ran to the bathroom and threw my shirt on the floor. I took my Mom’s lipstick and began to put on my war paint across my face. I smeared it on my chest, and I started acting and looking like what I thought a Native American did. I took a steak knife from the kitchen, and from that day on my Mom would never be able to keep a hibiscus tree. I started cutting off limbs from that tree and made bow and arrows. I would use my home fashioned bow to hone my hunting skills against the alley cats in my backyard (I never got one). I was so proud of who I was that day.

Later on I figured out that the ideal I had of who and what a Native American is and does, was wrong. Native Americans today do not run around with their shirts off and wearing war paint everywhere (although some Natives do on occasion). I realized that this very experience of being an Urban Native American in the city, trying to understand my identity, was a real American Indian experience.