Scott Russell Duncan
Dad approached mom from across the dance floor of the fandango of my imagination and selected her from her disapproving Hispano relatives. Black Irish southern charmer with a hint of Comanche, he hid his southern accent that’s unpopular out here on the West Coast, much like we hid our native blood, so unpopular here it was deadly to own up to. Mom with her jet-black hair, flared hawk nose, and redwood skin and beauty. They started to dance. The Hispanos of New Mexico, mom’s father’s side, have a fable, mostly a warning to girls: Don’t dance with the devil. It’s an old Spanish tale changed and retold by Chicanos and I’ll get to it. It’s one Californios lived out and learned too late, one might say, with what happened to our ranches, and our overrun people. Right here it might be good to know about something in Latino culture called limpieza de sangre. Cleaning the blood, marrying someone more European to “uplift the family.” Another thing good to mention is that one of the last things my Californio and Mission Indian grandmother told me was don’t marry a white women. You’d never be happy. Only be with a Mexican. When she told me, it made me mad, not because I was half white, but because both my grandparents tried to keep Spanish fluency from me. Mad like grandma might be if she knew I was telling the world she was Mission Indian, Luiseño, something she chose to remain silent on in her old school Hispano way. I told her, “Mexican girls think I’m a pocho because I’m bad at Spanish.” (Though I do know a bit of Spanish, and I know well the words for sellout as many Mexicans immigrants taunt me in their terror that I am their coconut fate.) Grandma was silent again, but I thought I knew why she tried to keep Spanish from me: survival. Wanting something better, being completely fluent in English and not told you can’t do this or that because you’re something less, a beaner, a dirty injun, or a spic. As if I didn’t get called all those things.
There are many versions of the New Mexican fable about dancing with the devil, (Anaya does his version as well) so here is the gist: A young Hispano girl is known for her beauty. A stranger, mysterious and wealthy, calls upon her at her family’s home asking to be listed first upon her dance card. He is moneyed and has been to many places. Her parents forbid her to go to the dance; they tell her the stranger is dangerous. The girl, of course, sneaks out on the night of the dance. Who on la frontera is like this man, after all? At the fandango, she waits and waits. Soon she sees the smiling man from across the room. He thrills and scares her as he approaches. Most versions of the story start here. She doesn’t see the sneers of Hispano women or the anger of the Hispano men. The dance hall disapproves, but the couple is captivating. The handsome man whispers the places he’ll take the beautiful girl and she laughs and moves closer. Depending on the story, different things happen. The girl might take a breather and be scolded by her mother or be taken by her concerned father away from the outsider, the scoundrel. They argue with the girl and point over at the stranger. She turns to see what they are pointing at. The stranger, leaving, has a very long demonic tail and his cloven hoofs have left prints seared into the dancefloor.
Or, the stranger guides her outside to the shadows, caresses her with his hands and his lies. He is soon gone, never to be seen again and she, in some stories, loses her soul, or later, she gives birth to a little devil with tiny horns.
New Mexicans call little devils like that, like me, Anglo and Hispano, coyotes.
Yet, dancing with the devil is what many Californio families turned to after the US invaded and took over. The laws were in English, the government required greenbacks rather than tallow or hides and there were many murders to steal Californio land. It’s not a stretch to see the Anglo as the devil in this story, much less for the genocide, displacement, and enslavement of my more native ancestors and neighbors in California. It was a confusing, alien and devilish time. It still is. Anglo American men had been coming to California for decades before the war. In fact their letters home about beautiful, dutiful, but backwards Spanish women and indolent Spanish men who idled the day on song and dance are a big reason we got invaded. The land, they said, was wasted on us. Anglo suitors had the money, the power, and they think Scarface is a Latino movie.
The land was Californio livelihood and Spanish families hoped an American husband could help keep it from other Americans. Many of the Anglo suitors after the US invasion turned out to be dancing scoundrels. They sold the land and evicted the family.
Mom met dad when he was on leave from Vietnam in LA. Apparently, mom and my aunt were picking up sailors. They all went to a diner. Dad was with his war buddy, Uncle Walt, from Louisiana (southern boys stick together). Walt married my aunt and dad married mom. Before that, when Dad visited LA when he had leave, he’d stay in the old camper my grandpa had that we years later traveled the whole of the west and southwest in. Grandpa would flash the light on him. Dad asked, “Uh, hi John what are you doing?” “Nothing, making sure you’re alone. Good night.” Grandpa was a welder and looked like body builder in the old photos. I mention this to show things were a bit traditional though this was the hippy days of the late 60s and early 70s. I’ve often been asked if my parents met on a commune and were part of a counter culture race mixing experiment, rather than being part of something common, something colonial, and something very old with precedence.
Back at the imaginary fandango, Dad, slick Gaelic charm making up for his bad dancing a Baptist upbringing brings, jokes and makes mom laugh. Grandma whether being defied at home or sitting there at the fandango clucks her tongue. She always called dad El Gringo. Grandma didn’t remember names. She’d shout, hey Gringo, your coffee is ready cabrón! She would tell me get El Gringo. I knew who El Gringo was, I never thought she meant me.
Dad leads mom away to the dark and I’ll leave them there. Later I was born with little horns, a short tail, and an Anglo surname. Grandpa didn’t seem to disapprove I wasn’t named after him. Maybe he thought with an English name I would not have to pay the price for being Hispanic in America. Grandma made sure to tell me never to trust the white devil. At the state parks and historic ruins that used to be our homes she told me this was us and never listen to their lies. In one of those ruins was the place our Spanish ancestor forbid the funeral dances of our native ancestors. Since Anglos also have their fables of us being oversexed devils in the woods good for nothing but death, like that Billy Idol song, I’ve always known dancing with myself would be difficult enough.
Californios have been dancing and conceding to survive since 1848 and my Native American ancestors before that in California 1789 and in New Mexico in 1590. And long before that my Aztec ancestors after the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1520. I won’t say all these dancers were devils, no one asked so-called settlers to invade, but we aren’t all angels. Some of those Aztecs danced along with the Spaniards into New Mexico, and the raza cosmica that poured into California danced on native toes. Our Afro-Mexican ancestors still scream their tale through DNA, bills of sale, and ratings of good or bad hair.
In my own cautionary fable, I don’t know if mom lost her soul or I lost my chance for one. The conquest is a dance that makes us feel lesser, tells us if we have souls, they’re not good for anything. It’s better to have feet that burn the ground. This dance that steps into me with the little white devil horns and wild injun partial tail, is the story and the dance of the Americas, of powers at odds, the kind of story you can see in the painting by Orozco of Malinche holding hands with Cortés. This dance of scoundrels without souls and innocents only for a while longer. This dance of few choices.
Scott Russell Duncan, a.k.a. Scott Duncan-Fernandez, recently completed The Ramona Diary of SRD, a memoir of growing up Chicano-Anglo and a fantastical tour reclaiming the myths of Spanish California. Scott’s fiction involves the mythic, the surreal, the abstract, in other words, the weird. Scott received his MFA from Mills College in Oakland, California where he now lives and writes. He is an assistant editor at Somos en escrito. See more about his work and publications on Scott’s website scottrussellduncan.com.