My family use to go to Disneyland almost once a year as a kid. My uncle Alejandro would always lead the caravan; I think he’s the one who started the tradition; I don’t think anyone else could have gotten my family to go. Alejandro was hip, he went to discos, wore leather jackets, taught folklorico dancing and had a sweet moustache.
We’d make the trek from Gilroy to Orange County in a great big caravan of two or three cars. Aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, grandparents and an occasional visiting great aunt who’d come bouncing in on the Grey Hound from South Texas. We rarely stopped to eat on the road; it was too expensive. Instead my mother would stay up late the night before making fried chicken and potato salad. She’d wrap up the chicken legs in dishtowels made from the thick linen grain sacks left over from grandpa’s life as a ranchero, carefully nestling crinkling paper bags of barbecue chips between two liters of store brand soda pop — you know, party food. She scolded me frequently for sneaking into the coolers to drink soda from the two-liters shoved down alongside cartons of milk, orange juice and melting ice in the space between my abuelo and I. She had every right to scold me, the more soda I drank the more restless I became and the more often everyone would have to stop so I could piss.
Sometimes we ate at Denny’s the morning before we went to the park and other times my mom brought an electric griddle and cooked pancakes and frozen sausages right there on the vanity in our motel room and we had tailgate picnics before heading over to the park. There are a few yellowed photos of us looking very uncertain about mouse shaped balloons, long lines full of white people, and three dollar cotton candy. Photos were a luxury reserved for trips to the JC Penny portrait studio in Sunday clothes bought on lay-away which explains why we look markedly less self-conscious in the pictures snapped on park benches at rest stops along the I-5 .
Once, when I was eleven and my sister was about seventeen, my uncle who was leading the caravan in his big wine-colored van (equipped with a special horn that played songs including “La Cucaracha” like a giant Christmas sweater) signaled for us to pull into a grassy median for a picnic. My mother yelled at him from the drivers side window of her Ford Escort “ALEJANDRO!” She let the “O” in his name go on forever and ever, “It’s not safe!”
“Fine, Weezy.” (her middle named was “Eloisa and her brothers shortened it to tease her) “We’ll just go across the street.” Only across the street was the neat grassy green lawn of an Orange County office building. My sister and her friend moaned with embarrassment sinking lower into their seats and quietly refused to get out of the car as we all filed out, stretching our legs and groaning with hunger. My tia abuela had to pee, she shuffled into the office building to locate a restroom and soon business casual clad workers were coming up to the brown tinted windows of the building to gawk at us. They pressed their oily noses to the glass and used their hands to shield the glare and squint at the odd band of wanderers picnicking on the lawn. My uncles laughed at stared back at them while I looked away, utterly humiliated, my face grew hot, my stomach flipped and I could not eat. We’d all found seats, spread wool blankets out on the grassy lawn and everyone else had begun scooping up fork fulls of potato salad when the sprinklers came on. We shrieked and packed up the picnic baskets (red handcarts my mother had stolen from the grocery store) and ourselves back into the van and the cars parked with their hazards flashing dumbly in the street. We headed the fews miles to the Motel-6 where we’d stay about five to a room, taking up two room or three rooms with adjoining doors.
We always stopped at Olivera street in LA on the way home, we liked it because it was like going to Mexico but closer and less desperate. I can remember the excitement I felt when we saw the tall buildings; my heart would begin to beat very quickly and there was nothing more thrilling than the streets filled with people and seemingly endless possibility. It was the excitement of seeing something magnificent and so outside of my experience that I couldn’t comprehend it. To understand why scruffy Olivera street and 1980’s downtown LA was so enchanting you must also know that I grew up in places where the most exciting event of the day or the season might be the passing of an Amish buggy, the paleta man honking his horn and pushing his cart full of sandia popsicles, or the flash-flood result of a thunderstorm. Each time we entered Los Angeles and I saw the skyscrapers of downtown I smiled secretly to myself, sure that one day I would grow up and move to a city.
I don’t remember the time we spent inside of Disneyland, the real memories were made in the car, alongside the road, on picnic benches and motel rooms, they are funny stories and a lasting impression of the frantic desire to escape the stimuli of conversations, radio, arguments, laughter and the shame of my big poor mexican family. Today the sandia paletas and the buggies and the gnarled oaks and the squabbling family are romantic to me and I desperately want them back — in moderation. I am not sure what is would be like to be part of a family like that again but I’d sure like to try.