My brother was a talented artist. When he was bored, or if I irritated him by doing something outrageous like reading his comic books or touching his ten-speed, he produced life-like sketches of a pig being chased by a hatchet-wielding butcher. The strangest thing about these drawings was that the pig’s face bore ... a photographic resemblance, to my own.
I was a fat child. A sad butterball. My brother, 11 years my senior, was handsome. He had thick, straight black hair and white, even teeth. I had a crooked little grin. Nappy brown curls framed my round face. He played baseball, ran track, dated blondes. My mother put me on diets.
According to her, I began to “thicken” when I was six or seven. As a proactive measure she enrolled me in a diet program called TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly). This program was so sensible that members who either gained or failed to lose weight were obliged to stand before their weekly meeting and sing the Pig Song, whose chorus went “Oink! Oink! Oink!”
There are, of course, “experts” who might suggest that humiliating a fat and high-strung child wasn’t the best way to help him lose weight. These experts might go so far as to argue that forcing him to stand and sing the Pig Song before a roomful of adult strangers was in fact harmful. What these experts might not know is that the Pig Song was a hayride compared to a “pediatric weight-loss diet.”
TOPS failed. My mother dragged me to specialists. These rail-thin men patted my belly,, which sagged over the waist of my husky-size corduroys. These rail-thin men called me “Tiger.” The diets they prescribed were identical insofar as their purpose was to starve me slowly to death. The worst of these weight-loss plans, and the one I endured the longest, allowed me water-packed tuna, apples, celery, carrots, and, as a treat, a corn tortilla.
A corn tortilla, however, is no Twinkie, no Ding Dong, no HoHo.
Surrounded by cookie-munching demons disguised as children, I sat in the lunch arbor and lunched bravely on my carrot sticks and cold, leathery tortilla. Hunger consumed the rest of my school day. Reading time was difficult. Perhaps only a hungry, overweight child appreciates how many children’s books deal with food. To name a few, there’s Green Eggs and Ham, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach. But, oddly enough, no Fat Boy and His Corn Tortilla.
My affinity for underdogs, my flirtation with extreme leftist politics, can be traced to my elementary school lunch arbor. There, among the jacaranda trees, I learned what it was like to be a have-not among haves.
“What are you eating? A tortilla? Can’t your parents afford bread?” bellowed Steven Kirby, an impish fourth-grader. “What are you? A Mexican?”
Steven, who now no doubt holds a high-ranking position in the U.S. Border Patrol, was emphasizing something of which all children are aware. Food, like clothes and toys, carries meaning. My lonely tortilla was not only an emblem of my status as fat boy, it linked me to the wretched of the earth who were, in my neck of the woods, mainly Mexicans. Once during “current events,” a classmate shared a newspaper article about a radical Roman Catholic priest who celebrated, as a form of protest, a “farm workers’ Communion” by using an ironing board as an altar and a corn tortilla as the Host. I immediately grasped the point: the farm workers, I figured, needed to lose weight.
My political consciousness evolved. In my early 20s I spent some time co-traveling with Mexican Communism. It seemed like a good idea at the time. When not busy with useful projects like trying to unionize Tijuana’s prostitutes, we distributed tortillas to campesinos squatting on the rough edges of town. These cautious, hungry people were grateful for the plastic bags of tortillas I handed them, yet they seemed unwilling to discuss any future role they might play in the dictatorship of the proletariat. I interpreted their silence as working-class humility.
There were other problems. I noticed that these campesinos wanted their children to be fat. The fatter, the better. This unsettled me. My hungry and tortilla-ridden childhood had, I thought, nurtured my unique solidarity with Mexico’s peasantry. It was only after weeks of watching these campesinos pack their children’s mouths with tortillas and lard, and gloat over fat babies as if they were prize-winning pumpkins, that my resolve began to crumble.
Just maybe, I thought, there was something wrong, even silly, in trying to enlist these people in a global Communist revolution. Just maybe my life experience didn’t have much to do with their own. There even seemed to be a very good outside chance that I had been a fat child because, and not in spite of capitalism. And what these campesinos wanted most wasn’t revolution but a sure-fire way of getting into the United States so they could make more money to buy more food to fatten up their children.
I drifted away from my comrades and in time found other extreme commitments. I sometimes think of the fat little boy sitting in the lunch arbor, surrounded by a pool of blue jacaranda blossoms. If he’d been born poor and further south, his mother would have admired his chubby cheeks, his playmates would have envied his rotund belly, and he would have never been obliged to sing the Pig Song.
The best tortillas in town are made at Gabriel's Tortilleria, 2480 Imperial Avenue (619-232-5744).