Family Cherry Tree
These days, my dad likes to announce that he’s going to use the bathroom by saying, “I gotta take a Trump.” As a kid, and now as an adult, Dad’s role in the family has been that of the jokester-prankster-wordsmith. He likens himself to a hyena because he uses humor to take small chunks out of his opponents, breaking them down little by little.
My father is the fifth of seven children. His oldest sister, G, was the leader of the pack, frequently defending their mother and younger siblings against their abusive father. She often provided one of the few spaces where they could truly be children. My Tía Maria was the second of the bunch, and my father remembers her distinctly stomping out a trash fire that he had lost control of in the backyard. She is barely five-feet tall, plays guitar, and teaches kindeegarten—her pronunciation. The next oldest, my Tío Ray, was enrolled in seminary school in Mexico for a good portion of his teenage years. He was pre-selected to become the preacher in the family but would eventually decide to go to college, major in psychology, and become a car salesman. Next was my Tío Jack, who was closest in age to my father and often got into trouble alongside him. He is now an engineer and actively plans for the apocalypse by acquiring survival tools. And then comes my dad, the youngest of what he refers to as “The Original Five” siblings. Eleven years after my dad was born, the final two siblings would arrive, my Tía Susie and Tío Manny, who were too young to be a part of most of my dad’s childhood memories.
In her early twenties, Tía G moved out of the family home on O’Banion Road in the rural San Joaquin Valley, the agricultural heart of California. When I was young, I always thought the street my grandparents lived on was called Abandon Road. This seemed appropriate to me, considering the pale green house sat on a desolate country road surrounded by agricultural fields, populated by rabbits, and that it didn’t really have a functioning plumbing system. Tía G lived with Tía Maria in an apartment complex that they called The Sugar House.
“For us it was, like, wow! It had a swimming pool, weight room, sauna, Jacuzzi. You can’t beat that,” my dad says. He and his brother Jack were in middle school and managed to become resident freeloaders at their sisters’ apartment.
Tía G eventually got tired of having her brothers crash her place while she was at work. She locked them out, but my dad and Tío Jack worked the system by telling the apartment complex manager they had locked themselves out while doing laundry. Tía G tried again to enforce boundaries and her brothers ended up sneaking in through the kitchen window.
“Then she moved to an apartment upstairs. So we walked along the top of the fence, and then we jumped up on the railing. She always forgot to close the sliding back door, so we got in and watched HBO. It was so funny, she came home and was like, ‘How the hell did you guys get in here!’ and we just looked at her and were like, ‘Hey, do you have any Top Ramen or anything for us to eat?’ And then she took us out to dinner. She was always cool like that.”
My dad laughs when he tells me this story, but the reality of the situation is one that my father wouldn’t tell me about until much later. He and his brother were breaking into G’s house after school because the violence in their parents’ home was escalating.
“We hated being at home with Dad because he was a tyrant. So we stayed away, we didn’t wanna go home. We would walk to her apartment from school. At least when we were at G’s, we could hang out, go swimming, go to the weight room.”
Their father’s violent tendencies only grew worse. Belt whoopings graduated to hammer throwing. “It felt like somebody was going to die in that house,” Dad told me once.
G moved out because she was tired of fighting with her father. She sought out a man to help protect her from her father’s tyranny. She got married, got a job at a bank, and got pregnant with my oldest cousin Elena. But G never really stopped fighting with her father, which is probably why she doesn’t find her brother’s jokes funny.
In the summer of 2017, my dad got a call that his dad, my abuelito, had been arrested. He had been picked up on an assault with a deadly weapon charge after using a pruned limb he had sawed off a cherry tree to strike his wife, his daughter G, and granddaughter Elena in the garage of their suburban home. In true paisa fashion, he had taken on three generations of my family at the age of 83 with his retired farmworker hands and a cherry tree limb.
My dad and Tío Ray debated whether to leave him locked up for a few days to teach him a lesson. They decided not to. If he hadn’t yet learned how to manage his anger properly after 83 years, he probably never would. When they found Abuelito, he was dressed in the standard orange jumpsuit. They got on the phone to talk to him through the plexiglass.
“You need to apologize to the people you have hurt, you need to ask forgiveness, and you need to behave,” Dad chided. “You need to learn to have love in your life.” By this point, my dad had raised three daughters into relatively responsible adults, so he fell naturally into the parent role as he spoke to his abusive father.
Abuelito told his sons that the women—the wife, daughter, and granddaughter he had brutalized—had been on drugs. They had attacked him, he said. He claimed he only acted in self-defense, failing to mention that he had calmly, premeditatedly grabbed the tree limb only after his granddaughter had repeatedly blocked him from hitting her mother and grandmother. But he stuck to his story, claiming he was going to file charges against the three Moreno women he had brutalized. His wife (my abuelita) fled to my Tía Maria’s home for a few weeks, leaving her husband on his own for the first time in more than fifty years of marriage. Tía G pressed charges but eventually dropped them after the family scrutinized her decision.
“He always acted like we were the ones that were gonna end up behind the plexiglass,” Dad later told me. The only reason Abuelito ended up in jail this time around was because the violence had occurred in public—in the open garage of their suburban home. A few years prior to this incident, my grandparents’ O’Banion residence had been bought by new landowners, and they had been promptly served an eviction notice. Their new home was in a residential neighborhood in the city, a marked upgrade from the country road they used to live on, but this meant there was much more scrutiny of Abuelito’s rage. With his cherry tree limb, my grandfather had disturbed the peace in this quiet community, and after a lifetime of violence towards his wife and children, was finally facing charges for assault with a deadly weapon.
Dad called to tell me what had happened. He dubbed it “The Cherry Tree Massacre.” The whole family now uses this term to refer to the incident.
My dad describes his sense of humor as “taking the things that you think are uncomfortable and turning them into a big ol’ joke. Some people say that it’s a coping mechanism, but I think it’s funny.” My mother often finds my dad’s humor inappropriate, even though she admits that he makes her laugh. “The exchange of laughter is like exchanging hugs,” she says. It is a way to connect with someone, to reassure a person that they are not alone. Domestic violence runs in her family too, but she and her siblings don’t make jokes about it. They hardly talk about it, or their father, at all.
Dad says that the simplest and most redeeming quality of jokes is that a person can choose to respond however they like. “If you don’t like the joke, don’t laugh,” he says.
Other hilariously inappropriate jokes in current media:
- Michelle Wolf’s remarks at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: “Trump is so broke… he grabs pussies because he thinks there might be some loose change in them.”
- Twitter hashtag inspired by the comments made by creative genius knucklehead Kanye West:
@follow_the_jo: When you been working part time on the cotton plantation for years, but u hear that the tobacco plantation is hiring with free room and board included #SlaveryWasAChoice
- Dave Chapelle’s joke about the white woman who made a false accusation against Emmett Till in 1955, leading to him being beaten and lynched: “…and I kicked her in the pussy!”
My dad joked about his father’s relapse into domestic violence, but I knew the incident had hit a nerve. Even though he wasn’t the direct victim, the incident had opened up old wounds. Dad avoided his family for the next few months, even opting out of the damn near-mandatory Moreno Thanksgiving dinner and dance party. But on Christmas Eve, he finally acquiesced, and we arrived at my abuelita’s house with gifts and empty stomachs, ready to eat pozole. When Abuelita opened her Christmas present, she wrapped the soft blue blanket around her shoulders and said it was beautiful. She thanked us and started to sing for the family. “Que calientito! It is so warm!” she exclaimed.
“So warm you could sleep outside with it,” my abuelito said, bitter that none of his kids had brought any presents for him. Abuelita and the rest of the family ignored his comment, leaving him to sulk by himself in the corner of the kitchen.
On the drive home, as my family rehashed the chisme, my dad shook his head when he brought up his father. “We didn’t get him any presents because he’s been a naughty boy this year,” he explained. Then he turned to my mother sitting in the passenger seat and said, “We should have gotten him something, though.”
“Yeah. A new cherry tree.”
The more scholarly term for domestic violence is intimate partner violence or IPV. Shortened to its acronym, it sounds like an STD. In some ways, domestic violence functions like an STD: It is contagious and shameful and could deter you from having children of your own. Members of my family have caught IPV and passed it down to their children who passed it to their children. Some family members suffer from depression because of the violence they experienced. Some have a hard time finding viable intimate partners and are emotionally stunted in their ability to recognize and participate in healthy relationships. They only know how to express their repressed anger one way: by lashing out physically and verbally against their children, spouses, and pet Pomeranians.
My cousins and I, a generation removed from Abuelito’s abuses, still struggle every day to live nonviolently in a world that is quick to piss us off. “Violence is the first cousin to rage,” Martín Espada, a Puerto Rican lawyer, poet and professor writes in his essay “The Puerto Rican Dummy and the Merciful Son.” He writes that “Violence is terribly seductive; all of us, especially males, are trained to gaze upon violence until it becomes beautiful. Beautiful violence is not only the way to victory for armies and football teams; this becomes the solution to everyday problems.”
Rage, as it manifests itself in Latino men, is not unique. It cuts across race and class. Men from all walks of life are taught that they can use their fists to express their feelings, that they are entitled to use the bodies of their (often) female partners as punching bags. And this rage-inspired violence isn’t reserved exclusively for men; it bleeds across gender lines also. What makes it distinct in the Latinx community is that we have a precise term that describes masculine violence: machismo. Here is the definition from Urban Dictionary:
- Having an unusually high/exaggerated sense of masculinity. Including an attitude that aggression, strength, sexual prowess, power and control is the measure of someone’s manliness. Also, a machismo man feels having these traits entitles him to respect and obedience from men and women around him.
- The belief in the right to dominate and control, including but not limited to, control over women.
The root of the word machismo is the Spanish word macho. Espada points out, “Before this term came into use to define sexism and violence, no particular ethnic or racial group was implicated by the language itself. ‘Macho’ as employed by Anglos is a Spanish word that particularly seems to identify Latino male behavior as the very standard of sexism and violence.” Thus, in the U.S., the Latino male often falls victim to the internalized image of himself as the repressed macho, leaving their female counterparts to bare the bruises of the pain they can’t express.
Even so, these men are our fathers, brothers, partners, sons. When I hear the word macho I wince because I know that it is inextricably linked to the image of a man with dark hair, bushy eyebrows, and round face—the likeness of my father. And I am saddened to think of all the men in my community who are confined by this stereotype of themselves, men who are never told that they have other options besides punching holes in walls, demeaning women, and closing themselves off emotionally.
“I’m not making excuses for your abuelito. He’s been a cherry tree tyrant his whole life,” Dad tells me. “But he only has so many tools. He can attack and be ornery and be spiteful. He doesn’t have the ability to be kind and gentle or feel a sense of regret. He was practically raised in the wilderness.” Abuelito’s father died when he was just seven years old, and he began work chopping trees for lumber soon afterwards. My abuelito had little to no guidance from his parents or other adults.
When I ask my dad how he learned to be kind and gentle, who helped him acquire the tools to be a better man, he doesn’t skip a beat: Mom. It is the women in my family—my mother, my abuelita, my tías, my sisters—who often bear the burden of teaching our men to be patient and gentle. It is Abuelita who tries to balance her husband’s rage with love; it is my mother who tries to balance her husband’s jokes with compassion.
Please circle the best choice:
When you grow up in a violent household as a child and decide as an adult that you don’t want to proliferate the violence you were raised in, but society tells you it’s not socially acceptable to seek therapy, what do you do?
- Learn to live as a recluse in the woods, naked and alone. Vow to do no harm to any living thing. Kill a rabbit when you decide you would prefer to eat. Wear its skin as a loincloth.
- Get a degree in psychology to study the damage that has been inflicted by your parents. Believe that this deeper understanding keeps you from making the same mistakes. Become a car salesman and use your psychoanalysis skills to sell used Mitsubishis.
- Convert to Christianity, go to church every day, praise God for your domestic salvation. Wake up one day and realize you are in a cult.
- Find a person who wants the same thing, knows how important it is and how much work it will take to sift through all the emotional bullshit imparted by your violent family history. Vow to be trusting and loyal to this person. Marry and start a family. End up in therapy anyway.
The older my parents get, the more they tend to overshare when I ask them seemingly simple questions. “If your dad was honest, he would say he liked me for my big chi-chis— ”
“Oh my gosh! Mujer!”
“He calls them kangooroos.”
Like most children hearing their parents talk about being sexually attracted to each other, I want to cover my ears when my mom tells me this.
“Noooo, that’s not true,” my dad says, trying to save face. “I liked her because she was little. She was nice. We had a lot in common. Her dad was a cherry tree man too. We were both poor, came from poor. We both, uh, yeah. Lots of stuff.”
“Yeah, your dad didn’t come across as machista, even though he kinda is.”
My parents are both educated enough to know that they regress when they argue, and they have enough degrees between them to feel that this immature, somewhat inarticulate banter does not reflect poorly on their intelligence. They both attended graduate school and teach at community colleges. My dad teaches art, but he worked as a field laborer for most of his childhood. He is now tech-savvy enough to know Blu-ray DVDs are the best technological invention ever but is not tech-savvy enough to know how to increase the font size on his phone so he can actually read it. Sometimes, he will call me and when I answer, he says, “Did you call me?”
Last Thursday, Dad called to tell me he lost fourteen pounds. I asked how he managed to lose so much weight, and he told me he was drinking Mom’s homemade “kimboosh” on the regular. “Iz good,” he says. “Cleans out all the fecal.”
My mom often rolls her eyes at my father’s antics, his dad jokes. In public, she tells people that she sometimes wishes her husband came with an off button. She’s been married to this man for thirty years; hearing the same jokes day-in and day-out becomes less entertaining with time.
When Dad gets together with his brothers, they laugh and crack jokes over beers and backyard bonfires. I have distinct memories of them sitting around, talking and joking about Father Urbina and exorcisms, and getting beatdowns from their father. Father Urbina was the Catholic priest in their community who was eventually investigated for preying on children, and then transferred to a small town in Mexico. Dad likes to wait for lulls in the laughter between his brothers and then turn to Tío Ray and exclaim, “Better look out before Father Urbina gets you!”
Their parents attend church almost every day and participate in off-the-record exorcisms in the Catholic community. When my grandparents criticize my dad for joking about Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, or chide him for not baptizing his children, he likes to roll his head around and wag his tongue at them like Regan, the demonic little girl from The Exorcist.
To joke about something requires distance from the subject. Humor then further creates space between the object of the joke and the person telling the joke, the same way Catholic school teachers force space between couples at high school dances—“Leave room for Jesus!” My tíos can laugh now because they have acquired physical and psychological distance from the tyranny of their father. They are no longer young children wishing they could control their father’s fists, wishing their mother would just pack her bags and leave her husband to self-destruct in his own rage.
Brown’s Laws of Intimate Partner Violence.
- A fist in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force, i.e., a wall, face, forearm, or therapy.
- F(Force) = (A1)Anger x (A2)Acceleration
- For every action, there is a consequential, blown-way-out-of-proportion reaction.
“I had a total meltdown last week,” my dad tells me over the phone. “I came home and I’m throwing something away in the garbage and I turn and I see that the dog tore up the fence again. Oh. My God. I lost it. I turned to the dog right away, I was like, ‘DID YOU DO THIS? DID YOU DO THIS?’ I had an out-of-body experience, I was so mad. And then I heard myself. And I thought, Oh shit, they’re gonna hear me out on the street yelling. I was yelling so loud—I was so mad! And the dog was like ‘Oh my God!’”
When he tells me this story, he is laughing and impersonating his own moment of rage. I laugh along because I can imagine him in his fury, trying to reprimand the dog for a crime he doesn’t realize he has committed. Dad’s anger is familiar to me because I have seen it. And, also, because I possess it. It has been passed down from his father, to my father, to me, like a family heirloom. When Espada writes about his father, he notes that his father had good reason for rage:
A brown-skinned man, he learned rage when he was arrested…and spent a week in jail for refusing to go to the back of the bus. He learned rage when he was denied a college education and instead struggled for years working for an electrical contractor, hating his work and yearning for so much more… My father externalized his rage. He raged at his enemies and he raged at us.
My father shares this rage. It was seeded by his own father, sprouted from the many times people told him he would never succeed in school, would never be anything more than a farm worker, and is tended by the people who mistake him, a professor on campus, for the gardener. I share this rage too. Planted by my father, growing out of the knowledge that no matter how many degrees I acquire I will likely earn 55 percent of what men earn because the gender wage gap is larger if you are Latina. For all of us maneuvering the complicated dispossession of respect and opportunity, this rage is familiar.
My dad often reminds me that I have to break the cycle of violence that runs in my family. But when I ask how he and Mom manage to do it, he’s non-specific: “We just decided that it wasn’t what we wanted to do, wasn’t the kind of family situation we wanted to be in.” As if deciding not to be hostile towards your domestic partner were just another mundane decision, like whether you are going to shop at Walmart or Target, eat organic peanut butter or regular-ass Jif.
All I have been able to glean from years of witnessing functional and dysfunctional relationships in my own family is that domestic violence is cyclical and it is contagious. It can skip a generation and re-emerge later down the line like a recessive trait. It can be subdued and then reappear, just as ugly as before like toenail fungus. And the decision to break the chain of violence isn’t made once, but again and again. Staving off domestic violence is a state of constant vigilance. It requires the ability to be honest with oneself, an ability to ask the questions: “What do I do that adds fuel to the fire? What destructive, manipulative, abusive habits have I inherited from past generations?” It is only by confronting your own flaws, by confronting the experiences that have shaped you, that we can have any chance of breaking the cycle. It is applying honesty, love, and patience daily, like a salve, onto the traumas of the past. It is knowing your limitations. It is knowing when to ask for help. And it is learning to grow cherry trees not for the branches but for the fruit.
Domestic violence is not funny. When you’re down on the floor, staring up at the sky and praying to the God you had never before believed in, hoping He will intervene before more bruises are inflicted, before the soap is forced into your mouth, you don’t feel much like laughing. When you are crouched over a sink or a toilet bowl (whatever your drain of choice may be), spitting blood and checking to make sure your teeth are still intact, it’s not a humorous situation. When you wake up the next morning with your mouth swollen and your favorite jeans torn, you don’t smile and reminisce on what has passed. You don’t find any solace in the post-beating apologies, if you’re lucky enough to receive them, and you aren’t ready to start to forgive the person who was hurling insults at you. You aren’t ready to try to understand how they became enraged, to understand the traumas that have led them to express themselves violently, the nuances of their pain. No. Your own pain is too overwhelming. You wake up hurt—physically, mentally, and emotionally battered. You wake up feeling betrayed by the person who was supposed to love you and promised, either explicitly or implicitly, to never hurt you. And you wake up furious.
That fury can and will consume you if you don’t find a way to grapple with it.
“[The] anger—and that anger will come—has to be controlled, directed, creatively channeled, articulated but not all-consuming, neither destructive nor self-destructive,” Espada writes. “Sometimes a belly laugh is infinitely more revolutionary than the howl of outrage that would have left me pegged, yet again, as a snarling, stubborn macho.”
Dad channels his rage into his art. The spare room of his home that functions as a studio explodes with paint cans whenever he is working on a project. He staples the edges of a canvas and nails it to the wall. He smears paint across its surfaces, forces a roller pattern down the face of the painting. He uses whatever materials he has, anything that serves his creativity. His paintings are beautiful bursts of color that make festive first impressions with skeletons lurking in the shadows. He uses his hands when he paints, his fingers scooping oily acrylic, his preferred medium, and smearing it across the canvas. His hands carry the paint stains for days. His clothes carry them forever.
Victims of domestic violence are often stripped of decency, dignity, and humanity at the hands of a “loved” one, and sometimes we find ourselves laughing because there is nothing else we can do. We have unwillingly fallen into the role of a victim, and in our pain, we are expected to cry, scream, recede into ourselves. Anything but laugh. We are never expected to laugh.
To laugh at our own pain is to lash out against one’s forced victimhood. It is an exercise in agency. It is a way to reclaim your own humanity. We laugh because we are the survivors. We are here, and we are laughing spitefully in the faces of those who have tried to victimize us.
We laugh because we deserve to. We laugh because we are healing. We laugh because it is one of the few ways we have learned to be emotional. And we laugh because our fathers taught us to.
- Every nine seconds a woman is beaten or assaulted.
- Domestic violence affects one in every four women during their lives—greater than the combined total percent of female breast, ovarian, and lung cancer patients.
- One in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner; men who are victimized are substantially less likely to report their situation to the police.
- One in three Latinas have experienced domestic violence. One in twelve have experienced it in the past twelve months.
- Reported rates of IPV were lower for Mexican immigrants (13.4 percent) than for persons of Mexican descent born in the U.S.
- Sixty-three percent of victimized women experience multiple acts of victimization, i.e. stalking, physical assault, weapon assault, threats, sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, etc.
If you or someone you know might be experiencing domestic violence,
please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
1 Paisa is a Mexican-American term used to describe a particular stereotype of someone who dresses and/or acts like a super old school Mexican cowboy. On Urban Dictionary, El chingon de chingones defines the term as “any Mexican dressed up as a cowboy. Short for paisano, meaning ‘countryman,’ someone from the same country as you.” Also, “a Mexican living in the United States that wears cowboy hats, belts, and boots made of ostrich skin.”
2 A few years prior, my abuelito had given a grandiose prayer-speech at Thanksgiving declaring that everyone in the family should turn to the people beside them and ask for forgiveness. My dad almost walked out of the room. “I forgive you for trying to force me to say ‘I forgive you,’” my dad scoffed.
3 There are rumors that some of us grandchildren may or may not indulge in some ganja once in a while. In Mexican families, there tends to be more cultural stigma around marijuana as a very dangerous, violence-inciting drug. Whether drugs or alcohol actually played a role in the incident is highly doubtful.
6 Some background: My dog chewed through the fence in the last hailstorm and was picked up by the doggy popo, Animal Control. He continued to escape until Dad rebuilt the fence. The project took my dad an entire weekend.
7 Statistics courtesy of The Mask You Live In (Common Sense Media, 2015), Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support Group, the Center for Disease Control, the U.S. Department of Justice, The National Latin@ Network, and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.