Good artists imitate; great artists steal. In our new series, Stolen, writers share stories of theft.
My ex-wife stared as she watched my maternal grandmother slide a chicken into her purse. When she noticed she was being watched, my grandmother locked eyes with my ex-wife. In her thick Guadalajara accent, my grandmother bellowed, “For the dogs.” Her dogs were waiting outside of the buffet, in her truck. It was Mother’s Day and they were her most beloved.
On our way home, my ex-wife asked, “Have you seen your grandmother steal meat before?”
I looked at her with a deadpan expression meant to approximate the one my grandmother had given her.
“She’s Mexican,” I answered.
My grandmother’s habit of filling her purse with meat reinforces an American stereotype: that Mexicans are thieves. Consider the now-retired chip mascot Frito Bandito. And Speedy Gonzales, the cheese snatcher. But Mexicans invert this trope.
“You live in California,” my paternal grandfather would remind me when we’d visit Mexico at Christmas. “You live there because of a robbery! The United States stole that land! Americans are thieves.”
My grandfather’s indictment was supposed to make me, a gringa, ashamed. Instead, it made me secretly relish America. My family lived on stolen land and stolen fruit always tastes better. Its ill-gotten nature emboldens its umami, glazes it with immoral MSG.
When I went on my first stealing spree, I became a Mexican bandit, and a practitioner of Manifest Destiny.
While other girls shoplifted at the mall, I strolled into our small town’s public library. A steak knife rode in my coat pocket. I hunted among the stacks for Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. After finding them, I enjoyed the faint sound they made as I pulled them free. They dropped into my backpack. I headed to the restroom and waited on a toilet seat defaced by graffiti. Once I was alone, I set Henry Miller’s novels on my lap. I reached for my knife. I slid it out and dragged the blade along each book’s spine, freeing the antitheft devices embedded inside. I pretended to be gutting rainbow trout. I wondered if the books had feelings and, if so, did they feel violated by my actions? I shrugged off the thought and slid the knife back into my coat. I collected the chunks I’d cut away and shoved them into the small metal coffin bolted to the stall, where they mixed with the bloody menstrual pads.
In my bedroom, I read the Miller books. It felt good to read them because they were stolen, but I was also disappointed. I’d been expecting porn, something worthy of Penthouse or Playboy, not poetry.
By the time I turned sixteen, my bedroom bookshelf overflowed with spineless books. One stolen trophy was so special that I kept it under my bed. Despite this book’s importance, I cannot recall its title. I can only recall its images. It was a collection of photographs, artworks, and interviews with lesbians. I had never seen a lesbian in my hometown, the closest things we had were nuns, and the lesbians featured in this book sported crew cuts and leather harnesses through which their big, gay breasts spilled. I wanted to touch these women but I also wanted to be them, to be as bold as they were. Hiding this book under my bed felt like hiding my future under my mattress.
My favorite photograph in the book was of a lesbian wedding ceremony. The photograph presaged my wedding, but not my divorce.
I was arrogant about my crimes. I didn’t think anyone in my town was as capable of appreciating the books I stole as I was. In fact, I thought I was doing everyone a favor by adopting the books and taking them into a home where they would finally get the love their strangeness deserved.
I must have inherited my modus operandi from my mother. After separating from my ex-wife, I brought home the first male lover I’ve ever introduced to my mother and father. My mother sat this lover at the dining-room table, exclaiming, “Wait here!” She got to work playing an old-lady game of show-and-tell, parading her favorite possessions in front of him. Towels from Cairo. Signs written in Polish. A candle snuffer from Lisbon. As my mother explained how she’d acquired these items, she did not shy away from using criminal nomenclature.
My lover interrupted her, saying, “Wait. You stole these things?”
“Yes,” my mother answered in her heavy Guadalajara accent. “But it’s okay!”
“Because I like them!”
I am a thief because I am an American, a Mexican, my mother’s daughter, and my grandmother’s granddaughter. My grandmother remained incorrigible until we put her underground.
At her wake, everyone approached her casket to say goodbye. Afterward, my ex-wife, my schizophrenic uncle, and I drove to an Italian restaurant where we intended to eat spaghetti and reminisce. My uncle patted his shirt pocket.
“Where are my sunglasses?” he muttered.
I glanced at my ex-wife. She glanced at me. We were both thinking the same thing. We had watched my uncle bend over his mother’s coffin to kiss her goodbye. Figuring that heaven, or hell, might be too bright, my grandmother must have summoned the last pair of shades she’d encounter before burial. The glasses remain with her, the undertaker confirmed that he’d noticed them. I hope the darkness they provide feels extra sweet forever.
Myriam Gurba is the author of Mean, a nonfiction novel and memoir. She lives in California and loves cash, succulents, and the elderly.