Growing Up Nowhere

In addition to supporting the story/idea sharing goal inherent to a blog, I’ve been pressuring myself more and more to write about my past in order to give more context to my output as a writer. Admittedly, I’ve been resistant to the idea because it entails revisiting old memories that I’ve only recently finished putting to bed for good. As a result, going around and digging them back up hasn’t been the most attractive prospect, and admittedly, also feels like I’d be taking steps backwards. This leaves me with the option to either use that rationale as an excuse not to do it, or get it done and out of the way without dwelling on the matter. In the spirit of productivity, I’m opting for the latter. This is the story of how I grew up nowhere.

Growing up with my mother being full-time custody holder, there are five instances of “home” throughout my formative years:

  1. Toddler Years: The house my family lived in right down the way from my dad’s place.
  2. Early Childhood: A duplex unit home in a nearby neighborhood.
  3. Childhood: A rental house in the city
  4. My Dad’s Place: The family home located above the family business, a liquor store in a low-income neighborhood.

The fifth and final one was the one that became my mother’s fixed residence, a house she bought in residential development compound located off the road between Tijuana and Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico in the mid ’90s. It was a small community of repeated base model homes made of brick, wood, and cement: 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom, and a living room/kitchen area that owners would then add-on to and customize as they built. As they were in Mexico, they were probably in violation of countless standards and regulations that America has in place for housing. The basic units weren’t properly finished, and air would blow in through the tiny holes in the cement. These homes were on hills only a few miles away from the ocean, those winds would come fast and frigid, making showers a painful test of fortitude in the winters. For the first few years, there was no access to utilities. Nightfall signaled it was time to light an array of candles, and water had to be bought from the truck tanks of water vendors and stored in giant plastic barrels. Cooking required purchasing propane cylinder refills in a similar fashion. Bathing required turning on the propane line, fetching water from the barrel and boiling it in a pot, emptying the boiled water into a giant bucket, getting another pot’s worth of cold water from the barrel, cutting the boiled water with the cold water to ideal temperature, then grabbing a cup/bowl and taking a bath out of the bucket as quick as possible.

Since my dad paid the rent on the house we lived in stateside, time was split between both homes for the first couple years before the rental was given up sometime around 1997, which I believe coincided with when the electric utility commission finally got around to installing power lines. That ended up relocating me with my full-time custody holder to the other side of the US-Mexico border. In turn, I grew up in a very princess-in-the-tower-like manner. My mom strictly forbade me spending the night at other people’s homes, and the only place I could stay at in the states was either at my dad’s place when she felt up to leaving me there, or at one of my sisters’ homes provided I had explicit permission from her to go.

For the most part, I was peerless. My daily company was my little brother and a few of my nephews and nieces (one of my sisters bought a house in Mexico of her own a few blocks down the street), on which I had a good 5–6 year lead. Everyone else around me was significantly older. The neighborhood kids that were my age I didn’t connect with – small language barrier aside, they all cared about American movies and soccer whereas I was interested in role playing video games with engaging narratives, hard rock, and books. So my days were largely spent left alone to do my own thing, in my bedroom in a house off in the hills of Mexico with no phone, cable TV, or internet. I occupied my time with reading whatever books were available (once I exhausted my stock and went without new books for so long I started reading the Bible in Spanish and an English dictionary), replaying video games I’d beaten many times over, and playing around on my old Compaq Presario running Windows ME and sifting over all the stuff I’d managed to download onto when I still had my dial-up internet access at the old rental house in the states. I was frequently left to my own devices, unsupervised and unmonitored, and I found myself growing very comfortable with that. All I needed to occupy myself I had in the form of literature, entertainment, and my own imagination. When being indoors ceased to be appealing, I would head off on bike or foot and explore the trails in the chaparral that surrounded us.

Mom's House - Google Maps Satellite View
Satellite shot from Google Maps of the area my mom’s house is located in.

 

While I can frame that experience in the positive as affirming my autonomous and introspective nature, it also had some pretty severe drawbacks. Though I couldn’t control where we lived, I did vehemently refuse to give up on my school. I’d transferred from the elementary school in the “ghetto” to a middle school (and subsequently, the neighboring high school) as part of a program to diversify student bodies in schools, and I’d been a shoo-in for my ethnic background and my academic achievement — I’d been enrolled in the county’s Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program since the 2nd grade (the same year they tried to convince me to allow myself to be skipped to the 4th grade and I staunchly refused). However, after the move, my academic performance started suffering to disastrous results.

Home to School Commute Map
The commute from home at my mom’s to my middle school & high school (yellow pins). The green place marker is my dad’s place of residence.

Having a 1 hour morning commute without accounting for the variable time-padding needed to account for crossing the US-Mexico border inspection station and a designated school starting time of 7:30–7-:45 AM meant I was frequently late. I recall my 7th grade self realizing and feeling so disappointed with how numb and unconcerned I’d become to the embarrassment of regularly walking in late halfway through the second period of the school day. My afternoons at the end of a school day were not spent hanging out with friends or studying, they were spent waiting for my mom or my one of my sisters to get around to picking me up. Laptops were still a high-end luxury at the time, so the commute home was spent sitting patiently in the car. After being dragged around to run personal errands by the driver, getting home allowed for a 2–3 hour period in which to get homework done and get in leisure time before going to bed early to rise at 4:30–5AM to start the day over again.

As a result of this one detail in my past, I’ve struggled with two recurring concepts. The first being the shame of bearing the mantle of an unrealized child prodigy, someone who had a vast well of potential and failed to make anything come of it. The resentment of having the promise that parents hope to see in their children, and having it neglected in favor of ownership of a brick hut in a developing neighborhood in a developing nation. The other being how I’ve been so unintentionally trained to be so self-sufficient. On an intellectual level, I know that I do a good job of navigating life socially despite the social retardation circumstances like those would normally result in because I believe in and adhere to being the “best” version of myself and a “good” person. And because I’m not an idiot and have a solid grasp on tact and social graces that I’ve developed through keen observation and personal experience. However, I am also equally aware acknowledge that the ease with which I can become unapologetically aloof with anyone is alarming. Being able to completely detach from things/people, I’ve learned, becomes a huge liability if it starts to become reflexive and second-nature.

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