Even a person who’d never passed through Middle America might guess exactly what the street I grew up on looked like. Everything about it was average: the distance between houses, median income reported within them, number and age of semi-feral children darting from tree to playground to driveway basketball hoop in between the ice cream truck’s strains of “Turkey in the Straw.” We were a middle-class census snapshot of Clinton-era Americana, “ordinary working families” in the way that politicians mean when they say it. Dull and inoffensive, a made-up status quo.
My mother assimilated easily into this universe of minivans and coupon-enhanced supermarket hauls, despite being somebody who’d grown up without either of these things. San Gerardo, the Salvadoran village where she’d been reared, was the kind of place where you learned how to steer a burro over cobblestones in lieu of driver’s ed. The handful of half-focused color photographs that survived the improbable journey from there and then to my Wisconsin childhood depict angular livestock and tin roof dwellings, the stuff of Messiah-complex Facebook albums and travelogues. It’s a setting best described as humble. But its characters? Fly as fuck.
For Mami, looking excellent has always been a non-negotiable and even growing up in the exact middle of nowhere, she figured out at an early age just how to pull it off. By the time she was eight, she was making all of her own outfits. They were the latest trends ripped from photos in magazines and catalogues—styles from Sears, JCPenney’s and McCall’s, the occasional South American fashion rag and, once in awhile, something in French. By high school, making clothes had become a full-on side hustle.
“We were in style,” Mami recalls, and she’s blasé about it but it’s true: they were. Really, really in style. In photos, Charlie’s Angels pantsuits and perfectly coaxed coifs seem almost green-screened onto the remote tropical backdrop, out of sync with crooked clay houses and undernourished beasts.
San Gerardo was a three to six hour drive from the nearest actual city along a corkscrew stretch of unpaved mountain road. When my father, an American Peace Corps volunteer, asked his placement officers to deploy him to “the most remote location possible” in a fit of twentysomething hubris, it was San Gerardo where they sent him. But the general store (run by my mother’s Tía Chola, who smoked cigarettes and wore go-go boots) was well-stocked with fabrics. When its selection fell short of my mother’s lofty expectations, she’d send her aunts who lived in the city on reconnaissance to local bazaares, roadside flea markets run by descendants of Arab immigrants that specialized in textiles. Her belted blouses weren’t just hip but luxurious, rendered in softest silk.
I wasn’t sure that Mami would agree to being written about in this way, to having her physical presentation contextualized for an audience. It’s not that she doesn’t like to be the center of attention; Mami’s a schoolteacher and, like a lot of people drawn to that vocation, is at her happiest when explaining things to large groups of people. Like, anything. If you ask her about the last movie she saw, she’ll give you a 15-minute-long scene-by-scene synopsis, no problem. Compliment her on her new flatware set at a dinner party (if that’s the kind of thing you pay attention to at a dinner party), and she’ll tell you all about the killer sale she snagged it at (“Would you believe it, 70 percent off at Boston Store, and Oneida’s a very good brand!”). But, as I think is the case with a lot of people whose lives got rewritten in adulthood, she doesn’t love broadcasting the details of her upbringing.
Still, stories are subject to a gravity of their own, leaking out of the crevasses of a person’s crafted exterior like coffee from the hairline crack of a ceramic mug. Anything can set them off, and did and does. We’d be channel surfing through a soup of syndication and she’d let slip that she and her grandpa had bonded over crudely-dubbed episodes of Bonanza, which they watched on the one television in town. Or a Beatles song would come on, and she’d laugh about how she’d convinced her friends she could understand its English lyrics. “Don’t write about this,” she warned sharply on a family car trip a few years ago, after she’d revealed some detail about her hometown’s infrastructure—latrinization or some such. It wasn’t until then that I pieced together that maybe my mom was self-conscious about where she’d come from, that she didn’t want to be thought of as some third-world hayseed.
My childhood happened in a mid-sized Midwestern city, a world altogether distinct from San Gerardo. But, in that car ride, I instinctively understood my mother’s ache to self-create. I hadn’t been shaped by the confines of geographic isolation, but by a series of more cliché restraints (introversion; athletic ineptitude; pathological dorkiness). Early on, clothes became a sort of armour. When I asked my mother, in preparation for this essay, how old I was when I began demonstrating preferences for styles—choosing designs for her to sew me from pattern catalogues with my own specifications on the deets—she guessed maybe four or five. And I remember, too: a white sailor yoke over a burgundy velvet bodice; pink lace cuffs on striped pajamas. I picked particular flourishes, made them my own.
When I got older, inspiration came from the Midwestern tweenager’s style bible of the late ’90s and early aughts: the dELiA*s catalogue. Once each month it arrived in my mailbox, and I’d pore over every page as though it were homework, salivating over its California-casual slipdresses and flaired gingham capris. I don’t remember much of ninth grade biology, but I could tell you how many colors a certain circa-1999 bucket hat came in, no sweat—go ahead and just ask me about the exact chromatic placement of “camo green” versus “sand.”
Mami wasn’t keen on fulfilling my dELiA*s dreams. We were not a family that paid full-price for damn near anything, and, besides, “Those clothes are overpriced and cheapie cheapie cheapie.” As a compromise, she’d let me pick out fabrics and knock off the dresses I liked best.
This was the way she’d dressed herself once, too. A flower-print dress in one of the photos I found on my last visit home, she tells me, was her favorite. She’d adapted the design from a catalogue called Bebe and sewn it in wrinkle-proof muslin, pleating the skirt to fill herself out (“It was my dream to put on weight!” she recalls). When she left El Salvador, this dress got left behind.
Another picture, taken with Lake Michigan at her back, shows my mother in a burgundy shirt and peach pants that had belonged to two separate outfits, both also adapted from images she’d seen in catalogues.
“Those pants were a set that I made for one of my cousin’s weddings,” she explained to me, without longing in her voice but a definite hint of pride. “There was a matching top and a little jacket. It was a pretty nice outfit.” I didn’t ask her what had happened to the rest of it.
I never developed the patience for precision that garment making demands, but because of Mami I didn’t have to. The styles we couldn’t afford off the rack were easily replicated on her ancient Singer sewing machine in a single afternoon, and according to our own terms. Frocks originally forged from yawn-worthy pastels (which wash me out) could be re-imagined in jewel tones (which don’t). A hemline might be corrected with a few-inch lift. Nobody else looked exactly like I did, and I liked that.
For my mother growing up without much, clothing was a link to modernity, a bridge to cities and ideas and options. In the latest styles, she was with-it and in command. She transcended San Gerardo, became the person she saw herself as. I guess the same could be said for me; through clothing, I might still be a little out-of-place, but I was a stylized misfit like Bjork or Kathleen Hanna. For both my mother and me, catalogues would inform the outcomes, but with tweaks to suit our tastes. Outfits were access passes whose parameters we defined for ourselves.
It’s been years since my mother’s made me a piece of clothing, and probably nearly as long since she’s done it for herself. It’s cheaper to buy from department store clearance sections, and less taxing on time. I try not to think about what’s been lost, the creative outlet that’s no longer worth the expense of minutes against dollars and brand-name emblems of financial security. I especially try not to think about how sad it is that I never learned, that I might never learn, that, like my broken Spanish, it’s possible I won’t be able to pass that skill-legacy onto my future offspring or the kids of my friends. I prefer to imagine that the choice is still there—a choice replete with choices.
Rumpus original art by Max Winter.
Photos provided by author.