My Heart is Bathed in Chilis
An excerpt from The Ramona Diary of SRD
By Scott Russell Duncan
The first time I had real hot peppers, a part of me died. Home was virtually a pepper-free zone as my Chicano mother only ate pickled jalapeños whose vinegar I found unappealing and my white father made a pico de gallo he called hot sauce, which I would later call Anglo-sauce. Yet I saw hot pepper consumption often since I stayed every summer with my grandparents in LA. We'd eat over at my Aunt Linda's and everyone would dump hot sauce over everything at breakfast and every time I would ask, "Is there any ketchup?" for me and my sister, Aunt Linda would look at me. “I don't know,” eyes wide, “Hey Rebecca! is there any ketchup left over from when you dated that guy? The gringo?”
“You mean Steve?”
“Yeah.” My cousin Rebecca would then bring the year-old ketchup bought for some polite and terrified white boyfriend for our eggs or potatoes. All eyes would be on me and my sister in our ketchup shame. Grandma would stare at the globs on our plate and say, “You going to eat that?” My uncle would say, “I think they are.” My sister, Clara, the tougher one, would glare back at our family saying, “We like ketchup!”
And everyone would purse their lips and say, “We gotta do something about how white you kids are.”
I met my chili pepper death after one of those ketchup shame breakfasts. I walked into the kitchen and saw my Uncle Joe sweating and holding on to the counter. He was eating chips and heaps of salsa. “Is it good?” I asked him. He wiped the side of his face. “Oh, it’s good,” he sputtered. "Your grandma made it."
Until that time, there was no place safer than a kitchen with my grandmother and nothing more inert than the only homemade salsa I knew, dad’s Anglo-sauce. So I ate some of grandma’s salsa, a big some.
And then I thought I had slurped nail polish remover. It was like drinking the whiskey from the jar that holds Joaquín Murrieta’s head. Marinated Mexican. And years later when I saw the crapola movie Interview With a Vampire and Brad Pitt gets bitten in the graveyard and yelps and the world goes gray before it becomes hyper-rainbow real....I thought, hey that was how eating my first hot peppers was. Vampirism must be easy.
But then at my first real hot pepper hit, the chilis took the slow bus down my throat and got off in my chest. I looked at my grandmother, whose name Mercy seemed ironic, and asked, “Why? Why, grandma, why?”
Grandma, washing a pot, called over, “Don't blame me, ‘Cotty, your uncle likes it.”
I, too, held the edges of the counter, dreading the mass of chilis ever hitting my stomach, but the chilis never made it there and instead settled on my heart. As the chilis burned, they consumed the slow vivid kitchen. The white blossoms on the back of my grandmother’s blue polyester blouse glowed. The fur of my aunt’s pale beige Chihuahua mix, Panzón, seemed bright and he barked happy and off sync. When the counter tiles seemed over-white, I shut my eyes and the chilis turned my heart to cinders.
My uncle patted my back, now as sweaty as his face. “We are burning the white boy out of you, m’ijo.”
And ever since then, chili peppers have been my vampire blood and air. And often my heart also burned because of disappointments and indignations, yet all the fires felt like chili pepper fire. Books I read seemed to describe this burning. Seguín, the Tejano hero of the Revolution who was later robbed of everything by the very Texans he fought for, warned Chicanos that we would be treated as foreigners in our own land. Montezuma, writhing in his palace in Tenochtitlan, said it better as an Aztec city fell under Cortez—“My heart is bathed in chilis.” Dissatisfied and disenfranchised hearts burn. My heart burns because 1846 has never ended. My heart burns because I’m still seen as a descendant of Cain, who we know from trash romance novels is our vampire father, but really means I am a native of the New World. My heart burns because I have survived here, in the place of many fires, the dry kindling of my homeland of the Southwest.
I have changed many to my side, to chili vampirism. They sweated and burned as I had, till they saw the world anew with chili pepper eyes. If you love me, you love chili peppers. Montezuma’s chili swishing heart. My own spicy heart.
Scott Russell Duncan is the author of The Ramona Diary of SRD, a memoir about growing up Chicano-Anglo in California, and the reclamation of Spanish California mythos. A writer of both Fiction and Nonfiction, Scott's work involves the mythic, the surreal, the abstract, in other words, the weird. Scott received his MFA from Mills College in Oakland, California where he lives and writes. A recipient of Litquake's 2016 short story content award, Scott's work has appeared in Somos en escrito, Border Senses, Ofi Press, and has been translated into Spanish in Canibaal. The Ramona Diary is looking for a publisher. Scott’s website is scottrussellduncan.com