“Is that the only sweater that you have?” a Catholic missionary said to Toribio one day; it was beginning to get cold…well Southern California cold.
Toribio looked down at what he thought was a perfectly fine, hole-ridden, raggedy sweater.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Oh my God. You need clothes because you are poor!”
Now in America, the entire eight member family was living in a one bedroom apartment on Cooper Road in Colonia (Oxnard), California. One bedroom, a kitchen, an outhouse, and an enclosed, outdoor shower that they shared with the entire complex. Toribio knew that he couldn’t buy that new GI Joe tank that he saw the other day in the toy store, but he had no concept of what being poor meant. But now he was beginning to learn. Shocked, he decided to rush home to ask his mother if it was indeed true.
“Mom,” he said when he walked in to his crowded apartment. His brothers and sisters were beginning the nightly ritual of taking out their mattresses so that they could all sleep together in the living/bedroom. “Are we poor?”
“Yes,” Emilia said. “What did you think? That we’re rich?”
Besides being financially poor, Toribio and the family were also linguistically poor since they knew very few words in English. For some reason, it was decided that Toribio was the spokesman for the entire family. Probably because Toribio knew those two magic words that everyone learning a foreign tongue uses when they get in a bind.
Whenever the phone would ring, everyone would scatter in terror because they knew that they would have to speak in English. So Emilia would yell for Toribio to answer it.
“Slower, please…” Toribio said after a flurry of English came over the receiver.
Whenever someone would knock on their door…
“I no understand,” Toribio would say to whoever was at the door rattling off English in a rapid-fire, sales pitch. “Slower, please…”
Some Sunday evenings, even though they were “poor”, Toribio’s family would go to Wimpy’s for the treat of some American cheeseburgers. When it came time to order in English, guess who was elected to do it?
Toribio confidently went up to the man that was working the register. The man looked like a human chimney as he constantly smoked while he was working.
“Six burgers, please,” were all of the words that Toribio knew at the time concerning Wimpy’s.
He learned a lot after that first trip. He learned that you need to ask for burgers with cheese in order to get cheese. It took him a few more months to learn that there was this whole other word “cheeseburger” in the English language. He learned that he and his family didn’t like the strange yellow sauce that they lathered onto the burgers. He went back to the Human Chimney to learn the proper way to order for next Sunday. Unfortunately, the only way he knew how to communicate his displeasure with the burgers was to take one with him, open it up, and say, “No.”
The Human Chimney somehow understood and was able to give Toribio an English lesson without removing the cigarette from his mouth the entire time.
“You don’t want mustard? Well you’ve got to speak up,” he said.
Toribio pointed again.
“No onions?” the Human Chimney eventually said.
“Si. No mustard. No onions,” Toribio said.
The next time that they went to Wimpy’s, Toribio repeated this over and over so that this time the burgers would be right.
“Six burgers with cheese. No onions. No mustard.”
He trotted back to the car with burgers in tow and was shocked when he and his family discovered burgers with cheese and nothing else on them; completely dry and tasteless. Back to the Human Chimney he went.
“No,” Toribio said holding the bare burger up.
“What?” the Human Chimney said as he tried to decipher what no meant this time. “You said no mustard. What do you want on it?”
“Something,” was all that Toribio could remember in English.
“You want mayonnaise instead?” the Human Chimney said pointing to that glorious, creamy condiment beloved by Toribio and the rest of his family.
“Yeah, mayonnaise instead,” Toribio said. Mayonnaise instead. Mayonnaise instead.
The third trip to Wimpy’s was a blessing and a curse. He finally had the whole process down and the burgers were tasting good, but now his family was beginning to give him specific orders which required more English. No pickles for his little brother. No cheese for one of his sisters. No tomato, etc… And don’t get me started on how confusing soda orders for a family of eight was. But Toribio began to realize that he didn’t have to go back to the Human Chimney quite as much anymore. He also didn’t have to say “Slower, please…” quite as much on the phone or at his door. His English bank account was growing. Now all he needed was a job so that he could work on filling a real bank account with actual money to take care of the whole “poor” situation.