Old Dirty Waters
The earliest memory I have of the grocery store nearest my old house in Fort Worth, Texas, was that it used to be a Winn-Dixie. My mama told me that the food would be too expensive, and, next thing I knew, it became a Fiesta. The name made me feel welcome since I knew the word meant "party" in Spanish, and I’d seen commercials for the store all the time watching TV with my mama. I remember being disappointed when Fiesta quickly met the same fate as Winn-Dixie and became a Foodland.
“What the heck is a Foodland,” I’d asked, annoyed.
My mama, however, didn’t agree with the sentiment since the food was as cheap as she’d ever seen it. Fiesta had apparently been overpriced, too.
Nevertheless, Foodland had plenty of food and snacks with Mexican brand names, which pleased the neighborhood and gave it business. I would see my people, around my mama’s age, working in the deli or bakery—anywhere that did not require talking. Never the register. That didn’t happen until second-generation kids like me who could speak English grew up and needed part-time jobs. When it came time for me to go to high school, I didn’t have many options. I could have picked the “good” choice, Trimble Tech High School. However, because my mama was raising me by herself and couldn’t drive me that far before work, I ended up going to O.D. Wyatt High School. It was the closest school to my house but, according to everyone, it was also the worst possible option. I didn’t mind since I knew many of my cousins and middle school friends would be going there, too. Not my friend Jonathan, though. He was smart and decided to go to Trimble Tech, so I bullied and sneered at him.
“All the pretentious Mexican kids go to Trimble Tech,” I remember thinking. It’s not like Trimble Tech was that much better than Wyatt. I was always annoyed when Mexicans just like me wanted to act like they were all that, or let the school they went to define who they were. I used to take pride in my humility, but now I’m wondering if I was fooled into having that mentality.
O.D. Wyatt was infamous and had many negative names attached to it. The one that stuck to me most was “Old Dirty Waters,” even though the plumbing had been fixed by the time I went there. Regardless, there were many aspects of the school that I feel made it “dirty.” For instance, Wyatt wasn’t far from the Fort Worth Federal Prison. I always thought it was fascinating that I could see it out the window during lunch, or when I walked outside in between classes. It was on top of a hill on full display, almost like a threat. A few acres of empty land stood between the school and the prison.. Closer to our side was a small forest of trees where kids would go through the broken fence to smoke weed, hidden from the one security guard that seldom roamed the school grounds. The fence was close to the dugout where my friend Destiny lost her virginity and ended up getting pregnant. She was a year younger than me, and the father was a senior.
Nobody batted an eye.
There were only two white kids enrolled when I went to Wyatt. I knew both of them by name, but their presence was foreign to us. The school itself was half-black and half- Latino, a perfect reflection to the neighborhood. Wyatt used to mostly have African American students, but Latinos slowly but surely grew in numbers as generations settled in throughout the years. I became aware of how few Latinos there used to be one day when I was sitting in band class. I was looking at a makeshift “hall of fame”. Rows filled with pictures of young African American kids with promising smiles, eyes bright and full of pride. There were even a few pictures of the old band together, a large number of members holding trophies—a clear contrast to the malnourished, humiliating state that the school’s band was in while I was attending. There were fifteen of us at best, no funding and no discipline. It was an embarrassment to be there, but some of us (like me) were guilted into staying until we graduated. One day our teacher burst into tears because of the cruelty of my classmates. My heart filled with fury until it simmered into acceptance. I felt as though my classmates were doomed to fill the stereotype that fit not only the school, but our neighborhood as well, and I would do my best to ignore it all in blissful denial.
“I’m not like them. I’ll always be a good person,” I would think as if I wasn’t also affected by our circumstances in negative way. As if I didn’t drink the same dirty water they did.
The range of my hometown extends past the small grocery store and my withered high school. There was a mall about ten minutes from my house where we could entertain ourselves on the weekend. It was once called “Town Center,” and I remember it having been a Dillard's and a Sears. I recall it like a gray, cloudy day, the hallsempty and bleak. It was eventually bought by a Mexican family, renamed “La Gran Plaza,” and it’s been booming with business and life ever since. There’s no longer a Dillard's, Sears, or stores like Victoria's Secret for that matter. Instead, there’s store after store full of Quinceanera dresses or cheap shoes. There’s an open area with a stage where a mariachi band performs on the weekends next to a big, beautiful mural of a nameless street in Mexico.
Towards the end of La Gran Plaza, you’ll find a little area carved within the mall like a cave called “El Mercado,” and it’s like entering a small, indoor market in Mexico. If I close my eyes, I can clearly see myself walking through the corridors, painted a dusty pink like an aged wall. As I pass by, there are many tiny stores of Mexican candy, piñatas, and CDs (don’t ask if they’re legitimate), and skimpy dresses young women wear with their six-inch heels to the club directly next door. Eventually, I would reach the most beloved store, the one that supplies an essential item in every Mexican household: intricately detailed, wooden framed portraits of La Virgen, Jesus, and saints in many different sizes. The portrait frames are made of real wood and glazed to a smooth finish. I’m not religious like my mama is (not anymore), but I truly believe these memorabilia holds significance to my culture, and a part of me laments that where I live now, I cannot find a store close to me similar to this special one at La Gran Plaza.
Needless to say, this mall was full of Latinos and Spanish-speaking workers, along with a diverse number of other minorities sprinkled here and there. I never saw a large group of white people in person until my mama drove me and my cousins thirty minutes out to go to the “nicer” mall in Arlington. That was our favorite place to go for a while since it was the closest mall with a Barnes and Noble and Starbucks. Eventually, all of my people would go out of their way to go there too--well, the ones that were “preppy” and needed to buy overpriced clothes at Hollister like my cousins, or the “emo” ones that wanted to represent their angst at Hot Topic like me. It was on an optimistic day when my mama took us on a shopping trip to this mall. My cousins were ecstatic to spend the money they’d been saving to buy new outfits before summer ended and we all had to go back to O.D. Wyatt. They spent every dime they had on overpriced clothes. Bags from Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, and American Eagle filled the trunk of my mama’s car, and they could have been viewed as gold in a treasure chest to my cousins, the brands giving them a false sense of status and value that they were eager to show off. As we drove away from Arlington, someone had the idea of stopping by La Gran Plaza before going home. It was a busy Saturday afternoon, so we had to park in the furthest spot. My mama has a rule about always putting your backpack in the trunk so as to not tempt thieves, but my cousin decided she was overreacting, and didn’t listen, leaving her bag on full display in the front. We couldn't have been away for longer than two hours. We couldn’t have, and yet, that was all the time it took for thieves to break the window of my mama’s poor Corolla, stealing the riches my cousins didn’t even get a chance to see themselves in. We stood there stunned for a moment, but no tears were shed.
“Of course, it happened at the Mexican mall,” we would say and eventually joke about. Laughing through our suffering was all that we could do. My cousins had to accept that they'd be wearing their old dirty clothes again for another year at Old Dirty Waters.
I was no stranger to thieves. I recall the time I was six, before my parents divorced, when our old pink house was robbed. Our house was small, with nothing valuable to offer and the windows were barred, but that didn’t stop the theft that occurred in broad daylight. It was lunchtime and we had left to get something to eat. When we came back, I saw two brown boys running from the front door, holding my brother's video games and other miscellaneous technology to their truck. They sped away, and I was shocked to my core. I remember crying and praying in my room as my parents spoke to the police. I was devastated that the thieves, who looked like me, had stolen my precious purse, a gift to me from a kind old woman in Mexico who had made it by hand, full of quarters. I recall my anxiety when I tried telling the police officers about what was stolen from me.
“Twenty-five quarters!” I said. But did they think I meant a quarter was twenty-five cents, or did they understand that six dollars and twenty-five cents were stolen from me? I wanted so badly to make sure they knew what I meant, but was too shy and knew it didn’t matter anyway.
Instead, I slowly helped put my mama's underwear back in the drawer that had been pulled out of the vanity. Her hidden ruby gold ring had been stolen; I had dreamt of inheriting it someday.
A few years later, we moved into a blue house across the street that also had fully barred windows. My mama installed an alarm system, as was customary on my block along with the signs on people's lawns: PROTECTED BY SO-AND-SO. I don’t know how, but, luckily to this day, the blue house hasn’t been broken into.
It’s been eleven years since I left Fort Worth for good, a Navy recruiter having no trouble convincing me that the military would be my best option right after I graduated. I’m old enough now to realize that my school was specifically targeted by the military, students being vulnerable to the sweet promises of seeing the world and having a steady paycheck, but I digress.
During the summer of 2023, my husband, son, and I finally had an opportunity to go to Texas. Shae and I had been married for seven years, and he had never seen the town I grew up in, so I was beyond excited.
“Tell him our house is small,” my mama would constantly tell me over the phone before our departure. She was embarrassed, and I told her not to worry since Shae didn’t grow up in a rich home himself. Explaining that to her didn’t matter much since she couldn’t get over the fact that he is white and therefore must have grown up in a two-story house. Silly me.
Shae and I decided to drive there from Illinois. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the road once I knew we made it to my county, looking for anything that would spark my memory. That’s when I saw Old Dirty Waters. I gasped and stared for as long as I could while we drove past it. It looked the same, minus a bus stop shelter they added at the front of the school and a new paint job. I never had pride for Wyatt, and seeing it after so long felt a little anticlimactic. Maybe it just never left me.
Getting closer to my house and seeing the landmarks felt like unfurling layer after layer of childhood memories. Tears welled up in my eyes, overwhelmed by the uncanniness of the buildings and roads that hadn’t moved from their spots, but were undoubtedly affected by age.
When we finally reached that humble blue house, I immediately noticed the reconstructed wall left of the front door. It was hard to ignore since it was the color of a yellow bandage and I frowned at the memory of my mama sending me picture after picture of a truck hood covered in debris, inside my brother’s room. A drunk driver had barreled through my old home and, miraculously, did not harm anyone. He did not have insurance, so my mama had to suffer headache after headache trying to get it fixed.
I didn’t let the wall depress me for long since the next thing I knew my mama opened the door to greet us. Shae took our son out of his car seat while I ran to her. We cried in each other’s arms, and I felt how fragile and small she had become, and it made me love her so much more. I glanced inside the house and noticed how it had accumulated many little things over the years that I’d never seen, giving it a sweet charm. I grinned at how my mama had fully taken on the aesthetic of a grandma.
She greeted and hugged Shae with a big laugh before taking her beloved grandson from us and bringing him inside. I went to follow them but then stopped.
“Lock the car door,” I turned to tell Shae seriously, which just made him chuckle and roll his eyes. I felt a little guilty and ashamed of myself since I had a genuine fear of being robbed during our visit, but my anxiety outweighed those feelings, and I told him again.
“You don’t get it, things are different here,” I told him on the way in, but how did I have the right to say that? It had been eleven years after all.
On the way to our room, my foot hit the edge of the giant pack of water bottles my mama keeps on the floor, and I stumbled.
“Oh yeah, we don’t drink tap here…” I said to myself.
I felt a veil of displeasure fall over me in that split moment, but I shook it off. This was simply the way things go and how they will continue to be near the old dirty waters in Fort Worth, Texas.
Sandra Gonzalez is a junior at SIUE working towards her Bachelor's in English and minor in Creative Writing. She likes to draw in her free time but has had a passion for reading since childhood, particularly about adventure and romance. Her goal is to teach World Literature or English Composition at a community college and to write a book of her own someday.