Young Micaela describes waiting with her brothers—Junior and Keeks—for their “awful grandmother” to emerge from inside a church, where the old woman is lighting votive candles, blessing herself, and frantically praying while letting rosary crystals slide through her fingers. The grandmother mostly prays for her family members, “interced[ing]” on their behalf because they never go to mass. Unfortunately, her duties inside take a long time, meaning that Micaela and her brothers must wait nearby and entertain themselves, though they’re not allowed to stray from the church’s entrance. This means they can’t visit the balloon vendors along the streets or spend their allowances on comic books or cookies or chase each other through the cemetery behind the church. Instead, they must stay where the awful grandmother left them, watching people walk to church with bandages on their limbs and shawls over their faces.
Micaela and her brothers are faced with an age-old childhood challenge: keeping themselves entertained while adults are busy completing long and inscrutable tasks. It’s clear that Micaela resents this plight by the way she calls her grandmother “awful”; not wanting to stay outside with her brothers but also not wanting to go inside with her grandmother and mime her way through a religion she’s clearly uninterested in (like many of her other family members), she finds herself stuck in a purgatory of boredom.
While the children wait, Keeks runs around, pretending to be a fighter plane. “I’m a B-Fifty-two bomber, you’re a German,” he yells at Micaela, who doesn’t tell him that she’d rather play “flying feather dancers” because she’s afraid this might make him not play with her altogether. She explains that her brothers have taken to calling her a girl as a way of insulting her. “You girl,” they say. Just when Micaela decides to be a German, Keeks runs by again and says, “I’m Flash Gordon. You’re Ming the Merciless and the Mud people.” The idea of playing the “Mud people” make Micaela want to cry, but she doesn’t let herself, because “crying is what girls do.” She escapes the situation by slipping into the church. “I’m the Lone Ranger, you’re Tonto,” she hears Keeks yelling behind her.
Cisneros demonstrates how women are taught from an early age that femininity is something that exempts them from interacting equally with men. Rather than feeling like she can express what she really wants—which is to play “flying feather dancers”—she goes along with Keeks’s uninteresting game. Worse, she has to wrap her head around playing the antagonist, as if it’s her duty not only to conform to her brother’s game, but also to indulge him by letting him be the hero. This, it seems, is indicative of the position in which society puts women, a position that requires them not only to accept a sexist reality, but also help ensure the continuation of that reality by justifying the validity of a patriarchal system.
The inside of the church smells like incense, and Micaela wonders why holy water smells like tears. She stares at her grandmother beside her, who’s praying for a family member to recover from the worm. The prayer kneeler is uncomfortable, so Micaela shifts her weight back and forth until her grandmother tells her to go outside if she can’t sit still, but she says it in Spanish, which Micaela only understands when paying very close attention. “What?” she asks, but knows her grandmother hears this as “¿Güat?” The awful grandmother gives her a dirty look and pushes toward the door.
In the same way that Micaela isn’t allowed to be herself in her brother’s male-centric world, there seems to be little room for her in her grandmother’s conception of religion, which uses Spanish as its language, thereby denying Micaela—a multicultural child who has trouble understanding Spanish—entry. As such, she must contend with both sexism and the complications of navigating a multicultural identity. Essentially, she finds herself caught between two mindsets, both of which have trouble accommodating her and accepting her for who she is.
Micaela sits outside, where Junior is talking to a foreign couple. Micaela can tell this man and woman aren’t from the area because the man is wearing shorts—which everybody here knows not to do—and the woman is wearing pants to church. The woman asks Junior in poorly pronounced Spanish if he’d like a piece of gum, then asks if they can take his photograph. As she clicks her camera, Junior says, “Hey, Michele, Keeks. You guys want gum?” Surprised, the woman says, “But you speak English!,” to which Junior responds, “Yeah, we’re Mericans.”
Junior’s conviction that he and his siblings are Americans is admirable in its simplicity—rather than questioning his claim to a certain national identity based on how other people treat him, he straightforwardly states that he is American. After Micaela has just bounced back and forth between her brother’s unaccommodatingly male world and her grandmother’s unwelcoming religious world, though, one has to wonder if some of Junior’s admirable confidence is only available to him because he is a male; given the trouble Micaela has finding a context that will accept her for who she is, it seems unlikely that she would so confidently lay claim to an American identity.