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M’ija, always have your own chickens

Chicken (by OJ Photo)

She had ancient wisdom, learned from personal struggle and passed down, from mothers, grandmothers and beloved tias. With her own young daughter she also shared the secret of her strength, the secret for any woman’s happiness:

“M’ija,” she said. “Always, always have your own chickens.”

Now, I wish I could say that was an anecdote from my own childhood. I wish I could say that I’d gone to my family photo albums to find the the image of a woman tending chickens that I chose to illustrate this message (see below). But neither would be true.

The words of wisdom came from a play I saw about 20 years ago (I believe it was “Roosters,” by Milcha Sanchez-Scott.) The vision of those words being passed down one woman to the next, is my fantasy, my dream.
And while the photo (see below) is not of anyone I know personally, she represents many of the women who have been in my life.

My mother and I never had the sort of relationship where she imparted words of wisdom. (I’ll take up that topic in a future column.) I always wished to experience the sort of close relationships and extended family one sees romanticized in Latino families as they are in movies. I longed to have big family dinners with a bunch of women cooking up a fabulous meal and kids running all around. For Pete’s sake, I was Mexican AND Italian. It was expected. But, no, my family was pretty much like many other modern American families of the time. My mom was already long gone by the time I awoke each morning, driving to her job about 20 minutes away. My father would drop me off at my grandmother’s house, where I spent most of my childhood before and after school.

And while I never had the “chicken talk” described above, and while certainly none of the women in my family actually HAD chickens, the core of this wisdom was threaded throughout my life and into my own fabric of existence from my earliest memories.

I remember sitting at my grandmother’s small kitchen table, which she covered in plastic to protect the decorative table cloth beneath it. I was only five, so she would pour me a tiny bit of coffee into a doll-sized cup and then top it off with milk. Her version of the “chicken talk” was: Do well in school. Study hard. Decide what you want to be, whatever it is, and work for it. You want to be a doctor? Great, m’ija! Woman can do that now. Do what you want. And, most of all, never count on a man to take care of you.

Pretty revolutionary words for my abuelita. But that was the reality of her life. While I never saw her working outside of the home, she had done so as a young woman after losing her first husband to the Mexican Revolution. She was working in a store, I believe, when she met my grandfather. Likewise, my maternal grandmother had worked the crops with the rest of her family as they traveled throughout the West. My mother had picked crops from an early age and later worked in an orange packing house. When I was growing up, she’d settled into a career at a computer parts plant, which had her leaving the house when the morning was still dark.

Nosario Marcos tends to her chickens in Pedregal, Guatemala. Photo by Nancy McGirr. Read more about IFAD's rural-sustainability work at http://bit.ly/GCVpLW

That’s pretty much what having your own chickens means: having the ability to support yourself.  Even if you marry a man who earns a good living, the women in my family told me a woman should always keep her own source of income. It’s what would give me freedom, they said. It’s what would give me the security to make my own choices.

In some ways, it made me foolish. Being completely self-reliant, I dared to date men who didn’t mind that I picked up the bill – over and over and over. I allowed myself to settle for “boys,” not caring whether or not they could, or would, actually support me. But, fortunately, when I finally woke up to my poor choices, I was able to walk away from the relationships. I was able to kick out the man whose drinking finally became unbearable. I was able to leave the man whose cheating was undeniable.

I had my own chickens, thank you.

Or, so I thought.

I’ve built a long career and I’ve done well. I’ve been able to care for my three young sons on my own and not had to worry too much about getting all of the bills paid. But that security was shaken recently when, after nearly 20 years at my company, I was told that my job was being eliminated. It’s a painful, terrifying reality. The freedom that I cherished was based on a security that I overestimated.

I am fortunate in that I have a few months of financial sustainability before I become truly desperate. Still, there are nights when I tuck my three boys in and I am hit with fear and panic. The tears flow as I see their tiny sleeping heads so at peace. I no longer take them into the stores with me when I go shopping for groceries or anything, really, because I’m terrible at ignoring their pleas for small toys and extra candies. My oldest son catches me lost in fear sometimes and he asks me what is wrong, whether I’m OK, whether I’m crying because of something he has done.

The other day, the lessons of the chicken talk came up and he thought about it for a moment then asked me: So, isn’t that what’s happened to you? I asked, what do you mean? He pointed out that I didn’t really ever have my own chickens. I had the chickens that belonged to my company.

Boy, smart kid.

It’s time to find my own chickens.

© 2012 Andale Chica

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