Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood
by Melissa Hart
Reviewed by Katie Schneider
"What's best for the child."
The phrase gets bandied about a lot in divorce proceedings. For a young Melissa Hart, it was a judge's justification for taking her away from her mother, a loving, vibrant woman who happened to be a lesbian.
"I must consider what's best for the children," the judge said. "A woman living with another woman, on a dangerous street with volatile neighbors?"
The contrast between her father's sterile suburban lifestyle and her mother's warmth is at the center of Hart's new memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood.
"There were no Latinos, Chicanos or Hispanics in our upper-class gated community. There were only people like us," Hart writes of her early childhood in the early 1970s in suburban Los Angeles. "My mother and I pretended allegiance to their Tupperware parties, to their Brownie troops, to their Sunday morning services at the Presbyterian Church."
But Hart's mother, Margaret, wasn't like the other suburban housewives. She wanted an altogether different life. First came the Spanish lessons, then the flirtation with a school bus driver named Patricia and arguments with Hart's father. When Margaret drove away, she took the children with her.
Instead of being horrified by Patricia's run-down ranch house, Hart was gripped by a strange excitement. "I went wild and barefoot, braided my hair like an Indian maiden, and planted a garden of sunflowers and corn next to a rickety chicken coop my mother stocked with Rhode Island Reds." It's where she began a lifelong infatuation with Latino food and culture, associating her mother's blue VW bus with freedom, tacos and the songs she heard driving around down.
It wouldn't last. Her father was awarded custody, and Hart and her siblings went back to the suburbs, away from the smells of lard and the influence of lesbians. With her father often working, the house felt quiet and cold. Hart's new stepmother tried hard to make the children feel at home, but they all lived for the every-other-weekend with their mother.
Hart, who teaches writing at the University of Oregon, has crafted a well-balanced tale that forgoes blame in favor of poignancy. She captures the child's core desire, simply to be with her beloved mother. She shows how the ramifications of the custody decision affected later relationships with friends and lovers and even her mother.
Gringa doesn't read like a polemic. Nevertheless, the message is clear. "What's best for the child" in her case would've been to do exactly the opposite of what the judge decided.