Margie and Mary invented the Mimis right before they started junior high. They were entering the sinister world of teenage girls, which, in the mid-1980s in Brownsville, Texas, was tinged with border-town racism. Instead of being ashamed of who they were, my sisters decided to create a polite fiction, and invited the rest of us to participate.
First, they bleached their brown-black hair until it took on the color and brittleness of hay. Then they began dressing in clothes with the names of designers on the pockets. To cap it off, they decided to do away with their given names and call each other a new one: Mimi. A typical conversation between them went like this:
“Mimi, do you like my new Jordache jeans?”
“Yes, Mimi, I do.”
“Do I look rich in my new Nikes, Mimi?”
“Mimi, you look like a tennis player, Mimi.”
“I know, Mimi. Maybe I should make Mom buy me a racket.”
It was really that simple. Marge and Mare made a conscious decision that they would be rich and white, even if their family wasn’t. And we followed right along, joining them in this small break from reality that would help them through junior high. We all had a part in creating the Mimis.
At the time, the rest of the family had not fully realized that our job, as relatively new Americans and, worse yet, new Texans, was to be as white as possible. There had been a time when our family had been rich by barrio standards because our grandpa, Dad’s stepfather, fought in the Korean War and used his GI money to start a trucking business when he got back. He married Grandma, who was widowed from her first marriage at the age 16, and gave her and my dad citizenship.
My siblings and I were all born in Brownsville, as Americans, but we didn’t understand what that meant. Then Grandpa died in 1980, and our world began to crumble. The trucking business started to disintegrate around Dad, and he took his first steps down a slow road toward desperation and religion. Meanwhile, the Mimis had made their decision to be two blue-blooded, trust-funded tennis buddies from Connecticut accidentally living in Brownsville, Texas, with us, a poor Mexican family they had somehow befriended while undergoing some Dickensian series of misfortunes.
At the time, we didn’t really see my sisters’ delusion as anything more than another bewildering tactic in their quest for a higher level of superior fashion. Just regular teenage-girl stuff. No one acted like it was peculiar, especially those in the family who didn’t speak English and could not understand the Mimis when they showed up at family gatherings.
“Yo no puedo-o hablar-o Españal-o,” one of the Mimis would say to an uncle or cousin, who more often than not would linger lasciviously around them, at first conflicted by the idea of being turned on by so young a relative, and then mentally calculating just how distantly related they were and tabulating his odds at scoring with this new white chick who just happened to show up at this barrio party.
“Mimi, how did you like my Spanish?”
“Oh, Mimi, it’s getting really good.”
“Mimi, do you think they understood me?”
“Oh, Mimi, who cares?”
Soon the Mimis’ fugue was buzzing at a fever pitch, intoxicating everyone who came near and got a whiff of their Anaïs Anaïs perfume. (We had all seen the commercials on prime-time television: it was a forbidden fragrance for rain-depressed English women with secret, muscular boyfriends who drove Jaguars dangerously through unpaved one-lane Scottish roads, so the Mimis had to have it, and they found it at the local J.C. Penney, and had Mom pay for it.) Me and my brother Dan and our older sister Sylvia, we just kind of stank from the heat and dealt with it.
Mom developed her own fascination with the Mimis, like she couldn’t believe her luck now that she was related to royalty. So she was always ready for an air-conditioned trip to the mall. She took the meager clothes budget reserved for us boys, my older brother and me, and reallocated it to the Mimis’ wardrobe, because to her it was a sign of status for the family that the Mimis looked their best. That felt wrong to me and Dan, but we didn’t exactly know why.
So I was often left with the Mimis’ recently stylish hand-me-downs. No one else in my grade school was remotely label conscious, or capable of reading in English, really, so it passed unnoticed that most of my clothes were made for glamorous junior high school girls. Almost every child at my school came from recently immigrated families—kids so poor they’d save half their free lunch to share with their younger siblings at home, their heads shaved to rid them of lice.
But Arthur, my best friend, noticed. He was part black and part Mexican, had just moved to Brownsville from some big city slum in Michigan where his mother’s boyfriend had been employed at a GM factory, and he read labels.
“Hey, Dom,” he said. “Yo, man—you’re wearing a girl’s shirt. Or is Esprit making baggy boys’ shirts now?” To change the subject, I slugged him high in the chest and ran away. He chased me down to punch me back, and left me crying in my girl’s blouse.
If she had any guilt about giving the Mimis the lion’s share of our clothing budget, I imagine my mother would have justified it by saying that Dan and I would just ruin our clothes working with Dad under the greasy trucks. It made better sense for the Mimis to be in high fashion than for the feral boys to wreck new clothes.
“Mimi, you look just like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. You should join the dance team at school.”
“I know, Mimi. I think so too.”
“Mimi, I think you should dye your hair back to its original color: ash blond.”
“I know, Mimi. I’m trying.”
During this time, Dan’s eyesight was so bad he couldn’t read the blackboard in school and constantly ran into corners or short skinny people. People thought he was Asian he squinted so much. In every photo of him taken in junior high he looks like he’s trying to see into the photographer’s eyes through the camera lens. This, of course, went entirely unnoticed by my mother, and it was the younger Mimi, Mare with the 20/20 vision, who got vanity glasses with her name etched in gold script in the corner. Dan wouldn’t get glasses until he was in the military, when he was 17.
Finally, Dad’s failure at navigating the business and providing for his family intruded on the Mimis’ fairy tale. He made a decision that as soon as school ended, Mom would take the Mimis and Syl and drive them to California to participate in the seasonal grape harvest with Dad’s cousins, since the Mimis were now 14 and 15 and Syl was 16 and they could all, with Mom, collect a full salary. They would be treated like adults there, paid the same as everyone else.
Mom, I remember, was horrified at the shame of having to send her virginal and royal daughters out to the fields. Plus, Dad’s extended family out in California were very different from us—wild and frightening and Californian. (Texas Mexicans and California Mexicans are very different from each other, like the Scottish and the Irish.) The Mimis, though, were undaunted. They did not understand the implications.
“Mimi, we’re going to California!”
“Oh my god, Mimi. We’re going to be Valley Girls.”
“Mimi, gag me with a spoon, Mimi.”
“Mimi, your roots are showing.”
We packed up Mom, the Mimis, and Syl in the beige 1980 Pontiac Bonneville, already an antique with a failing transmission and on its second engine, and they drove out of Brownsville.
A year later, I took this ride as well, and also ended up picking grapes for the summer. That we were migrant workers for that period didn’t occur to me, nor to anyone else. That label would never stick—could never stick. We couldn’t descend to that level. We just had to do it to help out Dad, that was all. But it was too much for the Mimis, the reality of this trip.
When they first reached California, the Mimis did indeed become Valley Girls—the hippest, cutest, best-dressed migrant workers of that year, and very likely for many years to come. The older Mimi, Marge, continued to dress like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance out in the fields, where the sun sizzled any inch of exposed skin. She wore a spaghetti-strapped red-and-white striped Esprit top, white cotton shorts, and a matching headband with her red-and-white leather Nikes, and took pictures of the vineyards and the workers with her Canon AE-1.
Before long, though, even she started dressing like the rest of the migrant workers—in long-sleeved collared shirts buttoned all the way to the neck, thick unstylish denim, and work boots, with a bandanna covering her nose and mouth—or else she would have died of heat stroke. There were no photos taken of that.
Mare, the younger Mimi, did not fare any better. Her vanity glasses with the fake lenses were scratched well beyond recovery. Her roots grew out, and her hair turned a lighter brown as a result of the heat and the pesticides in the grape fields of Southern California.
The hard work went on all summer, and eventually it became bitter enough to disrupt the Mimis’ perfectly constructed fantasy. Sadly, I think it was the end of childhood for my sisters. The vineyards had expelled them from their secret garden, and the low door in the wall had closed shut behind them.
And so ultimately even the Mimis were humiliated, and the delusion of wealth that had kept the family’s idea of itself aloft was deflated. When my sisters returned to Brownsville, the Mimis were gone; Marge and Mare came back in their place. Mare kept rubbing her nose with the palm of her hand from allergies, and snapping at anyone who tried to talk to her. Marge never went back to California, and took a job at the bank the following summer instead. No one ever mentioned the Mimis again.
I was sorry to see the Mimis go. We all were. When they were at their peak, they had been capable of creating a real sort of magic around them, enchanting people and places, so that you could be looking at the same dreary landscape as them, the same terrible and hopeless event, and while you might be miserable and bitter, they would be beaming, enthralled, and enthusiastically hopeful. And then, if you got near them, or were blessed enough to maybe talk to them, you would walk away feeling the same way.
They were a gift to everyone who was lucky enough to get caught in their Anaïs Anaïs, the Mimis. For a time, they made all of us Americans. ♦