By the time Casey and I were married in the summer of 1991, I had worked for the same family run grocery chain for five years. I began working there in the tenth grade when my father “suggested” I get a job. On some random Friday night, my brother and I had made plans to go see a movie with our friends. Such plans were made well in advance, as was my fathers’ rule, but we always waited until the evening of the movie to ask for money.
We approached my father in his usual spot, sitting on the floor in front of the TV having dinner, and asked him for the $5, the absolute minimum, we each needed to see a movie. He was usually good for offering up enough extra cash for movie necessities like popcorn and sodas. But we always asked for “entry level” amounts because he could be unpredictable too, squashing plans citing insufficient notice or “ripping” us because of poorly timed money requests. We always approached him with the utmost caution.
On this particular evening, he looked up from his dinner and stated matter-of-factly, “Why don’t you go get a job?” He had a way of saying such things that cut to the core. His delivery intimidated us, judged us, and indicted our character, all communicated in a tone indifferent to our feelings, despite the fact that we received prior permission. With a look of almost disgust, he directed us to retrieve his wallet; removed two five dollar bills, gave one to each of us, and returned to his dinner without saying another word.
By the time we were out the front door, my brother was over it, content to highlight the absurdity of my father’s reaction, happy to ignore all the overt messages, and satisfied with the $5. I was never so lucky. I took such things personally, never recovering so well as my brother. Before the end of the week, I had found a union job as a boxboy (a grocery bagger in modern day language) at the local grocery store. I was 15 at the time.
I continued to work at the grocery store over the summer and throughout high school, working as many hours as my school schedule would allow. I found that I could increase my hours by working with the stocking crew as much as possible. Five to seven men would arrive at the store early in the morning to “throw the load”. They would break the load down and sort it at a furious pace, take a quick break, and then sprint from aisle to aisle to throw the cases of product onto the shelves. My job was to follow behind and pick up cardboard after them. In order to keep the store semi-clean, I sprinted too. We kept up the furious pace until the entire load was done and the store was cleaned up. Afterwards, the entire crew would mob over to the local park and share a six-pack. The work was exhausting, but the camaraderie ran deep.
Boxboys who could keep up with the stocking crews were always fast-tracked to checker, a promotion that promised even more money. Before I was a senior in high school, I was promoted to checker, making a couple hundred bucks a week with full health insurance. I graduated from high school and left for college with an open invitation to get back on the schedule whenever I was in town. In fact, a week after I had been academically disqualified from the University of Oregon, I was on the schedule permanently. The company expanded and shifts and hours were aplenty. I was a Union Journeyman before the end of the summer.
When Mike and I started dating I was a cheerleading choreographer. I would go into schools, teach competition squads a routine or for some schools, even advise the teams and travel to competitions and games. I loved the job because I mainly worked for myself and only after school hours. I was paid regularly, some times in cash by the girls themselves, and I was paid WELL. The girls were hilarious; they obsessed about their hair, their figures, who they dated, etc. In contrast to their carefree lives was the reality of a belly full of baby. I ultimately went and applied for some lame “regular” job because I couldn’t help thinking: I’m young, pregnant, not married (well to the outside world), not the best role model for those young ladies.
As I made journeyman, the grocery industry moved to restructure pay scales and benefits across the board. The Union had little choice in the matter: endorse the contract or watch helplessly as the grocery companies closed hundreds of stores in Southern California. But, the Union’s initial capitulation was only the beginning. Grocery companies, emboldened by the new level of control over the Union, began to close stores anyways. Old store formats, staffed by an aging and expensive Journeyman workforce, were simply closed and replaced by new companies, with new employees represented under the new contracts, many owned by the same parent companies.
A climate of “work until the job is done, regardless of how many hours were off the clock” emerged. Store managers manipulated employees to work long hours “off the clock” while simultaneously reiterating the fact that such behavior was illegal. They would threaten workers telling them, “If you can’t get the job done in this amount of hours, with this staff, then I will get someone in here who can”. Threats were always in private, but they always promised the loss of hours, undesirable shifts, or transfers to stores anywhere in SoCal. The Union remained in place, but it was, for all purposes, completely impotent.
Youth was my biggest asset and my biggest liability working for the store during those months when Casey was pregnant. I earned full time hours by the sweat of my brow, literally. Stocking crews were moved to graveyard shifts and awarded to the absolute least number of clerks needed to get any load thrown in the 8-hour shifts. We actually ran from 11 pm to 7 am to get the job done. And when loads were so big that even running for eight hours was insufficient, we finished off the clock. Only the naivety of youth works to perpetuate such unsustainable expectations…throw into the mix a young man, low on the seniority list, newly married, and on the verge of having his first child, perpetuate a system of meritorious hours and wages, and managerial control became absolute.
I was glazed over the entire time Casey was pregnant, perpetually exhausted from the long hours. Even then, I actively hated the place every single day I went to work. Anyone who has worked graveyard shifts knows what it means to feel “left-out” from the rest of the world, to lay down to sleep at 7 pm, an hour before primetime television, and the way the body feels, brain confused, when the alarm clock buzzes at 10 pm. Even when you manage to go to bed early, it never changes the unnatural, almost nauseous way your body feels at 3 am because it is awake at a time when it is genetically programmed to be asleep. It takes years to get used to it, and even then a person never seems to completely adjust to the hours, they are simply more disciplined in their approach to rest.
Every night I got up to go to work I thought about getting out of the grocery business. Every morning at around 3 am, just after lunch, when my biological rhythms were telling me to go to sleep, but duty required that I start chasing boxes with my box cutter, I thought about only one thing, getting out of the business. Damn my personal feelings. I was married and had a child on the way, nothing else mattered.
I spent Casey’s pregnancy frustrated and fearful for my job. Never the less, there were still some benefits to working in the grocery business. I was grandfathered into the old contract that meant I had unbelievable medical benefits. We lived in the Wilshire District at the time, 4 miles from Beverly Hills and the hospital nearest to us was Cedar Sinai Medical Center, hospital to the Stars. The hospital was equipped with a state of the art birthing wing where mothers went through labor in the same room where they delivered, common in hospitals today, but completely cutting edge in 1991.
We also were able to choose an obstetrician from the adjacent Cedar-Sinai medical building. After perusing the list of available doctors, we chose a Dr. Jordan-Harris, primarily because Casey thought she would be more comfortable with a female OB/GYN, but we were also comforted by her extensive experience listed in the physicians’ directory. In person, Dr. Jordan-Harris was flat out intimidating. She was a Black woman in her mid-fifties and always dressed like a fashion model for her regular appointments. Based on years of experience, she most likely graduated from medical school in the same era as my father, at a time when there were few Black students in medical school, let alone Black women. Like my father, Dr. Jordan-Harris came up in the field of medicine when doctors didn’t take any crap. They managed their patients’ care with unquestioned authority.
We were just a couple of stupid kids, scared to death, intimidated by our doctor, and completely ignorant of what it meant to have a baby. Dr. Jordan-Harris knew we were young and stupid, too. At times, it felt like we were being treated by a female version of my father. She was stern, yet also supportive at the same time. She insisted that Casey diligently take her prenatal vitamins and that we attend all our regular appointments in a tone that dared us not to. Determining the sex of babies in utero was an emerging trend in medicine, allowing parents to get a jump-start on preparations: clothes, room décor, etc. But Dr. Jordan-Harris was old school! We asked her over the course of a couple checkups, but she flatly refused. She really scared us, so we learned quickly to stop asking.
Despite regular pressure from both families, our June marriage was still a secret six months later when Dr. Jordan-Harris predicted a delivery date for December 24, 1991. By that time, we had completely given up on finding out the sex of the baby, but we somehow convinced ourselves that it was a boy, probably based on some old wives’ tale that interpreted the shape of Casey’s belly. We had ourselves convinced even to the point of settling on a name: Antonio Miguel.
December 24 came and brought no water breaking, the baby had not “dropped”, there were no contractions, and ultimately, no Christmas baby. We were stressed, but Dr. Jordan-Harris was unfazed. She told us to relax, go home, and to wait. We opened up our copy of “What to expect when you’re expecting” and tried all their suggestions for inducing labor… and I mean all of them.
Mike worked and stressed about how to support us as I took maternity leave from my job. I focused on nesting, and ironically, I had to read a book to know what that word even meant. Despite both of us being college dropouts, we did well to read and educate ourselves on being parents. We were young but not entirely stupid.
In the last couple of weeks before the baby was born, I walked a lot to help induce labor, already being almost 2 weeks late. At 5’2”, pregnancy made me completely round like a weeble wooble. My hips ached so much after 10-15 minutes that I could barely finish the walk around the block. I needed this baby out!!!
Our apartment was in the mid-Wilshire district, squeezed between the shadows of downtown LA skyscrapers and Hancock Park, an old school prim and proper neighborhood. The beauty of living in Los Angeles was the diversity of people, cultures, and foods. As I walked the neighborhood I could smell the Korean BBQ of my neighbors two apartment buildings down. Two young Hispanic men walked up to me complimenting me for walking in my condition and how pretty I looked. They called me “chula” (cutie) which I appreciated, feeling as big as a house, until one of them put his arm around me and walked with me. As they flanked me, the neighborhood grew more and more quiet.
They invited me to join them for a cocaine party.
I heard the words, but they failed to register. I ignored them, smiling sweetly, hoping they would go away. They asked a second time. I was approximately 500 feet from the entrance of our apartment and Mike was at work, not easily reached for a few hours. Worse case scenarios flashed in my head and all I focused on was exit strategies. Cell phones did not exist for the common person at that time and although it was the middle of the day, there was not another soul out on the street.
I politely declined their offer. When they both put their bodies on mine, I pushed one back with all the attitude and force I could muster and exclaimed, “No! Thank you”. I ran to the apartment, nine months pregnant, apparently forgetting I was a weeble wooble, but running like Flo Jo. Why the hell did they want to party with me? Only in LA!
Per Dr. Jordan-Harris’ instructions, we returned a week later so she could check on the baby. Most prenatal exams include an ultrasound to monitor the babies’ position and vital signs. Throughout the entire pregnancy, Casey’s ultrasounds were consistently uneventful (particularly in our case, since it was never used to determine the sex of the baby), which was not the case this time. The ultrasound revealed that the baby was breeched. We freaked out! It didn’t help to calm our nerves when Dr. Jordan-Harris insisted that we return to the hospital the next morning where they would try to physically turn the baby into the correct position.
I asked the doctor what she meant by physically turning the baby. She responded that they would push on my belly and try to move the baby into place. WTF?!?! I cannot imagine that being anything but painful for me, and annoying to the baby.
We returned the next morning, still in a state of panic. They performed an ultrasound at the outset of the procedure and, low and behold, the baby had flipped by itself. Relieved, we went home with instructions to return two days later. By this time, the baby was 8 days overdue. Casey was ready to burst yet Dr. Jordan-Harris still insisted that the baby would come when it was ready, although even she conceded that if that didn’t happen by two weeks after the due date, she would have no choice but to induce labor.
We returned two days later to again check on the baby, and again, the ultrasound showed the baby flipped and was breeched. We returned the next day as before, and again, the baby had flipped back into the correct position. This whole scenario played out a third time before Dr. Jordan-Harris finally said, “I’m done trying to control that baby. We’re just going to assume it will be in the right position when it’s time to be born.”
Sure enough, the 14-day deadline came and went and the baby showed no signs of arriving on anybody’s schedule. So we headed to the hospital on January 3, 1991, so Casey could be induced. We were ready. Casey’s bag was packed with everything our trusted “What to expect…” book required; extra clothes, a variety of music, and whatever else was on the list. I even took a couple of days off from work. We drove comfortably to the hospital in our tiny car with a brand new car seat tightly buckled into the back seat. To date, Casey had only experienced minor contractions, so she was in good spirits as well. We were ready to welcome Antonio Miguel into the world.
Wait a minute.
We had a boys name because some wives’ tale told us we were having a boy, but in the face of fast approaching reality, we hadn’t given much thought to choosing a girls’ name.
The thought of the baby being born without a name seemed unthinkable and we were under pressure to make a decision in the 15-minute drive to the hospital. Our boy name, Antonio Miguel, was a Spanish version of one of my best friends from college and my name. Clearly, our girls name must be equal to the significance of our boys’ name.
We racked our brains. We considered all kinds of possibilities: Brittany, Jasmine, neither seemed right. There were many others as well, rejected because they didn’t seem regal enough. I pushed for “Cassandra”, but Casey would not have any of it. Casey pushed for “Jordan”, but I refused to have my daughter named after another man, even if it was Michael Jordan. We went back and forth before we came to a stop light and pulled up behind what else, but a Lexus.
So it was that we decided on Alexes Cassandra Lopez de Arriaga- Shaw. We changed the spelling somewhat. The “u” in Alexus was too obvious and the “i” in Alexis seemed too common. After all, we didn’t want anyone to think we named our daughter after a car. We still have a solid back-story that we cling to if necessary. My best friend in high school was named “Alexander”, so we claim she was named after him, though we chuckle about the truth to this day.
Alexes Cassandra Lopez de Arriaga-Shaw was born 14 hours later on January 4, 1992. (Three doors down the hall from us, Warren Beatty and Annette Benning were also having a baby, born almost at the same time.) The same baby that flipped 3 times a few days before was indeed in the correct position at the time Casey was ready to deliver, no help needed from the doctor. A day later, I returned to work, and three days after that, I celebrated my 21st birthday.
Many years and times in our life looking back I don’t remember a thing, not one memory of an apartment, a birthdate, or even a specific memory of graduating. I blame sheer exhaustion. But there are other times that are like movies in my head that I visit when sad, or feeling frustrated that are as vivid as any big Hollywood blockbuster production. The day Alexes was born is like an Oscar Award winning memory. The birthing “suite” equipped with every luxury of a fine hotel was a perfect setting. They prepped us on the tour to bring whatever music was soothing during labor on their 5-disc cd player. We brought our favorites at the time not knowing magically it would be the soundtrack to my memory. As Dr. Jordan-Harris delivered Alexes, she respectfully looked at Mike and said, “Hold your daughter”.
He took Alexes into his arms with such tenderness and held her tight. The song “Unforgettable” by Natalie Cole came on. What was special about the song was Natalie Cole sang over her father Nat King Cole’s original version, so it was basically a father-daughter performance. I’m not sure if Mike heard the song but he began to dance with Alexes in his arms. He danced around the room, the words of the song being played out in real life. As I watched in complete awe of the moment, I fell in love with Mike all over again. He was so young, and he held that little girl like he had always known her. The two were instantly attached, forever.
Reality hit me like a sledgehammer. A day would come when Alexes would look at me and ask, “mom, what did you want to be when grow up?” and my answer would be “a lawyer”. What if she asked me that question and I wasn’t???? At that very moment I decided I would do whatever it took to be a lawyer, if only to be able to answer her question. She hadn’t been born more than 5 minutes and she had already saved me.
As I held my daughter in my arms, feelings of unconditional love were matched stride for stride with an emerging awareness that it was my job to lay the world before her feet and to give her all the tools to empower herself in that world. It is difficult to know how a baby girl becomes a warrior princess, particularly in the absence of some ancient warrior culture or Wonder Woman comic strip. What would someone expect from such a child? Again, it is difficult to say. But, everything about Alexes, the infant, screamed just that: Warrior Princess.
At a week old, we took Alexes to the Glendale Galleria to have her ears pierced, a common tradition in Mexican families, and a critical first step on the path to Princess. Casey had her ears pierced virtually her entire life, and her daughter would continue that tradition. We waited for our turn, and with each step I took forwards; Casey was taking a step backwards, out of the shop. By the time it was our turn, I was left alone to hold Alexes during the procedure. The time came and Alexes cried out in a scream that could be heard throughout that section of the mall. Fortunately, the crying lasted only a couple seconds. I exited the shop to collect Casey from a shop three doors down. She was in the back of the store, sobbing uncontrollably, having heard her week-old baby cry. Alexes was just chillin in my arms.
Alexes was born with only a little wisp of hair to which Casey would loosely attach a bow of some sort so she was easily identifiable as a baby girl. Her hair eventually grew to become the beautiful brown curly locks that she would wear with pride for most of her life (until the Naval Academy required her to wear it in a tight bun). Every day after Alexes got finished with her bath, Casey would spend 15-20 minutes carefully looping locks of Alexes’ hair around her fingers, taking advantage of the natural tendency for the hair to curl as a result of her Black heritage. As Alexes’ hair grew, so too did the length and thickness of the curls.
Alexes was a warrior even as an infant. I remember I woke one morning at 5:00 am and entered her room where she was playing on the floor. I immediately thought “why would Mike take her out of her crib and not tell me?”
I called him at work, yelling at him, furious, explaining how unsafe that decision was. But it didn’t add up since he worked graveyard at the time. He assured me he never took her out of her crib and said when he left in the evening she was sound asleep. I kept trying to remember if I woke up and took her out and maybe went back to sleep. I struggled with my memory for two days. Until one morning I went into her room and caught her scaling the side of her crib and shimmying down the rail of her crib like a Navy Seal. I still barely believe what I saw. Alexes was just 10-11 months old at the time yet she managed to get her body over the side rail and knew how to get out letting herself onto the floor so she could play. So tough. So independent. So determined.
Alexes was a beautiful, happy baby. (I know. I am her father. If I don’t think that, who will?) People constantly stopped us during our regular trips to the Glendale Galleria to comment on her pierced ears, her beautiful hair, her big brown eyes, and her huge smile. On many occasions, they would suggest, insist even, that we should take her to the modeling agencies. Apparently, in the early 90’s, there was an emerging market for mixed babies in advertising, or so we were told. These strangers were always well intentioned so we remained gracious. But we still always walked away from such encounters with a tinge of bitterness at the underlying message: as the world saw it, our half Black, half Mexican daughter’s biggest value to the world was her mixed looks.
As a senior in high school, Casey was a four-year letterman in Varsity Cheerleading. She dated the captain of the football team. She was the type of social butterfly that could easily flutter from one clique to the next based on her warm, generous personality. But, she was also a driven student. She maintained a 4.0 GPA throughout high school and had a clear academic goal. No one in her immediate family had ever gone to college, let alone graduate school so she relied heavily on information from high school counselors in the pursuit of her dream: law school.
Well into her senior year, with college applications pending, Casey realized that she had not been notified of SAT dates. She inquired among her college bound cheerleading friends (all Asian girls) only to find out they had already taken the test. She marched in to see her guidance counselor and was told point blank; “Mexican girls don’t go to college. But, you’re so good at doing the Cheerleaders’ hair before games, perhaps you should think about Cosmetology School.”
“Well-intentioned” comments from strangers in the mall that our warrior princess was perfectly suited for modeling, if only because mixed kids were in high demand were all too reminiscent of the “well-intentioned” comments from her guidance counselor.
To hell with them!
We decided then that we would feed the warrior. Suppress the princess. Our daughter would never gauge success on her looks, her hair, her mixed-heritage, or any other physical asset. Her greatest attributes would be her mind, her will, her inner strength, and most of all, “the content of her character”, and we would assure this, “by any means necessary”.