It's a great, big, and beautiful world, and one Houstonia editor tells the story of her life through the friendships she's made.
I make a new friend in our Braeswood-area neighborhood, Alida M. from Mazatlán, Mexico, an adorable, doll- like girl who is 7 like me and wears frilly dresses and barrettes. The M.s invite me on a weeklong trip to their home country, and my parents let me go. I cannot speak Spanish, but that doesn’t stop me from befriending her tiny grandmother, who hosts us. The family laughs when I try to explain to them that tacos have beef inside, not potatoes. Her grandma slips me lots of white bread, and all the orange sodas I could ever want to drink.
The girl who sits in front of me in my fifth-grade class, Vidya P., has just moved to Houston with her family from India. She brings unfamiliar foods to lunch in her paper bag, and though Chuck M. says they smell bad, I disagree and try them. From then on, she slips me the occasional treat. Ms. J. tells us to stop giggling and passing notes. At Christmas, I give her a Hello Kitty notebook, and she gives me a pair of heart-shaped jade earrings. I will wear them for years.
I’m spending the day at the V. family’s house, celebrating the Lunar New Year with the five V. kids. Their mom, Kim V., gives me a red envelope with a dollar inside. When my family met the V. family, they’d only been in Houston for a few years. Part of the wave of Boat People who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in the late 1970s, the V.s first moved into an inexpensive apartment complex next to my elementary school, Mark Twain, before trading up to their house in Southwest Houston. For years they will come to our house on Christmas Eve, Kim V. toting a huge tray of Vietnamese eggrolls. All the cousins know that if you want one, you have to be fast—they never fail to disappear within minutes.
Ana C., a high school student from Seville, Spain, moves in across the street to spend a year with her aunt, my neighbor Pilar C. I’ve always been a regular at the C. house, but now I spend even more time there. Ana knows how to put on liquid eyeliner and make Spanish tortilla. She drinks coffee and smokes long, skinny cigarettes in Pilar’s backyard, ignoring her aunt’s scolding. Though I’m in middle school and she’s in high school, we do our homework together every day. We dress up, Ana doing my eyeliner, and she takes me to Dolce and Freddo to have espresso with the other international students.
After moving from Colombia to California, Ivonne M. arrives to Houston with her mother and new stepfather, an American engineer. Nobody at Lamar High School is sure what to do with the aloofly beautiful Ivonne, a brilliant Afro-Latina, but they are all in love with her. I am content just to bask in her light. We join her family for an evening out to Elvia’s, the club on Fondren hung with oil paintings of the eponymous Elvia. Ivonne teaches me how to dance salsa while fending off the advances of every man in the club. One day she’ll be a doctor living in New York.
I’m dining at a Braeswood-area pupusería with Mario S. A mechanic in a nearby auto shop, he first befriended my brother Adam, before becoming an honorary member of our family. He doesn’t have anyone in the United States, and doesn’t share much about his life in El Salvador. But today he tells me how he was grabbed from his mother’s house as a teenager, forced to fight a war he didn’t understand with a machete as his only weapon. After a year and a half, he was shot in the leg and landed in a hospital, from which he escaped, crossing the border into Mexico and, finally, the United States. It is a tale of unimaginable horror. To this day, on Christmas mornings, my mom always has gifts for each of her four children, along with Mario, under the tree.
I’m working at a Montrose- area Italian restaurant on weekends. The owner and head manager are from Pakistan; the assistant manager is from El Salvador; the waiters are from Morocco and Mexico and elsewhere. The owner’s niece, Mina Z., is a fellow hostess. Soon we are hanging out after work, confiding in each other about our lives. I learn that she’s divorced, having survived an arranged marriage to an abusive man in Pakistan, from which her father extracted her. She’ll marry again, this time for love, to a man from Lebanon. I’ll be one of the 400 guests at an enormous banquet hall in West Houston.
A mutual friend introduces me to Vernon C., who moved here from Nicaragua as a child. The first time he comes to my apartment he re-hangs all the artwork. We dance like crazy people at the gay bars. One night he tells me how he got the scar on his neck: He was in a downtown parking garage, headed to his car, when a man attacked him with a box cutter, calling him a slur. I move into the Midtown apartment next door to his, and we are inseparable. Together we’ll travel to Marfa, Nicaragua, Mexico City. My husband and his husband will befriend one another. Really, they will have no choice.
I am 42. Although I’ve had stints in other places, I’ve essentially lived in Houston, Texas, my entire life. The city is far from perfect, but a lack of amazing, interesting people isn’t one of its flaws. Looking back, I simply cannot imagine having grown up in a place where everyone had the same background as me. I would be some other person. That person would be less empathetic, less open-minded, less curious, less American. Houston is a city of immigrants, and we are all the better for it.