Memoirs of My America – How To Live In a State of Mortification

funny avocado

For some, *ahem, me*, growing up raised by people from a different country is a hairbreadth away from being an indescribable experience. It can also provide many moments of red faced horrific distress.

For the very “some” mentioned above, growing up raised by people who are in denial about the length of their stay in this new country moves from a typical life of a few moments of embarrassment here and there, to Instruction Manual Please! As in, “The only way I’m ever going to make it out of here with one personality is to speak to someone who has blazed this trail before.”  I’m talking the big guns here: not the occasional stammering twitching moments of embarrassment from family members right off the boat, ”Oh, my dear relative, I can’t believe you asked the butcher if you could fill the sausage casings yourself.” 

No. I mean the kind of hiccup in your life where your face is burning so hot from humiliation and embarrassment that it’s painful.

Tralala! I am here as your benevolent and walked-in-your-shoes Life Guide to Living Life in a Chronic State of Mortification. 

My Colombian grandmother, my Abuela, was the one who raised me. She was my primary caregiver. We had a beautiful relationship. If the CoExist T-shirt was available back then, we’d be wearing them: one in a 2XX and one in a child’s 6X. She never had plans to permanently remain in this country and kept her suitcase packed, ready to head back to South America at the first drop of the word,”Vamanos.” But, until that time, she needed me to do her interpreting from Spanish into English, and I needed her to give me deep, luscious hugs. Perfectly meant for each other.

People who arrive in this country with the hope and expectation of remaining here forever try their hardest to assimilate. Those who fall asleep with their suitcase at the foot of their bed, pretty much have no intention in their lifetime of ever giving up the ways from the Old Country. Her favorite place to demonstrate her “Bring It, America” attitude was at the neighborhood grocery store. The one where all the kids I knew and their families would shop. They’d be there at the same time, too. So, lucky for me, they had front row seats to “Just Here For a Visit, Heading Back Out on the First Plane.”

My grandmother would walk over to produce, pick up 5 avocados in her hand, tsk at their diminuitive size and pale green skin, and then tell me, “I’ll offer them one dollar. They are the size of pebbles.” She’d walk the fruit up to the register with One Dollar in her hand. The cashier would ring up our five items, and give us the total, ”Two for a dollar. Wanna get one more?” she’d suggest. Which sounded to my grandmother like this, “Let’s bargain. What say you to 4 pesos for 5 avocados?”

I stood next to my grandmother in the check out lane as she’d prepare her counter offer, “No.” My grandmother would then turn to me, and in Spanish, say ”tell that robber I will give her One Peso and No More. Look how green they are. No.”

I would have all intentions of obeying, wanting to translate for my grandmother, but then I’d hear my voice grow distant as I entered the 4 stages of mortification:

Stage 1:  tingling and numbness of extremities and scalp

Stage 2:  spotted, dotty vision

Stage 3:  temporary paralysis of lower limbs

Stage 4:  fiery crash

I couldn’t do it. I would begin to stammer and spit and jumble my words into Spanglish. I would lie. “No, Abuela, no. She says you can’t bargain. You have to pay what she says.”

“QUE?! Whoever heard of paying what they ask. This country may be free but it costs plenty.”

She’d click open her small black leather coin purse and pluck down her five singles on the conveyor belt.

Purchases bagged, I’d try to lead my grandmother out of there as fast as I could. But, believe me, the neighborhood kids from my school didn’t miss a beat of her performance. I knew I’d be teased the next day on the playground. I didn’t ignore the laughter at my expense during recess, I didn’t laugh along with them. I didn’t try to tough it out. I couldn’t run away to another country. This was the country we had run to.

What magic equation of coping skills can I give to those who are presently in the midst of their own Chronic Mortification? This biggie: some of my most amazing anecdotes are about my most embarrassing moments. You will laugh about it later.

But, you’ll have to give it 30 years before your left eye twitch calms down to a socially acceptable rate.


Alexandra is an overanalyzing, oversensitive mother of three boys who somehow found herself named as BlogHer ’11′s Voice of The Year for Humor. She has been a mother since 1994, which means she hasn’t been right about anything since. She blogs of the sweet and the funny while trying to go unnoticed in her small town. You can find her at Good Day, Regular People. Did we mention socially awkward? We should, which is why the internet was made for her.


  1. They are the size of pebbles! Love this. Mortification mixed with luscious hugs. Playground teasing, yet obvious love. Quite a dichotomy. And in a mere thirty years, the four stages of mortification yield excellent blog anecdotes. I’m sorry the scalp tingled quite so often, but then again, you wouldn’t be The Empress without having something to rise above, right? Tralala… she gave you a voice.

  2. I love writing my stories here. Thank you, Jacki, for a daily stop of the best, brightest, wittiest, most original humor content on the internet.

    You do a great thing here, Thank you.

  3. This is a fabulous story, though I am sorry for your mortification. I love the line about them sleeping with their suitcase at the end of the bed. My great-grandmother refused to speak English, even at the cost of being able to talk to us kids beyond “you’re a gooda gooda girl” (I called her gooda gooda gramma for what i thought was an obvious reason)

  4. hehe…ok haggling is not as socially awquard as it could have been…lol…had some fun haggling when i was in south america…and the hagglers certainly had an interesting sense of humor…but being from the ‘south’ my family tends to keep me at times in a state of mortification…

    • haggling..can you imagine? Oh, she haggled. Even on my school shoes.

      That wish doesn’t kill us by mortification, makes us funnier.

      WOULD LOVE to hear of your down souf stories, B.

      Thanks for being such a good internet friend.


  5. Oh goodness (and I do mean goodness), she sounds like a tough, lovable lady, and I would like to borrow her for my next shopping trip. I’m interested in bartering for my groceries as I am bored with (see: out of) American currency. I’ll be bringing 14 pine cones and a chicken to the grocery store, and I feel like if anyone could turn those items into groceries, your grandmother could.

  6. Oh, I love Kendall’s idea — let’s start our own protest movement against capitalist greed, now that the protesters have been expelled from the park. We’ll riot at the grocery store like the French women in the bread lines in 1789, demanding bread for pine cones. I don’t have any chickens to trade, but my dog caught a mole and brought me its little dead body like it was a glorious prize. Do you think Shoprite will trade me a gallon of milk for a dead rodent?

  7. Such a funny story. I wish I had your grandmother’s haggling skills. Even when I travel to places where I’m supposed to haggle I just can’t bring myself to do it.

    • Lovey:

      It is a way of life. I had to do it a few times when we went down to Costa Rica. It only takes once, it’s the only way to do biz down there.

      Thanks for stopping, dear heart.

  8. Oh your poor little seven year old self. So glad she’s laughing now. She sounds like a wonderful lady. To have come here to raise you in such a different country. What it must have been like for her. She sounds like she was a strong lady. What great stories and memories.

  9. Alexandra,
    This is truly what “blogging” should be about: Honesty. And a bit of humor doesn’t hurt! Terrific post. Will share :)

  10. You had me at Vamanos.

  11. Ah, yes, the mortification.

    Explaining that YOU CANNOT BUY ONE STICK OF BUTTER from a 4 pack is just beyond exhausting.

  12. First, I had no idea you were even partially Colombian! Me too! Hooray for us. And this sounds scarily familiar, even though my grandparents lived out-of-state. I remember my grandmother trying to bargain for the price of a meal at a restaurant because she didn’t want everything on her plate. And the criticism of American avocados? I’ve been there.

  13. Great perspective :) My embarrassing parents were of the American-born variety, but I love hearing these stories. I have to know…did she return “home” at some point?

  14. Your descriptions are priceless! I bet your grandmother was an amazing woman. It’s funny – if I was in your shoes, I’d feel the same way…but now, I probably wouldn’t bat an eyelash!

    In fact, I’d probably ask the grocer why his avocados were so puny and he charged so much? I wish I could hug her, too!

    • Ann, I can see this memory as if a movie scene before me. The shock of my abuela when the cashier announced the grand total. My grandmother gasped and called her “Robber!” in spanish. Ho my gott.

  15. LOVED this! Great scene (I know it’s non-fiction, but it almost reads like fiction, in a good way!)

    Side note: Your bio reads great too.

  16. I know I’ve told you my dad moved here from Mexico when he was ten.
    But I’m not sure you knew he was my Spanish teacher.

    For an entire year. When I was a freshman in high school. (Because THAT’S the time of your life when you’re oozing with confidence. And stuff.)

    Because he was also the Driver’s Ed teacher, we drove to school together in a giant, brown district station wagon that said Las Virgenes Unified School District (so yeah. I was in the “virgin car”) and then we’d head to first period.

    Together. Where he spoke Spanish at my friends and me for an hour.

    In hindsight (and after years of other students telling me) my father was an EXCELLENT teacher.

    But to me? He was Dad. And a HUGE embarrassment.

    Someday, you and I need to get together over a big bowl of homemade guacamole (five avocados for a peso) and talk in real life.


  17. I love you, eye twitching and all!

  18. Wow! And I thought my dad’s word for word translations were bad. I can still hear it, in fact I do still here it every time he tries to be social with people he calls “foreigners” which translates into “anyone who doesn’t speak Greek” and says “How you do?”

    You want mortification? We didn’t get to eat at McDonald’s often so we thought it was a real treat. My dad promised to take me after I recited a Greek poem for an assembly at my Greek school. I was thrilled. Until he made me go into the neighborhood McDonald’s while wearing my Greek folk costume.

    Looking back, I laugh.

  19. I hope you are working on a full-length memoir.

  20. My husband grew up with his grandmother who was from France. Unfortunately she did end up learning English but like your Abuela she believed America was for deals. Once in high school he went to the grocery store with her while there was a huge sale. Hams were marked at .99 per pound but she found one that was just marked .99. The cashier said no. He still turns bright red when talks about walking her out of there as she yelled in English AND French about how the customer in the USA is always right!

    LOVE LOVE LOVE your stories!!!! Eye twitch and all.

  21. “This country may be free, but it costs plenty” – I love it!! And I love your Abuela :-)

    I can relate, Alexandra!! My immigrant father used to mortify me. To save money he would stock up on Quaker oatmeal with every sale (I mean like 12 cartons per purchase). I guess one time a salesperson was less than friendly when my dad demanded more oatmeal and he later forced my brother and me to write a letter to complain to the manager. He had the fuse but not the English, and that’s when his poor US-raised children were recruited, to help him curse at American service workers. sigh…

  22. Oh, God, I love this. I’ve always been mortified by haggling of any kind – I can only imagine how excruciating it would be in the grocery store checkout line…



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