Barbie’s Gotta Work
By Rashaan Alexis Meneses
Unlike my mother who grew up in an old Army barrack tacked to the dusty farmlands of the San Joaquin Valley or my father who sometimes had to sleep in the chicken coop because his family’s house off of Franklin Boulevard in Sacramento was over-crowded with six other siblings, not only did I enjoy a spacious suburban room of my own, but I also had full governship of a pink and white miniature estate. At four feet, the Barbie Townhouse towered over my seven-year old frame. First released in 1975, my three-story edition boasted a blush bedroom suite with a lace canopied bed and matching pink armoire on the top floor. The second level living room afforded Barbie and her friends a cozy space to converse and enjoy tea while lounging on white wicker furniture. On the bottom floor, Barbie hosted small dinner parties and cooked in a cramped kitchen that lacked a stove, an oven, and a sink but offered instead a mini-refrigerator. The townhouse also featured a canary-colored pull-string elevator, which ended up stalling dramatic storylines. Between unspooling the pulley and positioning Barbie just right so her limbs wouldn’t catch as she was towed between floors, she eventually bypassed the elevator, so she could continue her arguments or flirtations uninterrupted.
At seven, in the privacy of my own room, I indulged my imagination for endless hours and acted out suspenseful sagas on a plastic and cardboard stage. Here I learned the art of story-telling and was forever bent on proving myself as a master narrator. My tools may have been crafted by Mattel and purchased at the expense of the long hours my parents worked, but the stories and characters were mine to manipulate. Stealing plot lines from General Hospital and Charlie’s Angels, Luke and Laura’s love affair was re-imagined and revised with my Miko Island Fun Doll, Barbie’s presumably Hawaiian friend though her ethnic origin was never explicitly stated on the glossy lipstick pink box. With tresses as black as mine, decidedly Asian eyes, and barely sun-kissed skin, my mother didn’t so much suggest I cast Miko as heroine in all my Barbie romances but rather championed her as prize-fighter in the endless battle for ethnic equality that apparently rankled even my own play-set, unbeknownst to me at the time. Dutiful daughter I was, Barbie was bumped into a supporting role, and Miko took center stage when she wasn’t twisted into lewd poses with GI Joe or Gumby, the work of my younger brother’s pranks.
One Christmas, long before I had yet to grapple with my own mixed race confusions as a Chicana Filipina American, or Chicapina as our parents proudly call us, I asked Santa for the Barbie Kitchen Set. The Toys R Us catalog had tempted me well in advance with a four-sided kitchen that included a dishwasher where Miko could load her Barbie-sized plates, and knobs that actually turned at the sink and stovetop. Not to mention every single piece, from muffin tin to refrigerator bin, carried the heavy scent of fresh-baked cookies. The addition would guarantee successful wrap parties, which Miko loved to host after month-long film shoots and stage productions in which she managed to write, direct, and star as lead. Like me, she wanted to devote her life to the Arts. She could have easily followed the writer’s path since I was already familiar with the long hours spent at the desk with pen and paper in hand, but Miko and her friends wanted a more exciting and sociable life, so acting became the career of choice.
Spoiled as I was, Santa delivered my wish with an added surprise. Another package, my name tagged to it, remained under the tree. When I greedily tore off the wrapping paper, I hadn’t expected to find the Barbie Travel Agent Set, comprised of pink cabinets, a pink fax machine, and a pink desk tray where Barbie-sized pink folders slid perfectly into their own slots.
I remember turning back to my parents with a puzzled look. “This wasn’t on my list.”
“Barbie’s gotta work,” my mom answered.
“But she’s an actress.”
“She has to pay the bills.”
The conversation was over as far as my mom was concerned.
This latest mise en scene literally steered Miko out of the kitchen and introduced young girls, like me, to a wider world. Cardboard images of Tokyo, Paris, and London would surround Miko in her new employment and recast narratives on an international canvas. Now phone calls to Rome busied her time. Invoices from New York and faxes from Hong Kong stacked up on her desk. Miko and Barbie were expected to prove themselves on a larger more substantial scale. Their days of rehearsals and film shoots would have to be balanced with keeping a steady paycheck.
That Christmas morning not only was I ushered into the tail end of Third Wave Feminism, when my ideals of womanhood became inextricably linked with gainful employment, but I was also unwittingly introduced to a family tradition and long cherished trait. Earning a room of one’s own, or, in this case, a well-equipped kitchen, required an unflinching commitment to labor. Miko was free to live an artist’s life, but she also had to pay the bills and prove her worth.
Despite the luxuries I enjoyed growing up, my father and mother made concerted efforts to instill in my brother and myself the values and ideals my grandparents brought with them from Mexico and the Philippines. We came to work, raise our families, and follow our dreams. This is everyone’s story in the United States. My family was no exception. I’d been told tales of my grandparents’ arrival and how they became adults by picking asparagus and canning tomatoes at the Heinz factory, but, to be honest, I’ve never really understood the hardships they endured to get where we are today. This is precisely what they intended. Each generation’s load is supposed to lighten, and more paths are expected to open. That’s the dream.
Under the most surprising contexts, I’m constantly reminded of the efforts my parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins have contributed for the sake of our family. In 1930, my maternal grandfather arrived from Limisawa, a small island in the Gulf of Leyte where Magellan landed and held the first Filipino mass. With nothing but a pail of adobo in his hand and in serious need of a warm coat, no sea breeze or monsoon could have prepared him for the San Francisco chill that greeted him in his new home. Before arriving, he had raised and supported his brothers and sisters by managing their small family farm in the Phillippines. With my grandmother working at his side as well in the States, my grandfather juggled three jobs while raising his children.
Born in California, my paternal grandmother shuttled across the Central Valley following the harvests as many Mexican migrant families do. She doesn’t count her adolescent days picking tomatoes and prunes as official jobs because every kid in her family and in the surrounding neighborhoods worked the fields. For my grandma, hop-picking was the perfect excuse to get out of the house and meet the young, military-rated 4F men who committed backbreaking labor on the hopyards. Instead of serving abroad on the warfront, these flat-footed, short-sighted, or paunchy men earned their manhood climbing tall ladders, straddling a network of wires, so they could tug down the twiddled branches, heavy with thick yellow pollen and laden full of green hops. My grandmother, her cousins, and aunts kept their feet to the earth, and, while the men worked above, they stripped the bines clean of their small, spongy blossoms. Filling the deep bins seemed to take forever as the sun burned above and the insects buzzed about in their ears. Arms and neck, face and hands were covered in pollen, and any food or drink tasted of bittersweet hops.
I officially joined the worker ranks my first year of college at UCLA where I slinged chow mein and dished orange chicken at a campus eatery. Yet, it was my summer job back home in San Diego that forced me to consider my place in the world, where I came from, and what I hoped to become. I initially had a difficult time landing temporary work because I wanted an office job that would bulk up my skills and pay rate. I didn’t anticipate that most employers expected long-term commitment. So, rather than serve shaved ice at Sea World or canvass petitions door-to-door for Greenpeace, which is what my options were dwindling down to, I did something I never thought I’d do or hope to do again. I lied. I removed from my resume that I was attending college in Los Angeles, and, come late September, would be heading three hundred miles north to study English and practice creative writing under a more serious and scholarly vein. To any prospective employer, with my newly revised resume, I appeared to be a recent high school grad lacking any lofty ambitions and just poking around for part-time work.
I finally landed a job that promised to school me as a professional and serve as stepping-stone to a respectable métier. As assistant to an Amway Independent Business Owner, my duties were to keep the books, track inventory, and fill orders. The extent of my knowledge about the company stretched as far as the fact that they sold an assortment of products that were supposed to rival brand names like Head & Shoulders, Kellogg’s Special K, and Cascade dishwashing detergent. Accusations of pyramid schemes and occult practices were hazy at best, if they even crossed my mind. I was just thrilled to have use of a car for the commute and more pocket money than accustomed at my disposal.
My summer employment found me walled up in the garage of an over-sized suburban house east of San Diego, an unincorporated town called Dehesa where the land is cracked and parched from the scorching heat of the sun. My employer, whose name I couldn’t recall now if my life depended on it, was a forty-ish Euro American woman fond of morning rounds at the nearby Singing Hills Golf Club, mother of three children, and part-time Amway distributor. Her husband, who I probably met once during my three-month post, was usually on his way to work by the time I clocked in, long gone to some corporate job that afforded his family a five-bedroom house with a swimming pool in the backyard. My workspace was a makeshift office in the garage. Well insulated and air-conditioned, protected from the broil outside, I had my own desk and fax with matching black file cabinets. Not quite Barbie’s Travel Agent set, instead of glamorous shots of world capital cities inspiring me I was surrounded by shelves of Amway cat and dog food, Amway nutrition bars, and Amway cleaning products, but, compared to what I earned serving fried rice, I was grateful for the chance to prove myself in this new capacity.
From nine to four, I filed receipts and filled boxes of orders, happy to keep to myself, so I wouldn’t have to reveal the dubiousness of my employment. Yet, as each day passed, I knew the time for me to reveal the truth edged closer. In my head, I’d practice different ways of breaking the news. Would I just come clean and tell the truth or should I fabricate some version of it, pretending, perhaps, that I’d just been accepted to UCLA. Did I even need to explain myself, or could I just quit with no questions asked? I’d never lied to anyone of authority before save for teachers and my parents but that was out of necessity. I wouldn’t dare miss the outdoor rave under the city’s busiest freeway, and, sometimes, Spanish class couldn’t compete with killing time in the back of Sean Anderson’s van. These non-disclosures of youthful rebellion rushed me headlong into a different ideal of womanhood that had nothing to do with dolls and everything to do with boys. The deception embarked on this occasion meant risking my intention to prove to myself, and the world, that I was an adult capable of earning my keep through honest work. Still, lying on the job could have its justification.
I reminded myself the tales my maternal grandfather told me when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. A Filipino immigrant from the Visayas, in the early forties, Felipe Abrigo Napala knew that because of his skin color and his recently arrived status in the States, he’d be assigned to work in the kitchen or swab the deck. He didn’t so much as lie when he told recruiters he was skilled as a carpenter but, rather, my grandpa predicted a future he aimed to realize. His supervisors in Damage Control on the U.S.S. Idaho soon found him out, but this was wartime and my grandpa was a quick study. They apprenticed him until he became a master carpenter and machinist. Indispensable, by the time he received his discharge from active duty after World War II, the Navy offered him two permanent positions at Sharpe’s Depot and the Naval Reserve in Stockton.
I was thankful my employer never got personal. Not once did she ask me about my ambitions, no inquiries about family, or what I did over the weekend. For a couple hours a day we reviewed orders and conferred about weekly tasks, otherwise, she stayed inside the house with the air conditioner on full blast and her kids blaring cartoons from the family room television while the sun sucked every ounce of energy from anyone who dared to step outside. I remained cocooned in the garage, safe with my secret, daydreaming how to will my own ambitions into reality as I organized boxes of shampoo and conditioner. Though Miko and her artistic exploits had long since been abandoned for boys, term papers, and hanging out with friends, I hadn’t given up my ambitions to become a writer. I just had no idea where to start.
What I remember most about my first job is the routine of it. The tasks may have been menial, but the custom of loading trunks with boxes of kitty litter and bottles of body wash anchored me with a proud sense of purpose and responsibility. I especially savored the time driving the long-winding country highway, a good half hour commute from my house, past yellowed willow trees, summer-withered fields, and dry creek beds. I got to see my childhood town as a budding, often floundering, adult. Travelling past working ranches where tractors sent up clouds of dirt as they tread through open field, occasionally, a blinding white and green-striped Border Patrol car would sneak up behind me, or I’d spot their jeeps lurking amid an overgrown bamboo hedge, and I’d remember that where I grew up was still very much the Wild West.
Up until that summer, I’d only seen this landscape through a child’s eyes. I hadn’t realized it as a place where generations of families raised sheep and managed apple orchards, and where other families dared to trek hundreds if not thousands of miles away for work and a new life. Stories seemed to offer themselves to me and after my shift, I’d retreat back home to my room and scribble away late into the night only to wake in the morning with pages of frenzied inspiration scattered across my desk. I’d rush out the door oblivious to my routine practice of the balancing act between Work and Art, which my mother had hinted to years before using Mattel toys as her props.
Summer eventually retracted its claws, and the heat eased a few degrees. My boss, harried and unusually busy with the advent of her kids’ fall semester, met me one morning, curlers still in her hair, her face stripped of rouge and eye shadow, and every wrinkle and worry-line that ever crossed her face, visible. After our regular briefing, she posed an unexpected question that was more intrusive than any inquiry I could have ever anticipated. All this time working together she could have expressed some curiousity about what classes I liked in high school or which favorite books I enjoyed but that afternoon instead she asked me to do her laundry.
Each neuron lit up. Every nerve cracked like the dry heat outside, ready to ignite into a firestorm. If it was any other question I could have felt like a flesh and blood individual with talents and intellect to offer, but there I stood as dumb and mute as a doll. I knew the situation was wrong even as she led me down the white-tiled hallway, the same path the maid usually mopped once a week but hadn’t this time because she was out of town visiting family. Loads piled three feet high waited for me in the washroom. The new responsibility could be considered a small promotion in one respect. I’d get to work indoors.
While I filled up the washer and dryer and ironed and folded between loads, I tried to embrace one of my dad’s favorite words he practically branded onto me, diligence. Soon as I could walk, I had been charged with the duty of fetching clean diapers for my baby brother. There’s even a family photo of me on the job. One year-old, I’m rushing and stumbling, with diaper in hand, across the orange shag carpet of our late seventies living room. My brother and mother wait in the bottom corner of the frame. Responsibility, no matter the duty, was a call to action, a challenge for any and all family members to rise to the occasion and give her best.
I separated whites from the brights, uncomfortably handled my boss’ bras and her husband’s boxer briefs, while holding their children’s streak-marked underoos at arms length. I knew the situation wasn’t right and that household chores weren’t part of my job description. If I wanted to report a complaint though there was no one I could go to, no fall back or recourse. Yet, unlike many employees in my position, I’d be leaving in less than a month to start a new school year as a sophomore. I had opportunities that were just waiting for me to reach up and claim them as mine. No matter how uncomfortable I felt, one afternoon fumbling with someone else’s dirty underwear couldn’t stand to the years my dad spent shadowing his manongs, his uncles and elders, as they were trucked from peach orchard to walnut grove and bussed from vineyard to vineyard. From Fairfield to Lodi and Vacaville to Davis, he picked grapes and swept truck beds clean, long after the sun had slipped below the horizon. A few hours ironing threadbare camisoles couldn’t hold up to the year my mother stood at the factory line inspecting and bagging plastic utensils. These were honest jobs that supplied a steady paycheck and the honor of paying one’s dues.
Knocked down by the very person I trusted might help shape me into the working woman I was destined to become, after that day sorting and folding my boss’ laundry, I felt no remorse in deceiving her and savored the sweetest hint of revenge when I finally gave notice. I never told her about UCLA or my aim to be a writer, and she certainly never asked.
Since that first year of working, I’ve assumed over a dozen incarnations as employee. Each occupation pursued with the intent to balance writing with working. One of those positions included messengering for a film company in the heart of Hollywood. Hired as a runner for a trailer-house, I couriered reels, audiotapes, and digital edits throughout the City of Angels. At night, I’d churn out scripts short on plot and heavy with many of those lofty ambitions that stuck with me since childhood. The gig paid low wages and offered no benefits, but I was afforded both an up close and panoramic view to the town that shaped me into who I am today. I discovered exactly what made Los Angeles a global metropolis. When assigned to purchase cables, I talked to day laborers, who waited in the searing sun at the parking lot at Home Depot. On my daily runs zig-zagging between Sunset and Beverly Boulevard, I saw countless workers hefting bags of oranges and waving bright bouquets of flowers at passing cars. I followed the fleets of taco trucks that served as impromptu oases for business men with cell phones glued to their ears and watched women, like myself, who raced from one end of the city to another picking up supplies and dropping off deliveries. I drove alongside bus boys in their black and white checkered work pants as they biked through the Wilshire Corridor chaos, rushing to a late evening shift, and I admired the armies of domestic workers who filed off the poppy and gold-striped MTA buses that dropped them into Bel Air or Beverly Hills as silver sleek German sedans sped past them. Most people consider Los Angeles to be as fake and plastic as my Barbie Townhouse, but the truth is everyone works in L.A. It’s a city built on labor, and, because of the aspirations the City of Angels incites, Angelenos put their bodies into their work, balancing their fragile dreams with the reality of hard labor.
Watching those determined souls strive no matter the day of the week or what hour, wherever my glance happened to fall, the truth of my family’s legacy, our history played out before me in three million different ways. I’d never again take for granted my chance to go to college or the opportunity I had not to have to fold someone’s underpants because everywhere I look, I see someone struggling more and hustling harder.
The Barbie Townhouse was dismantled by middle school, boxed and stored in the garage, and, later, lost in a shuffle of moves. In Miko’s lifetime she managed to acquire a working spa with hand-pumped jets, a remote-operated Corvette convertible that matched her canary-colored elevator, and a trousseau that would make any soap opera diva proud. She led a markedly different life from my family and the fellow Californians I know and admire. She was the glamorous, powder pink embodiment of our Golden State’s ideals, and she gave me license to ask limitless “what ifs,” leading me down a thousand paths of possibilities until I was mature and strong-willed enough to explore some of these potentials and ambiguities in the flesh.
Next to the Christmas tree that morning, amid a mess of torn wrapping paper and strewn ribbons with the Barbie Travel Agent box heavy and bulky in my little hands, I didn’t fully understand what my mother meant by “work.” I just knew it didn’t sound fun. Only years later would I appreciate the balancing act she illustrated with the help of Mattel. That room of my own may have been cluttered with the spoils of a second-generation suburban brat, but there I also horded the stories my grandparents shared and tried to remember the lessons my mother and father stressed to my brother and me. At the foot of that towering Barbie Townhouse, I shuttled Miko and her friends between home and work. It hadn’t occurred to me that paying the bills didn’t just mean making the rent, another notion that would take a decade to sink in, but keeping a steady paycheck signified the ritual of stepping outside that room to prove myself to the world and earn my place in it.
Rashaan Alexis Meneses earned her MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California’s Creative Writing Program and received her B.A. in English with a specialization in Fiction, Creative Writing from the University of California, Los Angeles. A former Jacob K. Javits fellow, a 2009 finalist for A Room of Her Own’s Gift of Freedom Award, she was recently nominated for a Sundress Best of the Net Prize. Her publications include UC Riverside’sThe Coachella Review, The University of North Carolina’s Pembroke Magazine, andGrowing Up Filipino II: More Stories for Young Adults published by PALH and edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard. An adjunct professor in Liberal & Civic Studies at Saint Mary’s College, she can be found at the following sites: http://ruelleelectrique.wordpress.com and http://salonnierealexis.wordpress.com