Looking Like Alice Bag

1f548427e16a37abb25f9bb134bb099cAlice Bag lookalike

Last summer, I went to a bay area’s women writers’ gathering at a pub downtown Oakland. It was a pub, so just about everyone was drinking artisan beer. I ordered a glass of red wine.

The purpose of this gathering was to network with other female writers. I went by myself with no idea that I was about to come down with a violent stomach virus. I attributed my sudden, but familiar, feelings of standoffishness to a comment from one of the gathering’s organizers, a white woman, just five minutes after I arrived.

“You look like Alice Bag,” the women smiled and shook my hand.

My hair, which parts on the side, was cut in an asymmetrical bob, dark with bright red pieces opposite the part, and I had just told her that I was working on a memoir about being in a female punk band.

 “I do?” I said.

 I could see the woman’s face fall in a sudden realization.

“Because I’m Mexican? Or maybe it’s my haircut,” my voice trailed off on the word haircut. I decided that I should try to give the woman the benefit of the doubt.

The woman stammered something inaudible, then turned and introduced me to her friend standing nearby. The friend and I exchanged the requisite writer information, what kind of writing we do, publications, and what we’re working on now; then I decided to sit down. I needed to think carefully about what had just happened.

Had I stood up for myself and questioned a potentially rude comment, or had I nearly accused the organizer of being racist, or at least of stereotyping?

It is actually a good thing, in the writing world, if you resemble another writer in some way, writing style, genre, or region because it’s a convenient way to give a frame of reference for your own work, to demonstrate that your style, genre, or region already has an audience, so I know that writers do this, make these convenient comparisons, but telling one person of color that she looks like another person of color, always smacks a little “they all look alike.” Of course, Alice Bag had recently released her own memoir about growing up Chicana and being in a punk band.

 This was all getting a little hard to sort out.

When the movie Lone Star came out in 1996, many people told me that I looked like Elizabeth Peña (RIP). This seemed like a convenient comparison too – a Latina in a movie seen by many people that I knew, a film that got attention for its content and good critical reviews, and I all of a sudden looked like her. It felt like the fact that I now supposedly looked like someone in a movie, a woman deemed pretty by the movie industry, legitimized my face, my slightly Mayan nose, my heavy-lidded, almond shaped eyes, my full lips. Most people probably didn’t really mean for the comment to feel this way, but I can’t help having a lot of baggage about standards of beauty growing up in a small town in the 80’s when perfectly blond feathered hair and blue eyes reined supreme.


The irony, I’ve realized, is that while Elizabeth Peña and Alice Bag look nothing a like, I do actually look a little like both of them. I look more like Elizabeth Peña around the eyes and maybe like Alice Bag around the mouth (or is it the shape of our faces?) but perhaps more so because my hair is often cut and died similar to hers and we are both Chicanas who were in punk rock bands, though years and years apart – superficial things?

It’s confusing isn’t it, which is why you might want to be careful. Those of us on the receiving end may want to be careful too, because I quite like the way Alice Bag looks, and looking like Alice Bag, looking like a fierce, not-so-light-skinned Latina is what I look like and what I want to look like after all.

Race, Class, and Spitboy

My grandma Delia hadn’t been expecting us, so her short hair was a troll doll mess, Imageshe didn’t have her eyebrows drawn on, and she wasn’t wearing any lipstick, but I figured she’d be home, being as it was a Sunday evening and she was seventy-five.

“Mi’ja!” She looked confused and surprised when she opened the door and saw me there with the other Spitwomen all in mostly black, dirty jean shorts over leggings, boots or heavy Doc Martin shoes, tattoos, and faded tank tops.

Spitboy had been playing a series of shows in the LA area, including a big festival in Long Beach, and we were on our way back to the Bay Area. I couldn’t drive past my grandma’s East LA freeway exit without stopping, and I wanted the Spitwomen to meet her. A tough old broad, my grandma Delia speaks with an accent, speaks and cusses in both English and Spanish, and was born and raised in the United States after her parents came from Mexico during the revolution in 1918. In her own, proud to be American, culturally Mexican, don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-I-can-make-up-my-own-mind way, she was and is a feminist too.

I gave her a big hug in the doorway and explained that we had been playing music in the area and that we were on our way home. Her house was just off the freeway in Lincoln Heights. As we turned onto Workman Street, I had pointed out General Hospital where I was born and explained that this was East LA, the place my family is from.  Both Paula and Adrienne grew up in the Bay Area, San Jose and Pleasanton, a sort of conservative bay area suburb. Karin went to high school and college in the mid-west, but had lived all over, even Europe where her parents lived when she was born because her dad worked for Boeing.

“Do you want me to make you something to eat?”

“No grandma, we can’t stay long. I just wanted you to meet everyone.”

“Come in, come in.” She opened the door wider so we could all pass by. “Where are my manners.”

The Spitwomen  lingered on the porch behind me, uncharacteristically quiet, even Adrienne who always smiled and introduced herself to everyone anywhere we went. Once we made our way inside the house and once someone shut the heavy metal screen door behind her, Karin scanned the room.  The way her eyes fell over every item made me aware of just how many nick nacks, photographs, and wall hangings lined my grandma’s small combined living room-dining room, including the one that said, “Home is where you can scratch where it itches.” Adrienne stood in faux leather pants with her hands clasped in front of her, and Paula smiled shyly.

“Grandma, this is Karin.” I pointed at Karin. “She plays guitar in the band. This is Adrienne; she sings, and Paula plays bass.”

“Hello, please sit down,” grandma said, for all three of them had filed around behind the coffee table in front of the couch. I could tell that Grandma Delia didn’t know what else to say.

They sat down on grandma’s couch; Karin on one edge, her head near the macrame plant hanger with the peace lily spilling out of it. She looked like she felt out of place, and I thought about a discussion that we had a couple of different times driving to shows. It was a discussion about my family, or really just a series of questions.

“You and your brother and your sister all have different fathers?” Karin would asked when the subject of siblings came up.

“Yes, we each have a different father.” I’d say, not sure why the question made me uncomfortable. Karin, Paula, and Adrienne’s parents were all still married, maybe not all happily, but Karin’s parents were actually very nice and not dysfunctional at all, the kind of family that owned an Audie and a commuter car, had straight teeth, and didn’t lose their tempers.

When she’d push me on this topic, I’d explain,” “My mom married my dad when she got pregnant with me in high school, but left him when I was eight months old because he abused her.”

This was something I figured that she’d understand since we had written a song about domestic violence.  

“She got together with my brother’s dad who helped her leave my dad, but they never married and were only together for a couple of years. Later, my mom married my sister’s dad and had my sister.”

Since we didn’t think marriage was cool, I added that my mom was no longer married to my sister’s dad, or anyone else, that she had sworn off marriage forever.

I followed grandma who wore what she called a pair of joggers and a faded cat sweatshirt to the kitchen, so we could chat a minute and because no one else seemed to have anything to say. When it was warm she always wore a house dress.

“How are you, grandma?” I asked once were in the kitchen.

“I’m fine; you know, getting older everyday.” She ran her finger through her hair and smiled. Her nails looked freshly manicured, oval shaped and bright red.

She handed me two glasses filled with water so I could help her carry them, one of narrow ribbed glass and the other of tin, the kind from the seventies, each in the set painted a different color and designed to keep your kool-aid really cold.

The Spitwomen were still sitting quietly when my grandma and I got back into the front room and handed each of the Spitwomen a glass of water. Karin was still looking around the room her nose in the air; Paula, who always wore her short hair in a ponytail, looked as if she were trying to think of something to say, and Adrienne was sitting with her hands folded in her faux leather lap.

“Sit down, mi’ja,” grandma motioned to her chair, beside which sat her basket of embroidery projects. I could see that she was working on a design of a Mexican woman carrying a jug of water on her shoulder.

I sat down, and each of the Spitwomen took a sip of her water and set her glass down on the coffee table without saying a word. They were never this quiet, ever. I didn’t know what to do. Grandma read my anxiety and tried to fill the awkward silence herself.

“You girls must be tired, driving all that way.”

They all nodded.

“You see that picture there,” she said, pointing to a black metal shelf by the door, “That’s Michelle’s mom and dad when they were in high school.”

I winced when she called me Michelle because they never called me that; they only ever called me Todd.

“They were at a dance. Your mom looks so pretty, don’t you think so, mi’ja.”

I always thought she looked much older than sixteen or seventeen with her hair in a sort of a ratted, late-sixties, beehive bun. And my dad, short, dark skin with thick black hair; I looked like him with my hair cropped close to my head the way I was wearing it then, a sort of Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s baby haircut.  

I nodded at my grandma and smiled, but I felt sad. I didn’t know what to say now either and that just made it worse.

Stopping had not been a good idea at all. We should have stayed on the I-5. I should not have suggested that we veer off into the second largest Mexican city in the world. I had made everyone uncomfortable, and now I was outside of my body, seeing my adored grandma and her shabby East LA home, (which I had always found tidy and comforting) her nick nacks, which they probably called tchotchkes, and all her family photos of Mexicans, and now myself through different eyes, and I didn’t like it one bit.

Stretch Marks

photo by ilona sturm


The first bands of stretch marks lined my inner thighs and lower back, places exposed by my black and white striped bikini, the year my body blossomed into womanhood, smoothing, widening, and scarring.

While swimming at the river, surrounded by sparkly granite rock, I would crane my neck back and turn my hip to see if these first scars of womanhood were visible to anyone else. I sucked in my belly too not realizing at all that it was nearly flat — as tight, and, flat, and smooth as it  ever would ever be.


I didn’t bother putting any kind of wives-tale-advice lotions or creams on my belly when I was pregnant — no cocoa butter, no honey butter, no Mederma. My mom had stretch marks; my sister had stretch marks; I would have stretch marks too. The tattoo on my belly, once a water serpent, stretched to the size of a thunder lizard.

My breasts grew too, from a 34A to a 36B, to a 36C, and by the time I had the baby, I was a 36D. Within the first two months of giving birth, I went back to a C cup. For somebody who had in the past hardly ever wore a bra, I sure had collected a lot of them.


My son breastfed for two years; by the end of those two years, he would drain the left breast quickly and say, “mama, chicanana side,” referring to the tattoo over the right breast. I ignored people who said that children should be weaned before they could ask for it by name and those who said I held him too much. He loved chichi. He stared at my breasts, patted them, rested his head on them and soothed himself to sleep. While nursing, he’d gaze up at me with eyes so big and full of love that each time it was as if I had never recalled being loved that much before.

photo by ilona sturm


By the time I weaned us both, he was capable of reaching his dimpled hand into my shirt, under my bra, pulling out a breast and latching on. I’d let him do it; sometimes I didn’t even notice.  Now, my breasts are stretchy and elastic, and somehow larger than before, or perhaps just longer, and they are lined with stretch marks, scars of motherhood, the kind that you don’t hide, or complain about, or call a sacrifice.