It is common in a Latin household to sit in front of the screen with one’s mother, if not the entire family, and watch popular telenovelas on weeknights, and Sabado Gigante—the longest running variety show in the world—every Saturday night. My family was in no way the exception to this rule.
Because we were broke, and I mean broke in the way you know life with meat and life without, life with heat and life in the Stone Age, TV was how we had fun: it was our vacations, our dinners out, our way of staying connected to what was happening out there while we lived in a world set indoors.
Back in those days we all squeezed into this one bedroom apartment—my brother, as the man, got the bedroom—the rest of us (mom, abuela, me) shared the living room, in which we delineated bedrooms out of old refrigerator boxes. But even though we were broke as hell, somehow we still had three TVs all in varying stages of decomposition, each wearing a little foiled antenna, catching a signal despite all odds: one for my brother in his room, a tiny one for my abuela while she cooked in the kitchen, another for all-purpose family use.
My mother worked two jobs and I would only see her in the hours between them: in the morning, when she’d stop in for dinner, and then again when I’d wake up late as she was coming home for the night just long enough for her to kiss me goodnight. Our neighborhood wasn’t exactly the Wonder-Bread-eating-Girl-Scout-cookie-toting kind, and between my abuela who was a hardass and my mother who was overprotective, I rarely saw the outside of our apartment beyond school hours. I didn’t even learn how to ride a bike until I was fourteen, which puts me just a few notches above those people that show up on the news having miraculously lived in caves and shit for most of their lives. And so in the interim between these times with mom and without mom, to mark the passing of the day: there was TV. And man, did we watch.
People tell me I love television like we’re in some kind of relationship, but my abuela, who never was more than a housewife and glorified babysitter—she was the O.G. TV-watcher. The woman could not figure out how to talk into a cell phone, but she kept a military-grade mental schedule of her telenovelas. God help you if you tried to interfere.
Of the things she watched, my favorite was Walter Mercado, our people’s Liberace figure, albeit a psychic version of him. Daily we would wait for his segment on Univision until he would appear at last, wearing jewel-colored silk robes and thick eyeliner, shuffling a deck of tarot cards as he shared horoscopes for each astrological sign. For abuela, the saints may have a direct connection to God, but Mercado had a direct connection to a different and verifiable future, and whenever my sign popped up—sometimes even if it had very little to do with it—she would nod solemnly, and say something like, you see what I’ve been telling you about eating your breakfast mija? On other afternoons, we watched Jerry Springer together, which was fascinating to us both for differing reasons: hers mostly because of the white people and their strange problems, mine primarily being I did not understand what threesomes were. On Sunday mornings, she’d flip on mass, calling me into the room at the end of the hour to stand in front of the screen and receive the priest’s final blessing with her.
But on Saturday nights: it was all about Sabado Gigante, a show she’d been watching since she lived in her own country, Ecuador. All sorts of strange segments packed the three-hour time slot—truly, a variety: sketches, games, performances, interviews. This circus was all led by Don Francisco, a handsome and congenial host who had been with the show since it started airing in 1962.
Sabado Gigante wasn’t perfect. One of its best-known segments, for instance, is Miss Colita (roughly translated: Miss Ass), a pageant in which women parade around the stage in thongs while Don Francisco comments and audience members vote for their favorite buttocks. Don Francisco is always grabbing somebody’s ass—even women in the audience who just came to watch. But everyone is showing up for this willingly, enthusiastically. They are there to be a part of the spectacle of Don Francisco and his conga line of rotating models.
Everything around Don Francisco changes, except for Don Francisco, who unlike many women at the helm of a show makes a smooth transition from young and handsome host to wizened—but no less charismatic—beloved figurehead. Inevitably, the more we watched him, the more this Latin icon became enmeshed in the fabric of our family life. Many people became incorporated into our family this way.
At bedtime, the glowing light from the living room TV was the electromagnetic lullaby that soothed me to sleep, the buzz of the screen like the plainsong of grasshoppers going on and on.
When my abuela first got sick, nobody told me. As the prodigal American-born daughter, my only job was to go to school, be good at it, and not end up back where I started. Anything that would distract me from this singular journey was thus only shared with me on a need-to-know basis. I had left home by then, but I still wasn’t making these decisions—la familia was. So when I come home from college one winter, la familia just says: she was in the hospital for a few days, and now she’s in a nursing home. I had no idea how sick she’d been, and I felt guilty, like I should have been there all this time. I wasn’t used to this kind of deception, a far cry from the days we shared that tiny apartment: your business, everybody’s business.
When you’re broke you feel helpless. Like the whole country is against you—hell, maybe even the whole world. You will take it personal. I felt that for certain, and shame too, and wondered if it’d been something we’d done. That’s what it was like to see her sitting there in this crummy old person home, the only one we could afford, with just one TV for everyone to share and some crazy lady yelling into her pillow all day down the hall. Watching everybody’s forgotten abuelos and abuelas carted back and forth between their rooms, waiting to die.
During one of my last visits at the home, abuela told me how she was embarrassed getting her diaper changed by an orderly she described as a tall, beautiful American. Or, gringaso, as she called him. According to her, he was perfect for me (besides TV, finding me husbands was her second favorite activity) and during my visit she made sure that he got a good look at me. Before I left that day she pulled me down beside her, her breath hot against my ear as she whispered: “Bueno, huvo electricidad?” Or, in comparable English: “So was there any chemistry?” Now that was a woman that didn’t know anything about shame.
She was only there for a short while before she caught a bad cold, which turned into pneumonia, and then she got moved to the hospital. My mother fussed over her room, her pillows, the temperature. She brought in a candle to St. Bernardine, which she was not allowed to light. But above all, my mother made sure abuela still had a TV to watch. Although I was rarely allowed to see her I still imagined the best of things: her falling asleep, at peace, getting better, engulfed by the pale blue light of her favorite telenovela. I continued to go on imagining like this until my mother came home from a long day away, looking more tired than she had ever looked and said, “She tells me she’s ready to be done.” And that was that.
Once abuela was in hospice care, she was always asleep, breathing hard with help from the tube protruding from her mouth, a struggle in every rise and fall of her chest. Days earlier she had put us three together in a line and pointed to us one by one as if to say, it’s just you three now. She brought our hands together with hers. Just us three. A gesture that said: stick together, and don’t be assholes to each other. Your life depends on it.
Even when we weren’t with her, we were still with her. We started watching movies on SyFy, digestible and easy, the kind of thing that wouldn’t touch the inside of our heart. There was nothing we could do then but wait for the call to come. Giant rock monsters and submarine-eating octopi flittered across our screen at home, and for many days we sat and we stared, and our three hurts, separate but equal, were absorbed inside of that dim light.
When the call finally did come it was in the middle of the night. In the darkness we struggled to find an open entrance at the hospital, and my mother began to claw at every door we passed, panicked, until a security guard let us into the building. By the time we got to her room, she had already gone but was still warm, face up, jaw slack. It could have been like any other afternoon at home, her napping beside the low gurgle of some show. I waited for her to wake up.
Way back when, we could not afford the extra bed, and so I didn’t have my own for a long while. Instead I’d split my time between sharing my abuela’s and sharing my mother’s, burrowing against their bodies like some kind of child-animal. Taking in their warmth; absorbing the strange chemistry of what makes up a woman into my own womanhood. If you’ve never had to do this, then you can’t tell me about what it’s like to share a body, get born together on that bed. And you can’t tell me about what it’s like to feel one-third of your body disappear right in front of your eyes.
We took turns circling the room, like clock hands. We mourned, but did not occupy the same space. If I was at her bedside, then my mother was at the doorway. If my brother was at the doorway, then I was by the window. I held her hand until eventually the only warm spot on her body was the heat from mine.
On Saturday, September 19, 2015, Sabado Gigante came to an end after 53 years on air in a huge, live television event. It is the longest-running variety show in history. As the show closes and the final lines on the script are tossed up, the camera stays on Don Francisco as he exits through the backstage. He walks between rows of fans lining the path to the luxury bus that will take him away. Every so often he stops to shake someone’s hand, like some kind of TV Jesus. Every so often he looks directly into the camera and lifts two fingers in a gesture of farewell. A grown man in the crowd starts to cry.
They called the special: Hasta Siempre. It sounds ridiculous but I wish more than anything abuela could have seen all that. Hasta siempre. Until always. When he finally arrives at the bus, waving one last time before he disappears, the black screen comes up and one word fades into appearance: Fin. The end.
Much later, my brother would share this childhood memory of abuela with me: it starts with the two of them, still in Ecuador. I will not be born for at least another decade. For now they are together, just them. It’s afternoon, and the air has a raw edge to it, heavy and wet. She is cracking a chicken’s neck over an empty bucket at her feet. The blood starts to pour from the wound, slopping as it hits the bottom. While it drains she plucks feathers from the carcass in her lap absentmindedly—all the while, her eyes stay fixed on the telenovela playing in front of her on the TV. As a young boy, I can imagine that this was a somewhat horrifying scene for my brother. But now, I sometimes like to think of her like this, living through her strong hands, out in the sun, her mind churning as she watches through the eye’s crystalline lens; that strange window to somewhere new.