Growing Up Non-Puerto-Rican by Darlene P. Campos

AUTHOR'S NOTE: "I wrote this piece when I was 16. I meant for it to be a novel, but later thought it worked better as a short story."
When Newsfeed asked me to write my memoir to celebrate my 20th anniversary of cartooning and I said, all right, but it won’t be book length. I’m Hispanic but this isn’t going to be ‘Venturo Rodrigo never met his papá and his mamá had to get welfare and her pies hurt from walking three miles to el trabajo and back everyday.’ If that’s what you were expecting, read something else.
I’m not Puerto Rican. I know that’s a surprise seeing how I grew up in Spanish Harlem. I was born in Montevideo on June 4th 1952 to Jose and Marcela Rodrigo, the last of their five children. I’ve got one brother, Jose Jr., and three sisters, Francesca, Maritza, and Beatriz. I came to NYC when I was four.
I don’t speak Spanish. I could if I wanted to, but screw it. Too many conjugations. My parents speak to me in Spanish but I always answer them in English.
            I’m not Catholic. I was 18 when I stopped going to church. I have never committed a crime but there are people in that church who have done terrible things.
            So, I’m a non-Puerto Rican, non-Spanish speaking, non-Catholic Uruguayan New York City raised cartoonist. But I’m also Venturo Rodrigo.
July 1960
It was time for a wedding.  59 year old Franco Francisco was marrying 18 year old Grisela Soto. I asked Dad why Grisela was marrying her grandfather and wouldn’t that be against the Virgin but he slapped me on the head.
“He’s not her grandfather, Venturo,” he told me, in Spanish of course. I spoke Spanish until I was 21, just so you know.
“But he’s a million years old,” I said. He told me to shut up or he would hit me harder. While the happy couple danced at the reception, Ma pushed me to the kids table. I didn’t like the Spanish Harlem kids. They never wanted to play with me because I was non-Puerto Rican. My neighbor Gilberto Gonzalo was at the table. He was eight like me but he was annoying as hell. He kept saying my brother was a fruit. I didn’t know what that meant so I said, ‘my brother is not an orange!’ But Gilberto laughed and said ‘your brother is a fruit, he’s a fruit!’ So, I ran to the buffet area, grabbed a few oranges, and threw them all at Gilberto. The little bitch cried from the attack.
            “Why are you throwing fruit at my son?” his mom yelled at me.
            “Your brother’s a fruit!” he said again. I threw another orange at him but his mom caught it and threw it at me. An orange on the head hurts worse than you’d think.
            Dad spanked me when I got home that night. I must’ve gotten 50 whips or so because I remember my butt turning red. I told Ma and Dad it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t like I was being stupid; I was only defending Jose Jr.
After that damn wedding, I was grounded for a week and my parents made me go next door and apologize to Gilberto. But when Gilberto was 19, he was arrested. He was caught stealing women’s clothing at a thrift store in Queens. I was watching the evening news with Ma and bam, there’s Gilberto Gonzalo in a sundress with lipstick on.
            “Is that Gilberto?” Ma said.
            “Yeah,” I said. “He made an ugly dude and now he makes an uglier chick.”
Anyway, a week after my grounded state was lifted, I was playing in the garden downstairs from our apartment. I told Ma no when she asked me to come in and she said a monster would get me if I didn’t. I said it was okay with me, so she let me stay out.
            I went to the alley because parents would throw out old toys there and bam, there’s Jose Jr. kissing a man. The guy was cute, hell I was gay for a few minutes too. At that point I decided to go home. When I walked in the door, Ma asked me if the monster got me. I nodded and went straight to my room. I didn’t know exactly what I’d seen, but I never spoke about it to anyone.
January 1962
My sister Beatriz finally had her quinceñera. Her boyfriend Ramon was there and she had her tiara, princess for a day. Frankly, I didn’t give a crap about anyone’s quinceñera and I still don’t. Now I call it the pregnant-nera. See, within a few months, all of those quinceñeras princesses get knocked up. Beatriz did and probably the same night too. She was rubbing herself all over Ramon as they danced and I was in the corner, holding back my gagging noises.
As Beatriz had fun eating with the rest of the family, I was stuck at the damn kids table again. Gilberto was there too and instead of throwing fruit at him, I borrowed a pen from Dad, got some napkins, and started drawing. I drew a dog and I still have that napkin. I don’t know why I kept it. At Beatriz’s quinceñera, I started drawing. After that day, I never stopped. For once, I’m glad my parents tossed me to the kids table.
            “That’s a really nice looking dog, Venturo,”’ Ma said after the quinceñera. She liked it so much that she hung it on the refrigerator. “You should go to art class.”
            “Don’t listen to Ma, Venturo, drawing is for faggots,” Dad said. “Get a real job like me.” Dad wasn’t that encouraging with the arts. He couldn’t accept my job and really never did since it wasn’t ‘manly.’ Dad was a dishwasher at Don Marco’s, a Cuban restaurant down the street from our place. He’d clean all the dishes and then he’d get dirty with all the female workers.
            “One day, you can go to art school,” Ma said as she admired my dog drawing.
            “But I wanna go now,” I said.
            “Venturo, I said drawing is for faggots! Unless you’re a faggot, shut up!” Dad piped in. I was only 10 and I still didn’t know what that word meant, but it sounded bad. So I went over to the room I shared with Jose Jr., climbed into bed, and cried for a good amount of time. When I was okay, I found a couple napkins crumpled up in my pockets. I straightened them out and drew everything from airplanes to zebras. I drew until I couldn’t think of anything else to draw.
November 1965
When I was 13, I discovered the wonderful world of girls. Her name was Claudia Natareno. Of course, she didn’t like me but it wasn’t because I was ugly or smelled funny. My skin was a shade darker than hers. Yeah, Hispanics are racist too. She was white because she was from Argentina. I’m fairly white too, but not as white as Claudia.  So one day I offered to walk her home. She said no way.
            “We live on the same block,” I said and she shook her head, pretending we didn’t.
            The next day, I asked her but again, she said no. After she declined my offer five times, I finally asked, “What is your problem? Your apartment is on the way to mine.”
            “Our skins don’t match,” she told me. “You can’t be friends with someone if their skin is different. That’s what my parents always say.”
            When I got home, I asked Ma if that was true. She told me no and who said such a dumb thing. I said Claudia Natareno did and she told me, ‘that girl has a stick up her butt.’ She probably did and the last I heard of her, she was living in Brooklyn, getting other kinds of sticks up her butt on the weekends.
I was pretty messed up after Claudia said that to me and I hated Argentines for a while because of it. Even when I was 20 years and an Argentine woman asked me out, I told her to cram it. But, later I figured that just because Claudia was a bitch to me, it doesn’t mean all Argentines are bitches. In fact, most people aren’t as cruel as they seem. People say I’m cruel all the time, but that’s not close to being true. I promise.
September 1966
Instead of taking me to the crappy high school all the Spanish Harlem kids went to, my parents surprised me on my first day of 9th grade. Ma put a blindfold on me and threw me into the car. For a minute, I thought I was going to be killed, but at least I wouldn’t have to go to Mount Crap High.
“Hey, this place is too nice, what’s going on?” I asked Ma and Dad after they took off my blindfold. I was suspicious because the building looked clean and I also didn’t hear any gunshots or cop sirens around.
“This is the High School of Music and Art,” Ma said. Dad told me it was Faggot High. Either way, it wasn’t in Spanish Harlem.
“I’m going to a drawing school?” I said.
“I just said this is Faggot High, now get out of the car before someone sees me dropping you off here,” Dad said. Ma gave me my lunch sack and kissed me goodbye. I waved to them as they drove off to work, back to washing dishes and cleaning hotels.
When I went to my first art class, people were looking at me funny. The teacher asked us to draw a flower. A flower was too easy but I did it.
            “Good for a wetback, quite good,” the teacher told me. I wasn’t aware my back was wet until he told me. People still call me that and they always will. I used get really pissed about it but, if I wasn’t Hispanic, my name wouldn’t be Venturo Rodrigo, huh?
            The next class was painting. Mr. Grady gave us a bottle of soda and told us to paint it. I told him it was too easy and he told me to shut up. The other students were surprised by how fast I did it. I wasn’t surprised at all. It was a bottle, not a landscape.
            “Are there any other artists in your family?” Mr. Grady asked me.
            “Not that I know of,” I said. It’s true, as of my knowledge, no one else in my family can draw. All they can do is cheat, lie, and get knocked up by losers.
            I don’t know why I started drawing. It was only meant to ease my boredom at Beatriz’s quinceñera. The point is that I could draw. You can have a hobby but you need to be good at it. Practice isn’t everything. If you don’t have that ‘spark’, you got nothing.
May 1970
            I did well at the High School of Music and Art and graduated with a nice grade point average. But the best part was about a week before graduation. There was an award ceremony for students who were considered talented. I thought of myself as all right. I didn’t think I was the next Charles Schulz, not even close.
            For my final project in Advanced Drawing IV, I chose to make a comic book. It was short, only five or six pages, and it was the story of the time I threw fruit at Gilberto. The comic was called ‘Venturo Ventures,’ which should sound familiar to you Newsfeed fans. Anyway, my teacher, Mr. Hamilton, thought it was hilarious. Then one day I got a letter in the mail saying I had been nominated for the Talented Art Student Award by Mr. Hamilton. Ma was so proud, she put the letter up on the fridge. Dad didn’t care, of course. He said there were way better awards than that.
            “Biggest faggot at school, huh?” he said.
            I went to the ceremony with Ma. Dad said he had to ‘work late’ which meant he was banging some lady. I waited backstage for the principal to call my name and when he did, I stepped out and saw Ma in the crowd. She was crying her eyes out.
            “For the creation of his comic, ‘Venturo Ventures,’” the principal said as he handed me the trophy. I thought I’d never hear those words again.
June 1972
After I graduated from High School of Music and Art, I spent two years working as a busboy at a Chinese takeout place called Dumpling Dan’s. But I got tired of it. I knew there had to be something else out there for me. So when I heard the School of Visual Arts on 23rd street was offering Bachelor’s degrees in cartooning, I called in sick and applied that same day. My portfolio was good enough to score me an 85% scholarship to SVA and I was happier than Dad than with a lover. Nobody in the history of the Rodrigo family ever set foot in any college, not even to use the bathroom. Even graduating from high school was a big thing for us. But Ma and Dad told me not to go to SVA. They said you went to high school to draw; you can’t go to college to draw. And I said, if I don’t draw, I’ll lose my head. By now, Jose Jr. was 28 and living with his boyfriend William. Maritza and Francesca were married and with kids. Beatriz was engaged to Ramon and leaving within the month. There was nobody left for me to talk to.
“Venturo, I ain’t letting you go to college to make cartoons,” Dad said. “And that’s final. Ma agrees with me.”
“Tough shit,” I said. Dad raised his hand and threatened to spank me, but considering that we were now the same size, I laughed my ass off.
“Do you think making cartoons is gonna pay your rent?” Ma said with a wink. She wanted me to go, but she never said so in front of Dad.
“That’s right, Venturo. And drawing is for faggots,” Dad said. 
“Then I’m the biggest faggot you’ve ever seen,” I told him. “I’m damn proud of it too. I’m Daddy’s little faggot man.” Then I ran to my room, got my latest copy of Newsfeed, and threw it at him.
“Don’t throw your faggot magazine at me,” he said.
“I’m gonna work there someday, Dad,” I swore. “And I’m gonna be the best cartoonist they’ve ever seen.” At the time, I didn’t actually think I’d be working at Newsfeed. Dad threw the magazine back, but I don’t remember if it hit me or not. I do remember that the next morning, I was all signed up for fall classes at SVA.
August 1975
I took a little longer to graduate from SVA than planned. Things like work, women, and sex got in the way (not that I didn’t enjoy the last two problems). I was still working at Dumpling Dan’s from 6pm to 12am, four days a week, and I’d have class at 8am the next day. SVA was real tough, but I loved it. For the first time in my life, I would fail if I didn’t draw.

My favorite professor was Harvey Kurtzman. Mr. Kurtzman started teaching at SVA in ’73. He used to work at MAD magazine and he knew how the best cartoons worked. If it weren’t for him, I’d still be at Dumpling Dan’s. The work I did as his student can be found in the ‘Kar-Tunz’ anthologies from the ‘70s.

“Can you stay after class today?” he asked me on my last day as a SVA student. I said sure. I had to work, but I was about to quit. If they fired me, I wouldn’t give a damn.
            “Al Jaffee’s coming to visit me,” Mr. Kurtzman said.
            “From MAD magazine?” I said. For those of you who don’t know, Al Jaffee created the MAD fold-in. When you’re a poor kid in Spanish Harlem, a comic book that folds in and gives you a funny message is equivalent to an amusement park.  
            “You bet,” he said. “We keep in touch. I want you to meet him.”
            Al Jaffee arrived to the classroom with new material to show Mr. Kurtzman. All of it was hilarious. I found a copy of MAD in my bag and had Al autograph it. When he opened the cover, one of my own drawings fell out.
            “Sorry sir,” I said and crumbled the paper.
            “Wait, wait, let me see it,” he said. So I flattened the paper out and handed it to him. Al took a look and then he was laughing like hell. That drawing wasn’t even part of my best ones. He asked if he could keep it, but I wasn’t so sure he was being serious.
            “Most people hate my comics,” I told him.
            “Most people are stupid,” Al said and he signed my magazine. “You keep on making this kind of comedy. You should join MAD someday.”
 February 1976
After months with no callbacks for cartoonist jobs, I got a busboy job at Lombardi’s pizza parlor over in Little Italy. But I wasn’t making much. Even though I had a scholarship at SVA, I also had a few student loans and they were catching up with me, which pissed off my parents.
“See?” they said. “We told you majoring in art would leave your ass broke.”
But I wanted to prove them wrong and one morning on my way to work, I ran into Antonio Luciano, an old classmate of mine at SVA. He was surprised that I wasn’t working in the media field yet.
            “I scored a sweet job at Newsfeed right after graduation,” he said. “I’ll put in a good word for you, Venturo.” I loved Newsfeed until they became ‘politically correct’ and changed their material but I still had a soft spot for them. Newsfeed went back to being incorrect after I started working there and has stayed that way.
So I waited and during that time I worked full time at Lombardi’s and I also drew caricatures of tourists in Central Park for a small fee to make loan payments. Newsfeed got back to me after two weeks, but they said all their cartoonist slots were full and unless someone quit or died, they had nothing for me.
I’m not saying it was a good thing, but one of the cartoonists did croak a couple days later. His name was Sergio Monte and he was a severe alcoholic. So one night he wanted to see how he could further spike his vodka and it spiked him back. His obituary appeared in the New York Times and then I got another call from Newsfeed.
“Would you be ready by tomorrow, Venturo?”
“I’ve been ready since I was ten years old,” I said. “See you in the morning.”
June 1982
            During my first two years at Newsfeed, I didn’t make much at all. It was mostly because I wasn’t original enough and I didn’t have my own section. Then in ‘78 I came up with ‘Venturo Ventures’ which many of you read. If you haven’t, it’s basically cartoons of myself and my family in Spanish Harlem. I’d been working on ‘Venturo Ventures’ since I was at the High School of Music and Art, but I never gave it a shot in the spotlight. By ’80, I was pulling in four times what my parents made. In ’81, I moved into my house in Queens, over in Corona. The people I grew up with in Spanish Harlem were actually pissed when I left the neighborhood. They said I was ‘acting white.’ They said I had betrayed my Latino roots, whatever that means.
            “Because I don’t suck and you do?” I asked. I didn’t get it. Apparently if you’re Hispanic, you’re not allowed to be successful.
            When I turned 30, Newsfeed put an announcement for me in the June issue. Within a couple of hours, I had a stack of birthday cards on my desk at the studio. I never got a birthday card before that day. My family didn’t believe in it since they figured people throw their birthday cards away, but I never do. Since then, I get about 5,000 cards each year and I’ve kept them all – really. So thanks for them, guys.
December 1985
            Getting shot isn’t cool. It doesn’t sound cool to begin with and let me tell you, it sucks. I was walking out of the studio and heading home when some idiot aimed at me. ‘Venturo Ventures’ had offended the prick, so he thought shooting me was a good way to get over having a stick in his ass.
            I was rushed to Bellevue Hospital and woke up with a load of cloth on my chest. The nurses were trying to calm me down, but I was pissed. Who the hell shoots someone over a damn cartoon? My parents arrived in my room with a bowl of black beans and rice, but I was too upset to eat anything. Here I was, 33 years old, and I almost died because of a complete dolt.
            “This is why you shouldn’t have become a cartoonist,” Ma said.
            “That’s right,” Dad said. “Now the whole neighborhood thinks you were involved in some drug scandal.”
            “What about the asshole who shot me?” I said. Ma told me to cool it, but the truth was clear. They hated my job. Even after I won the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year, they still had the guts to ask me why I was a cartoonist.
            I recovered soon and when I went back to work, I had a stack of get well cards for me. On top of that, Mr. Hernan Jimenez was arrested for attempted murder. His reason? ‘Venturo Ventures’ was offensive to the people of Spanish Harlem. So when The New York Times asked me to respond to him, I said this:
            “If anyone finds ‘Venturo Ventures’ offensive, I sincerely apologize that I’m not nice enough to give a flying damn about public opinion. Kiss my ass.”
            As you can guess, that answer didn’t go down very well with the media, but sales of Newsfeed skyrocketed by about 150%. People would stop me in the street just to have me sign my name over ‘Venturo Ventures.’
            I think I’m going to get shot again sometime, but if it happens, I’ll either live or die, depending on whether or not it’s my time to go. I want to stay here for a long time though. So, if any of you are offended for any idiotic reason, take it up with me over coffee sometime. Just because I can be rude, it doesn’t mean I’m not willing to reason (unless you’re a giant moron, then you can kiss my ass).
September 1987
            The National Cartoonist Society invited me to the Reuben Award ceremony, which was neat since I had never been before. I got to meet Jim Davis, the guy who made Garfield, and Art Spiegelman who would later be known for his graphic novel called Maus. Al Jaffee and Harvey Kurtzman were there too and we all caught up while we waited for the ceremony to start. After listening to speech after speech, it was time to give out the Reuben. I was sure it was going to be given Jim, Art, Al, or Harvey, so I congratulated them all beforehand.
            “Venturo Agustin Rodrigo,” the speaker said. I stayed in my seat laughing my ass off because I was 100% positive someone was playing a prank on me. But when the speaker called me again, I had a hard time getting up.
            “Uh,” I said into the microphone when I went onstage. “Thanks? I didn’t think I’d be getting this, so I have no idea what to say.” The audience laughed anyway and then the trophy was placed into my hands. It sits over my bed now.
            When I got home later that night, I called up all my siblings and told them the good news. Only Jose Jr. seemed remotely proud of me and that was okay since my sisters still think I’m the one who made Peanuts. I called up my parents and Dad answered. Ma’s asleep, he said. So I told him about the Reuben.
            “Well congratulations,” Dad said. “You’ve officially won the faggot prize.”
            “Damn right I did,” I said. “I won Outstanding Faggot of the Year.”
            Even though it didn’t go down too well with my stupid family, I was only one who won something important. Sure, my family could win something: Biggest Dumbass, Most Likely to Be a Moron, and Extraordinary Prick. The best award a Spanish Harlem kid could get was Perfect Attendance and here I was, Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year.
February 1990
            Ever since I was little, I hated Valentine’s Day. Dad would take Ma to a ‘fancy’ restaurant (which meant they went to a place with tables instead of a counter). They’d eat a few bites and then Dad would pretend he had to work late again. He’d drop Ma off at home and head out with the lover of the season. So I would hear to Ma cry to sappy Uruguayan break up music. Every year, I’d listen to her cry and it always pissed me off.
            So when Valentine’s Day ’90 rolled around, I took the day off from work. I kept on drawing in my studio at home, but I can’t explain what happened to me. As I drew a new strip for the upcoming issue, I started singing those Uruguayan break up songs for no reason. I’ve never really broken up with anyone – they just leave and I sit there wondering what the hell happened and why I’m missing some of my money. I drew and drew and then, bam, there I was, crying all over my work. It didn’t take long until the ink blotched and my drawings were useless. Around 8 or 9 at night, I swallowed a number of sleeping pills. Then I called 911 and asked them to take me to the hospital before anything serious happened.
The paramedics rushed me to Mount Sinai Hospital where I got to stay in a ward for nutcases for five days. When the docs came to check on me, they asked me what was wrong. Was I feeling sad? Was I feeling suicidal? Did I want to keep on living? Did I need a change of underpants? They said they knew how I felt since they all studied my kind of case in college. They said they were experts on severe depression and feelings of isolation. Before I could say anything, I noticed they were all wearing wedding bands on their fat fingers. Experts on isolation, my ass.
            I went home with pills to keep my mind off the fact that I was alone. I took eight weeks medical leave from Newsfeed because I couldn’t even draw a stick figure. That’s why there was a big gap in ‘Venturo Ventures’ between February and April ’90. I still can’t even tell you what happened. My whole life, I’ve been alone. I’m the youngest of five, so I never had anyone to talk to. Dad was always an ass. Ma almost never spoke because Dad did all her speaking for her. I guess you’d think I’d be used to it, being all by myself for almost 40 years at this point. Sure, I like alone time. Being a cartoonist requires a lot of alone time anyway. But it’s not like I’m drawing 24/7. If I’m not drawing, I’m thinking about drawing because that usually covers everything else up.
            During week six on medical leave, I set out to draw something other than scribbles. I took my sketchbook over to Travers Park in Jackson Heights and sat on a bench, trying to get inspired. I saw a young couple, throwing Frisbee with a little dog. First I drew the Frisbee flying in the air and then I drew the dog line by line, hair by hair.
November 1992
There are two holidays when I unwillingly visit my family and those are Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s not that we hate each other. Scratch that, yeah we do.
            After my train ride from Corona to Spanish Harlem, I was winded. I could tell my Aunt Ariela made the turkey since the apartment smelled like hell. It’s her tradition since she’s burnt the turkey 30 years in a row. I heard my dad bad-mouthing Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Colombians.
            “Stop it, you’re giving me a hernia,” I said. But he kept on, so I reminded him how he fooled around on Ma with a Puerto Rican, a Cuban, and a Colombian.
            “Venturo, that’s not dinner table talk,” Dad said. Ma agreed with him, not because she’s submissive or anything, but because it gives her bad memories. If Dad hadn’t gotten mysterious warts on his junk, Ma would’ve never known about his messing around. The warts got so severe that Ma took him to the priest and had him pour holy water over Dad’s hoo-ha. I heard it was so painful that Dad confessed right on the spot.
            “The point is you can’t say you hate something,” I said and found a spot next to Jose Jr. “If you actually love it.”
            “Be quiet, we are trying to eat,” Dad said and took a bite out of the coal coated turkey. There were 20 of us at the table, not including me. My brother Jose Jr. was there but didn’t get to bring his boyfriend since our parents still wouldn’t have any of it. My sisters Francesca, Maritza, and Beatriz were there with their husbands and their hyperactive children. Aunt Ariela was alone since Uncle Joaquin passed away a month before. He was fixing something in the attic and had a ‘sudden’ heart attack. The man used to fry bacon in butter and eat it with a side of chocolate fudge. 
            “More stuffing, Venturo?” Ma asked me. I wanted to say, yeah, stuff this entire family, but I had to be nice seeing how my little nieces and nephews were present. The conversation soon turned away from food and focused on me.
            No girlfriend?
Why aren’t you married yet?
            No kids?
Wait, you’re STILL making comics at the magazine none of us read?
My first instinct for such questions is to start cursing and walk out of the room, but it was Thanksgiving and I was too hungry to leave my food. The best answer I had was “I don’t know why.” But, Thanksgiving with the Rodrigos doesn’t work that way.
            “You like Jose Jr.?” Dad asked, as if Jose Jr. couldn’t hear him across the table.
            “Just ‘cause I don’t have a girlfriend, it doesn’t mean I’m gay,” I said. “It could mean a lot of things. Maybe I’m an asshole.”
            “Don’t say that word in front of my kids,” Maritza said, which I found hilarious since her middle daughter, Juana, was fourteen and preggo.
After dinner, I went out to the fire escape to have a smoke with Jose Jr. As kids, we weren’t close. But when he came out back in ’70, I was the only one in the family who didn’t throw holy water on him. He told me last, I guess because I’m the youngest one. He said, I’m gay, Venturo, I hope you know I’m still your brother. So I said, we live in New York City, I hope you still know that.
            “So how’s William?” I asked.
            “He got a new job in Queens,” he said. “We’re moving to a house soon. I saw your last comic by the way. I read Newsfeed all the time. Ma and Dad do too.”
            “Ma and Dad use Newsfeed for Tito’s litter box,” I said and put my cigarette out.
            Back in the living room, Dad was going on about gay people. Now even if I were against gay people, I would keep it to myself if my gay son was around. He was making his comments in Spanish with his thick Uruguayan accent.
            “All they do is suck each other,” he said. “Like babies, they suck, suck, and suck. I’m glad I only have one kid who sucks, more and I would jump off the building.”
            “Dad, you suck too,” I said in Spanish. Dad was caught by my accent. He hadn’t heard me address him in Spanish since ’73.
            “What do you mean I suck?” he said. “I’m a man, a real man. I do not suck.”
            “Yes you do,” I said. “And Ma does too.”
            There were my parents looking at me like I was the worst person on earth, but they were upset because it was true. They had five kids, which meant they had sex at least five times in their lives and I’m sure sucking was involved at least once.
            “Venturo, I’ve never done such a thing,” Ma swore. Considering how strict she was, she could have been telling the truth. But Dad would cheat on Ma on Saturday nights and then fix it by being the first one to show up at Sunday mass.
            “I’ve never done that,” Dad said. “And your mother hasn’t either.”
            “What’s the damn difference?” I said, not caring if I was cursing in front of Little Preggo Juana. “So Jose Jr. likes to suck on guys! You like being sucked on too! And so do I and so does every adult in this room!”
            And then the entire room went silent. Apparently the only things the Rodrigos put in their mouths are food, their toothbrush, and gum.
December 1993
It’s true that I hate a lot of things. But there are things I don’t hate – drawing, rice, and women. Put all those together and I’m in heaven.
            I’ve dated many women here and there. Most of them didn’t understand of my comics and the rest didn’t care for comics. Ruby Rodriguez, on the other hand, was a temporary cartoonist at Newsfeed. She was covering for Antonio Luciano who died of cancer at the end of ‘92. I missed Antonio so much; I took a week off to cope. When I went back to work, Ruby was at my desk, drawing scenery. She was talented with a pencil and used to work at MAD. She had curly black hair and the prettiest fingers I’ve ever seen. Those little things fit perfectly in my hand. So, we started staying overnight more often, drawing and writing captions. Eventually, we would take breaks in between to ‘enjoy each other.’ But the problem was she was married.
            I never met Manuel, Ruby’s husband, in person, but I saw him on the evening news. He was handicapped and used a metal rod for a cane. He saw a woman about to get raped and he busted the rapist’s head open with his cane. Manuel was in a freak car accident and his hoo-ha stopped working, said Ruby. So she’d get her fix from me. And at first, I felt like I was just as bad as Dad, screwing with a married woman. But there was one major difference. If I was like Dad, I would’ve found other women while I was with her. I couldn’t though. Ruby was the first woman I actually loved. If she hadn’t already been married, I would have married her as soon as I could.
            On New Year’s Eve ’93, Ruby was over at my place. She told Manuel a comic had to run the next day, which was true, but we had already finished it. We were at it for hours straight and it was different. This time I felt for Manuel. The guy was at home watching the countdown with his cane. That wasn’t right at all.
            “We need to stop doing this,” I told her and she agreed.
            “It’s against the Virgin,” Ruby said.
            “Leave the Virgin outta this, we’re far from being virgins now,” I said and she laughed. I helped her put her clothes on and then I walked her to train station. When we got to the steps, she wished me a Happy New Year and said she’d see me at work.
            “You know, I wish I could be a tree,” I said, out of nowhere.
            “What the hell for? You’d be hugged by hippies all the time,” Ruby said.
            “The hell with hippies,” I said. “Trees lose their leaves during winter but they know they’ll get them back soon. Doesn’t work the same with me.”
            She didn’t really understand what I meant, so she gave me one more hug and then I watched her go down the steps.
            By the time I got home, there was an hour left in ’93. Jose Jr. called me and asked if I was going to our parents’ apartment. I told him I couldn’t because I had a new strip to work on. Truth was I wasn’t due for new material for another week, but I started drawing until my hand was numb. When I stopped, it was sunrise ’94.
February 1994
            For the first couple of weeks in ’94, I admit I didn’t feel right. I was nauseous all the time. I was grumpier than usual. I couldn’t come up with funny captions. Everything I did come up with was vulgar and rude.  And then Ruby left Newsfeed for another press in Lower East Side. She was a temp to begin with, but when she was gone, I lost it. I knocked my drawing table over and wrecked ten days worth of material. But I had to pull myself together or I’d lose my job of 18 years.
I took one day off completely – no office visits and no drawing. I sat at home, relaxing and listening to those CDs that sound like whales doing it. When I picked my pencil back up the next morning, I was happy I did because I was about to explode.
            After playing catch up for a couple of days, Ma called me up and said Dad wasn’t feeling too well. He had just turned 80 and didn’t even seem like it. I figured he’d be fine in a week or two. I kept on making my newest comic so it could print on time. I took it over to the office around 8pm and when I got there, the phone was ringing over and over.
            “Venturito,” she said. She hadn’t called me that since I was a little boy.
            “I just got to the office, what’s going on?”
            “Dad took a nap and never woke up.”
It turned out Dad had a heart attack in his sleep. I was relieved he didn’t feel any pain when he died. He got enough of it during his life. Ma didn’t get much money from his life insurance, so me and my siblings pitched in for his funeral service. I put the most money down – not because I loved Dad, but because I had the most money to give. If I hated Dad, I would’ve put him in a trash bag and let him rot in the Spanish Harlem alley. But I got him an oak casket and picked out a nice spot for him at Saint Michael’s Cemetery in Queens. Dad liked Queens more than Manhattan. He wanted to live there, but in a house. He never made enough money to get out of our crappy apartment. The least I could do for him was let him rest in his dream borough.
            Before Dad was put in the ground, Amada, the funeral home worker needed someone to identify his body. Ma went ballistic and ran outside the building. Francesca, Maritza, and Beatriz went after Ma. Jose Jr. shook his head. I was the only sane one left, so I said I’d do it. Amada led me to the casket and opened the lid for me. Dad didn’t look 80 and he didn’t look human either. He was there, stiff, and I’m not talking about his body in total, just a small portion between his legs.
            “Is this Jose Venturo Rodrigo Hernandez?” Amada asked.
            “Yeah,” I said and shut the lid myself. “Even in death, he’s horny.” 
            I don’t remember much of the ceremony since it was six hours long and I get bored fast. People said words about Dad, but I was too busy drawing to pay attention. He was in the ground when I finished my new comic. The rest of my family was looking at me like I was the most cold hearted person in the world, even though I paid for 75% of the whole ceremony. After the funeral, I caught the next train back to the office. I stayed there until late, perfecting the comic I drew at the cemetery.
            When the new comic ran the next morning, so did the message I wrote in the last box of the strip. “For Jose V. Rodrigo., my dad. Rest in Queens,” it said. That same day, I was asked to do an interview at one of those morning talk shows. I had never been on TV before 10pm. Most of what I say in public isn’t allowed during daytime television. I put on my best suit and the shiniest shoes I could find. I waited on the set to go on the air and the host introduced me and showed a couple clips of ‘Venturo Ventures’ on the screen. Then he turned to me and started asking questions. One of them stuck to me the most.
            “Venturo, I hear you almost didn’t pursue cartooning as a career. If you weren’t a cartoonist, what would you be doing?” the host asked.
            “Foaming at the mouth,” I said. “In a straitjacket."

Darlene P. Campos is an undergraduate at the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. Her work has been selected for publication by A Celebration of Young Poets, The Four Cornered Universe, The Collegiate Scholar, The Aletheia, Linguistic Erosion, Prism Review, Houston & Nomadic Voices, The Writing Disorder, Red Fez, and Cleaver. She has been invited to hold readings of her short fiction by Avant Garden and Bacchus, both located in Houston's midtown district. She currently works as a writer for The Daily Cougar newspaper and Kesta Happening DC magazine and is a fiction judge for Yeah Write Review.

Bay Laurel  /  Volume 2, Issue 1  /  Spring 2013