Years and years and years ago, my dad bought me a toy Rambo.
I can’t exactly remember when. It wasn’t 1985, when Rambo: First Blood, Part II came out, because I was more into Commando that year. It wasn’t 1988, when Rambo III came out, because I was into slap bracelets and pencils that year.
I’m going to say 1987, because I have a distinct memory of where my papi gave me the Rambo: in the garage of the Anacrime granny flat in which I grew up.
I had been bugging my parents for a long time for a Rambo, because when you’re a Mexican boy growing up in the U.S. in the 1980s, you were all about beating the commies.
I wanted the toy Rambo sold to promote Rambo: The Force of Freedom, a cartoon I must’ve seen at the time but nowadays have little recollection of other than the theme song, which I’ve long sung as “The force of East L.A.,” for some reason.
I remember asking and asking and asking, but my parents always saying no.
Until my dad said he got one.
I’m not sure if he told me beforehand, or just sprung it on me, because I don’t remember any anticipation on my part.
But I do remember what happened when he gave it to me.
It was a cheap, plastic imitation of the official Rambo. His eyes looked more like painted blotches than anything lifelike. There was no real form to his body. He had no moveable limbs. And instead of Rambo’s big gun, there was a cheap bazooka.
I’m pretty sure I snapped at my papi, because there are only three things I remember about that day: how piratería it was, how angry I was, and how sad my papi was.
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The incident has stayed with me ever since, but has changed meaning as I grew older.
Through elementary school and even into college, I took it as a sign of my dad’s cheapness. He still is. All these decades later, my dad will forego a reputable shop in favor of some guy in City of Industry or in los puertos who knows some guy.
Always looking for a deal. Sometimes getting a great one, but usually not. My mami was like that, too (her thing was yard sales), but had far better luck in finding quality.
That’s a legacy of growing up in extreme poverty, then trying to shield your children from it.
They were successful — we never once went hungry — but those lessons tend to stick. Especially with the oldest. To this day, I’m notorious for never wanting to spend money, always looking for the cheapest option — and usually having to pay more as a result. As the saying goes, lo barato cuesta.
Cheap costs a lot.
But I must’ve been in my 20s when the Rambo meant something different to me: love.
My papi obviously wanted to make his son happy, and obviously didn’t have the money to buy a Rambo: Force of Freedom Rambo. So he must’ve gone to the Lemon Swap Meet (back when it was around), and asked around for a Rambo, and got the cheapest one he could find.
That’s true love there, even if that Rambo sucked.
So I felt for a good 20 years like an ungrateful brat. How could I have not been nice to my dad when he gave me the Rambo? I had asked for it, after all, and he got it for me — what more could I have asked for?
That taught me another lesson: gratitude.
The three types of people I hate the most to this day are hypocrites, ingrates, and convenencieros (people who go with the flow as long as it suits them).
But especially ingrates. People who can’t appreciate what others do for them are a special type of pendejo.
I didn’t realize as a kid the struggles my parents went through to take care of us. Once I learned that lesson from that Rambo, I’ve forever tried to be grateful for the kind actions, spoken and not, that people offer.
And now, as I think of Rambo, I have a new definition for him: acceptance.
Life is rarely going to turn out the way you want. So what are you going to do about it?
You don’t have to like it. But you do have to deal with it. Fight. Negotiate. Consider. Embrace.
Too often, people run away and suffer as a result.
I don’t think I ever played with it — I didn’t throw it away, but I definitely tried to ignore it. So it bothered me until I had my breakthrough.
Now, that Rambo was the best toy I ever had, because it taught me so many lessons about myself and my papi.
Never saw my Winnie-the-Pooh do THAT.
GRÍTALE A GUTI
This is the column where I take your questions about ANYTHING. And away we go…
You’ve seen a few movements in your years, and studied the history of many more. Would you care to elucidate a near-past or present social movement that, in your view, may be a success?
Black Lives Matter, of course. The push to turn my beloved Orange County blue. Marriage equality. Many more — and yet not enough. We need to get more people ripping out their lawns, for one!
Got a question for Guti? Email me here.
Enough rambling. This was the semana that was:
IMAGE OF THE WEEK: Squash blossoms in various states of bloom from my calabaza plant, along with some calabazas — but I ain’t counting them until they hatch.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Shawn thought, Everybody knows what the news is; now tell us something else about it.”
—Roger Angell, on longtime New Yorker editor William Shawn
LISTENING:“Stagger Lee,” Lloyd Price. Mr. Personality recently died, and so I’ve been jamming non-stop this track, one of the most remarkable songs I’ve heard — definitely a Top 10. Not just the performance, or dissonance of joy over a murder for a 1950s pop song, or the corrido-like lyrics — but because it reminds me of Stagolee Shot Billy, one of the most remarkable music books I’ve EVER read. Moral of the story? Don’t mess with a man’s Stetson…
READING: “The Last of the Port Clyde Groundfishermen”: Yet another plug I’m offering to Down East, the magazine of Maine — but their features ALWAYS bring it. I’m always a fan of “Last of…” stories, because they tell you about a way of life long gone — and the hardy, foolish souls doing everything possible to keep it going.
SHOUTOUT TO: Lee, incidentally enough. He kindly donated 50 tacos to sponsor a full month of MailChango! His plug goes to Artists United to End Homelessness.
Gustavo in the News
“Essential California: The grief that follows”: A LA Times newsletter you should subscribe to plugs my columna.
“Latinx Files: A flamin’ hot mess”: Another LA Times newsletter you should subscribe to mentions my Cheetos columna.
“Here’s Why Latinos Are Coming to the Defense of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Inventor Richard Montañez”: Remierda talks about my Cheetos columna.
“[UPDATED] Turns Out Allegedly Lying About Inventing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Is a Very Lucrative Career Move”: Jezebel refers to my Cheetos columna.
“California Playbook”: Politico’s Golden State newsletter highlights my Cheetos columna.
“Required Reading”: Hyperallergic talks about my Cheetos columna!
This was Week 3 for “The Times: Daily news from the L.A. Times,” the podcast that I host. So I’ll be posting the episodes here — listen to them, and SUBSCRIBE. Don’t let me become the Poochie of podcasts!
“Killings of transgender people in U.S. on track to top last year’s record”: I talk to a USA Today reporter about an investigation he did, and a trans activist in Puerto Rico.
“Who really created Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?”: A companion episode to my columna on the subject.
“COVID-19 cautionary tales from India and Brazil”: Don’t take off those masks so soon.
“LAPD’s crowd-control tactics under increasing controversy”: Less-lethal hard foam projectiles ain’t as soft as it sounds.
“Meet the Germhunters”: I turn the mic over to my awesome colleague Jim Rainey.
“OC to vote on supervisor district map, but residents haven’t had much input so far”: My latest KCRW “Orange County Line” talks about the latest Board of Supes tomfoolery.
“How A New Article On The Disputed Origin Story Of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Kicked Up A Controversy Of Its Own”: I appear on my old stomping grounds “AirTalk with Larry Mantle” to talk about the subject at hand.
“Why People Are Upset About The Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Story”: I appear on NPR’s “All Things Considered” to talk about the subject at hand.
“LA Times Today: ‘The Times’ daily podcast debuts”: I appear on Spectrum One’s LA Times show to talk up the podcast.
“What the anger over Flamin’ Hot Cheetos origin story is really about”: My latest Los Angeles Times columna talks about the anger surrounding an article my colleague Sam Dean wrote about the man who has long claimed to have invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Article in Spanish here. KEY QUOTE: “It’s easy to dismiss the critics as Flamin’ Hot Truthers who can’t see the Cheetos bag for the chip. But I understand why people are rallying behind Montañez.”
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