Just as the war ended, in 1945, so did my kindergarten class. A dark cloud had been lifted, and we moved out of "the projects" and across the bay into a real house, with roses growing over a trellis; a yard filled with peach, plum, and avocado trees; and a dog named Shep. Dad drove a Hudson. It was the American dream! It was also a new neighborhood, and I changed schools just in time to enter first grade at Bay Park Grammar School.
I was registered with my full name: Jo-Raquel Tejada. Quite a mouthful. No one could pronounce it. My schoolmates started calling me "Jo." No matter how many times I tried to tell them, "I'm not Jo. I'm Raquel," I couldn't make them stop. One day, my mother showed up at the administration office and scratched the "Jo" off the school record. Gone were those two letters that bound me to her, since I'd been named after her—Jo was short for Josephine. The only problem in deleting it was that "Jo" was the only part of my name that anyone could pronounce. Why couldn't I be a Mary Smith? I didn't like being so different. But I was, and in time, I would learn to embrace my "Raquelness."
I had no idea how I got the name Raquel Tejada. I had just accepted it. But now the question had been raised and was begging for an answer. It turns out that I'd been named after my paternal grandmother, Raquel, whom I had never even seen. She lived in La Paz, and I didn't meet her until I was thirty-two. The name "Tejada," Mom explained, came from the name for the type of spear carried by the king's royal guards in sixteenth-century Spain. I couldn't relate.
Dad seemed indifferent to his heritage and never spoke of his childhood, his siblings or parents, or anything personal. For most of my life, he was an enigma to me. He spoke only occasionally of his Bolivian roots, and he never spoke Spanish in our home. This made me feel like there was something wrong with being from Bolivia, "a third-world country." It was troubling, but I didn't ask about it. I was only six years old and didn't want to know the answer. For now, if the kids at school could just get my name right, I'd settle for that. By the time I hit high school, everyone called me Rocky.
Over time, I came to think that my father's willful disconnect must have made him feel very lonely and isolated at times, which would account for his moods. This presented me with some serious issues to work through. Was my dad ashamed of his Latin heritage? I chose not to think so, to sidestep feeling ashamed myself. On a childish, subliminal level, I actually did understand why he was not forthcoming about his background. It was because he had divorced his family and his country to come to the fabled U.S.A., the land of opportunity. There was no going back. He had made a commitment, and it was clear that he was now, first and foremost, an American.
Mom, on the other hand, had a drawer in which she kept photographs of the two years she'd spent in La Paz with my father, after they were first married and before I was born. We went through all her souvenir pictures of Bolivia together. There were shots of the Indians in derby hats and long braids and the exotic boats they crafted for sailing on the fabled Lake Titicaca. There were also pictures of Dad posing in a fedora, showing how desolate the terrain was on the Alto Plano high above the city of La Paz. I always wondered why all this memorabilia was kept hidden in the bottom of a drawer.
Despite everything that remained unspoken, I did learn that Dad was one of six children. I would be sixty years old before I set foot in my father's birthplace of La Paz. When I was growing up it seemed like a very far off planet.