I knew my mother was a badass the day she showed up at the school bus stop with a baseball bat.
My brothers and sister and I, along with several other kids on the bus, had been targets of taunts and harassment by a motley crew of boys — and a couple of girls — hell bent on making our days on the bus as miserable as possible. The bus driver was a kindly old man who simply couldn't control the fracas and many times it would spiral into a traveling melee ambling through the streets of suburban San Juan, stopping only to let kids off the bus.
It had all been going on for some time, but my mother had finally had it when it became physical with the usual middle school hair-pulling, scratching and occasional slap and punch. One morning she jumped on the bus and banged the bat against a pole, seemingly making the bus vibrate from the concussive blow and yelled, "This is stopping and it's stopping now! Keep bothering my kids and I will hunt you down. You and your whole family will be sorry!"
Believe me, that sounded really scary in Spanish.
The hush on the bus was deafening. My mother was a left-handed fastball pitcher in high school and college, as well as a baseball fanatic, and that bat was her weapon on and off the field.
That morning encounter with the bullies seemed to do the trick for a while, until one kid apparently decided to risk it and hit me. That same day, my mother and her sidekick, her aunt Luisa, went over to the kid's house. When his father refused to talk to them, they yelled at him, saying no wonder his kid was like that.
"Look at the type of deadbeat abuser loser father he has saying it's okay to hit girls," they shouted.
They made sure to say it loud enough for all the neighbors to hear.
No one bothered us after that.
While it's no secret that most kids would say their mother is the best, my mother went beyond the call of duty when it came to taking care of all us. She was never afraid to say what was on her mind — sin pelos en la lengua, (a wonderful Spanish-language expression, "without hairs on the tongue") no fear — no shrinking violet is she.
On one occasion, it was a teacher's turn to get a piece of my mother's mind. There was some concern, the teacher said to her, that my brother in elementary school was not paying attention, that he seemed confused and distracted.
"Maybe," the teacher continued, "you should stop speaking in two languages at home, just speak to him in English at home so it'll be the same language like school and he won't be confused."
My mother leaned back and took a deep breath. "You know what," she said, "I'm the one who's confused here. I'm confused as to how in the hell did you get a degree and become a teacher because clearly you are a moron. My kids are bilingual and will stay that way. Maybe my son is bored because you suck. It's very clear to me that you got your teaching credential out of a gumball machine."
My brother went to a different classroom and is now a lawyer.
On another occasion she and a neighbor ran after a bike thief, yelling along the way, "that piece of trash took my kid's bike! You're gonna get it!" All while swinging her bat. So many people joined them in the run that the thief gave up and abandoned the bike.
Every once in a while, my father would tinker with the idea of moving to the States, but my overprotective mom would nix it, saying there was still too much racism and discrimination.
If they hose down their own people, imagine what they would do to the Puerto Ricans, she'd yell. Her brother and his family had sacrificed a lot in New York and she figured there was no need for her kids to live through that.
We are all convinced that it was her forwardness that propelled a Major League Baseball player to switch clubs. It was a warm summer day in 2000 at a Detroit Tigers game when my mother spotted Juan González warming up and ran up to the dugout to talk to him, yelling his nickname, "Igor, Igor!" He had been in the middle of a slump and she asked what was going on.
"I really don't like it here, I just can't get it together because I'm unhappy," he told her. "It's boring and I don't know anyone." These were all words he never said to any sportswriter.
"Well, then just get the hell out here, go someplace else, don't be afraid to tell them you want out," she told him.
Not long after, he ended up leaving, even turning down a multi-year contract.
Our house was always a buzz of activity, with all us kids, cousins and friends, and my mother welcomed it all with open arms. "The more the merrier," she'd say, and helped countless friends feel like they were part of a big, fun family. This includes one of my friends who stayed with us for an extended period of time fleeing an abusive father.
Even with all the commotion, my mother found the time to cook meals from scratch every day, sew many of our clothes - including my First Communion and prom dresses - chauffeur us around, go to all our school activities and even spend what seemed like hours catching up on the phone with family and friends. To this day I have no idea how she did it all. Time management gurus have nothing on her.
From my mother I learned to just walk into a place like you own it and belong there, smile and say hello, and strike up a conversation. I learned to be proud of where you're from and who you are. "You'd be surprised how far you can get like that," she'd say. This definitely helped me in my work as a journalist.
I imagine that had she been a man, she would have been a ballplayer in the major leagues. Or under different circumstances she would have used her amazing skills to be a world-class chef, model or clothing designer. She gave up a career in finance because she wanted to stay home with us, and I've asked her if she ever regretted being "just" a mom.
"Are you kidding me?" she said, "This is the best thing I could have ever done with my life. No regrets, no regrets at all. It's all fun, even when I'm yelling."
She still yells, and gives opinions even when you don't want them. Because no matter how old your kids are, a Latina mom like my mother never stops being a badass mom, and thank God for that.