Chameleon

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“I don’t know how to tell you this, mijo, but your brother is in prison.”

A Spider-Man action figure fell out of my hands and hit the floor. His webs splattered across the tile and the wall.

My mom held the phone by her side with tears streaming down her face.

“He says he loves you.”

Growing up as a member of the Hispanic community in America often takes its toll on people. Depending on the locale, you could be an outsider or something far worse.

I was lucky enough to be born as a chameleon. I could blend in wherever I was.

If I was at a dinner party with my mom’s coworkers, I was a proper young man wearing a sharp polo. If I was with my brother and his goons, I spoke slowly and mashed my words together.

“Whatchu mean, bro?”

My brother, on the other hand, was spared this curse. In exchange for individuality, he was a pariah.

My mom, brother, and I immigrated from Colombia when I was three years old. My brother was 11.

My brother refused to bend to the cultural norms of the United States post-immigration.

While my mom and I assimilated quickly, my brother hung on to his old-world ideals. The lyrics to his rap songs were laced with references to his childhood: rolling with gangs, robbing corner stores, and kissing many, many pretty women.

The only constant in his life was my mom. She kept him in check. Without my mom, he was a car without an engine… or wheels… or windows… or doors.

Given his decidedly ‘hoodrat’ nature, my mom was often forced to keep a close leash on him. When he came home from school with a bloody nose, she would phone his entire friend group to determine what happened.

If he brought home a new bicycle, she checked his wallet to see if any money was missing. If it wasn’t…

Fortunately for my brother, the age of adulthood in Missouri is 18. When my mom and I moved to Nebraska, my brother stayed behind.

He was an adult.

He could make that choice.

Though we missed him, my mom and stepdad continued with the move. I left my brother in May of 2012.

Without my mom to monitor his activities, my brother became a kid in a candy store. His mind, ripe with delinquent ideas, ran free.

He and his friends would regularly drink and drive. Before the party started, a bit of Jagermeister to whet the whistle; afterwards, some shots of Henny to settle his nerves.

Sometimes alcohol didn’t cut it. After a while, he turned to drugs.

Springfield, MO. was many things, but it wasn’t a clean town.

Using his high-school connections, my brother found dealers who sold him marijuana at a cut price. He supplied his friends as well.

Our first call was on a Sunday, during church. My mom hurried out of the pew, her phone clutched tightly to her face.

He had a warrant out for his arrest due to an outstanding traffic ticket.

My hysterical mother did everything in her power to dig him out of the hole he had dug. My mom is an angel, you know? It’s just her nature.

Through some powers unknown to my 11-year-old self, my brother’s warrant was settled. He was cautious… for a time.

A month passed and my brother was back to his usual activities. I was regularly stirred from my sleep by a phone call, where he slurred about my skin color not being the same as his or asking if I had lost my virginity yet.

I knew what he was doing was bad, but I didn’t say anything.

He was my brother.

How could I, eight years his junior, try to drive home a point? What could I possibly have done to make him realize he wasn’t on the right path?

I was indecisive. In the end, I did nothing.

Marijuana turned to harder substances. My brother told me to never do drugs amid coughing and wheezing whenever he called me.

I promised him, “Whatchu mean, bro? You know I ain’t about that.”

Then we got the second phone call.

I was in my room, recording a fight with some action figures. Apparently, Buzz Lightyear got a bit too rowdy and was fighting Spider-Man on the moon.

My mom practically kicked down my door, tears splashing onto the hardwood floor. I knew something was wrong.

“I don’t know how to tell you this, mijo, but your brother is in prison. He says he loves you.”

My brother was being held in a federal prison near the Texas-Mexico border. He had been arrested, along with my cousin, for attempting to traffic drugs.

Inside their vehicle was over 125 pounds of cocaine.

Inside the vehicle, my brother read directions to my cousin on how to get from Missouri to Texas.

I tried to calm down my mom, telling her it must have been a mistake. There’s no way my brother would try to ferry drugs past the border!

On a plea deal, my brother sold out my cousin and testified against him. In return, my brother’s sentence was a mere one year.

My cousin got 15.

It never occurred to me he would go so far in pursuit of earthly desires.

We grew up under the same roof after all; if the thought of peddling drugs never crossed my mind, why would it cross his?

And so, under the winter moonlight, my mom wept in her room, the weight of her failure crushing her. My brother, across the country, did the same thing.

My mom asked me if I knew anything about his activities. My shame prevented me from telling the truth.

“Of course not! I would have told you otherwise!”

My brother was released a year later, promptly returning to Missouri to spend more time with his friends. Even though my mom pleaded him to come to our house. He refused.

My brother continued down his path. He would light up every day.

The crushing reality still haunts me to this day.

I didn’t know what to do then. I didn’t want to face the truth–didn’t want to face how my brother was the person I read about in my comic books.

I still don’t want to.

But someone has to tell him what’s going on. Every time he calls me, I tell him he needs to straighten up.

Lately, it’s been working. Instead of smoking every single day, he only smokes a couple times a week. Instead of drinking hard liquor, he has transitioned to two gallons of water a day.

I wonder if I had voiced my displeasure earlier, if I could have helped him more.

If I could have kept him from a year in a federal prison. If I could have secured my brother’s freedom.

But what can I say? I’m a chameleon.

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