Father Panik

By Anita Cabrera


I wrote about the time when I was eight or nine and we were living outside of Pittsburgh. A neighbor boy stood on the sidewalk, sneered and said it: Your Daddy’s a…. I can still see his smirking small-toothed, thin-lipped mouth. He jutted out a chubby chin and hooked his thumbs in the belt loops of his dungarees. 

Your Daddy’s a…. He didn’t even know my father. His family lived a few doors down. The boy and I weren’t friends. Even if his mother did come by for coffee with mine. He had four brothers; I had four sisters, plus a brother. Mrs. W, was nice and smiled but didn’t laugh out loud like our mother did. She wore plain dresses and her hair in a bun. It didn’t look dyed the way our mother’s hair was, either. But she liked to sit and smoke and talk with our mother all the same. Once I heard her say she could not keep enough gallons of milk or loaves of bread in the house. 

Your Daddy’s a.... Why was he calling an adult a bad word? It was the first time I heard a kid my age say something mean about one of my parents. 

Your Daddy’s a.... Why? We weren’t fighting. Or doing much of anything. Just standing on the sidewalk between our houses. Our mothers probably wanted us to play together. We were in the same class. But the boy spit those words like he was flicking jacks. Shot them like he was firing a cap gun. 

And why did he use that word? The only person in real life I’d heard use the word was one of our Italian uncles from when we lived in New York.      That not-real-uncle was my Catholic godfather and his nickname for me was “the little Chink.” In our house, we knew not to say certain words. Only, my father ignored it when that uncle said them. 

I might have heard it on TV, when the news showed the police spraying fire hoses and siccing dogs on people. Maybe someone said it then. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, our parents called us into the living room to watch the funeral on TV. We had to watch it. It was sad and important. I knew not to act bored. The part I remembered was when the horses pulled an old wagon carrying Martin Luther King Jr. away from the church in a slow quiet parade. So many people. Some marched along the sides, holding hands, like a human chain of protection. It made my mother’s crying not so strange.  

Your Daddy’s a.... So quick I didn’t know what to say. Still, I didn’t tell anyone. Not an option. I knew to keep the peace. Our family had enough fighting of our own. Besides, I had older siblings. We didn’t tattle. 

Your Daddy’s a…. Our father was brown. He had a flat broad nose and full lips. He was Ecuadorean. That’s what he said. In pictures, his mother and father have dark skin, too, and noses more flat than pointy, the same wide mouths. We have one old photo that might have been black-and-white but is now brownish with white edges, an old-timey photograph, the kind with people posing extra straight and looking serious. My father’s mother, in a lace dress and huge white bow on top of her head, stands behind my grandfather who is sitting on a chair, legs crossed, in a dark blazer and white trousers. My father is young enough to be in short pants with knee socks, a little jacket and a shirt with a bow at the neck. He is standing next to his father. Almost smiling.  

Your Daddy’s a…. We were not family friends like with some neighbors. The boy’s own father was a big man. (We weren’t allowed to say “fat.”) His father reminded me of a giant kid with pasty skin and a G.I.-Joe crewcut. He wore short-sleeved dress shirts with wet circles under the arms and a belly that drooped over his belt. I noted the difference from my own father, who had his suits tailored in New York City and wore Brooks Brothers shirts, and ties with matching handkerchiefs folded so they peeked out in a triangle from his breast pocket. He wore gold cufflinks. It’s clear, now, the effort to look impeccable.

Your Daddy’s a.... I shared the poem that mentioned that moment. I did not substitute, censor, euphemize or hide what the boy said. 

Your Daddy’s a.... But a woman in the workshop said I could not use the word. 


Your Daddy’s a.... In the online workshop with seven participants, an accomplished poet also taking the class cleared her throat. She hesitated, then looked directly at me from her Zoom square and grimaced as if what was about to come out of her mouth might hurt: “If you’re going to identify as white, you can’t use that word.”

I fell off the side of the world. 

Some people had “She/Her” or “They/Them” after their names below their Zoom square. But no one had “Black,” “Filipino,” or “White” under the box. The poet and I had never met in person. Mine is a Latino surname. I have dark hair and dark features. I wrote about a boy calling my father that word when I was little. 

I appreciated her suggestion to be wary of using a word so profane and offensive it would blind readers to everything else in the text. Even though it happened, even though the boy did call my father that word. Even when that word is central to an event, a writer, especially a writer who is not Black, has to be mindful when referencing it. 

Yes, I needed the reschooling. I am at least twenty years older than that poet and for over fifty years, have been accustomed to the word appearing in literature and poetry in its full form before it was almost universally agreed upon that, when referencing a work that includes it, even a work by a Black author, no person other than a Black person may use the word. 

But it was the other thing she said–If you’re going to identify as white–that stopped me in my tracks, stunned me silent.

The poet took my speechlessness as an opportunity. With an apologetic shrug, she elaborated. “I work with young people of color in Los Angeles and it’s just important to be careful.” She nodded. Was she acknowledging her qualifications in monitoring ethnic and racial identities of those around her? “Besides, I’m married to a man of color. My husband is Muslim, Middle Eastern.” As if that bit of information were key.

I disguised my shame by thanking her. Protesting But that’s what happened would sound infantile, or worse. Why, though, was I so indignant, so infuriated by a stranger’s presumption about how I “identified”?


Some years ago, a friend choreographed a theater production of Enrique Urueta’s Learn to Be Latina. The social satire is about an aspiring Lebanese American pop star urged by her agents and manager to assume a Latina identity to avoid alienating a potential fanbase in the post-9/11 American landscape. An ethnic consultant puts her through bootcamp where she is taught to draw on thick arching eyebrows with black permanent marker, and outline her lips in dark pencil and then fill them in with bright red lipstick. Her ethnic training includes her having to catch infant dolls thrown at her in rapid-fire succession while solving complex math word-problems involving the speeds of trains, the time of day, and number of immigrants running across the border to jump aboard moving locomotives. 

If I were still wearing the array of gold chains, large hoop earrings, and off-the-shoulder tops that I wore in my 20s, if I still basked in the sun for as many hours as meteorologically possible for whatever climate I resided in, would the woman in my workshop have assumed otherwise about how I “identified”?

One of my favorite t-shirts features a femmetón (feminist reggaetón, for the uninitiated) singer/musician, her face prominent in a mural on a wall in The Mission, our city’s predominantly Latinx neighborhood. Her ancestry is the same as mine–a father of indigenous Latino descent and a fair mother with Northern European roots. We’re neighbors. Her father’s a musician, and she and her sister played in his salsa band for years, before she rose to moderate stardom on her own. A local newspaper engaged her to write a column, a guide to the best burritos in the city. It’s apparent how she identifies, with a Spanish-language stage moniker.

It’s confusing. Especially given that I was told that I was not white when I was younger. And have been over the years, by friends and strangers alike. 

But mostly, I didn’t think about identifying as anything. Not consciously, at least.

So, I was confused that time some new coworkers insisted I wasn’t white. Yolanda set me straight my first day at United Illuminating’s field office in Father Panik Village, a since-demolished housing project in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

“You are what your father is!” It was the early ‘80s and Yolanda, a slender borriqueña with feathered Farah Fawcett bangs and long curls lightly shellacked for insurance, accentuated the point by making a finger gun, her thumb and first two fingers sticking straight out, splayed and aimed at the ceiling. 

I was brought over from the main office to help staff a needs-based relief program for residents who couldn’t pay their electric bills. I was working as a temp in the credit department and, after teaching English in Madrid for almost a year, proficient enough in Spanish. The position wasn’t union classified; I was a convenient fix.

Betty, the office clerk with the most seniority, started it. Reaching across the three-foot long filing cabinet drawer pulled out all the way, Betty voiced her suspicion about the company sending a nonunion worker to the Father Panik site. “It just doesn’t make sense.” She shook her short Jheri curls, telegraphing her disappointment. “Well, at least you ain’t white.”

I’m Ecuadorian and Swedish. That was how I identified my whole life. My mother had blonde hair and Swedish blood. (I didn’t bother with the Lithuanian piece.) The same mother was quick to recount how she and our father had to elope because her parents didn’t want her marrying “a Spic.” 

Though Spanish was his first language, our father made no efforts to pass the language onto his children. He laughed when we asked him to teach us how to swear the way he did, in his native tongue. I asked him many times about his background. 

“Where were your parents from?” My third-grade homework: filling in spaces on a mimeographed family tree glued onto construction paper.


“Tell me again; what are you?” I walk with my father along the shore on Cape Cod, from where our family is planted on blankets and in beach chairs all the way to the jetty. It’s a long walk for      10-year-old me, but worth it for the one-on-one time with him. 


“Where is your family from?” We drive to Rye to visit his remaining living relatives, Uncle Rafael, who speaks only Spanish, and two cousins, Ruby and Priscilla. The main attraction in the home crowded with knickknacks from Ruby’s travels with the Ice-Capades and stiff antique chairs is Polly, the large, talking parrot in a cage in the kitchen who squawks phrases on command. 


Decades after my father died, I call Priscilla and Ruby from San Francisco. Well into their eighties, the two spinsters still live in the family home. I get Ruby, the more extroverted, whose photo recently ran in a New York newspaper article about the costume shop she manages in Trump Tower. Forever referred to as a “former skater with the Ice Capades,” Ruby is smiling at the counter, her face framed by the fringe on her sequined headpiece. She is a favorite among the campier customers for a fashion sense that veers towards rhinestones and appliques, a nod to the glamourous Ziegfeld Folly-style she picked up performing all those years.

“I want to ask you about our father. Where were his parents from?”

“Oh, that was long ago. It’s not important.” Ruby delivers the brushoff in a low-pitched New York resonance. “How’s the family?”

“But you’re his only relatives. Can’t you tell me anything? Our father always said he was Ecuadorean.”

“Why waste time dwelling on the past? It’s over. Give my love to your family.”

A rare photo from that lineage shows my father’s father and his close friend standing in overcoats and fedoras, the place written on the back: “Quito, Ecuador.” 

It wasn’t until our father died, and our mother moved the family to Connecticut that I comprehended subtle and not-so-subtle hints that we stood out in that WASPy New England demographic. When school first started, we received a few anonymous phone calls: “Spics, go home.” I was more confused than appalled or wounded. 

Back at the Father Panik office, Yolanda set me straight. “You’re Puerto Rican.” Spoken with authoritative certainty. 

“But my father was Ecuadorian and my mother’s Swedish.” I repeated what I knew to be true. We had just met. The exchange made no sense. Was it a Father Panik mess-with-the-new-kid ritual? 

“You are PUERTO RICAN.” Yolanda looked me in the eye to make sure I heard. “You are what your father is.” She sounded frustrated, as if tired of trying to make a simple, obvious point understandable to an uncomprehending child. She waved those lacquered digits around again for emphasis. 

What was I even arguing about? I had asked my father directly, curious because he was the only person in our family who spoke Spanish. His first language was Spanish, his skin darker than the filbert nuts we cracked open after holiday meals, his features so unlike our mother’s. 

I had heard people call men’s pointy shoes “Puerto Rican fence climbers.” My godfather’s wife rolled her eyes at a neighbor’s excess of Christmas lights and life-sized manger scene and Santa and reindeer. “It looks like a Puerto Rican New Year.” But that’s not why I was put off by Yolanda’s insistence. If I was part Puerto Rican, I would have known it. Owned it. 

Yolanda turned away, apparently exasperated, whether by my resistance or ignorance I could not tell. A few years ago, DNA testing and unearthed divorce certificates from Puerto Rico proved Yolanda correct, at least partly. There was some Cuban, too, along with the Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian.


And what about when you worked in the credit department at United Illuminating and Frank, an older career meter reader, kept trying to convince the new guy not to woo you? “Don’t go after the little Puerto Rican. You should ask out that nice Italian girl.” Your boyfriend laughed about it on the drive out West.

And what about the time you were visiting from California and went for a drink in Westport with a high school friend and the good-looking guy next to you at the bar turned and stared into your eyes and said, under his breath, “Spics go back to Bridgeport”?

And what about the time you transferred to a different university and they kept sending you EOP information and you felt insulted because you had not signed up for any of that, and were afraid people would think they let you in just because of your last name. Or worse, that they had?

And what about the time you went to a frat party at Cal with some blonde girl from one of your classes because you were lonely and had nothing better to do and you felt it in your gut, from the raised eyebrows and grins on the boys’ faces, that you were unexpected, or there as some kind of challenge or joke. At least you won both games of pool before leaving.


After our family’s house burned down somewhat inexplicably, I took time off from college. I needed to know that I would be okay in the world even without a home base. I worked a bunch of jobs and saved a little money to move to Madrid where I knew no one. I heard it was easy to teach English there and I could learn Spanish.

Later, I came back to the States, transferred to a university out West, and took two Spanish grammar classes for a formal foundation.

Once I graduated, I  moved to Ecuador looking for answers. With both parents now gone, I gambled on understanding something more about the man who died a mystery. I learned how to eat mangos and saw people who looked like my sisters. 

I practiced and lived with a dance troupe in Guayaquil, performed with them on an island for Semana Santa. 

I got carted off in a police car in Cartagena, Columbia after chasing down a black-market money changer who ripped me off. I endured an arm around my shoulder and a kiss on the cheek from a young cop before recouping my money plus interest after an ominous car ride outside the city limits.

I considered addressing my poor orphan status by smuggling cocaine out of Peru. I was afraid of returning to the States with no money, no job, and no home. A British photographer explained his foolproof method of getting drugs through customs without getting caught, but a former Peruvian secret policeman with big sideburns and a white turtleneck and V-neck sweater in an AA meeting in Lima advised me against it. Said he’d seen what happens to foreigners in their prison. “Por favor, Ana. No lo hagas.”  

I worked briefly in Buenos Aires and after returning to San Francisco, lived with and almost married an Argentine architect, as in love with his culture as I was with him. Seven years later, I brought my husband, the son of Greek and Jewish Ashkenazi immigrants, and our kids, to visit the architect’s mother and stay in her teensy beach apartment in Monte Hermoso and barbecue with his sister and her family in La Plata. 

I wrote letters and made phone calls to get my kids into the Spanish immersion public school track.   

I got certified to teach Zumba and brought my sons to an unincorporated community in the Yucatán where a Oaxacan priest, the son of a friend, invited me to help set up some 12-Step meetings. I taught Zumba in the jungle, helped start the new recovery groups, and brought donated soccer equipment for a fútbol tournament the young priest, my sons, and people in the village played in.

I took Spanish singing classes at the Community Music Center and performed songs by Celia Cruz and Juan Gabriel in a small arts venue. 

I flew to Cuba for a three-week dance intensive with a Cuban choreographer and Orisha priestess dance professor and mentor. I carried wrinkled photos of relatives and searched for municipal records. I went to underground recovery meetings with Cuban women who had memorized sections of the AA Big Book Spanish Editions because they didn’t have enough books.

My Spanish is clunky, weak and out-of-step from disuse. Has too much Gringa in it. Is that really why the poet’s remark bothered me so much? I have tried to raise my father’s culture from the dead. It’s buried in a cemetery in New York, or some of it is. The fine suit long since disintegrated. So much is still a mystery. Sometimes, running away feels like a viable solution. Running back      to a place I was never from. A linguistic repatriation so I can dream again in a language that makes me feel whole. Closer to a man who was only here for a minute, a man who didn’t tell everything. That’s the unsettling part. I wanted to tell the truth–Your daddy’s a… And I wanted to know the truth. I remember what was said. 

About the author

Anita Cabrera's stories and memoir pieces about the intersection between family, addiction and mental illness have appeared in Brain,Child Magazine, Berkeley Fiction Review, The New Guard, Anti-Heroin Chic, Litro and other literary publications. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Award and adapted for stage by the Bay Area Word for Word Theater Company. She writes, teaches, dances and otherwise lives in San Francisco, CA

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