Gold Hoops Aren’t Just My Aesthetic. They’re My Armor

Relaciones is a monthly series that helps Latines navigate interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships by unpacking the tough but necessary conversations that come up in our communities. This month, columnist Yesika Salgado writes about maintaining ties to loved ones across borders and death through inherited jewelry.
It was a typical Salvadoran humid night. My abuela, la gran Mamita Toña, was praying the rosary in her home. Tío Rufino had put all the animals in their pens, and the doors were all bolted from the inside. Tía Marina was on her hammock watching her novela before bed when there was a pounding on the door. My cousin Marcos, who at the time lived in another house in our family compound, urgently demanded, "Open the door." Tía Marina hurriedly removed the bolts thinking there was an emergency. About 20 young men rushed into the living room. They had just robbed Marcos and his parents in their home and moved on to my abuela’s house next.
According to my mom’s telling of the story, a teenager came into the bedroom where Mamita Toña was still on her knees praying. He demanded she get up, and she replied, "You are interrupting my rosary." With a cracking voice, he scoffed, "Hand over your earrings," and my tiny grandmother said, "if you want them, take them off me." With trembling hands, the kid removed them and moved Mamita to her locked dresser. At gunpoint, he had her open it, and as he dug through it, a small pouch full of Mamita’s gold jewelry fell to the floor. She kicked it under a bed.
My mother tells me this story proudly as she holds a bracelet made of three kinds of gold. It survived the robbery and had made its way to her closet in Los Angeles. Mami moves on to another piece, a chain with a thick cross. She tells me my late father bought it from a customer working at the local cantina in the ‘80s. I try it on, and it fits. I replaced the cross with my nameplate and slid it back on. It's mine now.
For many immigrant families, pieces of jewelry become our treasured family heirlooms, pieces that have remained intact despite migration, items that tie us to loved ones in spite of borders or death, and stories we adorn our bodies with. Looking at my mother’s trunk full of trinkets, you will find the entire story of the Palacios-Salgado family: the rings Tía Reina left behind, the necklace Tío Arturo sold Papi ‘cause he needed cash, and the rings Papi wore until his last living day. Each piece is a love letter of all we've had and lost. Time and distance hasn’t changed the things my family has kept sacred. 

For many immigrant families, pieces of jewelry become our treasured family heirlooms, pieces that have remained intact despite migration, items that tie us to loved ones in spite of borders or death, and stories we adorn our bodies with.

yesika salgado
My parents migrated to Los Angeles because of the Salvadoran civil war. Both loved their country and left reluctantly. The military almost murdered Papi, and Mami needed to work and send money to her mother. They met at a laundromat in East Los Angeles. Soon after, I arrived. I was Mami's first daughter, and although I was Papi's fourth, I was his new beginning. They were proud parents and wore me like a carnation pinned to their chest. I was three months old when they took me to get my ears pierced. My first regalia was a pair of tiny gold hoops slid into place by Mami's gentle hands. When I turned a year old, they took me to a professional photographer and had keychains and a 18k medallion made with my tiny little face. 
Throughout the years, many trinkets made their way to our family through my favorite cousin Art, who spent a few years working at a pawn shop. As we’d ceremoniously put on the ornament he’d bring to our home, I remember him telling us stories of how the pieces ended up in the shop. Sometimes the stories were painful and full of tragedy familiar to us. Papi had sold his favorite chain when his mother needed medical care. Mami also sold some of her treasures when a relative needed help to migrate. We understood how holy a ring, necklace, medallion, or pendant could be. Art and my parents always did these transactions in the living room. I remember Mami's fingers fidgeting with a clasp, Papi looking for his glasses to inspect the karats, and younger me watching from behind my book, pretending to be disinterested but keeping record of each talisman coming and going from our home through Art's hands. 
My father was a peacock of a man. He had a gold watch, rings, and chain he'd wear to every special occasion. I often gathered them from his pants pockets, the dining room table, or the bathroom sink. I would unclasp the watch, slide each ring unto its band, and re-clasp it. I'd slowly wrap the chain around the thick gold crucifix. Even now, I can feel their weight in my hands while typing. It's been more than 13 years since he passed away, but I know each piece by heart, especially the chain that now sits around my neck carrying my nameplate.
Nameplates are holy. I grew up watching all the cool girls walking around with their names in gold. I wanted one, but some part of me didn't think I deserved it, so I never bought one. A couple of years ago, my friend Lala Romero, the ultimate Los Angeles cool girl, gifted me my very own. The chain was too short for me, but I reassured her it was fine. I came home and traded it with my mom for something longer. That’s when she handed me my father's chain. I slipped it on and never looked back.
I absentmindedly fidget with it whenever I am nervous, thinking of him and how proud he'd be to see me wearing it on stage or during a book signing. I've purposely chosen to get photographed wearing it for newspaper features and headshots. I imagine every twinkle is Papi reassuring me that everything has happened exactly how it needed to. Lala didn't know it then, but she gave me an heirloom I will pass along to my niece or nephew one day. A new story began when I opened that jewelry box, and my kin will tell it every time someone new wears my nameplate. 

Each earring, ring, and bracelet proves that our history withstood the unimaginable.

Yesika salgado
My jewelry collection is a small reserve of armor I wear during every outing. My hoop earrings are my shield, compass, and bullhorn, announcing that I do not shrink or apologize for being who I am, an accumulation of every powerful woman I have ever met: homegirls who swap hoops on the way to the club, my sisters and their subtle studs kissing their earlobes, and aunts who hug me by surprise and get caught in the gorgeous spheres dancing between my curls. 
I am an opulent woman on purpose. My existence as a fat Latina writer who does not have a single degree and no plans on ever getting one is defiant. I am successful and hungry, and I adorn myself to reflect it. I am the boastful daughter my mother deserves. I climbed out of too many dead ends to pretend I am anything other than my parent's victory. I'm Mamita Toña's unflinching granddaughter and Art's storytelling cousin, archiving all of his tales. I am the daughter of Jose Elmer Salgado, who still wraps his chain carefully around itself each night. My dresser stores its own riches; some of the gold isn't real, but that doesn't matter. Each earring, ring, and bracelet proves that our history withstood the unimaginable. The civil war that displaced my parents tried to take all, and we clawed it right back. If you ever catch my mother at mass on Sunday morning, you will see our family tree catching the light, sparkling from her wrists and ears, and so the story goes.

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