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When I was a school girl, much of what I knew of the world came to me the way of fairy tales, cartoons, television and the playground–and my mother, too, of course. During a particularly memorable recess period in Mrs. Zostautas’s first grade class, I received my first exposure to sexism. (Now that was one fun old school Lithuanian name for us Mexican kids. We all called her Mrs. Tostadas. It never stopped being funny. I still giggle about it.)

During recess, the boys wouldn’t let us girls play ball with them. Why? Well, because we were girls. This lesson in sexism was followed by a lesson in natural science, as explained to me by my mom when I arrived home.

In response to my mother asking me how my day went, I started:
“It was NO FUN! Tomas says that girls aren’t as strong as boys.”
“What? Why did he say that?”
“We were playing at recess and he didn’t want to let any girls play keep-away with him and his friends. He said we’re not strong and fast like the boys. I said ‘Yeah we are!’ but he said we aren’t, because we don’t have huevos like boys do. Then he grabbed himself! And the other boys laughed!”
“What a cochino. Don’t play with him. He has no manners.”
“Why did he say girls aren’t strong, Mom? Are boys stronger than girls because we don’t have huevos?”
“No, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Don’t listen to him. He probably said that because some stupid older boy told him that. His father maybe. Boys and girls have different bodies but that doesn’t make girls less strong. Huevos are just body parts that people need when they are older to make babies. They don’t make you strong. Girls have parts to have babies too, but they are in the inside. Where they belong, protected. Not all dangling out there. If he got kicked in the huevos, he wouldn’t be so strong. He’d probably start crying.”

Seeing me grow quiet, mulling over possibilities, she added: “Don’t go kicking anyone in the huevos! It’s not nice.”
Reluctantly, I mumbled, “Okay, I won’t.”

“What else happened at recess? Did he say anything else to you or the other girls?”
“He said that boys are stronger, and that’s why mommies need daddies. Daddies have to protect the babies and the mommies. And he said if you don’t have a daddy, no one will protect you. And that’s why everyone has to have a daddy, even the animals have to have mommies and daddies, just like in the Berenstain Bears. Brother Bear takes care of Sister Bear. Papa Bear takes care of Momma Bear and the baby bears.”

I paused. Silence.
Then I asked, “Who is going to protect us, Mom? Pa doesn’t live with us.”

My mother was washing the dishes during this conversation. But then she stopped. Turned the faucet off. Wiped her hands dry and came over to the table. She sat next to me and put her arms around me.

She began, “The Berenstain Bears are not real. I grew up in Wisconsin. On a farm near the woods. There were real bears all around our home. Big bears. When they were adults, they were HUGE. They are big, big, big and scary. They do not wear cute little hats and overalls. If you come near one, they will take their paws and bat at you with their claws. They have been known to bite and eat people. My grandma, your great grandma, kept a shotgun at the door, in case the bears got too close to us. Do you know which bears were the scariest? Do you think it was the papa bears or the mama bears?”
“The papa bears? Because they are bigger?”
“No, it was the mama bears who were always the most dangerous. If people came near the cubs, the mama bears would attack any person or other animal near their baby cubs. Attack them and kill them. We were told to NEVER, EVER go by a baby bear.”
“But baby bears are cute! Like teddy bears, right?”
“They are cute. But mama bears protect their little baby bears. And you don’t see papa bears anywhere. It is the mama bear who takes care of her cubs, and herself. She feeds and protects the babies. She teaches the cubs to find food and shelter and live in the forest. She does everything for the baby bear. She will even fight other big papa bears if they mess with her cubs. So, you see, your little friend doesn’t know what he is talking about. In nature, it is always the mama bear who protects her babies. Always.”

“Weren’t you scared of the bears?”
“Grandma wouldn’t let us be scared. She taught us to stay away from the bears and the places where the bears were. She had shotguns to protect us in case the bears got too close to us. We were her little bear cubs. And you are my little cub, Reyna. No one will ever hurt Mama Bear’s cubs. Okay? Papa Bear or no Papa Bear.”

She hugged me tight. I knew I was safe.

I went to school the next day and threw a football at Tomas’s crotch. He did cry.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the Mama Bears.

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