The mixed-up fish dance.
"I hope this works, then," said Laura. She pulled a straw fishing hat from a box of old clothes. "The brim's a little ratty, but it's still wide enough to shade your face."
I twisted my hair into a bun before putting on the musty-smelling hat, then stared into the only mirror in the house. I smiled. I looked just like a boy. This was going to work.
At the annual Fish Dance in our Mexican village, the girls were always the fish, and the boys were always the fishermen. Our dance teachers said that's the way it was. But I liked fishing, and I wanted to dance the part of a fisherman. This year, things would be different.
Laura glanced at a small wall clock. "We'd better hurry. Practice starts in ten minutes."
I nodded and slipped on my leather fishing sandals.
We dashed down cobblestone streets toward the plaza. The salty smell of the ocean was heavy in the hot, humid air. I breathed deeply and felt a drop of sweat trickle down my back.
The plaza was a flurry of activity as people prepared for tomorrow's festival. We zigzagged between yelling vendors and fruit-filled stalls. On the beach, ten-and eleven-year-olds had already gathered in two groups: the boys on one side, the girls on the other.
"Remember," whispered Laura as we joined them, "you're my cousin from the next village."
"Yeah, yeah, I've got it," I said shakily.
"Laura, where's Marisa today? I thought you two were attached at the hip," said a thin nasal voice beside us. I glanced over to see Sonia Rivera. She was always trouble.
"And who's the guy with the nice clothes?" Sonia continued with a sneer. The girls around her giggled.
"Um, Marisa's sick. This is my cousin from the next village," Laura answered quickly.
Keeping my face hidden under the brim of my hat, I turned toward the crowd of boys who were elbowing and shoving one another. I crashed smack into someone's back and frantically grabbed my hat before it went flying off.
"Hey! Watch it!" The boy turned around, and my knees went weak. It was David Alvarez. He brushed back his curly hair and peered at me.
"S-s-sorry," I sputtered, pulling the hat down farther and quickly moving away.
Just then Senor Rodriguez and Senora Garcia, the dance teachers, arrived carrying a load of small nets and plastic fish headpieces. I shuddered, remembering how much I had sweat in that headpiece last year. The boys jostled one another to get their nets. I pushed my way in and stuck a hand out, as everyone else did. When every boy and I had a net, Senor Rodriguez told us to stand in two lines.
"... Now turn and throw the net, gently, turn, throw ...," Senor Rodriguez chanted loudly, while the girls wove in and out between us.
I threw my net and tried hard not to hit any fish. It was working! I was a dancing fisherman!
Swish! Plop! A net behind me caught my hat, and before I could reach up and grab it, it fell to the sand. I felt my bun untwist and my hair cascade down my back.
"Sorry ... HEY!" The boy behind me yelled so loudly that everyone stopped dancing.
"Marisa Valez! What's the meaning of this?" growled Senor Rodriguez, and I felt my face grow hot.
"I ... I just wanted to be a fisherman," I said lamely, with my head down. I heard snickers, and I imagined David laughing at me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sonia raise her hand. "Senor Rodriguez, I don't think Marisa should be a fisherman. In fact, she shouldn't dance at all. It's not right."
With my heart pounding and tears stinging my eyes, I turned to leave.
"Why not?" said a voice that stopped me from taking a step. It was David. "Marisa's good at fishing."
I looked up to see Sonia's triumphant smile fade, and there was silence. I could hardly breathe.
"Well, that's true," Senor Rodriguez said slowly. "Does anyone else want to be a fisherman ... or a fish?"
Then the weirdest thing happened. "I've always wanted to try on the funny fish head," said one boy, laughing. And some of the boys and girls started trading their nets and fish heads, just like that.
That year I got to dance next to David, and people called it the Mixed-up Fish Dance. The villagers said it was the best Fish Dance ever, and for me, it really was.
Art by Kathryn Mitter
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