By Baruch Porras-Hernandez
The first movie to really get me into sci-fi was Aliens. It is also one of the first movies I remember seeing as soon as we moved to the U.S. I didn’t speak enough English to understand it was a sequel, but the film completely blew me away, not just because of how amazing it is, but because it was the first movie I saw with a main character that reminded me of my mother.
My parents had forbidden me to see it, because I was nine, but I was able to rent the VHS from the library and I would watch it almost every day after school before my parents got home from work. I was in third grade, and we lived in a one bedroom apartment full of other immigrants on Fruitvale Avenue in Oakland, California.
Our neighbors were also a Mexican immigrant family, a couple, and their two little kids, the same age as my little brother and me. Every night they fought like crazy, cried, broke things, then the man would go silent. I remember though, that the woman would cry all night, and I could hear her on the other side of the wall as I tried to sleep on the futon mattress in the living room.
Every night, my mother would ask my father to go over there and see what was wrong. “Talk to the man!” She would say, “Tell him it is not okay to yell at his wife that way, especially in front of his children.”
“They are ranch people,” my father said. “They have different customs than we do. I can’t tell a man like that how to treat his wife, he will pull out a gun and shoot me in the face.”
“No an excuse,” my mother said, angrily putting away the dishes.
“That man is scary as hell. You go talk to him,” my father joked.
But he was very concerned and tried to talk to the other men in the building to see if they would go to talk to the neighbor with him. None of them would, they were all too scared.
One night the man started beating his wife. We could hear it, all of it from the other side of the wall. My mother jumped off her chair and ran to the door, but my father stopped her.
Said, “I don’t want you to get hurt.” And called the police. They never came.
Every day the beatings got worse. One morning I was trying to watch Hicks (played by dreamboat Michael Biehn, who I already had a crush on from Terminator) teach Ripley how to use the gun with the flame thrower, which is a really hot scene, when the couple next door started arguing. No one was home. I tried to ignore their fighting so I walked to the television to turn up the volume, when the man threw his wife against their living room wall. The force knocked all our picture frames and our small white television off our side of the wall, making me jump and fall backwards. I sat there in horror as the man repeatedly hit his wife against the wall in their apartment, it seemed like they were going to break through it.
I hid in the bathroom until my parents came home. My father went next door to confront the man, and just like he feared, got a gun to his face.
“Be a man, and put that gun down!” I heard my father scream from the hallway.
“Get back to your apartment,” I heard the neighbor say to my father.
My father came back to the apartment, saying, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.”
“No, I’m happy you didn’t fight him,” my mother said, hugging him.
“You wanna get killed and leave me alone with two kids in this new country? I don’t even speak English yet.”
One morning, my mother and I were leaving our place. She was going to walk me to school, and the man, our neighbor, was getting into his apartment, probably from working a night shift. That was the first time I got a look at the guy: tall, fat, mustache, muscles, wore black, black boots, and a black cowboy hat.
My mother asked to speak to him, he told her to fuck off. My mother went up to him, and said, “If you hit her again, God help me, I will crack your skull open.”
The man laughed, said, “I thought you people were good Mexicans, God-fearing good Catholics that know the way the world is supposed to be, I’m very disappointed.”
That morning while my parents slept I had seen the movie Aliens for the 30th time. I remember the scene in which Ripley confronts Burke about the deaths of the colonists on LV 426, and Burke says, “I thought you were different, Ripley. I thought you’d be smarter than this.”
My mother got into our neighbor’s face and, just like Ripley, said, “I’m happy to disappoint you.”
My mother’s bravery always astounded me.
A couple of days later, the man beat his wife so severely that our windows rattled, and the walls shook. My father called 911, but the sounds got worse and worse, when we finally heard the children cry and beg their father not to kill their mother, my mother went to kitchen, grabbed her cast iron skillet pan, walked next door, kicked the door open, and from our apartment I heard my mother scream, “Get away from her, you piece of shit!” but it was in Spanish, so it was actually: “Desgraciado de mierda!”
The man ran towards her, and with one swift blow I heard the real sound effect of a frying pan against a skull. The man’s body fell with a loud thud.
My father from our kitchen table, still on the phone with 911 sighed and said “Yes, my wife is speaking to him now.”
Then in Spanish turned to us and said: “Say goodbye to your mom kids, I think she just killed that bastard.”
My mother returned with the two little kids hugging her legs. She was crying. My dad held her and said that the police were on their way.
I had never seen kids my own age so terrified before.
My mother, it turned out, did not kill that man, but she had, in fact, cracked his skull open. Maybe it was because I was nine, or because of how traumatic that night was for my parents, after the guy was arrested and taken away. We never spoke of it again.
Later, when I was older and kept asking her about it, my mother told me that the neighbor woman had hid in a closet. My mother had tried to coax her out, but she wouldn’t come out. Later the cops took her and her children away.
For years, my mother felt like she had failed our neighbor. I worked really hard to convince her otherwise. “I failed that family.” she would say,
“No Mom, that night, you were a hero.”
I try to understand why my family worked hard to forget that incident ever happened. Probably an immigrant thing to not talk about bad things and move on, but my mother’s bravery that night has always been a source of inspiration.
I have been raised and sculpted by heroic women. From my two grandmothers, to Wonder Woman, to Ellen Ripley, Storm and Rogue from the X-Men, all were my teachers, especially my mother.
Every year we hear a new story of some secret amazing woman or group of women that did something heroic but no one ever heard of it, because of misogyny, I mean, that movie Hidden Figures is coming out– how come we weren’t taught that in schools? It wasn’t until college that I learned about all the amazing women soldiers during the Mexican Revolution. It angers me that I grew up in a society, in an educational system that did not tell me about all the heroic women in the past who have shaped this world.
Ripley is my all time favorite movie character and I was devastated when Alien 3 came out. I erased it from my memory as fiercely as I erased X-Men 3. According to me, both never happened.
Years later, Avatar comes out, I’m watching Sigourney Weaver’s character, which to me was the only interesting part of the whole film, die. I thought about how this actress will always be Ripley to me, and while watching that scene, I thought, this is how Ripley should have died – surrounded by loving aliens, after saving the world, a hero’s death, her body sinking into a loving tree while Smurf-like aliens sing. That is how strong feminist female heroes should die, but no, we got a scene where she plummets to a lava-firey death as a queen alien burst from her chest. “NOO!” I remember screaming in the movie theatre during Alien 3. (I used to be one of those annoying moviegoers who talk to the movie).
During Avatar, when Sigourney Weaver’s character Dr. Grace Augustine’s fallen body finally disappears into the glowing tree, I was a tear-soaked wreck, and I screamed, “I love you Ripley!” to the screen.
But then I think about how I should not focus on Ripley’s death. In my mind and in the minds of sci-fi lovers everywhere, Ripley lives on.
I’m 35 now, and live in San Francisco. For fun my mother and I watched Aliens again at her house the other day, and it’s still good, it’s still really, really good. When the movie ends, my mother says, “I’ve always loved this movie, but I never saw the others. Are they any good?”
“Well… part four was fun, because of that basketball scene, but… no. You shouldn’t waste your time with them. Especially not Prometheus, that is the worst one.”
“Oh,” My mother said. “So, what happens to Ripley? Let me guess, the Aliens eat her? No, worse, a man happens? A man, screws everything up like always, and she dies, doesn’t she?” she laughs.
“No, mom. Here’s what really happened.”
I sit closer to her on the couch. “The corporation told the world Hicks and Newt perished during a crash on a penal colony and that later Ripley committed suicide. In a world where women’s triumphs are easily erased, it was easy for them to believe that lie. After they left LV 426 they were apprehended by a military corporation starship. There, Ripley was charged with treason for destroying the nuclear terraformation plant. Newt, Hicks and Ripley were prisoners, and on their way to a far-off penal colony when Hicks learned that there were other deep salvage ships that had encountered the xenomorph, the Alien, on other planets, that they were bringing samples of them to Earth, Ripley became enraged and decided to once again save humanity.”
“So what did she do?” My mom asked, getting sleepy.
“Hicks and Newt were not surprised that without violence, from her cell, with the strength of her words, Ripley quickly gained the favor of the crew, reasoned with them, told them about the great peril humanity would be in if the ships carrying the Alien reached Earth. The crew mutinied, released all three of them, and nominated Ripley to lead. She commanded that the captain of the starship and the corporate Weyland-Yutani heads on board be put in the brig, and took control of the ship. The crew named her Captain Ripley, and they spent years intercepting the other starships, one by one. There were many battles and many casualties, but Captain Ripley doesn’t give up, and will not rest until the Corporation is completely shut down. She’s still out there, with sci-fi boy-toy Hicks, and her first mate Newt, protecting humanity, saving the universe.”
“I like this story, but I think you’re making it up.” She was starting to doze on my shoulder.
I helped her up, and walked her to her bedroom, in her house in El Cerrito where she moved after the divorce.
After I tuck her in she looks up at me and says “I’m an old lady now.”
“A badass old lady and my hero.”
“Oh no!” she says with her eyes closed, still holding my hand.
“We just watched Aliens, what if I dream about those ugly monsters in my sleep?”
I say, “I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to handle them, Mom,” and kiss her goodnight.
Baruch Porras Hernandez feels that nothing he accomplishes in life will be as amazing as the time She-Ra, Princess of Power moved the moon, the actual moon, with her bare hands, so that her Pegasus Unicorn’s son could be born. This is an actual She-Ra episode where she moves the moon that he watched as a child in the ’80s, in Mexico. It changed him forever. For more, go to baruchporrashernandez.