Potty Training Our Daughter During Quarantine Has Been a Welcome Distraction

Published on Texas Monthly

The training potty, pink with a white-colored seat, has sat unused in the corner of our bedroom for a couple of years. I don’t remember if we bought the toilet, which has a silver handle that makes a flushing sound when pressed. I can’t recall if it was a gift, either. Sometimes when you have a child, especially if they’re an only child, you suddenly end up with things: Teddy bears and dolls, some of them even handmade. Toys, books, and puzzles with some of their pieces forever lost. Clothes and shoes, both hand-me-downs and new. My daughter Adela, who turns three in late May, has everything she needs. We’ve been fortunate that way.

Last summer, before my wife, Araceli, and I told ourselves that she was too young, we made a halfhearted attempt at potty training. Adela could say only a few words back then. We figured that as she began to talk more, potty training would be easier. Over the Christmas holidays, we gave it another unenthusiastic try that ended with her wearing pull-up diapers. Frankly, with everything that happens during holidays, we wanted to avoid the stress that comes from potty training. Adela wearing pull-up diapers felt like a good compromise, like we’d at least advanced past regular diapers. But if a child isn’t potty trained, those pull-up diapers serve the same purpose as the regular ones. Still, the act of buying them instead of regular diapers felt like progress. It felt like tangible proof of her growth, which isn’t easy to see when you’re there every day.

All of it felt like one of those parenting milestones you read about—the ones that you’ll presumably never forget when you reach them. I remember the first time our daughter stood on her feet without any help. How she looked unsteady, and how we had to force ourselves not to reach out and keep her from falling. She fell backward anyway, then landed on her butt and smiled. We picked her up, hugged her, and smiled back at her. I remember the first time she drank out of a cup. The first time she stopped using a high chair. The first time she said “daddy” and “mommy” and “I love you.” I remember the first time I took her to daycare. And even though she barely understood, I remember telling her it would just be a few hours away from us, and that mommy and daddy weren’t abandoning her. I told her we’d all be together again by early afternoon.

When it became clear in recent weeks we’d be at our home in Arlington for the foreseeable future while quarantining—weeks at least, and potentially months—we decided that rather than wait until summer, it was time to fully commit to potty training. My wife and I would take turns making our daughter sit on the toilet.

Everything went smoothly the first day. It was March 20, the seventh day of our quarantine, and eight days after the United States declared a national emergency. My daughter wore underwear throughout that first day—she didn’t need the pull-ups anymore. She noticed something was different, but didn’t complain. And as she’d sit on the training potty, we’d read a short book about Elmo doing the same. She’d laugh and turn the pages, and just as Elmo did at the end of the book, we’d finish and then wash our hands.

For me, parenthood involves a constant emotional calibration: I oscillate between thinking I’m either doing great or doing it all horribly wrong. Some days, like on that first day of potty training, it’s easy to feel like the difficulty of parenting gets overstated. But other times, like on the second day of potty training when we went through about six pairs of underwear, raising a child is completely overwhelming. On those days, it feels as if we’ll never teach our daughter the most basic requirements of living as a person in the world. On those days, I worry she’ll never be able to understand.

My wife talks to my daughter in English. I speak to her in Spanish, in an attempt to raise her as bilingual and so she can communicate with my side of the family. Everything I tell Adela—from the name of fruits, to simply telling her to put on her shoes—is in Spanish. My daughter is talking more and more every day. Her words and sentences sound clearer, and she’s beginning to communicate her emotions. Sometimes she’ll watch movies like Monsters, Inc. and say, “I’m scared.” Sometimes, because of that same movie, she’ll say, “hey Daddy,” to get my attention. She then roars like a monster with her innocent voice. I, of course, pretend that I’m scared.

She says all of this in English. I’m often concerned that as she’s learning to speak, I—by talking to her only in Spanish—am just making things more difficult. Potty training has exacerbated that concern. I worry that me asking “quieres ir al baño?” or simply saying, “avísame si te anda,” is making things worse, even though she understands every other thing I tell her. I think that might have been why the third, fourth, and fifth days of potty training felt like we were taking two steps forward and then one step back. I think that might have been why our sixth day of potty training was disastrous.

That day—March 26, just two days after our local officials in Tarrant County issued a shelter-in-place order, and the day our nation surpassed all others for known cases of the virus—we went through so many pairs of underwear that we lost count. It was still morning and we had already mopped the hallway, hosed down my daughter, gave her a shower, and started a load of laundry with our bedsheets bundled on the laundry room’s floor.

That was a bad day. Or, I should say, a bad potty-training day.

The thing about potty training during quarantine is that no matter how well or terribly it goes, it adds structure to hours that feel like days and days that stretch on like weeks. Surrounded by what seems like a constant stream of bad news—how many people across the world have died because of the virus, how our government’s inept reaction has worsened an already horrible situation, how people are dying alone, and how it feels as if the virus is getting closer and closer to where we live—potty training has become welcome distraction.

Inside of our humble home, progress doesn’t get measured by how much the curve is peaking or being flattened. In our little world here, a ten-hour drive from our parents and Adela’s grandparents in El Paso, progress gets measured by how many times a day my daughter says “poop” with enough time for us to react. When we make it to the bathroom in time—as we’ve done more and more with each passing day—we wipe, flush, wash our hands, and sing a song. We cheer. We high-five each other at the center of the universe. My daughter’s tiny hands look and feel especially delicate during these moments.

In that joyful instance, when we’re building something beautiful while the entire world feels as if it’s standing still—and perhaps even going backward—my wife looks especially happy. At that moment, I almost forget she’s had trouble sleeping lately.

She often tells me she worries someone will try to break into our house. She tells me of a nightmare where someone tries to take our daughter. She tells me this, at night, when our daughter is peacefully sleeping between us in bed. When she tells me this, we lie in the quiet darkness. Sometimes the quiet makes you think of dark things you’d best ignore. I take comfort in hearing Araceli’s voice in that darkness. I tell her we’re fine. When I say this, I pretend that I’m not scared.

For Me, Capirotada Is the Taste of Dancing and Singing at Home

Published in D Magazine

It was during one of my classes at SMU that I saw the word: Capirotada.

It was my first year in grad school. My first year living in Dallas. I read it in one of those books highlighting Mexican traditions practiced along the northern side of the Texas-Mexico border, customs that seem so foreign and odd to those who aren’t from there. It was a poem about Lent in El Paso—where I’m from.

“I know what that is,” I said aloud and instinctively. During class, I said as little as I could get away with. But for some reason, seeing that word—capirotada—made me forget where I was. Almost as soon as I said it, a classmate asked me to describe it.

“It’s bread soaked in some type of sweet juice,” I said, immediately knowing I should have stayed quiet. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what it was. Rather, I didn’t know how to explain it.

As I tried, I heard my voice stumble. Trying to process my Spanish-language thoughts into English words, I felt lost. It wasn’t until I moved to Dallas that I experienced being at a loss for the right words. That feeling of just knowing there’s always a more exact translation or the perfect word to capture everything one feels.

Often, because I couldn’t speak with the fluidity others had during class, I worried that my way of talking—using the simplest words available—made me sound less intelligent. It wasn’t until I was in class that I realized I had a slight accent. And every time I spoke for longer than a few seconds, I’d overthink things, which made it all worse.

“It has peanuts and cheese,” I finally had enough sense to say. “It sounds weird, but it’s good,” I ended my inadequate description. I felt embarrassed. Until that point, I had never had to describe capirotada. My entire life, I had lived around people who knew what it was. Knew how it tasted, how it’s made. Around people who, if ever I stumbled interpreting my thoughts, could understand if I just said it in Spanish.

That day, after class, I went home and kept thinking. About what I’d said—or hadn’t said, really—but also about what capirotada was. As I often do when lost, I looked online and saw that a website had described it as Mexican bread pudding. But that definition felt too simple. Too bland. It stripped it of its essence.

You could have bread pudding anytime you wanted, but capirotada was the dessert of Lent. Eating it, you could taste the end of winter and the coming of spring. Bread pudding? That was simply that. I could make bread pudding. Capirotada, however, looked and tasted much more complicated. It was something I would never even try to make.

Capirotada was something my mother made, just like her mother and every mother on their side of the family did before them. They made it with care and a process that began a day before they did any real cooking.

Capirotada was something that reminded us of home.

Whenever my mother cooked or cleaned, she’d play music, dance, and sing. “In another life, I would have been a singer,” she’d say, always in Spanish. She sang well and often enough to convince you she believed it.

My mother was 17 when she married, 21 when I was born. I heard her life stories—of poverty, heartbreak, love, and everything else—so often that I took them for granted. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized how ridiculously young my mother was when she married. Once I grew even older and became a father at 36, I understood how young my mother was when she gave birth to me.

Besides telling me stories, when I was young my mother used to joke that, someday, without explanation, the government would come and take me. I knew she was joking, so I never felt scared. There were times when I’d laugh. Other times, when in a bad mood, I’d say something like “Call them; tell them where I’m at.”

I was born during a cold morning in late October in Chicago. My mother lived as an undocumented citizen. A few months after I was born, my parents moved back home to Juárez. “We never finished paying for you,” my mother would say. Every place we lived, she’d remind me of their outstanding hospital bill, almost as if that were the reason we moved around so often. “One day they’re going to take you away.”

My father joined the Army. That’s the reason we moved around so often. After returning to Juárez, we moved to Chicago again, then back to Juárez, then Colorado, then back to Juárez, then a small town in Germany, then back to Juárez, before moving north across the U.S.-Mexico border to El Paso. Within each of these places, we also occasionally moved around more.

I hated moving. It meant that I’d immediately lose the few friends I had made. It meant the same old advice from my mother on the morning of that first day in that new school. “Don’t let anyone fuck with you,” she’d say. Always in Spanish.

But more than anything else, I hated moving because it meant that every new place we lived, we had to re-find the familiar.

Language and food were the things we most often found first. If we were lucky, we’d find people who came from the same places. People who understood what we meant when words between languages and regions didn’t translate.

But even when we lived far from home, we always went back during the biggest holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s—we spent those back home with the family. It was the smaller holidays that we celebrated alone. It was those holidays when we most missed home.

For as long as I can remember, we celebrated Good Friday and Easter. It was part of being culturally Catholic, even if we’d long stopped attending church. During Lent, especially on Viernes Santo—Good Friday—my mother made capirotada.

She’d begin by reducing the piloncillo—raw whole cane sugar—from that solid dark-brown cone into a liquid. Atop the stove’s low heat, she’d simmer water, add a stick of cinnamon, and then the piloncillo. Between singing and dancing and telling stories of where we came from, my mother stirred to keep the liquid from burning.

Once the piloncillo was entirely liquid, she turned off the stove and began layering the bolillo bread—which she had cut into what looked like exact diagonal slices and let harden overnight—inside a pot. She’d cover that with cheese, peanuts, raisins, and bright-colored sprinkles. She’d then pour a bit of the liquid over it all before starting a new layer atop the one she had just finished.

Every family has a different recipe, my mother would say. Some people add fruit. Some make it in the oven; others make it on the stove.

After the last layer, whatever liquid remained she’d pour into the pot. She’d cover it and place it on low heat. The heat made the piloncillo water steam, and the cheese would melt. The steam would also soften the peanuts and cause some of the sprinkles’ color to bleed onto the white bolillo bread that, with the piloncillo, had turned a Peruvian brown.

By the time we ate the capirotada, each bite had a sweet taste, offset by the salt of the peanuts and cheese. The entire dish was the consistency of hardened bread dipped in hot coffee.

“It tastes like you want to dance and sing at home.” That’s how I should have explained what capirotada was.

Growing up, cooking was one of those things you didn’t do as a man. That was left to the women. My mother and her mother before her, and likely every mother on their side of the family before them, understood this. And yet, it was my mother who taught me how to cook.

“No quiero que digan que crie un hijo inútil,” she’d often explain when I complained about having to cook alongside her. She didn’t want anyone to say she raised a useless son.

“This is how you hold a knife,” she’d say, beginning with the basics. “This is how you know when this is ready,” she’d note, sharing some trick of cooking as if it were a family secret no one else knew. “Always clean up as you go,” she’d declare, which meant part of my job was washing dishes. “One day you’ll thank me for this,” she’d respond to my complaints.

Moving so much was difficult for my mother. We’d arrive in a new place and, for the first few days, my mother would cry. Sometimes, when I heard her cry over how much she missed her mother and being around the familiar, I, too, felt like crying. I never did—at least not in front of my father and brother—because that was another thing that made you look weak.

Eventually, we stopped moving. We returned home where my mother sang and danced and cooked alongside family that did the same. But after high school, I kept moving, this time alone. I lived in Phoenix and Tucson, then moved back to El Paso, then back to Phoenix, then a couple of smaller towns across Arizona, then back to El Paso. I moved so much—as if trying to escape something chasing me—that my concerned mother would cry while giving me advice.

“El que no oye consejo, no llega a viejo,” she’d often tell me during those late-teenage years and into my 20s. She knew I was stubborn and proud. Thus, her words. “Whoever does not listen to advice will never grow old.” Or something like that. I’ve never had to translate that either.

I haven’t grown old yet, but I have grown older. My decisions are much more calculated. I appreciate the process more than the result.

A few years after moving to Dallas, I called my mother on an early Good Friday morning. I wanted to make capirotada for my wife and daughter. I wanted to eat capirotada in between hearing my daughter sing and dance and, through that, feel something familiar to home.

Vergil Ortiz Jr. hopes to inspire Dallas area’s next boxing champ

Published in Dallas Morning News

Vergil Ortiz Jr. grew up in Grand Prairie, fighting since he was 5 years old inside places such as a converted mechanic’s garage. Today, through grit and a father’s sacrifice, he’s become one the world’s best young boxers. By the time his career ends, he hopes that, even decades from now, others will compare future world champions to him.

ESPN and boxing’s influential magazine The Ring named the 22-year-old welterweight their 2019 prospect of the year. Since turning professional in 2016 — signing with Golden Boy Promotions, whose owner, former champion Oscar De La Hoya, calls Ortiz Jr. “the real deal” — he’s knocked out each of his 15 opponents. None made it past the fifth round.

Ortiz Jr. has fought at AT&T Stadium and in Las Vegas as part of undercards featuring the sport’s biggest star, Canelo Alvarez. Last August, he fought as the main event in The Theatre at Grand Prairie, a few miles northeast of Grand Prairie High School, from which Ortiz Jr. graduated.

He holds the WBA Gold welterweight championship, a secondary title recognized by the World Boxing Association.

Increasingly, as a spectator at fights, Ortiz Jr. attracts fans eager to shake his hand and take a picture with him. A few fights more and he could be fighting for a world championship.

“What I’m getting right now, really, I didn’t expect it at all,” Ortiz Jr. said during a recent phone conversation.

All this newfound attention has not just surprised Ortiz Jr., it’s also motivated him.

“I’m very excited for my future,” he said. “People are starting to recognize what I’m capable of.”

But for someone who won seven national championships and countless other tournaments as an amateur, Ortiz Jr.’s talents were never the question. That, along with the discipline and hard work, has always been there. Rather, for Ortiz Jr., the surprise of being on the verge of boxing stardom has more to do with the struggle to get here.

“My dad definitely made a lot of sacrifices to make sure that I was OK.” Ortiz Jr. said. “Sometimes he wouldn’t eat so that I’d be able to eat.”

Besides food, those sacrifices—for Ortiz Jr. and his father—included boxing. Whether it was a birthday or a holiday, a Monday or a Saturday, a hot summer day or a cold winter morning, Ortiz Jr. and his father would spend hours inside a boxing gym trying to get better.

Sometimes, to break the monotony, they’d go outside where, on a high school track, the elder Ortiz kept pushing the younger to run increasingly faster, all of it part of getting better.

The elder Ortiz declined several requests to comment for this report.

A dedicated student

Boxing is a sport that, if you want to do it well and reduce the risk of serious injury, requires extreme discipline and commitment. It requires a willingness to keep fighting.

“Some guys, they skip a tournament here and there,” Gene Vivero said of amateur boxers.

For over a quarter-century, Vivero has owned a cramped boxing gym in Oak Cliff. It’s a converted auto repair shop where the ring looks as if it’s held together by duct tape. Sometimes, when the temperatures rise and the garage and back doors open so a breeze can flow through, you can smell the mixture of sweat and car oil.

The gym’s walls are full of sweat-stained pictures, posters, and mementos of some of boxing’s greatest fighters. They hang among photographs of local boxers who began their careers there. Of the past three boxing world champions who have come out of the Dallas area, two of them—Quincy Taylor and Errol Spence Jr.—began at Vivero Boxing Gym. Counting Spence, the only two boxing Olympians from the Dallas area also began here.

This was part of the reason Ortiz Sr. brought his young son to train at what’s likely the best gym in Dallas at producing boxing talent.

“[Vergil] would fight when it was time to fight,” Vivero said when describing the young boxer. “He didn’t get in trouble or anything, so that was a good deal.”

Ortiz Jr. listened well. He was coachable. And he arrived every day, ready to fight, even if it meant his father had to rush home from a long day working at a warehouse, pick up his son from home after an equally long day at school, then drive to Oak Cliff during rush hour. Every day, ready to fight, even if it meant the father had to sacrifice and struggle to keep the son boxing.

“A lot of the national tournaments were like a 9-, 10-hour drive,” Ortiz Jr. recalls. “He would have to pawn stuff or sell stuff for us to go compete at these tournaments.”

For gas money and boxing equipment—gloves, headgear, shoes, whatever else was needed—Ortiz Sr. even sold his beloved Camaro.

Vivero, who remains friends with the Ortiz family, knew of their struggles.

“He told me, ‘It’s kind of hard to do this,’” Vivero remembered Ortiz Sr. telling him. “I said, ‘Well, let’s just do what we can do and go from there.’”

Instilling knowledge

Today, before each fight, Ortiz Jr. trains in southern California among a group of past and current world champions. They make each other better.

“Training alongside them makes me want to work hard,” Ortiz Jr. said.

When he’s not preparing to fight, he remains here, in North Texas, where he can visit Vivero’s gym and offer advice to young boxers who, like him, hope to one day make something out of their talents.

Before the coronavirus forced boxing’s suspension, Ortiz Jr. was scheduled to fight Samuel Vargas on March 27. Once the sport resumes, if Ortiz Jr. keeps on the same trajectory, he could be the next world champion to have come from this boxing gym in Oak Cliff. A gym where, next to a cardboard cutout of the great Mexican boxer, Julio César Chávez, there are two framed photographs of a young Ortiz Jr.

Not even 6 feet from those photographs, on a door frame next to a white-colored brick wall, you can see the years of a young boxer’s struggle, growth, and fighting, written with a black marker.

“Vergil Ortiz —13 years old,” one of those markings, from 2011, reads. A few inches above that, another line across the doorway marks Ortiz Jr.’s height at 14 years old. Above that, four other unsteady lines, all of Ortiz Jr.

That last mark, the highest from the floor, was about three months before Ortiz Jr. turned professional. He was 18 years old and had yet to make any money from fighting. The struggles he and his father experienced felt closer than the memories they’re now becoming.

Back then, those same struggles made it so that Ortiz Jr. couldn’t imagine he’d be here now—on the verge of becoming a world champion, a star in boxing, and leading the way for all the great, young boxing talent fighting in Dallas.