Culture

A South Bronx Puerto Rican Cowgirl Visiting Graceland & the Church of Elvis

I grew up in the South Bronx, during a time in which it was still burning and crack epidemic was starting to take hold.  It was some dark times then and some powerful music rose up in response. Yet, I didn’t know much back then about the emerging rap music genre. I came to “fight the power” at a much later time. Nor, for that matter, did I know much about pop music. Once, I was with other schoolchildren at a lunch break where everyone was discussing their favorite song of the moment. When it was my turn to throw out to the group my favorite song, I was ridiculed for hours (and days really) because I mentioned a song that no one really knew. I actually mentioned two that I was caught between: “Hound Dog” and (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear.  Besides liking songs that no one had heard of and that somewhat seemed like sesame street song names, my favorite songs were those of Elvis. I was grew up steeped in country western music. I attended the Honeysuckle Rose Movie premiere (Willie Nelson’s autobiography). I attended a Charlie Pride Giants stadium concert. We must have been the only South Bronx Puerto Ricans who listened to country western music. The local country radio station in New York City at that time knew my mother on a first name basis; no joke.

Three weeks after my mother died, I went to Memphis, Tennessee on a business trip and was able to take some time to visit Graceland the celebrated home of Elvis Aaron Presley—one of my mother’s all-time favorite singing artists. Universally, Elvis is regarded as one of the most important figures of 20th-century popular culture and during my childhood that was no exception.

Graceland is a wondrous house filled with countless memorabilia that shows the true reach and impact of Elvis Presley.  Walking through, I encountered numerous people, fans weeping.  I too, was a bit sad walking through his home. It’s hard to imagine how someone was when they were alive and in particular it’s very difficult when you find yourself in their old home where old seats and figurines still stand.  But my sadness really came from thinking of how my mother would have loved to have been there with me. Going through the gift shop, I still went ahead and bought her a trinket which I now keep near her urn. A bit creepy, morbid or quirky perhaps?

Speaking of quirky, a few years back I got a chance to go to the “Church of Elvis” in Portland Oregon. The 24 Hour Church of Elvis was a memorabilia museum, of sorts and gallery called “Where’s The Art?” run by artist Stephanie “Stevie” G. Pierce.  When I got a chance to visit it, it was in its third reincarnation devoted primarily towards 1970s popular culture memorabilia. The museum actually offered legal weddings for $25 and “cheap, not legal” weddings for $5.  (a way to test drive your relationship?). And, the “church” was over run by cats. I don’t know if the newest version of the Church of Elvis still functions that way, but make sure you take your allergy meds before you go.  The 24-hour Church of Elvis is kitsch taken to a whole new extreme and apparently is no longer open 24 hour;  although the website (http://www.24hourchurchofelvis.com/) does is available to you at all times so you may order t-shirts and the like. However the website does not do it justice. There are awesome mechanical Fortune Tellers, Barbie Dolls and other knick-knack coin-operated toys that are a little hard to describe. It’s one of those things you just need to see to understand. I kind of felt the same way with Graceland. You need to be in the big room with all the gold records and see the weeping tourists to get a sense of Elvis’ magnitude. Of course, if you know of all his accolades -such as receiving the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at age 36- you have a sense of his impact. Oddly, I have to note, the 24 hour Church of Elvis does not have much to do with Elvis himself. Worshiping Elvis is not the point of the “church.”  But it does show how his spirit continues to motivate all sorts of heartfelt, quirky actions long after his death.

When I visited Graceland, I took with me my coqui charm -which serves to keep me close to my mom- so that in a way she could experience Elvis’ awesomeness that she often reminded me of. She used to call herself the Puerto Rican Cowgirl. She even had a t-shirt made stating so and she indeed did worship the metaphorical Church of Elvis.  She would have me perform Elvis bits on Sundays during our weekly home produced “mania” show. It instilled in me a flair for the kitschy and the dramatic; helping me realize we are all performers on the world stage. Soon after going to boarding school, my music tastes changed slightly to the more alternative genre. But deep down I’m still a country and Elvis girl putting on a daily performance for my mom and the world to see.

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