See a Penny

When I was a little girl I would pick up coins I found on the street indiscriminately. One day my uncle say me pick up a penny and smacked it out of my hand. The penny I had picked up had been tails-up and according to my uncle, was therefore bad luck. He believed picking up pennies in particular to be good luck but only if done in a certain way:

” ‘Nomas cuando cae de cara lo levantas. Y luego le ases la señal de la cruz en el cemento o donde haiga caído. Si no lo persinas entonces no es buena suerte. Y de una vez te persinas tu tambien para que tengas mejor suerte”

“Only pick it up when it’s heads-up. And then you have to make the sign of the cross in the cement or wherever it had fallen. If you don’t cross it, then it’s not good luck. And you might as well cross yourself with it too so that you can have better luck.”

My uncle was a devout Catholic who immigrated here when he was an adult. He is particularly attached to his rural Mexican and Catholic superstitions in America. He came to the U.S. for the prospect of economic advancement. While I’ve heard it is prudent to bless any money you find from other people in my family or Mexicans from the same region as them (Southern Mexico) my uncle always stressed pennies were the only luck money to pick up. In fact he thought it especially bad luck if you found bills – the higher the value of the money the worst the luck.

I believe this is a reflection of his reconciling his rural and religious virtues with his experience in the economic culture of America. He appreciated the economic resources of this country and therefore saw the value in picking up found money. But his background warned him against potential greed that would distance him from his religious beliefs. Pennies symbolized a brick-by-brick approach to economic gain that he could support.

After my uncle told me about this I was particularly attentive to pennies, and anytime I saw a penny I would think of the rhyme from the musical movie Grease (1978):

“See a penny pick it up… all day long you’ll have good luck!”

Frenchy recites this rhyme and is the one prudent enough to notice the penny to give to Kenickie for good luck in his race. Rizzo’s greedily intercepts Frenchy, however, and she snatches the lucky penny to give to Kenickie herself. The penny then not only looses it’s luck so innocently acquired by Frency, but it becomes unlucky as it causes Kenickie to get a concussion which takes him out the race completely.