Tell Your True TaleUncategorized

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By Anonymous

________

When I was little, my Gramma would chase me around saying “I’m gonna eat you up!” and when she would catch me, she would pinch me and bite me.  I would squeal – not because I was in pain, but because I found delight in her love and attention.

As an adult, I turned the tables. I would grab her and hug her tight, kiss her all over and sometimes nibble on her.

“¡No me ‘hogas (don’t suffocate me)!” she would yell as she pushed me away.

“It’s all your fault, Gram,” I told her. “I learned it from you!”

I adored my Gramma. She was one of my best friends.

Then I was told my cariños, my gestures of affection, could be reported as elder abuse.

By that time, Gram was no longer in control of her own life. She was a money-making business.

 * *

 My Gramma was born in Mexico in July 1918, in a pueblito called Padilla in the state of Tamaulipas, which is located south of the tip of Texas. She was the 16th of 18 children. Gram was three when her mother died giving birth to the last child, who also did not live.

She met my Grampa in Brownsville, Texas. They married in 1942, just before he left to fight in the Aleutian Islands. After World War II, they settled in California. They had three children; my Mom was the second born. Eventually they saved enough money for a down payment and in 1957 they bought their small house in East Los Angeles.

Gram worked in the bakery at the historic Woolworth’s store in downtown Los Angeles until she retired in the late ‘70s. I loved going on the bus with my Mom down Whittier Boulevard to visit her; she would always slip us a donut. But smelling so much sugar baking all day killed her sweet tooth. Years later when I made homemade cookies, she would want me to burn a batch on purpose. She would ask me, “Did you make me any tostaditos (little crunchy burnt ones)?”

Gram wore a minimum of make-up – though she was religious about applying her Oil of Olay at night. She wasn’t into the latest fashions; clothes had to be comfortable. She chose to keep her naturally curly brown hair in a short pixie-cut; it remained quite thick and only turned gray around her temples – which she remedied with “Revlon ColorSilk #25.” Later when she came under the care of others, her hair was dyed an auburn color. When she saw herself in a mirror for the first time after cataract surgery, she yelled out “Hell, my hair is red!”

After my Grampa passed away in the summer of 1984, I spent many weekends with her. She picked me up on Friday nights. We made popcorn and curled up on the couch together to watch her favorite television shows. On Saturdays we visited my Grampa’s grave with fresh flowers and attended 5:30 p.m. Mass. Sunday mornings, we walked down to the local bakery where we picked out fresh pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread) and maybe some tamales. When she dropped me back at home, we’d pinch each other before I got out of her car. She would shout out to me “¡Ay te wacho!” (a Spanglish-slang version of “See you later”) as she sped off in her white four-door Chrysler Horizon.

Gram had been so proud when she bought that little car, brand new and all on her own. She was fearless about how far she drove and how long it took to get there. Her license plate “1NUT772” said it all. Once we were on the freeway taking two of my cousins back to their home in Simi Valley and a car cut her off, causing her to swerve. She was so mad, she shook her fist at the driver and shouted out “You… you… you hole-ass!”

To this day, we all say “hole-ass”.

I lived with my Gram for a few years after I graduated college. Trying to break into the entertainment industry, I took on nighttime internships and jobs that freed up my days and allowed me to spend a lot of time with her. I went with her everywhere; we visited relatives, her friends, my friends, and explored Los Angeles.

One of the only places I did not accompany her was to 6:30 a.m. Mass. Every weekday morning, she would sit with a group of her friends; sometimes they would also say a rosary. Afterwards their ritual continued at the local McDonald’s where they gossiped and feasted on “biskétez” (biscuits) and “the good coffee.”

Gram got a kick out of the stories I told her about celebrities I encountered. She loved the television show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and was enthralled when I told her that the male lead, Joe Lando, had filmed a special effect sequence at the post production facility where I worked.

“He’s the only man I like with the long hair,” she told me.

Another time I managed to get tickets to her favorite TV game show, The Price Is Right. As we stood in line to enter the television studio, the show runners interviewed the crowd in order to pick out contestants. When they got to us, my usually sarcastically funny Gramma blushed a shade of pink and for once had nothing to say.

In the mid ‘90s, we saw noticeable changes in Gram’s personality and habits. She was in good spirits one minute, irritable the next. She did not take her medications or bathe regularly. She wore stained clothing in public. She did not recognize when food went bad in her refrigerator. She got into a couple of minor fender-benders and her driver’s license was taken away.

Gram was subsequently diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s Disease and put on medication that made her sick to her stomach. The cleaning woman was asked to work a few more hours to make sure she had eaten and taken her meds. My Mom and two other family members took turns spending the weekends. I filled in when needed.

In July 1999, Gram tripped on a sidewalk crack, fell and broke her right hip. She was in the hospital for over a month. Worried because several coworkers told me that their grandparents had died after breaking their hips, I visited her before and after work, and at most lunch breaks. Every spare moment I had, I spent with her. At times I slept overnight in her hospital room and showered in the gym at work. For her birthday, I baked her a cake and several of my friends and I sang to her. She pulled through, but needed 24-hour care after that.

Since my Gramma’s funds were low, I moved back in with her so that I could take on the nighttime caretaking shift. I commuted to West Los Angeles for my jobs and returned by 7 p.m. to relieve the daytime caretaker. I often called Gram during the day; sometimes I put her on speakerphone and let her crack-up my coworkers, from the moment she answered with her now infamous “‘Lo, ‘lo!” greeting, followed by “So what the hell’s going on?”

She always ended with “¡Ay te wacho!”

My Mom continued to alternate and provide weekend care along with the two other family members who filed a lawsuit in my Gramma’s name against the condominium association located across from where she had fallen. When her share of the settlement was received, I asked that a nighttime caretaker be hired, but I returned on weekends to visit and help out.

In November 2001, one of the family members took stress leave from work and moved into my Gramma’s house. When her disability compensation was exhausted, she announced that she was not returning to her job – that she was going to fire the nighttime caretaker, perform the care herself, and expected to be paid. My Mom had a problem with this, but the other family member agreed.

We soon learned their plan all along had been to create a Conservatorship over my Gramma, with one family member as the Conservator and the other as a Caretaker, using Gram’s settlement funds to pay themselves. My Mom contested it at first, but dropped her counter-petition when she discovered that the Conservator intended to pay all of their legal costs out of my Gramma’s funds.

For the next six years, it was a battle to see my Gramma. Just to set-up a visit, two-week advance notice had to be emailed to the Conservatorship’s lawyer so approvals could be obtained. We received letters from the lawyer alleging that we had mistreated my Gramma, had lost, broken or taken her personal and/or household items. It was uncomfortable to stay at Gram’s house. And then a video camera monitoring system was installed.

At that point my Mom decided to just bring my Gramma to her home in Whittier for the weekend visits. My mom acquired a bedside commode, shower chair, and safety railings. We took Gram to Mass on Saturday evenings. We scheduled family get-togethers around our time with her. We played a lot of games, especially her favorite – dominoes – and she thoroughly enjoyed beating us. But as much as we tried to keep her entertained and busy, Gram would ask, “When are we going back to my house?”

We were then accused of making my Gramma “sleep on the floor,” and told that we were no longer allowed to take her to my Mom’s for overnight stays. Most heartbreaking was that my Gramma, who used to phone my Mom and I at least once a day, was not returning our calls. I missed hearing, “¡Ay te wacho!”        

More letters arrived from the Conservatorship’s lawyer with additional accusations and restrictions. Only my Mom was allowed to pick-up Gram. They threatened to have visitation rights completely stripped from us.

“Gram, you know they are making it difficult for us to see you,” I said to her one day. “Do you want me to keep fighting them? What do you want me to do?”

“Ahh! They are crazy. Pay no attention to them.”

By November 2008, with the help of the court-appointed mediator, my siblings and I were granted the ability to pick-up Gram and visit with her without the mandatory presence of my Mom. We were also allowed to take her for overnight stays again.

As Gram sat on my Mom’s couch, I would curl up next to her, lay my head in her lap and she would stroke my hair. We watched a lot of old movies and DVDs of her favorite past television shows. I cooked for her. Sometimes I read to her. But she was on so much medication, she often fell asleep during the day.

All my Gramma had ever wanted was to grow old in her home, surrounded by all of her family.

She fell again and broke the same right hip along with her wrist. She was placed in a convalescent facility for rehabilitation, but developed pneumonia and ended up back in the hospital.

Gram passed away in her home a few weeks later. She was 91. I was not called until after she had taken her last breath.

I buried my head in her still warm body for one last time, hugged her and cried.

We were not included in the planning of Gram’s final arrangements. When we arrived at St. Alphonsus the morning of the funeral, the Conservator was in a panic because she did not have enough pallbearers. I grabbed a pair of the white gloves, put them on, and took ahold of the casket handle behind my two brothers.

Later, a post-mortem study on my Gramma’s brain revealed that she never had Alzheimer’s Disease. She had been suffering from mini-strokes.

It is true that Gram had trouble with her short-term memory, but she could recall childhood experiences. She never stopped recognizing me, or my Mom or my siblings. She never lost her strange sense of humor. When we watched the horror film, The Ring, she laughed through it. She chuckled when the character of the dead little girl crawls out of the videoscreen to make her kill. Afterwards, Gram cracked herself up as she told us, “The little girl is going to get you!”

Gram comes to me now in my dreams. And every once in a while, I feel like I have been pinched. I know she is laughing – because I can’t pinch back.

Ay te wacho, Gram.

________

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MexicoStorytellingTell Your True Tale

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By Sylvia Castañeda

________

Facing the box camera, Antonia sat motionless alongside the man, 10 years her senior, whom she’d promised to obey and to hold from that day forward. She was relieved that the Ventura County Clerk did not question her stated age of 18, two years older than she was. If he had, what would she have done?

When Antonia’s father, a customs agent at the Tijuana–San Ysidro border, died in 1920, she and her mother moved to Santa Paula, an agricultural town 60 miles northeast of Los Angeles, to live with her cousin’s family, the Gutierrezes. Within months of their arrival, her mother, too, became ill and died.

The Gutierrezes, a family with eight children, lived in a small wooden white house. They always treated Antonia with kindness and included her as part of the family. They did not tire of her memories of life in Tijuana in which she and her sister spent days at the piano while singing a tune and memorizing and writing couplets, looking forward to entertaining the guests who often visited her home. Yet she knew she was an extra mouth to be fed.

After the flash had popped and the photographer had captured the staged moment, he signaled for the couple to stand. Antonia straightened out her wedding gown and walked toward the exit.

Outside, her cousin waited. Antonia embraced her with all her might before her cousin gave her a blessing with the sign of the cross. Francisco took Antonia by the arm and walked her home.

Their daughter was born 14 months later. Francisco, a laborer at a packing house, decided it was best for Antonia and their newborn to live with his parents in El Sauz de los Marquez in Jalisco, Mexico. It was a ranch with parcels of land mainly owned by two families, the Marquezes and the del Muros. Once they crossed the border on foot, they boarded the train bound to the western central states of Mexico. He would accompany them and see them through but would return to the U.S. soon.

Back in California, Antonia had found it difficult moving down the street from the Gutierrezes into a home that would never be her own, filled with strangers who felt equally awkward welcoming her as a sister-in-law. Although she had chores and a child to tend to, she had the security of knowing that her cousins were within walking distance and that her sister was a train ride away in San Diego, where she lived with her husband and toddler. The ride from Santa Paula to her husband’s family’s ranch in Mexico was long, and every kilometer that passed marked the painful separation from her kin. When would she enjoy their company again?

Months passed. Francisco returned to California, traveling back and forth for the next three years. Continuous re-entry into the U.S. was within his reach: He was literate, in good health and carried more than the $8 head tax fee he was expected to pay at the U.S. border.

Years before, prior to the Mexican Revolution, Francisco’s family ranch was declining financially because of the policies of Mexican president Porfirio Diaz, which did not favor communal farming or a local subsistence economy. A drought affected what few crops they could grow, and the Spanish flu was wiping out their workers. Many men, including Francisco, made the trek north to seek work in the United States. Soon, Francisco found a job in Missouri as a telephone repairman. His sister and her family were working the crop circuit in California, which prompted him to move in with them and seek work there too. All the while, he continued making the trek to and from Mexico.

Antonia obeyed her mother-in-law’s orders and was treated no different than the servants. She awoke at 4 in the morning to milk the cows and gather the corn to husk, soak in lime and grind for tortillas. Francisco’s mother’s commands perplexed her. Antonia was unfamiliar with the terms she used to refer to the ranch tools, sheds and measurements. One servant girl noticed her hesitation, waited until her mother in-law’s footsteps could no longer be heard and explained step by step what she was to do.

Everything seemed so foreign. Often, she cried in silence. Her sisters-in-law would catch sight of her tears and sing Canción Mixteca, a folk song that depicts the painful longing for home, tearing at her heart even more. Long gone were the days when she’d play the piano and recite poetry for her parents.

One day, Antonia noticed her mother-in-law becoming impatient as she waited hours for a local woman to arrive to administer a daily dose of medication. She had sent one of the farmhands to find her, to no avail. Antonia gathered her nerve and offered to give her the shot. She had never handled a syringe before much less injected anyone, but she had observed with keen interest how the veterinarian sterilized the metal syringe and inoculated the cattle. Her mother-in-law questioned her experience, but Antonia reassured her. Although reluctant, her mother-in-law accepted. From that moment, Antonia’s steady hand was the only one her mother-in-law allowed to give her the daily shot.

Antonia hardly knew Francisco. Still, he returned often enough to leave her with a child each time. Three more children were born within a nine-year period. Her second child died at the age of 2, two months before her third was born. After the birth of her fourth child, her mother-in-law spoke sternly to Francisco about his responsibility to his wife and children. His place was with them. If he decided to leave, again, he’d have to take his family along.

Francisco remained in Mexico. He was appointed to a teaching position at a federal primary school in Tlaltenango, about a two-hour drive north from El Sauz. He moved his family to a rented house on the main street into town. The neighbors welcomed them. Antonia, at 26, was now the matriarch in her home, away from the farm labor that pained her hands, back and feet. She would concern herself only with making a home for her family. Within weeks of their arrival, though, Francisco did not return home for a day or two. Gradually, his absences increased from days to weeks to months, prompting the school director to fire him. Francisco was sighted in the cantinas or sleeping on the benches of the main square. Often, he would skip town.

Antonia had to find work to support her family. Soon, she was sewing aprons at home for the town merchant. This money she earned kept a roof over their head and frijoles on the stove.

It was rumored that Francisco would offer his wife to men in the cantinas for money or drink. He was shunned.

Antonia befriended many town folk, but two neighbors in particular became her confidants, the spinster and the tailor. Aware of her story, they shielded her from cruel tongues and Francisco’s desperate pleas for money. They were well-positioned socially and they told others about Antonia’s abilities. In time, folks from neighboring ranches and towns sought her for her steady injection hands and to translate the U.S. labor contracts they were about to sign.

As the local men left for the U.S., contracted by the bracero program, some did not return. Antonia wrote letters to the U.S. government on behalf of their families inquiring of their whereabouts. Many went unanswered. The workers who did return were owed back wages that had been withheld from their checks by their employers, with the promise that they would receive these funds when they fulfilled their contracts and returned to Mexico. Antonia combed through their pay stubs and contracts and transcribed their testimonies to build a case for them in writing. These claims fell on deaf government ears.

Antonia never returned to the United States. The spinster and the tailor introduced her to a mutual friend, a merchant with political aspirations who had lost his wife while giving birth to their first child. His son did not survive beyond six months.

Antonia and Benigno had five daughters, and four made it to adulthood. My mother was their youngest child. Antonia lived the rest of her years in Tlaltenango. Throughout her life, she remained connected to her sister and the Gutierrezes through letters and photographs.

Though she never played the piano again, she wrote and recited poetry as if her life depended on it.

________

Sylvia Castañeda is a Chicana from Boyle Heights. She is an elementary school teacher. Her interests include genealogy, family history, photography, social justice issues and dancing to cumbias and sones jarochos. She lives in the San Gabriel Valley with her husband, two children and three dogs. Contact her at sylviacastaneda35@gmail.com.
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PrisonTell Your True Tale

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By Richard Gatica

________

I wake.

I’m serving life in prison, but today I will be as free as any man can be. I climb out of bed and check my window for fog. There is none. If there was, for security purposes, there’d be no yard.

I turn on both light and radio. Linkin Park sings of personal change. I’m a morning person, so I rock it, loud and proud. I wash my face and brush my grill. My head is shaved so no further grooming is necessary. I make a cup of coffee using warm tap water. I fold my covers and clean my floor.

All is lovely.

Meals are served inside our cell and at 6:28 my breakfast is delivered by porters. They’re nosey so I wait for them to push down the tier before I get down to business.

I separate the items necessary for my freedom. Today I use pancakes, six slices of wheat bread, Rice Krispies, sunflower seeds and chocolate chip cookies. I crumble it up on a small space of floor. The crumbs must be small. It’s tedious work and takes me thirty minutes but it brings me peace.

I spread the crumbs at the base of my door. The airflow passes over the pancake portion of the crumbs, reducing its moisture content. I scoop up all the crumbs, place them in an old tortilla bag and hide the bag in the folds of my prison-issued jacket – smuggling it to the yard the way many have done with shanks.

I pace back and forth, beaming on coffee, listening to the radio and loving life. Every 20 laps or so I’m sure to sneak some mirror time.

At 8:27 I get dressed for work. At 8:40 my door opens. I work the yard crew. I go outside and collect food and trash carts from the housing units. I’m paid four dollars a month, but the job allows me to go outside while other prisoners remain in their cell.

It’s bitterly cold this morning. I’m nervous about being stopped, searched and the crumbs discovered. But I’ve been doing this for nine months. The key to invisibility is to speak only when spoken to. The guards pay me little attention.

The yard is huge and empty. The guards in towers occasionally look down at me as I work. I wear sunglasses to mask the direction in which I cast my eyes.

As I push a cart across the yard, I see my beautiful sparrows. At first, I had only one. Now I have forty-six. They are perched in a cluster inside loops concertina wire atop a 16-foot wall in a corner of the yard. The loops protect them from larger birds.

As soon as the sparrows see me, they start chirping and flapping their wings. I wish they’d quiet down; they’re attracting the guards’ attention.

I pass and wonder if this confuses or depresses them. But feeding them is forbidden and if I’m caught I will lose my job and won’t be able to feed them any more.

I sweep and pick up trash. I set out basketballs, footballs, soccer balls and Frisbees for the prisoners.

The sparrows’ song travels across the field. They’re anxious for me to finish. I tell the guard I’m ready for yard release. He looks around briefly, inspecting my work.

“Yard release – five minutes,” he says into his radio.

I start walking around the track. Behind my sunglasses my eyes shift from sparrows to guards to the housing units.

I’ve trained the sparrows to perch in the same spot at the far end, the least used part, of the yard. I walk the track toward them. As I near, my hand slips inside my jacket and I remove the tortilla bag. My timing must be perfect. I need to be directly under the sparrows when the unit doors open. At that moment, the guards will have their backs to me as they focus on the prisoners.

I’m slightly off pace. I slow. The gates open.

The sparrows go wild. In this commotion I make my move. I open the bag and scatter the crumbs beneath the sparrows. Their beautiful song is the only sound I hear. It is lovely.

I walk twenty yards farther along the oval track, then turn to face them. There is now so much movement on the yard that I go unnoticed.

I stand and watch the sparrows. Lil Sergio is the boldest of all. He has two dark patches on an otherwise light-grey chest. He looks down at the crumbs then looks at me. He tilts his head sideways as if asking me if it’s time.

I smile.

Then he dives. My heart pounds in my chest. It’s a 16-foot vertical drop. Four feet before he hits the ground, he pulls his chest muscles back, extends his wings, pivots his tail and lands gracefully atop the field of crumbs. I laugh and clap.

Lil Sergio looks at me again, then pecks the crumbs. The sparrows above him sing. Then they dive. First two. Then five. Then twenty. Then all.

Other prisoners see what I do. Most mock me. It’s silly, even crazy, they say, for me to waste such time and effort feeding dumb birds. But their eyes are not mine.

I walk to the opposite end of the yard. I find a spot on the wall and lean against it. Across the yards, the sparrows are pecking away. They fly back to the wire each time someone passes and dive again once it’s clear.

As their stomachs fill, some fly off for the morning. I select one and close my eyes. No one can tell that my eyes are closed. I lean my head against the wall and I imagine myself to be that sparrow. I rise and I fly and I am free. I fly six miles north. I come to a house and land on the open kitchen windowsill. Inside an old woman sits at a table drinking coffee. I chirp. She sees me and beams. Her pale-blue eyes fill with compassion. The valley of wrinkles that covers her face is a sign of hard work and wisdom.

“There you are! Eat your breakfast.”
At my feet are bagel crumbs. I peck until it’s gone. She smiles at me. I realize she needs me as much as I need her. I turn my head sideways and chirp. She smiles.

“See you tomorrow, sweetie.”

I fly away.

I open my eyes. I am back on the prison yard against that wall. Guys are playing basketball and handball. Some are jogging. Others do pull-ups. Most walk in small groups gossiping like schoolgirls.

None of this interests me.

I look across the yard and select another sparrow. I close my eyes and with his image in my mind I lean against the wall behind my sunglasses.

I fly eight miles west to a schoolyard and see children at play. I land on a low branch of a tree near a chubby boy. He sits alone – rejected by the other children.

I chirp.

He looks up and sees me. I rise and I fly and I spin. I zip past him and return to the branch. I look at him sideways.

He smiles and claps.

“How beautiful you are.”

I chip and hop.

Deep in his eyes is the pain of loneliness. Tomorrow I will visit the same spot. He is new to me, but I can see his heart is warm and in no time he will dig into his lunch sack and offer me a Frito. I will sing for him and he will smile and I will fly and someday he will, too.

My radar beeps. I sense movement to my right. I open my eyes. Sergio has joined me on the wall – the guy I named the sparrow for. His nickname is Bird. I guess someone thought he looked like one, but his real name is Sergio and, like I was saying, he’s the one I named the little sparrow after.

Sergio is going home in six months. He’s in for drugs or guns or something. I forgot. He’s tall, handsome, slim and athletic, charismatic and funny. He’s kept his heart warm in a cold prison. Tattoos cover his body. He also has a sexy girlfriend. I’ve seen her pictures and I’m looking for an excuse to see them again, but I think he’s on to me. She’s lovely.

I flip up my sunglasses so he can see the direction of my eyes.

“Do you wish you could dive like that?”

Sergio watches the sparrows dive and climb, like fighter jets.

“Fuck, yeah.”

His voice is barely audible, but I detect passion. We watch the sparrows in silence. Sergio knows when words are unnecessary. He’s the only person on the yard I’m comfortable with.

I’m a loner, an outcast, an oddball. I can’t connect with most people. I find them dull and without depth. Sergio is the opposite and I wonder why we even connect. He’s extroverted, a socializer and popular among the other inmates. Sergio ponders the words of Plato and can digest Socratic dialogues. But he is surrounded by tiny men with limited thought processes. They are twice his age and struggle to obtain their GEDs. I met him in the prison library one afternoon. He reached across a book cart and handed me The Alchemist. It opened my mind to a realm that I did not know existed.

Sergio’s mind is mature enough to understand that I’m not crazy. Everyone deals with a lifetime of incarceration in their own way and Sergio sees that peace I find through sparrows is my way of grasping life.

Sergio suggests we walk and we do. The sky is partially cloudy. I look up and see the outline of the full moon ahead.

“How many people on this yard do you think even realize the moon is there?”

“Probably none,” he says.

We soon find ourselves near a patch of sun. The patch is next to the bed of crumbs. As we talk I notice that the sparrows are watching him from atop the sixteen-foot wall. They’re reading his body language. I’ve provided food for many months. When few people are on the yard, some will come so close that I could touch them. But Sergio is a stranger, so they watch him.

 

Finally, they dive and land nearby and eat from the field of crumbs. They consume crumbs in comfort. Then they rise and sing songs of gratitude and soon yard is recalled.

That night, I turn off my radio and climb into bed, time to be alone with myself. I had a wonderful day and can’t wait for tomorrow.

They serve Fruit Loops tomorrow and my sparrows love those.

________

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MexicoStorytellingTrue Tales

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By Celia Viramontes

________

Don Luis tucked his work contract into a small bag and boarded a bus at the U.S-Mexico border near Texas. It would be a long trip to Nebraska – a place closer to the Canadian border, a rancher’s representative warned the men on board. But to Don Luis, distance didn’t matter. Work meant dollars. Dollars meant a letter and gifts to send home. So he slumped in his seat as the bus rumbled north.

They traversed state lines, stopped at roadside barracks overnight. The men opened their daily brown sack lunches. Don Luis pulled out a cold bologna sandwich with yellow sliced cheese. The pink meat slithered in his mouth. He bit into the dry cheese, so unlike the Mexican queso fresco that wet his tongue and dissolved easily. But it satiated him until they arrived at the camp and the mess hall for a hot meal.

Like the one he had enjoyed upon his arrival in Salt Lake City, Utah that bracero hands pic2_Snapseedsnowy winter of 1945. At sunrise, he and the men had lined up at the mess hall for eggs, oatmeal, and an apple before heading to the railroad tracks. They were war-time braceros then, contracted Mexican workers brought to the U.S.

The war had long ended, but the work contracts continued for men with brazos, strong arms, and hands to harvest the fields. At the bracero processing center, they’d spread their hands on a table as officials probed for calluses and pointed towards departing buses.

At week’s end, the bus was chugging across Nebraska. It skidded off the road into a small ranch dotted with shacks. Don Luis grabbed his small bag and stepped off. A cold gust wind slapped his face and howled in his ears. The rancher’s overseer led Don Luis and three braceros to a ramshackle house. He opened the door to a room, cold and bare, except for a small stove, matches, cooking utensils, and a row of cots draped with blankets and pillows. They’d be going into town to buy groceries, he explained. “Bring your bracero papers,” he added.

The rancher’s overseer drove them into town. At a small store stocked with cans and bottles labeled in English, they reached for familiar items – rice, beans, and eggs. At the counter, they drew their bracero papers. The grocer scrutinized the documents, jotted down numbers, and bagged their groceries. No money changed hands.

That evening, Don Luis and the men huddled near the warm stove. One paisano boiled beans in a pot, while Don Luis stirred rice. The warm meal filled their stomachs.

That night, Don Luis rested on the cot as the wind wailed.

He awoke at 4:00 a.m., lit the stove and cracked eggs over a frying pan. After breakfast, he and the men headed out the door. The rancher’s overseer handed each of them a small handled tool, curved at the top. Don Luis turned the object around in his hand. He’d harvested crops in the Mexican countryside all his life, but never used such an instrument.

The beet and asparagus fields stretched out across the land. “Work those acres,” the overseer said, pointing to a marked section. They were to treat the crops gently to minimize damage. The short-handled hoe, el cortito, would come in handy.

Don Luis bent his knees, arched his back, and angled the hoe carefully to the ground. He removed weeds, cleared the soil, and circled the fields, row by row. He topped beets and thinned asparagus, until the sky turned gray. A frosty wind pelted his back. At day’s end, he and the men struggled to straighten. They moaned back to camp and their beds that night.

As they labored for days and weeks, Don Luis and the men awaited their check. But it never came. He and his buddies hankered to leave. They fished into their pockets for bus fare, but nothing turned up.

Here, things had been different from the start. They had been contracted by the rancher, not the U.S. government, as they had during the war. Here, there was no mess hall or foreman. Perhaps pay would come later.

So Don Luis and his buddies rose at 4:00 a.m., hoe in hand. Don Luis stooped to the ground, his chin nearly touching the soil. The asparagus grew several inches overnight. He sliced it and gathered the fistful of green spears that fell to the ground.

One afternoon, a dark cloud circled overhead. The men hobbled back to camp, chased by a whirl of wind. Dust clouds ripped through the ranch, then streaks of lightning and thunder. Inside, Don Luis looked out a window. In the distance, sheds that were tethered with wire swayed in the wind and were nearly yanked off the ground.

That night, thunder and rain shook the floor and cots. Don Luis tossed in bed. His waist and back ached. He longed to write a letter to his wife, as he’d done in Utah. He’d begin with: Aquí mando dinero para la familia. Here is some money for our family. But the pay hadn’t come.

His mind drifted home to scant food on the table, and la aguanieve, sleet, that would drop on the village. And to the warm coats the family would go without. He shuddered.

Weeks passed. Be careful to not damage the crops, the overseer reminded them. On weekends, they bought groceries in town, presented their bracero papers. No cash changed hands.

On a cold and blustery day, the rancher’s overseer stormed into the bracero camp. “Get your stuff together,” he said. In two days, he’d be here early in the morning to pick them up and take them back to the office, where braceros were dropped off.

At sunrise on the third day, the man arrived. “Let’s go. Get on the truck.” Don Luis looked at the cots, the stove, and empty floor. There were no green metal suitcases to pack, or cardboard boxes to fill with gifts. Just the clothes on their backs, the same bags they’d carried on the bus. A searing pain shot through his back and waist as he walked out.

They hopped onto the truck. Tires kicked up dirt and dust. Don Luis stared at the cultivated fields, the ramshackle house sitting empty on a Nebraska prairie: property of a rancher whose face he never saw.

The truck pulled into town. Don Luis and the men climbed out.

Oye, quién nos va pagar?” Hey, who’s going to pay us? Don Luis asked.

“In there,” the overseer said, pointing to the office. “You’ll arrange for pay there.” He sped off in his truck.

Don Luis and the men walked into the office, scanning the desk for signs of a check issued in their names.

“We’re leaving to Mexico,” Don Luis said to an official. He looked squarely into his eyes. “We worked months and received no pay,” he said.

“Where did you work?”

They described the ranch, the beet and asparagus fields.

“Who brought you?”

They described the rancher’s overseer.

At the desk, the official scribbled on paper.

“And our pay?” a fellow bracero protested. The official asked for their names but offered no explanation or pay.

Don Luis and the men looked out at buses stationed outside, braceros lined up for boarding. And in the other direction, at the Nebraska town filled with strangers, save for the grocer who knew them only by their numbers. Here, they knew no one.

Outside, buses started. It would get them halfway home, back to the border bracero processing center, where they could plead their case. They lined up for boarding.

Don Luis slumped into a seat, empty-handed, save for coarse skin jutting from his thumb and forefinger where he’d cradled the short-handled hoe. Go on, the inspector had said two months ago when he’d placed his hands, palms up, on the desk to reveal his calluses.

The bus sped off, past the office, the fields, the shacks that were nearly ripped off the land by the wind. Hours later, a brown sack lunch landed in his hands.

If the rains didn’t yield a bountiful crop back home, he’d return to El Norte, display his hands and wait for an official’s nod. And if the pay from Nebraska hadn’t arrived, he’d recoup it somehow.

____

 celia_600x400 (1)Celia Viramontes was born and raised in East Los Angeles, California, the youngest daughter of Mexican immigrant parents. Her public policy research on immigration and education has been published in numerous academic journals and books. Through writing, she delves into the often untold stories of immigrant communities, their aspirations and their struggles. This is her second TYTT story. Contact her at oclaa@yahoo.com.
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Tell Your True TaleTrue Tales

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By Fabiola Manriquez

________

In the last years of my mother’s life, I dedicated myself to helping keep her alive. I wanted to study engineering and aviation. Yet our Mexican–Catholic culture kept me stuck in servitude as I took care of my mother instead. By now, she existed in a miserable murkiness of despondency and corrosion from complications of diabetes. My three older brothers did not help.

She had an iron constitution and was used to being the general in command, always running the house without anyone’s consent. She controlled my apparel, whom I could speak to on the phone, where I could go, and how I spent my time if I was not at my job or at school. Every aspect of life was monitored and approved by her. She had arranged my marriage to a young man without my consent. His name was Cesar.

I had met Cesar through a mutual friend from grade school the summer before my freshman year of high school. While we secretly chatted on the phone one evening, my mother grabbed the phone, told him I was not allowed to have any boyfriends, and he could return on graduation day if he was interested. To my surprise, he showed up four years later at the graduation ceremony and we began to date soon after. It didn’t last long.

During my junior year in high school, I had discovered my mother putting birth control pills in my food, because there was a boy interested in me. Now, at eighteen, I discovered her doing it again because I was dating Cesar. I was furious. She had told me that since I was going to marry Cesar, I should get used to using preventative measures and wait on having children. I hadn’t spoken to Cesar of marriage. He had spoken to my mother only, and they took it upon themselves to make wedding arrangements without my consent. I told her I wasn’t going to marry Cesar or anyone else. And that ended it.

Cooking, laundry, maintaining the home, working part-time and attending college full-time was the rhythm of my life from 19 to 22. For an entire year, I awoke at 2 a.m. daily giving her medicine to help her make it through the rest of the night; she required fifteen pills around the clock to stay alive. I slept four hours a night with no social life, no free weekends, no holidays and no romantic connections. The exhaustion and lack of sleep affected my grades. I went on academic probation. This hurt me. I loved learning yet couldn’t tell anyone about my dilemma.

She went blind and needed dialysis on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. A side effect that diabetics suffer is thirst, but I could only give her a few ice cubes at a time because too much liquid caused her to feel like she was drowning, forcing us to rush to the E.R. for dialysis treatment. She threw frequent tantrums filled with profanity, and her screaming would echo throughout our little home.

“You don’t love me,” she would scream. “You want to kill me.”

She had to learn how to eat without sight, and many times I found myself dodging plates, cups, spoons and forks thrown my way out of frustration. That was compounded by outbursts of yelling, vulgarity, and sobbing. I was alone with her most of the time when these would occur. My father was at work, and I didn’t know who I could ask for help. When it was my turn to accompany her for dialysis treatment, it was agonizing to watch her suffer for three hours, while her skin turned pale white or charcoal black. I tried to comfort her. The treatment ignited hot flashes or caused chills.

Three times she experienced a code blue at the hospital and was resuscitated. She worsened every time she returned from the dead. I could hear her shouting my name down the ward on my visits; my heart would race, and my hands would begin to sweat, and chills ran down my back with embarrassment and fear. Every nurse in the unit sighed with relief as I approached her room, knowing the yelling would stop once she heard my voice. My father and I were by her side, exhausted, frustrated and praying that this nightmare would stop.

I hungered for life as a woman as I was turning 22 that July. I was craving a tender touch and the warmth of another. I met Belinda in my journalism class during the spring semester of that year. She was intelligent and witty and had a good body. I like smart women. I was helping Belinda paint her living room and dining room that summer. I began coming home a little later as the weeks passed. I remember coming home late one September night from a date. A knot formed in my gut and my hands began to sweat as I saw my father looking through the living room window. I heard my father telling my mother something. I felt the tension vibrate as I walked into the house.

“Que hora es para llegar a casa?” She yelled.

“I was out with a friend and we went out to eat.”

She rose to her feet, followed my voice and felt her way to where I was standing a few feet from her seat. As she felt my face, she began to beat me repeatedly, calling me a whore and saying she would throw me out of the house. She said she didn’t want any women like me living under her roof. If my father hadn’t stopped her, she would have killed me. I lost all my respect and love for her in that moment. I felt buried alive.

I called my youngest brother and asked him to pick me up and take me to his house for the night. Once we arrived, I had a good cry as he gave me a much-needed hug and told me that all would be fine in a few days. Two hours later, my mother called and said that she was very sorry and asked me to return home. I stayed at my brother’s house for a few days and moved out of my parent’s house that weekend.

I packed the few things I owned into Belinda’s car. As we drove off, my two older brothers followed us, now realizing that I was involved with a woman. As we reached Belinda’s driveway, one of them began to yell at her, threatening her life.

Living with Belinda, I left one hell and walked into another. She was a serious alcoholic, prone to jealous tantrums. She beat me and stalked me and made harassing phone calls to me at work. I sometimes had to wait until 1 or 2 in the morning at the local donut shop, knowing that by then she would be stone drunk and I could go home to sleep a couple of hours before I had to get up again. She and my mother loathed each other. I never had peace. My mother and two older brothers called day and night. My brothers threw bottles and eggs at our front door. I called the Sheriff’s Department, who threatened my family with a restraining order and arrest.

Until this point, my three brothers and I were raised equally, but the two older boys were from my mother’s first marriage. My father had raised them as his own. As the two older brothers continued their evil ways, I lost respect for them and considered them my mother’s sons and not my brothers. They had told me that I would never amount to anything since I was gay and that I was killing my mother by coming out of the closet. I was the favorite aunt and adored all of my nieces and nephews, but these two told me that I couldn’t be near their kids since I could give them AIDS. This broke my heart.

I never went back to live with my parents. But I kept helping them with the usual upkeep of the house four times a week. I did it more to help my father. On one of my visits, my mother’s desperation reached a breaking point as she kneeled in front of me while sobbing hysterically asking for my forgiveness. She kissed my feet and begged me to move back. I froze in disbelief, holding my composure and tears. I said, “No. I can’t. I have another life now, but I’ll keep coming to help you and Dad.”

Toward the end, I hated being near my mother and felt ill any time she expressed affection. She hated homosexuals. We argued. Gays deserved the AIDS virus, she said; they were sinning as God was working it out for them to repent. After those arguments, I visited the E.R. for a sedative.

She died in November 1987, as we both struggled to communicate without ever finding peace or the love of a mother and daughter. I was 23 and she was 54.

One time while donating blood to the Red Cross, I was asked what I would do if I won the lottery. I would pay for therapy for everyone in my family, I said. But I stay away from my brothers. I see them only at funerals or weddings.

_________

Fabiola Manriquez is the daughter of a farmworker and grew up in East L.A., where she still resides. She loves to teach Math and English, and hopes to complete a Master’s this year. Through the TYTT workshop, she discovered a deeper joy and beauty in storytelling. Contact her at Quantumspeed89@yahoo.com.
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MigrantsTell Your True Tale

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By Celia Viramontes

________

The roll call of names flowed from the merchant’s lips as Antonia and the girls rushed to the village store where women and children gathered for news from El Norte.

Inside, the village’s unofficial postman drew envelopes from a pouch. He’d carried these miles from the nearest town, where mail arrived almost daily, postmarked with the names of far-away places: Arkansas, Texas, and California. Always so many from California. He waved white envelopes in the air, calling out names.

When Antonia heard hers, she nudged through the crowd, past the outstretched arms, and reached for the letter.

She hadn’t heard her husband’s voice in more than a year, since he’d left to labor in San Buenaventura, California, a place of good fortune, as its name in Spanish denoted. She and the children longed to hear his footsteps approach the bend in the dirt road near their adobe home and his voice sing, “¡Ya regresé, familia!”—“I’ve returned, family!” The words carried a melody as nostalgic as a Pedro Infante ranchera they’d heard streaming from the rare battery-powered radio inside a villager’s home.

***

“¡Números!” the foreman announced at dawn, rattling off numbers near the orange groves of Ventura. Don Luis listened, ready to answer as if it were his name. More than a year into his bracero work stint, he longed for the sounds of home: crickets singing in a village lit by a full moon’s glow and family calling out “¡Papá!” upon his return.

“Forty-four!”

Don Luis slung the canvas sack around his shoulder. The foreman directed him to the orchard, where a crew of braceros gathered.

They propped 14- and 18-foot ladders against the trees. Don Luis dashed up the trees. He grabbed the fruit with one hand and clipped with the other. He climbed, clipped and dropped the fruit into the sack. On the way down, he poured in the oranges into a crate. He’d scrambled up and down like this for days in hopes of a hefty check.

At sundown the ladders came down and foremen counted the boxes. Workers climbed into trucks and headed back to camp.

In the evening, the men retired to their barracks and rows of cots lining a large hall. The scents of lemon, orange and sweat hung in the air. Don Luis lay on his cot. The men spoke in hushed tones.

The lights went out; the voices trailed off. In a corner, a ranchera sung by Las Hermanas Padilla, a duet, streamed from the speakers of a radio perched on a wooden crate, the song of a dove, a palomita mensajera, sending a message of love across the distance. Don Luis closed his eyes, a pile of letters by his cot. He’d answered each one, tucked a money order inside. “I’ll be home soon,” he’d written in the last one.

Days later, the foreman issued paychecks. Don Luis took his. One hundred dollars and over 500 boxes appeared next to his pick number. But nearly $25 had been deducted for board and meals: oatmeal and fruit, white bread bologna sandwiches, taquitos, spaghetti, beans and the occasional meat. He pocketed the check and ventured into town one last time.

On the main drag, he and his fellow braceros entered a store to cash their checks and make purchases. Some rushed to the men’s department for Stetson hats, watches and boots. Others scoured the women’s section for nylon stockings, cosmetics and jewelry.

He watched as the men flocked to aisles nearby. He followed them, passing phonographs, typewriters, treadle sewing machines. He stopped and stared at a boxy device on display.

He marveled at the brown leather handle, wooden paneling and shiny dials.

“¿Cuánto?” he asked the clerk for the price.

“Cincuenta.”

He fished for the check in his pocket to cash it and pay the $50.

He remembered his first shopping trip in Utah as a war-time bracero working on the railroad tracks. In town, nylons, sugar and new radios were scarce because of the war. English voices blared from shopkeepers’ radios, delivering news of the war along with the latest Andrews Sisters songs. But back in camp, he and his fellow braceros reveled in the sounds of home they heard in the double Rs that rolled from their tongues and the Mexican songs they’d discovered on a radio.

“I’ll take it,” Don Luis said to the clerk, after confirming that it was battery-powered. He carried it back to camp.

That night, he packed cloth, girls’ dresses, pants and shirts into cardboard boxes. He nestled the radio between the garments and closed the flaps, tying them down with twine. But the radio swayed and tumbled, so he unpacked it. He wrapped thick towels over it, placing it inside his suitcase instead.

The next day, workers filed into a single line outside camp, their numbers checked off a list by a labor contractor. They loaded cardboard boxes and green metal suitcases atop buses and boarded for the trip south.

Don Luis slumped into a seat beside a buddy, who told him his plans to set up a sewing shop for his family and fill it with customers from the village, the mother who needed to mend her children’s pants, the girls eager to see the new patterns and colors of cloth from El Norte, to be fitted around their waists.

“And what are you taking?” he asked.

Don Luis described the light-brown exterior, wooden cabinet and shiny dials of his prized possession.

“¡Qué chulada!” his buddy exclaimed. It was a beauty, Don Luis agreed.

The bus rumbled past strawberry, orange and lemon fields. As it neared the U.S-Mexico border, the braceros guarded their goods with a watchful eye. They got off, as boxes, knapsacks and suitcases were unloaded from the bus.

Don Luis and the men knew the routine. Stories abounded of the watch or hat that enticed a border guard. Some carried extra cash just in case, though the goods they carried were free of tariffs. Yet they clung to the cash in their pockets to pay for the additional bus or taxi fare home, the last leg of their journey.

Up ahead, a border guard inspected a bracero’s suitcase. Don Luis held his breath. Then he watched as a guard unknotted the twine on his cardboard box to sift through the pile of clothes.

“Muévanse” the guards said, prodding the men to move along.

Don Luis secured his cardboard box once again and took his belongings, the radio stored safely in his suitcase. He boarded the bus bound for Zacatecas.

It travelled for nearly a day, crossing one Mexican state after another. Braceros got off at each stop, including Don Luis’ buddy, who waved goodbye, hauling his sewing machine.

The bus finally slowed at a familiar spot. Don Luis gathered his boxes and suitcase and hailed the only taxi in town.

It weaved in and out of narrow paths and onto dirt roads leading to a remote village, its silence broken only by the “cri-cri-cri” of crickets singing in the countryside.

The driver braked. Don Luis unloaded the boxes and handed coins to the driver. He gripped the suitcase, leaving the boxes behind, to cross a drier than normal river bed. His shoes crunched on the dirt path. Around the bend, voices erupted near a pair of orange and lemon trees in the dirt courtyard.

“¡Papá!”

“Ya regresé, familia!”

His family huddled around him, the small glass bulb of a petroleum lamp lighting their faces.

The children trekked to the river to retrieve the boxes.

When he’d settled in, he opened the gifts. Swatches of cloth, clothes and a brown rectangular object spilled out.

His daughter traced with her finger the letters engraved on the radio: P-H-I-L-C-O. That night, the voices of Pedro Infante and Lola Beltrán flowed from the speakers, singing of love and loss.

At sunrise, Antonia and the girls patted tortillas as the radio blared songs and radio novelas. The radio followed them outdoors for “Tardes Rancheras,” a medley of afternoon tunes that reached the ears of neighboring villagers. They listened and lingered, wondering when their husbands, fathers or sons would return.

Don Luis plowed the fields with his yoke and oxen. The oldest children assisted with planting corn and beans despite the drought-plagued land. At the foot of a mesquite tree, he and Antonia collected top soil and walked back home. They poured the soft soil beside the orange and lemon trees and planted flowers. Rare raindrops trickled down a few days later.

But the call for brazos, arms, to work in El Norte continued to pour into the villages. It came in handbills posted in municipal offices, in newspapers, in chats among returning migrants. And in the announcements heard on new battery-powered radios.

After several months at home, Don Luis gathered a satchel with a change of clothes and walked out onto the dirt path, his name secured on his village’s bracero list.

“Adiós, Papá,” his children said, wrapping their arms around him.

Antonia gripped his arms, then let go.

The taxi rumbled on as he waved and waved, long after his family faded from sight.

He’d board a bus and train en route to the bracero recruitment center in northern Mexico, 800 miles away. He didn’t know where his work stint would take him or the pick number he’d be assigned, but he’d memorize it too, as sure as his name.

***

In a remote Mexican village, a child tugged at the hem of a mother’s dress, asking for a father’s whereabouts.

“He’s in the North. He won’t be long,” she’d reply, as the radio played songs of longing and a tune about a palomita mensajera, a dove carrying a message of love.

Far away, Don Luis lay on a cot at night as the voice of singer José Alfredo Jiménez wafted through speakers from inside a California bracero camp, accompanied by memories of raindrops on blooming chrysanthemums and women’s hands patting tortillas at dawn, singing alongside a radio.

________
Celia Viramontes was born and raised in East Los Angeles, California, the youngest daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her public policy research on immigration and education has been published in numerous academic journals and books. Through writing, she delves into the untold stories of immigrant communities, their aspirations and their struggles. Contact her at oclaa@yahoo.com.
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Feature Section 2Tell Your True Tale

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By Tené Harris

________

There was something really peaceful about driving through this mostly rural area on a wide-open two-lane highway. The sky was blue with specks of pollen from springtime blossoms spiraling through the air. At 75 miles per hour, bugs spattered against the glass. It was warm but nothing like the heat that dominated June and July. I let the window down and felt the push of wind against my hand. It brought back childhood memories of family road trips.

As we neared Naples, Texas, the flat land shifted to rolling hills. Even the smallest of homes sat on huge lots. We got accustomed to the miles of land between one house and the next. At first glance, the tall commanding green things covering the landscape, resembled cacti. But they were pine trees, though not the kind you find in Oregon or California. They looked as if they were weeping. The breeze had finally gotten the better of my 6-year-old daughter, Jasmine, and she drifted off to sleep just as we neared Aunt Luanna’s house.

Both of my parents were from Texas. My brother and I were born on the Gulf Coast in Corpus Christi. Even though we moved north when I was young, I still felt a deep connection to the South. My mom and dad were part of the generation of blacks who left the South during the Great Migration in search of a better life. In 1964, my parents were married. That same year, my dad followed his sister’s advice and went to Michigan to take a job in one of the automobile factories that were booming. Once he was settled and found our new home in the same neighborhood his sister lived in, he sent for my mom, me and my brother.

Growing up, every summer my parents would load up the car and drive “home” to the south. In our case, that meant East Texas. My mom’s maternal family and my dad’s family were from the same little town, Dekalb. My mom’s paternal family members were from Naples. This was the family I knew little about and had come with my daughter to visit.

Living thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, now with my own family, I realized the importance of family history and wanted to share that with my children.

That morning, as we passed the landmark Aunt Oneida had told me to look out for – the steeple at Gethsemane Baptist Church – Jasmine shifted in her seat and her doll fell to the floor. The dirt was of vivid red clay. Maple and aged oaks stood guard. On the left side of the road, a sign read “Boyd Cemetery.”

I gently shook Jasmine awake. She stretched and yawned as she stepped from the car, wiping the sleep from her eyes. We walked across a field that led to a trail. When the tall grass and weeds grew high enough to reach her hip, Jasmine stood still and tears began to well up in her little eyes. My little girl who only knew a city life was scared. I picked her up and walked with her on my hip. I was feeling a little ambivalent myself, with the cemetery now in plain sight. I imagined all of my family members who had walked this land. My mom had spent summers on this farm and had shared so many stories about roaming the farm with her first cousins. They would sit outside their grandparents’ kitchen window eating fresh-picked fruit and mock their conversations.

I had come to this part of east Texas to meet a woman I had known nothing about a year before.

The trip grew from a call I made to my Aunt Oneida to invite her to attend my mom’s surprise 50th birthday celebration in California. She couldn’t come, she told me, because Aunt Luanna was celebrating her centennial that same weekend. I’d never heard of an Aunt Luanna. But meeting her, I realized, might fill out a lot of what I didn’t know about this part of my family.

Two concrete headstones stood in the cemetery. One read: “Mabe Boyd – 1840 to 1927.” The other read “Lou Boyd – 1853 to 1946.” Nearby was the headstone of Aunt Luanna’s brother, James Boyd, a World War I veteran. He died in 1994 at the age of 97. There was a huge concrete tomb with the name Napoleon. The placard with the last name and dates was worn. After taking a few pictures, we walked back to the car. The weight of Jasmine’s body began to tire me out.

We drove on up the road to a simple white house with an enclosed porch. A rusted old wagon wheel stood under the carport. We walked up the path to the porch and I heard a southern drawl that felt familiar.

“Come on in!” It was Aunt O.

There were lots of hugs and long glances, as we were introduced to Aunt Luanna and her daughter, Juanita, who lived with her. Aunt Luanna had long straight silver hair that was braided and pinned. We sat down and Juanita brought us sweet tea in glasses etched in a yellow and green floral design. Everyone laughed as Jasmine turned up her glass and said, “Yum!”

Two antique oval pictures hung on the wall. As I looked at the man and the woman in the pictures, I recalled the meticulous calligraphic script of the names in the large wooden family bible that Aunt O had shared with me just the night before. I knew that the man was Aunt Luanna’s father, Mabe Boyd, and the woman, her mother, Lou Boyd. This was the first time that I had seen a photograph of family members from the late 1800’s. I could see the resemblance between Lou and nearly all the women on my mom’s side. My middle brother had eyebrows just like Mabe. They were both attractive and you could tell from their clothing and the way they were groomed that they lived a good, comfortable life.

Aunt Luanna was small but strong. She lived on the Boyd Farm practically her entire life, with the exception of the occasional trip to Dallas to spend time with her daughters and one lone trip to Los Angeles in the late 60’s. Life in Los Angeles had gotten the better of one of her daughters, so she went to bring her back home. The hustle and bustle there was too much for Aunt Luanna. The quiet Boyd Farm with clean air and fresh running rivers and lakes, fruit trees, vegetables, poultry and cattle, was the only world she knew. At night, you could see every constellation, and the full moon was majestic.

As she spoke, I remembered my first drink from a well as a child. Lowering a wooden bucket with the tin can tied by twine, down to the water source and then turning the wheel to pull it back up, seemed like a lot of effort for a city girl, until I tasted the ice cold water. It was heaven, especially in the Texas heat.

Aunt Luanna talked on. The Boyd Farm covered most of the northwest corner of Cass County. Back in the day, it was full of fruit orchards, a blacksmith shop, a syrup mill, a smoke house, livestock, acres of vegetables, a schoolhouse and natural hot springs and creeks.

Several hours passed. Finally, I asked Aunt Luanna if I could come back the next day.

The next morning, we found her sitting on the enclosed porch with her food in a small stainless steel bowl and a paring knife. She no longer had her teeth, but she seemed to be enjoying every bite.

With her permission, I videotaped our conversation sitting on the porch. I asked her to tell me of her childhood on the farm. “There was always plenty to eat and plenty to do,” she said. They went to town a few times a year for cloth, coffee and other items they didn’t produce on the farm. Practically everything else they needed, they produced on the farm. Her mother kept the children healthy with castor oil and lemon several times a week, especially during the winter months.

Aunt Luanna began to talk of her father. Mabe had arrived in east Texas from Georgia, a freed man, in about 1859. He was a skilled carpenter, shoemaker, blacksmith and farmer. Over the years this man somehow amassed close to one thousand acres, 600 of which remain in our family. No one knew much about his parents. Some speculate that his father was a slave owner and that had something to do with his ability to purchase and retain so much land in east Texas. Truth is, we’ll never know. Too much time has passed and older family members have died.

But we know that he built a school for his own children and other black children in the area. She pointed it out, an old building hidden among tall weeds. “He called it Celeste School. I went there with my brothers and sisters,” she said. So did other black kids from the area whose parents were sharecropping on farms owned by white people. Mabe also built the home that housed the teacher he hired to instruct the children. Her home was miles away in Marshall, Texas. Back then travel was precarious on the dirt roads. The last teacher hired was Mrs. Dean, Aunt Luanna remembered, and the last students attended Celeste School during World War II. After that, more schools were built and the state of Texas took over the Celeste school in a different location.

I listened to Aunt Luanna tell the story of Mabe, her father, and wished I knew more about him, what made him so focused on self-sufficiency and education. Yet as she spoke, I realized his importance to the family, this relative of mine I’d never heard of.

Aunt Luanna lived to 106. We kept in touch through letters, as we promised we would. And I never forgot the story of her father, Mabe, and her mother, Lou. We were carrying Mabe’s legacy forward in many ways. His descendants are now college graduates in 11 states and two continents. We are teachers, engineers, authors, television writers and producers, military officers, computer network managers, nurses, business owners, longshoremen, and lawyers.

All that, I realized, started with Mabe and Lou Boyd, freed slaves who arrived in east Texas from Georgia with skills and a view of the future they could build with school and land.

That day, I wasn’t ready for our trip to end. As we rose to leave, Aunt Luanna took Jasmine by her hand and pulled her in close. She looked into her eyes.

“Don’t forget me,” she said.

______

Tené Harris was born in Corpus Christi, Texas. She has worked for 30 years at KCET in Los Angeles. She owns Sweet Beginnings, a bakery. She is also a government analyst with the state of California, and a freelance writer/producer. Contact her at mysweetbeginnings@gmail.com.
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By Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek

________

I was in my mid-20s when I landed in Barcelona. A yearlong relationship with Mariano, a chemistry PhD student from Spain, led me to leave UC Santa Barbara only a few months from graduating with a BA in Spanish literature. It may have seemed a dumb idea, but I had other plans. I was on a quest to find myself through a new career as a belly dancer.

It was the spring of 1976, less than a year after Francisco Franco died, and Spain was able to breathe again as the country slowly opened up to democracy. Fascist repression was lifting, and academics, artists and writers were returning home. The long-stifled language of Catalan once again echoed through the streets, in schools, in the media and in government. The magazine Interview showcased politics and soft porn side by side, unthinkable under Franco. The environment was ripe for a belly dancer from California to start teaching and performing.

I had taken dance classes for a couple of years in Santa Barbara and had studied videos of famous Egyptian dancers. They were queens, revered by society. I was a pioneer.

But in Barcelona there was no network of dancers or musicians from the Arab world with whom I could collaborate and from whom I could continue to learn. So I brought a supply of Egyptian, Turkish and Lebanese-style dance music, classical and contemporary.

Upon my arrival, Mariano’s ex-girlfriend, Ana Maria, introduced me to the owner of a dance studio, and within a few weeks I was teaching and performing weekly. I prepared non-stop. This would be my first time teaching, as well as performing in front of an audience that wasn’t made up of friends and family. It was also new for the women who signed up, but they were eager.

I made my own costumes. Luckily, my knack for sewing and an antique treadle Singer sewing machine were all I needed. While I pedaled and sewed, the gold Egyptian sphinx decal on the front of the machine seemed to be winking at me. I sewed like crazy, copying costumes from 19th Century Orientalist paintings of court dancers. I combined velvet and ethnic textiles, topped with heavy silver belts and jewelry from Afghanistan, then layered sheer veils to use as props when twirling.

I was a stickler when it came to teaching dancing technique. I had seen my fair share of dancers who had taken a couple of classes and started performing. Separating the neck from the shoulders and the torso from the hips while dancing was challenging; as was connecting to the power of the womb. Many students couldn’t isolate their hips.

In many Middle Eastern cultures, women belly dance for one another. I loved helping my students unlock their feminine core. I often spoke about the folklore and varied rhythms and instruments. Yet in my performance, I struggled to find the middle ground of expressing my sensuality without overcompensating for the stereotypes associated with belly dancing.

My relationship with Mariano became strained as I immersed myself further in my dance career. So I took a hiatus from teaching and performing and we moved to Adahuesca, a village of 200 in the region of Aragón, where his parents were from. There was a large, empty family house waiting to be renovated, almond orchards that needed tending, wheat fields to be planted, as well as a vineyard ripe for picking to fill our wine cellar. During the mondongo, the slaughtering of a pig, I even stirred the blood that would be used to make the venerated blood sausage. As I gathered strength, many stood around me worried I would freak out and allow the blood to coagulate, ruining the sausage.

After an exhilarating yet exhausting year working the land and living the life of a campesina, I grew antsy to get back to the city to restart my dance career. Mariano envisioned marriage and living in the village for the rest of our lives. I didn’t. Amicably, we went our separate ways.

Back in Barcelona, I moved in with Ana Maria and her husband. They had an empty bedroom in their apartment in the neighborhood called Gracia, not far from the Sagrada Familia cathedral. I started performing every Friday and Saturday night at a Moroccan restaurant in the red light district off Las Ramblas. Soon I had a following, including many of my students and their friends, alongside Saudis and Kuwaitis passing through.

The Arabs were spending so much of their oil money in Europe that there was a saying that they were coming back to re-conquer Spain. Let loose from the cultural confines in their home countries, they came to Spain to play. Stories circulated of Western women trapped by boyfriends and husbands in the Middle East. It was not uncommon for Gulf visitors to invite me to spend an evening or to travel with them. But I wanted to be seen as an artist, not a call girl or a conquest.

I was now busy all the time. I was interviewed in newspapers and on the radio and danced in a well-known three-part film on the Spanish civil war, “Victoria,” directed by Antoni Ribas. Still, I wanted to move on.

I had heard that in the south, in Málaga, were clubs and restaurants catering to the growing Arab community. I packed my things. There, I was hired to dance at a Lebanese restaurant, the Beirut. The owners also flew me to Paris for a private party, a well-paid gig that allowed me a few days to bum around the city, take in the Louvre, roam the streets of Montmartre and spend time at the Musée Gustave Moreau to view his Orientalist paintings.

I returned to Málaga to perform at the Beirut and for private parties for the Saudis. Invited to sit at one gathering, I ate my first goat soup, with the animal’s eyes floating in the broth.

Opportunities were abundant, yet soon I felt uncomfortable, as if I were selling out to the growing Saudi influence in Southern Spain. I soon revolted against the jet set scene in Málaga and, while uninterested in the Saudi men, I considered myself to be among the women chasing opportunities by performing for them.

I called a friend who had mentioned getting me into a couple of dance studios on the island of Mallorca. At the same time, a friend from Los Angeles was traveling to Mallorca in search of Robert Graves, the poet and novelist who wrote the BBC series “I Claudius.” We stayed in my new home, a country house shared with friends just outside Palma, and traveled to the village of Deià, where Graves had a home, but he was in the throes of dementia, and we weren’t able to meet him.

For more than a year, though, I performed weekly at the five-star hotel, Son Vida. It was Egyptian- and Saudi-owned and attracted writers and artists. The publisher of a daily newspaper in Cairo, Al-Ahram, was a regular. He liked to tease me. He said that while I had done a good job picking up the Egyptian style of dance, I was too thin and my arms were too long. He assured me that the American belly dancers were becoming popular in Cairo and said that if I were ever there, I’d have a place to perform if I wished.

One night at Son Vida I found myself dancing for 200 Kuwaitis. They asked me to put on the region’s traditional large caftan they had with them. It was embroidered with gold thread and easily weighed 30 pounds. Floating across the dance floor as if lifted by a soft wind over the desert, emulating the subtle movement of camels, I isolated my neck movements and head throws, with my hair loosely tossing from side to side, as is done in the Gulf region. The audience was ecstatic that I knew the Khaleegi style of movement.

As a belly dancer this was how I spent my nights.

I was once hired at a baroque-style estate, decked with overflowing baskets of flowers, fruit arrangements, statues of goddesses and candles and with classical music blaring. The owners dressed me as a Greek goddess, and we selected 13th century Andalusian Arabic music from southern Spain. I danced through the mansion. A fellow dressed in ancient Greek attire followed me at a distance with a metal censer suspended from chains with the incense used in Catholic churches. It was something out of a Visconti movie.

I was in demand, scheduled to dance for the King Juan Carlos of Spain, who vacationed every summer on the island and was often seen riding around Palma on his Vespa. It was a big disappointment when the call came that the party was canceled. One evening I danced at a party that Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky and his wife attended. After my performance, we discussed how a dancer from California ended up performing Middle Eastern dance in Mallorca.

I started to wonder why I felt closer to Middle Eastern culture than my own. Going to Cairo to study dance and Arabic appealed to me more and more.

Then it ended.

One night dancing at a local coffee house, I met Robert, a British ex-pat who had lived on the island for 10 years. A teacher of Jewish mysticism and well versed in ancient Egyptian history, he was interested in the genesis of my Middle Eastern dance. We met to talk about a potential collaboration to choreograph a fusion of ancient Egyptian myth with contemporary Middle Eastern dance style. I imagined a new dance form, similar to the ancients, though attempting to explain the mystery of our own world.

Robert and I spent the next two years together. We married in 1983 and traveled between Palma and Derby, England, where he was from.

We had talked of going to Cairo together. It never happened, nor did we develop a new dance form. Robert had a drinking problem. Over time he turned obsessively jealous and violent and forced me to quit dancing. I didn’t want to live as a prisoner. So when my son Tomás was born, I planned my escape from Palma. Within four months I moved back home to Los Angeles, and to the comfort of my family.

Having found my way back home, I no longer questioned my roots. And dancing was the last thing on my mind.

________

Susanna Fránek is a native Poblador descendent of the city of Los Angeles. She is a cultural anthropologist and has her own business conducting consumer research among mostly Latino immigrants and their second generation offspring. She hopes to eventually publish these short stories in a book. Contact her through her website: ethnologix.com.
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CaliforniaLos Angeles

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By David Fallon

________

In 2012 I was hired as part of a program to provide outreach services to the homeless of Hollywood. It was our job to find the most vulnerable individuals on the street and to work to get them into housing. Not long after we began, we found a panhandler at a gas station near Griffith Park.

Dean was a wiry guy with tangled hair sticking out from under a grimy baseball cap. He had a long, grizzled beard and striking blue eyes that hid a fast wit. When he talked, he grew animated, with arms waving and face twisting. He was a storyteller who loved having an audience. He was also a drug addict who used just about anything he could get his hands on. Let’s be real, I need beer! his cardboard sign read.

“Go find Buddy up on the hill!” he told us because he wanted us to talk to his friend. He was also eager to get back to his hustling. In the early days of our work, people on the streets regarded us with a detached bemusement. They had been promised housing in the past by many other organizations. None of these panned out, so they had good reason to doubt us. We told Dean that we would come back to see him in a few days and went up the hill to find Buddy.

Buddy was tucked away on the top of a small hill amid untrimmed bushes. He was passed out on a towel, his body covered in sweat and smelling of urine. An empty fifth of vodka lay just out of arm’s reach. We tried to get his attention, but he could not be stirred.

“We’ll have to come back,” the team leader said.

Several days later, we met with Dean on the same street corner. He signed the paperwork to join our program and asked a bunch of questions: When can I get some money? You got any lawyers I can talk to? Where’s this so called housing going to be? How long is this gonna take?

Dean said he was a dishonorably discharged Green Beret on the run from the law in Texas. From what, he would not say. He told us his family had disowned him from a large inheritance. Dean also responded to internal voices and seemed to see things that were not there. It was often difficult to tell what was real and what was not with Dean.

“My own mother wants to take my money from me,” he said. “The bitch.” He had been on the streets for 20 years. To survive, he had taken to running drugs for gang members in exchange for free passage in their territory as well as free drugs. We made plans for him to come to our office to discuss the next steps, then left him alone to panhandle.

“Don’t forget Buddy!” Dean reminded us. This time when we climbed the hill, Buddy was wide awake and waiting for us.

“Hey y’all!”

Turns out Dean had told him about our program.

Buddy was tall and lanky with a big smile and hearty laugh. He was older than Dean by at least 10 years. His hands were massive, and he had once been a boxer. His body slumped from decades of alcohol abuse. He could not remember much of the last 20 years and would tearfully tell the same story over and over.

“I use to live in Vegas,” he said. “Life on the streets there is pretty tough. I ended up killing a guy because he was going to kill me. There was nothing else I could do. It was him or me.…” And by this time, he was in tears. The judge had let him off on self-defense, and he came back to Los Angeles, where he had grown up. None of his family wanted to have anything to do with him, so he started drinking.

“And never stopped,” was how the story usually ended.

Homelessness is a constant fight for survival and allies can mean the difference between life and death. Buddy and Dean were more than just allies. They shared their stories with each other, which is something you did not do on the streets, where information can be used against you. They talked about the things they wanted. For Buddy, it was a house and a car and a decent job. For Dean, it was women and motorcycles.  Buddy seemed like the kind of guy who’d share his last drink with a friend. Dean was the kind of guy who would take that drink.

One day when we went to visit, we met them at a nearby bus stop. Dean had his arm around Buddy and they were laughing hysterically. “We was just shootin’ the shit,” Dean said, pulling his hand away as we walked up. He was embarrassed by our witnessing this moment. While Dean constantly worked to portray the tough street thug, it was clear he had a tender side. And a soft spot for Buddy.

Because he was often drunk, Buddy was particularly vulnerable. Every time he got something new, like clothes or a pillow, he would wake up from his stupor to find it gone.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he told us after someone had taken a radio he found. “I can’t spent the rest of my life drunk on this goddamn hill!” he yelled with tears streaming from his eyes as he pounded his fist into the grass.

Soon after, we sent him to a detox center in Pomona. He assaulted one of the staff. They kicked him out. We had no idea if we would ever see him again.

A few days later, it was Dean who brought Buddy back to our office. Somehow Buddy had made his way back to the hill where Dean had found him. He had no memory of attacking the staff member. In his mind, they had let him go because he had gotten a job at a nearby Burger King.

“I was doing my job, washing the windows, when the police rolled up on me,” he said in an incredulous tone. “I tried to tell them I was just doing my job, but they wouldn’t listen. They hauled my ass off to jail!” Pomona PD released him a few days later and told him to get out of town, so he made his way back to Hollywood.

“This guy keeps saving my life,” he smiled at Dean.

“You’re like a brother to me, man,” Dean said with affection.

Despite their differences, Buddy and Dean cared about each other. You could see it in the way they patted each other on the back, the way they shared their food with each other, the way they talked and laughed together. It was an unusual relationship to see on the streets. Most people are consumed with self-preservation to the point of open hostility toward others. It was not uncommon to hear about women of the street being raped by gangs of homeless men. In order to survive, most women on the street found a “husband” to take care of them. The price was often non-consensual sex or even beatings, but at least it was by one man instead of many. Buddy and Dean’s friendship on the street was based as much on the desire to connect as it was for self-preservation.

By this time, our team had cut a deal with a local motel. Its carpet was worn to the concrete, and the peeling walls were smeared with decades of unattended filth. But they rarely turned away a potential customer. We put both Buddy and Dean in this motel temporarily in order to help them work toward the next step.

Buddy stayed sober long enough to complete the process to get into rehab. Dean was another story. He agreed to take an injection of an antipsychotic in order to soothe the voices that plagued him, but he continued to smoke marijuana in his motel room. Bringing in a couple of hookers one night was the last straw for the manager, who called me directly.

“Get him out!” he yelled.

Before I could get there, Dean had an altercation with another motel guest, then cleared out. As he was leaving, he found Buddy sleeping in his room and took his clothes, his blankets, and what little money he had. When Buddy awoke to confront him, Dean slashed his face with a penknife and ran off. The manager called the police. Buddy told them where to find Dean. The police immediately knew who he was. They were more than happy to take him in.

When we later asked Dean why he had done this to Buddy, he only shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s life on the street.”

That was about right. We never heard another reason for why he’d turned on his friend so suddenly.

“If I ever see that piece of shit, I’ll kill ’im,” Buddy said. “Can’t believe he would do this to me.…”

Soon after, Buddy was taken to rehab, where he worked a 60-day program of recovery groups morning, noon and night. The program was a 12-step group, with a substance abuse counselor who met with each person one on one. Buddy made changes in his thinking and behavior with the goal of never taking another drink. Simply being away from it seemed to give him clarity. He focused on never going back to that hill. In his mind, just one drink would be catastrophic. “I know where it can take me,” he said.

While Buddy was in rehab, the housing coordinator prepared the paperwork for his housing placement. When he got out, Buddy was moved into a studio apartment in the heart of Hollywood. His recovery was remarkable in both its speed and depth. In fact, of the 65 people we housed, Buddy was one of two who had totally turned away from his old habits.

After the assault, Dean spent a couple of months at Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles, with the plan that he would come to our office as soon as he was released. When that day came, he was the most clear-headed I had ever seen him. He insisted that he was ready to be housed and that he would never bother Buddy again.

But Dean disappeared soon after he got out of jail. I searched his spots a couple of times a week but didn’t find him. A few months later, he appeared covered in a layer of black muck, sputtering manic stories of his drug adventures: how he exchanged sex with a old lady who allowed him to sleep in her car at night, how he befriended a local important gang member who treated him like a mascot, giving him free drugs because “he thinks I’m so fucking funny.”

Later, Dean appeared with an older woman. Her name was Beth. She was homeless as well but had a steady source of income. She wanted us to take Dean off her hands

A few weeks later, Beth showed up to tell me that Dean had drank himself to death.

“I tried and tried to revive him,” she said tearfully. “But he just stopped moving.”

The next day, I knocked on Buddy’s door. He was doing well in his apartment. He had set up a table, a few chairs and a lamp. Everything was kept neat and clean. He was attending meetings and talking about maybe going back to school or getting a part-time job.

I told him about Dean.

We sat together for a long time in silence. Buddy shook his head.

“Jesus,” he said.

________

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Feature Section 1Uncategorized

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By Jian Huang

________

Nobody here understands what I say. They just look at me funny when I ask them which way is home. At school, the kids sing songs that sound like they could be Chinese. I try to sing along, but I can’t make out the words. Then Mrs. Wintersmith gets mad at me because I don’t participate. I want to participate. I want to tell her I want to participate. She called Mom in recently for a parent-teacher meeting and spent 20 minutes gesturing like a mime before giving up and sending both of us home with a D+.

“Wrrrr wrrrr wrrrr.” That’s what English sounds like. How am I supposed to understand that? Dad tells me that one day I’ll understand this new language and that I’ll speak it so well I won’t even remember that I was ever Chinese. He says little kids can adapt anywhere.

I used to ask Mom when we would go home. I ask her on the bus, I ask her when she walks me home from school, I ask her at dinner. I want to go back to that house that smelled like smoked pickles in the mornings. I even want to go back to that old Mrs. Li who shooed me away with her corn husk broom whenever she caught me picking at her hanging anchovies. Each time Mom answers me with “Soon.”

Nowadays I don’t ask her. I just watch TV and try to learn English. Little kids like me are not supposed to ask too many questions. Little kids are supposed to make Cup O’Noodles for themselves and stay home while Mom and Dad are at work. During breaks from school, Mom says to turn on the TV if I ever feel lonely, so I have it on all the time. When the TV is on I’m not so sad anymore: “I Love Lucy” at 9, “The Jerry Springer Show” at 11, “The Ricki Lake Show” at 2, “Animaniacs” at 3, then “The Simpsons” during prime time. I watch and laugh and try to remember that we are now free.

Dad brings me to the motel sometimes. He says it’s a boring place and that there are no kids around, but at least it gives us enough money to make ramen with bean sprouts for lunch. While he’s checking the rooms, I help him cut a stack of papers into squares he could use for notes when customers pick up their keys. I cut a few extra sheets to make birds. My kindergarten teacher taught me how to make them before we left China. I fold a beak, a tail and a pair of wings. I even draw eyes on it to make sure it could see.

In between bird-making, I watch customers walk in and out of their rooms. They go to their cars, they go to the store, they go to the vending machine upstairs. Most of the time people stay here alone. They get donuts and beer from the liquor store across the street and eat them in their rooms with the doors bolted shut. Each room has prison bars on the window so no one can get in without a key. Sometimes the men check in with one of the ladies from across the street. Couples in love are called “birds” in English. Pretty girls are called “birds,” too.

The motel seems gigantic, with 28 rooms and two floors. The ocean blue paint underneath the stairwell is chipping. I rarely see the same customer more than once. There are so many rooms, and not one is filled with anyone I know. A couple of weeks ago, a little girl about my age named Annie checked in with her mama. A few days later I noticed that somebody drew hearts and flowers in pink chalk on the ground.

Recently, I’ve been asking Dad to bring me to the motel more. Annie is here. She’s the only other person I know here. He tells me I could play outside in the parking lot, but I can’t go beyond the driveway, where the asphalt meets the sidewalk. Growing up in a new country means I have to learn new rules. It’s different here than it is in China, but Dad promises that this is better. He’s always teaching me smart things, like how to spot shady people, how to spot fake money, how to clean things with rubbing alcohol and how to play poker. Now I’m learning how to be suspicious, which means furrowing my brow and not smiling. Dad says there are a lot of bad people in this city, and I need to learn to protect myself.

I don’t think Annie goes to school. She’s always here. Often, she’s squatting outside their first-floor room doodling on the ground with chalk. Sometimes I see her mama keeping her company while smoking cigarettes by the dumpsters barefoot. Annie doesn’t have any siblings either.

Her mama has a big blue Cadillac with paint coming off its fender. It is filled with so many paper bags that it looks like a suitcase on wheels. I never see her talking to anybody except a few words to Dad once a week when she pays for their room. She says Annie gets picked on too much at school, which explains why she doesn’t go. Most days they just stay in their room, coming out only once or twice to buy a soda or unpack something from the Cadillac. Sometimes her mama puts on a pretty dress and takes that Cadillac to work for a few hours. Her brown hair is so messy it looks like a tornado came through. She asks Dad to keep an eye on Annie but never tells him where she goes.

I like Annie. She’s the first little girl I ever seen around here. She came out to play with me while I was poking at the ants by the magnolia tree. At school pretty girls like her wouldn’t play with me, but Annie’s different. She’s not from around here, just like I’m not from around here. She lets me use her chalk and shows me how to shuffle cards.

People around here are mostly dark or tanned, but not Annie. Her skin is fair and white, like soft serve vanilla. Her freckles run all along her arm like sprinkles on a sugar cookie. Once she even let me scratch one of them so I could see for myself that they were real.

I look forward to seeing Annie. I try to see her whenever Dad brings me to the motel. We manage to find all sorts of things to play with here: hide and seek in between the parked cars, jump rope with Dad’s VCR cables, and even superhero with bedsheets tied to our shoulders. Her favorite game is House. She shows me how to tie a towel around my hair the way her mama does after a shower, and I show her how to bundle up her sweatshirt to look like a baby the way I learned it from school. We call the sweatshirt our baby brother and name him Bart. We make a little house out of a cardboard box and cut flaps for the doors. In our fake kitchen, I motion like I’m flipping hamburgers while Annie serves dinner to our make-believe family. Nobody could eat until we sat down. We were the oldest for a change, so we set the rules.

In the parking lot, the magnolia tree opens up far beyond the roof of the motel with its branches stretching out into the sky above. During the daytime, the flowers disappear into the clouds, and at night, the blooms seem to hum along with the sounds of snoring strangers who sleep here.

It must be lonely to be Annie. I imagine that on days when I’m not here, she must spend all day in her room watching TV. I ask Dad why Annie can’t go to school with me, and he shrugs. He says it’s best to keep that to myself because it’s none of our business. We’re only guests in this country.

Before Dad clocks out for the day, I make plans with Annie. We mark up the hopscotch squares to show where we left off. We fold up our cardboard house for our next sit-down dinner, and put it in the closet with the maid’s cleaning cart. We fold our superhero sheets and agree that next time we’ll both be Wonder Woman.

Today I come to the motel and see that the blue Cadillac is gone. I peek behind the open door to their room, and all I see is a messy bed inside. Lucy is vacuuming what’s left in Annie’s room. I ask Dad when she will come back.

“Soon,” he says.

________

Jian Huang was born in Shanghai, China and grew up in South Los Angeles. She has worked in the arts and for local nonprofits. Her interests include watching old Hollywood movies and writing about social justice issues that deal with class barriers, the American Dream, and finding a place of belonging. She is a 2016 PEN USA Emerging Voices fellow. Contact her at: jenhuangg@gmail.com.

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CaliforniaFeature Section 2StorytellingTell Your True Tale

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By Monique Quintero

________

It is 3 a.m. and I am lying on a cot in the bathroom of my grandmother’s hospital room, listening to other family members snoring away.

Angie has been unresponsive for a few days, and my family is keeping vigil. I know her end is near, but I can feel her presence, still hanging in.

She has had health issues most of her adult life and suffered a major stroke a few years ago. Unable to care for herself, she has been in a 24-hour skilled nursing facility. It has devastated me to see her—one of the most vibrant women in my life—unable to move or speak.

During a recent trip to Europe, in every church I entered, I lit a candle for Angie and prayed to God to give her peace.

Now I slowly get up, trying not to make any noise. I make my way around the other cots, step over an uncle. I sit at the edge of the hospital bed. I lean in, practically lie down right next to Angie. I kiss her cheek and take in her smell. I lay my head on her shoulder.

I can see her old heart-surgery scar, peaking out the top of her hospital gown. I was about 3 years old when she had that surgery. Holding my parents’ hands, walking down the L.A. County Hospital ward past the long line of beds, we found her sitting up, her chest stitched, looking worn but determined. She smiled big upon seeing us and patted her hand on the bed for me to come sit by her.

As Angie’s first grandchild, I grew up calling her Mom (my own mother was Momma). That’s how I heard my Dad address her, but she was adamant that she was never to be called Grandma. Other grandchildren would later transform her into Mom Angie, and then she became just Angie.

* * *

She was born to Maria Bracamontes and Primitivo Carrillo on Oct. 1, 1924, in Dawson, N.M., a coal-mining town. Her sister Carmen arrived a few years later. Her father had a previous wife who passed away, so Angie had half-sisters in Chicago and Mexico. After he died of pneumonia, her mother took in boarders to help supplement her income and later married one of them, Jesús Hernandez. They had two more children. As the oldest child and not his actual daughter, Angie was often the target of her stepfather’s bad moods, but she did not fight back; she suffered through it rather than have him take it out on her mother and sister.

After the family relocated to East Los Angeles, Angie met and married my grandfather, Joe E. Quintero. It was a toxic marriage; she was physically and mentally abused. He eventually left her and started another family. She persevered and raised her four children as a single mother. Some say it was her determination and survival instinct that bonded her to her children and grandchildren. However for me, my connection to Angie was more than that; it was something magical.

I must have been about 2 years old when my parents and I stayed overnight at my maternal grandparents’ house. It was early morning, my parents were still asleep, but I was awake in my playpen. I looked up to see Angie standing in the hallway. As I called out to her, she turned and walked away. I managed to climb out of the playpen, but by the time I reached the living room, there was no sign of Angie. I later told my mother what had happened, to try to figure out how Angie had disappeared so quickly, but she just shook her head and told me, “You must have dreamt it.”

When I recalled the incident as an adult, I could still feel the pain from hoisting myself over the side of the playpen. I mentioned it to Angie. She smiled and explained that when I was little, she was not able to see me as much as she had wanted. My mother, being a new parent, preferred to be at her own mother’s house. My vision that morning must have been one of the times that Angie was thinking about me.

And yet there was a period when she chose not to see me. When she discovered that my Dad had begun to communicate with his estranged father, she showed up at our house one evening, shouting that my Dad was being disloyal. My siblings and I were sent to our bedrooms, but I crept down the hallway. I peeked out and caught her eye as she announced that she was disowning us. I saw a slight hesitation but she looked at my Dad again, yelled some more, turned and stormed out the front door, slamming it behind her. It was about a year before we were allowed at family get-togethers. I cannot think of any other time that she was not a part of my life.

Angie had a love and respect for Mother Nature. She was a curandera (medicine woman). She knew of plants and herbs and their medicinal qualities. Her yard was filled with aloe vera, lavender, rosemary and sage.

I contracted scarlet fever when I was about 6 years old. I was seen by my pediatrician, but the high fever persisted. Angie was called. In my haze, I remember her praying and laying her hands over me. I can still smell the incense and the burning herbs. She sang in a whisper, yet she loudly ordered the illness to leave my body. Soon after that, the fever broke.

One of her favorite plants was the snake plant; its long leaves grow straight up and ended in a sharp point. She believed that growing it brought good luck. It is also difficult to kill. Angie would break up a plant with her bare hands, re-pot the pieces in coffee cans and then give those away to family and friends while praising the benefits. I later discovered that it is a treasured plant in Chinese folklore.

Angie taught me both practical and spiritual life lessons. After I earned my undergraduate degree, I took on night-time internships in Hollywood and could then drive Angie to errands and doctors’ appointments during the day. She taught me her shortcuts and the ins and outs of getting around Los Angeles. I also learned about the “Parking Angel.” Whenever we were on our way to a high-traffic location, Angie would pray and ask an angel to go on ahead of us and secure our parking space. By the time we arrived at our destination, a parking spot was always open.

Angie continued her curanderismo (healing) for family and friends, combining indigenous and Catholic rituals. She blessed houses. She also performed limpias (spiritual cleansings); she would take a whole egg, start at the top of a person’s head, not touch the body, but swipe circularly, always moving downward. Negative energy was pulled from the body and trapped in the egg. While doing this, she would proclaim, “I pray against the root of the cause of this condition, and I say to it: Leave now in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ!”

Angie always ended by shaking her hands away from her body. “The most important thing,” she told me, “is to never forget to throw off the bad energy after you finish a limpia. You do not want that negativity hanging on to you.”

Angie also channeled a Mexican Indian spirit; she would meditate until she was in a state in which she allowed her body be taken over by her “spirit guide.” His name was Piel Rojo, literally translated as “red skin” but intended as “man of the earth color/man of the earth.” Through this process, Piel Rojo passed on knowledge to Angie, for her to gain insight to help herself and others.

One summer when we were in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Angie hired a driver to take us north into the state of Nayarit. The road was bumpy as we travelled through heavy jungle. Eventually we arrived at a small, lone house. We were greeted by a young girl and led into a sparsely furnished bedroom. We sat down on one of the twin beds. On top of the chest of drawers was a familiar display: a cross, statues of various saints, a rosary and several lit candles. The scent of incense lingered in the air. I was exhausted from the rough trip and humidity, but Angie was alert and ready.

In walked an older woman; she and Angie greeted each other warmly. Angie introduced me as her granddaughter. The woman prayed over us, blessed us and then did our readings.

Te toca ahora (It’s your turn now),” she said to Angie when she finished.

Angie closed her eyes, took in deep breaths, blew them out. She stood up, pounded her fists to her chest and stomped in place.

iYo soy Piel Rojo! (I am Piel Rojo!)” came a deep baritone voice.

Piel Rojo then spoke about the strength achieved when a family works together. He threw his arms into the air and called upon my ancestors to help guide my family and me, to lead us to harmony and success. I was advised to form a family business.

I felt the presence of unseen others in the room. A few burning candles went out.

Piel Rojo closed his eyes, again took in deep breaths, blew them out. There was no movement, just silence. Then Angie opened her eyes and smiled.

* * *

I believe that Angie knew she was not well. A few months before her stroke, I was late in picking her up for an outing. My morning schedule had been disrupted; I was stressed and not very talkative as I got her settled in my car and we took off.

“I want you to know I appreciate everything that we have done together,” she said, breaking the silence.

Angie spoke of all the times we had spent together, and said that she would never forget when I had taken her to the Indian pow wow or to see Los Lobos perform. I felt immediate guilt for being so stressed out and in a hurry. I swallowed the lump in my throat, took a deep breath, blew out all the negative energy, decided to let it all go and enjoy the rest of the day with her.

And now I know I need to help Angie on to her next journey.

I sense that Angie is hanging back because she is worried about us, her family.

In my head, I call out to my great grandparents, Maria and Primitivo, and to Piel Rojo; I ask them all to guide Angie to her next destination.

I whisper in her ear, “It’s OK. We will all be OK. You can let go.”

I lay with her for a while longer, until I feel that her spirit has moved on.

________

Monique Quintero grew up in Whittier. A graduate of UC Irvine with a B.A. in Critical Film Studies, she has worked over 20 years in various areas of the entertainment industry. Since 2013 she has been dealing with a brain tumor and kidney cancer; she found that the writing process not only inspires creativity, it is also therapeutic and healing.
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Feature Section 2Mexico

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By Jessica Gonzalez

________

It was the summer of 1963 and Mexicali was hot as hell. Back then, the streets were dirt roads; only main boulevards were paved. It was a hot, dusty hole of a city, but Dad had learned of the border town’s promise and had moved our family there from Guaymas, Sonora, when I was 4.

Dad never finished grade school. He started working after his father died to help support his mother and siblings. He shined shoes, had a newspaper route and later worked at a candy factory. As an adult he landed a job with a Mexican petroleum company. This would be his ticket to a better life. In Mexicali, he started his own business repairing gasoline pumps. He made frequent trips to Los Angeles to buy parts to resell in Mexicali. Eventually, he worked his way into real estate and bought the land where his shop sat. He became a businessman with an office and secretary, a younger Chinese-Mexican woman he would eventually leave my mother for.

My father left when I was 11 and by summer of 1963, his new family had grown to two girls and a boy in addition to us: Eva, 6; Raul, 9; David, 11; Sam, 15; and me, 16. He visited us weekly to drop money for groceries. But our relationship was strained by my parents’ divorce. I had a strong mind and a rebellious heart, and I resisted his authority. His new family seemed rich compared to how we lived. We resented him for that and much else. In hindsight, though the allowance he provided was modest, at least he didn’t completely abandon us. He could have disappeared, though I could not see that then.

So it was us: mom, the kids and me. As the oldest, I was in charge of the litter and had been for a long time. As far back as I can remember Mom suffered from migraines and often withdrew, spending entire afternoons and evenings lying alone in the dark. She had these episodes a few times a month, for two to three days at a time. I always thought then that mom was devastated by the loss of her husband. But I eventually came to wonder if perhaps her somber moods were part of the reason he left.

I started cooking when I was five. Often, Mom would be in her room while my brothers and I wreaked havoc in the living room, playing around.

“I’m hungry,” they’d start.

So into the kitchen I’d go, climb a chair and make them something to eat. I received frequent criticism from my brothers on my cooking and oddly shaped tortillas.

“They’re too thick.”

“These beans are dry.”

That’s how I learned to cook. Some nights as I prepared for bed I’d hear Raul sobbing. I would find him in his room, books spread out on the bed. He’d confess he had not done his homework—this he worried about at 11 p.m. Still, I always had patience for him and helped him get it done.

I had a boyfriend that summer, Jose, a friend from school. He was a few years older than I; he’d already graduated from the business prep school Dad made me attend. Dad would not allow me to go to a normal high school. He wanted me to study accounting and help him with the business, another point of contention between us. Dad would not have approved of Jose or anyone else for that matter, but he was not involved enough in my personal life to accidentally find out. Secretly, I felt empowered at 16 to take control of a part of my life, to live in one small space for myself. Jose was more than a boyfriend; he was freedom. Mom knew and supported me. On paper he looked great. He was handsome, worked at a bank, dressed well and had a nice car. He offered to take all of us out of the inferno to San Felipe for a weekend, along the coast of the Sea of Cortez. It was a bumpy ride along a narrow road but worth escaping the scalding desert heat. We arrived on a Friday night and slept on the beach. We had no tents, just sleeping bags on the sand, underneath the stars, lulled to sleep by the sweet music of the waves rolling in and out.

The next morning the sun glowed over us. The breeze was cool and I felt a great sense of relief. Mom and Eva and I cooked breakfast as Jose and my brothers dispersed. The teenagers, Sam and Jose, walked in one direction while the kids, Raul and David, scampered behind. They frolicked toward the beach, chasing one another about, buckets in hand. Because the tide was low, it was a great time to explore rocks and tide pools and hunt for baby octopuses. These we would season with lemon and chiles and grill to a crisp over an open fire.

As the morning progressed, the beach grew noisy with families. At some point that morning, news reached the camps of someone drowning. It didn’t strike us at the time that we should worry. We assumed the boys were together, watching over one another. But as the nervous chatter spread, we walked to the beach to see what was happening and found Sam and Jose. They were not with the boys. Panic set in. My eyes scanned the camp and the beach in search of my little brothers. They were nowhere around. A few hours passed and my brothers still had not appeared. By this time a search party had formed. Locals and visitors alike had heard the news and calls for help, “auxilio!” Finally, around 11a.m. a young couple out walking found David bobbing up and down in the water. They pulled him out, exhausted and nearly unconscious. Yet still, no news of Raul. We sat paralyzed, saying nothing, doing nothing, lost in time for hours. The carne asada we were preparing for lunch was left untouched and spoiled. We were numbed with fright.

Raul’s body was found by a group of men in the search party at 4 that afternoon. They loaded him into their fishing boat and returned him to land, where paramedics waited, his little body limp and lifeless. The boys had strayed from the tide pools, going farther out onto the endless shore. At low tide, the water can recede as much as 2 kilometers. As the tide swiftly returned, it caught them off guard and swept them in. Neither of them knew how to swim.

He was taken to the coroner’s office for examination. When that was done, his body, wrapped in a blanket, was carried to Jose’s Cadillac and gently loaded into the back seat. Sam, Mom and Eva traveled home by bus. Jose drove the rest of us back that evening. I rode up front with Jose, David in the back passenger seat, next to Raul.

Dad was waiting when we arrived and had already learned the news. He was furious. He unleashed his wrath on Mom and me, blaming us for Raul’s death, crying that it was my fault for taking us there. I cried and cried.

The day of the funeral I ironed Raul’s little suit, his Sunday best, remembering him with every stroke. The truth was I blamed myself too. I should have gone with them, watched over them. I would blame myself for a long time. Reason may try say it’s not your fault, and you may learn to deal with your grief and accept that you are not the cause but the pain and the memories never fade.

The funeral was held at Dad’s church. Though Dad was raised Christian, he never practiced or worshipped during my childhood; we were raised Catholic. However, now in this new life in which he reinvented himself, he had changed his ways and become a model Cristiano. My siblings went to his Christian church with him and the other family, half-brothers and half-sisters, on Sundays. But I refused to participate. I was bitter about his infidelity and that the fact that he left us. To me this was not an example of a good Christian and I found it all hypocritical. I could not appreciate that he was trying to be a better person. I only saw that his new family ate better, dressed better, had a nicer house and had a full-time father.

After the funeral, life resumed much like it had before. We went back to our lives. Dad went back to his bilateral family routine. It would be many years, until we were grown up, before we’d talk about that day again. My brother Sam named his second son Raul. Our kids would ask about his namesake. What was he like? How did he die? We always explained and shared funny stories about Raul. But we never spoke in detail about that day or the grief we lived.

Years later during a family reunion, when my father was in his twilight years, I found myself sitting alone with him on a park bench. He had summoned all seven of his children for a carne asada. It was an awkward gathering. We knew he sought to unite his children before he was gone, a comfort we indulged him in, though there would never be the kind of union he yearned for.

As we sat in the park in silence watching his grandchildren play, he suddenly turned to me and spoke of the mistakes he had made with us, with me. He told me he loved me and asked me for forgiveness.

“Abuelo!”

My five-year-old niece ran over and handed him a small bunch of white daisies she had picked from the lawn. She laughed and returned to play.

The afternoon sun streaked the sky with ribbons of pink and orange. I reached over and held his hand in both of mine.

________

Jessica Gonzalez is a native of Los Angeles. She received her B.A. in English from California State University, Los Angeles. She enjoys musing on the wonders and pains of life and writing about them. She has a passion for learning, the outdoors and yoga. Contact her at lotuspop@gmail.com.
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CaliforniaFeature Section 1Home Page SliderLos Angeles

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By Cristian Vasquez

____

We had a clear shot on the 110 South after Downtown L.A.

At the Century Boulevard exit, Dad’s white Chevy Cavalier station wagon idled at the red light when the song playing on K-LOVE was interrupted by Pepe Barreto’s voice:

“Breaking news: the four Los Angeles Police Department officers accused of police brutality against Rodney King have been found not guilty.”

As dad turned east to make our way home, Uncle Heli, who hadn’t said a word from the passenger seat during the ride home from work, blurted out “No way! That’s bull.”

Dad, not one to trust authority figures, took a drag of his Marlboro red and shook his head.

“We’re screwed.”

* * *

Uncle Heli is the third-youngest in a family with 13 siblings and was one of two who finished high school back home in Michoacán, Mexico. My dad, Rafael, is the oldest male in the family. When my dad was 15, Grandpa fell ill. So my dad made his way to America.

For a few years, half of Dad’s income was wired home to his parents and siblings. My parents met at a soccer league trophy ceremony that each was pressured into attending. They were both immigrants from Michoacán, Mom from the state capital of Morelia and dad from a small town named Pajacuaran. It didn’t take long for Mom to ditch her senior year in high school and leave behind her sheltered life in Culver City.

She was the youngest daughter and overprotected. My great grandmother raised my mom and her siblings in Michoacán while my grandmother made her way in the United States. My great grandmother was rigid. On the rare occasion that it was allowed, socializing with boys outside of school required chaperones.

At the dance where she met Dad, mom and her youngest brother were shadowing my aunt and her boyfriend, making sure they behaved. Mom left the safety of Culver City to bunker down with Dad in South-Central Los Angeles. It was 1980 and they lived on 49th Street and Compton Avenue, one of three Mexican families in an African-American neighborhood. I was born there. We lived there until 1984: just the three of us.

I was in first grade the first time I met an uncle from Dad’s side of the family. I came home from school one day and there was a guy sitting on the couch.

“That’s my brother Juan. He’s your uncle. Shake his hand.”

After that, my dad’s family began making its way north. It became normal to come home from school and find a new uncle, cousin or family friend on the couch. Eventually that two-bedroom apartment became overcrowded: My mom, dad, newborn-brother Jorge and I crammed into the master bedroom. The bed took up the southeast corner of the room, leaving just enough space for the door to open on the west wall. At the foot of the bed, cornered on the northern wall, was a dresser where the television sat. Sleeping in the living room were four of my uncles and three of their friends. In the back of the apartment, next to the bathroom, was a small room where my uncle and his friend, who shared a car and worked the same 2 a.m. schedule in Downtown Los Angeles’ produce district, decided to make their room.

The landlord took care of this overcrowding with an eviction notice. After three relocations in less than two years, Mom found a two-bedroom house in Watts. The house was on the back end of the property and included a garage but shared a yard with the front unit. Rent was $750 a month and the owner didn’t care that 15 people crammed into their property.

In 1992 Watts was a mixture of African-American and Mexican families, each group representing half the population. Our family lived next to an apartment building on the corner of Lou Dillon Avenue and 105th Street. Toward 103rd Street were the projects, but in between, the street was sprinkled with black and brown families of all ages. The language barrier kept my parents from being closer to the older African-American neighbors, but there was a mutual respect and a genuine liking in their interactions. The same goodwill didn’t exist between each group’s youth. Alliances to control turf, drugs and money were defined by race and geography, and disagreements were solved with violence. So when I was on vacation from school, Dad refused to leave me home alone; at 11 years old, it was time I learned what it was like to work for a living and he took me to his construction job.

* * *

Our drive home from the freeway usually took 10 minutes, but that afternoon the streets overflowed with angry people armed with rocks, bottles and milk crates. The red light at Main Street and Century Boulevard was the first to trap us. The mob hurled bottles, rocks and any heavy object at our car. An uncoordinated “No justice, no peace!” chant pierced our closed windows. Dad and Uncle Heli looked in every direction, scanning for anyone trying to approach the car. A rioter tried opening the door to the car in front of us.

“Lock your doors. Cristian, get us the hammers,” Dad barked, with a cigarette pinched between his lips.

I jumped off my seat, crawled over the back seat, flipped over Dad’s tool bucket and pulled out two hammers. Dad took the wooden-handled one while Uncle Heli took the metal-neck concrete hammer with the blue grip. I moved from the window seat to the middle and snapped on my seatbelt.

Dad raced through the intersection when the light turned; bottles smashed at the station wagon’s side panels, rocks skipped across the hood of our car and kicks and punches landed from every direction.

We caught another red light at Century and Avalon Boulevard. An RTD bus was stopped to our right next to the curb. Nobody was getting off and no one was attempting to board. An angry mob unleashed its rage on the bus. A handful of teenagers beat the bus windows and headlights with sticks. The bus pressed forward, and the teens gave chase, swinging their frustration at it. With the bus out of reach, the mob turned its anger on us and, as we sped off, it punched, kicked and launched debris at us.

“How’s Andrea getting home?” asked my uncle.

“Have to go get her. She took the bus today.”

Panic set in. Mom wasn’t home and Dad had to go back out.

Central Avenue and Century gave us a green light. Dad turned right, drove one block down to 103rd Street and turned east. No lights for a while and the streets were clear. Another green light took us across Compton Avenue, past the Food4Less shopping center, over the Blue Line tracks and into clear streets. Lou Dillon Avenue was only blocks away; we were almost home. Wilmington Avenue was another green light, but traffic was stopped by a sea of angry people. Fists and spit landed on the windshield as Dad inched the car through the mob, forcing it back onto the sidewalk from where they hammered it with more rocks, trashcans and tires.

Dad slammed the brakes. “Shit.” He cut right through an alley that came out on 105th Street: clear, not a soul in sight. He went east a few blocks and made a left into the dirt alley behind our house. I opened the door to get the gate; it was always my job to open the gate.

“NO! Don’t open the door.”

There was fear in Dad’s eyes. We ran into the house. Dad rushed into the bedroom, where my 4-year-old brother Jorge was watching “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” In the living room, three uncles and two cousins hung on the television’s every word.

“Protesters are gathering at different points in the city after the Rodney King verdict,” a woman said. It was happening along Florence Avenue, down Manchester Avenue and all the way down Imperial Highway.

“Nobody leaves the house,” Dad yelled, tucking something into the back of his pants. “Carlos, come with me to get Andrea.” He pulled me away from the television. “Don’t go anywhere unless your uncles say so. Understand?”

I wanted to go with him but just said, “Okay.”

“Not guilty?” Uncle Carlos said. “I expect this in Mexico but not in the United States. Governments are trash everywhere.”

Uncle Carlos and Dad left. We were hungry but there wasn’t any food and nobody was going to disobey my dad, so we watched the news and waited. The mobs became more destructive and the violence began to spread. Rioters destroyed storefronts and looted businesses; when the stores had nothing left to take, the hordes began targeting people. Pedestrians were beaten; drivers were dragged out of their cars and kicked on the ground even after being knocked unconscious. The phone rang.

“He’s on his way. He left a little while ago with Carlos,” cousin Jose said.

“I want to talk to her.” The phone still to his ear, Jose brushed me off.

“He’s okay. Don’t worry. Be safe. Bye. Your mom said don’t worry.”

Nobody was trying to stop the violence; the fires raged, the looting grew and the beatings continued.

“Where are the cops?” Uncle Heli blurted as he took a drag from his cigarette. “Haven’t seen one damn patrol car.”

The television cut to an aerial shot. A big rig pulled up to the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. A group of four men approached the rig, opened the door and dragged out a man. His hair flailed as he was kicked, punched, dragged on the asphalt and beaten some more. The driver crawled, inch by inch, back to his rig when, from the right side of the screen, a rioter in a white T-shirt and a baseball cap rushed in and hurled a rock to the side of the man’s head, then celebrated his feat. The driver stopped moving.

“Animals.”

Uncle Heli was watching from the doorframe of the kitchen. The living room was filled with cigarette smoke. He walked to the front door, looking back and forth between the street and the alley. Nobody in sight. Uncle Heli made his way to the front house. Our neighbors were also locked inside, watching Univision.

“They’ll watch the front and we’ll watch the alley,” he told us.

From the alley we heard two voices: “Hey, amigo!”

It was the neighborhood twins. They were drug addicts who fed their addiction by selling stolen items. We never knew their names; everyone just called them the twins and, despite the language barrier, these two African-American men befriended my uncles. One of the twins had a birthmark on his left cheek, right below his eye, making it easy to tell them apart. For drug addicts, they were pretty well kept and had a change of clothing every day.

“Can we have a cigarette?”

“Wait here,” said Uncle Heli as he walked toward the back gate. He lit their cigarettes, and after brief exchange he walked back to the porch. Cousin Jose was standing behind me.

“What they want?” Jose asked.

“They asked if we wanted beer. That they would bring us some and we just pay them later,” Uncle Heli replied.

“Where’s he getting beer from?” I asked.

“I don’t know. We’ll see.” He took a seat on the top step of the porch.

It was getting dark when the back gate rattled again. Dad and Mom hurried inside.

“It’s a mess out there. Lock the doors.” Mom was panicked. Uncle Carlos ran to the garage and grabbed a machete.

“They’re burning stores, beating people. You’re not going to school tomorrow,” Mom said in a broken voice. “What if they start coming into houses. Should we leave?”

“Where? We have to stand watch,” Dad said. “We didn’t see one fuckin’ cop. Everyone takes a two-hour shift by the doors and windows, and then we switch. If anyone pokes their head in, smash it.”

We took two sledgehammers, an ax, the two hammers and a steel rod from the station wagon. From the garage my cousin brought a monkey wrench the length of a baseball bat. As everyone scavenged for tools to use as weapons, I noticed flames in the dark sky. To the west, on 105th and Hickory was the liquor store my cousin worked at on weekends. The owners, Middle Easterners, would let me hang. If I swept or took out trash, I’d get a bag of Cheetos Puffs or a Springfield soda. Any other day we could see the store from our porch; all we saw that night were flames.

Looking north, across the street from the Jordan Downs Housing Projects, was another liquor store. The Korean owner saw my dad enough to extend him a line of credit on smokes and beer; the owner would let me have one item of my choosing. He always told Dad I wasn’t his kid; “He has Korean eyes. You not Korean” and would let out a boisterous laugh. That liquor store, too, was engulfed in flames.

“Get inside!” Mom said. She dragged me to the house.

“If there aren’t any police, what’s going to happen?”

“For tonight, we’ll stay here. We’ll figure something else tomorrow,” Mom said as she locked me in the room.

From the window I could see the flames that destroyed the nice Korean man’s store. In the distance came shouting and random gunshots. From behind me, Mom’s voice told me not to worry. We sat and leaned against the headboard of her bed, Dad settled at the foot of window. We watched television. The panic faded to uneasiness once the grownups took a position defending the house. I’d seen my uncles fight before, so I felt reassured.

“I want to watch the movie,” Jorge whined. His 4-year-old brain was scared but bored with the news.

“Yes. Both of you stay in here and watch the movie.” She fed the VHS to the VCR and walked out of the room. I followed.

The cloud of cigarette smoke hung over the living room as everyone was glued to the television. Usually our refrigerator was empty and when we got home everyone would pitch in for a food run. Curled up next to Mom, I whispered that I was hungry. She got up, told me to go to the room with Jorge and wait.

Jorge was stuck on his movie. Mom walked in, took her purse out of the closet and pulled out two Nabisco Swiss cookie packs.

“There’s no milk but have this. Eat them in here; if I see either of you outside with these, I’m spanking both of you.”

I sat on my parent’s bed. From the bottom bunk to my right Jorge mouthed the lines to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Outside, the flames destroying the liquor store on 103rd Street lit the sky. I wondered if the nice Korean owner was watching his store burn.

I awoke to a dark room and Dad by the window. I couldn’t see any more flames and it was finally silent: no outside noise, no news updates and no adult voices.

“Dad.”

“Go to sleep.”

“Can I watch TV?”

“No. The electricity went out. Just go back to sleep.”

“Why is the electricity out? Did you forget to pay the bill?”

He chuckled cigarette smoke from his nose. “No, son. These assholes made the whole street black out. Nobody has electricity. Don’t worry. Sleep.”

The next morning Mom and Dad had to go to work in the morning, but they weren’t leaving us home. As we piled into the station wagon, Dad checked in with the neighbors in the front house; none of them was leaving. They would guard the front and my uncles the back.

The sky was lit but the sun still hid in the horizon. The chop of helicopters cut through the quiet morning. The Chevy bounced through the dirt alley, on to 103rd Street, west to Avalon Boulevard and then north. Avalon is a wide corridor connecting Downtown L.A. to South-Central. That morning Avalon was littered with broken glass, trash and charred vehicles on their sides blocking the road; burning businesses and smoldered buildings lined the street. Dad snaked through the debris.

We sat in silence, moving past the ashes, as KLOVE chattered in the background.

________
Cristian Vasquez was born in Los Angeles in 1981 and was raised in a Mexican-immigrant family. He grew up in South-Central and Watts until his parents settled in Inglewood in 1993. During the last eight years, Cristian has been a reporter for community newspapers in Inglewood, Hawthorne, and Torrance. Contact him at cristian.vasquez81@gmail.com.

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By Sylvia Castañeda

The men from Rancho Chacuiloca knocked on Susana’s door bearing the news of her husband, Santiago.

In an attempt to defend his friend from a grave accusation made by the Federales, he received a blow to the head with a .30-30 rifle.

It was the 13th of November, 1913, three years into the Mexican Revolution; Zacatecas had become the battlefield between the agraristas – land reformers who believed that the land belonged to those who labored it – and the 34-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. A bloody civil war would last seven more years.

At 26, Susana buried her husband and was left alone with her five children.

Weeks passed. One morning, Susana left her adobe one-room house to fetch water from a nearby well; she instructed her children to remain, under lock and key. Susana never returned. Doña Petra, Susana’s mother, received word that the soldiers had left the region, but had snatched her, taking her by the waist as she walked home and forcing her onto a horse.

Susana’s children were cared for by their grandmother, Doña Petra, until each of them was sent to live with different relatives.

Six years passed, Susana found her way back home with an infant in her arms but had left her soul behind.

Although Susana knew the whereabouts of her children, they remained with relatives as she attempted to start anew with the son that reminded her every day of her reluctant relationship with his father.

As she made her way through the streets of town making her daily food purchases from the vendors, voices rumored of her illegitimate son and how her charming beauty captured the men’s attention and menaced the women of the town. No one was willing to offer her work.

She found solace in memories. She summoned the nights when the neighboring ranchos and towns were never without fairs and fiestas. The wind and string ensembles lured the town folk to dance. Susana and Santiago were drawn by the music that called to them deep into their valley between el Teúl and Tepechitlán. As Susana wrapped her rebozos around her younger children much like the cornhusk around the tamales, she thought about the chotis she would dance with her husband up until the wee hours of the night. They left their children asleep – locked the door – and embraced each other as they walked toward the music.

About town, she offered her laundering services to families; many slammed the heavy wood door after cursing her to the devil. She was not deterred. A few households welcomed her services in exchange for tortillas and frijoles for the day and a few pesos.

Work became steady and made her days ordinary. As she carried her child on her back wrapped in a black and white cotton rebozo, she balanced a basket of laundry on her head and walked toward the river. She laid her son on a bed of broad, smooth leaves as she kneeled along the shore. Her curved back rocked back and forth as she pounded the smooth stone against the clothing extended atop a flat rock.

One day, a tall dark man followed her path to the river and admired her from afar, standing with his back to a tall tree. The sun was directly above when Susana finished folding the clothes that were spread on the bushes to dry. She wrapped her child on her back and balanced the basket of freshly laundered clothes on her head and headed into town.

He followed her until their steps paralleled each other and introduced himself as Santos. She hurried on, looking forward without a word, and gripped the basket rim more tightly. Susana had spied him once before along the river. Once they reached town, he bid her good-bye and disappeared into a dusty road. She was relieved that she had not responded to him.

As days went on, Santos continued, each time approaching one step closer to where she washed clothes. Each time he’d compliment her beauty or give her a wild flower. Months passed before she looked him in the eye and smiled and accepted his assistance with the basket. At the edge of town, they would part ways. She walked into town with a feeling of hope.

Torrential rains announced the end of the summer in 1920, making it difficult for Susana to do her work. She had back pain and nausea. Without work, she only had enough frijoles to feed her 15 month old son for the next couple of days and she desperately wanted to speak to Santos.

The next morning, at sunrise, Susana picked up the laundry from her patron’s house and made her way to the river with her toddler in tow and the basket on her head. Frequently, she paused to sniff a mint leaf to curb her nausea and give her back a rest, then went back to work looking out for Santos. As she set the clothes to dry on the shrubs, he appeared before her. Their eyes met.

In a whisper, she announced that she was with child. Santos embraced her. Then he rejected her.

“I cannot accept the responsibility of your carelessness. I am an honorable family man; a married man; the father of two.”

In the spring of 1921, another son, Pablo, was born.

* *

Tlaltenango, Zacatecas

Pablo was the last of her children to marry – three months after his 22nd birthday. He walked out of his sister Lola’s house where he and Susana had lived the last 10 years. Lola was Susana’s 2nd child. She was married, pregnant and rearing six children. She had buried two toddlers in recent years and was caring for her mother Susana who wanted nothing to do with an ordinary day.

Daily at dusk, an owl, perched on the avocado tree branch, guarded the entrance to her room accessible through the courtyard. Susana would shriek, “Here comes the old hag.” Its loud, sharp whistle made her uneasy; she pleaded with it to stop its laughter. With trepidation, her grandchildren entered her room to deliver her meals. Susana faced the wall with her arms extended; her long greying hair fell over her white cotton nightgown as she howled in a rage.

“Get out of here.”

Someone had put an evil spell on her, the family voices murmured.

Night fell. Susana paced the small room, stopping to fling the wooden chair. In a moment of calm, she’d stare out the window, gripping chunks of her hair and yanking it out as the owl remained perched on the avocado branch. Emilia, her 10-year-old granddaughter, was the only child that Susana would allow in; she stood by the door keeping Susana from being lured by the river spirits. The sleep spirit lulled Emilia to a slumber. Then the rooster crowed. Emilia startled, rose from the floor. Sunlight came through the doorway; the owl was gone and so was Susana.

The news of Susana’s disappearance spread quickly. Neighbors joined the family to search the Xaloco River nearby, up and down stream, until the owl was spotted on a mesquite. Huddled, rocking back and forth, Susana stood in a small, dark cave nearby glaring at the screeching owl.

Doña Lola- Emilia’s mom– gathered lanolin from lambs’ wool to cure the severed patches of scalp and the stomach sores her mother, Susana, developed. But she couldn’t rid her of the black lice that infested her body.

“The evil spell won’t go away.”

Susana’s body deteriorated. The priest was summoned to rid her of the evil within.

“There is no cure,” he told them.

She withered away in the spring of 1944. Doña Lola prayed the rosary over Susana’s body, supplicating the Virgencita.

* *

1966, Tlaltenango, Zacatecas

Twilight enveloped the valley. Doña Lola’s youngest daughter, now a teenager, walked past the locked and abandoned room toward the kitchen. While Carmen Alicia made tea, she wondered, as always, about the woman her siblings whispered about – the one who climbed walls like a spider; who was hexed with mal de ojo; the one under the owl’s watch.

Carmen Alicia made her way through the courtyard, carefully sipping her tea. The window to the room was now open and the light of a candle illuminated a shadow of an old woman sitting. She murmured undecipherable chants. Perhaps it was her mother praying. Then she heard coughing coming from another room. There, Carmen Alicia found her mother and asked if she had been praying in the bewitched room.

“No. It wasn’t me.”

An owl screeched in the distance.

“My mother’s spirit has returned.”

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By C.J. Salgado

The average house fire burns at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

So I am in San Francisco having dinner; gorgonzola penne with shrimp, clam chowder, and sourdough toast at Cioppino’s on the wharf. My cell phone rings. It is my younger sister.

“You have to come home! There’s been a fire. The house burned. Please hurry.”

“Is everyone OK? Mom?”

“Yes, she made it out. But …the house, our things, all burned. We can’t stay there anymore.”

Is this really happening? I thought.

No one hurt! Still, my mind went to the insurance. Was it current?

I have been in San Francisco the previous few weeks, a choice assignment for a young government physicist from East L.A. My job is to protect people from harmful radiation. I am there to intern at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), a leader in health sciences, and to investigate possible radiation hazards in the area.

Mornings, I walk from my apartment in the Haight-Ashbury district to the campus of UCSF at the foot of Mount Sutro. The campus is massive. Some 16, 000 very smart people — studying and practicing medicine, dentistry, nursing, and pharmacy — convene here daily.

Ionizing radiation, its harmful form, is widely present on the campus, used for healthcare, teaching, or research. That’s the type of radiation that concerns me. And that’s why I’ve come to this school — to learn more about it.

Ionizing radiation is too elusive for our senses. It can damage human cells covertly. So, handling it safely requires specialized knowledge, skills, and instrumentation. Because most don’t understand it, accidents can come easily.

None of that matters tonight as I scoop a final spoonful of clam chowder and take a bite of my toast, pay the bill, and dash out, while dialing the airline’s number to find a flight the next day.

Back in my room, I can’t sleep, as I wait for morning to take the first flight to Los Angeles. My mind toggles between worrying about what I would be leaving behind and about what I was going to.

I have unfinished work at the medical center. Patients with thyroid cancer are given radioactive iodine ablation therapy. The radioactive iodine is administered orally to kill the spreading cancer of the thyroid gland. Beta particles emitted by this radioactive concoction bombard the cancerous thyroid cells, destroying them without ever leaving the patient’s body. That’s a good thing.

But radioactive iodine also sizzles with another type of radiation, gamma rays. Too much exposure to gamma rays is harmful. These are ghostly, can travel several yards, and easily penetrate matter. They can exit the patient’s body, and potentially injure unsuspecting persons nearby.

This is the same radioactive iodine produced by nuclear reactors and atomic bombs.

So the gamma rays must be monitored. After a few days of radioactive iodine treatment in isolation rooms, patients are surveyed to make sure they can safely leave the hospital. That is my role.

Any extra radioactive iodine administered that is not absorbed by the thyroid gets excreted from the body, mostly in the urine, but also in saliva, sweat, and tears. So I survey the patient’s hospital room to make sure that any bed sheets, towels, gowns, clothing or other items the patient come in contact with aren’t released if contaminated.

But by my leaving UCSF in such a hurry, the patients’ release to home can be delayed if I don’t show up to measure their radiation levels. I like to help people, almost as much as I like to chase gamma rays.

I got into gamma rays because they were mysterious packets of energy akin to light. Ever since, as a little boy, I pointed a flashlight into the dark of space. I imagined riding on the beam traveling out at the speed of light, slowing time and only bending for gravity and Einstein.

Fire, however, terrified me. It was the destroyer.

As a kid, my grandfather would tell me of the volcano Paricutín, which rose from a cornfield near his ranch in the Mexican state of Michoacán, ejecting stone, ash and lava in the early 1940s. Flames of fire climbed thousands of feet into the night sky. It rained fire. His fields were peppered with burning rocks lobbed from the volcano.

Waiting to fly to Los Angeles, I worry about fire the destroyer because it had found our home.

How did it start?

What did it burn?

I feel guilty. Why did I leave home and come to San Francisco? I could have done my internship nearer to home, probably at UCLA. If I had stayed, this tragedy might have been avoided. I always check the batteries on the smoke detectors and look for frayed power cords.

But I know why I came. The opportunity excited me. To live, work, and study in San Francisco seemed so thrilling. I love seafood, Chinese food, the waterfront, rolling hills, fog, the wharf, history, storied penitentiaries, and panoramas. Add gamma rays to the mix, and the dish was irresistible.

It is exciting the moment I arrive in San Francisco. I walk to the sidewalk outside the San Francisco airport terminal to wait for a taxi. Within minutes, a tall man in a black leather jacket and boots stands next to me. It is Nicolas Cage, the actor, one of my favorites. I say hello. We share a cab ride. He tells me about a place he liked to eat. Next chance I get I go there – Yuet Lee Chinese restaurant in Chinatown for the fish in black bean sauce.

In the business of radiation, work, too, is exciting. Radiation is a beast of burden when tamed but a dangerous wild animal when loose and uncontrolled. Every once in a while, it gets away and I pursue.

One day, a radiation alarm goes off at the local waste transfer station, where trash trucks drop off their garbage for temporary storage or sorting pending further processing. The station has radiation monitors to screen incoming trucks for radioactive materials hidden in the garbage truck waste loads.

When a radiation alarm goes off, transfer station staff detain the truck until it’s cleared by the government radiation control authority. Me. That day, I grab my emergency response gear and head over to the transfer station. The truck is parked in a corner of the lot away from others, isolated behind yellow and magenta barricade tape.

I am in a Tyvek ® protective coverall suit, shoe covers, two pairs of gloves, and face mask. I approach the truck and survey radiation levels with my radiation meters. I tell them to dump the truck’s load onto the pavement and spread out the waste with shovels. I keep one eye on my watch and another on my radiation meter. The more time in this radiation field, the more exposure to gamma rays.

I work quickly, swinging a radiation meter in one hand and a shovel in the other, sifting through 12 tons of garbage. I wish I had my father’s strong arms. The sweat trickles down my forehead into my eyes and burns. An hour passes.

With a sensitive scintillation detector connected to my radiation meter, I walk through the pile methodically trying to ignore the foul smell. As I get closer to the source, my meter’s audio alarm chirps faster.

I come upon a plastic bag, which I separate out from the rest of the garbage for closer inspection. I turn on my radiation isotope “identifier” meter, an instrument that can read the type of radiation and identify the radioactive material producing it. Radioactive iodine. I looked inside. Diapers.

It’s a story I know too well. A hospital patient undergoing radioactive iodine treatments for thyroid cancer urinates out much of the unabsorbed radioactive dose onto disposable diapers. These diapers are supposed to be segregated, isolated, and secured to decay in storage for three months until the radiation dissipates. Sometimes, this isn’t done and the contaminated diapers leave the hospital too soon.

My alarm clock goes off. It is 3 a.m. and I have a plane to catch.

I arrive in front of my childhood home about 8 a.m. The windows are boarded up; walls blackened, and burned furniture sits in our front yard. At the entrance, the metal security door is damaged, a large cut made vertically at the door locks, no doubt from the fire fighter’s rescue saw. I peek inside. Everything I see is black, either burned, charred, or covered in soot.

The vertical vinyl blinds in the living room window hang twisted, melted by the intense heat from the dining room where the fire started. A line on the walls of the living room demarcates how far the smoke descended after it spread up from the point of ignition. Everything above that line is sullied. Everything below it is clean. I suddenly remember a grade school lesson: to escape during a fire, fall and crawl.

In the dining room, our wooden dinner table is charred. The plastic table cover was simply fuel to accelerate the burning that ignited when a lit candle fell over. From there the flames reached up to the chandelier and ceiling, spreading horizontally to the walls and kitchen.

My mother brought her love of devotional candles from Mexico. So she had lighted a candle for the Virgin Mary, placed it on the dinner table, and left it unattended, forgetting about it when she opened a window on a windy day.

I look to one corner of the dining room where we kept many of our most treasured family valuables. Dozens of old family pictures are burned. Me as a kid in a purple suit, my father playing with us at the park, me sitting atop that garage where I imagined traveling on a beam of light—all are gone. Some look burned around the edges. Some look burned from the inside out, as if they self-ignited. Some I can’t find.

I search the remains for one picture in particular. For my first birthday my parents took me to Mexico for the first time. My mother sat me all dressed up in front of my birthday cake, a single lit candle adorning its center. Nothing.

By 9 a.m. the first of many suited men begin to arrive at our front gate. Some in business suits, some in protective coveralls, one after another they come all morning, to urge us to immediately hire them to restore, remediate, rebuild or adjust our fire loss. They are there to help, they say.

I take their business cards and stuff them in my pocket, oblivious to their rattling voices. I figure I paid the premium because our insurance adjuster would come by later, too, and hand me a check for $10,000 dollars so we could start to replace the things that burned.

Can he really do that?

They say people fear what they can’t see. That’s not me.

I’m terrified of fire, the destroyer.

The average photograph burns at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

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By Felecia Howell

There I was butt-naked in all my glory. All of my fullness on display to behold. Though I dug deep to exude some composure, I moved as graceful as a mother seal sliding past a flock of watching seagulls. I pushed myself forward, head high. Being fully exposed with nothing to hide behind, I sensed that this was going to be a moment to remember.

I was in Japan, spending the day at a local “onsen,” – a natural hot-springs bath house — in the “female-only” section. Surrounded by women of all ages, a naked communion was taking place, creating a sacred time to be with others, with nature, and with oneself. I should have tried to lose ten pounds before this trip.

 * *

        I was here with my Japanese girlfriend, Takemi. I was giddy. This was another country that I had dreamt of visiting. As a child, every Saturday morning I would run to the television to see my favorite cartoon, The Adventures of Johnny Quest. Johnny explored foreign lands, along with his dad, Dr. Benton Quest, Race Bannon (his bodyguard), Hadji (his adopted Indian brother), and Bandit, their fearless little bulldog. They often ran for their lives from native warriors, walking mummies, or large one-eyed spiders. They always looked forward to their next adventure, just like me. I wanted to be Johnny.

Takemi was enjoying her time in her homeland. She no desire to live there, mostly because of the many earthquakes. Takemi had lived in New York City for 20 years, and only periodically returned to visit her mother Yoshika. Also, at 5 feet 9 inches, Takemi felt like a giant in Japan. Fortunately, her height and natural beauty allowed her to travel the world as a model before becoming a fashion photographer. She is also left-handed. Growing up, her teachers frowned when she used her left hand. Takemi was told to use right-hand for everything, especially when writing and using utensils to eat. Japan appears to be gentle and peaceful society, but also inflicts an “invisible rule” upon its people— the subtle expectation of conformity. Wear the poker face, hide your feelings, don’t speak directly about your intentions, and if you’re a woman, don’t expect your opinions to be acknowledged.

Now we were on a seven-city tour, courtesy of Yoshika, and I was grateful she was excited to share her homeland with me. It was in the mountain city of Kusatsu, a famous Japanese resort, where I visited my first onsen.

After a dinner of soba noodles, sushi and sake at our hotel, moma-Yoshika, Takemi and I walked into the night, down a narrow path to another building. Inside a small steamy pool awaited us. “What better way to get to know the mother-in-law,” I thought. And then she called me “fat.” The commentary was a loving gesture of course.

 * *

 I was in the land of volcanoes, thus steam. This steam created the heat that warmed the underground springs on which onsen were built. I entered the changing room, which was outfitted with red wood lockers, carpeted floors, terry cloth bathrobes. I noticed that none of the women chose to wear robes, so I didn’t either.

I stand at 5 feet 8 inches, and let’s just say I am “full-figured.” When I enter naked, well I command attention. My feet are big, my breast are bigger, and my butt is biggest. The Japanese are polite, quiet and are often shy with their eyes. However, what is one to do when you’ve never shared an intimate space with a black woman, especially a naked black woman? You look. You peep. Maybe stare. Maybe smile, but mostly you look away quickly not wanting to appear rude.

Just before going to Japan, I shaved all of my hair off. Though I loved my hair, I am most comfortable with its natural texture as opposed to permed straight. I wore either a short afro, big afro, or dreadlocks. Now I was bald. The naked Buddha.

As I walked around the grounds to enter the pool area, totally exposed and watching women attempt to hide their glances, all I could hear inside my head was the theme music to fit this occasion. It rose to a thunderous “Bada-Boom, Bada-Boom!” I actually laughed out loud. There wasn’t a damn thing I could do but “jiggle-it,” and get into the water a quickly as possible.

As the three of us immersed ourselves into the earth’s champagne, personal inhibitions slowly dissolved. Since I wanted to capture every moment of the trip in photos, moma-Yoshika actually took pictures as naked as we were, and we all giggled.

I sank into the healing, warm, welcoming bliss and steamy bubbles. I felt my joints and muscles relax into an almost soft-noodle state. There was a faint scent of sulfur and lavender in the air. Soothing sounds of string instruments added to the bath’ house’s ambience.

* *

           I had watched the love of my life and hoped she wasn’t uncomfortable in my presence. I also wondered what she was feeling as she watched her mother watch me. From our first meeting when she visited us in New York, mom always received me with open arms. Though Takemi and I were not introduced to her as a couple, I saw in her eyes that she knew our truth. I sat in the nakedness of the moment.

I moved from the hot bath to the cooler pool, dipped my bucket and poured what felt like ice water over my head. As I exited this exclusive bath, I stepped as gingerly as I could knowing I was bringing thunder. “Bada-Boom” was playing at full volume as one woman giggled out loud. She later shared that she loved the curvature of my hips and big butt in a well-intentioned way.

* *

             Mom did not speak much English, nor I much Japanese, so Takemi was our translator (which she did not particularly like doing).

I found that the Japanese do not seem to engage in much light conversation (at least not with non-Japanese). At the dinner unless I started a discussion, no one would converse. Once started though, we would talk about history, women, men, food, astrology, and of course my favorite subject, Takemi. Mom enjoyed that we could chat for hours on end; banter became an easy flow with us, much to Takemi’s dismay because of the time it took to translate.

Mom came from a lineage of large land owners dating back to the Shogun era and she had inherited some of the family holdings; she fought to get more. She was the oldest of her siblings and believed she was entitled to more. This was unusual because custom dictates the elder male child to be first heir to any family succession, and it is recognized in the Japanese courts of law.

Japanese women hadn’t been allowed to work outside the home. Mom, however, was successful businesswoman. Although separated for many years from her husband, Takemi’s father, she also had a boyfriend (another taboo which she dared)- with whom she operated a successful construction company that built schools and condominiums. Finally, she also moonlighted as a psychic. She gave astrological fortune-telling readings to paying clients, using shengchein bazi, the Chinese zodiac. She also wrote a monthly magazine column that featured her predictions.

Takemi’s father, whom I never met, was an international businessman who traveled a lot. He came from humble beginnings, and after he and Yoshika married they moved into his mother’s home. According to Yoshika, she was treated like an unwanted stepchild because her mother-in-law resented her family’s wealth. She was forced to do meager chores while her mother-in-law ridiculed her. However, once her husband became successful Yoshika traveled with him to New York where Takemi was born. From there, they spent several years in Hong Kong before going back home to Japan.

Takemi was young when her mother and father separated. Although Yoshika never gave her husband the divorce for which he asked, she insisted on his continued financial support. This was when Yoshika’s boyfriends, lies and manipulation began.

While Yoshika kept one Tokyo apartment for Takemi and her brother, she had another apartment across town where she lived with her boyfriend. The young siblings raised themselves well into their late teenage years. They were left to feed themselves, get themselves to school, and protect each other. Yoshika would show up several times during the week to make sure they had food. As Takemi grew older she came to resent her mother. It was only a few years before I met her that, she and her mother began to mend their relationship. I suspect the damaged relationship played a role in Takemi’s move to New York.

Mom would buy Takemi excessive, expensive gifts that were sometimes rejected. Yoshika supported more with money than with affection. I witnessed the strain between them. Mom would often comment that she thought I was more Japanese than Takemi because I would want to assist her and walk with her. She still hoped Takemi might marry a wealthy man and live happily ever after, but in reality knew otherwise.

Yoshika spent money lavishly. She would go on wild shopping sprees that bordered the ridiculous. In New York she would shop non-stop for hours. Several people were needed to carry all of the large shopping bags up our fourth floor walk-up.

She would invite Takemi to join her for shopping in Hong Kong, Guam, and Hawaii. Often took she took the attitude that everyone could be bought, including me. Once, when she visited us in New York I slaved over the perfect dinner, but Yoshika took a sleeping pill just before it was time to serve. She slept through dinner. Takemi was furious, I was disappointed. The next day Yoshika bought me a beautiful cashmere sweater. I accepted the gift, but was still upset.

We traveled on to the city of Kobe, where we attended a show of the all-female theatre group Takarazuka. Similarly to the world-renowned all-male, Kubuki theatre group, its members performed all gender roles. It all felt very Las Vegas; there were big dance routines, dramatic songs, flashy lights, and over-the-top wardrobe changes with huge feathers, and rhinestones. The actors and dancers paraded down wide staircases, and performed in a Rockette-style kick line. Yoshika once auditioned to join this troupe. I guess it didn’t work out.

Mom loved ballroom dancing though. She was graceful as she glided across and twirled around the dance floor in her costume gowns, diamonds, and high heels while in the arms of her younger, male dance partner. In many dance-off concerts, she danced the waltz to the delight of hundreds in attendance. She had a flare for drama which always surfaced in the music she chose – long, moody orchestrations. Her expression was her pride, as her collection of trophies and other awards attested to.

Yoshika was not a complicated woman, though with secrets, she simply dared to live going against the winds of cultural tradition. She was a business owner, she lived and loved outside of her marriage, and she left her children to grow up on their own (her one regret). She traveled, paying her own way.

 * *

             At the airport before our departure home, moma-Yoshika turned to me.

“Now I have two daughters.”

We all cried good-bye. It was the last time I would see her alive in Japan. Yoshika died in 2007.

In our home in Los Angeles, there is a small altar to Yoshika, with a photo of her, a miniature tombstone marker, and some incense. Feeling her presence, I still say hello to my Japanese okasan.

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By Sarah Alvarado

1984

“I bought a theater for the house,” Manuel beamed.

He had been waiting outside the apartment complex to catch Sonia when she pulled in.

“What’s that?,” Sonia asked eyeing the huge box Manuel was holding. Manuel started for the door with an impish grin. Once inside he tore open the box and began connecting the contraption to the TV.

“It’s a VCR!”

They had two kids named after themselves – Manuel Jr and Sonia Veronica. Sonia worked at a cafeteria downtown. Manuel drove a furniture truck. Sometimes he took four year-old Sonia Veronica with him. He never came home late and always helped with the cooking, the cleaning, and the kids. The family was close to leaving their small yet happy, $170-a-month apartment in Huntington Park. They had been saving to buy a house for four years. The neighborhood wasn’t bad, but Baby Jr.’s clothes were always being stolen off of the clothesline.

As soon as Manuel finished he realized he had no idea where to find VHS tapes. The young family piled into their car, excited to find movies for their magic VCR machine.

Eventually they found a VHS rental store on Atlantic Blvd. The place bustled with recently VCR’ed patrons, everyone clamoring to find something to use on the gadgets. Sonia and Manuel rented “Escape from Alcatraz,” and were required to leave a $70 deposit for the privilege.

Later, in the afterglow of the excitement, the couple pondered what they’d seen at the store.

“Why don’t we open our own VHS rental store?” said Sonia.

The store on Atlantic had lines of customers, and there were no other rental places for miles around. So they took a chance with the house money to start a business.

“Where can we buy VHS tapes for ourselves?” Manuel asked nicely, as he returned their rental the next day. The tapes weren’t available at any store he could think of and he didn’t know anyone else who could possibly know. The video rental shop-keep was wary, but ultimately relented.

“Well, there’s a warehouse…”

Later that day, Sonia and Manuel were digging through large boxes of tapes in a nondescript warehouse. She was from El Salvador; he was from Mexico. They didn’t know if any of these old American movies were good. Most of the movies were in black and white, from the 50s or 60s, and starred actors they didn’t recognize. They picked their tapes based on the pictures on the boxes and hoped for the best. They walked away with 70 tapes, 16 of which were marked “XXX,” and each costing between $60 and $150.

They rented a space in a small shopping center near the Anthony Quinn Library. Manuel built two racks to display the empty VHS boxes; the tapes themselves would be tucked away behind the counter. The 70 boxes were placed far apart in an effort to make the place seem less bare. The one-time membership fee was set at $100; the rental fee was $2 per movie with the movie to be returned the next day.

On the first morning, Manuel affixed a handmade 12’x8’, red, wooden “Video Rental” sign to the front of the store. They made $2,000 from membership fees alone that day. By that afternoon all the tapes were out. They began telling the customers that if they returned the tapes within the day they would get $.50 back. The tapes started coming back within two hours. No customers dared steal or not return the precious tapes because no one wanted to risk losing their membership to one of the only video rental stores around.

Every day Manuel traveled from Los Angeles to Orange County looking for places to buy VHS tapes for his anxious customers. Sonia minded shop with Sonia Veronica playing in the foreground and Manuel Jr tucked into a baby-swing in the back. The provisions for the day were in a small ice chest packed with snacks and baby food. Customers called constantly.

“Do you have any movies?”

They didn’t ask for a specific movie, just something to play on their VCRs. People weren’t sleeping – they would rent 10 movies at a time, only to bring them back the next day, jonesing for more. Manuel loved to call and ask, “Have we rented anything yet?” happy to be reminded of their success. Every night Sonia and Manuel were hungry and exhausted. Between watching the store and driving between warehouses there was no time to eat. They often ordered burritos from the Apache Café.

In the early days they experimented with fashion. Manuel built changing rooms and brought in a shipment of lady’s clothes to utilize the extra space. Sonia noticed that the neighborhood cholas weren’t interested in buying the clothes, just trying them on and staining them with their heavy make-up. The clothes were quickly out.

Five months in, they found a better, higher-traffic location at Eastern and Brooklyn. The new store was christened Sonias Video, as the family contained two Sonias. They were making $8,000 a week, about half of that was made on weekends alone. Other stores sprang up, but none came close to Sonia and Manuel’s selection. Quickly they opened a second store, V&M Video, named after their kids Sonia Veronica and Manuel. Next came Happy Video, named by Manuel because he was so happy. The last store of their empire was Sono Video after Sonora, Mexico.

They hired family members to run them. Soon they were in a position to undercut any new competition and they had long since established customer loyalty. Blockbuster barely threatened them. Sonia dressed for work in a smart business skirt with a matching blazer; Manuel generally opted for a leisure suit with a jacket. They were in love with each other and partners in a lucrative business.

Once, when Manuel was minding the shop alone, three men hog-tied him and left him in the bathroom. They took his wallet and his car keys and drove to his home. They rang the doorbell and told Sonia’s mother (who had moved in to help care for the children) that Manuel had told them to come into the house to wait for him, and as proof he gave them Manuel’s wallet and car keys to show her. Sonia’s mother glimpsed at Manuel’s prized Corvette parked outside and knew the men were lying. She locked the door and called the police.

On a separate occasion, when Manuel and Sonia were both in the shop, Manuel noticed a suspicious man trying to steal empty VHS display boxes. Manuel locked the door and politely asked the man why he was stealing his boxes.

“No, no, I’m not stealing!” the man stammered.

Manuel took a gun from behind his back and fired a warning shot into the floor.

“Who told you to come here and steal these boxes?”

The man shouted his answer in panic and peed his pants in fear.

“I’m going to give you the opportunity to leave. If I see you within five blocks of here its su pajaro o su huevos!” Manuel barked.

Leaving Sonia to mind the shop, Manuel raced to a rival video store owned by a couple whom Sonia and Manuel thought were their friends. Unknown to these rivals, the insides of Sonia and Manuel’s videotape boxes were marked. Manuel opened various boxes while proclaiming, “this is mine, this is mine, this is mine” and promptly left the store with what was his.

Still life was better than a dream. They bought a house with a pool. Everyone had their own room, and the neighbors were white. Sonia Veronica was their princess, with rows of white leather shoes, puffy socks, and fluffy dresses. Manuel Jr. was their angel. He had all the action figures he could ask for. Sonia had a GTA Trans Am, new from the dealer, paid in cash. Manuel was able to comfortably spend his Christmases in Mexico with his parents without worrying about missing income. Each Christmas away, Manuel would call to say “I have a surprise for you!” then he would hold the phone over a tape player singing the Chipmunks’ classic hula hoop song.

1994

Friends from Manuel’s hometown began to migrate to the United States and soon Manuel found himself enjoying their company. The dinners he used to have at home with his family were replaced with drinks at the local seafood restaurant with his hombres. Manuel went from dressing like a Bee Gee to dressing in cowboy boots and hat. He started coming home with lipstick disgracefully smeared on his collar.

Winter came and Manuel made his yearly trip home. As he was driving back from his Christmas in Mexico he looked out on the horizon.

“I’m going to stop cheating on Sonia. I’m going home and we are going to be a family again.”

When he arrived, the house was half empty. Sonia had taken the kids and every piece of furniture she deemed hers. She made no announcement. She just left.

Sonia gave him his two-store share of their empire and forced the kids to keep visits with him because he was still their father. She would not let either of them disrespect him.

To this day, Manuel insists he was the victim of witchcraft. He claims it was Sabrina, the woman he cheated with, who lured him away from the family he loved because she knew he was married. On days when he is more honest with himself, he knows he was weak. With the success of the video shops and the panache of a Corvette he began carousing with men who inflated his ego. They told him he shouldn’t just have a wife, but also a girlfriend.

2014

Sonia and Manuel have been on the phone for over two hours.

They talk about their kids who are now in their 30s. They talk about his kids, the ones he has with his ex-wife Sabrina and with his latest wife, Vanna. Before Manuel got on the line, Sonia was saying good night to little Harold, Manuel’s second youngest, who he had with Vanna. Sonia and Harold are very close because she used to babysit him. He calls her My Tia Sonia.

Manuel and Sabrina’s relationship withered away in the deserts of Arizona. Soon afterward Manuel met Vanna. Manuel and Vanna seem happy but she frequently jokes, “When Manuel dies, he isn’t going to run to me at the Pearly Gates; he’s going to be looking for Sonia.”

Sonia tells Manuel how her ice cream shop is doing.

In the early 2000s the people who once paid $2 for rentals on Brooklyn Avenue now preferred paying $5 for burned DVDs on Cesar Chavez Boulevard. The travel restrictions imposed after the 9/11 tragedy resulted in fewer immigrants crossing over for work, and hence fewer Mexicans to rent films. Netflix and Red Box joined forces against her. The 2007 recession was another blow. Customers who were used to renting a half dozen movies had to cut back to one, or none at all. Sonia converted half of the space into an ice cream counter. She hoped that the ice cream would be a temporary life raft to weather the storm, and people would embrace their love of home theater again.

Sonias Video closed in 2009. She was heartbroken. All of her family members had been employed there at one time or another. All of the neighborhood knew her as The Sonia of Sonias Video. She had started with 70 VHS tapes and had ended with 40,000 DVDs. Sonia keeps a quiet pride that her shop outlasted the local Blockbuster.

Sonia now runs Two Scoops of Fudge. American ice cream, Mexican ice cream, bionicos, raspados. Her customers still love her. When they come in for treats they reminisce about way back when they had a neighborhood video store.

After Manuel says good night and hangs up, Sonia thinks about why she still loves him. She smiles about how Manuel never said a bad thing about her mother.

After Sonia’s mother passed, and they had been separated for many years, Manuel came back to California to visit the cemetery with her. He stood before his suegra’s grave and vowed, “I promise I will never leave Sonia alone – every time she needs me I’ll be there.”

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By Susanna Franek

My family thought I was crazy buying a house in a crime-infested, gang-ridden part of L.A.

Upon my return from Spain I had lived with my sister in the San Fernando Valley to get back on my feet, then eventually moved over to West L.A. into an apartment on Beverly Glen that a friend was vacating.

Staying with my older sister and her partner in North Hollywood was temporary. It was hard living with lesbians who chose verbal abuse, co-dependency and alcoholic, jealous-induced rants. Over in West L.A., my neighbors never conversed. I felt isolated and invisible. I’d sometimes wake up wondering where I was.

In the late-80s, Silver Lake was in the early stages of gentrification, but still had a rough edge. The grit of the neighborhood appealed to me. The house on Coronado Terrace was the first of ten the realtor showed me. I fell in love with the 1918, five-bedroom, semi-Craftsman two-story house, even though it had been worked on, piecemeal, over the decades. The ghastly dark-brown carpeting, the pink walls, the olive-green kitchen with its cracked linoleum floors, the back yard covered in concrete, the garage ready to collapse, and the chipped, red painted porch; none of this discouraged me. On the contrary, I knew the minute I walked in, it was the one.

I asked the postman about the area, the block, and in particular the eyesore next door. Junked cars were parked in the driveway and on the street, piles of booze bottles, beer and soda cans in huge plastic bags lined the side of the house, stacks of old newspapers were everywhere, and rose bushes and shrubs stood unkempt and covered in dust. I told myself there were always a few houses like this in a neighborhood, and not to worry. He described the Flores clan, a multigenerational family from the Philippines that lived in the tiny two-bedroom Spanish bungalow, and that drug dealing and gang activity had been going on for years.

“They’re a tough lot,” he said.

Frankie, Freddie, and Fidel – three sons out of the five kids — were part of a third-generation local gang, CYS, aka, the Crazies, a mix of Latino and Filipino youth. Robert, a white guy who lived a few doors up the street and had a reputation for meddling in neighbors’ mailboxes and asking for money, was also part of the gang. Yet something guided me to purchase the house.

Before moving in, I had some workers restore a bit of the Craftsman charm, take out the concrete to landscape the backyard, and move a few walls inside the house. Then I had the fun, yet challenging, job of dressing up 39 windows.

One day I stopped by the house during my lunch hour to check on the construction progress and noticed a gang tag on my side porch. Etched into a thick layer of dust were the initials ‘CYS’. Instead of waiting another few weeks for construction to finish, with my 5-year old in tow, and another sister and niece who were living with us at the time, we pulled the bare necessities together and moved in the next day. I too was staking claim to territory.

Frankie was the oldest and most involved with the CYS. Freddie was more of a follower. Fidel had two young daughters both under the age of 5, who were sometimes pulled along for the ride at night when the brothers would go out, and return with stolen car stereos they’d pass through their side gate to one of the brothers who stayed behind.

I introduced myself when we moved in, and regardless of their disruptive activities, I always said hello, called them by name, and engaged in conversation whenever they were hanging out on the low concrete wall that divided our driveways. They were hard to avoid.

The gunshots soon unnerved us. They were the norm on weekend nights. Helicopters hovered, sometimes for hours, with their bright spotlights lighting up the street and shaking all our windows as they moved from yard to yard. Sometimes we could hear sounds in the bushes up on the hill in our back yard. I never got used to the echo of bullets flying through the silence of the night.

One evening when I returned home from work and pulled into my driveway, a dozen CYS members blocked my way. They were hanging out with Frankie. My sister panicked; I realized we had to take a different strategy. I got out of the car to take my trashcans up the driveway, asked how they were doing, and would they mind letting me through. They moved. I got back in my car, a bit shaky but relieved. A couple of days later my front wall was tagged.

The tagging around the neighborhood never ceased; they were like cats marking their territory. I joined the Silver Lake Improvement Association – SLIA. I started going out with crews to paint out CYS and Temple Street graffiti along Sunset, and on the walls surrounding Mayberry Elementary School that became a canvas for the tagging wars between the CYS and ExP, the Echo Park gang. Their tags went as far as Glendale Boulevard, and spilled over into the more upscale hills of Benton Way. Before long I had a bucket of paint, brushes and some overalls in the back of my car and was often inspired to stop and paint out graffiti wherever I found it in the area.

The SLIA was a great resource for me as I settled into the hood. I started going to more meetings. Over time, though, the group’s rhetoric felt unrelated to neighborhood issues. I was invited to a meeting at the house of SLIA President. Lining her mantle were volumes of L. Ron Hubbard books on Dianetics. She was attempting to recruit SLIA members into Scientology. Around the same time, a series in the L.A. Times exposed the organization’s cult-like tactics and their problems with the IRS. I asked them not to call me anymore. I didn’t know which cult was more dangerous: the CYS or the Scientologists?

Yet through the SLIA I met LAPD Officer Joe Writer. He was the Senior Lead Officer (SLO), a job he held from 1986 to 1999 at the Northeast Police Division. SLOs are the bridge that unites the LAPD with the communities they serve. They help residents create a system of vigilance to discourage burglary and other crimes. The Rampart police scandal was then front-page news; stories of criminal cops were daily headlines. Neighborhood policing was an effective way to work in tandem with neighborhood leaders known as Block Captains, and build relationships to offset some of the bad blood.

Joe encouraged me to become a Block Captain. My sister and I worried about retaliation, and envisioned slashed tires, more tagging on our front wall, and danger to our lives. The brothers next door happily spoke with us in our driveway, attempting to disassociate themselves from any crime in the hood. But their theatricality started to wear thin, and their cohorts felt much less friendly.

Another Filipino member, Jake, who lived with his family next door to Robert and was especially known for his bad temper, was shot down at a party only a few blocks away. The mourning played out on our street with a hundred gang members all in black jackets with CYS emblazoned on the back blocking traffic for two days. We worried about more gun battles from rival gangs.

These guys were heavily armed, which Frankie openly bragged about to my Italian boyfriend, Paolo, who they thought, because of his thick Italian accent, must be associated with the mafia. They liked him and invited him over one day to show him them their arsenal.

I was scared but soon learned to trust Joe. He knew all the CYS members and their families. He had a magic touch; his soft blue eyes communicated empathy, while his large, strapping build and no-nonsense personality commanded respect. He knew each of them by name and visited their homes to mediate conversations between the kids and their parents. I remember him talking to one mom about her son, offering to get funding to put him in art classes to channel his tagging habit more productively.

The CYS was openly dealing drugs, which attracted even more shady characters. From our second floor windows we saw what looked like drug deals go down. Mr. and Mrs. Flores didn’t seem to care, and when Joe approached them I could hear their excuses and laments as to how they wanted to send their sons back to the Philippines, and insisting they were not aware of their sons’ CYS activities. I observed otherwise. I often saw Mr. Flores, a plane mechanic for the Americans during the Vietnam War, drinking with CYS members in their backyard, often for hours.

The first of many Neighborhood Watch meetings I organized drew 40 people to my back yard. With Joe’s support, the CYS slowly got the message that we’d no longer hide behind closed doors and windows. I strategized with Joe and some of the neighbors, and we decided to coordinate with a few phone calls as soon as we heard Frankie and friends congregate in front of the house when they’d return from their escapades late at night. We would come outside at the same time, to socialize, and walk our dogs, big and small, throwing them off guard and disrupting their gathering. It worked. They soon shifted their hoodlum activities a few blocks over; we helped those neighbors organize as well.

The years that followed were not easy living next to the Flores family. Apart from the junky cars and hoarding, there were many nights of family feuding and shouting, or Freddie overdosing on god-knows-what, screaming for hours. Nevertheless, we always chatted with Frankie, and though conversations were peculiar since he was usually either drunk or stoned, we stayed on good terms.

I babysat the block for nearly a year and a half, and then grew weary of mediating petty complaints between neighbors. Pilar, a landscape artist and set designer for the film industry, took over the Neighborhood Watch. She revived the meetings and also brought in the French muralist, Didier Guedj, who worked with the Mayberry Elementary School kids to design a mosaic mural. Now a young magician’s wand brought words of encouragement to the neighborhood and to the school kids: Integrity, Non-Violence, Friendship, Justice, Love, Wisdom. Neighbors who were meeting each other for the first time went on to collaborate for months, filling in the design with tiny pieces of broken tiles.

The Flores family eventually sent Freddie back to the Philippines, an arranged marriage awaiting him. Fidel finally got his life together and left the neighborhood, moving to Valencia with his two daughters, older teens by that time.

Frankie was in and out of jail for theft and dealing drugs. Every time he’d get out there would be gatherings with some of his prison buddies out in the street or in their backyard. These characters seemed even more menacing than some of the CYS bangers, who were growing older, while the next generation of younger members stepped in. Over time, Frankie was more low-key and appeared to be less involved in gang activity. At one point we thought he might be cooking meth in his bedroom garage that bordered our backyard wall.

A month later a dozen drug enforcement officers swarmed the house, entering Frankie’s room in the back. There was no meth lab, but I later found out that he had been stealing neighbors’ credit card correspondence from mailboxes; they found blank checks that he was trying to falsify. A black cloud lifted when they carted him off to jail. That was the last I saw of him.

The Floreses finally lost their house, which was foreclosed and bought by a Cypriot Armenian who renovated it – a project that lasted a year – and sold it for almost $1 million to a young actor who plays a vampire in a TV series. The house where Robert lived, the white kid involved with CYS, was renovated by an Iraqi developer who sold it for $1.5 million, to the Oscar-winning Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Next door, Jake’s family still lives in the same house.

Today, crime is still happening, but it’s more underground. Property values have risen; many in the neighborhood are sitting on gold mines, me included.

I don’t miss the boys next door, but I’m saddened by the neighborhood turning into a homogeneous hipster community. The newcomers refer to the neighborhood as the “East Side,” as if Boyle Heights and East L.A. don’t exist. I miss a community where neighbors watched each other’s backs. It’s starting to remind me of my time living on the west side, where the new folks moving in keep to themselves. Airbnb rentals are bringing in occupants who have no roots in the community, many of whom think they can party well past midnight.

The tagging continues, but rarely do we hear gunshots. With the gang gone, the biggest threat now is the coyotes, especially for the owners of those little dogs.

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By Celia Viramontes

The flat-bed truck rumbled along the back roads of Ventura County, California. Don Luis crouched in a corner. His buddies’ elbows poked his ribs. It had been a long day, climbing ladders, filling sacks, emptying lemons into crates on the way down. But it beat picking beets in Nebraska. He’d returned home penniless after that stint, despite pleas to officials at the border bracero office to recoup his wages. At the cooperativa store in his Mexican village, he’d awaited a check in the mail that never came. Now, a year later, the memory of that fruitless trip to the Great Plains still stung like thorns tearing his skin as he picked lemons. But he’d get his pay, he thought, as he leaned against the truck’s side panel, while the engine hummed and he fell asleep.

Then a siren shook him from his slumber. Braceros scrambled, flailing their arms in the dark, canvas sacks still slung across their shoulders.

Don Luis sat upright. In the distance, the red lights atop a patrol car blinded him. Brakes screeched as the truck skidded off the road. A few feet away, a door slammed and footsteps crunched on gravel.

An object gleamed in the dark as a man approached the truck.

“All of you, get down,” he said, a badge affixed to his uniform. The foreman slammed the driver’s door and instructed the men, in Spanish, to climb out, then followed his crew.

Don Luis and the men flung canvas sacks off their backs and jumped out of the flatbed truck.

“Single file,” the police officer said.

Don Luis lined up, just as he did at the border bracero processing center where ranchers’ representatives gathered to select workers. He knew the routine. No shiny belt buckles, smooth hands, or back talk.

His neck stiffened and hands fidgeted. Was someone in trouble? As far as he knew, everyone had bracero papers. Or did they? In recent years, contracts had been harder to get.

The officer scanned the men’s arms.

“I need you,” he began, pointing to each of them. “There’s a fire raging over there.” He pointed to the hills.

Don Luis and the men broke away from the line. Fire trucks screeched as crews disembarked, hauling hoses, protective gear, and equipment.

Don Luis followed them into the desolate hillside. His feet and legs dragged, heavy from the day’s climbing. Drops of sweat ran down his forehead.

After nearly two hours, his legs began to buckle as he reached the hilltop. He looked up and saw firemen frantically extinguishing flames. Don Luis and his buddies hauled buckets, equipment, and hoses to them through the night.

As the sun peeked above the Ventura skyline, a sweet aroma cut through the haze. Workers set up a table, spreading it with bread and coffee. They sat there – braceros and firefighters together – atop the hillside, amid the embers. Don Luis poured a cup of coffee and bit into the bread. It filled his empty stomach.

Then he and his buddies followed the foreman for the downhill trek and drive back to the bracero camp, where lemons and oranges waited to be picked.

* *

About that time, the postman at the village cooperativa store announced: “A letter for Don Luis.” Antonia grasped the envelope addressed to her husband, then handed it to her father to read.

“From Nebraska,” he said, opening the envelope. A check spilled out.

It came just in time. Food was scarce at home. They went to town to cash it.

In town, the teller studied the check.

“And where is Don Luis?” he asked.

“In El Norte,” Antonia replied.

The teller shook his head, returning the check. “He must sign.”

Antonia and her father headed back to their village. She dictated a letter to her sister and inserted the check in an envelope addressed to Luis in California.

It would arrive in two weeks.

* *

Don Luis removed his canvas sack and followed his buddies back to the Oxnard bracero camp. At the entrance to the barracks, the mail carrier waved letters in the air. Braceros gathered around him, arms outstretched. Don Luis listened for his name.

When it came, he grabbed the envelope — a letter from home! – and unsealed it: a check for $100 from Nebraska. It was less than he’d expected. But it would put food on the table back home. He pocketed it and cleaned up for dinner at the mess hall. At night, he guarded it near his cot.

On Sunday, he presented the check to his foreman.

“It’s good,” the foreman said in Spanish, examining it. So Don Luis donned his best pants, straightened his shirt collar, and headed into the colonia, where – unlike in Nebraska and Utah – store clerks greeted him in Spanish.

He walked into a store displaying women’s and men’s clothes. He picked out a shirt and pants, then reached for the check inside his pocket.

“Please cash it,” he told the clerk.

“Sure,” the clerk replied. Don Luis signed, and walked out with his purchases.

The following day, he was back to climbing ladders and picking lemons. At sunset, he and the men mounted ladders back onto trucks, and stacked crates. On the way back to camp, he thought of the letter he’d write home.

But at the barracks’ entrance, he stopped. A badge sparkled on a man’s dark uniform.

“Hey, you,” he barked, in Spanish.

Don Luis’ neck stiffened. Was there a fire to put out? Or was someone in trouble? The police officer stared him down.

“Were you at a store? What did you get?”

Don Luis stood erect. But his hands fidgeted.

“A pair of pants and shirt,” he replied.

“You need to go back. And be sure to take the money and pick up your check. It’s no good.”

Don Luis washed. He grabbed the unworn pants and shirt and stuffed his pockets with change left over from his last paycheck. He headed into town.

At the store, he laid the clothes on the counter and paid for them with cash.

The clerk took the money and retrieved the check. “It’s no good,” he said, shaking his head.

“Why not?” Don Luis asked. “What’s wrong with it?”

The clerk shrugged his shoulders, but suspected it had expired.

Don Luis sighed, took it and folded it in his pocket and headed back to camp. The letter home would have to wait.

That night, he paced the barracks. He circled a trash bin near his cot, drew the check from his pocket, then stuffed it back in. He’d sleep on it. He hid it in a spot by his cot.

It stayed there for two days.

His mind raced. He recalled the sting that shot through his back in Nebraska’s beet fields.

One day, he approached the foreman. He spoke to him of Nebraska, the police officer standing at the barracks, the family back home, the check that was no good.

“Don’t fret,” the foreman said. He took the check, scrolled a white paper through a typewriter and tapped on the keys. Don Luis watched as he signed the letter with a flourish, folded, and sealed it alongside the check in an envelope.

Weeks passed as Don Luis labored in the orchards. Then one day, the postman arrived and another check from Nebraska fell into his hands.

That Sunday, he donned his new shirt and pants and went into town. He fingered the crisp check in his pocket.

At the store, the clerk greeted him. “You again?”

Don Luis placed the check on the counter and signed it with a flourish.

“How’d you do it?” the clerk asked, processing a money order for $100.

Don Luis grinned. Then he eyed the colorful cloth displayed on an adjacent counter. “Give me a swatch of cloth, for a woman this tall,” he said, pointing up to his chest.

The clerk rolled out the cloth, measured, cut and folded. Don Luis grabbed a pair of women’s nylon stockings. He remembered these had been rationed during the war.

He paid for his purchases and walked out, passing stores along the way. Then footsteps crunched on gravel nearby.

He glanced back at the shop he’d just passed. Voices in Spanish grew louder.

He watched as braceros exited the shop dangling shiny belt buckles and cowboy boots in their hands. Behind them, other braceros hauled Singer sewing machines atop their shoulders on their way back to camp.

Don Luis chuckled under his breath. He could hear them already – the machines whirring late at night, a seamstress in a Mexican village churning out dresses. He patted the money order in his pocket, and caressed the smooth cloth – a shade of green, the color of lemons ripening on thorny branches before the harvest.

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By Miguel Roura

Naked, standing in a puddle of water, my hands were cuffed behind my back, and the redhead again asked where I got the weed.

Once more, I lied.

Behind me, he inched closer and spread my legs with a kick from his boot. Pain exploded from my balls to my brain, zapped through my eyes and singed the ends of my hair. Dressed in khaki pants and plaid shirt, the Guadalajara city cop carefully handled the electric wand, stepped over the wet floor, and with sadistic sarcasm repeated the question.

“You want another hit of the chicharra?

On the city streets of Guadalajara, local tokers taught me to associate the chicharra – the cicada – with ‘catching a buzz’ and getting high; taco vendors served these insects fried.

That instant the incisive sound and sensation of the cattle prod was added to my personal vocabulary.

With that, I broke.

I took the police to the apartment of a university student I’d met at a wedding named Marco, with whom I’d smoked a joint.

* *

That morning, I had awakened to Guadalajara narcotics officers bursting into my bedroom, guns aimed at my head. Handcuffed, they ushered me through the courtyard out to the street and into the waiting unmarked car as the neighborhood watched.

Joesepy, my roommate, had also been taken, as had Rudy and Louie. At the jail, different holding cells separated us, and one by one the cops conducted their investigation.

The Canada shoe-box my cousin Ramon had first handed to me full of fragrant marijuana buds sat on the interrogation table, full to the brim with stale grass, pills and other paraphernalia the cops had concocted to augment our guilt. By the time they got to me, the narcs said they knew the whole story. I just needed to cooperate and corroborate, but I knew no one knew, just me.

 

Of course I couldn’t give up my primo Ramon, the cousin who’d actually purchased the grass for us, so I blew the whistle on Marco, the poor Mexican pre-med student from the wedding.

Now in Marco’s apartment, as the undercover cops were making the buy, I stepped out onto the balcony and contemplated an escape. The narcs negotiated a transaction with Marco, who rolled a joint so ‘my friends’ could sample the product. He handed it to the tall green-eyed redhead who smiled and flung it to me. I immediately tossed it to his partner. The short, swarthy, mustachioed cop surprised me when he thumbed open his lighter and fired it up. Taking a deep drag, he expertly held his breath, and then handed the joint to his associate. The toke made the circuit, but when Marco offered it to me, I declined with a lame-ass, “I have a paper to complete, due in the morning.”

The undercovers wanted a kilo. Marco assured them he’d have it by noon next day.

* *

My junior year I traveled with nine other UCLA students to the city my mother proudly called La Perla Tapatía to study the culture of her ancestors. Our mission was to conduct independent research projects through a conservative Catholic university. We were to record the investigation in a term paper, and report the experiences at a public forum upon our return to UCLA.

La Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara catered to foreign students, mainly Americans unable to gain admission into medical and dental schools in the states. Almost everyone at the school dressed in suits and ties, and the day began with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer over the loudspeakers.

The first day of class, rifle-toting security guards turned away two members of our group at the school entrance; Rudy’s hair hung down his shoulders, beyond the designated neckline the school rules required, and my huaraches apparently demeaned their standards.

Later, the prefect in charge of our contingent, a dapper little man in a three-piece suit, tinted glasses, and bald head, sat behind a big desk and listened to our idealistic intentions and expectations. I quoted from El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán.

“In the spirit of a new people that is conscious not only of its proud historical heritage, but also of the brutal gringo invasion of our territories…”

As I read, the little man smirked and leered, his eyes lusting at Susie, the only gringa among us, who sat crossing her shapely white legs in a salmon-colored mini-skirt. He seemed to hold the attitude of my Tia Lydia. My mother’s half-sister was a strongly Catholic woman who did not appreciate modern influences; she was married to my Tío Miguel who worked as a porter on the train that commuted between this provincial city and the nation’s capital. I had met them on my first trip to Mexico City a couple of years prior. They had three beautiful daughters who had by now blossomed into womanhood. Before I left for Guadalajara, my mother told me I could stay with them; when I went to inquire about it, my Tío was away and my Tia told me she didn’t believe it would be proper. I tried to explain how as a Chicano I’d come in search of my Mexican roots. Tia Lydia belly-laughed and scoffed.

“You’re not a Mexican. You’re a pocho!”

That stung.

We ten Chicano students must have stuck out like a hitch-hiker’s thumb: our dress, our talk, our smoke. After class we’d fire up a joint on the way to the bus stop. All of us lived in the same neighborhood. Louie and Susie shared a two-bedroom apartment with Lorraine, Rudy, and their five-year-old daughter, Audrey. Albert, Becky, and the newlyweds lived in Marco’s two-story boarding house, while Joesepy and I rented a room from a single mother.

With other American students who spoke in a variety of English accents, we’d ride the bus to and from the campus on the outskirts of the city.

In the afternoons, Susie, who spoke perfect Spanish and believed in the Chicano Movement, sunbathed on her beach towel at a local park and attracted men like flies to pies.

Traipsing through the city high as a Mexico City sky, not caring that people smelled the pungent smoke odor, I sauntered down aisles at El Mercado de San Juan de Dios, which sold everything from horse saddles to local medicinal herbs, including peyote. Seated on a bench in front of the massive Teatro Degollado, I marveled at the sounds of its water fountains. I flirted with wide-eyed coquettish girls who giggled as they strolled in pairs, crooking arms or holding hands. Later I witnessed construction workers putting the finishing touches to the double-spired cathedral of El Sagrado Sacramento, a church that had been under construction since the nineteenth century.

I walked the streets and tried to make sense of what I read at the school’s very limited library; its stacks nearly empty, much like the grocery store shelves, but for government journals and crumbling folios that contained the city’s history and a lot of material about the Cristero Movement. Apparently, Guadalajara had been named in honor of the conquistador, Nuño de Guzman, who’d enslaved and tortured the natives to work in the silver mines. Guzman, who’d been born in a city of the same name in Spain, had been Hernan Cortez’s main rival for territory in the New World.

As I listened to a band of musicians strum out “El Son de la Negra” outside a cantina, another sextet belted out the lyrics to “Camino Real de Colima” on the opposite side of the street. Guadalajara was the birthplace of mariachi music. Yet, amid this Catholic and traditional city, modern American and British songs played on every sidewalk. Young people carried transistor radios in their purses and pockets. The Doors, Beatles, and Rolling Stones songs blared from everywhere.

Here, I encountered Huichol Indians for the first time, and they would eventually become the subject of my independent research project; a people who had managed for centuries to evade European assimilation, selling their artifacts on sidewalks. It was a beautiful Huichol girl who first made me aware of these folk. She stood at a street corner and held a yarn painting in one hand and on the other a transistor radio rocking and rolling the words to “Proud Mary” by Credence Clearwater Revival.

Some weekends my cousin Ramon and I visited the surrounding towns in his VW Bug. We cruised around Lake Chapala, ate fish and drank beer at beach restaurants constructed of poles and tarps anchored to the sand. As we circled the lake, Ramon pointed out the clandestine marijuana fields cleverly camouflaged on the ground by fruit and vegetable vines that hung above and lined the beaches. Ramon was a welder and an artisan who lived and sold his wares in nearby San Pedro Tlaquepaque. We celebrated my Tia Dolores, his mother’s birthday at El Parian, a popular restaurant/bar there.

On one occasion we drove out to the ancient town of Tonalá. As we rode around my aunt who had been a rural teacher and a school principal, explained to me that this tiny indigenous town had once been renamed Guadalajara by the conquering Spanish, but later abandoned when the Iberians found a more preferable site. Tapatio derived from the indigenous language of this land; tapatiotl, was a monetary unit consisting of three small bags.

* *

On the drive from Marco’s flat to the jail, I tried to bribe the two plainclothesmen. They laughed at my offer. It was too late they said.

“De cincho un Quinto,” the short cop quipped as the cigarette smoke swirled out with his breath. For sure I’d do five years in the state penitentiary. The case was in the commissioner’s desk, and there was nothing they could do but advise me to act quickly, before it was too late. The lawyer would work out the details they said, and it was up to our relatives to respond.

As the cell door clicked closed, I wondered who would answer for me. My cousin Ramon? He was probably shitting bricks right now knowing I’d be tortured and thinking I’d denounce him. Louie and Rudy had their women. Joesepy had money; he’d been a successful insurance salesman before deciding to go back to college for a business degree. A middle-aged man, he enjoyed scoring with younger women who admired his sophisticated suits, his sporty Fiat, and his generosity. Jose Something, but we all called him Joesepy, the Italian Signore.   Me, I was broke.

* *

The three days of incarceration dragged with uncertainty. Just before our release the four of us were herded into the same cell where we all assured each other no one had said anything to the cops. One by one they called our names. I was the last.

As a condition of our release, besides a $3,000 fine for each one of us, we had seven days to leave the city. Enough time to settle matters at school, and shamelessly plagiarize government documents for my term paper.

When I finally stepped outside the jail, the short, plump, aging figure of my mother waited with tears in her eyes. Dona Teresa, my mother, had decided to pay me a surprise visit. She arrived the afternoon of our arrest at the home of the woman who rented us the room.

Mortified at the news, she called my cousin Ramon, who accompanied her to the city jail. There she met with the lawyer who negotiated and brokered the deal for our release. He, too, urged the matter be expedited.

When she saw the embarrassment in my face, she told me to forget this ‘mierda tapatia’. That evening we celebrated at Rudy and Louie’s apartment smoking and drinking and singing a song we’d all heard while in lock up; it was about a guy who had been recently released from jail after being busted and tortured by the cops for smoking a little weed.

A couple days after we were released, I ran into Marco at the main square, where I was getting my term paper typed by a paid scribe. I fumbled through an apology, but Marco said he knew they were narcs. He had to play along and pay them their bags of bribery, just as I did.

Not long after that, we left. As the Tres Estrellas bus drove us north towards Los Angeles, my mother slept on the seat next to me. I recalled the interrogation and my response, which I buried away in shame. The story I’d retell upon my return to UCLA would be about the nine days we spent communing among the Huichol people in the Sierra Madre Mountains. The spirit that urged me here in search of my identity now drove me away and I realized: I wasn’t Mexican.

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