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By Fabiola Manriquez

I remember my brother Oscar and his friend Richard sneaking into Richard’s bedroom with the album under his armpit covered by his jacket.

My parents decided to visit the Garcia family for a while on that Saturday afternoon in March of 1976. We kids attended Our Lady of Soledad School in East Los Angeles.

“Hey Oscar, there’s a record player in here,” Richard said.

Then I heard music and snuck a peek to see what they were up to.

“It sounds so nasty, play it again.”

This went on for about 20 minutes, the moaning and groaning accompanied by the erotic synchronization of “Love To Love You Baby,” by Donna Summer. This was the first time I heard her name.

Raised in East Los Angeles in the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, we lived in the barrio with gangs and violence. Prejudice and bullying at school and home made life unbearable for me most of the time. My mother had an iron constitution and my father was an alcoholic. They were dedicated to their family and did their best. But a dysfunctional, traditional Mexican Catholic family home was not a place I wanted to be.

I escaped through disco dancing.

I struggled in academics, but excelled in art, sports, and dancing. Disco gave me an anchor of hope. It was like I plugged my body and soul into the electrical socket that provided climax without end.

Donna Summer became more to me than a superstar. I felt that she helped people heal. There were stories of a young boy who helped his mother hear for the first time while she was vacuuming after he kept playing “I Feel Love” at maximum volume. She miraculously began to sing along with the album and made the connection to sound. A girl who was a fan of Donna’s was in an auto accident and comatose for days. The doctor gave up hope for her. The young girl’s parents played one of Donna’s albums continuously in the hospital, which later helped the young girl regain consciousness.

I found her voice soothing and asked God for a blessing to meet Donna in person so that I could thank her for helping me cope with my turbulent teenage years.

Two of my brothers were DJs during the Disco era and went by the names of Circus Disco and Levissio Disco. During the week, they would practice for their weekend gigs by dimming the lights in our home, setting up the turn tables and the rainbow strip lights then blowing the referee whistle to the beat of Donna’s “Heaven Knows,” “Sunset People,” and “Once Upon A Time.”

My middle brother became my dance partner. We won several contests. During the summer of 1978, while at the annual carnival at my grammar school, a European film company videotaped us for their documentary on Disco in the United States.

Later that evening, we competed in the festival’s dance contest before about 500 people.

We danced to Cheryl Lynn’s “Star Love,” with six other couples as the disco lights fluttered across the dance floor. Finally, he and I were competing with only one last couple. With our every twirl and dip, the crowd cheered us on in rhythm with the thumping disco beat. A shouting match ensued as the disc jockey stirred up the crowd with a succulent deep voice.

“What do you think, people? Number One or Number Five?”

The crowd bellowed for minutes. Finally, a judge tapped the other couple on the shoulder, and the DJ announced us as the winners. A mob of friends and community members charged at us. We were surrounded by people pulling at our clothes, hugging us and shouting. For a brief moment, we felt what it’s like to be a celebrity, with people out of control. All I remember is a tall man yanking us out of the crowd and escorting us onto the stage, where I finally caught my breath. The song “San Francisco” by the Village People played as he announced our names and placed medals around our necks. It felt like an Olympic moment. Then Donna’s “Last Dance” packed the floor.

In 1995, Donna Summer gave her usual August concert at the Universal Amphitheater. I never understood how people went hysterical for groups like the Beatles or Elvis until I finally saw Donna Summer in person. I screamed so much that by the end of the concert I could barely hear my voice.

My friends and I lingered on and chatted inside the concert hall.

“I just want to meet her once and then I’ll die in peace,” I said to my friends.

Out of nowhere two white, gay young men in their late twenties put their after-concert reception party passes on each of my thighs and said, “You go girl, and meet Donna Summer!”

I froze.

“Come on Fab, this is your chance,” one of my friends said.

My heart began to race as fast as the beat to “Once Upon a Time.” I made my way down the stairs from the concert hall to where double doors lead to the back stage courtyard. My hands began to sweat, my legs to tremble. I almost hyperventilated. I was alone among music-industry folks, the press and media. I said a little prayer.

Donna was being interviewed about a hundred feet away by a film crew. It was a separate section from the immediate crowd and guarded by security. I turned to my left and bumped into her nephew. His pass was different than mine, which caught my attention. So I asked him about it. His pass allowed him entry to the family room. Only God could have sent me this angel. After telling him how important it was for me to meet his auntie, I convinced him to lend me his special pass and get closer to Donna.

I made my way into the family room and stood by the water fountain alone. No one asked me a single question. How could anyone miss me? I was the only Chicana in the room. Everyone else was black or white. I learned after reading her biography that her nanny, Rosa, was Latina, so I guess that’s why no one questioned me. I kept praying, hoping that she would come into the family room for a quick minute so I could say hello and get her autograph, or a hug.

Minutes passed. I continued to pray. Then with a gentle push, she opened the door and peeked her head into our area, calling three little girls to come to the dressing room. They were standing near me – her daughters or nieces, I think. I froze and then on impulse I followed the girls. My entire body trembled as I made my way four feet through the backstage door.

And there I was — Donna Summer, her bodyguard, and me.

“Mrs. Summer, can I please have a minute to share something very important? It would mean the world to me.”

I told her how important she had been to me during my turbulent teen years and how her music and singing had been a true complement to my life. She took my hand as I continued to share and tears rolled down my face. For years, I told her, that I had prayed for this meeting and that I believed in miracles because of this special moment. She gently took my other hand and with a soothing voice looked into my eyes and told me that everything I said was very important to her and she really appreciated me, too.

I felt like I was talking to a friend I hadn’t seen for years. After a few minutes of warm exchanges, I finally asked for her autograph. I only had a pen so she removed the hospitality sign from the wall and signed it.

With tears in my eyes, we hugged and I thanked her for making my dream come true. The moment felt so wonderful that I didn’t want to let her go. Her bodyguard finally gently touched my shoulder and told me that I had to let her go. She handed me a tissue as I collected myself and took a deep breath.

She thanked me for coming to the concert and said that it was nice to have met me. As she and her bodyguard watched me leave, I said thank you and found my way through the double doors alone. As I got to the base of the staircase, I began to sob and thanked God for a phenomenal gift. I felt as if I had gone to her house to visit, leaving very peaceful, happy, and validated.

I climbed the stairs holding on to the railing as my legs trembled and my heart beat as fast as the rhythm to “Heaven Knows.” All I could say was, “Oh my God, this was like a dream.”

My friends were waiting for me in the lobby. They shrieked as I showed them Donna’s autograph, and hugged me hard.

“You did it, Fab, you really did it!”

I filled them in on the details over dinner at Denny’s and it was about then that I was sure that when I’m cremated, I want Donna’s autograph to go with me, while “Last Dance” plays.

____

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.
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By Peggy Adams

In our family no one ever separated and God forbid they even think of divorcing.

Granny Love always said, “Course they’s some orta-had nevah got hitched in the first place.”

My Aunt Bertha Mae was scared to divorce.

“God may strike me dead ifen I divorce. I jest wants to be rid of ‘im,” she would say.

This is her story.

Bertha Mae was the oldest daughter in her family of three children. They lived in the family’s hundred-year-old, bulky two-story house on the edge of a township called McCleary Station, 20 miles outside the city of Talladega, Alabama. Her father was the only doctor within 30 miles. Times were hard in the 1950s and often patients could not pay their bills in cash, so they brought dried beans, peas, and home-canned vegetables, lard and freshly ground cornmeal. The family cellar was always full.

Homer Ghee was from the township of Wetumpka. His father, a District Attorney, had ambitions to become a state representative. Those ambitions included plans for his son to build a career as an architect.

In 1952, Bertha Mae was the first female in her family to enter college when she attended the University of Alabama Nursing School. Homer Ghee was working toward a degree in engineering. They met at a homecoming football celebration, fell madly in love and moved in together. Within the year she was pregnant and they dropped out of college, married and moved into the large house with her parents. Homer was nothing special, as far as her family could see. He was handsome, with sharp, blue eyes, was a good dresser and excellent dancing partner, but he was vague about his future. He and Bertha Mae went dancing at the Armory most Saturday nights.

After the birth of their son, Homer enlisted, departed for boot camp and was sent to Korea. His company was ambushed while on an early morning patrol in the mountains near the 38th Parallel. He took shrapnel in his neck and face, some loss of sight in his left eye and was medically discharged. Homer returned changed — restless and bothered by nightmares. The fun loving boy was replaced with a sullen, angry young man. Bertha Mae gave birth to their second child, a daughter, eleven months after his return home.

The first crack in their marriage was when Homer, newly medically discharged, removed Bertha Mae’s name from the checking account.

“We have little money and I can manage it better-n you,” Homer said.

This forced Bertha Mae to ask for money for household expenses, which Homer often forgot, and when he did remember it was never enough. Within a month of Homer’s taking over the finances, they realized they could not live on his military retirement income. They decided Homer would look for a job allowing Bertha Mae to be a stay-at-home mom. Homer found temporary work as a mechanic and gas-pumper at his Uncle Ben’s gas station but seemed unable to stay on the job. Soon, Homer began coming home in the early afternoon with liquor on his breath and demanding sex as his right. When rejected, Homer would storm out of the house and disappear for weeks without leaving money for Bertha Mae. He always returned from these trips as though nothing had happened.

Realizing Homer was not taking responsibility for his family and falling deeper into depression and running away, Bertha Mae insisted he go to his father for help. His father offered Homer a salesman’s job at his life insurance company.

The sales job entailed long hours, looming quotas and travel far from home. Homer moved his family 165 miles away from her parent’s home into a small house in his home town of Wetumpka that his father gave them. After spending months there, often alone, Bertha Mae high-tailed it back to her parents. She and Homer lived between the two homes for many years.

Bertha Mae’s parents died within six months of each other from the 1959 influenza epidemic. The house and two acres of land had been deeded to Bertha Mae, free and clear of any debt and she announced to Homer she would be living there permanently.

With a secure job, Homer finally got his self confidence back and won awards for his sales ability. Yet he repeatedly refused to take a District Manager’s position that would mean a desk job and more time at home. Soon, though, Homer’s bad eye was giving him problems. He tried to hide his vision problem from everyone. Slowly the blindness in his left eye prevented him from safely driving a vehicle. Now he took the desk job.

With more time at home, he and Bertha Mae argued more. Their twelve-year-old son refused to go fishing with his father; stating it was no fun, boring and they never caught any fish. Also, he was adamant he would not play football, nor any other ‘ball’ sport for that matter. The boy loved to read, draw and put together airplanes and cars and paint them up in loud colors. Homer accused Bertha Mae of coddling their son and making a sissy of him.

Meanwhile Homer grew bored and restless at his job, losing many workdays. Once his father became aware of his son’s absence from work he retired Homer. He gave his son a generous retirement monthly income package and encouraged him to go home and seek help for his anger and inability to adjust to adult life.

Homer now spent lots of time on the creek banks fishing, though he never brought home any fish. He once spent his full-month military retirement check for a deep-sea fishing rod and reel that could only be used in the ocean, which was 350 miles away.

One night there was a particularly brutal argument between Homer and their son. The boy insisted he would not play football.

“You are no son of mine,” Homer said as he departed the room.

Homer rose early the next morning, made the coffee and was on his second cup when Bertha Mae arrived in the kitchen. She took her mug of dark, steaming coffee, inhaled the aroma of chicory, and opened the door to go out onto the screened-in back porch.

“I think, today, I’m gonna leave you for good. You heah me, Bertha Mae?”

Bertha Mae called to her cat, “Come on Suga”

“You wanna talk about it?”

“No, I done quit talkin’ bout it. Suga, come on.”

“That’s our problem, you and that cat. She gets more attention than I do.”

Bertha Mae heard the front door open and click shut. Good riddance.

She stood looking out the open canopy-window over the kitchen sink. The early morning sky was slowly opening up to a soft orange light that seemed to color the air and gave the green bushes and shrubs a dusty orange glow. Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud grunt and then she heard a chair scoot across the floor. She saw Homer sitting at the dining room table pressing his thumbs to his temples. She just stood there looking at him, thinking that his strength always seemed so big to her; now, she realized how small and slight he was. In all the times he left, Homer had never announced he was leaving. She had never felt afraid until now. Can I do this alone? Should I beg him to stay? Will the children and I be safe?

Dressed in overalls over long johns, he came out, moved the cat from the doorway with his foot and closed the door. The cat screamed and dashed into the hallway and hid behind the chiffarobe.

Much too early, Bertha Mae needed her ritual “toddy of courage.” She reached for the Southern Comfort, poured a little into her coffee cup, and added a smidge of water. She coached Suga from her hiding place. The cat, stretching and rubbing against her leg, looked over at the empty food bowl. Bertha Mae filled the bowl with nibbles and walked out onto the screened-in back porch.

She sat in her double-seated rocker, just out of the sun’s reach. Suga sat beside her and began tongue-bathing. Bertha Mae rocked back and forth, singing her favorite gospel song, “There will be Peace in the Valley some day, Oh Lord. Yes! There will be peace…”

Later that day, Homer Ghee walked away from Bertha Mae and their two young children. He left with only the clothes on his back, his custom-made pipe and special-blended tobacco pouch.

She still had the checking account Homer set up for her years ago and the monthly deposits continued in his absence. She remained a stay-at-home mom, became President of the PTA and participated in the flower club.

Years passed. Their children married, moved out, and had children of their own. Bertha Mae and the children had discussed cashing out Homer’s life insurance policy so they could attend college; but the insurance company said he had not been gone long enough. Bertha Mae, meanwhile, adjusted to the hollow sounds in the big house she loved. She was born and raised in this house. The front of the house sat up high, on solid rock pillars. Her father dug out a root cellar under the porch, which provided a cool, dry place year round for food and children alike.

In time, with the children gone, she grew to enjoy her single life. The checking account supported her. She volunteered one day a week as a hospital greeter. She hated any unexpected interruptions, insisting friends and family phone before they come over—‘to be sure she was home.’ She woke every day, stretched, and rose from her bed, changed from her nightgown into her day dress, and tied the ruffle-trimmed apron around her waist. She then inspected for “grays” on each curler encased-bunch of hair. It was a daily chore. In the past when she found them “loitering about,” she would just jerk them out. With her hair getting thinner, this was now the biggest decision of the day before she went down stairs.

Every morning, Bertha Mae filled the coffee-percolator and placed it on the stove.

One day, as she stepped out onto the back porch, she felt the chill and saw the pre-dawn air was rich with musky dew. A white-orange light reflected upon the sky from somewhere barely over the horizon. Pale fog hugged the ground and glowed as it lay in smoky layers in the hollers and valleys behind her home.

Her last chore of the day was always to mix sugar water for her three hummingbird feeders. This morning, she saw that one was already drained. She was puzzled at the loss of a liter of nectar at a time when the hummers were resting. She was irritated. She wasn’t sure if the irritation she felt was because of the disappearing nectar or because of her friend nagging her to come to the Amory Dance every Saturday night.

“You need to find a man ’cause you’re talkin’ to yorself,” Eufaula said.

“I done had me one man and I don’t need no nutter-one!”

Or perhaps, her irritation was the result of learning, just the day before, that in fact she could have claimed Homer as dead and collected his life insurance years earlier.

Bertha Mae poured her second cup of coffee and went to the front porch swing. She never sat on this swing without remembering how she and Homer Ghee sanded, stained and put the beautiful walnut-boards together. The one project they accomplished without an argument.    Swinging and combing the fur of her cat, she heard a scratching sound and then a grunt. Thinking it was the swing grunting and the scratching sound was Suga’s claws on the wooden swing-boards, she paid it no mind and continued brushing.

But there it was again. The sound was distant and too soft to be heard clearly. She began to swing and brush in earnest. Then she heard a dragging sound. Suga went on alert.

Bertha Mae stopped swinging. Silence. Then they resumed swinging. There was that sound again; loud and much closer now. Sliding and scraping and bumpety-bump, slurred mumbles and grumbles from a human; this noise was moving toward the end of the porch.

A faint mist of odor she couldn’t immediately recognize floated up through the wide-plank porch floor. Suga bounced onto the floor, arched her back, tail in the air, in a defensive stance and screamed. This sent chills up Bertha Mae’s back.

Suddenly there was smoke curling up between the cracks of the porch floor.

“Who goes there?” Bertha Mae shouted.

She crept toward the noise coming from underneath the planked porch floors and the smell she was sure she knew. Suga rubbed against her leg with arched back. The noise moved toward the end of the porch. The cellar door creaked open.

A gray-haired head popped up and turned to face them. Homer Ghee, with his hand-made pipe in his mouth, was puffing his special-blend tobacco, smoke twirling into the air above his head.

The first thing that came to her mind was that she had just mailed the forms claiming Homer as dead and collecting his life insurance. Should she be nasty and argue or play nice?

Bertha Mae reached up and placed a hand on each of Homer’s shoulders, as if to verify authenticity. His face furrowed with wise creases and his blue-eyes burned brightly. Satisfied that the person was indeed Homer, shaking him roughly, she said, “Homer, we have to make you disappear again.”

“Huh?” He muttered as he grinned with a display of tartar-coated teeth.

“You sick Bertha Mae? You lookin’ mighty funny.”

She gave him the stink-eye, cold and direct. Then she released her hold on his shoulders, walked over and flopped down in the swing next to Suga.

The swing seemed to move of its own accord as Bertha Mae began to brush the cat.

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By Jian Huang

I wore a pink satin dress with a bow that tied in the back. My dad wore a white short-sleeved button down shirt. His mother taught him to always wear a collared shirt when going out in public. It was 1989. It must have been summer. I sat on my dad’s left arm. It was easy to carry a four-year old who weighed so little. With his right arm, he waved at someone just out of the frame. He wore a look of pleasant surprise; I had just kissed him goodbye on the cheeks.

“Even back then you knew more than your age,” he told me one day at lunch. He’s 78 now and living in affordable senior housing in Chinatown. He lost his sight 13 years ago, but the image of this picture is seared into his memory. I look at this photograph as an adult and wonder what made my dad say goodbye to his whole life that day at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport.

“I am going to America,” he said in the van ride to the airport.

“Is it far?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Are you coming back?”

“No. But you’re going to come with me.”

“Today?”

“No.”

When I turned six in 1991, I saw my dad again at the Los Angeles airport. I helped my mom push two carts worth of luggage up the carpeted ramp to the arrival gates at Tom Bradley International Terminal. Two years had taken a lifetime’s toll on his face.

“Life is a slippery thing,” he said at lunch. “It takes all the courage you have just to keep living.”

My ears hurt from 16 hours of cabin pressure. We squeezed seven across in the middle aisle on a Boeing 747. It was dark outside our aircraft for a long time while it tumbled up along the eastern rim of Asia, up to the tip of the Soviet Union, across the Pacific to Alaska, and following the coastline down through Canada. A flight attendant let me lay on the floor near the bathroom in the back of the plane because I was so nauseous. My mom sat on the floor next to me and rubbed my head.

“I don’t want to be here,” I cried. “I want to go home.”

When there was daylight again outside the airplane window, I saw little patches of land down below grow to a full-sized city. Life awaited.

“You have arrived in Los Angeles, California. The local time is…” a female voice said over the intercom in Mandarin Chinese. It was hard to hear over the loud cheers.

“Why are they so happy?” I asked my mom.

“Because we’re in America now.”

She asked the other people who got off the plane with her what the signs read and was met with confused stares. A young man in front of us with thick-rimmed glasses pulled out a pocket dictionary and flipped through the pages.

“Hang onto my pant leg,” she said as we squeezed through the stream of passengers. “Don’t get lost. I can’t speak the language.”

The population in China in 1991 was 1.2 billion. In the United States, it was 253 million. Being just one of many, by comparison, was much better here in the U.S. More land for everyone. More food. Life mattered here; in China, we were just a number on a graph. The U.S. was the land of the free. The land of the Self. Here, we manifest our own destinies.

“Where do we line up? What kind of identification do they need?” a woman behind us asked nervously, as we and dozens of others walked into the terminal.

They were people with college degrees, crushed by the Cultural Revolution, disheartened by a lack of choice, who would rather be motel workers in the U.S. than starve back in China. There were hundreds of them with luggage as big as ours inside that fluorescently-lit brown interior. Our whole lives fit into five black zip-up bags as big as I. My dad mailed letters to us with instructions on how to write our new identities in English:

W.X. Huang

116 E. 23rd St.

Los Angeles, CA 90011

“There are standards in America. Try not to stand out too much. They don’t like foreigners,” my dad’s letter read. “Remember to respect them.”

We waited for hours. The brown wood-paneled walls accentuated the terminal’s lack of windows and airflow. The young man with the dictionary slumped over his pile of luggage in front of us. There was only a little chatter here and there. I tried sitting on the floor, but my mom abruptly pulled me back up.

“Stand up,” she said firmly. “Don’t embarrass us. We’re in someone else’s country.”

I tried to imagine what it would be like to sit on top of one of those big bags in front of us. How nice it would have felt to take a nap.

Before we had left Shanghai our relatives helped us pick out our best clothes to wear just for this moment of entry. “You have to look like you have money,” my uncle said at dinner the night before we were scheduled to leave China. “Otherwise they’ll turn you away.”

“They would do that?” my aunt, sitting beside us, asked.

“Yes. You have to make them believe that you’re only visiting.”

But we weren’t only visiting. Even a six year-old could tell from the five big bags that took weeks to pack. We were planning to stay whether they wanted us or not.

China was a place of perpetuated separation between the rich and the poor, the light- and the dark-skinned, the urbane and the provincial. There are 56 ethnic groups in the country but only one, the Han Chinese, made laws. In China, you got one shot at taking an entrance exam for college. There were no community colleges, no transfer opportunities, no mobility. People in rural towns stayed dumb and poor. Destiny predetermined.

The lines of black-haired people in front of us snaked across the terminal. Every few minutes more Chinese nationals piled on behind us from other arriving flights. Blond-haired people went into a separate line next to us that was much shorter. There were booths at the head of the line with uniformed officers hunched over a desk, examining paperwork and looking through bags. One blonde woman waved to me and smiled. She probably knew she was going home. In our line, no one smiled.

“Mom, can we go there?” I pointed as I tugged at her leg.

“That line isn’t for you,” dictionary man said. “That’s for Americans. You’re not American.”

At the front of the line, I couldn’t tell who I was supposed to smile at, so I smiled at everyone who didn’t look like us. My mom pulled out pieces of papers from her red leather bag. Red was the color of good luck.

This moment would be only the beginning of many instances where my mom would utilize her newfound communication skill: body language. The lady officer pointed at my mom’s purse and held up some papers as example. Getting what was being asked, she pulled out all the documentation she had and laid them out for the lady officer to choose. Two male officers opened our bags, occasionally bringing things up for a sniff.

“Why do the foreigners have such big noses?” I asked my mom while in line.

“Because the air quality in America is better.”

They opened our packages of teas, our menthol ointments and our dried fish snacks. I pulled open my pink plastic backpack to show them my package of crackers. They chuckled. Then I lifted my heels to flash my best six year-old smile at the lady officer over the counter. I made sure she saw me because she smiled back.

A couple stamps stamped. “Now we can go find your dad,” my mom said to me with relief.

Memories of my dad were faint. I remembered him running after me on a set of stairs at the park. I remembered him laughing as he fed me noodles with a spoon. I vaguely remembered a man who I had kissed goodbye two years earlier at the airport.

I thought that reunion would solve whatever problems we had before. Each time my mom showed me one of his letters she would say, “We’ll see your dad soon.” Often, he would send me doodles he made during down time at his motel job in Inglewood. Sometimes he would send a photo of him in front of the Federal immigration building in Downtown, or at the pier in Redondo Beach, or holding the box of Andes mint chocolates that came with the letter.

“For little Jian,” they always read.

I didn’t recognize the man who came to pick us up at the airport. He appeared as suddenly as the downtown L.A. skyline while we flew through smog.

“This is your father,” my mom introduced him. I hid behind her leg.

She grabbed my hand and placed it in his hand. They didn’t feel like my dad’s. They were thicker, darker skinned and much more calloused than I recalled. His face was fatter. His eyes were puffy. His head had more gray hairs.

“What happened in those two years?” I asked my dad over lunch in Chinatown.

“Life slipped away from me.”

Two years had erased the vitality in his face. The man I remembered had never heard a woman scream while getting raped at a motel, hadn’t heard of gang wars, or drug addiction, or seen a human body twitch after getting stun-gunned. He hadn’t seen black people, or brown people, and only theorized that we all bled bright red inside.

“We wear our lives on our faces,” my dad said.

Later, on those days when I helped him at a motel near MacArthur Park, we would play games and tried to guess whether someone checking in was a good person or a bad person. He would teach me how to punch someone in the face, a skill that would later come in handy at John Adams Middle School.

“Protect yourself. The world is an unforgiving place.”

But I didn’t know any of these things the day this man picked me up at the airport. I still understood the United States through Shirley Temple movies dubbed in Mandarin.

My mom and I had cheered along with everyone else on the aircraft because, finally, we were here in the land of the free. Everything would be okay. I would see my dad again – the same man I had kissed goodbye in the photograph.

____

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.
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By Maria Fernandez

Aureliano Valdovinos is walking under the October moonlight. The dirt road is full of shadows, but he is not afraid. He can feel his gun at his waist, moving with him. He’s been walking for more than one hour. Once he gets to the crossroad, he will catch a bus to Sahuayo; a second bus drops him off in San Pedro Caro, Michoacan, where he is now living. With each step he takes, he is leaving his old village, Jaripo, and his girlfriend of several years, Esther.  The cluster of adobe huts, illuminated only by petroleum lamps, gets smaller by the minute.

Men have been leaving Jaripo for years. This small village in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, along with many other villages across the country, sends its working age men to the United States, to work legally as manual laborers under the Bracero program, an agreement the two countries entered in 1942. Thousands have left with contracts, for months at the time. They return home for some weeks, just to depart again with a new contract. Yet, poverty is not the reason Aureliano is walking away from the place where he was born.

It was August 15, the day of the Virgin Mary.  Just after 6:00 pm. People were gathered at church for a rosary in honor of the Virgin. The sweet smell of flowers, and candles burning, mixed with the murmur of prayer. At the altar, a statue of Virgin Mary, dressed in a blue and white outfit, stared at devotees with an almost human expression of kindness and compassion.

Nobody knows why Moices Salceda pointed his gun at Rafael that afternoon. Rafael was sitting on some steps leading to the plaza. Later, they said Moices threaten to kill Rafael for no reason, other than feeling like bullying someone he knew unarmed. The two had never had any problems before. Antonio, Aureliano’s younger brother, happened to be standing nearby. He saw Moices pointing his gun at Rafael, a close relative, and ran to find a gun for himself, snatching it from one of his uncles. Antonio came back yelling for Moices to leave Rafael alone, and to come resolve whatever the problem was, now that he too was armed.

The two men ended up face to face. It all happened fast. Antonio fired first. One bullet hit Moices in the head. Moices lay dead on the street; 18-year-old Antonio was in shock. Revenge was law in town; it wouldn’t be long before armed men from the Salceda’s family stormed the plaza. Aureliano heard the commotion from inside the church. When he realized Antonio was involved, he rushed to his brother, who was still unable to move.

“Let’s go!”

Aureliano kept repeating.

“We have to go!”

Antonio started to move. He slowly bent over to pick up his hat and then took off running across people’s backyards.

Nobody else died that day in Jaripo. The gun battle that followed between the the Salcedas and the Valdovinos left only one wounded man on the Valdovinos’s side; but nothing was ever the same. Most of the Valdovinos clan had to move to another town. Aureliano’s family home and his father’s land had to be sold. Aureliano missed his friends, and working on his father’s fields, but more than anything he missed Esther.

Esther was a pretty, quiet girl, with long, dark, wavy hair and dreamy eyes. They met in elementary school, and remained friends until he asked her to be his girlfriend in their early teens. That’s why now, after the troubles, he kept coming back every week or two. He would only see Esther for half an hour or one hour each time. She pleaded for him to stop visiting. A few years had passed since Moices was killed. Nobody had bothered Aureliano during his visits, but is was impossible to say it would never happen. His gun was always ready; Esther was always on edge.

Esther’s family liked Aureliano. Her mother made tortillas for his mother for a small fee. They noticed the handsome, hard-working young man early on, and welcomed the relationship once they learned about it. The couple had talked marriage but nothing was decided, until one day Esther accepted Aureliano’s proposal in a letter. Aureliano paid for the wedding with money he earned as a bracero, pruning beets in Idaho, harvesting peas in Minnesota and corncob in Delaware. The newlyweds settled in San Pedro Caro. He was 24-years-old, Esther was two years younger.

For the next several years they were often away from each other. Esther, like many other Mexican women at the time, was giving birth and raising kids almost on her own. Aureliano always sent money home when he was away, working in the United States. He enjoyed bringing back gifts for the kids when he returned. But he always left again, sometimes with contracts, sometimes working independently. Esther would find out she was pregnant and write to her husband with the news. In spite of the money coming reliably in Aureliano’s letters, it was tough being a single mother to seven children. The day little Carlos died of stomach flu, which often killed poor babies. Aureliano was working in the United States. He didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to his son.

Every day, at exactly 12:00 pm, the women in the neighborhood took out their chairs and sat in front of their houses to wait for the mailman. Sometimes he passed by a house without stopping. They picked up their chairs and went back inside, hopeful that tomorrow would be different. Sometimes letters came with no money orders. The husband or the son would explain that frost had made it difficult to harvest the tomatoes or the asparagus. They had to wait. Yet the mail remained the most expected time of the day.

San Pedro Caro was a town of fisherman, farmers and migrant workers. By the beginning of the sixties running water was a privilege for few. Women and girls washed clothes by hand at the public “lavaderos,” or even at the edge of a canal, also popular with boys for swimming. Neighbors with wells in their backyards, opened their houses for the community. They endured the constant coming and going of people carrying buckets of water. Nobody had to pay, only patiently wait for their turn and follow the rules, like using only the rope and bucket already at the well to get the water out.

At night, and regardless of her complaints about the lack of help to buy new batteries, Maria Gil would take her radio out and put it where all could hear the soap opera. Women and kids alike surrounded the neighborhood’s only radio.

Esther was not very sociable, but it was difficult not to become part of the communal routines. People shared more than radios and water, and more than the sounds of kids playing on the streets; they shared the absences of loved ones, and the hope and loneliness that came with it. They shared the hardships for the lack of social services and the heartache of seeing babies die. But most also shared a dream, the dream of one day setting foot in “El Norte,” joining their husbands, fathers and sons.

Every time Aureliano returned home from the United States, he found work in the fields of well-to-do families in town. Even if he only had weeks to be with his family, he didn’t rest. One morning when on his way to work, while hauling farming equipment with his horse, tragedy struck. The horse got scared and threw him. The heavy piece of farming equipment trapped and crushed one of Aureliano’s arms when it fell on him. Some surgeries later he had improved but not totally recovered. For several years he was unable to return to work in the United States. He continued working on whatever jobs he was able to handle, but with more mouths to feed – now a total of 11 – for the first time since they got married, Esther and Aureliano’s family experienced hunger.

The economic situation was so bad that the oldest kids had to drop out of school to help. By the time Aureliano’s mobility and strength returned to his arm, some of the kids were young adults and teenagers. It was now their turn to look North. They left one by one, the way it always happens. At the beginning of the seventies, Aureliano made once again the trip to the United States to reunite with his sons, in Los Angeles, California, sending for Esther and the younger kids a couple of years later. The two oldest daughters had already married and stayed in Mexico.

For Esther “El Norte” was nothing like she had imagined. The two-bedroom apartment where she and her three kids landed, was infested with rats and roaches. The space was already home to Aureliano, three of their sons and two other male relatives; one son had already moved out and had a wife and a baby. The apartment complex was in the heart of East Side Clanton 14 St territory, one of the oldest gangs in Los Angeles. The two adult sons liked to party and were often out late at night. The teenager was ready to follow in their footsteps. Drive-by shootings and gang violence were frequent.

Esther had no friends to talk to. She had to clean and cook for ten people. She and her two girls often pushed a shopping cart full of dirty clothes to the laundromat. She always made sure to get the sand from the beach out of the seams and pockets of her son’s pants. She imagined the beach, and all the nice places in California she had been told about in stories. So far, she had not seen many.

During the week, with the kids at school and the man at work, in a dilapidated living room and surrounded by old furniture, she often buried her face in her hands and cried. Esther and Aureliano had grown distant from years of separation. Aureliano couldn’t understand why she was unhappy. It was true they didn’t have a car, they didn’t go places. It was ten people in a two-bedroom apartment. She was alone for long periods of time, unable to get around on her own, but was it really that bad? Why couldn’t she just be content?

As months and months passed, sadness and hopelessness took a hold of her middle age heart. She finally had enough, returning to Mexico with Aureliano, and their two younger daughters in the early eighties. Sadness went home with her. Depression never really left after those years.

Settled back in Mexico her daughters had what they needed, but when it came time for them to go away to college, Esther couldn’t let them go. Universities were several hours away, in Morelia and Guadalajara. It was better they returned to Los Angeles, there at least they had their brothers.

Luz Elena, the youngest daughter and the one that used to run to Esther with tissue for her to dry her tears, back when they lived near 14th Street, was the last one to leave the family home in Mexico, and move back to the United States. Once again, Esther found herself in an empty house. Aureliano always had an easier time adapting to the changes. In San Pedro, he enjoyed cock fights and sitting at the plaza with his friends. Esther walked to church and to the market alone most of the time.

Esther and Aureliano returned to the United States many times, they stayed with their son’s and daughters in the houses they purchased in the suburbs of Los Angeles: South Gate, Huntington Park, Downey. They welcomed many grandkids and then great-grandkids over the years. She told stories of how much she had worried and how difficult those first years in the United States had been. When shopping at the mall with Luz Elena, she picked nice shoes and nice clothes for herself. Don’t I deserve nice things, she would ask no one in particular. A picture from that time, of her, Aureliano and her two daughters, shows her standing in front of a water fountain at Macarthur Park in Los Angles, her lips tight and her eyes looking far into the distance.

Esther died in Downey, California at the age of 78.

Aureliano will soon turn 90. He remembers the beauty of her long hair and her blessings every time he started back down the dirt road, back in Jaripo, back when they were young.

____

Maria Fernandez, originally from Michoacan, Mexico, is a small-business owner and mother to an 8-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl. She lives in West Covina, California and enjoys music and almost all kinds of documentaries. She is planning on attending business school and on continuing writing stories about her family and her community. Contact her at fabricfanclub@aol.com.

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By Lena Solis-Aguilera

I met Padrino in a dream before I met him in person. I dreamt about a man with a horsetail whisk, dancing and waving it around his head. He was dressed in white. I told Costello, my boyfriend, about my dream.

“That’s my padrino,” he said. His godfather.

He wasn’t just Costello’s padrino; he was his surrogate father.

After leaving the City (and Costello) in 1989, returning home to Southern California, crossing the Bay Bridge from Alameda County to San Francisco for a visit with Padrino was thrilling. I loved S.F. Our first stop was Padrino’s flat on 23rd and Guerrero, just west of Mission Street. He was a fixture in the neighborhood. Every day he sat in the window facing Guerrero Street waving at the passersby. We’d usually be lucky enough to park on Guerrero Street and from the window Padrino would get his first glimpse of Alex, his pedacito de oro, piece of gold.

In his flat, Cuban food was always cooking: black beans, white rice, yucca, fried plantain, and meat dishes like ox tail, ropa vieja, a beef stew, or lechón, roasted pork. Often intermingled in those scents was the smell of marijuana, which he smoked to alleviate the pain from arthritis.

Padrino was already elderly when I met him. He was tall, slender, and always well-dressed in white; white shirt, white sweater, white pants, white shoes and white socks. He wore copper bracelets on both wrists, “For the arthritis,” he said. His glasses sat atop his wide nose, and he spoke Spanish with an unfamiliar accent. In the beginning it was difficult for me to understand him because he cut off the final “s” sound on most words. In my limited world, I thought everyone in California spoke Spanish like a Mexican.

Padrino was everyone’s godfather. I rarely heard anybody call him by his given name, Oswaldo. He was “Padrino” to all. Padrino was a that evolved when Africans were brought to the Caribbean as slaves. His house was always full of people; all of them godchildren or godchildren-in-the-making from Petaluma, San Francisco, New York, San Diego, Miami, and Ecuador. For a long time, I just thought he had baptized a lot of children. Most of them spoke Spanish, some better than others; many only spoke English, but were still able to communicate with him.

At one time, I wondered aloud to Costello why Padrino wasn’t in a relationship and didn’t have his “own” children. He looked at me like I was an idiot –“He’s gay.” Padrino had elevated four godsons to the rank of son; Frankie, Costello, Juan and Johnny. He had godchildren in abundance, but I never knew him to have a partner; he was a celibate Santero.

I had no clue what Santería was. I was born and raised Catholic, and I recognized some of the Catholic saint names: Santa Barbara (St. Barbara), Virgen de Mercedes (Our Lady of Mercy), San Isidro (St. Isadore) and San Lázaro (St. Lazarus). I was accustomed to seeing life-like statues of the saints. Padrino had an entire room dedicated to the santos, but these were large ornate urns or soup tureens draped with beads. Each one had a particular color associated with it: blue for Yemaya, the Virgen; green for San Isidro; purple for San Lázaro. People from Florida, New York, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area paid him to persuade the santos to grant their wishes or to heal them. On other occasions he would read the caracoles, small cowrie shells that were tossed onto a circular woven mat and then “read” or interpreted.

Someone once told me that San Francisco was the closest thing to New York City on the West Coast. I suppose Padrino’s flat was like a New York row house. I had never been in an apartment that long. Entering from 23rd Street, the door opened and the hallway stretched from here to eternity. To the immediate left was the parlor that connected to the santo room; the sacred space. Only a few were allowed to enter. Fabrics of white satin, tulle and brocade covered the walls and hung from the ceiling. At the center was the Virgen de Mercedes, a hand-carved wooden statue of Our Lady from Cuba. Bowls of fruit were stationed in front of the urns and glasses of water were strategically placed throughout the room as offerings or to absorb the evil spirits. The hallway ended at the kitchen and off the kitchen was the laundry room where Padrino kept doves and Pancho, an African gray parrot that liked to munch on meat. To the left of the kitchen was the dining room/den where Padrino spent most of his leisure time lounging in his recliner by the window facing Guerrero Street, watching and listening to operas like Turandot or Madame Butterfly. At the back of this room, almost an afterthought, was his large bedroom.

The first time I went to the flat, Costello left me waiting in the parlor for an hour. I was ready to leave, and I could hear from the back of the house the Old Man scolding Costello that I was going to leave. Maybe that’s why I stayed with Costello – I was curious about this man. Padrino knew, without having met me, that I was going to leave. Aside from my initial dream, that was the first time I experienced his gift.

As my relationship with Costello grew, so grew my relationship with the Old Man. When I became pregnant, he was ecstatic. He would have a grandbaby to coddle and coo over. He took care of me, and I grew in his esteem. When his other godsons came to visit, I was introduced as Alex’s mom. I eventually rose in rank to daughter-in-law and, finally, daughter. After Alex was born, I returned to my job. I had tried traditional daycare, but money was tight, and I knew I could always count on Padrino and Juan, another godson/caretaker, to babysit. Padrino doted on Alex. He rocked my baby to sleep and whispered into his tiny ears. Dinner was always provided. They became my surrogate family. Even after Costello passed in 1994, Padrino and I maintained our kinship.

When times were tough, Padrino assisted me financially. I, in turn, provided him with a grandson. After Costello and I split up, I returned to Los Angeles with Alex and found work as a teacher. However, we would visit Padrino two to three times a year. When Padrino discovered that I could sew, I was entrusted to make and dress the Virgen. No expense was spared for her gown and cape. Every September 23rd we celebrated her feast day. Juan cleaned the house from top to bottom, but more importantly cleaned the santo room. We left offerings of food. The house filled with guests, godchildren, and other santeros from the East Bay. It was a party. Salsa music permeated the house, with congas, chants, and dancing in the hallway till the early morning hours. Everyone was expected to dress in white. White was important because it was like Teflon; the bad spirits could not stick to a person dressed in white. I discovered this one day when pregnant. The Old Man told Costello to ask me not to wear black. It was bad for the baby, the spirits would penetrate my womb.

Once back home in L.A., Padrino and I spoke regularly on the phone. He knew if I was anxious or stressed (usually about money). He bought us our first television. When I moved to the house on Stewart in Baldwin Park, I told him that I had carpet installed and he casually remarked, “The color green was a good choice.” I didn’t even ask how he knew. Even if I didn’t need anything, he would call and tell me he was sending money via Western Union. In return, as my finances improved, I was able to purchase things he wanted or needed. On one visit I purchased a dining room set from Montgomery Ward’s in Daly City; his was cheap and one by one the metal frame chairs had become loose or broken.

Over the next few years, he would fly in to Los Angeles, and I would take him to visit old friends from Cuba and a few Santería clients in Hollywood. We never really talked about Santería, but at one point he asked me if I wanted to be initiated and I said, “No.”

On January 10, 1997, Juan called. Padrino had died. He was found in his flat on 23rd and Guerrero. Not seeing him sitting by his window as usual, a neighbor peered in to see him lying on the floor. He had a heart attack. Someone was able to get in, but he was already dead. Juan also explained that the coroner wouldn’t release Padrino’s body to him. It had to be a blood relative. Padrino’s only living relative was his sister, Aida, who lived in Miami and was too old to travel. I called the detective. I needed proof; an I.D, a marriage certificate, something that identified me as a relative. I had nothing to show.

Alex and I flew to San Francisco. The godsons were anxiously waiting. We made it to the City about 4:00 p.m. — just enough time to make it to the Coroner’s Office. I said a little prayer before entering the building. The detective presented me with papers to sign, but never asked for any identification.

Early the next day, Juan, Johnny, Galo and Tito, the primary godsons, went to make the final arrangements at a funeral home on Valencia Street. As Tito wrote out a check for the burial, I remember the young woman behind the desk looked up at him and gaped, “You’re Tito…” He smiled and nodded. Tito Puente was one of Padrino’s godsons and paid for his funeral.

Padrino’s body was sent to the funeral home where the godsons attended to the Old Man’s body. Since I was not initiated, I was not privy to these rituals.

I knew the Old Man didn’t care about a funeral Mass, but I wanted to say a few Holy Marys for his soul and my peace of mind. The lid was closed on the casket. Inside next to Padrino lay his cherished hand-carved Virgen de Mercedes.

But in the Santería, a babalawo, a high priest who divined with the spirits, needed to be present. The santos, themselves, would “speak” to the Babalawo to determine their own fate. Padrino’s urns and soup tureens would be distributed or destroyed. We waited all night at Padrino’s flat until the babalawo arrived from Miami. As Alex and I sat in the Old Man’s recliner in the den, we were given white cloths and instructed to keep our heads covered until the ceremony was complete.

Hours later, Alex was given San Isidro. I inherited Yemaya. Several other santos found new homes. Juan was instructed to destroy the remaining few. The only thing I wanted from the Old Man’s house was a black and white photo of Padrino and Alex that hung in the dining room.

Padrino is buried in Colma, a city of cemeteries, just outside of San Francisco. I went searching for his plot a couple of years back, but got lost. The cemeteries looked the same, and we hadn’t purchased a headstone for the Old Man. I even tried looking for the funeral home on Valencia Street to get the name of the cemetery, but I couldn’t find that, either.

Padrino is lost atop one of those hills overlooking the bay, resting no one knows where.

A few of his santos remain in my possession; two in the dining room and San Isidro in the backyard. Maybe it’s time to take better care of them; maybe it’s time to call my god brothers.

____

Lena Solis-Aguilera is a Catholic Chicana middle school teacher from Whittier. Her interests include reading, writing, dancing, Karaoke and sharing her faith. She lives two blocks from where she was raised with her husband, son and two dogs, Karlitos and Sadie. Contact her at Lcsolis7@aol.com.
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By Rita J. Ray

Two months into my senior year of high school “the rabbit died.” I had never heard that expression before, but when the doctor returned to the examination room, and used the phrase, I realized I was pregnant. I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell my family, particularly my grandmother, who was my legal guardian. My second thought was of school. I was looking forward to my senior year – there was the homecoming dance, the Sadie Hawkins dance and the prom.

Like many schools in the ‘70s, Scott High tracked students. Counselors offered some kids a vocational path, while others were given classes to help them get into a college or university. My grades, and the fact that I had passed the Scholastic Aptitude Test, put me on the college track. Suddenly, I was faced with how to finish my high school education; college seemed off the table entirely.

I didn’t want to drop out, although it was common for girls to do so at the time. The sexual revolution was just beginning, but it didn’t yet apply to teenagers. School districts were slow to change their policies regarding expectant students.

As recently as the 1960s, pregnancy was grounds for expulsion in most public and private schools. When I became pregnant, there was no automatic dismissal from my school, but a pregnant teen attending classes was still someone who drew whispers. Many times, girls would attend school only during the early months of their pregnancy. Some would return to school after their babies were born to make up the lost credits; others never went back.

I met with my guidance counselor to see if I had options other than dropping out or going through the hallways with “fast girl” tacked to my back. After dropping me from the marching band, the counselor informed me that I could stay. I thought about the girls who braved the stares and murmurs of students and teachers and continued classes throughout their pregnancy. I didn’t want to be one of them. My counselor looked at me sympathetically. After a pause, she told me about a program that had been in existence for a short while at the YWCA. It was run in part by the Toledo Public Schools and the Florence Crittenton Home. The counselor said I could finish my classes through their program and return to my home school once I delivered my baby. The institution had a principal, a dozen teachers, a nurse and a counselor, and offered classes toward a high school diploma. Also, there was vocational training in business, food services, homemaking and childcare. Every girl was expected to participate in group sessions where topics spanned everything from personal hygiene to child development.

So one bitter January morning I stepped off the bus in front of the Y to start my alternative education. I was a 17-year-old newlywed of three weeks and I was four months pregnant. I was told to report directly to my English class, which met on the second floor. I knew this Y very well. As an elementary school student, I had taken swim classes there on Saturday mornings, and spent many hours after class playing board games and caroms. Now, as I moved through the building, the familiar scent of chlorine hung in the hallways, but the atmosphere of playtime was gone. The classrooms consisted of rows of wide tables and chairs or comfortable upholstered couches and armchairs. There were no student desks that could confine growing bellies. When I walked into the English class, I saw faces that looked like mine – forlorn and bewildered. The class of about 20 girls seemed to have an equal number of African American and white students. I recognized one of the girls from my home school.

At lunch, I met some of the girls. Like most school cafeterias, the white students tended to eat together and the black students mostly sat with other African-Americans. I struck up a conversation with the girl from my home school. Pat and I had not been friends before. She dressed in tight skirts and she plastered make-up on her face and had a reputation for not backing down from fights. I was pretty much her opposite and yet, there we both sat in our cheap, cotton maternity tops.

The girls I ate lunch with were from schools throughout the city and a few were from neighboring suburbs. They told me that most of the white girls were from out of town; some even lived outside of Ohio.

“They come here to hide their pregnancy,” one girl explained, nodding in their direction. “Then they go on back home like they didn’t have no baby.”

That was almost unheard of in the black community. When a teenager got pregnant, she generally kept the baby. Of course, “big mama” or an aunt or older sister might actually raise the child, but the baby remained in the family. It wasn’t that a teenage pregnancy was a welcomed event in a black household; it was more a matter of not having the financial means to send a girl away. I looked at my Caucasian counterparts and wondered, “How can you carry a baby for nine months and then give it up?”

Every girl enrolled had to give at least one period a day to the nursery. Sometimes girls who had given birth decided not to return to their home school right away, and instead, finished their studies at the Y where their babies would be taken care of at no charge. Also, there was the occasional girl who had a child in the nursery and another on the way. There were babies everywhere in the nursery – from tiny newborns to toddlers, along with playpens, changing tables and bouncers. The floor was a traffic jam of infants crawling or toddling. Throughout the room were girls sitting in rocking chairs comforting fussy ones, while others played with the infants on the floor. There were adults in the room who also tended to the babies, but mostly they provided oversight. Some of the girls were as young as 12 or 13. The air was a serenade of cooing and laughter between the infants and students. Every girl was providing some type of attention to a baby – feeding, changing, burping or rocking. On the other side of a glass wall, sleeping babies lay in cribs.

I looked forward to taking care of the babies, even the ones who could be challenging. I brushed kisses across their soft heads and pretended to chomp on their toes when I changed diapers. I didn’t know whether I was having a boy or a girl. In the nursery, there was no black or white. Each girl cared for any infant who needed attention. It was under those circumstances that I got to know some of the out-of-town girls and learned their stories.

I was sitting and rocking a baby boy, enjoying the whiff of baby powder each time I patted his back, when the girl in the next rocker spoke to me.

“He’s a sweet one, I had him yesterday,” she said. Mary had ruddy cheeks and short, blonde hair. Her perfectly round middle was about the size of a soccer ball.

“Un huh, he is,” I answered. “He really likes to be held.”

We talked. Her family had a farm in Indiana. Her parents sent her here because they didn’t want anyone to know she was pregnant.

“They said I can’t come back home unless I give up my baby, so I’m not going to keep it,” she said.

I asked her if she wanted to give her baby up for adoption and she said that it was the best thing to do because she needed to finish school. I could hear the anger in her voice and I saw the sadness on her face. Mary was only 14 years old, so I guess she really didn’t have a choice. I watched her as she placed a sleeping infant in a crib. She was caring for babies, but she wouldn’t get to keep her own.

Over time, I learned that the girls who stayed at the home were expected to sign adoption papers soon after their babies were born. Parents paid for room and board and medical care for the girl with the understanding that their daughters would return home childless. Most girls said their pregnancy was a secret. Their families said they were taking care of a sick relative, or studying at a private, out-of-state academy or at a reform school.

One of the girls who lived at the home said her parents told everyone she was away at an exclusive girls’ school, so it would have raised questions for her to return in the middle of a semester. She had given birth to a girl, but she never got to see the baby. Her voice wavered like she was about to cry, but she didn’t. Instead, we joked about how she might have to learn Latin to prove she was at some fancy girls’ school.

I was in the nursery one day when there were just a few babies. It was blustery outside and many of the local girls had not come to school. We sat boasting about the clothes we were going to buy once we “dropped this baby weight.” Bell-bottoms, maxi-dresses and mini-skirts were in style and it felt good to fantasize about dressing fashionably again.

“I’m gon’ look better than all of y’all!” Pat said. She got up and walked an imaginary runway to show off her outfit. “I’ma get me a halter top that ties right here,” making an invisible knot between her breasts, “and some bell bottoms that fit right here. And, I’ma show off my flat belly.”

Pat left the nursery to go to the ladies room. Between the frequent urges to urinate and the morning sickness, someone was always rushing out of a room. This time, we heard the groans of Pat vomiting. They were deep, gravelly bellows that rushed into the nursery and jolted us back from the revelry of our wardrobe fantasies. When she did not return, we assumed she had gone to the nurse’s office. The next day, a teacher told us that Pat had miscarried the evening before. All of us, at one point or another, wished we weren’t pregnant, but the loss of someone’s baby was always sad.

The teachers in the Florence Crittenton Program understood us. It was not unusual for a class discussion to evolve into a pregnancy or a parenting matter. We were all just frightened kids dealing with an adult predicament. Many of the stories shared among the girls were far more painful than mine. I endured the stigma of being a pregnant teenager and I accepted that my carelessness caused me to miss a normal senior year of high school.

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By Monique Quintero

The rain came down hard and fast on the September morning my family held the funeral mass at St. Mary’s in Whittier for my uncle Bobby.

Robert Daniel Quintero preferred to be called “Roberto” in his last years. We placed his urn, along with a potted cactus (to represent his beloved Tucson) and his framed portrait on a table in front of the altar. His weathered, handsome face grinned back at us. I had taken the photograph two years before; his long hair was pulled back, mustache and beard nicely trimmed.

Later that afternoon we brought his ashes to the Riverside National Cemetery. It drizzled until the sun broke through the clouds as his military honors ceremony concluded. As I watched my Dad search the grassy area for bullet casings that had fallen from the gun salute, it occurred to me that rain can be cleansing and also revealing. I realized that the unexpected passing of my uncle, though shocking and sad, was an end with which he was probably content. He was finally at peace.

A month before, Roberto would have been 65 years old. My family and I had sung “Happy Birthday” on his voicemail and texted messages when he did not pick up. My sister worried when he did not reply.

“He’s probably out with his veteran friends,” I said, “somewhere in Tucson where there is no cell reception.” I figured he was out hiking or performing a Native American ceremony.

The next day my Mom was concerned; she called the authorities and asked for a home check. A half hour later, my Dad’s cell phone rang. It was the Tucson police; they had entered my uncle’s apartment and had found him inside, deceased.

* *

When I was growing up, my uncle Bobby was a mystery to me. I rarely saw him. I didn’t understand why relatives whispered his name; I often heard my grandmother, Angelina, praying for him. I had the sense that he had no permanent residence, and that he traveled a lot. And yet I felt so connected to him.

One summer morning when I was 11 years old, I told my Mom I had a dream about Bobby.

“Well,” she told me, “today is your uncle’s birthday.”

In my young mind, my uncle was an “adventurer,” a “man of the world.” I was so proud of the Japanese doll that he had given to me. It was always exciting to receive a letter from him postmarked from some far off place; I kept them all in a special box. When he did show up for a visit, I was enthralled. Not until much later did I understand that his sporadic appearances were a sign of deeper problems.

Roberto grew up in East Los Angeles, the third child of four children. My dad Joe is first, second my aunt Herlinda, my uncle Adrian the youngest. My grandfather, Joe Sr., hailed from Yuma, Arizona, and was part Yaqui Indian. He was a hard worker and made good money as a brick mason, but often hid his earnings from my grandmother. He liked to drink and run around with other women. Sometimes he did not come home for days. When he did come home, he was often drunk, argued, shouted and beat his wife and oldest sons.

My grandmother Angelina did her best to protect and provide for her children. She made sacrifices to send them to Catholic school, while also instilling a respect for our Mexican-Indian roots. She was a curandera (medicine woman) and practiced healing with herbs and special prayers. But even my grandmother had her moments.

Wherever my grandfather was, she would stand at the back door and throw curses in that direction. He would leave her black and blue, but then she would put the children on the phone and have them beg him to come home. When my dad was 16, he pulled a kitchen knife on my grandfather and threatened to stab him if he did not stop hurting my grandmother. My grandfather eventually left my grandmother, started another family and moved back to Yuma.

High school proved a challenge for my uncle. He already had a problem with alcohol. He was constantly in trouble at school and at home. His antics culminated with “borrowing” his sister’s car – without permission or a driver’s license – and wrecking it. Even my grandmother, who always made excuses for him, was upset. Having no interest in attending college, and wanting to get away from home and East L.A., my uncle entered the U.S. Army after graduation in 1968, in the middle of the Vietnam War. He was stationed in Japan.

When Roberto filed for some veteran’s benefits in 2013, I helped him write his four-page personal statement. That was when I learned of the psychological and physical trauma he had experienced during his Army years.

Not only was he constantly taunted as “The Boy from East L.A.,” he was beaten up for “being Mexican” by other soldiers at boot camp (where he was left for dead) and also while stationed in Japan (where he blamed “Japanese gangs” rather than deal with repercussions from turning in fellow soldiers). The head, neck and back injuries that he suffered from those assaults plagued him for the rest of his life.

Though he never set foot in Vietnam, my uncle’s assignment in Japan was to escort soldiers on leave from the action. He listened to their harrowing combat stories; he was there when they woke up screaming from nightmares and when they suffered flashbacks. Years later he himself was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After the Army, my uncle had trouble transitioning to civilian life. Twice my Dad bailed him out for possession of marijuana. He grew out his hair and took on the ‘70s hippie look. When his girlfriend Camille became pregnant, my grandmother hoped he would settle down, but they eventually parted.

My grandmother wanted him to stay in Los Angeles, but Roberto moved around a lot. He took low-key jobs (bookkeeper, personal assistant) in remote California towns. He tried living in the Midwest, but didn’t like it. He went to Paris and worked “under the table” until his visa expired. He was never able to stay employed for long. After he left the Army, my uncle estimated that in 37 years he had held over 100 positions in 14 different career fields.

With no steady income, Roberto was prone to periods of homelessness and wandering alone. He was bad about keeping in touch. At one point my Dad figured he was dead. Bobby’s anxiety became such that he carried as many as three knives for protection. He would remain bedridden for days without picking up his mail, much less showering. He did see psychiatrists and was prescribed medications, but some left him vomiting and feeling like a guinea pig.

“During those times, rational thought was drowned-out by the racket going on in my brain,” he told me.

In 2005, my uncle found himself in a little town called Oracle, Arizona. He was homeless for most of the time, but ended up living in a trailer park surrounded by a bunch of other Vietnam veterans. His drinking got out of control and he chain-smoked. He was often very ill; he sank into a deep depression.

He was issued disability benefits by 2006 after being diagnosed as “bi-polar mixed with major depression,” and with degenerative disk disease. Friends urged him to apply for veteran’s health and compensation benefits, but his Army experience left him reluctant. He finally relented and was taken to Veterans Affairs in Tucson where a treatment plan was created for him. He completed a recovery program and was given housing in a senior apartment complex.

As Roberto continued his therapy, he had bouts of insomnia and nightmares. The bad memories from his Army days resurfaced and he was diagnosed with PTSD, along with other neurological disorders (cognitive dysfunction, self-isolation, paranoia). He tried to quit smoking but was unsuccessful. He had to use a cane to walk. He felt fatigued, even if he rested all day.

By 2008, Roberto was on 14 medications. He hated that he could not think clearly. His stomach was constantly upset. He began to look into alternative ways to relieve the bad side effects. A friend suggested he practice meditation and breathing exercises. He attended workshops on stress-relief and self-healing techniques.

Then in 2010 Roberto met a former Marine who facilitated a weekly Talking Circle for a PTSD treatment unit at the VA. Drawing from sacred Native American traditions, the group provided a safe, comfortable environment for veterans to share their stories and listen to each other.

Something clicked. He remembered a counselor had once told him, “You want to get better? Go help other veterans.”

He pushed himself to volunteer and help lead the Talking Circle. He did not want to relive his old nightmares, yet he found strength as he witnessed his fellow veterans healing through sharing. The Talking Circle also reconnected him with his father’s Yaqui Indian roots and the best memories of his mother practicing as a curandera. He started to participate in other traditional Native American ceremonies – the purifying sweat lodge, pow wows and the sacred burning of sage.

Life now had purpose and roots. With this, he let go of his resentments and the memories from his Army years.

He continued to pursue more natural and holistic remedies to treat his medical problems. When his doctors resisted, he petitioned the VA and was awarded the right to seek acupuncture sessions for pain management and to increase his mobility. Still he continued to drink and smoke.

“At least I don’t do heroin,” he said.

He and my Dad spoke several times a week, but we did not see very much of my uncle the last year of his life. He declined our invitation to visit and celebrate the December 2014 holidays. He was too busy with this various groups; by then he was leading the Talking Circle on his own.

I was worried about him at the start of summer of 2015; I did not like his appearance in photos that he had recently emailed. I thought he looked gaunt, his hair and beard grayer and thinner.

He assured me that he had never felt better and had just been taken off another medication. He also exalted the benefits of fasting, that he felt more clear-headed and energized. Some his last voicemail messages, though, rambled on and sounded garbled, as if he had been drinking.

Six days before his body was found, my uncle’s neighbors had gone to his apartment when they realized they hadn’t seen him for a while. He barely cracked the door open; he insisted he was all right. The Tucson Coroner’s office later told me that he had suffered a heart attack. He had probably been sick for a few days.

He had not seen a doctor in over a year; he had stopped taking medications on his own. His fasting had not helped matters, according to the Coroner’s office. He had avoided his VA case manager the last month of his life.

It is frustrating to think that if Roberto had just let his neighbors in or reached out for help, he might still be here. But that was my uncle.

* *

The last time I saw my uncle, I gave him a medallion imprinted with the words “The difference you make today counts in all our tomorrows” encircling the impression of an inukshuk, stones stacked to form the shape of a man. In Alaska, these stones were built by nomadic Inuits to help guide others travel across the tundra.

Roberto is wearing the medallion in pictures taken during his final year. My Dad brought it back to me after cleaning out his apartment.

It is now so worn and faded; he must have rarely taken it off.

___

Monique Quintero grew up in Whittier and has been writing all her life. 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. She is determined to finish a full-length book project in the near future. Contact her atmoniquequintero@yahoo.com

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By Trace Richardson

The family was scattered in a half-moon circle on the grounds of the cemetery. Spring and roses filled the air along with weeping. Two hundred people stood looking down at a pink and gold casket. One by one, people dropped to their knees, or had to be held up by someone else, or they just plain fainted as Reverend Lorenzo Alexander spoke the words of goodbye to our departed Zula Mae Alexander McCrary — Cousin Zula – a woman who gave love to so many people through out her life.

She was my aunt, but everyone called her Cousin Zula Mae. She was the oldest matriarch of the family and now she was gone. At 97, old age had taken her. The elders before her lived to be 100 or more, but she had lived a good life of love. At 10, he lied about his age to enlist in the northern Army to fight in the Civil War. Slavery had taken his mother from the children she bore with a white man. The horror traumatized him until his death. Zula Mae said that Granddaddy would say that he would never allow his children to be put in such a life and told her and the rest of the family to love and look after one another, to stay close so they would not be separated. He also told the whites in the neighborhood that he would kill every one of them if they touched any of his kids.

Zula Mae was never a slave but she was forced into marriage. Her Granddaddy told her that a good man was asking about her in the community. His wife had died in childbirth and he was in need of being married again. The men folk in the family made the decisions and they gave her hand to him. There was a lone dissenter among the men – an uncle who thought otherwise. She was told one day that she was to marry him and that she now had to go live with him. It was a quick marriage, without any witnesses except the men folk. The man she was given to was much older than she.

He beat her the night of the marriage to make her do as he commanded. He would come home drunk or upset, wanting food and sex. After two weeks, on a day her sister came by to visit, he hit Zula in the face. A lump swelled under her eye. That day she had enough of him and cards she was dealt by the men folk in the family. She sent her sister home, and pretended to him as if nothing was wrong. He went on with his usual commands and then sat down in a chair with his back to Zula Mae. She picked up a big heavy log and hit him in the head as hard as she could. He fell over as if dead, and she thought he was. She ran to the house of the uncle who fought for her right to make her own decisions. He told the other menfolk in the family that they would not make her go back and that they ought not step on his property.

Soon, Zula Mae rode out of the South to Chicago. She worked as a domestic and then for a museum taking coats. Two more marriages ended when the husbands died.

Then a cousin who had left Chicago and was making good in California called her. Zula Mae rode the Greyhound bus and arrived in California three days later.

Zula Mae never had children of her own but she took on the children of a cousin who had way too many. She became a housekeeper for some of the wealthiest white families in Los Angeles. One family was in the record industry and through them she met some of the great recording artists of the 60’s and 70’s. Her employer would pull her out of the kitchen and introduce her to his guests. One of her employers helped her out of many jams including legal ones because, she told me, she had no clue “bout no law.” She built relationships of mutual respect with her employers and this was the reason she loved them all dearly. Being in service to others, she said, was all she ever knew.

Zula Mae Alexander McCrary was the last bastion of the old world for our family in Los Angeles and was one of the few people left who could tell the stories of family members, history and how two generations back our peoples worked hard and bought land so that the next could have a place to lay their heads. Her accounts gave me a glimpse into a world far from mine of today. More importantly, Zula Mae Alexander McCrary could tell how a generation of relatives lived and loved each other in times of hardship and misery.

One day a terrible earthquake rocked Los Angeles. Our phone went out and Cousin Zula Mae did not drive. Yet she came from way across town, on the bus, to see about us. When my parents didn’t care enough to save money for my school pictures, it was Cousin Zula Mae who paid for them.

Once, her first cousin that she grew up with on the farm was sick in Chicago. Zula Mae rode a Greyhound to go see after her. As she picked out a faded 1970 suitcase from the closet and threw clothes in it, she turned to me. “Me and this child we was raised on the farm together by granddaddy and mamma. I got to get to her,” she said. “We is all we got.”

The love she received while living during the farm life puzzled and amazed me, as I knew that life was hard. Yet it also felt good to me, as I did not receive this type of love in my family before she arrived. In the depth of my soul, I was learning to love watching Cousin Zula Mae managing to show love in ways foreign to me. Zula Mae taught me the importance of showing love when you have the chance to do so. Once, my cousin was leaving for a long journey and everybody gathered to say goodbye. I lingered and watched. Zula Mae kept pushing me to say goodbye. Instead, I waved at him and flashed a smile. Finally, and before I could speak to him, he got in his car and left. Zula Mae asked me to sit next to her. She told me of how important it was for us as a family to love each other and say goodbye. I guess it was the teaching from Granddaddy that was embedded in her.

I faded in and out of her conversation and turned and twisted in my seat. I was uncomfortable with people leaving me. I could not cry because the word “goodbye” sulked my spirit.

That day of her funeral, at the cemetery, surrounded by family and friends, I found myself unable again to say goodbye. I could not utter the words. The warmth of love I received from her was too much to lose. Instead, as I stood at her gravesite, I looked down and said, “I will see you again.”

____Trace Richardson

Trace Richardson is of African American descent. Her interests are in the arts. She lives in the Los Angeles area. Contact her at richtm3050@student.laccd.edu

 

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By Celia Viramontes

Don Luis shivered in line at the snowy desert camp near Utah’s Great Salt Lake that winter of 1945. The icy wind pierced his thin shirt and pants, chilling his skin. Trains carrying war supplies rumbled throughout the railroad yard. Traqueros, track workers, hauled picks, poles, and shovels. He had never labored on the railroad, but he’d learn, earn money and return home at war’s end.

At the front of the line, officials distributed thick coats. Don Luis presented his contract to an official. Purchases would be deducted from his paycheck, the official informed him. Don Luis grabbed a long sheep skin coat. He stroked the warm lining, draped it over his shoulders, and headed towards the railroad tracks.

Two foremen and an interpreter gathered a crew of thirty men. Don Luis huddled with his paisanos, buddies from his village in Mexico. They donned work gloves the foreman furnished them. They were to remove old tracks and install new ones. The transport of soldiers and food depended on the maintenance of the rails, the interpreter explained. They were a vital part of the war effort.

It was the rallying cry Don Luis had heard back home: braceros – strong arms – needed in the United States.

At the start of the war, his brother had labored as a bracero via the Mexican Emergency Farm Labor program. There’s much work here picking beets and tomatoes, his brother wrote in letters from California. So Don Luis enlisted too and traveled to a recruitment center near his village, leaving behind his wife and two young children.

At the contracting center in Querétaro, railroad representatives waited while U.S health officials probed his eyes, ears, hands and arms. He’d signed and received an identification card – Railroad Track Labor Only inscribed at the top. He clutched the documents in his hands and followed the hundreds of braceros boarding the Mexican Railways for the trip north.

Now, weeks later, he lugged rail equipment to repair the tracks that crisscrossed the Utah desert by Lakeside, near Salt Lake City. He and the crew cleared the tracks of debris and shoveled gravel. They ripped up the worn tracks, lifted the corroded railroad ties with tongs and dug out ballasts. He was careful to not puncture his hands, but by mid-day, the gloves were riddled with holes. He slipped on new ones, and ripped them again.

At sundown, Don Luis and the men hauled shovels over their shoulders and trekked back to camp for a meal at the mess hall. Tomorrow, they’d put in another 12-hour day.

In time, Don Luis’ crew grew to include a tall, white fellow – though not American – who assisted in laying the tracks, and an American electrician who spoke no Spanish. They resorted to hand signals, pointing to the tongs, wrenches, and jacks as Don Luis and his buddies set new railroad ties, driving down spikes with a sledgehammer. The electrician drilled holes through rails. Don Luis inserted and fastened bolts. He and the crew replaced ballasts.

At sunset, Don Luis removed his perforated gloves and headed back to camp. Oil dripped onto his shirt and pants. It ran through his fingers, thick like the honey forming inside a honeycomb back in his village. He relished licking the sweet, sticky food off his fingers. Now, in this war-time bracero camp, there were few sweets, for sugar was rationed.

He removed his pants and headed to the washer. He opened the spigot, splashed hot water onto the greased pants and poured soap. Then picked up a wooden stick and stirred. But the stubborn grease and grime remained, so he wore them a second, third, and fourth time.

After two weeks, his paycheck came with deductions for the sheep skin coat and his room and board. But he’d earned enough to buy new clothes. The rest he’d send home.

On Sunday, he and fellow braceros rested on their cots, wondering what lay beyond the desert tracks.

The train will take you into town, the foreman explained, handing Don Luis and his buddies a pass and small railroad company buttons. Don Luis pinned it on his shirt pocket and boarded the train.

It rumbled across a trestle bridge near the Great Salt Lake. El Lago Salado. Don Luis marveled at the briny water with no outlet – so unlike the creeks back home that flowed into a gushing river.

The train pulled into the Ogden depot. Women, men, and children streamed in and out of the station. Troops in town exited train cars. The sounds of English reverberated throughout.

He and his buddies walked into town. At a men’s store, shirts, pants, and overalls hung on racks and storefront windows. Don Luis patted the coins and the check inside his greased pocket and entered. He grabbed a shirt and a smooth pair of pants.

“Cuánto, Señor?” he asked the salesperson. But the man stared in silence. Then finally spoke in the same hurried English sounds that filled the train depot.

Don Luis pointed to the merchandise, placing several coins on the counter. The man took them. Don Luis carried his new purchases back to camp that day, unsure of their cost.

That evening he lay on his cot. Inside the room, a radio played country music. Braceros scanned the dial until the familiar sounds of a ranchera streamed from the speakers. Don Luis reminisced. How was the baby? And when the oldest asked, “Where is my Papá?” he contemplated his wife’s reply:

“Tu Papá está en Estados Unidos. No tarda en regresar.” “Your father is in the United States. He won’t be long in returning home.”

But braceros murmured late at night. Some fellow villagers, ill or injured, hadn’t returned after a stint on other U.S railroads. Wives and mothers had implored officials in both countries, eager to learn the fate that had awaited their husbands and sons in El Norte.

Still, Don Luis and his buddies toiled where Chinese and Irish laborers once had. Nearly a century ago, they had leveled roadbeds and blasted mountainsides in the Sierra Nevada and helped build the U.S transcontinental railroad where the Central and Union Pacific connected east to west.

When the roaring trains had quieted, Don Luis gathered pen and paper. Dear family, he began. I am well, and working on the railroad. How is everyone? Please write me. He remembered to write Section 97, his worksite, on the mailing envelope.

Winter gave way to spring, followed by summer. Don Luis worked, ventured into town on Sundays, and sent money home.

One day, the foreman approached him. He’d been re-assigned to other duties.

In subsequent days, Don Luis positioned himself miles away from the crew, as instructed. In the distance, his section gang crouched near the tracks, their bodies on the line, grease flowing like honey and spilling onto their overalls and pants. He visualized his paisanos, the American foreman and the interpreter, the towering white fellow and electrician who communicated in hand signals – all together now, arms and hands setting down rails and ties.

The earth rumbled beneath his feet. He recalled the foreman’s directive.

He readied the small device filled with detonating powder – a torpedo, the foreman had called it. He bent towards the tracks and strapped it to the top of the rail. Up ahead, the train lurched. Its wheels clattered near the flagging zone, then spun over the torpedo, emitting a loud bang. The driver slowed the train, circumventing the track workers. Don Luis sighed.

He stationed himself at the zone each day, flagging oncoming trains, his distant gaze fixed on his section gang.

One August day, the foreman gathered the men. Don Luis watched his lips move with excitement. An interpreter stood by.

Muchachos,” he began, “the war has ended.”

On his next visit to Ogden, he witnessed trains roar into the depot with returning soldiers, a family awaiting each of them. Some exited on crutches. A child rushed to a man’s embrace; a woman caressed his face.

Outside, U.S flags waved from business rooftops. Men and women tucked newspapers into their forearms – Peace and Victory splashed across headlines. He needed no translation for these and other words he’d acquired: check, depot, torpedo, letter, tracks, home.

The war was over. So was his work contract. Amid the swaying flags and victory chants, he reveled in a quiet joy that soon he’d be home.

But the rolling stock and railroad equipment would come slowly. In Idaho and California, beet workers and other agricultural braceros needed transport too. Repatriation would begin with them.

Autumn turned to winter. Don Luis arose at dawn, labored on the tracks and retired to camp at dusk. On Sundays, he ventured into town. Victory celebrations had come and gone. Fathers now strolled down sidewalks with their children.

But at night, by the dim light inside a bracero camp, he’d still write, “Dear family,” to begin each letter.

Then the chilly air abated. Spring was on its way.

In the distance, a whistle blew. A train rumbled into camp, its wheels clanking against new tracks.

Don Luis looked out on the railroad yard. Gone was the snow that had greeted him more than a year before. The children must be grown, he reckoned. The baby was now walking alongside his brother. He’d look for tracks of their small feet on the dirt road leading to their adobe home.

He unpinned the railroad company button on his shirt, packed his sheep skin coat and pants. Maybe this train would deliver him home.

___

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 struggles.
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By Jian Huang

A white bandage covered my dad’s eyes as we sat in the ophthalmologist’s office.

“Your father is legally blind, Miss Huang. We need some more tests, but it looks like he had a seizure in his sleep that caused the loss of eyesight.”

I was 18 years old and just a few weeks out of high school graduation when I heard these words.

There were questions: “Did you notice anything different about him these past few days? How long has he been complaining about nausea? When did it start?”

“What did he say?” my dad asked me in our native Shanghainese, a dialect of Chinese.

He only ever spoke enough English to get by at his motel job, but never had the opportunity to learn more. My mother on the other hand didn’t speak any, so by default I was the family’s representative. I struggled with how to translate the word “seizure.” I translated the diagnosis as a malfunction of the brain. The word “lost” I translated into “disappeared” so to clear up any ambiguities about recovery. My dad, who was 65 then, seemed to understand. He turned his head away from me after hearing these words. My mom, who was mostly deaf, didn’t bother to ask me to repeat into her ear what I had just said; she guessed from the looks on our faces.

“Can you bring him back in September?” the doctor asked. “I’d like to see if we can schedule to remove the cataract from his eyes. Maybe it’ll help.”

“I’m supposed to go to college in Northern California,” I said to no one in particular.

Zeus punished the Titans when they rebelled against the Olympians by striking out their eyes. Oedipus, having recognized his own failure as king, blinded himself. At 18, I had understood the world through stories like these. I would talk about them with my dad after getting home from school and he would explain what he could to me. When I had questions, it was my dad who most likely had the answers. He liked to remind me that he went to college in China before the Cultural Revolution and read western literature. But this time he had no answers – my dad was at a loss. Was this punishment? Who for? Why now?

Like the families I grew up with in South Los Angeles, we didn’t have medical coverage, nor did we understand anything about the medical system in the United States. Health care, it seemed to us new immigrants, was only accessible to people who were in better financial situations. For us, health care often came from the medicine section at the local farmacia, or at Thrifty’s drugstores, or from packages sent by relatives from home countries like Mexico and Guatemala or, in our case, China. My neighbor Omar suggested that I go across the street to the abandoned warehouse where a group of Pentecostals set up shop on weekend evenings.

“My mom said you can ask for a blessing and sometimes they’ll even give you money for medicines.”

No one in my neighborhood had computers or an Internet connection. Illness was an invisible thing that no one talked about. What is preventative care when it took so much energy just to survive? All I knew from my parents and from what I saw on television was that health care was expensive. It was finally my mom who jotted down a phone number to a free family clinic in Chinatown from a co-worker’s neighbor.

In the weeks before my dad lost his sight, I had graduated from Venice High School. He beamed when he saw me in my blue cap and gown. “It doesn’t matter that I work 24-hour shifts in a motel,” he said, “my reward is seeing you go to college. You’ll have money, and money will give you freedom. Money will elevate you to a different class.”

That summer in 2003 I did a lot of driving in my dad’s gray ‘95 Ford Escort. He was so proud of that car. It had taken him seven years to save up for a down payment. It didn’t overheat and leave us stranded on the freeway like his last car, an ‘83 hatchback Chevrolet, had. We drove to the doctor’s office, to referrals, to get medication, to the Chinatown Service Center for help with Medicare enrollment, and to the Social Security office on Adams and Hoover. We drove to the Hawaii Motel on La Brea and Venice where we collected his final paycheck, his hot water thermos and his box of tea.

“Fifteen years of work and I only had two things,” my dad said, as we drove back home from the motel. “I should be the one taking care of you.”

My mom started taking on more work at the garment factory where she worked in Lincoln Heights. When she needed help trucking large bags of clothes home, I picked up where my dad left off. I suddenly became the only one who drove in the family, the one who spoke the most English, the one who had all five senses working properly. She worked on anything her employers were willing to allocate to her. This included things that were difficult to make, like shirt collars or really slippery fabric.

“Five cents a piece. If I sew this order of 2,000, I can make $100,” she said.

That kind of work usually took about a week to complete. Some nights she worked very late. Her Juki sewing machine vibrated throughout the house and kept everyone up. Our living room lights dimmed a little each time she started work.

“What are we going to do without you?” my mom would ask at dinner. She can’t hear, so she mostly spoke out loud to herself.

There are three kinds of tears that the human eye produces: basal tears, which lubricate our eyes; reflex tears, which are reactions to external irritations like dust particles; and psychic tears, which result from strong emotions. Psychic tears have a different chemical make-up from the first two. They have higher levels of a protein-based hormone called Leu-enkephalin, a natural painkiller that we produce when parts of our bodies hurt. I learned that tears could still form in the human eye even when there is no sight. I also learned that psychic tears were best done in private, like in a dark room, or hunched over a sewing machine, or in the car while it is parked in the garage where no one can see.

In the months that followed his diagnosis, my dad spent a lot of time sitting alone in his bedroom. Light made him nauseous. Talking made him nauseous. Car rides made him nauseous. Sometimes I would find him just sitting there listening to his CDs; sometimes he would try to play his guitar in the one-foot wide makeshift studio between his bed and the wall. “I’m sorry I threw up again,” he would say.

“Your father was a great classical guitar player,” my mom told me. “Your grandma loved to hear him play.” His collection was filled with all sorts of jazz, concertos, and big band orchestras from the 1950s.

“Did we get anything in the mail today?” my dad asked me after I got home each day from my shift at Starbucks. We’d sit together by his bedside as I went through the various letters from Social Security and Medicare about his retirement, his upcoming appointments, and requests for our bills to determine low-income status. Feeling his way to the bathroom became increasingly hard for him, so he kept an empty plastic milk jug nearby with the tops cut off. I would empty it and rinse it for him.

“Dear Miss Huang, we’re writing to remind you to respond to your college admissions package,” the letter read “This is urgent.”

Working at the local Starbucks near USC on Hoover and Jefferson, I would bring back leftover coffee and pastries for my parents when the store closed at one a.m. I knew my dad would be up waiting for me. Sometimes we would sit at the pullout butcher block in the kitchen and eat the reheated bounty together.

“I first tasted a butter croissant with your grandma when I was a kid,” he reminisced. “American cafés were in vogue then in Shanghai. Your grandma taught me to always put on my double-breasted jacket when we ate at western cafés. She was very worldly and genteel that way.”

I asked our store manager, Sal, for more shifts. Some days I worked the closing shift to one a.m.; on others I worked the opening shifts that started at four a.m. Working gave me a reason to leave home. What can I get for you today? Would you like whipped cream on your macchiato? Can I wipe your table for you? No, I am fine, thank you for asking.

When I had free time, I would go to the Glendale Galleria and try to apply for more jobs. “We’re not looking for anyone who needs this job to make rent,” Amber, the store manager at Abercrombie & Fitch, told me as she eyed my old blue jeans and milk-stained black tennis shoes from Payless. “This is a job for you to have fun and like make a little extra cash for new clothes before school starts.”

“What do your parents do?” my co-worker Michael asked me one day while we made lattes at the espresso machines.

“Oh, my dad’s retired and my mom works in fashion.”

I learned that from kids like Lorena or Isela who, like me, took the bus for two hours every day in high school to go to a school in a better neighborhood. Unemployed was “stay-at-home,” liquor store owner was “entrepreneur,” restaurant bus boy was “work in culinary arts,” and so on.

“That’s cool. My dad’s thinking about retiring, too. He’s a colonel and we live in Palos Verdes. But both me and my sister are living near campus now because of school. I’m in the Architecture School. She’s a Pi Beta Phi. What are you studying?”

“Double tall nonfat sugar-free vanilla latte for Katie!”

On the U.S. Citizenship Naturalization Test, a frequently asked interview question is, “Why do you want to become a naturalized citizen?” An acceptable answer is “freedom” or “mobility.”

Between ten p.m. and four a.m. were the universal Hours of Self-Pity. There was a strong correspondence between a physical and personal darkness that happened each night. Working the closing shift or the dawn shift took up an otherwise empty space that was all too easy to fill with regrets, what-if’s, and why-not-me’s. Questions that did nobody any good.

Letters that summer came and went. Dear Mr. Huang, we are writing to explain your diagnosis…Your Social Security benefits will begin on… Your medication summary for the month of July…

Dear Miss Huang, this is your final notice to respond to admissions at the University of….

Sometimes the landlord’s son Omar would come sit with me late at night on our stoop. Mostly I sat out there to feed the one or two feral cats that visited.

“Your dad okay? I’m sorry. Eh, my dad wants to know if you’re gonna need to move your rent date to later in the month. And my mom wants to know if you’re gonna sell your dad’s car cuz my brother Alvaro might wanna drive it. He’s 15 now and he’s gonna drive it to my dad’s store to work.”

That summer I listened to a lot of old songs because it was what we had at home. My Dad said old songs reminded him of Shanghai. On those nights, it was just Sinatra and me. “Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart … .”

The letters from school came less and less frequently. Eventually they stopped coming altogether. Instead, they were replaced by more letters from the Social Security office. We got at least two letters a week addressed to my dad about his disability and retirement, all of which were in English.

“It’s still very cloudy and dark,” my dad told his doctor in September after his operation.

“There’s not much more we can do for him,” the eye doctor told me privately as my mom escorted my dad out of the office. “We’ll need him back over the next few months for more checkups. We have your number. Will you be around for a while?”

“Yes. I’m not going anywhere.”

I opened the passenger side door for my dad and sat him down slowly. I asked him if he was comfortable, then I asked him to raise his arms so I could help buckle his seat belt. On the way home he said, “I know what you’re doing. I can still see.”

____


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.

 

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By Maria Fernandez

____

I was born and raised in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, in a region known as La Cienega de Chapala. The house I grew up in sits on land given to my paternal grandparents many years ago, when President Lazaro Cardenas redistributed the large haciendas, taking the properties from their rich owners and dividing it among peasant farmers.

Much of the country’s agricultural land was in the hands of a few hundred hacendados, or “bosses,” with farm workers living in near slavery conditions.

My grandparents got word of land being distributed in Michoacán. At the time they resided in a little town in the state of Jalisco, called El Pedregal. They began their journey following the edge of Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico. Grandma Natalia and her three young children were on a wagon pulled by oxen. Grandpa Chon was on foot herding their pigs and goats. They camped at night under the wagon, their animals nearby.

After several days on the move, they finally made it to the place that was to become our hometown, Cumuatillo. There, they were told to choose a piece of land as big as they needed to build a house and corrals. They also received title to some very fertile soil; parcels gained from Chapala at the beginning of last century, after rivers were diverted and 20 kilometers of levees created, exposing 50 thousand acres of arable land.

Their first house they built out of reed and tree branches. In time they replaced it with a house of adobe. They had no running water or electricity; nevertheless, this became home. My dad was the sixth of nine children; his name is Antonio Fernandez. He and his siblings had big responsibilities at a very young age.

Around the time father turned 12 years old, he was put in charge of the goats. The herd was taken to the hills, far away from my grandparents’ home. There they spent days grazing. Dad was left alone on the hills with the herd sometimes. At night he cried with fear hearing coyotes howling in the distance, having to endure rain and cold under a poncho, a dog and the goats his only companions. He didn’t like school much and dropped out of third grade; that meant he had to go back to work in the fields and care for the animals. As a teenager he took tailoring classes but found it was not his calling.

After he married my mom, he inherited part of my grandparents’ back yard to build his own house, as well as a few acres for farming. In 1973, around the time I was born, he started taking courses by mail to become an electrician. He hung the diploma on the wall in our house. He was, by then, the town’s only electrician. He also learned the plumber trade to have more work and he farmed year round.

Our house was the first house in town to have a doorbell. It came handy as many people stopped by looking for dad. They needed electric and water services for the houses they were building, or transistor radios, pressing irons and Christmas lights repaired. After having dinner every night, he went in his workshop and stayed there for several hours. In town, he was well known and respected for the quality of his work and for being a dedicated farmer.

The last time I saw my father standing on his own, tall and handsome, was a Sunday at the end of January 1980. He combed his hair neatly, put on cologne and his gold ring. He left on his shiny black motorcycle that he used to get around. He didn’t tell mom where he was going, nor did she ask.

Around 9:00 pm that Sunday, a taxi pulled in front of our house. The driver was looking for Antonio Fernandez’s relatives. He had been in a collision with a car and was in the hospital. A donor for his blood type was urgently needed. Mom left that night in the taxi. My cousin Mina and I ran out to find her father. As I kept running down the dark streets, I don’t think I understood what was really going on.

One month later, dad was back home, his left leg amputated. Many scars now covered his face and his front teeth were missing. He was a totally different man from the one I saw going away that Sunday. I remember him falling as he entered his workshop for the first time in weeks. He stayed on the floor for a while, crying his heart out.

The family had no insurance to cover medical bills. Dad was very depressed, sometimes he would throw dishes around, mad over little things. He scared me and made me wish he went away. He was only 30 years old, mom was 26, my older sister had just turned eight, I had two younger sisters and a new baby was on the way.

Our doorbell went quiet. Only kids returning from school rang it and ran away laughing. Mom never complained about father’s outbursts. I don’t remember seeing her cry. She told me once she didn’t want her baby to be born sad. She continued washing clothes by hand, cooking, cleaning and even tending to our few cows and pigs.

Dad spent time in the fields. He sometimes walked around the patio on his crutches, sad and desperate, like he was looking for something. My fear turned to compassion during these days. I missed the strong tall man that built the large green kite for my sister and me. He ran with it, offering the reed and plastic kite to the wind. It was too big and heavy and it never elevated.

One day someone offered dad some work.

“I think you can do it,” said the man. “You can take your time; it’s not urgent.” Dad was doubtful but accepted, as we needed money. The doctor that operated on him the night of the accident was not a surgeon. He saved my father’s life but he amputated his leg at the wrong length. A prosthetic caused him tremendous pain and made it difficult for him to get around. At job sites, he sometimes opted for jumping on his only leg to move faster. If working at ground level he used the strength of his arms to drag his body from place to place. He had to do this a lot when working in the fields because his crutches got stuck in the mud.

Little by little he gained confidence, finding his way with his changed body. People started trusting him with work. He once again became the town’s main plumber and electrician. It took him longer to finish jobs and money was not enough for the family’s expenses. Mom managed as best she could.

A short kid with a face full of freckles, nicked-named “the Roll” loved bullying me since I refused to become his girlfriend. The Roll wouldn’t forgive the rejection and always found reasons to make fun of me or my family. Together with “Churro Guy,” he picked on the way Dad used a piece of cord as a manual accelerator for his 1965 Volkswagen.

They called my father “Thousand Uses,” referring to the fact that he would take almost any honest job he was offered. Yet the town was good to us. Debt was being paid and the family was recuperating.

Before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, my hometown had been the land of Nahua people, Aztecs.

During rainy season, the water overflow from Chapala and rivers nearby inundated the area. Several small islands emerged from the water every year. Cumuatillo used to be part of Cumuato Island; an important place because of its higher ground, with roads and canals that remained full of water even during the dry period, making it easy to use canoes for the transportation of people and goods.

As little girls my sisters and I used to play with small clay figurines we found on the ground. Lots of dark glass like, edge sharpened rocks, shimmered under the morning sun. Broken pottery served us as fake currency to purchase the large green leaves we used as tortillas for our games. Dad told stories of bones and human skulls uncovered during the digging of trenches for the footings of new walls. As kids, he and his brothers used to place the skulls on fence posts and throw rocks at them.

One day my dad and uncle unearthed a full human skeleton from our back yard. Jade, gold and shell ornaments were still on its wrist and neck. Beautiful pottery and sharp obsidian spears had been carefully placed to his sides.

Dad placed all the artifacts in a box and stored it away. In spite of being so proud of his find, one day we helped him put this box in his car and off he went to find a man named Jose, a dealer in jewelry among other things. He sold all the artifacts to him. Jose didn’t pay him much, but the money helped us get by for some days.

Much later, Jose and Dad had a conversation about that transaction. “If you find more, don’t touch them,” Jose told him. He described an inexplicable illness and hallucinations he experienced, which were, according to him, all related to the pre-Hispanic pottery and jewelry he had been dealing with. It was likely our backyard relics were not the only ones he had purchased and sold. He claimed he was cured after he stopped his dealings in these objects.

Over time, the family adjusted to the many changes after the accident. One summer, with the proceeds of a good harvest, my parents purchased a popsicle shop. It was another source of income and more work for mom. All sisters and brother also helped the family by selling popsicles and working in the fields. As a teenager the oldest daughter, Leticia took a job as an operator for the town’s public telephone.

In 1992, Leticia, married and immigrated to the town of El Monte, California. I followed one month later, arriving in nearby South Gate, California. My sister, Teresa, took over Leticia’s job. Eventually the youngest sister Cecilia would also alternate between this job and college. Antonio Junior, also known as little Toño, had been helping dad work since he was four years old.

Little Toño was a fixture next to dad when he wasn’t in school. He had become an extension of Dad’s capabilities and a relief for some of his limitations.

After finishing high school, Toño was awarded a small grant from the government to continue his studies. He moved to the state’s capital to start in the engineering program at Morelia’s Technological Institute. My parents supported him to complement the grant. After graduating he moved to Queretaro.

My father continued farming, ignoring my mother’s pleas for him to slow down.

One night, mom and dad noticed a surreal blue shape climbing one of the walls inside the house. This shape resembled a small serpent. They looked around the room trying to find a source for what they were seeing. Nothing. When it appeared to them a second time they panicked a little more.

“It wants to show us where the other treasures are,” said my mom. But my dad was not about to start digging for treasure after what Jose told him. So the third and last time they saw it moving up the wall, they just ignored it.

If the blue serpent wanted my dad to unearth something she was many years late. My parents have enough to support themselves. They are alone in this house with the magical backyard, where four sisters and one brother used to play and thresh corn. No need to look for treasures now. Maybe the blue serpent understood this and that’s why she stopped showing itself to my mom and dad.

Father thinks, and I agree, that there is more to be uncovered. Yet we now embrace the idea of ancestors sleeping under the empty beds of the house we grew up in.

By now they know my dad is sorry for disturbing them.

____

Maria Fernandez, originally from Michoacan, Mexico, is a small-business owner and mother to Maria Fernandezan 8-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl. She lives in West Covina, California and enjoys music and almost all kinds of documentaries. She is planning on attending business school and on continuing writing stories about her family and her community. Contact her at fabricfanclub@aol.com.

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By Andrew L. Ramirez

____

That morning was my first day of school. It was the most exciting day of my life. I woke up bright and early. I bathed. I brushed my teeth. I was a five-year-old overzealous boy. My shirt was perfectly pressed and buttoned down – white as the driven snow. My corduroy blue pants had razor-sharp pleats. I sported brand new “Buster Brown” shoes and would probably be the only kid in the first grade lucky enough to own a pair. I was excited and ready to learn some great lessons.

Thirty boys and girls sat impatiently inside the class. Some were nervous. Others were crying from leaving Mommy and Daddy. I could barely sit still.

I was full of life, happy and energetic. I turned to the kid next to me. “Hi.” I twisted and turned as I sat. Anxiously looking front and back and side to side. Smiling at all of the other kids, I gazed at the classroom decorations.

The green “blackboards” were immaculate. Having never been scribbled on, the white lines were straight as arrows. They would be our writing guides. The long Alphabet table just above was crisp and clean. The poster boards were covered with white construction paper and this was filled with images of fruit, animals, letters and numbers.

The small desks were as if in military formation. The petite drawers underneath were filled with books, pens and paper. Brand new, they crackled when opened and were crisp to the smell. Oversized pencils, pink erasers and Elmer’s glue beckoned me. The arts and crafts area had the works – colored paper and crayons and water paints and scissors and clay and markers and tape.

It was going to be a great year.

Then it got even better!

“Good morning, class.” The most beautiful and gentle voice greeted us. A Belgian accent both calming and fascinating. As if sent by God himself, there stood the most angelic Nun. Her bleached white habit was perfectly pressed and pleated. The color matched her meticulously curled hair. The oversized black beads and cross of her rosary dangled at her side and matched her glistening shoes.

I was in a fairy tale. Dashing in the Bavarian Alps, hand in hand with my very own godsend singing “Doe a deer, a female deer, ray a drop of golden sun…”

Before me stood my real life Julie Andrews. My guide. My mentor. My teacher. How perfect.

We went around the class making introductions like Romper Room. “… Angelica, Saxico, Jose, Alex, Paulina, Stephanie … .” I was anxious, desperate to take my turn.

“David, Arlene, Francine… .” Some of the kids were nervous and shy. Not me. I was confident. I was ready. I knew it too. Months prior, I had starred in the leading role as Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer in the kindergarten play. It had prepared me.

My imagination wandered. I mentally rehearsed. Time stood still while the vignette played in my mind. It was a magical vision. I would stand erect. Shoulders back. Feet firmly pressed together. Perfectly manicured in Catholic School garb. I would proudly announced myself.

The scene felt real. It filled me with pride. I was ready to take on my role. I would be the best student. The role model. The leader. The prestigious “Teacher’s Helper.”

I came out of my vision more excited. Now I was jumpy. It would soon be my turn. I couldn’t sit still. It was killing me. I wanted to raise my hand and beg to be next. But I knew it wasn’t my turn.

The third of five endless rows began. “… Moses, Lisa, Rudy… .”

I was in the fourth seat in the fifth row. It felt like an eternity. I was about to burst.

“Isabel, Joaquin, Jovanna… .” I couldn’t take it.

My mouth was close to cracking. Words of excitement were about to spew like vomit. I tried to muster up the strength. I couldn’t.

I turned to the kid in the row next to me. “Are you excited?” I softly asked so as not to attract attention. “What’s your name? Do you want to be friends?”

I could see the boy was distracted. Focused on the ongoing introductions two rows away he didn’t even hear me. It didn’t matter. I was relieved. I had let out enough steam. The pressure was off and manageable. I felt a sense of relief. I felt good. I could wait my turn.

I turned my attention back to the introductions when, moving fast across the room, the nun swept in toward me like a hawk diving for prey. Lips pressed, brow tense, her eyes cut through me.

My mouth dried.

As if in slow motion and in one move, Sister smacked her hand down on my desk.

“BANG!” She struck with brunt force.

“BANG!” Her hand slammed again this time louder than the angriest judge slamming a gavel to block. The sound rang throughout the cosmos.

My ears rang. I was terrified. I teared up. An apple-sized ball crawled up the back of my throat. I forced it back.

“SHUT YOUR MOUTH!” she yelled.

I shrank.

Furiously, she continued to shout at the top of her lungs, her eyes fixed on me.

“How dare you speak out of turn in MY classroom! You do not speak unless spoken to!”

My excitement shrank.

“Because of your selfishness and lack of control you have disrupted the entire class.”

My energy shrank.

“You have ruined the fun for everyone. I’ll teach you to talk out of turn.”

My morale shrank.

“Go to the back of the room and sit in the corner. Face the wall so we don’t have to see your stupid little face.”

My confidence shrank.

Paralyzed by fear, I failed to follow her orders. She grabbed me by the arm and pulled me. As she walked all I could hear was her stomping and heavy breathing.

Now shaking and in shock, I waited desperately for someone to save me. But no one came.

I tried to wake myself from the nightmare. It was real.

She dragged me to the back of the class. I moved like a medieval criminal making his way through a sea of unforgiving onlookers towards the rack. I lowered my head, tucked tail and whimpered.

“Not only are you not going to introduce yourself. But you are going to sit there all day. And I don’t want to hear a peep out of you for the rest of the day.”

My ego shrank.

“And let that be a lesson to you to keep your mouth shut and to remember to be seen and never be heard!”

My spirit shrank.

“That ought to teach you a lesson!”

____

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Finding Jerry

By Peggy Adams

___

I was raised at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, at the crossroads of the Coosa River and the spring fed Choccolocco Creek, in rural Alabama.

In 1943, when I was five years old, Daddy finished his studies at Trinity College, in Henderson, Tennessee. He graduated as an ordained minister and obtained a church congregation in the township of Pell City, 15 miles from our home at the time. The position came with furnished housing for the minister and his family. He proved to be an exuberant and popular minister.

Daddy was hired by two other churches in nearby communities as their Sunday preacher. Jerry, Sue and I had to go to church three times every Sunday as he wanted some of the family with him. He needed us to help keep the congregation in tune and on track with the singing. Afterward, Daddy put his hand on our shoulders.

“Good job, Little Man,” he’d say.

“Good singing, my Little Bird.”

Daddy was hired for a 15-minute radio program and his sermons became so popular, especially with the shut-in audience, that his time was extended to a half-hour. Unable to immediately fill the time with sermon, he created The Adams Quartet with his children. Daddy selected a song related to his sermon of the day. He taught us harmony and soon we too were a big hit.

Daddy functioned as song leader as well as preacher for all three churches. Yet even this was not enough to support a growing family. So he took a job as manager of a 400-acre cotton, grain and livestock farm located in the township of Eureka, ten miles from the church; five laborer-households had been living and working on this property for many years. With Daddy’s leadership, this farm became a family community they called Dogwood Hollow. When he began each workday with a prayer, the workers started calling him Preacher.

Dogwood Hollow provided many hidden creeks, rivers, waterfalls, caves and ravines for us to explore. The fathers built a community-farm-swimming pool on the calm edge of the Coosa River. They took advantage of large boulders blown out of the earth by an old quartz processing plant. These boulders created a perfect, curved, quartz wall on the river-sides of the pool. There were at least ten children in each household and with kinfolk and visitors, a lot of people played in this gigantic river swimming pool.

Beyond the pool, at the center of the wide Coosa, was a turbulent current that local farmers used to float logs to the processing plant 15 miles downriver. We were warned it was dangerous, but we wanted adventure and always played a game of ‘getting loose from the dragon.’ The river was full of snapping turtles, tadpoles, cat fish; crappie, bass, and of course water snakes. People said that if you left this river wildlife alone no harm would come to you; so we did.

The first of July, in 1948, my Daddy’s sister, Alma, brought her three daughters to visit. They lived in the township of McCleary Station and were anxious to experience country life. The oldest daughter, Vida Mae, was 18, and planning a wedding at our house with Daddy performing the services. Her soldier-boyfriend was arriving soon from Germany. We country kids were usually lulled to sleep by the night sounds of crickets chirping, wolves howling, bull frogs croaking, a low cow-moo nearby, and then, shortly before midnight, a distant long-lonely whistle of the train as it roared across the Coosa on its last trip of the day. All this scared my city cousins. They slept lightly, jerking upright in their beds at each sound.

On Saturday, 4th of July, at the crack of dawn, after a restless night of sleep, my cousins were scared out of bed with the noise of the roosters crowing. I rolled over, yawned myself awake to the smell of baking biscuits, sizzling bacon and chicory-laced coffee. After we finished breakfast and washed the dishes, we asked mother if we could go to the river. Mother was always nervous and afraid her kids would get hurt if she or Daddy were not with them.

“No, something bad might happen.”

I could usually get Daddy to let us do what Mother forbade. My brother Jerry urged me to ask him if we could go. Daddy was busy with his Sunday sermon and closed his thick, weathered Bible.

“Yes, but not for long.”

We hurried to our bedroom to put on our homemade bloomer swim suits. We always swam in our flour-sack underwear or the clothes we wore to the field that day. Vida Mae gave JoAnn a store-bought swimsuit she no longer wanted. It was the first one we had ever seen and thought it cute with its very short skirt and tight-fitting body. JoAnn was the envy of the neighborhood.

We hurried down the trail, passing all the other families out in their yards. At the house nearest to the trail, in the shade of a Mimosa tree, Maw-Maw was turning meat in a large, smoking drum with the smell of barbecue in the air; J.C., their oldest son, was moaning on his harmonica. His father, Jim Bo, was beating on his lard bucket drums and Ma Truss was setting on the front porch, fiddle to her ear, stomping her feet as the fiddle cried out. We told them that we was gonna show our city cousins what fun it was to swim in the river pool. As we entered the cool, pine-needle carpet floor of the thicket, we met a crowd of golden daffodils dancing in the breeze. Butterflies and bees smothered vines of honeysuckle. We skipped and danced our way to the swimming pool, whistling as we went.

At the pool, we opened the gate and climbed the rock steps onto the warm, smooth boulders. In the forbidden center of the river, the water roared and rolled, like a storm blowing in.

“Jerry, the water is very rough. Please don’t go into the current,” JoAnn shouted.

Jerry, grinned at his bossy sister, spread his arms and executed a perfect swan dive. He surfaced very near the strong current. We watched. He stayed in the current. He wasn’t moving out of it. Instead he started moving in circles, as if he was caught in a whirlpool.

“Stop that Jerry,” I yelled. “You gonna make yourself dizzy.”

JoAnn realized Jerry could not break free of the swift current. She jumped in. We heard a crack, like a tree limb breaking, and a cry of pain from her. She was up to her shoulders in water. One foot had lodged into a crevice of the smaller boulders with her foot turned backwards. Vida Mae and I tried to pull her foot loose, but the foot was turned the wrong way and lodged tightly. JoAnn was hovering over a boulder and trying to keep her face out of the water. But soon she tired and started to cry, which really scared me ‘cause I had never seen my sister cry. As JoAnn struggled, Vida Mae went into the water pushing and holding her up. She yelled at us to get Daddy. As I turned to leave, I looked back and saw Jerry riding down the center of the river like a log on its way to the pulp wood factory.

My sisters, Nita and Sue, and I went running through the woods yelling. As we passed Jim Bo’s house, I told him what had happened; he rang the “in danger” bell on his porch.

Daddy had heard us yelling and was outside at the edge of the yard when we got home. He grabbed his rock-moving pole with a sharp end and took off running. Mother would not allow us to return to the river. Daddy had stopped long enough to ask me where Jerry was. I told him he was caught in the river current. His shoulders slumped.

Hours passed as we waited for Daddy’s return. The clock ticked loud in the unnatural silence. Not a dog barked, nor a bird chirped. As the sun set and the moon rose, Daddy returned from the river. He looked scared and lost. We asked where JoAnn, Vida Mae and Jerry were. He told us they would all be home when they found Jerry. I begged to go in search of him ‘cause I knew all our hiding places and thought that Jerry probably had got free and was in the woods, maybe playing a trick on everybody.

Seven days later, JoAnn and Jerry’s bodies were brought to the house in a metal box lined in silk and velvet and placed into our living room to lay-in-wake. We didn’t know what that meant. Sue and Nita were scared, confused and crying and went to our bedroom. JoAnn and Jerry were just laying there not saying anything. I asked the man who opened the lid what was wrong with them.

“You should just think of them as sleeping.”

“But, Jerry don’t sleep like that…you need to take his arms down. He likes to roll into a ball to sleep.”

Nobody had told us what happened. JoAnn’s hair was in place with lifeless perfection. How I wished I could ruffle it up and blow on it to see it dance again. Jerry’s collar was up on his chin, when I reached in to flatten the collar I saw two prong-like indentations under his chin. The man told me that Jerry had been bitten by a water moccasin and that he probably only felt a sting before he died.

I struggled to understand what ‘died’ meant.

“Are they gone live in these boxes now?” He nodded.

“Are they gonna have to live in our living room?”

I learned much later that they had removed JoAnn and Vida Mae’s bodies from the river immediately; both had drowned. The boulders submerged in water were slick with slime and it was difficult to move onto the top. Each girl grew tired and began to struggle for life. JoAnn could not move her lodged foot and was unable to remain high enough over the boulder to keep her face out of the water. Vida Mae made her way over to another boulder closer to the bank, but with her strength gone and a slippery boulder, she was unable to pull herself free of the river. Both girls drowned while trying to grasp boulders, heads barely beneath the water. Vida Mae’s body was taken to her home and lay in wake until her boyfriend arrived from Germany. JoAnne’s body was taken to the funeral home. Jerry’s body was found 12 miles downriver three days later resting on a deserted beaver dam. We were not allowed to go to the funeral or gravesite. Weeks later, I kept thinking maybe they were all wrong and I would find Jerry lounging in one of our hideouts, laughing.

My mother folded into herself. Her grief was so that she stayed in their bedroom, forbidding Daddy to enter, curtains drawn as she exited our lives. I kept searching for signs of the mother I once knew—the woman easy to laugh and the last person in the room to be quiet. I was missing our time lying on a quilt in the shade of a sycamore tree painting cloud pictures or mother tickling me and slobbering a kiss into my dimple telling me,

“I’m filling your sugar bowl.”

Only recently, we had been sitting on a log stool, back to back, laughing and trying to push each other off the stump.

During mother’s withdrawal from our lives, Estelle, a family friend and neighbor, kept rotating all the casseroles brought to our house by the congregation and community, so that we had plenty to eat. But, we were so traumatized that nobody was ever hungry and much of the food spoiled.

Mother’s fading from the family was a terrible time. Weeks later she finally re-emerged. She did her chores and would sometimes sit on the porch. One sunny day not long after that, she and I sat there. Mother rocked in her old oak chair, with the faded, flowered cushion and me in Daddy’s oak rocker, which smelled faintly of tobacco he used in his old corn-cob pipe. We were not talking or playing the radio we were just being – me and her, silent. After the deaths, it was like that; Mother never talking. All of a sudden she said:

“Peggy, you know none of this would have happened if you’d just done as you were told.” Then she made the creaky rocking chair move. We just kept rocking. Quietly, I cried till I could hardly breathe, tasting my salty tears as they flowed down my face.

Daddy found me later in the barn, crying my eyes out, heart-broken. He told me I was his “little bird with a broken wing…”

“Mother hates me!”

“Well, right now she hates me, too!” He placed his arm around my shoulders.

“What happened was not your fault. You know that, right?”

After a few more anguished tears, slowly sniffling, I nodded. He then said he was taking me to visit his mother for a while. A fragment of a smile tried to find its way up from the past weeks of sorrow.

Since I was a very young child, I spent six weeks every summer at my grandmother’s house. We called her Granny Love and she told the greatest stories; sometimes ghostly, sometimes funny. She and I always took turns making up songs and stories.

When I arrived, Granny put her worn hand in mine, and then she brought me into an enveloping hug and sobbed. The guilt and the grief over JoAnn and Jerry and the wishing it all away became fresh and raw again. I snuggled into Granny’s frail arms and we cried into each other’s shoulders so deeply that I could feel the sorrow from her soul blending completely with my own. When Daddy entered her room, Granny cradled her child and his child and we all cried and wrapped our arms around each other tightly and squeezed. We swayed together.

“Lord’s gonna take care of everythang,” she said.

I had never seen my Daddy cry and I was shocked to see the tears rolling, freely down his face and he snorted just as I did, trying to stop the tears; we all three, laughed over this.

In the time I stayed with Granny, she gave me attention and love and told me over and over how proud she was of me. Then, Daddy took me home.

“Thangs gon’ be alright—someday it won’t hurt so much,” Granny Love told me.

She died seven days later, in her bed, all alone. I always wished I could have held her hand until the end, but then maybe not. In her wisdom, Granny knew how fragile she and I were and sent me home.

I returned home to find Mother with dark smudges under her eyes and still withdrawn, angry at me, at Daddy, at the world. Gradually, she began to return to her role as wife and mother. She went on to have three more children: two girls and one boy, as if to replace those she had lost. But life was not the same. Mother became bitter and unforgiving. Daddy, previously loving and jovial, withdrew, too.

They loved their first-born children so much that, after their deaths, they could not find it within their hearts to love their others as much.

___

Peggy Adams retired after working 35 years in the government civil service where she held a variety of positions. Currently, her life includes daily walking in Peggy Adamsparks and on the beach, reading and writing. Among her favorite authors are Truman Capote, Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty. Contact her at pcadams825@yahoo.com.

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By Sylvia Castañeda

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]n the 1920’s, Luz Solís was living in San Diego with her husband and their two young children.

Luz was raised in Tijuana and had crossed the U.S. – Mexico border daily to attend grade school in San Ysidro.
Her husband, Lupe Tirado, was from Sinaloa; a man with limited education and a strong temperament who worked as a cement finisher. Luz was 16 years old when she married him in Tijuana and, as crossing the border was much easier then, they went to live in San Diego. They lived in a rented modest house downtown on Columbia Street near West Market Street.

She and her sister, Antonia, were born to Ygnacio Solís & María Cañez, a customs agent at the Tijuana checkpoint and his wife. After she married, Luz frequently visited her parents and sister in Tijuana. When her father died, Luz’s mother and sister moved to Santa Paula, California, north of Los Angeles, where relatives lived. Not long after that, Luz’s mother passed away. Antonia remained in Santa Paula under the care of relatives, the GutiTia Luz 1942_Snapseedérrez family, until she married. Luz came up often.

One day, Luz returned from a trip to Santa Paula to find her home on Columbia Street empty. Her family had vanished. Her husband was gone. Their children – their son Leocadio and daughter Ascención – were nowhere to be found.

Frantic, Luz went door to door, inquiring with neighbors. She spent days searching. A neighbor informed her that Lupe had fled to his native Mazatlán, Sinaloa. She went there. Back then, it was a trip that took many days. But in Mazatlán she found nothing.

Luz returned to San Diego, destroyed. She continued searching. Yet, unable to afford the rent on her own, she had no other alternative but to find shelter with the Gutiérrez family in Santa Paula. When she gathered enough strength to make it on her own, she moved to Tijuana. For years, she frequently crossed the border into San Diego to search for her children Leocadio and Ascención without success.

By 1930, Luz was living in Tijuana, and remarried to Carlos Savín, a commercial fisherman who followed the fishing routes along Baja California. They divided their time between homes in La Paz and Tijuana, depending on the fishing season. Often, over the years, they crossed into San Diego to visit Luz’s family. When they did, Luz always returned to the house on Columbia Street where she last held her children.

In time, neighbors moved away and the neighborhood was one she no longer recognized. She carried her children’s disappearance like a cross, longing more than anything to find her children. But with every passing year, the longing formed a deep abyss of sorrow.

Luz and Carlos never had children of their own. But the children of Carlos’ brother came to live with them and Luz raised her nieces – Dora and Margarita – and they loved her as their mother.

Every month for as long as she lived, Luz wrote letters to her sister, Antonia, who was by then living in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. In those letters she wrote of the daily events in her life as well as the agony caused by the absence of her children.

In 1986, Luz’s letters became sparse; months went by without any news from her. One day, the letters ceased. Concerned about Luz, Antonia sent a letter to the corner house on Calle Revolución and Sonora, in La Paz, inquiring about her sister. She received no response. Antonia never again heard from her sister.

The memory of Leocadio and Ascención vanished with Luz.

Antonia was my grandmother. I heard the story of my Grand Aunt Luz when I was 9 years old.

It was 1978. I was at my Tía Lupe’s house on Atlas Street in El Sereno, in the living room, cross-sitting on the patterned burgundy carpet. Outside, leaves fell on the low stone wall that surrounded the front porch. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass played in the background. My mother sat at the dining-room table while Tía Lupe sewed a flowered skirt for me, to be used during Folklorico Dance practice and they laughed as they told what they remembered of the letters their mother, Antonia, received from her sister Luz in Baja California.

Every time a letter arrived, they said, Antonia would sit them around the small coal-burning stove, which simultaneously heated the cast- iron clothes iron and cooked the beans in the earthenware pot as she read the news from the family that lived so far away. Every detail of the letters were animated by Antonia’s tone and pitch, except when the news was sad; then her voice became somber and sometimes she didn’t read aloud what was written.

As the memories of the letters unfolded, the boisterous laughs of my mother and her sister grew quiet and still, Herb Alpert became faint and they told the story of Luz and her children. I never forgot that story.

Years later, when I was in my twenties – seventy years after the disappearance of Leocadio and Ascención – I began to search for them.

My quest began with a leather-bound photo album, carefully arranged throughout the years by my Abuelita Antonia. This collection of photographs captured moments in time described in the letters. Every year, in the winter recess, when I visited my Abuelita in Zacatecas, I immersed myself in the stories the pictures conveyed. I linked the people in the photos to the names and the events in the letters. I connected myself to these memories left behind in the photographs. Two photos were absent from the collection and deserved a place alongside the others.

My father and sister humored my persistence in searching for documents that would serve as clues to the whereabouts of Luz’s missing children. But they could not understand why. My mother, in her heart, longed to locate them but didn’t think the pursuit would be fruitful. My cousins thought I was mad. Let the past be, they would say. Why disturb what was to be? Why does it matter, it happened so long ago? Who is Luz? Let the story that faded into the walls remain there, to protect those who lived and suffered.

I obtained Leocadio and Ascención’s birth certificates registered in San Diego, then, I located a 1920 Census record. It listed a Guadalupe Tirado as a head of household; it listed Lucy as his wife and Oscar as their one year old son. They were renting a house on Market Street in San Diego. However, I was perplexed by the recorded name for their son: Oscar. His age was accurate. Could this be Luz’s family?

I came across several border-crossing records for Luz Solís and Guadalupe Tirado and a U.S. World War I Draft Registration Card for Guadalupe. The border crossing records and the draft registration document identified Luz Solís as Guadalupe Tirado’s wife. I revisited the 1920 Census record to check the address and matched a border crossing recorded about the same year. The Tirado family in the 1920 Census had to be Luz’s family. But was Luz’s son named Leocadio? Was “Oscar” his first name and Leocadio his middle name? I grew more obsessed with the search.

In the 1930 Census, I found a Guadalupe Tirado, who was married to another woman named Felicitas. They lived on 13th Street in San Diego. Their two oldest children were the same age as Leocadio and Ascención would have been, but their names were Eugenio and Maria. In the 1940 Census, Guadalupe and Felicitas Tirado lived on Pickwick Street in San Diego. The two oldest children’s names were now Eugene & Mary.

I searched the name Eugene Tirado on the internet and was linked to the Korean War Casualties website. My heart immediately sank. I clicked on the link. “Eugene L. Tirado, born on 1918, killed in Action 26 Mar 1951, Sergeant First Class, Army” appeared on the computer screen. My eyes focused on his middle initial. This had to be Leocadio.

I sought his military records. The Report of Internment for Eugene L. Tirado identified his birthdate. It matched Leocadio’s: Dec 9, 1918. The typed record also had a bonus; in blue lead, the letters “e” and “o” were added by hand to the “L.” I thought of Luz and my eyes flooded with tears.

Through it all, for 20 years, I kept on, convinced I could find these children. I searched census indexes at the local Family Search Library, requested mail-ordered photocopies of birth records from the San Diego County Registrar and census records from the National Archives, visited the Los Angeles Public Library Genealogy Department, maneuvered through microfiche, microfilm, record books, and scoured the sources of data brought on by the dawning of the internet. It led, in the end, to the realization that one of her children was killed at war years before I was born.

In August 2010, I posted a snippet of Luz’s story on Ancestry.com and I also left a note on a message board of a person who had Eugene Leo Tirado on a family tree. Six months later, I received an email from a woman named Frances.

Frances was 68 and she was the daughter, she said, of Eugene Tirado.

She was living in Connecticut, where she raised her family and had resided for over 20 years. Frances said she was born in San Diego and had grown up there, too, until she left for college. After graduating, she married and cared for her two children. Her former husband’s job promotions moved her family to the East Coast, where she found work as an administrative clerk. Frances also had an interest in family history – particularly the family of her birth mother, who had died when Frances was so young and whom she therefore knew little about. She had been researching and developing her family tree for two years by then.

Frances had never heard of Luz Solis.

Her father Eugene and Aunt Mary had grown up in San Diego, she said. The homes their father rented before he purchased a lot on Pickwick Street were just blocks from the one where they last lived with their mother, Luz.

Eugene married a woman who gave birth to Frances and two siblings. The woman died giving birth to their third child, who also died. Frances was only 11 months old at the time of her mother and sister’s deaths. Eight months after, Eugene enlisted in the army; left his two children in the care of his parents, Lupe and Felicitas.

Felicitas was a gentle, pious soul and loved them as if they were her own. Lupe isolated himself in his room after work to escape the noise the grandchildren would create. In 1946, Eugene re-married in Alabama, where he was stationed, and a son was born the following year. He re-enlisted in the Army in 1950 and was a member of the 187th Airborne Infantry Regimental Combat Team when he was killed in action in Korea.

His sister Mary, meanwhile, married a career Air Force officer. They had two children. Lupe sent Frances to live under Mary’s guardianship about the time Eugene re-enlisted.

Soon Frances and I were e-mailing each other daily. She told me about her father, Eugene; he was the life of every party and always wore a smile. He loved Frances and her brother and was always good to them. We exchanged pictures. Eugene did have a beautiful smile just like my mom and her sisters. Mary was the spitting image of Luz.

Frances scarcely knew her Aunt Mary when she was sent to live with her. Mary doted on her two children, as any mother would, but resented having to look after a third child – a child not her own.

Frances had always been told that Luz, her grandmother, had abandoned the family for another man. Frances was shocked to learn this was not true, and upset that her grandfather had put Luz through such misery. But she said it explained a lot.

Throughout her life, Mary always felt cast aside, abandoned by her mother. Before she married, as the only daughter, Mary was given the charge of her four younger step-brothers along with household chores. Once married, she seldom visited her family, though they lived in the same city.

Mary passed away on January 18, 2010 in Escondido, having lived her entire life twisted by a lie her father told. She and her brother, Eugene, are buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.

Lupe Tirado was a handsome and responsible man. He worked hard all of his life to provide food and shelter for his family; but he was violent. Everyone feared him. His grandchildren had to be careful not to touch anything when they visited his home. Lupe was short-tempered with his sons if they did not respond to his first call. He was proud of whisking Felicitas away on a horse, in Tijuana, to care for his two little children.

Lupe never mentioned Luz’s name, nor spoke of his past. I suppose we will never know why he abandoned Luz. Years later, Felicitas and Lupe divorced. Lupe married a third woman – a marriage that also ended in divorce.

Frances and I continue to communicate through e-mail, Facebook and an occasional call. She is my mother’s age – now 73; born the same month. My mother and Frances resemble each other at this age: straight, short dark hair with whisks of grey and smiles that light up a room.

The day I received the first e-mail from Frances, I phoned my mother. There was a moment of silence on her end.

My mother grew up without any cousins. She only speaks Spanish and Frances speaks English only. Frances’ daughter and I serve as their interpreters while on phone calls and translators of letters. Google Translate has also played a part, though the translations are imprecise and puzzle my mother.

I now have photographs of Leocadio and Ascención.

“Sylvia,” Frances said, “you have come into my life bringing Luz.”

About a month after our first email encounter, I had a dream that Luz was a fairy trapped in a glass jar. She was screaming asking for her release but she was inaudible. Frances and I worked in unison to release her and when we did, she flew away.

___

IMG_5371Sylvia 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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 By Ondrej Franek

[dropcap1]R[/dropcap1]ussian soldiers made it first. They came to Czechoslovakia in August 1968. I came in August, too. I was born in Czechoslovakia in August, 1970.

Society Normalization – the government’s Newspeak for Russian occupation – was in full swing by that time and life was not much fun for anybody. Everyone’s career had been planned already by the Communist party planners who lacked any sense of adventure, let alone fun.

Almost blind children were no exception to that rule. The official name of the first school I attended was: “Nine-Year Special Boarding Elementary School for Almost Blind Children.” There was no room for sweet understatements while catching up with American imperialists in the nuclear arms race – as they used to tell us every day.

I escaped this world whenever I could. I would sit down, put on some music, and start wobbling back and forth from my waist up as if the upper part of my body was a plank swaying on a big pelvic hinge. Soon I was in a different world.

In this world, the sun shed light on my great deeds that everyone admired. I travelled around the world. I sacrificed my life for the common good in deep space many times. Big, merry famous women and boarding school teachers were fondling me, giving me long loving hugs for all the good I’d done.

I lived on those daydream love stories many good years before I became aware of sex per se. Those dreams felt so refreshing, so real. More real than my real life. There were so many things in the real life I resented.Image for Story

Boarding-school dining room air stayed unvaried throughout the years. The whiff of plastic table cloths freshly wiped up with a wet rag never so fresh, mixed with kitchen vapors and seventy more kids’ morning breaths worked like a chemical drum dividing our school days into four segments: classes, supervised leisure time, homework, and bed-time. I was eight years old when I completed the second year of this life, pondering, between the beats of the monotonous dining-room-chemical-drum, how I would survive nine years of this. Nine years was a time span I could not grasp having only lived eight.

Weekend stays at home with my family used to complete the rhythm. Each such weekend ended in a Sunday of Betrayal when I could not continue watching TV with my brother because of late-afternoon back-to-boarding-school “deportation proceedings.” No bag of home grown apples, which my mother never forgot to pack with my clothes for the week, was big enough to rectify the injustice.

This organized world possessed a sorcerer, who could turn whatever fun existed into an ugly farce for her own amusement. I remember my first masquerade ball being turned into a full-blown nightmare when my teacher evaluated my purchased costume as sloppy homework, and dressed me up as a girl making me listen to her comments on my parents’ negligence while she was working on me.

The same nasty spell was cast on painting classes at school. They were humiliating and wet. I never achieved good command of my watercolors set. They never formed the shape required on my drawing paper to represent my mom or whatever my teachers had asked for. Brushes were forbidden so that we could not poke our almost blind eyes by mistake. The only paint-distribution instrument allowed was our own fingers dipped in water.

It was in May when a painting teacher told me that my artistic expression matched that of a five-year-old. I did not respond well to this sort of encouragement. I gave up. I could hide from painting whenever it threatened. So I did Lack of artistic expression seemed utterly irrelevant to the small uptight grey-dressed creature with thick glasses I became at 12. I felt handicapped even among my handicapped peers. That was all that mattered – especially in May. It was this high-spring air of May, which smelled like a heavy perfume carrying the scents of impending summer that blended with my hopes for something better that I could not name.

But eventually my nine-year boarding school term ended. Russian soldiers, too, left long ago. There is no Czechoslovakia any more as we split peacefully in 1993, and American imperialists must have pulled their missiles back in a garage, for we did not hear any more about them. I kept dreaming. I still travelled around the world using the escape trick I’d found during my childhood. My dream deeds changed though my reward for doing them stayed the same. That’s how I first came across a Tantra-Yoga Meditation Center. I fell in love indeed with all that bodywork and mental challenge. Never mind that those guys often made us use painting as an emotional outlet to chill out after an intimacy-challenging experience. This was the first time in twenty years that I could not get out of painting. I still did not like it, yet I accepted it as a reasonable price for the inner peace I was able to achieve bit by bit.

Another ten years went by. I worked hard, travelled enough and tried to love as gently as I could. As I gradually acquired some financial freedom as an IT specialist, my bachelor-life’s defense grew stronger, more reliable. I kept dreaming. I kept avoiding painting whenever possible.

One day, though, I goofed badly by signing up for a retreat with an American mystic who visited my Tantra-Yoga Center. This mystic was a painter. I’m not sure how I missed that. His meditations were painting meditations.

Tantra rule #1: “Do you feel that something is not for you at all? Can you sense the resentment you feel in your stomach? Then you need it most of all.”

I discovered my error too late. Tantra rule #1 combined with an unfriendly cancellation fee to force me to attend.

I set off in an outfit of a professional painter with a portable easel hung over my shoulder, determined to make a good joke of myself. I was also engaged in a theatre group at that time. All theatre directors encourage embarrassment exercises.

It worked wonderfully. I felt really bad among all those serious artists who made long journeys to meet this famous painter. He liked the joke of a blind guy who spends most of his time setting up his equipment and then makes two smears of school-kid watercolors in his 12×20 inch sketchbook on an easel. I liked it, too, after all. We hit it off.

He revisited our eccentric yoga center one year later. That time, I truly wished to participate despite all the painting stuff required. I almost started liking it. His unconventional painting freestyle, in which you meet your canvas as a friend to talk to, or a lover, or a mirror. So different from the painting classes of my school years when I was never capable of painting my mummy.

This time he did not come alone, this famous American painter-mystic. He brought a group of artists with him, most of them from L.A.

The first painting I made I liked, or at least I did not consider it boring fatigue. This took me by surprise as did a woman who came up to comment on it. Though she was from the American group, and an ocean spread between our lives, it did not prevent her from seeing the trees, lights and dancing fairies right where I saw them, too, on my still-wet canvas.

The early symptoms of falling in love entered my heart without any applause the next day. Everyone faces the danger of misconstruction when it comes to saying “I love you” for the first time. Partial blindness does not make it easier. Nor did the bad reputation that American women have in Europe for sexual-harassment lawsuits. I had no intention of becoming a defendant in such a suit.

How likely would you consider the chances of an American independent entrepreneur woman falling in love with an almost blind Czech guy on a painting retreat? I hardly had enough time to contemplate this challenge when another came.

“If I had two hundred of such paintings you were making here at the retreat, I would organize an exhibition for you in L.A.,” the famous American painter-mystic said.

“Yikes, how the hell am I gonna do that? It was not a joke? And what about the girl? The girl from the group of visiting American artists?” A nagging voice in my head would not stop.

“Why not simply show how happy and grateful I am whenever she is around?”

My inner nag seemed to be happy with this and ceased. I liked the idea. Simple enough, lawful enough.

I did much better at showing her my happiness and gratitude than at painting two hundred canvasses. On the magic carpet of the Internet, tied together with a rope of trust when five thousand nine hundred and forty-one miles distance, an eighteen-year age difference, and U.S. immigration laws mustered to scare us, we enjoyed the ride.

It was by sheer fluke that we ended up swimming naked in an open air pool in one of the hot springs resorts scattered along the Slovakia-Hungary border right after the painting retreat had ended and as most of Europe was shivering cold under the flood waters of late spring 2013. Thank heavens we could both work from anywhere in the world, so she could come back to live with me for six weeks in the fall 2013 and see that Prague in autumn is the most seductive of all seasons. After a year and a half of taking turns crossing the Atlantic, writing a book’s worth of e-mails, my shirt almost caught fire from a ceremonial candle at Hollywood SRF Temple while we were exchanging the kiss that made us a married couple on Saturday, September 13, 2014. All this happened easier than sixteen canvasses could be painted. There are still one hundred eighty-four to go.

____

Ondrej Franek, a Czech citizen, recently married Susanna Whitmore, a native of Los Angeles, after an eighteen-month courtship traveling between L.A. and Prague. Almost blind since birth, Ondrej explores his inner world through painting. His intention is to communicate from the intuitive subconscious, rather than from the rational mind. In his spare time, he is an IT engineer and works for a geo-tech company based in Prague.
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By K.C. Glynn

[dropcap1]A[/dropcap1]fter 23 years in the Navy, much of it sailing to “exotic ports of call” where I took note of some very strange behavior between both natives and sailors, and then some 20 or so years as a public high school teacher in Los Angeles, I decided to get my Master’s degree in History, with the idea of cementing my resume as an academic.

Upon entering the program at Cal State University, Northridge, the question became one of specialization. I decided to focus on “archival management.” Having been ground down by years of oversized classes crammed with unappreciative teenage louts, I fantasized about working all alone in a quiet, spacious room where I could peruse historical documents while listening to Mozart.

A requirement of the program was to organize and catalogue primary materials for the “Special Collections” division of CSUN’s library which, I discovered, is one of the largest repositories of erotica and pornography in the United States.

CSUN is smack dab in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, the center of American porn production and a freeway drive from the Xanadus of Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt. Like the feudal barons of the Middle Ages who atoned for careers of rape and pillage by commissioning stained glass windows in cathedrals, it seemed that those who built their castles on sins of the flesh would donate materials to CSUN in the possible hope that someone, someday would transform their otherwise tawdry work into an “archive” for scholarly study and bestow that veneer of respectability they craved. Instead of mere smut, their deeds would become “history.”

The crown jewel of the archive is the “Verne and Bonnie Bullough Collection on Sex and Gender” which (and I quote from the library description):

was established by former CSUN faculty member Vern Bullough starting in 1973.   Its purpose is to document social attitudes and studies of sex and gender from ancient times to the present, in support of CSUN curricula and research. The collection is maintained for research and educational purposes, and is comprised of books, periodicals, manuscripts, and archival materials covering such topics as cross-dressing, gender roles in various time periods, the homosexual community in Los Angeles, prostitution, the transgendered community, children and gender, nudism, gender and medicine, fetishism, and pornography.

I reported to the “Head Archivist,” a quiet, contemplative man who would not have been out of place in a monastery. I was instead directed to organize 16 large boxes marked “The Tri-Ess Society,” a group which billed itself as “The Society of the Second Self, America’s oldest and largest heterosexual cross-dressing organization” founded by one “Virginia Prince” some time in the early 1950’s. Inside the boxes were thousands of letters, pictures, drawings, articles, implements, and artifacts belonging to men, young and old, fathers, brothers, and sons, who all shared a single terrifying secret.

They wanted to become women.

This desire took on different forms. Most had a compulsion simply to dress as women either privately or publically. I discovered a letter written by a World War II B-17 bomber pilot to Virginia Prince in her function as a cross-dressing “Dear Abby. ” He captained a crew that had worked the system to get themselves assigned to the same airplane in the Eighth Air Force. They liked to wear women’s clothes while bombing Germany; it gave them “a sense of comfort” as they fought the flak and fighters somewhere over Dusseldorf. They looked fabulous astride their machine guns in stiletto heels.

Other letters were from “alpha males” who, after retiring from Fortune 500 careers, wanted to make tea and arrange flowers while dressed in Dior and bathed in Chanel No. 5.  They seemed exhausted from the competition and run out of testosterone in the corporate rat race. There were doctors, lawyers, priests, politicians, convicts, rich, and poor. An Air Force test pilot based at Edwards Air Force Base worried what would happen to his career should he be stopped by the Highway Patrol on his way home from the transvestite Tupperware party somewhere in Pasadena while still in drag. Some wanted to physically become women and were asking for help or advice. Some wondered if they were homosexuals but were cautioned by Miss Prince that “Tri-Ess” was an organization for heterosexual, not homosexual, transvestites and that they should seek counsel elsewhere, along with the other transsexuals and fetishists who sought admission to her club. Most seemed unhappy with a fate they were at a loss to understand.

I worked on that collection for 18 months, slowly putting together the pieces of the puzzle while drawing some insight into the conundrum of gender identity. I thought about mothers dressing their toddler boys as girls, or boys playing with dolls, or Oedipus, or Freud, or Liberacé. I thought about the theories of “Nature versus Nurture” and watched reruns of “Tootsie” and “Some Like It Hot.”

As I catalogued the collection, the greatest mystery of all remained Virginia Prince herself. Who was she? What was she? Was she still a he? Or had he really become a she? This question had a personal resonance for me.

The first person I met in college was Charlie, in a processional line for freshmen. Charlie seemed to be everything I was not. I was a Long Island suburbanite; Charlie was a stone-cold, Upper East Side, brownstone, private-school, doorman-whistle-taxi Manhattanite. He breathed old money with every puff of the Parliaments he smoked. But even more remarkable, he was married! 

In some kind of weird “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side Story” meets “The Godfather” kind of thing Charlie, rich WASP Manhattan dude, had a torrid love affair with Maria, Italian love-bomb from Brooklyn, and the two, despite their families, had run off and got hitched that summer before going on to their separate college destinations. Now, with about a hundred miles of New York moo-cow farmland between them, they anxiously awaited each others’ embrace.

Charlie and Maria somehow survived the Ashley Madisons and Lotharios of college to graduate and soon got jobs in New York City only to fall prey to corporate temptations. One day, Charlie called me and wanted to meet for lunch. He told me that Maria was having an affair with her boss and that they were divorcing. Shocked, I expressed a hope that we could still remain friends. He replied that I could be friends either with him or with Maria but not both. Resenting being pressed into a corner, I chose Maria. He angrily got up from the table and left to disappear into the. As for Maria, I pressed her about what went wrong. She hinted at “irreconcilable differences” but would not elaborate.

Thirty years later, as I worked in CSUN’s archives, a rumor surfaced at the college class reunion. A clerk at the transcript office had communicated a story to a member of the reunion committee that a woman had requested a transcript under a man’s name. Charlie was now “Charlene.”

Back in the bowels of the library, I dug deep into the boxes of material trying to find some clues. Maybe Charlie was somewhere in there. It became like the search for the origin of “Rosebud” in “Citizen Kane.” I sifted through the Tri-Ess Executive Committee minutes overseeing their transvestite “sororities” across America, I read the Central Intelligence Agency’s assessment of the security risk of transvestites to the Space Race, I read smuggled letters from “Kalina” in Moscow about zeks cracking rocks in the Gulag Archipelago (apparently, the Politburo considered cross-dressing communists as counter-revolutionaries). I pored over back issues of “Guys in Gowns,” “Transvestia,” and “Bizarre.” Until Bingo! I found a pamphlet by Virginia Prince titled “Everything You Wanted to Know About Cross-dressing but Didn’t Know Who to Ask.” The pamphlet itself, a primer on transvestism as an expression of man’s feminine nature, was opaque as to her origins, but inside was a yellowed newsletter commentary whose Rosetta Stone-like contents made me reach for the nearest seat.

Virginia Prince had been a student at my school!

Arnold Lowman, Class of 1932, Los Angeles High, where I have been teaching since 1995.

I went to our Ray Bradbury Library (another illustrious alumni) and found the yearbook collection. And there he was! A slimly built member of the Junior Varsity Track team! Chemistry club anddebate team andsecretary of This and That.In the depths of the Depression, Arnold Lowman, who had apparently first began cross-dressing at the age of twelve, went on to the University of California, Berkeley where he earned his Ph.D in pharmacology, got married, had children, got divorced, got married again, but then reinvented himself as Virginia Prince, Transvestite Queen, and begin a movement that would culminate not only in the transfiguration of Bruce Jenner, Olympic Decathlete and Wheaties Icon, into Caitlyn Jenner, America’s Sweetheart, but in the announcement by the University of California that this year’s college application will have six possible boxes to check off in the “gender” category.

Virginia, nee’ Arnold, died in 2009, aged 91, having gone to meet her maker in a dress. It was no ordinary life. And one done against great odds. My hat’s off to you, Arnold/Virginia.

As for Charlie/Charlene, he called me up out of the blue one evening a year or so later, after he read something about me in the “class notes” section from our alumni newsmagazine. Although he was pretty hammered, we caught up with each other. We talked about the class reunion. The rumor of “Charlene” came up and when it did, the timbre of his voice changed from baritone to alto. It was true, he said. He was now a she. I had a drink. She had a drink. Maybe some more. Charlene told me that (like Arnold) she knew something didn’t fit by the age of twelve, but didn’t know what it was. Charlie had married Maria, got caught trying to become Maria, divorced Maria, married again for ten years but, his second wife, exasperated from finding her husband borrowing her clothes, divorced him.

Charlie withdrew into alcohol and despair and psychoanalysis but took the plunge and became Charlene. I did not want to know just how deep the end of the pool was when he jumped in, but Charlene told me that other people found her quite attractive. She said she was happy. Thinking of Charlie all those many years ago standing in that processional line as a freshman I wondered if that might be true. However, I did not want her to send me a picture. She was living with another woman, “Tiffany,” somewhere in Baltimore. Did that make her a lesbian? Going through all that to find you still loved women?

I thought of Baltimore’s famous film maker John Waters. Charlie and I had seen “Pink Flamingoes” starring its notorious drag diva, Divine, in our freshman year at some Halloween midnight show. I kept my eyes shut most of the time for fear of seeing something I shouldn’t, couldn’t, dare not see.

Charlie’s eyes were probably wide open all the way.

A year or so after graduating to go return to the still unappreciative teenage louts lurking in my classroom, I visited the CSUN archive and its chief monk. As we chatted in his office, a well-dressed young man pored over reference materials at one of the archival computers.

“He’s a visiting scholar doing research,” the chief monk said, “he’s been looking at your work.”

I observed him intent at his work, making notes and taking pictures with small, manicured hands. He was slightly built with glossy hair and a meticulously trimmed silky goatee.

I felt surprise, perhaps mixed with a twinge of relief, thinking that my own unrequested exploration of the unexpected would not be consigned to some dusty academic dead end, but might, instead, light some candle for others to peer into those mysterious dark corners as we continue to wonder what it means to be human.

____

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K.C. Glynn is a sailor and a writer who teaches Social Studies and Shakespeare at Los Angeles High School.  His debut novel, “Tyrannosaurus Sex,” now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, tries to make sense of it all.   Contact him at:  kglaca@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

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By Susanna Fránek

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]n 1984 I returned to L.A., my hometown, after being away for almost 17 years. With my 3-month old son Tomás in tow, I arrived from Mallorca, Spain with the clothes on my back, and a few battle scars from a tumultuous relationship with his father. I was ready for a new start, and the safety net of home and family.

I had grown up in the San Fernando Valley and never experienced much else of the city. During my teens, crossing into Laurel Canyon down into Hollywood was an adventure that mostly got me into trouble. I was always intrigued by the canyon where my favorite musicians, Joni Mitchell and David Crosby, lived. I never quite fit the Valley girl stereotype; instinct drove me elsewhere the first opportunity I had. I also remember being glued to the TV in 1965 watching the Watts riots unfold. It was hard to fathom it was taking place within my own city.

During the late 70s when I had returned from abroad to visit family, crime was up; L.A. appeared to be in lock down, reeling from the Charles Manson and Hillside Strangler murders. I feared having a flat tire on the freeway at night; worried a stranger might stop.

Now, after 17 years away, I was back in L.A. and needed a job. I had done some photography and sold ads for an English-language weekly newspaper on the island of Mallorca, so I walked into the Spanish-language daily newspaper, La Opinión, and asked for a job. They handed me a box full of old client files and a spot at an old clunky, gray metal desk in the sales department on 14th Street downtown, known as the “White House.” Named for its older, shabby brick building painted white, it was separated by an alleyway from the paper’s modern offices at the corner of 14th and Main. The sound of the press cranking out up to 80,000 newspapers every afternoon was an adrenaline rush. I ignored the mouse droppings in the desk drawers and got to work calling on inactive advertisers.

I called on clients throughout the small cities southeast of L.A. Old auto, rubber factories, and metal-bashing industries, were now gone, as were the predominantly white, blue-collar residents. Latinos were recreating the landscape. Lining Pacific Boulevard were a Mexican Canada shoe store, a 3 Hermanos clothing store, a Gallo Giro fast food restaurant, and stores selling Western boots, jeans and cowboy hats, catering to the Mexican ranchera, banda and quebradita dance crazes of the day. I brought the advertising team from The Broadway Stores down for a walk so they could see the independent shops that catered to the outfits needed for a baptism, first communion or quinceañera. Within a 3-block radius along Pacific Blvd. we counted nine stores with elaborate Cinderella ball gowns displayed in their storefronts, catering to girls turning 15.

I was working for the Spanish-language daily that catered to the immigrants of the “lost decade” of Mexican economic stagnation, and Central Americans who were fleeing civil wars. My early clients were small business entrepreneurs. There were the Iranians who had fled the new Islamic Republic that came to power in 1979. Savvy entrepreneurs that they were, they set up shop in Hispanic neighborhoods, learned Spanish, and sold electronics, appliances and other household goods.

One of my first sales calls from the box of inactive clients was to Daryoush, a Jewish Iranian who owned Top Discount Stores in East L.A. and Echo Park. Balding and disheveled, he was a shrewd businessman. During our first meeting, he took me back to his messy cubbyhole of an office; I let him rant. He was upset at La Opinión for raising his column inch rate, which he felt was unfair given the number of consistent full-page ads he’d placed for years. Plus he was not happy with the rep that previously handled his account. His cantankerous mood was also due to his Echo Park location not doing well. The mostly off-brand appliances and electronics sold on layaway at Top Discount were ideal for blue-collar, newly arrived immigrant families, but had less appeal for a neighborhood starting to gentrify.

After rounds of negotiating, Top was back in the paper. I started looking forward to my weekly meetings with Daryoush. We’d sit in his office, go through the changes in his ad and sip tea – there was always a pot of Persian tea brewing – while exchanging border crossing stories and chatting about his life in Iran, how the revolution unfolded, and how they had underestimated Khomeini’s Islamist movement.

Daryoush came to the U.S. right before the revolution broke out, but his family waited. They hired guides, not unlike the “coyotes” that bring Mexicans into the U.S., paying hefty amounts to take them through the treacherous Kurdish mountain region from Iran into Turkey. Leaving everything behind except the few belongings they could carry, petrified, they escaped on foot and on horseback, knee deep in snow; his elderly parents barely survived. They eventually made it to Ankara, and onto Vienna, then reuniting with Daryoush and other relatives in L.A.

As Daryoush and I became friends over the years, I had the honor of meeting his parents. I was invited to a gathering held in their large apartment on Beverly Glen, south of Olympic Boulevard in West Los Angeles. I walked through the door and was immersed in the aromas of homemade Kosher Persian food, a meal that included classic Tabrizi meatball dishes, stews and kabobs, and Chelo Persian rice. Surrounded by ornate Louis XIV-style couches, tables and chandeliers, it dawned on me they had replicated their home environment from back in Iran. Melodic classic Persian music played in the background; nostalgia filled the air. This could have been a gathering in Tehran, not Los Angeles. As the night progressed, they switched to Persian pop music that fused the traditional tonbak finger snapping-style percussion with electric guitar and organ. When the music of the well-known queen of Iranian pop music, Googoosh, came on, the volume went up and everyone jumped up to dance, me included. Hard to believe the older generation had survived such a harrowing escape, their joie de vivre so contagious.

Then there was VJ, who was from India and had a business in the garment industry right around the corner from the White House. One of the many subcontractors in L.A.’s fashion district, he finished sewing party wear for women that would end up in department stores like The Broadway, Robinsons May and JCPenney. His wholesale showroom was full of racks of blue, red, turquoise, pink and black sequined dresses, skirts and tops; the type of glitz older Iranian and Armenian women would wear to weddings and formal gatherings. The showroom bustled with retailers, buyers and designers that came through, scrutinizing the merchandise, discussing price per piece, delivery deadlines, etc. I often came in while VJ was on the phone or dealing with a vendor or client; he would always introduce me. The warehouse behind his showroom housed roughly 20 workers, all Mexicans, their sewing machines a constant hum.

Once in his office, I saw the close resemblance VJ had to the yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, whose photo loomed large on the wall behind his desk. They shared the same sculpted facial features – eyes, a distinguished nose with wide nostrils, and chin dimple – and they both beamed the same mild and tender look of peace and compassion. Under the gentle gaze of his guru we chatted about his business, the results of his latest ad campaign, and meditation.

VJ was a successful businessman; he was optimistic and generous, and he incorporated his guru’s teachings into his business practice. Though a garment manufacturer, he appeared to treat his employees well. There was no overcrowded, dark and dank working conditions, or shouting, or any abuse. One day VJ drove me up to the Self Realization Fellowship mother center on Mount Washington and bought me a copy of the Autobiography of a Yogi, a book I had been introduced to back in a college comparative religion class; this time I read it.

During the 80s and 90s, Teatro Los Pinos in South Gate catered to the Latino community offering up slapstick acts that the operator, Simón López, brought from Mexico. The vaudeville, comedy performances were sometimes full of social satire that mirrored the plight of Mexicans on both sides of the border. The transvestite, Francis, was a popular show that often doubled booked, lasting weeks. Her shows were full of slang and, regardless of the kids in the audience, lots of swearing. She wore big, extravagant costumes, reminding me of an overly dressed Barbie doll. Dancers pranced around in the background while she sang and played with the crowd. She was a pioneer using comedy to introduce the topic of homosexuality to a mostly culturally homophobic audience.

Simón was always doing three things at once; he would run a dress rehearsal, and give orders to employees while he was on his big, chunky cell phone negotiating with theatre troupes he was booking for future performances. But he always gave you his undivided attention when he finished. That we spoke only in Spanish was a treat; I got a kick out of his Mexico City chilango accent. We talked about the rise in Latino gangs. He would remind me that the behavior of the parents of these kids mirrored what they were used to back home where they could always count on relatives or neighbors in the village to keep tabs on their kids. Here it was a different story as their teens were left alone a lot while they worked two or three jobs to survive. I always came away with material galore about the local Latino politicians starting to unseat the incumbent white politicians, which he felt were out of touch with the predominant base of Mexican immigrant residents.

As I moved from handling local businesses to major national accounts, I developed market tours that allowed corporate clients to learn more about the Latino community, a precursor to getting them to advertise. I’d take corporate packaged goods clients, food manufacturers, and major retailers to walk Latin grocery stores such as Northgate and Superior. Folks from Sears were amazed how much floor space was given to setting up first time credit accounts at Dearden’s and La Curaçao, and the hefty interest rates they charged. One of my bigger accounts, Target, sent executives from their real estate division out with me to scout potential, new store locations.Sears tower edited

I set up cooking demonstrations at Chichen Itza restaurant near MacArthur Park for the corporate chefs at Kraft so they could learn about the intricacies of making mole, Cochinito Pibil, and Kibi, a dish that was brought to the Yucatan by Lebanese immigrants in the late 18th/early 19th centuries. Ten of us squeezed into the tiny kitchen to gather around the owner/chef Gilberto Cantina, Senior, and Junior, his son, while they prepared the marinade of achiote seeds, sour orange juice and spices used for the Cochinita Pibil. They wrapped the pork in banana leaves while they explained the traditional blending of Mayan, Spanish and Middle Eastern flavors that make up these regional dishes, thus expanding my clients’ knowledge of Mexican cuisine beyond burritos and tacos.

On these tours I made it a point to mention the changes taking place at the local government level as Latinos began to win elected office. Throughout the late 80s and 90s it was not uncommon to see “Henry Gonzalez for Mayor” signs on almost every front yard throughout the city of South Gate; later, political scandals involving the new guard of Latino politicians would unravel throughout southeast cities, including South Gate, although Gonzalez was one of the good guys.

I called often on Al Tapia, a store manager at the old Sears Tower in Boyle Heights. Built in 1926, the building became a dominant icon on the Eastside. Having toured different parts of the Sears complex over the years, I got stories from both Al and his secretary about how common it was that people met there and ended up marrying. Employees roller-skated around the building, sending merchandise down the huge chute that traversed several floors of the art deco tower, fulfilling orders. The place was haunted too. Years before, someone had died on the premises and was often seen by employees working in the store.

The tower handled the nationwide distribution for Sears’ mail-order catalogue business until 1992. The ground level retail store stayed open, but the tower and distribution centers passed through the hands of different developers with plans to turn it into housing, offices and stores.

Al, a Mexican American born and raised in Los Angeles, was an unassuming, simple guy who wanted to be a teacher, but started working for Sears instead. He was a family guy, his desk covered with photos of his wife and children. I loved sitting in his office where I could look at the large black-and-white framed historic photos of the tower as the neighborhood changed over the decades. I’d show up with research to show how he could make his case to the corporate advertising guys back in Chicago to invest in the Latino community. He was promoted to a coveted national Hispanic marketing director position in 1991 and moved to corporate headquarters in Chicago to handle a $20M ethnic advertising budget.

Koreatown, meanwhile, continued to grow with an influx of Korean business entrepreneurs; many also advertised in La Opinión. I saw some of these business owners develop strong ties with the Latinos who were then forming a majority of the residents of Koreatown. I used to take my son Tomás to a hair salon there, at a time when the community was perceived as mostly insular and isolated. The women who washed hair and kept the floors clean were all from El Salvador. They had learned enough Korean to carry on what seemed to me extensive conversations with their Korean colleagues and clients. I tried selling advertising to the owner, but to no avail since she spoke no English or Spanish.

Crime kept rising through the 1980s due to crack and gangs. Things seemed to fall apart even more desperately during the 90s as the economy slumped.

I watched on TV as the riots broke out in 1992, and saw a client’s building burn to the ground. We stood on the rooftop of La Opinión’s new press on Washington Boulevard, and saw fires burning everywhere. A few of us drove around town. At Beverly Boulevard in the Pico-Union area, the flames from fires were so hot we had to roll up our windows and drive in the center lane. People ran from stores, with TVs, diapers, athletic shoes, and whatever they could get their hands on. With a gun in each hand, a Korean storeowner shot into the air to fend off looters. Samy’s Camera on Beverly was on fire, and later that day we saw looters coming out of the Samy’s on La Brea with Hasselblad and Nikon cameras. It was the first time any of us had seen army tanks roll through L.A. streets.

Many of our clients went broke. Most of the Iranian-owned discounters lost stores, gave up and closed – including Top Discount. La Curaçao’s Olympic store, owned by Israelis, was burned down, its inventory destroyed. National retailers including Circuit City and Radio Shack were also hit hard; looters drove trucks into their stores to load up on merchandise causing major damage and losses. All these clients stopped advertising while they got back on their feet.

I spent 15 years selling ads for La Opinión, touring a city under construction in many ways; a city I had never known as a child.

After the riots, I lost touch with Daryoush. At some point VJ closed his business and moved back east. I’m not sure what happened to Simón. He ran the theatre for 17 years and then moved on. Teatro Los Pinos closed its doors in November of 2014, the new company owner, Esperanza Molina, wasn’t able to renew the lease with the theater owner. I read that Al retired from Sears in 2000, after 33 years of service. The battle over how the Sear Tower will be redeveloped has not ended. La Curaçao rebuilt immediately and now has five locations in Los Angeles.

I live in Silver Lake and recently walked up Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park where Top Discount was located. The shop still caters to the few Latino residents living in the area. It is surrounded by tattoo parlors, cafes, bars and eateries, and a trendy boutique that sells $50 t-shirts.

Susanna Whitmore

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By Fabiola Manriquez

[dropcap1]O[/dropcap1]ne day, when I was in second grade at Brooklyn Avenue School, I was at lunch, which they called nutrition. I happened to put back a cookie that I didn’t want and decided to get another one. Before I knew it, my teacher, Ms. Childs grabbed me by my shirt, threw me against the wall, and called me a dirty Mexican. I was terrified to say anything or do anything so I froze there against the wall.

I told my mother upon arriving at home and a couple of days later found myself in a meeting with a group of people all dressed in business suites, and known as the administration. Ms. Childs and my mother were there as well.

I was brought into the meeting to give my testimony for a minute. I told them what had happened. Later I noticed that the school administration and Ms. Childs treated me with more respect.

I remember that same year being stabbed with a pencil and being pant sing in the school playground by a white boy. The bullying by other students, most of them white, became so unbearable that I didn’t want to attend school anymore. Consequently, my parents decided to transfer me to Our Lady of Soledad School one block north from this school.

That same year, while I was in the hospital having my tonsils taken out, the attending nursing staff at the hospital was negligent to my mother and me. They would take a very long time in responding to the buzzer. My mother didn’t speak much English and I was so frightened that I had difficulty expressing what I needed. So, we finally told our friend and landlord, Ralph Goldstein, who also was my foster godfather. On Easter Sunday he showed up to visit me in the hospital with a huge stuffed bunny and a large chocolate Easter rabbit. After visiting me and my mother, Ralph casually went over to the nursing station and we noticed a miraculous change. After that, a bilingual nurse attended to us, my mother was able to stay overnight by my side, we had frequent visits by the nursing staff, and an administrator came to check on us. For the next two days, I ate all the ice cream I wanted. It amazed me how wonderful it was to have a godfather who happened to be an attorney.

A year or so later, my mother and I witnessed the Chicano Moratorium. The Moratorium was a peaceful demonstration of 30,000 people taking a stand against the Vietnam War. Chicano soldiers were dying in large numbers.

Out of nowhere, a man ran north on Mednik Avenue towards Brooklyn Avenue, dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt, swinging his arms, screaming, “Mataron a Ruben, mataron a Ruben Salazar.” They killed Ruben Salazar.

Ruben Salazar was the lone Chicano news reporter at the Los Angeles Times then. He was killed by police Sgt. Tom Wilson, who fired a teargas bullet into the Silver Dollar bar, where Salazar was taking a break a few blocks away. Later, an inquest determined his death an accident. It would make him a hero to Mexican–American community. In life, Ruben wrote of injustice, of racism, and of the need for change in the servitude and the assimilation of the Mexican–American into white, mainstream America.

My mother grabbed my hand.

“Vamonos a la casa mija, correle, correle,” — Let’s go home sweetheart, run, run.

In seconds, a riot broke out. We dodged bullets, tear gas, and glass bottles flying around us. As we ran with all our might, I could hear friends and neighbors yelling and crying as bottles smashed and business windows exploded. It felt as though everything was going in slow motion. Finally, we reached our street on Kern Avenue, one block west from Mednik. As we ran through the front door, my mother said, “hit the floor.” We lay there holding each other trembling in disbelief.

We stayed there for several minutes, though it felt like an eternity, hearing the reverberation of gunshots, broken bottles, and the weeping from men and women outside our home. It felt as though a tornado swept the neighborhood and when it was over it left an anxious stillness.

Over the next year or so, I remember, people continued protesting around East Los Angeles.

“What do we want? Change!” they would chant. “When do we want it? Now!”Fabiola story snapseed

We watched similar protests across the country on television.

My eldest brother was associated with people who called themselves the Brown Berets. They often visited our home in East Los Angeles. They overheard conversations about martial arts, protests, and surviving gun shots and stabbings. One of them showed my brother his stomach and chest, which, scarred with X’s and lines, looked like a treasure map.

Teenagers and elders alike chanted Viva La Raza and Chicano Power outside at Al’s Produce and across the street, at El Gallo’s Bakery, at Our Lady of Soledad Church, at the Safeway market, and at neighborhood gatherings. The United Farm Workers picketed layovers at Garfield High School.

But years passed and things changed. East LA was 80 percent Hispanic, mostly Mexican-American then; now it is 98 percent, and many folks are from Mexico. The police and teachers are mostly Hispanic now; most of the businesses Hispanic owned.

I last went to the East L.A. Mexican Independence parade in 1977. I was in junior high school. As I waited to march that year, I realized I was standing next to Cesar Chavez. We spoke briefly. I was 13.

Now in 2015, I was 51, and attended the parade again. His name was on the intersection where the parade began and near where Ruben Salazar had died.

I savored the richness of the feeling, as floats, college and high school marching bands, the Folklorico and Aztec dancers, the charros on horseback passed by. Politicians in their cars waved to the crowds, which chanted “Viva la Raza!” and “Viva Mexico!”

“Did you know that Univision is televising this?” asked a lady in front of me.

A man pushed an ice cream cart past behind us. “Paletas de uva, de coco, de fresa,” he cried.

“Churros, churros,” called a woman dressed in her traditional rebozo. “Dos por un dolar” —two for a dollar.

I asked the woman standing next to me if she was enjoying the parade? She smiled and I saw that she had tears in her eyes. She, too, had not been to this event since she was a teenager. We began to talk about the old days, about Al’s produce and how there’s a Denny’s there now.

“We used to ride the bus for a dime,” she said.

“Do you remember Herman’s thrift shop and the Liquor store where you could buy five candies for a quarter?” I asked her.

She nodded and smiled.

She had moved back from Puerto Rico two weeks before, after the failure of a relationship and a broken business. Her autistic niece was standing with us cheering. The woman’s daughter was working on her college project as she gathered footage for a documentary on the parade’s 69th anniversary.

“I guess we are moving on up since now we have a Subway and a Denny’s on the same lot.”

“Yes,” I said, “I guess we are lucky to see the neighborhood moving forward.”

Fabiola Manriquez

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By Jasmine De Haro

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1] never lived in the same home as my father. Or at least, when I did, I was too young to remember. My mom removed my siblings and me from his home when I was 10 months old. What remains of my life with him are bizarre moments.

For example, my father had a safe word when we would go out. He would tell me, “If I’m not around and you’re in danger, yell Abraxas.” I was a child and found this strange. Why Abraxas and what did it mean? I never asked my father. My mother later told me that “Abraxas” was the title of Santana’s second album.

My father never had a sense of humor, at least not one that you would find traditionally funny. He wasn’t good looking; he was short in stature but muscular. He had fair skin and dark black hair.

He looked me straight in the eye that day.

“Say Abraxas and I will know.”

“Okay, Dad.”

I chuckled nervously. He wasn’t amused.

When I was 13 and it was Halloween day, my father came to visit me, as he often did on Fridays after work. He worked in a commercial print shop. I had gone there once. It was this dark cold warehouse, with a giant machine in the middle of it. He turned it on. The noise from the machine radiated throughout the building. We almost had to shout to hear each other. Still, it was a nice moment.

He was later fired from the job, mostly due to his drinking. At the time, he lived in a duplex in Rosemead. This place always gave me the creeps. It was a two-bedroom, one-bath house that seemed frozen in the 1970s. I never wanted to go in one of the bedrooms. It was cold and dark. The difference in temperature was so significant that it would immediately raise the hairs on my arms. When we would play ping pong on the kitchen table, all we needed was a net across the middle and a couple of paddles. I always used the same one. It was red on one side and had a picture of the band Kiss on the other. I owe my moderate ping pong skills to those moments.

After he was fired, he lost his place and moved in with my grandmother. She had abused him when he was younger. She was short and stocky with black hair with a few strains of white throughout. She had a partial mastectomy and chain-smoked. I was unsure if he knew who his father was. If he did, he never mentioned him. Moving in with her seemed to take a toll on him. After that, he graduated from Budweiser to Vodka, and his decline came quickly.

“Do you know what today is?”

I replied that it was Halloween.

“No, this is our day.”

“Okay, Dad.”

He then told me in great detail how I was a witch, my sister was a witch, my mother was a witch and how he and my brothers were warlocks. So the statement “this is our day,” meant something far more than I could have imagined. My father was into the occult and often referred to himself as a Pagan. He had paintings and books with images of devil-like creatures on them and kept a wooden ouija board on his coffee table. So the importance of this day shouldn’t have come as a shock to me.

Still, up to now he hadn’t mentioned we were witches. Why on this particular Halloween day did my father decide to reveal this information? Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. It falls 13 days after my birthday. The leaves change colors, the weather turns cool and I would stay up late nights watching scary movies. This Halloween, I went to school dressed like a hippie with bellbottoms and a peace sign painted on my cheek. Most of my friends decided to dress up like the movie Dead Presidents that year. The film chronicles the life of a young black man before and after his time organizing a group of friends to rob a bank. My friends were dressed in all black, painted white faces with blacked-out eyes and black beanies.

That Halloween day was overcast and continued on that way into the evening. Maybe it was the dark skies, or the fact I was now old enough, but my father went on to say that my mother knew all along; that she didn’t want to recognize that part of her life but she knew of her powers. My mom at one point was a tarot card reader. I guess that’s what he was referring to. He said my brother knew what he was and used it to his advantage. My sister knew, he said, but didn’t believe it to be true and she wasn’t ready to see it for what it can be. As for me, he said, I was now old enough to know the truth. When I was ready to embrace my powers, that I should let him know. We never spoke about it again after that day.

The last week I spent with him consisted of daily visits to the county hospital. The hallways were dark, scary, and quiet. The walls screamed of old memories and death. I hated walking through those halls alone. It was like being in a horror film.

He was sedated for most of the visits. Most of his internal organs had shut down but the blood transfusions and ventilators were keeping him going. He had aged so quickly. His body was now feeble and had a yellow hue. We had to decide the next step. My relationship with my father had been minimal but now, at this moment, his life was in my hands. Before he drifted into the sedation, my father kept talking about a ship. He kept saying, “My ship’s coming in, you’ll see.”

I didn’t understand. I figured it was the morphine talking but during these moments, he believed it was true.

“Okay, Dad.”

It was a Tuesday afternoon in June, another gloomy day. My sister and I walked into that hospital one last time. My grandmother, whom I mostly refer to as “my father’s mother,” was also there. After we made the decision to remove him from the machines keeping him alive, she had banned us from seeing him. She was upset about our decision and thought she should have had a voice in it. The law, however, said otherwise. Nevertheless, she had convinced whoever was in charge that we were upsetting him. She was an old shrew that manipulated her way into my last moment with my father.

He was now in a different room, with no tubes in his throat, no machines or transfusion to keep him going, just a morphine drip to keep him comfortable. But she never let us near him. She tried to shield his body, hugging him around his waist as she told us to get out. He was alert, but he could not speak. He made moaning sounds, as if he was trying to say something. He hated her and now she was with him alone, torturing him in his final moments. We said goodbye.

“I love you,” my sister said, “and we will see you tomorrow.”

She and I walked out of there angry. This old horrible women who used my father up to his very last day was his last memory. He was the only child.

He had never remarried after he and my mother split up. A year before he passed away, I remember that he mentioned a woman to me. He said he met her at a clinic while taking my grandma to her appointments. He told me he really liked her. This was the first time he ever admitted to having feelings for someone other than my mom. He said he would be afraid to admit to her that he was a pagan. She was Catholic. I could see the conflict in his eyes. I told him to tell her how he felt. I never asked him if he did. Besides my grandma wouldn’t have liked his focus on someone new. I believe his only escape was to drink himself to death.

In the middle of the night, the phone rang and I knew. His cousin called to tell us he had passed.

“Okay,” and hung up. I walked to my sister’s room. She never opened the door.

“Is it Dad?”

I just replied “yes” and that was it. I heard her cry out as I walked back to my room.

My father died at 52 years old from cirrhosis of the liver. An alcoholic from before the time I was born. He died when I was 20. I would be a liar if I said we were close.

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By Sarah Alvarado

[dropcap1]J[/dropcap1]oanie was the firstborn of nine – the love child of a young girl and an adulterous older man. Her mother, Rosana, had two more children with this man but finally left him when she accepted he would never leave his wife. As the years went on, more siblings were born with various fathers.

Rosana was one of the few things they shared. She was young; she drank and knew men. She wore tight black pants, tight low-cut blouses, black hair teased high on her head, and a tattoo on her bosom. Once Rosana’s mother got fed up with the borderline negligent situation in which her grandchildren lived. She rescued them from Rosana’s house and resettled them at her own place. Eventually, though, the children drifted back to their mother one by one.

Joanie was their shepherd. She strived to be a good example and take responsibility for her flock of little brothers and sisters. She gave them the love and attention that Rosana did not.

Joanie strived to get her siblings to church; she would call different churches each week and make arrangements for her siblings to be picked up by van. She made sure each of her brothers and sisters had a present on their birthdays. She would scrimp and save her babysitting money to buy them a trinket, or she would make them a gift. On the summer days when Rosana would drop off the kids at the park (sometimes with lunch, sometimes without) it was Joanie who kept a watchful eye on her brothers on the grass and her baby sisters in the playground.

Mother and daughter were close at times, but Rosana would also shove, yell, and throw things at Joanie. One stepfather who passed through was just mean. If he didn’t like the food he was served he would throw his plate at the wall.

Outside of her home Joanie was a normal teenager. She dressed in the “chola” style that was popular in the 1970s, but she had good grades, loved music, and she played in her junior high school marching band. She befriended nerds and cholos alike.

Eileen was her best friend. They went to the 8th grade dance together and danced to funk music during lunch. Joanie came to Eileen the first time she had feelings for a boy. Joanie was so scared, not sure if she could be involved with someone – not sure if she should say something. Eileen gave her the courage she needed.

“Joanie – I love you, and you deserve to be in love.”

One October day, Joanie’s date, Jim, came over. Jim asked Rosana if he could take Joanie to a family party. Joanie felt Jim’s family didn’t like her and that she would never be good enough for him. Rosana initially said no. But Jim pleaded; he promised he would have Joanie home early. Rosana relented. As Joanie walked out the door, she looked back. It struck Rosana right then that that might be the last time she saw her daughter alive.

At the party, Joanie and Jim got into an argument. Joanie left on foot, alone, in a dark and lonely part of town. Presumably, Jim let her go. After blocks into her journey she made it to a pay phone. She called and called. Rosana wasn’t home. The children who answered had no way of helping her. Joanie called Eileen. Eileen wasn’t home, either.

Joanie’s body was found not far from her home, in a deserted area, with unspeakable things done to it. To this day no one has been arrested for Joanie’s murder.

The school held a moment of silence in Joanie’s honor. Some people claimed to be closer to Joanie than they actually were in hopes of seeking attention. Money was raised in Joanie’s memory. Even though he had little to do with her in life, Joanie’s father was contacted and it was he who decided on her final resting place and paid most of the expenses. Hundreds attended Joanie’s funeral.

Following Joanie’s death the family fell further from grace. The older boys had matured into a posse of gang members who used drugs and alcohol. A couple of the boys did their best in athletics and high school life. The two girls mostly kept to themselves.

Wild parties became the norm at their house; Joanie’s now teenage brothers drank too much and passed out. Rosana turned a blind eye, even when her son was asleep on a cold night without a blanket on the dewy lawn. To the neighbors it likely looked like poor parenting from a woman with too many kids to parent. In hindsight Rosana was probably lost in her own grief, trying to forget that she was not there when her daughter needed a ride home.

Joanie was my aunt. She died five years before I was born. My father asked Rosana for permission to name me after her – but Rosana couldn’t give it.

My mom joined the family when she was 16, too young to understand what she was getting into. In the early years we were close to Dad’s family. They helped us secure a spot in the same apartment complex they lived in; so family was just down the driveway. Aunts and cousins running back and forth between the houses was the norm. Mom used to tag along on shopping trips. My cousin and I played Ding Dong Ditch between the houses.

Yet before I reached 10 Mom knew she wanted out. Arguments erupted behind locked screen doors. My cousin didn’t want to help me carry books home from school because he was afraid he would get in trouble for doing it. There were tears and restraining orders against the kin that lived one house behind us. Dad was caught in the middle; a natural pacifist between two families that meant the world to him but could no longer live in peace.

When I was young I used to think that if Joanie had lived she could have kept the kids from drugs and alcohol, and led them away from all that. I would then have had a family on my dad’s side with aunts, uncles, cousins, and a grandma. She would have been my favorite aunt and would have understood me.

When I was a kid Joanie’s picture was on the living room wall. Visitors would ask when I had my picture taken, my parents would reply, “That’s not Sarah; that’s her Aunt Joanie.” Our resemblance was uncanny. When I was a child I would stare at Aunt Joanie’s portrait and use it as a window to accept myself. Knowing that I looked like the beautiful young lady in the picture steadied my self esteem.

Now that I’m older my features have changed in ways that hers never had the opportunity to. I miss hearing people exclaim, “Wow! I thought that was you! You guys look alike!” Our physical likeness has faded, but our kinship has grown.

I wonder if she would have been “Auntie” or “Tia,” or simply “Joanie.” She’s the older sister I wish had been there for my dad in his times of hopelessness. She’s the aunt I longed for when I felt so lonely amid the family chaos. She’s the kind older sister, who would do anything for her charges, that I strive to be like.

The family felt the wound of Joanie’s death for years. Because of this, I only recently found out where she was laid to rest. Almost weekly now I sit here with Joanie. I unfold my picnic blanket. I have my coffee. I eat my croissant. I tell her why I picked the flowers that I did, and what kind I might get next time. I think about what people have told me, about how she was. My connection to her feels as real as the grass I stroke beneath me and the breeze that kisses my nose.

Sarah Snapseed

 

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