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By Miguel Roura

[dropcap1]O[/dropcap1]ne Saturday in the summer of 1970, I boarded a Tres Estrellas bus and headed south, down the International Highway taking me on my first in depth exploration of Mexico.

I was part of a group of one-hundred-and-fifty Chicano students who rented apartments at La Plaza Tlatelolco while attending classes at UNAM – La Universidad Autónoma de Mexico. I came searching for an identity, encouraged by my Chicano graduate student teachers at UCLA who nurtured me through the first two years, and by my mother’s prodding that I learn the truth about the land of my ancestors. I remember my high school teacher and mentor, Sal Castro, telling us: “Your people founded highly sophisticated civilizations on this continent, centuries before the European stepped on this land.” So this afternoon with this group of young enthusiastic men and women, I loaded my baggage on a coach that took us from Tijuana to Tenochtitlan.

That first day of travel started off full of excitement as we jockeyed for a seat next to someone with whom to share the experience. Once we sat down and the bus started to roll, the conversation focused on the women on the trip with us. Our bus was all male, another was all female, and the third carried the married and matched couples. After the subject was thoroughly reviewed, we took turns sharing why we came on the trip, what part of Mexico our parents were from, and how much Spanish we actually knew. Most of us, whose parents spoke mainly their native language, had that idioma deleted in school by teachers and deans who strictly enforced English-Only policies through corporal punishment. Those kids whose parents were second and third generation at the urging of their counselors took French or Italian as their foreign language requirement in high school.

After we drank all the beers the bus drivers provided and tired of the talking, we each settled into our seat. Images of people and places floated in and out as I sat by the window contemplating the passing panorama.

The words of Ruben Salazar crossed my mind: “A Chicano is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself.” Looking around the bus, I realized I was part of a new generation seeking to redefine itself. What did I know about myself? Mother from Colima, father from Tabasco, and just like their geography, they were extreme opposites. My parents met, married, and divorced in Tijuana; but they ‘dropped me’ (I was born at Paradise Hospital) in National City, California, ten miles north of the border. They raised me in Tijuana until their divorce when I was five. I went to school, church, and to the bullfights on Sunday; my mother was a big fan of La Fiesta Taurina.

When I turned ten my mother used my dual citizenship to exchange her passport for a residence card. As I grew up, what I knew about Mexico came mainly from her recollections, and the conversations I overheard from her friends over the years. Usually, the talk revolved around heartache, tears, and suffering. Through my adolescence I never wanted to accompany my mother when she went to visit her family.

But now I was sojourning with other Chicano activists on this pilgrimage to the land of the chinampas. Six hours into our trip, we transferred from a luxury Greyhound bus to a transport with no air-conditioning, with one very small and smelly bathroom, and whose radio garbled sounds which gave me a headache. I shared the window with my new camarada, Mangas, a moniker he’d tagged himself: his real name was Richard, a six-foot-two-inch chain-smoking Vietnam vet who was a little older than most of us. We stared at the scorching, sun-drenched Sonora Desert until it was too dark to see anything. The rocking of the rickety bus lulled me in and out of sleep. Far in the distance a summer storm illuminated the distant mountains with veins of muted thunderbolts.

My mother gave me the thousand dollars I needed for this excursion; money she worked and saved over the years. In Tijuana she’d been a registered nurse at Salubridad caring for ficheras, prostitutes, and their clients, mostly American servicemen. When she came to the U.S. in her middle-age years, she did back-aching work: sowing, cleaning, and mopping kitchens and toilets in Brentwood and Bel Air homes.

After ten hours on the road, the driver pulled into the bus station in Culiacan, Sinaloa to refuel and to rest.

In high school, I had never smoked marijuana. Most of the parties and dances I went to only served beer and sometimes cheap liquor. Moctezuma, our high-school class valedictorian, was the first one I saw take out a joint and fire up. He hung out with college kids and professors, and showed off his high vocabulary that most of us football players didn’t understand.

But on the first days in the fall of ’68, just before classes started, and the first day I moved into the Brown House, I smoked my first toke. The Brown House was a student housing complex right behind fraternity row. The university rented it for ten of the fifty male Chicano special-entry students they couldn’t place in the dorms. Toby and I were the first to arrive that morning. He and I had been members of rival gangs back at Hollenbeck Junior High: him from Primera Flats and me from Tercera. But that was ancient history now.

After choosing my room, making my bed, and reading the first chapters of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the early afternoon, I took a walk to the patio to stretch out. Toby was lying down in a couch with a headset and a peaceful look. He asked me if I had heard of “Hendrix.” I said, no. He handed me the headset. He lit a joint, took a deep drag, and then handed it to me. I imitated him, but instantly choked on the contents, coughing out the smoke which made my lungs explode. My eyes watered as the spasms subsided. I lay back to hear and feel the electrical impulses that oscillated in my brain and tingled down my body. With that I became a toker.

Being an only child, I was always hungry for friends. Smoking a joint became a gratifying communal experience. Those were times of sit-ins, teach-ins and love-ins, rallying at Royce Hall and occupying the Administration Building on Mexican Independence Day 1969. Smoking a joint broke down racial, economic, and gender barriers. It was cool to do! People got happy when they knew I had a joint to share. Scoring an ounce of weed for the ASB president got me many benefits.

In Culiacan, we had two hours to stretch our legs. The bus driver told us not to wander too far from the station; anyone not on the bus by midnight would be left behind to find other means of transportation.

My clothes clung to my body, wrinkled and wet with perspiration. The heat from the asphalt and cement singed my sandals. Four of us, including Mangas, wandered down the boulevard and found a place that served ice-cold beers and had outdoor tables. My compadre Humberto told me before I left LA: They grow some of the best marijuana on the outskirt farms of Culiacan. Eyeing a row of taxi cabs across the street from the bar, I spotted a young guy about my age, looking bored, leaning against his vehicle, smoking. I sauntered over and introduced myself, told him I was a tourist looking to score some ‘mota.’ The cabbie, with the cigarette dangling from his lips, right eye squinting, inspected me head to toe: long hair, beaded necklace, paisley shirt, bell-bottom jeans, and three-ply huaraches.

Quizas,” he responded nonchalantly.

Cuanto? I asked. The fare would be twenty dollars, he said, but the price of the weed, la yerba, I would need to negotiate with the farmer. I ran back and told the guys, asked if anyone wanted to chip in, but they all passed, warned me it wasn’t a good idea to go into a strange city.

“If I score, are you going to want to smoke some?

“Hell, yes!”

I handed the driver the twenty and he smiled. His name was Nico and he was saving to go to the United States; Hollywood was the first place he wanted to visit – he was a movie fan. I sat in the back seat as Nico maneuvered around traffic. We rode silently beyond the city lights and out into the dark. Flickering like altar candles, distant fires illuminated the obscure surroundings. Somewhere down the highway Nico turned the cab onto a rutted road and it bounced and waded through tall grass and cornfields. After a long rough ride through back roads only he could distinguish, Nico stopped the car, got out, and left without a word.

As I sat alone waiting, the cow and pig shit mixed with the stench of my apprehension. It wasn’t the fear of being busted. This was the land of Don Juan, the same desert where the Yaqui shaman instructed Carlos Castaneda in his spiritual way of life. I began to imagine the wraiths and specters that had haunted this land and its people for thousands of years. I’d met Carlos when he came to speak at a MECHA meeting shortly after publishing his first book. Afterwards, a few of us invited him to smoke a joint with us in the parking lot, but he deferred. He explained that Don Juan introduced him to peyote and other psychotropic plants to help him achieve awareness to an alternate state which his very strict Western training prevented him from experiencing. Marijuana was a devil’s weed, he said, that clouds and confuses the thinking. In order to achieve awareness he needed a clear vision that would help him cross over to the spiritual dimension where he encountered his nagual, his spiritual guide. Afterwards, we laughed and thought him a square suit-and-tie man.

Suddenly a fog rolled in and enveloped the car. My thoughts dissipated in its mist. I felt lost. I waited for Nico to return. The night noises grew, augmenting with my breath and heartbeat. Tittering to myself, I suppressed the prayer I knew could save me, but I didn’t want to sell out my recently acquired agnosticism.

I’ve read that between heartbeats, a person can dream his entire life. I thought about mine. I came to Mexico to penetrate her mysteries, to uncover her secrets, to saturate myself in her splendor. Growing up in Tijuana, I barely fondled them. I wanted to be deep inside, experiencing unsounded sensations. Here I sat, along the back roads of my mind, alone. My thoughts wandered. Now a panic ran through me. Raw fear pounded through my heart and meandered in my imagination.

In the midst of this reverie, two heads popped through the back windows of the cab. Nico smiled, smoke dangling around his face. He nodded to the other side. The stern face of a farmer stared at me.

“This is Eusebio and this is his farm,” Nico said in the spitfire-Spanish of Sinaloa.

The man’s thick swarthy fingers clutched a big brown shopping bag which he handed to me. Opening it, I saw half of it filled with thick green buds that wafted the distinctive smell of freshly harvested marijuana.

“That will be another twenty dollars, Güero.”

The big ranchero fixed his eyes, waiting for my response. I dug in my pocket for my wallet, pulled out the bill, and extended it out to Eusebio. He smiled with pride as he withdrew and disappeared into the dew.

“Nice doing business with you, gringo.”

By the time Nico got me back to the depot, it was well past midnight. Mangas stood on the first step of the bus entrance staring down at the two drivers who were angrily shouting Mexican insults at him. Each bus had two conductors who took turns driving. Mangas knew only one phrase of this language, and their demeanor didn’t faze him. He’d faced Army sergeants and the Viet Cong.

“Where you been, ese? These vatos are getting ready to leave your ass. I think he said he’s gonna call the jura. That better be some good shit you got there.”

It was. Right after I took my seat, I handed Mangas my July issue of Playboy. He opened it to the center fold, and I dropped a wad of weed on it. Mangas expertly removed the rich round buds from the stems which he collected on his lap into a neat pile. Soon, perfectly round marijuana cigarettes emerged. I fired up the first and we started passing out the product of years of experience.

“Pinches gavachos grifos!” scowled one of the bus drivers as he glanced back at the scene developing behind them. “Estan armando un mitote.”

The mood livened throughout the bus. Someone pulled out his boombox and the steely sounds of Santana started; then the percussion section chimed in, and soon it became the backbeat in our travels. The conversation grew loud. We no longer spoke in pairs or groups, but like we did at our MECHA meetings, with passion and conviction. The Vietnam War preoccupied us all. Even though we got deferments for being in school, the draft lottery loomed in our lives. The only one not worried about it was Mangas. He had survived a year in ‘the bush.’ But now he faced jail time for the Walk Outs.

“Me vale madre!” was his favorite phrase. He didn’t give a shit.

At that moment none of us gave a damn either. We were high on the infinite possibilities for ourselves and for La Causa, committed to changing the world, eradicating injustice and inequality. It was our time.

The bus driver had refilled the ice-chest with beer. They must have felt the contact high of the smoke, because they started talking and laughing with gusto and passing out the cold cans of Tecate.

We bragged how we would become the Generation of Chingones that would turn it all around, revolutionize the system. We’d become the architects and engineers of a new society, the teacher and administrators who would implement the theories of Paulo Freire. The lawyers and judges who would argue before the Supreme Court defending the constitutional rights of Reies Lopez Tijerina, Cesar Chavez, and Corky Gonzalez.

We boasted and openly claimed what those before us dared not proclaim: a big piece of the American pie. The world was our oyster, and we were starved.

Daylight broke and we passed through one of the many small towns along our way, and I asked the drivers to find us a mercado where we could stop and eat. We had the munchies.

____

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By Felecia Howell

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1] lay in bed early one Friday morning as the radio crackled with the voice of Liberian President Samuel Doe.

“This is your President speaking. Anyone caught on the streets after 7:00pm will be executed, ” he said. “Do not challenge me. There will be consequences.”

In the Liberian capital of Monrovia, a ragged group of rebel soldiers led by General Thomas Quiwonkpa had attempted to overthrow the president. Doe himself came to power in a coup in 1980, overthrowing and executing the late President William R. Tolbert and his entire cabinet, all members of the ruling elite, who were descendants of African-American slaves returned to Africa. He easily repelled the coup and was now re-exerting control across the country.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia. The radio broadcast repeated itself every hour. Yet despite news of the coup, I, like most people in the small town where I lived, went about my usual daily activities. That day I needed to go to the town market to shop for rice.

“Chicken, you’d better get out of my way-o!” I thought as I maneuvered my Suzuki motorcycle along the road to the market. I remembered part of my Peace Corps motorcycle training. We were told not to swerve to avoid hitting a crossing animal but to drive straight. The chickens would get out of our way.

I wanted to get some errands done ahead of an evening planned with friends. Feeling a bit reckless I didn’t wear my bright yellow motorcycle helmet the Corps issued to me for my safety, and that identified me to many residents in the Voinjama township. I didn’t know most people, but they knew me because of that helmet.

It was 1985 and I was the first African-American Peace Corps volunteer to serve in the Northern city of Voinjama, Liberia.

I felt so proud to be black here, unlike in the U.S. where my pride felt burdened with the dark history of slavery. In Liberia, not only was the President black, but so were the doctors, the teachers, the airline pilots, cabinet secretaries of state, the police. I remember crying, feeling overwhelmed at this marvel, a reality denied far too long to my family, my friends, my people back in the states. Many times here I was referred to as the “bright one” because of my light skin. I was grateful not to be called white. In America much of my existence had revolved around race, being in the minority, living with stereotyped images, always vigilant. Now, everyone looked like a reflection of me, though of a beautiful darker complexion.

Upon joining the Corps, I was given the choice of Jamaica, Haiti, Western Samoa, or Liberia. I yearned to feel the earth of the Mother Africa under my feet. Most of my early education portrayed Africa as the dark continent, home to famine, savagery, poverty, war, disease, and the uncivilized. The media and American textbooks often spoke of the place as one big country, not the continent of fifty-three countries, with hundreds of tribes.

Six other Peace Corps volunteers served with me in Voinjama. I hadn’t before considered why more young black American kids didn’t travel. I had just spent six months in India as a college graduation present to myself. My mother always called me her adventurous child, even though she wasn’t happy about my trip to South Asia. But kids from my neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia didn’t venture too far away from momma. Fear kept most close to home. Besides, going to Africa wasn’t considered “chic,” cool, or sophisticated. You didn’t see Peace Corps recruiters on black college campuses. But I wanted to see the world. I wanted to see Africa.

I traveled with no expectations, only hope. I hoped to meet freedom fighters, kings and queens, artists and African intelligentsia, griots who were keepers of the oral history that could tell the stories of mighty kingdoms. I hoped to meet herdsman working bountiful lands. I hoped to hear tribal drummers beat the news of the day. I hoped to be hugged and welcomed home. When I arrived to Liberia I kissed the ground.

Then, a few months into my stay, I got sick I was in the town of Totota for an eight-week training. Having made new friends quickly, I joined others as we ventured off down a dark road for Totota’s nightlife visiting the one bar for some spirits and dancing. Outside of the entrance a food vendor was hawking her grilled street meat, greens, and rice. Inside, I danced for hours, swaying and rocking to juju music, a synchronization of steel guitar and heavy percussions. Here the men and women like to dance close, backing away only to show off a signature move, always stepping to the beat. Some of the records would go on for five minutes or more, and you would be dripping in perspiration before exiting the dance floor. I worked up an appetite. I accepted some of the local street food offered to me. That was my first mistake. The pepper sauce on the meat was so spicy hot that I grabbed for the first glass of water offered me — second mistake. As I swallowed I knew I might be in trouble. We were told to drink only boiled and bottled water. The next day it caught up with me.

The Peace Corps training staff and fellow volunteers watched me, hoping my condition would pass quickly. It didn’t. At midnight someone decided I needed to get to a hospital. I remember laying in the back of a station wagon shaking, and praying that I wouldn’t die somewhere in the darkness. There were no street lights, no street signs and I had no idea where I was being taken. The doctor pumped me up with chloroquine, used to treat malaria. I only felt more nauseous. Needing a cure, I stuck my finger down my throat bringing the chloroquine back up and the fever broke, and I never accepted water off the street again.

Soon, though. I melted into life in Liberia.

In Voinjama, my good neighbor Sarah Ziemba kept a large vegetable garden, with cassava, collards, and peppers. She and her husband Thomas, who was much older, had six beautiful children, three girls and three boys. Often, we would sit around a fire pit between our yards sharing each others’ history. The kids always had chores, and took this time to listen in as they did laundry, washed dishes, or split more firewood. Sarah loved to talk about her dating Thomas. Their marriage wasn’t arranged. As he was much shorter, Sarah thought he was cute and needed looking after. I told stories of my family and growing up in the United States. Under the clear skies, full of stars, we would laugh into the night, sip cool beer, and slap at mosquitoes. She had the prettiest smile and wasn’t shy about the gap in her teeth. In my yard wild mango, banana, and avocado trees grew. When I went to the market I only bought a burlap sack of rice for myself and Sarah’s family, and maybe a live chicken. Sarah’s kids would kill and clean the chicken. In exchange, I paid their school tuition. We saw it as a great barter.

The market was one of my favorite places to visit, and Voinjama was a busy crossroads town where vendors traveled weekly to peddle their goods. The market was run by women who brought in their wares from surrounding villages and bustled with people carrying the goods atop their heads, on their backs, in wheelbarrows, or in large reusable plastic bags.

The market also served as the bus depot. The bus service was called the “money van” or the “money bus.” Five to ten vans at a time would sit idle until they were full to capacity with passengers. These vehicles were mostly beat up old vans or pick up trucks with two benches in the back. I often rode one or the other, packed in with fellow passengers. Some passengers carried a live chicken, duck or other animal. I remember once hitting a squirrel along the trip. The driver pulled over, jumped out of the van, picked up the dead animal and threw it back inside the van.

“That will be dinner-o,” he said, laughing.

You rode these vans at your own risk. Often they would break down on the side of the rode. I sometimes waited hours for the drivers to figure out how to get us going again. A hammer was in every van. It always did the trick.

Motorcycles with their whining engines narrowly missed me on this afternoon as I walked through the market. I stopped at a stall to finger the goods spread about. I gently touched fabrics that I might consider taking to my local tailor, who could sew any design simply by looking at a magazine picture. I didn’t need any of the cheap Chinese plastic plates or slippers, but I loved the large handmade calabash bowls, and the colorful beaded jewelry.

Children too young to be in school ran through the market, always in sight of watchful mothers. There was lots of laughter, and conversation that sometimes turned into palava if there was an argument between the women.

“This is my stall-o.”

“Eh, no I always be at this place-o.”

“No way-o. I sit myself and this here child every week-o.”

“Hmmn, maybe mine is the next one-one.”

“Yes, my sistah, maybe so.”

These palavas could go for twenty minutes or more. Each person determined to get her point across. They could get heated but almost always ended with a hug and a smile.

The rhythms of the language changed as I made my way around the many stalls. There were several different tribes in the area, each with a different song in their voice. Mandingo women, tall, proud with history traced to one of the greatest West African empires of Mali, the Malinke Empire of the 14th century that included the cities of Timbuktu, Djenne, Gao, and Agadez. The Mandingos were known for their trading skills. There were the Loma women, the Mende tribes women, and the Kpelle tribal women, who brought in the most rice, peanuts, and kola nuts. Each group of women had their own head ties, the waist wraps, and jewelry. Their clothing dyed with bright yellows, greens, blues, all with printed markings that represented either village life, family, or a harvest. The market women stayed from sunrise to sunset. Young babies were often strapped around the mother’s back so that mom could still sift rice, lift yams, bundle greens, and exchange monies. A make-shift grill was always smoking carrying the smells market meats, and a radio in the distance could always be heard playing music.

Taking a break I sat just outside a stall run by a Mandingo woman named Fatima.

“Fatima, what news-o?” I ask.

“Ah my sister they come to buy but spend no money-o,” Fatima laughed.

I cracked open peanuts dropping a mound of shells at my feet, and listened. Fatima loved to barter with customers, knowing when to turn her back in disapproval, or clapping her hands if the customer started to make sense again.

“That one very good quality-o. Cost more.”

The longer the negotiations the more respect she had for the customer. The prices would start high but after several hand claps, teeth sucking, and shaking of the head a price was settled. Fatima would reach into her bosom or hip purse to make change and seal the deal. I knew how it would end but it was like watching live theatre, and I learned not to get cheated.

Every Friday night the other six other volunteers in town met for a games- night and to eat spaghetti for dinner. I didn’t go all the way to Africa to eat pasta and play Scrabble with white people. I had made plans to play a few rounds of cards, share some liquid spirits with friends outside of town, and then head over to the one nightclub in town run by an expatriate who was also an African-American, from Ohio. On this night, as I set off, the mood felt eerie. Soldiers were all over town.

Without my helmet and goggles, I squinted against the dust storms created by passing automobiles. It was the dry season. I arrived at my friends’ home with my afro turned a blondish red, and my eye lids, nostrils and clothes covered in dust.

Kabbah was my Liberian counterpart, who worked along side me producing radio programming. He had become more like a brother to me and often welcomed me to his home, where he lived with his wife Irene, daughter Feelings, and his son, Darling Boy. When I first visited Voinjama for a week during my training, Kabbah walked miles on the dusty roads helping me find a comfortable home to rent. He took me around town introducing me to government agency directors, teachers, tribal elders, the Lebanese merchants who also served as small bankers, and anyone else he thought worthy.

“This the new Peace Corps. She’s going to be working at the radio station, and I want you to welcome her properly,” he would say.

His house was already full of friends gathered to participate in card games. During the card games loud trash talking would set the tone of the evening.

“I’m the best in the land-o, so be ready to get shamed.”

The kitchen was outside in the back of the house where on the stoves cooking were pots of cassava, pepper soup, fufu, my favorite, or some other West African delicacy to later be served with rice, plantain, avocado and, or chicken, beef or fish. In the background the radio played the latest music, struggling to be heard above conversations.

Occasionally we thought we heard a news report about what was happening in the capital but it was just the looped curfew warnings from Doe. We were upcountry in the bush many miles from Monrovia. The borders had been closed with neighboring Guinea, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast. While the military was mobilizing around the country, we still had a card game to play.

Seated around the table were Kabbah, Irene, Captain, who was a military man himself and dressed in his army uniform, and me. Every time Captain, my partner, was about to win a hand, he would raise his cards high for effect and then slam them down hard. Each time the glasses spilled beer.. We reach across the table to give each other high-fives, and talk smack.

“I think there’s a new sheriff in town.”

Other people drifted in and out, sometimes blurting out what cards we were holding in our hand, only to be met with idle threats from the four of us. A single incandescent light bulb hung from the ceiling on a long cord directly above the table. Food aromas wafted through the thick cigarette smoke.

Somewhere around 9 o’clock the beer was running low, tummies were full, and I had laughed myself out. As I said my good-byes and gave hugs around, Captain announced he was leaving as well. He needed to go check-in on his fellow soldiers for the night. As he lingered talking with Kabbah, I headed home. I’d had too much beer and not being a smoker, the cigarette smoke had given me a headache. It was then that I wished I’d had that big bright helmet.

I had traveled this route home many times. I knew the bumps, holes, and rocks in the road. If I had an accident, I probably wouldn’t be found till the next morning. That idea frightened me more than the actual ride alone in the dark.

I headed to the center of town about two miles from Kabbah’s home. As I climbed up the steep hill I saw bright lights ahead. Street vendors were often out at night hoping to make a little extra money before going home, but this light was brighter than usual. I drove on through the swirling dust and clusters of flying insects.

It came up fast, a checkpoint with several soldiers. They had blocked the road with sand bags, oil barrels and a long pole. They drew guns as I approached. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion as I crested the hill. One soldier raised his AK-47 and pointed at me. My hands went up, and somehow I kept my balance on the motorbike. With a deep breath I recovered my senses, bringing my hands down and bringing the bike to a stop. The soldiers all started screaming at me.

“Who are you?”

“Where are you coming from?”

“Where are you going, out after curfew?”

They trained their guns on me.

“I just now leaving party-o, and going to my home,” I said.

The soldiers scoffed. I had been stopped before at checkpoints so I knew to keep my composure. I didn’t have any money on me. Just then, another motorcycle came over the hill, horn blaring. Captain! This was probably the first time I ever said, “Thank you Jesus.” He arrived in a swirl of dust. The soldiers were speaking in the Loma tribal language, and going in and out of Liberian English. The soldier with the gun pointed at my head told Captain I was “CIA.” I laughed nervously.

Captain shook his head. “You made big mistake-o. I know this one here.”

Deflated, the soldiers lowered their weapons and went back to their beer and cigarettes. Captain escorted me the rest of the way. Along the way home that night, I saw every bug, every bush and every dust particle, and I noticed that for some reason the road now seemed completely illuminated.

I would spend another year in Liberia and in that time I learned not to try to change her, but to embrace her, red dust and all.

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By Cecelia Flores

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]n 1973, I was a single mother of three small children. I was working in a wig distribution warehouse in downtown LA packing wigs in boxes that were sold at major department stores. I was always looking for a better paying job. My co-worker suggested I get a job where she worked nights. She was a taxi dancer. I had no idea what a taxi dancer was, but she said the money was good because you also got tipped by some of the customers, so I went that night to see about the job.

In 1943 two brothers, Ben and Edward Fenton, a couple of Los Angeles lawyers who were visiting San Francisco, went into a dance hall. These halls had been in San Francisco since the Gold Rush days. Women danced with men for a dime a minute and were called taxi dancers. Business was good and when the Fenton brothers returned home they opened up the first taxi dance ballroom in Los Angeles known as Roseland Roof. It was at 9th and Spring streets. Soon, they opened up another one at 5th and Main. That one was called Dreamland. This is where I went for my interview.

In the early 70’s downtown, Main Street had a seedy, dire, uneasy feel. It was a section of Skid Row filled with drug addicts, alcoholics and prostitutes. There were three bars on one block. One of the bars was next to Dreamland. It was a small dive that smelled like urine. Next to it was another that was loud and rowdy – Jalisco Bar. The third one was closer to 5th Street. There was just one place to get something to eat; a popular chicken place called Cy’s Chicken, two doors down from Dreamland. The taxi dancers would go there before work.

I entered the dance hall from the street and walked up a flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs, inside the dance hall, was an old-fashioned ticket booth, like the ones outside movie theaters. A matronly cashier was selling tickets. I asked her who Bob was and that I had an appointment with him.

The ballroom was on the second story of a very old building. The dance floor was dimly lit with strings of little white lights hanging from the ceiling. Next to the ticket booth were a couple pool tables and a nonalcoholic bar that served sodas, tea, coffee, sandwiches and candy. In the far corner of the dance floor was a sign that read NO LEWD BEHAVIOR. Toward the back were small tables and chairs for two.

Three leather benches faced the ticket booth. Here sat the girls, on display for the customers. They were laughing and talking and seemed much at ease. I watched as the men approached the women and asked them to dance. The women stood and walked over to a clock next to the ticket booth and punched a time card, then walked on to the dance floor. The Rolling Stones were playing on the juke box, yet though the music was fast-paced the couples on the dance floor were slow dancing, barely moving. The whole time I was waiting for my interview no one ever picked up the pace to match the music. Half the couples were openly grinding heavily with no shame whatsoever. I don’t know what the bouncer’s job was, but he never interfered.

Bob, the manager, was a stocky, balding, middle-aged white guy. His office consisted of old furniture. He had no pictures on the wall, nothing personal. He didn’t ask me many questions. Instead, he explained the rules: no prostitution and no drugs or drinking. He said that sometimes the cops came in wearing plainclothes, asking questions about the girls, and trying to find out which ones were prostituting after hours. Yet it was cops, he said, who left with the girls when the night was over. He asked if I knew how to handle men.

“I guess,” I said.

He told me I had to go to the police department to get fingerprinted and photographed. I went to LAPD and started working the following night.

A new girl was always the most popular among the customers for her first couple of weeks at Dreamland. Because most of the girls build up their clientele over a period of time they would let you know that you were dancing with their customer and didn’t appreciate it. Instead, you built up your own customers. This wasn’t hard to do because a lot of the men came in every night.

A lot of jobs need a skill. Here the skill was manipulation. The men who frequented these dance halls were mostly unattractive and lonely. They were Latinos, African Americans, American Indians, whites, Asians and a lot of Filipinos. They were alcoholics, drug addicts; they were married or single. Dancing with these men five nights a week was not an easy job. Most of them were forty years old and older and I, like most of the girls, was under 30. So, before some of us had to go out on the dance floor, we would sneak a drink or smoke some pot in the dressing room, blowing the smoke out the open windows.

More than half the men who came in wanted to dance so they could get close enough to you to grind. I would be dancing with a customer and he’d see another couple grinding and ask me if I danced like that. I would, but he would have to give me a thirty-five to forty-dollar tip. But I never allowed this kind of person to be one of my regular customers. They disgusted me.

Other patrons were just looking for someone. Some lived in a fantasy and thought I was their girlfriend. It was easy to manipulate these men. At first I would ask them to buy me two or three hours worth of tickets so at the end of the night I could reach a quota I had set for myself. Then I would ask for a twenty- or thirty-dollar tip. This worked if you could pretend for a while that you liked them.

One of my regular customers was a guy by the name of Tony. He was tall and lanky with an overbite like a rabbit. He told me he worked in the psychiatric unit of the General Hospital, but I think he was a patient there. The good thing about having him as a customer was that he preferred to sit and talk than dance and he always bought me extra time.

One evening he came in and asked me if I recognized the address that he had written down on a piece of paper. It was mine. He had followed me home. I told him he knew damn well that it was my address and I took the paper and tore it up and told him never to follow me again or next time I would report him to the authorities.

He still came in. He knew that I no longer wanted to keep him company and that I had other regulars and this bothered him. I told him if he wanted to continue to be my customer I wanted money for a down payment on a car. He gave it to me two nights later. Before the night was over he wanted his money back. He didn’t get it back and I bought a ‘67 Ford Mustang. I never saw him again.

Another of my customers was a Jewish guy by the name of Allen. I never knew any of my customers’ last names and I never told them anything personal about myself. He told me he was a cameraman for some movie studio. He was well groomed and had manicured hands. Allen had a lot of confidence I think because all the girls knew him and a few had had him as a customer for a while. The first time I danced with him he hardly spoke. The next time he came in, two of the dancers, Darlene and Kathy, warned me about him. They told me he was a jerk.

Allen started coming in more often and soon became one of my patrons. He was always a gentleman, never danced fast, but never got fresh with me. One night I went to the dressing room for a sweater and when I returned to the dance floor he was dancing with one of his former partners and they were grinding in the corner. Darlene and Kathy took me aside. He wasn’t a cameraman, they told me; he worked for Market Basket, a chain of grocery stores, and was on mental disability. I didn’t care what he did but I wasn’t going to put up with another nut case. I started to ignore him and he got the hint. I heard later that he was dancing with the girls at Roseland Roof.

I never became close friends with any of the girls but on slow nights we would sit around on the benches smoking and drinking tea or soda and talking. Kathy was a white hippie. She had a good attitude and handled the job well. She was tall and thin with long brown hair that she always wore loose. She went to school during the day and danced at night. Most of the girls had kids; not Kathy. She was a nudist. She would spend her weekends at nudist colonies. I was fascinated by this. I asked her questions about it whenever she would bring it up. Was everyone naked? Did people stare at one another? Would the men walk around with erections? Were the people having sex? She always told me I should go just once. I would just laugh at that thought. She always wore short dresses and cowboy boots.

Within a few months it got hard to work there. Having to deal with really lonely men depressed me. I started drinking in the dressing room with the other girls more often. One of the girls that Ben Fenton was dating saw us drinking one night in the dressing room and told on five of us. When Bob called me into his office he told me he knew I was drinking on the job and that I was fired. He then told me he would talk to the Fenton brothers on my behalf. I told him thanks but no thanks. I’d had enough.

Today, the hotels, bars and restaurants at 5th and Main cater to the younger, hipper crowd. The streets look cleaner and safer than they did back then. The New Jalisco Bar is now frequented by 21-year-olds. Cy’s is now The 5 Cent Diner, though it’s still a chicken place. Dreamland went out of business long ago. The space where I worked as a taxi dancer is now occupied by H&H Hothouse Productions, a video studio.

I lost all contact with everyone at Dreamland. My family never knew I worked there. They thought I worked the graveyard shift at a factory.

After I left the dancehall, I worked at a pharmacy and went to night school. Then I got a job with the State of California Department of Health as an entry-level clerical worker in the Social Security Insurance section. For the next thirty-three years I worked for five different state agencies, from Caltrans to the Public Utilities Commission.

I had to formally apply for each job. But I never put Dreamland on a resume.

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By C.J. Salgado

[dropcap1]W[/dropcap1]hen I was a little boy growing up in East L.A., my father kept a toolbox. It was at the very back of the garage, covered by a blanket, piece of cardboard, or shop towel at the end of each day to hide it from any would-be-burglars. That was my job, to cover it.

I thought about it while we sat in the waiting room of the specialist doctor my father had been referred to. This was the follow up visit to a series of visits after he had started slowing down a lot, very unusual for him. We were both anxious. His left hand trembled a bit, so I asked if he was cold. He said, no.Toobox CJ Salgado Photo 1

He then asked me what I’d do with his toolbox if things went bad. Was it really coming to that? I didn’t want to answer that question.

All my life, he would get up early in the morning and go to bed long after I did. Even on weekends, he worked. My childhood memories mostly are of him in his work clothes, dirty and smelling of sweat, gasoline, and oil. Sometimes, though, he’d stop and play with me for a moment, to lift me up with his arms, or swing me around like I was on a Merry-Go-Round. His arms were like steel rails to me as he spun me around, secure in his strong grip.

People were always stopping by, wanting him to work on their cars, a master mechanic, called “maestro” by all who came to get their cars fixed. I would watch him for hours pulling out entire engines; tearing apart brake and transmission assemblies with so many pieces; and looking through thick books full of car part listings, schematics, and numbers. He’d tell me that it was important to place every component right or the whole thing could fail.

Like a magician he laid out the tools, supplies, and parts he needed for his regular performance. I didn’t like to disturb his show but I would inevitably roam over to him and sit, fascinated by his power to make cars run right. He began to show me how to do simpler tasks for him: to hold a flashlight firmly and aim just right so he could see what he worked on, to scrape off an old head gasket, or to check the electrodes with a spark plug gapping tool. Every now and then he’d say just enough to point out something interesting to me, like the spot where compression gasses had leaked between cylinders from a damaged gasket.

It became a game for me each time he sent me back to his toolbox in the garage. Although I’d climb atop the garage often to play, I didn’t go inside much. That was his place. The inside of it was full of gadgets, parts, and other car entrails. So he called out a tool and I ran in hoping to grab the right one from la caja and emerge victorious. I especially liked retrieving from the toolbox his shiny torque wrench, along with the right socket size. Was that 3/8” or 1/2”? 10-mm or 13-mm? Then I attached the socket, dialed in the torque, and placed my little hands along side his as we tightened a bolt or a nut, listening for the telltale click.

I learned not only about those tools but also about numbers, machines, heat transfer, chemicals, and how systems worked. His strong arms and hands, always dirty, scratched, nicked, and bruised, taught me too that often it was just plain hard work well into the night that got the job finished.

He wasn’t much of a talker. But his tools were. Luckily, I was a good listener. Sometimes, it was the piercing ping-ping of his ball-peen hammer squarely hitting a brake drum that spoke. Sometimes it was the calming whirr of an engine cylinder bore being honed that put me to sleep, as I lay in my bed while my father worked into the night. Sometimes it was the loud, rapid popping of a backfiring engine that woke me in the morning, as my father tweaked the carburetor. Each sound became a cascade of words to me, mechanical memories of my father’s ways and times.

I remember that when he came in the house and it wasn’t dark outside yet, I’d run to him, grab his hand, and smell it. If I caught that lovely odor of industrial hand cleaner, of orange oil, lanolin and pumice, it told me he was done for the day and he was ours. It remains today, one of my favorite odors.

On Sundays, he took the family out to the park, the beach, or the museums. Once in a while he’d have enough money to take us to a place like Disneyland, but looking back, it was the simplest of outings that forged my most enduring fond memories of us together.

One Sunday, we were bored and wanted to go out, but my father had no extra money to spend. Still, he put us in the car and took us to the airport, parked on a side street adjacent to the runway, and we watched the planes take off and land. I worried that we’d get in trouble for being there, but my father reassured me and I relaxed. As I watched the planes approach in a pattern, I took out a little book that showed the silhouettes of different passenger planes and tried to match the pictures what I saw in the skies. Feasting on plain mayo sandwiches atop the trunk of the car, I savored each bite-sized minute to the very end.

My father liked to watch airplanes just like I did. That became even clearer to me when my father took us to see the war birds at the Chino air museum. I had read all about those old propeller combat planes and couldn’t believe we were actually headed there. The drive from East L.A. to Chino seemed unending then. Chino was a whole different, faraway world. I knew we were getting close when the smell of cow manure rushed into the car, my window open as I held out my hand into the wind like an airfoil.

Once at the museum, I immediately began to identify planes I had only read about or dreamed about: a silver P-51D Mustang fighter with a bubble canopy; an F4U Corsair naval fighter with its upturned gull like wings; and a big C-47 military transport, a plane produced at the same Long Beach plant where I would one day work myself. I walked around each plane noticing its details, the rivets, oil streaks, and warning labels. At the engines, I read about its specifications and told my father…V-12 liquid-cooled, R-18 air-cooled…Together we marveled in the numbers and compared them to car specifications.

I often asked questions about the new things I’d see on our outings and my father would give me an answer. One day, I asked him what this strange looking array of antennae was for atop a high-rise building. I was shocked to hear him respond that he didn’t know. Still today, I recall that moment.

Now, I realize that he did have an answer for me. It was just that his answer was couched to me in a different, deeper, and more lasting way. I suppose he figured out that I wasn’t going to stop questioning. So he showed me a set of Encyclopædia Britannica he’d bought years before. It was in Spanish. I opened each volume and delved in, lost in the wonders discovered alphabetically.

My father’s name is “Jose” like so many others in East L.A. Father’s Day was not invented, as I had believed, just for him. And his body was not forever strong. He is now a frail old man, though with a mind stubbornly sharp.

I went on to learn to read, write, and speak English, despite starting my school years as a “non-English speaking student.”

I joined the Air Force, too, and served as an aircraft mechanic. Interestingly, much later, I learned that back in his home country of Nicaragua, while a mechanic in the public works department garage, my father came to know a lieutenant in the Nicaraguan air force who’d bring in his vehicle to my father for repair. He invited my father to work for him to learn to fix planes at the air base outside of Managua. He almost accepted because he liked airplanes, he tells me now, but instead he decided to come to America.

Then I studied in college, realizing my arms would never be as strong as my fathers, and made a career of physics. Though my work tools are now mental, I never forgot that toolbox.

In his later years, when my father no longer had the strength to work his craft, he surprised me one day telling me his toolbox was to be mine and that I could sell it if I wished. I didn’t want to think about that.

Now, at the doctor’s office, it was coming to that.

“Jose!” The nurse called my father, startling me back to the present like the crisp click of the torque wrench. I handed him his walking cane and helped him to the exam room.

In the gown, my father got cold waiting in exam room. Finally, the doctor rushed in, apologized for the wait, and quickly told us the diagnoses.

“It’s P.D.,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

My father’s old toolbox now sits in my new garage and when I open it, the cold, worn metal sends me back. My sense of hearing intensifies. My fingers travel the well-worn edges of each tool. I’m there again, waiting for them to speak to me.

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[dropcap1]W[/dropcap1]hen I was in the third grade, I was chosen to be the announcer at my school’s spring assembly, which meant I would go on stage and announce each class as they came up to perform. It was an honor for a student to be chosen by their teacher to represent the school in this way, and of course, the announcer was to dress in her best clothing.

I didn’t ask my grandmother, who was raising me, for a new outfit, because I figured we couldn’t afford it, but I told her that the teacher said I needed to look my best. I waited for her to say how she planned to make me look ‘my best,’ instead, the corners of her mouth turned downward, and after a few seconds, she said simply, “Okay.”

Over the next few days, I saw her working at the sewing machine that sat on our dining table. The spool of thread at the top of the machine bobbled rapidly, as her left hand guided a piece of tan material under the machine’s large needle, and her right hand rotated a wheel on the other end. The whirring of the machine’s foot pedal could be heard throughout the house. She was making a dress for me to wear at the assembly, but inwardly, I wanted a new one – not one that was homemade.

My grandmother lived two lives. There was her home life with us, where she cooked dinners of fried potatoes with onions in enormous cast iron skillets and baked biscuits from scratch, on which we’d pile her homemade peach preserves. There was also her work life away from home, where she wore a white uniform and worked in up-to-date kitchens, preparing dinners like roast duck with steamed asparagus.

Some evenings, after working a full day, she would return to her job to serve at dinner parties. She laughed about the time her curiosity about caviar got the best of her. She wanted to taste this delicacy, so when she had a moment alone in the kitchen, she piled a large amount on a cracker and put the whole thing in her mouth. She quickly realized she didn’t like the oily taste at all and turned to the sink and spit it out. “If they knew I had spit that expensive stuff in the sink, I don’t know what they would have done,” she said.

As a “domestic” for two families, my grandmother not only prepared dinners for these families, but she also cleaned their homes, did their laundry and watched their children. At home, she didn’t do much of the housekeeping, nor did she prepare dinners that were anything like those she cooked at work. Being a domestic was the only job my grandmother had while raising my sister, my two brothers and me. My father didn’t always live with us, but he helped out by giving her money toward the rent and taking care of our school needs. The everyday feeding, clothing, and raising, in general, was done by my grandmother. She was the drill sergeant who made sure the girls dusted, washed the dishes and ran the vacuum cleaner, while the boys had trash duty, cut the grass and hedges and shoveled snow from our sidewalks and steps.

During the summers, she would enlist all of us to help with larger projects around the house. She would put on a pair of jeans, which she normally didn’t wear, pull her hair back into a ponytail, and work along side us, as we washed walls or painted rooms. Strands of her thin, silky hair would inevitably break free and become plastered to her perspiring forehead. I guess the fact that we lived with her didn’t allow my grandmother the luxury of smothering us with pampering.

“I’ve worked hard all my life,” she would say, and she didn’t expect any of us to be lazy or unproductive either.

But the laundry was a task that my grandmother did not assign to any of her grandchildren. In our basement was a tall wringer washer that clanked loudly and literally inched itself around the room as it spurted soapy water on the floor. When it finished a load of clothes, my grandmother, who at 5’2” was just a little taller than the washer’s round tub, would crank the handle at the top of the machine and it would slowly squeeze the water from the clothes, piece by piece. She would fill a wicker basket with the wet clothes and hang them on a clothesline in our backyard. Sometimes, she would hang laundry out in the cold Ohio winters, but if the air was too frigid, she hung laundry from clotheslines strung from pipes in our basement.

When she had only a few pieces of clothing to wash, she would place a washboard in a large metal tub and scrub the clothes by hand. Although, she did the family laundry weekly, it was pretty much an all-day job for her on Saturdays. After hours of wringing load after load of clothes, she would recline on the couch in front of the television and talk about how much easier it was to do laundry on her job, because there were modern washers and dryers in those homes. Whenever she needed the convenience of an automatic washer and dryer, such as when it was time to wash our bed quilts or throw rugs and such, we piled loads of our laundry in the back of the car and go to a laundromat – still pretty much an all-day job.

Hard work was something my grandmother had done since she was a little girl. She was one of 21 children born to a father who was a former slave and a mother who was Chickasaw Indian and Black. Her formal education ended in the 4th grade, because she was needed in the fields to help feed their growing family. Her father owned land in Tennessee, where he raised pigs, chickens, and horses, in addition to growing vegetables and fruit trees. So, my grandmother learned at an early age how to plant and harvest crops, as well as how to kill and prepare chickens, rabbits and hogs. Anything that had to be baked – pies, cakes, bread, biscuits – she always made from scratch. She said that by the time she was ten years old, she was as good as her mother in the kitchen. She didn’t, however, teach my sister or me how to cook or bake.

“Don’t mess up my kitchen,” she would say to us, as she shooed us away with a dishtowel.

Even during holiday seasons, when there were big meals to prepare, she assigned us only marginal kitchen duty, such as buttering pans – never actually cooking a dish. She didn’t give us a reason, but I wonder now if she just didn’t want my sister and me to “have to” cook, as she did.

She was only 11 years old when she married. She would say that her parents let her get married because that meant there would be one less mouth to feed. She married a 17-year-old farmer, and went from working in her father’s fields to helping her husband live off the land. After their first son was born, they moved to Cairo, Illinois, because she said, “the South was too segregated” and “there was nothing” in their small town of Selmer, Tennessee. My father, and two more boys were born in Illinois, but they lost one son to whooping cough at the age of two. Their marriage unraveled, and she took the boys and returned to Tennessee in the late 1920s. Her widowed mother had remarried, and my grandmother and her children moved in with her new stepfather and new siblings.

By 1931, she was living in Toledo, Ohio in what she called a “common-law marriage.” She and Thomas had met in Tennessee and relocated to Toledo, where he had family. He was long gone before I was born in the 1950s, but my grandmother always referred to him as a good man, who was good to her children. This was a difficult period for our country, and even in an industrial city like Toledo, the Great Depression forced a lot of people out of work.

President Roosevelt had started a New Deal program known as the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and my grandmother was able to get a position as a seamstress. She made clothing that was distributed by the government to needy families. When World War II broke out, they also made clothing for the troops. She didn’t know how to operate a sewing machine prior to working for the WPA, and she had never hand sewn anything fancier than basic pants, shirts and dresses. So, even though she earned less than $500 a year, the WPA was the first place she was given the opportunity to learn a trade.

In the mid-1950s, my parents were divorcing, and my mother would lose her four children. My grandmother became our legal guardian. At almost 50 years of age, she agreed to raise a one-year-old, a four-year-old, a five-year-old and a seven-year-old.

“They were going to send you kids to the Miami Children’s Home if I hadn’t taken you,” she said.

While I have no memories of my mother abusing us, I do remember how my grandmother sacrificed so that my siblings and I had what we needed. Her electric sewing machine sat at the helm of our table ready to mend a ripped pair of pants or hem a skirt. It was a portable, black machine with ‘Singer’ in gold lettering across its sides, and although it sat inside a suitcase-like carrier, it was rarely moved from the dining table.

Except for the new clothes my father purchased at the beginning of every school year, our clothes came from thrift stores or were from the homes where my grandmother worked. For me, this clothing became “third-hand,” because the dresses, blouses and coats were given to my sister first; after she had worn them for a year or two, I would get them. While I didn’t exactly look like a little rag-a-muffin growing up, I didn’t think my clothes were as pretty as those I saw on little girls in the catalogs that lay on our coffee table.

So, when my grandmother called me in to try on the dress she made for my school assembly, I fidgeted as she maneuvered it over my head. Once the dress was on, I stood stiffly, barely looking down at it.

“It’s gonna be alright,” she said. “I have a few more ideas that’ll make it pretty.”

The next day, unlike the hand-me-downs that were loose-fitting and threadbare from wear, the dress fit like it was made just for me. The bodice of the dress fit snugly and the hemline, which stopped a couple of inches above my knees, flowed with pleats that stood out with the help of a tulle underskirt. My grandmother had made a belt of brown velvet that tied in a big bow at the back, and she had sewn two matching velvet ribbons for my hair.

On the day of the assembly, she parted my hair down the middle into two ponytails and tied them with the ribbons, then finished off my outfit with anklet socks and my patent-leather Easter shoes. As I twirled in front of the mirror, I saw a little girl dressed just as pretty as anyone posing in the Sears catalog. My grandmother leaned back in her chair and smiled.

That day, as I ascended the steps to the stage, I overheard the principal say to a teacher near her, “Isn’t she pretty?” I stood with pride at the microphone, staring out at the audience of students and teachers.

My grandmother, though, didn’t attend the assembly. She had to work.

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By Jian Huang

[dropcap1]D[/dropcap1]uring the summer of 1997, Timothy McVeigh was tried on television for killing people in Oklahoma. The English stood along the streets outside Westminster Abbey to bid farewell to Princess Diana. And in Los Angeles, our closest thing to Sears – the Woolworth’s on Broadway and 8th — closed its doors after years of declining business.

But I knew only a little of that in my small corner of the world on 23rd and Los Angeles streets. I was consumed with having to enroll in summer school and retake sixth grade Algebra.

I told Mr. Alexanian, my Algebra teacher at John Adams Middle School, that I was gravely concerned about having to walk home at 2 pm each day. That was before the B and C tracks kids got out of class, which meant my chances of getting bullied by the other summer school A track girls leaving with me increased. This also meant nobody would be able to call the cops should I get hurt. I would be left bleeding in an alley somewhere and Mom and Dad won’t know how to call the authorities because they don’t speak any English and no one would translate the letters they get at home and ultimately both would get deported back to China. Didn’t he know the consequences of enrollment?

Mr. Alexanian enrolled me anyway.

That summer I got lots of exercise darting out of the school gate at exactly 2 pm and running home. I figured that strategically, I had to vamoose before the other A track girls, and Frances and Susana in particular, got out of class. They would pick on me about the holes in my school uniform and the Payless tennis shoes I wore with the loose flapping soles.

John Adams was one of those schools that consistently scored between a 2 and a 3 out of 10 from GreatSchools.com. Ninety-eight percent of the student population is Hispanic/Latino, two percent African American, and an unlisted contingency of Others, which in 1997, included me and another Chinese kid named Kenny Lu. Typically when other kids met me the second or third question they ask would be, “Is Kenny your brother?” Followed by, “How do you see like that?” Fifty-eight percent of the student body was English proficient, one-hundred percent qualified for free meals, which they endearingly coined “county food,” and two percent of the parents reported to have gone to “some” college. To make us feel better however, our school administrator, Mr. Cortinez, would often say, “Well, at least you’re not at Carver Middle School.”

I thought maybe curling my straight black hair would help me fit in better with the Latina girls, so I begged my mom for a perm. She took me to her hair lady in Chinatown, who gave me the same haircut she gave to everyone else: The Chinese Mom Pouf.

“It’s not ugly,” my mom said, “just look at my hair!”

I envied Kenny because he had friends. His family owned a fast food restaurant and he played basketball. I however had lingering asthma, a hernia, and arthritis in my knees that required me to wear stockings during PE – stockings that we got at Thrifty’s and were either too light or too dark but, either way, never quite matched my skin color. Some days Francis and Susana would throw spitballs at me, and other days it would be gum. Even the one albino kid named Rodolfo had more friends than I.

My dad’s family once owned a business in China, but that was long before I was born. My dad would often recall stories about his father’s humble beginnings and his own childhood growing up in the French Concession in Shanghai before the Cultural Revolution. He told me about his 14 brothers and sisters, about his English-educated mom, about reading western literature, and about his record collection of American swing standards.

My mom on the other hand was the oldest of five kids and they lived in a mud brick hut that their dad had built a few miles from those glamorous French Quarter homes where my father lived. Her mother had more than once sold her own blood during the 1950s to feed her children. My mom grew up with no electricity, no running water, and no education. Chairman Mao’s sweeping reforms during the 1960s and ‘70s were supposed to bring some much-needed equality, but instead plunged the country into poverty, mass starvation, and civil unrest. So when China opened its doors to the world in the late 1980s, we left.

Why me, I often asked my dad. Why do I get picked on so much? Why do I have to be so Chinese-looking? Why wasn’t I born with a last name like Perez or Rodriguez? Why didn’t they give me a sibling to talk to about this kind of stuff? If I had to look so different, why weren’t we at least rich?

My dad admired the US from afar: It was a beacon of democracy and equality. In Chinese, “America” even translated to “country of beauty.” It was the wild west of rugged freedom and infinite possibilities. But in the US, we were back to zero. Without language proficiency, my dad’s degree in engineering meant nothing. My mom was worse off with no formal education beyond the seventh grade. They did what they could in order to eat and as far as rents went, South L.A. was the best we could do.

I rarely got any glimpse of what my parents saw as the promise of the west. The glamour I saw was only on television from those same black and white films my dad watched as a kid. The real world outside of our pink-clapboarded house at 23rd and Los Angeles streets was bleak and unkind. We had warehouses in the neighborhood with gang tags. There was the automotive repair shop across the street, the foul smelling carniceria around the corner that sold expired milk, and prison bars on every window and door on our block. Was this the freedom my dad wanted?

One day after school, with no notice, a carnival came to town. The city made efforts like this in the `90s in hopes they would help revitalize abandoned or underdeveloped areas. It was also a strategy to replace the drive-by shootings and illegal street racings that occurred on Los Angeles Street with safe and family-oriented activities.

So that day there arrived big purple trucks and big green trucks with signs on its sides that read, “Baque Bros Classic Rides & Amusement, Chino, CA.” Piles of thick metal beams and colorful plastic pods were driven in on the backs of long flatbeds. Rides were erected within hours at the foreclosed Knudsen’s milk processing plant across the street from my house. On my way home from school, I saw leathery-faced white men with baseball caps at the lot hammering things.

By nightfall, the Knudsen’s lot, which the day before had only weeds sprouting through its cracks, was transformed into what I imagined Disneyland to be: glowing, glimmering, and vivid. An All-American spectacle of freedom was across the street. Of the rides there, I could see an electric yellow Fun Slide, a big dangling Sea Dragon, and the dazzling Sizzler. There was a Ferris Wheel next to hot pink canopies with propped up bright signs that read “Popcorn” and “Play,” and people lined up around the chain-linked fence waiting for it to open.

My dad was working another of his 24-hour shifts at the motel that day so I had to wait till my mom got home from her sewing factory job. My dad used to scare me and say that I wasn’t allowed to leave the house or answer the phones because the police would come take me away if they found out I was by myself.

At 7:30 pm my mom came home. She put a few dollars in her pocket and walked with me across the street. I had never seen such an arrangement of flashing lights and neon signs. We walked through the cotton candy stands, buttered corn stands, bacon-wrapped hot dog stands, and water gun games. Each corner of the midway was lit with something: Cheese! Drinks! Ride Coupons! The whole place smelled like warm cake and ringed like the inside of a pinball machine. To save money, however, we skipped the food and went straight to the games. I was intimidated by most of the carnival games, so with the two dollars my mom gave me, I opted to toss quarters on plates. I later found that the prize was also a plate.

For the first time there were white people in this part of the town who weren’t police officers or school administrators. They looked average. They were working class, just like us. I would later come to learn that these people were called “carnies,” but at the time I thought they just looked like the Americans on television. The plate stand lady had on an oversized purple shirt and a fanny pack. With her disheveled hair and round face, she asked me, “What are you?”

“Chinese,” I said. “Where do you come from?”

“Nebraska,” she replied. Then she waved to my mom, who nodded and smiled in response.

By 7:50 pm my adrenaline was running high from winning plates, so I decided to take my positive streak to the rides. My mom gave me a few more dollars and on I went to the only two rides with one-person seats: the Dizzy Dragon and the Flying Bobs. The machines consisted of a series of carts attached to a rotating center axis that spun at Daytona-fast speeds. Or at least that’s what it felt like sitting inside of one. For a moment, I had forgotten all about Frances and Susana. Look who was now the king of this fiberglass dragon’s den!

But like a drug addict, I came down hard after the rides stopped. “What would it be like to have a friend on this ride with me?” I thought. Personal realities are like unwelcomed intruders during times of quiet. If only my mom would buy me two more tickets for another hit.

In school, I learned that the name “Lorena” comes from the word “laurel” which meant victory. The first time I ever saw a “Lorena” outside of school was at this carnival. She was with her mom, her brother and cousin Freddy getting cotton candy and I was holding my mom’s hands after being freshly dizzied from the Flying Bobs. I remembered her from class and I remembered she wasn’t mean, so I awkwardly waved to her as we walked past. She waved back, which was expected. What I didn’t expect, however, was when she came up to me and talked. I thought everyone from school would assume I’m some alien from another planet – a weird-eyed, plump-faced, and horrendously-permed creature they’ve never seen before in this part of South Central, Los Angeles. Is this person talking to me? She’s asking me questions about which rides I’ve been on like I’m a normal human being.

And she kept talking to me.

“Have you been on The Zipper yet?” Lorena said.

“Not yet,” I replied.

“Wanna go?”

Yeah.

The Zipper was the fast ticket to being cool for a 12 year-old. Street cred that I desperately needed was purchasable for three ride coupons. Invented in 1968 by Chance Rides, Inc. of Wichita, Kansas, The Zipper with a capital T reached about 56 feet in the air. A plaque on the ride proudly declared, “Made in the USA.” Its center is a long rotating oval with cables around its edges that pulled about 12 cars all spinning at unpredictable G-forces. According to the DomainofDeath3.com, The Zipper is “the most feared carnival ride in existence” because people die on a regular basis riding this thing. Sometimes a car door would come loose; sometimes the whole car would come loose. The point is: it’s dangerous.

While waiting in line for The Zipper, Lorena told me she lived with her mom, her dad, her brother, and her cousin, Freddy. They drove into the U.S. from Mexico when Lorena was still in her mom’s belly. She attributed the successful crossing to her mom’s fair skin and blue eyes. Their apartment was close to the school. Neither of her parents spoke any English, her brother was in high school but fixed cars sometimes, and Freddy’s parents were no longer around, whatever that meant. Then she told me she wanted to get a Ph.D and work for the coroner.

“Dead bodies!” she enthused.

We talked about our favorite TV shows like I Love Lucy and The Simpsons. We talked about our favorite foods, which included Flaming Hot Cheetos and pizza. She told me she wasn’t good at spelling and I told her I learned from watching closed captioning. Corpses aside, we were actually a lot alike.

And then Lorena and I got inside The Zipper, two to a metal pod. A leathery-faced male carny with a Miller Lite t-shirt closed our cage and thundered, “Good luck.” Surprisingly, it wasn’t as large as I thought it would be. The steel mesh made everything very dark inside and it smelled like sweat and rust. Our pod climbed a little higher every time another pair of people got on. We were quiet as our pod climbed ever so slowly to the top. We saw the lights beneath on Los Angeles Street stretching north to Downtown, to that tall US Bank building in the distance. Nothing blocked our view. The night sky seemed endless.

Suddenly someone bellowed something from below. A loud buzz went off. Engines roared and chains ground. We swung high and around, this way and that. With each rotation of the chains our pod spun 360 degrees. We spun over and over. After a minute, a pause, another buzz, and we went backwards. At first slowly, then very fast. All I heard were screams.

When it finally stopped, our pod was eerily quiet. “Lorena, are you okay?” I said. She muttered something unintelligible. A few seconds later, I smelled it. At first it smelled a lot like cheese, but I didn’t eat pizza at school. Was I really that hungry? Then the cheese smell took on a sour tinge. And then I felt her warm vomit on my right arm and leg.

“I am so sorry,” Lorena said. “I’m so embarrassed.” Followed by some more moaning and grumbling.

“That’s ok, I like cheese,” I joked. She laughed. And I thought, “Yes! Now she’ll have to be my friend.” The Miller Lite t-shirt carny gave us a look of horror when he opened our pod door. We kept our heads down in laughter and ran back to our moms, vomit and all.

That was the summer of 1997, when I made my first friend. Things at school were a little easier after that with Frances and Susana. Lorena would find me every day during lunch and eat with me.

Sometimes after school she would even get her mom to walk with me half way home.

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By Matthew Loflin Davis

[dropcap1]B[/dropcap1]efore scrap metal prices went through the roof in the mid 00s and every scrapper was considered scum, I had a truck and made my way cutting steel out of burned out and unsalvageable buildings.

Five years ago Thanksgiving, I was trying to come up with some copper to turn into the scrap yard the next day for my fix. The building behind mine was falling down and hadn’t had anyone in it as long as I could remember so I climbed to the roof and down through the hole that the weather over the years had provided me.

Once inside, the copper was everywhere. I started cutting it out when I realized that some of it was still live. I carefully unhooked the three connectors to the 440 coming into the building when POP, a loud fucking explosion of light and power filled the room. The wrench I was using had touched another metal plate. My rubber boots and gloves saved my ass. It no doubt would have killed me. Shaken badly, I had gotten the power off so I continued to pull the copper. Part of me knew this was wrong but when your heroin fix is the one true love in your life you can sometimes rationalize things.

Looking back, I knew I was wrong taking that copper but I’m not here to apologize. Putting the big pieces aside, I went to the basement and started cutting smaller wires when I heard a door open upstairs.

“POLICE!”

I hid behind some machinery thinking Detroit cops wouldn’t want to go through the entire building. I was probably right but it wasn’t the police, just the owners with Glocks and handcuffs. It was my first and only felony; it haunted me for years and I was jailed several times for breaking probation due to dirty urine.

About 364 days later, a day before Thanksgiving, I was again scrapping an abandoned building in the Eastern Market. I had my torches and was cutting heavy I-beams. Things were going great. The sun was out and it lit up the third floor very nicely for me and my buddy to work in. I went to check out the room next door and walked down the hall into a shaded area. My eyes couldn’t adjust fast enough before I realized I was falling. The next thing I remember thinking was “Damn, I’m falling a long way.” I hit the ground about two floors down. I gasped for breath as the wind went out of me. After the fear settled, I felt that I couldn’t move my leg and it hurt like hell. My face hurt and my wrist hurt, too. I spent the next three months in a wheelchair. I had broken my femur, wrist and jaw. A titanium rod was inserted into my femur, pins in my wrist and my jaw was wired. To top things off, I lived in a house with only a wood burner. I was chopping wood from my wheelchair all winter.

One December day that year, I was out of work and I had my habit and I was sick. I could feel the bile in my stomach churning and my legs wouldn’t hold still. My nose and eyes were running and I was sneezing eight times in a row.  I wheeled myself down the street on that frigid December day while carrying my aluminum extension ladder resting on the arm of my chair. I headed down to a spot I knew where the man would sometimes trade tools for dope. I sat outside and waited for him, but when he showed up he didn’t want the ladder. I was at wits’ end, sitting on wheels on McDougall Street in the blowing cold praying for my father to send me something from above. My eyes were running so bad I couldn’t see and my body arched with my sneezes as I looked in the street to see a bill tumbling with the wind right toward me. I franticly pushed myself toward vector with the tumbling green blur and caught it under my wheel. Reaching down, I pulled up a twenty dollar bill so I looked up and thanked my Pop. I blew it all on one fat blow and worried about my next need when it came. Somehow it always works out.

Flash forward one more year to the next Thanksgiving. (You can look up my medical and police records if you don’t believe me) I’m again scrapping the Grand Trunk Building on the seventh floor. It’s a refrigerated building with no lights, no windows. I’m trying to unbolt a brass valve. After taking the bolts out I tried to wiggle it out by hand, no luck. Grabbing my hammer, I gave it a good whack and an explosion of pure ammonia blasted me in the face. The room filled with the gas and I stumbled upstairs where fresh air was coming in through the roof. My eyes were burning. Luckily it was raining and I was able to flush them out. About 75% blind, I managed to make my way down through the pitch-black seven floors and out to the parking lot. From there I somehow made it home. Before I went to the hospital I stopped at the dope house and spent my last $10.

I was blind for about three months in both eyes until my right eye healed fairly well. My left eye didn’t do so well and I am still blind in that one today three years later.

                                       _____

 *WHEN HE WROTE THIS STORY, MATTHEW LOFLIN DAVIS WAS AN ARTIST AND RECOVERING HEROIN ADDICT IN DETROIT. IN 2015, HE DIED OF A HEROIN OVERDOSE. HIS BLOGPOSTS REMAIN AT WWW.JUNKYSAYS.BLOGSPOT.COM, FROM WHICH THIS STORY WAS CULLED.  

 

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[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1] was on the bus from Baldwin Park heading to Alhambra to visit my folks one day. I chose a seat in the back. To my left, a few seats away, were two older people, a Mexican-American man and a Chinese woman. She wore a cropped hot pink jacket with ¾ length sleeves called a bolero.

He was turned sideways in his seat so as to face her and talking animatedly. Sounded like he was talking about some people they knew and reprimanding her about something. She just kept looking straight ahead. He went on talking. I lost interest in them.

The ride grew mundane. Stops, starts … people got on, people got off.

The familiar beeep, beeep, beeep, like a trash truck backing up, rang through the bus. We agonized. We knew it was going to be a prolonged stop as the wheelchair access ramp lowered. Bus riders fight our resentment when a handicapped person boards.

People in the front seats looked around at each other and hoped someone else would give up their seats before the driver made them. A young couple finally got up as the wheelchair ramp rose slowly. Finally, the wheelchair appeared. A heavy-set black woman was in it. She had six plastic bags of bottles and cans tied to the back of her chair. They crinkled loudly as she backed up into her spot. She turned and glared at the people around her like a warning not to look or comment on her obnoxious load.

Finally, we reached the El Monte Bus Terminal and the old Chinese woman in the pink bolero- jacket stood up to get off. The older Latino man stood with her. As she took a step, he grabbed the corner of her jacket.

“WAIT!” he said. “That’s my jacket! Give me my jacket!”

What!? Weren’t they a couple? How could that tiny hot-pink garment have been his jacket?

She pulled forward past the rear exit in the direction of the driver. She took a step. The man took a step. He held fast to the jacket.

“CWASY!! CWAAAASSSYYYY MAN!” she screamed.

He kept his hold but said nothing. He had a grin on his face.

An even older Mexican man stuck his leg out into the aisle attempting to exit. The two continued advancing in their same manner, around the older fellow. The Chinese woman still screamed those two English words.

All of us were watching. No one said a thing.

I’ve ridden the bus for seven years, off and on. There is a temporary society that forms daily on buses all over L.A. Unspoken rules apply. Find a seat and mind your own business. In street language, “If you don’t want no shit, don’t start no shit.” When something unusual happens on the bus – and that happens everyday – you behave as if it were ordinary. If you get involved in nonsense on the bus, you are on your own.

A car provides a little sanctuary from the street. The bus is like bringing the street with you. This is transportation for bums, little grannies, the mentally challenged, the polite, the bathed, the uncouth, and the unbearable. All are allowed to ride.

I have sat next to all of them.

I remember one late evening, a handsome white guy was sitting in the front seats that face the aisle. In the seats surrounding him were Mexican men dusty and tired on their trip home from work. The young man asked if they spoke English. They shook their heads. He had bottles in his coat. One by one he pulled out big bottles of liquor, each more fancier than the last. In English, he was presenting each bottle for sale. After each bottle, he would pause for a sign of interest. The men smiled and waited for what was next. Funny gringo with his stolen bottles!

“And for the grand finale …” and he reached in his jacket behind him. Everyone waited but the bottle was stuck.

“Wait …” he said sheepishly.

Everyone laughed. The bottle finally came loose from his waistband in his back.

“The grand finale is … Blue Sapphire!”

He pulled out a large pretty bottle of dry gin. The men laughed and clapped. No one, however, bought a bottle. I guess it wasn’t payday.

On a trip through Chinatown one day, a Chinese woman wanted to get off the bus. It was late afternoon and we were all drowsy, when all of a sudden, the woman screamed “BACK DOOR!!!!” Everyone jumped and some young Asian guy shouts “Shit, Lady! Calm the fuck down! I thought there was a bomb!” We all had to resettle our hearts.

One early afternoon, I sat at the back of a half-empty bus through Boyle Heights. Three boys of about 15 or 16 with skateboards and a man about 40 sat near me. One of the skaters faced me and the man sat a seat away from him. I didn’t pay attention to the man until he stretched out his arm and began to rub the skater’s back. The man had his eyes closed with a smile on his face. It was creepy. The boy looked at me. I smiled to be supportive but he misinterpreted this as amusement. The boy, embarrassed, scowled back at me. I wanted to say something but I couldn’t think of something that wouldn’t make the situation worse.

“Stop touching me, man.”

The guy opened his eyes. He was yanked out of his high. Out of his fantasyland and now embarrassed, he got angry.

“What did you say?”

The skater gulped.

“You’re touching me, man. Stop touching me,” he said in a small voice created with all the courage he could muster.

With that, the man got up and stood above the boy. The skater looked up at him and I could see his fear. There was a frozen moment where none of us wanted to move or speak. The man said nothing but reached into his back pocket for a weapon. The other two skaters rose immediately to their friend’s aid with skateboards in their hands ready to strike. The man pulled out a screwdriver. I thought quickly of how I would jump over the seats to safety. I’m a single mom. I can’t be in this fight. By God’s grace, the man put his screwdriver away and got off the bus at the next stop. As the bus pulled away, the boys made gestures of ridicule at the man, who yelled threats from outside. It happened so quietly no one except I knew any incident occurred.

We are a mix of people, each with a reason to be on that ride, journeying in a hunk of steel. We’re stuck together but still in our own isolation pretending not to be a participant in this mad mini-world until our destination, where we can exhale.

That’s especially true when a crazy person boards. The bus allows them to remove all the self-restraint they display in other public arenas. On a ride to pick up my son from school, a man started in.

“I am on to you. You all think you are so slick. One of you gets off, another gets on. Or you guys rotate seats pretending you just want to find a better seat but I know you are all spies. The government is not as smart as me. But I forgive you guys. You are just doing what you’re told.”

When my stop came, he stopped rambling. I guess I was his audience.

That Chinese woman in the pink jacket made it to the front of the bus eventually. The Mexican man still attached to her. She stopped, turned to the driver, pointed to the Mexican man and repeated “Cwasy!”’ with a look that screamed, “Help me please!”

“Are you gonna get off this bus?” he said in a flat tone.

They went down the steps of the bus and the man let go of her jacket.

The last I saw of them, she was running into the crowd with her jacket. He strolled off in a different direction with a smug look on his face.

His fun had ended. He was off the bus and the rules had changed.

____

Joanne Mestaz

Joanne Mestaz is a native Angelino. She is second generation Mexican American. She attended UCSD majoring in communications. Joanne lives in Boyle Heights. Her passions are writing, art, caring about our environment and being a parent. She attended this workshop to help her connect with other writers and to help her realize her dream of writing professionally.
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By Olivia Segura

[dropcap1]T[/dropcap1]wo twenty-foot black barred gates stood corner-to- corner separating Miguel from the catcalls on his right where tattered men clawed at him.

To his left was a clean, orderly ward.

Miguel stood, distracted by the gates when suddenly he felt a yank on his blue silk tie.

“Give me your tie,” said an inmate on his right.

He pulled away quickly and the yelling escalated.attachment(1)

The guard looked him up and down. Miguel’s tie matched his eyes; he wore a tailored navy blue suit and stood six feet tall.

“Would you like a luxury cell or do you want to join them?” he said, pointing to the right.

“I’ll take the luxury cell.”

The guard smirked.

The left gate opened and with that the shouting from the right faded. The guard escorted him down the corridor. Miguel heard the far off strumming of a guitar from the galleys above. He was placed in a single cell on the ground floor. Meals would be served in the dining room. The cost for “luxury”: five hundred pesos a day. The guard gave him a voucher to sign.

It was 1953 and Miguel was 29 years old. He had been to Mexico City eleven years earlier, fleeing his village in Michoacán. When he was three, his father accidentally killed his mother while cleaning his shotgun. His father repented throughout his life praying endless hours on his knees while wearing a crown of thorns. However, he became distant and allowed his second wife to mistreat Miguel.

Miguel loved school. But at age seven, at the suggestion of his stepmother, he was made to work in the fields and support the new children that came. His father owned land, animals and bore the last name of the founders of the village. But Miguel lived like an indentured servant. His labor began before sunrise and ended after sunset. His clothes and shoes were worn and he was never given a peso or a sign of affection. At dinner he was not welcomed to the table, and he ate alone.

The years of neglect and frustration drove him to Mexico City in 1942. He heard that the United States needed workers, Braceros, to help the war effort. He arrived by train in white manta clothing, worn huaraches and held his sombrero in place with one hand on either side as he looked up at the skyscrapers. Miguel wanted to stay and explore the city but his only contact was Major Rubalcava, a man who had married a woman from his village. The Major managed the Rancho La Herradura, which belonged to Miguel Aleman, Mexico’s President.

The Major and his wife gave him a place to stay and a job on the ranch. But Miguel had left his village to become a Bracero and he kept this in mind as he tended the cows, irrigated the vast fields of alfalfa and exchanged glances with a shepherd’s daughter. He also thought about his mother. He would quietly hum a lullaby, his only memory of her. He would close his eyes as he sung but still he could not see her face.

A year later he left the ranch and set out for the Estadio Azteca where thousands of men were spread across acres of parkway waiting to be contracted as Braceros up north. Soldiers patrolled the area in jeeps as men gathered with their home statepaisanos. It was difficult to find a clean spot to rest. The unexpected number of people in the parkway destroyed the grass and trees and the smell of excrement permeated the air.

He camped out for nearly three weeks surviving on the small amount of money he had earned and the generosity of others. Finally, one day in early April, he made it to the front of the line.

“You’re young,” said the administrator.

Miguel was under the required age of 18.

“I’m 22,” he said.

He was first sent to Oregon and then to farms in California. His last assignment placed him in Fillmore, an hour from Los Angeles. He began taking the bus into the city on the weekends. He found a job at the Brown Derby, then at the Biltmore Hotel. He felt alive in Los Angeles and enjoyed the nightlife. He worked to dress sharp and dance to the big bands.

On July 4, 1948 he was deported to Cuidad Juarez. He spoke English now and landed a job as a floor manager at one of the best nightclubs in Juarez.

An acquaintance asked him to travel to Mexico City to help him register and sell the songs his brother had composed. Miguel resisted. But the man promised to pay the expenses. In Mexico City, Miguel took the man to “La W Radio” and several other places to pitch the songs. One day, while searching out leads, Miguel spotted several men with typewriters and makeshift desks near the Zocalo.

“Letters Written,” their sign read.

He had not seen his father for eleven years. He had a writer compose a letter to his father, telling him that he was in Mexico City at the Hotel Juarez.

Two weeks passed and none of the radio leads worked out. One afternoon two policemen appeared at his hotel door. The man who convinced him to go to Mexico City was now falsely accusing Miguel of fraud. The police put him in a detention cell.

Later, an attorney named Tostado appeared. He loaded men with minor charges into a van. They were being sent to prison, he said, but he would be able to save them for a fee of 800 pesos.

One by one, the men were driven to their homes where loved ones paid the fee. Miguel was the last man in the van. Miguel tried to convince him to let him go; he would pay him later, he lied, stating his father was wealthy Hacendado. Tostado let him make a phone call. He pretended to make the call and reported that as it was Sunday his father was at the track racing his prized horses and could not be reached. Tostado told the driver to head to the Palacio de Lecumberri.

Built in 1900, Palacio de Lecumberri was the “Black Palace,” a prison in the form of a castle, where corruption, murder and beatings were common. Tostado left Miguel with the guards.

Which is how he found himself that morning standing before two cellblocks, with a choice of which way to go – with the rabble in general population or with the upper classes.

For the next several days Miguel dined on steak and listened to the stories of imprisoned generals and bureaucrats who claimed they had been betrayed. Every day he saw bodies dragged from the general population ward. And every day he signed the 500 peso vouchers with no way to pay, fearing he would soon join them. At night alone in his cell he would recall his mother’s lullaby and fall asleep imagining how different his life would have been if she were still alive.

On his fifth day at Lecumberri, two prisoners came to his cell and took him to a room. They demanded payment for the days he’d been there. Miguel told them his father would come soon; everything would be taken care of. Had his father received the letter he sent? Even if he had, how would his father know that he was in Lecumberri? But he stuck to his story. The men yelled louder and grabbed him to throw him in the general population ward. There, he knew, he’d likely be killed as someone from the luxury ward who thought of himself as upper class.

At that moment, two soldiers with bayonets stormed in.

“Let him go!”

Miguel heard the prisoners pleading for his tie and jacket as the soldiers took him to the vast main hall. There stood his father with Major Rubalcava. Miguel was stunned. He reached out to shake hands with his father and the Major.

He began to tell the Major that he had been signing daily vouchers of $500 pesos.

“Don’t even think of paying those crooks.”

As they drove away from the Black Palace, Miguel asked his father how he found him. His father had received his letter and sought him out at the Hotel Juarez, where he learned of his arrest.

They returned to Michoacán. The only open seats on the bus where separated and they were not able to sit together. But, anyway, Miguel’s father was stoic and not inclined to conversation.

They arrived at the village; the smell of guavas filled the air. The same cobblestone streets passed the same multi-colored homes, with the same people sitting at their front doors.

His younger brothers and sisters were welcoming, but he felt the cold stare of his stepmother.

That night, Miguel awoke to his father praying over him. He lay there, pretending to sleep, as, for the first and last time, he saw his father’s tears.

He worked daily from sunrise to sunset. He socialized with the townspeople but he no longer spoke or thought like them. He’d been gone too long.

One day Miguel attempted to load a bushel of hay on the horse and missed. His father yelled at him, “You’re of no use! The calluses on your hands have disappeared. You’re no longer good for this work.”

Miguel kept silent and felt the distance between them.

Weeks passed and Miguel could not find himself in the village.

After a month, without saying a word, he left.

____

Olivia Segura was born in San Jose, California to immigrant parents from Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and lived, studied and worked in Mexico City for several years. She took the TYTT workshop to begin documenting her father’s life. This is her second TYTT workshop and story.
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By Manuel Chaidez

I also had a full set of hair except for the top part, so I was like a baby George Costanza. The first words my dad told me when he held me for the first time at arm’s length were, “You are a weird looking kid, you know that?” and this was how I looked until I was six. Those were the longest six years of my life. Stayed inside my house all day long and when I went to kindergarten I wore a cowboy hat to hide my tonsure.

Once my hairline problems were over, being around people was not as hard anymore. Until, that is, I went to middle school. One day I got into an argument with my stepmother. One of my chores was to clean the bathroom, and I did it as quickly and efficiently as possible. My stepmother was already having a bad day, but I didn’t realize it. So when she showed me how to clean properly it wasn’t a good idea to scream at her, “That is what I am doing, darn it,” because she slapped the cuteness off my face.

The next the day I went to school with the cuteness slapped off my face, and the only girl who had a crush on me in the whole school now was trying to avoid me. Being an awkward little kid who sat in the back of the class, my cuteness was the only thing this one girl noticed in me. My dad had taught me that there are no ugly women in the world but this girl was not my type. I even felt embarrassed that she announced her crush so publicly. Now she was the one embarrassed of me. This made the whole situation very awkward.

A pattern should be visible here: Life gives me lemons and while making lemonade I squirt myself in the eye. Instead of making the best of it I get obsessed with the whole situation and can’t think straight.

How I met my wife is no different. I went back to Mexico from Los Angeles for two weeks to visit my family. I called a girl I knew named Loren to see if she wanted to hang out. My future wife answered the phone. She was Loren’s cousin.

“Is this Loren?” I asked.

“No this is Angie,” my future wife said.

“Oh, um, Loren?”

“No. I said this is Angie.”

“Is Loren there?”

“Oh my God. Here you talk to him!” my future wife said.

Loren and I talked and made some plans for the four of us to do that day–meaning my cousin, my future wife, Loren, and me. My cousin and I ended up doing something else that day because my dad didn’t let me borrow his truck; I didn’t call them to cancel.

Sometime during that week I rode along with my dad to drop my cousin at his house. We parked in front of his house. Across the street was a small truck. In the truck were Loren and Loren’s boyfriend and my future wife. My cousin and I crossed the street to talk to them.

“How come you guys didn’t meet us at the McDonald’s the other day?!” Loren said.

“My uncle didn’t let Manny borrow the truck, so we were stuck at the house all day,” my cousin said.

“Haven’t you guys heard of buses?” my future wife said.

“We stood outside my house but we never saw one pass by,” I said.

“Of course you didn’t. You were supposed to walk to the bus stop. They don’t stop just anywhere,” my future wife said.

I didn’t say anything after that. I was trying to say something funny but I ended up sounding dumb. As if it wasn’t hard enough for me to meet new people, my exaggerating mind acted up.

The four of us made plans to go to the movies. My dad drove me there and on the ride to the movies all I thought about was that comment I made about the buses.

Our movie night was great except that I tried to erase my stupid comment from their minds and they kept bringing it back. We set up another date to hang out for the weekend. It kind of went the same. This time my dad did let me borrow his truck, so my cousin and I went to pick them up. We went out to eat and then we crashed a party. There, for the first time, my future wife and I were alone.

By this time I had decided that I liked my future wife.

I remembered that she had asked a couple of times that she wanted to use the restroom. So we were standing on the curb outside the party and everybody had gone in ahead of us. All alone, and under the bright stars and the moonlight, the only thing that came to my mind was, “Didn’t you have to go to the restroom?”

Well after that, we dropped them off. My cousin and I went home, thinking how badly everything went. But to my surprise, the girls called the boys the next day. Loren, without saying hello, asked if I liked Angie. Well I did, so I said, very manly, “I do like her. Why? Does she?”

My wife and I talked for hours after that — with plenty of awkward silences, more than any normal person could handle.

But it was easier after that. I realized how wonderful it was getting out of my comfort zone those two days. Like swimming against the current—tough, but after a while it makes you stronger. Suddenly, I felt confident.

I called her at five in the morning the day I was leaving Mexico to return to Los Angeles. For some reason, my awkward mind didn’t bother me. It was like we already knew.

“Hey, so I’m leaving in a couple of hours,” I said. “Oh really, I didn’t know,” my future wife said.

“Yes, just calling to make sure you have your stuff ready because I am on my way to pick you up right now.”

She went along with it.

“I am on the curb all ready with my bags. You got my ticket? Don’t leave me behind, all riled up.”

“I’ll call you as soon as I land; it was very nice meeting you.”

“Likewise. Have a nice trip.”

Two years later, we were married.

____

 

Manuel Chaidez was born in Los Angeles and a year later he along with his family moved back to Mexico. Ten years later, his family returned to Los Angeles and he has lived there ever since. He attended Schurr High School and graduated from Westwood College. He works as a forklift driver.
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By Andrew Ramirez

[dropcap1]B[/dropcap1]ombs fell and the shrapnel cut through the soldiers and burned like molten lava as enemy troops advanced on them through the Vietnam jungle.

Bullets hissed by, hitting tree, rock and man. Enemy chatter echoed out of the marsh. Soldiers from Recon Company took cover and fired.

Among them was Private Louis Ramirez, a 140-pound nineteen year-old boy from the streets of Northeast Los Angeles. Ramirez had been drafted into the U.S. Army. His father had petitioned the Office of the President for a reprieve. His other son, Edmund Jr., older by two minutes, had volunteered and was fighting as a seasoned jarhead in the North. The request was granted.

But Louis Ramirez had other plans. Confused and directionless, he sought purpose and his place in the world. He defied his father’s wishes and shipped off to fight in Vietnam.

He was assigned to a battalion of South Vietnamese Regulars. Their job was to provide air support.

This particular morning was like every other since the Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese broke traditional cease fire agreement during the country’s Lunar New Year celebrations and left all Vietnam in bloody battles.

So now a few months in, Recon Company had left base camp that morning and headed out on another search and destroy mission against a gathering of Viet Cong in a local village.

*

In a small Victorian in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, two children ran about playing. Valerie was two and her brother, Anthony, Jr., was four. Their infant brother, Ricky, slept in the back room.

Their mother, Hilda, finished cooking dinner and prepared to leave.

Anthony Sr. arrived from work.

He chatted with Hilda and his in-laws. They talked of the party they planned for the return of Hilda’s brothers, the twins: Edmund Ramirez, Jr. was in Barstow, processing out of the Marine Corp; Private Louis Ramirez was in combat in Vietnam, two weeks from discharge.

“Can you watch little Ricky?” Hilda asked her husband. “He’s asleep in the back and I’m going with my mom and dad to Sears to get Father’s Day gifts.”

Anthony nodded.

Anthony and Hilda hugged and kissed.

They piled into the black Hillman sedan. Hilda’s father, Edmund, sat behind the wheel, Hilda by his side. Anita sat in back with Valerie on her lap and Anthony Jr. on her side.

The engine started.

Anthony Sr. stood at the door and watched them drive off.

*

The drive took two hours of twisting and turning through the jungle before they came to a clearing. The men jumped off the Armored Personnel Carriers to continue on foot. There were no more roads.

Splashes of water and mud flew with the thumping of military issue boots. The sun beat and the bush felt like a sauna. One hundred and twenty men sloshed through the high brush, searching for the enemy.

Ramirez carried a radio pack and an M-16 while surveying the land as his fellow soldiers chatted in Vietnamese. He could only discern a few words.

Beads of sweat rolled down brow and neck. White smoke filled the atmosphere as the soldiers exhaled from their standard issue. The soldiers swatted red ants crawling up their legs. Dead and stinking bodies lay throughout. There had been battles here before.

Trudging through three feet of water and mud was exhausting. The men checked their fatigues to ensure they were tightly wrapped. Leaches were bad here. They couldn’t keep them all out.

A village appeared in the distance. They approached it through a rice patty and interrogated the village women and children. There were no men. All were fighting as guerrillas in the surrounding hills in the war. The Vietnamese commander screamed at the women.

“Where are they?”

Confused, the women screamed back what sounded like cuss words. Then the answer came.

Shots fired. Grenades exploded. Twenty yards away at the nearby creek, a group of his men who had proceeded to survey the land were pinned down and now engaged in a firefight. “Get down, take cover,” yelled a young soldier, clenching his cold M-16, bayonet fixed in place.

From the marsh appeared a soldier yelling in Vietnamese, “Medic! Medic!” interrupted by gunfire.

Before long the entire village and platoon was surrounded. Bullets rang from every direction. More grenades. Men were cut down left and right. The Vietnamese commander looked to his American advisors and yelled for an air strike.

Ramirez grabbed the microphone. There was time only to react. He had been trained, like a machine, to carry out the mission. Months prior, he might have frozen in shock. As a new infantryman in battle he had felt inept. Men had ridiculed his jumpiness at the sound of gunfire. Not today.

“Bourbon bucket Alpha, this is Bourbon bucket Bravo. We got Charlie hittin’ us pretty good right now. We need some air power. Requesting air support. Friendlies marked by green flares, I say again requesting immediate air support, friendlies marked with green flares. Bring ‘em in close…”

Soon, on the horizon, the sun reflected off the windows of choppers loaded with guns and missiles. The propeller blades cut the air. Their loud thump beat like the young hearts below.

They banked as if floating in the breeze. Then like hawks diving for prey, they dipped and emptied their shells. Ramirez felt the heat of the missiles on his face. Heavy artillery flew like shooting stars towards the enemy stronghold and balls of fire lit up the sky.

Ramirez looked at the beautiful chaos surrounding him.

“I can’t wait to tell Eddie.”

He admired his older brother and respected him. Eddie had just written, telling him of the party the family had planned for his return. Soon they would be together.

The choppers departed and silence came. Private Ramirez cleared his eyes from the smoke and debris and saw his remaining brothers-in-arms alive, guns in hand, peering into the smoke. He looked to the heavens and thanked a God he had not talked to in some time.

*

Sirens blared near the 7th Street onramp to the Interstate 5 Freeway as the firemen ripped away at the mangled metal trying to remove the lifeless bodies inside. It was just after sunset on a hot summer’s night.

In a reported attempt to avoid the oncoming semi, Edmund Ramirez Sr. lost control of the small Hillman sedan. The wheels locked and the car rolled. The roof ripped off. Bodies flew and smashed into the concrete.

Ramirez, a stout man, freshly turned sixty, hunched over the steering wheel still. He grasped it with stubborn might, exerting his last force of energy on the broken vinyl steering wheel.

Just outside three others were spread out. Hilda, a young mother, and her son Anthony Jr. were both dead. Valerie was found wandering the freeway.

On the backseat floor lay a woman nearly sixty.

“She’s alive!” cried a fireman.

Unconscious but breathing, she was rushed to the hospital, alone.

*

Several weeks after the firefight and the gunships that saved his platoon, still fighting in the bush, Private Ramirez heard radio chatter.

“Only him?” asked the sergeant.

“That’s right. We’re coming to pick up Bravo. He’s coming out.”

Ramirez and the Sarge looked at each other.

“We are in the middle of a firefight — not advisable, over.”

The voice on the radio insisted.

“Bravo is coming out…relay your coordinates, over.”

The Sarge turned to Private Ramirez. “Get your gear.”

Ramirez thought, “I still have two weeks left before my discharge. Why in the hell are they going to pull me out now?”

An hour later, Private Ramirez was back at headquarters, feeling thousands of miles away from the battle zone. A green captain’s jeep awaited his arrival.

“What’s going on?”

“Orders,” the driver answered. “I am to take you over to the Chaplain’s office. That’s all I know. Where’d you come from?”

Ramirez was soaking wet and covered in mud.

“The battle field.”

They passed the familiar rows of Quonset Huts. Chow halls and offices were busy. They passed the bar where Ramirez and his friends went to drink Brown Derby Beer. Off in the distance a mail plane flew in for the daily drop.

A short while later he was in the chaplain’s office.

Captain Crowell had spent months in the field with Ramirez’ battalion earning his service medal badge.

“Sit down, son.”

Private Ramirez sat.

“There’s been an accident back home.”

*

Five years later, Louis Ramirez sat at a desk at home. He now attended the local community college after work and was doing homework. The house was dark and only the desk light illuminated. His wife and daughter were asleep. The clock ticked.

As he was writing, drops of water began to hit the paper. He was confused. His mouth dried. His throat balled up. He shook. Fits of crying overwhelmed him. Tears hit the paper, drenching it. Their sound grew louder. The drops resembled muffled shots of M-16s. He closed his eyes. He was lost.

He had stepped back on American soil less than twenty four hours after leaving battle in Vietnam. On the tarmac, his brother Eddie, brother-in-law Tony, and friend Dan hugged him.

On the ride to the hospital they bombarded him with details of the accident. He wasn’t sad. A year in the bush had left him numb. His mind began to drift. All he wanted was to share stories from Vietnam. When he responded, the only words he spoke were of war.

At the hospital, his mother was in a sling, bandaged from head to toe, her back broken. She was conscious.

“Mother, I’m home.”

She wept.

At the funeral parlor they rolled out two caskets from the freezer.

His father lay in a casket wearing a black suit and tie; in another lay his sister holding her young son in her arms.

They were like every other dead body he had seen while roaming the Vietnam countryside. Scenes of the war flashed through his head. He remembered every encounter, every skirmish and battle. He was devoutly Catholic but he recalled desperately wanting to kill the enemy. … “Die motherfuckers!”

Now he stared at the faces of his dead father, sister and nephew and thought, “This is what I deserve.”

He tried to cry but found he could not.

So for five years he barely spoke of what he’d seen in Vietnam. It remained with him as he married and had a daughter and found work as a janitor and attended night school.

Now, late at night, his wife, awake, came into the room.

“What’s wrong?”

“My family is dead!”

He continued to sob.

“What?”

“My father is dead. My sister is dead. Little Tony is dead. They are all dead!”

He continued to cry. He tried to stop but found he could not.

____

Andrew L. Ramirez (Two Trips Home) is an aspiring author and speaker. He is happily married and is the father of three beautiful girls. He was born and raised in Northeast Los Angeles. He recently published The Adventures of Alex and Andi, a children’s book series. He hopes to connect with families around the globe as he shares his true stories about his real family.
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By Brian Rivera

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]t was around 6:30 a.m. when I heard a knock on my window. It was Ernesto.

“They took Ulises.”

He had a look that woke me instantly.

Ulises and I met seven years ago. I was a senior and he was a sophomore at Garfield High School. We shared the same immediate group of friends. Eventually, we forged a brotherhood that made us inseparable.

I met Ernesto outside my apartment and went to Ulises’. We found the house door unlocked. There were half-filled plates on the table and the sink overflowed with soapy water. The burners beneath the comal glowed red, like embers from a waning fire. The door led to the kitchen, where we heard a clicking sound. It was a pot. Although the flame was off, the vapor inside struggled to pry the lid open, like a mouth of steel snapping at us.

We went back to my house and called the rest of the guys.

“They deported Ulises.”

A week went by. Then, one day a phone call.

“Diego. It’s Ulises.”

“Ulises! How are you? Great to hear from you.”

“Same here. Sorry I didn’t call you right away.” He sighed heavily.

Image for Story“What happened?”

“It’s all a blur. At daybreak, men rushed into my room, guns drawn, in search of a criminal. They searched my room and told me to get dressed. Moments later, I was escorted into a white van by agents armed with automatic weapons. No questions asked.”

I asked how his family was.

“In shock. We lived in our house for over twenty years and never had a problem. We feel lost.”

“How are you?” I asked.

“ I wake up believing I’m home, in East L.A. I may not have been born in the United States, but I was raised there from the age of three. It’s my home.”

Neither of us said a word. Ulises’ breathing was the only thing I could hear.

“We’re going to try to cross again this week,” he said.

We communicated daily after that. Having failed to cross twice, his family was going to attempt to cross a third time, he said on one phone call.

After a deep sigh, he continued.

“I wanted to ask if you guys could pick me up? I can cross back with you.”

I thought about it. Maybe, when crossing the border, a couple of us could pretend to have lost our I.D in our drunken stupor?

“Let me talk to everyone and we’ll go from there. That cool?” I said.

Days later, the guys and I gathered at our friend Salvador’s to discuss what we could do for Ulises.

“What would happen if we were caught?”

“I don’t know.”

Luis suggested he could lend his I.D. and birth certificate to Ulises. They looked nothing alike, but we had no choice.

Ulises called the next day.

“We’re coming to get you,” I said.

“What? Serious? Thank you for doing this for me. We can do this, Diego. Meet me inside the McDonald’s near the border. You won’t miss it.”

***

We met at Luis’ house around 8 PM the next night. We took two cars and headed south on Interstate 5. I rode shotgun in Luis’ car with my brother, Justin, and Oscar in the back seats. Alex drove Ulises’ blue 87’ Ford Explorer. He took Salvador, Gabriel, Marcos, and Ernesto.

“How are you guys feeling?” I asked.

“Nervous.”

“You guys are going to be okay, manito,” Oscar reassured me.

I called Marcos, who was in the other car.

“How you feeling?”

“Good. Excited. It never occurred to me, but it’s the first time we leave the country as a group.”

“Let’s go over what we are going to say once we reach the border one more time.”

“Tell him to relax,” I heard Alex say. “We know what to do. You don’t have to keep lecturing.”

We stopped at a mini-mall in San Ysidro. Blocks away, were parking lots for individuals who preferred to walk across the border. Oscar stayed with Luis. Luis handed me his birth certificate and his California I.D. I gave him a hug. He gave me his blessing.

“What are you guys going to do for four hours?” I asked.

“We’ll see.”

“Be careful.”

“Go bring him home.”

We crossed through a rotating door made of metal cylindrical bars surrounded by concrete walls lined with gleaming barbed wired.

Tijuana oozed of liquor, tacos, piss, McDonald’s fries, and burning trash.

We found Ulises within minutes. I greeted him last.

“Let’s find a bar and have some drinks.”

We walked over to Avenida Revolución. After walking past a few nightclubs, we went up a flight of stairs and into a crowded bar. We sat at a table near the balcony overlooking the avenue. A short man with a face like red leather walked up carrying a bottle of Cazadores tequila. He wore a tejana and blew a whistle that hung around his neck. He approached our dimly lit table and slowly began to tilt Marcos’ head back. With his whistle, he kept time as he poured Marcos a mouthful of tequila.

Our table roared. When he was done pouring the shot, he shook his head and blew his whistle. As the man finished pouring shots of tequila, we asked for the bill.

The mysterious man walked away, an arm around his bottle, blowing his whistle to the rhythm of Pitbull’s “I Know You Want Me,” which was playing for the third time that night.

I sat next to Ulises.

“You okay?”

He gave me a weak smile.

“I’m in disbelief. I went from working eight hours a day, to having nothing. Instantly. No money. No clothes. Nothing. Luckily, we managed to contact relatives who lived in Tijuana. Mind blowing how one minute you are immersed in the comforts of your own home and next thing you know, you find yourself wandering the streets of an unknown city. The reality of my situation is difficult to accept.

“I look out my window and expect to see the downtown L.A. skyline. Instead, I see hills littered with homes made of tin and aluminum.”

We continued to talk and drink.

An hour later, we gave a toast and made our way out back onto la Revolución.

“One more drink somewhere?” I suggested. But from the looks on everyone’s faces, we were ready to go. We took taxis to the border and found ourselves in front of a billboard that read:

“Welcome to Tijuana: A Well Behaved Tourist Is a Welcomed Tourist.”

We walked toward the glass doors. Inside the crossing zone, we were suddenly alone. We expected a room full of people crossing too, but the corridor was empty.

“Go immediately after me,” I told Ulises. “And put this on.”

I gave him a black shirt with the image of President Obama on the front. Beneath Obama’s face was the word “HOPE.”

We were met by a row of solitary cubicles. Border patrol guards beckoned us to approach them. I walked toward the nearest guard with Ulises and Mario close behind. He was an elderly man whose wrinkled face resembled a Chinese Shar Pei. The creases on his uniform shirt were impeccable. He glared at me as I handed him my California I.D.

“And what was the purpose of your visit to Mexico?”

“Pleasure. We came to eat and drink, sir.”

“Here you go,” he said, handing me my passport. I expected Ulises to follow, but Salvador went next.

“You look young. How old are you?”

“Seventeen, sir.”

Salvador handed him his passport.

“What school do you go to?” the agent asked.

“Schurr High School, sir. In Montebello.”

The agent stared at Salvador, holding his school I.D. between his index and middle fingers.

“SURE you do,” he chuckled and allowed Salvador to pass.

I saw Ulises lay Luis’ California I.D. on the counter.

“Go ahead,” the old guard said, and with that Ulises crossed back into the United States.

While Alex delegated with the border patrol agent over not having brought what constituted proper identification, everyone’s eyes met, radiating like madmen.

But we suppressed it as we walked towards the mini-mall and found Luis and Oscar. Finally, we burst out laughing and jumping around. Marcos and I began to drum on the roof of Luis’s car.

“Let’s go home, you guys.”

The night was dark and cold. We got into our cars and pulled out onto the freeway, heading north.

“Where are you staying tonight?” I asked Ulises.

“Not sure.”

“You can stay at my place,” offered Luis.

“Thanks.”

“Stay as long as you like.”

“At least until my family comes back,” Ulises said.

Luis and Oscar began recounting what they did in San Ysidro. I turned and looked at Ulises. He was smiling, as he peered out the back window. Then I saw his smile slowly fade, along with Tijuana in the rear view mirror.

____

 Brian Rivera was born and raised in East L.A., where he still resides. He received his B.A. in English from California State University, Los Angeles. He spends his time playing music, chess, fútbol, eating and travelling.
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By Olivia Segura

[dropcap1]T[/dropcap1]he wooden mess hall was filled with the warm smells of coffee, eggs and bacon. Over 300 workers from Mexico filled up on breakfast for the long day of harvest. The bell rang. They grabbed their sack lunches and jumped onto trucks that took them to the almond and plum fields.

Miguel had arrived at the labor camp in May, a month prior to his 18th birthday. A year before, news filled his village in Mexico about the agreement between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mexican President Miguel Avila Camacho to bring Mexican workers north to rescue U.S. crops from spoiling during World War II.

With a handshake, Miguel pre-sold thirteen bushels of wheat for thirteen silver coins from his father’s farm and ran away from home. He got to Mexico City and camped out at the Estadio Azteca coliseum with thousands of men waiting to be selected to become Braceros, farm workers sent north to help save the crops and feed millions of U.S. soldiers. Weeks later, he was put on a train with hundreds of men headed north. They arrived in El Paso, Texas switched to U.S. trains escorted by the Air Force and continued to California.

He arrived in the town of Colusa in 1943. That year Mexico sent 64,000 men to help the United States. As newspapers in New York and Los Angeles ran headlines of the war — “Allies Reach Palermo” and “Germans Fight to Stave Off Doom” – out in Colusa the local papers reported daily on the Braceros’ progress:

“170 Mexicans Here by Friday” and “Mexican Labor Pours into Colusa, 650 in Sight.”

Colusa County built housing at the fairgrounds to welcome the men. With retired Army Captain Herbert in charge of the Growers Association Labor Camp, the men learned army protocol. Years later, Miguel would still make his bed military style and talk about how he and the other Braceros served as soldiers in the war effort.

The day Miguel received his first paycheck he walked out to the road. Within fifty feet of the camp’s gates a man stopped to pick him up. No bracero, he learned, ever spent much time walking on the main road without someone offering a lift. Miguel and the driver greeted each other. Neither spoke the other’s language, so they sat, smiled and nodded. The man dropped him off in town.

On Market Street, the local newspaper snapped photos of the Braceros. “These young and swarthy Mexican huskies have just been fitted at the J.C. Penney company store, healthy enthusiastic and ready to go,” read one caption.

Miguel walked into a store and with the help of gestures to a sales person he bought underwear, socks, shoes, a shirt, a hat and his first pair of Levis. He put the clothes on in the store. He smiled at his new look, gave the cashier five dollars and got change in return. He threw out his worn clothes and walked on to Market Street.

Miguel was full of hope and proud of his decision to leave home. But the work on the fields was rough.

In August, three months after their arrival, his group was sent to a field covered with trees bent under the weight of almonds begging to be picked. He and the others put their lunch sacks aside and placed large tarps under the trees. Miguel picked up a rubber sledgehammer and hit the tree trunk. Almonds stormed down like hail. Workers scooped them off the tarp and packed them into metal bins.

They moved row by row as the sun beat down.

The heat reached over 100 degrees when the whistle blew at noon. The men grabbed their lunch sacks and sought shade under the trees. Miguel pulled out an apple and admired it before taking a bite. He had never seen such a huge apple. Next he began to eat the sandwiches. They tasted odd, so he did not finish them. The break ended and the men returned to harvesting the burdened trees.

Two hours passed. As he worked the sun pierced his eyes and he began to feel light headed. Now cold sweat ran down his face. His stomach cramped and the ground beneath his feet turned rubbery. He looked out to the field. All over men held their stomachs. Others bent over vomiting and some sprawled on the ground.

The foreman ran back and forth yelling orders. Miguel was pushed into a truck full of sick, disoriented men. As they moved through the roads he fought the urge to vomit. Every bump and turn felt like a kick. He heard the blaring sirens and the roar of passing trucks. He tried desperately not to lose control.Image for Story

That day 105 braceros took violently ill in the fields and packed the two hospitals in Colusa County.

Men were treated on the floor of every corridor, x-ray room, waiting room, and ward of the rural hospitals. Only two doctors were on duty. The nurses, Red Cross and town volunteers joined to help the men. A handful of locals spoke Spanish and ran from patient to patient interpreting for the medical staff.

The sound of his thumping heart filled Miguel’s ears. He was able to walk and moved through this chaos. He did not understand. He left home, went hungry and homeless to get to the United States. When he registered in Mexico City he was told that he would be serving his patriotic duty saving crops to fight the enemies of the Americas. Now he and his compatriots were poisoned. He found an open door and ran.

Years later, he would not remember how he traveled miles to a nearby camp. But he found a shower and opened the cold valve. The water felt like a storm. He stood there washing the toxins from his body in a panic. The room grew dark as the sun went down. Still, he stayed in the shower, and went in and out of delirium for hours.

Then a voice.

“Son, are you okay?”

A grower took him back to the main labor camp. When they arrived Miguel saw men congregating in front of the mess hall as police and county officials investigated. Those in charge only spoke English.

The braceros understood very little. They talked among themselves trying to make sense of the situation. Some talked about deserting and going back to Mexico. Miguel learned one of the men from his home state had died. He heard of others near death.

Officers escorted Asian mess hall workers to waiting police cars. Rumors spread that the workers were Japanese and had intentionally poised the Mexicans to sabotage the War Food Program. Over a third of the men were in the hospital. Those at the camp refused to eat and did not sleep much that evening.

In the newspaper the next day, the headline “U.S. Forces Raid Japan” shared space with “105 Mexicans Victims Food Poisoned.”

This was Colusa’s first large emergency. State and federal representatives investigated the cause of the poisoning. The official statement was that the outbreak was due to excessive heat combined with a lack of refrigeration for the hundreds of lunches served.

The Mexican government sent a representative to address the fears of the Braceros and ease tensions between the growers and workers.

The California Department of Public Health recommended an immediate change in food distribution to laborers. No deaths were officially reported but Miguel never saw his paisano again and the Asian workers never returned.

In the days that followed, announcements in the papers urged the community to volunteer. The mass food poisoning had depleted the harvest crews. There was no time to lose. The plums were ripening fast and would spoil. The growers had been counting on the Mexicans to rescue the crops, but many of the workers were still recovering. Townspeople turned out to run the dehydrators and drying yards to produce prunes out of the fruit.

Captain Herbert assigned Miguel to the plum fields. Layers of scattered fruit and branches covered the fields. Strong winds had blown much of the fruit to the ground.

Still weak from the food poisoning, Miguel knelt slowly and began picking up each piece of fallen fruit and placing it gently in the bin. Into the night, he and the other able-bodied Mexicans harvested the fruit.

And so, with their work, as they’d promised, the braceros saved the crops in Colusa.

____

 

Olivia Segura was born in San Jose, California to immigrant parents from Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and lived, studied and worked in Mexico City for several years. She took the TYTT workshop to begin documenting her father’s life.
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By Julio Navarro

[dropcap1]S[/dropcap1]treet vendors, food stands, and nightly dances were what they were raised on back in Mexico. Ivette lived in Northeast Los Angeles, and visited her sister occasionally. The two would go shopping in the strip malls and boutiques and dine at the mom and pop restaurants.

One Saturday afternoon, the two sisters were walking through downtown Fontana. They were both in their early twenties, and although they were married, they enjoyed being independent.

That day they came across a psychic’s shop. Alchemist suns and moons hung inside the shop’s mirrored façade. The strong smell of incense greeted them at its doors. A hand-painted sign announced that they could have their palms read for ten dollars.

They stepped inside. Candles lit the store. Diagrams of human hands were framed on the walls. At the center of the shop was an altar to “La Santa Muerte,” a spirit known as the Lady of the Holy Death, and who in Latin culture has become a saint to some, and an evil spirit to others.

They were greeted by a middle-aged man. His name was Marcos Uribe, and he claimed to be a spiritual reader from Central America.

Marcos read palms, predicted futures through tarot cards, and did spiritual cleansings with herbs and natural elements to fight off evil spirits who haunted unfortunate victims. Ivette had her palm read first, and Marcos told her of her personal and spiritual life. Then he moved on to Maria. He spoke to her kindly. She was weak spiritually, he said. He did not provide many details, but my aunts in the end were content and moved on. They left the shop and that night Ivette returned to Los Angeles.

Maria lived with her husband, Hector, in a two-room apartment, and she would remain home alone throughout the afternoon and night when he was at work in a welding factory.

Once Ivette left that night, Maria’s apartment felt strange.

She noticed small fingerprints on the furniture. She was certain they weren’t hers, and they seemed to be those of children, which she didn’t have at the time. She wiped them off and continued with her housework. But they continued reappearing. She went to sleep, assuming her mind was playing tricks on her. Things got worse.

She slept alone for a few hours, as she always did when her husband worked nights. But she sensed an immense amount of unnatural activity around her. The bed shook throughout the night, and the door opened and closed. By now she was truly afraid. She tried to get to sleep and eventually did, but awoke with nausea the next morning.

That morning, Hector went out to buy her medicine. The nausea had come unexpectedly, and she wondered what was responsible for it. After cooking and cleaning, she spent most of the afternoon talking with neighbors. Her nausea had faded by then, but the sense of something disturbing lurking in the apartment had not. She believed it was all in her head, and had forgotten her visit to the palm reader.

Night came, and as she went to bed, she made sure to lock the bedroom doors. She left the radio on to provide comforting background noise and went to sleep. A few hours later, she woke to an intense shaking of her bed. Then everything began spinning uncontrollably. The room became cold, and my aunt felt a horrible chilling sensation around her neck. She couldn’t tell if this was some nightmare, or if it was really happening. It seemed to last for minutes. Once she was fully conscious, everything stopped. She grabbed a rosary from inside a drawer, and prayed herself to sleep.

She recounted her experience to her husband the next morning. Hector was skeptical of the paranormal, but he took her back to Marcos’ shop. She told him what had happened. Marcos explained that on her previous visit, malevolent spirits may have caught hold of her, and followed her. Witch doctors believe the spirit of a deceased person can remain here on Earth. These spirits of evil beings are “damned,” and not allowed to step into the afterlife. They haunt places, and people, as well.

A spiritual cleansing might solve the problem, he suggested, but he was missing essential herbs. They were coming from Honduras. He told her to look for a spiritual leader, such as someone involved with the church, and ask for assistance in the meantime.

The couple spent the rest of their afternoon in downtown Fontana, and Maria experienced no paranormal activity.IMG_0605

The following day, Maria went to the Catholic Church she attended regularly. She spoke to a priest about her troubles, and he agreed to send someone skilled in these practices to her home. The next day, a priest named Father George arrived. He said prayers, and placed blessed rosaries, miniature figures of Saints and holy water around her apartment, claiming it would fight off the demonic spirits.

Everything seemed better from that day on. Maria returned to Marcos to receive a spiritual cleansing two days later, and she felt as if a huge weight was lifted from her. There were fewer strange occurrences in her apartment from then on. But she occasionally heard whispers, leaving her with the notion that the spirits were not gone. The whispers were of women, yet their voices were so low they were difficult to understand. Sometimes there would be laughter among those whispers. Sometimes groans.

At times she would continue to have frightening nightmares, in which ghosts pulled at her bed sheets and threw objects around the room. But this happened less frequently than before. Once she had her first child, she noticed that when she slept in the same bed with him, there was no paranormal activity. When she did not, she would occasionally hear the spirits whispering.

In 2007, five years after the paranormal activity began, the family moved to La Puente. Maria believed the spirits would remain in her old apartment, but they followed her. Now they would only whisper, and sometimes play with the doors of their new home, but they never disturbed anyone other than Maria. She was never harmed physically.

Today, years later, Maria continues to attend church and prays regularly. She is no longer in contact with Marcos, and the shop closed long ago. Her bond with Ivette remains strong, and the two see each other at least once a week. Though Hector has never experienced anything unordinary, he stands by her, and listens to her experiences.

Maria has come to live a happy life in America. She now has two sons. She takes them to school, and has them enrolled in swimming and youth football and guitar lessons. Maria works as a cook for Olive Garden six days a week.

Yet, as she does, she is fully aware that she remains haunted by the spirits.

____

 

Julio Navarro  is a student at James A. Garfield High School in East L.A. He enjoys writing, sketching, and chowing down at the local taco trucks. Though unsure of what the future has in store, he plans on attending college this fall, and continuing to develop his skills as a writer.
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By Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]t was a cold dark morning and somewhere out in the Sonoran desert the Tres Estrellas de Oro bus I had boarded hours earlier in Tijuana came to a halt, the motor switched off. It was 2:30 AM.

As the only gringa onboard, I had to exit the bus, alone, and go into an immigration office; a rickety wooden shack big enough to fit two desks and folding chairs. Inside the shack, two disheveled, yet intimidating Mexican immigration officers sat like vultures waiting for something to happen. I stumbled off the bus, my heart thumping. This is it, I thought; I’ve been caught.

It was 1968. I was 16 and running away from home. With suitcase, sewing machine and two guitars in tow, I was headed to Guadalajara to become a child bride. Back home in Studio City, my mom was realizing I was gone. I was the last of four siblings living at home; my rebellious nature was wearing her down.

That previous summer, she had sent me to study at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Guadalajara, where I met Oscar. Magic was in the air with muralists up on their scaffolding, sculptors welding abstract forms in the garden, and folklórico dancers kicking up dust in the central patio; the thought of returning to the San Fernando Valley – the place where I’d grown up – depressed me. I, a precocious and rebellious teen, was a misfit and needed room to breathe and grow. The linear grid of the San Fernando Valley stifled me; the orange groves turned into track homes felt sterile. My classmates at the time were heavily influenced by the drug scene and frequently dropped LSD before attending classes. I preferred boys. But sneaking out my bedroom window at night to meet up with friends, mostly guys, was no longer an option; I kept getting caught and grounded. Being a good little girl never came easy. The friction between my mom and me became unbearable.

Earlier that day, I barely passed the scrutiny of the American immigration officials. Their questions came at me like machine gunfire. How old was I? Why was I alone? Where was I going? Why Guadalajara? Who did I know there? Had I visited before? I bluffed my way through, using my sister’s name. She was twenty-five at the time. I had come across her birth certificate just before leaving Los Angeles and had brought it with me just in case. When the U.S. officials emptied the contents of my purse and came across a letter from Oscar addressed to me, it prompted them to question why I had two different first names. The thought of being caught and sent back made me sweat and shake. My voice quivered as I lied. But they let me through and I made my way across the border into Tijuana where Oscar was waiting for me.

At this point my mom hired a detective to look for me. He had been an L.A. cop, trained to find runaway kids. He failed to come up with any leads since I misled them by leaving clues on our phone bill so they’d think I went north instead of south. I also created a fake diary, purposefully left behind with notes about how much I desired to go up to San Francisco. It was the late 60s when the counterculture movement was in full swing. It never occurred to my mom or the detective that I’d do something as crazy as crossing the border illegally, risking so much just to go back to Mexico.

But my friend Kathy, who I’d met in Guadalajara, was still in L.A. visiting her mom, and she became an accomplice to my getaway. I was grateful she could translate the letters from Oscar; his English was worse than my flawed Spanish. So I communicated with my husband-to-be through an interpreter and thus we knew little about each other. We had no clue if we shared interests or basic values. There was very little time to become acquainted with each other’s quirks and habits. Nor was our nine-year age difference a consideration.

That day in mid-September, Kathy showed up as planned. She picked me up from North Hollywood High in her rickety VW bug, 15 minutes after my mom had dropped me off. It was meant to be my first day of high school. I never stepped foot on campus. From there she dropped me at the house of another friend, who drove me to the border two days later.

While some girls my age were preparing for their Sweet Sixteen parties in frilly dresses, I was planning an unlawful international border crossing.

For me, the experience standing in that ramshackle immigration hut was a turning point; a symbolic passage into maturity while still a child. I had fast forwarded into an uncertain future, assuming I’d be better off once I escaped the Valley and a home where I felt invisible. I replaced one challenging home life for another. I married an alcoholic Mexicano, who I later discovered was gallivanting around with other women as I grew plump.

Four months later, while in my third month of pregnancy, I called my mom to let her know where I was. With raised voice, but relieved I was alive, she asked, “How could you have done this to me. We thought you were dead. Where did I go wrong?” But she was a pragmatist, something I later came to admire, and asked me what I wanted to do.

“Get married to Oscar and have the baby,” I replied.

I needed her written permission to do so since I was a minor. She agreed, though she wanted more than anything for me to come home and put the baby up for adoption. On July 21, 1969, during my eighth month of pregnancy, Oscar and I were married. At that moment, Neil Armstrong was stepping foot on the moon; our guests had been watching the moon landing and arrived three hours late.

Later I learned the Catholic Archdiocese in Guadalajara had phoned the local Catholic Church in Studio City. They were able to locate my mom through my cousin, who had coincidentally celebrated her wedding there; they wanted to alert her that I was in Guadalajara. The preparation for my wedding in the Catholic church, required taking catechism classes with an American priest who taught theology assuming I was a university grad student, not a 16-year old high school drop out. I guess I blew my cover. They were double-checking to confirm the legitimacy of my written permission to marry.

So, there I stood before the Mexican immigration officials that next morning after crossing into Tijuana. I turned and looked back. People on the bus, including Oscar, were staring at me. When the officers mumbled “Tarjeta de turista,” even with my limited Spanish I understood. They pushed a pen toward me. I quickly forged my sister’s signature, my hand shaking uncontrollably. That signature – which looked more like chicken scratch – stayed imprinted on my psyche.   The fear of crossing borders haunted me; that shack in the middle of nowhere lingered for years, no matter where I travelled in the world, or which border I was crossing.

But the officers barely noticed, and could not have cared less. They just wanted to go home.

____

 Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek is a proud, native poblador descendent of the city of Los Angeles. She is a cultural anthropologist and has her own business conducting consumer research among mostly Latino immigrants and their second generation offspring. Passionate about writing her memoirs, she hopes to eventually publish these short stories in a book. She paints and plays Persian percussion when she isn’t writing.
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By Louie Flores

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]n the summer of 1973, I was one of the kids who painted the mural in the Estrada Courts housing project in honor of the gang I belonged to, Varrio Nueva Estrada.

That was my last summer in the varrio before my enlistment.

Varrio Nueva Estrada had formed thirty years before by guys who lived in the project in the 1940s. By the 1970s, VNE was very large, one of the largest gangs in East L.A. It included several cliques. Mine was the Dukes. I was 18 years old and the first gang member in my family. I never knew my father. My oldest brother was my father figure. He painted furniture at a factory and was fifteen years older than I was. He was an alcoholic and a very prideful man. His pridefulness must have rubbed off on me. Anyway, my mother used to worry a lot about me. There was a lot to worry about. The gang was like my family. I felt I needed to protect my family at all costs. At the time, the varrio was something I would die for.

The mural that summer was funded by the county, which wanted to beautify the East L.A. area. The fire department donated the paint and the Kiwanis Club lent us the scaffolds. A mural was better than graffiti, they figured, and the neighborhood artist proposed a mural that no one would deface with graffiti. It turned out to be a mural showing how long VNE had been there and how long we were planning on staying. It was pride in the neighborhood, meaning the varrio, the gang.

People who didn’t belong to the neighborhood didn’t have any business in the projects – that’s how we felt. We viewed the mural as a statement to other gangs to stay out; that this is VNE headquarters – all of it funded by the county.

About a hundred homeboys worked on that summer youth program, and the VNE wall mural was the first one approved. After it was finished, other murals were painted. Murals went up in the Maravilla projects, the Hazard projects, in Primera Flats – all on county property with county funding. They all did the same thing we did, which was to glorify our neighborhood, our gang.

The mural takes me back to that summer of 1973. I was drinking a lot and I used to get high on reds and whites. I smoked marijuana a lot, too. I was a follower and I needed to fit in. I got picked at random to help out on a crew of five painters. None of us were artists, but it made a lot of us feel good for a change. The artist, Danny Martinez, directed us, telling us which colors to paint where. He had the whole mural outlined in chalk.

The mural is of two hands growing from a tree stump and holding up the letters V-N-E, atop which stands an eagle with a ribbon proclaiming “In memory of a Home Boy. 1973” – all against a royal blue background.

Back then, gang killings were much less common than they became a couple decades later, and we rarely used guns. One night in 1973, though, we got invited to a party in the Florencia area. One of our homeboys was a kid named Noely who lived a few blocks from Estrada Courts. His parents were Russian immigrants, but he spoke Spanish, grew up with us – a white guy and a member of our gang. He was shot and killed at the party. That set off big problems between us and Florencia for many years.

The mural was painted in Noely’s honor. There’s a banner below that reads, in Spanish: “Que Rifan Todo Las Cliqas del Varrio Nueva Estrada, Que Vivan.” (May the Cliques of Varrio Nueva Estrada Rule. Long May They Live.)

For a month I worked on the mural, painting its blue background and the ribbon across the top. I painted with great care, thinking that it had to be perfect so that the rest of the mural could look nice.

Many years later, I talked to Danny Martinez. He explained that the tree stump represented the years that the varrio had been in the projects. Like a tree, the varrio had grown. The hand represented how we were holding up the varrio to glorify it. The eagle was showing the Chicano struggles in the late 60’s and early 70’s. And the ribbon was dedicated to Noely.

Many younger homeboys were on crews that painted those murals. One who became infamous was Ernie “Chuco” Castro. He was about 13 years old at that time, getting high on reds and whites.

The year before the mural, I was arrested for possession and suspicion of sales, so I was on probation when I turned 18. That year, I was beating up a kid in a park and cops arrested me. I was facing my first felony and my probation officer recommended me to the military. So a few months after helping paint the VNE mural, I enlisted in the Army, which turned me around. When I came back in 1977 I was military minded. I moved out of the varrio with my wife.

Later, after I moved away, I remember meeting Chuco’s ex-wife, Jackie. She told me that Chuco was doing some time and they had kids already. He’d been doing heroin by then. Heroin was an epidemic in East L.A. at the time. A lot of guys into heroin were doing a lot of robberies. I think Chuco got caught up in that.

But I missed it. I was working, driving trucks in the 48 states. So I lost contact with many homeboys. I was no angel. I’d drink heavily for a while. I smoked PCP for a couple years, and gambled.

Then 27 years ago, I just stopped it all. The blackouts got to be too much. I’d come home from the racetrack with nothing. I lost a wife over it. Since then, I’ve been clean, driving trucks, and working on older cars. My second son is getting a PhD in English in New Mexico, so I’m happy about that.

I don’t get over to see the mural too much any more. But when I do, I feel lucky to have gone to serve in the 82nd Airborne Division. I could have ended in prison, or been killed at the rate that I was going. I was sly, sick and wicked and got away with a lot of crimes. I got shot at a couple times, but they missed.

I still run into a few of the homeboys from time to time. One guy, name of Ciclón, was a pretty bad dude then. Now he’s got a bad back. He told me about Chuco. Chuco, he said, had been doing some work for the carnales – the Mexican Mafia. He became a made member. Then, a few years later, he was arrested and, facing life, Chuco became an informant. He testified in a famous case that sent many of the carnales to prison for life.

I hear he’s now in witness protection.

____

Louie Flores was born in 1955 and grew up in East L.A. He went to Belvedere, Our Lady of Lourdes, Dolores Mission and Dacotah Street elementary schools. Then he attended Stevenson Junior High, followed by one day at Roosevelt High, one week at Garfield, about a year at Burroughs High in Burbank and a year at Glendale. His last high school was Lincoln. He started working when he was 17 and bought his first car. It was a 1960 Ford Comet.
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By Eric Franco

[dropcap1]A[/dropcap1]long crackled road runs through a small collection of houses, a village far from any city. The sky above this village is light gray during winter and the fields of green crops are now dry and faded yellow.

On one quiet street sits an orange adobe, home to an elderly couple. He sits at the kitchen table drinking coffee with a crinkled newspaper by his side; she spends her day lying in a bed in the next room.

Margarita has been resting in this frigid room for weeks now. The glow from an unwatched television is the only illumination. She has lived in this house for most of her life, in this farming town two hours from the state’s capital. Opportunities are scarce, and most of the people she knows have left in hopes of a better future elsewhere. Relatives occasionally visit, but Margarita finds herself mostly alone, in the company of memories common to a woman her age.

By closing her eyes she transports herself to another time. It helps distract her from more recent events.

Life has always been difficult here alongside her husband, Sergio, and he’s not making these last days any easier. Excruciating stomach pain, that’s what led to the hospital visit. She learned of her illness from him that day. Beginning to feel ill, she was resting in this very bed when she heard him bickering with one of their daughters.

“You’ve got to come quick, my mother is still feeling really sick!” their daughter said.

“Shut up, woman!” Sergio replied. “The doctor already said that it’s cancer; there isn’t any hope for her!”

His words bruised more than any of his blows, hurt more than his adultery, said more than any of his drunken confessions.

She has been in this room ever since. At the mercy of time.

“It was never part of my plan to come back,” she thinks.

Years before, she had traveled to East Los Angeles. StoryArtA time in her life that shines brighter than any other. She spent an entire year in the United States, and there she was reunited with seven of her nine children. She worked, made her own money, and found a safe haven from the abuse of the man she married at sixteen.

She was not driven there by the promise of money or a better life. She wanted only to attend the wedding of a son, so she spent three days on a cramped bus to Baja California. The journey up north was made easy by the human smugglers who were then abundant in her town. Laura, a woman from her hometown, met her at the bus station. Small in stature, large in confidence, the young Laura was an experienced human smuggler, and that day she was Margarita’s guide.

“Don’t worry about a thing, Ms. Mago. We’ll cross today, stay the night in a house nearby and we’ll leave for L.A. first thing in the morning.”

Margarita ceased trembling. She could already see her children’s faces.

Laura and her group of smugglers had a routine that earned them an admirable reputation in the business. Back then the U.S./Mexico border was easier to cross. Other migrants struggled through hills and deserts; Laura’s expensive services required less physical strain.

At dawn they gathered the small group of migrants at a truck parking lot in Tijuana. Margarita could see Laura’s breath as she gave instructions. They were taken to a less secured part of the border. All it took was a leap over a wall, and they were on U.S. soil. A few minutes’ walk away Laura’s men were waiting in a van. They drove to a safe house in San Ysidro where they spent the night. The checkpoints were the only concern now. But the smugglers had learned what time of day the highways were less patrolled. A few hours later, Margarita was in Los Angeles.

She arrived with days to spare before the wedding. A great number of people attended. She found herself surrounded by relatives she hadn’t seen in years. The grin on her son’s face was unerasable that day. Margarita was awed by her daughter-in-law’s elegant white dress and stared at it with some envy.

“What a difference,” she thought, remembering her marriage to Sergio. They were kids and had been seeing each other for some time, when one day they decided Margarita would move in with Sergio without her parents’ consent. It was a rebellious method of matrimony practiced frequently in Mexican small towns. “Stealing a wife,” people called it.

Sergio waited outside of her school on her last day. She left with him still wearing her school uniform, trading in the life of a student for that of a wife. There was no graceful white dress; no adoring relatives. Together they walked on the dirt path that led to their new life.

“It wasn’t anything like a real wedding, not like this” she murmured. This was heavenly.

She now wanted to stay in Los Angeles. It didn’t matter that she didn’t understand the country’s language, or that her obligations at home would be ignored. All she wanted to do was pursue a more comfortable life here, near her children.

She still prides herself in the job she found: Babysitting children and getting paid quite well for it; much more money than she had seen back home. With the money earned, she’d take the bus down Whittier Boulevard and get off on Ferris Avenue to visit her sister-in-law – Sergio’s sister – one of her closest friends. Together they would go to shopping centers, grab a bite to eat, and spend hours talking.

In East L.A., she was again surrounded by her children who had left Mexico young to find work. She could never hide her pride in them. They worked tirelessly, starting families, and none possessing a single vice. Margarita prepared their meals before they headed out to work, as she had when they were kids. They always appreciated her labor, especially her first born, Daniel. Her connection with Daniel was different than the one she had with the rest of her sons. He was the oldest, and thus the authority figure among his brothers and sisters.

Margarita lived in his house in East L.A. and spent more time with him than with the others.

With her children and grandchildren, she would attend church every Sunday, and go out for a day in the city afterwards. Daniel and the rest of her children were her strength and support, and they continued to be so even after she had returned to Mexico.

She remembers when their existence had kept her alive back in the village. She had heard rumors of Sergio having an affair with another women, so she followed him one day and furiously confronted him at the home of his mistress. Sergio was not ashamed. Instead, in a fit of rage he forced Margarita into his truck and drove off. He shouted obscenities at her as he drove, telling her she had no right to offend his mistress, that she was just jealous of not being a real woman like his girlfriend. Margarita shouted in return. Sergio threatened to kill her. He drove to the isolated hills far outside the town.

“I’m going to end you right here!” Sergio yelled.

“Well, wait until your kids find out, just wait until Daniel finds out what you did to me. Let’s see how you deal with them!”

Sergio stopped the car, froze for a few seconds, forced Margarita out of the car, and drove off, leaving her miles from home.

Years later, in this room in her house in the village, she still thinks of her children, still misses her life with them, far from here.

It wasn’t her idea to come back. Sergio’s phone calls became insistent.

“What are you thinking? You’ve been over there way too long. I need you back.”

Her children asked her to stay, but she gave in to Sergio’s demands. She boarded a plane and headed back.

Now she’s lost track of the years that have passed since she last saw her children.

Her movements on this bed are limited. Each time she shifts, the creaking of the bed echoes through the empty room; but otherwise, it’s silent.

She has taken all the doctor’s medication, but that burning pain that started in her stomach has now spread through her body, and she hasn’t been able to empty her bladder since last night. All she does now is remember.

Then she is roused from her reverie. Footsteps draw near. She opens her eyes. She is no longer remembering but alive in the moment. Shoes scrape the dirt floor. Her door opens and she hears Daniel’s voice.

“Mom, I’m here.”

____

Eric E. Franco Aguilar is a photographer residing in East Los Angeles. His photographic projects have been featured in several literary journals, and explore themes of identity and transnational relations. He is in the process of obtaining his B.A in Latin American Studies.
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By C.J. Salgado

[dropcap1]W[/dropcap1]hen I was in elementary school in East L.A. I would climb atop our rickety garage at night and stare up at the moon, the stars, and space. The roof was flat with a shallow slope. It was perfect for lying on my back. I’d wave a flashlight into space, the beam of light zooming out as far as my imagination would reach.

There I wondered about the world around me. I had grown up in East L.A. and knew not much more. My parents, immigrants, had settled here because my mother was a shopper who dreamed of owning a home and for about $20,000, she bought one.

The only times I ventured away was when my parents would take us on family outings, usually on Sundays after church. Protective, they kept my siblings and me close and warned us about the “cholos.” The garage became my refuge.

Lying atop that garage, I used to think there was a giant “bubble” around my neighborhood and if I aimed my flashlight just right I’d see the rainbow colors as the beam of light pierced the bubble wall. How far away was that bubble? Would it bend my light? Could I pop it? And, if I could, what was beyond?

It was the great physicist Albert Einstein who put that flashlight in my hand. His ideas fascinated me as a little boy. His mysteries of space and time opened my eyes to the light. He had been dead for years, but to me he lived on in books. I read all the English books I could find on him. When I could find no more books at school, my father would take me to the East Los Angeles Public Library for more.

How I settled into this path is a mystery to me now. I was learning English as a second language. Early on in my schooling I was assigned a seat at the back of the classroom; I felt like an outcast, but it also drove me to daydream a lot. As if to mollify my loneliness, I found and reveled in inspiration from El Genio.

Staring at so many stars outside of that bubble, I felt as overwhelmed as the inhabitants of Lagash, a fictional planet in Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, one of my favorite science fiction short stories, because it played on Einstein’s ideas of gravity and light. Their planet experienced unending sunlight because of multiple suns, so the night was unknown to them.

When night finally comes, due to a quirk in the orbit of one of their stars, like me, they discovered the glittering night sky. Unlike me, though, they succumbed to “star madness” at the realization of the infiniteness of space.

Mad or not, I just opened my eyes wider and remembered what Einstein said:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed.”

I knew what he meant. I felt so little then, beneath the vast night sky atop my garage. But Einstein’s genius was my telescope. His ideas took me away, far beyond the bubble. He showed that a tiny amount of matter could create an enormous amount of energy. Yes, E=MC2 meant that even this little boy’s few atoms were plenty poderoso, a power I found liberating and expanding.

If I could ride a ray of light, I would see amazing things. I could slow time and grow massively bigger! “Woohoo!” I’d yell as I stretched out my short arms and pointed the flashlight towards the vastness of space.

Back on earth, one of my classmates, Rosario, a smart girl with dark, straight hair down to below her knees, and round glasses, would often tout all the books she read. Secretly, I tried to keep up with her, but she usually beat me. My ego had long capitulated to Rosario. Had I known back then what I know today, that little girls tend to develop reading skills earlier than boys, it would have saved me a lot of grief.

Instead, to add sal to the wound, one day she put a book to my face exclaiming she had read it all in a single day. It was about Einstein! She even went as far as to claim, based on her reading that one book, that Einstein was not really the greatest thinker of physics of the 20th century and his ideas on space and time could be attributed to the work of earlier physicists. Newton, Planck, Maxwell, she went on, were the real geniuses.

My face turned rojo and I sizzled with coraje at her blasphemy! I prayed that Einstein would send me a sign to prove her wrong.

“I don’t see what all the fuss is about Einstein,” she said. “It’s much ado about nothing.”

“Yes, earlier great thinkers came up with important ideas,” I told her. “But Einstein put them all together in a way that was so special and so new. He really was a genius.”

“No, they weren’t his ideas. And I hate his hair!”Einstein photo

I tried to set her right, arguing with her until azul in the face, but to no avail. She was firm in her conviction and never flinched. She moved on to another book about something else. Sometimes I wondered if it was really just a hair thing between Rosario and Einstein. Regardless, to Rosario, matter closed.

I wish I could say that I was mature enough at that age to move past this traumatic encounter with Rosario. Unfortunately, not only did her words bother me back then, but I’ve also tormented over her “much ado about nothing” since.

Maybe it bothered me because I had come to believe through Einstein that there were wondrous possibilities out there, beyond my bubble. Maybe it was because the mysteries upon which Einstein pondered called to me, too. Or, maybe I didn’t ever want to come down off that garage.

Off of it, I was out of place and burdened by these great mysteries. It wasn’t like I could discuss these ideas with other kids. Rosario was the only one. Back then kids in East L.A. didn’t talk about such stuff. And the only way to “cruise” was on Whittier Boulevard, not in outer space. Our heroes were wrestlers, soccer players, and saints.

Like the other kids in the neighborhood, I too pretended to be El Santo, Demonio Azul, Mil Máscaras, or other favorite masked luchadores. I surely enjoyed when my father took me to the Olympic Auditorium to watch the wrestling matches in person.

But my secret hero was a physicist. So much so that to this day, I even have an Albert Einstein action figure. Friend or not, I wasn’t about to let Rosario undo that. Every time I glance at it, I go back to that garage and back to Rosario.

Her comment was a deep blow to me and to my fancy that I too could bend like light and amount to something more that what was expected of a kid from East L.A.

I stopped talking to Rosario. The years passed and I never saw her again. Eventually, I did come down from that garage for good. It was demolished to make way for a new one that had a gabled roof with a pitch too steep to lie on.

It’s been a long time since I’ve waved a flashlight at the stars. But I did become a physicist. Just goes to prove that a life, like a path of light, can be changed, as Einstein said it would.

Recent scientific findings show Einstein was right all along: “Scientists have discovered what Albert Einstein predicted almost a century ago should exist – ripples in the fabric of space-time,” read the newspaper stories.

Choosing physics was the right path for me. I’ve met Nobel Laureates Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe; studied at renowned national laboratories like Los Alamos National Lab and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center; and I was even invited to the White House as a model “young scientist-ambassador” for a federal energy program.

Yet it’s been a long, lonely journey, too. In high school and college there were but a few, if any, Latinos in my upper physics and math classes. Latinos seemed to view courses on theoretical physics or vector calculus as irrelevant. I felt an outcast as a kid in East Los Angeles.

Which is why Rosario and the way she dismissed my inspiration haunted me for years. I wondered if I’d ever reconcile Einstein and East L.A.

Then one day, I was driving home from work when I glanced to the side and saw him on a mural in East L.A. El Genio was back.

The mural was on the wall of a skate shop called “The Garage.” I pulled over and went in the store. A clerk told me the store does more than sell skateboards and gear. It provides after-school tutoring to underprivileged kids, striving to instill in them an appreciation for academics, as they do their homework and practice skateboarding. These were “high risk kids that don’t know the true meaning of teamwork and didn’t have much interest in school.”

Inside it was like a cross between a sport store and a lounge. Some kids were fiddling with their skateboards; some were admiring the display of trophies won in team skating competitions; and some sat discussing homework with the college students hired to tutor them.

I asked about the mural. They wanted the kids to understand that math and science were ever present, even in the skating motions of these hard-core street riders…a kickflip, an ollie, or an Indy grab. So they had chosen a mural of Einstein to reflect their high expectations that the kids were to “apply themselves in their academics as well as in their skating.”

Outside the shop, I stood and gaped at the mural. I once thought I was alone inside a bubble in East L.A. But outside that store, I was set free. Seeing the mural confirmed what the encounter with Rosario had made me doubt: That, as Einstein believed was true of light, you could bend away from the path you appeared destined to take.

And at that moment, I felt at home at last in the neighborhood where I grew up.

____

C.J. Salgado grew up in East Los Angeles. An avid reader, his first job was working for a library. After serving in the military and going to college, he went on to pursue a professional career in radiation physics. His interest include blogging about issues and events affecting the local community; exploring new places near and afar; pondering novel ideas; and watching science fiction and action movies.
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By C.J. Salgado

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1] was born in Los Angeles, California. My mother was not.

Fifteen hundred miles from Los Angeles, as a pajaro flies, about halfway between Quiroga and Zacapu along Federal Highway 15 in the Mexican state of Michoacán, is the small village of Caratacua. With a hundred residents, it is no more than a brief rest stop on any traveler’s journey.

There is not much to catch the eye of a passerby, except for, perhaps, the fields of wild, pink mirasol flowers. But to me it is a crib of history, the family ranch, on a gently sloping hill beneath an old Jacaranda tree where my grandmother and my mother were born.

My grandfather, Papá Chuché, and my grandmother, Mamá Lola, started a family on that ranch, known as “Xaratanga.” It was named for the Moon Goddess of the ancient Purhépecha people, who inhabit the region and sprung from her seeds. It is where my grandmother resides today at more than 100 years of age.

Papá Chuché, a distinguished-looking man, lived into his nineties. He had a wandering spirit, and made a lifetime of treks into the U.S. He first entered the country under the Bracero program, picking Washington watermelons and Calexico cotton, but eventually he traveled all over the border states.

With each trip north, he left behind a bigger family in Mexico. They didn’t want him to go. But they needed money and when the dollar beckoned, he went, like so many others. Each time he came home our grandmother would exclaim with joy – her pajaro, like a hardy bird on a north-and-south flyaway, had returned to her again.

My mother is the oldest of nine surviving children of Mamá Lola. A sister, Delia, died at one year old from complications of dehydration, but really from the lack of medical care then in rural Mexico.

From Xaratanga my mother watched her father go. She felt deeply attached to Papá Chuché, loved him dearly, and suffered from his departures, if only to herself. Why he left them for months at a time, she did not understand. Yet she clung to the vision of seeing him return once more from each trip, bearing gifts. When he came, she would rush into his strong arms.CJ Salgado story photo

As a child in Xaratanga, feminine clothing caught her eye: garbs of cinnabar, flowery frills, and tender textures. But she would never ask for them. How could she? On the ranch, life was hard; fashion was an unspoken aspiration. Still, Papá Chuché managed to come home from his trips with at least one new dress, a shiny piece of jewelry, or a roll of fabric to set free her imagination.

Each gift, like the red dress he brought her once, was special and made her happy. She reveled in the intricacies and colors of the cloth he carried back for his little girl. That ritual came to be consolation for her father’s recurring abandonments, and part of the fascination with the country that lured him from her.

She still spontaneously mutters, “Cómo recuerdo un vestido rojo de pana que me trajo mi papá!”

There was one gift he brought at times, however, that was never for her: big, odd-looking suitcases. Those went to her mother and with her they remained at the ranch to this day, along with a special sewing machine.

For four years, when she was older, my mother went to the neighboring town of Pátzcuaro to study dressmaking, and learned complex embroideries, “canastillas de bebé” for newborns, and myriad other ways to turn fabric to fashion.

Yet as her father, a veritable charro, mounted his horse and rode away to El Norte again and again, his absence dug a hole deeper than any well outside the village.

Some of his children cried. Some drank. As the eldest child, and a girl, my mother could do neither. Instead, she sang. My mother loved music. When her feelings were strong, her singing was stronger. To this day, the words of the singer Cuco Sánchez fill her home: “Anoche estuve llorando, horas enteras, pensando en ti… Después me quedé dormido y en ese sueño logré tenerte en mis brazos… ”

Other times her grief found comfort in her mother’s cooking. Capirotada de pan Comanjo, torejas con dulce, and sopa de habas frescas.

When Papá Chuché was home, the feasting was special. He was a hunter with a .22-caliber rifle who’d set off into the hills surrounding the ranch in search of game, her younger brothers tagging along. Hunting was not something a girl did – but she would wait for him at the edge of the ranch atop a stone fence. Then he’d faithfully reappear with the boys, an armadillo, taquache, or zorillo swinging in hand.

The glittering hills surrounding the ranch on a clear moonlit night beneath a blanket of stars made Xaratanga appear a magical place. Sometimes at night when her father was away in the North my mother’s grandmother, mother of Papá Chuché, would call her to the patio of the ranch house at bedtime. They would hook their arms together. The old lady would face El Norte, raise a hand and make the sign of the cross, blessing her son – “que Dios lo bendiga …”

There was plenty of work, but none that paid. Her chores were unending. Her arms ached. Even the name of the village – Caratacua – she despised. It was the word for a weed common to the area. The branches of the caratacua were bound and made into brooms for girls to use in their sweeping. She tired of the endless sweeping the rocks from around the ranch house.

Every Saturday, by 6 a.m., she’d pack a burro heavily with dirty laundry and trek several miles downhill to the local springs. On her hands and knees, she would find a suitable rock and scrub laundry against it for the rest of the day. She’d wash each piece and lay it out. By sunset, she’d fold each piece, now dry, and bundle it back onto the burro. The only thing that made her forget her aching arms were her legs as she made her way back up the hill.

My mother would help prepare and carry meals out to her brothers who were harvesting corn in the fields. Like her mother, she’d sling a big basket, a “chunde,” filled with tortillas, beans, nopales, and other favorites, onto her shoulder to take to the hungry boys who from age six learned to work the fields from dawn to sunset. After the meal, the chunde would be filled with the fresh corn. To this day, her love of Mexican corn on the cob, brushed with melted butter and sprinkled with chili powder, cotija cheese, and lime juice, remains.

Still the village could just as easily have been named “Piedras,” she thought. There were so many rocks. The fields were covered with rocks, on the surface and below ground. Some spots were so fertile that anything would grow. But in many places the rocks beneath would impede any root trying to take hold – the legacy of volcanic activity across the eons.

When my mother was a teenager, Petronila and Genaro, longtime neighbors from an adjacent ranch, left in search of work, never to return. So did others. The lifeblood of Xaratanga slowly bled out.

So, the stories her father told of life in the U.S. mesmerized her. She imagined riches for the taking. How wonderful must be this place, California, to prompt a man to leave his family, she thought. There, she was sure, she could buy herself a home in a big city, and a little green car to drive around in forever.

She let herself believe it was so. It was easy to do. Papá Chuché was such a positive man in a trying world, chronically genial.

“Solo los pendejos andan triste,” he would say. Only idiots go around sad.

She longed to find out for herself. She was the eldest child, a woman, and expected to work to help her mother to support her younger siblings. But she needed more than just being needed.

Then one day she remembered her vow and quietly left it all. She walked away in the early morning, aided in her escape only by a younger brother, who promised his silence out of deference to the sister who raised him.

My mother had kept in touch occasionally with a cousin, Victoria, who lived in California and who had once invited her to visit. She pawned her beloved Singer sewing machine and boarded a bus bound for Barstow, buoyed by the hope that her cousin would welcome her. She didn’t tell her cousin she was coming. She’d be there faster than any letter.

When she arrived, however, she learned Victoria had died a few months before of leukemia. My mother pondered her dilemma that first hot night in Barstow. She knew she could not stay now. There was no work in Barstow for her. Her cousin’s family let her stay for the night. But what then? Return to Xaratanga empty handed?

That night, as she fell asleep, she remembered her father telling her stories of a great garment industry in Los Angeles.

With her strong arms, she hugged herself, cuddled into her cousin’s sofa, and imagined the fashion that a dressmaker could create with all the cotton her father had picked.

____

C.J. Salgado grew up in East Los Angeles. An avid reader, his first job was working for a library. After serving in the military and going to college, he went on to pursue a professional career in radiation physics. His interest include blogging about issues and events affecting the local community; exploring new places near and afar; pondering novel ideas; and watching science fiction and action movies.
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By Araceli Lerma

[dropcap1]H[/dropcap1]er hand trembled as she held up the keys to my new home.

She placed them in my hand and clasped her fragile fingers over mine. Her grasp was tighter than I expected. She looked into my eyes and smiled. With that, Nellie Leal transferred her estate to me: a 1912 Craftsman house in East L.A.

She was widowed. Her husband, Charles, had died of Parkinson’s, she explained. She also had this affliction. Mr. Leal was an accountant. He had grown up in East L.A. He worked for a company, but prepared taxes on the side. Mr. Leal, known to many as “Charlie,” was trusted in the neighborhood for his knowledge of tax law.

So now, at age 28, I was moving into my first “real” home. From kindergarten until college, I had lived in government housing we called Maravilla, about half a mile away. The Nueva Maravilla Housing Projects were reconstructed in the late 1970s and consisted of about 500 housing units. The projects were divided into colonias: Colonia de las Palmas, Pinos, Magnolias, Cedros and Rosas. We lived in Las Palmas, in a row of seven houses, lined up side by side along a fire road that led to Brooklyn Avenue, now Avenida Cesar Chavez, across from Belvedere Park.

Maravilla afforded a family of six inexpensive living, in a two-story house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a laundry room. At age five, I was happy to have graduated from a cramped apartment to a house with a front and back yard, albeit small, in the projects. As I grew older, though, the noise from the adjoining units became louder. The rules, established at the outset, which were frequently modified, reminded us we could never get too comfortable there. Annual housing inspections were mandatory. Privileges, such as flower beds below our living room window, could be stripped at any time. Safety concerns – drugs or weapons stashed in the flowers – overrode aesthetics. My mother, who has a green thumb I long to inherit, valiantly razed the gardenias, petunias and bushes we planted. We went along with the program. Maravilla holds many memories, many of them goAraceli Lerma story photood, but early on, it also made me want my own place.

The 2001 meeting between Mrs. Leal and me was set up by the realtors. It was not typical for a buyer to meet a seller, they said, but I gladly accepted Mrs. Leal’s invite. The contract to purchase the house was complete, but I was still nervous about the interview. I dressed conservatively and pulled back my hair, so that my sometimes unruly curls would not distract them. The butterflies of a first date consumed me. What if they didn’t like me?

I walked up the sloped entry of the property onto a long driveway. I climbed the wide steps onto the porch and opened the front door of heavy oak, adorned with six squares of beveled glass. Mrs. Leal was already there with two of her five children and a teenage grandson. She was in her late 70s, petite with straight grey hair and fair skin. We chatted in the large living room with high ceilings, wooden beams and molding. In the study set off from the living room, her daughters showed me the desk where their father prepared taxes. The desk opened out and had compartments for envelopes and stationery, and a built-in pencil sharpener.

“We always said a lawyer should live here,” said the older daughter, Bernadette, “that this could be their office.”

“We use to have huge parties and the DJ would set up right here,” said the youngest daughter, Adelina.

A large, ornate mirror hung on the wooden panels of the study. That was not part of the sale, according to the instructions.

“You can keep it,” Mrs. Leal said.

We continued into the elegant dining room, also with wooden beams and a large buffet. The adjoining kitchen, separated from the dining room by a wall, had been remodeled. They had wanted to expand it and build a breakfast nook. Never enough money. A low-interest community loan had recently paid for paving the driveway and upgrading the plumbing and electricity. The driveway was a dusty road before that and turned to mud when it rained.

Mrs. Leal opened the French doors into the bedrooms, and showed me hers, the corner one. We lingered. She spoke of the “santos” she kept in the bedroom. That later became my room and now it is our guest room. The claw-foot bathtub of the main bathroom was replaced with a modern tub and shower and was moved to the backyard by the Leals. I have since given it away.

We strolled outside, along the driveway lined with pastel roses. Mrs. Leal was from Arizona and grew up speaking both English and Spanish, but she expressed herself excitedly in Spanish when she saw her roses. “Mis rosales,” she said softly as she caressed the petals. “No, tus rosales,” she said, looking up to me. “No, nuestros rosales,” I assured her, holding her hand over the rose. Tears welled in her eyes.

This house — more than 2000 square feet — had been moved from Beverly Hills in two pieces by the prior owner. They called him Mr. Colberg. It used to be a seminary, one of the daughters said. “We have old photos,” said Adelina, promising to give them to me.

Mrs. Leal was moving to Long Beach with Adelina, whose nickname “Lina” is engraved in the driveway concrete. Lina provided me with a forwarding address, and I sent mail there for the first few months. After that, we lost touch.

I recently found Lina online. I called her and we spoke excitedly about the house. She said that she and her sisters still pass by on occasion. I told her that they were always welcome to visit. Lina recalled our meeting years before. She had been worried about her mother’s state of mind about selling the house.

“She changed completely after meeting you,” Lina said.

She was surprised her mother had decided to leave the mirror, a wedding anniversary gift, to me.

Throughout the past thirteen years, people have come looking for the Leals, some recalling this house full of life and Mrs. Leal bringing out plates of homemade cookies. Others remember going there for business with their grandparents, to meet with Mr. Leal. It was the house where everyone gathered for family events, Lina recently told me.

A couple of years ago, in a dusty basement of an L.A. county records office, I searched through huge books containing property tax rolls. For almost 50 years, the signatures of either Charles or Nellie Leal were on the thin, long sheets, and before them, Frank Colberg. I made it as far back as 1918, but the records stopped there. That was probably the year the house was moved to East L.A. It could be from Beverly Hills or, more likely, the Adams District, Santa Monica or Pasadena, where I have seen similar homes. The clerk in the basement suggested I go to the building department in El Monte to investigate further. I will at some point.

This October, it will be fourteen years since I met Mrs. Leal. In that time, many have lived with me temporarily – a sister, a nephew, and friends. My parents were supposed to move in, but decided their needs were better met in senior housing. They live a few minutes away.

This house truly became home with my husband, who put in elbow grease to bring out the original woodwork, our chocolate lab, and now our 4-year old boy who has free reign of the place. There’s lots of space, inside and out, for running, playing, dancing, and gathering with family and friends.

About ten years ago, a woman sitting next to me on an airplane and I exchanged stories about our L.A. upbringings. When describing the house to her, I drew it on a cocktail napkin.

“It’s a sanctuary,” she stated, as I finished the sketch.

“Yes,” I responded in silent surprise.

I learned from a neighbor that Mrs. Leal died a few years after the move.

But I never did change the black mailbox on the sloped entry to the home where the Leal name, while faded, remains.

____

Araceli M. Lerma was born and raised in East Los Angeles and resides there. A graduate of Garfield High School, and Occidental College, she obtained her law degree from U.C. Berkeley. She has been a lawyer since 1999 and now has her own practice. She is grateful for the opportunity to participate in a writer’s workshop at one of her favorite places, the East L.A. library.
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