StorytellingTell Your True Tale

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By Victor Alfaro

________

My friend finally picks me up from the corner. He asks me where I’m going. I tell him I’m going to go rob a bank. He looks at me crazy, says I’m a fool. Anyhow I tell him to take my new 7-year-old son to my Mom’s office and I’ll pick him up as soon as I’m done.

As he is driving down the street, I see a Bank of America.

It’s strange how thoughts come to you out of nowhere. This one in particular came to me while in the shower. It was 2004. I was 31. I was up for several days on meth and drinking heavily for the past month or so. While meditating on the drops of water hitting my head, I decide to go rob a bank and take my son to Tijuana, Mexico to see my biological father – his new grandpa. I had just found out I was the boy’s biological father. His mother and I had been dating again for the past several months. I knew her from the past but only recently we had decided to make sure the boy was mine and we took a DNA test. So now I’m living with them in Los Angeles.

I’ve recently been discharged from parole. This is first time in ten years I am not controlled by the criminal justice system. I no longer have to report to a parole agent. No more monthly drug testing, no mandatory home visits. I take this new freedom as a chance to use drugs uncontrollably and drink like a mad man. Today, my son’s mom is at work while I’m home babysitting.

As I continue to embrace the notion of bank robbery, I get dressed in what I believe to be bank-robber attire: dark grey cowboy boots, blue jeans, pull-over hoodie sweater, dark sunglasses and a burgundy bucket hat. I tell my son to get ready.

“We’re going to see grandpa in TJ.”

He looks at me like a 7-year-old who just learned who his biological father is.

I sit down on my chair and snatch a piece of scratch paper off my desk and write a bank robbery note. At this moment, I really don’t know what’s going on in my head. I don’t have a real plan yet, I just know this has been a boyhood fantasy of mine.

Growing up with my family in the barrio lifestyle of the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles, I lived a crazy life and knew a lot of criminals. One character they called the Paper-Bag Bandit, who supposedly robbed more banks than Jesse James. I never knew his name. But somehow the bandit became my childhood hero.

As I finish packing, unbeknownst to me, my new son also writes a note, this to his mother saying he is going with dad to TJ to go visit his new grandpa and that he loves her and will see her soon.

Meanwhile, I call a friend and tell him to pick me up at the corner of my apartment. My son and I wait. Then I tell him to sit still as I go to the supermarket to steal juice for him and a bottle of vodka for me. That’s what I do, then I come back and give him his juice and fill my red tumbler with liquor.

My friend picks us both up and drops me off at the corner. He’s shaking his head, still thinking I’m kidding. I go into the bank, which has no security guard. As I’m waiting in line, sipping on my red tumbler, I notice the seven-foot Plexiglas between the tellers and customers. When it’s finally my turn, I walk to the teller, smile at her. She’s maybe 19, 20 years old. I slide the note through the small opening in the Plexiglas, which resembles the one from the liquor store in the ‘hood. She takes a look at it, looks at me, then starts to backstep.

“Hey, where you are going?” I say.

She just looks at me and continues to walk to the back of the bank office.

I ignore this and walk out of the bank not really knowing what’s going on. I see a bus stop where a bus stops. I jump in and head down about half a mile. I remember I have a friend who owns a cell phone shop up the street. I walk toward his store and I see a big Budweiser truck. I decide this will be my getaway truck.

I get into the truck. Inside it looks like a spaceship. I don’t know how to start it. I jump out and walk inside the market where the driver is delivering beer and I ask him to give me the keys to my truck. He looks at me strangely and follows me outside.

He starts to chase me around the truck a couple of times. I make sure not to drop my tumbler of vodka as I run. I don’t know what the hell he’s yelling about. He ends up calling the security guard. I brush it off and walk into my friend’s shop nearby. I see his dad. He asks me what’s going on.

“Not too much, just robbing banks. Do you know of any good ones around here?”

He gives me a curious smile.

Then police officers pull up and they grab me. I’m still trying to hold on to my tumbler. They handcuff me and place me in the squad car. I sit there a long time. I notice more police cars approaching. A cop pulls me out and makes me face another cop car parked down the block with a passenger in the back seat.

“We have a positive ID,” I hear over the walkie-talkie.

Now I begin to snap back to reality. I’m escorted to Parker Center — LAPD headquarters. The FBI is here to interrogate me. An FBI agent shows a couple of photos of me inside the bank and asks if I recognize the person. I say it looks like me but it’s not me. As it happens, they didn’t find my cellphone on me when I was searched. When all the officers leave the room, I manage to call my girlfriend despite being I’m handcuffed to the chair. I tell her to call my mom and get me the hell out of here. My clothes are confiscated as evidence and I’m escorted to a single-man cell.

I’m charged with attempted robbery and attempted grand-theft auto. I make the $25,000 bail and fight my case for about a year. Meanwhile, I’m admitted to a hospital to detox and then check into a rehab where I stay until my trial.

My family hires a talented lawyer, who does an outstanding job. I’d been in the system off and on for about ten years by now and I didn’t want to do any more time. I ask my attorney if he thinks we can beat the case and he assures me we have a strong case. I’m offered four years; if I lose in trial, I’ll be facing seven years. I look at my mom and dad and decide to roll the dice and go to trial for the first time in my criminal career. I take it to the box, as it’s known in the jailbird population.

A year passes. Now I’m in trial. It lasts a week. My family is in the audience every day praying to I don’t know how many different saints. My aunt even steals holy water from the cathedral across the street and splatters it all over the entrance of the courtroom. She sprinkles some on the jurors as they pass by when no one is watching.

My mother, she puts a piece of paper with the District Attorney’s name on it in her high heels. Every time the DA speaks, she grinds her heel into the floor for him to get tongue-tied. She also makes me put the twelve apostles in my shoes. I ask her why even pay for a $20,000 attorney? She tells me to shut up we need all the help we can get with your dumb ass.

My grandma prays her rosary, looking at the ceiling, wondering why she even left Mexico in the first place. My uncle, who’s only ten years older than me, has this thing with staring at people with his piercing hazel eyes. He gleams at them as if he’s getting into their minds. He does this to the D.A. and jury throughout the trial. He also thinks he’s Wonder Woman sometimes.

My dad is just trying to keep the peace between my family Justice League and the jury. So what does he do? He gets thrown out of the courtroom. He tries to get friendly with some of jurors in the snack bar. For this, the judge bars him from the courtroom for the remainder of the trial after and threatens him with jail time if he does it again. I think my mom is going to go to jail for killing my dad right there and then.

Anyhow, as we proceed with the trial, I sit in the courtroom in a suit and tie, freshly shaven every day, looking as innocent as possible. The D.A. walks in with a huge poster board and easel. He places it in the middle of courtroom. No one can see the contents because it’s covered. As he begins to address the jury and prompt them on what he calls exhibit D, my heart begins to race and my palms get sweaty.

He turns to the audience, then back to the jury and asks the judge for permission to enter exhibit D. The judge grants this wish. He goes over to the poster board and uncovers it. It’s my banknote. Written in big bold black letters. Looks like a kindergartener wrote it. On a torn piece of a brown paper bag that I get from liquor stores when I buy a forty (ounce beer).

“Please give me all of your money,” it reads, “or i will tickle you to death put the money in the paper bag i have a pisol in my pocket. Have a nice day the paper bag bandit.”

Yes, I spelled `pistol’ wrong. The jurors chuckle. I can’t make out what kind of noises are coming from the audience. My eyes are glued to the judge. This is the first time anyone, besides my lawyer, the prosecutor and me has seen the note. I didn’t even have a paper bag when I robbed the bank. All I had was the big red tumbler full of vodka, and needless to say I had no gun and there is no way I could’ve tickled anyone through that Plexiglas.

The last day of trial. My attorney and the D.A. make their closing arguments. My mother is looking at me like `What was going on in your head?’ My grandmother and aunt are praying the rosary and my grandmother was asking for interpretations. My uncle is glaring at the jury.

The jury goes into deliberations and within an hour comes back. One of the longest hours of my life.

A juror hands the verdict to the sheriff. “We, the people, find the defendant not guilty.”

I hear the gasps from the audience. My lawyer turns to me to shake my hand. I am in a daze.

“You’re a fortunate man,” the judge says. We pour out of the courtroom and go for burritos on Olvera Street. And that’s the end of my criminal career for another six or seven years.

________

Victor Alfaro was born in the inner city of Los Angeles, in the neighborhood of Pico-Union. He is 41 and a full-time student at East LA Community College working on his AA degree. Contact him at victoralfaro6324@gmail.com.
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MexicoStorytellingTell Your True Tale

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By Sylvia Castañeda

________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________

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

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By Celia Viramontes

________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did you work?”

They described the ranch, the beet and asparagus fields.

“Who brought you?”

They described the rancher’s overseer.

At the desk, the official scribbled on paper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

 celia_600x400 (1)Celia Viramontes was born and raised in East Los Angeles, California, the youngest daughter of Mexican immigrant parents. Her public policy research on immigration and education has been published in numerous academic journals and books. Through writing, she delves into the often untold stories of immigrant communities, their aspirations and their struggles. This is her second TYTT story. Contact her at oclaa@yahoo.com.
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CaliforniaFeature Section 2StorytellingTell Your True Tale

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By Monique Quintero

________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________

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