Tell Your True Tale

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By Fabiola Manriquez

________

Years ago, as I was coming out of the closet, the AIDS virus was sweeping through the gay community. Marcus was my best buddy and confidant during these early days of my coming out and he was the first one I lost. A few years later, I lost Ricardo, my then-partner’s brother’s life mate of eighteen years. Then Jerry died, my former partner’s brother.

To raise money for AIDS research, the community organized bike rides running the length of California. Riders numbered in the thousands, starting in Northern California and going for seven days down the state and ending in Los Angeles. I volunteered for the closing ceremonies of the fifth.

The sidewalks were packed. Leading the group were cyclists living with the HIV virus and pushing the empty bikes that represented former riders who had passed from AIDS. Then, to a thunderous roar, three thousand riders and a thousand crewmembers blasted past us with the force of an airplane, raising the hairs on my arms.

Right then, I wanted to be a part of the actual ride. The next year, I volunteered for the crew, collecting the trash that the riders left behind each day.

The year after that I signed up to ride.

I didn’t realize what I was getting into. I had participated in four previous rides for the Los Angeles Marathon but that was only 26 miles. I was an active cyclist. I joined weekend cycling groups that road 25 to 35 miles regularly and attended cycling workshops. Every day I rode from East Los Angeles to my job in San Gabriel. I did that all year, in the rain or heat.

I owned a Specialized Hard Rock 21-Speed mountain bike. It was heavy. In the many months of training, most of the people I trained with had light racing bikes that cost thousands of dollars. My former roommate returned to the military and gave me this bike. I didn’t have much money and I figured that the Hard Rock would do the job.

At that year’s Ride, cycling teams came from around the world. I met riders from Japan, Africa, Switzerland, Europe, Puerto Rico, New Zealand, other states from the U.S. Then there was me, from East Los Angeles. Oh my God, their uniforms were as if they had walked out of a cycling magazine. I, on the other hand, rotated my nice T-shirts and my one Aids Ride #7 jersey that was a gift from my then-girlfriend. But my heart was in it, so I kept on.

Riders are supposed to raise money to participate – $2500 each. I attended fundraising workshops, asked friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances for their support. Students in Catholic school are committed by tradition to fund raise with sales of chocolates, raffles, and other goodies. So I thought I could easily raise the needed amount. But as the ride approached, I found myself with only half the minimum. People told me there was no way I would meet the quota. Some people even laughed and placed bets to see if I would make it. It hurt my feelings but I kept on.

I’d already arranged for travel, hotel, and time off work. The day before our departure, I made my way to my car after work and prayed and had a good cry. After a year of fundraising, I went to San Francisco with only half the required $2,500. That morning, thousands of people in line had envelopes, paper bags, and purses full of money. Now what should I do, I asked my girlfriend Deborah. A rider in front of us overheard my comment. “Make a sign with the amount you need,” he said. “Just walk up and down the line with your sign.”

I strolled the line for an hour and a half with my sign and my bucket. Every few minutes I would hear someone cheer me on as they would shout “Come on, honey, work it – fill that bucket!”

Bills kept flowing into my pint–sized bucket.

“Say hello to Benjamin Franklin, doll,” one drag queen shouted.

“Mr. Grant says hola, hola, coca cola,” said someone else.

I was handed checks and bills, and heard the sound of coins as they fell into my modest vessel of hope.

Finally, I got to the counting table. I wiped my face with a paper towel and put my little bucket of love along with the $1,250 on the tabletop and prayed. It came to $2600. A woman next to me had only $2400. I took out a hundred dollars from the stack of bills and handed it to her.

“Let’s enjoy the ride,” I said. With tears in our eyes, we exchanged a big hug.

It was still dark that morning when we arrived at the starting line — thousands of us. Just like when the DJ at a dance club raises the volume of the music, the noise elevated: chatter, laughter, whistles, drumming, and a couple of tambourines played right behind me. Like a New Year’s Eve party with music, noisemakers, banners, streamers, hugs, kisses, and the media.

We left with thousands of people cheering us on. Loud speakers blasted The Impossible Dream to carry us out on our 575-mile journey.

We rode a quarter mile on the 101 Freeway. Eventually that morning we rode through the countryside.

I had never visited most of the cities that we passed on those 575 miles. I had never heard of Lompoc or Paso Robles. The air was cleaner than in Los Angeles. In some spots, the green hills were so lush it took my breath away. The flowers, bushes, and trees were so bright and smelled so good I felt as though I was dreaming as I cycled mile after mile. There was a brief period on Day Three that I was totally alone, pedaling my heavy Specialized Hard Rock, for about 15 minutes without another cyclist for miles or the sound of a car.

Behind me was only the caboose. The caboose was the very last vehicle, a Nissan Pathfinder monitoring the riders and their safety. They made sure that no one was left behind and that no one was so slow that they wouldn’t finish each day in the time allotted us under our riding permit.

I should be honest and say that the caboose took me into camp on Day One since I was trailing so badly.

On the second day of the ride, I again rode far behind the pack of thousands. The sweet silence and breeze was so peaceful that I felt one with nature listening to the singing birds, bees, squirrels, crickets, and humming birds. At one point, I shouted hello and heard my voice echo so crispy clean that it was scary and exciting all at the same time. My voice carried and the warmth of the sun glazed my body.

Then I heard the beep of the caboose behind me. Again, I was too far behind the pack. I took a deep breath and pulled off the road and shook my head with disappointment. In the caboose that afternoon, I went through cards made from local second grade students with drawings and messages of gratitude and encouragement. It gave me the strength to carry on, even though I was the last rider.

On Day Three, it rained hard. After a long hard ride all I wanted to do was shower and sleep but the cold damp made it uncomfortable to sleep in a tent on the grass with our camping gear. On Day Four, the heat burned us and we didn’t have enough sunscreen to prevent roasting. High winds forced many riders to walk their bikes and a thick humidity made it difficult to breath. To make it even worse, some riders dodged bottles, cans, and trash from people driving by.

“Faggots! Queers! You deserve to die and you are going to hell!”

We heard that enough, but we didn’t stop riding. Religious fanatics shouted as we traveled from city to city. One sign that said there was no space in heaven for homosexuals. Skin heads tried to run a couple of riders off the road as they yelled insults while throwing bottles and cans at them. One night, a couple of drunken fools tried to fight their way into camp as we all slept, but our security handled it.

Because this was a traveling camp, everyone’s gear and tents were transported from site to site daily. We set up after the ride, showered, ate, slept, and prepared to do it all over again the next morning. Masseuses and chiropractors help ease the discomforts when we made it back to our mini village that formed each day.

On Day Three, I finally boarded the recovery bus and felt like I was among soldiers going home from battle. As I walked to my seat I saw riders with incredible sunburn, lacerations, abrasions.

At one point in the ride, I was waiting for a signal light to change in a town we were riding through. A gentleman in drag walked up to me.

“I want to thank you for riding for me,” he said. “It is because of you I am staying alive and can receive my medical treatments and medicine. I love you for doing this.”

We both had a big cry.

Along the ride, thousands of people cheered us on with banners, music, free ice cream, coffee, and donuts. One third-grade class up north near Lompoc made thank-you cards. I still have mine in my photo album.

Through the first days of the ride, though, I could never to do better than last. I was always trailing far behind the pack and near the caboose.

Then on Day Four, I was pulled from the ride.

I had ridden several miles when I felt a sharp pain in my chest and had difficulty breathing. Everyone had to have medical clearance before they could ride. I had mine, but the ride’s physical demands were too much for my little heart. I was pulled out and felt a total failure.

A retired nurse examined me.

“No one has ever died on this event and you won’t be the first,” he said.

They rushed me to the mobile hospital, and from there to the local hospital for an examination. A doctor told me I had to stop riding and rest for a couple of days. I couldn’t help but cry. The AIDS Ride nurse was standing by my bed. He held my hand and said that we would see if I could continue in a couple of days if my health improved. His eyes were also teary.

So I let it all out and had a good cry. Later, I was taken back to the camp and realized that I had at least two days of free time in an isolated area under a tree and there I had another good cry.

By this time of the day, I noticed riders returning. I sloughed off my sad mood and stood at the entrance to cheer them as they arrived. I helped them carry their gear and tents to their spot where they would break for the day’s camp.

Finally, the last day of the ride arrived. We were leaving Ventura County and heading into Culver City. The nurse examined me and cleared me to finish the ride. Of course, I cried again. I ate breakfast then got ready to hit the road. My girlfriend was so happy to see me getting ready but did tell me to stop if I found it too difficult. She gave me a big hug for encouragement and a high five.

“See you at the finish line, Fabi,” she said.

I got my bike and had a private minute alone. I kicked out the bike stand and got on my knees and asked God to help me finish the ride. Then I mounted my Hard Rock and pushed off with a big smile.

But that morning went poorly. I couldn’t keep up with the riders. Again, the caboose was behind me. Finally, I was approaching the rock at Point Mugu in Malibu and struggling up the steep incline. All of a sudden out of nowhere a young woman in her twenties showed up.

There she was, pedaling by my side in full AIDS Ride gear. She told me that the previous year she was exactly in my seat, feeling exhausted and needing a pep talk. She kept coaching me on changing the gears; pedaling and helping me find my rhythm. We finally made it to the top of the incline and moved to the side of the road.

I gave her a big hug and resumed my ride.

Now we came to crowds lining the road. They were cheering us on with banners, with music, honking their horns as we made our way, finally, into Culver City where the finish line stood. I pedaled on, pushing hard, watching the surfers ride their waves.

After several miles, though, I saw the caboose approaching and I knew I was again the last rider and far behind.

“Oh my God,” I shouted, “please let me finish.”

I rode hard for a few minutes.

“We gotta pick you up, Fabiola!” yelled the nurse from the caboose. “Our permits are running out and we are holding back the traffic. We might get fined.”

I was a mile from the finish line. I pressed on, hitting the pedals now with full force. My heart was pounding fast but I kept riding. Somehow, my chest no longer hurt. I had no difficulty breathing. My Aids Ride #7 jersey was drenched with sweat. Now cheers filled the air. Young folks were jumping, seniors were waving their canes, dogs were barking. As I passed, people chanted “Go! Go! Go!”

I was the last one riding.

In a few minutes, the quarter-mile sign appeared. I heard a siren whine. I took a quick glance behind me and could not believe what I saw. Right behind me was the nurse and his partner in the caboose, the ones who took me to the hospital and scooped me up twice. Behind them was an ambulance, a fire engine, and police cars, all with their lights flashing. They were waving cheering me on to the finish line. It felt like the end of a parade.

Thousands of riders had already finished the ride long before. I was alone, the very last one. I could see a sprinkle of the riders cheering me on as they were waiting to see who might be the last rider.

A young man along the route handed me a bouquet of rainbow streamers. Peddling hard, with new energy, I held it high in one hand, like the Statue of Liberty, guiding my bike with my other hand and with tears in my eyes.

The sirens were blaring. The crowd was urging me on. Men, women, and children were jumping up and down, holding each other. Others were cheering with their dogs, some on a leash while others in their arms. Some riders, friends, and family held their faces as they sobbed. I had never seen so many people taking pictures of me at the same time.

Whistles and cheers filled the air and pushed me like the wind those last hundred yards. I rode past the `Welcome Home Riders’ banner and they closed the gate behind me.

I fell off the bike, went to my knees, and sobbed, my body shaking. I told Marcus, Ricardo, and Jerry, `I did this for you.’

After a bit, I looked up. At the gate stood a crowd of people, packed together and crying.

That was a long time ago and a lot has changed since then. I don’t have the bike any more, but I still have the shirt that was once drenched with sweat.

 

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

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By Jessica Gonzalez

________

Little Marvin kicked the can on the sidewalk of the vecindario in Tijuana.

It was a weekday afternoon. The neighborhood kids were at school; the street was deserted.

A colorful object on the ground caught his eye. He picked up a Snow White figurine, a cake accessory, chipped on one side, and examined it in the palm of his hand. Her dark hair reminded him of his oldest cousin, Mimi, back home in Guatemala City. She was 15. She had always looked after Marvin, especially during the last few years when his mother lived in Los Angeles with Mimi’s mother, Marta, who worked as a seamstress. The two sisters dedicated themselves to working and sending money back to the matriarch, Mama Chuy, who looked after Marvin, his brother, and their five cousins with Mimi’s help. Their money paid for the children’s school and a little extra for Mama Chuy to keep; over the years she had enough to upgrade her home.

Marvin loved Mimi like a sister. He put the Snow White figurine in his pocket and returned to kicking the can.

By now, Marvin had been in Tijuana nearly a month. He arrived with his older brother Humberto, his mother Dolly, her boyfriend Eddy, and his mother’s brother, Uncle Edwin, whose sister-in-law lived in Tijuana and agreed to host them.

It was the farthest from Guatemala Marvin had ever been. Two years prior, when he was seven, he’d travelled to Mexico City on vacation with Dolly and Eddy. They visited Teotihuacan, Xochimilco, and other pueblos near the big city. At the time, the D.F. seemed ten times bigger than Guatemala City. Its grand boulevards filled with massive crowds of people and traffic impressed Marvin. After a few weeks on the metro he felt like a local. He enjoyed listening to the Chilangos talking on the metro and thought they sounded funny. Their inflection and intonation sounded as if they were singing a song. They used familiar words but in different ways. Like chamarra. In Guate, chamarra is not jacket; it means blanket. The word for jacket in Guatemala is chumpa. “Y tu chumpa vos?” This made him giggle.

The plan was to stay in Tijuana a few weeks while visas were sorted out for Marvin and Humberto. Then the family would travel together to Los Angeles. Dolly and Eddy already had their own visas. They were both from Guatemala City but met when they were living there. He was a sharp entrepreneur; she was a hard-working beauty. They returned to Guatemala together and lived in an apartment with the boys two years before deciding to return to the U.S. as family. Marvin was nine years old. After two weeks in Tijuana and still no visas for the boys, Dolly and Eddy returned to Los Angeles, leaving Marvin and Humberto in Uncle Edwin’s care.

There was not much to do in the Tijuana neighborhood during the day; no one to play with. His brother was only a year and half older but viewed Marvin as a pest. In Guatemala, Humberto was close with their cousin Ruben; they were the same age and played sports together. Little Marvin was cast out of the older boys’ circle.

On Sundays, Marvin went to the local Catholic Church. After mass they gathered in the church courtyard for lunch prepared by local congregators. It was during Easter celebrations and the quad was littered with cascarones. The eggshell confetti bombs were popular during Easter fiestas. In Guatemala, Marvin was raised in an evangelical Christian church. They did not observe communion nor pray to saints as Catholics do. Their church was a humble room, big enough to fit 30 people. There was musical equipment for the choir to set up in the front and folding chairs instead of pews for the worshipers. Music was an important part of his congregation. They sang passionately and spoke in tongues when the spirit of God moved them. By comparison, the Catholic Church was proud with its ornate décor and statues of Saints and the Virgin Mary. Sometimes Humberto became upset and chastised Marvin for making the sign of the cross when he followed along during mass. Neither of them took communion.

During the day Marvin hung around with Uncle Edwin’s sister-in-law running errands. A highlight was a trip to the tortilleria a few blocks away. It looked like a residence on the outside but inside was a tortilla factory. At one end of the room was a table where a woman wearing gloves rolled masa into small balls then set them on a platform where a machine pressed them flat and slid them onto a conveyor belt. Once cooked, the tortillas were placed on a cooling rack where another woman snatched them up and piled them into a chrome cylinder into one dozen uniform stacks. She then wrapped the stacks in butcher paper, tied them with a string and set them on the counter. While they waited Marvin helped himself to oddly shaped misfits that were offered up as samples served with a homemade salsa.

Every other day for two weeks after Dolly and Eddy left Tijuana Marvin accompanied Uncle Edwin to a local payphone to call Marvin’s mother for an update on the visas. While Eddy spoke to Dolly, Marvin played with the coin return slot inside the phone. He examined the white paper his uncle had laid on the platform of the booth and read the numbers written on it, thinking of his mother.

One evening a man arrived at the vecindario to pick up Marvin and his brother. The boys understood they were waiting in Tijuana until they could cross the border and join their mother but they did not know they would be crossing on their own, without family. Uncle Edwin explained to them that they would cross with a coyote.

“A coyote?” They giggled.

“Coyote is what men who help people cross the border through the desert are called. They are guides.” He explained he would not be with them. They would be on their own. But there would be other people with them and that their mother would be waiting for them on the other side. The boys were ready. They left with only the clothes they were wearing. After a short drive they arrived at a meeting place with others waiting. There were 15 men and women; Marvin and Humberto were the only children. Three other men—the coyotes—looked young, in their 30s. They wore t-shirts and jeans. They could have easily passed for a crosser.

One of them spoke in a clear, authoritative voice.

“We’re going to walk all night and we are going to walk fast. If I say ‘Migra!’ I want you to drop.”

As the group started to mobilize a lady walking next to them asked Marvin “Ustedes con quien andan?” She was concerned to see two kids alone and motioned them over to her and the man she was with. “Stay close,” she said.

God was watching.

They walked swiftly with each step, deep into the night. They observed the landscape, listening to the grand silence of the desert.

“Migra!”

Marvin dropped to the ground. Lights flashed across the sky, like lightning. The sound of a chopper echoed in the distance. A voice over a megaphone was barely audible. A man’s voice called out to crossers broken Spanish. Marvin’s heart pounded and for the first time since he’d arrived in Tijuana he felt scared. Crouching next to a bush, he imagined himself still as a rock. With his brown hoodie pulled over his head he visualized himself camouflaged, blending into the desert landscape. When it grew calm again the coyote called out to them to resume. They walked for hours, dropping for cover a few more times before the end of the night.

By dawn, they reached a tunnel. “Lean into the wall,” the coyote said. He sifted through a pile of leaves that lined the ground and pulled out a set of keys. On the keychain was a big sunflower that blended in with the color of the leaves. They went through the tunnel and climbed up an embankment. Parked on the street was a van. It was an isolated area just outside of the city. They were now in the U.S.

The group piled into the van and was driven to a nearby motel in Chula Vista.

The coyote parked at the door to the room and told them to enter quickly and quietly. The room was a large suite with a living area, two rooms and bathrooms. Each crosser showered. When Marvin came out from his shower there was food: Kentucky Fried Chicken. In Guatemala the local fried chicken was Pollo Campero, cooked with oregano and achiote, and different from the flavors of American fried chicken. And though it was fried it didn’t have the same thick crispy skin that KFC had. Or perhaps he had a worked up such a hunger after walking all night that he would have devoured anything put in front of him. He relished the biscuit and the bright red shiny apple that was dessert.

It was time to get back on the road to their final destination. They headed up a highway and soon Marvin was asleep. He awoke as they pulled into a driveway at a house in South Los Angeles. “Don’t loiter,” one of the coyotes said, “just walk in quickly.”

The house was sparsely furnished: a couch and table, some chairs. One of the coyotes led the group to a bedroom to wait. Over the next few hours families arrived to pay the fees of their crossers, and a coyote came to fetch and release each one. The boys waited patiently. By night, only a few crossers remained. A coyote asked the boys who they were with.

“My mom’s name is Dolly Garcia.”

The coyote shook his head. He didn’t have record of who the boys were or who would be picking them up.

“Do you have a phone number?”

Marvin remembered being at the payphone with Uncle Edwin and the number written on the piece of paper. He perked up. “I know a number!”

The coyote returned a few minutes later to tell them Dolly was on her way.

“She was really worried.”

When Dolly arrived she paid the coyotes $400 dollars and waited in the front room while the coyote fetched the boys from the bedroom. They ran to her. She thanked God, barely audible beneath her tears.

“I was going crazy!”

Dolly did not have a number or an address for the coyote. She was expecting someone to call when they arrived in Los Angeles. She had not heard from anyone and was close to a breakdown.

But the worst was over.

Dolly took to the boys to Denny’s. Marvin scanned the menu. Pancakes, waffles, eggs. It reminded him of the pancake house in Guatemala City they sometimes went to after church on Saturdays. He looked at the family in the booth next to his. They were speaking Spanish and he thought then that Los Angeles might not be that different after all.

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

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By David Fallon

________

We met Billy sitting on a blanket at a park in West Hollywood behind the Astro Burger. We were a homeless outreach team and he asked us to buy him a burger.

“We don’t really have the money for that,” the nurse said and handed him a snack bag of Cheetos from his bag. The nurse left me alone to talk to Billy.

“I’ve been homeless on and off for 15 years,” Billy told me. He was a short, skinny guy with an intense expression. “I have an accent cuz I grew up in the South.”

He was missing most of his teeth so it was difficult to understand.

“Makes it easier to suck guys’ dicks,” he laughed. At one time, Billy made good money as a male prostitute. He spent most of that money on a devastating meth habit, hence the missing teeth. He had a reputation on the street as someone to avoid. He was mouthy and prone to unpredictable outbursts.

As I got to know him over the weeks of preparation for housing, Billy opened up about his past. He talked about his mother who died when he was young. “She’s the only person who ever loved me,” he said sadly. “Then there was my step-monster who was an asshole that beat the shit out of me all the time for no reason.” His face turned red as he said this, and his body shook with rage. Because of this tumultuous upbringing, Billy had trouble trusting people. He had learned to take where he could, and when he could not get what he wanted he reacted by yelling and cursing.

Despite these challenges, Billy was one of the first homeless people we housed. He was cooperative with the housing specialist, and went quickly through the process. He moved into a small studio apartment outside of MacArthur Park.

Almost as soon as he was housed, Billy’s whole attitude changed. His situation became an example of the difficulties we faced in keeping housed the chronically homeless — people who are often mentally and physically ill as well as drug addicted.

A few days after moving in, he had an altercation with the manager, calling him a “dirty Mexican.” Our substance abuse counselor, who was an ex-gang member, was barely able to convince the manager to give him a second chance.

A few weeks later, Billy had a run in with a neighbor down the hall. He yelled at a couple of young black men when they were blocking the hallway. He received a black eye for his efforts. A month or so later, he was robbed after someone pushed into his apartment. A couple of weeks later, he annoyed his upstairs neighbor by banging on the ceiling and screaming obscenities. This neighbor, who was a brawny transsexual, knocked him down and kicked him till had several cracked ribs.

Each time, our team did our best to mop up Billy’s mess. Billy refused to file police reports for assault fearing retaliation, yet he could not stop himself from aggravating his neighbors.

Not long after his ribs were cracked, Billy called me in hysterics.

“Mmh suh mun mich!!!” he screamed. I held the phone away from my ear. When he took a breath, I brought the phone back.

“This diculous!” he shouted, devolving into more grunts.

“Billy, I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me,” I said. “I need you to take a few deep breaths-“

“Get over here NOW!!” he yelled. “Some crazy guy is threatening to kill me. If you don’t do something about it, I’m gonna slit my throat right now!”

I went to Jenna, the program assistant, who handed me the keys to the van. Billy’s apartment was ten miles from the office, a trip that took a half hour on the streets of Hollywood.

“Whatever you do,” Jenna said, “don’t go alone.”

By this time of the day, almost everyone had left on home visits. Only Brenda, the peer counselor, remained. Brenda had never been involved a crisis before. She was good with the clients but grew upset when things were volatile.

“I need you to go with me,” I said. “Billy’s on a rampage.”

Thirty minutes later, we pulled up to his building. I parked and we walked around the back to knock on Billy’s door.

“Get in here!” he yelled from his small living room. Knowing better than to trap myself in a potentially dangerous situation, I stayed at the door and motioned for Brenda to stand with me.

“What’s going on Billy?” I said.

“The lady upstairs is a crazy whore!” he said, his hands waving. “I’m just minding my own business when she comes down and starts threatening me. I don’t feel safe, and I want to get the fuck out of here and move somewhere else.”

“Billy,” I said, “If you don’t feel safe, we can take you to a shelter…”

“Forget that!” he yelled. “I’m not going to a shelter. I’m not going anywhere!” Billy had a history of problems with the local shelters, which were often more dangerous than the streets.

“If you’re feeling threatened,” Brenda said, “let’s call the police.”

“Forget the police!” Billy screamed. “They just make things worse. The police can kiss my butt!”

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s take you to a hotel for a few days so we can figure things out.”

Billy began shoving a few things into a bag.

“I need my wallet,” he said. “I need my wallet! Where’s my wallet?!” He tossed the blankets and sheets off his bed, and kicked a few ashtrays across his floor.

“I can’t find it! I can’t find my goddamn wallet!” His body convulsed and his voice raised to a frantic pitched.

“Somebody stole it! Somebody stole it!”

“Billy!” I tried to get his attention.

“I’m gonna kill myself!”

He bolted into the kitchen and pulled open a drawer. He yanked out a long kitchen knife and held it to his throat. His eyes were bulging as he tilted his head back. Brenda quickly exited the building. I closed Billy’s door and joined her with my cellphone in hand, dialing 911.

Brenda and I went to the front of the building to meet the police. She was shaky, and I was doing my best to keep calm as I had never witnessed a possible suicide attempt at such close range.

Several police cars pulled into the driveway. A half-dozen officers got out. We approached them, and the largest officer took us aside. I told him about the knife and about Billy having a history of being unpredictable.

“We’ll take care of it,” he said. All six officers drew their weapons. Two of them held shotguns. The officers folded into formation and started making their way down the driveway toward the back of the building.

“He’s not going to hurt you,” I said loudly. “This all seems unnecessary.”

“We’ll decide what’s necessary,” the big officer shot back.

I imagined the worst: Billy running out the door waving the knife, the cops gunning him down. As I was desperately trying to figure out how to de-escalate the situation, Billy came prancing out of the front of the building. He walked toward us holding his wallet and no knife.

“He’s over here!” I called to the police. “And he doesn’t have the knife!” The police turned toward us.

“Put your hands up, Billy!” Brenda yelled. At the sight of all those guns, Brenda and I put our hands up, too.

Billy lifted his hands in the air just as the police rounded the corner. They took him into custody without an incident. Brenda and I did not speak as we watched them take Billy to the nearest psych hospital.

Billy lost his housing soon after. The manager saw him with the knife and that was it. We put him in a local hotel while we tried to figure out his next move. He returned to using meth and ended up back on the streets.

Billy was still using on the streets when I left the program a year or so later. But while I was still on the job, we would roll up to that park where we met every once in a while. We would find him sitting on a blanket recovering from another binge. He would greet us with expletives and threats to sue, blaming us for losing his housing.

 

 

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Tell Your True Tale

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By Monique Quintero

________

On a Saturday evening in Pico Rivera, California, Antonio Alcalá sits at his kitchen table with the youngest of his 11 grandchildren, 8-year-old Alison and 6-year-old Grant Tercero. Retired since Alison was born, he and his wife Leonor (“Grumpy” and “Nana”) have helped raise the kids who live right next door.

The aroma of the dinner that Leonor is cooking fills the room. As the kids watch an episode of Sesame Street, a man appears onscreen and begins to play the clarinet. Their aunt Laura notices that they are enthralled by the music.

“You know, your Grumpy knows how to play that instrument, the clarinet,” she tells them.

Alison and Grant have never seen their grandfather in possession of – much less play – any musical instrument.

Laura uses a stepstool to retrieve a clarinet case from the top shelf of the hall closet. She places it in front of her father. Antonio pauses; it has been a long time since he held that clarinet; it is the one that he always played with his brothers in their tamborazo band.

Antonio carefully assembles his clarinet. Without any explanation, Antonio places the instrument to his lips and plays the notes of a nursery rhyme – something to which the kids can easily relate. He then plays some Mexican music.

“Why were you keeping this a secret from us?” Alison demands.

Leonor laughs and begins to serve the food. She insists the kids eat their dinner, even while their grandfather continues to play.

After everyone finishes eating, Antonio shows the kids all the parts of the clarinet (including the reed), how to put it together, where to place their fingers, and how to blow on it.

The kids continue with their questions. They want to know why they didn’t know their Grumpy could play musical instruments and why he doesn’t play anymore.

* * *

Antonio Alcalá was born on September 2, 1922 in Morley, Colorado, the fourth of 10 children who survived past toddler age (there were 18 altogether). His father, Guadalupe, had been working for the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. Always called “Antolino,” he grew up surrounded by his father’s musical endeavors.

Guadalupe Alcalá had mastered the bamboo flute and then the clarinet in his hometown of Cueva Grande, Zacatecas (located in north central Mexico). In 1916, he formed a tamborazo band in the middle of the Mexican Revolution. They were in great demand, but often the band had to travel at night and hide during the day. When rebels hired them to play, they were paid with Villista money – which they later discovered had no value in Zacatecas.

Tamborazo Zacatecano (drumbeat from Zacatecas), is a style of Mexican music originally performed with a continuous, heavy percussion line consisting of the tambora (bass drum) and varied redoblante/tarola (snare drum) rolls – along with the clarinet. Other musical instruments – the saxophone, trumpet, valve trombone, saxor (alto horn) and tuba – were added over time.

When Antolino was 9 years old, his father’s band played 1920s and 1930s dance music and included Antolino’s older brothers – Lupe (Guadalupe Jr.) on drums and Robert on trumpet. Once at a gig in Trinidad County, Colorado, Lupe was delayed at his job and couldn’t make it. Their father called Antolino over to the drum kit and demonstrated how to play a couple of songs. When the drumsticks were placed in his hands, Antolino played back the exact drumbeat sequence that he had just heard.

His father then went out and bought Antolino a new suit for the gig that made him look like Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Antolino quickly became a skilled drummer; he played until age 19 when he then took up the clarinet. Later, in his 50s, he would master the saxophone after he bought a used one for $25 at a swap meet.

Like many others during the Great Depression, Antolino’s family followed the available work; from mining in Colorado to the sugar beet fields in Rapid City, South Dakota, back to Colorado. He, his father, and brothers continued to perform big band dance music. Then in 1932, Guadalupe moved the family to Cueva Grande, Zacatecas – where none of his children except his oldest son had ever visited.

There Guadalupe formed a band with his sons – Manuel, Robert, Lupe, Antolino, and Feliciano (Chano) – but instead of American dance music, he told them they would now play tamborazo. Eventually Manuel left; he enrolled in school to become a teacher. In 1943, Robert and Lupe went to join the United States Navy and fight in World War II. Antolino, Juan and Chano continued to perform with their father.

When Antolino married Leonor in 1942, he discovered from his birth certificate that his actual name was “Antonio.” He came to California in 1945 to enlist in the United States military, but was rejected due to flat feet. Leonor followed two years later with their daughter, Lee, and son, Hector. Antonio and Leonor added three more daughters to their family – Anna Maria, Theresa and Laura. Antonio continued to play music off and on at family gatherings with his brothers and brothers-in-law, but his main focus for the next 30 years was to earn a living and take care of his family.

By the early 1970s, Antonio and his younger brother Juan would sit in with a Latin dance band that played mambos, cha-cha, swing, and foxtrots. The brothers then joined two Zacatecan musicians to form the first tamborazo band in Los Angeles.

The band had a promoter who got them a recurring gig on a variety show called “El Show de Aaron Burger” that was broadcast out of a Burbank television station. Many times they were paid with a post-show meal of hamburgers instead of money. A fellow musician told Juan he had heard that the promoter was pocketing the earnings instead of divvying it up among the musicians.

The band had a following by now, and people began to go directly to Juan to hire the band. When Juan refused to let the promoter see the band’s latest contracts, he and Antonio were forced out by the other bandmates, who allied with the promoter and replaced them with musicians from Tijuana.

Juan and Antonio set out to form their own tamborazo band – by recruiting their brothers; Robert (who had been playing mariachi music) on trumpet, Chano on clarinet, Lupe on the redoblante/tarola (snare drum), and Chencho on the tambora (bass drum), who they flew in from Oakland on weekends. Antonio continued on clarinet and Juan on trumpet. They were also joined by two saxophone players whom Antonio and Juan had met in the Latin dance band, brothers David and Nacho Santana.

Their former promoter and bandmates were not happy to hear that they had competition.

By 1972, Tamborazo Zacatecano de Los Hermanos Alcalá (Zacatecan Drumbeat by The Alcalá Brothers) performed at rodeos, parades and private parties throughout Southern California – from Ventura down to San Diego. They were hired to perform at Disneyland for a week (backing Antonio Aguilar, the “Johnny Cash of Zacatecas”) and at Magic Mountain. They inaugurated the Pico Rivera Sports Arena, a Mexican rodeo venue. They performed as the backup band at recording sessions. For several years they appeared in the East Los Angeles Mexican Independence Day Parade. Often after special events, they were hired to continue their performance at bars and private homes.

The band never needed to hire a promoter; weekends were consistently booked. Their wives, children, grandchildren and only sister would often attend gigs. Audience members would hang around afterwards and reminisce with the brothers. Several times those who approached turned out to be long-lost relatives.

Once after a gig, the band returned to their van to find it burglarized; gone were the music cassettes that catalogued their songs. Sometime later a nephew of Leonor’s was at a local swap meet when he heard some familiar strains of tamborazo music. He followed the sounds to a vendor who was selling CD copies of what he later discovered was the stolen music of Tamborazo Zacatecano de Los Hermanos Alcalá.

Throughout these years, the brothers maintained full-time jobs. Most were grandfathers, some had kids in college, some were empty-nesters. They did not want music careers, they disliked the industry’s games. They preferred instead to negotiate their own contracts. Sometimes their gigs cost them more in gas and hotels than what they earned. What mattered most was their love of tamborazo and that they were together every weekend.

It was therefore a natural decision that while at the top of their game in 1982, the brothers agreed to stop performing together. Juan continued with his own tamborazo band into the early 1990s. He finally quit after younger band members wanted to play modernized arrangements of tamborazo and told him, “We don’t need you anymore.”

Antonio, meanwhile, was hit hard when his brother Lupe died from liver cancer in 1984. No music was played or listened to in his home for over a year. After that he would occasionally play his clarinet and saxophone when he joined former bandmates Nacho and David Santana for dance band gigs at the Santa Fe Springs Community Center. Antonio gave one of his clarinets to his grandson, Jeff, when he joined his school band. His other musical instruments made their way into the hallway closet.

* * *

In 2000, Antonio and Leonor’s daughter Laura took them back to Cueva Grande, Zacatecas, where people remembered that the Alcalá family band had played the best tamborazo music. Later they visited the city of Jerez, where on Sundays bands in the plaza can be hired to play. They walked around until they found a band with a sound similar to that of Los Hermanos Alcalá. The saxophone player turned out to be Manuel – also known as “El Filoso” (“the sharp one”) – who as a fledgling musician had learned so much from the Alcalá brothers while performing with them in Los Angeles. Antonio joined his former bandmate on the snare drum.

The Alcalá family’s contribution to tamborazo was documented in 2014, when Antonio was interviewed by a Zacatecas city radio station for their “History of Zacatecas” segment – and again in 2015 when Onesimo Alcalá (the youngest brother who played the tambora in the final years of Los Hermanos Alcalá) was interviewed for the television show “Crónicas de Calera.”

Antonio turned 95 in 2017. He lost his only son unexpectedly in 2001 and his wife in 2016. He has health problems, but is cared for by his daughters. He listens to music every day. He sometimes has two CD players on the kitchen table.

There is a twinkle in his eye when he recalls stories about Tamborazo Zacatecano de Los Hermanos Alcalá. He smiles when he hears his daughter Laura speaking of his great-grandchildren; Nathan plays piano and clarinet, Anthony studies voice, and Lauren and Lukas play piano and sing.

On Christmas Day, at home surrounded by his family, he was serenaded by Nathan on clarinet with “Heroes and Glory.” Gianna performed a Christmas carol – on the harmonica which she had just received that morning.

 

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. Contact her at monique4tytt@gmail.com.
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Tell Your True Tale

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By Zachery Roman

________

I stared at the advertisement, then put it away. A few minutes later, I pulled it out and re-read it.

“Latino actors will have the opportunity to meet casting directors, agents, and other well-known people in the industry while attending workshops.”

I neatly folded it and put into my desk drawer, but my curiosity was piqued.

The advertisement was from the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. I can’t recall where I found it, but I do remember the excitement that I felt.

This could be an opportunity of a lifetime, I thought to myself, the chance to network that I had been waiting for in my short acting career.

As a child, I enjoyed acting. Growing up, it was a job I had aspired to, but bills and a professional career always seemed to put a limit on my ability to pursue this dream. I had even printed some headshots in time to hand out at this event where I was sure I’d meet someone who would help a novice actor.

The first time I ever acted, I was in first grade. I played an elephant in a school play. I think the teacher selected me because I always like pretending to be someone I wasn’t.

In fourth grade, I was David talking to Goliath, putting on boxing gloves getting ready to fight him. Right in the middle, I forgot my lines. I stood in front of the entire school with a blank stare on my face. I just ad-libbed the rest of the lines. I continued to threaten to beat up Goliath like a boxer would. Nobody knew, except the teacher, that I was making everything up.

During high school, I was cast to play Bernardo in West Side Story, but due to a leg injury, I pulled out. Years later I found that I was still interested in acting. I attended acting classes and auditioned, but didn’t get any work.

The event was in five days, plenty of time to ask for time off from work. I gave myself all the reasons why I shouldn’t attend. I didn’t know anyone. The event was too far (Dana Point). I’m not that good of an actor. But finally, I convinced myself that the chance to meet other actors and casting directors who worked on television shows and movies would be worthwhile. Even if I didn’t meet anyone who could help my acting career, I thought the experience alone would suffice.

I got into my beat-up Honda Civic and trekked to Dana Point hotel overlooking the ocean.

I immediately felt out of place.

Valet? No, thank you.

Porshes, Escalades, Audis, next to my silver hatchback with the dented front.

I sat in my car thinking this was a bad idea.

The hotel was decorated with marble floors and ornate sitting furniture.

There was a slew of younger Latinos/Latinas and then, there was me. Dressed in blue jeans and a collared shirt.

They were the “beautiful people”. Guys with well-chiseled bodies, arms like cannons, clear skin, hair coifed to perfection and average height of 5’10”. The ladies, were showing all their curves, big breasts, nice legs, perfect teeth, long hair and camera ready.

Then there was me: doughy mid-section, chicken arms, acne-pocked face, slightly shaved head with dandruff, and 5’6”. I wanted to run and hide.

The first workshop began. I could overhear others nearby.

“I’m up for a part in an HBO sitcom,” said one guy, who looked like a model.

“Me, too, and I was cast in a feature,” replied his chiseled friend.

Everyone seemed to be in the “industry” at some level or another. I sat quietly, trying to take it all in.

The day comprised instruction on how to audition, what our headshots should look like, how our résumés should be formatted. Most of the stuff I already knew.

At the end of the forum we had a chance to meet actual casting directors for various soaps and sitcoms. I stood in a long line and waited while the casting director met briefly with each actor.

Finally, though, I decided to leave and walked back to my car. Then I stopped. I thought that if I’d come all this way, spent all this time, sat through all these workshops I should give myself a chance to meet with an actual casting director. I turned around and stood in the shortest line possible, behind two beautiful women who were talking about how they had been cast into various television shows and how they knew the casting director we were in line to meet. One said she had even appeared on the show as a maid who had an affair with the lead actor’s character.

Our casting director had a timer on his table and was only giving one minute to each attendee.

The line went fast. Suddenly, it was my turn.

“So, tell me about yourself and why you’re here today?”

My mind went blank.

Finally, the words came to me, “I work for the County of Los Angeles as a Social Worker,” I began. “I’ve been attending acting classes, but I really haven’t appeared in anything before.” I told him about my interest in acting since I was a child, but how I didn’t have that much experience except acting in grade school.

He thanked me for my time.

I spent the drive home thinking about how dumb I was to have gone to the forum. At least nobody would know of my failure.

Two weeks later when I was driving I received a phone call.

“Hi, I’m calling for Zachery Roman,” the voice on the line said.

“This is he.”

“Hi, I’m calling from casting at General Hospital. You met with our casting director a couple of weeks ago and we’d like to offer you a part in an upcoming episode….”

I swerved, cutting off a truck whose driver honked and gave me the international sign of disapproval.

The woman on the line offered me what is known as an “under five” part. I would be paid $100 for each of the five words I would speak in the episode.

A few weeks later, I went to the studios where General Hospital is filmed and met that same “one-minute” director: Mark Teschner, who had won awards for his casting.

Of all the actors he had met that day, he said, I was the only one he hired because of my authenticity and honesty. We shook hands and I was taken to the dressing room and given a costume and my five words.

I hadn’t realized that most of acting is waiting. Waiting for the lighting to be set up, waiting for the props crew setting up the scene, waiting for actors to do their make-up.

I walked around the sound stage. There were several stages: one was a doctor’s office, another a bedroom, and the stage I worked on was arranged as a warehouse.

The actors were professional and friendly, greeting me with a “Hello” and smile. Each spent most of the time rehearsing his or her lines before the camera rolled.

I was one of several thugs working for Sonny Corinthos, a mob boss played by Maurice Bernard. Sonny used a coffee-bean warehouse as a front for a drug smuggling operation. In the scene, I accidently drop one of the “coffee bean” bags and apologize to Sonny while he looks at me menacingly.

We rehearsed and then my big moment came.

“Sorry boss, my bag slipped.” Five words.

“Cut!”

“Good job!” said the director, and that was it.

I walked off the sound stage with a feeling that I had accomplished what I had set out to do. Looking around, I took it all in. The sights of the stages, the actors, even the catered food.

It was my first and last time being in a studio.

For a few months, I kept going to auditions for various acting gigs. I was successful a couple of more times, getting work as an extra, but then my first child was born. Work got hectic. I put my acting dreams away for the time being.

Periodically, residual checks come in the mail. The last one was for 10 cents.

I still have it. It’s in one of my journals.

Zachery Roman grew up in Los Angeles and aspired to be in the arts since he was a child. As an adult he spends his free time writing stories and daydreaming of being a published author. He can be reached at socialroman@yahoo.com.
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Tell Your True Tale

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By Cristian Vasquez

________

El Camino College stands on 26 acres, between the 405 and 110 freeways, southwest of Los Angeles.

It opened in 1947 to hundreds of World War II veterans looking to benefit from the G.I. Bill. Today, the school is the stomping grounds for students from wealthy cities in the South Bay and cities like Inglewood, which are their opposite.

I was living in Inglewood and El Camino was my ticket to the unknown.

I met my best friend Robert Sanchez there. We were both aspiring sports writers eager to finish our weekly articles and complete the three sports pages so we could go out and drink. Our first night drunk together, he was the only one in the newsroom who accepted my invitation to a party in Watts. Didn’t give it much thought that out of 20 students only one person said they’d go; just picked him up and off we went.

A few weeks after that one-person response to my invitation, our staff was invited to a party in Palos Verdes. My first thought was, “Where the hell is Palos Verdes?” Robert said he was down to go, so I volunteered to cram my 1987 Honda Accord with as many people as possible and drive us there.

Turns out that Palos Verdes is a straight 10-mile drive south on Crenshaw Boulevard from El Camino. Robert was in the passenger seat and three other people in the back, the radio was blasting and I was smoking and we had booze in the trunk. I was trying to keep up with the quick flash of businesses we passed. These places were as unfamiliar: Islands, Hoff’s Hut and Coffee Bean. Even the veterinarian clinics looked fancy.

We drove through the residential area looking for the address. There was just enough sunlight to read the numbers on the houses, but dark enough to realize there weren’t any street lamps. We found the house and parked in front at an incline. The street pavement was smooth; no potholes or tire marks, it almost looked new. There were no sidewalks, just a patch of well-groomed grass between the fence and clean streets. It was dark and quiet, without traffic noise. There was no screaming from the neighboring houses, no helicopters, no sirens – just silence.

We found the house, but Jeff Todd, the guy who had invited us, wasn’t there yet. Still, the guy who lived there was cool enough to let us come inside. We were led into a converted basement that was now a game room. There were more than a handful of young kids between 18 and 21, all with a different fashion sense. One surfer-looking guy with shaggy hair was watching two kids that looked like they were part of the math club play ping-pong. A few blonde girls were in a group talking and laughing, pretending to watch the game.

The basement was like walking into a homemade Chuck E. Cheese but for people not old enough for a bar. Alongside the ping-pong table was a small basketball shooting game, and the music played loud enough to enjoy without forcing people to yell for a conversation. The refrigerator was full of beer, there were two guys playing catch with a football but what caught my attention was the random items along the wall: skis, snowboards, what I later learned were lacrosse sticks and a television mounted on a wall. I thought it was interesting that they mounted the television on the wall. I had only seen that in a waiting room of a clinic or the ER.

After a few drinks, I was in need of a smoke and asked the kid who let us in if there was somewhere I could go. He led me up the stairs, through a den with soft carpet and wooden furniture, and out of a sliding glass door.

“We can smoke here,” he said. “How do you know Jeff?”

“We met in the El Camino Union. He was cool enough to invite us. How long have you known him?”

I noticed we were sitting atop a hill and we could see Downtown L.A. shine in the distance. To the right the Vincent Thomas Bridge stretched from San Pedro to Long Beach.

“So you’ve known him since high school?” I missed half of his response but repeated what I heard. “That’s great. So what do you do now?”

“I’m in Boston College, but just visiting for the weekend.”

“That’s cool. What are you trying to do there?”

I went back to the view. I had never seen my city like this before. Glowing lights hid its flaws. You couldn’t see the gangs: no homeless people in sight, the aroma of street vendor food was out of reach; the sights and sounds that were a part of my city didn’t exist here.

“So what’s your timeline for graduation?” I asked, still unsure of a word he had just spoken. He didn’t seem to notice.

I turned around, away from the view and looked at his backyard. It looked like all of the worksites my dad and I had set foot in — except this time I came in the front door.

* * *

On the job, Dad and I would wake before the sun rose. We were greeted with mom’s voice telling us it was time and the sound of her boiling water for coffee. I’d kiss mom goodbye, jump into dad’s van; we’d pick up my uncle and off we’d go. As dad drove and drank his sugarless coffee, my uncle read La Opinion. The radio echoed in the insulation-deprived metal van making it difficult to catch a nap. The workday began at 7 a.m. with leftover, lukewarm coffee and a cigarette.

With the housing boom of the early 2000s, work was available everywhere throughout the Inland Empire. Most days felt like hot summers, but there were plenty of bone-chilling mornings. We’d finish our cigarettes with one final drag and get to work. Dad and my uncle argued all day about being the fastest at digging, but as the heat intensified, their banter waned. The Marlboro 100s didn’t help us catch our breath but they justified our break every hour and a half or so. During our lunch break we’d find a place with shade, or set up a tarp to eat under for the entire week. After eating, we’d light up again and take guesses at what the nice house was like inside. If the Willie, the foreman, ate with us he’d give us details about the kitchen, or bathrooms, but only if he thought the house was impressive.

Then we’d get back into that dirty van, smelling of sweat and dirt and drive home, stopping only at the closest liquor store for cold beer, junk food and more smokes.

Now I was looking at this yard as a guest. All I could think was, “We can build a tennis court in here.”

“You play tennis?” I asked.

“No. Not my thing, but I do rowing at school.”

I felt bad not being able to remember the guy’s name. He was genuinely nice.

“Are you on the rowing team?”

“Not varsity but it’s only my first year there so I’ll get there.”

I had never met a rower so couldn’t say if his thin, 5’5” frame was a rower’s body; but he spoke about it with confidence.

“Let’s get another drink,” he said.

* * *

My family and I had been living on Eucalyptus Avenue in Inglewood for 11 years. We moved into that one-bedroom apartment in 1993, escaping Watts and the aftermath of the L.A. Riots. It was safer than our old neighborhood, but violence still broke out. Less than two months after moving in we experienced the first and only drive-by shooting on our block. I was sitting in the top bunk bed, right next to the window, watching television when I heard the gunshots. I jumped off the bed and lay on the carpet.

The shooting stopped, but it was followed by the sound of a car screeching away followed in turn by a few gunshots. We looked out the window and saw a crowd standing in a circle. On her knees, face down on the pavement in the middle of the circle, was a 12-year-old girl. She had been playing in front of a group of rowdy teenagers who were being shot at, and she didn’t get out of the way.

After that, the shootings on our street stopped but you could hear them one street over on Inglewood Avenue. Our local Bloods kept things quiet, so even when I came home late at night, they recognized me as a local, and left me alone. Walking past their building, I’d nod and say “what’s up?” and they’d nod and carry on. I’d hear their chatter as I walked home.

* * *

We left the party past midnight. The silence in P.V. was unsettling. The noise from inside the house died when the door closed. Everyone spoke softly as we made our way back to the car. We crammed in and everyone got louder. I lit a cigarette and let the car warm up before remembering our route. We made our way through the pitch-black streets before coming to the first intersection. Before our light turned, a local police officer drove past us, slowed down and just stared at me. I smiled and nodded as he went on his way, but the officer’s face was aggressive. It said get out.

He pulled passed us slow, staring, as I pulled away and drove the speed limit, with both hands on the steering wheel.

His stare made the drive nerve wracking, though I wasn’t drunk. Now I was afraid. The farther from Palos Verdes we drove, the more comfortable I felt. The more cigarettes I lit, the less stress I felt.

Walking up the shaky steps of our apartment building, I was thankful the cop didn’t pull me over. I was relieved to be in my neighborhood with the loud music, the sidewalks, and with high-tension wires overhead. I could smell Astro Burgers less than half a mile away; I could hear traffic on La Brea and, from the parking lot, I could smell my neighbors in apartment 6 smoking weed.

I felt safe.

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

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By J. Alejandro Urias

________

When I was 9 years old I learned two things. I learned that rock ‘n’ roll will never die and that my body most certainly would.

On a warm Saturday afternoon, in the late summer of ‘87, my family and I stood in a line that snaked around a theater in East L.A. We were waiting to watch “La Bamba.” I didn’t know anything about the film. I had only seen the movie poster that showed a sleek, brown-skinned young man, dressed in black with a white guitar slung at his side.

“You’re gonna like this movie,” my dad said in Spanish. “It’s about a rock and roller.”

But at 9, I had already learned that my dad’s idea of rock ‘n’ roll was not the same as mine, and that I would have rather preferred to watch the latest Superman movie.

We entered the theatre, the room went dark, and I soon forgot all about the “Man of Steel.” For the next hour and a half, I was romanced by a familiar version of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. My skin vibrated as I watched Ritchie Valens play his first gig with cholos and family members in the crowd. I beamed with pride when, in one of his final performances, a racially mixed New York audience exploded as he ripped into “La Bamba.” Tears rolled down my face, as the movie ended in the only way it could: funeral cars with guitar-shaped flower arrangements driving into a cemetery and Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” playing in the background, his life cut short by an airplane crash at 17.

As we walked out into the blinding light of the late afternoon, my younger sister and I took turns running ahead of our parents, and performing one of Ritchie’s songs for them. “C’mon, Let’s Go!”, “Donna”, “La Bamba.” They were all songs we sang along to, while listening to the oldies station in my mom’s ’78 Ford Pinto station wagon. I had no idea a Mexican-American artist had recorded them, and at just 16 years old when he did it! The Mexican musicians I knew were old men who only played traditional styles of music. Ritchie’s life suddenly gave me permission to be a Mexican-American rock ’n’ roller; I went to bed that night with electric guitars on my mind.

The next morning, I opened my sleepy eyes to a blurred image of dirty white frost formations that sparkled silver here and there – the popcorn ceiling of our bedroom. I lay there a while, staring at the tiny bits of glitter, soon remembering a dream from the night before. I was onstage at my elementary school auditorium playing and singing Ritchie Valens’ “Come On, Let’s Go!” The auditorium lights flashed, teachers and classmates cheered and danced, my third grade crush swooned. The sounds of my friends playing outside came in through the window and broke me from my flashback. I sprang off the top bunk onto my parent’s bed, put on a pair of beach shorts and tank top.

“Mom, I’m going outside! Be back later!”

I met my friends at the bottom of the stairs of my apartment complex, and told them all about the movie. I grabbed the nearest plastic broom, went up one flight of stairs to the landing, and showed them what I was talking about: Shaking my broom guitar, kicking out my pale, skinny legs and singing “Para bailar La Bamba!” They cheered. I danced around the landing, giving them every rock ‘n’ roll strut in my repertoire. For the grand finale, I walked down the staircase, and from three stairs up, I turned my back to them, bent my knees, and jumped off. My right foot hit the ground, twisted then cracked. I lost my balance and fell on my butt. We all laughed, but as I went back up those stairs at the end of the day, I was still limping.

A couple summer days passed, and so did the pain. I continued running, jumping, and reenacting performances from the movie. As my sister and I hopped and strummed our air-guitars on the bed of our dad’s pick-up, our mom called us in for dinner. I jumped off the tailgate, landed and felt my ankle bend and crack again. I hobbled up the steps once more, and finally told my parents about my injury.

“I told you to stop jumping off that truck,” my mother said.

“Go ahead, keep jumping, dummy,” my dad added.

The weekend came and I was still limping. My ankle was red and as fat as a baseball. Saturday was usually the day that the men in our apartment complex hung out under the staircase, going through 12-packs of Budweiser, playing poker and telling stories about the small Mexican town they all came from. I was lying on our couch with my foot raised and bandaged, watching Three Stooges reruns, when my dad walked in with one of the staircase men. I had seen this man before. He was an older, thin man with a gaunt face, his graying hair spackled with pomade. It was said that he performed dental work using pliers, mostly practicing on himself. My dad told me the guy was a bone mechanic, and he was gonna take a look at my ankle. My mom heard the conversation, and came into the room. I gave her a questioning glare. She understood and turned to my dad and gave him the same look.

“He’s just gonna look at it. He’s not gonna do anything to you.”

The man got down on one knee, smiled (showing me his DIY dental work), and told me again that he was just going to take a look at my foot. I could smell the Budweiser on his breath.

I took a deep breath and handed him my foot. He took the bandage off and began to press on the swelling. I pulled back my foot, he held on to it and said, “Relax. It’s not gonna hurt.” He put some stinky salve on my ankle, and started to lightly massage it.

“I thought he was just going to look at it,” I said.

Without warning, he grabbed my leg with one hand, my foot with the other hand, and rung out my ankle like a dirty washcloth. My body stiffened and I screamed in agony. I sat up and reached to pull his hands away: fighting to try to take my foot back. “No, no. I almost got it. Hold him,” he told my dad. With some hesitation, my dad held me down, and the old man twisted my ankle again. My ankle popped, and then cracked for the third time. He spoke over my screams in a calm and confident voice, “There. It’s over. That’s it. You’re gonna be okay.”

I wasn’t okay; it got worse, and within a few days I had to crawl to get around the house. This finally convinced my parents that I had to go to the hospital. That night, we drove past the lights of downtown, the Olympic murals on the 101 Freeway, and then made our way up Sunset Boulevard to Children’s Hospital.

Most of that night is a blur of blood tests, x-rays, waiting, half sleeping, and more waiting.

“What’s taking so long?” I asked my parents over and over again.

“We don’t know. Just try to sleep.”

But I didn’t want to go to sleep. I just wanted them to tell me my ankle was broken, that I would get a cool white cast everyone could sign, and then go home. Sometime around 2 A.M., I finally gave in and fell asleep to the echoes of beeping hospital equipment and nurse shoes squeaking in the hallways.

I woke up an hour later to the sound of a stoic voice whispering to my parents. I interrupted and asked, “Can I go home now?” The young resident doctor turned to me, changing her tone.

“I’m sorry buddy, but we’re gonna have to keep you here. We found that your ankle has been dislocated and fractured for quite a while, and this has caused a serious infection. We have to operate as soon as possible …”

She kept talking, but I stopped listening. A hard frown held back my tears.

The next day, the surgeon opened up my ankle and removed much of the infection; the rest of it was taken care of with lots of antibiotics. The infection had spread quickly, and had we delayed one more week, a total leg amputation would have been necessary.

“He’s very lucky,” the doctor told my parents a few days later.

I smiled, and then asked, “Does that mean I can go home soon?”

“Unfortunately, not yet. We also found that you have Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. It’s an auto-immune disease that causes chronic joint tissue inflammation and pain.”

She went on to explain that I was born with this disease, but that it had been inactive, and the combination of the trauma from the injury and surgery triggered it.

“Is there a cure for it?” I asked.

“No, but it can be kept under control with medication and lots of exercise. We’re going to keep you here for three or four more weeks to continue the antibiotics, and eventually get you started on physical therapy.”

The doctor left the room, and soon after, my parents went home. I sat up in my hospital bed, staring out of a seven-story window. Summer was over, and fall was here. It was a warm, bright day. I watched people and cars move in all directions, going wherever they pleased. School and 4th grade would be starting soon, but I wouldn’t be there. Instead, I would still be stuck in a cold hospital room, with a head full of questions, and far away from everything I knew.

I wish I could say that the worst things I remember from that month-long hospital stay were the mandatory wake-ups at 7 A.M., or the unsalted mashed potatoes served at almost every dinner, but trauma has a much better memory than that. I remember the medieval torture I felt whenever they inserted the seven-inch aspirating needle under my kneecap. I remember the thick, Frankenstein-sized, black-stitched incision the male doctors forced me to look at every time they re-dressed my wound. I remember the eternal wailing of my roommate, whom I nicknamed “La Llorona,” which kept me up night after night. And I won’t ever forget the 6.1 Whittier Narrows earthquake that rattled my 7th floor room on the morning of October 1st (it killed 8 people, injured hundreds, and caused millions in structural damages).

But I can’t say that it was all bad. In contrast to the torture, I received many visitors, and with visitors came gifts. Letters written by friends and cousins, chocolate bars, action figures, and an Atari video game system given to me by my parents, who also visited as often as they could, bringing me the fast-food meals that helped me feel somewhat normal. I also received a portable FM radio and headphones that helped me get through many cold, lonely nights. When “La Llorona” could not be put to sleep, or when the aftershocks of the earthquake sent my adrenaline off, I put on my headphones, sifted through the stations (looking for those rock ‘n’ roll songs that made me feel at home), and soon I drifted off to sleep.

“C’mon, Mom, faster!” I said, as my mom wheeled me out of the hospital. I was finally going home. I lunged forward and gave the wheels a strong push as we crossed the threshold of the main entrance. The warmth of the sun and sounds of the city welcomed me back.

A few months later, I was standing behind the curtain of my school’s small wooden stage: a glossy black electric guitar slung at my side. I didn’t know how to play it yet, but I was about to perform my long-practiced, lip-synching impersonation of “La Bamba” for the school talent show.

I wore a tight black t-shirt tucked into high-waisted silver slacks, and a borrowed pair of black wing-tipped shoes (too big for my feet). My hair done up in a pompadour, my sleeves rolled up and my heart drumming hard in my chest.

The curtains went up, the opening riff exploded and I was off! Fully recovered from the injury and surgery, I kicked out my legs, shook my hips and strutted up and down the stage. ”Para bailar La Bamba! Para bailar La Bamba se necesita una poca de gracia!”: my lips never missing a beat. The guitar solo came in and I dropped to my knees. The crowd whooped and hollered. The solo climaxed, sounding like an angry rattlesnake, and I rolled onto my back and kicked my legs up into the air. The song ended, and as the crowd cheered, I stood there panting, smiling and wanting to do it all over again.

I eventually learned to play guitar, and I’ve never stopped playing it. I’ve played it for many people. I’ve played it despite having severe and permanent damage in most of my joints from the arthritis.

I’ve also never stopped enjoying the film that set this story in motion. I’ve watched it dozens of times; I know almost every line, and still feel many of those emotions the film first evoked.

Only I don’t watch “La Bamba” anymore, I listen to it. The disease recently caused me to go blind.

But that’s a story for another time.

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Tell Your True Tale

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By Jian Huang

________

“Fire!” a neighbor shouted. We woke to sirens making their escalating howl up our street. It was a little after 2 a.m. Out our bedroom window, I saw black smoke inside the second floor windows at Mom’s factory next door spilling out like charcoal pillars that disappeared into a dark January sky.

Firefighters told us to get out of our house in case the fire reached our building. Mom had only enough time to wrap a blanket around me while Dad grabbed our most valuable possession: our residence cards. I stood on the moonless street, still half asleep, unable to believe the vivid flames that illuminated this corner of South LA.

My mom had worked at this garment factory on 23rd and Main streets for eight years. Twelve hours a day, seven days a week. She worked on my birthday, on Dad’s birthday, on her birthday. For Christmas and New Year, she got half the day off. She said she was lucky she had found a factory whose manager spoke Mandarin, that it was right next door to where we lived, so she could keep an eye on me after school.

An industrial-grade Juki can sew up to 8,700 stitches per minute at maximum speed. The most cost-effective way to mass produce clothes is to assign a worker a specific station where she makes the same type of piece over and over; 250 shirts at 10 buttons apiece, 500 skirts with one elastic waistband each, 300 left inseams on a double stitch machine. Each garment is assembled, stitched, folded, hemmed, steamed, pressed, trimmed, bagged, and tagged. Orders usually arrive pre-cut from the manufacturers to ensure maximum efficiency — stacks of uniformly cut cloth wrapped in rubber bands like make-believe winnings from a game of cards. For garment factories, earning a manufacturer contract was competitive, no matter how little it paid.

“They’ve all been counted,” Mrs. Cheng, the owner, would say when unloading an order off the freight elevators to the factory floor. She would say this in Spanish, in Mandarin, and in her native Vietnamese so that all 10 of her workers understood. It was a warning that the manufacturer who issued the contract knew exactly how many garments to expect in return, in case any worker thought to make an extra blouse for herself. Theft among workers was a big problem.

Orders varied from a few hundred pieces to thousands, depending on what the Fashion District manufacturer demanded. The months leading up to the holiday shopping season were the busiest. Buy this, have this, own this. A freshly made shirt from Mom’s factory had to be steamed twice so it wouldn’t smell so much of petroleum from the sewing machines.

Every stitch was a means to survive. Mom was grateful to have work. It took two wage-earners to support our family; she worked longer hours than Dad did, but still she couldn’t compete with his minimum wage job as a motel clerk.

Work meant food. Work meant rent. Work meant she could send a few dollars back home each month to Grandpa in China. She left the house at dawn, came home at night, made dinner for me and Dad, and worked some more. The lights in our living room dimmed when she started up her home machine. Every night the floors of our house vibrated like a scene from Jurassic Park. The television shook when she stitched thick fabrics like denim. I was in middle school then, in the mid-90s, and the politicians on TV said they were bringing jobs back to America; it was a good thing to be “Made in the USA.” Shop till you drop, but shop American.

The Fashion District was full of clothes that were “Made in the USA.” Big brands employed the little brands, who employed distributors to hire manufacturers that subcontracted with local garment factories. Ten cents a collar, 12 cents a hem, 15 cents a zipper. On a good month, Mom made $4, or even $5, an hour.

American-made came with its own price tag. Fabrics frayed regardless of origin. Fibers got picked up by the factory fans swirled in the air and landed in Mom’s food, on her hair, on her eyelashes, in her nose. She bought a painter’s face mask from the 99 Cents Store, but stopped wearing it after a few hours because it was too hot. She said she couldn’t breathe with it on. She often coughed in her sleep.

My parents fought about money at dinnertime and at the grocery store. Whenever a new bill came in the mail, they would fight some more.

Mom said the manufacturers cut corners to save money; synthetic fibers instead of cotton, plastic buttons instead of metal ones, zippers that were short by half an inch. Every year, the contracted price per piece went down. If her factory didn’t take the order, another, hungrier factory would. And there was no shortage of hungry factories–or people– in the USA.

She had been in America for a few years working in other garment factories, before she found this job. Her first garment job at the Eastern Building downtown had only one window. She used to bring me to work with her after school and let me nap in one of the large canvas baskets. Like a lot of the jobs one would find without knowing the language, this one happened by chance — when she saw the owner dumping garbage with Chinese written on one of the bags.

When Mom had saved up enough money to buy a used Juki for $600, she worked from home, too. The take-home stuff, she told me, were pieces that more seasoned workers wouldn’t touch. They gave those to the desperate workers, newly arrived immigrants from South America or Southeast Asia looking to make money. These pieces were of coarse material, with sharp corners, zippers with fine teeth that took a long time to line up.

At home, I often caught Mom asleep at her machine. Sometimes she made mistakes and sewed the wrong sides together, so I would help her pull apart a few hundred collars with iron thread clippers that left indentations on my fingers.

T-shirts came in four pieces and were the easiest to make. Pants and skirts were hard because of the elastics and zippers that had to be attached. Ruffled trims and curved seams were the most time-consuming. More time equaled fewer pieces. Fewer pieces meant less money.

When I needed clothes, Mom took me to the Fashion District where the clothes she made were shipped. The distributors sent the good quality stuff to wholesalers that sold to boutiques and shopping malls on the west side of town; places where we couldn’t afford to buy the clothes she made. What we could afford was the leftover stuff, the low-quality, irregular pieces tossed into piles on the pavement along Santee Alley. Dust them off and it was good as new. Some of the clothes were dressed onto old mannequins with scotch tape holding up its price tags: $10 for a pair of jeans with no brands, 5 x $10 plain t-shirts, $20 for a knockoff Adidas jacket to keep the rain off me at school. She always bought clothes for me that were a size or two larger so I could wear them for a while.

We had no health insurance for her cough. No doctor saw her when the needle on her machine punctured her index finger, splitting her fingernail in two. She told me she couldn’t be broken. She kept most of her pain to herself, but sometimes I would catch her in tears when she listened to old Chinese folk songs about missing home. In America, we were strangers. “Registered Alien” was the official designation on our residence cards; alien to a country, alien to its language, alien to a culture that kept consuming us. TV said that fashion was more than clothes. Fashion was an outward expression of our inner lives–we were rich or poor, thoughtful or brute, attractive or ugly–all based on the clothes we wore, the clothes that people like Mom made. Fashion defined our place in the world.

The fire was blind to these social distinctions. The orange inferno engulfed the factory that morning, blocking the one narrow staircase in the front of the building and the freight elevator in the back. There were no other exits.

The firefighters left the still-smoking ruins a little before dawn. The next day, Mrs. Cheng called to say she would try to salvage what she could. She said that maybe the fire came from one of a short-circuiting Jukis. Maybe the petroleum-stained floors made it worse. Maybe the synthetic fibers added to the flames.

Mrs. Cheng never reopened the factory. Mom never got her final paycheck. She took the bus to Lincoln Heights a week later to look for a new job. She hoped that she would get lucky again and happen upon someone else disposing a pile of garbage with something written on it in Chinese.

 

​Jian Huang is a Los Angeles-based writer and recipient of the 2016 PEN Center Emerging Voices award. Her work includes subjects on culture, the arts, film, and family. For more information about her, visit www.jianhuang.co.
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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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Tell Your True TaleUncategorized

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By Anonymous

________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

To this day, we all say “hole-ass”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She always ended with “¡Ay te wacho!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ay te wacho, Gram.

________

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MexicoStorytellingTell Your True Tale

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By Sylvia Castañeda

________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________

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

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By Richard Gatica

________

I wake.

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

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

All is lovely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See you tomorrow, sweetie.”

I fly away.

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

None of this interests me.

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

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

I chirp.

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

He smiles and claps.

“How beautiful you are.”

I chip and hop.

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

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

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

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

“Do you wish you could dive like that?”

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

“Fuck, yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Probably none,” he says.

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

 

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

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

They serve Fruit Loops tomorrow and my sparrows love those.

________

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Tell Your True TaleTrue Tales

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By Fabiola Manriquez

________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________

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

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By Celia Viramontes

________

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

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

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

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

***

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

“Forty-four!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cincuenta.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what are you taking?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“¡Papá!”

“Ya regresé, familia!”

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

The children trekked to the river to retrieve the boxes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antonia gripped his arms, then let go.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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By Tené Harris

________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on in!” It was Aunt O.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t forget me,” she said.

______

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