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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By Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek

________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then it ended.

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

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

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

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

________

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

________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Soon,” he says.

________

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

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By Sylvia Castañeda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* *

Tlaltenango, Zacatecas

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

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

“Get out of here.”

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

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

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

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

“The evil spell won’t go away.”

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

“There is no cure,” he told them.

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

* *

1966, Tlaltenango, Zacatecas

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

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

“No. It wasn’t me.”

An owl screeched in the distance.

“My mother’s spirit has returned.”

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By C.J. Salgado

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

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

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

“Is everyone OK? Mom?”

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

Is this really happening? I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did it start?

What did it burn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can he really do that?

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

I’m terrified of fire, the destroyer.

The average photograph burns at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

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By Felecia Howell

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

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

 * *

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

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

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

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

 * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* *

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

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

* *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 * *

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

“Now I have two daughters.”

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

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

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By Sarah Alvarado

1984

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

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

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

“It’s a VCR!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, there’s a warehouse…”

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

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

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

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

“Do you have any movies?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1994

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014

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

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

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

Sonia tells Manuel how her ice cream shop is doing.

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

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

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

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

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

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By Susanna Franek

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

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

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

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

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

“They’re a tough lot,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Celia Viramontes

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Single file,” the police officer said.

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

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

The officer scanned the men’s arms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* *

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

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

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

In town, the teller studied the check.

“And where is Don Luis?” he asked.

“In El Norte,” Antonia replied.

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

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

It would arrive in two weeks.

* *

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

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

On Sunday, he presented the check to his foreman.

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

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

“Please cash it,” he told the clerk.

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

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

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

“Hey, you,” he barked, in Spanish.

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

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

Don Luis stood erect. But his hands fidgeted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It stayed there for two days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Miguel Roura

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

Once more, I lied.

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

“You want another hit of the chicharra?

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

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

With that, I broke.

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

* *

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

* *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That stung.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* *

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

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

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

* *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Fabiola Manriquez

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

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

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

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

“It sounds so nasty, play it again.”

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

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

I escaped through disco dancing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I froze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You did it, Fab, you really did it!”

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

____

Fabiola Manriquez is the daughter of a farmworker and grew up in East L.A., where she still resides. She loves to teach Math and English, and hopes to complete a Master’s this year. Through the TYTT workshop, she discovered a deeper joy and beauty in storytelling.
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By Peggy Adams

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

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

My Aunt Bertha Mae was scared to divorce.

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

This is her story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You wanna talk about it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who goes there?” Bertha Mae shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Jian Huang

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

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

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

“Is it far?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Are you coming back?”

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

“Today?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because we’re in America now.”

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

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

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

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

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

W.X. Huang

116 E. 23rd St.

Los Angeles, CA 90011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because the air quality in America is better.”

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

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

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

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

“For little Jian,” they always read.

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

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

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

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

“Life slipped away from me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go!”

Aureliano kept repeating.

“We have to go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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

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By Lena Solis-Aguilera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Monique Quintero

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

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

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

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

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

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

* *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* *

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

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

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

___

Monique Quintero grew up in Whittier and has been writing all her life. A graduate of UC Irvine with a B.A. in Critical Film Studies, she has worked over 20 years in various areas of the entertainment industry. Since 2013 she has been dealing with a brain tumor and kidney cancer; she found that the writing process not only inspires creativity, it is also therapeutic and healing. She is determined to finish a full-length book project in the near future. Contact her atmoniquequintero@yahoo.com

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By Trace Richardson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____Trace Richardson

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

 

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By Celia Viramontes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

Celia Viramontes was born and raised in East Los Angeles, California, the youngest daughter of Mexican immigrant parents. Her public policy research on immigration and education has been published in numerous academic journals and books. Through writing, she delves into the often untold stories of immigrant communities, their aspirations and struggles.
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By Jian Huang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. I’m not going anywhere.”

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

____


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

 

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