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By Maria Fernandez

____

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One day someone offered dad some work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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

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By Andrew L. Ramirez

____

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

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

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

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

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

It was going to be a great year.

Then it got even better!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mouth dried.

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

“BANG!” She struck with brunt force.

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

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

“SHUT YOUR MOUTH!” she yelled.

I shrank.

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

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

My excitement shrank.

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

My energy shrank.

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

My morale shrank.

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

My confidence shrank.

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

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

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

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

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

My ego shrank.

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

My spirit shrank.

“That ought to teach you a lesson!”

____

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Finding Jerry

By Peggy Adams

___

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

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

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

“Good job, Little Man,” he’d say.

“Good singing, my Little Bird.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, something bad might happen.”

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

“Yes, but not for long.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You should just think of them as sleeping.”

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

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

I struggled to understand what ‘died’ meant.

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

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

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

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

“I’m filling your sugar bowl.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Mother hates me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

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

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By Sylvia Castañeda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The memory of Leocadio and Ascención vanished with Luz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frances had never heard of Luz Solis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I now have photographs of Leocadio and Ascención.

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

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

___

IMG_5371Sylvia Castañeda  is a Chicana from Boyle Heights. She is an elementary school teacher. Her interests include genealogy, family history, photography, social justice issues and dancing to cumbias and sones jarochos. She lives in the San Gabriel Valley with her husband, two children and three dogs.  Contact her at sylviacastaneda35@gmail.com.

 

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 By Ondrej Franek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They wanted to become women.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia Prince had been a student at my school!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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

 

 

 

 

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By Susanna Fránek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susanna Whitmore

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By Fabiola Manriquez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother grabbed my hand.

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

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

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

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

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

We watched similar protests across the country on television.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded and smiled.

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

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

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

Fabiola Manriquez

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By Jasmine De Haro

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

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

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

He looked me straight in the eye that day.

“Say Abraxas and I will know.”

“Okay, Dad.”

I chuckled nervously. He wasn’t amused.

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

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

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

“Do you know what today is?”

I replied that it was Halloween.

“No, this is our day.”

“Okay, Dad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, Dad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it Dad?”

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

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

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By Sarah Alvarado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Snapseed

 

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By Miguel Roura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quizas,” he responded nonchalantly.

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

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

“Hell, yes!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That will be another twenty dollars, Güero.”

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

“Nice doing business with you, gringo.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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By Felecia Howell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soon, though. I melted into life in Liberia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is my stall-o.”

“Eh, no I always be at this place-o.”

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

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

“Yes, my sistah, maybe so.”

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

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

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

“Fatima, what news-o?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?”

“Where are you coming from?”

“Where are you going, out after curfew?”

They trained their guns on me.

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

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

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

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

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

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By Cecelia Flores

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By C.J. Salgado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s P.D.,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Jian Huang

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

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

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

Mr. Alexanian enrolled me anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she kept talking to me.

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

“Not yet,” I replied.

“Wanna go?”

Yeah.

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

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

“Dead bodies!” she enthused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Matthew Loflin Davis

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

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

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

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

“POLICE!”

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

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

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

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

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

                                       _____

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“CWASY!! CWAAAASSSYYYY MAN!” she screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

I have sat next to all of them.

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

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

“Wait …” he said sheepishly.

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

“The grand finale is … Blue Sapphire!”

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

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

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

“Stop touching me, man.”

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

“What did you say?”

The skater gulped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

Joanne Mestaz

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

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

To his left was a clean, orderly ward.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll take the luxury cell.”

The guard smirked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re young,” said the administrator.

Miguel was under the required age of 18.

“I’m 22,” he said.

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

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

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

“Letters Written,” their sign read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At that moment, two soldiers with bayonets stormed in.

“Let him go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miguel kept silent and felt the distance between them.

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

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

____

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is this Loren?” I asked.

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

“Oh, um, Loren?”

“No. I said this is Angie.”

“Is Loren there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She went along with it.

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

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

“Likewise. Have a nice trip.”

Two years later, we were married.

____

 

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