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By Andrew Ramirez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Anthony Sr. arrived from work.

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

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

Anthony nodded.

Anthony and Hilda hugged and kissed.

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

The engine started.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are they?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramirez looked at the beautiful chaos surrounding him.

“I can’t wait to tell Eddie.”

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

On the backseat floor lay a woman nearly sixty.

“She’s alive!” cried a fireman.

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

*

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

“Only him?” asked the sergeant.

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

Ramirez and the Sarge looked at each other.

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

The voice on the radio insisted.

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

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

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

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

“What’s going on?”

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

Ramirez was soaking wet and covered in mud.

“The battle field.”

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

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

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

“Sit down, son.”

Private Ramirez sat.

“There’s been an accident back home.”

*

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

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

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

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

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

“Mother, I’m home.”

She wept.

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

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

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

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

He tried to cry but found he could not.

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

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

“What’s wrong?”

“My family is dead!”

He continued to sob.

“What?”

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

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

____

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

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

“They took Ulises.”

He had a look that woke me instantly.

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

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

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

“They deported Ulises.”

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

“Diego. It’s Ulises.”

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

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

Image for Story“What happened?”

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

I asked how his family was.

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

“How are you?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

After a deep sigh, he continued.

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

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

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

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

“What would happen if we were caught?”

“I don’t know.”

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

Ulises called the next day.

“We’re coming to get you,” I said.

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

***

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

“How are you guys feeling?” I asked.

“Nervous.”

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

I called Marcos, who was in the other car.

“How you feeling?”

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll see.”

“Be careful.”

“Go bring him home.”

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

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

We found Ulises within minutes. I greeted him last.

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

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

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

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

I sat next to Ulises.

“You okay?”

He gave me a weak smile.

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

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

We continued to talk and drink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You look young. How old are you?”

“Seventeen, sir.”

Salvador handed him his passport.

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

“Schurr High School, sir. In Montebello.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go home, you guys.”

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

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

“Not sure.”

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

“Thanks.”

“Stay as long as you like.”

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

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

____

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They moved row by row as the sun beat down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then a voice.

“Son, are you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hear he’s now in witness protection.

____

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom, I’m here.”

____

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can keep it,” Mrs. Leal said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I responded in silent surprise.

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

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

____

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

I’m about the 10th jumper, and we had been trained to push the guy ahead of us, so everybody is pushing and shuffling to the door and yelling. Then we all go flying out and I started counting. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand. On the fourth beat I got the tug of my parachute inflating. So I looked up and there it was, fully inflated. I was floating and yelled out “Geronimo!” as my squad floated down around me.

It was 1974; I was 19 and straight out of East L.A. from the biggest varrio at the time: the Varrio Nuevo Estrada Dukes.

I had been arrested at the end of 1973 for assault and battery. I got caught beating up a kid in Montebello Park. I was loaded on reds and alcohol when the cops came around the corner and saw me fighting with the kid. I was hitting him with a branch of a tree, so I was facing a felony that I wasn’t going to beat.

On top of that, I was already on probation for under the influence, possession, and suspicion of sales of barbiturates (a.k.a. reds), so my probation officer recommended me for military service. It was looking like Uncle Sam’s army or Folsom Prison.

I went to the recruiter’s office. He told me about the 82nd Airborne and right there, suddenly, I wanted so badly to wear that famous maroon beret.

I thought I would look sharp with spit shine boots and the blue infantry rope and the French forager. It was the Vietnam era, and I was that rare thing – a volunteer. I knew when I signed up that it was like signing a death warrant. But I wanted to belong to the best airborne division, America’s guard of honor. The other division, the All-Americans, the 101st Airborne, had been wiped out in Vietnam and they were becoming an airmobile unit.

Deep down, I wondered if I had it in me to jump. I needed to know if I could go through it. I had once vowed I would die for the varrio, but unlike if I were to die for the varrio, I imagined that my family would be proud of me dying for the country. My cholo mentality was gone. I was going to serve for God, country, and honor, and I felt like a lean mean killing machine.

It took three weeks to prepare me to jump. As soon as I got off the bus the black caps were all over us, yelling at us, calling us dirty legs. I was in for three weeks of hell. I didn’t walk during the training. I ran. We ran everywhere. During the second week we ran four miles every day, and on the final week – jump week – we ran five miles to the airfield, then we climbed into the iron bird.

Inside the C-130 airplane, I was still cool, calm, and collected. But when the bird took off and we were high in the air, the green light went on and I started praying. Something like, “Heavenly father, hear my call for through the sky I will soon fall.”

The commands started.

“Stand up!”

I stood, hooked up and I shuffled to the door. I was praying hard by then. “For Your will, nothing less, nothing more.”

Then out I went. I heard the wind all around me. It was quiet. I saw the trucks and trees below, and they looked small. I was nervous but those crucial four seconds were the most important in my life up to then.

It felt great coming down. I was in God’s front yard. I steered my chute to the right, left, to the front, and back. Some guys were yelling but I couldn’t tell what they were saying. I felt as if I was riding a giant swing – a natural high. I felt closer to God’s house.

Then the ground started getting bigger. It was the greatest five minutes of my life, and maybe the scariest. I readied myself as the ground approached. Then I hit it, and I flipped to the side, my chute dragged me for a bit, and I got up and collapsed it.

I had done it! And I liked it. I knew that I only had four more jumps to go to earn my wings. I ran for the rest of that day’s training.

The next three day’s were similar. On Friday, we ran five miles to our last jump, and graduated later that afternoon. I had my wings and was on our way to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne and the Green Berets.

How I wished that my mom could have made my graduation. I received my wings on my uniform over my chest, where they seeped into my heart. It was the proudest day in my life up to that time.

I came home looking sharp in my uniform, feeling I had conquered fear. I was afraid of nothing. I wanted to go to the front lines and fight for country, honor, and duty.

I was once a proud member of one of the largest gangs in Los Angeles. Now I was a paratrooper from East L.A.

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

The rhythm of drums. Our assigned section was at the bottom tier of the eastern wall. Three-foot-tall metal rails divided the area. From afar, arriving fans resembled ants marching to war as they scurried to fill every crevice of the stadium. Some fans stood, others leaned against the rails. Everyone locked arms and chanted, undulating like an ocean. The ceremony had begun.

La Bombonera is the nickname given to the stadium in Argentina that houses the team known as Boca Juniors. It resembles a box of chocolate, a beautiful mass of concrete bathed in blue and gold. My abuelita Maria Luisa introduced me to the sport of fútbol when I was seven. I have been a fan of the sport since then. I heard about Boca Juniors during the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States. Boca was an Argentinian powerhouse that produced legend Diego Maradona. We watched every game of the World Cup that year in the living room of her house. Although I did not understand what I watched, I was mesmerized by the graceful playmaking and precision passing of the ball. Now I stood in a fútbol stadium at last.

Streamers and confetti rained from the top tiers. Massive banners hung from the highest point of the stadium and reached the bottom of the stands. Shirtless fans brandished blue and gold flags. Others tied bandanas around their mouths and straddled the fifteen-foot gate that enclosed the field intended to protect the players. The smoke from the flares created a blanket over every seat in the stadium. Fans simulated the throwing of an axe when they sang. In a chopping motion, they opened and closed their fists in unison with the boom of the drums.

“Cada día te quiero más,” they chanted.

Every day I love you more.

The stadium erupted as players walked onto the field. Fans distributed Roman candles and gave one to my friend Román. Awaking from a trance, Román reached into his pocket and grabbed a lighter. He raised his right arm and shot six bursts of light into the sky. Men waved smoke bombs and flares that colored the sky blue and gold. The stadium was deafening. Fans never stopped chanting.

In Argentina, fútbol feels like religion and we wanted to experience the ritual of a live Boca Juniors match. By the summer of 2009, Román and I had saved enough money to visit Buenos Aires for two weeks.

Days before the game Román and I walked up Avenida de Mayo and came across a small Italian restaurant. It was well lit and deserted. The windows were outlined with wooden shutters that allowed light to seep through and spill onto the street. Wooden chairs were scattered throughout the small room. A chandelier illuminated the turquoise walls of the restaurant.

The barkeep polished wine glasses behind a wooden counter. He wore a grey flat cap and tight suspenders that nervously clung onto his waistband. The waiter rushed inside the kitchen and emerged with two glasses and bottled water.

“Welcome to my restaurant Limi-t Cervecería Bar. My name is Alejo. Where are you from?”

“East Los Angeles, California.”

Alejo walked to the back of the restaurant. He came back wearing a red and black-checkered flannel buttoned at the top, red bandana, and dark shades. He squared his shoulders, leaned back, and slowly walked across the bar. He tugged at his pants until they sank below his waist.

Órale vatos!” he growled.

We laughed. I asked him, “Sir, do you know how we can get tickets to go see Boca Juniors?”

“Only club members can purchase tickets to La Bombonera.”

Alejo took out a business card and snatched the waiter’s pen from his apron.

“But call this number and ask for Manuel. Tell him I sent you.”

We did. Manuel told us to meet him on the side of the stadium forty-five minutes before kickoff. He waited by a food stand and wore a Boca Juniors jersey. The numbers were cracked and the jersey faded. Only the colors of the jersey were intact. We got our tickets and walked through “El Caminito,” a colorful path throughLa Boca barrio, near the same shipping dock where Boca Juniors adopted the team colors from a Swedish ship that docked at the River Plata over a century ago.

As we walked, Buenos Aires underwent a metamorphosis. Frail homes replaced the tall buildings of the city. Houses were strung together along a cobblestone path and the sound of children’s feet replaced the clatter of men and women’s dress shoes from the city. The home stood next to businesses and together they formed an ocean of blue, turquoise, green, yellow, red, and orange. Their paint was crusted. Sheets of corrugated metal decorated the roofs and windows of several buildings. Shop owners proudly displayed blue and gold flags outside their doors and hung scarves that read, “Xeneizes”, in honor of the Genovese immigrants that established the barrio in the early twentieth century.

The streets pulsed with tourists and tango. Street vendors displayed art on canvases while couples danced cheek to cheek. Life size dolls of famous Argentines waved from the balcony of a two-story building: revolutionary Ernesto “Ché” Guevara, First Lady Evita Perón, tango singer Carlos Gardel and fútbol deity Diego Armando Maradona. People roamed the streets. The sound of booming drums and crying trumpets was deafening.

La Bombonera was their sanctuary, and a shrine in the world theology of fútbol. The club brought prosperity to its faithful followers. Fans invested time into the team season after season, meeting on Sundays to watch players act out the dreams of the poor. Boca Juniors revealed that it was greater than the eleven players that took the field every Sunday. Fans subscribed to the sport because it gave them something to believe in. La Boca was who they were and where they wanted to be.

We sat on slabs of concrete beneath the visitors’ stands and directly across from La Doce or The 12th player, a section reserved for the club’s most devout fans. This division was the heart of the stadium. With an arsenal of trumpets, tubas, cymbals, and bass drums, La Doce played with a fury.

Gimnasia scored the opening goal eleven minutes into the first half. La Bomboneracried in agony. Fans cursed the player who scored the goal as he ran across the field with arms outstretched, ready to transcend into heaven. Men all around me buried their faces in their hands. You could feel the wound. Yet the fans carried on as deafening booms rang from La Doce.

Boca tied the game and the stadium erupted. Forty-six thousand people rose to their feet. The sound was white noise. Fans twirled their shirts over their heads. Others fervently kissed the crest on their jersey. One fan had the Boca Juniors crest tattooed on his entire back, and that included thirty stars on the shield paying homage to the thirty domestic championships the team has won. His group all bared Boca tattoos on their forearms, calves, wrists, and neck. Some had Boca tattoos over their hearts.

Soon after, however, Gimnasia scored again. Fans hung their heads in defeat. They shook their heads in disbelief at the thought of losing. But they remained faithful, urgently cheering their team on. Finally, though, time ran out. Boca Juniors lost 2-1. Yet even then, fans continued to chant. Aficionados embraced one another and sang,

Voz sos la razón de mi existir.”

You are the reason why I exist.

Police in riot gear detained the crowds as we exited. For forty minutes we stayed penned in a tunnel. The echoes from La Doce were relentless and reverberated throughout the stadium.

I was peering over the crowd, trying to understand why we weren’t moving, when a man said, “The visiting fans are escorted first. It wouldn’t benefit them if they left last.”

Though Gimnasia committed the sin of winning the game, our pilgrimage was complete.

___

Brian Rivera was born and raised in East L.A., where he still resides. He received his B.A. in English from California State University, Los Angeles. He spends his time playing music, chess, fútbol, eating and travelling. Leaving Tijuana was his first short story for Tell Your True Tale.
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By Susanna (Whitmore) Franek

 My heart pounded as I walked into the fire circle. One hundred and fifty firewalkers were chanting and jumping in unison, trance-like, preparing to make the 10-second trek over the hot embers. I was not walking, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Ondrej had decided to go for it.

We had met the previous year at a painting retreat in the village of Lažánky, in the green rolling hills of Southern Moravia. I was there at the invitation of the Iranian Sufi painter, Rassouli, with whom I had studied in Los Angeles; he was taking a small group of students on an artist’s journey through Vienna and Prague. I was fully immersed in growing my company; my life had become reduced to my workload. I needed a break.

Ondrej and I spoke only briefly that first night in Lažánky, but his impeccable, British-accented English, and his warmth and humor swept me off my feet. I watched him paint the next day, his nose inches from the canvas. Over the next four days we chatted frequently, discussing the joys and frustrations of painting. There was a buzz in the air when we were near each other; his otherworldliness fascinated me. At the end of the retreat, he joined our group on the bus ride back to Prague. We exchanged phone numbers and said we’d keep in touch since I had planned an extra week in Prague on my own.

A few days later we met at an Azerbaijani restaurant for our first date. We feasted on lamb and mutton spiced with cinnamon and coriander, grilled eggplant and tomatoes, fresh herbs, smoked cheese, olives, yogurt, and beer. Ecstatic and full, we walked the streets of Prague engrossed in intimate conversation. Iconic statues of saints watched over us. We held hands, surrounded by centuries of history and architectural eye-candy at every corner.

He was leaving in a few days for his holiday to a hot springs resort in Slovakia along the Hungarian border, and asked if I’d join him. I hesitated. My dating woes had kept me comfortably single. He left, while I took my time to think it over. I had planned four more days in Prague, alone, to roam the streets, experience Kafka, hit some museums and cemeteries, and then return to Vienna for more of the same before leaving for L.A.Susanna Whitmore story photo

Instead, after two days of trekking in the rain through Prague on my own – in the worst storm of the century – letting my intuition guide me, I acquiesced, realizing I had fallen in love at first sight with a partially blind man.

Ondrej picked me up at the train station in Sturovo. The lovely mineral springs made up for the post-Soviet dreary architecture of this blue-collar resort town. We tested the waters over the next four days to see how we’d get along; floating in our birthday suits in warm bathing pools, making love, traveling to Budapešt, sitting on the Danube riverbank, and drinking wine with his friends, including a young woman who interpreted at the painting retreat.

Ondrej made the journey back to Vienna with me. We parted, promising we’d see each other again.

Once back in L.A., we communicated through daily emails and a couple of calls every week on Skype. We learned a lot about each other in ways not common to couples falling in love who can see each other whenever they want. There were no physical distractions; our conversations were deep, our emails voluminous. He was my Czech prince, and I became his American queen. Our future together was unfolding. High on love, we even spoke about purchasing a house together in Costa Rica. We started making plans to see each other again.

Four months later, with work in tow, I returned to Prague for six weeks where we’d try living together, but this time in his tiny studio apartment. The new bedroom city of Černy Most where he lived consisted of boxy, brightly colored apartments, a sparkling mall, a Costco-type store, Ikea, and thankfully a subway line where we could escape into Old Town in 15 minutes. While devoid of the magic and beauty known to Prague, it was still our haven; we got a taste of what it was like being together in close quarters.

We traveled to meet Ondrej’s family, and to get his mom’s blessing. Only seven years older than me, she was a retired accountant, a traditional woman having lived her adult life wedged between God and communist hardliners. She was concerned about our age difference, but was relieved once she and I met. I was immersing into Ondrej’s world, hell-bent on learning Czech, though my brain, mouth and tongue struggled to pronounce its alien sounds.

It seemed crazy, especially the 6,000-mile void between us. It was my nature to go against the grain with relationships, but the 18-year age difference was a generation apart. What would Freud say? My oldest son, Sergio, was Ondrej’s age. I also struggled with people constantly staring at us, especially the day a young group of kids snapped shots of us on a subway in Prague.

Ten days later Ondrej crossed the pond for a three-month stay in L.A. He was a world traveler, but the U.S. was never on his list. In communist Czechoslovakia, the grinding propaganda machine against the U.S. was ever-present. On our side of the globe, Soviet bombs were always a threat. I grew up learning to “duck and cover” to protect myself from the “Red under the bed” menace that always lurked in the dark. Luckily, neither of us carried any nation-state baggage into adulthood.

Adapting to a new environment takes great effort for a blind person. Unlike in Prague, if he wanted to venture off on his own, public transport was cumbersome. My older Craftsman house was cold compared to the warm central heating of his comfy studio apartment. The strain of speaking English non-stop with no one around to chat with in Czech took its toll. He missed the safety net of his close-knit group of friends that he’d spent years building, especially his personal assistant who helped him shop or with whom he could meet for a beer.

We spent time at the beach, hiking in the mountains, traveling to the desert, and dining with friends. But we also had to work. We comfortably shared my upstairs office. He continued earning his living virtually for a Prague Geo-tech engineering firm. My research business kept me computer-bound for a good portion of his visit. Even though our cyber work circumstances allowed us freedom to be together, we were stressed. My friends and family embraced Ondrej – they were genuinely happy for us. Everything on the surface appeared right, yet there was a nagging undercurrent.

We were both against the idea of marriage. Initially, it was not a consideration. He had been in a 10-year relationship, and deemed marriage unnecessary. I was twice divorced. Though the emotional strain was evident between us, he proposed at a friend’s Christmas party, on a balcony overlooking L.A. Live in downtown. Blinded by the glaring neon lights in the background, I had to think about it. Even with our doubts and difficulties, Ondrej insisted I purchase my plane ticket for another Prague Spring adventure.

Thirteen months into the relationship, the distance and expense was getting to us. This was my third trip to the Czech Republic. The tension escalated just as we arrived for the highly anticipated four-day tantric “Art of Being” festival, where the fire walk took place. The countryside setting seemed an idyllic place for us to reconnect and solidify our intentions. Instead, Ondrej suddenly decided he couldn’t leave his bachelor lifestyle; the sting of yet another failed relationship distressed me to no end.

But the fire walk tipped the scales; the prince slayed the dragon, the queen woke from her sleep.

Two months later we were married in L.A. Surrounded by close family, a sweet and peaceful ceremony took place at the Self Realization Fellowship, Hollywood Temple. A short honeymoon up to the Santa Ynez wine country, followed by a celebration with 60 close friends in our backyard, sealed the deal.

As a youth, there had been intermittent flashes of California Dreamin’ in the back of Ondrej’s mind. I was always in awe of a country that had a playwright for a president. L.A. is where we call home for the time being; Ondrej’s green card just came in the mail.

It couldn’t have been any other way. Even before meeting Ondrej, I was painting faces with one eye.

___

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

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1] remember that morning. I was 11.

I watched from my bedroom window as cars, vans, and motorcycles parked in Al’s Produce across the street on Brooklyn Avenue, (now Avenida Cesar E. Chavez) and Kern. Teenagers and adults together chanted “Don’t buy the grapes!! Huelga, huelga.” The red flags with the black eagle fluttered in the wind as the number of protestors grew.

It was September 16, 1977 – Mexican Independence Day, and in East L.A. we were preparing for our annual parade.

Some blew their whistles like football referees. Others walked back and forth shouting ‘Si se puede!’, (Yes, we can). Before long, there was no place to park on the corner parking lot and the overflow began to park on Kern Avenue. Many folks were dressed in psychedelic clothes.

Later that morning, my parents drove my brother, Oscar, and me near my school on Dozier Street.

I stood in front of Our Lady of Soledad Elementary School dressed in my school uniform and Oxford shoes and waited my turn to walk in the parade. I could hear the chit-chattering of fellow students, nuns, priest, parents and friends of the community carrying on. It was a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon. Birds flew above us and echoes of neighboring family dogs filled the air. Dozier Street filled with students and community activists putting the final touches on posters of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Viva La Raza! Ranchero music blasted from nearby homes, friends and neighbors exchanged hugs, kisses on the cheek, and high fives as the crowds grew.

It was then that I turned to my left and saw, a few feet away, the man whose picture I was coloring that week in my Social Studies class. He was watching the folks of East Los Angeles with a big smile on his face. I walked over to him and felt as though we were alone on the street. He smiled at me. I said hello and asked him if he was the man who helped people who worked in the fields.

The first time I had heard of Cesar Chavez and his farm workers movement was in my seventh-grade social studies class that year. In my home in East Los Angeles, we knew of people who worked the fields; however, we never spoke of them or the movement. We lived in a neighborhood that was mostly Mexican-American, with a sprinkle of non-Latinos, including our landlord, who was a generous and sweet Jewish Godfather figure to us.

Our home was known as the Kool-Aid house, since many neighborhood kids gathered regularly to play in our backyard, eat from the various fruit trees, and enjoy a glass of Kool- Aid. We were very poor and our backyard was much larger than our humble little shack. Still, children’s laughter and mischief frequently made our backyard feel like a park. I was the youngest of four children and the only girl, so building go carts, playing cowboys and Indians, and sports came easily.

Mrs. Cordero was the teacher who helped me discover the joy for learning. She was a slender Chicana, about six feet tall with cinnamon eyes, a sweet spirit and a heart of gold. Her kindness sweetened my life since I was terribly bullied at home and at school. In her class, we colored the grapes and strawberries of the fields from the San Joaquin Valley up north. We colored his blue jeans, white rolled-up shirt and cowboy hat. He was surrounded by trees, flowers, with a background filled with hills and valleys of strawberry fields and grapevines. The campesino men and women were working the fields, while the children played.

Farm work had touched my life in a big way, though I lived in East Los Angeles.

My father, Jose Manriquez, was part of the Bracero workforce established by a treaty between the United States and Mexico during World War II, allowing American growers to legally contract with Mexicans to come north and work the fields. In 1958, he made his way from Mexicali to Calexico, then Salinas and Fresno. For months at a time, he picked, pulled and sacked load after load of fruits and vegetables for hours under a relentless sun. He was one of hundreds of pickers surviving on ninety cents an hour and ten cents for each basket they picked.

I was three years old when we immigrated with him to the Central Valley — Bakersfield, I think. I remember playing in the fields. I could smell the sweet strawberries he picked, as my mouth watered. I felt as though I was swimming in an ocean of forest green. While pickers were busy filling their strawberry crates, I made my way to my father’s side, pulling my half-filled box of strawberries. He gave me a smile that burst with pride.

Soon after, we moved down to East Los Angeles where my father found work at Farmer John’s meat factory and washing cars with my uncle Horace at Pac Bell. He later worked in a foundry for fifteen years. My mother was an educated woman from Mexico who spoke no English but wanted an education for her children. “We didn’t come to America to work in fields,” she told my father. Moving to the city made a big difference in our education, our friends, and our neighborhood.

However, like veterans of war who don’t share too much about the horrors they’ve seen, my father was a warrior of the fields. He didn’t like to talk about the rodents and snakes in the fields climbing up his legs, or when growers didn’t pay him. He preferred to forget all the days with no food breaks, no drinking water, and the pain in his body that came with the job. So we never spoke of farm work, or the movement that was then gaining strength, or Cesar Chavez – which is why I didn’t know much about the man I met in the street that afternoon.

But when I approached and asked if he was the one who helped people, he said, gently, yes.

How do you know, I asked, that you are doing the right thing when you are helping people?

“It feels good in here,” he said, looking down at me, and he pointed to his heart.

____

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

As we walked toward the corner of Juniper and 108th, the bright glow of the streetlight made it even harder for us to keep from swaying. There were three of us, Jose Varela, Jose Villalobos, and myself, Jose Nunez, trying to decide which way to go.

Varela, the oldest, swayed and yelled, “Ya fools are drunk as hell!”

Villalobos giggled and stomped toward Varela and scolded him.

“What you expect? We just drank a 40 of Old E.”

Varela pushed him away.

“Shut your ass up before I knock you out.”

Villalobos put his hands up and threw a couple of punches.

“What’s up? You want some? Come get some, homes. What, you scared? Chabala. Ranker. Leva. That’s what I thought, punk.”

We all laughed.

I stood there quietly with my hands in my pocket searching for change that I knew I didn’t have.

“I thought we were going to a party?”

It was past midnight and our only option was up the street toward the music coming from a parked car. Varela led the way. He was a year older than Villalobos and me, and, at 15, he was a head taller with a full mustache. This was his neighborhood, and his nickname, Crow, was on more than a couple of walls. His grandfather trained kids to box in his own front yard. There was a full-size boxing ring with a speed bag nailed to a tree. His oldest uncle, Modesto, was good enough to try out for the Junior Olympics, but got stabbed at a party that left his right leg partially paralyzed. Varela trained too, but I think he loved basketball more. We once fought in the middle of the street with gloves on and it was no match. I was smaller then and always trying to prove myself.

“Where we going?” I slurred as I stepped off the curb and stumbled to catch myself from falling.

Villalobos giggled again.

“Yo momma’s house.”

Funny thing was, Villalobos’s momma lived just three houses down from where we were standing, and if she knew her 14-year-old son was out drinking and walking these streets, she probably would have whooped all three of us. She was nice and all, but strict. I would spend the night at his house and go to church the next day.

We passed the corner house where a girl named Gerri used to live. I always wonder what became of her. One day after football practice, I remember, she asked me to go see her at her cousin’s house. I was surprised by the invite, and felt the butterflies kick in as soon as practice was over. Gerri was a year older and pretty as hell, with hair to her waist that danced when she walked, and a smile that matched her laugh. Her cousin lived half way up the street from her house, and out of view from her mother. She took no chances and walked out of the house and stood a few feet away from the gate making sure that a tree blocked the view of the front door to her house. Her mother must have been home.

“So who do you like?” was how she started.

“Huh?” Caught off guard, I panicked.

“Nobody.”

“How about Yolanda?”

“Who?”

She stomped her foot. “Yolanda Lopez!”

“She’s all right, I guess.”

We talked about Yolanda most of the time and that was okay as long I got to talk to Gerri. The next day I was Yolanda’s boyfriend. We lasted for three days. I guess she could tell I wasn’t into her and Gerri never asked me to meet me at her cousin’s again. I should have been nicer to Yolanda.

Gerri had two older brothers who were protective and fierce. Once, they got into it in the middle of the street – a full-on fistfight, just the two of them. People came out to see the show, but their mother wasn’t too happy. Her screams were useless. They kept fighting. So she went into the house and came out with a monkey wrench, the same monkey wrench that her son used to open the fire hydrant in the summer. She looked mad enough to swing at their heads. Instead, she smashed the windshield to her oldest son’s Impala. That stopped the fight. The look on her son’s face when he walked over to his car was painful. He didn’t say a word. He just got in his ride and left. With brothers like that, you had to be real careful not to try anything with Gerri.

We finally got to the car parked in the alley. Varela jumped in the back seat with some girls.

By this time Villalobos and I were standing in the shadows next to five or six gangsters from the neighborhood.

“What’s up, Villalobos! You guys been partying or what?” was the first voice that belonged to Fausto, Varela’s uncle.

“Yeah, man, we’ve been drinking Old English. We’re tore up for real,” he yelled loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear, including the nuns in the convent up the block.

The nuns lived in a two-story convent next to the priest’s house. They taught at San Miguel Catholic School across the street from the convent, where the three of us met. The nine Sisters of the Love of God were from Spain and came to the United States, learned English, went to college and taught kids from Watts right from wrong. There were some nice ones, but others ruled with iron fists. Sister Mary was one of them. She was my second-grade teacher. During recess she caught me doing something and began to reprimand me. I was in the fourth grade by then and should have known better than to talk back to her. I interrupted her with, “Sister, it’s because…” and before I could finish my sentence, wham, came a slap across my face.

Callese! Don’t talk back!” she said in a heavy accent before walking away.

I stood watching her waddle back to class. To this day I’m not sure what I did. There was no chance in hell of turning her in. Corporal punishment was the law of the land back then and the nuns had Jesus in their corner. I just accepted it. Plus, if word got back home, I’d probably get it worse.

I entered San Miguel in the middle of second grade. Celso, my father, found out about the school from a grocery owner in Compton where we lived, before my parents separated and we moved to Watts. He thought it was better to be taught by nuns than in a public school. Tuition was always a problem but my parents made ends meet. Pops was a gardener so he mowed the lawn at the priest’s house. Concha, my mother, volunteered every chance she got. She cooked the menudo on Saturday for Sunday breakfast. My siblings and I helped set-up the tables and chairs. We spent a lot of time in the parish hall setting up for breakfast and dances and even DJ’d when we got older.

Those dances would bring the neighborhood together, young and old. The older crowd would dance to a conjunto that played cumbias and rancheras, and then the DJ would play for us. The three Jose’s were there as well along with our Mothers.

At one dance, Varela spotted my mom walking across the dance floor.

“Man, Nunez, here comes your Mom!”

She asked me first.

“Andale, Jose, vamos a bailar?”

“Aw, Ama, no quiero bailar rancheras.”

She worked her way down the line.

“Andale, Villalobos. Vamos,” she said, as she pulled his arm. He either liked dancing rancheras or was too nice to say no to my Mom that night.

“Here you go, homes,” said one of the shadows and passed a joint to Fausto. He took a hit and passed it back. He turned to us.

“Don’t do drugs. It’s bad for you.”

The homeboys chuckled.

“Naw, it’s cool. We only do hardcore drugs,” was Villalobos’ response, but the joke didn’t get past the smoke.

I overreacted.

“You’re a fool, Villalobos!”

I went back to trying to be cool in the shadows. If it were the middle of the day we wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out with gangsters from La Colonia. This was the nickname for our neighborhood given by the old Mexican families that came here in the ‘30’s and ‘40s. La Colonia was four square blocks sliced up by one-ways and centered around the church. The small streets had even smaller houses. Most were wooden bungalows built back in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s that were too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. On those hot summer days, the homeboys from La Colonia opened fire hydrants to cool off. These same homeboys claimed La Colonia as their own. They had rivals on all sides and the feuds often brought tragedy.

One mother found her little boy slumped over his cereal killed by a stray bullet. My classmate’s father was talking to a neighbor and didn’t duck the bullet meant for the homeboy who was running for his life. There was also Christina, a girl who Villalobos married a few years later.Her family had moved to our neighborhood from East L.A., where her brother had some trouble. Early one Saturday, the trouble followed him home, where he was ambushed and killed.

All three of those families lived on our street.

“One time!”

The homeboy closest to the curb put down his beer. Before I could turn, lights from a Sheriff cop car were on us.

“Put your hands up!”

No one moved more than they had to and Villalobos and I followed everyone’s lead. We turned and faced the fence. I turned to look for Varela. He had a gun pointed at him and his hands were sticking out of the window.

“Interlock your fingers and look straight ahead!”

The cop squeezed my hands and pulled my head back while he searched me. I was stunned by the amount of force. I guess if you’re going to hang out at midnight with gangsters you’re going to get searched like one. My buzz was gone. I started to get cold and wondered if Sister Mary was looking out the window of the convent to see what trouble makers were out this late. Lucky for us the cops swooped in on us without the siren. They quickly went down the line. After he finished, I turned to face the cop. Varela was still being searched on the other side of the car. He was cooperating.

“Get the hell out of here!” one of the cops said finally.

We started to walk up the street. Varela was close behind and the rest of the homeboys took off in different directions.

We laughed and pushed each other around as we headed toward Villalobos’ house. We tiptoed into his house, hoping his mom wasn’t awake. I was on the floor in a sleeping bag when his Mom opened the door. It was dark, she didn’t even turn on the light, but we knew she was mad. I pretended to be asleep. Villalobos was going to get it.

My worry was bigger. I pictured Sister Mary calling my Mom to tell her who she saw in the alley that night.

____

Jose Nunez

Jose Nunez is a middle-school teacher living in Los Angeles. He grew up in Compton and Watts and managed to avoid the pitfalls associated with these neighborhoods, but also sees the beauty in these places.
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 By Olivia Segura

Working as a bracero in the farmlands of California, Miguel had heard about the city, its crowded streets, its restaurants and its nightclubs.

Nearly a year after arriving in the United States, he was transferred to an orange-packing facility in a rural town that was close enough to make a weekend trip. At the bus station, Dinah Shore’s “Hit the Road to Dreamland” played on the radio while he ate pancakes and eggs over easy. He boarded the bus and found a seat next to the window. On the drive he fell asleep. A fellow bracero nudged him several times to show him the ocean but Miguel just opened his eyes for a moment and fell back asleep. As the bus got close to downtown, he awoke, straightened up, and pasted his face to the window.

The bus snaked through Chavez Ravine as Miguel got his first glimpse of City Hall in the distance. The white stone tower was the tallest building in town. He leaned forward in his seat, willing the bus to move faster. As the bus rumbled down Main Street, he felt that his eyes were not big enough. Crowds of people marched along the sidewalks while trolleys, buses maneuvered the streets, and cars honked and revved their engines. Cafes buzzed, with well-dressed men and women discussing what seemed to be important business.

The bus pulled into the Greyhound station and Miguel made his way through the streets. Along Broadway Street, windows displayed fashions he had only seen in movies. He began to count the theaters and imagined all he might see at The Palace, The Orpheum and The Million Dollar.

After walking for some time he reached City Hall, the building he had seen from the bus. He walked up the stairs and saw men in suits rushing in and out of the glass doors. He saw, too, his own reflection – a farm boy in work clothes. He turned and headed down the stairs and found a hotel facing City Hall offering rooms for two dollars a night. He sat on the twin bed and re-counted the money saved from his work in the farmlands of California.

He moved each bill from his hand onto the bed. He thought about the day he left his village in Mexico without saying goodbye to his father; the weeks he spent camping out at the Estadio Azteca with thousands of men in Mexico City waiting to be selected as a bracero; the day he first arrived by train in Colusa County to work the fields. Now, at nineteen and a year after entering the United States, he had finally arrived in Los Angeles, the city he had imagined.

Miguel hid most of the money in a sock and placed it in a jacket in the closet. He headed back to Broadway where he paid 35 cents for a full meal at a cafeteria called Clifton’s. He bought a navy blue suit, white shirt and tie at a shop nearby, and then headed to Plaza Olvera for a haircut and a shoeshine. There he asked the men at the barber shop where he could go to hear music. That night, he stood in front of the Paramount Ballroom in Boyle Heights.

The legendary club was built of brick in 1924, the year Miguel was born, and stood two stories tall near the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Mott Street. He looked up at the seven arched windows on the top floor that reflected moonlight and the shadows of people dancing. He walked through the large wooden door, climbed the stairs to the bar and ordered a coke.

Moving to the beat of the big band, he looked out on the dance floor below. A circle was forming around a short guy dancing the jitterbug. Women outnumbered men; the war was on and the men were away. Most of the men in the club were braceros like him who had come from Mexico to harvest crops. Too shy to dance, he watched from the bar all night until the place closed, and then returned to the hotel. He took the bus back to Fillmore on Sunday and told his buddies Roberto and Dionisio about his trip.

From then on, they would work in the fields all week, and go to the City for the weekend. They nicknamed Roberto City Hall because he was the tallest; Miguel was Huero because of his light complexion and blue-green eyes; Dionisio became Shorty.

In Los Angeles they met El Chiberico from Puerto Rico and Walla Walla, another bracero who had picked crops in Walla Walla, Washington and always talked about “Walla Walla this, Walla Walla that.” One night they also met Jorge, a local guy, who told them his mother had a garage for rent. The next week they abandoned their farm jobs and moved to the garage in East L.A.

On the way into the city, they passed the Hollywood Bowl and heard cheering and the drumming of Gene Krupa, the big band drummer who was later arrested for possession of marijuana. Miguel found a job as a busboy at the Trocadero on Sunset Boulevard through Jorge’s brother, who was a bartender there. The brother was a sharp dresser and gave Miguel rides to work in his Buick. Miguel’s friends found jobs, too. They worked all week to spend their money on dressing sharp and dancehalls.

Their first stop on Fridays was usually El Brasil where Miguelito Valdes sang “Babalu,” as the horn section wailed in the background and Valdes played the bongos. Next was La Bamba where Lalo Guerrero sang songs in Spanish and English. Guerrero asked Miguel one night why he was not off fighting in the war. He was from Mexico, Miguel said, and had come to the United States as a bracero to help the war effort working in the fields.

Miguel and his friends often ended the night watching a friend named Tony race his car against others on Broadway. Tony was a good-looking Mexican-American rebel with a notable limp. It was a crazy scene and police did not interfere, as the streets were free of traffic at 1 am.

Miguel switched jobs and worked at the Brown Derby restaurant. Then he worked room service at the Biltmore. One night, he got an order that the other room-service guys offered him money for. He declined their money and went himself. In the room was the world’s richest man, reclining in a chair while beautiful young women gave him a manicure, a pedicure, and a facial. Miguel wheeled in the order, arranged the food and was called over by the man’s assistant, who tipped him a dime.

“That is how the rich stay rich,” he thought. Downstairs, the workers wanted to know what happened; he told them.

On another delivery, a woman was getting out of the shower and asked him to pass her a towel. He was very shy about it, and got red faced when she called him a cutie. He passed her the towel and left quickly, but never forgot her.

Hotel work was more interesting than the fields. But he lived for the city’s nightlife. He saw Duke Ellington at the Million Dollar Theater. On the first note the crowd stood up cheered and never sat down again. At the Shrine Auditorium, he saw a battle of the bands between Benny Goodman and Harry James. He admired the Pachucas in sharp tailored dresses and dark lipstick but they wouldn’t dance with him because he was not a Pachuco. That didn’t matter. There were plenty of girls. One night after the Avalon closed Miguel walked out with seven girls and they went to eat tacos at a Mexican restaurant across the street from Chinatown.

Miguel learned English, mostly by watching films like “To Have and Have Not” with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. His English improved to the point where he translated for his buddies helping them get jobs, order food and anything else they needed. He picked his clothes carefully, striving to be the best dressed, and bought the best he could afford. A few times he was mistaken for a Hollywood actor.

Years before, as a teenager in the quiet hours of the morning while tending his crops, Miguel had imagined what life would be like beyond his village in Mexico. Now he was becoming an Angelino and he felt at home.

One spring morning in 1945 the streets awoke with people, cars, buses and trolleys. More than a year had passed since he had moved to the city. The war had ended weeks earlier and Miguel was walking downtown. He found himself in front of City Hall. The white stone gleamed. The tower of the building had impressed him since his first visit to Los Angeles. Now he again walked up the stairs to its entrance. Businessmen hurried in and out. He approached the glass doors and saw his reflection. He was a tall handsome man in a suit who had contributed to the war effort with his work in the fields. Yet he was no longer a farm boy.

He opened the door for the first time and walked inside.

____

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

My mother was right. Choose your friends carefully, she said.

As I trudged down White Avenue at 2:30 am, I remembered that.

“There you are! Let’s go to a club!”

The big blond girl had burst into Patrick’s room in our apartment earlier that evening where he and I were playing hearts while the guys took bong hits and lines of speed. Kimberly, the rotund, cherubic-looking girl who seemed bred from large-boned Midwestern stock, was prone to giving herself embarrassing nicknames. She had just spent too much time trying to get over breaking up with her first college love, only to grow moody when he started dating someone she deemed trailer trash.

I looked over to Cheryl, my former roommate, the one I considered my third best friend and shook my head.

“I’m broke,” I mouthed.

Kimberly didn’t like hearing that I had no money. She thought my best friend spent too much on me. But I had no parents who were paying for my education. All the money I made went straight to tuition, textbooks, bus fare and food.

Cheryl waved her hand. Kimberly watched us like a hawk, her ruddy cheeks flushed as if she had already started drinking.

“It’s free for ladies if we get there before 10 and since you’ll be DD, you can get free soda!” Cheryl said. “Let’s go dancing!”

I looked around the room, the drug-dead eyes of upper-middle class white boys stared back.

“You guys go on. I’m going to go see James.”

Kimberly and I rose to leave the room. I dropped my hand on the pile.

“I’m out.” The 10 boys in the room, sitting cross-legged on the floor and draped over sofas or chairs in that tiny on-campus apartment didn’t acknowledge our exit.

I was 23 and just getting used to hanging out with people my own age. I started college when I was 15 at the prompting of my mother. I graduated high school when I was 16 because I was tired of children. I should have already had my degree. But sometimes the funds weren’t there to pay for tuition or books, so it took time to get through school.

I was also getting used to be the sole black face in a sea of white people. I had never been in a place with so many white people. My mother converted us to Islam when I was 8 years old, shortly after my parents divorced. We were still living in Kansas City at the time. But even before we started going to the mosque, my entire world was the black people around me. When we moved to California, my classmates were Mexican and Filipino and, at the mosque, Arabs, Africans and Asians were our family friends.

White people were on TV. In our little east San Gabriel Valley town, they were teachers, cops & cashiers who often viewed us with suspicion, always telling us what we couldn’t do. We had very few white neighbors. We rarely interacted with them and their children. On TV, the rude behavior white kids displayed to their parents I could never understand. In my world, people were respectful of anyone older. The plot lines and dialogue on TV seemed so outlandish that I assumed it was all fake.

My parents and relatives had warned my generation of the racism that passes for jokes from non-black people. I had found that the kids at this college were no different. They ran down the list of stereotypes they were raised believing. Not being able to see me in the dark, sleeping around. They called me Mammy, said “You’re pretty for a black girl” or “You’re not like other black people.” My blackness took up too much space for them to ignore.

Kimberly started yammering at Cheryl as they walked ahead of me toward Kimberly’s apartment. At the crossroads, I went right as they walked straight ahead.

“Hey! Where are you going?” I turned to see Kimberly standing akimbo in the walkway.

“I told you I wasn’t going.”

“But…who’ll be our DD?” she asked.

Cheryl called out, “Hold up…I’ll walk with you!” I stopped and waited until she reached me.

“Why don’t you just go? It’ll be fun. We just finished mid-terms and it’s a way to blow off steam,” she said.

I didn’t know what to wear and I’m pretty sure that my skater chic look was not the done thing.

“Are there tables or booths there? I don’t have to dance do I?” Cheryl flashed her beautiful smile and put her arm around me and steered me to Kimberly’s apartment.

Carrie, one of Kimberly’s roommates, was heading to the shower as we walked through the door. She looked like a very long 2”x6” with a mop of brown hair.

“I knew you’d change your mind.”

Janie was in the kitchen curling her long dark-brown tresses while drinking from a bottle of Southern Comfort. She spun around and hopped over to me.

“You’re coming! Now we’re really going to have fun.”

I played Solitaire on the computer while the girls got ready. I had a nice shirt in my backpack and Kimberly loaned me a skirt. I wore my green Doc Martins because I always wore my green Doc Martins.

The girls were in the middle of their long ritual when the front door flew opened. It was Debra, the fourth roommate. She was as different from them as I was, so they made jokes about her being trailer trash and spread rumors that she was a stripper – though they said this behind her back. They couldn’t fathom someone like them paying for her own college education.

Many of these kids didn’t work. A few students in this group received financial aid, but they hid that from others and joined in looking down on Debra for being obviously poor and white.

Debra hated me and hated the fact that I didn’t care even more.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

I ignored her as I always did.

Kimberly came out to the living area with giant uncrushed curls on her head and way too much make-up.

“Debra, you’re home! Come to the club with us!”

I tilted my head at her. If Debra came, that would make six people. Six people in Kimberly’s tiny Ford that barely fit five.

Debra looked at me. “Is she going?”

Kimberly put her arms around my shoulders. “Of course! She’s our DD.”

“Then I’ll stay. Here. I brought home pizzas they were going to throw out.”

Debra dropped the boxes of cold pizza on the table and walked to her bedroom. Kimberly motioned to me to eat, then chased after her.

I went outside to the balcony to smoke while I waited for them. It was a pleasant spring night and sounds of a train running the track soothed my nerves. They came out 20 minutes later, still trying to convince Debra to come with us. She begged them off claiming she had a paper to write.

We piled into Kimberly’s compact car. Janie was rolling joints with her elbows digging into our ribcages. Her backpack, heavy with bottles of vodka and whisky, was on my lap.

We got on the 57 freeway. I asked where we were heading. Upland, Kimberly said. I groaned.

My family had just moved from Upland months before. We lived there for four years. The surrounding area was tired, run-down strip malls staffed with unpleasant folks. The neighborhood we lived in was filled with loud, boorish people who called the cops on me for walking outside. The guy across the street would accuse me of stealing my car at least once a month and every morning the street was littered with beer cans. There were always stories of robberies and car thefts, but the other residents would tell my mother how safe and small-town Upland was. It was the only place I had lived where I didn’t know my neighbors. All I knew about Upland was the grocery store, Good Earth restaurant and the gas station. I didn’t even know it had club.

I laughed as we pulled into the parking lot of a strip mall. This is the club? I could’ve been listening to great music and staring at James’ handsome face.

There were three cars in the parking lot. The spindly bouncer was dressed in black leather with white supremacist insignia on the front of his jacket. He watched us all get out of the car. We walked to the door. He waved three girls in then stopped me.

“Are you all together? Do you have ID?” I rolled my eyes and showed him my driver’s license.

“Why weren’t they carded?”

He shrugged as he painstakingly pored over each letter on the card. His mustachioed mouth moved as he read.

“You live in Upland?”

I gave him my best bitch face and held out my hand. He returned my ID.

“We don’t play rap music here,” he said. I flipped him off and went inside.

The music was thumping something like C & C Music Factory and a Goth couple danced. An older gentleman with short gray hair and a large gold hoop earring sat at the bar. Two jocks were playing pool as scantily clad girls leaned over furniture trying to flash their breasts at the boys. My friends had already grabbed a booth. A smattering of other people milled about, nursing drinks. Paula Abdul was wondering if she was going to be loved forever.

I hopped up to dance. The other girls followed and we spent half an hour on the dance floor getting sweaty. Suddenly a song from my early childhood came on and the dance floor was quickly packed. “Why must I feel like that? Why must I chase the cat?” Parliament was something I never expected to hear at this club. If my mother was in charge of our religious education, my father raised us in the Church of Funk and Soul praying to the trinity of George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Fred Wesley. The dance floor opened wide as I boogied with the abandonment of the 7-year-old in me. Then the strobe light hit. I had never seen a strobe light before and delighted in what looked like people being caught in freeze frame.

The song ended and I walked back to the booth sweating and out of breath. Debra and five other people were crowding around. Kimberly had been busy making calls and some of her local friends had shown up. Kimberly and Cheryl rushed over to them. I headed to the bathroom to wipe down my face.

As I returned to the dance floor a few minutes later, Carrie and Janie had their belongings and were heading out the door. I looked over to the booth. The only thing left was my backpack that I had left in the car. I grabbed my backpack and walked to the door. Outside, 10 girls were busy talking over each other trying to figure out the logistics of going wherever they were going. I walked up to Kimberly.

“What’s going on?”

“Oh, there you are! They … We …I thought you left.”

The other girls flocked behind her.

“We’re going to Noreen’s place,” Cheryl said, “and you guys aren’t exactly friends, so … .”

She trailed off when she saw the look in my eye.

“So, you decided to abandon me. Here. In Upland.”

They all protested. It wasn’t like that. I was jumping to conclusions.

“Okay, so who is dropping me off at school?”

Feet shuffled, sideways glances – no one uttered a word. By my count, there should have been at least three cars between the 11 of us.

“There’s no room,” someone said.

“Unacceptable. We came in one car. Debra brought her car and these people probably came in one car. That’s three cars. So. Who’s giving me a ride?”

Carrie leaned her long torso forward.

“Can’t you just take the bus? You have a bus pass right?”

I took a step back and a deep breath.

“My bus pass isn’t for the bus line here. It’s also after 12:30 am. This bus stops running at 11. None of this matters. Since you brought me here, you need to get me back.”

It got quiet for a moment in that parking lot. Suddenly, I heard a car door slam shut.

“I don’t know what the problem is, but we’re leaving. See you at Noreen’s.”

That was one of Cheryl’s childhood friends, who had quietly loaded people into her car. Cheryl avoided my eyes. The light blue car backed up and made a Y-turn. Cheryl rolled down her window and tried to give me a $5. “Please, just take the bus.”

I repeated that the buses were no longer running. Her friend said, “Oh well,” then stepped on the gas.

While my back was turned, the other girls had climbed into the remaining two cars. Kimberly gave me the pouty face she did when she was about to do something rude.

“I wish I could take you, but Noreen’s place isn’t on the way to school and we promised to pick up food, so we gotta go before they close. You’ll figure out something. See ya tomorrow!”

I started walking down the driveway of the club. I didn’t know how I was going to get to school by foot. The university was 10 miles away from the club by car. There were streets that I knew had no sidewalks or safe passages, so I had to plan well-lit, well-traveled roads, in relatively safe areas and few hills. At least I was wearing my green Doc Martins.

I walked through Upland, Montclair and Pomona. I hadn’t really thought of how big Pomona was until I walked down Holt Avenue. I was yelled at by boys in their cars. I was harassed by police officers the entire time, each accusing me of being a prostitute. Random dudes followed me and asked for my number or said they just wanted to talk. I sat on a bus stop and cried.

Then I got up and walked on.

I cut across a field to reach the street where houses back up the school. A car honked at me and I flipped it off. Then it stopped, it was three guys I knew who lived on that street. They asked me where I had been. I told them what happened.

They looked dumbfounded. One guy said he heard I left the club with some random guy shortly after getting there. Another story was that I got drunk and left. But everyone knew I didn’t drink.

They told me to crash at their house. They also told me that Noreen only lived on the next block from them. These guys couldn’t understand why those girls would lie, or why they just left me.

The next morning, I headed through the field to the school, still in my clothes from the club. I saw Kimberly and Janie drive by. They looked at me in surprise and terror. I walked on.

It was almost 8 am and I was hungry. I headed straight to the cafeteria for breakfast. As I waited for my food, someone bumped my shoulder.

I turned to my right to see Cheryl, looking freshly scrubbed. I looked her in the face, then turned back to the lady behind the counter.

“Are you mad?”

I snorted and grabbed my burrito. I walked out, past Carrie and Janie who were waving me over to their table. I sat outside on the grass. Francis, a guy I was pretty close with, sat next to me.

“I just heard what happened last night. Are you okay?”

“I want to set them on fire.” He laughed and nodded.

Francis sat with me as I ate my breakfast, then took me back to the dorm. Walking across campus, I felt lighter.

I knew many people but could really only count on three of them.

____

Anika Malone is a writer and photographer living in Los Angeles. She is an avid gardener, lover of Korean entertainment, video game obsessive, and gadget collector. She loves travelling and food, especially when they’re intertwined. She lives in Los Angeles with her family and a five-pawed dog.
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By Brian Rivera

Returning to the United States from a two-week trip to México City, we crossed into El Paso, Texas. My friend José and I sat on a charter bus that maneuvered through narrow streets of brick buildings, bisected by railroad tracks.

“We lived two blocks away,” I said to José, staring out at the desert and mountains that surrounded the city. “Before that, we lived in Ciudad Juárez.”

El Paso was dry and the buildings were short. We left the bus station and walked to the apartments where I’d spent my childhood. The only trees in our neighborhood formed a border around Armijo Park across the street from the apartments. We stood at the entrance to the apartment complex and I noticed fresh paint on the mural of the Virgin Mary. We crossed the street and talked on a stone bench outside the Armijo Recreation Center.

My family and I moved to Ciudad Juárez from Los Angeles in 1993. I was seven years old and my brother Deren was five. My mother wanted to be with my stepfather. Since my stepfather’s family was native to Ciudad Juárez, she felt it easier to relocate from Los Angeles.

We rented a room the color of mint ice cream in Ciudad Juárez. The room had a black rooftop and was equipped with a bathroom. We used the living room as a bedroom and our kitchen was a sink inside a narrow hallway. The living room took up most of our living space. We lived next to the landlord and his wife. She had an array of plants in tin cans carefully placed throughout the property.

One of the first things my mother did when we arrived in Juárez was to enroll us in school in El Paso. When the school administration asked for an address to prove that we lived within the district, my mother gave my grandmother’s address in El Paso. Eventually, we moved into the white apartment complex where my stepfather’s mother lived. But for a year, we crossed the border daily.

That first morning we crossed, my mother woke Deren and me at 5:30.

Persínense,” she said.

We made the sign of the cross using the thumb and index finger and got ready for school.

The morning in Juárez was dark and cold. Like smoke, my breath rose into the sky every time I exhaled. We walked down a road of hard-pressed dirt until we reached the bus stop. I remember the feeling of the jagged rocks under the soles of my shoes. Because there was one light post every thirty feet, we relied on local businesses to illuminate our path. Few businesses were open. The ferretería or hardware store rolled up its metal gates as we walked past. Señoras working at the tortillería fed chunks of masa to a steel machine that produced golden discs and laid them on a conveyor belt. Another señora stood in front of the conveyor belt and separated the tortillas using off-white butcher paper to wrap tortillas by the dozen. The smell of warm, ground corn filled the air.

Eventually, we made it to the bus stop. The bus grunted and heaved as it arrived. It was shaped like a traditional school bus but instead of being yellow, it was painted a black and white checkered pattern. From the bus driver’s dashboard hung tassels and fragments of mirrors that danced with the bus’s every jolt. The driver drove down an empty riverbed until we reached the plaza in downtown Juárez onAvenida Lerdo and got off and walked north. Everyone walked north.

A woman with two black braids sat at the entrance of the bridge that connected Juárez and El Paso, with children seated nearby. She looked up and raised a small cardboard box filled with gum. She shook the box enough to make the coins inside rattle. My mother gave the woman a dollar bill and gave my brother and me loose change to give to the children. I do not remember crossing the Mexican side of the border. I have a faint memory of people sitting in a hall, reclining against the wall and my brother and me holding my mother’s hand and men in forest green uniforms. As we continued to walk up the bridge, exhaust from the cars, trucks, and charter buses waiting to cross disappeared into the sky. My brother complained about walking up the bridge. “Estoy cansado amá – I’m tired mom.” My mother smiled. “Vamos como tren,” she said, and held onto his backpack and pushed him up the bridge like a train.

We crossed a concrete bridge overlooking a narrow stream that was once the Río Grande. The fence curved high over our heads and looked like a wave of metal crashing onto oncoming traffic. The bridge was our lifeline. When we reached the U.S inspection area, my mother reminded my brother and me to say American Citizen. “Tú primero, mijo, you first,” she said. I placed my backpack on a plastic tray, rolled it onto a metal conveyor belt and walked through a metal detector. My brother and mother did the same. The officer glanced at me from his podium and beckoned me to walk forward. In fluent English, I said “American Citizen”. The officer nodded approvingly and allowed me to collect my belongings.

The bridge led us into the El Paso Stanton Port of Entry. My mother walked us into Aoy Elementary School, one block from the border. Behind the school’s playground was a set of railroad tracks and next to the tracks was the Río Grande. Ciudad Juárez sat in the background. Her uniform stood out in the crowd of parents, making it easy to find her as she walked to the bus stop to go work: black shoes, black pants, a burgundy shirt and a badge with her name. She wore her hair in a ponytail.

Caminen a la casa de Estella. Los quiero,” she said, instructing us to walk to my stepfather’s mother’s apartment. She said I love you and kissed us on the cheek.

My mother spent the next fifty minutes on a bus to the El Paso International Airport and walked to the Marriot Inn where she worked as a housekeeper.

“We can go,” I said to José.

José and I left the park where we sat, walked back to the El Paso bus station and took the next bus home to Los Angeles.

____

Brian Rivera

Brian Rivera was born and raised in East L.A., where he still resides. He received his B.A. in English from California State University, Los Angeles. He spends his time playing music, chess, fútbol, eating and traveling. Leaving Tijuana was his first TYTT short story.
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By Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek

[dropcap1]W[/dropcap1]hen I was a kid I would tell others I was from somewhere else. Hawaii was a place I had visited and loved when I was 13. The Hawaiian and Tahitian music and dancing, the beautiful racial features, and the mellow, peaceful ways of the islanders captivated me. I had met a young native Hawaiian surfer, Dustin. I scared the pants off my mom and her boyfriend Bob, after staying in the water with Dustin on our surfboards for close to four hours; they couldn’t find me. Finally, I was telling people I grew up there, even though I was a native Angelina and had only spent two weeks on the islands. I started to believe it.

At 16, I ran away from home and crossed illegally into Mexico. I dropped out of college in my late 20s to go live in Spain with my boyfriend, a Spaniard, to study flamenco and become a professional belly dancer.

Then, on one of my visits home from Spain, I was handed a treasure chest full of old family photographs. One photo in particular caught my attention.

In the photograph was a handsome man who looked like Pancho Villa, standing lovingly next to a white woman who smiled broadly while embracing him. She held his hat in her hand, while draping her arm around him. This was my introduction to my materPieceSusanna_1200nal great-grandparents. Pedro (Peter) Leon Lopez, born (1867) and bred in the city of San Fernando, and Lettie Mae Williams Lopez, a white Protestant who came to L.A. by herself from Ohio to visit a friend. I knew about my great-grandmother, who we called Grannie. She was still alive when I was little, but I knew nothing about Peter. Seven months after they were married in 1894 they gave birth to my grandmother, Bertha Lopez.

The contrast of their skin color ran counter to the segregated norms of the time. It seemed that my great-grandparents were breaking some social and racial barriers that drew me to them even more.

I began to research their lives. The Lopez lineage was linked to 44 settlers who left the San Gabriel Mission in 1781 and founded the city of L.A. at Olvera Street. I was a Poblador descendent, but never knew it.

The sepia and black and white photographs my aunt had kept became an inroad into my quest for the cultural heritage gone missing from my childhood. I took seriously my role as caretaker of these heirlooms. A cracked and yellowed clipping from a Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine dated February 9, 1936, described the historic founding families that dominated Los Angeles during the time historians referred to as the “romantic era” of the ranchos. The Lopez clan was one of the 25 familias that owned most of the Southland during those early years when the area was part of Spain and then Mexico. The article also mentioned that another of my ancestors, Francisco Lopez, discovered gold back in 1842 in Placeritos Canyon, six years before the gringos came in to claim their big “discovery.”

I then came across a piece of memorabilia that belonged to my grandmother, a pamphlet titled Enchanted Pueblo: The Story of the Rise of the Modern Metropolis Around the Plaza de Los Angeles, by Ed Ainsworth, sponsored by Bank of America. It was an Anglo American’s version of the pastoral rancho days, describing “a town in perpetual siesta, and a population that had moved forward in most slothful fashion.” The well-known Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz – whose father was French Basque, and whose mother was part of the Lopez clan – dedicated the book to my grandmother Bertha, his cousin.

I was baffled that I never heard about this family heritage while growing up.

I began devouring every book and historical document I could get my hands on. I learned my ancestors came up from Baja California with the Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola and Junipero Serra in 1769. Later generations of the Lopez clan were mayordomos at both the San Gabriel and San Fernando missions. One ancestor, Pedro Lopez, who Peter was named after, continued converting Indians into Catholicism even after the missions were secularized. During the Mexican American war, he had a close friendship with General Fremont, and his nephew carried the truce flag when Fremont and his troops invaded.

I assume that because Pedro and his siblings and extended family were all born in Los Angeles, they felt less allegiance to Mexico. By the 1850s, the rancho lifestyle in the Valley was slowly becoming a thing of the past as many of the aristocraticCalifornio families, including mine, comfortably integrated with the white Anglo population, even as their lands and fortunes were confiscated. The Lopez family showed no resistance to these changes, perhaps because they maintained their land and positions of influence while developing strong friendships and marital ties with the newcomers.

Peter’s father, Valentino, built the Lopez Adobe in 1882-83 on land he bought from a mission Indian. It’s still standing today on the corner of McClay and Pico in the city of San Fernando. Peter was 16 when the Adobe was built. He later became a mail carrier, a road overseer and cement contractor – he laid out the streets and poured sidewalks – and was the first marshal of the city of San Fernando. My mother remembers him taking prisoners, handcuffed to him, up to San Quentin prison. I spent months scouring the streets in San Fernando to find those old sidewalks with the P.L. Lopez stamp.

My treasure chest of photographs and old newspaper clippings also revealed that Mr. and Mrs. P.L. Lopez held frequent parties and barbeques at their Rancho Solitain Little Tujunga Canyon. The more I read, the more it seemed that mixed race couples were less an aberration. All of their friends and guests at these parties and barbecues were Anglo. There is no Hispanic surname mentioned. Their generation intermingled and intermarried more with Anglos than within their own ethnic group; both my grandmother and mom’s generation followed suit. I broke the pattern by marrying a Mexican when I crossed into Mexico illegally as a teenager.

Yet photographs show my grandmother, Bertha, as a young woman dressed in Spanish mantillas draped over the traditional high combs, and beautiful embroidered mantón de Manila shawls. But over time, Bertha felt the anti-Mexican backlash and told us she didn’t like being called “a dirty Mexican;” she chose to disassociate as much as possible with anything Mexican, but occasionally alluded to her “Spanish” heritage. Similar to my made-up story about being from Hawaii, she also created an imagined identity.

Bertha’s friends were all Anglos, and she socialized with the more affluent circles of the day in San Fernando. They would travel the world together. Her house was full of artifacts from the “orient” – the term she used when referring to some of her favorite destinations: Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Hawaii, etc. I was fascinated with the ornately carved furniture and knick-knacks that adorned her living room; I would dream of going to the places where they came from. Sometimes I’d play the grand piano that had the mantón de Manila from her childhood draped over its edge. But she reprimanded us if we ever touched her stuff, and scolded us harshly if we broke anything; I never felt at home there. Even though I inherited her adventurous spirit and travel bug, I never had a close relationship with my grandmother.

It’s still surprises me that she never mentioned anything about the Lopez Adobe. When I returned from Mexico, we sat and chatted in Spanish; hers was somewhat broken by this time. She was on her second marriage, to a man who was much younger, a Southerner who reminded us of Fred Flintstone, but who took care of her until she passed. Her gusto for life had not changed. We drank cocktails that afternoon while I told her about my life in Mexico; she gave me hell for having run away from home and causing them all so much angst.

By the time my generation came along, any connection to the Lopez cultural legacy was nonexistent. I stumbled upon my roots at a time when Latino culture was fast becoming a part of mainstream America, and when in many areas of L.A. Spanish was the unofficial language.

A piece of myself was satiated knowing I was a Lopez. It’s no coincidence that I had been a child bride down in Mexico, or chose to live in Spain all those years, or that upon returning to Los Angeles in 1984 my work would be intricately tied to the Latino community; it still is today.

Yet I couldn’t keep my mind off the photograph of Peter and Lettie Mae, most likely taken when they first met or had just married – the union of two cultures that was just beginning to mix and create what became Los Angeles.

Lettie Mae came out to Los Angeles alone, and married a dark-skinned Mexican. She crossed cultural boundaries and settled far from her roots, which in the late 1800s must have felt like the other side of the world. I wonder how her family responded to her marrying a non-white man. Perhaps no different than mine did when I traveled to Mexico and married Oscar. My mom tells me that Peter had a gentle disposition. It comes through in all the photos I have of him. I wish I had known my great grandparents; sometimes I feel like I did.

And that special photograph that reveals their warmth and love for each other? With its ragged and ripped edges, it never seems to fade. It’s my iPhone wallpaper; they accompany me wherever I go.

____

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

She took her time walking across the room, scanning the computer lab as though preparing for battle. When she finally reached my desk, she handed me a referral from a government program she was forced to enroll in and said, in a low voice, “Hey Miss. I’m here to get help with my Math and English, so what do I do”?

I was recruited into the tutoring program by my trigonometry professor at East Los Angeles College since I often enjoyed assisting classmates. I remember Flaca sitting in front of the computer simply staring at the screen. I thought she was struggling with the operation of the computer. I learned later that she would come to class intoxicated and brought her happy juice. It was a thirty- two ounce soda mug with alcohol but because it had no aroma of alcohol I didn’t know. It was also a little strange that she preferred wearing her slick shades in class. I thought the computer screen was too bright for her. In reality, she was loaded and she hid behind them.

I had a feeling that she wanted to improve her life since she was attending this class. As she behaved, I continued to assist her and in time we became friends. We talked. I asked what her favorite drink was? With a naughty smile she looked straight into my eyes and confessed that she enjoyed her alcoholic beverage while she worked on her lessons. This situation was new to me, so I said nothing. Over the weeks, we talked a little about college studies and concerns about the weather as I tried to figure out what to do.

When I felt more comfortable with her, I finally addressed the issue of coming to class loaded and bringing her happy juice. I could have lost my job if my boss found out that she was drinking in class, but my heart told me to stay quiet. I told her that I needed her help. We would work as a team in order for her to stay in the class since it was mandated by her program. I asked her to pretend as though she was doing her work by hitting the computer keys every few minutes. I also asked her to stay awake because her snoring might disturb other students and attract attention. I suggested she refrain from bringing her favorite drink to class, which was better enjoyed outside class.

With time she stopped bringing her mug and, eventually, began to complete her lessons. But she kept her shades on.

Flaca was raised by both her parents as an only child for a decade, followed by a brother ten years younger and by a sister four years after that. Before the arrival of her siblings, she and her parents had money and time enough to take camping trips, go bowling and to the movies. Her father worked in the roofing industry and she was his assistant for a while. However, he always wanted a son and he taught her to work and play sports as if she were so.

But she reached her teenage years as her parents were occupied changing diapers, and working harder than ever. “I felt as though my brother and sister stole my father from me,” she told me.

At fifteen, she was searching for attention and began to hang out with the neighborhood gang. After school, she and her comrades would put their lunch money together and would pay a local wino to buy them a six pack, which led to a twelve pack, and eventually to cases of beer. They began breaking into newspaper vending machines. From there, she began using drugs. She even smoked Angel Dust on the lawn outside the East Los Angeles Sheriff station.

Her parents talked with her about her mischief, beat her, threw her out of the house, but gave her chances to return home. Her troubles kept growing. She would behave for a while but it didn’t last long, and her defiance would intensify.

She was expelled from Schurr High School, attended Vail Continuation High School and was expelled for fighting. She was in and out of juvenile detention and jail. Eventually, she was sent to the Mira Loma detention facility in Lancaster which gave her much needed structure. There she completed her G.E.D.

Once on the outside, she worked at the Sears Warehouse, then as a mail clerk at Wells Fargo Bank, followed by a printing shop. Then

in her mid-twenties, she began using heroin. She met Sheila at a party and grew as addicted to her as she was to the drug. They became lovers and sold heroin together. Addicts, called Sheila with their orders; Flaca made the deliveries. “It was just like delivering pizza- like a franchise, in a way,” she said. Sheila was her immediate boss, but there were other distributors above her.

Flaca and Sheila shared the upkeep of the house and expenses for about a year. Then one night, Flaca stayed out all night. Sheila and she argued. The next time Flaca stayed out all night, Sheila kicked her out. That proved lucky, as a few days later cops raided the house and arrested Sheila.

Flaca moved back with her parents. At this point, longing for children, she decided to take a break from women. Her next door neighbor, Smokey, was a longtime friend and they kind of messed around when she was younger. He was eleven years her senior, had a good heart, was handsome, masculine and was right on the other side of the fence. He had also served in the Vietnam War. The proposition was simple, she told him: I need your help to have my children. He would not have any responsibility or claim to them, but he could see them from next door. With time, he fathered her two sons. He also was in and out of jail and survived working odd jobs, then died from a bleeding ulcer soon after the birth of her second child. He was found on the lawn of what is now the East Los Angeles Library.

Meanwhile, Flaca continued making poor choices. She was stabbed twice, took part in drive-by shootings, kept drinking and using drugs, and was in and out of jail. She was respected in the gangster community since she did bad things in a big way.

Years of abuse wore her down so that she lost her eye sight for a year. Consequently she was unable to work and went on government aid known as SSI in 1991 at the age of 31. Her parents didn’t condone her behavior, but they loved her and cared for her two sons.

After a year of therapy she regained her eyesight. One morning while visiting a friend, she realized that she had not drunk or used drugs the night before. For the first time in decades she was able to think with a clear mind. Because she qualified for a free bus pass, she got on the bus after visiting with this friend to be alone and think. For a week, she left her parents’ home early and rode the bus all day. Those bus rides were a turning point.

She began to attend Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and tried to stay clean and sober. She relapsed several times, but eventually held to it.

As years passed, she learned a more structured lifestyle. She began by taking her sons to school regularly and picking them up afterwards. As time went on, she befriended the principal of the same school as he later invited her to enroll in parenting classes. Flaca learned how to kneel down and look her children in the eyes when she spoke to them. She became skilled in establishing parameters when giving her boys a choice when selecting things. She was taught the value of punctuality, whether it was to arrive at school on time regularly or returning library materials by the due date.

When her sons were toddlers, she entered them in baby contests and won several times. Later, she enrolled her boys in baseball, soccer, karate, and taught them to bowl. The year that her sons played peewee baseball was the first time in the league’s history that both the coach and the assistant coach were women. Flaca was the head coach as the team made it to the playoffs.

She learned to use the libraries, and showed her boys how to do the same. In the annual school fundraiser she sold candy for her sons and was the top seller for three consecutive years. The first year as the top seller they won tickets to Knott’s Berry Farm and the second year, tickets to Disneyland. Flaca already had experience selling things. Candy sales came easy to her and it was legal. “No one was shot. No one got killed,” she said. “It made me feel like I was a real mother.”

I remember the year she first came in for tutoring telling me about selling enough candy to win bicycles for her sons.

Two weeks before her father died, he told her to go back to school and become a rehabilitation drug counselor. She’s doing that now, working on her degree at East Los Angeles College.

It’s been 21 years since she first showed up in my class. I have watched her all that time.

I see her on campus now, an adult finally, and no longer in her sunglasses and khaki shorts that meet her tube socks at the knees. She is usually with one of her sons, who is also a student. I see them after class, walking together slowly toward the parking lot.

___

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