Uncategorized

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Maria Fernandez

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go!”

Aureliano kept repeating.

“We have to go!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

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

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail
True TalesTYTT Export

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail

By Sam Quinones

In the 1970s, Pomona was a big thrift store of a city in the smog-covered valley east of Los Angeles that bore its name.

I grew up in the neighboring town of Claremont, which had five colleges, two graduate schools, a strict zoning code and large old oaks and elms.

But by the time I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Pomona was about two decades past its prime. The Fox Theater downtown had once been a major venue. Bing Crosby had once played its Fox Theater. As I entered junior high school, The Fox showed B movies, then B movies in Spanish.

Pomona’s downtown was quiet. In the early 1960s, city fathers were persuaded that outdoor shopping malls were the wave of the future. They put in a fountain and piped in music. A Buffums department store was supposed to feed the smaller shops along the mall with customers.

The Pomona Mall was finished by the mid-1960s, about the time that the wave of the future turned out to be the indoor mall. A decade later, pawn shops replaced the jewelry stores and boutiques, which left for the air-conditioned comfort of the Montclair Plaza about 10 miles away.

Pomona had neither luck nor luster; it was a flowery polyester shirt 10 years out of style. On Holt Boulevard, the city made a vain effort at attracting glitz. Anything went along Holt, as long as it had neon and an oceanic parking lot. Running parallel a few blocks south was Mission Avenue, where Pomona gave up entirely and bared its true soul. Neon was too expensive for the shops on Mission. The United Mission Inn was on Mission. So was the YMCA. Both were home to derelicts and drifters who paid by the week. They were men who tried to hide their desperation behind greased-back hair and blazers one size too big.

Midway between Holt and Mission on Reservoir Street sat Tropical Ice Cream. A `Help Wanted’ sign was painted on the building in bright red letters. I’d seen the sign before. I’d gone in once and learned that to work there I needed a driver’s license and, for insurance purposes, I had to be 19.

It was September of 1976, about three weeks before the start of my senior year in high school. I was back from a summer trip and I needed a job that I could quit easily when school began. I was 17. I went down to Tropical.

A pasty-faced man with gray hair met me at the door. I think his name was Ed.

Nineteen, I told him. He asked for my driver’s license. Simple math would have told him my true age. You’re hired, he said.

I had to work one day free for a driver who would train me. Then I’d be working for myself, and Tropical Ice Cream. I’d make 30 percent of whatever I sold. That day they put me on a truck with Wilson. Wilson was a nice old guy. He was retired from some job that had worn him down, but Social Security didn’t pay enough, so now he spent his golden years living in a trailer home and selling ice cream around the Pomona Valley. That’s how I figured it anyway. He didn’t talk much about his personal life.

Wilson was like a lot of guys at Tropical: pensioners who had never saved enough to make retirement a time when they could take life easy. Some did it to get out of the house and away from their wives. Tropical attracted another type: the Down-and-Outer. They were usually younger men. This, apparently, was the only job they could hold. Anyway, Tropical didn’t ask for references. Nor did management get too upset when an employee didn’t show up for work. This happened often. Management figured the driver had moved on or died.

These drifters were usually less dependable than the pensioners, so Herm Trop showed them no mercy. Herm Trop and his brother, whose name I’ve long forgotten, owned the company. Each was as squat as a fire hydrant, with curly brown hair, thick necks and a bustling waddle to their walks.

The Trops had played football. Their gridiron memories – from the days when helmets had no facemasks — were dear to both men. Graying photographs of them in action graced the imitation-walnut paneling of a dark room where the ice cream men counted their money late in the afternoon. The Trops had played the front line.

We always knew Herm was coming long before he appeared in front of us. His gruff, cussing baritone was the soundtrack to everyone’s day at Tropical Ice Cream. I don’t remember his brother saying much. But Herm never passed up an opportunity to bark his wisdom at his crew of retirees and alcoholics. He clearly viewed today’s male specimen as lacking the toughness that allowed him to claw his way to the top of the Pomona Valley ice cream game. Few who stayed had the gumption to talk back to Herm Trop.

At Tropical, the ice cream men were gruff, unshaven and with poor teeth. They grunted a lot. They never, for example, said “Yes, ma’am,” or “Okie-dokie,” or “Coming right up.” They showed little feeling for the kids.

I figured I’d be different. At first I was eager to engage the children. Countless five-year-olds came to my truck, plopping 17 cents in gooey change on my counter.

“How much can I get with this much?”

“Well, let’s see,” I’d say, trying my best to sound like Mister Rogers. “How much do you have? One, two, three. Do you know how much this is worth? That’s worth five, so now you have eight.”

And so on. Finally I’d have to let him know the brutal truth. He could only afford a Popsicle.

“But I want a drumstick.”

“You don’t have enough for a drumstick.”

A drumstick, a cone of vanilla ice cream covered in chocolate syrup and sprinkled with nuts, went for 35 cents. Our positions thus stalemated, the discussion would go on as a line would form. One of us would eventually relent. As time went on, it was the kid.

In time, I became more “efficient.” I’d quickly count the kid’s change and give him two or three choices. I’d grown to understand a little about the old men I worked with. They figured that life owed them more for years of toil than a retirement spent in the oppressive Los Angeles heat in a tin box on wheels selling ice cream to kids with dirty faces.

Wilson and I spent that first day rumbling along his usual route through Walnut, another faceless L.A. suburb. Like so many towns, I knew of Walnut only from the tacky television commercials where some discount furniture mogul with a bad toupee would stand in front of a dinette set reading from cue cards that announced his latest great deal and easy credit terms. He’d then launch into his inventory of stores around the L.A. basin where these great deals were available: La Puente, La Canada, Marina Del Rey, Glendale, Costa Mesa, Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks, Ontario. Then he’d usually finish with something like: “And our new store in Walnut. Se habla Espanol.”

Here I finally was in Walnut. As our jingle blared out the loudspeakers and down its quiet streets, Wilson shared with me the sacred tricks of the ice cream trade. Jealously guarded tips like: “Go slow,” “Turn your jingle off when you’re selling” (a lesson I quickly ignored since I didn’t see the point. The jingle let people know I was there), and of course, “Put the most expensive ice cream at the bottom of the freezer because people don’t buy it as much.”

Wilson showed me how to fill the truck freezer. Every morning, the drivers would load up, ordering that day’s product from a porthole in the Tropical building. Behind that window was the company freezer. Gusts of frost blew out of it into the early morning sunshine. Inside, two guys would shuttle between the window and the stock, filling orders. The product came hurtling out: boxes of Ice Cream Sandwiches, Drumsticks, Sundaes, Push-ups, Popsicles, and their red-white-and-blue, rocket-shaped cousin, the Astrojet.

Wilson taught me to read a routebook, a tablet that had the turns written out from the moment the driver left the Tropical lot: “Turn left on Mira Vista. Turn right on Del Mar. Turn left on Rancho Val Verde,” and so on.

Under the smog and relentless sun, the truck grew furnace hot. To quench my thirst that first day, I gulped down six orange sodas. I returned home with teeth coated in sugary moss. I never ate or drank anything out of my truck again, and I haven’t had an orange soda since that day. Instead I brought a gallon jug of water, put it in the cooler and drank it throughout the day.

After the first day, I was a pro. I’d sub for whatever driver turned up missing that day. I often had work. I did Baldwin Park, Hacienda Heights, Upland and other cities that I can’t remember. The jingle was my constant companion and even now, 36 years later, it still comes readily to mind.

Only once was I asked to sell someone marijuana. “The other guy did,” said the disheartened customer, when I told him he was out of his mind. And only once did someone ask if I wasn’t scared, since someone had shot at a competitor’s truck a few days earlier.

About two weeks into my Tropical Ice Cream stint, I walked into work and heard Herm. Drivers stood in a circle around him and another man whose pride Herm was dissecting.

The driver, a scruffy younger fellow, had apparently had his truck towed from Santa Fe Springs when it broke down the day before. Repairmen later determined the problem to be a snapped fan belt. Herm seemed to think that any moron could have figured that out.

“A simple fucking fan belt. Don’t you know how to fix a fan belt? It’s the easiest goddamn thing in the world.”

And the abuse went on and on. The drivers crowded around, looking uncomfortable, but drawn to the smell of blood. Finally the driver, whose name I never knew, could take no more. In front of all of us, he began to cry. He held up his hands. They trembled.

“You see these hands,” he screamed, losing control as he tried to explain. “They used to slap ab in some of the best restaurants around. Now they can’t do it any more. I used to be one of the best abalone chefs around. Fuck your job.”

He ran out and stalked toward Mission. I never found out what was wrong with his hands and why they no could longer cook abalone.

We all stood there for a moment, embarrassed. Then Herm broke the silence that he could never stand for long.

“I don’t know what his problem is? All I said was it’s easy to fix a fucking fan belt. Jesus, he takes things too personal. Everybody back to work.”

Then with a wave of his cigar, he was off.

We all took our cue and slowly dispersed. Ed came up to me and informed me that the Santa Fe Springs route had an opening that day. I’d never heard of the place, not even on television commercials.

He gave me a routebook, an ice cream order and as I was walking away, he said, “Oh, and watch out for Big Al.”

I was a little too numbed by what had just occurred to wonder much about what he meant.

Santa Fe Springs proved to be about 30 miles away, over the hills and into the Los Angeles basin. It was near Downey. Downey, as any kid who watched commercials could tell you, was the home of Bob Spreen Cadillac: “Where the freeways meet (pause) in Downey,” went his commercial. I was glad to finally know where Downey was.

Still, I doubted I would make much. Santa Fe Springs sounded middle class. Ice cream men learn quickly that the best selling is in blue-collar neighborhoods, which can’t afford store-bought ice cream, but have the money for the occasional Popsicle or Push-up for their kids. So in the 1970s nothing warmed the ice cream man’s heart like driving down streets lined with big and battered American sedans, Doughboy swimming pools and seeing guys in blue mechanics shirts and Budweiser baseball caps going to work.

Once in town, I followed the routebook, then parked under some trees to read my path for the day. With my jingle going loud, I didn’t hear him come up.

“Hey, you!”

I looked up. Next to me was another ice cream truck. Sitting in the springy driver’s seat, which was begging for mercy, sat an enormous squat white man, with a cap, a mustache and a scraggly beard. His belly-button peeked out from beneath a faded blue t-shirt.

“You work for Trop?’

I nodded.

“You see that book in your hand there, that’s my route. I wrote it,” he said. “This is my town. I’m going to dust your ass of the road.”

He roared off. As I watched him go, I said to myself, `There goes Big Al.’

I don’t remember much about that morning, except that I didn’t see Big Al at all. I forgot he existed and concentrated on making a killing.

I did all right that morning, for a morning. Santa Fe Springs wasn’t as middle-class as I’d feared. I saw a couple of Doughboy pools. And a few women were out watering their yards with curlers tangled in their hair. The yards were small, the grass was not too green. It was going to be an excellent day.

Still, any ice cream man knows the real selling doesn’t start until the sun is high in the sky. It was just after noon when I saw Big Al again. We were both making turns onto parallel streets, a block apart. He must have seen me because as I rounded the block and made a left onto the street between us, he had already made a right. He had sped up, come down the street ahead of me, and now slowed to a crawl as I trailed him. Down the street we marched, our jingles turned up loud. We sounded like a calliope run amok. The peace of the street was ruptured. Housewives came to their doors, holding their children to them.

Half way down the street, Big Al stopped for a customer, blocking my way. I could only sit and wait until he finished his sale. By this time our dueling jingles had brought the neighborhood to their front doors.

Big Al moved on and I left him as he turned down the next block.

The war escalated throughout the afternoon. Half a dozen times we met on some quiet street. Big Al, more familiar with the lay of the land, usually had the advantage. As the afternoon progressed, I found myself less concerned with selling and more preoccupied with beating Big Al onto the next street and leading our mad calliope for while before I stopped in the middle of the street and blocked his path. On a couple of occasions I sped by little children waving for me to stop. Wilson’s counsel to “Go Slow” was forgotten.

Once, as I stopped to sell, Big Al sent over a stringy-haired teenage boy who I’d seen working in his truck. I’m still mystified as to why. The kid stood in line, trying to act nonchalant. Some kind of reconnaissance mission, no doubt. He got to the front of the line and I told him to go to hell. He walked off, apparently lacking the intelligence he was supposed to gather.

Through it all, I thought of all the reasons why Big Al might have it in for me. Clearly, when he looked at me he saw Herm Trop. I could imagine Herm cussing the big fellow out.

Still, I had my competitive edge honed fine when about 3:30 that afternoon I was finishing the route for the second time. I found Big Al stopped and selling. Great. A golden opportunity to wreak havoc on the fat man. I parked beside him, relishing the thought of stealing his customers and forcing him to back up to get around me.

The plan was succeeded. As our jingles rocked yet another quiet neighborhood, I took three of his kids. I think I even sold a drumstick. I was hot. Big Al would be displeased.

Sure enough, his tires squealed as he backed up to get around me. I stood at my window selling Astrojets as fast as I could. The kids were all mine now.

I remember vaguely sensing him not pass by, but stopping instead. Strange.

Then I heard something fall into the front of my truck. The next moment the vehicle shuddered with a thunderous explosion. I fell back. The sound ricocheted against the tin walls. Shards of paper littered the floor. My ears were humming.

Outside a mother stared up at me with her mouth agape. She quickly pulled her son to her as I cursed and ran to the driver’s seat, pulled away and gave chase. I rounded a curve and saw him at a stop sign.

I accelerated. Big Al was mine. I’d like to say I rammed him and sent him headfirst through the front window. But at the last moment I lost my nerve and only bumped him.

My ears were still ringing and I was dazed from the attack. But I quickly realized my mistake. Big Al was truly enormous. Not tall, but wide. His arms were like hams and his stomach still peered out at the world from beneath his sweaty t-shirt. His truck sighed with relief as he got out.

He trundled up to me, hitching up his pants and adjusting his cap. There was no fooling him.

“You hit me.”

Here I figured I’d play dumb.

“What? You threw a cherry bomb in my truck and I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

He reached in and switched off my jingle.

“You hit me,” he said with a sneer, “and if I wasn’t on parole I’d rearrange your face.”

I left Santa Fe Springs that afternoon and didn’t return for 20 years or so.

I stayed for another three weeks at Tropical, working intermittently, then school started and I never went back.

I’d love to know what became of Big Al. I saw where Herm Trop died a few years back, at the age of 87.

Pomona’s downtown has made an unexpected and successful transformation, and the Pomona Mall is now an arts and antiques district and the Fox Theater has been restored. The last time I drove down Reservoir, there wasn’t an ice cream truck around for miles.

____

 

Share this story on social media
Facebooktwitterredditmail