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By Jacqueline Gonzalez Reyes

The summer of 2009 I spent in Houston working with janitors as they fought to renew a union contract. IMG_6637 - Version 3

That July 4th, local pastors held a press conference supporting the janitors. Several union janitors were asked to attend.

That’s when I met Carmen Sanchez. I picked her up and drove her to the event. Carmen was our shortest member, in her sixties, direct, well groomed. She was from Chihuahua, Mexico. She was always at union events. She’d been a janitor for 12 years.

That afternoon, driving her home, my car got a flat tire. I called AAA, but it was clear that due to the holiday help would be a long time coming.

So it was that I found myself with Carmen Sanchez in the middle of downtown Houston on July 4th.

I thought I’d just get Carmen a cab and have her on her way home. But she refused.

“I don’t have anyone waiting for me at home,” she said.

That day, Houston dripped with humidity. She took out a jug of ground-oatmeal water.

“This water saves lives.”

I smiled and drank.

“Whenever it gets this unbearable, I go to my nearest department store and cool off,” she said. “We’re just blocks away from JC Penney. You want to go?”

Sure, I said. AAA was going to call when their truck was on its way.

We walked to Carmen’s JC Penney. The air conditioning hit us like an arctic blast.

We walked every aisle of that store. Carmen slowed when we came to the makeup. This lipstick is the best, she said. Ruby red. She wore it every day for work.

“In the office where I work, I figure I have thirty minutes where the executives and I exchange eyes. They get dressed up, so why shouldn’t I? If they take time to look good on the job, so do I.”

We walked through the shoes.

“I prefer copper brown shoes when I work,” she said. “That color best matches my work uniform.”

She wore a uniform every day. Shoes and makeup were all that were hers at work.

We passed the Bath and Body Works store and tested the seasonal lotions. Then we talked lady stuff – my favorite lipstick, her favorite recipes, and men she recommended I date.

“Why do you do this type of work?” she asked. “Wouldn’t you prefer to date and be a bit mischievous while you can?”

Before I could speak, she said, “No need to answer now –that’s your homework.”

She began to talk about her life.

When she was young, she had a daughter, then a son. She separated from an abusive husband.

To offer her children a future, she left them with her husband’s sister and took a train to the border and crossed into the United States using a phony ID. That was in 1978. She went first to Washington D.C., but with no Latinos in the capital, she didn’t feel comfortable. She moved to Houston.

Living on minimum wage jobs made it hard to ever get back home. But she wired money to her children in Chihuahua every week.

“One week the money would go to my kids’ necessities; the next week to save for the `coyote,’” who would someday take her children across to join her.

Then one day she called home and no one answered.

She called from different phones. Still no answer. She kept calling. She waited six months and went to Mexico. In her town, her mother told her that her kids now ran away from her when they saw her.

Carmen went to the house and knocked. No answer. She waited outside her children’s school – they were teenagers by now. They saw her and ran away. Carmen broke down crying. She stayed for a month and her children refused to see her. A neighbor sent her a message, No quieren saber nada de ti. No one wants to know anything about you. The coyote fund you were sending money to we used for a family emergency.

Carmen returned to Houston. That was in 1988 and she hadn’t seen or talked to her kids since then – except once. She continued to call the number she had for her children’s aunt. Then one day her daughter answered.

“It’s your mother,” Carmen said. There was no response. Silence.

“Okay, don’t say anything. Just give me a minute and don’t hang up. I just want you to know I love you and never stop loving you.”

A minute later the phone went dead.

Later, they changed their number. She kept calling her mother. Go to the house, Carmen pleaded, bring them cookies.

Tightened security on the border and low wages in Houston kept Carmen from ever traveling back to Mexico. She couldn’t attend her mother’s funeral in 1995 and still wasn’t over that.

But for 20 years, she never stopped wiring money to the same account for her children that she’d always used. Every month the bank told her that the money had been picked up.

She still sends the money, she told me, even though the kids are now adults and they haven’t spoken since they were in elementary school. An older aunt is the only family she has left in Chihuahua who still talks to her.

Perdi todo,” she said. “I lost everything and I don’t know why. My mom, my kids. I even didn’t take the opportunity to getIMG_0280 amnesty.”

In her neighborhood when amnesty for illegal immigrants came around, so did a lot of fraud, and people pretending to be attorneys. Money was tight, too, and she no longer trusted anyone.

“If I can’t trust my own family …” she said, her voice trailing off. “I’m in a foreign land. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”

Night fell and by then we were sitting on a curb near the parking lot. The AAA guy had finally shown up. We spotted a hot dog vendor and treated ourselves to hot dogs and chips.

As the AAA guy worked, we ate and watched fireworks explode in the distance.

“Ahh, I liked that one, the three-colored firework!” Carmen said. “Now that was worth the wait.”

____

*Jacqueline Gonzalez Reyes was born and raised in Koreatown, Los Angeles. This story first appeared in Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles. Contact her at gonzalesreyesj@gmail.com.

 

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By Diego Renteria

________

As a teenager, I was part of a mariachi group with high school friends. We performed at birthday parties, masses, quinceañeras, and weddings around Southern California, each time becoming part of someone’s special occasion.

We always hesitated about taking gigs after December 15th because members traveled with their families for the holidays. In 2006, however, almost all our members stayed in our town of South Gate for Christmas, so that year we accepted a Christmas Eve gig because it was a one-hour performance in our hometown.

I arrived at the house about a half hour early and warmed up with my fellow musicians at a nearby strip mall parking lot. The night was chilly and our thin trajes were no match for the cold. I worried about not being able to feel or control my fingers in the cold but looked forward to a quick festive performance without worrying about being harassed by a drunk.

We walked down their driveway to their backyard. Most of the backyard was taken over by a stucco-on-chicken-wire two-story rear unit that looked perpetually under construction. A few people sat around a small fire in the center of the backyard, eating tamales from disposable plates and staying warm by the fire. The lights in the front unit were on and the smell of pozole wafted from the open kitchen door to the backyard.

They had hired us but did not seem very invested in our performance. I was accustomed to the occasional grito or exhortation in the middle of songs, clapping at the end of songs, and song requests, but this audience seemed unusually indifferent. As we encircled the family members and sang for them, the embers and smoke from their fire blew towards us, enveloping us and choking us.

When our hour was done, we bowed and started to take our leave. One of the men stopped us.

“Stay for one more hour.”

I did not expect anyone in the house to notice us leaving, let alone ask us to stay.

“Can’t. It’s Christmas Eve and we agreed to only one hour. We have to go be with our families.”

“I’ll pay five hundred dollars for the second hour.”

“Sorry, we really have to go.”

“Seven hundred dollars?”

“Look, we must…”

“One thousand.”

“We’ll talk about it with the rest of the group.”

We thought he was bluffing about the money. He gave us $500 and said he would give us the rest at the end. One hour of our time on Christmas Eve was worth $1,000 to him. Usually we charged $300 an hour.

We started singing, happy we were each getting over $100 for that night. He was pleased to have us at the family reunion for one more hour – more cheer for the house. Because it was Christmas, we tried our best to keep our songs cheerful or boisterous. We also played a few songs of heartbreak and loss because we knew they wanted to hear them. Their gritos indicated we were right.

About twenty minutes in, a woman emerged from the house and asked, “Can you come inside and play a song for us?”

We filed into the house through the kitchen and I noticed everyone outside the house followed us inside.

We walked into their living room. There, beside the Christmas tree and gifts and above the mantel was a large framed portrait of a boy no more than twelve years old. He looked down on everyone, eternally smiling for a school portrait, his hair spiky and clad in a gray school polo shirt. On a nearby stool were a backpack and some toys. On the mantel was an unwrapped tamal, a glass of milk, and two cookies. The couches were arranged to face his portrait.

I knew what song they would request and secretly hoped I was wrong.

“We want you… to play ‘Amor Eterno’ for our son…”

“Amor Eterno” was composed by the Mexican ranchera singer Juan Gabriel. Juan Gabriel is said to have composed the song to the memory of his mother and as the title (“Eternal Love”) suggests, it speaks of the pain of remembering the loss of a loved one who will never be forgotten or replaced. The suffering is so strong that the narrator prefers sleep because the pain disappears. “Amor Eterno” is almost solely requested at funerals or wakes or by people remembering their loved ones.

IMG_7077 - Version 2I don’t like performing “Amor Eterno.” It elicits such sadness and despair in listeners. There is always at least one person who starts crying. I feel bad for them and don’t know whether to cry or hang my head. Other mariachis have told me they feel the same. Our group vowed to play this song only when requested because it was too sad for most occasions.

We anxiously looked at each other. Our singer for “Amor Eterno” was sick at the time. Luckily, another member knew the lyrics and could sing in range. We were saved from the embarrassment of not being able to play the song.

We stood in a semicircle behind the couches. The family sat on the couches or in the doorways. Everybody in the room looked at the portrait.

They started crying as we started to sing. I stopped paying attention to who cried when. We mariachis exchanged glances to distract us from the mourning. Everything seemed to stop. No glasses clinked, no laughter punctuated the song. Everyone started singing to their son, their nephew. His mother broke down in tears on the couch, comforted by his madrina. A man who seemed to be his father stood against a wall, stone quiet.

The song ended but the family’s sobs did not. We filed out and finished our hour outside the house, colder than before we entered.

The man who paid us $1000 for the extra hour was in the street, burning rubber in his truck, drunk. Family had to drag him out of the truck. He kept his word and paid us the remaining $500.

We went home to our families that night. I went straight to sleep. But I think about that family, and the boy whose name I never knew, every Christmas Eve.

_________
Diego Renteria
Diego Rentería is a semi-retired mariachi musician who plays the guitar, vihuela, and  guitarrón and now lives in Boston. This story grew out TYTT workshops at East L.A. Public Library in the winter of 2014 and was first published in the book, Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles, Volume 1. Read more of his  writing at http://soledadenmasa.wordpress.com.

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Feature Section 3True TalesTYTT Export

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By Helen Weatherell-Bay*

I remember being really sad this day.  Sad enough to be sitting on a beach alone and crying.

This is a low point, Helen, I thought.   I am not,  and have never been, suicidal.  Homicide was always a more comfortable feeling for me.  But this day, I was just damn sad and needed a cry.   Then suddenly, all I could think was  “Get up! YOU’RE DONE.” I knew I was lying. But it was okay.

I got up and started a long walk in the hot sand back to boardwalk.  Every step felt heavy and uncomfortable.  I reached the boardwalk before the tears returned.  As I leaned up against a tree to wipe my feet, I heard a voice.

“That is the saddest face on a pretty girl that I have ever seen. Why?”

He was a handsome, cherubic, elderly man—well dressed and even using a cane.

“My name is Stanley Sadowsky—and who are you?”

I was thinking “Who am I? I am a Lifetime Channel Movie!!”  Life is just not like this.  Bad days are not resolved by cheery little Jewish saviors that come in little cuddly old-man packages and hug away dreary with one liners that make you wish you had a bat mitzvah.

“I’m not having the best day,” I said.  “Just walking back to my hotel.”

I am now sucking back every potential feeling of dread, fear, loneliness and just plain loss of will to live … because clearly Stan’s cataracts couldn’t hide my pain. I’m pathetic,  and my brave front did not fool him.  He continued.

“Okay!! Good, let’s walk together than—you sound like you have a good story to tell. So tell me … why the tears?”

“I caught my husband cheating on me … well, not really my husband, but my boyfriend and…well…but we have a child together and he has two children as well and ummm, they are two little girls whose mother had died in a car accident and… anyway, we lived together for nine years … along with my son and daughter from my previous marriage.”

I am now feeling like some backwoods trailer trash—banjo and all. I am sure Stan is about to advise me that I should be grateful that I am no longer incarcerated and life out of the joint has so much to offer.

“Oh my dear!  How sad! So you were the mommy…to ALL five of these children?  And he left you anyway?” was his reply.  Honest to God—that’s what he said. He got me.  In one sentence I had found my soul mate—well, soul mate from a past life. Life was making more sense to me at that moment and I was rolling with it.

But all I could say was  “I am having a hard time right now.”  I really did not want to cry any more that day. I swallowed every tear as if it were my favorite Dim Sum.  Not now, I thought.   I changed the subject.

“How about you Stan? “ I asked,    “What’s your story? Why did I find you walking this boardwalk?”  This was a sincere question regardless of my motives.  As I said, I really don’t believe in the airy-fairy crap—but still.

“Hah!”  Stan chuckled.  “It is simple Helen.”

Stan stopped walking just then and looked at me.  I needed this now; I needed something simple to explain it all.  I wanted to drink the Kool-Aid, smoke the pipe in a sweat lodge, and believe that that goddamn book really had The Secret.  I looked at Stan for a long while before he said:  “My wife, Faye and I walked nearly every night of our life together — 53 years we did this.  And the last 10 years were on this very boardwalk.”

“Really?”  I replied, knowing she had passed.  Maybe this was it, I thought.  It’s that simple.  I felt a bright light coming on.  It’s loyalty. Really—just loyalty.  Not the hot body, fun sex and crazy nights that you had with this horrid man who left you—but loyalty.   Real loyalty.  Real love.  Stan continued.

“Yes,   Rose [FAYE?]and I were married for 53 years…we had a good life and three beautiful children.   We moved here to  Santa Barbara when I retired. We liked to walk and talk every evening….”   He paused, but I knew he had more to say.

“I miss her every day. Every day.”

And so it was.  I found some meaning in my pain.

Just as Stan and I were approaching the corner that I needed to cross the highway to get to my hotel, I was feeling as if this man could be my friend for the rest of my life—or the rest of his. In any case, I turned to him and said, “Well, Stan, this is where I need to cross the street.” I wanted to race across the highway without losing this feeling—I needed it so.

Stan smiled and said, “Oh Helen, okay.  Can I give you a hug?”

“Of course,” I said, pushing my arms out, to gather a little more happiness from this day.

Stan put his arms around me and kissed my cheek.  I stopped myself from crying again.   Stan’s arms were so tight that it was a few seconds before I noticed that they had moved near my boobs.  When I realized this, I reassured myself that he was just trying to steady himself as he said goodbye to me.  Then Stan looked up at me and whispered…

“ Oh my, you feel so good.” I was still certain that I misunderstood and replied,

“So do you, Stan.”

“I like holding your hot tits,” I heard him say in my ear.  I was both shocked and mildly turned on. Come on, I thought, this could never happen again, now that I’d been dumped.

I came to my senses and said, “Okay, Stan, I really need to cross the street and get back to my hotel,” as I pulled his crippled hands off my hot tits and pushed the button to cross the street.

“Really?” he asked.

“Oh yes, Stan, really,” I said, as I kissed his bald head.  “Maybe we will meet again on the boardwalk.” I began to have thoughts of choking this ancient little pervert if he carried on like this.

“Goodbye, Helen,” was all he said.

The light changed and the green “Go” sign to cross came up just before my thoughts of choking turned to something much more dark.  I ran across the street while looking back at him.   I suddenly began to laugh—really laugh out loud.  Life is so absurd, I thought, as I neared the center of the highway.

As I was shaking my head, I could hear a strange “tweeting” sound.   This sound was meant to notify the blind to let them know it was safe to go to the other side of the street.  I knew this because it was posted on the crosswalks. I could have used just that kind of warning that day, if not my entire life.  I wondered if it would have made any difference. When I finally crossed the road, I knew. Probably not.

__________

Shortly after her break-up, Helen Weatherell-Bay sold her house and most of her worldly goods and bought a bar in Mexico–near the beach.  When not mixing margaritas or frying chicken wings, she enjoys the surf, sun and occasionally documenting her new and bizarre life on her Apple laptop.   Contact her at  helenbaysandbar@gmail.com

 

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