Feature Section 2Tell Your True Tale

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By Tené Harris

________

There was something really peaceful about driving through this mostly rural area on a wide-open two-lane highway. The sky was blue with specks of pollen from springtime blossoms spiraling through the air. At 75 miles per hour, bugs spattered against the glass. It was warm but nothing like the heat that dominated June and July. I let the window down and felt the push of wind against my hand. It brought back childhood memories of family road trips.

As we neared Naples, Texas, the flat land shifted to rolling hills. Even the smallest of homes sat on huge lots. We got accustomed to the miles of land between one house and the next. At first glance, the tall commanding green things covering the landscape, resembled cacti. But they were pine trees, though not the kind you find in Oregon or California. They looked as if they were weeping. The breeze had finally gotten the better of my 6-year-old daughter, Jasmine, and she drifted off to sleep just as we neared Aunt Luanna’s house.

Both of my parents were from Texas. My brother and I were born on the Gulf Coast in Corpus Christi. Even though we moved north when I was young, I still felt a deep connection to the South. My mom and dad were part of the generation of blacks who left the South during the Great Migration in search of a better life. In 1964, my parents were married. That same year, my dad followed his sister’s advice and went to Michigan to take a job in one of the automobile factories that were booming. Once he was settled and found our new home in the same neighborhood his sister lived in, he sent for my mom, me and my brother.

Growing up, every summer my parents would load up the car and drive “home” to the south. In our case, that meant East Texas. My mom’s maternal family and my dad’s family were from the same little town, Dekalb. My mom’s paternal family members were from Naples. This was the family I knew little about and had come with my daughter to visit.

Living thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, now with my own family, I realized the importance of family history and wanted to share that with my children.

That morning, as we passed the landmark Aunt Oneida had told me to look out for – the steeple at Gethsemane Baptist Church – Jasmine shifted in her seat and her doll fell to the floor. The dirt was of vivid red clay. Maple and aged oaks stood guard. On the left side of the road, a sign read “Boyd Cemetery.”

I gently shook Jasmine awake. She stretched and yawned as she stepped from the car, wiping the sleep from her eyes. We walked across a field that led to a trail. When the tall grass and weeds grew high enough to reach her hip, Jasmine stood still and tears began to well up in her little eyes. My little girl who only knew a city life was scared. I picked her up and walked with her on my hip. I was feeling a little ambivalent myself, with the cemetery now in plain sight. I imagined all of my family members who had walked this land. My mom had spent summers on this farm and had shared so many stories about roaming the farm with her first cousins. They would sit outside their grandparents’ kitchen window eating fresh-picked fruit and mock their conversations.

I had come to this part of east Texas to meet a woman I had known nothing about a year before.

The trip grew from a call I made to my Aunt Oneida to invite her to attend my mom’s surprise 50th birthday celebration in California. She couldn’t come, she told me, because Aunt Luanna was celebrating her centennial that same weekend. I’d never heard of an Aunt Luanna. But meeting her, I realized, might fill out a lot of what I didn’t know about this part of my family.

Two concrete headstones stood in the cemetery. One read: “Mabe Boyd – 1840 to 1927.” The other read “Lou Boyd – 1853 to 1946.” Nearby was the headstone of Aunt Luanna’s brother, James Boyd, a World War I veteran. He died in 1994 at the age of 97. There was a huge concrete tomb with the name Napoleon. The placard with the last name and dates was worn. After taking a few pictures, we walked back to the car. The weight of Jasmine’s body began to tire me out.

We drove on up the road to a simple white house with an enclosed porch. A rusted old wagon wheel stood under the carport. We walked up the path to the porch and I heard a southern drawl that felt familiar.

“Come on in!” It was Aunt O.

There were lots of hugs and long glances, as we were introduced to Aunt Luanna and her daughter, Juanita, who lived with her. Aunt Luanna had long straight silver hair that was braided and pinned. We sat down and Juanita brought us sweet tea in glasses etched in a yellow and green floral design. Everyone laughed as Jasmine turned up her glass and said, “Yum!”

Two antique oval pictures hung on the wall. As I looked at the man and the woman in the pictures, I recalled the meticulous calligraphic script of the names in the large wooden family bible that Aunt O had shared with me just the night before. I knew that the man was Aunt Luanna’s father, Mabe Boyd, and the woman, her mother, Lou Boyd. This was the first time that I had seen a photograph of family members from the late 1800’s. I could see the resemblance between Lou and nearly all the women on my mom’s side. My middle brother had eyebrows just like Mabe. They were both attractive and you could tell from their clothing and the way they were groomed that they lived a good, comfortable life.

Aunt Luanna was small but strong. She lived on the Boyd Farm practically her entire life, with the exception of the occasional trip to Dallas to spend time with her daughters and one lone trip to Los Angeles in the late 60’s. Life in Los Angeles had gotten the better of one of her daughters, so she went to bring her back home. The hustle and bustle there was too much for Aunt Luanna. The quiet Boyd Farm with clean air and fresh running rivers and lakes, fruit trees, vegetables, poultry and cattle, was the only world she knew. At night, you could see every constellation, and the full moon was majestic.

As she spoke, I remembered my first drink from a well as a child. Lowering a wooden bucket with the tin can tied by twine, down to the water source and then turning the wheel to pull it back up, seemed like a lot of effort for a city girl, until I tasted the ice cold water. It was heaven, especially in the Texas heat.

Aunt Luanna talked on. The Boyd Farm covered most of the northwest corner of Cass County. Back in the day, it was full of fruit orchards, a blacksmith shop, a syrup mill, a smoke house, livestock, acres of vegetables, a schoolhouse and natural hot springs and creeks.

Several hours passed. Finally, I asked Aunt Luanna if I could come back the next day.

The next morning, we found her sitting on the enclosed porch with her food in a small stainless steel bowl and a paring knife. She no longer had her teeth, but she seemed to be enjoying every bite.

With her permission, I videotaped our conversation sitting on the porch. I asked her to tell me of her childhood on the farm. “There was always plenty to eat and plenty to do,” she said. They went to town a few times a year for cloth, coffee and other items they didn’t produce on the farm. Practically everything else they needed, they produced on the farm. Her mother kept the children healthy with castor oil and lemon several times a week, especially during the winter months.

Aunt Luanna began to talk of her father. Mabe had arrived in east Texas from Georgia, a freed man, in about 1859. He was a skilled carpenter, shoemaker, blacksmith and farmer. Over the years this man somehow amassed close to one thousand acres, 600 of which remain in our family. No one knew much about his parents. Some speculate that his father was a slave owner and that had something to do with his ability to purchase and retain so much land in east Texas. Truth is, we’ll never know. Too much time has passed and older family members have died.

But we know that he built a school for his own children and other black children in the area. She pointed it out, an old building hidden among tall weeds. “He called it Celeste School. I went there with my brothers and sisters,” she said. So did other black kids from the area whose parents were sharecropping on farms owned by white people. Mabe also built the home that housed the teacher he hired to instruct the children. Her home was miles away in Marshall, Texas. Back then travel was precarious on the dirt roads. The last teacher hired was Mrs. Dean, Aunt Luanna remembered, and the last students attended Celeste School during World War II. After that, more schools were built and the state of Texas took over the Celeste school in a different location.

I listened to Aunt Luanna tell the story of Mabe, her father, and wished I knew more about him, what made him so focused on self-sufficiency and education. Yet as she spoke, I realized his importance to the family, this relative of mine I’d never heard of.

Aunt Luanna lived to 106. We kept in touch through letters, as we promised we would. And I never forgot the story of her father, Mabe, and her mother, Lou. We were carrying Mabe’s legacy forward in many ways. His descendants are now college graduates in 11 states and two continents. We are teachers, engineers, authors, television writers and producers, military officers, computer network managers, nurses, business owners, longshoremen, and lawyers.

All that, I realized, started with Mabe and Lou Boyd, freed slaves who arrived in east Texas from Georgia with skills and a view of the future they could build with school and land.

That day, I wasn’t ready for our trip to end. As we rose to leave, Aunt Luanna took Jasmine by her hand and pulled her in close. She looked into her eyes.

“Don’t forget me,” she said.

______

Tené Harris was born in Corpus Christi, Texas. She has worked for 30 years at KCET in Los Angeles. She owns Sweet Beginnings, a bakery. She is also a government analyst with the state of California, and a freelance writer/producer. Contact her at mysweetbeginnings@gmail.com.
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[dropcap1]W[/dropcap1]hen I was in the third grade, I was chosen to be the announcer at my school’s spring assembly, which meant I would go on stage and announce each class as they came up to perform. It was an honor for a student to be chosen by their teacher to represent the school in this way, and of course, the announcer was to dress in her best clothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Jian Huang

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

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

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

Mr. Alexanian enrolled me anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she kept talking to me.

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

“Not yet,” I replied.

“Wanna go?”

Yeah.

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

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

“Dead bodies!” she enthused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By 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 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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By David Orr

“Hurry up!  We’re late for school!  You’ll like school.  You’re going to be in the same class with your cousin Johnny.  Sister Mary Margaret is expecting us!”

My mother whisked me across the park past the immense statue of Christopher Columbus through the grove of Dutch Elms that arched over the path to St. Michael’s Parish School. I clutched my mother’s hand and looked for something familiar.  I recognized Lucibello’s Pastry Shop and Frank’s Pizzeria across the park, and finally there was the school.

The school was behind the church.  I knew the church well.  We crossed the park every Sunday morning, so I could sit in the pew with my mother and stare at the altar rail and the marble statues all imported from Italy.  I was fascinated by the patterns of light that filtered through the stain glass windows.  The priest’s chanting and the incense made me dizzy.  My mind would wander until my mother would look at me and whisper, “Sit up straight.  Listen to the priest.  This is Mass!”

I shivered in the mid-morning sun and tried to kick some leaves as my mother pulled me across the street.  The fall term had already started earlier in the week, and school was in session when we entered the principal’s office.  Sister Mary Margaret was tall and wore a long white robe with black trim.  I could see only her face.  My mother quickly kissed me goodbye, and Sister Mary Margaret escorted me up to my kindergarten classroom on the third floor.

My teacher, Sister Mary Rose, stood up from her desk at the back of the classroom.  She showed me my place in a long row of iron desks with scarred tops that were bolted together on rails.  As soon as I sat down, the row of desks wiggled, and the kids turned to look at me and giggled.  Sister gave me a sheet of paper, a pencil, and a ruler and told me to copy the shapes that were on the blackboard.

Sister walked up and down the rows to make sure that all the boys and girls copied the neat, straight lines correctly.  More than once she snapped her ruler on the shoulder of any boy who dared whisper, laugh, or even turn around.  I kept my head down and stared at my desk top.  I could hear the soft sounds of breathing and desks creaking.

Suddenly the buzzer sounded for recess!  Sister told us to leave everything on our desks. She marched us in formation out to hall, and all the boys and girls scrambled up the steps to the roof.  I was astonished to see a playground on the rooftop!  What would happen if you fell off this roof?   There was a waist high wall around the edges of the playground, and it was divided by a long, thick rope – the boys’ side vs. the girls’ side!

The boys quickly formed up for baseball and ran to different places on a faded diamond that was painted on the playground.  The biggest kid yelled at me, “Hey you – you new kid!  You’re in the outfield.  Get out there by the rope!”

I stood at the rope and watched the little girls on the other side playing something like hopscotch, squealing and arguing, darting and dodging chalk squares.  I was five years old.  I had never played baseball. I looked around this strange world for my cousin Johnny who had not been in Sister Mary Rose’s classroom.  Maybe he was somewhere on this baseball team?  Just as I started to look for him, the batter swatted the ball.

“Hey you!  Who is that kid?  Does anybody know him?”  Everyone yelled at me, “Hey, new kid!  Get the ball!”

“What are you doing on the girls’ side of the playground?”  She grabbed me and dragged me to the parapet.  She hoisted me up and held me over the edge.  I hung there!  I was frozen with fear as I stared at the traffic in the street four stories below!

“What is your name?” demanded Sister.  “Even though you are new, you are going to learn the rules at this school!  I’m going to show you what we do to little boys who don’t follow the rules!”

All I could hear were the screaming voices from the other side of the playground!  “Hey, what happened to that new kid?   Where is he?”

After Sister set me down, I sprinted back to the boys’ side.  Recess was over, and we marched down the steps to our classroom.

That first day of school on the roof I was the new kid who began to learn the rules.  From that day on at St. Michael’s, I learned never to cross certain lines, and instinctively I knew where the boundaries were.

____

David Orr was born in Connecticut and grew up in Arizona.  He lives in Tucson and has recently retired after teaching high school English for 35 years.

 

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