Working as a bracero in the farmlands of California, Miguel had heard about the city, its crowded streets, its restaurants and its nightclubs.
Nearly a year after arriving in the United States, he was transferred to an orange-packing facility in a rural town that was close enough to make a weekend trip. At the bus station, Dinah Shore’s “Hit the Road to Dreamland” played on the radio while he ate pancakes and eggs over easy. He boarded the bus and found a seat next to the window. On the drive he fell asleep. A fellow bracero nudged him several times to show him the ocean but Miguel just opened his eyes for a moment and fell back asleep. As the bus got close to downtown, he awoke, straightened up, and pasted his face to the window.
The bus snaked through Chavez Ravine as Miguel got his first glimpse of City Hall in the distance. The white stone tower was the tallest building in town. He leaned forward in his seat, willing the bus to move faster. As the bus rumbled down Main Street, he felt that his eyes were not big enough. Crowds of people marched along the sidewalks while trolleys, buses maneuvered the streets, and cars honked and revved their engines. Cafes buzzed, with well-dressed men and women discussing what seemed to be important business.
The bus pulled into the Greyhound station and Miguel made his way through the streets. Along Broadway Street, windows displayed fashions he had only seen in movies. He began to count the theaters and imagined all he might see at The Palace, The Orpheum and The Million Dollar.
After walking for some time he reached City Hall, the building he had seen from the bus. He walked up the stairs and saw men in suits rushing in and out of the glass doors. He saw, too, his own reflection – a farm boy in work clothes. He turned and headed down the stairs and found a hotel facing City Hall offering rooms for two dollars a night. He sat on the twin bed and re-counted the money saved from his work in the farmlands of California.
He moved each bill from his hand onto the bed. He thought about the day he left his village in Mexico without saying goodbye to his father; the weeks he spent camping out at the Estadio Azteca with thousands of men in Mexico City waiting to be selected as a bracero; the day he first arrived by train in Colusa County to work the fields. Now, at nineteen and a year after entering the United States, he had finally arrived in Los Angeles, the city he had imagined.
Miguel hid most of the money in a sock and placed it in a jacket in the closet. He headed back to Broadway where he paid 35 cents for a full meal at a cafeteria called Clifton’s. He bought a navy blue suit, white shirt and tie at a shop nearby, and then headed to Plaza Olvera for a haircut and a shoeshine. There he asked the men at the barber shop where he could go to hear music. That night, he stood in front of the Paramount Ballroom in Boyle Heights.
The legendary club was built of brick in 1924, the year Miguel was born, and stood two stories tall near the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Mott Street. He looked up at the seven arched windows on the top floor that reflected moonlight and the shadows of people dancing. He walked through the large wooden door, climbed the stairs to the bar and ordered a coke.
Moving to the beat of the big band, he looked out on the dance floor below. A circle was forming around a short guy dancing the jitterbug. Women outnumbered men; the war was on and the men were away. Most of the men in the club were braceros like him who had come from Mexico to harvest crops. Too shy to dance, he watched from the bar all night until the place closed, and then returned to the hotel. He took the bus back to Fillmore on Sunday and told his buddies Roberto and Dionisio about his trip.
From then on, they would work in the fields all week, and go to the City for the weekend. They nicknamed Roberto City Hall because he was the tallest; Miguel was Huero because of his light complexion and blue-green eyes; Dionisio became Shorty.
In Los Angeles they met El Chiberico from Puerto Rico and Walla Walla, another bracero who had picked crops in Walla Walla, Washington and always talked about “Walla Walla this, Walla Walla that.” One night they also met Jorge, a local guy, who told them his mother had a garage for rent. The next week they abandoned their farm jobs and moved to the garage in East L.A.
On the way into the city, they passed the Hollywood Bowl and heard cheering and the drumming of Gene Krupa, the big band drummer who was later arrested for possession of marijuana. Miguel found a job as a busboy at the Trocadero on Sunset Boulevard through Jorge’s brother, who was a bartender there. The brother was a sharp dresser and gave Miguel rides to work in his Buick. Miguel’s friends found jobs, too. They worked all week to spend their money on dressing sharp and dancehalls.
Their first stop on Fridays was usually El Brasil where Miguelito Valdes sang “Babalu,” as the horn section wailed in the background and Valdes played the bongos. Next was La Bamba where Lalo Guerrero sang songs in Spanish and English. Guerrero asked Miguel one night why he was not off fighting in the war. He was from Mexico, Miguel said, and had come to the United States as a bracero to help the war effort working in the fields.
Miguel and his friends often ended the night watching a friend named Tony race his car against others on Broadway. Tony was a good-looking Mexican-American rebel with a notable limp. It was a crazy scene and police did not interfere, as the streets were free of traffic at 1 am.
Miguel switched jobs and worked at the Brown Derby restaurant. Then he worked room service at the Biltmore. One night, he got an order that the other room-service guys offered him money for. He declined their money and went himself. In the room was the world’s richest man, reclining in a chair while beautiful young women gave him a manicure, a pedicure, and a facial. Miguel wheeled in the order, arranged the food and was called over by the man’s assistant, who tipped him a dime.
“That is how the rich stay rich,” he thought. Downstairs, the workers wanted to know what happened; he told them.
On another delivery, a woman was getting out of the shower and asked him to pass her a towel. He was very shy about it, and got red faced when she called him a cutie. He passed her the towel and left quickly, but never forgot her.
Hotel work was more interesting than the fields. But he lived for the city’s nightlife. He saw Duke Ellington at the Million Dollar Theater. On the first note the crowd stood up cheered and never sat down again. At the Shrine Auditorium, he saw a battle of the bands between Benny Goodman and Harry James. He admired the Pachucas in sharp tailored dresses and dark lipstick but they wouldn’t dance with him because he was not a Pachuco. That didn’t matter. There were plenty of girls. One night after the Avalon closed Miguel walked out with seven girls and they went to eat tacos at a Mexican restaurant across the street from Chinatown.
Miguel learned English, mostly by watching films like “To Have and Have Not” with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. His English improved to the point where he translated for his buddies helping them get jobs, order food and anything else they needed. He picked his clothes carefully, striving to be the best dressed, and bought the best he could afford. A few times he was mistaken for a Hollywood actor.
Years before, as a teenager in the quiet hours of the morning while tending his crops, Miguel had imagined what life would be like beyond his village in Mexico. Now he was becoming an Angelino and he felt at home.
One spring morning in 1945 the streets awoke with people, cars, buses and trolleys. More than a year had passed since he had moved to the city. The war had ended weeks earlier and Miguel was walking downtown. He found himself in front of City Hall. The white stone gleamed. The tower of the building had impressed him since his first visit to Los Angeles. Now he again walked up the stairs to its entrance. Businessmen hurried in and out. He approached the glass doors and saw his reflection. He was a tall handsome man in a suit who had contributed to the war effort with his work in the fields. Yet he was no longer a farm boy.
He opened the door for the first time and walked inside.