By J. Alejandro Urias
When I was 9 years old I learned two things. I learned that rock ‘n’ roll will never die and that my body most certainly would.
On a warm Saturday afternoon, in the late summer of ‘87, my family and I stood in a line that snaked around a theater in East L.A. We were waiting to watch “La Bamba.” I didn’t know anything about the film. I had only seen the movie poster that showed a sleek, brown-skinned young man, dressed in black with a white guitar slung at his side.
“You’re gonna like this movie,” my dad said in Spanish. “It’s about a rock and roller.”
But at 9, I had already learned that my dad’s idea of rock ‘n’ roll was not the same as mine, and that I would have rather preferred to watch the latest Superman movie.
We entered the theatre, the room went dark, and I soon forgot all about the “Man of Steel.” For the next hour and a half, I was romanced by a familiar version of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. My skin vibrated as I watched Ritchie Valens play his first gig with cholos and family members in the crowd. I beamed with pride when, in one of his final performances, a racially mixed New York audience exploded as he ripped into “La Bamba.” Tears rolled down my face, as the movie ended in the only way it could: funeral cars with guitar-shaped flower arrangements driving into a cemetery and Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” playing in the background, his life cut short by an airplane crash at 17.
As we walked out into the blinding light of the late afternoon, my younger sister and I took turns running ahead of our parents, and performing one of Ritchie’s songs for them. “C’mon, Let’s Go!”, “Donna”, “La Bamba.” They were all songs we sang along to, while listening to the oldies station in my mom’s ’78 Ford Pinto station wagon. I had no idea a Mexican-American artist had recorded them, and at just 16 years old when he did it! The Mexican musicians I knew were old men who only played traditional styles of music. Ritchie’s life suddenly gave me permission to be a Mexican-American rock ’n’ roller; I went to bed that night with electric guitars on my mind.
The next morning, I opened my sleepy eyes to a blurred image of dirty white frost formations that sparkled silver here and there – the popcorn ceiling of our bedroom. I lay there a while, staring at the tiny bits of glitter, soon remembering a dream from the night before. I was onstage at my elementary school auditorium playing and singing Ritchie Valens’ “Come On, Let’s Go!” The auditorium lights flashed, teachers and classmates cheered and danced, my third grade crush swooned. The sounds of my friends playing outside came in through the window and broke me from my flashback. I sprang off the top bunk onto my parent’s bed, put on a pair of beach shorts and tank top.
“Mom, I’m going outside! Be back later!”
I met my friends at the bottom of the stairs of my apartment complex, and told them all about the movie. I grabbed the nearest plastic broom, went up one flight of stairs to the landing, and showed them what I was talking about: Shaking my broom guitar, kicking out my pale, skinny legs and singing “Para bailar La Bamba!” They cheered. I danced around the landing, giving them every rock ‘n’ roll strut in my repertoire. For the grand finale, I walked down the staircase, and from three stairs up, I turned my back to them, bent my knees, and jumped off. My right foot hit the ground, twisted then cracked. I lost my balance and fell on my butt. We all laughed, but as I went back up those stairs at the end of the day, I was still limping.
A couple summer days passed, and so did the pain. I continued running, jumping, and reenacting performances from the movie. As my sister and I hopped and strummed our air-guitars on the bed of our dad’s pick-up, our mom called us in for dinner. I jumped off the tailgate, landed and felt my ankle bend and crack again. I hobbled up the steps once more, and finally told my parents about my injury.
“I told you to stop jumping off that truck,” my mother said.
“Go ahead, keep jumping, dummy,” my dad added.
The weekend came and I was still limping. My ankle was red and as fat as a baseball. Saturday was usually the day that the men in our apartment complex hung out under the staircase, going through 12-packs of Budweiser, playing poker and telling stories about the small Mexican town they all came from. I was lying on our couch with my foot raised and bandaged, watching Three Stooges reruns, when my dad walked in with one of the staircase men. I had seen this man before. He was an older, thin man with a gaunt face, his graying hair spackled with pomade. It was said that he performed dental work using pliers, mostly practicing on himself. My dad told me the guy was a bone mechanic, and he was gonna take a look at my ankle. My mom heard the conversation, and came into the room. I gave her a questioning glare. She understood and turned to my dad and gave him the same look.
“He’s just gonna look at it. He’s not gonna do anything to you.”
The man got down on one knee, smiled (showing me his DIY dental work), and told me again that he was just going to take a look at my foot. I could smell the Budweiser on his breath.
I took a deep breath and handed him my foot. He took the bandage off and began to press on the swelling. I pulled back my foot, he held on to it and said, “Relax. It’s not gonna hurt.” He put some stinky salve on my ankle, and started to lightly massage it.
“I thought he was just going to look at it,” I said.
Without warning, he grabbed my leg with one hand, my foot with the other hand, and rung out my ankle like a dirty washcloth. My body stiffened and I screamed in agony. I sat up and reached to pull his hands away: fighting to try to take my foot back. “No, no. I almost got it. Hold him,” he told my dad. With some hesitation, my dad held me down, and the old man twisted my ankle again. My ankle popped, and then cracked for the third time. He spoke over my screams in a calm and confident voice, “There. It’s over. That’s it. You’re gonna be okay.”
I wasn’t okay; it got worse, and within a few days I had to crawl to get around the house. This finally convinced my parents that I had to go to the hospital. That night, we drove past the lights of downtown, the Olympic murals on the 101 Freeway, and then made our way up Sunset Boulevard to Children’s Hospital.
Most of that night is a blur of blood tests, x-rays, waiting, half sleeping, and more waiting.
“What’s taking so long?” I asked my parents over and over again.
“We don’t know. Just try to sleep.”
But I didn’t want to go to sleep. I just wanted them to tell me my ankle was broken, that I would get a cool white cast everyone could sign, and then go home. Sometime around 2 A.M., I finally gave in and fell asleep to the echoes of beeping hospital equipment and nurse shoes squeaking in the hallways.
I woke up an hour later to the sound of a stoic voice whispering to my parents. I interrupted and asked, “Can I go home now?” The young resident doctor turned to me, changing her tone.
“I’m sorry buddy, but we’re gonna have to keep you here. We found that your ankle has been dislocated and fractured for quite a while, and this has caused a serious infection. We have to operate as soon as possible …”
She kept talking, but I stopped listening. A hard frown held back my tears.
The next day, the surgeon opened up my ankle and removed much of the infection; the rest of it was taken care of with lots of antibiotics. The infection had spread quickly, and had we delayed one more week, a total leg amputation would have been necessary.
“He’s very lucky,” the doctor told my parents a few days later.
I smiled, and then asked, “Does that mean I can go home soon?”
“Unfortunately, not yet. We also found that you have Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. It’s an auto-immune disease that causes chronic joint tissue inflammation and pain.”
She went on to explain that I was born with this disease, but that it had been inactive, and the combination of the trauma from the injury and surgery triggered it.
“Is there a cure for it?” I asked.
“No, but it can be kept under control with medication and lots of exercise. We’re going to keep you here for three or four more weeks to continue the antibiotics, and eventually get you started on physical therapy.”
The doctor left the room, and soon after, my parents went home. I sat up in my hospital bed, staring out of a seven-story window. Summer was over, and fall was here. It was a warm, bright day. I watched people and cars move in all directions, going wherever they pleased. School and 4th grade would be starting soon, but I wouldn’t be there. Instead, I would still be stuck in a cold hospital room, with a head full of questions, and far away from everything I knew.
I wish I could say that the worst things I remember from that month-long hospital stay were the mandatory wake-ups at 7 A.M., or the unsalted mashed potatoes served at almost every dinner, but trauma has a much better memory than that. I remember the medieval torture I felt whenever they inserted the seven-inch aspirating needle under my kneecap. I remember the thick, Frankenstein-sized, black-stitched incision the male doctors forced me to look at every time they re-dressed my wound. I remember the eternal wailing of my roommate, whom I nicknamed “La Llorona,” which kept me up night after night. And I won’t ever forget the 6.1 Whittier Narrows earthquake that rattled my 7th floor room on the morning of October 1st (it killed 8 people, injured hundreds, and caused millions in structural damages).
But I can’t say that it was all bad. In contrast to the torture, I received many visitors, and with visitors came gifts. Letters written by friends and cousins, chocolate bars, action figures, and an Atari video game system given to me by my parents, who also visited as often as they could, bringing me the fast-food meals that helped me feel somewhat normal. I also received a portable FM radio and headphones that helped me get through many cold, lonely nights. When “La Llorona” could not be put to sleep, or when the aftershocks of the earthquake sent my adrenaline off, I put on my headphones, sifted through the stations (looking for those rock ‘n’ roll songs that made me feel at home), and soon I drifted off to sleep.
“C’mon, Mom, faster!” I said, as my mom wheeled me out of the hospital. I was finally going home. I lunged forward and gave the wheels a strong push as we crossed the threshold of the main entrance. The warmth of the sun and sounds of the city welcomed me back.
A few months later, I was standing behind the curtain of my school’s small wooden stage: a glossy black electric guitar slung at my side. I didn’t know how to play it yet, but I was about to perform my long-practiced, lip-synching impersonation of “La Bamba” for the school talent show.
I wore a tight black t-shirt tucked into high-waisted silver slacks, and a borrowed pair of black wing-tipped shoes (too big for my feet). My hair done up in a pompadour, my sleeves rolled up and my heart drumming hard in my chest.
The curtains went up, the opening riff exploded and I was off! Fully recovered from the injury and surgery, I kicked out my legs, shook my hips and strutted up and down the stage. ”Para bailar La Bamba! Para bailar La Bamba se necesita una poca de gracia!”: my lips never missing a beat. The guitar solo came in and I dropped to my knees. The crowd whooped and hollered. The solo climaxed, sounding like an angry rattlesnake, and I rolled onto my back and kicked my legs up into the air. The song ended, and as the crowd cheered, I stood there panting, smiling and wanting to do it all over again.
I eventually learned to play guitar, and I’ve never stopped playing it. I’ve played it for many people. I’ve played it despite having severe and permanent damage in most of my joints from the arthritis.
I’ve also never stopped enjoying the film that set this story in motion. I’ve watched it dozens of times; I know almost every line, and still feel many of those emotions the film first evoked.
Only I don’t watch “La Bamba” anymore, I listen to it. The disease recently caused me to go blind.
But that’s a story for another time.Share this story on social media