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By Brian Rivera

The rhythm of drums. Our assigned section was at the bottom tier of the eastern wall. Three-foot-tall metal rails divided the area. From afar, arriving fans resembled ants marching to war as they scurried to fill every crevice of the stadium. Some fans stood, others leaned against the rails. Everyone locked arms and chanted, undulating like an ocean. The ceremony had begun.

La Bombonera is the nickname given to the stadium in Argentina that houses the team known as Boca Juniors. It resembles a box of chocolate, a beautiful mass of concrete bathed in blue and gold. My abuelita Maria Luisa introduced me to the sport of fútbol when I was seven. I have been a fan of the sport since then. I heard about Boca Juniors during the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States. Boca was an Argentinian powerhouse that produced legend Diego Maradona. We watched every game of the World Cup that year in the living room of her house. Although I did not understand what I watched, I was mesmerized by the graceful playmaking and precision passing of the ball. Now I stood in a fútbol stadium at last.

Streamers and confetti rained from the top tiers. Massive banners hung from the highest point of the stadium and reached the bottom of the stands. Shirtless fans brandished blue and gold flags. Others tied bandanas around their mouths and straddled the fifteen-foot gate that enclosed the field intended to protect the players. The smoke from the flares created a blanket over every seat in the stadium. Fans simulated the throwing of an axe when they sang. In a chopping motion, they opened and closed their fists in unison with the boom of the drums.

“Cada día te quiero más,” they chanted.

Every day I love you more.

The stadium erupted as players walked onto the field. Fans distributed Roman candles and gave one to my friend Román. Awaking from a trance, Román reached into his pocket and grabbed a lighter. He raised his right arm and shot six bursts of light into the sky. Men waved smoke bombs and flares that colored the sky blue and gold. The stadium was deafening. Fans never stopped chanting.

In Argentina, fútbol feels like religion and we wanted to experience the ritual of a live Boca Juniors match. By the summer of 2009, Román and I had saved enough money to visit Buenos Aires for two weeks.

Days before the game Román and I walked up Avenida de Mayo and came across a small Italian restaurant. It was well lit and deserted. The windows were outlined with wooden shutters that allowed light to seep through and spill onto the street. Wooden chairs were scattered throughout the small room. A chandelier illuminated the turquoise walls of the restaurant.

The barkeep polished wine glasses behind a wooden counter. He wore a grey flat cap and tight suspenders that nervously clung onto his waistband. The waiter rushed inside the kitchen and emerged with two glasses and bottled water.

“Welcome to my restaurant Limi-t Cervecería Bar. My name is Alejo. Where are you from?”

“East Los Angeles, California.”

Alejo walked to the back of the restaurant. He came back wearing a red and black-checkered flannel buttoned at the top, red bandana, and dark shades. He squared his shoulders, leaned back, and slowly walked across the bar. He tugged at his pants until they sank below his waist.

Órale vatos!” he growled.

We laughed. I asked him, “Sir, do you know how we can get tickets to go see Boca Juniors?”

“Only club members can purchase tickets to La Bombonera.”

Alejo took out a business card and snatched the waiter’s pen from his apron.

“But call this number and ask for Manuel. Tell him I sent you.”

We did. Manuel told us to meet him on the side of the stadium forty-five minutes before kickoff. He waited by a food stand and wore a Boca Juniors jersey. The numbers were cracked and the jersey faded. Only the colors of the jersey were intact. We got our tickets and walked through “El Caminito,” a colorful path throughLa Boca barrio, near the same shipping dock where Boca Juniors adopted the team colors from a Swedish ship that docked at the River Plata over a century ago.

As we walked, Buenos Aires underwent a metamorphosis. Frail homes replaced the tall buildings of the city. Houses were strung together along a cobblestone path and the sound of children’s feet replaced the clatter of men and women’s dress shoes from the city. The home stood next to businesses and together they formed an ocean of blue, turquoise, green, yellow, red, and orange. Their paint was crusted. Sheets of corrugated metal decorated the roofs and windows of several buildings. Shop owners proudly displayed blue and gold flags outside their doors and hung scarves that read, “Xeneizes”, in honor of the Genovese immigrants that established the barrio in the early twentieth century.

The streets pulsed with tourists and tango. Street vendors displayed art on canvases while couples danced cheek to cheek. Life size dolls of famous Argentines waved from the balcony of a two-story building: revolutionary Ernesto “Ché” Guevara, First Lady Evita Perón, tango singer Carlos Gardel and fútbol deity Diego Armando Maradona. People roamed the streets. The sound of booming drums and crying trumpets was deafening.

La Bombonera was their sanctuary, and a shrine in the world theology of fútbol. The club brought prosperity to its faithful followers. Fans invested time into the team season after season, meeting on Sundays to watch players act out the dreams of the poor. Boca Juniors revealed that it was greater than the eleven players that took the field every Sunday. Fans subscribed to the sport because it gave them something to believe in. La Boca was who they were and where they wanted to be.

We sat on slabs of concrete beneath the visitors’ stands and directly across from La Doce or The 12th player, a section reserved for the club’s most devout fans. This division was the heart of the stadium. With an arsenal of trumpets, tubas, cymbals, and bass drums, La Doce played with a fury.

Gimnasia scored the opening goal eleven minutes into the first half. La Bomboneracried in agony. Fans cursed the player who scored the goal as he ran across the field with arms outstretched, ready to transcend into heaven. Men all around me buried their faces in their hands. You could feel the wound. Yet the fans carried on as deafening booms rang from La Doce.

Boca tied the game and the stadium erupted. Forty-six thousand people rose to their feet. The sound was white noise. Fans twirled their shirts over their heads. Others fervently kissed the crest on their jersey. One fan had the Boca Juniors crest tattooed on his entire back, and that included thirty stars on the shield paying homage to the thirty domestic championships the team has won. His group all bared Boca tattoos on their forearms, calves, wrists, and neck. Some had Boca tattoos over their hearts.

Soon after, however, Gimnasia scored again. Fans hung their heads in defeat. They shook their heads in disbelief at the thought of losing. But they remained faithful, urgently cheering their team on. Finally, though, time ran out. Boca Juniors lost 2-1. Yet even then, fans continued to chant. Aficionados embraced one another and sang,

Voz sos la razón de mi existir.”

You are the reason why I exist.

Police in riot gear detained the crowds as we exited. For forty minutes we stayed penned in a tunnel. The echoes from La Doce were relentless and reverberated throughout the stadium.

I was peering over the crowd, trying to understand why we weren’t moving, when a man said, “The visiting fans are escorted first. It wouldn’t benefit them if they left last.”

Though Gimnasia committed the sin of winning the game, our pilgrimage was complete.

___

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 travelling. Leaving Tijuana was his first short story for Tell Your True Tale.
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Uncategorized

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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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