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By C.J. Salgado

[dropcap1]W[/dropcap1]hen I was in elementary school in East L.A. I would climb atop our rickety garage at night and stare up at the moon, the stars, and space. The roof was flat with a shallow slope. It was perfect for lying on my back. I’d wave a flashlight into space, the beam of light zooming out as far as my imagination would reach.

There I wondered about the world around me. I had grown up in East L.A. and knew not much more. My parents, immigrants, had settled here because my mother was a shopper who dreamed of owning a home and for about $20,000, she bought one.

The only times I ventured away was when my parents would take us on family outings, usually on Sundays after church. Protective, they kept my siblings and me close and warned us about the “cholos.” The garage became my refuge.

Lying atop that garage, I used to think there was a giant “bubble” around my neighborhood and if I aimed my flashlight just right I’d see the rainbow colors as the beam of light pierced the bubble wall. How far away was that bubble? Would it bend my light? Could I pop it? And, if I could, what was beyond?

It was the great physicist Albert Einstein who put that flashlight in my hand. His ideas fascinated me as a little boy. His mysteries of space and time opened my eyes to the light. He had been dead for years, but to me he lived on in books. I read all the English books I could find on him. When I could find no more books at school, my father would take me to the East Los Angeles Public Library for more.

How I settled into this path is a mystery to me now. I was learning English as a second language. Early on in my schooling I was assigned a seat at the back of the classroom; I felt like an outcast, but it also drove me to daydream a lot. As if to mollify my loneliness, I found and reveled in inspiration from El Genio.

Staring at so many stars outside of that bubble, I felt as overwhelmed as the inhabitants of Lagash, a fictional planet in Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, one of my favorite science fiction short stories, because it played on Einstein’s ideas of gravity and light. Their planet experienced unending sunlight because of multiple suns, so the night was unknown to them.

When night finally comes, due to a quirk in the orbit of one of their stars, like me, they discovered the glittering night sky. Unlike me, though, they succumbed to “star madness” at the realization of the infiniteness of space.

Mad or not, I just opened my eyes wider and remembered what Einstein said:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed.”

I knew what he meant. I felt so little then, beneath the vast night sky atop my garage. But Einstein’s genius was my telescope. His ideas took me away, far beyond the bubble. He showed that a tiny amount of matter could create an enormous amount of energy. Yes, E=MC2 meant that even this little boy’s few atoms were plenty poderoso, a power I found liberating and expanding.

If I could ride a ray of light, I would see amazing things. I could slow time and grow massively bigger! “Woohoo!” I’d yell as I stretched out my short arms and pointed the flashlight towards the vastness of space.

Back on earth, one of my classmates, Rosario, a smart girl with dark, straight hair down to below her knees, and round glasses, would often tout all the books she read. Secretly, I tried to keep up with her, but she usually beat me. My ego had long capitulated to Rosario. Had I known back then what I know today, that little girls tend to develop reading skills earlier than boys, it would have saved me a lot of grief.

Instead, to add sal to the wound, one day she put a book to my face exclaiming she had read it all in a single day. It was about Einstein! She even went as far as to claim, based on her reading that one book, that Einstein was not really the greatest thinker of physics of the 20th century and his ideas on space and time could be attributed to the work of earlier physicists. Newton, Planck, Maxwell, she went on, were the real geniuses.

My face turned rojo and I sizzled with coraje at her blasphemy! I prayed that Einstein would send me a sign to prove her wrong.

“I don’t see what all the fuss is about Einstein,” she said. “It’s much ado about nothing.”

“Yes, earlier great thinkers came up with important ideas,” I told her. “But Einstein put them all together in a way that was so special and so new. He really was a genius.”

“No, they weren’t his ideas. And I hate his hair!”Einstein photo

I tried to set her right, arguing with her until azul in the face, but to no avail. She was firm in her conviction and never flinched. She moved on to another book about something else. Sometimes I wondered if it was really just a hair thing between Rosario and Einstein. Regardless, to Rosario, matter closed.

I wish I could say that I was mature enough at that age to move past this traumatic encounter with Rosario. Unfortunately, not only did her words bother me back then, but I’ve also tormented over her “much ado about nothing” since.

Maybe it bothered me because I had come to believe through Einstein that there were wondrous possibilities out there, beyond my bubble. Maybe it was because the mysteries upon which Einstein pondered called to me, too. Or, maybe I didn’t ever want to come down off that garage.

Off of it, I was out of place and burdened by these great mysteries. It wasn’t like I could discuss these ideas with other kids. Rosario was the only one. Back then kids in East L.A. didn’t talk about such stuff. And the only way to “cruise” was on Whittier Boulevard, not in outer space. Our heroes were wrestlers, soccer players, and saints.

Like the other kids in the neighborhood, I too pretended to be El Santo, Demonio Azul, Mil Máscaras, or other favorite masked luchadores. I surely enjoyed when my father took me to the Olympic Auditorium to watch the wrestling matches in person.

But my secret hero was a physicist. So much so that to this day, I even have an Albert Einstein action figure. Friend or not, I wasn’t about to let Rosario undo that. Every time I glance at it, I go back to that garage and back to Rosario.

Her comment was a deep blow to me and to my fancy that I too could bend like light and amount to something more that what was expected of a kid from East L.A.

I stopped talking to Rosario. The years passed and I never saw her again. Eventually, I did come down from that garage for good. It was demolished to make way for a new one that had a gabled roof with a pitch too steep to lie on.

It’s been a long time since I’ve waved a flashlight at the stars. But I did become a physicist. Just goes to prove that a life, like a path of light, can be changed, as Einstein said it would.

Recent scientific findings show Einstein was right all along: “Scientists have discovered what Albert Einstein predicted almost a century ago should exist – ripples in the fabric of space-time,” read the newspaper stories.

Choosing physics was the right path for me. I’ve met Nobel Laureates Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe; studied at renowned national laboratories like Los Alamos National Lab and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center; and I was even invited to the White House as a model “young scientist-ambassador” for a federal energy program.

Yet it’s been a long, lonely journey, too. In high school and college there were but a few, if any, Latinos in my upper physics and math classes. Latinos seemed to view courses on theoretical physics or vector calculus as irrelevant. I felt an outcast as a kid in East Los Angeles.

Which is why Rosario and the way she dismissed my inspiration haunted me for years. I wondered if I’d ever reconcile Einstein and East L.A.

Then one day, I was driving home from work when I glanced to the side and saw him on a mural in East L.A. El Genio was back.

The mural was on the wall of a skate shop called “The Garage.” I pulled over and went in the store. A clerk told me the store does more than sell skateboards and gear. It provides after-school tutoring to underprivileged kids, striving to instill in them an appreciation for academics, as they do their homework and practice skateboarding. These were “high risk kids that don’t know the true meaning of teamwork and didn’t have much interest in school.”

Inside it was like a cross between a sport store and a lounge. Some kids were fiddling with their skateboards; some were admiring the display of trophies won in team skating competitions; and some sat discussing homework with the college students hired to tutor them.

I asked about the mural. They wanted the kids to understand that math and science were ever present, even in the skating motions of these hard-core street riders…a kickflip, an ollie, or an Indy grab. So they had chosen a mural of Einstein to reflect their high expectations that the kids were to “apply themselves in their academics as well as in their skating.”

Outside the shop, I stood and gaped at the mural. I once thought I was alone inside a bubble in East L.A. But outside that store, I was set free. Seeing the mural confirmed what the encounter with Rosario had made me doubt: That, as Einstein believed was true of light, you could bend away from the path you appeared destined to take.

And at that moment, I felt at home at last in the neighborhood where I grew up.

____

C.J. Salgado grew up in East Los Angeles. An avid reader, his first job was working for a library. After serving in the military and going to college, he went on to pursue a professional career in radiation physics. His interest include blogging about issues and events affecting the local community; exploring new places near and afar; pondering novel ideas; and watching science fiction and action movies.
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Uncategorized

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By C.J. Salgado

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1] was born in Los Angeles, California. My mother was not.

Fifteen hundred miles from Los Angeles, as a pajaro flies, about halfway between Quiroga and Zacapu along Federal Highway 15 in the Mexican state of Michoacán, is the small village of Caratacua. With a hundred residents, it is no more than a brief rest stop on any traveler’s journey.

There is not much to catch the eye of a passerby, except for, perhaps, the fields of wild, pink mirasol flowers. But to me it is a crib of history, the family ranch, on a gently sloping hill beneath an old Jacaranda tree where my grandmother and my mother were born.

My grandfather, Papá Chuché, and my grandmother, Mamá Lola, started a family on that ranch, known as “Xaratanga.” It was named for the Moon Goddess of the ancient Purhépecha people, who inhabit the region and sprung from her seeds. It is where my grandmother resides today at more than 100 years of age.

Papá Chuché, a distinguished-looking man, lived into his nineties. He had a wandering spirit, and made a lifetime of treks into the U.S. He first entered the country under the Bracero program, picking Washington watermelons and Calexico cotton, but eventually he traveled all over the border states.

With each trip north, he left behind a bigger family in Mexico. They didn’t want him to go. But they needed money and when the dollar beckoned, he went, like so many others. Each time he came home our grandmother would exclaim with joy – her pajaro, like a hardy bird on a north-and-south flyaway, had returned to her again.

My mother is the oldest of nine surviving children of Mamá Lola. A sister, Delia, died at one year old from complications of dehydration, but really from the lack of medical care then in rural Mexico.

From Xaratanga my mother watched her father go. She felt deeply attached to Papá Chuché, loved him dearly, and suffered from his departures, if only to herself. Why he left them for months at a time, she did not understand. Yet she clung to the vision of seeing him return once more from each trip, bearing gifts. When he came, she would rush into his strong arms.CJ Salgado story photo

As a child in Xaratanga, feminine clothing caught her eye: garbs of cinnabar, flowery frills, and tender textures. But she would never ask for them. How could she? On the ranch, life was hard; fashion was an unspoken aspiration. Still, Papá Chuché managed to come home from his trips with at least one new dress, a shiny piece of jewelry, or a roll of fabric to set free her imagination.

Each gift, like the red dress he brought her once, was special and made her happy. She reveled in the intricacies and colors of the cloth he carried back for his little girl. That ritual came to be consolation for her father’s recurring abandonments, and part of the fascination with the country that lured him from her.

She still spontaneously mutters, “Cómo recuerdo un vestido rojo de pana que me trajo mi papá!”

There was one gift he brought at times, however, that was never for her: big, odd-looking suitcases. Those went to her mother and with her they remained at the ranch to this day, along with a special sewing machine.

For four years, when she was older, my mother went to the neighboring town of Pátzcuaro to study dressmaking, and learned complex embroideries, “canastillas de bebé” for newborns, and myriad other ways to turn fabric to fashion.

Yet as her father, a veritable charro, mounted his horse and rode away to El Norte again and again, his absence dug a hole deeper than any well outside the village.

Some of his children cried. Some drank. As the eldest child, and a girl, my mother could do neither. Instead, she sang. My mother loved music. When her feelings were strong, her singing was stronger. To this day, the words of the singer Cuco Sánchez fill her home: “Anoche estuve llorando, horas enteras, pensando en ti… Después me quedé dormido y en ese sueño logré tenerte en mis brazos… ”

Other times her grief found comfort in her mother’s cooking. Capirotada de pan Comanjo, torejas con dulce, and sopa de habas frescas.

When Papá Chuché was home, the feasting was special. He was a hunter with a .22-caliber rifle who’d set off into the hills surrounding the ranch in search of game, her younger brothers tagging along. Hunting was not something a girl did – but she would wait for him at the edge of the ranch atop a stone fence. Then he’d faithfully reappear with the boys, an armadillo, taquache, or zorillo swinging in hand.

The glittering hills surrounding the ranch on a clear moonlit night beneath a blanket of stars made Xaratanga appear a magical place. Sometimes at night when her father was away in the North my mother’s grandmother, mother of Papá Chuché, would call her to the patio of the ranch house at bedtime. They would hook their arms together. The old lady would face El Norte, raise a hand and make the sign of the cross, blessing her son – “que Dios lo bendiga …”

There was plenty of work, but none that paid. Her chores were unending. Her arms ached. Even the name of the village – Caratacua – she despised. It was the word for a weed common to the area. The branches of the caratacua were bound and made into brooms for girls to use in their sweeping. She tired of the endless sweeping the rocks from around the ranch house.

Every Saturday, by 6 a.m., she’d pack a burro heavily with dirty laundry and trek several miles downhill to the local springs. On her hands and knees, she would find a suitable rock and scrub laundry against it for the rest of the day. She’d wash each piece and lay it out. By sunset, she’d fold each piece, now dry, and bundle it back onto the burro. The only thing that made her forget her aching arms were her legs as she made her way back up the hill.

My mother would help prepare and carry meals out to her brothers who were harvesting corn in the fields. Like her mother, she’d sling a big basket, a “chunde,” filled with tortillas, beans, nopales, and other favorites, onto her shoulder to take to the hungry boys who from age six learned to work the fields from dawn to sunset. After the meal, the chunde would be filled with the fresh corn. To this day, her love of Mexican corn on the cob, brushed with melted butter and sprinkled with chili powder, cotija cheese, and lime juice, remains.

Still the village could just as easily have been named “Piedras,” she thought. There were so many rocks. The fields were covered with rocks, on the surface and below ground. Some spots were so fertile that anything would grow. But in many places the rocks beneath would impede any root trying to take hold – the legacy of volcanic activity across the eons.

When my mother was a teenager, Petronila and Genaro, longtime neighbors from an adjacent ranch, left in search of work, never to return. So did others. The lifeblood of Xaratanga slowly bled out.

So, the stories her father told of life in the U.S. mesmerized her. She imagined riches for the taking. How wonderful must be this place, California, to prompt a man to leave his family, she thought. There, she was sure, she could buy herself a home in a big city, and a little green car to drive around in forever.

She let herself believe it was so. It was easy to do. Papá Chuché was such a positive man in a trying world, chronically genial.

“Solo los pendejos andan triste,” he would say. Only idiots go around sad.

She longed to find out for herself. She was the eldest child, a woman, and expected to work to help her mother to support her younger siblings. But she needed more than just being needed.

Then one day she remembered her vow and quietly left it all. She walked away in the early morning, aided in her escape only by a younger brother, who promised his silence out of deference to the sister who raised him.

My mother had kept in touch occasionally with a cousin, Victoria, who lived in California and who had once invited her to visit. She pawned her beloved Singer sewing machine and boarded a bus bound for Barstow, buoyed by the hope that her cousin would welcome her. She didn’t tell her cousin she was coming. She’d be there faster than any letter.

When she arrived, however, she learned Victoria had died a few months before of leukemia. My mother pondered her dilemma that first hot night in Barstow. She knew she could not stay now. There was no work in Barstow for her. Her cousin’s family let her stay for the night. But what then? Return to Xaratanga empty handed?

That night, as she fell asleep, she remembered her father telling her stories of a great garment industry in Los Angeles.

With her strong arms, she hugged herself, cuddled into her cousin’s sofa, and imagined the fashion that a dressmaker could create with all the cotton her father had picked.

____

C.J. Salgado grew up in East Los Angeles. An avid reader, his first job was working for a library. After serving in the military and going to college, he went on to pursue a professional career in radiation physics. His interest include blogging about issues and events affecting the local community; exploring new places near and afar; pondering novel ideas; and watching science fiction and action movies.
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