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By Miguel Roura

Naked, standing in a puddle of water, my hands were cuffed behind my back, and the redhead again asked where I got the weed.

Once more, I lied.

Behind me, he inched closer and spread my legs with a kick from his boot. Pain exploded from my balls to my brain, zapped through my eyes and singed the ends of my hair. Dressed in khaki pants and plaid shirt, the Guadalajara city cop carefully handled the electric wand, stepped over the wet floor, and with sadistic sarcasm repeated the question.

“You want another hit of the chicharra?

On the city streets of Guadalajara, local tokers taught me to associate the chicharra – the cicada – with ‘catching a buzz’ and getting high; taco vendors served these insects fried.

That instant the incisive sound and sensation of the cattle prod was added to my personal vocabulary.

With that, I broke.

I took the police to the apartment of a university student I’d met at a wedding named Marco, with whom I’d smoked a joint.

* *

That morning, I had awakened to Guadalajara narcotics officers bursting into my bedroom, guns aimed at my head. Handcuffed, they ushered me through the courtyard out to the street and into the waiting unmarked car as the neighborhood watched.

Joesepy, my roommate, had also been taken, as had Rudy and Louie. At the jail, different holding cells separated us, and one by one the cops conducted their investigation.

The Canada shoe-box my cousin Ramon had first handed to me full of fragrant marijuana buds sat on the interrogation table, full to the brim with stale grass, pills and other paraphernalia the cops had concocted to augment our guilt. By the time they got to me, the narcs said they knew the whole story. I just needed to cooperate and corroborate, but I knew no one knew, just me.

 

Of course I couldn’t give up my primo Ramon, the cousin who’d actually purchased the grass for us, so I blew the whistle on Marco, the poor Mexican pre-med student from the wedding.

Now in Marco’s apartment, as the undercover cops were making the buy, I stepped out onto the balcony and contemplated an escape. The narcs negotiated a transaction with Marco, who rolled a joint so ‘my friends’ could sample the product. He handed it to the tall green-eyed redhead who smiled and flung it to me. I immediately tossed it to his partner. The short, swarthy, mustachioed cop surprised me when he thumbed open his lighter and fired it up. Taking a deep drag, he expertly held his breath, and then handed the joint to his associate. The toke made the circuit, but when Marco offered it to me, I declined with a lame-ass, “I have a paper to complete, due in the morning.”

The undercovers wanted a kilo. Marco assured them he’d have it by noon next day.

* *

My junior year I traveled with nine other UCLA students to the city my mother proudly called La Perla Tapatía to study the culture of her ancestors. Our mission was to conduct independent research projects through a conservative Catholic university. We were to record the investigation in a term paper, and report the experiences at a public forum upon our return to UCLA.

La Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara catered to foreign students, mainly Americans unable to gain admission into medical and dental schools in the states. Almost everyone at the school dressed in suits and ties, and the day began with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer over the loudspeakers.

The first day of class, rifle-toting security guards turned away two members of our group at the school entrance; Rudy’s hair hung down his shoulders, beyond the designated neckline the school rules required, and my huaraches apparently demeaned their standards.

Later, the prefect in charge of our contingent, a dapper little man in a three-piece suit, tinted glasses, and bald head, sat behind a big desk and listened to our idealistic intentions and expectations. I quoted from El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán.

“In the spirit of a new people that is conscious not only of its proud historical heritage, but also of the brutal gringo invasion of our territories…”

As I read, the little man smirked and leered, his eyes lusting at Susie, the only gringa among us, who sat crossing her shapely white legs in a salmon-colored mini-skirt. He seemed to hold the attitude of my Tia Lydia. My mother’s half-sister was a strongly Catholic woman who did not appreciate modern influences; she was married to my Tío Miguel who worked as a porter on the train that commuted between this provincial city and the nation’s capital. I had met them on my first trip to Mexico City a couple of years prior. They had three beautiful daughters who had by now blossomed into womanhood. Before I left for Guadalajara, my mother told me I could stay with them; when I went to inquire about it, my Tío was away and my Tia told me she didn’t believe it would be proper. I tried to explain how as a Chicano I’d come in search of my Mexican roots. Tia Lydia belly-laughed and scoffed.

“You’re not a Mexican. You’re a pocho!”

That stung.

We ten Chicano students must have stuck out like a hitch-hiker’s thumb: our dress, our talk, our smoke. After class we’d fire up a joint on the way to the bus stop. All of us lived in the same neighborhood. Louie and Susie shared a two-bedroom apartment with Lorraine, Rudy, and their five-year-old daughter, Audrey. Albert, Becky, and the newlyweds lived in Marco’s two-story boarding house, while Joesepy and I rented a room from a single mother.

With other American students who spoke in a variety of English accents, we’d ride the bus to and from the campus on the outskirts of the city.

In the afternoons, Susie, who spoke perfect Spanish and believed in the Chicano Movement, sunbathed on her beach towel at a local park and attracted men like flies to pies.

Traipsing through the city high as a Mexico City sky, not caring that people smelled the pungent smoke odor, I sauntered down aisles at El Mercado de San Juan de Dios, which sold everything from horse saddles to local medicinal herbs, including peyote. Seated on a bench in front of the massive Teatro Degollado, I marveled at the sounds of its water fountains. I flirted with wide-eyed coquettish girls who giggled as they strolled in pairs, crooking arms or holding hands. Later I witnessed construction workers putting the finishing touches to the double-spired cathedral of El Sagrado Sacramento, a church that had been under construction since the nineteenth century.

I walked the streets and tried to make sense of what I read at the school’s very limited library; its stacks nearly empty, much like the grocery store shelves, but for government journals and crumbling folios that contained the city’s history and a lot of material about the Cristero Movement. Apparently, Guadalajara had been named in honor of the conquistador, Nuño de Guzman, who’d enslaved and tortured the natives to work in the silver mines. Guzman, who’d been born in a city of the same name in Spain, had been Hernan Cortez’s main rival for territory in the New World.

As I listened to a band of musicians strum out “El Son de la Negra” outside a cantina, another sextet belted out the lyrics to “Camino Real de Colima” on the opposite side of the street. Guadalajara was the birthplace of mariachi music. Yet, amid this Catholic and traditional city, modern American and British songs played on every sidewalk. Young people carried transistor radios in their purses and pockets. The Doors, Beatles, and Rolling Stones songs blared from everywhere.

Here, I encountered Huichol Indians for the first time, and they would eventually become the subject of my independent research project; a people who had managed for centuries to evade European assimilation, selling their artifacts on sidewalks. It was a beautiful Huichol girl who first made me aware of these folk. She stood at a street corner and held a yarn painting in one hand and on the other a transistor radio rocking and rolling the words to “Proud Mary” by Credence Clearwater Revival.

Some weekends my cousin Ramon and I visited the surrounding towns in his VW Bug. We cruised around Lake Chapala, ate fish and drank beer at beach restaurants constructed of poles and tarps anchored to the sand. As we circled the lake, Ramon pointed out the clandestine marijuana fields cleverly camouflaged on the ground by fruit and vegetable vines that hung above and lined the beaches. Ramon was a welder and an artisan who lived and sold his wares in nearby San Pedro Tlaquepaque. We celebrated my Tia Dolores, his mother’s birthday at El Parian, a popular restaurant/bar there.

On one occasion we drove out to the ancient town of Tonalá. As we rode around my aunt who had been a rural teacher and a school principal, explained to me that this tiny indigenous town had once been renamed Guadalajara by the conquering Spanish, but later abandoned when the Iberians found a more preferable site. Tapatio derived from the indigenous language of this land; tapatiotl, was a monetary unit consisting of three small bags.

* *

On the drive from Marco’s flat to the jail, I tried to bribe the two plainclothesmen. They laughed at my offer. It was too late they said.

“De cincho un Quinto,” the short cop quipped as the cigarette smoke swirled out with his breath. For sure I’d do five years in the state penitentiary. The case was in the commissioner’s desk, and there was nothing they could do but advise me to act quickly, before it was too late. The lawyer would work out the details they said, and it was up to our relatives to respond.

As the cell door clicked closed, I wondered who would answer for me. My cousin Ramon? He was probably shitting bricks right now knowing I’d be tortured and thinking I’d denounce him. Louie and Rudy had their women. Joesepy had money; he’d been a successful insurance salesman before deciding to go back to college for a business degree. A middle-aged man, he enjoyed scoring with younger women who admired his sophisticated suits, his sporty Fiat, and his generosity. Jose Something, but we all called him Joesepy, the Italian Signore.   Me, I was broke.

* *

The three days of incarceration dragged with uncertainty. Just before our release the four of us were herded into the same cell where we all assured each other no one had said anything to the cops. One by one they called our names. I was the last.

As a condition of our release, besides a $3,000 fine for each one of us, we had seven days to leave the city. Enough time to settle matters at school, and shamelessly plagiarize government documents for my term paper.

When I finally stepped outside the jail, the short, plump, aging figure of my mother waited with tears in her eyes. Dona Teresa, my mother, had decided to pay me a surprise visit. She arrived the afternoon of our arrest at the home of the woman who rented us the room.

Mortified at the news, she called my cousin Ramon, who accompanied her to the city jail. There she met with the lawyer who negotiated and brokered the deal for our release. He, too, urged the matter be expedited.

When she saw the embarrassment in my face, she told me to forget this ‘mierda tapatia’. That evening we celebrated at Rudy and Louie’s apartment smoking and drinking and singing a song we’d all heard while in lock up; it was about a guy who had been recently released from jail after being busted and tortured by the cops for smoking a little weed.

A couple days after we were released, I ran into Marco at the main square, where I was getting my term paper typed by a paid scribe. I fumbled through an apology, but Marco said he knew they were narcs. He had to play along and pay them their bags of bribery, just as I did.

Not long after that, we left. As the Tres Estrellas bus drove us north towards Los Angeles, my mother slept on the seat next to me. I recalled the interrogation and my response, which I buried away in shame. The story I’d retell upon my return to UCLA would be about the nine days we spent communing among the Huichol people in the Sierra Madre Mountains. The spirit that urged me here in search of my identity now drove me away and I realized: I wasn’t Mexican.

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By Susanna (Whitmore) Franek

 My heart pounded as I walked into the fire circle. One hundred and fifty firewalkers were chanting and jumping in unison, trance-like, preparing to make the 10-second trek over the hot embers. I was not walking, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Ondrej had decided to go for it.

We had met the previous year at a painting retreat in the village of Lažánky, in the green rolling hills of Southern Moravia. I was there at the invitation of the Iranian Sufi painter, Rassouli, with whom I had studied in Los Angeles; he was taking a small group of students on an artist’s journey through Vienna and Prague. I was fully immersed in growing my company; my life had become reduced to my workload. I needed a break.

Ondrej and I spoke only briefly that first night in Lažánky, but his impeccable, British-accented English, and his warmth and humor swept me off my feet. I watched him paint the next day, his nose inches from the canvas. Over the next four days we chatted frequently, discussing the joys and frustrations of painting. There was a buzz in the air when we were near each other; his otherworldliness fascinated me. At the end of the retreat, he joined our group on the bus ride back to Prague. We exchanged phone numbers and said we’d keep in touch since I had planned an extra week in Prague on my own.

A few days later we met at an Azerbaijani restaurant for our first date. We feasted on lamb and mutton spiced with cinnamon and coriander, grilled eggplant and tomatoes, fresh herbs, smoked cheese, olives, yogurt, and beer. Ecstatic and full, we walked the streets of Prague engrossed in intimate conversation. Iconic statues of saints watched over us. We held hands, surrounded by centuries of history and architectural eye-candy at every corner.

He was leaving in a few days for his holiday to a hot springs resort in Slovakia along the Hungarian border, and asked if I’d join him. I hesitated. My dating woes had kept me comfortably single. He left, while I took my time to think it over. I had planned four more days in Prague, alone, to roam the streets, experience Kafka, hit some museums and cemeteries, and then return to Vienna for more of the same before leaving for L.A.Susanna Whitmore story photo

Instead, after two days of trekking in the rain through Prague on my own – in the worst storm of the century – letting my intuition guide me, I acquiesced, realizing I had fallen in love at first sight with a partially blind man.

Ondrej picked me up at the train station in Sturovo. The lovely mineral springs made up for the post-Soviet dreary architecture of this blue-collar resort town. We tested the waters over the next four days to see how we’d get along; floating in our birthday suits in warm bathing pools, making love, traveling to Budapešt, sitting on the Danube riverbank, and drinking wine with his friends, including a young woman who interpreted at the painting retreat.

Ondrej made the journey back to Vienna with me. We parted, promising we’d see each other again.

Once back in L.A., we communicated through daily emails and a couple of calls every week on Skype. We learned a lot about each other in ways not common to couples falling in love who can see each other whenever they want. There were no physical distractions; our conversations were deep, our emails voluminous. He was my Czech prince, and I became his American queen. Our future together was unfolding. High on love, we even spoke about purchasing a house together in Costa Rica. We started making plans to see each other again.

Four months later, with work in tow, I returned to Prague for six weeks where we’d try living together, but this time in his tiny studio apartment. The new bedroom city of Černy Most where he lived consisted of boxy, brightly colored apartments, a sparkling mall, a Costco-type store, Ikea, and thankfully a subway line where we could escape into Old Town in 15 minutes. While devoid of the magic and beauty known to Prague, it was still our haven; we got a taste of what it was like being together in close quarters.

We traveled to meet Ondrej’s family, and to get his mom’s blessing. Only seven years older than me, she was a retired accountant, a traditional woman having lived her adult life wedged between God and communist hardliners. She was concerned about our age difference, but was relieved once she and I met. I was immersing into Ondrej’s world, hell-bent on learning Czech, though my brain, mouth and tongue struggled to pronounce its alien sounds.

It seemed crazy, especially the 6,000-mile void between us. It was my nature to go against the grain with relationships, but the 18-year age difference was a generation apart. What would Freud say? My oldest son, Sergio, was Ondrej’s age. I also struggled with people constantly staring at us, especially the day a young group of kids snapped shots of us on a subway in Prague.

Ten days later Ondrej crossed the pond for a three-month stay in L.A. He was a world traveler, but the U.S. was never on his list. In communist Czechoslovakia, the grinding propaganda machine against the U.S. was ever-present. On our side of the globe, Soviet bombs were always a threat. I grew up learning to “duck and cover” to protect myself from the “Red under the bed” menace that always lurked in the dark. Luckily, neither of us carried any nation-state baggage into adulthood.

Adapting to a new environment takes great effort for a blind person. Unlike in Prague, if he wanted to venture off on his own, public transport was cumbersome. My older Craftsman house was cold compared to the warm central heating of his comfy studio apartment. The strain of speaking English non-stop with no one around to chat with in Czech took its toll. He missed the safety net of his close-knit group of friends that he’d spent years building, especially his personal assistant who helped him shop or with whom he could meet for a beer.

We spent time at the beach, hiking in the mountains, traveling to the desert, and dining with friends. But we also had to work. We comfortably shared my upstairs office. He continued earning his living virtually for a Prague Geo-tech engineering firm. My research business kept me computer-bound for a good portion of his visit. Even though our cyber work circumstances allowed us freedom to be together, we were stressed. My friends and family embraced Ondrej – they were genuinely happy for us. Everything on the surface appeared right, yet there was a nagging undercurrent.

We were both against the idea of marriage. Initially, it was not a consideration. He had been in a 10-year relationship, and deemed marriage unnecessary. I was twice divorced. Though the emotional strain was evident between us, he proposed at a friend’s Christmas party, on a balcony overlooking L.A. Live in downtown. Blinded by the glaring neon lights in the background, I had to think about it. Even with our doubts and difficulties, Ondrej insisted I purchase my plane ticket for another Prague Spring adventure.

Thirteen months into the relationship, the distance and expense was getting to us. This was my third trip to the Czech Republic. The tension escalated just as we arrived for the highly anticipated four-day tantric “Art of Being” festival, where the fire walk took place. The countryside setting seemed an idyllic place for us to reconnect and solidify our intentions. Instead, Ondrej suddenly decided he couldn’t leave his bachelor lifestyle; the sting of yet another failed relationship distressed me to no end.

But the fire walk tipped the scales; the prince slayed the dragon, the queen woke from her sleep.

Two months later we were married in L.A. Surrounded by close family, a sweet and peaceful ceremony took place at the Self Realization Fellowship, Hollywood Temple. A short honeymoon up to the Santa Ynez wine country, followed by a celebration with 60 close friends in our backyard, sealed the deal.

As a youth, there had been intermittent flashes of California Dreamin’ in the back of Ondrej’s mind. I was always in awe of a country that had a playwright for a president. L.A. is where we call home for the time being; Ondrej’s green card just came in the mail.

It couldn’t have been any other way. Even before meeting Ondrej, I was painting faces with one eye.

___

Susanna (Whitmore) Fránek is a native poblador descendent of the city of Los Angeles. She is a cultural anthropologist and has her own business conducting consumer research among mostly Latino immigrants and their second generation offspring. Passionate about writing her memoirs, she hopes to eventually publish these short stories in a book. She paints and plays Persian percussion when she isn’t writing.
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