Fire

The average house fire burns at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

So I am in San Francisco having dinner; gorgonzola penne with shrimp, clam chowder, and sourdough toast at Cioppino’s on the wharf. My cell phone rings. It is my younger sister.

“You have to come home! There’s been a fire. The house burned. Please hurry.”

“Is everyone OK? Mom?”

“Yes, she made it out. But …the house, our things, all burned. We can’t stay there anymore.”

Is this really happening? I thought.

No one hurt! Still, my mind went to the insurance. Was it current?

I have been in San Francisco the previous few weeks, a choice assignment for a young government physicist from East L.A. My job is to protect people from harmful radiation. I am there to intern at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), a leader in health sciences, and to investigate possible radiation hazards in the area.

Mornings, I walk from my apartment in the Haight-Ashbury district to the campus of UCSF at the foot of Mount Sutro. The campus is massive. Some 16, 000 very smart people — studying and practicing medicine, dentistry, nursing, and pharmacy — convene here daily.

Ionizing radiation, its harmful form, is widely present on the campus, used for healthcare, teaching, or research. That’s the type of radiation that concerns me. And that’s why I’ve come to this school — to learn more about it.

Ionizing radiation is too elusive for our senses. It can damage human cells covertly. So, handling it safely requires specialized knowledge, skills, and instrumentation. Because most don’t understand it, accidents can come easily.

None of that matters tonight as I scoop a final spoonful of clam chowder and take a bite of my toast, pay the bill, and dash out, while dialing the airline’s number to find a flight the next day.

Back in my room, I can’t sleep, as I wait for morning to take the first flight to Los Angeles. My mind toggles between worrying about what I would be leaving behind and about what I was going to.

I have unfinished work at the medical center. Patients with thyroid cancer are given radioactive iodine ablation therapy. The radioactive iodine is administered orally to kill the spreading cancer of the thyroid gland. Beta particles emitted by this radioactive concoction bombard the cancerous thyroid cells, destroying them without ever leaving the patient’s body. That’s a good thing.

But radioactive iodine also sizzles with another type of radiation, gamma rays. Too much exposure to gamma rays is harmful. These are ghostly, can travel several yards, and easily penetrate matter. They can exit the patient’s body, and potentially injure unsuspecting persons nearby.

This is the same radioactive iodine produced by nuclear reactors and atomic bombs.

So the gamma rays must be monitored. After a few days of radioactive iodine treatment in isolation rooms, patients are surveyed to make sure they can safely leave the hospital. That is my role.

Any extra radioactive iodine administered that is not absorbed by the thyroid gets excreted from the body, mostly in the urine, but also in saliva, sweat, and tears. So I survey the patient’s hospital room to make sure that any bed sheets, towels, gowns, clothing or other items the patient come in contact with aren’t released if contaminated.

But by my leaving UCSF in such a hurry, the patients’ release to home can be delayed if I don’t show up to measure their radiation levels. I like to help people, almost as much as I like to chase gamma rays.

I got into gamma rays because they were mysterious packets of energy akin to light. Ever since, as a little boy, I pointed a flashlight into the dark of space. I imagined riding on the beam traveling out at the speed of light, slowing time and only bending for gravity and Einstein.

Fire, however, terrified me. It was the destroyer.

As a kid, my grandfather would tell me of the volcano Paricutín, which rose from a cornfield near his ranch in the Mexican state of Michoacán, ejecting stone, ash and lava in the early 1940s. Flames of fire climbed thousands of feet into the night sky. It rained fire. His fields were peppered with burning rocks lobbed from the volcano.

Waiting to fly to Los Angeles, I worry about fire the destroyer because it had found our home.

How did it start?

What did it burn?

I feel guilty. Why did I leave home and come to San Francisco? I could have done my internship nearer to home, probably at UCLA. If I had stayed, this tragedy might have been avoided. I always check the batteries on the smoke detectors and look for frayed power cords.

But I know why I came. The opportunity excited me. To live, work, and study in San Francisco seemed so thrilling. I love seafood, Chinese food, the waterfront, rolling hills, fog, the wharf, history, storied penitentiaries, and panoramas. Add gamma rays to the mix, and the dish was irresistible.

It is exciting the moment I arrive in San Francisco. I walk to the sidewalk outside the San Francisco airport terminal to wait for a taxi. Within minutes, a tall man in a black leather jacket and boots stands next to me. It is Nicolas Cage, the actor, one of my favorites. I say hello. We share a cab ride. He tells me about a place he liked to eat. Next chance I get I go there – Yuet Lee Chinese restaurant in Chinatown for the fish in black bean sauce.

In the business of radiation, work, too, is exciting. Radiation is a beast of burden when tamed but a dangerous wild animal when loose and uncontrolled. Every once in a while, it gets away and I pursue.

One day, a radiation alarm goes off at the local waste transfer station, where trash trucks drop off their garbage for temporary storage or sorting pending further processing. The station has radiation monitors to screen incoming trucks for radioactive materials hidden in the garbage truck waste loads.

When a radiation alarm goes off, transfer station staff detain the truck until it’s cleared by the government radiation control authority. Me. That day, I grab my emergency response gear and head over to the transfer station. The truck is parked in a corner of the lot away from others, isolated behind yellow and magenta barricade tape.

I am in a Tyvek ® protective coverall suit, shoe covers, two pairs of gloves, and face mask. I approach the truck and survey radiation levels with my radiation meters. I tell them to dump the truck’s load onto the pavement and spread out the waste with shovels. I keep one eye on my watch and another on my radiation meter. The more time in this radiation field, the more exposure to gamma rays.

I work quickly, swinging a radiation meter in one hand and a shovel in the other, sifting through 12 tons of garbage. I wish I had my father’s strong arms. The sweat trickles down my forehead into my eyes and burns. An hour passes.

With a sensitive scintillation detector connected to my radiation meter, I walk through the pile methodically trying to ignore the foul smell. As I get closer to the source, my meter’s audio alarm chirps faster.

I come upon a plastic bag, which I separate out from the rest of the garbage for closer inspection. I turn on my radiation isotope “identifier” meter, an instrument that can read the type of radiation and identify the radioactive material producing it. Radioactive iodine. I look inside. Diapers.

It’s a story I know too well. A hospital patient undergoing radioactive iodine treatments for thyroid cancer urinates out much of the unabsorbed radioactive dose onto disposable diapers. These diapers are supposed to be segregated, isolated, and secured to decay in storage for three months until the radiation dissipates. Sometimes, this isn’t done and the contaminated diapers leave the hospital too soon.

My alarm clock goes off. It is 3 a.m. and I have a plane to catch.

I arrive in front of my childhood home about 8 a.m. The windows are boarded up; walls blackened, and burned furniture sits in our front yard. At the entrance, the metal security door is damaged, a large cut made vertically at the door locks, no doubt from the fire fighter’s rescue saw. I peek inside. Everything I see is black, either burned, charred, or covered in soot.

The vertical vinyl blinds in the living room window hang twisted, melted by the intense heat from the dining room where the fire started. A line on the walls of the living room demarcates how far the smoke descended after it spread up from the point of ignition. Everything above that line is sullied. Everything below it is clean. I suddenly remember a grade school lesson: to escape during a fire, fall and crawl.

In the dining room, our wooden dinner table is charred. The plastic table cover was simply fuel to accelerate the burning that ignited when a lit candle fell over. From there the flames reached up to the chandelier and ceiling, spreading horizontally to the walls and kitchen.

My mother brought her love of devotional candles from Mexico. So she had lighted a candle for the Virgin Mary, placed it on the dinner table, and left it unattended, forgetting about it when she opened a window on a windy day.

I look to one corner of the dining room where we kept many of our most treasured family valuables. Dozens of old family pictures are burned. Me as a kid in a purple suit, my father playing with us at the park, me sitting atop that garage where I imagined traveling on a beam of light—all are gone. Some look burned around the edges. Some look burned from the inside out, as if they self-ignited. Some I can’t find.

I search the remains for one picture in particular. For my first birthday my parents took me to Mexico for the first time. My mother sat me all dressed up in front of my birthday cake, a single lit candle adorning its center. Nothing.

By 9 a.m. the first of many suited men begin to arrive at our front gate. Some in business suits, some in protective coveralls, one after another they come all morning, to urge us to immediately hire them to restore, remediate, rebuild or adjust our fire loss. They are there to help, they say.

I take their business cards and stuff them in my pocket, oblivious to their rattling voices. I figure I paid the premium because our insurance adjuster would come by later, too, and hand me a check for $10,000 dollars so we could start to replace the things that burned.

Can he really do that?

They say people fear what they can’t see. That’s not me.

I’m terrified of fire, the destroyer.

The average photograph burns at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

341

That first night away from home was the hardest. I lay on my cot and cried silently as I stared at the ceiling in the dark. I asked myself repeatedly what I was doing in San Antonio, Texas, 1,300 miles from East L.A., sleeping on a strange bed in a strange dormitory packed full of strange bald guys. I wanted to sleep, but could not. I wanted to be home, but I wasn’t.

I had joined the Air Force. We could no longer refer to ourselves in the first person. From here on it was, “Sir, trainee Salgado reports!”

Hours earlier, I’d stepped off the bus onto Lackland Air Force Base to begin basic training. As I lined up in front of the bus, our Training Instructor (TI), Staff Sergeant Pat, was in my face, growling on how ugly I was and snickering over how much fun awaited us at his resort.

The name-calling began. Our first names were never spoken. We were now called “rainbows” because we arrived wearing a motley of colored civilian clothes; “green sleeves” because we then wore green uniforms with no stripes on our sleeves, ranking lower than the bottom of a TI’s dress shoes.

The sound of the metal taps on our TI’s high-gloss Oxfords never left us. His military Smokey the Bear hat tipped forward just enough for it to appear he’d topple over you at any time. He was our invader of personal space.

Unfortunately for me, personal space was a big deal. As a kid I always had to share a bedroom with my siblings. Now here I was in a dormitory packed full of strange bald guys. Here, the TI owned you. I got to know his breath well. The worst part was that I had asked for it.

Months before, the recruiter offered me a chance to learn to fix military planes, travel to exotic places, and earn money for college. I was eager to see the world, liked airplanes as a kid, and had no money. Within days of graduating from high school, I raised my right hand and took the Oath of Enlistment.

In high school I had taken the military enlistment test used to measure abilities. Scoring high overall, I was quickly accepted for training in aircraft maintenance. I was excited but first I had to get through basic training.

With Staff Sergeant Pat that wasn’t going to be easy. At 4 a.m., the morning after our first night at Lackland, I awoke to “Wake up bunnies!” He picked up a metal trash can and tossed it across the dormitory room. As he passed my cot he kicked the bed frame. After a far-too-quick shower and breakfast, first on our agenda was physical training followed by classes. And that’s how it was going to be. Our lives prescribed to the minute. A “town pass,” seemed an eternity away.

They had perfected the art of castigation and documented it with a “Form 341,” used to write up recruits for “discrepancies.” Even the 341s had to be pre-filled, folded, and inserted just right into the correct shirt pocket of each recruit, slightly sticking out and ready for the TI to “pull” at his discretion. We had to carry two of these completed forms on our person. Too many of those and you’d be heading home.

That’s not how I wanted to return. So I endeavored to survive and even excel. But it didn’t seem to be going that way.

One morning, while marching, it got into my head that “Pat” was a girl’s name. I had a sister named Pat who wrote to me while in basic training. To me, it was a girl’s name. I knew better, but that thought was enough to put a smile on my face for just a few seconds as the idea of my dreaded TI having a girl’s name tickled my fancy. My TI saw me smiling. You don’t smile in basic training. My first 341 landed.

I was christened “latrine queen.” To help me work out my wrong ways, I was assigned to lead a crew of penitent recruits in cleaning the communal restroom. With many well-used toilets before us, we had plenty of time to rehabilitate. Working “the head” for hours has a way of reinvigorating one’s resolve to do things right the next time.

When we were finished, the TI had to approve. Of course, he didn’t. Instead, he handed us some used toothbrushes and directed us to scrub the grout between the tiles on the floor around the toilets. I reasoned that at least I was gaining leadership experience and building strong arms.

I collected my next 341 over my underwear. Like everything else, underwear had to comply. The rule was that it be folded a certain way to a six-inch square after washing. Otherwise it was not presentable for inspection. I placed my stack of six-inch underwear squares on my bed for inspection. Before inspection but after I placed these on my bed, a fellow trainee named Maubry, a big, black fellow from the South came over and sat on my cot while we chatted. Apparently, and unbeknownst to me at the time, his weight on the bed was enough to shift my underwear so as to distort my squares. With that brief error, a 341 flew out of trainee Salgado’s shirt pocket.

So it went, one after another, the 341s zoomed along, each landing on the squadron commander’s desk. It was always little things that got me somehow. I worried. Would I make it through basic training and on to my aircraft training?

I had no time to dwell on it. I had to focus on the big tasks at hand, hour-by-hour, day-by-day. But we counted the days remaining. We saw fellow recruits leave us early for home, some for medical reasons, some for not meeting standards, some for being unable to keep their mouths shut and follow directions, and some for reasons we knew not.

As the days passed, I thought less and less of home and became engrossed in my situation. I stopped asking what I was doing in San Antonio, Texas, some 1300 miles from East L.A. The weeks passed and I began to enjoy my classes.

M-16 rifle weapon fire was a blast, though I didn’t earn the small arms marksmanship ribbon I hoped for. Some of my fellow trainees teased me about that because they figured I was from East L.A. and should have had plenty of experience with a gun. Actually, it was a first for me.

I studied or practiced the Uniform Code of Military Justice; the law of armed conflict; weapons cleaning; chemical, biological, and nuclear defense; Air Force history, military citizenship, physical fitness; drill or marching; and took on the dreaded obstacle course.

As the end of basic approached, I took my last examinations and waited for results. Would I be allowed to march at Retreat and Parade? These were ceremonies where we “graduated” and were welcomed into service with the “world’s most powerful air force.” It was then we could finally wear the blue uniform instead of a trainee’s green uniform.

On the last day of classes, my TI announced an award to be presented at a special ceremony to a trainee who had excelled, awarded only to one in the top 10 percent. It was late afternoon and I was dozing off, his words barely registering.

Unexpectedly, I heard him call my name. He ordered me to come to the front of the class. I snapped to it.

“Salgado, you’ve been bugging me since day one. You like to bug me, Salgado?”

“No, sir!”

“Heck, I guess there’s only one way to get rid of you for good…”

With that, he grabbed a 341 from my shirt pocket as I stood in front of the entire class. Mortified, I froze expecting the worst. Instead, my TI wrote something down, and began reading out loud.

“Trainee Salgado has consistently excelled on his military studies, physical fitness evaluations, drill… I therefore recommend him for Honor Graduate recognition.”

Staff Sgt. Pat began to clap and my classmates, too. I had never seen him smile like that. Trainee Salgado got to proudly pin the Air Force BMT Honor Graduate Ribbon on his blue uniform.

As I strolled through the San Antonio River Walk in my blue uniform on a Town Pass after graduation, I read a plaque about the Alamo and savored a sugar cone of pistachio ice cream.

In a moment of flashback, I recalled my first night in basic training and the question that consumed me that first night. Immediately, I began to silently recite the Airman’s Creed.

“I am an American Airman. I am a warrior. I have answered my nation’s call… .”

I licked the green ice cream, melting in the Texas summer, and savored the thought of going home in blue.

The Toolbox

When I was a little boy growing up in East L.A., my father kept a toolbox. It was at the very back of the garage, covered by a blanket, piece of cardboard, or shop towel at the end of each day to hide it from any would-be-burglars. That was my job, to cover it.

I thought about it while we sat in the waiting room of the specialist doctor my father had been referred to. This was the follow up visit to a series of visits after he had started slowing down a lot, very unusual for him. We were both anxious. His left hand trembled a bit, so I asked if he was cold. He said, no.

He then asked me what I’d do with his toolbox if things went bad. Was it really coming to that? I didn’t want to answer that question.

All my life, he would get up early in the morning and go to bed long after I did. Even on weekends, he worked. My childhood memories mostly are of him in his work clothes, dirty and smelling of sweat, gasoline, and oil. Sometimes, though, he’d stop and play with me for a moment, to lift me up with his arms, or swing me around like I was on a Merry-Go-Round. His arms were like steel rails to me as he spun me around, secure in his strong grip.

People were always stopping by, wanting him to work on their cars, a master mechanic, called “Maestro” by all who came to get their cars fixed. I would watch him for hours pulling out entire engines; tearing apart brake and transmission assemblies with so many pieces; and looking through thick books full of car part listings, schematics, and numbers. He’d tell me that it was important to place every component right or the whole thing could fail.

Like a magician he laid out the tools, supplies, and parts he needed for his regular performance. I didn’t like to disturb his show but I would inevitably roam over to him and sit, fascinated by his power to make cars run right. He began to show me how to do simpler tasks for him: to hold a flashlight firmly and aim just right so he could see what he worked on, to scrape off an old head gasket, or to check the electrodes with a spark plug gapping tool. Every now and then he’d say just enough to point out something interesting to me, like the spot where compression gasses had leaked between cylinders from a damaged gasket.

It became a game for me each time he sent me back to his toolbox in the garage. Although I’d climb atop the garage often to play, I didn’t go inside much. That was his place. The inside of it was full of gadgets, parts, and other car entrails. So he called out a tool and I ran in hoping to grab the right one from la caja and emerge victorious. I especially liked retrieving from the toolbox his shiny torque wrench, along with the right socket size. Was that 3/8” or 1/2”? 10-mm or 13-mm? Then I attached the socket, dialed in the torque, and placed my little hands along side his as we tightened a bolt or a nut, listening for the telltale click.

I learned not only about those tools but also about numbers, machines, heat transfer, chemicals, and how systems worked. His strong arms and hands, always dirty, scratched, nicked, and bruised, taught me too that often it was just plain hard work well into the night that got the job finished.

He wasn’t much of a talker. But his tools were. Luckily, I was a good listener. Sometimes, it was the piercing ping-ping of his ball-peen hammer squarely hitting a brake drum that spoke. Sometimes it was the calming whirr of an engine cylinder bore being honed that put me to sleep, as I lay in my bed while my father worked into the night. Sometimes it was the loud, rapid popping of a backfiring engine that woke me in the morning, as my father tweaked the carburetor. Each sound became a cascade of words to me, mechanical memories of my father’s ways and times.

I remember that when he came in the house and it wasn’t dark outside yet, I’d run to him, grab his hand, and smell it. If I caught that lovely odor of industrial hand cleaner, of orange oil, lanolin and pumice, it told me he was done for the day and he was ours. It remains today, one of my favorite odors.

On Sundays, he took the family out to the park, the beach, or the museums. Once in a while he’d have enough money to take us to a place like Disneyland, but looking back, it was the simplest of outings that forged my most enduring fond memories of us together.

One Sunday, we were bored and wanted to go out, but my father had no extra money to spend. Still, he put us in the car and took us to the airport, parked on a side street adjacent to the runway, and we watched the planes take off and land. I worried that we’d get in trouble for being there, but my father reassured me and I relaxed. As I watched the planes approach in a pattern, I took out a little book that showed the silhouettes of different passenger planes and tried to match the pictures to what I saw in the skies. Feasting on plain mayo sandwiches atop the trunk of the car, I savored each bite-sized minute to the very end.

My father liked to watch airplanes just like I did. That became even clearer to me when my father took us to see the war birds at the Chino air museum. I had read all about those old propeller combat planes and couldn’t believe we were actually headed there. The drive from East L.A. to Chino seemed unending then. Chino was a whole different, faraway world. I knew we were getting close when the smell of cow manure rushed into the car, my window open as I held out my hand into the wind like an airfoil.

Once at the museum, I immediately began to identify planes I had only read about or dreamed about: a silver P-51D Mustang fighter with a bubble canopy; an F4U Corsair naval fighter with its upturned gull-like wings; and a big C-47 military transport, a plane produced at the same Long Beach plant where I would one day work myself. I walked around each plane noticing its details, the rivets, oil streaks, and warning labels. At the engines, I read about its specifications and told my father…V-12 liquid-cooled, R-18 air-cooled…Together we marveled in the numbers and compared them to car specifications.

I often asked questions about the new things I’d see on our outings and my father would give me an answer. One day, I asked him what this strange looking array of antennae was for atop a high-rise building. I was shocked to hear him respond that he didn’t know. Still today, I recall that moment.

Now, I realize that he did have an answer for me. It was just that his answer was couched to me in a different, deeper, and more lasting way. I suppose he figured out that I wasn’t going to stop questioning. So he showed me a set of Encyclopædia Britannica he’d bought years before. It was in Spanish. I opened each volume and delved in, lost in the wonders discovered alphabetically.

My father’s name is “Jose” like so many others in East L.A. Father’s Day was not invented, as I had believed, just for him. And his body was not forever strong. He is now a frail old man, though with a mind stubbornly sharp.

I went on to learn to read, write, and speak English, despite starting my school years as a “non-English speaking student.”

I joined the Air Force, too, and served as an aircraft mechanic. Interestingly, much later, I learned that back in his home country of Nicaragua, while a mechanic in the public works department garage, my father came to know a lieutenant in the Nicaraguan air force who’d bring in his vehicle to my father for repair. He invited my father to work for him to learn to fix planes at the air base outside of Managua. He almost accepted because he liked airplanes, he tells me now, but instead he decided to come to America.

Then I studied in college, realizing my arms would never be as strong as my fathers, and made a career of physics. Though my work tools are now mental, I never forgot that toolbox.

In his later years, when my father no longer had the strength to work his craft, he surprised me one day telling me his toolbox was to be mine and that I could sell it if I wished. I didn’t want to think about that.

Now, at the doctor’s office, it was coming to that.

“Jose!” The nurse called my father, startling me back to the present like the crisp click of the torque wrench. I handed him his walking cane and helped him to the exam room.

In the gown, my father got cold waiting in exam room. Finally, the doctor rushed in, apologized for the wait, and quickly told us the diagnoses.

“It’s P.D.,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

My father’s old toolbox now sits in my new garage and when I open it, the cold, worn metal sends me back. My sense of hearing intensifies. My fingers travel the well-worn edges of each tool. I’m there again, waiting for them to speak to me.

Charro of Caratacua

It was not what I expected, a day at the beach, waiting for the sunset.

The day before, my grandfather arrived at our front patio after being picked up at the airport, wearing a sheepskin jacket, stubbly faced, looking frail and gaunt, but with a big smile when he heard my voice greet him at the door.

“Hijo, eres tu?” He said, extending his arms out toward my voice.

I responded it was I and asked how he was. Fine, he said, still kicking. He then asked about my mother.

I hadn’t seen him in years. I’d heard he’d been sick in Mexico and thought about asking him what that was all about. Instead, I just accepted he was well enough to make the trip like always. Still, he was an old man now, weak, and, unlike the memories of my youth, a shadow of his former self, a horseman from Mexico.

We’d be spending the next day together before he’d have to leave to visit other relatives in California. As we chatted over dinner I asked him what he wanted to do the next day. Picnic at Santa Monica beach, he said. After dinner I rushed to the grocery store to get the snacks he’d asked for. Along the way, as I stared at his shopping list, I puzzled at his requests.

I had trouble picturing this charro from the small village of Caratacua, Mexico, dressed in botas, sarape, sombrero, and tapabalazos, at the beach. He was far from that village where he grew up, where he rode his horse through the hills of the family ranch, Xaratanga, herding sheep or cattle for a good part of the first half of the 20th century.

Early on he took to herding livestock from Mexico’s Tierra Caliente, a wild, remote, and hot corner of the Pacific coast state of Michoacán, back to Caratacua. The Hot Land was a tropical, fertile place that grew avocados and melons. But it was also a dangerous place most would avoid. Extreme heat and drenching humidity halted many travelers, and bandits or jaguars pounced on unsuspecting travelers and livestock.

Yet feeding his growing family pushed him on. To him it became a commute; his travel companion was a Mauser rifle, always at his side. He regularly made the trek of over 50 miles into the Hot Land to buy cheaper livestock that he could sell for a profit in Caratacua.

His branding iron design, a stylized “A,” became a common sight on local livestock, particularly on cattle. He liked to keep the best of the bulls to breed on his ranch, giving them names like “Billete” (money bill) and “Cajera” (cashier).

But breeding cattle wasn’t enough to get by with a large family, so he contracted for temporary farm work in the United States under the Bracero program. He traveled many times back and forth between Caratacua and the United States, leaving his family for months at a time but always returning, bringing gifts, money, and stories.

Perhaps no one more eagerly anticipated his returns to the ranch than my mother. He must have known because he’d faithfully bring dresses, jewelry, and Quaker Oats from the U.S. for his little girl. He discovered many new things in the U.S., which he’d share when back home.

While he was away in the United States, he also sent letters home every three months to the nearby towns of Tiríndaro or Comanja, which had post offices. He included $50 or $100 in a sealed envelope to be picked up by his wife or eldest son. That didn’t sound like much money, but it was hard earned and saved while working the agricultural fields of the United States.

He started working early in life and knew the value of money. When he was a boy, the railroad first came to Caratacua. Surveyors used dynamite to blast a path for the tracks. Local workers were hired to hand-carry away the rocks. Many died. But he worked alongside his father, Papá Camento, his strong arms moving countless stones for 18 cents a day.

So the day after he arrived in Los Angeles I drove him to the beach, and we sat on the sand, side by side staring out into the water. As I unpacked the cooler we took with us to the beach, I wondered how my grandfather could be such a happy man with such a hard life.

In his youth he was known as a handsome man, well dressed, and charismatic. My mother would tell me stories of how, as a little girl, she’d accompany him on walks from the ranch to the nearby town of Comanja for fresh bread. Local girls would soon be abuzz over him, and she’d be red with jealousy that they’d dare to take away his attention.

He wasn’t shy about having fun, too. My mother thought it scandalous that he would dance la botella with Doña Timotea, instead of with his wife, at community dances. Yes, my grandmother was not a dancer but that shouldn’t have been reason for him to dance with others. At least that’s how my mother felt.

You would never think that he was a man who believed the world would end with the coming of the second millennium. However, in the early 1940s, the Parícutin Volcano in the nearby town of Uruapan erupted with a fury not unlike the dynamite blasting of his youth. Although it was not the volcano that ultimately drove him to the U.S., it did change things.

For years, stones, ash, and lava covered the region. Many people left. My grandfather resisted abandoning his ranch. He continued to farm the land. But the volcano left its mark on those who remained. For years to come, he and his older sons would taste the volcano. As they worked the fields, they would collect limillas, a sour fruit from a shrub found in the fields, as a substitute for lemons to mix in their water cans with salt and chili. For years, the fruit was coated with ash from the volcano.

After a bit of just quietly sitting on the beach listening to the surf, I laid out the sandwiches, Twinkies, and Coke cans. I thought of what we’d talk about now, a little worried.

My grandfather took off his hat, closed his eyes, reclined his back, and began to speak unrushed, obviously enjoying the warmth that fell on his calm and smiling face. Relieved, I would ask a question here and there. But mostly he’d talk, stopping occasionally to sip his Coke. I had never really noticed that white “wave” on the Coke can until he held it up that day. He talked about his life in Mexico and his many trips to El Norte, as he called it.

Being a bracero was not easy, he said. Yes, he’d earn a few dollars a day but he was at the mercy of the harvest season, moved from one place to another like a farm implement, as needed. Housed with dozens of other such men, the canvas beds reeked of the sweat of countless bodies too tired after ten to twelve hours of daily labor to care. His back would ache and not want to straighten, a short-handled hoe to blame.

Yet, that he did not regret his travels was evident as he spoke. He provided for his family, left in a ranch in a little village in rural Mexico. Now his family had followed him out to El Norte and spread from coast to coast, he beamed, starting with a bold daughter that he could now visit in his old age.

I remember the calm of his smiling face in the light of that afternoon as the sunset fell so beautifully on the beach. But then I could also picture him an elegant charro on horseback, and as a bracero, working the soil with his strong arms that always carried home gifts to share.

I never saw him again after he returned to Mexico. He died of cancer, peacefully, I’m told. Just before the end of the millennium, he passed. Years later, I went to Mexico to visit his grave, to thank him for our last day and say my goodbye. He is buried in the land of his youth, mixed back into the soil, stones, and ashes upon which he first toiled.

 

Strong Arms

I 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.

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 …”

During one such magical night as a little girl, my mother heard the sound of the ears of corn brushing against each other, and saw the tassels of the corn swaying in the wind, as if waving her onward. She promised that night to God and herself, she tells me now, that one day she would go.

In time, my mother came to loathe her life on the ranch. “No hay vida,” she would say to herself.

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.

The Garage

volume2

When 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!”

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.