Warrior Daughter

In the last years of my mother’s life, I had dedicated myself to helping keep her alive.  I wanted to study engineering and aviation. Yet our Mexican–Catholic culture kept me stuck in servitude as I took care of my mother instead. By now, she existed in a miserable murkiness of despondency and corrosion from complications of diabetes.  My three older brothers did not help.

She had an iron constitution and was used to being the general in command, always running the house without anyone’s consent. She controlled my apparel, whom I could speak to on the phone, where I could go, and how I spent my time if I was not at my job or at school. Every aspect of life was monitored and approved by her. I hated my life of servitude. She had arranged my marriage to a young man without my consent. His name was Cesar.

I had met Cesar through a mutual friend from grade school the summer before my freshman year of high school. While we secretly chatted on the phone one evening, my mother grabbed the phone, told him I was not allowed to have any boyfriends, and he could return on graduation day if he was interested. To my surprise, he showed up four years later at the graduation ceremony and we began to date soon after. It didn’t last long.

During my junior year in high school, I had discovered my mother putting birth control pills in my food, because there was a boy interested in me. Now, at eighteen, I discovered her doing it again because I was dating Cesar. I was furious.  She had told me that since I was going to marry Cesar, I should get used to using preventative measures and wait on having children. I hadn’t spoken to Cesar of marriage. He had spoken to my mother only, and they took it upon themselves to make wedding arrangements without my consent. I told her I wasn’t going to marry Cesar or anyone else. And that ended it.

Cooking, laundry, maintaining the home, working part-time and attending college full-time was the rhythm of my life from 19 to 22. For an entire year, I awoke at 2 a.m. daily giving her medicine to help her make it through the rest of the night; she required fifteen pills around the clock to stay alive. I slept four hours a night with no social life, no free weekends, no holidays and no romantic connections. The exhaustion and lack of sleep affected my grades. I went on academic probation. This hurt me. I loved learning yet couldn’t tell anyone about my dilemma.

She went blind and needed dialysis on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. A side effect that diabetics suffer is thirst, but I could only give her a few ice cubes at a time Because too much liquid caused her to feel like she was drowning, forcing us to rush to the E.R. for dialysis treatment. She threw frequent tantrums filled with profanity, and her screaming would echo throughout our little home.

“You don’t love me,” she would scream. “You want to kill me.”

She had to learn how to eat without sight, and many times I found myself dodging plates, cups, spoons and forks thrown my way out of frustration. That was compounded with outbursts of yelling, vulgarity, and sobbing. I was alone with her most of the time when these would occur. My father was at work, and I didn’t know who I could ask for help. When it was my turn to accompany her for dialysis treatment, it was agonizing to watch her suffer for three hours, while her skin turned pale white or charcoal black. I tried to comfort her. The treatment ignited hot flashes or caused chills.

Three times she experienced a code blue at the hospital and was resuscitated. She worsened every time she returned from the dead. I could hear her shouting my name down the ward on my visit, my heart would race, and my hands would begin to sweat, and chills ran down my back with embarrassment and fear.  Every nurse in the unit sighed with relief as I approached her room, knowing the yelling would stop once she heard my voice. My father and I were by her side, exhausted, frustrated and praying that this nightmare would stop.

I hungered for life as a woman as I was turning 22 that July. I was craving a tender touch and the warmth of another. I met Belinda in my journalism class during the spring semester of that year. She was intelligent and witty and had a good body. I like smart women. I was helping Belinda paint her living room and dining room that summer. I began coming home a little later as the weeks passed. I remember coming home one late September night from a date. A knot formed in my gut and my hands began to sweat as I saw my father looking through the living room window. I heard my father telling my mother something. I felt the tension vibrate as I walked into the house.

“Que hora es para llegar a casa?” She yelled.

“I was out with a friend and we went out to eat.”

She rose to her feet, followed my voice and felt her way to where I was standing a few feet from her seat. As she felt my face, she began to beat me repeatedly, calling me a whore and saying she would throw me out of the house. She said she didn’t want any women like me living under her roof. If my father hadn’t stopped her, she would have killed me. I lost all my respect and love for her in that moment. I felt buried alive.

I called my youngest brother and asked him to pick me up and take me to his house for the night. Once we arrived, I had a good cry as he gave me a much-needed hug and told me that all would be fine in a few days. Two hours later, my mother called and said that she was very sorry and asked me to return home. I stayed at my brother’s house for a few days and moved out of my parent’s house that weekend.

I packed the few things I owned into Belinda’s car. As we drove off, my two older brothers followed us, realizing I was involved with a woman. As we reached Belinda’s driveway, one of them began to yell at her, threatening her life.

Living with Belinda, I had left one hell and walked into another. She was a serious alcoholic, prone to jealous tantrums. She beat me and stalked me and made harassing phone calls to me at work. I sometimes had to wait until 1 or 2 in the morning at the local donut shop, knowing that by then she would be stone drunk so I could go home to sleep a couple of hours before I had to get up again. She and my mother loathed each other. I never had peace. My mother and two older brothers called day and night. My brothers threw bottles and eggs at our front door. I called the Sheriff’s Department, who threatened my family with a restraining order and arrest.

Until this point, my three brothers and I were raised equally, but the two older boys were from my mother’s first marriage. My father had raised them as his own. As the two older brothers continued their evil ways, I lost respect for them and considered them my mother’s sons and not my brothers. They had told me that I would never amount to anything since I was gay and that I was killing my mother by coming out of the closet. I was the favorite aunt and adored all of my nieces and nephews but, these two told me that I couldn’t be near their kids since I could give them AIDS. This broke my heart.

I never went back to live with my parents. But I kept helping them with the usual upkeep of the house four times a week. I did it more to help my father. On one of my visits, my mother’s desperation reached a breaking point as she kneeled in front of me while sobbing hysterically asking for my forgiveness. She kissed my feet and begged me to move back. I froze in disbelief, holding my composure and tears. I said, “No. I can’t. I have another life now, but I’ll keep coming to help you and Dad.”

Toward the end, I hated being near my mother and felt ill any time she expressed affection. She hated homosexuals. We argued. Gays deserved the AIDS virus, she said; they were sinning as God was working it out for them to repent. After those arguments, I visited the E.R. for a sedative.

She died in November 1987, as we both struggled to communicate without ever finding peace or the love of a mother and daughter. I was 23 and she was 54.

One time while donating blood to the Red Cross, I was asked what I would do if I won the lottery. I would pay for therapy for everyone in my family, I said. But I stay away from my brothers. I see them only at funerals or weddings.

Heaven Knows

I remember my brother Oscar and his friend Richard sneaking into Richard’s bedroom with the album under his armpit covered by his jacket.

My parents decided to visit the Garcia family for a while on that Saturday afternoon in March of 1976. We kids attended Our Lady of Soledad School in East Los Angeles.

“Hey Oscar, there’s a record player in here,” Richard said.

Then I heard music and snuck a peek to see what they were up to.

“It sounds so nasty, play it again.”

This went on for about 20 minutes, the moaning and groaning accompanied by the erotic synchronization of “Love To Love You Baby,” by Donna Summer. This was the first time I heard her name.

Raised in East Los Angeles in the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, we lived in the barrio with gangs and violence. Prejudice and bullying at school and home made life unbearable for me most of the time. My mother had an iron constitution and my father was an alcoholic. They were dedicated to their family and did their best. But a dysfunctional, traditional Mexican Catholic family home was not a place I wanted to be.

I escaped through disco dancing.

I struggled in academics, but excelled in art, sports, and dancing. Disco gave me an anchor of hope. It was like I plugged my body and soul into the electrical socket that provided climax without end.

Donna Summer became more to me than a superstar. I felt that she helped people heal. There were stories of a young boy who helped his mother hear for the first time while she was vacuuming after he kept playing “I Feel Love” at maximum volume. She miraculously began to sing along with the album and made the connection to sound. A girl who was a fan of Donna’s was in an auto accident and comatose for days. The doctor gave up hope for her. The young girl’s parents played one of Donna’s albums continuously in the hospital, which later helped the young girl regain consciousness.

I found her voice soothing and asked God for a blessing to meet Donna in person so that I could thank her for helping me cope with my turbulent teenage years.

Two of my brothers were DJs during the Disco era and went by the names of Circus Disco and Levissio Disco. During the week, they would practice for their weekend gigs by dimming the lights in our home, setting up the turn tables and the rainbow strip lights then blowing the referee whistle to the beat of Donna’s “Heaven Knows,” “Sunset People,” and “Once Upon A Time.”

My middle brother became my dance partner. We won several contests. During the summer of 1978, while at the annual carnival at my grammar school, a European film company videotaped us for their documentary on Disco in the United States.

Later that evening, we competed in the festival’s dance contest before about 500 people.

We danced to Cheryl Lynn’s “Star Love,” with six other couples as the disco lights fluttered across the dance floor. Finally, he and I were competing with only one last couple. With our every twirl and dip, the crowd cheered us on in rhythm with the thumping disco beat. A shouting match ensued as the disc jockey stirred up the crowd with a succulent deep voice.

“What do you think, people? Number One or Number Five?”

The crowd bellowed for minutes. Finally, a judge tapped the other couple on the shoulder, and the DJ announced us as the winners. A mob of friends and community members charged at us. We were surrounded by people pulling at our clothes, hugging us and shouting. For a brief moment, we felt what it’s like to be a celebrity, with people out of control. All I remember is a tall man yanking us out of the crowd and escorting us onto the stage, where I finally caught my breath. The song “San Francisco” by the Village People played as he announced our names and placed medals around our necks. It felt like an Olympic moment. Then Donna’s “Last Dance” packed the floor.

In 1995, Donna Summer gave her usual August concert at the Universal Amphitheater. I never understood how people went hysterical for groups like the Beatles or Elvis until I finally saw Donna Summer in person. I screamed so much that by the end of the concert I could barely hear my voice.

My friends and I lingered on and chatted inside the concert hall.

“I just want to meet her once and then I’ll die in peace,” I said to my friends.

Out of nowhere two white, gay young men in their late twenties put their after-concert reception party passes on each of my thighs and said, “You go girl, and meet Donna Summer!”

I froze.

“Come on Fab, this is your chance,” one of my friends said.

My heart began to race as fast as the beat to “Once Upon a Time.” I made my way down the stairs from the concert hall to where double doors lead to the back stage courtyard. My hands began to sweat, my legs to tremble. I almost hyperventilated. I was alone among music-industry folks, the press and media. I said a little prayer.

Donna was being interviewed about a hundred feet away by a film crew. It was a separate section from the immediate crowd and guarded by security. I turned to my left and bumped into her nephew. His pass was different than mine, which caught my attention. So I asked him about it. His pass allowed him entry to the family room. Only God could have sent me this angel. After telling him how important it was for me to meet his auntie, I convinced him to lend me his special pass and get closer to Donna.

I made my way into the family room and stood by the water fountain alone. No one asked me a single question. How could anyone miss me? I was the only Chicana in the room. Everyone else was black or white. I learned after reading her biography that her nanny, Rosa, was Latina, so I guess that’s why no one questioned me. I kept praying, hoping that she would come into the family room for a quick minute so I could say hello and get her autograph, or a hug.

Minutes passed. I continued to pray. Then with a gentle push, she opened the door and peeked her head into our area, calling three little girls to come to the dressing room. They were standing near me – her daughters or nieces, I think. I froze and then on impulse I followed the girls. My entire body trembled as I made my way four feet through the backstage door.

And there I was — Donna Summer, her bodyguard, and me.

“Mrs. Summer, can I please have a minute to share something very important? It would mean the world to me.”

I told her how important she had been to me during my turbulent teen years and how her music and singing had been a true complement to my life. She took my hand as I continued to share and tears rolled down my face. For years, I told her, that I had prayed for this meeting and that I believed in miracles because of this special moment. She gently took my other hand and with a soothing voice looked into my eyes and told me that everything I said was very important to her and she really appreciated me, too.

I felt like I was talking to a friend I hadn’t seen for years. After a few minutes of warm exchanges, I finally asked for her autograph. I only had a pen so she removed the hospitality sign from the wall and signed it.

With tears in my eyes, we hugged and I thanked her for making my dream come true. The moment felt so wonderful that I didn’t want to let her go. Her bodyguard finally gently touched my shoulder and told me that I had to let her go. She handed me a tissue as I collected myself and took a deep breath.

She thanked me for coming to the concert and said that it was nice to have met me. As she and her bodyguard watched me leave, I said thank you and found my way through the double doors alone. As I got to the base of the staircase, I began to sob and thanked God for a phenomenal gift. I felt as if I had gone to her house to visit, leaving very peaceful, happy, and validated.

I climbed the stairs holding on to the railing as my legs trembled and my heart beat as fast as the rhythm to “Heaven Knows.” All I could say was, “Oh my God, this was like a dream.”

My friends were waiting for me in the lobby. They shrieked as I showed them Donna’s autograph, and hugged me hard.

“You did it, Fab, you really did it!”

I filled them in on the details over dinner at Denny’s and it was about then that I was sure that when I’m cremated, I want Donna’s autograph to go with me, while “Last Dance” plays.

Echoes From The Past

One day, when I was in second grade at Brooklyn Avenue School, I was at lunch, which they called nutrition. I happened to put back a cookie that I didn’t want and decided to get another one. Before I knew it, my teacher, Ms. Childs grabbed me by my shirt, threw me against the wall, and called me a dirty Mexican. I was terrified to say anything or do anything so I froze there against the wall.

I told my mother upon arriving at home and a couple of days later found myself in a meeting with a group of people all dressed in business suites, and known as the administration. Ms. Childs and my mother were there as well.

I was brought into the meeting to give my testimony for a minute. I told them what had happened. Later I noticed that the school administration and Ms. Childs treated me with more respect.

I remember that same year being stabbed with a pencil and being pant sing in the school playground by a white boy. The bullying by other students, most of them white, became so unbearable that I didn’t want to attend school anymore. Consequently, my parents decided to transfer me to Our Lady of Soledad School one block north from this school.

That same year, while I was in the hospital having my tonsils taken out, the attending nursing staff at the hospital was negligent to my mother and me. They would take a very long time in responding to the buzzer. My mother didn’t speak much English and I was so frightened that I had difficulty expressing what I needed. So, we finally told our friend and landlord, Ralph Goldstein, who also was my foster godfather. On Easter Sunday he showed up to visit me in the hospital with a huge stuffed bunny and a large chocolate Easter rabbit. After visiting me and my mother, Ralph casually went over to the nursing station and we noticed a miraculous change. After that, a bilingual nurse attended to us, my mother was able to stay overnight by my side, we had frequent visits by the nursing staff, and an administrator came to check on us. For the next two days, I ate all the ice cream I wanted. It amazed me how wonderful it was to have a godfather who happened to be an attorney.

A year or so later, my mother and I witnessed the Chicano Moratorium. The Moratorium was a peaceful demonstration of 30,000 people taking a stand against the Vietnam War. Chicano soldiers were dying in large numbers.

Out of nowhere, a man ran north on Mednik Avenue towards Brooklyn Avenue, dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt, swinging his arms, screaming, “Mataron a Ruben, mataron a Ruben Salazar.” They killed Ruben Salazar.

Ruben Salazar was the lone Chicano news reporter at the Los Angeles Times then. He was killed by police Sgt. Tom Wilson, who fired a teargas bullet into the Silver Dollar bar, where Salazar was taking a break a few blocks away. Later, an inquest determined his death an accident. It would make him a hero to Mexican–American community. In life, Ruben wrote of injustice, of racism, and of the need for change in the servitude and the assimilation of the Mexican–American into white, mainstream America.

My mother grabbed my hand.

“Vamonos a la casa mija, correle, correle,” — Let’s go home sweetheart, run, run.

In seconds, a riot broke out. We dodged bullets, tear gas, and glass bottles flying around us. As we ran with all our might, I could hear friends and neighbors yelling and crying as bottles smashed and business windows exploded. It felt as though everything was going in slow motion. Finally, we reached our street on Kern Avenue, one block west from Mednik. As we ran through the front door, my mother said, “hit the floor.” We lay there holding each other trembling in disbelief.

We stayed there for several minutes, though it felt like an eternity, hearing the reverberation of gunshots, broken bottles, and the weeping from men and women outside our home. It felt as though a tornado swept the neighborhood and when it was over it left an anxious stillness.

Over the next year or so, I remember, people continued protesting around East Los Angeles.

“What do we want? Change!” they would chant. “When do we want it? Now!”

We watched similar protests across the country on television.

My eldest brother was associated with people who called themselves the Brown Berets. They often visited our home in East Los Angeles. They overheard conversations about martial arts, protests, and surviving gun shots and stabbings. One of them showed my brother his stomach and chest, which, scarred with X’s and lines, looked like a treasure map.

Teenagers and elders alike chanted Viva La Raza and Chicano Power outside at Al’s Produce and across the street, at El Gallo’s Bakery, at Our Lady of Soledad Church, at the Safeway market, and at neighborhood gatherings. The United Farm Workers picketed layovers at Garfield High School.

But years passed and things changed. East LA was 80 percent Hispanic, mostly Mexican-American then; now it is 98 percent, and many folks are from Mexico. The police and teachers are mostly Hispanic now; most of the businesses Hispanic owned.

I last went to the East L.A. Mexican Independence parade in 1977. I was in junior high school. As I waited to march that year, I realized I was standing next to Cesar Chavez. We spoke briefly. I was 13.

Now in 2015, I was 51, and attended the parade again. His name was on the intersection where the parade began and near where Ruben Salazar had died.

I savored the richness of the feeling, as floats, college and high school marching bands, the Folklorico and Aztec dancers, the charros on horseback passed by. Politicians in their cars waved to the crowds, which chanted “Viva la Raza!” and “Viva Mexico!”

“Did you know that Univision is televising this?” asked a lady in front of me.

A man pushed an ice cream cart past behind us. “Paletas de uva, de coco, de fresa,” he cried.

“Churros, churros,” called a woman dressed in her traditional rebozo. “Dos por un dolar” —two for a dollar.

I asked the woman standing next to me if she was enjoying the parade? She smiled and I saw that she had tears in her eyes. She, too, had not been to this event since she was a teenager. We began to talk about the old days, about Al’s produce and how there’s a Denny’s there now.

“We used to ride the bus for a dime,” she said.

“Do you remember Herman’s thrift shop and the Liquor store where you could buy five candies for a quarter?” I asked her.

She nodded and smiled.

She had moved back from Puerto Rico two weeks before, after the failure of a relationship and a broken business. Her autistic niece was standing with us cheering. The woman’s daughter was working on her college project as she gathered footage for a documentary on the parade’s 69th anniversary.

“I guess we are moving on up since now we have a Subway and a Denny’s on the same lot.”

“Yes,” I said, “I guess we are lucky to see the neighborhood moving forward.”

Warrior of East L.A.

I remember Flaca walking into the computer lab with her white t-shirt, khaki shorts that met her tube socks at her knees, her fancy leather black belt, her slick dark sun glasses and her checkered red and beige long sleeve shirt. She looked like a cholo.

She took her time walking across the room, scanning the computer lab as though preparing for battle. When she finally reached my desk, she handed me a referral from a government program she was forced to enroll in and said, in a low voice, “Hey Miss. I’m here to get help with my Math and English, so what do I do”?

I was recruited into the tutoring program by my trigonometry professor at East Los Angeles College since I often enjoyed assisting classmates. I remember Flaca sitting in front of the computer simply staring at the screen. I thought she was struggling with the operation of the computer. I learned later that she would come to class intoxicated and brought her happy juice. It was a thirty- two ounce soda mug with alcohol but because it had no aroma of alcohol I didn’t know. It was also a little strange that she preferred wearing her slick shades in class. I thought the computer screen was too bright for her. In reality, she was loaded and she hid behind them.

I had a feeling that she wanted to improve her life since she was attending this class. As she behaved, I continued to assist her and in time we became friends. We talked. I asked what her favorite drink was? With a naughty smile she looked straight into my eyes and confessed that she enjoyed her alcoholic beverage while she worked on her lessons. This situation was new to me, so I said nothing. Over the weeks, we talked a little about college studies and concerns about the weather as I tried to figure out what to do.

When I felt more comfortable with her, I finally addressed the issue of coming to class loaded and bringing her happy juice. I could have lost my job if my boss found out that she was drinking in class, but my heart told me to stay quiet. I told her that I needed her help. We would work as a team in order for her to stay in the class since it was mandated by her program. I asked her to pretend as though she was doing her work by hitting the computer keys every few minutes. I also asked her to stay awake because her snoring might disturb other students and attract attention. I suggested she refrain from bringing her favorite drink to class, which was better enjoyed outside class.

With time she stopped bringing her mug and, eventually, began to complete her lessons. But she kept her shades on.

Flaca was raised by both her parents as an only child for a decade, followed by a brother ten years younger and by a sister four years after that. Before the arrival of her siblings, she and her parents had money and time enough to take camping trips, go bowling and to the movies. Her father worked in the roofing industry and she was his assistant for a while. However, he always wanted a son and he taught her to work and play sports as if she were so.

But she reached her teenage years as her parents were occupied changing diapers, and working harder than ever. “I felt as though my brother and sister stole my father from me,” she told me.

At fifteen, she was searching for attention and began to hang out with the neighborhood gang. After school, she and her comrades would put their lunch money together and would pay a local wino to buy them a six pack, which led to a twelve pack, and eventually to cases of beer. They began breaking into newspaper vending machines. From there, she began using drugs. She even smoked Angel Dust on the lawn outside the East Los Angeles Sheriff station.

Her parents talked with her about her mischief, beat her, threw her out of the house, but gave her chances to return home. Her troubles kept growing. She would behave for a while but it didn’t last long, and her defiance would intensify.

She was expelled from Schurr High School, attended Vail Continuation High School and was expelled for fighting. She was in and out of juvenile detention and jail. Eventually, she was sent to the Mira Loma detention facility in Lancaster which gave her much needed structure. There she completed her G.E.D.

Once on the outside, she worked at the Sears Warehouse, then as a mail clerk at Wells Fargo Bank, followed by a printing shop. Then

in her mid-twenties, she began using heroin. She met Sheila at a party and grew as addicted to her as she was to the drug. They became lovers and sold heroin together. Addicts, called Sheila with their orders; Flaca made the deliveries. “It was just like delivering pizza- like a franchise, in a way,” she said. Sheila was her immediate boss, but there were other distributors above her.

Flaca and Sheila shared the upkeep of the house and expenses for about a year. Then one night, Flaca stayed out all night. Sheila and she argued. The next time Flaca stayed out all night, Sheila kicked her out. That proved lucky, as a few days later cops raided the house and arrested Sheila.

Flaca moved back with her parents. At this point, longing for children, she decided to take a break from women. Her next door neighbor, Smokey, was a longtime friend and they kind of messed around when she was younger. He was eleven years her senior, had a good heart, was handsome, masculine and was right on the other side of the fence. He had also served in the Vietnam War. The proposition was simple, she told him: I need your help to have my children. He would not have any responsibility or claim to them, but he could see them from next door. With time, he fathered her two sons. He also was in and out of jail and survived working odd jobs, then died from a bleeding ulcer soon after the birth of her second child. He was found on the lawn of what is now the East Los Angeles Library.

Meanwhile, Flaca continued making poor choices. She was stabbed twice, took part in drive-by shootings, kept drinking and using drugs, and was in and out of jail. She was respected in the gangster community since she did bad things in a big way.

Years of abuse wore her down so that she lost her eye sight for a year. Consequently she was unable to work and went on government aid known as SSI in 1991 at the age of 31. Her parents didn’t condone her behavior, but they loved her and cared for her two sons.

After a year of therapy she regained her eyesight. One morning while visiting a friend, she realized that she had not drunk or used drugs the night before. For the first time in decades she was able to think with a clear mind. Because she qualified for a free bus pass, she got on the bus after visiting with this friend to be alone and think. For a week, she left her parents’ home early and rode the bus all day. Those bus rides were a turning point.

She began to attend Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and tried to stay clean and sober. She relapsed several times, but eventually held to it.

As years passed, she learned a more structured lifestyle. She began by taking her sons to school regularly and picking them up afterwards. As time went on, she befriended the principal of the same school as he later invited her to enroll in parenting classes. Flaca learned how to kneel down and look her children in the eyes when she spoke to them. She became skilled in establishing parameters when giving her boys a choice when selecting things. She was taught the value of punctuality, whether it was to arrive at school on time regularly or returning library materials by the due date.

When her sons were toddlers, she entered them in baby contests and won several times. Later, she enrolled her boys in baseball, soccer, karate, and taught them to bowl. The year that her sons played peewee baseball was the first time in the league’s history that both the coach and the assistant coach were women. Flaca was the head coach as the team made it to the playoffs.

She learned to use the libraries, and showed her boys how to do the same. In the annual school fundraiser she sold candy for her sons and was the top seller for three consecutive years. The first year as the top seller they won tickets to Knott’s Berry Farm and the second year, tickets to Disneyland. Flaca already had experience selling things. Candy sales came easy to her and it was legal. “No one was shot. No one got killed,” she said. “It made me feel like I was a real mother.”

I remember the year she first came in for tutoring telling me about selling enough candy to win bicycles for her sons.

Two weeks before her father died, he told her to go back to school and become a rehabilitation drug counselor. She’s doing that now, working on her degree at East Los Angeles College.

It’s been 21 years since she first showed up in my class. I have watched her all that time.

I see her on campus now, an adult finally, and no longer in her sunglasses and khaki shorts that meet her tube socks at the knees. She is usually with one of her sons, who is also a student. I see them after class, walking together slowly toward the parking lot.

Warrior In The Fields

I remember that morning. I was 11.

I watched from my bedroom window as cars, vans, and motorcycles parked in Al’s Produce across the street on Brooklyn Avenue, (now Avenida Cesar E. Chavez) and Kern. Teenagers and adults together chanted “Don’t buy the grapes!! Huelga, huelga.” The red flags with the black eagle fluttered in the wind as the number of protestors grew.

It was September 16, 1977 – Mexican Independence Day, and in East L.A. we were preparing for our annual parade.

Some blew their whistles like football referees. Others walked back and forth shouting ‘Si se puede!’, (Yes, we can). Before long, there was no place to park on the corner parking lot and the overflow began to park on Kern Avenue. Many folks were dressed in psychedelic clothes.

Later that morning, my parents drove my brother, Oscar, and me near my school on Dozier Street.

I stood in front of Our Lady of Soledad Elementary School dressed in my school uniform and Oxford shoes and waited my turn to walk in the parade. I could hear the chit-chattering of fellow students, nuns, priest, parents and friends of the community carrying on. It was a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon. Birds flew above us and echoes of neighboring family dogs filled the air. Dozier Street filled with students and community activists putting the final touches on posters of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Viva La Raza! Ranchero music blasted from nearby homes, friends and neighbors exchanged hugs, kisses on the cheek, and high fives as the crowds grew.

It was then that I turned to my left and saw, a few feet away, the man whose picture I was coloring that week in my Social Studies class. He was watching the folks of East Los Angeles with a big smile on his face. I walked over to him and felt as though we were alone on the street. He smiled at me. I said hello and asked him if he was the man who helped people who worked in the fields.

The first time I had heard of Cesar Chavez and his farm workers movement was in my seventh-grade social studies class that year. In my home in East Los Angeles, we knew of people who worked the fields; however, we never spoke of them or the movement. We lived in a neighborhood that was mostly Mexican-American, with a sprinkle of non-Latinos, including our landlord, who was a generous and sweet Jewish Godfather figure to us.

Our home was known as the Kool-Aid house, since many neighborhood kids gathered regularly to play in our backyard, eat from the various fruit trees, and enjoy a glass of Kool- Aid. We were very poor and our backyard was much larger than our humble little shack. Still, children’s laughter and mischief frequently made our backyard feel like a park. I was the youngest of four children and the only girl, so building go carts, playing cowboys and Indians, and sports came easily.

Mrs. Cordero was the teacher who helped me discover the joy for learning. She was a slender Chicana, about six feet tall with cinnamon eyes, a sweet spirit and a heart of gold. Her kindness sweetened my life since I was terribly bullied at home and at school. In her class, we colored the grapes and strawberries of the fields from the San Joaquin Valley up north. We colored his blue jeans, white rolled-up shirt and cowboy hat. He was surrounded by trees, flowers, with a background filled with hills and valleys of strawberry fields and grapevines. The campesino men and women were working the fields, while the children played.

Farm work had touched my life in a big way, though I lived in East Los Angeles.

My father, Jose Manriquez, was part of the Bracero workforce established by a treaty between the United States and Mexico during World War II, allowing American growers to legally contract with Mexicans to come north and work the fields. In 1958, he made his way from Mexicali to Calexico, then Salinas and Fresno. For months at a time, he picked, pulled and sacked load after load of fruits and vegetables for hours under a relentless sun. He was one of hundreds of pickers surviving on ninety cents an hour and ten cents for each basket they picked.

I was three years old when we immigrated with him to the Central Valley — Bakersfield, I think. I remember playing in the fields. I could smell the sweet strawberries he picked, as my mouth watered. I felt as though I was swimming in an ocean of forest green. While pickers were busy filling their strawberry crates, I made my way to my father’s side, pulling my half-filled box of strawberries. He gave me a smile that burst with pride.

Soon after, we moved down to East Los Angeles where my father found work at Farmer John’s meat factory and washing cars with my uncle Horace at Pac Bell. He later worked in a foundry for fifteen years. My mother was an educated woman from Mexico who spoke no English but wanted an education for her children. “We didn’t come to America to work in fields,” she told my father. Moving to the city made a big difference in our education, our friends, and our neighborhood.

However, like veterans of war who don’t share too much about the horrors they’ve seen, my father was a warrior of the fields. He didn’t like to talk about the rodents and snakes in the fields climbing up his legs, or when growers didn’t pay him. He preferred to forget all the days with no food breaks, no drinking water, and the pain in his body that came with the job. So we never spoke of farm work, or the movement that was then gaining strength, or Cesar Chavez – which is why I didn’t know much about the man I met in the street that afternoon.

But when I approached and asked if he was the one who helped people, he said, gently, yes.

How do you know, I asked, that you are doing the right thing when you are helping people?

“It feels good in here,” he said, looking down at me, and he pointed to his heart.