Savannah St.

When I walked into the funeral that day, I wasn’t going to go say goodbye to a loved one. I didn’t even shed a tear.

My mom and I attended. I wasn’t too thrilled about it. I felt out of place. I only knew of this young man and what he represented to our community. But here I was. Walking up to Our Lady of Talpa church that night, I imagined bullets coming out of nowhere while mourners fell to the floor. The parking lot was full of low riders, of men and women dressed in perfectly creased Ben Davis pants, sunglasses and Nike Cortez shoes. The church was standing room only. Like so many in our neighborhood, this young man went too soon. But you show up for someone’s funeral regardless of whether you knew him personally. Out of respect. I guess that’s a good enough reason.

Savannah was a small street nestled between an elementary school and a park in Boyle Heights. The homes sat on large lots with multiple families sharing a duplex or triplex. There was one small apartment building next door to ours. Behind the building was a parking lot of old, broken down, rusting cars that were hotels for stray cats. Ricky was my sister’s best friend and lived in the apartments next door. His dad was the manager and I’m guessing the used car lot in the back belonged to him. I lived in the back house of our family’s property, a run down three-bedroom one-bath shack that was built by a grand uncle, defiantly not up to code. My family had owned the property since the 1940s.

Next door to the apartments lived the only African American couple on Savannah Street. Mr. Cecil and Mrs. Fanny were probably the oldest residents on the block. Mr. Cecil had a reputation of being the meanest man on this street. You didn’t even try to step on his lawn to retrieve a ball. He would come outside, grab the ball and pop it right in front of you. He might bring his shotgun, too. One day as I was playing outside with a few friends, a ball bounced on his property; we saw him grab the ball and take it inside. I imagined him sitting in his house surrounded by a thousand balls, and waiting for us kids to send another one onto his lawn. I still wonder what he did with them.

Mrs. Fanny was his opposite. She was rarely outdoors. When we did see her, she was coming from church, always in her Sunday best: a beautiful matching skirt, with a button-up jacket and hat, like those at the Kentucky derby. She would say hi as she passed, if she were alone. If you happened to see her with her husband or if you were on a particular side of the street it was a different story. Houses closer to the park were seen as “unsafe” and Mrs. Fanny never went near there.

It seemed every night on Savannah Street there was a shooting or a helicopter hovering over our backyards. Shell casings at times littered the streets and I grew more afraid every day of just going outside.

One night when I was six, I decided to be brave and went with my sister and Ricky to the park to play tennis. The usual gang guys were hanging outside the gym. My sister and Ricky started to play. I was at the end of the net gripping onto the pole, frozen in fear and didn’t want to move. Ricky and my sister encouraged me to play. I gave in. I started to feel normal, as if people like me could actually come play at this park. Then I saw it. A car driving slowly on Evergreen Street. Then bullets flew. Ricky pushed both my sister and me to the ground. He hovered over me, shielding my body. I never went to play tennis there again.

I was Mexican-American, a non Spanish-speaking girl living on a street of people who had grown up together since they were kids. One time I attended a birthday party for one of my friends. I was in one room and the partygoers were all in her room watching a movie. I overheard the birthday girl saying to her mom,

“No one even likes her.”

“I don’t care,” her mother said. “I grew up with her mom, and you’ve known her since you were in first grade!”

“But Mom … .”

“Invite her to watch the movie.”

“Fine!”

I was invited in, but I left the party soon after.

In the 5th grade I was bullied. I didn’t realize that’s what it was at the time. I got a few calls from some of the girls telling me to “watch my back.” Watch my back? I didn’t understand why I had to watch my back. I was shy, nice to everyone, even if the feeling wasn’t returned; I hated confrontation. After I fessed up to my mom about the phone calls I was receiving, my mom called a mother of some boys in my class. They walked me home every day until the end of the school year.

Being fourth generation came with some prejudices living in Boyle Heights. One day I went to the market and the cashier starting speaking to me in Spanish. When the lady saw the puzzled look on my face she said, “You don’t speak Spanish?”

“No.”

“You should be ashamed of yourself.”

I smiled, grabbed my receipt and walked away.

When elementary school was over, my mom decided to send me to school in Alhambra, 20 minutes away, instead of Hollenbeck Middle School nearby. It was, in her words, “to give me better opportunities.” But to me, it was scary and I felt out of place. I continued to live on Savannah Street but used different addresses to enroll in schools in Alhambra.

The summer before we started junior high my childhood friends and I continued to hang out. But as the first day of school approached, we spent less time together and eventually our friendship wasn’t the same. They accused me of thinking I was better than them. I lost touch with most of my friends I grew up with on the block, even though we lived close to each other.

On Savannah Street, I was a young Latina from the barrio living in fear of the gang violence outside my door. In Alhambra, I was a girl trying to fit in, lying about where I lived so the kids in this middle-class neighborhood would accept me. I couldn’t share the stories of helicopters and bullet flying with my Alhambra friends. I was ashamed of where I came from.

One day I was walking with some friends after school on the streets of Alhambra. I noticed a group of classmates standing around. Then one of the girls in my group stopped to tie her shoe. As I was standing there, oblivious, the girl who was tying her shoe got up and punched me in the face. I was in this fight but had no idea I was in it, until that moment. My first year at a new school with new friends and once again I was being bullied. It turns out everyone knew about the fight going down after school. I guess you could say I was naïve.

The kid who died, whose funeral I was now attending, was Steve. To the neighborhood, though, he was Scooby, the leader of the Evergreen gang. He was a half black and half Mexican, in his early twenties and shot down at a party. He and his family lived on the other side of the park. My mom had gone to school with his mother; my sister went to school with him, and I went to elementary school with his sister Annie.

Annie was mean. No one dared to look at her sideways in fear of what she might do. Plus everyone knew who her brother was. I stayed as far away from her as possible.

I don’t remember what the priest said as I sat there in the funeral that day. I just remember the familiar faces, wondering if they noticed me and if they questioned why I was there. Our lives had been intertwined but with no real connection to one another. Annie was one of the girls on the other end of the threatening phone calls I received in the 5th grade. Now I was sitting nearby as she mourned her brother.

This neighborhood had only drugs, graffiti, the gangs, and its nightly shootouts. I wanted to escape, flee this church. I felt like a hypocrite, attending a funeral of a man I never knew but to whom I showed this respect out of loyalty to his family and to this community that I wanted to leave.

I hoped that the rival gang would not be waiting outside.

Luckily, out of respect, I heard, there was a truce – for the moment.

“Okay, Dad”

I never lived in the same home as my father. Or at least, when I did, I was too young to remember. My mom removed my siblings and me from his home when I was 10 months old. What remains of my life with him are bizarre moments.

For example, my father had a safe word when we would go out. He would tell me, “If I’m not around and you’re in danger, yell Abraxas.” I was a child and found this strange. Why Abraxas and what did it mean? I never asked my father. My mother later told me that “Abraxas” was the title of Santana’s second album.

My father never had a sense of humor, at least not one that you would find traditionally funny. He wasn’t good looking; he was short in stature but muscular. He had fair skin and dark black hair.

He looked me straight in the eye that day.

“Say Abraxas and I will know.”

“Okay, Dad.”

I chuckled nervously. He wasn’t amused.

When I was 13 and it was Halloween day, my father came to visit me, as he often did on Fridays after work. He worked in a commercial print shop. I had gone there once. It was this dark cold warehouse, with a giant machine in the middle of it. He turned it on. The noise from the machine radiated throughout the building. We almost had to shout to hear each other. Still, it was a nice moment.

He was later fired from the job, mostly due to his drinking. At the time, he lived in a duplex in Rosemead. This place always gave me the creeps. It was a two-bedroom, one-bath house that seemed frozen in the 1970s. I never wanted to go in one of the bedrooms. It was cold and dark. The difference in temperature was so significant that it would immediately raise the hairs on my arms. When we would play ping pong on the kitchen table, all we needed was a net across the middle and a couple of paddles. I always used the same one. It was red on one side and had a picture of the band Kiss on the other. I owe my moderate ping pong skills to those moments.

After he was fired, he lost his place and moved in with my grandmother. She had abused him when he was younger. She was short and stocky with black hair with a few strains of white throughout. She had a partial mastectomy and chain-smoked. I was unsure if he knew who his father was. If he did, he never mentioned him. Moving in with her seemed to take a toll on him. After that, he graduated from Budweiser to Vodka, and his decline came quickly.

“Do you know what today is?”

I replied that it was Halloween.

“No, this is our day.”

“Okay, Dad.”

He then told me in great detail how I was a witch, my sister was a witch, my mother was a witch and how he and my brothers were warlocks. So the statement “this is our day,” meant something far more than I could have imagined. My father was into the occult and often referred to himself as a Pagan. He had paintings and books with images of devil-like creatures on them and kept a wooden ouija board on his coffee table. So the importance of this day shouldn’t have come as a shock to me.

Still, up to now he hadn’t mentioned we were witches. Why on this particular Halloween day did my father decide to reveal this information? Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. It falls 13 days after my birthday. The leaves change colors, the weather turns cool and I would stay up late nights watching scary movies. This Halloween, I went to school dressed like a hippie with bellbottoms and a peace sign painted on my cheek. Most of my friends decided to dress up like the movie Dead Presidents that year. The film chronicles the life of a young black man before and after his time organizing a group of friends to rob a bank. My friends were dressed in all black, painted white faces with blacked-out eyes and black beanies.

That Halloween day was overcast and continued on that way into the evening. Maybe it was the dark skies, or the fact I was now old enough, but my father went on to say that my mother knew all along; that she didn’t want to recognize that part of her life but she knew of her powers. My mom at one point was a tarot card reader. I guess that’s what he was referring to. He said my brother knew what he was and used it to his advantage. My sister knew, he said, but didn’t believe it to be true and she wasn’t ready to see it for what it can be. As for me, he said, I was now old enough to know the truth. When I was ready to embrace my powers, that I should let him know. We never spoke about it again after that day.

The last week I spent with him consisted of daily visits to the county hospital. The hallways were dark, scary, and quiet. The walls screamed of old memories and death. I hated walking through those halls alone. It was like being in a horror film.

He was sedated for most of the visits. Most of his internal organs had shut down but the blood transfusions and ventilators were keeping him going. He had aged so quickly. His body was now feeble and had a yellow hue. We had to decide the next step. My relationship with my father had been minimal but now, at this moment, his life was in my hands. Before he drifted into the sedation, my father kept talking about a ship. He kept saying, “My ship’s coming in, you’ll see.”

I didn’t understand. I figured it was the morphine talking but during these moments, he believed it was true.

“Okay, Dad.”

It was a Tuesday afternoon in June, another gloomy day. My sister and I walked into that hospital one last time. My grandmother, whom I mostly refer to as “my father’s mother,” was also there. After we made the decision to remove him from the machines keeping him alive, she had banned us from seeing him. She was upset about our decision and thought she should have had a voice in it. The law, however, said otherwise. Nevertheless, she had convinced whoever was in charge that we were upsetting him. She was an old shrew that manipulated her way into my last moment with my father.

He was now in a different room, with no tubes in his throat, no machines or transfusion to keep him going, just a morphine drip to keep him comfortable. But she never let us near him. She tried to shield his body, hugging him around his waist as she told us to get out. He was alert, but he could not speak. He made moaning sounds, as if he was trying to say something. He hated her and now she was with him alone, torturing him in his final moments. We said goodbye.

“I love you,” my sister said, “and we will see you tomorrow.”

She and I walked out of there angry. This old horrible women who used my father up to his very last day was his last memory. He was the only child.

He had never remarried after he and my mother split up. A year before he passed away, I remember that he mentioned a woman to me. He said he met her at a clinic while taking my grandma to her appointments. He told me he really liked her. This was the first time he ever admitted to having feelings for someone other than my mom. He said he would be afraid to admit to her that he was a pagan. She was Catholic. I could see the conflict in his eyes. I told him to tell her how he felt. I never asked him if he did. Besides my grandma wouldn’t have liked his focus on someone new. I believe his only escape was to drink himself to death.

In the middle of the night, the phone rang and I knew. His cousin called to tell us he had passed.

“Okay,” and hung up. I walked to my sister’s room. She never opened the door.

“Is it Dad?”

I just replied “yes” and that was it. I heard her cry out as I walked back to my room.

My father died at 52 years old from cirrhosis of the liver. An alcoholic from before the time I was born. He died when I was 20. I would be a liar if I said we were close.