End of the Dance

I was in my mid-20s when I landed in Barcelona. A yearlong relationship with Mariano, a chemistry PhD student from Spain, led me to leave UC Santa Barbara only a few months from graduating with a BA in Spanish literature. It may have seemed a dumb idea, but I had other plans. I was on a quest to find myself through a new career as a belly dancer.

It was the spring of 1976, less than a year after Francisco Franco died, and Spain was able to breathe again as the country slowly opened up to democracy. Fascist repression was lifting, and academics, artists and writers were returning home. The long-stifled language of Catalan once again echoed through the streets, in schools, in the media and in government. The magazine Interview showcased politics and soft porn side by side, unthinkable under Franco. The environment was ripe for a belly dancer from California to start teaching and performing.

I had taken dance classes for a couple of years in Santa Barbara and had studied videos of famous Egyptian dancers. They were queens, revered by society. I was a pioneer.

But in Barcelona there was no network of dancers or musicians from the Arab world with whom I could collaborate and from whom I could continue to learn. So I brought a supply of Egyptian, Turkish and Lebanese-style dance music, classical and contemporary.

Upon my arrival, Mariano’s ex-girlfriend, Ana Maria, introduced me to the owner of a dance studio, and within a few weeks I was teaching and performing weekly. I prepared non-stop. This would be my first time teaching, as well as performing in front of an audience that wasn’t made up of friends and family. It was also new for the women who signed up, but they were eager.

I made my own costumes. Luckily, my knack for sewing and an antique treadle Singer sewing machine were all I needed. While I pedaled and sewed, the gold Egyptian sphinx decal on the front of the machine seemed to be winking at me. I sewed like crazy, copying costumes from 19th Century Orientalist paintings of court dancers. I combined velvet and ethnic textiles, topped with heavy silver belts and jewelry from Afghanistan, then layered sheer veils to use as props when twirling.

I was a stickler when it came to teaching dancing technique. I had seen my fair share of dancers who had taken a couple of classes and started performing. Separating the neck from the shoulders and the torso from the hips while dancing was challenging; as was connecting to the power of the womb. Many students couldn’t isolate their hips.

In many Middle Eastern cultures, women belly dance for one another. I loved helping my students unlock their feminine core. I often spoke about the folklore and varied rhythms and instruments. Yet in my performance, I struggled to find the middle ground of expressing my sensuality without overcompensating for the stereotypes associated with belly dancing.

My relationship with Mariano became strained as I immersed myself further in my dance career. So I took a hiatus from teaching and performing and we moved to Adahuesca, a village of 200 in the region of Aragón, where his parents were from. There was a large, empty family house waiting to be renovated, almond orchards that needed tending, wheat fields to be planted, as well as a vineyard ripe for picking to fill our wine cellar. During the mondongo, the slaughtering of a pig, I even stirred the blood that would be used to make the venerated blood sausage.  As I gathered strength, many stood around me worried I would freak out and allow the blood to coagulate, ruining the sausage.

After an exhilarating yet exhausting year working the land and living the life of a campesina, I grew antsy to get back to the city to restart my dance career. Mariano envisioned marriage and living in the village for the rest of our lives. I didn’t. Amicably, we went our separate ways.

Back in Barcelona, I moved in with Ana Maria and her husband. They had an empty bedroom in their apartment in the neighborhood called Gracia, not far from the Sagrada Familia cathedral. I started performing every Friday and Saturday night at a Moroccan restaurant in the red light district off Las Ramblas. Soon I had a following, including many of my students and their friends, alongside Saudis and Kuwaitis passing through.

The Arabs were spending so much of their oil money in Europe that there was a saying that they were coming back to re-conquer Spain. Let loose from the cultural confines in their home countries, they came to Spain to play. Stories circulated of Western women trapped by boyfriends and husbands in the Middle East. It was not uncommon for Gulf visitors to invite me to spend an evening or to travel with them. But I wanted to be seen as an artist, not a call girl or a conquest.

I was now busy all the time. I was interviewed in newspapers and on the radio and danced in a well-known three-part film on the Spanish civil war, “Victoria,” directed by Antoni Ribas. Still, I wanted to move on.

I had heard that in the south, in Málaga, were clubs and restaurants catering to the growing Arab community. I packed my things. There, I was hired to dance at a Lebanese restaurant, the Beirut. The owners also flew me to Paris for a private party, a well-paid gig that allowed me a few days to bum around the city, take in the Louvre, roam the streets of Montmartre and spend time at the Musée Gustave Moreau to view his Orientalist paintings.

I returned to Málaga to perform at the Beirut and for private parties for the Saudis. Invited to sit at one gathering, I ate my first goat soup, with the animal’s eyes floating in the broth.

Opportunities were abundant, yet soon I felt uncomfortable, as if I were selling out to the growing Saudi influence in Southern Spain. I soon revolted against the jet set scene in Málaga and, while uninterested in the Saudi men, I considered myself to be among the women chasing opportunities by performing for them.

I called a friend who had mentioned getting me into a couple of dance studios on the island of Mallorca. At the same time, a friend from Los Angeles was traveling to Mallorca in search of Robert Graves, the poet and novelist who wrote the BBC series “I Claudius.” We stayed in my new home, a country house shared with friends just outside Palma, and traveled to the village of Deià, where Graves had a home, but he was in the throes of dementia, and we weren’t able to meet him.

For more than a year, though, I performed weekly at the five-star hotel, Son Vida. It was Egyptian- and Saudi-owned and attracted writers and artists. The publisher of a daily newspaper in Cairo, Al-Ahram, was a regular. He liked to tease me. He said that while I had done a good job picking up the Egyptian style of dance, I was too thin and my arms were too long. He assured me that the American belly dancers were becoming popular in Cairo and said that if I were ever there, I’d have a place to perform if I wished.

One night at Son Vida I found myself dancing for 200 Kuwaitis. They asked me to put on the region’s traditional large caftan they had with them. It was embroidered with gold thread and easily weighed 30 pounds. Floating across the dance floor as if lifted by a soft wind over the desert, emulating the subtle movement of camels, I isolated my neck movements and head throws, with my hair loosely tossing from side to side, as is done in the Gulf region. The audience was ecstatic that I knew the Khaleegi style of movement.

As a belly dancer this was how I spent my nights.

I was once hired at a baroque-style estate, decked with overflowing baskets of flowers, fruit arrangements, statues of goddesses and candles and with classical music blaring. The owners dressed me as a Greek goddess, and we selected 13th century Andalusian Arabic music from southern Spain. I danced through the mansion. A fellow dressed in ancient Greek attire followed me at a distance with a metal censer suspended from chains with the incense used in Catholic churches. It was something out of a Visconti movie.

I was in demand, scheduled to dance for the King Juan Carlos of Spain, who vacationed every summer on the island and was often seen riding around Palma on his Vespa. It was a big disappointment when the call came that the party was canceled. One evening I danced at a party that Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky and his wife attended. After my performance, we discussed how a dancer from California ended up performing Middle Eastern dance in Mallorca.

I started to wonder why I felt closer to Middle Eastern culture than my own. Going to Cairo to study dance and Arabic appealed to me more and more.

Then it ended.

One night dancing at a local coffee house, I met Robert, a British ex-pat who had lived on the island for 10 years. A teacher of Jewish mysticism and well versed in ancient Egyptian history, he was interested in the genesis of my Middle Eastern dance. We met to talk about a potential collaboration to choreograph a fusion of ancient Egyptian myth with contemporary Middle Eastern dance style. I imagined a new dance form, similar to the ancients, though attempting to explain the mystery of our own world.

Robert and I spent the next two years together. We married in 1983 and traveled between Palma and Derby, England, where he was from.

We had talked of going to Cairo together. It never happened, nor did we develop a new dance form. Robert had a drinking problem. Over time he turned obsessively jealous and violent and forced me to quit dancing. I didn’t want to live as a prisoner. So when my son Tomás was born, I planned my escape from Palma. Within four months I moved back home to Los Angeles, and to the comfort of my family.

Having found my way back home, I no longer questioned my roots. And dancing was the last thing on my mind.

Crazies In The Hood

My family thought I was crazy buying a house in a crime-infested, gang-ridden part of L.A.

Upon my return from Spain I had lived with my sister in the San Fernando Valley to get back on my feet, then eventually moved over to West L.A. into an apartment on Beverly Glen that a friend was vacating.

Staying with my older sister and her partner in North Hollywood was temporary. It was hard living with lesbians who chose verbal abuse, co-dependency and alcoholic, jealous-induced rants. Over in West L.A., my neighbors never conversed. I felt isolated and invisible. I’d sometimes wake up wondering where I was.

In the late-80s, Silver Lake was in the early stages of gentrification, but still had a rough edge. The grit of the neighborhood appealed to me. The house on Coronado Terrace was the first of ten the realtor showed me. I fell in love with the 1918, five-bedroom, semi-Craftsman two-story house, even though it had been worked on, piecemeal, over the decades. The ghastly dark-brown carpeting, the pink walls, the olive-green kitchen with its cracked linoleum floors, the back yard covered in concrete, the garage ready to collapse, and the chipped, red painted porch; none of this discouraged me. On the contrary, I knew the minute I walked in, it was the one.

I asked the postman about the area, the block, and in particular the eyesore next door. Junked cars were parked in the driveway and on the street, piles of booze bottles, beer and soda cans in huge plastic bags lined the side of the house, stacks of old newspapers were everywhere, and rose bushes and shrubs stood unkempt and covered in dust. I told myself there were always a few houses like this in a neighborhood, and not to worry. He described the Flores clan, a multigenerational family from the Philippines that lived in the tiny two-bedroom Spanish bungalow, and that drug dealing and gang activity had been going on for years.

“They’re a tough lot,” he said.

Frankie, Freddie, and Fidel – three sons out of the five kids — were part of a third-generation local gang, CYS, aka, the Crazies, a mix of Latino and Filipino youth. Robert, a white guy who lived a few doors up the street and had a reputation for meddling in neighbors’ mailboxes and asking for money, was also part of the gang. Yet something guided me to purchase the house.

Before moving in, I had some workers restore a bit of the Craftsman charm, take out the concrete to landscape the backyard, and move a few walls inside the house. Then I had the fun, yet challenging, job of dressing up 39 windows.

One day I stopped by the house during my lunch hour to check on the construction progress and noticed a gang tag on my side porch. Etched into a thick layer of dust were the initials ‘CYS’. Instead of waiting another few weeks for construction to finish, with my 5-year old in tow, and another sister and niece who were living with us at the time, we pulled the bare necessities together and moved in the next day. I too was staking claim to territory.

Frankie was the oldest and most involved with the CYS. Freddie was more of a follower. Fidel had two young daughters both under the age of 5, who were sometimes pulled along for the ride at night when the brothers would go out, and return with stolen car stereos they’d pass through their side gate to one of the brothers who stayed behind.

I introduced myself when we moved in, and regardless of their disruptive activities, I always said hello, called them by name, and engaged in conversation whenever they were hanging out on the low concrete wall that divided our driveways. They were hard to avoid.

The gunshots soon unnerved us. They were the norm on weekend nights. Helicopters hovered, sometimes for hours, with their bright spotlights lighting up the street and shaking all our windows as they moved from yard to yard. Sometimes we could hear sounds in the bushes up on the hill in our back yard. I never got used to the echo of bullets flying through the silence of the night.

One evening when I returned home from work and pulled into my driveway, a dozen CYS members blocked my way. They were hanging out with Frankie. My sister panicked; I realized we had to take a different strategy. I got out of the car to take my trashcans up the driveway, asked how they were doing, and would they mind letting me through. They moved. I got back in my car, a bit shaky but relieved. A couple of days later my front wall was tagged.

The tagging around the neighborhood never ceased; they were like cats marking their territory. I joined the Silver Lake Improvement Association – SLIA. I started going out with crews to paint out CYS and Temple Street graffiti along Sunset, and on the walls surrounding Mayberry Elementary School that became a canvas for the tagging wars between the CYS and ExP, the Echo Park gang. Their tags went as far as Glendale Boulevard, and spilled over into the more upscale hills off Benton Way. Before long I had a bucket of paint, brushes and some overalls in the back of my car and was often inspired to stop and paint out graffiti wherever I found it in the area.

The SLIA was a great resource for me as I settled into the hood. I started going to more meetings. Over time, though, the group’s rhetoric felt unrelated to neighborhood issues.I was invited to a meeting at the house of SLIA President. Lining her mantle were volumes of L. Ron Hubbard books on Dianetics. She was attempting to recruit SLIA members into Scientology. Around the same time, a series in the L.A. Times exposed the organization’s cult-like tactics and their problems with the IRS. I asked them not to call me anymore. I didn’t know which cult was more dangerous: the CYS or the Scientologists?

Yet through the SLIA I met LAPD Officer Joe Writer. He was the Senior Lead Officer (SLO), a job he held from 1986 to 1999 at the Northeast Police Division. SLOs are the bridge that unites the LAPD with the communities they serve. They help residents create a system of vigilance to discourage burglary and other crimes. The Rampart police scandal was then front-page news; stories of criminal cops were daily headlines. Neighborhood policing was an effective way to work in tandem with neighborhood leaders known as Block Captains, and build relationships to offset some of the bad blood.

Joe encouraged me to become a Block Captain. My sister and I worried about retaliation, and envisioned slashed tires, more tagging on our front wall, and danger to our lives. The brothers next door happily spoke with us in our driveway, attempting to disassociate themselves from any crime in the hood. But their theatricality started to wear thin, and their cohorts felt much less friendly.

Another Filipino member, Jake, who lived with his family next door to Robert and was especially known for his bad temper, was shot down at a party only a few blocks away. The mourning played out on our street with a hundred gang members all in black jackets with CYS emblazoned on the back blocking traffic for two days. We worried about more gun battles from rival gangs.

These guys were heavily armed, which Frankie openly bragged about to my Italian boyfriend, Paolo, who they thought, because of his thick Italian accent, must be associated with the mafia. They liked him and invited him over one day to show him them their arsenal.

I was scared but soon learned to trust Joe. He knew all the CYS members and their families. He had a magic touch; his soft blue eyes communicated empathy, while his large, strapping build and no-nonsense personality commanded respect. He knew each of them by name and visited their homes to mediate conversations between the kids and their parents. I remember him talking to one mom about her son, offering to get funding to put him in art classes to channel his tagging habit more productively.

The CYS was openly dealing drugs, which attracted even more shady characters. From our second floor windows we saw what looked like drug deals go down. Mr. and Mrs. Flores didn’t seem to care, and when Joe approached them I could hear their excuses and laments as to how they wanted to send their sons back to the Philippines, and insisting they were not aware of their sons’ CYS activities. I observed otherwise. I often saw Mr. Flores, a plane mechanic for the Americans during the Vietnam War, drinking with CYS members in their backyard, often for hours.

The first of many Neighborhood Watch meetings I organized drew 40 people to my back yard. With Joe’s support, the CYS slowly got the message that we’d no longer hide behind closed doors and windows. I strategized with Joe and some of the neighbors, and we decided to coordinate with a few phone calls as soon as we heard Frankie and friends congregate in front of the house when they’d return from their escapades late at night. We would come outside at the same time, to socialize, and walk our dogs, big and small, throwing them off guard and disrupting their gathering. It worked. They soon shifted their hoodlum activities a few blocks over; we helped those neighbors organize as well.

The years that followed were not easy living next to the Flores family. Apart from the junky cars and hoarding, there were many nights of family feuding and shouting, or Freddie overdosing on god-knows-what, screaming for hours. Nevertheless, we always chatted with Frankie, and though conversations were peculiar since he was usually either drunk or stoned, we stayed on good terms.

I babysat the block for nearly a year and a half, and then grew weary of mediating petty complaints between neighbors. Pilar, a landscape artist and set designer for the film industry, took over the Neighborhood Watch. She revived the meetings and also brought in the French muralist, Didier Guedj, who worked with the Mayberry Elementary School kids to design a mosaic mural. Now a young magician’s wand brought words of encouragement to the neighborhood and to the school kids: Integrity, Non-Violence, Friendship, Justice, Love, Wisdom. Neighbors who were meeting each other for the first time went on to collaborate for months, filling in the design with tiny pieces of broken tiles.

The Flores family eventually sent Freddie back to the Philippines, an arranged marriage awaiting him. Fidel finally got his life together and left the neighborhood, moving to Valencia with his two daughters, older teens by that time.

Frankie was in and out of jail for theft and dealing drugs. Every time he’d get out there would be gatherings with some of his prison buddies out in the street or in their backyard. These characters seemed even more menacing than some of the CYS bangers, who were growing older, while the next generation of younger members stepped in. Over time, Frankie was more low-key and appeared to be less involved in gang activity. At one point we thought he might be cooking meth in his bedroom garage that bordered our backyard wall.

A month later a dozen drug enforcement officers swarmed the house, entering Frankie’s room in the back. There was no meth lab, but I later found out that he had been stealing neighbors’ credit card correspondence from mailboxes; they found blank checks that he was trying to falsify. A black cloud lifted when they carted him off to jail. That was the last I saw of him.

The Floreses finally lost their house, which was foreclosed and bought by a Cypriot Armenian who renovated it – a project that lasted a year – and sold it for almost $1 million to a young actor who plays a vampire in a TV series. The house where Robert lived, the white kid involved with CYS, was renovated by an Iraqi developer who sold it for $1.5 million, to the Oscar-winning Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Next door, Jake’s family still lives in the same house.

Today, crime is still happening, but it’s more underground. Property values have risen; many in the neighborhood are sitting on gold mines, me included.

I don’t miss the boys next door, but I’m saddened by the neighborhood turning into a homogeneous hipster community. The newcomers refer to the neighborhood as the “East Side,” as if Boyle Heights and East L.A. don’t exist. I miss a community where neighbors watched each other’s backs. It’s starting to remind me of my time living on the west side, where the new folks moving in keep to themselves. Airbnb rentals are bringing in occupants who have no roots in the community, many of whom think they can party well past midnight.

The tagging continues, but rarely do we hear gunshots. With the gang gone, the biggest threat now is the coyotes, especially for the owners of those little dogs.

Daryoush, VJ, Simón and Al

In 1984 I returned to L.A., my hometown, after being away for almost 17 years. With my 3-month old son Tomás in tow, I arrived from Mallorca, Spain with the clothes on my back, and a few battle scars from a tumultuous relationship with his father. I was ready for a new start, and the safety net of home and family.

I had grown up in the San Fernando Valley and never experienced much else of the city. During my teens, crossing into Laurel Canyon down into Hollywood was an adventure that mostly got me into trouble. I was always intrigued by the canyon where my favorite musicians, Joni Mitchell and David Crosby, lived. I never quite fit the Valley girl stereotype; instinct drove me elsewhere the first opportunity I had. I also remember being glued to the TV in 1965 watching the Watts riots unfold. It was hard to fathom it was taking place within my own city.

During the late 70s when I had returned from abroad to visit family, crime was up; L.A. appeared to be in lock down, reeling from the Charles Manson and Hillside Strangler murders. I feared having a flat tire on the freeway at night; worried a stranger might stop.

Now, after 17 years away, I was back in L.A. and needed a job. I had done some photography and sold ads for an English-language weekly newspaper on the island of Mallorca, so I walked into the Spanish-language daily newspaper, La Opinión, and asked for a job. They handed me a box full of old client files and a spot at an old clunky, gray metal desk in the sales department on 14th Street downtown, known as the “White House.” Named for its older, shabby brick building painted white, it was separated by an alleyway from the paper’s modern offices at the corner of 14th and Main. The sound of the press cranking out up to 80,000 newspapers every afternoon was an adrenaline rush. I ignored the mouse droppings in the desk drawers and got to work calling on inactive advertisers.

I called on clients throughout the small cities southeast of L.A. Old auto, rubber factories, and metal-bashing industries were now gone, as were the predominantly white, blue-collar residents. Latinos were recreating the landscape. Lining Pacific Boulevard were a Mexican Canada shoe store, a 3 Hermanos clothing store, a Gallo Giro fast food restaurant, and stores selling Western boots, jeans and cowboy hats, catering to the Mexican ranchera, banda and quebradita dance crazes of the day. I brought the advertising team from The Broadway Stores down for a walk so they could see the independent shops that catered to the outfits needed for a baptism, first communion or quinceañera. Within a 3-block radius along Pacific Blvd. we counted nine stores with elaborate Cinderella ball gowns displayed in their storefronts, catering to girls turning 15.

I was working for the Spanish-language daily that catered to the immigrants of the “lost decade” of Mexican economic stagnation, and Central Americans who were fleeing civil wars. My early clients were small business entrepreneurs. There were the Iranians who had fled the new Islamic Republic that came to power in 1979. Savvy entrepreneurs that they were, they set up shop in Hispanic neighborhoods, learned Spanish, and sold electronics, appliances and other household goods.

One of my first sales calls from the box of inactive clients was to Daryoush, a Jewish Iranian who owned Top Discount Stores in East L.A. and Echo Park. Balding and disheveled, he was a shrewd businessman. During our first meeting, he took me back to his messy cubbyhole of an office; I let him rant. He was upset at La Opinión for raising his column inch rate, which he felt was unfair given the number of consistent full-page ads he’d placed for years. Plus he was not happy with the rep that previously handled his account. His cantankerous mood was also due to his Echo Park location not doing well. The mostly off-brand appliances and electronics sold on layaway at Top Discount were ideal for blue-collar, newly arrived immigrant families, but had less appeal for a neighborhood starting to gentrify.

After rounds of negotiating, Top was back in the paper. I started looking forward to my weekly meetings with Daryoush. We’d sit in his office, go through the changes in his ad and sip tea – there was always a pot of Persian tea brewing – while exchanging border crossing stories and chatting about his life in Iran, how the revolution unfolded, and how they had underestimated Khomeini’s Islamist movement.

Daryoush came to the U.S. right before the revolution broke out, but his family waited. They hired guides, not unlike the coyotes that bring Mexicans into the U.S., paying hefty amounts to take them through the treacherous Kurdish mountain region from Iran into Turkey. Leaving everything behind except the few belongings they could carry, petrified, they escaped on foot and on horseback, knee deep in snow; his elderly parents barely survived. They eventually made it to Ankara, and onto Vienna, then reuniting with Daryoush and other relatives in L.A.

As Daryoush and I became friends over the years, I had the honor of meeting his parents. I was invited to a gathering held in their large apartment on Beverly Glen, south of Olympic Boulevard in West Los Angeles. I walked through the door and was immersed in the aromas of homemade Kosher Persian food, a meal that included classic Tabrizi meatball dishes, stews and kabobs, and Chelo Persian rice. Surrounded by ornate Louis XIV-style couches, tables and chandeliers, it dawned on me they had replicated their home environment from back in Iran. Melodic classic Persian music played in the background; nostalgia filled the air. This could have been a gathering in Tehran, not Los Angeles. As the night progressed, they switched to Persian pop music that fused the traditional tonbak finger snapping-style percussion with electric guitar and organ. When the music of the well-known queen of Iranian pop music, Googoosh, came on, the volume went up and everyone jumped up to dance, me included. Hard to believe the older generation had survived such a harrowing escape, their joie de vivre so contagious.

Then there was VJ, who was from India and had a business in the garment industry right around the corner from the White House. One of the many subcontractors in L.A.’s fashion district, he finished sewing party wear for women that would end up in department stores like The Broadway, Robinsons May and JCPenney. His wholesale showroom was full of racks of blue, red, turquoise, pink and black sequined dresses, skirts and tops; the type of glitz older Iranian and Armenian women would wear to weddings and formal gatherings. The showroom bustled with retailers, buyers and designers that came through, scrutinizing the merchandise, discussing price per piece, delivery deadlines, etc. I often came in while VJ was on the phone or dealing with a vendor or client; he would always introduce me. The warehouse behind his showroom housed roughly 20 workers, all Mexicans, their sewing machines a constant hum.

Once in his office, I saw the close resemblance VJ had to the yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, whose photo loomed large on the wall behind his desk. They shared the same sculpted facial features – eyes, a distinguished nose with wide nostrils, and chin dimple – and they both beamed the same mild and tender look of peace and compassion. Under the gentle gaze of his guru we chatted about his business, the results of his latest ad campaign, and meditation.

VJ was a successful businessman; he was optimistic and generous, and he incorporated his guru’s teachings into his business practice. Though a garment manufacturer, he appeared to treat his employees well. There was no overcrowded, dark and dank working conditions, or shouting, or any abuse. One day VJ drove me up to the Self Realization Fellowship mother center on Mount Washington and bought me a copy of the Autobiography of a Yogi, a book I had been introduced to back in a college comparative religion class; this time I read it.

During the 80s and 90s, Teatro Los Pinos in South Gate catered to the Latino community offering up slapstick acts that the operator, Simón López, brought from Mexico. The vaudeville, comedy performances were sometimes full of social satire that mirrored the plight of Mexicans on both sides of the border. The transvestite, Francis, was a popular show that often doubled booked, lasting weeks. Her shows were full of slang and, regardless of the kids in the audience, lots of swearing. She wore big, extravagant costumes, reminding me of an overly dressed Barbie doll. Dancers pranced around in the background while she sang and played with the crowd. She was a pioneer using comedy to introduce the topic of homosexuality to a mostly culturally homophobic audience.

Simón was always doing three things at once; he would run a dress rehearsal, and give orders to employees while he was on his big, chunky cell phone negotiating with theatre troupes he was booking for future performances. But he always gave you his undivided attention when he finished. That we spoke only in Spanish was a treat; I got a kick out of his Mexico City chilango accent. We talked about the rise in Latino gangs. He would remind me that the behavior of the parents of these kids mirrored what they were used to back home where they could always count on relatives or neighbors in the village to keep tabs on their kids. Here it was a different story as their teens were left alone a lot while they worked two or three jobs to survive. I always came away with material galore about the local Latino politicians starting to unseat the incumbent white politicians, which he felt were out of touch with the predominant base of Mexican immigrant residents.

As I moved from handling local businesses to major national accounts, I developed market tours that allowed corporate clients to learn more about the Latino community, a precursor to getting them to advertise. I’d take corporate packaged goods clients, food manufacturers, and major retailers to walk Latin grocery stores such as Northgate and Superior. Folks from Sears were amazed how much floor space was given to setting up first time credit accounts at Dearden’s and La Curaçao, and the hefty interest rates they charged. One of my bigger accounts, Target, sent executives from their real estate division out with me to scout potential, new store locations.

I set up cooking demonstrations at Chichen Itza restaurant near MacArthur Park for the corporate chefs at Kraft so they could learn about the intricacies of making mole, Cochinito Pibil, and Kibi, a dish that was brought to the Yucatan by Lebanese immigrants in the late 18th/early 19th centuries. Ten of us squeezed into the tiny kitchen to gather around the owner/chef Gilberto Cantina, Senior, and Junior, his son, while they prepared the marinade of achiote seeds, sour orange juice and spices used for the Cochinita Pibil. They wrapped the pork in banana leaves while they explained the traditional blending of Mayan, Spanish and Middle Eastern flavors that make up these regional dishes, thus expanding my clients’ knowledge of Mexican cuisine beyond burritos and tacos.

On these tours I made it a point to mention the changes taking place at the local government level as Latinos began to win elected office. Throughout the late 80s and 90s it was not uncommon to see “Henry Gonzalez for Mayor” signs on almost every front yard throughout the city of South Gate; later, political scandals involving the new guard of Latino politicians would unravel throughout southeast cities, including South Gate, although Gonzalez was one of the good guys.

I called often on Al Tapia, a store manager at the old Sears Tower in Boyle Heights. Built in 1926, the building became a dominant icon on the Eastside. Having toured different parts of the Sears complex over the years, I got stories from both Al and his secretary about how common it was that people met there and ended up marrying. Employees roller-skated around the building, sending merchandise down the huge chute that traversed several floors of the art deco tower, fulfilling orders. The place was haunted too. Years before, someone had died on the premises and was often seen by employees working in the store.

The tower handled the nationwide distribution for Sears’ mail-order catalogue business until 1992. The ground level retail store stayed open, but the tower and distribution centers passed through the hands of different developers with plans to turn it into housing, offices and stores.

Al, a Mexican American born and raised in Los Angeles, was an unassuming, simple guy who wanted to be a teacher, but started working for Sears instead. He was a family guy, his desk covered with photos of his wife and children. I loved sitting in his office where I could look at the large black-and-white framed historic photos of the tower as the neighborhood changed over the decades. I’d show up with research so he could make his case to the corporate advertising guys back in Chicago to invest in the Latino community. He was promoted to a coveted national Hispanic marketing director position in 1991 and moved to corporate headquarters in Chicago to handle a $20M ethnic advertising budget.

Koreatown, meanwhile, continued to grow with an influx of Korean business entrepreneurs; many also advertised in La Opinión. I saw some of these business owners develop strong ties with the Latinos who were then forming a majority of the residents of Koreatown. I used to take my son Tomás to a hair salon there, at a time when the community was perceived as mostly insular and isolated. The women who washed hair and kept the floors clean were all from El Salvador. They had learned enough Korean to carry on what seemed to me extensive conversations with their Korean colleagues and clients. I tried selling advertising to the owner, but to no avail since she spoke no English or Spanish.

Crime kept rising through the 1980s due to crack and gangs. Things seemed to fall apart even more desperately during the 90s as the economy slumped.

I watched on TV as the riots broke out in 1992, and saw a client’s building burn to the ground. We stood on the rooftop of La Opinión’s new press on Washington Boulevard, and saw fires burning everywhere. A few of us drove around town. At Beverly Boulevard in the Pico-Union area, the flames from fires were so hot we had to roll up our windows and drive in the center lane. People ran from stores, with TVs, diapers, athletic shoes, and whatever they could get their hands on. With a gun in each hand, a Korean storeowner shot into the air to fend off looters. Samy’s Camera on Beverly was on fire, and later that day we saw looters coming out of the Samy’s on La Brea with Hasselblad and Nikon cameras. It was the first time any of us had seen army tanks roll through L.A. streets.

Many of our clients went broke. Most of the Iranian-owned discounters lost stores, gave up and closed – including Top Discount. La Curaçao’s Olympic store, owned by Israelis, was burned down, its inventory destroyed. National retailers including Circuit City and Radio Shack were also hit hard; looters drove trucks into their stores to load up on merchandise causing major damage and losses. All these clients stopped advertising while they got back on their feet.

I spent 15 years in advertising at La Opinión, touring a city under construction in many ways; a city I had never known as a child.

After the riots, I lost touch with Daryoush. At some point VJ closed his business and moved back east. I’m not sure what happened to Simón. He ran the theatre for 17 years and then moved on. Teatro Los Pinos closed its doors in November of 2014, the new company owner, Esperanza Molina, wasn’t able to renew the lease with the theater owner. I read that Al retired from Sears in 2000, after 33 years of service. The battle over how the Sears Tower will be redeveloped has not ended. La Curaçao rebuilt immediately and now has five locations in Los Angeles.

I live in Silver Lake and recently walked up Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park where Top Discount was located. The shop still caters to the few Latino residents living in the area, but is now surrounded by tattoo parlors, cafes, bars and eateries, and a trendy boutique that sells $50 t-shirts.

A Piece of Myself

When I was a kid I would tell others I was from somewhere else. Hawaii was a place I had visited and loved when I was 13. The Hawaiian and Tahitian music and dancing, the beautiful racial features, and the mellow, peaceful ways of the islanders captivated me. I had met a young native Hawaiian surfer, Dustin. I scared the pants off my mom and her boyfriend Bob, after staying in the water with Dustin on our surfboards for close to four hours; they couldn’t find me. Finally, I was telling people I grew up there, even though I was a native Angelina and had only spent two weeks on the islands. I started to believe it.

At 16, I ran away from home and crossed illegally into Mexico. I dropped out of college in my late 20s to go live in Spain with my boyfriend, a Spaniard, to study flamenco and become a professional belly dancer.

Then, on one of my visits home from Spain, I was handed a treasure chest full of old family photographs. One photo in particular caught my attention.

In the photograph was a handsome man who looked like Pancho Villa, standing lovingly next to a white woman who smiled broadly while embracing him. She held his hat in her hand, while draping her arm around him. This was my introduction to my maternal great-grandparents. Pedro (Peter) Leon Lopez, born (1867) and bred in the city of San Fernando, and Lettie Mae Williams Lopez, a white Protestant who came to L.A. by herself from Ohio to visit a friend. I knew about my great-grandmother, who we called Grannie. She was still alive when I was little, but I knew nothing about Peter. Seven months after they were married in 1894 they gave birth to my grandmother, Bertha Lopez.

The contrast of their skin color ran counter to the segregated norms of the time. It seemed that my great-grandparents were breaking some social and racial barriers that drew me to them even more.

I began to research their lives. The Lopez lineage was linked to 44 settlers who left the San Gabriel Mission in 1781 and founded the city of L.A. at Olvera Street. I was a Poblador descendent, but never knew it.

The sepia and black and white photographs my aunt had kept became an inroad into my quest for the cultural heritage gone missing from my childhood. I took seriously my role as caretaker of these heirlooms. A cracked and yellowed clipping from a Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine dated February 9, 1936, described the historic founding families that dominated Los Angeles during the time historians referred to as the “romantic era” of the ranchos. The Lopez clan was one of the 25 familias that owned most of the Southland during those early years when the area was part of Spain and then Mexico. The article also mentioned that another of my ancestors, Francisco Lopez, discovered gold back in 1842 in Placeritos Canyon, six years before the gringos came in to claim their big “discovery.”

I then came across a piece of memorabilia that belonged to my grandmother, a pamphlet titled Enchanted Pueblo: The Story of the Rise of the Modern Metropolis Around the Plaza de Los Angeles, by Ed Ainsworth, sponsored by Bank of America. It was an Anglo American’s version of the pastoral rancho days, describing “a town in perpetual siesta, and a population that had moved forward in most slothful fashion.” The well-known Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz – whose father was French Basque, and whose mother was part of the Lopez clan – dedicated the book to my grandmother Bertha, his cousin.

I was baffled that I never heard about this family heritage while growing up.

I began devouring every book and historical document I could get my hands on. I learned my ancestors came up from Baja California with the Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola and Junipero Serra in 1769. Later generations of the Lopez clan were mayordomos at both the San Gabriel and San Fernando missions. One ancestor, Pedro Lopez, who Peter was named after, continued converting Indians into Catholicism even after the missions were secularized. During the Mexican American war, he had a close friendship with General Fremont, and his nephew carried the truce flag when Fremont and his troops invaded.

I assume that because Pedro and his siblings and extended family were all born in Los Angeles, they felt less allegiance to Mexico. By the 1850s, the rancho lifestyle in the Valley was slowly becoming a thing of the past as many of the aristocratic Californio families, including mine, comfortably integrated with the white Anglo population, even as their lands and fortunes were confiscated. The Lopez family showed no resistance to these changes, perhaps because they maintained their land and positions of influence while developing strong friendships and marital ties with the newcomers.

Peter’s father, Valentino, built the Lopez Adobe in 1882-83 on land he bought from a mission Indian. It’s still standing today on the corner of McClay and Pico in the city of San Fernando. Peter was 16 when the Adobe was built. He later became a mail carrier, a road overseer and cement contractor – he laid out the streets and poured sidewalks – and was the first marshal of the city of San Fernando. My mother remembers him taking prisoners, handcuffed to him, up to San Quentin prison. I spent months scouring the streets in San Fernando to find those old sidewalks with the P.L. Lopez stamp.

My treasure chest of photographs and old newspaper clippings also revealed that Mr. and Mrs. P.L. Lopez held frequent parties and barbeques at their Rancho Solita in Little Tujunga Canyon. The more I read, the more it seemed that mixed race couples were less an aberration. All of their friends and guests at these parties and barbecues were Anglo. There is no Hispanic surname mentioned. Their generation intermingled and intermarried more with Anglos than within their own ethnic group; both my grandmother and mom’s generation followed suit. I broke the pattern by marrying a Mexican when I crossed into Mexico illegally as a teenager.

Yet photographs show my grandmother, Bertha, as a young woman dressed in Spanish mantillas draped over the traditional high combs, and beautiful embroidered mantón de Manila shawls. But over time, Bertha felt the anti-Mexican backlash and told us she didn’t like being called “a dirty Mexican;” she chose to disassociate as much as possible with anything Mexican, but occasionally alluded to her “Spanish” heritage. Similar to my made-up story about being from Hawaii, she also created an imagined identity.

Bertha’s friends were all Anglos, and she socialized with the more affluent circles of the day in San Fernando. They would travel the world together. Her house was full of artifacts from the “orient” – the term she used when referring to some of her favorite destinations: Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Hawaii, etc. I was fascinated with the ornately carved furniture and knick-knacks that adorned her living room; I would dream of going to the places where they came from. Sometimes I’d play the grand piano that had the mantón de Manila from her childhood draped over its edge. But she reprimanded us if we ever touched her stuff, and scolded us harshly if we broke anything; I never felt at home there. Even though I inherited her adventurous spirit and travel bug, I never had a close relationship with my grandmother.

It’s still surprises me that she never mentioned anything about the Lopez Adobe. When I returned from Mexico, we sat and chatted in Spanish; hers was somewhat broken by this time. She was on her second marriage, to a man who was much younger, a Southerner who reminded us of Fred Flintstone, but who took care of her until she passed. Her gusto for life had not changed. We drank cocktails that afternoon while I told her about my life in Mexico; she gave me hell for having run away from home and causing them all so much angst.

By the time my generation came along, any connection to the Lopez cultural legacy was nonexistent. I stumbled upon my roots at a time when Latino culture was fast becoming a part of mainstream America, and when in many areas of L.A. Spanish was the unofficial language.

A piece of myself was satiated knowing I was a Lopez. It’s no coincidence that I had been a child bride down in Mexico, or chose to live in Spain all those years, or that upon returning to Los Angeles in 1984 my work would be intricately tied to the Latino community; it still is today.

Yet I couldn’t keep my mind off the photograph of Peter and Lettie Mae, most likely taken when they first met or had just married – the union of two cultures that was just beginning to mix and create what became Los Angeles.

Lettie Mae came out to Los Angeles alone, and married a dark-skinned Mexican. She crossed cultural boundaries and settled far from her roots, which in the late 1800s must have felt like the other side of the world. I wonder how her family responded to her marrying a non-white man. Perhaps no different than mine did when I traveled to Mexico and married Oscar. My mom tells me that Peter had a gentle disposition. It comes through in all the photos I have of him. I wish I had known my great grandparents; sometimes I feel like I did.

And that special photograph that reveals their warmth and love for each other? With its ragged and ripped edges, it never seems to fade. It’s my iPhone wallpaper; they accompany me wherever I go.

Blinded By The Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stepping Foot On The Moon

It was a cold dark morning and somewhere out in the Sonoran desert the Tres Estrellas de Oro bus I had boarded hours earlier in Tijuana came to a halt, the motor switched off. It was 2:30 AM.

It was a cold dark morning and somewhere out in the Sonoran desert the Tres Estrellas de Oro bus I had boarded hours earlier in Tijuana came to a halt, the motor switched off. It was 2:30 AM.

As the only gringa onboard, I had to exit the bus, alone, and go into an immigration office; a rickety wooden shack big enough to fit two desks and folding chairs. Inside the shack, two disheveled, yet intimidating Mexican immigration officers sat like vultures waiting for something to happen. I stumbled off the bus, my heart thumping. This is it, I thought; I’ve been caught.

It was 1968. I was 16 and running away from home. With suitcase, sewing machine and two guitars in tow, I was headed to Guadalajara to become a child bride. Back home in Studio City, my mom was realizing I was gone. I was the last of four siblings living at home; my rebellious nature was wearing her down.

That previous summer, she had sent me to study at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Guadalajara, where I met Oscar. Magic was in the air with muralists up on their scaffolding, sculptors welding abstract forms in the garden, and folklórico dancers kicking up dust in the central patio; the thought of returning to the San Fernando Valley – the place where I’d grown up – depressed me. I, a precocious and rebellious teen, was a misfit and needed room to breathe and grow. The linear grid of the San Fernando Valley stifled me; the orange groves turned into track homes felt sterile. My classmates at the time were heavily influenced by the drug scene and frequently dropped LSD before attending classes. I preferred boys. But sneaking out my bedroom window at night to meet up with friends, mostly guys, was no longer an option; I kept getting caught and grounded. Being a good little girl never came easy. The friction between my mom and me became unbearable.

Earlier that day, I barely passed the scrutiny of the American immigration officials. Their questions came at me like machine gunfire. How old was I? Why was I alone? Where was I going? Why Guadalajara? Who did I know there? Had I visited before? I bluffed my way through, using my sister’s name. She was twenty-five at the time. I had come across her birth certificate just before leaving Los Angeles and had brought it with me just in case. When the U.S. officials emptied the contents of my purse and came across a letter from Oscar addressed to me, it prompted them to question why I had two different first names. The thought of being caught and sent back made me sweat and shake. My voice quivered as I lied. But they let me through and I made my way across the border into Tijuana where Oscar was waiting for me.

At this point my mom had hired a detective to look for me. He had been an L.A. cop, trained to find runaway kids. He failed to come up with any leads since I misled them by leaving clues on our phone bill so they’d think I went north instead of south. I also created a fake diary, purposefully left behind with notes about how much I desired to go up to San Francisco. It was the late 60s when the counterculture movement was in full swing. It never occurred to my mom or the detective that I’d do something as crazy as crossing the border illegally, risking so much just to go back to Mexico.

But my friend Kathy, who I’d met in Guadalajara was still in L.A. visiting her mom, and she became an accomplice to my getaway. I was grateful she could translate the letters from Oscar; his English was worse than my flawed Spanish. So I communicated with my husband-to-be through an interpreter and thus we knew little about each other. We had no clue if we shared common interests or basic values. There was very little time to become acquainted with each other’s quirks and habits. Nor was our nine-year age difference a consideration.

That day in mid-September, Kathy showed up just as planned. She picked me up from North Hollywood High in her rickety VW bug, just 15 minutes after my mom had dropped me off. It was meant to be my first day of high school. I never stepped foot on campus. From there she dropped me at the house of another friend, who drove me to the border two days later.

While some girls my age were preparing for their Sweet Sixteen parties in frilly dresses, I was planning an unlawful international border crossing.

For me, the experience standing in that ramshackle immigration hut was a turning point; a symbolic passage into maturity while still a child. I had fast-forwarded into an uncertain future, assuming I’d be better off once I escaped the Valley and a home where I felt invisible. I replaced one challenging home life for another. I married an alcoholic Mexicano, who I later discovered was gallivanting around with other women as I grew plump and pregnant.

Four months later, while in my third month of pregnancy, I called my mom to let her know where I was. With raised voice, but relieved I was alive, she asked, “How could you have done this to me. We thought you were dead. Where did I go wrong?” But she was a pragmatist, something I later came to admire, and asked me what I wanted to do. “Get married to Oscar and have the baby,” I replied. I needed her written permission to do so since I was a minor. She agreed, though she wanted more than anything for me to come home and put the baby up for adoption, a common option during that time. On July 21, 1969, during my eighth month of pregnancy, Oscar and I were married. At that moment, Neil Armstrong was stepping foot on the moon; our guests arrived three hours late.

Later I learned the Catholic Archdiocese in Guadalajara had phoned the local Catholic Church in Studio City. They were able to locate my mom through my cousin, who had coincidentally celebrated her wedding there; they wanted to alert her that I was in Guadalajara. The preparation for my wedding in the Catholic church, required taking catechism classes with an American priest who taught theology assuming I was a university grad student, not a 16-year old high school drop out. I guess I blew my cover. They were double-checking to confirm the legitimacy of my written permission to marry.

So, there I stood before the Mexican immigration officials that next morning after crossing into Tijuana. I turned and looked back. People on the bus, including Oscar, were staring at me. When the officers mumbled “Tarjeta de turista,” even with my limited Spanish I understood. They pushed a pen toward me. I quickly forged my sister’s signature, my hand shaking uncontrollably. That signature – which looked more like chicken scratch – stayed imprinted on my psyche.   The fear of crossing borders haunted me; that shack in the middle of nowhere lingered for years, no matter where I travelled in the world, or which border I was crossing.

But the officers barely noticed, and could not have cared less. They just wanted to go home.