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Introduction to Volume 8

After a long hiatus, Tell Your True Tale returns.

It took a while, but promoting my new book, Dreamland, and, while doing that, a heart attack, took up most of my time.

But now we’re back and with a terrific volume of stories.

Four new writers join us this time around.

Cristian Vasquez tells us his story of the day the L.A. riots broke out – a vivid depiction from a cramped duplex in South-Central.

Jessica Gonzalez tells us the story of her mother’s brother drowning at the beach and the changes that wrought in her family.

David Fallon writes of two homeless he met while working to find housing for both in Hollywood.

Tené Harris recounts a trip to east Texas to visit an aunt who illuminates a previously unknown part of the family’s history.

We have stories, meanwhile, from six TYTT veterans.

Fabiola Manriquez tells us of the domestic battle between her and her dying mother. Celia Viramontes continues her stories of her grandfather, Don Luis, this time with a great tale about his purchase of a battery-powered radio in El Norte.

Monique Quintero writes the story of her grandmother, a curandera, as she lay dying. Susanna Fránek writes of her years in Spain working as a belly dancer.

Sylvia Castañeda adds the story of her aunt, trying to find her way as a woman in a tiny village in Zacatecas. And Jian Huang continues her sagas of growing up a Chinese immigrant in South-Central, this time with a story about a girl she met at the rough motel where her father pulled 24-hour shifts.

We continue to benefit from the visionary sponsorship of the good folks at the L.A. County Library, who have this time around also funded an online editing service and a copy editor. Thus we counted on the online editing help of Jeff Gottlieb, Pulitzer-Prize winning former LA Times reporter, and Kathy Gosnell, former LA Times copy editor.

Once again, I thank Daniel Hernandez, director of the Chicano Resource Center at the East L.A. Library, where these workshops have been held, and who was adventurous enough to allow them to first take place back in 2013.

Mary Yogi has been hugely helpful with the digital presentation of TYTT at the library’s website. Thanks to Jesse Lanz, director of Adult and Digital Services for the library system, for his cheerful and energetic support of these workshops.

Eric Franco Aguilar, a TYTT alum, designed yet another terrific cover.

Enjoy this eighth volume of Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles stories. Also, check out the county library’s page dedicated to the project: http://www.colapublib.org/tytt/

Then, as always, we hope you’ll come write a story of your own.

Sam Quinones

Story illustration

City in Flames

We had a clear shot on the 110 South after Downtown L.A.

At the Century Boulevard exit, Dad’s white Chevy Cavalier station wagon idled at the red light when the song playing on K-LOVE was interrupted by Pepe Barreto’s voice:

“Breaking news: the four Los Angeles Police Department officers accused of police brutality against Rodney King have been found not guilty.”

As dad turned east to make our way home, Uncle Heli, who hadn’t said a word from the passenger seat during the ride home from work, blurted out “No way! That’s bull.”

Dad, not one to trust authority figures, took a drag of his Marlboro red and shook his head.

“We’re screwed.”

*  *  *

Uncle Heli is the third-youngest in a family with 13 siblings and was one of two who finished high school back home in Michoacán, Mexico. My dad, Rafael, is the oldest male in the family. When my dad was 15, Grandpa fell ill. So my dad made his way to America.

For a few years, half of Dad’s income was wired home to his parents and siblings. My parents met at a soccer league trophy ceremony that each was pressured into attending. They were both immigrants from Michoacán, Mom from the state capital of Morelia and dad from a small town named Pajacuaran. It didn’t take long for Mom to ditch her senior year in high school and leave behind her sheltered life in Culver City.

She was the youngest daughter and overprotected. My great grandmother raised my mom and her siblings in Michoacán while my grandmother made her way in the United States. My great grandmother was rigid. On the rare occasion that it was allowed, socializing with boys outside of school required chaperones.

At the dance where she met Dad, mom and her youngest brother were shadowing my aunt and her boyfriend, making sure they behaved. Mom left the safety of Culver City to bunker down with Dad in South-Central Los Angeles. It was 1980 and they lived on 49th Street and Compton Avenue, one of three Mexican families in an African-American neighborhood. I was born there. We lived there until 1984: just the three of us.

I was in first grade the first time I met an uncle from Dad’s side of the family. I came home from school one day and there was a guy sitting on the couch.

“That’s my brother Juan. He’s your uncle. Shake his hand.”

After that, my dad’s family began making its way north. It became normal to come home from school and find a new uncle, cousin or family friend on the couch. Eventually that two-bedroom apartment became overcrowded: My mom, dad, newborn-brother Jorge and I crammed into the master bedroom. The bed took up the southeast corner of the room, leaving just enough space for the door to open on the west wall. At the foot of the bed, cornered on the northern wall, was a dresser where the television sat. Sleeping in the living room were four of my uncles and three of their friends. In the back of the apartment, next to the bathroom, was a small room where my uncle and his friend, who shared a car and worked the same 2 a.m. schedule in Downtown Los Angeles’ produce district, decided to make their room.

The landlord took care of this overcrowding with an eviction notice. After three relocations in less than two years, Mom found a two-bedroom house in Watts. The house was on the back end of the property and included a garage but shared a yard with the front unit. Rent was $750 a month and the owner didn’t care that 15 people crammed into their property.

In 1992 Watts was a mixture of African-American and Mexican families, each group representing half the population. Our family lived next to an apartment building on the corner of Lou Dillon Avenue and 105th Street. Toward 103rd Street were the projects, but in between, the street was sprinkled with black and brown families of all ages. The language barrier kept my parents from being closer to the older African-American neighbors, but there was a mutual respect and a genuine liking in their interactions. The same goodwill didn’t exist between each group’s youth. Alliances to control turf, drugs and money were defined by race and geography, and disagreements were solved with violence. So when I was on vacation from school, Dad refused to leave me home alone; at 11 years old, it was time I learned what it was like to work for a living and he took me to his construction job.

*  *  *

Our drive home from the freeway usually took 10 minutes, but that afternoon the streets overflowed with angry people armed with rocks, bottles and milk crates. The red light at Main Street and Century Boulevard was the first to trap us. The mob hurled bottles, rocks and any heavy object at our car. An uncoordinated “No justice, no peace!” chant pierced our closed windows. Dad and Uncle Heli looked in every direction, scanning for anyone trying to approach the car. A rioter tried opening the door to the car in front of us.

“Lock your doors. Cristian, get us the hammers,” Dad barked, with a cigarette pinched between his lips.

I jumped off my seat, crawled over the back seat, flipped over Dad’s tool bucket and pulled out two hammers. Dad took the wooden-handled one while Uncle Heli took the metal-neck concrete hammer with the blue grip. I moved from the window seat to the middle and snapped on my seatbelt.

Dad raced through the intersection when the light turned; bottles smashed at the station wagon’s side panels, rocks skipped across the hood of our car and kicks and punches landed from every direction.

We caught another red light at Century and Avalon Boulevard. An RTD bus was stopped to our right next to the curb. Nobody was getting off and no one was attempting to board. An angry mob unleashed its rage on the bus. A handful of teenagers beat the bus windows and headlights with sticks. The bus pressed forward, and the teens gave chase, swinging their frustration at it. With the bus out of reach, the mob turned its anger on us and, as we sped off, it punched, kicked and launched debris at us.

“How’s Andrea getting home?” asked my uncle.

“Have to go get her. She took the bus today.”

Panic set in. Mom wasn’t home and Dad had to go back out.

Central Avenue and Century gave us a green light. Dad turned right, drove one block down to 103rd Street and turned east. No lights for a while and the streets were clear. Another green light took us across Compton Avenue, past the Food4Less shopping center, over the Blue Line tracks and into clear streets. Lou Dillon Avenue was only blocks away; we were almost home. Wilmington Avenue was another green light, but traffic was stopped by a sea of angry people. Fists and spit landed on the windshield as Dad inched the car through the mob, forcing it back onto the sidewalk from where they hammered it with more rocks, trashcans and tires.

Dad slammed the brakes. “Shit.” He cut right through an alley that came out on 105th Street: clear, not a soul in sight. He went east a few blocks and made a left into the dirt alley behind our house. I opened the door to get the gate; it was always my job to open the gate.

“NO! Don’t open the door.”

There was fear in Dad’s eyes. We ran into the house. Dad rushed into the bedroom, where my 4-year-old brother Jorge was watching “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” In the living room, three uncles and two cousins hung on the television’s every word.

“Protesters are gathering at different points in the city after the Rodney King verdict,” a woman said. It was happening along Florence Avenue, down Manchester Avenue and all the way down Imperial Highway.

“Nobody leaves the house,” Dad yelled, tucking something into the back of his pants. “Carlos, come with me to get Andrea.” He pulled me away from the television. “Don’t go anywhere unless your uncles say so. Understand?”

I wanted to go with him but just said, “Okay.”

“Not guilty?” Uncle Carlos said. “I expect this in Mexico but not in the United States. Governments are trash everywhere.”

Uncle Carlos and Dad left. We were hungry but there wasn’t any food and nobody was going to disobey my dad, so we watched the news and waited. The mobs became more destructive and the violence began to spread. Rioters destroyed storefronts and looted businesses; when the stores had nothing left to take, the hordes began targeting people. Pedestrians were beaten; drivers were dragged out of their cars and kicked on the ground even after being knocked unconscious. The phone rang.

“He’s on his way. He left a little while ago with Carlos,” cousin Jose said.

“I want to talk to her.” The phone still to his ear, Jose brushed me off.

“He’s okay. Don’t worry. Be safe. Bye. Your mom said don’t worry.”

Nobody was trying to stop the violence; the fires raged, the looting grew and the beatings continued.

“Where are the cops?” Uncle Heli blurted as he took a drag from his cigarette. “Haven’t seen one damn patrol car.”

The television cut to an aerial shot. A big rig pulled up to the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. A group of four men approached the rig, opened the door and dragged out a man. His hair flailed as he was kicked, punched, dragged on the asphalt and beaten some more. The driver crawled, inch by inch, back to his rig when, from the right side of the screen, a rioter in a white T-shirt and a baseball cap rushed in and hurled a rock to the side of the man’s head, then celebrated his feat. The driver stopped moving.

“Animals.”

Uncle Heli was watching from the doorframe of the kitchen. The living room was filled with cigarette smoke. He walked to the front door, looking back and forth between the street and the alley. Nobody in sight. Uncle Heli made his way to the front house. Our neighbors were also locked inside, watching Univision.

“They’ll watch the front and we’ll watch the alley,” he told us.

From the alley we heard two voices: “Hey, amigo!”

It was the neighborhood twins. They were drug addicts who fed their addiction by selling stolen items. We never knew their names; everyone just called them the twins and, despite the language barrier, these two African-American men befriended my uncles. One of the twins had a birthmark on his left cheek, right below his eye, making it easy to tell them apart. For drug addicts, they were pretty well kept and had a change of clothing every day.

“Can we have a cigarette?”

“Wait here,” said Uncle Heli as he walked toward the back gate. He lit their cigarettes, and after brief exchange he walked back to the porch. Cousin Jose was standing behind me.

“What they want?” Jose asked.

“They asked if we wanted beer. That they would bring us some and we just pay them later,” Uncle Heli replied.

“Where’s he getting beer from?” I asked.

“I don’t know. We’ll see.” He took a seat on the top step of the porch.

It was getting dark when the back gate rattled again. Dad and Mom hurried inside.

“It’s a mess out there. Lock the doors.” Mom was panicked. Uncle Carlos ran to the garage and grabbed a machete.

“They’re burning stores, beating people. You’re not going to school tomorrow,” Mom said in a broken voice. “What if they start coming into houses. Should we leave?”

“Where? We have to stand watch,” Dad said. “We didn’t see one fuckin’ cop. Everyone takes a two-hour shift by the doors and windows, and then we switch. If anyone pokes their head in, smash it.”

We took two sledgehammers, an ax, the two hammers and a steel rod from the station wagon. From the garage my cousin brought a monkey wrench the length of a baseball bat. As everyone scavenged for tools to use as weapons, I noticed flames in the dark sky. To the west, on 105th and Hickory was the liquor store my cousin worked at on weekends. The owners, Middle Easterners, would let me hang. If I swept or took out trash, I’d get a bag of Cheetos Puffs or a Springfield soda. Any other day we could see the store from our porch; all we saw that night were flames.

Looking north, across the street from the Jordan Downs Housing Projects, was another liquor store. The Korean owner saw my dad enough to extend him a line of credit on smokes and beer; the owner would let me have one item of my choosing. He always told Dad I wasn’t his kid; “He has Korean eyes. You not Korean” and would let out a boisterous laugh. That liquor store, too, was engulfed in flames.

“Get inside!” Mom said. She dragged me to the house.

“If there aren’t any police, what’s going to happen?”

“For tonight, we’ll stay here. We’ll figure something else tomorrow,” Mom said as she locked me in the room.

From the window I could see the flames that destroyed the nice Korean man’s store. In the distance came shouting and random gunshots. From behind me, Mom’s voice told me not to worry. We sat and leaned against the headboard of her bed, Dad settled at the foot of window. We watched television. The panic faded to uneasiness once the grownups took a position defending the house. I’d seen my uncles fight before, so I felt reassured.

“I want to watch the movie,” Jorge whined. His 4-year-old brain was scared but bored with the news.

“Yes. Both of you stay in here and watch the movie.” She fed the VHS to the VCR and walked out of the room. I followed.

The cloud of cigarette smoke hung over the living room as everyone was glued to the television. Usually our refrigerator was empty and when we got home everyone would pitch in for a food run. Curled up next to Mom, I whispered that I was hungry. She got up, told me to go to the room with Jorge and wait.

Jorge was stuck on his movie. Mom walked in, took her purse out of the closet and pulled out two Nabisco Swiss cookie packs.

“There’s no milk but have this. Eat them in here; if I see either of you outside with these, I’m spanking both of you.”

I sat on my parent’s bed. From the bottom bunk to my right Jorge mouthed the lines to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Outside, the flames destroying the liquor store on 103rd Street lit the sky. I wondered if the nice Korean owner was watching his store burn.

I awoke to a dark room and Dad by the window. I couldn’t see any more flames and it was finally silent: no outside noise, no news updates and no adult voices.

“Dad.”

“Go to sleep.”

“Can I watch TV?”

“No. The electricity went out. Just go back to sleep.”

“Why is the electricity out? Did you forget to pay the bill?”

He chuckled cigarette smoke from his nose. “No, son. These assholes made the whole street black out. Nobody has electricity. Don’t worry. Sleep.”

The next morning Mom and Dad had to go to work in the morning, but they weren’t leaving us home. As we piled into the station wagon, Dad checked in with the neighbors in the front house; none of them was leaving. They would guard the front and my uncles the back.

The sky was lit but the sun still hid in the horizon. The chop of helicopters cut through the quiet morning. The Chevy bounced through the dirt alley, on to 103rd Street, west to Avalon Boulevard and then north. Avalon is a wide corridor connecting Downtown L.A. to South-Central. That morning Avalon was littered with broken glass, trash and charred vehicles on their sides blocking the road; burning businesses and smoldered buildings lined the street. Dad snaked through the debris.

We sat in silence, moving past the ashes, as KLOVE chattered in the background.

Story illustration

Desert Sea

It was the summer of 1963 and Mexicali was hot as hell. Back then, the streets were dirt roads; only main boulevards were paved. It was a hot, dusty hole of a city, but Dad had learned of the border town’s promise and had moved our family there from Guaymas, Sonora, when I was 4.

Dad never finished grade school. He started working after his father died to help support his mother and siblings. He shined shoes, had a newspaper route and later worked at a candy factory. As an adult he landed a job with a Mexican petroleum company. This would be his ticket to a better life. In Mexicali, he started his own business repairing gasoline pumps. He made frequent trips to Los Angeles to buy parts to resell in Mexicali. Eventually, he worked his way into real estate and bought the land where his shop sat. He became a businessman with an office and secretary, a younger Chinese-Mexican woman he would eventually leave my mother for.

My father left when I was 11 and by summer of 1963, his new family had grown to two girls and a boy in addition to us: Eva, 6; Raul, 9; David, 11; Sam, 15; and me, 16. He visited us weekly to drop money for groceries. But our relationship was strained by my parents’ divorce. I had a strong mind and a rebellious heart, and I resisted his authority. His new family seemed rich compared to how we lived. We resented him for that and much else. In hindsight, though the allowance he provided was modest, at least he didn’t completely abandon us. He could have disappeared, though I could not see that then.

So it was us: mom, the kids and me. As the oldest, I was in charge of the litter and had been for a long time.  As far back as I can remember Mom suffered from migraines and often withdrew, spending entire afternoons and evenings lying alone in the dark. She had these episodes a few times a month, for two to three days at a time. I always thought then that mom was devastated by the loss of her husband. But I eventually came to wonder if perhaps her somber moods were part of the reason he left.

I started cooking when I was five. Often, Mom would be in her room while my brothers and I wreaked havoc in the living room, playing around.

“I’m hungry,” they’d start.

So into the kitchen I’d go, climb a chair and make them something to eat. I received frequent criticism from my brothers on my cooking and oddly shaped tortillas.

“They’re too thick.”

“These beans are dry.”

That’s how I learned to cook. Some nights as I prepared for bed I’d hear Raul sobbing. I would find him in his room, books spread out on the bed. He’d confess he had not done his homework—this he worried about at 11 p.m. Still, I always had patience for him and helped him get it done.

I had a boyfriend that summer, Jose, a friend from school. He was a few years older than I; he’d already graduated from the business prep school Dad made me attend. Dad would not allow me to go to a normal high school. He wanted me to study accounting and help him with the business, another point of contention between us. Dad would not have approved of Jose or anyone else for that matter, but he was not involved enough in my personal life to accidentally find out. Secretly, I felt empowered at 16 to take control of a part of my life, to live in one small space for myself. Jose was more than a boyfriend; he was freedom.  Mom knew and supported me. On paper he looked great. He was handsome, worked at a bank, dressed well and had a nice car. He offered to take all of us out of the inferno to San Felipe for a weekend, along the coast of the Sea of Cortez. It was a bumpy ride along a narrow road but worth escaping the scalding desert heat.  We arrived on a Friday night and slept on the beach. We had no tents, just sleeping bags on the sand, underneath the stars, lulled to sleep by the sweet music of the waves rolling in and out.

The next morning the sun glowed over us. The breeze was cool and I felt a great sense of relief. Mom and Eva and I cooked breakfast as Jose and my brothers dispersed. The teenagers, Sam and Jose, walked in one direction while the kids, Raul and David, scampered behind. They frolicked toward the beach, chasing one another about, buckets in hand. Because the tide was low, it was a great time to explore rocks and tide pools and hunt for baby octopuses. These we would season with lemon and chiles and grill to a crisp over an open fire.

As the morning progressed, the beach grew noisy with families. At some point that morning, news reached the camps of someone drowning. It didn’t strike us at the time that we should worry. We assumed the boys were together, watching over one another. But as the nervous chatter spread, we walked to the beach to see what was happening and found Sam and Jose. They were not with the boys. Panic set in. My eyes scanned the camp and the beach in search of my little brothers. They were nowhere around.  A few hours passed and my brothers still had not appeared. By this time a search party had formed. Locals and visitors alike had heard the news and calls for help, “auxilio!” Finally, around 11a.m. a young couple out walking found David bobbing up and down in the water. They pulled him out, exhausted and nearly unconscious.   Yet still, no news of Raul. We sat paralyzed, saying nothing, doing nothing, lost in time for hours. The carne asada we were preparing for lunch was left untouched and spoiled. We were numbed with fright.

Raul’s body was found by a group of men in the search party at 4 that afternoon. They loaded him into their fishing boat and returned him to land, where paramedics waited, his little body limp and lifeless. The boys had strayed from the tide pools, going farther out onto the endless shore. At low tide, the water can recede as much as 2 kilometers.  As the tide swiftly returned, it caught them off guard and swept them in.  Neither of them knew how to swim.

He was taken to the coroner’s office for examination. When that was done, his body, wrapped in a blanket, was carried to Jose’s Cadillac and gently loaded into the back seat. Sam, Mom and Eva traveled home by bus.  Jose drove the rest of us back that evening. I rode up front with Jose, David in the back passenger seat, next to Raul.

Dad was waiting when we arrived and had already learned the news. He was furious. He unleashed his wrath on Mom and me, blaming us for Raul’s death, crying that it was my fault for taking us there. I cried and cried.

The day of the funeral I ironed Raul’s little suit, his Sunday best, remembering him with every stroke. The truth was I blamed myself too. I should have gone with them, watched over them. I would blame myself for a long time. Reason may try say it’s not your fault, and you may learn to deal with your grief and accept that you are not the cause but the pain and the memories never fade.

The funeral was held at Dad’s church. Though Dad was raised Christian, he never practiced or worshipped during my childhood; we were raised Catholic. However, now in this new life in which he reinvented himself, he had changed his ways and become a model Cristiano. My siblings went to his Christian church with him and the other family, half-brothers and half-sisters, on Sundays. But I refused to participate. I was bitter about his infidelity and that the fact that he left us. To me this was not an example of a good Christian and I found it all hypocritical. I could not appreciate that he was trying to be a better person. I only saw that his new family ate better, dressed better, had a nicer house and had a full-time father.

After the funeral, life resumed much like it had before. We went back to our lives. Dad went back to his bilateral family routine. It would be many years, until we were grown up, before we’d talk about that day again. My brother Sam named his second son Raul. Our kids would ask about his namesake. What was he like? How did he die? We always explained and shared funny stories about Raul. But we never spoke in detail about that day or the grief we lived.

Years later during a family reunion, when my father was in his twilight years, I found myself sitting alone with him on a park bench. He had summoned all seven of his children for a carne asada. It was an awkward gathering. We knew he sought to unite his children before he was gone, a comfort we indulged him in, though there would never be the kind of union he yearned for.

As we sat in the park in silence watching his grandchildren play, he suddenly turned to me and spoke of the mistakes he had made with us, with me. He told me he loved me and asked me for forgiveness.

“Abuelo!”

My five-year-old niece ran over and handed him a small bunch of white daisies she had picked from the lawn.  She laughed and returned to play.

The afternoon sun streaked the sky with ribbons of pink and orange. I reached over and held his hand in both of mine.

Story illustration

La Curandera

It is 3 a.m. and I am lying on a cot in the bathroom of my grandmother’s hospital room, listening to other family members snoring away.

Angie has been unresponsive for a few days and my family is keeping vigil. I know her end is near, but I can feel her presence, still hanging in.

She has had health issues most of her adult life, then suffered a major stroke a few years ago.  Unable to care for herself, she has been in a 24-hour care facility. It has devastated me to see her – one of the most vibrant women in my life – unable to move or speak.

During a recent trip to Europe, I lit a candle for Angie in every church I entered and prayed to God to give her peace.

Now I slowly get up, trying not to make any noise. I make my way around the other cots, step over an uncle. I sit at the edge of the hospital bed. I lean in, practically lie down right next to Angie. I kiss her cheek and take in her smell. I lay my head on her shoulder.

I can see her old heart surgery scar, peaking out the top of her hospital gown. I was about 3 years old when she had that surgery. Holding my parents’ hands, walking down the LA County hospital ward past the long line of beds, we found her sitting up, her chest stitched, looking worn but determined. She smiled big upon seeing us and patted her hand on the bed for me to come sit by her.

As Angie’s first grandchild, I grew up calling her “Mom” (my own mother was “Momma”). That is how I heard my Dad address her, but she was also adamant that she was never to be called “Grandma.” Other grandchildren would later transform her into “Mom Angie.” Then she became just “Angie.”

*   *   *   *   *

Angelina Carrillo Quintero was born to on October 1, 1924 in Dawson, New Mexico, a coal-mining town. Her sister Carmen arrived a few years later. Her father had a previous wife who passed away, so Angie had half-sisters who lived with relatives in Mexico. After Primitivo died of pneumonia, Maria took in boarders to help supplement her income – and later married one of them, Jesús Hernandez. They had two more children. As the oldest child and not his actual daughter, Angie was often the target of her stepfather’s bad moods, but she did not fight back; she endured it rather than have him take it out on her mother and sister.

After the family relocated to East Los Angeles, Angie met and married my grandfather, Joe E. Quintero. It was a toxic marriage; she was physically and mentally abused. He eventually left her and started another family. She persevered and raised her four children as a single mother. Some say it was her determination and survival instinct that bonded her to her children and grandchildren. However for me, my connection to Angie was more than that; it was something magical.

I must have been about 2 years old when my parents and I stayed overnight at my maternal grandparents’ house. It was early morning, my parents were still asleep, but I was awake in my playpen. I looked up to see Angie standing in the hallway. As I called out to her, she turned and walked away. I managed to climb out of the playpen, but by the time I reached the living room, there was no sign of Angie. I later told my mother what had happened, to try to figure out how Angie had disappeared so quickly, but she just shook her head and told me, “You must have dreamt it.”

When I recalled the incident as an adult, I could still feel the pain from hoisting myself over the side of the playpen. I mentioned it to Angie. She smiled and explained that when I was little, she was not able to see me as much as she had wanted. My mother, being a new parent, preferred to be at her own mother’s house. My vision that morning must have been one of the times that Angie was thinking about me.

And yet there was a period when she chose not to see me. When she discovered that my Dad had begun to communicate with his estranged father, she showed up at our house one evening, shouting that my Dad was being disloyal. My siblings and I were sent to our bedrooms, but I crept down the hallway. I peeked out and caught her eye as she announced that she was disowning us. I saw a slight hesitation but she looked at my Dad again, yelled some more, turned and stormed out the front door – slamming it behind her. It was about a year before we were allowed at family get-togethers. I cannot think of any other time that she was not a part of my life.

Angie had a love and respect for Mother Nature. She was a curandera (medicine woman). She knew of plants and herbs and their medicinal qualities. Her yard was filled with aloe vera, lavender, rosemary and sage.

I contracted scarlet fever when I was about 6 years old. I was seen by my pediatrician, but the high fever persisted. Angie was called. In my haze, I remember her praying and laying her hands over me. I can still smell the incense and the burning herbs. She sang in a whisper, yet she loudly ordered the illness to leave my body. Soon after that, the fever broke.

One of her favorite plants was the “Snake” plant; its long leaves grow straight up and end at a sharp point. She believed that growing it brought good luck. It is also difficult to kill. Angie would break up a plant with her bare hands, re-pot the pieces in coffee cans and then give those away to family and friends while praising the benefits. I later discovered that it is a treasured plant in Chinese folklore.

Angie taught me both practical and spiritual life lessons. After I earned my undergraduate degree, I took on night-time internships in Hollywood and could then drive Angie to errands and doctors’ appointments during the day. She taught me all of her shortcuts and the ins-and-outs of getting around Los Angeles. I also learned about the “Parking Angel.”  Whenever we were on our way to a high-traffic location, Angie would pray and ask an Angel to go on ahead of us and secure our parking space.  By the time we arrived at our destination, a parking spot was always open.

Angie also channeled a Mexican Indian spirit; she would meditate until she was in a state where she allowed her body be taken over by her “spirit guide.” His name was Piel Rojo, literally translated as “red skin”, but intended as “man of the earth color/ man of the earth.” Through channeling, Piel Rojo passed on knowledge to Angie, for her to gain insight – to help herself and others.

One summer when we were in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Angie hired a driver to take us north into the state of Nayarit. The road was bumpy as we travelled through heavy jungle. Eventually we arrived at a small, lone house. We were greeted by a young girl and led into a sparsely furnished bedroom. We sat down on one of the twin beds. On top of the chest of drawers was a familiar display; a cross, statues of various saints, a rosary, and several lit candles. The scent of incense lingered in the air. I was exhausted from the rough trip and humidity, but Angie was alert and ready.

In walked an older woman; she and Angie greeted each other warmly. Angie introduced me as her granddaughter. The woman prayed over us, blessed us, and then did our readings.

Te toca ahora (It’s your turn now),” she said to Angie when she finished.

Angie closed her eyes, took in deep breaths, blew them out. She stood up, pounded her fists to her chest and stomped in place.

iYo soy Piel Rojo! (I am Piel Rojo!)” came a deep baritone voice.

Piel Rojo then spoke about the strength achieved when a family works together. He threw his arms into the air and called upon my ancestors to help guide my family and me, to lead us to harmony and success. I was advised to form a family business.

I felt the presence of unseen others in the room. A few burning candles went out.

Piel Rojo closed his eyes, again took in deep breaths, blew them out.  There was no movement, just silence. Then Angie opened her eyes and smiled.

*   *   *   *   *

I think that Angie knew that her health was going to take a turn for the worse. A few months before her stroke, I was late in picking her up for an outing. My morning schedule had been disrupted; I was frustrated and not very talkative as I got her settled in my car and we took off.

“I want you to know I appreciate everything that we have done together,” she said, breaking the silence.

Angie spoke of all the times we had spent together, that she would never forget when I had taken her to the Indian pow wow or to see Los Lobos perform. I felt immediate guilt for being so stressed out and in a hurry. I swallowed the lump in my throat, took a deep breath, blew out all the negative energy, decided to let it all go and enjoy the rest of the day with her.

And now I know I need to help Angie on to her next journey.

I sense that Angie is hanging back because she is worried about us, her family.

In my head, I call out to my great-grandparents Maria and Primitivo, to Piel Rojo; I ask them all to guide Angie to her next destination.

I whisper in her ear, “It’s OK. We will all be OK. You can let go.”

I lay with her for a while longer, until I feel that her spirit has moved on.

Story illustration

Birds

Nobody here understands what I say. They just look at me funny when I ask them which way is home. At school, the kids sing songs that sound like they could be Chinese. I try to sing along, but I can’t make out the words. Then Mrs. Wintersmith gets mad at me because I don’t participate. I want to participate. I want to tell her I want to participate. She called Mom in recently for a parent-teacher meeting and spent 20 minutes gesturing like a mime before giving up and sending both of us home with a D+.

“Wrrrr wrrrr wrrrr.” That’s what English sounds like. How am I supposed to understand that? Dad tells me that one day I’ll understand this new language and that I’ll speak it so well I won’t even remember that I was ever Chinese. He says little kids can adapt anywhere.

I used to ask Mom when we would go home. I ask her on the bus, I ask her when she walks me home from school, I ask her at dinner. I want to go back to that house that smelled like smoked pickles in the mornings. I even want to go back to that old Mrs. Li who shooed me away with her corn husk broom whenever she caught me picking at her hanging anchovies. Each time Mom answers me with “Soon.”

Nowadays I don’t ask her. I just watch TV and try to learn English. Little kids like me are not supposed to ask too many questions. Little kids are supposed to make Cup O’Noodles for themselves and stay home while Mom and Dad are at work. During breaks from school, Mom says to turn on the TV if I ever feel lonely, so I have it on all the time. When the TV is on I’m not so sad anymore: “I Love Lucy” at 9, “The Jerry Springer Show” at 11, “The Ricki Lake Show”  at 2, “Animaniacs” at 3, then “The Simpsons” during prime time. I watch and laugh and try to remember that we are now free.

Dad brings me to the motel sometimes. He says it’s a boring place and that there are no kids around, but at least it gives us enough money to make ramen with bean sprouts for lunch. While he’s checking the rooms, I help him cut a stack of papers into squares he could use for notes when customers pick up their keys. I cut a few extra sheets to make birds. My kindergarten teacher taught me how to make them before we left China. I fold a beak, a tail and a pair of wings. I even draw eyes on it to make sure it could see.

In between bird-making, I watch customers walk in and out of their rooms. They go to their cars, they go to the store, they go to the vending machine upstairs. Most of the time people stay here alone. They get donuts and beer from the liquor store across the street and eat them in their rooms with the doors bolted shut. Each room has prison bars on the window so no one can get in without a key. Sometimes the men check in with one of the ladies from across the street. Couples in love are called “birds” in English. Pretty girls are called “birds,” too.

The motel seems gigantic, with 28 rooms and two floors. The ocean blue paint underneath the stairwell is chipping. I rarely see the same customer more than once. There are so many rooms, and not one is filled with anyone I know. A couple of weeks ago, a little girl about my age named Annie checked in with her mama. A few days later I noticed that somebody drew hearts and flowers in pink chalk on the ground.

Recently, I’ve been asking Dad to bring me to the motel more. Annie is here. She’s the only other person I know here. He tells me I could play outside in the parking lot, but I can’t go beyond the driveway, where the asphalt meets the sidewalk. Growing up in a new country means I have to learn new rules. It’s different here than it is in China, but Dad promises that this is better. He’s always teaching me smart things, like how to spot shady people, how to spot fake money, how to clean things with rubbing alcohol and how to play poker. Now I’m learning how to be suspicious, which means furrowing my brow and not smiling. Dad says there are a lot of bad people in this city, and I need to learn to protect myself.

I don’t think Annie goes to school. She’s always here. Often, she’s squatting outside their first-floor room doodling on the ground with chalk. Sometimes I see her mama keeping her company while smoking cigarettes by the dumpsters barefoot. Annie doesn’t have any siblings either.

Her mama has a big blue Cadillac with paint coming off its fender. It is filled with so many paper bags that it looks like a suitcase on wheels. I never see her talking to anybody except a few words to Dad once a week when she pays for their room. She says Annie gets picked on too much at school, which explains why she doesn’t go. Most days they just stay in their room, coming out only once or twice to buy a soda or unpack something from the Cadillac. Sometimes her mama puts on a pretty dress and takes that Cadillac to work for a few hours. Her brown hair is so messy it looks like a tornado came through. She asks Dad to keep an eye on Annie but never tells him where she goes.

I like Annie. She’s the first little girl I ever seen around here. She came out to play with me while I was poking at the ants by the magnolia tree. At school pretty girls like her wouldn’t play with me, but Annie’s different. She’s not from around here, just like I’m not from around here. She lets me use her chalk and shows me how to shuffle cards.

People around here are mostly dark or tanned, but not Annie. Her skin is fair and white, like soft serve vanilla. Her freckles run all along her arm like sprinkles on a sugar cookie. Once she even let me scratch one of them so I could see for myself that they were real.

I look forward to seeing Annie. I try to see her whenever Dad brings me to the motel. We manage to find all sorts of things to play with here: hide and seek in between the parked cars, jump rope with Dad’s VCR cables, and even superhero with bedsheets tied to our shoulders. Her favorite game is House. She shows me how to tie a towel around my hair the way her mama does after a shower, and I show her how to bundle up her sweatshirt to look like a baby the way I learned it from school. We call the sweatshirt our baby brother and name him Bart. We make a little house out of a cardboard box and cut flaps for the doors. In our fake kitchen, I motion like I’m flipping hamburgers while Annie serves dinner to our make-believe family. Nobody could eat until we sat down. We were the oldest for a change, so we set the rules.

In the parking lot, the magnolia tree opens up far beyond the roof of the motel with its branches stretching out into the sky above. During the daytime, the flowers disappear into the clouds, and at night, the blooms seem to hum along with the sounds of snoring strangers who sleep here.

It must be lonely to be Annie. I imagine that on days when I’m not here, she must spend all day in her room just watching TV. I ask Dad why Annie can’t go to school with me, and he shrugs. He says it’s best to keep that to myself because it’s none of our business. We’re only guests in this country.

Before Dad clocks out for the day, I make plans with Annie. We mark up the hopscotch squares to show where we left off. We fold up our cardboard house for our next sit-down dinner, and put it in the closet with the maid’s cleaning cart. We fold our superhero sheets and agree that next time we’ll both be Wonder Woman.

Today I come to the motel and see that the blue Cadillac is gone. I peek behind the open door to their room, and all I see is a messy bed inside. Lucy is vacuuming what’s left in Annie’s room. I ask Dad when she will come back. “Soon,” he says.

Story illustration

Buddy and Dean

In 2012 I was hired as part of a program to provide outreach services to the homeless of Hollywood. It was our job to find the most vulnerable individuals on the street and to work to get them into housing. Not long after we began, we found a panhandler at a gas station near Griffith Park.

Dean was a wiry guy with tangled hair sticking out from under a grimy baseball cap. He had a long, grizzled beard and striking blue eyes that hid a fast wit. When he talked, he grew animated, with arms waving and face twisting. He was a storyteller who loved having an audience. He was also a drug addict who used just about anything he could get his hands on. Let’s be real, I need beer! his cardboard sign read.

“Go find Buddy up on the hill!” he told us because he wanted us to talk to his friend. He was also eager to get back to his hustling. In the early days of our work, people on the streets regarded us with a detached bemusement. They had been promised housing in the past by many other organizations. None of these panned out, so they had good reason to doubt us. We told Dean that we would come back to see him in a few days and went up the hill to find Buddy.

Buddy was tucked away on the top of a small hill amid untrimmed bushes. He was passed out on a towel, his body covered in sweat and smelling of urine. An empty fifth of vodka lay just out of arm’s reach. We tried to get his attention, but he could not be stirred.

“We’ll have to come back,” the team leader said.

Several days later, we met with Dean on the same street corner. He signed the paperwork to join our program and asked a bunch of questions: When can I get some money? You got any lawyers I can talk to? Where’s this so called housing going to be? How long is this gonna take?

Dean said he was a dishonorably discharged Green Beret on the run from the law in Texas. From what, he would not say. He told us his family had disowned him from a large inheritance. Dean also responded to internal voices and seemed to see things that were not there. It was often difficult to tell what was real and what was not with Dean.

“My own mother wants to take my money from me,” he said. “The bitch.” He had been on the streets for 20 years. To survive, he had taken to running drugs for gang members in exchange for free passage in their territory as well as free drugs. We made plans for him to come to our office to discuss the next steps, then left him alone to panhandle.

“Don’t forget Buddy!” Dean reminded us. This time when we climbed the hill, Buddy was wide awake and waiting for us.

“Hey y’all!”

Turns out Dean had told him about our program.

Buddy was tall and lanky with a big smile and hearty laugh. He was older than Dean by at least 10 years. His hands were massive, and he had once been a boxer. His body slumped from decades of alcohol abuse. He could not remember much of the last 20 years and would tearfully tell the same story over and over.

“I use to live in Vegas,” he said. “Life on the streets there is pretty tough. I ended up killing a guy because he was going to kill me. There was nothing else I could do. It was him or me.…” And by this time, he was in tears. The judge had let him off on self-defense, and he came back to Los Angeles, where he had grown up. None of his family wanted to have anything to do with him, so he started drinking.

“And never stopped,” was how the story usually ended.

Homelessness is a constant fight for survival and allies can mean the difference between life and death. Buddy and Dean were more than just allies. They shared their stories with each other, which is something you did not do on the streets, where information can be used against you. They talked about the things they wanted. For Buddy, it was a house and a car and a decent job. For Dean, it was women and motorcycles.  Buddy seemed like the kind of guy who’d share his last drink with a friend. Dean was the kind of guy who would take that drink.

One day when we went to visit, we met them at a nearby bus stop. Dean had his arm around Buddy and they were laughing hysterically. “We was just shootin’ the shit,” Dean said, pulling his hand away as we walked up. He was embarrassed by our witnessing this moment. While Dean constantly worked to portray the tough street thug, it was clear he had a tender side. And a soft spot for Buddy.

Because he was often drunk, Buddy was particularly vulnerable. Every time he got something new, like clothes or a pillow, he would wake up from his stupor to find it gone.

“I can’t do this anymore,” he told us after someone had taken a radio he found. “I can’t spent the rest of my life drunk on this goddamn hill!” he yelled with tears streaming from his eyes as he pounded his fist into the grass.

Soon after, we sent him to a detox center in Pomona. He assaulted one of the staff. They kicked him out. We had no idea if we would ever see him again.

A few days later, it was Dean who brought Buddy back to our office. Somehow Buddy had made his way back to the hill where Dean had found him. He had no memory of attacking the staff member. In his mind, they had let him go because he had gotten a job at a nearby Burger King.

“I was doing my job, washing the windows, when the police rolled up on me,” he said in an incredulous tone. “I tried to tell them I was just doing my job, but they wouldn’t listen. They hauled my ass off to jail!” Pomona PD released him a few days later and told him to get out of town, so he made his way back to Hollywood.

“This guy keeps saving my life,” he smiled at Dean.

“You’re like a brother to me, man,” Dean said with affection.

Despite their differences, Buddy and Dean cared about each other. You could see it in the way they patted each other on the back, the way they shared their food with each other, the way they talked and laughed together. It was an unusual relationship to see on the streets. Most people are consumed with self-preservation to the point of open hostility toward others. It was not uncommon to hear about women of the street being raped by gangs of homeless men. In order to survive, most women on the street found a “husband” to take care of them. The price was often non-consensual sex or even beatings, but at least it was by one man instead of many. Buddy and Dean’s friendship on the street was based as much on the desire to connect as it was for self-preservation.

By this time, our team had cut a deal with a local motel. Its carpet was worn to the concrete, and the peeling walls were smeared with decades of unattended filth. But they rarely turned away a potential customer. We put both Buddy and Dean in this motel temporarily in order to help them work toward the next step.

Buddy stayed sober long enough to complete the process to get into rehab. Dean was another story. He agreed to take an injection of an antipsychotic in order to soothe the voices that plagued him, but he continued to smoke marijuana in his motel room. Bringing in a couple of hookers one night was the last straw for the manager, who called me directly.

“Get him the fuck out!” he yelled.

Before I could get there, Dean had an altercation with another motel guest, then cleared out. As he was leaving, he found Buddy sleeping in his room and took his clothes, his blankets, and what little money he had. When Buddy awoke to confront him, Dean slashed his face with a penknife and ran off. The manager called the police. Buddy told them where to find Dean. The police immediately knew who he was. They were more than happy to take him in.

When we later asked Dean why he had done this to Buddy, he only shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s life on the street.”

That was about right. We never heard another reason for why he’d turned on his friend so suddenly.

“If I ever see that piece of shit, I’ll kill ’im,” Buddy said. “Can’t believe he would do this to me.…”

Soon after, Buddy was taken to rehab, where he worked a 60-day program of recovery groups morning, noon and night. The program was a 12-step group, with a substance abuse counselor who met with each person one on one. Buddy made changes in his thinking and behavior with the goal of never taking another drink. Simply being away from it seemed to give him clarity. He focused on never going back to that hill. In his mind, just one drink would be catastrophic. “I know where it can take me,” he said.

While Buddy was in rehab, the housing coordinator prepared the paperwork for his housing placement. When he got out, Buddy was moved into a studio apartment in the heart of Hollywood. His recovery was remarkable in both its speed and depth. In fact, of the 65 people we housed, Buddy was one of two who had totally turned away from his old habits.

After the assault, Dean spent a couple of months at Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles, with the plan that he would come to our office as soon as he was released. When that day came, he was the most clear-headed I had ever seen him. He insisted that he was ready to be housed and that he would never bother Buddy again.

But Dean disappeared soon after he got out of jail. I searched his spots a couple of times a week but didn’t find him. A few months later, he appeared covered in a layer of black muck, sputtering manic stories of his drug adventures: how he exchanged sex with a old lady who allowed him to sleep in her car at night, how he befriended a local important gang member who treated him like a mascot, giving him free drugs because “he thinks I’m so fucking funny.”

Later, Dean appeared with an older woman. Her name was Beth. She was homeless as well but had a steady source of income. She wanted us to take Dean off her hands

A few weeks later, Beth showed up to tell me that Dean had drank himself to death.

“I tried and tried to revive him,” she said tearfully. “But he just stopped moving.”

The next day, I knocked on Buddy’s door. He was doing well in his apartment. He had set up a table, a few chairs and a lamp. Everything was kept neat and clean. He was attending meetings and talking about maybe going back to school or getting a part-time job.

I told him about Dean.

We sat together for a long time in silence. Buddy shook his head.

“Jesus,” he said.

Story illustration

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.

Story illustration

Mabe’s Dream

There was something really peaceful about driving through this mostly rural area on a wide-open two-lane highway.  The sky was blue with specks of pollen from springtime blossoms spiraling through the air.  At 75 miles per hour, bugs spattered against the glass.  It was warm but nothing like the heat that dominated June and July.  I let the window down and felt the push of wind against my hand.  It brought back childhood memories of family road trips.

As we neared Naples, Texas, the flat land shifted to rolling hills.  Even the smallest of homes sat on huge lots.  We got accustomed to the miles of land between one house and the next.  At first glance, the tall commanding green things covering the landscape, resembled cacti.  But they were pine trees, though not the kind you find in Oregon or California.  They looked as if they were weeping.  The breeze had finally gotten the better of my 6-year-old daughter, Jasmine, and she drifted off to sleep just as we neared Aunt Luanna’s house.

Both of my parents were from Texas.  My brother and I were born on the Gulf Coast in Corpus Christi.  Even though we moved north when I was young, I still felt a deep connection to the South.  My mom and dad were part of the generation of blacks who left the South during the Great Migration in search of a better life.  In 1964, my parents were married.  That same year, my dad followed his sister’s advice and went to Michigan to take a job in one of the automobile factories that were booming.  Once he was settled and found our new home in the same neighborhood his sister lived in, he sent for my mom, me and my brother.

Growing up, every summer my parents would load up the car and drive “home” to the south.  In our case, that meant East Texas.  My mom’s maternal family and my dad’s family were from the same little town, Dekalb.  My mom’s paternal family members were from Naples. This was the family I knew little about and had come with my daughter to visit.

Living thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, now with my own family, I realized the importance of family history and wanted to share that with my children.

That morning, as we passed the landmark Aunt Oneida had told me to look out for – the steeple at Gethsemane Baptist Church – Jasmine shifted in her seat and her doll fell to the floor.  The dirt was of vivid red clay. Maple and aged oaks stood guard.  On the left side of the road, a sign read “Boyd Cemetery.”

I gently shook Jasmine awake.  She stretched and yawned as she stepped from the car, wiping the sleep from her eyes.  We walked across a field that led to a trail.  When the tall grass and weeds grew high enough to reach her hip, Jasmine stood still and tears began to well up in her little eyes.  My little girl who only knew a city life was scared.  I picked her up and walked with her on my hip.  I was feeling a little ambivalent myself, with the cemetery now in plain sight.  I imagined all of my family members who had walked this land.  My mom had spent summers on this farm and had shared so many stories about roaming the farm with her first cousins.  They would sit outside their grandparents’ kitchen window eating fresh-picked fruit and mock their conversations.

I had come to this part of east Texas to meet a woman I had known nothing about a year before.

The trip grew from a call I made to my Aunt Oneida to invite her to attend my mom’s surprise 50th birthday celebration in California.  She couldn’t come, she told me, because Aunt Luanna was celebrating her centennial that same weekend. I’d never heard of an Aunt Luanna. But meeting her, I realized, might fill out a lot of what I didn’t know about this part of my family.

Two concrete headstones stood in the cemetery. One read: “Mabe Boyd – 1840 to 1927.”  The other read “Lou Boyd – 1853 to 1946.”  Nearby was the headstone of Aunt Luanna’s brother, James Boyd, a World War I veteran.  He died in 1994 at the age of 97. There was a huge concrete tomb with the name Napoleon. The placard with the last name and dates was worn. After taking a few pictures, we walked back to the car.  The weight of Jasmine’s body began to tire me out.

We drove on up the road to a simple white house with an enclosed porch.  A rusted old wagon wheel stood under the carport.  We walked up the path to the porch and I heard a southern drawl that felt familiar.

“Come on in!”  It was Aunt O.

There were lots of hugs and long glances, as we were introduced to Aunt Luanna and her daughter, Juanita, who lived with her.  Aunt Luanna had long straight silver hair that was braided and pinned. We sat down and Juanita brought us sweet tea in glasses etched in a yellow and green floral design.  Everyone laughed as Jasmine turned up her glass and said, “Yum!”

Two antique oval pictures hung on the wall. As I looked at the man and the woman in the pictures, I recalled the meticulous calligraphic script of the names in the large wooden family bible that Aunt O had shared with me just the night before.  I knew that the man was Aunt Luanna’s father, Mabe Boyd, and the woman, her mother, Lou Boyd. This was the first time that I had seen a photograph of family members from the late 1800’s. I could see the resemblance between Lou and nearly all the women on my mom’s side.  My middle brother had eyebrows just like Mabe.  They were both attractive and you could tell by the way they were groomed and their clothing that they lived a good, comfortable life.

Aunt Luanna was small but strong.  She lived on the Boyd Farm practically her entire life, with the exception of the occasional trip to Dallas to spend time with her daughters and one lone trip to Los Angeles in the late 60’s.  Life in Los Angeles had gotten the better of one of her daughters, so she went to bring her back home.  The hustle and bustle there was too much for Aunt Luanna.  The quiet Boyd Farm with clean air and fresh running rivers and lakes, fruit trees, vegetables, poultry and cattle, was the only world she knew.  At night, you could see every constellation, and the full moon was majestic.

As she spoke, I remembered my first drink from a well as a child.  Lowering a wooden bucket with the tin can tied by twine, down to the water source and then turning the wheel to pull it back up, seemed like a lot of effort for a city girl, until I tasted the ice cold water.  It was heaven, especially in the Texas heat.

Aunt Luanna talked on. The Boyd Farm covered most of the northwest corner of Cass County.  Back in the day, it was full of fruit orchards, a blacksmith shop, a syrup mill, a smoke house, livestock, acres of vegetables, a schoolhouse and natural hot springs and creeks.

Several hours passed. Finally, I asked Aunt Luanna if I could come back the next day.

The next morning, we found her sitting on the enclosed porch with her food in a small stainless steel bowl and a paring knife.  She no longer had her teeth, but she seemed to be enjoying every bite.

With her permission, I videotaped our conversation sitting on the porch.  I asked her to tell me of her childhood on the farm.  “There was always plenty to eat and plenty to do,” she said.  They went to town a few times a year for cloth, coffee and other items they didn’t produce on the farm.  Practically everything else they needed, they produced on the farm.  Her mother kept the children healthy with castor oil and lemon several times a week, especially during the winter months.

Aunt Luanna began to talk of her father. Mabe had arrived in east Texas from Georgia, a freed man, in about 1859. He was a skilled carpenter, shoemaker, blacksmith and farmer.  Over the years this man somehow amassed close to one thousand acres, 600 of which remain in our family.  No one knew much about his parents.  Some speculate that his father was a slave owner and that had something to do with his ability to purchase and retain so much land in east Texas.  Truth is, we’ll never know.  Too much time has passed and older family members have died.

But we know that he built a school for his own children and other black children in the area.  She pointed it out, an old building hidden among tall weeds.  “He called it Celeste School. I went there with my brothers and sisters,” she said.  So did other black kids from the area whose parents were sharecropping on farms owned by white people.  Mabe also built the home that housed the teacher he hired to instruct the children.  Her home was miles away in Marshall, Texas. Back then travel was precarious on the dirt roads.  The last teacher hired was Mrs. Dean, Aunt Luanna remembered, and the last students attended Celeste School during World War II.  After that, more schools were built and the state of Texas took over the Celeste school in a different location.

I listened to Aunt Luanna tell the story of Mabe, her father, and wished I knew more about him, what made him so focused on self-sufficiency and education.  Yet as she spoke, I realized his importance to the family, this relative of mine I’d never heard of.

Aunt Luanna lived to 106. We kept in touch through letters, as we promised we would. And I never forgot the story of her father, Mabe, and her mother, Lou.   We were carrying Mabe’s legacy forward in many ways.  His descendants are now college graduates in 11 states and two continents.  We are teachers, engineers, authors, television writers and producers, military officers, computer network managers, nurses, business owners, longshoremen, and lawyers.

All that, I realized, started with Mabe and Lou Boyd, freed slaves who arrived in east Texas from Jim Crow Georgia with skills and a view of the future they could build with school and land.

That day, I wasn’t ready for our trip to end. As we rose to leave, Aunt Luanna took Jasmine by her hand and pulled her in close.  She looked into her eyes.  “Don’t forget me,” she said.

Story illustration

Sounds of Home

The roll call of names flowed from the merchant’s lips as Antonia and the girls rushed to the village store where women and children gathered for news from El Norte. Inside, the village’s unofficial postman drew envelopes from a pouch. He’d carried these miles from the nearest town, where mail arrived almost daily, postmarked with the names of far-away places: Arkansas, Texas, and California. Always so many from California. He waved white envelopes in the air, calling out names.

When Antonia heard hers, she nudged through the crowd, past the outstretched arms, and reached for the letter.

She hadn’t heard her husband’s voice in more than a year, since he’d left to labor in San Buenaventura, California, a place of good fortune, as its name in Spanish denoted. She and the children longed to hear his footsteps approach the bend in the dirt road near their adobe home and his voice sing, “¡Ya regresé, familia!”—“I’ve returned, family!” The words carried a melody as nostalgic as a Pedro Infante ranchera they’d heard streaming from the rare battery-powered radio inside a villager’s home.

*

“¡Números!” the foreman announced at dawn, rattling off numbers near the orange groves of Ventura. Don Luis listened, ready to answer  as if it were his name. More than a year into his bracero work stint, he longed for the sounds of home: crickets singing in a village lit by a full moon’s glow and family calling out “¡Papá!” upon his return.

“Forty-four!”

Don Luis slung the canvas sack around his shoulder. The foreman directed him to the orchard, where a crew of braceros gathered.

They propped 14- and 18-foot ladders against the trees. Don Luis dashed up the trees. He grabbed the fruit with one hand and clipped with the other. He climbed, clipped and dropped the fruit into the sack. On the way down, he poured in the oranges into a crate. He’d scrambled up and down like this for days in hopes of a hefty check.

At sundown the ladders came down and foremen counted the boxes. Workers climbed into trucks and headed back to camp.

In the evening, the men retired to their barracks and rows of cots lining a large hall. The scents of lemon, orange and sweat hung in the air. Don Luis lay on his cot. The men spoke in hushed tones.

The lights went out; the voices trailed off. In a corner, a ranchera sung by Las Hermanas Padilla, a duet, streamed from the speakers of a radio perched on a wooden crate, the song of a dove, a palomita mensajera, sending a message of love across the distance. Don Luis closed his eyes, a pile of letters by his cot. He’d answered each one, tucked a money order inside. “I’ll be home soon,” he’d written in the last one.

Days later, the foreman issued paychecks. Don Luis took his. One hundred dollars and over 500 boxes appeared next to his pick number. But nearly $25 had been deducted for board and meals: oatmeal and fruit, white bread bologna sandwiches, taquitos, spaghetti, beans and the occasional meat. He pocketed the check and ventured into town one last time.

On the main drag, he and his fellow braceros entered a store to cash their checks and make purchases. Some rushed to the men’s department for Stetson hats, watches and boots. Others scoured the women’s section for nylon stockings, cosmetics and jewelry.

He watched as the men flocked to aisles nearby. He followed them, passing phonographs, typewriters, treadle sewing machines. He stopped and stared at a boxy device on display.

He marveled at the brown leather handle, wooden paneling and shiny dials.

“¿Cuánto?” he asked the clerk for the price.

“Cincuenta.”

He fished for the check in his pocket to cash it and pay the $50.

He remembered his first shopping trip in Utah as a war-time bracero working on the railroad tracks. In town, nylons, sugar and new radios were scarce because of the war. English voices blared from shopkeepers’ radios, delivering news of the war along with the latest Andrews Sisters songs. But back in camp, he and his fellow braceros reveled in the sounds of home they heard in the double Rs that rolled from their tongues and the Mexican songs they’d discovered on a radio.

“I’ll take it,” Don Luis said to the clerk, after confirming that it was battery-powered. He carried it back to camp.

That night, he packed cloth, girls’ dresses, pants and shirts into cardboard boxes. He nestled the radio between the garments and closed the flaps, tying them down with twine. But the radio swayed and tumbled, so he unpacked it. He wrapped thick towels over it, placing it inside his suitcase instead.

The next day, workers filed into a single line outside camp, their numbers checked off a list by a labor contractor. They loaded cardboard boxes and green metal suitcases atop buses and boarded for the trip south.

Don Luis slumped into a seat beside a buddy, who told him his plans to set up a sewing shop for his family and fill it with customers from the village, the mother who needed to mend her children’s pants, the girls eager to see the new patterns and colors of cloth from El Norte, to be fitted around their waists.

“And what are you taking?” he asked.

Don Luis described the light-brown exterior, wooden cabinet and shiny dials of his prized possession.

“¡Qué chulada!” his buddy exclaimed. It was a beauty, Don Luis agreed.

The bus rumbled past strawberry, orange and lemon fields. As it neared the U.S-Mexico border, the braceros guarded their goods with a watchful eye. They got off, as boxes, knapsacks and suitcases were unloaded from the bus.

Don Luis and the men knew the routine. Stories abounded of the watch or hat that enticed a border guard. Some carried extra cash just in case, though the goods they carried were free of tariffs. Yet they clung to the cash in their pockets to pay for the additional bus or taxi fare home, the last leg of their journey.

Up ahead, a border guard inspected a bracero’s suitcase. Don Luis held his breath. Then he watched as a guard unknotted the twine on his cardboard box to sift through the pile of clothes.

“Muévanse” the guards said, prodding the men to move along.

Don Luis secured his cardboard box once again and took his belongings, the radio stored safely in his suitcase. He boarded the bus bound for Zacatecas.

It travelled for nearly a day, crossing one Mexican state after another. Braceros got off at each stop, including Don Luis’ buddy, who waved goodbye, hauling his sewing machine.

The bus finally slowed at a familiar spot. Don Luis gathered his boxes and suitcase and hailed the only taxi in town.

It weaved in and out of narrow paths and onto dirt roads leading to a remote village, its silence broken only by the “cri-cri-cri” of crickets singing in the countryside.

The driver braked. Don Luis unloaded the boxes and handed coins to the driver. He gripped the suitcase, leaving the boxes behind, to cross a drier than normal river bed. His shoes crunched on the dirt path. Around the bend, voices erupted near a pair of orange and lemon trees in the dirt courtyard.

“¡Papá!”

“Ya regresé, familia!”

His family huddled around him, the small glass bulb of a petroleum lamp lighting their faces.

The children trekked to the river to retrieve the boxes.

When he’d settled in, he opened the gifts. Swatches of cloth, clothes and a brown rectangular object spilled out.

His daughter traced with her finger the letters engraved on the radio: P-H-I-L-C-O. That night, the voices of Pedro Infante and Lola Beltrán flowed from the speakers, singing of love and loss.

At sunrise, Antonia and the girls patted tortillas as the radio blared songs and radio novelas. The radio followed them outdoors for “Tardes Rancheras,” a medley of afternoon tunes that reached the ears of neighboring villagers. They listened and lingered, wondering when their husbands, fathers or sons would return.

Don Luis plowed the fields with his yoke and oxen. The oldest children assisted with planting corn and beans despite the drought-plagued land. At the foot of a mesquite tree, he and Antonia collected top soil and walked back home. They poured the soft soil beside the orange and lemon trees and planted flowers. Rare raindrops trickled down a few days later.

But the call for brazos, arms, to work in El Norte continued to pour into the villages. It came in handbills posted in municipal offices, in newspapers, in chats among returning migrants. And in the announcements heard on  new battery-powered radios.

After several months at home, Don Luis gathered a satchel with a change of clothes and walked out onto the dirt path, his name secured on his village’s bracero list.

“Adiós, Papá,” his children said, wrapping their arms around him.

Antonia gripped his arms, then let go.

The taxi rumbled on as he waved and waved, long after his family faded from sight.

He’d board a bus and train en route to the bracero recruitment center in northern Mexico, 800 miles away. He didn’t know where his work stint would take him or the pick number he’d be assigned, but he’d memorize it too, as sure as his name.

*

In a remote Mexican village, a child tugged at the hem of a mother’s dress, asking for a father’s whereabouts.

“He’s in the North. He won’t be long,” she’d reply, as the radio played songs of longing and a tune about a palomita mensajera, a dove carrying a message of love.

Far away, Don Luis lay on a cot at night as the voice of singer José Alfredo Jiménez wafted through speakers from inside a California bracero camp, accompanied by memories of raindrops on blooming chrysanthemums and women’s hands patting tortillas at dawn, singing alongside a radio.

Story illustration

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.