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Not The Way I Once Believed

The airport in Havana is a collection of small, hot buildings, about a quarter mile apart and surrounded by large fields.

Our little group is standing outside the Jose Martí Airport, which is reserved for family visiting from the United States. We’re all trying hard not to cry as we joke about whether it’s possible to pack my sister and her kids into our suitcases for the flight home. She’s joked during this trip that being in Cuba as a tourist is the only way it’s tolerable.

Cubans aren’t allowed in the airport, so every time the sliding doors open the crowd huddled together in the suffocating humidity screams out their loved ones’ names as they catch a glimpse of them. Sweat trickles down my back as I try to fight the thought that I’m abandoning my family here. I look into my sister’s red eyes and the guilt chokes me, although her face is free of resentment.

Nioly is a product of my father’s first marriage and was only three years old in 1980 when he decided to come to the United States on the Mariel boatlift. As Cuban relationships last about as long as a good salsa song, my father left with his newest girlfriend – my mother. The opportunity to leave on that boat was announced days before it left, and Nioly’s mother was not prepared to leave everything. Luckily for me, my parents were. I was born in California three years later.

Growing up we would speak to her periodically over the phone, my father always promising to “get you out soon.” Her enthusiasm toward him never waned, despite his unfulfilled promises and inconsistent contact. Even as a child I marveled at her love for a man whom she really didn’t know. Her voice, always full of excitement to talk to her three “hermanitas,” confused me. She didn’t know us; why did she always say she loved us? Her attitude contrasted sharply with the suffering my parents insisted all Cubans endured. I couldn’t imagine it was as bad as wearing hand-me-downs on the first day of school or having to buy shoes at Payless when everyone else wore Nikes. I remember my confusion the day we received a large envelope from Nioly filled with photos she had taken modeling clothes my parents had sent her. I reasoned their claim that we were struggling financially was just an excuse not to buy me the things I wanted. I sulked that she got a new wardrobe while we could never afford to go to McDonald’s for dinner. I secretly blamed whatever gifts she might have received as the reason why our Christmas tree had nothing underneath it that year.

Nioly finally got the opportunity to meet us in December of 2012; thirty-three years after my father left the island. He was scheduled to have his third open heart surgery and it was possible he wouldn’t survive it. My older sister petitioned the Cuban government for a special visa to reunite them. To our surprise, they granted her permission to come. The condition was that she leave her children behind. The government is all too familiar with the United States’ Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot Policy, allowing any Cuban who sets foot on American soil to stay; they wanted to ensure her return. A 36-year-old daddy’s girl came running out of the terminal, all smiles, tears, and hugs as she hugged her Papi. She cupped our faces with the tenderness of a mother and smothered us with kisses, the Cuban way to greet family.

The airport alone held her in awe. The magic of a post 1950’s American car made her laugh with pleasure and she struggled to keep her eyes from staring out the window on the drive home. On the second day of her visit we took her to the grocery store. She stood frozen at the entrance, a mountain of red apples to her right as she began to cry.

“I can’t believe this,” she whispered. She placed her hand over her chest as her eyes scanned the aisles. “My kids have never seen an apple.”

She cried often as she took photos of everything to share with her kids; the snow at Big Bear, Mickey at Disneyland, our homes. “Now they’ll never stop pestering me to come live here.”

After feeling so immediately bonded to my sister, I wanted to meet the aunts, uncles, and cousins I was deprived of all my life. I had heard so many stories of my parents’ siblings. Now they all had children of their own and I wanted to connect with them. Having grown up in a predominantly Mexican community, we were “family-poor” by comparison, with only my father’s second cousin to celebrate holidays with. I visited Florida when I was nine and it was comforting to be among people who understand you the way only someone who shares your heritage can. In California, people are always shocked that a “gringa” can speak Spanish. In Florida I was instantly recognized as a Cuban and it was a relief not to have to explain what I was.

We planned our trip in only four months, grateful for the adjustments President Obama made to the travel restrictions. Our little family flew to Miami where we boarded another plane for a short flight to Havana. After the airplane’s air conditioning, the heat was a slap in the face as we exited directly onto the tarmac. Walking out of the airport was like stepping into a time machine; classic cars, centuries old buildings, and cobblestone streets. Everyone was so friendly and helpful, you almost wondered if you shouldn’t already know their names. My family was no exception. On our second night in Havana, we met my father’s brother, Julio. From the outside his apartment building looked like a remnant of the Chernobyl disaster. It was one of three huge structures covered in dead vines and black mold, with broken windows and an empty dirt courtyard. All suggested decades of abandonment. A sign hung from his window advertising that his home doubled as a hair salon. Julio’s wife had left her job as a registered nurse because she made more money cutting hair. A younger, blue-eyed version of my dad came out to greet us. I had lived thirty-two years without knowing this man. It was unfair. He insisted we return the following night for a proper dinner. We arrived to slow cooked pork, yucca with garlic mojo, grilled pork, bread rolls, rice with black beans, vegetables and homemade lemonade. My uncle watched me with satisfaction. To toast my husband’s Mexican heritage my uncle had tried to acquire Coronas to top off the meal, “I looked everywhere but couldn’t find any. That’s Cuba for you; you can only buy what the government says is available.” I still don’t know how he acquired everything we ate that night. Every grocery store I visited had more flies than food.

During a visit to the National Aquarium of Cuba, my sister wanted to stop in a local market, as each one held the possibility of an ingredient you may not have available in your area. She was elated to see that they had ground beef and wanted to buy it and keep it in the trunk while we visited the aquarium. My husband and I exchanged a look and I pointed out that it would go bad in the heat. She stared, confused by my lack of enthusiasm. “It’ll be fine. It’s beef!”

To her disappointment, we left without it.

The aquarium looked as if it had been abandoned for years. If not for the sounds of children it would have been spooky. Peeling paint, dirty water, and crumbling enclosures showed the years of neglect it had endured. Upon walking in, we watched a man lift a shark right out of the cloudy water by a fin. No one, including the shark, seemed to care. There was a curious smell at every exhibit and I never saw an employee tending to the sea life. My niece and nephew were elated to be there and ran around excitedly, pointing out the crabs and fish to my sister. My niece was especially taken with the giant tortoises. They were housed in the back of the park in a large, peeling, concrete bowl. Less than a foot of the aquarium’s back wall remained. I kept a firm grasp on my son’s hand to keep him from falling into the open ocean behind us. Later, as people filed in to see the dolphin show, some children came up to the pool and began to take turns stroking their scarred skin. I watched the attendant walk over and expected to hear the obligatory, “don’t touch the dolphins.” Instead she revealed that the previous week some tourists had gotten violently ill after contact with them.

“Mama, look at how big and beautiful they are!” My sister, her arms folded over her chest, didn’t bother to look.

“This is what Cuba presents as the national aquarium, it’s an embarrassment.”

As my niece protested that she was having a great time, Nioly muttered that it was only because the poor thing hadn’t seen Sea World.

When it came time to meet my mother’s family, I could not contain my excitement. During my childhood I had created a mental image of their neighborhood. While my mother told me stories, I would picture it all playing out in my head like a movie. Now I would walk those streets. I made sure to film the drive over so that my parents could take a stroll through the past when I returned.

The street where mother grew up still held all but one of her siblings. They gathered outside my aunt Haydee’s house, the apartment unable to house us all. A plate of papaya, mamay, and pineapple sprinkled with sugar was passed around. My aunt just stared at me and held me, telling me how much I looked like my mom. My grandmother died tragically when my mom was only 17. Being the oldest, my mother had been a mom to her six siblings years before having children of her own.

One of my cousins who dreams of becoming a fashion designer showed me her sketchbook and offered me one of her prized drawings. There was a rushed feeling to our conversations as we all tried to say what we felt was important. My uncle Pepe took us on a short drive around my parent’s old neighborhood, telling us stories and pointing out landmarks. The buildings, although gorgeous with history, were crumbling. Piles of broken concrete lay on sidewalks all over Havana, the remnants of a collapsed roof or wall. Nioly told us of a birthday party for her son’s classmate to which she had arrived late. It ended up being a blessing in disguise, as the roof of the building had caved in on the birthday boy, killing him, just before she got there. My uncle stopped at a roadside stand and insisted on buying us sodas and some crackers for my son. I tried to give him money but he waved me away explaining that it was too hot for us and we needed a cool beverage. I later expressed to him how much I wanted to be taking them all home with me, and he chuckled softly before saying, “maybe one day,” as if talking to a child who has just said she dreams of going to the moon.

My husband and I began to regret all the souvenirs we had purchased for family back home. They were meaningless trinkets; money that could have been better spent improving the quality of life for my new family. The living conditions were depressing, yet they seemed not to notice. Nioly, who had seen the excess of the United States, was the only one whose smile seemed tired and sad.

Two nights before we were scheduled to leave my mother’s family crammed into my uncle’s newly acquired 1957 Plymouth. They brought along my Tia Orama who had been hospitalized the day I visited. She handed me two letters. One was for my mother, the other for her son who is now in California. Before leaving that night my Tia Haydee gave me her abanico, a little hand-held fan Cubans carry to combat the humidity. It’s torn and the lace is fraying, but I love it. “So that you won’t forget me,” she had said. I snapped a picture of my cousins giving the car a push start when they left. Arms waving out of the windows, and faces beaming, they drove away.

The Plymouth just managed to get them home before one of its tires deflated.

The entire week my sister Nioly had hosted my little family, waking up early every morning and sending my niece to announce that breakfast was ready: eggs, café con leche, and Cuban bread smeared with butter. Her boyfriend had chauffeured us around the city in an old Russian car. Floral curtains from somebody’s grandmother covered the seats where there should have been safety belts. My son had enjoyed riding without a car seat more than I anticipated.

“Look mama I can stick my head out the window!”

I grew to love the smell of diesel exhaust, which emanated from every vehicle that still had life left in it, and while the red welts on my thighs showed that I had not yet built up a resistance to the Cuban sun, my body acclimated well to the heat that enveloped this island.

Now at the airport, I am returning to the life that Nioly craves more for her two children than herself. Her desperation to bring them to the United States has spilled over onto them. They ask multiple times what they have to do to come. It is a hard question to answer. I realize the amount of money we spent to visit was almost enough to bring both my niece and nephew out. After a beautiful but emotional week, I feel conflicted about returning to life in Los Angeles.

I give Nioly one more kiss and she sternly tells me to hurry and get inside so that I don’t miss my flight. Inside, the woman who checks my tickets is unfazed by my tears. Waiting for the plane to take off, I flip through the magazine provided. I pause on an ad for a $300 lamp claiming it can make your house a home. I think of the conversation Nioly and I had where she told me that the wardrobe which prompted a fashion show years ago had provided enough money for her and her mother to eat for over a month. Seeing my confusion, she explained that my mother had sewn money into every hem and pocket as insurance that those who inspect care packages wouldn’t steal it.

I watch Cuba shrink from lush greenery into a tiny speck and I realize that yes, I have always been poor, but not in the way I once believed.

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Entrepreneur

I knew something was wrong before we left. Eduardo and I were planning a Vegas getaway. Alex would remain at home. I told him before I left, “I don’t know what you are up to… but you are up to something, and I will find out!” At one time, I had trusted Alex to stay home, do the chores, and take care of the dog. I still wanted to trust him, but I couldn’t. This weekend away was important to me. I made it all right knowing that his Tío Oscar and his cousins were next door.

It was winter in Vegas and our first time away as a couple. But that Saturday night in our hotel room, I don’t know if I was dreaming or what, but suddenly I sat up and realized that something else was stolen.

A week before, looking for a particular ring to wear, I discovered that it and other pieces were was missing. That “something else” happened to be two pairs of earrings; a pair my sister had given me one Christmas. That was my epiphany in Vegas. I asked Alex about the jewelry. He had a couple of lady friends over, and accused them of taking the rings.

“How dare they!” he said.

“What were they doing in my room?”

“We were just hanging out.”

“Hanging out! You guys were probably getting high!”

Now in that room in Las Vegas, I realized that two pairs of earrings were also gone.

This had been our interaction of late. Me accusing Alex of getting high. Him denying it. After I discovered the ring was missing, we played the part and went to one of the girl’s houses. The mom actually let us in and Alex sat next to me pretending to be concerned for this young lady who was up to no good and who probably stole my jewelry. I wanted to believe him and thought I would get it back. It didn’t happen, and I can only suspect who stole it and pawned it for cash. I was under the impression it was for the pot that Alex smoked on occasion, but recently I noticed erratic behavior. Paranoia. Staying up all night. Sleeping during the day. He had never taken anything from me without my permission. So when I noticed the twenty-dollar bill missing from my wallet, I called him out on it. He admitted taking it, promising it would never happen again. And then the jewelry incident. I suspected he was using meth. That may be when he became, in his own words, “entrepreneurial.”

Alex was always an intelligent young man. My only son. Son of a teacher. Up until ninth grade he was a great student. High school came with disappointment; his and mine. He tried out for football and was never played. He played saxophone in middle school but didn’t want to play in the high school band. It was band or football and then it became neither. He had too much time on his hands. He got social. New friends. New activities. He started smoking weed.

Alex did high school the way Alex did high school. He aced his exams, but most teachers wanted to see homework. He didn’t do it. He did well if he liked the teacher. If he didn’t like the teacher, he gave him/her a hard time. He was voted “Class Clown” in the yearbook with a lot of units short of graduating. The summer before his senior year, I asked him if he wanted to get his GED, he said, “No.” He said he wanted to make up the credits. It didn’t happen. After the school year ended, I dragged him to the adult center. He took the GED exam and passed.

He took to learning the guitar and started playing in a punk metal band. I called it his “angry-young-man music.” All I wanted was for him to be happy. I was happy that he was expressing himself in a positive way, or so I thought. His meth use increased. He went to rehab and enrolled at Citrus College.

My promise to him was that as long as he was enrolled as a full-time student, he wouldn’t have to work. But as soon as his units dropped, he would need to get a job. That was a promise my parents made to me; go to school or get a job. I thought I was providing him the same opportunity under different circumstances.

I kept my promise. He began taking music classes, but withdrawing from meth left him prone to anxiety attacks; music and his guitar kept him sane.

Arriving home from Vegas the next night, we found the front door unlocked. The house was a mess. It felt cold, as if the doors and windows had been left open all night. Alex wasn’t there. I looked around like a dog sniffing out its territory. I started looking for something — unsure of what it was. I went to my jewelry box. Everything seemed in order. I went to Alex’s room; everything looked the same. I looked in the closet and started lifting things out of the way – that’s when I discovered it. I had never seen this quantity. It was about 18 inches long and 12 inches wide, sealed in plastic. Marijuana. I pulled the package out and heard Alex come through the door.

“Is this what you have been up to? Is this how you’ve been earning money?”

He was surprised that I found it.

“Well, you wanted me to get a job.”

“A real job!”

“I am!”

“You need to return it! I don’t want it here!”

“I can’t return it! I have to pay for it.”

“How much?”

“$2,500.”

“Well, how the hell are you gonna do that?”

“Mom, I can’t return it. I gotta give them the money. If I don’t sell it they’re gonna come after me.”

This was new to me. I was shocked but not too surprised. Too many headlights in the driveway at night. Too many of his walks out the door. Too many phone calls. I simply chose not to see it.

I managed to borrow the money, and I gave it to Alex. He swore he would pay me back. I drove him to a house not too far from ours. I parked the car around the corner in the shadows of a large tree. He got out and I waited. It was late, and the whole time I was praying like a mother prays, making deals with God: “Lord, keep my son safe and out of harm’s way.” In the rearview mirror, I finally saw him coming around the corner. I breathed a sigh of relief. He got in the car, and we drove home. I think He heard my prayers that night.

Alex ended up giving the weed to one of his friends to sell. At this point, I didn’t care what happened to it. I just wanted it gone. Even though he swore he would pay me back, he didn’t. Maybe I was reckless with money. It didn’t matter. I was relieved that it was over. The money was never the point, though maybe that was a mistake. I didn’t hold him accountable.

I wanted to be the Super Single Mom. I wanted to prove that I could raise my son on my own. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to put my foot down. I was inconsistent. I now believe there comes a time when a child needs that tough love, and I couldn’t give that to him.

Eduardo and I are still together, celebrating nine years of marriage. Wedded bliss it is not, but we continue to work together and support one another in being a family, enjoying life, and making the most of the gifts given us.

Alex battles addiction, but his days as an entrepreneur are long over. He continues to compose, perform and play his guitar. At 28, he will graduate in June with a Bachelor of Arts in Music with an emphasis in education from Cal Poly Pomona. He’s going to teach music to high school students.

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341

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, sir!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alice

“Where are we going? I’ve never been down this way before…”

“When you’re in class do you understand what’s going on?”

“Yes. … When the teacher asks a question I’m usually the first one with my hand up.”

“Yeah – but do you really understand what’s happening? I’m just wondering if you’re slow… because right now you don’t seem to understand what’s going on. We are going down the 15. The 15 is another way to San Diego.”

Mortified and hurt I sat quietly. I didn’t know that Temecula was not along the 5.

The girl intent on making me feel like a fool was my best friend Alice.

Alice and I became friends at a time when my heart was aching and raw. My long-time boyfriend had just left me. Every waking moment was like being lost in a cold, isolated tundra. Tears were always waiting behind my eyes. Weekdays were filled with the business of school and work, but I couldn’t bear weekends alone.

Alice was in the same situation. We were drawn together in our love losses and in our quest for new lives and happiness. Every weekend we had plans. We talked, we texted, we messaged, all the things people do to communicate through their electronic leashes. Every weekend were lunches, dinners, 5ks, baseball games, or on wilder whims San Diego or Las Vegas. We were two young single gals with nothing to lose. Every weekend whatever she proposed I embraced. I wanted to be a friend she wanted to have. I went from one codependent relationship to another.

This particular weekend we were on a pilgrimage to see the Dodgers take on the Padres – but first we were stopping to do a little tasting.

At winery after winery, we sampled cheese and made small talk. But when we decided to have lunch she was annoyed. “There’s nothing you can eat,” she said bitterly.

At this point I had been a vegetarian for roughly a month and I had no inclination to stop. Before my change to the veg life I was the biggest omnivore of them all. My favorite meal was steak (medium rare) and eggs. I lived for Vienna hot dogs, and Spam was always in my cupboard. Part of what Alice and I bonded over was all the delicious things we ate in the past and all the wonderful things we would eat in the future. Ordering meat was over now. Being vegetarian means reading the menu more carefully, and maybe asking the waiter to clarify an ingredient or two.

After this wine excursion we traveled on to our room in San Diego proper. We checked in, dropped our bags, and made haste to Petco Park. We arrived at the stadium after the National Anthem. Then Alice realized she forgot her sweater. We grumpily speed-walked to the hotel and back. After we settled in, none of the stadium food was to her liking. We made no conversation between innings. I would have had more fun if I had listened to the whole thing on the radio at home. After the game, we stopped at a restaurant before trekking back to the room. After I ordered the soup, she said, “See! You can’t eat anything!”

Later, in the quiet of the room I shared with someone I had to this point thought of as my best friend – the day sunk in. I felt like I was on vacation with my mom.

The next morning before getting on the road, we needed gas.

“Here, use my GPS to find a gas station.”

The device showed a station two blocks away. As she was filling up she was angry that the gas station I “chose” was so expensive.

The ride home used to be the best part of the trip. We would stop for one last San Diego dessert before getting on the freeway. I would wildly sing along to ABBA and Cher; we would gossip and reminisce as we cruised along the beautiful 5.

Today: Silence. Two and a half hours of crushing, judgmental silence. When we arrived at my house I grabbed my things and we said “bye.” No cheery wave before I headed inside. No waiting to make sure I had my house key.

How do you say “I don’t want to be friends any more?”

We quietly drifted apart. We avoided each other on social media. I had no intention of running after her. When my ex-boyfriend left me I begged him to stay; he was making a mistake; we needed to be together. I was alone and clung to Alice because alone was too cold. Finally, after time journaling and reading relationship books, I felt ready to be who I am.

Years have passed since she drove away from my mom’s house leaving me to fumble with my luggage and souvenir wine glasses. I don’t live at mom’s house anymore. I live with a nice fellow, and our life is quiet and happy.

Every six months or so she reaches out to me. Our attempts to “catch up” usually consist of her slighting me and my wondering why I even bothered.

Like having drinks with your high school guidance counselor.

I know she reaches out because she cares; I let her reach out because I care.

I’m not sad that we aren’t as close as we used to be; I’m just glad that there was a time that we were.

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Pórtate Bien

The acceptance letters arrived from five California universities.

My mother beamed but I dared not share the news with my father.

“You have big dreams,” he would say. “It’s not good to dream big because the disappointment in not achieving those aspirations is going to get the best of you. And what good does a college degree bring to a woman? You will marry – fill your house with children and then what? No college degree needed for that.”

I signed my acceptance letter with my mother’s blessing. I left for college without my father’s consent.

It was Move-In Day, one week before the Fall Quarter commenced. My mother borrowed the neighbor’s Mustang and drove me to the University of California at Riverside. Freshman and returning students unloaded their belongings at the horseshoe-curb in front of the Aberdeen-Inverness Dormitories. Students were accompanied by their families – setting up their rooms, meeting their roommates, touring the campus, buying textbooks and UCR apparel.

My mother had scrounged money to purchase the basics for living in a dorm and getting me through until my scholarship and financial aid came in– a robe, a desk-lamp, an electric typewriter and two full flat sheets.

All of the designated visitor spots were taken so my mother parked on a side street in a red zone, as my 14-year-old sister and I carried my possessions to the all-female dorm. The last thing she needed was a parking infraction and she wanted to make good on her word to Esther, the neighbor, that she would return the car within three hours. My mother came up to my room, met my roommate from Palm Springs, blessed me with the sign of the cross from my forehead to chin, ear to ear and a kiss on the cheek and whispered in my ear, “Pórtate bien,” and they left.

That morning, my father had gone to work without a word.

He was born in 1940 to Dolores González and Salvador Castañeda – the fifth of twelve children, raised in a conservative Catholic home in the small town of Tlaltenango in the north-Central Mexican state of Zacatecas; the only one of his brothers to learn his father’s whitesmith trade. As a tin craftsman, he laid a galvanized tin plate on a steal anvil to flatten it and turn and roll the edges with a hammer; with a soldering iron and a fire pot, he soldered the pieces together to create or repair items of everyday use – milk churns, jugs and pails, liter measuring receptacles, molinillos, rain gutters, spinning tops and meticulous lamps from Mexico’s colonial period still in favor by the town folk. His brothers tended the cattle and took it for pasture in the near-by sierra. His sisters washed clothes in the neighboring river, milled the nixtamal for the tortillas, fetched water from the patio well and prepared the daily meals. As the first son, he was doted upon by his parents and his older sisters, who ensured that his clothes were clean and pressed; his meals prepared and served hot when he sat at the table.

As a teenager, he resented being obliged to wear leather huaraches and jean overalls as his father did. When his oldest sister married and migrated to California, she would send him yards of English cashmere so that the local tailor could fashion him a suit. His father did not approve of his choice of clothing, nor of his friends – the children of the “high class.” His friends had no religious principles, his father would say, and they were accustomed to playing out in the street like slackers with no idea of what it was like to work and contribute to a family’s subsistence.

At the family’s small general store where they sold the tin-ware crafted by him and his dad, my father and his siblings took turns managing the store. His father did not think it necessary to pay them for their work – it was their family duty. His sisters accused him of taking money from the store coffers; they searched his pockets and removed his shoes. They never found the cash he rolled into his sleeves. Years later, he claimed to have taken what he had earned – enough to go to the cinema, buy something to eat and hang out with his buddies in the Jardin.

During the Sunday sermons, the priest prohibited the town folk from viewing films he deemed sinful. My grandfather warned his children to stay away from the tainted movies. My father felt the priest aimed to control, requiring that his parents give ten percent of their harvest to the church and discouraging them from reading books except the Bible. As a boy, my father had been obligated by his father to serve as an acolyte. After the church services, he was required to serve the priests wine at the supper table laid with the prime cuts of meat and books his family was denied. One night, he went anyway to the movie house to see his favorite actress, Elsa Aguirre; halfway through the film, he felt a rap to the head, and a tight grip on his right forearm pulling him up from the chair. In the darkness, a stream of speckled light traveled from the projector to the screen. His father was impervious to the curses the audience shot his way. He jerked his son to the exit, gave him a beating when they arrived home, then made him kneel on pebbles and face the stone wall with arms extended while carrying a rock on each hand.

Although my father had a fifth grade education, he was fascinated by history. He listened to the older folks who gathered in the town square to talk politics and history.

In 1959, at age 19, much to his parents’ dismay, he made the trek to El Norte alone. The Bracero Program contracted him to work in the tomato fields in Petaluma, California. He left when the contracted company did not pay him what they had guaranteed. He slated the foreman about the exploitation of the field hand. In Livingston, he found work with another farmer who paid him fairly. Yet fieldwork was not why he had left Tlaltenango. He traded the fields for restaurants in San Francisco and Santa Rosa where he bussed tables and washed dishes.

By 1967, he was living in Los Angeles with his two younger brothers. Two years after, he married my mother and I was born. He worked the night shift at a high-technology circuit board manufacturing plant in Culver City. It was a union job that paid triple the minimum wage and provided health benefits for the family. My mother stayed home tending to their growing family. We lived in Boyle Heights at Wyvernwood – a garden apartment complex constructed in the late 1930s for middle income workers.

Always, though, returning home was his dream. When his father died, he inherited a plot of land across the street from his family home. On the parcel, he built an American-style, two-story house. He longed to live in it permanently one day and consume himself in his tin craft.

Growing up, I didn’t own many books but I was never without a story. My father was a natural storyteller – a master of exaggeration. As I listened to his stories, I was entranced like a child is, as the magician pulls the rainbow colored scarves from the black top hat. The family stories and the history he enlivened were the core of my pop’s soul. In my teenage years, my interest waned. No longer did I want to hear that the Mexican General Santa Anna was a traitor to México and that the Southwest was stolen by President Polk by provoking Mexicans into war when he moved U.S. troops to the Río Bravo. His knowledge was neither supported by my high school textbooks or my teachers. How could a man with a 5th-grade education be right about history? How could the teachers be wrong?

“Lies – that’s what your teachers are feeding you. Utter lies,” my father would say.

UCR was far enough to get away from home and close enough to return. Its location made housing affordable with the limited income earned by my work-study job, student loans, state grants and privately funded scholarship. Initially, I returned on weekends, catching a ride with fellow students. My father worked the night shift and occasionally the graveyard shift so I never saw him when I arrived on Fridays. On Saturday, we hardly uttered a word to each other – I spent the day studying and he spent the day viewing black-and-white Pedro Infante films or swaying his body side to side as the boxers on the TV screen attempted to land their punches – fascinations that he once enjoyed with me by his side. Sunday came – I returned to UCR. Soon, I wasn’t going home as often. I phoned and wrote letters, instead. The days I didn’t call, my mother would phone me and if she missed me she would leave a recorded message.

Pórtate bien.”

As a freshman, I enrolled in a Chicano History course as suggested by my advisor. I was short a class and this one fit into my schedule. It was the first time I had heard the term Chicano used interchangeably with Mexican-American. The lectures and literature tapped into facts that I had disengaged from – facts that my father defended. As I continued taking courses in Chicano Studies a connection to my father’s life story awakened.

In my letters and my phone conversations I shared my experiences and my learning with them. My father’s eyes glistened and he would nod in agreement, my sister said, when he listened to her read the letters aloud or overhear the telephone conversation I had with my mom.

The few times I went home on the weekends, his story was our connection. He would ask me to tell him more about the East L.A. Blowouts, the Bath Riots and the mass deportations of Mexican-Americans in the 1930s. He was attentive to what I was book-learning; smirking as if I was validating all he knew to be true.

At the bookstore, while in line to pay for my books, one day, I contemplated a blue sweatshirt that sported UC Riverside Dad in yellow letters across the chest.

Graduation day came in June 1991. The night before the commencement ceremony, my family arrived accompanied by my godparents, and their children. The floor of my studio apartment was their shelter for the night. My father had invited them to witness as I walked across the stage to become the first college graduate of the family.

A year before I graduated from UCR, the company my father worked for closed. He became unemployed. The job prospects were anemic. The rejections were demoralizing. Yet, he continued on his feet; driving nightly through the alleys collecting cardboard boxes from the factory trash bins, in his brown Ford truck. By day, he sold the cardboard by the ton at the local recycling center. Yet he now rejected the thought of me quitting school to help the family financially.

Years later, my aunts told me of his pride when he spoke of my audacity to contravene the life he’d expected me to live. At the moment of my decision to obtain a college education, he had thought, I would grow distant and squander the sacrifices he had made for himself and for his family.

But during my senior year, on an occasional Friday night, he would pick me up from school wearing his UCR Dad sweatshirt, and he would take me home.

Photo Illustration

Savannah St.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No one even likes her.”

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

“But Mom … .”

“Invite her to watch the movie.”

“Fine!”

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

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

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

“No.”

“You should be ashamed of yourself.”

I smiled, grabbed my receipt and walked away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Illustration

The Rabbit Died

Two months into my senior year of high school “the rabbit died.” I had never heard that expression before, but when the doctor returned to the examination room, and used the phrase, I realized I was pregnant. I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell my family, particularly my grandmother, who was my legal guardian. My second thought was of school. I was looking forward to my senior year – there was the homecoming dance, the Sadie Hawkins dance and the prom.

Like many schools in the ‘70s, Scott High tracked students. Counselors offered some kids a vocational path, while others were given classes to help them get into a college or university. My grades, and the fact that I had passed the Scholastic Aptitude Test, put me on the college track. Suddenly, I was faced with how to finish my high school education; college seemed off the table entirely.

I didn’t want to drop out, although it was common for girls to do so at the time. The sexual revolution was just beginning, but it didn’t yet apply to teenagers. School districts were slow to change their policies regarding expectant students.

As recently as the 1960s, pregnancy was grounds for expulsion in most public and private schools. When I became pregnant, there was no automatic dismissal from my school, but a pregnant teen attending classes was still someone who drew whispers. Many times, girls would attend school only during the early months of their pregnancy. Some would return to school after their babies were born to make up the lost credits; others never went back.

I met with my guidance counselor to see if I had options other than dropping out or going through the hallways with “fast girl” tacked to my back. After dropping me from the marching band, the counselor informed me that I could stay. I thought about the girls who braved the stares and murmurs of students and teachers and continued classes throughout their pregnancy. I didn’t want to be one of them. My counselor looked at me sympathetically. After a pause, she told me about a program that had been in existence for a short while at the YWCA. It was run in part by the Toledo Public Schools and the Florence Crittenton Home. The counselor said I could finish my classes through their program and return to my home school once I delivered my baby. The institution had a principal, a dozen teachers, a nurse and a counselor, and offered classes toward a high school diploma. Also, there was vocational training in business, food services, homemaking and childcare. Every girl was expected to participate in group sessions where topics spanned everything from personal hygiene to child development.

So one bitter January morning I stepped off the bus in front of the Y to start my alternative education. I was a 17-year-old newlywed of three weeks and I was four months pregnant. I was told to report directly to my English class, which met on the second floor. I knew this Y very well. As an elementary school student, I had taken swim classes there on Saturday mornings, and spent many hours after class playing board games and caroms. Now, as I moved through the building, the familiar scent of chlorine hung in the hallways, but the atmosphere of playtime was gone. The classrooms consisted of rows of wide tables and chairs or comfortable upholstered couches and armchairs. There were no student desks that could confine growing bellies. When I walked into the English class, I saw faces that looked like mine – forlorn and bewildered. The class of about 20 girls seemed to have an equal number of African American and white students. I recognized one of the girls from my home school.

At lunch, I met some of the girls. Like most school cafeterias, the white students tended to eat together and the black students mostly sat with other African-Americans. I struck up a conversation with the girl from my home school. Pat and I had not been friends before. She dressed in tight skirts and she plastered make-up on her face and had a reputation for not backing down from fights. I was pretty much her opposite and yet, there we both sat in our cheap, cotton maternity tops.

The girls I ate lunch with were from schools throughout the city and a few were from neighboring suburbs. They told me that most of the white girls were from out of town; some even lived outside of Ohio.

“They come here to hide their pregnancy,” one girl explained, nodding in their direction. “Then they go on back home like they didn’t have no baby.”

That was almost unheard of in the black community. When a teenager got pregnant, she generally kept the baby. Of course, “big mama” or an aunt or older sister might actually raise the child, but the baby remained in the family. It wasn’t that a teenage pregnancy was a welcomed event in a black household; it was more a matter of not having the financial means to send a girl away. I looked at my Caucasian counterparts and wondered, “How can you carry a baby for nine months and then give it up?”

Every girl enrolled had to give at least one period a day to the nursery. Sometimes girls who had given birth decided not to return to their home school right away, and instead, finished their studies at the Y where their babies would be taken care of at no charge. Also, there was the occasional girl who had a child in the nursery and another on the way. There were babies everywhere in the nursery – from tiny newborns to toddlers, along with playpens, changing tables and bouncers. The floor was a traffic jam of infants crawling or toddling. Throughout the room were girls sitting in rocking chairs comforting fussy ones, while others played with the infants on the floor. There were adults in the room who also tended to the babies, but mostly they provided oversight. Some of the girls were as young as 12 or 13. The air was a serenade of cooing and laughter between the infants and students. Every girl was providing some type of attention to a baby – feeding, changing, burping or rocking. On the other side of a glass wall, sleeping babies lay in cribs.

I looked forward to taking care of the babies, even the ones who could be challenging. I brushed kisses across their soft heads and pretended to chomp on their toes when I changed diapers. I didn’t know whether I was having a boy or a girl. In the nursery, there was no black or white. Each girl cared for any infant who needed attention. It was under those circumstances that I got to know some of the out-of-town girls and learned their stories.

I was sitting and rocking a baby boy, enjoying the whiff of baby powder each time I patted his back, when the girl in the next rocker spoke to me.

“He’s a sweet one, I had him yesterday,” she said. Mary had ruddy cheeks and short, blonde hair. Her perfectly round middle was about the size of a soccer ball.

“Un huh, he is,” I answered. “He really likes to be held.”

We talked. Her family had a farm in Indiana. Her parents sent her here because they didn’t want anyone to know she was pregnant.

“They said I can’t come back home unless I give up my baby, so I’m not going to keep it,” she said.

I asked her if she wanted to give her baby up for adoption and she said that it was the best thing to do because she needed to finish school. I could hear the anger in her voice and I saw the sadness on her face. Mary was only 14 years old, so I guess she really didn’t have a choice. I watched her as she placed a sleeping infant in a crib. She was caring for babies, but she wouldn’t get to keep her own.

Over time, I learned that the girls who stayed at the home were expected to sign adoption papers soon after their babies were born. Parents paid for room and board and medical care for the girl with the understanding that their daughters would return home childless. Most girls said their pregnancy was a secret. Their families said they were taking care of a sick relative, or studying at a private, out-of-state academy or at a reform school.

One of the girls who lived at the home said her parents told everyone she was away at an exclusive girls’ school, so it would have raised questions for her to return in the middle of a semester. She had given birth to a girl, but she never got to see the baby. Her voice wavered like she was about to cry, but she didn’t. Instead, we joked about how she might have to learn Latin to prove she was at some fancy girls’ school.

I was in the nursery one day when there were just a few babies. It was blustery outside and many of the local girls had not come to school. We sat boasting about the clothes we were going to buy once we “dropped this baby weight.” Bell-bottoms, maxi-dresses and mini-skirts were in style and it felt good to fantasize about dressing fashionably again.

“I’m gon’ look better than all of y’all!” Pat said. She got up and walked an imaginary runway to show off her outfit. “I’ma get me a halter top that ties right here,” making an invisible knot between her breasts, “and some bell bottoms that fit right here. And, I’ma show off my flat belly.”

Pat left the nursery to go to the ladies room. Between the frequent urges to urinate and the morning sickness, someone was always rushing out of a room. This time, we heard the groans of Pat vomiting. They were deep, gravelly bellows that rushed into the nursery and jolted us back from the revelry of our wardrobe fantasies. When she did not return, we assumed she had gone to the nurse’s office. The next day, a teacher told us that Pat had miscarried the evening before. All of us, at one point or another, wished we weren’t pregnant, but the loss of someone’s baby was always sad.

The teachers in the Florence Crittenton Program understood us. It was not unusual for a class discussion to evolve into a pregnancy or a parenting matter. We were all just frightened kids dealing with an adult predicament. Many of the stories shared among the girls were far more painful than mine. I endured the stigma of being a pregnant teenager and I accepted that my carelessness caused me to miss a normal senior year of high school.

Photo Illustration

Heart of Roberto

The rain came down hard and fast on the September morning my family held the funeral mass at St. Mary’s in Whittier for my uncle Bobby.

Robert Daniel Quintero preferred to be called “Roberto” in his last years. We placed his urn, along with a potted cactus (to represent his beloved Tucson) and his framed portrait on a table in front of the altar. His weathered, handsome face grinned back at us. I had taken the photograph two years before; his long hair was pulled back, mustache and beard nicely trimmed.

Later that afternoon we brought his ashes to the Riverside National Cemetery. It drizzled until the sun broke through the clouds as his military honors ceremony concluded. As I watched my Dad search the grassy area for bullet casings that had fallen from the gun salute, it occurred to me that rain can be cleansing and also revealing. I realized that the unexpected passing of my uncle, though shocking and sad, was an end with which he was probably content. He was finally at peace.

A month before, Roberto would have been 65 years old. My family and I had sung “Happy Birthday” on his voicemail and texted messages when he did not pick up. My sister worried when he did not reply.

“He’s probably out with his veteran friends,” I said, “somewhere in Tucson where there is no cell reception.” I figured he was out hiking or performing a Native American ceremony.

The next day my Mom was concerned; she wanted to call the authorities and asked for a home check. A half hour later, my Dad’s cell phone rang. It was the Tucson police; they had entered my uncle’s apartment and had found him inside, deceased.

* *

When I was growing up, my uncle Bobby was a mystery to me. I rarely saw him. I didn’t understand why relatives whispered his name; I often heard my grandmother, Angelina, praying for him. I had the sense that he had no permanent residence, and that he traveled a lot. And yet I felt so connected to him.

One summer morning when I was 11 years old, I told my Mom I had a dream about Bobby.

“Well,” she told me, “today is your uncle’s birthday.”

In my young mind, my uncle was an “adventurer,” a “man of the world.” I was so proud of the Japanese doll that he had given to me. It was always exciting to receive a letter from him postmarked from some far off place; I kept them all in a special box. When he did show up for a visit, I was enthralled. Not until much later did I understand that his sporadic appearances were a sign of deeper problems.

Roberto grew up in East Los Angeles, the third child of four children. My dad Joe is first, second my aunt Herlinda, my uncle Adrian the youngest. My grandfather, Joe Sr., hailed from Yuma, Arizona, and was part Yaqui Indian. He was a hard worker and made good money as a brick mason, but often hid his earnings from my grandmother. He liked to drink and run around with other women. Sometimes he did not come home for days. When he did come home, he was often drunk, argued, shouted and beat his wife and oldest sons.

My grandmother Angelina did her best to protect and provide for her children. She made sacrifices to send them to Catholic school, while also instilling a respect for our Mexican-Indian roots. She was a curandera (medicine woman) and practiced healing with herbs and special prayers. But even my grandmother had her moments.

Wherever my grandfather was, she would stand at the back door and throw curses in that direction. He would leave her black and blue, but then she would put the children on the phone and have them beg him to come home. When my dad was 16, he pulled a kitchen knife on my grandfather and threatened to stab him if he did not stop hurting my grandmother. My grandfather eventually left my grandmother, started another family and moved back to Yuma.

High school proved a challenge for my uncle. He already had a problem with alcohol. He was constantly in trouble at school and at home. His antics culminated with “borrowing” his sister’s car – without permission or a driver’s license – and wrecking it. Even my grandmother, who always made excuses for him, was upset. Having no interest in attending college, and wanting to get away from home and East L.A., my uncle entered the U.S. Army after graduation in 1968, in the middle of the Vietnam War. He was stationed in Japan.

When Roberto filed for some veteran’s benefits in 2013, I helped him write his four-page personal statement. That was when I learned of the psychological and physical trauma he had experienced during his Army years.

Not only was he constantly taunted as “The Boy from East L.A.,” he was beaten up for “being Mexican” by other soldiers at boot camp (where he was left for dead) and also while stationed in Japan (where he blamed “Japanese gangs” rather than deal with repercussions from turning in fellow soldiers). The head, neck and back injuries that he suffered from those assaults plagued him for the rest of his life.

Though he never set foot in Vietnam, my uncle’s assignment in Japan was to escort soldiers on leave from the action. He listened to their harrowing combat stories; he was there when they woke up screaming from nightmares and when they suffered flashbacks. Years later he himself was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After the Army, my uncle had trouble transitioning to civilian life. Twice my Dad bailed him out for possession of marijuana. He grew out his hair and took on the ‘70s hippie look. When his girlfriend Camille became pregnant, my grandmother hoped he would settle down, but they eventually parted.

My grandmother wanted him to stay in Los Angeles, but Roberto moved around a lot. He took low-key jobs (bookkeeper, personal assistant) in remote California towns. He tried living in the Midwest, but didn’t like it. He went to Paris and worked “under the table” until his visa expired. He was never able to stay employed for long. After he left the Army, my uncle estimated that in 37 years he had held over 100 positions in 14 different career fields.

With no steady income, Roberto was prone to periods of homelessness and wandering alone. He was bad about keeping in touch. At one point my Dad figured he was dead. Bobby’s anxiety became such that he carried as many as three knives for protection. He would remain bedridden for days without picking up his mail, much less showering. He did see psychiatrists and was prescribed medications, but some left him vomiting and feeling like a guinea pig.

“During those times, rational thought was drowned-out by the racket going on in my brain,” he told me.

In 2005, my uncle found himself in a little town called Oracle, Arizona. He was homeless for most of the time, but ended up living in a trailer park surrounded by a bunch of other Vietnam veterans. His drinking got out of control and he chain-smoked. He was often very ill; he sank into a deep depression.

He was issued disability benefits by 2006 after being diagnosed as “bi-polar mixed with major depression,” and with degenerative disk disease. Friends urged him to apply for veteran’s health and compensation benefits, but his Army experience left him reluctant. He finally relented and was taken to Veterans Affairs in Tucson where a treatment plan was created for him. He completed a recovery program and was given housing in a senior apartment complex.

As Roberto continued his therapy, he had bouts of insomnia and nightmares. The bad memories from his Army days resurfaced and he was diagnosed with PTSD, along with other neurological disorders (cognitive dysfunction, self-isolation, paranoia). He tried to quit smoking but was unsuccessful. He had to use a cane to walk. He felt fatigued, even if he rested all day.

By 2008, Roberto was on 14 medications. He hated that he could not think clearly. His stomach was constantly upset. He began to look into alternative ways to relieve the bad side effects. A friend suggested he practice meditation and breathing exercises. He attended workshops on stress-relief and self-healing techniques.

Then in 2010 Roberto met a former Marine who facilitated a weekly Talking Circle for a PTSD treatment unit at the VA. Drawing from sacred Native American traditions, the group provided a safe, comfortable environment for veterans to share their stories and listen to each other.

Something clicked. He remembered a counselor had once told him, “You want to get better? Go help other veterans.”

He pushed himself to volunteer and help lead the Talking Circle. He did not want to relive his old nightmares, yet he found strength as he witnessed his fellow veterans healing through sharing. The Talking Circle also reconnected him with his father’s Yaqui Indian roots and the best memories of his mother practicing as a curandera. He started to participate in other traditional Native American ceremonies – the purifying sweat lodge, pow wows and the sacred burning of sage.

Life now had purpose and roots. With this, he let go of his resentments and the memories from his Army years.

He continued to pursue more natural and holistic remedies to treat his medical problems. When his doctors resisted, he petitioned the VA and was awarded the right to seek acupuncture sessions for pain management and to increase his mobility. Still he continued to drink and smoke.

“At least I don’t do heroin,” he said.

He and my Dad spoke several times a week, but we did not see very much of my uncle the last year of his life. He declined our invitation to visit and celebrate the December 2014 holidays. He was too busy with this various groups; by then he was leading the Talking Circle on his own.

I was worried about him at the start of summer of 2015; I did not like his appearance in photos that he had recently emailed. I thought he looked gaunt, his hair and beard grayer and thinner.

He assured me that he had never felt better and had just been taken off another medication. He also exalted the benefits of fasting, that he felt more clear-headed and energized. Some his last voicemail messages, though, rambled on and sounded garbled, as if he had been drinking.

Six days before his body was found, my uncle’s neighbors had gone to his apartment when they realized they hadn’t seen him for a while. He barely cracked the door open; he insisted he was all right. The Tucson Coroner’s office later told me that he had suffered a heart attack. He had probably been sick for a few days.

He had not seen a doctor in over a year; he had stopped taking medications on his own. His fasting had not helped matters, according to the Coroner’s office. He had avoided his VA case manager the last month of his life.

It is frustrating to think that if Roberto had just let his neighbors in or reached out for help, he might still be here. But that was my uncle.

* *

The last time I saw my uncle, I gave him a medallion imprinted with the words “The difference you make today counts in all our tomorrows” encircling the impression of an inukshuk, stones stacked to form the shape of a man. In Alaska, these landmarks were built by nomadic Inuits to help guide others travel across the tundra.

Roberto is wearing the medallion in pictures taken during his final year. My Dad brought it back to me after cleaning out his apartment.

It is now so worn and faded; he must have rarely taken it off.

Photo Illustration

Fairy Tales

A white bandage covered my dad’s eyes as we sat in the ophthalmologist’s office.

“Your father is legally blind, Miss Huang. We need some more tests, but it looks like he had a seizure in his sleep that caused the loss of eyesight.”

I was 18 years old and just a few weeks out of high school graduation when I heard these words.

There were questions: “Did you notice anything different about him these past few days? How long has he been complaining about nausea? When did it start?”

“What did he say?” my dad asked me in our native Shanghainese, a dialect of Chinese.

He only ever spoke enough English to get by at his motel job, but never had the opportunity to learn more. My mother on the other hand didn’t speak any, so by default I was the family’s representative. I struggled with how to translate the word “seizure.” I translated the diagnosis as a malfunction of the brain. The word “lost” I translated into “disappeared” so to clear up any ambiguities about recovery. My dad, who was 65 then, seemed to understand. He turned his head away from me after hearing these words. My mom, who was mostly deaf, didn’t bother to ask me to repeat into her ear what I had just said; she guessed from the looks on our faces.

“Can you bring him back in September?” the doctor asked. “I’d like to see if we can schedule to remove the cataract from his eyes. Maybe it’ll help.”

“I’m supposed to go to college in Northern California,” I said to no one in particular.

Zeus punished the Titans when they rebelled against the Olympians by striking out their eyes. Oedipus, having recognized his own failure as king, blinded himself. At 18, I had understood the world through stories like these. I would talk about them with my dad after getting home from school and he would explain what he could to me. When I had questions, it was my dad who most likely had the answers. He liked to remind me that he went to college in China before the Cultural Revolution and read western literature. But this time he had no answers – my dad was at a loss. Was this punishment? Who for? Why now?

Like the families I grew up with in South Los Angeles, we didn’t have medical coverage, nor did we understand anything about the medical system in the United States. Health care, it seemed to us new immigrants, was only accessible to people who were in better financial situations. For us, health care often came from the medicine section at the local farmacia, or at Thrifty’s drugstores, or from packages sent by relatives from home countries like Mexico and Guatemala or, in our case, China. My neighbor Omar suggested that I go across the street to the abandoned warehouse where a group of Pentecostals set up shop on weekend evenings.

“My mom said you can ask for a blessing and sometimes they’ll even give you money for medicines.”

No one in my neighborhood had computers or an Internet connection. Illness was an invisible thing that no one talked about. What is preventative care when it took so much energy just to survive? All I knew from my parents and from what I saw on television was that health care was expensive. It was finally my mom who jotted down a phone number to a free family clinic in Chinatown from a co-worker’s neighbor.

In the weeks before my dad lost his sight, I had graduated from Venice High School. He beamed when he saw me in my blue cap and gown. “It doesn’t matter that I work 24-hour shifts in a motel,” he said, “my reward is seeing you go to college. You’ll have money, and money will give you freedom. Money will elevate you to a different class.”

That summer in 2003 I did a lot of driving in my dad’s gray ‘95 Ford Escort. He was so proud of that car. It had taken him seven years to save up for a down payment. It didn’t overheat and leave us stranded on the freeway like his last car, an ‘83 hatchback Chevrolet, had. We drove to the doctor’s office, to referrals, to get medication, to the Chinatown Service Center for help with Medicare enrollment, and to the Social Security office on Adams and Hoover. We drove to the Hawaii Motel on La Brea and Venice where we collected his final paycheck, his hot water thermos and his box of tea.

“Fifteen years of work and I only had two things,” my dad said, as we drove back home from the motel. “I should be the one taking care of you.”

My mom started taking on more work at the garment factory where she worked in Lincoln Heights. When she needed help trucking large bags of clothes home, I picked up where my dad left off. I suddenly became the only one who drove in the family, the one who spoke the most English, the one who had all five senses working properly. She worked on anything her employers were willing to allocate to her. This included things that were difficult to make, like shirt collars or really slippery fabric.

“Five cents a piece. If I sew this order of 2,000, I can make $100,” she said.

That kind of work usually took about a week to complete. Some nights she worked very late. Her Juki sewing machine vibrated throughout the house and kept everyone up. Our living room lights dimmed a little each time she started work.

“What are we going to do without you?” my mom would ask at dinner. She can’t hear, so she mostly spoke out loud to herself.

There are three kinds of tears that the human eye produces: basal tears, which lubricate our eyes; reflex tears, which are reactions to external irritations like dust particles; and psychic tears, which result from strong emotions. Psychic tears have a different chemical make-up from the first two. They have higher levels of a protein-based hormone called Leu-enkephalin, a natural painkiller that we produce when parts of our bodies hurt. I learned that tears could still form in the human eye even when there is no sight. I also learned that psychic tears were best done in private, like in a dark room, or hunched over a sewing machine, or in the car while it is parked in the garage where no one can see.

In the months that followed his diagnosis, my dad spent a lot of time sitting alone in his bedroom. Light made him nauseous. Talking made him nauseous. Car rides made him nauseous. Sometimes I would find him just sitting there listening to his CDs; sometimes he would try to play his guitar in the one-foot wide makeshift studio between his bed and the wall. “I’m sorry I threw up again,” he would say.

“Your father was a great classical guitar player,” my mom told me. “Your grandma loved to hear him play.” His collection was filled with all sorts of jazz, concertos, and big band orchestras from the 1950s.

“Did we get anything in the mail today?” my dad asked me after I got home each day from my shift at Starbucks. We’d sit together by his bedside as I went through the various letters from Social Security and Medicare about his retirement, his upcoming appointments, and requests for our bills to determine low-income status. Feeling his way to the bathroom became increasingly hard for him, so he kept an empty plastic milk jug nearby with the tops cut off. I would empty it and rinse it for him.

“Dear Miss Huang, we’re writing to remind you to respond to your college admissions package,” the letter read “This is urgent.”

Working at the local Starbucks near USC on Hoover and Jefferson, I would bring back leftover coffee and pastries for my parents when the store closed at one a.m. I knew my dad would be up waiting for me. Sometimes we would sit at the pullout butcher block in the kitchen and eat the reheated bounty together.

“I first tasted a butter croissant with your grandma when I was a kid,” he reminisced. “American cafés were in vogue then in Shanghai. Your grandma taught me to always put on my double-breasted jacket when we ate at western cafés. She was very worldly and genteel that way.”

I asked our store manager, Sal, for more shifts. Some days I worked the closing shift to one a.m.; on others I worked the opening shifts that started at four a.m. Working gave me a reason to leave home. What can I get for you today? Would you like whipped cream on your macchiato? Can I wipe your table for you? No, I am fine, thank you for asking.

When I had free time, I would go to the Glendale Galleria and try to apply for more jobs. “We’re not looking for anyone who needs this job to make rent,” Amber, the store manager at Abercrombie & Fitch, told me as she eyed my old blue jeans and milk-stained black tennis shoes from Payless. “This is a job for you to have fun and like make a little extra cash for new clothes before school starts.”

“What do your parents do?” my co-worker Michael asked me one day while we made lattes at the espresso machines.

“Oh, my dad’s retired and my mom works in fashion.”

I learned that from kids like Lorena or Isela who, like me, took the bus for two hours every day in high school to go to a school in a better neighborhood. Unemployed was “stay-at-home,” liquor store owner was “entrepreneur,” restaurant bus boy was “work in culinary arts,” and so on.

“That’s cool. My dad’s thinking about retiring, too. He’s a colonel and we live in Palos Verdes. But both me and my sister are living near campus now because of school. I’m in the Architecture School. She’s a Pi Beta Phi. What are you studying?”

“Double tall nonfat sugar-free vanilla latte for Katie!”

On the U.S. Citizenship Naturalization Test, a frequently asked interview question is, “Why do you want to become a naturalized citizen?” An acceptable answer is “freedom” or “mobility.”

Between ten p.m. and four a.m. were the universal Hours of Self-Pity. There was a strong correspondence between a physical and personal darkness that happened each night. Working the closing shift or the dawn shift took up an otherwise empty space that was all too easy to fill with regrets, what-if’s, and why-not-me’s. Questions that did nobody any good.

Letters that summer came and went. Dear Mr. Huang, we are writing to explain your diagnosis…Your Social Security benefits will begin on… Your medication summary for the month of July…

Dear Miss Huang, this is your final notice to respond to admissions at the University of….

Sometimes the landlord’s son Omar would come sit with me late at night on our stoop. Mostly I sat out there to feed the one or two feral cats that visited.

“Your dad okay? I’m sorry. Eh, my dad wants to know if you’re gonna need to move your rent date to later in the month. And my mom wants to know if you’re gonna sell your dad’s car cuz my brother Alvaro might wanna drive it. He’s 15 now and he’s gonna drive it to my dad’s store to work.”

That summer I listened to a lot of old songs because it was what we had at home. My Dad said old songs reminded him of Shanghai. On those nights, it was just Sinatra and me. “Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart… .”

The letters from school came less and less frequently. Eventually they stopped coming altogether. Instead, they were replaced by more letters from the Social Security office. We got at least two letters a week addressed to my dad about his disability and retirement, all of which were in English.

“It’s still very cloudy and dark,” my dad told his doctor in September after his operation.

“There’s not much more we can do for him,” the eye doctor told me privately as my mom escorted my dad out of the office. “We’ll need him back over the next few months for more checkups. We have your number. Will you be around for a while?”

“Yes. I’m not going anywhere.”

I opened the passenger side door for my dad and sat him down slowly. I asked him if he was comfortable, then I asked him to raise his arms so I could help buckle his seat belt. On the way home he said, “I know what you’re doing. I can still see.”

story illustration

Introduction to Volume 5

The search, the trip, the obsession with finding some knowledge – these themes have provided fodder for wonderful stories through history – from the Odyssey to Star Wars, Sherlock Holmes to Frozen.

These themes also wind their way through many of the dozen stories in this latest volume – Volume 5 – of Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles.

Sylvia Castañeda spent 20 years seeking the disappeared children of her grand-aunt before she found what happened to them – and she tells that story here.

Felecia Howell tells of the search for commonality that led her to Liberia as a Peace Corps. Much the same search sent Miguel Roura to Mexico as a college student. Susanna Franek discovered an emerging Los Angeles, from her post as an ad saleswoman for La Opinion newspaper. In sixth grade, a Chinese girl growing up in South L.A., Jian Huang seeks, and finds, a friend, finally. Celia Viramontes tells the tale of a Zacatecan bracero searching for his family’s sustenance in Nebraska.

Sarah Alvarado contributes a terrific story of her deceased aunt, murdered as a teen, and Sarah’s own search for some connection to her. C.J. Salgado, a TYTT veteran, tells the story of what knowledge a battered toolbox provided about his father.

Cecelia Flores tells of her time, in the 1970s, when she worked as a taxi dancer. With her third TYTT story, Fabiola Manriquez relates a tale of change in East L.A. Jasmine De Haro writes of the recollections she has of her father, who believed she was a witch. Rita J. Ray tells us of schoolgirl dress made for her by the grandmother who saw her through childhood.

Finding the stories in small moments is one goal of this workshop. Another goal is to turn those nonfiction stories into tales that read like fiction. I believe the stories in this volume do that. But read and decide for yourself. I think you’ll find it all the more wondrous that they were produced by people who, for the most part, had not written much prior to this.

This fifth volume of Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles is the largest so far.

We have benefitted 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. This service is for writers who have finished two or three TYTT workshops and want – need – editing more than anything else. It allows us to continue to open space for new writers into the workshops, while editing the veterans as they continue to pump out great narrative.

We add sponsors this time around as well: The Los Angeles Review of Books and Eastsider L.A. have signed on, helping promote the workshops on their websites. Many thanks, folks!

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, interim 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, his fourth for us.

Enjoy this fifth 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 remember, we hope you’ll come write a story of your own.

Sam Quinones