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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 …

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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 …

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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 …

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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 …

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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 …

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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 …

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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 …

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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 …

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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 …

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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 …