Introduction to Volume 1

I wouldn’t have blamed Daniel Hernandez for being skeptical. Daniel is the director of the Chicano Resource Center at the East L.A. Library, run by the L.A. County Library system.

Over the summer of 2013, he and I were talking about a speech I was to give at his center on my two books of nonfiction stories about Mexico and Mexican migration.

But then I veered off topic. How about a writing workshop to go along with it?

I’d been giving my workshop, Tell Your True Tale, to classes at high schools and community colleges for a few years by then. I had 50+ stories up on my website (

I designed the workshop to demystify writing. I get people writing stories from their own lives, or those of people close to them. I told Daniel I found this an effective way to teach some of the basics of storytelling, of getting people to begin to think like writers while, just as important, getting them energized to write.

From there, I said, I focus on interviewing, on finding the details that propel a story forward, on the importance of editing and rewriting, of finding a strong beginning and an even stronger ending.

The TYTT goal, I told him, is true stories that read like fiction.

Every workshop I’d done had gone very well, but they’d all been in classrooms.

I’ve been a storyfinder and storyteller most of my adult life. I was hankering to do a workshop far from the classroom.

East L.A., I figured, had to be packed with people – nonstudents, working people, family folks — who had stunning stories to tell, but who might not recognize them as such, might not know how to get them started, and might be intimidated when it came to writing them.

Bless Daniel Hernandez’s heart, he agreed.

We figured we’d try an experiment. We’d advertise that I was to give a writer’s workshop for people who wanted to get moving on a writing project but didn’t know how, or wanted to improve something they’d already done.

Nothing like it had been tried at the library, as far as Daniel knew. But why not? Libraries need to become centers for conversation about writing and storytelling. They need to bring new people in.

Would anybody come? Would the stories be worth reading if they did? We didn’t know.

I’m a fan of Chalino Sanchez, the legendary slain corrido singer, whose life story I told in my first book. Chalino promoted his own cassettes by taking them around to bakeries, butcher shops and swap meet vendors – a very DIY fellow, Chalino was.

So, like Chalino, I took posters around and put them up in the windows of bakeries, a grocery store, East LA College, and a café or two. I put them on walls on Cesar Chavez Boulevard, and wrote to several blogs and ELAC instructors.

At my speech in early November, we promoted the workshop, urging people to attend.

Then I figured we’d done what we could. I waited for the day to arrive.

Ten writers attended that first Saturday, as curious as I was about how this was going to work. We sat together under the dome in the Chicano Resource Center as I explained the project. There were questions, doubts maybe. A few faded away. But very quickly the writers who stayed found what I thought they’d find: amazing stories in their own lives, and the lives of people close to them.

They set about writing them as we met to talk out the stories. How they might start them, end them. What new information they needed. How to pare them to the essentials and thus unleash their true power. I edited them, then I edited them again. They rewrote their stories – because writing is really rewriting.

The results, a couple months later, are fantastic. From these first-time authors come stories of some of East L.A.’s working- class icons: A vet, a janitor, braceros, a bus rider, a mariachi, an anxious lover separated by a border.

Andrew Ramirez tells about what happened to his father in Vietnam and, at the same time, what was happening to his father’s family back in Los Angeles.

Celia Viramontes recounts the story of her grandfather, a bracero, and the simple act of kindness that it took to lift his spirits when they were at their lowest, and he was far from family.

Jacqueline Gonzalez-Reyes finds a poignant tale in an afternoon with a janitor.

Joanne Mestaz has a story of an encounter with two strange folks and life on the bus.

Manuel Chaidez writes the story of how he met his future wife, and gained a confidence he never knew he had.

Diego Renteria is a former mariachi with a tale about an unforgettable gig at a family’s house on Christmas Eve in South Gate.

Olivia Segura tells us the story of her father, a bracero returned to Mexico City, encountering his own estranged father when he was least expected, and most needed.

The stories in this book are the best to come out of the workshop. They’re beautiful tales, simple and thus powerful – just the kind I hoped would come from the experiment.

We’re looking to expand the workshop, find more funding and other venues for it.

Meanwhile, enjoy these, in the first volume of Tell Your True Tale.

Then come write your own.

Sam Quinones



Two Trips Home

Bombs fell and the shrapnel cut through the soldiers and burned like molten lava as enemy troops advanced on them through the Vietnam jungle.

Bombs fell and the shrapnel cut through the soldiers and burned like molten lava as enemy troops advanced on them through the Vietnam jungle.

Bullets hissed by, hitting tree, rock and man. Enemy chatter echoed out of the marsh. Soldiers from Recon Company took cover and fired.

Among them was Private Louis Ramirez, a 140-pound nineteen year-old boy from the streets of Northeast Los Angeles. Ramirez had been drafted into the U.S. Army. His father had petitioned the Office of the President for a reprieve. His other son, Edmund Jr., older by two minutes, had volunteered and was fighting as a seasoned jarhead in the North. The request was granted.

But Louis Ramirez had other plans. Confused and directionless, he sought purpose and his place in the world. He defied his father’s wishes and shipped off to fight in Vietnam.

He was assigned to a battalion of South Vietnamese Regulars. Their job was to provide air support.

This particular morning was like every other since the Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese broke traditional cease fire agreement during the country’s Lunar New Year celebrations and left all Vietnam in bloody battles.

So now a few months in, Recon Company had left base camp that morning and headed out on another search and destroy mission against a gathering of Viet Cong in a local village.


In a small Victorian in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, two children ran about playing. Valerie was two and her brother, Anthony, Jr., was four. Their infant brother, Ricky, slept in the back room.

Their mother, Hilda, finished cooking dinner and prepared to leave.

Anthony Sr. arrived from work.

He chatted with Hilda and his in-laws. They talked of the party they planned for the return of Hilda’s brothers, the twins: Edmund Ramirez, Jr. was in Barstow, processing out of the Marine Corp; Private Louis Ramirez was in combat in Vietnam, two weeks from discharge.

“Can you watch little Ricky?” Hilda asked her husband. “He’s asleep in the back and I’m going with my mom and dad to Sears to get Father’s Day gifts.”

Anthony nodded.

Anthony and Hilda hugged and kissed.

They piled into the black Hillman sedan. Hilda’s father, Edmund, sat behind the wheel, Hilda by his side. Anita sat in back with Valerie on her lap and Anthony Jr. on her side.

The engine started.

Anthony Sr. stood at the door and watched them drive off.


The drive took two hours of twisting and turning through the jungle before they came to a clearing. The men jumped off the Armored Personnel Carriers to continue on foot. There were no more roads.

Splashes of water and mud flew with the thumping of military issue boots. The sun beat and the bush felt like a sauna. One hundred and twenty men sloshed through the high brush, searching for the enemy.

Ramirez carried a radio pack and an M-16 while surveying the land as his fellow soldiers chatted in Vietnamese. He could only discern a few words.

Beads of sweat rolled down brow and neck. White smoke filled the atmosphere as the soldiers exhaled from their standard issue. The soldiers swatted red ants crawling up their legs. Dead and stinking bodies lay throughout. There had been battles here before.

Trudging through three feet of water and mud was exhausting. The men checked their fatigues to ensure they were tightly wrapped. Leaches were bad here. They couldn’t keep them all out.

A village appeared in the distance. They approached it through a rice patty and interrogated the village women and children. There were no men. All were fighting as guerrillas in the surrounding hills in the war. The Vietnamese commander screamed at the women.

“Where are they?”

Confused, the women screamed back what sounded like cuss words. Then the answer came.

Shots fired. Grenades exploded. Twenty yards away at the nearby creek, a group of his men who had proceeded to survey the land were pinned down and now engaged in a firefight. “Get down, take cover,” yelled a young soldier, clenching his cold M-16, bayonet fixed in place.

From the marsh appeared a soldier yelling in Vietnamese, “medic, medic,” interrupted by gunfire.

Before long the entire village and platoon was surrounded. Bullets rang from every direction. More grenades. Men were cut down left and right. The Vietnamese commander looked to his American advisors and yelled for an air strike.

Ramirez grabbed the microphone. There was time only to react. He had been trained, like a machine, to carry out the mission. Months prior, he might have frozen in shock. As a new infantryman in battle he had felt inept. Men had ridiculed his jumpiness at the sound of gunfire. Not today.

“Bourbon bucket Alpha, this is Bourbon bucket Bravo. We got Charlie hittin’ us pretty good right now. We need some air power. Requesting air support. Friendlies marked by green flares, I say again requesting immediate air support, friendlies marked with green flares. Bring ‘em in close…”

Soon, on the horizon, the sun reflected off the windows of choppers loaded with guns and missiles. The propeller blades cut the air. Their loud thump beat like the young hearts below.

They banked as if floating in the breeze. Then like hawks diving for prey, they dipped and emptied their shells. Ramirez felt the heat of the missiles on his face. Heavy artillery flew like shooting stars towards the enemy stronghold and balls of fire lit up the sky.

Ramirez looked at the beautiful chaos surrounding him.

“I can’t wait to tell Eddie.”

He admired his older brother and respected him. Eddie had just written, telling him of the party the family had planned for his return. Soon they would be together.

The choppers departed and silence came. Private Ramirez cleared his eyes from the smoke and debris and saw his remaining brothers-in-arms alive, guns in hand, peering into the smoke. He looked to the heavens and thanked a God he had not talked to in some time.


Sirens blared near the 7th Street onramp to the Interstate 5 Freeway as the firemen ripped away at the mangled metal trying to remove the lifeless bodies inside. It was just after sunset on a hot summer’s night.

In a reported attempt to avoid the oncoming semi, Edmund Ramirez Sr. lost control of the small Hillman sedan. The wheels locked and the car rolled. The roof ripped off. Bodies flew and smashed into the concrete.

Ramirez, a stout man, freshly turned sixty, hunched over the steering wheel still. He grasped it with stubborn might, exerting his last force of energy on the broken vinyl steering wheel.

Just outside three others were spread out. Hilda, a young mother, and her son Anthony Jr. were both dead. Valerie was found wandering the freeway.

On the backseat floor lay a woman nearly sixty.

“She’s alive!” cried a fireman.

Unconscious but breathing, she was rushed to the hospital, alone.


Several weeks after the firefight and the gunships that saved his platoon, still fighting in the bush, Private Ramirez heard radio chatter.

“Only him?” asked the sergeant.

“That’s right. We’re coming to pick up Bravo. He’s coming out.”

Ramirez and the Sarge looked at each other.

“We are in the middle of a firefight — not advisable, over.”

The voice on the radio insisted.

“Bravo is coming out…relay your coordinates, over.”

The Sarge turned to Private Ramirez. “Get your gear.”

Ramirez thought, “I still have two weeks left before my discharge. Why in the hell are they going to pull me out now?”

An hour later, Private Ramirez was back at headquarters, feeling thousands of miles away from the battle zone. A green captain’s jeep awaited his arrival.

“What’s going on?”

“Orders,” the driver answered. “I am to take you over to the Chaplain’s office. That’s all I know. Where’d you come from?”

Ramirez was soaking wet and covered in mud.

“The battle field.”

They passed the familiar rows of Quonset Huts. Chow halls and offices were busy. They passed the bar where Ramirez and his friends went to drink Brown Derby Beer. Off in the distance a mail plane flew in for the daily drop.

A short while later he was in the chaplain’s office.

Captain Crowell had spent months in the field with Ramirez’ battalion earning his service medal badge.

“Sit down, son.”

Private Ramirez sat.

“There’s been an accident back home.”


Five years later, Louis Ramirez sat at a desk at home. He now attended the local community college after work and was doing homework. The house was dark and only the desk light illuminated. His wife and daughter were asleep. The clock ticked.

As he was writing, drops of water began to hit the paper. He was confused. His mouth dried. His throat balled up. He shook. Fits of crying overwhelmed him. Tears hit the paper, drenching it. Their sound grew louder. The drops resembled muffled shots of M-16s. He closed his eyes. He was lost.

He had stepped back on American soil less than twenty four hours after leaving battle in Vietnam. On the tarmac, his brother Eddie, brother-in-law Tony, and friend Dan hugged him.

On the ride to the hospital they bombarded him with details of the accident. He wasn’t sad. A year in the bush had left him numb. His mind began to drift. All he wanted was to share stories from Vietnam. When he responded, the only words he spoke were of war.

At the hospital, his mother was in a sling, bandaged from head to toe, her back broken. She was conscious.

“Mother, I’m home.”

She wept.

At the funeral parlor they rolled out two caskets from the freezer.

His father lay in a casket wearing a black suit and tie; in another lay his sister holding her young son in her arms.

They were like every other dead body he had seen while roaming the Vietnam countryside. Scenes of the war flashed through his head. He remembered every encounter, every skirmish and battle. He was devoutly Catholic but he recalled desperately wanting to kill the enemy. … “Die motherfuckers!”

Now he stared at the faces of his dead father, sister and nephew and thought, “This is what I deserve.”

He tried to cry but found he could not.

So for five years he barely spoke of what he’d seen in Vietnam. It remained with him as he married and had a daughter and found work as a janitor and attended night school.

Now, late at night, his wife, awake, came into the room.

“What’s wrong?”

“My family is dead!”

He continued to sob.


“My father is dead. My sister is dead. Little Tony is dead. They are all dead!”

He continued to cry. He tried to stop but found he could not.


The summer of 2009 I spent in Houston working with janitors as they fought to renew a union contract.

That July 4th, local pastors held a press conference supporting the janitors. Several union janitors were asked to attend.

That’s when I met Carmen Sanchez. I picked her up and drove her to the event. Carmen was our shortest member, in her sixties, direct, well groomed. She was from Chihuahua, Mexico. She was always at union events. She’d been a janitor for 12 years.

That afternoon, driving her home, my car got a flat tire. I called AAA, but it was clear that due to the holiday help would be a long time coming.

So it was that I found myself with Carmen Sanchez in the middle of downtown Houston on July 4th.

I thought I’d just get Carmen a cab and have her on her way home. But she refused.

“I don’t have anyone waiting for me at home,” she said.

That day, Houston dripped with humidity. She took out a jug of ground-oatmeal water.

“Don’t look at it like that. That water saves lives.”

I smiled and drank.

“Whenever it gets this unbearable, I go to my nearest department store and cool off,” she said. “We’re just blocks away from J.C. Penney. You want to go?”

Sure, I said. AAA was going to call when their truck was on its way.

We walked to Carmen’s J.C. Penney. The air conditioning hit us like an arctic blast.

We walked every aisle of that store.

Carmen slowed when we came to the makeup.

This lipstick is the best, she said. Ruby red. She wore it everyday for work.

“In the office where I work, I figure I have thirty minutes where the executives and I exchange eyes. They get dressed up, so why shouldn’t I? If they take time to look good on the job, so do I.”

We walked through the shoes.

“I prefer copper brown shoes when I work,” she said. “That color best matches my work uniform.”

She wore a uniform every day. Shoes and makeup were all that were hers at work.

We passed the Bath and Body Works Store and tested the seasonal lotions. Then we talked lady stuff – my favorite lipstick, her favorite recipes, and men she recommended I date.

“Why do you do this type of work?” she asked. “Wouldn’t you prefer to date and be a bit mischievous while you can?”

Before I could speak, she said, “No need to answer now — that’s your homework.”

She began to talk about her life.

When she was young, she had a daughter, then a son. She separated from an abusive husband.

To offer her children a future, she left them with her husband’s sister and took a train to the border and crossed into the United States using a phony ID. That was in 1978. She went first to Washington D.C., but with no Latinos in the capital, she didn’t feel comfortable. She moved to Houston.

Living on minimum wage jobs made it hard to ever get back home. But she wired money to her children in Chihuahua every week.

“One week the money would go to my kids’ necessities; the next week to save for the `coyote,’” who would someday take her children across to join her.

Then one day she called home and no one answered.

She called from different phones. Still no answer. She kept calling. She waited six months and went to Mexico. In her town, her mother told her that her kids now ran away from her when they saw her.

Carmen went to the house and knocked. No answer. She waited outside her children’s school – they were teenagers by now. They saw her and ran away. Carmen broke down crying. She stayed for a month and her children refused to see her. A neighbor sent her a message, No quieren saber nada de ti. No one wants to know anything about you. The coyote fund you were sending money to we used for a family emergency.

Carmen returned to Houston. That was in 1988 and she hadn’t seen or talked to her kids since then – except once. She continued to call the number she had for her children’s aunt. Then one day her daughter answered.

“It’s your mother,” Carmen said. There was no response. Silence.

“Okay, don’t say anything. Just give me a minute and don’t hang up. I just want you to know I love you and never stop loving you.”

A minute later the phone went dead.

Later, they changed their number. She kept calling her mother. Go to the house, Carmen pleaded, bring them cookies.

Tightened security on the border and low wages in Houston kept Carmen from ever traveling back to Mexico. She couldn’t attend her mother’s funeral in 1995 and still wasn’t over that.

But for 20 years, she never stopped wiring money to the same account for her children that she’d always used. Every month the bank told her that the money had been picked up.

She still sends the money, she told me, even though the kids are now adults and they haven’t spoken since they were in elementary school. An older aunt is the only family she has left in Chihuahua who still talks to her.

Perdi todo” she said. “I lost everything and I don’t know why. My mom, my kids. I even didn’t take the opportunity to get amnesty.”

In her neighborhood when amnesty for illegal immigrants came around, so did a lot of fraud, and people pretending to be attorneys. Money was tight, too, and she no longer trusted anyone.

“If I can’t trust my own family …” she said, her voice trailing off. “I’m in a foreign land. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”

Night fell and by then we were sitting on a curb near the parking lot. The AAA guy had finally shown up.

We spotted a hot dog vendor and treated ourselves to hot dogs and chips.

As the AAA guy worked, we ate and watched fireworks explode in the distance.

“Ahh, I liked that one, the three-colored firework!” Carmen said. “Now that was worth the wait.”

Song for the Living

As a teenager, I was part of a mariachi group with high school friends. We performed at birthday parties, masses, quinceañeras, and weddings around Southern California, each time becoming part of someone’s special occasion.

As a teenager, I was part of a mariachi group with high school friends. We performed at birthday parties, masses, quinceañeras, and weddings around Southern California, each time becoming part of someone’s special occasion.

We always hesitated about taking gigs after December 15th because members traveled with their families for the holidays. In 2006, however, almost all our members stayed in our town of South Gate for Christmas, so that year we accepted a Christmas Eve gig because it was a one-hour performance in our hometown.

I arrived at the house about a half hour early and warmed up with my fellow musicians at a nearby strip mall parking lot. The night was chilly and our thin trajes were no match for the cold. I worried about not being able to feel or control my fingers in the cold but looked forward to a quick festive performance without worrying about being harassed by a drunk.

We walked down their driveway to their backyard. Most of the backyard was taken over by a stucco-on-chicken-wire two-story rear unit that looked perpetually under construction. A few people sat around a small fire in the center of the backyard, eating tamales from disposable plates and staying warm by the fire. The lights in the front unit were on and the smell of pozole wafted from the open kitchen door to the backyard.

They had hired us but did not seem very invested in our performance. I was accustomed to the occasional grito or exhortation in the middle of songs, clapping at the end of songs, and song requests, but this audience seemed unusually indifferent. As we encircled the family members and sang for them, the embers and smoke from their fire blew towards us, enveloping us and choking us.

When our hour was done, we bowed and started to take our leave. One of the men stopped us.

“Stay for one more hour.”

I did not expect anyone in the house to notice us leaving, let alone ask us to stay.

“Can’t. It’s Christmas Eve and we agreed to only one hour. We have to go with our families.”

“I’ll pay $500 for the second hour.” “Sorry, we really have to go.” “$700?”

“Look, we must…”


“We’ll talk about it with the rest of the group.”

We thought he was bluffing about the money. He gave us $500 and said he would give us the rest at the end. One hour of our time on Christmas Eve was worth $1,000 to him. Usually we charged $300 an hour.

We started singing, happy we were each getting over $100 for that night. He was pleased to have us at the family reunion for one more hour – more cheer for the house. Because it was Christmas, we tried our best to keep our songs cheerful or boisterous to keep with the festivities. We also played songs of heartbreak and loss because we knew they wanted to hear them. Their gritos indicated we were right.

About twenty minutes in, a woman emerged from the house and asked, “Can you come inside and play a song for us?”

We filed into the house through the kitchen and I noticed everyone outside the house followed us inside.

We walked into their living room. There, beside the Christmas tree and gifts and above the mantelpiece, was a large framed portrait of a boy, no more than twelve years old. He looked down on everyone, eternally smiling for a school portrait, his hair spiky and clad in a gray school polo shirt. On a nearby stool were a backpack and some toys. On the mantelpiece was an unwrapped tamal, a glass of milk, and two cookies. The couches were arranged to face his portrait.

I knew what song they would request and secretly hoped I was wrong.

“We want you… to play ‘Amor Eterno’ for our son…”

“Amor Eterno” was composed by the Mexican ranchera singer Juan Gabriel. Juan Gabriel is said to have composed the song to the memory of his mother and as the title (“Eternal Love” in Spanish) suggests, it speaks of the pain of remembering the loss of a loved one who will never be forgotten or replaced. The suffering is so strong that the narrator prefers sleep because the pain disappears. “Amor Eterno” is almost solely requested at funerals or wakes or by people remembering their loved ones.

I don’t like performing “Amor Eterno.” It elicits such sadness and despair in listeners. There is always at least one person who starts crying. I feel bad for them and don’t know whether to cry or hang my head. Other mariachis have told me they feel the same. Our group vowed to play this song only when requested because it was too sad for most occasions.

We anxiously looked at each other. Our singer for “Amor Eterno” was sick at the time. Luckily, another member knew the lyrics and could sing in range. We were saved from the embarrassment of not being able to play the song.

We stood in a semicircle behind the couches. The family sat on the couches or in the doorways. Everybody in the room looked at the portrait.

They started crying as we started to sing. I stopped paying attention to who cried when. We mariachis exchanged glances to distract us from the mourning. Everything seemed to stop. No glasses clinked, no laughter punctuated the song. Everyone started singing to their son, their nephew. His mother broke down in tears on the couch, comforted by his madrina. A man who seemed to be his father stood against a wall, stone-quiet.

The song ended but the family’s sobs did not. We filed out and finished our hour outside the house, colder than before we entered.

The man who paid us $1000 for the extra hour was in the street, burning rubber in his truck, drunk. Family had to drag him out of the truck. He kept his word and paid us the remaining $500.

We went home to our families that night. I went straight to sleep. But I think about that family, and the boy whose name I never knew, every Christmas Eve.

When Manny Met Angie

I have always been awkward. The doctor who held me as an infant said I was squinting too much so he ordered me some baby glasses; they had a black thick frame. Some people ask me if they are the ones I wear now but I’ll never tell.

I have always been awkward.

The doctor who held me as an infant said I was squinting too much so he ordered me some baby glasses; they had a black thick frame. Some people ask me if they are the ones I wear now but I’ll never tell.

I also had a full set of hair except for the top part, so I was like a baby George Costanza. The first words my dad told me when he held me for the first time at arm’s length were, “You are a weird looking kid, you know that?” and this was how I looked until I was six. Those were the longest six years of my life. Stayed inside my house all day long and when I went to kindergarten I wore a cowboy hat to hide my tonsure.

Once my hairline problems were over, being around people was not as hard anymore. Until, that is, I went to middle school. One day I got into an argument with my stepmother. One of my chores was to clean the bathroom, and I did it as quickly and efficiently as possible. My stepmother was already having a bad day, but I didn’t realize it. So when she showed me how to clean properly it wasn’t a good idea to scream at her, “That is what I am doing, darn it,” because she slapped the cuteness off my face.

The next the day I went to school with the cuteness slapped off my face, and the only girl who had a crush on me in the whole school now was trying to avoid me. Being an awkward little kid who sat in the back of the class, my cuteness was the only thing this one girl noticed in me. My dad had taught me that there are no ugly women in the world but this girl was not my type. I even felt embarrassed that she announced her crush so publicly. Now she was the one embarrassed of me. This made the whole situation very awkward.

A pattern should be visible here: Life gives me lemons and while making lemonade I squirt myself in the eye. Instead of making the best of it I get obsessed with the whole situation and can’t think straight.

How I met my wife is no different. I went back to Mexico from Los Angeles for two weeks to visit my family. I called a girl I knew named Loren to see if she wanted to hang out. My future wife answered the phone. She was Loren’s cousin.

“Is this Loren?” I asked.

“No this is Angie,” my future wife said.

“Oh, um, Loren?”

“No. I said this is Angie.”

“Is Loren there?”

“Oh my God. Here you talk to him!” my future wife said.

Loren and I talked and made some plans for the four of us to do that day–meaning my cousin, my future wife, Loren, and me. My cousin and I ended up doing something else that day because my dad didn’t let me borrow his truck; I didn’t call them to cancel.

Sometime during that week I rode along with my dad to drop my cousin at his house. We parked in front of his house. Across the street was a small truck. In the truck were Loren and Loren’s boyfriend and my future wife. My cousin and I crossed the street to talk to them.

“How come you guys didn’t meet us at the McDonald’s the other day?!” Loren said.

“My uncle didn’t let Manny borrow the truck, so we were stuck at the house all day,” my cousin said.

“Haven’t you guys heard of buses?” my future wife said.

“We stood outside my house but we never saw one pass by,” I said.

“Of course you didn’t. You were supposed to walk to the bus stop. They don’t stop just anywhere,” my future wife said.

I didn’t say anything after that. I was trying to say something funny but I ended up sounding dumb. As if it wasn’t hard enough for me to meet new people, my exaggerating mind acted up.

The four of us made plans to go to the movies. My dad drove me there and on the ride to the movies all I thought about was that comment I made about the buses.

Our movie night was great except that I tried to erase my stupid comment from their minds and they kept bringing it back. We set up another date to hang out for the weekend. It kind of went the same. This time my dad did let me borrow his truck, so my cousin and I went to pick them up. We went out to eat and then we crashed a party. There, for the first time, my future wife and I were alone.

By this time I had decided that I liked my future wife.

I remembered that she had asked a couple of times that she wanted to use the restroom. So we were standing on the curb outside the party and everybody had gone in ahead of us. All alone, and under the bright stars and the moonlight, the only thing that came to my mind was, “Didn’t you have to go to the restroom?”

Well after that, we dropped them off. My cousin and I went home, thinking how badly everything went. But to my surprise, the girls called the boys the next day. Loren, without saying hello, asked if I liked Angie. Well I did, so I said, very manly, “I do like her. Why? Does she?”

My wife and I talked for hours after that — with plenty of awkward silences, more than any normal person could handle.

But it was easier after that. I realized how wonderful it was getting out of my comfort zone those two days. Like swimming against the current—tough, but after a while it makes you stronger. Suddenly, I felt confident.

I called her at five in the morning the day I was leaving Mexico to return to Los Angeles. For some reason, my awkward mind didn’t bother me. It was like we already knew.

“Hey, so I’m leaving in a couple of hours,” I said. “Oh really, I didn’t know,” my future wife said.

“Yes, just calling to make sure you have your stuff ready because I am on my way to pick you up right now.”

She went along with it.

“I am on the curb all ready with my bags. You got my ticket? Don’t leave me behind, all riled up.”

“I’ll call you as soon as I land; it was very nice meeting you.”

“Likewise. Have a nice trip.”

Two years later, we were married.

Black Palace

Two twenty-foot black barred gates stood corner-to- corner separating him from the catcalls on his right where tattered men clawed at him.

To his left was a clean, orderly ward.

Miguel stood, distracted by the gates when suddenly he felt a yank on his blue silk tie.

“Give me your tie,” said an inmate on his right.

He pulled away quickly and the yelling escalated.

The guard looked him up and down. Miguel’s tie matched his eyes; he wore a tailored navy blue suit and stood six feet tall.

“Would you like a luxury cell or do you want to join them?” he said, pointing to the right.

“I’ll take the luxury cell.”

The guard smirked.

The left gate opened and with that the shouting from the right faded. The guard escorted him down the corridor. Miguel heard the far off strumming of a guitar from the galleys above. He was placed in a single cell on the ground floor. Meals would be served in the dining room. The cost for “luxury”: five hundred pesos a day. The guard gave him a voucher to sign.

It was 1953 and Miguel was 29 years old. He had been to Mexico City eleven years earlier, fleeing his village in Michoacán. When he was three, his father accidentally killed his mother while cleaning his shotgun. His father repented throughout his life praying endless hours on his knees while wearing a crown of thorns. However, he became distant and allowed his second wife to mistreat Miguel.

Miguel loved school. But at age seven, at the suggestion of his stepmother, he was made to work in the fields and support the new children that came. His father owned land, animals and bore the last name of the founders of the village. But Miguel lived like an indentured servant. His labor began before sunrise and ended after sunset. His clothes and shoes were worn and he was never given a peso or a sign of affection. At dinner he was not welcomed to the table, and he ate alone.

The years of neglect and frustration drove him to Mexico City in 1942. He heard that the United States needed workers, Braceros, to help the war effort. He arrived by train in white manta clothing, worn huaraches and held his sombrero in place with one hand on either side as he looked up at the skyscrapers. Miguel wanted to stay and explore the city but his only contact was Major Rubalcava, a man who had married a woman from his village. The Major managed the Rancho La Herradura, which belonged to Miguel Aleman, Mexico’s President.

The Major and his wife gave him a place to stay and a job on the ranch. But Miguel had left his village to become a Bracero and he kept this in mind as he tended the cows, irrigated the vast fields of alfalfa and exchanged glances with a shepherd’s daughter. He also thought about his mother. He would quietly hum a lullaby, his only memory of her. He would close his eyes as he sung but still he could not see her face.

A year later he left the ranch and set out for the Estadio Azteca where thousands of men were spread across acres of parkway waiting to be contracted as Braceros up north. Soldiers patrolled the area in jeeps as men gathered with their home state paisanos. It was difficult to find a clean spot to rest. The unexpected number of people in the parkway destroyed the grass and trees and the smell of excrement permeated the air.

He camped out for nearly three weeks surviving on the small amount of money he had earned and the generosity of others. Finally, one day in early April, he made it to the front of the line.

“You’re young,” said the administrator.

Miguel was under the required age of 18.

“I’m 22,” he said.

He was first sent to Oregon and then to farms in California. His last assignment placed him in Fillmore, an hour from Los Angeles. He began taking the bus into the city on the weekends. He found a job at the Brown Derby, then at the Biltmore Hotel. He felt alive in Los Angeles and enjoyed the nightlife. He worked to dress sharp and dance to the big bands.

On July 4, 1948 he was deported to Cuidad Juarez. He spoke English now and landed a job as a floor manager at one of the best nightclubs in Juarez.

An acquaintance asked him to travel to Mexico City to help him register and sell the songs his brother had composed. Miguel resisted. But the man promised to pay the expenses. In Mexico City, Miguel took the man to “La W Radio” and several other places to pitch the songs. One day, while searching out leads, Miguel spotted several men with typewriters and makeshift desks near the Zocalo.

“Letters Written,” their sign read.

He had not seen his father for eleven years. He had a writer compose a letter to his father, telling him that he was in Mexico City at the Hotel Juarez.

Two weeks passed and none of the radio leads worked out. One afternoon two policemen appeared at his hotel door. The man who convinced him to go to Mexico City was now falsely accusing Miguel of fraud. The police put him in a detention cell.

Later, an attorney named Tostado appeared. He loaded men with minor charges into a van. They were being sent to prison, he said, but he would be able to save them for a fee of 800 pesos.

One by one, the men were driven to their homes where loved ones paid the fee. Miguel was the last man in the van. Miguel tried to convince him to let him go; he would pay him later, he lied, stating his father was wealthy Hacendado. Tostado let him make a phone call. He pretended to make the call and reported that as it was Sunday his father was at the track racing his prized horses and could not be reached. Tostado told the driver to head to the Palacio de Lecumberri.

Built in 1900, Palacio de Lecumberri was the “Black Palace,” a prison in the form of a castle, where corruption, murder and beatings were common. Tostado left Miguel with the guards.

Which is how he found himself that morning standing before two cellblocks, with a choice of which way to go – with the rabble in general population or with the upper classes.

For the next several days Miguel dined on steak and listened to the stories of imprisoned generals and bureaucrats who claimed they had been betrayed. Every day he saw bodies dragged from the general population ward. And every day he signed the 500 peso vouchers with no way to pay, fearing he would soon join them. At night alone in his cell he would recall his mother’s lullaby and fall asleep imagining how different his life would have been if she were still alive.

On his fifth day at Lecumberri, two prisoners came to his cell and took him to a room. They demanded payment for the days he’d been there. Miguel told them his father would come soon; everything would be taken care of. Had his father received the letter he sent? Even if he had, how would his father know that he was in Lecumberri? But he stuck to his story. The men yelled louder and grabbed him to throw him in the general population ward. There, he knew, he’d likely be killed as someone from the luxury ward who thought of himself as upper class.

At that moment, two soldiers with bayonets stormed in.

“Let him go!”

Miguel heard the prisoners pleading for his tie and jacket as the soldiers took him to the vast main hall. There stood his father with Major Rubalcava. Miguel was stunned. He reached out to shake hands with his father and the Major.

He began to tell the Major that he had been signing daily vouchers of $500 pesos.

“Don’t even think of paying those crooks.”

As they drove away from the Black Palace, Miguel asked his father how he found him. His father had received his letter and sought him out at the Hotel Juarez, where he learned of his arrest.

They returned to Michoacán. The only open seats on the bus where separated and they were not able to sit together. But, anyway, Miguel’s father was stoic and not inclined to conversation.

They arrived at the village; the smell of guavas filled the air. The same cobblestone streets passed the same multi-colored homes, with the same people sitting at their front doors.

His younger brothers and sisters were welcoming, but he felt the cold stare of his stepmother.

That night, Miguel awoke to his father praying over him. He lay there, pretending to sleep, as, for the first and last time, he saw his father’s tears.

He worked daily from sunrise to sunset. He socialized with the townspeople but he no longer spoke or thought like them. He’d been gone too long.

One day Miguel attempted to load a bushel of hay on the horse and missed. His father yelled at him, “You’re of no use! The calluses on your hands have disappeared. You’re no longer good for this work.”

Miguel kept silent and felt the distance between them.

Weeks passed and Miguel could not find himself in the village.

After a month, without saying a word, he left.

On The 194

I was on the bus from Baldwin Park heading to Alhambra to visit my folks one day. I chose a seat in the back. To my left, a few seats away, were two older people, a Mexican-American man and a Chinese woman. She wore a cropped hot pink jacket with ¾ length sleeves called a bolero.

He was turned sideways in his seat so as to face her and talking animatedly. Sounded like he was talking about some people they knew and reprimanding her about something. She just kept looking straight ahead. He went on talking. I lost interest in them.

The ride grew mundane. Stops, starts … people got on, people got off.

The familiar beeep, beeep, beeep, like a trash truck backing up, rang through the bus. We agonized. We knew it was going to be a prolonged stop as the wheelchair access ramp lowered. Bus riders fight our resentment when a handicapped person boards.

People in the front seats looked around at each other and hoped someone else would give up their seats before the driver made them. A young couple finally got up as the wheelchair ramp rose slowly. Finally, the wheelchair appeared. A heavy-set black woman was in it. She had six plastic bags of bottles and cans tied to the back of her chair. They crinkled loudly as she backed up into her spot. She turned and glared at the people around her like a warning not to look or comment on her obnoxious load.

Finally, we reached the El Monte Bus Terminal and the old Chinese woman in the pink bolero- jacket stood up to get off. The older Latino man stood with her. As she took a step, he grabbed the corner of her jacket.

“WAIT!” he said. “That’s my jacket! Give me my jacket!”

What!? Weren’t they a couple? How could that tiny hot-pink garment have been his jacket?

She pulled forward past the rear exit in the direction of the driver. She took a step. The man took a step. He held fast to the jacket.

“CWASY!! CWAAAASSSYYYY MAN!” she screamed.

He kept his hold but said nothing. He had a grin on his face.

An even older Mexican man stuck his leg out into the aisle attempting to exit. The two continued advancing in their same manner, around the older fellow. The Chinese woman still screamed those two English words.

All of us were watching. No one said a thing.

I’ve ridden the bus for seven years, off and on. There is a temporary society that forms daily on buses all over L.A. Unspoken rules apply. Find a seat and mind your own business. In street language, “If you don’t want no shit, don’t start no shit.” When something unusual happens on the bus – and that happens everyday – you behave as if it were ordinary. If you get involved in nonsense on the bus, you are on your own.

A car provides a little sanctuary from the street. The bus is like bringing the street with you. This is transportation for bums, little grannies, the mentally challenged, the polite, the bathed, the uncouth, and the unbearable. All are allowed to ride.

I have sat next to all of them.

I remember one late evening, a handsome white guy was sitting in the front seats that face the aisle. In the seats surrounding him were Mexican men dusty and tired on their trip home from work. The young man asked if they spoke English. They shook their heads. He had bottles in his coat. One by one he pulled out big bottles of liquor, each more fancier than the last. In English, he was presenting each bottle for sale. After each bottle, he would pause for a sign of interest. The men smiled and waited for what was next. Funny gringo with his stolen bottles!

“And for the grand finale …” and he reached in his jacket behind him. Everyone waited but the bottle was stuck.

“Wait …” he said sheepishly.

Everyone laughed. The bottle finally came loose from his waistband in his back.

“The grand finale is … Blue Sapphire!”

He pulled out a large pretty bottle of dry gin. The men laughed and clapped. No one, however, bought a bottle. I guess it wasn’t payday.

On a trip through Chinatown one day, a Chinese woman wanted to get off the bus. It was late afternoon and we were all drowsy, when all of a sudden, the woman screamed “BACK DOOR!!!!” Everyone jumped and some young Asian guy shouts “Shit, Lady! Calm the fuck down! I thought there was a bomb!” We all had to resettle our hearts.

One early afternoon, I sat at the back of a half-empty bus through Boyle Heights. Three boys of about 15 or 16 with skateboards and a man about 40 sat near me. One of the skaters faced me and the man sat a seat away from him. I didn’t pay attention to the man until he stretched out his arm and began to rub the skater’s back. The man had his eyes closed with a smile on his face. It was creepy. The boy looked at me. I smiled to be supportive but he misinterpreted this as amusement. The boy, embarrassed, scowled back at me. I wanted to say something but I couldn’t think of something that wouldn’t make the situation worse.

“Stop touching me, man.”

The guy opened his eyes. He was yanked out of his high. Out of his fantasyland and now embarrassed, he got angry.

“What did you say?”

The skater gulped.

“You’re touching me, man. Stop touching me,” he said in a small voice created with all the courage he could muster.

With that, the man got up and stood above the boy. The skater looked up at him and I could see his fear. There was a frozen moment where none of us wanted to move or speak. The man said nothing but reached into his back pocket for a weapon. The other two skaters rose immediately to their friend’s aid with skateboards in their hands ready to strike. The man pulled out a screwdriver. I thought quickly of how I would jump over the seats to safety. I’m a single mom. I can’t be in this fight. By God’s grace, the man put his screwdriver away and got off the bus at the next stop. As the bus pulled away, the boys made gestures of ridicule at the man, who yelled threats from outside. It happened so quietly no one except I knew any incident occurred.

We are a mix of people, each with a reason to be on that ride, journeying in a hunk of steel. We’re stuck together but still in our own isolation pretending not to be a participant in this mad mini-world until our destination, where we can exhale.

That’s especially true when a crazy person boards. The bus allows them to remove all the self-restraint they display in other public arenas. On a ride to pick up my son from school, a man started in.

“I am on to you. You all think you are so slick. One of you gets off, another gets on. Or you guys rotate seats pretending you just want to find a better seat but I know you are all spies. The government is not as smart as me. But I forgive you guys. You are just doing what you’re told.”

When my stop came, he stopped rambling. I guess I was his audience.

That Chinese woman in the pink jacket made it to the front of the bus eventually. The Mexican man still attached to her. She stopped, turned to the driver, pointed to the Mexican man and repeated “Cwasy!”’ with a look that screamed, “Help me please!”

“Are you gonna get off this bus?” he said in a flat tone.

They went down the steps of the bus and the man let go of her jacket.

The last I saw of them, she was running into the crowd with her jacket. He strolled off in a different direction with a smug look on his face.

His fun had ended. He was off the bus and the rules had changed.

Cardboard Box Dreams

The train screeched to a halt in Empalme, Sonora. Don Luis adjusted his wide-brimmed sombrero over his head and clutched his small bag tightly to his chest. It carried the barest essentials: one change of clothes, including a thin shirt and a pair of pants for the journey that lay ahead.

He dipped his hand into a pocket and retrieved the identity documents he’d need to be contracted as a bracero. The men filed out of their seats, adjusting their norteño hats. Empalme represented one more stop along their journey – a junction, as its name in Spanish implies, a temporary way-station en route to El Norte.

Men sat cross-legged, others propped themselves against each other, their hats slumped over their faces, shielding them from the Sonoran heat. Lines of aspiring braceros snaked around the station. They shuffled their feet, kicking up dust, waiting for the lista de braceros, the bracero list from their home state regions to be called.

The loudspeakers above the station crackled for a few seconds. Braceros perked their ears, standing at attention. The contracting was finished for the day.

Don Luis, joined by two paisanos from his home village, dug his hand into a pocket. Against his coarse fingers, he felt the smooth round pesos inside the lining of his pants. His buddies did the same. Put together, this would buy them arroz y frijoles at the food stand.

“¿Y ahora, qué?” And now, what? He turned to ask his buddies, as sunset neared. He wiped sweat off his forehead.

They joined the throngs of men leaving the station in search of shelter. Dust coated their shoes and sandals.

By evening, Don Luis and his paisanos walked the neighborhoods of Empalme. Men, women, and children spilled from their homes. They lounged in their front yards, scantily dressed in thin shorts and t- shirts.

“Un peso,” a man in shorts said to them, as he walked across his small yard. “¿Cuántos?” he asked, leading them into his house. How many?

Tres,” Don Luis was about to say. But by then, ten braceros gathered at the door. They each drew into their shirt pocket, pants, or bag. One peso per bracero. The man led them indoors, as Don Luis and his paisanos laid cardboard slats on the ground. For a peso each, he furnished them with a piece of floor. It beat sleeping on the hot Empalme roads, nakedly exposed to passers-by.

The men laid the cardboard in neat rows. Don Luis laid his back on the cardboard. Its hard edges rubbed his spine. He lay next to his buddy. He wanted nothing more than to sleep and dream. It must be two in the morning now. He licked beads of sweat off his lips, salty like the rest of his body.

Salty like the lake next to the railroad tracks that he remembered from his first stint as a bracero. Destination: Salt Lake City in Utah. Los Estados Unidos had asked for brazos, arms to be put to work in the fields and on the tracks during the war. Those first braceros had boarded the train flashing the “V” for victory sign. Some had returned in ’43 and ’44, wearing jeans and belt buckles, and their wallets a little fatter.

So he’d followed their lead and boarded a train in Mexico and a bus at the U.S-Mexico border bound for Utah. The bus made a final stop in Reno, Nevada, where he’d slept two nights in barracks before arriving at the snowy bracero camp. Don Luis and the men shivered in their thin shirts. To battle the cold, he purchased a sheep-skin coat that ran down the length of his pants. With it, he survived the cold blasts working on the railroad tracks.

Now, he yearned for even a driblet of that icy wind to extinguish the heat radiating from his body. It never came, and neither did the sleep.

At dawn, the men rose from their cardboard beds and headed to the contracting station. A swarm of braceros paced back and forth. They waited. And waited some more.

The hunger pangs were not long in coming. Don Luis dipped into his pant pocket.

Ni un cinco,” he said. Not a nickel.

They left the station and soon found themselves on a street on the outskirts of Empalme. A man summoned them over. He stood outside his yard pointing to trash cans on the side of his home, a water hose, and a littered sidewalk.

“Clean the debris and trash from the sidewalk. Use a water hose to wash it all out. Just be sure to not splatter too much mud.”

They worked through the hollow in their stomachs. When all was done, they had earned a few pesos each for their efforts and a meal for the day.

That night, it was back to the cama de cartón. Don Luis rested his head and body, in search of sleep. But it wouldn’t come, just like the work contract that hadn’t come today.

At dawn, a smaller number of braceros congregated outside the contracting station. Loudspeakers blared out names. For the unlucky, it was the call to surrender. Holding their small bags at their sides, braceros trudged back to the depot and a trip back to their village or some other place to try their luck.

Don Luis watched them go. They boarded just as they had arrived: with small bags tucked under their arms, sombreros atop their heads. But bowed lower this time.

Just then a fleet of buses circled the station and pulled into the depot. Brakes screeched. Doors opened wide.

The men filed out of the bus, some carrying boxes.

Don Luis walked towards the bustling crowd. Suddenly, he spotted a familiar face. A voice drew near, as a hand, calloused just like his, reached for a handshake. It was a good friend. He carried bags.

“I’ve been all over,” he said.

The man began to rattle off all the places he’d been, all the things he’d seen. Don Luis stopped him short.

Mire, no me platique tanto. No hemos comido. Denos algo.” Look, don’t rattle off so much. We haven’t eaten. Give us something.

The paisano reached into his pocket, and dropped several pesos into Don Luis’ hands. He put his arm over his shoulder. Then he gathered his belongings and headed towards the buses departing south.

Don Luis took the money. The aroma of rice and beans from the food stand beckoned him. For the first time in a long time coins clinked in his pocket, weighing down his pants.

The money carried them through another three days.

He and his buddies waited each day at the contracting station. The coins in his pockets dwindled. And then the loudspeakers crackled.

Ya salió la lista!” The list has come out! At last, the list of braceros.

Outside, Don Luis played with the few remaining coins in his pocket, turning them over and over in his fingers.

He hadn’t yet stepped inside the contracting station, but already, his mind was churning. If he was lucky enough to get a three-month contract, he’d walk into a money order station and send almost all his money home. With a six-month extension on that contract, he’d buy cloth for his wife and the girls to order tailor- made dresses. He’d get shirts and pants for the boys.

And if the dollars stretched far enough, he’d buy a battery-powered radio for his family. It would be one of the few in his village back home without electricity. He’d package it all with great care and tie it with twine inside a sturdy brown cardboard box.