Introduction to Volume 2

The story of an almost-blind Czech child and that of an East L.A. boy fascinated with Albert Einstein. A girl running off to Mexico at 16 to marry a man she can’t understand. A gang member painting a mural to his barrio. A bracero coming to save the crops during World War II and a young man helping a friend cross the U.S.-Mexico border. A woman dying alone with her memories and another haunted by spirits.

These are the stories you’ll find in this, the second volume produced by eight new authors in my Tell Your True Tale writing workshop at East L.A. public library.

The thin volume you hold in your hands grew from an experiment tried in 2013. Daniel Hernandez and I began discussing a speech I had coming up at the Chicano Resource Center, which he directs, at the library.

I’d been doing these workshops occasionally over the previous five years. Up to that point, however, all had been connected to a speaking engagement at a high school or college – and one parochial elementary school. I had more than 50 stories up on my website (www.samquinones.com).

I designed the workshop to demystify writing by getting people writing stories from their own lives, or those of people close to them. This, I’ve found, is 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 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.

I proposed a writing workshop at the library. Nothing like it had been tried at the library, as far as Daniel knew. But why not?

So in the fall of 2013 we gave it a try. The experience from that first six-week workshop was exhilarating, watching new writers find confidence and, from that, energy for the endeavor of translating a story from their minds to the page. The volume of seven stories it produced was a sublime mosaic of life in East Los Angeles, produced by people, most of whom had never published a word before that.

So, with the support of Susan Broman, chief of Adult and Digital Services at the Los Angeles County Library system, we tried it again.

We put out the word and eventually eight writers and I met over six Saturdays in the fall of 2014. Together, we discussed stories they might write. Then we talked about how they might structure them; how they might start them, end them, what new information they needed. As weeks passed and the stories took shape, we discussed 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, then rewrote them again – because writing is really rewriting. In rewriting, a writer learns the craft.

Six workshops later, we have this second volume, beautifully designed by one of the writers, Eric Franco Aguilar.

The stories you are holding are terrific tales, simply told. Yet the simplicity with which the authors present them belies the work they’ve put in to make them so. This is the point of the True Tale workshops: strong, clear writing takes some work. It requires discussion, rewriting. It bids the writer become a reporter, and discover the excitement of finding new facts, new details, new ways of understanding.

It is as exhilarating as birth – watching a story come to life, often in a shape the writer hadn’t imagined at the outset.

In her second Tell Your True Tale story, Olivia Segura recounts her father’s time as a bracero in a community in northern California during World War II when more than a hundred workers took sick.

Brian Rivera chronicles the trip some friends took to Tijuana to help another, recently deported, cross back into the United States.

Susanna Whitmore remembers the brief encounter with Mexican immigration officials as she was running away to Mexico to become a child bride.

Julio Navarro has forged the story of his aunt, a woman haunted by spirits while living an otherwise typical suburban life here in the United States.

Louie Flores tells us of his participation in painting the mural to Varrio Nueva Estrada, the gang he belonged to at the time.

Eric Franco Aguilar writes of the last days of his aunt in a room as she remembers the bitter and the sweet.

Ondrej Franek explains what life was like growing up in a Czech communist boarding school for “almost-blind” kids.

C.J. Salgado remembers his fascination with Albert Einstein and the possibilities El Genio offered to a boy growing up in East L.A.

None of this would be possible without the support of the Los Angeles County Library system, and, in particular, Susan Broman. I also thank Daniel Hernandez, for his willingness to take a risk on an idea that hadn’t been tried before.

We hope to do more workshops, both at East LA public library and at other branches of the country library system.

Meanwhile, enjoy these stories, in the second volume of Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles.

Then come write your own.

Sam Quinones
www.samquinones.com

The Garage

volume2

When I was in elementary school in East L.A. I would climb atop our rickety garage at night and stare up at the moon, the stars, and space. The roof was flat with a shallow slope. It was perfect for lying on my back. I’d wave a flashlight into space, the beam of light zooming out as far as my imagination would reach.

There I wondered about the world around me. I had grown up in East L.A. and knew not much more. My parents, immigrants, had settled here because my mother was a shopper who dreamed of owning a home and for about $20,000, she bought one.

The only times I ventured away was when my parents would take us on family outings, usually on Sundays after church. Protective, they kept my siblings and me close and warned us about the “cholos.” The garage became my refuge.

Lying atop that garage, I used to think there was a giant “bubble” around my neighborhood and, if I aimed my flashlight just right, I’d see the rainbow colors as the beam of light pierced the bubble wall. How far away was that bubble? Would it bend my light? Could I pop it? And, if I could, what was beyond?

It was the great physicist Albert Einstein who put that flashlight in my hand. His ideas fascinated me as a little boy. His mysteries of space and time opened my eyes to the light. He had been dead for years, but to me he lived on in books. I read all the English books I could find on him. When I could find no more books at school, my father would take me to the East Los Angeles Public Library for more.

How I settled into this path is a mystery to me now. I was learning English as a second language. Early on in my schooling I was assigned a seat at the back of the classroom; I felt like an outcast, but it also drove me to daydream a lot. As if to mollify my loneliness, I found and reveled in inspiration from El Genio.

Staring at so many stars outside of that bubble, I felt as overwhelmed as the inhabitants of Lagash, a fictional planet in Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, one of my favorite science fiction short stories because it played on Einstein’s ideas of gravity and light. Their planet experienced unending sunlight because of multiple suns, so the night was unknown to them.

When night finally comes, due to a quirk in the orbit of one of their stars, like me, they discovered the glittering night sky. Unlike me, though, they succumbed to “star madness” at the realization of the infiniteness of space.

Mad or not, I just opened my eyes wider and remembered what Einstein said:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed.”

I knew what he meant. I felt so little then, beneath the vast night sky atop my garage. But Einstein’s genius was my telescope. His ideas took me away, far beyond the bubble. He showed that a tiny amount of matter could create an enormous amount of energy. Yes, E=MC2 meant that even this little boy’s few atoms were plenty poderoso, a power I found liberating and expanding.

If I could ride a ray of light, I would see amazing things. I could slow time and grow massively bigger! “Woohoo!” I’d yell as I stretched out my short arms and pointed the flashlight towards the vastness of space.

Back on earth, one of my classmates, Rosario, a smart girl with dark, straight hair down to below her knees, and round glasses, would often tout all the books she read. Secretly, I tried to keep up with her, but she usually beat me. My ego had long capitulated to Rosario. Had I known back then what I know today, that little girls tend to develop reading skills earlier than boys, it would have saved me a lot of grief.

Instead, to add sal to the wound, one day she put a book to my face exclaiming she had read it all in a single day. It was about Einstein! She even went as far as to claim, based on her reading that one book, that Einstein was not really the greatest thinker of physics of the 20th century and his ideas on space and time could be attributed to the work of earlier physicists. Newton, Planck, Maxwell, she went on, were the real geniuses.

My face turned rojo and I sizzled with coraje at her blasphemy! I prayed that Einstein would send me a sign to prove her wrong.

“I don’t see what all the fuss is about Einstein,” she said. “It’s much ado about nothing.”

“Yes, earlier great thinkers came up with important ideas,” I told her. “But Einstein put them all together in a way that was so special and so new. He really was a genius.”

“No, they weren’t his ideas. And I hate his hair!”

I tried to set her right, arguing with her until azul in the face, but to no avail. She was firm in her conviction and never flinched. She moved on to another book about something else. Sometimes I wondered if it was really just a hair thing between Rosario and Einstein. Regardless, to Rosario, matter closed.

I wish I could say that I was mature enough at that age to move past this traumatic encounter with Rosario. Unfortunately, not only did her words bother me back then, but I’ve also tormented over her “much ado about nothing” since.

Maybe it bothered me because I had come to believe through Einstein that there were wondrous possibilities out there, beyond my bubble. Maybe it was because the mysteries upon which Einstein pondered called to me, too. Or, maybe I didn’t ever want to come down off that garage.

Off of it, I was out of place and burdened by these great mysteries. It wasn’t like I could discuss these ideas with other kids. Rosario was the only one. Back then kids in East L.A. didn’t talk about such stuff. And the only way to “cruise” was on Whittier Boulevard, not in outer space. Our heroes were wrestlers, soccer players, and saints.

Like the other kids in the neighborhood, I too pretended to be El Santo, Demonio Azul, Mil Máscaras, or other favorite masked luchadores. I surely enjoyed when my father took me to the Olympic Auditorium to watch the wrestling matches in person.

But my secret hero was a physicist. So much so that to this day, I even have an Albert Einstein action figure. Friend or not, I wasn’t about to let Rosario undo that. Every time I glance at it, I go back to that garage and back to Rosario.

Her comment was a deep blow to me and to my fancy that I too could bend like light and amount to something more that what was expected of a kid from East L.A.

I stopped talking to Rosario. The years passed and I never saw her again. Eventually, I did come down from that garage for good. It was demolished to make way for a new one that had a gabled roof with a pitch too steep to lie on.

It’s been a long time since I’ve waved a flashlight at the stars. But I did become a physicist. Just goes to prove that a life, like a path of light, can be changed, as Einstein said it would.

Recent scientific findings show Einstein was right all along: “Scientists have discovered what Albert Einstein predicted almost a century ago should exist – ripples in the fabric of space-time,” read the newspaper stories.

Choosing physics was the right path for me. I’ve met Nobel Laureates Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe; studied at renowned national laboratories like Los Alamos National Lab and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center; and I was even invited to the White House as a model “young scientist-ambassador” for a federal energy program.

Yet it’s been a long, lonely journey, too. In high school and college there were but a few, if any, Latinos in my upper physics and math classes. Latinos seemed to view courses on theoretical physics or vector calculus as irrelevant. I felt an outcast as a kid in East Los Angeles.

Which is why Rosario and the way she dismissed my inspiration haunted me for years. I wondered if I’d ever reconcile Einstein and East L.A.

Then one day, I was driving home from work when I glanced to the side and saw him on a mural in East L.A. El Genio was back.

The mural was on the wall of a skate shop called “The Garage.” I pulled over and went in the store. A clerk told me the store does more than sell skateboards and gear. It provides after-school tutoring to underprivileged kids, striving to instill in them an appreciation for academics, as they do their homework and practice skateboarding. These were “high risk kids that don’t know the true meaning of teamwork and didn’t have much interest in school.”

Inside it was like a cross between a sport store and a lounge. Some kids were fiddling with their skateboards; some were admiring the display of trophies won in team skating competitions; and some sat discussing homework with the college students hired to tutor them.

I asked about the mural. They wanted the kids to understand that math and science were ever present, even in the skating motions of these hard-core street riders…a kickflip, an ollie, or an Indy grab. So they had chosen a mural of Einstein to reflect their high expectations that the kids were to “apply themselves in their academics as well as in their skating.”

Outside the shop, I stood and gaped at the mural. I once thought I was alone inside a bubble in East L.A. But outside that store, I was set free. Seeing the mural confirmed what the encounter with Rosario had made me doubt: That, as Einstein believed was true of light, you could bend away from the path you appeared destined to take.

And at that moment, I felt at home at last in the neighborhood where I grew up.

In The Company Of Memories

A long crackled road runs through a small collection of houses, a village far from any city. The sky above this village is light gray during winter and the fields of green crops are now dry and faded yellow.

A long crackled road runs through a small collection of houses, a village far from any city. The sky above this village is light gray during winter and the fields of green crops are now dry and faded yellow.

On one quiet street sits an orange adobe, home to an elderly couple. He sits at the kitchen table drinking coffee with a crinkled newspaper by his side; she spends her day lying in a bed in the next room.

Margarita has been resting in this frigid room for weeks now. The glow from an unwatched television is the only illumination. She has lived in this house for most of her life, in this farming town two hours from the state’s capital. Opportunities are scarce, and most of the people she knows have left in hopes of a better future elsewhere. Relatives occasionally visit, but Margarita finds herself mostly alone, in the company of memories common to a woman her age.

By closing her eyes she transports herself to another time. It helps distract her from more recent events.

Life has always been difficult here alongside her husband, Sergio, and he’s not making these last days any easier. Excruciating stomach pain, that’s what led to the hospital visit. She learned of her illness from him that day. Beginning to feel ill, she was resting in this very bed when she heard him bickering with one of their daughters.

“You’ve got to come quick, my mother is still feeling really sick!” their daughter said.

“Shut up, woman!” Sergio replied. “The doctor already said that it’s cancer; there isn’t any hope for her!”

His words bruised more than any of his blows, hurt more than his adultery, said more than any of his drunken confessions.

She has been in this room ever since. At the mercy of time.

“It was never part of my plan to come back,” she thinks.

Years before, she had traveled to East Los Angeles. A time in her life that shines brighter than any other. She spent an entire year in the United States, and there she was reunited with seven of her nine children. She worked, made her own money, and found a safe haven from the abuse of the man she married at sixteen.

She was not driven there by the promise of money or a better life. She wanted only to attend the wedding of a son, so she spent three days on a cramped bus to Baja California. The journey up north was made easy by the human smugglers who were then abundant in her town. Laura, a woman from her hometown, met her at the bus station. Small in stature, large in confidence, the young Laura was an experienced human smuggler, and that day she was Margarita’s guide.

“Don’t worry about a thing, Ms. Mago. We’ll cross today, stay the night in a house nearby and we’ll leave for L.A. first thing in the morning.”

Margarita ceased trembling. She could already see her children’s faces.

Laura and her group of smugglers had a routine that earned them an admirable reputation in the business. Back then the U.S./Mexico border was easier to cross. Other migrants struggled through hills and deserts; Laura’s expensive services required less physical strain.

At dawn they gathered the small group of migrants at a truck parking lot in Tijuana. Margarita could see Laura’s breath as she gave instructions. They were taken to a less secured part of the border. All it took was a leap over a wall, and they were on U.S. soil. A few minutes’ walk away Laura’s men were waiting in a van. They drove to a safe house in San Ysidro where they spent the night. The checkpoints were the only concern now. But the smugglers had learned what time of day the highways were less patrolled. A few hours later, Margarita was in Los Angeles.

She arrived with days to spare before the wedding. A great number of people attended. She found herself surrounded by relatives she hadn’t seen in years. The grin on her son’s face was unerasable that day. Margarita was awed by her daughter-in-law’s elegant white dress and stared at it with some envy.

“What a difference,” she thought, remembering her marriage to Sergio. They were kids and had been seeing each other for some time, when one day they decided Margarita would move in with Sergio without her parents’ consent. It was a rebellious method of matrimony practiced frequently in Mexican small towns. “Stealing a wife,” people called it.

Sergio waited outside of her school on her last day. She left with him still wearing her school uniform, trading in the life of a student for that of a wife. There was no graceful white dress; no adoring relatives. Together they walked on the dirt path that led to their new life.

“It wasn’t anything like a real wedding, not like this” she murmured. This was heavenly.

She now wanted to stay in Los Angeles. It didn’t matter that she didn’t understand the country’s language, or that her obligations at home would be ignored. All she wanted to do was pursue a more comfortable life here, near her children.

She still prides herself in the job she found: Babysitting children and getting paid quite well for it; much more money than she had seen back home. With the money earned, she’d take the bus down Whittier Boulevard and get off on Ferris Avenue to visit her sister-in-law – Sergio’s sister – one of her closest friends. Together they would go to shopping centers, grab a bite to eat, and spend hours talking.

In East L.A., she was again surrounded by her children who had left Mexico young to find work. She could never hide her pride in them. They worked tirelessly, starting families, and none possessing a single vice. Margarita prepared their meals before they headed out to work, as she had when they were kids. They always appreciated her labor, especially her first born, Daniel. Her connection with Daniel was different than the one she had with the rest of her sons. He was the oldest, and thus the authority figure among his brothers and sisters.

Margarita lived in his house in East L.A. and spent more time with him than with the others.

With her children and grandchildren, she would attend church every Sunday, and go out for a day in the city afterwards. Daniel and the rest of her children were her strength and support, and they continued to be so even after she had returned to Mexico.

She remembers when their existence had kept her alive back in the village. She had heard rumors of Sergio having an affair with another women, so she followed him one day and furiously confronted him at the home of his mistress. Sergio was not ashamed. Instead, in a fit of rage he forced Margarita into his truck and drove off. He shouted obscenities at her as he drove, telling her she had no right to offend his mistress, that she was just jealous of not being a real woman like his girlfriend. Margarita shouted in return. Sergio threatened to kill her. He drove to the isolated hills far outside the town.

“I’m going to end you right here!” Sergio yelled.

“Well, wait until your kids find out, just wait until Daniel finds out what you did to me. Let’s see how you deal with them!”

Sergio stopped the car, froze for a few seconds, forced Margarita out of the car, and drove off, leaving her miles from home.

Years later, in this room in her house in the village, she still thinks of her children, still misses her life with them, far from here.

It wasn’t her idea to come back. Sergio’s phone calls became insistent.

“What are you thinking? You’ve been over there way too long. I need you back.”

Her children asked her to stay, but she gave in to Sergio’s demands. She boarded a plane and headed back.

Now she’s lost track of the years that have passed since she last saw her children.

Her movements on this bed are limited. Each time she shifts, the creaking of the bed echoes through the empty room; but otherwise, it’s silent.

She has taken all the doctor’s medication, but that burning pain that started in her stomach has now spread through her body, and she hasn’t been able to empty her bladder since last night. All she does now is remember.

Then she is roused from her reverie. Footsteps draw near. She opens her eyes. She is no longer remembering but alive in the moment. Shoes scrape the dirt floor. Her door opens and she hears Daniel’s voice.

“Mom, I’m here.”

The Mural

In the summer of 1973, I was one of the kids who painted the mural in the Estrada Courts housing project in honor of the gang I belonged to, Varrio Nueva Estrada.

That was my last summer in the varrio before my enlistment.

Varrio Nueva Estrada had formed thirty years before by guys who lived in the project in the 1940s. By the 1970s, VNE was very large, one of the largest gangs in East L.A. It included several cliques. Mine was the Dukes. I was 18 years old and the first gang member in my family. I never knew my father. My oldest brother was my father figure. He painted furniture at a factory and was fifteen years older than I was. He was an alcoholic and a very prideful man. His pridefulness must have rubbed off on me. Anyway, my mother used to worry a lot about me. There was a lot to worry about. The gang was like my family. I felt I needed to protect my family at all costs. At the time, the varrio was something I would die for.

The mural that summer was funded by the county, which wanted to beautify the East L.A. area. The fire department donated the paint and the Kiwanis Club lent us the scaffolds. A mural was better than graffiti, they figured, and the neighborhood artist proposed a mural that no one would deface with graffiti. It turned out to be a mural showing how long VNE had been there and how long we were planning on staying. It was pride in the neighborhood, meaning the varrio, the gang.

People who didn’t belong to the neighborhood didn’t have any business in the projects – that’s how we felt. We viewed the mural as a statement to other gangs to stay out; that this is VNE headquarters – all of it funded by the county.

About a hundred homeboys worked on that summer youth program, and the VNE wall mural was the first one approved. After it was finished, other murals were painted. Murals went up in the Maravilla projects, the Hazard projects, in Primera Flats – all on county property with county funding. They all did the same thing we did, which was to glorify our neighborhood, our gang.

The mural takes me back to that summer of 1973. I was drinking a lot and I used to get high on reds and whites. I smoked marijuana a lot, too. I was a follower and I needed to fit in. I got picked at random to help out on a crew of five painters. None of us were artists, but it made a lot of us feel good for a change. The artist, named Danny Martinez, directed us, telling us which colors to paint where. He had the whole mural outlined in chalk.

The mural is of two hands growing from a tree stump and holding up the letters V-N-E, atop which stands an eagle with a ribbon proclaiming the mural “In memory of a Home Boy. 1973” – all against a royal blue background.

Back then, gang killings were much less common than they became a couple decades later, and we rarely used guns. One night in 1973, though, we got invited to a party in the Florencia area. One of our homeboys was a kid named Noely who lived a few blocks from Estrada Courts. His parents were Russian immigrants, but he spoke Spanish, grew up with us – a white guy and a member of our gang. He was shot and killed at the party. That set off big problems between us and Florencia for many years.

The mural was painted in Noely’s honor. There’s a banner below that reads, in Spanish: “Que Rifan Todo Las Cliqas del Varrio Nueva Estrada, Que Vivan.” (May the Cliques of Varrio Nueva Estrada Rule. Long May They Live.)

For a month I worked on the mural, painting its blue background and the ribbon across the top. I painted with great care, thinking that it had to be perfect so that the rest of the mural could look nice.

Many years later, I talked to Danny Martinez, who drew the mural. He explained that the tree stump represented the years that the varrio had been in the projects. Like a tree, the varrio had grown. The hand represented how we were holding up the varrio to glorify it. The eagle was showing the Chicano struggles in the late 60’s and early 70’s. And the ribbon was dedicated to Noely.

Many younger homeboys were on crews that painted those murals. One who became infamous was Ernie “Chuco” Castro. He was about 13 years old at that time, getting high on reds and whites.

The year before the mural, I was arrested for possession and suspicion of sales, so I was on probation when I turned 18. That year, I was beating up a kid in a park and cops arrested me. I was facing my first felony and my probation officer recommended me to the military. So a few months after helping paint the VNE mural, I enlisted in the Army, which turned me around. When I came back in 1977 I was military minded. I moved out of the varrio with my wife.

Later, after I moved away, I remember meeting Chuco’s ex-wife, Jackie. She told me that Chuco was doing some time and they had kids already. He’d been doing heroin by then. Heroin was like an epidemic in East L.A. at the time. A lot of guys into heroin were doing a lot of robberies. I think Chuco got caught up in that.

But I missed it. I was working, driving trucks in the 48 states. So I lost contact with many homeboys. I was no angel. I’d drink heavily for a while. I smoked PCP for a couple years, and gambled.

Then 27 years ago, I just stopped it all. The blackouts got to be too much. I’d come home from the racetrack with nothing. I lost a wife over it. Since then, I’ve been clean, driving trucks, and working on older cars. My second son is getting a PhD in English in New Mexico, so I’m happy about that.

I don’t get over to see the mural too much any more. But when I do, I feel lucky to have gone to serve in the 82nd Airborne Division. I could have ended in prison, or been killed at the rate that I was going. I was sly, sick and wicked and got away with a lot of crimes. I got shot at a couple times, but they missed.

I still run into a few of the homeboys from time to time. One guy, name of Ciclón, was a pretty bad dude then. Now he’s got a bad back. He told me about Chuco. Chuco, he said, had been doing some work for the carnales – the Mexican Mafia. He became a made member. Then, a few years later, he was arrested and, facing life, Chuco became an informant. He testified in a famous case that sent many of the carnales to prison for life.

I hear he’s now in witness protection.

Stepping Foot On The Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brushes Were Forbidden

Russian soldiers made it first. They came to Czechoslovakia in August 1968. I came in August, too. I was born in Czechoslovakia in August, 1970.

Russian soldiers made it first. They came to Czechoslovakia in August 1968. I came in August, too. I was born in Czechoslovakia in August, 1970.

Society Normalization – the government’s Newspeak for Russian occupation – was in full swing by that time and life was not much fun for anybody. Everyone’s career had been planned already by the Communist party planners who lacked any sense of adventure, let alone fun.

Almost blind children were no exception to that rule. The official name of the first school I attended was: “Nine-Year Special Boarding Elementary School for Almost Blind Children.” There was no room for sweet understatements while catching up with American imperialists in the nuclear arms race – as they used to tell us every day.

I escaped this world whenever I could. I would sit down, put on some music, and start wobbling back and forth from my waist up as if the upper part of my body was a plank swaying on a big pelvic hinge. Soon I was in a different world.

In this world, the sun shed light on my great deeds that everyone admired. I travelled around the world. I sacrificed my life for the common good in deep space many times. Big, merry famous women and boarding school teachers were fondling me, giving me long loving hugs for all the good I’d done.

I lived on those daydream love stories many good years before I became aware of sex per se. Those dreams felt so refreshing, so real. More real than my real life. There were so many things in the real life I resented.

Boarding-school dining room air stayed unvaried throughout the years. The whiff of plastic table cloths freshly wiped up with a wet rag never so fresh, mixed with kitchen vapors and seventy more kids’ morning breaths worked like a chemical drum dividing our school days into four segments: classes, supervised leisure time, homework, and bed-time. I was eight years old when I completed the second year of this life, pondering, between the beats of the monotonous dining-room-chemical-drum, how I would survive nine years of this. Nine years was a time span I could not grasp having only lived eight.

Weekend stays at home with my family used to complete the rhythm. Each such weekend ended in a Sunday of Betrayal when I could not continue watching TV with my brother because of late-afternoon back-to-boarding-school “deportation proceedings.” No bag of home grown apples, which my mother never forgot to pack with my clothes for the week, was big enough to rectify the injustice.

This organized world possessed a sorcerer, who could turn whatever fun existed into an ugly farce for her own amusement. I remember my first masquerade ball being turned into a full-blown nightmare when my teacher evaluated my purchased costume as sloppy homework, and dressed me up as a girl making me listen to her comments on my parents’ negligence while she was working on me.

The same nasty spell was cast on painting classes at school. They were humiliating and wet. I never achieved good command of my watercolors set. They never formed the shape required on my drawing paper to represent my mom or whatever my teachers had asked for. Brushes were forbidden so that we could not poke our almost blind eyes by mistake. The only paint-distribution instrument allowed was our own fingers dipped in water.

It was in May when a painting teacher told me that my artistic expression matched that of a five-year-old. I did not respond well to this sort of encouragement. I gave up. I could hide from painting whenever it threatened. So I did Lack of artistic expression seemed utterly irrelevant to the small uptight grey-dressed creature with thick glasses I became at 12. I felt handicapped even among my handicapped peers. That was all that mattered – especially in May. It was this high-spring air of May, which smelled like a heavy perfume carrying the scents of impending summer that blended with my hopes for something better that I could not name.

But eventually my nine-year boarding school term ended. Russian soldiers, too, left long ago. There is no Czechoslovakia any more as we split peacefully in 1993, and American imperialists must have pulled their missiles back in a garage, for we did not hear any more about them. I kept dreaming. I still travelled around the world using the escape trick I’d found during my childhood. My dream deeds changed though my reward for doing them stayed the same. That’s how I first came across a Tantra-Yoga Meditation Center. I fell in love indeed with all that bodywork and mental challenge. Never mind that those guys often made us use painting as an emotional outlet to chill out after an intimacy-challenging experience. This was the first time in twenty years that I could not get out of painting. I still did not like it, yet I accepted it as a reasonable price for the inner peace I was able to achieve bit by bit.

Another ten years went by. I worked hard, travelled enough and tried to love as gently as I could. As I gradually acquired some financial freedom as an IT specialist, my bachelor-life’s defense grew stronger, more reliable. I kept dreaming. I kept avoiding painting whenever possible.

One day, though, I goofed badly by signing up for a retreat with an American mystic who visited my Tantra-Yoga Center. This mystic was a painter. I’m not sure how I missed that. His meditations were painting meditations.

Tantra rule #1: “Do you feel that something is not for you at all? Can you sense the resentment you feel in your stomach? Then you need it most of all.”

I discovered my error too late. Tantra rule #1 combined with an unfriendly cancellation fee to force me to attend.

I set off in an outfit of a professional painter with a portable easel hung over my shoulder, determined to make a good joke of myself. I was also engaged in a theatre group at that time. All theatre directors encourage embarrassment exercises.

It worked wonderfully. I felt really bad among all those serious artists who made long journeys to meet this famous painter. He liked the joke of a blind guy who spends most of his time setting up his equipment and then makes two smears of school-kid watercolors in his 12×20 inch sketchbook on an easel. I liked it, too, after all. We hit it off.

He revisited our eccentric yoga center one year later. That time, I truly wished to participate despite all the painting stuff required. I almost started liking it. His unconventional painting freestyle, in which you meet your canvas as a friend to talk to, or a lover, or a mirror. So different from the painting classes of my school years when I was never capable of painting my mummy.

This time he did not come alone, this famous American painter-mystic. He brought a group of artists with him, most of them from L.A.

The first painting I made I liked, or at least I did not consider it boring fatigue. This took me by surprise as did a woman who came up to comment on it. Though she was from the American group, and an ocean spread between our lives, it did not prevent her from seeing the trees, lights and dancing fairies right where I saw them, too, on my still-wet canvas.

The early symptoms of falling in love entered my heart without any applause the next day. Everyone faces the danger of misconstruction when it comes to saying “I love you” for the first time. Partial blindness does not make it easier. Nor did the bad reputation that American women have in Europe for sexual-harassment lawsuits. I had no intention of becoming a defendant in such a suit.

How likely would you consider the chances of an American independent entrepreneur woman falling in love with an almost blind Czech guy on a painting retreat? I hardly had enough time to contemplate this challenge when another came.

“If I had two hundred of such paintings you were making here at the retreat, I would organize an exhibition for you in L.A.,” the famous American painter-mystic said.

“Yikes, how the hell am I gonna do that? It was not a joke? And what about the girl? The girl from the group of visiting American artists?” A nagging voice in my head would not stop.

“Why not simply show how happy and grateful I am whenever she is around?”

My inner nag seemed to be happy with this and ceased. I liked the idea. Simple enough, lawful enough.

I did much better at showing her my happiness and gratitude than at painting two hundred canvasses. On the magic carpet of the Internet, tied together with a rope of trust when five thousand nine hundred and forty-one miles distance, an eighteen-year age difference, and U.S. immigration laws mustered to scare us, we enjoyed the ride.

It was by sheer fluke that we ended up swimming naked in an open air pool in one of the hot springs resorts scattered along the Slovakia-Hungary border right after the painting retreat had ended and as most of Europe was shivering cold under the flood waters of late spring 2013. Thank heavens we could both work from anywhere in the world, so she could come back to live with me for six weeks in the fall 2013 and see that Prague in autumn is the most seductive of all seasons. After a year and a half of taking turns crossing the Atlantic, writing a book’s worth of e-mails, my shirt almost caught fire from a ceremonial candle at Hollywood SRF Temple while we were exchanging the kiss that made us a married couple on Saturday, September 13, 2014. All this happened easier than sixteen canvasses could be painted. There are still one hundred eighty-four to go.

A Spiritual Misfortune

Street vendors, food stands, and nightly dances were what they were raised on back in Mexico. Ivette lived in Northeast Los Angeles, and visited her sister occasionally. The two would go shopping in the miniature strip malls and boutiques and dine at the mom and pop restaurants.

Street vendors, food stands, and nightly dances were what they were raised on back in Mexico. Ivette lived in Northeast Los Angeles, and visited her sister occasionally. The two would go shopping in the miniature strip malls and boutiques and dine at the mom and pop restaurants.

One Saturday afternoon, the two sisters were walking through downtown Fontana looking for some fun. They were both in their early twenties, and although they were married, they enjoyed being independent.

That day, they came across a psychic’s shop. Alchemist suns and moons hung inside the shop’s mirrored façade. The strong and pleasant smell of incense greeted them at its doors. A hand painted sign announced that they could have their palms read for ten dollars.

They stepped inside. Candles lit the store. Diagrams of human hands were framed on the walls. At the center of the shop was an altar to “La Santa Muerte,” a spirit known as the Lady of the Holy Death, and who in Latin culture has become a saint to some, and an evil spirit to others.

They were greeted by a middle-aged man. His name was Marcos Uribe, and he claimed to be a spiritual reader from Central America.

Marcos read palms, predicted futures through tarot cards, and did spiritual cleansings with herbs and natural elements to fight off evil spirits who haunted unfortunate victims. Ivette had her palm read first, and Marcos told her of her personal and spiritual life. Then he moved on to Maria. He spoke to her kindly. She was weak spiritually, he said. He did not provide many details, but my aunts in the end were content and moved on. They left the shop and that night Ivette returned to Los Angeles.

Maria lived with her husband, Hector, in a two-room apartment, and she would remain home alone throughout the afternoon and night when he was at work in a welding factory.

Once Ivette left that night, Maria’s apartment felt strange.

She noticed small fingerprints on the furniture. She was certain they weren’t hers, and they seemed to be those of children, which she didn’t have at the time. She wiped them off and continued with her housework. But they continued reappearing. She went to sleep, assuming her mind was playing tricks on her. Things got worse.

She slept alone for a few hours, as she always did when her husband worked nights. But she sensed an immense amount of unnatural activity around her. The bed shook throughout the night, and the door opened and closed. By now she was truly afraid. She tried to get to sleep and eventually did, but awoke with nausea the next morning.

That morning, Hector went out to buy her medicine. The nausea had come unexpectedly, and she wondered what was responsible for it. After cooking and cleaning, she spent most of the afternoon talking with neighbors. Her nausea had faded by then, but the sense of something disturbing lurking in the apartment had not. She believed it was all in her head, and had forgotten her visit to the palm reader.

Night came, and as she went to bed, she made sure to lock the bedroom doors. She left the radio on to provide comforting background noise and went to sleep. A few hours later, she woke to an intense shaking of her bed. Then everything began spinning uncontrollably. The room became cold, and my aunt felt a horrible chilling sensation around her neck. She couldn’t tell if this was some nightmare, or if it was really happening. It seemed to last for minutes. Once she was fully conscious, everything stopped. She grabbed a rosary from inside a drawer, and prayed herself to sleep.

She recounted her experience to her husband the next morning. Hector was skeptical of the paranormal, but he took her back to Marcos’ shop. She told him what had happened. Marcos explained that on her previous visit, malevolent spirits may have caught hold of her, and followed her. Witch doctors believe the spirit of a deceased person can remain here on Earth. These spirits of evil beings are “damned,” and not allowed to step into the afterlife. They haunt places, and people, as well.

A spiritual cleansing might solve the problem, he suggested, but he was missing essential herbs. They were coming from Honduras. He told her to look for a spiritual leader, such as someone involved with the church, and ask for assistance in the meantime.

The couple spent the rest of their afternoon in downtown Fontana, and Maria experienced no paranormal activity.

The following day, Maria went to the Catholic Church she attended regularly. She spoke to a priest about her troubles, and he agreed to send someone skilled in these practices to her home. The next day, a priest named Father George arrived. He said prayers, and placed blessed rosaries, miniature figures of Saints and holy water around her apartment, claiming it would fight off the demonic spirits.

Everything seemed better from that day on. Maria returned to Marcos to receive a spiritual cleansing two days later, and she felt as if a huge weight was lifted from her. There were fewer strange occurrences in her apartment from then on. But she occasionally heard whispers, leaving her with the notion that the spirits were not gone. The whispers were of women, yet their voices were so low they were difficult to understand. Sometimes there would be laughter among those whispers. Sometimes groans.

At times she would continue to have frightening nightmares, in which ghosts pulled at her bed sheets and threw objects around the room. But this happened less frequently than before. Once she had her first child, she noticed that when she slept in the same bed with him, there was no paranormal activity. When she did not, she would occasionally hear the spirits whispering.

In 2007, five years after the paranormal activity began, the family moved to La Puente. Maria believed the spirits would remain in her old apartment, but they followed her. Now they would only whisper, and sometimes play with the doors of their new home, but they never disturbed anyone other than Maria. She was never harmed physically.

Today, years later, Maria continues to attend church and prays regularly. She is no longer in contact with Marcos, and the shop closed long ago. Her bond with Ivette remains strong, and the two see each other at least once a week. Though Hector has never experienced anything unordinary, he stands by her, and listens to her experiences.

Maria has come to live a happy life in America. She now has two sons. She takes them to school, and has them enrolled in swimming and youth football and guitar lessons. Maria works as a cook for Olive Garden six days a week.

Yet, as she does, she is fully aware that she remains haunted by the spirits.

Bending Branches

The wooden mess hall was filled with the warm smells of coffee, eggs and bacon. Over 300 workers from Mexico filled up on breakfast for the long day of harvest. The bell rang. They grabbed their sack lunches and jumped onto trucks that took them to the almond and plum fields.

The wooden mess hall was filled with the warm smells of coffee, eggs and bacon. Over 300 workers from Mexico filled up on breakfast for the long day of harvest. The bell rang. They grabbed their sack lunches and jumped onto trucks that took them to the almond and plum fields.

Miguel had arrived at the labor camp in May, a month prior to his 18th birthday. A year before, news filled his village in Mexico about the agreement between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mexican President Miguel Avila Camacho to bring Mexican workers north to rescue U.S. crops from spoiling during World War II.

With a handshake, Miguel pre-sold thirteen bushels of wheat for thirteen silver coins from his father’s farm and ran away from home. He got to Mexico City and camped out at the Estadio Azteca coliseum with thousands of men waiting to be selected to become Braceros, farm workers sent north to help save the crops and feed millions of U.S. soldiers. Weeks later, he was put on a train with hundreds of men headed north. They arrived in El Paso, Texas switched to U.S. trains escorted by the Air Force and continued to California.

He arrived in the town of Colusa in 1943. That year Mexico sent 64,000 men to help the United States. As newspapers in New York and Los Angeles ran headlines of the war — “Allies Reach Palermo” and “Germans Fight to Stave Off Doom” – out in Colusa the local papers reported daily on the Braceros’ progress:

“170 Mexicans Here by Friday” and “Mexican Labor Pours into Colusa, 650 in Sight.”

Colusa County built housing at the fairgrounds to welcome the men. With retired Army Captain Herbert in charge of the Growers Association Labor Camp, the men learned army protocol. Years later, Miguel would still make his bed military style and talk about how he and the other Braceros served as soldiers in the war effort.

The day Miguel received his first paycheck he walked out to the road. Within fifty feet of the camp’s gates a man stopped to pick him up. No Bracero, he learned, ever spent much time walking on the main road without someone offering a lift. Miguel and the driver greeted each other. Neither spoke the other’s language, so they sat, smiled and nodded. The man dropped him off in town.

On Market Street, the local newspaper snapped photos of the Braceros. “These young and swarthy Mexican huskies have just been fitted at the J.C. Penney company store, healthy enthusiastic and ready to go,” read one caption.

Miguel walked into a store and with the help of gestures to a sales person he bought underwear, socks, shoes, a shirt, a hat and his first pair of Levis. He put the clothes on in the store. He smiled at his new look, gave the cashier five dollars and got change in return. He threw out his worn clothes and walked on to Market Street.

Miguel was full of hope and proud of his decision to leave home. But the work on the fields was rough.

In August, three months after their arrival, his group was sent to a field covered with trees bent under the weight of almonds begging to be picked. He and the others put their lunch sacks aside and placed large tarps under the trees. Miguel picked up a rubber sledgehammer and hit the tree trunk. Almonds stormed down like hail. Workers scooped them off the tarp and packed them into metal bins.

They moved row by row as the sun beat down.

The heat reached over 100 degrees when the whistle blew at noon. The men grabbed their lunch sacks and sought shade under the trees. Miguel pulled out an apple and admired it before taking a bite. He had never seen such a huge apple. Next he began to eat the sandwiches. They tasted odd, so he did not finish them. The break ended and the men returned to harvesting the burdened trees.

Two hours passed. As he worked the sun pierced his eyes and he began to feel light headed. Now cold sweat ran down his face. His stomach cramped and the ground beneath his feet turned rubbery. He looked out to the field. All over men held their stomachs. Others bent over vomiting and some sprawled on the ground.

The foreman ran back and forth yelling orders. Miguel was pushed into a truck full of sick, disoriented men. As they moved through the roads he fought the urge to vomit. Every bump and turn felt like a kick. He heard the blaring sirens and the roar of passing trucks. He tried desperately not to lose control.

That day 105 Braceros took violently ill in the fields and packed the two hospitals in Colusa County.

Men were treated on the floor of every corridor, x-ray room, waiting room, and ward of the rural hospitals. Only two doctors were on duty. The nurses, Red Cross and town volunteers joined to help the men. A handful of locals spoke Spanish and ran from patient to patient interpreting for the medical staff.

The sound of his thumping heart filled Miguel’s ears. He was able to walk and moved through this chaos. He did not understand. He left home, went hungry and homeless to get to the United States. When he registered in Mexico City he was told that he would be serving his patriotic duty saving crops to fight the enemies of the Americas. Now he and his compatriots were poisoned. He found an open door and ran.

Years later, he would not remember how he traveled miles to a nearby camp. But he found a shower and opened the cold valve. The water felt like a storm. He stood there washing the toxins from his body in a panic. The room grew dark as the sun went down. Still, he stayed in the shower, and went in and out of delirium for hours.

Then a voice.

“Son, are you okay?”

A grower took him back to the main labor camp. When they arrived Miguel saw men congregating in front of the mess hall as police and county officials investigated. Those in charge only spoke English.

The Braceros understood very little. They talked among themselves trying to make sense of the situation. Some talked about deserting and going back to Mexico. Miguel learned one of the men from his home state had died. He heard of others near death.

Officers escorted Asian mess hall workers to waiting police cars. Rumors spread that the workers were Japanese and had intentionally poised the Mexicans to sabotage the War Food Program. Over a third of the men were in the hospital. Those at the camp refused to eat and did not sleep much that evening.

In the newspaper the next day, the headline “U.S. Forces Raid Japan” shared space with “105 Mexicans Victims Food Poisoned.”

This was Colusa’s first large emergency. State and federal representatives investigated the cause of the poisoning. The official statement was that the outbreak was due to excessive heat combined with a lack of refrigeration for the hundreds of lunches served.

The Mexican government sent a representative to address the fears of the Braceros and ease tensions between the growers and workers.

The California Department of Public Health recommended an immediate change in food distribution to laborers. No deaths were officially reported but Miguel never saw his paisano again and the Asian workers never returned.

In the days that followed, announcements in the papers urged the community to volunteer. The mass food poisoning had depleted the harvest crews. There was no time to lose. The plums were ripening fast and would spoil. The growers had been counting on the Mexicans to rescue the crops, but many of the workers were still recovering. Townspeople turned out to run the dehydrators and drying yards to produce prunes out of the fruit.

Captain Herbert assigned Miguel to the plum fields. Layers of scattered fruit and branches covered the fields. Strong winds had blown much of the fruit to the ground.

Still weak from the food poisoning, Miguel knelt slowly and began picking up each piece of fallen fruit and placing it gently in the bin. Into the night, he and the other able-bodied Mexicans harvested the fruit.

And so, with their work, as they’d promised, the Braceros saved the crops in Colusa.

Leaving Tijuana

It was around 6:30 a.m. when I heard a knock on my window. It was Ernesto.

“They took Ulises.”

He had a look that woke me instantly.

Ulises and I met seven years ago. I was a senior and he was a sophomore at Garfield High School. We shared the same immediate group of friends. Eventually, we forged a brotherhood that made us inseparable.

I met Ernesto outside my apartment and went to Ulises’. We found the house door unlocked. There were half-filled plates on the table and the sink overflowed with soapy water. The burners beneath the comal glowed red, like embers from a waning fire. The door led to the kitchen, where we heard a clicking sound. It was a pot. Although the flame was off, the vapor inside struggled to pry the lid open, like a mouth of steel snapping at us.

We went back to my house and called the rest of the guys.

“They deported Ulises.”

A week went by. Then, one day a phone call.

“Diego. It’s Ulises.”

“Ulises! How are you? Great to hear from you.”

“Same here. Sorry I didn’t call you right away.” He sighed heavily.

“What happened?”

“It’s all a blur. At daybreak, men rushed into my room, guns drawn, in search of a criminal. They searched my room and told me to get dressed. Moments later, I was escorted into a white van by agents armed with automatic weapons. No questions asked.”

I asked how his family was.

“In shock. We lived in our house for over twenty years and never had a problem. We feel lost.”

“How are you?” I asked.

“Blindsided. I don’t recognize anything. I wake up believing I’m home, in East L.A. I may not have been born in the United States, but I was raised there from the age of three. It’s my home.”

Neither of us said a word. Ulises’ breathing was the only thing I could hear.

“We’re going to try to cross again this week,” he said.

We communicated daily after that. Having failed to cross twice, his family was going to attempt to cross a third time, he said on one phone call.

After a deep sigh, he continued.

“I wanted to ask if you guys could pick me up? I can cross back with you.”

I thought about it. Maybe, when crossing the border, a couple of us could pretend to have lost our I.D in our drunken stupor?

“Let me talk to everyone and we’ll go from there. That cool?” I said.

Days later, the guys and I gathered at our friend Salvador’s to discuss what we could do for Ulises.

“What would happen if we were caught?”

“I don’t know.”

Luis suggested he could lend his I.D. and birth certificate to Ulises. They looked nothing alike, but we had no choice.

Ulises called the next day.

“We’re coming to get you,” I said.

“What? Serious? Thank you for doing this for me. We can do this, Diego. Meet me inside the McDonald’s near the border. You won’t miss it.”

***

We met at Luis’ house around 8 PM the next night. We took two cars and headed south on Interstate 5. I rode shotgun in Luis’ car with my brother, Justin, and Oscar in the back seats. Alex drove Ulises’ blue 87’ Ford Explorer. He took Salvador, Gabriel, Marcos, and Ernesto.

“How are you guys feeling?” I asked.

“Nervous.”

“You guys are going to be okay, manito,” Oscar reassured me.

I called Marcos, who was in the other car.

“How you feeling?”

“Good. Excited. It never occurred to me, but it’s the first time we leave the country as a group.”

“Let’s go over what we are going to say once we reach the border one more time.”

“Tell him to relax,” I heard Alex say. “We know what to do. You don’t have to keep lecturing.”

We stopped at a mini-mall in San Ysidro. Blocks away, were parking lots for individuals who preferred to walk across the border. Oscar stayed with Luis. Luis handed me his birth certificate and his California I.D. I gave him a hug. He gave me his blessing.

“What are you guys going to do for four hours?” I asked.

“We’ll see.”

“Be careful.”

“Go bring him home.”

We crossed through a rotating door made of metal cylindrical bars surrounded by concrete walls lined with gleaming barbed wired.

Tijuana oozed of liquor, tacos, piss, McDonald’s fries, and burning trash.

We found Ulises within minutes. I greeted him last.

“Let’s find a bar and have some drinks.”

We walked over to Avenida Revolución. After walking past a few nightclubs, we went up a flight of stairs and into a crowded bar. We sat at a table near the balcony overlooking the avenue. A short man with a face like red leather walked up carrying a bottle of Cazadores tequila. He wore a tejana and blew a whistle that hung around his neck. He approached our dimly lit table and slowly began to tilt Marcos’ head back. With his whistle, he kept time as he poured Marcos a mouthful of tequila.

Our table roared. When he was done pouring the shot, he shook his head and blew his whistle. As the man finished pouring shots of tequila, we asked for the bill.

The mysterious man walked away, an arm around his bottle, blowing his whistle to the rhythm of Pitbull’s “I Know You Want Me,” which was playing for the third time that night.

I sat next to Ulises.

“You okay?”

He gave me a weak smile.

“I’m in disbelief. I went from working eight hours a day, to having nothing. Instantly. No money. No clothes. Nothing. Luckily, we managed to contact relatives who lived in Tijuana. Mind blowing how one minute you are immersed in the comforts of your own home and next thing you know, you find yourself wandering the streets of an unknown city. The reality of my situation is difficult to accept.

“I look out my window and expect to see the downtown L.A. skyline. Instead, I see hills littered with homes made of tin and aluminum.”

We continued to talk and drink.

An hour later, we gave a toast and made our way out back onto la Revolución.

“One more drink somewhere?” I suggested. But from the looks on everyone’s faces, we were ready to go. We took taxis to the border and found ourselves in front of a billboard that read:

“Welcome to Tijuana: A Well Behaved Tourist Is a Welcomed Tourist.”

We walked toward the glass doors. Inside the crossing zone, we were suddenly alone. We expected a room full of people crossing too, but the corridor was empty.

“Go immediately after me,” I told Ulises. “And put this on.”

I gave him a black shirt with the image of President Obama on the front. Beneath Obama’s face was the word “HOPE.”

We were met by a row of solitary cubicles. Border patrol guards beckoned us to approach them. I walked toward the nearest guard with Ulises and Mario close behind. He was an elderly man whose wrinkled face resembled a Chinese Shar Pei. The creases on his uniform shirt were impeccable. He glared at me as I handed him my California I.D.

“And what was the purpose of your visit to Mexico?”

“Pleasure. We came to eat and drink, sir.”

“Here you go,” he said, handing me my passport. I expected Ulises to follow, but Salvador went next.

“You look young. How old are you?”

“Seventeen, sir.”

Salvador handed him his passport.

“What school do you go to?” the agent asked.

“Schurr High School, sir. In Montebello.”

The agent stared at Salvador, holding his school I.D. between his index and middle fingers.

“SURE you do,” he chuckled and allowed Salvador to pass.

I saw Ulises lay Luis’ California I.D. on the counter.

“Go ahead,” the old guard said, and with that Ulises crossed back into the United States.

While Alex delegated with the border patrol agent over not having brought what constituted proper identification, everyone’s eyes met, radiating like madmen.

But we suppressed it as we walked towards the mini-mall and found Luis and Oscar. Finally, we burst out laughing and jumping around. Marcos and I began to drum on the roof of Luis’s car.

“Let’s go home, you guys.”

The night was dark and cold. We got into our cars and pulled out onto the freeway, heading north.

“Where are you staying tonight?” I asked Ulises.

“Not sure.”

“You can stay at my place,” offered Luis.

“Thanks.”

“Stay as long as you like.”

“At least until my family comes back,” Ulises said.

Luis and Oscar began recounting what they did in San Ysidro. I turned and looked at Ulises. He was smiling, as he peered out the back window. Then I saw his smile slowly fade, along with Tijuana in the rear view mirror.