Introduction to Volume 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have benefitted from the visionary sponsorship of the good folks at the L.A. County Library, who have this time around also funded an online editing service. This service is for writers who have finished two or three TYTT workshops and want – need – editing more than anything else. It allows us to continue to open space for new writers into the workshops, while editing the veterans as they continue to pump out great narrative.

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

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

Mary Yogi has been hugely helpful with the digital presentation of TYTT at the library’s website.

Thanks to Jesse Lanz, interim director of Adult and Digital Services for the library system, for his cheerful and energetic support of these workshops.

Eric Franco Aguilar, a TYTT alum, designed yet another terrific cover, his fourth for us.

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

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

Sam Quinones

Made in the U.S.A.

During the summer of 1997, Timothy McVeigh was tried on television for killing people in Oklahoma. The English stood along the streets outside Westminster Abbey to bid farewell to Princess Diana. And in Los Angeles, our closest thing to Sears – the Woolworth’s on Broadway and 8th — closed its doors after years of declining business.

But I knew only a little of that in my small corner of the world on 23rd and Los Angeles streets. I was consumed with having to enroll in summer school and retake sixth grade Algebra.

I told Mr. Alexanian, my Algebra teacher at John Adams Middle School, that I was gravely concerned about having to walk home at 2 pm each day. That was before the B and C tracks kids got out of class, which meant my chances of getting bullied by the other summer school A track girls leaving with me increased. This also meant nobody would be able to call the cops should I get hurt. I would be left bleeding in an alley somewhere and Mom and Dad won’t know how to call the authorities because they don’t speak any English and no one would translate the letters they get at home and ultimately both would get deported back to China. Didn’t he know the consequences of enrollment?

Mr. Alexanian enrolled me anyway.

That summer I got lots of exercise darting out of the school gate at exactly 2 pm and running home. I figured that strategically, I had to vamoose before the other A track girls, and Frances and Susana in particular, got out of class. They would pick on me about the holes in my school uniform and the Payless tennis shoes I wore with the loose flapping soles.

John Adams was one of those schools that consistently scored between a 2 and a 3 out of 10 from GreatSchools.com. Ninety-eight percent of the student population is Hispanic/Latino, two percent African American, and an unlisted contingency of Others, which in 1997, included me and another Chinese kid named Kenny Lu. Typically when other kids met me the second or third question they ask would be, “Is Kenny your brother?” Followed by, “How do you see like that?” Fifty-eight percent of the student body was English proficient, one-hundred percent qualified for free meals, which they endearingly coined “county food,” and two percent of the parents reported to have gone to “some” college. To make us feel better however, our school administrator, Mr. Cortinez, would often say, “Well, at least you’re not at Carver Middle School.”

I thought maybe curling my straight black hair would help me fit in better with the Latina girls, so I begged my mom for a perm. She took me to her hair lady in Chinatown, who gave me the same haircut she gave to everyone else: The Chinese Mom Pouf.

“It’s not ugly,” my mom said, “just look at my hair!”

I envied Kenny because he had friends. His family owned a fast food restaurant and he played basketball. I however had lingering asthma, a hernia, and arthritis in my knees that required me to wear stockings during PE – stockings that we got at Thrifty’s and were either too light or too dark but, either way, never quite matched my skin color. Some days Francis and Susana would throw spitballs at me, and other days it would be gum. Even the one albino kid named Rodolfo had more friends than I.

My dad’s family once owned a business in China, but that was long before I was born. My dad would often recall stories about his father’s humble beginnings and his own childhood growing up in the French Concession in Shanghai before the Cultural Revolution. He told me about his 14 brothers and sisters, about his English-educated mom, about reading western literature, and about his record collection of American swing standards.

My mom on the other hand was the oldest of five kids and they lived in a mud brick hut that their dad had built a few miles from those glamorous French Quarter homes where my father lived. Her mother had more than once sold her own blood during the 1950s to feed her children. My mom grew up with no electricity, no running water, and no education. Chairman Mao’s sweeping reforms during the 1960s and ‘70s were supposed to bring some much-needed equality, but instead plunged the country into poverty, mass starvation, and civil unrest. So when China opened its doors to the world in the late 1980s, we left.

Why me, I often asked my dad. Why do I get picked on so much? Why do I have to be so Chinese-looking? Why wasn’t I born with a last name like Perez or Rodriguez? Why didn’t they give me a sibling to talk to about this kind of stuff? If I had to look so different, why weren’t we at least rich?

My dad admired the US from afar: It was a beacon of democracy and equality. In Chinese, “America” even translated to “country of beauty.” It was the wild west of rugged freedom and infinite possibilities. But in the US, we were back to zero. Without language proficiency, my dad’s degree in engineering meant nothing. My mom was worse off with no formal education beyond the seventh grade. They did what they could in order to eat and as far as rents went, South L.A. was the best we could do.

I rarely got any glimpse of what my parents saw as the promise of the west. The glamour I saw was only on television from those same black and white films my dad watched as a kid. The real world outside of our pink-clapboarded house at 23rd and Los Angeles streets was bleak and unkind. We had warehouses in the neighborhood with gang tags. There was the automotive repair shop across the street, the foul smelling carniceria around the corner that sold expired milk, and prison bars on every window and door on our block. Was this the freedom my dad wanted?

One day after school, with no notice, a carnival came to town. The city made efforts like this in the `90s in hopes they would help revitalize abandoned or underdeveloped areas. It was also a strategy to replace the drive-by shootings and illegal street racings that occurred on Los Angeles Street with safe and family-oriented activities.

So that day there arrived big purple trucks and big green trucks with signs on its sides that read, “Baque Bros Classic Rides & Amusement, Chino, CA.” Piles of thick metal beams and colorful plastic pods were driven in on the backs of long flatbeds. Rides were erected within hours at the foreclosed Knudsen’s milk processing plant across the street from my house. On my way home from school, I saw leathery-faced white men with baseball caps at the lot hammering things.

By nightfall, the Knudsen’s lot, which the day before had only weeds sprouting through its cracks, was transformed into what I imagined Disneyland to be: glowing, glimmering, and vivid. An All-American spectacle of freedom was across the street. Of the rides there, I could see an electric yellow Fun Slide, a big dangling Sea Dragon, and the dazzling Sizzler. There was a Ferris Wheel next to hot pink canopies with propped up bright signs that read “Popcorn” and “Play,” and people lined up around the chain-linked fence waiting for it to open.

My dad was working another of his 24-hour shifts at the motel that day so I had to wait till my mom got home from her sewing factory job. My dad used to scare me and say that I wasn’t allowed to leave the house or answer the phones because the police would come take me away if they found out I was by myself.

At 7:30 pm my mom came home. She put a few dollars in her pocket and walked with me across the street. I had never seen such an arrangement of flashing lights and neon signs. We walked through the cotton candy stands, buttered corn stands, bacon-wrapped hot dog stands, and water gun games. Each corner of the midway was lit with something: Cheese! Drinks! Ride Coupons! The whole place smelled like warm cake and ringed like the inside of a pinball machine. To save money, however, we skipped the food and went straight to the games. I was intimidated by most of the carnival games, so with the two dollars my mom gave me, I opted to toss quarters on plates. I later found that the prize was also a plate.

For the first time there were white people in this part of the town who weren’t police officers or school administrators. They looked average. They were working class, just like us. I would later come to learn that these people were called “carnies,” but at the time I thought they just looked like the Americans on television. The plate stand lady had on an oversized purple shirt and a fanny pack. With her disheveled hair and round face, she asked me, “What are you?”

“Chinese,” I said. “Where do you come from?”

“Nebraska,” she replied. Then she waved to my mom, who nodded and smiled in response.

By 7:50 pm my adrenaline was running high from winning plates, so I decided to take my positive streak to the rides. My mom gave me a few more dollars and on I went to the only two rides with one-person seats: the Dizzy Dragon and the Flying Bobs. The machines consisted of a series of carts attached to a rotating center axis that spun at Daytona-fast speeds. Or at least that’s what it felt like sitting inside of one. For a moment, I had forgotten all about Frances and Susana. Look who was now the king of this fiberglass dragon’s den!

But like a drug addict, I came down hard after the rides stopped. “What would it be like to have a friend on this ride with me?” I thought. Personal realities are like unwelcomed intruders during times of quiet. If only my mom would buy me two more tickets for another hit.

In school, I learned that the name “Lorena” comes from the word “laurel” which meant victory. The first time I ever saw a “Lorena” outside of school was at this carnival. She was with her mom, her brother and cousin Freddy getting cotton candy and I was holding my mom’s hands after being freshly dizzied from the Flying Bobs. I remembered her from class and I remembered she wasn’t mean, so I awkwardly waved to her as we walked past. She waved back, which was expected. What I didn’t expect, however, was when she came up to me and talked. I thought everyone from school would assume I’m some alien from another planet – a weird-eyed, plump-faced, and horrendously-permed creature they’ve never seen before in this part of South Central, Los Angeles. Is this person talking to me? She’s asking me questions about which rides I’ve been on like I’m a normal human being.

And she kept talking to me.

“Have you been on The Zipper yet?” Lorena said.

“Not yet,” I replied.

“Wanna go?”

Yeah.

The Zipper was the fast ticket to being cool for a 12 year-old. Street cred that I desperately needed was purchasable for three ride coupons. Invented in 1968 by Chance Rides, Inc. of Wichita, Kansas, The Zipper with a capital T reached about 56 feet in the air. A plaque on the ride proudly declared, “Made in the USA.” Its center is a long rotating oval with cables around its edges that pulled about 12 cars all spinning at unpredictable G-forces. According to the DomainofDeath3.com, The Zipper is “the most feared carnival ride in existence” because people die on a regular basis riding this thing. Sometimes a car door would come loose; sometimes the whole car would come loose. The point is: it’s dangerous.

While waiting in line for The Zipper, Lorena told me she lived with her mom, her dad, her brother, and her cousin, Freddy. They drove into the U.S. from Mexico when Lorena was still in her mom’s belly. She attributed the successful crossing to her mom’s fair skin and blue eyes. Their apartment was close to the school. Neither of her parents spoke any English, her brother was in high school but fixed cars sometimes, and Freddy’s parents were no longer around, whatever that meant. Then she told me she wanted to get a Ph.D and work for the coroner.

“Dead bodies!” she enthused.

We talked about our favorite TV shows like I Love Lucy and The Simpsons. We talked about our favorite foods, which included Flaming Hot Cheetos and pizza. She told me she wasn’t good at spelling and I told her I learned from watching closed captioning. Corpses aside, we were actually a lot alike.

And then Lorena and I got inside The Zipper, two to a metal pod. A leathery-faced male carny with a Miller Lite t-shirt closed our cage and thundered, “Good luck.” Surprisingly, it wasn’t as large as I thought it would be. The steel mesh made everything very dark inside and it smelled like sweat and rust. Our pod climbed a little higher every time another pair of people got on. We were quiet as our pod climbed ever so slowly to the top. We saw the lights beneath on Los Angeles Street stretching north to Downtown, to that tall US Bank building in the distance. Nothing blocked our view. The night sky seemed endless.

Suddenly someone bellowed something from below. A loud buzz went off. Engines roared and chains ground. We swung high and around, this way and that. With each rotation of the chains our pod spun 360 degrees. We spun over and over. After a minute, a pause, another buzz, and we went backwards. At first slowly, then very fast. All I heard were screams.

When it finally stopped, our pod was eerily quiet. “Lorena, are you okay?” I said. She muttered something unintelligible. A few seconds later, I smelled it. At first it smelled a lot like cheese, but I didn’t eat pizza at school. Was I really that hungry? Then the cheese smell took on a sour tinge. And then I felt her warm vomit on my right arm and leg.

“I am so sorry,” Lorena said. “I’m so embarrassed.” Followed by some more moaning and grumbling.

“That’s ok, I like cheese,” I joked. She laughed. And I thought, “Yes! Now she’ll have to be my friend.” The Miller Lite t-shirt carny gave us a look of horror when he opened our pod door. We kept our heads down in laughter and ran back to our moms, vomit and all.

That was the summer of 1997, when I made my first friend. Things at school were a little easier after that with Frances and Susana. Lorena would find me every day during lunch and eat with me.

Sometimes after school she would even get her mom to walk with me half way home.

The Dress

When I was in the third grade, I was chosen to be the announcer at my school’s spring assembly, which meant I would go on stage and announce each class as they came up to perform. It was an honor for a student to be chosen by their teacher to represent the school in this way, and of course, the announcer was to dress in her best clothing.

I didn’t ask my grandmother, who was raising me, for a new outfit, because I figured we couldn’t afford it, but I told her that the teacher said I needed to look my best. I waited for her to say how she planned to make me look ‘my best,’ instead, the corners of her mouth turned downward, and after a few seconds, she said simply, “Okay.”

Over the next few days, I saw her working at the sewing machine that sat on our dining table. The spool of thread at the top of the machine bobbled rapidly, as her left hand guided a piece of tan material under the machine’s large needle, and her right hand rotated a wheel on the other end. The whirring of the machine’s foot pedal could be heard throughout the house. She was making a dress for me to wear at the assembly, but inwardly, I wanted a new one – not one that was homemade.

My grandmother lived two lives. There was her home life with us, where she cooked dinners of fried potatoes with onions in enormous cast iron skillets and baked biscuits from scratch, on which we’d pile her homemade peach preserves. There was also her work life away from home, where she wore a white uniform and worked in up-to-date kitchens, preparing dinners like roast duck with steamed asparagus.

Some evenings, after working a full day, she would return to her job to serve at dinner parties. She laughed about the time her curiosity about caviar got the best of her. She wanted to taste this delicacy, so when she had a moment alone in the kitchen, she piled a large amount on a cracker and put the whole thing in her mouth. She quickly realized she didn’t like the oily taste at all and turned to the sink and spit it out. “If they knew I had spit that expensive stuff in the sink, I don’t know what they would have done,” she said.

As a “domestic” for two families, my grandmother not only prepared dinners for these families, but she also cleaned their homes, did their laundry and watched their children. At home, she didn’t do much of the housekeeping, nor did she prepare dinners that were anything like those she cooked at work. Being a domestic was the only job my grandmother had while raising my sister, my two brothers and me. My father didn’t always live with us, but he helped out by giving her money toward the rent and taking care of our school needs. The everyday feeding, clothing, and raising, in general, was done by my grandmother. She was the drill sergeant who made sure the girls dusted, washed the dishes and ran the vacuum cleaner, while the boys had trash duty, cut the grass and hedges and shoveled snow from our sidewalks and steps.

During the summers, she would enlist all of us to help with larger projects around the house. She would put on a pair of jeans, which she normally didn’t wear, pull her hair back into a ponytail, and work along side us, as we washed walls or painted rooms. Strands of her thin, silky hair would inevitably break free and become plastered to her perspiring forehead. I guess the fact that we lived with her didn’t allow my grandmother the luxury of smothering us with pampering.

“I’ve worked hard all my life,” she would say, and she didn’t expect any of us to be lazy or unproductive either.

But the laundry was a task that my grandmother did not assign to any of her grandchildren. In our basement was a tall wringer washer that clanked loudly and literally inched itself around the room as it spurted soapy water on the floor. When it finished a load of clothes, my grandmother, who at 5’2” was just a little taller than the washer’s round tub, would crank the handle at the top of the machine and it would slowly squeeze the water from the clothes, piece by piece. She would fill a wicker basket with the wet clothes and hang them on a clothesline in our backyard. Sometimes, she would hang laundry out in the cold Ohio winters, but if the air was too frigid, she hung laundry from clotheslines strung from pipes in our basement.

When she had only a few pieces of clothing to wash, she would place a washboard in a large metal tub and scrub the clothes by hand. Although, she did the family laundry weekly, it was pretty much an all-day job for her on Saturdays. After hours of wringing load after load of clothes, she would recline on the couch in front of the television and talk about how much easier it was to do laundry on her job, because there were modern washers and dryers in those homes. Whenever she needed the convenience of an automatic washer and dryer, such as when it was time to wash our bed quilts or throw rugs and such, we piled loads of our laundry in the back of the car and went to a laundromat – still pretty much an all-day job.

Hard work was something my grandmother had done since she was a little girl. She was one of 21 children born to a father who was a former slave and a mother who was Chickasaw Indian and Black. Her formal education ended in the 4th grade, because she was needed in the fields to help feed their growing family. Her father owned land in Tennessee, where he raised pigs, chickens, and horses, in addition to growing vegetables and fruit trees. So, my grandmother learned at an early age how to plant and harvest crops, as well as how to kill and prepare chickens, rabbits and hogs. Anything that had to be baked – pies, cakes, bread, biscuits – she always made from scratch. She said that by the time she was ten years old, she was as good as her mother in the kitchen. She didn’t, however, teach my sister or me how to cook or bake.

“Don’t mess up my kitchen,” she would say to us, as she shooed us away with a dishtowel.

Even during holiday seasons, when there were big meals to prepare, she assigned us only marginal kitchen duty, such as buttering pans – never actually cooking a dish. She didn’t give us a reason, but I wonder now if she just didn’t want my sister and me to “have to” cook, as she did.

She was only 11 years old when she married. She would say that her parents let her get married because that meant there would be one less mouth to feed. She married a 17-year-old farmer, and went from working in her father’s fields to helping her husband live off the land. After their first son was born, they moved to Cairo, Illinois, because she said, “the South was too segregated” and “there was nothing” in their small town of Selmer, Tennessee. My father, and two more boys were born in Illinois, but they lost one son to whooping cough at the age of two. Their marriage unraveled, and she took the boys and returned to Tennessee in the late 1920s. Her widowed mother had remarried, and my grandmother and her children moved in with her new stepfather and new siblings.

By 1931, she was living in Toledo, Ohio in what she called a “common-law marriage.” She and Thomas had met in Tennessee and relocated to Toledo, where he had family. He was long gone before I was born in the 1950s, but my grandmother always referred to him as a good man, who was good to her children. This was a difficult period for our country, and even in an industrial city like Toledo, the Great Depression forced a lot of people out of work.

President Roosevelt had started a New Deal program known as the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and my grandmother was able to get a position as a seamstress. She made clothing that was distributed by the government to needy families. When World War II broke out, they also made clothing for the troops. She didn’t know how to operate a sewing machine prior to working for the WPA, and she had never hand sewn anything fancier than basic pants, shirts and dresses. So, even though she earned less than $500 a year, the WPA was the first place she was given the opportunity to learn a trade.

In the mid-1950s, my parents were divorcing, and my mother would lose her four children. My grandmother became our legal guardian. At almost 50 years of age, she agreed to raise a one-year-old, a four-year-old, a five-year-old and a seven-year-old.

“They were going to send you kids to the Miami Children’s Home if I hadn’t taken you,” she said.

While I have no memories of my mother abusing us, I do remember how my grandmother sacrificed so that my siblings and I had what we needed. Her electric sewing machine sat at the helm of our table ready to mend a ripped pair of pants or hem a skirt. It was a portable, black machine with ‘Singer’ in gold lettering across its sides, and although it sat inside a suitcase-like carrier, it was rarely moved from the dining table.

Except for the new clothes my father purchased at the beginning of every school year, our clothes came from thrift stores or were from the homes where my grandmother worked. For me, this clothing became “third-hand,” because the dresses, blouses and coats were given to my sister first; after she had worn them for a year or two, I would get them. While I didn’t exactly look like a little rag-a-muffin growing up, I didn’t think my clothes were as pretty as those I saw on little girls in the catalogs that lay on our coffee table.

So, when my grandmother called me in to try on the dress she made for my school assembly, I fidgeted as she maneuvered it over my head. Once the dress was on, I stood stiffly, barely looking down at it.

“It’s gonna be alright,” she said. “I have a few more ideas that’ll make it pretty.”

The next day, unlike the hand-me-downs that were loose-fitting and threadbare from wear, the dress fit like it was made just for me. The bodice of the dress fit snugly and the hemline, which stopped a couple of inches above my knees, flowed with pleats that stood out with the help of a tulle underskirt. My grandmother had made a belt of brown velvet that tied in a big bow at the back, and she had sewn two matching velvet ribbons for my hair.

On the day of the assembly, she parted my hair down the middle into two ponytails and tied them with the ribbons, then finished off my outfit with anklet socks and my patent-leather Easter shoes. As I twirled in front of the mirror, I saw a little girl dressed just as pretty as anyone posing in the Sears catalog. My grandmother leaned back in her chair and smiled.

That day, as I ascended the steps to the stage, I overheard the principal say to a teacher near her, “Isn’t she pretty?” I stood with pride at the microphone, staring out at the audience of students and teachers.

My grandmother, though, didn’t attend the assembly. She had to work.

The Toolbox

When I was a little boy growing up in East L.A., my father kept a toolbox. It was at the very back of the garage, covered by a blanket, piece of cardboard, or shop towel at the end of each day to hide it from any would-be-burglars. That was my job, to cover it.

I thought about it while we sat in the waiting room of the specialist doctor my father had been referred to. This was the follow up visit to a series of visits after he had started slowing down a lot, very unusual for him. We were both anxious. His left hand trembled a bit, so I asked if he was cold. He said, no.

He then asked me what I’d do with his toolbox if things went bad. Was it really coming to that? I didn’t want to answer that question.

All my life, he would get up early in the morning and go to bed long after I did. Even on weekends, he worked. My childhood memories mostly are of him in his work clothes, dirty and smelling of sweat, gasoline, and oil. Sometimes, though, he’d stop and play with me for a moment, to lift me up with his arms, or swing me around like I was on a Merry-Go-Round. His arms were like steel rails to me as he spun me around, secure in his strong grip.

People were always stopping by, wanting him to work on their cars, a master mechanic, called “Maestro” by all who came to get their cars fixed. I would watch him for hours pulling out entire engines; tearing apart brake and transmission assemblies with so many pieces; and looking through thick books full of car part listings, schematics, and numbers. He’d tell me that it was important to place every component right or the whole thing could fail.

Like a magician he laid out the tools, supplies, and parts he needed for his regular performance. I didn’t like to disturb his show but I would inevitably roam over to him and sit, fascinated by his power to make cars run right. He began to show me how to do simpler tasks for him: to hold a flashlight firmly and aim just right so he could see what he worked on, to scrape off an old head gasket, or to check the electrodes with a spark plug gapping tool. Every now and then he’d say just enough to point out something interesting to me, like the spot where compression gasses had leaked between cylinders from a damaged gasket.

It became a game for me each time he sent me back to his toolbox in the garage. Although I’d climb atop the garage often to play, I didn’t go inside much. That was his place. The inside of it was full of gadgets, parts, and other car entrails. So he called out a tool and I ran in hoping to grab the right one from la caja and emerge victorious. I especially liked retrieving from the toolbox his shiny torque wrench, along with the right socket size. Was that 3/8” or 1/2”? 10-mm or 13-mm? Then I attached the socket, dialed in the torque, and placed my little hands along side his as we tightened a bolt or a nut, listening for the telltale click.

I learned not only about those tools but also about numbers, machines, heat transfer, chemicals, and how systems worked. His strong arms and hands, always dirty, scratched, nicked, and bruised, taught me too that often it was just plain hard work well into the night that got the job finished.

He wasn’t much of a talker. But his tools were. Luckily, I was a good listener. Sometimes, it was the piercing ping-ping of his ball-peen hammer squarely hitting a brake drum that spoke. Sometimes it was the calming whirr of an engine cylinder bore being honed that put me to sleep, as I lay in my bed while my father worked into the night. Sometimes it was the loud, rapid popping of a backfiring engine that woke me in the morning, as my father tweaked the carburetor. Each sound became a cascade of words to me, mechanical memories of my father’s ways and times.

I remember that when he came in the house and it wasn’t dark outside yet, I’d run to him, grab his hand, and smell it. If I caught that lovely odor of industrial hand cleaner, of orange oil, lanolin and pumice, it told me he was done for the day and he was ours. It remains today, one of my favorite odors.

On Sundays, he took the family out to the park, the beach, or the museums. Once in a while he’d have enough money to take us to a place like Disneyland, but looking back, it was the simplest of outings that forged my most enduring fond memories of us together.

One Sunday, we were bored and wanted to go out, but my father had no extra money to spend. Still, he put us in the car and took us to the airport, parked on a side street adjacent to the runway, and we watched the planes take off and land. I worried that we’d get in trouble for being there, but my father reassured me and I relaxed. As I watched the planes approach in a pattern, I took out a little book that showed the silhouettes of different passenger planes and tried to match the pictures to what I saw in the skies. Feasting on plain mayo sandwiches atop the trunk of the car, I savored each bite-sized minute to the very end.

My father liked to watch airplanes just like I did. That became even clearer to me when my father took us to see the war birds at the Chino air museum. I had read all about those old propeller combat planes and couldn’t believe we were actually headed there. The drive from East L.A. to Chino seemed unending then. Chino was a whole different, faraway world. I knew we were getting close when the smell of cow manure rushed into the car, my window open as I held out my hand into the wind like an airfoil.

Once at the museum, I immediately began to identify planes I had only read about or dreamed about: a silver P-51D Mustang fighter with a bubble canopy; an F4U Corsair naval fighter with its upturned gull-like wings; and a big C-47 military transport, a plane produced at the same Long Beach plant where I would one day work myself. I walked around each plane noticing its details, the rivets, oil streaks, and warning labels. At the engines, I read about its specifications and told my father…V-12 liquid-cooled, R-18 air-cooled…Together we marveled in the numbers and compared them to car specifications.

I often asked questions about the new things I’d see on our outings and my father would give me an answer. One day, I asked him what this strange looking array of antennae was for atop a high-rise building. I was shocked to hear him respond that he didn’t know. Still today, I recall that moment.

Now, I realize that he did have an answer for me. It was just that his answer was couched to me in a different, deeper, and more lasting way. I suppose he figured out that I wasn’t going to stop questioning. So he showed me a set of Encyclopædia Britannica he’d bought years before. It was in Spanish. I opened each volume and delved in, lost in the wonders discovered alphabetically.

My father’s name is “Jose” like so many others in East L.A. Father’s Day was not invented, as I had believed, just for him. And his body was not forever strong. He is now a frail old man, though with a mind stubbornly sharp.

I went on to learn to read, write, and speak English, despite starting my school years as a “non-English speaking student.”

I joined the Air Force, too, and served as an aircraft mechanic. Interestingly, much later, I learned that back in his home country of Nicaragua, while a mechanic in the public works department garage, my father came to know a lieutenant in the Nicaraguan air force who’d bring in his vehicle to my father for repair. He invited my father to work for him to learn to fix planes at the air base outside of Managua. He almost accepted because he liked airplanes, he tells me now, but instead he decided to come to America.

Then I studied in college, realizing my arms would never be as strong as my fathers, and made a career of physics. Though my work tools are now mental, I never forgot that toolbox.

In his later years, when my father no longer had the strength to work his craft, he surprised me one day telling me his toolbox was to be mine and that I could sell it if I wished. I didn’t want to think about that.

Now, at the doctor’s office, it was coming to that.

“Jose!” The nurse called my father, startling me back to the present like the crisp click of the torque wrench. I handed him his walking cane and helped him to the exam room.

In the gown, my father got cold waiting in exam room. Finally, the doctor rushed in, apologized for the wait, and quickly told us the diagnoses.

“It’s P.D.,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

My father’s old toolbox now sits in my new garage and when I open it, the cold, worn metal sends me back. My sense of hearing intensifies. My fingers travel the well-worn edges of each tool. I’m there again, waiting for them to speak to me.

Taxi Dancer

In 1973, I was a single mother of three small children. I was working in a wig distribution warehouse in downtown LA packing wigs in boxes that were sold at major department stores. I was always looking for a better paying job. My co-worker suggested I get a job where she worked nights. She was a taxi dancer. I had no idea what a taxi dancer was, but she said the money was good because you also got tipped by some of the customers, so I went that night to see about the job.

In 1943 two brothers, Ben and Edward Fenton, a couple of Los Angeles lawyers who were visiting San Francisco, went into a dance hall. These halls had been in San Francisco since the Gold Rush days. Women danced with men for a dime a minute and were called taxi dancers. Business was good and when the Fenton brothers returned home they opened up the first taxi dance ballroom in Los Angeles known as Roseland Roof. It was at 9th and Spring streets. Soon, they opened up another one at 5th and Main. That one was called Dreamland. This is where I went for my interview.

In the early 70’s downtown, Main Street had a seedy, dire, uneasy feel. It was a section of Skid Row filled with drug addicts, alcoholics and prostitutes. There were three bars on one block. One of the bars was next to Dreamland. It was a small dive that smelled like urine. Next to it was another that was loud and rowdy – Jalisco Bar. The third one was closer to 5th Street. There was just one place to get something to eat; a popular chicken place called Cy’s Chicken, two doors down from Dreamland. The taxi dancers would go there before work.

I entered the dance hall from the street and walked up a flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs, inside the dance hall, was an old-fashioned ticket booth, like the ones outside movie theaters. A matronly cashier was selling tickets. I asked her who Bob was and that I had an appointment with him.

The ballroom was on the second story of a very old building. The dance floor was dimly lit with strings of little white lights hanging from the ceiling. Next to the ticket booth were a couple pool tables and a nonalcoholic bar that served sodas, tea, coffee, sandwiches and candy. In the far corner of the dance floor was a sign that read NO LEWD BEHAVIOR. Toward the back were small tables and chairs for two.

Three leather benches faced the ticket booth. Here sat the girls, on display for the customers. They were laughing and talking and seemed much at ease. I watched as the men approached the women and asked them to dance. The women stood and walked over to a clock next to the ticket booth and punched a time card, then walked on to the dance floor. The Rolling Stones were playing on the juke box, yet though the music was fast-paced the couples on the dance floor were slow dancing, barely moving. The whole time I was waiting for my interview no one ever picked up the pace to match the music. Half the couples were openly grinding heavily with no shame whatsoever. I don’t know what the bouncer’s job was, but he never interfered.

Bob, the manager, was a stocky, balding, middle-aged white guy. His office consisted of old furniture. He had no pictures on the wall, nothing personal. He didn’t ask me many questions. Instead, he explained the rules: no prostitution and no drugs or drinking. He said that sometimes the cops came in wearing plainclothes, asking questions about the girls, and trying to find out which ones were prostituting after hours. Yet it was cops, he said, who left with the girls when the night was over. He asked if I knew how to handle men.

“I guess,” I said.

He told me I had to go to the police department to get fingerprinted and photographed. I went to LAPD and started working the following night.

A new girl was always the most popular among the customers for her first couple of weeks at Dreamland. Because most of the girls build up their clientele over a period of time they would let you know that you were dancing with their customer and didn’t appreciate it. Instead, you built up your own customers. This wasn’t hard to do because a lot of the men came in every night.

A lot of jobs need a skill. Here the skill was manipulation. The men who frequented these dance halls were mostly unattractive and lonely. They were Latinos, African Americans, American Indians, whites, Asians and a lot of Filipinos. They were alcoholics, drug addicts; they were married or single. Dancing with these men five nights a week was not an easy job. Most of them were forty years old and older and I, like most of the girls, was under 30. So, before some of us had to go out on the dance floor, we would sneak a drink or smoke some pot in the dressing room, blowing the smoke out the open windows.

More than half the men who came in wanted to dance so they could get close enough to you to grind. I would be dancing with a customer and he’d see another couple grinding and ask me if I danced like that. I would, but he would have to give me a thirty-five to forty-dollar tip. But I never allowed this kind of person to be one of my regular customers. They disgusted me.

Other patrons were just looking for someone. Some lived in a fantasy and thought I was their girlfriend. It was easy to manipulate these men. At first I would ask them to buy me two or three hours worth of tickets so at the end of the night I could reach a quota I had set for myself. Then I would ask for a twenty- or thirty-dollar tip. This worked if you could pretend for a while that you liked them.

One of my regular customers was a guy by the name of Tony. He was tall and lanky with an overbite like a rabbit. He told me he worked in the psychiatric unit of the General Hospital, but I think he was a patient there. The good thing about having him as a customer was that he preferred to sit and talk than dance and he always bought me extra time.

One evening he came in and asked me if I recognized the address that he had written down on a piece of paper. It was mine. He had followed me home. I told him he knew damn well that it was my address and I took the paper and tore it up and told him never to follow me again or next time I would report him to the authorities.

He still came in. He knew that I no longer wanted to keep him company and that I had other regulars and this bothered him. I told him if he wanted to continue to be my customer I wanted money for a down payment on a car. He gave it to me two nights later. Before the night was over he wanted his money back. He didn’t get it back and I bought a ‘67 Ford Mustang. I never saw him again.

Another of my customers was a Jewish guy by the name of Allen. I never knew any of my customers’ last names and I never told them anything personal about myself. He told me he was a cameraman for some movie studio. He was well groomed and had manicured hands. Allen had a lot of confidence I think because all the girls knew him and a few had had him as a customer for a while. The first time I danced with him he hardly spoke. The next time he came in, two of the dancers, Darlene and Kathy, warned me about him. They told me he was a jerk.

Allen started coming in more often and soon became one of my patrons. He was always a gentleman, never danced fast, but never got fresh with me. One night I went to the dressing room for a sweater and when I returned to the dance floor he was dancing with one of his former partners and they were grinding in the corner. Darlene and Kathy took me aside. He wasn’t a cameraman, they told me; he worked for Market Basket, a chain of grocery stores, and was on mental disability. I didn’t care what he did but I wasn’t going to put up with another nut case. I started to ignore him and he got the hint. I heard later that he was dancing with the girls at Roseland Roof.

I never became close friends with any of the girls but on slow nights we would sit around on the benches smoking and drinking tea or soda and talking. Kathy was a white hippie. She had a good attitude and handled the job well. She was tall and thin with long brown hair that she always wore loose. She went to school during the day and danced at night. Most of the girls had kids; not Kathy. She was a nudist. She would spend her weekends at nudist colonies. I was fascinated by this. I asked her questions about it whenever she would bring it up. Was everyone naked? Did people stare at one another? Would the men walk around with erections? Were the people having sex? She always told me I should go just once. I would just laugh at that thought. She always wore short dresses and cowboy boots.

Within a few months it got hard to work there. Having to deal with really lonely men depressed me. I started drinking in the dressing room with the other girls more often. One of the girls that Ben Fenton was dating saw us drinking one night in the dressing room and told on five of us. When Bob called me into his office he told me he knew I was drinking on the job and that I was fired. He then told me he would talk to the Fenton brothers on my behalf. I told him thanks but no thanks. I’d had enough.

Today, the hotels, bars and restaurants at 5th and Main cater to the younger, hipper crowd. The streets look cleaner and safer than they did back then. The New Jalisco Bar is now frequented by 21-year-olds. Cy’s is now The 5 Cent Diner, though it’s still a chicken place. Dreamland went out of business long ago. The space where I worked as a taxi dancer is now occupied by H&H Hothouse Productions, a video studio.

I lost all contact with everyone at Dreamland. My family never knew I worked there. They thought I worked the graveyard shift at a factory.

After I left the dancehall, I worked at a pharmacy and went to night school. Then I got a job with the State of California Department of Health as an entry-level clerical worker in the Social Security Insurance section. For the next thirty-three years I worked for five different state agencies, from Caltrans to the Public Utilities Commission.

I had to formally apply for each job. But I never put Dreamland on a resume.

Red Dust And All

I lay in bed early one Friday morning as the radio crackled with the voice of Liberian President Samuel Doe.

“This is your President speaking. Anyone caught on the streets after 7:00pm will be executed, ” he said. “Do not challenge me. There will be consequences.”

In the Liberian capital of Monrovia, a ragged group of rebel soldiers led by General Thomas Quiwonkpa had attempted to overthrow the president. Doe himself came to power in a coup in 1980, overthrowing and executing the late President William R. Tolbert and his entire cabinet, all members of the ruling elite, who were descendants of African-American slaves returned to Africa. He easily repelled the coup and was now re-exerting control across the country.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia. The radio broadcast repeated itself every hour. Yet despite news of the coup, I, like most people in the small town where I lived, went about my usual daily activities. That day I needed to go to the town market to shop for rice.

“Chicken, you’d better get out of my way-o!” I thought as I maneuvered my Suzuki motorcycle along the road to the market. I remembered part of my Peace Corps motorcycle training. We were told not to swerve to avoid hitting a crossing animal but to drive straight. The chickens would get out of our way.

I wanted to get some errands done ahead of an evening planned with friends. Feeling a bit reckless I didn’t wear my bright yellow motorcycle helmet the Corps issued to me for my safety, and that identified me to many residents in the Voinjama township. I didn’t know most people, but they knew me because of that helmet.

It was 1985 and I was the first African-American Peace Corps volunteer to serve in the Northern city of Voinjama, Liberia.

I felt so proud to be black here, unlike in the U.S. where my pride felt burdened with the dark history of slavery. In Liberia, not only was the President black, but so were the doctors, the teachers, the airline pilots, cabinet secretaries of state, the police. I remember crying, feeling overwhelmed at this marvel, a reality denied far too long to my family, my friends, my people back in the states. Many times here I was referred to as the “bright one” because of my light skin. I was grateful not to be called white. In America much of my existence had revolved around race, being in the minority, living with stereotyped images, always vigilant. Now, everyone looked like a reflection of me, though of a beautiful darker complexion.

Upon joining the Corps, I was given the choice of Jamaica, Haiti, Western Samoa, or Liberia. I yearned to feel the earth of the Mother Africa under my feet. Most of my early education portrayed Africa as the dark continent, home to famine, savagery, poverty, war, disease, and the uncivilized. The media and American textbooks often spoke of the place as one big country, not the continent of fifty-three countries, with hundreds of tribes.

Six other Peace Corps volunteers served with me in Voinjama. I hadn’t before considered why more young black American kids didn’t travel. I had just spent six months in India as a college graduation present to myself. My mother always called me her adventurous child, even though she wasn’t happy about my trip to South Asia. But kids from my neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia didn’t venture too far away from momma. Fear kept most close to home. Besides, going to Africa wasn’t considered “chic,” cool, or sophisticated. You didn’t see Peace Corps recruiters on black college campuses. But I wanted to see the world. I wanted to see Africa.

I traveled with no expectations, only hope. I hoped to meet freedom fighters, kings and queens, artists and African intelligentsia, griots who were keepers of the oral history that could tell the stories of mighty kingdoms. I hoped to meet herdsman working bountiful lands. I hoped to hear tribal drummers beat the news of the day. I hoped to be hugged and welcomed home. When I arrived to Liberia I kissed the ground.

Then, a few months into my stay, I got sick I was in the town of Totota for an eight-week training. Having made new friends quickly, I joined others as we ventured off down a dark road for Totota’s nightlife visiting the one bar for some spirits and dancing. Outside of the entrance a food vendor was hawking her grilled street meat, greens, and rice. Inside, I danced for hours, swaying and rocking to juju music, a synchronization of steel guitar and heavy percussions. Here the men and women like to dance close, backing away only to show off a signature move, always stepping to the beat. Some of the records would go on for five minutes or more, and you would be dripping in perspiration before exiting the dance floor. I worked up an appetite. I accepted some of the local street food offered to me. That was my first mistake. The pepper sauce on the meat was so spicy hot that I grabbed for the first glass of water offered me — second mistake. As I swallowed I knew I might be in trouble. We were told to drink only boiled and bottled water. The next day it caught up with me.

The Peace Corps training staff and fellow volunteers watched me, hoping my condition would pass quickly. It didn’t. At midnight someone decided I needed to get to a hospital. I remember laying in the back of a station wagon shaking, and praying that I wouldn’t die somewhere in the darkness. There were no street lights, no street signs and I had no idea where I was being taken. The doctor pumped me up with chloroquine, used to treat malaria. I only felt more nauseous. Needing a cure, I stuck my finger down my throat bringing the chloroquine back up and the fever broke, and I never accepted water off the street again.

Soon, though. I melted into life in Liberia.

In Voinjama, my good neighbor Sarah Ziemba kept a large vegetable garden, with cassava, collards, and peppers. She and her husband Thomas, who was much older, had six beautiful children, three girls and three boys. Often, we would sit around a fire pit between our yards sharing each others’ history. The kids always had chores, and took this time to listen in as they did laundry, washed dishes, or split more firewood. Sarah loved to talk about her dating Thomas. Their marriage wasn’t arranged. As he was much shorter, Sarah thought he was cute and needed looking after. I told stories of my family and growing up in the United States. Under the clear skies, full of stars, we would laugh into the night, sip cool beer, and slap at mosquitoes. She had the prettiest smile and wasn’t shy about the gap in her teeth. In my yard wild mango, banana, and avocado trees grew. When I went to the market I only bought a burlap sack of rice for myself and Sarah’s family, and maybe a live chicken. Sarah’s kids would kill and clean the chicken. In exchange, I paid their school tuition. We saw it as a great barter.

The market was one of my favorite places to visit, and Voinjama was a busy crossroads town where vendors traveled weekly to peddle their goods. The market was run by women who brought in their wares from surrounding villages and bustled with people carrying the goods atop their heads, on their backs, in wheelbarrows, or in large reusable plastic bags.

The market also served as the bus depot. The bus service was called the “money van” or the “money bus.” Five to ten vans at a time would sit idle until they were full to capacity with passengers. These vehicles were mostly beat up old vans or pick up trucks with two benches in the back. I often rode one or the other, packed in with fellow passengers. Some passengers carried a live chicken, duck or other animal. I remember once hitting a squirrel along the trip. The driver pulled over, jumped out of the van, picked up the dead animal and threw it back inside the van.

“That will be dinner-o,” he said, laughing.

You rode these vans at your own risk. Often they would break down on the side of the rode. I sometimes waited hours for the drivers to figure out how to get us going again. A hammer was in every van. It always did the trick.

Motorcycles with their whining engines narrowly missed me on this afternoon as I walked through the market. I stopped at a stall to finger the goods spread about. I gently touched fabrics that I might consider taking to my local tailor, who could sew any design simply by looking at a magazine picture. I didn’t need any of the cheap Chinese plastic plates or slippers, but I loved the large handmade calabash bowls, and the colorful beaded jewelry.

Children too young to be in school ran through the market, always in sight of watchful mothers. There was lots of laughter, and conversation that sometimes turned into palava if there was an argument between the women.

“This is my stall-o.”

“Eh, no I always be at this place-o.”

“No way-o. I sit myself and this here child every week-o.”

“Hmmn, maybe mine is the next one-one.”

“Yes, my sistah, maybe so.”

These palavas could go for twenty minutes or more. Each person determined to get her point across. They could get heated but almost always ended with a hug and a smile.

The rhythms of the language changed as I made my way around the many stalls. There were several different tribes in the area, each with a different song in their voice. Mandingo women, tall, proud with history traced to one of the greatest West African empires of Mali, the Malinke Empire of the 14th century that included the cities of Timbuktu, Djenne, Gao, and Agadez. The Mandingos were known for their trading skills. There were the Loma women, the Mende tribes women, and the Kpelle tribal women, who brought in the most rice, peanuts, and kola nuts. Each group of women had their own head ties, the waist wraps, and jewelry. Their clothing dyed with bright yellows, greens, blues, all with printed markings that represented either village life, family, or a harvest. The market women stayed from sunrise to sunset. Young babies were often strapped around the mother’s back so that mom could still sift rice, lift yams, bundle greens, and exchange monies. A make-shift grill was always smoking carrying the smells market meats, and a radio in the distance could always be heard playing music.

Taking a break I sat just outside a stall run by a Mandingo woman named Fatima.

“Fatima, what news-o?” I ask.

“Ah my sister they come to buy but spend no money-o,” Fatima laughed.

I cracked open peanuts dropping a mound of shells at my feet, and listened. Fatima loved to barter with customers, knowing when to turn her back in disapproval, or clapping her hands if the customer started to make sense again.

“That one very good quality-o. Cost more.”

The longer the negotiations the more respect she had for the customer. The prices would start high but after several hand claps, teeth sucking, and shaking of the head a price was settled. Fatima would reach into her bosom or hip purse to make change and seal the deal. I knew how it would end but it was like watching live theatre, and I learned not to get cheated.

Every Friday night the other six other volunteers in town met for a games- night and to eat spaghetti for dinner. I didn’t go all the way to Africa to eat pasta and play Scrabble with white people. I had made plans to play a few rounds of cards, share some liquid spirits with friends outside of town, and then head over to the one nightclub in town run by an expatriate who was also an African-American, from Ohio. On this night, as I set off, the mood felt eerie. Soldiers were all over town.

Without my helmet and goggles, I squinted against the dust storms created by passing automobiles. It was the dry season. I arrived at my friends’ home with my afro turned a blondish red, and my eye lids, nostrils and clothes covered in dust.

Kabbah was my Liberian counterpart, who worked along side me producing radio programming. He had become more like a brother to me and often welcomed me to his home, where he lived with his wife Irene, daughter Feelings, and his son, Darling Boy. When I first visited Voinjama for a week during my training, Kabbah walked miles on the dusty roads helping me find a comfortable home to rent. He took me around town introducing me to government agency directors, teachers, tribal elders, the Lebanese merchants who also served as small bankers, and anyone else he thought worthy.

“This the new Peace Corps. She’s going to be working at the radio station, and I want you to welcome her properly,” he would say.

His house was already full of friends gathered to participate in card games. During the card games loud trash talking would set the tone of the evening.

“I’m the best in the land-o, so be ready to get shamed.”

The kitchen was outside in the back of the house where on the stoves cooking were pots of cassava, pepper soup, fufu, my favorite, or some other West African delicacy to later be served with rice, plantain, avocado and, or chicken, beef or fish. In the background the radio played the latest music, struggling to be heard above conversations.

Occasionally we thought we heard a news report about what was happening in the capital but it was just the looped curfew warnings from Doe. We were upcountry in the bush many miles from Monrovia. The borders had been closed with neighboring Guinea, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast. While the military was mobilizing around the country, we still had a card game to play.

Seated around the table were Kabbah, Irene, Captain, who was a military man himself and dressed in his army uniform, and me. Every time Captain, my partner, was about to win a hand, he would raise his cards high for effect and then slam them down hard. Each time the glasses spilled beer.. We reach across the table to give each other high-fives, and talk smack.

“I think there’s a new sheriff in town.”

Other people drifted in and out, sometimes blurting out what cards we were holding in our hand, only to be met with idle threats from the four of us. A single incandescent light bulb hung from the ceiling on a long cord directly above the table. Food aromas wafted through the thick cigarette smoke.

Somewhere around 9 o’clock the beer was running low, tummies were full, and I had laughed myself out. As I said my good-byes and gave hugs around, Captain announced he was leaving as well. He needed to go check-in on his fellow soldiers for the night. As he lingered talking with Kabbah, I headed home. I’d had too much beer and not being a smoker, the cigarette smoke had given me a headache. It was then that I wished I’d had that big bright helmet.

I had traveled this route home many times. I knew the bumps, holes, and rocks in the road. If I had an accident, I probably wouldn’t be found till the next morning. That idea frightened me more than the actual ride alone in the dark.

I headed to the center of town about two miles from Kabbah’s home. As I climbed up the steep hill I saw bright lights ahead. Street vendors were often out at night hoping to make a little extra money before going home, but this light was brighter than usual. I drove on through the swirling dust and clusters of flying insects.

It came up fast, a checkpoint with several soldiers. They had blocked the road with sand bags, oil barrels and a long pole. They drew guns as I approached. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion as I crested the hill. One soldier raised his AK-47 and pointed at me. My hands went up, and somehow I kept my balance on the motorbike. With a deep breath I recovered my senses, bringing my hands down and bringing the bike to a stop. The soldiers all started screaming at me.

“Who are you?”

“Where are you coming from?”

“Where are you going, out after curfew?”

They trained their guns on me.

“I just now leaving party-o, and going to my home,” I said.

The soldiers scoffed. I had been stopped before at checkpoints so I knew to keep my composure. I didn’t have any money on me. Just then, another motorcycle came over the hill, horn blaring. Captain! This was probably the first time I ever said, “Thank you Jesus.” He arrived in a swirl of dust. The soldiers were speaking in the Loma tribal language, and going in and out of Liberian English. The soldier with the gun pointed at my head told Captain I was “CIA.” I laughed nervously.

Captain shook his head. “You made big mistake-o. I know this one here.”

Deflated, the soldiers lowered their weapons and went back to their beer and cigarettes. Captain escorted me the rest of the way. Along the way home that night, I saw every bug, every bush and every dust particle, and I noticed that for some reason the road now seemed completely illuminated.

I would spend another year in Liberia and in that time I learned not to try to change her, but to embrace her, red dust and all.

Un Mitote Mas

One Saturday in the summer of 1970, I boarded a Tres Estrellas bus and headed south, down the International Highway taking me on my first in depth exploration of Mexico.

I was part of a group of one-hundred-and-fifty Chicano students who rented apartments at La Plaza Tlatelolco while attending classes at UNAM – La Universidad Autónoma de Mexico. I came searching for an identity, encouraged by my Chicano graduate student teachers at UCLA who nurtured me through the first two years, and by my mother’s prodding that I learn the truth about the land of my ancestors. I remember my high school teacher and mentor, Sal Castro, telling us: “Your people founded highly sophisticated civilizations on this continent, centuries before the European stepped on this land.” So this afternoon with this group of young enthusiastic men and women, I loaded my baggage on a coach that took us from Tijuana to Tenochtitlan.

That first day of travel started off full of excitement as we jockeyed for a seat next to someone with whom to share the experience. Once we sat down and the bus started to roll, the conversation focused on the women on the trip with us. Our bus was all male, another was all female, and the third carried the married and matched couples. After the subject was thoroughly reviewed, we took turns sharing why we came on the trip, what part of Mexico our parents were from, and how much Spanish we actually knew. Most of us, whose parents spoke mainly their native language, had that idioma deleted in school by teachers and deans who strictly enforced English-Only policies through corporal punishment. Those kids whose parents were second and third generation at the urging of their counselors took French or Italian as their foreign language requirement in high school.

After we drank all the beers the bus drivers provided and tired of the talking, we each settled into our seat. Images of people and places floated in and out as I sat by the window contemplating the passing panorama.

The words of Ruben Salazar crossed my mind: “A Chicano is a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself.” Looking around the bus, I realized I was part of a new generation seeking to redefine itself. What did I know about myself? Mother from Colima, father from Tabasco, and just like their geography, they were extreme opposites. My parents met, married, and divorced in Tijuana; but they ‘dropped me’ (I was born at Paradise Hospital) in National City, California, ten miles north of the border. They raised me in Tijuana until their divorce when I was five. I went to school, church, and to the bullfights on Sunday; my mother was a big fan of La Fiesta Taurina.

When I turned ten my mother used my dual citizenship to exchange her passport for a residence card. As I grew up, what I knew about Mexico came mainly from her recollections, and the conversations I overheard from her friends over the years. Usually, the talk revolved around heartache, tears, and suffering. Through my adolescence I never wanted to accompany my mother when she went to visit her family.

But now I was sojourning with other Chicano activists on this pilgrimage to the land of the chinampas. Six hours into our trip, we transferred from a luxury Greyhound bus to a transport with no air-conditioning, with one very small and smelly bathroom, and whose radio garbled sounds which gave me a headache. I shared the window with my new camarada, Mangas, a moniker he’d tagged himself: his real name was Richard, a six-foot-two-inch chain-smoking Vietnam vet who was a little older than most of us. We stared at the scorching, sun-drenched Sonora Desert until it was too dark to see anything. The rocking of the rickety bus lulled me in and out of sleep. Far in the distance a summer storm illuminated the distant mountains with veins of muted thunderbolts.

My mother gave me the thousand dollars I needed for this excursion; money she worked and saved over the years. In Tijuana she’d been a registered nurse at Salubridad caring for ficheras, prostitutes, and their clients, mostly American servicemen. When she came to the U.S. in her middle-age years, she did back-aching work: sowing, cleaning, and mopping kitchens and toilets in Brentwood and Bel Air homes.

After ten hours on the road, the driver pulled into the bus station in Culiacan, Sinaloa to refuel and to rest.

In high school, I had never smoked marijuana. Most of the parties and dances I went to only served beer and sometimes cheap liquor. Moctezuma, our high-school class valedictorian, was the first one I saw take out a joint and fire up. He hung out with college kids and professors, and showed off his high vocabulary that most of us football players didn’t understand.

But on the first days in the fall of ’68, just before classes started, and the first day I moved into the Brown House, I smoked my first toke. The Brown House was a student housing complex right behind fraternity row. The university rented it for ten of the fifty male Chicano special-entry students they couldn’t place in the dorms. Toby and I were the first to arrive that morning. He and I had been members of rival gangs back at Hollenbeck Junior High: him from Primera Flats and me from Tercera. But that was ancient history now.

After choosing my room, making my bed, and reading the first chapters of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the early afternoon, I took a walk to the patio to stretch out. Toby was lying down in a couch with a headset and a peaceful look. He asked me if I had heard of “Hendrix.” I said, no. He handed me the headset. He lit a joint, took a deep drag, and then handed it to me. I imitated him, but instantly choked on the contents, coughing out the smoke which made my lungs explode. My eyes watered as the spasms subsided. I lay back to hear and feel the electrical impulses that oscillated in my brain and tingled down my body. With that I became a toker.

Being an only child, I was always hungry for friends. Smoking a joint became a gratifying communal experience. Those were times of sit-ins, teach-ins and love-ins, rallying at Royce Hall and occupying the Administration Building on Mexican Independence Day 1969. Smoking a joint broke down racial, economic, and gender barriers. It was cool to do! People got happy when they knew I had a joint to share. Scoring an ounce of weed for the ASB president got me many benefits.

In Culiacan, we had two hours to stretch our legs. The bus driver told us not to wander too far from the station; anyone not on the bus by midnight would be left behind to find other means of transportation.

My clothes clung to my body, wrinkled and wet with perspiration. The heat from the asphalt and cement singed my sandals. Four of us, including Mangas, wandered down the boulevard and found a place that served ice-cold beers and had outdoor tables. My compadre Humberto told me before I left LA: They grow some of the best marijuana on the outskirt farms of Culiacan. Eyeing a row of taxi cabs across the street from the bar, I spotted a young guy about my age, looking bored, leaning against his vehicle, smoking. I sauntered over and introduced myself, told him I was a tourist looking to score some ‘mota.’ The cabbie, with the cigarette dangling from his lips, right eye squinting, inspected me head to toe: long hair, beaded necklace, paisley shirt, bell-bottom jeans, and three-ply huaraches.

Quizas,” he responded nonchalantly.

Cuanto? I asked. The fare would be twenty dollars, he said, but the price of the weed, la yerba, I would need to negotiate with the farmer. I ran back and told the guys, asked if anyone wanted to chip in, but they all passed, warned me it wasn’t a good idea to go into a strange city.

“If I score, are you going to want to smoke some?

“Hell, yes!”

I handed the driver the twenty and he smiled. His name was Nico and he was saving to go to the United States; Hollywood was the first place he wanted to visit – he was a movie fan. I sat in the back seat as Nico maneuvered around traffic. We rode silently beyond the city lights and out into the dark. Flickering like altar candles, distant fires illuminated the obscure surroundings. Somewhere down the highway Nico turned the cab onto a rutted road and it bounced and waded through tall grass and cornfields. After a long rough ride through back roads only he could distinguish, Nico stopped the car, got out, and left without a word.

As I sat alone waiting, the cow and pig shit mixed with the stench of my apprehension. It wasn’t the fear of being busted. This was the land of Don Juan, the same desert where the Yaqui shaman instructed Carlos Castaneda in his spiritual way of life. I began to imagine the wraiths and specters that had haunted this land and its people for thousands of years. I’d met Carlos when he came to speak at a MECHA meeting shortly after publishing his first book. Afterwards, a few of us invited him to smoke a joint with us in the parking lot, but he deferred. He explained that Don Juan introduced him to peyote and other psychotropic plants to help him achieve awareness to an alternate state which his very strict Western training prevented him from experiencing. Marijuana was a devil’s weed, he said, that clouds and confuses the thinking. In order to achieve awareness he needed a clear vision that would help him cross over to the spiritual dimension where he encountered his nagual, his spiritual guide. Afterwards, we laughed and thought him a square suit-and-tie man.

Suddenly a fog rolled in and enveloped the car. My thoughts dissipated in its mist. I felt lost. I waited for Nico to return. The night noises grew, augmenting with my breath and heartbeat. Tittering to myself, I suppressed the prayer I knew could save me, but I didn’t want to sell out my recently acquired agnosticism.

I’ve read that between heartbeats, a person can dream his entire life. I thought about mine. I came to Mexico to penetrate her mysteries, to uncover her secrets, to saturate myself in her splendor. Growing up in Tijuana, I barely fondled them. I wanted to be deep inside, experiencing unsounded sensations. Here I sat, along the back roads of my mind, alone. My thoughts wandered. Now a panic ran through me. Raw fear pounded through my heart and meandered in my imagination.

In the midst of this reverie, two heads popped through the back windows of the cab. Nico smiled, smoke dangling around his face. He nodded to the other side. The stern face of a farmer stared at me.

“This is Eusebio and this is his farm,” Nico said in the spitfire-Spanish of Sinaloa.

The man’s thick swarthy fingers clutched a big brown shopping bag which he handed to me. Opening it, I saw half of it filled with thick green buds that wafted the distinctive smell of freshly harvested marijuana.

“That will be another twenty dollars, Güero.”

The big ranchero fixed his eyes, waiting for my response. I dug in my pocket for my wallet, pulled out the bill, and extended it out to Eusebio. He smiled with pride as he withdrew and disappeared into the dew.

“Nice doing business with you, gringo.”

By the time Nico got me back to the depot, it was well past midnight. Mangas stood on the first step of the bus entrance staring down at the two drivers who were angrily shouting Mexican insults at him. Each bus had two conductors who took turns driving. Mangas knew only one phrase of this language, and their demeanor didn’t faze him. He’d faced Army sergeants and the Viet Cong.

“Where you been, ese? These vatos are getting ready to leave your ass. I think he said he’s gonna call the jura. That better be some good shit you got there.”

It was. Right after I took my seat, I handed Mangas my July issue of Playboy. He opened it to the center fold, and I dropped a wad of weed on it. Mangas expertly removed the rich round buds from the stems which he collected on his lap into a neat pile. Soon, perfectly round marijuana cigarettes emerged. I fired up the first and we started passing out the product of years of experience.

“Pinches gavachos grifos!” scowled one of the bus drivers as he glanced back at the scene developing behind them. “Estan armando un mitote.”

The mood livened throughout the bus. Someone pulled out his boombox and the steely sounds of Santana started; then the percussion section chimed in, and soon it became the backbeat in our travels. The conversation grew loud. We no longer spoke in pairs or groups, but like we did at our MECHA meetings, with passion and conviction. The Vietnam War preoccupied us all. Even though we got deferments for being in school, the draft lottery loomed in our lives. The only one not worried about it was Mangas. He had survived a year in ‘the bush.’ But now he faced jail time for the Walk Outs.

“Me vale madre!” was his favorite phrase. He didn’t give a shit.

At that moment none of us gave a damn either. We were high on the infinite possibilities for ourselves and for La Causa, committed to changing the world, eradicating injustice and inequality. It was our time.

The bus driver had refilled the ice-chest with beer. They must have felt the contact high of the smoke, because they started talking and laughing with gusto and passing out the cold cans of Tecate.

We bragged how we would become the Generation of Chingones that would turn it all around, revolutionize the system. We’d become the architects and engineers of a new society, the teacher and administrators who would implement the theories of Paulo Freire. The lawyers and judges who would argue before the Supreme Court defending the constitutional rights of Reies Lopez Tijerina, Cesar Chavez, and Corky Gonzalez.

We boasted and openly claimed what those before us dared not proclaim: a big piece of the American pie. The world was our oyster, and we were starved.

Daylight broke and we passed through one of the many small towns along our way, and I asked the drivers to find us a mercado where we could stop and eat. We had the munchies.

Tia

Joanie was the firstborn of nine – the love child of a young girl and an adulterous older man. Her mother, Rosana, had two more children with this man but finally left him when she accepted he would never leave his wife. As the years went on, more siblings were born with various fathers.

Rosana was one of the few things they shared. She was young; she drank and knew men. She wore tight black pants, tight low-cut blouses, black hair teased high on her head, and a tattoo on her bosom. Once Rosana’s mother got fed up with the borderline negligent situation in which her grandchildren lived. She rescued them from Rosana’s house and resettled them at her own place. Eventually, though, the children drifted back to their mother one by one.

Joanie was their shepherd. She strived to be a good example and take responsibility for her flock of little brothers and sisters. She gave them the love and attention that Rosana did not.

Joanie strived to get her siblings to church; she would call different churches each week and make arrangements for her siblings to be picked up by van. She made sure each of her brothers and sisters had a present on their birthdays. She would scrimp and save her babysitting money to buy them a trinket, or she would make them a gift. On the summer days when Rosana would drop off the kids at the park (sometimes with lunch, sometimes without) it was Joanie who kept a watchful eye on her brothers on the grass and her baby sisters in the playground.

Mother and daughter were close at times, but Rosana would also shove, yell, and throw things at Joanie. One stepfather who passed through was just mean. If he didn’t like the food he was served he would throw his plate at the wall.

Outside of her home Joanie was a normal teenager. She dressed in the “chola” style that was popular in the 1970s, but she had good grades, loved music, and she played in her junior high school marching band. She befriended nerds and cholos alike.

Eileen was her best friend. They went to the 8th grade dance together and danced to funk music during lunch. Joanie came to Eileen the first time she had feelings for a boy. Joanie was so scared, not sure if she could be involved with someone – not sure if she should say something. Eileen gave her the courage she needed.

“Joanie – I love you, and you deserve to be in love.”

One October day, Joanie’s date, Jim, came over. Jim asked Rosana if he could take Joanie to a family party. Joanie felt Jim’s family didn’t like her and that she would never be good enough for him. Rosana initially said no. But Jim pleaded; he promised he would have Joanie home early. Rosana relented. As Joanie walked out the door, she looked back. It struck Rosana right then that that might be the last time she saw her daughter alive.

At the party, Joanie and Jim got into an argument. Joanie left on foot, alone, in a dark and lonely part of town. Presumably, Jim let her go. After blocks into her journey she made it to a pay phone. She called and called. Rosana wasn’t home. The children who answered had no way of helping her. Joanie called Eileen. Eileen wasn’t home, either.

Joanie’s body was found not far from her home, in a deserted area, with unspeakable things done to it. To this day no one has been arrested for Joanie’s murder.

The school held a moment of silence in Joanie’s honor. Some people claimed to be closer to Joanie than they actually were in hopes of seeking attention. Money was raised in Joanie’s memory. Even though he had little to do with her in life, Joanie’s father was contacted and it was he who decided on her final resting place and paid most of the expenses. Hundreds attended Joanie’s funeral.

Following Joanie’s death the family fell further from grace. The older boys had matured into a posse of gang members who used drugs and alcohol. A couple of the boys did their best in athletics and high school life. The two girls mostly kept to themselves.

Wild parties became the norm at their house; Joanie’s now teenage brothers drank too much and passed out. Rosana turned a blind eye, even when her son was asleep on a cold night without a blanket on the dewy lawn. To the neighbors it likely looked like poor parenting from a woman with too many kids to parent. In hindsight Rosana was probably lost in her own grief, trying to forget that she was not there when her daughter needed a ride home.

Joanie was my aunt. She died five years before I was born. My father asked Rosana for permission to name me after her – but Rosana couldn’t give it.

My mom joined the family when she was 16, too young to understand what she was getting into. In the early years we were close to Dad’s family. They helped us secure a spot in the same apartment complex they lived in; so family was just down the driveway. Aunts and cousins running back and forth between the houses was the norm. Mom used to tag along on shopping trips. My cousin and I played Ding Dong Ditch between the houses.

Yet before I reached 10 Mom knew she wanted out. Arguments erupted behind locked screen doors. My cousin didn’t want to help me carry books home from school because he was afraid he would get in trouble for doing it. There were tears and restraining orders against the kin that lived one house behind us. Dad was caught in the middle; a natural pacifist between two families that meant the world to him but could no longer live in peace.

When I was young I used to think that if Joanie had lived she could have kept the kids from drugs and alcohol, and led them away from all that. I would then have had a family on my dad’s side with aunts, uncles, cousins, and a grandma. She would have been my favorite aunt and would have understood me.

When I was a kid Joanie’s picture was on the living room wall. Visitors would ask when I had my picture taken, my parents would reply, “That’s not Sarah; that’s her Aunt Joanie.” Our resemblance was uncanny. When I was a child I would stare at Aunt Joanie’s portrait and use it as a window to accept myself. Knowing that I looked like the beautiful young lady in the picture steadied my self esteem.

Now that I’m older my features have changed in ways that hers never had the opportunity to. I miss hearing people exclaim, “Wow! I thought that was you! You guys look alike!” Our physical likeness has faded, but our kinship has grown.

I wonder if she would have been “Auntie” or “Tia,” or simply “Joanie.” She’s the older sister I wish had been there for my dad in his times of hopelessness. She’s the aunt I longed for when I felt so lonely amid the family chaos. She’s the kind older sister, who would do anything for her charges, that I strive to be like.

The family felt the wound of Joanie’s death for years. Because of this, I only recently found out where she was laid to rest. Almost weekly now I sit here with Joanie. I unfold my picnic blanket. I have my coffee. I eat my croissant. I tell her why I picked the flowers that I did, and what kind I might get next time. I think about what people have told me, about how she was. My connection to her feels as real as the grass I stroke beneath me and the breeze that kisses my nose.

“Okay, Dad”

I never lived in the same home as my father. Or at least, when I did, I was too young to remember. My mom removed my siblings and me from his home when I was 10 months old. What remains of my life with him are bizarre moments.

For example, my father had a safe word when we would go out. He would tell me, “If I’m not around and you’re in danger, yell Abraxas.” I was a child and found this strange. Why Abraxas and what did it mean? I never asked my father. My mother later told me that “Abraxas” was the title of Santana’s second album.

My father never had a sense of humor, at least not one that you would find traditionally funny. He wasn’t good looking; he was short in stature but muscular. He had fair skin and dark black hair.

He looked me straight in the eye that day.

“Say Abraxas and I will know.”

“Okay, Dad.”

I chuckled nervously. He wasn’t amused.

When I was 13 and it was Halloween day, my father came to visit me, as he often did on Fridays after work. He worked in a commercial print shop. I had gone there once. It was this dark cold warehouse, with a giant machine in the middle of it. He turned it on. The noise from the machine radiated throughout the building. We almost had to shout to hear each other. Still, it was a nice moment.

He was later fired from the job, mostly due to his drinking. At the time, he lived in a duplex in Rosemead. This place always gave me the creeps. It was a two-bedroom, one-bath house that seemed frozen in the 1970s. I never wanted to go in one of the bedrooms. It was cold and dark. The difference in temperature was so significant that it would immediately raise the hairs on my arms. When we would play ping pong on the kitchen table, all we needed was a net across the middle and a couple of paddles. I always used the same one. It was red on one side and had a picture of the band Kiss on the other. I owe my moderate ping pong skills to those moments.

After he was fired, he lost his place and moved in with my grandmother. She had abused him when he was younger. She was short and stocky with black hair with a few strains of white throughout. She had a partial mastectomy and chain-smoked. I was unsure if he knew who his father was. If he did, he never mentioned him. Moving in with her seemed to take a toll on him. After that, he graduated from Budweiser to Vodka, and his decline came quickly.

“Do you know what today is?”

I replied that it was Halloween.

“No, this is our day.”

“Okay, Dad.”

He then told me in great detail how I was a witch, my sister was a witch, my mother was a witch and how he and my brothers were warlocks. So the statement “this is our day,” meant something far more than I could have imagined. My father was into the occult and often referred to himself as a Pagan. He had paintings and books with images of devil-like creatures on them and kept a wooden ouija board on his coffee table. So the importance of this day shouldn’t have come as a shock to me.

Still, up to now he hadn’t mentioned we were witches. Why on this particular Halloween day did my father decide to reveal this information? Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. It falls 13 days after my birthday. The leaves change colors, the weather turns cool and I would stay up late nights watching scary movies. This Halloween, I went to school dressed like a hippie with bellbottoms and a peace sign painted on my cheek. Most of my friends decided to dress up like the movie Dead Presidents that year. The film chronicles the life of a young black man before and after his time organizing a group of friends to rob a bank. My friends were dressed in all black, painted white faces with blacked-out eyes and black beanies.

That Halloween day was overcast and continued on that way into the evening. Maybe it was the dark skies, or the fact I was now old enough, but my father went on to say that my mother knew all along; that she didn’t want to recognize that part of her life but she knew of her powers. My mom at one point was a tarot card reader. I guess that’s what he was referring to. He said my brother knew what he was and used it to his advantage. My sister knew, he said, but didn’t believe it to be true and she wasn’t ready to see it for what it can be. As for me, he said, I was now old enough to know the truth. When I was ready to embrace my powers, that I should let him know. We never spoke about it again after that day.

The last week I spent with him consisted of daily visits to the county hospital. The hallways were dark, scary, and quiet. The walls screamed of old memories and death. I hated walking through those halls alone. It was like being in a horror film.

He was sedated for most of the visits. Most of his internal organs had shut down but the blood transfusions and ventilators were keeping him going. He had aged so quickly. His body was now feeble and had a yellow hue. We had to decide the next step. My relationship with my father had been minimal but now, at this moment, his life was in my hands. Before he drifted into the sedation, my father kept talking about a ship. He kept saying, “My ship’s coming in, you’ll see.”

I didn’t understand. I figured it was the morphine talking but during these moments, he believed it was true.

“Okay, Dad.”

It was a Tuesday afternoon in June, another gloomy day. My sister and I walked into that hospital one last time. My grandmother, whom I mostly refer to as “my father’s mother,” was also there. After we made the decision to remove him from the machines keeping him alive, she had banned us from seeing him. She was upset about our decision and thought she should have had a voice in it. The law, however, said otherwise. Nevertheless, she had convinced whoever was in charge that we were upsetting him. She was an old shrew that manipulated her way into my last moment with my father.

He was now in a different room, with no tubes in his throat, no machines or transfusion to keep him going, just a morphine drip to keep him comfortable. But she never let us near him. She tried to shield his body, hugging him around his waist as she told us to get out. He was alert, but he could not speak. He made moaning sounds, as if he was trying to say something. He hated her and now she was with him alone, torturing him in his final moments. We said goodbye.

“I love you,” my sister said, “and we will see you tomorrow.”

She and I walked out of there angry. This old horrible women who used my father up to his very last day was his last memory. He was the only child.

He had never remarried after he and my mother split up. A year before he passed away, I remember that he mentioned a woman to me. He said he met her at a clinic while taking my grandma to her appointments. He told me he really liked her. This was the first time he ever admitted to having feelings for someone other than my mom. He said he would be afraid to admit to her that he was a pagan. She was Catholic. I could see the conflict in his eyes. I told him to tell her how he felt. I never asked him if he did. Besides my grandma wouldn’t have liked his focus on someone new. I believe his only escape was to drink himself to death.

In the middle of the night, the phone rang and I knew. His cousin called to tell us he had passed.

“Okay,” and hung up. I walked to my sister’s room. She never opened the door.

“Is it Dad?”

I just replied “yes” and that was it. I heard her cry out as I walked back to my room.

My father died at 52 years old from cirrhosis of the liver. An alcoholic from before the time I was born. He died when I was 20. I would be a liar if I said we were close.

Echoes From The Past

One day, when I was in second grade at Brooklyn Avenue School, I was at lunch, which they called nutrition. I happened to put back a cookie that I didn’t want and decided to get another one. Before I knew it, my teacher, Ms. Childs grabbed me by my shirt, threw me against the wall, and called me a dirty Mexican. I was terrified to say anything or do anything so I froze there against the wall.

I told my mother upon arriving at home and a couple of days later found myself in a meeting with a group of people all dressed in business suites, and known as the administration. Ms. Childs and my mother were there as well.

I was brought into the meeting to give my testimony for a minute. I told them what had happened. Later I noticed that the school administration and Ms. Childs treated me with more respect.

I remember that same year being stabbed with a pencil and being pant sing in the school playground by a white boy. The bullying by other students, most of them white, became so unbearable that I didn’t want to attend school anymore. Consequently, my parents decided to transfer me to Our Lady of Soledad School one block north from this school.

That same year, while I was in the hospital having my tonsils taken out, the attending nursing staff at the hospital was negligent to my mother and me. They would take a very long time in responding to the buzzer. My mother didn’t speak much English and I was so frightened that I had difficulty expressing what I needed. So, we finally told our friend and landlord, Ralph Goldstein, who also was my foster godfather. On Easter Sunday he showed up to visit me in the hospital with a huge stuffed bunny and a large chocolate Easter rabbit. After visiting me and my mother, Ralph casually went over to the nursing station and we noticed a miraculous change. After that, a bilingual nurse attended to us, my mother was able to stay overnight by my side, we had frequent visits by the nursing staff, and an administrator came to check on us. For the next two days, I ate all the ice cream I wanted. It amazed me how wonderful it was to have a godfather who happened to be an attorney.

A year or so later, my mother and I witnessed the Chicano Moratorium. The Moratorium was a peaceful demonstration of 30,000 people taking a stand against the Vietnam War. Chicano soldiers were dying in large numbers.

Out of nowhere, a man ran north on Mednik Avenue towards Brooklyn Avenue, dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt, swinging his arms, screaming, “Mataron a Ruben, mataron a Ruben Salazar.” They killed Ruben Salazar.

Ruben Salazar was the lone Chicano news reporter at the Los Angeles Times then. He was killed by police Sgt. Tom Wilson, who fired a teargas bullet into the Silver Dollar bar, where Salazar was taking a break a few blocks away. Later, an inquest determined his death an accident. It would make him a hero to Mexican–American community. In life, Ruben wrote of injustice, of racism, and of the need for change in the servitude and the assimilation of the Mexican–American into white, mainstream America.

My mother grabbed my hand.

“Vamonos a la casa mija, correle, correle,” — Let’s go home sweetheart, run, run.

In seconds, a riot broke out. We dodged bullets, tear gas, and glass bottles flying around us. As we ran with all our might, I could hear friends and neighbors yelling and crying as bottles smashed and business windows exploded. It felt as though everything was going in slow motion. Finally, we reached our street on Kern Avenue, one block west from Mednik. As we ran through the front door, my mother said, “hit the floor.” We lay there holding each other trembling in disbelief.

We stayed there for several minutes, though it felt like an eternity, hearing the reverberation of gunshots, broken bottles, and the weeping from men and women outside our home. It felt as though a tornado swept the neighborhood and when it was over it left an anxious stillness.

Over the next year or so, I remember, people continued protesting around East Los Angeles.

“What do we want? Change!” they would chant. “When do we want it? Now!”

We watched similar protests across the country on television.

My eldest brother was associated with people who called themselves the Brown Berets. They often visited our home in East Los Angeles. They overheard conversations about martial arts, protests, and surviving gun shots and stabbings. One of them showed my brother his stomach and chest, which, scarred with X’s and lines, looked like a treasure map.

Teenagers and elders alike chanted Viva La Raza and Chicano Power outside at Al’s Produce and across the street, at El Gallo’s Bakery, at Our Lady of Soledad Church, at the Safeway market, and at neighborhood gatherings. The United Farm Workers picketed layovers at Garfield High School.

But years passed and things changed. East LA was 80 percent Hispanic, mostly Mexican-American then; now it is 98 percent, and many folks are from Mexico. The police and teachers are mostly Hispanic now; most of the businesses Hispanic owned.

I last went to the East L.A. Mexican Independence parade in 1977. I was in junior high school. As I waited to march that year, I realized I was standing next to Cesar Chavez. We spoke briefly. I was 13.

Now in 2015, I was 51, and attended the parade again. His name was on the intersection where the parade began and near where Ruben Salazar had died.

I savored the richness of the feeling, as floats, college and high school marching bands, the Folklorico and Aztec dancers, the charros on horseback passed by. Politicians in their cars waved to the crowds, which chanted “Viva la Raza!” and “Viva Mexico!”

“Did you know that Univision is televising this?” asked a lady in front of me.

A man pushed an ice cream cart past behind us. “Paletas de uva, de coco, de fresa,” he cried.

“Churros, churros,” called a woman dressed in her traditional rebozo. “Dos por un dolar” —two for a dollar.

I asked the woman standing next to me if she was enjoying the parade? She smiled and I saw that she had tears in her eyes. She, too, had not been to this event since she was a teenager. We began to talk about the old days, about Al’s produce and how there’s a Denny’s there now.

“We used to ride the bus for a dime,” she said.

“Do you remember Herman’s thrift shop and the Liquor store where you could buy five candies for a quarter?” I asked her.

She nodded and smiled.

She had moved back from Puerto Rico two weeks before, after the failure of a relationship and a broken business. Her autistic niece was standing with us cheering. The woman’s daughter was working on her college project as she gathered footage for a documentary on the parade’s 69th anniversary.

“I guess we are moving on up since now we have a Subway and a Denny’s on the same lot.”

“Yes,” I said, “I guess we are lucky to see the neighborhood moving forward.”