Introduction to Volume 4

Stories from the fourth Tell Your True Tale workshop at East Los Angeles Library

We live in distracted times. We are pulled from quiet contemplation by social media and our phones, by our commutes, by demands of job and family.

But it is in the small, often quiet moments in which the depth of our lives can be examined, and where beautiful stories can be found.

One such story is in this volume, written by Susanna Whitmore Fránek. Susanna proposed to write about a torn photograph of her great-grandparents and the journey that discovery sent her on. This was her third Tell Your True Tale workshop, and we find her embarking on the ambitious project of telling the stories of her life growing up as a rebellious kid in the San Fernando Valley.

One point along her trip is the simple discovery of that photograph.

That’s one thing I love about the Tell Your True Tale workshops, now in a fourth iteration at the East Los Angeles Library. Over and over, writers find wonder in the smallest moments. That’s what this volume, especially, is about.

Sarah Alvarado, a TYTT newcomer, contributes a terrific story of one day with her father in San Bernardino.

C.J. Salgado, a TYTT veteran, tells the story of the last day he spent with his grandfather, a former Bracero from Michoacan, on the beach in Santa Monica.

Alex Chi, another newcomer, tells us the powerful tale of his recovery from a near fatal illness.

A writer new to TYTT, Anika Malone, writes of a night she spent with some people she believed were her friends in the Pomona Valley.

Olivia Segura contributes her third tale about her father, a former Bracero, this time about his discovery of the big city of Los Angeles.

Second-timer Fabiola Manriquez tells of watching a woman whom she tutored emerging from years of drug and gang life.

Brian Rivera is back with his third story, this time of a visit to El Paso and the recollections that inspired.

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.

Once again, I thank Daniel Hernandez, director of the Chicano Resource Center at the East L.A. Library, run by the L.A. County Library system, where these workshops have been held, and who was adventurous enough to allow them to take place. I thank, as well, Susan Broman, formerly head of Adult and Digital Services for the county library system, and now at the Los Angeles Public Library. Thanks to Jesse Lanz for his support of the Tell Your True Tale workshops.

Eric Franco Aguilar, a TYTT alum, designed a terrific cover, his third for us.

Enjoy this fourth 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, you’re welcome to come write a story of your own.

Sam Quinones
www.samquinones.com
samquinones7@yahoo.com

The 10

I don’t want to go to my Dad’s house.

I can’t pinpoint why.

I always feel guilty when I don’t want to go. I feel guilty about a lot of things. I am guilt-ridden beyond my years. But I need to be present for Dad. Sometimes I need to be present for Mom. Today it’s Dad.

He called yesterday, and the day before that, and even before that. He confirmed and reconfirmed our plans. He wanted to be certain. We have plans. He’s so excited that we have plans. I’m going to go down there. We are going to see Straight Outta Compton: Me, him and my brother. It’s gonna be great. Our high regard for ’90s rap music is something we can easily talk about. We can remember way back when this song or that came out and where we were living and how great it was.

I liked the ’90s. I was a kid. The world felt amazing, I was born in the best state in the U.S.A. and the U.S.A. was the best country on earth. I liked going to my school, I liked reading, and I liked that our school library had a machine that would dispense a cool pencil for a quarter. I had plans every day after school; there was a solid block of cartoons on TV and I could rotate between channel 11 and channel 5. If Mom said it was okay, a neighborhood kid (there were plenty) could come in and watch TV with me. My family’s video collection was the envy of the block. We had a big TV, a VCR and a rewinder! No waiting to rewind stuff in my house of the future. I had tons of books. I had toys too – a Nintendo! Mom made a real dinner every day. My siblings knew I was the boss because I was the oldest. Life was good.

Rather, life was good most of the time. Every so often the ground underneath me would shift. Like an animal sensing an encroaching natural disaster, I could sense things as I opened the door. Trouble was on the way. Mom would seem that much more nervous. Dad would seem that much more removed. I had seconds to decide; where was I going to hide? Should I stand my ground? Was it going to be fight or flight?

Then it would begin – Dad slurs his words just slightly. Or he keeps repeating what he’s saying. Or he asks you to keep repeating what you’re saying. Then, craaaaap, he’s drunk. I feel the anxiety in me, heartbeat revving. My parents are going to fight right … now. Part of me wishes Mom would pretend he wasn’t drunk. If she could pretend, I could pretend. We can all pretend that this is not going to be the most uncomfortable, sad, ugly situation we will have this week. Then we can make it through the night. It can be over. But no. He stumbles. He laughs. He is the most annoying person in the world when he drinks. Mom is mad. She can’t take it anymore. His drinking is out of his control. He has a problem. If it’s a weekday, he’s probably going to stare at you incredulously as though you’re the crazy one for calling him out on his drinking. If it’s a weekend he might get violent. It’s never quite clear until it’s too late whether I, as the oldest, will be banished or called to the beast. Sometimes I try to keep the peace because I know he won’t hit me.

I would wish my hardest, the way only a child can, that Dad would stop drinking. My heart once crumbled when he bitterly burned the last $20 dollars of his check on the stove while my Mom cried hysterically in the background. That single $20 bill was all that was left to feed a family of four for a week; the rest had been spent in the span of three hours on one drunken Friday payday night. It was terrible on the nights we had to go looking for him, but worse on the nights when we had to run away.

Crap. Now I’m lost. As many times as I have journeyed to my dad’s small domicile in San Bernardino County, the route should be ingrained in my brain. I should be able to drive there instinctively, like a salmon that can drive a car. But I can’t. My mind is swimming in the memories of the ’90s and my mouth is singing along to Boyz-N-The-Hood on K-Day. I have overshot my destination by a great deal. I’m not at the tip of San Bernardino where I should be; I’m en route to the heart of it.

I hate San Bernardino. Driving into it, the landscape fills me with melancholy. The big, dusty roads are sad and barren. The loneliness I feel as I stare at the empty sidewalks burrows into my heart’s center. I have the impression that no one ends up living in San Bernardino by choice. Being banished from Los Angeles is a harsh reality that many people have come to terms with. I hope I am never one of them.

I feel cramped. My thighs are sweaty. Despite the double protection of the windshield and my jeans, my legs are pierced by the heat. The sun burns my forearms. The a/c is on, but the only relief it delivers goes to the exact area at which the vents are pointed. The rest of the vessel is an inferno. The dirt caked onto the windshield adds to the whole Mad Max-ish, dystopian feel that is: Driving To San Bernardino. I’m thirsty. I hate this drought. I hate being lost. And I hate San Bernardino. Everywhere is dusty and alone and sad but here I am, because I love my dad. My dad knows what it is to be San Bernardino. He knows what it is to be alone and sad.

Finally I’m here. Dad isn’t ready; actually Dad’s not here. My brother is.

“Dad’s gone out to the store but he’ll be back.”

Okay. And now I have to wait. Oh. Here’s dad. He seems tired, groggy. It must be the sun, poor Dad has been walking in this goddam heat. Well- let’s get in the car – let’s go to the Ontario Mills Mall – let’s make a day of this!

Dad’s in the front. As I’m easing back onto the freeway, he asks me, “How’s it going?”

Crap.

“Things have been gooood…,” I reply, cautiously.

Too late – I feel it – the anxiety. Fight or flight. I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s hot. People get dehydrated. Now we’re in the ticket line with the NWA fans, the families seeing Inside Out, and others seeing who knows what – we are in the stagnant, hot, ugly San Bernardino sun. It’s more obvious now, in the bold of midday. I can’t ignore this. Dad is drunk. I’m pissed. I don’t know what to do.

He knew we were going to see this movie. He knows I hate when he gets like this. And yet here he is, with no regard for my feelings, my spent gas and money, his health, or movie-going etiquette. This is what addiction does.

I can’t punish my brother for my dad’s terrible judgment. I tell Dad that he’s not fooling anyone. He has to have water and coffee and he has to straighten up. He accepts this. He does not apologize. I feel like I’m being punished because I’m angry as you-know-where and I’m doling out money for coffee and water because he had to drink. He had to drink even though we made a plan. Him having a drink this morning was not part of the plan. I survive the serpentine Starbucks line and make my way back to where I see him slouching in the over-crowded food court. He seems annoyed that I bought him a regular, hot coffee and not a foozy-woozy whipped sugar mess like I bought for my brother, and not a cool ice tea I ordered for me. I bite my tongue. I tell him, “It’s for your own good,” instead of “This is not a goddam treat.”

An hour or so passes by. Dad has sobered up. We file into the theater. The elation that movie-going should bring is absent. I’m just relieved to have a few hours in the a/c and time where I don’t have to look at or talk to him. I’m still mad. The movie starts and I see an era being re-enacted before me. This movie is not about my life …but it feels like it is. I remember the rap music that was playing everywhere when I was a kid. I remember watching Rodney King, and the L.A. Riots that followed, from the safety of my suburban living room. I remember the hairstyles and the clothes, just like those of the people from my old neighborhood, decades ago. So much has changed since then. So much hasn’t.

Walking into the lobby after leaving the theater, I’m haunted by the portrayal of Eazy-E’s death. It’s hard to watch a life be taken by a disease. My thoughts turn to Dad and the recognition that his own disease will also likely be his end; either by accident or by a slow, ugly poisoning of the organs.

In the car, then, we discuss whether we should stop for dinner. Dad teases me for being a vegetarian and I laugh. I ask Dad if he ever had a Taco Bell Bell Beefer and he wonders why it was ever taken off the menu. The Humpty Dance starts to play on the radio and I tell Dad about the time Digital Underground performed said dance on channel 11. Dad starts to tell me about a different Fox performance he saw, a live taping of Married With Children. I smile, because this is one of my favorite stories. I’m glad I came.

Miracle Man

It is another sunny day in southern California. While walking down the pier I can feel the cool ocean breeze and smell the hot dogs and cotton candy. I feel thirsty all of a sudden and I crave a tall glass of ice cold orange soda. Kids are running around excited about going on the rides. Along the beach I can see people laying on their towels working on their golden California tans. Beyond the pier I see a few sail boats slowly glide across the blue ocean.

It was late 2009 when I first started to get headaches and started feeling out of sorts.

I figured it was just temporary and it would go away eventually but it did not. Then I noticed a small bump on the right side of my neck, sort of like a pimple, which I thought was strange.

The headaches continued and the bump on the right side of my neck kept growing. I was able to feel it now like a small pea. In a few weeks it was the size of a lemon. In February 2010 I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I went to the hospital the following Monday to start chemotherapy.

The first week I felt no side effects but as the treatments increased soon came nausea, vomiting, dizzy spells, joint and body aches, flu-like symptoms, etc. I could no longer work and had to apply for disability. Without work, I couldn’t pay my mortgage and bills. The bank foreclosed on the house and gave me thirty days to vacate the property. My brother lived in a two bedroom apartment so I ended up moving in with him.

Six months later I felt better. The doctor gave me a release letter to go back to work. When I called my employer I was told that my position had been eliminated. I updated my resume and asked my former bosses and co-workers if they heard of any openings. Five months later I started a new job. It was quite a commute but I was thankful to have a job nonetheless.

Then in October, 2013 they again found some tumors, this time under my right arm. A battery of tests showed that the Lymphoma had returned. I started chemotherapy again. The weekend after the last treatment I felt really sick. My head throbbed, my body ached and I had no energy. I wasn’t sure what it was. I drove myself to the hospital and checked my self in; I had a fever of 108.

I was there a few days. They could not give me any antibiotics until they found what type of virus I had. The fever was not going down. They had me in a tub with ice and cold blankets; in the meantime the flu turned into pneumonia. My blood pressure was really high and my body was going through shock. I was having a hard time breathing. They had no choice but to induce a coma in order to connect me to all the machines and to get oxygen to my brain and help me breathe.

While I was in the coma, they determined that I had caught the H1N1 virus; also know as “swine flu,” a human respiratory infection caused by an influenza strain that started in pigs. I was on strong antibiotics and oxygen, had an IV on my arm, a heart monitor, and a tube in my stomach where I was being fed, and a tracheotomy, as well.

My body was shutting down. The doctors were giving up and they were getting ready to unplug me from the respirator. They advised my family and friends to come and say their goodbye as they thought I would not make it through the night.

Everyone came; they made a circle around my bed and as they held hands they thanked God for my life and prayed for my health. I remember then being lifted from the bed. It was like I had wings beneath me and as they flapped they reflected a silver light with a white glow. I felt the air flowing under me as I rose.

I looked down and saw the nurses and my family around my bed. Then all of a sudden everything turned dark. My spirit returned to my body and I was back in bed. Still unconscious, I had a lot of nightmares and sweet dreams during that period. I dreamed I was walking on the Santa Monica Pier and it was a hot summer day, which was something I hadn’t done in years.

At my bedside, my brother didn’t know what to do so he called my oncologist for his opinion. He told my brother to tell the doctors that they should give me a few more days. My body was fighting. Soon the fever started to go down slowly and I improved.

A few days passed. I stabilized. Then I heard voices and I opened my eyes for the first time in weeks. I looked around. I was alone in a room; I had no idea where I was, what day it was or what time it was. I tried to move and could not. My arms where strapped to the bed and I could not speak. I was paralyzed from the neck down. I could only move my head and my eyes. The nurses came in and asked me a few questions. My family arrived and asked if I recognized everyone. All I could do was nod. They told me what had happened and that I had been in a coma for about two months.

I was told that while I was in my coma I had a lot of visitors: my family, friends, church members and co-workers. Some came to read books or the Bible and held my hand in prayer. They told me that my aunt had come to sing to me a hymn -“Because He Lives”- and that by the time she finished tears were rolling down my cheeks. She asked the nurse if she had done something wrong. The nurse said that it was a good sign; I was reacting to her singing and my blood pressure had gone down. Then the nurse asked my aunt if she could go and sing for another patient on the floor and she did.

A couple of friends created a blog for me on “Caringbridge” where they kept everyone informed of my condition. People wrote their comments on this site as well. The last time I checked there were over six thousands hits on this blog.

One of the nurses told me that I might never walk again. After a couple of weeks they sent me to another hospital with a respiratory facility where they helped me breathe on my own. I was transferred to another hospital where they provided physical therapy and speech therapy. Every time my family came to visit they would massage my legs, feet and arms trying to reactivate the nerves. I believe that the massages and prayers really helped my recovery.

Slowly I started to move my fingers, then hands, arms and feet. One day three nurses tried to help me stand from the wheelchair. My legs gave way. I was too weak. But the physical therapy continued and after a while I could move a little. The speech therapist helped me learn to speak again.

So it was that within three months, I had learned to function again as a human being.

When they saw my progress they sent me home; my insurance, they said, would no longer be covering my stay, and I could continue my physical therapy at another hospital. I was released on July 7th,2014; in a wheelchair.

I kept the physical therapy. They taught me how to walk with a cane and how to go up and down stairs. Within five months I was able to walk slowly on my own. My first trip was to Marie Calendar’s for a slice of pie.

Now I walk and talk and drive. I’m looking for a job, and, as you can see, I’m writing. I am staying with my brother until I get back on my feet again. I threw a party for my friends and family who stood by my bed.

But there is one thing left to do.

So today, the forecast calls for highs in the 90’s. I am at the Santa Monica pier. The fresh cool air brushes my face. My shoes are off so I can feel the sand between my toes. I look at the seagulls flying overhead. I will have that ice cold orange soda now.

Charro of Caratacua

It was not what I expected, a day at the beach, waiting for the sunset.

The day before, my grandfather arrived at our front patio after being picked up at the airport, wearing a sheepskin jacket, stubbly faced, looking frail and gaunt, but with a big smile when he heard my voice greet him at the door.

“Hijo, eres tu?” He said, extending his arms out toward my voice.

I responded it was I and asked how he was. Fine, he said, still kicking. He then asked about my mother.

I hadn’t seen him in years. I’d heard he’d been sick in Mexico and thought about asking him what that was all about. Instead, I just accepted he was well enough to make the trip like always. Still, he was an old man now, weak, and, unlike the memories of my youth, a shadow of his former self, a horseman from Mexico.

We’d be spending the next day together before he’d have to leave to visit other relatives in California. As we chatted over dinner I asked him what he wanted to do the next day. Picnic at Santa Monica beach, he said. After dinner I rushed to the grocery store to get the snacks he’d asked for. Along the way, as I stared at his shopping list, I puzzled at his requests.

I had trouble picturing this charro from the small village of Caratacua, Mexico, dressed in botas, sarape, sombrero, and tapabalazos, at the beach. He was far from that village where he grew up, where he rode his horse through the hills of the family ranch, Xaratanga, herding sheep or cattle for a good part of the first half of the 20th century.

Early on he took to herding livestock from Mexico’s Tierra Caliente, a wild, remote, and hot corner of the Pacific coast state of Michoacán, back to Caratacua. The Hot Land was a tropical, fertile place that grew avocados and melons. But it was also a dangerous place most would avoid. Extreme heat and drenching humidity halted many travelers, and bandits or jaguars pounced on unsuspecting travelers and livestock.

Yet feeding his growing family pushed him on. To him it became a commute; his travel companion was a Mauser rifle, always at his side. He regularly made the trek of over 50 miles into the Hot Land to buy cheaper livestock that he could sell for a profit in Caratacua.

His branding iron design, a stylized “A,” became a common sight on local livestock, particularly on cattle. He liked to keep the best of the bulls to breed on his ranch, giving them names like “Billete” (money bill) and “Cajera” (cashier).

But breeding cattle wasn’t enough to get by with a large family, so he contracted for temporary farm work in the United States under the Bracero program. He traveled many times back and forth between Caratacua and the United States, leaving his family for months at a time but always returning, bringing gifts, money, and stories.

Perhaps no one more eagerly anticipated his returns to the ranch than my mother. He must have known because he’d faithfully bring dresses, jewelry, and Quaker Oats from the U.S. for his little girl. He discovered many new things in the U.S., which he’d share when back home.

While he was away in the United States, he also sent letters home every three months to the nearby towns of Tiríndaro or Comanja, which had post offices. He included $50 or $100 in a sealed envelope to be picked up by his wife or eldest son. That didn’t sound like much money, but it was hard earned and saved while working the agricultural fields of the United States.

He started working early in life and knew the value of money. When he was a boy, the railroad first came to Caratacua. Surveyors used dynamite to blast a path for the tracks. Local workers were hired to hand-carry away the rocks. Many died. But he worked alongside his father, Papá Camento, his strong arms moving countless stones for 18 cents a day.

So the day after he arrived in Los Angeles I drove him to the beach, and we sat on the sand, side by side staring out into the water. As I unpacked the cooler we took with us to the beach, I wondered how my grandfather could be such a happy man with such a hard life.

In his youth he was known as a handsome man, well dressed, and charismatic. My mother would tell me stories of how, as a little girl, she’d accompany him on walks from the ranch to the nearby town of Comanja for fresh bread. Local girls would soon be abuzz over him, and she’d be red with jealousy that they’d dare to take away his attention.

He wasn’t shy about having fun, too. My mother thought it scandalous that he would dance la botella with Doña Timotea, instead of with his wife, at community dances. Yes, my grandmother was not a dancer but that shouldn’t have been reason for him to dance with others. At least that’s how my mother felt.

You would never think that he was a man who believed the world would end with the coming of the second millennium. However, in the early 1940s, the Parícutin Volcano in the nearby town of Uruapan erupted with a fury not unlike the dynamite blasting of his youth. Although it was not the volcano that ultimately drove him to the U.S., it did change things.

For years, stones, ash, and lava covered the region. Many people left. My grandfather resisted abandoning his ranch. He continued to farm the land. But the volcano left its mark on those who remained. For years to come, he and his older sons would taste the volcano. As they worked the fields, they would collect limillas, a sour fruit from a shrub found in the fields, as a substitute for lemons to mix in their water cans with salt and chili. For years, the fruit was coated with ash from the volcano.

After a bit of just quietly sitting on the beach listening to the surf, I laid out the sandwiches, Twinkies, and Coke cans. I thought of what we’d talk about now, a little worried.

My grandfather took off his hat, closed his eyes, reclined his back, and began to speak unrushed, obviously enjoying the warmth that fell on his calm and smiling face. Relieved, I would ask a question here and there. But mostly he’d talk, stopping occasionally to sip his Coke. I had never really noticed that white “wave” on the Coke can until he held it up that day. He talked about his life in Mexico and his many trips to El Norte, as he called it.

Being a bracero was not easy, he said. Yes, he’d earn a few dollars a day but he was at the mercy of the harvest season, moved from one place to another like a farm implement, as needed. Housed with dozens of other such men, the canvas beds reeked of the sweat of countless bodies too tired after ten to twelve hours of daily labor to care. His back would ache and not want to straighten, a short-handled hoe to blame.

Yet, that he did not regret his travels was evident as he spoke. He provided for his family, left in a ranch in a little village in rural Mexico. Now his family had followed him out to El Norte and spread from coast to coast, he beamed, starting with a bold daughter that he could now visit in his old age.

I remember the calm of his smiling face in the light of that afternoon as the sunset fell so beautifully on the beach. But then I could also picture him an elegant charro on horseback, and as a bracero, working the soil with his strong arms that always carried home gifts to share.

I never saw him again after he returned to Mexico. He died of cancer, peacefully, I’m told. Just before the end of the millennium, he passed. Years later, I went to Mexico to visit his grave, to thank him for our last day and say my goodbye. He is buried in the land of his youth, mixed back into the soil, stones, and ashes upon which he first toiled.

 

Warrior of East L.A.

I remember Flaca walking into the computer lab with her white t-shirt, khaki shorts that met her tube socks at her knees, her fancy leather black belt, her slick dark sun glasses and her checkered red and beige long sleeve shirt. She looked like a cholo.

She took her time walking across the room, scanning the computer lab as though preparing for battle. When she finally reached my desk, she handed me a referral from a government program she was forced to enroll in and said, in a low voice, “Hey Miss. I’m here to get help with my Math and English, so what do I do”?

I was recruited into the tutoring program by my trigonometry professor at East Los Angeles College since I often enjoyed assisting classmates. I remember Flaca sitting in front of the computer simply staring at the screen. I thought she was struggling with the operation of the computer. I learned later that she would come to class intoxicated and brought her happy juice. It was a thirty- two ounce soda mug with alcohol but because it had no aroma of alcohol I didn’t know. It was also a little strange that she preferred wearing her slick shades in class. I thought the computer screen was too bright for her. In reality, she was loaded and she hid behind them.

I had a feeling that she wanted to improve her life since she was attending this class. As she behaved, I continued to assist her and in time we became friends. We talked. I asked what her favorite drink was? With a naughty smile she looked straight into my eyes and confessed that she enjoyed her alcoholic beverage while she worked on her lessons. This situation was new to me, so I said nothing. Over the weeks, we talked a little about college studies and concerns about the weather as I tried to figure out what to do.

When I felt more comfortable with her, I finally addressed the issue of coming to class loaded and bringing her happy juice. I could have lost my job if my boss found out that she was drinking in class, but my heart told me to stay quiet. I told her that I needed her help. We would work as a team in order for her to stay in the class since it was mandated by her program. I asked her to pretend as though she was doing her work by hitting the computer keys every few minutes. I also asked her to stay awake because her snoring might disturb other students and attract attention. I suggested she refrain from bringing her favorite drink to class, which was better enjoyed outside class.

With time she stopped bringing her mug and, eventually, began to complete her lessons. But she kept her shades on.

Flaca was raised by both her parents as an only child for a decade, followed by a brother ten years younger and by a sister four years after that. Before the arrival of her siblings, she and her parents had money and time enough to take camping trips, go bowling and to the movies. Her father worked in the roofing industry and she was his assistant for a while. However, he always wanted a son and he taught her to work and play sports as if she were so.

But she reached her teenage years as her parents were occupied changing diapers, and working harder than ever. “I felt as though my brother and sister stole my father from me,” she told me.

At fifteen, she was searching for attention and began to hang out with the neighborhood gang. After school, she and her comrades would put their lunch money together and would pay a local wino to buy them a six pack, which led to a twelve pack, and eventually to cases of beer. They began breaking into newspaper vending machines. From there, she began using drugs. She even smoked Angel Dust on the lawn outside the East Los Angeles Sheriff station.

Her parents talked with her about her mischief, beat her, threw her out of the house, but gave her chances to return home. Her troubles kept growing. She would behave for a while but it didn’t last long, and her defiance would intensify.

She was expelled from Schurr High School, attended Vail Continuation High School and was expelled for fighting. She was in and out of juvenile detention and jail. Eventually, she was sent to the Mira Loma detention facility in Lancaster which gave her much needed structure. There she completed her G.E.D.

Once on the outside, she worked at the Sears Warehouse, then as a mail clerk at Wells Fargo Bank, followed by a printing shop. Then

in her mid-twenties, she began using heroin. She met Sheila at a party and grew as addicted to her as she was to the drug. They became lovers and sold heroin together. Addicts, called Sheila with their orders; Flaca made the deliveries. “It was just like delivering pizza- like a franchise, in a way,” she said. Sheila was her immediate boss, but there were other distributors above her.

Flaca and Sheila shared the upkeep of the house and expenses for about a year. Then one night, Flaca stayed out all night. Sheila and she argued. The next time Flaca stayed out all night, Sheila kicked her out. That proved lucky, as a few days later cops raided the house and arrested Sheila.

Flaca moved back with her parents. At this point, longing for children, she decided to take a break from women. Her next door neighbor, Smokey, was a longtime friend and they kind of messed around when she was younger. He was eleven years her senior, had a good heart, was handsome, masculine and was right on the other side of the fence. He had also served in the Vietnam War. The proposition was simple, she told him: I need your help to have my children. He would not have any responsibility or claim to them, but he could see them from next door. With time, he fathered her two sons. He also was in and out of jail and survived working odd jobs, then died from a bleeding ulcer soon after the birth of her second child. He was found on the lawn of what is now the East Los Angeles Library.

Meanwhile, Flaca continued making poor choices. She was stabbed twice, took part in drive-by shootings, kept drinking and using drugs, and was in and out of jail. She was respected in the gangster community since she did bad things in a big way.

Years of abuse wore her down so that she lost her eye sight for a year. Consequently she was unable to work and went on government aid known as SSI in 1991 at the age of 31. Her parents didn’t condone her behavior, but they loved her and cared for her two sons.

After a year of therapy she regained her eyesight. One morning while visiting a friend, she realized that she had not drunk or used drugs the night before. For the first time in decades she was able to think with a clear mind. Because she qualified for a free bus pass, she got on the bus after visiting with this friend to be alone and think. For a week, she left her parents’ home early and rode the bus all day. Those bus rides were a turning point.

She began to attend Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and tried to stay clean and sober. She relapsed several times, but eventually held to it.

As years passed, she learned a more structured lifestyle. She began by taking her sons to school regularly and picking them up afterwards. As time went on, she befriended the principal of the same school as he later invited her to enroll in parenting classes. Flaca learned how to kneel down and look her children in the eyes when she spoke to them. She became skilled in establishing parameters when giving her boys a choice when selecting things. She was taught the value of punctuality, whether it was to arrive at school on time regularly or returning library materials by the due date.

When her sons were toddlers, she entered them in baby contests and won several times. Later, she enrolled her boys in baseball, soccer, karate, and taught them to bowl. The year that her sons played peewee baseball was the first time in the league’s history that both the coach and the assistant coach were women. Flaca was the head coach as the team made it to the playoffs.

She learned to use the libraries, and showed her boys how to do the same. In the annual school fundraiser she sold candy for her sons and was the top seller for three consecutive years. The first year as the top seller they won tickets to Knott’s Berry Farm and the second year, tickets to Disneyland. Flaca already had experience selling things. Candy sales came easy to her and it was legal. “No one was shot. No one got killed,” she said. “It made me feel like I was a real mother.”

I remember the year she first came in for tutoring telling me about selling enough candy to win bicycles for her sons.

Two weeks before her father died, he told her to go back to school and become a rehabilitation drug counselor. She’s doing that now, working on her degree at East Los Angeles College.

It’s been 21 years since she first showed up in my class. I have watched her all that time.

I see her on campus now, an adult finally, and no longer in her sunglasses and khaki shorts that meet her tube socks at the knees. She is usually with one of her sons, who is also a student. I see them after class, walking together slowly toward the parking lot.

A Piece of Myself

When I was a kid I would tell others I was from somewhere else. Hawaii was a place I had visited and loved when I was 13. The Hawaiian and Tahitian music and dancing, the beautiful racial features, and the mellow, peaceful ways of the islanders captivated me. I had met a young native Hawaiian surfer, Dustin. I scared the pants off my mom and her boyfriend Bob, after staying in the water with Dustin on our surfboards for close to four hours; they couldn’t find me. Finally, I was telling people I grew up there, even though I was a native Angelina and had only spent two weeks on the islands. I started to believe it.

At 16, I ran away from home and crossed illegally into Mexico. I dropped out of college in my late 20s to go live in Spain with my boyfriend, a Spaniard, to study flamenco and become a professional belly dancer.

Then, on one of my visits home from Spain, I was handed a treasure chest full of old family photographs. One photo in particular caught my attention.

In the photograph was a handsome man who looked like Pancho Villa, standing lovingly next to a white woman who smiled broadly while embracing him. She held his hat in her hand, while draping her arm around him. This was my introduction to my maternal great-grandparents. Pedro (Peter) Leon Lopez, born (1867) and bred in the city of San Fernando, and Lettie Mae Williams Lopez, a white Protestant who came to L.A. by herself from Ohio to visit a friend. I knew about my great-grandmother, who we called Grannie. She was still alive when I was little, but I knew nothing about Peter. Seven months after they were married in 1894 they gave birth to my grandmother, Bertha Lopez.

The contrast of their skin color ran counter to the segregated norms of the time. It seemed that my great-grandparents were breaking some social and racial barriers that drew me to them even more.

I began to research their lives. The Lopez lineage was linked to 44 settlers who left the San Gabriel Mission in 1781 and founded the city of L.A. at Olvera Street. I was a Poblador descendent, but never knew it.

The sepia and black and white photographs my aunt had kept became an inroad into my quest for the cultural heritage gone missing from my childhood. I took seriously my role as caretaker of these heirlooms. A cracked and yellowed clipping from a Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine dated February 9, 1936, described the historic founding families that dominated Los Angeles during the time historians referred to as the “romantic era” of the ranchos. The Lopez clan was one of the 25 familias that owned most of the Southland during those early years when the area was part of Spain and then Mexico. The article also mentioned that another of my ancestors, Francisco Lopez, discovered gold back in 1842 in Placeritos Canyon, six years before the gringos came in to claim their big “discovery.”

I then came across a piece of memorabilia that belonged to my grandmother, a pamphlet titled Enchanted Pueblo: The Story of the Rise of the Modern Metropolis Around the Plaza de Los Angeles, by Ed Ainsworth, sponsored by Bank of America. It was an Anglo American’s version of the pastoral rancho days, describing “a town in perpetual siesta, and a population that had moved forward in most slothful fashion.” The well-known Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz – whose father was French Basque, and whose mother was part of the Lopez clan – dedicated the book to my grandmother Bertha, his cousin.

I was baffled that I never heard about this family heritage while growing up.

I began devouring every book and historical document I could get my hands on. I learned my ancestors came up from Baja California with the Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola and Junipero Serra in 1769. Later generations of the Lopez clan were mayordomos at both the San Gabriel and San Fernando missions. One ancestor, Pedro Lopez, who Peter was named after, continued converting Indians into Catholicism even after the missions were secularized. During the Mexican American war, he had a close friendship with General Fremont, and his nephew carried the truce flag when Fremont and his troops invaded.

I assume that because Pedro and his siblings and extended family were all born in Los Angeles, they felt less allegiance to Mexico. By the 1850s, the rancho lifestyle in the Valley was slowly becoming a thing of the past as many of the aristocratic Californio families, including mine, comfortably integrated with the white Anglo population, even as their lands and fortunes were confiscated. The Lopez family showed no resistance to these changes, perhaps because they maintained their land and positions of influence while developing strong friendships and marital ties with the newcomers.

Peter’s father, Valentino, built the Lopez Adobe in 1882-83 on land he bought from a mission Indian. It’s still standing today on the corner of McClay and Pico in the city of San Fernando. Peter was 16 when the Adobe was built. He later became a mail carrier, a road overseer and cement contractor – he laid out the streets and poured sidewalks – and was the first marshal of the city of San Fernando. My mother remembers him taking prisoners, handcuffed to him, up to San Quentin prison. I spent months scouring the streets in San Fernando to find those old sidewalks with the P.L. Lopez stamp.

My treasure chest of photographs and old newspaper clippings also revealed that Mr. and Mrs. P.L. Lopez held frequent parties and barbeques at their Rancho Solita in Little Tujunga Canyon. The more I read, the more it seemed that mixed race couples were less an aberration. All of their friends and guests at these parties and barbecues were Anglo. There is no Hispanic surname mentioned. Their generation intermingled and intermarried more with Anglos than within their own ethnic group; both my grandmother and mom’s generation followed suit. I broke the pattern by marrying a Mexican when I crossed into Mexico illegally as a teenager.

Yet photographs show my grandmother, Bertha, as a young woman dressed in Spanish mantillas draped over the traditional high combs, and beautiful embroidered mantón de Manila shawls. But over time, Bertha felt the anti-Mexican backlash and told us she didn’t like being called “a dirty Mexican;” she chose to disassociate as much as possible with anything Mexican, but occasionally alluded to her “Spanish” heritage. Similar to my made-up story about being from Hawaii, she also created an imagined identity.

Bertha’s friends were all Anglos, and she socialized with the more affluent circles of the day in San Fernando. They would travel the world together. Her house was full of artifacts from the “orient” – the term she used when referring to some of her favorite destinations: Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Hawaii, etc. I was fascinated with the ornately carved furniture and knick-knacks that adorned her living room; I would dream of going to the places where they came from. Sometimes I’d play the grand piano that had the mantón de Manila from her childhood draped over its edge. But she reprimanded us if we ever touched her stuff, and scolded us harshly if we broke anything; I never felt at home there. Even though I inherited her adventurous spirit and travel bug, I never had a close relationship with my grandmother.

It’s still surprises me that she never mentioned anything about the Lopez Adobe. When I returned from Mexico, we sat and chatted in Spanish; hers was somewhat broken by this time. She was on her second marriage, to a man who was much younger, a Southerner who reminded us of Fred Flintstone, but who took care of her until she passed. Her gusto for life had not changed. We drank cocktails that afternoon while I told her about my life in Mexico; she gave me hell for having run away from home and causing them all so much angst.

By the time my generation came along, any connection to the Lopez cultural legacy was nonexistent. I stumbled upon my roots at a time when Latino culture was fast becoming a part of mainstream America, and when in many areas of L.A. Spanish was the unofficial language.

A piece of myself was satiated knowing I was a Lopez. It’s no coincidence that I had been a child bride down in Mexico, or chose to live in Spain all those years, or that upon returning to Los Angeles in 1984 my work would be intricately tied to the Latino community; it still is today.

Yet I couldn’t keep my mind off the photograph of Peter and Lettie Mae, most likely taken when they first met or had just married – the union of two cultures that was just beginning to mix and create what became Los Angeles.

Lettie Mae came out to Los Angeles alone, and married a dark-skinned Mexican. She crossed cultural boundaries and settled far from her roots, which in the late 1800s must have felt like the other side of the world. I wonder how her family responded to her marrying a non-white man. Perhaps no different than mine did when I traveled to Mexico and married Oscar. My mom tells me that Peter had a gentle disposition. It comes through in all the photos I have of him. I wish I had known my great grandparents; sometimes I feel like I did.

And that special photograph that reveals their warmth and love for each other? With its ragged and ripped edges, it never seems to fade. It’s my iPhone wallpaper; they accompany me wherever I go.

A Crossing One Day

Returning to the United States from a two-week trip to México City, we crossed into El Paso, Texas. My friend José and I sat on a charter bus that maneuvered through narrow streets of brick buildings, bisected by railroad tracks.

“We lived two blocks away,” I said to José, staring out at the desert and mountains that surrounded the city. “Before that, we lived in Ciudad Juárez.”

El Paso was dry and the buildings were short. We left the bus station and walked to the apartments where I’d spent my childhood. The only trees in our neighborhood formed a border around Armijo Park across the street from the apartments. We stood at the entrance to the apartment complex and I noticed fresh paint on the mural of the Virgin Mary. We crossed the street and talked on a stone bench outside the Armijo Recreation Center.

My family and I moved to Ciudad Juárez from Los Angeles in 1993. I was seven years old and my brother Deren was five. My mother wanted to be with my stepfather. Since my stepfather’s family was native to Ciudad Juárez, she felt it easier to relocate from Los Angeles.

We rented a room the color of mint ice cream in Ciudad Juárez. The room had a black rooftop and was equipped with a bathroom. We used the living room as a bedroom and our kitchen was a sink inside a narrow hallway. The living room took up most of our living space. We lived next to the landlord and his wife. She had an array of plants in tin cans carefully placed throughout the property.

One of the first things my mother did when we arrived in Juárez was to enroll us in school in El Paso. When the school administration asked for an address to prove that we lived within the district, my mother gave my grandmother’s address in El Paso. Eventually, we moved into the white apartment complex where my stepfather’s mother lived. But for a year, we crossed the border daily.

That first morning we crossed, my mother woke Deren and me at 5:30.

Persínense,” she said.

We made the sign of the cross using the thumb and index finger and got ready for school.

The morning in Juárez was dark and cold. Like smoke, my breath rose into the sky every time I exhaled. We walked down a road of hard-pressed dirt until we reached the bus stop. I remember the feeling of the jagged rocks under the soles of my shoes. Because there was one light post every thirty feet, we relied on local businesses to illuminate our path. Few businesses were open. The ferretería or hardware store rolled up its metal gates as we walked past. Señoras working at the tortillería fed chunks of masa to a steel machine that produced golden discs and laid them on a conveyor belt. Another señora stood in front of the conveyor belt and separated the tortillas using off-white butcher paper to wrap tortillas by the dozen. The smell of warm, ground corn filled the air.

Eventually, we made it to the bus stop. The bus grunted and heaved as it arrived. It was shaped like a traditional school bus but instead of being yellow, it was painted a black and white checkered pattern. From the bus driver’s dashboard hung tassels and fragments of mirrors that danced with the bus’s every jolt. The driver drove down an empty riverbed until we reached the plaza in downtown Juárez on Avenida Lerdo and got off and walked north. Everyone walked north.

A woman with two black braids sat at the entrance of the bridge that connected Juárez and El Paso, with children seated nearby. She looked up and raised a small cardboard box filled with gum. She shook the box enough to make the coins inside rattle. My mother gave the woman a dollar bill and gave my brother and me loose change to give to the children. I do not remember crossing the Mexican side of the border. I have a faint memory of people sitting in a hall, reclining against the wall and my brother and me holding my mother’s hand and men in forest green uniforms. As we continued to walk up the bridge, exhaust from the cars, trucks, and charter buses waiting to cross disappeared into the sky. My brother complained about walking up the bridge. “Estoy cansado amá – I’m tired mom.” My mother smiled. “Vamos como tren,” she said, and held onto his backpack and pushed him up the bridge like a train.

We crossed a concrete bridge overlooking a narrow stream that was once the Río Grande. The fence curved high over our heads and looked like a wave of metal crashing onto oncoming traffic. The bridge was our lifeline. When we reached the U.S inspection area, my mother reminded my brother and me to say American Citizen. “Tú primero, mijo, you first,” she said. I placed my backpack on a plastic tray, rolled it onto a metal conveyor belt and walked through a metal detector. My brother and mother did the same. The officer glanced at me from his podium and beckoned me to walk forward. In fluent English, I said “American Citizen”. The officer nodded approvingly and allowed me to collect my belongings.

The bridge led us into the El Paso Stanton Port of Entry. My mother walked us into Aoy Elementary School, one block from the border. Behind the school’s playground was a set of railroad tracks and next to the tracks was the Río Grande. Ciudad Juárez sat in the background. Her uniform stood out in the crowd of parents, making it easy to find her as she walked to the bus stop to go work: black shoes, black pants, a burgundy shirt and a badge with her name. She wore her hair in a ponytail.

Caminen a la casa de Estella. Los quiero,” she said, instructing us to walk to my stepfather’s mother’s apartment. She said I love you and kissed us on the cheek.

My mother spent the next fifty minutes on a bus to the El Paso International Airport and walked to the Marriot Inn where she worked as a housekeeper.

“We can go,” I said to José.

José and I left the park where we sat, walked back to the El Paso bus station and took the next bus home to Los Angeles.

White Avenue

My mother was right. Choose your friends carefully, she said.

As I trudged down White Avenue at 2:30 am, I remembered that.

“There you are! Let’s go to a club!”

The big blond girl had burst into Patrick’s room in our apartment earlier that evening where he and I were playing hearts while the guys took bong hits and lines of speed. Kimberly, the rotund, cherubic-looking girl who seemed bred from large-boned Midwestern stock, was prone to giving herself embarrassing nicknames. She had just spent too much time trying to get over breaking up with her first college love, only to grow moody when he started dating someone she deemed trailer trash.

I looked over to Cheryl, my former roommate, the one I considered my third best friend and shook my head.

“I’m broke,” I mouthed.

Kimberly didn’t like hearing that I had no money. She thought my best friend spent too much on me. But I had no parents who were paying for my education. All the money I made went straight to tuition, textbooks, bus fare and food.

Cheryl waved her hand. Kimberly watched us like a hawk, her ruddy cheeks flushed as if she had already started drinking.

“It’s free for ladies if we get there before 10 and since you’ll be DD, you can get free soda!” Cheryl said. “Let’s go dancing!”

I looked around the room, the drug-dead eyes of upper-middle class white boys stared back.

“You guys go on. I’m going to go see James.”

Kimberly and I rose to leave the room. I dropped my hand on the pile.

“I’m out.” The 10 boys in the room, sitting cross-legged on the floor and draped over sofas or chairs in that tiny on-campus apartment didn’t acknowledge our exit.

I was 23 and just getting used to hanging out with people my own age. I started college when I was 15 at the prompting of my mother. I graduated high school when I was 16 because I was tired of children. I should have already had my degree. But sometimes the funds weren’t there to pay for tuition or books, so it took time to get through school.

I was also getting used to be the sole black face in a sea of white people. I had never been in a place with so many white people. My mother converted us to Islam when I was 8 years old, shortly after my parents divorced. We were still living in Kansas City at the time. But even before we started going to the mosque, my entire world was the black people around me. When we moved to California, my classmates were Mexican and Filipino and, at the mosque, Arabs, Africans and Asians were our family friends.

White people were on TV. In our little east San Gabriel Valley town, they were teachers, cops & cashiers who often viewed us with suspicion, always telling us what we couldn’t do. We had very few white neighbors. We rarely interacted with them and their children. On TV, the rude behavior white kids displayed to their parents I could never understand. In my world, people were respectful of anyone older. The plot lines and dialogue on TV seemed so outlandish that I assumed it was all fake.

My parents and relatives had warned my generation of the racism that passes for jokes from non-black people. I had found that the kids at this college were no different. They ran down the list of stereotypes they were raised believing. Not being able to see me in the dark, sleeping around. They called me Mammy, said “You’re pretty for a black girl” or “You’re not like other black people.” My blackness took up too much space for them to ignore.

Kimberly started yammering at Cheryl as they walked ahead of me toward Kimberly’s apartment. At the crossroads, I went right as they walked straight ahead.

“Hey! Where are you going?” I turned to see Kimberly standing akimbo in the walkway.

“I told you I wasn’t going.”

“But…who’ll be our DD?” she asked.

Cheryl called out, “Hold up…I’ll walk with you!” I stopped and waited until she reached me.

“Why don’t you just go? It’ll be fun. We just finished mid-terms and it’s a way to blow off steam,” she said.

I didn’t know what to wear and I’m pretty sure that my skater chic look was not the done thing.

“Are there tables or booths there? I don’t have to dance do I?” Cheryl flashed her beautiful smile and put her arm around me and steered me to Kimberly’s apartment.

Carrie, one of Kimberly’s roommates, was heading to the shower as we walked through the door. She looked like a very long 2”x6” with a mop of brown hair.

“I knew you’d change your mind.”

Janie was in the kitchen curling her long dark-brown tresses while drinking from a bottle of Southern Comfort. She spun around and hopped over to me.

“You’re coming! Now we’re really going to have fun.”

I played Solitaire on the computer while the girls got ready. I had a nice shirt in my backpack and Kimberly loaned me a skirt. I wore my green Doc Martins because I always wore my green Doc Martins.

The girls were in the middle of their long ritual when the front door flew opened. It was Debra, the fourth roommate. She was as different from them as I was, so they made jokes about her being trailer trash and spread rumors that she was a stripper – though they said this behind her back. They couldn’t fathom someone like them paying for her own college education.

Many of these kids didn’t work. A few students in this group received financial aid, but they hid that from others and joined in looking down on Debra for being obviously poor and white.

Debra hated me and hated the fact that I didn’t care even more.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

I ignored her as I always did.

Kimberly came out to the living area with giant uncrushed curls on her head and way too much make-up.

“Debra, you’re home! Come to the club with us!”

I tilted my head at her. If Debra came, that would make six people. Six people in Kimberly’s tiny Ford that barely fit five.

Debra looked at me. “Is she going?”

Kimberly put her arms around my shoulders. “Of course! She’s our DD.”

“Then I’ll stay. Here. I brought home pizzas they were going to throw out.”

Debra dropped the boxes of cold pizza on the table and walked to her bedroom. Kimberly motioned to me to eat, then chased after her.

I went outside to the balcony to smoke while I waited for them. It was a pleasant spring night and sounds of a train running the track soothed my nerves. They came out 20 minutes later, still trying to convince Debra to come with us. She begged them off claiming she had a paper to write.

We piled into Kimberly’s compact car. Janie was rolling joints with her elbows digging into our ribcages. Her backpack, heavy with bottles of vodka and whisky, was on my lap.

We got on the 57 freeway. I asked where we were heading. Upland, Kimberly said. I groaned.

My family had just moved from Upland months before. We lived there for four years. The surrounding area was tired, run-down strip malls staffed with unpleasant folks. The neighborhood we lived in was filled with loud, boorish people who called the cops on me for walking outside. The guy across the street would accuse me of stealing my car at least once a month and every morning the street was littered with beer cans. There were always stories of robberies and car thefts, but the other residents would tell my mother how safe and small-town Upland was. It was the only place I had lived where I didn’t know my neighbors. All I knew about Upland was the grocery store, Good Earth restaurant and the gas station. I didn’t even know it had club.

I laughed as we pulled into the parking lot of a strip mall. This is the club? I could’ve been listening to great music and staring at James’ handsome face.

There were three cars in the parking lot. The spindly bouncer was dressed in black leather with white supremacist insignia on the front of his jacket. He watched us all get out of the car. We walked to the door. He waved three girls in then stopped me.

“Are you all together? Do you have ID?” I rolled my eyes and showed him my driver’s license.

“Why weren’t they carded?”

He shrugged as he painstakingly pored over each letter on the card. His mustachioed mouth moved as he read.

“You live in Upland?”

I gave him my best bitch face and held out my hand. He returned my ID.

“We don’t play rap music here,” he said. I flipped him off and went inside.

The music was thumping something like C & C Music Factory and a Goth couple danced. An older gentleman with short gray hair and a large gold hoop earring sat at the bar. Two jocks were playing pool as scantily clad girls leaned over furniture trying to flash their breasts at the boys. My friends had already grabbed a booth. A smattering of other people milled about, nursing drinks. Paula Abdul was wondering if she was going to be loved forever.

I hopped up to dance. The other girls followed and we spent half an hour on the dance floor getting sweaty. Suddenly a song from my early childhood came on and the dance floor was quickly packed. “Why must I feel like that? Why must I chase the cat?” Parliament was something I never expected to hear at this club. If my mother was in charge of our religious education, my father raised us in the Church of Funk and Soul praying to the trinity of George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Fred Wesley. The dance floor opened wide as I boogied with the abandonment of the 7-year-old in me. Then the strobe light hit. I had never seen a strobe light before and delighted in what looked like people being caught in freeze frame.

The song ended and I walked back to the booth sweating and out of breath. Debra and five other people were crowding around. Kimberly had been busy making calls and some of her local friends had shown up. Kimberly and Cheryl rushed over to them. I headed to the bathroom to wipe down my face.

As I returned to the dance floor a few minutes later, Carrie and Janie had their belongings and were heading out the door. I looked over to the booth. The only thing left was my backpack that I had left in the car. I grabbed my backpack and walked to the door. Outside, 10 girls were busy talking over each other trying to figure out the logistics of going wherever they were going. I walked up to Kimberly.

“What’s going on?”

“Oh, there you are! They … We …I thought you left.”

The other girls flocked behind her.

“We’re going to Noreen’s place,” Cheryl said, “and you guys aren’t exactly friends, so … .”

She trailed off when she saw the look in my eye.

“So, you decided to abandon me. Here. In Upland.”

They all protested. It wasn’t like that. I was jumping to conclusions.

“Okay, so who is dropping me off at school?”

Feet shuffled, sideways glances – no one uttered a word. By my count, there should have been at least three cars between the 11 of us.

“There’s no room,” someone said.

“Unacceptable. We came in one car. Debra brought her car and these people probably came in one car. That’s three cars. So. Who’s giving me a ride?”

Carrie leaned her long torso forward.

“Can’t you just take the bus? You have a bus pass right?”

I took a step back and a deep breath.

“My bus pass isn’t for the bus line here. It’s also after 12:30 am. This bus stops running at 11. None of this matters. Since you brought me here, you need to get me back.”

It got quiet for a moment in that parking lot. Suddenly, I heard a car door slam shut.

“I don’t know what the problem is, but we’re leaving. See you at Noreen’s.”

That was one of Cheryl’s childhood friends, who had quietly loaded people into her car. Cheryl avoided my eyes. The light blue car backed up and made a Y-turn. Cheryl rolled down her window and tried to give me a $5. “Please, just take the bus.”

I repeated that the buses were no longer running. Her friend said, “Oh well,” then stepped on the gas.

While my back was turned, the other girls had climbed into the remaining two cars. Kimberly gave me the pouty face she did when she was about to do something rude.

“I wish I could take you, but Noreen’s place isn’t on the way to school and we promised to pick up food, so we gotta go before they close. You’ll figure out something. See ya tomorrow!”

I started walking down the driveway of the club. I didn’t know how I was going to get to school by foot. The university was 10 miles away from the club by car. There were streets that I knew had no sidewalks or safe passages, so I had to plan well-lit, well-traveled roads, in relatively safe areas and few hills. At least I was wearing my green Doc Martins.

I walked through Upland, Montclair and Pomona. I hadn’t really thought of how big Pomona was until I walked down Holt Avenue. I was yelled at by boys in their cars. I was harassed by police officers the entire time, each accusing me of being a prostitute. Random dudes followed me and asked for my number or said they just wanted to talk. I sat on a bus stop and cried.

Then I got up and walked on.

I cut across a field to reach the street where houses back up the school. A car honked at me and I flipped it off. Then it stopped, it was three guys I knew who lived on that street. They asked me where I had been. I told them what happened.

They looked dumbfounded. One guy said he heard I left the club with some random guy shortly after getting there. Another story was that I got drunk and left. But everyone knew I didn’t drink.

They told me to crash at their house. They also told me that Noreen only lived on the next block from them. These guys couldn’t understand why those girls would lie, or why they just left me.

The next morning, I headed through the field to the school, still in my clothes from the club. I saw Kimberly and Janie drive by. They looked at me in surprise and terror. I walked on.

It was almost 8 am and I was hungry. I headed straight to the cafeteria for breakfast. As I waited for my food, someone bumped my shoulder.

I turned to my right to see Cheryl, looking freshly scrubbed. I looked her in the face, then turned back to the lady behind the counter.

“Are you mad?”

I snorted and grabbed my burrito. I walked out, past Carrie and Janie who were waving me over to their table. I sat outside on the grass. Francis, a guy I was pretty close with, sat next to me.

“I just heard what happened last night. Are you okay?”

“I want to set them on fire.” He laughed and nodded.

Francis sat with me as I ate my breakfast, then took me back to the dorm. Walking across campus, I felt lighter.

I knew many people but could really only count on three of them.

Reflections

Working as a Bracero in the farmlands of California, Miguel had heard about the city, its crowded streets, its restaurants and its nightclubs.

Nearly a year after arriving in the United States he was transferred to an orange-packing facility in a rural town that was close enough to make a weekend trip. At the bus station, Dinah Shore’s “Hit the Road to Dreamland” played on the radio while he ate pancakes and eggs over easy. He boarded the bus and found a seat next to the window. On the drive he fell asleep. A fellow Bracero nudged him several times to show him the ocean but Miguel just opened his eyes for a moment and fell back asleep. As the bus got close to downtown, he awoke, straightened up and pasted his face to the window.

The bus snaked through Chavez Ravine as Miguel got his first glimpse of City Hall in the distance. The white stone tower was the tallest building in town. He leaned forward in his seat, willing the bus to move faster. As the bus rumbled down Main Street, he felt that his eyes were not big enough. Crowds of people marched along the sidewalks while trolleys, buses maneuvered the streets, and cars honked and revved their engines. Cafes buzzed, with well-dressed men and women discussing what seemed to be important business.

The bus pulled into the Greyhound station and Miguel made his way through the streets. Along Broadway Street, windows displayed fashions he had only seen in movies. He began to count the theaters and imagined all he might see at The Palace, The Orpheum and The Million Dollar.

After walking for some time he reached City Hall, the building he had seen from the bus. He walked up the stairs and saw men in suits rushing in and out of the glass doors. He saw, too, his own reflection – a farm boy in work clothes. He turned and headed down the stairs and found a hotel facing City Hall offering rooms for two dollars a night. He sat on the twin bed and re-counted the money saved from his work in the farmlands of California.

He moved each bill from his hand onto the bed. He thought about the day he left his village in Mexico without saying goodbye to his father; the weeks he spent camping out at the Estadio Azteca with thousands of men in Mexico City waiting to be selected as a Bracero; the day he first arrived by train in Colusa County to work the fields. Now, at nineteen and a year after entering the United States, he had finally arrived in Los Angeles, the city he had imagined.

Miguel hid most of the money in a sock and placed it in a jacket in the closet. He headed back to Broadway where he paid 35 cents for a full meal at a cafeteria called Clifton’s. He bought a navy blue suit, white shirt and tie at a shop nearby, and then headed to Plaza Olvera for a haircut and a shoeshine. There he asked the men at the barber shop where he could go to hear music. That night he headed to the Paramount Ballroom in Boyle Heights.

The legendary club was built of brick in 1924, the year Miguel was born, and stood two stories tall near the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Mott Street. He looked up at the seven arched windows on the top floor that reflected moonlight and the shadows of people dancing. He walked through the large wooden door, climbed the stairs to the bar and ordered a coke.

Moving to the beat of the big band, he looked out on the dance floor below. A circle was forming around a short guy dancing the jitterbug. Women outnumbered men; the war was on and the men were away. Most of the men in the club were Braceros like him who had come from Mexico to harvest crops. Too shy to dance, he watched from the bar all night until the place closed, and then returned to the hotel. He took the bus back to Fillmore on Sunday and told his buddies Roberto and Dionisio about his trip.

From then on, they would work in the fields all week, and go to the City for the weekend. They nicknamed Roberto City Hall because he was the tallest; Miguel was Huero because of his light complexion and blue-green eyes and Dionisio became Shorty.

In Los Angeles they met El Chiberico from Puerto Rico and Walla Walla, another Bracero who had picked crops in Walla Walla, Washington and always talked about “Walla Walla this, Walla Walla that.” One night they also met Jorge, a local guy, who told them his mother had a garage for rent. The next week they abandoned their farm jobs and moved to the garage in East L.A.

On the way into the city, they passed the Hollywood Bowl and heard cheering and drumming of Gene Krupa, the big band drummer who was later arrested for possession of marijuana. Miguel found a job as a busboy at the Trocadero on Sunset Boulevard through Jorge’s brother, who was a bartender there. The brother was a sharp dresser and gave Miguel rides to work in his Buick. Miguel’s friends found jobs, too. They worked all week to spend their money on dressing sharp and dance halls.

Their first stop on Fridays was usually El Brasil where Miguelito Valdes sang “Babalu,” as the horn section wailed in the background and Valdes played the bongos. Next was La Bamba where Lalo Guerrero sang songs in Spanish and English. Guerrero asked Miguel one night why he was not off fighting in the war. He was from Mexico, Miguel said, and had come to the United States as a Bracero to help the war effort working in the fields.

Miguel and his friends often ended the night watching a friend named Tony race his car against others on Broadway. Tony was a good-looking Mexican-American rebel with a notable limp. It was a crazy scene and police did not interfere, as the streets were free of traffic at 1 A.M.

Miguel switched jobs and worked at the Brown Derby restaurant. Then he worked room service at the Biltmore. One night, he got an order that the other room-service guys offered him money for. He declined their money and went himself. In the room was the world’s richest man, reclining in a chair while beautiful young women gave him a manicure, a pedicure, and a facial. Miguel wheeled in the order, arranged the food and was called over by the man’s assistant, who tipped him a dime.

“That is how the rich stay rich,” he thought. Downstairs, the workers wanted to know what happened; he told them.

On another delivery, a woman was getting out of the shower and asked him to pass her a towel. He was very shy about it, and got red faced when she called him a cutie. He passed her the towel and left quickly, but he never forgot her.

Hotel work was more interesting than the fields. But he lived for the city’s nightlife. He saw Duke Ellington at the Million Dollar Theater. On the first note the crowd stood up cheered and never sat down again. At the Shrine Auditorium, he saw a battle of the bands between Benny Goodman and Harry James. He admired the Pachucas in sharp tailored dresses and dark lipstick but they wouldn’t dance with him because he was not a Pachuco. That didn’t matter. There were plenty of girls. One night after the Avalon closed Miguel walked out with seven girls and they went to eat tacos at a Mexican restaurant across the street from Chinatown.

Miguel learned English, mostly by watching films like “To Have and Have Not” with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. His English improved to the point where he translated for his buddies helping them get jobs, order food and anything else they needed. He picked his clothes carefully, striving to be the best dressed, and bought the best he could afford. A few times he was mistaken for a Hollywood actor.

Years before, as a teenager in the quiet hours of the morning while tending his crops, Miguel had imagined what life would be like beyond his village in Mexico. Now he was becoming an Angelino and he felt at home.

One spring morning in 1945 the streets awoke with people, cars, buses and trolleys. More than a year had passed since he had moved to the city. The war had ended weeks earlier and Miguel was walking downtown. He found himself in front of City Hall. The white stone gleamed. The tower of the building had impressed him since his first visit to Los Angeles. Now he again walked up the stairs to its entrance. Businessmen hurried in and out. He approached the glass doors and saw his reflection. He was a tall handsome man in a suit who had contributed to the war effort with his work in the fields.

Yet he was no longer a farm boy. He opened the door for the first time and walked inside.