Finding Jerry

I was raised at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, at the crossroads of the Coosa River and the spring fed Choccolocco Creek, in rural Alabama.

In 1943, when I was five years old, Daddy finished his studies at Trinity College, in Henderson, Tennessee. He graduated as an ordained minister and obtained a church congregation in the township of Pell City, 15 miles from our home at the time. The position came with furnished housing for the minister and his family. He proved to be an exuberant and popular minister.

Daddy was hired by two other churches in nearby communities as their Sunday preacher. Jerry, Sue and I had to go to church three times every Sunday as he wanted some of the family with him. He needed us to help keep the congregation in tune and on track with the singing. Afterward, Daddy put his hand on our shoulders.

“Good job, Little Man,” he’d say.

“Good singing, my Little Bird.”

Daddy was hired for a 15-minute radio program and his sermons became so popular, especially with the shut-in audience, that his time was extended to a half-hour. Unable to immediately fill the time with sermon, he created The Adams Quartet with his children. Daddy selected a song related to his sermon of the day. He taught us harmony and soon we too were a big hit.

Daddy functioned as song leader as well as preacher for all three churches. Yet even this was not enough to support a growing family. So he took a job as manager of a 400-acre cotton, grain and livestock farm located in the township of Eureka, ten miles from the church; five laborer-households had been living and working on this property for many years. With Daddy’s leadership, this farm became a family community they called Dogwood Hollow. When he began each workday with a prayer, the workers started calling him Preacher. Dogwood Hollow provided many hidden creeks, rivers, waterfalls, caves and ravines for us to explore. The fathers built a community-farm-swimming pool on the calm edge of the Coosa River. They took advantage of large boulders blown out of the earth by an old quartz processing plant. These boulders created a perfect, curved, quartz wall on the river-sides of the pool. There were at least ten children in each household and with kinfolk and visitors, a lot of people played in this gigantic river swimming pool.

Beyond the pool, at the center of the wide Coosa, was a turbulent current that local farmers used to float logs to the processing plant 15 miles downriver. We were warned it was dangerous, but we wanted adventure and always played a game of ‘getting loose from the dragon.’ The river was full of snapping turtles, tadpoles, cat fish; crappie, bass, and of course water snakes. People said that if you left this river wildlife alone no harm would come to you; so we did.

The first of July, in 1948, my Daddy’s sister, Alma, brought her three daughters to visit. They lived in the township of McCleary Station and were anxious to experience country life. The oldest daughter, Vida Mae, was 18, and planning a wedding at our house with Daddy performing the services. Her soldier-boyfriend was arriving soon from Germany. We country kids were usually lulled to sleep by the night sounds of crickets chirping, wolves howling, bull frogs croaking, a low cow-moo nearby, and then, shortly before midnight, a distant long-lonely whistle of the train as it roared across the Coosa on its last trip of the day. All this scared my city cousins. They slept lightly, jerking upright in their beds at each sound.

On Saturday, 4th of July, at the crack of dawn, after a restless night of sleep, my cousins were scared out of bed with the noise of the roosters crowing. I rolled over, yawned myself awake to the smell of baking biscuits, sizzling bacon and chicory-laced coffee. After we finished breakfast and washed the dishes, we asked mother if we could go to the river. Mother was always nervous and afraid her kids would get hurt if she or Daddy were not with them.

“No, something bad might happen.”

I could usually get Daddy to let us do what Mother forbade. My brother Jerry urged me to ask him if we could go. Daddy was busy with his Sunday sermon and closed his thick, weathered Bible.

“Yes, but not for long.”

We hurried to our bedroom to put on our homemade bloomer swim suits. We always swam in our flour-sack underwear or the clothes we wore to the field that day. Vida Mae gave JoAnn a store-bought swimsuit she no longer wanted. It was the first one we had ever seen and thought it cute with its very short skirt and tight-fitting body. JoAnn was the envy of the neighborhood.

We hurried down the trail, passing all the other families out in their yards. At the house nearest to the trail, in the shade of a Mimosa tree, Maw-Maw was turning meat in a large, smoking drum with the smell of barbecue in the air; J.C., their oldest son, was moaning on his harmonica. His father, Jim Bo, was beating on his lard bucket drums and Ma Truss was setting on the front porch, fiddle to her ear, stomping her feet as the fiddle cried out. We told them that we was gonna show our city cousins what fun it was to swim in the river pool. As we entered the cool, pine-needle carpet floor of the thicket, we met a crowd of golden daffodils dancing in the breeze. Butterflies and bees smothered vines of honeysuckle. We skipped and danced our way to the swimming pool, whistling as we went.

At the pool, we opened the gate and climbed the rock steps onto the warm, smooth boulders. In the forbidden center of the river, the water roared and rolled, like a storm blowing in.

“Jerry, the water is very rough. Please don’t go into the current,” JoAnn shouted.

Jerry, grinned at his bossy sister, spread his arms and executed a perfect swan dive. He surfaced very near the strong current. We watched. He stayed in the current. He wasn’t moving out of it. Instead he started moving in circles, as if he was caught in a whirlpool.

“Stop that Jerry,” I yelled. “You gonna make yourself dizzy.”

JoAnn realized Jerry could not break free of the swift current. She jumped in. We heard a crack, like a tree limb breaking, and a cry of pain from her. She was up to her shoulders in water. One foot had lodged into a crevice of the smaller boulders with her foot turned backwards. Vida Mae and I tried to pull her foot loose, but the foot was turned the wrong way and lodged tightly. JoAnn was hovering over a boulder and trying to keep her face out of the water. But soon she tired and started to cry, which really scared me ‘cause I had never seen my sister cry. As JoAnn struggled, Vida Mae went into the water pushing and holding her up. She yelled at us to get Daddy. As I turned to leave, I looked back and saw Jerry riding down the center of the river like a log on its way to the pulp wood factory.

My sisters, Nita and Sue, and I went running through the woods yelling. As we passed Jim Bo’s house, I told him what had happened; he rang the “in danger” bell on his porch.

Daddy had heard us yelling and was outside at the edge of the yard when we got home. He grabbed his rock-moving pole with a sharp end and took off running. Mother would not allow us to return to the river. Daddy had stopped long enough to ask me where Jerry was. I told him he was caught in the river current. His shoulders slumped.

Hours passed as we waited for Daddy’s return. The clock ticked loud in the unnatural silence. Not a dog barked, nor a bird chirped. As the sun set and the moon rose, Daddy returned from the river. He looked scared and lost. We asked where JoAnn, Vida Mae and Jerry were. He told us they would all be home when they found Jerry. I begged to go in search of him ‘cause I knew all our hiding places and thought that Jerry probably had got free and was in the woods, maybe playing a trick on everybody.

Seven days later, JoAnn and Jerry’s bodies were brought to the house in a metal box lined in silk and velvet and placed into our living room to lay-in-wake. We didn’t know what that meant. Sue and Nita were scared, confused and crying and went to our bedroom. JoAnn and Jerry were just laying there not saying anything. I asked the man who opened the lid what was wrong with them.

“You should just think of them as sleeping.”

“But, Jerry don’t sleep like that…you need to take his arms down. He likes to roll into a ball to sleep.”

Nobody had told us what happened. JoAnn’s hair was in place with lifeless perfection. How I wished I could ruffle it up and blow on it to see it dance again. Jerry’s collar was up on his chin, when I reached in to flatten the collar I saw two prong-like indentations under his chin. The man told me that Jerry had been bitten by a water moccasin and that he probably only felt a sting before he died.

I struggled to understand what ‘died’ meant.

“Are they gone live in these boxes now?” He nodded.

“Are they gonna have to live in our living room?”

I learned much later that they had removed JoAnn and Vida Mae’s bodies from the river immediately; both had drowned. The boulders submerged in water were slick with slime and it was difficult to move onto the top. Each girl grew tired and began to struggle for life. JoAnn could not move her lodged foot and was unable to remain high enough over the boulder to keep her face out of the water. Vida Mae made her way over to another boulder closer to the bank, but with her strength gone and a slippery boulder, she was unable to pull herself free of the river. Both girls drowned while trying to grasp boulders, heads barely beneath the water. Vida Mae’s body was taken to her home and lay in wake until her boyfriend arrived from Germany. JoAnne’s body was taken to the funeral home. Jerry’s body was found 12 miles downriver three days later resting on a deserted beaver dam. We were not allowed to go to the funeral or gravesite. Weeks later, I kept thinking maybe they were all wrong and I would find Jerry lounging in one of our hideouts, laughing.

My mother folded into herself. Her grief was so that she stayed in their bedroom, forbidding Daddy to enter, curtains drawn as she exited our lives. I kept searching for signs of the mother I once knew—the woman easy to laugh and the last person in the room to be quiet. I was missing our time lying on a quilt in the shade of a sycamore tree painting cloud pictures or mother tickling me and slobbering a kiss into my dimple telling me,

“I’m filling your sugar bowl.”

Only recently, we had been sitting on a log stool, back to back, laughing and trying to push each other off the stump.

During mother’s withdrawal from our lives, Estelle, a family friend and neighbor, kept rotating all the casseroles brought to our house by the congregation and community, so that we had plenty to eat. But, we were so traumatized that nobody was ever hungry and much of the food spoiled.

Mother’s fading from the family was a terrible time. Weeks later she finally re-emerged. She did her chores and would sometimes sit on the porch. One sunny day not long after that, she and I sat there. Mother rocked in her old oak chair, with the faded, flowered cushion and me in Daddy’s oak rocker, which smelled faintly of tobacco he used in his old corn-cob pipe. We were not talking or playing the radio we were just being – me and her, silent. After the deaths, it was like that; Mother never talking. All of a sudden she said:

“Peggy, you know none of this would have happened if you’d just done as you were told.” Then she made the creaky rocking chair move. We just kept rocking. Quietly, I cried till I could hardly breathe, tasting my salty tears as they flowed down my face.

Daddy found me later in the barn, crying my eyes out, heart-broken. He told me I was his “little bird with a broken wing…”

“Mother hates me!”

“Well, right now she hates me, too!” He placed his arm around my shoulders.

“What happened was not your fault. You know that, right?”

After a few more anguished tears, slowly sniffling, I nodded. He then said he was taking me to visit his mother for a while. A fragment of a smile tried to find its way up from the past weeks of sorrow.

Since I was a very young child, I spent six weeks every summer at my grandmother’s house. We called her Granny Love and she told the greatest stories; sometimes ghostly, sometimes funny. She and I always took turns making up songs and stories.

When I arrived, Granny put her worn hand in mine, and then she brought me into an enveloping hug and sobbed. The guilt and the grief over JoAnn and Jerry and the wishing it all away became fresh and raw again. I snuggled into Granny’s frail arms and we cried into each other’s shoulders so deeply that I could feel the sorrow from her soul blending completely with my own. When Daddy entered her room, Granny cradled her child and his child and we all cried and wrapped our arms around each other tightly and squeezed. We swayed together.

“Lord’s gonna take care of everythang,” she said.

I had never seen my Daddy cry and I was shocked to see the tears rolling, freely down his face and he snorted just as I did, trying to stop the tears; we all three, laughed over this.

In the time I stayed with Granny, she gave me attention and love and told me over and over how proud she was of me. Then, Daddy took me home.

“Thangs gon’ be alright—someday it won’t hurt so much,” Granny Love told me.

She died seven days later, in her bed, all alone. I always wished I could have held her hand until the end, but then maybe not. In her wisdom, Granny knew how fragile she and I were and sent me home.

I returned home to find Mother with dark smudges under her eyes and still withdrawn, angry at me, at Daddy, at the world. Gradually, she began to return to her role as wife and mother. She went on to have three more children: two girls and one boy, as if to replace those she had lost. But life was not the same. Mother became bitter and unforgiving. Daddy, previously loving and jovial, withdrew, too.

They loved their first-born children so much that, after their deaths, they could not find it within their hearts to love their others as much.

The Lesson

That morning was my first day of school. It was the most exciting day of my life. I woke up bright and early. I bathed. I brushed my teeth. I was a five-year-old overzealous boy. My shirt was perfectly pressed and buttoned down – white as the driven snow. My corduroy blue pants had razor-sharp pleats. I sported brand new “Buster Brown” shoes and would probably be the only kid in the first grade lucky enough to own a pair. I was excited and ready to learn some great lessons.

Thirty boys and girls sat impatiently inside the class. Some were nervous. Others were crying from leaving Mommy and Daddy. I could barely sit still.

I was full of life, happy and energetic. I turned to the kid next to me. “Hi.” I twisted and turned as I sat. Anxiously looking front and back and side to side. Smiling at all of the other kids, I gazed at the classroom decorations.

The green “blackboards” were immaculate. Having never been scribbled on, the white lines were straight as arrows. They would be our writing guides. The long Alphabet table just above was crisp and clean. The poster boards were covered with white construction paper and this was filled with images of fruit, animals, letters and numbers.

The small desks were as if in military formation. The petite drawers underneath were filled with books, pens and paper. Brand new, they crackled when opened and were crisp to the smell. Oversized pencils, pink erasers and Elmer’s glue beckoned me. The arts and crafts area had the works – colored paper and crayons and water paints and scissors and clay and markers and tape.

It was going to be a great year.

Then it got even better!

“Good morning, class.” The most beautiful and gentle voice greeted us. A Belgian accent both calming and fascinating. As if sent by God himself, there stood the most angelic Nun. Her bleached white habit was perfectly pressed and pleated. The color matched her meticulously curled hair. The oversized black beads and cross of her rosary dangled at her side and matched her glistening shoes.

I was in a fairy tale. Dashing in the Bavarian Alps, hand in hand with my very own godsend singing “Doe a deer, a female deer, ray a drop of golden sun…”

Before me stood my real life Julie Andrews. My guide. My mentor. My teacher. How perfect.

We went around the class making introductions like Romper Room. “… Angelica, Saxico, Jose, Alex, Paulina, Stephanie … .” I was anxious, desperate to take my turn.

“David, Arlene, Francine… .” Some of the kids were nervous and shy. Not me. I was confident. I was ready. I knew it too. Months prior, I had starred in the leading role as Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer in the kindergarten play. It had prepared me.

My imagination wandered. I mentally rehearsed. Time stood still while the vignette played in my mind. It was a magical vision. I would stand erect. Shoulders back. Feet firmly pressed together. Perfectly manicured in Catholic School garb. I would proudly announced myself.

The scene felt real. It filled me with pride. I was ready to take on my role. I would be the best student. The role model. The leader. The prestigious “Teacher’s Helper.”

I came out of my vision more excited. Now I was jumpy. It would soon be my turn. I couldn’t sit still. It was killing me. I wanted to raise my hand and beg to be next. But I knew it wasn’t my turn.

The third of five endless rows began. “… Moses, Lisa, Rudy… .”

I was in the fourth seat in the fifth row. It felt like an eternity. I was about to burst.

“Isabel, Joaquin, Jovanna… .” I couldn’t take it.

My mouth was close to cracking. Words of excitement were about to spew like vomit. I tried to muster up the strength. I couldn’t.

I turned to the kid in the row next to me. “Are you excited?” I softly asked so as not to attract attention. “What’s your name? Do you want to be friends?”

I could see the boy was distracted. Focused on the ongoing introductions two rows away he didn’t even hear me. It didn’t matter. I was relieved. I had let out enough steam. The pressure was off and manageable. I felt a sense of relief. I felt good. I could wait my turn.

I turned my attention back to the introductions when, moving fast across the room, the nun swept in toward me like a hawk diving for prey. Lips pressed, brow tense, her eyes cut through me.

My mouth dried.

As if in slow motion and in one move, Sister smacked her hand down on my desk.

“BANG!” She struck with brunt force.

“BANG!” Her hand slammed again this time louder than the angriest judge slamming a gavel to block. The sound rang throughout the cosmos.

My ears rang. I was terrified. I teared up. An apple-sized ball crawled up the back of my throat. I forced it back.

“SHUT YOUR MOUTH!” she yelled.

I shrank.

Furiously, she continued to shout at the top of her lungs, her eyes fixed on me.

“How dare you speak out of turn in MY classroom! You do not speak unless spoken to!”

My excitement shrank.

“Because of your selfishness and lack of control you have disrupted the entire class.”

My energy shrank.

“You have ruined the fun for everyone. I’ll teach you to talk out of turn.”

My morale shrank.

“Go to the back of the room and sit in the corner. Face the wall so we don’t have to see your stupid little face.”

My confidence shrank.

Paralyzed by fear, I failed to follow her orders. She grabbed me by the arm and pulled me. As she walked all I could hear was her stomping and heavy breathing.

Now shaking and in shock, I waited desperately for someone to save me. But no one came.

I tried to wake myself from the nightmare. It was real.

She dragged me to the back of the class. I moved like a medieval criminal making his way through a sea of unforgiving onlookers towards the rack. I lowered my head, tucked tail and whimpered.

“Not only are you not going to introduce yourself. But you are going to sit there all day. And I don’t want to hear a peep out of you for the rest of the day.”

My ego shrank.

“And let that be a lesson to you to keep your mouth shut and to remember to be seen and never be heard!”

My spirit shrank.

“That ought to teach you a lesson!”

Blue Serpent

I was born and raised in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, in a region known as La Cienega de Chapala. The house I grew up in sits on land given to my paternal grandparents many years ago, when President Lazaro Cardenas redistributed the large haciendas, taking the properties from their rich owners and dividing it among peasant farmers.

Much of the country’s agricultural land was in the hands of a few hundred hacendados, or “bosses,” with farm workers living in near slavery conditions.

My grandparents got word of land being distributed in Michoacán. At the time they resided in a little town in the state of Jalisco, called El Pedregal. They began their journey following the edge of Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico. Grandma Natalia and her three young children were on a wagon pulled by oxen. Grandpa Chon was on foot herding their pigs and goats. They camped at night under the wagon, their animals nearby.

After several days on the move, they finally made it to the place that was to become our hometown, Cumuatillo. There, they were told to choose a piece of land as big as they needed to build a house and corrals. They also received title to some very fertile soil; parcels gained from Chapala at the beginning of last century, after rivers were diverted and 20 kilometers of levees created, exposing 50 thousand acres of arable land.

Their first house they built out of reed and tree branches. In time they replaced it with a house of adobe. They had no running water or electricity; nevertheless, this became home. My dad was the sixth of nine children; his name is Antonio Fernandez. He and his siblings had big responsibilities at a very young age.

Around the time father turned 12 years old, he was put in charge of the goats. The herd was taken to the hills, far away from my grandparents’ home. There they spent days grazing. Dad was left alone on the hills with the herd sometimes. At night he cried with fear hearing coyotes howling in the distance, having to endure rain and cold under a poncho, a dog and the goats his only companions. He didn’t like school much and dropped out of third grade; that meant he had to go back to work in the fields and care for the animals. As a teenager he took tailoring classes but found it was not his calling.

After he married my mom, he inherited part of my grandparents’ back yard to build his own house, as well as a few acres for farming. In 1973, around the time I was born, he started taking courses by mail to become an electrician. He hung the diploma on the wall in our house. He was, by then, the town’s only electrician. He also learned the plumber trade to have more work and he farmed year round.

Our house was the first house in town to have a doorbell. It came handy as many people stopped by looking for dad. They needed electric and water services for the houses they were building, or transistor radios, pressing irons and Christmas lights repaired. After having dinner every night, he went in his workshop and stayed there for several hours. In town, he was well known and respected for the quality of his work and for being a dedicated farmer.

The last time I saw my father standing on his own, tall and handsome, was a Sunday at the end of January 1980. He combed his hair neatly, put on cologne and his gold ring. He left on his shiny black motorcycle that he used to get around. He didn’t tell mom where he was going, nor did she ask.

Around 9:00 pm that Sunday, a taxi pulled in front of our house. The driver was looking for Antonio Fernandez’s relatives. He had been in a collision with a car and was in the hospital. A donor for his blood type was urgently needed. Mom left that night in the taxi. My cousin Mina and I ran out to find her father. As I kept running down the dark streets, I don’t think I understood what was really going on.

One month later, dad was back home, his left leg amputated. Many scars now covered his face and his front teeth were missing. He was a totally different man from the one I saw going away that Sunday. I remember him falling as he entered his workshop for the first time in weeks. He stayed on the floor for a while, crying his heart out.

The family had no insurance to cover medical bills. Dad was very depressed, sometimes he would throw dishes around, mad over little things. He scared me and made me wish he went away. He was only 30 years old, mom was 26, my older sister had just turned eight, I had two younger sisters and a new baby was on the way.

Our doorbell went quiet. Only kids returning from school rang it and ran away laughing. Mom never complained about father’s outbursts. I don’t remember seeing her cry. She told me once she didn’t want her baby to be born sad. She continued washing clothes by hand, cooking, cleaning and even tending to our few cows and pigs.

Dad spent time in the fields. He sometimes walked around the patio on his crutches, sad and desperate, like he was looking for something. My fear turned to compassion during these days. I missed the strong tall man that built the large green kite for my sister and me. He ran with it, offering the reed and plastic kite to the wind. It was too big and heavy and it never elevated.

One day someone offered dad some work.

“I think you can do it,” said the man. “You can take your time; it’s not urgent.” Dad was doubtful but accepted, as we needed money. The doctor that operated on him the night of the accident was not a surgeon. He saved my father’s life but he amputated his leg at the wrong length. A prosthetic caused him tremendous pain and made it difficult for him to get around. At job sites, he sometimes opted for jumping on his only leg to move faster. If working at ground level he used the strength of his arms to drag his body from place to place. He had to do this a lot when working in the fields because his crutches got stuck in the mud.

Little by little he gained confidence, finding his way with his changed body. People started trusting him with work. He once again became the town’s main plumber and electrician. It took him longer to finish jobs and money was not enough for the family’s expenses. Mom managed as best she could.

A short kid with a face full of freckles, nicked-named “the Roll” loved bullying me since I refused to become his girlfriend. The Roll wouldn’t forgive the rejection and always found reasons to make fun of me or my family. Together with “Churro Guy,” he picked on the way Dad used a piece of cord as a manual accelerator for his 1965 Volkswagen.

They called my father “Thousand Uses,” referring to the fact that he would take almost any honest job he was offered. Yet the town was good to us. Debt was being paid and the family was recuperating.

Before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, my hometown had been the land of Nahua people, Aztecs.

During rainy season, the water overflow from Chapala and rivers nearby inundated the area. Several small islands emerged from the water every year. Cumuatillo used to be part of Cumuato Island; an important place because of its higher ground, with roads and canals that remained full of water even during the dry period, making it easy to use canoes for the transportation of people and goods.

As little girls my sisters and I used to play with small clay figurines we found on the ground. Lots of dark glass like, edge sharpened rocks, shimmered under the morning sun. Broken pottery served us as fake currency to purchase the large green leaves we used as tortillas for our games. Dad told stories of bones and human skulls uncovered during the digging of trenches for the footings of new walls. As kids, he and his brothers used to place the skulls on fence posts and throw rocks at them.

One day my dad and uncle unearthed a full human skeleton from our back yard. Jade, gold and shell ornaments were still on its wrist and neck. Beautiful pottery and sharp obsidian spears had been carefully placed to his sides.

Dad placed all the artifacts in a box and stored it away. In spite of being so proud of his find, one day we helped him put this box in his car and off he went to find a man named Jose, a dealer in jewelry among other things. He sold all the artifacts to him. Jose didn’t pay him much, but the money helped us get by for some days.

Much later, Jose and Dad had a conversation about that transaction. “If you find more, don’t touch them,” Jose told him. He described an inexplicable illness and hallucinations he experienced, which were, according to him, all related to the pre-Hispanic pottery and jewelry he had been dealing with. It was likely our backyard relics were not the only ones he had purchased and sold. He claimed he was cured after he stopped his dealings in these objects.

Over time, the family adjusted to the many changes after the accident. One summer, with the proceeds of a good harvest, my parents purchased a popsicle shop. It was another source of income and more work for mom. All sisters and brother also helped the family by selling popsicles and working in the fields. As a teenager the oldest daughter, Leticia took a job as an operator for the town’s public telephone.

In 1992, Leticia, married and immigrated to the town of El Monte, California. I followed one month later, arriving in nearby South Gate, California. My sister, Teresa, took over Leticia’s job. Eventually the youngest sister Cecilia would also alternate between this job and college. Antonio Junior, also known as little Toño, had been helping dad work since he was four years old.

Little Toño was a fixture next to dad when he wasn’t in school. He had become an extension of Dad’s capabilities and a relief for some of his limitations.

After finishing high school, Toño was awarded a small grant from the government to continue his studies. He moved to the state’s capital to start in the engineering program at Morelia’s Technological Institute. My parents supported him to complement the grant. After graduating he moved to Queretaro.

My father continued farming, ignoring my mother’s pleas for him to slow down.

One night, mom and dad noticed a surreal blue shape climbing one of the walls inside the house. This shape resembled a small serpent. They looked around the room trying to find a source for what they were seeing. Nothing. When it appeared to them a second time they panicked a little more.

“It wants to show us where the other treasures are,” said my mom. But my dad was not about to start digging for treasure after what Jose told him. So the third and last time they saw it moving up the wall, they just ignored it.

If the blue serpent wanted my dad to unearth something she was many years late. My parents have enough to support themselves. They are alone in this house with the magical backyard, where four sisters and one brother used to play and thresh corn. No need to look for treasures now. Maybe the blue serpent understood this and that’s why she stopped showing itself to my mom and dad.

Father thinks, and I agree, that there is more to be uncovered. Yet we now embrace the idea of ancestors sleeping under the empty beds of the house we grew up in.

By now they know my dad is sorry for disturbing them.

The Tracks Home

Don Luis shivered in line at the snowy desert camp near Utah’s Great Salt Lake that winter of 1945. The icy wind pierced his thin shirt and pants, chilling his skin. Trains carrying war supplies rumbled throughout the railroad yard. Traqueros, track workers, hauled picks, poles, and shovels. He had never labored on the railroad, but he’d learn, earn money and return home at war’s end.

At the front of the line, officials distributed thick coats. Don Luis presented his contract to an official. Purchases would be deducted from his paycheck, the official informed him. Don Luis grabbed a long sheep skin coat. He stroked the warm lining, draped it over his shoulders, and headed towards the railroad tracks.

Two foremen and an interpreter gathered a crew of thirty men. Don Luis huddled with his paisanos, buddies from his village in Mexico. They donned work gloves the foreman furnished them. They were to remove old tracks and install new ones. The transport of soldiers and food depended on the maintenance of the rails, the interpreter explained. They were a vital part of the war effort.

It was the rallying cry Don Luis had heard back home: braceros – strong arms – needed in the United States.

At the start of the war, his brother had labored as a bracero via the Mexican Emergency Farm Labor program. There’s much work here picking beets and tomatoes, his brother wrote in letters from California. So Don Luis enlisted too and traveled to a recruitment center near his village, leaving behind his wife and two young children.

At the contracting center in Querétaro, railroad representatives waited while U.S health officials probed his eyes, ears, hands and arms. He’d signed and received an identification card – Railroad Track Labor Only inscribed at the top. He clutched the documents in his hands and followed the hundreds of braceros boarding the Mexican Railways for the trip north.

Now, weeks later, he lugged rail equipment to repair the tracks that crisscrossed the Utah desert by Lakeside, near Salt Lake City. He and the crew cleared the tracks of debris and shoveled gravel. They ripped up the worn tracks, lifted the corroded railroad ties with tongs and dug out ballasts. He was careful to not puncture his hands, but by mid-day, the gloves were riddled with holes. He slipped on new ones, and ripped them again.

At sundown, Don Luis and the men hauled shovels over their shoulders and trekked back to camp for a meal at the mess hall. Tomorrow, they’d put in another 12-hour day.

In time, Don Luis’ crew grew to include a tall, white fellow – though not American – who assisted in laying the tracks, and an American electrician who spoke no Spanish. They resorted to hand signals, pointing to the tongs, wrenches, and jacks as Don Luis and his buddies set new railroad ties, driving down spikes with a sledgehammer. The electrician drilled holes through rails. Don Luis inserted and fastened bolts. He and the crew replaced ballasts.

At sunset, Don Luis removed his perforated gloves and headed back to camp. Oil dripped onto his shirt and pants. It ran through his fingers, thick like the honey forming inside a honeycomb back in his village. He relished licking the sweet, sticky food off his fingers. Now, in this war-time bracero camp, there were few sweets, for sugar was rationed.

He removed his pants and headed to the washer. He opened the spigot, splashed hot water onto the greased pants and poured soap. Then picked up a wooden stick and stirred. But the stubborn grease and grime remained, so he wore them a second, third, and fourth time.

After two weeks, his paycheck came with deductions for the sheep skin coat and his room and board. But he’d earned enough to buy new clothes. The rest he’d send home.

On Sunday, he and fellow braceros rested on their cots, wondering what lay beyond the desert tracks.

The train will take you into town, the foreman explained, handing Don Luis and his buddies a pass and small railroad company buttons. Don Luis pinned it on his shirt pocket and boarded the train.

It rumbled across a trestle bridge near the Great Salt Lake. El Lago Salado. Don Luis marveled at the briny water with no outlet – so unlike the creeks back home that flowed into a gushing river.

The train pulled into the Ogden depot. Women, men, and children streamed in and out of the station. Troops in town exited train cars. The sounds of English reverberated throughout.

He and his buddies walked into town. At a men’s store, shirts, pants, and overalls hung on racks and storefront windows. Don Luis patted the coins and the check inside his greased pocket and entered. He grabbed a shirt and a smooth pair of pants.

“Cuánto, Señor?” he asked the salesperson. But the man stared in silence. Then finally spoke in the same hurried English sounds that filled the train depot.

Don Luis pointed to the merchandise, placing several coins on the counter. The man took them. Don Luis carried his new purchases back to camp that day, unsure of their cost.

That evening he lay on his cot. Inside the room, a radio played country music. Braceros scanned the dial until the familiar sounds of a ranchera streamed from the speakers. Don Luis reminisced. How was the baby? And when the oldest asked, “Where is my Papá?” he contemplated his wife’s reply:

“Tu Papá está en Estados Unidos. No tarda en regresar.” “Your father is in the United States. He won’t be long in returning home.”

But braceros murmured late at night. Some fellow villagers, ill or injured, hadn’t returned after a stint on other U.S railroads. Wives and mothers had implored officials in both countries, eager to learn the fate that had awaited their husbands and sons in El Norte.

Still, Don Luis and his buddies toiled where Chinese and Irish laborers once had. Nearly a century ago, they had leveled roadbeds and blasted mountainsides in the Sierra Nevada and helped build the U.S transcontinental railroad where the Central and Union Pacific connected east to west.

When the roaring trains had quieted, Don Luis gathered pen and paper. Dear family, he began. I am well, and working on the railroad. How is everyone? Please write me. He remembered to write Section 97, his worksite, on the mailing envelope.

Winter gave way to spring, followed by summer. Don Luis worked, ventured into town on Sundays, and sent money home.

One day, the foreman approached him. He’d been re-assigned to other duties.

In subsequent days, Don Luis positioned himself miles away from the crew, as instructed. In the distance, his section gang crouched near the tracks, their bodies on the line, grease flowing like honey and spilling onto their overalls and pants. He visualized his paisanos, the American foreman and the interpreter, the towering white fellow and electrician who communicated in hand signals – all together now, arms and hands setting down rails and ties.

The earth rumbled beneath his feet. He recalled the foreman’s directive.

He readied the small device filled with detonating powder – a torpedo, the foreman had called it. He bent towards the tracks and strapped it to the top of the rail. Up ahead, the train lurched. Its wheels clattered near the flagging zone, then spun over the torpedo, emitting a loud bang. The driver slowed the train, circumventing the track workers. Don Luis sighed.

He stationed himself at the zone each day, flagging oncoming trains, his distant gaze fixed on his section gang.

One August day, the foreman gathered the men. Don Luis watched his lips move with excitement. An interpreter stood by.

Muchachos,” he began, “the war has ended.”

On his next visit to Ogden, he witnessed trains roar into the depot with returning soldiers, a family awaiting each of them. Some exited on crutches. A child rushed to a man’s embrace; a woman caressed his face.

Outside, U.S flags waved from business rooftops. Men and women tucked newspapers into their forearms – Peace and Victory splashed across headlines. He needed no translation for these and other words he’d acquired: check, depot, torpedo, letter, tracks, home.

The war was over. So was his work contract. Amid the swaying flags and victory chants, he reveled in a quiet joy that soon he’d be home.

But the rolling stock and railroad equipment would come slowly. In Idaho and California, beet workers and other agricultural braceros needed transport too. Repatriation would begin with them.

Autumn turned to winter. Don Luis arose at dawn, labored on the tracks and retired to camp at dusk. On Sundays, he ventured into town. Victory celebrations had come and gone. Fathers now strolled down sidewalks with their children.

But at night, by the dim light inside a bracero camp, he’d still write, “Dear family,” to begin each letter.

Then the chilly air abated. Spring was on its way.

In the distance, a whistle blew. A train rumbled into camp, its wheels clanking against new tracks.

Don Luis looked out on the railroad yard. Gone was the snow that had greeted him more than a year before. The children must be grown, he reckoned. The baby was now walking alongside his brother. He’d look for tracks of their small feet on the dirt road leading to their adobe home.

He unpinned the railroad company button on his shirt, packed his sheep skin coat and pants. Maybe this train would deliver him home.

Hard Not To Say Goodbye

The family was scattered in a half-moon circle on the grounds of the cemetery. Spring and roses filled the air along with weeping. Two hundred people stood looking down at a pink and gold casket. One by one, people dropped to their knees, or had to be held up by someone else, or they just plain fainted as Reverend Lorenzo Alexander spoke the words of goodbye to our departed Zula Mae Alexander McCrary, Cousin Zula, a woman who gave love to so many people through out her life.

She was my aunt, but everyone called her Cousin Zula Mae. She was the oldest matriarch of the family and now she was gone. At 97, old age had taken her. The elders before her lived to be 100 or more, but she had lived a good life of love.

Zula Mae was made in Mississippi. Her ‘sippie roots made her tough for hard times. She taught the family what it meant to love unconditionally and not be afraid to do so. She was born to sharecroppers. Her parents where a mix of Cherokee Indians, whites and African slaves. Her granddaddy had been a slave as a boy, and could never talk about his experience during slavery without crying. At 10, he lied about his age to enlist in the northern Army to fight in the Civil War. Slavery had taken his mother from the children she bore with a white man. The horror traumatized him until his death. Zula Mae said that Granddaddy would say that he would never allow his children to be put in such a life and told her and the rest of the family to love and look after one another, to stay close so they would not be separated. He also told the whites in the neighborhood that he would kill every one of them if they touched any of his kids.

Zula Mae was never a slave but she was forced into marriage. Her Granddaddy told her that a good man was asking about her in the community. His wife had died in childbirth and he was in need of being married again. The men folk in the family made the decisions and they gave her hand to him. There was a lone dissenter among the men – an uncle who thought otherwise. She was told one day that she was to marry him and that she now had to go live with him. It was a quick marriage, without any witnesses except the men folk. The man she was given to was much older than she.

He beat her the night of the marriage to make her do as he commanded. He would come home drunk or upset, wanting food and sex. After two weeks, on a day her sister came by to visit, he hit Zula in the face. A lump swelled under her eye. That day she had enough of him and cards she was dealt by the men folk in the family. She sent her sister home, and pretended to him as if nothing was wrong. He went on with his usual commands and then sat down in a chair with his back to Zula Mae. She picked up a big heavy log and hit him in the head as hard as she could. He fell over as if dead, and she thought he was. She ran to the house of the uncle who fought for her right to make her own decisions. He told the other menfolk in the family that they would not make her go back and that they ought not step on his property.

Soon, Zula Mae rode out of the South to Chicago. She worked as a domestic and then for a museum taking coats. Two more marriages ended when the husbands died.

Then a cousin who had left Chicago and was making good in California called her. Zula Mae rode the Greyhound bus and arrived in California three days later.

Zula Mae never had children of her own but she took on the children of a cousin who had way too many. She became a housekeeper for some of the wealthiest white families in Los Angeles. One family was in the record industry and through them she met some of the great recording artists of the 60’s and 70’s. Her employer would pull her out of the kitchen and introduce her to his guests. One of her employers helped her out of many jams including legal ones because, she told me, she had no clue “bout no law.” She built relationships of mutual respect with her employers and this was the reason she loved them all dearly. Being in service to others, she said, was all she ever knew.

Zula Mae Alexander McCrary was the last bastion of the old world for our family in Los Angeles and was one of the few people left who could tell the stories of family members, history and how two generations back our peoples worked hard and bought land so that the next could have a place to lay their heads. Her accounts gave me a glimpse into a world far from mine of today. More importantly, Zula Mae Alexander McCrary could tell how a generation of relatives lived and loved each other in times of hardship and misery.

One day a terrible earthquake rocked Los Angeles. Our phone went out and Cousin Zula Mae did not drive. Yet she came from way across town, on the bus, to see about us. When my parents didn’t care enough to save money for my school pictures, it was Cousin Zula Mae who paid for them.

Once, her first cousin that she grew up with on the farm was sick in Chicago. Zula Mae rode a Greyhound to go see after her. As she picked out a faded 1970 suitcase from the closet and threw clothes in it, she turned to me. “Me and this child we was raised on the farm together by granddaddy and mamma. I got to get to her,” she said. “We is all we got.”

The love she received while living during the farm life puzzled and amazed me, as I knew that life was hard. Yet it also felt good to me, as I did not receive this type of love in my family before she arrived. In the depth of my soul, I was learning to love watching Cousin Zula Mae managing to show love in ways foreign to me. Zula Mae taught me the importance of showing love when you have the chance to do so. Once, my cousin was leaving for a long journey and everybody gathered to say goodbye. I lingered and watched. Zula Mae kept pushing me to say goodbye. Instead, I waved at him and flashed a smile. Finally, and before I could speak to him, he got in his car and left. Zula Mae asked me to sit next to her. She told me of how important it was for us as a family to love each other and say goodbye. I guess it was the teaching from Granddaddy that was embedded in her.

I faded in and out of her conversation and turned and twisted in my seat. I was uncomfortable with people leaving me. I could not cry because the word “goodbye” sulked my spirit.

That day of her funeral, at the cemetery, surrounded by family and friends, I found myself unable again to say goodbye. I could not utter the words. The warmth of love I received from her was too much to lose. Instead, as I stood at her gravesite, I looked down and said, “I will see you again.”

Not The Way I Once Believed

The airport in Havana is a collection of small, hot buildings, about a quarter mile apart and surrounded by large fields.

Our little group is standing outside the Jose Martí Airport, which is reserved for family visiting from the United States. We’re all trying hard not to cry as we joke about whether it’s possible to pack my sister and her kids into our suitcases for the flight home. She’s joked during this trip that being in Cuba as a tourist is the only way it’s tolerable.

Cubans aren’t allowed in the airport, so every time the sliding doors open the crowd huddled together in the suffocating humidity screams out their loved ones’ names as they catch a glimpse of them. Sweat trickles down my back as I try to fight the thought that I’m abandoning my family here. I look into my sister’s red eyes and the guilt chokes me, although her face is free of resentment.

Nioly is a product of my father’s first marriage and was only three years old in 1980 when he decided to come to the United States on the Mariel boatlift. As Cuban relationships last about as long as a good salsa song, my father left with his newest girlfriend – my mother. The opportunity to leave on that boat was announced days before it left, and Nioly’s mother was not prepared to leave everything. Luckily for me, my parents were. I was born in California three years later.

Growing up we would speak to her periodically over the phone, my father always promising to “get you out soon.” Her enthusiasm toward him never waned, despite his unfulfilled promises and inconsistent contact. Even as a child I marveled at her love for a man whom she really didn’t know. Her voice, always full of excitement to talk to her three “hermanitas,” confused me. She didn’t know us; why did she always say she loved us? Her attitude contrasted sharply with the suffering my parents insisted all Cubans endured. I couldn’t imagine it was as bad as wearing hand-me-downs on the first day of school or having to buy shoes at Payless when everyone else wore Nikes. I remember my confusion the day we received a large envelope from Nioly filled with photos she had taken modeling clothes my parents had sent her. I reasoned their claim that we were struggling financially was just an excuse not to buy me the things I wanted. I sulked that she got a new wardrobe while we could never afford to go to McDonald’s for dinner. I secretly blamed whatever gifts she might have received as the reason why our Christmas tree had nothing underneath it that year.

Nioly finally got the opportunity to meet us in December of 2012; thirty-three years after my father left the island. He was scheduled to have his third open heart surgery and it was possible he wouldn’t survive it. My older sister petitioned the Cuban government for a special visa to reunite them. To our surprise, they granted her permission to come. The condition was that she leave her children behind. The government is all too familiar with the United States’ Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot Policy, allowing any Cuban who sets foot on American soil to stay; they wanted to ensure her return. A 36-year-old daddy’s girl came running out of the terminal, all smiles, tears, and hugs as she hugged her Papi. She cupped our faces with the tenderness of a mother and smothered us with kisses, the Cuban way to greet family.

The airport alone held her in awe. The magic of a post 1950’s American car made her laugh with pleasure and she struggled to keep her eyes from staring out the window on the drive home. On the second day of her visit we took her to the grocery store. She stood frozen at the entrance, a mountain of red apples to her right as she began to cry.

“I can’t believe this,” she whispered. She placed her hand over her chest as her eyes scanned the aisles. “My kids have never seen an apple.”

She cried often as she took photos of everything to share with her kids; the snow at Big Bear, Mickey at Disneyland, our homes. “Now they’ll never stop pestering me to come live here.”

After feeling so immediately bonded to my sister, I wanted to meet the aunts, uncles, and cousins I was deprived of all my life. I had heard so many stories of my parents’ siblings. Now they all had children of their own and I wanted to connect with them. Having grown up in a predominantly Mexican community, we were “family-poor” by comparison, with only my father’s second cousin to celebrate holidays with. I visited Florida when I was nine and it was comforting to be among people who understand you the way only someone who shares your heritage can. In California, people are always shocked that a “gringa” can speak Spanish. In Florida I was instantly recognized as a Cuban and it was a relief not to have to explain what I was.

We planned our trip in only four months, grateful for the adjustments President Obama made to the travel restrictions. Our little family flew to Miami where we boarded another plane for a short flight to Havana. After the airplane’s air conditioning, the heat was a slap in the face as we exited directly onto the tarmac. Walking out of the airport was like stepping into a time machine; classic cars, centuries old buildings, and cobblestone streets. Everyone was so friendly and helpful, you almost wondered if you shouldn’t already know their names. My family was no exception. On our second night in Havana, we met my father’s brother, Julio. From the outside his apartment building looked like a remnant of the Chernobyl disaster. It was one of three huge structures covered in dead vines and black mold, with broken windows and an empty dirt courtyard. All suggested decades of abandonment. A sign hung from his window advertising that his home doubled as a hair salon. Julio’s wife had left her job as a registered nurse because she made more money cutting hair. A younger, blue-eyed version of my dad came out to greet us. I had lived thirty-two years without knowing this man. It was unfair. He insisted we return the following night for a proper dinner. We arrived to slow cooked pork, yucca with garlic mojo, grilled pork, bread rolls, rice with black beans, vegetables and homemade lemonade. My uncle watched me with satisfaction. To toast my husband’s Mexican heritage my uncle had tried to acquire Coronas to top off the meal, “I looked everywhere but couldn’t find any. That’s Cuba for you; you can only buy what the government says is available.” I still don’t know how he acquired everything we ate that night. Every grocery store I visited had more flies than food.

During a visit to the National Aquarium of Cuba, my sister wanted to stop in a local market, as each one held the possibility of an ingredient you may not have available in your area. She was elated to see that they had ground beef and wanted to buy it and keep it in the trunk while we visited the aquarium. My husband and I exchanged a look and I pointed out that it would go bad in the heat. She stared, confused by my lack of enthusiasm. “It’ll be fine. It’s beef!”

To her disappointment, we left without it.

The aquarium looked as if it had been abandoned for years. If not for the sounds of children it would have been spooky. Peeling paint, dirty water, and crumbling enclosures showed the years of neglect it had endured. Upon walking in, we watched a man lift a shark right out of the cloudy water by a fin. No one, including the shark, seemed to care. There was a curious smell at every exhibit and I never saw an employee tending to the sea life. My niece and nephew were elated to be there and ran around excitedly, pointing out the crabs and fish to my sister. My niece was especially taken with the giant tortoises. They were housed in the back of the park in a large, peeling, concrete bowl. Less than a foot of the aquarium’s back wall remained. I kept a firm grasp on my son’s hand to keep him from falling into the open ocean behind us. Later, as people filed in to see the dolphin show, some children came up to the pool and began to take turns stroking their scarred skin. I watched the attendant walk over and expected to hear the obligatory, “don’t touch the dolphins.” Instead she revealed that the previous week some tourists had gotten violently ill after contact with them.

“Mama, look at how big and beautiful they are!” My sister, her arms folded over her chest, didn’t bother to look.

“This is what Cuba presents as the national aquarium, it’s an embarrassment.”

As my niece protested that she was having a great time, Nioly muttered that it was only because the poor thing hadn’t seen Sea World.

When it came time to meet my mother’s family, I could not contain my excitement. During my childhood I had created a mental image of their neighborhood. While my mother told me stories, I would picture it all playing out in my head like a movie. Now I would walk those streets. I made sure to film the drive over so that my parents could take a stroll through the past when I returned.

The street where mother grew up still held all but one of her siblings. They gathered outside my aunt Haydee’s house, the apartment unable to house us all. A plate of papaya, mamay, and pineapple sprinkled with sugar was passed around. My aunt just stared at me and held me, telling me how much I looked like my mom. My grandmother died tragically when my mom was only 17. Being the oldest, my mother had been a mom to her six siblings years before having children of her own.

One of my cousins who dreams of becoming a fashion designer showed me her sketchbook and offered me one of her prized drawings. There was a rushed feeling to our conversations as we all tried to say what we felt was important. My uncle Pepe took us on a short drive around my parent’s old neighborhood, telling us stories and pointing out landmarks. The buildings, although gorgeous with history, were crumbling. Piles of broken concrete lay on sidewalks all over Havana, the remnants of a collapsed roof or wall. Nioly told us of a birthday party for her son’s classmate to which she had arrived late. It ended up being a blessing in disguise, as the roof of the building had caved in on the birthday boy, killing him, just before she got there. My uncle stopped at a roadside stand and insisted on buying us sodas and some crackers for my son. I tried to give him money but he waved me away explaining that it was too hot for us and we needed a cool beverage. I later expressed to him how much I wanted to be taking them all home with me, and he chuckled softly before saying, “maybe one day,” as if talking to a child who has just said she dreams of going to the moon.

My husband and I began to regret all the souvenirs we had purchased for family back home. They were meaningless trinkets; money that could have been better spent improving the quality of life for my new family. The living conditions were depressing, yet they seemed not to notice. Nioly, who had seen the excess of the United States, was the only one whose smile seemed tired and sad.

Two nights before we were scheduled to leave my mother’s family crammed into my uncle’s newly acquired 1957 Plymouth. They brought along my Tia Orama who had been hospitalized the day I visited. She handed me two letters. One was for my mother, the other for her son who is now in California. Before leaving that night my Tia Haydee gave me her abanico, a little hand-held fan Cubans carry to combat the humidity. It’s torn and the lace is fraying, but I love it. “So that you won’t forget me,” she had said. I snapped a picture of my cousins giving the car a push start when they left. Arms waving out of the windows, and faces beaming, they drove away.

The Plymouth just managed to get them home before one of its tires deflated.

The entire week my sister Nioly had hosted my little family, waking up early every morning and sending my niece to announce that breakfast was ready: eggs, café con leche, and Cuban bread smeared with butter. Her boyfriend had chauffeured us around the city in an old Russian car. Floral curtains from somebody’s grandmother covered the seats where there should have been safety belts. My son had enjoyed riding without a car seat more than I anticipated.

“Look mama I can stick my head out the window!”

I grew to love the smell of diesel exhaust, which emanated from every vehicle that still had life left in it, and while the red welts on my thighs showed that I had not yet built up a resistance to the Cuban sun, my body acclimated well to the heat that enveloped this island.

Now at the airport, I am returning to the life that Nioly craves more for her two children than herself. Her desperation to bring them to the United States has spilled over onto them. They ask multiple times what they have to do to come. It is a hard question to answer. I realize the amount of money we spent to visit was almost enough to bring both my niece and nephew out. After a beautiful but emotional week, I feel conflicted about returning to life in Los Angeles.

I give Nioly one more kiss and she sternly tells me to hurry and get inside so that I don’t miss my flight. Inside, the woman who checks my tickets is unfazed by my tears. Waiting for the plane to take off, I flip through the magazine provided. I pause on an ad for a $300 lamp claiming it can make your house a home. I think of the conversation Nioly and I had where she told me that the wardrobe which prompted a fashion show years ago had provided enough money for her and her mother to eat for over a month. Seeing my confusion, she explained that my mother had sewn money into every hem and pocket as insurance that those who inspect care packages wouldn’t steal it.

I watch Cuba shrink from lush greenery into a tiny speck and I realize that yes, I have always been poor, but not in the way I once believed.


I knew something was wrong before we left. Eduardo and I were planning a Vegas getaway. Alex would remain at home. I told him before I left, “I don’t know what you are up to… but you are up to something, and I will find out!” At one time, I had trusted Alex to stay home, do the chores, and take care of the dog. I still wanted to trust him, but I couldn’t. This weekend away was important to me. I made it all right knowing that his Tío Oscar and his cousins were next door.

It was winter in Vegas and our first time away as a couple. But that Saturday night in our hotel room, I don’t know if I was dreaming or what, but suddenly I sat up and realized that something else was stolen.

A week before, looking for a particular ring to wear, I discovered that it and other pieces were was missing. That “something else” happened to be two pairs of earrings; a pair my sister had given me one Christmas. That was my epiphany in Vegas. I asked Alex about the jewelry. He had a couple of lady friends over, and accused them of taking the rings.

“How dare they!” he said.

“What were they doing in my room?”

“We were just hanging out.”

“Hanging out! You guys were probably getting high!”

Now in that room in Las Vegas, I realized that two pairs of earrings were also gone.

This had been our interaction of late. Me accusing Alex of getting high. Him denying it. After I discovered the ring was missing, we played the part and went to one of the girl’s houses. The mom actually let us in and Alex sat next to me pretending to be concerned for this young lady who was up to no good and who probably stole my jewelry. I wanted to believe him and thought I would get it back. It didn’t happen, and I can only suspect who stole it and pawned it for cash. I was under the impression it was for the pot that Alex smoked on occasion, but recently I noticed erratic behavior. Paranoia. Staying up all night. Sleeping during the day. He had never taken anything from me without my permission. So when I noticed the twenty-dollar bill missing from my wallet, I called him out on it. He admitted taking it, promising it would never happen again. And then the jewelry incident. I suspected he was using meth. That may be when he became, in his own words, “entrepreneurial.”

Alex was always an intelligent young man. My only son. Son of a teacher. Up until ninth grade he was a great student. High school came with disappointment; his and mine. He tried out for football and was never played. He played saxophone in middle school but didn’t want to play in the high school band. It was band or football and then it became neither. He had too much time on his hands. He got social. New friends. New activities. He started smoking weed.

Alex did high school the way Alex did high school. He aced his exams, but most teachers wanted to see homework. He didn’t do it. He did well if he liked the teacher. If he didn’t like the teacher, he gave him/her a hard time. He was voted “Class Clown” in the yearbook with a lot of units short of graduating. The summer before his senior year, I asked him if he wanted to get his GED, he said, “No.” He said he wanted to make up the credits. It didn’t happen. After the school year ended, I dragged him to the adult center. He took the GED exam and passed.

He took to learning the guitar and started playing in a punk metal band. I called it his “angry-young-man music.” All I wanted was for him to be happy. I was happy that he was expressing himself in a positive way, or so I thought. His meth use increased. He went to rehab and enrolled at Citrus College.

My promise to him was that as long as he was enrolled as a full-time student, he wouldn’t have to work. But as soon as his units dropped, he would need to get a job. That was a promise my parents made to me; go to school or get a job. I thought I was providing him the same opportunity under different circumstances.

I kept my promise. He began taking music classes, but withdrawing from meth left him prone to anxiety attacks; music and his guitar kept him sane.

Arriving home from Vegas the next night, we found the front door unlocked. The house was a mess. It felt cold, as if the doors and windows had been left open all night. Alex wasn’t there. I looked around like a dog sniffing out its territory. I started looking for something — unsure of what it was. I went to my jewelry box. Everything seemed in order. I went to Alex’s room; everything looked the same. I looked in the closet and started lifting things out of the way – that’s when I discovered it. I had never seen this quantity. It was about 18 inches long and 12 inches wide, sealed in plastic. Marijuana. I pulled the package out and heard Alex come through the door.

“Is this what you have been up to? Is this how you’ve been earning money?”

He was surprised that I found it.

“Well, you wanted me to get a job.”

“A real job!”

“I am!”

“You need to return it! I don’t want it here!”

“I can’t return it! I have to pay for it.”

“How much?”


“Well, how the hell are you gonna do that?”

“Mom, I can’t return it. I gotta give them the money. If I don’t sell it they’re gonna come after me.”

This was new to me. I was shocked but not too surprised. Too many headlights in the driveway at night. Too many of his walks out the door. Too many phone calls. I simply chose not to see it.

I managed to borrow the money, and I gave it to Alex. He swore he would pay me back. I drove him to a house not too far from ours. I parked the car around the corner in the shadows of a large tree. He got out and I waited. It was late, and the whole time I was praying like a mother prays, making deals with God: “Lord, keep my son safe and out of harm’s way.” In the rearview mirror, I finally saw him coming around the corner. I breathed a sigh of relief. He got in the car, and we drove home. I think He heard my prayers that night.

Alex ended up giving the weed to one of his friends to sell. At this point, I didn’t care what happened to it. I just wanted it gone. Even though he swore he would pay me back, he didn’t. Maybe I was reckless with money. It didn’t matter. I was relieved that it was over. The money was never the point, though maybe that was a mistake. I didn’t hold him accountable.

I wanted to be the Super Single Mom. I wanted to prove that I could raise my son on my own. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to put my foot down. I was inconsistent. I now believe there comes a time when a child needs that tough love, and I couldn’t give that to him.

Eduardo and I are still together, celebrating nine years of marriage. Wedded bliss it is not, but we continue to work together and support one another in being a family, enjoying life, and making the most of the gifts given us.

Alex battles addiction, but his days as an entrepreneur are long over. He continues to compose, perform and play his guitar. At 28, he will graduate in June with a Bachelor of Arts in Music with an emphasis in education from Cal Poly Pomona. He’s going to teach music to high school students.


That first night away from home was the hardest. I lay on my cot and cried silently as I stared at the ceiling in the dark. I asked myself repeatedly what I was doing in San Antonio, Texas, 1,300 miles from East L.A., sleeping on a strange bed in a strange dormitory packed full of strange bald guys. I wanted to sleep, but could not. I wanted to be home, but I wasn’t.

I had joined the Air Force. We could no longer refer to ourselves in the first person. From here on it was, “Sir, trainee Salgado reports!”

Hours earlier, I’d stepped off the bus onto Lackland Air Force Base to begin basic training. As I lined up in front of the bus, our Training Instructor (TI), Staff Sergeant Pat, was in my face, growling on how ugly I was and snickering over how much fun awaited us at his resort.

The name-calling began. Our first names were never spoken. We were now called “rainbows” because we arrived wearing a motley of colored civilian clothes; “green sleeves” because we then wore green uniforms with no stripes on our sleeves, ranking lower than the bottom of a TI’s dress shoes.

The sound of the metal taps on our TI’s high-gloss Oxfords never left us. His military Smokey the Bear hat tipped forward just enough for it to appear he’d topple over you at any time. He was our invader of personal space.

Unfortunately for me, personal space was a big deal. As a kid I always had to share a bedroom with my siblings. Now here I was in a dormitory packed full of strange bald guys. Here, the TI owned you. I got to know his breath well. The worst part was that I had asked for it.

Months before, the recruiter offered me a chance to learn to fix military planes, travel to exotic places, and earn money for college. I was eager to see the world, liked airplanes as a kid, and had no money. Within days of graduating from high school, I raised my right hand and took the Oath of Enlistment.

In high school I had taken the military enlistment test used to measure abilities. Scoring high overall, I was quickly accepted for training in aircraft maintenance. I was excited but first I had to get through basic training.

With Staff Sergeant Pat that wasn’t going to be easy. At 4 a.m., the morning after our first night at Lackland, I awoke to “Wake up bunnies!” He picked up a metal trash can and tossed it across the dormitory room. As he passed my cot he kicked the bed frame. After a far-too-quick shower and breakfast, first on our agenda was physical training followed by classes. And that’s how it was going to be. Our lives prescribed to the minute. A “town pass,” seemed an eternity away.

They had perfected the art of castigation and documented it with a “Form 341,” used to write up recruits for “discrepancies.” Even the 341s had to be pre-filled, folded, and inserted just right into the correct shirt pocket of each recruit, slightly sticking out and ready for the TI to “pull” at his discretion. We had to carry two of these completed forms on our person. Too many of those and you’d be heading home.

That’s not how I wanted to return. So I endeavored to survive and even excel. But it didn’t seem to be going that way.

One morning, while marching, it got into my head that “Pat” was a girl’s name. I had a sister named Pat who wrote to me while in basic training. To me, it was a girl’s name. I knew better, but that thought was enough to put a smile on my face for just a few seconds as the idea of my dreaded TI having a girl’s name tickled my fancy. My TI saw me smiling. You don’t smile in basic training. My first 341 landed.

I was christened “latrine queen.” To help me work out my wrong ways, I was assigned to lead a crew of penitent recruits in cleaning the communal restroom. With many well-used toilets before us, we had plenty of time to rehabilitate. Working “the head” for hours has a way of reinvigorating one’s resolve to do things right the next time.

When we were finished, the TI had to approve. Of course, he didn’t. Instead, he handed us some used toothbrushes and directed us to scrub the grout between the tiles on the floor around the toilets. I reasoned that at least I was gaining leadership experience and building strong arms.

I collected my next 341 over my underwear. Like everything else, underwear had to comply. The rule was that it be folded a certain way to a six-inch square after washing. Otherwise it was not presentable for inspection. I placed my stack of six-inch underwear squares on my bed for inspection. Before inspection but after I placed these on my bed, a fellow trainee named Maubry, a big, black fellow from the South came over and sat on my cot while we chatted. Apparently, and unbeknownst to me at the time, his weight on the bed was enough to shift my underwear so as to distort my squares. With that brief error, a 341 flew out of trainee Salgado’s shirt pocket.

So it went, one after another, the 341s zoomed along, each landing on the squadron commander’s desk. It was always little things that got me somehow. I worried. Would I make it through basic training and on to my aircraft training?

I had no time to dwell on it. I had to focus on the big tasks at hand, hour-by-hour, day-by-day. But we counted the days remaining. We saw fellow recruits leave us early for home, some for medical reasons, some for not meeting standards, some for being unable to keep their mouths shut and follow directions, and some for reasons we knew not.

As the days passed, I thought less and less of home and became engrossed in my situation. I stopped asking what I was doing in San Antonio, Texas, some 1300 miles from East L.A. The weeks passed and I began to enjoy my classes.

M-16 rifle weapon fire was a blast, though I didn’t earn the small arms marksmanship ribbon I hoped for. Some of my fellow trainees teased me about that because they figured I was from East L.A. and should have had plenty of experience with a gun. Actually, it was a first for me.

I studied or practiced the Uniform Code of Military Justice; the law of armed conflict; weapons cleaning; chemical, biological, and nuclear defense; Air Force history, military citizenship, physical fitness; drill or marching; and took on the dreaded obstacle course.

As the end of basic approached, I took my last examinations and waited for results. Would I be allowed to march at Retreat and Parade? These were ceremonies where we “graduated” and were welcomed into service with the “world’s most powerful air force.” It was then we could finally wear the blue uniform instead of a trainee’s green uniform.

On the last day of classes, my TI announced an award to be presented at a special ceremony to a trainee who had excelled, awarded only to one in the top 10 percent. It was late afternoon and I was dozing off, his words barely registering.

Unexpectedly, I heard him call my name. He ordered me to come to the front of the class. I snapped to it.

“Salgado, you’ve been bugging me since day one. You like to bug me, Salgado?”

“No, sir!”

“Heck, I guess there’s only one way to get rid of you for good…”

With that, he grabbed a 341 from my shirt pocket as I stood in front of the entire class. Mortified, I froze expecting the worst. Instead, my TI wrote something down, and began reading out loud.

“Trainee Salgado has consistently excelled on his military studies, physical fitness evaluations, drill… I therefore recommend him for Honor Graduate recognition.”

Staff Sgt. Pat began to clap and my classmates, too. I had never seen him smile like that. Trainee Salgado got to proudly pin the Air Force BMT Honor Graduate Ribbon on his blue uniform.

As I strolled through the San Antonio River Walk in my blue uniform on a Town Pass after graduation, I read a plaque about the Alamo and savored a sugar cone of pistachio ice cream.

In a moment of flashback, I recalled my first night in basic training and the question that consumed me that first night. Immediately, I began to silently recite the Airman’s Creed.

“I am an American Airman. I am a warrior. I have answered my nation’s call… .”

I licked the green ice cream, melting in the Texas summer, and savored the thought of going home in blue.


“Where are we going? I’ve never been down this way before…”

“When you’re in class do you understand what’s going on?”

“Yes. … When the teacher asks a question I’m usually the first one with my hand up.”

“Yeah – but do you really understand what’s happening? I’m just wondering if you’re slow… because right now you don’t seem to understand what’s going on. We are going down the 15. The 15 is another way to San Diego.”

Mortified and hurt I sat quietly. I didn’t know that Temecula was not along the 5.

The girl intent on making me feel like a fool was my best friend Alice.

Alice and I became friends at a time when my heart was aching and raw. My long-time boyfriend had just left me. Every waking moment was like being lost in a cold, isolated tundra. Tears were always waiting behind my eyes. Weekdays were filled with the business of school and work, but I couldn’t bear weekends alone.

Alice was in the same situation. We were drawn together in our love losses and in our quest for new lives and happiness. Every weekend we had plans. We talked, we texted, we messaged, all the things people do to communicate through their electronic leashes. Every weekend were lunches, dinners, 5ks, baseball games, or on wilder whims San Diego or Las Vegas. We were two young single gals with nothing to lose. Every weekend whatever she proposed I embraced. I wanted to be a friend she wanted to have. I went from one codependent relationship to another.

This particular weekend we were on a pilgrimage to see the Dodgers take on the Padres – but first we were stopping to do a little tasting.

At winery after winery, we sampled cheese and made small talk. But when we decided to have lunch she was annoyed. “There’s nothing you can eat,” she said bitterly.

At this point I had been a vegetarian for roughly a month and I had no inclination to stop. Before my change to the veg life I was the biggest omnivore of them all. My favorite meal was steak (medium rare) and eggs. I lived for Vienna hot dogs, and Spam was always in my cupboard. Part of what Alice and I bonded over was all the delicious things we ate in the past and all the wonderful things we would eat in the future. Ordering meat was over now. Being vegetarian means reading the menu more carefully, and maybe asking the waiter to clarify an ingredient or two.

After this wine excursion we traveled on to our room in San Diego proper. We checked in, dropped our bags, and made haste to Petco Park. We arrived at the stadium after the National Anthem. Then Alice realized she forgot her sweater. We grumpily speed-walked to the hotel and back. After we settled in, none of the stadium food was to her liking. We made no conversation between innings. I would have had more fun if I had listened to the whole thing on the radio at home. After the game, we stopped at a restaurant before trekking back to the room. After I ordered the soup, she said, “See! You can’t eat anything!”

Later, in the quiet of the room I shared with someone I had to this point thought of as my best friend – the day sunk in. I felt like I was on vacation with my mom.

The next morning before getting on the road, we needed gas.

“Here, use my GPS to find a gas station.”

The device showed a station two blocks away. As she was filling up she was angry that the gas station I “chose” was so expensive.

The ride home used to be the best part of the trip. We would stop for one last San Diego dessert before getting on the freeway. I would wildly sing along to ABBA and Cher; we would gossip and reminisce as we cruised along the beautiful 5.

Today: Silence. Two and a half hours of crushing, judgmental silence. When we arrived at my house I grabbed my things and we said “bye.” No cheery wave before I headed inside. No waiting to make sure I had my house key.

How do you say “I don’t want to be friends any more?”

We quietly drifted apart. We avoided each other on social media. I had no intention of running after her. When my ex-boyfriend left me I begged him to stay; he was making a mistake; we needed to be together. I was alone and clung to Alice because alone was too cold. Finally, after time journaling and reading relationship books, I felt ready to be who I am.

Years have passed since she drove away from my mom’s house leaving me to fumble with my luggage and souvenir wine glasses. I don’t live at mom’s house anymore. I live with a nice fellow, and our life is quiet and happy.

Every six months or so she reaches out to me. Our attempts to “catch up” usually consist of her slighting me and my wondering why I even bothered.

Like having drinks with your high school guidance counselor.

I know she reaches out because she cares; I let her reach out because I care.

I’m not sad that we aren’t as close as we used to be; I’m just glad that there was a time that we were.

Pórtate Bien

The acceptance letters arrived from five California universities.

My mother beamed but I dared not share the news with my father.

“You have big dreams,” he would say. “It’s not good to dream big because the disappointment in not achieving those aspirations is going to get the best of you. And what good does a college degree bring to a woman? You will marry – fill your house with children and then what? No college degree needed for that.”

I signed my acceptance letter with my mother’s blessing. I left for college without my father’s consent.

It was Move-In Day, one week before the Fall Quarter commenced. My mother borrowed the neighbor’s Mustang and drove me to the University of California at Riverside. Freshman and returning students unloaded their belongings at the horseshoe-curb in front of the Aberdeen-Inverness Dormitories. Students were accompanied by their families – setting up their rooms, meeting their roommates, touring the campus, buying textbooks and UCR apparel.

My mother had scrounged money to purchase the basics for living in a dorm and getting me through until my scholarship and financial aid came in– a robe, a desk-lamp, an electric typewriter and two full flat sheets.

All of the designated visitor spots were taken so my mother parked on a side street in a red zone, as my 14-year-old sister and I carried my possessions to the all-female dorm. The last thing she needed was a parking infraction and she wanted to make good on her word to Esther, the neighbor, that she would return the car within three hours. My mother came up to my room, met my roommate from Palm Springs, blessed me with the sign of the cross from my forehead to chin, ear to ear and a kiss on the cheek and whispered in my ear, “Pórtate bien,” and they left.

That morning, my father had gone to work without a word.

He was born in 1940 to Dolores González and Salvador Castañeda – the fifth of twelve children, raised in a conservative Catholic home in the small town of Tlaltenango in the north-Central Mexican state of Zacatecas; the only one of his brothers to learn his father’s whitesmith trade. As a tin craftsman, he laid a galvanized tin plate on a steal anvil to flatten it and turn and roll the edges with a hammer; with a soldering iron and a fire pot, he soldered the pieces together to create or repair items of everyday use – milk churns, jugs and pails, liter measuring receptacles, molinillos, rain gutters, spinning tops and meticulous lamps from Mexico’s colonial period still in favor by the town folk. His brothers tended the cattle and took it for pasture in the near-by sierra. His sisters washed clothes in the neighboring river, milled the nixtamal for the tortillas, fetched water from the patio well and prepared the daily meals. As the first son, he was doted upon by his parents and his older sisters, who ensured that his clothes were clean and pressed; his meals prepared and served hot when he sat at the table.

As a teenager, he resented being obliged to wear leather huaraches and jean overalls as his father did. When his oldest sister married and migrated to California, she would send him yards of English cashmere so that the local tailor could fashion him a suit. His father did not approve of his choice of clothing, nor of his friends – the children of the “high class.” His friends had no religious principles, his father would say, and they were accustomed to playing out in the street like slackers with no idea of what it was like to work and contribute to a family’s subsistence.

At the family’s small general store where they sold the tin-ware crafted by him and his dad, my father and his siblings took turns managing the store. His father did not think it necessary to pay them for their work – it was their family duty. His sisters accused him of taking money from the store coffers; they searched his pockets and removed his shoes. They never found the cash he rolled into his sleeves. Years later, he claimed to have taken what he had earned – enough to go to the cinema, buy something to eat and hang out with his buddies in the Jardin.

During the Sunday sermons, the priest prohibited the town folk from viewing films he deemed sinful. My grandfather warned his children to stay away from the tainted movies. My father felt the priest aimed to control, requiring that his parents give ten percent of their harvest to the church and discouraging them from reading books except the Bible. As a boy, my father had been obligated by his father to serve as an acolyte. After the church services, he was required to serve the priests wine at the supper table laid with the prime cuts of meat and books his family was denied. One night, he went anyway to the movie house to see his favorite actress, Elsa Aguirre; halfway through the film, he felt a rap to the head, and a tight grip on his right forearm pulling him up from the chair. In the darkness, a stream of speckled light traveled from the projector to the screen. His father was impervious to the curses the audience shot his way. He jerked his son to the exit, gave him a beating when they arrived home, then made him kneel on pebbles and face the stone wall with arms extended while carrying a rock on each hand.

Although my father had a fifth grade education, he was fascinated by history. He listened to the older folks who gathered in the town square to talk politics and history.

In 1959, at age 19, much to his parents’ dismay, he made the trek to El Norte alone. The Bracero Program contracted him to work in the tomato fields in Petaluma, California. He left when the contracted company did not pay him what they had guaranteed. He slated the foreman about the exploitation of the field hand. In Livingston, he found work with another farmer who paid him fairly. Yet fieldwork was not why he had left Tlaltenango. He traded the fields for restaurants in San Francisco and Santa Rosa where he bussed tables and washed dishes.

By 1967, he was living in Los Angeles with his two younger brothers. Two years after, he married my mother and I was born. He worked the night shift at a high-technology circuit board manufacturing plant in Culver City. It was a union job that paid triple the minimum wage and provided health benefits for the family. My mother stayed home tending to their growing family. We lived in Boyle Heights at Wyvernwood – a garden apartment complex constructed in the late 1930s for middle income workers.

Always, though, returning home was his dream. When his father died, he inherited a plot of land across the street from his family home. On the parcel, he built an American-style, two-story house. He longed to live in it permanently one day and consume himself in his tin craft.

Growing up, I didn’t own many books but I was never without a story. My father was a natural storyteller – a master of exaggeration. As I listened to his stories, I was entranced like a child is, as the magician pulls the rainbow colored scarves from the black top hat. The family stories and the history he enlivened were the core of my pop’s soul. In my teenage years, my interest waned. No longer did I want to hear that the Mexican General Santa Anna was a traitor to México and that the Southwest was stolen by President Polk by provoking Mexicans into war when he moved U.S. troops to the Río Bravo. His knowledge was neither supported by my high school textbooks or my teachers. How could a man with a 5th-grade education be right about history? How could the teachers be wrong?

“Lies – that’s what your teachers are feeding you. Utter lies,” my father would say.

UCR was far enough to get away from home and close enough to return. Its location made housing affordable with the limited income earned by my work-study job, student loans, state grants and privately funded scholarship. Initially, I returned on weekends, catching a ride with fellow students. My father worked the night shift and occasionally the graveyard shift so I never saw him when I arrived on Fridays. On Saturday, we hardly uttered a word to each other – I spent the day studying and he spent the day viewing black-and-white Pedro Infante films or swaying his body side to side as the boxers on the TV screen attempted to land their punches – fascinations that he once enjoyed with me by his side. Sunday came – I returned to UCR. Soon, I wasn’t going home as often. I phoned and wrote letters, instead. The days I didn’t call, my mother would phone me and if she missed me she would leave a recorded message.

Pórtate bien.”

As a freshman, I enrolled in a Chicano History course as suggested by my advisor. I was short a class and this one fit into my schedule. It was the first time I had heard the term Chicano used interchangeably with Mexican-American. The lectures and literature tapped into facts that I had disengaged from – facts that my father defended. As I continued taking courses in Chicano Studies a connection to my father’s life story awakened.

In my letters and my phone conversations I shared my experiences and my learning with them. My father’s eyes glistened and he would nod in agreement, my sister said, when he listened to her read the letters aloud or overhear the telephone conversation I had with my mom.

The few times I went home on the weekends, his story was our connection. He would ask me to tell him more about the East L.A. Blowouts, the Bath Riots and the mass deportations of Mexican-Americans in the 1930s. He was attentive to what I was book-learning; smirking as if I was validating all he knew to be true.

At the bookstore, while in line to pay for my books, one day, I contemplated a blue sweatshirt that sported UC Riverside Dad in yellow letters across the chest.

Graduation day came in June 1991. The night before the commencement ceremony, my family arrived accompanied by my godparents, and their children. The floor of my studio apartment was their shelter for the night. My father had invited them to witness as I walked across the stage to become the first college graduate of the family.

A year before I graduated from UCR, the company my father worked for closed. He became unemployed. The job prospects were anemic. The rejections were demoralizing. Yet, he continued on his feet; driving nightly through the alleys collecting cardboard boxes from the factory trash bins, in his brown Ford truck. By day, he sold the cardboard by the ton at the local recycling center. Yet he now rejected the thought of me quitting school to help the family financially.

Years later, my aunts told me of his pride when he spoke of my audacity to contravene the life he’d expected me to live. At the moment of my decision to obtain a college education, he had thought, I would grow distant and squander the sacrifices he had made for himself and for his family.

But during my senior year, on an occasional Friday night, he would pick me up from school wearing his UCR Dad sweatshirt, and he would take me home.