Introduction to Volume 3

One of the exciting times in the life of a writing-workshop instructor comes in watching the stories of new authors emerge.

Usually, this takes discussion, talking about a story possibility. Some stories are obvious; others not so. Often writers aren’t aware that even the tiniest moment can yield a stunning tale. So you wrangle over them, talk them out, parse out their details. Then, usually, a moment occurs when the writer sees the story and all it might be.

I love that part of it. Then they throw themselves into the piece. As they write, then rewrite, their stories peek from the shadows and come to life like photographs, slowly adding detail until a full portrait of an event emerges.

That moment comes at different times with each writer, as it should.

For Jose Nunez, who wrote the story, in this volume, of his trip one night as a kid down the two-block street on which he grew up, it arrived fairly quickly. The trip seemed 20 minutes in his life at first, but as we talked about it during our first workshop, it was clear that the two-block walk was a chance to tell stories of the people who lived along the street.

For Louie Flores, the realization, I think, came when I urged him to tell us – What’s it like to jump from an airplane for the first time? This was a couple meetings into our workshop. He may have been feeling some writer’s block, so I told him, just tell us how that was. Louie grew animated, remembering wafting down through the clouds that day decades earlier. He felt, he said, like sitting “in God’s front yard.” His story is included here.

The storytelling project I call Tell Your True Tale is now in its third volume out of the East Los Angeles Library, thanks to the generous support of the L.A. County Library system.

The narratives here, from new writers all, reflect that excitement for storytelling and the wonder that accompanies watching a great story unfold; indeed, four writers – Louie is one – are repeat TYTTers.

Another, C.J. Salgado, tells the story of his mother, and why she came north from a small Michoacan village all alone.

A writer new to TYTT, Araceli Lerma, recounts the story of meeting the woman whose family home she purchased.

Newcomer Fabiola Manriquez tells the story of meeting Cesar Chavez when she was 11 at an East L.A. parade.

Susanna Whitmore, also a TYTT vet, tells the tale of meeting her future husband, Ondrej Franek, in Czechoslovakia.

Brian Rivera is back with his second story as well, this time of a visit to a legendary soccer stadium.

Once again, I thank Daniel Hernandez, director of the Chicano Resource Center at the East L.A. Library, run by the L.A. County Library system, where these workshops have been held.

I thank, as well, Susan Broman, head of Adult and Digital Services for the county library system.

Thanks also to Eric Franco Aguilar, a TYTT alum, who designed the cover of this volume, as he did Vol. II.

Enjoy this now-third collection of Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles stories. Also, check out the county library’s page dedicated to the project: colapublib.org/tytt

Then come write a story of your own.

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

A Walk Up The Street

As we walked toward the corner of Juniper and 108th, the bright glow of the streetlight made it even harder for us to keep from swaying. There were three of us, Jose Varela, Jose Villalobos, and myself, Jose Nunez, trying to decide which way to go.

Varela, the oldest, swayed and yelled, “Ya fools are drunk as hell!”

Villalobos giggled and stomped toward Varela and scolded him.

“What you expect? We just drank a 40 of Old E.”

Varela pushed him away.

“Shut your ass up before I knock you out.”

Villalobos put his hands up and threw a couple of punches.

“What’s up? You want some? Come get some, homes. What, you scared? Chabala. Ranker. Leva. That’s what I thought, punk.”

We all laughed.

I stood there quietly with my hands in my pocket searching for change that I knew I didn’t have.

“I thought we were going to a party?”

It was past midnight and our only option was up the street toward the music coming from a parked car. Varela led the way. He was a year older than Villalobos and me, and, at 15, he was a head taller with a full mustache. This was his neighborhood, and his nickname, Crow, was on more than a couple of walls. His grandfather trained kids to box in his own front yard. There was a full-size boxing ring with a speed bag nailed to a tree. His oldest uncle, Modesto, was good enough to try out for the Junior Olympics, but got stabbed at a party that left his right leg partially paralyzed. Varela trained too, but I think he loved basketball more. We once fought in the middle of the street with gloves on and it was no match. I was smaller then and always trying to prove myself.

“Where we going?” I slurred as I stepped off the curb and stumbled to catch myself from falling.

Villalobos giggled again.

“Yo momma’s house.”

Funny thing was, Villalobos’s momma lived just three houses down from where we were standing, and if she knew her 14-year-old son was out drinking and walking these streets, she probably would have whooped all three of us. She was nice and all, but strict. I would spend the night at his house and go to church the next day.

We passed the corner house where a girl named Gerri used to live. I always wonder what became of her. One day after football practice, I remember, she asked me to go see her at her cousin’s house. I was surprised by the invite, and felt the butterflies kick in as soon as practice was over. Gerri was a year older and pretty as hell, with hair to her waist that danced when she walked, and a smile that matched her laugh. Her cousin lived half way up the street from her house, and out of view from her mother. She took no chances and walked out of the house and stood a few feet away from the gate making sure that a tree blocked the view of the front door to her house. Her mother must have been home.

“So who do you like?” was how she started.

“Huh?” Caught off guard, I panicked.

“Nobody.”

“How about Yolanda?”

“Who?”

She stomped her foot. “Yolanda Lopez!”

“She’s all right, I guess.”

We talked about Yolanda most of the time and that was okay as long I got to talk to Gerri. The next day I was Yolanda’s boyfriend. We lasted for three days. I guess she could tell I wasn’t into her and Gerri never asked me to meet me at her cousin’s again. I should have been nicer to Yolanda.

Gerri had two older brothers who were protective and fierce. Once, they got into it in the middle of the street – a full-on fistfight, just the two of them. People came out to see the show, but their mother wasn’t too happy. Her screams were useless. They kept fighting. So she went into the house and came out with a monkey wrench, the same monkey wrench that her son used to open the fire hydrant in the summer. She looked mad enough to swing at their heads. Instead, she smashed the windshield to her oldest son’s Impala. That stopped the fight. The look on her son’s face when he walked over to his car was painful. He didn’t say a word. He just got in his ride and left. With brothers like that, you had to be real careful not to try anything with Gerri.

We finally got to the car parked in the alley. Varela jumped in the back seat with some girls.

By this time Villalobos and I were standing in the shadows next to five or six gangsters from the neighborhood.

“What’s up, Villalobos! You guys been partying or what?” was the first voice that belonged to Fausto, Varela’s uncle.

“Yeah, man, we’ve been drinking Old English. We’re tore up for real,” he yelled loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear, including the nuns in the convent up the block.

The nuns lived in a two-story convent next to the priest’s house. They taught at San Miguel Catholic School across the street from the convent, where the three of us met. The nine Sisters of the Love of God were from Spain and came to the United States, learned English, went to college and taught kids from Watts right from wrong. There were some nice ones, but others ruled with iron fists. Sister Mary was one of them. She was my second-grade teacher. During recess she caught me doing something and began to reprimand me. I was in the fourth grade by then and should have known better than to talk back to her. I interrupted her with, “Sister, it’s because…” and before I could finish my sentence, wham, came a slap across my face.

Callese! Don’t talk back!” she said in a heavy accent before walking away.

I stood watching her waddle back to class. To this day I’m not sure what I did. There was no chance in hell of turning her in. Corporal punishment was the law of the land back then and the nuns had Jesus in their corner. I just accepted it. Plus, if word got back home, I’d probably get it worse.

I entered San Miguel in the middle of second grade. Celso, my father, found out about the school from a grocery owner in Compton where we lived, before my parents separated and we moved to Watts. He thought it was better to be taught by nuns than in a public school. Tuition was always a problem but my parents made ends meet. Pops was a gardener so he mowed the lawn at the priest’s house. Concha, my mother, volunteered every chance she got. She cooked the menudo on Saturday for Sunday breakfast. My siblings and I helped set-up the tables and chairs. We spent a lot of time in the parish hall setting up for breakfast and dances and even DJ’d when we got older.

Those dances would bring the neighborhood together, young and old. The older crowd would dance to a conjunto that played cumbias and rancheras, and then the DJ would play for us. The three Jose’s were there as well along with our Mothers.

At one dance, Varela spotted my mom walking across the dance floor.

“Man, Nunez, here comes your Mom!”

She asked me first.

“Andale, Jose, vamos a bailar?”

“Aw, Ama, no quiero bailar rancheras.”

She worked her way down the line.

“Andale, Villalobos. Vamos,” she said, as she pulled his arm. He either liked dancing rancheras or was too nice to say no to my Mom that night.

“Here you go, homes,” said one of the shadows and passed a joint to Fausto. He took a hit and passed it back. He turned to us.

“Don’t do drugs. It’s bad for you.”

The homeboys chuckled.

“Naw, it’s cool. We only do hardcore drugs,” was Villalobos’ response, but the joke didn’t get past the smoke.

I overreacted.

“You’re a fool, Villalobos!”

I went back to trying to be cool in the shadows. If it were the middle of the day we wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out with gangsters from La Colonia. This was the nickname for our neighborhood given by the old Mexican families that came here in the ‘30’s and ‘40s. La Colonia was four square blocks sliced up by one-ways and centered around the church. The small streets had even smaller houses. Most were wooden bungalows built back in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s that were too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. On those hot summer days, the homeboys from La Colonia opened fire hydrants to cool off. These same homeboys claimed La Colonia as their own. They had rivals on all sides and the feuds often brought tragedy.

One mother found her little boy slumped over his cereal killed by a stray bullet. My classmate’s father was talking to a neighbor and didn’t duck the bullet meant for the homeboy who was running for his life. There was also Christina, a girl who Villalobos married a few years later.Her family had moved to our neighborhood from East L.A., where her brother had some trouble. Early one Saturday, the trouble followed him home, where he was ambushed and killed.

All three of those families lived on our street.

“One time!”

The homeboy closest to the curb put down his beer. Before I could turn, lights from a Sheriff cop car were on us.

“Put your hands up!”

No one moved more than they had to and Villalobos and I followed everyone’s lead. We turned and faced the fence. I turned to look for Varela. He had a gun pointed at him and his hands were sticking out of the window.

“Interlock your fingers and look straight ahead!”

The cop squeezed my hands and pulled my head back while he searched me. I was stunned by the amount of force. I guess if you’re going to hang out at midnight with gangsters you’re going to get searched like one. My buzz was gone. I started to get cold and wondered if Sister Mary was looking out the window of the convent to see what trouble makers were out this late. Lucky for us the cops swooped in on us without the siren. They quickly went down the line. After he finished, I turned to face the cop. Varela was still being searched on the other side of the car. He was cooperating.

“Get the hell out of here!” one of the cops said finally.

We started to walk up the street. Varela was close behind and the rest of the homeboys took off in different directions.

We laughed and pushed each other around as we headed toward Villalobos’ house. We tiptoed into his house, hoping his mom wasn’t awake. I was on the floor in a sleeping bag when his Mom opened the door. It was dark, she didn’t even turn on the light, but we knew she was mad. I pretended to be asleep. Villalobos was going to get it.

My worry was bigger. I pictured Sister Mary calling my Mom to tell her who she saw in the alley that night.

Warrior In The Fields

I remember that morning. I was 11.

I watched from my bedroom window as cars, vans, and motorcycles parked in Al’s Produce across the street on Brooklyn Avenue, (now Avenida Cesar E. Chavez) and Kern. Teenagers and adults together chanted “Don’t buy the grapes!! Huelga, huelga.” The red flags with the black eagle fluttered in the wind as the number of protestors grew.

It was September 16, 1977 – Mexican Independence Day, and in East L.A. we were preparing for our annual parade.

Some blew their whistles like football referees. Others walked back and forth shouting ‘Si se puede!’, (Yes, we can). Before long, there was no place to park on the corner parking lot and the overflow began to park on Kern Avenue. Many folks were dressed in psychedelic clothes.

Later that morning, my parents drove my brother, Oscar, and me near my school on Dozier Street.

I stood in front of Our Lady of Soledad Elementary School dressed in my school uniform and Oxford shoes and waited my turn to walk in the parade. I could hear the chit-chattering of fellow students, nuns, priest, parents and friends of the community carrying on. It was a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon. Birds flew above us and echoes of neighboring family dogs filled the air. Dozier Street filled with students and community activists putting the final touches on posters of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Viva La Raza! Ranchero music blasted from nearby homes, friends and neighbors exchanged hugs, kisses on the cheek, and high fives as the crowds grew.

It was then that I turned to my left and saw, a few feet away, the man whose picture I was coloring that week in my Social Studies class. He was watching the folks of East Los Angeles with a big smile on his face. I walked over to him and felt as though we were alone on the street. He smiled at me. I said hello and asked him if he was the man who helped people who worked in the fields.

The first time I had heard of Cesar Chavez and his farm workers movement was in my seventh-grade social studies class that year. In my home in East Los Angeles, we knew of people who worked the fields; however, we never spoke of them or the movement. We lived in a neighborhood that was mostly Mexican-American, with a sprinkle of non-Latinos, including our landlord, who was a generous and sweet Jewish Godfather figure to us.

Our home was known as the Kool-Aid house, since many neighborhood kids gathered regularly to play in our backyard, eat from the various fruit trees, and enjoy a glass of Kool- Aid. We were very poor and our backyard was much larger than our humble little shack. Still, children’s laughter and mischief frequently made our backyard feel like a park. I was the youngest of four children and the only girl, so building go carts, playing cowboys and Indians, and sports came easily.

Mrs. Cordero was the teacher who helped me discover the joy for learning. She was a slender Chicana, about six feet tall with cinnamon eyes, a sweet spirit and a heart of gold. Her kindness sweetened my life since I was terribly bullied at home and at school. In her class, we colored the grapes and strawberries of the fields from the San Joaquin Valley up north. We colored his blue jeans, white rolled-up shirt and cowboy hat. He was surrounded by trees, flowers, with a background filled with hills and valleys of strawberry fields and grapevines. The campesino men and women were working the fields, while the children played.

Farm work had touched my life in a big way, though I lived in East Los Angeles.

My father, Jose Manriquez, was part of the Bracero workforce established by a treaty between the United States and Mexico during World War II, allowing American growers to legally contract with Mexicans to come north and work the fields. In 1958, he made his way from Mexicali to Calexico, then Salinas and Fresno. For months at a time, he picked, pulled and sacked load after load of fruits and vegetables for hours under a relentless sun. He was one of hundreds of pickers surviving on ninety cents an hour and ten cents for each basket they picked.

I was three years old when we immigrated with him to the Central Valley — Bakersfield, I think. I remember playing in the fields. I could smell the sweet strawberries he picked, as my mouth watered. I felt as though I was swimming in an ocean of forest green. While pickers were busy filling their strawberry crates, I made my way to my father’s side, pulling my half-filled box of strawberries. He gave me a smile that burst with pride.

Soon after, we moved down to East Los Angeles where my father found work at Farmer John’s meat factory and washing cars with my uncle Horace at Pac Bell. He later worked in a foundry for fifteen years. My mother was an educated woman from Mexico who spoke no English but wanted an education for her children. “We didn’t come to America to work in fields,” she told my father. Moving to the city made a big difference in our education, our friends, and our neighborhood.

However, like veterans of war who don’t share too much about the horrors they’ve seen, my father was a warrior of the fields. He didn’t like to talk about the rodents and snakes in the fields climbing up his legs, or when growers didn’t pay him. He preferred to forget all the days with no food breaks, no drinking water, and the pain in his body that came with the job. So we never spoke of farm work, or the movement that was then gaining strength, or Cesar Chavez – which is why I didn’t know much about the man I met in the street that afternoon.

But when I approached and asked if he was the one who helped people, he said, gently, yes.

How do you know, I asked, that you are doing the right thing when you are helping people?

“It feels good in here,” he said, looking down at me, and he pointed to his heart.

Blinded By The Light

My heart pounded as I walked into the fire circle. One hundred and fifty firewalkers were chanting and jumping in unison, trance-like, preparing to make the 10-second trek over the hot embers. I was not walking, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Ondrej had decided to go for it.

We had met the previous year at a painting retreat in the village of Lažánky, in the green rolling hills of Southern Moravia. I was there at the invitation of the Iranian Sufi painter, Rassouli, with whom I had studied in Los Angeles; he was taking a small group of students on an artist’s journey through Vienna and Prague. I was fully immersed in growing my company; my life had become reduced to my workload. I needed a break.

Ondrej and I spoke only briefly that first night in Lažánky, but his impeccable, British-accented English, and his warmth and humor swept me off my feet. I watched him paint the next day, his nose inches from the canvas. Over the next four days we chatted frequently, discussing the joys and frustrations of painting. There was a buzz in the air when we were near each other; his otherworldliness fascinated me. At the end of the retreat, he joined our group on the bus ride back to Prague. We exchanged phone numbers and said we’d keep in touch since I had planned an extra week in Prague on my own.

A few days later we met at an Azerbaijani restaurant for our first date. We feasted on lamb and mutton spiced with cinnamon and coriander, grilled eggplant and tomatoes, fresh herbs, smoked cheese, olives, yogurt, and beer. Ecstatic and full, we walked the streets of Prague engrossed in intimate conversation. Iconic statues of saints watched over us. We held hands, surrounded by centuries of history and architectural eye-candy at every corner.

He was leaving in a few days for his holiday to a hot springs resort in Slovakia along the Hungarian border, and asked if I’d join him. I hesitated. My dating woes had kept me comfortably single. He left, while I took my time to think it over. I had planned four more days in Prague, alone, to roam the streets, experience Kafka, hit some museums and cemeteries, and then return to Vienna for more of the same before leaving for L.A.

Instead, after two days of trekking in the rain through Prague on my own – in the worst storm of the century – letting my intuition guide me, I acquiesced, realizing I had fallen in love at first sight with a partially blind man.

Ondrej picked me up at the train station in Sturovo. The lovely mineral springs made up for the post-Soviet dreary architecture of this blue-collar resort town. We tested the waters over the next four days to see how we’d get along; floating in our birthday suits in warm bathing pools, making love, traveling to Budapešt, sitting on the Danube riverbank, and drinking wine with his friends, including a young woman who interpreted at the painting retreat.

Ondrej made the journey back to Vienna with me. We parted, promising we’d see each other again.

Once back in L.A., we communicated through daily emails and a couple of calls every week on Skype. We learned a lot about each other in ways not common to couples falling in love who can see each other whenever they want. There were no physical distractions; our conversations were deep, our emails voluminous. He was my Czech prince, and I became his American queen. Our future together was unfolding. High on love, we even spoke about purchasing a house together in Costa Rica. We started making plans to see each other again.

Four months later, with work in tow, I returned to Prague for six weeks where we’d try living together, but this time in his tiny studio apartment. The new bedroom city of Černy Most where he lived consisted of boxy, brightly colored apartments, a sparkling mall, a Costco-type store, Ikea, and thankfully a subway line where we could escape into Old Town in 15 minutes. While devoid of the magic and beauty known to Prague, it was still our haven; we got a taste of what it was like being together in close quarters.

We traveled to meet Ondrej’s family, and to get his mom’s blessing. Only seven years older than me, she was a retired accountant, a traditional woman having lived her adult life wedged between God and communist hardliners. She was concerned about our age difference, but was relieved once she and I met. I was immersing into Ondrej’s world, hell-bent on learning Czech, though my brain, mouth and tongue struggled to pronounce its alien sounds.

It seemed crazy, especially the 6,000-mile void between us. It was my nature to go against the grain with relationships, but the 18-year age difference was a generation apart. What would Freud say? My oldest son, Sergio, was Ondrej’s age. I also struggled with people constantly staring at us, especially the day a young group of kids snapped shots of us on a subway in Prague.

Ten days later Ondrej crossed the pond for a three-month stay in L.A. He was a world traveler, but the U.S. was never on his list. In communist Czechoslovakia, the grinding propaganda machine against the U.S. was ever-present. On our side of the globe, Soviet bombs were always a threat. I grew up learning to “duck and cover” to protect myself from the “Red under the bed” menace that always lurked in the dark. Luckily, neither of us carried any nation-state baggage into adulthood.

Adapting to a new environment takes great effort for a blind person. Unlike in Prague, if he wanted to venture off on his own, public transport was cumbersome. My older Craftsman house was cold compared to the warm central heating of his comfy studio apartment. The strain of speaking English non-stop with no one around to chat with in Czech took its toll. He missed the safety net of his close-knit group of friends that he’d spent years building, especially his personal assistant who helped him shop or with whom he could meet for a beer.

We spent time at the beach, hiking in the mountains, traveling to the desert, and dining with friends. But we also had to work. We comfortably shared my upstairs office. He continued earning his living virtually for a Prague Geo-tech engineering firm. My research business kept me computer-bound for a good portion of his visit. Even though our cyber work circumstances allowed us freedom to be together, we were stressed. My friends and family embraced Ondrej – they were genuinely happy for us. Everything on the surface appeared right, yet there was a nagging undercurrent.

We were both against the idea of marriage. Initially, it was not a consideration. He had been in a 10-year relationship, and deemed marriage unnecessary. I was twice divorced. Though the emotional strain was evident between us, he proposed at a friend’s Christmas party, on a balcony overlooking L.A. Live in downtown. Blinded by the glaring neon lights in the background, I had to think about it. Even with our doubts and difficulties, Ondrej insisted I purchase my plane ticket for another Prague Spring adventure.

Thirteen months into the relationship, the distance and expense was getting to us. This was my third trip to the Czech Republic. The tension escalated just as we arrived for the highly anticipated four-day tantric “Art of Being” festival, where the fire walk took place. The countryside setting seemed an idyllic place for us to reconnect and solidify our intentions. Instead, Ondrej suddenly decided he couldn’t leave his bachelor lifestyle; the sting of yet another failed relationship distressed me to no end.

But the fire walk tipped the scales; the prince slayed the dragon, the queen woke from her sleep.

Two months later we were married in L.A. Surrounded by close family, a sweet and peaceful ceremony took place at the Self Realization Fellowship, Hollywood Temple. A short honeymoon up to the Santa Ynez wine country, followed by a celebration with 60 close friends in our backyard, sealed the deal.

As a youth, there had been intermittent flashes of California Dreamin’ in the back of Ondrej’s mind. I was always in awe of a country that had a playwright for a president. L.A. is where we call home for the time being; Ondrej’s green card just came in the mail.

It couldn’t have been any other way. Even before meeting Ondrej, I was painting faces with one eye.

Every Day I Love You More

The rhythm of drums. Our assigned section was at the bottom tier of the eastern wall. Three-foot-tall metal rails divided the area. From afar, arriving fans resembled ants marching to war as they scurried to fill every crevice of the stadium. Some fans stood, others leaned against the rails. Everyone locked arms and chanted, undulating like an ocean. The ceremony had begun.

La Bombonera is the nickname given to the stadium in Argentina that houses the team known as Boca Juniors. It resembles a box of chocolate, a beautiful mass of concrete bathed in blue and gold. My abuelita Maria Luisa introduced me to the sport of fútbol when I was seven. I have been a fan of the sport since then. I heard about Boca Juniors during the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States. Boca was an Argentinian powerhouse that produced legend Diego Maradona. We watched every game of the World Cup that year in the living room of her house. Although I did not understand what I watched, I was mesmerized by the graceful playmaking and precision passing of the ball. Now I stood in a fútbol stadium at last.

Streamers and confetti rained from the top tiers. Massive banners hung from the highest point of the stadium and reached the bottom of the stands. Shirtless fans brandished blue and gold flags. Others tied bandanas around their mouths and straddled the fifteen-foot gate that enclosed the field intended to protect the players. The smoke from the flares created a blanket over every seat in the stadium. Fans simulated the throwing of an axe when they sang. In a chopping motion, they opened and closed their fists in unison with the boom of the drums.

“Cada día te quiero más,” they chanted.

Every day I love you more.

The stadium erupted as players walked onto the field. Fans distributed Roman candles and gave one to my friend Román. Awaking from a trance, Román reached into his pocket and grabbed a lighter. He raised his right arm and shot six bursts of light into the sky. Men waved smoke bombs and flares that colored the sky blue and gold. The stadium was deafening. Fans never stopped chanting.

In Argentina, fútbol feels like religion and we wanted to experience the ritual of a live Boca Juniors match. By the summer of 2009, Román and I had saved enough money to visit Buenos Aires for two weeks.

Days before the game Román and I walked up Avenida de Mayo and came across a small Italian restaurant. It was well lit and deserted. The windows were outlined with wooden shutters that allowed light to seep through and spill onto the street. Wooden chairs were scattered throughout the small room. A chandelier illuminated the turquoise walls of the restaurant.

The barkeep polished wine glasses behind a wooden counter. He wore a grey flat cap and tight suspenders that nervously clung onto his waistband. The waiter rushed inside the kitchen and emerged with two glasses and bottled water.

“Welcome to my restaurant Limi-t Cervecería Bar. My name is Alejo. Where are you from?”

“East Los Angeles, California.”

Alejo walked to the back of the restaurant. He came back wearing a red and black-checkered flannel buttoned at the top, red bandana, and dark shades. He squared his shoulders, leaned back, and slowly walked across the bar. He tugged at his pants until they sank below his waist.

Órale vatos!” he growled.

We laughed. I asked him, “Sir, do you know how we can get tickets to go see Boca Juniors?”

“Only club members can purchase tickets to La Bombonera.”

Alejo took out a business card and snatched the waiter’s pen from his apron.

“But call this number and ask for Manuel. Tell him I sent you.”

We did. Manuel told us to meet him on the side of the stadium forty-five minutes before kickoff. He waited by a food stand and wore a Boca Juniors jersey. The numbers were cracked and the jersey faded. Only the colors of the jersey were intact. We got our tickets and walked through “El Caminito,” a colorful path through La Boca barrio, near the same shipping dock where Boca Juniors adopted the team colors from a Swedish ship that docked at the River Plata over a century ago.

As we walked, Buenos Aires underwent a metamorphosis. Frail homes replaced the tall buildings of the city. Houses were strung together along a cobblestone path and the sound of children’s feet replaced the clatter of men and women’s dress shoes from the city. The home stood next to businesses and together they formed an ocean of blue, turquoise, green, yellow, red, and orange. Their paint was crusted. Sheets of corrugated metal decorated the roofs and windows of several buildings. Shop owners proudly displayed blue and gold flags outside their doors and hung scarves that read, “Xeneizes”, in honor of the Genovese immigrants that established the barrio in the early twentieth century.

The streets pulsed with tourists and tango. Street vendors displayed art on canvases while couples danced cheek to cheek. Life size dolls of famous Argentines waved from the balcony of a two-story building: revolutionary Ernesto “Ché” Guevara, First Lady Evita Perón, tango singer Carlos Gardel and fútbol deity Diego Armando Maradona. People roamed the streets. The sound of booming drums and crying trumpets was deafening.

La Bombonera was their sanctuary, and a shrine in the world theology of fútbol. The club brought prosperity to its faithful followers. Fans invested time into the team season after season, meeting on Sundays to watch players act out the dreams of the poor. Boca Juniors revealed that it was greater than the eleven players that took the field every Sunday. Fans subscribed to the sport because it gave them something to believe in. La Boca was who they were and where they wanted to be.

We sat on slabs of concrete beneath the visitors’ stands and directly across from La Doce or The 12th player, a section reserved for the club’s most devout fans. This division was the heart of the stadium. With an arsenal of trumpets, tubas, cymbals, and bass drums, La Doce played with a fury.

Gimnasia scored the opening goal eleven minutes into the first half. La Bombonera cried in agony. Fans cursed the player who scored the goal as he ran across the field with arms outstretched, ready to transcend into heaven. Men all around me buried their faces in their hands. You could feel the wound. Yet the fans carried on as deafening booms rang from La Doce.

Boca tied the game and the stadium erupted. Forty-six thousand people rose to their feet in unison. The sound was white noise. Fans twirled their shirts over their heads. Others fervently kissed the crest on their jersey. One fan had the Boca Juniors crest tattooed on his entire back, and that included thirty stars on the shield paying homage to the thirty domestic championships the team has won. His group all bared Boca tattoos on their forearms, calves, wrists, and neck. Some had Boca tattoos over their hearts.

Soon after, however, Gimnasia scored again. Fans hung their heads in defeat. They shook their heads in disbelief at the thought of losing. But they remained faithful, urgently cheering their team on. Finally, though, time ran out. Boca Juniors lost 2-1. Yet even then, fans continued to chant. Aficionados embraced one another and sang,

Voz sos la razón de mi existir”.

You are the reason why I exist.

Police in riot gear detained the crowds as we exited. For forty minutes we stayed penned in a tunnel. The echoes from La Doce were relentless and reverberated throughout the stadium.

I was peering over the crowd, trying to understand why we weren’t moving, when a man said, “The visiting fans are escorted first. It wouldn’t benefit them if they left last.”

Though Gimnasia committed the sin of winning the game, our pilgrimage was complete.

GO! GO! GO!

I’m about the 10th jumper, and we had been trained to push the guy ahead of us, so everybody is pushing and shuffling to the door and yelling. Then we all go flying out and I started counting. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand. On the fourth beat I got the tug of my parachute inflating. So I looked up and there it was, fully inflated. I was floating and yelled out “Geronimo!” as my squad floated down around me.

It was 1974; I was 19 and straight out of East L.A. from the biggest varrio at the time: the Varrio Nuevo Estrada Dukes.

I had been arrested at the end of 1973 for assault and battery. I got caught beating up a kid in Montebello Park. I was loaded on reds and alcohol when the cops came around the corner and saw me fighting with the kid. I was hitting him with a branch of a tree, so I was facing a felony that I wasn’t going to beat.

On top of that, I was already on probation for under the influence, possession, and suspicion of sales of barbiturates (a.k.a. reds), so my probation officer recommended me for military service. It was looking like Uncle Sam’s army or Folsom Prison.

I went to the recruiter’s office. He told me about the 82nd Airborne and right there, suddenly, I wanted so badly to wear that famous maroon beret.

I thought I would look sharp with spit shine boots and the blue infantry rope and the French forager. It was the Vietnam era, and I was that rare thing – a volunteer. I knew when I signed up that it was like signing a death warrant. But I wanted to belong to the best airborne division, America’s guard of honor. The other division, the All-Americans, the 101st Airborne, had been wiped out in Vietnam and they were becoming an airmobile unit.

Deep down, I wondered if I had it in me to jump. I needed to know if I could go through it. I had once vowed I would die for the varrio, but unlike if I were to die for the varrio, I imagined that my family would be proud of me dying for the country. My cholo mentality was gone. I was going to serve for God, country, and honor, and I felt like a lean mean killing machine.

It took three weeks to prepare me to jump. As soon as I got off the bus the black caps were all over us, yelling at us, calling us dirty legs. I was in for three weeks of hell. I didn’t walk during the training. I ran. We ran everywhere. During the second week we ran four miles every day, and on the final week – jump week – we ran five miles to the airfield, then we climbed into the iron bird.

Inside the C-130 airplane, I was still cool, calm, and collected. But when the bird took off and we were high in the air, the green light went on and I started praying. Something like, “Heavenly father, hear my call for through the sky I will soon fall.”

The commands started.

“Stand up!”

I stood, hooked up and I shuffled to the door. I was praying hard by then. “For Your will, nothing less, nothing more.”

Then out I went. I heard the wind all around me. It was quiet. I saw the trucks and trees below, and they looked small. I was nervous but those crucial four seconds were the most important in my life up to then.

It felt great coming down. I was in God’s front yard. I steered my chute to the right, left, to the front, and back. Some guys were yelling but I couldn’t tell what they were saying. I felt as if I was riding a giant swing – a natural high. I felt closer to God’s house.

Then the ground started getting bigger. It was the greatest five minutes of my life, and maybe the scariest. I readied myself as the ground approached. Then I hit it, and I flipped to the side, my chute dragged me for a bit, and I got up and collapsed it.

I had done it! And I liked it. I knew that I only had four more jumps to go to earn my wings. I ran for the rest of that day’s training.

The next three day’s were similar. On Friday, we ran five miles to our last jump, and graduated later that afternoon. I had my wings and was on our way to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne and the Green Berets.

How I wished that my mom could have made my graduation. I received my wings on my uniform over my chest, where they seeped into my heart. It was the proudest day in my life up to that time.

I came home looking sharp in my uniform, feeling I had conquered fear. I was afraid of nothing. I wanted to go to the front lines and fight for country, honor, and duty.

I was once a proud member of one of the largest gangs in Los Angeles. Now I was a paratrooper from East L.A.

The Homecoming

Her hand trembled as she held up the keys to my new home.

She placed them in my hand and clasped her fragile fingers over mine. Her grasp was tighter than I expected. She looked into my eyes and smiled. With that, Nellie Leal transferred her estate to me: a 1912 Craftsman house in East L.A.

She was widowed. Her husband, Charles, had died of Parkinson’s, she explained. She also had this affliction. Mr. Leal was an accountant. He had grown up in East L.A. He worked for a company, but prepared taxes on the side. Mr. Leal, known to many as “Charlie,” was trusted in the neighborhood for his knowledge of tax law.

So now, at age 28, I was moving into my first “real” home. From kindergarten until college, I had lived in government housing we called Maravilla, about half a mile away. The Nueva Maravilla Housing Projects were reconstructed in the late 1970s and consisted of about 500 housing units. The projects were divided into colonias: Colonia de las Palmas, Pinos, Magnolias, Cedros and Rosas. We lived in Las Palmas, in a row of seven houses, lined up side by side along a fire road that led to Brooklyn Avenue, now Avenida Cesar Chavez, across from Belvedere Park.

Maravilla afforded a family of six inexpensive living, in a two-story house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a laundry room. At age five, I was happy to have graduated from a cramped apartment to a house with a front and back yard, albeit small, in the projects. As I grew older, though, the noise from the adjoining units became louder. The rules, established at the outset, which were frequently modified, reminded us we could never get too comfortable there. Annual housing inspections were mandatory. Privileges, such as flower beds below our living room window, could be stripped at any time. Safety concerns – drugs or weapons stashed in the flowers – overrode aesthetics. My mother, who has a green thumb I long to inherit, valiantly razed the gardenias, petunias and bushes we planted. We went along with the program. Maravilla holds many memories, many of them good, but early on, it also made me want my own place.

The 2001 meeting between Mrs. Leal and me was set up by the realtors. It was not typical for a buyer to meet a seller, they said, but I gladly accepted Mrs. Leal’s invite. The contract to purchase the house was complete, but I was still nervous about the interview. I dressed conservatively and pulled back my hair, so that my sometimes unruly curls would not distract them. The butterflies of a first date consumed me. What if they didn’t like me?

I walked up the sloped entry of the property onto a long driveway. I climbed the wide steps onto the porch and opened the front door of heavy oak, adorned with six squares of beveled glass. Mrs. Leal was already there with two of her five children and a teenage grandson. She was in her late 70s, petite with straight grey hair and fair skin. We chatted in the large living room with high ceilings, wooden beams and molding. In the study set off from the living room, her daughters showed me the desk where their father prepared taxes. The desk opened out and had compartments for envelopes and stationery, and a built-in pencil sharpener.

“We always said a lawyer should live here,” said the older daughter, Bernadette, “that this could be their office.”

“We use to have huge parties and the DJ would set up right here,” said the youngest daughter, Adelina.

A large, ornate mirror hung on the wooden panels of the study. That was not part of the sale, according to the instructions.

“You can keep it,” Mrs. Leal said.

We continued into the elegant dining room, also with wooden beams and a large buffet. The adjoining kitchen, separated from the dining room by a wall, had been remodeled. They had wanted to expand it and build a breakfast nook. Never enough money. A low-interest community loan had recently paid for paving the driveway and upgrading the plumbing and electricity. The driveway was a dusty road before that and turned to mud when it rained.

Mrs. Leal opened the French doors into the bedrooms, and showed me hers, the corner one. We lingered. She spoke of the “santos” she kept in the bedroom. That later became my room and now it is our guest room. The claw-foot bathtub of the main bathroom was replaced with a modern tub and shower and was moved to the backyard by the Leals. I have since given it away.

We strolled outside, along the driveway lined with pastel roses. Mrs. Leal was from Arizona and grew up speaking both English and Spanish, but she expressed herself excitedly in Spanish when she saw her roses. “Mis rosales,” she said softly as she caressed the petals. “No, tus rosales,” she said, looking up to me. “No, nuestros rosales,” I assured her, holding her hand over the rose. Tears welled in her eyes.

This house — more than 2000 square feet — had been moved from Beverly Hills in two pieces by the prior owner. They called him Mr. Colberg. It used to be a seminary, one of the daughters said. “We have old photos,” said Adelina, promising to give them to me.

Mrs. Leal was moving to Long Beach with Adelina, whose nickname “Lina” is engraved in the driveway concrete. Lina provided me with a forwarding address, and I sent mail there for the first few months. After that, we lost touch.

I recently found Lina online. I called her and we spoke excitedly about the house. She said that she and her sisters still pass by on occasion. I told her that they were always welcome to visit. Lina recalled our meeting years before. She had been worried about her mother’s state of mind about selling the house.

“She changed completely after meeting you,” Lina said.

She was surprised her mother had decided to leave the mirror, a wedding anniversary gift, to me.

Throughout the past thirteen years, people have come looking for the Leals, some recalling this house full of life and Mrs. Leal bringing out plates of homemade cookies. Others remember going there for business with their grandparents, to meet with Mr. Leal. It was the house where everyone gathered for family events, Lina recently told me.

A couple of years ago, in a dusty basement of an L.A. county records office, I searched through huge books containing property tax rolls. For almost 50 years, the signatures of either Charles or Nellie Leal were on the thin, long sheets, and before them, Frank Colberg. I made it as far back as 1918, but the records stopped there. That was probably the year the house was moved to East L.A. It could be from Beverly Hills or, more likely, the Adams District, Santa Monica or Pasadena, where I have seen similar homes. The clerk in the basement suggested I go to the building department in El Monte to investigate further. I will at some point.

This October, it will be fourteen years since I met Mrs. Leal. In that time, many have lived with me temporarily – a sister, a nephew, and friends. My parents were supposed to move in, but decided their needs were better met in senior housing. They live a few minutes away.

This house truly became home with my husband, who put in elbow grease to bring out the original woodwork, our chocolate lab, and now our 4-year old boy who has free reign of the place. There’s lots of space, inside and out, for running, playing, dancing, and gathering with family and friends.

About ten years ago, a woman sitting next to me on an airplane and I exchanged stories about our L.A. upbringings. When describing the house to her, I drew it on a cocktail napkin.

“It’s a sanctuary,” she stated, as I finished the sketch.

“Yes,” I responded in silent surprise.

I learned from a neighbor that Mrs. Leal died a few years after the move.

But I never did change the black mailbox on the sloped entry to the home where the Leal name, while faded, remains.

Strong Arms

I was born in Los Angeles, California. My mother was not.

Fifteen hundred miles from Los Angeles, as a pajaro flies, about halfway between Quiroga and Zacapu along Federal Highway 15 in the Mexican state of Michoacán, is the small village of Caratacua. With a hundred residents, it is no more than a brief rest stop on any traveler’s journey.

There is not much to catch the eye of a passerby, except for, perhaps, the fields of wild, pink mirasol flowers. But to me it is a crib of history, the family ranch, on a gently sloping hill beneath an old Jacaranda tree where my grandmother and my mother were born.

My grandfather, Papá Chuché, and my grandmother, Mamá Lola, started a family on that ranch, known as “Xaratanga.” It was named for the Moon Goddess of the ancient Purhépecha people, who inhabit the region and sprung from her seeds. It is where my grandmother resides today at more than 100 years of age.

Papá Chuché, a distinguished-looking man, lived into his nineties. He had a wandering spirit, and made a lifetime of treks into the U.S. He first entered the country under the Bracero program, picking Washington watermelons and Calexico cotton, but eventually he traveled all over the border states.

With each trip north, he left behind a bigger family in Mexico. They didn’t want him to go. But they needed money and when the dollar beckoned, he went, like so many others. Each time he came home our grandmother would exclaim with joy – her pajaro, like a hardy bird on a north-and-south flyaway, had returned to her again.

My mother is the oldest of nine surviving children of Mamá Lola. A sister, Delia, died at one year old from complications of dehydration, but really from the lack of medical care then in rural Mexico.

From Xaratanga my mother watched her father go. She felt deeply attached to Papá Chuché, loved him dearly, and suffered from his departures, if only to herself. Why he left them for months at a time, she did not understand. Yet she clung to the vision of seeing him return once more from each trip, bearing gifts. When he came, she would rush into his strong arms.

As a child in Xaratanga, feminine clothing caught her eye: garbs of cinnabar, flowery frills, and tender textures. But she would never ask for them. How could she? On the ranch, life was hard; fashion was an unspoken aspiration. Still, Papá Chuché managed to come home from his trips with at least one new dress, a shiny piece of jewelry, or a roll of fabric to set free her imagination.

Each gift, like the red dress he brought her once, was special and made her happy. She reveled in the intricacies and colors of the cloth he carried back for his little girl. That ritual came to be consolation for her father’s recurring abandonments, and part of the fascination with the country that lured him from her.

She still spontaneously mutters, “Cómo recuerdo un vestido rojo de pana que me trajo mi papá!”

There was one gift he brought at times, however, that was never for her: big, odd-looking suitcases. Those went to her mother and with her they remained at the ranch to this day, along with a special sewing machine.

For four years, when she was older, my mother went to the neighboring town of Pátzcuaro to study dressmaking, and learned complex embroideries, “canastillas de bebé” for newborns, and myriad other ways to turn fabric to fashion.

Yet as her father, a veritable charro, mounted his horse and rode away to El Norte again and again, his absence dug a hole deeper than any well outside the village.

Some of his children cried. Some drank. As the eldest child, and a girl, my mother could do neither. Instead, she sang. My mother loved music. When her feelings were strong, her singing was stronger. To this day, the words of the singer Cuco Sánchez fill her home: “Anoche estuve llorando, horas enteras, pensando en ti… Después me quedé dormido y en ese sueño logré tenerte en mis brazos… ”

Other times her grief found comfort in her mother’s cooking. Capirotada de pan Comanjo, torejas con dulce, and sopa de habas frescas.

When Papá Chuché was home, the feasting was special. He was a hunter with a .22-caliber rifle who’d set off into the hills surrounding the ranch in search of game, her younger brothers tagging along. Hunting was not something a girl did – but she would wait for him at the edge of the ranch atop a stone fence. Then he’d faithfully reappear with the boys, an armadillo, taquache, or zorillo swinging in hand.

The glittering hills surrounding the ranch on a clear moonlit night beneath a blanket of stars made Xaratanga appear a magical place. Sometimes at night when her father was away in the North my mother’s grandmother, mother of Papá Chuché, would call her to the patio of the ranch house at bedtime. They would hook their arms together. The old lady would face El Norte, raise a hand and make the sign of the cross, blessing her son – “que Dios lo bendiga …”

During one such magical night as a little girl, my mother heard the sound of the ears of corn brushing against each other, and saw the tassels of the corn swaying in the wind, as if waving her onward. She promised that night to God and herself, she tells me now, that one day she would go.

In time, my mother came to loathe her life on the ranch. “No hay vida,” she would say to herself.

There was plenty of work, but none that paid. Her chores were unending. Her arms ached. Even the name of the village – Caratacua – she despised. It was the word for a weed common to the area. The branches of the caratacua were bound and made into brooms for girls to use in their sweeping. She tired of the endless sweeping the rocks from around the ranch house.

Every Saturday, by 6 a.m., she’d pack a burro heavily with dirty laundry and trek several miles downhill to the local springs. On her hands and knees, she would find a suitable rock and scrub laundry against it for the rest of the day. She’d wash each piece and lay it out. By sunset, she’d fold each piece, now dry, and bundle it back onto the burro. The only thing that made her forget her aching arms were her legs as she made her way back up the hill.

My mother would help prepare and carry meals out to her brothers who were harvesting corn in the fields. Like her mother, she’d sling a big basket, a “chunde,” filled with tortillas, beans, nopales, and other favorites, onto her shoulder to take to the hungry boys who from age six learned to work the fields from dawn to sunset. After the meal, the chunde would be filled with the fresh corn. To this day, her love of Mexican corn on the cob, brushed with melted butter and sprinkled with chili powder, cotija cheese, and lime juice, remains.

Still the village could just as easily have been named “Piedras,” she thought. There were so many rocks. The fields were covered with rocks, on the surface and below ground. Some spots were so fertile that anything would grow. But in many places the rocks beneath would impede any root trying to take hold – the legacy of volcanic activity across the eons.

When my mother was a teenager, Petronila and Genaro, longtime neighbors from an adjacent ranch, left in search of work, never to return. So did others. The lifeblood of Xaratanga slowly bled out.

So, the stories her father told of life in the U.S. mesmerized her. She imagined riches for the taking. How wonderful must be this place, California, to prompt a man to leave his family, she thought. There, she was sure, she could buy herself a home in a big city, and a little green car to drive around in forever.

She let herself believe it was so. It was easy to do. Papá Chuché was such a positive man in a trying world, chronically genial.

“Solo los pendejos andan triste,” he would say. Only idiots go around sad.

She longed to find out for herself. She was the eldest child, a woman, and expected to work to help her mother to support her younger siblings. But she needed more than just being needed.

Then one day she remembered her vow and quietly left it all. She walked away in the early morning, aided in her escape only by a younger brother, who promised his silence out of deference to the sister who raised him.

My mother had kept in touch occasionally with a cousin, Victoria, who lived in California and who had once invited her to visit. She pawned her beloved Singer sewing machine and boarded a bus bound for Barstow, buoyed by the hope that her cousin would welcome her. She didn’t tell her cousin she was coming. She’d be there faster than any letter.

When she arrived, however, she learned Victoria had died a few months before of leukemia. My mother pondered her dilemma that first hot night in Barstow. She knew she could not stay now. There was no work in Barstow for her. Her cousin’s family let her stay for the night. But what then? Return to Xaratanga empty handed?

That night, as she fell asleep, she remembered her father telling her stories of a great garment industry in Los Angeles.

With her strong arms, she hugged herself, cuddled into her cousin’s sofa, and imagined the fashion that a dressmaker could create with all the cotton her father had picked.