Bird of Paradise flower in full bloom, photo by Ken Wolter
Rinconcito is a special little corner in Somos en escrito for short writings: a single poem, a short story, a memoir, flash fiction, and the like.
Forever Home by Lilia Marotta
Home is not always where you hang your hat as it is said. Sometimes home is where you grew up as a child. Other times home is the place you raised your own children. Perhaps home is neither, but a place that you visited during your childhood years. A place where your family roots are embedded in the soil, intertwined with tradition and cultures of those who spread their wings and flew to another land. A small island caught between the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea whose people call to you in your dreams.
Throughout the years, I have had many different homes. I left my mother's apartment at an early age to live with my boyfriend at the time. A year later when it didn't work out, I lived alone, then with a roommate and alone again. Until eventually I married and moved from Chicago to New Jersey. During that time my mother remained in her three-bedroom apartment filled with memories, great food and many plants. I often visited my mother in my childhood home throughout the years especially when I lived only a couple of blocks away.
Now married with a family of my own, we plan a trip to visit the island once called Borinquen. The fear of flying and the expense of the flights make these trips few and far between, however when the decision is made and the time has come, it is greeted with much anticipation. The plans of where we will take the children sightseeing, whom we will visit and what we need for the trip consume the days prior. Calls are made to the extended family on the island and ideas are exchanged, the excitement is palpable. Our kids try to recall the names of their aunts, uncles and cousins based on their prior visits. They never forget Aunt Vicky and Uncle Jorge whom we've stayed with in the past and spoiled the kids during that stay, ensuring that they will not be forgotten. The many cousins become confusing. However they cannot wait to eat the non-traditional spaghetti that my aunt makes. For me, it is the traditional food my Aunt Margarita cooks in her home. Just the thought of her brings back the smell of arroz con gandules and pulled chicken with authentic spices, making my mouth water.
Boarding the plane, I recall the nervous energy my mother used to have and how I inherited her fear of flying. The mornings of those years past when she would spill her café, drop items and lose her temper before a flight, all symptoms of her anxiety. Yet, it was never a deterrent for getting us there every year. As I try to appear brave before my children, I quietly pray the rosary from the moment my feet move me onto the plane until we land with a few distractions in between. Sitting on the plane in those moments of being transported through the air from one home to another, I wonder how things have changed since I was last there. Flying seems to bend the time, in some ways I expect everyone to be as I last left them, but know that isn't so. One year when I visited I was surprised to find one of my cousins was bald. Apparently not something that made the weekly phone conversations.
The kids eagerly watch as the plane ascends into the air and four hours later, clap the moment the wheels touch the ground. While they are being entertained with numerous movies on their electronic devices, I try my best not to focus on the flight itself but the destination. Memories flow of conversations with my cousins when we were teenagers hanging out on the side of my grandmother's house; of sitting with my grandmother on her balcony shelling gandules while she told me stories; watching the mountainous views from the balcony; and going to bed at night listening to the coqui frogs under mosquito netting while my mother, sister and aunts all giggled about the events of the day. When the plane finally lands my tears spill over, as I not only feel relief for arriving safely, but jubilation at having returned.
When the doors open and we step off the plane my hair does what it always does, unforgivably curl no matter how hard I worked that morning to get it straightened. The humidity not only ensnarls my hair it gently kisses my skin. I inhale the scent of the island's indigenous Flamboyan trees and exotic plants, bringing me back to my youth and overwhelming me with emotion.
This trip is different from all others as I carry with me a plant from my mother's house to intern in this soil. A plant that she nurtured and flourished over the years in her home and unfortunately was not doing well in mine. A living reminder of the woman that once nurtured us both, that will take root in this soil and grow for years to come. On this trip I will be greeted by my extended family and will finally grieve with them the loss of my mother, their sister and family matriarch. My aunt and uncle wanted her buried on the island. But selfishly all I brought was a plant. The decision wasn't mine alone but we buried my mother where my siblings and I could visit her grave and where my mother had chosen to call home for 62 years.
Walking out of the airport the heat feels like a cloak over the island and a warm embrace that moves me to want to kiss the ground, because although I was not raised here it is good to be home. Even though, this is not where I reside, this feeling of connection and love will always make it feel like home. That is what my mother wanted for me and what I want for my children.
We planted my mother's Bird of Paradise in the dirt where my grandfather once grew sugar cane and let his goats roamed free. A sunny spot where my aunt can nurture it, so it can continue to grow and flourish, forever in Puerto Rico’s soil.
Lilia Marotta is a Chicago Native transplanted in New Jersey with roots from Puerto Rico.She is a DePaul University graduate who has written stories since she was 10 years old. She’s married, has three children and a dog.
How the Holiday Season is Changing the National Identities of Mexico and the U.S.
A postcard from Álvaro Ramírez
If you have traveled abroad lately, you may have noticed that national identities are becoming a bit vague. The cultural uniqueness that used to distinguish one nation from another has been quickly disappearing thanks to the accelerated pace of cultural contact brought about by globalization. Mexico and the USA illustrate this well as we go through the holiday season. Millions of Mexican immigrants, legal and undocumented, as well as tourism between both countries have created cultural contact zones unlike any in human history. As they have settled in these areas of the United States, Mexicans have adopted American habits even as they have maintained much of the cultural heritage they brought with them. For example, they love Thanksgiving turkey and on Black Friday you can find them shopping like crazy across the malls alongside Americans.
Ice skating rink in the Zócalo, Mexico City, December 29, 2016. Photo by BondRocketImages.
December, however, is a Mexican fiesta north of the border. Los americanos are growing accustomed to seeing and joining the solemn Virgen de Guadalupe celebrations around December 12th and breaking piñatas in the noisy, colorful Posadas on December 15th-24th. Moreover, Mexicans have fused seamlessly La Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) and Christmas Day, so they can have their tasty tamaladas and receive the birth of Jesus with tons of gifts the good old American way. As many Mexican immigrants return to visit family in Mexico, they bring along these new cultural customs, especially their sons and daughters who were born and raised in the United States. You can see the influence of these new cultural ways in small towns and cities across the country. Mexicans now have their Buen Fin, a clone of Black Friday, and on Thanksgiving more and more people are preparing a turkey dinner a la americana or go to restaurants that offer a similar menu. As for Santa Claus, Christmas trees and carols, they are the norm everywhere. It may seem strange, but in Mexico City and Cuernavaca, you can even go ice-skating downtown! You could say Cinco de Mayo was the first cultural celebration to bring Americans and Mexicans together, and that lately Día de los Muertos and Halloween have provided more cultural glue that binds people on both side of the border. But it is the long holyday season at the end of the year that is having the biggest impact on our identities and how we see ourselves in Mexico and the United States. Mexicans who visit the U.S. and Americans who travel to Mexico are bewildered by this turn of events. National identities may still be around, but the unique cultural elements that separated them are blending fast and, in some cases, disappearing and becoming a thing of the past.
Somos en escrito Literary Foundation Press published a compilation of Álvaro Ramírez’s observations on changing cultural traditions: Postcards from a PostMexican. Click the cover above or visit Amazon to buy a copy.
Álvaro Ramírez is from Michoacán, México. He migrated with his family to Ohio as an adolescent. He obtained a BA in Spanish and Education at Youngtown State University, and an MA and PhD in Literature from the University of Southern California. He has taught at various institutions including the University of Southern California, Occidental College, and California State University, Long Beach. Since 1993, he has worked at Saint Mary’s College of California where he is a Professor in the Department of World Languages and Cultures. He specializes in Spanish Golden Age and Latin American literature as well as Mexican Film and Chicano Cultural Studies. He also serves as Resident Director for the Saint Mary’s College Semester Program in Cuernavaca, México. In 2016, Prof. Ramírez published a collection of short stories, Los norteados, which received an Honorable Mention Award at the 2017 International Latino Book Awards. In addition, he has edited two online publications of Conference Proceedings: Imágenes de postlatinoamérica, volumen 1 (2018) and Imágenes de postlatinoamérica, volumen 2 (2019). He has also published articles on Don Quixote, Mexican film, and Chicano Studies in several academic journals.
Yalitza Aparicio as "Cleo" in Alfonso Cuarón film, "Roma"
In “Roma,” Cuarón returns to “Y tu mamá indígena también”
Two guest reviews of the Alfonso Cuarón film, “Roma”
First Review, by Álvaro Ramirez
There is a scene in Alfonso Cuarón's film “Y tu mamá También” where the protagonists, Tenoch, Julio, and Luisa are traveling through the Mexican countryside, oblivious to the campesino world passing outside their car window. Suddenly, the narrating voice interrupts the endless flirtations between the characters, as Tenoch looks at the town where his indigenous nanny comes from. Her name is Leo, and he called her “mother” until the age of four. In his mesmerizing new film, “Roma,” Cuarón returns to “Y tu mamá también” to pick up the story of these others, the indigenous mothers who raise the children of the middle class and rich Mexicans, a story that has yet to be fully explored in Mexican cinema. (Warning: MANY spoilers for “Roma” ahead!) Cuarón sets his story in 1970-1971 in the neighborhood of Mexico City called La Roma, and paints in black and white the parallel, everyday lives of a middle-class family and their indigenous servants. What is refreshing is that the director presents the story from the point of view of one of the maids, Cleo. As we follow her daily routine behind the scenes of family life, Cuarón takes us into the bilingual spaces where these invisible people forge the urban sustenance enjoyed by their white employers. Through great acting, directing, and camera work, Cuarón intricately weaves the lives of domestic workers with that of the family they serve, showing the class differences between them. At the same time, we note that they have much in common, especially Cleo and Sofía, the lady of the house: both women's lives begin to unravel after the men they love abandon them. Sofía is left with a family of unruly children and little money, and Cleo with an unwanted pregnancy. At first, a social distance that causes friction between them separates mistress and servant, but their trials and tribulations as abandoned women soon begin to bring them together. The personal struggles of the two women are subtly and symbolically set against scenes of the political and social upheaval that Mexico is also going through. “Siempre estamos solas” (we women are always on our own), says Sofía to Cleo in a pivotal scene, which emphasizes that sense of disruption, vulnerability, and violence present for all women in Mexico regardless of class or ethnicity, as depicted in this film. Cleo's situation, however, is further compounded by her indigenous background and uprooted existence; far from her village in the countryside, she is at the mercy of men and of her mistress as well. Forced by the circumstances, Cleo must choose whether to return to her native town, also beset by political turmoil, or confront her new urban reality and try to convince the father of her unborn child to marry her, but soon finds his more sinister side, which leads to a horrible experience and leaves her traumatized. Sofía and the children convince Cleo to make a trip with them to the beach in Veracruz, where she will have to confront once more a hard decision which will either redeem her or end disastrously. “Roma” goes beyond “Y tu mamá También” and is also far ahead of all the falsified female representations in telenovelas. It is a beautiful film that gives us a view of the social texture of a country in which the indigenous female strands are embedded and recognized for the important role they play in everyday life of the city. They are represented fully with an inner and outer existence, at work and at play, and with a complex intimate life. However, the success of “Roma” ultimately rests on Cuarón’s skillful film narrative, in which he shows that, despite class, social, or ethnic differences, indigenous and white Mexican women suffer similar fates at the hands of men; and that the survival of the family is not only dependent on the resilience and strength of females, but on their understanding of the human bonds that unify them.
Álvaro Ramírez, a native of Michoacán of Purépecha ancestry, has taught Spanish Golden Age and 20th Century Latin American Literature in the Department of Modern Languages at Saint Mary’s College of California, since 1993. At present he is also director of the Ethnic Studies Program. A scholar on the writings of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, essayist on Mexican culture and film and Chicano studies, he recently published a collection of short stories titled, Los Norteados (Ediciones Alfeízar, 2016) a couple of them first published in Somos en escrito.
Alfonso Cuarón and Yalitza Aparicio on the set of "Roma" Photo by Carlos Somonte
Cuarón’s “Roma,” a world of astounding diversity of indigenous stories
Second review, by David Martínez
Insofar as “Roma” is inspired by someone, Libo Rodriguez, who meant a great deal to the director, Alfonso Cuarón—she was the maid who raised him during his childhood in Mexico City—it is not surprising that the story of “Cleodegaria Gutiérrez,” who is affectionately called “Cleo,” and is played by the incredible Yalitza Aparicio, feels more like an act of veneration than merely a movie. Cuarón obviously wanted to honor the life of this woman in a way that did justice to both her character and her struggle by remembering cinematically her humanity in a world that largely overlooked people like herself.
As a Nahua-speaking indigenous person, Cleo is a part of the underclass of “Indios,” the poor, the peasants, whose ancient civilization has been appropriated into the national image of Mexico—such as the eagle and snake emblem of the Mexican flag—yet, whose modern descendants are accorded little more than second class citizenship.
Cleo, who has migrated from her unnamed village, where her people’s land is being seized by the Mexican federal government, works for a doctor and his family in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. The doctor’s family is not only wealthy but also “criollo,” meaning of European descent. In spite of the significant class differences, Cleo is regarded as a part of the family. Even compared to “Adela,” played by Nancy Garcia, who is the other maid in this household, Cleo has a more affectionate relationship with her employers, especially their four children. Having said that, there is no doubt that Cleo, and Adela, not to mention others in the family’s employ, are treated as servants. The mother, for example, “Sofia,” played by Marina de Tavira, does not hesitate to be direct, oftentimes terse, in her directions to her staff. More to the point, Cleo’s interaction with the doctor’s family affirms the normality of the class relations between the petit bourgeoise criollos and their indio servants.
As for the story that Cuarón tells about Cleo, ultimately it is a narrative of hardship and endurance, especially in the lives of women in Mexico. Occurring during the late 1960s—the 1968 Olympics is mentioned—Cleo’s personal ordeals, including a tragedy, are rendered against a backdrop of political upheaval in Mexican history.
Not many remember outside of Mexico the massacre that took place on October 2, 1968, when government troops surrounded a mass student protest at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in the Tlatelolco neighborhood, in which dozens were gunned down indiscriminately. The massacre is referenced to in frightening detail during a scene in which Cleo is shopping for a baby crib. She is pregnant, alone, and afraid.
Indeed, it is while the shooting occurs and some students run into the furniture store for safety that Cleo sees “Fermín,” played by Jorge Antonio Guerrero, her former boyfriend, who simply glares at her, gun in hand, before disappearing back into the chaos of the streets below. As I watched this scene unfold, I thought about what I had read about this terrible event. More specifically, I thought about Elena Poniatowska’s monumental 1971 book La noche de Tlatelolco, which was translated into Massacre in Mexico by Helen R. Lane (1975).
More to the point, I thought about the hundreds of testimonies that Poniatowska recorded in the pages of her book. Yet, there was neither any mention of the rights of indigenous people, their land disputes with the Mexican federal government, or, for that matter, of women’s rights. The student movement was mostly a middle-class movement, people who would become like the family that Cleo worked for, and who were fed up with their authoritarian government, led by President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. In light of which, I realized sadly that there was no one protesting on behalf of people like Cleo, be they indios or women. She had to persevere on her own.
At this point, it is important to observe that in spite of the layers of discrimination that Cleo encounters on a day-to-day basis, Cuarón is consistently respectful of her struggle. Despite her flaws, such as not returning home upon hearing that her mother’s land has been seized or choosing a boyish fool like Fermín for her lover, Cuarón is never judgmental or condescending toward Cleo or the community she represents.
If anything, “Roma” reveals that hardship in Mexican society is not limited to the poor, but goes all the way up the social ladder, including Sofia, whose story of misery parallels Cleo’s. On this level, the relationship between Cleo and Sofia, if Cuarón condemns anything explicitly in his film it is the way that Mexican society, especially its machismo culture, berates women.
Consequently, when “Roma” explores the coinciding lives of Cleo and Sofia, the film becomes a compliment to “Y Tu Mamá También” (2001), in which another woman’s tragic life unfurls in subtle yet dramatic tones, complete with a life-changing journey to the ocean. With this in mind, I am reluctant to join the chorus of critics who have faulted “Roma” for not being more aware of Cleo’s indigenous culture, either in terms of the villages that Mexico’s indigenous peoples inhabit or the urban subculture they maintain allover North America (including the immigrant community that certain US politicians love to demonize).
I am also reticent about criticizing Cuarón for not being more ideological or didactic about the colonization, racism, and globalization that created Cleo’s world in the first place. On the contrary, Cleo’s story is all the more profound for the way it shows how historical and inter-generational trauma, not to mention political and economic exploitation, come to dominate the lives of their victims without any banners, slogans, or lectures attached. One often has to go through much before one accesses the perspective that enables one to understand what has really happened and why.
As I watched Cleo’s epic tale unfold with each black and white scene, I thought about the many women in my life—I grew up poor and with very few advantages—whose generous yet vibrant spirits shaped me into what I am today, and how my memories of them have been nurtured by age and experience. Cuarón and I are of the same generation, and like him many of my memories were captured in countless black and white photos, which influenced the way that I remember people and events.
At the same time, this is not to say that the people I remember from long ago are without life and vitality. Aesthetically, Roma’s cinematography evokes the photographs of Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Graciela Iturbide. As such, Cuarón’s black and white images illustrate the mythology, the oral tradition, the Creation Story of the world that Cleo inhabits. For me, that is what “Roma” accomplishes when it recreates the world-building power of word and image.
In this sense, Cleo is a culture hero, like the icons portrayed in retablos, which express an adulation for the lives of saints. However, Cleo—Is she Catholic? Probably. Who knows?—does not affirm the teachings of the Church, but rather of the generations of migrants who have endured the travails of an indigenous world that has survived the Spanish Conquest, the Mexican Revolution, NAFTA, and now the threat of Donald Trump.
In the end, if I have any criticism of “Roma” it is that it was a bitter reminder of how infrequently stories like Cleo’s have been told, be it in film or novel. Gregorio Lopez y Fuentes’s El indio (1935) comes to mind, as does Carlos Fuentes’s La región más transparente (1958). In terms of film, only Gregory Nava’s “El norte” (1983) arises for immediate comparison.
My paltry list, however, does not mean that this is all that there is about this type of story, namely the indigenous class struggle. It only indicates how irregularly such stories appear in film and literature. On the other hand, there is a significant number of movies and novels about the Mexican, sometimes Central American, immigrant experience, not necessarily indigenous, such as Tony Richardson’s The Border (1982), Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Babel” (2006), Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Sin Nombre” (2009), and Jonás Cuaròn’s “Desierto” (2015).
With respect to literature, aside from the titles mentioned above, there is Gloria E Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), Victor Villaseñor’s Rain of Gold (1991), and Ron Arias’s The Wetback and Other Stories (2016), to name but a few. In the case of the indigenous experience, more than a subgenre of film and literature, the lives and stories of the peoples and nations of the Western Hemisphere constitute an expansive chronicle of communities whose roots go millennia beyond the arrival of the European settlers during the late 15th century.
As such, there is a connection to land, language, and kinship that informs the modern effects of globalization and transborder migration. Cleo’s story, if anything, is a story of how even when the Mexica homeland appears to be buried underneath layers and layers of colonial history and society, the indigenous claim to this place interjects itself into the contemporary lives of the people around them, reminding them of who really owns the land and how their days in this place may be numbered after all.
While there are undoubtedly many ways of telling Cleo’s story, including from the point of view of an indigenous writer and director—which we will hopefully see sometime soon—Cuarón’s “Roma”and Aparicio’s “Cleo” nevertheless transformed me. More specifically, as an indigenous person myself, I genuinely felt inspired to learn more about this world and the astounding diversity of indigenous stories and experiences that it holds.
David Martínez (Akimel O’odham/Mexican) is an associate professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University, Tempe Campus. He is the author of Dakota Philosopher: Charles Eastman and American Indian Thought (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009); editor of The American Indian Intellectual Tradition: An Anthology of Writings from 1772 to 1972 (Cornell University Press, 2011) and author of the forthcoming Life of the Indigenous Mind: Vine Deloria Jr and the Birth of the Red Power Movement (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).
By Sonny Boy Arias (2018) Recently, someone turned to me and said, “You’ve got a lot going on in your life right now, don’t you?” and in a micro-second of reflection I thought, “Not any more than normal,” and then the reality of my situatedness of daily life sunk in. “Yes,” I thought, “I guess I do have a lot going on.” By this coming June, I will have 8 grandchildren (including a set of twins), as everyone is pregnant (we currently have 4 male grandchildren). I am currently searching for solutions to place my father in long-term rehab care in San Diego and my mother’s dementia is progressing so rapidly that I can hand her something and she will place it immediately in the proverbial Black Hole. I am leading a major policy shift at my university, while acting as lead academic planner for our University’s 25th anniversary, and I have made arrangements to take our entire family to Maui for the greater part of the summer, oy vey! I’ve even reached a point where I conducted the preliminary math demonstrating that I may be retiring as early as this summer. These events were for the most part not unexpected as I am an old scuba diver and I always “plan my dive and dive my plan,” but I have to confess: no matter how prepared one is, Father Time has a way of sneaking up on you and tapping you on the shoulder. It seems that time, numbers and my personal philosophy make up the mainstay of how I construct my reality in daily life at least for the onset of this coming year. I didn’t think my goings-on were observable, nobody ever really does, that is, until somebody does make the observation, “You really have a lot going on right now, don’t you?” We all believe that most people don’t really care about who we are or what we stand for, not really, for emotional and practical purposes. Daily life is way too complex for one to keep up with the energy it takes to truly care for others. I mean, doesn’t everybody always have a lot going on? It’s simply too much to keep track of what people are doing, thinking or facing. Why should my situatedness stand out, why now? Conversely, this is why I find most everyone quite interesting, everyone has a story, and every story is unique and in turn interesting. Said differently, everything may in fact be observable but what is interesting for the day or even for the moment is a topic of social inquiry all on its own; it is phenomenological in this way. It’s as though my Self (in a social psychological sense) is evolving with every social interaction; how can it be perceived any other way? While I am keenly aware of such evolution, I’ve never felt the evolution of Self the way I do now. What better way to measure one’s situatedness than to compare your time (like, your time left on this earth) against the backdrop of the endless situations that come up in everyday life? Everything is quantifiable such as the number of strokes of genius, impulses, how many grandchildren, even the number of heartbeats in one’s life, you can count them all. Again, the statement directed to me can be directed to you: “You’ve got a lot going on in your life right now, don’t you?” At first, it can only be examined existentially because it evokes feelings, often deep feelings depending on the situation at hand. I will say there are markers along the way, some outright signs along the way you might say that are not only directive, but, all at once full of symbolic meanings. Much like the radical empiricist William James, my tendencies are to ground what I say theoretically in observable examples, including those found in my own life. At the onset of this past summer, I observed two massive (I mean massive) chunks of glacier each the size of five football fields slip into Glacier Bay, and this occurred within 12 minutes of each other. I video-taped the second slide, but haven’t mustered up the courage to view it again as it really rocked my world. Having been taken by surprise, I was all at once mortified to the core of my being, my brute being that is, I honestly still can’t seem to shake the feeling. I wasn’t fearful of a tidal wave effect or anything of that sort, frankly I didn’t know what it was I was feeling. It wasn’t until weeks later that I came to the realization that I was in shock and this triggered my sensibilities beyond my control all at once, changing my human condition, forever. Likened to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “white sheet flashes” to massive sheets of sliding ice were simply too much to handle all at once. How else can I say it except that “It scared the hell out of me!” I wasn’t aware of the full impact it had on my psyche until much later. It was as though I was completely caught off guard by a sensation so overwhelming my sensibilities were shut down by natural defense mechanisms and as a result, I switched to autopilot, not allowing myself to feel the sensations that were so overwhelming. It was one of the greatest contradictions of my life. While I have always enjoyed living and dwelling in contradictions, suspended existentially so, enjoying being at the helm of a sailboat with a broken rudder in a full gale storm, this was a test of the tempest, “nor'easter” you might say. I imagined the sky ripped open by a giant Russian god-like philosopher, yelling down to all of humanity: “You all have ruined the earth; look at her now look, at Gaia (Mother Earth). The massive sheets of ice slipping into Glacier Bay are her tears crying to let her loose, to let her heal herself the way only she can do. You (humanity) need to step aside and let nature (Mother Earth) take over and heal herself, she has taken care of herself for billions of years, well before humans arrived, for Christ’s sake step aside!” This was it! This was the penultimate contradiction of my life and it caught me off guard, I’ve been sensing this ever since witnessing Gaia cry; it was like Mary, Mother of God, crying for her son and for our sins. Last month, in my capacity as the keynote speaker and a Distinguished Alum at UC San Diego’s 50th year celebration of its graduate division, I presented myself as a well-trained scientist that had tried on various rationales that might help me mask the realities we are facing in American society today – one is global warming. I argued that during current times it is quite difficult to perform critical objective scientific analysis because the average person on the street does not understand science and their thoughts are based on what they gather from quip-like political remarks they hear on television, on the radio or read in pop-ups that are not scientifically based. The physical condition of Mother Earth is in the back of my mind, even more so than is the fate of humanity, she needs real help beyond what I have to offer and I have offered more valiant efforts than most as evidenced by my work in convening world-class scientists in Big Sur. At the core of my being, I’m keenly aware that everyone tacitly knows but doesn’t want to say out loud the unspeakable truth: “We [humanity] have systematically ruined the earth due to greed and to self-preservation beyond the type designed for us by nature. We somehow got off track and at the cost of forsaking others or even contributing to the social good have designed distractions into our realities so great that we consume much more than we can play out in useful ways in one lifetime. This behavior has driven humanity far beyond the tipping point for any possibility of ecological reconstruction. There is no going back; the massive chunks of ice falling by the minute in Glacier Bay don’t suddenly re-attach themselves, they don’t grow anew like frozen crystals, they simply melt away like islands of meaning that only few can understand, because people don’t take the time or have the time to save them or Mother Earth.” People remain distracted seeking refuge in the Google-god thinking they have an understanding of every situation, every problem and every subject matter. From a scientific perspective, it’s simply annoying to constantly hear interpretations of a Google sort from those who have little understanding of deep levels of predication. “Just Google it,” they say, with no understanding that the rhythm of their personal algorithm shines only a subjective light that cannot (will not) allow for objective truths.
An existential driftwood shelter. Photo by Armando Arias
We live in a world where perception is everything and scientific truths no longer ring of truth. We are experiencing the advent of new curious concepts like “fake news” or “fake truths” and so what we find is small children questioning thousands of years of scientific truths the scientific method, models and paradigms based on knowledges that were built on each other, not that we suddenly postulated as a tweet or felt sense and nothing more. The philosopher Aristotle believed that “seeing is believing” although he didn’t live in a world of social media in the same manner as we do today. He did not take into account that for political reasons people would begin purposefully altering video and pictures for political reasons. This was not part of his awareness. Said differently, whether you believe in global warming or not, whether you practice science or fake science or fake news, I know what I saw and experienced in watching Gaia cry sheets of ice. This truth cannot be denied, I heard it, I saw it, I even smelt it. It’s like listening to your aged mother who is hard of hearing trying to order her prescriptions over the phone: “Can you please speak up,” she says. “I can’t hear you, please speak up.” It’s a truth you can’t deny, it’s not “fake,” just as in the gym, the barbells don’t lie—they are in fact heavy. Sir Issac Newton observed a basic truth “What goes up must come down.” Watch video replays of when you were young as they capture a picturesque younger Self about the way things once were and sometimes these are difficult to watch because they capture a truism: “You are [today] what you once were [yesteryear]. The unforgettable sound of cracking ice is so memorable; it is in fact plaguing to my senses, I will never forget the sound and yet this phenomenon becomes the mainstay marker for the rest of my life, placing me on a hermeneutic spiral to enjoy in a rather disturbing way. For me the sound or old reflections are evocative, poignant even melancholy; they linger and contribute to the way I construct my reality in daily life – how else can I say it, except to say it the way it feels, this becomes my situatedness, this becomes the foundational springboard for the evolution of my Self (in a social psychological sense). So in this way, yes, I am just like you, I do have a lot going on in my life, for many it appears I am preoccupied with the end of the end of things: objects, relationships, even perspectives or paradigms for looking at scientific discoveries. Things change, science changes the way we view realities through scientific discovery not through “fake news” or “fake truths.” It’s the eve of yet another year to come and a year gone by even at a more precipitous pace than the previous one. Yes, I sound like my parents and uncles who constantly remind me, “Life is short.” Yet I remain baffled at what is inevitably to come, this year, unknown yet seemingly felt in my soul. What new vulgar circumstances (even rollicking vulgarity or playful exuberance) will give birth to my story writing for example? As I grow older, words, it seems, sit on ideas with uncanny ease and make more stories seem inevitable, I never know what is coming out of my imagination next. I do however remain convinced that as Einstein puts it, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” which, by the way, is the trick for scoring at the highest levels of IQ tests and college entrance exams. “Teach your children well.” Now headed for quasi-retirement, the fictional stories I started writing in the form of “science friction” afford me a separate life, a “separate reality” as my old friend Carlos Castaneda used to put it, and new relations. I’m aware of my lack of formal training in creative writing, yet it actually becomes the very reason whenever I go to contemplate a “creative” work for pleasure. I’m fine with the fact that my stories will surely not be on the Best Seller’s List nor a Pulitzer Prize winner for these authors always lack soul and only write for the prize. They are in fact creatively boring, what one might typify as “tragicomic solipsism.” Frankly, I’m always fascinated at how boring prize-winning authors can be in real-life. Even so, there is almost no one I can call for honest advice, “Your stories are great” they say, with no proof or affirmation. It’s not difficult to realize how I cause a new deviance disavowal because I know they didn’t read my writings, yet feel the need to tell me they did, hey, no problem. I firmly believe people trained in creative writing practice linguistic calisthenics; a lot of words, without soul. I understand how the book writing world works, people simply prefer living the illusion, and again, perception becomes everything; therein lies the organic disconnect. In this spirit, I have even come to believe in the “fish stories” I have to some extent imagined and I see this as a good thing inasmuch as I have continued mindful activities and exercises that contribute to the evolution of my prodigious memory that allows me to recite my finished stories verbatim. I became aware of this ability many years ago when seated in a hot-tub next to a distant relative at a family reunion held at the Rosarito Beach Hotel. I told her the story of how I was once attacked by a wild-boar on Catalina Island and she did not believe me until the next day when we were joined by her husband whom I shared the story with as well and she observed, “Sonny Boy (my nickname), I didn’t believe you yesterday but I do believe you today because you told the story in the same way word-for-word.” It is the case that I practice the art and science of writing like I talk and talking like I write, plus I want to defer atrophy of my brain as long as possible. Most people don’t see the insight my stories can bring as they say, “his silly little stories;” they are all psychoanalytic and often viewed as “irritatingly clever.” I think more about the future and the future I am already starting to miss. I remain eager to see how my personal buoyancy plays out in a hopefully different economic and emotional climate as I reach my later years. The way I see it, psychologically I should be happy, financially I should be set. Don’t forget, a scuba diver “plans his dive and dives his plan,” so I have a plan. But will an unexpected “four-alarm fire” surprise me, will I find it exhilarating (like being shot at), will I have the capacity to turn a nightmare into an insidious experience, at the very least a cheap thrill. If anything, my trained anticipation of the unexpected has always turned to a mission of good times. I expect to look back at any “urgency” and think “courage, after all, wants to laugh.” You can’t take life too seriously as it wasn’t meant to be that way, yet so many of us cannot see it any other way as evidenced by people who take themselves too seriously. It is for this reason I continue to amuse myself to death. I’m having a hell of a good time, by design. Life is for me an intellectual game. The allusion and/or insinuation endorses my serious refusal to be serious. I see every idea as inescapable from the link to the evolution of SELF, not vain, not self-defeating, not even a linguistic construct, but artistic. It is through this paradigm for looking at storytelling that I simply want to show those who indulge in my stories how to live a fulfilled and meaningful life and to become less alone inside in a world with inescapable ways of contributing to alienation, Karl Marx’s greatest fear. Said differently, through my stories I want to help people feel life, and remain more than arm’s distance from being-bored-of-being-bored. Hence, if you are going to mistake your wife for something mistake her for a hat, a nice black hat (a la Oliver Sacks) and enjoy it, don’t get freaked out by the experience. It’s like taking LSD. Timothy Leary use to say, “Never have a bad trip, learn from it, enjoy it as you will never forget what you learned.” What I believe is that there can be optimism within one’s personal despair, elation of a curious sort in its anomie. More than ever I feel like a paradoxical character with an outsized passion, repression and expression: twin causes of complication, harmony and disharmony with significant others who think: “He is such a nice person, a good father and great grandfather, yet there is something in him that keeps him from being completely decent.” I have to ask, “Do people not understand my aesthetic?” Years ago I wrote a book on fear and it wasn’t until now that I came to the realization that I write stories because I am afraid that the last thing I will write will be the last thing that I write. This is not paranoia as that would be fear of the unreal; my fear is based not only on real fear as evidenced by the stories I keep producing, but also by the body of original scientific knowledge I have contributed over time. I find in life amusing peculiarities that trigger epiphanies, continually! Maybe deep down inside there is the possibility that telling a story could lead to redemption of a sort, for what reason, I am searching, but perhaps it may be found in spirituality and values. So, this is what is on my mind on the eve of a new year.
Painting representing St. Augustine, author of Confessions
Actor Peter Lorre as Raskolnikov in 1935 film based on Crime and Punishment
We hope to learn more of Roberto deVillar's worlds in future columns. --The Editor
Welcome to my worlds
By Roberto deVillar
First of all, let me introduce myself. By birth, I am a sinner, as are all Catholics, and a perennial outsider from the moment I burst forth from the internally secure universe of my mother’s womb. Transgressions and marginality; redemption and wholeness; wanting and sharing; hiding and seeking; standing firm and finding. These and other key elements constantly are in simultaneous play with one another throughout one’s life. And as we try constantly to wrestle with the elements to find ourselves, define ourselves, make sense of ourselves, justify ourselves, forgive ourselves, love ourselves, and the like, there are many times that we find ourselves pinned down by the elements. I want to share aspects of my meandering journey toward working in the fields of social justice, and include the rocks and potholes that caused me to stumble, and the forks in the road that led to unexpected detours or dead-ends. At the same time, obstacles in my path never caused me to stop wandering in the direction that I thought was a forward one, fueled by the light of my passions, guided by the whispers, howling, and silences of my mind-soul’s inner voice. So I begin, claiming my birthright, to write as an outsider and confess.
I have always found my baptismal certificate from the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, interesting. Along its left side, all the language is English. And all the names and even the month in which I was born are inserted to the right, handwritten in Spanish. My name is listed as Roberto Alejandro DeVillar, which is the same name as on my original birth certificate; then Alfonso Arturo (my father), Cecilia (my mother—known as Nina), José Alejandro (my mother’s brother and my godparent, known as Nine), Guadalupe (my father’s sister and my godparent, known as Lupe), Rev. J. Frias (officiating priest), and my birth month is written as Junio. This integral blend of language and culture, literally from day one, was a birthmark, stamped on my soul, my character, my very being, and not only accompanied me to every geographical location, every cultural setting, and every social context in which I set foot, but influenced me, as well. In my earliest days, although my parents and their siblings were what would be termed fully bilingual in Spanish and English, it was Spanish that was always spoken in the presence of my two remaining grandparents, who were Papá Bocho (Ambrosio Samudio Rodríguez), my grandfather on my mother’s side, who died when I was 7 years old; and, Mamá (Basilisa Riva Pellón), my grandmother on my father’s side, who lived for many years, passing away in 1976, at 94 years old.
The author at 1 year, nine months in San Antonio, Texas
I never got to interact with my grandfather on my father’s side, Julián M. de Villar, as he died in January, five months before I was born, or my grandmother on my mother’s side, Mamá Celia (Celia Valdez Arizpe), who died when I was a little more than a year old. Nevertheless, their names floated in the family air we breathed daily, and, in the case of my paternal grandfather, influenced my character development and sense of culture and accomplishment throughout my life. From a strict chronological perspective, I, and my brothers, associated having grandparents with the sole experience of interacting with my father’s mother, our grandmother Basilisa, our Mamá.
My Upbringing in Diverse Socialization and Cultural Contexts
The formal socialization contexts in San Antonio that I entered outside the home from pre-school to 3rd grade were Catholic. Here, nuns ruled with rulers in hand and—although this will be almost impossible to believe--strait-jackets, which both my older brother and I, on different occasions, were strapped into. I can still remember, not even being old enough to attend first grade yet, sitting down, crossed-legged, silent, as the strange, rough, canvas-like material was wrapped around my torso, locking me in by straps looped through shiny metal rings. I have neverforgotten that image or experience. It was far worse than when I was made to kneel to have my mouth washed out with soap by a nun for having uttered, I imagine, a swear word. Then there was the snarling, wild-eyed anger projecting from my brother’s face as he sat, body pulsating, imprisoned in the strait-jacket, somehow still emoting strength and pride, even in that shocking, depressing condition. I was perhaps 4 years old, but that tortuous image of seeing my brother in the strait-jacket lives still within my memory and continues to haunt me. And later, at Saint Ann’s, I vividly remember wearing with pride my khaki uniform with patches, tie and brass-buckled belt, raising my hand and waiting, without being acknowledged by the nun, until I finally summed up the courage to go up to her and asked her permission to go the bathroom. She responded: “No, it’s almost time for the bell.” I returned to my desk, and despite all the attempts a child does to stop his bladder from emptying, while sitting at my desk, I uncontrollably urinated, staining the front of my khaki pants down to the knee. I waited for everyone to leave when the bell rang, but a girl stayed behind to wait for me, and I finally got up, saying in an utterly unconvincing tone that was supposed to be lightheartedly amusing: “Oh, Paul and I were playing at recess and he threw water on me!” She didn’t say anything, her look said it all. I went outside to one of the side doors leading to the steps where the playground began, and wedged myself in a space between one of the recessed door frames and a low wall to become invisible. I then opened my tin lunchbox in such a way that its top extended across my waist, so that in case someone did see me, they could not see my urine-stained khaki pants. A nun came by, saw me, and asked why I was there, eating alone instead of being with the others on the playground. That was all it took for me to begin to wail and angrily tell her what happened. Rather than comfort me, the nun began to defend the offending nun, and I, even at 6 or 7 years old, knew that was unjust. So, I hollered, still shedding tears of anger, that the offending nun was a Jackass! And, each time the nun would open her mouth to say something, I would repeat, again and again, “No, she is a jackass!” Until the nun finally realized that I was in a fit of rage, came to me, put her arm around me and guided me up the stairs. The next thing I remember is that my mother was driving me home, saying that I would not have to return to school that day. And it was her calm, gentle, loving presence, even while driving, that enveloped me and made me feel warm and safe. That same summer, I asked my parents if I could change schools, and, even though my older brother stayed at St. Ann’s, I enrolled at St. Mary Magdalen’s.
Aside from being strapped in strait-jackets, having my mouth washed out with soap, and suffering the consequences of restricted bathroom use, it was also quickly transmitted within these various Catholic settings that we are all sinners and need to repent. Thus, Catholic school is also where I learned to confess.
The Why of Confession: Many Paths, One Goal
Confessions are, of course, two-sided. On the one hand, the confessor wishes to relieve the self of the weighty burden of guilt, of pain, of suffering, of mental torment, and so on, brought on by the internally conscious judgement that one’s action or actions have violated egregiously the moral rules, guidelines or expectations of a community in which membership is claimed. On the other hand, the confessor takes this humiliating step, in which at least one other person is present, for the explicit sake of redemption, of being forgiven for one’s transgressions, however severe, and being reborn, so to speak, to go out and sin no more—which, as we all know, is an impossibility and the paradoxical bane of Catholics and other Christians. As sinners, we all inhabit two spaces simultaneously; that of the sinner—either actual or inevitably prospective—and the searcher who seeks forgiveness through confession for the sins committed and confession’s product, redemption. It is the same if one reads the eponymously titled autobiography, The Confessions of St. Augustine (circa 400 AD), or the tortured, tormented fictional tale of the murderous Raskolnikov, the young, feverish killer in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866; spellings include Dostoyevsky/Dostoevsky). The opportunity for redemption can be personally experienced (St. Augustine) or societally imposed, as in the case of Raskolnikov, whose mental anguish ultimately leads to his confession and redemption, albeit in the literal purgatory of Siberia. Thus, the path leading to redemption is rarely smooth and may not even be successful, as in the case of Eugène Marais, the Afrikaner polymath who, alone in his hovel, observed, documented and wrote about apes for three years in their native context—resulting in his The Soul of the Ape (1969, English edition, but actually written in the 1920s)—while musing about his ingestion of morphine to which he was addicted and led him to clearly understand that ever-greater amounts of morphine were required to achieve the same level of momentary mental elation. I read Soul of the Ape in Heidelberg, Germany, as a soldier in the US Army, at some point during the time I was stationed there (1970-1971). Marais clearly understood that there would come a time when the amount of morphine required would surpass the body’s ability to withstand it, but he did not live to witness and attest to that principle. At 65, he took a shotgun and shot himself first in the chest and then the head. Marais’ anguish and insights did not lead to confession and, therefore, there was no redemption, only despair and the emptiness of a tragic death. Drug addiction, nevertheless, is not an insurmountable barrier to the quest and realization of redemption. Thomas De Quincy’s autobiographical account, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), was immensely popular with the public for decades in England and abroad, describing as it did the vast pleasures and marginal pains of addiction. The necessity of redemption was presented as an almost reluctant conclusion by the author-eater. De Quincy considered redemption justified for the sake of, if nothing else, being able to continue to meet one’s professional responsibility and the demands of productivity. He also found it essential to remain in an appropriate physical and mental condition sufficient to appear coherent to others and to engage in sustained social interactions. In a manner that gives the impression of deception or hypocrisy, or both, De Quincy used confession, forgiveness and redemption as a means to continue to ingest opium as a controlled substance, while eloquently claiming or charmingly suggesting that his use was in the past. His was a cycle of perpetual sinning and seeking forgiveness and redemption in order to sin once more, allowing him literary success, moderated opium use, and selective redemption. When I first read Carlos Castaneda’s (I am spelling his last name without the tilde-ñ, as that convention has been used in his books; others may prefer to spell it Castañeda) The Teachings of Don Juan, I completely missed the point of its subject matter. Yes, I know that there was a subtitle, but I overlooked it because I was in the library at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona, after Basic Training at Ft. Bliss, Texas, and now involved in learning Morse code. Since May 1969, I had been experiencing life in the Army as a draftee during the heavily contentious Vietnam War.
The author with his mother and older brother, Art, in San Antonio, while his father was serving in WWII
Why did I miss the point of the title? Well, stay with me now, having spent my late elementary through high school years in Seville, Spain, and five years in Mexico, City, earning my B.A. and working, I naively thought that I was checking out a book on the character Don Juan Tenorio! You know, Zorilla’s (1844) work, or that of Tirso de Molina (1630), or perhaps George Gordon Lord Byron’s (1819-1824) “Don Juan” poem–pronounced for purposes of rhyme, “Don Joo-un.” All of them were essentially, to greater or lesser degrees, about the perennial triad of sin, forgiveness and redemption, and in Seville, no less! I share all the above thoughts that came to my mind to say that I was desperate for a Spanish-related cultural injection—a cultural fix—so I confess my error and beg forgiveness. Nevertheless, as we are prone to sense or know, coincidences are merely unforeseen experiences that were meant to take place. Thus, not at all coincidentally, reading The Teachings of Don Juan was a major cultural fix for me, for it altered my mind in ways I had not experienced previously. Moreover, it was a transformative experience for me, for I internalized immediately two life-long lessons:
First, to respect and honor as a legitimate cultural value and behavior the ingestion of mind-altering natural elements by groups, within their native context, for purposes integral to the group’s codified well-being; and,
Second, to avoid ingesting those types of drugs outside a legitimate cultural context and without a competent guide a la Don Juan.
I didn’t see the United States—the dominant cultural model or any of its less-dominant groups—as having a legitimate cultural context or knowledge-base for drug ingestion and never felt the need for drug use for recreational or “psychology-of-insight” purposes. I had made a marked distinction between cultural values and behaviors associated with the belief system of a group, as opposed to individuals who belonged to a group culture but whose practices did not emanate from or reflect the core values of that culture. This is, of course, the time for full disclosure: I do drink red wine moderately, beer occasionally, tequila reposado—or at times, añejo/añejado—if either is in front of me, and, albeit rarely, I enjoy a straight—no ice, no water—bourbon/whiskey, never the Jim Beam taste, if the occasion arises, which it very rarely does. As this statement regarding alcohol consumption is not a confession, I do not seek or care about redemption or forgiveness, or consider my way of being, in this case, a sin. My sin, as will become clear, was one of massive professional blindness and ignorance toward the very group that I had returned to the United States to work for and with, in pursuit of a deeply-rooted and life-long sense of social justice. I had a modicum of, but not directly relevant, academic preparation in the study and intellectual pursuit social justice, having graduated with a degree in Latin American Studies, Social Sciences, from the Universidad de las Américas. My cultural context, both in Seville, Spain, and Mexico City, Mexico, was far from the context in which I desired to participate in and contribute to. I just didn’t realize it at the time—that is, all my life up to then. In the 1960s, the university was located a short distance from the exit of Las Lomas de Chapultepec, the massive, mega-élite, mansion-dense neighborhood—specifically at kilómetro 16 de la Carretera México-Toluca. Ambassadors, Cantiflas, politicians, bankers, and others considered the crème-de-la-crème resided in this élite colonia, and so did I, but as a student, in a beautiful residence where they took in student and professional boarders. At that time, mid-1960s, our university campus was, as I remember, characterized mainly by deep ravines and panoramic views of tree-dense, rolling hills—especially visible from the massive terrace of our small campus, itself, a converted country club. Its student body was a mixture of high-wealth, native-born students, in the main from Mexico City, with groups of foreign students, from the United States, Canada and Europe. The campus was, in part, an extension of the relaxed life-style of the rich and famous, where high-end cars were visible, driven by students in tailor-made suits or casually fashioned outfits. At the same time, there were the American students who would come for their “quarter abroad” programs, wearing chinos, sockless loafers and madras shirts—who never really fitted in and whose presence appeared more decorative than substantive. They were like silent, colorful, moving units amidst a socio-cultural context that at times saw them but did not engage with them. There were more serious foreign students, who either could not or preferred not to adapt to the Mexico City culture and left soon after arriving; or native students, who decided to transfer to the internationally prestigious Colegio de México, a highly regarded research university that specialized in the social sciences. There were also those who came looking like the perfectly groomed upper-middle class students they were back home and soon after experimenting with easily accessible pharmaceutical and other mind-altering substances, abandoned their grooming, previous dress codes, and normative behavioral façades, preferring to, as Timothy Leary so famously declared: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” It shocked me, literally, to have embraced friends, socialized and laughed with them, only to see them fade into themselves and ultimately disappear from campus. I knew it was due to their drug use, but I did not probe deeper than that and it did not touch me or my particular group of friends—at least not during the time we were completing our undergraduate degrees. This early, indirect experience with the effects of drugs on a few of my friends and other students visible to me led me away from any intellectual arguments in their favor and, as I mentioned above, after reading The Teachings ofDon Juan, I confess that my personal attitude toward recreational use of mind-altering drugs or their use outside of an authentic context native to the culture solidified even more. Ultimately, regardless of where I had lived; what I had experienced; what I had read for pleasure or studied formally; the Spanish I had been exposed to from birth and developed in Spain and Mexico; the values, principles, thoughts, desires and dreams I had of working within the arena of class struggle, of social justice, and of societal change were not sufficient in preparing me for the setting in which I would soon enter: the Chicano context of San José, California.
Roberto A. DeVillar, a native of San Antonio, Texas, haswritten and published academically for decades, but only recently began writing memoirs, and so far almost exclusively about his life age 10 to 18 years in Seville, Spain. Upon returning to the U.S. from Spain, he earned a B.A. degree in Latin American Studies (Social Sciences) at the Universidad de las Américas in Mexico City. While seeking a degree in Mexican American Graduate Studies at San José State University (1973-75), he worked with Dr. Ernesto Galarza as coordinator of the Bilingual-Bicultural Studio/Laboratory (1972-1974) and Economic & Social Opportunities, Inc. He has traveled widely, engaged in international corporate affairs, but returned to complete a doctorate at Stanford University (1987). From 1987 to 2017, he taught and conducted research in various university systems in the U.S. and abroad.
The Night La Virgen Crashed Corky’s Party for César
By Sonny Boy Arias Federico Peña, Denver’s first Chicano Mayor once hosted a reception for César Chavez at his home. In attendance were a Chicano congressman, Chicano State Senator, Chicana Assemblywomen, a Chicano member of the State Board of Education, several Chicano community activists like the directors of Brother’s Redevelopment Corporation and the Community Action Program and a half dozen Chicano professors (including myself), now how Chicano is that? I never felt so Chicano in my life. We used to meet weekly at El Metro, a local bar located in the barrio on Santa Fe Boulevard downtown Denver across the street from the Metropolitan State College of Denver to strategize who was going to run for which political office next. We saw this as our official meeting place, the “space for change” we called it. We used to test-out community planning ideas with influential Denver politicos prior to going public; it’s the place we planned to bring César when he came to town but were only able to get him to Federico Peña’s house located in an up-scale part of Denver known as Cherry Creek not far from the Tattered Book Store and Lyle Alzado’s Bar (former professional football player for the Denver Broncos who was drafted to the Oakland Raiders). My wife, Patricia, and Federico’s first wife Ellen were jogging buddies so I heard first-hand that she encouraged him to invite just a handful of people for the reception, but it turned out to be more of a Chicano-style pachanga. Prior to César’s arrival I estimated some two hundred and fifty people in-and-around Peña’s house, and once the students arrived it swelled easily to over four hundred. Important to note is that given a number of recent clashes with the police it was obvious that there were no police in sight; another of Mayor Peña’s strategies as his message to the Denver Police Department and to the dismay of the Chief of Police (an outspoken officer who always spoke in defense of his junior officers for having shot and killed a number of Chicanitos) was, “We can take care of our own!” I noticed a beautifully remodeled 1960ish low-rider Chevy with a picturesque spray painting of César Chávez on the trunk reflecting off a well-placed black-light projecting a purple ray of light from the dashboard approaching the house at a Chicano speed of one mile per hour; it was travelling low-and-slow, not just because the crowd was thick but to also give people time to place their hands on the spray-paintings of César on the trunk and/or La Virgen de Guadalupe (The Virgin Mary) on the hood. People rubbed the images as if they were touching the shroud of Jesus. Both were dimly lit yet quite visible giving the low-rider a heavenly luminescent look amidst cold fog-breathing onlookers with a Rocky Mountain background and La Luna (The Moon) watching over. At least a couple hundred students walked behind the vehicle–it was like a cross between a spiritual and social movement all at once–Chicano style to be sure. The young students from the Escuela Tlatelolco (who were not invited to the reception but defined Mayor Peña’s house as a newly found part of their community) led the chant “Que viva César Chávez!” and the crowd would respond with “Que viva!” Prior to the long walk from Five Points (a place where five main interconnecting streets converged stretching out from each of Denver’s barrios), César had met with the students: his message to them was that there were two types of effective social change: slow and fast and that it is highly important to first lay the foundation for any change to occur and they must always take action on both depending on the signs (albeit, needs) of the times and that public social protest was the best way to bring attention to social problems; many Chicano students reported their lives’ were forever changed by this encounter.
Artist unknown, but sought for attribution
Upon César’s arrival, Rodolfo Corky Gonzalez immediately stepped out of the low-rider wearing a black silk jet fighter pilot-like coat with bright-red heavily threaded letters with his prize winning name on the back “Corky the Champ!” along with an intense look on his face just as he looked before entering the ring for a boxing match as he had done so many times before. César followed, wearing his prize winning smile. As they made their way out of the car and up to the front-porch the stark contrast between César and Corky was peculiar yet positive, César was never so Chicano and for this event Corky was not the main event, not even in his own town as the real Champ had arrived. Realizing he was in the presence of grandeur, Corky took his place directly behind César with his arms extended and at the same time holding onto César’s shoulders in precisely the same manner in which a prize fighter enters the ring. As the chants grew to almost deafening pitches, “Que viva César Chávez!” – there appeared an image of La Virgen de Guadalupe on the large bay window of the living room for all to see. It was clear-as-day, floating as if suspended about four feet off the ground. Neither César nor Corky knew what to think or say. As it turns out the image was actually a reflection from the dimly lit image of La Virgen reflecting off the low-rider and accentuated by the light of the silvery moon –the bay window acted like a bright reflection off a giant movie screen. La Luna shown beautifully and bright that night as if she were looking over us and providing the light for taking back the night in this Rocky Mountain town with a cowboy past and a Chicano future, with so much political turmoil during those tumultuous times. Chicanos and Chicanas were ripe for this moment, simply stated, “It just had to be!” With several hundred people standing in the yard and because the low-rider was riding low-and-slow most people could not see the image of La Virgen reflecting off the car but word spread quickly so they were immediately convinced the Virgin Mary had made an appearance, after-all seeing is believing! The large and colorful image of La Virgen stunned the crowd. I cannot stress the impact it had momentarily on us all. The fact that the bay window was also reflecting the shadows of the people standing nearest the window as they moved about brought more life to the image. In just a matter of seconds following her appearance, the crowd let out a subtle moan as dozens of people repeated “Oh my God! Oh my God!” All at once people began making the Sign-of-the-Cross the way Catholics do and for many they kept making it over-and-over again like the way Latino professional baseball players do when they go up to bat. People produced Rosaries from their pockets and began praying the Lord’s Prayer; you could hear them praying in both Spanish and in English yet in unison as if it were orchestrated from heaven above:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.
One elderly woman near the bay window cried out that a bed of “velvety-red roses” had also appeared beneath the window just like the roses Juan Diego, a Nahua peasant, had shared in a cloak upon her apparition back in 1531. When she said this hundreds of heads turned back to the window, some with skepticism but sure enough there was a beautiful bed of “velvety-red roses.” It was in fact Mayor Peña’s rose bed; even he was astounded, however, at both the appearance and beauty of the roses as he had just trimmed each rose bush down to three conjoining stems as he was taught by his grandfather; even his wife Ellen commented that she had just taken the garbage out including all the trimmings from the rose bushes leaving no trace of roses for the season. It wasn’t hard to see the wonder in everyone’s faces. Over-and-over again for a good ten minutes people repeated the Lord’s Prayer. I noticed that none of the children from the Escuela Tlatelolco joined in on the recitation as they were taught to question authority through a critical lens and they were not enchanted with the Catholic Church. Nearly all of the children from the escuela were trilingual speaking, Spanish, English and Nahuatl, a language indigenous to regions in and around the Aztec Empire and used by Chicanos so as not to be understood by others. Several dozen prayers had gone by when it started to feel a little too Catholic; even with the image on the bay window, things started to feel odd, especially to Chicanos who had not had positive experiences with priests and/or nuns in Catholic school. Tacitly, it goes without saying, “No one dared to stop the people from praying!” In all his wisdom, however, derived from his experiences as a prize fighter who often during bouts would start praying at a point when he thought he didn’t have the strength to win until he saw a vision of La Virgen, Corky decided to include a good dose of ascetic mysticism: he spoke loudly into a portable microphone system he always seemed to have by his side and broke the cadence of the prayers: “People! People! My brothers and my sisters, as you are a witness today, La Virgen de Guadalupe is with us in support of our causa; she is ‘Guadalupe’ named for the one who can ‘crush the serpent’ [a reference to the Aztec serpent-god Quetzalcoatl]. With her support we can achieve anything; it is good to have a friend in heaven! Because we are Chicanos, we are Quetzalcoatl, so together with Our Lady we will overcome injustices in our community and any conflicts in our hearts. Que viva La Virgen y que viva César Chávez!”
And the crowd responded with, “Que viva!” César’s smile was bigger than ever.
As they stood on the porch only three feet off the ground much like César does while standing on Andy Boy wooden crates in the fields when speaking to farmworkers, Corky held the portable microphone up for César (in the same way Luis Valdez used to hold it for César) and proceeded to reach into the right-side back pocket of his khaki pants and retrieve a well-worn paperback copy of Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (1964), the same one given him by Marcuse when he visited with him at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla, Califas. While pointing to the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the bay window quoted Marcuse by stating loud enough for everyone present to hear:
“It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us!”
The response from the crowd was dozens of chants:
“Que viva César Chávez!Que viva César Chávez!Que viva César Chávez! Que viva César Chávez! Que viva César Chávez! Que viva César Chávez!”
As the chants grew deafening, the children of the Escuela Tlatelolco lined up along the porch, two dozen of them dressed in china poblana dresses (a traditional style worn by Mexican women) and then as if apparitions themselves, two Denver police officers showed up to report a disturbing the peace complaint and the children of the escuela began chanting as if on cue:
“Fuck the pigs get them out of our community! Fuck the pigs get them out of our community! Fuck the pigs get them out of our community!”
As the White and Mexican American police officers approached Mayor Peña, he looked at Corky and Corky looked at César andCésar glanced over to the beautiful brown children and they were giving the police officers mal ojo (evil eye) while at the same time continuing to chant “Fuck the pigs get them out of our community!”I heard Corky, say to the children “Okay, great; ten more times!” As the children were winding down the Mayor excused the police officers and the crowd went wild. [Following the event, I heard through my wife that the Mayor told the police officers to stay away from his home and that “We are Chicanos; we can police our own community.”] César held up the youngest of the Chicanitas who in turn led the crowd with a traditional Chicano hand clap; as everyone clapped César kissed each and every one of “Quixote’s soldiers” on the cheek and everyone broke out into a grand version of De Colores, a traditional Mexican song which became an anthem of the farmworker movement. It didn’t matter from which of the five Denver barrios you were from, I could sense that everyone in attendance felt an affinity that evening as the Chicano community knew who they were and where they stood; they had shared meanings, common values and beliefs and they had La Virgen and César Chávez in their midst. The only thing missing was the Chicano National Anthem “Low-Rider” or is it “Sabor a Mi?” Anyway the car clubs were all at peace that night. After only an hour-and-a-half, César was suddenly whisked away as rumor had it that there had been an attempt on his life in the dining room. In reality what had happened was that César was in a rather intense conversation with Mayor Peña’s wife Ellen surrounding issues of health and nutrition (after all she was in training for long distance running for the Olympics) when a woman weighing over four-hundred pounds fell from her bamboo bar stool (the chair appeared to have exploded right under her wide bottom) and toppled over onto the Mayor, who was rather small in stature and squirmed like a smashed bug beneath her. I know as I was sitting next to him; it took several seconds for anyone to take action. We were so aghast with what had just happened we simply could not believe our eyes and besides La Virgen de Guadalupe was still on the bay window. It was a difficult cognitive shift from hearing the bamboo all at once crackling as well as the sound of the woman hitting the floor, just as it was a surprise hearing the Mayor moan like someone who had just been knocked out in a prize fight. Psychologically all that registered in our minds for the several seconds that ensued were the sounds of the sudden commotion. To say the least, we were stunned, rendered speechless, paralyzed with new found emotions, how else can I put it? All we could see was the Mayor’s preppy glasses, a few strands of his cold-black hair and his right hand pounding on the floor as if tapping out from a professional wrestling match. In a knee-jerk reaction, Corky went into a prize fighting stance as he had been trained to do for so many years and a few Brown Berets pulled out their guns as if out of nowhere. Guns? People close to César say that evening was definitely a game-changer for him because Ellen was powerfully convincing and she got him thinking about becoming a vegetarian and to become more disciplined about what he put into his body; she even encouraged him to practice yoga. He remained in occasional contact with her talking for long hours (as evidenced by phone bills brought to his attention by Fred Ross, an ardent UFW organizer and volunteer accountant) about nutrition and health as he knew she was a well-disciplined individual and he respected this about her.
Rinconcito es un rincón pequeño especial en Somos en escrito para escritos cortos: un poema, un cuento, una memoria, ficción de repente, y otros.
Diluvio de Cuaresma
Por Oscar Moreno
Esos días eran de diluvio de Cuaresma y diluvio de balas. Llovía sobre los empresarios extorsionados, sobre los drogadictos en centros de rehabilitación, sobre los dueños de bares, sobre los maestros, sobre los policías, sobre los sicarios, sobre los soldados. Era un diluvio sin arca. Nada más era cuestión de ver cuando se iba a inundar la calle cómo de costumbre en Juárez y que cuando el agua iba a alcanzarnos las cejas, ahogándonos. Me hubiera gustado ser Noé, pero solo me tocó ser Benicio y solo tenía un par de animales: Dos perros muertos enterrados en el patio después de que los atropellaron enfrente de mi casa. Por eso tenía tanta urgencia de decirle a Cristina cuánto me gustaba. De cuánto me gustaban sus ojos y cabello color miel, su piel que (en buena onda) me hacía pensar en el betún de vainilla, de lo chaparrita que era, de cómo volaba su falda del uniforme con cada paso que daba, que más que pasos eran brincos, de sus piecillos en las zapatillas negras del uniforme. Pero en cada ocasión que estaba sola y yo veía oportunidad de hablar con ella, no podía. Estaba en primero, siempre se ponía en las escaleras que conectaban el primer piso de los grupos de primero con el segundo piso de los grupos de segundo. Siempre bajaba las escaleras y me quedaba sobre el último (o primer escalón, dependiendo de la perspectiva de cada quién) y la veía, intentando animarme a hablarle. Me llegaba una parálisis y unas ganas de darme la vuelta y correr, cosa que si hice varias veces. Por una parte, esperaba que no se diera cuenta, por otra, esperaba que sí, a lo mejor hasta curiosidad le daba verme hacer eso. Pero sabía que no podía depender de la curiosidad para hablar con ella, entonces un día me animé a ser directo y decírselo. ¿Qué iba a pasar? De verdad esperaba que ella también dijera que yo le gustaba. Y si no, pues ni modo, o más bien que culero. Pero era el tipo de culería que se perdía entre todas las cosas culeras que el universo estaba vendiendo en oferta en ese entonces. Hubiera sido bien si fuera venta de liquidación, pero ni madres. No me quedó más claro aquella vez que saliendo de la escuela, iba en el carro con mi mamá y nos quedamos en un embotellamiento ahí en el Parque Industrial por la escuela. No nos extrañaba este tráfico pero si nos extrañaba que fuera tan lento. Esas filas se hacían más para ir a El Paso que para otra cosa. Ya luego nos tocó ver lo que había pasado: Un Camry color cromo agujereado de balas y estampado contra un poste de luz. Estaban los del SEMEFO metiendo un cuerpo adentro de su troca y otro cuerpo lo cubrían con una manta blanca que lentamente se empapaba de sangre. Al lado estaba una ambulancia, con los paramédicos atendiendo a una persona que no podía ver dentro, pero antes de que pudiera deducir bien de quien se tratara, mi mamá me volteó hacia ella con su mano derecha. -No veas – me dijo y quizás tenía buen motivo para hacerlo, después de un rato sentí algo cómo electricidad llenar mi cuerpo, cómo un susto mezclado con unas ganas enormes de llorar. Intenté aguantarme, no quería armarle una escena a mi mamá en el carro. Pero llegando a la casa, sentí un calor enorme en mi cuerpo y muchas ganas de cerrar los ojos, sintiendo que todo se me iba de mi control y acabé desmayándome sobre mi cama. O por lo menos, eso me han dicho que fue cuando le cuento esto a la gente. En su momento se sintió más cómo un chorro de ganas de dormirme inmediatamente. No recuerdo si soñé algo, solo recuerdo algo de Cristina y algo sobre los cuerpos del auto baleado. Juntos me hicieron pensar que si, en efecto, a lo mejor no nos quedaba mucho tiempo y tenía que cantársela a Cristina. Valer burger lo veía muy probable para mí y para ella, entonces era hora de decirle la verdad. La mañana del día siguiente me quedé viendo a la lluvia caer sobre los pastos y árboles del patio de la escuela desde la ventana del salón. Intentaba disimularlo pelando los ojos, fingiendo que veía el cuaderno o que leía los libros. Le caía bien a los profes, entonces no era tan probable que se dieran cuenta de lo que hacía. De todos modos los profes ese día andaban como idos, cómo si no hubieran dormido bien o cómo si se quisieran resfriar. Nada más esperaba a que fuera el receso y en lo que iba a decirle. Si algo lograba la lluvia sobre el zacate y los troncos de los árboles era tranquilizarme. Llegó la hora del receso y salí a buscarla al primer piso. No estaba y no la vi en ningún lado. La busqué también en el tercer piso y nada. Sus compañeros me decían que tampoco la había visto, que no había venido a la escuela. Decidí ir a la tiendita y vi que Sergio, el encargado, andaba sollozando entre las veces que recibía dinero y las veces que repartía papitas, tortas y burros. Estaba la posibilidad de que andaba de mariguano cómo le gustaba chismear a mis compañeros. No sabía si admirar que con todo y lo que lo que se veía de triste, un así viniera al trabajo. Pero tampoco sabía si encabronarme con la escuela por hacerlo venir a trabajar tan desmadrado. -¿Qué pues, Mister Sergio? ¿Lo cortó la novia?- le pregunté. Sergio negó con la cabeza. -¿Entonces? -¿Andabas preguntando por Cristina? Asentí y trague saliva. El aire mojado me dio frio. Se acercó y susurró. -Mataron a sus papás. Ella se dio un trancazo en la cabeza porque el carro se estampó contra un poste. Están esperando a que sea la salida para decirles. No querían fregarles el receso o las clases. Pero claro que sus profes y yo si nos tuvimos que enterar- dijo tragando un sollozo. No sabía que decir ni que hacer, más que dar una sola cosa: -Gracias.- En efecto, a la hora de salida, los prefectos nos guiaron al patio de la escuela. Nos pusieron a todos en filas alrededor del Director Luján y la subdirectora Macías. Luján se veía presidencial con su cabello negro, altura y saco. -Compañeros- empezó. –Les tengo noticias muy tristes. Su compañera Cristina Velarde de segundo B está en coma después de un ataque armado que sufrieron su familia y ella en la tarde de ayer. Se encuentra hospitalizada en la Poliplaza Médica. Si se animan, pueden pasar al hospital a dejarle alguna carta o regalo para que cuando despierte vea que la tuvimos en nuestros pensamientos. Somos un instituto laico, pero si están en necesidad de orar, háganlo- Ahora le llovió a Cristina y a sus papás. Escuché a alguien exhalar y decir “Ni de pedo se despierta”. Algunas de las niñas tenían lágrimas en los ojos y se les escuchaba sollozar. Después de un rato de silencio, nos dejó salir. Le pedí permiso a mi mamá para que me llevara al hospital para dejarle unas flores a Cristina. Pero me echó un chorro de preguntas: “¿Qué hacían los papás? ¿No los habrán matado por narcos? No digo que lo hayan sido, pero por tu bien y el de ella, por eso luego acabamos todos jodidos”. Me chocaba que dijera cosas así, pero tenía que aguantarme de no enojarme porque luego si armaba una escena de seguro no me dejaba ir a ver a Cristina. Escribí una carta, mi mamá me ayudó a escoger unas rosas en Wal-Mart y me dejó en el hospital, con ella esperando en el auto. Cómo muchos, no soy fan de los hospitales. Incluso cuando los pintan de beige y los llenan de lámparas hoteleras, siguen sintiéndose y viéndose cómo el interior de un refrigerador sucio. Igual y esos son los escalofríos y sudor frío que se me trepan siempre que me meto a uno. Pregunté por Cristina en la recepción y me perdí, tuve que dar cómo dos vueltas por todo el piso del hospital hasta llegar a su cuarto: el 204. Toqué la puerta y entré. Me recibió una chica de cómo treinta años de cabello largo negro, pálida cómo Cristina, chupando una Tootsie Pop de cereza. Se veía cansada, con sus ojos mostrando los rastros de una sombra que había sido corrida y arreglada varias veces. -¿Vienes a ver a Cristina?- preguntó, con una voz ligeramente chillona. - Si, señora- dije. -No soy señora. Soy Enid, la tía de Cristina. Pásale- dijo y me dejó pasar. Le di las gracias, cuidadosamente asomándome al cuarto. Y ahí vi a Cristina en la cama, con sus ojos cerrados y una venda sobre su frente. No sabía que fuera posible que se viera aún más pálida de lo que era, pero así estaba. Su pierna estaba firme y levantada, enroscada en un yeso ya con algunas firmas. La estaba viendo dormir, cosa que no esperaba hacer hasta ya que fuéramos novios. Ahora si tan solo pudiera hablar con ella. Cerré los ojos e intenté verla cómo cuando estaba despierta, cuando la veía en la escuela. Pero intenté no cerrar los ojos por demasiado tiempo, no quería verme raro. Le dejé las rosas con la carta entre las demás tarjetas y cajas de regalo que le habían dejado. Volteé a ver a Enid y le di las segundas y últimas gracias que le había dado en la visita y me fui. Por una semana sentí la incertidumbre si iba a despertar Cristina. Por ahí los maestros nos decían que parecía que iba bien, pero no se podía confirmar nada aún. Nos recomendaron que si habláramos de sus padres que fuera solo para darle el pésame y no para más, que evitáramos cualquier mención de ellos en otros sentidos. Marcelina de Segundo B dijo que duró todo el día en el hospital gritando y llorando, pero Elizabeth de Segundo D decía que se la pasó encerrada, que nadie realmente podía saber si gritó tanto. Luego un día llegó a la escuela en una silla de ruedas, escoltada por los prefectos. Se veía fría y distante, nada que ver con la Cristina que había visto en los recesos anteriores. En un receso, la vi viendo a los jugadores de futbol en el campo. Me acerqué a ella. -¿Cristina?- le dije. Volteó a verme. -¿Qué quieres?- preguntó. -Soy Benicio. Te fui a ver al hospital- le dije. -¿El de la carta y las flores?- -Sí- -Ah. Gracias.- -De nada. ¿Entonces te gustaron?- -Si- -¿También la carta?- -Pues…me gustó tu letra. Y la ortografía- Un grito desde el campo nos hizo voltear a verlos. Los jugadores estaban gritando y abrazándose, haciendo el tipo de gestos exagerados cómo los de “El Piojo” Herrera. -Bueno, gracias- le dije -De nada- contestó Uno de los porteros sacó la pelota con una patada. -¿Entonces yo no te gusto?- -Ehm…no…ahorita no quiero novio- -Va. Entiendo.- -Perdón- -No, está bien- Me volteé para irme. -Oye, no te vayas- dijo Me regresé hacia dónde estaba ella. -¿Qué pasa? -Nada. Nada más si me gustaría que te quedaras aquí- -Pero, ¿Y tus amigas?- -Antes de todo este desmadre se estaban haciendo güey conmigo- -Va, entiendo- Sonreí. -Nada más una duda…- Volteé a verla, intentando tragar saliva de la manera más disimulada. -…¿Por qué no me dijiste antes?- -Apenas me animé- Asintió con la cabeza. -Va- -¿Si está todo bien?- Un gentil coraje se veía en sus ojos. -Es muy feo lo que te pasó- -No me hagas mandarte a la chingada cómo a los demás- -Perdón- -No pasa nada, no hagas nada, ni me digas nada. Nada más quédate, ¿Va?- -Va- Dije y los dos nos quedamos viendo a los chavos jugar futbol.
Oscar Moreno born and raised in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, México, endured the crime wave that took over Juárez in the late 2000s. During that time, he studied Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso and then did a Master’s in Art and Design in the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez. His writing has been featured in the New York Times, the Seattle Star and the Rio Grande Review, while his scripts and short films have placed highly in such film festivals as the Sundance Lab and the Austin Film Festival. At present, he is in the Creative Writing MFA at UTEP, commuting every day across the border.
My mother Carmen often sent me to La Paloma Market, while my brother Salomon watched I Love Lucy re-runs. We lived in East Los Angeles’ Ramona Gardens housing project, where I had to be selective about the routes I took. Since I feared the barking dogs along the alley, I always took a shortcut through the hill that was controlled by a local gang—the Hill Boys. The homeboys never bothered me on my daily trip for groceries, especially since we attended Murchison Elementary School at the same time. It wasn’t until one hot Saturday morning, on my way to La Paloma, when one of the homeboys called me out for a fight. His name was Javier, an inductee of the Hill Boys who challenged me for my nickname, Smiley. A veterano gave me this nickname because I was always made him laugh. Eventually, everyone called me Smiley, including my parents. Although I never belonged to a gang—my application was rejected because I was too thin—I could never show signs of weakness or else I would become easy prey on the mean streets of the Eastside. Despite my initial reluctance to fight, Javier and I were to exchange blows, not for any grudges or personal issues, but for the right to be known as Smiley #1. Long before our fight, Javier and I would bump into each other at the hill on our way to La Paloma Market. We would acknowledge each other with casual nods of the head. During these encounters, we established a friendly relationship, despite our obvious differences. While I sported my Los Angeles Lakers jersey with my K-mart Lee’s jeans and Converse sneakers, Javier strutted along with the traditional gang attire—a neatly creased, white JC Penny T-shirt with brown, baggy khaki pants and Stacy Adams shoes. He also never left home without his Pendleton coat, neatly folded around his arm. He was a wannabe cholo back then. But our casual relationship changed that one Saturday morning, as Javier was being initiated into the Hill Boys. To become a Hill Boy, the inductee had a choice of either walking through parallel lines of homeboys to suffer hits and kicks until reaching the end, or fight against three of the toughest homeboys, while the other homeboys count up to ten. Javier chose the latter. As I watched Javier’s initiation from a safe distance, I witnessed his futile attempt to fight back against an onslaught of blows. “One, two, three, four…,” the homeboys slowly counted up to ten. Javier stood up as long as he could, but his knees finally buckled at the count of eight. The homeboys finished the last two counts with kicks to Javier’s back and legs. It ended with a loud “¡Basta!” Herbie, one of the homeboys, got in a last kick to Javier’s left shin. “Congratulations, man, you’re one of us,” yelled Duke, the gang leader. Javier slowly rose to his feet and tried to dust himself off. His neatly pressed T-shirt now sported rips, dirt and blood. All of the homeboys welcomed him with a bear hug. Almost in unison, they asked Javier to decide on a gang name. “Smiley,” he shouted, grinning with blood and dirt on his teeth. “You know that Smiley is already taken,” said Duke, as he glanced and pointed in my direction. “Choose another name, man.” “Well, why don’t we just duke it out for the name?” Javier asked. “Come in closer, Smiley,” yelled Duke, as he nodded at me. “You’ve been challenged to a fight. What’s it going to be? Are you going to fight or chicken out?” As I approached the homeboys, I thought about the promise I made to my mother that I was not to take part in gang activity. Since my nickname was not gang related, I didn’t feel obligated to defend it. It was just a nickname, I thought to myself. For Javier, however, it was more than a nickname. It was his new identity. It represented his new way of life: a proud member and defender of the Hill Boys. And there could only be room for one Smiley #1. As I got closer to Javier, he began to mad dog me. At that point, I had no way out. I was the only thing standing in his way to become Smiley #1. “No, Javier,” I said. “I don’t want to fight.” Before I could finish, Javier rushed at me, swinging in all directions. “Who are you calling Javier?” he shouted, coming at me with full force. “I’m Smiley #1, punk!” I put my hands up and started to fight, trying to defend myself against a determined foe. After two minutes, Duke broke us apart to see if I wanted to quit. “I’m down to keep going, if he’s down,” I said, knowing that quitting was not an option in my neighborhood. Waiting for a verbal response, Javier suddenly hit me on my chin. I went down like George Foreman against Muhammad Ali in the “Rumble in the Jungle.” “One…two…three…,” one of the homeboys counted. “You’re out of there,” proclaimed another homeboy. I slowly opened my eyes, trying to bring the homeboys’ faces into focus. “And the winner and new champion, all the way from the big, bad Hill Boys gang,” shouted an exuberant Duke, as he raised Javier’s arm up in the air, “Smiley #1.” As the applause dwindled, Javier helped me to my feet and gave me a hug. “Thanks for helping me up, Smiley,” I said to him with a look of defeat. “I have to go now. My mother is waiting for her tortillas de maiz and chicken.” When I got home, my mother asked me, “What happened to you?” “¿Qué?” I blurted out, pretending that nothing was wrong. She looked up at me, before inspecting the grocery bag. “You’re a mess, Smiley. And why did it take you so long?” “Oh…uh…I was chased by some dogs and fell,” I said. “How many times do I have to tell you not to go through the hill?” she scolded me. “Well, I need you to return to market and return this chicken. It smells.” “Why do I always have to go?” I said, as I shot a glance at my brother Salomon. “Why don’t you send him?” “You know that I can’t rely on your brother. He always forgets to get everything I ask him for,” she explained. “Maybe he forgets on purpose?” I responded with respect. Salomon kept quiet, concentrating on I Love Lucy. I’m sure he heard everything we said, however. A little grin crept across his face, yet I couldn’t tell what amused him more—my predicament or the television program. “Okay, I’ll go back,” I said, “but under one condition.” “What?” my mother asked. I paused for a moment and coughed. Salomon was still slouched in front of the TV, as I noticed his eyes shifting toward me. “Well?” said my mother, “I don’t have all day.” “Please,” I said in a clear voice, “I don’t want anyone to call me Smiley, anymore!” My mother shook her head, turned on her heel and walked to the kitchen without saying a word. Salomon’s eyes turned back to the television, where he let out a little laugh. I walked to the front door. “Have fun,” said Salomon, as I stepped out onto the porch. I let the screen door slam behind me, nervously anticipating what darkness awaited me in the projects.
The author’s father, 16, stands second from right in front of La Bonanza department store in Tucson, Arizona. The photo, taken in 1916, shows a “Special” priced at $59; the window reflects a shoe store across the street, a hitching post and a mule hauling a wagon.
This I know to be true
By Carlos G. Vélez-Ibáńez
From a lecture the author will present for the Saber es Poder—IME Award in Mexican American Studies ceremony at the University of Arizona at 6 pm on April 27, 2018, at the Consulate of Mexico in Tucson.
Many years ago in Tucson, on hot summer late afternoons sometimes, my father, Adalberto, my mother Luz Ibañez, my sister Lucy, and I would climb into my dad’s Model A Ford troquesito and look for ways to temper the heat of the day. On some occasions, we would go to Randolph Park where the grass was cool or sometimes for a little kid then only 4 or 5 years-old for an exciting ride up to A Mountain to peer down to the beginning of the winking lights of the then small city of Tucson. The Lyric and Plaza Theaters green, gold, and red marquees twinkled their upcoming attractions. Or sometimes, we simply rode around the University of Arizona with its palmeras and grass being sprinkled and took advantage of the breeze created by the “Forito” with the moisture of the sprinklers—a kind of ambulatory air conditioning at a time when only swamp coolers were the sources of relief if you had one. Since the seat of our Forito only had room for my parents and sister, I had to lay down on top of the seat back parallel to the back window and peer out at the huge brick buildings, tile roofs, and in the middle Old Main, setting itself apart from all the rest. I wondered why all this magnificence was there and I asked my Dad on one of those rides: Pa, Que hay alli? He paused as he turned the wheels around one of the many curves on the then small campus and said: “Allí está toda la sabidura del mundo.” There lies all of the world’s knowledge. I responded: “Allí voy a trabajar un día.” I’m going to work there one day. And I did and how I knew I don’t know but what I did know was that my parents and sister always confirmed on a daily basis that this is where there was “all of the world’s knowledge” and that it was for me to become part of it as a student and later after Mom and my sister had passed away, as an anthropologist. This I know to be true. But from this very early introduction to a world of knowledge, I also came to understand that what we knew to be true just was not known or part of this world at this university and not in many others in any substantive way. What I knew to be true was that the only reference to me as a person in elementary school was in a little primer entitled, “Carlos the Centipede,” and all the rest were about Dick and Jane who didn’t speak the language of my father and mother, and tías and tíos, and primas and primos, and of anything Mexican that I knew to be true. What I knew to be true was that I was born by accident in the old Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Nogales because we were returning to Tucson from visiting relatives in Magdalena and my mother pregnant with me went into labor pains right before the border line. After I was born, she said that my bassinet was placed next to the window parallel to the cyclone fence that separated Sonora from Arizona and that my feet were south while my head was north. So for the next many years, this travel was repeated many times during the year and my cousins and tías and tíos would reciprocate in kind and some of my cousins went to Salpointe and at times others attended the University of Arizona. This was a transborder life of extension beyond the border and we knew this to be true. We spoke Spanish when they visited and we spoke Spanish when we visited and my sister and I spoke Spanish to my parents and it was, however, sometimes a struggle. Because in fact many of us were in schools in which our language, much older than the University of Arizona or Arizona, was being submerged by an insistence on English sometimes brutally rendered. At times, we were pulled out of the waiting lines going into the elementary school room and if we spoke the forbidden language were given swats for each word spoken. There was no crying but that was left inside for many years and not forgotten. But this was balanced by caring Anglo teachers who made us hide behind them when the swatting principle passed by. I am sure that this was the only reason many of us did not become racists. For they, like some, had an uncommon commitment to protect the innocent. This we knew to be true. Nevertheless, we spoke and read it at home anyway and listened to my mother and father’s stories of their struggles and their achievements and of their unlimited capacities to overcome that which they should not be able to do and achieve that which they should not be able to do as well. So that my mother who spoke English in wonderful fractured phrases but spoke elegantly in Spanish, sang beautifully, and played the castanets at parties, read the Maryknoll Fathers’ lefty publications, and had a “fayuca” selling clothes and shoes to Braceros and Tohono O'odham agricultural workers in Marana, would talk about the Mexican Revolution and how her father—a Colonel of Cavalry had been killed at the battle of Parral with a dum-dum bullet as he was boarding a train after being defeated by Villa’s troops. Yet, her mother, almost simultaneously in the courtyard of her home, plugged the wounds of young revolutionaries with pillowcases and bed sheets and held their heads while they lay dying and asking for their own mothers. From this compassion grew my Mom’s unwavering moral center to defend the innocent and grew livid many years later in the late 1960’s when on television she saw police beating protestors during the Chicago convention and stated her displeasure in no uncertain terms in Spanish and fractured English. But I didn’t know then and until much later that this staunch Catholic centered moral woman was also a Sephardic Jew who revealed it to me after my sister had died and perhaps that was also part of her moral equation as well. I knew this to be true.
So did my bilingual father speak quietly of how he had been sent by his father to Tucson from Magdalena to his relatives on his mother’s side who had been in Tucson and Tubac since the Presidio. The Gastelum, Garcia, and Gil networks of viejos Mexicanos Indo Espańoles had gone back and forth between Tucson and Tubac and Magdalena and Altar long before there was an Arizona but referred to then only two grandmothers ago as la Pimeria Alta y Pimeria Baja or simply as Sonora.
“The surrey is important because my grandfather had a factory (in Magdalena, Sonora)of 50 men making surreys, stagecoaches, and ore wagons for the mines. worked as a clerk in La Bonanza (department store) which later became Jacome’s, and later ceased to exist in the 1970s. The man in the middle of the picture is Alejandro Jacome who was the part owner of the store.”
He had been sent to learn English so that his father Manuel could open a carriage and ore wagon factory in order not to have to sell his wagons to Federico Ronstadt who then took his nameplate off and sold them as his own. The invention of the automobile ruined these plans so Adalberto went to elementary school, Roskruge, and Tucson High and by going back and forth to Magdalena learned also to become an auto mechanic since the “factory” in Magdalena was converted to an automobile garage and gas station. Simultaneously, he sold clothes at the age of 16 at La Bonanza which later became Jacome’s and also delivered telegrams for Western Union, and as well he used a piano tuning fork to tune Barney Oldfield’s wheel spokes on his racing car which ran races on Speedway, which is now a major thoroughfare. But he also spoke in measured tones of the terrible things that Sonora did to the Yoemi people and said as a child he witnessed the hanging of these people for miles between Magdalena and Imuris and many of those who escaped created Pascua Village off of Grant Road and Guadalupe south of Phoenix by crossing that bifurcation we call the border. And on that border he spoke of how his eldest brother Lauro had caught up with a deposed Revolutionary Coronel who had murdered his compadre. The Colonel had killed him when he ordered him to stand down as the Alcalde and he had refused. Later the Colonel had lost favor in the new Revolutionary government and fled to the hills of the Bacatete Mountains but the Yoemi who lived there sent word to my Tío Lauro that he would be crossing at Nogales. So he waited for the Colonel at the Yellow line separating the two Nogaleses and noticed an ice truck that delivered ice from Nogales, Sonora to Nogales, Arizona was not dripping water from its canvas-covered load. He stopped it and took out the hiding deposed Colonel who begged for his life on his knees. But Lauro being the man he was, placed his 45 Colt Revolver in the man’s mouth and killed him. My Dad said that his feet lay on the Sonora side, while his blood ran north. So for many years, “Ed,” as he was known by his fellow mechanics because they couldn’t pronounce “Adalberto,” came home to regale us with his stories of having fixed the impossible, taking complex differentials and transmissions of huge trucks and making them hum again simply by listening to the way the gears were turning and falling inside of their covered gaskets.
A picture of a mesquite wagon wheel with the author's grandfather' name plate, and a date carved in by his father so as not to forget when it was built.
One day, he came home and I was now around ten years old and instead of regaling us, he told my mother how he had asked for a raise at his job and how the foreman had told him “to go back to Mexico.” And even though my mom soothed his brow when he came home, from then on he was very quiet about his work. This we know to be true. But we also lived a transborder life in spite of, like I said, frequent visitations and travel across the bifurcation but lived that life in Tucson so that on Fridays my mother, father, and sister and I would now be driven in the Forito to the Plaza Theater and fall off of our chairs at the antics of Cantinflas and Tin Tan, admire the voice of Jorge Negrete, and swoon at the sight of Maria Felix while I munched on buttered popcorn. And on Saturday we would go to the Lyric Theater across the street where we watched second-run American movies and admired Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and Bob Hope, also swooning and laughing but in English. My sister Lucy worked as a cashier there after being moved from the Fox Theater so she could speak to the customers in Spanish. And we also watched the Pathway Film news in English about World War II. But we were not there either since all of the faces and names of those appearing had nothing to do with us. But when we visited the Acostas on Sunday next and a telegram arrived that Bobby had died in a prisoner of war hospital after being shot down over Germany, Mrs. Acosta’s screams would indelibly be etched in my mind and soul and they remain there to even this moment. I knew this to be true. A few years later and me now a teenager, when Gene Suarez came to court my sister Lucy after he had returned from Korea having served as the only Chicano Marine combat photographer for many months, I couldn’t fail to notice that he was barely able to hold a cup of coffee in his hand without clinking the saucer underneath and when I asked stupidly why he shook, he could only grimace a smile. However, we didn’t appear in any movies about Korea nor in any documentary following that war so that later when my cousin Bill now a retired mathematics professor came home, he was ignored or despised as a Vietnam veteran until only very recently. Yet even now, Ken Burns ignored us again in his series of WWII and Vietnam films. We knew that was not true and even so much more. But what we also learned was to become culturally bilingual, bicultural, and multihistorical and not homogenized even though most institutions insisted us with the opposite. We became in spite of and not because of and we became also quite cognizant of the limits of all of the world’s knowledge which we knew was there but not made present by any medium or narrative. So, we often reflected on what we knew to be true. Thus, we were taught history through unsolicited conversations so that one day after we had eaten dinner and in the living room watching Gorgeous George—the blond, curly haired wrestler on a black and white Sylvania TV, my mother delicately broached the subject with my father, that Lucy, before she met my brother in law, was going to be visited by a young man. My sister was seven years older than I so I could be a royal pest when young men came over. But on this occasion my very Sonorense Dad asked who the young man was and my mother responded that he was a young Irish neighborhood boy by the name of Brendan Flannery, but said something like (phonetic pronunciation) to which he responded that No, he only wanted Sonorenses. My mother said,” but wait a minute; don’t you remember that they fought for us?” I didn’t know what this meant so I asked, and my mom responded that this was the Irish San Patricio Brigade that fought valiantly for Mexico against the invading American army in Mexico City. My dad paused and responded, “Ah, sí, dile al muchacho que venga.” So from two grandmothers ago this was still fresh in their minds and now mine. This we know to be true. Yet the non-existing process was reinforced again and again in almost every imaginable way possible from schools, to films, to novels, to short stories, to newspapers, to non-histories, or even worse represented as a people without histories, but just a population to be bought and sold like those we observed during the awful Operation Wetback of the 1950s. My parents made sure that we were well dressed before we went to mass a la Iglesia de Santa Cruz on 22nd Street so we wouldn’t be confused with the “mojados” who were rounded up as they left Holy Communion. My dad remembered in the thirties that there had been previous expulsions of hundreds of mexicanos many of them American citizens and were lined up like cattle for the train trip to Nogales. But, ironically many of those same mexicanos returned to fight in World War II like my kids’ Uncle Tony who was wounded at Anzio serving as an Army paratrooper and chased about by a German Tiger tank until it caught up with him, but none appeared like him except ever so slightly much later in the Band of Brothers series. This we knew to be true. But, it all came to a head during and after Vietnam because we just said “Ya Basta” and in many different ways we invented an entire course of study that we knew to be true and that was Mexican American Studies. And we experimented during that period and created, and argued, and debated what we thought we knew to be true. Some of us went off on fancy theoretical roads that often obfuscated rather than clarified which we knew to be true. Sometimes we created elaborate explanations filled with polysyllabic words of alleged wisdom and understanding but sometimes we confused ourselves. Yet for the most part, I think we got it right so that an entire literature exploded of creative works in the humanities, social sciences and stimulated our presence in the sciences. So that across the board exploded the works from novels to short stories, from Miguel Mendez to Sandra Cisneros and in grand works of anthropology like those of Roberto R. Alvarez and Diego Vigil and certainly almost parallel to this was Tom Sheridan’s great work and in history as well as such as Dave Weber’s masterful works, and Juan Gomez Quinońes, and of course my old friend Oscar Martinez, and the old Sonorense descendent—cantankerous but historically wonderful—Rudy Acuña. But not to be outdone and to balance if not overtake the male narratives emerged the crucial and the pioneering work of the Chicana history risk-taker Antonia Hernandez and the feminist genius of Vicki Ruiz, and the great border Poet and Essayist, Gloria Anzaldua, and certainly not the least la chiquita pero muy grande—the anthropologist Patricia Zavella documenting the historical and anthropological space and place of Mexican cannery women—things began to come together as more proximate to that which we knew to be true. And scientific warriors like my Cousin Bill and many others in the sciences made sure that our kids became mathematicians, biologists, material scientists, and created new funds of knowledge and what many do not know is that in the sciences alone the Chicano Ford Fellows in the sciences were awarded over a 20 year period almost 185 million dollars in research awards of a sample of Fellows I collected. This while my cousin Manny taught English at Pima to give our kids hope and knowledge and a way forward past the non-narratives. Gilbert, my other cousin, created “El Mariachi” to solidify lo mexicano once and for all in space and place and without denial or shame of either language, culture, or song. And so many others refused to be unnoticed or erased like my former freshman high school student, Isabel Garcia, who went on to be one of the premier immigration and social justice protectors of innocents and, of course, Sal Baldenegro and Raquel Goldschmidt who continue to fight the good fight to this moment. And fresh from concretizing the great copper strikes with her incessant support and action, Ana O'Leary Ochoa joined a new cohort of intellectual warriors with Norma Gonzalez as graduate students and they became amazing innovative knowledge makers of our history and language, and most recently both of them crossed borders to tell the tales of the suffering of the innocents of deported parents now in schools in Mexico suffering what generations earlier suffered in English-only schools. They and We in fact pivoted through our work through Mexican American Studies and impacted greatly on the narratives of universities, colleges, and public schools from a population noted merely as a partial commodity to a historical one, one present from the past, and one present in the present and one present for the future. So we created departments, programs, and even schools all devoted to this population sometimes ethnically focused, sometimes in tandem with other populations, and certainly in many cases with a transborder cast that recognized the commonality of not only culture and language, but of relationships, connectivities, and ties between all of the varying versions of ourselves. And in spite of the state debacle of the Tucson program, the students, teachers, and community knew what was to be true—and won—at least the war but not the battle, not quite yet. The negating assumption of the anti-Mexican American move failed because it could simply not recognize the following. We range culturally and genetically from Texcoco of Mesoamerica to the Four Corners of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado, from the Spanish Palace of Madrid to the Alhambra of Granada, and from the Castillo of Chapultepec of Mexico City and the Virgen de Guadalupe on el Cerro de Tepeyac to the adobe walls of the Presidio of Tucson and to the Dove on the Desert—San Xavier del Bac and from our homes with the cyclone fences behind which grow yellow roses to the red and blue banners of Bear Down Gym. We are history makers and doers and accept all as we would accept ourselves since in fact we are the world in so many ways. We are Mexican American Studies and we are the intellectual and cultural repository and depository of this population south and north of the bifurcated line only two grandmothers old. We narrate about ourselves and others and we respect the mechanics, carpenters, gardeners, mathematicians, physicians, biologists, and housecleaners, taco stand owners, and abuelas y tías, y primos and friends, Anglos, African Americans, Indígenas, Asians, todos—because we are also all of them. We speak Spanish, English, Spanglish, and if we are very lucky, a bit of Yoemi, Navajo and Tohono O'odham. We lose our children in American wars, and sometimes in the street and too many still are not graduating and too many are locked up where they should not be. We have struggled, we have achieved, we have failed and we have succeeded. But we are not ahistorical nor a simple commodity. We are history and history makers and We know all this to be true and We are Mexican American Studies. So that if I were five again and lying on top of the backseat of my Dad’s Forito and passing by the University of Arizona and I asked once more: “Pa, que hay allí?” Now, his answer would be slightly changed: “Allí ahora si está toda la sabiduria del mundo.” Now all of the world’s knowledge is there. I know that to be true.
Carlos G. Vélez-Ibáñez, an anthropologist, is Regents’ Professor and Founding Director Emeritus of the School of Transborder Studies and Motorola Presidential Professor of Neighborhood Revitalization, and Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University. He has also taught at UCLA and the University of Arizona where in 1982 he was the founding director of the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology. Carlos was recently named the first recipient of the newly created Saber es Poder-IME Academic Excellence Award in Mexican American Studies, which includes a $10,000 cash award.
I have always been nervous about visiting my old neighborhood. One day, my brother Salomon—an acclaimed artist—invited my younger brothers (Noel and Ismael) and me to meet him at our old neighborhood—East Los Angeles’ notorious Ramona Gardens housing projects. (Apart from his good looks, Noel possessed the most talent and smarts among the brothers and in the projects.) Salomon had to retouch his mural in memory of Arturo “Smokey” Jimenez, who was murdered by the cops in 1991. His killing sparked days of protests and riots from local residents against a long history of police brutality and harassment in America’s barrios. Two days later, after receiving Salomon’s phone call, I drove my 1967 Mustang to the projects. Many years had passed since I left the projects to attend UCLA, as a 17-year-old freshman—majoring in mathematics. I always felt nervous about returning to my old neighborhood ever since, not knowing how my childhood friends and local homeboys would welcome me. I abandoned them all: Buddy, Herby, Ivy, Chamino, Peanut Butter, Nayto, Teto, Tavo, Joaquin and Fat Ritchie. There is always a fat kid. I felt like I left them and my family in a hostile place. Together, we were safe. Separated, we became vulnerable. My heart pounded as I approached the graffiti-decorated projects. I parked at the Shell gas station on Soto Street, near the 10 freeway. I looked at the rear-view mirror, as I combed my dark black hair with my Tres Flores hair gel and reminded myself that this is where I came from. Be tough, I thought to myself. I gained my composure and slowly mustered a tough demeanor. Signs of weakness only attract the bullies in the projects. I started my engine, cruised over the railroad tracks, slowed down for the speed bumps, passed the vacant Carnation factory and parked in front of La Paloma Market—where our family got credit. As I got out of my car, not far from Smokey’s mural, a couple of homeboys confronted me. “Where are you from, ese?” one of the homeboys asked, slowly approaching me. Actually, it was more of a demand. “Hey, punk, what are you doing in the projects?” a young homebody chimed in. He must have been only 13 years of age, but was ready to defend his neighborhood. Sometimes, being tough is the only thing that a kid from the projects has to hold unto. Before I could answer, a stocky homeboy replied, “Hey, man, leave him alone. I know this vato. We go way back.” “Fat Ritchie, is that you?” I asked, relieved to be saved from the onslaught of blows that awaited me. There is something about pain that never appealed to me. “That’s right,” he said, as he welcomed me with a bear hug. “Hey, bro, how did you get so buff?” I asked, amazed at his transformation from the neighborhood fat kid to the muscular gangster. “Where do you work out? Gold’s Gym?” “Nah, man, try San Quentin State Prison,” he proudly responded. “There’s no Gold’s Gym in Ramona Gardens!” “Oh,” I said, feeling like an idiot for asking a stupid question. “By the way, have you seen Nayto?” “I don’t know what happened to him,” Fat Ritchie responded. “Most of the guys we hung out with as kids are either dead, in jail, on drugs or got kicked out by the housing authorities. Only the dedicated ones stuck around to protect the neighborhood.” As kids, we roamed the projects without paranoid parents dictating our every move. Life back then was not as violent. It was a time before crack, PCP and high-powered guns flowed into the projects without limits. While drugs and violence existed before the drug business skyrocketed and outsiders intervened in the projects, back then, problems among the homeboys usually resulted in a fistfight. And since no rival gang or outsider dared to venture into the projects, Ramona Gardens was our haven—except when it came to the cops or housing authorities (who behaved more like prison guards). We were just a bunch of project kids hanging out, playing sports and getting into trouble. Every time we got into trouble, Nayto was in the middle of it. There was something special about Nayto. He was tall and muscular for an eleven-year-old. He was dark-skinned with curly brown hair. He had great athletic skills that gained him respect among his peers. Despite his crooked teeth, he was always smiling. He seemed restless, always planning for his next scheme and adventure. Like many kids from the projects, he didn’t have a father in the household, making it difficult for his mother to keep track of him and his two younger brothers. Reminiscing about Nayto takes me back to my childhood, when I played sports with my friends all day long. We liked playing baseball. It was a hot Sunday morning. We met, like always, in front of Murchison Street Elementary School. We had no parks in the projects, so we played on Murchison’s hot asphalt playground. We brought our cracked bats, old gloves, ripped baseballs and hand-me-down Dodger jerseys. One by one, we scaled the school’s twelve-feet fence. Most of us climbed easily, like Marines performing boot camp drills. Yet, Fat Ritchie struggled. Like many other times, he found himself sitting on top of the fence, as Buddy shook it. “Don’t mess around man,” Fat Ritchie pleaded with Buddy to stop. “Hey, Buddy,” said Nayto, “leave him alone or else I’ll kick your ass, again.” Once on the playground, we picked teams. Suddenly, Nayto ran off towards the school’s bungalows without saying a word. The game was not the same without Nayto. We would miss his home runs and wild curveballs. He would even nose dive like Pete Rose, when stealing second base. But, the game must go on, where we started to play without our best player. Short a man, the team captains argued over the odd number of players to pick from. As a compromise, they decided that the team with less players got stuck with Fat Ritchie. As the game began, we heard a noise coming from the janitor’s storage facility, adjacent to the empty bungalows with the broken windows. “It’s just Nayto messing around,” yelled Joaquin from right field. In the bottom of the third inning, Nayto finally emerged from the storage area. He ran across the playing ground with his clothes drenched in what appeared to be motor oil. “Nobody say shit or else,” Nayto yelled, as he interrupted our game. “What did he say?” asked Buddy. “Nothing,” I replied. “Let’s keep playing, it’s just Nayto being Nayto.” “Come on, let’s play,” said Herby. “I need to go home before I Love Lucy re-runs start.” A few minutes later, a police helicopter appeared over the storage area. Five LAPD cars surrounded the school. Before we could run, the cops cut the lock on the fence and stormed the playground like a SWAT Team. We knew the routine: we got down on our knees, put our hands behind the back of our heads and waited to be spoken to. “Did you street punks see a dirty Mexican kid run through here a few minutes ago?” said a white cop. “He’s about five feet tall and full of oil.” Following the neighborhood code, we stayed quiet in unison. “Fine,” said the exasperated cop. “Clear this playground before I arrest all of you for trespassing.” Frustrated, the cops drove away without knowing about Nayto’s whereabouts. Pissed off, we slowly picked up our bats, gloves and balls to leave the school playground. Out of nowhere, Nayto reappeared and ran towards the storage room, again. This time, he emerged carrying a large, oily item. “Nayto ripped off Toney-the-Janitor,” said Fat Ritchie in a panic, while checking out the pillaged storage room. We all ran home, before the cops returned. Days later, as we played tackle football on the parking lot, Nayto cruised by in a gas-powered go-cart. We stopped our game and chased after him on our old bikes and skateboards. It wasn’t your typical push-from-behind, wooden go-cart. It was a customized, low rider go-cart: painted cherry red, velvet seat covers, leather steering wheel and small whitewall tires with chrome-plated spoke rims. The engine was positioned in the back, like a VW Beatle. It had a Chevrolet emblem glued to the front. It was a barrio gem! “Where did you get that low rider go-cart?” I asked with envy. “I made it myself,” Nayto said, not making a big fuss over his invention. Aware of his tendency to lie, I closely examined the go-cart. The frame consisted of parts from Nayto’s old Schwinn bike. The seat—with the velvet upholstery—was a milk crate taken from La Paloma Market. And I will never forget the leather steering wheel, which Nayto took or borrowed from a stolen ’76 Cadillac El Dorado convertible that the homeboys abandoned in the projects. It still had the shiny Cadillac emblem in the center. In the front of the go-cart, the Chevrolet emblem also originated from a stolen car in the projects. Once stripped by the homeboys, like a piñata at a kids party, the stolen car parts were up for grabs for the locals, prior to being torched. The engine looked familiar, but I couldn’t figure out where Nayto got it from. “Read what is says on the engine,” Nayto said, impatiently. I took a second look at the oily engine. “Property of M.S.E.S?” I asked, not being able to decipher the acronym. “I thought you were the smart one?” Nayto said with a smirk. “M.S.E.S. stands for Murchison Street Elementary School.” “Oh, man!” I said. “You stole that … I mean … you got that from the storage room when the cops were looking for you the other day at Murchison.” “Why do you think the school doesn’t clean the playground anymore?” he asked. “Do you remember that big vacuum cleaner that Toney-the-Janitor drove after school, while trying to hit us?” “Yeah, that jerk hit me one time,” I said. “I hated that man,” said Nayto. “That’s what he gets for messing with us.” “How about a ride?” I asked. “Get on before the cops come by,” he replied. We cruised around the projects in his customized, low rider go-cart, chasing down the little kids on their way to church and the winos in front of Food Gardens Market. Protecting their turf, the winos hurled empty Budweiser bottles at us, missing us by a mile. Unfazed, Nayto stepped on the pedal. Not paying attention, he ran over a cat. It belonged to Mother Rose, the only black lady left in the projects. Fearing Mother Rose’s wrath, he kept driving until we got drenched from the water gushing from the yellow fire hydrant on Crusado Lane. Lacking a local pool, the homeboys would open the fire hydrant during hot days for the kids. Driving for almost an hour, we ran out of gas. Luckily, Nayto was always prepared. He had a small water hose handy, where I volunteered to siphon gas from an old Toyota Pickup that belonged to Father John Santillan from Santa Teresita Church. Nayto claimed that he was once an altar boy, where Father John wouldn’t mind if we borrowed some gas. Either way, there were some bad rumors in the neighborhood about Father John, so we didn’t consider it a sin. Grateful for the ride, I siphoned the gas before the Sunday mass ended. The gas left a bad taste in my mouth. The Wrigley's Spearmint gum that my father gave me later that day didn’t help. That adventurous ride, however, was worth every drop of gas that I consumed. Those were the days...
The phone rang. It was 3:00 a.m. I slowly opened my eyes, taking a deep breath before I answered the call. “What’s wrong?” I asked, knowing that good news never comes this early. “Fat Ritchie passed away,” Buddy said. “The cops killed him, where witnesses said he was not armed.” I hung up the phone. I felt numb. Another childhood friend was killed. When was this ever going to end, I wondered aloud? Like most of the kids from the projects, from day one, Fat Ritchie never had a chance. He was a short, chubby kid who was constantly picked on by the neighborhood bullies. Whenever we played handball, one of the bullies would force him to stand against the wall until everyone had a chance to hit him with the ball. Once, while playing football at Murchison, the quarterback gave him the ball and everyone, including his teammates, dog piled on him until he couldn’t breathe. When he got up, everyone acted like they were innocent. Since I last saw him, however, no one dared to pick on Fat Ritchie. Those who thrived in the penitentiary returned with a sense of respect and status. While Fat Ritchie had earned the respect of the neighborhood, it was another story with the cops. Angry that they couldn’t bust him on a major crime, the cops falsely arrested Fat Ritchie for armed robbery based on the word of a local snitch. A couple of years later, upon his release, Fat Ritchie became another victim of police brutality. Three days after receiving the tragic news, I returned to the projects to pay my last respects to Fat Ritchie. It was also an opportunity to reunite with my other childhood friends. I arrived late. The church was full. I decided to wait outside with the other mourners, waiting for the coffin to be taken to the hearse. Suddenly, I saw a tall homeboy with dark skin and curly brown hair carrying the coffin with three other homeboys. They’re all dressed in black with dark sun glasses. “Is that Nayto?” I asked a stranger. “What, ese?” he asked, sounding annoyed while he got closer to me. “Back off, man,” I replied, letting him know that I, too, grew up in the projects. Once the homeboys gently placed the coffin inside the hearse, I walked towards the tall homeboy, as he made his way towards a 1967 Impala low rider. He got into his car and started the engine. “Nayto, is that you?” I yelled out in his direction. He glanced at me and, with without a word, drove away towards the cemetery. A tear came down my cheek.
Álvaro Huerta, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning and ethnic and women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, writes short stories based on his experiences growing up in East Los Angeles. He is the author of Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm (San Diego State University Press, 2013). He mostly publishes scholarly books and journal articles, along with policy papers and social commentaries. Note: A version of this short story appeared in The Homeboy Review Issue 1, Spring 2009.