by Linda Zamora Lucero
Papa’s funeral, spring 2009. In the tiny chapel are my sister Ellie and her clan from Phoenix, my brother Tito, both of Tito’s ex-wives, and Papa’s best buddies—Montez leaning on his cane, Garcia in his wheelchair, reeking of cigar—both retired welders from Hunters Point shipyard. Papa radiated so much love even my newly ex-boyfriend Julián shows his face to pay final respects. Only Mama is missing. When Tito went to pick her up, she insisted she was too distraught to come. Great, I think, although I don’t believe it for a second. Sure enough, just as the service begins, she materializes in the middle of “Gracias a la vida” in a red coat and yellow hat with feathers.
“I don’t need help to sit down!” Mama says, slapping the usher’s hand away.
“You’re late,” I whisper, grudgingly making room for her in the pew. Dressed up for Papa, I’m wearing a fitted black dress with tiny hand-sewn turquoise flowers, a Oaxacan shawl, large hammered gold hoops, black hair pinned up.
“Hello, Raquel,” Mama says pleasantly, sitting on the fringe of my shawl. “Such beautiful music.” And she commences to hum along with the vocalist. Yanking the shawl loose, I close my eyes and pretend she isn’t there.
After the service, our family gathers at Tito’s house, where we wolf down plates of homemade chile verde, throw back shots of Herradura and recount the same cherished stories we always do whenever we get together. A favorite is how one Thanksgiving—this was before Mama abandoned us—we children were squabbling over the drumsticks—and Papa asked if he could just this once have some peace around the table. Seven-year-old Tito, thinking he was being real hilarious, smugly handed Papa the bowl of peas, whereupon Papa angrily slammed his fork on the table. We watched in horror as the fork slowly became airborne and cracked the kitchen window. We ate in chilly silence until the pumpkin pie with whipped cream made us boisterously happy again.
Tito says, “’Member?” We laugh at the timeworn anecdotes, fall silent with grief. At the ripe age of thirty-nine, Ellie gets up to dance, leading us in a raucous chorus of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Missing Papa’s delighted belly laugh at his youngest daughter’s antics, I suppress a shuddering sob. Ellie’s kids bickering over a toy feels like the saddest thing in the world. Tito brings Mama a cup of té manzanilla and fusses over her. She eyes the proceedings from a corner armchair, the feathered hat like some ridiculous canary atop her head. She’s on her best behavior.
Of course, it doesn’t last. Barely three weeks pass before the director of the Thirtieth Street Senior Center calls me at Galería Libertad, the community art center I direct, asking to meet with Mama’s family, meaning Tito and me, since Ellie is safely back in Phoenix. Thirtieth Street is where Mama eats lunch on weekdays, takes piano classes, and is an active member of Mr. Topper’s Mission Tappers, no tapper under seventy-five. Before he died, Papa spent his Saturdays playing poker at Thirtieth Street.
“I realize this is a difficult time, so I do apologize,” Mrs. Whitmark says, her lipstick pomegranate pink. She pauses, looks up through bifocals, and an all too familiar despair washes over me. To most people, Mama is an eccentric elder with a mind of her own. Some of us know otherwise. “Mrs. Flores is accusing people of stealing from her purse. Everyone is suspect—the other seniors, the janitors, the cooks, even myself. It’s quite upsetting. Your father helped calm her whenever she got this way, and now we need her family to step in.”
“Of course,” Tito says, nodding. “We’ll talk with her.” Tito is a machinist for the transit system. He’s completely overbearing, but somehow women find him fascinating. He’s been married twice with no children, while I can’t seem to find my match, romantically-speaking. Tito has no idea what I do at Galería Libertad. He teases me by introducing me to his friends as “my sister, the starving artist,” and he’s not far wrong. But in the Mission arts community, I have found friendship, love, sustenance. My home.
“Losing Dad hasn’t been easy for Mom,” Tito continues. I love my brother, but when it comes to Mama, he ticks me off.
“She’s crazy,” I say flatly, brushing a strand of hair from my eye. After Papa’s funeral I’d shorn my long hair into an asymmetrical what-I-hoped-was-stylish cut.
Tito shoots me a foul look. But crazy explained my mother who, one ordinary morning after Papa had gone to work, made us children breakfast and sent us off to school, then took a train back to her hometown in New Mexico. To stay.
Tito was ten; Ellie, six. I was twelve.
In the chaos that followed we all pitched in to help Papa with shopping, cooking and housekeeping. That was the easy part. After Mama left, Ellie suffered from debilitating headaches and Tito was suspended from school every other week for one thing or another. Papa began drinking heavily. There was no one to turn to. My parents had grown up in New Mexico, but we were born and raised in San Francisco in four rooms on Shotwell Street, miles away from kinfolk who gossiped about the neighbors, shushed children at weddings and offered solace when worlds shattered. I was raw with anger at Mama, praying that she’d return to us, declaring that she wouldn’t dare.
“Maybe,” my best friend Anna said, “she ran off with a lover.” Prone to dramatic flights of fancy, Anna with her black cat’s-eye glasses concocted wildly romantic stories about our favorite middle school teachers. Now she had one for my mother.
Maybe you can just shut up,” I said. A weak response, but heartfelt.
Crazy explained Mama’s sudden reappearance in San Francisco five years later. That was the first time a social worker told us Mama was “mentally and emotionally unstable.” But I knew he meant crazy, and for that I was grateful. It explained her crying jags, her periodic paranoia, her denials that she needed help, her refusal to take prescribed medication. Crazy summed it up.
In Mrs. Whitmark’s office, Tito loudly clears his throat and promises that he will get Mama to take her meds.
“Good luck,” I say, grabbing my daypack.
Tito is uncharacteristically silent as we leave Thirtieth Street, his broad, good-natured face splotchy. As soon as we reach my beat-up Toyota, he lets loose. “You were out of line, Rocky, calling Mom crazy! She’s our mother!”
Tito and Mama wrote each other regularly after she left. She worked in a café near Taos, and, as we found out later, had reconnected with a high school flame. I was horrified. Tito and Ellie visited her summers, but I refused. When Mama returned, my siblings were elated, being younger and obviously needier than I was. In the five years she’d been gone, I had become 100% Papa’s girl, Athena sprung from Zeus’s head, full grown and battle-ready. Papa never dissed her, but I held her responsible for his alcoholism, his melancholy, for all of us having had to answer endless questions from teachers, busybody neighbors, and shitty strangers who felt sorry for us. Because what’s more pitiful than motherless children in a strange land?
So when Tito says, “She’s our mother,” I say, “You’re entitled to your opinion, Tito. I have to go. We have an exhibit of Cuban posters opening in a week.”
“Weird haircut,” he snorts. He gets into his car and peels out, as if he were sixteen instead of forty-one. I burst out laughing as his Midnight Blue Chevy leaves fat skid marks on the asphalt.
The next time I see Tito, I’ll ask about his prize roses. We Flores don’t say Sorry, even when it’s called for, or a straight-out up-front I love you, even though we do. After an argument, when one of us asks about the weather, it means I’m over it. Dancing salsa after a backyard barbeque means I love my family, or I love the whole fucking world and everything in it. Things go unsaid for days, even years, the love, anger or sorrow pent up inside like a great accumulation of molten lava below surface, wanting release. It’s the Flores way.
Friday evening, I’m at home on the computer, writing wall text for the exhibit, half listening to Jeopardy. The category is “Shakespeare,” the answer is “Doubtful Dane.” My cell buzzes—Ellie in Phoenix. I ignore it. We used to watch Jeopardy, Papa and me. He admired Alex Trebek. Debonaire, brainy and not above showing it.
A contestant hits her buzzer and shouts “Who is Hamlet?”
On Ellie’s third call, I answer, muting the TV.
“Mom’s not answering her phone,” my sister says.
“I wasn’t answering my phone either,” I chuckle.
Ellie ignores me. “Mom was perfectly fine yesterday—Tito says she’s taking her meds, but now I’m worried.” Usually, Ellie asks about what’s happening at the Galería, or about my mostly pathetic, sometimes hilarious dating forays in the six months since I broke up with Julián. Not this time. “Have you seen Mom since the funeral?”
On television, Alex Trebek’s lips announce Final Jeopardy, inspiring looks of consternation in the contestants. The category is “San Antonio, Texas.”
“Remember the Alamo?” I ask Ellie, wishing she didn’t live so far away. I miss our sisterly heart-to-hearts over her homemade biscochitos and wine.
“Come on, Rocky, would you just get over there and check on how she’s doing? Tito’s in L.A. this week.”
I sigh loudly, meaning yes.
“Great! Love you!” she says, and hangs up. And the burden shifts to me.
Mama lives in the same paint-peeling, rent-controlled Edwardian flat we were raised in, located in the heart of the Mission—what the realtors gleefully call “a neighborhood in transition.” No doubt. Since 1492.
The door cracks open.
“Hi.” I slide my foot inside before Mama can decide whether or not she wants a visitor. “It's me, your daughter.”
“I know.” Hazel eyes peer up at me through huge red eyeglass frames. Mama is queen of her private little planet. She’s wearing a crimson apron with gold rickrack trim over a blue sweater shot with silver on top of a fuchsia dress. Purple leggings, lambswool slippers and a silver “Hottie” pendant complete the look.
We are nothing alike. Born in the history-rich Abiquiú, New Mexico, Mama grew up speaking Spanish but she looks like a gringa with pale skin, auburn hair, light eyes like a wary cat. I’m dark like Papa, and proud of it. His first language was also Spanish, but his maternal grandparents were Taos Pueblo. I dress in black: turtleneck, jeans, boots. I do rock the earrings, however; the showier, the better. Today’s earrings are humongous crimson Lucite hearts, a gift from a Oaxacan artist.
“What happened to your hair?” Mama says.
“Why don’t you answer your phone?” I counter.
The flat smells of Papa’s Tiger Balm and tobacco. I have to stop and catch my breath.
“What’s wrong with you, fighting with me already?” Mama looks down the street before closing the door. “I thought you were someone else.” Her tone sweetens. “How are you, anyway, Raquel?”
An ordinary question in an affectionately maternal voice, perfectly calculated to derail me. She does this every so often, and when she does, my heart flips like a kite in high wind, and I wonder what it would be like to have a real mother. Would we go to museums together? Would we shop for shoes, get our nails done? What do regular mothers and daughters do? The question slams into me whenever I run into girlfriends with moms, enjoying themselves. Mama hadn’t been there to help me buy my first bra or see me win first prize in a high school art contest. There was more I’d missed, things more profound. I just didn’t know what.
The hallway is piled with boxes.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“I called Goodwill, but they’ve gotten choosy…your father kept everything: clothes, magazines, rusty tools.”
A wave of fear hits me. “Goodwill? Where’s his brown suitcase?” Blood thunders in my ears. I catch a glimpse of myself in the hallway mirror. I look exactly the way I feel, bug-eyed and off-kilter.
“There’s more in the garage. Not interested in old junk. Old junk, old men, old ideas.” Mama laughs, apparently delighted with herself.
Old junk? “Please, please, don’t give anything away! I’ll get Tito to bring his pickup next weekend and we’ll take it all.”
She disappears into the front room where the furniture—sofa, coffee table, Papa’s La-Z-Boy—has been moved against the walls. She pulls aside the lace curtains on the bay windows and looks out to the quiet street. “The piano should be here by now.”
“Piano?” She doesn’t need a piano. Tito gave her an electric keyboard on one of her birthdays. It’s programmable, so that she can play tango, classical or her pop favorites. Papa would read his detective novels in his recliner, foot tapping while she plinked out Beatles tunes note by note.
I never understood why he took her back.
“Respect your mama,” Papa admonished me when I gave her attitude. “No matter what, she is your mother.” Respecting Papa, I shrugged. I was seventeen when she returned to Shotwell Street, my eyes were already focused on college and the wider world.
Turning from the window, Mama says, “Can I borrow ten dollars until Friday?”
I dig into my bag and hand her a ten and a twenty. “Just keep it.” I feel vaguely virtuous, giving her something without begrudging it.
“I said borrow, Raquel, and only ten until Friday when my social security arrives.” The folded bill disappears into her apron pocket.
“Whatever. I’ll have some water and then I’m out of here.” Running the faucet in the kitchen, I check for signs to report to Ellie. Cereal bowl in sink, oatmeal encrusted. Golden moth orchids I’d bought for Papa at the Alemany Farmer’s Market, shriveled and fallen onto the windowsill like exploded firecrackers. Portrait of the recently-elected President Obama. Wall calendar from La Palma Mexicatessen, inked Xs marking the days. Today is April 6. No X as yet.
Mama is right on my tail. “I pay my debts. I’m not like that Julián of yours. He still owes me money.”
Here we go.
“Jeeze. It was change for a parking meter.” I feel my temperature rise. “I’ll repay you! And you can forget Julián because Julián and I are not together!”
Papa’s eyes got cloudy as he aged, but not Mama’s. Her eyes are like new-minted dimes, bright with gotcha. “I don’t forget. Julián shouldn’t be borrowing from old ladies. I’m glad you’re rid of him. It’s better to be alone, Raquel. You’re smart, like me. The smartest of my children.”
I’m floored. Mama has never expressed the slightest interest in my life or anyone else’s for that matter. Although mortified by the comparison, I can’t help being flattered that she considers me the smartest.
“So,” I say, softening. “You’re renting a piano?”
Her arms fold defensively. “It was on sale.”
“You bought a piano?” Baffled, I pull out a chair and sit at the kitchen table.
“For my music lessons, Raquel.” Still standing, she bristles with nervous energy, her pendant flipped so that it reads “eittoH”.
“What about the keyboard Tito got you?”
“I need a real piano. Besides, Tito steals from me.”
Yup. Genial to eccentric to crazy at maximum velocity. The woman who brought me into this world is fundamentally incapable of being the mother I long for. I know this in my heart, in my brain, in my gut, in my very pores, and yet she gets me every time. I rise to tighten the dripping faucet, then turn to face her.
“Look, Tito’s here every weekend, and when he can’t, he calls to see how you’re doing,” I say, defending my brother. “Why do you give him such a hard time?” A better question is why am I trying to reason with her?
“You know damned well I can’t trust him.”
I take slow, deep yoga breaths. Do not engage. Do not engage. Mantra for Mama.
Outside, a vehicle rumbles to a stop. “It’s here!” she says. I follow as she rushes down to the sidewalk, patting her hair in the mirror on her way out. A deliveryman in a maroon jumpsuit strolls toward us from a double-parked delivery truck.
“Piano?” he asks me. He has sleepy eyes, a pencil-thin mustache, a clipboard.
“You’re late!” Mama says.
“Sorry, ma’am.” He tips his cap back. “I’m Jesse and that’s Murphy.” Murphy is pulling a ramp from the back of the vehicle. Mama ignores Jesse’s proffered hand.
“Where does it go?” he asks me.
I blink, smiling. “I’m just an innocent bystander.”
“Up here,” Mama interjects, leading us up the steps and into the living room.
“You ordered a Yamaha grand?” Jesse is finally addressing questions to the right person. “Ma'am, we get a nine-footer in here and you won’t have room to sit down and play.”
“There must be a mistake,” I say.
“I don’t need much room,” Mama says, shooting me a dark look. “Move, Raquel, you’re in the way.”
So be it, I think. I’ve always been in your way, we all have, Papa, Ellie, Tito. You could have continued therapy, taken the pills, and avoided the crises that your family—not that you recognize us as family—have had to rescue you from over the years. Selfish, selfish, selfish. I back myself against the hallway wall as the movers expertly rotate the piano to make the tight turns. Well, I’ve done my duty. My report to Ellie: Mama is alive. Mama is well. Mama is impossible.
“I’m coming back this weekend for Papa’s stuff,” I say, “and will you please answer your telephone? Because Ellie and Tito worry about you.”
As I take off, I hear Mama telling the deliverymen, “There’s ten dollars for you when you’re done.”
On Sunday Tito is wearing his annoying “I’m just a regular vato from the barrio” get-up—Ben Davis work pants and his “Stay Brown” t-shirt from the San Jose Flea Market. We’re both wearing Giants caps. The sun is out, there’s a game this afternoon. I’m anxious to get back to the Galería where volunteers are painting the walls.
“We’re here for Papa’s things,” I say, when Mama comes to the door. She is channeling Cher today: red tunic, shaggy vest, ankle boots. Gray wisps escape a blue-sequined beret the size of a small pizza. “God, open a window! Aren’t you hot?”
“Leave me be, Raquel. You know I’m always freezing,” she says. “I'll make coffee now that you're here, Tito.”
My brother is definitely her favorite child. There are times I believe he is the only person in the world who can get through to Mama, but when I really think about it, I shake my head, No. Because after his visits she accuses him of stealing and she cries. Always.
“Momskh!” Tito says, draping his beefy arm around her shoulder, “Where’s the pianoskh?”
Mama’s eyes light up. Tito has invented this Russian-esque language just for her.
“Who told youskh?” she giggles, leading us to the living room.
Tito halts theatrically in the doorway, throws his hands up in wide-eyed astonishment, “Whoa! That’s some piano!”
The piano is impressive, gleaming ebony, padded leather bench tucked underneath, filling the room like one of those clipper ships crammed inside a tiny glass bottle.
“What do you think?” Mama is giddy.
“What do I think?” Tito bellows. “What do I think? Takes up a lot of space!”
Somehow this is the right answer. Mama practically squeals with pleasure. If there were room she’d be pirouetting around the piano.
“It's ridiculous,” I say, addressing Tito. “If she needs a so-called ‘real’ piano, which I doubt, a used upright makes more sense.” Tito’s look tells me to can it. “This is a piano for professionals,” I emphasize, unable to help myself. I’m the director of a community arts center. I believe that everyone has the capacity to make art, to enjoy a creative life. This is my work, yet I can’t manage to extend this value to Mama. I feel like a miserable imposter.
“I love it,” Mama says, defiantly.
“Play us something, Mom!” Tito doesn’t have to ask twice. Mama climbs onto the bench and sorts through dog-eared sheet music. She begins playing “De Colores” and Tito, leaning over her shoulder to read the lyrics, sings with her. Both are seriously off-key.
I escape, taking the kitchen stairs down to the backyard where weeds are suffocating Papa’s tomato plants, and enter the garage from the side door. Underneath the floorboards, the caterwauling is mercifully muted. Papa sold his car awhile back, so the garage is now storage space. I wade through boxes and furniture before I find what I’m looking for: Papa’s brown leather suitcase. Wrenching it free, I wipe the cobwebs with an old t-shirt and sit cross-legged on a box, my heart at peace. The tarnished metal fasteners make a satisfying pop.
Lifting the lid, the faintest scent of tobacco in the yellow silk lining sweeps me back to another time. It must have been fall. The living room windows were dripping condensation. Mama had been gone a year. I was still crying myself to sleep.
Papa set the suitcase on the coffee table. “Let’s see what we have here,” he said, a cigarette in one hand, a can of beer nearby. His hair was still coal-black, but he was starting to get a paunch. He’d drag out the suitcase now and then, often during the holidays, to show us his treasures—a jumble of photographs and souvenirs—a pretext for his stories of back home.
That day it was only me sitting by his side on the worn sofa. I reached for a sepia-tone studio portrait of an elegant native woman in a 1940s fur coat. “Who’s this?” I knew the story by heart, but I never tired of his stories of wicked uncles and chain-smoking grandmas, homesteads and adobes, farmers and dressmakers, sheepherders and coal miners, pueblos and penitentes, trains, abductions, adoptions, fires: tales of love, tragedy and survival reaching back across generations to New Mexico Territory and beyond.
“My first cousin Josie, on my mother’s side. She had a tailoring shop in Santa Fe. She was a sharp cookie, married and widowed three times, the last husband a Navajo. She liked them young but it didn’t matter. They still died on her.” We chuckled.
I pulled up an unfamiliar snapshot of a couple picnicking on a blanket at Ocean Beach, the Cliff House in the hazy distance. “And this one?”
A shadow crossed Papa’s face. With a sinking heart I recognized my youthful parents in a happier time. Silence flooded the room. Papa’s thoughts seemed to alight on something not in the picture, the ashes on his cigarette trembled. Finally, he smiled, seemingly chagrined by his thoughts.
I switched the photo for one of Papa as a boy and his older sister posing in front of a Ferris wheel.
“I wished I’d known Auntie Rose,” I said. Papa never returned to New Mexico after he and Mama moved to San Francisco—his immediate relatives had moved away or died by then. If there were other reasons, he never shared them.
“You remind me of Rose, mi’ja,” he said. “Sparky as hell.”
Besides photos, there is a ledger of the early 1900s written in Spanish and English, discharge papers, faded postcards from distant relations we children never knew, yellowed newspaper obits, a ruby ring won in a poker game, a ring neither ruby nor gold.
This is what I came to rescue from Goodwill. My father’s life in a suitcase—all we have left of him besides his stories etched into our memories, tales that kept our family tethered to our history, to this land, to each other.
I secure the suitcase, one snap at a time, and haul it up the back stairs to the living room where Tito and Mama are hammering out “That’s Amore.”
Tito insists on getting burritos and a six-pack for lunch. We dine on the kitchen table of our childhood, while Tito tells us about his new lady friend, a teacher. Mama tracks his every word, the better to throw in his face one day. Tito is oblivious.
Someone in the building has the game on, radio turned full blast. “The bases are loaded with two men out! Herrrrrre’s the pitch!” When we were kids, listening to the Giants with Papa was the best. Halting in the midst of whatever we were doing—peeling potatoes or washing the car—to visualize the players at the ballpark, we held our breaths, waiting to hear Jon Miller yell, “The ball is up, up…it’s out of here!” My spirits lift remembering how we’d yell and high five each other. Then the heaviness in my chest returns.
I claim the suitcase when it’s time to go. The rest of Papa’s things will go into Tito’s garage until Ellie can come out to help sort it all. On the sidewalk, Tito stretches and grins. “Mom’s doing okay,” he says. “We’ll just have to check in on her more often.”
“Do you know what a piano like that costs?”
Tito’s smile vanishes. “Don’t worry about it, Rocky, I got it covered.”
“She can’t wait to get rid of his stuff.”
“You can’t know how anybody feels except for your own damn self.” Tito’s voice is hard. “Mom does the best she can. You’re past forty. Is this who you want to be? We grew up with her too. And what’s with that haircut?”
Glaring at my brother, I slam the trunk lid closed and get into my car. Wiping away tears, I turn onto Valencia Street, glad to be heading to the Galería. Three signal lights later, I realize I’ve forgotten my Giants cap and make a U-turn in the middle of the street. On Bartlett I drive by two little girls playing hopscotch on the chalked sidewalk like Ellie and I used to do, and pull up in front of the Lermas’ building that has a For Sale sign. Sal is sitting on the stoop, drinking beer and listening to oldies on KPOO.
“Hey Rocky. Sorry about your father,” Sal says, as I exit the car. “We lost a good man.”
“Thank you.” I’ve known the Lermas since forever and wonder whether they’ve found a place to move to. Before I can ask, I’m distracted by the faint sound of music coming from Mama’s flat. I climb her stairs and peer through the open bay window, past the lace curtains, where she sits half-hidden behind the big, lacquered instrument. Her fingers strike the keys as she squints through her enormous, red-framed glasses at the sheet music, her voice tentative.
“Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you…”
The playing is measured and precise. The voice not so much, even as it picks up tempo and exuberance.
“Sweet dreams that leave all worries far behind you…”
I take a breath as my heart unexpectedly catches on a surging memory of Mama sitting on my bed when I was a girl, singing me to sleep. Cozy in pajamas, bed covers pulled up to my chin, lulled by her voice, drowsy. Back when she was still my Mama.
“And in your dreams, whatever they be…” Mama warbles with joyful enthusiasm.
The afternoon’s heat has eased. Rising above the ambient sounds of the street—a plane overhead, a skateboarder rolling past—is my mother’s voice falling in and out of tune like a kid learning to ride a two-wheeler. Mama in her blue-sequined beret is swaying, creased fingers moving over the black and white keys of the piano, focused on the task, determined like all of us to catch beauty in this precarious life. The sound of the music awakens a raw tenderness in me, if only for the moment. Brushing unexpected tears from my eyes, I sink onto Mama’s front steps to listen.
Linda Zamora Lucero is writing a collection of short stories set in San Francisco’s multicultural Mission District where she was born and raised. She identifies as Chicana, and attended Mission High School, City College of San Francisco and SFSU. Her published short stories are: “ZigZag,” LatineLit Magazine, 2022; “Speak to Me of Love,” first prize winner, DeMarinis Short Story Contest, Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, 2021; “When It Rains,” Yellow Medicine Review, 2020 Pushcart nominee; “Mexican Hat,” Puro Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century 2020 Anthology; “Balmy Alley Forever,” Yellow Medicine Review, 2016; and “Take the Money and Run–1968,” Bilingual Review, 2015. Lucero's day job is directing the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, an admission-free outdoor performing arts series in San Francisco.
A Eulogy to
By Armando Rendón
A life-long friend and colleague, Felipe de Ortego y Gasca, has passed away today; he is now one with the universe as he was one with so many of us in life.
Felipe invented Chicano literature because, as I see it, his studies into the early writings by Chicanas and Chicanos provided not only a scholarly basis for the field as a genre of American literature but inspired many of our indigenous-hispanic writers to put pencil or pen to paper, pick out letters for a manuscript on the old manual typewriters, and today tap out a poem or novel on a laptop while commuting back and forth from a job.
We go way back to 1972, when an ambitious young man (I think we were all something like that then) named Dan Lopez got the idea for a print magazine he called, Nuestro. The project was ahead of its time and folded in a few years, but Felipe and I were recruited by Dan to help make the magazine go, Felipe as editor and I as a freelance writer and photographer. We struck up a friendship and kept in touch over the years.
I learned much later that Felipe had dropped out of high school in 1943, yet wisely took advantage of the G.I. bill to get a BA at the University of Pittsburgh in 1948, then a Master’s degree in literature at Texas Western College in El Paso, followed by his Ph.D. in literature at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque in 1971. He eventually earned a post-doctoral degree in Management and Planning for Higher Education at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business’ Harriman Institute in 1973.
It was when I launched Somos en escrito Magazine in late 2009 that we hooked up again. So much of what Felipe wrote about Chicanismo from the literary aspect had not been broadly circulated that he found Somos a perfect vehicle to inform a new generation, and I gladly partnered with him in publishing as much as I could of his stories and literary critiques. I intend to work with his wife of many years, Gilda Baeza-Ortego, a scholar in her own right, to reveal other works he might not have yet offered to us.
Felipe’s early service as a U.S. Marine during World War II—a feature on his tour of duty that took him to China accompanies this eulogy to him—served him well in recent years when he battled a variety of illnesses, such as the shoulder replacement he underwent earlier this year. I had invited him last spring to join me and a couple other Chicanan writers for a panel on Chicano literature to be presented in Cuernavaca in early August. I knew he was not at his healthiest but how could I not first ask the father of Chicano literature to address a conclave of international scholars on his favorite topic?
He had accepted my invitation in a flash, but as it turned out, Felipe’s health failed him and he had to cancel the day before his and Gilda’s flight to Mexico. For sure, only a very severe ailment could have forced him to bow out. The other two panelists, good friends of his as well, Rosa Martha Villarreal and Roberto Haro, and I stepped up to present his “Cuernavaca paper” on his behalf.
(Click on the link to read de Ortego y Gasca's Cuernavaca paper: FelipeCuernavacaPaper)
Felipe de Ortego y Gasca lived a long and eventful life, leaving among many other contributions to Chicanismo and society in general, a legacy as a visionary scholar. Who would have guessed that today we would have the breadth of writing by Chicana and Chicano authors, in every genre and on every topic. He invented the Chicano Renaissance so he himself deserves to be called a Renaissance Chicano.
May you rest in peace, old friend.
Armando Rendón is founder/editor of Somos en escrito Magazine.
A Chicano Christmas in China
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
This is a story about a Christmas in China after World War II and how the world changed for me as a consequence of that Christmas. Hard to believe that almost six decades have passed since VJ Day (Victory in Japan, August 14, 1945) and the end of hostilities for World War Two.
By Christmas of 1945 the war had been over more than four months, just after President Truman had authorized dropping an atom bomb on Hiroshima on August 6 and one on Nagasaki on August 8.
I felt ancient at war’s end. War has a way of maturing youngsters, growing them up quickly. There is also a mantle of invincibility that cloaks the young, woven of equal parts of arrogance and ignorance, strands of curiosity, and large patches of naiveté. It’s a wonderful time of life: full of joy one thinks will last forever; full of agony that seems interminable.
I was a Sergeant of Marines then, filled with the exuberance of victory marking the end of a life and death struggle between the forces of good and evil, a struggle that claimed 50 million lives worldwide.
I was 19 years old that August and the fates had kept me from harm thus far. Just two years earlier, on my 17th birthday, I had enlisted in the Marines, during the dark, grim days of the war when victory appeared implausible and the fate of democracy hung in the balance.
The San Antonio of 1941, where a branch of my mother’s family settled in 1731, was a place of “brown blood and white laughter” as I wrote in a poem years later, remembering the city’s segregated schools and its English-only rules. Though the war transformed the city economically, a different kind of war would vanquish the barriers that had made San Antonio a divided community and strangers of Tejanos in their own land.
At war, Tejanos showed their mettle, Boys became men. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) suspended its annual conferences for the duration. On the home front, Mexicana Americans built planes, subs, and gliders; handed out donuts and coffee to America’s youth training at Fort Sam Houston, Kelly, and Lackland Air Force bases in San Antonio. Many became air raid wardens. On the West Side, Tejana mothers placed gold stars in their windows.
On the day of infamy, I wondered if I could pass for 17, hoping the war would wait for me. I tried to enlist in the Army in 1942 but was turned away because I was too young at 15 for military service they told me even though the country was desperate for troops. I got as far as the physical before I was found out and turned away with an admonishment veiling a smile and an encouragement to try again next year. Did I know, they asked, that I had flat feet?
By next year, I thought, there would be no glory left. But I waited, toughing out the 9th grade of school. I should have been a Junior but instead I was a high school Freshman, two years older than my classmates because I had repeated the 1st grade and had been held back in the 4th. I started public school as a speaker of Spanish in segregated schools and didn’t improve until I made it to the 5th grade.
In January of 1943 I tried enlisting in the Navy but was rejected because of “color blindness,” not because of my age. When I turned 17 that year, I tried the Marines, color blindness, flat feet and all. They accepted me, and after boot-camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, I was assigned to the Marine Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina, from where I was sent to the 8th and I (Eye) Marine barracks in Washington, DC. From there I was ordered to the Marine barracks at Air Station Quantico, Virginia, from where I shipped out to the Pacific. After a stop at San Diego and Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands, I was part of the tail-end of the last campaigns in the Pacific.
When Japan surrendered, American GI’s in the Pacific were grouped into those who had earned sufficient points for immediate return to the states and a victor’s welcome, and those who didn’t. Wartime service was after all for the “duration” and the war was not officially over until December of 1946 even though the fighting had ended more than a year earlier.
Troops not returned to the states were massed into a force of military occupation for Japan and those headed for mainland China as an army of liberation to disarm the Japanese troops in China and to oversee their evacuation. China had been occupied by the Japanese since the 30's and at the outbreak of hostilities had interned the 4th Marines who had been stationed in Shanghai. China would be freed at last.
The hop from Okinawa to Shanghai was short. On that rain-washed day I did not know my journey to China would mark the beginning of my search for America.
An early day harbinger of Battlestar Galactica, the rag-tag fleet of American ships trailing up the Yangtze River toward Shanghai was heralded with cheers of jubilation and gratitude by the Chinese. “Ding hao!” they shouted. “Ding hao! Good, good!” But that mood quickly soured when the hive of sampans crowded the spaces between the ships and the smiling Chinese held out their hands for some token of largesse signaling our arrival.
What turned the scene ugly was when the Captain of the U.S.S. Monrovia ordered the fire hoses turned on the Chinese clambering up the sides of the ship trying to get on deck. The Chinese were eager to greet us, but that greeting was met with disdain by those Americans who saw the Chinese as nothing more than “gooks” and could not differentiate them from the Japanese.
The force of the water hoses sent the Chinese back into the mass of sampans, some of them falling into the water through the spaces between the flat dugouts. The scene became a melee when the sailors decided malevolently to aim their hoses at the people on the sampans. The Chinese were bewildered. Why would a liberating force treat them that way? Chinese women screamed as their babies were flushed out of their hands by the force of the water from the fire hoses.
What should have been a celebration became a melee of confusion and grief. That was not our finest moment. Those images have remained with me ever since. Little wonder we lost China to Mao Tsetung in 1948, forced to take our troops to Korea. I was gone by then. I left China in 1946.
But the specter of that moment did not deter me from savoring the experience of being in China, the land of Cathay, of Marco Polo and Genghis Khan. The Yellow Sea washing against a land already ancient when the sailors of Colón flitted from fleck to fleck looking for Cipango (Japan) was not yellow but emerald green in the time of my youth when all my dreams were green. Years later I would realize what a profound effect that experience in China had on me.
My stay in Shanghai was brief. My outfit moved on. I was assigned to temporary duty with the 6th Marines in Peking and Tientsin. I was posted to duty with Marine Air Group (MAG) 24, First Marine Air Wing at Tsingtao, a key airfield in the Japanese occupation of the Shantung Peninsula just across from Korea.
Tsingtao is a port city and at war’s end was once more bustling with the hum of international trade. In Tsingtao (which sounded like Chingdoh) I was looked upon with puzzlement. Was I an American Chinese? A Migua Chinee? They had never seen a Mexican American before. Yes, I nodded, good-naturedly. “Ding hao, ding hao!” Good, good! the Chinese responded with smiles of approbation.
Was I the first Chicano in China? No. Twenty-five years later in El Paso I would meet a Chicano, Cleofas Callero, who had been a China Marine in the years between the World Wars. There were probably others before him.
Some 30 years later, Carlos Guerra, the journalist from San Antonio would travel to China. So would Patricia Roybal of El Paso and her husband Chuck Sutton, heir of the publisher of The Amsterdam News. And in the 80's Rudy Anaya, the Chicano novelist, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, would venture to China and record his impressions in a work entitled A Chicano in China.
My affection for the Chinese was regarded with mischief as word spread that the Sarge was a Chink-lover. Fortunately, hierarchy and rank are powerful investitures in the military, especially the Marines. The troops may have disliked my affection for the Chinese but they took orders from me, like them or not. Every day I dressed down some troop for dissing the Chinese. They were not our beasts of burden, though we employed them on the air base as if they were.
In China, American forces rode roughshod over the Chinese, acting more like Alexander’s Macedonian soldiers than emissaries of freedom. The Chinese quickly saw me as a friend. I was invited into their homes. I became good at ping-pong. I went everywhere with confidence.
American troops in China, as almost everywhere else, did not carry currency. Instead we were issued scrip—paper money backed by the U.S. Armed Forces. Chinese money was out of the question. With inflation, Chinese money was almost useless. GI’s collected it as souvenirs or for prospective wallpaper.
The brothel of “white” Russian women in Tsingtao preferred goods for their services. Cigarettes were most preferable. Chinese merchants accepted scrip which they exchanged for currency. In Peking, Chiang Kai-shek was struggling to stabilize the monetary woes of the country.
One evening, not long after I arrived at Tsingtao, the base responded to a fire alarm in the city. The British Officer’s Club had caught fire and needed help in putting out the blaze. The fear was that the fire would spread into the city and become harder to control. From the airbase, three runway fire trucks with foam screamed into the night roaring toward the glow of the fire in the distance.
As NCO of the day, I was responsible for dispatching the fire trucks. The old China Marines used to tell stories about Chinese fire drills which I didn’t understand until the night of that fire in Tsingtao.
What confronted us was both risible and tragic. Attempting to put water on the fire were Chinese firemen struggling with old-fashioned wheeled water pumps. One man pumped while the other directed the hose barely trickling onto the fire. The Chinese firemen smiled politely as they greeted us. We ushered them out of the way, and quickly funneled a sheet of foam over the fire. We had arrived just in time. Though the Chinese firemen could not have contained the fire, their efforts had given us sufficient time to get there and to put the blaze out.
I recognized that the caricature of Chinese ineptness was compounded by their lack of available technology. Mao Tsetung recognized that lack also which is why he launched the Chinese Revolution. China had to enter the modern age despite its legacy as a victim of colonialism.
The week before Christmas some of the men in my troop wondered if we could find a Christmas tree in the hills beyond the air base. “Whadaya think, Sarge?”
“Sure, why not?” We weren’t prohibited from going into the hills, though we were counseled to be careful. The Chinese Communists had been massing in the North and there were reports that some of their units were heading south.
I checked out a truck from the motor pool and with a patrol of men headed toward the rise of hills some four or five miles west of the base. Once there, we headed off-road toward a clump of Chinese pine trees and settled on a good-sized tree that we chopped down quickly and loaded onto the truck. As we were ready to mount up and head back to the base, one of the men called out, “Sarge, take a look!”
Coming out through the trees were a number of platoons armed with carbines and wearing drab uniforms with no insignia. The one who seemed to be the leader came up to the truck, surveyed it, walked around towards the front where I was standing, all the while with his finger on the trigger of what looked like a rapid-fire carbine. His men stayed at a distance but with fingers at the ready on the triggers of their weapons.
We had brought axes not weapons. I was the only one with a sidearm. I beseeched my men to stay calm. I could see they were nervous. But they were seasoned men. I mustered a subtle smile as the leader of the hostiles acknowledged me and proceeded to inspect the cab of the truck.
On the passenger side of the cab lay the book in Spanish I had been reading off and on for some time: La Vida Trágica, The Tragic Sense of Life, by the Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno. Picking up the book, the leader of the armed men who by that time we had all surmised were Chinese communists, asked: “Y este libro, de quién es? Whose book is this?” I was startled by the expression, little expecting a Chinese to speak Spanish, at that moment and in that place. “Mine,” I said. “Es el mío.”
“Hm,” he murmured, pursing his lips, studying me intently for a moment. He put the book back on the seat of the cab and mustering an equally subtle smile motioned his men back into the anonymity of the woods. Before disappearing into the trees, the leader turned and with a most subtle smile, waved. I waved back wanly, relieved that the incident turned out as it had.
“What was that all about, Sarge?” one of the men asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know.”
Years later I would know, years after I had acquired a structure of knowledge into which to fit that experience. One day, epiphanously, I understood the significance of that moment in North China and the Christmas tree incident of that December.
By then the homecoming parades had all been held and the heroes all properly heralded. The United States was almost back to normal. Uniforms with plastrons of medals had been hung in closets for a day when they would no longer fit. I was ready to begin my search for America.
The roots of that search lay in China where I saw “the others” and saw myself in them. Though I had grown up in a segregated society I had never thought of myself as “the other.”
But the war changed me and the way I was to see myself in the context of the United States. I learned that no matter that Mexican Americans had won more Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group in America’s defense, we would have to fight far fiercer battles to secure for ourselves and our children the fruits of American democracy.
Though I had completed only one year of high school, nevertheless on the GI Bill I went to college after the war at the University of Pittsburgh where in text after text I studied I did not find myself nor my people. I did not find my people in the texts I studied at the University of Texas either where I pursued the Master’s degree in English. They were also not in the texts I studied at the University of New Mexico where I completed the Ph.D. in English renaissance studies, American literature, and Behavioral Linguistics. And because I could not find Mexican Americans in those texts, my life’s work became a crusade for their inclusion.
In 1947 the city of Three Rivers, Texas, shamelessly refused to bury in its municipal cemetery a Mexican American GI whose body had been exhumed in the Philippines and brought home for a hero’s burial. Adamantly the white city power brokers would not yield from their decision. At that point Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson approached President Truman on the matter and he directed that Felix Longoria be buried in Arlington Cemetery among the valiant of the nation.
Out of that incident emerged the American GI Forum, a separate organization for Mexican American veterans, an organization I joined. Since then, numerous like incidents have necessitated creation of many separate Mexican American organizations. It didn’t need to be that way. Once, we were all brothers-in-arms.
In my search for America, I have often thought of that young Chinese communist who bade me good luck in a language my country sought to strip me of. I have thought often of that China of so long ago. Once, I harbored thoughts of returning to China to look for that young man who had perhaps read Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life−in Spanish and who at that moment may have seen me not as a Migua Chinese but as a literary kinsman.
Who was he? And how had he come to learn Spanish? Was he perhaps a child of a Chinese Communist who had participated in the Spanish Civil War of the mid ‘30’s and was now a Maoist? Hm? The question has remained pervasive for me during all these years.
Thinking back—over the years—the gains have been worth the struggle. Mexican Americans did their part in World War II. And in subsequent conflicts as well as prior wars.
This is our country, too, for we are in the land of our ancestors when this part of the United States was Mexico; and when it has called, we have served. But I’m still looking for America, in the nooks and crannies of those years since VJ Day, the end of World War II, and that Christmas in China.
Felipe de Ortego y Gasca was Scholar in Residence (Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, and Social Policy) and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Philology and Cultural Studies at Texas State University System-Sul Ross. This memoir, which first appeared in the Alpine Avalanche, August 3, 1995, was presented at the Multi-Ethnic Christmas Celebration hosted by the Jernigan Library, Texas AandM University-Kingsville, December 6, 2004, and includes material from the author’s piece in 1941: Texas goes to War, University of North Texas Press, 1991. Copyright ©2001 by the author. All rights reserved.
*Photograph by U.S. Marine Corps, http://www.qingdaonese.com/us-marines-in-qingdao-1945-48/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32891790
THE CUERNAVACA PAPERS, Part 2
On August 2, 2018, what might have been the first encounter between Mexican academics and Chicano writers took place in Cuernavaca, Morelos, México, at the Fifth Annual International Conference on “Latin America: Tradition and Globalization in the 21st Century” hosted by the Universidad Internacional, in coordination with St. Mary’s College of Moraga, California. Professor Álvaro Ramirez, a member of the Modern Languages department at St. Mary’s, the organizer of the conference, asked Armando Rendón, the Somos en escrito editor, if he would be interested in assembling a panel to discuss Chicano literature at the conference.
Seizing the opportunity for a first encounter with mexicanos on the subject, Rendóninvited three Chicanan writers to speak on the nature and scope of Chicanan literature and its symbiotic relationship to Mexico in particular and the Américas in general. In order of their presentations, they were Rendón, Rosa Martha Villarreal, Roberto Haro, and Felipe de Ortego y Gasca. Illness kept Dr. Ortego from attending at the last minute but his colleagues stepped in to discuss the main themes of his essay.
The presentations are published here as separate features,
but under the title, “The Cuernavaca Papers”
A Literature Born of Two Traditions: