by Robert G. Retana
The card was made of white construction paper and had a small flower on the front drawn with crayons. Each petal was a different color, and “Happy Mother’s Day” was neatly written across the top of the card. The handwriting was that of a child but neat and precise, nonetheless. Inside the card, the words “from Victor” were written in blue ink. Victor brought it home from school right before Mother’s Day and showed it to his Aunt Dolores.
“Can I send this to my mother?” he said.
His words pierced Dolores’s heart because she knew how much pain this poor child carried around and how much he would suffer for the rest of his life for things he had no part in.
“Yes, you can send it to her,” Dolores responded. “We’ll find an envelope for it and mail it tomorrow morning. She should get it in a few days.”
“When can I see her?” Victor asked.
“We can go for a visit soon. But she is in Chowchilla, a long way from here, and I don’t know how soon we can take a trip there.”
“When can she come home?”
“Baby, she might never come home,” Dolores responded. “But she thinks of you every day, and you can visit her there. It’s far, and we can’t go that often to see her. My car gives me a lot of trouble, and it takes forever if we take the bus.” Dolores hugged him, and he hugged her back. Then he went upstairs to change his clothes and play video games before he had to do his homework.
Dolores wondered whether she would have it in her to heal this child’s heart or whether the pain he felt would become rage, and he would wind up in prison like his mother. She prayed he would not change and that God would help her know what to do to make things better. Dolores had her own two children and never expected to raise a third. But now that he was hers, she could not help but want to take care of him. No one should start off in life with so much pain and sadness.
She looked at the framed picture of herself and Marisa, her younger sister, and Victor’s mother, which she kept on the living room wall. It was taken when they were little girls, four and five years old. They were clinging to their mother, who looked so happy and beautiful. She had long, brown, wavy hair and large expressive eyes, just like Marisa. Both girls were smiling and holding on to their mother for dear life. Behind them stood their father, a tall, handsome, nicely dressed man with thick black hair combed back and a neat mustache that framed his broad smile. Little did they know that soon after this picture was taken, their father would leave home and never return.
People said he had another family in Mexico and decided to return there. Others said he was spotted wearing a fancy suit in the bars with a new woman by his side. Whatever the story was, they never saw or heard from him again. It was too much for their mother to take, and soon after he disappeared, she killed herself, overdosing on sleeping pills.
Marisa was sent to live with her grandmother, who was too old to control her, and just prayed a lot for her salvation. Dolores went to live with an aunt who took good care of her but could not afford to take them both. The girls cried for weeks when they were separated. Although they kept in close contact, they went their separate ways in terms of lifestyle. Marisa always had boys chasing her, but she never found a healthy relationship. Men just brought her more problems. Dolores was more serious and had a stricter parental figure in her aunt. She could not run with the same crowd or tag along when Marisa skipped school or got a fake I.D. to go nightclubbing even though she was underage. Marisa quickly learned that any shyness or awkwardness she felt would go away when she had been drinking and doing drugs, and her self-esteem was boosted by the attention she got from men, even if it turned out to be more trouble than it was worth. There was always room at the parties for a pretty girl who liked to have a good time.
The pain of losing their mother and father and then being separated from Dolores never seemed to lessen for Marisa. She lied, made everything seem great, and gave Dolores expensive gifts and clothes that she could not afford to buy for herself, never explaining how she got them. Marisa could never look her sister in the eye and tell her everything she was caught up in. People said she used men and women to get what she wanted. Marisa would always drive nice cars but never had a job that would allow her to afford them. She dressed in nice, new clothes and always had her hair and nails done. She looked vivacious, but when she drank, the sadness in her eyes was unmistakable.
When she visited Dolores, she sometimes slurred her words like she was high but denied she had a drug problem. Dolores begged her not to use drugs when she became pregnant and feared the baby would be born with birth defects. Luckily, he was born a healthy baby boy. Marisa never said who the father was and gave the baby her last name. She named him Victor, after their father, which surprised Dolores since Marisa always said she hated him. “At least this Victor will never leave me,” Marisa explained. “He will always be mine.”
Marisa cared for Victor as a baby, but as soon as he could walk, she started partying again. She would leave him with friends and family as often as she could. She would ask Dolores to watch him for a few hours and then not pick him up for a week. Marisa’s heart was not right, and having a baby did not change that. She always showed up with money, a nice toy for Victor, and a long story. Dolores knew Marisa was headed for trouble; however, she never imagined how much trouble was ahead.
The drive home that night began in the Mission District of San Francisco. Marisa and her husband, Rob, had dinner on Valencia Street. When she took the driver’s seat of their new, black BMW 525i, she made a quick call on her cell phone and then hung up when the call was answered without saying a word.
“Who are you calling?” Rob asked.
“I want to see if my friend is coming over tomorrow to take me to apply for a job. But I didn’t realize how late it was, so I’ll call her in the morning,” Marisa responded.
“Okay. You don’t need to work, but if you want to, if that makes you happy, then you should do it.”
About half a mile away, Marisa stopped the car and said the check engine light had come on. “Don’t stop the car here,” Rob said. “This is not the best neighborhood; we can still make it home with that light on.”
Just then, a car pulled up behind them. A man quickly approached the vehicle’s passenger side and told Rob to get out. He held a gun pointed at Rob.
“Just do what he says,” Marisa told him. He got out of the car and tried to cooperate, not wanting any harm to come to him or his wife. Seven shots were fired as soon as he was out of the car. Three bullets pierced his skull while the rest entered and exited his chest.
When the police arrived, Marisa was crying, saying that Rob was her husband and that someone tried to carjack them and they shot Rob. But the car was still there, her purse was still inside, and she was still wearing the expensive diamond wedding ring Rob gave her. Marisa said she had no idea what the suspect looked like or what kind of car he was driving. She had no bruises, although she claimed the suspect hit her and pushed her to the ground so he could take the car. Her demeanor was also strange in that she did not ask about her husband’s condition or come close to his body, maintaining her distance from the crime scene instead. At the police station, she seemed confused and a little bit disinterested. She gave a vague statement to the police but became impatient when pressed for more details.
The police did not believe her from the start but had no basis for placing her under arrest. The facts, however, did not match up, as the route she took home was not the most direct route to the freeway entrance, which would lead them to the Bay Bridge and then to their home in the Oakland Hills. Something was up, and Marisa was not a persuasive grieving widow.
Rob died from gunshot wounds in the ambulance on the way to San Francisco General. When Marisa was told about his death, she did not cry. She looked more dazed than sad and said she wanted to go home. The police wound up notifying Rob’s family. They would soon learn that he was a 45-year-old executive at a software company in San Jose. He was a shy bachelor for most of his life and never dated much until he met Marisa. He met her at Golden Gate Park one day, where he was walking his dog. She approached him to pet his cocker spaniel. The dog seemed to like her, and Rob let her play with him for a while so he could get a closer look at her. She had long brown hair that was pulled off her face. She was petite, had curves in all the right places, and knew how to show them off. She was someone that people noticed. She was at ease with herself and struck up a conversation with him that flowed in a way his conversations with women never did. Before he knew it, she had given him her phone number, and they agreed to meet for a drink.
A drink led to her moving in with him quickly and then getting married in a civil ceremony at City Hall in San Francisco three months later. Rob bought a house in the Oakland Hills for them and gave her use of his credit cards, which she had no problem using. She bought expensive clothes, never worked again, and had frequent calls on her cell phone that she had to take in the other room. He never pressed for details of how Marisa spent her time or his money to prevent her from getting upset. In his eyes, she was a very emotional person with a strong personality and a quick temper, but also capable of moments of great tenderness.
Lonely nights alone at home in front of the television with fast food seemed worse to him than putting up with her mood swings. “Everyone can think you’re successful,” he would say, “but when you end the day at home alone, it sure doesn’t feel that way.” His family warned him about her, and she hated his family, saying they thought they were too good for her. Rob tried to keep the peace and wanted to make things work no matter what. He ignored her drinking and tried to bond with her son, hoping that being a good stepfather might score some points with her. It never did.
He never knew she was still seeing her old boyfriends, even after their marriage. Nor did he know or want to know who she brought to the house when he was at work. She partied with friends and lovers at home, impressing them with how she lived and telling them that she did not love Rob and would divorce him and collect alimony. They laughed and partied with her, had sex with her, but never imagined how far she would go.
The pain and abandonment she felt as a child and the men who used her along the way and then discarded her had caused a change in her. She was once a sweet, sensitive girl looking for someone to love her. Now, she only cared about partying and easy money. An expensive dress, nice jewelry, and money in her pocket validated her in a way that she never felt validated by other people. The pain she felt due to repeated abandonments made her do whatever was necessary to lessen the toxic energy she carried around inside despite the party girl vibe she projected.
She had no safety net, so she was not afraid to use any means necessary to get what she wanted. The drugs and alcohol eased the pain but blurred her sense of reality. Her old friends included several shady characters who fancied themselves as con artists and criminals who had gotten away with a lot, even if they wound up doing time for some of it. They would tell stories of schemes that had been successful and large amounts of money that could be made with the right planning and execution. When she told them she did not love Rob and was using him for his money, they encouraged her to get rid of him and cash in, as they were eager to keep her interested so she would continue to supply drugs and alcohol.
When she was high, it all seemed to make sense, and she had a feeling of invincibility that a sober Marisa would not have. She just needed to figure out how to get rid of him without getting caught. She spent many hours thinking about how to get it done. When an attorney told her that if she divorced him, she would not be entitled to very much, given the short time they had been married, she began to think that there was no other way to cash in but to kill him. She was not leaving this marriage empty-handed. She would not return to her old life with nothing to show for the time she was married to Rob.
Eventually, she persuaded Rob to agree to purchase life insurance policies and mortgage insurance for the house, with her as the beneficiary. Then, before she knew it, the drunken conversations about hiring someone to kill her husband and collect the insurance proceeds turned into a plan of action. Her ex-boyfriend, Alex, who left her several times for other women, was back in her life and was seeing her at her house when Rob was working. She seemed to forget all the times he abused her and left her without explanation. She needed his approval, even after everything he had done to her. His return meant he was wrong when choosing someone else over her. At least, that is the story she told herself each time she took him back. Each knew that even though they both looked good, their days of trading off their looks were ending, and they needed a score to set them up.
Rob’s family began to ask questions about Marisa and told him to divorce her before it was too late. Rob’s demeanor towards her changed, and she found out that his parents had arranged a consultation with a divorce attorney. The end was coming, and she needed to act quickly. Marisa and Alex agreed to kill Rob on a dark street in the Mission District and make it look like a carjacking. Marisa would keep the house and the car and most of the insurance. She would give Alex one thousand dollars and the proceeds of one of the life insurance policies Rob had purchased.
As they rode the bus to Chowchilla, Dolores and Victor tried to keep cool in the sweltering heat. It took several hours to reach the Central Valley. As the bus exited Highway 99 and went east on Avenue 24, Dolores was glad the trip was almost over. Victor needed to use the restroom, and she needed to get this over with. Some things needed to be said, and she hoped she had the strength to say them without making things worse. The bus was filled with families of prisoners who seemed anxious to get there. However, their collective enthusiasm was tempered by the realization that they were headed to prison.
Above the almond trees, they could see the large complex, Valley State Prison for Women. It looked almost like a campus if it were not for the razor wire. It took them an hour and a half to work their way to the front of the line so they could be “processed.” As they passed through the metal detector, they removed their shoes and were searched by prison guards. Dolores almost did not believe they would search Victor, an eight-year-old boy, but figured they had seen it all and had no reason to trust anyone.
They were assigned a visiting table, and when Dolores first saw Marisa, she was shocked. Her hair was cut short and combed back off her face like a man’s. The baggy orange pants and top were in stark contrast to the stylish way Marisa dressed on the outside. All the make-up and embellishments she thought she needed were gone, yet the beauty of her bare face was still unmistakable.
“Mom!” Victor shouted when he first saw her, apparently not noticing the change in her appearance. She hugged him awkwardly and sat him right next to her. Marisa was happy to see her son and sister but was ashamed that they would see her like this. Marisa asked Victor about school and his friends and whether he was minding Dolores.
He then asked her, “When will you come home?”
After a long pause, Marisa responded. “I don’t know, mijo. Not for a very long time.”
“Why do you have to stay here so long?”
Marisa froze for a minute, not knowing what to say. When she was arrested, Victor was being cared for by a friend. Although he had visited her in county jail and had been to Chowchilla once before, she never explained why she was incarcerated. She never asked what Victor had been told by family and friends. She tried not to think about it and prayed that one day she would find a way to explain to him why she had been sent to prison. “It’s complicated,” she told him. “They said I did some bad things, and I’ll be here until the situation gets straightened out.”
Tears began to fall from Victor’s eyes as he listened to his mother. He knew what she had done because the neighborhood kids had no problem telling him, having heard about it on the news. He knew Rob was dead and that his mother was the one who had him killed. He heard it many times from various people but never told anyone that he knew. This caused bouts of sadness and anxiety which made him introverted.
“People say bad things about you, but I don’t care what they say,” Victor told Marisa. His voice was trembling. “I want you to come home so we can be together like before. I miss you.”
Marisa did not know what to say. She hugged him until she was told to stop by a prison guard. Here, visitors may briefly embrace their loved one upon greeting and again upon exiting the visiting room. Anything more was deemed “excessive.”
After a long silence, Dolores told Victor to get some food from the vending machines. She gave him several dollar bills to buy junk food, the only thing available to the prisoners and their visitors. “Bring your mom something to eat,” she told him. When he ran to the vending machines, a small line of people was waiting their turn. Dolores hoped this would occupy him for a little while so she could say what needed to be said.
“He misses you so much.”
“I know he does,” Marisa responded.
“He writes to you and makes cards for you, and you never respond.”
“You know I was caught up in the trial. Then I was sent to the reception center for ninety days to be evaluated. Then they sent me here. I had to get used to being here. It’s not easy for me. Don’t make it worse by coming here to give me head trips.”
“You’re his mother,” Dolores responded. “You didn’t think about him when you were scheming with Alex. You just thought about yourself and all the things you wanted. Now those things are gone, and all you have left is a little boy that misses you.”
Marisa remained silent, not knowing how to respond.
“Listen, I am not here to give you a hard time. You know you can count on me to care for him and be good to him like he was my own son. But I’m his aunt, and he still needs his mother.”
“What good am I to him behind bars?”
“I don’t know what to tell you, but you can’t keep trying to take the easy way out. He’ll grow up angry and hate you if you keep ignoring him. You have to be a mother to him from inside here because you may never come back out. I am telling you this so your son can know who his mother really is. He’ll find newspaper articles when he gets older, and, as you heard him say, people will tell him what happened. Is that what you want him to know about you?”
“But I told you, I didn’t kill him.”
“Marisa, it doesn’t matter; you were mixed up in it, and Rob is dead. You were convicted. Alex testified against you to save himself. Things might have turned out differently if you had spent more time taking care of Victor instead of looking for your next score. Have any of your friends visited you?”
“No,” Marisa responded. Tears began to flow from Marisa’s eyes, and she began to look at the floor.
“You were the lucky one,” Marisa told Dolores. “My aunt loved you and took good care of you. My grandmother didn’t want to raise me. She did it because she had to. She always wanted to be in church. She never talked to me. She just kept telling me to get saved and accept Jesus. You have no idea how many times I have been abused. I finally decided I wanted to be the one to take advantage of others. It all made sense to me when I was using. But I know I was wrong, and I’m paying for what I did.”
“I didn’t come here to make you feel bad,” Marisa responded, “but being a mother to Victor is more than just tattooing his name on your chest. He needs to know you love him and care how he is.”
“I just don’t know how. My mother wasn’t around, so I never learned how.”
“Well, you have plenty of time on your hands to learn,” Dolores said.
Victor came running back, his hands filled with bags of potato chips, candy bars, and soda. “Mom, here are some Cheetos for you. I know you like them.”
“Why are you crying?”
“I’m crying because I am happy to see you.”
“Did you get my card?
“Yes, it made me very happy. It made me have a nice Mother’s Day even inside this place.”
“My teacher said I’m a good artist.”
“You are. Thanks for thinking about me. It’s hard for me to write to you because I sometimes don’t have much to say. Nothing good happens here. But I will try to write to you. Send me some pictures of you when you have a chance.”
“I will, Mom.”
Dolores looked around the visiting room and saw several inmates who seemed to be visiting with their children and other family members. Some kids were younger than Victor; others looked like teenagers, almost ready to become adults. She thought about the amount of hurt that gets passed down from one generation to the next.
She often wondered how intense the pain must have been for their mother when she swallowed the sleeping pills and made her two daughters orphans. Had she known that one of those daughters would wind up in prison for life, would she have found the strength to survive? Would she have continued to be a mother to her daughters and keep them on the right track? She wondered if Marisa had considered all the pain and sadness that Victor would endure, would she have stopped herself from getting caught up in a man’s murder?
Marisa had a lot of time to think about these things while behind bars. She realized that she had left her son without a mother, much like what happened to her when she was a young girl. It was the last thing she would wish on anyone, much less her own son. Love, it seemed to Marisa, was transitory. You can’t count on it from one day to the next. Victor was the exception to that rule, yet she had ruined his life with her actions and did not know how to make it right. The guilt for what she had done to Rob and Victor was almost unbearable.
Just then, Dolores saw Marisa peering at her through the brown eyes she had always used to her advantage. She was stripped of all embellishments now, and all that was left was a battered soul in prison clothes. Next to her was a little boy who looked a lot like her. His happiness at being with his mother would be replaced by tears when he was in bed tonight, knowing that his mother would probably never come home.
The three of them sat silently for a few minutes, not knowing what to say. They heard the loud voices and chatter of the other inmates and visitors around them. They all seemed to know what to say and could be heard carrying on. But the three of them sat there and looked at each other, unsure how to relate to each other under these circumstances. When it was time to leave, they hugged each other tightly, and Victor did not want to let go.
“Thanks for bringing him and coming to see me,” Marisa said.
“Of course,” Dolores responded. “Let’s take this one day at a time. Un día a la vez.”
Dolores took Victor’s hand and walked toward the exit. The Central Valley’s overwhelming heat was waiting for them outside. She wiped the perspiration from Victor’s forehead. The heat was nothing compared to all the pent-up emotions in the visiting room. “Don’t worry mijo,” Dolores said to Victor. “If there is anything this family knows how to do, it’s getting through hard times.”
Robert G. Retana is an attorney living and working in San Francisco. He is Chicano, originally from the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, as well as a Tribal Member of the Texas Band of Yaqui Indians. He lives with his husband, Juan Carlos, and their faithful companion, Tigre, a dachshund mix. Robert’s short story “Leaving Boyle Heights” was published in the Latino Book Review Magazine in 2021. He is a fan of the arts and currently serves as a Board Member of the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco. As a writer, he seeks to tell stories from marginalized communities that are often left untold.
“This is not a public toilet for dogs”
by Armando Gonzalez
At a small exercise park next to a bike trail, there were three men in the resting area. One of them was sitting on a cement bench, one was on his bike, and the other was standing, a bit drunk, talking and laughing about something. Mexican music was playing on a small portable radio. They are usually there everyday, especially in the morning.
A young fit looking woman wearing running shorts and spandex was running past them. They stopped talking and stared. The woman had earbuds in, and kept looking forward. The man standing said, “Unos, dos, tres. Unos, dos, tres.” The other two men chuckled. Whenever someone passed by, they tried their best not to make eye contact with the men, which made all three feel a little superior, and in turn made them feel good.
A few moments later a man walking his husky dog was passing by, but then stopped right in front of them. The dog crouched and began taking a shit near the cement bench. The men glared at the man and at his dog. As the dog was taking a shit, the man standing said “No mames guey,” loud enough for the man with the dog to hear.
The man looked up and directly at him and said, “¿Qué?”
“Aleja tu pinche perro de aquí.”
“Vete a la mierda.”
With no hesitation, all three men yelled the best insults they could think of at the man. The man shook his head and laughed and started walking away when his dog was finished, though the men were not finished with him.
“¡Me cago en tu madre!”
“Cara de mongolo!”
“Tu puta madre.”
“Eres un maldito.”
“¡Callate hijos de puta!” the man with the dog yelled. “¡Todos ustedes pueden irse al infierno! ¡Ninguno de ustedes vale nada!”
After another rapid exchange of insults, eventually the man stopped yelling at them back. He gave them the middle finger, turned his back and finally walked away for good. The men continued to yell insults at him until he became a small person in the distance. Suddenly, there was silence. No one knew what to say. The man standing tried to get another conversation going, but it felt very forced. The one on his bike said he had to go. Not long after, the one sitting on the cement bench said he had to go, too, and took his radio with him. Now, the man standing was the only one left. He sat down on the cement bench. He saw people stare at him as they passed by. He stared back at them until they looked away. A mother and her son who was on a small bicycle were passing by. The child stopped right in front of him and stared at him. The man stared back, but the child did not look away. The man wished he could say something mean to the child to feel better about himself. The mother told her son to keep on going, and smiled and said to the man, “Perdón.”
There was a long and silent moment where no one passed by. He was completely alone. To his right he looked at the pile of dog shit, which now had flies hovering over it. Eventually, he couldn’t take the smell or sight of it, so he left as well.
Armando Gonzalez was born in Santa Ana, California and continues to live there. His parents migrated from Mexico and met here and married. He has no schooling in creative writing, and has two short stories published in Somos en escrito called “Haircut” and “Working Man.” He is Mexican American/Chicano.
“No Soy Cholo”
by Jacob “Jake” Teran
The homies on the block always had something to prove. As mischievous misfits that did not fit in at home or at school, we found solace in the calles, perhaps because the streets had no barriers or rules to bar us from expressing what we thought or felt. We were young niños y niñas that dressed the way we wanted and expressed how we saw the world through our eyes. No parents to tell us to watch the profanity that spewed from our mouths, no teachers to correct the way we spoke, and no one to fear of getting into a fight because we all fought between ourselves. We did not belong to a gang, but we were prospects to the eyes of the gang on our street and they constantly tried to recruit us. As much as the thought of being in a gang flirted with our adolescent minds, it was something that none of us morros were down to do. At the time being, of course.
One summer I vividly remember, would forever change my perspective on joining a gang. This experience began on one summer night I paid a visit to the hood headquarters on my block to pick up a dime of some low-grade mota. Weed always put me at ease, especially at night. The night was warm enough to rock some brown Shaka shorts and a white crisp Pro-Club shirt. It was an hour or so from midnight on this cool summer night and my mom was already asleep. I was craving to smoke a joint to help me sleep and had the Zags but no bud to roll it with.
I became an expert at creeping out of my two-story apartment door with my skateboard on my hip without making a peep. As soon as I crept out from my apartment driveway and placed my foot on the pavement of my sidewalk, I took flight on my board. I rode down Sapro Street on this warm night, ollieing above all the cracks on the beat-up concrete that you could not see, but able to from the memory cemented from skating down my block so many fucking times. Although my street had an active and affiliated gang, us morros never saw them as “cholos,” or “gang bangers.” We just saw them as our “older homies” that had our back if anyone tried to fuck with us. They were also the connect if we ever needed some decent weed. I approached my destination and got off my board to not wake the homies’ grandparents up. I then made a distinctive pop with the tongue and roof of my mouth that we all made. Whether it was a whistle or a tongue pop, us barrio kids had ways to call each other, especially without the existence of today’s technology.
I entered the homeboy’s lot and chilled under a lemon tree to wait for him to come out and serve me. The tree was as old as my homies’ grandparents. It had rusty pocketknife carvings that read, “Barrio 323” and “Sapro Locotes.” I snagged a lemon and hid it in my left pocket just before I saw movement at the backdoor window, hoping it wasn’t my homie’s abuela. The backdoor opened, followed by the screech of the metal screen door, and I saw Bomber come out sidestepping down his 3-step porch. Bomber was a slightly bald and light-skinned Chicano whose shoes looked bigger than his head. He had this stroll when he walked that resembled a penguin due to his flat feet. Stalky and wide at the shoulders, somewhat tall, Bomber was known for scrapping with other rival taggers after school. But he was better known for his name – getting his hood’s tag up on barrio walls, especially since he was a prospect for getting in the barrio gang. At thirteen years old, he had five years on top of me, making him an “older homie.” Until it was his time to get in the barrio and put in real work, he was a notorious tag-banger who was affiliated with Sapro Street by family and preached the street politics to us youngsters whenever we chopped it up and smoked with him.
“What’s cracking, Guillermo, you good? What you doing out here so late?” Bomber’s eyes were wide open and looked as if they were about to pop out of his sockets as he glared at my hand that I stuck out before shaking it.
We shook hands and bumped knuckles. “Chilling Bombs, are you on deck?” I quietly kicked the tail of my skateboard up to my waist to hold.
“You already know you’re at the spot, Guillermo.” Bomber looked to his pad and then back to the street as if someone followed me. “Caile over here and chill behind the stairs. You already know what’s up, Guill.”
Bomber’s pad was rumored to be a “halfway house” – a residential location usually for formerly incarcerated people. A place that usually offered parolees a second chance to the society that they offended to one degree or another. At least, this is what my dad used to tell me when we drove by, but I never bothered to ask him how he knew nor to challenge him that I knew the people who operated there.
Bomber lived down the block from me in a three-building lot with his grandparents and tío that lived in the front, another tío and a distant cousin in an adjacent building to his own, and his mom, baby’s mom, and himself in the third. The third building directly in the back of the lot was where I hid since we both didn’t want his grandparents seeing any transas, although they knew what the fuck was going on.
I hid behind the stairs and looked up to the sky and appreciated the stillness of the night. No jura sirens, no ghetto bird, no train howling, just the sweet calm summer night scent that filled my street as well as the fresh lemon scent that permeated from my shorts. That, and of course, the smell of the marijuana that flooded Bomber’s lot since they had pounds of weed in the garage lots that I hid near. Bomber opened the door, annoyed and rushed.
“Come here!” Bomber exclaimed to me with his hand. I already had my $10 bill folded in the palm of my hand ready and Bomber had his bag of bud in his. We exchanged handshakes with a knuckle bump exchanging what was within. I could hear his grandma saying that it was late and that he shouldn’t be doing any transas or else the juras would come. “Vuelve a dormir, Grandma…fuck,” he told his abuela. I knew I overstayed my welcome.
“Gracias, Bombs.” I stashed my sack of weed within my sock and was about to power step out of Bomb’s lot.
“Hey Guillermo, you know you’re welcome here and shit, but come earlier if you want bud. You already know it’s hot as fuck right now and it’s late to be serving.” Bombs was annoyed from his abuela but also knew of the interaction me and the homies had on Olympic just a few weeks ago. Bomb’s tío’s rival gang, South Side, were lurking and banged on us morros just a couple of weeks ago to where straps were pointed in our faces, although none of us were affiliated, yet. On top of all that, he looked stressed and him being faded on whatever he was on didn’t help.
“Spensa, Bombs, will do. I’ll come earlier next time.” I shook my head and headed out.
I walked a few houses down before skating back to my pad traversing the crooked and broken sidewalk that was my home. The breeze of the summer night that blew through my long hair felt fresh as I dashed on my wooden deck on wheels. As I got close to my apartment, I got off my board and walked to the front of my laundromat where I faced down Olympic.
I paused and stared at Olympic Boulevard for a few seconds to reminisce on how South Side pulled a chrome .45 that shined from the streetlight to my face… That spider-webbed tattooed motherfucker…Would he have pulled the trigger? If I get in the Barrio, I can look for that fuck…Fuck those levas. I was overthinking shit.
The mailbox that was on the left wall of the laundromat always had junk mail and coupons for nearby pizza places that promoted new toppings every week. I grabbed one of the coupon pages to use as a surface to break up the twigs and seeds from the sticky yet mediocre mota I just copped. It was a little more than a half an hour to midnight. I had Zags. I had weed to roll in. I was comfortably alone. I could hear a couple cursing each other on the next block over about a dispute on finances. The sounds of distant ambulance sirens echoed as well. These sounds of the barrio may be unsettling to others, yet, for me, I felt right at home.
About a week later, I got closer to what may have been a decision that I would not be able to undo. I was dry without weed and wanted to pick up some more bud from both the money I collected recycling from my place and from nearby neighbors’ recyclables that were left unguarded in their garage lots. I waited for my mom to fall asleep in her room as she usually did after saying goodnight. I wore the same clothes from last week, but this time, threw on one of my favorite black hoodies, and made my way to Bomber’s pad. I did my usual clucking sound to call Bombs, but instead of him, Bomber’s tío Funny, came out.
“Who the fuck is this? You know what time it is?” Funny whispered violently. Bomber’s tío was always straightforward and never shy to scold who came, in worry of burning the spot.
“It’s me, Guillermo, Funs.” I could only see the silhouette of Funny coming down from the same back metal screen door Bombs usually came down from.
Funs was one of Bomber’s tíos from the neighborhood. He was way older and was one of the main heads from the barrio. He was a frightening bald-headed chingón with a red lipstick tattoo on his neck and sharp nose. Every time he spoke, his eyes blinked as if he just put in eye drops. Every response you gave him was sharply returned by a swift “aha,” quickly confirming what he heard. His hands were always moving by his crotch and the pockets of his pants as if he was ready to pull out something, listo, of course, even from a 13-year-old like me.
“What’ssss up, little homie! What’s good?” His demeanor changed once he saw that it was me. His left arm wrapped around my shoulders as if an octopus found its prey, while his right hand was ready to pull something out of his pocket. I kicked up my skateboard to my waist as I usually did to act cool, but deep inside, I was scared of this fool. Too many rumors went around that he blasted and killed a couple of dudes from South Side.
“Chilling, Funs. How you been? Just want to get some bud and smoke out,” I told Funny as I kept my eyes on his hands from my peripheral.
Funny paused, almost knowing I was aware of his own paranoia as he blinked strongly at me. “What do you need, little homie? I know my nephew hooks it up with nickels and dimes, but I can’t be serving that small this late. Chales. If you and your little homies put your ins together, you can easily get a half ounce of this new green shit we got. Pretendo! Better than that fucking stress you little ass fools be smoking.”
Back at this time, there were only three types of weed: Stress, the lowest grade of weed with seeds and stems (which I didn’t mind picking up), Mids or Pretendo, which was the medium grade that had less seeds and stems, and the last tier of course, was Chronic – the highest grade of weed. This was long before Kush and medicinal mota came out.
“Here, smell this. Tell me that shit don’t smell bomb. Feel how sticky it is, too,” as he raised a baggie from his pants and opened it with his left thumb and index finger. I took a sniff, and the aroma confirmed what he previously stated.
“Fuck it, I’m down.” Funs blinked hard and looked down, at his pad, the street, and down beneath the stairs of the building where his nephew was already asleep.
“Alright. Go chill behind those stairs and I’ll come right back.” Funs instructed where to wait (where I usually went when I came). This time, I couldn’t snap a lemon like I usually did from their lemon tree. I waited longer than usual this time too, not knowing what the fuck Funs was doing or why he was taking so long. The grandparents must have not been there or were dead asleep since it was dead quiet this time around. Funs came out looking more serious and signaled me to come into the darkest spot of the lot… Fucking shit.
“Hey, so Guill, when you gonna get hopped in? The big homies are noticing you more. You come through to the barrio…We want little homies like you to come through for the barrio now.” Funs was rolling up a joint for himself as he was telling me this, while still observing my facial expression. “You would be perfect for the barrio, homes…Think about it…on your skateboard, no one would suspect you…” Funs was measuring me out as he was fixing his joint. A perfect expendable soldier for the hood. Long hair, no tattoos, baggy clothes, a “rocker fool,” as some would call.
“I don’t know, G… I don’t know if I am ready for all that shit,” I looked at Funs’ eyes, showing both fear and my seriousness that I wasn’t about that life. At least not now.
From the look I gave Funs, he knew I could be properly groomed to be the right soldier for the barrio, especially to retaliate what South Side did not long ago. He knew we were scared what South Side did, but he also knew we didn’t like it, either. He capitalized on that. I just wanted to get faded and knew I had to say something if I wanted to leave without friction or some bullshit happening.
“On the serio, Funs, I think I’ll be down soon. I see you and the hood. I know you got love for us, too. I just don’t feel ready, but I’m down…” I fronted. I gave him false hope that a youngster like me would be down and put in work as a soldier, because I knew I could. But, at the same time, I honestly felt like I was too young to be soldier; to get hopped in a gang. But in reality, there was no age limit. I knew this and so did he. Funs saw something in me though – the potential to ride and put in work. Maybe an expendable soldier to take someone out that was of a higher rank.
“Trip out, Guill. Listen, I see you putting in work for the barrio. You already know the hood and all the bigger heads. Chino, Happy, Fader and my nephew Bombs all said you’re firme. That we can trust you. Trust don’t come easy in this area, homes. You ain’t dumb and I know you know what’s up with that. Can’t you see yourself posted with a .22 riding your board? Come on now. You been coming here more than any of these other younger fools in the neighborhood. I like you, Guill. Plus, you want those bitch ass fools like South Side to keep running up on you like that? You need to protect yourself and the people around you. Your familia.” Funs had rhetoric to his advantage. I kept my eyes on Funs holding his pocket, not knowing whether a cuete or a fist was going to come out.
I heard stories of homies getting hopped in even without their consent. If the older heads wanted you in the hood, they’d jump you not giving a fuck whether you wanted to or not. Once you got jumped in, you were in. And if you denied you had affiliation, you’d get hopped again. It happened to one of my cousins while chilling with the White Fence Barrio in Boyle Heights. I didn’t feel ready but thought having a strap on me would be firme as fuck. If someone pressed me, I could pull out my strap and handle it. I felt powerful knowing I could be from my own barrio with a cuete on my hip. The thought of having that kind of power, I could take a life away… But something just didn’t feel right. Until then, I made excuses and was direct about not getting in just yet. Bombs and his tío Funs as well as the other members had respect for me for always coming through, especially alone. It showed them I wasn’t afraid, but maybe also showed them I was stupid enough, as well.
“Naw, G, I feel like that’s some shit I’ll be ready for next year. I got some shit going on at home that has my mind occupied.” I too had rhetoric that allowed me to come this late to get served, but now, my street reputation was being tested. I kept my distance from Funs with my board ready to use either as a weapon or shield from his next reaction.
Funs stared me down with his blinking eyes, sharp nose, and even sharper gaze, and I fearfully looked back. This is how it starts – before getting hopped. I was waiting for the putasos to start flying. He stuck his hand out, looking disappointed, but also knowing it was not the time and place. He shook and squeezed my hand hard, smiling, blinking at me, knowing I would come back. There is a reason why he’s called Funny in the barrio, but I didn’t care to find out. At this moment, I just wanted to get the fuck out of there. He knew I was scared, but he also knew I had heart for my age. Most of my homies on the street would bug me to roll with them to Bomb and Funs’ pad because I knew how to communicate and deliver transas without any pedo. But here I was, alone with Funs. He hadn’t let go of my hand yet. I couldn’t look away or flinch either. I stood my ground.
“A’ight, little homie. Get home safe and I’ll be seeing you on the block soon.” Funs finally let go and I said al rato. I got on my board still in his driveway knowing it was loud but took off anyway. I got home and didn’t blaze it; I just went to bed.
The very next day, the homeboy Turkey and I went to our local park. We were ditching school like we usually did and went to smoke out. The Montebello Park down Sapro Street had a firme program that would feed anyone who came during lunchtime regardless of age. It was to help homeless people, but they didn’t care if kids came to eat the free lunch, so we took advantage. A load of benches near the designated skatepark within Montebello Park was where all the marijuanos chilled at, and Turkey and I had our own special spot that nobody went to, by the second tallest tree of the park.
From the bomb ass bud I got the night before, I pulled it out and showed Turkey. “Eeeee, some gourmet shit ‘er what?” Turkey chuckled as he snagged the bag from my hand.
“You already know. Fucking Funny was acting weird last night, too. Bombs was knocked out or somewhere else, so Funs served me.” Turkey looked at me with his right eyebrow arched up.
“You keep going at nighttime alone, something funny is gonna happen to you.” Turkey was looking down, breaking up the stems and seeds.
“Fuck you, dick,” I let out a laugh. “But serio, that fool is either tweeking it, or not all there.” Turkey and I were tripping out how sticky and good the weed stunk.
Just as we were done breaking up our bud, Bomber and his homeboy Rome came to our spot unexpectedly. Rome was taller than Bomber and about the same age. Rome already had tattoos on his arm and looked like most of his tattoos covered up some scars on his right arm. Bomber’s homeboy was notorious for starting fights with random people and this fool could scrap. Whether he was drunk, faded, or straight sober, he would speak less by using his fists, and was known for having manos. Rome eventually got hopped in the rival gang South Side a couple of years later, which betrayed Bomber and his familia, but before all that shit went down, Bombs and Rome were best of homies and got into a lot of shit together, especially for their age.
“Orale! What’s crackin,’ Guillermo! What’s really hood, Turkey! What are you fools doing here?” Bomber always looked happy as fuck to see us.
“Quiubo, Bombs! ‘Sup, Rome! Just chilling about to burn it. Want to throw some ends? Gonna roll a leno.” I offered a firme rolled joint to Bombs.
“Fuck that! Put that pencil dick joint away. Rome and I got some shit that will have you stuck.” Rome pulled out a fat blunt with some Chronic. Because Chronic was so expensive and you got so little, it was always a treat when somebody came through.
We got into a circle and started the rotation as laughter, cannabis smoke, and coughing ensued. We spoke about how fucking boring and stupid school was, the latest drive-by shooting, and rival taggers that were plotted against. Finally, the four of us started talking about how South Side came through the other night. This was the conversation – the cherry on top – that further influenced the direction I was going regarding getting jumped in the hood or not. Smoked-out Turkey bounced; he said he had to go somewhere but probably felt uncomfortable talking about South Side since it happened at his house on the corner of Sapro Street. Bomber, Rome, and I continued our smoke session as we all took turns packing bowls from Rome’s pipa.
I was faded and just spoke my mind freely, “Who are the South Siders and why the fuck does Barrio 323 beef it with them?”
“Because they’re bitches,” Rome jolted back with lightning speed while letting out a cloud of smoke.
“They’re the enemigas, Guill. Fools that belong in the dirt,” Bomber added in.
For me, that wasn’t good enough. My dumbass continued talking. “Yeah, I get that shit, but why does our hood have beef with those fools? Like how did that shit even start?”
“It’s complicated, Guill. Years and years of beef from older heads and it gets passed down. It’s all politics,” Bomber got a little more serious.
“But what about Raza? Yeah, I’m faded and not trying to sound like a fucking tree hugger and shit, but aren’t there other groups or hoods we should be beefing it with besides Raza.” Although my young mind was “white vs black” at the time, I really wanted to know why there was beef amongst our peoples. Sure, the Aztecs had beef with neighboring tribes and the North Native Americans did, as well, but I just couldn’t understand and let go of why hundreds of years later, we still beefed it with people that looked like us – amongst ourselves.
Laughter erupted as Bombs and Rome looked at each other. Most likely thinking I was naïve and I was, but I could not wrap my mind around beefing with neighboring tribes because of some shit that happened years ago.
“Don’t even trip, Guill. It’s all politics that you’ll get soon enough. Your ticket will clock in soon,” Rome said as he was getting up from our circle.
We all said al ratos and took off from the park. I completely forgot to get lunch, but I wasn’t in the mood; I just walked home. On my way home, though, I came to the realization that I could not be a part of my barrio or any hood for that matter. I couldn’t fathom inheriting enemigas that I never met, let alone, never knew of. Not to mention having to represent your hood 24/7, while you could never reject, hide, or deny it, or you could face the consequences for ranking it amongst your comrades. I probably like the music and style of gangbanging, even would go so far as to say it looks cool. But when push comes to shove, when it’s time to do gangster shit, it’s straight up scary as fuck. Not too many people I knew at that point in my life ever had a gun pointed at them. Last week when South Side came mistaking us for their rivals, my life slowed down almost as if it was paused. But life does not go on pause. This shit is not a video game and there are no restarts. I was scared shitless when I saw the chrome .45 pointed at my face two feet away from me.
I wanted to be down, represent who or where I come from, but I just couldn’t do it the way so many of my homies were doing it. I wanted respect and to be respected, but I couldn’t fuck someone up, let alone shoot them, unless I know I am in danger; unless they did something to me or my family and they deserved it.
I looked at the blue sky above me as I walked down Olympic. I stared at the clouds trying to envision an image that might give me a sign, but they were just shapes and abstract figures as they hovered slowly. Maybe there is a point here. Maybe we are just clouds floating alongside our concrete world. I began to think I wanted to make an image or sign appear from these clouds in my mind; the same way I probably wanted to appear a certain way when others looked at me. I was just spewing a bunch of bullshit and must have been high out of my mind. I continued walking and took a deep breath and let it all out. I let it all out. I let all that shit out, while watching over my shoulder.
Jacob “Jake” Teran is a proud Chicano living in the San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles. Jake is a 2nd generation Chicano who was born in Montebello, Los Angeles, east of Los Angeles. He has published his first two short stories on Somos en escrito, called “A Quiet Night on the Boulevard,” “Niños del Sol,” one short fictional story at his community college at Rio Hondo College, and a master’s thesis for his graduate program, where he obtained his M.A. degree in Rhetoric and Composition. He was recently published in an anthology by Querencia Press where his short story “Soy Chicano” and two poems, “Mi Color” and “Bare Tierra” can be found. He is currently teaching composition to several departments in colleges that include indigenous and Chicanx literature. In addition, Jake is an advocate for social justice, self-care, and embracing the identity of others. Jake currently lives in the San Gabriel Valley where he is working on a novel based on his experiences growing up in his barrio that deals with gang lifestyle, drugs, violence, and finding one’s identity in a chaotic concrete jungle that he calls home.
Death and the Santa Ana Winds