Niños del Sol
by Jacob Teran
“¿Puede venir Guillermo?” Silence from his mother as Miguel rode shotgun and I sat in the back of his mom’s green 1996 Honda. I could never make out what she said.
“¿Pero, por qué mommy?”
Miguelito’s mom then went on a short rant on why the dark-skinned pocho with divorced parents who didn’t know any Spanish could not come over today. Sí, at this time of my life, I knew little to no Spanish. My parents, who were both Mexican-American, spoke perfectly good Spanish, and whose parents can be traced back both to Zacatecas and Michoacán, never spoke to me or my sister in Spanish. The story of my acquisition of Spanish will come later, but for right now, I was ass hurt because for one, I did not know why Miguel’s mom said no so often and two, I could not understand “why” because of my lack of Spanish.
“Pero, mommy…” Miguel would then go on a short rant of his own on why it was imperative that I come over to play soccer and PlayStation. I mean, after all, both of us were quite close, played handball and soccer during recess and lunch, and had a couple of classes together.
All throughout elementary school, if you played outside, you got recognized for your athletic prowess by the girls. You know how boys always wanted to impress the girls in the yard, at least, that was my conception as a youngster. Eventually, we ignored the girls, and the boys did what we did in the field during recess because it was fun. In first grade, tag was the game to play, if others were not playing hopscotch or jump rope, or reading outside their teachers’ classrooms. I remember that I was one of the “fastest” kids next to my Korean friend Benson. Now, Benson was fast as fuck. Every time I was “it,” I would go directly to Benson since I knew he would be a challenge. I almost never got him, but when I did, he knew it would be almost no different when he came after me. We would run through the play sets that were accompanied by monkey bars and slides and us elite tag players would use them like obstacle courses to escape our pursuers. This was the upper field where the younger kids would play at Wilcox Elementary School, adjacent to Schur High School. The lower lot of my elementary school is where the real fun was.
The lower lot was where the basketball courts, handball courts, and soccer field were. These were my stomping grounds, and I was now known for being one of the best handball court players. Throughout second and third grade, you could find me here hitting the side of a bouncy burgundy ball. Handball in my school was basically hitting the ball downward to where it would bounce off from the ground to the wall and back to the opponent. After the ball hit the wall, your opponent was only allowed to let the ball hit the ground once before they needed to hit it again. The challenge was to trick your opponent into missing their chance to hit it back or with trick shots.
This one trick shot called “slidies” or “sliders” everyone tried to master, and I was one of them who did. To do this trick, you had to bend your knees and spread your feet to shoulder length. From there, you then brought your palms together as if you were praying and positioned yourself as if you were about to bat a homerun but being very low to the ground. Timing was everything. Once it was your turn to hit the ball, you got in this position and if performed with precision and power, your iron palms became an instrument that would smack the ball like a speeding bullet leading you to sheer victory. The ricochet from the wall made this executed shot so difficult to hit back. Not for me and many like me though.
Some games would last for seconds to minutes (quite long when you are moving in all directions trying to defeat your opponent). This is the particular game where and when I met Miguel, my dear friend.
“Guillermo and Miguel are playing!!” Some kid screamed. An audience formed around us.
I knew of Miguel at this point but never got to know him. Apparently, Miguel would play handball from time to time too and won quite often but we were on different handball courts until now. He is on my court. A light skinned Mexican-American who had short buck teeth and a high hairline. He always wore a white uniform shirt with navy blue pants that complimented his dark blue shoes. He looked confident and ready. We were about to do battle.
Winners served the ball first and I won the last two games. Not everyone asked, but I saw it as a courtesy to ask if he was ready. He nodded. I served the ball with two iron fists.
I struck the ball as hard as I could to see if his eyes could grab the ball’s location on where it was going to fall next. He did.
He did the same! He made me chase the ball that almost escaped the reaches of the handball court line. A legal shot! The ball bounced on the ground, and I could not let the ball hit the ground again or I would be out! I got behind the ball with ninja speed and struck the ball back making the hit legal but barely. My opponent then hit the ball lightly, making me dash to the wall to save myself from losing. I crashed into the wall while simultaneously hitting the ball the other direction as the ball nearly hugged the wall. I anticipated his next move. He was clever but not as sharp as I was. Because he was ambidextrous, he swung both of his hands as fists, shuffled to the left, and struck downwards, causing the ball to fly backwards again, which made me sprint away from the wall again.
This guy. He was going to gas me out. A sheer skill that would guarantee victory. Not today in my court.
Because I anticipated his next move, I quickly recovered from running into the wall and back to the court line well before the ball hit the ground. I found the ball’s trajectory and awaited the ball’s return back to Earth.
“He’s going to do a slidie, watch out!” Some kid obviously on Miguel’s’ side screamed.
“Hey, no helping, shut up!!” Some other kids obviously on my side screamed back.
I spread my feet, squatted, and put my hands together to time the shot just right.
My slidie was virtually unhittable. But with the right kind of eyes and reflexes, you could catch it and hit it back. Miguel was one of the few who could catch my trick shot.
Miguel hit the ball, breaking the sliding trajectory of the ball. No time to stop in awe. The audience of our classmates “ooh’d” and “awe’d.” This time the ball landed in the middle, to where I was. I repeated my same position for a slider, but this time, rather than aiming straight to the wall, I aimed at a slight angle, an even harder shot to catch.
He caught it again! But how?! I muttered to myself.
Miguel caught my angled slider, but he slightly lost his balance. He was near beside me in the middle but to the left. I shot it in his direction to the left corner of the wall, giving him a very brief window of reply to hit back. As he did, and because of the angle, he backhanded the ball, making it a legal shot. This is my chance.
I struck the ball hard, making the ball go back to the end of the court just within the line. My soon-to-be friend could not make it, and I won the game. He dusted himself up as I approached him, and he gave me props for my angled slider shot. Nobody was able to hit that shot, but he did so; I gave him props for that as well. The bell rang and it was time to go back to class.
“That was a crazy game!”
“I know, I thought Guill was going to lose!”
“Guill got lucky!”
“Miguel is the one who got lucky!”
“You are crazy, Miguel took it easy on him.”
Our classmates spoke in admiration for both of us. But see, Miguel was not really a handball player like I was. His dad played soccer and in turn, got his son to play. Miguel was damn good too. As I was the fastest on foot in tag and in the handball court, Miguel was skilled in tricking you in the field with a soccer ball. The beginning of our friendship happened after that handball game we played.
“Umm, do I like football?” I always felt moderately embarrassed when someone talked to me in Spanish and I didn’t know how to respond back.
“Sorry,” he chuckled as he asked the same question but in the tongue that I first learned to speak.
“Do you like to play soccer?”
“Oh! I mean, I never really played, but I did play kickball a few times.”
“Nah dude, soccer is different. Picture it like basketball in a way, except you cannot use your hands and the point is to shoot the ball with your feet into a goal.”
I’m not an idiot; I knew what soccer was.
“I know all that. Dude, I thought you asked me if I liked football.” I chucked slightly, changing the subject with minimal embarrassment.
He knew I was one of “those” kids that was most likely Latino but didn’t know Spanish. He was kind though. Not prejudiced like other kids might have been who spoke Spanish and didn’t feel comfortable befriending a pocho who only spoke English. It was definitely vice versa where I grew up too. Most kids in my school spoke English and hung around the other kids who spoke English like themselves.
Many Spanish-speaking kids at my school stuck with themselves too. I don’t blame them either. I remember a lot of English-only-speaking kids making fun of the Spanish-speaking kids since they were placed in ESL (English as a Secondary Language) classes, and kids being as cruel as they can be, thought they were placed in there because they were slow and couldn’t speak the “right” language.
“Why don’t you speak English?”
“Is it too hard for you?”
“You sound so goofy when you speak Spanish!”
“You look like an Indian!”
These were just some of the common statements kids would say to the Spanish-speaking kids whose parents and grandparents spoke Spanish and practiced their custom diligently, not willing to be watered down by the Americanization that has been taking place for decades, if not, centuries.
Many Latinos y Latinas who grew up as Mexican American, especially in the San Gabriel Valley, were not only attacked for speaking Spanish, but were taught in their schools that Spanish was “bad” and that it would hinder the acquisition in learning English. I learned this as I got older.
Miguel invited me to play soccer with the other Spanish-speaking kids and they were mostly cool with me playing, just as long as they didn’t have to explain every rule to me. There was probably a handful of white kids in our entire elementary school, at least that I was aware of, and one of them would play with us. Everyone would shout out in Spanish when we were in the middle of our games.
“QUÉDATE CON ÉL!!”
“PASA LA BOLA!!”
“NO SEAS TONTO!!”
Slowly but surely, I began to understand what they meant, not the language itself, but the phrases. I was never as good as Miguel, Joshua, or Matthew, but I held my own. When I played defense, I covered whoever I was on like a fly on shit. When I played offense, I did my best to get away from the better players that could easily steal the ball from me and pass it to my teammates that were the shooters to make a goal.
That was the word that everyone from either team wanted to hear. This one time, Miguelito and I were playing a rough game with Jaime and his twin brother Jefferey. Jaime and Jefferey looked pretty much identical and were both tan like me. They each had a high hairline and had their hair combed to the side (almost all of us chicos in that time had our hair combed to the side in elementary). They were enthusiastic about soccer and would have conversations about soccer with Miguel and others when we all sat down for lunch.
But back to this epic game that I last remember. There must have been about eight of us on each team, including a goalie. Miguelito was as good an offensive player as he was a goalie and would switch with our other classmate, Joshua. Joshua was shorter than the rest of us. He was one of the few boys that did not comb his hair because of how wild it was. Josh must have had four cowlicks on his head that made it impossible to tame, even with the strongest hair gel. He had crooked teeth like me with a sharp pointy nose and small ears. As short and skinny as he was, the kid could run fast. When he sprinted, I swear, both of his legs would be exactly horizontal in the air when he took off. He always reminded me of a mouse.
Matthew was probably the second or third best player out of our bunch, including Jaime and Jefferey’s friends. Matthew was not as dark as me, but not as light as Miguelito. We knew each other from our earlier years of playing tag and handball. A humble friend whenever he won or lost a game, he’d have a smile that was instantly contagious. Matthew was known on the soccer field for running towards you if you were defending him and with the graces of his own abilities, he would grab the ball with the inner sides of his shoes and catapult the ball over his own body and the person in front of him, making the defender stop in his tracks to see where the ball was going, only to see the ball and Matthew were driving full speed to its destination.
The epic game we started was 2-2. Lunch was almost over, and we wanted to settle the score to see who was the better of our teams, Jaime and Jefferey’s, or Miguelito’s. Joshua had the ball in his possession and was ready to kick off to the field so that either of our teammates could safely receive it. We did! The only white kid with red hair on our team, John got it. John dribbled the ball down the field but a kid on the other team slid, tripped John, and stole the ball out of our possession. Out of frustration, John pounded the ground with his fist. Jaime and Jefferey’s teammates passed the ball to Jaime and faked Miguelito out, kicked the ball toward our goal, potentially ending the game. But our goalie Joshua saved the day. Josh dived for the ball, knocking his air out, as he landed hard on the dry grass field. His face was in the ground and looked up only to see that he caught it! We all shouted out in cheer on his defense as a goalie. But we only had a few more minutes left before lunch was over.
“Hurry! Do it now!” Miguelito commanded.
Joshua, with a red face from his goal save, kicked the ball, and Miguelito received it this time. Miguelito dribbled it right down the field. Jefferey ran right at him, making Miguelito pass it to John. John did not make the same mistake of losing our ball again and sprinted across the field into our opponent’s side of the field. John faked out one, two, three kids. John was on fire and his red hair complemented how fast he was moving. John then stumbled as his right foot landed awkwardly on the field causing him to lose his stride and almost the ball.
“I’m open, pass it now!” Matthew screamed as he ran behind him.
Three of our opponents were on John and he had to make a move, fast. He pretended to kick the ball, only to kick his foot forward without hitting the ball purposefully and with precision, kicked back with his heel passing the ball to the approaching Matthew. Jaime was now on Matthew, and they were elbow to elbow pushing and shoving, one trying to maintain the dribble down the field, while the other was trying to steal it.
“I’m open!! Pásala!!” Probably the first time I ever screamed in Spanish.
Matthew saw me and scooped the ball, directing his body toward the direction I was at. The ball shot from the right side of the field to the left, right where I was. I caught the ball with my forehead, giving me a slight stun of lights and stars by the sheer speed and accuracy of Matthew’s powerful kick. It felt like all of Jaime and Jefferey’s team rushed towards me like a pack of pissed off tigers and I was their prey. I was near the goal with the goal and goalie and a small army right behind me.
“Kick the ball! Now!!!” Everyone shouted from our side.
I did. But Jefferey got in front of his goalie and deflected my shot by mere inches. The ball shot back at knee height right in front of me. Jefferey sped like a jet to where I was, since he knew he could quickly take the ball away from me.
He stole it! My new friends were depending on me as they were not near Jefferey and me. I knew I had to act fast.
I learned this trick to slide and steal the ball in a scoop-like motion and I did just that. We were running right beside each other with elbows grinding against each other like two racecars trying to bump each other off the racetrack. Running as fast as we were, I dropped my left knee, twisted my entire body towards the left of where Jefferey was and scooped the ball with my right foot out of his grasp. He did not expect it, as he was about to kick the ball to his teammates on our side of the field. Miguelito was right by the goal post, and I had to make a split-second decision. I was to either try my “not-so-great kick” against a skilled goalie or pass it to my teammate who was wide open. Jefferey was right behind me, so I had to move fast.
I pretended to wind my right leg for an attempt to shoot at the goal, but I feigned the kick. I kicked the air as hard as I could, causing Jefferey to stop in his tracks to see the outcome, giving me an extra second or two. I retracted and planted my right leg down and tapped the left side of my shoe to the ball, allowing me to pass the ball right to Miguelito. Miguelito stopped the ball with his left foot and feigned a kick of his own. Jefferey’s brother Jaime was on Miguelito and aggressively covered any shots Miguelito attempted. I ran to the goal to anticipate a victory only to see something had gone very wrong. We were going to lose if they got possession of the ball!
Miguelito struggled and wrestled with Jaime while Jefferey and their entire team rushed in. I was the only player by our opponent’s goal at that very moment. Miguelito took one look up and saw me open.
Everyone’s attention was on Miguelito, including our opponent’s goalie. The ball streaked across the patched grass, and I made no hesitation to catch the ball. I timed the ball’s destination to my right foot and kick…
Miguelito raised his hands and arms to the clouds above like a bird and ran toward me. I had no idea what was going on. We didn’t do this prior to making the two goals before. I saw our teammates do the same, while the other team we were playing looked disappointed. The contagious and enthusiastic energy drew me in, and this sudden surge of euphoric joy permeated throughout the field. Suddenly, I was raising my hands and arms like the rest of our comrades as we soared across the battleground back to our side of the field. I soared along with my camaradas like proud Mexican eagles in victory and chanted in unison.
That day was a time I will never forget. I saw what a band of players from different homes, different skin colors, and different languages could do when we worked together as a team. I felt mighty for those last seconds before lunch was over, and it was that much better because I shared this feeling with my classmates and friend, Miguelito. After this, I began to play more and learn additional Spanish words so that I could communicate with the other Spanish-speaking kids, but they mainly taught me all of the malas palabras. But besides so many feelings of acceptance and comradery I felt that day, I began to feel like this was the beginning of my identity as a Chicano, even though I was not familiar with the word at that age. I knew I wasn’t one of the white kids, and I barely knew any Spanish – I was somewhere in between these two worlds and the bridge to my identity was built on this soccer field.
Miguelito then began asking his mom to allow me to come over after school so we could play soccer in his backyard. She did allow it from time to time. A beautiful light-skinned Mexican woman with gorgeous green eyes, she always smiled at me and in her accent always greeted me.
“Hello, Guillermo. ¿Cómo estás?”
I would always smile back awkwardly since my Spanish was pretty much non-existent. “Bueno. How are you?”
I had the innocence of a child with no full understanding of our mother tongue. She looked at me with sorrow, it seemed, when she learned that my parents were divorced. Until then, Miguelito and I would play soccer in his backyard, sometimes with his dad, who actually played in an amateur league. Miguelito’s papá was a tall, darker skinned-Mexican man whose head reached the clouds. He actually played goalie and always showed his son and me new tricks to use when playing against others.
When I was allowed to sleep over, Miguelito and I would always have a blast. We would stay up watching Dragon Ball Z movies that I brought over since I was a huge fan. Since Miguelito brought me into the world of soccer, I wanted to bring him into my world of Japanese cartoons, anime. We would watch Dragon Ball Z and then criticize who was better between characters, Goku and Vegeta. If we weren’t watching Dragon Ball Z and debating what character was stronger, we would play Gran Turismo or Final Fantasy 7 on his PlayStation console. If we weren’t playing video games or watching our favorite shows, we were playing Yu-Gi-Oh cards. We became really close friends, Miguelito and I. But then something terrible happened.
Miguelito’s family was Catholic. Their being Catholic was not the terrible part, as my family was Catholic as well; we just didn’t practice it. They moved to another city called Menifee, about 75 miles away from our hometown, Montebello. They converted to the religion of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons. I was crushed. Not crushed because of their change of religion, after all, I knew so little about religion and the talk of God at that age. No. I was crushed because I did not have a friend to play and hang out with. No more sleepovers, no more debates on whether Goku or Vegeta was stronger, no more soccer playing in his backyard. No más de nada.
I already moved to my old barrio at around this time and the one guy who had a “normal” family without dysfunction like my own, was gone.
* * * * *
When I got in touch with Miguelito a few years ago when I was 25, I was shocked! He knew I got into smoking weed, however, he never knew about the barrio I lived in nor the things I did in my neighborhood throughout my teenage years.
“Hey Miguel! It’s me, Guillermo! Hope you still remember me, man. Wilcox Elementary, soccer, Dragon Ball Z? I’m sure it will come back to you. Anyway, I hope all is well, man. It has been many years. I tried reaching out to your mom and sister by email, but not sure if they got my message. Reach out when you can.”
That was my message to Miguel through social media. I was never really on social media, and at that time I was already planning on getting off social media for good, since I didn’t see the point to it. After the message I anticipated his response. One day passed, nada. Second day, still nothing. Third day, radio silence. Fourth day, he probably moved on. Fifth day…
“Hey, Guillermo! Of course, I remember you! You were my best friend…” I choked up a little reading that. “We had so many good memories. How have you been, dude? I tell my girlfriend about you all the time actually. I always tell her about my friend Guillermo and how close we were.”
He was right. We were. But friendship doesn’t just end, does it? I mean, friends are friends for a reason, right? All the time we spent together, it doesn’t have to stop even though we haven’t spoken in so many years, does it? But why? Why now? Why back then?
I shared what I accomplished over the years. Graduated from adult school, got my Associates degree at Rio Hondo College in philosophy. I also shared that I was working on my B.A. in both philosophy and English. I was proud of myself, and I think I was also proud sharing these milestones with my old and close friend. The friend that I played soccer with almost every day in elementary school. The same friend that shared our victory of that one game against Jaime and his twin brother Jefferey. I knew he was proud.
“That is so cool, Guillermo! I am proud of you, man.” I knew he would be proud.
But then I told him about my upbringing. Not everything. Not the time I was there when Iggy’s primo was shot and the homies thought he died after fainting from blood loss. I did not share all the drugs I did or the way I rebelled, nor the way I spoke to my mother. I would not dare tell him I used to borrow my mom’s car without her knowing to drive around East Los Angeles by myself or with my homies from the barrio. It would break his heart if he knew I used to go and steal beer from the local Superior Supermarket. He would bemoan it if he knew I used to sell half-pounds of weed when I was fifteen years old. And he would certainly curse me if he knew I had driven someone to kill a rival gang member in my black 1996 Explorer. So many more things in between that I could not tell him.
But I did tell him the time I went to juvenile hall. I figured he must know something about me, and well, going to juvi really affected me. I was sixteen years old, and I had to pay for all the shit I was doing. I did not tell Miguel what I did to get there but told him I went.
Why did I have to tell him?
¿Por qué? I wanted to. He was mi amigo after all, verdad? I wanted him to get a small glimpse of the troubles I went through but to then see the hole I dug myself out of.
He stopped replying to me right after that. I am not sure if juvi was too taboo for his new religious beliefs or if he thought I was some deranged lost soul. After all, my parents were divorced, he knew some things I shared of me witnessing how my parents would fight, and he also knew I smoked weed after he moved to Menifee. Maybe just knowing those things were enough. Maybe juvi was the final straw. Possibly, he just grew out of our friendship and did not want to know or remember his childhood.
Was he ashamed of me? Ashamed that I didn’t know Spanish. Maybe he felt that I was a dysfunctional person. I mean he wouldn’t be wrong on that last notion, but I had evolved, transformed. Haven’t I?
I waited for his reply for days to weeks. I decided to follow through with another message, but nothing again. As a few weeks passed, I stuck with what I wanted to do and deleted my social media like I had previously planned.
Why didn’t he reply back to me? Why?
¿Por qué?... ¿Por qué, mommy?... ¿Pero, por qué, mommy?
I can feel his words within me when I was in the backseat of his mom’s car. The same words that long to understand why his mom would say no to me coming over to hang out or sleep over. The same universal question that almost everyone asks when someone or something does not make sense: why?
Some truths we may never find out in life. I am coming to terms with understanding this in addition to learning to accept myself, my past, and my ever-evolving identity as a proud Chicano.
What I do know is this. That for those twenty-five minutes of playing soccer during our lunch break at Wilcox Elementary, we were good friends, we were champions of that soccer field, nosotros éramos niños del sol. This is a truth of a time and place that will never, ever, drift away.
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 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 Masters Degree in Rhetoric and Composition. He is currently teaching composition to several departments in two colleges that include indigenous and Chicanx literature. 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.