Rinconcito is a special little corner in Somos en escrito for short writings: a single poem, a short story, a memoir, flash fiction, and the like.
Photo by Scott Russell Duncan-Fernandez
El Rey del Batey Por Idalie Muñoz Muñoz
Cuando yo cumplí los 13 años, mi familia se mudó del sur del Bronx a la ciudad de Filadelfia, en el estado de Pensilvania. Nos mudamos a una casa de ladrillo de tres pisos que incluía una tienda de esquina, una entre muchas de pequeños negocios de familia que salpicaban los vecindarios en esos días.
La casa tenía un gran sótano encalado que corría toda la longitud de la casa, donde almacenábamos los productos enlatados de venta en la tienda. En aquellos tiempos, por protección y preferencia, mis padres tenían tres perros pastores alemanes, y de noche los manteníamos atados debajo de las escaleras del sótano. De cómo nos podrían proteger los perros atados así en el sótano, no tengo idea.
Después de una visita de fin de semana a unos parientes a Long Island, mi padre y yo trajimos de vuelta un precioso gallo rojo de pura raza Rhode Island Red, hermosísimo en su plumaje de verde oscuro y rojo tirando a cobre. A pesar de atraer la curiosidad y la sospecha de los demás pasajeros, lo portamos en una caja de cartón con rotitos por el LIRR, el metro de Nueva York y en el tren de regreso a Filadelfia. Estoy segura de que le pusimos un nombre, olvidado desde entonces, pero, para remediarnos por ahora, le pondremos Don Gallo. Don Gallo salió ser genial y amistoso, un verdadero caballero de noble linaje.
Una vez que Don Gallo se colocó bien en el sótano, ya era tiempo de buscarle una novia. Con este propósito, nos dirigimos al Mercado Italiano en el sur de Filadelfia, donde tenían viveros, y regresamos con una bola de plumas que, para propósitos de esta historia, llamaremos Reina. En realidad no recuerdo mucho de ella, aparte de que era redonda y sumisa.
Pues bien, Don Gallo y Reina se dedicaron a la felicidad doméstica, pero sin producir ni un solo huevo. Resulta que, un día como cualquier otro, Reina desapareció misteriosamente. La buscamos por todas partes del sótano, sin tener resultados. Pensábamos que tal vez los perros la habían atacado en la noche, pero no había rastro—ni plumas, ni sangre, nada. Al fin y al cabo, nos resignamos a abandonar la búsqueda. No fue hasta años después que descubrimos los restos momificados de la pobre Reina, más plana que un panqueque, atrapada detrás de una vieja cómoda en el sótano. Aparentemente se había quedado atascada allá atrás sin poderse escapar.
Después de un tiempo apropiado de guardar luto, decidimos que el viudo Don Gallo necesitaba una nueva compañera para que no cayera en un estado de depresión. De nuevo nos emprendimos con mucho afán hacia el Mercado Italiano, donde encontramos una linda pollita, negra como el azabache, y regresamos muy satisfechos con la nueva compañera de Don Gallo, a quien llamaremos Reinita.
Surgió el problema de que Doña Reinita no quería nada que ver con Don Gallo y le huía como perro al escape, ¡resistiendo vigorosamente todos sus avances amorosos! Sus días se pasaban en una frenética persecución de un lado del sótano al otro! ¡Hay que darle crédito a Don Gallo aunque sea por su ardor!
Una madrugada, bajamos al sótano, como de costumbre, a darle comida a los pollos y a soltar a los perros. Nos encontramos con un desagradable reguero de plumas ensangrentadas, de lo que una vez había sido Don Gallo, al mismo frente de donde se amarraban los perros. Nos sentíamos absolutamente desconsolados por la muerte prematura y trágica de Don Gallo. Por supuesto, los perros se portaron muy avergonzados, con el rabo entra las patas, y no encontraban en donde meter las caras de sinvergüenzas. Nunca supimos lo que pasó esa noche, pero la Reinita nunca lo olvidó.
A la mañana siguiente, ¡la Reinita se subió a la tubería instalada cerca del techo en el sótano y cantó! ¡Proclamó su soberanía con un desafiante QUI-QUI-RI-QUIIIII! Casi de la noche a la mañana, “ella” desarrolló una barba carnosa y una moña roja. Le brotó una cola majestuosa, un plumaje adornado con plumas largas y lustrosas, tan negras que brillaban como el azul de medianoche.
Claramente, él ya no era una “ella”. Creció a un tamaño imponente, con un porte arrogante, y con tremendo mal genio por añadidura! Todas las noches, “visitaba” a los perros y les daba tremenda paliza con sus alas extendidas, largas espuelas y ¡a picotazo limpio! Los tres enormes pastores alemanes estaban aterrorizados y no encontraban en donde esconderse cada vez que pasaba el gallo haciendo patrulla.
Siguió trepándose en la tubería del sótano y se le tiraba encima a cualquier persona que no le gustara, ¡queriendo decir a casi todo el mundo! Era tan bravo que finalmente encontramos un granjero dispuesto a llevárselo. Quizás, con suerte, logró ser el rey del batey en un ambiente más apropiado a su nueva estación en la vida.
Y con eso termino este cuento, historia real, dato por dato. Tengo otras, pero en esas historias, el gallo no tiene muy buen fin. Así que me las reservo.
Ruler of the Roost By Idalie Muñoz Muñoz
When I was 13, my family moved from the South Bronx to the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We moved to a three-story brick rowhome that included a corner store, one of many mom-and-pop stores that dotted the neighborhoods in those days. The house had a large, whitewashed basement which ran the full length of the house, where we stored the non-perishable merchandise for the store. In those days, for protection and preference, my parents had three German Shepherd dogs, which we kept tied up every night under the basement stairs. What protection they could offer tied up in the basement, I have no idea. After one weekend visit to Long Island relatives, my father and I brought back a gorgeous Rhode Island Red rooster, resplendent in his lush plumage of metallic green and coppery-red. In spite of the odd looks and curious stares of our fellow passengers, we rode on the LIRR, on the New York subways and on the train back to Philadelphia with our rooster inside a cardboard box with little air holes. I’m sure he had a name, long since forgotten, so we’ll call him Big Red for purposes of this story. Big Red proved to be a real gentleman, and as nice and gentle as could be. Once Big Red was settled in the basement, it was time to find him a mate. We found a suitable partner for Big Red at the Italian Market in South Philly and brought her home. I don’t remember much about her, other than that she was round and nondescript. I’m sure she had a name, too, but we’ll call her Jane for now. Well, Big Red and Jane happily set up housekeeping in the basement, but produced no eggs. Then one day, Jane mysteriously disappeared. We searched for her everywhere in the basement. We thought maybe the dogs had gotten to her in the night, but there were no feathers, no blood, not a sign. We finally gave up the search. Years later, we found a mummified Jane, flatter than a pancake, stuck behind an old dresser in the basement. She had apparently gotten stuck back there and couldn’t get out. After observing a suitable period of mourning, we decided it was time for Big Red to have a new mate so he wouldn’t fall into a blue funk. Back we went to the Italian Market and returned with a dainty black hen, whom we’ll call Jane 2. Problem was, she would have no part of Big Red and vigorously resisted his amorous advances! Their days were spent in a frenetic chase around the basement! You have to give Big Red credit for trying! One morning, we went down, as usual, to feed the chickens and let loose the dogs and found a messy pile of bloody feathers by the dogs of what had once been Big Red. We were absolutely broken-hearted by his untimely and violent demise. Of course, the dogs acted all droopy-tailed and ashamed. We don’t know what happened that night, but the new Jane never forgot it. The very next morning, Jane 2 climbed up on the overhead pipes in the basement and crowed with a lusty QUI-QUI-RI-QUIIIII! Almost overnight, “she” sprouted a fiery red cockscomb and wattle and a majestic tail, with lustrous long feathers so black they shimmered blue. Clearly, he was no longer a “she.” He grew to an imposing height, an arrogant strut and an evil temper to boot. Every night, he would “visit” the dogs and give them a thorough thrashing with his outstretched wings, curved claws and sharp beak. These three huge German Shepherds were terrified of him and they cowered and cringed anytime he walked by on patrol. He continued to roost on the overhead pipes and would swoop down on anyone he didn’t like, which was pretty much everybody. He was so mean, we finally found a farmer willing to take him, and hopefully, he went on to rule the roost somewhere more appropriate to his new station in life. And that’s the end of my rooster’s tale, true story, word for word. I have others, but they don’t have a happy ending for the rooster. Better left unsaid.
Idalie Muñoz Muñoz, a native of Puerto Rico, lives and works in the Seattle, Washington, area.
125 N. Texas Avenue in Weslaco, Texas Photo courtesy of the Weslaco Museum and museum volunteer, Joe Vidales
Life Along the Border
By Jesús Mena
This trio of short stories tied for first place in the 2017 Writing Contest sponsored by the San Miguel Literary Sala, A.C., located in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico.
This feature first appeared in Somos en escrito on February 23, 2017.
We lived in a string of lean-tos behind an old service station next to Emilio’s Bar. All the families living here were just like chickens, going to bed at sunset, not because nature dictated our clocks, but because any light in a one-room hovel alerted the migra that mojados who had crossed the Rio Grande in the dead of night were nesting here. A four-year-old at the time, I was sleeping on the floor on the soft, red blanket that was my bed when late one night my grandmother flicked on the bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling. She stumbled in with our neighbor Victoria leaning against her shoulder. Victoria’s eyes were slits, her face ashen. My grandmother, who was a curandera, slid Victoria onto her bed and quickly ushered me out the door. “Vámonos! Fuera!” “What’s going on, huelis?” I whimpered. “Shht!” she shushed firmly, her finger on her lips. I had already weathered my share of immigration raids so when my grandmother demanded silence, I was a mouse playing dead. But my body shuddered when I heard dreadful groaning coming from inside our shelter. Victoria was in agony. Was she dying? The full moon that loomed over the large mesquite tree across the alley was a gray skull baring its ugly teeth at me. I could not bear to look at it so I sat on the cracked sidewalk, chin on my knees, staring at the alley and trying to ignore the wailing. It seemed like hours before my grandmother stepped out carrying a bucket filled with foul-smelling water that she splashed onto the alley. The water stained the gravel an eerie gray in the moonlight. I grabbed her skirt and pleaded, “Can I go in now, huelis? Please?” “Cállate, niño!” she uttered, shoved me aside, and rushed back in. Now I was terrified. My huelis loved me. She had never treated me like this. Victoria began screaming: “No! No!” Then I heard sobbing. I rushed to the door, hoping I could sneak a peek. The adults inside started arguing then the light seeping through the cracks of the wooden door went out, the rusty doorknob squeaked as it turned, and Victoria’s husband stepped out carrying a dark bundle followed by my father and my grandmother. My mother called me back in and put me to sleep. The hard wooden floor was humid, giving off a dull musty odor. Later that night I woke up screaming when I saw a translucent, blue figure floating through our shack. My grandmother ran to my side and picked me up in her arms. She brewed an herbal tea for me to fend off bad dreams and cuddled me on her lap, rocking me to sleep. Dawn came and my grandmother and my parents acted as if nothing had happened. No matter how much I pestered them, they dismissed my questions about the night before. We moved out of the area when my father landed a good-paying job as a plumber, but images of that eerie night were indelibly etched in my mind. My grandmother always assured me that my childhood imagination had conjured up this dark tale. It was not until she suffered a stroke that placed her at heaven’s door that she decided to rid herself of her earthly burdens. “Te acuerdas…de..de..aquella noche,..mi’jo…” she said, her voice faltering as she recounted what had happened that strange night. Victoria had had a miscarriage, she said. They didn’t call the priest to give the child his final blessing because the priest was an Anglo. They were afraid he would call the migra. They had buried the child in the empty lot behind Emilo’s Bar, and my grandmother had said the final prayers. Her dying wish was that God would forgive her. Her revelation was jarring. That lot with its scraggly bushes once was my favorite place to play hide-and-seek. It was also my sanctuary whenever I got in trouble with my parents. I had carved out a small hideout in the brush where I found solace. Somehow I felt like I had a friend there to console me. I lost that little haven when the garage owner turned that lot into a place for oil changes, and the earth gradually darkened to a pitch-black. The image of a baby drenched in this waste haunted me. My soul yearned to pay my last respects. I went to my hometown, which had grown into a small city with a cluster of ramshackle cottages on its outskirts. Ankle-high weeds covered the backyards there with well-worn paths leading to sagging outhouses; kids were playing stickball in the alley. I felt at home. But my old barrio was quite a ways from those shanties. I finally reached the street where we once lived. The panaderia at the street corner that once filled the air with the sweet scent of cinnamon from freshly baked pan dulce had been supplanted by a dry cleaner. The garage and the bar had been leveled, replaced by a large cinderblock building. A grocery store occupied the portion of the structure where the garage used to be. Next door, there was a sign that read La Señora Adivinadora with a large Tarot card taped to the windowpane that showed Persephone, the high priestess sitting on her throne between the darkness and the light in front of the Tree of Life. I walked into La Señora’s place, which had a glass counter with a collection of talismans mounted on shelves and a black curtain separating the small front room from the rear. The curtain slid open and a somber woman with dark brown eyes and black flowing hair strolled out. Around her neck hung a gold chain with an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe set in mother of pearl. “Buenas tardes,” she said as she walked to the counter. “Would you like me to read your fortune?” I looked past her to the rear of her unit, which stretched all the way to the alley. Concrete now covered the former back lot of Emilio’s Bar. “Come into my reading room back here,” she said. “A special spirit resides there that guides me.” I pursed my lips. “I know,” I nodded as I closed my eyes.
Winter unleashed heavy downpours that battered noisily against the windowpanes. Gonzalo tossed and turned. His older brother Maurilio was snoring exceptionally loud tonight. It was a nightly ritual that began with hoarse guttural mutterings that would then dull into a drone before Maurilio would finally slide into a deep sleep. The steady drip of the rainspouts added to his insomnia. With Maurilio’s snore down to a whisper, it became the mouse that prevented Gonzalo’s slumber. That vermin had been harassing the family for weeks despite the traps that had been set throughout the house. He heard it scratching at some package in the kitchen cabinet. He listened intently, hoping to hear the loud thump that said: This rata is dead meat! When it was satisfied with its treasure, the mouse scurried down the hallway, its claws rasping against the wooden floor, avoiding all the mines scattered on the floor. It was quiet again. The chiming of the clock told him it was midnight when his father’s truck pulled into the driveway. The pickup door opened and slammed shut. He heard his father come in the front door. His mother was still awake. “Hola, mi amor, I’m home,” he said jovially. “Where the hell have you been?” she asked. “Is that any way to greet your viejo?” he asked. When he was drunk, he was always sure he could sweet-talk her out of anything. They had been fighting for weeks. Gonzalo’s mother Mencha always made light of the squabbles whenever he asked her what was going on. The arguments that vibrated through the sheer walls usually began with his mother taking his flattery quietly for a while before the exchanges flared into nasty quarrels. Tonight, however, she seemed to have little patience for his accolades. “Ándale preciosa! Let’s jump into bed and make out like old times,” he said. “Those days are long gone,” she said sternly. “Ay dios, you are a lioness tonight,” he said, laughing lightly. “What got into you?” “Maybe I’m tired of being taken for a pendeja?” “I always treat you with respect,” he snapped. “Really? Partying till all hours? We’re barely making ends meet, and you don’t even come home from work on payday. You go out and spend money like it’s nothing.” “You worry too much, amorcito,” he said. “Come on, let’s have some fun.” “Get your filthy hands off of me,” she said. “You are my wife and I am going to make love to you,” he said firmly. “What? You didn’t get enough with Carla tonight?” “Carla? Who is Carla?” “You know what I am talking about! My friends have seen you with her. Una cantinera! Que asqueroso!” “Ay, amorcito mío. Chismes, chismes, chismes,” he said dismissively. “You believe everything you hear.” “I saw you tonight with her! Julia drove me over to the bar, and we waited till you left with her.” “I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said. “You filthy liar. Get the hell out of here! I never want to see you again!” There was a dead silence. “If I leave tonight, you will never see me again,” he said. “That will be too soon!” Gonzalo heard the front door bang shut, his father’s hurried steps on the porch, and the pickup rush out the driveway. His mother’s sobbing sent his heart racing. He desperately wanted to comfort her. He struggled to get up but his legs felt like lead weights. What could he tell his mother? How could he possibly soothe her? He found himself sinking into a dark pit as he sobbed himself to sleep. Mencha’s sadness blanketed the house like a fog the next day. She avoided Gonzalo anytime he tried to talk to her. He told Maurilio what he had heard the night before, and the two of them finally approached her. “Don’t worry, Amá, he’ll be back,” said Maurilio. “He wouldn’t walk away from us.” “He has nowhere else to go,” agreed Gonzalo. But the weeks turned to months without word of his whereabouts. His father’s departure spawned a deep guilt in Gonzalo. He should have had the cojones to get out of bed and intervene. He kept recreating the fight. All he had to do was step in and ask them what in the world was going on, and they would have been embarrassed and calmed down. Maybe they could have worked things out. Instead, he had just cried like a baby. An 11-year-old baby, for Christ’s sake. What pained Gonzalo most was how his mother’s life changed. She became the neighborhood tailor, stitching dresses for quinceañeras and other special occasions but the money she pulled in was not enough. She started cleaning homes for gringos on the other side of town, cooking, scrubbing floors, changing baby diapers, and doing laundry. On her first day, she left well dressed, eager for the challenges of the new job. She came home exhausted and just scrambled some eggs and frijoles for dinner. Her eyes slowly lost their luster. The thought of his mother on her hands and knees in some gringo home burned a hole in Gonzalo’s belly. He argued with her to stop working. He could drop out of school, get a job, but she was adamant that her kids would graduate from high school and carve out a better life. Gonzalo’s father now seemed like a ghost from his childhood – a carpenter who straggled home from work every day with his frayed Stetson sprinkled with sawdust. He would shake off his hat off in the front yard, walk in, smile at the family and head for the bedroom to read Western dime novels. He was a sullen man who ignored the silly banter or the rowdy spats between the boys around the dinner table. He wasn’t a real father. Gonzalo felt he had been abandoned since birth, a void that bred a rancor that gnawed through the remnants of his childhood innocence. Each night Gonzalo dreamed that he stood before the shell of a house under construction. There was the dense, sweet smell of sawdust and the piercing whine of the saw. He’d step in and his father stopped pounding his hammer, tipped back his hat, and stared at Gonzalo with a smile. Livid, Gonzalo struggled to confront him but found himself staring, impotent with rage. Eliminating all that reminded him of his father became an obsession. He trashed the stack of his father’s paperbacks that were covered with dust. He urged his mother to dump all of his father’s belongings. She refused. “They are his and he will return and get them one day,” she said. Gonzalo frowned. “Amá, how can you believe that jerk will ever return?” “Don’t you ever use such language in referring to your parents,” came her indignant reply. Her response only fueled his drive to erase his father’s existence from his world. One sunny afternoon when the family had fired up their barbecue pit in the backyard, Gonzalo was rummaging through his parent’s closet in search of a folding chair when his eyes zeroed in on his father’s dressy Stetson that he wore on his weekend parandas. He stared at it, grabbed it, walked out and threw it in the barbecue pit. Mencha gasped. The three of them looked on with an almost pious silence as the hat burst into flames and slowly became a gray sliver that blended into the burning charcoals.
The drone of Mrs. Gray’s math class recital suffocated my thoughts. She bored me stiff. Mrs. Gray eyed the classroom as she paced the length of the blackboard, carefully seeking her next victim. She seemed to enjoy making us squirm. “Moisés, can you recite the nine’s multiplication table?” she said. Moisés walked timidly to the front of the class. He was clearing his throat when the shrill wail of the town siren shattered Mrs. Gray’s spell. We all leaped from our seats and scurried under our desks. From my hunched position, I watched an imposing Mrs. Gray march up and down the aisles, inspecting all the crouched bodies, making sure everyone was in the proper fetal position. “Make sure you are covering your eyes,” she said, raising her voice over the siren’s whine. “Benigno, get your legs completely under the desk.” The siren ceased its howl, the drill ending too soon, so we all crawled out from under our desks. I raised my hand before the teacher resumed her lesson. “Mrs. Gray, why do we cover our eyes in a bomb drill?” I asked. “To protect your eyes,” she said. “You could go blind from the light of an atomic explosion.” “But how does that protect us from radiation?” Mrs. Gray looked annoyed. “You know the auditorium is designated as a fallout shelter. Once the explosion is over, we’d go to the auditorium.” “But it’s got big windows. How can it protect us from radiation?” “And what about everyone else in town? ” chimed in Benigno. “Where are my parents supposed to go if they dropped a bomb on us?” “The town has a fallout shelter,” Mrs. Gray said frostily as the bell rang and we all raced raucously from the room and headed home. Moisés, Benigno and I savored the shade of the magnolia trees that towered over the landscaped yards on the gringo side of town as we walked home that muggy afternoon. “Did you guys check out the note Mrs. Gray sent home?” I asked. It was an official city memo that asked families to set aside a month’s supply of canned and dried foods, water and other necessities. It was part of the nuclear-preparedness program that city officials had unfurled with much fanfare. “A month? Sometimes we’re lucky if we got a pot of beans at the end of the week,” said Moisés. “I’m not gonna show this to my Dad,” said Benigno. He yanked the note from his book, crushed it into a wad and thrust it into the corner garbage can. We grew quiet. The three of us had seen the newsreels in the movie theater a couple of months ago warning all Americans to prepare in case Russia nuked our country. The film was frightening – an atomic bomb going off with a horrific boom followed by a ball of fire that spread into the sky like a giant mushroom. “Do you really think they’re gonna drop a bomb on our little town?” asked Benigno. “Of course. The Russians got a bomb aimed at every town in America,” I said. Benigno looked depressed. “The city bomb shelter is on the gringo side of town,” lamented Benigno. “How are my parents and my little sister gonna get there? We don’t even have a car.” “We gotta do something to help our families,” I declared. “Like what?” asked Moisés. “We could build our own fallout shelter,” I said, a bit surprised at myself. They looked at me skeptically. “Really?” asked Moisés. “Just how are we gonna do that?” “I don’t know but we gotta figure it out.” Moisés shook his head. “If we get hit, we might turn into some kind of nuclear monsters…” growled Moisés as he contorted his face, moaned and breathed heavily then started chasing Benigno. Benigno shrieked and sprinted away. My friends were trying to laugh it off but I knew they were as worried as I was. When I got home, my father had me lug some scrap lumber from his dusty blue pickup and stack it in the backyard. “What’s this for?” I asked. My father was a carpenter who would never let any lumber go to waste. “Not sure…might come in handy someday,” he said. “Can I have some of it?” “What you planning…a clubhouse?” “Something like that.” “You know where the nails and hammers are. Just don’t mess up my saw,” said Dad with a smile. I was ecstatic. It was the first time Dad had trusted me with his most prized possession – his electric saw. Lumber, nails, tools – we had everything we needed to build the fallout shelter. I rushed next door to tell my buddies. “Hey you guys! I got the stuff we need to make a bomb shelter.” Moisés and Benigno rushed over to my place to see but they seemed less than enthusiastic when they stared at the pile of mangled scrap with splinters and nails jutting out at odd angles. “You couldn’t build a doghouse with that,” said Moisés. When I pulled out my father’s electric saw, their eyes lit up. I squeezed the trigger switch and the silver blade roared to life. “Let me try that,” said Moisés. “I’ll teach you how to use it…if we build the shelter.” Benigno smiled, picked up a hammer and began driving rusty nails out of the lumber. My chest swelled as I taught Moisés how to use the saw. We began arguing about the proper architecture with the debate getting heated at times. The intermittent whine of the power saw and the banging of hammers soon eliminated the chatter.
I called the club to order as I crouched on a small wooden crate. The shelter was finished except for the lead lining needed to protect us from radiation. Being the entrepreneur, I had talked Moisés and Benigno into chipping in fifty cents each to buy some baby chicks. We planned to raise them into hens, sell the eggs they laid and, when the hens were too old to produce, we could sell them to make chicken soup. Our chickens would be cheaper than the ones at Hinojosa’s Market. We would make a killing in the neighborhood. The income would get us the lead we needed. Of course, bold ventures invariably encounter obstacles. Our first challenge was sharing our hideout with the chicks. It’s hard to conduct a serious business meeting with chicks darting in and out between your legs. With time, our troubles grew. “You guys, it’s starting to smell in here,” complained Benigno. “It’s chicken shit,” groused Moisés. “That’s why chickens live in chicken coops, not in fallout shelters.” Suddenly one of the chicks let out a shrill cry and hobbled as it raced in circles. Moisés had accidentally stepped on it. “Damn it, Moises! You almost killed one of our investments,” I yelled. “Investments, my ass!” cried Moisés. “Who would want to come into this stinkin’ fallout shelter? We don’t even know where we can get the lead even if we had the money.” “Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out.” Unfortunately, he was right. I had no idea where to get the lead.
One day I was helping my father build a new house when I saw the plumber pouring a silver liquid to seal the drainage pipe he was installing. Molten lead! How could I have been so blind? Plumbers used lead to seal pipes! Our problem was solved. I called a meeting of my buddies to unveil my discovery. We all headed to the shelter, and I unlocked the latch, jiggled and kicked the twisted door until it finally came loose. “Watch out for the chicks,” said Moisés. More than once they had escaped, and we ran ourselves ragged chasing hyperactive little feather balls. I crouched down with a watchful eye but none of the chicks even peeked through the crack I opened. I slowly swung the door open ready to snatch any chick that made a run for it. None did. It was quiet. Too quiet. “Something’s wrong.” We walked in and looked around. “Holy shit!” said Moisés. The neighborhood alley cat had apparently dug his way under the dirt floor and gobbled up our little treasures. There was nothing left but feathers strewn on the ground. We were speechless. “What a drag – que pinche aguite!” muttered Moisés after a drawn-out silence. “I told you we should’ve built a floor to this thing.” “We didn’t have enough lumber,” I said. “So much for the fallout shelter,” sighed Benigno. It was also the end of our club. I was never able to coax the guys into starting up again. I’ve always felt that I failed to capitalize on the dramatic potential of our project. It could have been the basis for a great science fiction screenplay. Picture a newscast that erroneously reports that the Russians have just launched a nuclear attack on the United States. People scurry for cover, quickly overwhelming the city’s designated fallout shelter. In the chaos, the mayor and some of his cronies are stranded on our side of town. They come to our sanctuary, pleading for a chance to enter our shelter. Gringo politicians begging Chicano kids for a share of the fruits of their labor? That’s a story line that would light up faces in any barrio.
Jesús Mena, the son of undocumented Mexican immigrants from the south Texas Rio Grande Valley, grew up as a migrant farm worker, following the crops each year with his family along the entire US Midwest corridor. He was managing editor of ChismeArte, a pioneering Latino literary journal. After stints as a journalist with various newspapers including the Brownsville Herald, Orange County Register and Oakland Tribune, he became director of media relations for UC-Berkeley and subsequently held a similar post at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. Jesús is currently working on a historical novel set in the Rio Grande Valley in the early 1900s.
My mother Carmen often sent me to La Paloma Market, while my brother Salomon watched I Love Lucy re-runs. We lived in East Los Angeles’ Ramona Gardens housing project, where I had to be selective about the routes I took. Since I feared the barking dogs along the alley, I always took a shortcut through the hill that was controlled by a local gang—the Hill Boys. The homeboys never bothered me on my daily trip for groceries, especially since we attended Murchison Elementary School at the same time. It wasn’t until one hot Saturday morning, on my way to La Paloma, when one of the homeboys called me out for a fight. His name was Javier, an inductee of the Hill Boys who challenged me for my nickname, Smiley. A veterano gave me this nickname because I was always made him laugh. Eventually, everyone called me Smiley, including my parents. Although I never belonged to a gang—my application was rejected because I was too thin—I could never show signs of weakness or else I would become easy prey on the mean streets of the Eastside. Despite my initial reluctance to fight, Javier and I were to exchange blows, not for any grudges or personal issues, but for the right to be known as Smiley #1. Long before our fight, Javier and I would bump into each other at the hill on our way to La Paloma Market. We would acknowledge each other with casual nods of the head. During these encounters, we established a friendly relationship, despite our obvious differences. While I sported my Los Angeles Lakers jersey with my K-mart Lee’s jeans and Converse sneakers, Javier strutted along with the traditional gang attire—a neatly creased, white JC Penny T-shirt with brown, baggy khaki pants and Stacy Adams shoes. He also never left home without his Pendleton coat, neatly folded around his arm. He was a wannabe cholo back then. But our casual relationship changed that one Saturday morning, as Javier was being initiated into the Hill Boys. To become a Hill Boy, the inductee had a choice of either walking through parallel lines of homeboys to suffer hits and kicks until reaching the end, or fight against three of the toughest homeboys, while the other homeboys count up to ten. Javier chose the latter. As I watched Javier’s initiation from a safe distance, I witnessed his futile attempt to fight back against an onslaught of blows. “One, two, three, four…,” the homeboys slowly counted up to ten. Javier stood up as long as he could, but his knees finally buckled at the count of eight. The homeboys finished the last two counts with kicks to Javier’s back and legs. It ended with a loud “¡Basta!” Herbie, one of the homeboys, got in a last kick to Javier’s left shin. “Congratulations, man, you’re one of us,” yelled Duke, the gang leader. Javier slowly rose to his feet and tried to dust himself off. His neatly pressed T-shirt now sported rips, dirt and blood. All of the homeboys welcomed him with a bear hug. Almost in unison, they asked Javier to decide on a gang name. “Smiley,” he shouted, grinning with blood and dirt on his teeth. “You know that Smiley is already taken,” said Duke, as he glanced and pointed in my direction. “Choose another name, man.” “Well, why don’t we just duke it out for the name?” Javier asked. “Come in closer, Smiley,” yelled Duke, as he nodded at me. “You’ve been challenged to a fight. What’s it going to be? Are you going to fight or chicken out?” As I approached the homeboys, I thought about the promise I made to my mother that I was not to take part in gang activity. Since my nickname was not gang related, I didn’t feel obligated to defend it. It was just a nickname, I thought to myself. For Javier, however, it was more than a nickname. It was his new identity. It represented his new way of life: a proud member and defender of the Hill Boys. And there could only be room for one Smiley #1. As I got closer to Javier, he began to mad dog me. At that point, I had no way out. I was the only thing standing in his way to become Smiley #1. “No, Javier,” I said. “I don’t want to fight.” Before I could finish, Javier rushed at me, swinging in all directions. “Who are you calling Javier?” he shouted, coming at me with full force. “I’m Smiley #1, punk!” I put my hands up and started to fight, trying to defend myself against a determined foe. After two minutes, Duke broke us apart to see if I wanted to quit. “I’m down to keep going, if he’s down,” I said, knowing that quitting was not an option in my neighborhood. Waiting for a verbal response, Javier suddenly hit me on my chin. I went down like George Foreman against Muhammad Ali in the “Rumble in the Jungle.” “One…two…three…,” one of the homeboys counted. “You’re out of there,” proclaimed another homeboy. I slowly opened my eyes, trying to bring the homeboys’ faces into focus. “And the winner and new champion, all the way from the big, bad Hill Boys gang,” shouted an exuberant Duke, as he raised Javier’s arm up in the air, “Smiley #1.” As the applause dwindled, Javier helped me to my feet and gave me a hug. “Thanks for helping me up, Smiley,” I said to him with a look of defeat. “I have to go now. My mother is waiting for her tortillas de maiz and chicken.” When I got home, my mother asked me, “What happened to you?” “¿Qué?” I blurted out, pretending that nothing was wrong. She looked up at me, before inspecting the grocery bag. “You’re a mess, Smiley. And why did it take you so long?” “Oh…uh…I was chased by some dogs and fell,” I said. “How many times do I have to tell you not to go through the hill?” she scolded me. “Well, I need you to return to market and return this chicken. It smells.” “Why do I always have to go?” I said, as I shot a glance at my brother Salomon. “Why don’t you send him?” “You know that I can’t rely on your brother. He always forgets to get everything I ask him for,” she explained. “Maybe he forgets on purpose?” I responded with respect. Salomon kept quiet, concentrating on I Love Lucy. I’m sure he heard everything we said, however. A little grin crept across his face, yet I couldn’t tell what amused him more—my predicament or the television program. “Okay, I’ll go back,” I said, “but under one condition.” “What?” my mother asked. I paused for a moment and coughed. Salomon was still slouched in front of the TV, as I noticed his eyes shifting toward me. “Well?” said my mother, “I don’t have all day.” “Please,” I said in a clear voice, “I don’t want anyone to call me Smiley, anymore!” My mother shook her head, turned on her heel and walked to the kitchen without saying a word. Salomon’s eyes turned back to the television, where he let out a little laugh. I walked to the front door. “Have fun,” said Salomon, as I stepped out onto the porch. I let the screen door slam behind me, nervously anticipating what darkness awaited me in the projects.
“What’s sex?” Helen’s faint, wistful query had come out of nowhere, stopping us cold, leaving us holding partially gnawed apples or cookies or unfinished sandwiches suddenly gone dry and hard to swallow. Just moments ago our small group of seven second grade friends had been companionably eating lunch at our assigned place, one of the well-worn brown-painted wood and cement benches lining the left side, the girls’ side, of St. Agnes School’s upper playground. It was, we thought, the best bench of them all. The central decoration, the focus and pride of our schoolyard, was an imposing outdoor shrine facing the school’s main entrance, a life-size gray cement cave or grotto sheltering a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. Tall arching trees, green shrubs and rosebushes growing along the fence line provided the shrine, and our adjacent bench, a welcome feeling of privacy and peace. Leave it to timid, wispy-haired little Helen, youngest and smallest of our circle, to disrupt that peace. Didn’t she know that “sex” was one of those intriguing socially unacceptable words we weren’t supposed to know, and never ever supposed to say out loud, in public? Obviously not. She was so dumb! With leftover sandwiches and snacks returned to colorful metal lunch pails, our immediate mutual instinct was to check if the coast was clear. Where was today’s playground monitor, and who was she? No way did we want our discussion to be overheard, especially by bossy, crab-faced Mrs. Baxter, the tall lady with the tight blonde perm who sometimes filled in as supervisor. Our heads swiveled back and forth as we peered through the blur of almost two hundred uniformed students: white-shirted boys in navy cord pants, girls in white middy sailor blouses worn over pleated navy skirts. “There she is,” red-haired Millie whispered, tossing two long auburn braids behind her shoulders, “…over by the boys.” A collective sigh of relief, the coast was clear, we were safe. Today’s supervisor was popular and always amiable Sister Mary Francis, busy settling a problem on the opposite side, the boys’ side, of the playground. Sister’s billowy black floor-length habit and black veil over a starched white coif made her a formidable, highly visible presence, even against the sea of navy blue and white. Helen’s unanswered question still hovered overhead, filling the atmosphere with a heavy uncomfortable silence. I couldn’t stand it. Somebody had to go first; it might as well be me. I swallowed the rest of my bite of apple, cleared my throat, gathered up a bit of courage, forced out an answer. “Sex means whether you’re a boy or a girl. You know, those boxes our parents mark with a pencil on school or doctor forms.” The words had barely slipped out when I knew it was too simple, too easy an explanation. Barbara’s brown Shirley Temple curls went flying as she shook her head in disagreement. “No, sex is holding hands with a boy.” Millie, then the others chimed in. “Yuck! Who wants to do that?” “No, it’s when a boy kisses you and you kiss him back.” Suzie objected. “Well, my grandpa used to be a boy, sometimes he kisses me, and I kiss him back!” “That’s different!” “Why?” “Boys stink!” “It’s something that happens when boys and girls cuddle up too close together.” “Double yuck!” “It’s about grown-ups.” “No, sex is about teenagers, not old people, and there’s got to be kissing!” “You’re all wrong! Sex has to do with babies!” Back and forth we went, each contribution adding to the muddle. Then Mary (the smart one) issued her opinion. “No, there’s more to it than that, lots more,” she declared in a slightly superior tone. “Sex is about grown-ups, not teenagers. A man and a lady like each other, they get married, they have children.” A great silence followed Mary’s declaration. Well, that’s that, I thought, end of discussion. Mary, of all people, should know; she was part of a big family with lots of brothers and sisters. Besides, Mary’s father was a lawyer, and everyone knew that lawyers, and by association, their children, were extra smart. But no, that wasn’t that, after all. After a few more silent moments somebody else, I think it was Joan, spoke up. Yes, now I remember. Joan, not to be outdone (she was oldest, after all), brought up another subject we weren’t supposed to discuss. “Well, sometimes ladies have children without being married. What about them?” I don’t remember what Mary or anyone else answered, but Joan was on a roll, and not about to be silenced. Tucking some wayward strands of wavy dark hair behind her ears, she continued. “And besides, what about men who like men? We’ve all seen them kiss and hug. What about them? Men don’t get married to each other, and men sure can’t have children!” A collective gasp, then another long quiet pause as we thought this over. I just knew we were all remembering the same thing. Last Friday, over blaring classroom speakers, The Office had emphatically announced a new rule: Effective immediately, nearby Buena Vista Park would be off-limits to all St. Agnes students. Parents and teachers alike were in complete agreement, The Office proclaimed. “But why?” I asked my father later that same night. “It doesn’t make sense, it’s not fair, parks are supposed to be for everybody!” “That’s just the way it is, that park is for men only and you’re never to go there,” Papi answered, putting an uncharacteristic end to any more questions from me regarding that particular topic. Our group drew in closer, heads touching, hands gesturing, to discuss this new topic. We were all accustomed to Middle Eastern men walking hand-in-hand, a familiar sight in mid-1940’s multicultural San Francisco. No one cared, hardly anyone noticed, except maybe tourists. But other men who did this were different, somehow; we just knew. Finally, by mutual agreement, we quietly decided that yes, sex had something to do with men, too. Still, exactly what it was none of us had any idea. We weren’t quiet for long. Frowning, a puzzled Barbara posed a new question. “Well, if men can like men, do ladies ever like ladies?” Another explosion of opinions followed. “That’s impossible!” “Ladies don’t kiss each other!” “Why not?” Suzie again: “My aunties kiss and hug me, and each other, all the time!” “That’s different!” “Why?” “That’s crazy!” “Yuck!” “No way!” “There’s no such thing!” By now, all caution flung aside, we were practically shouting at each other. “Well, why not?” I countered (the voice of reason). “It makes sense. It’s only fair. If men can like each other, then why can’t ladies? What’s the difference?” Little Helen spoke up again, this time in an impressive, never-before-heard-aloud voice. “Let’s ask Sister! She’ll know! And she won’t lie to us like our parents sometimes do, because she’s a nun, and nuns can’t lie. They’d go straight to hell!” “Good idea!” “You ask her!” “No, you do it!” “You thought of it first!” Somehow (because I was tallest?) they picked me to be spokesperson. There’s strength in numbers, they say. Or maybe it’s strength in courage. Whatever. So, hoping one or both sayings were true, I stretched out my hands to my six friends. “There she is,” shouted Millie over the rumble of other voices celebrating their release from lunchtime constraints. “…over by the boys, next to the main stairs!” Clinging to each other, seven sets of fingers tightly interlaced, we set out in search of Sister Mary Francis, carefully making our way through a sudden surge of students. The hand bell signaling the end of lunch and beginning of free play had rung. We hadn’t even noticed. Sister gave us her customary warm smile as we approached. “Yes, girls? May I help you with something?” I spoke up, body trembling, knees knocking, appallingly aware of my duty as spokesperson. “Yes, Sister, we need to ask a question. You know how… sometimes… men like other men?” I paused to gather up another bit of courage before continuing. “So… do ladies ever like… other ladies?” Sister’s smiling face still beamed; then, as she realized what we were asking, she gasped, exhaled, stopped breathing. Paralyzed, horrified, we watched Sister’s complexion change from normal to a pale, chalky white, almost as white as her coif, then to an alarming crimson. Oh no! Was she mad at us? Was she going to yell at us? Were we in big trouble? Would we be sent to The Office? Would they call our parents? And what if Sister Mary Francis fainted, or even died? It would be our fault! Obviously, we had accidently stumbled across yet another one of those socially unacceptable questions. I felt so dumb! At last… Sister gasped, breathing in gulps of fresh air as her complexion slowly regained its natural color. More long seconds passed before Sister forced out an answer to our question. In a dreadful high dry squeak, like the sound that comes out when you try to talk after inhaling the air from a helium-filled balloon, Sister blurted out: “Yes, it happens, but it’s very, very rare!” “Thank you, Sister,” we chorused before scrambling away, zig-zagging through boisterous clumps of rampaging boys, back to the girls’ side, back to the security and serenity of our own designated bench by the grotto. Could we believe her or not? We weren’t sure. We still liked and respected Sister, and she had, after all, answered our question. But nun or not, Sister Mary Francis’ reaction wasn’t very convincing or reassuring. Learning the truth about sex was obviously going to be up to us, without any adult help. Maybe next year, when we were older and smarter, when we finally reached third grade, maybe then we’d understand more about it.
Gloria Delgado, born and raised in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, is the daughter of a Mexican father and a Hawaii-born Puerto Rican mother. She and her husband live in Albany, California. One of her stories, “Savanna,” was included in the Berkeley Community Memoir Project’s recently published collection, “A Wiggle and a Prayer.” This is her third story for “Somos en escrito.”
I have always been nervous about visiting my old neighborhood. One day, my brother Salomon—an acclaimed artist—invited my younger brothers (Noel and Ismael) and me to meet him at our old neighborhood—East Los Angeles’ notorious Ramona Gardens housing projects. (Apart from his good looks, Noel possessed the most talent and smarts among the brothers and in the projects.) Salomon had to retouch his mural in memory of Arturo “Smokey” Jimenez, who was murdered by the cops in 1991. His killing sparked days of protests and riots from local residents against a long history of police brutality and harassment in America’s barrios. Two days later, after receiving Salomon’s phone call, I drove my 1967 Mustang to the projects. Many years had passed since I left the projects to attend UCLA, as a 17-year-old freshman—majoring in mathematics. I always felt nervous about returning to my old neighborhood ever since, not knowing how my childhood friends and local homeboys would welcome me. I abandoned them all: Buddy, Herby, Ivy, Chamino, Peanut Butter, Nayto, Teto, Tavo, Joaquin and Fat Ritchie. There is always a fat kid. I felt like I left them and my family in a hostile place. Together, we were safe. Separated, we became vulnerable. My heart pounded as I approached the graffiti-decorated projects. I parked at the Shell gas station on Soto Street, near the 10 freeway. I looked at the rear-view mirror, as I combed my dark black hair with my Tres Flores hair gel and reminded myself that this is where I came from. Be tough, I thought to myself. I gained my composure and slowly mustered a tough demeanor. Signs of weakness only attract the bullies in the projects. I started my engine, cruised over the railroad tracks, slowed down for the speed bumps, passed the vacant Carnation factory and parked in front of La Paloma Market—where our family got credit. As I got out of my car, not far from Smokey’s mural, a couple of homeboys confronted me. “Where are you from, ese?” one of the homeboys asked, slowly approaching me. Actually, it was more of a demand. “Hey, punk, what are you doing in the projects?” a young homebody chimed in. He must have been only 13 years of age, but was ready to defend his neighborhood. Sometimes, being tough is the only thing that a kid from the projects has to hold unto. Before I could answer, a stocky homeboy replied, “Hey, man, leave him alone. I know this vato. We go way back.” “Fat Ritchie, is that you?” I asked, relieved to be saved from the onslaught of blows that awaited me. There is something about pain that never appealed to me. “That’s right,” he said, as he welcomed me with a bear hug. “Hey, bro, how did you get so buff?” I asked, amazed at his transformation from the neighborhood fat kid to the muscular gangster. “Where do you work out? Gold’s Gym?” “Nah, man, try San Quentin State Prison,” he proudly responded. “There’s no Gold’s Gym in Ramona Gardens!” “Oh,” I said, feeling like an idiot for asking a stupid question. “By the way, have you seen Nayto?” “I don’t know what happened to him,” Fat Ritchie responded. “Most of the guys we hung out with as kids are either dead, in jail, on drugs or got kicked out by the housing authorities. Only the dedicated ones stuck around to protect the neighborhood.” As kids, we roamed the projects without paranoid parents dictating our every move. Life back then was not as violent. It was a time before crack, PCP and high-powered guns flowed into the projects without limits. While drugs and violence existed before the drug business skyrocketed and outsiders intervened in the projects, back then, problems among the homeboys usually resulted in a fistfight. And since no rival gang or outsider dared to venture into the projects, Ramona Gardens was our haven—except when it came to the cops or housing authorities (who behaved more like prison guards). We were just a bunch of project kids hanging out, playing sports and getting into trouble. Every time we got into trouble, Nayto was in the middle of it. There was something special about Nayto. He was tall and muscular for an eleven-year-old. He was dark-skinned with curly brown hair. He had great athletic skills that gained him respect among his peers. Despite his crooked teeth, he was always smiling. He seemed restless, always planning for his next scheme and adventure. Like many kids from the projects, he didn’t have a father in the household, making it difficult for his mother to keep track of him and his two younger brothers. Reminiscing about Nayto takes me back to my childhood, when I played sports with my friends all day long. We liked playing baseball. It was a hot Sunday morning. We met, like always, in front of Murchison Street Elementary School. We had no parks in the projects, so we played on Murchison’s hot asphalt playground. We brought our cracked bats, old gloves, ripped baseballs and hand-me-down Dodger jerseys. One by one, we scaled the school’s twelve-feet fence. Most of us climbed easily, like Marines performing boot camp drills. Yet, Fat Ritchie struggled. Like many other times, he found himself sitting on top of the fence, as Buddy shook it. “Don’t mess around man,” Fat Ritchie pleaded with Buddy to stop. “Hey, Buddy,” said Nayto, “leave him alone or else I’ll kick your ass, again.” Once on the playground, we picked teams. Suddenly, Nayto ran off towards the school’s bungalows without saying a word. The game was not the same without Nayto. We would miss his home runs and wild curveballs. He would even nose dive like Pete Rose, when stealing second base. But, the game must go on, where we started to play without our best player. Short a man, the team captains argued over the odd number of players to pick from. As a compromise, they decided that the team with less players got stuck with Fat Ritchie. As the game began, we heard a noise coming from the janitor’s storage facility, adjacent to the empty bungalows with the broken windows. “It’s just Nayto messing around,” yelled Joaquin from right field. In the bottom of the third inning, Nayto finally emerged from the storage area. He ran across the playing ground with his clothes drenched in what appeared to be motor oil. “Nobody say shit or else,” Nayto yelled, as he interrupted our game. “What did he say?” asked Buddy. “Nothing,” I replied. “Let’s keep playing, it’s just Nayto being Nayto.” “Come on, let’s play,” said Herby. “I need to go home before I Love Lucy re-runs start.” A few minutes later, a police helicopter appeared over the storage area. Five LAPD cars surrounded the school. Before we could run, the cops cut the lock on the fence and stormed the playground like a SWAT Team. We knew the routine: we got down on our knees, put our hands behind the back of our heads and waited to be spoken to. “Did you street punks see a dirty Mexican kid run through here a few minutes ago?” said a white cop. “He’s about five feet tall and full of oil.” Following the neighborhood code, we stayed quiet in unison. “Fine,” said the exasperated cop. “Clear this playground before I arrest all of you for trespassing.” Frustrated, the cops drove away without knowing about Nayto’s whereabouts. Pissed off, we slowly picked up our bats, gloves and balls to leave the school playground. Out of nowhere, Nayto reappeared and ran towards the storage room, again. This time, he emerged carrying a large, oily item. “Nayto ripped off Toney-the-Janitor,” said Fat Ritchie in a panic, while checking out the pillaged storage room. We all ran home, before the cops returned. Days later, as we played tackle football on the parking lot, Nayto cruised by in a gas-powered go-cart. We stopped our game and chased after him on our old bikes and skateboards. It wasn’t your typical push-from-behind, wooden go-cart. It was a customized, low rider go-cart: painted cherry red, velvet seat covers, leather steering wheel and small whitewall tires with chrome-plated spoke rims. The engine was positioned in the back, like a VW Beatle. It had a Chevrolet emblem glued to the front. It was a barrio gem! “Where did you get that low rider go-cart?” I asked with envy. “I made it myself,” Nayto said, not making a big fuss over his invention. Aware of his tendency to lie, I closely examined the go-cart. The frame consisted of parts from Nayto’s old Schwinn bike. The seat—with the velvet upholstery—was a milk crate taken from La Paloma Market. And I will never forget the leather steering wheel, which Nayto took or borrowed from a stolen ’76 Cadillac El Dorado convertible that the homeboys abandoned in the projects. It still had the shiny Cadillac emblem in the center. In the front of the go-cart, the Chevrolet emblem also originated from a stolen car in the projects. Once stripped by the homeboys, like a piñata at a kids party, the stolen car parts were up for grabs for the locals, prior to being torched. The engine looked familiar, but I couldn’t figure out where Nayto got it from. “Read what is says on the engine,” Nayto said, impatiently. I took a second look at the oily engine. “Property of M.S.E.S?” I asked, not being able to decipher the acronym. “I thought you were the smart one?” Nayto said with a smirk. “M.S.E.S. stands for Murchison Street Elementary School.” “Oh, man!” I said. “You stole that … I mean … you got that from the storage room when the cops were looking for you the other day at Murchison.” “Why do you think the school doesn’t clean the playground anymore?” he asked. “Do you remember that big vacuum cleaner that Toney-the-Janitor drove after school, while trying to hit us?” “Yeah, that jerk hit me one time,” I said. “I hated that man,” said Nayto. “That’s what he gets for messing with us.” “How about a ride?” I asked. “Get on before the cops come by,” he replied. We cruised around the projects in his customized, low rider go-cart, chasing down the little kids on their way to church and the winos in front of Food Gardens Market. Protecting their turf, the winos hurled empty Budweiser bottles at us, missing us by a mile. Unfazed, Nayto stepped on the pedal. Not paying attention, he ran over a cat. It belonged to Mother Rose, the only black lady left in the projects. Fearing Mother Rose’s wrath, he kept driving until we got drenched from the water gushing from the yellow fire hydrant on Crusado Lane. Lacking a local pool, the homeboys would open the fire hydrant during hot days for the kids. Driving for almost an hour, we ran out of gas. Luckily, Nayto was always prepared. He had a small water hose handy, where I volunteered to siphon gas from an old Toyota Pickup that belonged to Father John Santillan from Santa Teresita Church. Nayto claimed that he was once an altar boy, where Father John wouldn’t mind if we borrowed some gas. Either way, there were some bad rumors in the neighborhood about Father John, so we didn’t consider it a sin. Grateful for the ride, I siphoned the gas before the Sunday mass ended. The gas left a bad taste in my mouth. The Wrigley's Spearmint gum that my father gave me later that day didn’t help. That adventurous ride, however, was worth every drop of gas that I consumed. Those were the days...
The phone rang. It was 3:00 a.m. I slowly opened my eyes, taking a deep breath before I answered the call. “What’s wrong?” I asked, knowing that good news never comes this early. “Fat Ritchie passed away,” Buddy said. “The cops killed him, where witnesses said he was not armed.” I hung up the phone. I felt numb. Another childhood friend was killed. When was this ever going to end, I wondered aloud? Like most of the kids from the projects, from day one, Fat Ritchie never had a chance. He was a short, chubby kid who was constantly picked on by the neighborhood bullies. Whenever we played handball, one of the bullies would force him to stand against the wall until everyone had a chance to hit him with the ball. Once, while playing football at Murchison, the quarterback gave him the ball and everyone, including his teammates, dog piled on him until he couldn’t breathe. When he got up, everyone acted like they were innocent. Since I last saw him, however, no one dared to pick on Fat Ritchie. Those who thrived in the penitentiary returned with a sense of respect and status. While Fat Ritchie had earned the respect of the neighborhood, it was another story with the cops. Angry that they couldn’t bust him on a major crime, the cops falsely arrested Fat Ritchie for armed robbery based on the word of a local snitch. A couple of years later, upon his release, Fat Ritchie became another victim of police brutality. Three days after receiving the tragic news, I returned to the projects to pay my last respects to Fat Ritchie. It was also an opportunity to reunite with my other childhood friends. I arrived late. The church was full. I decided to wait outside with the other mourners, waiting for the coffin to be taken to the hearse. Suddenly, I saw a tall homeboy with dark skin and curly brown hair carrying the coffin with three other homeboys. They’re all dressed in black with dark sun glasses. “Is that Nayto?” I asked a stranger. “What, ese?” he asked, sounding annoyed while he got closer to me. “Back off, man,” I replied, letting him know that I, too, grew up in the projects. Once the homeboys gently placed the coffin inside the hearse, I walked towards the tall homeboy, as he made his way towards a 1967 Impala low rider. He got into his car and started the engine. “Nayto, is that you?” I yelled out in his direction. He glanced at me and, with without a word, drove away towards the cemetery. A tear came down my cheek.
Álvaro Huerta, an assistant professor of urban and regional planning and ethnic and women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, writes short stories based on his experiences growing up in East Los Angeles. He is the author of Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm (San Diego State University Press, 2013). He mostly publishes scholarly books and journal articles, along with policy papers and social commentaries. Note: A version of this short story appeared in The Homeboy Review Issue 1, Spring 2009.
The Art and Practice of Mexican American and Chicano Fiction
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
The English Dictionary defines “fiction” as “the act of feigning, inventing or imagining; that which is feigned, i.e., a fictitious story, fable, fabrication, falsehood.” In The Language of Fiction, Margaret MacDonald informs us that “fiction is often used ambiguously both for what is fictitious and for that by which the fictitious is expressed” (in Perspectives in Fiction, Edited by James L. Calderwood and Harold E. Toliver, New York: Oxford University, 1968, 55). Indeed, “fiction” is opposed to “fact” as what is imaginary to what is real. But this is not an absolute boundary. How is one to know where fiction begins and reality leaves off? Fiction is a contrivance “but the content of very little fiction is wholly fictitious” (67). Perhaps the expression “truth is stranger than fiction” says much about fiction. That fiction often reflects reality; and reality often reflects fiction. Odd as that may sound, fiction is meant to reflect the imaginary, the “not real.” But the touchstone of fiction lies in the real world and ergo actuates the fiction. The worlds of fiction in the short story and the novel (and other forms of fiction) are created by the storyteller with details and personages that may or may not correspond to the real world. In the Star Wars stories, for example, the world of those stories has some general correspondence with the world as we know it. There, fact and fancy are mixed in a blend that covers a canvas we seem to recognize–almost. That which we don’t recognize on the canvas is “invention”–perhaps the key ingredient of fiction. Fiction is thus never 100 percent invention. It’s a blend of the real and the made up. The story. To work, fiction requires the willing suspension of disbelief, as T.S. Eliot called that process of getting into a story. MacDonald adds: “one must be able to enter imaginatively into its (fiction) emotional situation though its emotions need not be felt” (63), adding: “To create a story is to use language to create the contents of that story,” closing with “characters play a role; human beings live a life” (65). Texts tell us about stories; sometimes they tell us about people. Always they reveal more about the writer than he or she imagines. Subtexts and intertexts are like scalpels in the hands of literary critics in their efforts to anatomize fiction. Fiction is a verbal construction; life is not–except when we seek to explain or describe it to someone else. Despite fiction being life-like on occasions, it is not life in vivo. Fiction is not life but an image of life as created through the filters of the storyteller. Many times those filters give us a fiction of perplexity, leaving us wondering what the point of the fiction is/was/can be. In large part, social realism has dominated much of fiction since the 19th century. But for some time since World War II, fiction has undergone a transmogrification–a breaking out of or breaking away from the traditional bounds of the genre. One such effort has been “magical realism,” a technique merging fantasy and realism. Another emerging technique in fiction is “minimalism”–spare prose with a minimum of details. There are still writers of fiction who use the technique of density–giving readers a plethora of information. Gustave Flaubert believed in giving readers the maximum amount of details in order for the reader to really “see” the scene. He believed that in fiction the writer had to be both objective and unobtrusive. Guy de Maupassant, on the other hand, believed there was no such thing as objectivity. Subjectivity was everywhere in the fiction, in the selection of words, the architecture of the story. The hand of the author was everywhere visible. What seems to characterize much contemporary fiction is its search for new forms, new boundaries, and new ways to engage the reader in the story. Aristotle first laid down the dictum of fiction in his theory of drama: unity of action, place, and time. Any response to a literary work presupposes a relationship between the reader and the text. By and large, any response is predicated on what the reader brings to the reading. For example, a 12th century text in Old English requires of a reader some facility with Old English and some understanding of the times that engendered the work. A response to a literary work must be more than “I didn’t like it.” That’s certainly a legitimate response. But such a response should be shored up by concrete considerations. Perhaps the plot was weak or too contrived, the characters too wooden or stereo-typed, the point of view too disjointed. There is no right or wrong in a response to a literary work. Important to bear in mind, however, is that a literary work is the way it is and not the way it is not. The strongest part of the literary equation lies between teller and tale, both of which must link up successfully with a reader or auditor. As story, fiction is always colored by the teller just as a joke succeeds or fails depending on the teller and the details of the story. In the main, writers of fiction work with material they know. A good story is one in which the writer knows his or her stuff. Some writers focus more on description, others on narration, while others prefer to have the story develop through dialog. Short fiction is a craft of its own. Practitioners of the longer form find the short form restrictive, characterization being difficult within the bounds of the short form. Fiction doesn’t always start at the beginning–it may start in medias res, the middle, which William Saroyan, the Armenian American writer from California, described as jumping in the middle of the river and starting to swim. In addition to plot, setting, point of view, and characterization, fiction also includes style, theme, mood, atmosphere, and tone. While verisimilitude was once an important feature of fiction–is the work believable–it has become less and less a consideration of contemporary fiction. More important now in fiction is novelty and the brilliance of the writer in terms of his or her style. In literature, style is usually defined as the habitual manner of expression of an author, choices made consciously or unconsciously about such things as vocabulary, organization, diction, imagery, pace, and even certain recurring themes or subjects. Most often style is identified in terms of an author’s language and its intellectual use. The French define style as l’homme–the man, recognizing that style is by and large a personal characteristic unique to the individual. Which is why we can recognize the style of particular writers like Hemingway, for example, or Steinbeck, or Thomas Wolfe. Mexican American Short Story
Thomas M. Leitch contends that “everyone knows what stories are–fortunately; for it is excessively difficult to say just what they are” [emphasis mine]. Brander M. Matthews, the best known philosopher of the short story as a genre, articulated some of the key features in what constitutes a short story. But Edgar Allan Poe’s definition of the short story has become the more popular. According to Poe two things were essential to the genre: (1) that it shall be short and (2) that it shall possess coherence sufficient to hold the reader’s or listener’s unflagging interest from beginning to end. Immediately the length of a story becomes a problematic, such that the genre has been subdivided into (1) the short-short story, (2) the short story, and (3) the long short story–sometimes: the long story, of novelette length. Story may be as old as humankind–from the earliest times of language which enabled one human being to transmit some piece of information to another human being. Story is the tale, the telling and the teller. It is also audience, ready for the story, able to understand the story, and able to appreciate it at once as information and as invention. In antiquity, story tellers wielded considerable power, not just because of their ability to tell stories dramatically but because a repertoire of stories was a reflection of learning and of more than passing knowledge and facility with language. He who knew language was thought to have some special relationship with the gods. In Africa, the Griot, the storyteller, is a revered person. In the main, the short story is actuated by the dicta of Aristotle’s theory of drama: unity of action, place and time. But much has changed in short fiction as it has in long fiction. No longer just the mode by which to tell a short tale to raise a moral point nor the format through which history was kept alive at the tribal fires or clan gatherings, the short story has acquired literary dimensions that have transcended its historical functions. Writers of the short story do not engage in the genre because it is short and less difficult to write than the longer form, say, the novel. Indeed, not. The short story is a craft of its own. Many practitioners of the longer form find the tight form of the short story restrictive, complaining that characterization is difficult within the bounds of the form. But Raymond Chandler qvels with the short story. For Chicanos, the short story lies rooted in the cuentos (stories/tales) of Hispanic culture, told and retold orally as part of the “folk” lore, the memories of times past. Hispanic tale tellers were always welcome at the table, the hearth or festivities. Legends, myths, and stories of the macabre were told countless times to audiences that seemed never to tire of the tales.Cuentos were the stock-in-trade of every family’s repertoire. From infancy, Hispanic children learned about brujas (witches), calaveras (skeletons), and la Llorona, the weeping woman looking for her children. Hispanic cuentos tell of lost gold and silver mines, of saints, and of things that go bump in the night. Essentially, the cuento is designed to be instructive, to teach a moral lesson. By and large, though, Mexican American writers made the transition from Spanish to English during the period from 1848 to 1912, and in the period from 1912 to 1960 were busy producing literary works in English. But the allure of the cuento, focusing on the mythic past, was strong in Mexican American literary production as evidenced by the creative works of Mexican American writers like Arturo Campa, Fray Angelico Chavez, Juan Rael, Jovita Gonzalez, and Aurora Lucero during the period between World Wars–1920 to 1940. The stories of this time were characterized by themes and motifs of the past in which Mexicans or Mexican Americans were cast as gentle, peace-loving, and wise with the knowledge of God and things of the earth. Breaking free of the “pastoral” bonds of the cuento does not occur until after World War II with short stories like those of Mario Suarez. But the real break with the cuento tradition in Mexican American literary production comes after 1960 with the Chicano Movement and the Chicano Renaissance. It’s not a clean break, however, for threads of the cuento are still visible in early modern Chicano fiction from 1960 to 1970 and still visible in some Chicano literary production since then. Like Chicano poetry of the Chicano Renaissance, Chicano fiction of that period is equally strident and shrill in its fictive posture and ideological thrusts. It wasn’t mainstream American fiction to which Chicano writers gravitated but to Third World models. Like black writers of the Civil Rights Movement, Chicano writers wielded the pen as a sword to thrust the Chicano agenda and to parry what they perceived to be mainstream threats aimed at Chicanos. In Chicano Movement fiction Anglos became bad guys and Chicanos donned white hats. More importantly, though, in Chicano fiction of the Movement the focus of the story was on Chicano life as it was lived both within the parameters of Chicano existence and within the parameters of existence in the United States. Chicano fiction after 1960 was full of sound and fury signifying everything. The full range of Chicano particulars sought expostulation in public and in the media, particularly in print. Waves of Chicano publications emerged to press for “demands” or “redress” and then faded. Literary publications like El Grito, Con Safos, and De Colores came into existence for Chicano writers as alternative for mainstream publications which had long excluded them. Here and there, Chicano writers like Daniel Garza found their way into mainstream magazines but, by and large, Chicano writers were absent from those pages. Chicano publications like La Luz(first national Hispanic public affairs magazine in English) published scores of works by emerging Chicano writers as well as works by already established Chicano writers. Chicano short story writers whose works appeared in El Grito were thought of as theQuinto Sol Writers, while Chicano writers whose works appeared in Con Safos and Caracol were considered Chicano Wave Writers. Chicano writers whose works appeared in publications like De Colores, La Luz and Revista Chicano-Riqueña in the 70's to mid 80's were thought of as New Wave Writers. And Chicano writers of the later 80's to the present whose works have appeared in publications like ViAztlan are talked about as Third Wave Writers. The distinctions are nominal but the distance between the Quinto Sol Writers and theThird Wave Writers is a matter of function versus form. One was a literature of liberation, the other a literature of consciousness looking for the best artistic form for Chicano expression.
Mexican American Novel
The word “novel” is a term difficult to define, but in the main it refers to an “extended” work of prose that employs the techniques of fiction: plot, setting, point of view and characterization. As fiction it also employs various approaches associated with fiction–psychological approach, sociological approach, archetypal approach, etc. Just as the short story is short, so too the novel is long–longer, that is. One could say the novel is an extended short story, but that isn’t quite accurate because the short story is bounded by particular elements of unity that do not inhibit the novel. Analogously, the short story is like a backyard; the novel is a ranch. There’s considerably more room in the novel to tell the story, elaborate more pieces of the story, space to develop character(s), plumb their being(s), exposit relationships, span generations. The novel is a canvas; the short story, a snapshot. Like people, novels come in all sizes, shapes and forms. While Bocaccio’s Decameron is a series of stories told by narrators hiding out from the plague, the work has been variously identified as a novel. In many ways, the word “novel” is a catch-all term for a variety of prose manifestations. The origin of “the novel” is hard to place, but in English the novel had its beginnings in the early 18th century. It takes 100 years for the novel to migrate to the United States. And given the character of America, the American novel grows self-consciously from the genteel traditions of New England, giving way to novels of social commentary. Emulating first “the romance,” the American novel evolved through naturalism to realism. After the Civil War, the American novel was regarded as an instrument for social commentary. Richard Chase explains that “the American novel tends to rest in contradictions and among extreme ranges of experience.” (The American Novel and its Tradition, Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1957, 1) Generally, our assessment of American novels has focused on those contradictions and extreme ranges of experience. Henry James defined that range of experience as “what happens to us as social creatures.” (Ibid, 21) That has been the general canvas of the American novel– what happens to us as social creatures. For this reason American novelists have tended to create in their novels a verisimilitude of the society in which their characters move, patterned in terms of human relationships and the human predicament. Since 1945 the American novel has tended to reflect the uncertainty and ambiguities of modern life. Some critics of the novel suggest that as a consequence the American novel has become too stylized, too personal. The large vistas of traditional American novels have given way to narrow perspectives and a banality of language, say many critics of the genre. The upshot is that the American novel provides a range of critical assessment, depending on what we think the function of the novel ought to be. Lionel Trilling thought the novel was “a kind of summary and paradigm of our cultural life.” (“Art and Fortune” in The Liberal Imagination, 1950) While there is some controversy about some forms of short fiction–whether a short work is a piece of folklore, a tale or a short story (something more fictive than the novel)—the novel as a genre has raised more questions as a literary form than any other of the literary genres. Discussion of “cataloging” the novel is much like the story that the only thing one can be sure of when the person driving a car in front of you puts his or her hand out the driver’s window to signal a turn in the old-fashioned way is that the window is down. There is, of course, the meaning of the word “fiction.” What exactly does it mean? Is a “novel” still a “fiction” when it is so apparently autobiographical or patently realistic in the details about the characters that their live counterparts are easily recognizable? In The Four Forms of Fiction, Northrop Frye points out the distinction between fiction as a genus and the novel as a species. Of course, none of this sheds light on what the novel is, except to say that as a species, it is not short, otherwise it would be a short story. Few critics would call a short story a short novel. Origins of the novel as a genre are obsolete. And trying to date the novel historically leads us back to the chicken-and-the-egg question about fiction. Though as Frye argues, the novel should not be constrained by the strictures of fiction. In loose terms we can say that The Decameron is a novel–an episodic novel–much the same as Tomas Rivera’s work, And the Earth Did Not Part is a fragmentary novel. The structures of the two novels are pretty much the same. But if we allow that The Decameron is a novel, what do we make of The Canterbury Tales? Is it an episodic novel as well? Do purpose and intent help us ascertain when a particular work is a novel? Henry Fielding conceived the novel as a “comic epic in prose,” a definition that cuts out most “novels.” To work around the constraints of definitions some works have been called “romances,” a term older than the term “novel.” The distinction between the two is that we do not find “real people” in the “romance.” However the novel may have come into being, we know a lot about its evolution after the Renaissance. Generally, though not conclusively, we can place the novel first in Italy, then in Spain, and identify the Spanish influences in the early English novel. In the 19th century, the strongholds of the novel were in France and Russia, giving way to its ascendancy in the United States toward the end of the 19th century and continuing until well into the third quarter of the 20th century. Since World War Two, however, the stronghold of the novel seems to be in Latin America. It’s a genre that migrates with ideas and with the imagination. The current trend of “magical realism” in the novel is of Latin American origin, though that origin springs from the tradition of the fabula (fable). The Chicano novel dates from 1959 with publication of Pocho by Jose Antonio Villarreal. There were Mexican American novelists before 1959, however, unfortunately, we do not have a record of all the novels written (or published) by Mexican American writers between 1848 and 1959, although the University of Houston project, “Recovering the Hispanic Literary History of the United States” is uncovering that trove. By 1969, ten years after publication ofPocho, there were only eight novels published by Chicano writers. Later scholarship would reveal five novels by Mexican Americans produced between 1892 and 1928, all in Spanish. Research into those forgotten pages of American literature continues, and other novels by Mexican Americans produced between 1848 and 1959 will surface. From the perspective of the 21st century and four decades of Chicano fiction, it’s easier to make historical and critical judgments about Chicano writers and the art of the novel. To begin with, one of the major obstacles in Chicano critical theory about the novel has been one of nomenclature: namely, how does one define “the Chicano novel?” Is Famous All Over Townby Daniel James, for example, a Chicano novel since the work deals with the Chicanos of East Los Angeles and all its characters are Chicanos? Some Chicano critics dismiss as Chicano novels works by Chicano writers because they are not “movement” novels or don’t address themselves to the social or political issues affecting Chicano communities or barrios. For example, in her commentary on the Chicano novel, Carlota Cardenas Dwyer excludes as Chicano novels the works by Villarreal, Rechy, Salas, Barrio, and Vasquez on grounds that their novels do not promote a specific social or political issue unequivocally Chicano. Rafael Grajeda excludes the works of Villarreal and Vasquez in his selection of Chicano novels on grounds that “the works do not confront clearly and honestly the implications of their premises,” namely, that the central characters arrive at an understanding and acceptance of themselves as Chicanos. In 1970 with publication of Y no se lo trago la tierra by Tomás Rivera, Chicano literature bifurcated along language lines–Chicano works in English and Chicano works in Spanish. These forking paths did not (and do not) signal a philosophical rift between two camps of Chicano writers. It means, rather, that there are some Chicano writers who prefer to write in Spanish or English or are more comfortable in one or the other language. However, many Chicano writers work in both languages, like Rolando Hinojosa or Alejandro Morales, to name but two. This raises again the question of linguistic realities for Chicanos who may be monolingual or bilingual and/or may participate to varying degrees in Chicano English and/or Chicano Spanish. Manifestations of these linguistic realities crop up in all the genres of Chicano literature. The question is: are these linguistic manifestations congruent with the realities of Chicano existence? Or does the language of choice predicate a particular perspective or point of view? In his essay on “Contemporary Chicano Prose Fiction: Its Ties to Mexican Literature,” Charles Tatum raises an important point in getting at the wellspring of Chicano literature, particularly Chicano prose fiction. While Chicano fiction–in this case, the novel– has obvious connections to Mexican literature, it also has obvious connections to American literature. Chicano literature is not simply an extension of Mexican literature in the United States, anymore than it is simply an outcrop of American literature in a distinct region of the country. One cannot talk about Chicano writers in the same way one talks about “Southern writers,” say. While both are geographically bound, more or less, the latter is part and parcel of American culture, the former still shares a culture with Mexico. Ultimately, the assessment of the Chicano novel will be in terms it brings to the discussion, much the way Louis Gates talks about Black literature.