“Cry, child, for those without tears have a grief which never ends.”
THIS MEMORY BEGINS WITH flight. A 1950s bondo-spackled Dodge surged through a driving rain, veering around the potholes and upturned tracks of the abandoned Red Line trains on Alameda. Mama was in the front seat. My father was at the wheel. My brother Rano and I sat on one end of the back seat; my sisters Pata and Cuca on the other. There was a space between the boys and girls to keep us apart.
“Amá, mira a Rano,” a voice said for the tenth time from the back of the car. “He’s hitting me again.”
We fought all the time. My brother, especially, had it in for La Pata—thinking of Frankenstein, he called her “Anastein.” Her real name was Ana, but most of the time we went by the animal names Dad gave us at birth. I am Grillo, which means cricket. Rano stands for “rana,” the frog. La Pata is the duck and Cuca is short for cucaracha: cockroach.
The car seats came apart in strands. I looked out at the passing cars which seemed like ghosts with headlights rushing past the streaks of water on the glass. I was nine years old. As the rain fell, my mother cursed in Spanish intermixed with pleas to saints and “la Santísima Madre de Dios.” She argued with my father. Dad didn’t curse or raise his voice. He just stated the way things were.
“I’ll never go back to Mexico,” he said. “I’d rather starve here. You want to stay with me, it has to be in Los Angeles. Otherwise, go.”
This incited my mother to greater fits.
We were on the way to the Union train station in downtown L.A. We had our few belongings stuffed into the trunk and underneath our feet. I gently held on to one of the comic books Mama bought to keep us entertained. I had on my Sunday best clothes with chewed gum stuck in a coat pocket. It could have been Easter, but it was a weeping November. I don’t remember for sure why we were leaving. I just knew it was a special day. There was no fear or concern on my part. We were always moving. I looked at the newness of the comic book and felt some exhilaration of its feel in my hand. Mama had never bought us comic books before. It had to be a special day.
For months we had been pushed from one house to another, just Mama and us children. Mom and Dad had split up prior to this. We stayed at the homes of women my mom called comadres, with streams of children of their own. Some nights we slept in a car or in the living rooms of people we didn’t know. There were no shelters for homeless families. My mother tried to get us settled somewhere but all indications pointed to our going back to the land of her birth, to her red earth, her Mexico.
The family consisted of my father Alfonso, my mom Maria Estela, my older brother, José René, and my younger sisters, Ana Virginia and Gloria Estela. I recall my father with his wavy hair and clean-shaven face, his correct, upright and stubborn demeanor, in contrast to my mother who was heavy-set with Native features and thick straight hair, often laughing heartily, her eyes narrowed to slits, and sometimes crying from a deep tomb-like place with a sound like swallowing mud.
As we got closer to the Union station, Los Angeles loomed low and large, a city of odd construction, a good place to get lost in. I, however, would learn to hide in imaginative worlds—in books; in TV shows, where I picked up much of my English; in solitary play with mangled army men and crumpled toy trucks. I was so withdrawn it must have looked scary.
This is what I know: When I was two years old, our family left Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, for Los Angeles. My father was an educated man, unusual for our border town, a hunger city filled to the hills with cardboard hovels of former peasants, Indians and dusk-faced children. In those days, an educated man had to be careful about certain things—questioning authority, for example. Although the principal of a local high school, my father failed to succumb to the local chieftains who were linked to the national party which ruled Mexico, as one famous Latin American writer would later say, with a “perfect dictatorship.”
When Dad first became principal, there were no funds due to the massive bureaucratic maze he had to get through to get them. The woman he lived with then was an artist who helped raise money for the school by staging exhibitions. My father used his own money to pay for supplies and at one point had the iron fence around the school torn down and sold for scrap.
One year, Dad received an offer for a six-month study program for foreign teachers in Bloomington, Indiana. He liked it so much, he renewed it three times. By then, my father had married his secretary, my mother, after the artist left him. They had their first child, José René.
By the time my father returned, his enemies had mapped out a means to remove him—being a high school principal is a powerful position in a place like Ciudad Juárez. My father faced a pile of criminal charges, including the alleged stealing of school funds. Police arrived at the small room in the vecindad where Mama and Dad lived and escorted him to the city jail.
For months my father fought the charges. While he was locked up, they fed him scraps of food in a rusted steel can. They denied him visitors—Mama had to climb a section of prison wall and pick up 2-year-old José René so he could see his father. Finally, after a lengthy trial, my father was found innocent—but he no longer had his position as principal.
Dad became determined to escape to the United States. My mother, on the other hand, never wanted to leave Mexico; she did it to be with Dad.
Mama was one of two daughters in a family run by a heavy-drinking, wife-beating railroad worker and musician. My mother was the only one in her family to complete high school. Her brothers, Kiko and Rodolfo, often crossed the border to find work and came back with stories of love and brawls on the other side.
Their grandmother was a Tarahumara Indian who once walked down from the mountainous area in the state of Chihuahua where her people lived in seclusion for centuries. The Spanish never conquered them. But their grandmother never returned to her people. She eventually gave birth to my grandmother, Ana Acosta.
Ana’s first husband was a railroad worker during the Mexican Revolution; he lost his life when a tunnel exploded during a raid. They brought his remains in a shoebox-sized container. Ana was left alone with one son, while pregnant with a daughter. Lucita, the daughter, eventually died of convulsions at the age of four, and Manolo, the son, was later blinded after a bout with a deadly form of chicken pox which struck and killed many children in the area.
Later Ana married my grandfather, Mónico Jiménez, who like her first husband worked the railroads. At one point, Mónico quit the rails to play trumpet and sing for bands in various night clubs. Once he ended up in Los Angeles, but with another woman. In fact, Mónico had many other women. My grandmother often had to cross over to the railroad yards, crowded with prostitutes and where Mónico spent many nights singing, to bring him home.
When my parents married, Mama was 27; Dad almost 40. She had never known any other man. He already had four or five children from three or four other women. She was an emotionally charged, border woman, full of fire, full of pain, full of giving love. He was a stoic, unfeeling, unmoved intellectual who did as he pleased as much as she did all she could to please him. This dichotomous couple, this sun and moon, this curandera and biologist, dreamer and realist, fire woman and water man, molded me; these two sides created a life-long conflict in my breast.
By the time Dad had to leave Ciudad Juárez, my mother had borne three of his children, including myself, all in El Paso, on the American side (Gloria was born later in East L.A.’s General Hospital). This was done to help ease the transition from alien status to legal residency. There are stories of women who wait up to the ninth month and run across the border to have their babies, sometimes squatting and dropping them on the pavement as they hug the closest lamppost.
We ended up in Watts, a community primarily of black people except for La Colonia, often called The Quarter—the Mexican section and the oldest part of Watts.
Except for the housing projects, Watts was a ghetto where country and city mixed. The homes were mostly single-family units, made of wood or stucco. Open windows and doors served as air conditioners, a slight relief from the summer desert air. Chicken coops graced many a back yard along with broken auto parts. Roosters crowed the morning to birth and an occasional goat peered from weather-worn picket fences along with the millions of dogs which seemed to populate the neighborhood.
Watts fed into one of the largest industrial concentrations in the country, pulling from an almost endless sea of cheap labor; they came from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas … from Chihuahua, Sonora, Sinaloa and Nayarit. If you moved there it was because the real estate concerns pushed you in this direction. For decades, L.A. was notorious for restrictive covenants—where some areas were off limits to “undesirables.”
Despite the competition for jobs and housing, we found common ground there, among the rolling mills, bucket shops and foundries. All day long we heard the pounding of forges and the air-whistles that signaled the shift changes in the factories, which practically lay in our backyards.
We moved to Watts at the behest of my oldest sister, really a half-sister, who was already married with two children of her own. Her family eventually joined us a few months later. Her name was Seni, a name my father invented (although rumor has it, it was an inversion of the name Inès, an old girlfriend of his). The name, however, has stayed in the family. Seni’s first daughter was named Ana Seni and in later years, one of Ana Seni’s daughters became Seni Bea.
When Seni was a child, my father often left her for long intervals with my grandmother Catita, whom she called Mama Piri. One family legend tells of a 9-year-old Seni answering the door during a pouring rain. A man, with soaked hat and coat, stood at the doorway. Seni yelled out: “Mama Piri, Mama Piri—there’s a strange man at the door.”
“Don’t worry, m’ija,” Catita said. “He’s only your father.”
Seni lived in several rentals in Watts until she found a two-story on 111th Street near a block of factories. The place later got razed to build Locke High School. I stayed there a couple of summers, sleeping in a cobweb-infested attic with exposed 2-by-4 studs. Rats and cockroaches roamed freely in that house: huge rats, huge cockroaches. Seni would place a chair at the bottom of the attic steps and she convinced me it could ward off the creatures. I believed it until one night I noticed the chair was gone. I ran down to tell Seni. But she yelled back in Spanish: “Go back to bed … that chair couldn’t keep nothing away, and only a fool would believe it could.”
I was devastated.
Seni was my father’s daughter from one of his earlier relationships; her mother died giving birth to her. My father was handsome and athletic as a young man. He was the pole-vaulting champion at one of the schools he attended. But his looks apparently got him into a lot of trouble. His father Cristóbal, then a general in the Mexican army, once disowned him when Dad fell for a woman and neglected his studies in medical school. Dad quit school to be with the woman who would later become Seni’s mother.
I also had two older half-brothers, Alberto and Mario, who lived in Mexico. Another half-sister, Lisa, died as an infant after she accidently ate some chicharrones my father was forced to sell on cobblestone streets in Mexico City after his father cut him off. My mother kept a sepia-colored black-and-white death photo of Lisa in a white lace baptism dress, looking like a doll, looking asleep, so peaceful, as she lay in a tiny wood coffin. Our first exposure in America stays with me like a foul odor. It seemed a strange world, most of it spiteful to us, spitting and stepping on us, coughing us up, us immigrants, as if we were phlegm stuck in the collective throat of this country. My father was mostly out of work. When he did have a job it was in construction, in factories such as Sinclair Paints or Standard Brands Dog Food, or pushing door-bells selling insurance, Bibles or pots and pans. My mother found work cleaning homes or in the garment industry. She knew the corner markets were ripping her off but she could only speak with her hands and in a choppy English.
Once my mother gathered up the children and we walked to Will Rogers Park. There were people everywhere. Mama looked around for a place we could rest. She spotted an empty spot on a park bench. But as soon as she sat down an American woman, with three kids of her own, came by.
“Hey, get out of there—that’s our seat.”
My mother understood but didn’t know how to answer back in English. So she tried in Spanish.
“Look spic, you can’t sit there!” the American woman yelled. “You don’t belong here! Understand? This is not your country!”
Mama quietly got our things and walked away, but I knew frustration and anger bristled within her because she was unable to talk, and when she did, no one would listen.
We never stopped crossing borders. The Río Grande (or Río Bravo, which is what the Mexicans call it, giving the name a power “Río Grande” just doesn’t have) was only the first of countless barriers set in our path.
We kept jumping hurdles, kept breaking from the constraints, kept evading the border guards of every new trek. It was a metaphor to fill our lives—that river, that first crossing, the mother of all crossings. The L.A. River, for example, became a new barrier, keeping the Mexicans in their neighborhoods over on the vast east side of the city for years, except for forays downtown. Schools provided other restrictions: Don’t speak Spanish, don’t be Mexican—you don’t belong. Railroad tracks divided us from communities where white people lived, such as South Gate and Lynwood across from Watts. We were invisible people in a city which thrived on glitter, big screens and big names, but this glamour contained none of our names, none of our faces.
The refrain “this is not your country” echoed for a lifetime.
Although we moved around the Watts area, the house on 105th Street near McKinley Avenue held my earliest memories, my earliest fears and questions. It was a small matchbox of a place. Next to it stood a tiny garage with holes through the walls and an unpainted barn-like quality. The weather battered it into a leaning shed. The back yard was a jungle. Vegetation appeared to grow down from the sky. There were banana trees, huge “sperm” weeds (named that because they stunk like semen when you cut them), foxtails and yellowed grass. An avocado tree grew in the middle of the yard and its roots covered every bit of ground, tearing up cement walks while its branches scraped the bedroom windows. A sway of clothes on some lines filled the little bit of grassy area just behind the house.
My brother and I played often in our jungle, even pretending to be Tarzan (Rano mastered the Tarzan yell from the movies). The problem, however, was I usually ended up being the monkey who got thrown off the trees. In fact, I remember my brother as the most dangerous person alive. He seemed to be wracked with a scream which never let out. His face was dark with meanness, what my mother called maldad. He also took delight in seeing me writhe in pain, cry or cower, vulnerable to his own inflated sense of power. This hunger for cruelty included his ability to take my mom’s most wicked whippings—without crying or wincing. He’d just sit there and stare at a wall, forcing Mama to resort to other implements of pain—but Rano would not show any emotion.
Yet in the streets, neighborhood kids often chased Rano from play or jumped him. Many times he came home mangled, his face swollen. Once somebody threw a rock at him which cut a gash across his forehead, leaving a scar Rano has to this day.
Another time a neighbor’s kid smashed a metal bucket over Rano’s head, slicing the skin over his skull and creating a horrifying scene with blood everywhere. My mother in her broken English could remedy few of the injustices, but she tried. When this one happened, she ran next door to confront that kid’s mother.
The woman had been sitting on her porch and saw everything.
“¿Qué pasó aquí?” Mama asked.
“I don’t know what you want,” the woman said. “All I know is your boy picked up that bucket and hit himself over the head—that’s all I know.”
In school, they placed Ra...