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Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Skunk

My father made arrangements whenever he could. These arrangements guaranteed a roof over our heads, food, and work. The arrangements often involved a roof and food in exchange for work. It was clear that we would not be moving on up.

The trailer was located under a giant tree on the banks of the Salinas River in San Lucas, CA. It was old and had holes on the roof and on its sides—the fiberglass insulation stuck out of the holes, and often my mother would yank it out so as to patch up the holes with duct tape; often fur-less baby mice would fall to the floor and squirm and make a high pitch squeak before Mother-the-Hun would crush them with her heel. One of these holes was so big that they had to wrap a large piece of tarp onto it, and glue it on or tape it with the duct tape. It is through this hole that the skunk got it.

My father was outside with his friends drinking beer and tequila and listening to music when I went to bed. My mother stayed in the living-room/kitchen/hallway watching the 13-inch black and white tv and waiting for my father to come in and eat whenever he felt like it. The smell of burned tortillas woke me up later that night—my bed was right by the stove. I got up to go to the bathroom and saw my father standing still by the door with a shovel over his head. My mother was behind him on top of the couch covering her face with a sheet. Before I put things together, my father hammered the ground with the shovel and hit the skunk right on the head. The skunk lay motionless by the garbage door and my father hit it again. It sprayed me right in the face. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe. My skin burned. My lungs filled with skunk fumes and I could taste the diesel-rotten onion stench on the top of my palette. It went into my brain and stayed there for years.

Once my father took the animal outside and buried it, he came back in and I was given a quick shower. The smell wouldn’t come off, but my mother said it was only because we were immersed in it; that once we went outside, in the morning, the smell would come off. She was wrong. In the morning she woke me up and said I was going to be late for school (I was in the 3rd grade). She put my clothes out and made my breakfast. I protested, saying that I stunk and I didn’t want to go to school, since everyone would make fun of me. She said that we didn’t come to this country for me to stay home and do nothing just because of a little skunk. She insisted, forcefully and with the broom, that a better life wasn’t going to be given to me…that I had to earn it--and you earn things by going to school. I said that I was in the 3rd grade and that I didn’t want a better life; I just wanted to stay home, ‘cause I smelled. We had a starring contest and she swung the broom at my head, told me to get out and go to school—“and you better learn something” she warned. The bus-stop was a few miles away, so I got on my bike and slowly began to pedal. I stopped a hundred feet from the trailer. She stood there with the broom and swung her hands about, telling me to get going, pointing at her wrist and yelling that I was late. I wanted to be late. But I wasn’t. On the bus, the driver sat me in the back and moved all the kids to the front. All the windows were opened. When I got to class, they told me to sit outside the entire day. I told the teacher that I had to learn something or else my mother would be upset. She told me to practice my handwriting. So I did. I took it home and showed it to my mother. She didn’t look at it, but told me she was glad I’d gone. We didn’t come to this country to be sitting around doing nothing. Later I took a bath in tomato juice and some of the smell came off. It lingered in the trailer until we moved…8 months later.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Oh, Arizona!

So two different Bills will hit the Arizona Governor’s desk any day now--both are staggeringly stupid and both are expressions of a White Supremacist will to power that is alive and well in our America.

Bill 1 encourages racial profiling and outright racism—it is not even moderately disguised. The gist of it is that if you're brown, speak with an accent, or look the least bit "Mexican" (i.e., any brown-skinned accented person) then you might be detained, arrested, and sentenced with a "state crime" if you do not have the proper documentation at the time of the arrest.

Bill 2 allows the good people of Arizona to carry guns without permits, training, or background checks. This means that any fool that is not a "Mexican" will be allowed to carry a gun and, since this fool will more than likely be a fool,  he will consider it his Constitutional right to uphold the the Law of Bill 1 by shooting "Mexicans."

Of course, "Mexicans" will now find it necessary to carry guns themselves, since they know that the fool has his and is willing to shoot him...on the other hand, if the "Mexican" is illegal, he knows that carrying a gun is one more charge on top of the State crime of being an "illegal", so he'll carry a gun to protect himself against the guess is that there will be a lot of "self-defense" murders in Arizona, or outright massacres.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The thing

with the post-immigrant experience is that our possibilities of mobility are determined by the conceptual world of our immigrant parents. In order to break free, to overcome, those determinations, there must be a rapture—an event which breaks us free and hurls us into the unknown. But once hurled into the unknown, there is no roadmap, no memory to help us along. Our parents can do so much. Mine could only encourage me and doubt me. They encouraged me to do what I needed to do; but doubted that I was doing anything productive. They had no eyes to see ahead of me, so they assumed I wasn’t going anywhere. When I moved away to college, my father entertained the idea that I was living as a pimp in the “big city.” A pimp! Since no one in the clan had gone away to college, no one could imagine what I could possibly be doing so far away from the farm. So rumors started circulating that I had been spotted in San Francisco selling dope on California Street by the Red Light District. This rumor turned into a more robust conception of my travels: I was not selling, but collecting! The news got to my father, who had a violent reaction to the idea. It didn’t help matters that I had a scholarship and didn’t have to work. My mother called and asked for reassurance that I was, in fact, reading books somewhere and not sinning against all she believed in. I was irritated that my father had actually believed it. But what did I expect? This thing I was doing was not something that was done. I had to deal with it: I eventually brought my dad to see the University, to walk around it, to smell the grass. I don’t think he forgot about my pimping until I graduated for a second time. By then, he was satisfied to know that at the very least I knew my way around the darkness.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


I bought my 1979 Cutlass Salon from my cousin Rick when I was 16. It was a few inches from the ground, with 13 inch, silver spoke, rims; a brown metallic paint job, with pin stripping on the sides; the interior was a plush red; and, what gave my car its umph, T-tops! My cousin Rick sold it to me for a couple of thousand, but I think I only gave him a grand. He wanted to get rid of it because it was a magnet for car thieves. This was evident from the ignition switch: it was fully exposed, so that you had to turn it on with a screw driver.

I was the king of the parking lot when I first drove it to school. The girls loved it; the guys wanted it. It was a teenage dream come true, except for two things: the T-tops kept flying off when I drove on the freeway and I kept getting pulled over for “not wearing a seatbelt” or “not signaling” or “your music is too loud” or “is your headlight broken?” or “do you have hydrolics?” or “whose car is this? Can you prove it?” or, my favorite, “we got a tip that….”

I never got a ticket, but they searched and prodded every single time. The fact that the ignition switch was exposed didn’t help, either. Phone calls were made…I kept them busy. But, I kept on driving. After a year or so they stopped harassing me. My father hated it. He thought it was unsafe—it was too low to the ground, he’d say. He was pulled over once. The cop didn’t ask him for any proof of insurance or registration; in a broken Spanish he told him that my friends were criminals and I should watch my back. That was a weird reversal. I think he was the only honest cop in town.

Of course, my father was expecting something else when the lights went on behind him. He’d been there before. He fully expected to get arrested for being Mexican, so he was smiling from ear to ear when he came home and told me to pay more attention to my acquaintances and find out more about myself.

Once I went to college my father sold my car without telling me. Now that I have a garage, I wonder how good the Cutlass with T-tops would look in it.

This scary story from Arizona got me thinking about car—since by the looks of things, the last thing a cop in Arizona would give my father now is advice.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Most immigrants are expected to return home—there’s an implicit promise of return attached to every departure.  This promise doesn’t seem to be implicit in exile.

In Acuitzeramo, I awaited my father’s return, since departure was never permanent. I grew anxious as October approached, I anticipated his arrival, his gifts, my reward for taking care of mom or feeding the goat. One year, I forget how old I was, he came early…sometime in August. I awoke one morning to find him outside, talking to my mom and my grandmother. I ran to him and asked for my reward. He pointed me to a box on the table. Inside, there was a pair of low-cut brown boots, with a zipper on the side. I didn’t know what to make of it. I must’ve been 8 or 9, and I loved to run around and climb rocks, chase the goat, play soccer….why the boots? He seemed particularly happy about them. I was just happy that he was happy, so I put them on. They felt uncomfortable and heavy. My mom gushed: “que bien…miralo!” My grandmother feigned shock, as if the boots made me taller or colored me green. My dad said he bought them in LA, that all the kids were wearing them. This was a particularly revealing moment for me: I questioned fashion for the first time, and the mass hysteria that goes with it. Why would anybody want to wear these ugly zipper-boots?

The next day my father took me with him to a nearby town, where his friends gathered for the horse races. They hung around a small storefront, drinking beer and talking about those still in el Norte and those in jail, about those who were caught by the migra and about those who had died far away from home. Then the conversation turned to me. They talked about my age, how big I was, how lean I looked…they said I looked “fast.” The store owner overheard this and said: “let’s race him with my boy…a case?” My father said yes, why not, a case was good. Suddenly, I was in a race with a younger, darker, barefooted boy and a case of beer was on the line. I told my dad that I couldn’t race the boy, since he looked faster than me and I was wearing those damn boots. He was laughing at the prospects of buying the storeowner a case of his own beer and he didn’t hear me. They put me on the starting line against every protest (and with the odds firmly against me). The storeowner’s son was ready. He had a stance! His feet were callous, hard, ready to run. I felt over-dressed, embarrassed, and stiff. Then, go! I’ve never been on stilts, but that’s how I imagine it feels like to run on ugly, brown, zipper-boots. My foot stared to slip out, and the zipper broke from my left boot; my foot went through the zipper, and then my boot came off; I limped across the finish line about what seemed like 18 hours after the barefooted kid. Everyone laughed. My father bought the case, and then drank it with the winner (the storeowner). I wished he’d stayed in California.

My wife wants to buy my son some boots, but I don’t know….

Friday, April 2, 2010

Tales from the Gashouse, Four

According to the school bus driver, I lived in a place called "Mann Ranch." I asked him once because I was curious as to how the morning bus driver communicated with the evening bus driver about my stop. I was the first one on the bus and the last one off--in other words, for some reason, the trip to school was quicker than the trip home.

There were four structures on Mann Ranch: the Gashouse, a double-wide trailer that served as an office and a mistress-den for the Ranch manager, a nicely kept house with a giant front yard that belonged to a "normal" American family, and a giant, dilapidated barn, which was both a safety hazard and my clubhouse. These four structures sat beneath the giant Eucalyptus tress that protected us from low-flying airplanes--they stood guard all around us like the stone heads of Easter Island. All day long, the God-trees moved about in the wind, releasing a fresh, clean, smell that made it all the way to the first step of our house. It lingered there, and didn't dare come in. The Gashouse wouldn't have it. These were two different environments, the toxic one which nurtured me, and the godly one which I could only admire. At night, the trees blocked out the moon and cast a deep dark shadow on the structures beneath. They were still--one could hear leaves falling. I could see the guardians of our island from miles away. Sometimes, when a sudden sadness would overtake me (or nostalgia, or fear, or homesickness), I would search them out--I could make out their outline from any part of town. I felt safe knowing they were there.

The God-tress are gone now--so is the Gashouse and Mann Ranch. They dug into the roots and yanked them out of the ground sometime in the late 90's, cutting them to pieces once they were rootless. There is no sign of where they stood. Whenever I drive down the 101 toward Southern California (if I do, because to get South from the North, it is easier to take the I-5, and everyone knows it), on the bridge that connects King City to the rest of the world, I always seek them out and catch their absence. I guess they are some sort of empty symbol of my childhood--or maybe a metaphor for my own uprootedness...or the death of memory...or I don't know. Whenever I think of them, though, I can't help but feel exposed. I guess they kept us hidden in our Gashouse--hidden from God, the law, history. The God-trees absorbed our sins, our crimes, and our suffering into the green of their leaves. And that's why this blog.

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