Crossing the Spirit
My Grandmother from Mexico hates where we live.
She refuses to come visit. We beg and we beg, but she’s muy set in her place.
It’s not our house she dislikes. Not even our barrio that she’s upset about. Not the fact that we live between buildings in downtown LA.
My Grandmother from Mexico hates the whole country! She hasn’t set foot in the USA since my Ama and my Apa got married.
So, what do we do?
We meet in the middle. In a magical place my brother and I call TJ. Tijuana.
We don’t like to tell people, especially other kids on our block, because then they’ll call us TJs. But in reality we love Tijuana like one can love Knights of Columbus parades.
Tijuana is one of those places that you have to let yourself get sucked up by. It’s one of those places that you can’t visit with too many expectations.
To the adults in my family, Tijuana means poverty, midnight outhouse trips, and unpaved roads. But to the kids of Tijuana summers with My Grandmother from Mexico it’s one big rancho playground where we ride in buses with no doors. The people on those buses carry little pigs and roosters on their laps. And they’re alive. Yes, the animals are alive!
In Tijuana summers with My Grandmother from Mexico, you can sit or run up aisles in Mexican movie theaters with scratchy soundtracks. You can walk down the Avenida and catch a glimpse of a woman’s chi-chis in a magazine. On any corner you can buy pickled pork skins, cueritos, cut up and served real especial — in a funneled up newspaper. And my favorite Tijuana adventure — colonias, the colonies, that are like secret little villages nestled deep in a valley by a hillside.
My Grandmother from Mexico lives in a colonia where the goats go anywhere they want. Cool, huh?
My Ama thinks that My Grandmother from Mexico is muy loca. She claims that My Grandmother from Mexico marches through the streets of Tijuana with the ragtag musicians in the banda de guerras, holding a shotgun and pledging her allegiance to the State y la causa.
My Apa says his mother is a saint, a santita, who only wishes to keep the tradition, la tradición, of what it means to be a true Mexicano in her heart. My Apa says My Grandmother from Mexico is just like el Abraham Lincoln.
My Grandmother from Mexico has a gun. One of those big ones like on Bonanza. She has never relied on the kindness of men to help her get by in the world. My Grandmother from Mexico has always lived alone.
But, My Grandmother from Mexico has a “friend.”
My Grandmother from Mexico is best friends with The Virgin. That’s right, The Virgen of Guadaloop. She’s got a big old altar to her and everything. The only real friend she’s ever had is The Virgin. My Apa says it’s okay if she’s a religious fanatic. The two old ladies can keep each other company.
The other Grandmother, My Grandmother from America, she’s just okay. She lives in in a dusty town, Delano, and there’s not really much up there but grapes. And you know, in kids’ terms, that holds your interest for about un minuto.
So, when My Ama and My Apa announced they were going to a Catholic Couples retreat to work on their “reconciliation,” whatever that means, my brother and I were given permission to experience a TJ vacation.
We told the kids on our block that we were going to Florida, cause, you know . . . .
When we arrive at My Grandmother from Mexico’s house, everything is nice and dusty, just the way we like it. My Grandmother from Mexico doesn’t like to talk to us too much, or try to hug us, or kiss us. And God knows, we like her distance a lot. Most of the time she spends it talking to The Virgen and knitting things for her or making little cositas for her altar.
That summer in Tijuana turned out to be the worst when My Ama and My Apa told My Grandmother from Mexico that we were ready and available to continue our altar boy duties in another country. That we would welcome the opportunity to celebrate the mystery of Christ anyplace that he might be found.
Well, let me just say in my own defense, that it never occurred to me that Jesus Christ might be found in Tijuana. But Our Lord was a big fixture in TJ. He should have opened a nightclub or played in the Jai lai. He was that big!
Each colonia in Tijuana celebrates the mystery of Christ in its own unique way. The Sunday we were offered up as the sacrificial altar boys, there was to be a procession to the church and we had to be at the little parish, Santa something or other, an hour early to prepare everything for the march.
As we stood outside of the church with the priest (I was incense and my brother was holy water), we noticed a group of about a hundred people gathered in a big circle. Something was going on in the center of that crowd but we couldn’t tell what it was.
Slowly the mob moved and as they got closer and closer you could see women with veils on their heads crying. All of the men had taken off their hats as a sign of respect.
As they approached us, the crowd began to part, as if a big red sea. As the figure emerged, my brother uttered an “Oh man . . .”
A person had crawled on their knees from the center of the colonia all the way to the parish. That’s far in knee walking.
With shredded rags they had tied a pillow to each knee to make the journey of penance a less painful one. But the makeshift absorbers were not enough in the unpaved village and as their skin hit pavement, they left a trail of blood behind.
The figure moved slowly from knee to knee toward us.
I could see the pain and the guilt on my brother’s face. He could see the embarrassment in mine. Because, of course, the bloody martyr with the bloody knees of Mexico was a husband-less Nationalistic Mexican who owned a gun and sewed cositas at an altar for the Virgen. A Grandmother from Mexico . . .
She wasn’t My Grandmother from Mexico after that. As far as we were concerned, she never would be again.
Grandmothers from Somewhere Else bake cookies, go to Vegas on weekend turn-arounds, and watch novelas quietly. They don’t crawl through their barrios like freaks, right?
That night, my brother and I lied through our teeth about food poisoning and called our parents back home.
When my Apa came to pick us up, I faked a kiss on My Grandmother from Mexico’s cheek. My brother was worse. He shook Grandma’s hand and ran to the car shouting, “Good to see you Granny!”
Later, in the car, as we drove past the brightly lit Del Mar racetrack, I tried to sleep, but all I could do was obsess about the bloody knees of Mexico.
In my heart, I know I wanted to go back to the Tijuana I loved. Bumper car buses, little boxes of Chiclets, armless street-vendors, and shops with dead pig heads.
But it was never going to be that again.
From then on it was summers with My Grandmother from America and picking grapes with the Pentecostals . . . .
Crossing Who I Am
This year, my Cousin Weenie, who only eats once a day, is hosting our family reunion in Fresno.
Everyone’s happy because she always kills and cooks a pig at the Family Reunions, and that’s something that’s really big with the Alfaros.
My Ama thinks a family reunion is a bad idea because so many relatives died this year and we’ve already seen everybody at Muriaga’s Mortuary. Besides, everybody is just going to be depressed.
My Uncle Abel, the one-legged alcoholic Vietnamer, says he already ordered the kegs of beer and what we should really be celebrating is “those” who are still alive. Which means he’s gone off the wagon again and midway through the reunion he’ll either fall asleep in the driveway or make somebody cry.
My Ama resigns herself to preparing a tub of potato salad that all the relatives think tastes “restaurant style.”
We hop into the station wagon and head for the Greyhound Bus Station downtown. All of us wear our Sunday best and I’ve got my favorite clip-on tie purchased at Sears. Clip-on ties make every kid look important and faithful to God.
We take the Greyhound Bus to Fresno because my Apa doesn’t want to use up the engine on our brand-new station wagon, which, he says, is only designed “for the city.”
At the family reunion I count more than 120 Alfaros.
After the required Big Circle Prayer (totally embarrassing) and the Three-Legged Races with drunken Uncles, I always go to the backyard and to the garden with my aunt’s fish pond. She put it right next to the pig pen because, she says, it makes the pigs more “relaxed and happy.” They are more tender as ham because they didn’t have a lot of stress in their life due to their peaceful surroundings.
I love going to see the koi fish in the pond because it is the cleanest place in Fresno and because my aunt designed it all Chino style. I don’t know, maybe Auntie’s right. Beneath the red pagoda, the pigs look really relaxed and happy.
But the best thing about the garden is that this is where Uncle Constantin, or “Constance,” as my Ama calls him, sits and smokes long skinny cigarettes with a holder.
He always hangs out in the garden by himself smoking his Virginia Slims. He is always dressed in white, with a scarf around his neck and rings dripping off his fingers.
Uncle Constantin is the star of our family reunions.
Everybody talks about him as he makes his way through the crowds of family, kissing aunties on their cheeks and shaking uncles’ hands. He pretends not to hear them gossip and giggle as he makes his way through the crowd.
Although Uncle Constantin looks like a movie star, I have heard my tías, Romie and Cuca, whisper over cafesito in the kitchen—about all the times that “Constance” has been in prison . . . .
Uncle Constantin smells all brand-new with the scent of Tres Flores brilliantine holding back his salt-and-pepper hair and the Grey Flannel smoothly escaping through the back of his neck. You can only see his dark side when he rolls up the sleeves on his white shirt and you notice the markings. Dark blue, like the color of the ocean at night, the designs snake up the inside of his arm and on the joints of his fingers. Tattoo names in deep cholo writing. Aztec symbols pricked by homemade needles. The dot dot dot of prison life covers him like a map on the skin.
When I ask about the markings, he takes a long Ida Lupino drag on his cigarette. He looks skyward and the smoke escapes through his nose and heads to God in heaven.
I want to be that pose. I don’t know why, but I can feel it inside of me.
The crease on his pants, the scarf loose on the neck, the markings on the hand, the deep dark mysterious world of “knowing.”
When he looks down at me sitting there on the grass, cross-legged in my clip-on and Sunday suit, he doesn’t say anything; he just smiles. And he gives me a look. Not just any look. The look of knowing.
“You and I understand each other, don’t we?” he says.
“Nos entendemos muy bien.”
He says it like he looked deep behind my esophagus and found the tiny heart beating under the shell of me.
We look at each other for the longest time until I get ashamed of whatever it is that is making my heart beat so fast. It’s not a love feeling at all, but more like when you’re at the zoo and you stare at the animals for such a long time that you end up seeing a reflection of yourself in one of them.
His smile turns to a reassuring gaze.
I smile back and hold it this time. It feels good. I can see the mirror of myself. And I don’t know why, but I feel like someone finally looked inside of me and found me. Me, struggling through the gang infested poverty loneliness hate sadness poor Mexican violent crowded dirty drunk corner bullshit drive by horror show, that is my neighborhood downtown.
Someone saw the little garden inside of me.
On the bus ride home, I sit in silence in the last row of the Greyhound. I feel calm as my brother, who is sitting next to me, lowers his head leaning deeper into my shoulder with every breath of deep sleep.
My Ama looks over at us, but her eyes lock into mine. She always looks at me with a worried gaze. She never knows what to make of me. Always wondering and worrying about me, my Ama.
“¿Que te pasa?” she says.
But today on the bus, I look back at her and I smile like I smile at Uncle Constantin. And this time I hold it for her, like a gift. I can tell it freaks her out as she returns to whisper with my Apa.
I watch as we pass the “Thanks for Visiting Bakersfield” sign and I think to myself,
I know who I am . . . .
I know who I am.
The Three Mexican Musketeers.
That’s what we were. Small time change in the big slot machine of a city.
Uno por todo y todo por Uno!
My brother was the head Musketeer and I worshipped him like little kids worshipped Muhammad Ali. I loved him because he always opened the back door of the bus so that I could sneak on.
The third Musketeer was our neighbor, Gabriel Ochoa, the darkest Mexican on our block. So dark they called him El Negrito. We befriended Gabriel after his dog, Brandy, died. We felt sorry and helped dig out a grave in his backyard. Stole plywood from the projects construction site and made a big cross like we had seen at our parish. After that, Gabriel was our friend, even though he ate non-Mexican food like waffles and crepes.
But we had things in common. He was “fatherless” due to a long-ago divorce, and we were fatherless due to a lost-cause dad who spent his days at the Club Jalisco.
One summer, we searched the neighborhood for soda bottles. Turned them in for the five-cent deposit so we could pay for bus fare and kid’s admission to the movies. We stood in the front of the Tower Theater at Seventh and Broadway looking for somebody who would pretend to be our parent and buy us tickets for an R-rated kung fu movie.
All of a sudden, Gabriel started to cry.
Not just cry, but sob, like he saw the devil, saw a ghost.
“I saw my dad.”
That’s what he said, just like that. Said he saw his dad drive by in front of the Tower Theater and wave at him.
And I just didn’t get it. I told him that if I had seen my dad driving by, I would run up and get in the car and make him buy me a Tommy Burger . . . .
But Gabriel’s dad had been gone so long that he made us stand in front of the Tower Theater waiting for his dad for about an hour.
We missed the first showing of The Chinese Connection. I prayed we wouldn’t be late for Enter the Dragon. The thing about Chinese kung fu movies is that if you miss the first five minutes, you miss the whole reason why they spend the rest of the movie fighting.
But I couldn’t rush Gabriel, who was waiting for another chance to see his long-lost papa.
Right when it seemed like we were just about to die because the previews were on, that old green station wagon pulled up in front of the theater again. Gabriel’s dad smiled all nice like maybe he had only been gone a few minutes. Like maybe a few years ago he had just went out to buy milk for the kids and now he was back.
Gabriel didn’t even say goodbye. Didn’t even give us his movie entrance money or nothing. He hopped in the car and took off like he’d waited all his life in front of the Tower Theater for his dad to just drive by and pick him up.
And that was the last that we saw of Gabriel.
We went in and watched all of Enter the Dragon and did not have a clue as to why Bruce Lee was angry.
Later that night, Gabriel’s mom came over and started asking where Gabriel was. My Ama brought her into our room and she looked terrified, wearing her tamale apron and her hair up in curlers. When my brother told her that he went with his dad, she fell down on our floor sobbing and screaming. She went crazy right in front of us. My Ama tried to pick her up off the floor as she screamed, “He stole my son, he stole my son. Me lo robó, me lo robó” . . .
I told my Ama to call the police—but no one did. In our neighborhood no one ever calls the police. Sometimes you call the ambulance or the morgue, but never the police. There are too many illegales in our barrio, my Apa included, to have the police snooping around looking for wetbacks.
At that very moment, Gabriel and his dad were probably way past the border and deep into the night on a Mexican highway.
And that was the night that the voice went out of Gabriel’s mom. She never spoke again.
For the next six months, the remaining two Musketeers, my brother and I, hung out in front of the Tower Theater. Wondering, and maybe hoping that a green station wagon was cruising down Broadway looking for us.
—A Chicano born and raised in downtown Los Angeles, Luis Alfaro is known for his work in poetry, theater, fiction, performance, and journalism. Luis is a MacArthur Fellow, a current AETNA Fellow at Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut, and a new appointee of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as a commissioner for the City of Los Angeles. His film Sense & Sensibilidad has begun production.