Sunday, November 27, 2016

The New Times

So far nothing has changed in my life after the recent elections. Why would it start now?

Monday, September 12, 2016

Kelley Haynie

I fell in love for the first time in the fourth grade. The girl was named Kelley Haynie and she was blonde, beautiful and funny. She liked me too. I gave her a ring from the curtain rod in our living room to let her know how much I liked her. 

I was not too smart with women but I knew if you liked them you gave them a ring. Unfortunately, when you are in the fourth grade the selection of rings available to you is limited. My mother never missed that ring that held up the curtain in our front room in the house on Saticoy Street.

We had that child love that never went past the giggling and running after each other stage. I had never liked any girls before this as I did not know what to do about them. I just remember running after her and laughing. We were both Munchkins in the high school play in 1969.

Our days were filled with the joy of that first love and the wonder of just being children. No kissing, not much touching, just lots of running, pulling hair and laughing mixed with an innocence and wonder. I have only felt this way once or twice since then.

Then one day it just ended.

I came into school that day and she was gone. Miss Hoover told us that Kelley would not be returning and that was it. Her desk was cleaned out; empty. They did not call her name in the roll call. My ring was gone and no one seemed to know what had happened. I was heartbroken. I finally heard about what had happened but I did not really understand it until I became an adult.

Kelly’s father was a deputy with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. He and others were attempting to serve a search warrant on a drug dealer’s residence in Fillmore. The place where they tried to serve the warrant was the home of the suspect’s father. He was 78 years old and he thought that the police were robbers trying to break into his place. He fired one shot and killed Deputy Haynie instantly. 

He died on Friday, June 5th, 1970 at the age of 30.

I heard about Deputy Haynie from people who talked about the killing and how horrible it was. There were whispers and rumors that went from mouth to mouth with usually very little truth in between. What was distinct was the wave of anger and animosity directed toward the local Mexican community when it became known that Deputy Haynie’s killer was a Mexican man. 

This was the way it was passed down to me in school. I remember two teachers whispering about the killing and how awful it was. I don’t remember too much about the particulars of their conversation but I do remember that it ended with the teachers saying “and you know it had to be a Mexican who killed him.” They looked at me and moved away, concerned that I had heard too much. I always heard too much it seemed and my mind remembers pretty well sometimes.

I did not know why they said this and I didn’t even remember it until I was an adult. I remember that the town and county residents got really upset when the district attorney decided not to file charges against the father because he was old, infirm, and had no criminal record to speak of, and was basically defending himself against unknown and unidentified intruders. There was talk that the police had not properly identified themselves and this error in procedure was what triggered the shooting.

Normally this lack of identification would not have been a problem if the suspect had actually been at the residence. The police had a policy in those days of breaking down the door first and asking questions later. If the dealer in question had been at his father’s he would have ended up dead or arrested and Miranda rights be dammed. 

Unfortunately, it was an old, scared Mexican man who killed, and when it was discovered that he couldn’t defend himself from a wet dog if he had to, this twisted the situation from excessive to indefensible.
Me, all I wondered was where my ring ended up and if my blonde beauty was OK. When my father died two years later I finally understood that she was not OK and would never be OK again as long as her father was gone. 

I cried that day for me, my father, Kelley, and her father. I cried years later for the system that allowed it to be OK to just blame it on Mexicans because people were hurt and angry. I’ve seen this scene replay itself again and again in the justice system since then and I know what it means.

I know that I wince now when I hear some atrocity has been committed. My first reaction is the hope that the person who committed the crime was not Mexican. I know that this is not a normal reaction but it’s unavoidable sometimes. 

I know that there are distinct classes of Mexicans in the United States, and other places, and the one thing I know is that we all identify with each other on some level. That is to say that we all have some commonality in our lives and because of this we are deeply affected by those things that occur to our people, and all people, as a whole. 

Maybe I’m wrong but at least that’s how it seems sometimes. When I see the mentions of Deputy Haynie and his sacrifice, I wonder what became of that blonde, green eyed goddess. Did she ever find happiness? I have to believe that she did because I think that if I did not have the hope that she did find happiness then all the dreams that I have had or will have in the future will just fade to black.

Every year they have a service and memorial at the government center to pay tribute to Deputy Haynie and all the others who have made the ultimate sacrifice in order to keep us safe and free. I have often thought about going there to find my golden goddess but I know that time has passed and what could I say anyway?

I was sorry but only for myself. I was sorry I lost Kelly and I was sorry that my father died when he was 39 and I was 12. It is only as an adult when I think of the circumstances that I get angry and wonder why it all happened and why my elephant’s memory heart needed to remember it all. 

It reminds me that Robbie Robertson was right; the greatest love is the one that dies untold. These are the incidents that remind me I was always supposed to put all these letters and words in an order that made some sense in order to make everything make sense.

So I will keep on writing and wondering and maybe it will all come out good in the end.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Two Kinds of Milk


This shit all got started because of two gallons of milk.

I was standing in the dairy section of the Alpha Beta in Santa Paula, California. This was before Alpha Beta got run out of town and they decided to put the Mexican supermarket there. This was 1975 and I was uncertain about milk and her close friend chocolate milk. I was torn and distracted when he first approached me.

The thing is that even though I was only 17 years old I already had the ulcer of the serious drinker. Milk, my favorite friend from my childhood was fast turning into my enemy. Every time I drank it, something went sideways in my stomach. I was standing there that day pondering the difference in regular milk and chocolate milk and the damage each would do after I drank it. I was occupied when he spoke.

Perdon nino, puedes a decir mi que es la differencia con estos dos leches?” (Excuse me son, can you please tell me what the difference is between these two milk’s?)

His voice was so quiet it nearly made me jump. When I finally focused on him I began to worry. It was not because he was Mexican or because he was scary, it was because he was speaking Spanish and I was basically a pretender at speaking the language of my father.

Hola senor. La differencia? Si es………what could I tell this guy? That I was born in Ventura, California, in the county hospital, where all my brothers and sisters were born? That my parents were both born in California. 

That my primary and only language at that time was English and that everything that I did, spoke, wore, ate and thought at that time was influenced by the white commercial culture that was all around me-Is that what I could tell him?

Should I tell him that I like Springsteen as much as I did corridos or that old Mexican music my mother would hum while she was making tortillas on the kitchen table? Would he understand that a hamburger was as good as a burrito or that Mary and Maria were the same as far as I was concerned? What could I tell him?

Shit, my Spanish was so bad at that time I could not even figure out how to tell him the difference between the two milks which was his original question. If he had spoken English I would have been able to tell him that the one with the red top is whole milk and the one with the purple top was 2% or low fat or whatever you call that crap water that’s slightly colored white. The problem is that I did not know how to begin to explain this subtle difference. I sounded like a Mexican tourettes victim.

La differencia es, I began. The difference is that this red stuff is whole milk. Leche en toto, Wait a minute is toto a Spanish word? La otra leche is without fat. Wait, I went from English to Spanish in that sentence. La leche es sin acete. No wait acete is oil from the car like motor oil. That’s not right. La leche no es gordo. No wait gordo isn’t right either gordo is for people. Fat people. Que es la differencia” I half said to myself.

During this time the man who asked me for this information just stared at me with his eyes wide open. I could tell he was getting worried. All he wanted to do was get the milk and get out of there. He had finished his day and was heading home. The pickers bag over his shoulder let me know he had come straight from the fields and did not want to be running this errand for his wife but here he stood.

I know he was regretting asking me but I could understand why he asked. I certainly looked the part even if I was dressed in clothing that was distinctly American. I am an Indian brown from the fields I had never worked in, except for one day one summer at my Aunt Mary’s. 

I look Mexican from the get-go. Black hair, skin the color of nuts no matter the time of year, some latent Mayan or Aztec features with a little Native American thrown in for confusion, it all added up to Mexican.

Years later when I was in the US Army and stationed in Germany I traveled on leave to Switzerland to visit the Alps and got into a conversation with some woman who wanted to know what the weather was like on the French Rivera. “It must be well,” she said as she smiled through her faintly French accented English. 
I told her I didn’t have the slightest idea of what the weather in the French Rivera was and I wondered why she asked me. “You have the most wonderful tan and wonderful accent”, she said as she drifted away to some chateau to wonder about the weather in the South of France.

And there you go. That is part of the problem. Everyone wants you to be them, to reflect them, and to have something in common with them. It was this same search for commonality that allowed me to drink blood red tea with Turkish salt miners in a German train station at 3 A.M. 

One of them thought I was a friend of his brother who lived next door to him. When they found out I was American and Mexican the cups came out and we laughed until the sun came up. Unfortunately, language and the need to actually exchange information gets in the way of these sorts of scenes.

My problem was this; I have always thought in English not Spanish. When someone says something to me in Spanish the process goes something like this:

What did they just say? How do you say it in English? What’s the answer in English? How do you say that it in Spanish? When you have so many steps to get through for even one sentence it makes even simple dialog difficult. 

And when you have been raised on Leave it to Beaver, Dennis the Menace, cartoons and the Beatles and everything else that electric box in the corner is sending, your Spanish speaking skills are lacking. 

Mine were anyway.

So I am trying, really trying to get this all into something he could understand when the question came. It was a question I had gotten all my life. I knew when it was coming and I probably deserved being asked it, but it still never sat very well with me. He was steeling up his courage and then he said it.

Tu eres Mexicano que no?” he asked. You are Mexican, aren’t you? He asked. I have been asked that question before but now as I was starting to get a little older it stuck in my craw a little more. He stared at me with that look that someone gets when they realize they may have an advantage over someone else. 

What he did not know was that I had been given my voice by my father many years before and that this gave me an advantage even if my stranger friend did not see it that way.

What I had received from my father was an edict: No speaking Spanish in the house!! That was it. We spoke English everyday and sometimes got slapped or punished for speaking our mother tongue. 

My father had come up in a time when he spoke only Spanish and he realized it had hindered his ability for upward movement in the society. This is why he insisted on all of his children speaking English even though he preferred Spanish in his day-to-day life.

This ability to speak and read English from an early age confused and confounded many people I encountered. My kindergarten teacher was astounded that I could read Dick and Jane from cover to cover on the first day of school. 

She asked who had taught me to read and seemed doubly shocked when I told her my father and mother. She could just not believe it, just the way the guy in front of me could not believe that I was Mexican.

I have tired of giving the same old explanations to people regarding these subjects and so I decided to write them down so that maybe I could understand them better and so could others. 

I also was tired of the man in front of me questioning my background and everything I hold close because I did not fit some idea he had in his head of what I should be.

Our encounter ended when I told him that it was true that the language of my father was not my primary language and that I did not really know how to speak it very well at all. I

 did let him know that I did know the difference between the two different kinds of milk. He was still wondering what the difference was when I left him standing by the cottage cheese on that hot summer day 40 years ago.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Random Thoughts

The things I hear everyday is that someone believes they are right and the other side is wrong. The problem is freedom is a two way street. 

People have the freedom to sit down or stand up. Rose Parks remained seated so.....

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Astronauts Breakfast


Terrell Burgoon was the first person who ever mentioned chorizo in a class at school. 

He also turned out to be the first white person I can remember speaking a word of Spanish. I remember it clearly now but for years I had hidden away the memory. My son reminded me one day and it all came rushing back.

My son’s mother, Petitioner, and I were divorced when he was very young. She moved Mark and herself to Modesto California and we shared our time with him. His mother, being of good solid Italian and Germanic trace background gifted our son with the sort of skin and complexion which allowed my son to “pass.”

That’s pass for a white person folks. We never insisted that he make a decision regarding his racial makeup and he still has not for the most part. It is just not that important to him at this time. Maybe it will become important for him in the future. 

Unfortunately, I know it must and will become important to him for a lot of terrible reasons.

I remember one exchange we had when he was 6 years old. I had just picked him up for our weekend together and I could see he was upset. I tried to talk to him and then tease him into responding, when I could see he was having none of the frontal attack.

How’s my little Mexican boy,” I asked. He instantly snapped his head around to mine and caught my eye. His voice was flat and short, hurt and confused.
I’m not Mexican. I never can be Mexican.”

He looked away. Out the window, Highway 99 was flying by. Signs that talked about “Judges being Judged,” “Read the Bible” and “Farmers for Choice” flew by outside the window. It was one of those moments that you can never prepare for as a parent. I had to know.

Why can’t you ever be Mexican?” I asked.

I knew this was something more than being upset with his mother or some simple teasing. I could tell he was torn between telling the truth and hurting my feelings but he went on anyway. He knew I was Mexican but he said it anyway.

Because Mexicans are dirty,” he said defiantly.

Who told you that?” I continued.

Some kids at school,” he answered.

We went on to something else and the questions and confusions about “dirty Mexicans” were forgotten. We drove along and talked about everything until he fell asleep. As he slept I remembered when it happened for me. When it became less simple I suppose.

It was near the year of the moon landing. I was 8 years old and I had been in the public school system in Santa Paula, California beginning when I was 5 years old. We, as a class of students, as a country, and as literal world humanity were interested in everything having to do with the moon landing. 

Needless to say big business did not fail to see the commercial possibilities in sponsoring these scientific endeavors.

To this end, McKevett school has been supplied with charts, stickers and classroom exercises designed to show us how our lives and the lives of the astronauts intersected. Product placement was much more blatant in those days. I remember that these “learning tools” came to the classroom through the bigheartedness of a certain breakfast cereal that was hawked, then as now, by some sugar-hyper striped animal with a deep voice like that long haired guy in the Oak Ridge Boys.

One morning we had the task of comparing the breakfast we had at home to the average breakfast that a moon astronaut ate. We needed to know what they ate and how they ate it. We compared and contrasted what they ate on a daily basis and what we ate, on a big chart supplied by the aforementioned cereal conglomerate. That morning we were sitting around class when Miss Hamilton asked what we had for breakfast that morning. The sea of brown and pink faces that greeted her was definitely drawn along distinct class and cultural lines.

One has to know that in the 1950's and 1960's in Santa Paula California, brown faces were a somewhat new addition to McKevett School. The civil rights movement, as it related to the migrant farm workers and other persons of a brown persuasion had all but missed this small Southern California town. “The Glen City” as Santa Paula was sometimes called, had an active KKK unit until sometime in the early 1930’s to take care of Catholics, Jews and Mexicans. 

There were very clear lines drawn by and between the white power structure of the realtors, ranchers and landholders and the Mexican labor force that made it all revolve. Racial equality under these terms was tenuous at best and not well received by most in 1968, or at any other time for that matter.

McKevett School was built as part of a residential enclave at the bottom of Hospital Hill in 1911 and was originally designed to educate the children of those ranchers and business people. 

My uncle Chuy said he went to Barbara Webster School near 12th street just a block from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. He said that the main feature of the playground was the largest array of broken glass for miles around. There was no grass, no playground equipment, no nothing.

This was called the “Mexican school” as it was situated on the outskirts of “Mexican Town” which was
the name for everything east of 12th Street in Santa Paula. McKevett School had only recently integrated and had only done so after being threatened by the federal government with withholding of some federal funds. So starting with my sister in our family, we went to McKevett School, along with the white kids.

Here’s the other thing: Until I attended McKevett School I had never interacted with white people in any meaningful manner. I mean, my father who was a cement mason, worked with white people but I personally never knew or had spoken to any white person before stepping onto the grounds of McKevett School in 1964. By the time 1968 came around I had been liberally schooled on what acceptable behavior was in the white culture.

There were simply no white people living on or walking the streets on the east side of 12th street in Santa Paula California at that time. If there were white people there, I never saw any walking down Saticoy Street where I lived. Dogs that bite only knew Spanish on Saticoy. Down boy just meant bite me hounds! 

The exceptions were Okies, who were white, but by virtue or misfortune, they were viewed as being only slightly better than Mexicans because of their whiteness. The fact that they drank Budweiser at 9 in the morning on Sundays or married off their 14 year old cousin to some distant relative in Ponca City did not relegate them to the lowest strata. That was reserved for Mexicans.

Terrell Burgoon and his family were some of these Okies. They lived in-between 12th street proper and Ojai road in some sort of political and racial no man’s land where anything could happen. I saw him all the time in school until I left when I was a senior in high school. He was sort of lower class and people made fun of him. 

Well, they also made fun of him because he was a dumb Okie and because he stank. He was always getting soap and deodorant left on his desk or locker and sometimes you could not sit next to him because he smelled so bad. He never noticed or at least he pretended not to notice.

When I started at McKevett in kindergarten in 1964 I thought that white people were nice enough but I also noticed significant differences. White children ate peanut butter with jelly for lunch and Mexican kids sometimes brought burritos or some other exotic concoction. I remember seeing a classmate being laughed at by some kids for bringing out and attempting to eat a burrito wrapped in tin foil. I went home that same day and issued an edict to my poor mother.

I needed peanut butter and jelly put into a plastic bag. Not the bread wrapper from the Wonder bread with a sandwich in it, but a PB and J inside a baggie. Nothing else would do. It broke my mom’s heart that I would reject the food that she grew up on, that she had raised my brothers sisters and myself on, and that she crafted with love for me, but she did as she was ordered, because she loved me more than anything else in the world and she did what she could.

By the time I hit Miss Hamilton’s class in 1968, I was already very wise to the fact that I needed to cultivate the attitude and actions of everyone else. Nothing I did was different from any of the white kids in my class. It was just easier that way, and on some unconscious level, I knew Miss Hamilton could not relate to life in the barrio. 

I don’t know where she came from or where she lived but I never saw Miss Hamilton on Saticoy Street either. It wasn’t her fault. It just was not done in Santa Paula, California in 1968. It was in this Mexican stealth mode that class was being conducted in on that morning of the discussion of the astronaut’s breakfast.

When Miss Hamilton asked for examples of the different breakfast foods that we consumed at home there was an uneasy silence in that room. I knew, and so did all the other Mexican kids in that room, that we had eaten a breakfast of some variation of chorizo and huevos, pan y chocolate, tortillas or some other food that was definitely culturally charged. 

We all knew that talking about any of these things would just endanger the facade we had created in regard to our behavior. We knew that any discussion of anything slightly Mexican would set off an explosion of misunderstanding and explanations that would just not do.

Because of this we improvised.

Lisa Morua said that they drank orange juice. I said that we had toast. Laurie Uffen, blonde and white as the driven snow, contributed bacon and we went on in this vein for some time; until Terrell Burgoon raised his hand. He started out slowly and seemed to be thinking very hard about what he wanted to say. Miss Hamilton waited expectantly, chalk in hand, waiting to add his contribution to the green chalkboard where the other foods waited.

He spoke in a voice thick like syrup:

Well, there’s this stuff, it’s sort of orange colored and you can mix it with eggs or potatoes. It’s kind of like sausage…I mean it comes like sausage and then it turns like hamburger meat…… except its orange. It’s real good with eggs and potatoes and you can eat it for breakfast or dinner.” 

Miss Hamilton stared at Terrell with a look that beckoned him to continue but also said that this train better get somewhere fast or he was going to get yanked from being the conductor.

Terrell continued: “But it’s not really sausage. It’s orange and it comes in a roll like a sausage but it flattens out when you heat it.” 

Miss Hamilton looked at Terrell with what probably passed for her motherly, compassionate look but behind it you could see that she was getting that “This is going to be a long day if we don’t move this along” look on her face. I was watching her face when I heard Terrell say the words that chilled every brown face in that classroom.

It’s Mexican food,” he said.

A silence fell upon us just like the silence that falls on a group of people after something has happened and you are waiting to watch the reaction of someone, to see if you are in trouble or whether that transgression was just going to be ignored and be allowed to pass without any reaction at all. 

It was so quiet that you could hear the second graders in Miss Powell’s class singing “Sweetly Sings the Donkey” with all the hee-haws in all the right places. It seemed like forever.

Then Terrell Burgoon did the unthinkable. It was one of those moments that get stuck in your mind as one of those times when you make a decision and go with it. It was one of those moments that people have been facing throughout time, time to stand up and be counted or go down with words stuck in your throat and pain in your heart. I have lived with the pain since that time and I have never forgiven myself for being a coward.

Terrell Burgoon turned to his classmates with brown faces and said; “You guys know what I am talking about, don’t you”?

As a group we froze, stared, and then each of us shook our heads in the negative, in unison, silent and worried. We left Terrell Burgoon for dead even though every one of us knew he was describing chorizo. 

And not the chorizo you get at some nouvelle cuisine restaurant these days where it is mixed with cranberries or where it’s made out of tofu. This was chorizo of the 1960’s and it only came one of two ways; from the butcher and in those little orange sausage looking rolls from the tienda (store) anywhere in our neighborhood.

It came in that little yellow and orange package with the little pig on the front who wore a cap just like Buster Brown’s. We all knew it. We had all eaten it. That fabulous Mexican sausage that was snouts, entrails and whatever else the butcher had on the floor at the time he was making it. It was divine and we were never going to say so. Some of us had eaten it that morning for breakfast.

We also knew that mentioning it now, in class, especially after all the build up and mystery behind Terrell Burgoon’s explanation, would just begin a round of discussion and questions that we knew we could never explain well enough for anyone to understand. We were cowards but we had to be just to survive. It wasn’t what we wanted or what we liked but it was an act of self-preservation. 

We sat there stone faced, as a group while Terrell Burgoon sat there waiting, imploring someone to come to his aid. Miss Hamilton turned away to the chalkboard and we all began to breathe normally again.
Something got lost for me that day. I am not sure if was an important part of myself that I needed. 

I just remember driving down Highway 99 with my own son asleep next to me. He is a mixture of German, Italian, Mexican, and Native American descent, with skin the color of café au lait which turns to brown in the summer. But he likes to stay inside with his wife and video games. He is a great man already.

I remembered Terrell Burgoon in that classroom all those many years ago and I realized that we have not come that far and there are still people who are so angry and disconnected from this world that they have to try and hurt everyone and everything inside it.

I know that my son can pass for white and I sometimes think that this is the best thing to do. Just keep his Mexican heritage hidden away somewhere like I did and just take it out and examine it every once in a while just like someone would examine a science project or historical footnote. Keep it hidden until it’s needed. 

“When might that be?” I wondered to myself as I continued driving with my son fast asleep and dreaming.

I wondered if he was dreaming about a life where he does not need to feel like a second class citizen because of what I am or what my parents were. Unfortunately, there are still a number of people walking around this world who cannot wait to work out on a person because of whom they love, their race, skin color or how they worship god. My son does not know about any of this because he has not been taught to hate because of these factors.

He hates but for practical reasons only. He hates green vegetables, going to bed too early when his favorite cartoons are on late, dogs that bark too loud and hurt his ears. He has seen hate and it has confused him inside. 

Hopefully this will manifest itself in him by him seeing the fallacy of racism and hatred which seems to be fermenting all around us.

He does not know anything about the hatred that is spread from father and mother to son and daughter based on lies and ignorance. He does not know about the hatred that stems from generational pride or adherence to power and privilege. 

He considers himself to be like everybody else and he has always had peanut butter and jelly in his lunch in a baggie. He drinks milk and has never broken his mother’s heart by stepping on everything she knows and knew.

I call him my little Mexican boy and he answers he is not, with indignation. He is already displeased at being labeled, much like he is upset when people judge others without good cause. I never know what to tell him after that. 

I guess that have always wished that he would like chorizo and menudo and that he would want to learn about Mexicans and the Mexican culture but I also know there is a danger in going there.

Just ask Terrell Burgoon.

The Last Word?

As I walk through, this wicked world, I have to admit I am pretty well amazed by it still. I know that I am a writer but what is happening right now is a mystery to me.

Everyone wants to shout down the other side, with invective, smugness, odd behavior, straight out hatred, and just plain dumbness. I know that I have a lot of people in my life, which makes it unnecessary to, feel the need to create a life story, for any person.

Yes, I sat around listening to Mick Jagger records and bad mouthed the country a bit. If you really believe that one side or the other side is going to fix this mess, you are deluded. No one person can fix anything.

You can fix you. That's me. I fix nothing and try and learn. Between the lines is where I look. Try it, instead of screaming. Save your screaming for the war. John Derbyshire was right again.