Tag Archives: East LA

Lowrider Legacy

 

If it weren’t for cruising, car culture, and Whittier boulevard in East LA, I wouldn’t be alive. At seventeen, my mom was an East LA ruca, dating a part-time delinquente, Michael Cruz, who skipped school and cruised the boulevard, hung around Chronies, a hotdog and burger joint, and avoided the Lincoln Heights area because it wasn’t his territory. Mom went to school most of the time. She was even there during the walkouts, the day many of the Garfield high kids got locked inside by school officials. Some who got out were battered by police.

Like a lot of Chicano kids back then, Mom’s heart wasn’t in school. School was a prison, a place that that didn’t teach you anything about yourself or your own history, a place that made you feel bad for having brown skin, for speaking Spanish, a place that didn’t allow Latino kids to use the bathroom during lunchtime for fear of vandalism and fights. It’s no wonder the streets, cruising, and cars represented freedom.

It was on those streets where they would, for better or for worse, define themselves: Chicanos, pachucos, vatos locos, soto street, city terrace. Mom and Michael weren’t in a gang, but they lived in Boyle Heights; that was their territory. Their families had crossed the border to make their lives in America, only for their children to close the borders around them. Cruising Whittier, put them at risk for getting to close to other territories, and fights, and violence, but cruising the strip and hanging around Chronies was also a social experience away from teachers, and parents, and rules, some that only applied to them because they were Chicanos and to no one else. So in response, they carved out a piece of freedom and made more rules at the same time, a sort of futile using the master’s tools approach to their discontent. Writer Audre Lorde said that you can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, wise advice, but still the kind that young people, especially car loving, street-smart kids disregard because they think they know better.

Eventually, too much cutting school and cruising, got mom kicked out of school, which didn’t much matter to her because Michael wasn’t there and she was in love. Mom was in the kind of love that caused sixteen year olds to jump out their bedroom windows at night, the kind of love that caused sixteen year olds to steal their fathers’ Oldsmobile, and forget to put on the hand break, parking it on one of those Boyle Heights hills, where it rolled away and into the neighbor’s fence, the ones who sold drugs, who didn’t want any trouble, so they let it slide. Mom was in the kind of love that got her pregnant at seventeen by a guy with a quick temper and a Napoleon complex. Cruising should have meant freedom for my mom, but instead it meant a shotgun wedding in a knee length white dress, that sort of hid her growing belly, long enough to smile and pretend she was sure it would all work out, even when she knew it wouldn’t. Michael may have had a job and a Mustang, but he would hurt her and she would have to set herself free.

And so goes my lowrider legacy. I rode home from the hospital in Michael’s Mustang, down Whittier from General Hospital, only they weren’t cruising anymore. I had stolen their youth, and Mom and Michael were on a crash course to divorce. Still, I have to honor my East LA-vida loca-Whittier Boulevard-cruising legacy because it set me on the road toward real freedom ever since.

**Originally published in Joaquin Magazine

Race, Class, and Spitboy

My grandma Delia hadn’t been expecting us, so her short hair was a troll doll mess, Imageshe didn’t have her eyebrows drawn on, and she wasn’t wearing any lipstick, but I figured she’d be home, being as it was a Sunday evening and she was seventy-five.

“Mi’ja!” She looked confused and surprised when she opened the door and saw me there with the other Spitwomen all in mostly black, dirty jean shorts over leggings, boots or heavy Doc Martin shoes, tattoos, and faded tank tops.

Spitboy had been playing a series of shows in the LA area, including a big festival in Long Beach, and we were on our way back to the Bay Area. I couldn’t drive past my grandma’s East LA freeway exit without stopping, and I wanted the Spitwomen to meet her. A tough old broad, my grandma Delia speaks with an accent, speaks and cusses in both English and Spanish, and was born and raised in the United States after her parents came from Mexico during the revolution in 1918. In her own, proud to be American, culturally Mexican, don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-I-can-make-up-my-own-mind way, she was and is a feminist too.

I gave her a big hug in the doorway and explained that we had been playing music in the area and that we were on our way home. Her house was just off the freeway in Lincoln Heights. As we turned onto Workman Street, I had pointed out General Hospital where I was born and explained that this was East LA, the place my family is from.  Both Paula and Adrienne grew up in the Bay Area, San Jose and Pleasanton, a sort of conservative bay area suburb. Karin went to high school and college in the mid-west, but had lived all over, even Europe where her parents lived when she was born because her dad worked for Boeing.

“Do you want me to make you something to eat?”

“No grandma, we can’t stay long. I just wanted you to meet everyone.”

“Come in, come in.” She opened the door wider so we could all pass by. “Where are my manners.”

The Spitwomen  lingered on the porch behind me, uncharacteristically quiet, even Adrienne who always smiled and introduced herself to everyone anywhere we went. Once we made our way inside the house and once someone shut the heavy metal screen door behind her, Karin scanned the room.  The way her eyes fell over every item made me aware of just how many nick nacks, photographs, and wall hangings lined my grandma’s small combined living room-dining room, including the one that said, “Home is where you can scratch where it itches.” Adrienne stood in faux leather pants with her hands clasped in front of her, and Paula smiled shyly.

“Grandma, this is Karin.” I pointed at Karin. “She plays guitar in the band. This is Adrienne; she sings, and Paula plays bass.”

“Hello, please sit down,” grandma said, for all three of them had filed around behind the coffee table in front of the couch. I could tell that Grandma Delia didn’t know what else to say.

They sat down on grandma’s couch; Karin on one edge, her head near the macrame plant hanger with the peace lily spilling out of it. She looked like she felt out of place, and I thought about a discussion that we had a couple of different times driving to shows. It was a discussion about my family, or really just a series of questions.

“You and your brother and your sister all have different fathers?” Karin would asked when the subject of siblings came up.

“Yes, we each have a different father.” I’d say, not sure why the question made me uncomfortable. Karin, Paula, and Adrienne’s parents were all still married, maybe not all happily, but Karin’s parents were actually very nice and not dysfunctional at all, the kind of family that owned an Audie and a commuter car, had straight teeth, and didn’t lose their tempers.

When she’d push me on this topic, I’d explain,” “My mom married my dad when she got pregnant with me in high school, but left him when I was eight months old because he abused her.”

This was something I figured that she’d understand since we had written a song about domestic violence.  

“She got together with my brother’s dad who helped her leave my dad, but they never married and were only together for a couple of years. Later, my mom married my sister’s dad and had my sister.”

Since we didn’t think marriage was cool, I added that my mom was no longer married to my sister’s dad, or anyone else, that she had sworn off marriage forever.

I followed grandma who wore what she called a pair of joggers and a faded cat sweatshirt to the kitchen, so we could chat a minute and because no one else seemed to have anything to say. When it was warm she always wore a house dress.

“How are you, grandma?” I asked once were in the kitchen.

“I’m fine; you know, getting older everyday.” She ran her finger through her hair and smiled. Her nails looked freshly manicured, oval shaped and bright red.

She handed me two glasses filled with water so I could help her carry them, one of narrow ribbed glass and the other of tin, the kind from the seventies, each in the set painted a different color and designed to keep your kool-aid really cold.

The Spitwomen were still sitting quietly when my grandma and I got back into the front room and handed each of the Spitwomen a glass of water. Karin was still looking around the room her nose in the air; Paula, who always wore her short hair in a ponytail, looked as if she were trying to think of something to say, and Adrienne was sitting with her hands folded in her faux leather lap.

“Sit down, mi’ja,” grandma motioned to her chair, beside which sat her basket of embroidery projects. I could see that she was working on a design of a Mexican woman carrying a jug of water on her shoulder.

I sat down, and each of the Spitwomen took a sip of her water and set her glass down on the coffee table without saying a word. They were never this quiet, ever. I didn’t know what to do. Grandma read my anxiety and tried to fill the awkward silence herself.

“You girls must be tired, driving all that way.”

They all nodded.

“You see that picture there,” she said, pointing to a black metal shelf by the door, “That’s Michelle’s mom and dad when they were in high school.”

I winced when she called me Michelle because they never called me that; they only ever called me Todd.

“They were at a dance. Your mom looks so pretty, don’t you think so, mi’ja.”

I always thought she looked much older than sixteen or seventeen with her hair in a sort of a ratted, late-sixties, beehive bun. And my dad, short, dark skin with thick black hair; I looked like him with my hair cropped close to my head the way I was wearing it then, a sort of Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s baby haircut.  

I nodded at my grandma and smiled, but I felt sad. I didn’t know what to say now either and that just made it worse.

Stopping had not been a good idea at all. We should have stayed on the I-5. I should not have suggested that we veer off into the second largest Mexican city in the world. I had made everyone uncomfortable, and now I was outside of my body, seeing my adored grandma and her shabby East LA home, (which I had always found tidy and comforting) her nick nacks, which they probably called tchotchkes, and all her family photos of Mexicans, and now myself through different eyes, and I didn’t like it one bit.