C HAPTER Two “If you ain’t from no barrio, then you ain’t horn.”
– a 10-year-old boy from South San Gabriel
One evening dusk came early in South San Gabriel, with wind and cold spinning to earth. People who had been sitting on porches or on metal chairs near fold-up tables topped with cards and beer bottles collected their things to go inside. Others put on sweaters or jackets. A storm gathered beyond the trees.
Tino and I strolled past the stucco and wood-frame homes of the neighborhood consisting mostly of Mexicans with a sprinkling of poor white families (usually from Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas). Ranchera music did battle with Country & Western songs as we continued toward the local elementary school, an oil-and-grime stained basketball under my arm.
We stopped in front of a chain-link fence which surrounded the school. An old brick building cast elongated shadows over a basketball court of concrete on the other side of the fence. Leaves and paper swirled in tiny tornadoes.
”Let’s go over,” Tino proposed. I looked up and across the fence. A sign above us read: NO
ONE ALLOWED AFTER 4:30 PM, BY ORDER OF THE LOS ANGELES COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT. Tino turned toward me, shrugged his shoulders and gave me a who- cares look.
“Help me up, man, then throw the ball over.” I cupped my hands and 1 ifted Tino up while the boy scaled
the fence, jumped over and landed on sneakered feet. ”Come on, Luis, let’s go,” Tino shouted from the other side. I threw over the basketball, walked back a ways, then ran
and jumped on the fence, only to fall back. Although we were both 10 years old, I cut a shorter shadow.
“Forget you, man,” Tino said. “I’m going to play without you.”
”Wait!” I yelled, while walking further back. I crouched low to the ground, then took off, jumped up and placed torn sneakers in the steel mesh. I made it over with a big thud.
Wiping the grass and dirt from my pants, I casually walked up to the ball on the ground, picked it up, and continued past Tino toward the courts.
”Hey Tino, what are you waiting for?” The gusts proved no obstacle for a half-court game of B-
ball, even as dark clouds smothered the sky. Boy voices interspersed with ball cracking on asphalt. Tino’s
lanky figure seemed to float across the court, as if he had wings under his thin arms. Just then, a black-and-white squad car cruised down the street. A searchlight sprayed across the school yard. The vehicle slowed to a halt. The light shone toward the courts and caught Tino in mid-flight of a lay-up.
The dribbling and laughter stopped. “All right, this is the sheriff’s,” a voice commanded. Two
deputies stood by the fence, batons and flashlights in hand. ”Let’s get out of here,”• Tino responded. “What do you mean?” I countered. “Why don’t we just stay
here?” “You nuts! We trespassing, man,” Tino replied. “When
they get a hold of us, they going to beat the crap out of us.” “Are you sure?” “I know, believe me, I know.” ”So where do we go?” By then one of the deputies shouted back: “You boys get
over here by the fence – now!” But Tino dropped the ball and ran. I heard the deputies
yell for Tino to stop. One of them began climbing the fence. I decided to take off too.
It never stopped, this running. We were constant prey, and the. hunters soon became big blurs: the police, the gangs, the junkies, the dudes on Garvey Boulevard who took our money, alt smudged into one. Sometimes they were teachers who jumped on us Mexicans as if we were born with a hideous stain. We were always afraid. Always running.
C HAPTER Two
Tino and I raced toward the dark boxes call d l h . . e c assrooms.
Th rooms lay there, auntmgly still without th . e . e voices of h·ldren the commands of uate teachers or the clap . ds c 1 ‘ ping soun
of t,ooks as they were close~. The rooms were empty’ forbidden places at night. ~e scurned around the structures toward a courtyard filled with benches next to the cafeteria building.
· Tino hopped on a bench, then pulled himself over a high fence. He walked a foot or two on top of it, stopped, and proceeded to climb over to the cafeteria’s rooftop. I looked over my shoulder. The deputies weren’t far behind, their guns drawn. I grabbed hold of the fence on the side of the cafeteria. I looked .up and saw Tino’s perspiring face over the roof’s edge, his arm extended down toward me.
I tried to climb up, my feet dangling. But then a firm hand seized a foot and pulled at it.
“rhey got me!” I yelled. Tino looked below. A deputy spied the boy and called out:
”Get down here … you greaser!” Tino straightened up and disappeared. I heard a flood of
footsteps on the roof – then a crash. Soon an awful calm covered us.
Wf ino!” I cried out. A deputy restrained me as the other one climbed onto the
roof. He stopped at a skylight, jagged edges on one of its sides. Shining a flashlight inside the building, the officer spotted Tina’s misshapen body on the floor, sprinkled over with shards of glas.s.
After the aborted trip to Mexico, a poverty agency helped our family find a rented place within our means: a square, one• bedroom clapboard house on La Presa Street in an unincorporated part of the county called South San Gabriel.
The living room served as sleeping quarters for my mom, sisters and dad. My brother and I had the only bedroom to ourselves, along with piles of stuffed boxes. On hot nights, Rano
Al WAYS RUNNING
and I slept outside under the openness of the desert sky. It was
similar to Watts, but at least it was a home of our own again.
Incorporated towns like Monterey Park, Rosemead and
Montebello surrounded South San Gabriel. The area was located
in the San Gabriel Valley, which for years consisted of incipient
industry, farmland and migrant camps until Los Angeles stretched
out 6ngers of suburban sprawl to the furthest reaches of the val-
ley. There used to be a com field not far away from our house
on La Presa Street. I remember playing there with my friends.
Once, though, a farmer came at us with a loaded shotgun
while we swerved . and pivoted out of his range through the
stalks of com. By the early 1970s, this area was tom up and office build-
ings, and parking lots replaced the rows of stalks which once
swayed free in the wind, which once held our imaginations afire
with war play, clod-throwing contests, and majestic worlds of con-
quest. By then, with the farmlands and many of the Mexicans of
Klingerman Street removed, the City of Rosemead annexed this
part of South San Gabriel and it ceased being unwanted county
Unincorporated county territory was generally where the poor-
est people lived, the old barrios, which for the most part didn’t be-
long to any city because nobody wanted them.
Most of Watts and a large section of East Los Angeles were
unincorporated county territory. Sometimes they had no sewage
system or paved roads. They included hills, ravines and hollows.
The Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department – known as the
most brutal of the local law enforcement agencies – policed these
In the mid-60s, South San Gabriel included both flat areas
and what we called the Hills, or Las Lomas. The Hills were made
up of tiny houses patched together by weathered wood, chicken
wire and creaking porches that buckled and swayed like a boat on
an open sea. Cadavers of rusted cars filled up yellowed yards. Tom
sofas, broken lamps and threadless tires were strewn about in va-
cant lots. The roads turned and twisted every which way; they
were dusty, curb less streets that might have served as goat trails at one time. Coming down one of the dirt roads, you could encounter chickens, wild dogs or pigs. Some back yards held the wood-and- wire sheds of fighting cocks, or the copper pipings of a backyard still.
The Hills were unseen. Unvisited. Cars flew past north of here on the San Bernardino Freeway into Los Angeles, but most of the drivers never imagined such a place existed, a place you could have found in the Ozarks or the hills of Tijuana.
Bruja, Bruja. Whispers of morning, whispers of night, children without faces
tormenting with a word, descending like a torrent of leaves, like the blaze of dawn. A never-ending litany.
Bruja, Bruja. The conspiracy of voices greets the old woman who lives in
an almost toppled, unpainted house next door; her back yard dense with overgrown weeds.
They say she is a witch. The children hide in bushes or ~- hind fences and taunt her as she lumbers outside to put out trash or water her grassless yard.
“i Bruja, Bruja!” They sling dirt clods at her feet, tease her to tears, dare her
to strike away at this cancer of childhood that makes her last days alone in this clapboard cottage feel like the hell fires she herself condemns the voices to.
The old woman grabs a trash-can lid or a broom and pursues the children who scamper out of the way, laughing and jeering as she creaks •in her bones.
One Halloween, the woman offers the neighborhood children cookies – but the talk is she made them with cyanide. Nobody eats the cookies, but soon all the cats in the neighborhood van- ish, and nobody knows why.
One morning, uniformed men bust into the old woman’s house. Sheriff’s deputies pull her from out of the debris-strewn
guts of the wood-shingle dwelling; the woman never cleaned it. They take the woman away, never to come back.
It · turns out she had been babysitting three small children when, for an unknown reason, the kids’ parents never came back for them. The woman ran out of food. One day, tras~ collectors find three children in a playpen next to the morning garbage.
Angry voices close in on the woman’s house after her removal. A few kids throw rocks at the windows, the glass falling like raindrops skewing down a marble wall. Somebody pours ga.soline on the splintered porch. Somebody tosses a twirled newspaper lit at the top. Next door, the glow washes across faces as we observe the house crackle and tumble in a craze of flames.
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The Mexicans who came to live in the San Gabriel Valley worked the fields, the railroads or in the encroaching industry which soon dotted the valley. Their barrios had names like El Jardin (the garden), Monte Flores (mountain flowers), Canta Ranas (singing frogs – named for the watery inhabitants of a local swamp), Bolen (a Spanish -corruption of Baldwin Park), or La Puente ( the bridge).
Las Lomas was an old barrio whose main rivals were to the west, in East Los Angeles, or the north in another barrio called Sangra.
Sangra was a corruption of San Gabriel, an incorporated city built around one of the Spanish Missions founded by Father Junfpero Serra in the 1700s. A major Indian village, Yang Na, was once situated here. Later when the railroads linked many of the missions, they brought in Mexican laborers who became the first barrio residents.
It didn’t take long for middle-income Anglos, primarily fleeing L.A.’s inner-city as it filled up with people of color, to move in and around these barrios and create the first suburbs. New tracts of homes suddenly appeared on previously empty space or by displacing the barrios. In later years, large