The Story Begins This Way....
The Story begins this way.....
On a hot summer day in the 1890's, on the southern side of the California/Mexico boarder, a fifteen-year-old girl was sent into town to fetch supplies for her mother. Before she reached her destination, the girl was captured by a marauding group of Mexican Bandits. The leader of the group found the young Mexican girl beautiful and kept her for his woman. She never saw her family again, and they never knew what became of her. Within a year of her capture, she bore the the bandit's leader a son. The new father died a violent death before the child could walk. The girl was kept on to pleasure the rest of the men, as well to cook and clean for them. Her child was alternately the gang’s mascot and whipping boy until he was old enough to run away to California. He never saw his mother again, and she never knew what became of him.
The boy raised by bandits moved to Alhambra and became a gardener. He married, or not, several women and sired twenty-odd children by the time he retired, late in life to Mexico. His first wife, my great-grandmother Elena, never referred to him as anything other than "Mr. Vega" or "That Bastard" after she divorced him. Before the divorce they had four children together. The first child was a son. The boy grew up to serve in the Navy during World War II where he met and married a pretty redheaded Navy nurse named Rosey who called herself Virginia. In their wedding portrait, they look like a young Lucy and Desi dressed in Navy whites. She was twenty, he was seventeen. The picture is faded and yellow now, but their sexual heat still jumps right off the page. There is my Grandfather, all movie star smile and sparkly eyes rimmed with impossibly thick lashes. Virginia’s southern belle skin, dark painted lips, piled-high hair, and hourglass figure make her look like she just stepped off the side of a B-52 bomber plane. "He was the love of my life," my thrice-married Grandma Virginia sighed as we looked through an old photo album, "but he drank too much and wouldn’t keep his pants zipped." They had three children before they divorced. The first child was a son named Michael.
In 1958 Michael was twelve, and Virginia was at the end of her rope with him. She was all too frequently being called home from work by the school, or by neighbors, to come and deal with her oldest boy. The last straw was a harried call from the city’s Parks and Rec. Department. On this particular summer day Michael had made a big show out of climbing the high-dive at the local pool. He hooted and hollered and gained everyone’s attention before he jumped. Immediately after he disappeared under the water, a bright red cloud started to spread from his entry point. Mothers screamed. Lifeguards jumped in. In seconds, two-thirds of the pool was stained red. Time and again lifeguards dove under only to pop back up empty handed, unable to find the boy who jumped off the high-dive. That is because Michael had swum out, unharmed, hidden by the red cloud made by the packet of strawberry Jell-O he had poured into his swim trunks moments before the dive. Now he sat on the side of the pool, laughing his ass off, a red stream trickling down his leg. The stunt got the desired results, all around chaos and the admiration of his peers, but it also got Michael banned from the pool for the summer. That was a problem. Virginia was a single mother of three who worked full-time but could not afford child care. Not that sitters ever came back for a second round anyway. The city pool had solved her dilemma - it was cheap, and she took comfort knowing the staff was trained in first aid. This solution was no longer an option for Michael. She couldn’t leave him unsupervised, and she could no longer spend her every ounce of energy keeping him out of serious trouble. She had nothing left to give to his younger brother and sister. Michael was sent to live with his father.
Vega family pictures from this period show the American Barrio in all it’s glory. The men lean on cinder block fences. The tiny, covered porches hang heavy with plants. There are lemon and avocado trees in every yard. I can smell the beans simmering in every kitchen and see the neighborhood mammas come to meet and gossip at the tortilla truck as it slowly winds its way through the barrio. There is my grandfather, his arms slung over the shoulders of his two younger brothers, Rudy, A Los Angeles County Deputy, and the youngest brother David, who managed a jewelry store. My grandfather is the tallest and the handsomest of the three. He is caramel colored, darker than David, who is almost white, and lighter than Rudy who is cinnamon-coffee colored. They stand in rolled up chinos and spit shined loafers in front of a new car riding low on its white walls. Rudy wears a white tank top, his brothers wear white t-shirts, cigarette packs rolled up in one sleeve. Their pompadours and their teeth gleam in the bright Southern California sun. The brothers on the ends hold cans of beer. Their father is behind them, his foot on the car’s running board. It is the only photo of my great-grandfather, the man who ran away from bandits, I have ever seen. He is dressed like his sons, but he wears wire-rimmed glasses and his pompadour is silver. They say he was a handsome man, but he looks fairly simian in this picture. Unfortunate thing - a whole generation of great-grandchildren thinking you looked like a monkey because of one bad snapshot. On occasion, when Michael was walking home from school, he would encounter his grandfather standing in a circle with a group of other old men betting on cock fights. Sometimes they weren’t circling cock fights, but Michael being pitted against older and larger boys. He was small but he was ruthless. If he won the fight his grandfather would cash in. If he lost the fight, his grandfather lost money, and drug him home to beat him again.
My own grandfather had been the first Mexican Drug Enforcement Officer in L.A. County, but by the time his oldest son came to live with him, drinking had cost him his job and he was making his living spying on other men’s wives. He had married again, or not, and had a two-year-old son that everyone called Jr. Jr.'s mother had recently committed suicide and Michael was assigned to watch the young boy. My Grandfather would leave money, or not, and disappear for days on end. He left Jr. with his twelve-year-old half brother without consideration to missed school or meals. One night, a few years into this arrangement, when Virginia’s second son, Steve, was at the house visiting his brothers, their father got drunk. That was normal, and it was usually only an hour of hell or so before the old man passed out. Sometimes they could humor him and avoid any serious damage before they heaved him into his bed. But on this night, their father would not fall down. He was on an ugly drunk and had been pummeling Michael and Steve for hours. When he took a break to relieve himself, the boys locked themselves in Jr.’s bedroom. Michael passed Jr. to Steve who had crawled out the window. He sent his brothers to find a neighbor who would let them use their phone. Steve was to call Uncle Rudy and tell him Dad was worse than usual and to plead with him to come rescue them. After sending his brothers for help, Michael headed to the kitchen to hide the revolver his father kept in the junk drawer. He was too late. He heard the shot as he raced around the corner and watched bloody clumps of hair and bits of brain, flesh and skull smack against the refrigerator door and then slide down onto Jr.'s finger paintings, turning all the colors red.
At their father’s funeral, Michael stood at the edge of the freshly dug hole and said, "I’m glad the bastard’s dead." "Me too." Said his brother Steve. Afterwards, Steve went back home to his mother’s and legally took his stepfather’s last name. Jr., now an orphan of two suicides, was folded into Uncle Rudy’s three boys and raised (almost) as one of his own. Michael bounced from couch to couch, mostly fending for himself. He worked the graveyard dish washing shift at Denny’s and rented a room from one of his dad’s ex-girlfriends, who he lost his virginity to. He was a brilliant boy but had to repeat his senior year. It was this second go-round that he met June.
June was the second of five girls born to a sweet but passive mother. Her father never bothered hide how pissed off he was that Fate had given him five daughters and no sons. Dale Pickett was a vocally bigoted alcoholic and WWII vet who sold furniture at Levitz. His dreams of becoming a race horse trainer were dashed by the responsibilities of raising a family. His bitterness and disappointment at his life’s lot hung over him like a cloud. He kept horses in his dusty backyard that butted up against the Pasadena Freeway, and spent every moment and dime he could spare at the Santa Anita race track. June’s mother was named Ruby but went by Grace. She had been given to better off relatives during the depression to be a servant, in exchange for room and board. Grace was a gentle and strong woman guided by a True and Pure Heart. She stayed silent about her upbringing or what kind of life she had hoped for herself. When one of her adult daughters asked about her childhood, Grace turned on her heel, and for the only time in her life, slapped one of her children hard across the face. "Don’t ever ask me that again." she instructed. And that was that.
June couldn’t wait to escape her strict German father and his crowded house. She worked at Dunkin’ Donuts every morning before school. She planned, and she scrimped, and she saved, and she moved out almost before she took off her graduation cap and gown. She and a girlfriend found a tiny apartment in the summer of 1965. With giddy excitement June and her roommate painted colorful flowers on the walls and hung Beatles posters. They couldn’t imagine a better time to be heading out on their own - the whole world was changing into a magical place. June enrolled in junior college and dreamed of her future. But by the time school started, she was having trouble getting up at 4:00 a.m., and the grease smell of the donuts frying made her throw up. She had a sinking feeling and a doctor confirmed her worst fears. She and Michael had broken up three months earlier and hadn’t spoken since. It took her almost a week to track him down to tell him she was carrying his child. Michael said he couldn’t marry her right away because he had joined the Navy, but would come back to marry her on his first leave. They married in October, neither of the teenagers smiling for the black and white photo that was included in their $15.00 civil ceremony. Afterwards, Michael reported back to his ship, and June moved back in with her parents and four sisters, into the cramped three bedroom house, and waited for her baby to be born.
I was born on the last day of winter 1966, and despite being a girl, was named Michael. I was so skinny that after myfirst baby pictures reached his nuclear submarine, my father wrote a one sentence reply to my mother: "She looks like a skinned rabbit."
I was twelve when my parents separated, but I can’t conjure up a single memory of them together, or tell you what kind of relationship they had. It’s all blanked out. They must have been optimistic about their future in 1968 because they decided to have another child. June was a hippie who did not believe it was right to bring another child into the world when so many were already suffering. My father - now Mike to avoid confusion - had a firm belief that the oldest sibling in a family should be a boy. They killed two birds with one stone by deciding to adopt a four or five-year-old boy to be my older brother. The first child they were offered was black. That was fine with my father, but my mother couldn’t do it. She knew her father would never let her back in the house, or allow her to see her younger sisters again if she had a black child. The second child they were offered was mentally disabled. That was fine with my mother, but not for my father. He said if that’s the hand that’s dealt you, you get through it, but he could not choose it for himself. We were in Boise where the adoption hoops were minimal, but time was running out. Word was my father could be transferred any day. Then we got the call. There was a boy available right away. He was not four or five as my parents had requested, he was three weeks old. Did they want to see him anyway? We drive to a motel and meet the social worker in the designated room. I rest my chin on the bed's edge, entranced by the fat little brown baby lying there on a small soft blanket laid over the itchy nylon quilt. He is gurgling, and seems ridiculously happy. He has a perfectly round head and brown hair and eyes that exactly match mine. The next day I am a Big Sister. He was named Ignacio, but we called him Nacho.
A year later, Mike was discharged from the Navy. Both of my parents stopped cutting their hair, shaving and wearing deodorant. 8mm home movies of our Going Away party show lots of young people tripping hard and falling around our tiny apartment. We were going away, but to nowhere in particular. June made purple paisley curtains for our primer-spotted red VW van. Mike built a bed and storage spaces in the back. They sold the furniture and the stereo, and gave away my cat. Off we went to search for America.
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