In the first few weeks of kindergarten at Lorena Street School in Boyle Heights, East L.A., Harry Gamboa Jr. learned a few crucial lessons. His teacher put him on a stool in front of the class with a dunce-cap that said “Spanish.” As he recalls in this vivid account of an artist’s coming-of-age in the 1960s, “her attempt failed to induce the desired fear and submission. I was little, but I wasn’t stupid.”
At the age of five, Gamboa Jr. left school to carry out his self-education in the rich milieu of this multicultural, working-class corner of L.A. Reading and writing were crucial, and he found numerous ways to sharpen those skills—from the newspapers left lying around at diners to the comic books he’d buy whenever he had the money. Still enrolled in the public schools (and moved forward year after year despite not attending classes), Gamboa Jr. spent his time wandering from Boyle Heights into downtown L.A. and more distant parts of the city. By 1968 he’d joined the coalition of young and older activists who carried out the L.A. high school walkouts and sparked that city’s Chicano Movement activism. Four years later, in 1972, he co-founded the pioneering multimedia collective, ASCO. Gamboa Jr.’s story is further proof that literature happens where and how it must.
The Lorena Street School playground in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, was once a manicured, park-sized lawn where mid-20th century elementary-school children could play happily in the perpetual sunshine of Southern California. In 1956 the Los Angeles Unified School District acted on public health warnings by covering the grass with noxious blacktop that simulated the burgeoning urban environment by mimicking the features of the nearby Santa Ana Freeway. The blacktop was a modified oil/tar-based asphalt infused with lead and copper shavings meant to stave off the predictive effects of nuclear fallout from ongoing U.S. Military atomic tests in Nevada, which had caused the grassy playground to mutate into a field of prickly weeds infested with fluorescent, biting insects in the first place. Many of the children recently exposed to the playground suffered unknown medical syndromes that would later be identified as precursors to fatal childhood leukemia.
“Want to get squashed by the steam roller before the men fix the playground? Get away from the chain-link fence and stand in line. No talking and stop playing.” The toxic smoke of poured blacktop mixed with the usual acrid smog as a tall male teacher tugged the ears of several boys and knuckled the heads of girls who quickly aligned into a nervous queue of kindergarteners.
“And you? Don’t you understand a fucking thing? I’ll teach you.” He grabbed me by the shoulders and bum-rushed me toward class. “Everyone follow me.”
The children marched to the door of Room 33. The teacher squeezed down hard on my shoulders, but I wouldn’t cry for mercy. Miss Flint greeted us with a warm smile and the man let go. I was glad to be freed from the usual early-morning assault but I was unconvinced it would be a pain-free day for learning. Three weeks into my first semester, public school had already shown me the punitive techniques the system employs to induce conformity. On the first day of kindergarten, Miss Flint sat me on a small chair in front of the assembled parents and children after she realized that I didn’t speak English. She placed a paper dunce cap on my head, colourfully emblazoned with the word Spanish. Everyone laughed and applauded, but the attempt failed to induce the desired fear and submission. I was little, but I wasn’t stupid. I saw immediately that the purpose of compulsory education is to assimilate children into the norms set forth by a dominant culture. For the next twelve years I would endure whatever they threw at me, while decoding the dehumanizing efforts of the adults, children, buildings, and the cordoned-off areas of the vast dig that was about to change the physical identity of the elementary school that objected to my presence on Day One.
My father was a skilled letterpress printer who operated massive Heidelberg presses, working overtime six days a week at a vinyl record manufacturing plant in the nearby city of Vernon. His pay supported us and covered the mortgage on a two-bedroom, single-family home a block away from school. He was fluent in English and Spanish. My mother was in many ways a trickster, an absentee role model who hosted gatherings in our kitchen with my uncles, who had fought against Nazis during WWII; and my aunts, who had given birth to my many cousins, engaging in day-long fantastical conversations in their inherited resistance dialect called Caló .
The 1910 Mexican Revolution left its traces in the international and multicultural amalgam of Mexican-Americans in El Chuco, as my aunts and uncles called their beloved hometown, El Paso, Texas. Spanish and English were widely used among the Chicano people there, but they also needed secret codes of communication to ensure survival under the adverse social conditions of racism, poverty, and official violence. The Pachucos, proud in their criminalized zoot suits and other stylish clothing, were targets throughout the barrios and cities of the Southwest U.S. In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported coordinated attacks by military personnel against Pachucos in Los Angeles. This set the tone for brutal policing, courtrooms, jails, and school for the post-war generation. Caló was their language of survival.
I preferred Caló as my earliest mode of speaking, but was confronted by a modernist situation that would ensure my perpetual punishment if I persisted in my rejection of English. The use of Spanish was forbidden in all public institutional venues. On my fifth birthday, after several weeks of verbal and physical abuse at school, I decided I would master the use of English. I already knew how to read and write the letters of the alphabet, and I discovered that words could be formed from letters to create chains of ideas to form meanings. At school I saw Dick and Jane in a 1930 edition of Elson-Gray Readers atop Miss Flint’s desk. After thumbing through the pages I concluded that Dick and Jane was insufficient for the task of providing the information I needed to succeed in my early effort to circumvent institutional brainwashing. I would have to avoid attending school as much as possible. I chose to never complete homework or tests and vowed to reject school to pursue my personal goal of self-education. I would also need to establish a broad-based support system involving classmates, children and adults from my neighbourhood, and others in the surrounding city, often called “L.A.” by the mythical beings that appeared on the electrified television screens to assist me in achieving control of spoken English in a variety of colloquial styles and accents. It was also important for me to secure some form of financial independence so as to induce others to assist me by way of payment or to ensure protection through outright bribery.
My initial rejection of school evolved over time into adaptable behaviors that allowed me to make friends with many students of diverse heritage and, in third grade, to receive approval to work early mornings in the cafeteria three times-a-week doing various chores, including laying out cookies on the stainless-steel counter, folding napkins over metal forks and spoons and putting them in a neat pile, and distributing three hundred paper cups that would later be filled with hot cocoa. I was eight years old. I received a cookie each workday and a partial lunch on Fridays. Every week I gave my sweets to the toughest boys and smartest girls in exchange for unspoken loyalty. I never ate during the school day. I was a small-framed, polite child, visually aware of my surroundings and hyper-vigilant at all times. I had learned to speak, read, and write English at an advanced level that I kept hidden from the teachers and administrators. I left most of my class assignments uncompleted and all my tests intentionally blank. I was absent two days of every five, with the excuse that I suffered from upper-respiratory problems. On those days, I mostly watched TV, including cartoons, recycled wartime propaganda, film noir, and daytime live interviews with faded movie stars, artists, fashion designers, and alarmist cult leaders. TV’s wide-ranging conversations and divergent subject matter provided a vast amount of information that complemented or contradicted what I had experienced in school or on the streets. Stories of fancy parties, foreign travel, surrealist animated dreamscapes, and questions surrounding the possibility of nuclear war fascinated me. I easily memorized the English words spoken on television, which I would then seek out in the large dictionary at our little-used, nearby public library.
The brick and mortar library was built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style of the era when it opened its doors, 1927. The original stock, placed on the shelves around that same time, was readily identifiable by their stiff primary-coloured hardcovers with white numbers in bold type on the spines. I would sometimes place a stack of old books on the hardwood table and flip through them to find words or ideas that might trigger a mental image or convey an important message from the distant past that I could put to use in my present condition that already betokened a complex future. The yellowish incandescent lights, polished linoleum floors, and the hard interior decor generated echoes or other disturbances when I pressed my graphite pencil tip to the scrap-paper and wrote down titles and authors’ names:
Mendel's Principles of Heredity: A Defence by William Bateson, 1902 Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West by Dale Lowell Morgan, 1953 The Plague by Albert Camus, translated 1948 On War by Carl von Clausewitz, 1832
I felt heavy breathing on my neck while thumbing through the S-words in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 2nd Edition (1942).
“What are you looking for? It must be a very important word for such a young Mexican boy like you to be sticking his head into a book like this.” The hovering librarian must have been suspicious of my presence during a school day.
“Yes, the word is stereotype. I hate it. It is a weapon.”
“Hey, muchacho, are you threatening me with a weapon?”
“No. Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can get you into bigger trouble. My mother says I have incurable tuberculosis.”
The librarian reeled in horror as I ran out the door and into the rear alley where I encountered a man standing in a pool of blood that poured profusely from his head wound. “Hey kid, take this ten-dollar bill and buy me a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes. Don’t worry, it’s good money.” I was frightened, but intrigued by his cool demeanor. “And buy yourself a comic book or something. Hurry before they come back.”
I walked to the liquor store that sold comic books, pornography, and day-old newspapers. I picked an issue of Superman, curious what Stag and She She magazines contained, but they were beyond my reach. I pointed to the pack of cigarettes and put the ten-dollar bill on the counter. The proprietor examined it carefully and gave me exact change in pennies and nickels that filled my pockets. The rolled-up comic book felt powerful in my hand, even if it wasn’t. I returned to the alley in time to see four young guys beating the man with metal pipes and a crowbar.
“Fucking puto, get out of here unless you want the same thing to happen to your familia.” I knew of gangs from classmates but was surprised to see violence like this so close to home. On TV, killing was simple and clean, but the murder in the alley was a crazy mess. “I’m loco, ese, don’t get me wrong.” He threw a pipe at me but missed. I ran away. Their faces remain etched in my memory.
At the streetcar stop I looked back to make sure they weren’t following me. The Los Angeles Transit Line R streetcar pulled up and I boarded, paying my fare with one of the dead man’s coins. The wooden seats were all taken so I rode standing and read Superman until we reached downtown, 7th Street and Broadway. Many thousands of people shopped, walking, talking, laughing, and some even danced on street corners. I had visited downtown several times in the rare company of my father. I found my way to Clifton’s Cafeteria and went inside, following other customers through an interior environment alluding to the redwood forests of Northern California. On my tray I put a cookie and a cup of hot chocolate. I paid for the meal with a handful of nickels, climbed the stairs to the second floor, and sat down in a dark corner lit by coloured neon. Superman battled archvillains while avoiding exposure to Kryptonite. When I finished the comic I took an outdated Los Angeles Examiner from the empty table beside me. The headlines reported executions in California’s gas chamber in the San Quentin State Prison. I read a feature on the strange lights illuminating night skies after nuclear explosions, and found it ironic that the death of John Hamilton, who played Perry White in The Adventures of Superman, was included in that day’s news.
“You’re going to have to move it, boy. This is our table. We got more important things to do than to babysit. Now, scoot.”
A disfigured man led a pack of men who all appeared to be physically damaged, some using canes, others missing hands or limbs, and one who was obviously blind because his eye sockets were empty. I made out the word Korea on the lapel pin hanging loosely from one man’s torn jacket. They sat down without making any further effort to oust me. I kept my head in the newspaper.
“Now if you ask me, I’d rather be kissing the girls in Tokyo.”
“No way man, they are too beautiful to be bothered with the likes of us.”
“Well then, I guess I’ll have to settle for this stack of pancakes. Hand me that maple syrup and I’ll just pretend it’s honey from God.”
The one nearest turned to me. “What you reading about the world’s troubles for, son? Ain’t you supposed to be in school.”
“This is better than school.”
They laughed and told stories while smoking and drinking coffee. The men refrained from using curse words that might have an adverse effect on a child. I sat with them for more than a couple of hours, trying to absorb as many of their cheerful phrases as I could remember. It was time to head back home, but I wanted to impress them before leaving the table. “Do you know that the State of California gasses people to death like the Nazis did? Hitler wanted a super race and America’s hero is Superman. Everything on TV is fake but we are all real.”
“Wow, child. You just gave me the chills.”
“Take care, niño, it’s tough out there.”
I walked out the door to bustling Broadway, my pockets full of change. Many people carried shopping bags with most men dressed in suits and women in dresses. Nearly everyone wore hats, the women’s with full- or half-laced veils. Almost all the shoes and boots pounding the pavement were made of leather. I wondered how much it would cost to buy a new pair of shoes, so I walked until I came across a store with a hand-painted sign:
Atomic Sales War! 2 pairs of shoes for the price of 1
The store was vast and brightly lit by rows of fluorescent lights. On the long mahogany counter a golden cash register sat in plain view next to a device that looked like an oversized TV console with buttons, knobs, and a periscope for viewing the screen. A tall saleswoman with a pencil-thin neck leaned down and looked into my eyes. “Want to see something that will change the way that you think about shoes?” She led me to the counter, took the rings off her fingers and put them in a locked drawer, then picked up a rubber vest and dark googles. “Help me with this, will ya?” She put on the goggles and turned around so that I could assist in securing a rear button on the vest. The rubber felt like dead skin leaving me cold as I snapped the button shut. “You really are a dear boy. Come around to this side so that I can introduce you to our very own Pedoscope. Now, watch your step and climb on.”
I grabbed hold of the console’s protruding handles to lift myself into place. The woman told me to put my feet in the opening at the base of the platform. “Now lean into the viewer and stay still while I fire it up.” She pressed a button and pulled a lever. A thin whine got louder as the periscope’s glass screen began to show fuzzy shadows and sketchy lines—the flesh of my feet and fabric of my shoes surrounding a real-time X-ray moving image of the bones inside my feet.
“It’s a real treat when you bend your toes.”
This was the first time I’d been fully aware that I was literally made of bones and flesh. I wiggled my toes for several minutes, enchanted by the sight of my ghostly skeleton.
The lady grew bored. “Oh my, maybe we’re spending too much time having fun.” My feet tingled and felt hot. “Please come back with your mother and tell her that you want the best shoes that money can buy.” She switched the power off and removed the goggles. I jumped down and waved goodbye, smiling to her in gratitude for this unexpected experience. “Cute dimples,” she said. “Au revoir.”
I walked out onto Broadway and retraced my steps to 7th Street where I boarded the streetcar back to East L.A. It was early afternoon, less crowded, and this time I got a seat beside a teenager. I was sure that no one would have missed me during my absence from school and the neighbourhood. I sat, writing down many new words—radioactive shoe-fitting fluoroscope, cyanide gas, atomic—on a folded sheet of paper that I kept in my back pocket. I planned on checking for correct spelling and definitions when I had a chance to return to the library. My feet felt uncomfortably hot and itchy. I was slightly nauseous and my eyes hurt.
“Who in the fuck do you think you are writing down words and shit? And besides, that’s my pencil. Give it to me. You got money?”
The boy looked mad as he took the pencil from me and stuck his hands in my pockets to steal all the coins, the comic book, and the unopened pack of cigarettes. I offered no resistance. I’d seen him before, on one of my recent outings, talking to a few girls near Fresno Park. He punched me once in the chest and got up from his seat.
“You better have more money for me the next time I see you on the streets.”
He got off at the next stop. I watched him walk away, lighting a cigarette. My nausea increased now that my unknown tormentor was gone, and my pencil with him. At Whittier Boulevard and Esperanza Street I ran home, arriving an hour before my father was due from work. Everyone was gone. In the bathroom I took off my shoes to find both feet covered in red, blistering skin. I opened the medicine cabinet above the sink and took a small bottle of Mercurochrome and spread the red liquid across the top and bottom of the left foot and then the right. I put on my socks and shoes so no one would see that my feet looked refried.
The next morning I woke up early enough to have breakfast and get to school by 7:00 a.m. to work in the cafeteria before the bell rang at 8:15 a.m. when I was supposed to go to my assigned desk in Room 24 for lessons in arithmetic, penmanship, civics, and other common subjects. I enjoyed the company of my friends and classmates who I always called by their surnames: Mechikoff, Watanabe, Hanamakai, Thrush, Medina, Armijo, Peoples, Caine, Stein, Gonzalez, Baroux, Martinez, Fantoni, Rodriguez, Oss, Gutierrez, Andersson, Perez, Wilson, Licon, Furukawa, Chin, Kilgallen, Saltikoff, and de la O.
“Where is your parental note to be excused for yesterday’s absence?”
Mrs. Childs, the 3rd Grade teacher, asked the same question two times-a-week, and I always handed her identical notes copied from a letter my friend’s mother wrote for him a year earlier:
Dear Teacher, My son has an illness that comes and goes. The doctor says it is an -ISM. Please excuse his absence. Thank you, Mother/Father of the boy in question.
I made an illegible squiggle for the signature that I could attribute to either parent. The unread note, taken and filed away, granted qualified immunity to all involved parties. I had failed kindergarten through 2nd Grade and would soon be moving on to the 4th Grade by failing the 3rd. The school advanced me based on age and to manage classroom space. Glancing quickly through the various schoolbooks gave me enough knowledge to raise my hand and provide correct answers to most questions the teachers asked. That morning I sat quietly, reading a history book when I felt my feet get wet inside my shoes. I asked to use the restroom and was given a hall pass.
In the restroom I locked the stall door and saw that my foot was covered in what appeared to be a single blister that had burst, releasing translucent fluid while peeling away most of my skin. I assumed the same was happening to my other foot. Oddly it was not painful, and I hoped that the affliction would just go away. I tied my shoelaces tight, washed my hands, and ran back to class. When the lunch bell rang, I went to play on the blacktop. Mechikoff, Gonzalez, and Andersson joined me in a game of one-upmanship.
“I witnessed a murder, was exposed to radiation, got robbed by a gangster, and was given the secrets of love and war during the few hours yesterday when you all were struggling to add, subtract, and divide. None of us are going to live forever. This is no time to be good little boys and girls.”
Mechikoff was the prettiest girl in school and she gave me a look of complete disapproval. “You’re going to grow up to be a wino.”
Gonzalez laughed. “Yeah, if you grow up. Maybe you’ll go to jail for a hundred years.”
Andersson was concerned and amused as he pulled Mechikoff and Gonzalez away from me. “Hey, your nose is bleeding. You’re a mess. It’s too hot and smoggy out here.” They ran away to play at the other end of the playground while blood flowed out my nose and sizzled on the blacktop.
The new principal, Miss Dennis, held weekly assemblies on the blacktop. The students and teachers lined up according to their grade levels and class placement. A portable public address system, cranked up to maximum decibel level, ensured that everyone could hear her raspy voice.
“You will all soon be tested for mental competency, I.Q., hearing, vision, latent degeneracy, and lice,” she announced. “Comprehension of the English language will be measured. You have received the Sabin vaccine and will now receive booster shots as well as vouchers for Thalidomide, Thorazine, and Benzedrine, that your parents can redeem at local pharmacies. The school orchestra needs volunteers for clarinet, flute, bassoon, and triangle. The 5th Grade has been selected to take part in a field trip to the La Brea Tar Pits. Thank you. Have an excellent day in the Land of the Free.”
The sky’s usual brown haze and gray smoke made it hard to breathe and teared my eyes. Miss Dennis looked like she was melting in a misty fog when the sky suddenly shifted to a faint pink followed by an instantaneous brightness that turned everything blinding white. The kids were quiet, nonplused by a familiar sight that lasted only a few seconds. Not-so-secret above-ground thermonuclear explosions were common, more than a thousand in the 1950s.
“If only the bomb would blow away the smog.”
Mechikoff giggled at my witty remark.
“Young lady, national defense is no laughing matter. I want you in my office in five minutes for the mandatory three swats for bad behavior. Teachers, instruct your students on the value of obedience. Everyone is dismissed.”
I walked in the other direction and climbed the chainlink fence between school and the freeway. The authoritative Miss Dennis did not impress me, but I was becoming concerned with the possibility that everything and everyone could be obliterated in a split second. Staying in school for that made no sense. Usually I exited via the pedestrian tunnel under Lorena Street, an unlit concrete cavern covered in uniquely Mexican-American calligraphic graffiti by WF or VNE gangs, accentuated with Caló terms rifa or con safos to claim territorial rights or make threats of revenge. Several more broadly popular slogans also appeared there: Nepantla vs. Magonista, or La Raza Cósmica/Atómica. But sometimes the tunnel scared me and I walked along Lorena Street, balancing on the low metal guardrail overlooking the freeway. This time I nearly lost my footing, but made it across.
“You are either going to die young or be around for a very long time. We could use someone like you.” A well-dressed young Mexican-American couple applauded me quietly. The woman came forward to shake my hand and I was surprised when she squeezed it warmly. The man lifted up his shirt to show a small pistol tucked in a holster on his belt.
“We’re not gang members or police,” he said. “Think of us as your neighbourhood protectors. It’s good you didn’t go into the tunnel. It’s a mess in there because we just got rid of a big problem. He won’t be hurting little girls anymore.” The man stepped toward me. “Call me Él, and call her Ella. There are many protectors out here. We’ve seen you hanging around when you should be in school. Good for you.”
Ella smiled broadly and handed me a mimeographed pamphlet with tiny-font texts in purple ink and no illustrations. “We’re happy to know that you are being so experimental with your life,” she told me. “Bravo.”
Their carefully enunciated English reminded me of the way my uncles and aunts spoke when they wanted to tell a serious story. I thought they must be from El Paso, they seemed so brave and cool. “I’m not old enough to be in a group, but I will keep my eyes open in case I see something. You know, trucha.”
Él wore a gold-plated radium dial watch. “The English word for trucha is astute,” he said. “Be careful who hears you speaking Caló.”
Ella shook my hand again. “We can see that you know how to take care of yourself. I’m sure we’ll meet again.”
Él and Ella walked down Lorena Street and disappeared into the entrance of the Resurrection Catholic Church. Their elegant manner inspired me. I had never known that Mexican Americans could act and talk like movie stars. I headed down Beswick Street and found myself strolling through the grave markers in the Odd Fellows Cemetery, within walking distance from home. The cemetery was better than Fresno Park or any park because no one went there. I could avoid interruption while reading my comic book or magazine or newspaper. I sat next to a tombstone that contained the year of my birth
28 May 1875 - 6 Jul 1951 Pvt Christopher E. Hoerig COMPANY M 2nd ILL. INF. SPANISH AMERICAN WAR
and read El/Ella’s pamphlet cover to cover. I circled twenty-six words in the pamphlet using a red pencil that I’d carried in my left sock since the boy robbed me on the streetcar:
In the 5th and 6th grades I took jobs to pay for reading materials, bus fare, and movie tickets. It was then that most of the non-Mexican families moved away to suburbia, as Los Angeles continued to grow in size and complexity. The physical landscape of Boyle Heights reconfigured around the expansion of the East Los Angeles Interchange, involving multiple interstate freeways that formed the largest, busiest highway system in the world. Brutalist multi-lane monoliths and concrete walls encircled Lorena Street School and the neighbourhood to transform my previous playful pathways into inescapable dead ends.
I continued missing at least one day of school per week while holding onto my job in the cafeteria in exchange for food. I left empty space on test papers where answers should have been written. My schoolbooks stayed unopened. In class discussions I was happy to tell stories and amaze the teacher and students with the delightful possibilities of the English language: “The smartest scientists have figured out a way to stop pain and suffering by igniting the atmosphere and burning away our precious oxygen. Take a deep breath while you can. The story is told in either Time Magazine or Aquaman comic books, or in The Wall Street Journal, but you won’t find it in your textbooks.”
The hottest days in 1963 reached past 100 degrees, melting the playground’s poisonous blacktop, and Santa Ana winds blew dust and soot for us to choke on as the humidity dropped to zero. Students huddled in whatever shade was available. On the playground I continued my storytelling, fed by my reading hundreds of comic books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, as well as street/freeway signage, and publicly posted notices. I told my friends that I watched four hours of television daily and two feature films a week. I said the atomic age imposed an existential time limit on everything. I warned them that we might not be able to complete our studies before mushroom clouds erased us from the surface of the earth.
“You’re just making it all up. There’s no such thing as total annihilation.” Mechikoff was full of opinions. “Medina, Caine, Baroux, Martinez, and Andersson died because they wanted to go to heaven; radiation didn’t kill them. Perez, Chin, and Saltikoff are in jail because they are stupid, not because of poverty.” She had grown taller than the others and was already looking like a teenager. “I’m going to be a rich doctor and I’ll operate on your brain when we grow up.”
Thrush, Wilson, and Kilgallen laughed out loud.
“Besides, we’ll all be moving to Orange County next to Disneyland. Fuck this Mexican place,” Wilson said. Oss took offense and shoved him.
Graduation was coming soon for all of us regardless of our grades and credits, earned or unearned. We would all receive a printed onion-skin diploma marked with the school’s official golden seal and rubber-stamped with the California governor’s signature granting admission to Junior High School.
A week after graduation my mother woke up early and piled my entire collection of comic books, magazines, and notebooks, containing vocabulary lists, quotations, and reference information, onto a rusty Radio Flyer wagon and rolled it more than a mile to dump everything over the 6th Street Bridge into the dry concrete bed of the Los Angeles River. She was always walking and talking without regard to whoever might care to listen. She returned home in the early afternoon before I realized that my prized possessions were gone. “Don’t believe everything you read. You’re not smarter than everybody else.”
I was shocked, but not at all surprised by the negative sentiment or the vile act. I realized that I would never again tell her or my father any of my private thoughts or give them access to my personal property. I was glad to have a roof over my head, but this was not my home. The streets were more welcoming and I had no expectation that anything would ever change for the better. It was clear that I needed to figure out how to continue surviving. I didn’t read or talk to anyone that summer. I rode buses all day long, all over Los Angeles and sometimes across town to Santa Monica to look at the waves of the Pacific Ocean or to walk on the sandy beach. At the age of eleven I spent almost three months thinking about how to live, in case I faced actually living into and beyond my teen years.
When 7th Grade began at Stevenson Junior High I hadn’t come up with a suitable plan of action yet. In this new, unfamiliar setting all the seventh graders reported to the auditorium for orientation. Mr. Zedro, the Boy’s Vice-Principal, was very tall with an imposing voice and ominous presence. He gave a brief speech that would suffice for the coming three years.
“You are here to learn. Learn that rules cannot be broken. Learn that I will catch and punish you if you break the rules. Never be absent, never be late, never fight, never talk back, respect school property, this is an English-only school, so no Spanish, never think that you are beyond my reach. I have the right to punish students who make mistakes. I will hurt you if you do it on purpose. Welcome to Stevenson Junior High. We will turn you into decent citizens.”
All 7th graders were assigned gender-segregated homerooms. Mine was with Mr. Coursey in Room 19. I recognized a few boys and wasn’t too worried about being the shortest, skinniest kid in school. The mandatory Pledge of Allegiance was followed by roll call. Lacking any other plan, I decided that I would refer to every student I met by their initials, and not their first or surnames. I hadn’t realized that I would have to attend multiple classes in different buildings and classrooms. Only a few minutes were allotted to go from one place to the next, all in response to industrial bells ringing loudly in our ears. It took only a few weeks in the first semester for me to make friends, and to explore the limits of the school rules. It was no longer possible to climb fences or walk away from the campus. Policemen and detectives were often seen dragging away hapless boys or girls who had somehow been charged with serious crimes. Mr. Zedro proved to be sadistic in his punishments. He’d hit boys in the ribs with his fist wrapped in a black towel. Everyone feared him. I thought he looked comical, but I never laughed in front of a teacher or administrator.
I read the assigned textbooks to sample what might be needed for class discussion, but continued failing each test by deliberately writing down the wrong answers. I knew being smart was safer in private. I wouldn’t let teachers or administrators see my cognitive process. My homework was on time but I left most of the answers blank. I learned how to thread 16mm film and to operate a projector so I could be excused from classes whenever others had to view propaganda or educational films. The projector was on a rolling cart with cables, a large speaker, a clipboard, and film reels, making it heavy to push. A small lamp attached to the rear of the projector illuminated the dials. While everyone else watched the films, I read by its light whatever clippings I carried in my pockets or I studied the disposable word lists I gathered from conversations and TV or film viewing.
All the students at Stevenson Junior High were Mexican Americans who never spoke Spanish in public. Only a few words in Caló were uttered as teenage slang, but never within hearing range of the authority figures who were all white. Teachers were encouraged to unleash their own personal punitive actions against students whenever they pleased. Mr. Plang, the music teacher, hit students with a long wooden board. Mr. Taylor, the math teacher, used his fists. Mr. Petrushkin, the Boy’s P.E. teacher, used any heavy object he could wield against unsuspecting victims during the communal showers of prepubescent and adolescent boys dodging water spray tinged with mercury and lead leached from the old plumbing.
“And where do you think you’re going?” Mr. Petrushkin grabbed me by my neck and started hitting my back with a metal and sand-filled baton. I fell to the shower floor naked, as numerous wet bare feet gathered around me. “Go on boys, kick him until he learns some respect.”
Lying there I recalled my maternal grandfather, Mariano, who had honed his survival skills growing up in Mexico City. He once told me I should laugh when it hurts and laugh even louder when I’m attacked, so as to deny my attackers the pleasure of seeing me cry. I laughed or giggled each time I was kicked. That made Mr. Petrushkin very angry and he swung the baton against my right clavicle, dislocating it permanently. I was delirious with pain but continued to laugh weakly, taking a good look at all the faces of the boys who joined in this orgy of violence until an older student dragged me away and leaned me against the gym lockers.
“You have to be careful, loco. Some of those guys are in gangs and the other putos are gonna be cops one day. Get dressed quick, before they get other ideas.”
“Thanks for helping me.”
“It’s my job, call me Él.”
I didn’t dry off, but quickly put on my pants, shirt, and shoes. The bell rang and I stumbled out of the gym in time to be counted as present in English class where the teacher, Miss Vovve, would have each student read aloud from whatever tattered book she’d brought to school that day. We passed the book from one student to the next until the bell rang.
“Why should I read the book if all of you can read it to me?” Miss Vovve said. She said the same thing every day.
I was about to be handed the book when the fire alarm shrieked. We followed directions and headed to the main assembly field next to the faculty parking lot where Mr. Petrushkin’s prized 1955 MG Magnette ZA automobile was enveloped in a raging fire and thick black smoke, with occasional electrical sparks. I was very happy. It took nearly an hour for the emergency fire units to arrive and extinguish the flames that had spread to a nearby storage shed. Mr. Petrushkin yelled at the police arriving in unmarked cars.
“Somebody torched my car and I’m going to kill them when I find out who.”
Él was in the crowd of joyous students, happy because classes had been cancelled for the day. He came over and showed me a burnt wooden match in the palm of his hand. “The other guys will get theirs, when the time comes.” He disappeared in the river of dispersing students.
I waited an hour in the projection equipment closet because I was hurting. My chest and arms were bruised. I felt my collar bones and realized that they were no longer symmetrical. I’d survived and I hoped the attack would be quickly forgotten by everyone. Back home, I turned on the television to watch the absurd antics of White Fang and Black Tooth on The Soupy Sales Show. I stayed silent that afternoon, and never told my parents or uncles that I’d been beaten. I didn’t need to. My protectors were out there, somewhere, waiting for me to join them.
Stevenson Junior High taught many lessons in individualized and group oppression. I was pushed ahead, each grade, without having earned a single credit. On graduation day, the principal, Mr. Lovejoy, made a pointless speech while the teachers looked away without interest. The students were elated. I was fortunate to have found my people, friends who made every day into a seemingly endless game of intellectualization and creativity. We taught each other quick-witted backtalk while acquiring advanced musical skills. Instead of doing schoolwork we exchanged reading lists, including Buckminster Fuller, Octavio Paz, Marshall McLuhan, Aldous Huxley, Paul Goodman, and Eric Hoffer. We called our informal, self-affirming group, Jetters. Jetters danced, laughed, kissed, and fussed with our appearance and public personae. We were unlike other students who followed orders unquestioningly or those who blatantly broke laws through violence and cruelty.
The summer months of 1966 taught me more via news clippings about the United Farm Workers of America, the disappearance of a Lockheed U-2 spy plane over Cuba, and other events. “Freak Out!”, an album by The Mothers of Invention, was played in its entirety on L.A. radio. I grew several inches taller and picked up the habit of smoking Parliament cigarettes. The methodology of self-learning was revealing major gaps in my ability to conceptualize a coherent understanding of what the disparate bits of information that I had been busily acquiring for nearly a decade actually meant in terms of moving me forward to a broader consciousness. I was beginning to understand that my insistence on rejecting public school was a clever road to nowhere, a high-wire act with no safety net.
When that summer ended, high school would begin. I had been walking around aimlessly when I came across several Jetters dancing in the parking lot behind Modern Foods on Spence Street. A portable radio played “96 Tears,” by ? And the Mysterians. I was glad to see them and said so: “The filters on those cigarettes have asbestos. Keep smoking and you won’t have enough lung power to blow out the fifteen candles on your next birthday cake.”
Mechickoff was a dear friend and I knew she would soon be going away to a school in a different state. She was dancing solo. “It’s O.K.,” she told me. “One lung inhales and the other one exhales, so breathe easy.”
Most of the Jetters were going to Theodore Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, where it would be a short walk to their homes and familiar hangouts. I chose the rival high school, located more than three miles away in unincorporated East Los Angeles. It was close to Whittier boulevard, where there seemed to be more places to have fun and a higher density of people. On my budget I could either walk to school and buy lunch, returning home by bus, or I could take the bus both ways and not eat, during the coming ninety weeks of school.
“Don’t be a traitor to Boyle Heights.” Mechikoff looked lovely when she yelled at me. She kissed me on the cheek and skipped away with the others, laughing until they were no longer in view.
“Get off of my property or I’ll shoot.” The store manager pointed his gun in my direction. “Tell your friends, no dancing on the lot.” I backed away slowly. He had wounded or killed other teens in recent years. “Fuck your people, always dancing, always having fun.” I could see he was getting agitated and I ran just as he fired the first shot. The bullet ricocheted off a metal Wrong Way sign. He fired twice more without hitting anything. I continued running nearly half a mile, laughing in an exhilarated giggle, knowing I’d escaped death and because my cheek was still warm from Mechikoff’s kiss. That day was my real graduation, preparing me for the final chapter of my public education.
The Fall of 1966 was cool with smog-filled days. While waiting for the first bell to ring at James A. Garfield High School, I was reading a paperback of Messiah, by Gore Vidal, a brilliant novel about a cult of personality that leads to the unquestioning acceptance of death by a worldwide following of devotees. The novelist seemed to get what I had witnessed since early childhood and had read in comic books, theoretical texts, and analytical magazine articles, suggesting that individuals and groups could be guided to their own doom without resistance. I saw that the conformity depicted in the novel was mirrored in the several thousand students gathered in groups on different spots in front of the school on 6th Street. Each separate group indicated their distinct bonds by differing fashion styles. Most students preferred to be anonymous and simply disappeared into the background. The sexiest girls dressed in black and the alpha males wore their hair with exaggerated pompadours. The many musicians carried their instruments in fabric-covered hard cases. Athletes wore sweatshirts bearing the school mascot bulldog image. Boys who had signed up for the military dressed in their R.O.T.C. uniforms. A few loners stood apart, carrying paperback books or well-thumbed magazines. The bell rang at 7:45 a.m. and all the students entered campus through the main gate. Regardless of their street affiliations, all the new 10th Graders were told to assemble in the dimly lit auditorium.
Onstage, R.O.T.C students with wooden rifles were joined by armed Los Angeles County deputy sheriffs. We stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and the flag salute. The new principal mounted the low riser and spoke softly but sternly into an oversized silver microphone. “My name is Colonel Murphy of the U.S. Air Force Reserves but make no mistake, I am your principal. My speech is dedicated to the small percentage of students who will actually graduate. Garfield High School has the highest dropout rate in the country and it certainly is not the fault of the teachers, administrators, or the school system. It is the fault of your fathers and mothers who have raised most of you to be lazy and dumb. I need winners. Many of you will go to jail or get pregnant. Almost no one will go to college. That is just the way things are. None of you should expect special treatment. This is America and anyone who wants to make it will have to work their way to the top. The rest will live the way all poor and uneducated people do, in misery without hope for a better future. And boys, if you want to have a chance in this country, you can join the U.S. Marine Corps when you reach age 17. Military enlistment forms will be handed out during the homeroom period. We need your loyalty to win the war in Vietnam.”
He was a hollowed-out version of a human being, unqualified to talk to young people. I was certain everyone knew they were being insulted beyond anything acceptable. Because I didn’t care if I’d be alive beyond the next few minutes I yelled from the rear of the balcony. “Fuck you, fascist. Peace.”
It took a couple of minutes for the houselights to go on. The Sherrif’s deputies waved their black batons, scanning the rows of seats while the R.O.T.C students yelled commands, demanding that we point out the individual who had put a stop to the principal’s verbal abuse. Quite a few had seen me do it, but they maintained the code of silence that was the inviolable rule of East L.A. The principal walked off stage and wasn’t seen again for the rest of the year.
Teachers were ordered to report students who might express the slightest hint of rebellion. Students were warned of severe in-school consequences, enforced by the three Boy’s Vice-Principals and four Girl’s Vice-Principals, which could lead to further actions under California’s juvenile justice system, selective service, and the U.S. Border Patrol. Six counselors were in charge of interrogating suspected sexual deviants and anyone who violated the dress code. All gates were locked during the school day and use of the limited restroom facilities required a teacher’s approval. Students would be strip-searched in the nurse’s office should they exhibit any hint of intoxication or unexplained happiness.
I decided I would attend school but never submit any completed assignments. I took the required tests but made sure to misspell nearly every word while providing nonsensical answers to most test questions. I was courteous and often volunteered to erase the chalkboard to please my teachers. In 10th grade I met and spoke to nearly every student during the lunch breaks or while walking home from school. I sometimes shared my forbidden reading materials with a small cadre of like-minded students willing to openly confront the shit being thrown at us.
We called ourselves Chicano, and emerged to disrupt the status quo by creating a movement coordinated with intellectuals and activists throughout the Southwest, many with organizing experience dating back to the 1940s. I was introduced to a wide range of theoretical writings, novels, and experimental works that influenced me to consider the possibility of writing my own account of things. The Chicano Movement brought dynamic mentors who taught me public speaking, agitprop performance, and how to get mass media attention for our words and actions.
In 1968 the East L.A. High School walkouts, involving nearly ten thousand mostly Chicana/o students, shut down Garfield, Roosevelt, Lincoln, Wilson, and Belmont high schools for more than a week. It unleashed the political strength of millions of Mexican Americans. As one of the student activists, I suddenly encountered mass media and the necessity of public speaking where my image and words of Chicano liberation would be presented and misrepresented on English and Spanish language television news programs. Activist publications such as Chicano Student News and La Raza embraced Caló as the ephemeral collective voice of Chicanos, but beyond that it was rarely heard. In the struggle to assert our presence as Americans in a country that exhibited great antipathy toward us, we used any language we could. Federal police and COINTELPRO surveillance programs were brought in to subdue our political activism. Local police became more violent. Chicana/os began protesting broader discrimination in the schools, workplace, and the judicial system. We protested the Vietnam War in which Chicanos were drafted and dying at a highly disproportionate rate.
Busy living in the world, I missed my entire 11th Grade year and most of my 12th. In 1969 I was apprehended by truancy officers at Atlantic Park, near the Garfield High campus. They took me to the Boy’s Vice-Principal, Mr. Luskin.
“It says here you’ve been absent nearly seven-hundred days since you started kindergarten, and that you haven’t earned a single credit throughout all your years of public school. Your GPA is 0.0, and I’m still not sure if my eyes are deceiving me. We know you’ve been led astray by radicals and hoodlums. It won’t hurt to give you a break and allow you to graduate with the rest of your cohort. Just sign here,” said Mr. Luskin.
The typed agreement said I would attend school and not engage in any political agitation on or off campus until the end of term. In exchange, I would be given phantom credits to bring me to lowest acceptable graduating score of 1.1 GPA, and my Los Angeles Unified School District cumulative files would be sealed. I scribbled my signature, “Él,” and was released from custody.
The graduation ceremony took place a few weeks later. I was 17 years old, with a high school diploma in hand. Other graduates, already 18, were taken as draftees to military boot camp. Some looked like adults while many behaved like young children. Intermixing English, Spanish, and Caló in our congratulatory conversations, we found the words for hope and community, facing the future/void. I walked away from the campus as another atomic-orange twilight set in.