From Mr. Gene to Tata - Chapter 1

The life and times, of a blue collar Chicano, in southern California

By John Edward Rangel
Published on LatinoLA: May 1, 2012

From Mr. Gene to Tata - Chapter 1

Author's note: Much is being written this week on the 20th anniversary of the last riots to tear through The City of Angels. My grandfather, Eugene Rangel, lived in Los Angeles during the Zoot Suit riots, the Watts riots, the ELA riots and the Rodney King riots. Upon his passing some years ago I sat down and wrote a manuscript chronicling his life's experiences. It's not a book about riots. It's a book about a man who loved his city. Like one of his favorite meals, menudo, I'll dish it out a spoonful/chapter at a time.

"The Dodgers lost again last night," said the grandson to his grandfather.

"Again!" Eugene Rangel answered in disbelief. "That's four in a row. Those bums."

"It looks like they're done for the season. They're seven games behind the Diamondbacks with eight left to play." His grandson pointed out amid the sound of crinkling newspaper.

"Yeah, I guess that's it for those bums this year," came Eugene's reply. "Just like last year. And the year before, and the year before that...and..."

When Eugene called the Los Angeles Dodgers, "those bums," he was continuing the use of a phrase that had originally been those 'Brooklyn Bums.' That was when he'd first started hearing it used to describe the underdogs versus their crosstown rivals, The New York Yankees. Eugene Rangel could honestly say that he'd been a Dodgers fan for a long, long time.

Being born the son of migrant farmworkers could be considered by some a liability. An obstacle to upward mobility and success one might say. But for a nine year old boy from Reedly, California in 1920's America, all it meant was that there was no shortage of open fields and other kids with whom to play 'un juego de beisbol.'

The baseball season heralds the arrival of spring. When the land is warming up after winter. It is a time of fresh growth and new beginnings. If one were to follow Socratic logic one might say that; "If baseball is spring, and spring is hope. Then baseball is hope."

On the day that my grandfather found out that the O'Malley family, the long-time owners of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers had sold the team to Rupert Murdoch's megalithic FOX empire, a rare frown shadowed his normally jovial face. The O'Malley's were a family run business whose business was the Dodgers and not much else. Baseball was their bread and butter. That was how Eugene Rangel saw the O'Malley family. Now his team had become the Hollywood Dollars. Just another tax write off for a filthy rich, entertainment mogul.

Eugene, like many a diehard Dodgers fan, silently lamented the transition that followed the passing of ownership. Questionable acquisitions and releases left the team slipping deeper into mediocrity. Throughout their nosedive, my grandfather never stopped cheering for the players and coaches on the field and in the dugout. The astronomical sums of money made by todays players never altered his way of thinking. The players would always be the workers and the owner the boss. And as a card carrying member of the local Moulders union, he was firmly rooted on the side of the working man.

Eugene Rangel worked hard all his life. Beginning in 1928 when at the age of ten, he dropped out of school in order to help his family pick crops under the solar fury that is the growing seaon in Southern California's Imperial Valley. Carrying watermelons in 100 degree heat had replaced textbooks.

At the age of eighteen he wanted to marry his sweetheart, sixteen year old Rebecca Cota. The young girl's father, Julio Cota, strongly disapproved of the marriage. In his eyes, Eugene Rangel had nothing to offer his daughter Rebecca. But Eugene knew otherwise. He was a working man. A hard, working man with a caring, closeknit family behind him to show him the way. Which they did. Sometimes as much by their failures as by their successes.

Eugene and Rebecca were married in 1936. The nation and world were still in the throes of the 'Great Depression' that had followed the Wall Street crash of 1929. Jobs were pitifully scarce in those days and the jobs that did exist didn't pay much. Rebecca once recalled to her grandson about the time during the depression when her and grandpa lived "In a shack in the valley," as she put it. And about how one day they were so poor they didn't have salt to add to their pot of pinto beans.

Several years after his beloved Rebecca had passed away in 1993, when asked about the time of 'beans with no salt' in their marriage. My grandpa would vehemently deny that such a time ever existed in their lives

"We were never that poor," he'd stubbornly insist. Some might say that his pride kept him from admitting the truth. Family members would like to think that the love he felt for my grandmother prevented him from saying that there was ever a time in his life when he, Eugenio Rangel, could not provide salt for his wife's beans!

The facts may never be known about the day of salt challenged beans in the Rangel house during the great depression but truth be told, decades later it would have been a rare day indeed. For on any given moment, 'Grandma's Kitchen' would be filled to capacity with food items.

There were numerous containers, that to inquisitive, four year-old eyes, appeared the size of fifty-five gallon drums. They were always filled with such kitchen staples as rice, flour, sugar and the ubiquitous pinto beans. My grandma's kitchen held enough supplies to withstand a siege of Troy-like duration. Or maybe a great depression.

The metal or plastic canisters were always up in a wall cupboard somewhere. Out of sight but within reasonably easy reach. On top of the kitchen table, in plain sight, were the joy and sorrow of a child's diet - cookies and fruit. Cookies were the joy because when you managed to snag one off the table you exclaimed, "All right!" milliseconds before plunging the sugar laden, chocolate chip encrusted or frosting slathered treat into your mouth. Sorrow was the fruit because you uttered "Oh shit!" when grandma saw you reaching for a cookie and stopped you dead in your tracks with her voice. Which we all knew was backed up by the feared 'Chancla.'

"You've had enough cookies. Eat some fruit!" Every Rangel grandchild knew that to question that statement was unthinkable. And so off we'd slink, with a tangerine or peach held loosely in hand. Only to half eat it before launching it at some hapless sparrow atop a power line.

Last but not least were the lower kitchen cabinets or floor cabinets. Bursting with brightly colored cans of Chef Boyardee spaghetti o's, Van Kamps pork n beans, Starkist tuna and Cambell's soups.

In the Rangel house there was always enough food to feed not only its occupants but any friend, relative or both who might drop by. And they always did. Every once in awhile my grandparents would get into an argument about food. Usually after he'd entered the kitchen and saw greying bananas rapidly blackening alongside mushy apples. At other times there might be three loaves of Wonder bread, each half empty or half full, in its long plastic sleeve and twist tie.

Eugene always insisted that three half full sleeves of bread was too much while Rebecca would just as stubbornly maintain that three half empty sleeves couldn't possibly sustain the household for very long. Especially if one was well on its way to becoming penicillin.

Invariably though, Eugene Rangel would allow his wife, Rebecca Cota Rangel to buy more food than they could ever eat. Maybe it was because one night, during the great depression, there was no salt for the beans in the Rangel house.

"Coffee's ready, gotta go...!!!"

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