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Leaving Boyle Heights

While I knew that I would miss my family and friends, I also knew that this was my beginning, not my ending

By Robert G. Retana
Published on LatinoLA: July 10, 2012


Leaving Boyle Heights


Boyle Heights, where I grew up, lies on the east bank of the Los Angeles River, next to Downtown Los Angeles. The East Los Angeles Interchange is located there, connecting drivers to seven major freeways. Though countless numbers of people drive through Boyle Heights every day, it is mostly known to outsiders for its older buildings defaced by gang graffiti. Unfortunately, the richness of Latino culture is often overshadowed by gang violence; and, the dignity of hard working people who clean houses and bus tables is eclipsed by headlines denouncing illegal immigration. In the mix of it all are just regular folks trying to make a living, raise their kids and live an honest life.

However, not all gang members are as bad as you might think. "Cholos have respect," my cholo neighbor Manuel -- known as "Güero" -- once told me as he sipped the last few drops of his forty ounce. He had spent much of his adult life in a penitentiary, yet he could still engage me in polite conversation. Over the years, the tattoos on his arms had become a sleeve covering every inch of both arms -- further evidence of his many incarcerations. His short brown hair, which he was constantly combing back, was starting to go grey at the temples. His eyes were usually hidden behind dark black sunglasses which were part of his uniform that also included a starched white t-shirt, a Pendleton shirt, khakis and black Hush Puppies.

"These young vatos nowadays don't know how to act. They don't even know how to fight fair. All they know is pulling out a gun and firing at whoever they don't like. They don't care who they kill. When I was growing up we respected our barrio and didn't shoot people without a good reason."

"Yeah, it's crazy out here," I said.

"Man, keep studying, because when you are a lawyer, you can defend us," he would always say. My mother had apparently told the neighbors I wanted to become a lawyer. "You know that L.A.P.D. cops are some ruthless mother fuckers."

"I know," I responded, even though I really didn't know how bad it could be and hoped to never find out.

"Stay in school," he would tell me, "so you don't wind up like me and my brothers." His four younger brothers were all gang members and had followed in his foot steps. They did not have much of a choice, coming home every day to a group of Manuel's cholo friends -- members of the Varrio Nuevo Estrada gang ("V.N.E.") -- sitting in front of their house, drinking and carrying on. Sooner or later, his brothers would be initiated into the gang and lead the same life.

"O.K., Manuel. I will. Stay cool. Your mom is happy you're home. So try to stick around for a while." But within a few weeks, he would always be gone again. The need for drugs would always lead him back to prison. The last I heard, he was sent back to prison on a parole violation. Yet, I will always remember his words of encouragement. Even if he had given up on himself, he still believed it was possible for someone like me to beat the odds.

My best friend Carmen's apartment, where she lived with her mother and brother, was about a twenty minute walk from my house. One Saturday night, right before I was about to leave for college, I walked there, down Eighth Street, past the Wyvernwood Apartments and the Estrada Courts Housing Projects, to Lorena Street. From this side of the projects you could not see the beautiful murals that had been painted onto the walls of the projects' buildings. The Estrada Courts projects were originally constructed in the early 1940's. Starting sometime in the 1970's, local artists began to paint murals on the walls reflecting Chicano culture, including Aztec images, United Farm Workers' symbols, and a portrait of Ché Guevara next to the words "We are not a minority!!"

I always loved those murals, especially the one of the Virgin of Guadalupe. They were powerful symbols and a source of pride for the community. But, it still made me nervous to walk through those projects, never knowing if someone might approach me, looking for trouble. "Where you from?" is the question cholos ask when they want to know if you are from a rival gang. In V.N.E. territory, saying you were from "White Fence" could get you killed, or at least beat up badly. Luckily, because I did not dress like a cholo, I was not usually asked that when I walked through there on warm days toward the Costello Park pool.

Someday soon, it will just be a memory, I thought to myself. Since Carmen and I both recently graduated from Roosevelt High School, and were just about to leave for college, someday soon was right around the corner. It was 1980, and we were ready to move on.

"Baby!" she exclaimed, as she opened the front door of her apartment.

"What's up?" I responded.

"Let me just put on my lipstick and I will be ready to go," she replied. "Hey, did you hear about Tomás?"

"No, what happened?"

"He died last week."

"What?"

"Yes, he died, believe it or not," she said.

Tomás was the local car thief. He grew up in the neighborhood, but by the time he was a teenager, he was known for stealing cars, and especially for stealing and selling car stereos. It was said he could break into any car in under a minute. He would sell the stereos cheap and buy drugs.

"He was at his mother's house, sitting in a chair, when he just fell over onto the floor," Carmen said as she applied lipstick. "The ambulance came and took him to General Hospital. They had to wait for over an hour before they finally saw a doctor because of all the people waiting. The doctor told his mom that his heart finally gave out after taking so many drugs."

"No way," I said.

"Yeah, maybe it will be in the paper."

"Come on," I responded. "You know they do not write about us in the paper -- much less about a drug addict in Boyle Heights who keels over."

"Yeah, you're right," Carmen said. "It won't even make it into La Opinión!" We both laughed for a minute, until we realized it was not funny on so many levels.

"His mother is devastated. She wants to go back to Mexico now that her only son is gone," Carmen said. "She came here to give him a better life and all he did was give her problems. You know she always took care of him even when he would steal from her. Maybe if she had kicked him out as soon as he started using, he would have straightened out. Who knows? I guess she did not want him to live on the streets."

"It's hard to say," I responded. "All I know is that poor lady wakes up at dawn every day to catch the bus and go clean other people's houses. She deserves better than that."

I remember I would often see Tomás on the street, looking strung out. First he smoked weed, then angel dust, then he snorted and free-based cocaine. God knows what else he did. All I know is the more expensive the drug, the more cars he had to break into. He asked me for money a few times, but he was never a jerk about it when I said no.

"Yeah, it's really sad. They said he just got saved at Victory Outreach, so hopefully he went to a better place," Carmen said wiping away a tear. "I don't know why I am crying, he was just some ladrón who couldn't keep it together. He's probably the one who stole my stereo."

"Don't worry," I said to her, "soon you will be at San Francisco State, and I will be in New York City. Let's just try to have a good time tonight and forget about all these problems. Better days are coming, mija."

"O.K.," she said. "Let's go." Her long black hair fell just below her waist, and the freckles on her face, which she hated, gave her so much character. She was always so alive and vibrant in a way that few people are -- always in the moment and unafraid of her emotions.

In her apartment building's parking lot, as we got inside her small, blue Datsun to head to a party, we heard a woman screaming. We looked at each other, and then looked around. We saw a woman being slapped and kicked by a man on the other side of the large parking lot. He was holding her in place by grabbing her hair and pulling her forward toward the ground, and then punching and kicking her, and finally throwing her down on the floor. We froze for a minute, not knowing what to do. Then, before we knew it, it was over. He went back inside, and she lay on the ground sobbing and trying to pull herself together.

Carmen went over to her, and I followed. She was about 30 years old, and very petite with short brown hair. Her face was swollen from the blows, and her make-up was running down her face. Her clothes were dirty from being thrown down onto the floor, and one of her sleeves was torn and coming off. We picked her up off the ground, and Carmen began to ask her if she was all right. She was crying and saying in Spanish that she was O.K. Just leave her alone, she kept saying. I did not know what to do, and would have walked away at that point. But Carmen continued talking to her and telling her to come inside with us so she could get cleaned up.

She finally agreed and we went back into Carmen's apartment. Bruises were starting to form on her arms and legs. She washed her face and kept saying it was her fault; that her husband works hard; and, she needs to learn how to keep him happy and not talk back to him.

Carmen wanted to call the cops, but the woman wouldn't do it and wanted to leave as soon as she heard the police mentioned. She was illegal and did not want the cops to get involved. Besides, she had kids at home, and she needed to get back to them. Her husband would be mad if she did not go home soon, she kept saying.

"He just beat the shit out of you, and now you are afraid he will be mad if you don't go back? You really need to get away from that asshole," Carmen told her in Spanish. "It doesn't matter if you don't have papers. The cops will still arrest him and you can get a restraining order."

"Asi es," the woman replied -- "that's the way it is." "When you are married, you will see how it is. Me and my kids are much better off here than in my country, even though my husband hits me sometimes." And, with that, she left.

"If that's the way it is," Carmen said, "then I am never getting married."

On the way to the party, we drove in silence for a while, both of us trying to digest what had just happened. Another reason to get out of this town, I thought, to try and find something better than here.

"If I were that woman," Carmen said, "I would find a gun and shoot that asshole."

"You just need to let off some steam," I told her, trying to make things better. But, I knew she meant it. "You did everything that a person could do to help her."

"I know. On top of everything else, now my mom doesn't want me to go to San Francisco," she said.

"What? But you already accepted the offer from San Francisco State."

"She wants me to stay in L.A., and can't understand why I don't want to marry Lucio."

"Lucio? Don't get me started . . ."

"I'm not going to marry him. ¡Ni loca! I'm not going to wind up watching him drink himself to death in front of the T.V. every night. But she thinks he is a good catch because he is part of the Teamsters Union. He makes good money and he does love me. But, I can't see it and I have told him that many times."

"Yeah, I thought you made it clear to him a while back," I said.

"I did. But my mom says men like that are hard to find."

"Yeah, they are hard to find when the rent is due!" We both laughed. "I'm sorry," I said. "I don't mean to laugh at your man."

"He's not my man. He just paid a lot of attention to me. When my mom had to stay overnight taking care of her boss's kids, he would come and check in on me, and bring me food. He really listened to me and it made me feel better. I remember being so afraid when I had to stay in the apartment at night with just my little brother. It was nice to have him around."

"Yeah, I hear you. But his motives were not that pure."

"I know. But he really did help me, no matter what he was really after. He was kind to me and my brother; and, I never did anything with him that I didn't want to do. Anyway, my mom said I should find a job and marry him. She doesn't understand what I will be doing in San Francisco alone, so far away from my family."

"She means well, but this is the best thing you could do," I said. "When you graduate you can come back, get a good job, and really help her. You know, people think I am crazy to go to New York. My supervisor told me I will only last a semester. He said Mexicans can't take the cold weather. All I know is in a week, I will be in New York City and won't be thinking about that measly job anymore."

"Yeah, really. Just ignore him. Pura envidia," Carmen said. "I told my mom not to worry. But I'm worried about her and my brother. I hope they will be all right." I saw her eyes water as she said this, and I knew how hard it would be for her to go. "She really depends on me."

When we arrived at the party, the disco music was blaring and the D.J. was already making the crowd move. "Take Your Time (Do It Right)" by the S.O.S. Band was playing. Carmen was dancing almost as soon as we got there, after running into some friends who pulled her onto the dance floor. I watched her for a bit, knowing that the music was helping her burn off the emotions brewing inside of her.

A sharply dressed dude walked by wearing a slick, black leather jacket, with several gold chains around his neck. He was handing out flyers with images of Donna Summer and Cerrone on them. They announced the next house party featuring the latest local D.J. who could make the music seamless. Most of these parties were in someone's house or backyard. Pay a few dollars and you were in. I took the flyer, but I knew this would be the last East L.A. house party for me.

Just then "Funky Town" came on by Lipps, Inc. The crowd was jumping to that song, and I could see Carmen looking my way and singing the words to me. I am really going to miss her, I thought. I knew she was thinking about moving on to the next phase of our lives as she danced. The thought of Roosevelt High School students competing with prep school graduates made us both a little scared, and we were trying to block out all of the negative energy that holds people back. It is easy to believe those who tell you that you are just not good enough.

So many people dream of coming to Los Angeles, and here we just wanted to get out. But it is not Boyle Heights that people dream of visiting. It's the sunny beaches and Hollywood Boulevard where people come wanting to be a star. It's Beverly Hills and the billboards on Sunset Boulevard that people come from all over the world to see.

The dreams in Boyle Heights are the small victories, like a better life than the one you had in the country you left behind, or the hope that your children will finish school and stay out of trouble. It is the quintessential American dream -- that one day your children will be better off than you -- that brings people to Boyle Heights. And, in our own way, we were the realization of those dreams, making a way out for ourselves, but never forgetting where we started.

We wound up that night at King Taco, on the corner of Soto Street and Brooklyn Avenue (now known as Cesar Chavez Avenue), before heading home. This is where Hillary Clinton would eat twenty-eight years later during her presidential campaign. We ordered our carne asada tacos and horchata, hoping they would absorb the alcohol from the party so our parents would not smell it on us when we got home.

"My father says I like to go out too much and I need to get serious if I am going to study at Columbia University," I told Carmen as we finished our tacos.

"I know. My mom tells me the same thing. But, hey, you have always taken care of business."

"I know he just wants me to do well. But, I've been working all summer to save money, and I need to go out on the weekends and have some fun."

"I know you will do well, mijo," Carmen said. "You've got it in you. Just don't get carried away and you will be fine. I can't believe that you are going to be 3,000 miles away!"

"I know. I can't believe it either. I've never been anywhere else but here, and now I am going to be all the way across the country."

Sitting there, watching the people go by, I saw an elderly woman selling roses. I watched a happy couple who were picking out a bouquet. I could also see mariachis walking home from playing music at the bars; and, a nicely dressed group of pretty girls, stopping off to eat on their way home from a club. A metal flake blue low-rider pulled up filled with about six cholas. Their thin eyebrows, heavy duty eyeliner and big eyelashes were meant to make them look like tough girls. But here, no one seemed impressed as they exited their Chevy Impala to place their order. They were just hungry, like the rest of us, and politely waited their turn in the long line.

I thought about the randomness of who makes it out of here. Some families have lived in Boyle Heights for generations. Carmen and I, and several other classmates, were getting ready to leave to go to college, and yet so many others remained behind. Many were caught up in the traps that can ruin one's life, or stayed because of social and cultural expectations. While I knew that I would miss my family and friends, I also knew that this was my beginning, not my ending.

Years later, though I had not lived in Boyle Heights for over twenty years, it would come back to me repeatedly in vivid dreams. In those dreams, I would be looking at houses in my old neighborhood. Those were the houses that I passed by when I walked to high school. Back then, they seemed bigger and nicer than where my family lived. I later dreamed that I bought one of those houses, and felt happy and at home living there.

My subconscious mind does not seem to remember the gangs, graffiti or any violence, just simple beginnings and hopefulness – that brief time in one's life when, despite all evidence to the contrary, anything seems possible.

About Robert G. Retana:
Robert Retana is a lawyer in San Francisco. He grew up in Boyle Heights and graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1980.




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