Pocas Pero Locas, Episode 2: Chicken Soup for the Homies’ Soul
This series is published in weekly installments and you are about to begin EPISODE II.
Read “EPISODE I: OF BACKPACKS AND BACKBONES,” here.
In the summer of 1990, my 14-year-old prima traveled from city to country. Desiree took the same method of transportation my grandma Arcelia used to get from México to us, the bus, and by the time my cousin clambered aboard that northbound coach, a new family had secretly claimed her. Half a dozen East Los Angeles homegirls had jumped her into “the neighborhood” and she’d made their acquaintance after running away from home, a remedy she tried more than once. The evening after her initial escape, she slept outdoors, taking refuge in Whittier’s Michigan Park.
A public playground shouldn’t be safer than home, and my prima was 11 the first time she split. Some artists and writers romanticize child runaways but being one isn’t cute. It’s a shame but NONE of the vergüenza belongs to the runaway. It belongs to every institution, public and private, that failed to ensure the runaway’s welfare and when circumstances force any human being to sleep on chilly cement, the vergüenza belongs to the society that put them there. Catholic activist Dorothy Day said that a “true atheist is…one who denies God’s image in the ‘least of these,'” and if we’re all Christ, how the fuck do we tolerate God sleeping among stray dogs? To ignore suffering is violently unchristian and unchristian Christians run this country.
Once Desiree initiated the cycle of escaping from home, another cycle began. The homies didn’t leave her outdoors. They did a Christian thing, taking Desiree in and caring for her. They gave my prima secure places to kick back and rest, couches and beds where no abuser’s creepy hand could reach her, havens where her body remained as it always should’ve: hers. They fixed enough caldo de pollo for her stomach to quit growling and such generosity is why they’re called homies.
A homie embodies home. A homie protects and comforts, and various individuals, a hood mom included, stepped in as Desiree’s providers. Whenever she ran away from home, homies materialized, accepting her into their stigmatized world and showing my cousin that she was worth sheltering and nurturing. They made her feel like a beloved sister and brought generosity to the word m’ija. The homies performed their affection without question or condition and I don’t care if people accuse me of writing pro-gang propaganda: I honor what “the neighborhood” did for Desiree. They put a much-needed virtue on an angry and freaked out little girl and a pinch of dignity is heaven to those of us who’re starved for it. Like comedian Rodney Dangerfield used to yell, “Boy, that’s the story of my life! No respect! I get no respect!”
When I watched Dangerfield perform his routine on my parents’ TV, I thought his schtick applied more to kids like us than to grown men like him. Dangerfield didn’t look like he was sleeping under playground slides. He also looked like he got plenty of chicken soup.
To prevent my cousin from running away again, Grandma had bars placed over her home’s windows and it was decided that Desiree would be exiled to Santa Maria. Not only would shipping her off mess up any plans my prima was making to return to East LA, there also existed the possibility that getting some fresh air in California’s BBQ capital could rehabilitate her. When the day to drop Desiree off at the bus depot came, smoke practically billowed from Becky’s tires. My aunt’s desperation communicated a painful message: Desiree, you’re a problem. But for now, you’re not OUR problem.
Staring out the bus window, my cousin rode along the 101, LA’s smog going from thick to gone. The San Fernando Valley switched from in front of her to behind her. The vehicle approached land unoccupied by millions of drivers suffering from road rage. In place of traffic and crowds and buildings rolled hills blanketed by buttercup oxalis. Hawks sailed, hunting for sleek rodents. Cows sniffed at clover. Nopales aimed thorns at barbed wire fences. Desiree was entering a part of California where food lives. Until it doesn’t.
As the bus lumbered north, the Pacific Ocean glittered to Desiree’s left. When she looked away from the salt water, to the east, her sad green eyes wandered a landscape that droughts often turned brown and crunchy and it didn’t matter whether or not it rained. Farmers still planted crops within view of the coastal freeway. Strawberries went this way. Lettuce went that way. Celery. Sugar beets. Onions. Broccoli. Broccoli’s cousin, cauliflower. Vineyards. Dilapidated barns. Owls. Roadkill.
The Greyhound passed Camarillo State Mental Hospital, a facility rumored to be the subject of a song Dad sometimes sang to himself: “Plenty of room at the Hotel California…” Another icon the bus chugged past was Santa Claus Lane, a small collection of Carpinteria businesses that peddled Christmas year-round. The tourist trap featured a 20-foot-tall plaster Santa poking out of a candy shop chimney. Nearby, Frosty the Snowman smoked his pipe and smiled.
After Santa Barbara came the Gaviota Tunnel, a place made famous by a scene in The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman speeds through it in an Alfa Romeo. Upon exiting the pass, the bus heaved toward Solvang, another tourist trap that took the shape of a misplaced Danish village. There, wine-drunk visitors wasted money on clogs and horned helmets as decorative windmills blew. Following fake Scandinavia was Michael Jackson’s estate, Neverland Ranch, a locale where child actor Macaulay Culkin frolicked.
I accompanied Dad to the tiny bus depot in Santa Maria where we sat in his Aerostar van, waiting to welcome my cousin. The Greyhound station operated across the street from the McDonald’s where I spoke my first word, French fry. In addition to that milestone, violence had also happened at the fast-food restaurant. One of Dad’s former fifth grade students had grown up to become a cholo and a rival cholo stuck a knife in him by the parking lot dumpster and whenever the crime scene came into view, as it did the Saturday that we pulled up to collect my prima, Dad could be relied upon to announce, “That’s where Alberto got stabbed!”
“That’s where Alberto got stabbed!” he announced. I nodded, hoping that before we returned home with my prima, we could stop at a nearby panadería for puerquitos. I liked dunking the pig-shaped cookies in milk, watching the drink engulf their molasses snouts which then softened, broke, and sank to the bottom of the glass.
Tijuana Donkey Show
Distance from East Los Angeles was supposed to set Desiree straight. It didn’t. Instead, she turned me into her substitute homie. And I was happy to oblige.
“You were a sister to me,” Desiree says. “I didn’t tell you about the abuse I was going through with the other cousins because I was ashamed. I did connect with you though. I trusted you. That’s why I started to teach you things about gangs. I had already been jumped in but I was afraid to tell you. I was afraid you would rat me out to my mom.”
I assure her, “If you had invited me to join ‘the neighborhood’ with you, I would’ve.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” Desiree replies. “I’m glad you became who you did instead of my cellmate.”
It didn’t take long for me to notice that Desiree avoided small talk and glared at most strangers. If she’d been a skinny white bitch, her aloofness would’ve earned her a sweet label: shy. Since she had a “womanly” figure and groomed and dressed herself chola style — hair teased into a peacock fan framing her face, eyebrows plucked to oblivion and replaced by sharp apostrophes, lips accentuated by dark eyeliner, a white t-shirt against which rosaries and scapulars popped, baggy khakis ironed with aggressive creases, and white Nike Cortez – people accused my cousin of being rude. Stand-offish. Intimidating.
Desiree’s “rudeness,” which was really just discomfort around people who had yet to earn her trust, didn’t bug me. I respected her and so I never told my cousin she’d look better if she smiled. That advice was untrue anyways. Supermodels didn’t smile, they got paid millions not to, and I hated when grow-ups told me what to do with my face. It especially frustrated me when Mom told me that I looked as if I had too much on my mind. Kids have a right to wear hard expressions when they’re going through it and I related to Desiree’s hypervigilance, distrust, and temper. I felt a similar way.
Like Desiree, I was being subjected to bad touch. Unlike her, mine didn’t happen at the babysitter’s. Mine happened at school. At my junior high school campus, a small cohort of determined boys hurt me on a regular basis and I didn’t report them. Adults knew what was up. When my history teacher witnessed my classmate attempting to finger me beneath our shared table, I looked at him in hope and horror. Maintaining eye contact with my teacher, I held my breath, waiting for him to put an end to the sexual abuse. Instead of rescuing me, my teacher blushed and looked away.
That adults couldn’t be depended on to protect my pre-teen pussy was the realest lesson I took from 7th grade history. That’s the only thing my history teacher taught me.
Other teachers reinscribed his lesson. “You have no excuse to look so sour! NONE,” one barked at me when I didn’t act sufficiently carefree at the school picnic. What was he expecting? Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music? Clearly, no one was making it a habit of grabbing his genitals while asking him if he’d ever given a blowjob to a donkey in Tijuana. That was the kind of shit my tormentors accused me of after they insisted I tell them where my family was from and when I came home and asked Mom about the stuff my classmates said Mexican girls did with animals, she smacked me.
Desiree showed me that my shame, rage, and unhappiness were unexceptional and shared by many. She seethed too and she schooled me in wearing a mask, mentoring me through direct and indirect lessons. Shut away in my bedroom, she spent hours instructing me in hood penmanship, making me practice in a sketchpad until I mastered the elaborate block-lettering she used to inscribe keepsakes. Sitting cross-legged on the nail polish remover-stained carpet, I listened to her tell stories about girls and boys and women and men who befriended her in East LA, homies she sometimes went joyriding in a stolen station wagon with. When she learned that bullies were taunting me for the queerness I couldn’t camouflage, she comforted me, describing to me a butch homegirl who hooked up only with the finest bitches and whom “the neighborhood” honored with masculine respect. Desiree also explained that it was a homegirl’s duty to pen pal with incarcerated cholos and advised me to find a homie to correspond with.
“Can I write to you?” I asked.
She opened her purse and pulled forth glossy pictures of homies whose government names I never learned. She introduced them according to their hood names. Bandit. Sad Girl. Payasa. Guys and girls wore rosaries, sometimes several. This fashion choice made sense. Given how toxic the world was, we couldn’t wrap ourselves in enough superstition.
One afternoon, I playfully but earnestly suggested, “We should make our own gang!”
Desiree looked excited. “What should we call it?”
“Pocas pero locas!”
We cracked up and spent an hour practicing throwing PPL with our fingers. Then, I sprinted to the bathroom and locked the door. I reached into Desiree’s makeup bag and pulled out her war paint. Face to face with myself, I mimicked the steps she’d modeled, outlining my eyes and coloring my lips. I plugged in the curling iron, waited, and then wound my bangs around its hot metal. After freeing the curl, I grabbed a hairbrush and ratted it. Next, I aimed a can of Aqua Net hairspray at my head and pushed its valve. Aerosol hissed and shellack coated my work, freezing the claw into place. I knew that my mother would hate the new me reflected by the streak-free mirror. I hoped that my prima would love it. I looked like DJ, Desiree Junior. When I leapt back into my bedroom, grinning, Desiree shrieked at the surprise. “You look MAHVELOUS!” she declared, and she handed Yasmin her camera, ordering my sister to document my rebirth.
“They Weren’t Trying to Kill Me”
The only beating Desiree ever looked forward to happened on the back patio of a small apartment located “off of McBride and Whittier.” This beating had already occurred by the time Aunt Becky sent Desiree to the countryside. Homegirls from “the neighborhood” had noted the fire and fight in my cousin and so, they moved to claim her, wanting to officially integrate her into their social fabric, and her clandestine initiation explains why she was so knowledgeable about the traditions, practices, and etiquette of gang life.
“I was in it,” says Desiree, “but I wasn’t ready to tell you just yet. I was ready to keep it a secret. I knew how to keep secrets.”
Desiree didn’t ask to be jumped in. The homegirls came to her. They understood that she was down and they first brought up talk of her becoming one of them as they sat in an apartment, listening to oldies and drinking beer. A homie mentioned that she should “get into the neighborhood” and the suggestion touched Desiree. It meant that a small local army would forever have her back.
“Wow,” Desiree thought to herself. “They really want me!”
She waited for others to suggest that she become one of them, wanting the consensus to grow, and as more people expressed their desire for her to become a part of “the neighborhood,” the more wanted she felt. Finally, an older homegirl, a hood mom whom Desiree considered her mentor, announced, “I’m jumping you in.”
The statement wasn’t an invitation. Instead, the hood mom was articulating a claim and her maternal stake demonstrates what so many people get wrong about the slippery fetish we call identity. It doesn’t matter who you fucking claim. If they don’t claim you back, then you ain’t it and you ain’t shit.
Desiree understood this dynamic. “I was like cool. Alright. That was all I needed to hear.”
On the evening of her entry into “the neighborhood,” Desiree braided her long brown hair. She dressed comfortably, in a t-shirt, sweats and tennis shoes. One, two, three, four, five, six homegirls stood ready. Most came in jeans. One wore in shorts. Desiree and another excited initiate waited on the dim patio from which there was no easy exit, and a homegirl called out, “Alright, who wants to go first?”
“I do!” Desiree volunteered.
Plywood sectioned the space off from an alley. Benches provided seating. There wasn’t much room but there was enough to perform two critical activities: fight and dance. After Desiree offered herself, the six homegirls attacked her.
“They weren’t trying to kill me,” says Desiree. “The point was to see how well I could fight. And I gave them a good fight. The homeboys were cheering, saying stuff like, ‘That’s right! That’s right, homegirl!”
After the violence, her attackers embraced her. Each girl kissed Desiree, welcoming her. That was why she had so looked forward to the beating. She knew that the homies would pair the fight with affection. A homeboy handed her a beer and they had “a good time that night.” Desiree brought me more than a taste of this reality. She became my teacher and protector. The person I most cherished was a full-fledged gangster and as her fellow loca, I was prepared to obey any instructions she gave.
This series is published in weekly installments and you have finished EPISODE II.
Read “EPISODE I: OF BACKPACKS AND BACKBONES,” here.