Continued from Chapter 1.
“Your parents tried to create a protective shield around you to keep you isolated from the trouble going on around you in this neighborhood.” Tío Marcos
By Richard Juarez
The door slammed behind me. She almost hit me with it, but I didn’t care. She wanted me out of the house, and I was glad to get out of there. She had been crying all day, just like yesterday and the day before, crying and yelling. It seemed like it went on and on nonstop since two cops and the Coke delivery guy showed up. The three of them gave me a long lecture in front of my parents. The Coke guy said he would not press charges, but the cops said it would be on my record anyway, in case I ever did anything like that again.
Even though I wasn’t actually arrested, my mother cried and yelled about me getting arrested, about robbing a delivery truck, about having a criminal record, about hanging out with hoodlum friends. It just wouldn’t stop. I tried to get away from it by staying in my room and closing the door, but she would open it. I went out to the end of the back yard, but it seemed like she just turned up the volume to make sure I heard her. It made me feel so bad to hear her crying, I felt like I was two inches tall. By the third day I was just so tired of it, I wanted it to stop.
I think she was tired of it too, so she kicked me out of the house and sent me up the street to Nana and Tata’s house to see her brother, my Tío Marcos. It felt like such a relief to get out of there. But now, I was on to my next encounter and whatever that would get me. Putting two and two together, I figured my mother and Tata had asked Tío Marcos to come down from L.A. to lecture me about getting into trouble. Who better than him?
As I walked toward the house I could see Tío Marcos in the front yard. I was actually looking forward to talking with him, just him and me. For a long time I’d wanted to ask what happened to him and Tío Juan. I was too young to know what was going on when they went away. My mother always refused to talk about it, and whenever I asked my father, he said, “Talk to your mother.” It was as if she had forbidden him to say anything. Tío Marcos and Tío Juan never talked to me about their past, although I had overheard bits and pieces of it when the adults talked among themselves, in Spanish. My parents were no doubt trying to keep me from knowing what my uncles had been involved in. But with all the secrecy and the time away, I figured they must have been in jail for something.
“Hi, Tío!” I called out as I approached the edge of the yard.
“Hey, Vincent, what’s going on, vato?”
“Oh, not much,” I said as I walked up the steps from the sidewalk and into the yard.
“Not much? What do you mean not much, man?” He pointed to the porch steps. “Go ahead and have a seat.” He sat down next to me on the top step. “My sister is mad at me and my brothers because of the trouble you’ve been getting into. My father is pretty angry too, at her, at us, and you. He’s frustrated seeing history being repeated over again with the next generation.”
I quickly turned to face him. “You guys don’t have nothin’ to do with what I’ been doing.”
“Oh, hell, they know that!” He turned and leaned his back against the wall of the house. “Your ma’s just pissed because her ‘pride and joy’ has been getting into trouble for, let’s see, getting arrested for stealing Cokes, getting into a big fight, doing graffiti, getting involved with the gang, and I don’t know what else. She and Tata think we’ve been a bad influence on you.”
I shook my head. “First of all, I don’t do graffiti! It’s that idiot, Pablito, one of my homies. He was in the car when they pulled the Cokes off a delivery truck. And we didn’t really get arrested. The driver didn’t press charges. I didn’t do anything to help steal the Cokes, but I was with them and I did take some home so they wouldn’t rag on me.”
“Well, they may not rag on you, but now your mother sure is on your case, isn’t she! She’s been telling us all about it, and crying, saying she doesn’t know where she went wrong raising you. After that Coke heist, she says she’s had it with you. She’s also real angry and afraid about you fighting with these neighborhood guys she thought were your friends.”
“Well, yeah, Pablito is the one I had the so-called big fight with. It wasn’t no big thing, really. I finally had to stand up for myself after all these years.”
“He’s your friend and you had a big fight with him?”
“Pablito’s just my homie. Tony is my best friend. Pablito and Arturo and the others, they live around here. They’re our homies, and we hang out with them sometimes. So yeah, they’re friends but they aren’t real close friends, like Tony. You’ve seen Tony. He works part time at Amador’s market.”
“And this fight? What do you mean you had to stand up for yourself after all these years?”
“Well, there’s this girl Anita who lives down the street from us….”
He looked at me surprised, and let out a loud laugh, pointing at me.
“Orale vato, I should’ve known!” He paused until he could stop laughing. “Fighting over a girl!”
“No, no, Tío, it’s not like that. Anita is Mona’s friend, in her class at school. She’s kinda cute and Pablito likes her. I don’t. She’s too young! Anyway, she told Mona that Pablito said he used to beat me up all the time. That skinny punk never beat me up! He and some of the older guys used to pick on me. I remember many times coming home crying, and my parents never did anything about it or said anything to their parents.
“One day Anita was in front of our house with Mona, and Pablito came by to talk with her. When I saw him there, I went outside and asked why he told Anita he used to beat me up. I said all of them together did, but one-on-one, he never did—and never could! His face got red.”
Tío nodded knowingly. “You embarrassed him. I can guess what happened next.”
“Yeah, he threw his arms down and motioned to me, saying, ‘Come on then, let’s see.’ I didn’t really expect him to try to fight me without his army. But he challenged me, so I had to show him up.”
I jumped up into my fight stance to show my uncle, raising my fists up to my chest.
“He came at me swinging. I stood my ground and whacked him with a solid left hook to the side of the head.” As I spoke I demonstrated with a quick punch in the air. “He crumpled to the ground, and sat there shaking his head. Slowly he got up, blinking his eyes. He charged again, swinging wildly like before. I faked a right and hit him with another left hook. Pow!
“Down he went, like someone cut off his legs. He looked really surprised that he was on the ground. I was surprised too. I didn’t want to hurt him anymore, and was hoping he would just get up and go home. No such luck. When he got up, I could see tears in his eyes, but I knew he wasn’t going to let them out, not with Anita sitting there. He came at me again, and this time I faked a left and hit him with a right hook to the other side of the head. Bam! Down he went again.” I slid back down to my seat on the step.
“He stayed down awhile, first on his hands and knees, then plopping over onto his butt. When he finally got up, he just turned away and walked slowly toward his house. I felt really bad, but I also felt proud that I decked him three times, with just one punch each time. And I don’t think he even touched me!”
“So your dad did help take care of it after all!”
“What do you mean?” I asked, my voice getting louder. “He never did nothing! He never protected me. He just let them beat up on me.” I paused, feeling that old anger rising again. “Sometimes when I think about that, I just hate him!”
“But isn’t he the one who taught you to box like that?”
“Well…yeah. He bought me boxing gloves and taught me defense, the jab, the hook, how to counter-punch—lots of stuff. He was a pretty good boxer himself. Used to box as an amateur. He said that most guys come at you throwing wild punches, and if you stand in there and hit them with a quick jab or hook, most of their blows will never get to you.” I paused as I thought about what I said. “So yeah, I guess you could say he helped me after all. I never thought of it like that.”
“Mijo, he couldn’t go ask those guys not to hit you, or go tattle on them to their parents. He had to toughen you up and help you learn to defend yourself. He didn’t want you to be a sissy. He had to do it this way so you could get through it with some respect.”
“Respect. Yeah, I guess you’re right. As a matter of fact, later that day, Pablito’s friends came over and jumped me and knocked me around a little, to stand up for Pablito and help him get back some respect after I embarrassed him so bad. But I didn’t get hurt. And we’ve gotten along okay since then. You could say I gained some respect out of that exchange too.”
“So that was the big fight she’s been talking about. What about the gang? Did you join?”
“Heck no! She’d really kill me if I did! My father, too!”
I didn’t want to get into it any deeper with my uncle, but I was starting to get a lot of pressure from the guys to join. I didn’t want to do that and then have to face my parents when they found out. I didn’t know what the other guys’ parents were thinking or if they even knew or cared. But my parents would probably kick me out of the house. Tony’s parents would probably kick him out too, or send him off to live with relatives in the desert.
“I’m glad you haven’t joined. So what’s with this other stuff she’s complaining about?”
“Well, it’s no big deal, and she’s getting all bent out of shape.”
“No, it is a big deal, a really big deal for your mother and father to call me in to talk to you. Up until now, I’ve been forbidden to talk with you about my life. I don’t know if you knew that.”
“No,” I said, feeling shocked to find out. “I didn’t know.”
“When you were a little baby, I loved to play with you. It was like having another little brother. As you got older, I wanted to take you places, show you things, like the guys playing handball and basketball. But I started getting into trouble and got sent to juvie for three months. After that, your mom told me to stay away. She didn’t want me to be a bad influence on you.
“After I got out of juvie, I was out with friends and we went to a party. I got into a fight, and this vato loco stabbed me in the hand, here.” He stuck out his left hand and showed me a scar that went all the way across his palm.
“I ran out of that party because I didn’t want to be there when the cops came. I was on probation and I’d be back in juvie if they found me there, cut up from a fight after crashing the party. It was only about a mile away, but I didn’t want to go home bleeding. I was afraid my father would throw me out of the house. So I figured I could get some help at my sister’s.
“When I got there, I called to your parents to let me in. Your father opened the door and saw that I was bleeding onto the porch, and yelled at me to get out of there. Your mom brought out some towels and bandages and was going to help, but your father grabbed them and tossed them to me. He yelled and said they had already told me they didn’t want any trouble around you kids. I saw three of you standing in the living room watching what was going on. Your mother was yelling at you to get back in bed, and your father was yelling at me to get out.
“He was crying as he yelled. I squeezed the towel into my hand to stop the bleeding, and just walked away. At first, I was pissed that they weren’t going to help me. But when I saw your father’s tears, I understood how bad he felt kicking me out. He and I had been close before I started getting into trouble. He was like a big brother to me. You know, familia is part of our cultura. So I know it was hard for him to push me out that night. I feel bad now that I put them in that situation, where they felt they had to choose between me and you kids.”
“But Tío, they didn’t do anything for us that night. I think they just sent us back to bed.”
“It was more than just that night. Your parents tried to create a protective shield around you to keep you isolated from the trouble going on around you in this neighborhood. That night, they chose to try to keep that shield intact. Before then, and since, they chose over and over to protect you. Some years later, a few years after I got married, I got sent away to prison, on drug charges. Do you remember that?”
“Oh my God!” I said, staring at him as my jaw dropped. “So that’s why you were gone so long. I figured you must have been in jail. But prison, for drugs…I didn’t know!” I had only a vague memory of him being around, and then he and Tío Juan were both gone for a long time. “Whenever I asked my parents where you guys were, they wouldn’t talk about it.”
“See, that’s the protective shield they put around you. They didn’t talk about us getting sent to the joint because they didn’t want you to know about that part of our lives. When I got out, they repeated to me in even stronger language that I was to keep away from you and not talk about my past. So up to a point, they succeeded in keeping you from this stuff. Now, they say you’ve been getting into more and more trouble. That shield has broken down.”
Man, my parents must have been really desperate to have Tío Marcos tell me all this now.
“Your parents are real concerned about what could happen to you. So they wanted me to load it on heavy and tell you how bad it really is, how you could end up suffering like Juan and I did in prison. We took some pretty bad beatings. Not only from other prisoners, but from the guards, too. Your parents didn’t want you to know the truth about your neighborhood and your uncles until you were a little older. They didn’t want you to know that Juan and I were gang members, or that Juan was the leader, the head guy. They didn’t want you making us into your heroes. And I don’t either. Being involved with the gang was where our troubles started. We screwed up, man. That’s nothing to be proud of. We brought shame on the family, and we paid a high price for it.”
I was really surprised to hear they were not only in the gang, but Tío Juan was the leader!
“I don’t really want to get into details of it all, because I’ve tried put all that behind me. But we served four years for selling drugs, and were on probation for three years. Older guys like me keep telling younger guys like you to stay out of trouble, stay in school, and get a decent job so you don’t get tempted to go into crime and drugs. But I also know that what I say won’t change your mind about your own decisions. You’re not going to do nothing stupid like join the gang and then get into drug deals where you might get stabbed or shot. I think you’re smarter than that.”
He paused and looked me in the eye. He kept looking, waiting for a response.
“Yeah,” I said, nodding, “I’m not gonna do nothing stupid.”
“You say no, but whether you join the gang or not, if you continue to hang with guys in the gang who are into drugs, one day you might end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“But Tío, most of these guys, we’ve been friends a long time. We see each other in school, we play handball and basketball in the park.”
“Okay, okay. I know how hard it can be to make a total break like your parents want. So maybe that will take time. But in the meantime, watch your back. Stay out of situations where they might do something serious and take you along, like your Coke heist. Sure, talk with them at school. If you have to hang out around here, make it in a public place like the handball or basketball courts where they can’t do anything stupid. But for God’s sake, don’t hang out at their house, especially the one your mother is so concerned about, this Arturo and his brother…”
“And don’t even think about going inside their hangout up on Logan Avenue. You don’t know when that place might get raided by the cops, or shot up by some rival gang. You hear me? Be smart. Don’t put yourself at risk. Don’t go where you could get into trouble.”
He paused and stared into my eyes again. I nodded. He kept staring.
“Okay, I’ll be careful.”
“Anyway, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Your parents wanted me to put the fear of God in you, so to speak. But you’re not going to get scared from what I say. You’re going to make your own decisions. I just wanted to tell you I made some bad decisions and screwed up my life and my family. Don’t repeat my mistakes.”
With that, he stood up and walked into the house, giving me a pat on the shoulder as he walked by. I just sat there for a few minutes, taking it all in. He sure put it differently than all the lectures I’d been getting. He simply boiled it down to this: here’s what can happen. You choose.
Copyright © 2013 Richard Juarez
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