By Brent E. Beltran
Juanito held the rock firmly in his hand—almost too firmly, as his knuckles turned white from the pressure. He stood there shaking, and tears slowly fell from his reddened eyes. A wheezy cough escaped his tight lungs as the eleven-year-old stood on Harbor Drive facing the towering cranes that loomed over this toxic barrio. Every breath he took was a challenge. The setting sun cast a powerful glow of purples and oranges across the radiant, polluted sky.
He had grown up on these neglected streets, a Barrio Logan native in more ways than one. He stood there with rock in hand as semi trucks rumbled past, hauling bananas picked by people that looked just like him. The vehicles added more pollutants into the atmosphere as they traveled to various points north and east. That rock, smooth from centuries of ocean water beatdowns, weighed heavy in his trembling hand.
Juanito was tired. Tired of his father slowly dying from a cancer brought on by harsh chemicals he had used to clean with while working on the very site his son now stood in front of. Tired of his madrecita working too many hours at the various jobs she had to endure to pay the rent on their dilapidated home since her husband could no longer do so. Tired of his older brother Beto not being around anymore. Cops had caught Beto tagging after a shipyard security officer saw him hitting up a wall with anti-pollution slogans. He was doing five years to make an example for any other potential anti-shipyard taggers. The District Attorney received campaign donations from the maritime industry, and in return she made an example of this barrio kid to prevent future incidents like this from happening. Juanito was also tired of his younger sister, Maria Elena, always being sick, lungs wheezing much worse than his. She’d missed more than a year of school, setting her back a grade level.
As Juanito stood there, he thought of all the pain, agony and frustration that he’d had to handle at such a young age. He thought of his formerly strong father’s treatments that had left him weak, a shell of his past self. He thought of the greasy, old, white landlord making passes at his mom, knowing his father couldn’t do anything about them, saying he’d lower the rent for a “little something.” Mom always politely said no, hiding the fury deep inside her proud soul. He thought of his sister gasping for air with every attempted breath, lungs too tight to fully oxygenate her blood, her lips sometimes turning blue. He thought of Beto doing time for writing “All We Want is Clean Air” for all to see.
As he stood there with rock in hand, all these thoughts of loved ones done wrong came racing through his prepubescent mind. The suffering of his family and community weighed on him. Something must be done, he thought to himself. But he had no power, no connections. He was just a kid from Barrio Logan, after all. Still, he thought, something must be done.
Juanito clutched that rock as if the universe depended on it. As if life itself were at stake. And for him it was. His dad dying, his mom slaving away while fighting off harassment, his brother locked up, his sister gasping for air with every breath. He felt they all depended on him to do something, anything for the barrio they called home.
With every ounce of energy and will his eleven-syear-old body could muster he let the rock fly. And fly it did, like a cannonball coursing through the dusky air. And when that cannonball struck the glass window, shattering it into a million shards of broken bits, with a powerful crash, Juanito saw it all in slow motion. As though time were barely moving. It seemed like an eternity before the crash of glass ended. But when it did, there was no more trembling; there were no more tears. Just Juanito standing there, staring forward with the biggest smile to ever cross his beautiful, brown face.
Editor’s Note: We’ll be publishing excerpts from Sunshine/Noir II: Writing from San Diego and Tijuana, an anthology of local writing about San Diego over the coming weeks, starting with the chapters written by SD Free Press writers. As City Works Press co-editor Jim Miller says in his introduction: “…San Diego is still a city in need of a literary voice, a cultural identity that goes beyond the Zoo, Sea World, Legoland, and the beach. With Sunshine/Noir II we persist in our romantic, perhaps Sisyphean, effort to address this need and expose the true face of “the other San Diego.” To buy a copy of Sunshine/Noir II or any other San Diego City Works Press book go here.