I’m middle-aged now and batting away a number of ghosts. In short, I’m haunted by the same platoon of terrors that made my high school years very bad and ruined my life in untold ways. I’m closer to death and I want to feel better by the time I go. But I think I won’t. Not unless I make some real effort to understand myself. As it is, I think I do understand myself but have never articulated it fully, neither for myself or what audience I might find in the reading world. I am a writer, obviously, a fucked up one. That will be my theme here: I am fucked up.
“Supremely.” I have never confessed my true self to anybody outside a therapist and my beloved wife, and even then with circumspection, with care. I am afraid of being deemed more monstrous than I already feel. I want to tell you what I know about myself, though, for the relief it might provide me, this simple confession of my own shortcomings—my own guilt, my own agonies. And for the balm it might provide for your own sentence on earth, your own distinct pain, your own unbearable loss and rupture and exile from Eden. I trust that you’re lost, too, and bear the marks of your struggle. I take it on faith that you have known the cross, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or whatever (lack of) religion you profess. You are not so shallow as to have been spared suffering, not so happily relieved to have coasted pain free. If you are, I am not for you. I am not the writer to read. Pass on me, and find a less lugubrious, more cheerful essayist to enjoy. I am Catholic, and I have been nailed in three places.
Fittingly, I am punctured by a triumvirate of spikes so sharply driven into my flesh and spirit they remain embedded in me. Bits of them stick, and hurt, as if pounded in only yesterday. I cry inside with fresh doubt. “Oh, my God! What is this about? Why am I penalized for living?” I rue the duration of the sacrifice. “Why haven’t my sufferings alleviated in time, and disappeared? Why are these damn nails so permanent?”
I belie my condition. I appear in the world unconcerned and carefree, no more worried than most adults with a past that isn’t splendid, even more at ease than many. I get by with fakery, or will, or duplicity, which perhaps is a combination of the first two strategies—the effort put forth to reveal a better self that I pretend is real. I can’t be good, can I? I’ve got too much shit inside me. Even love can’t help. Or can it? We’ll see.
This testament is written in love.
I twist on the cross. I bow my head crowned with thorns. I identify with the ragged Jew who went before me readily.
I look up and howl. “Oh, life, oh, life! Who the fuck were you to doom me?”
A Testimonial in Regard to Myself
I, Steve Gutierrez,2 am built on three premises that govern my existence: I am the ugly child of a stricken father of a despised race. Everything else in my life is insignificant compared to those permanent facts. I plead the fifth when it comes to my mother, a major force behind me.
And I am a blessed man. To wit:
I am lucky I am not in prison, not for reasons you might imagine with my last name, Gutierrez, barrio dude, etc., etc., etc., but for another cause separate from race and class, from money and upbringing. In fact, I always had enough money growing up, at least in the years preceding the hardship of my father’s illness. And my upbringing—how I was taught to behave in the world—was exemplary. No, I almost killed a man for another reason, separate from all that.
First off, he deserved it. The world can do without certain Homo sapiens. This creature that I can hardly call a man, so venomous and anti-life was he, so against the spirit of all that is great within us, so dismissive of simple compassion when he smelled weakness and powerlessness—this foul thing stained the earth like a bipedal blob of animated human shit. He was an expendable mistake. I can still kill him on a good day—a good day for me, a bad day for him.
To everything turn, turn, turn…
But I didn’t kill him. I stopped myself before it was too late. I experienced an epiphany. I knew the act I set in motion to be a great sin. On the verge of consummating my hate, I desisted less for legal reasons than a spiritual law.
It was wrong to kill a man. Don’t laugh! “Ha! You’re on to something there!” Please don’t laugh. I have been laughed at enough in my life.
“Aren’t you a genius?” Don’t mock me because I didn’t know what you already know so well—the value of life. That is because I didn’t have one, a life. When you have been excluded from the flow of the day before you—from the people and events passing outside your window—and are so distant from everything considered (and indeed) unique and impressive and beautiful about the times you live in, you withdraw, and stew. You howl at your terrible sentence. You reach up a hand, and find—glass, paned glass. You learn the serial killer’s plight. It is only a miracle that can stop you from becoming a monster.
Miraculously, I realized his right to exist and my place in his life. At least I wasn’t supposed to end his. I didn’t have the right against his right, right? So simple, so basic. Thou shalt not kill. But that ancient directive is exactly what Cain forgot in the field.
“Why not? The time seems right, and this son of a bitch bothers me.” I broke the Ten Commandments over my knee and almost over his head. I nearly strangled him to death.
He lucked out that day. Maybe I erred. It’s possible I disappointed God and all the angels above by letting him live, because the worthless thing really merited death, and my act of mercy is not commendable, but weak. After all, he had challenged my very right to live by deliberately driving in one of those nails I will elaborate on soon, and then another, pounding them in gleefully, with a smirk on his face. He tried to kill my spirit. Which fills my body purposefully, or my body is dead. I am absent.
He did his best to murder me. He hunted me down and played his tortuous games. Then came the day I let him know I wasn’t to be fucked with anymore. And he was older than me, and scared. But I wasn’t a kid anymore, and cowed.
I read it in him, his cowardly fear, not even an honest fear that came from sizing up a credible opponent and entertaining doubt, but punk fear. I came forward with much adrenaline in me, and no fear.
“And you think I’m scared of you?”
“Say that again.”
“It’s not enough. I want you dead.”
“Quit fucking around, man.”
“I’m not fucking around. I’m about as serious as I can get. Don’t you know I’m the craziest fucker around, sucker? You didn’t know that, did you? You’re scared now, aren’t you? I’m not afraid of you, dude. I’m not afraid of you at all. I’m gonna strangle your fucking ass. I’m gonna pounce on you in a second.”
“I’ll kick your ass, man.”
“No, you wont. You don’t scare me at all. I hear it in your voice. You’re scared. What’s the matter? Am I too close to you now? Are you getting scared now, punk?”
I’m still edging up to him, standing face-to-face, ready to act. I am not healed. I have not forgiven.
I am fucked up, and upset.
I’m going to break it down for you, my life, as succinctly and honestly as I can. I’m convinced that if everybody composed his own life history in the same spirit, briefly and ruthlessly, we might love more. If everybody kept such a reminder of all that makes her less than Godly, less than she at her shining best when even God blushes to be so favored a parent, getting up in the morning would be easier. Hung up in a prominent, public place, like a kitchen or an office, the testament wouldn’t rebuke, but inspire. The world wouldn’t hate so much. We would all get along better, and laugh more. We might even learn to be joyous, weighed down by the past lightly, lightly. Christ would make his escape from the cave without fanfare, and head into the desert on his own. You stand among the chosen few who catch the last of him, arriving in time to watch him go deeper into the rugged landscape burdened by an orange ball of fire until he dwindles to a mere speck, a dancing dot on the horizon, his time on earth done.
A no-frills account of me
I want to say my father. I want to say my body. I want to say my race. These are the three things that make up my essential self. Taken together or separately, they constitute me.
Me in three.
“My father, my father!” I cry out in the wilderness.
“Oh, my father!” I go looking for him in fear. I rue the task.
My father was slow. Stricken with a horrible disease in his prime, it wasn’t the terror of his ugly condition that marked me, but the prelude. Early-onset Alzheimer’s grabbed him and shook him up before it settled into his brain and ate away. I saw the aftermath of the feast, the body wasted, the mind gone, the will long sapped. But I could get over that.
My aunt Didi said: “My God, I’ve never seen suffering like that!” Years later, she recounted the horror of seeing him in his bedroom at home. He hadn’t been put away yet. He slumped in a wheelchair in a corner, as if occupying the dingy hall in a convalescent home, or already he laid in bed, emaciated, eyes aglow with fury or dimmed in complete senescence, smelling like death.
“I got out of there fast,” she said. “I couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t bear it.”
I could. We all could in the end, we in the family who had no choice anyway. In time, even the howling intensity of his futile cry to be released from his suffering would fade in our ears, a very rough passage of life endured. Maybe I never got over that spectacle entirely. My mother thought I didn’t. Before she died, she expressed regret that she kept him at home for too long. “I should have put him away before I did. I can see it in your eyes even now when we talk about it.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I couldn’t find a place for him. Nothing was open. Nothing that I wanted had room. There were so many bad ones. Ugh,” she shuddered. “Convalescent homes. I couldn’t make up my mind. I knew some were just too bad for him. I kept him at home.”
“You sure did.”
“It was hard on all of us.”
“It sure was.” But that didn’t last. There was an ending.
He died. What lived on in me was a more insidious and powerful form of terror. Slowness. Dullness. Bewilderment.
That’s what killed me inside.
“It’s not Dad’s death that wrecked me,” I told her at the same kitchen table conference, and tell my sister still, “but his life.”
“Okay, his life,” my mother said. They both nodded their heads. They were there; they couldn’t dispute my analysis. But my candor still bothered them.
“I know what you’re talking about, it’s hard to admit. But you’re right, you’re always right.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Now you are.”
“You are, Steve,” my sister said. “I know what you’re talking about, too. I agree. I mean I never saw it that way. I was just a girl, but—yeah, I can see that. It’s terrible but true.”
Bring on a drum roll. My father was slow. Related to the scary symptoms to come, the forgetfulness and the moodiness and the paranoia and the anxiety associated with the complicated disease that beset him, came an early sign. In league with the hereditary Alzheimer’s that only later got diagnosed properly, aggravating the central condition that the best doctors didn’t understand then and still don’t, still struggling with this horror that afflicts my extended family (I’m free of it), came another malfunction, less understood, less measurable. It was a quality of mind, of being itself.
This attribute can best be described as difference. It sounds simple, but it is hard to explain. I reduce it. My father was slow. I reacted accordingly, like any sane pre-teen with intelligence, any child already beset with troubles he hardly recognized would. I hid him. I kept him away from my friends, not allowing them near him in ingenious ways, and always got nervous on occasions when that might happen. He wouldn’t be like their dads in conversation. He wasn’t normal. He was off. He was—slow. I’m going to officially declare this refrain mine, this most painful iteration of all that haunts me, and go even further. I propose that the word retarded is not quite misplaced when used to describe the type of slowness I mean. It is horrible, it is insulting, but it is true, too. It is accurate, which is about as great an honor I can bestow on my father. Like me, he is big enough to withstand the truth. In death, he lives on in the spirit of his son. We’re not fucking around with words, with life as it passed in that house in that cursed era.
At last, I can speak unashamedly about this most shameful aspect of my life with the help of my computer friend, which lets me take back anything I set down immediately if I wish, hunched over the keyboard nervously. I can exhibit bravery in refusing to flinch, flee or lie, and in opting not to rename it. Not to give it a fancy medical term or euphemistic turn to make my mother happy (rest in peace) or anybody else who might object. Not that I smell cowardice in my siblings, quite the opposite. “Go on, Steve, tell the truth,” they say, my older brother dead like my father, only younger and taken down more savagely yet, the bout over, the winner declared, “E.O. Alzheimer’s!” in the ring of life. Forgive a bad metaphor. I don’t give a fuck about good writing at this moment.
My father was slow. He was impeded due to astonishing factors, not all of them clearly identified by the bright men and women in wispy gowns, with stethoscopes—good ghosts in the spooky castle, the lugubrious hospital for railroad men. “There’s something wrong there, yes? On top of the forgetting and moodiness he seemed a little off, a little different? I can see that. I can’t give you an explanation for it, though. We’re barely beginning to understand this.”
Doctors are great. Doctors know much, but not all. “He made it this far. You should be proud.”
“He is lucid.”
“He is. I’m speaking of something else.” Maybe my tearful mother had a conversation like that when she could no longer pretend that nothing was ever wrong. Something was always wrong.
My father stumbled through life, afflicted with a disease from hell, but his uneasy steps seemed almost separate from it, confusingly. He couldn’t keep up with the crowd, the normal men. I don’t question normality or inveigh against society as a flimsy social construction designed to keep us in check, mediocrely. Nah. Normal is normal is normal. It is pretty evident. Its opposite is equally apparent. My father wasn’t the same as other fathers in any neighborhood in the country—not yours, not mine; not any other community with better norms or mores or values or expressions. Nonsense.
My father owned that strangeness that flavored his life, and mine. He exuded incapacity while holding a job for many years, and functioning well. Yet something was awry in him, noticeably awry with the greater burden looming over him, the core illness. He was odd.
Everybody knew it. Everybody saw it. But nobody really spoke of it. Thus, shame builds up. I am a shame-filled person. As motors hold oil within, I hold shame inside. Stick a dipstick in my mouth and learn I’m full. Quarts and quarts of black, viscous, gooey shame keep me in top running disorder, or maybe it’s a lighter weight, green shame, perhaps even a high tech, environmentally friendly brand meant to maximize my performance in the world. It is still shame. Grade A, 100% shame.
I wanted to kill him. I wanted him to die.
My father wasn’t right. I was bright. But I didn’t need intelligence to be ashamed. Nobody wants a slow father, not charmingly slow, not working-class oafishly slow, but obviously slow. My father was…
“There’s something wrong with Alberto,” the relatives said. I caught it.
“Fuck you,” I rebelled inside. “Leave him alone!”
I loved him! I hated him! I couldn’t reconcile my rejection of his weirdness and my need for his love. Both warred within me. Complicating things, at times he showed himself no different from the best fathers in the world. It happened occasionally, a lifting of the veil or shroud that moved with him, gray and ghastly, and sickened him. When it disappeared, momentarily or suddenly or surprisingly—when it happened—I saw another man, my father. I saw him as he could be, as he should be. I wanted him like that all the time. Was this too much to ask?
I needed divine assistance.
“I want my father to be normal!” I got on my knees every night before getting in bed. Once under the covers, I continued my prayer: “Please, God, make him normal.” It was a holy favor I pled for, a heavenly long shot, but who else to turn to in desperation? God was all-powerful. God knew the score of us below and what we needed and what we didn’t.
Well, I surely needed a healthy dad. I wasn’t asking for a material thing or anything bad to happen to my enemies, jerks at school, but for something good that would benefit everybody. It might happen! I might wake up one morning and find my dad okay in the living room, sitting on the couch, relaxing with a cigarette, all signs of disturbance gone. This was the big dream I had!
This was the miracle I prayed for! “Please!”
The downside of it wasn’t so great.
“Take him away if you can’t make him normal! Take him away, away from me…” I set myself up for major guilt through prayer.
“Kill him if you need to. I wish he were dead.”
My father worked for many years at the Sante Fe Railroad Hobart Yard in Los Angeles, honorably. He wore overalls and climbed atop trains and scooted under them with a wrench in hand, a heavy tool. He squinted in the greasy gloom, with an image of home in his mind. His was a tragic life, marred by unavoidable sickness. His last years were a study in torment, a descent into a deep pit crowned by suffering neither medicine nor faith could help. We had none, faith. We weren’t religious. It is only in retrospect that I see anything like the hand of God in his life, and that only barely. He suffered so that I may live.
Rest in peace. Father. You were not slow. You are aglow. Trudging to work in the last days of your shaky health, you got in the car and drove the crowded industrial boulevard to the vast train yard for the swing shift, getting out in the parking lot and meeting your friend the mexicano Baldomero, who graciously drove you home when you forgot you had driven yourself to work at night’s end, knowing better than to argue with you, imbued with the finest Mexican manners, the truest politeness. At your velorio before your burial, your customary Mexican wake, he stood in the back of the mortuary chapel in a baggy gray suit, wiping his face before the service, and hanging around in the hall after the condolences were accepted in the nook where your family sat a few feet from the coffin—two body lengths from death, from their boxed-up father and husband. He lit up when Albert and I greeted him—sus hijos, your sons. His closeness to you came out in the way he spoke, recalling the good times before the illness, and the bad times when he looked after you. He didn’t admit it. He was too humble a man. He gave you all the credit for getting here in one piece. Yes, death was a triumph. Faced bravely, it became a part of you, not an enemy who had won. He brought out the Mexican in me, shuffling next to him while Albert listened intently. He knew him better.
He had cried out when he first saw him. “Baldomero!”
They had clasped hands, and hugged. I had joined them.
“Your father was a gentleman,” he said. “A hard worker. He did it all for you. He knew he was sick, but he kept coming back to work until he couldn’t. ¿Era mexicano, no? Trabajo y familia, ¿qué más tenemos?” Work and family, what else do we have?
“God?” Albert asked, keeping a hand on his shoulder.
There also was closeness. It came from all the times Albert had picked you up, found you in a daze, and consulted with Baldomero on your worsening condition.
“Oh, yes, without question, God.” He looked up. He smiled.
He left us looking up, smiling nervously at the rafters.
“My father, my father!” I cry out in the wilderness. It is still a search. It is such a dangerous task, hunting down your father.
The second influence is so painful I might not complete this essay. I might shut down the computer and go outside and stand under a tree. But I promised you me in three.
Without duplicity. Next up is my physiognomy. I call it that. Label it fancily. But it’s nothing but my—face.
My looks. Number two. How to go on without breaking down here on the page? Laying my head on the screen of my computer and just sobbing? Me, Stephen Gutierrez, with a D in the middle—yes, David, come help me!—reduced to childlike helplessness, blubberingly.
“I’m sorry!” I cry out, nonsensically.
(I’m going to hide myself within parentheses to ease the pain. “Ssshhh,” I put a finger to my lips to remind you to be quiet, still, and not draw any attention to us.
(I don’t want to be seen. I really don’t.)
(I was born with big ears that stuck straight out of my head and were later corrected badly in a shoddy program for underprivileged freaks, along with my sister’s identical ears. My mother, a fetching, sophisticated woman who could do no better given her meager resources—our modest income provided by the man above, my sick, kind father—acted on our behalf. She took my sister and me by the hands and led us up the steps of White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles, and enrolled us in The Plastic Surgery Center that welcomed beggars like us. She signed the forms with confidence, and charm. She was always classy!3 She truly wanted the best for us and did what she could, crying the night before we got surgery, dabbing at her eyes in the corner of the hospital room for all the pain we had endured and the necessity of this humiliating procedure. But I didn’t like her much. I hated her. I loved her. My mother! is not the subject of this section.
(The Plastic Surgery Center at White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles is the focus. My brother grinned down at our bedsides, kindly, a goofy fucker I’m not going to bring in because the sadness becomes unbearable when considering his own brave, thwarted life battling the beast that took my father. He is in an essay or two of mine that you can find in one of my books.
(God bless Albert. God bless my family. We were actually kind, decent people, reasonably intelligent and loving – my father’s terrible illness aside – and totally fucked up. My father stood at the foot of my bed touching my feet, then my sister’s.
(Our ears stretched from wall to wall in the room, ridiculous beyond measure. You can look it up in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. But relief came in the morning on the sixth floor where the gowned surgeons at The Plastic Surgery Center kept busy working on cases like ours. They put a mask over my nose and asked me to breathe deeply, and got to work. Our flappers got folded and pulled out and cut at the hospital known for serving no meat, and run by religious nuts of some kind, Methodists, I think they were called. Anyway, we got surgically corrected at the low-rent hospital near downtown L.A. close to my birthday in August of ’67 by a team of incompetent residential surgeons wielding hacksaws and pliers. It was not all that bad, the doctors were actually goodhearted and kind, the nurses sweet and caring. But my mother must have gotten us in that way, that low-income way—I never bothered to find out—and it was painful. It was painful before the surgery and it was painful after the surgery. They didn’t get it right. I am not right.4
(Later, in a horrendous episode that I have not outgrown, my unattractively big, Indian nose attracted the attention of the cruelest people I would come to know. They represented all strata of the surrounding civilization, and collectively served the cause of mockery faithfully, these pigs for whom Auschwitz should have been built. I would have turned on the gas with glee. No, that would have lowered me to their standard and made me one of them. I refuse that still. I would have had a guard do it. Sickness breeds sickness, hatefulness the same. I apologize to the Jewish people for using Auschwitz literarily. I meant to make a strong point, obviously.
(They ranged in age from young to old, and covered the racial gamut, the socio-economic sphere, the sub-cultural mix. Oh, yes, I can hear them still in one nasally mean voice, calling me names. White, brown and Asian, male and female, communist and capitalist, cholo and surfer, recreation leader and reputed porn star (really), they all stood in the chorus at one time or another. My nose left its mark on my face for the rest of my life. I still feel it big there. I am a freak. “The Steve Show.” I star in it.
(I got plastic surgery again in my eighteenth year, but nothing fixed a sense of wrongness so deeply ingrained in me, I wake up with it and go to sleep with it. Not God, not love, not another go under the knife to get it right at thirty-two. Round two. Plastic surgery time. ((No, round three! When you count back to the ears.)) Nothing. The sad sitcom goes on. I am a bumbling clown in a face not my own staring at the world with steady tears pouring down my cheeks. They are unseen unless you get real, real close to me and smell my bad breath that goes along with all the evil inside me.)
My father. My physiognomy. Number two is the biggest thing to happen to me, the single most important influence on me. It fucked me up for good.
The third influence is the expected, race, what used to be called race. Since discredited, it was popular then.
“What race are you?”
Do you really want to know? Are you sure? No, you don’t. You are going to lose respect for me and quit reading.
I am Mexican. El sangre de mexico runs through my veins. The blood of Mexico colors my veins. Not preferred Spain. Not a fabulous, generic Latino land but down home Mexico. It’s in me. I am Mexican. And I am not. I am not close to being Mexican.
“What is your race? What is your ethnicity? What is your nationality?”
“Um, Mexican, of course!” They knew, but they had to ask to be sure. You couldn’t mistake anybody for a Mexican. It was a grave, grave insult.
“Sorry.” Contrarily, it was a badge of pride.
“For what?” And inbred shame.
“I don’t know.”
It was a dubious distinction, a default identity since you didn’t have another one. Damn it, you needed one! Everybody was somebody! Everybody claimed a heritage!
It was a mess of things that couldn’t be contained in the word but spilled over into life.
“Fuck you, I’m Mexican-American, what of it?”
“Don’t be so sensitive. I’m just trying to figure out what you are.”
Conservative-minded people complain about multiculturalism and the lack of assimilation among the immigrants, but they conveniently forget how impossible it was not to feel othered as a Mexican-American in my time. It didn’t matter if you weren’t an immigrant, or even the child of immigrants. We got reminded constantly that we didn’t qualify as true Americans, only whites did. Thank God my parents had the common sense not to impose a cultural regimen in the house that was not suitable. We kids weren’t made falsely Mexican.
Thank God for English being the first language in our home. Thank God. I am neurotic enough without language confusion.
“Man, do you write English? Do you know what English is? An American sentence?”
“Sorry, didn’t know you’re so touchy.”
“I’m not. But you’re kind of obsessed, aren’t you?”
Actually, such conversations have been few and far between in my life.
I’ve always spoken good old broken, working-class American English as practiced in my Chicano neighborhood, expertly. Nah, fuck you. You’re not fluent, so don’t pretend. Don’t try. Working-class American English is so rarely permitted on the literary page, I indulge in this brief display for the mere fuck of it. Only its facsimile pops up now and then, an acceptable version crafted for polite, middle class ears that like to hear it and pretend openness. But the real deal? Fuck no. It’s too raw. It doesn’t take a sensitive constitution into account. It doesn’t adopt a morally superior stance that looks down on less than proper English as a colorful aberration that still lacks in ethical fortitude. The vulgar speaker hides the sweetheart inside. No, the fucking speaker is the moral equal to you (or whoever the stupid reader is) just the way he or she is. Get it? Asshole.
I’m mad. I’m bad. I’m Chicano sad.
Not Latino. Puro So Cal. Which never used Spanish like that when I grew up. Not in my hood. I learned sweet Caló off the streets of Los I roamed and met some vatos on and talked. I talked with the worst. I took a crash course in street talk, Chicano style. It is a necessary tongue in many parts of the country where old school gente still chatter and trade recipes—lowrider soup is one of my favorites. I’m petitioning Rosetta Stone to include Caló in her list of language-learning courses.
It wasn’t always so acceptable.
Ni modo. Who gives a fuck?
Let me start up. Again. I point out differences. I don’t downplay cultural specificity or pretend it’s not there, it doesn’t exist, a cultural distinctiveness that marks it and distances it from others, the culture. I don’t cry over being misunderstood or the lack of insight that didn’t see in us a common citizenry. Fuck that. We were Chicanos, which means to be American, exactly. Not everybody agreed. Our differences got picked up alertly, appearing as alien signals on the radar screen of racially proud, patriotically vigilant white Americans, and decoded as un-American. They were full of shit. I am as American as Johnny Cash.
I am as Mexican as César Chávez, who wasn’t Mexican at all, but a brilliant, manipulative, paranoid American labor leader who spoke with a Mexican accent. I don’t speak with a Mexican accent. But maybe I did growing up. Probably I did. Surely I did.
I stick a dirty sock in my mouth. “Sorry.” I speak around it.
“I’m only a stupid Mexican.”
Is it getting old? It is old. It is also historically accurate. Born in 1959 and raised in Los Angeles, in my time it still hurt to be Mexican. It still paid to keep it quiet. Not bring it up. Not flaunt it. Not risk reprisal. Registered under my skin are the countless slurs and casual putdowns, the cruel jokes aimed at keeping me in my place, the basic stigma associated with the word.
Mexican. Behind the good-natured laughter a more sinister truth lived. What inspired the joke was timeless. The worthlessness of the subject. The despicableness of the race itself. This handy assumption had been inherited from a previous generation and lived on. Even if not fully articulated, it functioned as the subtext for all the ridicule and disparagement, and hate.
“I fucking hate Mexicans.” I heard that embittered declaration enough times to absorb the sentiment and not question its wider prevalence, not for a second. It was there in L.A., Mexican hate. I knew the real reason why.
“Fucking hate them.”
Mexicans were the lowest people on earth. Half-Indian, half-Spanish, they owned none of the nobility of either subpar people, the Mexican Indians late savages, and the Spaniards deficient Europeans, overall. The worst got together and produced an abysmal creature called a Mexican. In the great schema of racial fitness, he might fall below a black, on a bad day, and never rise above a white, on any day. He kind of competed with a Plains Indian on a charitable day, if you forgot the cannibalism and noted the brilliance of the advanced primitive culture that the Spaniard improved with his entrance, but the mixture caused eyebrows to rise and reduced the Mexican to a question mark.
“He was just a damn Mexican.” Deep inside me, a fearful boy curls up against an adobe wall with a gigantic sombrero on, head bent, hands clasped around his knees, huarache sandals—not the type The Beach Boys wear—strapped on his dirty feet. It is a movie set designed by America. It is my generation’s uncomfortable secret. We are typecast forever.
“We don’t need no stinkin’ Actors Equity badges! We swat flies away from our faces for free! Big moscas like this! Así!”
Off the set, keep it to yourself. Blend in. Be suave. Cool.
It’s not only an L.A. phenomenon, but a statewide role. When you leave the hood, you’ll know.
Stay low. Beware of the admission that you are Mexican. Some might grin stupidly. “Mexican? Really?” Others might hide their astonishment with weak smiles. “Are you really Mexican?”
“Yes. No. Not really. I mean I’m not a real Mexican.” Who would want to be a real Mexican? Not you. Not anybody.
I exaggerate. I lie. I create a racial dystopia that is far harsher than the day-to-day reality of coexisting in post-World War II L.A. The 60’s. The 70’s. We had Chicano Power going on, all that pride! It transformed the whole Southwest! We were California, and still are the truest Californians, arguably, or should be. We come before the mythic surfer whose existence proves my point. Only a white American could arise to embody the state in the minds of millions of Americans. Only a cousin to a farm-bred Nebraskan and a flinty New Englander and a blonde North Westerner and a slowpoke Southerner could supersede the obvious candidate for statewide embodiment, yours truly. We were invisible, as loud as we were.
I guess the lowriders weren’t good enough, or got it wrong, laughably, again. They’re more Cali than surfboards. Not limited to gang members or signifying violence in any way, they defined a wider swath of people, of territory. But they remain freakish in our minds, not acceptable, outlaw. Alien. People across the country know the hopping beasts now, but have no firm idea of the drivers, unlike the man on the surfboard, the goofy, grinning, serious, dedicated, mellow, kind surfer. Lowriders were just a bunch of kids riding the black waves of L.A. pavement as iconoclastically as any mild rebel bucking conformity. I sat in one jumping ’64 once, high, and had a spiritual experience. It was equivalent to the glory of being “in the tube,” as a few surfer friends attempted to explain, “with God.” But ended with a vehicle violation from a fucking pig in an empty parking lot, hassling a couple of Mexican kids for kicks, the blue-eyed monster. His brown-eyed twin supported the need to ticket my friend, the driver. To put him in place.
“You know this is illegal?”
Mexican. At school, everybody got razzed. Mercilessly, we tore into each other for cruel fun. Nobody got a pass. In my part of town, the Eastside, the minority kids, the whites and Japanese Americans and few others, could be persecuted terribly. I felt bad for some.
“You fat blob, white piece of shit.”
“You fucking wetback.” Even the immigrant Mexican might hear it from a Chicano.
And the Chicano got it the next round or somewhere down the line from the frankly racist white, the arrogant Japanese American, the displaced black.
“You’re just a fucking wetback, like all the others.”
Nobody escaped the lines drawn about race. Only later, when we got older and wiser, we might repent. “I’m sorry, man. I didn’t know what I was saying.”
“That’s okay, man. I don’t know what I’m saying half the time.”
“Your mama does! I saw her selling tacos in front of Kmart! ‘Tacos! Feefty centavos!”
“And your mama, too! I saw her riding an Irish bike, with big bags of potatoes hanging from the handlebars. The old lady was swigging whiskey with one hand!”
“Tacos!” It all works out in the end in America. We are all part of one big experiment that’s like a melting pot, I learned in history. It kind of made sense. It applies to me. I’m all gooey with you.
At some point in your life, you have considered the word Mexican foul. I assert this with no proof but my experience. I damn nobody, especially myself anymore. It’s okay being a Mexican.
Being Mexican, rather. The truth is contained in an indefinite article, or its absence. For some, the definite article made things a little more difficult. They themselves, separately, individually, played the role of the Mexican in an all-white school, an unmixed town. The true minorities among Chicanos, perhaps bolstered by a few Mexican-Americans they just as likely hated or kept a distance from, they can tell you much.
More than me. But I can tell you this. My Mexican heritage came at a price. Frankly, it doesn’t seem exorbitant now. You can read the receipt yourself, which is stuck on my wet back after a terrible binge with other naked Californians in a healing hot tub, rubbing and soothing and working things out just fine. It’s impossible to scrape off. The bill sticks to my skin.
The California Experience, it reads at the top, with an itemized list below.
Fucking wetback. Mexican. Don’t ever think you’re really an American. You’re not.
It hardly makes sense that I needed to pay for this, but the cost is still visible.
Su alma, it reads, even though I don’t speak Spanish. Not real Spanish. I fake it. I get edited.
I rushed to look it up in translation.
“You fucking wetback. You’re not smart enough to do that.” Just kidding.
It is distressing that the least important of my three influences takes up so much space in my testament, as if it is paramount. It is not. It is small compared to the other stuff, and getting smaller every day, every week, every month, every year that distances me from the past because I embrace the present. I get along with everybody, I hate nobody. I love largely because I can. It’s a Chicano thing.
Cora. Heart. If we don’t walk it and not just talk it—yup, prison talk—we’re nothing special. A bunch of lame claimants to a magical culture that isn’t anything but common, and worse. Excessively violent and undereducated. I lay it out as it is, not as we want it to be.
Oralé! I’m our spokesman. Pull the plug on me and chase me out of town. I don’t give a shit. I’m on the outskirts already.
One more time! “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro! Stephen does Cali…”
I am a maladjusted adjusted citizen of the realm, a perfectly assimilated Mexican-American of a certain generation and class. I love America, is the solemn truth. I hate crybabies.
Your soul, the tally comes to. Your soul. I looked it up. I got mine still.
Now it is time to conclude my testament. I am a formal man who insists on correct execution in all things literary. When I attempt a testament, I want nothing left out. I just have more to say.
My mother. Our tortoise.
You now know me, Stephen D. Gutierrez. I am who I am because of three accidents in my life. I was born a Mexican freak to an incapacitated father and an imperious, demanding mother, hardly mentioned here, who had something to do with everything, every aspect of my life. Connected to my father both legally and emotionally—they shared children they cared about, which isn’t a given in every family, I learned then and especially later, talking to the children of people who should have never had them—and obsessed with “the race” in good and bad ways that show in me, and too concerned about looks because she was beautiful and the race itself is unsure of its true face, she left her influence on me, oh, did she! I was born in August.
That same month and year my paternal grandfather died. In Tijuana. Wheelchair bound, he lifted a hand to the future. “¡Suerte!” Luck!
I never met him. I take his sick spirit in stride.
I’m a crippled Chicano from birth. My first words were: “¿Qué pasó? Why am I here?”
Crippled and stunted. My retarded father. My ugly face.5
I was born in the morning. I was one with the dawning of the new day.
My mother didn’t expect a third child, and got me. She held me in her arms, rocked me, or didn’t do either of those things, most probably. After ascertaining my basic healthiness with a piercing assessment, holding me up to the light as she half lay in the hospital bed, she tapped my lips for kicks, “Huh!” and handed me back to the nurse, a cute little Mexican-American girl in her eyes, still young compared to my mother’s thirty-two years.
“Please? Just for a minute?” She called my dad in from the hall. She sprung up and gathered her things and rushed out to the car at the curb after a quick stop at the desk, taking me from the nurse.
“Yes, we’re going to be fine!” she sung out, pressing my face to the window.
“Look, the world! Isn’t it ugly?” She jiggled me on her knees, and hummed, and pulled down the shades as soon as she got home, always wary of spies, of intruders, of others peeping in, seeing us, and donned an apron, and checked out books from the library, and dressed well when she needed to, very stylishly, very understatedly, and popped valiums to battle “her nerves” for the next twelve years leading up to my father’s serious illness, when she doubled the dose and had a breakdown.
My father helped around the house. He worked the different shifts at the railroad yard and came home and did what needed to be done, scrubbing, cleaning, changing light bulbs and mowing the lawn. He limped before he lost all mobility and speech, a slight limp that almost passed unnoticed. We had a pet tortoise, a California Desert Tortoise we found on the barrio street of my grandparents’ neighborhood. It plodded along in our backyard, nibbling at the greens along the fence, and hibernated under the water heater in the garage in winter.
The turtle. The tortoise. It had a hard, gray shell. It had reptilian eyes and a beaked face.
My family sat in the living room and laughed. Yes, on occasion laughter spilled out of the windows on Senta Avenue as the TV played or a dumb board game got going on a summer night.
“Did you see the damn turtle?”
“It was nibbling at the ivy again.”
“Good. Let it.”
“It was digging under the fence, too, trying to get out.”
“It never will,” my mother says, fatalistically. “There’s a big board your father put under it. Didn’t you, Alberto? And it’ll never get out. That turtle is stuck. It’s ours.”
My brother coughs out a handful of nuts. “It’s ours, man, dude,” he says. “La Tortuga!” He opens his eyes wide for me.
My sister rubs her hands before spinning the wheel. “Damn turtle.”
My father moves a game piece tentatively.
“It’s not your turn, Dad!”
“What does Steve say? He’s so quiet tonight. Mr. Silent.”
“Nothing. I’m thinking of that turtle trying to escape.”
“La Tortuga,” my brother says.
“It’ll never get out,” my mother says. “Never.”
“Maybe it will,” I say. “You never know. Turtles are ingenious.”
They all look at me, incredulously.
“Ingenious?” my sister asks.
“Get the dictionary!” my mother says.
“I know what that means,” my sister says.
“So do I,” my mother sings out. “I just want to read the definition. I want to be precise in my understanding, Norma. Get the dictionary.”
“El diccionario,” my brother says.
“Look up misery instead,” I say.
“Misery?” My mother looks at me sharply, concerned. Her brow furrows and her brown eyes are soft, sad, but penetrating.
“Why do you want to look up misery, Stephen? Tell me.”
“There’s a turtle in trouble in our backyard, Mom. We won’t know how badly it’s hurt until it’s too late.”
She stares at me for a long, long time before turning back to the game with a sigh. “Ah, Life,” she says. “What a game.”
And that is my life. That is me. Me in three, three and a half, four. Family. Race. Father. Face.
I rest my case.
“Oh, God, what a member of the human race!” you say. “A contemporary writer who rhymes like Dr. Seuss and seems to have no shame. Not be embarrassed by anything lame. God, he’s infectious! I better stay away from his game!”
You better. It might turn violent. Hardly. But with a history like mine, you need to be assured.
You want the rest of the story. “What happened that night?”
You know what happened. I didn’t commit murder. I didn’t sentence myself to a good long stretch in la pinta. I don’t own a record but for minor traffic violations and an afternoon spent in the drunk tank in Northern California after storming out of a bar at noon, mounting my ten speed and crashing into a light pole, a parked car, and an astonished old lady, all the while raving something about Dostoevsky. I had been drinking since six with a compadre. I sat sadly and droopily in the drunk tank.
I looked down at my hands, which were blood free, and I thanked God for that.
“Thank you, God. Thank you.” It was about that time that I almost choked the cowardly fool down in L.A., my hometown, on spring break.
I desisted. Something in me stopped me. Don’t go looking me up online. Digging up the dirt. Making sure I’m not lying. You won’t find me there. You won’t spot me among the unshaven criminals posing for mug shots with savage pride or the arrogant cast of privileged men staring coldly at the camera for heinous crimes we’ll never understand. You might read about me in a list of semi-distinguished writers, those who have not quite made it but are known to the cognoscenti. Sure. You might see that I am earning a living in a respectable and even honored profession and to all outward appearances stable. But I am not. I am rocky, broken, desperate. My every act of normalcy is a small victory over darker forces wanting to ruin me. So far, so good, I am ahead. I do some writing, tolerably well, yes? And I do some thinking, embarrassingly shallow, no doubt. And, of course, I do some reading that aids me in all this, and provides satisfaction like little else does: sex, writing, reading are my main pleasures, in that order. But I do more.
I wash the cars. I work out with weights. I love. In so far as my terrible constitution is capable, I love. I love my wife and my son and a few friends. I love my sister, and perhaps nobody else, truly. I love my God, as the idea of supreme goodness invested in one luminous, unfathomable mix that pervades the universe and that does not resemble a big man in the sky is enough to keep me going. I love writing and breaking the rules about details and all that shit. I love giving up on narrative, fuck that! And not expanding on the murderous episode. Rather, I love giving you, the reader, something that might be a little useful, practically.
I hope you love yourself with all that you have gone through and that you commit no murders in your life to brag about falsely, or to be ashamed of terribly. I hope for this fervently, and pray that instead of gripping a man’s throat in fury and watching his eyes widen in disbelief, you think twice, “Good Lord, what am I doing?” and loosen your grip, and let him up. And send him on his stupid way. “Get the fuck out of here! Just go! No, I don’t want to shake your hand. I don’t want your apology. Don’t come near me. I hate you and always will. Just get the fuck out of here, I said. It’s over.” Spin around. And cry and call out to God in the street the minute the bastard disappears. “I am lucky, the luckiest man in the world!”
I hope you dance a little two-step in celebration, with a tear-stained face aimed at the heavens. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am a sinner, a big, bad sinner beloved by you! I have been given everything! Why am I so ungrateful? Why am I so sinful? I almost killed a man tonight! Oh God, oh God, what have I become?” And repent, on your knees, in solitude. “Lord save a sinner from all that he shouldn’t be. Please God, save me from the worst.” And that you get up off the floor in your room shaken but stronger, and once you step outside, walk away in utter humility from the unruly crowd gathered at the corner of Hate and Vengeance, claiming your time is theirs. “Come on back and kick it with us, you know you like the action. It’s never boring. It’s one big, bad show where you’re in charge, hating yourself.”
“Nah, I ain’t got the time, man. I’m headed somewhere else.”
“The graveyard on Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. Calvary Cemetery.”
“To stand and cry over the grave of an old friend I almost killed once.”
“Myself.” Look back, once.
Shrug, and carry on.
You got a grave to put flowers on. You got plenty of mourning to do.
1. Not the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in case you suspect literary games. No. ↩
2. Sometimes preferring my formal name, Stephen D. Gutierrez, the D for David, a Jewish prince I identify with for moxie and luck.↩
3. She was classy enough to warn me that the word “classy” is vulgar. Shit on that, too! It’s a damn good word. She was also a word freak. Loved to read. Widely. Schlock. Tolstoy. Dostoevsky. The heavyweights.↩
4. God bless the internet. I just looked up White Memorial Hospital. It was founded by Seventh-Day Adventists, not Methodists. I don’t want to knock them, either. They provided a service for people without incomes for Beverly Hills surgeons. ↩
5. And I apologize, to both. “Sorry, Steve. Sorry, Dad.” Good thing he’s proud of me for getting on with my life, positively. In the realm of the dead, he and my mother cheer me on, holding fast to each other, leaning forward, and pumping their fists. “Go, Steve, go!” my mother says. My father approves of my testament. The dead know what we need to live, what we need to heal in our short time left on earth, we the wounded survivors, the innocent victims—the children. He loves me. He continues to love me. I honor him daily by the practice of my craft, his indomitable will to live strong in me. ↩
Stephen D. Gutierrez has published three books of stories and essays. Live from Fresno y Los won an American Book Award, and The Mexican Man in His Backyard is his most recent. He has published widely in magazines and anthologies, including nonfiction in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Alaska Quarterly Review and Cleaver Magazine. He is working on a collection of essays and hybrid nonfiction. He teaches at California State University East Bay.