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The Mexican Man in His Backyard

"The Big Fresno Fair"

I was living in Fresno and inviting my mom and aunt to visit us when they could. They came up often, on the train, disembarking at the charming station in downtown Fresno. I met them under the quaint tile roof, greeting them on the platform before driving them home, my mom calling out, “Yoo-hoo,” waving me down, and my aunt lugging a bag behind her, complaining all the way.

“Get in the car, Stephen,” my mother said. “Hay cholos around here.”

“Ay, don’t be so prejudiced,” my aunt said. “It’s just like home, LA.”

“It is, isn’t it?” I said, as we sat stopped in front of a taqueria. Brown buildings blended into the landscape. In LA, the working poor toiled in factories, not fields. Otherwise, the two cities shared a lot. I liked them both, these places where lower-middle-class Mexicans, like us, could feel good.

“Americans,” my mother reminded me, taking it in. “Mira nomas, look at how Mexican it is.”

But my aunt checked her. “See, Jo, it’s Mexican this, Mexican that. But everywhere you go, you want to see where the Mexicans live.”

“It’s true. I love my people,” she said, staring out the window. “But they’re so poor. I feel sorry for them.”

“Don’t be so condescending,” I said. “We’re no better.”

Then she agreed. “We’re not, are we? Just poor Mexicans, too.”

My aunt said nothing. She was the younger one: The rebel who had been a “career girl” into her late twenties, daring the barrio to call her an old maid, working as a secretary for a corporation and saving enough money to travel.

She went to Mexico. Mesmerized the natives. “The women stared at me like I was nuts, and the men, too! I was wearing Capris!”

She went to Hawaii. Broke a few hearts there. “They asked me to dance all night, those guys! But Bev got drunk and we had to cut it short! Crazy Bev!”

When she came back, she met him, Uncle Eddie, a tejano with a booming laugh and a love for fishing and good tequila, and her, of course! She got married and slipped into the life of us, giving birth to three boys and living in a nice house in San Gabriel. She tagged along with my mom everywhere. They visited me because they liked Fresno.

She was the hip one. She nudged me all the time.

We rolled into the driveway. My wife came out and helped with the bags. Then we made dinner and sat around talking. My kid toddled around. Those were good days, everybody happy, everybody content. Those visits were fun.

Fall stung the air. The scent of fields drifted into our living room. If it wasn’t true, you could imagine it, campesinos working the rows and rich, ripe fruit piling up on the ground. Fresno was enchanted and great.

We loved Fresno. Nobody complained, really.

On the third day of their vacation, my mom said, “Let’s go to the fair!” She spotted the ad in the newspaper. A bunch of grapes hung under a trellis that spelled out FRESNO.

We prepared to go, my wife staying home because she taught a class at the university that night, and my son buckled in, strapped into his car seat, secured in the back. We took off. We drove the streets to The Big Fresno Fair.

The fairgrounds are on the southeast side of town, a neighborhood with a history of its own, tough and proud. The streets are dark, the houses pleasant, not-too-shabby tract homes with additions and nicely tended lawns. Sometimes an eyesore blights the block.

“I think Joe lives here,” my mom said, referring to a relative of ours who lived in town. I didn’t know him.

“Around here, somewhere.”

“He does, doesn’t he?” my aunt said. We stopped in the middle of the block. It looked like any number of streets in LA, any of those streets in Rosemead, Montebello, Alhambra, Pico Rivera; it looked like my neighborhood back home, with an extra sadness. It seemed a little older.

“The Ferris wheel, how pretty,” my mom said.

The Ferris wheel circled in the night, brightly lit, neon streaks staying.

I like the sights of fairs; I like the sounds of fairs. I liked it all, walking around with my aunt and mom, Ben strapped in the stroller, wide-eyed and amazed.

We ate fair food and then fair dessert and kept walking around. We explored the big buildings with the gems and flowers and the livestock in the pens. We gazed into the eyes of the cows, waiting for answers. When they gave none, we laughed. Ben pointed to a ride, and we put him in a big orange fish, watching him go round. He shrieked with glee. His balled-up fists shook.

Then it was time to go home. We decided to call it a night. We stood on the concourse, watching the people. On the midway, la gente del valle had fascinated us, farmworkers spending their money on crazy games to impress their girlfriends, who hooked onto their tooled leather belts. Whole families carted stuffed animals bigger than any of them and beamed. When I bumped into a man in charge of a brood, I apologized; he gave me a smile. The fair atmosphere worked on us all.

Cholos sauntered past the booths with girlfriends clinging to them, but dove into a game on the sudden, pulling out wads of cash from baggy pockets. They acted cool with each other; bikers strolled the lanes, impressing their ladies with their own acumen. Blacks from the maligned west side blended in, sporting jackets from their high school. Nobody warred.

The Big Fresno Fair calmed. Peace entered into the night, and anybody caught stupid would be thrown out. Cops patrolled the grounds. On walkie-talkies, security kept in constant touch. A recent stabbing in Fresno wouldn’t ruin it.

Everybody enjoyed the fair.

It was time to head out. Then they started pouring in, kids from a different group, streaming through the turnstiles onto the concourse. They came in a horde, the hip-hop generation in numbers, kid after kid looking so severely disconnected they scared you, stepping in through the gate after the pat-down search, scowling on the concrete expanse, waiting to hook up with partners. Chicks, clumped together, swaggeringly bitched about the fucking looks somebody had given them.

Old-time cholos stepped aside, gathering their families. The tired and beaten didn’t have the energy to confront them. They didn’t want to save face. They wanted to get out of there.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” my mother said, “this is too much, this place.”

“Yeah, Steve, it’s a little rowdy now,” my aunt said.

We stood by the bathrooms watching the kids come in. Cops followed them with their eyes. Tough, mean kids taking over the fair, spreading and talking.

“Fuck him.”

“That bitch don’t know…”

Canned words came out of mouths twisted in anger. Eyes sought enemies to lay into.

“I’ll beat his fucking ass.”

We walked on. Behind us the fair streamed in violently bright colors. People screamed on rides and lights flashed.

“Did you see those two kids?” my mother said, when we got outside.

“Yeah, I did! The two nerds?”

“Yeah,” my aunt laughed with us.

Pooling their money at the entrance, they had been spotted. Two nerds, a chubby Chicano and a pimply white kid, customized for the evening with slicked-back hair and all the right clothes worn all wrong.

They reminded me of me. But I loved them for that.

“Do we have enough to get in?” came out of one.

“Count it, fool! We might have to break in!”

“That would be crazy!”

“Sometimes you have to do things anarchic.”

“Retro juvenile you mean.”

“Whatever.” They plotted their mischief. It meant finding a way in and using it.

“Did you hear them?” my aunt asked.

“Some of it.”

“What were they saying?”

“That they’re going to get in free and be bad, bad boys.”

We all started laughing, watching them skirt the entrance to another side of the fair.

They disappeared into the shadows.

A thug group approached us.

“Then I told that bitch I don’t need no shit from you. Know what I’m saying?”

“Fuck that bitch. Look at them bitches over there. Who those fools with them? They mad dogging us?”

“Hurry up, Stephen,” my mother said, elbowing me. “Let’s get out of here. Let’s go home.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of rough around here, Steve,” my aunt said, whispering under her breath. We had reached the parking lot and were crossing the street soon.

“It is,” I said. “And where were your Mexicans, Mom?”

“Everywhere,” she said, “spending their hard-earned money, like fools.”

“But having a good time,” my aunt said.

“Having a good time, I guess,” my mom said. “But those kids of theirs, this new generation, ay, what are we gonna do?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Wait until the poets arise and make sense of them.”

“Will they come from them?”

“Never,” I said, “they’ll come from the ones who talk straight.”

“And wear their pants up to their waists,” my aunt said, stopping at the car and laughing. She imitated the two nerds back there talking.

“Look at the Ferris wheel,” I said, “it’s still spinning.” I unbuckled my kid in his stroller and began to put him in his car seat.

“Hey, you, Mister Ben,” I told him.

He waved a fist at me.

I put it in my mouth and bit it. “Learn to speak around your fist. Don’t mumble.”

“What are you talking about there,” my mom said. She was standing beside me at the door.

“Everything,” I said, “important to me.”

Ben laughed. I kissed his hand and gave it back to him.

“Okay, Ben, you’re all set,” I said.

“Are you ready to go, then?” my mother said.

“I’m ready,” I said.

We paused for a second looking over the car at the Ferris wheel. Its radiant spokes kept turning in a circle of light.

Excerpts from "La Muerte Hace Tortillas"

My father was fine. There was nothing wrong with him, nothing. Just the opposite. Even with the rumors flying about him—that there was something, just a little something off there; just a little something to wonder about—he towered over most fathers because he was strong and tall and handsome. He held his own in our neighborhood and made me proud of him. I upheld his noble quality in my mind, even as I was washed in shame from an early age because of his deficiencies.

He was different. People told me something else after he died, mostly relatives who had known him for a long time but also some of his old-time buddies from work whom I hardly knew. “Your father was very nice. He had the manners of a prince. Something about him was very courteous and correct. Nice. Kind. Gentle. Decent.”

He was fine. But not in certain departments.

When it came to cussing, my father wasn’t one of the champions. He couldn’t compete with the best on the block, with the masters in the neighborhood. Fathers of the boys I hung out with, those guys—those pot-bellied men smelling of cigarettes and beer on a Saturday afternoon in a garage, hanging around a workbench. I’m talking about the pros here, the men I looked up to. Aggravated in my sense of my father’s incompleteness, I saw in them versions of absolute manhood. They were the real thing, the real deal.

The fuckmeisters, that’s who they were. “Fuck fuck fuck,” they said, in their manly domains, cussing out the world—their fucking bosses, the goddamn fucking hammer that had slammed their thumbs, the fucking government, the fucking wetbacks in the alley behind them, the fucking Okies at work, the fucking niggers, the fucking Japs, the fucking you-name-it Jews/communists/rich bastards, anybody remotely threatening them. Anybody responsible for their stunted lives. “Fuck them!” They cursed the neighbors next door playing the stereo too loud.

“Fuck!” It came trilling out of their pinched lips like a glorious afterbirth. At whoever. At whatever.

“Fuck those fucking assholes.”

My dad didn’t know how to sing this song, I thought, this F-song, couldn’t even strike a minor note in it— one fucking F-word was all I needed—and it set him apart that he didn’t know. He didn’t cuss properly. He said chingao. He muttered a quiet damn.

He had other things on his mind, maybe. Big things.

But I was waiting, waiting for him to show me. . . .

My old man sits erect behind the wheel of the old Falcon. “El Falcón.”

El Falcón has been handed down to us. My mother pleaded for it. When my single aunt moved up to a sporty Mustang to keep up with her set, my mother was on the phone with her.

It was coming on.

“Please, Ellie, give us your car, so I can put away a little money for when Alberto can’t work. I know it’s coming on. I know it’s going to be hard for a while before we get on our feet again. I’m going to have to apply for disability and…”

“Ay, that’s still a long ways away. Don’t think about it.”

“Not so long, Ellie. I can see it in his eyes. The way Estella and those relatives from his side of the family have described it. It’s coming on." . . .

“Teach me how to cuss, Dad.”

“What?” He hardly hears me.

But it’s on my mind having spent an afternoon with Gilbert and his dad yesterday, Mr. Murillo, probably the king of them all.

“Fuck” was probably tattooed on his chest before tattoos became so popular.

“I think there’s some kind of protest march today in East LA,” my dad says.

“I don’t care.”

“Me neither.” But on the way back from Builder’s Emporium, we notice a bearded Chicano tailgating us. We hear him honking at us.

Everything goes haywire for a second. I feel scared and alone.

But then my old man saves the day. But that’s not coming up for a while yet.

We haven’t even gotten there.


It was coming on. Then it was here.

Three or four years later it bowed into our lives in a fit of forgetfulness that took him from hospital to hospital until he got diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the closest the doctors knew to Huntington’s disease then, because my mother hid all the pertinent records documenting the incidents of the illness on his side of the family; she thought we’d be labeled nuts. The stigma was too much for her.

“Maybe it’ll just go away,” was the generational mantra. But it wouldn’t just go away.

“It’s just so horrible.”

It’s unbearable, not the shadow of it, but the absolute reality.

I cope with my own risk—50/50 go the odds at conception for the child of an afflicted one—with a simple plan. If I have it, if I start manifesting symptoms in the near future, I will show Jesus how to suffer. Not. I will take the gun to my mouth and blow my fucking brains out because I don’t want to die like that.

“It’s not dying that’s frightening me,” I keep telling a priest-counselor I see on occasion. “But dying like that.”

“But don’t you see it’s all part of life. It’s just another death.”

“It’s not just another death, Father. You don’t know. I can’t stand hearing about the suffering people have endured with cancer or whatever substitute they think is equal. The suicide rate for people at risk for this beast is astronomical. For a reason. It’s hellish.”

“It’s life.” He argues back, and I say my piece.

“You don’t get it unless you’ve seen it and are at risk for the same exact thing. I won’t even listen to anybody else on it. Bye!” We smile and hug because we love each other and care about each other and nothing else really matters much, does it?

“Take care.”

“I will.” I go out into the night fraught with anxiety. . . .