Anywhere you looked around Otay, Chula, National, you’d find charred vatos

Someone shot my nephew in the head and set him on fire

Children's gravestones, Holy Cross Cemetery. Mostly, I tell this story for all the burning bad boys and girls out there, all you killers in your khakis and Impalas, all you rucas with your big hair and you dead-eyed young vatos with your little tattoos and mustaches.
  • Children's gravestones, Holy Cross Cemetery. Mostly, I tell this story for all the burning bad boys and girls out there, all you killers in your khakis and Impalas, all you rucas with your big hair and you dead-eyed young vatos with your little tattoos and mustaches.
  • Image by Craig Carlson

As I drove through the small maze of ramps leading from 805 to Holy Cross Cemetery, I realized again how much San Diego has changed.

On every corner of the intersection, facing every possible direction of traffic, stood white men in shabby clothes, holding up cardboard signs. VETERAN, they said. And WILL WORK FOR FOOD.

And HUNGRY CHILDREN, and ALMOST HOMELESS ALREADY HUNGRY. San Diego’s usual sun beamed down upon us, giving the false impression of goodwill. WHY LIE — I JUST WANT A DAMNED BEER. I was on my way to bury my nephew.

Someone shot him in the head and set him on fire, a new ritual certain Chicano youths lately found compelling. It seemed that anywhere you looked around Otay, Chula, National, you’d find charred vatos lying abandoned in dead fields. Sometimes tucked into the trunks of burning cars. Word on the street that month had it that young gang-bangers looking to get into a crew were offered this supreme test of heartlessness as a rite of passage. The families, always the families, were left to sift — quite literally — through the ashes.

Holy Cross is the most pleasant island in the dullness of the east end of the city. It’s almost a park. They’ll warn you to be careful visiting your dead, that Gs and hoodlums looking to jack mourners sometimes prowl the boneyard. Signs discreetly suggest you lock your car, you hide your valuables. What better place than a cemetery to bury your illusions?

I got there an hour early. Of course, among Mexicans, being on time is a relative concept. Like many families, we are scattered and alien to each other in many ways. We are regularly brought together by the gravity of sorrow: funerals and wakes reunite us. Weddings, too. We are a modern American clan. And like satellites come close from distant and oblique orbits, we observe each others’ faces for telltale signs of erosion, new rifts, upheavals. Across the open graves, we stare into our siblings’ eyes, wondering which of us will be the first of our generation to die. So far, it’s the kids and little cousins. AIDS, a spine nearly shot out from a point-blank cap from a .44 Mag, now this terrible fire. So I arrived an hour early, hoping someone would come early, too, and in the coolness of the mausoleum, we could be a family.

The work crews were inside, setting up the small altars and podiums. No one else had arrived yet. I stood there looking at the stained glass, feeling the weight of all the dead tucked into the marble walls. The vaults rise heavy above you, dense with the burden of history and dust. And it dawned on me. It started to creep up my legs like a chill. I’d been there before. Those vaults were heavy, I suddenly realized, with my own tears.

You see, I am not really here to tell you about my nephew. He was loved by his family and his homeboys, and he died a lonely death. What lies beyond that is neither your nor my business. But the changes between his age and mine, the burden of my own dead hopes in the walls at Holy Cross, that is what I want to tell you.

In the 1970s I saw the best person I will ever know tucked into these walls. She was not my blood, but she was the best family I have found. And in the hard alleys where I grew up, her garden was the best refuge I could find. Until the evil came.

I have tried to write about her and her world since I was a boy. The words have always failed me. They may fail me now.

Imagine this: I had come from Tijuana at age three with a wicked dose of infantile tuberculosis. My mother worked at an old store on Broadway, now torn down and forgotten, just like her. My father worked at the cannery, packing fish. Then he went up to Hillcrest, where there was a bowling alley. Gone, too: rubble and dust, like my dad. In its place, ironically enough, there’s a taco stand that bears his name. An inadvertent monument to heartbreak.

Beside him, cutting tuna that came through in slabs as big as sides of beef, a strong old pearl diver from Mexico named Nino. And one day, over coffee, my father told Nino that I was sick and that no one wanted to care for me during the day for fear of my cough. And Nino didn’t even blink; he said, “We’ll take him home.” And the family did just that. They took me home.

Home was a plot of land on a small street in National City. You don’t need to know the address; it’s gone now too, or its spirit is gone. It is obscured from the traffic on I-5 by rows of warehouses, but you could find it if you really looked. It is in sight of the steeple of a small Catholic church. All you will find now, of course, is a house, the fossilized shadow of a lush yard. When I knew it, the land was alive and strange and over-brimming with magic.

Nino was married to that person I learned to love above all others. Her name was Tanya. We children, and there were many of us who came under her care, including grown men and my own mother, all of us children under her hands, called her Tía. Tía Tanya.

She was small and had a beautiful Indian face. She knew secrets of the deserts and the spirit. Though she wasn’t officially a curandera or an hechizera, she had the gift. Life burned in her hands, and she could bring a lost fledgling bird to life or soothe cramps out of a woman’s belly. Both she and Nino worked herbs, raised plants, and fixed the injured and ill.

Her hair was coiled at the back of her head in a tight bun. Once, I stumbled upon her with the braid undone, a curtain of hair all down her back, glistening black and gray. I had never seen so much hair. And she allowed me the blessing of watching her brush out her secret, work the brush down the cascade, and she laughed at my awe as I sat on the floor and stared.

Her daughter—now a toothless woman living in the factory shadows of west National and wondering what the hell happened, turning grayer every year, starting to wear the huge black and blocky old-lady shoes all the viejitas of that distant time wore like part of a uniform, her hip-sway love of dancing consumed by arthritis and unfed longing for the love of a man — used to bathe me when I was an infant and she was a delicious girl in her teens. “I used to wash your pee-pee,” she’d tease, until I got old enough to hold her in an embrace, touch her pillowy breasts, and show her that pee-pee again. “Will I get pregnant,” she asked, “if I play the flute?” Playing the flute was a countrified way to say fellatio, of course. And I never could convince her that babies went in one part of the belly, while tortillas and frijoles fell into another region entirely.

Today, in the absence of love, we each live in a graveyard.

Relatives wandered into the small chapel. The gay boy everybody said had AIDS was so furious, no one could talk to him. He stormed around casting fiery glares at all of us, his elders, his every sneer saying. You killed him. Everybody looked away, feeling, as all families in a tragedy seem to feel, that we could have should have might have done something. Anything. A fatherly talk, a $5 loan, a little more time, a 12-step meeting, more quality family time. Hell, he had a family. He had children and a woman. He was a wonderful, sweet man. But those God-damned cholos and the shining needle were his true home. Vatos, homeys, raza, his boyz, carnales. A bullet in the head. The gulping of the gas can, unloading over his chest. The scratch of the match. The billow of flame. The roar.

Outside, there came the flat crack of small-arms fire. It’s such a cliche that I’m ashamed to write it. Pop-pop-pop! A short pause, and somebody with a Logan Heights special opened up, full auto, for a short burst: br-r-r-r-at! The other adults in the pews, unused to this young man’s world, barely stirred. I could see it in their faces: Firecrackers. Car tires squealed, almost inaudible in the chapel, like mosquitoes in spring air. Like a final farewell, the shooter with the .38 busted a couple of last rounds, pop-pop: Don’t come round here no more. Hear what I’m sayin’? Outside, it was bright and cheerful, blandly twittering with California birds, sprinklers announcing themselves: fip-fip-fip. When we stepped outside, I noticed a small group of young men with knit caps on their heads, Pendleton shirts, eyeing us. Peeking at the cars. Off to the side, under the nostalgic trees. A lock-n- load picnic. Every one of them, I’d wager, recently confirmed in a special Mass.

There were so many of us. A couple of us were stone killers, probably packing in case a carload of Hoyo Maravilla or Varrio Trece or Del Sol bangers drove by. The hairnet brigade of my nephew’s set were certainly hiding automatics in their big black pants. And the rest of us were just too many, an army, one family’s personal browning of America. The homeys by the trees didn’t do shit. They need night, anyway, to act. Night, numbers, and a fast car.

What was left of my nephew was so small, it could fit into a coffee can.

The writer Gregory McNamee says, “Memory is a web on which black widows dance.” How true. My every childhood memory outside of Tía and Nino’s yard is colored by the idiotic streets of those barrios. Thugs and winos still haunt the hood, standing on the corners stinking of Mad Dog and funk, fingering themselves. Little badass JDs who are now battered veteranos with their own troubled children still have brass knuckles in their pockets. Stray dogs chase us off the dead lawn between the slumping apartments, biting us on the ears when we fall down. The weapons of choice are still the switchblade and the shotgun. These Macs and Uzis the boys pack today would have been an astonishment as huge as a stealth fighter plane strafing the Alamo. Everybody’s immortal in bad dreams.

Inside the walls of that yard, though, another order ruled. We lived by the schedules of nature. Our codes of behavior came across the Mexican deserts and had tribal profundity and seriousness and Coyote’s sly grin. We walked through the day in a cloud of unexamined magic — we didn’t know it was magic; we thought the world had plenty of it to go around. And among the bloomings and healings and tree frogs and miracles, we had time to watch wrestling on television, to make ourselves sick on wine grapes, and to stare, astounded, at the gruesome crime-scene photographs in ¡Alarma! magazine.

The house stirred before dawn — its various women attuned to the subliminal screech of the bedsprings as restless Nino, got up and slipped on his slippers. That slight rusty sound awoke the women, and they lay in the glow of their own warmth in their beds and listened to him shuffle, fart, hawk and spit, and go to the toilet, where he let a torrent rip with horsey gusto. Then his suspenders would snap, and he’d move through the darkness of the house, feeling like he’d overslept at 4:30.

He knew every inch of that place. He’d built it himself. He didn’t need lights. He didn’t even touch the furniture as he maneuvered around all the barriers. The light would be barely visible in the kitchen, through its high windows, and he’d get two raw eggs out of the bin and crack them into a big glass. Then he’d fill the glass to the brim with deep red wine made from his own grapes in vats he’d hammered together in his own yard, and he’d guzzle it down, slam the glass on the counter, and say, “Ah!” Then, happy as could be, he’d go out into the dawn and totter around, making jolly music as he went, drunk not entirely on the dawn, but happy to be alive. He carried a list in his head every day of Very Important Chores. These involved lots of digging, hammering, sawing, burning, and digging some more. Then watering. Then small details: stuff that required pliers, a screwdriver, a knife and a whetstone, lots of twine.

These were his prayers.

Tía Tanya creaked out of bed after Nino was already outside. She’d dress, say a few prayers, perhaps a few rosary beads, and tie on her apron. She greeted every day by putting on a tender white cotton apron so soft and old you could tear it with a hard stare. And then she’d be into the kitchen, already grouchy because her daughter was a layabed at 5:00.

Coffee first, in the big blue pot. The girl would be in the kitchen by then, rinsing out the glass Nino had left her and half- guilty because she took so long to get up. She always called her parents “Usted,” our leftover Spanish honor of calling someone Thou. Can you imagine a gang-banger today calling his mama Usted? Or a pinche little vato getting up before noon? El Lil’ Wino, El Louie Loco, El Flaco bowing his head and saying Usted as Mama gives him a long list of errands to do?

“Empty the chamber pots, mi'jo. ”

“Say what, Yo? You out you fuckin’ head or what?”

While the daughter started the daylong alchemy of making food (tortillas made from scratch — loose flour and water and lard in a huge pan; beans made from scratch — rattling like dominoes on the table as she sorted the hard pintos, casting seeds and pebbles aside with flicks of her speeding fingers), Tía went into the day as well. Out into the yard, wiping the water off her hands on the eternal apron and looking around to see what God had wrought.

But she and Nino rarely shared the yard. He puttered at his end, sometimes pausing to wave at her, and she headed in her own direction. Tía enjoyed the true liberation of having her own work to do. The feminism of sweat.

His was a world of food: cabbage, beans, grapes, fruit trees. Hers was a world of medicine and beauty: carnations, mints, herbs, roses. Sometimes they’d come together, bending over some natural wonder that applied to each of them: sweet peas were good. He shucked pods, and she delighted in the flowers. They had dog faces. You could make each blossom stick out its tongue.

Outside, you could get beat up. I did. You could get stabbed. I almost did. You could be shot, but it was harder then than it is today. Inside the walls of the garden, however, the world was safe. We used to call it the Garden of Eden. But what’s a paradise without the snake?

It’s a terrible story, and we all know it too well. And it's part of the rot that has set in. The slow dying of the light outside the garden gates had to seep in somehow. It’s as though the sunlight, harsh in those bloodied alleys, gave way to something dimmer and, in its dimness, more brutal. A fungoid gray gleam, a spore-laden wind that overtook us. The gang-bang light, the welfare and nose-candy and drive-by and talk-show light. The sickening glow as my nephew burns.

I used to scoff at Nino when he bitched. “Life didn’t used to be like this,” he’d say. “In the old days....” Yeah, yeah, yeah. The old days. This morning, however, I found a white hair in my beard. Not gray — white. And I was thinking, In my day, things were I pondered another appalling news story.

Well, in my day, damn it, even the most hapless vato still spoke Spanish. I see my own blood relations caught in a netherworld where nobody speaks Spanish, but they don’t speak English either. The gap in language creates a gap in thought, and the gap in thought creates a gap in culture, and the gap in culture creates a gap in reason and moral choices. If you doubt me, consider the case of my other nephew, we’ll call him Petey. Petey took part in what can only be called a gang rape. He recounted the story blandly, as if telling me about a ball game.

“We was swoopin’ on her, like, 20, 21 dudes.”

“My God, Petey. How could you do that! Didn’t it make you sick to do something like that?”

“Sick? Why? I didn’t get sloppy seconds or nothin’.”

We dreamed of something, anything, beyond the confines of National Avenue, Palm, 24th Street. People dreamed of being mailmen, soldiers, ball players, storekeeps, teachers, nuns, nurses. I dreamed of being a writer. But something happened.

Everybody knows it. Pete Wilson tried to run for president on the Something Happened ticket. Tom Metzger, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Clinton, and Mayor Golding can be seen through their windows, wondering, What happened?

I’ll tell you what happened to me.

The dark at the edge of the dying light consumed me.

The dying of the light didn’t just eat the Chicanos. Black men crumbled, white men crumpled. Something blew in, some odd seed, and it put down roots and started strangling California. You can’t tell me you haven’t seen it. It killed your garden, too. It always started with a small sprout, some dire little tale like mine, and it grew and it grew and nobody knows what to do with its poisoned fruit. Because, as it grew, as it killed off the dreams, nothing came in to replace it. And nobody knew how to fix the damage.

For Tía and Nino, the new breed was represented by a hepcat grandson named Filiberto. Filiberto was a family hero, playing the Mexican Eddie Haskell role. He was tall, he was handsome, he graduated from high school, and he could play the saxophone. He’d roar through family get-togethers on that dreaded thing like a dying elephant. On fast numbers, he sounded like battling crows. Filiberto was always ready with a compliment or a well-timed joke. Filiberto always carried the groceries. Filiberto, you can be sure, was always eager to say Usted. And Filiberto was the only person I have ever known that I could call truly evil.

Filiberto went on to a successful career in law enforcement, no doubt murdering hookers and motorists and dumping their bodies in canyons all over San Diego County.

The story is terrible because it is so common.

Filiberto’s great secret joy was pain. Often, on his visits, he’d get me aside and pummel me. Okay, I could take a beating. It was what happened. Only it was supposed to happen outside.

And one day, the last sunny day in the garden, he came to collect me and took me to a secret spot. There he had manufactured crosses with Nino’s wood and hammers. And on these crosses, he had crucified animals: rodents and amphibians were nailed to the wood, small nails pounded through their hands. It was a miniature scene out of Spartacus, the crosses angled in the dirt, and the tortured small martyrs straining against the nails, trying desperately to pull themselves off the crosses, trying to get back into the vibrant green of the cinnamon and lemongrass of the garden.

Filiberto had a razor blade. And he was laughing. It was such a happy moment for him. And he cut them open, liberated their guts from their living bellies. Then he pulled the nails out and laughed as they twitched and crawled across the ground, dragging their own insides behind them. Then he jumped on them and spun on their crushed bodies, their agony the grease that lubricated his demented spinning.

That night, late, I awoke. He had his fist in my hair, his other fist cocked and ready to hit me. And his penis was in my mouth. “Play the flute, Junior,” he said. And he exploded down my throat.

Before he left, he whispered, “Remember what happened on the cross.”

I tell this story for those who had a garden too.

I tell it for those who have buried a homeboy. But mostly, I tell it for all the burning bad boys and girls out there, all you killers in your khakis and Impalas, all you rucas with your big hair and you dead-eyed young vatos with your little tattoos and mustaches. Because I wonder how many of you are carrying a Filiberto on your back. How many of you never dared tell anyone. How many of you never got payback. And you suddenly saw the light of spring turn that wicked gray.

Tell the truth — Who is it you are shooting? For reals, as you like to say. Who hurt you? The only thing we can plant in the garden now is truth. What else can prevail against the hopeless growth all around us?

I stayed away from the garden more and more. It wasn’t a conscious act. I just lost my enthusiasm for them. I got busy. I got sophisticated and couldn’t bear to hear another ranchera or mariachi song. Not when I was listening to the Doors and Hendrix.

It must have hurt them, that blessed family who had no idea what happened. Apart from a few phone calls and a very rare Christmas visit, I simply faded away.

And then the unspeakable happened. Worse by far than Filiberto.

Tía died in her own house from a massive heart attack, her family beside her. I was not there to see it. Nino died later, and I was not there either. The magical daughter grew old, and I did not hold her.

These thoughts were heavy on my mind at Holy Cross. The various warring and alienated clans of my family stood in a rough circle and kissed each other. The fake sun beat down. There was a faux-velvet drape over the tiny hole they’d carved out for my nephew.

One of the vatos stepped up to it and said, “Peace.”

Yeah, peace. Wouldn’t that be nice.

I walked back inside after the family began to disperse, and I found Tía and Nino. Their nameplates were on their vaults. I laid my face against the cold marble. I hadn’t been this close to them since 1972. I started to cry.

There is a blank spot where the daughter will be inserted near her mother. I don’t know if one of the other empty vaults will hold Filiberto when his time comes. I hope it will. Maybe he’ll finally find a moment’s rest, the fevers of blood in his skull stilled at last. Peace, Phil.

I know there is no space there saved for me.

I said a quick prayer and walked away, went out the back gate, out east of Eden, and I find myself out here still, watching the columns of fire and wondering which way to go.

— Junior Garcia

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