"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing."

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Beautiful Season

My entire childhood was a process designed to push me to manhood or kill me

It's not clear who spotted the cat first. Word of the sighting quickly spread to all the farms on the western slope of Red Mountain. It was a mountain lion (un gato montes) folks whispered, though in reality it turned out to be a rather large bobcat. The alarm was raised and all kids were ordered to stay inside and not stray into the fields or the mesquite bushes. 

One morning, my father ordered me up at dawn, after breakfast we drove out into the fields. The fact that he brought a rifle with him was exciting, something was up.  We drove to the edge of a remote irrigated field, my dad stopped the truck and in short order shot two jack rabbits (which he made me retrieve) after tying the hindlegs together he slung them on a fence post.

The two of us then retreated into the milo, (which was 4-5 feet high that time of year) we squated down and we waited.... and waited.... after an hour or so, my dad ended the stakeout. "Por aqui anda el gato" he assured me, as we examined a number of feline tracks in the damp earth. The big cat was near and we were about to spook him out. 

Right about then I'm thinking we should just leave that old mountain lion alone. My father had other plans, he handed me a stick and had me walk along beating the sorghum stalks while he held the rifle ready to gun down the feline in mid-rush. We criss-crossed the field a few times to no avail, finally he called off the lion hunt. 

A black ant had made its way up my trouser leg and on the way home it bit my testicles, I sat there in excrutiating pain without saying a word. Much to my relief, Dad let me stay home that afternoon. I took a fitful, fevered nap, my balls were on fire and I couldn't tell anyone, least of all my mother. Many years later, I ran into a fellow who had grown up on the farm next to us, he told me they had cornered and shot that bobcat. Somehow I felt cheated, that was our cat to kill.

Eventually this need to drive me away, drove a wedge between us 

The fields were watered by a network of cement lined irrigation ditches, which were fed from a reservoir (tank, tanque) Most of these tanks were lined with trees (weeping willows & alamos  mostly) and populated by some of the biggest damn bullfrogs you could ever find. 

The bullfrogs had a nasty habit of migrating into the irrigation ditches and then getting sucked into the pvc pipes watering the rows. It was determined that any bullfrog caught in a ditch should immediately be dispatched to meet his maker. Catching them was another problem, like I said... they were big and their legs kicked out like goddamn mules (so it seemed to a seven year old)

My dad had me strip to my underwear and jump into the ditch (about 3.5 feet deep) Then he told me to get the bullfrog. I reached for it and it kicked violently, I started to panic and tried to climb out of the ditch. "Get back in" my father yelled, which he emphasized by hitting me with a black pvc pipe. I thrashed into the water and grabbed the bullfrog again, it kicked away from me. The pvc pipe came down on my back, "Get the Bullfrog" my dad yelled, I tripped and went face first into the water. I came up gasping and spitting, "Get the bullfrog" I heard, followed by the sting of pvc. 

This time I grabbed hold of the frog's legs and held on for dear life. I stood there holding it as it tried to break free. I had conquered my fear "I got him, I got him" I yelled out. My dad rushed over with a gunny sack. "Good" he said "now let's get some more"  So it went, I never faulted him for being excessive, turning a goofy kid like me into a man was a tough job.

He was unconventional, this was something I noticed about him when I was a child.

Alvino Aguirre was an extraordinary man, a composer of thoughts and letters, a connoisseur of a wide range of music and books. He was an urban man who spent most of his life in a small town, far too intelligent for the menial jobs he labored at his entire life. I knew him mostly as a farmer, he took pride in his work on the farm, even if he was just a farmhand. 

I recall how he would point out the straightest neatest furrows and tell me "Those are mine"  We would squat next to cotton plants as he peeled apart a cotton boll to show me how healthy and clean it was. He would measure the passage of time by the height of the cotton, "When it's this high, you'll start school", he reminded me, holding his hand about five feet off the ground.

My siblings all have their memories and stories about how they related to Alvino. The family being so large mandated that each child would forge their own relationship with him. All are unique, a few carry only pleasant memories and others grew up with mixed feelings. Some of us felt the sting of verbal and physical lashings, others didn't.  

I grew up the only boy in a large family, because of that I bore the brunt of my father's expectations and disappointments. As men the dynamic between us was different from that of my sisters. I don't know what he expected from me... he never said. I do know this, that as an adult, I'm a mirror image of him in every way... for better or worse.  

The last time I saw him he was already bedridden, wasting away from the cancer that would kill him. As I walked into the room he tried to cover himself, ashamed that I would see him in that condition "Aqui me tienen" he said, before he closed his eyes. I don't know what went through his mind: tractors, bullfrogs, bobcats, mountains?... The cotton was tall... fall was upon us and it was time for the harvest.

"In the happiest of our childhood memories, our parents were happy, too."  

Monday, August 15, 2011

Gas, Food, Lodging

Gas, Food, Lodging was Allison Anders first solo project. She signed on as the director  and wrote the screenplay herself, which is an adaptation of Richard Peck's novel "Don't Look and It Won't Hurt."  The title of the movie refers to those omnipresent signs that direct travelers off the interstates and into travel plazas or truck stops.  The highways cut through the heart of many small American towns, all dependent on a steady flow of traffic. Behind each sign, the drama of small town affairs is played out amongst the wax and wane of transitory travel and commerce.

I would be a fan of Allison Anders, even if she had never set foot in this dust blown town. Anders an American film screenwriter and director, is perhaps best known for "Mi Vida Loca" a movie that takes an eyes wide open look at gang life in Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood (where Anders happened to reside when the film was made) It's a gangsta paradise tale of dope sliggin' Ernesto and his mini truck "Suavecito" as told by the women in his life. "Mi Vida Loca" was a success at the box office, but it would do even better in the rental stores, becoming an established Hispanic favorite with a cult like following. 

For Gas, Food, Lodging, Allison and her production team arrived in Deming in 1991 and started filming in and around town. Nora the character played by Brooke Adams is a truck stop waitress. Which made Deming's rundown and sleazy Truck Terminal the primary location for filming. The trailer park where Nora and her two daughters, Trudi (Ione Skye) and Shade (Fairuza Balk) live is located adjacent to the truck stop. Even in 1991, living there would've placed them at the bottom rung of the town's social and economic ladder.  

The entire crew stayed at Deming's Holiday Inn, which was the only motel  that could cater to the Hollywood folks. With a lounge/bar, a restaurant and room service, it was as close to luxury as they would get in this town. In researching this story I went there to see if after all these years I could dig up any dirt. There was one lady who started working there in 1990, that I spoke to. When I inquired about the film crew, the only thing she seemed to recall was that "The girl in The Waterboy stayed here" "Fairuza Balk?" I asked, in an attempt to jog her memory. She looked at me like I was speaking in a foreign language "I didn't know her name, but I took her room service calls, she was nice."  That was the total extent of my research. 

Nora and her daughters live in a small town along I-10 in Southern New Mexico. There is no mention of Deming in the movie, because the name was changed to Laramie. In all actuality the story could take place in any part of the country. The fictional town in Peck's novel is named Claypitts, "The Pearl of the Prairie" and is within a couple hours drive of Chicago. Claypitts like Deming is on an Interstate. Peck's matriarch is a hostess and waitress at the Pull off Plaza, "How's that for real class?" her youngest daughter snidely remarks.

The movie deals with the ongoing battle between Nora and her oldest daughter Trudi, who has almost no redeeming qualities, "I'm the dominant female in this house, you're both following my cycle." Trudi yells at her mother and sister. Shade escapes from the drama at home by watching old black & white Mexican melodramas at the town's nearly empty theater. Deming had such a theater once, The Luna. The English speaking (i.e. white or Hispanic) moviegoers went across the street to the Mimbres Theater (the scenes that show Shade in the theater were filmed there)

Shade plots ways to get a man back into her mother's life, so they can live like a normal family. She unwittingly sets her mom up for a dinner date with the married man Nora had just broken up with. Shade describes him this way "I could tell he was no loser. He had on the clothes of a teamster and boots from Spain... or at least El Paso" Tony Lamas, no doubt.  Nora takes Ray showing up at her door in stride, leading to this classic dialogue:
Ray: What line of work are in, Ms. Evans?
Nora: I'm a brain surgeon, Raymond
Nora: How about you?
Ray: I'm a grave digger myself and I'm digging my own as we speak....rapidly.
Nora: That makes two things you do quick

Heartbroken, Shade confides in her friend, Darius a flamboyant teenager,  who she discovers is gay when she tries to seduce him. As Nora had predicted Trudi gets knocked up by some British rockhound, who seemingly bails on her (after having sex with her inside an abandoned mine..kinky!)

Trudi is quickly put on a bus to Dallas (a few Deming gals made that same journey) Nora then meets up with a cocky satellite installer named Hamlet Humphrey, who after she rejects both his advances and sales pitch tells her "Maybe TV just ain't what you need, lady" Shade is now on a quest to find her daddy, John Evans (James Brolin) After a chance meeting he gives her a ride home. Later he tells her "I ain't shit... but I'm your old man, darling. (typical way for Deming dads to introduce themselves to their kids) John is living with another woman now and Shade's subsequent visit is awkward. When Shade tells Nora that she's met up with her father, Nora responds "And he doesn't even bother to call us? He just stalks us like the coward he always was!"  However, all is well that ends well. Shade hooks up with Javier (Jacob Vargas), the cholo who Trudi calls a wetback at the start of the movie. It turns out that Hamlet Humphrey did have what Nora needed (and he was right, it wasn't television)

Both Nora and Shade travel to be with Trudi when she has her baby, afterwards Shade asks Trudi if she'll return to Laramie, "Laramie's a shit hole" Trudi answers "There's nothing there, except a lot of bad memories" which also happens to be the new slogan used by The Deming Chamber of Commerce.  Back in Dem...err! Laramie, Shade stumbles on the truth about Trudi's baby daddy. Seems the dumbass Brit, fell into a mine shaft and was killed. That's why he never returned to own up to his responsibilities. Shade decides not to tell Trudi, at least not right away. 

Richard Peck is an adequate writer and Allison Anders is always an excellent screenwriter. Anders skillfully weaves the mundane everyday routine of life in a small New Mexico town into a tapestry of quiet (and not so quiet) desperation. 
 J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. provided some of the soundtrack music and also makes an appearance as 'The D.J. from L.A." who tries to force his way into Tanya's (Shade's other friend) house, and gets bitch slapped by John Evans, who shows up delivering liquor to underage girls, what a buzz kill.  

Monday, August 8, 2011

You'll Always Walk Alone

I am a Catholic, lapsed...perhaps, disillusioned...maybe, but Catholic nonetheless. I was steeled into my unbending faith by the iron doctrine of Sister Rosalie. You've heard all the stereotypes of stern nuns rapping knuckles with rulers, pulling kids up the stairs by the ear, forced repetitions of the Hail Mary etc.,  Sister Rosalie embodied each and every stereotype. The good Sister was a tough Chicana from San Antonio, by devoting herself to Jesus Christ she spared some poor sap from a miserable marriage...no doubt.  

Sister Rosalie was quick to draw the sword in defense of her beliefs. After the reading of the holy rosary when my mother passed away, our landlord, who fancied himself a Pentecostal preacher went forward to offer a eulogy. It was touching and heartfelt, as I sat there crying Sister Rosalie slid into the seat behind me and hissed into my ear "Who is he? and who told him he could speak" I just shook my head as sobs convulsed through my thin frame. Sister Rosalie was livid, I feared she would lead me to the gates of hell (by the ear of course)  

It was Sister Rosalie that  had brought us word of our mother's passing. She did so in a gentle and caring manner. The Sisters reassured us that we weren't going to be alone and somehow the pieces would fall back in place. You don't know if your faith is true, until you're tested. A long time ago, I figured out that the best way to stay devoted to my faith was to not attend mass...ever!  This allowed me to keep a fresh perspective. I always suspected that there was something queer (no pun intended) about the priesthood, altar boys and celibacy. 

Even as a kid, I knew that it wasn't natural. Then again by my own tally by the age of 10 I was already hopelessly doomed to hell. This really bothered me, so much so that I broached the subject to Sister Rosalie "Sister, how can I keep from going to hell?" I asked, "For starters" she said "Recite 100 Our Fathers and 100 Hail Marys" It was a small price to pay, especially since I lost count after a few minutes. 

The Southwestern version of Jim Crow wasn't as heavy handed as that of the antebellum South. Deming's two Catholic churches were divided along racial lines. St. Anne's (for Hispanics) and Holy Family (for Anglos) since we lived closer to Holy Family that's where my dad sent us. Holy Family had been founded by Slovakian, Hungarian and German immigrants, who along with the odd Irish, preferred to keep their cathedral lily white.  

That was starting to change, but it still meant going fist city with a few white kids. I wasn't a fighter, fisticuffs did not appeal to me. And yet it was a marathon beating dealt out to the city manager's son, that caused me to be tossed from the flock. Funny thing is, I don't remember why the fight started in the first place. It was racial of that I'm certain, but I hardly knew him. 

The boy had nothing but he kept coming, he was built like a tank yet didn't land a single punch, he just bulled ahead. I peppered his face with punches, his buddies egged him on from the top of the basement stairs. I fell into a routine of jab..feint, cross.. feint, combination..feint, he kept charging at me. I grew tired of the game, but honor and pride were at stake, so I continued with the lesson plan.

Finally, like Morante del Pueblo it was time for the kill... I had mastered the bull. I reared back and landed a haymaker to his nose... the claret started to flow, his supporters groaned in unison and then vanished into the wind. His knees buckled, but HE KEPT COMING! Jesus Christ! jab..feint, cross..feint, combination.. feint. His blood was on my knuckles, his face was a red mask, to make matters worse he was wearing a white shirt. It was fucking gruesome, but like a good matador I had to see it through.

I reached way back for the kill shot.....then I heard an ungodly scream "MEEERCY BOY! WHAT HAVE YOU DAAWN!!"  It was Sister Rosalie! I don't know if the blood made her scream or the fact that he was the son of a very influential man (His dad besides being City Manager, was a Major General in the New Mexico National Guard, politically connected and a friend of the Father) Either way I found myself in the shit, she clamped on to my ear and rudely dragged me up the stairs.... excommunicated, Deming style. I was to set foot in the old parish hall no more. Her last words to me: "Aguirre! you will never see the gates of heaven" 

A tip o' the hat to the sons of Eire, 
you hard headed bastards ye'
for you can beat on a boyo
till your arms grow weary 
but the fight is not over
until the Irish say so!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Nuestra Señora de las Sombras

 "Dios me cuida y ella me guia" (God protects me and she guides me)

Death is not an emotion, it's an inevitable conclusion. The emotional aspect is a human element, for in death.. to our limited knowledge, nothing is felt. The tallyman tallies our sins and sends us down the appropriate path. The merchants of death stand in line with everyone else, awaiting judgement for their foul deeds.  Even stone cold killers believe themselves worthy of redemption in the face of God. 

Everyone, from the bosses down to the sicarios, wants the task accomplished successfully. To this end, they turn to the talisman with the most power to avert disaster.  Jesus Malverde was Sinaloa's version of Robin Hood, a common man transformed into a common criminal by circumstances. Malverde shared his plunder and when he met his fate at the hands of the police in 1909, his story entered into legend. Over the years he's been adopted by the narcos as their patron saint. However, the times they-are-a-changing, one consecrated charm no longer does the trick. The need for an all encompassing patron started to grow. One that would serve both traffickers and addicts, saints and sinners, the wealthy and the poor.

When death is omnipresent, why not turn to it for protection. Thus, Santa Muerte is the new religion ..the new flavor. The cult of Santa Muerte is a syncretism of Catholic and Mesoamerican beliefs mixed with Afro-Cuban rituals. Santa Muerte appears as a skeletal figure, clad in a long robe and carrying a scythe and a globe. (she may also hold an owl or an hourglass) In macabre motherly fashion, this matron looks after everyone without prejudice.

People with nothing to look forward to except death aren't concerned with doctrine. Thus, the declaration of the Catholic Church, that Santa Muerte is a cult with satanic overtones fell on deaf ears. Mexican authorities have linked devotees to prostitution, drugs, kidnappings and murder... but the same could also be said about Catholics ...in much greater number.

The cult of La Nina Santa has spread like wildfire. From the bodegas of New York City to the liquor stores of Chicago and the swap meets of Phoenix, there she is.  Across North America, Santa Muerte shadows Mexico's patron saint, La Virgen de Guadalupe. One represents rigid, unbending devotion, while the omniscience nature of the other forgives our human weaknesses.

The Lady of the Shadows is bestowed offerings of  money, flowers, brandy, rum and often a cigar is clenched between her teeth. People pray for protection, to win over lovers, winning lottery numbers, the death of an enemy, success in business or to move product across the border.  Along the roadsides of war torn Tamaulipas and Chihuahua, shrines to La Flaca are quickly destroyed by the Army. Can't have folks getting worked up over false prophets and shamans, they might lose faith in their government.

In times of darkness a ray of sunshine leads to a shining path, however, if death is your only hope, then you're at the end of your rope. Standing tiptoes on a stool with a noose around their neck has become second nature to most Mexicans. Instead of condeming the organic rise of Santa Muerte, the powers that be should offer alternatives ... fuck! who am I kidding? It's Mexico. My best advice for La Raza... stock up on cigars and rum, Santa Muerte seems to favor them.

The reaper's scythe grows dull from the harvest
this business of death... it affords him no rest
he reaps till they weep, yet they're not satisfied
pobre de ti... pobre de ti