Born in Fowler, California, Juan Felipe Herrera is the author of Downtown Boy, winner of the 2007 Tomás Rivera Award. As a poet, educator, playwright and artist, Juan Felipe Herrera has worked with children, teachers and school districts throughout the United States since 1970. A UCLA, Stanford and Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate, he has written twenty-five books, including award-winning poetry collections, novels for young adults and bilingual picture books for children. His 2007 book, 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments (City Lights) won the Pen West Poetry Award. His most recent collection is Half of the Word in Light: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona Press). Currently, Juan Felipe is the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in the Department of Creative Writing at UC-Riverside. He loves cilantro, jalapeños, spinach and the color green.
(top row) Uncle Jeno, Uncle Roberto and Uncle Vicente Quintana. Fort Bliss, Texas, 1920
The apartment on 11th and C Street was a magical, two-sided box of amazing gifts.
In the sixties, while finishing middle school at Roosevelt Junior High, in San Diego, and during my first two years at San Diego High, Papa Felipe, Mama Lucha and I lived in that one-bedroom, facing the street. It was like all our other apartments – and not unlike our trailers, tarps and tents before that – with their thin walls, jalapeño-colored sheets speckled with starry holes, and giant, maple syrup-stained radios that buzzed, bopped and flickered songs all night long.
Like all our other living spaces, the apartment on 11th Street had two sides only. That’s all my little familia needed to survive, to dream and to live. One side faced the inside, made out of an unending stream of languages of time past. The other faced the outside – that uncanny, whirling splish-splash of chaos, unfiltered, untold.
The inside was burnished with Mama Lucha’s soft-voiced stories of coming to “Los United Estates” with her familia, los Martinez-Quintana. Each story of each Martinez-Quintana was like a volume leaning against the inside wall of our living room. If in a pensive mood, I would check out the story about my Uncle Vicente, a painter-sculptor, strong-willed, black haired, fast-paced and explosive.
One day, Uncle Vicente parked his sun-baked panel truck on 11th Street. He ambled in and asked for something to eat. “Going downtown,” he said. There, at La Plazita, in the center of town, he would prop up his bullfighter paintings against a bench, while people and doves fluttered around a green fountain. A few days later, he asked me “What do you want to do with your life?" “Paint,” I said feebly. It was true that I was interested in Cézanne, Van Gogh and Dalí, most of all, but only in a sleepy kind of way. “Then come with me!” he bellowed in one quick, dark phrase. “If you want to paint, you must do it! I’ll teach you everything I know – oils, acrylics, lithography, clay, silk-screen, cartoons. I’ve learned it all the hard way, Juan,” Uncle Vicente said, “with two fists!” he added, “In the twenties, I wanted to join the Surrealists in Europe. Now, I’ll give it all to you.” I stood there, mouth agape, by the window, next to my Reader’s Digest version of Marcus Aurelius. “Tell your mother, that’s all. We leave tomorrow.” His words punished me. “Tell her!” I did not say or do anything. Stood there frozen. Tío Vicente left the next day in his dusty,
truck. After he left, I dreamed of being a sculptor, a painter of jagged loud strokes on torsos and angels ascending rough skies. Then, I shuffled back to the books on my desk. Books I didn’t read, except for the poetry books – Leaves of Grass by Whitman, or Lorca’s Collected Works.
In a failed attempt to quell my emotions, I would pull out the story of my grandmother, Juana Martinez-Quintana, who married a well-dressed, Emiliano Zapata look-alike in Mexico City, a pulque-cantina man, Alejo Quintana – back in the late 1890’s. “When I was born, in 1907, my papa died, of fatigue,” Mama Lucha would tell me. “Then, it was up to Mamá Juanita, to fend for her eight children until the oldest, my brother, Jeno, figured out that with a letter to the president he could cut through the Mexican Revolution and head “al Norte” and join the US Army in Fort Bliss, a stone’s throw from El Paso, Texas.” Grandmother Juana and Mama Lucha were survivors. But, at first, I did not think that.
Tucked inside that invisible library of culture and family histories, there was also the story of my aunt, Aurelia Quintana, dressed in a holy garment with a painted halo over her head at the age of fourteen. Decades later, she worked in boiling laundries in San Diego and San Francisco. Tía Lela, I called her. To fulfill her only dream, Tía sent all her money to Atizapán de Zaragoza, a village on the periphery of Mexico City. “One day, I will return, Juanito,” she called to me while paging through the photo-album of her house-to-be, “and someday I will live there. Just look at the tile-work of my new floors and the bathrooms!” She exclaimed in the evenings as we sat down to eat pan dulce and drink watered-down coffee. Her return never took place – except perhaps only in an imaginary city that she strolled through on the way back from the laundry to her second-floor room in the Mission District of San Francisco.
One story that I knew by heart was my Uncle Roberto’s - a soldier stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, in the 20's; a Coca-Cola delivery man in El Paso; the proud owner of one sturdy black auto built by Henry Ford; a pioneer of radio comedy at the mega-station XEJ, in Juarez, Chihuahua; a longshoreman in San Francisco in the 40’s and Spanish language radio program innovator in the Bay Area in the 50’s. He wanted to be an actor and join his buddy, Tin-Tan, a famous movie-screen star at the height of the Mexican Cinema revolution of the 40’s and 50’s. But, like his father, Alejo, Tío Roberto had to support eight children and, in his case, remain in the US.
Inside the apartment all these and many more family stories came to life. Mama Lucha was a story-telling artist. She performed, sang, danced and mesmerized her audience of one – me. All I could muster up, however, was a droopy melancholy smile.
Outside the apartment, there were other things: objects, people, colors, sounds, signs, fragrances, explosions and temperatures, movies, games, incredible neon constructions towering over the metropolis, and the widening, opened-jawed depths of the war in Vietnam.
My father was a morning walker. Each morning, at about five, after frying eggs and potatoes, he would journey to La Plazita, sit and enjoy the sky lights, the clean ocean air, and wait for Mr. Kelly, the Irishman. They would talk about the day, about Mexico, tell jokes and eat pancakes on occasion at Woolworths, the corner store. Then, Papa Felipe would come home in the middle of the afternoon. He would retire, pick up his bible and read out quotations on occasion – he would mention the word, “Faith,” the word, “Bread,” the word, “Good.” I wanted to be a morning walker too, to open up the inside and turn it upside down into the outside. How could I do that?
To be a morning walker? Could I let the day and the winds and the buildings smear my face with eucalyptus leaves, mission beach surf and Broadway honks and Hawaiian prints from the latest short-sleeved shirts from the Dollar Store? I wanted to feel the 4th Street pawnshop's Gibson guitars – gold-burst and etched with amber humming birds – coat me with their thick colors. I wanted to be as fresh as my uncle Vicente’s bullfighter paintings, outside, in wild society. I was alone, an only-child bursting with what I thought were sad stories. I needed the colors to complete myself, I figured; I needed the intensities of city life. So, I walked the cement – for miles.
Every day, I immersed myself in window displays and Jerry Lewis movies - every afternoon, every weekend. I wanted to be the amigo of beaches, pizza shops, penny arcades, tattoo parlours, bus stations, hardware stores and automobile dealers, and to memorize all the names of the watches in the jewelry shops (Elgin, Hamilton, Bulova and Longines) – I wanted to create a bridge, as Whitman said, “between the soul and the people.” But how? With what? Could I build it with my tender, tainted tales?
In 1967, I left 11th Street, en route to UCLA, on an “Educational Opportunities Program” scholarship with my high school mates, Rómulo and Donald. There was only one thing left for me to do to make my apartment heritage, that is, my inside-outside split house, come alive – write. Me? Write? How?
Poetry? It just happened. Writing was all I could do. My inside apartment heritage of stories burst through. Writing poetry was my paint brush, my story-art, the way my mind walked.
At first, my poems and tellings were nostalgic, sentimental, angry. My family’s dreams were cut short in many cases, I thought. After years of reciting, improvising and performing my stories and writings, the “inside/outside split house” began to become whole. I merged Mama Lucha’s apartment stories with the unpredictable forces of my ever-changing environment. Slowly, slowly, I came to realize that the joy, success and accomplishments of my family were in their day-to-day lives, as they lived in their homes and as they journeyed through the daily life of the city. Then it occurred to me: each one had crossed unimaginable barriers, as working-class men and as women in a harsh world of men.
A return to the homeland was unnecessary, to venture to Europe was an extra, to be cast as a funny-speaker in fancy Mexican movies was a tired idea. The second homeland was on 11th Street. There was an immense, Spanish-speaking audience in California. By the thousands, they waited for Uncle Roberto’s radio words – every Saturday, at ten in the morning. The new artistic experiment was down the road, at La Plazita, and wherever Uncle Vicente’s steered his rose-colored panel truck.
Years later, I would follow my family’s example - I would blaze a trail: I wrote for children, for familias, for anti-war rallies and for farm workers without decent wages; and I traveled and walked and performed for all those who grew up staring at their shaky apartments and tents and trailers, perhaps thinking there was little or no heritage in sight. My picture books and young adult novels became stories about the powerful, pioneering and triumphant small moments in people’s every-day worlds.
Today, I write both inside and outside the two-sided box. I let everyone out of my apartment, to breathe the blue air and meet the neighbors, and then I invite all of you to come in for a while. Meet my family of stories: this apartment-heritage-library crashing against the traffic and the elements of the world in the open-air, given to me in a long-ago yesterday and today – with love.
Posted September 2008