Everybody Has a Story: Who's Listening?

A Reflection by Luis Alfaro

The story never stops beginning or ending. It appears headless and bottomless for it is built on differences... The story circulates like a gift; an empty gift which anybody can lay claim to by filling it to taste, yet can never truly possess.
--Trinh T. Minh-ha

Desire is memory.

Near a street corner known as Pico-Union, I am walking home from 10th Street Elementary School. On the way, the corner Wino tries to tell me, for the hundredth time, the sad tale of his combination bad luck and fate. Rosie, the register girl at Von's, wants to know if I heard the shotgun blasts in the middle of the night coming from the Pico Projects. The pan dulce lady at Celeya Bakery wants to know if Uncle Bald Head, who has el cancer running through him, is getting any better with the treatments. The meat cutter at El Parian taco stand wants to know if my Uncle Abel, the grape picker from Delano, got his fake leg yet after his real one got taken away by the Northern California Express on a drunken Saturday night.

But when I get home from school and my mom asks me if anything interesting happened, I just say no. I complain that it is so boring in our poor little neighborhood. I wish we lived on a block where they have houses with an upstairs like in The Brady Bunch. They always have the coolest things happen to them. Nothing interesting ever happens to us. Man, it's boring here in downtown...

My sense of this land can only ripple through my veins like the chant of an
epic corrido. I come from a long line of eloquent illiterates whose history
reveals what word don't say.
--Lorna Dee Cervantes

After dinner, we sit on the floor and help dad take off the big work boots that he uses at the factory in Vernon. My grandmother takes off her tortilla-making apron and she sits in the recliner in the living room while my mom pours all the adults café con leche and us kids get hot chocolate in mismatched Christmas gift mugs. We sit at my grandmother's feet and my dad brings out the old aluminum tina filled with warm water and places it in front of abuela's callused feet and wrinkled toes. One by one, each of us kids will take turns washing my grandmother's feet. A ritual passed from generation to generation. This generation of Protestant-converted parents recognize the religious symbolism of the gesture, reminding us of Mary Magdelene's humility as she washed Christ's feet with her long hair. My greedy brother and I willingly do it for secular reasons, knowing that one day a generation will have to wash our feet too. Ha, ha, ha, we think, one day we'll be the pleasured old feet in the aluminum tub.

I want to forget it all
this curse called identity
I want to be far out
paint dreams in strange colors
write crazy poetry
only the chosen can understand
But it's not so simple
I still drink tea
with both hands.
--Nancy Hom

We don't have a television in our house although my dad promises that as soon as he gets a raise and credit, we'll go down to Dearden's on Main Street and buy a real big one with color and everything. For the time being, we sit around abuelita's feet while she tells us the stories. Sometimes it's the celebrity series: the day Pancho Villa's army drove into her little village, the day she went to a premiere in Mexico City and saw the romance queen Maria Felix, or maybe even the time she happened to be riding on the same bus as ranchera queen, Lola Beltran-although we doubt that last story, since my brother and I never see stars on the number 26 RTD bus riding through downtown Los Angeles. Sometimes she'll even incorporate our favorite star, Mr. Bruce Lee, into the story just so we don't lost interest. That's the way I started my career as an artist: washing feet and hearing stories.

I will tell you something about stories,
They aren't just entertainment.
Don't be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off
illness and death.
You don't have anything
if you don't have the stories.
--Leslie Marmon Silko

Later when my abuelita died, the circle of my family expanded and others on our block came forward to take her place. In the Pico Projects there was a woman who, during Christmas, while we set up for the Stations-of-the-Cross, would tell us stories. Border stories, about that place, el otro lado, the other side, that held our legacies. Famous aunts and uncles who did everything from running the first Coca-Cola factory to building the first modern power station in Tijuana. Like the African griot or griotte, this woman was also considered a prophet and a historian. She was a sobadora, a witch who rubbed your feet and could heal or tell you stories about your past and your future. Everyone in my neighborhood went to this dona, not because you believed she was a magician, but because she was a keeper of memory. Through her we learned about the past. The period when we all crossed over and came to know this land. She was our consejera, an advisor telling us about the nature of the world and finding our way in it.

Our people are internal exiles. To affirm that as a valid experience, when all other things are working against it, is a political act. That's the time we stop being Mexican-American and start being Chicanos...If you deny the presence of another people and their culture and you deny them their traditions, you are historically committing genocide.
--Judith F. Baca

On Sundays after church, we would have lunch at the Far East Café in Little Tokyo. With its wooden booths, glass doors, and big round tables, we were entranced by its simple elegance. Wow, round tables, what a concept! All my life I had only seen the square ones that my dad built in the garage. There was a man who worked there who was Chinese but spoke good Spanish. His family had come from China and settled in Mexico and he came north, stopping short of the farmland in the San Joaquin Valley, looking for the California promised land. And he told us stories about a man named Buddha whose persona my brother and I would assume as we took turns having wrestling matches between Jesus and Buddha in the back yard.

In South Central my dad used to take us to a fried chicken stand on Manchester Boulevard on the way to the race track in Inglewood. Sitting on plastic communal tables, someone always rubbed my head and said, "Hey amigo," in that drawl of a Louisiana they longer to remember in buckets of spicy wings and thighs and livers.

The circle of our stories widened and the more we listened to the voices that sounded so much like my grandmother's, the more I realized that our stories were not from over there, el otro lado, at all. Our stories were American. Our stories had one foot on each side of the border. But more importantly, they longed to live in the present, in this place we called home. Each story we heard was filled with its own rhythm and texture. Stories, voices, of identity from a city filled with angels.

When I write it feels like I'm carving bone. It feels like I'm creating my own face, my own heart-a Nahuatl concept-It is this learning to live with la Coatlicue that transforms living in the Borderlands from a nightmare into a numinous experience. It is always a path/state to something else.
--Gloria Anzaldua
When I left Pico-Union as a teenager, I ran away to forget the place that seemed so sad to me. I wanted to forget the poverty and the violence and the neglect that a little block surrounded by beautiful buildings had endured. I wanted to be an artist because something inside of me longed to remember. I wanted to be like the sobadora in the Projects, a vessel of memory, who could pass along all the important things. I wanted to ask questions and I wanted to look for answers. And wouldn't you know that the seventeen years since I have been gone from that place, that is all I write about? That corner in Pico-Union. That place that is smaller than a block but as large as the world. It is the only sure thing about poetry that I know. That desire is memory and finding stories, the family ones, are the only ones that I know are true.

Luis Alfaro is a writer, poet, and performer, and the co-director of the Latino Theater Initiative at the Mark Taper Forum Theater, Los Angeles.

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