Sign of the Cross by A Garcia

Dad moved mom and my two siblings to El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula in 1955 to escape the discrimination of rural south Texas, where a dark-skinned, short, curly-haired Mexican with a sixth-grade education couldn’t make a decent living no matter how smart, capable and ambitious he was. He chose Los Angeles because the Mexicans were different there. They looked fashionable, laughed out loud and walked with confidence. He knew this because he saw it firsthand as a wide-eyed, teenaged Navy recruit wandering the big city while his battleship, the USS Texas, docked there to refill its supply of food and men for a final WWII tour of the Pacific. 

I didn’t arrive in Los Angeles until the beginning of 1969, just in time for the moon landing, Woodstock and my brother’s personal invitation to Vietnam. Based on what I’ve learned about my family’s life before I was born, it’s highly likely that I’m the product of a sloppy, drunken episode between my macho alcoholic dad and my dutiful Mexican mom, watched over by a Virgen de Guadalupe votive candle supplying an unintentionally romantic glow.

I grew up in Long Beach, an ordinary suburb, and not in the crowded barrio like my older siblings, because Dad was ready to achieve his American dream. He wanted more for us, for me. He bought a three-bedroom house with a flat, white-rock roof; he saturated the front lawn, hoping to keep it from being the ugliest on the block and he reveled in the rich comfort of his used, olive-green Cadillac Sedan De Ville that left oil stains in the driveway.  

Mom delivered Dad’s requisite bedside coffee, con dos cucharaditas de azúcar, at 4:30 a.m. The morning radio announcers spoke impossibly fast, unleashed a repertoire of obnoxious character voices and cackled about everything. But when they paused for a station identification break, I stopped whatever I was doing or thinking and paid attention. The next four seconds contained the richest, most perfect-sounding Spanish I’d ever heard. The prerecorded message was delivered by a deep and majestic male voice, with professional pronunciation, a flowing rhythm and perfectly vibrated Rs. I imagined the man giving life to these words was a combination of a dignified, light-skinned Mexican horse rancher with a thick, wide moustache, and a dandy with slicked-back hair in a tuxedo smoking a cigarette in 1950. K-LOVE. Radio amor. Ciento-siete, punto cinco.

Mom and Dad left the house by 5:30, dark, Mom to chop crates of lettuce and stir cauldrons of soup in the cafeteria of a local hospital, and Dad to check on the well-being of the oil wells along Pacific Coast Highway and Signal Hill. Soon after they left, I walked to Our Lady of Refuge Church and School. I arrived at the same time as Mr. Torres, the middle-aged janitor who rolled back the gate so I could walk across the asphalt playground and wait outside my classroom for the rest of the school to arrive. I’d watch him sweep the long outdoor corridor from Room 8 to Room 1, snaking and shaking a wide, rug-looking broom like it was the dragon we saw on a field trip to Chinatown in Mrs. Villaseñor’s fourth-grade class. He’d always nod and smile at me when he swept past but in a way that made me feel kind of sorry for him. It was just too meek. By my eighth-grade year at OLR, tuition cost half my mom’s paycheck every month, and I was student body president.

Manteca dissolving in the cast-iron skillet meant Dad had already barked out his order: chicharrónes con huevo, bistec ranchero, carne guisado. No matter what he craved, Mom had to make it. I couldn’t tell if the variety of dishes she’d make was a result of having to appease him, or if she was such a proficient cook that he could name whatever he wanted. Either way, I really liked her food. Even though she bought tortillas, it was mainly out of convenience. For special occasions, she’d grind her own corn on a metate and make fresh tortillas. I could tell the difference when she used her homemade tortillas a few days later for migas with weenies. At Christmastime, she slaved for days smoothing masa onto damp cornhusks with the back of a spoon to make 40-dozen tamales that Dad proudly gave away as gifts. When she made menudo, she had to use an industrial-sized pot because no one could get enough of her boiled tripe stew topped with plenty of oregano, onions and lemon. Menudo also meant that the previous night was a long one, filled with endless drink and music, starting with accordion-heavy conjuntos, then brassy mariachi, then, in the early morning, the woeful howls of corridos that made my dad happy because the songs were so triste. I couldn’t stand any of that music.

I am Mexican, but I knew I was different than the others. I couldn’t even speak Spanish. My brother and sister spoke it as their first language, but when I was growing up, my dad wanted me to be more “American,” to assimilate and get access to better life opportunities and choices, so they only spoke to me in English. But I didn’t mind because I hated the sound of the Spanish that I’d hear at home. It was the weapon Dad used against Mom, artillery perfectly suited to explosive increases in speed and volume, and with an endless supply of chingadas, pinches y no me digas.

But I did learn Spanish, starting as a freshman in Español 1 at an elite college-prep boarding school on the outskirts of L.A. Dad willingly and proudly spent his life’s savings for me to attend the school, but Mom lost her voice from crying incessantly for nearly three months. I smiled and said hola to the kitchen staff and grounds crew every day.

At home, I now corrected my parents’ peasant Spanish. I spent more years in school than both of them combined. I was becoming the embodiment of their dreams: an American. I did not have a Mexican accent, I could recite Shakespeare and I had been exposed to a social stratosphere they could only fantasize about. Los Angeles enabled, through me, the emancipation of my family.

But more than anything else, Los Angeles to me is a Mexican version of Catholic grandeur. It begins with the name: Los Angeles. Every time I hear it, whether accented in English or Spanish, I visualize the Virgin Mary, with a Mona Lisa smile, glowing in bright-white light, humbly bearing her role as the “Queen of the Angels.” So magnificent, so majestic. She has hundreds of names, titles and devotionals, all sublime. My consciousness was shaped at Our Lady of Refuge, a variation of “Our Lady, Refuge of Sinners.” In my budding world view, I was a sinner and she was my refuge, and, with regular, solemn ritual, I celebrated her, her son and her son’s father. Centuries of worshiping her resulted in abundant art, poetry, hymns, ceremonies, festivals and prayers that circumscribed my world.

For Lent, in my seventh- and eighth-grade years, I served as an altar boy at the 6:30 a.m. Mass for all 40 days. I was also head altar boy (I prefer the word acolyte) for every Stations of the Cross service, that two-hour recreation of Christ’s condemnation, suffering and death, where my pain from standing motionless or kneeling on opulent marble was my sacrificial contribution. I absorbed the tangible agony of the crucified Jesus, blood dripping from each thorn, flesh ripped open by a Roman spear, wrists pierced with crude spikes not nails through hands and a long metal stake pounded through both feet, one on top of the other. With his sorrowful countenance he looked down at me as I ate his body, drank his blood and made the sign of the cross. This representation of Jesus reminded me that I too could accept sacrifice and endure the torture awaiting me in this life. And then there she was, holy, immaculate, full of grace, offering me comfort, understanding, forgiveness and redemption, even as she grieved her dead son draped across her lap.

In 2002, by the time I was a father to two young sons, the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels opened in downtown as a postmodern masterpiece designed by a Spanish architect and decorated with Latino art, bridging the collision between the converted Mexicans and the European conquerors. Relics of St. Vibiana, the patron saint of Los Angeles, are enshrined there. I wondered if we’d get pilgrims like the ones in Mexico City, crawling for miles on their knees, and even sometimes backward, to pay homage at the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. That’s where the original garment, worn by Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin and miraculously imprinted with Guadalupe’s likeness, is preserved, behind bulletproof glass.

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I attended a Little Ivy university and, after college, taught Spanish 1 in the same classroom at the same private boarding school where I began to understand what Spanish could be beyond my traditional Mexican-American home. I stopped going to church and fulfilled my dad’s dream with a career in business, traveling the country in a suit and tie.

I trimmed and shaved my pubic hair into the shape of a cross only once because I felt guilty about it. It was in a hotel shower on a typical business trip to the East Coast. The next day, I was scheduled to continue on to another city, but weather caused significant air traffic delays and flight cancellations to cities all across the country, except Los Angeles. So, I came home.

A Garcia no longer lives in Los Angeles, but it has never left him. This is his first published work.