The art of Los Angeles isn’t just in our museums, it’s in our murals, our family’s artifacts and where we take cover, as Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo reveals.
Standing Before Zorba the Great
Pope of Broadway, Eloy Torrez
His arms are open
like my tata’s, like a great
big grandfather, and I am so small.
Traffic rolls behind me:
honks, revs, the hydraulic hisses
from bus doors.
Sour smell creeps up my nose.
Tires screech. I jerk my head back
expecting an invading car,
but I am safe
in Zorba’s— Anthony’s—
Zorba is dancing, but he winces.
His shoes need shining,
scuffed by long buffed graffiti,
covered by buffed graffiti.
I want to shine them
the way my father taught me.
I think of my father’s cowboy boots:
gray snake skin, peach suede,
brown leather. At night
he came home weathered,
and I charged in to own
my cowboy boot duty.
Two hands clutching a wooden heel,
sitting on the ground, leveraging
feet against carpet, I yanked
’til a tired foot angled loose,
and my father, grinning and free.
King Kong Quinn rises from concrete
arms engulfing a building,
but his head is cocked to one side,
eyes are shut, lips open.
They would say, “Oh, him?
That’s Mexican Quinn,” and I knew
he shone brilliant like polished silver moons,
like undiscovered precious metal.
Metallic and mortar Quinn listens
to a Salvadoreña mother and her American hija’s
singsong chatter, to the near silent clink
of change in a fallen man’s open hand,
to a pastor’s pleading preaching
from an abandoned movie house pulpit.
Holy Padre Quinn invites
a forgotten city to speak.
The Story of the Stolen Metate
When my grandparents moved to the little house on Fairmont Avenue their belongings were scattered about the lawn as children of all sizes ran up and down red stoop steps to carry items inside one by one. In the commotion, a faceless neighbor or passerby lifted my grandmother’s black lava metate and mano, and the tools were never seen again.
I wonder if my father’s shoulders felt their weight lifted when the burglar picked the items from the yard. As eldest son, it was surely his job to carry the stone kitchen appliance along with the molcajete, my grandmother’s only valuables, from Mexico.
I imagine him walking hunched back with the tools slung over a shoulder, black legs protruding from a rainbow sarape. He leads a baby brother by the hand, while my grandmother follows close behind swaddling an ill daughter and calling to a wild, travieso second son to hurry up.
I see them, five in all, on a crowded bus traveling a dusty road north to meet my grandfather in Tijuana. He was in charge of handling the papers. My father, of holding them tight—his siblings and his hand-carved inheritance.
I didn’t hear the story of the stolen metate until after my grandmother’s death. Her seven children gathered in the little Fairmount house to organize paperwork, divvy up items, and share stories. My father found his original green card and gifted it to me.
With his black and white adolescent face between fingers I asked, “Who carried the metate and molcajete from Teocaltiche?”
“I don’t remember,” he said, but it had to be him.
Maybe remembering hurts dusty shoulders, maybe they miss the weight of home too much. Maybe my grandmother’s hands missed turning the mano to grind down the corn for tortillas. When I picture her now, I only see hands folded over the kitchen table kneading with worry. Maybe they remembered the question of how to feed the children.
If I could ask her, I imagine she’d say hands are never empty when folded in prayer.
A young girl sings Noche de Paz
through a silent East L.A. night.
From my Grandmother’s stoop, I watch
families weave winter streets by candlelight.
Inside, my grandmother sets knitting needles down
to listen. We have found our shelter tonight
as a young girl sings Noche de Paz.
La Posada de Los Angeles
Una muchacha canta Noche de Paz
en las calles del barrio. Desde la entrada
de la casa de mi abuela, yo observo
familias desfilando bajo la luz de las velas.
Adentro, mi abuela descansa sus manos del tejido
y escucha la canción. En el refugio de la casa,
encontramos nuestra noche de paz.
* * *
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is a 2016-2017 Steinbeck Fellow and a former Barbara Deming Fund grantee and Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange winner. She has work published in Acentos Review, CALYX, crazyhorse and The James Franco Review among others. A short dramatization of her poem, “Our Lady of the Water Gallons,” directed by Jesús Salvador Treviño, can be viewed at latinopia.com. Curator of the reading series HITCHED and cofounder of Women Who Submit, her debut poetry collection, Built with Safe Spaces, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications this October.
Mural: “Pope of Broadway” by Eloy Torero