HARD-BONED WHITE BOYS
1943 - Stockton, CA
“Órale, Chato. ¿Qué hubo? ¿Qué pasa?”
He nodded his head at the other boy, who pointed his chin at him in response.
“Aquí nomás, Tino. ¿Ya sabes, no?”
They eyed one another at the street corner where they had inconveniently met. They had to act out the established routines, the accepted norm for what passed as civility between two young migrant workers on an early Saturday evening in a small, inconspicuous town. Their loitering was tolerated only because they were needed to gather the asparagus from the farms that surrounded the town, and there was no one else for that work.
The tall, dark boy with Hollywood Latin Lover good looks stood with his hands in his pockets, a slouch in his posture. He shuffled rather than took steps, swayed rather than walked. The web of his left hand framed a homemade tattoo of a small cross with radiating lines.
The rugged-looking second boy had a broad, flat nose. No one would think of him as handsome but he carried himself with respect and strength.
They wore crisply ironed, pleated slacks tied to their bony hips by thin white belts. The pointed collars of bright colored shirts caressed their scrawny necks. The slender, vicious weapons of their youth, switchblades, rested in their pockets. Each boy waited for any sign from the other that this would be the day for the reckoning, for balancing the score, for the righting of wrongs that never existed.
Their wariness did not come from fear. How they acted reflected much more than their individual situations, yet they were unaware of their roles in a drama created by forces that moved around them like the dust devils that stirred the rich farmland dirt. If they strutted and talked cheaply, swaggered and dared anyone to knock the chips off their shoulders, they also remembered the nights they whimpered in dirty bunks, exhausted from the sun, hands and feet blistered and bleeding, looking forward only to the next camp, the next crop, the next long highway.
They craved to be part of the group they defined by their insolent greetings, the hybrid slang, the swing music, the dangerous attitudes and the smooth smiles. They were young Mexican Americans, adrift on the streets of a North American farm town. They lived in a time that had no space for them, that neglected their existence and denied their spirit, and instead courted them for failure.
One of them ventured a gesture. He took a chance on the soothing coolness of the night after the swelter of the day, gambled that the beautiful sky with the glow of the dying sun would not allow itself to frame an ugly event, not that night.
“How’s your primo, Freddy?” Tino asked in the soft voice that always surprised his listeners. “Heard anything from him?”
Several of the cousins were in the military, soldiers and sailors in the various theaters of war that had sprung up around the world in places that they had not known existed, with names they could not pronounce, with other men whose only connection was their mutual terror of indiscriminate death at the hands of the strange, unknown enemy.
“Freddy’s missing, just like Juan.” Chato answered with some hesitation, a bit of resistance to having a conversation with another who could be a threat. “At least he’s not dead yet, not like Tomás, not yet anyway. That we know of, that we’ve been told about.”
Tino nodded. “Must be real tough on your aunt.” His concern sounded genuine. “So many kids and so many in the war.” He paused and the bravado came back. “I can’t wait until I can go. Stick me some Japs. They won’t know what hit them, not when this crazy Chicano hits the beach.”
Chato had never heard the word Chicano before that minute, but he knew exactly what Tino meant as soon as he said it. Like so many other words that floated between Spanish and English, that tried to convey the dimension of living in two different worlds, the slang term for Mexicans in the United States made immediate sense to him. In Colorado, down around Pueblo, the word was skaj. In Southern California, he was just a pocho. Up in Michigan, an old Indian from Albuquerque who worked with them in the fields said that they were Spanish Americans, and that kind of made sense to Chato. In Crystal City, children at the migrant school he had attended for a few weeks had chided him about being a pachuco. Everywhere he went, la raza stood for all of them together, the people, the race, the Mexicans.
Chicano. He wondered where that one had come from.
“Go back to Mexico!”
Hard-boned white boys in overalls, flannel shirts and floppy cowboy hats packed the bed of a pre-war Chevy pickup. From the truck’s cab, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys loudly sang about a woman named Rose from old San Antone, on the moonlit path beside the Alamo.
Chato and Tino flinched, tensed their muscles, and drew closer together. They kept the circling truck in their eyesight, watched it cruise up the street, stop at the corner, turn around and come back at them. The curses flung from the bed of the truck reached the boys before the dusty pickup stopped.
Tino drew the knife from his pocket and said a few words to Chato. His soft voice had grown even softer, the words almost lost in the gear-grinding jumble of the old truck loaded down with the alcohol-fueled farm boys. “These gabachos want to rumble. You ready, Chato?”
When Ramón Hidalgo remembered that fight, when he looked back at the outburst of violence that forever marked the type of man he had to be, he did not necessarily recall the angry epithets, nor did he always imagine the dull thump of the blows from the blistered, rock-hard fists or the clod-hopper-covered feet. He pointedly ignored the red, gushing line that creased Tino’s jaw where a fishing knife slashed open the skin. He never spoke about the boot heel that smashed his already flat nose and left him a thin ridge of scabbed, lighter skin that horizontally split his nose in two. More often than not, his mind first saw the background of cloud layers tinged orange and pink by the setting sun. There was silence just before the first punch landed, and as he would later tell the story, the country boys moved as though they trudged in a quagmire of fields flooded by the overflowing ditches of a wet spring. Against the postcard image of the sunset, young men’s hatred filled the silence, washed out the watercolor hues of the fading sky, and blotted away the calm evening that briefly had existed for Chato Hidalgo and Tino García.
Copyright Manuel Ramos.
All rights reserved.