Guest article written by Melinda Palacio
One of the most popular questions I am asked is, “Did That Really Happen?” The answer is different for every poem, short story, or scene from a novel. My poem, El South-Central Cucuy, published in New Poets of the American West: An Anthology of Eleven Western States, is easier to break down because this narrative poem is highly autobiographical.
If you are interested in realism, there’s a fine line between truth telling and the fictional dream. Raw, honest emotion must be infused in a poem or story or else all you have is an elegant exercise in language. Personally, I prefer to read stories or poems that have a huge dose of realism, making it difficult, even for marketers or academics, to distinguish between the fictional dream and what really happened.
Originally, El South-Central Cucuy, had a different title, was much longer, and focused on my uncle Ramon, the youngest of my mother’s brothers. The poem verged on epic length, a mini documentary about Ramon’s choice to follow my grandparents back to Del Rio and leave the place he had grown up in, South-Central Los Angeles.
Ramon was more like an older brother than an uncle eight years my senior. He was the baby of the family until I came along, the first granddaughter. Ramon and I were watching television and a show predicted the world would end in the year 2000. The statement made my uncle laugh. I didn’t understand what was so funny, but he pointed at me and said I wouldn’t have a life. Something I ignored at the time, but obviously never forgot.
Two years ago when I wrote and revised the poem, I started with Ramon’s laughter and mixed in one of his favorite themes, El Cucuy. My uncles, all eight of them, not just Ramon, enjoyed frightening me to death and hearing my signature horror-film scream. Ramon especially enjoyed turning up his eyelids and walking very slowly towards me like a zombie. He amused himself by turning off the lights leading down the long hallway towards the bathroom. After I had gotten too far to turn back, he would jump out of the darkness and say he saw the cucuy.
As a child growing up in South-Central Los Angeles, I didn’t need additional bogeymen. The neighborhood itself was anything but safe. I have friends who grew up in other cities and states and talk about playing outside in a grassy field or riding their bicycles to school. Those types of freedoms were not part of my childhood. I got into trouble once for talking to the neighbor, Florence, in her apartment because my mother didn’t know where I was. Florence told me stories about how she was named after our cross street. She must’ve been the oldest person I knew. She lived alone and loved to tell stories. I didn’t think I deserved the nalga swatting for listening to a nice old lady. However, I knew enough to know that “running around in the streets,” as my grandmother called not being at home, was something sheltered girls, such as myself, did not do.
In the sixth stanza, I mention an incident involving a drive-by shooting and the murders of three young boys. I was living in Berkeley when my mother vaguely explained what had happened. Drive-by shootings were frequent enough to still leave me uncomfortable about sitting near a living room window. A recurring childhood memory is of my mother whispering and ordering me to roll off my bed. I was nine when my mother could afford our own beds. A drive-by shooting and bullets in the big-screen television prompted my mother to buy beds for us in a room towards the back of my grandmother’s house. In my poem, El Cucuy is more creepy than the tangible threats of the Cold War, gang activity and the violence of growing up in South-Central Los Angeles.
My uncle said I wouldn't have a life.
Sorry, la little Minnie, he snarked,
Dah, ha, ha, he laughed.
If the Cucuy doesn't get you, the Bomb will.
South Central L.A. sounds like a battlefield with its random bullets,
helicopter searches for who knows whose father, brother, son,
enemies of the state, the police call them.
The Bomb will end everything, but el Cucuy
is scarier than any bomb or bullet
flying through my window at night.
Stray bullets like sonic popcorn punctured our television in the living room.
Crackles and pop-pop sounds force me to hit the ground.
Sneaky tires of a car turning too slow force me to roll off my warm bed.
Welcome to my barrio.
Bullets spared me, but took the young lives of three on our street.
Bullets and bombs are visible, unlike el Cucuy.
You can't see the Cucuy who lurks in the hallway, under the bed and in the closet.
The boogeyman with devil's feet waits to touch your hair in the dark,
in a crowded house on Albany Street in South Central L.A.
©Melinda Palacio, 2010, El South-Central Cucuy, published in New Poets of the American West, edited by Lowell Jaeger, Many Voices Press, 2010.
You can hear more from the contributors of New Poets of the American West this Saturday, November 6, at 9:15 am, Pasadena Central Library, 285 E. Walnut Street, Pasadena, CA.