Friday, August 09, 2013

Scars. And Latino Books Into Movies - Finalists

Scars: Random Thoughts on a Summer Afternoon  

I have a white scar that creases the back of my skull, probably two inches long. I’ve never measured it but I’ve looked at it using a couple of mirrors. When I was a child my mother told me that the scar resulted from a fall out of a second story window at my grandmother’s house. Apparently I landed on a rock. I vaguely remember pointing out the jagged stone to my cousins as the “rock where I hit my head.” I always wondered how I got up to the second floor of the house and then through the window, and who was the adult who was supposed to be watching me. I wondered but I never asked. Now that I’m older I wonder about the long term effects of such an injury. I wonder but I’ve never asked.

The Raft
One day many summers ago, I was on a makeshift raft with my pal “Chuckie.” We were goofing off in the Arkansas River. We might have been in the sixth grade, or thereabouts. I don’t know who made the raft. Back then, when a group of Florence kids went to the river for swimming or fishing or just messing around we used whatever the previous group of kids had left behind. Rafts, makeshift shelters, diving boards, homemade flags. For Chuckie and me that day it was a raft made out of soggy tree limbs and crooked boards held together with string, mangy rope, and odd pieces of wire. We launched the craft in one of the slow moving pools along the edge of the river. I can’t remember how long we lounged on our custom vehicle but eventually the raft broke apart and we were dumped in the water. I couldn’t swim, still can’t, so I’m not sure why I didn’t drown or get swept away into the faster moving current of the real river. Chuckie and I went under but we quickly bobbed to the surface. It must not have been too deep – maybe I touched bottom with my feet. Chuckie flopped around, waving and slapping his hands on the water. He shouted, “I can’t see! I can’t see!” I watched him panic for a second or two. Then I said, “Open your eyes.” He did. The flopping stopped. “Thanks,” he said.

Cry Me A River
I heard La Llorona at the same river that almost claimed Chuckie and me. It might have happened the same summer. Florence was a great place to be a kid, especially in the summertime. I still get flashes of my childhood summers in that town:  incredibly hot, lazy days, buzzing insects, bike caravans at night with my friends, stealing green apples from the various apple trees that grew in the yards of several different houses. When the moaning and crying started by the river, some of the kids were scared off, others made it their mission to find the source of the sounds. The adults eventually inserted themselves into the adventure. Crowds started showing up on the river banks at dusk. They were never disappointed. The river did a better business than the drive-in movie over in Cañon City. Extended groans and cries echoed across the water and through the trees. The more adventurous hunted down the source, without luck. My grandmother (she of the house from where I tumbled) knew what was going on – La Llorona, of course. We learned that story from her, which was then embellished by my aunts and my mother. The river could be spooky and dark in the middle of the day, so it was not difficult to imagine a crazy woman wandering and crying along the weedy, rocky banks at night, looking for drowned children. The noises continued for a good stretch of the summer. Shortly after they stopped someone found the body of a crane or some such strange bird that did not belong in the woods along the river. For everyone except the rag tag bunch of wild things I hung with, the dead animal explained the mournful music that had turned our river into a sad setting for an ancient legend come-to-life.

The Florence populace consisted of a mix of Mexicans, Italians, Eastern Europeans, and a few "others." The families ended up in the small town mainly because of the coal mines that surrounded the area. When the mines petered out the men found jobs in the Pueblo steel mill or construction work in Colorado Springs. The mix created the tensions you might expect. I recall a story that one of my aunts was denied her homecoming queen crown, even though she had been elected by the student body. Her boyfriend was the captain of the football team, so that got straightened out quickly. I heard other stories like that.

For me, the tensions started in junior high and escalated through my freshman year in high school. My tormentor – a short but solid Italian kid who decided that I was competing with him for whatever prize he expected in life - gave me the nickname “Blackie.”  He and his friends thought it was funny. Some of the teachers, too. (I once wore a powder blue sweatshirt to class. The basketball coach asked me why people with the most color wore the most colorful clothes. He didn’t say it in a friendly way.)

My nemesis was very proud of his thick, light brown hair. He smothered it with Butch Wax and combed the sides back in severe wings that made him look like the rear end of a 1956 Cadillac. The front wave rose majestically over his pale forehead. He absolutely hated it if anyone touched his scalp. We eventually had our fight, after basketball practice one night. He was very riled up about something; I, on the other hand, didn’t quite get it that the dance we were doing on the high school lawn was serious. He landed the first punch, right on the top of my left eye. We wrestled around until we were separated by some of the other students. I remember him saying, “I’m not afraid of you.” And I retorted with something like, “Me too.”  He combed his hair, laughed, and sauntered into the darkness with his friends. My eye swelled up into a magnificent ball that turned purple, black, and then yellow over several days. I carried that black eye with shame and embarrassment. Anyone who saw me assumed I had been beaten up, including my father’s mother, a kind and gentle woman who tried to reduce the size of my shiner with various herbs and smelly concoctions. Looking back I have to admit I lost the fight. The other guy walked away basically untouched. And although he landed only one punch, it did the job. It still is.

The colonia around Florence carried the fancy name of Hollywood – and it was anything but. The dozen shacks clustered across the tracks that cut Florence in two. The inhabitants were all Mexicans, and their primary language was Spanish. Bunches of children roamed the dusty hills where they grew up among cactus, lizards, and well water. My father’s uncle and his family lived there in a small house that butted up against a scraggy hill. They were dark-skinned, like me, hardworking, and carried that Ramos reticence that some of you know all too well. Their story was filled with tragedy. The eldest son died from Leukemia. He was a young boy and I don't remember him – I was either not born yet or very young when he died. Another son died in a coal mine cave-in shortly after he graduated from high school. Yet another son did his duty in Vietnam only to come home to die from his own troubled hand. A daughter married and moved to Pueblo. Her husband died in a construction accident, leaving her with young children. The sons I grew up with were excellent athletes. Speedy runners, skillful basketball players, and touchdown-making halfbacks. In that small town high school sports accounted for much of the community’s identity and pride. For a brief time my cousins were local heroes.  I could never keep up with them, and I don’t mean only in running. They always appeared older than the other kids; more aware; more in tune with the secret workings of a world that remained beyond my grasp. The feeling that comes over me when I think of that family is – grace. The family perseveres. I visited with the daughter at my father’s funeral last year. She seems to be doing fine.

Death of the Cool
I was ready for the adventures my pals and I had talked about for years – driving to the Pueblo parties; dating the Pueblo girls; camping trips with just the gang; being the cool guys. We all had nicknames, except for Frank, who was simply known as Frankie. The rest of us went by Doc, Chopper, Mazola, Salvy. We were the guys ready to step into the roles created by our uncles, older brothers, big city cousins. Sharp dressers, smooth talkers, world-wise and hip. On the edge of our teen years, eager to take over the world. It was not to be.

Fifty years ago my parents moved us from Florence to Colorado Springs. The family had to follow the work my father needed to do. It made no sense for him to drive every day from Florence to Colorado Springs and then back again. He was a hod carrier, so he had to be on the job before the bricklayers, ready with their mortar and bricks. That meant he was on the road before dawn, and never home before dark. We moved to a new development with only five houses on the southern edge of Colorado Springs. My father wanted a lawn surrounding the house so we dug up alfalfa plants, carted away rocks, and added manure to the soil. Until I did construction work with him a year later, planting that lawn was the hardest labor I had ever attempted.

I ended up in a city high school completely different from Florence High. Friends told me, years later, that when I first appeared at Harrison High, they formed a conspiracy to beat me up (never brought to fruition, thankfully) – they didn’t like the way I walked. It was my Florence walk. My last year in Florence was also the year of slow dancing with the girl from Pueblo. Soldier Boy, He’s So Fine, Be My Baby. We strolled and wiggle-wobbled. I never danced with her again.

Las canas no quitan ganas.


Latino Books Into Movies Awards
From Kirk Whisler:

The Latino Books Into Movies winners will be announced on September 21st at the University of La Verne during the 2013 Latino Author Summit.

The event, organized by Latino Literacy Now in conjunction with the University of La Verne, is in Los Angeles county. Latino Literacy Now was co-founded by Edward James Olmos and Kirk Whisler in 1996. Since then the organization has produced 52 Latino Book & Family Festivals with just under 900,000 in total attendees and 15 International Latino Book Awards that have honored over 1,400 authors and publishers.

Copies of these winning books will be presented to key motion picture studios, producers, and other key entertainment industry insiders. It's Latino Literacy Now's goal through these awards to help foster the creation and production of more movies about and by Latinos. For too long Latinos have been underrepresented within the industry and appropriate scripts is one of the weaker links.

The finalists are:
A Song in My Heart, Roma Calatayud-Stocks, Beaver's Pond Press
Blues for the Buffalo, Manuel Ramos, Northwestern University Press
El Caracol: The Story of Alfonso, Labor Camp Child, Yolanda Espinosa Espinoza, Mill City Press, Inc.
LightKeepers to the Rescue!, Marisa de Jesús Paolicelli, A Caribbean Experience Con Amor
Maidin Iron, Ana Padilla, Author House
Mortal Flesh: The Last Hero of Pompeii, Ana Costa Alongi, Sigillum Publishers
Spirits of the Ordinary: A Tale of Casas Grandes, Kathleen Alcalá, Chronicle BooksThe Encounter (El encuentro), Rita Wirkala, Pearson Educacion
The Witch Narratives Reincarnation, Belinda Vasquez Garcia, Magic Prose
Walking for Peace: An Inner Journey, Mony Dojeiji and Alberto Agraso,, Inc.


Blues For The Buffalo was originally published in 1997 and reissued by Northwestern University Press in 2004. It's probably my best-reviewed book and I think it is very visual, ready-made for a movie. The opening sequence, in fact, was designed with a camera frame in mind.

"What an ugly scar."
I opened my eyes into the brilliant Mexican sun. The details of her face were masked in a numbing combination of light and more light created by the sun and the white beach that curved against the turquoise lagoon.
"It must have hurt."
I shielded my eyes with the flat of my hand. Her skin recalled the café con leche I had nursed at breakfast. She wore a white two-piece swimsuit that was less than a bikini and she looked hot and sweaty.
"It hurt like hell. I was in the hospital for weeks. I still limp."
I raised my beer to my lips. My empty hand slipped from the handle of the cooler and grazed the hot sand and recoiled automatically. Her feet were naked, exposed to the sand.
"Is the bullet still in your knee?"
I did not ask how she knew it was a bullet wound. Maybe it was obvious.



Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing so tenderly those summer memories. I grew in up my own Florence, but that was in Southeast Los Angeles.
You've captured that time so well. Let's hope you can capture a movie deal too!
Good luck and blessngs,

Manuel Ramos said...

Diana - thank you for the kind words and well wishes. Every once in a while it's okay to ponder the past. Take care,

Anonymous said...

Congrats, Manuel, on your book's nomination-for-film.
Well deserved.

Manuel Ramos said...

Thanks, Rudy.