Thursday, December 13, 2018

Just Another Sunday

      Daniel Cano                                                                            
Surveying Tiburcio's hiding place, Vasquez Rocks
     I try picking up the little cockroaches (my grandchildren, so dubbed by “Zeta”) some Sundays for different outings in and around LA. Most of the time, we end up at neighborhood parks, where the older cockroaches shoot baskets or throw passes and the younger ones play on the slides and swings.
      Other times, we drive into the SM mountains to Topanga or Chautauqua and let them explore dry riverbeds, dirt trails, and caves, like when I’d take their parents as kids.
     Once, at an old Boy Scout camp, Camp Slauson, we found fossils embedded in rock. At the time, the little cockroaches were into prehistoric stuff, probably because the Disney movie Dinosaurs. The kids couldn’t believe they’d found something older than their grandpa cockroach, by a few million years.
     I remember one time my grandson, Roman, picking at the loose skin on my knuckles, asked how I got so old. I was in my late 60s, pretty good shape, in my mind. I started to answer and realized I had no answer. Freud, Socrates, and Sartre failed me. Not even Dr. Phil came to my rescue.
     Then there was the time I took them to the San Pedro Harbor. They “oohed” and “aahed” at the massive ships coming and going from around the world. It may have been a bit much for them to take in, the vastness of it all, so we headed down to the beach, under the lighthouse to the tidepools, filled with all sorts of creepy, crawly ocean bugs.
     I pointed to teachers and students surveying ocean life, and began explaining the importance of oceanography, biology, and archeology, subjects way beyond me, in school. They couldn’t wait for me to clam up (excuse the pun), so they could begin their search.                                                                            
Roman, Eli, Nico and the octopus
     A few minutes later, the two oldest cockroaches, Eli and Roman, started calling that they’d found an octopus. When a couple of hundred eyes landed on them, I pretended I didn’t know the two lost urchins. Of course, I was dubious, at best. A minute later, a group of people crowded around them.
     “Grandpa Danny, you have a pencil?” Eli asked, as I approached.
     I handed him the black Bic I had in my pocket. He put it into the water, and magically, it vanished.
     “Put your finger in there, Eli,” Roman dared him. “See how it feels.”
     “Should I, Grandpa Danny?”
     I was as curious as the next guy,but I wasn’t about to put my finger in there, so I said, “Go ahead.”
     Eli reached down and dipped his index finger into the clear pool. From under a rock, out came a short tentacle, suction cups and all, wrapping itself around his finger. He quickly retreated, laughed and said, "It was pulling on me."
     Like Doc, in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, I’d been to the tidepools many times, taking my own cockroach children there back in the early 70s and never encountered anything larger than spongy-like, hairy creatures. Don’t ask me to identify or name the myriad of things clinging to those rocks.
     Eli basked in his minor celebrity as everyone asked how it felt.
     An added benefit to our Sunday forays into the unknown is that by the time we make it home, they are sleepy and ready for bed. Which brings me to this past Sunday, around 2:30 PM, kind of late to do anything meaningful, but the neighborhood parks sounded so boring.
     They jumped into my Prius, tearing themselves away from their video games, which might be an out-of-date term now. I don’t know. The only game I ever played was called “Pong.”
     “Where we going?” Eli asked.
     I got a brainstorm. I told them, “We are going to see a bandit’s hideout.”                                                                                        
"From here, you can see anyone coming"
     Eli, eleven, didn’t seem too impressed, but the younger cucarachas, Nico, five, and Noemi, three, were all ears. They knew me well enough to know a story was coming. So, I started. “His name was Tiburcio Vasquez. He was born in California when this was still Mexico.” Then it dawned on me. Did they even know the concept of a state, or a nation, of Anglo American, European, or Mexican?
     On their father’s side, they call their grandmother, who speaks little English and mostly Spanish, "Abuelita" and their grandfather "Abuelito".
     “Hey, Grandpa Danny,” said, Nico, “how come we don’t call you abuelito?”
     “Because everybody calls me Grandpa Danny.”
     Noemi said, in her babyish diction, “Abuelita is abuelita. Granpa is Grandpa.”
     Nico said, “No, Noemi, Abuelita means grandma.”
     Noemi insisted. “No! It not! Her just abuelita. That her name.”
     Nico, getting frustrated, responded, “Noemi. That’s what abuelita means. It means grandma,” at which point, Noemi broke out into sobs.
     I realized they both had a point. One was arguing translation and the use of a capital letter versus a lowercase letter. Noemi was arguing “Abuelita.” Nico was arguing “abuelita.”
     From the front seat, Eli shouted, “Would you both just keep quiet.”
     We were leaving West LA and heading to Vasquez Rocks, in between Santa Clarita and Lancaster, a 45-minute drive without traffic. With traffic, it was anyone’s guess. I knew I was pushing it, especially as darkness falls by 5:15 PM, followed by cold air.
     Sunday traffic was heavy on the 405 North. I veered into the faster lanes to avoid all the cars exiting the offramps between LA and the Valley. The traffic cleared once I passed the 101 North and South, where, luckily, all the cars were headed towards Ventura or Los Angeles.
     Then came the questions every parent (or abuelito) driving kids hates to hear. “We there yet?” “How much longer?” “Where did you say this place is?” Which made me question my bright idea.
     Eli had his phone and was listening to—something. The kids in their carseats wanted to know the story about this bandit Tiburcio Vasquez. So, to pass the time, I complied, remembering what my father had told me about Vasquez when I was a child, and we passed through Vasquez Rocks on our way to a couple of swimming holes out by Soledad Canyon.
     Of course, as an English teacher (three years retired),  with an interest in California literature, I had read much about the so-called “gentleman bandit,” ladies' man, charmer, robber, and cattle thief. But before I started the narrative, the doubts crowded in.
     Did I really want to portray Vasquez as a bandit to these little cockroaches, a thief and common criminal, a murder and rapist, which many of his adversaries say he was? After all, baby cucarachas are impressionable. What I say could stay with them a lifetime.
     After their idyllic childhoods pass, reality will confront them. Someone, perhaps an innocent friend, an ignorant teacher, or an outright bully will ask why their skin is a little less white, their accents slightly a kilter, or their last name, Jimenez, un-American sounding.
     It might not happen until they are adults when they find themselves losing a job, or a promotion, to someone less qualified and less hardworking, but with whom the boss is more comfortable. Social justice and criminal behavior are complex issues for adults, let alone young cockroaches.
Baby cucarachas in a cave
     Maybe I should tell the story of Vasquez as a freedom fighter, which some say he was, a Mexican Robin Hood, like Spider Man or Captain America, a Mexican suffering injustice from those who would steal his people's land. In his book, Eternity Street, a study of early Anglo Los Angeles’ lawlessness, John Mack Faragher writes of the elusive Vasquez’s eventual capture. “Crowds flocked to the jail, not to lynch Vasquez but to gawk at him. In interviews with reporters Vasquez portrayed himself as a persecuted Californio who had acted to defend the honor of his countrymen. He sat for a photographic portrait that sold like hotcakes.”
     A number of his jailers even brought whiskey to the jail to share a drink with Vasquez.
     No doubt, the historical Vasquez, who spoke both English and Spanish, is a complex character, notorious yet popular, criminal and rebel, a media sensation, for sure, the John Gotti of the old West. Women swooned over him. Husbands hated him. The downtrodden protected him.
     How could I explain that Vasquez's capture came but three years after vigilantes lynched 18 Chinese Angelenos for a questionable crime. Even in 1870s, thirty years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Angelenos, both American and Californios, feared men like Vasquez, not just for criminal activity, but for fear of him forming a resistance movement to retake Californio lands, a Califonio reconquista, of sorts.
     I finally reach the 14, the turnoff to Lancaster, nearly there.
     I switch from history to geography and point to the mountains and canyons, something more concrete, tangible, objective, as the poet William Carlos Williams stated, "No ideas but in things."
     “Look, can you imagine riding all that way from Los Angeles on a horse, with a posse chasing you, and sometimes, there wasn’t even a trail. Mexicans were the first cowboys. Nobody could ride better.”
     I wanted to give them some pride.
     They responded, “We there, yet?”
     I wanted to explain  how even in early California, the conservative Californios, those from the north, "Nortenos," mostly, wanted to keep the mission system in place and strict adherence to the Church. Why change things? Those early leaders, like Micheltorena, felt they might even work with the Americans who were beginning to invade the region in larger numbers, even if those early civilized Californios saw the Americans as dirty, uncouth, drunkards.
     Then on the other side, the progressive Surenos, like Juan Baptista Alvarado and Jose Antonio Castro, liberals, who wanted to break the power of the Church and mission system, free the Indians, and open mission lands to privately own ranches and haciendas. They believed in a partnership with the liberal Americans who had begun settling Los Angeles, dressing like rancheros, marrying Mexican women, and raising Mexican-American children.
     All the while, the American government in Washington was collaborating with American militias, trying to lure Californios into a fracas, any excuse to send in the regular military. As the Californios began losing control, lynching and vigilantism became the law of the land, and it was mostly “unruly” or “disobedient” Mexicans, Indians, and outlaw Americans dangling from the ends of the ropes. It was in this setting that Joaquin Murrieta, Juan Flores, and Tiburcio Vasquez were born.
     As I turn off onto the Vasquez Rocks exit, we begin to see the jagged rocks in the distance. From the parking lot, the kids are mesmerized at the jagged peaks rising from the sand, rock formations, the work of a mad artist.                                                                                    
Noemi, Nico, Eli, a peek at history
     Then come the questions. Where did Vasquez hide? How many men rode with him? Where did he get his food? How could the hide so many horses? Can we climb the rocks? And out they scampered, up the side of the cliffs, with me, of course, close behind.
     The sun is falling, and the cold swoops in. Noemi and Nico put up their hoodies. Eli climbs to the highest point. He says, “Now I see why they came here. From here, you can watch anybody coming.  You can see everywhere.”
     So, he was listening.
     I ask if they can hear the ghosts in the wind. They want to climb all the rocks. They realize the rocks go way back into the farthest mountains. “He was smart, right,” I say to them. They agree. I mean, nobody knows the entire story, right? And even among those who think they know the story, there are a lot of gray areas. Can anyone really know another’s story, especially a character steeped in history, fiction, and myth?

Daniel Cano is an award winning writer. His latest novel of 1920's Los Angeles, "Death and the American Dream" (Bilingual Press) is available on Amazon or directly from the publisher. His first two novels "Pepe Rios" and "Shifting Loyalties" (Arte Publico Press) are also available on Amazon.


msedano said...

kids and those rocks, gotta be an LA rite or passage.

Antonio SolisGomez said...

i took my kids there many times for family outings but didn't have the story behind vasquez rocks that you provided. nice job of weaving vasquez story with time spent with grandkids