The Chicanos from the tidelands had no school so they were bused to ours. Like children everywhere, we latched onto their differences like hungry leeches.
The shirts buttoned to the collar. The boxy work pants, the constant black T’s, a strange affection for gothic lettering and vintage cars.
We stood in the quad in our bell bottoms, puka shells and disco shirts and asked, What could they be thinking?
We learned the appropriate slurs, which now seem pathetic: greasers (because they used product in their hair), Spics (because they spoke Spanish), beaners (because they ate beans?).
One day, my little brother’s gang – let’s call them The Squirrely Bunch – were performing their best Cheeches and Chongs, tossing around words like cholo, wetback, low-rider, puta in those odd Mexican rhythms, the words falling like dominos to the obligatory eh? (unintentionally paying tribute to the things they professed to hate). My mom finally had enough.
“That’s it! You boys get in the car right now. We’re going for a ride.”
I can only imagine them, huddled in the back seat, muttering. Omigod, Vaughn, your mom finally snapped. She’s gonna kill us and leave our bodies in the swamp.
My mother, one of the more navigationally challenged of women, puzzled her way through unfamiliar back roads until she arrived in Alviso, a former railroad town and fishing port where Mexican families found shelter.
I don’t have direct quotes, but I’m guessing she said, These are real boys with real homes and friends and families who love them, and they are not to be made into cartoons by you. Also, look how far they have to travel to go to a white school where mean boys make fun of them.
I imagine, too, the faces of the locals as a blonde, blue-eyed housewife cruised through town in a station wagon, boys peering out the window like caged animals. It must have looked like the world’s most pathetic tour bus.
Decades later, I sit at a fire pit in Malibu, hearing this story for the second time. My brother has never forgotten that trip, has lived his life accordingly, and keeps this story in his back pocket as a reminder of his mother’s huge, loving and slightly lunatic heart.
As a story always brings more stories, I flash on the day when I turned from my middle-school locker to be punched in the face by a lean, ferocious-looking Chicano.
More shocked than hurt, I stumbled down the hall, holding my nose and shouting, “Why did you do that!?” He and his friends continued to follow me, and I was afraid they were looking for more. They scattered, finally, as I made my way to the nurse’s office.
(Where were the adults? Nowhere. Adults in the seventies were useless.)
As the year went on, I tried to hate those Spics, those beaners, those goddamn greasers. After all, I had reason. But my attempts were always cut off by my mother’s voice, a permanent installation in my head. Now Michael. Think of how that other person feels. (I sometimes envy people who freely hate. Their worldview must be much less complicated.)
Eventually, I managed to place myself in that kid’s shoes, and the equation came clear. He was the alpha male, his friends the Alviso equivalent of The Squirrely Bunch, and it was his job to find the biggest, whitest kid in the place and take him down.
Because that’s what you do on your first day in prison.
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 21 novels, most recently The Girl in the Flaming Dress.