By Edward H. Garcia
“You’re not that kind of Mexican,” his father said more than once. David Alvarez knew that made his father sound like a racist. A more nuanced analysis might have concluded he was an elitist. His father would have said he was a realist. It first came up when, as a teenager, he had announced to his father that he would be earning money for a car that summer by picking cotton at a farm next to his cousin Tony’s place in the country. His father must have felt he was telling his son a home truth. The men and women he would be picking next to, the ones with deeply creased, mahogany faces and hands, who had stooped over cotton plants and beets and squash and cabbage since they were children would pick him into the ground. As they did.
Years later when he came home from college ready to protest the working conditions of those same pickers and join his friend Domingo as a Guerrillero de Aztlan doing whatever was necessary to fight the gringo farmers, his father once again reminded him that he wasn’t that kind of Mexican. At the time David had no idea what he was. He had a degree from a good university in sociology, no real prospects for a job, but the certain knowledge that if he asked them, his parents could arrange with their friends to get him something with the county or the state. He knew that Mingo had no such certainty—to make a living for his wife and little boy, he had had to apply for and earn one of the few social work jobs that really were open, and he would have to curb his political rhetoric in public, at least, to avoid getting fired. David saw the difference, though he would never have acknowledged that to his father, and he envied Mingo’s … what? Authenticity? That he was that kind of Mexican? When they sat around drinking beer, Mingo had stories from his migrant days, the crowded trucks, the shacks they lived in, the schools up north where he was treated better than at home. What stories could David tell? Catholic schools, summer jobs a friend of his parents got him, the University of Texas on a monthly check, modest but expandable for the asking. In high school and college he’d had his share of angst, but sitting in the smoky Vermillion Club sipping Lone Stars could he tell Mingo about the girl he asked to the dance who pretended she didn’t hear or the girl in college who thought for a week or so that she might be pregnant?
David had a sometime girlfriend and Mingo had a wife. Mingo was a year or two older, had worked his way through college, had married a girl he had gone to high school with, loved his two-year-old son, wasn’t very happy with his wife. David thought Mingo might have envied David’s freedom and his parents’ money, but didn’t take him seriously. David didn’t really take himself seriously. Mingo let David pay for the beer and for gas. David would have liked to gain Mingo’s respect—and, as he thought about it, show his father— by doing something big, something brave and noble. He had no idea what that might be except that he would be the hero of the adventure. He was pretty sure it would have to do with the farm workers who were striking or the student demonstrations in Crystal City and that it would involve a girl, not like the girls he had dated at the University. To begin with she would be dark and liberated and sexually adventurous. He could only admit it to himself, but he had never found the dark girls attractive. He was dark-haired and brown-eyed, but fair. He could have passed for Anglo. The girls he longed for and occasionally got were most usually Anglos, often Jewish. Now in his fantasies, he found a taste for dark girls who would connect him to his heritage. Putting it that way made him a little queasy. He was used to being ironic around all the facile talk about roots and giving back and all that. Still, he found himself thinking of skinny, sexy Mexican girls who looked like Diana Ross. His fantasy embarrassed him, but for that it didn’t go away.
“We should do something.” This was after four beers. David didn’t have any place to go, but Mingo had started checking his watch.
“Like what?” Mingo probably thought David wanted to go to another bar, maybe across the river.
“Go kick some ass in Cristal.” He pronounced it in Spanish. He was doing that more since he’d come home, getting used to it.
“Not tonight,” Mingo said, looking at his watch again. “My jefa is waiting for me. I’m not free like you.”
David laughed. “Not tonight, but, you know, they need us up there. Guerrilleros de Azlan.” He felt a little lightheaded and gestured with a closed fist. “Kick some Anglo ass.”
“You know we are just talking, don’t you?” Mingo said. “We’re drinking some cervezas and talking.”
“I don’t want to just talk. I want to do something.”
“You know what they do to college boys who want to join in, don’t you? The Rangers don’t mess around. They wouldn’t even find your body.”
“So,” David said, “that would be a no on Crystal City?”
“That would be a no.”
David felt that in some way he had called Mingo’s bluff, and he was sorry he had. He had liked Guerillero Mingo more than married with a kid and a job Mingo. Well, he could do it alone. He was sure that girl was already there, the skinny sexy dark one. She’ll be impressed that I have a degree from UT, he thought, and grateful that I’ve come to help them. He was a little vague about just what was going on in Cristal, but he could read up on it. From the newspaper the controversy seemed to be about how the high school cheerleaders were selected and how many were Mexican and Anglo. The Brownsville newspaper had no sympathy for civil disobedience and was not very helpful when it came to details. They ran a editorial on the front page declaring the whole matter “a tempest in a teapot.” David hoped there was more to it than that. There had been protests and sit-ins and marches at the university while he was there, but he had never been seriously engaged. For a while he and a couple of friends formed the Society for Non-active Violence, thinking it was funny, but it was a weak joke and passed quickly away.
David’s parents were giving him some time to find himself, his mother more patiently than his father. He didn’t feel quite ready to start looking for a job, and he was thinking of trying graduate school next school year. His grades were okay, and he would probably do all right on that test you had to take for law school. Being a lawyer like his father had never appealed to him, but the idea of a crusading lawyer fighting for the rights of the oppressed did, at least as a fantasy involving the girl. Maybe Mingo would be his sidekick. Mingo’s Spanish was better than his, and he looked more like the farm workers David imagined fighting for. David would be the guy who knew his way around a courtroom, who could talk the language of the big growers and the politicians. They would make a great team. And the girl. David fell asleep for several nights on that fantasy. In the morning, however, he would remember that he hadn’t applied for law school, hadn’t taken that test you had to take, would have to wait years before he had any chance to be a lawyer. His father was always telling him how little new law school graduates really knew, how it took years of working at it before you could handle a case with any competence. Not even the girl could sustain his fantasy when he thought of all that. He would have to do something dramatic and do it now. This was the perfect time. He didn’t have a wife or really steady girlfriend. He didn’t have a job he would have to get leave from. Whatever was going on in Crystal City was happening right now. They might solve it without him if he waited.
Why not just go? Get the lay of the land. Make contacts. Let it be known that he was available. See what happens. Crystal City was not that far away. He could read a map. He would tell his parents he was going up to Austin to see friends. They would give him money to do that. They would be surprised as hell when he called them and told them he would be staying in Crystal City for the foreseeable future helping with … helping. He’d tell Mingo but no one else. Mingo would see that he had the cojones to do something even Mingo was afraid to do.
“Well, I’m heading for Cristal tomorrow morning,” David said casually when they were on their second beers.
“No shit.” He liked that he had surprised Mingo.
“What are you going to do?”
“Whatever there is to do. You know, fight the good fight.”
Mingo was silent for a moment, took another pull from his Lone Star. “You sure you know what you’re doing?”
“Hell, yes.” He wasn’t as sure as he hoped he sounded. Mingo raised his beer in a kind of salute, but David was sure he had his doubts.
David didn’t go the next day or the next, but on the third day at a little after noon, he threw a suitcase in the trunk of his 1963 midnight blue Buick Special and took off up the Military Highway toward Laredo and eventually Crystal City. Even in December the Valley could be hot and humid. He cracked the windows front and back and cranked up the music so he could hear it above the rush of wind. Most of the stations he could get were Mexican conjunto stations; the music was mostly accordions and guitars and a relentless drum line. It was too loud for him to make out the words most of the time, but from time to time he could make out “amor.” He really didn’t get the music. For all he could tell they were playing the same song over and over again. David preferred jazz, but there was no chance he would find any Dave Brubeck or Miles on this trip. Maybe if he really were going to Austin.
David didn’t have a plan. He kept repeating what he had told himself from the beginning: he would get the lay of the land. What did that mean anyway? He’d drive around. Find the Raza Unida headquarters. Everything would flow from there. He’d put himself at their service. He was pretty sure they would be eager for volunteers. If they weren’t that well organized, he could help them with that. He felt that the ice was already broken, as if he had already made contact. He would be cool and not come on too strong, not like he knew everything. He did know a thing or two about local politics; he’d watched his father run for and win election to the city commission. But he wouldn’t let on about his experience, just let it emerge naturally, let them find out little by little how lucky they were. He wasn’t sure how the girl would fit in. Maybe there’d be more than one.
The last leg of the trip from Carrizo Springs to Crystal City was dismal. He was sweating through his shirt and struggling to keep a grip on the Buick’s greasy steering wheel. The land was flat, the highway lined scruffy mesquite trees, the buildings, when he did see them, shabby. Why would anyone want to live in this place? David wanted nothing more than to check into a motel room, take a shower, and find some beer. The next day, he would do his reconnoitering.
The Palm Motel’s window unit was loud but cold. David didn’t have high standards in motels and the Palm was passable. The bedspread was chenille that had been washed and worn flat. The towels were thin and rough. That suited David. This wasn’t a vacation. Still, he wasn’t sure exactly what it was. After his shower he thought he would wander around, maybe get some supper. Maybe he would ask around about the protests and about the union. In Brownsville and in the papers everyone was talking about Crystal City, but from what little he’d seen, it was just another sleepy little town with lots of Mexicans, like Rio Grande City and Carrizo Springs. There weren’t any signs with arrows pointing: this way to the protests, this way to foment revolution. There was a little diner across the highway from the motel. Maybe he would ask the waitress where the action was. Well, not in those words. He really wished he could ask her in Spanish, but he wasn’t that sure of his Spanish. His parents spoke to him in Spanish all the time, and he would answer in English. That had been a big issue when he was a kid. They wanted him and his brother to be as bilingual as they were, but he could never bring himself to speak Spanish to someone who could speak English, which was almost everyone.
The waitress’ name was Julie, and she called him “Honey” when he placed his order for chicken fried steak, gravy on the side. They had a “Mexican plate,” but he was pretty sure it would be dreadful. David thought he might try to say something to the busboy, but he wasn’t Mexican either. What the hell kind of place way this? In Brownsville, everyone, even the customers, would be Mexican. He ate his steak and passed on dessert, even though the lemon meringue pie looked pretty good. He was pissed for no good reason, he knew, but he wasn’t going to eat their pie. He regretted it the minute he walked out of the diner, but he thought it would be awkward to go back in right away. Maybe at lunch tomorrow. What was he thinking? This trip wasn’t about having pie or not having pie. By then he was angry at himself for even having that train of thought. “Typical,” he said to himself. He wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but he knew it had something to do with his father. That was the kind of thing—no, the exact thing—his father would say. He would take an event, a mistake maybe, and make it a pattern and indict him for the present, the past, and the future when he no doubt would do that “typical” thing again. He hated that typical shit.
David was sure the Palm Motel would be just the place for sleazy assignations. He kept looking out through the ill-fitting curtains when he heard car doors slam. It was mostly truckers and one family coming in late with sleeping children in their parents’ arms. By ten it was quiet except for highway noise. David felt a little letdown. He fell asleep watching the black and white television and woke up to the “Star Spangled Banner” and some poem about a jet plane. He took off his pants, turned off the TV, and went to sleep.
He had breakfast at the diner and decided to ask Julie what she thought about the protests, except that it wasn’t Julie but another Anglo waitress. It would have been easier with Julie, he thought, not that they had a relationship or anything. But when the waitress came to warm up his coffee a second time, he said, “So, what do you think about those protests?” She looked at him for a long moment, holding the half-filled coffee pot in front of her.
“I don’t know. Seems like a lot of kids wanting to get out of school. Hell, I wasn’t no cheerleader either, and I survived.” She gave him an appraising look and turned to the other tables with her coffee pot.
David thought she was probably trying to figure out whether he was a Mexican or not. He was fairer than she would be used to, and he didn’t have an accent. He was a little uncomfortable with the idea of passing. He had always been critical of the people who tried to make themselves into something besides a Mexican. The Spaniard who came to Brownsville sixty years before as a small child but clung tenaciously to his lisp. His friend Frank Garza who claimed to be German, and others who said they were French or Italian. He would never have done that, but he found himself sometimes proud of the pink skin on his inner arm which proved his fairness or of his mother’s green eyes. He was willing to let new Julie think he was Anglo if that was what she decided.
David asked the cashier where the high school was; it was a couple of blocks away. He couldn’t miss it, she told him, because of the news trucks and all the cops. It seemed to David that she was giving him directions to the county fair or to the big game. Crystal City reminded David of one of the small towns in the lower valley where his family came from, only maybe dustier. He walked by small houses sometimes crowded four to a lot, a lot of chain-link fences, and dirt yards. One house might show evidence of prosperity, a couple of newish cars in the driveway and plants in large planters decorated with mirrored glass, always locked securely behind the fence. Next to it might be a house that hadn’t seen paint in years.
The students gathering at the school looked so young to David. The high school kids were young enough, but now there were junior high and elementary students, too. He joined a line of adults, parents he supposed or just onlookers like him. “Kind of a big deal to make about cheerleaders. Don’t you think?” he said to a man in his forties, dark and dressed in a work uniform. The man looked at him and turned away without answering. A woman on the other side of him pushed a sheaf of papers toward him and said, in Spanish, “Educate yourself,” and turned away, too. He looked at the papers. They were the students’ demands. The cheerleaders were in there, but so were racist teachers, Mexican counselors, and what they called a “bi-cultural education.”
As the students marched by, David could see that they took themselves seriously. There was little talking and none of the “Hey, I’m out of school” atmosphere he had expected. Walking beside the column were older students with black armbands. He might have judged them to be officious and made fun of their sincerity, but he found something in him stirred by them. As the main body of marchers filed by him, David saw a half sheet of paper flutter to the ground. He picked it up. It was a list of instructions written in English and in Spanish. There was to be no yelling, no signs, nothing that looked like a weapon. They were to obey the monitors with black armbands. David would have liked to have joined them as they marched solemnly by, five abreast. He leaned forward as if he might, but he caught sight of a policeman on a motorcycle and leaned back.
David stayed in Crystal City another night since he’d missed the checkout time. He had the lemon meringue pie, which wasn’t as good as it looked. He didn’t go back to the next day’s protest, and he didn’t drop by the Raza Unida headquarters and volunteer his services. They seemed to be doing just fine without him. Driving home early the next morning, David thought about the protests and how different they had been from what he had expected. They were not nearly so dramatic as Mingo seemed to think—no brutal crackdown, no Texas Rangers, no disappearing bodies. And the students were so different from what he had imagined—no feckless kids just needing a little guidance from a guy like him, no girl. There had been lots of girls, of course—sincere high schoolers fighting for the right to be cheerleaders and prom queens, but not that girl, the skinny, sexy one who looked like Diana Ross.
When he got back, he avoided Mingo for a few days and finally decided, what the hell. He told Mingo what he’d seen, and they agreed, after much discussion and many beers, that the kids had been brave; even if the cause hadn’t been dramatic or important in the world at large, it had been important to them. When he found out later that the walkout had been settled and the kids had won pretty much everything they were after, David couldn’t help envying them, especially the one who had gone to Washington to talk to Yarborough and Kennedy. They had been in the right place at the right time. David and Mingo continued to see each other and have their beers, but there was never again any talk of being guerrilleros.
Edward H. Garcia is retired from teaching composition, literature, and creative writing. He has published reviews, articles, stories and poems in The Dallas Morning News, The Texas Observer, The Texas Humanist, Pawn Review, Texas Books in Review, Tex!, Bewildering Stories, The Innisfree Poetry Journal, Rio Grande Review, Amarillo Bay Literary Magazine, The Avalon Literary Review, The Blotter, and The Acentos Review. He lives on the upper east side of Texas with his wife Rica.