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Henry explores his Mexican-American roots as he defends a young Latino accused of murdering a rising Latino politician. A strong emotional connection with both the victim and his accused killer results in a deepening internal conflict for Henry as he battles L.A.’s corrupt political machine and faces Josh’s impending death from AIDS.
The fourth suspenseful mystery starring sleuthing gay attorney Henry Rios, from the award-winning author of How Town. As Henry struggles to prove a young Chicano youth didn't murder a controversial politician--and hunts for the real killer--he must also deal with his ex-lover's diagnosis of HIV.
As I started up the steps to City Hall I wondered whether my father would have hated me more because I was homosexual or a lawyer. Then I reminded myself that he had never needed a reason to hate me. It was enough that I was not him. For my own part, I no longer hated my father, though, admittedly, this had become easier after his death. Forgiveness was still a problem.
I took the steps too fast and stopped to catch my breath when I reached the top. I was forty, and I found myself thinking of my father more often now than in all the years since his death. He was ferociously alive in my memory where all the old battles still raged on. Sometimes I had to remind myself not only that he was dead, but that I had been there. He had died in a brightly lit hospital room, slapping away my consoling hand and screaming at my mother, "Mas luz, mas luz." It had never been clear to me whether he was asking for more light, or crying out in fear at a light he perceived that the rest of us could not see. He had died with that mystery, as with so many others.
I entered the rotunda of City Hall, a grave, shadowy place, its walls made of great blocks of limestone. Three limp flags hung high above a circular floor of inlaid marble that depicted a Spanish galleon. Around the domed ceiling were eight figures in tile representing the attributes of municipal government: Public Service, Health, Trust, Art, Protection, Education, Law, and Government. I searched in vain for the other four: Expedience, Incompetence, Corruption, and Avarice. Undoubtedly I would encounter them in the hearing I was there to attend.
Six weeks earlier a bill had been introduced in the state senate by Senator Agustin Peña who represented East Los Angeles. Peña's bill made it a crime to "actively participate in any criminal street gang with knowledge that its members engage or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity." Despite its abridgment of the First Amendment right to free association, the bill had been expected to clear the legislature easily. Even though passage was a foregone conclusion, the senate committee before whom the bill was pending had scheduled a public hearing in Los Angeles.
The committee's motives became clear when a Los Angeles Times columnist pointed out that the date of the hearing was also the last day for mayoral candidates to file for the upcoming June primary. The columnist cynically concluded that Senator Peña planned to use the occasion to announce his entry into the race, positioning himself as the law-and-order candidate. When asked about it, Peña, who had been preparing for months to run, coyly declined comment.
A few days later, in mid-March, Peña ran over an old man in Sacramento, killing him. At the time, the Senator's blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit for drunk driving. He was charged with gross vehicular manslaughter. Immediately thereafter, he had entered a drug-and-alcohol rehab called SafeHouse, and had not been heard from since. Two days ago, his office had announced that Peña would be appearing at the hearing to make a statement.
The hearing had become the hottest ticket in town. I entered the city council chamber, where the hearing was being held to a packed house. The Minicams were out in force representing TV stations as far north as San Francisco. Their presence reminded me that Peña was more than simply a local politician. He was perhaps the ranking Latino officeholder in the state, a symbol of the political aspirations of millions and, until his accident, the person most likely to become the first mayor of Los Angeles of Mexican descent in a hundred and fifty years.
Although I had met Peña occasionally over the years, most of what I knew about him came from his campaign brochures and the newspapers. The former still portrayed him as the lean idealist who had marched in the dust of Delano with Cesar Chavez a quarter-century earlier. In the latter, he was depicted as a powerful patronage politician. Both accounts agreed that he was effective at his job. Over the years, however, he had become in a vague but unmistakable manner tainted by his success, careless about appearances, arrogant in the pursuit of his objectives. The work shirts and jeans had given way to expensive suits tailored to conceal the growing thickness of his body. From my perspective he was no worse than most politicians, but certainly no better and I might even have voted for him.
Whether I would've voted for him or hot, I thought his bill was a disaster and I had come to testify against it. As far as I was concerned, it was a mandate for police harassment in Latino and black communities, not that the cops needed much encouragement on that front. Only last year, members of the LAPD had been inadvertently videotaped as they pulled a black man out of his car and beat him senseless. His crime was failing to pull over with sufficient dispatch to receive a speeding ticket. The spin doctors in the department asserted "isolated incident," but my clients had been telling me for years about being beaten for what defense lawyers called contempt of cop. I didn't think it was a good idea to turn them loose on every poor black or Latino kid who gave them attitude. I had written a piece for the Times to that effect, and I was still getting hate calls three weeks later.
I glanced over my shoulder. Tomas Ochoa lumbered toward me. He was tall, big-gutted and deliberately graceless as he clomped across the floor, forcing people out of his way. He came up to me like an old friend, crowding the space between us. It was a trick he used on people shorter than himself to force them to look up when they spoke to him. I moved back a step.
Salt-and-pepper hair framed his dark moustached face. His eyes were hidden behind tinted aviator glasses. Ochoa preached the revolution from a classroom podium at the local state college where he taught in the Chicano Studies Department. On the wall of his office was a yellowing poster that demanded the end to the Anglo occupation of California.
The last time I had seen him was at his school where we had been on a panel discussing the spread of AIDS among the city's minorities. While the rest of us deplored the indifference with which minority political leaders had responded to the presence of AIDS among their constituents, Ochoa took the position that it only affected elements of the minority communities which they were better off without, homosexuals and drug users. We had not parted on friendly terms.
I was surprised that he had sought me out today.
I said, "Hello, Tomas."
"I read your article in the Times," he said. "Where you defended the gangs."
"I didn't defend the gangs," I replied. "All I said was that there are better ways of dealing with them than turning the police loose."
"Listen, Rios, the gangs are the best thing that ever came out of the barrio. With a little political education, they could be urban guerrillas."
"I deal with gang members all the time," I told him. "They're not revolutionaries. They're drugged-out losers who get a little self-esteem by shooting each other."
He frowned at me. "So your solution is to plea-bargain them into prison."
"The solution has to start long before they reach me."
"The solution," he said, raising his voice, "is outside the system that you represent."
A few people had stopped to stare. I answered quietly, "The only thing I represent is my clients, Tomas, and I do it well."
"You represent something a lot worse than that," he said, jabbing a finger at me.
"Well, according to you, AIDS will take care of that," I replied. "Or would you prefer concentration camps like Castro? Or Hitler?"
"Take your choice," he said, moving away.
I watched him disappear into the sea of brown and black faces in the room, with the depressing certainty that he spoke for most of them. Whatever their other disagreements, the races all united in their contempt for people of my kind. The revolution never extended to matters of personal morality.
At the front of the room, the senators had begun to assemble. I found a seat just as the chairwoman of the committee called the hearing to order. Spruce and intricately-coiffed, she announced, "These hearings have been called for the purpose of encouraging public debate on SB 22, introduced by Senator Peña of East Los Angeles."
She was interrupted by a rising commotion from the audience as a door opened behind her and Agustin Peña walked briskly forward, the Minicams sweeping toward him. An aide pulled out his chair and he sat down, saying, "I apologize to the committee for my tardiness. I'd like to make a statement."
The presiding senator replied, "Certainly, Senator Peña. Welcome back."
"Thank you," he said. He raised his hand back over his shoulder. His aide handed him a sheaf of papers. Peña laid them on the desk before him and, for a moment, simply looked out at the crowd thoughtfully. His thick, black hair was brushed back from a long, narrow face that El Greco might have painted, strong and melancholy; it was the face of a man who had passed through something difficult and was not yet certain of his ground. He cleared his voice, and began to read from his papers.
"The streets of our poorest communities have become battlefields."
Nearby, someone whispered, audibly, "Yeah, they're full of drunk drivers."
"It's time for action," Peña continued. "It's time to send a message to the gangsters that the decent people of our cities will not tolerate-"
The same wag quipped, "Intoxicated politicians." But this time, someone shushed him.
"Their guns and their drugs," Peña concluded.
The crowd shifted restlessly waiting for him to address the topic of his political future. At length, he finished with his prepared statement and said, "Now, with the committee's indulgence I would like to address my constituents in the room on another matter."
The room began buzzing again and was gaveled to order, the presiding senator saying, "You have the floor, Gus."
"Thank you, Charlene," he said. "You've been a good friend to me. In the past two months I've had a chance to see, truly, who my real friends are. I'm gonna ask some people to come up here and join me: my wife, Graciela, and my children; my son, Tino, and my beautiful daughter, Angela."
The three got up from the front row and walked awkwardly to the dais where the senators were seated. His wife was a plump, pretty woman, who wore a photogenic dress of red and blue silk. She had mastered that vaguely beatific expression that Nancy Reagan had popularized among the wives of public figures. His teenage daughter kissed her father quickly and retreated to the background. His handsome son also kissed his father but remained at his side.
Peña, reaching for his wife's hand as he rose from his seat, said, "This is what life is really about, a loving family, people who stand by you no matter what, and these are the people I know I hurt the most with my alcoholism."
He paused for effect, and got it, the cameras clicking, the crowd whispering. I watched his family. His wife's mouth twitched but her expression did not change. The girl retreated farther back. The boy looked straight ahead. Now that he was on his feet, Peña was as relaxed as a talk show host working the crowd.
"I know that some of you in the press expected me to be making a different kind of announcement today, and I would be lying if I didn't tell you I would rather be standing here announcing my candidacy for mayor than admitting that I'm an alcoholic. Still," he smiled, "you roll with the punches." The back room echoes of that remark were more authentic than what came next. "But maybe by doing this, I can help someone else. All I can say is that I have had to look at my human weakness right in the eye and realize that I have spent so much time caring about and worrying about others, that I have not worried or cared enough about myself. I now know that it's time for me to take care of me, to accept my responsibilities and my weaknesses. But I say to others who are as pained and hurt as myself," and here he draped an arm over his son's shoulders while gripping his wife's hand, "I say to you, `Join me brothers and sisters. We can make it. We will make it. It's going to be a lonely journey, but I stand and God stands with me.'"
He released his children and his wife. "As you know, I have been at an alcohol rehabilitation center, and I believe that I have been cured of this disease of alcoholism. I have begun to heal my body and my soul."
Looking at the camera rather than her husband, his wife said, "Gus, for you to admit you have this problem and to deal with it has truly lifted a burden from our souls." She gestured vaguely toward the children. "I thank God you have had the strength to realize that you are truly in God's hands. I know for our family this is just a beginning and we, Tino, Angela, and me, we will be with you every step of the way."
"God bless you, Graciela," he said, choking back tears. To my astonishment, people around me were also crying.
The presiding senator hammered the table with her gavel and said, "The committee stands in recess for fifteen minutes."
The media descended on the Peñas, who were soon obscured by flashing cameras and shouted questions. An old gray-haired woman sitting near me cast a skeptical eye on the scene and muttered to no one in particular, in Spanish, "The man has no shame."
The cameras were gone when the hearing was called back to order, as was Peña's family, and the proceeding reverted to its original purpose. Peña had resumed his seat and watched a parade of witnesses through half-glasses, showing increasingly less interest as the morning wore on. He passed a note to his neighbor, smiling like a schoolboy, and lit a cigarette, oblivious of the no-smoking sign posted on the wall just a few feet behind him.
Excerpted from THE HIDDEN LAW by MICHAEL NAVA Copyright © 1992 by Michael Nava. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted February 27, 2002
I was glued to this book till the very end. Great storyline and heart-stopping suspense. I grew to care for Henry Rios and feel like I have to read the other books in the series to really get a sense of all that he lived through.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.