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in the beginning
As a child, I loved my life.
I was born in Hollywood the second of four kids: my sister Billie, then me, Mark, and Marie. Although my father considered himself a full-blooded Mexican, he was born on American soil to a hardworking family. My father worked as the maître d' at Ciro's nightclub in Hollywood, a famous hangout for the biggest stars of the '50s and '60s. Those were the days of Bobby Darin, Sandra Dee, and Frank Sinatra. His job required him to interact with the likes of Lana Turner, Clark Gable, and Marilyn Monroe, as well as some of the more famous mafiosi.
Because of his job, my father worked hard at being Americanized and making sure we were as well. He spoke to us only in English, though my mother—who was Irish Mexican—spoke to us in Spanish. For my father, everything was about education and speaking proper English. He was very strict—he lived by a lot of the old ways. If we did something wrong, we would be punished.
Still, I loved my father very much. He was my biggest cheerleader. My whole life my dad's words to me were "You can do anything you put your mind to, Rene. You're smart. You can do it, Rene." And I believed him.
I also thought he was so handsome. He was a bit of a celebrity among our extended family because of his encounters with famous people. At family gatherings, everyone clustered around to hear him tell his stories about the movie stars he knew.
When my father went to work, he wore either a tuxedo or a black suit and expensive cologne that smelled wonderful. Before walking out the door, he'd bend down and point to his cheek for me to kiss. I treasured our little ritual and eagerly waited for that moment when I would get to kiss his freshly shaven, smooth, yummy-smelling cheek. To this day, my sisters and I still kiss his cheek and say, "Mmmm, Daddy. You smell so good."
In addition to sharing stories about movie stars, he loved to tell how when he met my mom it was love at first sight. He had wanted to marry her right away. And no one doubted that because my mom was a very beautiful woman.
Everyone loved my mother. She had so many family and friends who wanted to be near her. She was kind and the most hospitable woman I have ever met. She cooked the most amazing authentic Mexican food. She liked TV, so it was on all day—I must have watched every old movie ever made. My mom also loved music. Whenever we drove somewhere, the radio was tuned to either a Spanish music station or the oldies.
We spent most of our free time with family. On weekends we might go to East Los Angeles and visit relatives, which meant lots of food and laughter. They'd play Spanish music, and we'd all dance the Mexican cumbia.
When we weren't with extended family, we had great times staying at home. My parents played records, and we'd all dance. My dad was also a gourmet cook, and he often prepared dinner on his days off. I stayed by his side and helped him. As a result, I could cook anything by the time I got married.
As a little girl, I walked to Catholic school every day. I was very proud that I was born to two Catholic parents. The nuns told us that if we were not Catholics we would go to hell. So I knew I was special because I was a Catholic.
The nuns also taught me to fear God, telling me that if I disobeyed I would go to hell. I must admit, they scared the daylights out of me. Still, I feared the Devil more than I feared God, and sometimes I thought I saw the Devil at night. I went to confession as often as I could so I would be forgiven for all the mischief I got into. I believed the priest was someone special, someone who could let me into heaven, so I wanted him to know who I was.
With all my trips to confession, I knew the "Hail Marys" and "Our Fathers" by heart. Somehow, though, I felt like something was wrong with this ritual. How could simple prayers keep me from hell? I wanted so badly to be connected to God but felt I wasn't. Something gnawed at me—there had to be more I needed to do to connect to him.
I really loved God and believed in him, but I was never sure what he thought about me. I would pray on my own and ask God for miracles. One time my grandmother gave me five dollars to make a bunch of octopuses out of yarn for her to sell at a boutique. I blew the money on myself instead. Then I got scared and felt guilty and put an octopus in the closet, praying for God to multiply it. I believed God was capable of anything, so I was very upset when he didn't give me the miracle of multiplied octopuses I'd asked him for.
I don't remember my parents talking to us about God. They sent us to church without them and, as far as I knew, had never set foot inside—except on the day they were married by the church.
One day my dad took me for a ride to a place called the San Fernando Valley. He showed me this brand-new, amazing house with white rocks on top of it and told me we were going to leave Hollywood and move to this new place. I was very excited. I thought this meant we were rich. And then, after we moved, my dad gave us an unbelievable gift. He had a huge pool built in our backyard. I was dumbfounded when I saw how big it was. I knew we were special—we had to be. I didn't know anyone else who had their own pool. We had wonderful summer days when family would come over for swimming and plenty of food.
I felt so secure and happy. Since then I've seen that my mom and dad were not perfect; they kept their personal problems private. Like many children, I lived in a dreamworld and couldn't see the bad in my family. But there are no perfect parents in the world, and mine did what they could with what they had. However, my mom and dad accomplished one very important thing—they gave us a home where we felt safe and secure.
Domingo's childhood was as different from mine as night is from day. He was one of ten children in a family of migrant farmworkers who followed the crops from Texas to Minnesota. The "homes" they lived in temporarily were the poorly constructed one-room shacks provided by the farmers. An old station wagon and a trailer held everything his large family owned.
His earliest memory is as a toddler sorting through rocks to find beans his family could cook and eat. As a little guy, he sat on a log so his older brothers could use a two-man saw to cut wood for the woodstove. The stove not only provided heat for the shack but was where his mother cooked their food. Domingo remembers watching his pregnant mom cook and breast-feed at the same time. But the stove didn't provide enough heat. Domingo shivered constantly, getting a clear view of Minnesota's winter snow through the wide gaps in the walls of their picker's shack. A bunch of the kids slept in one bed with clothes piled on top of them as they tried to stay warm.
Once in a while a guy came around selling shaved ice. That's all Domingo wanted—shaved ice. But his family never had the money for even such a simple treat.
My mother-in-law once shared with me that on occasion, his father would go to the local church to preach the Word of God and talk from the pulpit about the hardships of his family. The caring people would take a love offering for his family. He graciously accepted the cash, then went to town to splurge all of it on alcohol and women while abandoning his many children and wife at home, leaving them without food to eat or warm clothes to wear. There was never enough to go around in the big family—especially love.
Sometime before Domingo was seven, his parents separated and his mother moved the family to California. She lied to property owners about how many children she had in order to rent a home in North Hollywood. No one would have rented to her had they known there would be one parent and ten children living in the two-bedroom house.
His dad was in and out of the house even after the separation, bringing violence and wreaking havoc when he did. Once when Domingo's sister played an Elvis record, their father put his fist through the brand-new stereo she had bought after saving for a long time. Another time he backhanded Domingo's disabled sister, then hit Domingo's mom when she tried to intervene—and when Domingo's brothers stood up for their mom, their dad would get mad. Before long, everyone was either bleeding or crying. Then their dad would just leave and not come back for months at a time.
Domingo walked to school with his older and younger sisters—some of the time without shoes. He struggled to read because he hadn't learned the fundamentals; they moved so often, he couldn't catch up. Occasionally, kind people noticed this little boy in need. One of his special memories is of an elementary school teacher who took him to the store after school to buy a pair of shoes.
One of Domingo's biggest disappointments was that he wanted to play baseball ... but didn't know how. He'd sit for hours on the curbs of his neighborhood watching the other boys play pickup games of street baseball. His own brothers were off working or drinking somewhere. So day after day, hour after hour, he'd just sit and watch. He didn't have a ball, a glove, or a bat. He didn't know how to use any of those things anyway. His father never taught him. Never threw one ball for him to catch. He couldn't play in a league because his family didn't have the money. He would have been happy to just play ball in the street, but none of the kids ever invited him to play.
His hours on the curb gave him a lot of time to think. Is there a reason they get to play and I don't? Why is this? Are they better than me? He couldn't help but notice his exclusion from other worlds—ones where kids went to Disneyland and baseball games, ate out with their intact families, and took family vacations.
One day, as he sat on the curb in the California sunshine, he thought about the God he'd heard of while growing up in Baptist churches—and he wondered where this God was. Why was Domingo always hungry, and why did his mom have to suffer so much?
His life was not anything like those of the kids who played ball in the street. He came to the conclusion that if there was a God, he was obviously unjust and unfair and Domingo wanted nothing to do with him. He was a good kid until that point. But sitting on those curbs, thinking a lot about God, changed him. He rejected God and went his own way.
At age eleven, he began cutting school and getting into fights. He'd go to the local liquor store and steal pints of whiskey and packs of cigarettes. The clerks never suspected that this sweet little kid with his nose in a magazine was stealing from them. Domingo stashed his goods in the drawers in his bedroom. In the middle of the night, someone would knock on his window and say, "Hey, Domingo. Whatcha got?" And Domingo would open the window and his dresser drawers to display what he had in his "store." Money and goods exchanged hands. And the more money he had, the more he wanted to make. He saw what money could do for him. He liked treating his family to ice cream, as well as the other comforts money gave them.
At twelve, he'd been drinking beer for nearly a year while hanging out with his older brothers and cousins. One night when the familia went to Jack in the Box for a burger, their rivals from San Fernando showed up. In the subsequent fight, one of Domingo's cousins got knifed. Twelve-year-old Domingo, who had never driven a car, jumped into the driver's seat, the other boys dove in, and he drove them to safety.
The police started getting involved. They'd take Domingo home and deposit him at the front door. Minutes later he was out the back door, off to do the same things that had gotten him into trouble in the first place. But then, finally, his revolving door shut.
A judge sent him to juvenile hall—not for anything specific, but after so many small offenses, the judge felt that Domingo, who had no authority figure or supervision, was headed down the wrong path. The judge hoped juvenile hall would help get him back on the right one. Domingo was able to get out four months later when his sister and brother-in-law took him into their home. Although he was only thirteen, they required him to buy groceries and pay rent. He earned the money by working for his brother-in-law at his automotive shop.
There was really nothing good about Domingo's childhood. This little boy never got to play. He never knew if his needs would be met. He knew his mother loved him, and she did what she could with what she had—but she didn't have much either. By the time he was thirteen, he was a beaten-down alcoholic with a rap sheet, time spent in juvenile hall, and no parents, and he was working like an adult to pay rent and buy groceries. His role models were alcoholics, womanizers, rebellious teens, and guys who dealt with their anger by beating on someone.
This kid didn't have a chance.
My friend and I were giggling and talking as we walked around the Northridge Junior High School campus. It was a new school year, and we were both excited about being in junior high for the first time. As we rounded a corner so I could take a drink from the fountain, I saw the new Mexican boy everyone was talking about. I couldn't believe it—he was smoking a cigarette on campus! I thought he was so fearless and good-looking. Then, with all the sureness in the world, I turned to my friend and announced, "I'm going to marry him."
My friend just rolled her eyes. I watched him laughing and goofing around with the other guys. Sure, he was cute, but there was something more. He was cocky. Confident.
When we were introduced, he didn't say much—in fact, he ignored me. Then later he asked if I wanted to meet him at the skating rink. I was so excited, but I had to babysit. When I got to the skating rink late, I found him making out with my friend. I knew right away I was in over my head, but for whatever reason, I continued to like him and wanted him to notice me.
I was so surprised the first time Domingo called. As my heart pounded, we had some sort of simple conversation. It didn't matter what we said. I was hooked. He started calling me frequently, and we hung out together in school. One time when he walked me home from school, we saw my mom. We ducked into the bushes, afraid and laughing at the same time. And then he kissed me. My first real kiss. I thought it was wonderful, and from that moment, Domingo had my heart. I wanted to spend as much time with him as I could. I thought it was true love. But when my father, who was so strict he wouldn't allow me to talk to boys, found out I liked Domingo, he told me I couldn't date or have him over until I was fifteen. But his command didn't stop me from seeing Domingo at school and the skating rink.
When my fifteenth birthday came close, I could hardly wait. Domingo and I could stop sneaking around! But when I turned fifteen, my dad said he had changed his mind. I fought and argued with him. I yelled at him. And then I shrieked, "I hate you!" and ran to my room, slammed the door, and cried. I was crying because I couldn't have Domingo over. But I was also devastated because my dad, my hero, had lied to me.
What I didn't understand was that my dad knew what kind of boy Domingo was—he reminded my father of himself at that age. Like most young teen girls, I had blinders on. I could see Domingo only as the boy of my dreams, while my father was trying to do his job as a father and protect me.
My father began to keep a close eye on me. That meant that, in order to see Domingo, I had to lie about everything. It meant cutting school and going to Domingo's house. It meant my sister Billie taking us with her when she went places. It meant telling my mom I was babysitting when, in reality, the only person I was "babysitting" was Domingo. To make the whole thing believable, Domingo gave me the money I would have earned had I really babysat. I didn't care that I had become so deceitful. Domingo had become my whole world. He was popular in school, I was his girlfriend, and nothing else mattered.
A determined spirit is one of Domingo's strongest character qualities. How he did all he did, I will never know. He was such a hard worker. At fifteen he went to school until noon, then worked at his brother-in-law's auto shop until after midnight—and he was great at it. He could work on any engine and understood them so well he could modify them to make them better and faster. After work he sometimes hung around with the guys and drank beer, then went home. Several nights a week he'd walk the two and a half miles to my house and rap on my window. I'd let him in, and we'd whisper quietly in my room until my father got home around two. Then Domingo would slip out through the window and walk home.
Excerpted from rich in love by IRENE GARCIA, LISSA HALLS JOHNSON. Copyright © 2014 Irene Garcia, Lissa Halls Johnson. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted April 11, 2014
Wow... I started reading and couldn't put it down until I finished at 3am. Through this story, I saw God's compassion and faithfulness in such an amazing tangible way. God's faithfulness to provide protection and transformation and I was reminded of the GREAT wisdom and strength available to all who will call upon his name. When we come to the end of ourselves, he is bigger still. This story has settled in and taken residence in my heart and it visits me and reminds me to call upon God's great wisdom, strength and patience as I parent my two teenagers. Sincere thanks Irene for walking through the memories to share this story. God has used your story in a big way in my life.
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Posted June 14, 2014
I am in awe at the love these two have for God and their kids. To deny themselves like this and follow the spirit's calling in their lives is incredible. I was moved by their struggles, their joy and their faith. Our God is good.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 30, 2014