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My Beautiful Whisper
Meeting the Animal in Washington Square Park
The acrobats were out in Washington Square Park,
flaying arms and colors: the jokers and break
dancers, the singers and mimes. I pulled out
of a reading at New York City College
and watched a crowd gather around a young man
jumping over 10 garbage cans from a skateboard.
Then out of the side of my eye I saw someone
who didn't seem to belong here, like I didn't
belong. He was a big man, six feet and more,
with tattoos on his arms, back, stomach and neck.
On his abdomen were the words in huge old English
lettering: Hazard. I knew this guy, I knew that place.
I looked closer. It had to be him. It was—Animal!
From East L.A. World heavyweight contender,
the only Chicano from L.A. ever ranked
in the top ten of the division. The one who
went toe-to-toe with Leon Spinks and even
made Muhammad Ali look the other way.
Animal! I yelled. "Who the fuck are you?" he asked,
a quart of beer in his grasp, eyes squinting.
My name's Louie—from East L.A. He brightened. "East L.A.!
Here in Washington Square Park? Man, we everywhere!"
The proverbial "what part of East L.A.?" came next.
But I gave him a shock. From La Gerahty, I said.
That's the mortal enemy of the Big Hazard
gang of the Ramona Gardens Housing Projects.
"I should kill you," Animal replied. If we were in
L.A., I suppose you would—but we in New York City, man.
"I should kill you anyway."
Instead he thrust out his hand with the beer and offered
me a drink. We talked—about what happened since he stopped
boxing. About the time I saw him at the Cleland House
arena looking over some up-and-coming fighters.
How he had been to prison, and later ended up homeless
in New York City, with a couple of kids somewhere.
And there he was, with a mortal enemy from East L.A.,
talking away. I told him how I was now a poet,
doing a reading at City College, and he didn't wince
or looked surprised. Seemed natural. Sure. A poet
from East L.A. That's the way it should be. Poet
and boxer. Drinking beer. Among the homeless,
the tourists and acrobats. Mortal enemies.
When I told him I had to leave, he said "go then,"
but soon shook my hand, East L.A. style, and walked off.
"Maybe, someday, you'll do a poem about me, eh?"
Sure, Animal, that sounds great.
Someday, I'll do a poem about you.
Victory, Victoria, My Beautiful Whisper
(for Andrea Victoria)
You are the daughter who is sleep's beauty.
You are the woman who birthed my face.
You are a cloud creeping across the shadows,
drenching sorrows into heart-sea's terrain.
Victory, Victoria, my beautiful whisper:
how as a baby you laughed into my neck
when I cried at your leaving
after your mother and I broke up;
how at age three you woke me up from stupid
so I would stop peeing into your toy box
in a stupor of resentment and beer;
and how later, at age five, when I moved in
with another woman who had a daughter about your age,
you asked: "how come she gets to live with Daddy?"
Muñeca, these words cannot traverse the stone
path of our distance; they cannot take back the thorns
of falling roses that greet your awakenings.
These words are from places too wild for hearts to gallop,
too cruel for illusions, too dead for your eternal
gathering of flowers. But here they are, weary offerings
from your appointed father, your anointed man-guide;
make of them your heart's bed.
(Overheard among street people in Berkeley, October 1990)
The rag-faced woman sneered at the shriveled man:
"What do you know about pain,
about unwashed nights and the color-knife
tearing up your flesh.
You ain't black?
You ain't been through nothing."
The man replied in poison tones:
"I've been through 'nam, sister;
I've seen dudes sliced in half,
heads on bamboo poles.
You ain't been to 'nam,
man, you ain't seen shit."
The woman waved her arms, walked up
to the man in soil-striped pants:
"Get out my face, whitey, I'm a descendent
of slaves; I've seen lynchings; I've
seen castrated dicks dangle from bodies.
Don't talk to me about no 'nam!"
The man stepped toward her, ears
bursting with red indignation:
"Yeah, you think you've felt the knife-twist!
Walk in my shoes, lady; see what I've seen.
Bombs tearing up your feet.
Make you wish you could be black."
The woman shrieked: "Fuck you then!"
"Shit, what do you know?" replied the man.
The concave view over desert groves
is maligned, dense with sacrifices
not to be believed.
A native face peers backward to time
and woman, gathering memory like
flowers on healing cactus.
Your eye is froth & formation, it is
rain of protocol you can't relinquish as water is wasted on sacred sand.
Across the turquoise rug, hexagon shapes.
I discover you, the howl of eternal mornings
while beckoning the blue from this sky,
while gesturing an infant from sleeping tree.
Sip the maguey juice from these mountains,
shear chaos from the catacombs:
forget and ferment the pain.
On the back of your hand, circles of flame.
A Tale of Los Lobos
One summer, to watch Los Lobos play,
I drove several hundred miles
from Chicago to Charleston,
West Virginia with three
Chicano buddies: Geronimo,
Mitch, and Dario.
We got there in time to catch
a great concert. Afterwards, we went backstage and talked
to the band members.
We told the band we'd see them
later at the honky tonk club
where they were expected to perform.
But they had to leave right away
and couldn't make it.
We arrived at the club, sans Lobos,
and the place was packed.
I didn't think there'd be a seat,
but soon someone directed us to a table
where three pitchers of beer stood
at attention on the varnished table top.
Great service, I thought. We sat down,
poured beers into frosty glasses,
and took in the down-home blues
emanating from the small, smoke-filled stage.
Before we finished the pitchers,
three more were brought over
(although nobody had asked for our money!)
So we drank away, enjoying ourselves,
the only Mexicans in the place.
What gives? I asked. Geronimo, Mitch and Dario
shrugged their shoulders.
Soon many eyes turned our way.
Something's up, I whispered,
look at the way everybody's looking at us.
Sure enough, the band stopped and someone
at the mike asked us to come up to the stage.
"¡Que cábula!" Mitch exclaimed, "they think
we're Los Lobos!"
Damn, man, I said, we don't even look like them!
Geronimo stood up, said he was sorry
but we weren't Los Lobos, and sat down.
Everything stopped. Incredulous stares
surrounded us. After an embarrassing
silence, the house band began
a slow number, than upped the tempo,
finally rocking the place
with harmonica-laden fervor.
Hijo de su, they believe us, I said.
"I don't know," Dario replied,
"I think they think we're lying."
One dude approached us:
"I know you're Los Lobos;
you just don't want to play, right?"
No, for reals, we ain't them, I responded.
He winked and kept on walking.
When I went to the restroom,
a woman by the phone stopped me:
"I liked the way you played guitar
at the gig earlier."
That wasn't me, I explained.
"What I want to know," the girl then asked,
"is how you got rid of the goatee so fast."
I took my piss and rushed back to my seat.
Rumors that we were Los Lobos abounded.
Some shouted for us to get off it and perform.
"If we did," Geronimo quipped, "Los Lobos
would never play this town again."
I then noticed a bevy of West Virginia beauties,
local groupies, who followed the out-of-town
bands that landed here. They wouldn't leave
even after we gave them expressions that said:
you're nice, but we ain't them!
One girl who sat directly behind me
had on a prom dress! She kept
ordering gin-and-tonics, waiting for a signal
from one of us, I presumed, for her
to join us at the table. We decided not to go this route. Mitch figured we may have to scram
if people here concluded we had
insulted their fair city, club, and women.
All our denials seemed pointless,
resulting in more knowing winks
as if they were all in on our little joke.
The pitchers kept coming,
the house band coaxed us up
once or twice,
and the groupies held on
like real troopers.
Finally, people began to depart.
The band packed up its instruments
and most of the girls had split.
Then just before our last beer,
a loud thump exploded behind me.
I turned. The girl in the party dress
had fallen over in her chair,
drunker than shit! We helped her back
on the stool. My partners and I
promptly left the club as quietly as we could
on the night Los Lobos didn't play
in Charleston, West Virginia.
Cinco de Mayo
Cinco De Mayo celebrates a burning people,
those whose land is starved of blood,
civilizations which are no longer
holders of the night. We reconquer with our feet,
with our tongues, that dangerous language,
saying more of this world than the volumes
of textured and controlled words on a page.
We are the gentle rage; our hands hold
the steam of the earth, the flowers
of dead cities, the green of butterfly wings.
Cinco de Mayo is about the barefoot, the untooled,
the warriors of want who took on the greatest army
Europe ever mustered—and won.
I once saw a Mexican man stretched across
an upturned sidewalk
near Chicago's 18th and Bishop one fifth of May day.
He brought up a near-empty bottle
to the withering sky and yelled out a grito
with the words: ¡Que viva Cinco de Mayo!
And I knew then what it meant—
what it meant for barefoot Zapoteca indígenas
in the Battle of Puebla and what it meant for me
there on 18th Street among los ancianos,
the moon-faced children and futureless youth
dodging gunfire and careening battered cars,
and it brought me to that war
that never ends, the war Cinco de Mayo
was a battle of, that I keep fighting,
that we keep bleeding for, that war
against our servitude that a compa
on 18th Street knew all about
as he crawled inside a bottle of the meanest
A close friend once called me
a careful skeptic. Miracles don't come
from eggs, I might say, chickens do.
One morning I talked to a young man
who had broken up with the mother of his child;
He cried about not seeing the baby
and the loss of equilibrium
forced by his confusion.
More than forty years of life
have given me some place in this space.
So we talked about dignity, of the values that
keep one strong when everything else falls apart;
He listened, began to smile, said he would try,
and left, paying for breakfast.
I'm sure he wished an angel
would stride with him through the windswept road.
I don't know about angels; I do know
the miracle germinating at any crossroads
is what's learned.
Excerpted from Trochemoche by Luis J. Rodríguez. Copyright © 1998 Luis J. Rodríguez. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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