Los Angeles 1945-1969
"When the train ran over Jose’s head, he miraculously survived, but was left with a deep dent in his forehead, a joyous disposition and a belief in Jose Cuervo Tequila, because he was drinking it at the time; Our Lady of Guadalupe, because of the medal around his neck, and The Union Pacific Railroad, because it had spared his life–his own personal trinity."
Once Jose’s spirituality is combined with that of his sorceress Native American wife Soridtha, the two unite to fight the LA power structure by standing with the poor to keep their neighborhoods from being demolished and turned into strip malls after eminent domain laws are enacted.
Most of the action, like the great poker game where everything Jose has, including his house and his reputation as LA’s best poker player is at stake, occurs in East LA. Beyond East LA, to downtown LA, on the cobblestones of Olvera Street, slinking through the mysterious shadows of China Town, visiting the faded Victorian splendor of Bunker Hill and the doomed paradise of Chavez Ravine. Jose and his Native American sorceress wife Soridtha are both loved and feared for their willingness to do anything in the name of justice for the disenfranchised.
When their nine-year-old Mexican/Irish grandson, Jesse Flannigan, comes to live with them, he is indoctrinated into their magical world. Jesse is immediately sacrificed to Catholic school, where he is given the impossible mission of becoming a priest while also having at least one son. These apparently contrary acts are deemed necessary by Jose in order to break what he calls “the curse of seven,” which he believes has been manifested in their having seven daughters and no sons. Over the years, Jesse, who narrates the story, grows from a confused child trying to fulfill his grandfather’s mission for his life, into a nail-biting, chain-smoking Catholic priest.
I was sent away from my parents’ home two days after my eighth birthday because the new place was too small, or I was too big, or because I was caught wearing my mother's lipstick, fake pearl necklace, Christmas dress, and high-heeled shoes. Or maybe it was because I painted my six-month-old brother Carl’s crib along and the entire naked baby the color of the morning sky. When my father saw my hands and clothes perfectly matched his baby son’s ass, I was forced to wash the baby down with turpentine before dad beat me sensible with a belt. Just a few days later I was caught trying to light the baby’s wooden cradle on fire.
To this day I am unsure of the real reason, but I clearly recall being driven from the Bell house in shame and silence by my father, several miles across town to East Los Angeles, to the sprawling patchwork wood and stone house belonging to the large piece of land now buried beneath a mass of concrete and steel supporting 350,000 cars a day on a blink of the freeway known to millions as Interstate Five.
Before the freeway, this now famous slab was home to several communities, and all of the accompanying sights, sounds, and smells of life. In the mornings barking dogs alerted you that the food trucks had arrived with fresh fruits, eggs, and vegetables. In the evenings the same trucks carried meat, tortillas, tamales, tacos, and hot sauce. Neighbors sat on their porches talking quietly, shouting loudly, playing cards, checkers, dominoes, or guitars and accordions. On occasion, some of the men would rise early to sing what everyone called the morning song. Everyone raised chickens and had fruit trees and fired guns and firecrackers on holy days.
From the moment my father pulled to the curb of my grandparents’ house, and then watched as I carried my cardboard suitcase up the wooden steps, he hoped, I think, I would return to his car in tears and repentance for whatever it was I had done wrong. I will forever see Jose standing on the wooden porch like a pillar holding up the entire house, holding up the entire block—the entire city— and ready to hold me up for eternity. He was smoking and laughing, his eyes like fire, and fixed on mine. Believe it or not, I had seen the light from his eyes all the way across town, and it was that light that led me up the stairs and would always lead me home. I knew from those eyes and felt in my pounding heart that I had become Jose’s boy that day, and that I would be his forever.