It’s the beginning of the 1965 – 1966 school year. We had lived at the Webber Way projects, a block from the Coliseum, for five long years. My sisters had already left El Paso; Vicky joined the Women’s Army Corps right after graduating from Bowie High School, and Gloria left a year after that…she and a couple of her friends moved to L.A.
On the first school day as sixth graders at Burleson Elementary, we all gathered outside the front entrance amid excited chatter everywhere. I spotted a friend and made small talk as we noticed other familiar faces in the young crowd.
The doors opened and we all moved inside like a herd in a corral.
My classroom filled with the previous year’s classmates and few new students, but it was looking much the same since the last time we were all together. I smiled and nodded at my buddies; Richard Aguilar, David Romo, Angel Sanchez and Henry Shaw.
And there was Elvia Rodriguez, a girl I liked. She looked the same with her pageboy hairstyle.
Her green eyes and cute smile brightened as she spoke with others. I thought to myself, “this year, I am gonna to talk to her!”
Our teacher Mr. Santiago, was standing at the front of the class smiling and welcoming everyone. From next door my Spanish teacher from fifth grade Mr. Garibay, came in and said, “Hey, I need some boys in my class”. “What?”, said Mr. Santiago a little surprised. “I got a lot of girls in my class, I need more boys….who can I take?” quipped Mr. Garibay.
The two of them scanned the room and chose a good friend of mine, the blonde and fair-skinned Henry Shaw, and a couple others got the hook too. I think Richard was taken. I was trying to make myself invisible during that morning draft. My name was not called and I let out a sigh of relief.
Just like that, eight school days had gone by. One afternoon after class Angel Sanchez joined me as we all exited the room. “Can I come over and we can play some games?” I said, “Sure!”, nothing like connecting with an old friend. We walked the four short blocks along Paisano Drive to our apartment.
As we approached I noticed the screen door was ajar and the main door was wide open; we walked up the three steps and found the unit completely empty. The furniture was gone and all that remained was the silence that hung in the air.
I stood at the threshold staring in disbelief at the vacant rooms.
I’d forgotten for a couple seconds that Angel was standing next to me, also peering in. He piped up and said “Hey, you moved! See ya”, then turned and left.
I don’t recall saying anything…I was speechless. My buddy and eleven year-old visions of my sixth-grade at Burleson began fading before me as I saw him walking away.
I continued standing there frozen in place, simultaneously staring at the empty apartment and looking back at Angel. He never turned my way. Not even a wave goodbye. I felt abandoned. Then it hit me….how am I going to say goodbye to my friends? Richard, David, Henry…and Elvia.
I sat on the steps trying to figure out what had happened. Where was everybody? I couldn’t wrap my brain around this weird scenario. The timing was way off, especially with the school year just starting.
After what felt like an eternity, from around the corner our 1958 Pontiac pulled up. My big brother Vince was driving and he looked annoyed. Papa was in the front seat gazing straight ahead.
Judging by his expression, I figured he’d been drinking – again. Mom was in the back seat on the right side, avoiding my stare. Vince looked at me and said, “ Get in.”
Get in? Did I have a choice?
Should I have said, “No thanks, I really like it here…I’ll catch up with all of you later?” But I didn’t dare. In my mind, I was still thinking: what the hell is going on? I was confused, upset, abandoned and in a state of panic.
All those emotions were thrown together in a blender and served as a bitter psychological milk shake.
As we hit the road, no one spoke. It was one of those car rides where silence was golden – but in this case, it was tarnished badly around the edges. I didn’t look back as we left the apartment and the barrio we had lived in for five years…I was brooding and self-analyzing. Like the others, I remained quiet.
If I had said something like, “Hey dad, when I got home, the place was empty! I think we got robbed!”, he would have fired back, “They should have taken you and left the furniture”.
I didn’t know we were on a road called Doniphan as we passed an isolated bar called Rosa’s Cantina.
As I looked out the window, the night reminded me of a time when mom and I walked home at a very late hour.
As we hurried she uttered, “La noche parece osico de lobo,”The night is like a wolves’ mouth. She had plenty of sayings like that one.
I couldn’t see much when we finally rolled to a stop on a gravel road that evening. Whatever neighborhood we were in had a street light at a distant corner but from our vantage point it didn’t help much. We used flashlights to get around as we unloaded the remainder of items from the trunk and got the quiet house lit up.
It was obvious the major move had taken place earlier. Furniture was in place. I now stood inside a three bedroom home with a large living room and decent sized kitchen! The bath was at the end of the hallway and Vince and I got our own rooms!
This time the move made sense. Papa would not have to drive the 50 mile round trip to his job at Border Steel Mills from central El Paso; he now had a 10 mile commute one way.
The new neighborhood was called Montoya in the west side known as the Upper Valley.
Papa sent me outside with a flashlight to turn on the water pump. “Hay viboras papa?” I nervously asked him about snakes in the dark of night. “Si hay. Nomas chifla y se asustan”. Huh…just whistle? Snakes are afraid of whistling?
I did not question the abstract response nor did I think his advice was comforting – I could never whistle worth a damn. I stepped into the night’s abyss and found the pump room door on the side of the house and opened it.
There stood the big water tank with a gauge, decorated with several large spider webs. On the right wall was the electrical switch and I flicked it on.
Back inside, mom was organizing the kitchen. It was getting late and I asked her if I could skip school the next day; mom was tired…she nodded yes.
The following morning was quiet and bright with the morning sun revealing other homes in the neighborhood – two across from us, and two more at the end of the road.
Our new address was now: 371 Ontiveros Street. Mom and I were the only ones home that morning. I had no idea where Vince was, and I guessed papa was working. I found more houses at the end of Ontiveros as the street dog-legged south on Sixta Drive.
I ventured outside and behind us were acres of green alfalfa. My eyes widened, “We’re in the country!”
About a hundred feet away, on the other side of the house, was brushy ground with large mesquite bushes growing wildly. In the distance was a levee road that caught my attention.
So much for helping mom.
I got curious and walked around for a couple hours familiarizing myself with the sights and sounds around me. I walked to the levee and saw the Rio Grande for the first time. I found a canal with a fast current of brown water and next to it, a field of hundreds of cotton plants standing at attention.
There was a buzzin’ chicharra in a tree, then a small grey lizard sprinted past my feet. Miles away, a train’s lonely whistle echoed in the warm air. This was gonna be way different than life in the projects.
When I got home for lunch mom said I would have to get signed up for school the next day.
The last eighteen hours been surreal…an unexpected move followed by waking up in rural El Paso…it was a change for all of us that was literally like night and day.
Even though I felt like somebody had owed me an explanation the day before, in hindsight it was a rescue of sorts. For me and my family.
We all got away from life in the bowels of the projects – from a controversial neighborhood known as El Diablo. Gracias, papa.
Then I wondered…where do I catch the bus if I want to visit my friends back at Burleson?