A Walk in the Barrio

Kanan and I take a walk through the barrio every morning and every late afternoon. It’s an enjoyable walk that is peaceful in the early hours and full of energy later in the day. Our morning walk happens around 7:30 A.M when the marine layer hasn’t yet burned off—giving the summer morning a cooler feel. I wear Kanan in a sling to make it a bit cozier. Together we smell the moist, salty air and feel the cool breeze off the shore. The cars in the streets are mostly gone, as their owners have left early to work. We look and smell all the flowers blooming from the random yards of homes not owned by slumlords. These flowers brighten up the neighborhood from the dull appearance it could have if every home looked like the one two doors down from us–Peeling paint, two cars parked on the dry dirt lawn with weeds tearing through the dead grass; rap music blaring through the windows and the coming and going of traffic through the doors from various people of all colors. That is until the cops come again and arrest them or threaten them for dealing drugs and then it is quiet again for a month or so. The neighborhood is rather a checkerboard. Every other square is a prideful palate of garden colors—greens and reds and yellows. Only broken up by the dull, yellow squares brought on not by humility, but by neglect.

On are way down to Division Road, we are about to pass the big house with the beautiful garden of lilies, roses, and bamboo, and hope to get a glimpse of the newborn kittens we saw two mornings prior. But are path is obstructed by our neighbors and my heart beats a little faster. A once hard-core Center Street gang member in his late 20’s is sitting in his wheel chair. His bullet wound scars splatter his body and explain why the rest of him looks the way he does. He has lost both his legs, and is paralyzed from the waist down, so he has to wear a colostomy bag. His gangster friend who pushes him around everywhere is next to him, kneeling down and waving a branch back and forth on the ground underneath the home’s rod iron fence. Once I see this, I know exactly what is going on and breathe a sigh of relief—it is unusual to see any gang member, former or active out at this hour and now it makes sense. I look again at my paralyzed neighbor and see his dark black clothes and arms scarred with prison tattoos juxtaposed by the soft, white and orange calico kitten wrapped snuggly between them. His friend is trying to entice the other kitten that is gleefully jumping from side to side and swatting at the branch. Maybe these guys aren’t as bad as they seem, I think,  and break the awkward silence by telling Kanan that even grown men like kittens. They smile and we talk in English about animals and share stories about the pets of our past. Then we say goodbye and Kanan and I continue our walk through the neighborhood.

We pass by the grocery cart at the end of the block, parked at the corner for easier access by the pedestrians who will soon be swarming the neighborhood. They have just opened and a small selection of vegetables lay in baskets next to the variety of Mexican candies. The owner of the cart nods his head toward me and I toward him as we always do when we pass by. His wife sweeps the sidewalk next to the cart, trying to give their humble business a more presentable feel. I wonder if I should ask what their names are. I speak Spanish and could easily do so. “Tomorrow,” I say to myself and continue down the road toward the daily yard sale put on by the renters at 1234. Everyday a few of the women sit out by the fence and chat in fast Spanish about their families back in Mexico or their jobs at the factory or their kids and husbands here. I politely glance at their clothes and knickknacks for sale, but not long enough for conversation or a purchase. Kanan sucks on his fingers and looks at the barefoot children playing with one bicycle next to their mothers  and talking in an interesting blend of English and Spanish–“Da me la bicycleta and I’ll tell you my secrets,” one child says to the other. I smile at the child’s clever negotiation and kiss Kanan’s head.

Then we head toward the quieter part of the neighborhood. One lone car pulls up to the apartments at the next corner and an older man with brown skin leathered by years of working outside steps out. His large white cowboy hat and gold jewelry tell me he is not a Chicano but rather an immigrant. He smiles at Kanan and I and I say “manana.” His eyes widen with surprise by my words and smiles even bigger, repeating the morning greeting and walking up the steps of the building. Kanan and I pass a high school student running late to summer school with his flat backpack hanging loosely over his shoulder. We turn the corner and pass the school, coincidentally also the school where I teach and I try and imagine Kanan going there in 14 years. Part of me doesn’t want him to go there for the culture of the students lends itself to contentment with getting D’s and F’s. It is the norm and so could greatly influence him. The other part thinks the experience would be good for him. He would be more cultured and with great influence by his father and I, he could be a model student for his peers. This thought is finally stimulated by the sight of our little taupe and charcoal gray house nestled behind the trees in our front yard. I hear Smokey and Bandito, our Welsh Corgies, bark in anticipation of our return and  I feel safe, warm, and hopeful. We pet the boys and head back in to eat breakfast.

Our afternoon walks are much different. It is brighter and warmer now in the summer afternoons, so the checkerboard of the barrio becomes stronger and clearer. I put Kanan in the stroller for this walk so he can get a break from being held and yet find security from the stimulating sights with his blanket, for which he rubs the silk side between his fingers or on his face from time to time. We take a longer route for this walk to enjoy the last bit of sunshine before we wind down for Kanan’s bedtime. It is around 5:30 when we go and the neighbors are home from work, so the streets are packed with cars. Kanan and I are often the only white faces amongst the scattered brown around us. Kids are running up and down the roads on bicycles and razors with little regard for the cars trying to drive through without killing anyone. A toddler walks by himself across Grant Street and I watch him carefully to make sure he is safe since his caregiver is not with him. I look up across the street and see a heavyset woman with a tired face talk to a friend and watch the toddler too. The toddler peers back at her and smiles before waddling to the other side of the street where a man is fixing broken bicycles in his driveway.

Young Chicanos cruise through the neighborhood in their cars—some tricked out in Chicano style with rims and a sticker of Maria de Guadalupe pressed against its tinted windows and regaetone bumping from their stereo systems. Others are more humble cars—a 1982 Toyota with a spare tire as its left rear wheel; a 1975 Chevy Van with enough space for a family of eight, two dogs, and an abuelita tucked snugly in the rear. The fast Chicano music of the youth fights against the traditional Mexican music of their parents, which also thumps through the windows of many of the homes. I find myself often walking to the beat of the traditional horns and smile as I smell the familiar blend of cheap, Mexican laundry detergent mixing with the smell of freshly cooked tortillas and rice floating through the air.

We stop on Garfield Street and buy corn on the cob from a young girl who is pushing a cart of them and she tops it with the traditional Mexican toppings—mayonnaise and queso Blanco. She charges me $1.50 and I give her two dollars and tell her to keep the change. She smiles and gives the money to a little girl about 7 years old standing next to her and she puts it in her Hello Kitty fanny pack. The same one I had in the 80’s when I was her age. I eat the corn on the cob and continue pushing Kanan down the street while passing through the busy and crowded area of the neighborhood.  Driveway after driveway of men, young and old, drinking Tecate and talking about cars, their jobs, and women. A group of teenagers laughing and wearing the latest Chicano fashions—guys in dark colored t-shirts with beautiful artistic drawings of catholic figures silk screened across them, long shorts and white Ipod headphones dangling from their ears. Girls wearing short jean skirts, babydoll halter-tops,  glitter flip-flops, and black hair worn long and down their backs.  A cluster of kids sitting on the edge of their brick steps and eating candy—their wrappers left on the sidewalk in front of their home. Kanan and I talk about the trash in the streets and I threaten the 4-month-old baby that if he ever litters, I will make him walk around the neighborhood and fill up a trash bag of the garbage that litters these streets.

But then I change the subject by talking to him about the interesting people around us and the trees and the sunshine and stop often to let other young women and their children in strollers pass us by. The brown babies and my white baby suck on their fingers or hold their toys and stare at each other with interest. Further up the street I see my former student Armando and he smiles and say’s “Hi Ms. Matzke.” I ask him how summer school is going and talk about whether or not he will return in the fall or go to continuation school instead. I encourage him to keep working hard either way so he can graduate.

On our way back home, a large gang member looking guy in his 20’s walks toward us. He is Samoan, which is strange because I’ve never seen one in this neighborhood. He wears a net over he his head and black clothes over his large body. He walks with a purposeful limp and widens his shoulders and furrows his brows to maintain his strong appearance as he continues down his path. His furrowed brows soften when he sees Kanan and I and he starts talking to us. He tells us how cool it is to see us walking through the neighborhood because most white people are afraid. He says he has lived in the neighborhood all his life and its just good, hard working families. He peers around and glances at my rear-end and tells me I should walk around the neighborhood more often. I politely smile and change the subject toward my son and hold back the liberal, feminist inside me because I have a child now and can’t risk him getting angry at my comeback. He compliments Kanan on his mohawk and kneels down to flirt with him. Kanan looks at him with wide eyes and begins to cry. I tell him that he is getting tired and that we should head home. He gets up and smiles again and tells us it was nice meeting us. I return the gesture and console Kanan as we head back home.

We pass by the grocery cart as we return to our home on Grant Street—the owner quickly exchanging money and goods to an immigrant mother with metallic, capped teeth and her child so he can help the ten or so other people waiting their turn. The sidewalk next to the cart is now littered again with wrappers and empty soda cans. I accidentally crush one when trying to pass. We see another white face now—Brittany from Florida wearing too short shorts and a tank top without a bra. She is holding hands with a train of three little Chicano girls giggling and talking. She waves to me and asks if I have the baby. I nod yes and continue toward our driveway. Our neighbor is watering her vegetable garden and she smiles at Kanan and I. In Spanish she tells me how big Kanan has gotten and asks us where we went. I tell her in my best Spanish, about our walk and wish her a good afternoon, but stumble on some of the words. She listens politely and then congratulates me on my baby again and shoos her kitten out of her tomato patch. My dogs whine a greeting when we push through the fence. We pet the boys and come back in the house.

Mike appears and kisses us hello. He tells us that our neighbor Rosa brought over some homemade Sopa de Camarones. It smells wonderful. I place Kanan in his highchair and dip a spoon in the Calderon of soup. Up comes a spoonful of potatoes, carrots, cilantro, and a whole shrimp with head, tail and all. I hesitate for a second but then say to Mike, “when in Rome.” I open my mouth and put the spoon inside—a little different, but still delicious.

“So how’s this for a harebrained idea?” Mike says, “we don’t sell the house and save money from the small mortgage and instead buy a second house in Big Bear so we can snowboard on the weekends in the winter?”

 “Sure,” I say.

Mike heads out to the back yard with a huge grin on his face and begins to mow the lawn. It’s time for Kanan’s bath now, and as I wash him in the kitchen sink and and listen to his coos while watching his father through the window, I think about my son’s life and I know that whatever happens, he will be happy. We will teach him the values we find necessary and important and yet he will learn that despite it all, nothing in any culture is black and white. It is a checkerboard of beautiful, ugly, and every shade in between.



4 thoughts on “A Walk in the Barrio

  1. I loved that story. You tell it so well. I felt like I went on the walk with you. 🙂

    Your neighborhood is great in its own ways. Its scary and yet its not. If feels different, yet it feels like home. I get mixed emotions and in the story I felt what you felt while you wrote it. To end it with what Mike said was great. I love you guys. My heart is poring out so much joy. Muaa XOXO


  2. One day, I sense, you are going to write a book and it will sell millions and they will make a movie out of it and you will be a zillionair. Can’t add much to what Barb said except that I’m proud of you.
    Love ya,


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