It wasn’t too late when I left Hacienda Heights. Fifteen minutes later I was in East LA and slowing down for road construction on the 60 westbound. I decided to get off a few exits early and take a different route to my friend’s house.
I exited the freeway to find the normally busy intersection at Whittier and Lorena quiet at 11:30. I drove down 6th street as if going to my aunt’s house a few blocks away.
The light at the intersection of Lorena and 6th turned green and I started down the big hill on 6th. When I was a kid, I’d say “weeeee” as my mom or dad drove down the hill on the way to Grandma and Grandpa’s or Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni’s house.
This time was different. In the front and to my left I noticed two men. One pushed a shopping cart. The other charged toward my car, as if in anger. My heart quickened with fear, I made sure my doors were locked and stepped on the gas while sort of swerving around the man. I barely stopped at the stop sign up ahead.
Five minutes later after arriving at my friend’s house, my heart was still beating quickly.
I joined MEChA in college. Soon, I was looking the part… sort of. I started off with accessories like beaded cuff bracelets, beaded earrings and the large woven morrales that fit wallets, notebooks and anything else I need. Later, I’d add the colorful huipilies and t-shirts proclaiming my Chicanidad.
My family noticed. At parties, they’d joke that I was copying Bibi, my eldest cousin. I resented the comment. I wasn’t copying her, I thought. I was aping my Mechista peers. At least that’s what I thought. Really, I was following Bibi’s example. I’d been doing it since I was in middle school.
Bibi was the first in the Ureño Saldivar family to attend and graduate from a four-year college. She studied art and design at San Diego State. I remember watching as she worked on class projects and being in awe of the final product. She gave some of those projects to my padrinos (her parents) and our grandparents.
While I admired the painstaking detail behind a model of Quetzalcoatl, complete with silky black feathers, I was much more drawn to a colorful retablo. The doors formed a rainbow-hued piñata and opened up to a lively party scene in El Cargadero, Zacatecas. Kids chased after a pig, adults danced. Bibi explained that the people she’d painted were family members. She gave the retablo to Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni, who display it proudly in one of the rooms at their Tijuana house.
Bibi’s own bedroom featured a large poster of Frida’s “Self portrait with Monkey.” She told me about the tragedies of Frida’s life — Diego, the bus accident — and the symbolism behind the ubiquitous monkeys. Because of her, I jumped at the chance to take an optional fieldtrip to LACMA’s Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries show.
In the early ‘90s, I attended Bibi’s graduation with the rest of my family at SDSU’s Aztec Stadium. It was my first time on a college campus and I was overwhelmed with the sheer number of graduates in black cap and gown on the field. After the large all-college graduation, we attended a reception hosted by MEChA. That was the first time I heard the word.
I don’t know if Bibi was in MEChA, but she dressed the part. Whether in a t-shirt, dress or huipil blouse, she carried the morral. When she got married, it was absent, but she still wore a beautiful rebozo with her lovely wedding dress. Her wedding cake was topped with a Day of the Dead-inspired bride and groom. Mom found it odd. I loved it.
“Of course you would,” she said.
“I hate when people ask me if I’m scared of East LA. I’m not scared here, this is my home. I’m scared of the Westside, the Valley. Those areas are strange to me. Here, I know the people.”
Bibi’s words — paraphrased, of course — came to me that night, at least 15 years after I first heard her defend East LA.
I’ve never been scared in East LA, an area I associate with things and people that make me happy: family, friends and good food.
I guess that’s why the susto hit me so hard that night. Rather than feel giddy at rushing down a big hill East LA hill as I did as a kid, I just wanted to throw up.