When my three younger sisters and I were little girls, Mama took a shortcut on Rialto Avenue to White Front in Colton , the town just south of us. At the edge of the steep hill on Rialto Avenue , she put her white '61 Impala in neutral and let the car nose-dive down the hill, like a meteor blasting toward Earth. We kids slid forward on the red leather seats and our stomachs flew up into our ribs. “Faster Mama! Faaaaa…!” We shrieked long and loud, like the whistle at the Santa Fe yard, until we landed at the bottom on Rancho Avenue .
This mile long stretch of Rialto Avenue in San Bernardino , Southern California , reminded me of the empty desert scenes in cowboy movies. On the south side of the road was an open field mottled with eucalyptus trees, tall grass, tumbleweeds, and train tracks. A few houses lined the north side of the road, but I rarely saw anyone, just a lonely freight train snaking through the field once in a while. There weren't any streetlights. When my family drove down the road at night, I felt like we'd gone to the outskirts of town.
In July of ‘79, I was almost nineteen and drove a new gold Toyota Celica with a moonroof and cassette stereo. (I couldn't afford the monthly payment and didn't have it for long). I loved to go for long cruises in my car, cranking Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Santana (always), Parliament and Earth Wind and Fire out of my car speakers. Patty, a half Italian, half honky (her words), was my best friend. We went everywhere together that summer: my family's Mexican weddings, her family's Italian weddings (the music and food were different, but we had just as much fun at both), rock concerts, Chicano band jams at parks, dances at halls, Newport Beach on Saturday mornings.
If my brown skin stood out beside Patty's fair, freckled complexion, I never noticed. At that time, I hadn't experienced racial discrimination. The term wasn't even part of my vocabulary. My friends were Mexican-American and white; brown and white seemed to blend smoothly everywhere Patty and I went. However, that summer, I learned that the color of my skin wasn't always going to mix in.
A San Bernardino gang of cholos had been speeding their lowriders up and down Rancho Avenue in Colton , playing target practice with a Colton gang that hung outside a corner taco stand. Mama told me I had to take the long way to Colton until things cooled down. Going the long way added ten minutes to my trip and I wouldn't get to take Rialto Avenue , one of my favorite cruises. I already didn't think much of cholos, and now they were inconveniencing me.
Shortly after sundown one sweltering Friday night, I decided to visit a guy I was dating before Patty and I hooked up later. On my way to his place in Colton , I got about ten minutes from my house when I decided that I wasn't going to let some pendejo cholos make me change my cruise route. I figured nothing would happen to me anyway. I floated a wish out the moonroof for the cholos to be banished from their corner, disobeyed Mama's orders, and hung a left onto the dark wild west of Rialto Avenue .
As I steered into the right lane, a big white pick-up truck swerved around my left side and into the barren on-coming traffic lane. Up until then, I hadn't realized anyone was behind me. The mini-car hitched onto the back of his truck, whipping like a stingray's tail, almost hit me as he jolted in front of my car. Startled, I pulled onto the unpaved shoulder, chalking the air with dirt-dust, and the truck roared off.
I thought that either I was driving too slowly or maybe he had had too much to drink. Lifting my foot from the pedal, I let my speedometer drop so he could get far ahead of me. Instead, he pulled to the side of the road and stopped . Okay, I thought, he is buzzed and wants to park until he can see straight. In case he glanced my way as I passed him, I kept my eyes on the ten feet of headlight sprayed road in front of me. It was for survival, not fear. I didn't want to encourage him. A hundred pound, five foot, teenaged girl driving alone in the wide open might strike a drunken guy as easy prey; the same way a jackrabbit munching on some grass in a clearing looks to a coyote.
Thinking I was safe, I turned the dial to KCAL, the local rock station, and started bobbing my head to The Zep. About forty seconds later, the front of his truck slammed into my back bumper. My head bobbed like a dashboard hula doll. By reflex, I twisted the wheel to the left, veering into the empty oncoming car lane, and he rammed into me again. My car went out of control and zigzagged across the road as I struggled to stop the wheel from jerking back and forth. I got my car back in the right lane and he came up close behind me and switched on his brights, flooding the interior of my car with white light. The high beams hit my rear view mirror and splashed into my eyes, blinding me.
At this point, I should have been scared for my life, but everything moved so fast. I didn't have time to think twice. I could only react and try to get away from him. I pressed the gas pedal to the floor and he zoomed around my left side, snapping the mini-car in front of me so I couldn't get past him. Then he slowed down and pulled over to the shoulder, let me pass him, and hovered behind me again.
Somehow I caught a glimpse of him. It was a white man driving that big white truck. Before I could register what that might mean, he whacked me from behind again. I realized I had reached the edge of the hill on Rialto Avenue . Making a U-ee wasn't in the cards, so my Celica flew down the hill faster than Mama's Impala ever did. He stayed right on my ass.
When I finally reached the bottom of the hill, I remembered there was a mall on the corner and scanned the parking lot. Not one car. No one was around to come and help me. Unable to think quickly, I stayed on my original route and turned right onto Rancho Avenue , toward the cholos' war zone. Just as I was pulling onto Rancho, the man skirted so close to my door, my tires on the passenger side scraped the curb as I tried to keep him from side swiping me. The chase resumed. I slowed down and he slowed down. I rushed forward; he was on my side.
The cholos' corner wasn't far ahead. I began to pray that they were perched on the picnic tables outside the taco stand, ready for a fight. When I finally reached the corner, the liquor store, mini-mart, and taco stand all had closed signs hanging in their windows. The merchants had even zapped the power from the welcoming neon lights and electric storefront signs. Only the streetlights cut the darkness. It looked like a ghost town. There wasn't one bandanna headed ése around. Before I could plan my next move, the white truck smacked the back of my car with such force, my little Celica jumped like a bumper car getting bulldozed by a Mack truck.
“Who is this ASSHOLE?” I screamed in my car. My mind rambled over the people I might have crossed, trying to figure out why this guy was hounding me. I hadn't done anything to piss someone off this bad. The roads were full of Celicas these days. I convinced myself that he had mistaken my car for someone else's—someone he was real mad at. I decided that once he saw I wasn't the person he was after, he'd leave me alone.
I turned off the ignition, flung open my car door and stomped in front of the spotlight of his high beams over to the driver side of the truck. Standing on my tiptoes to reach the open window, I quickly scanned his face. He was in his early to mid thirties, clean-cut with baby smooth cheeks. He looked like a guy I might feel safe with if he stopped to help me change a flat tire in the middle of nowhere.
"Look, I'm not who you think I am so just leave me alone!"
"I know exactly what you are. You're a dirty Mexican," his hissed with a slight twang. He snarled and gave me a once over.
His words stunned me. I had never considered that he was attacking my car because I was Mexican. Still, I wasn't concerned that he might hurt me. I didn't think. Instead, I got self-righteous citizen on him. "I'm going to get the number off your license plate and report you to the police," I yelled in a tattletale rhythm, as though I was scolding to one of my little sisters.
"Go ahead," he said, amused. My threat was as meaningless to him as a mosquito he'd smack dead on his arm.
Something inside me took over and walked my body to the back of the truck to get his license plate number. He opened his door and leaned out and watched me as I stepped around the truck bed. No license plate. It was probably in the front, biting my bumper.
"Get away from my truck you filthy, dark skinned Mexican whore.”
I found myself screaming in his face with no idea what I was saying or doing. "How in the fuck can you talk to me like that? This...this...THIS IS AMERICA !"
"Don't cuss in front of my wife and child. Don't you have any decency at all?"
At that instant, for the first time, I saw the woman sitting beside him in the middle of the bench seat and a little boy about nine or ten who looked just like the man sitting beside her. Silent and still, they stared at me as if I was crazy. All three of them were blonde and blue eyed. They looked as harmless as the von Trapp family from The Sound of Music.
Standing alone on Rancho, on display in front of the three of them, looking at their repulsed faces, I thought about the clothes I was wearing—a faded black t-shirt and a pair of Levi's scrawled with my red, blue, and green ink drawings of hearts and flowers and the names of my favorite rock bands in wild lettering. My cool-casual-girl style, as Patty called it, suddenly transformed into a hideous, sleazy outfit. I felt my breasts protruding through the t-shirt, the round of my hips and bottom stretching my jeans.
Do I look like a whore? I asked myself. The fluorescent lights above poured over me like a boiling pot of thick chicken mole and prickled my scalp and skin. The realization that somebody was treating me harshly just because I had brown skin, because I was Mexican, punched me hard in the gut and made it difficult to breathe. “Cholo, come quick with your bullet and get rid of this man,” I silently prayed.
Still on automatic pilot, I quietly walked back to my car, plopped into the driver seat, shut the door, rested my forehead on top of the steering wheel, and sobbed. I didn't know what to do with myself except cry. The rest was sounds: rubber soles slapping asphalt, getting louder as they got closer; the screeching of the truck backing up; my car convulsing as the truck released its hold on my bumper; adolescent boy voices hollering, following the direction of the truck's engine as it roared off. I kept my head down the entire time.
A cholo tapped lightly on my window, “Are you okay?” He spoke softly, lovingly. My hands trembled as I rolled down the window. Spit and tears drowned each syllable as I stammered that I was fine. With his face so close to mine, I could see the kitten-soft black hairs sprouting from the pores on his upper lip. His eyes held the sweetness of a little boy. He was probably in high school, or maybe junior high. Five or six other cholos ran over from chasing the truck and crowded around behind him, peering at me with tender concern on their faces. One of them held his right arm across his chest. A small pistol in his right hand flashed from under his Pendleton.
Suddenly aware of how I must look, I turned from them and checked myself out in the visor mirror. My hair and face were smeared with tears, sweat, and mocos. Embarrassed, I pulled my hair back into my hand and used the bottom of my t-shirt to wipe my face and nose.
“I can go get you a soda or something,” the boy with the gun offered. A vatoed-out boy with tattoos webbed over his ripped muscles invited me to go his mother's until I felt better. I tried to talk, tried to explain, but all I could say was that I wanted to go home.
My chest fluttering like a hummingbird, I forced on a smile to assure them I could drive and waved goodbye as I made a U-turn and headed toward home. As I drove away, I felt comforted by their gentleness. I was grateful that they hadn't come sooner with their guns, that they didn't get into any trouble, or hurt, or worse.
* * *
Amazingly, the wounds from that night didn't show on my car. The bumper looked as though I had simply backed into a metal parking post. Nobody could tell that it had taken a beating. But I was always aware that the damage was much worse than it looked.
I wish I could say that was my last experience with racism. But I can't.
liz gonzález's poetry, memoirs and fiction have been published in numerous publications, including Heliotrope, Comet , So Luminous the Wildflowers: An Anthology of California Poets , Cider Press Review , Luna , Brújula<>Compass, New Delta Review , Spillway , and The San Francisco Chronicle , and is forthcoming in Women on the Edge , an anthology of fiction by L.A. women writers. Beneath Bone , a volume of her poetry, was published by Manifest Press in 2000.