With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
I. The Battle of Chester Avenue
We gather south of Chester Avenue’s railroad tracks. Air murmurs with violence. Everyone’s hungry for the blood of what’s taken place, a battle between freight train and car. We gaze at the aftermath. A hellscape. A nightmare. A car mangled in near darkness a few dozen yards from where Dad often takes us for burgers. A&W Root Beer. This is the periphery of how far me and my siblings are allowed to wander from our home on Geneva Avenue.
We heard the crash from our living rooms and front yards and now the community mobs the street. Years later I think this must have been what watching the Civil War was like: a community coming together to observe the collision of gunpowder, steel and flesh. Only, this is our poor man’s take. The barrio version. The working class.
It will be decades before I have any kind of worldview or identity. This is the summer of ‘77. California’s Central Valley. South Bakersfield. A few months before a gargantuan dust storm swallows everything.
Our mixed community as a whole doesn’t seem conscious of itself. Not tonight as we fume and buzz over the train wreck.
I’m small in the crowd. A thing. A feeling. A spore. A lost boy, decades from his struggle to fight political and social forces much greater than this metaphor of rails and blood. Before all the immigration reform marches and rallies. I’m in fourth grade. I don’t realize I’m fighting against this train. It’s smashing into my identity every day, the same way it barrels through Russian thistle and ghosts of. I’m not aware of my hopelessness. I don’t realize I’m the car. I only know I’m here. I want to see the remains of this disaster.
The police won’t allow anyone near the tracks. Not unless you’re a firefighter or detective. From the driver’s seat of our van, Dad, a self-professed ex-Bay Area cop watches the scene with a kind of calm. A vato with a mission. Somehow wanting to teach his kids that our world is violent, mercurial, dangerous. He seems attracted to the pull of violence, like he has to be in the middle of it. And since my brother, sister and I feel safe around him, we’re eager as we slowly park alongside this mass of bodies that fills this usually busy thoroughfare.
The freight train sprawls across Chester Avenue in semi-darkness. The car twisted and smashed against its engine. Detectives hunt with flashlights further down the tracks.
Parents, teenagers, and kids have congregated. What makes this crowd special is all the forgotten hate between neighbors. These people live next door to each other but never talk. They secretly throw rocks at each other’s windows when they’re not home. All the bullies are here too. The ones who pick on me at school—friendly during this snapshot of violence. All making up stories as fast as their mouths can yammer. They want to be heard. Even if only a half peckerwood like me is listening.
Necks crane to see what might happen next, whether ghosts might rise from rocks and dirt. Whether bodies might slip out of the mangled car and stumble herky-jerk down the rails.
“They’re looking for a hand,” says Ruben, a bully with a mouth scar that looks like his lips had once been sewed together.
Other rumors fly like bats. The train smashed into the car on purpose. The car flew across the tracks on a dare. A semi pushed the car into the train. Black, white, Japanese-American, Mexican-American—doesn’t matter who makes up each conspiracy. This could have been a meteor strike or space alien invasion and these people would have banded together to talk shit like it really happened. This is something I’ve never seen in the neighborhood. Something I will never see again except at South High School football games when families from the projects and low-income housing come to root on their racist mascots made in the image of Confederate militants. It’s insane if you think about it: Confederate imagery in the mixed-race neighborhoods of South Bakersfield.
II. A White Mythology
Confederate and Civil War imagery surround me. It’s 1982. I’m fourteen, a freshman at South High School. Home of the Rebels. The Blue & Gray. The Merrimac Yearbook. Johnny and Jody yell leaders in military-style grey uniforms and Confederate hats. Our mascot is a cartoon Confederate soldier. I don’t understand what I’m seeing. I don’t understand racism, slavery, war, who fought what or when, and for what cause. I’m so caught up in our school spirit I pin a tiny Confederate flag to a Confederate soldier hat my Mexican-American dad brings home from a swapmeet. He thinks it’s cool. I think this is what high school is all about. Rebel soldiers. Like Star Wars. Like The Empire Strikes Back. I don’t realize a cartoon mascot is a symbol for retaining an economic system that allows for the horrific right to own slaves. I somehow think I’m one of the good guys.
Street names around South High are all Civil War-inspired. Sumter, Merrimac, Monitor, Rebel, Raider, Evelyn. Evelyn might be Evelyn Magruder DeJarnette, a white nineteenth-century writer. She taught slave kids on a Virginia plantation. She culturally appropriated them by writing stories in slave dialect. Her husband was a captain for the Confederate Army, a farmer who owned slaves.
Take a turn down White (Supremacist) Lane onto Monitor Street and you’ll reach Plantation Avenue. An elementary school by the same name still stands there (So do the street names).
III. The Gridiron Race Riot
Sometime between 1984 and 1986 I’m in the stands above our school’s sunken gridiron battlefield for a matchup between North and South high schools. I’m tossing confetti, chanting cheers. I’m really into it when both football teams transform gridiron to full-on mob violence. Karate jump-kicks. Flying fists. Helmets swung like morning stars. A football coach gets smacked with a clipboard. Students and parents run from the stands. Not to break up the fight but to join in. If ever there’s a melee fueled by racism this is it, our twisted fabrication of North versus South. On one side, South High—empowered with its white mythology, though a mixed race school. On the other, North High, embedded in a mostly white community called Oildale, firmly empowered with its own white superiority complex and racist intentions.
While this is a mixed-race school versus a white school, I suspect South High football players of color had images in their heads of being shot if they enter the wrong side of town, of crosses burning in yards, of kids getting lynched outside the dirt-floor shanties of Oildale, California. This is the fear fed to us about the northern suburbs of Bakersfield. If you’re brown, you stay out of that town.
I can only imagine what’s been said on the field, what parents of either team have been feeding the minds of their children. Decades later a Black former South High football star tells me the n-word had been dropped regularly by North High’s feeder teams in years prior during peewee games. “We knew the level of hatred against our melting pot of a school,” he said. “That [North-South] game had been eagerly anticipated.”
IV. A Racism Origin Story
By the time Dad moves us to Geneva Avenue in 1976, the area is fairly mixed: Black, Mexican-American, Japanese-American, white. A wave of Vietnamese immigrants is on the way.
Our neighbors are Mexican-American on one side and white on the other. After the Mexican-American couple moves out, a Black man moves in. Dad doesn’t use that word when referencing him. He uses the n-word. There’s a clear hatred from my old man. Our neighbor avoids Dad, avoids all of us. You can see it in how quickly he enters his house, how he’s never outside, never greeting us. We never have a conversation in the four or five years we share the neighborhood.
I always wonder if Dad had ever really been a cop. In 2019, two decades after his death, one of my uncles says Dad’s cop stories were lies. I’d already seen photos of him in a uniform. Then a retired cop checking in to see if former academy members had died, phoned. Dad’s name had been on a list. Dad had definitely enrolled at the San Jose Police Academy in the 1960s. One of the first Latinos there, no less. Proof that he hung out with and had been influenced by powerful white men.
But had he been an actual cop?
And if he had been a cop, why hadn’t he stuck with it? One family member said he couldn’t pass the height requirements at the time. Maybe he didn’t want some low-paying security gig as a result. That wasted police education maybe not only put that killer look in his eye, perhaps it transformed him into the assimilationist he was.
That means I was assimilated. No Spanish was taught in the home. Dad constantly told me I was white. He bought Confederate flags for my bedroom wall. Mostly American foods were put on the dinner table. Racist epithets were used in conversation and jokes. “Chicano” was never uttered.
Truth is, we’re a dual-ethnic family in our south Bakersfield neighborhood during those mid 1970s and early 1980s. The streets are rough for me as a result. Neighborhood fights get fueled by kids with giant boy egos and petty racial differences. More than a few punches get thrown. I usually just receive them. Terrified, I stand my ground, take some licks, never really understanding why fists matter. I toss a lunchpail at one kid’s head who fights my brother over us “peckerwoods” being in their hood. I’m too stupid to argue that I’m Mexican-American, Latino, or Hispanic. I think I’m white though my father’s brown as an oak-stained table. I run for my life. I hide in my room. I’m afraid of black vampires outside my window.
Dad just wants me to fight. He’s bragged for years that he was a cop. I want him to be a cop, my cop. But he doesn’t help or show me how to fight. He orders me to “straighten up,” to “be tough” with those n-word boys down the street. He talks tough, but what else is he? A brown cowboy? Some white image he’s pulled from American cinema? He loves John Wayne, Charles Bronson. He worships Dirty Harry, Billy Jack. Blazing Saddles. He wears a black cowboy hat. He drives a tanker truck hauling gas for an oil company. I later refer to him as mothertrucker. He carries a gun in a shoulder holster. He buys me and my brother cowboy hats and boots. He wants us to be him. He wants us to be what he isn’t.
V. Yell Leaders, Mascots and Monuments
Johnny and Jody Rebel stand on podiums on the edge of a stadium racetrack. All eyes on them in their Confederate uniforms as they lead cheers. It’s 1986. Johnny is a Mexican-American kid named Gabe. Jody is a Black girl named Georgia. Together they upend the image of the Confederate South. At the same time, they become a mockery, performing a bizarre cultural appropriation of oppressive white heritage that transforms students into puppetry. An entire mythology has been reproduced on the backs of Black and Mexican-American children. In this white thuggish military garb that literally screams enslavement, kids are transformed. They lose self-identity in the supremacist imagery before the crowd. They’re reduced to monuments. Symbols of a war meant to oppress, that sought to continue a way of life that made Southern planters wealthy.
The Confederate flag once flew over South High School. It was banned in 1968, the year I was born. No Confederate imagery is retired during my education there. Not the school mascot. Not the rebel military uniforms on yell leaders. Not the street names. Not the school names. Not even Plantation Elementary School.
Killing a flag wasn’t ever going to erase its shadowy image of oppression. Not with all the blue and grey. Not with all the misplaced school pride placed upon so many high school kids screaming rebel chants. A school’s fanatical pride isn’t unlike Southerner pride suggesting that times have changed when they haven’t.
On March 30, 2006, students from Bakersfield area high schools, including South High pour into downtown. I’m documenting the march for my blog wishing I’d been one of these high school kids as their throng enters a wide plaza outside the Rabobank Arena and Civic Auditorium.
Part of me is ashamed. Not for the kids. For me. But I don’t have time to reflect on South High, why it’s still seeped in Confederate mythology, or why my past haunts me. Right now it’s just me and a KERO news crew. We’re the only ones documenting this historic moment akin to the 1968 East L.A. blowout.
Then a car speeds alongside the curb. Out jumps Kern County’s controversial District Attorney Ed Jagels, mastermind of 25 false convictions during the Satanic Panic. Well-known for his ridiculous media posturing, he plants his face in his hands in mock desperation, as if the kids now swarming the plaza are about to climb the battlements and lay siege to a fountain.
A few days later I’m at Jastro Park documenting another rally alongside an AP news photographer. We’re on the same stage as Dolores Huerta. An ocean of red farm worker flags wave in front of her as she she dances with CSU Bakersfield professor Gonzalo Santos during a ranchera melody. I’m pulled into this. I’m feeling this intersection between farm workers, immigrant rights and the Chicano Movement. There’s something here I need to fight for.
By May 1st I’m taking part as an honored poet, hands shaking on stage at Beach Park, reading “Immigration! Interrogation!” to a sea of 10,000-15,000. It doesn’t enter my mind to think, Here I am, former South High Student on stage! Not at all. By this time, South High is lost to me, a place that should have corrected itself long ago. I take no pride in my connections to that institution, only shame. If anything, I close my eyes and see my street, Geneva Avenue. I see the paths I walked to school. I see the dirt fields and hear the train crashing over and over again.
Eleven years later it’s May 1, 2017. I text my youngest son Landen to see if he’ll come to Mill Creek Park to listen to me present, “The Mother of All Bombs,” a poem less about Donald Trump’s propaganda war machine, and more a revelation about ironies of oppression, the anger that is connected to it in relation to the southern Central Valley. I realize that one portion of the lengthy poem feels so much like it’s from where I grew up in South Bakersfield. Though about the oppression of place, I’ve generalized my own streets. I’ve hidden my old school, my old haunts, even my old living room on Geneva, with Dad inside telling me how white I am.
The Mother of All Bombs is the woman down the street
laughing at my words then waking up tomorrow realizing
she’s felt the heavy weight of America too.
How long did it take her to understand
she’d taken on the characteristics
of the oppressor, that she was insane, drooling
with madness in the Church of Intolerance,
while her own children were hungrier than ours
under the continued shame of Make America Great Again,
which here in the San Joaquin Valley is a
new special blend of McCarthyism.
After a long line of us march downtown, those of us who carried the American flag walk onto the stage. Music blasts from speakers. Some start dancing. I gaze into the crowd and see my son. I feel a pride I can’t explain. A connecting point. A circle re-attached. Landen and I were part of that march nearly eleven years before. He’d walked out with all those high school kids in 2006. We’d both later attended President Obama’s speech at La Paz, a historic dedication of Cesar Chavez’ resting place as a National Monument.
Prior to, and after that day in 2017, my son and I continue to share father-son discussions about art, words, music, taking risks, about not being afraid to make a statement about the world, and to the world. He’s often working on songs and sends rough cuts. Sometimes we call each other afterwards, talking about his latest lyrics, drum beats and guitar riffs. As we often do, we shift our focus to peoples and behaviors, to speaking up for others, to ways in which we can inject a more purposeful truth into our art. Inevitably, during these moments, I drift. Sometimes for only a second. That’s all it takes. The place is usually the same. I’m back in that old living room on Geneva Avenue. I see Dad’s face but I don’t hear anything as he talks to me. I see his eyes. I see that grim mouth. And I see change coming.
Nicholas Belardes’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in Latino Rebels, The Latinx Archive: Speculative Fiction for Dreamers (Ohio State University Press), Southwestern American Literature (Texas State University), Carve Magazine, and others. Read more at nicholasbelardes.com. Follow him on twitter @nickbelardes
Copyright: © 2020 Nicholas Belardes. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.
- Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
- Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
- Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
- Jennifer Carr, “The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront”
- Melissa Hidalgo, “A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots”
- Brynn Saito with Photographs by Dave Lehl, “Acts of Grace: Memory Journeys Through the San Joaquin Valley”