Ian Pike noon, Dec. 8
(Author's note: I try to post a story weekly, from Tijuana or once in awhile my Uncle's home office in North Park. Most of my blogging is done out of an internet cafe on the east side of Tijuana. For the last week, I've been having trouble posting from my favorite cafe. On three different occasions (( always from the same computer said Stupider from Jupiter)) I've tried to post this story and I've lost it about a quarter of the way in. This post is coming from North Park. I hope you enjoy it. Sorry for the delay.)
In Tijuana there are a couple of words that I hear spoken quite a bit. One I like and one I don't. The first word is 'super.' It is used in general conversation. For instance, a bright person might be called 'super inteligente,' or a good looking person 'super sexy.' Pronounced (Sue-pare), it is used the way Americans use very. As in very intelligent, very sexy. You get the picture. What causes the use of this word to draw my attention is that Spanish speaking folks use the word super, when speaking in their native tongue. They'll just be firing away in Spanish and then BAM! Out pops the English word super. I just love it. The second word used a lot these days is actually a two word phrase - La Crisis (Lah-kree-seeze.) 'Many people have lost their jobs because of La Crisis.' 'Many people have no place to live because of La Crisis.' 'Many people are going back to their farms down south because of La Crisis.' Here in Tijuana the 'C' word isn't Cartels, it is Crisis. The former mainly affects the players involved but La Crisis touches everyone. La Crisis is the bogeyman. Sometimes it's spoken in a hushed and fearful voice. As if it were a disease, and mentioning its name makes you more vulnerable to it. At other times, it is spat out bitterly. Like the name of an indomitable foe that must be conquered at all costs. Always it's the phrase that won't go away. Much as we'd like it too. I was raised by my grandparents; Eugene and Rebeca Rangel. Their generation also went through a Crisis. It was called The Great Depression. The early 1930's in the United States of America were hard times for just about everyone. For a couple of newlywed teenagers living in the Imperial Valley, whose only work experience was harvesting crops, the light at the end of the tunnel may have appeared dim indeed. But when hard work is all you've known, then knowing that hard work is all that lies ahead can be a little more tolerable. Eugene Rangel always considered himself a working man but wanting to work and finding work were two different things back then (kind of like now). In the rural, agricultural region that was and is the Imperial Valley, wages were low, work was hard and there was no shortage of manual labor competing for the jobs (The Valley is still like that). Eugene's older brother Cruz, drove a produce delivery truck. Most of his runs were to San Diego. At that time, a small town west of the valley. Every now and then, Cruz would deliver to the huge farmers market in downtown Los Angeles and Eugene would be his swamper (loader). He would silently curse the long bumpy ride over long hours that the hard rubber tires and spoked wheels delivered. Once there however, he never failed to marvel at the variety of jobs that existed in the city called 'The Angels.' In the late 1930's Eugene Rangel, his wife Rebeca and their firstborn child, Dolores (my godmother) moved to East Los Angeles. They originally rented a house on Folsom Street in what was then known as La Maravilla. Eugene wasn't sure what he could do when he got to the big city. There couldn't be much of a demand for farm laborers in downtown Los Angeles. But the nearby edges of the city were green with farmland. One of the diverse ethnic communities thriving east of the L.A. river was a Japanese enclave around Evergreen Street in the area west of Belvedere between Brooklyn Heights and Boyle Heights. The primary occupation for many of the Japanese people who lived on Evergreen was floral agriculture. Several cemeteries were situated around the area( since once upon a time it was the unoccupied region outside of the town proper and thus a logical place to have a burial ground). Local businesses around the cemeteries included coffin making, head stone carving and of course flowers. Eugene's first job in East Los Angeles was as a nursery worker for a Japanese grower. The work was a little easier and the pay a little better than what he'd earned in the Imperial Valley but not by much. So even as he labored away in the flower fields, he kept looking for better employment. In time he found a job at a cast iron foundry called Apex off of Atlantic Blvd in southeast Los Angeles. Rebeca Rangel often commented on those early days in East Los Angeles during the Great Depression: "The house we were renting in La Maravilla was far from the Apex foundry. It was past the train tracks over in Maywood. We didn't have a car back then. So Gramps would take off walking toward Atlantic Ave, then down Atlantic to the foundry." When asked if her husband ever 'hitchhiked' to work, a look of absolute horror would shroud her face. She'd indignantly reply: "Gramps would never stick out his thumb. That would have been 'asking' for a ride. Gramps would never ask anybody for anything. He just wore his working clothes and carried a brown paper lunch bag. Sometimes, we wouldn't have enough food for his lunch. There would just be enough food for me and the kids. Gramps would get a block of wood, cut it to the shape of two sandwiches stacked on top of each other and drop it into the paper bag. That way, it looked like he had a lunch and drivers would know he was a working man who could use a lift. But no, he never asked anyone for a ride. He was to proud. If you offered, he accepted. But he never asked." Many years later, after Eugene had risen from apprentice moulder to accomplished journeyman and respected union member, his lunch container also changed. From a brown paper bag to a solid, dark gray plastic pail with heavy duty metal hinges and handle. Aside from a soup laden Thermos, the lunch bucket never failed to brim with a variety of hearty homemade meals and snacks. This author fondly remembers; "He would always save something from his lunch pail for me to eat. I would get a kick out of eating it because he had saved it especially for me. It could even be a dreaded fruit but I would devour it because Grandpa had saved it just for me. 'I have often wondered, if perhaps my grandfather recalled those times when there wasn't enough food in the house for him to pack a lunch. Now the table and pantry were so bountiful he could have his fill and still bring some back to his chubby grandson. If he ever did reminisce in such a manner a smile must certainly have crossed his lips. Working in a cast iron foundry is almost as different from being a farm laborer as they are the same (I've tried both). A farm laborer spends his days outdoors, usually in the middle of vast fields. Row upon row of level acreage, stretching to the horizon. The primary sound heard is the human voice. At first hearty and vigorous, rolling and tumbling in that lilting style that transcends old world and new. The words begin to fade though as the afternoon sun intensifies its assault upon stooped over bodies constantly in motion. You do such robotic work until the muscles and tendons that help to make you a human being scream in agony and shout into the base of your skull, 'No more. Please no more.' A cast iron worker spends his days in a large building, more of a warehouse in appearance really. The buildings are two or three stories high so that cranes and lifts can operate and blast furnaces can vent. Foundries are noisy, enclosed, grimy places that are hellaciously hot in summer and bone chillingly cold in winter. The foul smelling foundry, with its odors of molten steel and tired sweat represented mans manipulation of the earth's precious metals in a searing, labor intensive ballet that turned raw metals into radar domes for warships during WWII, light poles for Dodger Stadium after the war and more manhole covers than Eugene Rangel ever cared to remember. For the men with the money and the connections. Who can buy up the land and plant crops or build factories upon it. Life can be wonderful indeed. As for the men at the bottom of the rungs of the ladder. Those who physically implement another man's will. Be it pouring hot metal into a mold or cutting a head of lettuce in the field. There is only the mental security in knowing that tomorrow, you can come back and toil in the same spine wrenching obscurity as yesterday. And the next day and the day after. As long as your body and spirit hold up, the factory or field will beat at it until you capitulate by having a stroke, heart attack or contract cancer from farmland pesticides or factory smoke. That was what a working man back in my grandfather's time had to look forward too. It was a trade. His body in exchange for the feeding and housing of his family. Eugene Rangel had no problem with that. After all, he was a working man. My grandfather and his fellow foundry workers unionized and created a wonderful community that I can still vividly recall growing up in. It was a solid, working middle class environment that has forever shaped my thinking. Those were good people. What my Grandma would call 'salt of the earth.' My grandparents not only survived the Great Depression, they adapted and thrived. The debate as to whether we are in a recession or depression continues. Even as we try to figure a way out of what we can't agree to call it. I wish my grandpa were here right now. I know exactly what he'd say to such a ridiculous waste of time. He'd smile that grandpa smile, chuckle that grandpa chuckle and say; "When you're hungry. Who cares what they call it?" Coffee's Ready, Gotta Go!!!