The Thursday, Feb. 26 edition of the San Diego Union listed the $45,000 bust as occurring in a house near 30th and National. Otto Square is a shopping center five blocks away.
  • The Thursday, Feb. 26 edition of the San Diego Union listed the $45,000 bust as occurring in a house near 30th and National. Otto Square is a shopping center five blocks away.
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Graduation Night. . .

Tuesday, June 6, 1972. A muggy pre-summer night in San Diego, the kind that sends people scurrying to the beaches for relief. Campfire, tobacco, and marijuana smoke blankets the picnic area of South Mission Beach. Rumbling motors. shouting voices, popping beer lids, and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin' On?” emanate from the beach parking lot and clash with the natural crashing of the breakers. It’s graduation time in the city, and it looks like a lot of sprung seniors are celebrating.

Not Vincente. He doesn’t have anything to celebrate, at least not in the way of tassles. scholarships. and congratulations from proud parents. Tonight's graduation night for St. Augustine High, the school ’Cente has attended for four years. But after six months of spray-paint sniffing sessions, the only diploma 'Cente has to show is a blank one. and the only congratulation he has gotten is an eviction notice from his foster father.

So here ’Cente sits, on the top of his smashed-up Vega, huffing copper paint, downing a few reds, and staring half-dazed into the ocean. He and three of his friends from Los Hermanos came out to. South Mission because they heard some of their partners from Shelltown were throwing a beach party. But now, all they see around them is a bunch of puto looking white dudes.

’Cente’s friends want to jam. but he has other things in mind.

Somebody has to pay for his flunking out, and there are a couple of sissy surfers walking past the car, looking like they're responsible enough. ’Cente’s boys protest that there are a lot of pigs around, but he pays no attention. He adjusts his head band and grabs the two strangers by their dripping wet hair.

"Hey, white boys,” he shouts. “I heard you been talkin' about me!” Before either of them can say anything, ’Cente crashes one into the side of the car and knees the other in the groin.

After Hailing a dozen punches. ’Cente falls down in a red pill and copper paint stupor, hitting his head on the rim of the car. He looks up and stares into the hallucinatory glare of a police car’s red bulb. Only it’s not hallucination. He tries to get up but is tripped by one of his ungrateful victims.

'Cente is awarded his first pair of handcuffs. With a thin streamer of dried blood caked on the side of his face, a picture is taken that would look good inside his empty diploma. Nobody offers to play “Pomp and Circumstance” as 'Cente, 18, graduates into his first night in jail.

Street Life. . .

Four years on. 'Cente looks on his first bust as the transitional point in his life.

“I started as a vato pretty late Most dudes are out gettin’ in trouble at twelve. That was a trip. I don’t even remember what those dudes looked like. I was just trying to be a big man. And I was loaded, and I didn’t give a damn about anything that night.

No diploma, a raggedy ride, no place to stay. It was like the only life I had going for me was being hard and kickin' ass. All my life up to the time I was supposed to be graduating from Saints I was just a timid little punk. I lived at home with my foster father. I couldn't do nothin’, didn’t know nothin’. It wasn't until I started gettin’ loaded and hangin' out with Los Hermanos that I had any friends at all. And I used to look for opportunities to kick some ass in front of them dudes."

"I sure didn’t grow up in the streets. But that’s where I belonged. It’s too bad I waited till I was 18 to blow it. I woulda got off easier. I remember that judge telling me that he wished he could lock me up in a cell with two of his biggest deputies and have 'em kick my ass. He threw me in jail for a week. For just hittin’ on some chumps. I didn't hurt 'em that bad. But I guess you can't be a euro without gettin’ busted.”

At 22. 'Cente is a man with a wide range of absurd, ugly, violent, and mostly unimaginable experiences behind and in front of him. He waves the title "vato" with as much chauvinistic fervor as a John Bircher waves “American.” It’s easy to see why. For a constant screw-up like ’Cente. becoming a vato, a pacbuco, a hard dude, a man of the streets, gave him the dual sanctity of blowing his life and staying cool.

He could get arrested for beating up kids he never saw before and would never see again. He could spend a week in the National City jail for shoplifting a can of spray paint. He could join the No diploma, a raggedy ride, no place to stay. It was like the only life I had going for me was being hard and kickin' ass. All my life up to the time I was supposed to be graduating from Saints I was just a timid little punk. I lived at home with my foster father. I couldn't do nothin’, didn’t know nothin’. It wasn't until I started gettin’ loaded and hangin' out with Los Hermanos that I had any friends at all. And I used to look for opportunities to kick some ass in front of them dudes.

"I sure didn’t grow up in the streets. But that’s where I belonged. It’s too bad I waited till I was 18 to blow it. I woulda got off easier. I remember that judge telling me that he wished he could lock me up in a cell with two of his biggest deputies and have 'em kick my ass. He threw me in jail for a week. For just hittin’ on some chumps. I didn't hurt 'em that bad. But I guess you can't be a euro without gettin’ busted.”

He could get arrested for beating up kids he never saw before and would never see again. He could spend a week in the National City jail for shoplifting a can of spray paint. He could join the Marines after being rejected by every other branch of service. He could be discharged for “mental instability” after trying to slash his wrists. He could receive a $20,000 inheritance from his dead mother and lose it all in three months. One minute he could watch his best friend, loaded on reds, blow an enemy’s car to scrap-metal with a gun. and the next minute stare into his eyes as he dies in ’Cente’s arms from a retaliatory wound. He could lend his $6000 Monte Carlo to a total stranger for a twenty-cent bag of cheeva and later learn the car’s been impounded in Tijuana. He could do all of that and remain “bad” and “cool” because he was a vato.

’Cente sits in his downtown studio apartment, smoking a joint, taking turns watching The Beverly Hillbillies and recounting his personal history as a street dude.

“After I didn’t graduate from high school, I used to just jive with the boys constantly. We were all pretty young then, so it was easy to find stuff to do. We used to go sniffing up at St. Jude’s church, try to pull on broads, or go jump white dudes. I did this all summer. It was the best time of my life."

“But it was really different in San Diego four years ago. I had more fun in those days. There were a buncha clubs — Los Hermanos. Zapata, Nosotros, Brown Image, all kinds of clubs. And everyone was closer then. There was more happening. Dances and parties. Now it’s like everyone I hung out with before is too old. they all got kids and jobs at National Steel.”

’Cente even looks upon the old ghetto territorial imperative sentimentally.

“Logan Heights is supposedly divided up into territories. Shell- town. which stretches from 43rd and Highland all the way to Wabash and National and from Division to Imperial. After that comes Logan and that goes from the stoplights at Wabash all the way up to 25th and Imperial, and from Main Street to Ocean View. There’s Sherman, from 25th and Imperial up to Broadway. Then there’s OTNC. which is the old part of National City, down by 13th Street. That’s Gato territory. They were supposed to be the meanest dudes, the baddest gang, but I never seen them. I think they’re just like a vato boogieman. Watch out or else the Gato's gonna get you!”

’Cente breaks down his attraction to the hard life with a very simple rationale.

"You can always count on gettin’ loaded in the Heights. I carry my little syringe, just in case, all the time. That was probably the driest thing about the service. It was hard gettin’ good stuff, except for paint. I used to hold paint-sniffing classes in the barracks in North Carolina. White boys never heard of huffing paint. But I’d do it, and they’d see how loaded it got me, and pretty soon they were all doing it. One guy even had to go the hospital ’cause he liked to sniff so much paint.

“I slashed my wrists loaded. I was buzzed and wanted to see how it felt to die. I almost did. But after that I spent some time in the cuckoo's nest and they let me go. So it was lucky I did it. I was only in the Marines a year.

“After I got out, though. I started wondering about going to South Bay Trade School; but that was dead. Some friend let me live in his pad so I just hit the streets again. I didn’t worry about a job. Just my unemployment check. Little by little I started roamin' the streets with the boys again. Wasn’t no more Los Hermanos ’cause nobody wanted to have meetings, but it was the same dudes anyway.

“In July I got $20,000 that my keeper and his lawyer kept tryin’ to keep me from. I bought me a big black low-rider. Man, I became like Robert Redford overnight. Everybody in Logan Heights was my friend. But it didn’t last too long. I never stayed home, stayed anywhere. I was always cruising. I acted like I had 20 million instead of 20 thousand. Aw, hell. That’s life. I had fun. Went to a lotta massage parlors, got loaded a lot, I guess 1 had fun.

“In October, after my bread was gone, my best friend, Mac, was shot. We were loaded on reds at this party, and he wanted to go to this dude's house who was hasslin’ his sister and shoot his ass. Like a fool I took him. He shot up the dude’s car and house, but he kept going back to shoot more and more. Then the dude shot back and Mac didn't make it. One minute we were partyin’ and the next he kicked the bucket.”

This, says ’Cente, was when he went on a drug-rampage. He started hitting the fabled down-slide of the heroin-lover—hocking possessions, stealing, and trusting his car to a stranger for a good buzz.

“When the pigs found my car in TJ. I didn't have but a few bills left, so what could I do? I sold the car to some dude for fifty bucks. I thought he’d sell it back to me later but he didn't. I felt like killin’ his ass, but I figured it was some kinda poetic justice for what happened to Mac. Besides. I woulda lost it somehow anyway.”

After losing his car, ’Cente says he had no choice but to straighten up. He applied for VA benefits, passed a rudimentary certificate test, and got into City College in order to collect S270 a month. He also got a night job driving a cab, but quit after being held up.

An important thing he’s learned from going to school has been to conserve his thrill for smack.

“I ain’t hooked, man. I worked out a good system. You see, if you shoot up a couple days and then rest a couple, your system gets cleaned out and you don’t do it too much harm. I know I ain’t gonna get hooked. I don’t believe in all that Man With The Golden Arm crap anyway.”

Strangely, ’Cente seems to look down on the quagmire of his life-style at the same time he wallows in it.

“In the Heights, man, one thing I must admit is that there ain’t too much ambition. Dudes and broads drop outa school really early. The don’t care, lift broads get knocked up. maybe married, get on welfare. They don’t care about nothin’ except geltin’ high, gettin’ laid, and gettin’ that welfare check. Ghetto chicks ain’t got no regard for their bodies. They just wanna get screwed, even by

other broads. There’s a lotta lesbian vatas. Ain’t too many puto dudes ’cause everybody looks down on it there.

“Most vatos are dumb, illiterate even. I’m one of the smartest vatos I know. I must be ‘cause all the dudes bring me stuff to read to them, and it’s always real easy words. Everyone’s cool and everything, but they’re dumb. I could be something if I just put my mind to it. I want more outa life than most of my friends. I don’t plan on messin’ up or gettin’ too messed up no more.”

Famous Last Words. . .

After finishing his case history, ’Cente caught a bus down to the Heights to see if he could score from some of his partners. It was check day and somebody was sure to have something.

Before hitting his friend's house. 'Cente stopped into the Thrifty at Otto Square to get an ice cream. Inside he met one of his compadres. and after buying him an ice cream as well, left the store and cut across the parking lot. Huddled over by the gas station, several long-hairs in shades and Army fatigue jackets were frisking a young Mexican. Reasoning that they were seeing a drug bust in action. ’Cente and his friend stopped to watch. Less than a minute later, two unmarked narc cars skidded up to them. and more long-haired peace defenders emerged, pulling their guns on them in the classic Starsky and Hutch manner. ’Cente and his friend were booked for “conspiracy to sell hard narcotics.” They spent two nights in jail, with charges dropped sometime in the early morning.

The Thursday, Feb. 26 edition of the San Diego Union listed the $45,000 bust as occurring in a house near 30th and National. Otto Square is a shopping center five blocks away. To err is human, but for ’Cente it’s just another step down-and how much difference can it make, anyway?

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