Mario Torero: "My father got to San Diego and he saw the eucalyptus trees. He hadn't seen a eucalyptus since he was young, because in Arequipa there are a lot of eucalyptus trees and in Lima they had cut down all the trees."
Mario Torero in front of his painting of a young Cesar Chavez
"I thought I had come into hell. Van Nuys was so hot. I mean, God. And at that time I was naughty: I smoked. And I thought, 'How can anybody have a cigarette in this place? It's so hot! You can't breathe!' I didn't know where the hell I had got myself." Jennifer "Ducky" Dorman was talking about coming, by her own choice, some 40 years ago to the United States. "When I walked off the plane, I was scared to death. The vastness of everything scared me. Everything seemed very large. The freeways and the roads. The one wonderful thing was that I spoke the language. God forbid how it is for those poor foreign people who come here and can't speak the language. They've got to be twice as scared, or three times as scared, as I was."
Jennifer Dorman: "I was going to make you lunch, but I thought a spot of tea would be better."
I drove out on a late-summer day to Dorman's La Mesa condo. My car's steering wheel burned my palms. Sweat trickled down my back. Sweat stung my eyes. Days before my visit, I'd been reading The Splendid Outcast: The African Stories of Beryl Markham. Markham, born in Leicester, England, in 1902, was taken as a child by her father to British East Africa. As a young woman, Markham learned to fly and became not only a famous bush pilot but, according to her biographers, the "finest woman pilot in the British Empire." Reading Markham's African stories, I was reminded of how the English often found their way to hot climates. Lawrence of Arabia. General Charles Gordon in the Sudan. The British East India Company. The artist David Hockney in Los Angeles, with his eye for Southern California's flat, stark light. "In Bengal to move at all is seldom ever done," crooned Noel Coward in 1932, "but mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun."
Lydia Acevedo: "Here, in San Diego, there was no life in the streets. Back in Lima, people are always coming and going from each other's homes."
Dorman's condo sits among several dozen others in a quiet, parklike complex with hibiscus hedges and broad, well-watered lawns. Sturdy picnic tables in shady corners contribute to the complex's "vacation village" feel. A sleepy cat sunned itself on Dorman's welcome mat.
"Come on in, luv," Dorman greeted me at her door. "I was going to make you lunch, but I thought a spot of tea would be better. At least in this heat."
A trio of large, ornate Victorian vases — "They belonged to my grandmum" — gleamed on a library table on the living room's east side. Another table displayed a collection of Wedgwood boxes and vases. Out on the patio, a "Lytton's Tea" sign hung on the fence. On a white glass-and-wrought-iron table in the dining room, Dorman had arranged her turquoise-and-white Royal Doulton tea service. A plate of McVities "Classic Rich Tea" and "Digestive" biscuits sat at the table's center.
Jennifer Dorman: "I was the only Englishwoman working as a stewardess for PSA."
"Yorkshire tea," Dorman said, pouring my first cup.
She told me she was born and raised in Lincolnshire, in a small seaside town called Cleethorpes. Her mother was Danish, and her father, who worked as a carpenter, was from a family of Lithuanian Jews. I asked Dorman how she first came in contact with Americans.
"During the war," she said. "We lived in an area where we had the North Sea, and the planes, the German planes, used to fly over. We could hear them. We could hear their heaviness. Just outside where I lived is a place called Boston, and they have a big, tall monument there called Boston Stump. When the Germans saw the monument, they would know that they were a hundred miles from the center of London. So they did fly over, and they did do a few bombs. We had a few bombs in our town.
"And during the war, there were Americans in our town. I lived across the road from a family, and there were four girls there. Well, of course, there were Americans there every day. Gorgeous, handsome, handsome young men in their uniforms. Really good-looking. And I was a little girl who was five years old. I was this blonde little kid. The Americans used to think that I was kind of cute. They used to buy me Juicy Fruit gum. Wait. No. Not Juicy Fruit gum. It was the Hershey bar.
"That was my first contact with Americans. Everything else about America we learned from films. Even as small children, we knew the names of American film stars, like Elizabeth Taylor. We used to play a game using the names of American film stars. For example, we'd yell out, 'Who's E.T.?' If you knew 'E.T.' stood for Elizabeth Taylor, you'd run from one side of the street to the other.
"After the war, I met this American chap, Roman, and I came to live in Van Nuys. He was from Oklahoma but lived in Van Nuys. At the time we met he worked for the Thor Missile Project not far from our town. The idea was that I would fly out to California and live with his auntie and uncle and see how things worked out. I was 21 years old. My father had told me that I couldn't leave home until I was 21 and that, if I did, I would burn my bridges behind me. He was serious so I did stay until I was 21. I did not leave until I was 21 years old, because [parents] were controlling in those days, you know.
"So, I flew. I think it was a maiden voyage for the plane. I think the 707 had only flown about four times overseas. It was with Pan American. We flew to Inglewood, California. It was my first trip on a plane, and there were only 20 people on the plane. Twenty people on the plane, a bloody big plane. The captain asked us to move to the middle of the plane so we could stabilize it. It was the scariest damn thing. And then, would you believe it, I later became a stewardess.
"I went to live with Roman's auntie and uncle in Van Nuys. They were from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and were very, very religious. We said prayers every morning and evening. We went to church twice on Sunday. This was quite a surprise for me. I was raised in the Church of England. Anyway, it became clear that things with Roman and me weren't going to work out. There I was, living with his auntie, and he would come to visit me only after eight or nine o'clock at night. It wasn't going to go anywhere. I was just devastated, really. I didn't know what I was going to do.
"Remember those four girls I told you about? The ones who lived across the road from me? Well, it turns out that one of them was living here in San Diego. She was married to an English guy. He was English, but he was born here. She found out where I was through my mum, and she called and said, 'You've just got to come to San Diego.' And I said, 'But I've got only 10 dollars.' She said, 'That will be enough. The bus costs only 3 dollars.' I put my things in a paper sack and took the Greyhound bus to San Diego. I was so scared. Imagine. I came to this country with only about 100 English pounds, which was no money, really. About 50 dollars back then.
"My friend's husband met me at the bus station downtown. He had been working for National Steel, but they had a big shutdown, and he was having to find any kind of work, digging holes, doing anything, really. He had to work. They had four kids. I was with my friend and her family for three or four weeks, and she asked, 'What are you going to do? You really ought to get a job.' And I thought, 'How in the hell am I going to find a job?'
"My friend and her husband knew this fellow named George, and he asked me out. My friend made me a new dress. I got my hair bleached. George and I went to a nightclub on Midway Drive. The Midway Chuck Wagon. Dr. Dean, the hypnotist, was there. They had a singer. Regis Philbin used to go there all the time and have coffee, because it used to be a real fabulous restaurant for breakfast and things like that. So, George and I are sitting there, and the MC comes over to me and asks, 'Where are you from? London?' I was so embarrassed. I said I was from England. Everyone seemed so curious and interested.
"So, I go back to my friend's house and the next day start looking for work. One day, my friend's husband says, 'Hey, PSA is looking for stewardesses.' I said, 'I am, you know, just a normal person. I'm not a blue blood.' In England at that time, you know, in order to work for British Airways you had to have blue blood, be upper crust, educated in French, German, and everything. I said, 'Oh, I can't do that. I definitely can't do it.' My friend said, 'You're going to try.' She took me to Lindbergh Field. She didn't even know where it was.
"I walked into the PSA office, and the lady who was doing the hiring looked at me and said, 'I know you.' I said, 'Well, I don't know how you would know me. I have hardly been here for eight weeks from England.' She said, 'Yeah, I do know you. It will come to me.' She said, 'Get up and walk.' So I got up and walked and sat down. She watched me walk. She said, 'I know where I saw you. I saw you at the Chuck Wagon.'
"Four days later, she hired me. I was the only Englishwoman working as a stewardess for PSA. I was quite exotic back then, here in San Diego. Yes, I was fortunate because my accent made me popular. I was a little British girl. A little English girl. I used to say 'Cheerio!' as well as 'Bye-bye, cheerio!' Things like that."
I said to Dorman that she, as a provincial working-class girl from class-conscious England, must have been amazed by what had happened to her.
"I thought it was a dream, actually. I couldn't believe it. You know, it's the sort of thing where you have to pinch yourself just to make sure that you're really you. I mean, it was a glamorous job. We had film stars flying with us, like James Mason, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope. Oh God, Cesar Romero. I have a photo of me sitting on Jerry Lewis's knee. He used to come down because he had a boat called the Pink Pussycat right there on the bay.
"We also had these marvelous uniforms. I had three during the five years I flew for PSA. They were very well made, very well tailored. I donated one of them to the Aerospace Museum in Balboa Park, and you can see it there. It says the uniform belonged to Jennifer 'Ducky' Dorman. That was my nickname. It's a marvelous little brown gabardine suit with a rust-colored cravat. Very elegant. We also wore a little hat. We were required to wear gloves when coming and going from the airport."
I asked what the folks back in Cleethorpes made of her success.
"They were amazed. I went back home for the first time in 1963. We were making good money. About $180 per week. It was enough to have an apartment and to have a car that was paid for. We stewardesses lived well. So, when I went home for the first time, they even put an article about me in the little local newspaper. It was all about me flying, being a stewardess, meeting these celebrities. Some of my friends didn't talk to me hardly when I would go 'round at first. They thought I was 'stuck up,' but I wasn't, really."
I asked Dorman how she'd reacted to the American men she met while working as a stewardess. Were they different from the English boys she was used to?
"At first, American men made me nervous. I was only 21 years old. And in England, you are kind of backwards growing up, you know. And the American men were quite outgoing. Yes, yes, yes, definitely outgoing, definitely. You learned certain ways for how to deal with them. In those days you could ask for their driver's license if they asked you out. If they were married it would say so on the license. You had to do that sort of thing, because they used to take their [wedding] rings off."
When did Dorman start to think of herself as an American?
"Not until a long time after I got here. I really, really enjoyed everything about America, but I really didn't know where I was going [to live]. Then I met my husband and I got married in 1965, and then that was it. I had to stay.
"He was an American. We lived in Lemon Grove. We had three girls. They went to school here and everything. It wasn't until they were 10 years old, or 11, that I realized that I'd given birth to little American children. They started bringing their little friends home, and I started to realize how very different American children were from English children. I tried very hard to raise my children in an English way. One of the important things was politeness. They always had to say 'please' and 'thank you.' Another thing was that American children didn't know how to make conversation with adults. They're withdrawn. They still are. I'm not sure why. But I raised my daughters to be able to talk with adults, to know how to meet people. I'm very much a people person, and so this was important to me.
"Also, I think American [children] are a bit more promiscuous than we were. I mean, you know, I used to try and keep my girls in socks until they were 12 years old. No lipstick and no short skirts. They would come home from school and say, 'So-and-So has a short skirt!' And I would say, 'Well, you are not having a short skirt. That's it!' They never did go with lipstick and stuff like that."
Dorman said that her marriage of 20 years ended in divorce. She was left with three adolescent daughters to raise on her own. For many years, she made ends meet by working as a clerk at a 7-Eleven store and, later, as the manager of the import shop All Things Bright and British, in La Mesa.
"I was brokenhearted for many, many years after my divorce, really. I was homesick. It was a bit lonely. I was by myself. I had good neighbors. My in-laws were pretty good to me. You do feel more like a foreigner in a way, when you are alone, when you don't have anybody.
"And, so, after the divorce, I did think about going back to England. I used to say, 'Mom, I'd love to come home.' But she said, 'You can't. You have three children there and they are Americans.'
"I never thought I would never go back. I mean, there was no doubt that I was going to go back until just about three years ago, when I realized that I can't possibly go back. The turning point came when my first daughter got married. I thought, 'Well, I have made it this far. Better go the rest.' All my daughters are now married. I have grandchildren. My mother passed away. My father is gone. I just have a sister in England."
I asked Dorman if she felt that her parents' "foreignness" in Cleethorpes had in some way made it easier for her to leave England.
"No, I don't think so. I must have had some sense of adventure in me that I didn't realize. I mean, when I first got here, I never felt alone. I never felt I was alone. It was a weird thing. I cried a bit, but I didn't cry a lot because I knew that there was a reason why I'd come here. And like my mom used to say, 'There is a reason for you to be there. You are starting a new generation in a new country.' "
Mario Torero also came to the United States some 40 years ago. For a while after I first met Torero, I had a difficult time figuring out his age, how old he was when he immigrated. Torero's face is unlined. He has the lithe, muscular body of a dancer. He moves constantly. He can't sit still for long. When he talks, for example, about painting, he stands and pantomimes someone slathering a canvas with paint. When he talks about Bill Haley & His Comets, he snaps his fingers and executes a few quick dance moves. I was so confused about his age that, one evening, I finally asked him point blank.
"I'm 58 years old," he said. "I came here when I was 12."
I'd thought he was in his early 40s.
Torero invited me to his studio in the attic of the Victorian home where he lives, one block south of El Cajon Boulevard in City Heights. Mario has painted the foundation of his house with bands of bright primary color. Proceeding upward, the bands of color change, spectrum-style, until they appear as washed-out pastels just below the house's eaves. Upstairs in Torero's studio, a huge window built into the ceiling fills the space with light. There's a small stove, a sink. Mario's paintings, some done, others unfinished, line the walls.
Torero's 25-year-old son Pablo silently entered the studio while Torero and I were talking. Pablo wore beige cotton pants and a creamy white linen shirt. He'd wrapped his head in a pristine pale-white scarf. His calm, his quiet, his dress, his luxurious long black beard suggested religious devotion. Pablo reminded me of pictures I've seen of Sikh gurus and Afghani warlords.
"He's into reggae," Torero said with pride, patting Pablo's back. "He's a big promoter of reggae music. He's handling the top reggae artists in the world."
Pablo grinned in that half-pained way that all young people grin when, in the presence of strangers, they're made the object of parental approval.
"Reggae's even becoming popular in Lima," Pablo said, steering the conversation away from himself.
"He's been to Lima with me," Mario said. "He loves it."
Another point of pride.
"I was born in Lima," Torero said. "I was born in a part of Lima called Miraflores. 'Miraflores' is like saying 'La Jolla' in San Diego. Because I am of the people, I got self-conscious about saying I was from Miraflores. If I said I was from Miraflores, all of my friends would go, 'Oh, you think you're rich.' It is more acute over there, the rich-and-poor situation. I was born in Miraflores, although I was not raised there. It was almost like my mom and dad got married and they went to live in Miraflores, the good life, but they immediately got their kids together, and they decided to be a little more thrifty about their expenses and they said, 'Let's get out of Peru.' My father, Guillermo Acevedo, had aspirations of being a great artist from when he was young. He was always good at art. He knew Peru was limited, so he started to think of going to where all of the artists were going in the 1950s, to Europe or the United States, New York particularly.
"My father was a refugee from the Peru-Chile War. They had a war back then, and his family were moved to Arequipa. My father was born in Arequipa, the second-largest city of Peru, south of Lima. When he was a late teenager he moved to Lima. There he met my mom. My father became an artist leader in Lima. He had an advertising business. He successfully established a clientele and so on. He saved his money, sold his business, to move to the United States, to migrate permanently.
"In Peru, like in most of the world, there was a segment of the population that was looking at the United States as a leader from where you got all the modern music, modern technology, so I was tuned in to that. Everything was coming from the United States. My father was very advanced. He had all the [foreign] magazines. He had all the music. He followed it. He got all the fox trots, Benny Goodman, Armstrong, so I was very well trained on that, too. We all were, because my father was always up to date on American culture. I always liked to tune in to radio stations that played American music. My father was a collector of all the best jazz. You know, he was hip to everything that was happening. He was part of an artistic element that was always keeping up with modernity. We were not isolated.
"We loved American culture. At one point, the Peruvian government gave my father some land in Lima on which to build a house. They were giving land to people who'd been refugees in the Peru-Chile war. So, my father built this house, pretty big, in the style of America, with the Victorian rooftop, which nobody had ever seen because it doesn't rain there. Nevertheless, he did it and, of course, he got a little flak from some people. My father was even called a gringo. I couldn't believe it.
"In order to save money -- this is how destiny worked -- when he decided to come to the U.S., to save money, he went to the north of Peru to take a boat from Piura. Piura is the port that in the 1950s had the biggest fishing fleet in the Pacific. They were fishing all the tuna. So, the major ports were San Diego and Piura because the fish was in Peru. So, to save money, my father takes a boat from Piura and goes to San Diego. In San Diego, he was supposed to take the Greyhound bus, because he had work in New York and they were expecting him. He got to San Diego and he saw the eucalyptus trees. He hadn't seen a eucalyptus since he was young, because in Arequipa there are a lot of eucalyptus trees and in Lima they had cut down all the trees. So, he said he loved it here. He loved the Mexican-American population. He decided to stay here for a while. And I have been here ever since. He moved to San Francisco with my mother and he died there. My mother then moved to San Diego to be with us, and she happens to be living downstairs.
"My father was here in San Diego for nine months before we came from Lima. We came in on January 20, 1960. So, sometime in March of 1959, he came to the United States. Around the same time that Fidel Castro took over Cuba.
"When my father got here, he'd already had a cultural center going on there in Lima. He'd organized a community of artists. He always shared his dreams with me, as I do with him. So the idea was to come and join a cultural environment or create one if there wasn't one already there. When he got here to San Diego in 1959, 1960, the arts environment in San Diego was pretty nonexistent. It was only Sunday painters. Because my father was a fine artist, he got a lot of recognition. We have a lot of articles from magazines that speak of him. He was very successful.
"Immediately after he got here, he got a job with Central Signs, which still exists. But he'd always wanted to be on his own. He attained that very rapidly, because he started selling his artwork. Because he was an outsider, a new person, and we were newcomers, he was able to appreciate the Victorian houses that used to be all around downtown in Golden Hill. He started drawing them and selling his drawings. It was not a coincidence that this happened. At that time, San Diego was destroying those houses or removing them because of the growth that was happening then. An organization was created, with my father's membership, SOHO, Save Our Heritage Organisation. My father was the key element in helping get SOHO off the ground because he donated proceeds from successful sales of his art to the organization and also to the San Diego Historical Society.
"Ultimately, selling his work in San Diego and San Francisco supplied him with enough money that he was able to buy two houses in the United States -- this one that we live in here now and another one down the street where my sister lives. My father achieved success through his artwork. He was the first Latin American in San Diego's history to gain such notoriety."
Guillermo Acevedo's integration into the American economy seemed so rapid, I wondered how as a boy Torero had made his way into the society.
"I got here on January 20, 1960, and within a week my father was enrolling me in the nearest school available, which was Brooklyn Elementary in Golden Hill. When my father was enrolling me, I was sitting there on the bench looking around, and I was already kind of scared, nervous. Because everything I knew about going to school in America was from a movie that I had just seen in Peru called Rebel Without a Cause. In Peru I used to be an impersonator of Elvis Presley. I was buying his 45s. But then I get here and this is the real thing. I was looking around to see who I was going to have to protect myself from. Because, by the way, I had been also tortured in my earlier years in Lima, because living in some of those neighborhoods was pretty rough. There were bullies all over the place. So, I get here and I thought it was going to even be rougher. You know, like what I saw in the American movies. But in reality it was the most peaceful thing I had ever run into.
"I went to school immediately, and that is where I really learned English, or started learning English. I was the only male Latino in the class. Right now the school is 100 percent Latino, but in those days I was the only Latino. There was a Mexican-American girl there. It was very embarrassing to speak the language and she didn't want to translate for me.
"Another thing that impressed me so much was at Brooklyn Elementary I had Ms. Brown as my sixth-grade teacher. I had her for every class. We didn't change classrooms. She was there from the morning to the afternoon for a whole year. Well, she took a great liking to me personally, so that she would take her time, and for an hour or so every day, I think, she had me read and she would have me pronounce those words just right. I really appreciated it, because I could see that she liked me and I liked her. She was an elderly lady. So she had a great influence on me in learning correctly, and her emphasis got me going. It wasn't really until I met Clem Ware, my black friend, that I started to hang out with black people, and that is when I really picked up the language. But before I went to Memorial Junior High for seventh grade, I was more scared than ever because I thought the blacks were really going to kill me. Once I was there, it was the African-Americans, the black brothers, who took me in and really showed me what it was to be an American living in America. I was raised with black kids and here on Imperial Avenue in my teenage years.
"What happened was that before I got to Memorial, I only ran into the white kids. But I didn't understand the language, and I found [the white kids] really lame. Then when I went to Memorial I saw the blacks and the browns. The browns were just guarding the fence. They were all standing against the fence and they wouldn't move. And me, I am always moving, because of music or some kind of activity, so I could not fully relate to those Mexican-American kids. What happened was that I didn't know which direction I was going to go. It was Clem Ware, the black trumpet player in the ninth grade, who showed me.
"It blew my family's mind when we found out that we could take free music classes at school. I wanted to play the trumpet. So my father picked a trumpet, gave it to me, and I started playing it. This is where I met Clem Ware. He was a ninth-grader. He was the 'King of Jazz,' and everybody knew him in the ghetto. So he says, 'Come with me, Joe.' He called me Joe. I said, 'My name is not Joe. My name is Bill: Mario Guillermo.' He says, 'Bill? That is for honkeys. Your name is Joe.' I said, 'All right. So I am Joe.' He turned me into Joe Acevedo. I was tired of that shit so I called myself 'Joe Ace.' Clem put me in the band. At 16 years old, I was in the best black band uptown, Arlene and the Proteens, playing the trumpet. We would go and play for the high school in Point Loma, for the gringos, you know, and we would just bullshit, ha ha, and then afterwards we'd go to the bar down at the Elks Club down on Imperial to play the opening act for Etta James. Etta James!"
As Torero spoke about his teenage years, I started to realize that there was something familiar about him. I remembered that a friend of mine had, in the 1970s and 1980s, collected Chicano art. I remembered that hanging on my friend's living room wall was a painting by someone my friend had identified as a "Chicano artist named Mario Torero." I wondered how Torero had made the transition from Peruvian immigrant to Chicano artist.
In Torero's telling, his post-high-school years sounded crowded with big events. The late 1960s, the early 1970s were busy and confusing years for many young people. Torero did a stint in the merchant marine. He met and married Sheila, his first wife, a "very beautiful Jewish girl" who used to hang out in the barrios of National City. He explored the era's turbulent politics. ("I was raised among black people, so when we heard that Watts was burning, man, we was going to go out there and join in the Revolution. But somehow the car broke down and the most we could do was break some windshields in Mission Hills, or something. We went to the rich area and broke a window. You know, we thought we were real big revolutionaries.")
"Okay, this is what happened. I was with the blacks all the way. Then I moved to San Francisco and I was with the hippies. I was not with blacks or browns. There was no ethnicity. We smoked weed and dropped acid in 1967. Everybody was doing it. So that goes by, and then in 1969 there was a Grateful Dead concert here in downtown San Diego. It was December 28. Somebody gave me a drug and it killed me. I don't know what it was, maybe mescaline. So, that night when I went home I went into my personal coma and I died. I died and then I woke up on January 1, 1970, and I said, 'Wow, I'm not dead.'
"I went into a coma and I woke up, man, and I said, 'Wow.' I said, 'God, You know I am not a religious man at all or anything, but I know that God has given me a chance to live again, so what am I going to do with my life?' And He said, 'Give it to the Revolution. Give your life to the people. Give meaning to your life. You have a mission.' So I said, 'How?' He said, 'Do it with your art.' So I said, 'How am I going to do that?'
"The phone rings right about the end of January, and an old friend of mine says, 'Joe, there is going to be a gathering of Chicano artists in Balboa Park in front of the Ford Building.' So I went there. I went there. And there was this group of Chicano artists led by Salvador Torres. Guillermo Arranda was there. Victor Ochoa was. I show up and immediately I join this group of artists, Chicano artists. So they are teaching me immediately about the Chicano movement and what it means to be Chicano. And that is why I became one of the top scholars in learning about Chicano culture. This was in February 1970. As soon as I joined the Chicano artists, I immediately recognized I was Chicano."
Torero participated in the establishment of Chicano Park in Barrio Logan and Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park. He pursued his artwork as diligently as his political interests. His two most famous local murals, The Eyes of Picasso, adorned the exteriors of the Community Arts Building at Third Avenue and E Street and the ReinCarnation Building at Tenth Avenue and J Street. Many thousands of San Diegans and tourists have seen his most well known piece of public sculpture, Los Voladores, that stands in front of San Diego International Airport's Terminal One.
On the morning I met Torero at his studio, I asked if his involvement in the Chicano movement, if his success as an artist, had distanced him from his Peruvian roots.
"In 2001, 9/11 happens and my mom has a heart attack. She is dying, so she gives me a little piece of paper. The little piece of paper says that my mother and father had a dream of one day taking us all back to live back in Peru, so they bought a piece of land in Lima. It was all dreams. So, my mom was dying -- she is fine now -- but I told Mom that I would take care of it. So I was forced to go back to Peru in 2001, which I really don't want to do because all of the shit was going on here with the 9/11 things.
"I told my artist friends that I was going to Peru. They said, 'We are going with you.' Berenese Vadillo, Christopher Oleata, and Derrick Ensenger decided to go with me. So I said, 'Why don't I take Pablo, my son, and my daughter Lucy, because they are half Peruvians.' They said yes. We went to Peru together in 2001. I have been going back every year now, because I have something happening over there. I'm working to create an artistic center in Lima. When I went back there I rediscovered myself."
When he's in Peru, does he notice anything about himself that he considers American?
"I finally convinced the artists in Lima to paint more murals in the streets. So, this one day, all of the artists came out that were painting, but I didn't know what I was going to paint. So, I went to the corner and on every corner there is a newsstand. I went there and started picking the news of the day. I did a composition, and I called it A Day in the Life of Peru, January 27, 2002. Most of the newspapers there compete for the public by putting naked women with big asses on the front pages. I cut out the front pages and used them. These sorts of images would not be accepted in the United States, and I wouldn't accept it, because I am a feminist and I am in the movement and we just would not accept that. So, I wanted to criticize society, the news media in the society, and I did a mural of, among other things, a woman with a big ass. I wanted to point out the degradation of the women.
"Oh, man, when I left Lima, the city came on. They wanted to paint up over the wall, close the arts center and everything. And so I started apologizing. I went back six months later to apologize for causing the trouble. The artists said, 'Shut up, Mario. We love it.' They got the attention finally from the news media, because the news media and the community got behind the mural. We were like heroes. We were in every newspaper.
"And so my attitude toward women, the fact that I have a higher consciousness about the treatment of women, is one thing I would identify in myself as being American. Because I've lived in America, I have a new perspective of life and I'm a little more opened up. I am not going to say that I'm more advanced. I am going to say just that I am exposed to more things. I travel. Those people in Lima don't have a chance to travel. They barely get out of their own neighborhoods. It's a miserable life sometimes, but they are a happy people, they are a proud people, they are a beautiful people, they are a friendly people."
Several days after I visited Torero's studio, he invited me back to have a meal with his 83-year-old mother, Lydia Acevedo.
She answered the door when I knocked.
"Would it bother you if we spoke in Spanish?" she asked, taking my hand. "I learned many things in the United States, but English wasn't one of them."
Earlier, Mario Torero had said of his family, "We're all natural charmers."
Lydia sat across from me, her back not touching her chair. She leaned slightly forward, attentive, smiling. On a table behind her sat a photo taken when she must have been in her twenties. In the picture, she wears a snugly tailored wool suit. She looks directly at the camera. Her gaze is self-assured. She was a beautiful young woman married to a promising artist.
"I loved what I saw of New York in the movies, but I never dreamed that I would live in the United States," she told me.
"At first my life here was extremely difficult. I was so lonely. I left so many family members in Lima. I come from a family of 13 children. And here, in San Diego, there was no life in the streets. There were so few people in the streets. Back in Lima, people are always coming and going from each other's homes. Everyone helps each other. But here, I didn't speak English. I didn't know anyone. Phone calls to Lima were expensive, and phone calls from Lima to here were expensive. Every week I wrote a letter to everyone in my family.
"My not learning English very well was a sacrifice that I made for my children. After we got here, I decided that it was important that they continue to speak Spanish and continue to speak it well. I made the decision that we would speak Spanish at home. I'm very glad that I made that decision. Mario and his sisters speak Spanish well. If I had insisted that they speak English at home, I probably would have learned to speak English well myself. But I'm glad that my children speak Spanish.
"When we got here, at that time, there was no Spanish-language television. My family in Lima would send me articles about what was going on in Peru. That's how we kept in contact with what was going on in Peru. Not long after we got here, my husband and I started going to Tijuana. We went every week to go to the movies. In Tijuana, we could see movies in Spanish. I loved Tijuana because it reminded me a little of home. Now, I'm afraid to go, because it's so difficult to cross the border and because there's so much crime."
While his mother talked, Torero put plates, forks, and knives on a small table at the room's center. From the kitchen he brought takeout packages of Vietnamese deep-fried spring rolls and fresh rolls stuffed with bean sprouts and rice noodles. He uncorked a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. In an unobtrusive way, he poured wine for his mother and arranged her plate of food.
"You see," his mother said, "he knows how to care for me. I think that's the most Peruvian thing about him. He cared for his father. He cares for me. One thing I noticed is that American children don't often know how to care for their parents.
"But there are good things about this country. It gives to people. I admire this country because it helps people. There's Social Security. And my husband was able to achieve success here. We were able to make six trips to Europe. We were able to live in San Francisco, where my husband surrounded us with many artists, writers, poets. He was a great conversationalist. A man of ideas. People listened to him. When we came to San Diego, he helped many young Mexican artists. He took them seriously. He encouraged them."
The walls surrounding us in the living room, and the walls throughout the first floor of the house, were filled with Guillermo Acevedo's meticulous, almost photo-realist drawings. Almost all of them were of Native Americans of the Southwest.
"After we came to San Diego," said Lydia Acevedo, "we started to travel in California, Arizona, New Mexico. My husband became fascinated by the indigenous people."
"My father was a socialist-anarchist," explained Torero. "He was in his heart opposed to imperialism. He was always on the side of the oppressed."
"I never thought my husband would die so young," said Lydia. "I'd always imagined that we would grow old and gray together, walking hand in hand down the street.
"I remember when I first saw him. It was during the procession in Lima for Our Lord of Miracles, which happens during Holy Week. I was there with my older sister and cousin. He was there to see the girls. That's how things were back then. You went to a procession to see girls. He wasn't a religious man. I remember noticing him. I remember that I prayed, 'If he's a good man, let him notice me. If he's not a good man, let him ignore me.' He came up to me and said something like, 'Isn't the moon beautiful?'
"Ultimately, my aunt told me, 'If you marry that man, you'll die of hunger.'
"But let me tell you another story. It involves that same church in Lima. I was born on January 4, 1922. When I was three months old, my sister dropped me on the floor and I had some sort of brain injury. My mother couldn't wake me. She took me to the doctor, and he asked, 'Are you Catholic?' My mother said, 'Yes.' The doctor said, 'Then you must take your daughter immediately to be baptized because she's going to die.'
"This was in the evening, at 7:00 p.m., on Resurrection Saturday. So my mother took me to the church, and there was a great deal of singing going on because of the day. My mother went to the priest and said that I needed to be baptized immediately because I was going to die. The priest agreed to do my baptism. At the time in the ritual when the priest put water on my head, I woke up and started to cry. The water must have woken me up. My mother started crying, and the priest said to her, 'Don't cry. This child is going to live for many years. This child is going to have a very happy life.'
"And you know what? The priest was right."
I'd encountered Mario Torero, his mother and son, and Jennifer Dorman by chance when looking for "voluntary immigrants." I was curious about how people who hadn't been forced by war or other disaster to immigrate had fared in their lives. Listening to these stories, I thought I detected a theme I hadn't expected. I thought I heard this theme, too, when I spoke with Shabda Roy.
"I was what you might call a 'revolutionary' kid," Roy told me on the afternoon I visited him at his Rancho Peñasquitos home.
"Originally my family came from the east part of India, called Bengal. I am Bengali, but I was born on the west side of India in the state of Gujarat. I speak five different dialects. Outside the home, I spoke Gujarati. At home we spoke Bengali. Just to give you a background of my family, way back when the British were there in India, my dad's grandfather was a high court judge. And the British at that time had their headquarters in the east part of India, in the Bengal area. There were all the political prisoners, and the British were trying them. But the British didn't want any part of Indian judges. So they transferred my dad's grandfather to a desert area called Rajistan. So my dad grew up in Rajistan. The government brought my dad to Gujarat as minister of education in that state. And since that time, that was way back in 1927 and 1928, my dad stayed there and we were all brought up there. But we are Bengali, from Calcutta, fish out of water in Gujarat. So we have maintained speaking Bengali throughout. We are traveling Bengalis. And now we are in the United States, across the seven seas."
Roy was parked on a comfortable chair in his living room, where a Claude Monet print hung over the fireplace. Roy wore a sweatshirt and a loose pair of jogging pants. He held Raj, his ten-month-old grandchild, his first ever grandchild, on his lap. Raj, his round brown eyes blazing with adoration, patted his chubby hands against Roy's mouth. Roy didn't mind.
Outside the house, up and down Roy's suburban street, Mexican gardeners mowed lawns and clipped hedges and aimed leaf-blowers down sidewalks and driveways. The sounds and smells of all this industry drifted through the living-room window. Roy's talk about his family's involvement in government and education made me ask about his family's caste.
"We're Brahmins," he said. "We are the highest class of Brahmin."
He reached through the neck of his sweatshirt to show me the thick cotton thread he wears beneath his clothes. A thread tied in a circle is worn by all Brahmin males who've done upanayanam, a ritual marking their passage from boy to man. Among some groups of Brahmins, the ritual is celebrated with as much fanfare as a wedding. I asked Roy what significance the thread had for him.
"I keep wearing it, because it's the tradition and I want to keep the legacy of being Brahmin. The reminding of my family that we come from Brahmins, to maintain the roots of my culture, of my religion, of my family. See, I want to walk down the mainstream of America with my head up. When people look at me, I want them to think, 'There's an Indian who's an American.'
"My family were religious but not hard-core. We go to school, colleges, movies, and we are having a good time. But at the end of the day, you say your prayers and go to bed. In the morning, you get up and say your prayers. We are taught that the very first thing that you do when you get up is to say a few words, 'Thank you, God, for letting me live another day.' And then, at night, before you go to sleep, 'Forgive me for all my sins and everything.'
"We are traditionally an academic family. Teachers. My father was professor and dean at an engineering college in Gujarat. All of my six brothers are educated, and except one, everybody is an engineer. I am the only civil engineer. The others are all electrical engineers. So, out of seven boys, one is a doctor, an oncologist. Out of six, one is me, a civil engineer. I am the oldest son.
"Growing up I was always interested in American movies, Ava Gardner, Alfred Hitchcock films, Dial M for Murder. I listened to American music, Bill Haley and His Comets, Elvis Presley. I was into ballroom dancing, jiving. I was going to Rosary High School, run by the American missionaries. The Catholic high school. And they had all these ballroom dancings and everything, and all of my medium of education was in English, and we were exposed to America through that mission.
"For my family, going to a Catholic school wasn't a problem. We were always taught that Hinduism was the most accepting, tolerant religion in the world. Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jew, whatever it might be, all religions were equal.
"So, I was into the western music. I was into ballroom dancing, jiving. I was kind of a different kid. Kind of a revolutionary, you might have called me. What I mean is that back home in India at that time, if you were to say, 'I'm going to go out on a date with a girl,' people would just look at you. They would say, 'What the hell are you doing?' That sort of thing just simply wasn't accepted.
"But in my town in Gujarat there was a girls' college of domestic science, a place where girls came from all over India and all over the world to learn about the proper way of running a household. There were French girls there, and Germans. As this was a girls' college, it had its regulations. All the girls had to be in bed or inside the dormitory by nine in the evening. And me and a couple of other boys, we said, 'Why don't we ask those girls out on a date?' We got to be like the Americans. We thought, 'They won't let anybody out without a chaperone. If we go out as a group, we can take a date out and bring her back.' This was an unusual thing back then. But the girls' college administrators knew that my dad was dean of the engineering school. They thought, 'This is Professor Roy's son, he's a good boy. We will let this happen.' So, they would call my parents and say, 'Your son is going to be in that group.' They let the group of girls go out with a group of boys. And that's how we broke the rules. I was kind of a revolutionary kid. I did things much faster and much different. That's one of the reasons I thought of America as a freer country where I could do all those sorts of things.
"I came to the States in 1966. Back in India I'd worked as a civil engineer in the public works department for nine years. I came to Pomona, California. I went to California Polytechnic University, Cal Poly, and I studied civil engineering. I had a degree from back in India, and I wanted to get a master's degree and get into a Ph.D. and do research on the side. That was my intent. I got admitted to USC, but the fees were so high. And USC was asking me to go through the undergraduate course anyway, because I graduated way back in 1958 or 1959. They said, 'Things have changed and our goals are different. You've got to know something about the American way of civil engineering.' So I said, 'The hell with it. I'm going straight to Cal Poly and not pay the high fees at USC.' While I was there, I took my engineer training exam and took my professional engineering exam. So, I became a professional civil engineer. I ended up working as a project manager for the Port of San Diego for 25 years."
I asked Roy what had been the most difficult part of his coming to the United States in 1966.
"Eating beef," he said. "I lived in the dormitory at Cal Poly, and every Thursday in the cafeteria for dinner they would have steak. And I would sit down to eat the steak. When I cut the steak the blood would come out, and it would make me sick. So I used to take that steak and throw it in the trash. And a lot of people saw that, and they started sitting with me. I'd take a first bite, and they'd take the whole steak away from me. I would get hungry, and they would take me to McDonald's to have a fish burger or something. They would buy me fish. But I was getting more friends. And then I started thinking, 'Hey, I am getting more friends. Why not get more dates?' So I started getting women lined up for Thursday dinners, a woman would go out with me, and they would get my steak. So then I'm feeling that I'm maybe missing out on something, and they got me introduced to McDonald's hamburgers. It started from there. So I started eating beef from McDonald's hamburgers.
"At that time, we didn't get much Indian food. It was difficult to find ingredients. I used to buy canned chickpeas and beans and spice them up a little with whatever spices I was able to find."
I heard someone behind me make a noise of disgust.
"Yeesh! That's what I call 'Bachelor Cooking 101.' "
It was Roy's wife.
"This is Susan," Roy said, introducing me. "This is the Mormon girl that I married."
Barefoot, wearing a voluminous skirt and drapey blouse, her red hair cut in a short, practical style, Susan swept over and scooped up Raj from Roy's lap. Raj cooed and grabbed at her ears.
"You must understand something about Susan," Roy said. "She has completely mastered Bengali cooking in such a way that many Bengali women are jealous of her. She makes many Bengali dishes even better than they can. They cannot understand how an American woman who is not an Indian can have such a fantastic understanding of Indian spices and Bengali cuisine. She is even so advanced that she adds her own personal touch to these dishes."
"Well, that's natural," said Susan, kissing the top of Raj's head. "When you make things often enough, and if you've had enough experience as a cook, you want to kind of explore different things, finding ways to make them your own. We eat Indian food here at home three to four times each week."
Shabda and Susan told me that they met while working at a county fair. Susan was tending a booth and, across the way from her, Shabda was working at "Kiddie Land."
"I would stand there and watch him, and I noticed that he had a very gentle way with the children at Kiddie Land," said Susan. "I thought to myself, 'That sort of man would make a good husband.' And I'd already had an interest in the international student organizations at my college. The Indian student organization, for example. I'm a California girl. My folks are from Oklahoma and Missouri. But I was open to learning about different cultures."
The courtship, however, did not go smoothly.
"My parents came to visit the States while Susan and I were dating," said Roy. "But I couldn't bring myself to tell them that we were dating. Susan would come by the apartment. She was studying to be a medical assistant, and my father had problems with high blood pressure and diabetes. Susan would drop by every day to check his blood pressure and blood sugar, and little by little, my father started to like her. He said, 'She's a very nice girl.'
"But, you see, in India there were still arranged marriages. And my mother had come to the States with a photo and information about the girl she'd already chosen for me to marry. In my parents' minds, the decision had already been made. I couldn't bring myself to tell Susan about this."
"Until I happened to find a certain piece of correspondence," said Susan. "With a picture of this girl in it. I held the picture up to him and said, 'WHO is THIS? Haven't you told your parents that we're seriously dating?' "
"It was quite a difficult situation," said Roy.
"A very difficult situation," said Susan. "For me."
"It turned out that all our parents were opposed to our getting married," said Roy. "We thought her parents might be easier, but they said, 'You're going to marry an Indian? How do you know that he doesn't already have three or four wives?' They didn't understand that a Hindu can have only one wife.
"So, we eloped. We eloped in my little red 1969 Volkswagen. My mother was heartbroken. My father didn't speak to me for two years. Until after our first child was born. Then he softened."
"We went on to have four children," Susan said. She spelled out their names. "Carmel, Moneesha, Samir, and Meena."
"You will see Sharmila and Samir when you come have dinner with us," Roy said. "You must come and taste some of Susan's wonderful Indian cooking."
"Oh, my," said Susan, bouncing Raj on her knee. "If I have the energy. If I don't have the energy, I don't know how wonderful it will be."
On the evening I showed up for dinner at the Roy household, from where I stood on the sidewalk, I could smell spices cooking. Inside the house, the Roys' 23-year-old son Samir, wearing a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, sat in the den, typing away at a computer. Raj's mother, 33-year-old Sharmila, was helping Susan in the kitchen. Shabda sat in the living room with Raj on his lap. Raj kneaded Shabda's cheeks.
Susan had evidently had enough energy to spend the whole day cooking. On the dining room table, Sharmila arranged silver Indian-style serving bowls filled with a Muslim-style Bengali chicken curry made with black pepper, cinnamon, black and green cardamom; Bengali "home cooking"-style potatoes mixed with white poppy seeds, onion, turmeric, fenugreek, cilantro, and cayenne pepper; cabbage cooked slow with green peas, onions, hot green pepper, and ginger; a thick dal made from yellow split peas and mustard seed.
When it was time to eat, Sharmila and Samir sat closest to me. With no prompting from their parents, they began filling my plate with food. Throughout the meal, they kept an eye on my plate, making sure I had plenty of the curry and the Bengali potatoes, which I particularly liked.
I told Susan that hers was the best Indian food I'd ever eaten in the United States. I said that I knew of only one restaurant in New York that came close to her.
"I was very fortunate," Susan said. "I had the sweetest mother-in-law in the world. I learned a lot from watching her. During one five-week and one six-week trip to India, I spent a lot of time with her in the kitchen. She was extremely generous with her recipes and with teaching me how they were made. I've collected a lot of cooking books over the years, and some of them have been helpful. There's one cookbook author, Tarla Dalal, who I think is very good. But I don't think good cookbooks are the secret. First of all, my mother taught me to cook. I already knew the basics of cooking. I like to cook. Secondly, I don't think you can really get a good feel for Indian cooking unless you go to India and spend time there and see with your own eyes how things are done. Also, it doesn't hurt to have an Indian around the house to make suggestions."
Shabda laughed. "I don't even have to make suggestions anymore. She's become a complete master of Bengali cuisine. She even knows little things, little secrets. In the chicken curry, for example, there's both green and black cardamom. Susan's very careful. She doesn't grind them together. She grinds each separately and then adds them to the curry, little by little, according to her taste. I'm not even quite sure myself how she does it. The Bengali-style potatoes are another example. They're a perfect example of Bengali home-style cooking. You'll never find them in a restaurant. They are exactly like they should be, but Susan does something a little different to them that makes them uniquely hers. And, again, I'm not quite sure what she does.
"She's also quite capable of making wonderful, very authentic Western cuisine. If you want, say, a nice Italian lasagna, she will make it for you, and it will be perfect, as authentic as can be."
I asked Susan if cooking had been a way for her to instill in her children an Indian identity.
"They all love Indian food," she said. "And that's not common anymore in many Indian immigrant families. Many of my friends complained to me, 'My kids won't eat Indian food.' I said, 'You've got to start them off slow. This is how you do it. When they're babies, give them a little bit of watery dal. A little bit of rice. Mash them up together. They'll eat it. You'll see. That's how they'll start to like Indian food.'
"And I also made sure that my children, from a young age, watched Indian videos, Indian movies."
Sharmila and Samir cleared the dishes from the table. They brought out small metallic bowls filled with yogurt that had been mixed with sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk and baked in a low oven for, Susan said, at least two hours.
"It's a typical Bengali treat," said Shabda. "And Susan's tastes exactly like the kind you get in Calcutta."
I asked Susan in what ways, cooking aside, did she feel she'd become Indian.
"I think I was most influenced by Indian modesty. They have a great sense of modesty about their person and about their clothing. Or I should say they used to. Now everything's started to change in India. The young girls don't dress so modestly anymore. They wear tight jeans, things like that. I have saris and I know how to wrap them. And I've still kept that Indian sense of modesty, although it might be an old-fashioned Indian sense of modesty."
I asked if the cultural differences between her and Shabda had caused difficulty in their marriage.
"It's like with cooking," she said. "If you don't love to cook, it's not going to turn out well. You have to have an interest in cooking, a love for cooking, in order for things to turn out. If you don't, it will be a disaster. I love to cook, and God knows, I've made my share of mistakes in the kitchen, which you don't need to know about.
"It's the same with marriage. If you marry someone from another country, an immigrant from another culture, you have to at least have some interest in that other country and culture. You need to have that interest in order to work through the differences. Before I married Shabda, I knew I already had an interest in India. If I hadn't been interested in India, I'm sure our marriage would have been difficult. I mean, I needed that interest, because there were some things that I was never going to completely understand."
"It's like the way that I knew that I loved America before I came to America," said Roy. "It's like when you fall in love with someone, and then you live with them and learn more about them. And the more you learn about them, the more you see that there are more things about them to love."