Who you tryin’ to get crazy with ese?/ Don’t you know I’m loco?
- “Insane in the Brain,” Cypress Hill
On the day Facundo was born his dad planted a pine tree across the street from their apartment building. It would serve as a permanent reminder, his dad thought, that we lived here, that we were a family, not the best, not the worst, but a working-class Mexican family and that we did something and created good things, like my sons, like this tree. He picked a pine tree because of how strong they are and how tall they can get. But the cholos didn’t like any of that. They would tell each other that it was corny and stupid, but really they felt threatened by the symbolism. Nothing good should be here, they would think, fuck life, fuck lames, fuck this tree.
All gangs have goofy nicknames for some apparent reason, often relating to food. BVN was known as “bananas,” the only reason being was because Barrio Van Nuys, with enough generosity, sounds like “bananas.” Another Valley gang, Blythe Street, were known as “burritos.” White Fence in the east side of the city was known as “waffles.” But for whatever reason the Chicano Pacoima gang couldn’t or wouldn’t follow the tradition and simply referred to themselves as “Pacas.” The gang members, after getting jumped in, would be given a gang name. Most names were equally goofy, often based on cartoons, with the occasional classic cliché name like “Killer” or “Psycho” or the more traditional “Puppet” or “Travieso.” But there was also “Gumby,” “Taz” – short for the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character – or “Mousey” for Mickey Mouse, “Daffy” for Daffy Duck or “Looney” after the Looney Tunes cartoon series. If you had a gang member in your family, which many Chicanos in Van Nuys did, you would by proxy also be given a nickname. If you were the older brother of one of the cholos, you’d automatically become “Big” whatever. “Big Gumby,” “Big Taz,” and so on. The same was true if you were the younger brother. You’d be “Lil Gumby” or “Lil Taz.” The gang’s respect would extend to all the family; it was the military strategy of uniting as many as possible under central leadership, even if only perceptual, and not to make unnecessary enemies. Seldom did families reject the unsolicited respect of the gang, they’d be stupid not to. It was sort of endearing but no one would be endeared. Especially not dad, pinches bananas, he would think to himself, pendejos with nothing better to do.
Dad would regularly water the tree and spend time with it while drinking beer and smoking cigarettes as if it were a silent and paralyzed best friend. He would confess to the tree about his problems with mom, his lack of money, his lack of higher education, but above all else his worry about being a good father. When he would finish the beer and smoke his last cigarette, he would thank the tree for listening to him without judgment. But as soon as dad left and it would get dark the cholos would come out, two or three at a time, and crowd around the tree.
“Why does Ernesto even care?” one of the cholos would ask. “It’s just a fucking tree.”
“It’s stupid, it won’t even be around for that long,” he would say, tapping it with his foot at first absentmindedly, then being more aware of what he was doing. “Watch.”
He would push it harder, not trying to smash it outright but to prove that it was weak and movable. “See?”
They would see. Another cholo would push it more, exposing the roots, and they would smile and pass around a stale joint packed with old cheap weed, their laughter turning into coughing.
“Bitch ass tree,” one of them would say as he’d deliver the final kick, sending the small little tree flying across the sidewalk.
In the morning, before going to work, he would inspect the tree for damages. Sometimes it would just be knocked over. Other times it would be several yards away, a loosely-formed line of dirt following it like a trail of blood. Hijos de su chingada madre, he’d mutter to himself, quickly readjusting or replanting the little tree and sweep up all the fallen pine needles. The tree was losing the battle. It was defenseless and at the mercy of the nightly violent visits. Something has to be done, he thought, a huevo, there’s no other way.
Back then Van Nuys was bad, even worse than today. BVN was more active, bigger and deadlier. You couldn’t go a block in most directions without seeing it spray-painted on walls, store fronts or murals, the only exception being most of the murals of Jesus Christ or La Virgen de Guadalupe. This was at a time before many gang members would get deep into addiction and alcoholism, before they would catch serious cases and go away for years and in some cases life. The lucky little street soldiers, however, would do a quick stint in juvie and come out respected with instant street credibility, a traditional coming of age for the little cholillo. Often, then, upon release their families would take them and move to Fontana or some far-off place like that, beyond the borders of Los Angeles County where the local gang couldn’t reach. But eventually if the original gang couldn’t regroup there, a new one would form. Gangs are an inescapable thing that stalks the poor wherever they go, like hungry seagulls circling a landfill.
One night after drinking three tall cans of Budweiser, dad walked downstairs and stood in front of the apartment building. He pretended to be inspecting the newly-installed rolling chain-link fence. The landlord had it put in because the gangsters kept going in to get drunk and high and tag up the back of the building. The wheel would fall off the rail and it needed grease. He’d inspect it, then steal a glance across the street. Three cholillos were there passing around a joint. At first it didn’t seem like they saw him but then when dad was moving the gate back and forth the wheel squeaked. The night was quiet enough that it exaggerated the sound. All three turned toward him.
“Que puto?” one said.
This is it, there’s no turning back, dad thought to himself.
While there are many options in any given scenario in life, ultimately there really are only two: you either do the thing or you don’t. Even a compromise is an act of doing, which is the direct opposite of not doing; and of course there isn’t just one or two scenarios in life where you have to decide which way you’re going to go; the entirety of life is a series of moments with this inescapable dilemma, and the action must often be violent in order for there to be progress. This wasn’t just the philosophy of Van Nuys or other poor or working-class neighborhoods, of ghettos and barrios; it was the philosophy of the masses, not taught to them by pretentious tenured professors or smug theologians. It was a learned school of thought, developed over time, throughout life, through the struggle between the powerful and the weak, and it’s been passed down from generation to generation, spread far and wide to all corners of human society. It isn’t new or old; it just is. It is the law of matter that has always existed in the universe. But the philosophy of understanding it can be traced back to the early philosophical materialists like Feuerbach, although it would be developed much higher over time by the class struggle of contemporary human history. Philosophers like Marx and Engels took early materialism and said, OK, yes, the real world is the world of matter and not mainly ideas, but check this out, in the end everything can be broken down into two things that are in contention with each other and their contention drives all things forward, often violently. The Chinese would later sum this up, simply, that everything divides into two. Lastly, the people’s philosophy also says that you can’t really understand something until you do it. You can’t grasp the essence of a joy ride unless you actually steal the car. You can’t understand what it means to fight back unless you fight back. You can’t understand what it means to stand up for yourself, your family, your little tree, unless you do it. You can’t know what it means to cross the street and confront the motherfuckers unless you actually cross the street, goddamn it.
So he crossed the street, unsure of how things would develop but sure of how they would end.
“Orale old man!”
“Get away from the tree,” he said.
“And what if we don’t?” one of the cholos said. “What are you going to do about it, Ernesto? It’s three of us and just your paisa ass.”
The cholos would use paisa as a derogatory term for Mexican immigrants but it wasn’t derogatory to them, it was an accurate descriptor; they were paisanos; they were from Mexico. This united them, and they were proud to be Mexican and working-class and immigrants in a country where the racists and the crooked-ass government always had it out for them, and where apparently the children of Mexicans would attack their own kind.
Ernesto looked at all three, a few yards away, the asphalt of the street running out, and soon I will be on the sidewalk, he thought. He took a deep breath and charged at the one that was doing most of the talking, striking him hard dead center on the bridge of his nose, surprised at himself for landing the punch being drunk. The cholo fell to the ground, grabbing his nose, the blood gushing all over his face and hands, an intermittent stream getting on his crisp ironed white shirt. The other two cholos attacked Ernesto, seeing an opportunity with his back to them. The cholo grabbed him from behind, not exactly sure how to restrain him so he just bear hugged him and hoped he can retain him, but Ernesto although skinny was a little stronger than the cholo. Ernesto elbowed the cholo’s stomach while he was in the bear hug. The cholo lost his breath and had to let go. The other cholo punched Ernesto in the face, landing a right on his mouth, immediately popping his bottom lip, his teeth cutting it open. But Ernesto was temporarily immortal, his sense of pain dull from the beer. The cholo with the broken nose got up and had hit Ernesto in the face with a left, his own blood on his fist mixing with Ernesto’s blood from his mouth. The cholo was able to get in a quick right hook, knocking Ernesto down. This is what I feared, he thinks. All three cholos take turn kicking him in the ribs. Ernesto quickly turns over and shields his face, trying to keep his elbows pinned as close as possible to his ribs but they get in a couple of more kicks that caused him to forget he was immortal, his Budweiser powers wearing off. The cholo with the broken nose kicked his face but Ernesto’s hands catch the full force. He forgot how long he was down like that, time must’ve slowed down. He didn’t wait for an opening because he didn’t think it would come so he got up and just started punching at which ever cholo was the closest while he was taking punches to the face. Two of the three cholos were visibly tired from exhausting all their energy on the kicks. Ernesto was accidentally strategic by going after the only guy not tired so that the other two cholos are too tired to jump in. But Ernesto knew this is a battle he was probably going to lose once they regain their strength so he pushed the cholo away and ran across the street.
“Get his ass!” one said.
Ernesto made it across the street and immediately pulled the chain-link fence close. The cholos were on the other side looking in, but Ernesto didn’t run up to his apartment, not because he wanted to mock or taunt them but because he wanted to make sure they don’t jump the gate and damage the building, his car or worse.
One of the cholos pulled out a handgun from his waist. He aimed it at Ernesto and fired and missed somehow. The apartment building was dimly lit, the farther back he got from the gate the darker it would get. The cholo, undeterred, fired off three more shorts, one right after the other, not bothering to wait and reassess where Ernesto was. He was shooting almost blindly at darkness. Lights could be seen being turned on in some of the apartments, but most leave the lights off, not because no one is home but because they are scared but also used to the gun shots. Ernesto took refuge behind the wall of the building near the back. The firing stopped. Ernesto peeked out from behind the wall but he couldn’t see that well in the dark. He slowly started walking to the gate. They had all left, but he knew this was far from over. This was either good or real fucking bad, he thought, doubting whether or not what he did was smart. Now what? He thought, they have guns, estos cabrones, these assholes, are really gonna kill me over that little tree? He thought, what else is there to do? Run? Move? Get rid of the tree? A la verga, he thought, fuck that shit, correcting his momentary panic with the knowledge of the people’s philosophy – that nothing is won without violence.
Ernesto still didn’t feel the sting from his mouth or from his sides, the adrenaline was still pumping through his veins. He looked across the street. The little pine tree was left untouched.
Facundo Rompehuevos is an activist and writer based in Los Angeles who is very angry at imperialism and postmodernist literature. He is finally writing the book he threatened all his friends with, tentatively titled "The Last Days of the Valley" due to be published by a yet-to-be-determined date by some yet-to-be-named unfortunate publisher. He recommends this fundraiser: https://www.gofundme.com/f/single-mom-paying-7k-after-protesting-landlord