On September 4, 1791, forty-four poor Spanish settlers founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Se?ora la Reina de los ?ngeles de la Porci?ncula, or the City of Los Angeles as we call it today. The Spanish settlers converted to Catholicism the native Indians, known as the Tongva, who had already occupied the region for thousands of years. When Mexico severed its ties with Spain in 1822, Los Angeles became an important Mexican colony. Mexican rule, however, did not last long. In 1846, the United States waged war on Mexico in what President James Polk referred to as "Manifest Destiny."
It was a war that even a young Abraham Lincoln believed to be unjust because the United States was so much stronger than Mexico. Lincoln declined to serve in an army that waged such an unfair military operation. And Ralph Waldo Emerson refused to pay any taxes to support the war and proudly went to jail in protest. But in two short years, Mexico surrendered when American troops had invaded as far as its capital.
To secure peace, Mexico agreed to the United States' demand for half its territory including California, Nevada, Texas, Utah, most of Arizona and sections of Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado. In exchange, the United States paid Mexico fifteen million dollars. The boundary between the two countries migrated south one more time in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase when Mexico's cash-strapped leader, President Antonio L?pez de Santa Ana, sold southern Arizona and the rest of New Mexico to the United States for ten million dollars.
The Mexicans who stayed in Los Angeles after annexation, or who came later, resided south of First Street and around the Plaza that had been the center of local government and commerce under Mexican rule. By 1927, with electric street lights, a bustling business center, and a new City Hall rising up, Los Angeles stood at the edge of a new era of modern commerce and economic power.
It was one of the last hot mornings of September so Beto put on his cool cotton khakis and crisp white shirt before starting the short walk to Saint Vibiana's Church. As he left his apartment, Beto immediately absorbed the noise, color and smells of downtown Los Angeles. He felt more alive because of it. On Sundays, the sidewalks teemed with people dressed in their best outfits. Food vendors sold anything from delicious helados to steaming corn-on-the-cob with large dollops of melted but still thick cream. The Big Red Cars caused the most commotion with their metal wheels squealing on the metal tracks and the black Model Ts crowded what was left of the streets. The vibrant smells of the food and the exhaust and the morning?s breeze swirled together creating an invisible and dynamic spirit of the city.
Without stopping, he looked at himself in a freshly washed store window and confidently appreciated his looks. Beto?s hair shone a brilliant black; dark eyebrows and mustache accented his angular glistening face. He breathed deeply and felt better than yesterday. He?d had a bit of a fever the night before and suffered from a horrible dream. In the dream, he is about six or seven years old and lying in a big room with rows and rows of beds. All of the other boys sleep soundly but not Beto. He can hear the others breathing heavily with sleep. Beto smells something, hot and unpleasant. And he hears heavy sounds of breathing above him. He opens his eyes and sees a large, black dog standing near him and Beto quickly shuts his eyes hoping the dog will disappear. But it does not. In fact, the dog gets on Beto's chest and sits there, breathing and crushing Beto's lungs. It hurts but the dog stays and Beto cannot move or scream. It feels like hours but then the dog leaves as suddenly as it came making human-like footsteps on the hard, cold adobe floor. And Beto woke up with his chest still hurting. His bedsheets and pillowcase were soaked with perspiration so that their normally immaculate appearance was marred by a yellow tinge. Beto did not like this dream-he?d had it before-and he shook his head as he walked to church to shake the dream from his memory. He whistled to cheer himself up and to help the dream leave his head. He still felt a little feverish but better than last night.
Beto bounded up the church steps while athletically dodging the slower congregants the way a talented high school quarterback might do if the playing field were planted on this sacred ground. Beto stopped just within the large, wooden doors. His eyebrows jumped up and his nostrils flared. Beto smelled what he, at first, thought was perfume but, after about three or four seconds, recognized the sweet cinnamon smell of pan dulce mixed with something else, something certainly female and young.
Beto spun around and his shoes made a sharp squeak on the tiled floor. He looked down the steps toward the sidewalk and saw a pan dulce stand that he had not noticed ever before. The stand was a rickety affair with two large wooden wheels and two large wooden handles, like an oversized wheelbarrow, painted a garish green that is the style of such stands in Mexico. Jutting from the top of the stand was a glass case where various types of colorful and sugared pan dulce hung or sat piled on the bottom. A wad of wax paper was stuffed in a corner of the glass case and at the side hung a Hills Brothers tin, filled with coins, which was upside down so that the miniature, strolling Turk drank his coffee while standing on his turban. Several children fought for a place in front of the stand hoping to get the best piece of sweet bread that would make a very fine breakfast.
Behind the pan dulce cart stood a young woman who could be no older than eighteen. To Beto, she looked like any of the many "Virgins" who populate the large and small churches throughout Mexico. Though there was only one Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, Mexican villagers had a strange habit of creating their own Virgin with a special name and distinctive dress to adorn their respective churches. Most of these Virgins looked like an Indian maiden with long black hair parted in the middle and with dark, shiny skin. Some of the bigger cities made their Virgins look more Spanish with lighter skin and little noses. Because she stood no taller than five feet, the pan dulce woman was also no bigger than some of the Virgin statues. She wore the simple clothing of Mexican women including a shawl that hung almost to her little sandal shod feet. Her face was as implacable and perfect as any church Virgin.
Beto had never seen her before. Who was this Virgin of the pan dulce? Beto laughed to himself. "I'll bet there aren't pan dulce Virgins anywhere in Mexico. Only in the United States." He tried to discern her essence from her looks. Was she as good a person as she appeared? "No hay rosa sin espinas," his father used to say. There is not a rose without thorns.
Beto was all cat from this point on: he squinted in the morning sun and slowly, without a sound and in a graceful sideways movement, came down the church stairs and up to the front of the pan dulce stand. The sweet smells filled his nostrils and his heart beat strong within his chest.
"Good morning," he offered almost in fear. He spoke in Spanish as did most of the Mexicans in Los Angeles unless he had to communicate with the gringos.
"Good morning." Her voice was stronger and had more timbre than most young women. She gestured to the pan dulce.
"A concha would be good this morning."
Beto had an evil streak. Though a ?concha? was a sea shell-shaped pan dulce, it was also slang for a woman's private part. He regretted his play on words the second it escaped his lips.
"They're wonderful. Two for a nickel." She appeared to take no notice of the double entendre and Beto felt relieved.
In an effort to make up for his misstep, however, he gave her a dime and said: "I?ll take four and save something for tomorrow."
She held the dime in her hand and said nothing but looked at Beto.
"What's your name?" Beto ventured.
?I?m Humberto Isla Vel?sco. But people call me Beto.?
As he said this, he realized that his hands shook and he felt a little ill. This surprised him because he had been with many women and they were always a part of his life. Beto was not normally a "romantic" man. He also loved variety and enjoyed anything from a short but deep kiss from a beautiful and well-bred young woman to an hour with a sturdy, energetic and willing country girl. Beto tried to compose himself.
"Why aren't you in church?" he asked.
Mar?a looked down and turned red. "I have to work."
Feeling embarrassed for asking such a stupid question, Beto closed his eyes.
The pan dulce's delicious, sweet fragrance commingled with Mar?a's and enveloped his face. He felt warm and his head began to spin the way it did when he drank too much. Beto suddenly felt a sharp pain on his forehead and heard a loud crash. Before he could sense what had happened, Beto lay on the sidewalk surrounded by broken glass and pan dulce bounced and rolled about his head and blood dripped down the side of his face into his mouth. Beto heard a shriek and many voices calling his name before he lost consciousness.
This is an excerpt from the novella, "The Courtship of Mar?a Rivera Pe?a" (Silver Lake Publishing, 2000) which was recently re-issued in a newly-edited and expanded edition. It can be purchased at: http://www.silverlakepublishing.com/catalog/courtship.html. His novella will be the subject of the June 22 meeting of the Stanford Chicano/Latino Alumni Book Club (see Daniel's web page for details: http://www.danielolivas.com/news.html). All are invited.
Daniel A. Olivas:
Daniel is a Chicano writer. His first short story collection, "Assumption and Other Stories," will be published by Bilingual Press in July. His web page is: http://www.danielolivas.com. Please visit and say hola.