An American Halloween

Just another workday for the cholos of Isla Vista

By Mary Helen Ponce
Published on LatinoLA: October 28, 2002

An American Halloween

The crowds began arriving two days ago. Carloads of students from UC Berkeley, Santa Cruz, San Francisco State, and points north. According to news accounts, the 101 Freeway is backed up for miles. Everyone, it seems, is headed to Isla Vista, the student ghetto next to the UC Santa Barbara campus, and the Halloween celebrations held there that are legend. And although the police issued dire warnings, cordoned off streets, and require positive ID from those who claim to live in IV (as locals call it), no one seems overly concerned with obeying the rules.

Hey, is this Halloween, or what?

The festivities - or student bacchanals, as old fogies call them - are almost at fever pitch. Tonight is the night! On this night witches fly, dogs howl, and everyone has fun. From what I see, tonight vampires with store-bought incisors are in the majority, swayed perhaps by the recent appearance of Anne Rice at a local bookstore.

Ahead of me a tall mummy drags his foot a-la-Lon Chaney as he guzzles a beer. On his good arm a nubile harem girl puffs on a brownish cigarette that reeks of clove. As she sashays by, her thin pants billow to reveal long, tanned legs. Behind them, totally out of sync with this eclectic crowd, a huge orange pumpkin, like that found at grade-school carnivals, waddles by. Shades of PTA! Although Halloween is associated with kids, and at IV with college students, many in the crowd are adults out for a bit of fun. Some have even brought their kids; toddlers stare at the goings-on with unfeigned glee. An English professor decked out like a pirate prances by. When in class he spouts Keats with a vengeance. He looks just a bit ridiculous - and very drunk.

Across the way, near the co-op where I buy wheat germ, two cholos (as they call themselves), in stained workclothes and dirt-encrusted boots, grin at the pretty girls cavorting about. They look awkward - and just a little bit uncomfortable. Unlike those perusing an education the guys are Mexican fieldhands or, as the newspapers call them: illegals. They till the orange groves in Ventura, pick melons, oranges and avacados. As do students on a tight budget, the men live in Isla Vista, where the rent is muy cheap. Five to a room, they occupy the run-down apartments no one else wants.

The place is jumpin!

Next to a pizzeria, I spot Pedro, a young man who sings in the Spanish choir at St. Rafaels in Goleta, where most raza attends. He waves, then walks over, a coke in his hand. "Where is your costume? I ask. He gives me a blank stare, then shuffles his feet. Across the way his buddies gawk at a pretty brunette dressed as a cheer-leader; her skirt barely skims her nalgas. As she prances by, she shakes her huge pompoms.

Pedro is seventeen; he shares a tiny apartment with three others. He and his brother have crossed the border five times, twice at Tijuana. Pedro works the fields; weekends he sings at weddings. His friend Rojelio, a lanky twenty-year old, feels lucky to bus tables at a smart downtown restaurant where he works 12 hour shifts for minimum wage - and one meal. Antonio, called Oso, is a barrel-chested auto mechanic apprenticed to un gringo in nearby Goleta. On payday they hang out at Joe's Cantina where drinks are cheap and the music loud.

The cholos keep to themselves. Whether out of shyness, or in fear of the INS -- which except at harvest time does a brisk business in these parts -- is not clear. They are the same age as the Latino students I teach at UCSB, and except for the bad teeth, slumped shoulders, and stained jeans, easily pass for estudiantes. Unlike my more militant students who question authority at every turn, cholos fear confrontation; they steer clear of the cops now attempting to break up a fight.

So, are you enjoying Halloween? I ask Pedro?. He laughs aloud. Que quiere decir hallo-weenie? Can Halloween -- and trick-or-treat -- make sense to young
men who will never attend a university? Or explain why a drunk professor is
running around in a clown outfit?

Halloween and Isla Vista go together like papas con chorizo. This is where we celebrate what evolved from a Gaelic festival into an American holiday where anything goes. But for newly arrived immigrants -- wannabee Americans --
who clean our offices, keep the coffee coming, wash our cars, and harvest the salad greens we Californians dote on, Halloween is just another work day.

Which is why, when I look back, Pedro and his friends are gone

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