I had several older friends from other schools who did have permits and even driver’s licenses. I went to rock concerts with them or dancing at The Other Side and Rodney’s English Disco (at the tail end of its popularity), and later at the Sugar Shack and Gino’s. Those discos played glitter rock and alternative music like the soundtrack from the stage play, The Rocky Horror Show, which had been a big hit at the Roxy Theater on the Sunset Strip. I hadn’t seen the play, but my friend Paul had, and he knew all the dialogue by heart. He quickly cast me as Columbia and taught me my parts. He, of course, cast himself as Dr. Frank N. Furter. It wasn’t unusual to see the dance floor jammed with people doing the Time Warp. Many of my friends were in various stages of gayness; some were openly gay, some were closeted, still others — like me — were aware of bisexual feelings but in the exploratory phase.
I had my first French kiss on the dance floor of the Sugar Shack. She was a nice girl who was trying to make another girl jealous, and I was very happy to help out and discover what a French kiss felt like. There were no fireworks with her, but it was fun.
My annual yearbook dedications from this time reveal what my peers and classmates thought of me:
“To a freaky girl…”
“The weirdest girl I know…”
“A crazy girl I know…”
“You are a freaky, weird and crazy girl.”
I don’t know what they were talking about, because I don’t think I was that strange. The people who I hung out with after school and on weekends didn’t think of me as a crazy girl, they didn’t think I was strange; they also enjoyed dressing up, seeing bands, dancing, drinking, staying up late and feeling completely open to anything the world had to offer.
At the end of the summer of 1975, The Rocky Horror Picture Show pre- miered in West L.A. A bunch of my glittery friends and I dressed up in costume and carpooled to the United Artists Theater in Westwood for the opening. We waited outside the theater for hours, entertaining ourselves by reciting the play, singing the songs and making new friends. The movie was a smash hit. Half the audience had already seen the play or knew about it from someone who had. We sang along with the music, talked back to the screen and went back again and again.
L.A. had grown too small for us. We belonged in Transsexual, Transylvania.
My half sister Yolanda was 10 years old when I was born, so I literally and figuratively looked up to her. I remember her teaching me how to do the Twist. When my mom wasn’t home, I could always count on Yolanda to boss me around. I didn’t mind. She didn’t yell like my father was prone to do, and she didn’t talk to me like I was simple, which my mother tended to do. My sister always took the time to explain things to me, at times seeming wiser than either of my parents.
In my eyes, Yolanda was the most beautiful girl in the world (not counting Sarita Montiel, who I considered the most beautiful woman in the world). When I was a little older and we moved to the Ditman house, my dad and I would watch beauty pageants together on TV. We’d take a pencil and paper and score the contestants. We’d see who could pick the most winners after each elimination round. Once, my sister walked into the living room while we were doing this, and I remember looking at her and thinking she could beat them all. After that, I hounded her for weeks, begging her to enter a beauty pageant. I could imagine my sister on TV, having a crown placed on her head and having a big bouquet of roses handed to her. She’d smile at us through the television screen and I would be jumping on the couch with joy! I was sure she’d be a winner, but my sister dismissed my pleas with a flattered giggle, and eventually I gave up.
My sister was the only other person besides my mother and I to experience my father’s rage on an ongoing basis, and when I think about it now, it must have been harder for her to bear than it was for me, because he wasn’t even her natural father. He was just some random ogre who beat up her mom. My sister and father rarely spoke to each other except in the most cursory manner. Yolanda had lost her real father to cancer at a young age. It would have been nice if my dad could have given her a father’s love, but I don’t think she wanted it from him. I suspect that Yolanda deliberately tried to make herself invisible when my dad was around. Whenever possible, my sister stayed out of the house.
When we moved to Ditman Avenue, my sister Yolanda entered Stevenson Junior High School and met Angel Lujan, with whom she would eventually get married and spend the rest of her life. Yolanda spent most of her time after school at Angel’s house. When she and Angel did come to our house, they could usually be found making out in the narrow space between the neighboring apartment buildings. Being a typical little sister, I’d sometimes spy on them and throw rocks at them, and Yolanda would toss back empty threats at me. It seemed like Yolanda had managed to find a little piece of happiness and a way to save herself from the ugliness that thrived in our home. I don’t blame her for moving away from home at the first opportunity.
Yolanda died of cancer a few years ago. Being at my big sister’s side during the last few weeks as she struggled to fight off the inevitable was heartbreaking, because she was in excruciating pain. The type of cancer she had was incurable, and the doctors sent her home to live out her final days with her family. All we could do was try to dull her pain with morphine, but on the day she was sent home from the hospital, the nurse practitioner was delayed in getting to her house, and Yolanda began to moan for help as the drugs wore off. Panicked, Angel and I tried to figure out how to ease her suffering. I thought seriously of calling a friend who might have access to heroin. Finally, the drugs arrived and Angel, unable to see clearly through his grief, asked me to administer the painkiller into her mouth. “You can’t give her too much,” he said to me, but he needn’t have, since we were both thinking the same thing. Yolanda was in so much pain by then that all I could think to do was to help her by ending it. Every time she awoke and cried out in pain, I gave her more morphine to ease her suffering. In the end, I honestly think I may have taken my sister’s life by overdosing her on painkillers.
I dedicate this version of Angel Baby to my beloved older sister, Yolanda. This song will always remind me of you, sis.
A repost of a blog entry I wrote in 2005, when I was teaching at Hoover Street Elementary. It still seems timely.
Out of My Comfort Zone
Yesterday, something unusual happened at my school as the kids were lining up in the yard after lunch. Several of the students were staring in awe at the sky. I followed their eyes up to see an immense B2 bomber (I had my kids Google it afterwards) flying silently, very low over our heads, looking like a giant bat. Without provocation, several of the kids began chanting “U.S.A! U.S.A.! U.S.A!” We went in to the classroom and as the kids researched the plane they had just seen, they realized that it was a bomber and began asking me why a bomber would be flying over the school. “We’re not at war,” they reasoned. I told them that we were in fact at war, but there seemed to be the feeling that the war in Iraq was a distant reality and incongruous with seeing a weapon of mass destruction flying overhead. It made me sad to think that just a few years from now, these little children will be the soldiers who get sent to war.
It brought to mind my own experience with the reality of war, a subject I briefly touched upon in one of my old blogs, when I wrote about spending time abroad and how it helped open my eyes to the way our government manipulates public opinion. At the time (the early 1980’s), it was shocking for me to learn that the U.S. government was in the business of smuggling drugs in order to fund and illegally conduct not only war, but the worst kind of human rights abuses. This was all done in the name of protecting democracy from the threat of a tiny, economically impoverished nation that dared to embrace communism. Much has changed since that time, for better or worse, and I can only hope that most people nowadays are more or less aware that public opinion is under constant manipulation by those with access to mass media.
Anti U.S. imperialism mural in Leon, Nicaragua. The figure is a silhouette of Augusto Sandino , who is often villified in U.S. history books but was a national hero to the Nicaraguan working class, stomping Uncle Sam with his boot.
I’ve said that my time in Central America opened my eyes to the way our government operates, but it also opened my eyes in other, more profound ways. Twenty years ago, I traveled to Nicaragua on a work-study program for school, ostensibly to observe educational methods with a group of U.S. teachers. This was at the height of the Reagan administration, when the U.S. was waging a covert war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.
I went down to work at a school in Esteli, which is a village in the northern part of Nicaragua. There was still sporadic fighting going on, since we were near to the border of Honduras. We would be walking down a road and hear machine gun fire from a block or two away and we would immediately have to duck down and find a place to hide. Part of working at the school was the agreement that we were there to learn, but in exchange we would assist with the development of the community.
I quickly found that nothing in my relatively comfortable upbringing in the United States prepared me for the very real and difficult task of daily life in a third world country that was trapped in a state of war.
En Nicaragua, Jesus carga un fusil.
"In Nicaragua, Jesus carries a rifle."
Children of Esteli.
The family I lived with, in front of the house I stayed in, Esteli, Nicaragua.
As poor as these people were and despite the difficulty of their circumstances, I found in their spirit a warmth and generosity that I’ve rarely experienced. I learned by watching their daily examples that what was most important in life was not wealth or material possessions, but a sense of purpose and resourcefulness. Being in Nicaragua at that time also allowed me to witness firsthand some of the effects of war in a way that was not sanitized for my consumption. In the end, I’m certain that the people of Esteli gave much more to me than I could possibly give to them.
All of this came to my mind yesterday afternoon as I watched my students’ faces register the excitement of seeing a bomber fly overhead, pride in the might of U.S. military power, and finally, confusion over what it means to be a nation at war.
Late in the summer of 1970, just as my summer vacation was coming to an end, the Chicano Moratorium organized a huge march through the streets of East L.A. to protest the war in Vietnam, the many Chicano soldiers who were being drafted and sent overseas to fight it and the higher than average mortality rate among Chicano soldiers.
Chicano Moratorium March, August 29, 1970. Image courtesy of Dept of Special Collections/UCLA Library
My father never liked the term “Chicano” because he believed the word was derived from a derogatory term used when he was young and working as a bracero and he did not usually get involved in political demonstrations. This time, he surprised us by volunteering to take us to the march. We parked our car near the 7 (now the 710) Freeway, just a couple of blocks away from Whittier Boulevard, where the march was already underway. We walked up the street and were able to find a spot where my sister and I could see. I think we were expecting a parade but there were just a lot of everyday looking people: mothers, fathers, kids and students with signs, crosses (to symbolize the fallen soldiers) and fists pumping in the air, some chanting “Chicano!” while the onlookers would yell back “Power!” I remember being most impressed by the Brown Berets and being totally dazzled by their coolness.
After a while, my sister and I begged to join the march but my father was looking uneasy. The crowd was swelling and we found ourselves being pushed back. My father, sensing something was wrong, pulled us back even further. To my surprise, we saw police cars parked along the side streets. Not ten minutes had passed from when he’d forbidden our participation than we saw a young man throw a beer bottle towards the marchers, then quickly run and disappear into the crowd. There was no one following him but we could see a wave of people push back as he shoved his way through the crowd. I couldn’t see where the bottle landed, but I did see the results. Suddenly, people were shoving and yelling. More projectiles flew through the air; one hit the roof of one of the police cars. Panic broke out as the crowd pushed in all directions, trying to get away from the situation. And then, just as suddenly as it had started, it ended as the attackers fled on foot through the crowded sidewalks. A few cool heads tried to calm people down and reorganize the marchers, but my father rushed us back to our car and drove away. As I watched out the car window, I could see the policemen on their radios calling for backup and getting out of their own cars. I thought they might have been waiting until things stopped flying through the air before stepping in, but they didn’t seem to be too concerned with catching the people who threw the bottles. I could see parents holding their children’s hands and trying to stand their ground as we turned the corner and sped away from the danger.
At home, we watched the news on TV and we heard that a riot had broken out when a bottle had been thrown at a police officer. From my perspective, it had been a minor altercation and the police had made no attempt to catch the individuals who had been throwing bottles in the first place. A reporter named Ruben Salazar who was favorably disposed towards the Chicano movement and had been an outspoken critic of police brutality had been shot and killed by a deputy sheriff. The riot squad had been called in to clear out the demonstrators, using tear gas and batons, resulting in dozens of injuries and three deaths. I shuddered. remembering the worried faces of parents as they clutched the hands of their kids. I couldn’t believe that what had started as a peaceful march protesting a war halfway around the world had turned out to be so ugly.
I will never forget that day, August 29, 1970, for two reasons: one was that I had never before realized that I was part of a minority group and I felt good about being part of something as powerful as the Chicano Movement; the other was that this group had enemies who weren’t afraid to throw bottles at us or shoot us. Throughout my early childhood, policemen had been the knights in shining armor who had rescued my mother from my father’s vicious attacks. In my eyes, they had always lived up to their motto, “To Protect and Serve.” That day, I saw my knights like the other people in my life: their capacity for good was matched by their capacity for evil. It seemed that diametrically opposed impulses had to exist for the world to make sense. My own world was coalescing into a ball of love and hate, trust and treachery.
Statement from Pfc Bradley Manning issued 8/21/2013
"The decisions that I made in 2010 were made out of the concern for my country and the world that we live in. Since the tragic events of 9/11, our country has been at war. We have been at war with an enemy that chooses not to meet us on a traditional battlefield. Due to this fact, we’ve had to alter our methods of combatting the risk posed to us and our way of life.
I initially agreed with these methods and chose to volunteer to help defend our country. It was not until I was in Iraq and reading secret military reports on a daily basis that I started to question the morality of what we were doing. It was at this time that I realized that in our efforts to meet the risk posed to us by the enemy, we had forgotten our humanity. We consciously elected to devalue life both in Iraq and Afghanistan. When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians. Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.
In our zeal to kill the enemy, we internally debated the definition of torture. We held individuals at Guantanamo for years without due process. We inexplicably turned a blind eye to torture and executions by the Iraqi government. And we stomached countless other acts in the name of our war on terror.
Patriotism is often the cry extolled when morally questionable acts are advocated by those in power. When these cries of patriotism meet any logically-based dissension, it is usually an American soldier that is given the order to carry out some ill-conceived mission.
Our nation has had similar dark moments for the virtues of democracy—the Trail of Tears, the Dred Scott decision, McCarthyism and the Japanese-American internment camps—to mention a few. I am confident that many of the actions since 9/11 will one day be viewed in a similar light.
As the late Howard Zinn once said, there is not a flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.
I understand that my actions violated the law. I regret that my actions hurt anyone or harmed the United States. It was never my intent to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people. When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and my sense of duty to others.
If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my request knowing that some time you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have a country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.”
Making the Cut, an original “episode” from my blog, The True Life Adventures of Violence Girl, which eventually became Violence Girl, From East LA Rage to Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story. This version is how the story first appeared on 2/05/09.
The Bags started playing on a regular basis again. My performances seemed to be getting more aggressive around this time. Fights would break out in the audience or onstage. Our shows seemed to be a catalyst for fucked up, angry teens who just needed a little encouragement to vent. Our music at this time was loud, belligerent and frenetic - the perfect soundtrack for the crowds that attended our shows. These audiences were frequently out of control, whipped up into a frenzy by the music and my exhortations to release the inner beast.
The Bags live in 1978, photographer unknown.
At the apartment, the chaos and lack of privacy were getting to me. Nickey came by to attempt a reconciliation with me but I was not in a conciliatory mood and I began hurling accusations at him. In the heat of an argument, I grabbed a belt and whacked him across the face with the buckle side of it. An ugly red welt immediately began to bloom. He looked at me as if he’d never seen me before.
"Now we’re even…" Nickey said, walking away.
I would never be able to look at Nickey again without feeling ashamed of myself. For days afterward, I kept replaying the scene in my mind. He had done nothing but try to apologize for losing his temper and I had unleashed a furious blow against him. I didn’t understand it at the time but now I can see that I was turning into my father - a monster. The idea that I had any control over my rage was just an illusion; my rage was consuming me. Instead of crying, something inside of me took over and shut me down. I started functioning on autopilot. I felt numb, but numb was better than the feeling I got when I saw what a mess I’d become. I walked around like a zombie, feeling dead inside. I didn’t interpret what I was feeling as depression, it felt more like emptiness and a desperate longing for understanding.
Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, I had a brief moment of solitude. As I was sitting there, I noticed a razor blade laying next to a freshly sharpened eyebrow pencil. I was inexplicably drawn to it and I picked it up. Seeing the ugly black smudges on the blade, I wiped it clean on my shirt and started to make a tiny incision on my inner arm. The cut was only about an inch long and barely broke the surface. A fine, red line of blood came stinging to the surface. It stung, it was as if my mind and body woke up from a deep slumber and yelled “Hey, what the hell are you doing?” I set down the blade and felt myself grow happier as the numbness temporarily lifted. It meant two things:
1. I was not already dead (evidenced by the fact that I could still feel pain)
2. I had no desire to kill myself (I only cut deep enough to cause pain, not serious injury)
Over the next few days, cutting myself with a variety of sharp tools seemed like a medicinal act of bloodletting. I stayed away from razorblades after that first cut for fear of cutting too deep. When the numbness became unbearable, when I felt like I wasn’t part of the human race, I’d cut. Before long, it became necessary to wear long sleeves to conceal my new addiction.
One night, Craig Lee caught me standing outside alone. He walked up to me and grabbed my arm. Gently, he pulled up my sweater sleeve and gave me a somber paternal look.
"Why do you do this, Gordita? Are you trying to kill yourself?"
"No… you don’t understand," I said.
"This isn’t like you…" he muttered, shaking his head from side to side. "Your arm looks like hamburger."
I quickly pulled my sleeve down. I felt embarrassed and ashamed, the abrasions from scraping back and forth with a brooch backing had left a scab pattern that crisscrossed my forearm. If he thought I was trying to kill myself, he must think this was my cry for help. But it wasn’t a cry for help; the thought of suicide stank of cowardice to me, yet I had no way of explaining my behavior.
"I just need to feel something, Craig…" I said, hoping he would understand but he didn’t.
"You shouldn’t drink so much. Why don’t you move back home?" His response stunned me. So there it was. He didn’t think I was grown up enough to make it on my own. Craig was like an older brother to me. I wanted to prove myself to him and now he thought I was a wuss who was trying to kill herself with tiny razor blade incisions and abrasions from safety pins and shards of glass. He thought I should run home to mom and dad.
"Fuck off!" I told him. He gave me a sad, wounded look and walked away.
I continued to cut for months after my conversation with Craig but now the relief I derived from cutting was tainted with guilt, shame and confusion.
I got a new pair of frilly socks Frilly socks, frilly socks, I got a new pair of frilly socks Beautifying me Oh I’m so beautiful, indeed A true mulatta Goddess A modern Zulu Queen On the cover of Vanidades
I got a new Frederick’s push-up bra Push-up bra, push-up bra I got a new Frederick’s push-up bra Beautifying me Oh I’m so beautiful indeed A true mestiza Goddess A modern Aztec Queen On the cover of Vanidades
(Machaca Khan sings bridge) Oh Vanidades! La Biblia de las mujeres Sagrada eres, sagrada eres You’re the sacred bible for us girls
(Guadalupe sings) I got a new can of Aquanet, Aquanet, Aquanet I got a new can of Aquanet Beautifying me Oh I’m so beautiful indeed A Salvadoran Goddess A modern Mayan Queen On the cover of Vanidades
Graciela Grejalva aka Vaginal Davis Sadgirl aka Alice Bag Machaca Khan aka Christina Shallcross Guadalupe aka Fertile Latoya Jackson