FROM BUCKEYE ROAD
I have spent a great deal of my life inside the United States but far outside of America. My first language was Spanish, my second language was Tagalog and my third was English. I spent the first years of my life in a tiny squatter village of tarpaper shacks and adobe hovels called Buckeye Road. It was a community of migrant workers outside of Phoenix, Arizona. In Buckeye Road were Papagos, Pimas, Chinese, Irish, Africans, Okies, the great grandchildren of slaves and even a busload of highly fashionable transvestites.
I lived in Buckeye Road with my grandparents, mis abuelitos -- my grandfather was Yaqui and my grandmother was Spanish -- in a small adobe house on the edge of the desert. Phoenix, the United States of America, was nothing more than a bright, neon glow on the far horizon. There was one television in Buckeye, and we never saw black, red or brown faces on the screen; we never heard our voices on the radio; America seemed so distant and unattainable. Still, America arrived every workday morning in the form of flatbed trucks to take us out to the fields to pick fruit and vegetables in the sweltering heat for someone else's dinner table.
One great morning when I was about five years old, a traveling salesman brought me a used set of encyclopedia for Christmas. I learned to read using those twelve volumes. I read from Aardvark to Zulu three times before I was nine years old. But most importantly, I looked through that window of printed words and caught a glimpse of my country for the first time. I found Wisconsin and Nebraska on the Atlas. I read about slavery and the Civil War. Still, I could find no place for me in America. Under "M" there was nothing about Mexican-Americans. Under "B" there was nothing about braceros.
When I was about ten years old my mother took me away from my abuelos and dragged me off to the Imperial Valley. I began a life of migratory stoop labor on the very outskirts of wonderfully picturesque towns like Brawley, Ripon and Manteca. My family became the pinos and Mexican braceros who traveled with me and cared for me. First homeless, wifeless men became mis tios, my uncles. We moved with the crops; castaways marooned on dry land. I saw the distant lights of Stockton from the window of a quonset hut in French Camp, and I saw the lights of lovely Lodi from a laborer's shack on the edge of a grapefield. I moved from town to town in the United States, but never in America: America was passing by on the highway in shining cars. America was watching me through those passing windows as I bent to shove cucumbers and squash into a basket. (cont...)