I met Al Lopez only once after high school—in jail.
Growing up in Orange, California in the 1950s, I saw Mexican kids walking to Holy Family Catholic School, and wondered why they wore blue and white uniforms. I knew that other, poorer Mexican kids went to Kilefer Elementary—“the Mexican school,” over by the Orange Packing House.
When I entered Orange Intermediate (middle school), the playground was a vast, dusty tarmac that stretched from the chain link fence along Sycamore Ave. to the bicycle stands and woodshop near Olive Street on the south side. To the west lay a dirty lot that served for track and field practice. I remember running the track with burning lungs, gulping in dust and smog.
On the playground, Anglos and Mexicans mostly clumped in separate groups. I knew the Mexicans were Catholics because they had religious medals hanging on their silver neck chains. A few of these were my friends, and I would notice that their homes where more humble than mine. It never occurred to me to ask if they were documented, but I heard some people calling them “wetbacks” (referring to swimming across the Rio Grande).
This was the era of the butch cut and flattop, but the Mexicans’ greased jet-black hair fell down to their collars, their baggy pants hanging in loose folds over black shoes. The politically-correct word “Chicano” hadn’t come along yet, so behind their backs, we called them Pachucos (as in El Pachuco tuxedos), Chongos (referring to a male wearing a hair bun), Cholos (a man of Mexican descent), Chingos [censored], or just Mexicans. I learned a few Spanish words (hombre, grande), and several bastardized words—savvy (from sabe; to know), calaboose (from calabozo; jail), sankero (from zanjero; irrigation ditch worker), and a few dirty words —ca**jo, hijo de la ch**ada, and the exquisite p**ejo (referring to the more private parts of a bull cow). At the time, though, I didn’t know what these meant.
Students weren’t supposed to leave the playground during the school day, but along Sycamore Street stood a tiny Mexican take-out that sold tamales, access by a breach in the school’s chain link fence. Both Anglos and Mexicans would sneak across to buy a couple of tamales for lunch. I can still taste the pork in the moist cornmeal.
And then there was Al Lopez. Al, who came to our school in the middle of the year, a slightly-built kid who talked only occasionally, talked in broken English. Sometimes in class, Mr. Hardesty would playfully throw an eraser at him. One day when Al was absent, Mr. Hardesty told us, “Al has an IQ of about 70.” I guess he was trying to solicit our compassion. Once I sarcastically called Al a “brain.” He almost hit me. He and I competed for the forward position on the basketball team. I shot the ball better, but he had a ferocious dribble, and could penetrate the defense. I won the position, but later he replaced me.
The summer after I graduated, I met Al—in jail. Orange Evangelical Free Church had organized a “jail team,” and we were singing and speaking to a group of faceless men. One of them called me over and said, “Hey! Al here knows you.” It was Al Lopez! He explained he was jailed for driving without a license. Today, I lament I didn’t pay the $30 to bail him out. I guess my pride hindered me—against all available evidence, I thought I was better than other people, and was silently critical of him for being in jail.
Recently I returned to California for our 50th high school reunion. As I sat down next to my friend César, I looked around for Al so I could apologize for how I treated him.
“Oh. He died several years ago.”
At that moment I realized I’d lost my chance with Al Lopez, only one of thousands of recently-arrived Mexican kids who, in the 1950s, were struggling to make their way in the Anglo world of Southern California.