Monday, July 21, 2014

Desolation Road: Betsy and Bella

Betsy and Bella
By Armando Ortiz
“Betsy, it’s time to say your prayers and go to sleep,” said Bella, who’d been in the kitchen washing a stack of dirty dishes that had piled up the last few days. Betsy was in the living room reading, directly under a light that emanated from the ceiling. She was engrossed with a Curious George book. Bella walked towards her, wiping her hands with a towel. Her smooth tanned arms shone under the light. Their niche was directly across the light. Betsy was always under the watchful eye of her mom and the Virgin of Guadalupe. They knelt before her and prayed. The image of St Christopher was on the foreground of the Virgin Mary, to the right. Another little statuette was on the left side, that of St Jude. In between these was a candle, a little flower vase and a plaster cast image of Jesus Christ. The Virgin’s eyes always caught Betsy’s attention, since it seemed to be looking down at her, with ancient Buddha eyes, had an aura of love and serenity. They always followed the routine right before going to sleep. Her mom mostly did the talking. She begged the Virgensita, the beloved virgin, for patience and strength, thanked her for life and having food that day. Following this brief ceremony Bella would tuck Betsy in her own small Hello Kitty bed and kiss her goodnight.
            She was always in prayer, a relentless woman of prayer, and earnestly felt that the Virgin was taking care of them. The same part of the couch where her daughter had been studying was now being used by her. Now it was Bella that was directly across from the image of the Lady of Mercy. Now it was her turn to be under those watchful eyes and commence the two hour study session. She was an autodidact, but simply gave thanks to the heavens above and always brought flowers she’d cut on the way back home from work; yellow daisies, red roses and occasionally magenta baby bottle scrubbers. Bella would stay up a few hours past bed time, studying and reviewing for the Dental Assistant course that she was taking at the local vocational school.
            Bella worked as a housekeeper at one of the old hotels in downtown Los Angeles. She’d been given the job after a neighbor who’d worked there for 15 years had finally found a man and married. The newlywed couple decided to head north and start a new life somewhere in Salem, Oregon. Bella gave thanks to the Virgin for the job, and used some of the money from that first pay check to buy a bouquet of roses, and went to the church she attended and placed them on the altar.
            Life was certainly not easy, especially housekeeping. She had to clean thirteen rooms in eight hours. She had some help, but it was always frowned upon to call for assistance. Towards the end of the day her back ached from all the bending, leaning and pulling.. As soon as she clocked out, the bus would take her back home, where she would pick up her daughter from the next door neighbor, who watched over Betsy for two hours after school. The pain and tiredness was relentless, but she always thanked people and thanked the image that watched over them. Betsy would have her homework done by the time she was picked up, but she knew that her mom expected nothing but reading and writing at the house. Though it was routine, she found it easy to write in her diary and write on what she’d done that day or write down her dreams and the things that she wanted. She knew that her mom also had a diary, because sometimes her mom would sit on the kitchenette table and write down her own thoughts, her own hopes in a leather bound diary that she’d picked up while passing through Mexico.
Her family wasn’t particularly religious, occasionally going to Sunday mass to pray and every so often go to confession. Nevertheless, for Bella, her trip through Mexico made her a believer. Her hazel eyes had seen people walking on their knees, and crawling towards sanctuaries where the Virgin was housed. Every house that gave shelter and a plate of food had a little sanctuary that honored the Mother of Jesus. The people she crossed paths with gave her a deep impression, helping her along and showing extreme generosity in opening their homes. A sense of spiritual debt to them and to the image of the Eternal Grandmother would weigh on her for a very long time.
When Betsy thought about her mom, she imagined her writing notes to people, a habit that had been acquired by her as well. She’d sneak notes for her teacher to read after lunch, give friends notes of friendship or make drawings, like two kids playing handball. The person who got the onslaught of notes wasn’t her mom though; instead it was the neighbor Margarita, whose refrigerator was riddled with notes that Bella had given her making it look like a multi-colored bird that’d lived ages ago.
            When they weren’t studying they’d be praying, constantly petitioning the Virgin for grace. If it was not thanking something and looking up to heaven, Betsy found that her mom, practically thanked all kinds of people, all the time. Margarita, the neighbor that watched over her, the vato that stood outside the building all day with his hands in his pocket, shaking hands with strangers all day, and the lady that sold tamales in the morning. As if the powers that be had set everything up so that she would be grateful for her lot in life. In the weekends they went to a vocational school for four hours. Betsy would take her journal or a coloring book and get lost in her imagination. Her mom on the other hand, sat, took notes, turned in assignments, and asked the instructor a multitude of questions. Mr. Ofoma knew she was a single mother working to get bye, so he’d given her permission to have her daughter in the class. Betsy just sat there working on binders that contained her drawings. At times she’d just sit there and listen to Mr. Ofoma’s lecture. He, along with the other instructors saw that Bella was different. She had gumption. She had the heart and commitment of a marathon athlete. She wouldn’t stop, instead just kept going. At bed time Bella would think of her parents back home. She wondered how they were doing. She’d left her home at sixteen and had taken the trip north a few years back. They would receive money from her at least once every two months.
Her brother, Santos, had recently arrived. He’d taken the train over here and spent a few months wandering around to get to the US. She found it odd that along the way he’d been stranded by several coyotes. Usually a coyote, a human trafficker, committed himself to taking the person the whole trip till they reached a destination where a known business associate would complete the adventure for them. His journey had been different though, because after he managed to get to Guadalajara, he apparently got stranded, and turned up in Mexico DF a few months later. All along he’d call his loving sister and beg for money. Bella didn’t have much, but would figure things out, like find a cleaning gig in West Los Angeles or help clean the Laundromat that was two blocks away from her house on 3rd street. Every ounce of sweat that came out of that 5 foot figure was worth more than gold to her, since it was family that was being helped.
For Santos, it seemed that Bella had made it in the U.S., since every time he found himself in a bind he’d just dial the numbers and in a few days money filled both pockets. Santos was escaping Honduras. His parents thought he’d moved out and had been working at a tobacco company, which he had for a while, but he’d really started to gamble, drink and hang out with the wrong crowd. Circumstances made it necessary for him to relocate somewhere far, as soon as possible, hence his abrupt decision to head north. It seemed that kind eyes were looking after him from above.  
            When Santos arrived in LA he was sent to MacArthur Park to get his papers in order. Any person who had recently crossed the border and need a fake identification card or green card went to the park to get them- a bazar of illegal activities. He’d been walking north along Alvarado Blvd. when suddenly he saw his elementary school friend, Jose, who was standing by the corner of the Pharmacia Del Pueblo. He looked different, but his facial features were distinguishable. He wasn’t wearing shorts or was barefoot. Instead Nike Cortez protected those running feet, and for some reason his hair was slicked back, like a cow lick. His brown slacks were ironed clean as if a black pin stripe ran along the front and back of his legs.
“Jose, is that you? It’s me Santos from La Colonia Diego Garcia. We used to play ball.” Jose at first gave him a dirty look, which turned into astonishment, which then transformed into familiarity.
“Santos, wassup foo, wachu doin around here?”
“You know, work,” replied Santos.
 Occasionally going to buy toiletries at El Piojito made Betsy familiar with the area, but she never really stuck around the area since she was too busy with work. She had given Santos a small map that she drew on a piece of paper. He knew he was near. Only a few more blocks to go before reaching the place his sister said reliable green cards were sold. He showed the sketch to Jose telling him he was sent to that location. Jose looked at the paper and spat on the ground and his face had suddenly became more wrinkled and his cold stare returned.
“Who the fuck sent you there, ese?,” inquired Jose, with a hard nod to the skies while keeping eye contact.
“My sister said that’s where she got her papers,” replied Santos.
 “Well your sister is wrong ese. No seas bayunco, si tienes pedo ponte listo cabron” Jose sounded angry.
Calmado, calmado,” said Santos slightly raising his arms and showing Jose his palms. “Mira loco, I just got here and all I am trying to do is get my papers to get a job. If you can help me with that then I’ll be grateful.”
“How much you got?,” he was asked.
 “Pues, this is what my sister gave me. She said I could get a mica,” he replied.
 “Aver,” there was a moment of pause before his voice broke through the sound of passing cars, “esos cabrones te estan robaaando. I sell papers much cheaper than that, vente conmigo,” he swung his arm forward signaling Santos to follow him. Like a blind man following another blind man, he followed.
            Santos returned home in the evening and was unusually chatty, he kept talking about all sorts of things. Bella already had dinner cooked for the three of them. It had been a long time since he’d had yucca frita with chicharon, fried cassava with fried pork, a common staple back in many Central American countries, and this for him was a reminder that now he was with family. He ate his dinner and kept talking about his adventure earlier that day. Bella ate her food and listened to everything he was sharing. She found it odd that he just kept talking and talking about how good the food was, but only once mentioned getting his papers.
Y la mica?,”she finally interjected.
He paused for a moment and pulled out his green card. He was no longer Santos, instead he was Arnoldo Toledo.

            Every morning everyone seemed to wake up after Bella took a shower, soon afterward Betsy would go into the shower, where mom would scrub her down. Then it was Santos, who always woke up last. He seemed to relish the extra hour from when Bella awoke. He knew he’d have to cook his own breakfast. He’d been in LA two weeks and had yet to find a job. He’d tell Bella that he was going out and meeting with old friends who worked in factories, hotels and other odd places. Once he was outside, he’d just disappear and merge with the crowds of people and the mid-day traffic, everything being flooded by that bright Southern California light, and come back home late in the evenings.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hummingbird: No. 4

Hummingbirds: No. 4
By Armando Ortiz
Feathers of a million dead hummingbirds,
Cover the body of the young soldier,
Who dies for honor and glory.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


By Armando Ortiz

I'm a refuge-
Here without permission.
Paperless wanderer
On a journey to peace-
A Mormon pilgrim
Searching for that land of plenty.

This peregrine existence
Pushes me to take drastic measures.
So I paraphrase freedom as arduous wage labor,
Becoming a modern slave without shackles,
Building those vacation castles
And cozy winter palaces.

Laws make us retreat into the underground pageant,
Where tweaked freaks walk the streets and blood feuds exist.
Into a panopticon of violence and filthy pleasure seekers.
We even patrol the perimeters of your holy grounds,
And are pushed away when we play in front of your gates.

We are weather beaten and dark like the earth,
And welcomed with chants of, “go home, wetback.”
You buy off politicians that turn our healthcare system into a place for penitence,
And our forms of government are brought to its knees by your weapons,
Your military aid and your democracy.

They Root us out of coastal villages and mountain towns,
Pushing us away with Mack trucks that replace the swings of our youth
With vacation villas and wilderness retreats,
And sit back on their leather recliner
Sipping gourmet coffee from our highlands,
Watching their banana republic exports fly to the sky.
And we are forced to carve out our space in the bottoms. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dropped: Sketch

By Armando Ortiz
            It was a new truck. White or yellow, I can’t remember, but it was dropped. No more than a foot above the ground. No music was bumping when it pulled up. But they pulled out some things that pumped hard and fast and made things hot. They were unknowns, but most likely were thugs fighting for turf or simply rivals taking revenge.
            We were playing with an inflatable beach ball. It was multi-colored; red, white, and yellow. We were in the front lawn of that duplex. But when that Japanese truck pulled up and stopped- everything paused. It might have been the screeches of the black tire rubbing against the asphalt, grinding to a halt that made us turn and watch the momentary drama unfold. The culprits inside pulled out a long black metal thing whose bullets would be piercing the terracotta wall of the Laundromat opposite to our place. The man, who held the machine had long puffy black hair and fed the bullets on the left side with his left hand. He looked like a crazy head banger going nuts to the sound of Slayer. In fact the dude looked like he was a black haired version of Hanneman holding that piece that rattled on his hands like a guitar. Bullets were literally raining on the guys hanging out in the parking lot- talk about cloud over one’s shoulder.
            The place and everything around us seemed to be on pause or at least to be moving in slow motion. The perpetrator aimed his weapon at two guys that were chatting away outside of their 70s Celica. Once they heard the cracking of the metal and the origins of the fire they dropped to the ground. Their bodies touching the dark ground. One of them reached inside the car pulling out a revolver, but did not shoot, from where he was he saw the color of the truck. Whose driver, by that time had stepped on the gas and disappeared north on Berendo and merging with the lights on Olympic that took them somewhere far, maybe to the beach. The apparent targets got into their car and attempted to trail behind.
            I heard my mom call my name. But we were intrigued, but did not dare cross the street to the other side and look around at the damage that had been caused. A line of bullet holes were left behind as raw evidence to what had happened. One of our neighbors, the oldest of the bunch, found a shell casing. It looked like it might have been a short fat led pencil from a long time ago, but no, it had held bullet and know we could use the casings as a more sophisticated form of whistle.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Illusions of Life: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

-I have learned that a man only has the right to look down on another man when it is to help him to stand up. -Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

Illusions of Life: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
by Armando Ortiz
I discovered illusions through your words, and the characters conceived in your mind became archetypes- mythical American figures.

I felt the scent of death and marveled at the mystery of love- as people floated to the heavens and sprits were sequestered to the earth.

Making me relive my visits to Guatemala, and looking back with wonder, while traveling down the river of your youth with mountainous steam clouds floating in the sky, and a Latin American blue, crystal clear- god’s oil painting.

Love was at the heart of your fables, and compassion at arm’s reach. You wrote, and I saw with my eyes, how the general on horseback liberated countries. I felt the cool breeze the Andes Mountain along the streets of Los Angeles.

Those books taught me history and to love, and showed what life could be as a child through adult eyes. I became a Spanish gypsy, wandering the western hemisphere, and connected to my own heritage through food and song by looking through your mind.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Stained Glass on the Ground: Misinterpreted Artistry Part Fifteen.

Stained Glass on the Ground
by Armando Ortiz

One day Pedro was on the second floor of the church sweeping and picking up debris. After a few hours of gathering pieces of dry wall and chattered wood, he decided to take a break in one of the rooms. He went inside and slightly opened one of the windows that faced the alley and noticed that the kids were all in a circle. There were two kids in the middle of the human circle punching each other. The memory now is quite vague but it certainly was a fight, because at the end one of the contestants was bloodied and crying. It makes one wonder how the actions of others have a more profounder effect on the viewer. Those kids probably were not aware that they were being watched, nor were they aware of their reality. To them it might have been a fight, just a fight, where there was a winner and a bloodied looser. Maybe it is one of those things that one will never really know. A lesson that is being acted out in real life. How many life lessons had he participated in unconsciously that taught someone else or left a lasting impact on some random person without him knowing? He couldn’t remember who had won or if the two had been too bloody to be able to point out who was the victor. One thing is for sure, at that moment the tears that flowed down the cheeks of the two kids, blended with the blood, creating a gorier scene that looked like condensed raspberry syrup, resembling the very pieces of glass that he’d come across outside the church grounds, Pedro never forgot the scene. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Flow of Life

The Flow of Life
by Armando Ortiz

Art is the medium through which culture is diffused and exchanged. Culture may be suppressed, but the real story is being played out now.

I’ve paid to see beauty, I have touched great booty. I can say that I’ve traveled far, and had foreign conversations, alienated a few and sought by many.

Cultural, not civilized, the cabarets and street vendors, that let us relive our hungers of desert dreams. Waking up not knowing what’s ahead. The bridges to unexplored lands, oasis of thought, are still over there standing like granite pillars of memory.

Culture is language, a ying yang of theories, that reach our ear, painting a watercolor with sounds of thunder, and washes that streak on the canvas, a musical center of sounds.

How do you maintain sanity when beauty is everywhere?!

Time passes by, numerous crossroads, endless flow of people float, moving forward, toward unknowns, going down that eternal way, where the ashes are taken away, and like papier-mâché boats that aimlessly navigate; the widening current becomes our stay.