When Dreams Abound
Chapter One - No Puerto Ricans
It was clear that the small house near the end of Chambers Lane sat on a lazy acre of land filled with various fruit trees. There was the large apricot tree that shaded the entire western face of the house. There was also the scrawny nectarine tree with only a few branches that barely produced two or three nectarines a year, but whose meager fruit was still juicy and delicious. Only one member of the Mendoza family was lucky enough to pick and eat the nectarines before the rest of the family had the opportunity to. Most of the time that was Jose Luis, the older brother, who would greedily eat the nectarines without any regard to anyone else. He was like that in every other way, especially when it came to food. Even his mother would claim that Jose Luis had a tapeworm or two because of the way he gorged food every day. Jose Luis would sneak into the refrigerator every night when everyone was asleep to eat the leftovers or eat the ingredients of the next day's meal. But this spring was different. Jose Luis did not eat the nectarines as he had eagerly anticipated. His younger brother, Daniel, had. Or at least that is what Jose Luis believed because Daniel had sat underneath the apricot tree every day dreamily contemplating something as he gazed towards the garden beyond. Between the garden and the apricot tree lay the nectarine tree and in Jose Luis' young, simple mind that was enough to indict Daniel. Little did Jose Luis know the real reason for Daniel's malaise that entire Spring. But it would not matter because Jose Luis could care less. Only the nectarines mattered to him and they were no more.
This evening, Jose Luis gazed out of his bedroom window. He could see Daniel sitting again under the apricot tree. Earlier that year, Daniel turned twelve. Twelve is a critical year. Daniel knew that next year he would be a teenager and that he would no longer be a child. He would be a man; not the way that other cultures view the transition into manhood and mark the occasion with religious or physical celebrations with family and friends and lots of food and gifts and rituals passed down through the ages. But Daniel would become a man the way that boys inherently view a change not only in their bodies, but also in their minds. The world looks different to a teenager. To a teenager, parents are now anathema. Teachers are still strange, but different in a way that makes life harder at times and hopeful at others. Grandparents are surprisingly cool because they are permissive and let their grandkids get into every sort of trouble so long as it makes them happy.
Daniel was leery of the changes that he would undergo as a teenager. Some of his older friends had changed and they no longer were friends with him. Now that his older friends attended the only middle school across town, they no longer saw Daniel on a daily basis. They made new friends with other students who had graduated from other elementary schools scattered around town. Daniel knew that the changes inside of him were inevitable. However, he wanted to savor his last year of innocence at least that was the way he saw it.
Even though Daniel planned to ensure that his simple life stayed the same, he had become estranged from his mother these past few months, invisible in ways that did not matter to him. At least, he convinced himself that it did not matter. His status as persona non grata gave him the free time to think and contemplate his future more than he usually did. He surprisingly thought of his upcoming independence, when he could make decisions on his own, when the need for adults to be a source of transportation to and from places was no longer required, when the future seemed brighter because every door was opened by thoughtful decisions strategically planned as if playing a board game whose outcome was already predetermined. He did his best thinking underneath the apricot tree. So he sat there every early evening like this evening, until the call for dinner was made and he had to join the rest of the family in a traditional repast. The other siblings would not bother him until then. His strange and often awkward demeanor was enough of a deterrent for his brother, Jose Luis, and his oldest sister, Maria. They stayed inside in their respective bedrooms watching television as usual. His younger sister, Sylvia, was oblivious to Daniel's absences. But Daniel did not mind. He was used to being a stranger in a strange family. He often joked that he was switched at birth at White Memorial Hospital. The other siblings were not amused.
This evening, Daniel had taken his writing book with him. The emerald cover was worn thin and a few pages were torn out after those times when he was displeased with the results. Some pages were dog-eared. But the current page where the pink, silk place marker was opened to was left blank. Not a single word or letter was even written that night. It was more of a silent comfort that distracted him. He was not disappointed with the lack of results. Nothing special had moved him that day. Instead, he had been gazing eerily into the distance past the garden as if nothing was within his field of view. The large, golden sunflowers that grew as tall as six feet did not even distract him. His contemplative attitude was engrossing, but he did not understand why it was so this evening. On occasion, he could hear the soft, but insistent calls of a blue-gray gnatcatcher as it hopped and sidled while foraging for insects and spiders in the garden. The gnatcatcher would lurk in the apricot tree just above Daniel's head awaiting more prey. Even this, Daniel would ignore.
What Daniel could not ignore was the inescapable aroma of the evening's meal that his mother, Lucia Maria Mendoza, was cooking because it would waft outside and engulf his senses. He could smell the faint peppery and nutty tones of the orange-red annatto seeds that were harvested from an achiote tree. His mother stirred the fragrant seeds into the olive oil along with the chopped onions and garlic. He could hear the searing of the salt pork and small pieces of ham. Then she would add the diced cubanelle peppers, carrots, tomatoes, and Spanish olives that formed the foundation of the evening's meal. Having watched his mother cook this Puerto Rican dish many times, Daniel knew that she would soon season the ingredients with adobo and cumin and also include a bay leaf or two so that they would add a slight floral scent as well as a pungent and sharp, bitter taste to the dish. Daniel sensed that his mother was making pollo guisado. He knew that she would also make some white rice in the large, metallic caldero that she cooked in practically every evening. The chicken stew, as it is vernacularly referred to, would be served on top of the rice and consumed quickly by the family. Even Daniel was eager to consume it.
“Dinner's ready,” Lucia yelled so that the kids could hear. She knew that Daniel was typically outside. So this evening, like most evenings in the Spring of 1977, she would yell louder so that Daniel could hear her and she did not have to go outside herself to fetch him or send one of the other children to do so.
This evening, Daniel was reluctant to come inside and deal with any of the family drama. But the grumblings of his stomach were too irresistible, so he relented. He arose from sitting on the grass lawn and walked slowly back to the front porch. As he was about to open the front door, he heard his mother say, “Wipe your feet on the doormat before you come in!! I don't want you tracking dirt inside.”
Daniel begrudgingly complied, but he was already used to this daily ritual. He looked down towards the worn, brown carpet that festooned the joint living room/dining room area where the family would eat their meals. He wondered to himself, “Why bother? It's old, dilapidated carpet anyway,” but he dared not upset his mother. Daniel knew that his father would arrive shortly and that his mother did not want anything to disturb his father after a long day's work. So Daniel complied and proceeded quietly to the dining room table.
Seated already was Jose Luis on the far right chair closer to where he knew that his mother would place the food because it was closest to the kitchen. He was eager as always to eat any meal. Jose Luis looked stupidly towards Daniel as he walked into the house. Jose Luis was holding back a laugh that his grinning face easily betrayed. He knew that his mother would backhand him if he made his typical flippant comment so he refrained from doing so. Jose Luis did not want to be sent to his room without dinner. He was already thirteen and was one year older than Daniel. But unlike Daniel, Jose Luis was unwilling to grow up. He spent most of his free time outside of school with neighborhood kids several years his junior. These kids were typically nine or ten years old. Jose Luis felt like the leader of his “gang.” His mother frowned in disappointment of her son's shenanigans with whom she described as fellow hooligans. In Lucia's mind, her oldest son's actions belittled the family's reputation in the community.
To Jose Luis's left was Sylvia. She was seven years younger than Daniel. The age difference had an impact on their relationship. Sylvia was rambunctious with her many kindergarten friends at school, but she never really played with her own siblings. They wanted very little to do with her, mainly because she was the youngest and their mother's favorite. Daniel sat next to her at the table. He ignored her as well as his salty brother and looked straight ahead towards the hallway, waiting for the food to be served.
“Maria!!! When are you coming to the kitchen?” her mother inquired. “We are waiting for you.” Lucia carried two bowls full of the pollo guisado, one in each hand, and walked toward the dining room table. She placed one in front of Jose Luis and the other she placed in front of Sylvia. “Junior, bring the caldero of rice to the table.” He ignored her and grabbed a spoon to start feeding himself. Lucia grabbed his left ear and roughly pulled his face toward her. “I said get the rice. Boy, you heard me. Don't make me regret feeding you first!”
Jose Luis reluctantly rose from the table with a sour look and listlessly walked to the kitchen. As he was returning with the pot of rice, Maria entered from the hallway. Her face was gleaming with excitement. “Roberto asked me to the dance!!”
“You know mom's not going to let you go,” Jose Luis exclaimed while almost dropping the caldero onto the dining room floor.
“Ay Dios mio. Be careful. You're gonna drop it.” Lucia walked quickly toward Jose Luis to ensure that he did not. When the rice was safely on the table, she turned towards Maria and said, “Your father doesn't want you going out and dating anyone until you are sixteen. You know that Maria. If I had my way, it wouldn't be until you were eighteen. You know how I feel about boys your age.”
“I'm not going to wait another two years before I start dating. I will miss the prom and homecoming and many dances in between,” Maria retorted.
“You're never going to any of those things so give it up,” Jose Luis added. Daniel sat quietly listening. Because Jose Luis was doing a surprisingly great job, Daniel did not feel the need to interject. Besides, Maria would only use it against him later if he did. Even if Daniel said nothing, Maria would also use that against him for not sticking up for her. Jose Luis never cared about any retribution Maria could exact. So long as he had his gang, he was fine.
Just then, the front door opened. A swankily dressed man of thirty-five years old walked into the house with his briefcase in his hand. He placed his outer coat on the sofa on the opposite side of the living room and took his Stetson hat off, leaving the briefcase alongside the sofa near the entrance of the hallway. The room was eerily quiet during this ritual. All eyes were on Jose Luis Mendoza, Senior until he sat down at the head of the table furthest from the kitchen. Until then, no one said a word. Not even the smart-mouthed older son.
“Dinner smells delicious. What's this about a prom?” he asked. Maria was loathed to respond knowing that it may upset both of her parents.
“It's nothing,” Lucia replied.
“I heard you guys talking about it right before I came in.” Mr. Mendoza tucked his napkin on his lap and grabbed one of the bowls from the table so that he could serve himself some pollo guisado. Lucia moved the caldero of rice closer to him. He did not like to be served. Once he finished serving himself, Lucia served Daniel and Maria and then herself.
“How was your day?” Lucia asked. He took this question as a sign that his wife did not want to talk about the prom and other events that he had just inquired about in front of the children. So he let the matter go. He knew that Lucia would bring it up herself shortly after the children went to bed and they were alone.
Jose Luis, Senior proceeded to tell his wife and the rest of the family about the long day at work, his promotion to general manager, and the accompanying raise. Unbeknownst to him, his supervisor, Avery Smith, had placed his name in consideration for promotion. Jose had worked there for nearly a decade. He had given up on any advancement until Avery was hired two years ago. Lucia had prayed for this moment and was also encouraged when Jose's former supervisor was fired and the New Englander Smith took his place. She was overjoyed when she heard the news of the promotion. The entire family was.
Maria dreamed of money for a prom dress. Jose Luis, Junior contemplated finally getting a remote control car so that he could play in the nearby empty field with the other members of his gang. Sylvia was clueless. But in reality, she always received everything that she wanted and the news would not truly alter her good fortune. Lucia wanted the fur coat on sale at the recently opened Montgomery Wards on the other side of town. She had seen the fur coat when she visited her bridge club teammate, Ophelia Cummings, on the other side of town. Daniel wondered how the news would affect him, but nothing came to mind.
The entire house was alight with the news until Mr. Mendoza turned to Daniel and said, “We can finally pay for your college tuition. I have high hopes for you, Daniel. You will attend a great college; the best that money can buy. I was talking to Avery, Mr. Smith, and he suggested that you should go to UCLA. It's one of the highest ranking public schools in the country and is ranked in the top 20 in the entire world. The best thing is that it's here in Los Angeles. You can live here with us and you don't have to go to some Ivy League school back east and get into huge debt. We can all support you in your endeavors. I'll take you to the campus someday soon so you can see for yourself. I'll take all of you.”
Mr. Mendoza smiled. He was very proud of himself and very proud that he had plans for his younger son who was the only one in the family to show any interest in higher education and going to college. Mrs. Mendoza always discouraged her husband from openly encouraging Daniel to go to college especially in front of the other children who had no such aspirations. She worried that they would get the impression that somehow their father did not care for them as much because of it. Her husband rejected this as nonsense and hoped that his encouragement would positively affect the other children. He had not yet seen the fruits of these attempts, but there was still some time. There were four more years before his eldest child, Maria, would graduate from high school. Mr. Mendoza was less hopeful towards his eldest son and had lowered his expectations. Daniel, on the other hand, resented these overt comments because the other siblings would openly ridicule him. That was the last thing Daniel needed given his own eccentric personality. Although Daniel could care less for their approval, the emotional derisions were unbearable at times. So Daniel did not respond to his father latest comments, but only listened attentively with tepid excitement.
As the pre-dinner conversation began to wind down, they all waited for Mr. Mendoza to stop talking and to bless their food so that they could all eat. He grabbed his wife's hand with his left hand and clasped Daniel's with his right hand. Mrs. Mendoza also grabbed Maria's hand. The others also held hands for the evening's prayer before dinner and they all bowed their heads and closed their eyes. When Mr. Mendoza finished praying, Daniel lifted his head and opened his eyes only to find that he was in fact not sitting at the dining room table, but was sitting alone on the edge of his bed watching television. A cold plate of rice and beans was on his lap and a fork in his hand. It was the typical place where Daniel ate dinner in the evenings. He could hear Maria in her own bedroom eating dinner and Sylvia in her room as well. Jose Luis had apparently already eaten because his plate sat empty on the bedroom floor. He was taking a nap on the adjacent bed next to Daniel.
As Daniel continued eating his dinner, the television began to loudly blare out “I don't want any Puerto Ricans living in this house.” Daniel looked up from his plate and turned to look at the screen. It was another episode of Sanford and Son, one of Daniel's favorite shows. He watched the show in his room whenever it came on when he ate dinner. The main character, Fred Sanford, a cantankerousness older black man whose gray hair and scruffy gray beard were distinguishing, continued to cup both hands around his mouth as he repeatedly shouted at the top of his lungs that he did not want any Puerto Ricans living in his house. Daniel had seen this episode several times before. Daniel sat upright on his bed stupefied that his recent thoughts of a loving family happily eating together were only a figment of his imagination.