The Old Neighborhood
“Hey chica, que paso!” one of a group of four teenagers shouted at a very attractive woman emerging from Rafael’s Super Mercado on the corner of Jefferson Boulevard and Vernon Street, in north Oak Cliff. The woman looked in the boys’ direction, and without breaking stride blew them a long exaggerated kiss. The boys laughed, and so did she.
Some things never change, Maria Contreras thought as she walked toward her car. Part of her was mildly perturbed at the sexual bravado of the teens, as it was precisely that attitude and a whole lot more that many of her close friends had succumbed to when she was a young teenage girl in this neighborhood. Children having children, many of them had to work as single mothers to support their kids, and by the time they were eighteen they felt like they were thirty. Somehow she had managed to avoid that trap. She got out and got away. Sometimes Maria wondered why she came back. She looked down at the package of masa in her left hand, and as if by magic it called to her, recalling how it all happened.
She was sixteen, a junior at Sunset High School. Her brother Hector was twenty, and a sophomore at Central Community College. Their parents had come from Mexico two years before she was born, with little Hector, then two years old, and the only son that Francisco and Rosa Contreras would bring into this world. Francisco got a day job working at a grocery store, in the produce section of Rafael’s Super Mercado. Five nights a week, or more correctly, early in the mornings, Francisco went to Rafael’s and unloaded the produce from the delivery trucks. The work was hard, picking up cold fifty-pound crates of lettuce, celery and carrots and tossing them on a conveyor belt, and then stacking them seven feet high inside the store. Because Rosa had an engaging personality, was fluent in English, and could type, she got a job as receptionist in a medical clinic that served predominantly Hispanic patients. They rented a small house within walking distance of the clinic and St. Teresa’s Catholic Church. The church served as a meeting place for other immigrants who came, with little money and few friends, to north Oak Cliff. Saving what money they could, Francisco and Rosa managed to put enough together, matched with a bank loan, to buy a small restaurant on Davis Street, just a few blocks north of Jefferson Avenue and a few notches down in property values. By this time Maria had been born, and her mother was so proud that she named the restaurant after her daughter, Maria’s Tacqueria. The food was good, and Maria’s had become a well-known Mexican eatery in north Oak Cliff, specializing in breakfast toquitos, huevos rancheros, tamales, and an assortment of enchilada and seafood dishes.
Francisco and Rosa worked hard to provide for their children, and they were determined that Hector and Maria would be equipped to succeed in their adopted country. Hector had graduated from Sunset High and started college, to be an architect. He was going to build, as he often told his sister, the prettiest buildings she would ever see. And then he would laugh out loud, and that would make her laugh too. She idolized Hector, who always told her to be her own person. “Don’t follow the crowd, be yourself, be a strong Chicana,” he would tell her. That all changed four days after Maria’s sixteenth birthday.
It was April 10th, mid-morning. Maria was in third hour English class listening to her teacher discussing The Grapes of Wrath when she was called to the Principal’s office. Since she had always been a model student, this directive puzzled her. She received permission from her teacher, grabbed her books, and headed out of the classroom. When she arrived at the principal’s office she saw her father. His face was ashen, and he was hunched over as if he had aged twenty years overnight. Everyone else, the Principal, his secretary, and the student counselor were looking at the floor, ceiling, or out the window, anywhere but at her.
“Papá qué es lo?” she asked. Proud of their Mexican heritage, still the Contreras family usually only spoke Spanish to one another in private settings or with friends. But Maria sensed something was wrong, and she immediately had code-switched into her native language. Francisco looked at her and tears welled up in his eyes and began to run down the sides of both cheeks. The proud man she had known crumbled before her like the wall of an ancient ruin. He grabbed her, and hugged very hard.
“Hector esta muerto!” He said. She remembered hearing those words as if she were in a tunnel and her father was far, far away. And then she passed out. When she woke up she was home, in her bedroom. Sitting by her side, Maria’s mother was holding her hand and crying. Francisco was on the phone, delivering the bad news to relatives in Mexico City. When he hung up he walked into her room and related what had happened.
Hector and a friend had been walking to their eight o’clock class when a bright red custom-designed Ford Mustang pulled along side of them. Witnesses say a man in the passenger seat rolled down the tinted window, pointed a sawed off shotgun in their direction, and opened fire. Both Hector and his friend were hit. Hector suffered gunshot wounds to the left shoulder and the head, and died at the scene. His friend, whom Maria had not known well, was wounded in four places but survived. It was the friend who had been the intended target. The assassins, who were later caught, were members of a gang who had been hit recently by a rival gang to which Hector’s friend belonged. Hector just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The two gang bangers who did the hit were seventeen years old. They went to jail for life, leaving behind three children between them and two single mothers, ages fifteen and sixteen.
After they buried Hector, Maria made two seemingly contradictory promises to herself. One, she promised to get out and go far away, to a place completely different. She wanted out of Oak Cliff, and out of Dallas, and to go to a place where there was no city, no gangs, no low riders, no boom boxes, no Cinco de Mayo, no smell of tamales, and no street vendors. In short, Maria was after a complete psychological purging of her surroundings, longing for a place where she could cleanse herself from all that was so hauntingly familiar. Her second pledge was to return someday, because no matter how much she heard Hector’s voice telling her to be her own person, she also heard other voices. They were the voices of her father and mother, telling Maria about the importance of la familia, la cultura. Could she forget the laughter of her friends as they ran across the yards as children? Could she turn a deaf ear to an inner voice that spoke about wanting a world where she could make a difference in her community. Maria had always believed that what made people special forms of creation was their need for community, to be part of something good and valuable. People needed, no she needed to belong to something that could grow and be nourished, to help build something better…something pretty, like an architect might. Because maybe, just maybe, there was another girl somewhere who had an older brother who was being worn down, or worse, was being devoured by the culture of the streets.
Maria graduated from Sunset High with honors, and had the highest SAT scores of any student in recent memory. Her performance ranked in the upper one percentile of the entire Dallas Independent School District. Heavily recruited by dozens of colleges and universities, Maria was offered a four-year scholarship and tuition-paid package from Harvard University. She took it. Maria correctly reasoned that the Harvard culture was about as far from her own upbringing as she could imagine.
Rosa cried hard the day Maria left for Cambridge. Francisco was proud and tearless, but Maria knew he was crying on the inside. What she didn’t know was that he was crying not only because his little girl was leaving home, but because his only son never got the chance to pursue his dream. Maria promised to call or write weekly, and to come home for major holidays.
In her first semester at Harvard she had no idea what she wanted to pursue as a course of study. Then she took a course in cultural anthropology. Learning about other cultures, their values and their ways of life not only fascinated her, but they offered her an extension to her journey. The role of anthropologist appealed to her. “These people go far away and see really different places and cultures,” she remembered saying. She loved the class, and decided to major in anthropology. When she received her bachelor’s degree, she was recruited into the graduate program at Harvard, where she excelled.
After completing her course work, Maria traveled to highland New Guinea to conduct ethnographic fieldwork among the Dani tribe. Maria completed her dissertation entitled Dani Territoriality: The Ecology of Tribal Warfare, and was awarded her Ph.D. at age twenty-eight.
Maria had several job offers, but now it was time to fulfill her second promise. Accepting a teaching position at Southern University in Dallas, her parents were overjoyed when they picked her up at the airport. Maria had not seen them in two years, just before she left for New Guinea. They looked older, but well. Francisco’s hair was almost all gray and deep crow’s feet etched the corners of his brown eyes, giving him the look of a wise man. Rosa maintained her youthful looking face, and her skin was still as smooth and unwrinkled as Maria had remembered. But her long hair was streaked with gray and she had put on a few pounds. It was the tamales, Maria thought.
Maria bought a small, renovated house in the historic district of north Oak Cliff, about a mile from Maria’s Tacqueria, and about the same distance to her parent’s home. She visited them constantly for dinner and holidays. Though occasionally she would go to Mass with them, like so many other anthropology students who had matriculated through graduate school, Maria had become agnostic. By not telling her parents, it was one of the few lies she told to spare them of disappointment.
In her first two years at Southern, in addition to teaching, Maria wrote a book called Gang Bangers and Tribal Chiefs, in which she compared urban American gang warfare with the tribal wars of the Dani of New Guinea. Maria’s thesis was that Dani warfare and urban American gangs consisted of a series of ritualized forms of escalated violence that reached a climax, then stabilized into uneasy truces as buffer zones were created and territories redefined.
In both instances, tribal chiefs in New Guinea and top gang bangers in urban America were constantly pressured to demonstrate status and prestige to their members. This meant having to acquire wealth, however locally defined, display it, and to distribute it to loyal followers to keep their support and develop obligations. Maria found that peaks in Dani warfare coincided with instability in leadership, caused most noticeably by the death of a powerful chief. In such cases, young aggressive men, eager to climb the social ladder, would create an economic and political ripple effect by throwing lavish feasts to obtain power and support. They would try to outdo one another by giving more to a rival than could be returned by the recipients. In order not to be shamed, these competing chiefs would begin to turn their bravado against neighboring groups in order to enhance their prestige. They would start slowly at first, hurling verbal insults at a nearby rival. Predictably the rival would return the favor. At this point it was all talk. But, once it started, the competing chiefs were pressured into raising the ante or losing face. Since being embarrassed was unimaginable to a Dani, the conflict would escalate into a series of confrontations, starting with physical fights, followed by hit and run raiding. It was at this point that blood could be spilled, and closure was needed. There was only one way to end the feuding cycle. It would end with a devastating raid designed to terrorize the enemy and drive them from their lands. Once this happened, and the need for prestige and wealth had been temporarily satiated, the tribes would settle into a period of uneasy co-existence. Sometimes the peace would last for decades as the chiefs built and maintained powerful alliances. Other times the truces did not last more than a few years.
The parallels that Maria drew between gang political relations and that of the Dani tribesmen were striking. Both systems rewarded aggressive males. Dani boys were taught early to be aggressive and ready to fight. They conducted mock combat with toy spears and arrows that drew blood. Gang youth were taught early to fight and not take anything from anybody. They were taught not to let anybody get in their face, that a stare held for too long was a sign of aggression. Both systems relied on achieved status and prestige as vehicles to leadership. Dani chiefs rose to the top based on their performance, not on who their kinsmen were. Gang bangers started out in their teens and through their efforts at completing assigned tasks, like fighting or stealing, they moved up in the pecking order. Both cultures valued the acquisition, display, and distribution of wealth by eager and willing male competitors. Dani chiefs wore lavish necklaces of imported shell, a luxury item in the highlands. These items were costly to obtain, and in Dani currency were as good as gold. They stored surpluses of cane, pigs, and sweet potatoes, the staple food, and often held feasts in which they slaughtered their pigs and fed everybody. Gang bangers displayed their wealth too, wearing gold watches, necklaces, bracelets, and they wore expensive clothes. Most impressively, many of them displayed gold plated wheels on their vehicles. These wheels were so highly valued that people killed for them. Once, Maria had asked a young Oak Cliff gang member why he risked putting gold-plated wheels on his car.
“Why do you do this thing? It’s expensive and you could get hijacked.”
The young man looked at her, and then pointed to a young, slender, and scantily dressed woman who was waiting for a corner streetlight to flash the “Walk” indicator.
“When I am in my caro and I come to chicas like her at intersections? They come to me and ask to get a ride. That’s my fuel!”
Both the Dani culture and the culture of gangs sought to use women as sexual rewards for success in achieving dominance. Dani chiefs attracted women, and they often had multiple wives. This not only provided them with a sexual monopoly, but created a scarce supply of available women, adding to the aggressive behavior of young Dani men. It was also a great way for Dani chiefs to forge alliances with other kin groups. Gang bangers attracted women too, but since law in the United States mandated monogamy, gang bangers had “girlfriends.” Sometimes they had many, even if they were married. Fighting over women was a part of the Machismo swagger that these men exhibited. And for the girls there was stiff competition for the men, partly because of the high percentage of inner city men who were either in prison or dead. Girls outnumbered boys, and the math could not be denied. In order to compete with other girls, some girls yielded to the sexual advances of men. One of the by-products of this culture was a higher teen pregnancy rate than in most other areas of American life. Maria had seen this in her own life. Many of her friends had succumbed to the gold, and had children before they were out of high school.
One of the people who read Gang Bangers and Tribal Chiefs was H.D.Boggs, who at the time had just been promoted Captain of Homicide Division of the Dallas Police Department. Boggs showed up at her office one day and asked if she would be interested in being a consultant to the police department on gang-related cases. She balked at first, because as she explained it, “I don’t know anything about police work or the criminal justice system.
“Well”, he said, “Why don’t you just get yourself a Master’s Degree in criminal justice?”
He said it so matter-of-factly, as if he were giving instructions on how to fix a flat tire, that Maria laughed so hard she almost fell out of her chair. But she liked Boggs, he was sincerely asking for assistance, and as she often did when it came to making decisions, she listened to the voices of her mother, father, and Hector.
She agreed to take Boggs up on his offer. She would occasionally hold workshops on the ecology of gang warfare, and in the meantime she began to revisit her old haunts, rekindle some old friendships, and network in the Hispanic community. She taught a night class in cultural anthropology at Central Community College, where she met a lot of good young students, White, Black, and Hispanic. Quickly gaining a reputation for being an excellent and compassionate teacher, Maria was tough when she had to be. The students liked and respected her, but knew that they couldn’t shine her. “Best to be honest with Dr. C”, they would say. When students performed well, she was there to praise them, but not lavishly as she didn’t want them to get the idea that good work couldn’t always be improved. And when students performed badly, she made sure to lecture them one-on-one, so as not to embarrass them in front of their peers. In class, when students were late or rude, it usually just took one quick, penetrating cut from those deep brown eyes to let her displeasure known.
Two years later she completed her Master’s in criminal justice, or simply CJ as they all called it. She resigned from Southern University to take a full-time position at Central Community College, where she headed up a new program in applied anthropology. She jumped at the chance to put her craft into practical application, organizing research projects on family planning and literacy programs.
Maria was rocked out of her pursuit of the past by the sound of a thundering bass, vibrating the sidewalk under her feet.
“Tejano,” she said, as she watched the source of the music pass by. It was a black Ford F-150 . It had flames of red and orange on the hood, and sidesteps just behind each door. The bed was covered with a matching flat black cover, which hid those amazing speakers. As she listened to the music she also caught the scent of fried chicken from a fast food place down the street. It was as if the smell was floating toward her on the sound of the music. All of a sudden she smiled and knew she had made the right move four years ago. She looked down Jefferson Avenue and saw a street vender pushing a small cart, a bell clanging as he pedaled ice cream and frozen treats to the kids. Families were everywhere, walking to and from the stores and restaurants. She looked over at an auto parts store across the street and saw an old Chevy Camaro with the hood up. Three young Hispanic men had their heads under the hood, laughing, while a fourth walked out of the store with a car part. Next to the auto parts store was an empty brick building with the faded window lettering of a recently deceased hardware store. This was a clear sign of another family business that had bitten the dust, victim to the gargantuan and impersonal home service stores that were being built in the suburbs of North Dallas. There was another troubling sign on the walls of that old building, gang graffiti. It was all over the long wall that bordered an abandoned lot. Very stylized and even artistic, the spray painted lettering was often superimposed, marketing territory and selling tension. At the other extreme, next to Rafael’s there were vendor booths where people were buying tacos, sweet corn, and soft drinks, with children laughing and music blaring. She looked down at her package of masa, and could almost smell the tamales that her mother was going to make for dinner. She even smiled about the little encounter with the young teens. The woman in her was flattered that, at age thirty-three she could still turn the heads of those young men. Turning the heads of men was easy for her, letting them get close to her was a different matter. Still single, Maria was a pretty woman, with olive skin and jet-black, shoulder length hair. She was slim at 5’8 inches, and like today, favored comfortable clothes. In this heat she had selected a white, loose fitting cotton blouse tucked into her white shorts. In weather like this, sandals were her footwear of choice.
She opened the door to her car, a white Honda Accord, and immediately felt the waves of heat engulf her as she slid behind the wheel.
“Shit.” She had forgotten to put the sunscreen across her front window to keep the car from getting so hot. Even with the soft window tinting the car was almost unbearably hot, and the steering wheel was hot to the touch. She started the engine, rolled down the windows, and got out to let some of the heat escape. The air conditioning would be of no help until she got moving. She was just about ready to get back in the car when she heard her cell phone ring. Probably mama, she thought. Hopping into the driver’s seat, Maria blew some strands of long hair from her face and picked up the phone.
“Hello,” she said
“Hi doll,” came the response. She recognized the voice and the delivery immediately. It was Frankie Nguyen.
“Hi Frankie,” she said with a smile. “What’s up?”
“Bad news, Maria. We found a body at Spring Park earlier this morning. It was Julio Guerra.”
Suddenly her smile melted as quickly as if it had been saran wrap tossed into a fire. All of a sudden she felt the heat cascading down around her shoulders and body like concentric waves, pinning her to the seat.
“Damn Frankie… Guerra? Are you sure?” Beads of perspiration formed on her forehead, and the hand cradling the cell phone was starting to perspire, causing her to change hands quickly.
“Yeah, we’re sure. It’s a homicide. The ME has the body now. Maria, Chief Smits is calling a news conference this afternoon at 4:00 to talk to the press. But before that he has asked H.D. to form a team to investigate, and go over what we have. He wants you in on this.”
“Okay Frankie…sure. When and where?”
“ASAP doll, at Oak Cliff Substation Four, Conference Room A. How soon can you get there?”
“Um, that’s only about ten minutes from where I am Frankie. I’ll see you there. Who else…”
Maria was cut off by static over the phone. When it cleared Frankie had hung up. Pulling away from the curb to the sound of the car fan, set on maximum air conditioning, she drove east down Jefferson. Soon cool air was blowing over her face. Despite the cool breeze inside her car, Maria was still reeling from the news. Julio Guerra, the Blanco chief, dead! Not just dead, but murdered. Her mind raced back in time….to New Guinea, when she was doing fieldwork with the Dani. Although she had never seen one, the old men told her about them, stories about what happened when a Big Man was killed and how it destabilized relations between alliance sections of the tribe. The killing went on for months, escalating raids, attack and counterattack, until a new chief emerged. Debts were paid and gifts exchanged to cement a new alliance… an uneasy peace. They called it the Time of the Mogat (“ghost”) because it was believed that the ghosts of deceased relatives helped clear the way for battle by singling out enemy victims. Weaponry finished the job. During this time so many pigs were slaughtered to feed the guests at ritual feasts that entire clan pig herds were wiped out to finance the proceedings.
Now, here, with Guerra dead, would her research predictions and characterizations of gang warfare come alive? She hoped not. But she was scared. An escalation in gang feuding meant not only an increase in drive-bys, but also in injured innocent bystanders, or worse. The ripple effect of pain was staggering to contemplate. By far most of the Hispanic people in Oak Cliff were good, hard working, family people. Many, like her parents, had come from Mexico to seek a better lives. They loved their new country, and they were proud of their neighborhoods. They were the skilled and unskilled laborers, the street vendors, the mechanics, the owners of stores, bakeries, auto body shops, and gas stations. Maria thought of Hector, and her parents. It still pained her to think about it. She had to help, to do what she could to lower the number of Hector’s in this community that was desperately trying to escape from the ugly cacoon within which poverty, crime, and violence had encased it.
Maria was jerked back to the present by the blaring horn behind her. Zoning off and ignoring the changing of the stoplight from red to green, the driver of the Chevy Suburban poised just off her rear bumper was not all happy about it. Waving in her rearview mirror, Maria took off from the light, headed east down Jefferson to Zang, turned south and drove about a mile. Paralleling I-35, she hooked into the substation. It was located near the intersection of Zang and Illinois, two major thorough-fares. The substation faced a housing project to the east and a busy strip mall to the south and west. Low income individual housing and side side streets draped it from the north. Maria looked at her watch. She had made it in an endless six minutes.
Turning off the ignition and sitting there for a moment, thinking, Maria met her own eyes in the rear view mirror. They were large and coated with fear. Staring into the mirror like a zombie, for what seemed like an eternity, it was as if all life around her had gone into slow motion. She could hear the sound of her heart pounding in her ears as the eyes in the rear view mirror grew large and blinked. Mesmerized, Maria watched again and again, as each blink of her eyes were accompanied by the sound of a large, metallic door being slammed shut.
The beating of her heart won out, and it’s cadence put Maria into a light trance. Her mind rewound to a place on the other side of the world. “Opaije, help me,” she whispered. Then, quickly, Maria grabbed her purse, got out of her car, and headed into the Dallas heat, and into something that felt very, very bad.