Latino youth arrestedPhoto: Alicia Díaz-Infante                                              Balmy Alley, Mission District, San Francisco

The Lake

Written by Demetria Martínez

Mrs. Martínez was sorting the bad from the good pears when Mr. Smith, manager of Whole Foods, told workers to go to the meeting room.  They did, planting themselves on metal chairs.

Mr. Smith passed around a box of chocolate chip cookies.  He cleared his throat.  “We have a new policy,” he said, staring at his watch.  “Employees will no longer be allowed to speak Spanish to each other while working.  We need to be respectful of our customers.  Thank you and have a good evening.”

That night, sleep eluded Mrs. Martínez.  She padded into the kitchen where she heated and poured café con leche into an Obama mug.  Why in God’s name would customers complain about people speaking Spanish, she wondered.  She and her three Latina co-workers always answered English-speakers’ queries in English.  “Yes, the Shiitake mushrooms are on sale.”  She’d said this a hundred times today.  Did customers think they were talking about them?  She and her friends had far more interesting things to talk about—that is if they had a free moment.  Mostly they worked like mules.

There were times when Anglos stared at them: Puzzled, perhaps, by race.  The four women were white, black and every shade of brown in between.  One was a Latina from East LA; another, from Guadalajara.  There was a Chicana from New Mexico whose father was Diné; she spoke perfect Navajo.  Still another hailed from the Dominican Republic.  Mrs. Martínez wondered.  Who do people see when they stare at me?

The next day, her day off, Mrs. Martínez decided to eat lunch on a bench outside her apartment complex.  She had just removed her bean burrito from its foil when a cop car, siren wailing, pulled up at the curb.  The cop stepped out of an unmarked car.  Slowly he walked down the street, his gun aimed at the back of little Raul.

“Get your hands up,” the cop shouted.  In slow motion little Raul turned to face the cop.  He raised his sweaty palms.  In one hand was a pen, in the other, a petition.  The boy had gathered over 100 signatures in support of a progressive Latino running for city council.

At 12 years of age, little Raul was a rebel.  Much like his mother had been in the Sixties, her fist raised high over her Afro at rallies against the Vietnam War.  And like his dad, a Chicano.  He’d been called a spic and worse for marching with César Chavez and Dolores Huerta, protesting the use of pesticides that lined the lungs of Mexican farm workers.  Now here was little Raul Martin López.  He could barely maintain a C average; yet time and again he outwitted his peers on the debating team, to the delight of his long suffering teachers.

The cop could not see any of this.  All he saw was a dark boy in a dark hoodie pointing a gun at the sky: A boy, unleashed, in a mostly white neighborhood.

A sudden gust of wind clouded the street with dust.  A woman, barely visible, was running toward the cop.  “Stop, please,” she shouted.  “He’s my son.”  Mrs. Martínez stepped in front of Little Raul.  She crossed her arms and stared at the cop, her brown eyes burning. “Mijito, go back to the house.”  Slowly, slowly the boy lowered his hands.  The pen and petition, dark with signatures, fell to the ground.  The cop lowered his gun and looked the woman up and down.  He opened his mouth to ask her for proof of citizenship.  But his stomach growled; he hadn’t eaten all day.  He walked back to his car and drove off.  For now at least, he’d quit the hunt.

Mrs. Martínez walked little Raul home.  The boy’s mom, Mrs. Martin, sat weeping at the dining room table as her son told the story.  “Me miró como si fuera un animal.”  The boy had learned Spanish from his dad.  As had Mrs. Martin.  She pressed Mrs. Martínez’s hand as she gathered up the words.  “You saved my son’s life.”  Then a deep, dark cry arose from Mrs. Martin’s chest.  She looked up at the ceiling.

“Why,” she pleaded.  “Why did this happen?”  But Mrs. Martin knew why.  This was America.  Cops aimed guns at black kids all the time.  They swept through black and brown neighborhoods in the name of the Drug War and ripped families apart.

A lawyer, she had the stats down cold.  One in every 15 African Americans were behind bars.  One in every 36 Latinos were behind bars.  And only one in every 106 white males were locked up. Yet they all committed crimes at roughly the same rate.  Mrs. Martin’s chest and throat tightened when she spoke to white audiences who denied that racism still existed.

She wiped her eyes with a paper towel.  She looked at her son, a Latino and African American child.  He was too young to have seen the barrel of a gun.  Though he had been prey since the day he was born.

Mrs. Martin and little Raul dropped Mrs. Martínez back at her apartment where her son, Joey, awaited her.  The one-year-old dozed as his aunt Angela read a bilingual copy of Bless Me Ultima out loud.  Mrs. Martínez gathered Joey up in her arms.  She pushed his button of a nose.  Negrito, negrito.  She whispered the term of endearment.  Little dark one.

She pulled the sheet up to his chin.  He had her dark brown skin.  And the coal eyes of her husband, a Zapotec Indian from Mexico.  A line from Neruda’s poem, “Our Child,” came to her as the boy squeezed her pinkie in his tiny fist.  “Oh child, do you know, do you know where you come from?  From a lake with white and hungry seagulls.”  Little Raul and Joey, Mrs. Martínez realized, came from the same lake.   She recited a Hail Mary then got ready for bed.


Note from the author:

Writing As Resistance 

For many, writing fiction is an act of resistance.  Stories can bear witness to injustice and rally us to fight oppression.  They can inspire us to imagine better ways of being in the world.  Lately, my imagination has been fixed on the United States’ prison industrial complex: My country is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in our prisons and jails—a 500 percent increase in the last 30 years.  People of color make up 30 percent of the U.S. population but account for 60 percent of those incarcerated—largely due to the War on Drugs which targets poor communities.  Over the past three decades the number of women incarcerated has increased by 800 percent; women of color have been disproportionately represented.  Furthermore, the detention of immigrants has caused a surge in the numbers of Latinos who are behind bars.

I wrote this story in March, 2014, inspired by my work with the New Mexico-based Coalition for Prisoners’ Rights—and by Daisy Zamora’s invitation to contribute to this magazine.  I offer it, en solidaridad, with all who hunger for change.