El Cholo – Part 1

By Rick Manzanares © Copyright

(Rick Manzanares is my good friend, an IT Leader/Senior Business Analyst at Hewlett-Packard, a former police officer, born-again Christian, and a solid father and husband. It was not always this way for Rick, however. This month’s guest post, El Cholo offers some unique insights from Rick’s past, “before Christ.”)

Life drastically twisted for me during a summer visit to San Francisco, California in 1978. My sister and I had been in San Francisco for barely a week, reconnecting with our estranged mother after a 5-year separation, when I received the fateful call from my dad, with whom we lived in Las Vegas.

My sister and I loved our lives in Vegas, loved our father, and planned to stay with mom in San Francisco only for a month. But a sudden call, just days into our reunion, side-tracked our plan. My dad called demanding my immediate return to correct a dispute about my newspaper-delivery job, which I’d held for years, and from which I had saved for this trip. I had left my paper route in the hands of my best friend Mike, and he had apparently not turned in the proceeds of the first week’s collections to my manager, who then called my dad with accusations of money being withheld.

Now, my dad insisted on an explanation. I described my arrangement with Mike, but Dad said I was ultimately responsible, and I had to return to Vegas at once to resolve the issue. I begged that I had only been here a week, although I had not seen my mother in five years. He issued an ultimatum – return instantly; or don’t return at all.

How that comment stung! I was devastated and deeply hurt. I snapped back, “Well dad, if that is all you think of me, I am not coming back!” He countered, “Fine!” and abruptly hung up.

Dad’s many lectures about respect, loyalty, trustworthiness and his commitment to ‘always be there for me’ tumbled like rubble to the ground. In an instant, I lost all respect for him. This betrayal seemed so unlike him. How could he so easily abandon and turn his back on me!

My sister, equally outraged by our father’s response, called him and said she would not return either. Both of us were devastated, but recognized that if Dad said so, it was final.

We now turned to our mother’s care. Although a vibrant character, she was dysfunctional in many ways. By age of 21, she bore four children, raising us as a single mother. She was beautiful, with numerous boyfriends over the years. I could recall a number of boyfriends coming around from my earliest childhood. Now, my two younger brothers lived with her and, much like our prior experience, she was still receiving government assistance – welfare.

Over time, my mother and I clashed increasingly. I perceived significant character flaws related to her dishonesty, lack of integrity and failure to address her children’s interests. I observed her lie to and cheat friends. I noticed her purchase $200 boots with welfare money, while we went hungry. Then, she begged for, and borrowed, money to pay household bills. As we grew apart, our conversations turned into angry expressions of our mutual disappointments.

Although a perennial honor roll student in Las Vegas, that changed when I enrolled in a San Francisco High School. Hispanic gangs in “the City” were rampant, especially in the Mission District, a heavily Hispanic populated segment of The City. The area stretched from 14th Street to Excelsior; and from Bayshore to Diamond Heights. Hispanic Gangs’ territories (barrios) were segregated mostly by neighborhood or by a cluster of streets. Fights and other acts of violence were perpetrated daily among rival gangs.

It was the era of the “Cholo” or “Pachucos”. They cruised in “lowriders,” highly customized cars, modified to drive low and slow. They were typically accessorized with mega sound systems that filled city blocks with amplified music, traditionally ‘oldies’ music from the 50’s and 60’s.

This social subculture grew, permeating the Hispanic community, and extended to succeeding generations. Soon after enrolling in high school, I quickly learned that students segregated themselves by ethnicity and race. There were White Punks on Dope, aka WPOD, mostly Caucasian students that identified with “white music” (rock) and culture. Blacks were into Soul and R&B music; Jerry Curl and “Locking” dance style.

Hispanics commonly gravitated to Soul and Oldies. But, our dress code was universally Cholo – baggy pants, several sizes larger than fit, and then folded over; shirts military-creased to perfection, regardless of color; or Pendletons, plaid wool shirts; and hair nets or bandanas. Hair was traditionally combed back with a ‘pump’ in the front. This dress was traditionally affiliated with the gang lifestyle – La Vida Loca!

If you did not belong to one of these groups, you would endure victimization by them. WPODs would pick on, ridicule and even assault unaffiliated Blacks, Hispanics, or Asians. The other groups did the same in return. Unaffiliated students were targets for all gangs.

I was good enough at sports to be exempted to much victimization as a jock. So I stayed clear of trouble at the beginning. But toward the latter part of my 9th grade year, things changed. The Hispanic crowd I hung with routinely got drunk and smoked “weed” or marijuana. Life was similar for middle-school-aged kids. My younger brothers, in middle school, routinely got “high” at school too. Once, my younger brother stole a 6ft tall marijuana plant from a neighbor! We then dried it and rolled the biggest joints you ever saw – the size of cigars, like those we had seen in Cheech and Chong movies.

In time, I dug deeper and deeper into the lifestyle.

I started cruising and living the life. Although I refused to join a particular gang, I frequently fought to defend friends who were ‘gangbangers’ and unaffiliated Cholos, like myself. I looked the part, but declined to join a gang. I rejected the premise that someone could be my enemy simply because they were from another neighborhood. Friends I had grown up with since elementary schools would “dog me,” simply because I lived in a different neighborhood now. We were best friends in elementary school. How were they willing to jump me, merely because I did not live on their block?

I dove deep into drinking liquor, partying, promiscuous behavior and drugs. For the entire 10th grade, I cut school every day of that year and was drunk 95% of the time. I ran the streets of San Francisco, simply doing mischief.

Home life was miserable. My mother began practicing fortune-telling and became paranoid that “enemies” were placing hexes or curses on her. In turn, she concocted lotions, potions and spells to counter the perceived attacks. I watched as she covered our walls with a potion that looked like orange kool-aid. I remarked that she was nuts. Angered, she countered that I was stupid. I replied, “I am not the one covering our walls with Kool-Aid.” The argument escalated, and she kicked me out. I stayed with my grandmother until things between mother and I calmed.

Girlfriends? I had numerous girlfriends. Although I dated mostly nice and sweet girls, my mother would verbally insult them. I would defend them, and another battle with Mom would follow.

She perfected the art of yelling and insulting us. She berated us and spewed hateful words daily, reminding us how stupid and worthless we were.

I began to engage in stints of running away. I sneaked out of the house in the middle of the night and took clothes in garbage bags enough to allow me to dress for several days. When I ran out of options, I would return home. Each time I returned, my mother would admit that she was very harsh and would apologize. Things would improve for a few days but, after a week, her insults returned. I ran away four to five times; each time extending my absence.

During the absences, I partied all night with friends, getting high and chasing girls.

Although rowdy, I had a good work ethic. The following summer (of 1979), I started working at a store, since my boss, Mr. Winslow, had seen me work hard in the past. After summer, I continued working there when school re-started. Several months into my employment, Mr. Winslow hired another young Hispanic male, Javier. Javier was older than I and used hard illicit drugs, like “angel dust” aka PCP. He described the high they produced as like no other and promised to score some for me so I could try it. We connected and became close friends. I told him how miserable I was at home and how badly I wanted to leave for good.

We conceived a plot to rob the store where I worked, and then use the money to buy a lowrider and move to Los Angeles where would could really live La Vida Loca! Mr. Winslow kept thousands of dollars under the counter to cash payroll checks for favored customers. I had earned Mr. Winslow’s trust and knew where he kept the key.

The day came when we finalized our plan. Javier would be off that day. I would wait until all employees were busy helping customers, and then I would open the cash box and leave the store. We would meet up, buy a car, and flee San Francisco for good!


[To Be Continued in Part 2]

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