Education in the educational institution was not my priority. I wanted to be someone, and to be someone I had to belong to a gang, but I was too fearful to make that ultimate move. I was doing an excellent job of keeping under the radar. Besides my brother, no one was bullying me. I was intelligent enough to know how not to create too much attention, but during lunch when I saw the separate sets of solid homeboys on the Luther Burbank school courtyard, what I saw was coolness and power, and I sensed that it was more than just a little muscle. The young middle school homies owned a lifetime of status. I understood this even back then: they would never change. The other school kids were striving to find themselves, but the young cholos had something embedded in them that I knew was permanent. I wanted that confidence, that belief that my life was certain.
My brother saw my confusion, but he was also attempting to uncover his own eternal identity. With my father alive, we had been good, scared children, but now we were becoming very separate. I was afraid of who my brother was becoming. While I had always admired and respected him, I had not feared him. Now he was choosing to purposely be the worst, the most traditional type of cholo. My brother Jeff ignored varrio evolution. Even though other homies his age were already break-dancing to Run DMC and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, he would jam to Santana, El Chicano, and Malo. He was opting for the lowrider cholo style, the pinto penitentiary tradition. For me, that world was too foreign and frightening, representing something beyond even the streets. I knew an underworld existed and the penitentiary cholos were it. But that did not concern me; I cared only about immediate playground politics. My brother, however, was future minded, planning for our destiny.
Part of that purpose required foolish fun. During my childhood, one of the funniest episodes I remember is my brother with giant garden shears ensnaring drunken and high homeboys to sit in a cold steel folding chair and then clipping off their hair as if it were blooming flowers. Afterwards, before homies stopped crying or laughing, he would straight-razor their remaining stubble and create bowling ball locos. Many times, giggling, I witnessed this event that would later invite nostalgia, especially from homies who had been proud victims of my brother’s cholo-ness.
One day in late Fall 1984, when I was still twelve, it was finally my turn.
“Bust out the steel chair,” my brother commanded.
Tired of seeing my confusion, he decided my destiny for me. I believe I resisted but do not think he tried too hard to convince or force me. I would like to believe I fought back with a smile, knowing the entire time that being balded was going to lead me to my ultimate goal (Since that day thirty years ago, only once in my life have I ever regrown my hair to a somewhat long length: before beginning law school, I grew my Mayan-Indian porcupine afro. Once I realized it was futile to ever try to fit in with hair at law school, I happily shaved it back to stubble.). Not even a teenager, I knew it was time for me to mature. Immediately after my brother spit-shined my head, he shot a photo. In it, I tilted my head down because I thought that having it down looked tough and cool like how All-American James Dean looked in the 1950’s film’s Rebel Without a Cause poster. Not until later did I learn that Latino homeboys always took their pictures with their heads tilted dramatically up, so much so that you could not even see their faces, only their chins. That afternoon my brother turned me into a cholo on the outside. After I showered, he dressed me in extra-large working class Ben Davis trousers and a Salvation Army second hand store Pendleton Board Shirt, the rugged multi-colored garment of old west America, the symbol of cowboys and farmers—but also the pride of surfers and locos.
“This is my brother, my carnal,” Jeff said proudly.
That afternoon my brother introduced me to everyone, particularly older people who were beyond their teens. I realized he was not trying to be part of his own age bracket. He acted boldly, with a respect and desire to be wise. At African-American homeboy Shadow’s house, my brother introduced me to sexy, slinky “Anita.” Fifteen at the time, Jeff cornered Anita in the hallway; he was having an affair with her, a woman of thirty. After sharing a quart of Schiltz Malt Liquor, he and I toured the varrio, and he bought me my first ever Mission style super-burrito. Even though we had lived in the Mission all our lives, I had never entered a taqueria. To indulge in something as rich and greasy as a super-burrito would have been to commit a sin. The burrito taste matched the spices of the streets, as my brother and I claimed them together, side by side. As a new cholo I was seeing the opportunity of the streets with fresh eyes. By the time evening sprung, we wandered to La Raza Park. Older mustached and goateed homeboy veteranos stopped by to slap my hand and pass me beers.
“Orale, lil homey,” the tattooed pintos said quickly but respectfully.
Silently I tipped my head up to them because I did not have even the homeboy accent to answer. It all seemed crazy, was crazy, and I loved it, even as the mosquitoes took this as a chance to brand dozens of painful bumps upon my freshly clean-shaven head. This event was the initiation of what I consider my authentic street and middle-school education.
My brother had wanted the best for me. The cholo style was a way I could feel proud and not afraid. For me that was the most important confidence. If I would not have gotten involved in the gang lifestyle, I would have been scared into becoming normal, which would have perhaps been a worse curse because it probably would have led to eventual mediocrity. No school teacher or hero police officer was going to save me. The gang persona rescued my dignity.