Life for Latino Americans in Los Angeles during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s is the focus of Coconut, my new novel. The book provides a look at racism and marginalization through the eyes of a child and his family.
I’ve yet to see a story printed about what it was like to be a middle-class, American-born Latino family during that time. Yet there are 42 million Latino baby boomers—many like myself, who were not taught Spanish nor encouraged to embrace our Hispanic roots. Assimilation was the only acceptable path, and both blatant and institutional racism were prevalent. Coconut examines what it was like to be a Latino during that era of civil rights change.
Set in the San Fernando Valley, Coconut examines the lives of the Rodrigos, a second/third generation Mexican-American family. The novel opens with the young protagonist suffering a racist confrontation, and then explores the complexities of his family’s life as they strive for acceptance in an often unaccepting homeland. Coconut uses historical events such as the Depression-era repatriation of Latinos, “Operation Wetback” in the 1950s and the Chicano Rights Movement of the 1970s as a backdrop to exploring the plight of the family.
Below is an excerpt from Coconut: Brown on the Outside, White on the Inside.
Oree began to feel like maybe his impending news might be met with favor. The trick was to pre-occupy his mother’s mind. Keep her thoughts off of grief and replace them with grandbabies. He went to the party store and got a small burro piñata, balloons and blue and white streamers. He spent Saturday morning blowing up balloons and hanging them and the streamers in the back yard. While he was setting things up for the party, he began wondering if it might be the ideal time to share the news of his plans with his family. He had already received one letter of acceptance and was hopeful he would get one from New York shortly.
Anthony, Luz and their children arrived Saturday afternoon. They brought a very old and fragile Elizabeth with them and Albert went out to the porch to help his mother make it up the short steps to their house. Eva gave Maria a big kiss and hug, and Oree picked her up and said “I want to show you something in the back yard. C’mon!”
The family went to the back yard and Elizabeth softly remarked, “Es muy bonita, it’s so beautiful. Just like the parties we used to have.”
“Yes, just like the parties we used to have Elizabeth,” Maria said grasping her hand as she helped her to sit down at the big redwood picnic table which Albert had recently constructed. (He had lately taken up the hobby of building things to help pre-occupy his time now that he no longer had a second job.)
Little Eva was jubilant when her Uncle Oree lifted her up in the air to grab a blue balloon. He gently put her down and she excitedly ran around in circles flailing the balloon by a string, giggling the whole time. As the rest of the family took their places around the table, Maria smiled and looked out across the yard. For a moment it was like the ghosts of her children, sister and her family breezed past her eyes as they danced and laughed in front of her—and then disappeared. Maria was thankful they had shared those times, even if they were all now in the past.
When it came time for dinner, Maria had Luz help her bring out the food, and the family enjoyed each other’s company as in years past. Baby Eddie shook his head and started crying when Eva put her finger which had enchilada sauce on it up to his lips. This solicited a hearty laugh amongst the group, except for Eva who got a light tap on her hand from her mother.
Halfway through the meal, Albert lifted his Dixie cup in a toast, “I want to thank you for joining us in celebrating my grandson Eddie’s birthday. I am very happy to have my family here today, and although we’re not all here in person, we are all together in spirit. I wish my father were here to see this. That we are all still a family.”
“I have my family with me. It has helped comfort me through times of difficulty,” Maria added as Elizabeth sat by and wiped her eyes. “When I was a child, my father had a saying he would use when things were either really good or really bad: ‘Sometimes your life can end up being so much more than you hoped for.’ Now, seeing my grandchildren reminds of the importance of that saying, and it gives me hope for the future. I also know my own son, Aurelio, is planning to go to college, and I am so happy he will be going to college close by, so he can stay with his mother and father while he learns; so he can help to keep our family whole.”
Oree couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Earlier, he had told his parents that he was planning to go to a university and that he was “keeping my options open” as far as where that school may be. He couldn’t believe that they had interpreted that as, “I am going to stay at home and take care of my depressed mother while I go to a community college down the street.” He had far greater plans for his future and they did not include staying in Sylmar.
“Uh, I didn’t say that,” Oree spoke out. “I told you I was planning to go to a university and that I was keeping my options open.”
The table suddenly grew quiet. At some point, Anthony, looking down at little Eddie who was smiling up at him, said, “Having your family around you ain’t that bad.”
“Oree, we’ll talk about this later,” his father finally spoke. “Let’s have Eva break the piñata for Eddie.”
Oree led Eva over to the tree and as she was so young, he didn’t blindfold her. He let her swing and swing with a wooden rod as he raised and lowered the piñata. His family laughed as she gently tapped at the burro and giggled. After she began to tire, Oree said “Let me take over short stuff. Stand back.”
He tied the rope that suspended the piñata to the tree and with one hard, long swing he sent the piñata and candy flying out toward his family. Eva scrambled under the benches for candy. “Ouch, that hurt,” his mother who had been sprayed with candy, yelled out.
Oree held the wood rod tautly and simply glared.
That night after everyone left, he was too tired to go out and he had lately heard that disco was on its way to a slow and painful death, so he stayed home with his parents and helped his mother clean up the kitchen in silence. When they were finished, they went to join Albert who was reading a Reader’s Digest on his recliner in the living room. The TV was blaring some documentary on migrants planning to come from Central America as a result of wars going on in their country. Oree said he was going to go to his room. His father stopped him.
“So, what’s this about a university and it sounds like you’re planning to move out?” his father said looking up from the magazine.
“Oh no, he can’t move out. Who will help me? I need Oree here with me,” Maria pleaded. “He has to stay with his family.”
“Says who?” Oree said plainly. “Look, it’s awful that Aunt Cathy died and grandma and grandpa are gone, and that you don’t speak with Annie, but this isn’t my life. It’s your life.”
“We’re not asking you to not go to school, only that it might be better for you to go to school closer to home. The city college is right down the street. Is it too much that we ask that you make one, small sacrifice after all this family has been through?” his father said, putting the magazine down.
“One, small sacrifice? Is that what you said? We’re talking about the future of my life. Given the color of my skin, if I don’t have the best education possible, I don’t stand a chance of ever becoming anything,” Oree said. “I want people to look at my resume, my credentials, what I have in my brain. If they can’t see past my skin, they certainly can’t negate an Ivy League education.”
“Ivy League, huh? All I’m saying is maybe wait a year or two,” his father continued. “That’s all we’re asking. Your mother is getting stronger every day, and today she was talking with Luz about her watching the kids during the day, so Luz can work part time. My mom won’t be here forever and some day they’ll have to get a place of their own. They need to start saving money.”
“Great. So, I can stay here and go to a local college, so mom can watch the children of my brother whose key contribution to this world is providing it with two kids. There’s something you need to know,” Oree said, calmly taking a breath. “I’ve applied for universities outside of California and I especially want to go to Columbia University in New York to study political science.”
“What the heck is political science, and tell me how are you going to pay for that education and make a living doing political whatever it is?” Albert said. “Do you have any idea how expensive New York is?”
“Oree, you can take political science here. You can go to the community college. It won’t cost us or you anything,” his mother said as she began to wring her hands.
“I thought the whole point of having kids was that they could grow up and be something really big, really important. Now, you’re pushing all this familia crap on me like somehow I’m responsible for helping to keep this family together,” Oree said, as he began to raise his voice. “It’s not fair. I am the kid remember? I didn’t create my brother’s life and I certainly didn’t make my sister decide on the choices she has. I’ve already been lining up financial aid so I can afford to go to Columbia.”
“You’re ungrateful,” his father said angrily. “We did not raise you to desert your family. You’re just selfish. How can you even think of leaving your mother with the state that she’s in?”
“I’m not selfish, I only want my life, and I am not responsible for my mother’s well-being. My whole life, I’ve heard ‘Be humble. You’re brown, take what you can get and be content’. And, then there’s the my family, mi familia. You have to maintain the well-being of the familia, feed it like it’s all some kind of poisonous, rotting plant that you have to nourish to keep alive. Well, all of this is just a bunch of crap and I don’t buy it. I’ve seen how the family restricts you. I’ve seen how hard you have to work and what you get in return because you don’t have a college education.”
“Where are you getting all this from? You sound exactly like your sister,” Albert yelled. “And, for your information, my lack of education has kept a roof over your head and your food in your stomach.”
“Dad, there has got to be more to life,” Oree said. “You had your life and now it’s time for me to have mine. Political science can open up a number of careers to me.”
“Careers? I don’t even know what political science means,” his father continued. “I wish I could have had a career, but I was too busy trying to keep my family fed to think of such nonsense.”
“Well, that was your choice,” Oree said. “You chose that life and you can’t blame me because you had me.”
His father grew increasingly angry and got up out of his recliner. He was standing over his son who sat on the couch. “I had no goddamn choice, Oree. I was Mexican at a time when we could barely get anything. Hell, our own government was trying to ship us back to a place we never had roots in. We didn’t have the luxury of thinking of a college education. So, don’t be so goddamn smart about it.”
“Well, you were stupid about it,” Oree yelled up to his father. “You could’a fought back. I’m fighting back. I’m not gonna be a beaner my whole life. I am going to be a person who does something with his life. You and mom raised us to believe we could have more in our lives and now you want to take that back? Well, guess what, you can’t.”
“Maria, I am going to smack this kid, so help me God. Stupid, my kid is calling me stupid?” Albert stammered. At this point, Maria began fearing that a break like the one they had suffered with Anita was approaching.
“Don’t say something you’ll regret Albert,” she said as she began to cry. “Remember Annie. Remember Annie.”
Excerpted from Coconut: Brown on the Outside, White on the Inside, by Manuel Padilla Jr. Published by Xlibris. Copyright 2020 by Manuel Padilla Jr. All rights reserved. Manuel “Manny” Padilla Jr. has more than 36 years of award-winning writing experience in the media and publishing worlds, working as a newspaper reporter and editor; as marketing, public relations and advertising professional; and as a public speaker. He lives in Palm Springs.