Out of the womb I was dubbed "The Chinese General." It was Fresno, '55. I guess it was my slanted black eyes, toothless gape and the purple splotch covering half my head. My father had a way with words.
You see, right from the start I didn't know I was Mexican. Although my mother—the darkest of my grandmother's litter—was, I didn't think about such things, my father was white and Texan. Anyway, I was just a kid. Sure, my skin was brown, but we didn't speak Spanish. My father didn't like it. I figured I was white. Fresno was farmworker country. Cesar Chavez, Delano, right next door. We lived in the suburbs. When I was two we moved to Glendale. Blacks couldn't own property in Glendale, couldn't be on the street after five. My parents assured me I was white.
As Mamalupe would later explain, we were "Spanish." Mamalupe, my grandmother, had crossed the border when it only cost a nickel to clear customs. She had 3 kids—my mom was one of them—and then headed back. She had another eight in Jalapa, headed north again, settled in Juárez and opened El Buen Tamal, a cafe. Since "the señor" wasn't around, she and the kids had to fend for themselves.
The señor, my grandfather, was a mystery. But I heard rumors, whispers late at night when everyone thought I was asleep. I heard rumors of cousins, aunts, uncles, all across Mexico. Ten families in all. The senor was quite prolific. Mamalupe was family numero dos.
At the good tamale my mom waitressed and because she had "papers", when she turned 15, she walked across the Rio Grande and took a job in El Paso. My dad was the boss.
When I was seven we went back to visit our relatives—the ones we claimed. We crossed the border shopping for Crucifixes, velvet Jesus paintings—I started a collection—and cheap tequila for my dad. The streets were packed. Diesel, piss and cheap tobacco hung in the air. I grabbed onto my mom's hand so I wouldn't disappear. I lost my grip. Panicked, I spun around. There he was, my first image of Mexico: a stump on a skateboard, black eyes staring, his hand begging for pesos.
Back in LA, I joined the Cub Scouts. But in my barrio—we called it a neighborhood—you couldn't wear your uniform for fear of being beaten up. There were gangs. TOONERVILLE—in big, bold letters—dominated the neighborhood graffiti. It was a warning: the rough side was moving in.
When I was eight, Mamalupe moved in with us. She cooked and cleaned and walked daily to mass at the Spanish-speaking church in Toonerville. Sometimes I went with her, but never understood a word. I just watched. I kneeled when she kneeled and stood when she stood.
My earliest ambitions were to become a priest. I guess because of the respect, my family paid them. I had an uncle in the seminary and two aunts who were nuns. It was in the family. When they came to visit, speaking Spanish in a machine-gun litany, my family sat around the table for hours. My mother became one of them. For me, it was like watching TV—I just switched channels. My father just sat in the living room and listened to music. He always listened to music. On Saturday mornings, even before I got up to watch cartoons, Mahler crept into my dreams from Dad's dawn concerto. He'd be sitting in his chair sipping Cutty Sark. When my mom got up, her vacuum cleaner joined the chorus. By evening, the music had moved from classical to opera to film scores, but it always ended with Mariachi. "Guadalajara", I thought, was quite a catchy tune.
As I grew older, more and more relatives crossed the border. We moved to the hills so my sister and I didn't have to attend high school where the "bad kids" went—brown-skinned Garcias and Rodriguezes. We went to the white school and into the land of the Smiths and Joneses. We came down for Christmas though—Echo Park, where my tios and tias settled. Mamalupe had moved in with them. Christmas was a drag. Them and their unintelligible conversations and drinking till dawn. My only consolation was "mixed-up-food": A special concoction of Mexican rice, refried beans, scrambled eggs and Heinz ketchup. Mamalupe knew how to soothe me.
Summers, I spent outdoors. September, I was black as a bean. I enjoyed the feeling. My father would buy a cream from the men's cologne department at Webb’s, Glendale's first class department store. It gave him an instant tan. We'd buy it for him on Christmas and his birthday. Now that we lived in the hills, I figured I was safe from the greasers and beaners who razzed me as a Cub Scout. But there was a white boy who lived up the block, he was so white he was almost albino. He started calling me "tar baby." I didn't know what it meant. All during the school year he tormented me: "Tar baby, Tar baby!" Even when winter took my tan. During Christmas vacation I saw the movie. Two days before Christmas, I took everything off my list, and asked for one thing: karate lessons. I took judo and our cousins arrived from Mexico City. They were rich Mexicans. They wore suits, Rolex watches and their hair slicked back.
By now, I had picked up photography as a hobby. My cousin not only had a Nikon, he had a Minox—the kind James Bond used. They were richer than us and I didn't like them. Deep down I was prejudiced. We made fun of their English. They made fun of me and my sister's Spanish—¿Quetal Maria? Hola Paco,— was as far as I got in junior high Spanish 101. I didn't hear the word Chicano till I was in high school. It was 1971 and the TV news had a daily dose of death counts in Vietnam. Occasionally the TV went live, at home, if there was a riot. In LA there were "Chicano" riots. One day I was walking down the hallway between classes when three lowriders cornered me in the stairwell. Two guys and a girl in black chino s and Hush Puppies. I was dressed in my Webb’s Department Store outfit.
"Are you Chicano?" One of the guys yelled.
My body went numb. I could feel the knife—his question—deep in my gut. Minutes seemed to pass. I looked down, turned around and walked away, their jeering insults following me. When I got home I asked my mom what "Chicano" meant. She told me it was a dirty word. She didn't explain, just said we weren't, and never to mention the word in her presence. Later, my dad told me, "it's not a bad word son, just means a Mexican from Chicago."
When I was a senior, we studied Manifest Destiny. It gave me an uneasy feeling, cause I knew it had something to do with me and my people. It was just a feeling I had, nothing I ever expressed, probably cause I didn't really know who me and "my people" actually were. But I did understand what Manifest Destiny meant and it set off an alarm. Ironically, my photography class organized an archaeological expedition to the Yucatán jungle. Bake sales, donations and a $20-a-plate-Mamalupe Mexican dinner bankrolled our trek. Three jeeps to be exact, ten students and our teacher, Mr. Olivier. One kid suffered heat stroke upon our arrival in El Paso. Right in my Uncle Oscar's and Aunt Olga's living room, he had a seizure. It was an omen.
When we crossed the border, 28 kilometers into the interior, just one mile past the Aduana (Customs) and Inmigracion, the clutch crapped out in one of our jeeps. Juárez at our backs, rather than risk hauling our gear through Aduana again, we ordered the part in El Paso and pitched camp behind Inmigración. When "Il Duce", the graveyard shift chief of immigration, arrived, we were ordered to move. "El Capitán," Aduana's jefe accepted us. But by late afternoon, when he got drunk, we were back at Inmigracion. Day to day, we had to move our campsite. Stranded for seven days, we ravaged the food supplies we thought would last us two full months and started to eat the local fare. The Montezuma's Revenge attacked our troops just as the clutch arrived.
Back on the road, en route through the interior—Ciudad Jiménez, Le6n Guzmán, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas— in the chaos, unconsciously, something began to happen. I was seeing Mexico for the first time, but it was more than that, it was the people, and it hit me like I had just learned one of the great noble truths— Hey, it's okay to be Mexican. In Mexico City we stayed with my rich cousins. On their home turf, finally, I got to know them. My eyes opened up, my prejudice erased. My cousins are beautiful. They opened their house to us, made seven-course lunches and dubbed me their loco American cousin. It was time for celebration. i La Raza, mi gente! But before I left, they taught me what their "Mexican" meant. They were Spaniards, they said. Not "Naccos" (poor Mexicans) nor "Indios," whom they considered "niggers". I should learn the difference, they told me.
Seven weeks into our journey, two days away from breaking camp on the Yucatan coast and heading home, a small party of us, five boys and Olivier, made what was to be our last visit to an archaeological site. It was called Coba. First encountered by archaeologists in 1843, it had major archaeological significance, it had the largest network of stone causeways of the ancient Maya, and was once a major city with as many as 50,000 inhabitants. Coba, however, had never been open to the public. It was not like Chichen Itza, or the pyramids at Teotihuacan, outside Mexico City. The jungle owned Coba, and archaeologists liked it that way. No tourists allowed. But that ended when a plan was made to build hotel and resort development in Cancun, just 132 kilometers away. In 1973, at the time of our Yucatan expedition, Cancun had a total population of approximately 3.
After an hour's ride west down the highway from our camp and another hour's ride north on a bumpy, muddy road, we arrived. A thatched hut stood at the entrance. A Mayan took our names, a few pesos, and let us in. The pyramids broke through the jungle foliage. I guess it was an awful sight to see them in their virgin form. But, to me, a ruin was a ruin. If I'd seen one, I'd seen plenty, and by then, I'd seen them all. You could see the others' excitement bulging in their pockets. I had noticed their scavenging, whole cases stuffed with artifacts, since Chichen Itza. But here it was—unmolested—and fresh for the taking.
Two or three pyramids down the road, out of sight of the Mayan, we climbed atop one of the skyscrapers. There, Olivier, our teacher uncovered a small statue. The heat-stroke-kid had unearthed a vase. I was at the base of the pyramid filming handheld with a Bell & Howell running 16mm short-ends we’d gotten donated from Warner Brothers, when the Mayan arrived, his shotgun raised just above my shoulder, a few inches from my left ear, aimed in the general direction of my classmates and Olivier.
He was yelling, it wasn’t Spanish. It was Mayan, I’m sure. It didn’t matter, you knew what he was say. With his shotgun on our backs, he marched us back to the thatched hut at the entrance and kept us there for several hours. People came out of nowhere and just stood there looking at us, eventually there were so many of them, it was enough to fill once side of the bleachers of a little league game, and they lined up just like that too, four rows of them, not saying a word. Just looking at us, staring, deadpan. Eventually, somehow, Olivier made a deal with the Mayan— 21 coconuts and a thermos jug—and the Mayan let us go. We got back to camp, and made plans to head home, but had to wait, once again for a part to arrive for one our jeeps.
The next day, I was little tense. I guess it was the soldiers I could see surrounding our camp. They weren't actually surrounding our camp, but a few hundred yards away, just a couple of them in one area, and then some more, somewhere else, or maybe they were the same two soldiers. We were used to seeing soldiers all over Mexico, and that's what I told myself. But I hadn't seen any, there hadn't been any around our camp since we been at this place where we were staying, and we'd been here for more than two weeks. After dinner, I was just climbing back into my hammock, we had dinner late, and it was dark, when tje headlights of several vehicles, could be seen coming our way-- three unmarked cars, two dozen Federales and the Director General, Victor Segovia, the head of archaeology of all of Mexico. Segovia, just happened to be in the area, had heard about what happened at Coba, and was mad as hell.
“You Goddamn Americans," he yelled. "What if I went to Washington and took your artifacts! Your history! Your culture! GOD DAMN YOU AMERICANS!"
"I'm Swiss," Mr. Olivier said, raising his hand.
Then one by one, our names, the five of us, who’d been at Coba, were called out. They must have the sheet we had signed in on at Coba, I figured. We were frisked, handcuffed, and me and my best friend Tom, were put in the backseat of one car; Mr. Olivier, and the two other students were put in another. The last I heard of civilization was "Good Morning Starshine" playing on the radio—British Honduras coming in.
It must have been a two hour, three hour drive, I figured it was midnight, when we reached the jail in Chetumal, Quintana Roo. They frisked us a second time, removed the handcuffs, took our shoelaces and belts, and we entered the cell —a holding tank for twenty— and joined sixty other prisoners. I had this odd flash of inspiration, this was it, at last, my chance—forever—to learn Spanish.
They were old, but someone had painted the stations of the cross, primitive and life-size walls, grafitti and the names of thousands, were etched over them. A single 60 watt bulb hung from the ceiling. Prisoners lay in hammocks, and several had cardboard mats, some appeared to be asleep just standing. There was a small, bare space for the five of us by the piss hole in the corner. Rivers flowed by.
Around 5:00 a.m., everyone was awakened and ordered to stand. Two prisoners were handed buckets and mops. The floor was hosed down. An hour later, with the floor not entirely dry, the cardboard mats were flipped over, exposing pencil-drawn checkerboards. Bottle caps come out of pockets and turned into checkers. And with the voice of an angel, a boy of 12, started singing "Let It Be." I wondered what he was in for. The day had begun and I couldn't imagine spending another minute, another second, how was I going to get thru a 24 day—no windows, no trees, no sky. A rumor spread— the American Embassy came promptly everyday at seven. Seven-thirty passed, then eight. It is nine a.m. when we found out there was no American Embassy in Chetumal. At 10:15 a tall man in Levis, cowboy boots, and a white cowboy hat appeared at the cell door. He called out our names. The cell door opened, and we were led outside. He packed the five of us into a late model Ford Mustang and whisked us away. I cried. We signed some papers. He was Mexican FBI we were told, and were released. No explanation. Though free, I burned with shame.
A year later, I was living in San Francisco with my mom; my parents had divorced. I was getting high and starting to freelance as a photographer. My sister turned me on to a book by Carlos Castaneda. I read his books feverishly, backwards and forwards. I took notes. My first mescaline trip readily agreed: Yes, indeed, there was a separate reality. Probably everything against Castaneda stood for, I envied him and wanted to meet Don Juan.
I was 21 and living in Los Angeles again when I got a call from La Olga and my Tio Oscar. Oscar had cataracts in one eye and a glass ball in the other. But he had bought a new Buick and wanted to fly me out to El Paso to chauffeur them the scenic route—Santa Fe, Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon and Las Vegas— to LA to visit Mamalupe. Cousin Rina, Oscar, La Olga and me. Our first night, we spent in Santa Fe. After returning from dinner at Denny's, an electrical storm erupted. Behind our Motel 6, the sky split with lightning. Expecting rain that never came, I imagined what it must have been like to be Indian five hundred years ago. A message from God.
Now you must imagine exactly who I was traveling with. Rina was just 16, and it was with her that I spent my private time. During which, Rina, drip by drip, but eventually described— in third person— what it's like to be a lesbian in El Paso, Texas, mind you, this was 1976. My tio Oscar, a former Seabee who’d seen action in World War II, had just retired from Post Office with a pension-- the New Buick-- and was devoted to the very opionated, La Olga who chain smoked, painted her eyebrows in and wore a wig every day of her life—at least since I knew her. And me, I had my own agenda, for the meantime, we survived, one tourist to another.
The next morning we went to Acoma, Sky City they call it, an isolated mesa, sticking out of nowhere, that's home to an entire tribe of Indians. They've been there for centuries. At noon, we hit the Petrified Forest...a ruin is a ruin is a ruin. By afternoon, we entered the Navajo reservation. The radio station we'd been listening to crackled, then went dead. Finally I picked up a channel. It sounded like Chinese. Oscar and La Olga made jokes, imitating what they thought was Chinese speaking. Rina was off in another world, daydreaming of her girlfriend, I figured. Driving, mind you, listening to these voices on the radio, my mind traveled back five hundred years. The land itself was ageless, like the highway didn't even exist. I didn't see anyone, but I could feel them—surrounded by distant relatives who felt more like my family than my family. The Chinese General had come home.
When we reached California, I called one of the magazines I'd begun freelancing for, and got my first of several assignments on Native Americans. I went looking for Don Juan. I went everywhere, I traveled the U.S. and Mexico. I met Lakota, Ojibiwa, Crow, Cheyenne, Mohawk, Tarahumara. I stopped cutting my hair and sometimes I was asked what tribe I came from. I didn't know, and I felt kind of stupid. Like I was playing a game. But I didn't want to play any games. I wouldn't answer. It’s cliché, but it’s true, you have to know where you came from, to know where you are going. It was about four years into this, I was finishing up a story on the Navajo reservation at a place called Big Mountain, a story on Indian elders for a senior citizens' magazine. I had come to photograph and interview a Navajo named Khe Shay. Khe was among 10,000 Navajo and Hopi who were being forced off Big Mountain by the government and made to relocate to the city. There was coal and uranium underneath Big Mountain, and and for Navajos and Hopis like Khe Say, Big Mountain was sacred land.
When I arrived, I was escorted into the American Indian Movement camp that had been setup on Khe Shay's land. It was here I met a college professor from East LA, a Chicano named Frank. I'd never met another Mexican/American like me, searching out his indigenous path, and there he was standing in front of me. And Frank wasn't the only one. At Big Mountain I met other "Chicanos," many many others. I wasn't alone. The word "Chicano," Frank told me, came from the Aztec "Mexica"— "Mechica" — the tribe of Indians that inhabited Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) when Cortez arrived. "To call yourself Chicano," Frank told me, "was to identify with the "indigena", the indigenous part of yourself, and disavow the Spanish, the Conqueror part of our blood."
Frank Gutierrez was the spitting image of a Mexican Willie Nelson, was armed with a thirty-odd-six. And over the next several years, I would learn many things from him. I moved to Big Mountain that summer, put my cameras down and began to read Che Guevara. I had joined the resistance, la lucha, the struggle for the indigenous people and the land. My hair continued to grow long and thick. I went to sweat lodge. And Frank invited me to the Sundance. Not to dance. “You can’t just show up and dance,” he told me. “You’ll have a job. There’s plenty of work to be done. There will be something for you to do.” Frank described it to me and we talked about it all the time.
"Four days and nights, no food, no water. Dancing in a circle from sunup to sundown. Each day, with an eagle claw, one by one, the dancers are pierced in the chest. The medicine man jams wood skewers into the wound and attaches rope and the rope thrown over the strong limb high off the ground of a cottonwood tree. Skewered and bound to the rope, the dancer is lifted off the ground until they break free. Like a woman giving birth, the rope is the umbilical cord,” Frank would tell me. And then I would have him tell me again.
“Have you seen ‘A Man Called Horse’? He asked.
“No,” I haven’t seen it.
“Well, it’s not like that,” he said, “It's absolute carnage. Like it must have been in the days of the gladiators. It's the only thing left to remind us of our ancestors, the carving of hearts, the sacrifices to the great pyramid in Tenochtitlan. For all we receive, in comparison, it's a small offering."
It wasn't just any Sundance Frank was taking me to. It was the Rosebud Reservation. It was Crowdog's Sundance. Leonard Crowdog was Sittingbull's great-grandson. We arrived a full week early to help setup the camp. I was part of whatever crew that needed me during the day, all kinds of things had to be done, but at night, I was posted to security— No drugs, no guns, no alcohol. Dawn, the morning the Sundance started I was fighting to stay awake. With the sound of a thousand drum beats coming from the Sundance circle, I was awoken my trance, I was relieved. There was no way I was gonna miss watching this. Pretty much everybody in the camp but the dancers were still asleep, there must have been over a thousands people, but only a few of us were awake to watch the Sundance begin. And when I got there, a dancer was already hanging from the tree, hHis arms outstretched, each hand holding an eagle wing, his arms flapping in graceful abandon.
The Sundance Chief, Crowdog, was short in stature, but his feet were firmly planted, his dancing, like a buffalo prancing in place, holding a Willow-carved snake, three feet long in his left hand. He head turned my direction, looked at me, and winked. I turned around to see who he was winking at. There was no one there.
“Nephew,” Crowdog said to me. That's what he would call you, "nephew", no matter if you were related or not.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Bring me some charcoal. I need some hot coals.”
There was guy tending the fire and the rocks by the sweats. They had sweatlodges running all night and all day. There must have been five or six of them. And before the Sundance starts each day, each dancer has to go into the sweat. I told this guy who was tending the fire what Crowdog wanted, and asked him to bring it to him. “No,” the guy said. “He asked you. You bring. It. But I will fix it for you,” he said, and found almost the most perfect piece of wood—18” long, but where it been split, it was shaped ike a bowl, and here he placed a heap of burning charcoal. “This is what Crowdog wants.”
I don't remember walking back. It's not like something magical happened. Nothing like it. But all of a sudden I was center ring. Flesh flying, blood spattering, horses rearing. Crowdog gave me an eagle feather, and a bag of cedar and sage, "Cedar Man," Crowdog whispered, and poured some Cedar on the hot charcoals, smoke rising like steam, he put the bowl right in his face. From then on, the dancers would call me over, or Crowdog would call me when where the real shit was going down. After awhile I got a feel for it, and knew where to be without being asked.
There were Indians from all over the United States, and some from Canada. And half the dancers them were Chicano, representing the barrios of LA Frisco, Sacramento, El Paso, Chicago, Denver. There was even a small contingent from Mexico—Taclale, who spoke Nahuatl and his dansantes. There must have been 200 dancers altogether. No food, no water. Dancing in place from sunup to sundown, And over the next four days, everyone of them had to get pierced. I decided to fast with them, food and water. It was the least I could do.
On the second night, I was face down in the earth. My parched lips sucking out whatever moisture the soil might contain. Noon on the third day I broke the fast. I never ate, but from then on, I drank water every chance I got. I realized what the words sacred and sacred water meant. Frank taught me, "You can see anything that exists in this world out here. "Vanity, greed, envy, pity, love, hate. You can see anything.
"If they pray for water," he said, "for something selfish, for themselves, for a girl, whatever. . . they will feel the pain.
"If they pray to grandfather, unselfishly, for others, for the unborn, they will survive," Frank said, "they might soar, see God himself." I prayed for Mamalupe, that I could suffer for her, that her pain would be my pain, that my sacrifice would save her leg. She was in the hospital about to have one amputated.
The next day I left for LA limping. I had a blister the size of a golf ball on my right foot. I had stepped on a burning piece of charcoal. Crowdog had given me his staff, the wooden stick, the snake, he had held throughout the entire Sundance and I was using it now as a cane. Mamalupe was still in the hospital when I went to see her. The doctors had decided not to amputate. La Olga, Tio Oscar, were there. So was my mother, Tia Luba, my uncle Eduardo and my uncle Chuy -- all gathered around Mamalupe's bed. I don't know what they saw first, or what set them off-- Crowdog’s wooden stick, my pony tail, the eagle feather in my hair. They called me a joke and told me we were Spaniards.
A week later, one Friday night, I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard, watching the lowriders cruise the strip. I turned up a side street toward my apartment. An LAPD squad car sounded its siren and pulled four of us over; me and three homeboys I happened to be walking alongside.
"Up with your hands," the cop said. "You too." It was my hour of glory.
Mamalupe was sent home. Satisfied, my uncle Oscar, La Olga and my mother pressed me into chauffeur service again. We would take a scenic ride up the coast to San Francisco. They piled into my VW camper. We got gas first, and that's when it started.
The nozzle was in and the gas was pumping. I put a match to a small bowl of sage to bless the eagle feather hanging from my rearview mirror. I began to bless the whole van when my mother, then Oscar, then La Olga started coughing.
"Max, what is that stuff?" my mother asked.
"It's sage I got from the Sundance."
"Well, it's giving us all hay fever," La Olga sneezed.
"It's a healing herb," I said calmly. "Just relax."
"Max," my mom shot back. "Get it out. Right now!"
"The car's going to explode," Oscar wheezed.
I doused the flame, started the car and hit the freeway. They each rolled down their windows. We were on our way.
"Who do you think you are? You're no Indian." The inquisition had begun and culminated in my mom's kitchen, 450 miles away.
The beans were on the stove. My mom was stirring. La Olga was making handmade tortillas. My uncle Oscar was cutting tomatoes for the salsa. I pondered silence, the four of us. Oscar was first. "I want you to cut your hair," he said.
"I won't," I replied.
"You're American," said Oscar. "You're not Mexican," he sneered. "I was born in Mexico, Max. And I'm not even Mexican. I have two Bronze Stars from Iwo Jima!"
"But my skin is brown.”
''Yeah, but your ass is white," Oscar shot back.
I felt tears coming to my eyes.
"You're American," he continued, "I'm American, your mom's American, and you’re dad’s whi…”
"You think you're Indian, Max?" La Olga lit in. "My dad was full blood Apache and you know what he said about Indians?”
I didn't say anything.
"That Indians were worthless, nobody, nada!" she shouted.
Now, I began to cry.
"I'm Chicano," I said.
My mother slapped me.
Oscar started singing first. Then La Olga. Then my mom. As I walked out of the room, the chorus was full and strong:
"God Bless America."