Ever since an article about me ran in the UCLA paper, I've become the poster child for the American Dream: East L.A. bad girl who slashed cop makes good! I go to school full time, work in the food court, and volunteer at a center for at-risk teens. Against all odds, I turned my life around. The thing is, I never asked for all this attention. Now my professor wants me to write a gigantic thesis about what Americanization means to Mexican immigrants...and I'm not even sure yet what it means to me. Like for example...
Does familia always come first? I love my family. But I had to get out when my drug dealing brother threatened my life, and my parents took his side over mine.
Can't I have my own Declaration of Independence? I don't want to be anyone's charity case. So why do my friends get annoyed when I won't let them help?
Can West Side Story ever have a happy ending? Things with Will, the guy who wrote the article about me, are getting serious--and it's freaking me out. How are his rich parents going to feel when they find out he's in love with a chica like me?
by Lupe Perez
Okay, I admit it, I think I'm hot shit. Been like that all my life, what can I say? In my neighborhood it was be tough or be dead. I chose tough.
So as I pulled my switchblade knife out of my pocket and swung it around in front of a guy with low-slung jeans and a huge attitude, I was in my element.
The same way a magician might demonstrate his props to an audience, I arrogantly displayed the Grey Concord with its sleek design, its grey enameled body, and a stainless double-edged blade. Man, it was a beauty.
"Survival in America comes at a price," I said in my most intimidating and hard voice. "And everyone has to pay at one time or another. Ready to pay?"
I placed the gleaming blade right below his Adam's apple. The sharp tip created a dimple on his skin.
Full of bravado he lifted his chin and puffed out his chest, challenging me.
"I won't cut you," I said. But for just a second, I felt this sick wave of power that the blade had given me many times in the past.
I challenged the group of teens watching my demonstration in the youth community center. "Some of us pay with the loss of our innocence, others the loss of our soul, and still others with something tangible like our family." They didn't need to know that in some respect, I'd lost all three.
I pulled my knife back, and sent my hostile volunteer a silent apology for scaring him. I chose him as my pretend victim, because he had been the most obnoxious in today's group. Bragging to his buddies how he'd jumped girls like me in the streets before, and had taken care of business. I wanted to show him that a twig of a girl could be just as dangerous as a muscled dude that weighted three hundred pounds.
"Those that don't survive, pay the ultimate price -- the loss of their lives. And I guarantee that if you resort to weapons like these." I held up my knife again so the eight or so kids draped in their chairs could take a good look. "You won't survive."
"Out there," Diego, my cocky volunteer said, raising an eyebrow in defiance. "You would have never gotten that fila out of your pocket."
"Willing to bet your life on it?" I met his arrogant gaze with the confidence of my own.
He grinned, but I could tell he was reassessing my speed and skill, and the fact that he hadn't even seen the knife coming. "Naw, it's cool," he said and stepped back offering me a cholo handshake.
I folded my blade and stuffed it back in my pocket then shook hands. "You see guys, one day, you'll be caught using your knife or your gun by the good guys at LAPD and they'll put you away."
Making eye contact with those that looked the toughest, I continued. "Or you'll come up against someone who has a bigger weapon, someone who surprises you, like I just did with Diego." I paused. "And you'll die. Then it's over. Really over. Not like in a video game. Think about it."
The kids looked at me with distrust. Some of them with a superiority that said, I didn't know shit. But I do. I've been where they are now. "Survival in America -- power, comes from turning your back on the street and deciding you ain't playing that game no more. If that's what you want, you're in the right place."
Nash pointed at his wristwatch and I nodded knowing I was out of time.
"All right guys, I've got to get out of here. See Nash and he'll take care of you."
Ryan Nash is totally amazing and deserves all the credit for The Vibe continuing to exist. I help out a few hours every morning, but he's the one that makes things happen. He works with the kids that show up looking for help, and keeps them motivated and challenged. Like a crazed evangelist, he walks the streets and storms the schools seeking out the "at-risk" kids -- the ones that would be lost or dead if it wasn't for him -- and convinces them to choose life, to choose salvation. And this has nothing to do with the spirit. No. By salvation, I'm strictly talking making it to their 18th birthday physically alive.
As I turned the group over to Nash, about half the kids walked out, hurling insults on their way out the door. We were used to that. Hey, you can't save everyone.
Back in the small employee lounge with lockers on one wall, a mirror on the other, and a huge table in the center, I hurried and picked up my backpack. Shit, I'd be late for my classes at UCLA again. I never seemed to be able to leave on time, but if I didn't stop by the center in the morning, I'd never be able to return during the day. My schedule was too tight.
Nash peeked inside and smiled. Caught me staring at my skinny self in the mirror. I smiled back and pretended I was picking a hair out of my eye.
"Someday, I want to learn how to do that with a switchblade knife." He moved his hands and arms around, imitating me.
"No you don't," I said and looked away from the mirror.
He shrugged and smiled that cute smile of his.
I've had a crush on him since we opened up this place and Marcela hired him to run it. Of course, ‘a crush' is putting it mildly. I knew from the first moment I met him that he was it. Sort of like a pilot might always know that he was meant to fly or an astronaut might realize the first time he looked up at the sky that he just ‘had to' one day go up in space and walk on the moon. Well, I knew, the day Marcela introduced me to Nash and he looked into my eyes, that I loved him. Crazy, huh? It was like some tension inside me eased because I knew I'd found what I was meant to find in this world.
But to him, I've always been a kid. He's eight years older than me, which sounds like a lot, and I guess it was when I was thirteen, but now I'm not a kid anymore.
Problem is, I'm not a girly girl either. I run around with jeans and a T-shirt half the time. I have boring straight black hair. And I don't know how to get his attention the way girls do with boys. As I walked past him, I paused for just a second. "Ryan?"
"What is it, Cutie Pie?"
Will you go out with me? Say it. Say it! This brave part of me encouraged, but the wimp part took over and I said instead, "Ah, be careful when you leave tonight."
He reached across and straightened the strap on my back pack that had gotten twisted against my shoulder blade. "Don't worry about me."
He angled his head and gazed at me through warm, deep blue, sexy as hell eyes. "I can take care of myself, Hot Shot. Watch your own back."
"This is my neighborhood. I was born watching my back."
"One day soon, you're going to graduate and this will all be a bad dream." With a swipe of his hand across his forehead, his long strands of hair, cascaded back and out of his eyes. And I was mesmerized.
Even the way he wore his hair, cut in a shaggy, layered style that reached his shoulders, was a major turn on for me. Wild and loose and free, his hair, like him -- couldn't be held back. It had to hang down, long and uncontrolled. Though I know his intent was to look like some of the rock and roll musicians from the oldie bands he liked so much, to me, he was my very own wise mystic in the flesh. All knowing. All good. As perfect as they came.
"You'll never have to set foot in this neighborhood again," he promised.
Pulling myself away from silently worshiping him with a physical step back, I said, "My feet are firmly planted in this area." I'd never stop volunteering at The Vibe. This place is what reminds me daily of where I've been, how far I've come, and how far I still have to go.
"No. You're on your way out, Lupe. And when you get out, don't ever look back," Nash said.
That was his goal -- to get me out. I suppose seeing me succeed, watching me pass that imaginary line from barrio chick to middle class American woman would signify to him that he'd accomplished his goal, done his job. But if success meant leaving him behind, as well as the kids that might need me, did I want that?
"So get to class," he said, snapping me out of my thoughts.
I glanced at him. Again, he made me feel like a kid. I had this urge to do something, anything, to make him look at me as an adult, as a woman. Maybe plant a big kiss right on his sexy lips. Or pull my top off and show him that I had tits now, maybe not big ones, but I had them. But unable to get up the nerve to do something like that, I nodded and left.
Around the side of our building was a run-down, smelly alley where people from the nearby apartments dumped their trash bags full of diapers, homeless guys urinated, and I . . . kept my bike. I strapped my backpack down and grabbed my helmet as I straddled the seat.
Then, I went through my routine: got my guy, wiped the seat, climbed on, and pulled my keys out of my pocket. Just as I was about to start the bike and get my helmet on, three guys suddenly appeared behind me out of no where, startling the crap out of me. One took the helmet out of my hands. "Where you goin', Bitch?"
I recognized them as three of the boys who had been in the group I'd just finished lecturing, but not my macho volunteer, Diego. These guys were probably about sixteen or seventeen year old punks. (I call them punks in the most loving way. I understand where they're coming from and I understand the tough act.) Old enough to know better and way to close to my age for comfort.
"Give me back my helmet," I said, resisting a patronizing sigh. Didn't I just show them I could more than protect myself?
The other two guys got closer, crowding me and my bike. "Or what?" One of them asked. "You gonna use those fancy blade tricks on us?"
They all laughed.
Oh, I get it, this is a challenge. I blew a couple of little bubble with my chewing gum and put the key in the ignition and the bike started. It roared to life, making them take a step back. "I told you. I don't use the blade anymore." Then I reached for the helmet, but the idiot wouldn't let go. Pinche cabron. Just because I understand them, doesn't mean I'm willing to take any shit from them.
I held on tight to the helmet and brought my left leg straight up between the guy's legs until I slammed up against his crotch. And this wasn't an easy thing to do with the heavy boots I wear. I bought these boots at a second hand store. Probably meant for men, but I loved them as soon as I saw them because they look tough -- like they can survive a military bombing or something, and when I ride my bike they keep my feet warm and safe. And no matter what hits them they still look great. Getting kicked by them is enough to change your attitude big time.
The guy let the helmet go and doubled over with a yelp, his hands coving his balls.
Before the other two could react, I placed the helmet over the gas tank, hit the kick stand, and turned the throttle. The bike screamed out of the alley. Glancing back, I saw one of the guys chase after me, but he gave up about half a block later when he realized I was too far ahead of him and he wouldn't catch me.
I rode about ten blocks away before stopping to dial the cops -- my buddy, Captain Martinez.
"Hey, it's me," I said when he answered.
"Ms. Perez. What's up?" In the background, I heard the usual station noise along with an extra loud voice of someone who didn't sound particularly cooperative or happy to be there.
"Could be trouble outside of the center," I said. "These three punks. Can you send a patrol car, just in case?"
"You okay?" he sounded concerned. I appreciated having the cops on my side. Sure felt better than having them chasing me down.
"I'm fine, they circled me outside when I was leaving. But I took care of it. I just don't want them stirring trouble for Nash or, you know, when other kids leave."
"I'll send a car out right away."
"Thanks." I slipped the helmet over my head and raced to UCLA.