1968. East L.A.
Dorita sits at her desk, a bundle of nerves and impatient feet. The heels of her shoes squeak on the linoleum tiles as she taps her toes to the rhythm of the clock’s ticking. Sweat drips down her back. She imagines an entire colony of ants crawling beneath the fabric of her blouse. They collect on the elastic waistband of her skirt and soak through, making her twitch in her seat.
Around her, several others betray their nerves too. Fingers pull at hair, pencils tap furiously against desks. Mr. McDonald stands at the front of the classroom, chalk squeaking on the blackboard. He blabbers on about the Civil War.
Dorita closes her eyes and breathes. She starts to wonder if maybe she should just remain in class after all, and be a good student. Sit here and make her parents proud.
Or she could walk out.
The words reverberate within her head, syllables splitting and reproducing like cells--infinite. Walk out, walk out, walk out.
Her boyfriend Emmanuel had dropped out of school last fall. The palms of his hands had still been bright red from where his teacher had brought down the ruler with a vengeance.
He had forgotten the word ‘escalate.’ His teacher had asked, with an impatient urgency, “Come on, Emmanuel. What are you trying to say?”
“It had grown! Ugh.” He had pulled at his hair, trying to yank out that darn word that just wasn’t there. “How do you say it? Esalar.”
The Spanish escaped him, an honest mistake. It was what one did when trying to remember a word. One simply spoke it in another language, hoping the brain could translate. But a bit of Spanish meant punishment and the ruler was promptly pulled out from a drawer in the teacher’s desk.
He was painting a mural now, up Eagle street. One of many, he said. His biggest dream was to become an artist and make East L.A. feel like home. Home, sweet home.
“You know, this place is de la raza.“ He’d tell her. “I just want to make it look like it.”
Dorita knew what he meant. If Los Angeles were alive, its heart would be here in the East side. This is where the streets call out to her in English and Espańol. Where the wide sun-baked roads are full of the symphonic sounds of rumbling cars and voices shouting out in accents, their English still thick with their native tongue. The Santa Ana winds in this part of the city carry with them the smells of sizzling meat from the taco stand in the corner, of fabric softener from the laundromat, of the thick scent of oil from the auto shops. Palm trees stand at the edges of the sidewalks, their green leaves exploding out like fireworks against the sky. This was a heart that beat with the rhythm of a thousand tambores and it pumped pure Chicano blood.
Dorita fidgets in her chair as the clock strikes the hour. Time was at it again with its usual tricks, flowing too fast but ticking too slowly. She wants to spring from her seat and try to ease the nerves itching beneath her skin.
East L.A. is also home because, well, she lived here didn’t she? She pictures her house and its Virgen de Guadalupe standing sentinel in the front yard. Her parents’ faces peer at her from the front porch, their smiles soft and sad. They loved this city. Her dad’s skin was proudly tinged with the “East L.A. sun,” as he called it, and her mama loved rolling down the windows of their Buick as they drove through the city at night, letting the cool breezes blow the day’s work off of her skin.
They’d be furious if they knew what she was about to do.
Dorita scratches at her scalp. The sweat was dripping now in nervous rivulets, collecting behind her ears and rolling down into her eyes.
Her parents had followed the monarch butterflies down to the city of Angels, and had stayed here, hoping that the city would find them as beautiful as they found it.
But did it?
She had been six, at the grocery store with her parents when a white man had slammed his shopping cart into theirs. He had stared them down and had tossed slurs into her father’s face, words that smacked into him like eggs, cracking over his skull, sinking into his flesh.
Back home, while mama cried into the brown paper grocery bags, dad had kneeled down and spoken into her little face. “Forget what that man said.” He smiled, the slurs still dripping down his face like yolk. “Those were simply the words of an ignorant fool.”
“He told us to go back to our country.” Dorita had said. “Do we not belong here?”
“Of course we do.” Her dad said. “This is our home now. Your mama and I, we made our mark by having you. Soon enough, it’ll be your turn.”
“To leave my mark?”
“Exactly.” He chuckled. “But you? You’re not only gonna leave a mark. You’re going to change the world.”
Those words again. They tug at her, daring, taunting.
Emmanuel is an artist. Her father is a mechanic, her mother just a lady who cleans houses. But what about her? Who was she? And what mark would she leave?
A guidance counselor had once laughed in her face after Dorita had asked her how she could become a teacher.
And Emmanuel had looked at her funny. “A teacher? After all they do to us, you want to become one of them?”
Yes. A teacher. One who taught others to change the world and leave their mark as well.
“Dora?” Mr. McDonald calls out to her, striking his desk with the palm of his hand. “Dora, are you listening?”
She stares at the vein pulsing in his forehead. Her heart hammers within her chest. But before she can speak, a tidal wave rises and roars from the hallway, becoming louder and louder until it hits their classroom door with kicks and pummeling fists.
The wave shouts, “Walkout!”
And Dorita rises, knowing East L.A. would thank her for what she was about to do.