I understand the game sometimes

Editor's Note:

Part of a series of reflections on what it's like growing up in the San José neighborhoods they love and are proud of - the same neighborhoods the SJPD has labeled gang hotspots.

I grew up off North Fifteenth St. about a stone's throw from San Jose High Academy and whistle distance from downtown. A general in between of forces and spaces. The block has changed, and so have I. The house my family-owned for generations was lost to the bank. My grandma died in a soulless apartment, neighboring a freeway miles from where she cultivated her life. Our impact on those streets might be lost to the world outside of the memories, photos, and the lemon trees I carved my initials into. But still, they exist in the in-between through storytelling.

I still often visit the neighborhood, and when I do, I pass by my cousin J's old house, a little bungalow-style building off 15th and Washington. I remember when I was young, I thought he looked like the bad guy from a 007 movie. He was about 6 feet from the ground to the top of his head, as wide as a soda machine. He was an impressively large person with mixed complexions of soft brown and light peppering of freckles along his nose bridge. He had two bulldogs and a couple 9 millimeters tattooed on him. On his head sat long tight-fisted cornrows swirled in a style that came off the back of his head, slightly grazing his shoulder blades. J had gold grills, this was mid 90's, and I had never really seen anyone else with gold grills before, so I always thought he had braces when he beamed like the sun.

J pushed his weight around and was always in some shit. Either as an enforcer for his boys or some dealings in the undercurrent so many of us are assigned to on blocks like this. In my twisted memories, I remembered a time when we used to have a yearly family reunion at various community centers. I learned a lot about organizing and the concept of community through watching my aunt's efforts with these events. At a particular reunion, all the kids were running around outside playing when suddenly our parents came stumbling out, screaming for us to get inside. I guess a few older cousins got into a fight with someone from the block, and so he brought back like six of his homeboys to the center with guns, or so I remembered. After asking my dad about this situation, he reminded me that it was, in fact, J's wedding, and he purposefully had it in a different Varrio than his own. My memory floats towards this image of J just dancing while the DJ spun records amongst the confusion until someone tapped him and whispered in his ear. Without looking concerned, he smirked, the sweat beads barely clung to his face until they broke and fell as he smiled. The gold grills sparkled brightly, giving the disco ball some fierce competition. J told everyone to stay in. He walked outside with a family friend and came back 10 minutes later with the same smile and said: "it's all good." My aunts were angry at him for purposefully placing the reception where he did putting everyone in danger, but also so happy that he had saved the night. They eventually took the kegs to our house on 15th St. and held an after, after party.

J used to give me Rolo's every time I went to his house and let me watch pay per view on his black box (TCI stolen cable). I'm sure it was to keep me occupied from the scale outs of a triple beam behind closed doors. I once got a goldfish from the Holy Cross Parish carnival across from Backesto park. Across from where my grandma helped with lunch programs out of the small center, right off the handball courts. The goldfish died before we left. Its head stuck in the corner of my ziplock bag, needless to say, my sad ass cried all the way home. The next week J came over the house with a goldfish in a little glass tank for me and my brother Robert and said he "revived it."

I don't hear much of him anymore. As the blocks changed, my family seemed to atomize in the same fashion, growing apart. Last I heard he was locked up, which made me sad to hear. I ask my dad about him, but he mostly avoids it to hide from pasts, maybe? Or like a lot of people from my childhood, maybe they had a falling out involving money or drugs or something "I'd never understand." Before submitting this piece, I had my dad look it over to check and see if he was ok with me saying some things and which names to leave out. I pushed the subject further, I am always asking him to tell me about pasts many of us run from. He said to me that J had got too deep in some shit and so he left California and has never come back to where he grew up. This is better than prison or death, but it still made me sad to hear.

There are a lot of things we do within the confines of our situations and neighborhoods. Still, they culminate into something unnameable something spiritually detached from reason that lives in the heart. Because good and bad are often depending on which side of time you view them and behind who you see them from. So many things my parents and family hid from us and I can't tell if it was for them or for us. The majority of us were smart enough to figure out what was going on though. Although J probably did some bad things, he is still one of the coolest people I remember from my childhood. I learned a lot about respect, politeness, and acts of pure love from him. Things are tricky and not as easily explained as the times would have us think. No one person has a single story, we each hold volumes. It's always that same tale though, from elders, we hear, "I want them to be better than me" or "I want them to have a better life than I." I understand the game sometimes.



Related Media:
Home is Valley Palms
Both Sides of the Tracks
Dismantling the Raza Youth Incarceration Machine



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