The Prince of Tijuana
We moved to Arizona from California. I am not sure how we got here: either my mother chased my father, or she was invited by him. It all depends on who you ask. Anyway, when the Arizona heat was too much, our escapes from the desert were either to Los Angeles or Tijuana. I could not have been more than 5 years old when my mother would ask me if I wanted to go to L.A. to be with my godparents or if I wanted to go to Tijuana to be with my grandmother. My L.A. godparents had beautiful houses and were always very kind to me. But I would always choose my grandmother. Tijuana was the antithesis of my millionaire godparents’ place. My mom would tell me my grandmother’s was just dirt and garbage. My reply? “I love the dirt.”
My grandmother, Micaela, lived in Tijuana from 1958 to 1970, in a house that had no running water. Toilets did not exist in the house. You had to shit in the bacinilla, a small, white metal pot, with chips missing from the paint and rust starting to form around the rim. When I told my grandmother that I had to go to the bathroom, she gathered wood and put it into the stove to warm up water. It was an ordeal for her. I remember her aged, broken body bending over to start the fire. She was 70 years old. She limped when she walked. Her fingers were twisted and had seen many years of hard work. Gray streaks ran through her silky hair. Her skin looked like porcelain, white and smooth.
Her house had electricity, but nothing worked very well. The lights in the front room dangled from loose wires and illuminated the room like a cataract mist in the night, dim and cloudy. There was no electric stove those were for rich people. I remember watching her get the fire started with matches. I could smell the phosphorus in the air as my grandmother would strike the wooden match against the box. The flame would hypnotize me as she moved the fire to the wood in the oven. I could hear the crackling of the wood burning and smell was intoxicating.
The fire was to heat the water. The water that was collected from a community spigot in the middle of the street. Abuelita Micaela would carry her water jugs to the spigot and fill them only halfway so she could manage to carry them back. Watching her struggle, I could see the water was heavy. She could not lift the jug to the stove. She would try and end up spilling most of the water, almost putting out her fire. She had to set the kettle on the floor to fill it. I watched the water flowing from the jug into the kettle as she poured it, wondering if the kettle would tip over or if she had poured enough to serve the purpose.
My Abuelita had a strong will, but her body was old. When the fire was roaring, she placed the black kettle on the stove. It was dented and rusted, but true to the purpose. I would sit and look up at it. I could see the flames dancing, caressing the bottom of the kettle. It felt like it took hours for that water to get warm. I was very impatient. I was a spoiled brat. Once the water was warm, she poured it slowly onto the rim, careful that the hot water would coat the rim of the bacinilla, but not spill onto the wooden floor. Floors that were so old they would creek when you walked on them. In some places the wood was missing and you could see the ground underneath the house. Garbage had blown under the house. I could see newspapers, glass bottles of Coke, and tinfoil laying there. I would stare at them wondering where they came from. How far had they traveled?
My eyes would follow my grandmother’s hand as it rotated around and around the rim, warming it for me with the warm water. I wanted to make sure that she got every part of it. I used to get very mad at her if she did not warm the rim up for me. Heaven forbid the prince having to sit on a cold pot. I would hold it until she had everything prepared just right.
I would beat my children if they treated me the way I treated my grandmother. She loved me.
She would sit by me, waiting until I was done. I would get mad if she left. When I was done, she would have to carry the pot full of shit out to the back of the house where she had dug a hole in the yard.
The yard had a dilapidated wooden fence that had never been painted or treated for weather. It was dark brown and rotting; its only purpose was to draw the line of where one yard began and the other yard ended. I was always shocked to see all of the garbage, rotten wood, and junk. Her yard had no grass, it was dirt. As a matter of fact, the whole town was dirt. The days the water trucks would come down the street to keep the dust down I would sit in the broken sidewalk and just look at them. I imagined they were making it rain and could smell the wet dirt. The dirt smelled damp, elemental. I still love the smell of rain on the ground. It is familiar. No, Tijuana did not have manicured lawns with sprinkler systems, no gnomes by the bird feeder. All of the lawns were not watered at the same time of the day and neighbors did not hang out to chit chat about how it has been a particularly hot summer. This was Tijuana and nobody had the money or the time for that shit.
My grandmother threw the mierda down the hole and got a scoop of lye to throw after it. Funny, the same chemical that is used to take the hull and germ off the corn before cooking is used to killed the scent of shit.
In the backyard there was also a metal can where my grandmother would put all of the garbage. She was composting without knowing it. The garbage can was filled with toilet paper, rotten corn, meat that was spoiled. These odors filled the air in the neighborhood. Multiply my grandmother’s house by a hundred. Sometimes the garbage trucks would not arrive in a timely manner so the waist in the cans was set afire. The neighborhood smelled like a sewer. It was repugnant. It was always very exciting. I anticipated the lighting of the match and my heart would start to race. It usually took two or three attempts before the garbage would catch fire, but once it started, it would be roaring in no time. I watched the red glow through the rusty holes in the metal can. The fire eventually started to dance out of the top of the can and ash floated in the air. It became a game to pick a piece of ash and follow it as the wind carried it away. I would always try to pick the piece that would travel the farthest. If the piece I picked let me down, I would just go to the next one, always wanting to win. The ash seemed more like birds than garbage to me, flying to freedom.
It was life. It was my life.
My grandmother wanted it to be pleasant around the house. She had pride and grew up in a time of Marianismo, where women in Mexico knew exactly what their role was in the house. In the midst of living in these conditions, my grandmother always wanted everything to be clean. She would even sweep the dirt in front of the house to make sure there was no garbage and it looked proper. Her dilapidated house was always in order, no clutter. And the wooden walls were adorned with the Virgin Mary, pictures of Jesus, and crosses. There was a Catholic candle in every room with every saint you could imagine to protect us and guide us.
Tijuana was the place where I was being groomed as the new prince. All of the other so-called kings had failed. Failed our kingdom, our family. My grandmother knew she had failed colossally with her sons, the Figueroa men. Jesus was a drunk and Francisco was a coward. She had one last chance with me. Boys are sent by God. Women are always cared for, but never seen as important. They will never carry the name. Women are given away and produce the seed of another family. I was the heir to the throne of the Figueroa’s. Although my last name was my father’s, Gantchoff, I was raised as a Figueroa. Everything I knew was Mexican. My food, music, and soul. I was able to walk the dirt street knowing that my Abuelita Figueroa lived on, and hold my head up high. The sidewalks were uneven and cracked as I would go down the block to the corner store and get candy without paying. I felt like a king; the cashier owed me that homage. I didn’t realize my grandmother would pay for the account later. On the way, I would pass a Jai alai court that I would dream of being the world champion. The court’s walls went up to the sky and the paint was chipping, but it looked like the Roman Colosseum to me. I walked across the street and knocked on Tonya’s door. Tonya was a very kind woman and had a contagious smile. She would open the door, smile at me, and always had a bean burrito waiting for me. I would open up my burrito and see the beans smeared on the tortilla, an “embarrada de frijoles.” She was 40 and had her own family to feed, but she always had one more burrito for the prince. I was asked to play American football by the local kids on the block. I said sure, not knowing what the hell I was doing at five years of age. I knew I would be good or maybe it was just my royal mind thinking that I was that good. I was a boy of privilege. I held the world in contempt. I am not sure if it was when I was playing football or just playing with the kids, but my mother likes telling this story about when I was actually crowned by the neighborhood kids who disliked me because I was so favored. I had my own ordination. One day, I came home with a toilet seat on my head and I could not get it off. The kids had put it on me. I remember them laughing at me. The tears flowed from my eyes when I got home. It humors my mother when she tells that story because It matches her life philosophy of staying humble, “we are never greater or less than anybody.” That is why the Figueroa’s never became greater than anybody. The irony of it all. My crown was a toilet seat in a kingdom of garbage and shit. As I think about it now, I wonder why I cried. Was it because the seat was hurting me? Could it be the embarrassment of having a toilet seat on my head? Or could it be that I realized the kingdom that had been left to me was a kingdom of shit and garbage. I loved dirt.
That Tijuana boy has never left me. I would come home from my grandmothers to Arizona and find my own Tijuana. For years I would walk down the alleys in my neighborhood looking into garbage cans, wondering what treasures were left for me. We called it dumpster diving. I once found an electronic football game that contained my favorite team at the time, the Los Angeles Rams. The game would move the players by vibrations but the vibrating mechanism was broken. I just tapped the board with my fingers and made the men move. I kept that game for years.
I would go to the park when it rained to smell the wet dirt. I imagined the water trucks on my grandmother’s street.
Now, as a grown man, I still see that boy in me. I go to the Goodwill, not because I have to, but because I still wonder what treasure someone has left for me. Looking at every book, shoe, and toy. Maybe I will find another electronic football game.
I go camping to see my campfire flickering in the metal clothes washer basin I have. Just like in Tijuana, I look at the fire particles dancing in the wind. I love the smell of the match when I strike it against the box.
I miss those days with my grandmother. It has made me who I am. Most people might want to visit houses worth millions of dollars, but I don’t. I still loved dirt more than marble.