The Student News Site of San Luis Obispo High School




The Student News Site of San Luis Obispo High School



It Takes A Village: Community and How We Come Together in Times of Need


  My family owned a restaurant when I was six years old. We actually used to do well, before we were displaced.

  Between the entrance of my house and the restaurant, there was a small hallway that led out to the cement storage space between them. The living room (which was the majority of the small house) was some of the only space where you could see the carpet. 

  Mamá, my great-grandmother, had a big, comfy rocking chair she used to rest in peacefully as she knitted away and sang a Mexican lullaby under her breath. 

  The carpet, as imperfect as it was with all of its stains, was also perfect. They were small milagros, Mamá would call them. It was either my brother or me vomiting after getting sick, which happened really often, or there were happy memories of being so excited about something like we met a new friend inside of the restaurant. Then we would trip and spill a drink (preferably soda, my favorite was Fanta Orange) all over the carpet and we couldn’t get it out as much as Mamá insisted we scrub it. We met new friends every day and saw old friends. Life couldn’t seem more perfect.

  There were five of us living in the house, with two bedrooms. Four of us shared one bed–Me, Mamá, my little brother, Jaxon, and my great-uncle, Alex, who was like my father.

  One of my other great-uncles, Jorge, had his own small room that was the size of a meat locker. We didn’t have much, but we had each other. He seemed… sound, before everything happened. He was happy and content with life and with having us there. That all seemed to change that night.

  There was no kitchen, as I recall, because the restaurant was through the entrance to the living room. If we needed to cook something when we were younger, we just passed through the wooden doors to a cement storage space several yards between the restaurant and the house and then typically kicked open the poor white door that suffered every one of our blows.  However, I remember so clearly we didn’t eat dinner that night around the long restaurant table. Jorge didn’t come out and my great-grandmother’s feet were so tired. She decided to rest and knit to calm herself down from the busy day in the restaurant. 

  We ate a lot after I came back from kindergarten. I practiced English for my classes at the little desk my parents bought me from Goodwill, and my great-uncle Alex would smile and ruffle my hair as I showed him my ESL exercises and how I was doing, in trade for a plate of rice, beans, and carne asada (and maybe some cheese if I was lucky).

  Later that night, I clung onto my great-grandmother’s sore feet as she knitted. In both of my hands, I had very poor conditioned Barbies (also from Goodwill). 

  I was used to this. I’d play dolls and make them kiss sometimes. I was a mini-director of a movie in my head. 

  The chair was far back enough for me to look at Jorge’s door into his bedroom. I never went in. I only knew the bathroom and our room. 

  However, I raised my head and sniffed. Something strange was in the air.

  I looked back down at my Barbies to find there were some ashes on their blonde hair. After that, I glanced up at the top of Jorge’s door and found black, thick smoke coming out. I shrieked and cried out for Mamá and my three-year-old half-brother to pay attention. Jaxon didn’t seem to care much, but Mamá pricked herself on the needle and started cussing me out before I pointed up to the door of doom. 

  Mamá, at 4’11”, picked up Jaxon and tried to run as I started sprinting ahead of her. She was at more of a fast-walk because she was 73 at the time and her diabetes made it gradually more difficult for her to walk. But she ran as fast as she could and went towards the restaurant, crying out for help to her sons, and the customers.

  I had pretty little ballerina shoes on. We had just gone to Walmart the week before and these pretty Mary Janes that were silver and covered in glitter made me feel like the most gorgeous little girl on the face of the planet. 

  One of my shoes fell off just as I was about to push through the wooden doors to the space between the house and the restaurant. I tried running back for it, but my great-grandmother grabbed me by my collar and nearly choked me doing it before I could get it. 

  “Mamá, my shoe,” I sniffled, flailing as she dragged me and the rough ground left scratches on the backs of my thighs.

  “We don’t have a damn minute for your shoe,” she shouted at me in Spanish as if she didn’t want to hear anymore about my shoe. I was devastated… and half-barefoot. 

  The cold cement stung my foot. I ran though, knowing I might never again see that shoe. 

  I was crying to Alex and hugging him around his big pot belly, mourning the loss of my shoe. He pulled his youngest brother, Joel, aside as I wept and told him to run to the fire station down Broad Street while he called 911 so he could get them to come quicker. 

  Joel was always a jogger and was the trimmest in the family. He ran out of the parking lot, flinging himself onto Broad Street. I heard the honking as he barely missed cars. I watched from the restaurant window. He never looked more terrified.

  Alex was then yelling for Jorge and asking where he was after calling my adoptive father and his brother, Noe. 

  Jorge wasn’t in sight or in hearing range. He must have been at Manuel’s Liquor Store getting food and alcohol most likely. He always tuned out the busyness of Broad Street, whether there was a big ruckus or not.

  Noe got there 10 minutes later. As I was wiping my tears and my brother was ripping leaves off of the plants on the patio absent-mindedly, he grabbed me first and hoisted me up to his shoulders and ran outside to the near empty parking lot. Everything was a blur and I remember sobbing and sobbing and sobbing over my little shoe when he picked me up. I couldn’t think of anything else.

  Jaxon sat next to me and played with his feet, before he suddenly got silent when he looked up at the sight that shocked everyone.

  Our house was engulfed in flames.

  I began crying even more when my six-year-old brain knew this was bigger than my shoe. This was the loss of my home. My safe haven. The disintegration of everything I knew about life and about myself. After that, I realized childhood was short. Everything I was attached to could be burned to the ground in a minute flat.

  As I came to sob even louder and draw more attention to us, Mamá hugged her little great-grandchildren and sang the same lullaby she was singing earlier. I passed out of exhaustion from how much I cried, my sobs becoming silent cries into her chest as I was slowly brought back to Earth by her singing. All I remember before I passed out was seeing the roof of our house submit to the flames and fall through the house as I heard the sirens ringing from Broad Street towards us…

  When I woke up, I was wrapped in a blanket behind a car in the parking lot. The kids from the surrounding streets were waiting for me to wake up. It was Saturday. When I blinked my eyes open, breathing slowly, I saw familiar faces around me. I saw a crowd of friends around me.

  It was morning, I soon realized. I had slept right in that place. After the flurry of children piled on top of me, I pushed them off and looked around me. 

  On the black asphalt was my brother, under a blanket and sleeping, and Mamá holding him closely. Our whole family was there. Joel told me we could go to Manuel’s for an early ice cream bar and candy instead of our usual Friday like normal. However, this wasn’t anywhere near normal. 

  I glanced at the charred house, with the roof caved into itself and all the windows broken. The restaurant was unharmed though.

  I felt displaced when I realized we were in the parking lot… like a bunch of dogs. It’s a shame that hung over me on the playground when I returned to school the next week, and the shame hung over me until a few months ago, almost ten years later. I was a stray: homeless, dirty, and lost. 

  After Joel ruffled my oily hair again, Brett, one of the kids we often played with that lived nearby, raised his voice.

  “Hey! Let’s play two-touch behind the wall! I’ll get my ball from my house!” he beamed, before running across Branch Street to his house to get it. I looked behind the wall that separated our parking lot from the back of the Gaslight Lounge and smiled at the familiarness of it all.

  Mamá watched me rise again. There was a glint of hope in her eyes I’ve never forgotten. I took it to heart. More trucks were pulling in, from our farmworker friends from Guadalupe to Santa Maria, asking if they could help us or maybe give us shelter for a day in their shacks until we found a home. 

  Maybe we weren’t so alone, dirty, and “lost.”

  While nothing was normal and everything seemed to be upside-down from where it was, that glint of hope stayed in my mind through the years. 

  I remember it front and center every day when I wake up. 

  When I was by Mamá’s side on her deathbed last January, she gave me that same look, holding my hand and giving it a tight squeeze. 

  I cried just like I had, for the loss of something much more precious than my sparkly shoe.

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