Monday, April 30, 2012
Title: Strong Women Grow Here
In my first life, in Mexico, I traveled on bright colored buses,
decorated with sunflowers and vines. In my second life, my daughter
Katrina and I rode the graffiti spotted buses in Los Angeles, to and
from the baby doctor. Now I am seventeen years old and my journey is
inside a small brown van with two girls and two Officers, driving into
my third life.
My friend in Center Juvenile Hall said the girls in San Bueno are
older—nineteen, twenty but not as old as in the women prisons. You
better watch yourself, you’re too small to fight, she told me. I have
never been in a fight and don’t want to be, so I will stay out of the
way. That is the best way to survive these times. Now that my husband
is gone, my daughter Katrina has only me and I her. No matter what
happens, I have to stay strong.
The van swerves out of the fast lane and throws me sideways until the
handcuff on my wrist yanks me back making the nervousness in my
stomach leap to my throat. My hand flies up to cover my mouth, a
movement that alarms the girl next to me. The one with the neck
“Hey, she’s gonna barf.”
The oatmeal I ate for breakfast rushes into my throat where the taste
of iron floods my mouth until a retch escapes. I want to spit, but
press my hand tighter against my dry lips. The officer in the front
passenger seat pushes a paper towel through the square opening in the
“Ivanov, stop looking out the window, it’s making you sick,” he says.
I try to nod my head but the effort makes me dizzy.
“No vomito,” the girl with the neck tattoos says. She crowds against
the other side of the seat.
I pray that I don’t make a mess on the girl who looks like a boy with
her short brown hair combed back, shiny with pomade. The blue-black
letters on her neck spell WF 13. I don’t understand what that means
but I have seen these letters on the walls of buildings from my seat
on the LA city buses.
The driver has unblinking yellow brown eyes like the iguanas near the
river in my hometown. His eyes watch me in his rear view mirror before
they dart to the girl with the neck tattoo. She says something to him
and mentions my name. I don’t understand because my English is not too
good, but she sounds angry. My free hand begins to shake and I put it
under my thigh.
“You okay?” A soft voice floats from behind. I turn to see the girl
who we picked up from the last juvenile hall. Her eyes and skin are
the color of piloncillo, the raw sugar cones my mother used to make
Mexican chocolate. There are no tattoos on her face, arms, or neck.
She wears a small smile, crooked with fright. “She says if you get
sick on her you'll be washing her clothes for the next year,"she says
in Spanish. “Me llamo Belinda.”
“Me llamo Juana.”
She nods her head and closes her eyes. She doesn’t want to talk. I understand.
“Hunh,” the girl with the tattoos makes a sound like disgust. I don’t
need enemies. I speak to her in the English I learned in the past
“No worry, I no get sick. What is you name?” She looks at me up and
down, with a squint in her eyes like those I have seen many times in
Center Juvenile Hall.
She blows air out of her mouth and turns away. Maybe if I close my
eyes my nausea will go away, but before my head touches the window,
the van jerks and throws me forward. My wrist pulls against the
handcuff while my other hand slams up against the screen divider in
front of me, keeping my face from smashing into it.
“What the hell?” Jester says, sliding back into her seat with a thump.
Through the screen on the window, I see a large sign, "San Bueno
Youth Correctional Facility." Towering chain link fences surround
groups of red brick buildings.This place is so much bigger than Center
Juvenile Hall. There must be hundreds of girls in there. My stomach
squeezes tight under my ribs cutting off my breath. I want to get out
of here. The van turns onto another road where the tires dip and bump
over the path. The smell of dirt floods my nose. There is not enough
air in here. My breakfast bubbles up in my throat again. I can’t hold
it in anymore. Spoiled milk and oatmeal splash onto the floor.
“Fuck,” Jester yells and pulls her legs up on the seat.
The paper towel, now damp and torn from my clenched hand, does little
to stop the bitter smell from saturating the air. Jester pinches her
nose and gives me the squinty look. Ay Dios. The van stops in front of
a tall steel gate. Silver coils like thin ropes of a lariata curl
across the top. Their sharp edges flash through the gloomy sky. I feel
dizzy looking up and shut my eyes tight while I beg God to take me
back to my first life.
Iguana Eyes, jumps out of the van and slams the door. I can hear
voices laughing before the side door slides open. He stands watching
us with his arms crossed in front of his thick chest.
“Montes, guess who’s back? Gonzales thought it was time for another
state paid vacation,” he says.
A lady with a purple headband holding back her wild frizzy hair
laughs. She has on a thick belt, like his, around a long blouse that
drapes over her black pants. Several keys dangle from a black strap
attached to it.
Jester tells the lady something and makes a loud smacking sound with
her mouth. This girl acts very familiar with the staff lady and
officer. Why isn’t she afraid of them? Maybe the girls at Center
Juvenile Hall exaggerated about this place, maybe my time here won’t
be so bad. Iguana Eyes reaches in with his big hands and unlocks
Jester's handcuffs then pulls her off the van. “Watch it,” she yells
and walks across the driveway the way the gangbangers at the park
walk, slow and unafraid. “What’s up Ms. Montes?” The staff lady shakes
her head and smirks.
The other officer unlocks my handcuffs, leaving marks around my wrists
like red splotchy bracelets. When I step out of the van the scent from
the fields surrounds me. It’s apio, celery, sending me it’s cool waves
of moist green. For one brief moment, I feel like I’m back in my
mother’s garden, back in Santa Isabel. The familiar smell brings me
some comfort until tears begin to flood my eyes. It may be years
before I can return to Santa Isabel, before I can see my baby, my
family. I close them tight, to push them back.
Iguana Eyes says something, points at me and then the van. My stomach
twists. Ms. Montes looks back and forth at Belinda and then me.
“Which one of you is Ivanov?
I slowly lift my hand.
Ms. Montes tells Jester something and points to the building. Jester
looks at me with anger, then walks into the building and comes back
with a bucket of soapy water. She pushes a rag into my hand and
points to the van. I am embarrassed that I threw up. Everyone must
think I’m a scared baby. I bite my lip so I won't cry, take the rag
and clean up the mess.
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