Author: Mona AlvaradoFrazier
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 State 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 only has me and I her. No matter what happens, I have to stay strong. There is nothing left for me in Los Angeles.
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 tattoo.
“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 screen.
“Ivanov, stop looking out the window, it’s making you sick.”
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 said don’t mess up her clothes or you have to wash them when we get to San Bueno. 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 three years.
“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 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, 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 yanks her legs up on the seat.
“Shut up,” Iguana Eyes says.
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 but the screens over the windows don’t let me see who is outside. The door slides open and Iguana Eyes stands 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 at beautiful San Bueno Youth Correctional Facility,” 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 San Bueno, maybe my time there won’t be so bad. Iguana Eyes reaches in with his big hands and unlocks her handcuffs then pulls her off the van. “Watch it,” Jester yells and walks across the driveway the way the gangbangers at the park walk, slow and unafraid. “What’s up Ms. Montes?” Ms. Montes jerks her thumb to a hallway behind her.
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?”