Covering a period of nine years, and by turns funny, heart wrenching and perceptive, Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell is an amazingly detailed story of growing up in California as the children of a Mexican family. In alternating chapters, twin brothers Armando and Fernando document their early years of Catholic school, and in so doing paint a vivid portrait of both their family and the reality of 1950’s west–coast America. By showing us their life from two perspectives, we come to know not only a home that was a brew of California pop culture and the chaotic festive Mexican culture of music, food, laughter and language, but also to understand, and perhaps even savor, the clash with the authoritarian discipline of a group of introspective Anglo–Saxon religious women.
Somewhere Between Heaven & Hell: Reading this book could be a sin, is available on Amazon
Mom, what was it like raising twins?” —Fernando Garcia
“Ay, sometimes I go to bed crying.” —Ma Garcia
Most of what we have written in our stories is true. We used poetic license in the sequence of events to give the reminiscences a logical flow.
We attended St. Jude Academy in San Diego, California for the first two years and St. Rita’s Catholic Grammar School across town for the rest of our elementary education. We received enough sacraments during our primary-education years to guarantee us a shot at getting into heaven in the event of our untimely deaths.
By the time we reached age of five, Ma must have rejoiced when she walked us to our first day of kindergarten and could look forward to a few hours of peace, Monday through Friday. Between the ages of six months and five years, we had already put her through a lifetime of trials. Before Fernando’s first birthday, and while living in a migrant worker camp, I drank kerosene out of a glass jar that Ma kept near the lamp. I had mistaken the clear liquid for water. While I spent a day in the hospital, my sister Martha spent the day on her knees praying for me. She likely regretted it a few years later when I sneaked into her bed one night and scared the hell out of her.
An exciting new world lay before us when we learned to walk. We climbed into the cab of Pa’s 1948 GMC work truck, somehow released the parking brake, and coasted out of the driveway and down a hill. Armando stood on the seat playing with the steering wheel while Fernando sat on the floor pushing and pulling the clutch, brake, and accelerator pedals. Ma realized a moment too late that her house was unusually quiet and noticed that the front door was open. She stepped out to see my brother standing in the truck as it rolled away. She chased after, waving arms and screaming. The truck came to a stop when it turned up an embankment. Fortunately, it didn’t turn in the other direction crossing a street heavy with traffic. Our Aunt Mary, Ma’s sister–not to be confused with Aunt Mary, my father’s sister–found our little adventure riotously funny.
On another occasion Fernando stood on a ladder rung and dropped a half–pound lead weight on Armando curious to see what would happen. He cried and got a pot knot on the top of his head. Ma gave him a treat, I got a whack.
We took an old quilt Ma had discarded in our backyard, which in and of itself was highly unusual as Ma rarely threw anything away. Fernando wrapped him in the quilt, allowing his head to stick out, and pushed him down a knoll. He laughed with glee as he rolled until his head hit a piece of concrete protruding out of the ground. When he came to a stop, I grabbed the end of the quilt and rolled him out. He cried as blood pulsed from the gash. He came home from the emergency room missing a patch of hair and four neat cat–gut stitches closing the wound.
When we climbed a rickety wood fence in our back yard, Armando grabbed a fence board, that gave way, and he fell nose first onto the ground just as Pa was pulling into the driveway from his work shift. Pa saw blood flowing freely onto his chest and ran to him. Pa covered his nose with a handkerchief and rushed him to the emergency room. For the record, I didn’t push him off the fence.
Armando got mad after I took away the broom handle that was his rifle. He sunk his teeth into my shoulder blade. Ma had to pry him off as I screamed.
We got caught, with our neighbor Genie, playing with matches and nearly burned down his garage. Ma smacked our hands with the backside of her hairbrush; Genie got a whipping.
Fernando shot Armando in the back with our neighbor Mikey’s BB gun that he kept just inside their back door. The BB imbedded itself into my Armando’s back. I begged him not to tell Ma and Pa but he snitched.
When Ma called us for dinner, we raced, trying to get there first. I tripped my brother. He landed open mouth on the concrete stairs from the lower yard and knocked an impressive–sized chip from a front tooth.
This was an era before behavioral scientists and child psychologists said that parents should reason with their kids or modern helicopter moms hovering over their children. Ma used her Old World system of threat, guilt, El Cucuy, (the Mexican boogie man), and the devil, as tools for keeping us under some semblance of control and discipline.
Our stories were written to give you an insight into what is was like growing up in this era. We sincerely apologize for our writings if we have offended friends, classmates, neighbors or relatives, whether they be Mexican, American, Chicano, gringo, gay, straight, transsexual, transvestite, bisexual, bilingual or bipolar. If you feel slighted, please understand that it is unintentional. We will never, however, apologize to Sister Mary Constance the principal and Mother Superior of the convent at St. Rita’s School. You will soon find out why.
Enjoy this little excertp of the book.