Carlos Chocolate: A Love Story

By Denise Romero

Introduction by Dennis Romero: In 1969 my mother Denise, a hairdresser from the San Diego community of Pacific Beach, was kicked out of her parents' home after showing up pregnant by a Mexican man she met in Tijuana, my father Fernando. Here's part of their love story.


Denise and Fernando Romero on New Year's Eve 1973.

Stuck in this funky little apartment in Tijuana, Mexico. One bedroom, no carpet, no heat, no air conditioning, not even a fan. The floors were once  black and white tile squares on them had been washed too many times with harsh soap and water. The tile was in pieces, chips and veins. The wood under it buckled like a broken down wash board.  Each room had a naked lightbulb on the ceiling. It took standing on a kitchen chair to change the lightbulb. The light bulbs  would hum, glitter and pop when they went out, way too often.

The bulb in the living room hung down about three feet from the ceiling on a black frayed cord with tiny shiny silver threads showing here and there. An aged, once white, attachment between the cord and bulb screwed into the bulb. It could accommodate four other plugs. One of those plugs had extension cords that could service four more plugs and just hung down from the plug like overcooked spaghetti.  It looked like maypole. More than two appliances going at one time and the whole apartment would go dark. Plug them in but don’t use them.

The back door by the kitchen led to a tiny cement balcony. It was big enough for a cement  utility sink with a drain under it. Residents would hand wash their laundry and then haul it onto the third floor roof where it dried on rope clothes lines. A three foot by three foot  opening in the cement wall would have been a window if there were glass. The tiny space used for storage.  From the outside of the building mops, brooms, plants, bicycles, strollers, 5-gallon water bottles, and crutches poked out of all the balconies.  Each balcony was more crowded than the next, but there was always that one neat sight with a shade covering the opening and two plastic yard chairs -- all overlooking the top of a car wash. Three corrugated carports with hoses leading to each was the work space.  Metal buckets filled with sponges and scrub brushes dotted the carports. On the lattice sides hung grey rags. Quiet at night and pretty quiet on weekdays. Oom pah pah music, voices, car engines, horns and  talk radios from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. or later on weekends.

Our  apartment came full of German cockroaches. Everywhere, shoes, pockets, board games, toilet paper, cupboards and medicine cabinet.  I bought every toxic, outlawed product available. I found DDT that had been banned in the US. Sprayed so much that clouds formed near the ceiling.  My hands, face, clothes, my nose and lungs were covered.. No mask and never careful or frightened. The open door was my safe space and when I could no longer breath I would run towards it. Scrubbing and cleaning the tiny tile kitchen counters until everything was perfect and Mrs Cleaver would be jealous.  Fresh food and open cans were put in the once white, rusty, five foot, single handle refrigerator. The morning the counters were dotted with black flecks that looked like fine ground pepper. Roach calling cards.

Less than an hour by car south from where I had spent the first part of my life. Spanish, mole, painted donkeys, all night bars, outhouses, polque worms, strange religious festivals, street fish tacos and corrupt police. Everything  was new and terrifying. 

Mexicans were busboys, dishwashers, line cooks and janitors, farm workers, singers, farmers and, more recently, golfers. They were all Catholics, loved their mothers,  loved soccer and slept a lot. That’s what I thought I knew.

As children we learned to count to ten in Spanish and that a sombrero was a hat. Every little kid in San Diego could sing the first words and hum the rest of La Cucaracha. Braceros were  laborers. Buses, north in the morning, south in the afternoon.  Mostly men dressed in drab clothes often wearing straw hats gazed out the  bus windows with hollow stares. 

This new life was scary but I had chosen it for myself. Mother would say, you’ve made your bed, now lie in it. She didn’t know that I lied. We were not married.

American traditions were so deep in me I never questioned them. My jack-o-lantern in the window had caused all the children in the building to grab a paper bag and knock on the door. They had heard about Halloween but had no idea what it meant. Mexico celebrated the Day of the Dead. The children chorused cheerfully, trickortricky. That’s what they understood American children to say. They got  American candy, special, and enjoyed having the American in the building.

My  soon to be husband, Fernando, watched TV in English, loved baseball, basketball, jazz and politics.  He spoke broken English but knew all the words to “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Way more accomplished than I. He mostly understood me and what he didn’t understand he tried to. Sometimes we would have very loud and heated disagreements only to find out one of us had misunderstood what the other meant.

Mexicans have a saying, Poor Mexico, so close to the United States so far from God. So many very poor people seeing what they could not have. American celebrations were beginning to flow over the border. Colored eggs in April and Turkey sales were picking up in November.

Christmas trees were not yet traditional in Tijuana but I wanted one. Fernando wanted me to be happy and was happily ready to share my customs. My parents volunteered a few tree necessities.  Yellow, green, red and blue 3-inch glass bulbs strung on a half-inch wide green cord. Several of the bulbs were peeling or broken, but I got a package of four new yellow bulbs to replace them. Aluminum  tinsel that was taken off the tree last year one string at a time and carefully placed back in the rectangle cardboard box it came in. Gold-painted elbow macaroni strung on twine, a little crispy: A few of the elbows were cracked but still glittering. Several red and green construction paper garlands that got a little folded in storage. A handful of wooden ornaments that had faded or had a piece missing and a handful of paper clips and bobby pins to  help hang them with. I was excited by the colorful shirt box full of Christmas spirit.

Fernando found trees for sale in a parking lot nearby.  Artificial trees were still pretty new, and expensive. They came in pink, white or foil. I would start my new family traditions with a live green tree, and If I had the money I would buy a can of snow and flock it.

“Where is the lot?” I asked, from the driver’s side of the car.  Across from me he pointed. “There.” “Huh?” I said. “Where? “There.” I squinted until a few naked trees came into view.  I choked back tears. “That’s a tree lot?” “Jes,” he said, so pleased he had found one.

The trees were three dollars each.  All so small and dry they could have been cut down last year. This was it. One of these five trees or none at all. We can do this.

Fernando picked up the sad little tree and put it in the back seat.  There was a circle of dried needles where it had been and my car smelled like Pine-Sol.

I planned to put it in the middle of the living room so the light string could be connected to the bulb cord. My plans had just changed. The tree was too short to stand on the floor. I had to find a place on the couch for the TV. The black-and-white TV only had a 15-inch screen and was a portable. That meant it had a handle, like a suitcase, on top.  It was as big as carry-on luggage and weighed about twenty five pounds.  It was a team effort.  I needed to use the metal TV tray it was on for the tree. We had no tree stand so we had to leave it on the folded wooden X they put on the bottom of the tree at the lot. I grabbed a rag, wet it and wrapped it around the trunk. Poor little tree needed water.

I had a sheet of medical cotton that I covered the base with. It looked just like fresh snow. The box of ornaments was waiting. I wrapped the light string around the tree starting at the light bulb. Fernando watched, gave approving comments, nodded and smiled. The bulb and cord kind of swung to one side because of the weight and the only way to turn off the light was to reach up to the hot bulb and unplug the string. I carefully wrapped the lights around the tree leaving enough cord to plug it in and unplug it. The heavy lights made each branch bend and dip. It was time for the ornaments but even though they were heavy, there were not many of them. The paper garland and macaroni strings were used to pull the branches together and up.  With the touch of two true artists we finished by throwing the wrinkled aluminum tinsel at the little tree while singing “Oh Tannenbaum” in Spanish and English. We sat on the couch close together because the TV was on it.  We laughed and giggled, and Fernando put his arm around me and I rested my head on his chest. He hugged me and we smiled at the magnificent sight.  We loved each other and we loved that tree.

Every year for the next fifty years we talked about that tiny tree in our cockroach infested first apartment on the TV tray in the middle of the room with the cord hanging down from the ceiling.  Our special first tree, Carlos Chocolate. Charlie Brown.

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    1. Nicely told Christmas tale! Carlitos Brown saw the Beatnik heart in his little tree, and you two lovebirds put your heads together and saw it too, and there were tidings of great joy.
      I enjoyed the verbal picture of you and Skizo in love and crazy youth. It comes through in the photo too, Denise looking skeptical, as always, but a little goo-goo as well, and Fernando looking like a badass TJ rocker, kinda wasted but ready to party a little more.
      Really nice writing too, Ms. D. Seems to run in the family. I laughed aloud at the description of your apartment, especially: "A three foot by three foot opening in the cement wall would have been a window if there were glass." Sweet!
      I'm looking forward to reading more.

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