A serialized novel and podcast by Andrew Leo Lovato
I was born in 1955 at the La Casita Clinic under the watchful eyes of Catholic Nuns who, in addition to providing medical care for the working people of Santa Fe, were also skilled midwives.
As soon as I entered this world, my mother set her eyes on me and let out a loud laugh despite her weariness. She immediately jettisoned all of the proper Catholic names she had considered and christened me “Elvis” after she caught sight of the abundant mane of wavy black hair I emerged with.
My earliest memory in life is also probably one of my most profound. It’s shaped the way I see the world and how I think about who I am. It was not a dramatic event or even particularly interesting by most standards. In fact it is one of the most mundane experiences imaginable but when it happened to me, I was transformed and it opened my infant eyes to the vast possibilities of my soul. So you may ask, what was this grand occurrence? Simply put, my mother placed my tiny, ten-day-old, naked body outside in the sun.
Let me explain as clearly as I can. You see, I can recreate that day vividly in my mind, so much so that it truly seems like it happened only recently. As I reminisce back through the ethers of the decades this is what floats back to me:
I lay dozing on clean, white sheets on a cool summer morning with a soft breeze whispering through an open bedroom window. My belly was full and I felt content after drinking my fill at my mother’s breast. I lingered blissfully in that netherworld between sleep and consciousness trying to focus my untrained eyes on the light and dark shapes around me. The sweet perfume of my mother’s skin hung comfortingly in the air. I felt her strong, warm hands slide under my head and the small of my back and gently lift me to her body. She carried me from the bedroom and we headed out toward our small front yard in the old, barrio section of the city. She placed a soft, white cotton blanket on the earth and lowered me down in the middle. Carefully and deliberately she removed my bedclothes and for the first time in my brief existence, I felt the overwhelming sensation of the rays of the sun pouring down on me. I began to vibrate with a glowing, radiant energy. My little heart expanded within my chest and I was filled with a feeling of indescribable joy and wholeness. Beneath my tightly shut eyelids a shimmering, golden face appeared and gazed down upon me with limitless love and compassion. A celestial memory from another realm and era emerged in me and I intuitively recognized the features of the Sun God. My benefactor, my source of being, and my eternal Father was once again looking over me to protect and nurture me through another lifetime.
I was too new (or not old enough) to the planet to know the names Ra, Apollo, or Osiris but like worshippers from past civilizations, I felt the power and illumination in his spirit and I shared the same conviction with these devotees that he was the source of life and vitality for me and all living beings. Whenever I felt the pangs of pain or sorrow as a young boy, I would close my eyes and conjure the image of the Sun God in my inner mind and the fear, stomach upset, or other distresses that I was experiencing would melt away with the power of the beneficent glow that healed me from within.
My mom and dad knew nothing of the strange pagan stirrings that coursed through my youthful psyche. They were more focused on the outer, material world. My dad’s pride and joy in life besides his little family was a 1954 polo white, convertible Chevy Corvette straight-6, 155 horse-powered blue flame engine. It sported a black soft top, deep red seats and dash, whitewalls, and a power-glide transmission. He fell in love with the car after he had seen it in Hot Rod magazine when he returned from the Army. He took half of his G.I. Bill money and put it toward a down payment on a house and he used the other half for his dream car. He owned one of only 3,265 Corvettes made that year, selling at a base price of $2,774.
Gilbert and Evelyn were engaged soon after he returned home from Fort Hood Army Base in Texas after the Korean War. Fortunately, he was never called up for active combat but instead he remained at Fort Hood in his position as a Mail Specialist.
Evelyn knew better than to stand between Gilbert and his fantasy car even though there were more immediate practical concerns that the cash could have addressed. She knew that fulfilling dreams and passions were a vital part of a good husband’s psychological make-up just as much as sacrifice and responsibility were; and her instincts were right. He was satisfied with this one-time indulgence and never again gave a thought to his own desires before considering the needs of Evelyn and his future family.
She never forgot the day that the Corvette arrived at the auto dealer’s after a six-month wait. With a beaming face, Gilbert opened Evelyn’s passenger-side door and gently kissed her on the forehead before proudly strolling around to the other side and settling into the driver’s seat with a satisfied sigh.
“Mi amor, how does it feel to be sitting in the most beautiful car in Santa Fe next to the handsomest man?”
She threw back her head and laughed, her black locks shining in the sunlight, “Well at least you’ve got it right about being in the most beautiful car,” she teased.
Gilbert snorted in feigned rejection and turned the key and the magnificent machine came to life.
“Chingada babe, listen to the sound of that motor purring!”
“Watch your mouth, Gilbert,” Evelyn scolded but her voice was full of excitement.
They cruised slowly through downtown Santa Fe and then headed down Cerrillos Road. A clean, cool breeze fanned their faces as Gilbert smiled widely and waved to everyone he saw. He was like a boy on Christmas morning.
“Listen Ev, what a firme engine! Feel how smooth the transmission shifts and check out the steering, it’s like butter!”
He cranked the hi-fi radio up and they sailed down the road with The Crew Cuts singing “Sh-Boom” on that magical afternoon.
They stopped for a milk shake at the Dairy Queen and all of the teenage vatos who were hanging out that Saturday afternoon gathered around and whistled and touched the car gingerly before wiping off their fingerprints with their tee-shirts. They looked at Gilbert as if he were a movie star like James Dean and made comments like:
“Hombre, cool ride! “
“Vato, you got to take us for a cruise sometime.”
“Carnal, if you ever need someone to wash your chariot, let me know, no charge.”
He reveled in the admiration and his newly acquired sense of abundance and status. Although the car had cost a pretty penny, Evelyn treasured the sight of Gilbert as happy as she had ever seen him.
Eventually, they made their way to Gilbert’s parent’s house where his brothers and sisters were anxiously awaiting his arrival and soon the whole scene began again. Only this time, it was even more auspicious as the whole neighborhood congregated to celebrate his great fortune.
The only voice of reason came from Gilbert’s mother who warned, “This doesn’t mean you can go tearing around town like a bat out of hell. Don’t start acting like some kind of big shot.”
He smiled and nodded his head sheepishly as he walked over to his mom and gave her a hug. She relaxed, knowing she had done her duty and the celebration went on.
Everyone had to climb into the driver’s seat and clasp their hands on the leather-covered steering wheel. They marveled at the sound quality of the radio, and Gilbert’s younger brother Tony made a joke that Evelyn didn’t appreciate;
“Hermana, you’re going to have to keep a closer eye on Gilbert now that all the girls see him cruising down the street in his chick magnet.”
Finally, the day drew to a close and even Gilbert was weary of all the attention. He carefully parked the Corvette in his parent’s garage, preferring to keep it there rather than in front of their casita across town. He continued to do this for a couple of weeks until the inconvenience became too much and he began to trust his car to the open air. When Gilbert and Evelyn eventually bought their own house, one of the sections that he focused special attention on was the garage that sheltered his precious ride.
In future years after my brother and I were born, our family always looked forward to our Sunday afternoon drives in the “vettie” as my brother Angelo called it. Since the corvette only had two seats, my mom had to hold little Angelo on her lap while I straddled the hump between the two front seats as we drove.
I always asked my dad the same question whenever we were out for a cruise, “Dad, can I drive?”
He would respond, “So Elvis, you think you’re fuerte enough to handle a Corvette?”
I knew this was my cue to pull up my sleeve and cock my right arm while making a fist, to show him my tiny bicep. He would run his finger over it, whistle in admiration and comment to my mom, “This boy of ours is built like an adobe house. I bet he’s going to be a heavyweight champion someday.”
I basked in his praise and hopped on his lap, my little brown hands gripping the steering wheel as we rolled down the street.
In the early 1960’s there were no seat belt laws enforced in Santa Fe and there were few cars on the road to worry about. We loved to drive all afternoon, waving at friends on the Plaza or in their front yards. Dad marveled at all the new tract houses that were going up courtesy of the G.I. Bill and the Baby Boom.
We always topped off our Sunday rides with a visit to 31 Flavors ice cream parlor. Angelo and I took an infinite amount of time peering through the glass panels at the buckets of ice cream with names like Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl, Dulce de Leche, and Peaches and Cream.
In desperation, my mom demanded, “You locos make up your minds before the ice cream melts in the buckets.”
Inevitably, Angelo and I coveted the flavor that the other one chose and we ended up swapping. We sat in one of the porcelain table nooks and watched the sun sink in the dwindling afternoon. We were content and happy, perhaps with limited resources but with limited desires as well.
I came to love the Corvette as much as my father did. In the evenings after I’d finished my homework, I wandered into to the garage and sat in the Corvette caressing the steering wheel in the dark, taking in the magical sounds of rock n’ roll on the dashboard radio and dreaming about the day when I had my own Corvette and people looked up to me in the same way they did my dad.
As a kid, I remember watching the men on Cerro Gordo Street congregating outside their homes on warm summer nights, huddled around transistor radios listening as heavyweight champ, Cassius Clay knocked out one seemingly invincible foe after another. They loved him not only because he was a great fighter, but because he had so much style. He was a champion of the people, Chicanos included.
They loved the clever things he said to Howard Cosell after his victories like “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” or “When you’re as great as I am, it’s hard to be humble.”
That Cassius Clay had real “cojones.”
Everybody was also excited about the new, young President that was elected in 1960. John F. Kennedy spoke about equality and opportunity for all Americans. There was something about him and his beautiful wife, Jackie that you could trust. He had kids running around the White House just like regular folks and to top it all off, he was a Catholic. Yes, things looked pretty hopeful for awhile.
Of course, it all came to a screeching halt on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. There was talk at school that somebody had tried to shoot the President. When I arrived home, my mom and some neighbors were transfixed on our twelve-inch black and white TV.
Mrs. Aranda from next door was weeping and exclaimed, “Sin veguenza, Mis Dios, what is this world coming to?”
The TV announcer, Walter Cronkite was crying too as he took off his thick, black-framed glasses, rubbed his temple and croaked out that President Kennedy was dead.
Over the next few days as the terrible drama unfolded, my family and I sat glued in front of the television. It finally ended with our hero, along with what seemed like our innocence being buried in Arlington Cemetery.
My young psyche was forever changed by these events. I began to understand that there might be evil in the world and as well as sunlight, there existed shadows. On the night President Kennedy was assassinated, for the first time in my life, I was afraid of the dark. The black outside my bedroom window was suddenly ominous like there was a sinister presence lurking. I pulled the covers over my head and fell into a troubled sleep. These events and others taking place in the larger world had a profound influence on me and all of the kids growing up in my little town.
You could say that my childhood was pretty typical for a Santa Fe muchacho. Aside from going to school, my best friend Rudy and I spent most of our time riding our bikes with high handle bars and banana seats around the narrow, winding streets of the city until the sun went down.
There was a belief amongst the adults that the children were being looked after by everyone in the community. Santa Fe was a safe place to grow up in and bad things only happened in places far away. The grown-ups possessed a sense of fatalism that provided a certain perspective when the occasional tragic event did occur such as a child being hit by a car or dying young due to an unfortunate disease. The good people of Santa Fe believed that it was all part of God’s plan and even though some things were hard to comprehend, God had a greater purpose for everything that happened in the world. Perhaps a child was being called to heaven because there weren’t enough angels or the beloved’s passing was a lesson to the living about the transitory nature of life and how important it was to appreciate every day to its fullest.
These attitudes served to give the children in our town a great deal of freedom. We knew few boundaries as we cut across yards and parking lots in marauding gangs of shiny bikes. We had playing cards attached with clothes pins to the spokes of our tires. They produced a deafening clicking noise that sounded like an invasion of motorcycle outlaws descending on the quiet neighborhoods.
Rudy and I were especially fond of riding our bikes after the thunderstorms that blessed the town during the summer months. The day often began with glorious sunshine and as the morning progressed, big, billowing clouds formed and turned darker. By about one or two o’clock in the afternoon, the thunder rumbled in the distance and soon the skies let loose with torrents of cold rain that lasted for about thirty minutes before the clouds scattered and bright, yellow sunshine returned. This pattern repeated itself almost every day during the months of July and August, the time of the year that Santa Fe folks called the monsoon season.
After it rained, streets filled with small puddles of water that evaporated quickly. But before they disappeared, we’d hop on our bikes and hit the pavement. It was great fun splashing through the rainbow-colored pools that were formed by a mixture of rain water and car oil running down the street gutters. Riding directly through the puddles, we sent streams of iridescent droplets out from both sides of our tires.
“Ala Mocina, Rudy watch out!” I laughed as I rammed through a puddle of standing water, spraying him from head to toe.
“Jodido!” he shot back at me as he clipped my back tire sending me skidding to the pavement.
The showers were not only a treat for our eyes but equally for our noses. There was no smell as intoxicating as that of rain soaking into the brown earth. Sometimes if the rain was particularly intense and lasted long enough, the dry arroyos suddenly filled with torrents of rushing brown water and we’d stand on the banks watching in awe as the abundant tides flowed through our normally parched city.
You’ve been reading from the book, Elvis Romero and the Cosmic White Corvette by Andrew Leo Lovato © 2012. Please join me for the next chapter of Elvis Romero’s life and times at SantaFe.com. Until then, Buenos Días!