from Huizache #4

My Father’s House

Rubén Martínez

I returned to my hometown of Los Angeles after the better part of a decade away, lured by a job, by thoughts of impending fatherhood. My wife Angela, pregnant with twins, and I start to look for a house just as the real estate bubble reached its mad height, tearing a grand canyon through the social fabric and opening up the greatest disparity in wealth since the robber barons. Even with the offer of a massive no-interest loan from my Jesuit benefactors to help with financing, we couldn’t find a place to live. We were always outbid. On 1,000 square-foot houses going for 850K even though they were within sight and scent and earshot of the Golden State Freeway. (The consolation being all the latest upgrades: the drought-resistant-native-plants-only gardens, the stainless-steel appliances, the his-and-hers bathroom sinks.)

We were lucky to have my family’s patrimony, a house in the Silver Lake district of L.A., a bohemian enclave that had for decades brought together a multiethnic and socioeconomically mixed crew that included artists and activists, a strong gay and lesbian contingent, spiritual visionaries and hucksters. But the bubble set about dismantling the scene, which was in full display back in the early 1980s at the annual Sunset Junction Street Fair, where cholos and leather daddies and aging hippies partied together, turning it into a playground for young money with aspirations for a life in relative proximity to taco trucks and 99- cent stores. Ultimately, of course, the arrival of the hipsters (and their elders, the ones with the real money) drove out the immigrant working class altogether, leaving only a faint aura in old signage preserved by the newcomers for authenticity’s sake.

My grandparents bought their house, a curious blend of Deco, Mediterranean and Western rustic features nearly sixty years ago with money they’d saved from years playing Mexican folk standards for paisanos hungry for home and gringos thirsty for tequila. With that same stake they started up a small Mexican restaurant just a couple of blocks away that they baptized La Ronda, which means a “round,” as in “to make the rounds,” a versatile Spanish bohemianism tinged with melancholy, referring to late night pilgrimages soaked in alcohol and tears, with a torch song soundtrack sung by mariachi icons like José Alfredo Jiménez. Years of grinding labor at La Ronda (Grandfather cooked, Grandmother took the orders, Pop washed the dishes) secured a truly American middle-class existence, although my grandparents spoke only halting English and didn’t know who Elvis Presley was when he stopped by to order the enchilada lunch special.

Despite its success, my family gave up the business in the winter of 1966, during which my father and grandfather had a violent drunken argument. Pop has often recounted how he, who’d mostly played the model respectful Mexican son, told the old man to fuck off after he humiliated my grandmother at a holiday gathering. Just the kind of tragic kind of turn a ronda often takes, which ultimately led to Grandfather’s massive coronary and lifelong guilt for my father.

After my family sold the restaurant, the place became Le Bar, a classic old school Mexican transvestite club. Big hair and busts and booties and quivering lips synching to Madonna and Cher. I had my share of rondas there, a strange mix of desire and familial nostalgia. Le Bar it remained long enough for me to think it would always be there for queer or curious Latin men and queer or curious white Latinophiles to cheer the big revue shows on weekend nights. It was never “discovered” by middle-class bohos looking for the next proletarian cool, although in retrospect I suppose I myself might have been a harbinger of the gentrification to come.

In the early 2000s, a wine shop opened next door (around the time Alexander Payne sold a lot of Cabarnet along with the pathos in Sideways), and then an haute Vietnamese place, and then a boutique specializing in panties, just panties. Soon enough Le Bar was figuratively bulldozed and became the Cha Cha lounge, a place of sudden “buzz” and celebrity appearances (including Jake Gyllenhaal, when Brokeback Mountain was still in theaters). During the Mexican years there had been little overt ethnic décor; the brown bodies sufficed. But the Cha Cha’s gringo owners turned it into a Disneyfied Tres Caballeros effusion. Now Mexican puppets dangled from the ceiling. On the walls hung velvet paintings of 1970s vintage, spangled sombreros, Day of the Dead skulls. Bartenders mixed drinks under an approximation of a beach “cabaña,” palm fronds and all. A Jimmy Buffet ronda.

Shortly after we moved into my grandparents’ old Silver Lake house, I took Angela to show her the ghosts. I played history detective, snooping for some evidence that my grandparents and the transvestites had once been here, cooked food, danced, flirted, even fucked. Between the back of the toilet and the wall, in a corner of the ceiling, trapped beneath several layers of paint: a trace of DNA. It was early enough that Angela and I were the only customers; the “scene” happened late in the evening when bouncers picked out the lucky scenesters for admission. Bizarrely juxtaposed to the Mexican memorabilia, was a big Willie Nelson poster on the wall near the front door. A vintage turntable spun Neil Young’s voice: “Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s…”

The bartender-deejay lifted the tone arm from the album and tossed Neil’s terribly scratched voice into the void. In the sudden silence, I noticed the table upon which my hands were folded. Beneath several coats of lacquer, there was a life-sized, airbrushed face, hair curled into large, frosted waves, batwing eyebrows, thick eyeliner, mascara, blush, the lips lustrous and puckered. Below her, the name “Paquita” in flowing cursive. I remembered her. She was part of the Le Bar revue. You know, “back in the day.” I was stunned by this. I got up and looked at the other tables. They each had a Mexican transvestite immortalized like a prehistoric bug in amber.

From our perch in the house above the hipster scene of the Cha Cha, Angela and I obsessed on MLS listings for months. Recognizing our desperation, my father offered to sell it to us. Predictably, this would eventually set off a family ronda.

I was about to buy my father’s house. What was the line from Scripture?

In my father’s house there are many mansions.

Which, if you believe in a benevolent God, is a comforting thought about His boundless love for all His children, especially those seeking a home for their lost souls. And which, in the context of father-son relationships steeped in the narrative of real estate during the boomand-bust cycle of the first decade of the 21st century is tailor-made for (Mexican-) American melodrama.

On cue, the mansions of my father’s house, which had been his father’s before him, were filling with rats. Literally.

It began when we unwittingly presented the rodents with a generous supply of a very nutritious food source: dog kibble. Not just any kibble; at the new dog boutique down the street we bought haute canine cuisine, the kind soaked in salmon oil for that extra kick of Omega-3s. We had two dogs: Bear, the noble, aging Akita and Lenny, the young, rambunctious Lab. They were both big and ate a lot. We placed their bowls just outside the back door, and the boys often left a few nuggets after feeding.

We started to see rat droppings in the mornings, like pudgy grains of wild rice, next to the suspiciously empty bowls. So now we made sure to clean up after doggy dinner. But it was too late. The rats knew there was food and it was just a matter of getting to it. Now they traipsed through an old cat door into the kitchen, where we stored the huge 48-pound bags. The rats easily gnawed into the bags and took their fill.

Then we placed the kibble in a plastic tub with a lid. The rats gnawed through the plastic. So I boarded up the old cat door.

But there were so many other ways to get into the old house! There were gaps under the red tile on the roof, around pipes and drains where old caulking had crumbled. There was a trapdoor at the bottom of the fireplace that could easily be nudged open, and of course the chimney where the rats could come down like little gray Santas. There were exhaust flues for the bathroom fan, for the clothes dryer and the dishwasher. The ducting for the heating and air conditioning units routed to every room.

Houses got old and they filled with holes—just like people. You could see the age of the house most clearly in the garage, which sat beneath the living room; it was the house’s architectural triumph with a dramatic arched ceiling and a Batchelder fireplace mantel with a German forest motif, above which hovered my grandmother’s huge, yellowing print of the Virgen de Guadalupe. The ceiling of the garage was of rough unpainted plaster, perforated in a couple of dozen places by ducting and piping and the hammers of generations of Mexican plumbers making their way to a leaking kitchen drain or toilet or shower. There was even a hole in the plaster next to the thick black steel pipe main drain, which sank into the concrete floor of the garage on its way to the sewer in the street, producing the most nightmarish image of all: a wave of rats surging up from the very bowels of the city, the underworld, from the subsoil that the foundations of our American houses and the rites of real estate rise from.

The situation was more and more like Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Young couple, expecting their first kid (in our case, twins), move into the old house, into the middle class, and into all the Faustian bargains that you buy into along the way. This was the American and my father’s dream flipped upside down. The house not as sanctuary but as source of violence—the American violence of property infecting you, bleeding you, owning you.

My father himself had sown a hint of the truth long ago. Pop the lithographer, bent over the light-table for years at the print shop on Highland Avenue in Hollywood. (Crucially, this was a steady union gig with a salary that inflated the harder he worked—time and a half after eight hours, double time after twelve hours and on weekends—and he worked his ass off. This is what kept us in Silver Lake as the neighborhood gradually shifted from middle-to-lower to middle-to-upper.) His job was stripping negatives and performing the color separation (the physical tasks of print production in the pre-digital days) for thousands of movie posters, including, in 1979, The Amityville Horror, which he brought home and hung on a wall in the TV room. The ad featured the facade of a shingled New England house, a fiery light issuing through two attic windows separated by a brick chimney—the face of hell. In bold text at the center of the poster: “FOR GOD’S SAKE, GET OUT!”

How many holes did it take to fill my family’s house?

We brought the babies home from Cedars Sinai, hospital to the stars. (An entire wing of the maternity ward was cordoned off during our stay for Tori Spelling and her team of doulas.) We were sleepless in Silver Lake, and still at war with the rats. We bought a big aluminum garbage can to protect the dog food, which worked very well, for a few days. But the rats had now discovered many other food sources. Like the avocados in the fruit baskets on the kitchen counter. This causes a major freak-out because the twins’ baby bottles are just a few inches away from the violated fruit. We imagine the rats standing on hind legs, sniffing, licking, gnawing. Now at night we draped a towel over the bottles.

From the kitchen they ventured into the living room. Droppings appeared along the baseboards behind the curtains. Strange little piles of insulation and ducting materials started showing up in the corners. One morning, I found rat shit in one of the high chairs. Now it was war. I made the trip to Home Depot, where I spent a lot of money on all kinds of traps—the politically correct, the medieval. None of them worked.

I made daily patrols in the garage. Through the holes had fallen a rain of droppings. And the hole by the main drain got bigger every day. I set a trap there but they stepped around it. One time I came upon a dead baby rat. It was a hairless, vulnerable thing and still I had a tremendous urge to stomp on it with my Timberlands. They were multiplying down there, the metropole sending wave after wave of colonists upstairs.

They got ever more brazen, the fuckers. One night Angela and my mother-in-law Wilma were watching TV from the couch in the living room and a big one skittered along the hardwood floor by their feet. Then came the night of the mano a mano, the moment of truth. A friend happened to be visiting, Roberto, a Central American activist and writer, an eternally angry young man who could also be disarmingly sweet. We got into one of our typical arguments, Rubén the fuzzy, warm social democrat versus Roberto, whose idea of fun was the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the midst of making one of his finger-jabbing points, Roberto yelled out, a rat! We leapt up from the Danish modern table I bought at the antique store in Houston. Angela and her mother made a quick exit, leaving the men to battle with the beast. Roberto reconned the room with a broom in his hand, while I…I stood on a chair and queasily swept curtains open.

Deprived of all safe havens, the rat wound up underneath the TV couch. Roberto stood to one side as I lifted one end of it up. With a mighty arcing swing, Roberto brought the broom down for a direct hit. And again. And again… perhaps a dozen times. I imagined the LAPD on Rodney King.

We looked down.

It was not the big cat-size monster I’d been seeing, or imagining. Maybe it wasn’t even a rat, maybe it was just a mouse. A scrawny little thing, eyes scrunched tight against the blows that killed it.

But it was not over. There were many more scrawny gray things roaming the house. Then came the night they took the house away from us. We were in bed and heard a scurrying along the carpet—rat claws on Berber make a very particular kind of sound. They were in the twins’ room, underneath the cribs. We brought the girls into our bed and now the rats came after us into our room. I heard one skitter along the windowsill next to the bed. Then I thought I heard one under the bed. I grabbed my big blue Maglite flashlight, ready to clobber, but when the rat suddenly appeared inches from my face on the bedsheet, I jumped off the bed and squealed just like you’re supposed to.

Chaos. The babies were screaming, Angela was screaming, Rubén was screaming. Eventually, we isolated it in the closet and got a few minutes of sleep before sunrise, when I finally confronted the rat. Being a Silver Lake lefty, I couldn’t bludgeon the thing to death. After about an hour I gently coaxed it out a French door. We called the exterminators the next day. We gave them lots of money. They said the only way to control the rats was to cover up the holes, and that is what they set about doing.

After that, the rats were trapped in the bowels of the house and became very hungry, since we were meticulous about not leaving food out for them. They were so desperate they went for the peanut butter on the traps. In the quiet of the night, we would hear the loud snap, the death throes.

My father decided it would be a mistake to sell to us, after all. (Capital gains taxes. My father is a Democrat, but he hates taxes like a Republican.)

We lived in my father’s house for several more months, the stench of decomposing rats wafting up occasionally from the floorboards.

During the two years that we lived at the Silver Lake house, my parents visited every few months, making the trip from their Sedona, Arizona, retirement Shangri-La (which they would flee when nativist cowboys like “America’s Toughest Sheriff” Joe Arpaio started gunning for wetbacks.) Within minutes of their arrival my father would get to work. Loose doorknob on the front door. Leaky faucet in the bathroom. Drying and cracking grout in the kitchen. If there were no more crises inside the house, he’d go out to the backyard and pull weeds until he sweated through his shirt. More than once, gringos in the neighborhood asked if he was available to clean their yards, assuming he was a mojado gardener.

The house is falling apart Rube, he’d say.

Which to me sounded like, You’re letting the house fall apart, you good-for-nothing bohemian!

And so father and son shouted, echoing my father and his father in this very house a generation ago. The argument had not changed since I was a young man and my father was the age that I am today. My father held that the house, the actual physical structure of it, was at the very center of the family’s existence. Caring for the house was caring for the family.

The son countered that the building was less important than the quality of the relationships that filled it. Better that a doorknob fell off than a failure of intimacy. These are, of course, caricatures of the more nuanced positions my father and I actually occupied. And, of course, there was a basic truth in each.

In my father’s house there was often both love and order, upward mobility coinciding with a fulfilling family life and a constellation of relationships that connected us to families in houses nearby. I often asked my parents what those years of my childhood were like for them, the adults; the tumult of civil rights and hippies and assassinations and senseless murder and carpet-bombing in Vietnam. They always answered that they didn’t really sense that anything extraordinary was happening because they were so focused on the babies that needed a diaper or a visit to the doctor, the room that needed a new coat of paint—life so very full of its minutiae. It is a favorite word of my father’s. He pronounces it minu-tay.

There was a golden moment in the early 1970s, when my parents were in their mid-thirties and I, their eldest, was just starting middle school. We lived in an old house on St. George Street in Silver Lake (later to be known as Franklin Hills), which intersected a mile away with Waverly Drive, a street name that baby boomers always immediately recognize as linked to the Manson murders of 1969, and Joan Didion’s famous appraisal of the area as a “serial killer kind of neighborhood” in The White Album.

My parents—so focused on the minu-tay!—were not particularly perturbed by the bloodbath at the Labianca house, certainly did not consider moving, would have disagreed with Didion’s verdict. If there had been any consideration of the matter at all it probably would have been related to real estate values in the neighborhood.

The house on St. George, even older than my grandparents’ place. Oleander leaves gently scraped the window screens in the breeze that always arrived a couple of hours before the dawn. Here my mother was central to the narrative. She came to the United States as part of a small but conspicuous exodus from El Salvador, a cohort of single women of modest (but not poor) means sent by their families to gain a toehold in the United States. In the 1950s, the easiest way to do that was to marry an American—doctor, lawyer, certainly a professional, someone who wore a tie and carried a briefcase to work. The kind the Salvadoran elders had seen in tattered copies of Good Housekeeping and through Hollywood.

My mother and several of her cohort succeeded in just the way that had been imagined for them, in many ways beyond the greatest expectations back home. When I was in my early teens, she returned to school, making her A.A. at Los Angeles City College, then a B.A. and eventually an M.A. in psychology at Antioch University. She held managerial positions at senior centers in East Los Angeles and Culver City, started up a private therapy practice. She left El Salvador with a love of poetry (all Salvadorans are poets, for real) and she attended workshops, put together chapbooks and published in zines. My mother guided us into the language of Neruda, and of humanistic psychology, threw in a dash of New Age in the 1980s. She tried pot once or twice and swears she hallucinated the face of Abraham Lincoln in the clouds. She danced to cha-cha-cha, merengue, cumbia, and rock and roll.

Most of my mother’s Salvadoran friends opened similar paths. (To this day we talk of immigrants becoming American, denying the agency, the imagination they bring, how much they change us.) They married Americans, most of them white, and with them started “mixed” families. Of course the term didn’t exist then.

The cohort stayed close, settling largely in the middle class enclaves of Northeast L.A. Our closest family friend was Argentina Alvarenga, a distant cousin of my mother’s, who married American-as-can-be Wayne Eisenhower, World War II vet and distant cousin of the president, Republican of course, and with a personalized license plate on his Chrysler that read, simply, IKE. Argentina, Argie for short, was the keeper of the social calendar and the Eisenhowers’ house was the hub of the social scene. It was two doors down from my grandparents’ place, a mid-century mutt house, rustic here and modern there. There was a bonus room downstairs with a wet bar and a fireplace. The terraced backyard was filled with tropical plants and at the bottom level was a full-sized swimming pool with a little tiki-style hut for a dressing room.

At Wayne and Argie’s the Salvadorans and Americans gathered, without the hyphen. The languages and foods and musics came together. Beyond history raging on the streets on TV. We were “hybrid” long before the social theorists conceived the idea, before the United Colors of Benneton, before Obama.

The Golden Moment was a Thanksgiving at the Eisenhowers’, circa 1972. The potluck spread included a big turkey of course, and also Salvadoran-style tamales and Swedish meatballs and ambrosia and lasagna and a big iceberg lettuce salad dripping with oily dressing, empanadas with pineapple filling and the soundtrack veered from cumbia to rock to easy listening, from Los Hermanos Flores to Creedence Clearwater Revival to Ray Coniff. Ultimately, the scene really was of the women’s making, their immigrant energy, their ease with and love of difference. The American men had no choice but to follow the crazy Latinas. The Salvadoran women led their stiff-hipped gringo husbands onto the dance floor.

We crossed practically every social border that would divide the country in the “culture wars” to come. Nationality, language, class, race, gender, even sexual orientation. We lived in Silver Lake, after all, long a gay Mecca. (No longer; the largely breeder hipsters are rapidly erasing the history of several queer generations.) My parents owned a duplex a block away from my grandparents’ place and rented to a longtime lesbian couple. An openly gay Salvadoran man was the life of the party at the Eisenhowers’ parties.

Soon enough, it was over. Many of the cohort’s couples had divorced, kids had rebelled and self-destructed, alcoholism and tobacco had claimed the lives of many of the elders. Later, aids ravaged more than one generation. Still, the Golden Moment lasted the better part of my childhood, and included the world beyond my mother’s peculiar social space. Silver Lake was a decidedly “mixed” neighborhood in every sense. Working and middle class. When I was growing up there were still remnants of the “Okies” that flooded Southern California during the Depression and remained poor long after it. Brown and Jewish and several shades of white and Chinese and Japanese (Issei, Nisei, Sansei), gay and straight, the believers and the communists. Yes, there was gay bashing and the LAPD made sure to rough up the Mexican kids to let them know where the borders were (north of Sunset was mostly white and middle class, south was more brown and working class). I got spit on by a white hippie one time walking home from school, was stopped by the cops with my backpack suspiciously full of…books. But for the most part, I was at home in a world of difference.

In the end, even my father’s neuroses about “keeping up” or “improving” the structures of our lives contributed profoundly to the Golden Moment. The house on St. George Street had plenty of aesthetic elegance, but it didn’t have a den and that’s where the overtime from the print shop salary went one summer when the house crawled with construction workers (shirtless white men with tans and chest hair, back before the building trades had been assigned to brown laborers with little or no chest hair). Over the years, Pop realized that we also needed a patio deck, and a basketball hoop, and even a swimming pool, and a hi-fi stereo with both turntable and 8-track player for an endless summer soundtrack. But the centerpiece of it all was the den and at the heart of the den was the television and the Beta video deck, to play the movies that Pop had rendered the posters for. The most important “stuff” in the house, in the end, wasn’t material at all, but a matter of light and color and sound, of words and music and narrative echoing nightly in the den during screenings of everything from B-movies to cinema-as-art to the wonderful social realist sitcoms of the 1970s and of course the evening news—the headlines about death squads in El Salvador, Cold War nukes, recession, the Hillside Strangler.

Real estate was rat shit. Pop did overemphasize the material side of life like any good mid-20th century American. And the houses where we lived were fantastic places to grow up. My father might not have articulated the project of the larger, symbolic house—he was too deep inside it to see himself acting within its own set of structures. But it was a safe space from which to apprehend the movement of history, even as we were a part of it.

The problem was where the rat shit was leading the neighborhood, the inevitable impact of speculation, the force with which it would tear Silver Lake apart and erase the memory of the Golden Moment.

Our daughters spent their first two years in the Silver Lake house, becoming the fourth generation of family on my father’s side to live in it. (That is an eternity in L.A.) It took time, but my father and I reconciled after the very dark ronda in the wake of his decision not to sell to us. Eventually Angela and I bought our own house in the neighborhood of Mt. Washington, east of the Los Angeles River (to the horror of my father, who’s always underscored the part of his biography where his parents moved west across the river, that is, out of the barrio). It is an old middle-class neighborhood next to the largely immigrant and working-class district of Highland Park. (I live, as has been my wont throughout my adult life, on the border.) The New York Times keeps trying to compare Highland Park to Brooklyn and thus fan the flames of gentrification. The house is at the bottom of the “mountain” (which peaks at just under a thousand feet), next to a modest slice of open space—an honest to goodness California canyon of black walnut trees and white sage and nopal cactus and coyotes howling in the evenings. It isn’t quite Joni’s Laurel Canyon, but it’s close enough for me.

My parents moved back from Sedona and into the Silver Lake house, and they live there now, my mother hanging on through chemo for cancer of the marrow and my father holding on to the house—which now doubles as hospice—for dear life. During my mother’s long hospitalization, he purchased two pieces of decorative tile that he had a Salvadoran handyman named Nelson affix to a wall of the pink stucco exterior (a questionable “improvement” from years ago) that is plainly visible from the street. One piece was colonial tacky, picturing caravels riding the high seas. Above this one was placed the other, which my father had custom made. In Castilian script, it reads: Casa de Martinez. My father. Captain of the ship that is my birthright.


Rubén Martínez is a native of Los Angeles and the son and grandson of immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador. A writer, performer, and teacher, he holds the Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author of: America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West and Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail, among other titles.

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