When I was growin up in South Bend, Indiana from the ages of 8-14, part of the fun for me was living among other cultures and races. Most all of the people I came into contact with living in East St. Louis, Illinois were black. When we moved and I started going to Benjamin Harrison School K-8, I was exposed to not only people of African-Descent who looked like me, but also Caucasions and Mexicans. As a matter of fact, there was a very large Mexican migration from Mexico and Texas during the 70s and early 80s. This is common place now in America, but South Bend was at that time starting to become just as integreated as Chicago or Miami would be. Having a love for people of all races, I quickly made friends with many people. There was Robert Laskowski. He was a cool Polish kid who was my age. There was Alfred Hernandez, he was a Mexican kid who was a couple years younger than me. So he was like a little brother to me. After he and I became friends I found out that he had a sister (Leticia) as well that was in my class that I had a big crush on. (Thats another blog so stay tuned.) I had Black friends too like Ivel Jennings. Each of these friendships were special to me. But none of them had the unusual circumstances surrounding them like the friendship I had with Jose Cuevas.
Jose was a year older than me. We both lived on Liberty and his house was just a block away. He came by way of Mexico to live with his uncle. They had a large family and to this day I don’t remember exactly how we met or got hooked up. But we did. We hung out all the time walking the neighborhoods. We’d walk to the store, catch the bus or ride our bikes to the mall. Normally if you saw me you saw Jose. Sounds like a typical boyhood friendship right? But not quite. I would talk and talk and talk to Jose, but Jose never talked back. Thats because Jose didn’t understand English, nor did he speak it. That didn’t stop me from talking as if he understood everything I said, nor did it stop him from hanging out with me.
It was over Jose’s house that I learned what real authentic Mexican food taste like. Yummy! I saw his aunt make homemade tortillas and they would warm them by putting them on top of the burning eye on top of the stove. When one side was warm after a few seconds they would take their hands and flip them over without getting burned. It was over Jose’s house that I learned what birthday parties with Piñatas were all about. Only half of his household spoke English. He had an older cousin who used to whistle that flirting whistle every time she saw me before giggling and walking away into the other room. I never heard her speak a word of English. They were the absolute coolest people and I loved going over there. They accepted me as one of their own. When Jose wanted to get my attention, he would whistle as well – not the flirting kind but in a “heads up” way to get my attention and then he would point to something or the direction he wanted to go. And thats how we got down.
Sometimes I often felt sorry for Jose too because he also went to Harrison School, and one day while walking home from school he showed me his report card. I was proud of mine and happy that the good grades I got assured me of not getting punished once my mother saw it. But not Jose’s. It had a full row of F’s from top to bottom. Its not that Jose was stupid, he didn’t understand the language and there was absolutely nothing in place for him to transition. Even in the 5th grade I could figure that out. I’m not sure if he even knew his grades were bad or not.
Later on Jose learned to speak some English, though he never revealed this piece of information to me. I learned it purely by mistake ~ or should I say by some strange circumstances.
I walked to Jose’s house and though he were not home his uncle told me where to find him. He was at a neighbor’s house in the garage. I went through the backyard, around the alley and eventually found the garage. Opening the door to look for my “boy” my mouth went agape after my eyes fixed on what Jose had in his hands. It was a blunt! I could smell it all in the garage and I was shocked. Beginning my lecture I started in. “Jose, what are you doing?” (I was real proper talking back then) “I can’t believe you are in here smoking marijuana!” (yes i said marijuana) “Man are you crazy, dope is for dopes and junk is for junkies!” (I saw that on an episode of Fat Albert.) “What do you have to say for yourself?!” I said that as if I expected this dude to talk, but you have to understand that is how we, errr I always communicated.
Jose said nothing… just sat there with this stupid look on his face as if he had not understood one damn thing I said. Finally I said, “Well if you have nothing to say fine! I am leaving!” As I stormed out his friend with whom he was sharing the ‘budda’ blurted out in a Latin accent, “Hey man, he’s gonna tell!” He said it in English not Spanish. Well all of a sudden, in the name of Jimmy Swaggert a miracle occured. Jose began to speak… English no less. He ran after me exlaming, “Cliss Cliss… WAIT!”
The fact that he did learn some English without telling me didn’t seem to bother me at that time at all. Nevermind we had been cool for almost a year and the cat never spoke a word to me. I was not a snitch and was quick to let him know. “Man I ain’t gonna tell on you! I just don’t want to be around while your smoking that dope!”
Jose and I never spoke again about that little incident. I acted as if it had never happened. Shortly aftwerwards he moved to Texas to stay with some other relatives. I assume their school systems were better able to accomodate a young man trying to learn his way around and eventually become a citizen. He surfaced again a couple years later speaking English a lot better. By then all he could talk about was girls. He was 16 now and his hormones were going a mile a minute. I wasn’t into lusting yet. So I couldn’t relate. Our friendship was never the same and I learned for the first time that you can’t always pick up where you left off. I’ll never forget Jose. I sometimes wonder what he is up to. But I laugh at the thought that when it comes to the fear of getting in trouble, language becomes universal.