I grew up in the early eighties in Montebello, California, Southeast LA, where teenage pregnancy was on the rise and every Mexican restaurant claimed to have the best tacos north of the border. I often tell people now that I come from LA, or sometimes East LA if I want to hint at my Latino roots.
Living rooms were adorned with framed pictures of Jesus or the Virgin, and everyone believed in heaven and hell—not as abstract ideas, but as very real places. LA is Hollywood glamour, money, and prestige; East LA screams danger, gangs, and irrefutable street cred. Montebello and all Southeast LA, home to cities like Bell Gardens, Pico Rivera, and Norwalk, were small, mediocre, boring.
She would have likely picked this idea up from her own dad, a WWII veteran whose own parents were immigrants, and whose dark skin made him feel inferior in a country that was even harsher toward Mexicans than it is today.
The problem, for me, was that my neighborhood and my place inside it didn’t resemble my preconceived notions of power.
Tomas Benitez, the Chicano author and activist, said in an interview with LA’s KCET, “Montebello was mythic when I was growing up in the 1970s.
It was the place where middle-class Mexican-Americans lived and came from.
My dad owned and ran a mortgage company for nearly twenty years until he sold it for a large sum and bought himself his dream car, a flashy Corvette that looked like the Batmobile, and a vacation condo in Maui.
Sometimes she even complained about its propensity for attracting wetbacks, always laughing after this admittance, especially if my dad was around, before she’d lovingly touch his arm and coo, “Aww, I married a wetback.”That term wetback, coined from those Mexicans who illegally crossed the Rio Grande to get to America, was not an accurate description of my dad, who had crossed the border legally and traveled by road, not river.It had that quality, if you could get out of East LA, Montebello was Nirvana, the promised land and Beverly Hills East all rolled into one location.”For my dad, who was born under modest circumstances in Mexico City and whose own father was an orphan, to be able to live in the Mexican Beverly Hills as an adult was a big step up.He played golf at the city’s country club every weekend and served as an important figure in the city’s Rotary International organization.Erica’s essays have appeared in Salon, Narratively, BUST, Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, Refinery29, Bustle, Alternet, Vivala, Hello Giggles, the Los Angeles Review, and Australia’s Mamamia and The Motherish.She has appeared as a guest on BBC Radio 4, Thom Hartmann’s The Big Picture, and August Mc Laughlin’s Girl Boner Radio. It was unclear how a person could distinguish right from wrong without the Commandments.