By the middle of my first year at Lincoln Middle School, the buzz was all about tattoos. I was in the seventh grade then and everyone seemed to have them–gang boys, study boys, nerd boys and, yes, even one or two girls. But what about me? Should a Mexican zombie get a tattoo? The question arose one day when I was coming out of home room.
Danny Betances pulled me aside in a small alcove in the hallway. “Orale, Lazo, check this out!” He rolled up his right sleeve, turned his hand down, and showed me a tattoo imprinted into the “v” between his right hand thumb and index finger. The tattoo was made up of two simple lines, one was long vertical and the other short and horizontal. It was a simple cross, with quotation marks on either side.
By now I knew that Danny had been jumped into the Peewees clica of the Avenues gang. So I figured this was all part of gang affiliation. I knew I was supposed to be impressed. So I went along with it.
“Wow! Totally firme!” I said. “Pretty cool tat! A cross, eh?”
“All us peewees have them, “ Danny said proudly. “It’s how we show pride in who we are. We put it right down there in ink. Forever. To let people know you’re firme and one of the vatos.”
“Later on,” he said,” when I grow up and become full Avenidas, I get to put on an “A” tattoo.
“Really cool, ” I said. And then, “Gotta go now. I’m late for class.”
As I walked away, it hit me that part of me really wanted to be a peewee like Danny. To fit in. To have a bunch of guys I could hang out with, get into trouble with, become friends with. To have brothers, to have a family, a community. But I knew that for a zombie this could never be. I envied Danny, and his tattoo, and his pride and his homeboys.
I envied him for being human and normal.
On my way home from school, I passed by the Goodwill Thrift shop on Avenue 19. I decided to check the place out and soon I was standing before a used book section. The sign said, “All Paperback, Half Price.”
And that’s when I discovered science fiction!
I found a worn, yellowed paperback copy of a book that must have been printed a thousand years ago. The title said, “Voyage of the Space Beagle,” and the author was someone who went by initials instead of a first name, “A.E. Von Vogt.” I wasn’t sure how you even were supposed to pronounce the last name but the cover of the paperback is what sold me– a cool painting of a space ship cruising through the middle of some distant galaxy. Totally idea capturing!
So I bought the paperback, 40 cents, hurried back home and, lying on my bed, underneath my zombie posters and the picture of Cesar Chavez, I read the book , cover to cover, in three hours. Of course, about half-way through it, the story began to sound very familiar and I realized that the story was awfully similar to the voyages of the Starship Enterprise which was one of my favorite old-time TV shows. It was all about an interstellar space ship that landed on different planets and encountered weird creatures and civilizations.
And that got me back to watching reruns of the original Star Trek series on TV. As I watched Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock meet up with aliens from different civilizations, I suddenly got a jolt of understanding. Those aliens were me!
Yep, for me it was a true affirmation.
It said that other creatures and other beings mattered. That it was okay to be different, to be alien.
That it was not about outward appearances, but what lay underneath. That every creature had worth and deserved dignity.
For my thirteen year old Zombie self, it reinforced what Cesar Chavez had said about every person deserving human dignity. Well, in my case we’re talking Zombie dignity…but dignity nonetheless!
It meant that I had a place in the world.
That I didn’t need to be shamed of being a Zombie. Of course, I was so overjoyed and excited by my new-found insight that I immediately went to my mom and told her how proud I was to be a zombie and that perhaps we should stop lying about who I was. I suggested that we go public!
“Hay, ni lo digas!” She replied. “Mijo, if people find out I dug you up from the grave, they’ll send me to jail! That’s a crime you know, digging up dead people. And God only knows what will become of you! They’ll send you to some juvenile hall or to a foster home or– peor!–they’ll want to examine your brain. For sure, they’ll separate us! Mijo, no le vayas a decirle a nadie!”
Well she had me there.
I hadn’t thought of that angle. I mean, I was still technically a minor and I certainly didn’t want my mom arrested and me sent to juvie or some foster home. I must admit I had a laugh thinking about that one, though. I imagined child services putting me up for adoption. “Please adopt this adorable zombie! Pleasant disposition. Will clear your house of rats and roaches. No food expense, just feed him scraps. Adorable with children and pets! Deodorant and pachouli included!”
Anyway, that put my coming out on hold. At least for a few years.
But I was still consumed with this new found pride in myself. It felt so good not to have to feel guilty or ashamed of being a zombie. I thought about identity for many days after that.
Lincoln Heights had a lot of Chinese people living there, and on the way to school I would see them all conversing and being happy and sharing moments together. All really happy about who they were.
And at school, all the kids seemed to hang together real cool. It seemed everybody felt good and prideful about who they were except for me. Until now.
The next Monday, I saw Danny Betances coming toward me in the school hallway. This time it was my turn to pull him aside into a quiet alcove.
“Check it out, Danny,” I said.
I showed him my right hand, face down, so he could see the tattoo that I had carefully engraved between my thumb and index figure. Like Danny’s tattoo, I had placed quotation marks on either side of the main symbol.
“Orale,” Danny said. “Do I know this gang?”
“Nah, it’s a personal thing,” I said. “It’s not a gang. It’s a people.”
He gave me a weird look. “So what is that, anyway?” He asked pointing to the symbol.
“It’s nothing ,” I replied. “Just a simple letter “z.”
Copyright 2012 by Lazaro De La Tierra and Barrio Dog Productions Inc.