By the time I was fifteen years old I had come to terms with being a Mexican Zombie and had settled into the quiet unassuming life of a loner in Lincoln Heights. I did moderately well at school, kept to myself, listened to classical music, read science fiction and, of course, embellished my diet with as many dead cats, rats, birds and insects as I could forage in the neighborhood.
The pachouli worked well to mask the smell of death I carried with me. I still applied make-up to darken my skin each morning before going out in the world, and I had made great strides in controlling my zombie drool.
Then my life was unexpectedly turned upside down.
I had gone along with my mom to shop at Costco in Alhambra one Saturday morning. I always enjoyed Cosco because I could stand by my ‘ama at the meat counter and help her select the cow brains, entrails and eyeballs for my meals.
Well, we were at the end of the check out line, there were several families ahead of us, when I noticed someone standing in the line next to us.
It was Pearl Gonzalez!
I hadn’t seen Pearl since she moved away from Boyle Heights back in the third grade, but I had thought of her often. Now and then a girl at school would smile a certain way–Pearl’s smile– or giggle in a certain way–Pearl’s giggle– or walk down the hall a certain way–Pearl’s walk–and I would be reminded of how much I missed her. And how unfair it was that I had never been able to become real friends with her before she moved away.
Of course I immediately ran right up to her. She looked just as beautiful as the last time I had seen her. Though she had grown up considerably. She was wearing a gray skirt, white shirt over which she wore a red sweater with the initials SHJ on it.
“Pearl!” I said. “It’s me Lazaro. Do you remember?”
It took just a moment for her to recognize me.
“Of course! Lazaro from Mrs. Bunson’s Third grade class at Breed!”
“How are you?” I asked. “Do you live here in Alhambra?”
“No, we live in El Sereno now. We just come here now and then to shop.”
“Wow, I’m living in Lincoln Heights. My mom and I moved there two years ago. I’m going to Lincoln Middle School now. ”
“I know Lincoln Heights,” Pearl said. “I go to the Sacred Heart of Jesus school.”
“Sacred Heart of Jesus! That’s on Griffin Avenue, just a few blocks away from where I live!” Maybe I can see you after school or something. We can be friends?”
That quieted her for a moment. Meanwhile, the line moved forward. I walked along with her. Her parents, standing ahead of us were looking back at me, wondering who I was.
“Lazaro,” Pearl finally said. “Where do you go to church?”
Church? That was a funny question. I told her, “El Templo del Senor. It’s Spanish speaking.”
“Oh,” she said clearly disappointed.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
“You’re not Catholic then?”
“No, I guess not…er. I mean, I suppose I’m Baptist or something like that.” Truth to tell I never really even thought much about denominations. I just presumed they were all the same. Same God, right?
“No,” I said, “I’m not Catholic. Why do you ask?”
“My parents say I can’t have any friends who are not Catholic.”
“Yeah. I’m real sorry. ‘Cause I would like to be your friend. My but parents won’t let me.”
“Come on Pearl, we gotta go.” Pearl’s parents had checked out of the line and were waiting for her.
“Sorry, Lazaro. Have fun at school. Bye!”
“Bye!” I said with a lump in my throat.
And with that Pearl Gonzalez was once again out of my life.
The next morning after church service, I went up to Hermano Valdez and asked if I could have a word with him.
“Why of course, Lazaro,” he replied. “Come on over here.” We walked away from the people still coming out of the church to a quiet area on the church steps.
“How can I help you?” he asked. He had a big friendly smile on his face.
“What’s the difference between us and the Catholics? Don’t we both believe in God” I asked.
He took a moment to size up my question.
“Yes, that’s true. Baptists and Catholics are both Christians, but we have different beliefs about God and how to get to heaven.”
“Like what,” I asked, really wanting to know. Maybe there was some technical way in which I could still become Pearl’s friend.
“Well, for one thing Catholics believe you have to go through the Pope to get to the Lord. We believe we can speak directly to him.”
“Is that the only difference?”
“No. In the Bible it says ,”Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The Catholics pray to saints and to their Virgin Mary. We consider these to be false gods. There is only one Lord, you know.”
“Well, if Catholics pray to saints and to the Virgin Mary does that mean they won’t go to heaven?”
“You shouldn’t worry about whether Catholics will go to heaven or not. You should just make sure that YOU get to heaven, Lazaro. Just be happy that’s you are in the TRUE church!” With that Hermano Valdez walked away, smiling, to greet people coming out of church.
I though about what Hermano Valdez said all day. And that night, I couldn’t help it, I broke down and cried.
It was so unfair!
I couldn’t be friends with Pearl, the only girl I ever had a crush on, because my mom went to one church and her parents went to a different church. What was the sense in that? Didn’t we all believe in the same God?
And because Pearl was Catholic–did that mean she was not going to heaven and would roast in hell forever? Yeah, that grisly image still haunted me. The more I cried the more unfair the whole thing seemed. It didn’t matter that Pearl and I wanted to be friends. No, what mattered was that Baptist and the Catholics believed–something that had been decided years ago and that we had no say in.
It was just not fair!
Copyright 2012 by Lazaro De La Tierra and Barrio Dog Productions Inc.