My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Lichtman, told us in class that Verdugo was a Spanish name. That they—the Verdugos—were a very wealthy Spanish family who had owned a lot of the La Cañada area in the time of the California missions. He said they were the founders of this city when it was still just land—or “dirt,” as he called it.
I could almost feel my abuela’s disapproving eyes burn into my teacher. To him and so many, the land and everything else is just dirt—something disposable, something empty. Until a mansion or skyscraper crushes its weight on top of Her. Until someone holds a big price that claims they own Her. Even as a child I knew Mother Earth was not just dirt; the land is alive; the land is owner of Herself.
Mr. Lichtman said that the name Verdugo meant “executioner.” He stood over us tall, lanky, effortlessly cool in his faded blue jeans and striped long sleeve shirt. His shirt buttons shined like silver bullion when the sunlight came through his classroom window, just so.
Mr. Lichtman stretched his tan arms, clasping his fingers on top of his slightly balding head and sat, leaning his long frame languidly against his sturdy oak desk. “You know the name of this school is “Executioner Woodlands,” he laughed, his mouth open wide.
His teeth gleamed ivory and I thought of a mouthful of polished, sharpened bones.
I winced. Who had the Verdugos executed?
Who had they murdered? How did they—these Executioners—take this land? How was it that my school was named after these murderers? How was it that these Verdugos—these Executioners—had so much power?
. . .
My grandfather sat on the grass, leaning against a tree at the sixth grade awards ceremony for Verdugo Woodlands. The ceremony was held a couple blocks from school at Verdugo Park.
I was awarded Best Sixth Grade Story Writer.
“Who’s that old man?” I heard the kids from my school ask each other.
“Probably a bum,” one kid answered. They all laughed.
My grandfather, who worked fourteen-hour days for seventy-five out of his eighty-eight years of life, had fallen asleep in his brown workman’s shirt, against a sturdy oak tree.
Mi abuelo, my huito.
Who was always the one to lift the heavy boxes, to put his back into it.
Who came to this country legally as a Bracero then got deported anyway.
Who walked back across the border, “cuándo la frontera era nomás una línea de tierra,” with only seven dollars in his pocket.
Who worked and worked, and then worked some more.
Enough to raise eleven kids and a fatherless little nieta, his leona—me.
Who held the silence of his disappointment and anger at his unmarried daughter, who should have been a good Catholic girl but got pregnant. Who, a whole year later, broke his silence when he saw the ojitos of his beautiful baby granddaughter.
Who worked enough to eventually become his own boss, selling Mexican goods to stores and restaurants. Who later became the owner of his own restaurant, his own house and apartment buildings. But not before he worked for the railroad, worked as a gardener, a cook, a busboy, a construction worker; he worked with calloused hands, worked building things for other men—men who did not build anything themselves but kept everything.
Abuelo tren, quien carga la historia.
Who would lift his five-foot tall frame, whose childhood and posture were stunted by backbreaking labor since the age of eight.
Whose mother had burned to death when her reboso caught fire as she warmed tortillas over an open hearth when he was just a baby. Whose own father did not claim him, abandoning him and his mother, while she was still pregnant.
No hay vida sin trabajo y no es buen trabajo si no tiene vida, he would tell us. There is no life without work and it’s not good work unless it has life.
My grandfather, raised by his grandparents and his Madre Isabel (who was really his aunt), was the only father I had ever known.
He drove me to school, picked me up, sang to me, was silent with me, danced with me, and called me Estefana, Leona, Reyna. My papi, who snuck me pan dulce and bottles of ¡Caramba! Mexican soda from his tortilla truck and fed me morsels of food, especially prepared for him by my grandmother, that always tasted better from his plate.
I told them I did not know who he was.
The one bedroom apartment I lived in with my mother was so tiny compared to the immense houses—the ones with more rooms than I could count—where my schoolmates lived.
Their houses were the way a home should look, the way mine did not.
White and gold with sprawling driveways, like streets unto themselves. Huge, stone steps counted the way to massive, heavy doors with immovable locks. These houses in the hills far away from mine lit up with flickering lights that shined upon a scene I could never really touch. Like families with wide-toothed smiles on TV sitcoms.
Families that woke up in the morning and had orange juice and waffles.
Families that had fathers. Fathers who kissed their little girls good night.
These families never had to worry. Never had to put groceries back after flashing red lines lit up the cashier’s screen with a price that tells you:
You don’t have enough. You are not enough.
"'Executioner Park' is a hybrid, creative non-fiction, and prose poetry piece inspired by my childhood, that explores my questions of identity, otherness, racial and class inequalities, and that ultimately shaped my worldview as a progressive, female, writer of color."
Alejandra Sanchez writes with the intention of global and personal healing, working for the rights of Mother Earth, indigenous lifeways, and Mother Water. Her work has been featured in the independent film, I Stare At You and Dream, KPFK's Pacifica Radio, Radio Sombra's Red Feminist Radio, Mujeres De Maiz, La Bloga, UCLA Young Writers Anthology, Hinchas de Poesia, and PBS Newshour's Where Poetry Lives. She is currently an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles.