An Appalling Charm (Non-fiction Memoir)

By Fernando Romero

Fernando, graduated from Cal State Long Beach in 2009 and studied Creative Writing and Journalism. He is a co-founding member of Dreamers Adrift and co-founding member of the AB 540 group FUEL @ CSULB. He is also the Coordinator for the Justice for Immigrants Coalition of Inland Southern California, which is an immigrant-rights coalition in the Inland Empire region of California.

Illustration by Julio Salgado/Dreamers Adrift


The killing streets took another victim one July night almost eight years ago. We lived on a small, second-floor apartment on Seventh Street and Lime Avenue. This is a part of Long Beach ridden with all the idiosyncrasies of society; violence, drug activity, prostitution, racial hatred, crime, alcoholism and poverty.

There also exists a morbid sense of magical realism that can sometimes be attributed to this place; a dichotomy that fuses the ugliness of life with that of the human spirit. Almost like a sign of hope and a testament to the will of instinct. There is something about this place that speaks of an appalling charm. It is a place where the angels starve. Where children will play soccer out in the street with the carcass of a dead rat like my brothers and I once did. Where you could tie a string to the legs of a June bug and fly it like a kite. Perhaps, it is the way a loved one’s shoes will hang from power lines like a eulogy. Or maybe it is simply the way gun shots sound like the clap of a hand echoed off in the distance. And how you sometimes feel envious when you see people fall asleep under the bright light of day.

Published on July 10, 2001,
Press-Telegram (Long Beach, CA)


A single mother with seven children was shot to death outside her home and her neighbor was wounded when a gunman opened fire on them Sunday night. “I don’t know why this happened,’“ said the neighbor, who was sitting outside in the 700 block of East Seventh Street with Graciela Zavala and two teen-age boys at about 11:15 p.m. when someone walked out of a nearby alley and opened fire. “We were just sitting out here, just talking and laughing.” Ms. Zavala was reportedly sitting on the front porch of her apartment with neighbors when an unknown assailant walked up and fired multiple shots into the group.

I saw the front page of the Press-Telegram the following Tuesday. I read the story of the slain woman. Her name was Graciela; she was 39, a single mother of seven and of working-class background. Maybe it was a sense of guilt and fear that I felt that grabbed and tore at me, but I waited for the twilight of the setting sun before I walked over to the street corner where she had fallen two days earlier. On the steps of the porch, there was a candlelight vigil in honor of this woman whose life had come to a deafening end. I passed by. I saw candles alight bearing the vibrant image of the Jesus Sacred Heart crowded by flowers, cards and pictures of the departed. I saw a photograph of her that stood pressed against a candle. She had a round face, high cheek bones and small brown eyes coupled with long, flowing black hair. She was wearing a black a dress and in her left hand she was holding a rosary. She had a picaresque smile, probably reminiscent of her younger days.

The vigil had a gathering of about a dozen people. I assumed most were relatives and close friends, and like me, people just came and went. I wasn’t there more than ten minutes. I didn’t any know any of the people that were gathered so I stood there almost with a sense of indifference. Albeit, it was my neighborhood, the resistance for a sense of community and the need for isolation had dictated everyone’s life until a tragedy struck, the same way we made new neighbors late one night in January 1994 when the Northridge earthquake shook the world and reminded us, all of us, of our existence and what binds us.

I saw the people there; I saw their eyes and they were sad like a defeated race. I could sense death. I crossed myself and left in the selfish hope that such a tragedy should never hit close to home. It was one of those Summer nights I felt the most cold, but also felt a little more closer to this strange thing; this humanity.

Across the porch where the candlelight vigil stood, was a Catholic gift shop and down the street on Olive Avenue, St. Anthony’s Church, where we used to attend Mass on Sunday mornings.Down Seventh Street toward Los Alamitos Avenue, was St. Francis, where we would go with my mother when my brothers and I were all young, family struggling for money and still new to this country. There, we received donations of canned fruit, canned food, and other food stuffs. My brothers and I would carry these home. No car, no transportation, nothing, just the six of us walking with fortitude without any lament, like mother goose leading her ducklings to a pond somewhere over a green pasture buried amidst this inner-city jungle.

About two weeks later, I sat inside the front offices at Millikan High School. For the summer session, I had a graphic arts class for first period and was a student aid to the front office of the school for second period.  I was talking to my friend Helen when a girl, also a student aide, came to me.

“Hey, is your name Fernando?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Yeah, I think there’s a phone call for you,” she said.

I was perplexed, but followed her. She handed me the phone.

“Hello,” I said into the phone.

“Hey, it’s me. It’s Paula,” I recognized my sister-in-law’s voice immediately and by the tone of it, I knew that something was wrong. “Your mom’s in the hospital. She fell down the stairs this morning. She’s hurt pretty bad.”

I cringed. It felt like someone shot me in the stomach.

“Is she gonna be okay?” I asked calmly sensing the room and this girl who still had her eyes locked on me. I never

“Well, kind of… She’s at St. Mary’s. Everyone’s is already here or on their way,” Paula said.

“Okay…I’m on my way.”

I hung up. I rushed back to where Helen sat to grab my stuff.

“Is everything alright?” Helen asked with her eyes widened.

“No, I have to go,” I responded. “My mom’s in the hospital.”

Helen gasped as I ran out the office and out of the school in a frantic dash to catch the first bus headed Downtown. While on the bus, my thoughts were on my mother’s welfare. I fashioned my own prayer asking for my mother to never die. I thought about my father and my brothers and wondered what they were thinking at that exact moment. I thought about the woman who had ceased to exist two weeks prior; and of the similarities of one mother to the other. I thought about life and death and concluded that time was never on our side.  

I arrived at St. Mary’s within an hour. I was the last one there. My brothers and my father were gathered in the lobby.  It was a sight to see; seven males huddled together with an expression of fear not unlike the dangers of warfare. As the last one, it was my turn to see my mother. I didn’t want to see her at all; not like this at least.

We waited about anxiously until I was ushered in to see my mother at around noon. Her room was in one of the upper floors of the medical center. Inside the hospital room, my mother was in a cast up to her neck. I could see her face and eyes only. Her eyes looked weary and the hazel in her iris gave off a grey reflection. It took me a while to recognize her. She seemed to have aged decades in only one day.  It was obvious she was numbed with a lot pain medication. The medical staff had said she wouldn’t be able to talk much and that each visit would be better if it were short.

I stood against the side of the hospital bed. She looked up at me and gave me a concerned look. In her eyes, she saw me as if though I were still a child. In a way, we were all still kids. My youngest brother was seven and the oldest was 22.  I felt helpless. I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t know what to say. She was in a full body cast and the questions such as; how are you doing, or are you okay? They all seemed redundant. But I still felt like the worst son in the world. Because there, underneath the body cast and the bandages was the woman who had birthed and raised six boys, the woman who’d given me life and I couldn’t utter a word of encouragement.

In the world of men, there is no room for feelings. Any expression of emotion is derided. The only form of love is tough love.  It’s always hard to express emotions. I don’t know how to get close to people; I never learned how to do that. I wanted to say “Ama, te quiero mucho” to my mother as she lay on the hospital bed, but I couldn’t find myself to find the words because any emotion will forever be a sign of weakness. I felt like a blind man trying to find his way out of a dark room; feeling around and sensing for anything,

“Hi mom,” I finally said.

She forced a smile and with a raspy voice she said in Spanish, “I’m so glad you could make it. I didn’t see you when everyone else came in. Did you talk to your dad and your brothers?”


“Everything is going to be okay,” she reassured me. “The doctors said I will be here for about a week. Then, they’ll probably send me home in a cast.”

“That’s good,” I said.

Then, I just stood there.

Her left hand was free from cast. I held her hand until my time ran out. I kissed her on the forehead and left.

Visiting hours were over. There was nothing else to do, but to go home. So we did. “Can we go back tomorrow?”my seven-year old brother Eduardo asked indiscriminately to the platoon of men that marched out of St. Mary’s.

“Yeah,” my father said. “We’ll come back tomorrow.”

I was seventeen at the time, aged in between Gonzalo and Valentin who were two years younger and older than me respectively. Ezequiel was the oldest and David had just turned 21.

It was quiet. No one said anything on the way home. We got home, ate and idled about the afternoon until my father went off to work.

That night, my brothers, my father and I were swallowed by an immense solitude. In the midst of the binge and purge of the expression of loneliness, there was a sense of guilt among us, as if though we could have prevented this.

“So what happened?” I asked. “Why’d she fall?”

“I think she was just tired and slipped and fell,” Valentin said.

“She was probably sleepy too,” Gonzalo said.

At the hospital, my mother had told Ezequiel, the oldest what had happened.

“She said she was getting out of bed to move the car,” Ezequiel said.

It was street sweeping day and my mother was called out of bed by my father to move one of my brothers’ car.

“Why didn’t my dad wake you up instead of her?” David said. “You should have moved the car. We all know she barely gets any sleep.”

Everyone’s face became dim.

In those days, both my parents worked late-night shifts. My mother worked in the oil refineries in Wilmington and my father worked in a factory in West Long Beach. They would leave at around four in the afternoon, the same time we came from school. Sometimes the entire week would pass by without even seeing my parents. I only saw them early in the morning while getting ready for school.

My mother would come from work around two in the morning. Then, she would get up at seven in the morning, make breakfast for all of us, drive my little brother to school, come home, sleep for a couple of more hours, wake up and go to work again.

She did that for a while. I’m sure her body gave her signs, but she has always been stronger than anybody I know.

During vacation time from school or even on Friday nights, I would sometimes stay up watching Late Night with Conan O’Brien. My mother would come home from work and she would tell me about her day. Some nights she would let it all out and tell me all about her day. If I asked her to fix me a hot plate; she would. Sometimes, I would lie awake in my bed, pretending to be asleep in the hopes she would nudge at me. She would stand at the door and while I played dead. I wanted to her to nudge me, but she didn’t. I don’t know why acted like that.

She does not remember the day she fell from a flight of stairs of the apartment building we lived in. Her mind was lost. She said she simply remembers waking up, walking out the door, grabbing hold of the banister and then being wheeled on a stretcher surrounded by paramedics. She lost her footing on the top of the stairs and fell heavy without rolling like a body bag made of cement. She was unconscious before she reached the bottom steps. No scream, no cries; nothing.

There is a picture buried deep inside one of our photo albums. In it, we are all kids, infants even. I’m wearing a Ghostbusters t-shirt, sporting a really bad haircut, surrounded by four of my brothers as we stand towered over by my mother. It was 1985; my father wasn’t with us when we went to this family portrait photo shoot. He had gone to other side of the border, el Norte style, to help out the family. Back then, my mom would generate income by selling bed sheets and pillows she sewed herself from inside the house. She would sew bed sheets and pillow cases with the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe emblazoned on them. I don’t remember those days, but I’ve heard the will of instinct and perseverance when my parents retell the stories of hardship.

My mother was released in due time from the hospital and she recovered eventually. But it was those moments in that hospital bed, with the pervasive futility of life which triggered feelings of isolation. She had always been there and one assumed she always would be. She had always been as ever-present as the sun and as free as the eagle; almost unbendable. But nowadays when I see her, I try to be as expressive of how much she has meant to me; to all of us. To not do so would be a sacrilege; an unforgivable sin.


Originally published in May 2009 for El Reflejo, an news and arts zine at Cal State Long Beach.


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