In 1977 I was boy wonder, a chavalito. My first book of poems, The Elements of San Joaquin, had attracted attention in the literary world – the New York Times Book Review, for instance, had good words to say about it. I was 24 and full of myself, as only a young person has the right to be. I had shoulder-length hair, a mustache, a pierced ear (radical at the time), and bell-bottom Levis. I was the first Chicano – ever – to graduate with an MFA from a creative writing program. I was a rare bird, and actually flying.
At the time, despite my one book and my formal education, I was as poor as the next brown brother or sister, yet unworried by the empty cupboards and the VW Bug that occasionally needed a push to get started. I knew that something larger was going to occur in my life, and not because I was a scheming careerist but because I was on fire to write. I was going to spend more than 25 years producing – how was this possible from a boy who graduated from high school with a 1.8 GPA? – a body of literature that children and young adults nationwide would eventually read. I was going to write Living Up the Street, Chato’s Kitchen, Too Many Tamales, Baseball in April, and Buried Onions – the last a novel that has been optioned for a major motion picture. My books were going to sell in the latter half of my writing life more than 1.5 million copies.
Now I look at myself in the mirror: I’m a quickly aging man with a paid-off mortgage, savings, unused golf clubs in the garage, and a Buick that gets 25 miles to the gallon of regular. My pierced ear has closed up, and my hair, once shiny black, is mostly gray and in rapid retreat. My knees hurt. My formerly clear eyes are red from working in front of a computer. Only seven years ago my waist measured 30 inches, but it has bulked out to a figure I would rather keep to myself. Bodily, I’m a different person than I was 25 years ago. In fact, when my wife and I recently put out our wedding pictures – we were married in 1975 – our daughter asked, “Who are those people?”
Those people, I realized, are aging baby boomers, who, with a good many Latinos who pitched themselves into la causa of the 1960s and early 1970s, are now approaching points in their lives when they are thinking of their mortality – that is, the temporal state of existence. Of dying, in other words. If the days of the week represent a decade – Monday being equivalent to the ages of 1 to 10 – then many boomitos, who are expected to live 70 years, are living on Thursday afternoon. Or Friday morning! We have two more days – 20 years – and then the great call!
True, Latinos in this country are a youthful group, in large part because of immigration but also because of the cultural penchant for families to boast three to five children. A single-child family is a rarity; a couple that marries and doesn’t produce offspring is even rarer – oddballs subject to gossip from family members. I could cite figures that are sure to resonate – 70 percent of all Latinos, for instance, are under 18! How does a figure like that translate into a business plan?
But the boomitos born between 1945 and 1960, who educated themselves and in time helped set policy in law, politics, medicine, education, the arts, and business, are aging. Our foreheads are pleated, our stomachs cascade over our belts, our memory slips when we try to locate our cars in long-term parking at airports. More than one of us has received his or her first letter of eligibility for AARP. Perhaps the initial reaction was, “Oh, wrong address,” or, perhaps, “It must be for my mother.” I’m afraid it was meant for you! In short, when you reach 50, the computer knows where to find you.
So the boomitos – the lawyers, doctors, teachers, and architects of the first wave of professionals – are being shoved into a new category and will, in time, be shoved into what are euphemistically called care facilities. What to do with the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of our remaining years? It’s difficult to speak this way; it’s like purchasing our burial plots, a high-ticket item that’s meant for good.
We can do a number of things. We can buy golf clubs and let them collect dust in the garage – my set came from the Goodwill and may have been used by Lee Treviño, so I don’t feel so bad. We can buy an SUV, a vacation home, a cruise to view the shrinking icebergs floating in Alaska. A wine collection? Sure, why not. A granite countertop in the kitchen? Let’s go for it! If we have worked hard, we want to pamper ourselves. This is only fair. How we would love to dip into a pool with a cold brew or an umbrella drink sitting on the edge.
But I write to call the boomitos to provide a cultural legacy via philanthropy. In the end we are not known by our material life but by the content of our character. That Cesar Chavez never received more than $13,000 a year and yet did so much for others is an example. Though it’s not well known, Dolores Huerta almost always signs her honorariums over to the UFW. That we can never achieve their social legacy should not prevent our trying.
Content of our character. We are going to be remembered when someone comes up and asks, “You know we have this little program …” If you turn your back, you will be remembered for that gesture; if you ask, “What about this program?” then you will experience charity – provided you don’t have the feeling that the person asking is a pest but rather see that he is on fire with a vision.
Who’s on fire? I’m thinking of Fred Ruiz of Ruiz Food Products. He has a foundation and directs money to the group Ruiz 4 Kids as well as several Latino-themed projects. In particular, I’m thinking of his generosity toward Arte Americas, a cultural center in Fresno, California. I don’t know what lies in Fred’s heart – or mind – but as a businessperson living on Friday, at midday, he must have reached a point when he looked at his surroundings – very nice, I suppose – and said, “OK, this is enough. What else can I do?”
Start a foundation for the good of all. I recall telephoning Mr. Ruiz some months ago and describing a problem at Arte Americas – an artist’s work had been damaged during shipment, forcing the artist, reluctantly, to threaten legal action. I got wind of this via the director of Arte Americas and, of course, was worried for both the director and the artist. I bit my fingernails and then smartly recalled Fred’s business card. I called and left my name and number, and within five minutes he called back, nearly out of breath. This was a new sensation, as I seldom get people to run to the telephone for me! I described the predicament and felt comfortable enough (we had met once before but I got the feeling that he was up to challenges) to suggest that we pay for the artwork, a 50-50 proposal that would cost us each a tidy sum. He didn’t blink; a check was in my hands two days later, and the problem was solved.
That morning 11 months ago, Fred could have done a number of things; he could have feigned never having received my call or said it wasn’t his business, literally – his business is Mexican food products. (They’re not bad, either!) But perhaps Fred believes that charity serves both benefactor and beneficiary and that if he had said, “No, Gary, I can’t help,” he would have been richer in one way but poorer in another. His dinner would not have tasted richly deserving that evening, even if he were dining on one of his own products.
In turn, boomitos must weigh the letters they receive asking for donations. We have all been asked for money, and probably all the causes are admirable. We write out one check, then another, and yet another. But we must ask ourselves what value there is in that directionless kind of giving. Perhaps it’s better to ask ourselves first who we are and what touches us – education, the arts, sports, literacy programs, social services – and how what we have can be shared to the benefit of a single interest. Arte Americas is my choice, though I have a friend who happily supports the Mexican Museum of San Francisco in a big way.
Truly, I’m no longer boy wonder. I’m different in body – our daughter told me so when she inspected our wedding picture – and I’m thinking about what to do with the last two and a half days of my life. The question is meant for all boomitos, professionals who have benefited from their own intellectual resources but also from the likes of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, among untold others – people who set a foundation for our successes, including those in business. For Latinos, the spirit of philanthropy is first to family, but it can extend beyond to benefit a legacy in the arts – music, dance, art, sculpture, and the people who create them. Where are they, these cultural centers, and how can you be involved? In what ways can you forge the words, “How can I help you, my brother, you, my sister?”
With this thought, let’s celebrate September, the month Hispanics have marked as our own.
Winner of the 1999 Literature Award from the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, Gary Soto is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California at Riverside.
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