As a founding member of Los Angeles’ Black Eyed Peas, Taboo is an internationally recognized pop star. But as young Jaime Gomez, the aspiring performer had to rise above the tough environment of East L.A., escape its gang culture and poverty to pursue his dream. Here’s an excerpt.
When I was young, somewhere between boyhood and adulthood, Nanny Aurora hung a dream catcher above my bed. She would read me a story, then tuck me in, kiss me on the cheek and wish me good dreams. I didn’t know back then what this Native American charm meant. I now believe it was there to catch my dreams before others crushed them.
When I was twenty-three, and somewhere between chasing my dreams and making them a reality, my grandmother passed away and joined the man she spoke with every day: God. I didn’t know back then what her death meant. I now believe that she passed on to become the angel who saved me from myself; to stop me from taking a wrecking ball to the very dream she helped build.
By the time I’m an old man, I believe I’ll come to an even deeper understanding of my life — the reasons, the purpose and the meaning of the paths I took. Between now and then, I’ll sit with my children and read them this story as a Gomez family legacy. I will read it to them as part — I hope — inspiration and part cautionary tale. And the overriding message will be as simple as a lyric: “Dream big, find a way, make it happen. Just don’t mess it up when you get there.”
Because God doesn’t always give second chances.
Not unless you’re really lucky and walk with angels.
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And, believe me, I was one of the lucky ones, performing and dancing with a dream catcher called Nanny whose wings helped me fly and, more important, allowed me to remain midair, soaring.
I come to my senses in that place they call “rock bottom.”
I stare through the prison bars and assess the s--- I’m in. It takes only a few seconds to realize that s--- doesn’t get much deeper than this, and I feel framed by my own stupidity: the architect of the dream turned kamikaze pilot.
That crazy duality would have made up the wording on my gravestone had grace not saved me from death.
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Instead, I get to consider the epitaph on my career, if not my life: the unknown wording that the Black Eyed Peas management and record label are no doubt already discussing with the stonemason.
I’m busted. It’s over ... it’s all over, I tell myself.
I sit with my back against the stone-cold wall, aching. The drugs that raced through my bloodstream have worn off, and this feels like the steepest and darkest comedown yet.
In the seconds before coming to, I hadn’t known where I was or what was happening; suspended in oblivion. I instantly want to rewind and trap those seconds in a jar and seal them — and me — into some crude, homemade snowglobe. But, as is usual with retribution, there is no escaping the reality of my own making.
My head feels heavy and mechanical, my mouth is so dry that it feels like I’ve got a dozen cotton balls stuffed under my tongue, and the sense of dread is building into a quiet panic.
I’m sitting on a cement bench in a dirty police cell, and my wrists still remember the sensation of being cuffed even if my mind is still piecing together the fragmented details. Gray walls surround me on three sides. On my right, there are floor-to-ceiling prison bars caging me off from the corridor leading to the sheriff’s office.
I hear voices.
Faint sounds of formal activity.
Are they laughing at me?
Did I hear them say “Black Eyed Peas?”
What are they saying?
What are they saying about me?
Paranoia is a bitch when drugs leave it embedded in your head.
My muscles tense and shiver. My heart races. This one muscle is probably as confused as I am with my lifestyle: racing with excitement in the high, sinking with anxiety on the down. And each time, it never really knows how close it is to death. But the rest of my body seems well aware of its proximity to the abyss, because everything inside feels like it is turning to jelly and about to erupt and cover the walls in s---. Even being in my own skin feels claustrophobic.
Now I know how my cat feels when I put her in that carry cage before taking her to the vet. Her wide eyes always tell me that she doesn’t know what the hell is going on either, and I’m suddenly empathizing with her.
My white hoodie feels like a straitjacket, and my legs are bouncing in the black Jordan basketball shorts I’d put on in a hurry before leaving home. I slip my feet into my flip-flops and stare at the cement wall facing me. There’s nothing to look at except dents, grime and peeling paint.
As for fixtures and fittings, there is the one bench and a sink in the corner. I’m grateful for the absence of a mirror because I don’t want to confirm how hellish I look: ghostly pale with dark bags haunting the eyes, skin covered with acne bumps, cheeks so gaunt that I look like the masked one in the movie Scream. I’ve seen this face hundreds of times staring back at me in the bathroom mirror at home when giving myself a pull-yourself-together pep talk.
“C’mon son, you’re going to stop,” I’d quietly urge my reflection, “tomorrow, you’ll be sober.”
Or the lie that says “After this one, I’m not going to do this s--- no more.”
Maybe each time I walked out of the bathroom, my reflection still stood there in the same spot, laughing.
The emptiness of the cell reminds me of my first apartment in Hollywood. Only this joint is cleaner — it doesn’t have cockroaches crawling out of every crevice like my old place did.
S---, I can’t slide back to those days again. Come too far.
I start pacing, my flip-flops shuffling and popping on the floor, spitting a pathetic rhythm.
“I f----- up,” I murmur, “Biggest f----up EVER!” I shout.
The stone walls echo it back to me just in case I missed it the first time.
At times like this as a kid, when bad s--- happened, I’d escape into my imagination and block everything out. But even the wild and crazy dreamer has to wake one day and this is my wake-up call, delivered in the late afternoon of Tuesday, March 27, 2007.
This day will change my life.
This arrest — for rear-ending some poor woman on the freeway while off my head on a mad concoction of drugs — registers high on the Richter scale of wake-ups. They say that life gives you a few chances to work it out for yourself before conspiring to bring about the rock-bottom downfall; the final warning before the endgame. I guess this is where the lessons start being learned.
Outside the cell, my name is scribbled in chalk: “Gomez.” No need for Jimmy. Or, as Mom would correct me. “It’s JAIME (that’s ‘Hi-meh,” the Spanish pronunciation) YOUR REAL NAME IS HI‑MEH!!”
Not that it matters. Shame doesn’t address you on first-name terms.
The date of birth on my arrest sheet will reveal my age to be thirty-one, with a subtext that mocks: “Should know better.” Especially for a man soon to be married and a father of one who not long ago looked into the eyes of the woman he loves — like, really loves to her core — and vowed: “I’ll change. Things will be different.”
“Yeah right,” I imagine my girl, Jaymie, saying (that’s “Jaymie” — pronounced as it sounds).
There’s no mention anywhere of my stage name: Taboo. It’s like the officer told me when they slammed me inside: “That counts for nothing. Here, you’re the same as everyone else, dude.”
The irony is another kick in the nuts. I’ve spent all my life working my ass off to be something other than “the same as everyone else,” trying to escape an ordinary life and break the mold. I was never settling for the just-earn-a-steady-wage life. I longed to be a performer. That is all I had ever wanted since the age of five, and I had made it happen.
In 1995, the dream was birthed. I was no longer just Jimmy Gomez from Rosemead, California. I became Taboo, one of the founding Black Eyed Peas. Our journey had been exploding since 2001, taking us from a small underground group in Los Angeles to a stratosphere we have at times struggled to believe. Police cells are awful places to realize how blessed you have been.
Just six weeks before ending up here, we won Best Pop Performance at the 49th Grammy Awards for “My Humps,” adding to the two Golden Gramophones won in 2005 and 2006. That same night in 2007, we’d announced the Lifetime Achievement Award given to Booker T. & the M.G.’s, and I opened the golden envelope and called out Mary J. Blige as the winner of Best R&B Album for Breakthrough. On Hollywood’s surface, life could not have seemed sweeter. But demons lurk beneath that glossy exterior, and they are never satisfied with mere achievements and happiness. Inner demons want your dream just as much as you do — but they just want it realized so they can f--- it all up. I am the Hollywood cliché. The textbook example of someone ill-equipped for the success he wished for.
In my mind, I place these two L.A. scenes side by side: the Grammy night with the Peas and Mary J. Blige, and this shame, experienced alone, inside the City of Industry police station in the San Gabriel Valley. All my pretend masks of rock-star status lie smashed on the cell floor, and the exposure makes me feel like a fraud.
A police officer arrives at the bars. He points at an empty cup and tells me they asked me to pee in it for a urine sample, but I was incapable; so many drugs in my system that even my pipes weren’t working.
“We’re going to need you to do a blood test,” he says.
I look behind him, down the corridor, and see a clock. It’s 4 p.m. S---.
My acting coach Carry Anderson and film agent Sara Ramaker will be going nuts.
I’m never going to make my scheduled appointment.
“This is a big one ... could be good for you,” Sara had said just days before. Today was the big meeting with producers to discuss a small part in the movie "The Bucket List," starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. I was up for the role of Manny the mechanic — something else now lying in pieces.
It is eight hours since I was arrested, and the officer reminds me how he saved me from a beating earlier. I try to put the jagged pieces of my memory together.
I ask how. “You wouldn’t stop rapping, and you were sharing a cell with two gang members,” he says. “They were screaming for you to shut up. We had to move you into another cell for your own safety.”
Oh s---. I remember now.
“Yeah,” he adds, “you kept rapping and saying you were from the Black Eyed Peas.”
He smiles as he says this, like he knows it will hurt.
My humiliation is complete. I feel disgusted at being me. The officer stands there staring at me, indifferent to my crisis. He must be immune to seeing so much regret unravel in here.
I’ve now convinced myself that I have no career left to return to.
I want to pull off my head and throw it against the wall. I want to suspend it from the ceiling like a piñata and smash it with a baseball bat so that all the self-saboteur’s madness lies in chunks on the floor.
“Oh,” says the officer before leaving, “and you better know that the paparazzi are waiting for you outside.” And he walks off.
I lean against the wall and await some formalities: for the $15,000 bail to be posted by management, for my blood to be taken and for the customary mug shot that I know will end up on TMZ — and it does.
As I wait, my guilt projects this montage of images and people onto the facing wall: there’s Jaymie going out of her mind, wondering why I never arrived home; there’s Josh, my teenage son from a previous relationship, looking frightened and bewildered, wondering what has become of his dad; there’s Will, Apl, and Fergie, shaking their heads and asking “What were you thinking, dude?”
I then picture my stepfather Julio sighing and tutting with unsurprised disappointment as he says aloud: “Ayyyyy, Hi‑meh.”
Just like he always did.
And then there’s the face of Nanny Aurora — my late maternal grandma, my second mom, best friend, confidante, chief cheerleader, inspiration, and the boulder for me to lean into and step up from. We’d visualized me making it in the music industry since I was a boy. This one thought of her is enough to calm me in the moment. I think of her and disappear into those childhood days as a form of comfort blanket.
I’m six years old and we’re at El Mercado, the teeming indoor market of the Mexican-American community in East L.A. My feet have picked up dirt from shuffling across the diamond-shaped tiles, and the smell of leather won’t leave my nose. I’m sitting in a booth with Nanny — the same black and tan booth we claim each Sunday, week in, week out, to secure the best seats in the house — inside the second-floor El Tarasco restaurant, sitting atop the warren of market stalls. Nanny’s seated opposite me, her white-as-snow hair tied up and bundled into a scarf, her shoulders covered by a black shawl.
My feet barely touch the floor and I’m mesmerized by the wonder on her face as I spoon a bowl of soup to my mouth, never taking my eyes off her as she looks sideways to the empty dance floor, expectant. She’s so ... excited. It makes me excited. She’s brought us here for a mutual weekly treat to watch a Mexican musical ensemble, the mariachis.
These guys are my kings. Grandma loves Freddy Fender, Elvis Presley and El Mercado’s mariachis. They bring Western Mexico to East L.A. We are diehard fans: boarding the RTD bus each week, each Sunday afternoon, to reach this venue between Lorena and 1st Street, and getting there early to find our seat before the lunch-time rush senses the entertainment is about to begin. Then out they come — an ensemble made up of a violinist, a guitarist, a trumpeter and a lead vocalist, performing on a wooden dance floor as a stage, with a terracotta wall as the backdrop. There is nothing more emblematic of Mexican music than the sounds of the mariachi, with songs serenading the woman. Grandma’s foot is tapping the moment the first guitar string vibrates, as they dance in their wide-brimmed hats and somehow sing with fixed grins on their faces. She catches me staring up at her.
“Look at them, Jim,” she says.
She always calls me Jim, never Jaime. Always the English version, not the Spanish. Never “Hi-meh.”
The mariachis’ outfits are dazzling, glittering with silver and shining studs and buttons. Their energy is contagious, and I watch them work the crowd and work hard, earning their applause. Faces once miserable from long hours at tough jobs are now beaming just like Grandma’s. The place is rocking. People are getting up and dancing. Strangers are coming together. Grandma is clapping to the beat. I start giggling and clapping, soup now slurped and finished.
“If you want to dance and entertain like them, Jim, you can,” said Nanny, leaning in. “Do you want to dance one day?”
I nod my head, fast.
She points out every aspect of their costume as they perform: the stitchwork, the meticulously shiny buttons, the pristine whiteness of their boots, how everything shimmers and matches, how they move in synch, how rehearsed they are. It’s all about detail, detail, detail. I don’t know it at the time, but she’s training my mind and fueling my dream. Detail in the look, detail in the execution. My unconscious child’s mind considers my first lesson in entertainment well and truly locked in.
I skip out of El Mercado, energized by the performance we never tired of seeing. Nanny makes me think — makes me believe — that, one day, I could be a performer, far better than the mariachis. The dreams we would go on to weave went far and beyond El Tarasco restaurant.
“One day, you could be climbing steps onto a stage before the world. Believe that, Jim. Believe it.”
Nanny exposed me early on to music, dance and entertainment, and showed me what to notice. Even though the Black Eyed Peas was another world from the mariachis, no one could have been prouder when the first shoots of success started to sprout before her death in 1996. “Way to go,
Jim!” she’d shout, “Way to go, Jim!”
In the confines of the cell I have earned, I start to cry, holding my head in my hands.
My own shame is worse than anything anyone else can heap on me.
Then, before this guilt crushes me, it’s as if her spirit hits me with her wooden hairbrush. She only ever disciplined me once with that brush — when I became too hyper as she combed my hair. But if I ever needed a good whack from her, it was now.
Nanny was proud of her Native American heritage as well as her Mexican roots. She was part Shoshone, and encouraged me to embrace the “warrior spirit” that was, she said, forever in my blood. Under Shoshone law, a defeated warrior has to leave his tribe forever. Legend demanded it.
This thought jolts me. Am I headed for exile?
When your tribe is the Black Eyed Peas, when you’ve got a family full of so much love, and when you’ve worked so damn hard to manifest a dream, there is no defeat. Except for self-defeat.
Even within all the deserved guilt I feel, I stand, feeling empowered, like I’m psyching myself up before a concert.
Don’t let this beat you, I keep saying, repeating it like a mantra.
Don’t let this beat you, I keep hearing, as if it is someone else’s voice.
In that moment, I knew I had to rewire my entire thinking.
I make a silent vow to myself: I might now appear like the pathetic celebrity archetype who was given the world and threw it away, but it will not break me.
It’s not over ... it’s not over, I tell myself.
Shoshones admire strength, wisdom and power in the spirit, not the weakness, ignorance and futility of the human ego.
I roll up the right sleeve of my hoodie and there’s the reminder: a tattoo from Australia 2002, seared in ink into my skin in Chinese and Japanese characters, spelling it out for me: “Spirit Warrior.”
Get it together. Get in touch with that warrior spirit.
You’ve fallen, Tab, that’s all. Get back up. Put back the pieces.
When I’m finally sober, the police allow me to retrieve my Range Rover Sport. On the drive home, there is only one question repeating in my mind: “How did it come to this?”
Chapter One: Leaving Dog Town
We all say we’re misfits in the Black Eyed Peas, and I really was born one.
I’ve often imagined the looks on everyone’s faces when I arrived into the world on July 14, 1975, shortly after one o’clock on a baking Los Angeles afternoon. There I was waiting to burst onto life’s stage as this eagerly awaited, dark-skinned Mexican-American boy with Native American ancestry, and then I arrived ... as light-skinned as could be.
“Oh look, he’s as white as a coconut!” were the first words that greeted my birth, spoken by my father, Jimmy.
With parents who were both dark and with Shoshone blood running thick on Mom’s side, this was not the shade of baby that had been ordered.
Uncle Louie, my mom’s brother, arrived in the room, took one look at me and said: “He looks like a long white rat!”
Mom said she was just grateful I came out fast.
I’m not saying I was a disappointment. I’m just saying that I was breaking the mold from the moment I came out of the gate. It should, therefore, have come as no surprise to anyone that a) I grew up feeling a bit of an outcast, and b) there was a good chance I’d follow through and be a nonconformist. From day one, it was clear that I wasn’t going to fulfill anyone’s expectations of me.
Nanny got it: she would later tell me that she knew I was going to be different from that first minute. But in her accepting eyes, “different” in a good way. I guess even then she could tell I wasn’t going to be your average pea in a pod.
I was born at East Los Angeles Doctors Hospital, directly off Whittier Boulevard — a seemingly never-ending street that today is crammed with markets and dollar stores but which was once a cruising capital for the young chavalos in their low-riders on the Eastside in the 60s, as immortalized by a seven-piece Chicano group called Thee Midniters. Not much came out of East L.A. back then beyond their 1965 hit “Whittier Boulevard,” which led to them being referred to as “the local Beatles,” though I doubt John Lennon and Paul McCartney sweated it too much.
At the baby shower a few weeks before my birth, my mom couldn’t stop dancing. She heard music and just had to start moving.
“Laura!!” everyone said — Laura was short for Aurora — “you’re going to have the baby if you’re not careful!”
“But I can’t stop dancing. I need to dance!” she told them.
And she danced and danced, and everyone laughed, for about two hours solid.
Mom says she knew I was going to be a handful then and there. It’s good to know that, even in the womb, I was injecting the Black Eyed Peas vibe, jumping around, rocking it, getting everyone on their feet. Mom said it was like that for the last three months of her pregnancy.
That’s why I like to think I started dancing even before my life truly began.
I also like to think that I gave Mom fair warning.
If you met me in the street and you knew nothing about the Black Eyed Peas and asked my name and where I was born, the reply could mislead you. I’d give you my birth name: Jaime Luis Gomez. I’d tell you where I first grew up: a Mexican-American community in East L.A. That would probably surprise you, because you might, as many do, mistake me for an Asian. If I told you the projects I grew up in and you knew the Eastside, I’d catch that look in your eye and I’d say, yeah, that’s right — the neighborhood nicknamed after a street gang called Dog Town. These are the stamps of my identity, about as informative as markings in a passport. They tell you nothing about who I am or what my story is, and what it further explains to me, looking back, is why I never felt I belonged from day one. Don’t get me wrong: no one is prouder than I am of my Mexican-American roots, but these are merely my roots and national identity. This information doesn’t completely define me.
Mr. Callaham, my sophomore English teacher, once said every story needs a good beginning, middle and end. I remember him saying that. It must have been one of the few times I was listening and not daydreaming my way through class.
The thing is, I didn’t much like the story that was laid out for me: the Latino who should understand his place in the world, stay loyal to the ’hood, get “a real job” and do the nine to five thing. I didn’t see a good beginning, middle or end in that.
What you’ve got to understand is that in my community, there was the story you were handed at birth—a carbon copy of the one issued to everyone else around you; a future of limitations that asks the dreamer that dares to be different: “What makes you think you’re so special?” I think that I was born with something of that Indian warrior spirit that Nanny talked about, providing me with a defiance that refused to respect pre-established boundaries. To me, you’ve got to be willing to smash your way out of any ice block that’s encased you. You’ve got to be willing to break out and be as original as you want to be, become the person you have the potential to be, as opposed to being the person others expect you should be. It is about ripping up the hopeless story and rewriting the dreamer’s script. Something innate within me knew this from being a boy.
There is a quote that me and my homie and best friend David Lara often remind each other of: “Those who abandoned their dreams will always discourage the dreams of others.”
I learned from an early age that few people tell you what is really possible, except for free spirits like Nanny. Because, if you become the one who does make it happen, then it reminds others of their own limitations and what they, maybe, could have done, but didn’t choose to. Find any tight community and then find the dreamer within it — and there’ll always be a gang of naysayers pissing on his or her parade.
That is why there is much more to me than where I come from. Because it is what was invisible — the determination, the belief, the perseverance — that shaped my story, and for those people who stonewalled me with doubt or never believed where I was headed, only one silent reply ran through my mind: Oh, you don’t think so? Okay, just watch me.
My mom, Aurora Sifuentes, and dad, Jimmy Gomez, met at a Mexican market on the Eastside. Mom was out shopping with Nanny, Aurora senior, when their paths crossed. It probably says a lot that I don’t know much more about the romantic part. Mom was a twenty-year-old student, securing qualifications that would ultimately get her a job as an official with the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Dad was a twenty-three-year-old mechanic. He’d previously had a relationship with a woman named Esther that produced a son — my half-brother Eddie who is four years older than me. I don’t know the details of that messy story other than Eddie ended up staying with Dad.
Mom and Dad fell in love, got married and she was pregnant with me at twenty-two, but the honeymoon period didn’t last long because, as Mom would tell me, there were two sides to my father. His better side was the kindhearted, affectionate gentleman. His bad side was the drinker, and, when this side kicked in, the good-looking charmer fell away and exposed the flawed man. He wasn’t a bad man, but alcohol sadly changed him. He would later get his act together, but not before it was too late as far as Mom was concerned.
Apparently, he performed a drunken dance called the “Pepe Stomp.” Basically, it involved nothing more technical than him stomping his feet on the spot, getting faster and faster. There was this one time when he lost his balance and fell backward into the playpen that was set up for my arrival. He crashed into it and was rolling around drunk. I wasn’t even born yet and Mom was already worried for my welfare. The final straw came during an argument when he picked up a bicycle and threw it at her when she was far into her pregnancy. The bike didn’t hit her, but almost flattened my half-brother Eddie who stood there wailing over his near-miss with this two-wheeled projectile. Mom was smart enough and strong enough to get out soon after.
That is why I don’t know my dad. He was at my birth and hovered around the edges for a bit, but he was one of those dads on paper and by blood, not by deed. He had next to nothing to do with raising me. Mom used to laugh that his favorite song was “Daddy’s Home” by Shep & The Limelites. Not bad for an absent dad.
I admire Mom for having the courage to make a new start and choose the life of a single parent. In many ways, it would have been easier to stay, but she took the tougher choice and a part-time job in a toy store near downtown L.A. She was no foreigner to hardship. In her childhood, home had once been a garage converted into a makeshift studio, shared with Uncle Louie and Nanny.
Nanny’s name was Aurora Acosta when she married Luis Sifuentes. I know nothing more about Granddad other than that he was always suited and booted, and he left her at an early stage of their marriage. I never have understood why I was named after the two most unreliable men in the lives of the two ladies who raised me: Jaime and Luis. Maybe I was intended to be the improved version of both men?
Mom always said I was handsome “like your father” but I personally thought he was on the ugly side, so I never thanked her for that. I had his nose, ears and name, but the similarities ended there. I’m tall, he is short. He is darkskinned, I am light. I have ambition, he did not.
Nanny remained on amicable terms with Granddad, but, back in her day, a single mother of two standing on her own two feet was as good as marooned, so it was a good thing she was a survivor.
Her first priority was getting a roof over their heads, and she knew some friends who had garage space.
“I don’t have much money, but I’ll rent it from you,” she offered.
“And do what with it?” they asked.
“Turn it into a home,” said Nanny. And so this spot — no bigger than a den — was where the family lived for a bit, complete with heaters, furniture, and a small portable television, and she made it as comfortable as she could afford.
When it came to “new” clothes, Nanny made them out of whatever fabrics she could beg, borrow or find. She struggled big-time to support her children, but she’d take no heroine’s credit. “All that matters is family,” she once told me, “and the rest will take care of itself.”
I don’t think she needed a man after Granddad because there was only one man she ever trusted after that — and His name was God. The fact that she ultimately managed to buy her own home when her kids had grown up and moved out speaks volumes for the faith she had, and the impossible situation she turned around.
With that definition of what struggle really feels like, it is easy to see why Mom thought it was no big deal going it alone. But she wasn’t alone. She had me. And those next five years were to be the happiest time we would share. It was just me and her versus the rest of the world.
I could not see horizons as a child. Everywhere I looked, there were walls, fences and gates hemming us in, and the great concrete slab of L.A. County Jail stood six floors high and all uglylooking in the distance, about a mile down the road. I lived within a concrete jungle within the concrete metropolis of Los Angeles; a part of the city that the tourist bureau doesn’t promote; a poor vicinity that is a world away from Sunset Boulevard, Melrose Avenue, Beverly Hills, and the beaches.
The neighborhood — el barrio — was one of government tract housing built in 1942 for low-income Mexican-American families. “The projects,” they called it. The official name was the William Mead Housing Project, and it housed four hundred fifty cookie-cutters that stood back to back in bleak uniformity; two- and three-story brick blocks painted tan-red with a thick white-painted band separating each floor. The number and color of the front door were the only marks that set each unit apart. I swear that even the palm trees and triangular washing lines were in the same spot outside each block.
It was not a place where dreams were made, and life was tough because of all the unemployment, drugs, and crime. People’s lives seemed as cookie-cuttered as the housing units, and options were limited. But however bleak life seemed to the outsider, there was a strong sense of family, community, and the value of sticking together.
Home was a first-floor corner unit at the end of one of the oblong blocks of small-ass apartments. It was nothing more than a studio apartment with a grilled front door, and Mom and I were two out of an estimated 1,500 residents on site, bounded by the county jail on one side and the Los Angeles River on the other. The river ultimately fed into the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach, but that’s the only idyllic-sounding fact I can bring from the ’hood.
This first home was a special place because it represented the world I shared exclusively with Mom. The walls were all white and there was enough room for one red floral-print sofa that clashed with the yellow hard-backed chairs at the round wooden dining table. We shared one bed and had one black-and-white television set. The front door opened onto a balcony that, when I was pretending to be a soldier or warrior, became my look-out post on the world, under the spotlight of the California sun.
Nanny Aurora was a constant visitor, coming over on the bus from her place in South Central L.A., and all three of us would sit outside on that balcony, eating Nutty Buddy ice-cream drumsticks that she brought as a regular treat. Not a week passed without Nanny visiting, or else we got on the bus to visit her. The mother-daughter bond was fierce, and I, as the favorite son and grandson, was the lucky kid who got all the love and attention in the middle.
One floor below the balcony, there was a worn and scorched patch of grass. Scorched by the sun and worn by the wheels of my red Big Wheel bike. This patch was both my playground and stage as Mom busied herself upstairs, keeping watch as she listened to her disco vinyl collection of the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, and Chic. She was a bit of a disco queen, and if ever I hear Chic’s “Le Freak” or Lipps Inc.’s “Funkytown,” it always sends me back to blazing hot days playing outside my first home.
I spent my earliest years running around kicking a football and riding my Big Wheel on the surrounding paths, feet in the air, pretending to be “chips” on highway patrol. Mom often sent me out in costume: as a warrior, a pirate, or a bad-ass luchador — a masked Mexican wrestler. She stuffed my shirt with padding and gave me a towel for a cape, and I pulled off some killer moves to win the campeonato — the championship — by nailing key matches with imaginary opponents. I was always pretending to be someone or something on that grassy “stage” because there was no affording the hi‑tech Atari console and its alluring game cartridges.
I look back now and see how basic life was, but we didn’t grow up wanting or grasping for anything. We were the have-nots who didn’t know what it was to have. It was the same for all of the lower-income families, and we killed the hours by playing ball and making our own fun inside pretend worlds.
I played alone a lot of the time. I saw Eddie now and again, as Dad drifted in and out for the first two years of my life, fighting to be allowed back in, but always coming up against Mom’s wise blockade.
As boys, there was one thing our young eyes couldn’t miss: the monstersized graffiti on every wall. I grew up reading the words DOGTOWN on the end of each block, on stone walls and garages. These black-sprayed letters stood taller than me, and this one phrase became the adopted name for the housing project. I didn’t grow up saying I lived at William Mead. I grew up saying I lived at “Dog Town,” without first knowing what it meant. Until one day, my curiosity got the better of me as I walked back from preschool, called Head-Start, with Mom.
“What is Dog Town?” I asked.
She stopped and made me take a good, hard look at a group of young men hanging in the parking lot. Their car engines were idling with sunroofs open and music blaring; the distant sound of the Miracles, Smokey Robinson, and the Originals.
These dudes leaned against the rear bumpers or sat on the hoods, smoking. They wore plain tees or wife-beaters with perfectly creased pants, and some wore bandanas wrapped around their mouths like surgical masks. But if one thing stood out, it was their bald heads with necks covered in tattoos that also covered their backs and arms. Now and again, you’d see an older person sporting tattooed teardrops running from one eye. Like a crying clown. I didn’t know until later in life that each “tear” equaled a life taken, marking out these dudes as killers.
“Those people over there,” Mom started to explain, with her head next to mine, her hands on both my shoulders. “You must always steer clear, Jaime. Never be in that area.”
Another time she told me, “That is not our life ... that is not us.”
That was my introduction to the cholos — Mexican gangsters — and the street gang culture of L.A., issued as a steer-clear warning.
“Dog Town” is the name and calling card of one of the countless criminal street gangs that give Los Angeles the unwanted label of “gang capital of America.” The slogans and graffiti are tagged everywhere to remind everyone whose turf they are on—not to be confused with a stretch of beach in Venice known as skateboarders’ Dogtown. Each morning, I was confronted with this street-gang reminder when I came out the front door, walked down the center steps between units and stepped into the courtyard. There, screaming in my face from another unit’s gable end, was DOGTOWN.
Street legend says this gang name came into play in the 1940s, so called because of an old dog pound in nearby Ann Street. Stray dogs used to run wild and attack people, so a price was put on stray dogs’ heads, leading to the area’s teens capturing these snarling dogs and claiming the reward. But this also led to family pets being kidnapped for the bounty money, and these kids earned notoriety as local hoodlums. In response, they set up the Dog Town gang.
So the story goes.
Things had progressed beyond prices on dogs’ heads by the time I was a boy. Now, there was a price on people’s heads, and gang members were packing it with blades and guns. If my childhood was an album cover, you’d paint the picture of me in the foreground as a boy running around and getting grass stains on my knees by playing football or riding my Big Wheel. But, in the background, something sinister and dark was always going down.
Mom kept instilling her fear-loaded warnings because she knew — more than I did at the time — that the law of averages said there was a 95% probability that I’d grow up to be a cholo, one of them. Each child in my community was so susceptible, given life’s disillusionment. Gang life was in the DNA of the community, and Mom feared those outside influences.
Mom never let me forget what the life of a cholo represented. Her constant warnings must have seeped in on some level because I grew wary of these people hanging around on the streets. It was like she’d planted a bad dream in my head with images of jails, people dying, and people crying.
My uncle Cate, Dad’s brother, was murdered, and my aunt Minnie, Dad’s sister, was the first person to die in the family from a drug overdose. Too much heroin, I was told. One murder and one drug overdose, minus the gory detail, is the sum total of my knowledge about the horrors that no one really spoke about.
Then there was my Aunt China. She wasn’t a gangster but she had huge respect in East L.A. neighborhoods because she was a stand-up, no-nonsense, boisterous woman who took no s--- from anyone.
The name Gomez had an element of notoriety attached because of the family’s toughness.
My impression is that Dad thought he was tougher than he was: there was the image he had of himself, and there was the sad truth exposed when he was drinking. As a result, I grew up regarding him as a bit of a joke, to be honest.
What was no laughing matter was the Primera Flatz gang, which ruled the ’hood. In its heyday, it had an estimated 350 members who’d leave their calling card on walls with the giant initials “PF from AV” for Aliso Village. The one hundred twenty–strong Dog Town gang was one of its affiliated subgroups, just two out of around seven hundred twenty gangs and a total of 39,000 members spread throughout the whole city, according to estimated figures issued by the LAPD in 2007.
I would say about 60% of our ’hood was gangsters.
Street gangs in the 70s were not as organized as they are today. Back then, there were a lot of turf battles, gang fights and rumbles between members armed with knives, chains and bats, and only the odd handgun. Today, the profits and weapons have escalated into some serious shit, where the gangsters on the streets are equipped with semi-automatic weapons and their bosses — the Mexican Mafia — are running empires from inside prison.
These days, L.A.’s judges are giving city attorneys the power to set curfews and put gang members in jail if they are found loitering in the streets, or possessing weapons and tools for spraying graffiti. Dog Town was covered by one of these injunctions in 2007 as part of a campaign to clean up the northeast of L.A. But back in the day, gangs pretty much had the run of the streets with their own form of martial law. It was the law of the neighborhood that came first, and federal laws came second. It was lawless in many ways, even if the cops would disagree. Kids grew up learning to be streetwise from an early age. The first lessons in life were pretty simple: never rat anyone out, never snitch, and never backstab your neighbor. Hold your head high, stare everyone down, stand your ground. Understand that, and the neighborhood will have your back. Know where you belong, and you’ll always be protected. Everyone looked after everyone in a tribal sense, and I think Mom felt both comfortable and uncomfortable within this environment. She accepted that gangs were part of our community but she didn’t want me getting sucked in.
I often went to sleep hearing bedlam in the parking lot, and the sound of sirens wailing. And there was always one ever-present but weird smell that hung in the air. This scent of childhood was everywhere — morning, noon and night — and I now know that it was the constant clouds of smoked weed, wafting out of homes. That same heavy scent that wafts around music festivals or backstage at concert venues.
The whole gang scene was not my thing.
I never was enticed by it. Mom did everything in her power and limited income to keep our heads above water. I wouldn’t say that we lived below the poverty line, but we lived basic, hand to mouth. I helped where I could, running up to the store with our weekly food stamps to get groceries, and, in the summer, lining up for the governmentissued “summer lunches” in the projects. For these lunches, each unit received a weekly book of tickets. Each stub was good for one brown paper bag that contained a sandwich, one carton of milk, a bag of potato chips, and an apple. It was our government-issued gourmet meal, as far as I was concerned.
Mom worked her ass off as a student and at the toy store, putting in as many hours as possible to provide for us and afford the best toys — at discount — for Christmas. She always wanted to better our lives, she said.
Discounted toys were a perk of her job, and she got me some incredible stuff. I remember the typewriter, the new bike, the “chips” uniform with helmet, handcuffs, and police badge, the GI Joe, the telephone, the board games. You name it, she got it. I saw how hard she worked and how I was the center of her world. It sounds selfish, but, as a kid, that’s all I wanted. It is because of her selfsacrifices back then that I love her to death today.
These toys kept me entertained a lot of the time. In fact, I only really had one playmate, and that was a sweet girl called Penny, the daughter of my babysitter Lola who lived in the unit opposite. Whenever Mom studied or worked, Lola took me under her wing. I’ll never forget Penny’s high-pitched voice and dark pigtails. She stuck to me like glue.
“JIMMY!!!!” she’d scream from below the balcony, calling me to the railing. “You coming out to play?”
It’s fair to say that she probably was my first crush, because we were inseparable for a spell. In our pretend worlds on that grassy stage, she’d be the princess to my prince, or the parade girl in the wrestler’s ring when I was the luchador. Without Penny — and my soft toy dog Cleto — it would have been a pretty lonely childhood.
There was a man called “Roadie” who lived in the same block as Penny. He was this big, heavy-set black man, a rare sight in our Mexican community, and he was the kindest, gentlest soul. He hoarded baskets full of candy. That’s why we called him “The Candyman.” Whatever other deals might have been going down in the projects, there was only one supplier that mattered, and that was Roadie with his candy and Bazooka gum. Apparently, he bought candy in bulk, then sold it off to parents and us kids for ten cents a bag, much cheaper than the stores. It was like having Willy Wonka on our doorstep. You name it, he had it. I was too young to comprehend matters of race at the time, but it somehow registered with me that he was different-looking. But he was like the friendliest of uncles, all smiles, warm and embracing. At some level, that imprinted me with the message that all black people were cool like Roadie.
His candy was almost as good as the “chip-chips” Mom made most mornings for breakfast. We used to invent names for different meals, and “chip-chips” was the random label for her specialty: fried tortilla shells with eggs. When I smelled that dish frying, I’d race to the table and sit there, knife and fork at the ready. I looked forward to these breakfasts because it was the one time in the day that I got to sit down with Mom and have her undivided attention. Then, at the end of the day, she’d always read me a bedtime story, holding me in her arms. Or, sometimes, she’d take my action figures or stuffed animals and make up voices in their character, using role-play to wish me goodnight. The start of a day and the end of a day were my happiest times, and there was nothing more comforting than feeling the bed dip when she climbed into bed.
“Mom’s here ... I can sleep now,” I would tell myself.
“Love you, Jaime,” she’d say, thinking I was asleep.
Life was perfect then. Nothing and no one could come between us.
At least, that’s what my innocence told me.
Shortly before my sixth birthday, this man called “El Amigo” walked into our life, and he picked up my world in both hands and turned it upside down.
I was too young to figure that Mom maybe needed attention and love from a source other than me, so I never saw this thunderbolt coming. I suspect she felt guilty, too, because when Julio Arevalo walked through the door, she played down his importance by always using the el amigo reference — nothing more than a friend.
So El Amigo is a friend, I accepted at first. Okay.
Wow, he’s here a lot for a friend, I thought over the coming weeks.
Oh, now you’re going out at night with him more and more, I soon realized.
Mom never used the word “boyfriend” or bothered to have one of those mother-son chats that explained everything. He just walked into our life and was invited to stay, and I was left to figure out the rest.
It was all very black and white to me: I wanted to be with Mom but this strange man, who seemed a bit weird and false around me, had stolen time and attention that was mine.
Then everyone started mentioning how happy Mom looked.
So, okay, this man makes her happy, I thought.
She was smiling. She was laughing.
That’s a good thing, I thought.
But I still stared at Julio and wished he’d disappear into a cloud of smoke. I imagined having magic powers that would zap him away, and return things to how they used to be.
Julio worked in the airplane manufacturing industry. “Julio helps build planes!” Mom said, as if that would impress me. It didn’t.
He was your average-looking dude: slim, with big black hair and matching moustache. I can see him now, slouched in that armchair, cracking open a beer.
I guess he tried his best with me, playing at the role of surrogate dad, but I wasn’t feeling it. I was resistant for a long time. I just looked at him and thought: Who is this guy? He’s not my dad. He’s not my uncle. So why’s he here?
It didn’t take long before dramatic changes happened.
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Nanny started arriving in the late afternoon to be babysitter for the evening. Then the announcement was made that we were moving in with Nanny, and that is when we left Dog Town. We left behind the projects and moved the few miles to South Central L.A. I said good-bye to Penny and Roadie, and was transplanted to what felt like a whole new world.
At first, I thought it was meant to be a temporary stay, but as things turned out, South Central became my home from the ages of five to seven. And even after then, I would still return to Nanny’s and spend three months living with her every summer, without fail.
In moving to South Central, I went from a 100% Mexican-American community to one that was mixed, where Mexican-Americans were the minority. It was 70% African-American, 30% Mexican. I was vaguely aware of this difference from visiting Nanny, but it was only through living there that I fully appreciated what that meant. One very good thing was that it was in South Central L.A. that my ears first started hearing the distant sounds of hip-hop. And it seemed ideal that I was now living with my two favorite ladies. But then Mom started to spend more time staying over at Julio’s place in South Gate. That meant fewer shared breakfasts and fewer bedtime stories.
Then I saw suitcases being packed — Mom’s, not mine.
Then she left for Mexico on a vacation. What she didn’t say was how long she’d be gone. When she left, the wrench hit me as an ache. Nanny tried to reassure me.
“It’s just you and me now!” she said. “We’ll have fun together!”
Mom disappeared to Julio’s hometown of Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacán to visit his family. Each hour she was gone felt like a day, and each day felt like a week. By the end of week one, I was crying myself to sleep. I guess these inexplicable absences always feel like a catastrophe when you’re a kid; and hours always seem longer in childhood than they ever do in adulthood. But this wrench was understandable: she had never before traveled outside the United States and we had never before been separated. With Mom gone from my side, it honestly felt like the end of the world, especially because I felt that this new man in her life was supplanting me.
In the end, she was only gone about three weeks, but that is a lifetime when you are a kid. Her eventual return was treated as no big deal, and things soon returned to as they were before she left.
Until she sat me down and told me she was pregnant.
As she broke this news, with Nanny looking on, I pretended to listen, but all I was thinking was “You want another kid? Why? What’s wrong with me?”
At that age, I guess you really do think the world revolves around you, and I think every child is jealous of anyone cutting in on him and his mother. It steals attention. As I saw it, in comes this guy and stands between me and Mom, and now I’ve got to contend with another one of me arriving on the scene? If I couldn’t have Eddie as a brother, I didn’t want anyone else.
Mom seemed to spend most of the pregnancy bedridden at Nanny’s. It really took a toll on her body, and she was constantly weak and fatigued. I kept asking why this thing in her stomach was making her so sick. There was always some adult explanation, but all I could focus on was her cries and groans. I’d sit on the edge of her bed, unable to leave her side, willing her to get better.
Her misery ended when my new sister, Celeste, was finally born on November 15, 1981. I was seven years old. Our sibling relations didn’t get off to the best of starts when I took my first look at her, wrapped in a bundle in Mom’s arms in the hospital, and observed: “Why is our baby so ugly?”
“Jaime! That’s your sister — she’s beautiful!” Mom laughed.
“But, Mom! She’s ugly ... can’t you get another one?”
I will never forget that sharp dig of jealousy, and I think that’s when I started sticking even closer to Nanny.
Please understand, no one worked harder, or gave me more love, than Mom. But these big changes in our life were tough for me. And this was my first hard lesson: that when things are going great, it won’t last, that when someone loves you, they can leave without you — don’t count on them always being there. These were the mental imprints.
But even at a young age, I had a flair for keeping it positive. And one very positive outcome of these otherwise unhappy changes was being with Nanny — the single person most responsible for redirecting the course of my life.
From "Fallin' Up" by Taboo, with Steve Dennis. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone, a division of Simon and Schuster.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive