The Day My Brother Learned To Fly
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By Esther Lira
When I was five years old, the police came to our house.
That experience of brutality directed at my Mexican American family forever affected the way I think and feel about myself. So did something that my brother Charlie did.
I grew up in Whittier with four older brothers. There is a 10 year age gap between the youngest brother and me. While I was busy being the baby of the family, my brothers were unbridled teenagers going through many changes, exploring their worlds. They all fell into their particular cliques in and out of school, but were always fiercely devoted to one another.
Sometimes, they ran through bouts of high-school-boy shenanigans that got them into trouble, and my parents always worried about them, as all good parents do. Immersed in my own burgeoning world, I was very much the tomboy, and looked up to their indestructible circle of strength. There was something so powerful in their self-assured masculinity.
They were also my protectors. I would never feel lost as long as they were there to guide me.
It was surprising to all of us one day in the mid-1980s when my eldest brother, Victor, who was about 18, piqued the interest of two policemen, who followed his reportedly suspicious figure one weekend morning. He led them straight to our front door.
It was a lazy Saturday, the kind of day that all my brothers prioritized for lounging about the house and doing foolish boy things. My father was working that day.
Victor ran into our house and his fear was clearly palpable. We surrounded him in the living room as he nervously told us that the police had started to follow him as he walked down the street.
We waited for the knock on the door in anticipation, confused as to why they targeted him. Anxiously we knew that trouble was brewing for the household. I remember a feeling of battening down the hatches, our hearts beating fast and our souls aroused to perhaps an inescapable bad ending. It was understood, though not spoken, that a young Mexican American boy singled out by a couple of white cops would not end well.
I felt my family's tense energy. Next came the pounding on the door.
My next-eldest brother, Charlie, who happened to be the level-headed one of the bunch, the self-appointed keeper of all my brothers, answered the door with my curious mother.
I stood some feet away, afraid but feeling nosy.
Words were exchanged but I have no idea what they were, even to this day.
Charlie supposedly insulted one of the policemen by saying something defiant, I was later told, in response to a rude remark made by the cop.
Then suddenly there was a turbulent burst of commotion and violence that came out of nowhere. Was I dreaming? It felt so unreal.
The policemen tore into our home sweet home, our sacred ground, like a tornado. One pushed my mother so hard against a piece of furniture that it injured her back. She would have back problems as a result of that assault for the rest of her life. Nothing mattered to them. They were hell-bent with bloodthirsty insane eyes.
I dove under the dining room table and could hear their terrifying weapons and obnoxious gear clacking beside their bodies as they ran past my cowering figure. They were huffing and puffing through the living room, blowing our house down.
The policemen doggedly ran out the back door in pursuit of Charlie. I stupidly ran after the storm of chaos, wanting to know why this was happening.
Then Charlie, the 17-year-old, miraculously sprouted wings.
Like lightning, the adrenaline in him helped him lift off the ground to effortlessly jump the towering fence that separated our yard from the neighboring elementary school. He was suddenly the God of Wind, Hermes, the divine trickster, flying like a bird above the hellish scene.
I could not believe my eyes! The older cops were slow, scrambling over the gate, not able to catch up with him. My brother disappeared without a trace, into only territories he knew.
Moments later, more policemen arrived at our house. My other three brothers were detained in different parts of our backyard. They were handcuffed, their faces shoved in the dirt, they were yelled at and brutalized by these savage men in power.
I wailed like a banshee as my nervous, tormented little five-year-old body crookedly walked from brother to brother.
First to Victor, the oldest weirdo who listened to the Beatles nonstop and played air guitar in his room. Then to Pablo, Daddy's fast-talking favorite son, who had just met a pretty charismatic Puerto Rican girl. Soon they would run away together at his tender 16 years, and I would never really see him again. Then to Jimmy, the rebel without a clue, the very tall, lanky introverted brother who lived in a world of his own.
My beautiful untouchable brothers, brought down in one unjust swoop. My mother was in pain and crying. Her hands trembled as she telephoned my father, conveying the incident to our angry patriarch, who was in disbelief at what had just occurred in his home.
I am grateful today that Dad was absent from the mayhem that turned our household upside down. It would have broken his spirit to see what I was forced to witness.
The restriction of his handicap — he lost his leg in a car accident when he was a teenager — would have tormented him. Very much like my own uselessness as the little girl watching and crying over the scene, which has forever haunted me. I don't think I have ever been so helpless and frightened in my own skin in all of my life.
I wanted to save my brothers. I did not understand why the cops insisted on hurting innocent young boys whose only crime was being labeled the "other type of boys" in the neighborhood. They were all taken away to the station soon after, on what charges remains a mystery.
What was it about Victor that the officers thought was so suspicious? Later, we concluded that he was racially profiled. They thought he was drinking a bottle of beer concealed by a paper bag as he strolled through the mostly white neighborhood.
Turns out, it was just a can of soda pop.
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As an adult, I now realize that if we would have been a so-called "acceptable" family in America, in our suburban Whittier neighborhood, this would have never happened to us. There was something "off" about Victor because he did not "fit in" to the neighborhood.
It didn't matter that we are light-skinned Mexicans Americans. There seemed to be a problem with looking too different, and having lingering accents because the Spanish mother tongue interfered with the white Californian dialect spilling out of our mouths.
People in the neighborhood assumed my brothers were in gangs, were up to no good, because of our last name. There were too many of us filling the house because we were poor, and poor people are not supposed to know right from wrong, but of course, we did.
My parents were the strictest, most God-fearing straight-as-arrows human beings the world has ever known. They were forever correcting, instructing and watching our every move. So much so that they were like a heavy weight in our lives.
I have no idea how this incident made my family feel. No one ever talked about it afterward. I do know my brothers were forever stuck in defensive mode after it happened. They were more vigilant and aware of how others perceived them.
When I am out in the world, I too feel the need to watch my back. I think about how others will judge me before I speak or act. Which is the appropriate version of me that I must summon when dealing with a particular person?
Many people do that in life. They reach for a specific mask in a given situation. But for me, my racial-ethnic difference is my greatest motivation for indulging in that balancing act.
When the safety you feel within your family is shattered, and you witness people you love being treated like animals, cruelly tied down without explanation other than it being a game of power, you will begin to exist cautiously in the world, even as a five-year-old.
The little hardcore feminist in me was summoned that day too, because when the men in your life are brought down, you recognize that you must rise up and stand for up for yourself, not only as a human being, but as a female, too.
It may sound strange, but my sense of hope, the idea of freedom left imprinted in my mind, happened when my brother Charlie jumped the fence and escaped into the school, because he was the only one who wrestled free from the grip of the officers' twisted desire for dominance.
In a sense, he had freed himself from the injustice of it all, it and offered my kid eyes a sign of promise. He embodied what Frida Kahlo said, "Feet, what do I need you for if I have wings to fly?"
That day taught me to challenge those in any kind of authority who try to reduce me to a second-class citizen or a disposable individual. Had I witnessed Charlie's face kissing the dirt, and the boot of oppression pinning him down, I would have known a very different version of me.
I loved him so much more that day for not letting me down, and evading the humiliation of being punished for being something other than white in my little every-town U.S.A.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Esther Lira teaches in L.A. schools and is a writer and entrepreneur. She recently completed a Masters Degree in Liberal Studies with an emphasis on gender, religion and society, subjects that she researches and writes about frequently.
She spends her free time volunteering and working to empower people in lower-income communities through education and the arts.