Visalia is located in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, in Tulare County, one of the most productive agricultural counties in the country. Some 200 miles Southwest of San Francisco and 200 miles North of Los Angeles, Visalia is a quaint, conservative town surrounded by endless rows of orange trees and the picturesque Sierra Nevada Mountains. With a population of 130,000 residents and counting, Visalia’s demographic consists of mostly white and Mexican Americans inhabitants. The essays featured in this series explore identity, place, culture, family, love, and class. Moving from pre-disposed roles, struggling with the conventions of culture, feeling trapped by class, gender, and finances, yet finding beauty and meaning in the mundane. Feeling not in control, and out of body, and more importantly, trying to find a space to exist, when you’ve been othered your entire life. Where an educated Chicana resides too, and how she finds solace in these spaces.
This series of essays contain narratives scarcely told. I hope to bring a voice and presence to these experiences.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to free fall– losing one’s self in some type of ecstasy, euphoria or transcendence. For a girl in my neighborhood to even think about the concept of losing myself in something I love is such a privilege, and a struggle. To descend into the unknown, untethered from anything physical, to fly, to leap, to plunge, to jump, to dive−to swallow fear and to let go, to fall into the depths of a new beginning. A diver’s brilliant bow. She’s a good girl, loves her mama. Loves Jesus and America too. I imagine in the song Tom Petty is conveying that free falling is this act of shedding our former selves to begin anew. To fall in love. A quote: “Self-destruction would be a brief, almost autoerotic free fall into great velvet darkness.” Fall from grace. Let the bodies hit the floor.
Visalia, May-August 2007
I receive an acceptance letter from Sonoma State University. My mom brags to my family that I’m going to college and takes the credit for my hard work⎯I let her because this is as close she will ever get to the pursuit of something more. My dad doesn’t say a word hiding his response behind thick black Wayfarers. My grandma’s smile is reserved⎯she is elated but insists I to stay because Mexican girls shouldn’t move so far away from their families.
I’m finally leaving Visalia, the north side, the hood, the barrio. Leaving
Mr. Roscon’s rooster that crows at 3:00am⎯leaving the dicey voice of my drug dealing neighbor Joe. Leaving the possibility of pregnancy, and marriage behind. Leaving Tulare County where we have the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state and the sun’s sweltering summer rays peak at 106 degrees.
Sonoma, October 2007
To get to Sebastopol take Gravenstein highway route 116. It’s the fastest commute from Rohnert Park to Dutton Estate winery. Drive with the windows rolled completely down, salty air drifts in from Bodega Bay, the temperature on average is a sublime 77 degrees, notice how your car glides through the luscious green rolling hills that look like juicy Granny Smith apples. Gaze into the never-ending Pinot and Chardonnay vines, and watch their pinky promise at the horizon. Just before you turn onto Green Valley Road, there is a little hill that gives the sensation of a roller coaster ride and you feel suspended in time. Swallow your surrounding views. Break away from your neighborhood mold, break away from the expectations of family and friends, free fall into the limbs of possibility.
If you Google “free fall,” images of skydivers, cliff divers, and base jumpers appear. The people in the photographs all look the same⎯arms are extended outward like the Christ the Redeemer statue, their chins hang high into the indifferent blue sky⎯as if God is attempting to hoist them up to heaven with an invisible fishing pole.
Described as “the greatest female skydiver in history,” Cheryl Stearns is the only woman in the world with over 19,000 skydives. Stearns defines the experience as: “to a skydiver, free fall is peace. It’s a place to be mentally and physically detached from the man-made crust on the Earth’s surface.”
On a forgotten cotton gin mill, twenty-five miles southwest of Bakersfield CA, on 12112 Copus Road, is Skydive San Joaquin. And if you have $200, transportation, and gas money, you can free fall from an altitude of 13,000ft, descending at 120 miles per hour.
I think of the different ways class and culture free fall and how no matter what your ethnicity or your background, we all need that release⎯ that out-of-body experience to make us feel alive.
A push and pull occurs when I think of the idea of free fall or what it means to lose yourself and to transcend your pre-disposition and culture. What does it mean for a Mexican girl from the north side of Visalia to get educated and to eclipse the neighborhood stereotype? Does she truly transcend as she moves farther from her culture?
Perhaps, free fall is also this idea of losing yourself in a moment⎯like doing something you love.
“I don’t have time to be depressed Jacqueline, I have bills to pay,” my mother said to me once as she got ready to go to her second job. Grey pools of exhaustion cowered in the underbelly of my mother’s eyes. Sadness was an emotion that we never discussed growing up and it was an emotion I could never openly convey. In our house, to be sad was a privilege.
I’d never tell my grandma I was sad or bored. If I did she’d find some obscure chore for me to do attached with the same childhood narrative of when she was my age she had to work in the fields and pick cotton and oranges and how her only dream was to go to school.
When my mother answers the office phone she says, “hi, this is Christine from Human Resources. How may I help you?” Her tone on the phone is always cheery, always cordial. Even when she was demoted at work. Even when my father didn’t support her return to school. Even when she had to acquire a second job on the weekend bartending at Orosi pizza house. Even when she only made enough tip money to cover her gas to get the bartending job, still her voice remained lively and cheerful.
My mother’s voice is what I love about her the most.
On Thursday nights she sings karaoke at the Lamp Liter Inn in Visalia. Her favorite song to sing is Donna Summer’s Last Dance. She engages the bar crowd like she is Chaka Khan live on stage, swaying her hands in the air, periodically posing and dancing with fans. And as she belts the final verse she closes her eyes.
I imagine when she closes her eyes she experiences a kind of ecstasy, that the music whisks her away from her life as receptionist and bartender, from mother of four, and wife, and in that moment, in the space before the song ends, when the crowd is still cheering with woozy Coors Light grins, she free falls.
The end of Sonoma in several snapshots:
A month after my departure my mother files for divorce.
Dad cries to me for the very first time.
Dad can’t cope so he tries to commit suicide.
I’m driving to work with expired tags.
Mom claims dad raped her.
Dad commits himself to a mental institution.
Visalia, July 2008
I move back to Visalia after a year of living in Sonoma. There’s no job that awaits me, and I’m not sure how I will pay next month’s car payment. I move in with my grandma. At 7:00 pm every night we watch the novella Tres Mujeres, and at 11:30 pm Jay Leno. She never misses his monologue. During the commercials of Tres Mujeres, my grandma chismaes on her landline with her comadre Carmen Mesa, I listen in fascination as she effortlessly speaks in English and Spanish.
Joe, my grandma’s next-door neighbor for over twenty-five years, can be seen scaling the streets at all hours of the day. He fits that stereotypical north side hype⎯his face is hard and cratered like an over boiled egg. Still he has the swagger of an old school pimp and tilts his head forward like a gentleman when he greets us. Let me open the gate for you he says with a cigarette dripping from his lip.
I’d never known Joe to own any transportation but on that particular day he cruised by on a tricked out bicycle. Not a child’s bike, or mountain bike, but a low rider bicycle: a shiny crimson frame rose gold chrome spikes, a black velour banana seat. On his ape hangers were two rear view mirrors, and around their frames gold diamonds. I waited for Joe to tilt his head in my direction but he never did.
Instead he cruised by in a dreamlike daze, looking into the cloudless summer sky, singing “Free Fall” by Tom Petty. In that moment, I wondered what Joe was thinking, or maybe he wasn’t thinking at all, I thought about how completely lost he was in that space. Watching Joe, I fell into the memories of Sebastopol and the green rolling hills. I remembered what that felt like—to exist in a space and feel completely warm and at peace.
I imagine Joe internalized something so insignificant so minuscule and found a kind of bliss that some people will never experience. It made me think about how we define and perceive transcendence in regards to class and culture. Transcendence comes from the Latin prefix trans meaning “beyond,” and the word scandare, meaning “to climb.” So when you achieve transcendence, you have gone beyond your ordinary limitations. You have gone beyond yourself in the present moment.
When my mom and Joe free fall I don’t think they know they are transcending. I do believe that they are consciously aware of their class and place in their culture and society. But I do believe in that moment of when they do something they love—they move beyond the space of secretary and drug dealer—of mom and hustler—and are free in a space that no one can take away.
There is this push and pull that occurs in Mexican culture if you’re female. Moving away—pursuing a dream—pursuing a degree—or just pursuing anything beyond the role of Mexican mother, wife, or daughter, means moving further from your culture into a space that pushes against tradition and convention. You never completely leave, no. You just learn to maneuver in this liminal space.