Jimmy Santiago Baca
El Gato - Poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca
El Gato's uncle lures them with grain in a pail
and shoots the brown pig between the eyes,
shoos the red-snouted white and black brothers
from guzzling blood in the trough.
At ten Gato walks chop-block streets
with a rooster's tail strut
razored for a fight – life
a broken fire hydrant
flooding streets with blood.
In opulent estates,
fountains gazelle and bridal-train gardens drain
abundantly over spear-tipped walls.
Grecian statues offer laureled wisdom
to butlered adults with paper-weight hearts,
who answer the burning and gunning of America,
by building more prisons.
Nobody cares what El Gato'll find to eat or where he'll sleep,
under street lights throwing dirt clods
at hornets' nests, unafraid of being stung,
he vows to avenge his poverty,
to gash unmercifully with a bicycle chain
spineless attorneys taking advantage of his misery,
rob a construction executive in a limousine
sampling heroin off a hooker's thigh,
mug preppy brokers with golden smiles
whose gutter glares condemn him,
and all the chumps
who never cracked a soup-line biscuit
or had a court gavel crush their life,
should know he plans violent schemes against you,
saints melt his pain red hot,
he'll hammer sharp to take you down
to darkness where he lives
and impale your heads
on La Virgen De Guadelupe's moon sickle.
Twelve years old. El Gato is no good,
dime bagging Peruvian flakes,
inhaling a glue-rag.
With all your police and prison sentences,
you can't chase El Gato from the street
or stop him from selling drugs,
because in his square white paper
lives God -- El Gato deals God -- who gives reprieve
from earthly hell and makes him feel good,
gives him hope and self-esteem,
and transforms despair to a cocaine-heaven,
until he's killed or OD's
like other homeboys trashed
on a stack of county jail corpses,
who understood life was a sewer grate
their dignity poured down with discarded litter,
where crack creates light when all one has is darkness.
Crack is God
when hopeless days bury El Gato under
rock piles of despair,
blocking him from feeling any more,
breaking his heart into pieces of NOTHING.
El Gato is no good and preaches NOTHING door to door,
a strong kid full of NOTHING,
from NOTHING does he ask a blessing,
to NOTHING does he pray, hopes NOTHING
forgive his wrongs and NOTHING
helps when he take vengeance on us.
beneath a moon above the sport caster's booth,
at the out doors boxing coliseum,
after crowds go home and the ring removed,
El Gato shadow boxes invisible opponents
and raises his hand as champion.
He joins homeboys against a rival gang,
skips bleachers over hand-rails out of breath,
and holds court in the field with bats, pipes, chains,
brass knuckles and guns,
in a game every kid has to hold a five-ace winning heart,
or die with a poker player's bluffing hand –
death nothing but an eight-ball roll on the break.
El Gato's life is a Babe Ruth pop-up,
sailing beyond the rival gang's catch, hop scotching crime-chalked sidewalks, fleeing police over backyard fences
from guard dogs barking,
down scuffed alleys where clapping windows and shutting doors applaud him,
sliding under a stripped car homeplate, hearing the news Jo-Jo and Sparky got shot,
he x's their names off building scorecard-walls for dead.
a brown fighting get down impromptu warrior,
lip-pursed ooohing fevered to defy,
clicking tap shoes on sidewalks,
chi chi chi cano, heel to toe, chin to chest,
chi chi chi cano,
T-shirt rolled to bare midriff, pomade hair back,
low-hugging hip khakis,
inked-cross on right hand,
bandanna'd, top button
tied on his Pendelton, lean and mean,
haunting us with his gangsta' signs.
El Gato learned his history
around water-bucket talk,
listening to mule-tongued growers
mutter holy whys they barbwired lands off,
clacking hoe in grower's dirt
on skulls and bones of his people
murdered and buried in chains.
In branding-hot noon
he cuts lettuce for bronc-buckled
soft palmed land owners
posing as frontiersmen,
their steer-horn cadillac radios
tuned to religious broadcast
blaring glory to their godliness,
as they loom over him,
'God hates you spic. God hates you!
You're dirt, boy, dirt! Even dirt grows weeds,
but you, you're dirt that don't grow nothing but more dirt!'
Beat purple at nine,
butt bullet stings.
El Gato touched washcloth to welted bruises
on thighs, legs, back, winced under the shower nozzle, cursing life.
His heart the severed head of an outlaw
pickled in a jar of liquor and drugs
to numb the hurt.
Purging his shame for being born,
OD'd, was stabbed and shot,
wanting to believe he was bad.
It was better than falling into darkness
where nothing existed but more darkness.
He wanted to exist even as dirt, no good dirt.
At nineteen, trying to rebuild his life,
El Gato got the urge to get high and did –
put pistol to his head and played roulette,
his bloodshot drunkard's eye seething rage
his guardian angel didn't want him dead.
The dirt yard pleads for his daughter's laughter,
her tricycle treads scribble,
You are always gone,
in whiskey and drugs,
never here to play or help me grow.
No heat, light or food.
His baby's crying
chisels on the headstone of his bones
her need for a father,
wobbles to a stop
when he picks her from the crib,
inhales her milky aroma,
patting and kissing her,
walking her back and forth
in the cold living room,
warming her with his skin heat,
breathing warmth on her,
holding her to his chest,
humming a deep-chest hymn
learned from his grandmother –
' Bendito, bendito, bendito sea dios,
los angeles cantan y daban a dios...'
' Blessed, blessed blessed is the lord
the angels sing and give to the Lord...'
Her tiny hand flexes, a wing
unwrinkling from cocoon for flight,
fossilized in the stone of his arms.
El Gato is two men with one life –
he loves her, cares about her feelings,
wants to live at home, be a family man,
grow old with one woman.
But the warrior bares thorny teeth
at domesticity, slurs in disgust
at the dreamer's naiveté,
wants to brawl unafraid of dying young.
Tonight his infant is him
and he is her. He sees himself
as he was born,
innocent and perfect, whole life ahead of him,
and sees she can become him,
no good. He hums her holding tight,
melting into one hug humming her
'til dawn thaws frost down window casements
into stucco cracks, stray hounds croon in ruts,
yeowling cold from jaws, tooth-scratching
stickers from paws, he walks and walks
his sleeping infant in his arms,
humming hurting-man blues.
Thinking how to give his family a better life,
he strolls the ditch-bank next morning,
surprised to see pebbles last night's rain uncovered --blues and greens. He wants his tears to reveal
what is covered in him like that.
He throws a stone in the irrigation water,
where it gasps his child's awe-struck mouth glistens
for breath, for a chance at life, glimmering ripples calling him to be a father.
El Gato realizes he must start today.
Where the stone hits is the center of the ripples,
where the stone hits is the center that causes action. Where
the stone hits is the beginning,
where he is now,
is the center. He is the stone, he held in his hand as a kid and threw to see how far it could go.
El Gato changed.
At twenty one
he prays his lightning self
carve from thrown away wood-pile days
cut deep to the knot-core of his heart,
giving him a limb-top buoyancy,
awakening, a realization that he was
a good man, a good human being,
healing emotional earthquakes in himself.
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