These lively stories follow Rey Castaneda from sixth through eighth grade in Nuevo Penitas, Texas. One side of Rey's family lives nearby in Mexico, the other half in Texas, and Rey fits in on both sides of the border. In Nuevo Penitas, he enjoys fooling around with his pals in the barrio; at school, he's one of the "A list" kids.
As Rey begins to cross the border from childhood into manhood, he turns from jokes and games to sense the meaning of work, love, poverty, and grief, and what it means to be a proud Chicano-moments that sometimes propel him to show feelings un hombre should never express. It's a new territory where Rey longs to follow the example his hardworking, loving father has set for him.
An Excerpt fromThe Jumping Tree
When I was a baby, 'Api, my father, moved us from South Texas to California. I only remember a few things about the four years we lived there: the squirrels chasing after one another outside my window, music on our neighbors' radios, playing in the backyard with my older sister, Lety, and the tree in our front yard that drooped heavy with fat leaves. Men from the barrio hung out under it, drinking from brown bottles. Sometimes they'd stretch out asleep on our dirt driveway. If we wanted to go out in our bright red car, we couldn't because the men were sprawled out hard asleep.
I also remember the tremors, the shakety shakes. They would sneak up on us. Lety and I would be in bed and we'd hear a rumbling sound, like a car far away, getting louder and louder, as if the car was turning the corner. The pictures of my grandparents on the walls would quiver, and some would fall to the floor. "Esos temblores fregados," 'Ami said; they were creeping up on us, almost one every day.
One night, when I was four, I opened my eyes wide when I felt the bed sink under me and heard Lety crying out, " 'Ami! 'Api! What's going on?" Then the door swung open. Two hands grabbed me by the ankles and pulled me to the foot of the bed.
Then I was in my mother's arms. She was screaming, "Where do we go?" I couldn't see her, but I heard her heart beating because she was hugging me so tight to her chest.
'Api answered from somewhere in the dark, "Here, take my hand. Outside!" The rumbling was like a plane flying right over my head. I started crying.
As we reached the porch, 'Ami said to 'Api, "This is not a baby temblor. It's a big papa earthquake." He herded us all down the few steps and into the front yard, where 'Ami prayed and held Lety and me to her chest. Then it hit hard. I heard the kitchen drawers smashing to the floor and spoons, knives, and forks clanging and bouncing on the linoleum. The windows rattled and shattered to pieces. And then our little house slid off its cinder blocks and smashed to the ground.
We huddled together outside on our tiny front lawn, all of us trembling, all of us crying. But not 'Api. He kept telling us, "Everything's going to be okay. Everything's going to be okay." I wrapped both my arms around his legs.
After that night, my parents decided to move us back to South Texas to Nuevo Pe-itas, a town a stone's throw from Mexico. 'Ami's parents, my abuelos Ernesto and Estela, lived there, and 'Api's parents, Nataniel and Milagros, lived in Mier, a town in Mexico about fifty miles away.
Our stucco house was one of the first houses in Nuevo Pe-itas. 'Api had gotten a job with a paving company. He laid some cement and made a path that led from the porch to the street, and one that went from the side of the house to the back shed where 'Ami washed our clothes. 'Ami asked 'Api to plant a tree in the front yard. "It's so flat here," she said. "A tree will help." South Texas was a dry place, so 'Ami watered her little tree every morning and evening.
Most of the other houses were made of brick. An old woman named Do-a Susanna lived in the farthest one from our house, and her yard was drenched in pink and red rosales and yellow esperanzas. She lived beside the canalito, a cement irrigation ditch that fed the farmers' fields next to Nuevo Pe-itas. On Saturdays, the air became heavy and bitter because of the pesticides sprayed on the fields by yellow planes.
When we first moved into Nuevo Pe-itas, I stayed close to home. One day, 'Ami said, "Mi'jo, go play with the kids down the street. You can make some friends."
I walked down the dusty street where the boys were playing marbles. Some of the bigger kids started pushing me around. "You got any canicas?" one asked.
"No," I said.
"You're not lying, are you? If you've got marbles, you better give them up, or else."
I shook my head.
"Don't hold out on us." He grabbed me and began checking my pockets. I almost started crying.
From out of nowhere, a boy with a scowl on his face and a head full of curls like brown snakes appeared. He had gotten a running start and sunk his shoulder into the back of the boy holding me. The new boy fell and scraped his knees, but the others ran away.
I stuck out my hand to help him up. "Thanks. Hey, you're bleeding." I pointed to his knee.
He wiped it clean. "It's nothing. Soy Chuy. AToe quien eres?"
From then on, we were best friends, carnales like only brothers can be.
Now it was the summer before our sixth-grade year. Chuy kept saying, "I can't wait for school to start, vato. It's going to be great. We're going to be los meros-meros, the big shots." But today when we were sitting on some crates in his backyard, he said, "Rey, my jefitos said we're going to the trabajos up to Minnesota this fall."
"No way, Chuy! School's going to be a drag all by myself. I don't want to be the mero-mero without you, vato."
"Don't worry about it, ese. You'll be okay on your own. I think."
When money was tight, Chuy and his family--his mom and dad, brothers, sisters, grandparents, and cousins--would migrate up North to the trabajos, where they worked in the fields. His family had a pickup with a camper. Depending on where they went and when, they could be picking tomatoes, strawberries, cantaloupe, carrots, onions, or watermelon. Young as he was, Chuy could pitch in here and there by carrying a basket of tomatoes to be counted, or he could pull the carrots easily out of the damp earth. Each time they left, I was still sleeping when their pickup rattled past my house.
Chuy would miss about a month of school, sometimes two, and he'd always come back a darker brown than he usually was. He also had new clothes and shoes, and he'd be ready to hit the books.