On any given weekend, Latinos represent 22% of moviegoers. If it’s a horror film, that number jumps to 50%. I am unsurprised by this statistic. The West Side was always full of mysterious goings-on. The neighborhood was and is flanked on the north by the river; on the south by Avenida Cesar Chavez; on the east by the highway; on the west by the bottoms that will take you to Kansas. A veritable radius of spookiness.
They tell me that Avenida Cesar Chavez used to be 23rd Street. I don’t remember that. To me, it was always just the bottom of the hill. I remember the staircase that led from it up to Holly Street, the winding concrete and metal handrail going up dozens of feet along the limestone bluff, skirting Gage Park. It was built because it used to be a stop along the old trolley line. My abuelo used to ride that trolley home from his job at the meatpacking plant. He saw the devil there one night after a late shift. The devil followed him almost to the top. He was, my abuelo reported, smoking a cigarette. In fact, the devil made many appearances in the neighborhood. On Summit Street, Cousin Elvira saw him in an outhouse one day when she was only twelve, and it was said to have driven her mad. She died in the State Hospital, raving about El Diablo. My Great-Great Grandmother and her sister were santeras, and said to commune with the Dark One. They sacrificed chickens and bathed in the dirt of the yard. They read the future from hand-painted Tarot cards and chicken entrails. They were bootleggers in the twenties, brewing bathtub gin, pressing homemade wine from grapes grown in the yard. They gave you the evil eye, interpreted dreams, or dispensed quinine-based abortifacients.
Another woman, who also lived on Summit, went mad. She had dinner every night with Lawrence Welk, setting a table for two, talking to him as if he really were her dinner guest. Then there was the couple who used to live on Belleview. They had a poltergeist that would pull the husband out of bed each night, drag him outside, and deposit him, sleepy and bewildered, into the garden. This, my grandparents witnessed.
|Veneno Para las Hadas, 1984|
On 21st Street, a widow was plagued nightly by a specter. When she installed a porch light, she found it was her deceased husband, rattling the doorknob, tapping on the windows. He’d come to escort her to the other side. Across the street, several people witnessed a similar specter at the red brick house. The next day, Mrs. Ramirez, the woman who lived there, was found to have committed suicide.
Of course, we all knew about La Llorona, and spent nights cowering under the blankets, afraid that she would come and take us to Hell. Her cousin, the Horse-Headed Lady, prowled the river bottoms. It was unclear whether she also wanted children, or just revenge for those old stockyards, where so many hooved creatures went to their deaths.
There was the retaining wall at the corner of Allen Avenue. For as long as I can remember, there was a pachuco skull spray-painted on it. Whenever I passed its wide-brimmed fedora and bare-toothed grin, I had to look away. Was it any wonder the haunted houses went in under the 12th Street Viaduct? They opened every year mid-September. The owners could count on us to be first in line for tickets.
Of course we gathered in kitchens, on front porches. We gathered in church yards, the children all in Catholic school uniforms, to solemnly exchange this litany, to whisper of otherworldly forces. To whisper, “Ayyy,” and cross ourselves. We carried our rosaries and pinned milagros to saints’ robes. On Easter Vigil, we eagerly accepted the vials of holy water to sprinkle around our houses. Not a living room without a painting of Nuestra Señora. Not a dining room without saint candles burning on sideboards. For summer day camp, we made Ojos de Dios, and leather punch wallets to carry our prayer cards in. We subscribed to HBO, to the Mysteries of the Unknown reference series. We went to drive-ins, hypnotized by living dolls, by undead psychopaths, by unnamed creatures in the dark.
|El Espinazo del Diablo, 2001|
It wasn’t all death and Satan. Sometimes, there was divine intervention. I can’t tell if that’s because there’s less of it, or if it’s just harder to see. A man fell asleep at the wheel and rammed our car into oncoming traffic. Pure white light came in through the windows. My abuela was certain that angels had rescued us. When my brother was in the hospital, she took out a prayer ad in the classifieds and he was healed: gracias a St. Jude. How many times were we delivered from things we don’t even know about?
Saints and devils change names and addresses, just like we do. They hitchhike, ride shotgun on my soul. I will bear them into new neighborhoods and climes, new times and new destinations. It is my turn to deliver them, to resurrect them with new stories. They came before me and they will come after, like a scapular, meant to protect and to guide.