From Pachuco to paratrooper to grieving widower, Ray Elizondo has seen it all.
He’s written about it, too, in a moving and forthright book called, "The Last Pachuco," that begins with his early days in Brownsville during the 1940s and ’50s.
"I was looking for a writer’s group that would help me learn how to write," said Elizondo, 72, who now lives in Pasadena, Calif.
"I couldn’t come up with a fictitious story that I could write," he continued. "So they said, ‘Why don’t you write something you already know? Write about yourself.’"
That’s just what he did. He sat down and wrote a story about his first child and only son, born Benjamin Clark, who had profound birth defects and died in infancy. The story of Benjamin Clark "The Last Pachuco" is a tragic and moving tale, and Elizondo’s writer’s group wanted more.
"What happened before that?" they asked. "What happened after that?"
What happened before that was the story of a Brownsville youth who came from a good family but encountered some troubling experiences that resulted in bad choices. The book goes into detail about life in the barrio. He grew up exposed to violence in the neighborhood at a young age. He had to learn how to fight to take care of himself and felt compelled to victimize others to maintain his status.
Elizondo, now the father of five daughters, immediately draws readers into the story with he and several friends sneaking across the border from Matamoros to Brownsville with a bottle of Bacardi rum. He gives us strong characters beginning with the first sentence: "Lizard covered my mouth and whispered, ‘Shhh.’ "
The story moves quickly. By the fourth paragraph, we learn we are in Cameron County in the year 1951 and it’s a dry county. The book goes into the origin of the words pocho and Pachuco, and it describes the lifestyle of low-income families receiving regular deliveries of ice and cooking on a kerosene stove. The book is easy reading, void of complicated words and elaborate abstract concepts that could overwhelm the reader. He uses short direct sentences in the language of Valley culture, without anything fancy or pretentious.
The work quickly launches the overall trajectory of the story with a fight scene that begins with some youths taunting him and his friends. Elizondo, the narrator, hits one of them with a pipe and is sent to what was then called the Texas Correctional School for Boys, more commonly known as Gatesville, for several months.
At the school, Elizondo confronts a young man who is sexually assaulting other youths. A fight ensues, and the perpetrator kicks Elizondo hard in the groin. The injury is so severe the doctor says he probably won’t be able to have children. This leads to more mishaps and complications and some pleasant surprises when his second wife becomes pregnant. His first wife, a lovely German girl named Gertrude "Trudy," died in an automobile accident while he was on a military training exercise in Germany.
"There was a big explosion in my brain," he writes about learning of Trudy’s death. "The pain I felt went deep into my being — deeper than the pain from the boot on my groin long ago — a new unknown level of pain. ... I wanted to scream, but my breath did not serve me."
Elizondo knows how to keep readers turning pages. He’s fearlessly honest and direct, deeply revealing things which most people would find hard to share.
"My writer’s group says if you’re going to say something, tell ‘em what happened," he said. "Tell ‘em the truth. Don’t hold any punches. So I didn’t hold any punches. And so, that’s so what. That’s the life. That’s how we live."
Elizondo has already written another book called "Prayer from Hell" about the violence in Mexico and the United States. That work is scheduled to be released by Autumn Leaf Press within the next few days. Elizondo is also working on a biographical novel based on his years as a hairdresser in the 1960s and 70s.
"The Last Pachuco" can be purchased from Autumn Leaf Press at www.autumnleafpress.com.