LEAVING DOG TOWN W
e all say we’re misfits in the Black Eyed Peas, and I really was born one. I’ve often imagined the looks on everyone’s faces when I arrived into the world on July 14, 1975, shortly after one o’clock on a baking Los Angeles afternoon. There I was waiting to burst onto life’s stage as this eagerly awaited, dark-skinned Mexican-American boy with Native American ancestry, and then I arrived . . . as light-skinned as could be.
“Oh look, he’s as white as a coconut!” were the first words that greeted my birth, spoken by my father, Jimmy.
With parents who were both dark and with Shoshone blood running thick on Mom’s side, this was not the shade of baby that had been ordered.
Uncle Louie, my mom’s brother, arrived in the room, took one look at me and said: “He looks like a long white rat!”
Mom said she was just grateful I came out fast.
I’m not saying I was a disappointment. I’m just saying that I was breaking the mold from the moment I came out of the gate. It should, therefore, have come as no surprise to anyone that a) I grew up feeling a bit of an outcast, and b) there was a good chance I’d follow through and be a nonconformist. From day one, it was clear that I wasn’t going to fulfill anyone’s expectations of me.
Nanny got it: she would later tell me that she knew I was going to be different from that first minute. But in her accepting eyes, “different” in a good way. I guess even then she could tell I wasn’t going to be your average pea in a pod.
I was born at East Los Angeles Doctors Hospital, directly off Whittier Boulevard—a seemingly never-ending street that today is crammed with markets and dollar stores but which was once a cruising capital for the young chavalos
in their low-riders on the Eastside in the 60s, as immortalized by a seven-piece Chicano group called Thee Midniters. Not much came out of East L.A. back then beyond their 1965 hit “Whittier Boulevard,
” which led to them being referred to as “the local Beatles,” though I doubt John Lennon and Paul McCartney sweated it too much.
At the baby shower a few weeks before my birth, my mom couldn’t stop dancing. She heard music and just had to start moving.
“Laura!!” everyone said—Laura was short for Aurora—“you’re going to have the baby if you’re not careful!”
“But I can’t stop dancing. I need to dance!” she told them.
And she danced and danced, and everyone laughed, for about two hours solid.
Mom says she knew I was going to be a handful then and there. It’s good to know that, even in the womb, I was injecting the Black Eyed Peas vibe, jumping around, rocking it, getting everyone on their feet. Mom said it was like that for the last three months of her pregnancy.
That’s why I like to think I started dancing even before my life truly began.
I also like to think that I gave Mom fair warning.
If you met me in the street and you knew nothing about the Black Eyed Peas and asked my name and where I was born, the reply could mislead you. I’d give you my birth name: Jaime Luis Gomez. I’d tell you where I first grew up: a Mexican-American community in East L.A. That would probably surprise you, because you might, as many do, mistake me for an Asian. If I told you the projects I grew up in and you knew the Eastside, I’d catch that look in your eye and I’d say, yeah, that’s right—the neighborhood nicknamed after a street gang called Dog Town. These are the stamps of my identity, about as informative as markings in a passport. They tell you nothing about who I am or what my story is, and what it further explains to me, looking back, is why I never felt I belonged from day one. Don’t get me wrong: no one is prouder than I am of my Mexican-American roots, but these are merely my roots and national identity. This information doesn’t completely define me.
Mr. Callaham, my sophomore English teacher, once said every story needs a good beginning, middle and end. I remember him saying that. It must have been one of the few times I was listening and not daydreaming my way through class.
The thing is, I didn’t much like the story that was laid out for me: the Latino who should understand his place in the world, stay loyal to the ’hood, get “a real job” and do the nine to five thing. I didn’t see a good beginning, middle or end in that.
What you’ve got to understand is that in my community, there was the story you were handed at birth—a carbon copy of the one issued to everyone else around you; a future of limitations that asks the dreamer that dares to be different: “What makes you think you’re so special?” I think that I was born with something of that Indian warrior spirit that Nanny talked about, providing me with a defiance that refused to respect pre-established boundaries. To me, you’ve got to be willing to smash your way out of any ice block that’s encased you. You’ve got to be willing to break out and be as original as you want to be, become the person you have the potential to be, as opposed to being the person others expect you should
be. It is about ripping up the hopeless story and rewriting the dreamer’s script. Something innate within me knew this from being a boy.
There is a quote that me and my homie and best friend David Lara often remind each other of: “Those who abandoned their dreams will always discourage the dreams of others.”
I learned from an early age that few people tell you what is really possible, except for free spirits like Nanny. Because, if you become the one who does make it happen, then it reminds others of their own limitations and what they, maybe, could have done, but didn’t choose to. Find any tight community and then find the dreamer within it—and there’ll always be a gang of naysayers pissing on his or her parade.
That is why there is much more to me than where I come from. Because it is what was invisible—the determination, the belief, the perseverance—that shaped my story, and for those people who stonewalled me with doubt or never believed where I was headed, only one silent reply ran through my mind: Oh, you don’t think so? Okay, just watch me.
My mom, Aurora Sifuentes, and dad, Jimmy Gomez, met at a Mexican market on the Eastside. Mom was out shopping with Nanny, Aurora senior, when their paths crossed. It probably says a lot that I don’t know much more about the romantic part. Mom was a twenty-year-old student, securing qualifications that would ultimately get her a job as an official with the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Dad was a twenty-three-year-old mechanic. He’d previously had a relationship with a woman named Esther that produced a son—my half-brother Eddie who is four years older than me. I don’t know the details of that messy story other than Eddie ended up staying with Dad.
Mom and Dad fell in love, got married and she was pregnant with me at twenty-two, but the honeymoon period didn’t last long because, as Mom would tell me, there were two sides to my father. His better side was the kindhearted, affectionate gentleman. His bad side was the drinker, and, when this side kicked in, the good-looking charmer fell away and exposed the flawed man. He wasn’t a bad man, but alcohol sadly changed him. He would later get his act together, but not before it was too late as far as Mom was concerned.
Apparently, he performed a drunken dance called the “Pepe Stomp.” Basically, it involved nothing more technical than him stomping his feet on the spot, getting faster and faster. There was this one time when he lost his balance and fell backward into the playpen that was set up for my arrival. He crashed into it and was rolling around drunk. I wasn’t even born yet and Mom was already worried for my welfare. The final straw came during an argument when he picked up a bicycle and threw it at her when she was far into her pregnancy. The bike didn’t hit her, but almost flattened my half-brother Eddie who stood there wailing over his near-miss with this two-wheeled projectile. Mom was smart enough and strong enough to get out soon after.
That is why I don’t know my dad. He was at my birth and hovered around the edges for a bit, but he was one of those dads on paper and by blood, not by deed. He had next to nothing to do with raising me. Mom used to laugh that his favorite song was “Daddy’s Home” by Shep & The Limelites. Not bad for an absent dad.
I admire Mom for having the courage to make a new start and choose the life of a single parent. In many ways, it would have been easier to stay, but she took the tougher choice and a part-time job in a toy store near downtown L.A. She was no foreigner to hardship. In her childhood, home had once been a garage converted into a makeshift studio, shared with Uncle Louie and Nanny.
Nanny’s name was Aurora Acosta when she married Luis Sifuentes. I know nothing more about Granddad other than that he was always suited and booted, and he left her at an early stage of their marriage. I never have understood why I was named after the two most unreliable men in the lives of the two ladies who raised me: Jaime and Luis. Maybe I was intended to be the improved version of both men?
Mom always said I was handsome “like your father” but I personally thought he was on the ugly side, so I never thanked her for that. I had his nose, ears and name, but the similarities ended there. I’m tall, he is short. He is dark-skinned, I am light. I have ambition, he did not.
Nanny remained on amicable terms with Granddad, but, back i...