America's Bastard Children
After the war ended Michael spent little time in Japan. He received his discharge papers in November and was home by late December of 1945. The Christmas holiday was almost upon us when he returned. This was the best time of the year for our barrio, a time to forget the poverty and ugliness of life. Our parish was alive with children preparing for the Christmas plays, the processions and the Christmas Midnight Mass. The Posadas or Mexican Christmas fiestas were an opportunity for great thanksgiving. The barrio was full of anticipation. As always, Michael’s father and mother were on hand lending support.
I remember his first confession after returning home. Michael could feel none of the joy of the season. His youth and innocence were now things of the past. Michael Aragón came home from the war with Japan a changed man. There had been so much killing that his soul was left burdened by the pain and sorrow of it all. The man sitting before me was not the boy I’d known; he was an empty shell waiting to be filled. His faith had been shaken to its very foundation. Of his years away at war the last two and a half were the most difficult. Fighting his way across the Pacific inch-by-inch, he’d become a man the hard way. He left friends on each island. In fact, all of the men of A Company were dead except for he and a man named Wellington. Wounded in his soul and feeling alone and guilty that he survived, Michael spent the first few weeks resting and keeping to himself.
Once settled in he came to me to make his confession. Michael’s confession was long and troubled, he’d seen too much and killed too many. Nothing could have prepared him for such carnage. You cannot be visited by the Death Angel and not be infected by his cold mechanical view of destruction. I had an intimate knowledge of what killing can do to a man’s soul. I made no effort to interfere. This thing we call a soul is a delicate instrument. It has its own dimensions and personality. There can be no other thing like it for it comes from God. He’s present at its creation watching as it blends with the flesh of the body in the womb. When it breaks forth from the womb, it’s alive with expectation, ready to experience everything life has to offer. Then, life and this evil world begin to weave their black magic. God and his angels will not interfere unless asked. A man is left alone to make own his way in this world. It’s his birth right. He’s free to choose his course in life and take his place in the world.
Michael had trouble adjusting to life at home. He was quickly bored after so many years of constant activity. He decided that it was time for him to get on with his life. During this period he came to the rectory several times to visit me. We played chess but spoke little. On the rare occasions when we actually conversed, he talked about getting a job. He wanted something to occupy his time. But he wasn’t in search of a career. He was accustomed to rising early, usually by four in the morning. Each day started by putting on a pot of strong coffee and reading the newspaper. His father was always the next to rise. The two men sat at the kitchen table together saying little. The only sound was the noise of rustling newspaper pages. When Mama came into the kitchen she would insist upon making the two men a large breakfast. It was Mama’s practice to make enough food for five people. Michael always had seconds whether he was hungry or not. It made her feel good. Both he and Papa understood that such a refusal would hurt Mama's feelings. She took great pride in her cooking, neither dreamed of refusing the offer of more. The breakfast menu was always the same. There were always creamy refried beans with cheese and fluffy scrambled eggs. Mama cooked the bacon leaving just enough grease in the pan to later fry generous portions of potatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper. Thick, hand-made flour tortillas were served hot with butter.
While eating his breakfast Michael read the want ads. There were several menial jobs he felt that he could do. He was now ready to begin searching for a job. Over the next several weeks, he searched for work. Everywhere Michael went he was given same answer. The position needed someone with experience. He filled out applications for weeks, always with the same result, no job. At first, he thought it was his appearance so he bought a new suit and got a haircut. He went out day after day looking for employment ready to take anything that was offered. Michael just wanted to work. But still there was nothing. Once he was satisfied that it wasn’t his appearance, he decided that it might be his writing skills. So he took great pains to do better at filling out job applications. He was up early every morning with a pad of paper writing and rewriting sentences. He wrote page after page until his penmanship was perfect.
Twice Michael came to me at the rectory to discuss his progress. I counseled him on business people and what they were looking for in an employee. Later, I helped him fill out job applications. But I knew all this was to no avail. I had hoped against hope that his life would be different. My wish was that the war had changed things. I should have explained it then and there instead of hiding it from him. Michael, a Mexican, was marked by the world as unworthy. His war record meant nothing to those in the Anglo business world. He finally began to piece it together on his own. The Anglos were always friendly until he handed in his application. Several times he was asked if he was Italian or Greek. When he answered Mexican, the secretary would place the application in a separate pile. Michael would then be asked to sit in the lobby. There he would wait only to be told that there were no positions available.
The questions were always subtle. Are you Italian or Greek? What kind of a name is Aragón? After several months of rejection, he finally understood. There were no jobs for him. More than that, there were no jobs for Mexicans. When Michael Aragón reached this conclusion he was deeply hurt. He had experienced prejudice during the war and he knew first-hand that some White Americans hated Mexicans. But he didn’t want to believe that all Whites hated in this way. Lieutenant Wellington wasn’t this way. Of that he was sure. He didn’t want to believe that this was all true. Continuing in his denial, he looked for work every day. His search lasted for over a year and a half. By June of 1947, he was out of money and out of luck.
Michael later told me he spoke to his father and mother about the problem. Both listened carefully to what he had to say. He shared his feeling with his parents holding nothing back. Papa understood Michael’s anger; he’d experienced the same all of his life. Mama and Papa were honest in their appraisal. They too knew that Michael had been wronged. But it was left to me to finally tell him the brutal truth. I explained to Michael that he must understand that Americans didn’t hate because of what he or his people had done. They hated out of ignorance. I explained the historical facts about how they came here from their part of the United States and stole the land from the Spanish and Mexicans. I offered that they knew their crimes and that every time they saw a Mexican, Anglos were reminded of those crimes. Americans felt in their hearts that their forefathers were thieves. I then reminded him that he came from a proud race, the Spanish. Sharing how the Spaniards and Mexicans had founded this land many hundreds of years ago, I explained how they had fought the Indios for it. His people were here long before the Gringos. After defeating the Native-Americans, Michael’s people had built the Southwest by the work of their hands. Finally, I assured him that his people were not only Americans but they were the true Americans. Proud of their country, his people had fought for her. Generation after generation, they’d fought, just as he had fought. In the end, I begged him not to let these people cheat him out of his birthright. He belonged on this land.
Michael agreed that many of the Gringos were ignorant. But still, he needed a job. He needed money now, not next month. And he couldn’t wait for them to like him. What could he do? Michael couldn’t change the way he looked or the fact that he wasn’t White. He wanted the respect that he felt he had earned. America owed it to him. He’d killed for this country. When he was defending her, nobody had asked him if he was qualified. In the jungles of the Pacific killing Japs, no one asked Michael if he was Italian. They cared only that he could cover their White backsides during battle. Michael was good enough for the Navy Cross but not good enough to sweep out their storerooms! He’d done his job well enough to win the Purple Heart. But he wasn’t good enough to take out their trash! Angry and tired of the unfairness of it all he was sick of the lies.
I understood Michael was deeply hurt and angry. Words couldn’t take away the sting of unfairness. I told him to always remember that I was proud of him. He was a good man who had always done what was right. I prayed to the Virgin for him, asking her to intervene. But she didn’t. Only Satan and his dark angels from hell came to Michael’s aid.
Known for their hard work and kindness, the Aragóns were respected by the barrio. For years Michael’s father had operated a small café. With ten small tables packed closely together into a room the size of a large living room it was more a tiny hole in the wall than a café. Though it wasn’t much to look at, the café was so clean you could eat off the floor. Patrons appreciated the attention to detail; it never escaped their eyes. Mama mopped and cleaned as often as she had time. Papa was never found without a broom or wash cloth in his hands. The checkered tablecloths were always spotless and neatly pressed by mama. Dishes were washed by hand and sparkled. The walls were painted a bright yellow. To add flair to the café, Papa had hired a young neighbor boy to paint a Mexican mural depicting a fierce Aztec warrior holding a beautiful Indian maiden. The boy was talented and the mural was a work of art. Red curtains with bright blue parrots adorned the windows. Thick, reddish Mexican ceramic tile covered the café floor. Hand carved, rough hued, wooden tables and chairs made by a local Mexican artisan provided a warm affect.
Papa had been lucky. One patron, a powerful government official was a beer lover. The patron arranged for Papa to obtain a liquor license so he could have his ice-cold beer with Mama’s spicy hot burritos that he loved so much. This one act secured Papa’s future since it was the only café for miles that served beer. The beer ensured a steady stream of barrio customers. Mama did most of the cooking while Papa served the patrons. The food was authentic Mexican cuisine spicy and served up piping hot. The coffee was always strong with lots of milk and sugar. The place had a reputation for authentic Mexican food. Large spicy burritos had become the house specialty, with soft tacos running a close second. This was eating at its best; it was homemade.
Many construction workers and Anglos from the nearby downtown area went there to eat. To the neighborhood Papa’s café was the place to congregate. The barrio always supported its own. Men from the barrio could always be found there during the week eating breakfast and reading newspapers. They argued politics loudly as only the Latinos can, and always in defense of the rights of the poor. When a man was out of work, he knew he could always get a free cup of coffee and a hot breakfast. Papa would never offend by asking for money. If a man had no job, Papa knew. When the man came into the place Papa insisted on paying for his meal. It was understood that he would pay later. But respect was the true fare of the day. It was this kindness that commanded loyalty and had made Papa’s business a success. He and Mama knew all of their customers. They went from table to table talking and laughing with the regulars. It was like eating at home. In the mornings, the place was full of the regulars for breakfast. Lunchtime business was steady at the café. Dinnertime at the café was busy. At night, the locals brought their families for evenings filled with laughter and conversation. After dinner, Papa encouraged local talent to play the guitar and sing the Mexican Ranchera songs. Standing in a corner, the locals crooned throughout the evening.
One morning when Papa and Michael were having their coffee, Papa asked if he would consider working in the café. He understood that it wasn't what his son would like but it was a start. Asking the question gently, Papa didn’t want to offend his son's sense of dignity. Michael knew that his papa loved him very much and appreciated his offer. But this wasn’t a good time for him. Somehow he had expected more out of life. Michael had thought about many different jobs that he might be good at and had even considered college. When over there in the jungles he had thought about being back home. Sometimes, he considered building houses. Michael also had dreamed of owning his own business, maybe a garage. Although he didn't know what he wanted to do, Michael had to be the one to make it happen. Because he didn’t want to offend his father, Michael said nothing and continued reading his newspaper. He would deal with the matter later. Michael Aragón wanted to be his own man and to do things his way. While he didn’t know what he wanted to be or do, Michael understood it wasn't a restaurant worker.
Papa told him that he and Mama were very proud of him. To them, Michael would always be a hero. He’d made Papa proud to be his father. Papa knew that his son would eventually find his own way. Over those next several weeks, Michael continued his search of the want ads. Hoping against all hope, he kept up his search.
While Michael searched the want ads, came that fateful moment that would change his life forever. His father brought up the subject of Zoot-suiters. Michael felt they were a bunch of young punks but harmless. Later, his father told him that they demanded things when visiting him and the other shop owners. Michael didn’t understand what his father was getting at. Papa then confided to Michael that while he was away at war the Zoot-suiters had begun to bother him. At first, they came into the café and caused trouble with the regulars. Later, they began to eat and not pay. As time went on, they asked for more. Then Papa stopped talking and began to read the newspaper again. His hands shook as he held the paper. Michael didn't know what to say and felt it best to let Papa go at his own pace. If Papa had something to say he would say it. So he let the matter go.
A few days later, Michael was standing by the sink finishing his cup of coffee. It was very early in the morning before he was to start his daily routine of filling out useless job applications. Mama came into the kitchen after Papa had left for work. She also seemed concerned about something. But she said nothing. Wrapping her arms around Michael, she held him closely. He knew there was a problem. When Michael got around to asking her what was wrong, Mama told him she was worried. She explained to Michael that they didn't have the money to pay this month. Mama said the words with a slight tremble in her voice. He pushed the point asking her what the money was for. Finally, Mama explained. It was the money they paid to the boys with the baggy suits so they wouldn’t cause trouble at the café. She spoke the words quickly and walked into the living room. He followed her feeling the anger growing inside as he asked for the names of these young men. Mama didn't want to talk about the matter any further and would say nothing else.
The next morning while Michael and Papa were having their coffee he noticed bruises on his father's arms. When papa turned his head Michael noticed a large bruise on the right side of his face. Now very concerned for his father, Michael asked what had happened to his face and arm. Papa didn’t respond to the question. A few minutes later, a frightened Papa told Michael that he didn't want any trouble. He assured him that the boys had never done anything like this before. Papa told Michael it was his own fault; he’d been late with the payment. His father had said the words with fear in his voice. Michael demanded that Papa tell him the names of the boys. He also wanted to know what the payments were for. Unable to accept the idea of someone hurting his father, Michael’s questions betrayed his anger. Finally, Papa gave in, explaining to Michael that it wasn't just he and Mama. The boys were now taking money from all of the barrio storeowners. Papa explained to him that two days earlier they had beaten up Mr. Levy, his friend with the liquor store. Papa complained that the owners didn't know what to do. They had tried going to the police but they did nothing. One policeman told several of the owners that this was a Mexican matter and they could handle it on their own. Michael Aragón’s father now looked to him for an answer. Barely able to hold back his anger, Michael demanded the names of the boys. Papa was afraid to give him the boy’s names. He feared they would hurt Michael. Finally Papa gave in. The same boy, Chuco Gonzáles, who had beaten up Mr. Levy, had beaten him.
Michael took his last sip of coffee and stood up from the table. He smiled at his father as he walked toward the door. Papa was concerned about what he might do and asked where he was going. Michael told Papa not to worry. Michael lied saying that he was just going down to the store to get some smokes. His real mission was to avenge his father. Michael knew Chuco and remembered where he lived and hung out. A week earlier, Michael had seen Chuco standing at the neighborhood youth center. The boy and four or five of his friends hung out there on a regular basis. These punks spent their days shooting baskets or playing Ping-Pong at the center. The rules of the place were simple. Trouble was handled in the alley behind the center. If anyone had a problem, it was settled outside. Michael knew that if he fought Chuco, he would be taking them all on. As he walked to the small corner store his anger grew. When he entered the small store he was greeted by Mr. Vargas, the owner. In a concerned tone Mr. Vargas asked Michael how his father was feeling. Vargas said that he had heard that the boys had beaten his father. At that moment, Michael knew what had to be done. He bought his Lucky Strikes and quickly left the store.
The walk to the Center had taken five minutes. It was early in the morning when Michael arrived. Chuco and his friends were not the type to rise early, having spent their nights looking for trouble and finding it. Even as a child Chuco had always been a troublemaker. You could always count on Chuco to be where trouble was. Typical of his kind, he drank too much and smoked even more. He was tall and thin with a pock marked face. His dark skin favored his Indian mix. Michael knew he would have to wait so he sat on the cold metal bench in the playground. After a while, he decided to wait for Chuco in the alley. Finally, he saw the boy and two friends come around the corner. When Chuco saw Michael, he guessed why he was there. He and his two friends stopped, gathering close and talking quietly. As they did, they glanced back at Michael. Their plans made, they began walking toward him. Chuco looked around quickly to see if Michael had brought anyone with him. Chuco’s fears disappeared when he realized that Michael had come alone. A now confident Chuco and his boys stopped twenty feet in front of Michael.
"What do you want?" Chuco asked, trying to get Michael’s attention as the other two boys began walking cautiously toward either side of him. Remaining in the center of the alley, Chuco walked slowly toward him allowing his friends to get into position. Once they were ready Chuco walked in the typical gated strut of the Pachuco. Arms at his side, Chuco stood arrogantly in front of him. "So you think you’re some bad ass Marine?" Chuco shouted at Michael. Prepared and saying nothing Michael watched as Chuco signaled the other boys. Then it happened. Out of the corner of his eye, Michael glimpsed the boy on his right rushing forward. Moving quickly to block the punch thrown by the boy, he stepped inside the boy’s roundhouse punch. In one fluid movement, Michael blocked the blow with the back of his upraised left forearm. Stepping through and over the boy’s right leg, Michael elbowed the boy in the rib cage then wrapped his right arm around the boy’s waist. Now in position, Michael threw the boy backward over his right hip. As the dazed boy hit the ground, Michael kicked him square in the face. Michael then moved to counter the oncoming attack of the second boy. The attacker on his left was brandishing a tire iron. Taking a stance with his left leg forward and right leg back, Michael thrust his arms upward and blocked the hand wielding the tire iron and kicked the boy in the solar plexus. His kick stopped the boy where he stood. With two more hard punches to the boy’s head, the stunned pachuco fell, face first onto the ground.
Now it was Chuco's turn to show Michael his bravado. As he turned to face him, Michael saw the eight-inch butcher knife. Chuco moved slowly, circling in front of him. Moving to Michael’s right, he tossed the knife from hand-to-hand, as he positioned himself closer. Catching the knife in his right hand Chuco thrust the blade straight at Michael’s face missing him by less than an inch. Tossing the knife to his left hand Chuco thrust again. Michael was quick to respond, jumping backwards as the knife missed its mark. Chuco was good but Michael was better. The boy slashed savagely at Michael. With a thrust to the left Chuco hoped to catch Michael off guard. Michael’s training had taught him that there was only one way this could end. Chuco was fast and good with a knife. But he had no defensive training, leaving himself open and vulnerable to the well-trained soldier. Bravado was no match for a trained Raider. As he thrust again, Michael kicked hard at the right knee. Chuco dropped to the ground in pain holding his right kneecap. Before Michael could finish him off, he had to move to meet the first attacker who was now back on his feet. Michael rushed forward blocking the boy’s punch with the back of his left arm opening up an area for striking the man in the throat. With a straight right punch to the exposed throat the boy crumbled to the ground fighting for air.
No sooner, had the boy fallen than Chuco was on Michael again. Rushing Michael, he threw his weight forward thrusting with the large knife. The weapon came close to Michael’s face. They now circled one another each attempting to get the upper hand. Michael punched at Chuco with a strong forward thrust of his right fist. The hard blow landed solidly on his exposed temple causing him to stumble backward. Unable to recover, the boy received a second powerful blow to the nose. The punch caused him to crumble to the ground, unconscious. By now, the second attacker had regained his strength. Coming from behind, he now had Michael in a chokehold trying to cut off his oxygen. Quickly elbowing the man hard in the stomach, he loosened his grip. Dropping to his left knee Michael wrapped his right arm behind the man’s neck and threw him over his shoulder. As the man landed hard on his back, Michael was on him. He hit him twice, once in the face and a second time in the throat. This time, the man was finished.
An angry and vengeful Michael Aragón now turned his attention to a disabled Chuco. As the boy tried to stand, he knew what was coming. He understood that this was no longer about monies extorted, but about family honor. He was well aware that Michael had come to exact a price for the injuries of his father. "Chuco, I’m here for payment." Michael shouted smugly, kicking him squarely in the face. "Let me teach you the meaning of honor." Michael said mockingly as he pinned Chuco’s shoulders down with his knees and the full weight of his body. He smashed the boy’s face with several cruel hard punches. Methodically breaking both of Chuco’s arms he then used the heel of his boot to break the bones in the fingers of his right hand. This made sure that he would never again be able to use a knife. Going to work on Chuco’s ribs, he broke several in short order.
After finishing off Chuco, Michael walked over to one of the other young men. Reaching down he pulled him up by the front of his shirt collar and dragged him to the base of a wall. He threw the boy face first against the wall and then began punishing him with several blows to the kidneys and ribs. Laughing a vengeful Michael shouted, "Doesn’t this feel good?" As blood dripped from the young man’s mouth, Michael wiped it all over the boy’s face. Fighting to catch his breath, the badly beaten boy slumped against the wall. He gazed up at Michael in a dazed, confused state. He listened as Michael left a message for Chuco. "Tell Chuco, I'm Michael Aragón and I want him gone, erased. If I ever see him or any of you again, I’ll kill you. This is a matter of honor." With those words he shoved the bloody, broken boy hard against the wall and walked away. Michael then approached the last boy who lay sprawled on the ground. Reaching down he snapped the boy’s left arm breaking it at the shoulder. He then savagely kicked the man several times in the ribs and back. Finally, he smashed the boy’s face with the heel of his right boot breaking his jaw. Pulling the badly beaten boy up by his long black hair, Michael whispered, "Go away. Go away fast or I’ll kill you the next time."
He left the three bloody and broken Pachucos in the alley and walked away. The fact that he’d done such a savage thing would mark him. Once he engaged the vatos locos he had become one of them. His act of revenge would label him a gangster. He’d crossed the line. When the neighbors found the mangled boys the word got out. Michael Aragón would never again be seen by the barrio as a civilian. But even he didn’t understand how this simple act of revenge would change his life forever. He’d settled the matter of honor the only way he could. In the barrio your reputation was everything. He understood Chuco’s type. If you gave him an inch he’d demand a mile. Michael also was aware that if he hurt them badly enough to get his point across, they would get the message. The next time they met him it would be fatal.
Michael walked away feeling good about having avenged his father. Chuco and his ilk were good at threatening people who couldn’t defend themselves, but they had no stomach for a real fight. They now understood that a higher price would be demanded the next time they tried to extort money from these good people. Papa and the other owners were good, honest, hard working people who deserved what they earned. These punks would no longer prey on them.
Michael arrived home late in the morning. Mama said nothing to him as he went in to take a shower. She could see that he’d been in some kind of trouble, but she thought it best not to pry.
The following week, Papa was told by neighbors what his son had done. Michael was now a celebrity. Papa was proud of his son knowing that he’d done the deed for him. When the shop owners heard the news, they wanted to do something special for Michael. The owners were relieved that Chuco and his boys had left the barrio never to return. Michael Aragón was their champion. Mr. Levy was appointed to thank Michael and each shop owner put a little something into the pot for him. It wasn’t much but they felt that they must do something. Old Levy, the Jew, was well liked by the Chicanos and considered fair and honest by the barrio people. His prices were low and he extended credit willingly. To the poor, this meant a great deal. In return, they treated his business with respect, making sure that the neighborhood kids knew that he wasn’t to be bothered. This meant that there would be no stealing.
I remember Levy coming to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church during the Christmas fiestas and donating candy and small gifts for the festive piñatas. Levy’s gifts showed the barrio that he was one of them. All were aware that he was a Jew and not a Catholic. But this meant little when viewed with his kindness. As the spokesman for the local businessmen Levy asked Papa to have Michael visit him. The next day, Papa asked Michael to go over and talk to him. Michael didn't want to talk to Levy or any of the other owners, preferring to leave the incident in the past. Finally, after much admonition from his father, he agreed. That week, Michael went over to see Levy in the early morning. He found him alone in his liquor store stocking shelves. Mr. Levy greeted him with open arms thanking Michael for his courage and giving him an envelope full of cash. He explained that the gift was from all the shop owners, a thank you for his help. Always a man of few words Michael thanked Levy and left.
By a strange twist of fate Michael’s life had been changed forever. It was soon understood that the barrio belonged to Michael Aragón, the war hero. The people were in need of a hero and were more than happy to stretch the story to its limits. After several weeks, the number of pachucos defeated had been increased to ten. Apparently he had also survived several stab wounds and two gun shot wounds as well. It was said that the Virgin Mary herself had protected him during the fight. It was a miracle and the barrio needed miracles. The young pachucos of the barrio now looked elsewhere for their money. Shopkeepers were happy and the businesses began to prosper again. Many attributed this to Michael’s protection. Those merchants that worked with Michael had nothing to fear. Their stores were never bothered. No graffiti was painted on their walls. There was no stealing. Soon other storeowners began to join the group. Each month Michael received payments from the local storeowners without asking. Within a few months, Michael had two thousand dollars in cash. He never asked. Levy just delivered the envelopes weekly.
Within a short period of time, Michael Aragón bought Mr. Ramirez’s failing garage. The old man was ill and could no longer work. Michael was kind and hired Ramirez to manage the place. In the beginning, customers were hesitant to bring their cars in for repair knowing that Michael owned the shop. They soon learned that he ran his business as fairly as his father ran his café.
It was the summer of 1947, and business at the garage was growing. Michael extended credit and kept his prices low. He was fair and the repairs were always good. Soon, he added a car wash. Every weekend many cars were lined up for a wash. Business was good. With money coming in Michael soon bought the old Rosenthal laundry. Like many other Jews, he was a good businessman who wanted to move up in life. The Rosenthal family was leaving East Los Angeles and moving to the West Side to enter the garment business. The decision to buy the laundry was made for Michael. Mr. Rosenthal approached his father for help. Unable to run both businesses well, he needed to unload the laundry quickly. Anastacio Aragón promised Rosenthal that he would talk to his son and see if something could be done. Negotiating behind the scenes Levy recommended that Michael buy the place at a premium. Michael wanted to treat the man fairly; he met with him and offered him one thousand dollars. Knowing that the business was worth much less Michael gave him twice what the laundry was worth. In return, Rosenthal gave Michael excellent terms. Papa was happy, Mr. Rosenthal was happy, Levy was happy, and Michael had his second business.
A central reason for buying the laundry was a man named Jimmy León, a highly decorated Marine who had fought during the war in the South Pacific. As tall as Michael, but with a larger build, he was naturally given to gaining weight. His features were sharp with high cheekbones, a wide mouth, and a flat Indian nose. With youthful smooth, dark skin, his hair was black and cut in the familiar Marine crew cut. He dressed neatly with black shoes that were shined to a high polish. Jimmy was a gentleman. Jimmy was also Michael’s third cousin. The two had never met. The day Jimmy came to Michael’s home, he was careful to show his cousin the respect he deserved. Known as a good businessman and a fair person, Michael had done much for his uncles and aunts. Whenever money was needed he was there with a gift. If a job could be found for a relative it was Michael who arranged it. Michael Aragón was highly respected by his family having proven his loyalty to his relatives many times over. Jimmy shared Michael’s values. He believed in hard work and fairness and admired Michael. Jimmy explained to Michael that he had been unable to find work. León felt racial prejudice was the problem. When Michael asked why he’d come to him, Jimmy answered that Michael Aragón was known as a man who got things done.
Before their meeting Michael had inquired about Jimmy. Family members believed him to be a good and honorable man. There were no bad reports, only positive comments. Michael liked him; he was disciplined and wanted to succeed. The two had much in common. At the end of the meeting Michael offered him the job as manager of the laundry. Jimmy accepted with a show of great respect. In time, Jimmy showed himself to be a hard working businessman treating customers with respect and doing a good job on their clothes. Michael liked the fact that Jimmy could always be found at the laundry, day or night, giving it his all. He never asked Jimmy to give more than necessary, it came naturally to him. When not at the laundry Jimmy spent time with his parents.
Michael and Jimmy were a great deal alike. Both exercised weekly in hopes of remaining physically fit. Michael liked Jimmy’s company and the two men spent off-hours working out together. Later, Michael constructed a gym in his basement and the two exercised there at least three days a week. They also liked to go fishing together. During the week they spent early morning hours fishing off of the San Pedro docks. It was quiet and allowed the men to unwind. Neither was a talker, so the hours spent together were often without conversation. Over the months, Michael learned to trust his cousin, Jimmy.
Jimmy had always wanted an auto body shop. When he saw a building for sale three blocks from the cleaners he approached Michael with a proposition. He proposed that they buy the rundown building with a large lot and fix it up. Knowing that their cousin, Felix, worked at the local bank, Jimmy spoke to Michael about getting a loan. Michael liked the idea and agreed to discuss the matter with Felix. When Michael spoke to his father about the proposition, Papa recommended that he speak to Levy. Papa Aragón soon arranged a meeting with Levy at their home. Levy liked Michael and was more than willing to talk about the business proposition. As the two sat and discussed the potential of the business, Levy asked the price of the building. After some discussion he told Michael the building was over priced. The two spent hours going over the value of the building and the cost of funding such a venture. When Levy asked him how much money he had for a down payment Michael pulled out an envelope and wrote down several figures. Levy was amazed to see that Michael had written down seventy-five hundred dollars. He asked Michael how he’d come up with such a sum. Michael said only that his businesses were doing well. Levy recommended that Michael use his services for bargaining with the bank. The two men agreed to meet with the bank the following week.
Michael and Levy met the following week with Cousin Felix. Levy had learned that the building was in foreclosure and recommended that they make an offer. Felix asked Michael the usual questions about assets and operating costs. Michael explained that he knew little about such things telling them that he merely placed monies in a savings account at Felix’s bank. When pressed, Michael told them he withdrew cash to make payments on a weekly basis. The rest he kept at the bank. Both men had difficulty understanding how Michael’s businesses had done so well considering his lack of knowledge about the books. Felix recommended that Michael begin to use Levy’s services as an accountant, Michael agreed. Over the next three weeks, Levy created Michael’s general ledgers and accounting notes. By the end of the fourth week Benjamin Levy was employed as Michael's accountant, a job for which he’d been well-trained.
He had been a financial advisor to bankers and large businesses in Europe before the war. Levy never recovered from the damage done to him by the Nazis in Germany. They had robbed him of his career and his will to succeed. He couldn’t forgive the violence and ugliness of the Germany he’d left behind. Nazi Germany had claimed most of his family. Only he and his son, Benjamin, had been spared. Young Benjamin was fourteen years old when they traveled on business to England in 1937. The two had been lucky; it was the week before the Germans began massive roundups of Jews. It was to be a working vacation. When not in meetings, he and his son were to visit the museums and historical sites. Levy had planned the two week vacation well. Three days into their vacation Levy received the news from a German colleague. His wife and two daughters were detained along with thousands of other Jewish Berliners. Contacting the German Consulate in London Levy was informed that he and his son were not allowed to return to Germany. Within a year, the concentration camp murders increased. His family was some of the first to pay the price for their Jewish heritage.
Later, the two made their way to the United States. Once in America, a determined Benjamin Levy worked three jobs to support his son. Levy had slaved to put his son through college sending the boy to Columbia University. Young Benjamin chose to stay in New York after school.
Over the years, the two men grew apart. Their differences regarding religion and God became a wedge between them. Young Levy couldn’t forgive God for the deaths of his mother and sisters. The twenty-five year old Benjamin had just recently married a lovely Irish Catholic girl and had taken a job with a stock brokerage firm. In time, young Benjamin Levy viewed his father as an eccentric feeling that the older Levy was out of touch with reality. He also felt that his father had become too dependent on his Mexican friends. He wanted him to leave Los Angeles, but the senior Levy refused. This refusal was the final blow to their relationship; his son cut him off. Even after the younger Benjamin had his son, he refused to speak to his father. It had hurt Old Levy deeply, but he was too stubborn to change his mind.
A broken and angry man, Levy had aged badly. Poor eyesight plagued him and his back was hunched over from the many hours of sitting and reading under the dim lighting of his darkened apartment. Poor eating habits and lack of sunlight had caused Levy’s skin to take on an orange hue and his gaunt face to wrinkle prematurely. With thick eyebrows as unruly as the precious few hairs on his balding head, he looked like an ancient Bald Eagle. A beak-like nose was Benjamin Levy’s most impressive feature, his dull brown eyes a close second. Keeping to himself Old Levy read his books and wrote in his diary. He had only to go through the motions of living, giving little and taking even less. He had few friends. This was the extent of his life. Once a practicing Jew he hadn’t attended temple since his arrival in the United States. He divided his time between his apartment and his liquor store. It took little effort to run the small store and it provided him with what he needed.
A week after their visit with Cousin Felix, the loan officer at the bank and Michael reached an agreement. Levy negotiated the deal with the bank on Michael’s behalf saving him several thousand dollars. Later, Benjamin Levy drafted a partnership agreement for Michael and Jimmy. Michael now had his third business and two new partners, Jimmy and Levy. By June of that year, 1949 marked the third year of Michael’s new life. Michael had several businesses paying him for protection. His position was secure. He lived off a story embellished by others and became a local legend without trying. The businesses that paid him did so as insurance against a non-existent threat. The barrio had few problems. Power, he realized, was a perceived thing. If others believed that you had it they created more for you. Michael did little to ensure that he was powerful. He simply extended his hand to others.
One group that sought out his helping hand was returning Chicano veterans. Many had been unable to find work in the Anglo world. When they did find a job it was menial task. With few opportunities for advancement and no money they sought Michael out. These men had fought hard for their country and now they wanted to be rewarded. Disciplined, hard working and well-trained, they were men looking for a better life. Michael felt comfortable with this new generation of Mexican-Americans. They had seen the outside world. These veterans were different from the other barrio people. They had traveled the world and realized there was more than the barrio life with its broken dreams and unfulfilled promises. Their eyes had been opened by the opportunities that the world had to offer. They had tasted what the outside world could give and all had come home ready to live their dreams. But America wasn’t ready to accept her bastard children. Like Michael, their belief in the promise of America had been shaken. So one-by-one they came to Michael looking for help. When each had pledged his honor and loyalty to Michael Aragón’s Family they were welcomed with open arms. Michael helped them because he could remember his own pain. He too had been treated as a second-class citizen.
Levy kept Michael’s books and made his investments for him. But he also insisted on teaching Michael the art of double bookkeeping. One book was kept for the taxman and the other held the profits. The first book told a story of failure and the second told the true tale of success. Michael had thought long and hard before approaching Benjamin to keep a third set of books. Over several months, he’d come to know and trust Levy. Then one night Michael arrived at Levy’s apartment late with a shoebox in hand. Levy opened the door slowly. He was suspicious about the late night call, but let Michael in anyway. Michael came directly to the point. Placing the box on the small dining room table, he removed the lid and shared the contents with Levy. Michael explained that he trusted him, and asked for Levy’s help. Nodding, Benjamin fingered the stacks of bills. Then he stood back looking into the box, saying nothing for a moment. After replacing the lid, he led Michael to the living room couch. As they sat, Michael told Levy about his situation. The monies were from the illegal Family businesses. Nodding his head, the Old Jew made only one request. He feared Michael might draw unwanted attention, so he asked to be allowed to structure all investments. Michael agreed. The men shook hands and it was done. He left the box with Levy and went home. Levy spent the night counting the money and made the entries it into a new ledger.
Cash was king after the war. Nothing opened up the doors of possibility like crisp green dollar bills. The outside world was always in search of it. Banks were reluctant to part with it and businessmen worshiped it. Knowing this, Levy introduced Michael to many Jews who were short of it. These men had great business ideas but they needed money to make them work. Immediately Michael funded several ventures. Levy arranged for Michael to buy shares in those opportunities that he felt to be exceptional. In this way he ensured that profits soared. In return, Michael gave Levy a cut of each transaction. Benjamin Levy was now beginning Michael’s most lucrative business, venture capitalism. Loan sharking was too harsh a term for banker Levy. They were now partners in the true sense. As the ideas paid-off his newfound wealth opened up a world of opportunities to Michael. Benjamin arranged loans with quick turnarounds and secured high interest rates, but not too high. The loans were paid on time and in full. Michael Aragón’s reputation for violence had preceded him.
It was the summer of 1949, and Michael and his partners were doing well. The veteranos now ran Michael’s legitimate businesses. Quickly becoming an expert in the area, Cousin Felix was always there to take advantage of opportunities involving distressed properties. Michael gave Felix a share of each property purchased as an incentive to buy low and sell high. With each business came more partners. With each partnership came more strength. But with prosperity came crime. There was also another business that had grown. There were those who could never fit into the legitimate side of life. These men made up the barrio’s darker side, one that had to be controlled. This was the illegal side of Michael’s world. Gangs, prostitutes and pimps brought with them violence. Drug dealers and users were always a problem. The underbelly of the barrio was becoming too exposed. Something had to be done.
The barrio was Michael’s home and he didn’t like what was happening to it. With too many prostitutes hooking, the streets were getting out of hand. Public beatings were commonplace. Strong-arming was now an everyday occurrence. Gang wars had become a frequent problem and everywhere in the barrio crime and violence was increasing. What was needed was a way to control them. A concerned Michael Aragón devised a scheme to do just that. Calling upon a few trusted friends to help him, Michael established an organization called the Brotherhood. The men chosen were the veterans. Always disciplined they understood control. They were highly organized and easily structured into the new Family organization. Because they understood the chain of command these men were to be his officers. Gang members were the enlisted men. The older gang members, the barrio veteranos, would be used to control them. In a short time, Michael used the gangs to eliminate any pimps who might be troublesome. Later, the gangs were used to control all barrio prostitution. But drugs were another matter. It was a dirty business and there was no easy way to handle this filth. Michael didn't approve of this part of his growing empire but he was left no real choice.
The drug business required a special sort of man. Choosing a corrupt man named John Lucero; Michael guaranteed control of the evil substances. What was needed for this dirty business was a man with few morals and even fewer scruples. Lucero was a pimp who fit the bill perfectly. He was the only one selected by Michael who wasn’t ex-military. The filth didn't bother Lucero, he enjoyed it. A man in search of a kingdom, he guarded it jealously. He’d searched all of his life for this role. Lucero was the type of Cholo who enjoyed playing the big man. Until then, he hadn’t attained it. Lucero was well suited to be a pimp with his slicked back hair parted down the middle and a pencil thin black mustache, he looked every inch the part. He also was picture perfect for the part of drug king. Drugs were the most dangerous of all Michael’s businesses because they brought in large amounts of money. Being a cautious man, Michael gave Levy the true reins of power. Lucero would report to Jimmy but Benjamin would collect the receipts. He surrounded Lucero with men loyal to himself. Michael had them report Lucero’s comings and goings. This man was not to be trusted.
Levy disliked the man. The gigolo, as he called him, wasn’t allowed to accept receipts. Lucero was a king in name only. The purse of his kingdom was closely guarded by Levy. As a result all monies were carefully accounted for, leaving nothing to chance. Only those appointed by Levy received cash. These strict rules were followed to the letter. Levy had once told Aragón, "Where there is a great deal of money there is always greed. Greed is a drug of its own. It creeps in slowly and overtakes a man. No matter how good a man’s intentions are he will always give in to greed if given the chance." The meaning of Levy’s words had never left Aragón. But worse than greed, was heroine. It took a man’s soul, becoming his only reason for being. Aragón knew that once people became users of the drug they could never stop. Family soldiers were prohibited from using drugs. That was Michael’s most important rule. A soldier controlled by drugs was lost to the Family.
Though Michael had some of the drug business the Italians really controlled it. Using their connections in Sicily they brought it into the United States. The Italians also managed production and distribution giving them absolute control. They retailed their product in White neighborhoods and they allowed Chicanos and Negroes to sell their product in the ghettos and barrios. Heroine was their biggest moneymaker. For years, it had been the mainstay for the Italians. Marijuana was the next to follow. Proposing to control the trafficking of drugs in the barrio, Michael hoped to limit drug usage. In this way, the Brotherhood could stop the spread of the disease without alarming the Italians. A concerned Levy cautioned Michael not to try to take the Italians on. But Michael knew that as long as the Italians made their profits they could care less what happened on the streets.
As 1950, approached, there were fifty street gangs in the barrio of East Los Angeles and Michael was connected to all of them. His Family of veteranos silently and effectively took control of the gangs. Not one move was made without the knowledge of the Brotherhood. Each gang had a well-paid veterano in the Family. The older pachucos knew how to keep a secret. Little did the younger gang members know that the Family was pulling the strings from the ranks above. There was never a whisper or word about the Family. The younger vatos believed their gangs were autonomous. The gangs were allowed their rivalry for turf. Street fights and gang retaliation were encouraged, but controlled. Only once had La Familia been mentioned in public. The veterano was drunk and had made the mistake of threatening someone with its power. This act of treason could not be forgiven. Jimmy acted without telling Michael. He eliminated the problem that night. When Jimmy gave the order, he used the opportunity to teach his men a lesson. Jimmy León made the soldiers give a blood oath before carrying out the execution. This was the first time the phrase "Blood in, Blood out" was used. Never again would a veterano use the name of La Familia, the Family, in public again. The vato was shot to death and his body buried in the desert. The veteranos now understood the true seriousness of the matter.
When Jimmy told Michael what he’d done, Michael accepted his report without condemnation. Michel understood that once he began this thing, he could never look back. He viewed this death as an acceptable price to pay. Michael’s logic was cold and calculating. The dead vato had given his life to save the lives of many. There would be many more casualties along the way.
It was at this time that I heard of his illegal activities. As his priest, I wanted Michael to give up the darker side of his business interests but he refused. We had words about his choices in life. At first, he tried to reason with me. I wouldn't listen. How could he give up the Brotherhood? The Family and the other barrio families forming the Brotherhood were now entrenched. Someone had to keep the lid on the box holding the cobra. I could never accept that he was saving the barrio by corrupting it. When he asked me what would become of the barrio if it were not controlled, I refused to answer. Michael then argued that man had to control or be controlled. On that point I stood firmly against him. I refused to listen any further. I shouted at him to go to hell and stormed out. After that, we spoke little. When we did, we argued. It was months before we became civil to one another.
In all fairness to him, few men had Michael’s compassion. But it was always served cold with cruel, calculating logic. The poor were always treated well by him. My parish received much from the Family. He gave a great deal but always from a distance. As my parish grew so did the donations. We lacked for nothing. A weak Catholic, Michael still found time to attend church only on rare occasions. When he did attend it was only for a short while and he never took the Host. As his priest I was troubled that he neglected Communion.
Michael had prospered over those three years. He now owned several properties and eight businesses. The barrio and the business owners respected him. In the main, he wanted only to secure his future. During this time, Michael Aragón was careful to never allow anyone to have information about him or his businesses. Now a respected young businessman few knew anything more about him. And Levy kept it that way by constructing a wall of respectability around Michael and his business interests. Levy arranged to have a respected CPA firm audit Michael’s laundered accounting books. A big name law firm now handled his legal disputes assigning an aggressive young attorney named Feinstein to personally handle Michael’s business affairs. Feinstein was a hard working lawyer who took excellent care of his clients. Tall and mild mannered he was self-assured.
Life had changed for both Michael and Benjamin. Success had a way of healing old wounds and repairing broken hearts. Papa and Mama Aragón had always had a special place in Benjamin’s heart. Their son also found his way into it. Levy treated Michael much like a son, he began teaching and guiding him. The two talked a great deal about business and money. Levy understood the cruelty of the world. For those who were lucky enough to obtain money it brought opportunities and afforded protection. For those like Michael to whom the world had been so cruel, money could even act as a balm. All wounds could be healed with enough money. It was the great equalizer. Levy taught Michael how to make investments on his own. But he warned Michael about becoming emotionally involved with his investments. Benjamin taught him to view any business venture as a cold hard transaction. He also trained him to always look for a return and not to the item being transacted. Michael forced himself to look only at the numbers.
Through Levy, Michael also learned a great deal about people. He taught Michael the simple rules of life. Levy instructed Michael to never do business with a bad man. No matter how good the deal sounded if it came from a bad man it would always sour. And Michael was never to do business with a man who didn’t respect him. Learning well from Nazi tactics, Levy remembered how his people suffered because they had not taken simple precautions. Whenever possible, Benjamin schooled Michael to make friends of his enemies. If this couldn’t be done it was important to have them watched carefully through others. In this way Michael would always know when trouble was coming, allowing for a rapid response. Benjamin taught him to watch a man’s eyes and the way he moved when he spoke. "The eyes," he said, "give away the intentions of the heart." Taking this advice Michael used it effectively when dealing with the Italians. With these simple lessons Michael ran the Family. Levy also gave Michael the signs of a successful man. He taught Michael that the way a man carried himself was important. According to Levy, a successful man wore expensive shoes, always keeping them shined. He also said that a man’s hands were important because they said a great deal about him. If they were soft, he’d never worked hard. If the nails were dirty, he cared little about himself. This caused Michael to take notice of his own appearance.
During one discussion Benjamin drew a target with a bull’s eye. He explained that the first ring was the inner circle representing those who worked directly for the Family business. The second ring was made up of those who directly impacted the Family’s business. Finally, the third ring represented those who impacted the second ring of influence. This group he said, was the most difficult to anticipate. They were the most powerful and dangerous. Michael was cautioned to know as much as possible about these. Levy further cautioned that a wise man never accepts what he sees. His eyes can be deceived. He taught Michael to look through the third eye, the eye deep in a man’s soul. With this eye Michael could look past what a man appeared to be and see who he really was. In the end, he warned Michael that one day the Family would cost him his life. Levy understood why he had chosen the path that he had. Life had given him little choice. But still, Michael would have to pay the price. Benjamin Levy advised him to make his money and run, but said that the choice was his.
The Family and Michael’s legitimate businesses took up most of his time. Personal time became a precious commodity. On the few nights he had free, Michael dated the barrio women to forget his responsibilities. They were good enough to sleep with but he never got serious about any of them. Michael wanted to remain single for a while but Mama was forever trying to match make for him. Both she and papa wanted him to settle down with a nice girl. Michael understood why but he would decide for himself what he wanted from life.
To the world of the barrio Michael Aragón was a legitimate businessman. Only his top five men knew his true identity. The fact that he was the head of the Family was a well-kept secret to all others. The barrio believed Jimmy León to be the leader of the Family. It had been kept this way on purpose. None below his lieutenants were to know of Michael’s position. Now firmly in control of the streets the Family managed the sale of drugs, prostitution, and protection. Competition no longer surfaced. All monies were accounted for, Levy saw to that. There were no mistakes. All of Michael’s efforts were spent developing a military-like organization. Run like an army, the Family depended on no one man. If a man was taken out another could substitute for him. Like the Raiders, they were well-trained and disciplined. But more than that, they were loyal. Only the smartest were chosen to belong.
As the end of 1949 approached, the Family was made up of about two hundred and twenty-eight soldiers. Michael’s organization was tight and thorough. The Family was now composed of four platoon leaders, the equivalent of a Lieutenant in the Corps. And below them were Sergeants. Each of his four platoon leaders had twelve sergeants, one from each gang. The sergeants were veteranos taken from the gangs. Each sergeant had individual squad leaders who were also veteranos from the gangs. Each man knew his job and did his duty. Jimmy León was Michael’s executive officer running the administrative and logistical areas of the Family. His duties included intelligence, administration, operations, and tactical planning. Michael’s cousin was his trusted right hand. Loyal to a fault, Jimmy was willing to give his life for his cousin.
By March of 1950, having heard of the barrio consolidation of marijuana and heroine sales in Los Angeles, the Italians wanted assurances. They knew the value of blood ties and were watching for any possibility that the Mexican-Americans and their cousins across the border might form an alliance. The Mafia wanted agreements and assurance that the Chicanos wouldn’t import their own products or move into the distribution business. Pressured by the Italians, the Family made ready to begin regular meetings with the most dominant Italian Mafia family in California. They began their meetings with the Gallo Family. Michael and Jimmy scheduled the first one on neutral ground. It was held in a suite at the Biltmore Hotel. Both parties brought soldiers. Don Mario Gallo attended, acting as the spokesman for the Italians. Jimmy León spoke for the Chicanos. Michael Aragón was introduced as one of Jimmy's lieutenants and remained silent during the meeting.
Michael wanted only to control the barrios and had sent word through Jimmy. Both sides had closely examined the situation. The Italians liked the idea of dealing with one business partner. This made sales easy and the tracking of distribution even easier. Michael had instructed Jimmy on the three conditions that were most important. He had anticipated the Italian objections. First, his people would have full cooperation from the Italians from the day of the agreement forward. Second, the Italians would support the Family's moves into the barrios of Southern California. Third, the Family would receive a five percent split of the retail sales. Finally, Jimmy was to present a position of weakness to the Italians, one which showed the barrio Chicanos to be no real threat. In the end, Jimmy was to agree to all demands made by the Italians.
Don Gallo opened the meeting as expected demanding that all Italian positions be accepted. His approach was simple. The Italians had the money, the judges and the police. In short, he held the power. The Don made it clear to Jimmy that he would not tolerate any moves against his family business but that he was always ready to share some of the wealth with friends. It was Gallo's intent to find out which of the two the Mexicans were, friend or enemy? Agreeing to the Mexican requests the meeting was a success. In Don Gallo’s mind all Mexican requests favored his family. He would now have a large controlled network for distribution. With enforcement handled by the Mexicans, his family would no longer need to have soldiers. And five percent was a small price to pay for the Mexicans controlling the most difficult part of the business, the streets. Don Gallo felt that he’d come out entirely ahead. Showing appropriate deference Jimmy and Michael had seemed to the Don to be respectful young men. He also saw them as stupid Mexicans who knew their place, making him feel better about the new arrangement. Both sides then agreed to meet regularly to discuss expansion and enforcement on the streets. Not seeing them as worthy of his personal attention, the Don appointed his Capo, Romano, to handle all future transactions with the Mexicans. Jimmy offered Michael as his representative for future meetings. All shook hands and left the suite.
Normally the Italians would have broken bread with their new partners. But these men were only Mexicans and not worthy of a meal with their Italian betters. Besides, they would have to know their place. In the eyes of the Don, Mexicans were a little higher on the social pecking order than the Niggers. After all, they were Catholics. But just the same they weren't White. He did like Michael thinking that he looked Italian. This was a man the Don felt his boys could deal with.
Michael found the Italians short sighted and arrogant but he was pleased that they had underestimated their new business partners. To his mind, they had broken one of the first rules of the art of war, undervaluing their enemy. Having had their way for so many years the Italian’s had grown soft. They had also forgotten the second rule of war. A general should always know his enemy. These Italian failures would someday prove to be their undoing. Michael's Family would become a power to be reckoned with. Using these failings to his advantage, in the mean-time he would prepare his army for war.
Soon, the Italians wanted a man on the inside whom they could control. Within months, they had begun to move against Jimmy León. They selected a divide and conquer strategy. Romano chose Michael to betray Jimmy because he was someone they could identify with. Don Gallo now moved to co-opt him. Michael immediately consulted with Benjamin Levy. Levy advised Michael to make every effort to ensure that the Italians believed that they had been successful. Agreeing, Michael provided assurances. The Italians now felt that they had eyes and ears in the Mexican camp. From that point on Michael kept Gallo's Capo, Adolfo Romano, informed of the Family’s every move. Over time, Romano learned to like Michael. With time Romano even broke bread with him. It was a signal that the Italians considered Michael trustworthy. No longer just a Mexican, Michael Aragón was a business partner.
Over the next few months, the business had grown and the numbers proved it. Romano was happy with the progress. The marriage between the Mexicans and Italians had been a good one. Profits for the first year had been at a fifteen percent growth rate. And the streets were calm. When Romano and Michael got down to business, Michael always understood the numbers. There were few who could do the math. Most relied on their reputation as gangsters rather then their knowledge of the business. This helped Michael to build trust between both sides. When the two dined together Michael rarely drank. This was a good sign for Romano. He saw something in Michael he liked. Romano believed him to be an honorable young man who showed respect. He also liked the fact that Michael wasn't a flashy dresser or womanizer.
The Family was beginning to grow and their needs became greater. While the climate was right, Michael and Levy discussed how best to increase profits. Levy advised Michael that he had to grow the pie. Michael agreed. Coming from a position of strength, he went to the Italians with a proposition. Michael suggested that it was time for his family to extend its influence outside of East L.A. Michael forcefully argued the benefits of gradually extending control over other barrios. Romano agreed. The Italians gave the nod for the Mexicans to move into the valleys of San Fernando and San Gabriel. Michael quickly made contacts with the veteranos from both valleys. They wanted respect. As equal partners they would have a say. Soon agreements were reached. The barrio gangs would cooperate in exchange for seats on the Brotherhood council. Michael agreed and a council of barrio gangs was convened. Each gang sent its representatives of veteranos. Jimmy León ran the meeting well, giving the men Michael’s vision for the future. Jimmy asked Michael to speak to all questions asked by the newest members.
Existing members of the Brotherhood spoke of past successes and increased profits. By the end of the meeting the new members were welcomed to the Family. The barrios were now connected; there would be no more wars between them. Soon, Michael began to send out secret emissaries to the barrios of San Diego, Santa Ana, Camarillo, Oxnard, Bakersfield and San Bernardino. At first, it was only an introduction that his men carried to the veteranos of each barrio. Eventually talk of seats on the Council and the sharing of profits began. All parties were interested. Over the next several months, meetings were held. Knowing the Italians would never share the wealth unless agreements were struck, with each meeting came another alliance. The veteranos were persuaded for several reasons. There was safety in numbers. As part of the Brotherhood they added their voices to a growing chorus. Each barrio would be left to run its own business and police its own borders. For these reasons all families gave their allegiance to the Chicano Brotherhood, the Family.
Michael had been successful with the leaders of the other barrios for another more important reason. The most important link of all was the fact that they were all Chicanos. Also many of the families were connected to other barrios by marriage or through extended family. Finally, most of the veteranos were ex-military men who had fought in WWII. They understood the need for discipline and organization.
The next several months passed quickly. The major barrios in Southern California were now neatly wrapped into the Family. Although the Brotherhood membership stayed the same, profits grew. The legal businesses were also growing and profitable. The Family ran like clockwork. Everything was looking up. They were one big happy Family. With the first phase of Family expansion behind him, Michael Aragón began to enjoy a social life again. He was pressured by his position to attend weddings and fiestas. He also paid for several Quinceaneras. These elaborate coming out parties for Chicano girls who reached the age of young womanhood were an important part of barrio life. As the head of the Brotherhood, he gave gifts of money to the fathers to pay for the clothes and festivities. Aragón was often asked to give a speech at these grandiose events. He spoke as a father would. Michael talked about the importance of respect and family. Finally, he offered the young lady a gift of cash. After the father danced the first dance with his daughter Aragón would be asked to dance with her. It was an honor for him. Afterwards there was much dancing and drinking. The bands played the Mariachi music and the young ones danced. Later, the Swing music blared till early the next morning.
Michael also attended baptisms, often being asked to be the godfather to barrio children. This was an honor that he took seriously. To the Chicanos this was a sacred undertaking. I was happy to see Michael taking part in this sacrament.
But the world was changing around Michael Aragón and his days of leisure wouldn’t last. It wasn't just the fact that he was now expanding his legitimate businesses. Nor was it that the Family was growing and expanding across the Los Angeles basin into the valleys of the county and throughout Southern California. The world outside the barrio was undergoing great change.
By now Michael purchased a home, needing a place of his own where he could have privacy. Although he could have bought a house anywhere, he chose to stay in the barrio of East Los Angeles, close to the Family. It was important for the head of the Family to live in the barrio. That way he wouldn’t be tempted to forget his roots. He felt safe there in his old, large, two story house which backed up to a hill.
Sitting alone in his new house on that Sunday evening of June 25, 1950, Michael was reading the newspaper and listening to the radio when he heard the news. The bulletin announced that the North Koreans had invaded the Republic of South Korea’s territory that morning. Having hit at several points, the announcer stated that it appeared to be an all-out offensive against the Republic of Korea. Later, it was announced that the United Nations Security Council was still in session at Lake Placid, New York, discussing what actions should be taken. Michael had been following the problems in Korea for some time. He understood the seriousness of this most recent action. Michael remembered well what had happened the last time such blatant aggression had gone unchecked. He knew all to well that North Korea must be stopped immediately.
Even though Michael Aragón had been betrayed and abused by his White American brothers, he was a realist. The wide-eyed passion he had held for democracy those many years ago was now tempered by the reality of life. Although injured by American racism, he was still an American. He loved his country and he wouldn’t stand by and allow her to be insulted. Nothing could shake his sense of patriotism. He would stand by her even though she had abandoned him. On that same evening of June 25, 1950, it was announced that the United Nations Security Council called for a cease fire and an immediate withdrawal of North Koreans from below the 38th Parallel. As Michael drifted off to sleep that night he knew that this was too little, too late. The great lady was about to be in it again. But this time she would be in it up to her eye balls.
A few days later, on June 29, 1950, Michael read that Seoul, the capital of South Korea, had fallen. The government of President Syngman Rhee was now operating in its provisional capital at Taegu. That same day, the United Nations Security Council passed a momentous resolution. The United Nations was at war against the Communists of North Korea. Americans were outraged by what was reported next. The Communist Fifth Column had come out of hiding when Seoul fell. They had helped to round up all trapped soldiers, policemen, and government officials. Firing squads then executed most on the spot. If anything could anger an ex-military man it was the killing of captured soldiers. Michael was disgusted by the news.
By early July, the news grew worse. The U.S. 24th Division was in retreat. Having been stationed in Japan the 24th was an occupation division. It hadn’t been properly trained nor was it equipped for its mission. Its officers and soldiers had performed badly during battle in Korea refusing to fight. The failure of American soldiers to fight was a disaster that invited further Communist adventurism. Michael had learned well while in the Pacific. He understood the Asian mind. The Chinese would advance until all of Korea was taken. Upon receiving this news Michael made his decision to fight. For good or bad, he would re-up. He had been mistreated by his country but he loved her all the same. America meant something to him. His feelings for her ran deep. She needed him and he knew it.
Michael was not thinking clearly when he made his decision to enlist. The first person he told was Jimmy León. Jimmy thought Michael’s decision to enlist was crazy but he knew better than to try and dissuade him. Jimmy was appointed by Michael to head the Family while he was away. Jimmy owed Michael a great deal and he agreed to hold down the fort until Michael returned. Since all the families believed that Jimmy was the head of the Aragón Family he would let them know of Michael’s decision to re-up.
While the Chicanos understood Michael’s actions the Italians couldn’t. Romano called and tried to dissuade him. But Michael was firm; he was going. Romano understood and wished him well. Michael then went to his parent’s home and explained his decision to them. Leaving them, he then came to see me at the rectory. Michael wanted to make peace with me before he left. Michael tried again to explain his reasons for creating the Family. Life had left him no alternatives. He was not proud of what he had done and only wanted my blessing as he left for war. Michael then asked to confess. We went into the church and he spent his time with the Lord. After saying his prayers, he joined me again in the rectory. I told him that I was proud of him and to keep his head down. He laughed as he left the parish.
Finally, he went to see Levy. Parting was hard. Michael and Benjamin had become close. Levy tried to change Michael's mind. But in the end, his mind was made up. And no one could change it. Levy gave Michael his Star of David and asked him to wear it. It had brought him luck and protected him. Michael removed his crucifix and placed it around Levy’s neck telling Levy to wear it until he returned. Then Michael left to find his way to the war in Korea.