finding the barrio: a love story about tacos

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On an almost vacant lot between Telegraph and the 805 North freeway entrance sits a very unassuming taco truck. The blue and white lettering are quaint and the awning set up over a few plastic tables and chairs does just enough to provide shade from the persistent sunshine of Chula Vista’s early winter days.

I first met this taco truck on a late-night newsroom food run last year. I was with people I haven’t seen in months, people who, at the time, were just about my whole world – a new world, a world whose predecessor I still missed. Funny how time washes everything downstream, gently and without stopping.

Anyway, the tacos were a thing to behold. Perfect, greasy, authentic Mexican tacos, and they were inexpensive to boot.

I don’t actually think I ever went back. Not with them. Not while I was in that world.

Spring semester ended with layers of heartbreak and change. Summer happened.

I traveled. I traversed back to a place that still feels very much like home, and then I left it again. More heartbreak, and some literal injuries as well.

And then I came back to San Diego, face-to-face with a new job teaching high school, a position on a sports team, and some noticeable vacancies in “people I love to be with” department.

But I am getting good at this. I am learning how to move from one world, one future, one plan to the next without even needing to take a breath at the key change. So I threw myself into my new neighborhood of life with vigor.

Life is full of beautiful coincidences, but my favorite this year has been teaching and taking Spanish classes simultaneously. I would teach my students gendered articles and verb conjugation patterns in the morning and then in the evening immerse myself in relative pronouns and expanding vocabularies in my college courses. The time in between, I practiced. I practiced with my growing group of friends on the cross country team. I practiced with the lady who lives two houses down from me. I practiced with old pals from school. And I eavesdropped on basically every conversation in Chula Vista. I was getting to know my neighborhood through new ears. God bless the barrio.

One day, I decided to take my students on a field trip to the taco truck. It is right down the road from our little school and I figured the possibility of food might get more Spanish out of them than I had been able to up to that point. My assumption was correct. They did beautifully.

I marched my little underclassmen up to the window of the truck and made brief introductions to the man at the counter. He thought it was hilarious that I taught Spanish (soy una guera) and that I had chosen their truck for our prodigious field trip.

We ordered without making too much of a mess and then we hurried back to school with our treasures. And just like they had been that cold winter night last February, worlds ago, the tacos were delicious.

I went back once or twice during cross country season. It’s the perfect spot, right on my way to college from the school, so I’d “carb up” on my way. (Though I might add that running on adobada is not a smart idea).

Softer than a whisper, quicker than a pleasant dream, Autumn disappeared. Cross country began to wind down, and I saw these new, very important people in my life less and less. My schedule loosened without daily 3-hour practices, and the extra time went into the attic of my affections and began digging up old memories of the place I miss most.

“Where are you?” my teammate David texted me one day after practice. I was sitting in my car dreaming about tacos.

“Parking lot,” I said.

“Food?” he asked.

“Tacos?” I replied.

“OK.”

He found my car and I drove him to the taco truck.

Peering down from behind the window, the man said, “Hey, you brought your class here once, right?”

“Yes, that was me,” I laughed. He gave me a twinkly grin and said, “Cool.”

David and I, and our teammate Corey, go for tacos on a weekly basis. Someone texts, “tacos?” and within an hour, we’re all chowing down, listening to the rustle of cars and the crystal ring of perfect skies.

Cross country effectively ended after the State meet and Corey and David were the only people from the team I ever saw, and it was always for tacos.

I brought my little sister one afternoon and the guy looked down at me with the same twinkly grin. We said our “Hi”s and “How are you?”s and then he looked at my sister and said, “We know her here.”

People say Tacos el Gordo are the best tacos in the South Bay (though, I personally don’t consider anything north of the 54 “South Bay”), but they’re wrong. Tacos el Ranchero on Telegraph is the best. It’s indisputable. And I eat there several times a week now, so I would be the expert.

“She eats here without us,” Corey moaned to David over a mouthful of asada. David just nodded. He goes without me, too. When the taco calls, you must answer.

Finals kept me busy, busy enough to stay out of that drawer with all the old memories. But they ended too.

On Monday night, the cross country team celebrated the end of the season with a banquet at La Bella’s Pizza Garden. Awards were had, tears were shed, pizza was eaten en masse. Eventually, the dinner ended, like all good things, and people went their separate ways.

A few of us stuck around for a while to play pool in the arcade room. Our numbers trickled away until it was just me, David, Corey and two of our steadies on the team.

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The lights of the restaurant flickered off for a moment, letting us know we had overstayed our welcome, so we picked up our bags and walked into the cold, dark streets of downtown Chula Vista.

“I’m hungry again,” said Melissa as we walked to our cars.

“Tacos?” said David.

Corey and I nearly screamed. Yes, tacos, always tacos.

“We have to take you to this place we know,” said Corey.

“They have the best tacos,” I promised.

Melissa and Jesse looked skeptical, but it was three against two. Tacos won.

But by the time we pulled into the lot, the awning and plastic chairs had been taken down. The side door of the truck was open and only one customer stood nearby, waiting for his order to be finished.

“Are you still open?” I asked, peeping into the truck’s kitchen as someone in the back bustled over a sizzling stovetop.

The man turned and was about to say they were closed, but his head stopped mid-shake and recognition lit his eyes.

“Are you the teacher?” he said with an excited smile. “! We love you here! You can order whatever you like! We are open for you!”

My friends, mis chicos, and I all lined up and put in our requests as the truck continued to close up from the outside. After saying our thanks, we took the plates to the hood of someone’s car and ate. We ate delicious tacos and talked about nothing and just stood around for a long time. And the longer we stood there, the more I realized this was another ending of another world. Most of my teammates from cross country will not be doing track, for varying reasons, most of which are based in mature, adult rationales. But it means starting over for me. It means trying to make new friends and build a new neighborhood.

I’m feeling very much the nomad these days.

So I’ll probably just keeping coming back here, to this taco shop.

It feels nice to have somewhere to belong at a time when everything else seems to be concluding, even if that place is on a vacant lot between a busy street and a freeway entrance.

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Mary vs. Biology Lab

Let me preface this by saying: Science and I have never been friends.

In tenth grade biology lab, the day we all had to skin and dissect limp, dead rats, I paid a boy a hearty amount of Snickers bars to skin mine for me, because I one-hundred percent was not going to.

I barely slid through Chemistry junior year with a passing grade, but only because I am really good at faking competent answers on homework. I don’t even remember what we did that year, just that I cried for hours when I realized how much math was involved.

And I’m pretty sure third grade life science is what initially triggered my very intense obsessive-compulsive need to wash my hands whenever I see insects, dead animals, or basically anything that crawls, clicks or slimes its way through existence. That’s right. Third grade science birthed my OCD.

So, of course, I put off my college science GE’s till the last possible moment. Finally, my counselor gave me the look that said, “it’s been years and I want you out of my office, please just do this already.” So I bit the bullet.

I signed up for Biology 100 and its corresponding 101 lab.

Friends, it’s been a battle.

ROUND #1 – MARY VS. LAB PARTNERS

Now, I’ve been at community college long enough to know that if you don’t like the people you sit next to, you will fail the class. If you like them too much, you will also fail the class.

I did a quick survey of the already crowded lab before finding an open seat next to a perky woman in her thirties and a boy with braces and a baseball cap. We were joined by a guy who came into class late, swinging his motorcycle helmet in one hand and pocketing his other into a brown leather jacket. Two weeks into the semester, after the usual dropouts disappeared, we gained a chirpy girl with a big smile and an insatiable giggle and a quiet guy who we had previously dubbed “the class nomad” because he moved from lab group to lab group for weeks before settling on ours.

Perfect. I found the breakfast club.

Mary: 1
Biology Lab: 0

ROUND #2 – MARY VS. LECTURE

It should be noted that this class happens after I’ve already had a full day at work and a three hour cross country practice. Lab begins at 6:45 and runs till 9:55. The professor does not let us out early. Ever.

“The emotional stamina it takes to attend this class is more than I think I’m capable of,” I told the perky woman, who I refer to as our lab mom because she takes such good care of us when none of us feel like being adults.

She just laughed at me.

Following our weekly quiz, which I always nail because…I’m good at faking stuff…our professor does a little overview on the lab material and the science behind all the stuff we’re going to do. I usually sleep through that part.

In fact, our lab books are pretty thick and well-sized, so they double nicely as pillows and I get a quickie fifteen-minute power nap in before we have to do things that involve hazardous substances.

Mary: 2
Biology Lab: 0

ROUND #3 – MARY VS. THE MICROSCOPE

I may not be good at science, or listening to directions, or staying awake during class, or behaving like an adult in general, but I am phenomenal with a microscope.

Motorcycle Guy and Baseball Kid usually man one of our groups’ two scopes and Lab Mom and I work the other. The Nomad and Smiley Girl just watch and offer moral support.

The first microscope lab, all we had to do was identify color threads and whatever. It was like a How-To-Use-This-Equipment-That-Costs-More-Than-Your-Life type of lab. Easy.

The second lab, they had us looking at cheek cells, plant cells and weird little pond organisms.

This was a bit of a bust and we ended up drawing a lot of fake pictures of things we didn’t really see in our microscope. Eventually, Lab Mom and I found something in our pond water that was not supposed to be there. He looked like a legless naked mole rat with a pincher for a tale. We named him Humphrey and he is my best friend.

So far, so good.

Mary: 3
Biology Lab: 0

ROUND #4 – MARY VS. HUNGER

This is where things get ugly. As previously stated, I come straight from practice. Sometimes I am able to get a hearty meal in before class, and sometimes I just chug a gatorade like it ain’t no thang.

It is a thang. Gatorade is the bomb.com.

Anyway, I’m usually hungry and out of sorts when I get to lab, which Lab Mom likes to make fun of because she thinks it’s hilarious that a twenty-something still hasn’t figured out how to feed herself.

Smiley Girl has a habit of naming off foods she’d like to eat, randomly and in the middle of class.

This usually does it for me and, after stamping my feet a little, I sneak out of lab and head to the campus cafe. After eight o’clock, all their hot food is half off.

There is a reason for this. Half-off food from the cafe has less soul than a dementor and less taste than a Kardashian.

Tears usually follow the stale bean and cheese burrito I inevitably end up purchasing. Stiff and like unto cardboard, the tortilla barely merits the name. Say nothing of the substance they claim is “bean and cheese.”

But it’s food and it’s cheap, so I eat it.

“Chocolate? Pringles? What’s your poison tonight?” my professor will ask with a smile as I slip back into the chaos of a lab that is in full gear.

“A burrito,” I say with hints of remorse in my voice.

She smiles knowingly.

“These are the burritos you’ll remember,” she assures me.

I hope not.

Mary: 3
Biology Lab: 1

ROUND #5 – MARY VS. THE PROFESSOR

I like our professor and, on some level, I’m pretty sure she’s okay with me. She’s pretty relaxed, very down-to-earth, and just weird enough to not be intimidating.

As much as I love faking answers, the journalist in me refuses to half-hash the lab questions we don’t know (unless it’s drawing something because, literally nobody cares). So I sidle up to the professor to ask her leading questions about the lab work until she gives me the answer we’re looking for. On the whole, it has been an effective practice which has harmed no one, but whenever Biology Lab wins the hunger round, I find myself getting persnickety. And the professor tends to notice.

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“I think the book is wrong,” I began after hailing over the professor to show her an inconsistency in the respiration equation written in our lab manuals. She perused the question for a moment and then we scribbled some practice answers.

“Hmm, that’s interesting,” she said. “I’m not sure why it’s written like this, but I’m sure there’s a reason.”

“The book is wrong,” I said again, not sure why this very decent explanation was not sticking.

“I’m not going to let you come to lab anymore if you’re going to troop in from practice all famished and cranky,” she told me.

Ten minutes later, we saw the lab proctor from the Biology class one room over come in and the two of them had their heads together over the question for fifteen minutes.

“The book is wrong,” I whispered to my lab group again.

I enjoy being right and pushing buttons, but now whenever the professor calls my name in roll, it’s with a sigh – “Aaaand Mary,” as if she’s already exhausted that I’m there.

Ultimately, I have to win over the professor if I plan to pass the class. And that’s slow going.

Mary: 3
Biology Lab: 2

ROUND #6 – MARY VS. LIVING THINGS

img_20161011_202906At some point this semester, and I can’t say which point because I have mostly tried to block it from my mind, we did an experiment with little mice. Cute, harmless little mice that will haunt my dreams for years to come.

I’m sorry, I just don’t do super well with animals of any kind. Like, I appreciate them in theory, and if I don’t have to touch them or anything they’ve touched, we’ll all be just fine. But this experiment required a little hands-on contact.

Our mouse was a hero for the duration of the lab. He did great. A real trooper.

Not as much can be said for my own behavior. I had several meltdowns (not as bad as the one I had over the mudworm, but definitely worse than the one over the cheeks cells).

We had successfully put our little guy back in his habitat with the other little mice when Smiley giggled and said, “Oh no! We didn’t get a selfie with him!”

Mary: 3
Biology Lab: 3

ROUND #7 – MARY VS. DEAD THINGS

Easily our chillest lab session (identifying animals) was also my most traumatizing. I mean, the bookwork was fine. Answer questions. Draw pictures. Talk about the structural difference between sponges and jellyfish (“Doesn’t one of them poop?” asked Baseball Kid. “No,” answered Motorcycle Guy, “They don’t have that thing for digestion. What’s it called? The complete gut.” Baseball Kid nodded and Smiley said under her breath, “The Complete Gut – that’s totally a band I would go see.”). It’s a grand ole time until you have to leave the table.

From one wall to the other were pictures and posters of animal intestines. Jars of tapeworms and mudfish (a boneless fish with fangs coming out of a hole on one end of it’s body) and other things you just can’t unsee were strewn over the counters. I needed blinders to get from our table to the microscope.

Then, just when I thought I was safe next to the taxidermy table, waiting to have my lab book checked so I could leave, I noticed a jar of blood orange liquid behind a cute grey squirrel. Inside this sickly jar of death juice was a tiny white weasel.

Obviously, I screamed.

I tripped backwards a little bit and fluttered around until someone directed me away from the monstrosity. Unfortunately, he directed me right into a wall display of arachnids the size of my palm.

Obviously, I screamed again, much louder and with a little sob at the end.

“Will someone please just get her out of here?” said the professor with a sigh, not even bother to check my work.

Mary: 3
Biology Lab: 4

ROUND #7 – MARY VS. THE DRUDGERY

Drudgery is a real thing and it becomes harder to deal with the later the hour. To keep myself as engaged as possible during bio lab, I have resorted to christening everything that ends up on our lab table with a proper name, doodling in the margins of my lab book, and writing correct answers in the most unreasonable way possible. “Turnt up,” “Super duper effective,” and “Chillin’” have all made it into my written answers more than once. I also used Tinder as an analogy to explain hydrogen bonds. By the end of the semester, the whole lab group had taken to my particular style of “street responses.” That, if nothing else, was a victory.

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The naming of plants, animals and bacteria has been low key, except for the time our experimental plants did super well and the professor used them as an example in front of the whole class.

“Whose are these, anyway?” she asked, trying to read the names printed alongside the two test tubes. “Who are Ben and Jerry?”

On the whole, the class didn’t appreciate the humor, but I thought it was hilarious.

Mary: 4
Biology Lab: 4

ROUND #8 – MARY VS. NEIGHBORING LAB GROUPS

One horrifying evening this semester, someone removed a chair from our side of the lab table so the Nomad moved down to the end to work with the other lab group.

I felt furious. Heartbroken. Betrayed.

After all the work we did to convince him to join our group, after he had been wandering grouplessly for weeks, he was just going to abandon us for the two mad professors at the end of the table?? I couldn’t believe it. And all over a missing chair.

Harsh words were exchanged. Mostly from me. I’m pretty sure nobody else cared.

He did rejoin our group the next week (“I’m glad you’re back but I’ll never be able to trust you again,” I told him. All he did was laugh. Nobody takes me seriously…). But he was a changed man after that. He sped through the assignments, even taking out a third microscope from the shelf because we weren’t going fast enough. He doesn’t joke around with us anymore. He just sits there and gets work down. Sometimes, I even find myself copying his answers, which just goes to show how far we can fall when we leave our true friends.

I don’t know what the other lab group did to him, but it breaks my heart to see him so studious.

Mary: 4
Biology Lab: 5

ROUND #9 – MARY VS. THE FINAL

I am completely unconcerned about the final, mostly because this has been one of the easiest classes I have ever taken, but also because we won’t have to interact with anything but a pen and paper. What could possibly go wrong? Also, I have 102 percent, which, if you’re struggling with the math there, is somewhere around an A.

What I am kind of bummed about is saying goodbye to my little group of people. Not just the lab group, but the neighboring mad professors who stole Nomad for a night (and who give us their answers when we lose track of where the class is because we’re all too busy talking about how to find a DJ who will provide a smoke machine pro bono for Smiley’s party), and the semi-cute guy who we tried to set up with Smiley (mistake), and the water polo girl at the other table who also complains about being hungry and tired all the time. And our dear, dear professor, bless her patient soul.

Biology lab has been fun because of them and I’m not looking forward to going back to classes where no one gets to know each other.

I guess that’s another point for bio lab.

Mary: 4
Biology Lab: 6

I suppose there are worse things I could be doing with my Tuesday nights. Why not spend them in a drafty room where they tear apart the ligaments of dead cats, which smells constantly of pine oil, and is probably haunted by the ghosts of a thousand lab experiments gone horribly, horribly wrong?

Besides, every semester needs one good adventure.