Nature Camp for Disadvantaged Youth, circa 1976
by Angela Morales
And what exactly was white? Was white the absence of color or mixture of colors?
Frozen in time, circa 1976.
CARS BUMPED ALONG into the strip‐mall parking lot—low‐riders with shiny rims and glittery paint jobs; big old sardine cans with dented‐up bumpers; wood‐paneled station wagons. Kids started lining up as if by spontaneous generation, mothers yelling, “Mind your manners, baby,” and fathers warning, “Stay out of trouble, hear?” Toddlers smeared up windows with their slobbery kisses, and soon, fifty or so disadvantaged youths—mostly black kids from South Central and a few brown kids (us)—had assembled like some ragtag army in the parking lot of Bienvenidos Charitable Organization.
The Nature Camp for Disadvantaged Youth was supposed to provide us city children with an authentic nature experience in a safe setting where we could leave our big‐city worries behind. Best of all, the government‐funded camp wouldn’t cost our parents a penny. The day after Christmas during our winter vacation, our mothers signed the waivers and delivered us—four cousins—to the designated spot—intersection of Rosemead Boulevard and Garvey Avenue—where we would be handed off to experienced camp counselors and whisked away by motor coach to a winter wonderland for one whole week. Of course our mothers welcomed free babysitting of any kind, especially if it involved useful activities like candle‐making or interactions with other human beings, which surely seemed healthier than us parking ourselves in front of the TV to stare at idiotic shows like The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Munsters while eating bottomless bowls of Cheerios topped with a minimum of three heaping tablespoons of granulated sugar (per bowl).
Auntie Olivia had learned about the low-income camp through her job in a social services agency and promised us there’d be snow, sledding, roaring campfires with marshmallows on sticks—the whole bit. Of course there’d be rustic cabins and pine trees, too, but best of all—snow!—piles of it.
Growing up in Los Angeles had made us abnormally desperate for snow. Each year we’d beg our mothers to spray artificial frost on the windowpanes and we’d whine for Christmas trees sprayed with powdery flocking. Bundled up in our knit beanies and flannel scarves, even on ninety‐degree days, we wanted to toboggan down hillsides or stick carrots into the faces of snowmen. We wanted to be sipping hot chocolate and warming our frostbitten fingers by a bonfire. When I was four, I dragged a king‐size box of Ivory Soap Flakes from our back porch and into my sandbox, that day flinging ten pounds of detergent into the air, all for the simple pleasure of watching it flutter back down and imagining a world covered with snow. But L.A. winters meant palm trees, perpetually green grass, and pink camellias unfurling their blossoms. We could run outside naked without ever feeling the chill of death, and even if we prayed for snow every single day of our lives, the sun would continue to shine.
So one Sunday our mothers dropped us off at the parking lot of the strip mall—Yvette, Kristy, Steven, and I—all of us sweating in our two‐toned polyester ski jackets, burglar caps, and puffy ski gloves, purchased the day before from Zody’s Discount Store. I rarely objected when my mother signed me up for group activities, such as that Spring Break Day Camp at Smith Park in which gung‐ho, clipboard‐carrying teenagers had ordered us to march all day from edge‐to‐edge of that park (boiling hot!), or the New Year’s Eve sleepover at the Y with hundreds of screaming children trampling across my sleeping bag with me in it (distressing!), or the Living Word Vacation Bible School held in the basement of the Mayflower Lutheran Church where I spent one whole week gluing sunflower seeds and other legumes to an owl‐shaped piece of plywood while hearing in graphic detail about how the Romans nailed Jesus to the cross, hand and foot, and how he’d slowly dehydrated and suffered so violently in the desert sun—all for me (weird, but totally worth it for the sunflower seed owl). And certainly I did not object to Nature Camp for Disadvantaged Youth because I would be with my cousins, and if we were together, we might have happily skipped right into the Siberian Gulag.
At the time, we did not know that many of our fellow campers had been labeled "at risk" due to gang activity, petty crimes, and/or emotional problems. Our fellow campers had been recruited by the county probation department and, in some cases, by their teachers; others had been sent by the First African Methodist Episcopal Church or by social workers. Some of those kids had already done time in Juvie, while other kids—latchkey kids, like myself, who were used to taking care of themselves—would soon be shocked to find that a weeklong nature camp involved being told exactly what to do and exactly when to do it.
Wearing our goody‐goody winter clothes, we must have looked like easy targets in need of a little roughing‐up, four fat little ducklings lost without their mamas. Plus, we had not expected to be the only “white” kids—at least “white” by default, since we had never really thought of ourselves as white before that day. In my undeveloped brain, a white person was a white person, but a “brown” person, of any ethnicity, was really just a lighter shade of black. But on that day, my color gauge had fallen hard to the white side, and there the arrow sat, solid and unmoving.
My family lived on an all‐white street (that is, all‐white before we moved in) and I cannot recall having seen a black family anywhere within biking range. At that time, the only black families I’d encountered were fictional ones: J.J. on Good Times, George and Weezy Jefferson, Willis and Arnold on Diff’rent Strokes (“Whatchu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?), all sitcoms with predictable white‐black shenanigans. In 1976, Los Angeles was starkly segregated, which explains why, two years later, school districts would opt to bus children out of their own neighborhoods and into unfamiliar ones—this to ensure that children of all colors could become friends and that money would be distributed fairly amongst all schools, the goal being to eradicate “separate but equal” once and for all. Los Angeles in 1976, however, was no Sesame Street.
Perhaps my confusion about my color identity arose from the fact that Grandma Ruth strongly resembled Rosa Parks and was sometimes mistaken for a black woman. Grandma once claimed that she once had a run‐in with some men from the Ku Klux Klan, though she refused to give details. Grandma, with her Indian‐dark skin, was the color of the loamy fields on which the braceros picked strawberries, the same fields on which the burros of society carried the load of progress on their backs. My grandmother, and even my mother, had to enter the local theater through the back door where all the black and brown children sat together behind the white children who sat up front.
Before my grandma Ruth dropped out of school in the second grade, she had been required to attend the “Indian” school, which had been designated for Mexican and Native Indian children. She would tell me about how, as a teenager, she longed for a red dress. She just adored the color red, any shade—cherry red, fire engine red, blood red—but wouldn’t dare wear it because of how dark she looked. In her mind, dark skin was the color of braceros, of laborers, of poverty, whereas white skin was the color of movie stars, of leisure, of wealth. Members of Ruth’s family, however, straddled both sides of the color line. Some of her sisters, with their bronzed complexions, could have almost passed for white had they been so inclined. Grandma affectionately called my cousin Steven her guerito because of his golden hair and hazel eyes, and we suspected that she loved him more than she loved the rest of us, considering him a rare golden egg among a basket of boring brown eggs.
But then, that first day of camp, I wondered, could a Mexican be white? And what exactly was white? Was white the absence of color or mixture of colors? At that time, of course, I knew nothing about indigenous Mexicans and European Mexicans—that Mexicans were mestizos—mixed up—mongrels—and the question was an unsolvable riddle. I had already wrestled with questions of semantics, of whether I should call myself “Mexican” or “MexicanAmerican” or even “AmericanMexican” or to further complicate things, “Chicano” or to keep it simple, how about just “American”? Up until this point, “Mexican‐American” was a little box that I checked when taking those state‐mandated bubble‐tests at school. And to add to the confusion: Could a Mexican be Hispanic? What was a Latino? And what about Chicano? I knew nothing about brown politics (or any politics), except that Gerald Ford was the president of the United States and that I had been born during Cesar Chavez’ grape boycott, which meant that, for my entire childhood, my mother deprived us of grapes—even though, unbeknownst to her, the grape boycott had ended when I was four years old! (“How was I supposed to know?” she would say, years later. “I was too busy taking care of babies!”) And if some Mexicans/Mexican-Americans/Hispanics/Latinos/Chicanos acted “white” (like us), did that make us any less Mexican?
But the Camp for Disadvantaged Youth would lead me to an even more important and more perplexing question, one that I grappled with all week and for years afterwards: Were we disadvantaged? The questions I assumed one might ask to evaluate disadvantage were quite simple:
Do you have arms and legs? Do you have any diseases? Do you have parents? Do you have food? Do you have running water? Do you attend school? Can you read? Can you write? Do you live in a house (as opposed to the sidewalk or a box)?
According to this simple rubric, my cousins and I were not disadvantaged. Though what if some of the answers required more complex answers? Was “disadvantaged” mostly about having access to basic comforts or were there other, more complex disadvantages of which I was unaware?
So to this ten‐year old mild‐Mexican from my green‐lawn street, all those tough kids from the hood seemed foreign and remarkable. They seemed big—both in personality and size—kids in adult‐sized bodies talking in loud, confident voices, words that sounded, to my sheltered ears, snappy, lyrical, rebellious and free‐form, void of those plodding subject‐verb‐object constraints.
Their speech seemed to flutter about freely, unlike my words, which squeaked out in broken parts from my constricted throat—each word, each syllable, each letter, as though speaking were a science and not an art. I practically had to diagram each sentence in my head before I had the courage to say it aloud.
Had we argued with our mothers that we did not belong at a camp for needy kids, they might have reminded us, lest we forget, that we had not exactly been born with silver spoons in our mouths. Here was an opportunity, and why pass it up? Our families could certainly not afford to send us to fancy sleep‐away camps like those in movies—places with Indian names like Pocahontas or Silver Moccasin—camps where wealthy privileged children could learn so‐called survival skills like building canoes and lighting fires. At night they could creep around in the dark like wild animals: Wet bras in the freezer! Shaving cream on the mirrors! Itching powder in the counselors’ sleeping bags! And let’s not forget—frog jumping contests and a summer romance with a prep‐school boy from Massachusetts, a boy to whom you could write long, dreamy letters to, all year round.
Our mothers would have pointed out, lest we feel guilty, that we were entitled to cash in on any perks the government offered to atone for their pain and suffering. In fact, had our mothers been younger, Esther, Olivia, and Louise Aceves would have marched themselves right onto that bus, filled their bellies with free S’mores and reconstituted scrambled eggs, and enjoyed every damned second it.
The Aceves girls had grown up in Hicks Camp, a Southern California barrio with unpaved roads, wooden shacks with dirt floors, no streetlights, no sewage. Summers, the family abandoned the shack and packed up the woodie to harvest fruit for some farmer who allowed them to sleep in the barn or garage until the end of the season. At night when the lice made little highways across their scalps—racing over their foreheads and into their ears—Ruth, their mother, would scoop up handfuls of DDT powder and sprinkle it onto their hair, knotting bandannas over their heads. When a child got injured (many hazards on a farm, no such thing as Band‐Aids) the girls rushed around to swipe spider webs from the undersides of wooden planks, the silk then pressed into bleeding wounds. Sometimes without enough food and wearing threadbare hand‐me‐downs, our mothers knew hard living—and if their future children went to a nature camp on the government’s dime, who would complain? Why should we feel guilty?
But I could not see myself as disadvantaged by proxy, one generation removed. In my mind, Disadvantaged Youths were the ones who lived right that minute, 1976, in graffiti‐covered apartment buildings on the shabby hillsides of East L.A. ruled by gangs like White Fence, Sangre, or Sureños, where barefoot toddlers squatted in dirt courtyards next to some broken down banana trees. To me, disadvantaged youths were kids from South Central—places like Compton and Inglewood where kids lived under the jurisdiction of Bloods and Crips; kids who dodged bullets and sidestepped used syringes on their way to school; kids who lived directly under the path of incoming and outgoing jet planes from Los Angeles International Airport, those same planes filled with people en route to Paris or Aruba, all those people flying off on their vacations, zooming directly over those kids who had nothing to eat but maybe a jar of peanut butter in the fridge.
ALL MY FUTURE ANALYSIS, of course, could have made no difference at the time. Our mothers’ righteous energy (inspired both by justice and that free babysitting) must have pushed us right onto that bus. They waved, looking like they’d won the lottery.
The bus, straining under the weight of too many bodies, spewed black smoke from its tailpipes, wheezed onto the freeway, and headed north toward the San Gabriel Mountains. Where were the mountains? During a second or third stage smog alert (meaning: no playing outside), I would imagine the end of the world, the horizon invisible where the mountains should have been, all of us engulfed in a whitish‐orange apocalyptic haze, the aftermath of five thousand bombs, our dogs and parents wandering lost and confused, birds flying in circles, as they would forever and ever.
So when the bus rose above the smog line we gazed down upon that wall of poison, and some kid remarked, “Damnnn . . . we breathe that shit? No wonder why we all got asthma!” There was something new to learn every day.
Inside the bus, other conversations went like this:
“What you starin’ at, skank?”
“Ugliest bitch on earth, that’s what.”
“Oh, so you’re looking in the mirror now.”
“Want your ass kicked, bitch?”
“Come on, let’s go.”
“Ladies! Watch your language,” said the counselors who seemed too young and too white for this crowd. These counselors seemed better suited for a church camp or an After School Special. The campers continued with their verbal sparring as if the counselors were invisible. Clearly, a pecking order was taking form, a survival-of-the-fittest. A wild energy pushed against the walls of that bus, rocking it from side to side. I closed my eyes, pressed myself up against the wall of the bus and dreamed of snow.
BELIEVING THAT NATURE was vital to a healthy mind and spirit, the creators of a nature camp for disadvantaged youths must have had only good intentions as they’d channeled the wisdom of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Well-meaning teachers, church pastors, and community organizers no doubt envisioned a world in which “nature” could be made accessible to all children, not just a privileged few. The counselors, clean-cut teenagers who’d most likely volunteered through their churches, had probably assumed that the young campers would ultimately become transformed into better people—better adults—adults less likely to throw soda cans out the car window—people less likely to shoot a blue jay with a bb gun—people less likely to graffiti their gang’s insignia across a granite boulder. Without having to dodge traffic and listen to the constant drone of engines, a child might also hear other sounds like wind tunneling through a canyon or water rushing over rocks.
And consider all the species unseen to city children: marmots, ravens, rattlesnakes! All the other unheard sounds—a hoot owl’s shriek, a frog’s rubbery croak, the snapping of dry branches as they fall to the forest floor. And, what if, in these moments, those children hear ideas bumping around in their heads like goldfish in a bowl—goldfish gently bumping up against the edges of their brains. Ideas are not easy to pin down in the city with all its metallic noise and haze of dirty air, all those people up in your space, all those raggedy streets with Little Debbie wrappers and deflated Doritos bags blowing around, fifty years of bubble gum flattened and mummified on those concrete sidewalks. But maybe those children will notice that even within a city, nature persists. Maybe one child will write a poem about the fuchsia‐hooded hummingbird caught drinking nectar from her grandma’s hibiscus flowers and maybe another child will abandon the TV to lie under the avocado tree for a glimpse of the avocado thief—that black rat with humanlike hands and quick eyes—an expert city dweller.
AFTER WE ARRIVED AT the nature camp, all fifty kids must have been thinking the exact same thought: Where the hell’s the snow? We’d been promised snow, which was the whole reason why we had come, so where was it? Scanning the horizon of what looked like an old Boy Scout camp, we saw no majestic sugar pines, but only scrappy trees with bald patches of bark and too few pine needles, which reminded me of my grandpa’s mangy dog Teddy King—that pitiful, scabby creature.
Once you’ve been promised Nature, nothing looks more depressing than a drab, institutionalized cluster of manmade buildings—the coffee‐colored offices, an asphalt parking lot, a message board with faded, curling flyers posted up by past occupants—cheerful reminders to attend bible study or announcements for nightly stargazing opportunities.
But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t any snow: White patches clung here and there to the ground—hard, icy mounds that we could actually stand on. We ran to the patches and jumped up and down, feeling the ice under our shoes. Ice created by weather as opposed to our kitchen freezers never ceased to amaze us. Even with these meager patches, we got down on our hands and knees and scraped some up with our fingertips, that anemic handful of snow bringing us a tiny bit of happiness.
ON OUR FIRST OFFICIAL search for nature, the counselors marched us up a trail on a fairly steep hill. To us, two miles felt like a marathon. Kids were sweating and complaining, some grabbing at their chests and claiming to need a doctor. Some kids had heard of elevation sickness and claimed to have it. The counselors kept giving little pep talks and gently prodding us along like a slow herd of cattle.
When we reached the top, kids were flopping down on the dirt, being all fatalistic and saying things like, “Just leave me here. I can’t go on.”
After we’d all made it to the mountain top, the counselors led us to a circle of white stones they called Witches’ Circle. And even if the counselors seemed young and inexperienced, they knew how to manipulate us. “Kids have died from touching the inside of the circle,” they said. They told us that even the briefest tap of a toe inside the space could fill a person’s body with wicked‐bad luck that would boil inside you and cause internal injuries. Or if not internal injuries, then “little accidents.”
They told us stories like how some dumb girl dared to step into the circle and how the next day her ankle got snapped up in the jaws of a fifty‐year old rusted bear trap. They had endless examples of bad luck—chopped off fingers, near drownings, spontaneous blindness, and we suspected the counselors were lying, but because they seemed so clean‐cut and so church‐like we doubted our own suspicions. They claimed that devil worshippers would sometimes use the circle for animal sacrifice, slitting the necks of squealing pigs or throwing goat blood all over the ground. According to the counselors, devil worshippers had once nabbed an unlucky hiker and tied him to a post. When the police found him, it was too late: ravens had plucked out his eyes. One counselor even said that the KKK had meetings here. She said those racist hillbillies would string you up for being any less than fish‐belly white. Then, good luck to you. They’d splatter you with gasoline and burn you alive.
With talk of the KKK and their unspeakable crimes, the cousins and I felt very conspicuous. All the other campers, at least as far as I remember, were African American. So there we stood at the edge of Witches’ Circle feeling as white as could be—our toes pressed against the outer edges of the rocks as we gazed over that threshold of bad luck. For the first time, I remember feeling that the world was made in black and white without a clear distinction between shades of color. In other words, if you weren’t black, you had to be white, regardless of the in-betweens. Steven wore his curly golden locks like a halo—which singled him out like a gigantic finger from the sky pointing down at him at all times. Just then, a girl slammed us from behind, pushing Steven and me so hard that we stumbled right into the circle.
“Ooh, suckers, you’re dead,” could be heard all over the small clearing. The kids hooted and howled with delight and mock‐terror. Though counselors didn’t pay us any mind, we were certain that we had just received a terrible curse, certain that the rest of our week would be pure hell, all on account of this mysterious bad luck that would now stick to us like honey. We were too young and too naïve to know about the dynamics of racial tension, to understand that there were social forces that we could not see—a whole history behind us that had led us to this moment wherein children would follow their instincts and behave according to certain Darwinian principles, a certain dog-eat-dog mentality.
That night, a big girl who outweighed me by at least seventy‐five pounds poked my arm and said she was evicting me from my bunk bed. “Get up,” she said “I want this spot.” She glowered at me. “Go on, move it. On the double.” But I’d been to enough day camps to know how to hold my own.
“I was here first,” I said quietly. I knew she could knock me out of that bunk, but I thought I’d stick to my guns. A counselor named Raisin heard the commotion and had the good sense to come shuffling to the rescue. “Go on,” Raisin said to the girl. “Find yourself another bed.”
Later that week, behind some cobweb‐covered shacks, Kristy and I would find Steven on the ground, some girls holding him hostage and examining him like he was a rare bug and poking at him, smacking him around.
“Get off my brother, you crazy bitches!” Kristy screamed.
But Yvette and I dug our fingers into her arms to shut her up. What Kristy lacked in size, she made up for in attitude, but she was little and we knew she’d get instantly pounded and was no match for these big girls who could have knocked her down with one punch. Then, for the next few days, we got bullied every single minute—pushed around, bumped into, laughed at—or at least that’s how we remember it now.
And as for snow, we had been too worried about our whiteness to think much about it since that first day when we’d stomped on those sad patches of ice. The counselors had promised to take us up to a decent sledding spot. Not to worry, they assured us. You’ll get your snow. We piled back into the school bus and drove to a higher elevation. The counselors passed out low‐budget sleds of plastic garbage bags and pieces of cardboard. These were good old days which came without safety warnings, without helmets. If you got hurt, you were thought of as stupid or clumsy and people would say it was your own damned fault, not because you lacked the proper equipment.
We dragged our strip of cardboard to the icy pinnacle and arranged ourselves on top of it. Of course being unschooled in the laws of physics, we knew nothing about aerodynamics and kinetic energy—that is, that heavier objects travel downhill faster than lighter ones; plus, being city children, we did not understand that ice produced less friction than snow. Eagerly, we scooted our bottoms onto the rectangular sheet of cardboard, wrapped our legs around the cousin in front of us, clutched each other’s waists and held on for dear life.
Put us city kids on a “sled” and something snaps inside of us, that something being all common sense. So there we were, all four of us pressed into one mass, all of us clinging to each other and believing that cousins ruled the world (!) and that together we could face any danger, that it was good day to die. We rocked forward once, twice, again, and then tipped slightly over the edge, careening down the hill. On the way down, we must have sailed over an ice‐covered tree stump or a termite hill or some mysterious outcrop that shot us up and launched us onto a magic carpet ride.
Frozen in time, circa 1976.
Four kids in the sky, mouths open, eyes popping out.
A blue, blue sky.
We slammed down directly into the path of another group of kids who were flying down the hill from a different angle. Skull against skull, ribs into ribs, spines against ice and granite, and I swear, I heard bowling pins. Moaning, we lay flat on our backs and saw only a blur of revolving pine trees and the heavens beyond.
“Shit heads!” muttered one angry victim.
“Fucking retards!” said another, but I was in too much pain to care. We were all moaning in one sad song. The back of my head had slammed hard into someone’s skull and against a rock, the impact possibly having scrambled my brains. We cradled our aching heads and whimpered.
Kids were yelling at us all over the place like it was our fault (Was it?), beating their chests and poking at us. A counselor jogged up the hill holding his hands out as if to tamp the rising tempers, saying, “Hey now, Hey now.” I couldn’t care less because I was seeing double and I really needed to puke. I thought, Let them kill me. The sooner the better.
NEW YEAR’S EVE AND the last night at camp: A rumor went round that at midnight everyone had to kiss someone or they’d have bad luck for the entire year of 1977. Being ten years old and a non‐kisser, that warning did not concern me, though Kristy, being twelve and boy‐crazy, was on a mission to kiss.
With all the talk of kissing and the dawn of a new year, we began to relax a bit, finally letting our guard down and cutting loose. Maybe we were bullied because of the way we’d clung together, the way we’d pressed against walls, averted our eyes, took a defensive stance, appeared to be generally stuck-up. The real curse, of course, was segregation itself and how we did not know each other outside the walls of this camp. The clock was about to roll into 1977, a new year, and we would need to be the generation to make it better, though not without some growing pains.
So that night they surprised us with a strobe light and a mirrored disco ball for our New Year’s Eve bash. We, children of the Disco Age, with Afros high and wide, with our pointy cuffs and culottes, with our thick‐soled shoes that felt bouncy and exquisite, grooved together on the creaky dance floor. We did The Bump and The Hustle and, me—I wore my two‐toned patent leather saddle shoes with two-inch rubber soles, navy blue and white, and I kept looking at my feet as they kicked around beside all the other shoes. KC and the Sunshine band blared from some thumpy old speakers.
All the kids danced in a heap and that night I felt right being there, that exact spot, in the middle of that chaos, spinning around and around. Finally, for the first time that week I lost sight of the cousins, and under the strobe light—black‐white‐black‐white—we all looked robotic and insane. Dancing blurred us around the edges and made me want to dance forever. In spite of our differences, we would grow up during the same decade, parallel lives. Some of us would go to prison and some of would have babies at sixteen, and some of us would be dead before our twenty-first birthday; a few of us would go on to college and one or two of us might become doctors or engineers, at least one of us would try to be a writer, against all odds. But for now there we were, bumping together to the beat of the music as one unit, one group of kids who just wanted to dance and dance and dance. I bumped up against an African American girl who was, for some reason, still wearing a big teddy‐bear coat, so I paused for a minute to rub her soft arm, and then we both laughed, and she rolled her eyes.
We could run outside naked without ever feeling the chill of death, and even if we prayed for snow every single day of our lives, the sun would continue to shine.
There was something new to learn every day.
The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.
—Cervantes, Don Quixote
© 2016 The Indianola Review