Chapter One: The Sun God
Sun God lifts his head
My eyes fill with yellow light
One more day to live
Elvis Romero was born at La Casita Clinic in 1955, under the watchful eyes of the Catholic nuns who provided medical care for the working people of Santa Fe. As soon as he entered the world, his mother let out a loud laugh despite her weariness and immediately jettisoned all of the proper Catholic names that she’d considered and christened him “Elvis” after she caught sight of his abundant mane of wavy, black hair.
His earliest memory fundamentally influenced the way he perceived the world and how he thought about who he was. It was not a dramatic event or even particularly interesting. In fact, it was one of the most mundane experiences imaginable. But when it happened, he was transformed, and it opened his infant eyes to the vast possibilities of his soul. Simply stated, his mother placed his tiny, 10-day-old, naked body outside in the sun.
Throughout his life, Elvis could recreate that day vividly in his mind. As he reminisced through the ethers of the decades, this is what floated back to him: He lay dozing on clean, white sheets on a cool summer morning with a soft breeze whispering through an open bedroom window. His belly was full, and he experienced a sense of contentment after drinking his fill at his mother’s breast. Elvis lingered blissfully in that netherworld between sleep and consciousness, trying to focus his untrained eyes on the light and dark shapes around him. The sweet perfume of his mother’s skin hung comfortingly in the air. He felt her strong, warm hands slide under his head and the small of his back as she gently lifted him to her body.
They moved from the bedroom and headed out toward a small front yard in the old, barrio section of the city. She placed a soft, white cotton blanket on the earth and gently lowered him down in the middle. Carefully and deliberately she removed his bedclothes and, for the first time in his brief existence, Elvis felt the overwhelming sensation of the sun’s rays pouring down upon his flesh. At that moment, he began to vibrate with a glowing, radiant energy as his little heart expanded within his chest, and he was filled with a feeling of indescribable joy and wholeness. Beneath his tightly shut eyelids, a shimmering, golden face appeared and gazed down upon him with limitless love and compassion. A celestial memory from another realm and era emerged within him, and he intuitively recognized the features of the Sun God. His benefactor and source of being, the eternal Father, was once again looking over him to protect and nurture him through another lifetime.
Elvis was too new to the planet to know the names of Ra, Apollo or Osiris but, like worshippers from past civilizations, he felt a power and illumination rise in his spirit. He shared the same conviction with those devotees that this was the source of life and vitality within him and all living beings. Whenever he would feel the pangs of pain or sorrow as a young boy, he could close his eyes and conjure the image of the Sun God in his inner mind, and the fear, stomach upset, or other distresses that he was experiencing would melt away with the power of the beneficent glow that healed from within.
Elvis’s mom and dad knew nothing of the strange pagan stirrings that coursed through his youthful psyche. They were more focused on the outer, material world. His dad’s pride and joy in life—besides his little family—was a 1954 polo white, convertible Chevy Corvette, with a V-6, 155 horse-powered blue-flame engine. It sported a black soft-top, deep-red seats and dash, whitewalls and a power-glide transmission. Gilbert Romero fell in love with the car after he had seen it in Hot Rod magazine when he returned from the Army. He took half of his G.I. Bill money and put it toward a down payment on a house and used the other half for his dream ride. He owned one of only 3,265 Corvettes made that year, selling at a base price of $2,774.
Gilbert and Evelyn were engaged soon after he returned home from Fort Hood Army Base in Texas following the end of the Korean War. Fortunately, he was never called up for active combat but, instead, spent the war at the base manning his post as a First-Class Private, Mail Specialist.
Evelyn knew better than to stand between Gilbert and his fantasy car, even though there were more immediate practical concerns that the cash could have addressed. She knew that fulfilling dreams and passions was a vital part of a good husband’s psychological make-up, just as much as sacrifice and responsibility, and her instincts were right. He was satisfied with this one-time indulgence and never again gave a thought to his own desires before considering the needs of Evelyn and his future family.
She never forgot the day that the Corvette arrived at the auto dealer’s lot after a six-month wait. With a beaming face, Gilbert opened Evelyn’s passenger-side door and gently kissed her on the forehead before proudly strolling around the gleaming machine and settling into the driver’s seat with a satisfied sigh.
“Mi amor, how does it feel to be sitting in the most beautiful car in Santa Fe next to the handsomest man?” She threw back her head and laughed, her black locks shining in the sunlight. “Well, at least, you’ve got it right about being in the most beautiful car,” she teased. Gilbert snorted in feigned rejection, turned the key and the magnificent steed came to life.
“Chingada, babe, listen to the sound of that motor purring!” “Watch your mouth, Gilbert,” Evelyn scolded, but her voice was full of excitement.
They cruised slowly through downtown Santa Fe and then headed down Cerrillos Road. A clean, cool breeze fanned their faces as Gilbert smiled widely and waved to everyone he saw. He was like a boy on Christmas morning. “Listen Ev, what a firme engine! Feel how smooth the transmission shifts, and check out the steering—it’s like butter!” He cranked up the hi-fi radio, and they sailed down the road with The Crew Cuts singing “Sh-Boom” on that magical afternoon.
They stopped for a milk shake at the Dairy Queen, and all of the teenage vatos, who were hanging out that Saturday afternoon, gathered around and whistled and touched the car gingerly before wiping off their fingerprints with their tee shirts. They looked at Gilbert as if he were a movie star like James Dean and made comments like, “Hombre, cool ride!” and “Vato, you got to take us for a cruise sometime.” Also, “Carnal, if you ever need someone to wash your chariot, let me know. No charge.” He reveled in the admiration and his newly acquired sense of abundance and status. Although the car had cost a pretty penny, Evelyn treasured the sight of Gilbert as happy as she had ever seen him.
Eventually, they made their way to his parents’ house, where Gilbert’s brothers and sisters were anxiously awaiting his arrival, and soon the whole scene began again. Only this time, it was even more auspicious as the whole neighborhood congregated to celebrate his great fortune.
The only voice of reason came from Gilbert’s mother, who warned, “This doesn’t mean you can go tearing around town like a bat out of hell. Don’t start acting like some kind of big shot.” He smiled and nodded his head sheepishly as he walked over to his mom and gave her a hug. She relaxed, knowing she had done her duty, and the celebration went on.
Everyone had to climb into the driver’s seat and clasp their hands on the leather-covered steering wheel. They marveled at the sound quality of the radio, and Gilbert’s younger brother, Tony, made a joke that Evelyn didn’t appreciate: “Hermana, you’re going to have to keep a closer eye on Gilbert now that all the girls see him cruising down the street in his chick magnet.”
Finally, the day drew to a close, and even Gilbert was weary of all the attention. He carefully parked the Corvette in his parents’ garage, preferring to keep it there rather than in front of their casita across town. He continued to do this for a couple of weeks, until the inconvenience became too much, and he began to trust his car to the open air. When Gilbert and Evelyn eventually bought their own house, one of the sections that he focused special attention on was the garage that sheltered his precious ride.
In future years, after Elvis and his younger brother were born, the family always looked forward to their Sunday afternoon drives in the “vettie,” as little Angelo called it. Because the Corvette had only two seats, Evelyn had to hold Angelo on her lap while Elvis straddled the hump between the two front seats as they drove. Elvis always asked his dad the same question whenever they were out for a cruise, “Dad, can I drive?”
Gilbert would respond, “So, Elvis, you think you’re fuerte enough to handle a Corvette?” Elvis knew this was his cue to pull up a sleeve and cock his right arm while making a fist, to display his tiny bicep. Gilbert would run his finger over it, whistle in admiration and comment to Evelyn, “This boy of ours is built like an adobe house. I bet he’s going to be a heavyweight champion someday.” Elvis basked in his praise and hopped on his dad’s lap, his little brown hands gripping the steering wheel as they rolled down the street.
In the early 1960s, there were no seat-belt laws enforced in Santa Fe, and there were few cars on the road to worry about. The Romeros loved to drive all afternoon, waving at friends on the Plaza or in their front yards. Gilbert marveled at all the new tract houses that were going up courtesy of the G.I. Bill and the Baby Boom.
The highlight of these Sunday rides was a visit to the 31 Flavors Ice Cream Parlor. Elvis and Angelo took an infinite amount of time peering through the glass panels at the buckets of ice cream with names like Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl, Dulce de Leche, and Peaches and Cream. In desperation, Evelyn demanded, “You locos make up your minds before the ice cream melts in the buckets.” Inevitably, the boys coveted the flavor that the other had chosen, and they ended up swapping. The family sat in one of the porcelain table nooks and watched the sun sink in the dwindling afternoon. They were content and happy, perhaps with limited resources, but with limited desires as well.
Elvis came to love the Corvette as much as his father did. In the evenings after he’d finished his homework, Elvis would wander into the garage and sit in the driver’s seat, caressing the steering wheel in the dark, taking in the magical sounds of rock n’ roll on the dashboard radio and dreaming about the day when he had his own Corvette and people looked up to him in the same way they did his dad.
The men on Cerro Gordo Road congregated outside their homes on warm summer nights, huddled around transistor radios, listening as heavyweight champ Cassius Clay knocked out one seemingly invincible foe after another. They loved him not only because he was a great fighter, but because he had so much style. He was a champion of the people, Chicanos included. They loved the clever things he said to Howard Cosell after his victories, like, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” or “When you’re as great as I am, it’s hard to be humble.” That Cassius Clay had real cojones.
Everybody was also excited about the new, young president who was elected in 1960. John F. Kennedy spoke about equality and opportunity for all Americans. There was something about him and his beautiful wife, Jackie, that you could trust. He had kids running around the White House just like regular folks, and, to top it all off, he was a Catholic. Yes, things looked pretty hopeful for a while.
Of course, it all came to a screeching halt on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. There was talk at school that somebody had tried to shoot the president. When Elvis arrived home, his mom and some neighbors were transfixed on a 12-inch black and white TV. Mrs. Aranda from next door was weeping and exclaimed, “Sin verguënza, Mis Dios, what is this world coming to?” The TV announcer, Walter Cronkite, was crying, too, as he took off his thick, black-framed glasses, rubbed his temple and croaked out that President Kennedy was dead.
Over the next few days as the terrible drama unfolded, the Romero family sat glued in front of the television. It finally ended with their hero, along with what seemed like their innocence, being buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Elvis’s young psyche was forever changed by these events. He began to understand that there might be evil in the world, and, along with sunlight, there existed shadows. On the night President Kennedy was assassinated, for the first time in his life, Elvis was afraid of the dark. The black outside his bedroom window was suddenly ominous, like there was a sinister presence lurking. He pulled the covers over his head and fell into a troubled sleep. These events and others taking place in the larger world had a profound influence on Elvis and all of the kids growing up in his little town.
Elvis’s childhood was pretty typical for a Santa Fe muchacho. Aside from going to school, Elvis and his best friend, Rudy, spent most of their time riding bikes with high handlebars and banana seats around the narrow, winding streets of the city until the sun went down.
There was a belief amongst the adults that the children were being looked after by everyone in the community. Santa Fe was a safe town to grow up in, and bad things only happened in places far away. The grown-ups possessed a sense of fatalism that provided a certain perspective when the occasional tragic event did occur, such as a child being hit by a car or dying young due to an unfortunate disease. The good people of Santa Fe believed that it was all part of God’s plan, and even though some things were hard to comprehend, God had a greater purpose for everything that happened in the world. Perhaps a child was being called to heaven because there weren’t enough angels, or the beloved’s passing was a lesson to the living about the transitory nature of life and how important it was to appreciate every day to its fullest.
These attitudes served to give the children a great deal of freedom. There were few boundaries as they cut across yards and parking lots in marauding gangs of shiny bikes. All of the kids had playing cards attached with clothespins to the spokes of their wheels. This produced a deafening clicking noise that sounded like an invasion of motorcycle outlaws descending on the quiet neighborhoods.
Elvis and Rudy were especially fond of riding their bikes after the thunderstorms that blessed the town during the summer months. The day often began with glorious sunshine, and as the morning progressed, big, billowing clouds formed and turned darker. By about one or two o’clock in the afternoon, thunder rumbled in the distance, and soon the skies let loose with torrents of cold rain that lasted for about thirty minutes before the clouds scattered and bright, yellow sunshine returned. This pattern repeated itself almost every day during July and August, the time of the year that Santa Fe folks called the monsoon season.
After it rained, streets filled with small puddles of water that evaporated quickly. But before they disappeared, Elvis and Rudy grabbed their bikes and hit the pavement. It was great fun splashing through the rainbow-colored pools that were formed by a mixture of rainwater and car oil running down the street gutters. Riding directly through the puddles, they sent streams of iridescent droplets out from both sides of their tires.
“Ala Mocina, Rudy, watch out!” Elvis laughed as he rammed through a puddle of standing water, spraying his friend from head to toe. “Jodido!” Rudy shot back as he clipped Elvis’s back tire, sending him skidding to the pavement.
The showers were not only a treat for the amigos’ eyes but equally for their noses. There was no smell as intoxicating as that of rain soaking into the brown earth. Sometimes, if the rain was particularly intense and lasted long enough, the dry arroyos suddenly filled with torrents of rushing brown water, and folks stood on the banks watching in awe as the abundant tides flowed through the normally parched city.