Every Sunday morning, I do something that’s become a ritual, providing I’m not entertaining a gentleman caller.
Yeah…like THAT’S ever gonna happen again.
I woke up early, threw on something comfortable (READ: anything with an elastic waistband) along with my walking shoes and headed over to a park in SW Houston to put in a couple of miles. Now, I actually do this on a daily basis, but early on Sunday mornings it’s even more special. For one thing, the park is practically empty at that hour and another reason is because it’s very close to one of Houston’s ubiquitous Chinatowns, Buddhists or Buddhist wanna-be’s, take over a gazebo built on top of a duck pond. About ten people sit in the classic Lotus position in the shade it provides and they meditate to music from a sitar and a few other instruments from the Lute family.
I’d join them, but I feel waaaaaay too Occidental and unenlightened to do that, so I get my “contact zen” on by standing nearby and feeding the ducks stale crackers or whatever I have in my pantry that since I’ve been on this major weight loss kick (right at 40 lbs now, by the way) I can no longer eat. The ducks quack a bit initially, but stop once they realize there’s enough food to go around. I don’t think it bothers those meditating. Their bodies are in Southwest Houston, but mentally, they’re a million miles away.
Once I’ve emptied the crumbs from the wax paper container, I toss the bag, then go for my two-mile walk. Mornings are the coolest part of a summer day in Houston. The humidity doesn’t start to get insultingly oppressive until after nine AM which is why I get my miles in as early as I can, but like an idiot every Sunday morning, I undo all the good my brisk walk has done by going to a nearby Mexican restaurant for a typical Mexican breakfast.
It’s what I do every Sunday.
And I order practically the same thing every time: a bowl of menudo (if you don’t know what this is, I don’t have the heart to ruin your stomach by telling you of what it is comprised) and Huevos a la Mexicana…. scrambled eggs made with diced jalapeño, onions and tomatoes…which come with grilled potatoes, refried beans and soft, fluffy flour tortillas. They are delicious, cheap (around $5 for a huge platter of the stuff) and a great way to start your morning with a piquant little kick.
So, I arrived at the restaurant, sat down and ordered in Pigeon Spanish, my typical breakfast. Minutes later it arrived and I sat there adding cilantro and onion to my menudo which always comes as a first course and I started to look around me. I was the only person in there, save for a family.
A very interesting family of four.
They were a young couple–I’m guessing early 20’s and the mother was a short, somewhat heavy-set, dark-skinned Latina and the father was tall and thin with lighter colored eyes. He was tattooed all to hell and back and through his gray colored wife beater T-shirt, I could read that he had the surname ‘Hernandez’ tattooed in old English lettering across his back. As last names go, Hernandez is like the Spanish equivalent to Smith.
He also had numerous tattoos up and down his arms including one of the Virgin Mary (decked out like El Virgen de Guadalupe) but she had a skull in lieu of a face and this was a big tat that ran the length of his arm, from shoulder to wrist. On the other appendage was a coat of arms, an homage to Spanish heraldry I suppose, but I couldn’t tell what was in it, though from my vantage point, it looked like (and this is odd) an image of the old, but venerable Houston Astrodome.
And then the topper? He had two tattooed tear drops under one eye. See the photo example to the right. Restaurant Guy’s tear drops were large enough for me to see two tables over.
Now, I haven’t been a reporter in a while and I ain’t so current on my gang symbolism but I remembered what THAT signified: the wearer had killed before; a teardrop per victim. Mr. Hernandez had two tear drops. I scanned my memory banks and remembered a news report I saw not too long ago. The skull and Astrodome were earmarkings that this cat was a member of a Houston-based gang formed in various Texas prisons about a decade ago, to serve as a unified front (a defense, if you will) against inmates who belonged to tougher, larger and better organized gangs such as the Texas Syndicate and The Mexican Mafia. These guys call themselves Tango Blast or Houstones and their tats signify where they’re from. If a rival member sees the Astrodome on an arm or a tat of the Houston Texans’ logo somewhere, he automatically knows he’s up against a Houstone. So do the cops. The tattoos are identifiers of allegiance.
And based on Mr. Hernandez’ teardrop tats, one or both of The Texas Syndicate or The Mexican Mafia are down two members.
This man was pure Bad Ass. He was scary looking and emitted an essence of violence through his skin. I quickly went back to eating my meal. Staring would be rude and not to mention a death sentence, though I’d steal glances when and where I could.
But I have to tell you; what struck me most about this man was how tender he was to his children. He spoke to them softly in this odd salad of English and Spanish, telling his young son who had the damnedest name for a little Latino male child— “Curtis James”, that he loved him…not just once, but several times. He’d laugh with his son and help him eat his meal. His daughter wanted more orange juice and I watched him tell her, “Claro” (which means “of course” in Spanish) while gently brushing the hair out of her eyes.
A few minutes later, he wiped his young son’s face clean of all breakfast debris, then he picked him up to carry him over to the juke box where he entertained the child who was growing increasingly restless, with the way it exhibited CD cases of the music selected. His wife or baby mama or girlfriend or whoever the woman was in his life, stayed at the table with the daughter and in perfect Spanglish, discussed an upcoming shopping trip.
There was something amazingly normal about this man and the family dynamic he’s created…this, in spite of robberies he committed last last night or the drive by shooting he has to perform later today. I’m not defending the social order of gangs by any means, I just observed this nuclear unit with a man at the head of it who under all those tattoos, that tough guy image and what I can only imagine is a criminal rap sheet so long it would rival War and Peace, seems to be loving and devoted family man.
Was he a poseur? Maybe, but that’s awfully risky to merely play the role of a gang banger. Perhaps he was an ex-gang member who for various reasons, can’t rid himself of the markings that indicate who he once was and the dangerous life he lived. Perhaps, he’s a current member who can kill a man execution style behind some warehouse, while loving his children in all the ways he wasn’t.
The truth is, I don’t know and I didn’t stop to ask. I just found it all to be very interesting dichotomy, all things considered. And yes, while gangs usually only kill other gang members because of turf and territory issues, by standers who are just minding their own business often get caught in the cross fire. The reality is these are no-nonsense guys. Like their Sicilian brethren, they too take an omerta of sorts. They’re hard-core loyalists to “la familia” and will shoot to kill and if anyone gets in their way, so be it. Murder and mayhem are all in a day’s work; even if that day begins with an intimate breakfast with the family.
So, just to play it safe, the names in this blog post have been changed to protect the innocent.