Mexico

We hadn’t taken the bus on an adventure since crossing Canada and landing in Eugene Oregon, so the four Robbins children were very excited to be going to Mexico. The bus was a make shift camper. My father had painted a full sized Blue Bird school bus a weird shade of blue with regular outdoor house paint.  There was no mistaking, this was a hippie bus.  When you opened the school bus door and went up the three stairs, homemade couches lined either side of the area where all of the seats had been removed. The couches folded down at night to make a bed for my parents.  Half way back were my and my three siblings’ two sets of bunk beds a path down the middle lead to the kitchen complete with a gas stove.  The bunks were crafted out of two by fours and a twin sized bed was in each it was our cozy club house.  The back part of the bus had two by four compartments for our clothes, food and everything else we could fit.

The year was 1977 and I was in fourth grade.  Because of our many moves, 18 at this point in time, I had rarely gone to school, but I was at an alternative school within the public system and I loved it. I was apprehensive about leaving school, and I had no idea how long we would really be gone or if we would ever come home again.  My teacher said to keep a journal and so I did.

We packed the bus with what we would need for the weeks ahead.  We brought decks of cards for the gin and rummy games that we would play for hours on the bus.  We packed every Tintin that had been published and crayons and coloring books. My father had stolen all of these items I suspect since he had stolen most everything we owned. He had been named “Eph the Thief” by his siblings as a child. He to this day at the age of 85 still steals most everything and amazingly he has only been caught once when he stole a car in New Hampshire.

The bus was cozy and we had fun on the drive to Berkeley California where we were stopping to pick up our friends.  Their family had five children, two adults, the husband was father to only the baby, and one other adult joined us as well.  We stayed in Berkeley for what seemed like a week.  We packed cases of avocados and lots of non-perishable foods and water for the whole time we would be in Mexico.

I remember there was a big debacle about my visa to get into Mexico. There was no father listed on my birth certificate because my mother wasn’t married when I was born and I had always used my father’s last name as my legal name, but at the time we were all living under an assumed name so I’m not really sure what ended up occurring but I do know we all made it across the border.

We were heading for a small remote village in Baja California on the Sea of Cortez named Bahia de Los Angeles. We drove in a caravan of the Blue Bird bus and a VW “Thing” that was a burnt orange color.  We were a motley crew of hippies and their clan of children and one lesbian along for the ride.  At one point my mother was driving the bus with all nine of the children inside.  All of the adults were riding in the Thing.  We were stopped by Federalis with machine guns.  They boarded the bus and asked my mother, “Are these your children?” she said yes.  They walked around in the bus for a while and then let her continue on. I remember when my mom recounted the story to the adults she said that they probably would have torn the bus apart if the other adults had been present, so it worked out.

We finally arrived at in Bahia de Los Angeles about three days later.  There were about 15 people in this tiny remote town, as I recall, although I’m sure there were really more.  We somehow found our way to a secluded beach on a protected cove and set up camp.  The adults set up platforms for the tents that they would be sleeping in and the children were to all stay in the bus.  There were scorpions and they worried that since the closest hospital was in San Diego two days away it would be best if none of the children were bitten.

The cove was large, probably 3 miles across, but protected, shallow and very warm.  We dove right in and life on the beach had begun.  The adults chose to basically live sans clothing during the day when it was warm.  No one ever came to the beach where we were.  It was paradise.  We children had adventures everyday that took us to pirate ships and deserts.  We played, ate and slept.  We stayed for eight weeks that first trip to Mexico.

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My Life on the Bus

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Grandma Tina

Large beautiful homes with manicured lawns and two Volvos in every driveway is the Berkeley most people think of when I describe my early years. The Berkeley where I lived was a very different neighborhood below the San Pablo Avenue parallel, we lived on the Berkeley side of Alcatraz Avenue the houses across the street were Oakland. Our street got its name because on a clear day Alcatraz Island the former prison seemed to be floating at the end of our street.  The tree barren streets were lined with cement yards with pear cacti and poinsettias along the edges and seeping through the cracks.  The draby stucco two family houses were home to prostitutes, pimps, Black working poor and my family.  The houses on either side were just feet away and you could hear the neighbors conversations if you listened carefully.  The neighbor on one side was recently divorced and had a dog named Bear who tried to literally eat his own flesh, so he was relegated to living life with a cone around his head.  In the basement of the house on the other side was Grandma Tina, her daughter, Versy, and two grandchildren, Shelby and Victor.

Grandma Tina would walk into our home yelling in a sweet way, “Giiiinnnneeee , can I come in?,” in her Lousisana drawl as she was letting herself in.  She would come right in and sit in a chair that creaked from her generous proportions, she would put her elbows on the cluttered linoleum table and start talking. She usually wanted a ride to the supermarket or doctor or maybe just some company, my mother loved it when she came to call.  She had skin the color of red clay and long flowing sienna colored loose curled hair reminiscent of her Apache heritage. She had a way of just knowing that you needed a hug or an oatmeal cookie on any given day.

Grandma Tina was a devout Seventh Day Adventist, which meant Fridays were spent preparing for the Sabbath.  Preparations began when Shelby and Victor came home from school and I would join right in as if I were part of the family and religion too.  The handmade polyester dresses were pulled out of the closest for careful examination, they usually needed a pressing just to make sure they were perfect.  White cornmeal cornbread was Grandma Tina’s specialty, when you poured it into the cast iron skillet there was an inch of melted lard surrounding the batter.  I have tried to recreate it to no avail many times. We would eat Vienna sausages right out of the can as we prepared the collard greens with bacon and fried chicken all to be consumed after church on Saturday.

Saturday morning I would jump out of bed and pull on my best thrift store dress one I had deemed good enough for church and go next door.  Puffed wheat with milk and bananas were all we could eat for breakfast because you were not allowed to cook on the Sabbath.  Hats were gathered and we were given money for the collection and we were off in the 1970 Chevy sedan.  No seatbelts or car seats were used they just piled us in and off we went.

The first time we pulled up to the Seventh Day Adventist church I was awestricken.  The men, women and children were dressed in beautiful clothes and elaborate hats.  Friends greeted each other joyously. It was the greeting you would expect at a wedding, not like you hadn’t seen each other just last week in this very same place.  We were coming together to praise the Lord.  We quickly found our place in the pews before they were filled.  The pastor took the stage and the proverbial curtain was lifted.  “Praise the Lord,” “Amen” as the sermon began. The congregation was quick to jump to their feet to sing and dance and they responded aloud to the sermon in a way I had never witnessed. I eagerly anticipated the first hymn, finding the page as quickly as possible so I could memorize the words.  I would sing as if I were at Carnegie Hall, I just knew I sang as well as the robust women in the choir.  I loved the sense of belonging I felt when gospel music was being sung with such heart and soul.

The second or third Sunday I attended church I noticed there were no other white children or adults for that matter, it was more a point of fact verses anything I felt.  I learned to cope with all situations and not to feel out of place anywhere because of my upbringing.  We moved 15 times by the time I was seven, change and diversity was an everyday occurrence.  I felt as much a part of the church as Grandma Tina did.  They embraced me as part of her family, her bring me was reason enough for them to accept me.

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