Times Past

Novel by SLO County resident reminds us there’s wisdom in the small things in life

Miracles often come in small packages. We can miss them if we aren’t looking.

We thought of this as Liz shared a delicious bite of pumpkin enchilada with me at the newly opened Taco Temple in San Luis Obispo. It reminded me of how that simple squash feeds millions throughout the world. Mma Precious Ramotswe, the main character in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith set in Botswana, Africa, is frequently cooking a pumpkin while she solves a case.

We thought also of the fortitude, patience, loneliness of those who travel hundreds of miles to enter our country. We reflected on the experience of Manuel Flores, who while trying to jump on top of a train encounters Los Bandidos who brand his hand with a “B” and beat almost all the life out of him. Kindly Serafina nurses him back to life, feeding him pumpkin flower soup.

He soon discovers that his hair has turned pure white. He is known thereafter as “El Chavo Viejo,” or “the old kid.” Manuel’s story is related in a new young adult novel, “Beast Rider: A Boy’s Journey Across the Border” by Tony Johnston and María Elena Fontanot de Rhoads.

Johnston, a sometime resident of San Miguel in northern San Luis Obispo County, lived in Mexico for 20 years. When Manuel was 8, his older brother, Toño, left for Gringolandia or the City of The Angels. Four years later, Manuel thinks that he is old enough to jump on the roof of one of the many trains collectively known as “The Beast” that run toward the U.S. ports of entry.

He gathers bits of food, his first pair of shoes and a holey sweater that belongs to his padre, but he has no idea how to climb aboard the moving train. Once he does with the help of other riders, he encounters the rateros (rats) and aseinos (killers) who prey on the hapless riders. There’s a tall, skinny and silent savor appropriately dubbed Gabriel.

The lesson of looking for small miracles continues when Manuel encounters Cejas, “small, busy and bold,” a young girl with eyebrows like Frida Kahlo. Cejas sees things that Manuel cannot see: “She stretches me in a magical way to open my mind, my soul.”

At last, he has found a friend. Cejas wants to be a photographer. Without a camera, she frames a scene with the thumb and forefinger of both hands. When Cejas needs to transfer to another train to take her to her mother’s new home in West Virginia, she leaves her “camera” with Manuel.

When he gets to Los Angeles, he is amazed by the bigness of everything. Even the tiny apartment that Toño lives in is twice the size of the Flores adobe in Oaxaca. He notices that Toño has a reclusive, elderly Japanese American neighbor. Gradually, Manuel gets to know Mr. James Ito.

He is invited into Mr. Ito’s sparsely furnished home. He refers to Mr. Ito as “my viejito” (little old man) as they sit over a small table and drink tea from tiny cups. As they share stories, Manuel is reduced to tears as he begins to recognize the goodness of his own story with the repeated intervention of “angels” like Gabriel and Serafina.

Mr. Ito tells Manuel that he has carefully nurtured the Bonsai tree that grows outside his house for more than 70 years. Manuel looks at its perfect leaves and shape. He is beginning to learn that there is wisdom in small things. It’s a lesson that he should have learned from his Papi who farms a milpita (a small cornfield) in the parched soil of Oaxaca.

Papi ends each blessing of food on the table, saying, “Keep us happy with the small things.” Manuel decides to rejoin his Papi in that parched milpita and perhaps to make something beautiful of it. “Beast Rider” is a book that you will want to read and reread. With each new reading, you will discover another small miracle shaping Manuel’s journey.

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is Past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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