An excerpt from my upcoming book on Feral House, Violence Girl: From East LA Rage to Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story. Look for it in your local bookstores and online in November.
I grew up watching Spanish language movies. Peliculas de La Epoca de Oro (films from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema) were the ones my parents liked best. They'd seen them all before but would never tire of watching Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Libertad Lamarque, Pedro Armendariz and Sylvia Pinal on the big screen.
Pedro Armendariz and Dolores del Rio in Los Abandonadas.
There were plenty of movie theaters in the 'hood that showed these movies and it was our one splurge as a family to go to the movies on dos por uno night, a buy one - get one free special, usually offered on a different night at each of the theaters we frequented. My mom and I would split one admission, then my dad would wait outside for another solo male to come along and he'd split the admission with him. In order to cut costs even further, my mother would pack half a dozen bean burritos, wrapped in foil along with some canned sodas and bags of chips or Fritos. Once inside the darkened theatre, she would produce all of these from a seemingly limitless bag of tricks, like the one Felix the Cat carried. If we were out of tortillas, my mother would make white bread bean and cheese sandwiches. These were a tasty change of pace and probably a uniquely pocho cuisine.
As soon as the lights went down, we'd start passing our feast around and before long, we were transported to an impossibly glamorous black and white version of Mexico. It was escapism at it's finest. In those days, you got to see two or three movies at a time when you went to the cine (cinema). Sometimes, there were even live acts who performed in between the films. The Million Dollar Theater in Downtown L.A. was famous for its variedades. There, on weekend afternoons, we'd watch the first movie then be treated to touring singers, actors, jugglers, comedians, dancers, ventriloquists, gymnasts, mariachis... you name it. The word variedades means variety and there was certainly plenty of that. Young men and women would walk up and down the aisles with large trays strapped around their necks, selling cigarettes and BonBons and candy. It was a total experience.
Million Dollar Theatre, Los Angeles, back in the day.
The Million Dollar Theater was a grand old movie palace with beautiful alcoves and balconies. One weekend afternoon, we were seated in the balcony. I was getting bored of the movie and asked my mom for some change to buy a toy from the vending machine in the ladies' bathroom. Those machines used to stock all kinds of goodies, from small plastic toys to entertain fidgety kids, to lipstick, combs and emory boards. To keep me out of her hair, my mom gave me the change and let me go back to the bathroom to get myself a little toy. When I went back to the bathroom, I discovered not one but two vending machines. The second vending machine didn't have a glass front showing all the different goodies that could be purchased which puzzled me, but as I stood there wondering, a woman came up, put her coins in and was rewarded with a little white paper bag.
Aha! I figured it must be a grab bag type deal. I knew from shopping with my mother who often bought grab bags of fruit and soon-to-expire bread at the market that you could get more for your money if you were willing to take a chance. I was excited by the prospect of getting a really special surprise treat, so I put my money in the machine and turned the knob. Out slid my little paper grab bag. I tore it open and pulled out a small, white, pillowy-looking bonnet. It had two straps that didn't quite fit around my head so I was disappointed that I couldn't put it right on.
I ran back to the balcony where my parents were seated about five rows up. I stood at the bottom, front and center, waved the sanitary pad in my hand and called out to my mom, "I didn't get a toy! Look what came out!" My mother was mortified and rushed to me as some people suppressed snickers and others glared at me. My mother whisked me up and out of sight but when I asked her why she was angry with me, she couldn't quite say except to tell me that "Those things are for ladies!" When I asked how they were used, my mother couldn't tell me.
The mystery of the little white bonnet would remain unsolved until 6th grade, when my teacher at school would show my class a film about it.