Of course, the Southwest is Latinos. I doubt there were any among my peers in my overwhelmingly Anglo Jersey hometown. Any surname identifying my high school classmates that ended in “a” or “o” was likely Italian. The school did include a foreign language instructor named Gomez, although, curiously, he was not the advisor to the school’s Spanish Club; an instructor named Kelly had that responsibility.
My introduction to more palpable elements of the Southwest occurred following my graduation from prep school―a one-year remedial interlude following my graduation from a public high school―when for the first time I traveled west of the Mississippi, specifically to Denver, Colorado. It was 1969 and my sister had the previous year moved to the city from Boston. I was to spend the summer working in Denver and sharing her apartment in the heart of the city. When on an afternoon in mid-June I exited Denver’s air-conditioned Stapleton Airport to hail a cab to deliver me to my sister’s address, I expected, however subliminally, to be coated once again in the same humid heat I’d experienced the previous day in Ridgewood, New Jersey. But in a matter of minutes, while waiting in the sunshine on the terminal sidewalk, I realized this was not going to be the case. Denver was nearly as hot as the Garden State that day, but the city’s relative humidity approached, at best, about sixty per cent of New Jersey’s, so the air around me seemed to crackle, seemed to crisp and lighten my slacks, socks, and polo shirt. (Those were still the days when one was expected to dress smartly to fly.) I felt the arid high-plains heat of Denver wicking eighteen years of turbid Northeast atmosphere―humidity and haze―off of me. Less clouded with humidity, there was a fierceness to the Denver sunlight that bit into the exposed skin of my arms and hands. Riding west in a cab to my sister’s apartment, I not only thrilled to the sight of the Rocky Mountains, I was astonished by their clarity. They seemed to enter the very city, chunks of mountainsides vying with cars and trucks for room on Denver’s east/west thoroughfares.
The Southwest became personal to me quickly that summer. The United States Census of 1970 tallied, among Denver County’s 515,000 residents, 85,000 individuals with “Spanish Surnames.” In the summer of ’69, I very possibly met two of those tallied. Shortly after joining my sister in her attic apartment, I ran into a tee-shirted young man who occupied the other apartment on the floor. He looked about my age. His face, arms, and hands were uniformly brown, although not, I sensed, the brown of a Jersey-shore tan. His face was very smooth, very nearly free of a beard that I was now developing, and his arms were similarly devoid of hair. When I shook his right hand, I noticed in the hollow between the thumb and index finger of his left a crude tattoo of blue dots in the shape of a crucifix. The name of this friendly fellow was Eddie Espinosa. I liked the freshness of his last name: the froth of its syllables; the peaks, plateaus, and valleys of its vowels.
Soon, my sister introduced me to one of her friends, Josie Mares. I was immediately struck by Josie’s exotic looks. Like Eddie, she had a dusky complexion. She was slender, petite, and quiet, with dark eyes and dark, curly hair. I assumed she was about my sister’s age and thus some five years older than I. I was terribly shy around her. Yet how I enjoyed stealing glances at her on summer afternoons, when my sister, her friends, and I would sit cross-legged in a circle on a worn Persian rug, drinking chianti, laughing, and listening to the Chambers Brothers in the high-ceilinged living room of one of Denver’s many great old houses converted to apartments. When one day, for clarification, I asked my sister to spell Josie’s last name, my three dull years of high school Latin finally became of some use as I recalled “maris,” the plural of the Latin word for “sea.” And from then on Josie became, in my romantic imagination, Jo by the Two Seas.
I met more people with Spanish surnames in Denver that summer, mainly as a result of working the graveyard shift in the mill room of the massive factory that made Gates Tires. I was fairly certain that all of the Latinos I’d met at Gates had ties to the place, now closer than ever to me yet still barely imaginable, called Mexico.