Invisible Characters

Three years after Jack spent those impressionable weeks with Bea, he completed the first draft of his book, “On the Road.” Of course, the book wouldn’t land a publisher until six years later, in 1957. What isn’t usually conveyed in the lore that has become Kerouac, is that during these six years his book racked up countless rejections. It wasn’t until a man named Malcolm Cowley, who was an editorial consultant with Viking Press at the time, and a friend, suggested Jack get a couple of excerpts of the book published, as a way to get his foot in the door. Jack followed his advice and in 1955 had a small section published in a journal under the title, “Jazz of the Beat Generation.” But even with this now under his belt, it wasn’t until 1956 that his big break would come. It happened when the section about his relationship with a woman named “Terry,” titled “The Mexican Girl,” which took place in California’s San Joaquin Valley, was accepted by The Paris Review. The story garnered rave reviews, and shortly after was also acquired for the Best American Short Stories of 1956 anthology. It wasn’t until after publishing this story that “On the Road” was finally accepted by Viking Press, and the rest, as they say…

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Given the relevance that “The Mexican Girl” story had in Kerouac’s career, little has been known about who “Terry,” or Bea Franco, really was. Because she was from a family of migrant farmworkers, many scholars suspected she was from Mexico, and that’s likely where she returned. A possibility which seems more like a convenience than based in any evidence. With Bea Franco out of the picture one could speculate all they wanted without ever being held accountable for their claims. The same can be said for Esperanza Villanueva, the Mexicana who was the heroin junky of Kerouac’s book, “Tristessa.” Except in her case, she really was from Mexico, a Chilanga to be exact. And what about John Fante’s Camilla of “Ask the Dust?” What was her memory of their time together? How do we know that in the end she simply walked out into the desert never to be seen again? I mean, isn’t that what we’re told about the lost women of Juarez? Novels like Monique Truong’s “Book of Salt,” a look at Gertrude Stein’s life with Alice Toklas, taken from the perspective of Stein’s Vietnamese cook, Binh, hold extreme value. Even today, we find ourselves eating at a great restaurant, maybe sushi or (insert your favorite here), and chances are the people behind the food are a part of that invisible population. When was the last time we wondered about the lives of the workers who supply our Hotel rooms with new bed sheets and towels? They make it possible for us to live out our daily narratives, when all along, they have a narrative of their own, as equally compelling and vital. This is where my interest is. On lifting the veil of the “invisible characters.”

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As for the upcoming movie, “On the Road.” Pictured here is a photo of Alice Braga, the Brazilian actress who is portraying “Terry Franco” in the movie, which is due to hit theaters everywhere in January 2013. (Side note: Alice’s famous aunt, actress Sonia Braga, also played a farmworker from the San Joaquin Valley once too. It was a made for television mini-series called, “A Will of Their Own,” where she portrayed a UFW activist named Jessie de la Cruz.) In this photo we see Alice, or “Terry” used in a promotional poster for the film. The Director of the film, Walter Salles, said that prior to making the film, he too had taken the same road trip described in “On the Road.” Along the way he said he met with various people who were a part of the book and interviewed them to get an authentic sense of who they were, and of the time. Of course, Bea Franco was never contacted. When I ask her today about what she thinks of this film coming out, and how she feels about her image being portrayed on the big screen without her consent, she simply shrugs. She scratches her arm and grins, then shuffles to the back part of her house for a quick smoke. I’m hoping to catch the movie with her and her son Albert. If this does happen, I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

 

*“Mañana Means Heaven,” my novel of historical fiction based on Bea Franco’s life is due out in Fall 2013 with the University of Arizona Press.

Finding Bea Franco: Journal Entry #26

August 25, 2009         

Dear Bea,

This is a letter that will likely never get sent. I decided to write to you each time I sit down to work on the book. Like tossing questions at the universe with hopes that just somehow it might answer back. Today I went into the Fresno County Hall of Records and told them I was looking for my great Grandmother’s marriage or death certificate. Either will do, I said casually. I had to wait in this long line for over an hour. The whole time feeling like an imposter. I mean here were people really going for something, a lost bit of something dire, and here I was, on a self-appointed mission. I started thinking I might be going too far with all this. Felt like I was playing some masquerade, only fooling myself. The clerk called me forward and after filling out some papers she had me follow her to a back room. “These are all the old files, anything before 1950 would be here,” she said. She pulled out a book the size of a Cadillac and opened it to the index and began looking for your name. After thirty minutes we agreed it wasn’t there. Probably a good thing, I figured. If we had found something, before releasing the info to me I would’ve had to brandish proof I am related to you. This is what the woman said to me. But then again, if the goods were there I’m sure I would’ve made it happen one way or the other. Last week I was at the Genealogy Department at the Fresno Library. I poked around for a couple of hours, scrutinizing all the Francos listed but none of them had the right details. As I began walking away the woman helping me asked, “Are you sure she isn’t still alive?” I chuckled. “What farmworker do you know lives to the age of 90?” I said.

I’ve been following leads now for over a year, hoping to find your truth, not his or theirs. I finally decided to hire an investigator. A Serbian woman named Adreann, majored in English back in her college days. Told her you were likely dead, but that we should look for Albert or Patsy, who I figure are probably around 70 years old by now. She was impressed by my legwork. Gave me some advice, tips on how to get information. Before we parted ways she added, “In all my years of experience, dead people are easy to find…living people are hard.” This stuck with me days after. This is why I ended up at the County Records office today, armed with the nerve to claim I was your great grandson. There’s so much I want to ask you Bea, far more questions than answers, things I need to know in order for your story to be told as accurately as possible. One letter can’t possibly cover it all, so I’ll continue to write to you. Even if it’s a lost cause and there’s nowhere to send it. That’s all for now. I hope wherever you are, you’re laughing.

Sincerely, T.