Bea Franco, “The Mexican Girl,” Dies at Age 92

Last Friday I received a phone call from Albert Franco (Bea’s son) telling me of the dismal news that his mother had passed away last Thursday morning. This comes exactly one week after she held a new copy of “Manana Means Heaven” in her warm hands, and allowed her daughter Patricia to snap some photos of her. One of which I posted on my Facebook account (see below). Needless to say, I was stunned at the news. We had been making plans to honor her at the upcoming book release event in Fresno, and she had been doing great health-wise in recent weeks. Over the weekend I pulled out the video footage of our interviews, which were done in late 2010, when I first found her, and I watched them. She still had her humor about her, and her warm smile was infectious. Especially as she told me the story of how in the early days of East Los Angeles, she wasn’t afraid to fight, and how she often defended her sister Angie from bullies. She laughed about those days. Bea also loved skittles. She often kept a bowl of them on her dining room table. Throughout our interviews she would sneak away to the back of the house to take a few puffs from a cigarette. She was 90 years old at the time. When I first told her that there were over twenty Kerouac biographies that had included her name, her reply was, “Why? My life wasn’t so special.” And then she’d chuckle. In viewing those videos, I see now just how lucky I am to have known her, even if only for a brief moment in time. During the years it took me to write “Manana Means Heaven,” as any writer will tell you, I lived with her in my mind and heart. And then sometimes I’d speak with her in person and she’d remind me, in her own unassuming way, that it was simply a small part of who she was, in a life that spanned nearly a century. On this melancholy occasion, I think of the curious way she signed off her letters, to Kerouac, to her husband and to her friends: “I REMAIN AS EVER, Bea”

Bea holding a copy of "Manana Means Heaven." August 9. (Copyright 2013, used with the permission of Bea's Estate)

Bea holding a copy of “Mañana Means Heaven.” August 9. (Copyright 2013, used with the permission of Bea’s Estate)

(October 13, 1920 – August 15, 2013)

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The Yellow Pages

“On the Road,” the movie, comes out next week in Los Angeles and New York, and then everywhere else in January. If you see it, and get a chance to glimpse Alice Braga as Terry Franco, “The Mexican Girl,” please send me a message or comment letting me know what you thought of her small part. I would be ever so appreciative. Also, I will personally relay your comments to her family, as they are just as curious as I am to find out how she is portrayed. In the meantime, here is another excerpt from my journal, written during my search for Bea Franco:

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September 13, 2009

In Selma today, I tore out a sheet from the Yellow Pages and immediately began dialing every last Franco listed. I started from the top and worked my way down. A car mechanic. A few stay-at-home mothers. A couple of sweet conversations about ancestry. But none even remotely sounded like they could be related to the Bea Franco I was looking for.  When I got to the only two Bea’s on the list, instead of calling I decided to drive to their residence. The first one lived near the corner of Peach and Olive Street in Fresno. I drove past the shoddy pink apartment complex, the whole time thinking to myself how strange it would be to find her here, living out her days among the grit and rubble of this city. I just couldn’t picture it. I had to call from a payphone at Lucky Liquors across the street because my cell phone was dead. A soft woman’s voice answered. She was too young.

Hi there, I’m looking for Bea Franco.
I’m Bea, she said, with a quiet pessimism in her voice.
This is gonna sound crazy, but I’m writing a book about a woman named Bea Franco. I had to talk fast. I know you’re not her because you sound too young, but is it possible that you’re named after a grandmother? Or aunt?
I’m sorry, you have the wrong person, she said.
Wait, I called out before she had a chance to hang up. Just in case you are related to a Bea Franco, can I give you my number?
Sure, she said, go ahead.
I gave her the number and hung up.

The next number I called was Beatriz Franco. I got the answering machine and left a lengthy message, hoping it was enticing enough for her to want to call me back. To put it plainly, I was naïve about the whole thing. I assumed that whoever Bea was, she would be excited to know that a book was being written about her. Or if Bea was dead at least her family deserved to know about the quiet importance their mother held between the pages a book.

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Judging from the clear penmanship in her letters to Jack, and her use of typical American 1940’s slang, I made the decision that Bea was not from Mexico at all. In fact, she was schooled in the United States, I was sure of it. I called the Superintendent of schools in Selma and asked him about the elementary schools that were in Selma during the early 30’s. He gave me two names. I told him more about my research. He echoed what had been told to me on at least three other occasions.

There are only two Franco families in Selma, he said.
Could you put me in contact with them? I asked.
By the next morning there was an email in my inbox from his secretary. It read:

Mr. Hernandez I am a good friend with both Franco families in Selma. This is why Mr. Sutton asked me to email you. Below are the phone numbers to both families. Good luck. –Irene

I emailed her back.

Irene, thank you for your help with locating the Franco families. Will they be expecting me to call them?—Tim

Mr. Hernandez I called them last night to ask if it was okay for you to call them. It is fine. They know. Good luck. –Irene

The first Franco family I called a young girl answered. I asked to speak with her father or mother. She said they were not there but that she would pass my message on to them. I told her about my book project and research, to which she replied, I don’t think we’re the Franco family you’re looking for. All of our relatives live in Texas. My family has only lived here for a few years. Still, I said, can you please have your father contact me?

I had one more number to call.

When she answered the phone I could tell she was elderly. She was reluctant to talk with me at first, until I tossed a few names around, mostly that of Irene, our mutual friend. She lightened up and agreed to answer some questions.

How long have you lived in Selma? I started in.
All my life, she replied.
How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?
Eighty six, she said.
A surge rose up in my chest and throat. This was Bea Franco’s approximate age.
Do you have any brothers or nephews or sons named Albert?
No.
Are you sure? I prodded.
Of course I’m sure, she said. My boys names are Joe, George, and Ernesto.
How about a daughter?
I told you, I’m not the person you’re looking for. You got the wrong person.
Ma’am, I said, can you answer just two more questions? Was there ever cotton in Selma?
No.
Are you sure? Because some people have told me there was, and others…
I’m sure.
Okay, right, well, do you by any chance know where there used to be a tent city here in Selma back in the late forties?
I wouldn’t know that, she said, we were truckers, not fruit pickers.
Sensing her displeasure, I decided to leave her by saying, Ma’am, if you have any relatives, or remember any of the answers to my questions, would you mind giving me a call back? I can give you my number…
Look, she said sternly, I just don’t want you writing about me, okay?
A dead silence hung in the air.
No ma’am, I’m not writing about you. I’m writing about a woman named Bea Franco who used to live in Selma in the forties, a field worker, she was…
Just don’t write about me, she reiterated, this time with more force.
I wont, I said. I was curious about the hint of paranoia in her voice.
Another woman grabbed the phone from her.
Hi, the voice said. Sorry about my mother, she’s tired. She’s old and tired. She hates talking to people, especially on the phone.
Don’t worry about it, I said. Look, I was telling your mother that I’d like to give her my number in case she remembers anything. 
That’s fine, the voice said, I’ll make sure she gets it.
Thank you.