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 First Draft: Bennington College

On the cusp of the New Year I can’t help but feel excited that 2013 will finally see the publication of my novel, Mañana Means Heaven. For this reason I went back and found one of the first journal entries I wrote as I was about to embark on this project.

First, I need to set it up by mentioning it was sometime in 2008, after I had already been quietly contemplating the idea for this book project on Bea Franco for over a year, that I decided to return to college to get my MFA in Writing & Literature. It was at the urging of two close friends of mine—the brilliant and fearless memoirist Irene Vilar, who wrote The Ladies Gallery, (about her grandmother Lolita Lebron who shot up the U.S. House of Senate in 1956 in the name of Puerto Rico’s liberation), and her equally brilliant husband, Daniel Grandbois, whose book Unlucky Lucky Tales was recently released by Texas Tech University Press—that I decided to attend the Bennington College Writing Seminars in Vermont. They had both attended there. In fact, without my knowing it was Irene who made the initial contact on my behalf, so you can imagine how surprised I was when out of the blue I got a call from Bennington College explaining to me the admissions process. I enrolled and for the next two years I would return to that campus—ten days in June and ten in January—and use that solitary time in those lush green and often snowy mountains to write.

Knowing I would have to fly from California (and later Colorado) out to that part of the country every six months, I decided to time my visits to the New York Public Library accordingly. I would go a few days in advance to spend time at the Kerouac archives, before taking a train up to my residency. Thankfully my good friend Jason Mc Daniel lived in New York and was able to put me up, not to mention, later actually transcribe some of Bea’s letters for me.

As a father of 3 children, writing at home is almost impossible, to put it lightly. It typically means having to wait until the kids are asleep and using the time between 9 pm and 1 am to get any work done. So for me each residency at Bennington meant I had approximately 240 hours (24 hours per day x 10 days, give or take a few hours a day for lectures and workshops) of precious and vital alone time to write. A large portion of the first draft of my book was written while at Bennington, an experience I’ll always be grateful for. It’s funny now, looking back at this entry, thinking I had it all planned out so perfectly, unaware of how many twists and turns lay ahead of me.  Below is the entry I wrote in my journal during that first residency.  Please note that it may have typos, as I didn’t edit it, just plopped it from my file onto this here post.

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June 13, 2009, Bennington College

What an idiot I’ve been to have waited so long to get serious about this book. Don’t know what it is for sure about wanting to do the research more than the creative impulse of writing. Research is like a vortex, an addiction, hard to kick. I looked back at my earlier journal entries, all the research and talks I’ve had with other writers and I see that it’s been at least ten months since I wrote, “THE BOOK STARTS NOW!” To think if I had written at least five pages per week by four weeks each month would come out to 20 pages per month, which would mean I’d have around 200 pages typed by now. And this doesn’t include the longer riffs I know I would’ve written just by sitting down and doing the work. Fuck, I really need to FOCUS! The other books are screaming for my attention too, but I feel like I can’t get serious about either of those until I’m done here. I’ve been living with this story in my mind’s eye and in my day to day thoughts and a part of me says I need to write at least the first draft while still living in the central valley. That should be justification enough to leave the other two books alone for now. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be in the valley either, it’s possible we’ll be gone by next summer, back in Colorado by then. And if I’m going to leave by next summer I’ll have to have written at least the first draft by next May. Wait. May is plenty of time, too much time actually. That’s eleven whole months to write the first draft. No, I’ll give myself until my birthday, February 16 to write the first draft. Yeah, that’s still eight whole months away. And this can’t be/ shouldn’t be no measly little draft either, no, this one has to go the distance. At least, the first draft. Fuck audience, forget about all that, just a long inspired thread of all the things I know and have dug up in these past two years of envisioning the whole scenario. The first draft will be me putting down all of the colors of my palette, and all the tools that I pull from will go down into this first draft too. The first draft should have three versions for every description and image, for every scenario, so that I have three at least to choose from by the time I’m done. And then I’ll come back around with the second draft, and this will be mostly about chopping back, about selecting the gems from each page, each line, and throwing out the rest, the useless images and rants that I’ll include in the first draft. Yes, the first draft will be for me and my eyes only and truly. The second draft is where I’ll begin to shape the story. The first draft will be the flaccid flesh of the story, the casing. The second draft will be the bones, the framework that begins to hold up the body. It will also be where I begin to put some order to the chapters, order to the whole composition. This second draft will also include more accuracy, but not much, this wont be my concern so much, but at least some. The second draft will take me from February until June, five months, yes! That’s enough time. Perfect in fact. Right around the time of my June residency here. And then, if I can bare it, I’ll take at least a month away from looking at the work. I’ll print it out and stow it away somewhere, somewhere out of reach. I wont do anything else this month on it. No peeking or writing or journal entries about it either. A clean break. I’ll try my best to get as far away from the work as possible, so that when I return to it, it will appear fresh and brand new to my mind and thus I can look at it from that perspective. Maybe I can get to the other books at this time. After the month is up the third draft will happen. This should be around August. And then the third draft will be the FIRST REAL DRAFT! Here is where I’ll tighten up the language and begin to look for words and phrases and moments that would be more consistent with the time period. Make sure every single word uttered sounds like it would be uttered in that time from that specific person. Make sure all of my references are authentic and true to the era as possible. I will begin to look for images too, to include in my final manuscript. Images of what? Why the need for images? Images that will lend to the overall mood of the story, to the period itself. So, they could be images of an old hotel in Fresno or in downtown L.A., something that looks like where Bea and Jack might’ve stayed. Images of old “Mextown” L.A. or images of the tent city in Selma, the Palomar Club in Fresno, Chinatown, or other such images that will echo the story and mood of this time and place and people. The third draft will also include the actual letters of Bea Franco at the end, after the epilogue. They will also include small captions at the bottom explaining what they are, when they were written, and by whom. The third draft will take me 2-3 months to complete, which means I should have this done by fall, around say, October. In the interim, I will have stashed it away once more for at least a month if not two months, and then in January I’ll return to it for one last glazing over. This fourth and final glazing over will be purely to catch any regrets, so that later I can’t say to myself, Well damn, if I had at least one more chance to go through it….blah blah blah. It should be done around the time I graduate. It’ll be my best attempt. In the end, that’s all I can try for.

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.