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.

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.