By Julian Segura Camacho*
When the Hillmans converted to Protestantism from Catholicism in 1980, I didn’t know what that meant.
Kenny had been a father figure for all of us on 95th Street and Ocean Gate in southwest Inglewood along the San Diego Freeway. A suggestion from Kenny was the equivalent of a moral calling, not just because he was an LAPD officer but because he had demonstrated an open door policy to barbecues, playing basketball and even vacations that I sort of invited myself to. And though they had moved from Inglewood to San Pedro months earlier, the Hillmans kept their word about us neighborhood kids visiting them. They would pick us up on weekends and it was a vacation that my mother would permit me, as long as I did not have to babysit.
Ken Hillman was the father of my friend, Fernando Hillman, who lived on 95th Street near Ocean Gate, the same street on which my father died of a heart attack. Fernando was a black-haired kid who looked more like his mother, Linda, who was Mexican American. In those days I’m not sure I knew what white or Mexican-American was, but I knew Fernando did not speak Spanish so I assumed he was white. Only those who spoke Spanish were Mexicans but that did not matter because we were always playing basketball or baseball and Kenny always played with us. We all played on their basketball court, along with my friend, Scott, and his brother, Derek, who were Black. We did not think racially we ju st played.
Thus as Kenny asked me to be saved from the damnation of eternity because hell was a possibility, I felt he knew best. They were my family. Little did I know that by being saved that July summer night in 1981, I would enter a new world where Anglos were the church goers, a World War II veteran would become my best friend; a world where I attempted to believe only to look forward to seeing the White girls and going on camping trips; a world of sermons about devil music, creationism, being brown, Reagan and the rapture.
None of this would have happened if I had said no to being saved. Because it all began with Ken Hillman, who was this young police officer from the City of Los Angeles and was white. When the Hillmans moved to San Pedro, it was heartbreaking. But he promised not to forget us and didn’t.
On one of those visits, as the summer night overtook the day and he picked us up, his gaze said it all.
“I want to talk to you about a serious issue,” he said. “I believe you need to be saved.”
I just nodded my head.
“I believe Jesus Christ came to this world to save us sinners and anybody who is not saved can die at any moment and go to hell. We don’t want that.”
I wondered if my father was in hell because he had never been saved. He had died the year before and the Hillmans were there to comfort my family. It showed how close-knit the neighborhood was, and that was saying much for a place like Inglewood. The racial rules did not apply — except for the white kids not attending the local schools.
(Check out Julian Segura Camacho’s new memoir, If Jesus Could Not Save Himself, How Would He Save Me? A California Mexican in an Anglo Midwestern Protestant Faith, available on Amazon.com.)
Kenny and my father were different religiously. Kenny attended mass; my father attended Hollywood Park. Only thing had in common was that neither drank nor smoked.
My father was an Apache who believed in brujeria but never professed it and my mother was scared of the witchcraft my Mami Luz practiced when we visited El Centro, California.
When we crossed into Mexicali and traveled to a nameless rancho near the cerro prieto, my maternal grandfather, Matiaz, never exercised his Catholicism but my Ama Alberta was a 7th Day Adventist and when we stayed out in the beautiful 110 degree summer ranchos, we all attended el servicio with her because we had to without being forced to. We wanted to go along for the ride with the other rancho kids and sit outside under some ramada listening to stories I did not understand because the names of the lands were all too strange even if the people’s names sounded Mexican. Sitting on a bench on a ranch house with no neighbors in sight, the Baja California mountains seemed pretty biblical. At that age, I had no notion of morality, just hanging out with my cousins and enjoying the guitar sounds of the service once inside the cement-floor allelujah church.
My father believed in a world I did not comprehend but knew existed. I knew it was an issue because my mother would say to others, “My kids’ grandmother was an india.” My grandmother Luz reaffirmed this by saying, “I was civilized at age 10,” by which she meant she did not learn to speak Spanish until that age.
But my mother often spoke of my grandmother’s house with fear. My father would tell my mother she was loca when she said she heard noises in the kitchen, but he would not get up to make the bottle for my brother, Ricardo. Even his younger half-brother Johnny was scared of going into the kitchen.
“Someone is staring at us through the window,” my mother would say. “The cabinet doors are opening and closing.”
All the while, my Mami Luz would sit quietly in her room and seem to be concentrating, lost in a trance. In her bedroom, it felt like someone was observing me as I searched in her drawers like the nosy child I was. The candles in the corner did not help. My father always pretended it did not exist, but the energy was all around.
One day, my father went to the gravesite of his brother-in-law, Cuco. Later, he told my aunt, “I think my brother in law is coming for me. I felt Cuco pull my feet.”
He would later tell my maternal grandmother, “You guys are going to have a big reunion soon.” After that, he visited his cowboy and revolucion friends, Chicho and Tamayo, in the Rancho Roa, and his friend, El Cochise, in Mexicali. Then he returned to Inglewood to visit with his adopted parents, Gustavo and Kika, and like a death announced beforehand, he succumbed to nature in 1980.
We did not understand because my mother thought he was as crazy as his mother, who later said, “He knew he was going to die. He just went to say good bye to everyone, which he did.”
In Mexicali, my half-sister would say, “everything he predicted came to be — the family reunion, his death” and my mother remembered the Colombian man who told my parents three months prior that death was near and my father acted like it was a joke when he knew it was not.
As far back as 1969, he had dreamed he was at a cemetery and a lady would not let him leave and kept dragging him back, deeper into the panteon. It did not help that my grandmother’s spiritual advisor in Imperial told him, “You are not going to see them grow up.”
This was before I was born and before anybody knew that he would father five sons throughout the 1970s and just like that on May 4th in 1980, a quiet voice told me as a ten-year-old in a dirt field in north Inglewood, that my father would die and he died later that night.
With the vacuum left by a dead father, my substitute father, a white young policeman, reached out in concern for me. He asked us to be saved, to allow Jesus Christ in so as to be saved from the risk of an eternal hell.
And because he had always shown concern, like a good son, I agreed.
*Julián Segura Camacho is currently a lecturer at Mission College. He is the author of several books, the latest one titled, If Jesus Could Not Save Himself, How Would He Save Me? A California Mexican in an Anglo Midwestern Protestant Faith, available on Amazon.com.
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