Awareness

A kidnapping isn’t really the ideal subject for me to be writing about right now as I grieve the recent loss of my dog Isso, who has been my best friend for the past 17 years. But as I took a walk alone in my sister’s neighborhood this afternoon, part of my grief ritual, something about the scent of fresh tar that had been laid down in large square spots on the streets by maintenance workers reminded me of home—of East Side San Jose, the Evergreen area where I grew up. It reminded me of walking home after school from Quimby Oak Junior High, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. Passing the homes of friends and acquaintances along the way, like the Perales home where I spent many nights with my close friend Carmen and her family, the Sato house—a family of mixed race (Filipino/Japanese?) and a boy my age, Jeff, who would never look me or anyone in the eyes, Jimmy’s house—a Filipino guy who frequently could be seen in his driveway cleaning the louvers on his Trans Am and driving his mother around in it, Harry’s house, my Black friend who lived with his older brother Terry and their kind, gentle father (no one knew where his mother was or why she wasn’t in the picture). More Filipinos like us closer to our home, on the same side of the street, across the street, around the corner, up the road. Filipinos everywhere.

Fresh tar, so thick and dark. The darkest black you could ever see. The temptation to step on it, to stick your toe in it to see if it had dried yet, was always there. Before you could even see the tar, you could smell it. Like burnt tires, but deeper, smokier. Much thicker. It brought with it a feeling of renewal, of newness, a reminder that someone (the city?) kept watch over us, and just when we got used to the faded, sometimes crumbling old tar that made up our streets, they’d lift our spirits with a new fresh coat. That new fresh coat could shock with its contrast to the worn color of the washed-out street we’d all grown accustomed to. It reminded me that we could get used to something less than, something mediocre, and forget that improvements were possible.

During this time, a girl at my school named Jeana Rodriguez got kidnapped. I didn’t know her. She was a year younger than me—a sixth grader—the grade that seems to be forgotten in a junior high school. (Why anyone would choose to go to sixth grade at a junior high school and be invisible instead of going to an elementary school and be top of the class I never understood.) Sixth graders wouldn’t be welcome to hang out with the seventh and eighth graders at break and lunch. They wouldn’t be seen hanging out on the oversized cement steps watching people in the courtyard below. They wouldn’t be moving their heads and snapping their fingers to “Start Me Up” by the Stones at lunchtime, a makeshift DJ station taking up space in the defunct locker area behind a chain link fence—an idea a student came up with and somehow got approval for. I wouldn’t know Jeana if she walked right in front of me.

The flyers featured a big black and white school photo of Jeana with the words “MISSING.” It described where she was last seen (walking home just blocks from the school), what she wore, and offered an award for any information on her whereabouts. Flyers covered the school (classroom doors, bathrooms, girls locker room, administration office, on the ground and stepped on as students shuffled to class), the neighborhood street lamps, the community bulletin board at Alpha Beta and other stores in the strip mall at the intersection of Quimby and White. Her kidnapping was all over the local news and then the national news. Front page of the San Jose Mercury News. The picture showed a young Latina with long, straight hair, big eyes, a shy smile. I imagined she had a soft voice and could harm no one. A part of me felt bad that I had never known her, had never noticed her.

It didn’t seem possible that a kidnapping could take place in our neighborhood, with its new tract homes at the base of Mount Hamilton. We were the first neighborhood to have cable (which meant we had MTV before our friends did), to have underground electrical lines so you could no longer see the so-called unsightly crisscross of wires, some taut and some sagging, connecting our homes to power and telephone systems. Nothing remarkable ever happened in our neighborhood. Parents went to work, some on the assembly lines in companies located in what would one day become Silicon Valley. Kids went to school, hung out at the new Carl’s Jr. or at 7-11 across the street. Great America on weekends, riding The Tidal Wave and the giant carousel. Middle-class immigrant families keeping it honest and real. All the neighborhood kids on my street, Winwood Way, playing together until sundown.

Jeana’s kidnapping would be my first awareness of the serious dangers that existed outside the home. (Inside my own home, I felt the danger of an impatient, violent father.) The strangers lurking, waiting and ready to take you when you least expected it. Like my parents who experienced the brutality and suffering of hunger and war as children during WWII Philippines, the children today who run safety drills in school to prepare for active shooters, whose lives have been disrupted by a global pandemic and who bear witness to nationwide and global protests against police brutality, kids in California and the West Coast wearing masks to avoid COVID-19 and unhealthy air levels as smoke from hundreds of active wildfires burn out of control due to climate change. The same year of Jeana’s kidnapping, 1981, we’d had some alarm when the Mediterranean fruit fly began to devour crops in California, leading to nightly sprayings of malathion from helicopters flying low and close to our homes (cover your cars and keep pets inside). The pilots so clear in their cockpit I could wave to them from my bedroom window. But this was nothing compared to a girl gone missing.

And yet school continued as normal, as if one of us wasn’t missing, hadn’t been home in months. As a cheerleader, I attended basketball and football games, both at home and away. I sang in the choir. My parents had arranged a Filipina piano teacher to come to our home every Wednesday for piano lessons. Sometimes I remembered, sometimes I forgot. Slam books still circulated and people signed them. I’d had crushes on boys like John and Edwin and James—all Filipino boys, the younger siblings of the boys my older sisters hung out with and had crushes on. In some ways, it felt as if we were safe; the kidnapper certainly wouldn’t be as bold to take another kid while he had Jeana. I stopped noticing the flyers around school and in the community; they’d become background noise, the same picture, the same word “MISSING” in bold across the top of the page. I don’t recall our teachers talking about the kidnapping. Perhaps they were instructed not to bring it up, not to cause panic. But you think they would’ve done the opposite—scared us shitless and told us to walk with friends—never alone—and to stay aware of our surroundings and avoid any suspicious people. So on top of this newfound awareness of the dangers outside the home, I also learned that something as horrible as an abduction could occur without any significant change in our daily school lives.

Five months after she’d been taken, Jeana showed up to the front door of her family home. Rumors went wild on campus. She’d been molested. Her kidnapper was a creepy loner. He’d held her in an underground dungeon. She’d carved her name into a wall in the dungeon so that one day she could prove to police that she had in fact been held captive there. She didn’t return to school that year. Most of us thought she’d never return after what’d happened to her. That she’d switch schools, move far away, maybe out of state. And then she turned up for seventh grade. The innocent girl on the flyers had changed. Jeana had a short pixie cut with long bangs in blue and purple streaks. She wore low-cut tops, tight jeans. Walked around holding her books close to her chest. In many ways she’d tarred over her old image with a new, provocative one. The innocent Jeana no longer visible under this protective façade. She watched people from the corner of her eye, head down, knowing we were all looking at her and wondering what had happened to her. I could feel her silent rebellion, see her I-don’t-care-what-you-think-about-me mannerisms. The shock value of her new look didn’t match her inner fragility. Conscious of fashion at the time, it felt like the equivalent of pairing my favorite pink houndstooth Guess jeans with my bright rainbow sweater. A complete mismatch.

People wanted to know the worst treatment, they wanted to know exactly what had been done to her and how many times it had been done to her. None of us (as far as I know) had been sexually active yet. I didn’t really know how sex worked except on a theoretical level. So for someone to be among us who’d had sexual experience already, even though it wasn’t consensual, made her somewhat of a celebrity. But also broken, tarnished, loose, a whore. Kids didn’t gather around her in a protective circle welcoming her back; instead, they (and I) watched her actions, movements, and behavior, wanting to see the effects that a kidnapping could have on a young girl. How much psychological damage this man had done. She’d been outcasted by the very students in her school who should’ve been protecting her, helping her heal.

When I look back, I’m not proud to have been one of those students who said nothing to her. I didn’t know how to even if I wanted to. My friends, a tight circle of Pinays, had been insular. My whole family insular within the Filipino community. To me, it would’ve been obvious that the only reason I was trying to befriend Jeana was because of what had happened to her, and that made be too embarrassed to even say hello. Perhaps another awareness occurred: my ability to blend in with the masses who chose to stay silent when silence was the last thing Jeana needed.

Media coverage on Jeana Rodriguez’s kidnapping:

https://www.upi.com/Archives/1981/08/06/A-kidnapped-12-year-old-girl-who-suffered-repeated-sexual-attacks/6679365918400/

https://www.upi.com/Archives/1981/09/16/Four-minutes-after-a-12-year-old-girl-had-begun-to/2807369460800/

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