Becoming Zack Morris
Freshman year at West Covina High felt like a middle school holdover. All the troubled kids holding on to their gang-banging ways, who were simply in need of counseling, positive family reinforcement, and perhaps some behavioral therapy, were still around freshman year. As a natural introvert, I kept my head down and hung out only with my cousin Choli and my cousin Diane. Diane was Choli’s older sister and was the smarter and more attractive version of Choli. As an upperclassman, Diane and her girlfriends had access to all the cool kid parties, as young attractive girls usually do. In fact, the first time I ever went to a twenty-one and older club as a minor was with Diane and her girls. I’m sure the bouncer knew we were all underage, but the ratio was worth the risk for him: four hot young girls and one dumb underage dweeb—why not?
Diane always looked out for me. She would sneak me snacks at recess, tell me who I should and shouldn’t be talking to around school, and would vouch for me among her friends. She was very sweet in that way. I would argue that Diane took better care of me than she did her own brother. Choli would agree, just not publicly.
By sophomore year, all the troubled freshmen had dropped out, been expelled, or sent to continuation school. In California, continuation school was an alternative high school diploma program predominantly filled with Black and brown kids. Continuation schools were essentially scholastic purgatory at local school districts. You never wanted to end up there. With all the gang-affiliated students gone, and when left to my own devices, I turned out to still be a big nerd at heart.
Choli fell in love early in our sophomore year. Overnight, I lost my partner in crime to Sandra, a charming half Mexican, half Thai, and full home wrecker. Without my cousin, I was all alone in this new teenage wasteland, and I didn’t even know who I was. I was an immigrant, slightly bookish, ex–wannabe gangbanger who equally listened to the Beastie Boys and Carlos Vives. I didn’t know what clique I belonged to at school. In San Gabriel Valley in the mid-nineties, the cliques available to me were the ravers, the taggers, the rebels, the jocks, the few remaining scholarly cholos, and the cool kids. I was none of these at the start of West Covina High School. Luckily, I found friends who felt the same exact way.
Sal, Napo, and Tommy were at the core of my school family. All the leading national research shows that students from marginalized communities cannot begin the learning process until they have created a family and a safe space in the classroom. That’s what these three guys did for me without even knowing it. The four of us became like brothers, and as an only child who was always looking for siblings to bring into my life, these dudes were exactly what I needed.
Sal, surprisingly, was raised an only child just like I was. He grew up in an apartment most of his life like I did, and was a sweet dude that everybody wanted to make their friend. Sal’s love of music was what united us. At the time, Cali punk was having a moment. You could always find Sal and me listening to Sublime, the Offspring, No Doubt, or Rancid. You could also find us outside of Tower Records on the weekends waiting in line for Ticketmaster to open so we could be the first to get Rage Against the Machine concert tickets. Rage Against the Machine was a perfect band for Sal and me: a Mexican American lead singer and a half Kikuyu Kenyan guitarist exposing us to social justice for the first time in our young lives. We didn’t have the words for the cause of our teenage angst, but Rage Against the Machine definitely provided the lyrics. Our favorite pastime was to find rare VHS tapes of the band performing in backyard parties so that we could watch them over and over in a loop, always imagining being there, cheering them on.
My buddy Napo was half Mexican and half Guatemalan. If your prejudices made you believe he would be twice as short, you would be racist-ly mistaken. Napo was one of the bigger and more imposing dudes in our class. Napo’s problem, however, was that he was all heart. I used to wonder, Why be that big if you’re just going to be kind to people? It felt like it was a waste of a dominant body. In ancient times, Napo would have smashed his way to respect. Napo had immigrant parents who worked as much as mine did, which was how we connected initially. He and I were both different sides of the same “first-generation” coin: he as a child of immigrants, and I as the first foreign-born member in my family to be American. Or at least, so I thought.
Tommy, on the other hand, was a closed book. He was tall, very opinionated, an avid reader, and a huge lover of the Beatles. Or “los beet-less,” as my mom would mispronounce. Tommy’s dad listened to a lot of classic rock, so Tommy adapted the habit. His dad always worked on classic cars and lowriders, so Tommy drove a black ’81 Monte Carlo. Tommy was also big into new wave and The Smiths. It would be like pulling teeth to get Tommy to open up about himself, but when he did, it was like a universe exploding into existence. But those deep conversations with Tommy—with any of my friends—happened only around alcohol.
Drinking at such a young age is perhaps the one factor that united us all, Choli included. We hung out with the cool kids early on simply because we could drink more than they could. Alcohol seemed like a rite of passage for American high school students. At least it was for us at West Covina High School.
One Saturday night our sophomore year, the guys and I decided to drive down to Balboa Beach, which was close to an hour away. The plan was to drink and listen to music next to a bonfire. There were a few other high school students there, but the trip was simply meant for the five of us to get drunk by the ocean. Up to that point, we were the beer kings. If it was good enough for the semi-nomadic Natufians thirteen thousand years ago, then it was good enough for us! We had never met a brand of beer that we did not like—Natural Light and Mickey’s, included. But on this night, a rebel kid decided to bring a bottle of Jack Daniel’s to the beach. Eager to play a cool guy, I challenged the rebel to see who could do more shots of JD. “It’s on,” he said, determined to expose me for the fraud I most certainly was. I had had tequila shots at a family party before. How different could it be? I wondered.
The first couple of shots weren’t that bad. They only burned my throat a little. The next several shots were a little more dif- ficult to swallow. My stomach was not happy. By the time we got to ten shots, I was feeling light-headed, but I didn’t want the rebel to know that. We kept going. As hard as we tried, we didn’t seem to make a dent in the Tennessee-labeled bottle. The rebel and I finally called it quits at sixteen shots each. We had clearly had enough. With me barely able to stand, the bon- fire was now over. Choli helped me stumble back to Tommy’s black Monte Carlo when the three of us were suddenly con- fronted by a police squad car. Visibly, I was the drunkest of us all. Choli and Tommy told me to play it cool as the two white officers instructed us to sit on the curb and proceeded to ask us a series of questions:
“What were you up to tonight?”
“Where are you guys from?”
“Have you had any alcohol this evening?”
Annoyed and completely inebriated, I slurred back, “I wss jest drankin’ wit’ my fronds, gawd!” Tommy quickly cut me off and apologized to the police officers. Luckily, he had barely been drinking and was simply eager to go home. I didn’t blame him. It was 11:00 p.m. and Tommy still had a long drive ahead of him. Shockingly, the cops let us go. Maybe Tommy’s Caucasian last name was a blessing for us all. The only thing the cops said to Tommy as we left was, “Please get him home immediately.”
We didn’t drive more than ten minutes before the back of Tommy’s car started spinning. I was now feeling the full effect of the Jack Daniel’s. We were on the freeway when I begged Tommy, “Please pull over!” The rest is a blur. I thought I made it out of the Monte Carlo in time to vomit. Apparently, I simply popped my head out of the window and let my stomach handle the rest. I came in and out of consciousness throughout the drive back to West Covina. I remember that one moment we were driving on the freeway, and the next we were at a gas station as Tommy used a squeegee to clean my puke off the side of his car. When I came to a third time, we were in front of my house, and Tommy and Choli were arguing about what they should do with me.
“I’m not going to take him home—my parents’ll kill me,” said Choli.
“Well, I can’t take him to my house either,” replied Tommy.
Out of fear of getting grounded, neither of them wanted to take me back home with them. Dropping me off and wishing for the best seemed like the only possible alternative to them. If one of us was going to be grounded, it definitely had to be me. Choli and Tommy both struggled to get me out of the car and to the front door, where they propped me up against it, rang the doorbell, and took off running. The last thing I remember hearing were the car tires screeching away.
My parents were hosting friends at the house that evening. When she heard the doorbell, my mom figured it was me. She happily opened it and I came crashing down on our tile floor. My mom gasped as I quickly got up, balanced myself the best I could, and politely waved at my parents’ friends. I wobbled to my room and plopped down on my bed. Like the back of Tom- my’s car, my bedroom also started spinning. Always the medical doctors, my mom and dad rushed in and started checking my vital signs. They worried they would have to take me to the hospital to pump my stomach. My dad assessed the situation and came to the realization that I was going to be okay. They gave me water, helped me remove my vomit-covered clothes, and even made me eat some bread to help soak up the alcohol within my system. Even as intoxicated as I was, I was clever enough to defend myself before my parents: “You always taught me never to do drugs . . . but you never said anything about alcohol!” Now safe at home, I finally passed out.
The next morning, I was in huge trouble. I knew my dad would be upset, not just because I put myself in great danger by getting this drunk in the streets, but because I had made him look bad in front of his friends. He glared at me as I stum-bled to the kitchen table and asked me what had happened. I confessed to having taken sixteen shots of Jack Daniel’s. He couldn’t believe how stupid I could be. He grounded me for four months. I guess it was one week for every shot. I was only allowed to leave the house to go to school and to go to work. The real punishment, however, should have been me being forced to smell Jack Daniel’s every morning. Nobody can bring that brand of American whiskey within a five-mile radius of me to this day. I will throw up.
Outside of alcohol, the other thing that united Sal, Napo, Tommy, and me was the fact that we all had to start working at a young age. A lot of our friends didn’t have to find employment during high school. Not even Choli. But Sal, Napo, Tommy, and I did. Sal worked part-time at a pizza shop. He worked under the table just like I did at the video store. Tommy had his worker’s permit and had a part-time job at the mall after school, selling pretzels. Napo, on the other hand, was destined to learn the family business: landscaping.
A lot of kids at school liked to make fun of Napo because his dad was their gardener, completely unaware that Napo and his dad actually had more money than they did. The landscaping business in Southern California was always persistent. So much so that I asked Napo if maybe he and I should start working at landscaping together on the weekends. Napo thought it was a good idea, so he asked his dad, Ramon, an older but still very fit Mexican man from Zacatecas, if he would give the two of us a shot as workers. Ramon chuckled at us and in Spanish said, “Okay, let’s see what you two got.”
Napo and I showed up early to work together at the first site in South Pasadena. The house was big and there was a lot of landscaping work to do, but Napo and I didn’t do any of it because we didn’t know what to do. We helped with the trash and hauled some manure bags back and forth. But that was about it. We got in Napo’s air-conditioned 4Runner and headed to the second house, which was smaller so we thought it would be more manageable. But the work turned out to be more complicated. The assignment was to put in some new plants along with a new sprinkler system. Napo and I dug where we were told, but we were both very confused. For all I knew, sprinkler systems were aboveground. By the third and fourth houses, it was evident that Napo and I were just getting in everyone’s way. When we broke for lunch, Ramon bought us two delicious burritos, and suggested that we go home. Napo and I could not have been any happier. Outdoor labor was not for me. I was more suited for the video store.
I spent most of that high school year grounded. If my dad and I were home at the same time, I had to find busywork to do: wash the dog, vacuum the house, wash the dirty dishes. When he wasn’t around, I basked in the glory of being a lazy American teenager. I snuck in TV whenever I could. It was on one of these days that I discovered reruns of the classic Ameri- can sitcom Saved by the Bell. The series was about a charming white kid in high school who was always scheming with his group of friends. There was an ethnically ambiguous buff kid named A.C. Slater, played by Mario Lopez, who should have spoken to me. But instead, I was under the spell of Zack. That ease that heteronormative kids have, accompanied with that charm that white privilege gives you, topped off with that fake bleached-blond California hair . . . Zack Morris was everything I wanted to be.
Life was monotonous for me entering my junior year. I would go to school, get home, do my homework, go to work, and then be grounded most time in between. I wasn’t happy. My life did not look like that of any of the American teenagers I saw on my TV. They seemed very happy. That’s when I decided to take matters into my own hands. I didn’t want to live in this broke Hispanic barrio story. I wanted to be Zack Morris, and I wanted West Covina High School to be just as fun as Bayside High. There was an episode where Zack joined the drama club, so I decided to audition for drama class. In another episode, Zack formed a band. (Who can ever for-get the Zack Attack hit “Friends Forever”??) Well, Sal and I formed a band as well. We only played one song on repeat (Pennywise’s “Bro Hymn”), but it was a band nevertheless. Zack played varsity sports, so I decided to play varsity sports. Granted it was soccer, but it was a high school sport nevertheless! If Zack Morris did it, then I tried it on for size. And it worked. High school was starting to be fun.
Believe it or not, I even dyed my hair blond. And for the first time in my life, I passed for white. It was strangely exhilarating. Girls started talking to me more. Teachers started helping me out in class. Law enforcement was even more courteous to me. It was bonkers. I was in an upside-down, bizarro world where I was no longer the edgy ethnic guy. Strangers treated me differently, so I started to behave differently. I became more wholesome and personable simply because people started interacting with me in that way.
At the video store one evening, an older customer I did not get along with because he always spoke down to me with a condescending tone of voice approached me and said, “I really don’t like that Latino kid who’s here on the weekends. He’s very rude. Can you please give that message to the owner?”
I was the Latino guy!!! Holy hell.
This older customer did not recognize me whatsoever. “I will definitely inform the manager of your feedback,” I responded with no intention of definitely informing the manager of his feedback.
Being Zack Morris made my life so much better. I had no road maps as a first-generation American student. I went through the public school system a little disheartened by the way it felt uninteresting and not the least bit engaging. At times it just felt like government-run day care. My teachers didn’t expect much from me. Then again, I didn’t expect much from myself. But everything turned around when I realized that nobody was going to create the reality I wanted, so I had to do it myself. I willed the high school experience I wanted into existence, and a cocky white kid on TV helped me do it.