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Another Smith Place Story: Learning Latin at the Liquor Store

Learning Latin at the Liquor Store: Another Smith Place Story

Our Lady of Mount Carmel was a lonely Catholic parish surrounded by Baptist and Pentecostal churches that ministered to many Black families who made the World War II migration to Long Beach, California, a city that like other West Coast communities housed shipbuilding communities. The neighborhood surrounding Mount Carmel was primarily Black and White Dust Bowl refugee families. Both of whom had to take jobs working at whatever they could to make ends meet.

In 1964 when my family moved to Smith Place, a small almost dead-end street that shared backyards with Leigh Court and which was about ten blocks from Mount Carmel, we were the only Mexican family in the surrounding area. Most Mexican families were finding homes, lives, and roots in East Los Angeles. As Jewish families left Boyle Heights, Mexican families either rented or bought small homes along streets and avenues in East Los Angeles.

My mother had been raised a devout Catholic in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, and she was determined to steer her family through the same faith driven road she had traversed. She found Mount Carmel about a week after we got to Smith Place. Our next-door neighbors were Cajun Catholics from Louisiana, and they introduced my mother to Mount Carmel. We were not at Smith Place more than a few weeks than our mother had us back to our confession- communion- venal sin-repeat cycle.

After our first attendance at mass as a family, Father Johnson, the parish priest, spied two young boys who were prime altar boy material. After mass, Father Johnson, using his broken Spanish and my mother’s rudimentary English, introduced himself and within minutes he and our mother had worked out the chattel transfer of two boys to the care of this man-of-God with the hopes that our altar boy training would bring some good old-fashioned-fear-of-God discipline and help us, if not scar us, to solid church-backed futures.

My brother and I had no say in the matter. In 1964 children were fed and expected to do whatever their parents ordered them to do. My brother and I could no more deny our mother the wish of every Catholic mother that one of her sons might join the priesthood than we could give up eating the great food she made. It was a quid-pro-quo that worked just fine for us. That is until we had to memorize the Latin altar boy responses to serving a Catholic mass.

Transition of altar boys at a Catholic parish is a time honored and religious experience. Which is to say, that the old altar boys who were dying to stop going to church and instead surf on Sunday mornings, not to mention serving at 7:00 a.m. daily mass, could not do so until they taught the new altar boys how to recite the Latin mass prayers. Once done, cassocks were exchanged and the keys to heaven handed down the chain, and the freed former altar boys started on their road to perdition or just had more time to themselves.

In our case this meant learning the Latin prayers from the McGhee brothers, whose Dad owned the liquor store a few blocks from Mount Carmel and whose liquor probably contributed to more sins and confessions the without which Mount Carmel might have closed for lack of penitents in need of a ten minute interrogation and soul clearance that allowed them a clean slate on which to sin again, some beginning right as they returned to their cars and took a swig from the pint whiskey bottle in the locked glove compartment.

The McGhee brothers told us quite clearly: “You do not have to understand what the words mean at all! You just need to say them when you need to say them.” They handed us pronunciation altar boy leaflets that spelled out how you pronounced Latin phrases using English phonetics and we just learned to sound Latin, meaning be damned. The brothers would load cases of beer into the freezers and yell to us to say the words louder. “They need to hear you in the back pews.” Father Johnson liked his altar boys to recite the prayers like Army recruits responding to drill sergeants at Camp Lajun.

As my brother and I went through our lessons, we saw what our future was portending, so we devised a plan to put off altar boyhood for as long we could. But the McGhee brothers caught on to us after about week. “Don’t tell us you don’t understand the words. Nobody understands them!” We relented because we could see the desperate look in their eyes. My brother and I were their only chances at freedom, and they had no problem making it worth our while. “Look, if you guys learn the prayers, we will give you the big candy bars. The Mounds. The Almond Joys. Just learn the damn prayers.” Candy bribes as a precursor to our service to the church seemed about right, considering we were learning how the folks at the Tower of Babel must have felt like.

My brother and I would be altar boys for about two years. We served daily masses, Sunday masses, weddings, weddings on Friday night with no one there but two sets of angry parents, a scared boy and a bulging belly bride, funerals, Easter services, Christmas services. We even served at the funeral of our own father. And it was that funeral that would end our time at Smith Place, our service as altar boys, and would be an experience whose surrealistic aura would be something an eleven-year-old boy would always wonder about, because the experience of burying your father as an altar boy was no different than learning Latin at a liquor store. None of it made any sense and it would not make sense for years to come.

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